Re-Thinking Singapore Writing ![ "Coffee, Caffeine, Beverage, Table, Brown, Cup"]( The closure of Kinokuniya at JEM leaves just two branches of the iconic Japanese bookstore in Singapore. Neil Humphreys penned a Facebook [post]( describing his thoughts. While I share much of his sentiments, the reality is that the fiction industry has changed. Things are never going to return to the way they used to be. To thrive in this strange new world, we must adapt. I'm going to address his points one by one and elaborate on my thoughts. -- Ok… there is nothing positive about the news that Kinokuniya JEM is closing. It says so much about us. Here’s why … 1) The main issue is rent - our obsession with creating a nation of landlords continues (Way to go in the forward thinking as the rest of the world switches to online shopping.) -- The closure of brick-and-mortar bookstores is a global phenomenon. In my childhood, there was a plethora of bookstore chains in Singapore: Borders, Times, MPH, Prologue, Popular, Kinokuniya. In the decades since, the space has steadily shrunk, reflecting global trends. Mass entertainment has shifted away from books. People today prefer TV, movies, games, YouTube videos. As the world enters a time of high inflation, consumers will want to tighten their belts even further. Given a choice between paying a premium for a print book and paying nothing for YouTube, the cash-strapped consumer will always pick the latter. Rent may be a major contributing factor for the closure of bookstores, but so is lack of revenue. A bookstore is a business, and without revenue—never mind profit—it cannot survive. The key question facing all bookstores is this: in an increasingly digitized age, how can bookstores make money? Popular chose to pivot. In my schooldays, the Popular bookstore franchise catered to schoolgoing children and their parents. Significant amount of retail space was dedicated to assessment books, textbooks, workbooks, stationery and school supplies. The fiction and nonfiction catalog reflected popular books: safe, solid choices to maximise revenue from limited shelf space. Today, Popular has diversified dramatically. Gadgets and IT, household appliances, multimedia products and more, reflecting growing tastes. Retail space dedicated to books have shrunk steadily in favour of other goods. I've explored outlets where books occupy less than half, or even less than forty percent, of the retail space. Is a bookstore still a bookstore if its primary product is no longer books? An academic question, because the Popular franchise has endured while all its competitors have flagged. The industry has changed. Tastes have changed. The culture has changed. For bookstores to survive, they need to adapt to changing macro factors as well, in addition to rent and other overhead. -- 2) Singapore doesn't get it. After all these years, we still don't get it. A bookstore is not like other businesses. The reason it's been written off as many times as the cinema - and both survive - is because of the experience, the medium. You can watch a movie and buy a book anywhere, but it's the tactile communal experience. My teenage daughter already spends her weekends hanging out with friends at Kino. Couldn't be more proud. She's been raised to believe that bookstores are COOL (and more than just a place to buy the latest 'how can i get rich quick by buying an NFT, selling a kidney' self-help fluff.) ![ "😉"]( -- The tactile communal experience is well and good, but how does this translate into sales? It isn't enough to draw readers to the store. The readers have to buy products. If they do not buy anything, then the bookstore does not make money. Without sales, without revenue, a bookstore cannot survive. The emphasis on communal experience may work splendidly for indie and boutique bookstores. An indie bookstore may focus on a specific niche, and draw a crowd of regulars who will patronize it. A bookstore with an integrated cafe can draw in a wider crowd, upsell books, encourage customers to buy books, and create a diversified income stream. Can this work for a multinational franchise like Kinokuniya? Kinokuniya is a Japanese bookstore franchise. It distinguishes itself from its competitors through its extensive foreign language selection, especially its Japanese section in its flagship store at Ngee Ann City. It also has a significant Chinese-language section as well. Over ninety percent of its retail space is dedicated to selling books. Will that be enough? In a culture that prizes and prioritizes reading of physical books, sure. The Japanese publishing industry is a global leader in the space, in part due to the tight integration between the light novel, anime, manga, and figurine industries. But does Singapore have that culture? Does the _world_ have such a culture? Society is increasingly atomized. The bedrock of society in previous ages was the clan, the village, the kampung. Friends and family lived together in close proximity, and lived communal lives. That has shrunk down to the isolated nuclear family, widely separated from their blood relatives. In recent times, this has further shrunk down to solitary individuals or couples exploring their own pursuits. You cannot have a communal experience in a culture that de-prioritizes community. The Covid era has further dampened communal experiences. Fear of the virus drives people indoors and away from touching things. The government has sharply divided society with vaccine discrimination measures, turning communal experiences and indoor shopping into a privilege enjoyed only by the constantly compliant. People are afraid to take off their masks outdoors, never mind interact with large groups, and the face mask hinders reading of body language so necessary for interpersonal communication. We cannot dream of a return to an earlier age. We must shape ourselves to the age we live in. We live in an age that favours digital experience and remote connection. An age of weak parasocial connections, where screens in isolated rooms create the illusion of connection across borders. An age of atomization and alienation. It is well and good to raise children as readers. On the flip side, you can buy a ebook for USD 4.99 and discuss it over Zoom or Discord with your friends, or invite them to your home. If you want the tactile experience, Amazon and Ingram's Print on Demand technology allows you to buy paperback books much more cheaply than conventional paper books in a bookstore—even accounting for shipping costs. The fundamental question remains: how can bookstores remain relevant in changing times? -- 3) We are still - even now - not entirely - grasping the priceless value of reading for pleasure, for joy, for empathy, for a greater understanding of the human condition. (Note to parents: When i get asked what their children should read, my answer is always the same ... Whatever he/she LIKES. Read for pleasure. The rest will take care of itself. I promise you.) -- Here's what happens when you create a society that emphasises pragmatism, academic achievement, status and materialism: you lose what makes you human. Schools will not teach your children this. Primary and secondary education is meant to prepare children for the next higher level of education. Tertiary education downloads the skills and knowledge necessary for the working world. Reading for pleasure is not part of the mission. In secondary school, I was assigned John Steinbeck's _Of Mice and Men_ for English classes. I read it in a day. It was expected to last the entire school year. Suffice to say, I got bored. A curriculum doesn't care about boredom—only about delivering the required content. Fortunately, my English teacher didn't even touch the book. It is a common temptation among parents to treat schools as daycare. This is a grave mistake. The responsibility for raising children lies with parents. Public schools deliver content that suits the government's interests, which isn't necessarily your interests, or even the cultural interests of society. Parents have to instill a love for reading in their children. But Singaporean parents, caught up in a culture of pragmatism and materialism, have been programmed to focus on academia, jobs, income and status. Knowing nothing else, their children pass on this programming to their children. If you care about creating a culture of readers, then you have to break the cycle. You have to ingrain a new pattern of thinking. This starts with you. -- 4) As above, we are destined to become a country of textbook/assessment book stores. What does that say about us? Textbooks do not stimulate empathy, compassion, etc. I get asked, often, what books should their child read to pass exams. I don't have the answer. I do know that their child is competing against the world with one hand tied behind his back. -- Singaporean society makes the mistake of hyper-focusing only on content that can pass exams. In my time, it was called spotting. Students would try to guess what questions would turn up in the exams, then load up on material that could help them answer those questions. Academic material alone is not enough. Outside hard sciences and mathematics, where the accurate applications of formulae and the regurgitation of laws and properties lead to correct answers, a student needs skills that cannot be learned from a textbook. English and mother tongue examinations test the student's ability to communicate in the language. Humanities subjects assess their analytical and problem-solving skills. Art exams focus on the ability to be creative within a set of parameters. You cannot learn these skills from textbooks, and you cannot count on teachers to pass them on. Books do. Books written by master writers show how to communicate clearly, effectively, even beautifully. This is _especially_ important in Singapore, whose lingua franca of Singlish is essentially English confused with Chinese grammar. Fiction expands horizons and encourages creativity and lateral thinking. Nonfiction shows how scholars and philosophers think, argue and contend with the issues of the day. These are transferable skills, even necessary skills—and their usefulness extends into the working world. For parents who are so obsessed with having children pass their exams that they cannot respond to any other reason and will not want to see the benefits of reading, just tell them this: Reading books, any kind of book, helps your child develop the secondary skills that give them an edge in examinations. For those willing to expand their horizons, you can talk about how these skills help their children compete in the job market. Singapore is a highly globalised society. Their competition is not just Singapore, but the whole world. Without a talent stack, they are doomed to mediocrity. To develop that stack, they need to read widely and understand and cultivate their strengths. -- 5) What did you do during lockdown? You read books. You watched Netflix. Every show you watched was written by someone who read thousands of books when he/she was young. See the connection? -- This is where Humphreys and I must depart. Odds are, those shows and books come from the Pop Cult. The Pop Cult is an incestuous network of never-ending meta- and self-references. It is an ouroboros, constantly eating its own tail, its horizon beginning and ending with the borders of its eternally-stuffed mouth. The biggest blockbuster shows of recent times are adaptations, reboots, sequels, tie-ins with existing intellectual property, or the same story of female empowerment in different dress. Original IPs are a rare breed, and grow rarer by the year. The most popular books are sequels, tie-ins with existing multimedia franchises, or the same stories of female and/or left-wing fantasies by an increasingly diverse and increasingly uniform band of writers with the same acceptable identity politics. Or, in the indie space, the same stories of male and/or right-wing fantasies by an increasingly diverse and increasingly uniform band of writers with the same unacceptable identity politics. These books and shows were _not_ written by people who read thousands of books. They may not even be written by people who _read_, especially in the case of TV shows and movies. They are the products of growing numbers of tiny minds dipping furiously from a shrinking puddle. They have no frame of reference beyond what they feel is politically acceptable to consume, beyond their competitors in the space, beyond the hard limits imposed by slavish adherence to tropes and genre conventions. People have paradoxical desires. They want the novel, and they also want the familiar. This age emphasises the familiar. Nostalgia and pattern recognition induces a powerful hit of pleasure, and pleasure drives sales. It's an easy way to make money without the hassle of learning the craft. It's why isekai harem fiction is everywhere. It's why LitRPGs are so popular. It's why every IP in the Pop Cult is functionally interchangeable with every other IP. The Pop Cult treats entertainment as fungible. When books, movies, and other cultural products are all interchangeable, when they are the same stories told countless times, those who worship them are locked into the worldview of the Pop Cult. The products of the Pop Cult reflect its limited worldview, and train others to adopt that same mindset through fleeting dopamine hits. Do you want more than this? Do you want more than just a never-ending stream of nostalgia, reboots, adaptations, and samey stories? Do you want to see the breadth and the beauty of the world? Do you want to see the manifest potential of humanity? Do you wish to glimpse infinity and eternity? Read more. More than the Pop Cult, more than what the critics praise, more than just what is easy and effortless and fungible. Read. -- 6) We constantly do these self-flagellating think pieces. Why don't we have a Booker Prize winner? An Oscar winner? A Emmy winner? We can win University Challenge - which is absolutely magnificent - but a Booker/Oscar/Emmy etc? Can't see it. Need a nation of book shops for that. A thriving book community. It starts there, book in hand, chapter by chapter, daydreaming. The paradox is exasperating. Best public library system in the world. So much money devoted to it and rightly so. So proud of NLB. But where's the spillover? -- This is the Singaporean trap of chasing awards and prizes. Prizes confer prestige, because they are seen as markers of quality. In pursuit of this prestige, progressives and old boys' networks have steadily hollowed out the prizes until they mean nothing at all. When prizes are no longer markers of quality, people stop choosing products with those prizes. Case in point: before the slap heard around the world, how many people were aware that the Oscars were ongoing? Many awards have been compromised by networks of patronage and privilege. Modern-day prize winners ride on the coattails of those who have gone before them, whose who have genuinely won those accolades in a time when prizes truly signified quality. We saw this with the Hugo, the Nebula and the Eisner Awards. Other awards are following in their footsteps. Most prizes are meaningless. The only prizes that matter are those awarded by fans—not the giants that dominate the industry, not the old names that dominate the space, not the activists who seek to skinsuit yet another award—but those who genuinely enjoy the medium. The best writers do not write for prizes. They write for people. It isn't enough to have a nation of bookshops if bookshops do not sell what people want to read, if books that people want to read are not published in the first place, if writers do not write what people want to read. The manga _Demon Slayer_ outsold the entire US comic industry. Instead of cramming political soundbites into the panels, it is filled with action and adventure. It was aimed at boys and teenagers, not people who hate comics. The Social Justice Warriors that dominate the traditional comics industry will not publish a story like _Demon Slayer_, which is a major contributor to the ongoing slow-motion collapse of American comics. There is little spillover between a world-class library network and having world-class writers because to have a culture of writing you must have a culture of reading, and you cannot have a culture of reading if your culture does not support reading and writing. The mere presence of libraries do not encourage reading; that has to come from the bottom up, from parents and educators and community leaders. The best writers are obsessed. The best athletes, scientists, artists, they are all obsessed. It is this single-minded focus that propels them to the top. They need to maintain that obsession for years, even _decades_ on end, with little reward and little hope of greater reward. It is an ultra-high-risk strategy for life, deliberately discarding almost if not all other opportunities for a stable income in exchange for a shot at excellence. This is not a mindset that Singaporean culture will accept, never mind support. Singaporeans are obsessed with stability, with regular income, with status, with the ability to afford material goods. While the ability to support yourself is certainly important, you cannot reach the pinnacle of your artistic potential if you are constantly burdened by endless overtime, face time, and mentally exhausting white collar work. You cannot even create a book if you listen to the naysayers instead of your heart. If you succumb to the culture of academia and materialism, and bury all aspirations to artistic excellence, you will never make it as a writer. -- 7) It's making me lie. When young, budding writers ask, 'can I make it as a writer in Singapore', I almost have to fudge the answer. Yes, there are grants, subsidies, SingLit opportunities and so forth. But the books still need to be stacked somewhere. Singaporean authors are literally running out of places to display their works. (yes, there are e-books. But again, nothing like the tactile experience. i will NEVER forget the first time I saw my book on a shelf, December 2001, MPH Stamford Road. Yes, the bookstore is long gone.) -- What does 'making it' mean? If it means making a viable living from writing, grants and subsidies are not enough. They cannot sustain you for the long term. To be a professional writer, you need to be artist and entrepreneur, marketer and creator, creative and pragmatic. There was a time when publishing houses took care of the business end of things so that the writer can focus on writing. That time has long ended. Even in the big publishing houses, writers are expected to build their own brand, their own social media presence, their own audience. All the big publishers will do is support their existing efforts—not do it for them. With this in mind, there are three ways to make it as a writer. The first is to write a runaway bestseller. This is practically every author's dream, but it only happens to a tiny percentage of writers. If this happens to you, wonderful. But don't count on it. Not during your first time out. Luck is not a strategy. The second is to write lots, and lots, and lots of books. A trilogy is the minimum you need for a book to realistically make an impact. A trilogy of trilogies is more likely. People like what is novel and familiar. They want to follow the same character through a journey, and they want the confidence that a series will not sputter out and die half-way through. People who like Book 1 are likely to buy Book 2. People who like a series will look up other series by the same author. The modern author tends to make money not from new releases, but from his backlist. The more books you write, the luckier you get. But this is a long, lonely path. The accepted wisdom is that you need to write 20 books before you can earn 50K USD in royalties a year—and not just any books, but books targeted at the market. This is not a strategy Singaporean society will accept. It is too long-term and too uncertain, versus the surety of a fixed salary every month. The third option is leverage. Write a book, then leverage it into high-ticket opportunities. Coaching, speaking opportunities, workshops, information products. Fiction writers leverage their series through merchandise. Obviously, this strategy only works if you have skills, merchandise or other goods and services to offer. The Singapore market is too small to support a runaway bestseller that does not reach foreign shores. Singaporean publishers have no conception of publishing enormously long series, and local bookstores do not normally stock indie titles. Besides, as bookstores shrink, so does available retail space for books. Leverage might work, but I've only ever seen nonfiction authors use this successfully. Do you want to make a living as a full-time fiction author in Singapore? You have to be lucky, skilled or crazy. Or all of the above. There may be nothing like the tactile experience, but the tactile experience isn't going to matter much. Print books are pricey, and as the world faces inflation and high prices, customers are going to slash their budgets. High-priced books are going to be at or near the the top of the list. Print on demand books offer a cheaper and more convenient alternative to bookstores. There will always be people who enjoy the tactile communal experience. There will be bookworms who will carve out a significant amount of their budget for print books from bookstores. But for many more people, cost and convenience are going to matter more—a _lot_ more. The modern fiction author operates under these market conditions. He must adapt accordingly. -- 8 ) We are a relatively affluent nation. We can offer rent/GST rebates - there's a valid debate to be had about GST and books by the way - as part of the educated, nation-building process. I understand that Kinokuniya, like all bookstores, are not charities. But they are major local employers and, much more importantly, priceless educators. We meet the world through bookstores. Take them away and we become a very small island indeed. - Landlords buy land and rent it out with the expectations of revenue. They will be hit by inflation and tax hikes like everyone else. Asking them to accept a rent rebate is to ask them to cut their own bottom line. How can we create a win-win solution? Perhaps an easy answer is to point out that high rents will drive tenants out of business, turning a revenue stream into a cost center. Yet the landlord will also have their own overheads to cover, so there's only so much rent they can lower. This is going to require delicate negotiations, not government fiat. While GST rebates may alleviate price concerns for customers, they can only do so much for bookstores. Books have to be purchased, imported, packaged, stored, transported, tracked. The franchise incurs a cost every step of the way. Those costs are going to go up, courtesy of rising fuel prices, geopolitical uncertainty, inflation, and other such hassles. The bookstore will have to pass on the cost. GST and rent rebates are stopgap solutions. This isn't to say that they don't have merit, but this will only slow the bleeding. Take away brick-and-mortar bookstores, and online bookshops like Kindle and Kobo will remain. With dramatically reduced operational costs, they will continue to remain operational, and they can afford to list wider catalogues than brick-and-mortar bookshops. While it would be a major blow, customers will not be significantly deprived of book options. The fundamental question remains: how can bookstores compete with online shopping and other entertainment options? ## No Easy Answers Bookshop closures are simply one symptom of a complex and ongoing global phenomenon. There are no easy answers. Popular found a way to survive, for now, but what works for Popular may not work for other companies. This issue requires a holistic approach from everyone involved in the space. **Writers** Writers encourage readers, and readers become writers. More than just encouraging a culture of reading, encourage writing as well. Singaporean writers, do not confine yourself to Singapore and SingLit. Go indie. Market yourself not just to Singaporeans, but to the world. Focus on continual self-improvement and sharpen your skills. Recognize that you are competing with YouTube, social media, games, movies, anime and TV. Books became popular in an age of limited entertainment options. Today, with a plethora of choices, all of which are easy and effortless to access and consume, you need to figure out how to stand out. How to capture and retain attention, how to reach out to your intended audience, how to keep writing relevant in an age that threatens to abandon it. Do not hope to place your books in bookstores. Hope, rather, to be the best writer you can be, to reach out to as many fans as you can. The rest follows naturally. For example, by publishing on Amazon, you can place your books in the catalogs of specialist distributors that supply libraries and bookstores. Bookstores will only buy books they believe will sell. They will be more likely to place your book if you have an established brand and excellent reviews. It will be nice if a publisher takes care of book placement for you, but don't count on it happening, and explore what other options you have available. If you want to truly make it, you have to be more than a writer. You have to be an entrepreneur. You need to write what people want (or need) to read, deliver that book, create a community, and expand your presence. It is easy for a writer to be a writer and an entrepreneur to be an entrepreneur, but commercial success lies in being able to unite both words. And if you want to go the indie route, you have to think like a publisher too. **Publishers** Stop selling paper. Western publishers are infamous for selling paper, not stories. After covering capital costs, it costs exactly nothing to sell an ebook. Yet American publishers insist on pricing ebooks similar to paperbacks. They are trying to nudge readers into spending the extra few dollars on a paperback. Yet this simply shuts out avid readers with lower budgets. Publishers need to segment their markets and address their needs. Many readers prefer cost and convenience. Others enjoy the feel of books. Some like to have a paperback backup to their digital books. By focusing on selling paper, publishers are leaving money on the table. As inflation rises, people will turn to cheaper alternatives to print books. The higher-priced the books, the less likely people will want to buy them. The less likely people will buy books, the lower the publishers' revenue. Traditionally, books need to be printed, then stored, then sent to the outlet. With Print on Demand, books are printed at the point of order. This reduces logistics costs, since the publisher only pays for what they need, not what they hope to sell. Publishers should explore the use of POD to reduce costs—and then pass on those cost savings to bookstores, who then pass _those_ on to customers. Another approach is to reach out to men. Everybody knows that men don't read. That's because the publishing industry is dominated by female writers represented by female agents who submit to female editors who focus on female readers. When there are no books for men, men don't read. Isn't it odd that the media says that men don't read, and yet English translations of shounen and seinen fiction are highly popular among the otaku crowd? That's because shounen and seinen fiction are written for men, and otakus tend to be men. To ignore men is to ignore half the world. If you have the opportunity to reach out to men, do it. **Bookstores** Bookstores need to focus on what they can offer that an online experience cannot. Emphasise this in marketing collaterals, and organize retail strategy accordingly. For example, Kinokuniya is famous for its Japanese language section. But is there a sufficiently large Japanese-reading population to justify the cost of stocking that section? If not, then it should seriously consider stocking more profitable products, or encourage Japanese cultural outreach. If a bookstore wants to emphasise the tactile communal experience, then it must confront the atomization of society. This means regularly organizing events and shared sessions to bring readers together—and thus draw them into buying products. Cost-cutting can only go so far. Ultimately, bookstores must figure out how to increase sales and revenue. Without that, all is lost. **Government** Don't bother turning to the government for help. Tax rebates and whatnot aside, do not count on the Singapore government for help. It may pay lip service to the idea of growing Singapore's literary scene, but so long as Singapore's culture is obsessed with academia, jobs, materialism and status, the government will not treat mere literature as a priority. **SingLit** Stop being so parochial and stop chasing awards. The SingLit scene is supposed to support all Singaporean writers, yet I've been told no Singaporean publisher will publish my stories. After all, they're not literary enough, and they're not set in Singapore. Any story that does not qualify as sufficiently literary or Singaporean for SingLit will be ignored, even if it comes from the hand of a Singaporean. Even if it comes from Singapore's first Hugo and Dragon Award nominee. I didn't earn those accolades by randomly hammering away at a keyboard. I spent decades in the single-minded pursuit of my craft. If the SingLit scene wants to see more writers, then it must focus on craft development and nurturing existing talent. Case in point, the Singapore Writers Festival is the cornerstone of the SingLit scene. One full month dedicated to celebrating the spoken and written word in Singapore's four official languages—or so it says. There are talks and conversations, walking tours and film screenings, workshops and panels. The majority of them are dedicated to everything _but_ the craft of writing. Look at the 2021 SWF [programme]( Now [look]( at Dragon Con. Dragon Con only runs for 5 days, and it isn't even a writing-focused convention. Yet there are way more panels and workshops on genres and on writing in Dragon Con than all of SWF. Writers create a culture of readers by writing books people want to read. That makes craft development so critical for writers at a societal level. Celebrating new writers are well and good, but if they do not proceed to write more books, much less more good books, then they are simply flashes in the pan, published once, then perpetually forgotten. ## From the Bottom Up The face of popular entertainment is changing. The publishing industry is changing. Writers, readers, publishers and bookstores must change with them. It is a complex phenomenon, and when facing a complex phenomenon, the best solutions come from the bottom up, not the top down. Solutions will be driven by individuals and private businesses, entities with the agility and the flexibility to rapidly adapt as the situation changes. It will not come from institutions and organisations deadset in their ways, unable to pivot as the world pivots. While the closure of bookstores is concerning to me, as a reader and a writer, I am not terribly affected by them. The Internet has opened many opportunities to access books and readers. I have reorganized my life and writing strategy to take advantage of the opportunities presented by changing times. I do not pin my hopes on a culture that does not prize reading; my current priority is to create a sustainable business in a culture that does. How can bookstores stay relevant? How can writers and readers thrive? How can books themselves remain relevant? These are difficult questions, and I don't pretend to have all the answers. But I do know this: When times change, thinking must change too. ![]( Saga of the Swordbreaker marks a radical re-thinking of the cultivation genre. Sign up for my newsletter [here]( and receive a free prequel ebook! writing @cheah



Book Review: CARBON by Andrew Vachss ![ "Carbon by [Andrew Vachss]"]( Cyberpunk. Fantasy. Noir. Blend them together and you get _Carbon_. Late noir grandmaster Andrew Vachss wrote his Burke novels to expose the horrific reality of child abuse in America. With _Carbon_, he opened a new front in his crusade against abusers and predators, stepping into the world of science fiction and fantasy. _Carbon_ begins with a mystery. When a prostitute is found murdered in the City, the authorities turn to the titular Carbon, a private investigator / mercenary with a shady past. While his contract is to find the killer, his true search is to recover a stash of money—and with it, buy a chance to live in the City. Delivered in a lean, gritty tone, the prose delivers just enough detail to keep the plot moving at a blistering pace. The true depth of the story lies in what is _not_ said, in what is implied, in the hidden hearts of the characters and the gap between their words and deeds. Reading it requires effort, but the story rewards those who stick with it. ## The Setting The world of _Carbon_ is divided into three distinct areas: the City, the Sector and the Pure Zone. Each area runs by its own rules, with its own distinct aesthetics and culture. The blurb says that in the City, the government is God. Carbon doesn't spend much time in the City and doesn't delve deeply into why he wants to live there, but compared to the lawlessness of the Sector and the Pure Zone, the City is a comparative paradise. While there is still crime and dirty politics in the City, it has one thing going for it: the Membrane. The barrier that keeps the magic of the outside world from leaking into the City. The City represents law and order, an oasis of stability in a universe where a single word can plunge your world into chaos. In the Sector, there is no government. The only law is the law of the jungle. Gangs and heavy hitters are the minor rulers of this realm, their domains limited by their reach. While magic permeates the Sector, the Sector is implied to be heavily urbanized, not unlike an urban ghetto. An uneasy mix of tech and magic pervades the Sector, lending it a gritty cyberpunk fantasy feel. Past the Sector is the Pure Zone. Here we enter the realm of pure fantasy. Spirits anchor themselves to the land. Magic runs rampant, where the weirdest and most powerful magical effects can be seen. Fantastic animals call the Pure Zone home—and so too do animals wearing the skins of humans. Little tech is in evidence here, mostly confined to the Cargo Cars that ply the routes between the Sector and the Pure Zone. Here, also, is home to the darkest excesses of man. The location of the City isn't explicitly described. The story makes references to real-world countries, but not the nation that is the host of the City. Everyone speaks in American, but whether America still exists as a political entity is left vague. The highest authority as far as the characters are concerned is the government of the City. Pulp writers of the previous era describe their settings in lavish detail with rich language and historical allusions. Vachss does the opposite, with his brief, even minimalistic descriptions. Both approach have the same effect: they elevate the world from merely extraordinary to mythic. The City can be Anywhere, America. Think of a metropolis and there it is, the embodiment of the will of man imposed on the world. The Sector is the concrete hellhole festering at the city's edges. It is a cyberpunk slum of tech and danger, where life is cheap and power is everything, order and chaos balanced on a knife's edge. The Pure Zone is an otherworldly location, so far beyond urban norms that even the protagonist has few words to properly capture it. It might be the Land of Faerie—and, like the Fae, the humans who live here are deceptive and dangerous. Every subculture has its rules, and in the world of _Carbon_, this is made apparent. The City has its own rules and etiquette. The gangs, peddlers and heavy hitters of the Sector have their own codes and argot. Even in the Pure Zone, where are no formal rulers, there are still rules everyone abides by—and breaks at their own peril. Carbon operates seamlessly in all three regions, exposing the essence of each. The world of _Carbon_ is an exceedingly dangerous place. Truth is a closely guarded commodity, and liars are everywhere. The penalty for deception is swift and deadly, yet the only prize for honesty is a brutal death. Everyone has an agenda, everyone wants something, everyone is willing to do _everything_ it takes to get it. Yet in danger lies wonder. ## The Magic In the City and the Sector, high technology is evident. There are references to machines, computers, even an Internet—and tech even stranger and weirder still. This being a _fantasy_ story, though, the main draw is the magic. Modern authors dream up of elaborate magic systems, or try to force RPG mechanics into magic. Vachss draws from a different approach, a much older approach, one that harkens to the pulp era, and claims lineage from ancient myths and legends. The magic is left mostly unexplained. The mystery is preserved throughout the book, leaving a powerful impression that lingers long after the story is complete. What Carbon will reveal is that magic is expressed through the power of speech. But only occasionally does he show you what the spell word actually does—usually with deadly results. This magic system is reminiscent of Jack Vance's _Dying Earth_. Unlike Vance's characters, however, there are no known limits on the use of magic, save for the fact that magic does not work in the City. This makes every non-friendly dialogue laden with tension. In the Sector and in the Zone, when a single word is all it takes to end a life, everyone watches their words extremely carefully. Words are power in this world, and conversations are laden with a poetic power that would be entirely at home in an epic fantasy tale—and, simultaneously, a crime noir novel. ## The Action _Carbon_ is filled with violence. A violent world demands a violent lifestyle. But there is only _one_ fight scene. When others authors write fight scenes, they stuff the scenes with lots of detail and back-and-forth. While there may be merit to this, Vachss takes a vastly different approach. A fight implies an exchange of blows. At the highest levels of violence, you do not exchange blows. You do not give the enemy time and space to harm you and yours. You overwhelm him and destroy him, ideally before he even knows what hits him. He doesn't even realize his life is in danger until he is lying on the ground, bleeding out from fatal wounds. This is not the logic of a combat athlete or a street fighter. It is the mindset of an _assassin_, and an assassin is exactly what Carbon truly is. Predators are everywhere in the story universe. In a world where words hold power over life and death, a lie is a signal of fatal intent, and is treated no differently from attempted murder. Carbon carves his way through a small army of human predators in the story, but every kill is described in a cold, flat, affect, often as one-liners. This tells you a lot about Carbon: he is a scarred, damaged man who has become so inured to killing that he makes it sound routine. Violence in the real world is extremely dangerous, and Vachss carries this sensibility into the novel. Carbon only has one true fight scene, and he straight-up states he was laid up for months after that. He embodies the mindset of the predator, operating by blitz, ambush and deception, doing unto other predators before they can do unto him. And why not? In a world where a single word can kill, there is no margin for error. There is no penalty for paranoia, and misplaced mercy will be rewarded only with the silence of the grave. Under these circumstances, how else can a noir protagonist act? Carbon is the epitome of the antihero. A bad man capable of doing terrible things—but he visits them only on worse people. ## The Plot There isn't one. Or, more precisely, there isn't a conventional plot. _Carbon_ is a nontraditional novel written in the first person. The plot is a thin thread that demands careful reading to follow, interspaced with recollections from Carbon's life. Most of the story is a collection of barely-connected snapshots and vignettes, forcing the reader to pay attention to events and characters. The plot is not signposted for you. Characters rarely signal what they will do next, who they will talk to, how they will make something happen, or _why_ they do anything. The story is best read slowly, to absorb every detail, and to work through the implications. Carbon's investigation into the murder spans probably only 10 percent of the book. The remaining 90 percent is centred on his own quest to find the money he needs to begin a new life in the City. Only at the ending do you finally see how his adventures in the Sector and the Pure Zone tie into the work he was contracted to perform in the City. The heart of the story occurs in the Pure Zone. There, he encounters a nameless girl, exploited by a gang of predators. He rescues her, then bonds with her and teaches her the power of words. Her simple innocence shines brightly in this world of darkness and deceit—making the revelation of her wounds all the more heartbreaking when she finally discloses them. In protecting her from the horrors of the world, Carbon earns a semblance of redemption—and a chance to become more than just a hired killer. ## The Verdict Cyberpunk. Fantasy. Noir. Call it what you like, but beneath the trappings of genre, _Carbon_ is a crime novel that exposes the worst of human evil. Genre tropes are deployed with great care and attention to detail, reinforcing the themes of the story and fleshing out the characters. The sparse prose and cryptic storytelling spurs the reader to make his own connections, to see what is not said, to discover the wonder and the danger that lurks in the mythic storyscape. _Carbon_ is a genre-busting masterpiece from a grandmaster of the art. Get it on Amazon [here]( ![]( books @cheah

Reclaim Your Face Last week, the Singapore government lifted the outdoor mask mandate. It still 'encourages' people to wear masks when outside. Nonetheless, as Mothership reports, most Singaporeans [still ]( masks outdoors. This matches with my own experience. Out on the street, less than one in a hundred people do not wear masks—myself among them. For those of you who still wish to wear a mask for whatever reason, carry on. This post is not for you. For everyone else, I have this to say: reclaim your face. It is a simple exercise. Everywhere the mask mandate does not apply, go unmasked. In the parks, in the open, on the streets; when you are exercising, strolling, running an errand; wherever and whenever you are out and about, go unmasked. That is all you have to do. Go about your life as before. Treat everyone else around you the same way as you did before. Simply go outdoors unmasked. Obviously this exercise does not apply to any place where the mandate is still in force. But otherwise, go unmasked. Breathe in the fresh air. Feel the wind on your face. Remember what life was like before Covid. Do not think yourself superior to others. Do not allow others to pressure you into putting the mask back on. Do not laugh at others for continuing to wear the mask. Do not allow mockery, fear or anger to sway you into putting it back on. Do not impose this on others, nor allow others to do the same to you. Exercise your wisdom and your judgment based on your risk tolerance and on the data. ![ "Free Person Holding Blue Face Mask Stock Photo"]( ## Overcoming Kiasi Perhaps you still have fears about your safety. There is no need to be afraid. The world has known for almost a year that the risk of outdoor transmission of Covid is [less than 1%](, and may even be 0.1%. Ireland's experience [agrees]( with this data. The Omicron variant behaves [no differently]( from previous variants in an outdoor setting. There is no evidence of casual transmission of Covid. Simply walking past an infected person will not be enough to catch the virus. Ultraviolet rays from sunlight kills the virus. Fresh air disperses the virus. And you most certainly can't catch the virus if you're the only person around you. Outdoor transmissions occur during prolonged close contact with an infected person, such as a conversation or while dining together. Therefore, simply by keeping your distance from others, you can reduce your risk of catching the virus to a minimal level while your are outdoors—even if you are unmasked. No matter how much information you read, how many white papers you study, perhaps you are still afraid. For the past two years, case numbers, deaths, and Covid complications have dominated the headlines. Fear is a powerful emotion, and for most people, emotion trumps logic. When you're outside, you may feel anxious when you're not wearing a mask, and it goes away only when you put it on. Avoiding fear is instinctive. But the more you are afraid of something, the more you must do it. The seed of fear lies deep in your heart. Putting on a mask does not address it. It merely covers it up. It takes away the trigger—an exposed face—but not the cause—fear of catching the virus and experiencing symptoms. To be free of fear, you must uproot the seed. A cornerstone of Singapore culture is kiasi-ism: fear of death. This manifests as an extreme obsession with safety, with doing things 'the right way' with 'following the rules', to avoid death, disease, and punishment. While caution is a virtue, taking it to the extreme keeps you paralyzed. Do you want to be afraid of the unmasked people around you? Do you want to feel anxious every time you feel the sun on your face or the wind in your hair? Do you want to keep spending time, energy and money on masks in places where they are not required? Do you want to live in fear forever? The answer to fear is faith. It is trust, confidence, reliance. In this context, it means trust in the physical laws governing the transmission of the virus. Wherever the virus cannot spread, wherever there is no one around you, you are not at risk. No matter how you or others feel about it, this will always remain true. Take off your mask and step out in faith, exercising good judgment based on sound data. That is all you have to do. Other people may just be anxious. They exist in a state of constant low-level anxiety, bubbling away beneath the surface, but when they experience a trigger, they explode into outright derangement. Anxiety is comforting. It is a constant reminder that the world is dangerous and unpredictable. By sticking to The Rules, the world feels predictable, and therefore it feels safer—regardless of whether those feelings correspond with reality. The Rules, whether laid down by the law or mere superstition, become an anchor in a crazy world. Anxiety is an ego defense mechanism to keep the person clinging ever more tightly to the Rules, to chase that illusion of safety. The greater the deviation from the anchor, the more powerful the emotions, inciting the person to return to the anchor. Even when the situation changes, people mired in anxiety will find it extremely difficult to let go. The response to anxiety is decisiveness. It is boldness, confidence, assertiveness. It is the conscious decision to stop all thoughts of potentially disastrous futures by choosing the steps to create a better future. If you are still anxious about people not wearing masks outdoors, this is not a better future. You are still trapped in anxiety. A better future here means being able to live in emotional freedom, in peace and happiness, without endlessly worrying about whether you will catch the virus. To overcome anxiety, you must make a choice. When you are at home, take off your mask. Put on a table. Leave it there. Make a choice to walk outside in the open without your mask. Then walk outside without your mask. You don't have to stay outdoors for long. Just head outside and feel the open air. Keep repeating this exercise, day after day after day. Find what you are comfortable with, then steadily push back against those limits. You may only be comfortable being alone without a mask. Start with this. Then commit yourself to going to public areas without a mask. Then interacting with others. And so on and so forth, steadily stepping outside your comfort zone with every iteration. This may cause powerful emotions to well up. After two years of living a masked life, it is natural for your psyche to cling to what you were used to. Let these emotions go. Breathe. Slow, deep, calm. Use the [four-count breath]( and bring your heart rate down, then carry on. Fear and anxiety stems from within. You cannot reasonably expect the whole world to cater to your fear and anxiety. It imposes limitations on everyone—while keeping yourself limited as well. Far better to free yourself from the stranglehold of kiasi-ism, and return to the person you once were. ## Saying No You will likely encounter people who will demand that you continue to wear masks wherever they are not required. Some people live in a constant state of anxiety. Others live in perpetual fear of catching a virus with a mortality rate of 0.1%. Too many people are petty tyrants who savor the power that comes from demanding others to obey their whims. The response to all of them is the same: No. That is all you have to say. The word 'no' is a complete sentence. Anyone who does not respect your no is someone who does not respect you, and so is not worthy of further expenditure of time and energy. Here is an actual conversation I had: "Put on your mask." "We are outside. There is no requirement to." "Just wear your mask." "No." "Wear your mask. It protects you!" "No." "Why are you holding it in your hand? Wear your mask." "No." "Everyone is doing it. Just wear your mask!" "No." No matter how much they fume and shriek and threaten, hold firm and say no. No matter how afraid you may feel, hold firm and say no. Do not explain yourself to those whose minds are already made up, especially if they have already decided that you are unworthy of their respect. They are not looking for information that could change their minds, only ammunition to change _yours_. Do not get swept up in the heat of the moment. Do not try to prove you are right to someone who already thinks they are right. Do not say anything else. Simply say 'no' and move on. People who confront others for not wearing masks outdoors have their issues. They are as human as you are, but it is not your job to treat them, to condemn them, to dominate them. Just leave them where they are and live your life. Saying no can be extremely difficult for those who have not learned how to be assertive. This is a major stumbling in a Confucian society like society, which prizes conformity in the name of social harmony. There is always the psychological pressure to fit in, to conform to just go along and get along. Pressure is not truth. Over the past two years, nothing significant has changed. The virus has not changed to become more transmissible outdoors. Masks have not changed to become less effective outdoors. The sun and the air have not changed. The laws governing viral transmission have not changed. We have known all this since 2021, and since then none of these critical factors have changed. The only thing that has changed is that the government has finally signaled that it has caught up with the data. It doesn't matter what others say. All the pressure and all the disapproval and all the ostracism in the world will not change anything about reality. To be free from fear, you must live by faith, and to live by faith you must be grounded in truth. And the truth is simple: Outdoor transmission risk is minimal. You are not obliged to please others. You are not required to deny the truth to please someone else, be he a stranger or a family member. Gaining the approval of others—or, more precisely, the _non-_disapproval of others—is temporary. Every denial of what you know is true is a self-inflicted wound, and that cuts deeper and longer than anything anyone can say about you or do to you. Most people who live in a communal society are programmed to fear societal disapproval, and only secondarily to seek societal acceptance—if at all. They are also programmed to condemn those who stray from the norms, and only secondarily to uplift those who uphold them—if at all. Look around you. Do you see people celebrating each other for wearing a mask? For respecting social distancing? For staying at home when they feel unwell? No. This is the reward you get for compliance: someone does not disapprove of you. That's all. There isn't even a dopamine hit to reinforce it. All you get is avoiding the emotional pain of condemnation—for now. When you do see official approval of something, it is because the authorities are trying to instill a new norm. Once it has become a norm, the approvals and the celebrations end. Do you still see children celebrated as superheroes when their parents take them to get the jab? Condemnation, on the other hand, lasts longer and hits harder. Cancel culture is the new culture. It hits individuals, organisations and now nation-states alike. It flows from people, institutions and governments. It is the most powerful weapon in their arsenal, the one they are most used to employing. And it will not work on those who [stop caring]( about the non-disapproval of the mob. What is acceptable and what is not keeps changing. You will never be able to keep up with ever-changing norms while keeping your sanity. You were never meant to. Live by truth. You will be far more grounded, peaceful and sane that way. ## The Old Normal, The New You The new normal is a normal of fear and anxiety. It is a normal where smiles are hidden, where the sun is shunned, where the wind is unknown. It is a normal where kiasi is the norm. Do you wish to live here? Such an atmosphere cannot possibly lead to long-term psychological health. We must find a way to the pre-pandemic normal, where people were not afraid to go out, live under the sun, and exercise their own judgment. It begins with you. Return to how things used to be. Reprogram your heart and mind. Renormalize seeing the faces of others. Reclaim your face. ![]( Dare you dream of a better world? Click [here]( to receive a free ebook in my upcoming cultivation series! covid @cheah


Angel of Blades Part 5 ![ "Shallow Focus Photo Of Crocodile On Body Of Water"]( ## Angel A perfect darkness engulfed Sabaia’s arena. Striding through the stairwell door, Luisa saw nothing but pitch blackness, heard nothing but total silence, sensed nothing but complete emptiness. Her mental map spanned the entirety of the circular hall. The walls were smooth, the floor level, all traces of the previous battle completely erased. The fissures blown into the ground had been sealed and smoothened. There were no bodies, no blood, not even a lingering scent of war. How much time had passed since her fall? She didn’t know. She had lost all track of time by the shores of the scarlet sea. She had marked the passage of hours only by her breathing, her heartbeat, and the never-ending cycles of burning and Leveling. Surely it couldn’t have been more than a day. Sabaia or its minions must have repaired the damage. Red Dust was the obvious material for the task. It could fill in a gap completely, then by the ancient sorceries of the Ancients, it could transform into a substance similar to, if not the same as, any other element in existence—and many more that did not exist in nature. As for the dead… There had to be dead. Luisa had seen men fall, heard them die. She hoped the survivors of the expedition had evacuated their casualties. She suspected that there had been no survivors. It wasn’t the first time a party had been completely wiped out in the wastes, and it wouldn’t be the last. Even Ascendants from the House of Amber were not immune to such a fate. However many had died, she would avenge them. Navigating solely by her enhanced awareness, she strode to the center of the circle. Though she could not see past the tip of her nose, she trusted completely in the gifts of the Goddess. Nonetheless, though her mental map revealed nothing, she _felt_ the weight of an impossibly heavy gaze, high above her head, just beyond the reach of her perception. Sabaia. The Aberration must be using a Power of its own. It must be how it had hidden from the veterans during the first run. But Luisa had another Power of her own. _Divine Scan_, she willed. Questing her mind along the roof of the Well, she felt a sudden sense of wrongness. A thing that should not be there. On the ceiling, smooth, slick coils looped round and round like a coil of rope, as thick as three men standing abreast, the valleys and ridges between them a sudden departure from the unnatural smoothness of the walls and floor. Along the edges of the walls, soft flesh flattened itself, molding to the curvature of the Well, completely filling all space. One end drooped down directly above the stairwell Luisa had just left. The other dangled from the origin of the living loop, flattening into an elongated skull. It tried to conceal its presence, but Divine Scan revealed the truth of the world. Its body heat was a fraction above the background temperature, enough to give it away. Its mottled texture contrasted starkly against the smooth walls. And there were the eyes. Red as rubies, each as large as a man’s fists put together, they glared unblinkingly at Luisa, burning with infinite hate and boundless hunger. She could not see them with her mortal eyes, but nothing could hide from the eyes of the Goddess—and through the Link, She freely shared Her perception with Luisa. Once again, here was Aberrant Sabaia, the Anguilline Wyrm. Luisa drew her sword and aimed it at Sabaia’s head. “Aberrant! I am here! Show yourself!” Sabaia screamed. The deafening cry reverberated in the arena, reflecting and amplifying countless times in the enclosed space, assaulting Luisa from every direction. Pain lanced through her ears. Her bowels trembled. Nausea crept up her throat. Though she winced, she held her sword high and true, refusing to show weakness. Sabaia struck. Launching from the ceiling, it propelled itself towards her, jaws opening wide to reveal rows of saber-like fangs. As its body unwound, massive paws unfolded from its sides and extended claws as long as glaives. What little sound Sabaia made had been masked by its war cry. It swooped down on her, falling with the force of a thunderbolt. Luisa screamed. Red Dust concentrated in the musculature of her broad back. Fine structures extruded from her skin and seeped through the thin fabric of her shirt, forming a curved plate that followed the contours of her spine. From that foundation, more Dust hurriedly assembled into complex constructs, obeying of the Goddess and Her Ascendant. A pair of long struts swept outward, extending past her arms, then grew joints and tendons, and finally bent into bones. Fine remiges extruded along the lower edges of the new-grown bones, blunt teardrops narrowing to sharpened edges. Her proprioception expanded, encompassing her newborn wings. Principles flooded her mind, unarticulated and instinctive, a complete manual of flight operations. The wings did not catch air, instead emitting telekinetic force, shaping the vectors to create thrust. She had tested her wings in the stairwell, under the principle that learning to fly in a cramped space would be much harder than flying in the open, and you always wanted training to be harder than the real world. There she learned that she didn’t even need to spread her wings to fly; so long as she had them, even folded behind her back, she could fly. Then she returned to the floor below and tested her wings again, this time unfurling them to their full extent. Through the tests, the Goddess had guided her, showing her how to maintain balance, how to speed up and slow down, how to avoid obstacles, how to dive, how to ascend. Mara spoke not in words, instead downloading an entire library into her brain, then allowed Luisa to learn how to use that newfound information. And now, it was time to put everything she had learned to the test. Luisa flew. Rocketing off the ground, Luisa streaked for the Aberrant’s gaping maw, her sword aimed at its soft insides. She activated Divine Stealth, and her store of Red Dust billowed from her skin to engulf her completely. From the tip of her sword to the soles of her boots, she turned the shade of blood—then became like soft, transparent glass. Pivoting clockwise, she introduced a spiral into her ascent, then ejected a quartet of Flares, one after another. In the searing red light, she beheld Sabaia’s form. The skin of the titanic eel shifted color, taking on the exact hue of the Flares. Yet shadows and movement betrayed it, revealing its silhouette to Luisa’s augmented eyes. Saliva gushed greedily from its oral jaw. Its pharyngeal jaw shot forward, ready to seize her and drag her into its gullet. Extending her left hand, Luisa constructed four Blood Blades and hurled them towards Sabaia’s open jaw. With a quickness that belied its mass, the creature swiftly dodged, looping around to strike at her from another angle. Behind the blinding light of a flare, Luisa built a Razor Mine and tossed it at Sabaia. Swiftly she reoriented her wings, and dashed to the side. An instant later, the Aberrant hurtled past and slammed its jaws shut. The wind of its passage buffeted Luisa. And the mine detonated. The blast sprung the monster’s jaws open. Blood and broken teeth sprayed in every direction. Sabaia let forth a howl of pure torment, now stunned into stillness. Raising her sword, Luisa dashed for its humongous neck and cut. Thick scales turned her heavy blade. Pushing off, she regained control of her Blood Blades, then stabbed them into the monster’s sides with all her telekinetic strength. They shattered into dust. And a heavy paw swung towards her. Dipping low, she pivoted towards the new threat, punching out her sword. It was fast, too fast to evade, and all she could do was catch it on her edge. She tucked her chin, reinforced her grip with her left hand, kept her body behind her weapon, and braced for impact. Sharp steel met soft flesh. The steel _broke_. The broken blade whispered past her face. The transferred force sent her spinning backwards and to her right. She accelerated her descent, barely dodging a quartet of humongous claws, then flipped around upright and slowed to a halt. And her boots found the floor. _That was close!_ “You came back,” Sabaia growled from high above, its voice filling the arena. “You should have killed me when you had the chance,” Luisa replied. Sabaia chuckled. “The higher the Level, the tastier the prey.” “I am _not_ prey. I am an Angel of the Goddess!” “I broke your blade. Then I will break your wings. And finally, I will break you!” Sabaia dove. Jaws wide open, it fell upon her from above. In her mental map, its enormous mass grew heavier, faster, an unstoppable force of nature. She waited. Hot, thick liquid dripped on her face. Blood or saliva, she could not tell. She waited. Foetid breath wafted over her, carrying a noisome odor of fresh blood and rotting meat. She dodged. Luisa blasted off to her left, her boots barely an inch off the ground. Sabaia swerved to pursue her. Its enormous body slammed against the floor, spreading the impact across its paws and underside, preserving its vulnerable head. Luisa took off again, now shooting towards the ceiling. A scarlet beam blasted from Sabaia’s mouth. Luisa jinked to the side. The beam tracked her, forcing her out into the open. Then an enormous mass swung towards her. She jinked to the left. Sabaia’s tail whooshed past. The thunder of its passage blew Luisa towards the wall—towards the lower third of its body. Luisa braked hard, fighting against her own inertia. Then a paw slashed down at her. She blended with the energy of her movement, no longer resisting it, just redirecting it. She fell through a parabolic arc, just ahead of the arc of the claws, and dropped to ground level. _Sabaia can track me!_ Luisa realized. The Aberrant sinuously wound across the floor, claws clacking, torso wriggling. Everywhere its underbelly touched, it left behind a layer of slime. Perhaps it was how it managed to adhere to the smooth walls without falling off. “Stealth is useless against me,” it growled. “Stay still, and I offer a quick and painless death. Struggle, and you will merely die tired.” Its massive head slunk into view. Teeth bared, its tongue flicked out into the air. The insides of its mouth had been healed completely. It could smell her. Taste her. Hear her. Stealth could not hide Luisa from the Aberrant’s other senses. It merely made her more difficult to target. Its armor was impenetrable. Even the soft underside could resist a sword cut. A single blow from its paws could kill her. Its teeth could shatter armor, never mind flesh and bone. Its mouth beam would obliterate her in an instant. Its weight was a weapon, and if she got careless, its tail could swat her from the air, or it could wrap its body around her and crush her like a python. And, of course, it had a vast store of Red Dust to draw on. She had only a broken sword, and was down to less than one-third of her depleted RD and EP bars. “I destroyed your party. Crunched their bones between my teeth. Swallowed what remained of them whole. Every one of them. You will join them.” Rage boiled in the depths of her heart. Rage, and sorrow, and fear. Everyone was dead. How could she fight Sabaia? She had made a terrible mistake coming here. She should have fled. And maybe she could still… _Sabaia is goading you into making a mistake._ The voice of the Goddess resonated in Luisa’s skull. Mara was right, of course. If Sabaia knew exactly where Luisa was, it wouldn’t have bothered with banter. It would have lunged for the kill. She still had a chance. A faint one, but a chance. With so little energy and Red Dust left, she would have to finish the beast in the next exchange. An idea bloomed in her mind. A crazy idea. But better than nothing. Gratitude washed over Luisa. She directed it all to Mara. Then she loudly sucked in a breath through her mouth. Sabaia’s head twitched, turning to face her. She tossed her broken sword to the right. As the hilt clanged against the ground, Sabaia turned to track the noise. Luisa ascended. Soaring towards Sabaia’s tail, she released a burst of Red Dust, manifesting it as a Force Field. More than just a screen, it was a formless mass of Red Dust, engulfing her in a crimson cloud. And in her hands, she manifested a Razor Mine. Sabaia roared. Its tail twisted around and coiled up like a whip, aiming at the Force Field. Its head twisted around, jaws wide open to swallow her whole. Luisa opened a hole in the Force Field and zipped to the side. And left the Razor Mine behind. Sabaia struck. Its humongous tail smashed into the Force Field. The cloud of dust burst into a fine gray spray, obscuring everything within it. Sabaia’s head lurched up, gulping down everything in the cloud. Including the mine. The mine detonated. Once again, Sabaia’s jaws blasted wide open, fractured and deformed. Broken teeth flew off in every direction. A gurgling cry tore loose from a wounded throat. And Luisa swooped down. A forest of Blood Blades manifested before her. Accelerating through her dive, the wind howled past her ears, her heart pounded in her chest. Rage, red and raw, gathered in her belly. She opened her mouth, gave voice to her fury and her sorrow, and hurled her blades. A dozen skewered Sabaia’s left eye. A dozen more pierced its other eye. The blades sank deep, clean through the soft matter of the eyeball to quest for openings at the other end of the socket. Sabaia howled, blood gushing from its massive wounds. Rearing up, it readied for a last-ditch lunge at Luisa. Luisa’s boots slammed into the back of its skull. Raw kinetic energy pulsed through the creature’s head. Bone cracked under the ferocious blow. An equal and opposite force blew through Luisa, sending shockwaves through her. A normal woman might have injured herself, but she was an Ascendant, an Angel. Her flesh was silk and her bones were living steel. She barely noticed the shock wave passing through her, focused solely on driving the beast down. Sabaia’s head slammed into the floor. Blood and shattered fangs erupted in every direction. Lowering to all fours, she picked her way across the slippery scales covering its neck, going for its crown. “You… How?” Sabaia rumbled. “The Goddess smiled upon me,” Luisa said. A strange sound emanated from its chest. There was pain, and much of it, sending blood shooting forth from its wounds. But more than pain, it was _laughing_. “The Goddess! Hah! The Goddess made me into this form!” Luisa froze. “What?” _Lies_. “She sent me… a vision of this Well. Showed me… where to find it. So I gathered my party… Came here.” _I warned Sabaia not to drown herself in Red Dust. She refused._ “You burned yourself up. Leveled beyond your limits. It turned you into an Aberration!” Luisa said. Sabaia laughed again. “Is that what She told you?” “What do you mean?” “Power. It is the way of the world. Without power, you are meat. We came here… looking for power. For Red Dust. She urged us to partake in it. To become… more than we were. To become her Avatars.” _I do not drive my children into madness. They chose this path for themselves. They paid the price._ “Then all of you became Aberrants, and destroyed each other.” “Two tigers cannot share the same forest. Four Avatars cannot share the same Well. Thus, Mara pitted us against each other… Promised to grant Her favor… to the victor. When I won… She… abandoned… me.” _LIES_. The word thundered in Luisa’s mind, drowning out all thought. “Why?” Luisa whispered. “It makes no sense!” “I pondered this question… for years. Decades. At last… I found the answer.” _IT IS BUYING TIME TO KILL YOU._ Pain racked Luisa’s head. But she had to know. “What is it?” she asked. “When Man is busy fighting monsters and leveling up… Man cannot turn against Mara.” “That’s insane!” “No. Mara is—” _IT IS HEALING. KILL IT BEFORE IT KILLS YOU_. Cold realization filled her heart. Mara was right. Mara was always right. It had stopped bleeding. Its sentences were getting longer and more coherent. Its breath was less labored. As they spoke, it had been tapping into its store of Red Dust, healing its internal injuries. This ends now. She detonated the Blood Blades. Focused cones of fragmentation ripped through the inside of its eye sockets, passed through its optic canal, and penetrated the brain. Sabaia roared. Its body threshed uncontrollably, whipping one way, then the other. Its tail lashed back and forth. Its paws slashed at the air. The violent bucking threw Luisa off the Aberration’s back. With a burst of focused intent, Luisa took off, heading for empty space. Caught in its death throes, Sabaia lashed out at everything around it. Every impact against the walls and floor sent heavy booms echoing through the space. Blood gushed out from its humongous wounds, flushing out spongy masses of Dust, and this time the bleeding did not stop. It twitched one last time, and went still. Luisa exhaled. It was over. The dead had been avenged. The Well had been reclaimed for humanity. And she had become an Angel. She returned to the fallen monster’s head. Bathed in blood and red light, she could scarcely tell what was blood and what was only its skin. Extending her hands, she touched her mind to the Red Dust in its body, and beckoned it to her. Dense streams of Red Dust poured out the wounds, forming a sphere. It grew larger and larger, rapidly gaining mass. It reached the height of her ankles, her calves, then her knees, and _still_ it continued to grow. How much Red Dust had it absorbed? Luisa thought again of the almost-drained Well, and gulped. Even if the four members in her party had split twenty stories’ worth of Red Dust amongst themselves, it was still a mind-bogglingly huge amount. Enough to raise an army of Ascendants. Or turn an Angel into an Avatar. The last of the Red Dust spilled out. The sphere had reached mid-thigh. While much smaller than she’d expected, it was still, by human terms, an incomprehensible amount of Red Dust. Other than the sea of dust, she hadn’t seen so much Red Dust concentrated in one place before. She returned to the stairwell. She had dumped her backpack on the other side of the door. She hadn’t wanted it interfering with the fight. All the Angels she knew never wore packs—or, indeed, armor that covered their backs. It would prevent the wings from forming, and for an Angel, mobility was life. She retrieved her pack and returned to the mound of Red Dust. She absorbed a helping of Red Dust, enough to top off her RD pool, then divided the remainder into a dozen smaller balls and converted them all into phylacteries. The combined mass _barely_ fit into her backpack—and that was after packing everything in tight, stuffing the side pockets, and strapping the extra phylacteries to the top of her pack. Now there was one last question: how did she get out of here? As she framed the thought, the door slid open. Sunlight streamed into the Well. Her eyes stung. She’d been so used to low light and red light, color vision had become a foreign country. Caught in a rectangle of light, she squinted her eyes and held out a hand to block out the light. “Who’s there?” a man boomed. “Luisa,” she replied. “Luisa of the House of Amber!” “Thank the Goddess!” In the gaps between her fingers, she saw a tall, dark figure, silhouetted against the sunlight. She fed a trickle of Red Dust to her eyes, accelerating her adaptation. “Who is it?” Luisa asked. “Avatar Reginald, of the House of Amber.” An Avatar! The next step above an Angel, an Avatar had attached a Level far beyond most Ascendants. Reginald was the strongest Avatar of the House of Amber, a god amongst men, second only to the Goddess Herself. Avatars were the right hand of the Goddess. It was said that She spoke directly into their minds, issuing them their orders, showing them where they had to go. Everywhere they went, they carried out Her will, bringing light to the burned world. When an Aberrant threatened the world, there an Avatar went to lay it low. But she had slain the Aberrant. Was she equal to an Avatar? Squeezing her eyes shut, Luisa brought her right fist to her heart, then shot her arm outwards and upwards in salute. “Hail!” Reginald snapped out a crisp salute in return. “Hail.” Dark figures flowed around him, rushing into the arena. Voices murmured in awe and fright. Someone shouted in alarm. “How did you get here?” Luisa asked. “The Goddess came to me. She advised that a party from the House was in danger. I assembled an expedition and came here.” “When was this?” “Twenty-four hours ago.” A day. She had been trapped in the Well for a full day. During that day, she had become… “You slew the Avatar?” Reginald asked. Luisa opened her eyes a crack. Color invaded her sight. Now she saw a chiseled Knight, clad in pseudo-chitin, left hand resting on the hilt of his sword, right hand pointed behind her. “Yes.” “All by yourself?” “Yes. I’m the only one left.” A subtle pressure passed over her skin. Reginald was Scanning her. “You’re an _Angel?_” Reginald asked in disbelief. “Yes.” “No Angels were sent here.” “I became one.” In terse sentences, she recounted the events that had brought her to this point. As she spoke, her eyes slowly took in more daylight. At the end of the report, her eyes had completely adapted. “Well done,” Reginald said, nodding in approval. “You have slain an Aberrant, avenged the fallen, and secured the Well for humanity. In the history of our House, no one has accomplished a greater feat than this. When we return, I shall put in a good word for you with the Council.” “Thank you.” Reginald laughed. “You’ve done the impossible. It’s the least I could do.” Then his voice grew serious. “You jumped over eighty Levels in one day. Are you alright?” “I’m fine. I kept myself from burning out.” “Good. And I see you’re loaded up with phylacteries too. If you choose to burn it all… you could break into the triple digits. You could become an overnight Avatar.” Luisa blinked. Blinked again. “Don’t push yourself. You know what happens to an Ascendant who burns out,” Reginald said. She nodded. “Yes. The Goddess Herself told me.” Reginald raised an eyebrow. “She did, didn’t She? Now _that’s _interesting.” “What is?” He shook his head. “Nothing.” She sensed an ocean of meaning in that one word. It most definitely wasn’t ‘nothing’. But fatigue had crept up on her. Her limbs felt like rubber, her brain like molten lead. There was something here, something she had to learn… but she couldn’t think of the right question to ask. “We’ll take care of the rest from here,” he said. “Go outside and rest. The support team will take care of you.” “Understood.” Reginald stood in the doorway, watching her with unblinking eyes, until she squeezed past him and stepped out into the light. The pungent air of the swamp filled her lungs, pregnant with life and decay. A gentle wind caressed her skin, wonderfully refreshing after such a long time in the Well. The rays of the sun bathed her, scouring the darkness from her being. All around her, the support team was hard at work. They pitched tents, organized supplies, prepared casualty evacuation points, guarded the camp. They were backliners, but their work was just as important for the success of a major operation like this. None of them noticed her. She slumped against a tree, lowering herself to the moist earth. She grabbed a canteen and sipped more blood. It was still warm, though even more clotted than before. The backliners would surely have brought water and rations, but now… now she was in the mood for blood. Aberrations. Angels. Avatars. In the space of twenty-four hours, she had gone from a nigh-useless rookie to a battle-hardened veteran with stupendous Powers at her command. It felt… unreal, somehow, as though the events in the Well had been but a dream. But it also felt… _right_. Like this was what she was meant to be. She thought again of the battle with Sabaia. No one had taught her how to fight like an Angel. No one in the House had shown her the strategies and techniques of their warrior Angels. She had to put together a plan on the fly. And she had triumphed. She, a mere human, couldn’t possibly have done this alone. She felt the guiding hand of the Goddess, showing her what she had to do, helping her to carry out Her will. Mara was always with her, and now, with the upgraded Link, they were even closer. Angel she might be, but she had only been one for a day. _Less_, actually. There were so many more Angels out there, with much more experience than her, even more powerful and capable than she’d dared to dream. Once again, she was at the bottom of the hierarchy. She was right back where she’d started, only this time at a higher level of existence. Beyond the Angels stood the Avatars. They were as out of reach to an Angel as an Angel was to her when she’d been a mere Level 8 Scout. Yet with the Red Dust she had harvested from the Anguillines and the Aberrant… after what Reginald had told her… that elevated position didn’t seem so out of reach any more. There were still so many nodes left in her Skill Web, so much Red Dust in her phylacteries, so much more waiting for her. Her future was as boundless as the heavens. A future in the service of the Goddess. _Are you ready to Ascend?_ She had found her path. She knew where she had to go, what she had to do, and the way to get there. Already she was studying her Skill Web, plotting her next line of progression, finding the synergies that would take her to the next level of existence. To a higher level of Power. Her old life was over—and a new one was here. Her thoughts drifted to Sabaia. Of what the Aberrant had told her, of what it had _wanted_ to tell her. But those words suddenly felt hazy and far away, like fragments of a half-remembered dream. Whatever it was that Sabaia had wanted to tell her, it must have been lies, a ploy to trick her into lowering her guard, nothing more. Nothing good can come from listening to monsters. Mara had guided her true during her ascent. Surely She would continue to do the same. Filled with hope, anchored in faith, eyes turned to the heavens, Luisa spoke her answer. “Yes.” ![]( Newsletter subscribers get early access to my future stories and writing updates. Sign up [here]( and receive a _free_ ebook! fiction @cheah

Angel of Blades Part 4 ![ "Shallow Focus Photo Of Crocodile On Body Of Water"]( Flight after flight, floor after floor, she climbed the stairs. She thought of nothing, she felt nothing, she focused solely on putting one boot in front of the other, over and over and over. Round and round and round she went, forever turning clockwise. She kept her hand on the handle of her sword, ready for instant action, keeping to the outer edge of the stairs. The higher she climbed, the darker it grew, taking her further and further from the glow of the sea of Dust. It didn’t matter. With her mental map, she could navigate the world even with her eyes closed. Indeed, she did just that, resting her mind and body, using only enough muscle and energy to keep her going, navigating solely by her mental map. How long had she climbed? It didn’t matter. She wasn’t where she wanted to be, so she kept climbing. Onward, onward, always onward, heading to whatever awaited her at the top of the stairs. The elevator descended. Eyes still closed, she flexed the fingers of her hand. Rolled her shoulders back and forth. Checked her gauges. And climbed. Presently the elevator entered the edge of her consciousness. Inside it, she felt four living beings. Anguilline warriors, all armed with short spears. Also, a whole mess of blood splattered across the walls, floor and ceiling. Two floors above her, the Anguillines spilled out. Packed shoulder-to-shoulder, two in front and two behind, they descended the stairs. Now she opened her eyes. Stopped at a landing. And let them come to her. They trooped down the stairs, huffing noisily, their eyes glinting in the gloom. They thrust their spears before them, advancing in lockstep, ready to run her through. When the frontliners spotted her, they issued a keen cry. All four Anguillines charged. She stepped aside and gave the backliners a Telekinetic push. All four monsters went tumbling. Heads banged against railings. Feet scraped against steps. Limbs tangled up in each other. The Anguillines crashed into a confused heap at the foot of the steps. Luisa picked up a discarded bone spear and drove it into the back of a head. Another head. Another. And another. And just like that, they were all dead. She tossed the spear aside and searched the bodies, and found nothing of value to her. No water, no rations, no interest. …Or not. Her lips were cracked. Her muscles ached. Her belly growled. And one of Marco’s instructions came back to her. “If you run out of water, there are always monsters.” Grabbing an empty canteen, she knelt by the body of the largest, strongest Anguilline, and hoisted it up on the guardrail. She felt around the neck until she found its arteries. Then she uncapped the canteen and held it by its neck. And drew her knife. And cut. Hot blood splashed over her fingers, her hand, the canteen. She adjusted the canteen, catching the stream in the mouth of the canteen. There was so much blood. The House had taught her how much blood circulated in a human body, and she had seen more than her fair share of corpses. But this time, she could actually measure how much blood she took—and how much more there was left. The canteen overflowed. She took her other canteen, and continued harvesting blood. When that canteen filled to the brim, she placed both containers aside—and the body continued to bleed. She cleaned off her knife and sheathed it, and the body _still _bled. Placing the canteens on the floor, she extended her hands over their open mouths. _Purify_, she willed. Red Dust drifted from her palms and settled into the blood. More and more and more Red Dust, until a thin layer appeared on the surface of the liquid. The blood frothed, the Red Dust killing all microbes within the liquid. When the bubbling stopped, she placed her lips to a canteen and drank. Rich, warm, salty blood filled her mouth. Clots and clumps of Gray Dust drifted past her teeth and tongue. She squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed. And exhaled. That wasn’t too bad. Inert Dust was perfectly safe for human consumption. The body would pass it out with the rest of its biological waste. With the blood sanitized, there was no fear of disease. Nonetheless, drinking too much iron-rich blood too quickly could injure the stomach and intestines. Luisa harvested the Red Dust from the bodies of the Anguillines, forming a second, smaller, phylactery, then stowed it in her pack. With renewed strength, she picked up the bodies and heaved them over the guardrail. She didn’t hear the sound of impact. She didn’t look down. She climbed up. The elevator was in motion again. She’d been so focused on harvesting the bodies that she’d lost track of it. When it re-entered her mental map, she sensed eight Anguillines inside the car, all of them armed to the teeth. She climbed up to a landing, took up position at the elevator doors, and waited. And the elevator shot past her. She blinked. Blinked again. Shrugged. And climbed up. What was _that_ all about? Were they making a second supply run? Maybe. They might be sending their Anguillines to drink of the Red Dust and evolve into higher-order beings. If so, they were too late. She stood head and shoulders above them all. Only an Aberration could stop her now. Then the elevator came up to her. And shot past. But this time, there were only four Anguillines inside. Curious. She headed up to the next landing and consulted her mental map. Two floors down, a block of four Anguillines crept up the stairs. Two floors above, four more Anguillines slunk out the elevator. A pincer attack. They were learning. But they were _weak_. She stood by the guardrail, sipped more blood, and let them come. When they were one floor away, they attacked. To her left, four Anguillines rushed down the stairs, spears leading the way. To her right, four Anguillines dashed up the stairs, behind a screen of spears. Every eye and every bone blade turned to her, ready to skewer her. She reached out with her Telekinesis and pulled. The back row of the block above her tripped. The front row of the block below her stumbled. The monsters pinwheeled and caromed about, crashing into each other, taking each other down. One of them dropped a bone spear. Another’s bone knife fell free. She seized them with Telekinesis and went to work. Blood geysered from slit throats. Heads crunched under hard impacts. One Anguilline tried to get up, and her knife neatly took its head off. In the space of five breaths, they were all dead. She wasn’t afraid any more. She was powerful. Powerful beyond compare. Only the weak had reason to fear. The strong would never feel afraid. Not of weaklings like this. She gathered up the Red Dust from the bodies, then combined the phylacteries into a single large sphere. She tossed the bodies out of the way, and continued the climb. This time, the elevator stayed put. At last, she arrived at a door. She had reached the top of the stairs. She had climbed twenty stories high, more stories than she had ever climbed at once in her life, and all she felt was a pleasant twinge in her legs. She wasn’t even breathing hard. Was this what it meant to have such absurdly high stats? If so, she could get used to it. Past the door, she sensed a seething mob. Easily a score of Anguillines, maybe more. They formed a semicircle two ranks deep, trained on the door. The front rank, armed with spears, stood ready to thrust at the doorway. The second rank aimed crossbows, ready to riddle her with bolts. She smiled. She stood by the side of the door. And opened. This close to the monsters, she tasted the fury and the surprise roiling off them. They’d expected her to stand in the middle of the doorway, where they could slaughter her in an instant. Instead, they saw only empty space. Then she formed a Razor Mine and hurled it into the room. There was a soft _click_. Then a loud _POP_. Silken sounds and sharp cracks filled her ears. Life signs vanished from her mental map. She rounded the corner and strode through the doorway. And into darkness. Her eyes saw only pitch black. Her mental map painted a picture for her. Gore and viscera dripped from the walls and ceiling. Severed limbs and bisected torsos lay scattered across the hall. Lakes of blood washed up at her boots. The scent of Dust and iron tickled her throat. At the edge of her perception, dead ahead, there was a large, heavy presence, though she couldn’t quite tell what it was yet. On her left, an Anguilline moaned. Everything below its belly was gone. Its left arm had been sheared off at the bicep, its right hand chopped off. Its eyes were a bleeding mess. It rasped weakly, blood spurting from its open mouth. She stomped it in the throat. She summoned the Red Dust from the bodies around her. She pulled off a pinch, then willed it to become a light.In the soft illumination, she saw that she was in an elevator lobby. Tables and cubicles and strange machines surrounded her, ravaged by time and beasts and now her Powers, forming three channels. It had to have been a security checkpoint of sorts. Past the checkpoint, a wide hall stretched to the other side of the structure. At regular intervals, corridors branched off, feeding into different sections. At the far end, something crouched in darkness. Stepping forward, she drew forth another pinch of Red Dust, ignited it into light, then tossed it into the darkness. A bestial roar reverberated in the hall. A heavy mass undulated towards her, huge paws dragging its serpentine body towards her. The thing was enormous, its bulk spanning the breadth of the hall. As it passed into the light, Luisa saw a pair of enormous eyes, titanic jaws, scores of tentacles questing along the walls. With another roar, it hurtled towards her. She Scanned it. _Anguilline Guardian_ _Level: 44_ _Strength: 72_ _Dexterity: 78_ _Endurance: 62_ _Willpower: 99_ Powerful, even for an Ascendant. But for someone like her… She extended her palm, calling the Dust to her. It gathered into a crimson mass, elongating into a long, sharp blade. The Anguilline Guardian howled. Claws scrabbling at doorways and turns, muscles flowing like water, its skin shimmering in the light, it accelerated, opening its jaws wide, revealing a second set of jaws and a widening gullet. She fired. The Blood Blade zipped into its open mouth. It shot past its oral jaws, past its pharyngeal jaws, disappearing into the darkness of its insides. The Guardian screeched, this time in pain, expressing an intensity of agony and fury no human could begin to experience. The blade punched through it, tearing up everything in its path, perforating organs, cutting bone, going deeper, deeper, ever deeper— And exploded. The blast ripped the beast clean in half. Blood painted the hallway. More blood pumped from the separated halves. Bone fragments became shrapnel, ripping and tearing and shredding everything they touched. Paws kicked and clawed at the air, trying to gain purchase. And the front half of the Anguilline closed in. Howling in maddened anguish and hatred, what was left of the beast dragged itself forward, pale pink rivulets streaming from its eyes, its jaws dislocated and locked open. “You’ve got heart,” she admitted. Then fashioned a smaller Blood Blade and sent it flying into its open mouth. This time, she spun it around vertically, orienting it towards its brain, and detonated. It twitched. Slumped. Went still. Wringing her hand, she regarded the body of the fallen beast. There was a time when it would have been the stuff of nightmares. Now… She had slain it as easily as breathing. Did she stand a chance against Sabaia? Even as she framed the question, a battle plan filled her head. Sabaia was enormous and enormously strong, capable of inhuman flexibility and stupendous speed. But its mass was also its weakness. Being much smaller and lighter, Luisa could outmaneuver it. So long as she stayed clear of its weapons… Yes. She could do it. But she needed one Power. She harvested the Red Dust from the Guardian. Now she had a huge phylactery, as large as her head. With the sphere tucked under her arm, she squeezed past the corpse and headed down the hallway. This Well was no mere industrial facility, she realized. The Ancients had lived here once. Hallways led to dorms and toilets, storage rooms and offices. Signs helpfully described the function of every room. The largest room was the control center, packed with ancient artifacts and mysterious machines. The beasts had claimed it for their own. Droppings filled the corners of many rooms, the eye-watering odor cutting through even the scent of blood and death. Much furniture had been shattered to pieces. Claw and scratch marks showed where they had sharpened their weapons against hard metal. Only the control center had been left nearly pristine, as though the monsters had treated it with reverence, either out of primal instinct or more likely in obedience to Sabaia’s will. At the end of the hall, Lucia faced another lobby. Identical in layout to the lobby on the other side, right down to the placement of the machines and cubicles. But the shafts here were much shorter. They extended for only one floor. Up to the surface. Cold crept into her fingers. She licked suddenly-dry lips and forced down a lungful of the stale, malodorous air. Sabaia was waiting. As soon as she stepped out the door, the Aberration would be upon her. During her long climb up the shaft, she had faced organized resistance. The monsters had to have some method of communication with each other. She had to assume that Sabaia was also in contact with her minions. Perhaps she had been controlling them from her lofty perch. Stranger things had happened out in the Wastes. Luisa needed Flight. There was no question about it. It was the only way she would survive the coming battle. This time the Goddess remained mute, offering neither warning nor encouragement. She was watching, Luisa knew, judging her every action. Would Luisa act in a way that honored the Goddess? Or would she violate Her laws and be cast down into madness and mutation? Falling was not an option. Neither was _not_ securing Flight. She had to unlock Flight. She had no other choice. But she didn’t have to do it _now_. She sat in a corner, retrieved a canteen, then gulped down a mouthful of blood. And another. And another. The blood had thickened, forming many clots. She swallowed as much as she dared, then drew her attention to her breath, and activated Vigilant Meditation. Time ceased to hold meaning. The seconds ticked past, then the minutes. Her heartbeat slowed to a regular pace. Energy flowed into her, healing the little aches and sores she had built up during her ascent. Her EP and RD gauges steadily restored themselves. There were no more threats, no more dangers, no need to worry about anything other than replenishing herself. She would enter the next fight at the height of her powers, or at least, as close to it as she could. More and more fatigue retreated from her gauges, restoring her capacity. She sat and breathed and meditated. Her mind was perfectly, gloriously, calm. There was only a restful silence in which the soul could put itself back together. She moved only to sip some more from the canteen of blood, helping the process along. And then, the restoration process ended. The RD and EP bars capped out at 75% of their original capacity. That was all Vigilant Meditation could accomplish for her. But that was alright. She had just enough RD and EP to squeeze out another level. She had just enough to fly. She breathed. She burned. She thought she was ready. She believed her body had recovered. It wasn’t enough. Not by a long shot. Fire scoured her from the inside out. Red Dust bloomed across her body. Sweat gushed from her pores. Her stomach rebelled. Fighting against waves of nausea, she swallowed hard, letting herself burn. Millions of insects crawled and bit and kneaded, worming through her flesh, her bones, her very being. Her heart slammed against her chest in a deafening tattoo. Pain spiked through her brain, spitting her temples end to end. Her skin grew so hot, her sweat felt close to boiling. For a moment she thought that she was sweating blood. The Goddess would protect her. She knew it deep in her heart. Mara would not fail her, not when she was this close to victory, not when she was ready to strike a blow against an Aberration and restore order to the world. She persevered. She believed. She burned. And then, it was over. She slumped over, panting and heaving. She was completely, totally, spent. Her EP and RD gauges were totally empty—and blasted down to half their total size. Sweat caked her clothes to her skin. She drank more blood, hoping that her stomach could take it, that her guts could extract water from the warm liquid. She breathed. She absorbed more Red Dust from her phylactery. Then she called up her Skill Web. The last node glowed a pale blue. She cast her mind into the heavens, but again the Goddess was silent. The power was hers for the taking. Neither Goddess nor monster could stop her now. She selected Flight. And just like that, she became an Angel. An Ascendant empowered by the Goddess to fly. It was a letdown. After everything she had been through to get to this point, she half-expected something more dramatic. But why would it be? How was this any different from all the other nodes she had bought to get to this point? It was a Power, one out of the many Powers she had at her disposal. There was one more battle ahead of her. One more monster to cut down. Then the nightmare would be over. She had to be in top form for what was to come. Sitting upright, she returned to Vigilant Meditation. Time passed. How long, she neither knew nor cared. She simply sat in healing stillness, allowing her EP and RD to restore themselves. She thought the process was slower than before. Not that it mattered. She had all the time she needed to restore her strength. Once more, her EP and RD gauges topped out at 75 percent of their original capacity. She tapped into her phylactery, replenishing her RD pool. When she was done, there was still plenty of Red Dust left. She stowed what was left in her pack. She checked her blades, checked her backpack, then rose to her feet and entered the final stairwell. She ascended. ![]( Newsletter subscribers get early access to my future stories and writing updates. Sign up [here]( and receive a _free_ ebook! fiction @cheah

Angel of Blades Part 3 ![ "Shallow Focus Photo Of Crocodile On Body Of Water"]( ## Crimson Twilight She burned. She Leveled. She burned again. Over and over and over again, so many times she had lost count. Her muscles ached, her bones throbbed, her nerves smoldered, and still she continued. Sweat poured off her in great sheets. Her eyes, temples and great veins throbbed in time with her heart. Her vision swam, cycling between shades of red. Red was her world, red was her reality, there was nothing in the universe but her and the Red Dust. She sucked in Energy and Red Dust. She burned. She absorbed some more. She burned even more. She felt herself melting away, becoming less—and, at the same time, becoming _more_. Her clothes loosened around her chest and hips, and tightened around her shoulders and arms and legs. Her cheeks sunk. When she pulled her cap off her head, she saw clumps of fallen hair. Heat was the enemy. The air was stale and hot here, offering little relief. She hoarded her water the way a miser would hoard diamonds, drinking sparingly from her canteen. She unbuttoned her sweat-soaked clothes, letting the heat pour off her naked skin. She sat still, trying not to move. And still she wasn’t done yet. Body Reinforcement 2. Red Dust Pool 3. Telekinesis 4. Node after node after node flashed past. She stopped reading the descriptions, focusing only on the path she had planned, the progress she had made, the nodes she had left to go. She was cramming years, _decades_ of Leveling into a single day, and still she had a long way to go. With every Level, the RD and EP cost of Leveling up grew even higher. She tried to catch up by expanding her RD and EP pools, but inevitably the Leveling cost would outstrip her pools and she would have to expand them again. In the House of Amber, veterans and counselors would help a rookie plan his progression. Some Priests of Mara also offered similar services, tapping into their intrinsic link with the Goddess to provide fresh insights. Here, she was alone. She would have to proceed carefully but decisively. And there was no room for error. Node by node, path by path, her Skill Web filled out. Every illuminated node showed her where she had been, every highlighted node showed her the way forward. There was still a long way to go, but with every Level, the pathway shortened. So she burned. And burned. And burned some more. At last, she fulfilled the requirements for the Ranger class. The House would mark such an achievement with a ceremony. They would assemble everyone in the Ascendant’s party, everyone who had helped him attain such august status, announce the advancement, and invite the honoree to progress. The Church of Mara held similar rituals too, for civilians and non-affiliated Ascendants. She was alone. And she had more important things to worry about than pomp and ceremonies. She purchased the node. More fire. More wriggling. More itching. More of the sensations she’d experienced earlier. By now she’d grown inured to them, welcoming them as marks of advancement. But this time the sensations were concentrated in her head, in her brain, the Red Dust rewiring her synapses. _They are upgrading my Seal and Link_, she realized. The sensations faded, leaving behind… nothing. She laughed. Of course there was nothing. It was just another node on the Skill Web. What else should she expect? Confetti and applause? A sword salute? A choir of angels descending from Heaven to whisk her to the side of the Goddess? Nonetheless, she marked the occasion with a swig of water. Then she realized she was running low. There were only a few mouthfuls of precious liquid left in her canteen—and there was no sign of water in sight. Marco told her that the best way to store water was inside her body. Another veteran insisted on always maintaining a reserve for emergencies. Both men were right. And she still had more Levels to go. She absorbed more Red Dust. She drank more Energy. She breathed. She burned. With every Level, she grew increasingly conscious of the changes within her body. Muscles breaking down and reknitting into something stronger. Bone fracturing and refusing in instants. Blood vessels bulging from taut skin. Her mental map expanded, taking in the pier, the shaft, the stairs, the sea of Red Dust. She _felt_ them, knowing instinctively the range to a point of interest, sensing and interpreting the volume of empty space between her and it, touching the surfaces of objects with nothing but the air between them. It was not a knowledge that could be described in words, only a truth that must be experienced with the entirety of the being. Perhaps it was a side effect of meditating alone in the crimson twilight. Maybe it was the natural effect of purchasing so many Awareness nodes. Or it could simply be a byproduct of advancing to the Ranger class. Whatever it was, she allowed those sensations to pass through her, focusing her energies and attention on the pathways ahead of her. Then she noticed that her EP and RD bars were graying out. They’d started graying after the first ten, maybe fifteen Levels. With every successive Level, the gray crept forward, shortening her bar. Bit by bit, little by little. It wasn’t enough to deny her the next Level, so she continued burning and Leveling. But now, the bars were halfway gone. It was fatigue, she knew. Normally this happened after an Ascendant cast many Powers in rapid succession, or fought for long hours nonstop. It wasn’t just fatigue of the body, but of the mind and soul as well. The Church taught that Power came from the strength of your entire being, so of course when an Ascender grew tired, he became less powerful. She wanted nothing more than to rest. To take a break. To close her eyes into a deep, dreamless sleep. She couldn’t stop. She was still in hostile territory. She had no comrades to set watch. There was no telling if the Anguillines would send a party to hunt her down, or to scoop up more Red Dust. Sleeping here would be a fatal mistake. She gritted her teeth. Gathered her energies. Burned. Leveled. And burned some more. More and more nodes lit up. More and more Power flooded her. More and more options appeared in her menu. Yet what Power she had was hamstrung by her slowly shrinking stock of EP and RD. Soon, fatigue would cancel out any improvements from buying EP and RD nodes. That was alright. She just needed enough to unlock Flight and escape the Well. Ten nodes to go. Nine. Eight. She could see the end. She pressed on. Seven. Six. And pain lanced through her brain. She sucked in a breath. Massaged her temples. Breathed some more. Her body thrummed with vitality, with raw power waiting to be unleashed. Her mind was worn down. Her spirit was a flickering flame, on the verge of extinguishing in a gentle wind. She was fresh yet fatigued, empowered yet depleted. Existing in the in-between state between them. She was burned out. She pressed on. She burned. Five nodes left. Then four. Three. And her entire body ached, a deep ache that radiated from her marrow to flood her being. Staying upright and awake sapped her will. She fought off the temptation to lie down, to close her eyes, to sleep. She was so close, _so close_. Two nodes. One node. And— Lightning racked her body. Her nerves erupted in raging volcanoes of pure pain. Her muscles seized up, her joints locked. Fire raged in her blood. She fell. In her final moments of conscious control, she tucked her chin, taking the impact on the enhanced muscles of her suddenly-broad back. Splayed out on the hard floor, she stared at the dimly-lit ceiling so high above, utterly motionless. She could not move. She was not physically capable of moving. Her limbs would not respond to her will. Even thinking required effort. She felt like she had been hollowed out, like a watermelon scraped clean to leave only a dried-out rind. She breathed. Long, full and deep, feeling her stomach rise and fall, her rib cage expanding and contracting. Energy trickled through her skin, her tissues greedily lapping up every last drop. Little by little, bit by bit, the pain and the burning blunted. The sensations were still there, but now she could move. She could think. She could burn. _No_. A motherly voice, gentle and warm and pure, filled her mind. It soothed her, healed her, filled her from the inside out. “Who are you?” she whispered. _I am that I am_. The Goddess! Luisa sat up. Or tried. Fresh pain shot through her, forcing her back down. _You’ve worked hard. It’s time to rest_. “How are you speaking to me?” _Long have I watched over you. I rejoiced when you entered the Church. I celebrated when you accepted My gifts. I watched you as you roamed the wastes with your companions, slaying the evil and protecting the innocent. I have watched you grow. How you have grown, so fast and so far! And now, having advanced to Ranger, you have enhanced your Link and Seals. Now, at last, you are able to hear me directly._ Luisa’s eyes widened. “You can speak to me?” The Goddess laughed, the way a parent would laugh in the face of a child’s silliness. _I have always been speaking to you. Through the menu, through the gauges, through your Powers. For most of your time as an Ascendant, you knew My will only through the feedback granted by My system. Now you can finally hear My voice._ “Oh… I never knew…” _Perhaps you should have paid more attention in Mass._ Luisa laughed guiltily. “I’m sorry.” The Goddess laughed also. _You have done well. Your spirit, your fortitude and your courage is the essence of legends. But now you have reached your limits. It is time for you to rest._ In her mind’s eye, Luisa saw the Skill Web. There was only one more node left. It blazed blue, calling out to her. One more burn. One more Level. And then she could take Flight. _No_. “Why not?” _You are on the threshold of burning out. I will not have My child destroy herself._ “There’s only one node left!” _You are one node away from becoming an Aberration._ Luisa’s heart jumped in her chest. Her breath stopped. Icy water passed through her veins, yet somehow it made the burning worse. “What do you mean?” _Aberrations are born from men who have burned too much Red Dust, far too fast for their bodies to handle. In the naked pursuit of power, they have thrown away everything that makes them human. Their minds, their spirits, and then their bodies. In burning up their souls, they lose control of the transformation process, and become horribly mutated monsters, bereft of all reason._ “I’ve never heard of this before!” _It is knowledge usually restricted to Advanced Ascendants. Those of lower Levels usually do not absorb so much Red Dust in such a short time. They have no fear of becoming a monster. But the higher you climb, the easier it is to fall—and the harder and longer the fall._ “But my circumstances are unique.” _Yes. Which is why I am speaking to you now_. Warmth and gratitude filled her heart. The Church taught that the Goddess watches over all, loving every single human as a mother, the Mother of Mothers, but it was up to Man to forge a lasting relationship with Her. Here and now, she understood what the Church meant. She was not worthy of such personal attention. All she could do was become better. Then an ugly thought filled her breath. “Are you saying Aberration Sabaia was once human?” _Yes. An Ascendant, just like you, but not affiliated with any House. During an expedition with a party of independent Ascendants, they discovered the Well. In their haste and greed, they gulped down the Red Dust, caring not for their limits. All of them swiftly became Aberrations. They fell upon each other in mutual combat._ _Sabaia was the only survivor._ Luisa swallowed. “And if I continue to Level up, I would join them in their fate.” _Yes._ “Did you warn them?” _Yes. They refused to listen._ Luisa exhaled. “I am listening.” _Wonderful. I cannot and will not restrict you from pursuing Flight. I am merely asking that you wait until your body has recovered. Can you do this?_ “Of course.” _Thank you._ A secret thrill ran through Luisa’s heart. The Goddess Herself had thanked her! She’d never imagined such a thing could ever occur! Was she dreaming? Had she imagined that? The Goddess laughed. _You have not._ Luisa blinked. _I can hear your thoughts through your Link. You don’t have to speak out loud_. Luisa blinked again. _I didn’t know that._ _Had you read the detailed description of your upgraded Link, you would have. This is one more reason the Houses do not encourage rapid burning. You miss the little details._ _Oh._ _Hush. Rest. But not for too long. You have company_. Luisa startled. A presence encroached upon her mental map. Rust squealed and metal screeched. Vibrations traveled through the floor. The elevator was descending. And in it was a gang of eight Anguillines. She sat up. Pain pulsed through stiffened muscles. Her joints complained. Her eyes were rough and gritty, her mouth dry as dust. She was in no shape to fight. Yet. _Rest now. Fight later._ A thought pulled her towards her menu. There, among the many, many, _many_ options available to her as a newly-minded Ranger, was the skill Vigilant Meditation. She glanced at the description. _Restore body and mind while remaining alert against sudden attacks_. _Reduces fatigue by up to 75%._ It was an active Power, but it cost nothing. Ideal for this situation. She straightened her back. Placed her hands in her lap. And activated Vigilant Meditation. Her body wound down. Her muscles relaxed. Her breath deepened. Bit by bit, fatigue bled from her EP and RD bars. Her attention on her breath, she felt her skin cool off, her heart calm down, her energies settle. A heavy ball grew in her belly, her energy stores slowly building back up. Vitality returned to her flesh, to her joints, to her nerves. Her mental map was still active. The elevator was still descending. Yet she did not psych up like she normally did. She remained calm, present, watchful, and totally relaxed. The elevator’s descent grew louder, angrier, threatening to pierce her meditative bubble. The monsters shifted, positioning themselves by the doors, ready to rush out in a raging mob. Marco had taught her the dangers of fighting multiple enemies at once. While focused on a single threat, the others could easily flank her. Many an overconfident Ascendant had fallen to such a ploy. It didn’t matter how many Levels an Ascendant possessed; death was death, whether it came at the hand of an Aberration or a nameless minion. She had to change the game. The elevator was now one floor above her. She rose to her feet with unconscious grace. The burning was gone, but a deep-seated weariness remained. She grew cognizant of a sudden lightness and ease, her body moving as a single unified machine, ready to impose her will upon the universe. Smiling, she drew her sword. The elevator descended to eye level. She extended her left palm, aiming it at the doors, and fired _two_ Powers at once. Red Dust streamed out of her hand, separating into four rivulets. Floating in mid-air, the Red Dust coalesced into a row of clouds, shaping in conformance to her intent. The clouds condensed, hardened, sharpened, becoming Blood Blades. Glowing with power, they were all blade, no handle, shaped like leaves, broad bodies narrowing to a fine point. She sensed them in her mental map, as though they were extensions of her body, ready to respond to her will. She flipped them to the horizontal, pointing towards the elevator. The doors opened. The mob of eight Anguillines poured out. Armed with short spears, they advanced behind a wall of sharpened bone and ferocious howls. She fired Telekinesis. Her Blood Blades lanced through them, blasting through the front and back rows and out the other side. Whipping back around, they scythed through the assembled monsters, effortlessly lopping off hands and heads. She imagined herself holding every blade with invisible hands, swinging and thrusting as she pleased. Not too long ago, she had difficulty handling her sword. Now she wielded _five_. Their fuel exhausted, the blades disintegrated into a cloud of fine dust, showering the pile of corpses. And an Anguilline rose shakily to its feet, throwing off the bodies of its brothers, spear grasped in hand. A blade had perforated its right breast. It must have thrown itself down immediately after, avoiding the fate of its kin. Now it roared in berserker fury and rushed towards her. She waited. It thrust. It was _slow_. Her brain captured its every movement, from the moment it chambered the spear by its right hip to the instant it torqued around to launch the spear at her throat. No, it wasn’t slow. It was moving at top speed. Her brain had merely sped up, processing and interpreting data faster than ever. She moved. Stepping to the right, she torqued to the left, meeting the shaft with the flat of her blade. Her left hand reached over her right to check the spear. She swung her sword through a swift crescent, curving low before rising high, taking off the Anguilline’s left hand from below. Advancing into the blood spray, she seized the blade in her left hand and drove the point into its throat. The blade sank deep, spearing into its spine. Pulling the blade free, she slapped the monster in the face. It tumbled away, falling among the heap of broken bodies. She smiled. Just this morning, facing down a charging mob alone was suicide. Unthinkable, even. Now, she had wiped out eight Anguillines without even breaking a sweat. She cleaned the blade on an Anguilline’s loincloth, put it aside, then checked her Seal. Where it was once an unremarkable circle surrounded by spokes, it now sprawled across the back of her hand, a labyrinth of black branches woven into intricate designs. She barely recognized it, but it was an indisputable reflection of who she was now. With a soft inhale, she checked her status. _Psi Ranger_ _Level: 88_ _Strength: 112_ _Dexterity: 187_ _Endurance: 163_ _Willpower: 228_ She grinned. She’d gained _80 _Levels in a day. _Eighty! _How many Ascendants could boast of such a feat? She was now the strongest Ascendant in her expedition, in the House of Ember. But… The Aberration was stronger yet. It was so absurdly overpowered, the system couldn’t measure its Level. It didn’t matter. She didn’t have to fight it. Escaping was good enough. Holding out her hand, she absorbed the Red Dust from the bodies, replacing the Dust she had consumed. The rest she gathered into a sphere the size of a chicken’s egg. _Create phylactery_, she willed. The outer edges of the sphere flashed to white, taking on the appearance of fine crystal. Lifting it in her hand, she discovered that it felt unusually dense for its size. Turning a blob of RD into a phylactery naturally consumed Dust and EP. Absorbing it later wasn’t as efficient as harvesting it directly from monsters. But its portability and safety made up for it. Slipping the phylactery into her pack, she looked inside the elevator. An ancient cart held a score of barrels. She supposed that once the Anguillines were done with her, they would have collected some of the Red Dust here for their own consumption. Which in turn meant that there were more monsters upstairs, waiting for her. Using the elevator was a no-go. The enemy could simply jam the car in between floors. Without Flight, she’d be trapped. Then, two or three days later, the rest of the Anguillines could bring up the elevator and harvest her desiccated corpse. An ignoble end for an Angel. With her mental map, she sensed the interior of the elevator, identifying the control panel. Then, using Telekinesis, she hit the button for the top floor. As the doors closed, she readied a bolus of Red Dust, tossed it atop the barrels, and infused it with her will. _Razor Mine_. The Red Dust bubbled to life. It flattened into a hard disk, then grew claws to dig into the surface of the barrel. Once the construct sensed a living being entering its blast radius, it would spew a payload of razors into the victim’s face. Just one of the many traps available to the Ranger Class. Stepping back, she looked up the stairs. It was so tall, so high, she couldn’t see the top. It would be a long, long climb, longer than any she had ever attempted in her life. But it was the only way out of the Well. She just had to do it. She checked the remains of the Anguillines. She found loincloths and bone weapons, but no water or rations. She hadn’t expected anything else. She drained the last of her canteen. There was just enough water to wet her throat and unstick her tongue. From here on out, it was going to get rough. She checked her sword. She adjusted the straps of her backpack. She exhaled sharply. She ascended. ![]( Newsletter subscribers get early access to my future stories and writing updates. Sign up [here]( and receive a _free_ ebook! fiction @cheah

Angel of Blades Part 2 ![ "Shallow Focus Photo Of Crocodile On Body Of Water"]( ## Burn She fell. The wind whistled past her ears. War cries and furious howls carried from above. Cannon fire and blasts passed through the gash in the ceiling. She fell. By the dimming light of the dying flares, she saw nothing but darkness. Darkness yawned before her. Darkness encircled her. Darkness embraced her. She fell. Twisting side to side, extending her arms and legs, she reached for something, _anything_, she could hold on to. But there was nothing. Nothing she could grab to arrest her fall. She was too far away from the walls, and she lacked the Power of Flight. She was going to hit the ground at terminal velocity, and there was nothing that would— Light. Red light winked at her, rushing to greet her. In her mental map, she sensed a sudden softness, a sea of softness, at the very bottom of the shaft. Whatever it was, even if she struck at such speeds, it would be like striking concrete. But she had a chance. A slim one, but a chance. She fired Force Screen_. _A cloud of Red Dust billowed from her, surrounding her in a scarlet globe. It would bleed off the force from anything that entered its volume, dispersing the energy across its surface and falling apart if need be. It wouldn’t be enough to save her. Maybe if she had reinforced it ten times, or even three times. But she lacked the EP for that, never mind RD. Already she felt her temples throbbing, her insides burning, her vision fading out. Gathering the last of her energies, she activated telekinesis. This time she imagined a great hand cradling her, pulling her up. Not so hard that the whiplash would kill her, just enough to slow her down and soften the inevitable blow. She curled herself into a ball, orienting her feet downwards, aiding the process. The red floor filled her sight. She amped up the power, harder and faster, throwing all that she had left into a final Psi burst. Pain lanced through her brain. Her nerves threatened to shatter. Her synapses screamed. _She_ screamed, a scream from the depths of her being, emptying herself out, throwing her fate into the hands of the Goddess, steeling her soul for— Impact. The Force Screen struck the red floor. It absorbed the gargantuan force of impact and instantly dispersed in a swarm of Gray Dust, spreading across her body, becoming a last-ditch cushion against the inevitable. Her telekinesis finally gave out, and in the moments before impact she braced herself and closed her mouth. Second impact. The world slammed into her. Raw force smashed through her feet, her legs, her body, her head. Then the floor gave way behind her, plunging her down into lightless depths. _I’m sinking? What the hell?!_ Warm, viscous fluid surrounded her. For a second she’d thought she’d been dunked into a vat of blood. But it wasn’t right. Blood was… wet. She was _dry_. Whatever this substance was, it flowed around and off her. It wasn’t a liquid. It was… familiar. Could it be…? She willed her body to relax. All tension fled. Slowly she stretched her limbs. Pain shot through battered muscles and nerves, but her bones weren’t broken. And she floated. Her head broke through the surface. Bobbing in the fluid, she looked around in the faint red light. She spied what appeared to be an island, roughly in the direction of the door that Sabaia had guarded. She kicked off with her feet and drew her arms through wide circles, propelling herself in the direction of the shore. The fluid flowing between her fingers felt strange. It was like sand suspended in oil, rough and gritty, but not so much that it irritated the skin. It shaped itself to her body, perfectly molding around her. Deep below, she felt a distant bubbling, the sensation carried through the fluid and up against her suspiciously-dry clothes. An impulse overcame here. She went completely still, touched her mind to the fluid around her, and sent a command. _Move_. A mass of fluid gripped her tight and propelled her through the red lake. Warm red sprays marked her passage. The fluid glowed brighter, releasing heat as she passed. She was _fast_, faster than she had ever moved before. Her heart leapt in her chest. Pure exhilaration shot through her being. A grin spread across her face. The island came into view. Now that she was closer, she saw that it was actually a pier. Three walkways in a row, extending from a metal platform. Guardrails enclosed the structure, except at the end of the walkways. There, short flights of steps led down into the fluid. Into the Red Dust. The Ancients had built structures like these to manufacture and store Red Dust. She was seeing only the surface of the Red Dust; the reservoir must plunge deep into the bowels of the Earth, far beyond her sight. A massive shaft anchored the far end of the pier. An elevator shaft, leading up into the darkened ceiling. A large ‘S20’ had been painted on the doors. Beside the shaft was a flight of stairs. She guessed that if the elevator broke down, whoever was trapped down here could still climb to safety—though it would be a horrendously long climb. Looking up, she saw more piers above her head, set at regular intervals. Long, long ago, she guessed, the Well had been filled almost to the brim. With the passage of aeons, the Well had been drained down to the twentieth level. And yet, there was still a wealth of Red Dust here, more Red Dust than anyone could consume in a lifetime. The sounds of combat faded out. The light above vanished. The bottom of the Well was plunged into a red-tinged gloom. Pricking her ears, she heard… nothing. The fighting had stopped. She prayed that it was because the survivors had fled to safety. She knew that they weren’t going to come get her. Not immediately, that is. Standard operating procedure was to fall back, cordon the area, then summon reinforcements. Against an Aberration, they would only strike once they were sure they had an overwhelming advantage. It could take days to summon such a strike force. Weeks. Even months. She had to save herself. Sitting on the pier, she laid out her gear, performing a quick inventory. She had her trusty sword and scabbard. Two canteens of water, one empty, the other almost full. Field knife. Mess kit. Folding shovel. Flashlight. Water purification kit. First aid kit. Two days’ worth of field rations. Poncho and groundsheet. A change of dry clothing. Spare socks. That was it. She wasn’t going to be able to wait until reinforcements arrived. Red Dust was the stuff of miracles, but it did not nourish or hydrate the body. It would simply be absorbed by the cells and placed in storage. There _was_ a Power that allowed an Ascender to condense water from air, but of course she didn’t have it. She would have to find a way out. She would have to climb to the top of the Well, face the Aberration, then win through to the exit. Suicide, for a Level 8 Psi Scout. But… she didn’t have to stay that way. The Red Dust called out to her. Here was power. Power beyond the dreams of most mortals, beyond even the reckoning of the Ancients. More than enough power to crush even the most terrible Aberration. Even if she couldn’t defeat Sabaia, she would surely have enough power to break out of the Well and escape into the swamp. That was surely almost as good as a victory. She put her things away, then drew her attention to the back of her right hand. A small gray Seal was tattooed into her flesh, bestowed by Mara through her Church, identifying her as an Ascendant. The center of the design was a small circle, shot through with spokes. As an Ascendant gained Levels, the tattoo would grow in size and complexity. Closing her eyes, she connected her mind to the Seal. Her Skill Web surfaced to the front of her consciousness. It was a map of the wondrous gifts the Goddess bestowed upon Her worthy Chosen. Bright lines connected circular nodes in a dense, intricate web, showing progression and pathways to mastery. Many nodes had multiple notches, indicating the potential for repeated upgrades. An Ascendant’s Level reflected the number of nodes he had purchased. Some chose to go deep, repeatedly purchasing the same nodes to maximize their stats. Others went wide, gaining as many Powers as they could. The wise Ascendant planned his build early in his career for maximum efficiency. The way to gain Levels was to burn Red Dust. By burning his store of Red Dust, an Ascendant infused his body with Red Dust. The Dust would become entwined with his body, able to sculpt mere flesh and bone into something else. Something _better_. It was the fundamental dilemma facing an Ascendant. Burn Red Dust to gain long-term power at the risk of not having enough for emergencies, or reserve a store of Red Dust for combat but hamper your growth. Ascendants early in their career, like Luisa, had the gravest struggle, since the Leveling up usually required burning the equivalent of their total RD capacity. Leveling up was a tedious process for early Ascendants. After felling a monster, she had to top off her Red Dust, then slowly burn it bit by bit, drawing more Dust to replace what she’d expended. It was House policy. All Ascendants in the field must have a full store of Red Dust before setting out, and would seek to maintain it wherever possible. She understood why, but Ascendants in the House usually progressed much slower than those of other Houses. But now… she didn’t have to worry about a lack of Red Dust. Every Ascendant’s Skill Web was personal, though all Ascendants shared many commonalities. The Body branch focused on augmenting physical capabilities, while the Mind branch improved mental prowess, and the Energy branch governed one’s ability to use Red Dust. The fourth branch was the simplest and most linear of the various branches, covering progression through the Ascendant’s class. The last branch, the Psi branch, was unique only to Psis, showing the powers that best suited the Ascendant. Her eight nodes shone bright green. Two on the Scout branch, three on the Psi branch, then one each on the remaining three branches. As a Psi, her talents were rare, and the more Psi Powers she gained, the more valuable she would become. Between that and the Scout branch, she could carve a niche for herself in the House of Ember. …Not that it would matter if she didn’t make it out of this mess. There were countless nodes to choose from. She couldn’t choose them all. Most Ascendants rarely ever managed to completely fill out their Skill Web, even after decades. To survive, she had to pick the skills that would help her overcome this trial. Of course, an Ascendant could respec himself—the Goddess was wise and understood the need for flexibility—but it could only be safely done in a Church. For all intents and purposes, she only had one shot at this. Scrolling through the Skill Web, she paid careful attention to the descriptions. Increased speed, strength and stamina was nice, but what she really needed was something that could help her out of this emergency. She could become as strong as an Aberration, but it would do her no good if she couldn’t survive. An entry caught her eye. _Flight_ _Ascendant gains the Power of flight. Using wing constructs, Ascendant is able to propel themselves through the air._ She looked up. The gash in the ceiling was barely visible from here. But it was a straight shot to the chamber. And from there, a quick turn and she could head out the door. Or confront the beast. Whichever path she chose, she would have options. She smiled. She’d heard stories of Ascendants who had become Angels. They strode along the battlefield like gods, striking from the air, ascending to safety, then swooping down again. They went anywhere they pleased, meting out justice and punishment everywhere in the world. Now was her chance to join them. But Flight was a Mastery-level Power. It was locked behind multiple Power requirements. She had to master two pathways on the Psi branch, Telekinesis and Construct, as well as the Awareness pathway on the Class branch. She supposed that made sense: Telekinesis for propulsion, Construct for the wings, Awareness for safe flight. However, to master Awareness, she needed to class up to Ranger. Master Ranger, at that. That in turn was hard-locked behind stat requirements on the Body, Mind and Energy branches. She couldn’t settle for the minimum requirements either. Constructing wings would consume 800 points of Red Dust, and another 800 Energy Points. Then, flight itself would consume 100 EP and 100 RD _per second_. To actually use Flight, she’d have to expand her RD and EP reservoirs to heretofore unheard of levels, levels beyond what she even thought was possible. No wonder high-level Ascendants who gained Flight were called Angels: they stood as angels to men. Her route was clear. First she would focus on hitting the minimum requirements for Flight. Then, after purchasing that Power, she would steadily build out her ED and EP capacity. First go wide, then go deep. There were so many other Powers on the Skill Web. They called out to her, each clamoring to be purchased. Had she time and resources, perhaps she might explore them. But not here. Not now. She recalled Marco’s words from the early days of her apprenticeship. “Don’t learn too many Powers at once. If you do not know how to use it effectively when it counts, you might as well not have it at all. Master one Power before moving on to the next.” Learning how to fly would be a full-time job and then some. She would have no teachers, and she couldn’t count on miraculously mastering the Power once she purchased it. Oh, sure, she would know how to fire it and use it. The Goddess’ Gifts came with the knowledge needed to operate them. But there was a world of difference between intellectually knowing something and experiencing it for yourself. Then a Power caught her eye. _Phylactery_ _Create a stable vessel of Red Dust. Only the Ascendant may consume the Phylactery._ Yes. This was important. It was how higher-order Ascendants stored excess Red Dust. Sure, it could be kept in a container, but it was still unstable. Any random person can quaff it, or worse, use a Power to activate it and turn it against you. A Phylactery was hard-coded to its creator, and so could not be interfered with. She highlighted the nodes she wanted to purchase on her Skill Web. It would help her track her progress, keep her from being sidelined down useless pathways. When she was ready, she extended her arm and reached for the Red Dust. A stream of fluid leapt out of the lake and into her waiting palm. She drank it up, letting it soak into her skin. When her RD gauge topped out, she rested her hands in her lap and closed her eyes. And breathed. On the inhale, she absorbed oxygen and Energy from the air. On the exhale, she released her thoughts and worries. She willed herself drinking in Energy through her skin, absorbing it into the essence of her being, joining it with her store of Red Dust. Her EP gauge slowly filled. Burning Red Dust consumed EP as well. With what she had in mind, he needed all the Energy she could get. At last, the EP gauge was full. In her mind’s eye, both EP and RD bars glowed. She was ready to Level up. She breathed in. Out. In. “Burn Red Dust,” she said. Deep in her belly, a fire ignited. The heat spread throughout her body, setting every cell ablaze. Her muscles burned, her nerves burned, her bones burned, _she_ burned. Sweat poured off her face. Her skin crawled, her tissues crackled, her blood boiled. She was the center of a pyre, and she could not escape. She breathed. The EP and RD bars steadily ran down. And still she burned in the heat of an indescribable, invisible, impossible flame. She swore she felt her body _changing_, her meat fusing with the Dust, the very essence of her being transforming into something else, something different, something far more powerful. Power. She needed power. She would do everything it took to gain that power. The bars ran dry. The fire cooled, but a lingering warmth remained. Her clothes were plastered to her body. Her forehead felt fever-hot. In the depths of her mind, she sensed text appear. _You have reached Level 9!_ She opened her Skill Web. Purchasable nodes pulsed with green light, drawing her attention. The remainder remained dull and gray. Which to select first? Didn’t matter. She’d have to pick all of them eventually. But the most useful one was… _RD Capacity 1_ She selected the node. Her flesh writhed beneath her skin. Lightning raced through her nervous system. Her breath quickened. Patches of red blossomed here and there, before quickly fading out. It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t uncomfortable either. She stayed with the sensation, being completely in the present, allowing the feelings to pass. At last, it was over. The node glowed in white, joining other purchased nodes. She wiped the sweat from her brow. Steadied herself with her breath. Sipped from her canteen. Then extended her palm to begin the process anew. ![]( Newsletter subscribers get early access to my future stories and writing updates. Sign up [here]( and receive a _free_ ebook! fiction @cheah

Angel of Blades Part 1 We have now come to the last of the three webserials I've prepared for March. As a quick recap, I am looking to gather feedback on which story concept you enjoy the most so I can develop the idea into a full-fledged series. In the first story, [ROAD TO CHEQUN](, we have a tale of cultivators in powered armor defending humanity from endless hordes of Lovecraftian horrors in a world gripped in the deeps of an endless winter. The second story, [A QUIET NIGHT IN WAI YUEN](, focuses on a pair of private policemen dealing with a crime spree in the heart of a quiet neighbourhood. This is the last: ANGEL OF BLADES. Unlike the previous stories, ANGEL OF BLADES follows a character who is _not_ the main character of the story universe. While she is an important character, she is only secondary to the series. At least, at first. As for why, well, you'll have to read the story to find out. Strap in: it's a LitRPG adventure like you've never seen before. -- ![ "Shallow Focus Photo Of Crocodile On Body Of Water"]( ## Point Woman “Luisa, take them out. Use your blade.” Luisa sucked down a breath, scarcely believing her ears. Her? Marco wanted _her_ to clear the way? Thigh-deep in stinking swamp water, she peered around the trunk of the mangrove tree, exposing only her right eye. Through a thicket of trees, past dense shrubbery, she just about made out her targets. From a distance, the two creatures almost looked human, but Goddess knew that the Great Evils that had overrun the world delighted in twisting Her works to serve their ends. They had two arms, two legs, a curved spine reminiscent of a hunchback. There all resemblance to humanity ended. Their skin shone wetly, tails curled from between their legs, their hands carried pole weapons, and their heads were like those of eels. And behind them was the Well. Luisa had been weaned on stories of the Wells alongside her mother’s milk. In the Time Before, the Goddess Mara had freely bestowed great gifts upon Her children. Among them was the knowledge to drill deep into the earth and build immense structures to extract its limitless bounty. The Ancients called them Wells. It was said that in ages past, the Wells were as numerous as the stars in the sky. No man wanted for anything, for whatever he desired, the Wells would manufacture it in great abundance, as cheaply as dirt. Then came the Fall, the Fires, the Forging. In those periods of great tumult, so much was lost, including the knowledge to rebuild the Wells. Even now, a hundred generations after the Fall, what was left of mankind still remained mostly ignorant of the arcane arts of the Ancients. But Mara was a merciful Goddess. Two weeks ago, She had granted a vision to a Scout. The Scout had discovered this Well, heretofore unclaimed by any of the factions that roamed the wilds. Thus, in the name of the Church of Mara, the House of Ember dispatched an expedition to secure it. The expedition numbered thirty fighters, many of them veterans of hard-fought campaigns. Their Levels were all in the double digits, 30s or 40s or more. Marco, her mentor, was a Level 44 Ranger, having long ago left the basic Class of Scout behind. Luisa was a mere Level 8, scarcely a year into her apprenticeship period. She shouldn’t have been here at all, save for one detail. Mara had Chosen her to be a Psi. Such gifts were rare, no more than one in a hundred, perhaps even one in a thousand. Better yet, her base Class was Scout. She was perfect for infiltration and reconnaissance, and indeed as point woman she had led the expedition through the swamps with scarcely a trace. She was ideal for sentry removal. But there were two monsters, and she was only Level 8. “Go on,” Marco whispered. “Use your Powers. We’ll back you up.” Right. Her Powers. Her edge in combat, her ace in the hole, the one thing that allowed her to face demons many times her strength and number, and triumph. Luisa nodded. Shut her eyes. And brought her mind to the Seal above and between her eyes. Another gift of Mara, dispensed through Her Church, it was the mark of the Psi. The size of a fingernail, it was a patchwork of fine, silvery thread. The microstructure bored through the bone of her skull to connect with her brain, and the Mindlink implanted on her crown. Through that Seal, she could manifest Mara’s wonders. A menu floated in the darkness behind her eyelids. A list of the powers available to her, and their cost. A green bar indicated her available energy points. Beneath it, a red bar showed her stock of Red Dust. The list was short, her energy bar shorter. _Scan: 10 EP 0 RD_ _Stealth: 20 EP 100 RD_ _Telekinesis: 25 EP 250 RD / 100 N_ _Force Screen: 30 EP 500 RD / second_ _Heal: 20 EP 300 RD / second_ A reasonable list, for a Level 8 Psi Scout. But she had a mere 100 Energy Points at her command—the same amount she had since she Ascended—and 1000 units of Red Dust. The other Psi in the expedition, a Psi Knight, was a Level 33 with twice the number of Powers, thrice her EP and five times the amount of Red Dust—and he wasn’t even a Psi specialist! No matter. She would get the job done. She would not disappoint Marco. With a burst of focused intent, she activated Stealth. A shock wave passed through her. Lightning crackled from the pit of her stomach, rising to flood her brain. Liquid fire burned her from the inside out. She breathed deep, willing herself to be an empty vessel, letting the sensation flow through her to leave nothing behind. From the depths of her body, Red Dust surfaced. Passing through marrow, through flesh, through her skin, the Red Dust crawled its way out into the open. She felt like a horde of impossibly minuscule archaea was burrowing through her, their unseen feet scratching and catching, opening passages and closing them behind them. Once more, she breathed through the sensations, focusing only on Stealth. Her sun-darkened skin deepened into the color of blood. Red Dust covered her exposed flesh, then crawled over her clothing, her gear, her weapons, her hair. Undaunted by the still, deep waters of the swamp, the Red Dust continued its inexorable march. Red painted her from head to toe, leaving nothing untouched. And she disappeared. Tapping into its stored energy, the Red Dust transformed its very being. Incoming light bent smoothly around the coat of Dust, leaving behind only a faint blur where the woman once was. The Red Dust was Mara’s first and greatest gift. It was a miracle substance, capable of becoming what the mind willed it to be. The Ancients, in their hubris, had used it to burn the world down. But Mara was a wise and compassionate goddess. Even after the Fall, She did not deny it to the remnants of Mankind. No, She merely took greater care in Choosing who could tap into the Dust directly, and regulated them through the Seal and the Link. Now humanity used the Dust against the demons that roamed the world. Breathing slowly through her nose, eliminating even the sound of her breath, Luisa waded through the waters. Every step left a visible wake. Stealth didn’t extend to that. All she could do was to stay low, move slow, and avoid splashing as far as she could. In her mental map, the expedition faded out. One by one, the comforting green dots disappeared as they passed the edge of her awareness. It was said that high-Level Ascenders could track flawlessly everyone and everything within an impossibly vast three-dimensional volume. All she could manage was out to five meters at most. But in those five meters, she was omniscient. She knew instantly the microgeography of the swamp bottom, the treacherous pits and deceptively soft sands, without needing to look. She tracked the curious insects flitting about her, sensing motion but not a body. She detected the tiny fluctuations in the depth and velocity of the water, and adjusted her movements. And, when she reached the shore, she sensed the enemy. All at once, she was intimately aware of them. She felt the slimy, slippery texture of their bodies. She knew the brute power that resided in their muscles. She understood their heights, weights, gaits, range. She perceived their ranges of perception as three-dimensional cones that imposed a subtle pressure on everything within their volume. She sensed also the terrain that lay between them and her. Labyrinths of entangled mangrove roots covered the forest floor. Fungi flourished in the empty spaces. Here and there, tiny shrubs sought the sun in patches between the crowns of the great trees. She crouched beside a tree trunk and checked herself. The water had washed away some of the Red Dust, leaving everything below her thighs visible. She consulted her menu again. A new option had appeared. _Restore Stealth: 15 EP, 40 RD_ Not as costly as she’d feared. She selected that option. Then came another burst of power, another crack of lightning, softer and muted this time. A smaller army of invisible insects covered everything below thigh level. In the blink of an eye, she was once again unseen. But not necessarily unheard. A higher-level Stealth coat would suppress sound, but she hadn’t reached such proficiency yet. She’d have to do this the hard way. Creeping along the edges of the shore, she veered away from the monsters, moving to their right flank. They were right-handed, their pole arms pointed to the left, and so they would need a little extra time to respond to a threat from the right. One of the little things Marco had taught her. She moved slowly but deftly from tree to tree, picking her way through the undergrowth. Though under Stealth, she still obeyed the principles of cover and concealment. She was _not_ entirely invisible; if she moved too quickly they could pick up on motion, and it was easier to spot a Stealthed silhouette in the open than against cover. Sweat gathered under the Stealth coat. Heat built up under her skin. Her tongue dried out. Another disadvantage of Stealth: the Red Dust did not let the skin breathe. Stay in Stealth for too long and an unwary Ascended risked heat stroke. At last, she had flanked the enemy. She was in their blind spot, and they hadn’t even noticed her. Reaching the tree line, she scrutinized her targets in greater detail. Dark, rippling muscles shone in the morning sun. Fins ran down their limbs, more fins defined their flexible vertebrae, their tails ended in fins. Their jaws were huge and chiseled, their eyes black and bulging. Their hands and feet had three digits each, terminating in killer claws. Their weapons were crudely made, a spearhead of sharpened bone secured to a wooden shaft with tough leather cords. Both creatures wore loincloths as well, and at their hips each guard wore a bone knife with wrapped leather handles. She returned to her menu and selected Scan. Information flooded her brain. In that brief instant of illumination, the Goddess shared a slice of Her omniscience with Luisa, telling her everything she needed to know about the monsters. _Anguilline Warrior_ _Level: 8_ _Strength: 10_ _Dexterity: 12_ _Endurance: 6_ _Willpower: 8_ Both creatures were the same Level. Their stats were similar to humans, save for their unusually high dexterity, no doubt due to their physiology. If she were of a higher Level, she would have lined them up, then loosed an offensive Power. Quick, clean, and most of all, safe. But all the Powers she’d unlocked were utility Powers. She’d have to do this the old-fashioned way. Stepping out of the tree line, she reached for her left hip. A solid, heavy handle filled her right palm. With a soft exhale, she drew her blade. It was a machete. It was a sword. It was both. Eighteen inches of steel wedded to a hand-carved grip, it was the signature cutting implement of the House of Ember. The thick single-edged leaf-shaped blade could cleave through brush and branches as easily as flesh and bone. The reinforced tip allowed for thrusts without compromising strength. The grip was crafted for the hand, _her_ hand, accelerating her strikes. Until now, she had used it only for bushcraft. This was the first time her steel would taste blood. Slowly, patiently, she stalked the targets. She kept her eyes locked on the space behind them, keeping them in her peripheral vision. Like men, monsters could sense the weight of a gaze. She didn’t care to alert them before she was upon them. Her blade was visible. Tucked away in its sheath, the Red Dust hadn’t covered it when she’d fired the Power. Now exposed, the black steel drank in the sunlight. Covering it up now would simply be a waste of energy and Red Dust. She’d finish this soon. As she drew close, their stench hit her. Rotting meat, pungent slime, unwashed bodies. Her stomach twisted. Ignoring the odor, she took another step— _CRACK_ A twig broke under her boot. The guards reacted instantly. Growling at each other, they spun on their heels, turning towards the sound. Towards the steel. She lunged. Arms windmilling, she stretched her chest and back to the limit, gaining a final extra inch. As the blade rose and fell, the closest creature opened its jaws, ready to shout a warning. The sword sundered its skull, splitting it from crown to chin. Blood and bone and brains spurted from the grievous wound. As the sword passed into thin air, the creature flopped bonelessly to the ground. Cycling her sword, Luisa rushed in, then threw a backhand cut at the other Anguilline’s throat. The monster snapped its spear to the right, covering the open line—and exposing its left. Abruptly she changed directions, circling the blade over her head, then smoothly threw a forehand slash. The blade carved into its neck, through the collarbone, and split its heart. It backed up, already dead but still on its feet, its eyes fixated on the edge of the blade, its jaws opening. She burst in on the right and thrust upwards, driving the point through the soft tissue behind its skull and into its brain. And cut out. The monster dropped. Stepping back, she scanned the scene. The monsters lay threshing on the ground, spilling their lifeblood in great lakes. She kicked their spears away from limp hands, then wiped her sword off against the inside of her sleeve. “Well done,” Marco said. Turning around, she saw the rest of the expedition pass through the trees in a loose wedge. None of them were Stealthed. They had no need for that. At the head of the formation was Marco, his custom-crafted sword in hand. _Drop Stealth_, she thought. The coat of Dust abruptly turned gray. Now depleted of their energy, the Gray Dust was completely inert, useless to the user. The Gray Dust peeled off in large patches. The air caressed her sweaty skin, hot and humid, but welcome nonetheless. As Marco and Luisa guarded the scene, the rest of the expedition fanned out to sweep the swamps. While Marco stood watch, Luisa claimed her kills. Extending her left hand, she willed the Red Dust in the monsters’ blood to come to her. Skeins of Red Dust lifted off from the corpses, twisting around to form a thick stream, and pierced the center of her palm. Heat and electricity surged down her arm. The Dust pulsed through her bloodstream, gathering in her core, then spread throughout her body. Calling up her Red Dust gauge, she watched it fill up. Aided by the wicked, the sinful and the betrayers, the Great Evils snatched the Red Dust from the custody of mankind and gave birth to countless monsters, overrunning the world. It was the duty of all who lived in the light of the Goddess to reclaim the Red Dust, and use it to restore the world. The last of the Red Dust passed into her. The gauge stopped out at 900 out of 1000. Not ideal, but it would do. “You could have done better,” Marco said. He’d noticed. He always did. Nothing could escape his sight. Luisa nodded. “Do you understand the mistakes you’ve made?” he asked. “Yes,” she said. “What are they?” “I stepped on a twig.” “How did that happen?” “I was fixated on the threat. I’d lost track of the environment.” Marco shook his head. “No, you hadn’t.” He was right. Again. Her mental map had resumed its unerring keenness. Once again, she sensed the shape of the world around her, her brain conjuring sensory impressions beyond the reach of her body. “A Scout’s mental map is keener than others’. You didn’t lose track of the environment. You tuned it out. That’s what hyper-fixation gets you. Stay soft and loose. That you’ll track everything.” “Understood.” “What’s your second mistake?” She blinked. “Second?” He pointed at the second corpse. “You needed two strikes to kill that one.” “Why was that a mistake?” “You should have needed only one.” “It was still up, after I swung the first blow.” “Because you didn’t strike true. Because you missed the spine and the brain, and because your cut was a linear shearing motion, not a wave. You cut it, you did not cut it down. Always cut down.” Marco was a stickler for perfection. When they returned, she had no doubt that he would order her to undergo additional sword training. “Understood,” she said. Nodding, he cocked his head at the Well. “Come on. Now is the time for the real work.” The Well before her eyes failed to live up to the Wells of myths. She had expected ancient structures of unfathomable and elaborate designs, sprawling complexes of fantastic matter from the previous ages, strange machinery plowing through the gulf of aeons. Instead she found a cylinder. A perfectly round, totally smooth cylinder, cast from ageless white matter. Three times the height of a man, it was featureless, spotless, unknown and unknowable, as large as two barns placed side by side. It reminded her of a huge water tank, or perhaps a grain silo, all the more mysterious for its mundanity. “It doesn’t look like much,” she said. “The Wells of the Ancients extend deep underground. You see only the surface structure,” he replied. “How deep does it go?” “As deep as it will go.” The monsters guarded the only door into the building, a curved slab of metal contoured to the wall of the Well. She found neither doorknob nor handle, nor any other means of gaining entry. All the same, the expedition gathered at the entrance. Marco barked orders, organizing them by squads. The Knights manned the frontline, with their heavy armor and heavier weapons. Behind them were the Gunners, armed with cannons and sidearms powered by Red Dust. Securing their flanks were the Rangers, positioned to rapidly encircle and destroy the foe, and to guard against such a maneuver. Luisa was a mere Scout. She had no place to stand alongside those of more advanced Classes. She would just get in their way. So of course Marco placed her at the right flank of the frontline. “Stay close to me,” he said. “We’ll get through this.” She gulped. Covered in pseudo-chitin from head to toe, the Knights were nigh-invulnerable. The Gunners could lay waste to anything that moved in front of their barrels. The Rangers had Moonlight armor, light as silk yet stronger than steel, allowing them to swiftly dart in and out of danger. And her? Long-sleeved shirt. Pants that reached down to her ankles. Sturdy leather boots. Belt and backpack. Soft cap. That was all. Just enough to protect her from the elements. She didn’t have a helmet, never mind armor. She didn’t even have a gun. On the other hand, she was a Scout _and_ a Psi. She wasn’t supposed to engage the enemy head-on. “Relax,” Marco said. “We haven’t even reached the Guardian yet.” The Great Evils set Guardians to protect the Old World strategic facilities that they had occupied. To claim this Well, the expedition had to defeat the Guardian. Ancient wisdom held that the Guardian was usually located at the bottom of the Well, positioned to fend off an invasion. Her heart pounded in her chest. Her tongue dried out. She couldn’t trust herself to speak. So she simply nodded. Marco smiled. Then turned to face the door. “Prebattle! POWERS!” Clouds of Red Dust spewed from the Ascenders, blanketing them in red. Huge shields appeared at the left forearms of the Knights, further augmenting their already-formidable armor. Gripping their lances in both hands, they adjusted their formation, overlapping their shields to protect their comrades on their left. Their limbs pulsed with crimson light, signifying enhanced strength and stamina. The Gunners’ eyes and arms glowed. Everything they saw within range, they would hit. They fixed bayonets on the forends of their sleek weapons, ready for close quarters battle. The Rangers reinforced their armor with clouds of Red Dust. They checked the charges on their firearms. They waited. Every Ascendant could make use of the Red Dust. But they were limited only to temporarily augmenting their bodies, or creating constructs from Red Dust. She was a Psi. She could touch the world directly. But not now. She had to conserve her EP and RD. “Top! OFF!” The senior Ascendants broke out their stores of Red Dust and topped off their pools. She didn’t. She hadn’t harvested enough Red Dust to refill her own pool, never mind build a reserve. What Red Dust she had gathered had gone straight to replenishing the Red Dust she had expended to gather it in the first place. It was a vicious cycle, and she saw no way out. “Forward! MARCH!” In a single, disciplined block, they marched. They were an unstoppable juggernaut, a mass of men and metal in motion, rolling over everything in their path. Wherever they went, all trembled before them. Though she was the weakest among them, the only woman among them, she felt the raw power and grim purpose in every step, and couldn’t help but be swept along with the momentum of the advance. The door slid open. She blinked. It had opened by itself. She had heard that some structures of the Ancients had automatic doors, but she had never seen anything like it until now. “Steady!” Marco called. The troops maintained their steady pace. She kept her hand on her sword, her Power menu open, ready to react to an immediate threat. The Knights’ heavy boots slammed against the hard floor in an unrelenting rhythm, sending deafening booms through the structure. Any monster in the room beyond would know that its doom had come. But she saw… nothing. It was dark. Too dark. Sunlight streamed in through the doorway and collected in a rectangle of illumination. Beyond that, she saw only shifting shadows and swirling dust. She tried to extend her senses, but the organized tumult of the stamping boots shook her body and brain, leaving her mental map confused and chaotic. And the door shut behind them. “Rangers! FLARES!” Burning balls of red flame ejected into the air in all directions. In that harsh red light, she saw… Nothing. Nothing but smooth, flat, floor and smooth, curved walls. No, not quite nothing. At the other side, a darkened nook held a pair of wide double doors. “Head for the doors!” the leader of the Knights called. They continued their hellish march, every footfall announcing their presence to the world while hiding that of those around and behind them. They trained their shields and lances at the doorway, ready to respond to an incoming threat, freeing the Rangers to observe everywhere else around them. A heavy, unsettling weight fell on Luisa’s shoulders. Something was watching them. Watching _her_. Something enormous. Something that could not, should not, be. She looked up. Long, sinuous shapes coiled and uncoiled in the shadows, brushing up against the edges of the light. It was enormous, spanning the length of the unseen ceiling, wrapping round and round like ropes. A steady _clack-clack-clack_ carried from above, punctuating every movement. A pair of enormous eyes glowed red. “CONTACT! CONTACT HIGH! It’s on the ceiling!” she shouted. Everyone looked open. A colossal roar filled the vast space. The walls trembled, the ground quaked, metal shrieked. Humongous jaws hinged open, and in that massive maw gathered a ball of burning red. “SCATTER!” Marco screamed. The formation dispersed in every direction. Spinning on her heel, Luisa picked a direction at random and ran. A crimson beam lanced from above, smashing into the floor behind her. Red light threw fearsome shadows in front of her. Heat licked at her back. Metal shrieked, men screamed. As she ran she realized the light was slicing towards her. She threw herself to the left. The killing light slashed past her on the right. And winked out. Superheated air scorched her skin. The choking odor of burnt flesh and hair filled her nose. Gagging, she turned around to face the threat. Another roar heralded its appearance. Rapid clacks resounded above her, going round and round in a spiral, growing faster and louder. She had a sense of some vast bulk unraveling itself, revealing itself, readying for war. Clinging to the walls, it descended into the lit arena. She hadn’t sensed it outside the Well. Of course she hadn’t. The mental map only covered what her senses could pick up. Something hidden inside such a structure with such thick walls was invisible to her until it entered her range. Now that she was aware of it, she sensed the sheer _size_ of the thing, larger than any living thing she had seen before, larger than she had words for. Slithering back and forth, its moist skin shone wetly in the light of the blazing flares. Legs as massive as trees scrabbled for purchase. Claws as long as spears clacked loudly against metal. Blocking off the doorway with its immense neck and head, it turned to face her. Humongous jaws opened wide, exposing rows of razor teeth, and a second set of inner jaws, large enough to swallow a horse whole. A snake-like tongue flicked back and forth, tasting the air. A score of tendrils on either side of the body grasped blindly at the world around it. Its eyes were rubies the size of fists. It gazed at her, into her, _through_ her. Its spirit swamped her own, trying to drown her with sheer force of will. Gritting her teeth, Luisa activated Scan. _Aberration Sabaia, the Anguilline Wyrm_ _Level: EX_ _Strength: 489_ _Dexterity: 512_ _Endurance: 826_ _Willpower: 919_ “Goddess save us,” she whispered. An Aberration was a monster among monsters, almost equal to the Great Evils that had ruined the world. Powerful beyond human comprehension, with stats outside the reach of mortals, an Aberration was a living calamity, a destroyer without equals. To stand even a sliver of hope for survival, humanity had to send an army of veteran Ascenders. She was only Level 8. “INTRUDERS!” it boomed. It had the voice of a hurricane, the word slamming into her brain, threatening to blow over her. The sound reverberated crazily in the suddenly too-small space, assaulting her in every direction. “THIS WELL IS MINE!” There was no way she could fight this monster. She had to run. Hide. Pray it would not pursue her. Glancing to the side, she hunted for the exit. The door had shut. “CHARGE!” Marco ordered. The heavy cannons spoke as one. A half-dozen fiery projectiles rushed towards the monster’s head. Lifting a humongous paw, it barked a word. Every missile disintegrated. “CHAAAAAAAAAARGE!” the Knights screamed. The Knights swarmed in from every direction. With every step, they discharged scarlet bolts through their lances, peppering Sabaia’s head and torso. It didn’t even blink. It simply swerved one way, then the other, taking the shots on its skin, protecting its eyes. Undaunted, the Knights continued to close in, swiftly forming up into armored blocks. From the shadows, the Rangers struck. Sidearms drawn, they fired up the shaft of the silo, seeking out the rest of its body and its paws. Firebombs pelted the Aberration’s hide, igniting into tongues of flame. Scarlet shells streaked towards its head—and disintegrated. Luisa had only one choice: fight. It was the rational thing to do. The only thing to do. Marco had drilled her for this very possibility. Should she ever be trapped in close quarters with an Aberration, she had to fight tooth and claw with every fiber of her being, and in so doing honor the Goddess and Her Gifts. But it was one to drill for such horror, and another to execute smartly. She wanted to move. Every nerve in her demanded her to move. But she could not. Her legs were petrified, her eyes locked, her hands frozen. All sound faded out, leaving only the rapid hammering of her heart. Heat fled her veins, and the chill of the grave flooded her body. Sabaia struck. Flashing to the left, it swiped with an enormous paw. A block of armored Knights tried to take the blow on their shield wall. Their shields exploded into gray dust, one after the other, and they went flying. It lunged again with blinding speed, charging at another group of Knights. A pair of Gunners fired their heavy cannons. The shells struck true, exploding against its neck, blowing out clouds of smoke. With an outraged scream, it veered towards the Gunners and opened its great jaw. Blinding red light seared from its open mouth. Men screamed. A machine exploded. And even as it destroyed the gunners, it swatted its other paw, a smooth, casual movement, knocking down the Knights as though they were bowling pins. How could she fight that? She was only Level 8! Sabaia had defeated the others as easily as breathing! How could she fight? How could she— “LUISA!” Marco screamed. “GET IN THE FIGHT!” She screamed. In that primal yell, her muscles unlocked, her tendons thawed, her nerves ignited. All thought fled her mind. Drawing her sword, she charged. Sabaia turned to her. She visualized an arrow of pure force. Long and sharp, it would punch through everything it touched, ripping and tearing the softness beneath. As it took shape, energy drained from her brain, while her body kindled in unseen flames. She loosed. The force arrow, a basic application of weaponized telekinesis, took flight. Air split before it, filling the silo with the sound of a thundercrack. Sabaia’s left eye cracked. Screeching in pain and outraged, Sabaia opened her mouth, gathering a ball of Red Dust. Luisa sensed it now, at the very edges of her perception, a sensation of growing pressure and power, a globe about to reach critical mass— She dodged left. The beam blasted past her on the right. She smiled. And tripped. Her foot had caught on a hot lump of hard matter. But the floor was smooth, and there’d been no one there. As soon as she framed the thought, pain shot through her leg. And she fell. Instinctively she crossed her arms over her chest, orienting the blade outwards into empty space, and tucked her chin into her neck. She hit another furrow of hard matter on her shoulder. Rolling forward, she extended her left hand, ready to kill her momentum, reaching out into— Nothing. There was nothing but empty space beneath her. And then her boots freed themselves from whatever it was that had tripped her, and her body lifted off from the other edge of the opening, and her weight carried her into nothingness. And She Fell. ![]( Newsletter subscribers get early access to my future stories and writing updates. Sign up [here]( and receive a _free_ ebook! writing @cheah

A Quiet Night in Wai Yuen Part 4 ![ "Blade Runner, Cyberpunk, Neon Lights, Neon, Lights"]( ## Bodhicitta I’d never ridden in a _Hung Syun_ before. I didn’t care to repeat the experience. The driver and the team leader sat up front. The rest of the team sat on the benches in the back of the flying truck. Without room for additional passengers, that left Jackie and I seated on the hard metal floor. At least the operators attached straps to the benches for us to hang on to. Naughty Cherry was just a short hop away. As we took off into the air, the radio blared. I couldn’t make out half of what Dispatch said, but it sounded urgent. I did manage to pick up Station Inspector Low’s end of the conversation. “Hercules 9 is moving out for immediate action rapid deployment, Naughty Cherry nightclub. Request Spectre support. Be advised, we have two pax from the jianghu. They’re assisting in the operation.” Outraged chatter filled the net. I couldn’t begin to imagine what kind of flak he was taking for letting us tag along. They were the vaunted SOC. They were the ones who handled _almost _every emergency in the city. For all the talk about fostering strong bonds between law enforcement and the jianghu, cops openly admitting that they needed help from the rivers and lakes would be a blow to their pride. The second the flying truck landed, the operators swung into action. The rear doors popped open. In pairs, the operators disembarked, with the smooth speed that came from many hours of hard drills. Jackie got out ahead of me. As my boots touched the asphalt, I oriented myself towards the objective. A converted two-story shophouse, Naughty Cherry was a downscale establishment, just like the rest of the nightlife in Wa Yuen. A pair of neon cherries flashed in red and green, drawing the eye to the signboard. Dark glass doors and tinted windows hid the interior from view. Deep within the club, blazing white qi spiked high and heavy. The tiger demon was in play. Passers-by stared as the SOC team deployed. Civilians spilled out the entrance of the nightclub, scrambling down either side of the five-foot way. The _Hung Syun_ trained its spotlights on the facade of the building, chasing away the growing shadows. “This is the police!” Low declared over the truck’s loudspeakers. “For your safety, please evacuate the area!” More screams resounded inside the club. The SOC operators made a beeline for the door. Jackie and I moved to follow them. “Not you! Not yet!” Low shouted. He was standing by the truck, taking cover behind the open front passenger door. “Make entry only when I say so!” he continued. “Come on!” Jackie muttered. The SOC operators stacked up in two teams by the open door, urging the civilians to leave. Jackie and I waited beside Low. Inside the nightclub, a tiger roared. “Entry team! Go!” Low ordered. The point man pulled out a final civilian. An assaulter stepped out and tossed in a stun grenade. The device went off with a deafening bang and a blinding flash, then kept flashing and banging. Under cover of chaos, the operators rushed in. “We gotta go!” Jackie urged. “If something happens to you, it’ll become my problem!” Low retorted. Gunfire echoed inside the nightclub. The tiger howled. Silence. Low murmured into his mic, then turned to us. “Entry team needs you two inside. Staff Sergeant Hafiz will meet you at the entrance. Go!” As Jackie and I sprinted to the door, a heavyset operator stepped out, waving us over. “What’s the situation?” I asked. “When we made entry, we found the targets on the VIP deck on the second floor. The tiger demon was attacking a civilian. The summoner was watching them. We ordered them to surrender. The summoner pointed his parang at us and ordered the tiger to kill us. We fired in self-defense and neutralised the summoner. “The tiger jumped down to the ground floor. When we reoriented towards it, we saw it pinning down a civilian. It looks angry, but it is not actively posing a lethal force threat.” “You didn’t shoot it?” Jackie asked. “Everyone knows bullets don’t work well against demons. Besides, it’s _your_ job to deal with it.” “I’ll take point,” I said. “Jackie, back me up. Staff Sergeant, I need you and your team to stand down.” “Stand down? Why?” he demanded. “Think of it as a… crisis negotiation. We need to de-escalate before we can negotiate with it.” “Wait, what? Aren’t you here to exorcise it?” Jackie laughed. “His idea of exorcism isn’t like what you see in the movies.” Past the entrance, a wave of hard, heavy qi buffeted my body. It was like walking in front of a blast furnace. Perfume, sweet and cloying, hung in the air. Scarlet spotlights tinted the club the shade of fresh blood. Disco lights played along the walls in dazzling patterns. A line of SOC operators stood between me and the rest of the room. “Excuse me,” I said. “Coming through.” Shouldering my way past the cops, I took in the nightclub. Most of the interior walls and floors of the interior structure had been knocked down, leaving behind a narrow but long room. Load-bearing pillars formed nooks where patrons could mingle. Leather couches and glass tables along the walls gave party-goers a place to rest their feet. A staircase to my left led up to the VIP deck. The bar, small but well-stocked, was right beneath it. Dead ahead, at the far end of the room, was the tiger and its hostage. Twice the size of a man, snowy fur speckled in crimson gore, it crouched on all fours, snarling at me. Raw power poured off its being, a veritable flood of heat and light, the kind of power most cultivators only dreamed of possessing. In that qi tsunami, I sensed an insatiable rage, as deep and unfathomable as the ocean. Powerful jaws fell open to reveal rows of razer teeth and a pair of enormous tusks curving down past its mouth. Its limbs were as thick as tree trunks, its torso as wide as a beer barrel. Its tail flickered back and forth in agitation. In place of paws, it had true hands, five enormous fingers ending in scythe-like claws. It held down a hapless woman with its front hands. Claws threatening her delicate neck, it evenly spread out the pressure along the entirety of her chest. I sensed it could squash her if it wanted to. That it hadn’t done so already, that it hadn’t attempted to fight its way loose, was a good sign. Stepping forward, I steadied myself with a breath, cycling energy through my body. As I exhaled, I opened my heart chakra and set my intent. _May you be liberated from suffering_. Qi spilled from my heart. Compassion. Kindness. Agape. Manifesting as pure waves of clear green energies, they washed over the tiger. My bracelet tingled, amplifying and accelerating the process. A fine emerald mist filled the room, visible even in the hot red lights. I took one more breath, recharging myself, and spoke. “Hi. My name is Mark.” The tiger gawked at me, visible confusion in its face. Its outer aura softened, just a little, but the rage remained intact. “What’s your name?” I asked. It narrowed its eyes. “Why do you wish to know?” Its voice was a low rumbling from deep within its chest. It was the voice of a savage era, evoking primordial memories of a time before history, when men were meat to monsters forgotten by time but not by blood. “It’ll be easier to converse with you that way,” I said. The tiger growled. “I know your kind! You use every scrap of information you have to twist and dominate all living souls! I will not give my name to you!” “I think it’s rude to think of you as ‘it’ and ‘tiger’ all the time. Don’t you?” It blinked. Blinked again. “If you don’t want to give me your name, what should I call you?” I asked. As I spoke, I continued to allow the energy to flow from my heart and over the spirit. I continued to breathe deeply, recharging my qi as best as I could. “You are manipulating me!” it said. I spread out my empty hands. “Can you not feel my sincerity? My intention? My bodhicitta?” Once again, the tiger blinked and said nothing. I let the silence hang in the air, allowing it to reach its conclusions. “What are you?” it asked. “A living soul. Just like you. And I’m here so that no one else gets hurt.” “You’re wearing your bracelet. You can turn on me in an instant. How can I trust you? Take it off.” “Can you remove your teeth and claws?” It growled. The operators ratcheted up a notch. I sensed the tension roiling off them. I didn’t have to look to know they had fractionally raised their carbines. “Don’t be ridiculous, human!” “My bracelet is as indispensable to me as your teeth and claws are to you. Besides, when I wear it, you can read my intention in my energies, yes?” “Yes,” it admitted. “What do you sense from me?” As I spoke, I breathed again, reinforcing the energy wave. “I sense… magic,” it said. “And what do you sense behind it?” I probed. It said nothing. I said nothing. It blinked. I blinked. “Sincerity,” it admitted. “There you go,” I said. “You don’t have to give me your name if you don’t want to, but I would like to call you by a name. Would you like that?” It chuffed. And locked eyes with me. An alien consciousness blasted into my psyche. Proud, primal, predatory, it stalked the halls of my surface mind, seeking common concepts, language, words. I allowed the process to continue—but blocked off access to my deeper consciousness. A thought bubbled from the depths of my soul. _Tyger Tyger, burning bright / in the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?_ “Tyger,” it said at last. “You may call me Tyger.” Spirits do not communicate the way men do. More than words, they emanated intention, emotion, energy, carrying subtle nuances of meaning. In that word, I knew that the spirit insisted on the idiosyncratic spelling, and that Tyger was a male. “Tyger. Thank you,” I said. “What brings you to this realm?” Tyger cocked his head at the VIP deck above me. “That… _man_ bound me.” “How?” “With the aid of a summoning circle, he compelled me to cross over. I tried to lash out, to punish him for such impudence, but he was too strong. He had reinforced the circle with his secret arts, preventing me from breaking loose, or from returning home. He imposed his will upon me, overpowering my own, and bound me to his pendant.” “When was that” “Seven days ago.” “What did he want you to do?” “To kill his enemies.” “Who did he order you to kill?” “He started with a stray dog. He wanted to test my power. I tried to resist, but his will was harder than diamonds. He ruthlessly stamped out all thoughts of rebellion. Any thought that was not related to his orders, he crushed as well, leaving me no path but compliance. So I did it. “Earlier tonight, he brought me out again. He planned to draw his enemies into an ambush. He wanted to meet the chief of a rival gang, then assassinate him. But the chief sent his subordinate in his stead. Enraged, he ordered me to kill him. “Again, I resisted. Again, he took away my will. Again, I had to do it. “Later, he took me to the headquarters of his enemy. Once more, he unleashed me upon his foes. When they saw me, they tried to fight back. This time, killing them was necessary. It did not make it easier. “Just now, in the moments before you arrived, he took me here. He found his enemy at last, relaxing with his harem on the upper floor. He called me forth to kill him. “I struggled. I fought. But again, he broke all resistance. Again I killed the man he bade me to kill. “That was when you, all of you, came in.” Rage spilled from every word. His muscles bunched into tight knots. His qi flared, and for a moment I wondered if it would ignite everything in sight. The hostage whimpered as claws dug into his soft flesh. I breathed. I emanated the essence of bodhicitta, a universal loving kindness that embraced all things. My energy mingled with his, soothing it, cooling it, preventing a catastrophic escalation. He had to know what I was doing. He allowed it anyway. Better that than to bring down the wrath of men on his head. “The police shot the summoner. Is he still alive?” I asked. Tyger shook his head. “No. His body is dead, his soul bound for the deepest hells.” “Why are you still here?” “I cannot leave. My essence is still bound to his pendant.” “Would you like us to help you?” “How?” “I can undo the binding spell the summoner placed on you. You will then be free to depart. How does that sound?” Tyger nodded. “It is acceptable.” I glanced over my shoulder. “Jackie!” “Yo!” “Go upstairs and retrieve the summoner’s pendant. Bring it to me.” “Gotcha.” Jackie brushed past me and rushed up the stairs. “Tyger, there is something I need you to do for me.” His eyes narrowed. “What is it?” “Please let the woman go.” He growled. His hand flattened against his captive’s chest. The woman coughed, writhing under his grip. “No.” The operators lifted their carbines. Stepping forward, I raised my open hands. “Do you know her?” “No.” “Has she done anything to you?” “…No.” “You can at least let her breathe, yes?” He paused for a moment. And lifted his hand. She sucked in a huge breath. And another. And whimpered. “Why are you holding on to her?” I asked. “I need a guarantee that you will not harm me.” “I don’t have any reason to harm you. But if you hurt her, I cannot stop the police from firing. Do you understand?” He chuffed. “I can kill everyone here without suffering significant injury.” “True, but how does that help you return home?” He growled. His teeth flashed. But his hands remained still. “If you let her go, it’s a sign of good faith. The police can stand down.” “Then I will have nothing. No.” I breathed again, deep and calm, caressing him with my intent and my energy. “You don’t want to stay here. I can help you go. There’s no need to maintain this standoff.” “Your comrades do not trust me. Even as we speak, your man Jackie is gathering power, preparing to unleash his wrath.” “Jackie! Stop it!” I shouted. “But—” “Do it! He’s not an enemy!” Jackie sighed so loudly, I could hear him from where I was. “Better?” I asked. “Better,” Tyger agreed. “Can you let her go?” “I will let her go when you free me from the spell. We can do this simultaneously.” “I understand where you are coming from. But when the binding spell is released, there could be backlash. We don’t want accidents.” “What kind of backlash?” I shrugged. “I can’t predict it. I’ve seen bursts of energy, explosions, meltdowns… We don’t need an innocent person getting caught up in that.” He growled. “If this is a trick, know that I will take your life first.” I stepped forward, spread my arms, and lifted my chin to bare my throat. “I accept your terms. Please let her go.” A strange sound escaped Tyger’s lips, one part confusion, one part admiration. Seizing the woman by the collar, he rose to his feet, hauling her up. “I am sending her to you,” Tyger said. He shoved her roughly towards me. With a surprised cry, she tottered on unsteady feet. Her legs wobbled. I rushed up to her and took her by the shoulders. “Are you alright?” I asked. “Yes!” she gasped. “Thank you! Thank you!” I gently spun her around, moving her towards the operators. “Take care of her,” I said. Two operators took her by the arms and led her away. “It is time for you to hold up your end of the bargain,” Tyger said. I turned to the remaining operators. “Go outside and wait,” I said. By the door, Hafiz shook his head. “Come on. We can’t do that.” “I made a deal. Your men have to stand down.” He sucked in a breath. “I can send my men out. But I have to stay and observe the scene on my helmet camera. Regulations.” “Tyger, what do you say?” I asked. His eyes narrowed. “Very well. But you will keep your hands visible at all times. Do not reach for your weapon.” Hafiz held out his hands. “Fine by me.” The rest of the SOC operators trooped out, leaving Hafiz at his post. “Jackie!” I called. “Here!” Hand on the railing, he carefully headed down the steps, holding up a resealable plastic bag. “The pendant is in the ziploc,” he said. “Be careful. Don’t touch it with your bare hands.” We found an empty cup at a nearby table. With great care, he unsealed the bag and dumped the pendant into the glass. It was a teardrop of oxidised brass, engraved with a small seated figurine surrounded by tiny words. In the core of the pendant lay a thick knot of dark, chaotic energies, oppressing and binding all it touched. Looking at it made my skin crawl. Nonetheless, I peered more closely, looking deeper into the design. Abruptly I grew aware of a dark thread shooting from the heart of the knot, arching through the air, and sinking deep into Tyger’s crown. The binding spell. “I’m going to undo the binding,” I declared. “At last,” Tyger said. I closed my eyes, feeling for the energy in my dantian. There wasn’t much qi left. Maybe a quarter of its usual capacity. It had to be enough. Pressing my palms together, I drew out my qi, willing it to expand and fill the entire universe. I paused for a breath, then imagined every mote of energy transforming into boundless offerings. Bright flowers, sweet incense, butter lamps, perfumes, food, music, every sense-pleasure in creation. I unwound my mala from my wrist, placed my thumb on the largest bead, and spoke. “_Om tare tuttare ture soha!_” Chanting the mantra, I rotated the mala, keeping track of the recitations. My mind quested to the realm beyond the words, calling forth she whose essence was summed in the mantra. Green light filled the space behind my eyeballs. A gentle warmth sank into my skin. Hafiz gasped. I continued the chant. On the twenty-first recital, I opened my eyes. She floated in the empty space between Tyger and I. Her face was like a full autumn moon, blazing with the light of a thousand stars. Her heavy golden crown, her fine gold necklace, and her multitude of bangles radiated pure light. Lotuses adorned her hands, left over her breast, right outstretched and lowered so her palm faced out and her fingertips pointed down. A blue robe covered her thighs. Right leg extended, left leg folded, she assumed the half-lotus position, her right sole touching the floor. I pressed myself to the ground, legs held together, arms extended, face down. “I prostrate to you, Arya Tara, the quick and the heroic, the protector of the three worlds, the Mother of Buddhas.” A soft, gentle voice filled my ears. “Rise.” I stood. There were twenty-one emanations of Tara. This was Green Tara, Bodhisattva of Action and protector from fear and obscurations. “Green Tara, Tyger is bound to this pendant. Please show us the originator of the spell.” She lifted her right hand. A portal the size of a large dinner plate opened above her palm. Through it I saw a naked man running through darkness. Burning spears and fiery tridents jabbed at his exposed flesh, burning his skin even as they ripped open great wounds. “Hi,” I said. The damned soul froze. The weapons hung back. Blinking, he stared through the portal. “Are you talking to me?” he asked. “Yes. Are you the one who placed the binding on Tyger?” I emanated my intention to him, clarifying who among us was Tyger. “Yes,” he admitted. “Do you understand where you are?” A shriek passed through the portal. “Get me out of here!” “Understandable. You’re in a hell realm. No one wants to stay there. But there is a way out.” “What? Why?” Tyger demanded. Green Tara raised her hand. “Patience.” “But—” She shook her head. “Patience. You will see.” Loving kindness radiated from her heart, similar to what I did earlier, but a thousand times more powerful. She was the sun, and I a mere candle. Tyger relaxed, his jaw going slack. “How can I get out of here?” the damned soul demanded. “You have placed a binding on Tyger. It is one of the reasons why you are in hell. By lifting it, you can erase some of the karma that brought you there.” “No!” Tyger yelled. “Let him suffer!” Tara shook her head again. “You are angry at him for what he did to you. Your rage ties your karma to his. The longer you remain angry, the more _you_ will suffer,” she said. “What do you mean?” “The curse entwined your karma and his. Your anger further strengthens it. Do you wish to be dragged into hell too?” “No!” “Then allow us to help. In helping him, we help you too.” He gritted his fangs, and remained silent. “How do I lift the curse?” the summoner interjected. “Can you undo it?” “I… this place… I lost my powers. My abilities. I don’t… I can’t…” “Do you need help?” His eyes flickered back and forth. Then his head bowed in defeat. “Yes,” he admitted. “Green Tara, could you please help him?” “Certainly,” she said. Through the portal, I saw a copy of Green Tara appear. She split into two, those copies split into two more, which again each split into two, until suddenly a multitude of Green Taras filled the space beyond the portal. She whispered something to him that I didn’t quite catch. He nodded, then pressed his hands together. In my mind’s ear, I heard a soft pop. The thread joining Tyger to the curse broke. All at once, the knot undid itself, liquefying into dark goo. Green light washed over the pendant, and just like that, the dark energies disintegrated. Tyger howled. Black energies bubbled from deep within, staining his bloodsoaked fur. Brown froth bubbled from his mouth, dripping onto the floor. Fists clenched, back arched, he howled his rage at the universe. “Peace,” Green Tara whispered. “You are now releasing the built-up negativity inside you. Let it flow out of you. Let us help you.” Tyger growled, and nodded. Healing green energies radiated from the Bodhisattva, illuminating him. The darkness softened and faded in the light. Through the portal, I heard Green Tara speak. “You must release _all_ your bindings and _all_ the beings you have dominated. Only then can you purify the karma that brought you here.” More darkness bubbled from within Tyger. Brown fluids geysered from his mouth. Black tears flowed from his eyes. Still he continued to howl, and in the sonic discharge he expelled a great wave of dark, heavy qi. Warm, green light flashed, healing the spirit and neutralising the toxic energies. Bit by bit, his fur returned to white. But not completely. A deep red splotch spread across his chest, darker than blood, a rot of the soul. “What is this?” Tyger muttered, pointing at the red patch. “Anger,” Green Tara said. “Were you angry at the summoner?” I asked. “Of course I was angry! He forced me to kill for him!” “And you got angrier with every kill.” “Naturally! Who wouldn’t?” “Your anger binds you as surely as the spell,” Green Tara said. “What do you mean?” “You have swallowed the poison of anger, yet you expect him to suffer. It cannot possibly come to pass. This desire can never be fulfilled. Thus, it keeps you bound to this realm. Let it go and you will be free.” “He must suffer for what he’s done!” “He has tasted hell. Is that not enough?” “More!” “How much more is enough? Does his suffering reduce your own by even the slightest drop?” “It makes me happy.” She shook her head once more. “Taking enjoyment in suffering further binds you. It adds to the weight of your existing karma. It cannot possibly free you from the causes and conditions of your suffering. Thus, you are still bound.” A frustrated growl escaped Tyger’s throat. “What must I do?” “Forgive him.” “Forgive him?! Even after what he’s done?” “You were angry at a man who did you great evil. But is he still the same man?” The summoner was on his knees, hands pressed together, head bowed in prayer. A multitude of Green Taras surrounded him, shielding him from further harm. “He’s… not,” Tyger admitted. “You are now grasping burning coals. They will burn you for as long as you hold on to them. Let them go, and you will be free,” she said. Tyger inhaled. His chest heaved. He squashed his eyes shut. On the other side of the portal, Green Tara asked, “Do you regret what you have done?” “I do,” the damned soul whispered. “Do you ask for forgiveness?” “I do.” The Green Tara next to me said, “Do you have what it takes to forgive him?” Tyger exhaled. “Yes.” The red bled from his chest, streaming down his arms and legs. Dark red qi spilled from his fur, from his fingers, from his feet, dispersing into a red fog. Green Tara sent another wave of healing energies, and when the light cleared, his fur was pure again. “You are free,” Green Tara said. Tyger heaved a sigh of relief. “Thank you.” “Is it done?” the summoner asked. His eyes were open now, though he was still on his knees. “Yes,” I confirmed. “Can I leave hell now?” Green Tara, all of them, shook their heads. “Not yet.” “But you said I could go!” “You have purified the karma of the deeds you have atoned for, yes. In so doing you have shortened your sentence in hell considerably. But not enough to bring you to liberation.” “What must I do?” “Confess and atone for _all_ the wrongdoings you have committed, in _all_ previous lifetimes,” I replied. His face paled. His jaw dropped. “But… there’s… so… much…” “Do you wish to stay in hell?” “No!” “Then you must do the work. It’s not easy, but the alternative is to stay where you are.” He groaned. “Green Tara, will you help him?” I asked. “Of course,” all of them said at once. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll carry on.” “The formula is simple. Confess your wrongdoings, pay homage to the Buddhas, and take refuge in the Triple Gem. Take any instructions they may have for you. Then stick to it.” He sighed. “Okay...” “It’s a long journey. But it’ll be worth it.” “What about me?” Tyger asked. “Am I going to Hell too?” “You committed those murders under compulsion. The karmic impact is minimal—but not nonexistent. Furthermore, you were in a state of rage. Between that and any other crimes you may have committed, and there is the possibility that you’re hellbound too,” I replied. He groaned. “What must I do?” “You are still alive. That means you have the opportunity to follow the teachings and purify your karma. With sincerity and dedication, you can escape the jaws of hell, and perhaps even find liberation in this lifetime.” “How do I do that?” A portal appeared behind Tyger. Through the opening, I saw a verdant jungle. Cool mist shrouded the crowns of massive trees. Birds chirped in songs I have never heard. An unseen river bubbled in the distance. The colors were so… vivid. So _real_. More real than anything I had ever seen. Maybe it was because the only jungle I had ever seen was cast from concrete but… No. This was a different realm. A higher realm. A realm realer and deeper and truer than this. Perhaps a realm of gods. I blinked. Was Tyger a _god?_ Green Tara’s voice floated into my mind. _In human terms, yes_. Images flashed through my head. Tyger standing tall and proud on a craggy mountain peak, the master of its domain. Tyger pouncing upon some strange four-legged animal I had never seen before, claws tearing into flesh, teeth ripping into its neck. Tyger swiping across the face of some gargantuan saurian, large as an elephant and infinitely more dangerous, smashing and slashing in a single blow. He was an explorer, a predator, a conqueror, a being who had seen and done more than any man would ever do in ten lifetimes. The realm beyond the portal was his home. A realm where only souls as powerful and majestic as Tyger could inhabit. “Is that your home?” I asked. Tyger smiled. “Yes. Finally.” Amid the trees, more Green Taras appeared. Behind her were more Buddhas and Bodhisattvas—but they had all assumed the form of anthropomorphic tigers, garbed in the robes of monks, seated in the lotus position. “We can show you the way to liberation, if you wish,” the assembled divinities said. Tyger gaped. “You… how… where did you come from?” “We are everywhere,” they replied. “All my life, in all the lands I have explored, I have never seen you!” “You never sought us out, until now.” “Why would you help me?” “We have vowed to liberate all beings. And so, if you present offerings to us and request for the teachings with a sincere heart, we will help you too.” He gulped. Licked his lips. Breathed. Then pressed his hands together and bowed to them. “Thank you. I accept your help.” He turned to me, to Green Tara, and bowed also. “Thank you.” I mirrored the gesture. “Be at peace.” He stepped through the portal. It closed behind him, leaving no trace. An instant later, the portal to hell winked out too. Bowing to Green Tara, I said, “Thank you.” She smiled. “You are most welcome.” In a flash of light, she vanished. My strength fled me. I was a can drained to the final drop. My legs gave out. My butt plopped into a nearby chair. Jackie patted my shoulder. “Good work.” I nodded. I didn’t have any energy left to say anything else. So of course Hafiz had to come to me. “Was that an exorcism?” he asked, disbelief in his voice. “Purification,” I said. “But they got away!” The laws of Singyeung were designed to compel, to coerce, to condemn without possibility of forgiveness and redemption. The law of the cosmos was the way to truth. To choose compliance with the former was to choose a set of light shackles; to choose conformity with the latter was to choose liberation. But to say that out loud to an agent of mortal law was to invite the punishment of sovereign algorithms. Instead, I said, “The tiger was a victim. He was compelled to commit murders against his will. As for the summoner, isn’t death and a trip to hell punishment enough? Now that they have chosen a new path, they will no longer harm others. Further punishment is no longer necessary.” Hafiz shook his head. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” “Stick around him and you’ll see even weirder things,” Jackie said. “You guys do that all the time?” “Him, yes. Me, I’m just the saikang warrior.” Jackie and I cracked up. I wouldn’t say what he did was unpleasant or even difficult, but I appreciated the support all the same. Hafiz looked nervously at the door, then leaned in and whispered into my ear. “I have to ask… Is Allah… you know… real?” I closed my eyes. How could I answer that? I’m no theologian. I’m not even a priest. I just happened to have a set of abilities different and far weirder than most cultivators. How could I begin to address what might just be the most profound existential question in the cop’s life. A soft female voice whispered into my heart. I spoke her words out loud. “There is truth in your faith. If you wish to stick to your path, then follow that truth all the way to the end.” Hafiz nodded. “Thanks.” Footsteps tapped behind me. I spent a second gathering what was left of my strength, then spun around to find SI Low and ASP Tang. “Is it over?” Low asked. “Yeah,” I said. “Finally!” Tang exclaimed. “More exciting than what you’re used to, eh?” Jackie said. “My job is to investigate crimes. I’ll leave the high-speed stuff to you guys,” Tang said. “So what happens now?” I asked. “My men and I have to hang around for the post-shooting investigation,” Low said. “We’ll write the two of you up for a commendation,” Tang promised. “You’ll be rewarded with fifty Sing Score points each.” “Oh, come on!” Jackie exclaimed. “You can’t eat Sing Score points! You can’t even trade them for cash. Look, you can at least give us hazard pay, right?” “Cannot. Rules and regulations.” “Oh, man. We’re paid by the hour. You know how much time we spent helping you with this? That’s money out of our pockets!” Tang scratched his head. “We’ll… uh… speak to your boss.” “You’d better. If there’s nothing else, we gotta get back to work.” “Hold on.” “What is it this time?” “We still need to go down to the station to take your statements. For all three incidents earlier.” “Statements? What the shit? By the time we’re done, our shift will be long over! We won’t get paid!” “Sorry. But we gotta do it.” “_Pok gai!_ At least let us call the boss so we can explain what’s going on and get replacements.” “Alright. No need to rush.” Jackie grumbled under his breath. I rose to my feet and patted his shoulder. “Come on. This night ain’t over yet.” Still grumbling, he followed me out the door. ![]( Newsletter subscribers get early access to my writing updates, news and promotions. Sign up [here]( and receive a free ebook! fiction @cheah

A Quiet Night in Wai Yuen Part 3 ![ "Blade Runner, Cyberpunk, Neon Lights, Neon, Lights"]( ## Carnage With a tap on their screens, the cops summoned their vehicles. The _Hung Syun_ was a man-made mammoth, a tiltrotor crossed with an armored truck, its martial purpose undeniable. Next to it, Tang’s flying wagon was a child’s toy. There were twelve SOC operators, laden with tactical gear, and the _Hung Syun_ needed time to rev up the rotors. Tang, Jackie and I were airborne in the lighter vehicle long before the SOC squad got off the ground. “SOC goes in first,” Tang said. “We will stay behind. Move in only when the building is clear, or if SOC calls for your help. We have guns, you don’t.” “We’re cultivators. We don’t need guns,” Jackie said. Tang snorted. “Yeah, yeah, tell that to the cultivators who got shot over the years.” “Bullets aren’t going to do much to spirits,” I said. “They’ll just tunnel right through it without causing much damage, and hit whatever or _whoever_ is on the other side. SOC will need to dump dozens, even hundreds of rounds to forcibly dispel it. If the tiger comes out, I _need_ to be in the stack.” “And if you get in SOC’s way, how? You might get hurt. Or they might get hurt. They might just sit you down in one corner.” Tang shook his head. “No. They go in first.” Ng Yong Noodle House occupied a minor side street. The road shrank dramatically, admitting only a single lane of traffic. Shophouses on either side extended to the edge of the block, all of them based on the same neocolonial template. Signboards hanging above the main entrance advertised 24-hour eateries, coffee shops, always-open automated convenience stores. Ornate support columns marked the borders between buildings. Lights spilled from tall, narrow windows on the upper floors. Three stories tall, taller than the smart streetlights, their second and third floors were safely sited in the dead zones of the elevated cameras. We landed diagonally opposite from Ng Yong, right in the middle of the road. Tang turned on the lightbars, painting the street in red and blue. “How large is the group that entered Ng Yong?” I asked. Tang consulted his screen. “Four.” “Where’s the driver?” He looked at me. I looked at him. Bright lights flashed from the windows down the street. We turned back to Ng Yong, just in time to hear a man scream. “That doesn’t sound good,” Jackie muttered. Glass shattered. A body flew out the third floor window. He slammed into the roof of a parked car, rolled off, struck the road, and flopped over. “Civilian down! We have to go!” I urged. Behind us, in the air, lights flashed and sirens wailed, rapidly closing in. SOC coming to the rescue, just a little too late. Tang swore. “Follow me!” The three of us burst out of the car. Sprinting towards the restaurant, Tang drew his service pistol. Jackie sucked down qi, filling his energy centres to the brim, readying himself for war. I drank down more qi, too, then brought my left hand to my hip. Staying low, we stayed close to the cars and darted between pools of shadow. A car length away from the entrance of Ng Yong, Tang stepped out onto the road. Punching out his weapon in both hands, he oriented towards the gangsters’ vehicle and clicked on the weapon-mounted light, illuminating the driver. “POLICE! HANDS UP!” The driver’s hands flew up. “I’ll handle this one! Go in and take care of the rest!” Tang ordered. “So much for SOC going first,” Jackie muttered. I squeezed between a pair of cars, closing in on Ng Yong. Plastic tables and chairs spilled out onto the sidewalk, laden with food and drink. Wending around them, we barged into the restaurant. More tables and chairs were placed along the walls, forming a narrow aisle for people to pass through. Half-eaten dishes and full glasses lay abandoned. Six ceiling-mounted fans blew down on a suddenly-empty dining hall. Soft music piped from overhead speakers. A beverage cooler held a modest supply of canned and bottled drinks. At the far end, behind the stainless steel counter, I sensed a spiky ball of qi, locked in mortal fear. “_Hap haak!_ Come out!” Jackie ordered. That person curled up even more tightly. “We’re here to help!” I added. “It’s safe to come out!” Relaxing, _slightly_, the person peeked above the counter, revealing the face of a young woman. A _girl._ “What happened here?” I asked. “Four men came in just now,” she replied. “They were shouting at everyone, telling them to get out. Then they headed around the back.” “They went upstairs?” “Ya! The staircase is just past the kitchen.” A shock wave rattled the building. The lights flickered. The fans shuddered. Shrieking, the girl ducked back down. “Were they armed?” I asked. Still hiding behind the counter, she replied, “Yes! They all had parangs!” Hailing from the jungles of the Malay archipelago, a parang was a long, heavy chopping knife. There were no jungles in Singyeung, but the original migrants had brought their tools and customs over. “Are they cultivators?” “Dunno! They must be, but I dunno how many of them are cultivators!” Another blast. A man shouted in pain. She shouted too. “The police are coming. Stay here!” I ordered. Outside, Tang shouted at the top of his lungs. “Over here! It’s ASP Tang! I have a suspect in custody!” The SOC must have landed. Finally. “Let’s go!” Jackie urged. We rushed past the counter. The girl had balled up in a corner, quaking in fear, covering her mouth. I glanced at her long enough to ensure she was alright, then followed Jackie down the hallway. The kitchen was right behind the counter. As I passed, a panoply of smells greeted me. Sizzling oil, raw meat, savoury soups, heavy spices. It was cramped, with barely enough room for one or two people to work. I slowed down, taking care to avoid knocking over the stainless steel bowls and utensils stacked haphazardly on a counter. The kitchen staff had evacuated in haste, leaving the taps running. Sinks filled with dirty dishes threatened to overflow. As I passed the stoves, I detected the smell of burning food. No time to shut everything off. We had to secure the area first. Past the kitchen, on the right, a flight of steps headed upstairs. To the left was a tiny unisex toilet, with a sink and two cubicles. The back door stood wide open, leading into the back alley. I peeked outside, confirming that the area was clear, then closed and locked the door. Together, Jackie and I rushed upstairs. Upstairs, we emerged into a narrow hallway. At the far end, an open door looked into a modest bathroom. Next to that was a second flight of steps. Soft moans drifted through a doorway to our left. Jackie gestured at the left-hand door. As we approached, I lifted my outer shirt, revealing my Peacemaker baton on my left hip. The Peacemaker was the last word in expandable batons. Machined from solid steel, its weight was concentrated in the striking tip. I’d added an impact ring, further enhancing its striking power. The handle sported a rapid rotation device, a pair of asymmetric handles that allowed the wielder to swiftly switch grips and doubled as a hilt. With these mods, it was less of a nightstick, more like a blunt sword. Peeling the Peacemaker to the left, I broke it free from the holster and brought it around my back. I aimed the tip at the ground and thumbed the release button. Two steel segments silently extended and locked into place, expanding the weapon to its full twenty-one inches. I transferred the Peacemaker to my right hand and flipped it around, holding it against my forearm in a reverse grip. I extended my awareness into the room beyond. A confused jumble of objects and energies filled my mind. I sensed a half-dozen people lying on the ground, their qi fields radiating pain and injury. I tapped Jackie’s shoulder, signalling my readiness. Jackie sucked down more energy. Bright golden light emanated from his skin, an ethereal flame searing all it touched. With a sharp exhale, he burst through the open door. I followed, hot on his heels. Chaos. Shattered furniture lay scattered across the room, mountainous islands in a sea of playing cards and plastic chips. Sprays of fresh blood reflected the overhead lights. Broken bodies lay in insensate heaps, slumped against the walls and corners, some bleeding from massive head and arm wounds. The body closest to me had been brutalised, his face and neck and arms shredded beyond recognition. His left arm ended in a stump, the fragments of a broken transformer bracelet gleaming dully nearby. His severed hand rested at my feet. “Bloody hell…” Jackie muttered. “Nothing we can do for them now,” I said. “Upstairs!” Jackie led the charge. The third floor was arranged exactly like the second. As we stacked on the door to the main room, I heard men growling and whispering. Half-closing my eyes, I reached my awareness into the room beyond. Two bodies lay on the floor. Three men stood in the middle of the room. The one furthest from me had the expanded aura of a mid-level cultivator. The aura of the subject on the right was shredded and torn, hard lines and gleaming chrome betraying his cybernetic limbs. At the far end, a fourth man towered over a fifth lying prone on the floor, his aura burning a ferocious, savage white. The summoner. Parang held by his side, the summoner kicked the downed man in the ribs. Bones snapped, drawing forth a pained cry. And the other cultivator spun on his heels, turning to the door. He’d sensed us. Bellowing a war cry, Jackie charged through the open door. I stayed behind him, concealing myself behind his bulk. Debris covered the floor. Overturned tables and broken chairs, mahjong tiles and gwat pai, smashed machines and plastic tokens, silent testimony to a battle we had missed. A man was sprawled across a table, his back bent at an unnatural angle. A second lay in the fetal position, blood gushing from a hidden wound. The criminal cultivator glared at us, his teeth bared in animal fury. Waves of violet flame spewed from his crown to wash over his arms. His two companions spread out, forming a skirmish line. All three men carried long parangs, their blades and clothes drenched in blood. Framed in a narrow window, the summoner looked over his shoulder at us. His gaze was a palpable force, boring into my own. His own clothing was perfectly immaculate, as though freshly laundered. His aura was a white-hot inferno, billowing from his chest to fill the entire room. Supine at the summoner’s feet, his victim coughed and hacked, holding his side. “Who the fuck are you?” the summoner demanded. “_Hap haak!_ Put down your weapons and surrender!” Jackie shouted. The summoner snorted. Strange ripples passed through his aura. It was as if multiple layers of qi were trying to separate. “Deal with them,” the summoner ordered. The fighters charged, giving tongue to blood-curdling screams. The cultivator hung back, lifting his left hand. Jackie let loose a scream of his own, releasing his own qi. Swirling golden light condensed in his hand, taking the form of a short staff. Taking his weapon in both hands, he rushed the fighter on the left. Blade raised over his head, the cyborg fighter rushed to me. He was _fast_, faster than any man ought to be, nimbly leaping over the scattered debris. I hung back, leading with my left side, hiding the baton behind my body, and breathed. He stepped and swung. Rushing to my left, I shot my right hand up, shielding my head with my baton. Steel clang against steel. As the parang slid off, I brought the baton to the horizontal and jabbed it into the side of his flesh-and-blood neck. A quick pop, not much power behind it, but enough to stun him. Long enough for me to spin the baton around and torque the tip into his jaw. The bone snapped with a sickening crack. The spiralling force twisted him around and sent him crashing against a table. I kicked him in the face for good measure, then assessed the room. Jackie flowed into a powerful double-handed thrust, smashing the tip of his staff into his opponent’s sternum. As the fighter staggered back, Jackie thrust again and again, breaking ribs with every blow. Then he shifted grips and swung the staff around through a swift, fluid circle and struck the fighter in the jaw, flooring him. The cultivator barked a word. The wreckage on the floor hurtled into the air. Jagged shards, ceramic tiles, tables and chairs, a forest of hard surfaces and wicked points glowing in violet light, surrounding us in every direction. “_PHAT!_” I barked. The seed syllable reverberated in the room. Behind it was the power and majesty of every wrathful deity and Buddha. The violet light extinguished. The missiles fell. The cultivator stared, stupefied. And I rushed up to him. He recovered at the last second, swinging his weapon wildly at my head. I punched out the baton, gripping it in both hands, moving it into the path of the parang. Baton and blade collided with a metallic scream. I reached over my right hand to seize the base of his thumb with my left, then ducked low to the right, yanked him down, and smashed the baton into his knee. Bone broke under the colossal blow. With a cry of agony, he crumpled to the floor. I rose to my feet and stomped on his fist, forcing him to release the parang. Sirens drifted from outside. Heavy boots pounded the stairs. Men barked orders in fierce staccatos. I aimed the baton at the summoner. “It’s over,” I said. “Surrender.” The summoner’s aura rippled again. This time I saw _two_ layers of energy, sticky black overlaid with burning white. An instant later, his aura blazed white once more. His left hand reached for his collar— “_PHAT!_” I shouted again. He froze. For a heartbeat, nothing happened. Then he realized what I’d done, and saw who and _what _was behind me. “That trick isn’t going to work this time,” I said. “Drop your weapon and raise your hands.” He snarled. Turned. Ran. “STOP!” Jackie shouted. He dashed to the window at the end of the room. I lunged towards him. My foot caught on something, and suddenly I fell. Turning my right side forward, I folded my arm across my chest. My forearm struck the floor. I flowed with the energy, rolling diagonally on my back, rising up to— The backs of my thighs banged into an overturned table. Just like that, my momentum was gone, leaving me curled upside down in an awkward position. “STOP!” Jackie shouted again. Light flashed. Glass shattered. A tiger roared. I twisted my hips one way, then the other, and rolled over to my side. As I righted myself, Jackie came and helped me back up on my feet. “Where did he go?” I asked. “He jumped out the window and into the back alley. He summoned his tiger and rode off.” I exhaled sharply. “Missed him.” “Yeah. Shit!” More yells floated from downstairs. The SOC operators must be on the second floor. The wounded man the summoner had worked over earlier was now propped against a fallen table. His left eye was a massive bruise. Blood dripped from puffy lips. Breathing in rapid spurts, he held his injured side. Approaching him, I asked, “Are you okay?” He nodded. “What did they want?” He drew his lips back, revealing a mouthful of chipped and broken teeth. “They wanted… to kill… Dai Gor.” “You’re not the headman?” I asked. He shook his head. “I just… run… gambling hall.” More voices carried up the stairs. “Clear!” “Clear!” “Move upstairs!” “We need to find the man who did this,” I said, gesturing at the wreckage behind me. “Where did he go?” “Don’t… know.” “He’s off to kill your headman. Where is your headman?” Jackie asked. The 108 member sucked in a breath and shook his head. “Clear!” an SOC operator shouted. “Move up!” another cop yelled. “You can talk to us or you talk to the police. Which is it?” I asked. The gangster swore. “Naughty Cherry nightclub.” “POLICE! POLICE! DROP YOUR WEAPONS!” Jackie dispersed his staff. I tossed my baton aside, raised my hands, and turned around to see Station Inspector Low and five other SOC operators training their carbines on us. “It’s us! Mark Wu and Jackie Hung!” Jackie said. The SOC operators paused for a second, still covering us with their carbines, no doubt scanning our faces with their helmet-mounted cameras. Then Low nodded tersely. “Room clear. Stand down.” The operators relaxed a fraction, lowering their weapons. Two men hung back, pulling security, while the rest tended to the casualties. “What happened?” Low asked. “Got here too late,” I replied. “We neutralised the fighters, but the summoner jumped out the rear window.” Low glanced behind me and swore. “He’s probably going to the Night Cherry nightclub,” Jackie continued. “It’s down the street, five blocks away. If you hurry now, you can catch him.” Low hesitated, looking at us, at the bodies, at the carnage around us. He was facing a dilemma of duties. Stay here and secure the scene, or pursue the suspect? In the absence of orders, there was only one thing he could do. “I need to check in with HQ,” Low said. “We’re running out of time,” Jackie urged. Ignoring him, Low stepped outside. The remaining operators cuffed and searched the gangsters we had downed. As I knelt to retrieve my baton, I turned to the hall manager. “Did you tell the summoner where your headman is?” I asked. “No… choice. He used… magic.” “Mind domination?” “Yes. Couldn’t… resist. Had to… speak.” Bad enough that the hitman was a summoner. He was a dominator too. Maybe the latter power facilitated the former. That could be why his aura seemed so weird. He had placed the tiger spirit under a powerful compulsion, binding its essence to his own, and it was struggling to break free. It must be why he hadn’t used his cultivator abilities earlier. Why he hadn’t even fought us. Keeping the tiger spirit under control must be draining. He didn’t want to call it out unless he had to. He didn’t need it breaking loose. That would not end well. “We’ll stop him,” I promised. Low headed back inside. “Wrap it up! ASP Tang will take over the scene! We’re going to Naughty Cherry!” “The suspect has domination powers _and_ a killer spirit. You’ll need us!” Jackie said. The leader narrowed his eyes. Looked around the room. Looked back at us. And clicked his tongue. “Fine. You can ride along. But you stay in the rear until we call you to move up. Understand?” “Roger that,” Jackie said. Low sighed. “Let’s go before we regret this.” ![]( Newsletter subscribers get early access to my writing updates, news and promotions. Sign up [here]( and receive a free ebook! fiction @cheah

A Quiet Night in Wai Yuen Part 2 ![ "Blade Runner, Cyberpunk, Neon Lights, Neon, Lights"]( ## Suffering When someone fires a gun in Singyeung, the police send _everyone_. Patrol officers sealed off the scene. Rapid Deployment Force cruisers swooped down from the skies, forming the inner cordon. Right behind them, a _Hung Syun_ descended in stately majesty. Equipped with long guns and tactical gear, a squad of SOC operators poured out the armored transport, forming up for immediate action. Flying ambulances followed to tend to the unconscious gangsters. Vans carried a crew of crime scene technicians. Last of all was the Criminal Investigation Department. A green flying car set itself down next to the gangsters’ vehicle. A middle-aged man in a blue polo shirt and dark pants stepped out. His warrant card hung on a lanyard around his neck. “Assistant Superintendent James Tang, CID,” the newcomer said. “Mark Woo and Jackie Lee,” Jackie replied. “_Hap haak_.” Tang furrowed his eyebrows. “What happened here?” As we explained the situation, the paramedics loaded the unconscious men aboard their ambulances. They tried to take Murali too, but Jackie stopped them. “We still need him,” Jackie said. “He can lead us to the crime scene.” “You’ve worked hard today,” Tang said. “Well done. We’ll take things from here.” “The park isn’t secure,” Jackie said. “Don’t worry. SOC will sweep the park.” I held up a hand. “Hold off on that.” “Why not? It’s not safe.” “The primary suspect is a powerful cultivator. I can track the murderer’s qi trail. But if SOC goes in now, they’ll mess up the trail.” Tang crossed his arms. “This is police business now.” “I can tell you’re not a cultivator. What about everyone else? Is there a cultivator among them?” “We received reports of multiple gunshots. We didn’t hear anything about cultivators. SIS wasn’t activated.” If the cops had known or suspected a cultivator was involved, they wouldn’t have sent CID. They’d send the Special Investigations Section, and their cadre of martial cultivators. Since there weren’t any other cultivators around us… “There are two _hap haak_ in front of you,” Jackie said. “Guns beat magic most of the time. We don’t know if there are any more suspects hiding in the area,” Tang said. “SOC can escort us. We just need to make sure they don’t disturb the crime scene,” I said. “You know we’re not paying you to do extra work, right?” “This _is_ our work,” I replied. Tang threw his hands up. “Alright. But just so you know, the police are in charge now. Understand?” “Yes sir!” Jackie and I responded. Surrounded by the SOC operators, Murali showed us the way to the scene of the crime. This time of night, the park was utterly deserted. The only signs of life came from the insects flitting around light bulbs. As we followed the winding footpath, the operators lit up the darkness with their weapon lights, hunting for hidden threats. The trek ended at a pavilion, just off the main trail. Grey pillars rose from a patch of stark concrete to hold up a gently arched roof of sun-hardened tiles. Beside the pillars were rows of benches and tables. Spotlights in the rafters cast the scene in a soft glow, drawing the eye to the dead. The body lay sprawled in a sticky lake of blood. The scent of blood and iron hung in the air, mixed with body waste. His T-shirt and jeans, completely soaked through, had been shredded to pieces. Long, ugly gashes ran down his arms and inner thighs, suggesting sharp claws and powerful paws. White bone peeked through the deep wounds. His head was gone. Murali blanched. I sucked down a breath, calming myself. Jackie looked away. Tang pursed his lips, but stared unflinchingly at the scene. “Where’s the head?” I asked. Tang pointed with his thumb. “Under the table at the far end.” A spray of blood tracked towards a column. Partially hidden by the table, the head of the deceased lay face down, the vertebra exposed. The tiger, I decided. It had pounced on the victim, bit on his throat, and decapitated him. Then it tossed the severed head into the corner. Why? There were all kinds of aggressive spirits out there. Some were precise and professional, inflicting no more than the minimum amount of damage needed to get the job done. At the other extreme, there were savages that delighted in brutality. Between the grievous wounds and the head toss, I suspected the spirit occupied the latter end of the spectrum. “Murali, is this the body?” Tang asked formally. Murali nodded. “Yes.” “Can you identify him?” “Johnny Lim.” “What is your relationship to him?” “He’s my… friend.” “Not your headman?” Jackie probed. Murali shook his head. “No. The headman couldn’t come today. That’s why he asked Johnny to settle on his behalf.” For a half-second I’d been tempted to assume the victim was the headman of the crew. This was why you never made any assumptions during an investigation. “What rank does Johnny hold?” Tang asked. Murali blinked. “No rank.” Tang shook his head. “Please, lah. If he has no rank, why your headman ask him to settle for him? You wanna lie, be more believable, can?” As he spoke, Tang changed his cadence, matching Murali’s Singyenglish accent, adding a touch of humour to soften the accusation. “He’s the assistant headman,” Murali admitted. “Why couldn’t your headman come?” “Because he’s busy. But he never say why.” “Where were you standing when the settlement talks started?” Murali nodded at the floor. “There. On Johnny’s left.” “And your two friends?” “They were on his other side.” “What about the Shiba crew?” “Opposite us.” “Where was their headman?” “Right in front of Johnny.” “What happened during the settlement talks?” “When we met, their headman asked if Johnny was our headman. Johnny said no. He said our headman couldn’t make it. Their headman got angry and said that we didn’t respect him. Johnny said he could negotiate for us. Their headman said if he could take a message to our boss. Johnny said yes. Their headman reached under his shirt, pulled out his pendant, and… that tiger jumped out and…” Murali shuddered. “The tiger killed Johnny,” Tang said. “What happened after that?” “We ran. We had to. We couldn’t fight that thing.” “Then Tom drew his gun and started shooting.” “Ya.” “You ran back to your car, and ran into the _hap haak_.” Murali sighed. “Ya…” Tang looked at me. “You got everything you need to get started?” I nodded. “Stay clear.” My body was coming down from the fight. Adrenaline pulsed through me. My qi redistributed throughout my body, returning to my lower dantian. The fight-or-flight reflex delivered strength and speed when it was needed, but it also degraded cognitive skills and higher cultivation abilities. It took me a long time to learn how to remain steady enough to conduct a field interview after a violent encounter, and even then I wasn’t performing anywhere near my peak. With slow, gentle breaths, I gathered my qi. On the inhale, I drew energy from the cosmos, absorbing through my skin, bringing it to my lower dantian. As I exhaled, I sent the energy up my spin, around the curve of my head, and into my upper dantian, the energy centre located in the forehead. It was a slow trickle of qi, just enough to reactivate my metaphysical senses without giving me a headache. And then I saw. A diffuse cloud of chaotic energies floated in the pavilion. The qi of life and death, desperation and despair, fear and agony, mingled together in a toxic brew. In my mind’s ear I heard the screaming once again, the echoes of the dead man infused into the concrete. With eight people gathered here for such an intense event, it was little wonder that there was so much energy here. But they were all jumbled up, difficult to separate into individual strands. Except for the ghost. Johnny Lim stood over his body. Dressed as he was in his final moments in life, he looked down at his spectral hands, at his corporal remains, at the pool of drying blood. His jaw hung open in a silent scream, his eyes were wide, as if still unable to comprehend his fate. His neck was gone. His head floated in empty space. Red fluid rimmed the edges of the enormous wound. More blood covered his hands. Separated from his body, his consciousness reconstructed his appearance from his last memories, from what he _thought_ he looked like even as he lay dying, from the energies that remained in the area. He appeared _almost_ solid, but I sensed he was concentrating to hold himself together. I had the feeling that if I stared at him too hard, he might fall apart. He was also our best witness. “Opening channel,” I said. “Cover me.” “Roger,” Jackie said. “What does _that_ mean?” Tang asked. “It means everyone keeps quiet while Mark-gor does his thing,” Jackie said. Closing my eyes, I breathed deep, setting into the centre of my being, grounding my body into the earth. From this state of stillness, I expanded my awareness, touching the remains of Johnny Lim. His soul was in turmoil. Fear, anger, horror, sorrow, a swirling smog of negative emotions boiled from him. Having been violently separated from his body, his consciousness was violently disturbed. Left alone, he might go mad and haunt this place, or disperse completely without ever knowing peace. I drew my forth my qi, linking it to the essence of water. Deep, pure, calm, cleansing. My bracelet and my mala cooled as the qi transformed into healing mist. Extending my hand, I sprinkled fine droplets of blue energy over him, like oil sprayed on troubled waters, willing the energies to settle his own. A soft, frightened voice penetrated my consciousness. _Who are you?_ I infused my response into my spell, letting it fill his own. _I am here to help. Do you remember your name?_ He shook his head. _No._ _Do you remember what happened?_ He twitched. His hands clenched. Torment crossed his face. _Yes._ I increased the flow of qi by a smidgen. _Easy now. Relax. Let the energy heal you and take away your pain._ He closed his eyes. Opened his fingers. And heaved a sigh of relief. _Thank you_. I dipped my head. _No problem. Would you like to share with me what happened?_ Sound and colour smashed into my mind. Now I was seeing through the victim’s own eyes, a memory of his final moments, colored by trauma. I looked out upon a blood-red world tinted in shadow. Four hazy forms stood before me, radiating hostility and anger. Next to me, my brothers tensed, readying for action. The figure in front of me glowed a sudden white light. He reached under his shirt and pulled out his pendant. A monster leapt forth, fur and fangs and killer claws, too huge for such a tiny talisman, a predator from another plane come to feast. It seized my shoulders, ramming me to the ground, clawing my arms and legs, and as I tried to fight back, to reach my weapons at my waist, it lunged for my throat and snapped its jaws and ripped out my flesh and bone— I paused. Breathed. Exhaled. That was not me. That was him. He had died. I had come to speak for him. Bracing myself, I dove into his memories again. With a powerful swipe, the tiger batted my head aside. Suddenly I was seeing two images at once, the feed from my eyes, staring into the corner, and the view from where the rest of my body lay on the floor. Gunshots rang out. The hazy figures ducked for cover. Holding out his pendant, the summoner shouted, and the tiger jumped back into its vessel. When the shooting stopped, the four men turned and ran. I wanted to get up, to chase them, to kill them, but I was stuck. I was stuck on the floor and I could not move and I could not breathe and I could not scream and— I exhaled. Opening my eyes, I saw Johnny Lim standing at the edge of the pavilion, his face twisted in fury and agony. He burned for revenge, and so long as he burned, he could not move on. _Thank you_, I sent. _Catch the one who killed me. Make him pay_. I cast the healing magic again, seeking to soothe what was left of his soul. _We’ll take care of the rest. As for you, I see you are still suffering. Do you need help to move on?_ _How?_ He wondered. _Just listen_. I unclasped my mala and grasped it in my left hand. Pressing my palms together, I dipped my head. “_Em a ho!_” I began. “Are you… praying?” Tang wondered. “Quiet!” Jackie shushed. Ignoring them, I continued the prayer. “_Ngotsar sangye nangwa taye dang / ye su jowo tukje chenpo dang / yon du sempa tuchentop nam la / sangye yangsem pakme khor gyi kor…_” It was the Dechen Monlam, the prayer for rebirth in the Pure Land of Sukhavati. Reciting it from memory, I emanated my qi in all directions, willing it to fill all space. I visualised the energies transforming into a superabundance of offerings: fruit, flowers, torma, water, butter lamps, incense, perfumes, music, all the wonders and pleasures of the universe. As I chanted, brilliant scarlet light filled my mind’s eye, radiating from a figure seated in the lotus position. His skin was as red as the setting sun, his black hair tied into a topknot. Garbed in golden robes, he held a blue begging bowl on his lap, his soles turned upwards to the heavens. Amitabha Buddha. The Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life, the creator of Sukhavati, he who vowed to bring all who call upon him to be reborn in his realm. There, all beings would be freed from all suffering, and receive instruction from the Buddhas until they themselves attain complete enlightenment. To Amitabha’s left stood a blue-skinned figure blazing in crimson flames. Right leg bent, left leg extended, he held a vajra over his breast with his left hand, and his outstretched right hand made the refuge-giving mudra. Fangs bared, his three eyes glared at the world around. A crown of skulls, a cloak made from elephant hide, and a hip wrap of tiger skin completed his wrathful appearance. Bodhisattva Vajrapani, wrathful protector of the Buddha, he who frightens the wicked and induces sentient beings to let go of their delusions and mental grasping. To Amitabha’s right, also seated in the lotus position, was a figure of purest white with a thousand arms and eleven heads. His heads were stacked like a tower, three rows of three looking forward and the sides, then two smaller ones placed one atop the other. Upon his heads rested splendid crowns of purest gold, and gold bedecked his ears, his biceps, his wrists and his neck. He folded two hands over his heart, holding a blue cintamani. A right hand held aloft a crystal mala, while a left grasped a lotus flower. More arms fanned out from his sides, extending in all directions. In Chinese he is called Guanyin, in Sanskrit he was named Avalokitesvara, I knew him as Chenrezig. The Lotus Lord, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, he who perceives the cries of the world and aids all who suffer. “_Jangchup top ne jisi du / trulpe drowa drenpar shok!_” I concluded. And Chenrezig shook his head. I blinked. Blinked again. _Why?_ I sent. The voice of Chenrezig filled my head, warm and gentle and soothing, yet also filled with sorrow. _His mind is too disturbed. He cannot see nor comprehend Amitabha, much less the Pure Land. He is still too attached to his suffering to cross over. You have comforted him and soothed his pains, but it is not enough for complete purification._ Vajrapani spoke, a fiery roar with a heart of compassion. _He still grasps too tightly to his sins. He still does not see how they have contributed to his sorrow and suffering. He does not know why he is destined for hell unless he turns back and returns to the path of Enlightenment. His mind is caught by his anguish and his pain, and sees little beyond it._ Then came a third voice, serene and loving, resonant and pervasive, the voice of Amitabha. _He cannot pass through the gate into the Pure Land until he is fully liberated from suffering_. _What must I do? _I asked. Chenrezig replied. _Seek out a priest to pray for his soul and the souls of all whose lives he has touched, and to pray for the purification of this tainted land. Of course, you could do it yourself, but you are busy now._ I sighed. And nodded. I’m not a priest. My cultivation abilities merely manifested in an unusual way, even for inhabitants of the jianghu. “Thank you,” I said out loud. I extended my hand, and sprinkled Johnny Lim one last time. He smiled, slightly, but his huge wound remained. With a flash of red light, Amitabha vanished. Vajrapani and Chenrizig followed him into the astral realms. I focused my attention on Lim and sent, T_his is all I can do for you right now,_ _but I will make sure the ritual is complete._ He pressed his palms together and bowed to me. _Thank you_. I bowed back, then turned to the others. “It’s done,” I said. “Were you praying for the dead?” Superintendent Tang wondered. “Yes,” I replied. “Talked to him too. He showed me where the suspects went.” Dredging up the memory he had shown me, I scanned in the direction the killer had fled. Soon, I picked up a faint white thread cutting through the park. It was a qi trail, left behind by the summoner and his spirit. “Over there,” I said, pointing with my thumb. A team of operators brought Murali back to the main entrance. The others formed a protective circle around me. I followed the qi trail on a parallel course, keeping my distance, preventing the operators from blundering into it. Behind me, I overheard Tang talking into his phone, calling up the technicians and coordinating the rest of the cordon. The trail led us to the other side of the park and abruptly terminated at the sidewalk. I closed my eyes again and extended my awareness, reading the energies imprinted into the world, and the memories of the very recent past. “I see a group of four men. The primary suspect is among them. Tall, lean, looks Chinese. Red shirt, blue jeans. He has a pendant around his neck. The pendant is glowing white. “The four men are boarding a car. It’s too dark. I can’t make out the colour, model or licence plate. There is a fifth individual. Male. He’s in the driver’s seat. “The primary suspect climbed into the front passenger seat. The others are in the rear. The driver is pulling out and heading off… that way.” I pointed to my ten o’clock, where a side road led deeper into Wa Yuen. “Do you see where they went?” Jackie asked. “No. Traffic was too heavy. It muddied the trail.” It would take a cultivator more powerful than me to pick up what was left of it. With their rare talents, such cultivators were too specialised and too highly-priced to walk a beat. “I got them,” Tang said. Opening my eyes, I saw Tang holding up his phone, unfurled to the size of a tablet. The screen showed the feed from one of the city’s countless surveillance cameras. I checked the angle, did a double take, and looked up. I was standing under a streetlight. Just past the lightbulb housing, partially hidden in shadows, an unblinking camera dome looked back at me. “Is this them?” Tang asked. I turned my attention back to the screen. In colour night vision, four men sprinted towards a gray sedan. Among them was a tall man in a red shirt and blue jeans. The angle couldn’t quite catch the entirety of their faces. But as the car pulled out, the camera caught the rear half of the front licence plate and the front half of the rear plate. “Yes,” I confirmed. Tang’s fingers played across the screen. “I’ve flagged them on the system. We’ve got their licence plates, their gait signatures, partials on their faces. Once we can confirm their identities, we’ll suspend their passports and bank accounts. When they reappear on the cameras, the system will send a city-wide alert. Good job.” I exhaled sharply. No one, _no one_, escapes the law in Singyeung. And the system is always right. Anyone who says otherwise risks his Sing Score. “Do you still need us?” Jackie asked. “Nope. I’ve alerted Special Investigations. They’ll send their own cultivators. In the meantime, I’m going to need your statements—” The tablet buzzed. Tang blinked. “Huh. We’ve got a hit.” “So soon?” I asked. “They’re on Tong Lup Street, about ten minutes from here. And… shit.” “What?” Jackie demanded. Tang flipped the tablet around. “This is the real-time feed from the street camera.” Mounted on a streetlight, the camera gazed down on the sidewalk. Cars lined the roads, their licence plates highlighted in blue boxes. The vehicle of interest was marked with a red box. At the bottom of the frame, a panicking mob rushed out an unseen door, fleeing down the streets. With every step, the system tracked and analysed their movements, matching them against its gait signature databases, and marked them with green and yellow crosses. I had no idea what the symbols meant, but I could guess what was happening now. “The crew launched another attack,” Jackie said. “Ng Yong Noodle House,” Tang confirmed. “Suspected 108 front business.” “We’ve got to go.” “Woah, woah, woah. It’s police business now. You’re not going anywhere.” “How long will it take for SIS to reach the scene?” Tang shrugged. “Fifteen, thirty minutes?” “We don’t have that long,” I said. “Let SOC handle them.” I spun around, facing the SOC operators. “Do you have any cultivators among you?” “No,” Station Inspector Low, their team leader, said. I turned back to Tang. “They can’t handle the tiger spirit. We can. We have to come with you.” Tang swore. Ran his fingers through his hair. Sighed. “Fine. But you take orders from me, understand?” “Got it,” Jackie said. Tang turned to the operators. “Mount up. We’re making an immediate action rapid deployment.” “Roger that,” Low said. “As for you two…” “Yeah?” I asked. Tang glared at me. “Don’t fuck up.” ![]( Newsletter subscribers get early access to my writing updates, news and promotions. Sign up [here]( and receive a free ebook! fiction @cheah

A Quiet Night in Wai Yuen Part 1 [ Last week](, I mentioned that I would be publishing 3 webserials this month to gather reader feedback and decide my next series. This is the first chapter of the second story, _A Quiet Night in Wai Yuen_. Set in the universe of Illusion City, the story takes place in the floating arcology of Singyeung, drifting not-so-peacefully along the Equator, somewhere in Southeast Asia. In an age where cultivation and technology collide, a brave new world of magic and cybernetics is upon us. It is the story of Mark Woo, a bottom-tier cultivator with a singularly unique power, and his adventures as a private policy officer in a city fraught with fault lines. _A Quiet Night in Wai Yuen_ has Mark and his partner, Jackie Lee, patrolling the neighbourhood of Wai Yuen at night. A quiet night, until the shooting starts. -- ![ "Blade Runner, Cyberpunk, Neon Lights, Neon, Lights"]( ## Jianghu Neon forests blazed bright against the night sky. Light and sound poured from rows of narrow shophouses, a dazzling, disorienting mix of high-energy tunes in hopeless asynchrony with blinking signboards and flashing holograms. Hawkers crammed the five-foot ways, hectoring passers-by with special offers and discounts. The scent of sizzling meats and fried pastries wafted from food carts, their owners careful to display their hygiene certifications in plain view. Ground cars trundled along the congested roads, their electric engines totally silent. Loud whirs announced the presence of airborne drones and sky cars, racing for the illuminated high-rises beyond the borders of the district. A quiet night, for Wa Yuen. Flowing through the crowds, I allowed the energy of the neighbourhood to pass into and through me, feeling the pulse of the area. Popular with tourists and locals alike, this was where people went to experience the real Singyeung, where the real people lived and worked and played, far from the shadows of the arcology spires and their high-ses inhabitants. For the working crowd, Wa Yuen was a garden of earthly delights. Cheap eats, cheap deals, cheap everything. In the unmarked shophouses and the back alleys, in the dead zones where the near-omnipresent cameras couldn’t yet see, a man could find dark pleasures illicit yet tolerated—for now. Where humans go, desires follow. Where desires concentrate, wrongdoing emerges. It was the way of the universe. A man’s Sing Score was no match for his sin score, and Singyeung was one of the last places in the city where the hawkers and shopkeepers didn’t look too hard at a customer’s Scorecard. The government allowed it, of course. Better to give the low-scorers and the low-sessers somewhere they could go to vent their energies than to risk them running amok in the places where the high-scorers lived. Naturally, that meant secret societies and professional thugs flocked to Wa Yuen. Now and then the police make a big show about public safety. Uniformed cops show their faces in the five-foot ways, always in groups of four or more. _Hung Syun _from the Special Operations Command rolled heavy down the roads, their distinctive red-and-black colorations commanding respect from drivers. The Criminal Investigation Department conducts regular raids and spot-checks. But everyone knows how things really work. The jianghu polices its own. Three paces behind me, Jackie Lee strutted down the sidewalk. Lean and mean, he was a wolf in man’s clothing, and he wasn’t afraid to show it. His qi field burned hot and heavy, a burning beacon in a sea of fog. Every inch of him radiated animal aggression barely kept in check. Everyone gave him a wide berth. Me? Barely anyone noticed me. I was the point man, he was the muscle, a division of labour we had grown accustomed to over the past half-year. Early on, our roles were reversed, as he showed me the ins and outs of Wa Yuen. But now, when I was just one night away from completing my probationary period, we had reverted to the roles that suited us best. Nature could not be denied. Hawkers and shopkeepers called out to us as we passed. Those who were busy, we simply returned their greetings and went on our way. Those who were not, we stopped to chat for a bit, to better understand the ebb and flow of the neighbourhood. They had paid a pretty sum to guarantee two private police officers on the streets at all times. Not just any private PPOs either, but martial cultivators. When Jackie and I were on duty, we would give them their money’s worth. It was the right thing to do. “Mark-gor!” a voice cried out. At the end of the five-foot way, a tiny food cart sold satay. Skewers of chicken, mutton and fishballs rested on the smoking grill, releasing delicious scents. The owner, a tiny Malay woman in a colourful dress and tudung, waved at me. “Makcik Halimah!” I replied. “How are you doing?” “Good, good.” Tiptoeing, she turned to Jackie. “Jackie, you’re here too! Every time I see you, you grow taller!” Jackie laughed. He was well past puberty, but Halimah always made light of her stature. “How’s business?” Jackie asked. “Okay, lah.” She looked both ways down the street, then leaned in. “Are you busy now?” Her dark eyes were wide open, stress lines popped across her face, her hands clenched into fists. She was _afraid_. “What’s wrong?” I asked. She thumbed over her shoulder. “Ten minutes ago, I saw some gangster types walk into the park. I dunno what they’re doing there. Can you check it out?” The park was right across the road. Though popular in the day with local families, this late at night the deep shadows and rare cameras offered many opportunities for street animals and predators. “How many of them were there?” I asked. “Four, five, I think. They drove up in a red car and walked into the park. Strange, isn’t it?” “Sounds like they had something to do here,” Jackie said. “Yah, yah. Very strange, right? So late already, there’s nothing happening at the park,” Halimah said. “Can you describe them? What were they wearing?” I asked. “They were—” Shouts drifted across the road, almost lost in the din. Jackie cocked his head. “Heard that?” I nodded. “That’s from the park.” A tiger roared. White light seared across my sight. A wave of heavy qi, raw and savage, washed over me, buffeting the outer edges of my aura. “What’s going on?” Halimah asked. “Trouble,” I replied. Someone had just cast magic. The kind that rends the veil between realms and pulls otherworldly beings into this one. A summoner. More than that, a heavy hitter. Someone with the capacity to unleash the kind of power that can be felt from a block away. A cultivator. As I gathered my thoughts, a man screamed, his voice piercing the night, fading into a liquid gurgle. “Come on! We gotta go!” Jackie shouted. A loud bang echoed. Two, three, four more followed, a rapid string of unmistakable explosions. Gunfire. Guns were rare in Singyeung. Out on the street, only three kinds of people held guns: cops, corpo cops, and well-connected gangsters. I ducked, hands covering my head, qi rushing from my dantian to reinforce my defences. Civilians around me froze. Others turned to the sound. A couple walked on, totally oblivious. Halimah gaped. “Get inside and stay down!” I yelled. “What’s going on?” she asked. I grabbed her by the shoulders and shoved her in the direction of the nearest shop. “Shots fired! Take cover now!” The spell broke. People screamed. Others ran. Jackie ran too—towards the shooting. “Come on!” I followed him, sparing a moment to look both ways before crossing the road. The traffic had paused for a moment, long enough for us to weave our way between the cars and vans. As my boot hit the pavement on the other side, I scanned the world. Streetlights lined the outer perimeter of the park. Lonely pavilions and lines of light poles showed the way in the dark. Outside the pools of illumination, I saw nothing. The white light was gone. The qi wave was gone. The gunman cracked off another string, faster and more desperate than before. Jackie pointed to the left. “There! That’s the red car!” Past the street corner, a red SUV sat right in front of the entrance to the park. As we approached, Jackie drew a flashlight from his pocket and lit up the interior. Empty. With at least one gun in play, and quite likely magic, we were exposed. We had tricks of our own, of course, but a gun was a superpower all by itself. The engine block of the SUV offered the closest piece of hard cover. Ducking low, we headed for the car. Footsteps pounded against pavement. Someone panted loudly. A qi field closed in from the direction of the entrance, large and diffused. Three, four people bunched closely together. At the last second, I veered right, rushing for the welcome sign. The thin wood wouldn’t stop a bullet, but maybe it could conceal me. I pressed myself up against it and quieted my breath. Three men rushed past me, completely ignoring me, making a beeline for the red car. All three of them alerted on Jackie. “Oi! What the fuck are you doing?” the man in the middle yelled. Jackie rose to his feet, squaring off against the speaker. “I heard gunshots. What’s going on?” “None of your business!” The men fanned out. The leader, dressed in dark clothing bladed off against Jackie, hiding his right hand. From where I was, I couldn’t see what he held either. But I could read their qi. The leader and the wingman on his right were mortals. Their thin auras were faint and ragged, betraying a rough life with little self-care. The one on the left was a cultivator. His aura was a thin red field, dark and sticky, shot through with faint lines. A Tier Five, only slightly more powerful than a regular human. Nowhere near powerful enough to have caused the spike I’d felt. Stepping away from the leader, the cultivator glanced over his shoulder, a quick witness check, and keyed on me. “What the fuck?” he exclaimed. I stood. “_Hap haak!_” I declared. “Identify yourself!” In Cantonese, the term meant ‘follower of the Xia’. In Singyeung slang, it meant— “Martial cultivator! Fuck!” The cultivator swivelled around, turning to face me completely. His boss looked over his shoulder at me, then at Jackie. Breathing deep, I gathered my qi in my dantian, keeping my hands in sight. “We’re private police. Tell us what’s going on,” Jackie said. “Corpo cops!” the boss yelled. “We’re not—” Stepping back, he swung up his right arm at Jackie, revealing— “GUN!” I yelled. Jackie roared. His qi surged, pouring out of his dantian, flooding the bracelet he wore on his right wrist. The device transformed the qi, manifesting it as coruscating streams of fierce yellow light. Eyes blazing, his bared teeth gnashed in a ghastly grimace, his muscles bulged, his fingers formed hardened into claws of steel. He called this technique Wrath of the Asura: the technique that turned a Tier Three cultivator into a god of war. The leader recoiled, stunned by the force and the fury of his battle cry, his arm frozen in mid-air for a single, fatal moment. Bursting towards his centreline, Jackie was a burning thunderbolt. He slapped the gun hand away, first with his right hand, then his left. He clicked on the flashlight in his right hand, blinding the threat, then whipped around to smash the strike bezel into the leader’s jaw. He followed through, continuing his spin, slamming his left elbow into the same spot he struck. Left arm crossed over his chest, Jackie seized the leader’s left shoulder with fingers like eagle claws, rammed the flashlight into his crotch, and drove the leader towards the wingman on his right. Which left me to deal with the other threat. Rushing in, I discharged my own qi, infusing it with my intent and driving it to my own bracelet. Rivers of liquid lightning swirled across limbs, soft on the outside, hard on the inside, glowing in cool blues. The steel mala wrapped around my left wrist crackled. I do not name my magic. It is enough that it works. “Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck—” Backing up, he raised his fists. His qi flared, covering his arms in swirling red clouds. Basic body hardening magic. Not bad, just irrelevant. Leading with my left side, my arms formed a spearhead of bone. My hands shot towards his face. He covered up with his forearms, then cocked his right hand for a haymaker. I sank low and drilled my left fist into his solar plexus. My qi blasted deep into him, shocking flesh, nerves, his own qi. He doubled over, gagging and coughing. I sidestepped and corkscrewed my right fist into his exposed liver. He dropped on his ass and fell to the side, clearly out of the fight. I looked back at Jackie, just in time to see him toss the leader at the wingman. Slipping aside, the wingman raised his hands to defend himself. Jackie seized his wrist with both hands and pulled him down into a groin kick. As the gangster bent over, Jackie clapped his ears with both hands. The stunned gangster quivered as the shockwave of energy, kinetic and ethereal, rolled through him. Jackie held on tight and cranked him down through a spiral, bringing him to the ground. Glancing around me, I scanned the area. “All threats down!” I called. Jackie stepped back, fists clenched, then threw his head back and roared his victory at the heavens. Hot yang qi roiled off him, washing around me, slowly dissipating into the universe. The golden glow faded, leaving behind a regular man. I drew my own qi into myself, returning it into my dantian. Breathing slowly and deeply, I cycled it through my meridians, returning the excess to the cosmos. “What the hell was _that _all about?” Jackie asked. The only response was a soft groan. The cultivator I’d put down was curled up in the fetal position, clutching his injured flank. The other two thugs were concussed beyond unconsciousness. “Securing suspect. Cover me,” I said. I rolled the cultivator over on his belly and pinned my knee against the base of his spine. Jackie seized his left wrist, removed his transformation bracelet, and gave me the cultivator’s hand. I grabbed his other wrist, then brought both hands to the small of his back and kneed on them. I fished a pair of handcuffs from my belt pouch and cuffed him. The cultivator didn’t have the strength to resist. The best he could do was wiggle about and moan some more. Frisking him, I found a wallet, a bunch of keys, and a phone. No weapon. The other wingman was similarly unarmed. The leader’s handgun was a Type 192, cheap enough that it could be found everywhere on the black market, deadly enough that a self-respecting martial cultivator had to treat it with respect. I sat the cultivator upright, supporting him against the wheel well of the car. He coughed, trying to summon the strength to speak. I produced my own phone from my pocket and touched the scroll button. The device unrolled on silent hinges, expanding to the size of a miniature tablet. I aimed the cameras at his face and took a picture. With a flash and a click, the device captured his visage. I uploaded the photo into my facial recognition app. Connected to police and government databases, it was one of the minor perks that came with being a private police officer. Inside ten seconds, I was looking at the subject’s Scorecard. Every Citizen and every Resident of Singyeung had one. It was a digital record of his life history, permanently stored on the government blockchain. It was a combination of national identity card, medical history, academic qualifications, and, most importantly, criminal record. The first section of his Scorecard revealed his personal information. File photo, name, age, address, sex, blood type, Sing Score. I read it slowly, absorbing the information, preparing my approach. “Murali Chawla,” I said out loud. “Is that you?” Murali winced. “Who wants to know?” Kneeling, I brought myself level with him, then brought out my badge case. “My partner and I are Private Police Officers,” I said. “We heard gunshots and rushed over. Then you and your friends attacked me. You want to tell us what’s going on?” Murali spat a curse in Hindi. I shook my head. “When on duty, we hold the same powers as a regular cop. We can charge you with criminal offences. You want that?” Another curse, this time in English. “Using criminal force on a public servant, possession of a deadly weapon, criminal use of cultivation powers… You want me to go on?” I said. He glared at me and sucked his teeth. Ignoring him, I glanced at his Scorecard. “You have an extensive criminal record too. Gang robbery, involvement in a secret society, possession of weapons… Even though you served in the SDF, you lost your citizenship. Now your Sing Score is just 138 points. You’re in a bad way.” Everyone started with 500 points. As he committed infractions, major or minor, his score dropped, sometimes hundreds of points at once. Anyone who scored below 100 was deemed a threat to society—and permanently removed from the streets. “So what?” “Between this fight and your Sing Score, if you’re charged again with a major criminal offence, you are going to jail for life.” He snorted. “Not your problem.” I scrolled down, looking at his family information. “Your mother is sixty-nine,” I said slowly. “If you go to jail again, who’s going to look after her?” “FUCK YOU!” Murali shot up. I slammed my palm into his chest, using just enough force to hold him back. Then I gripped his collar and pushed him back against the wheel. “Do you want to see your mother again?” “You fucking piece of shit!” “Do you want. To see. Your mother. Again?” Baring his teeth, he glared at me. His silence was all the answer I needed. “You have one shot to make this right,” I continued. “You can see her again, but only if you cooperate. Tell us what happened.” “We never started anything!” Murali blurted. “They attacked us first!” I raised my eyebrow. “Who’s ‘they’?” “Shiba.” Chinese for ‘18’, it was the name of a secret society that operated in the region. “Which number do you play?” I asked. His eyes flicked to my screen. “You can read it on your phone, right?” “You’re all part of 108?” I took care to pronounce the numbers individually: one-zero-eight. “Yeah,” he admitted. A single number separated the names of the rival gangs. They thought it enough cause to wage a state of permanent low-level war all over Singyeung. “What are you doing here?” “One of their headmen called us here. He said he wanted to settle with us.” “What did they want to settle?” “Turf. They say that they own 9th Street. But _we_ own it.” “They wanted to fight you for it.” “Ya. They didn’t even bother to talk. Once we all gathered at the park, their headman summoned a spirit to attack us.” “What kind of spirit?” “A white tiger. Big. Fierce. Like the kind you see in the zoo.” “How did he summon it?” “Dunno. Think he held up some kind of pendant. The tiger jumped out of it.” “What did the tiger do?” “It… It jumped on Johnny. Then it… it… it bit his throat. Took his head off.” My blood chilled. A spirit that powerful could only be summoned by an even more powerful summoner. Or someone who had bought a spirit talisman from such a summoner. “What did you do next?” I asked. “We ran. What else could we do?” “What about the gunshots?” Murali looked at his unconscious buddy. “That was Tom. I didn’t know about the gun, okay? Not until he pulled it out. While we were running away, he was laying covering fire for us.” “You were defending yourselves.” Murali nodded vigorously. “Yeah, yeah! That’s right! It was self-defense!” The penalty for illegally possessing a firearm was ten years in prison and ten strokes of the neural scourge. Using a firearm in the commission of a crime guaranteed a life sentence—and twenty strokes of the scourge. Shooting someone was a one-way trip to death row. Anyone who consorts with someone who he knows was unlawfully carrying a weapon will receive the same sentence as the offender. Murali was probably hoping that this excuse would get them off the hook. Or at least himself. But the law was as cold and uncompromising as the algorithms that govern Singyeung. “Did Tom hit any of them?” I asked. “Dunno. Too dark. Didn’t see.” “How many Shiba members were there?” “Four.” “Can you describe them?” Murali shook his head. “Too dark. Look, I don’t know any of them, okay? Never see them before. Headman says I come, I come. That’s all.” “And your headman asked your buddies to come too.” “Ya.” “Where did the Shiba members go?” Murali cocked his head vaguely to the left. “Around there. After we ran, they ran away too. Never saw what happened next.” “You ran back to the entrance of the park. Is that right?” “Yes. Then we ran into you.” “Why did you attack us?” Murali shrugged. “I don’t know… I thought you were here to catch us. I thought you were part of Shiba too.” “A misunderstanding. Jesus Christ,” Jackie remarked. Murali hung his head. I sighed. Fighting was bad enough. But fighting because they thought we were there to stop them? Insane. Rotors whirred in the hot, muggy night. A chorus of police sirens filled the streets. Red and blue lights flashed in the skies above. “At last,” Jackie muttered. “Better late than never,” I agreed, then turned back to Murali. “You’ve been very cooperative so far. Thank you. Do you feel ready to help us some more?” “But I help you already!” “When the police come, they’re going to take you away. If you prove to them that you were cooperative, maybe they won’t reduce your Sing Score too much. Maybe they’ll even let you see your mother.” Murali sighed. “What do you want to know?” ![]( Newsletter subscribers get early access to my writing updates, news and promotions. Sign up [here]( and receive a free ebook! fiction @cheah

Unmaking the Singapore Dream Study hard. Get good grades. Get a good job. Work hard. Live a comfortable life. The essence of the Singapore Dream. The tried-and-true formula since 1965. Everyone born and bred in this city was waned on it alongside their mother’s milk. Stick to this path, and you will never go wrong. Until the dream shatters. Thousands of Singaporean workers have been barred from returning to the workplace. Many of them have been terminated outright, or else placed on no-pay leave in preparation for termination. They face the prospect of never being able to land another job until the pandemic ends. Their only crime: choosing not to get the Covid vaccine. Those who fall under the nebulous category of ‘not fully vaccinated’ are second-class citizens. They cannot dine in. They cannot visit malls, nor access essential services in malls without paperwork. They cannot hold a job that requires physical presence in the workplace—and Singapore’s working culture prizes face time over remote work. They invested decades of their life chasing the Singapore dream. But when they want to live the dream on their terms, it was taken away from them. To enjoy the Singapore Dream, there is one more thing you have to do: comply. For decades, this has been the Singapore way. The government delivers a comfortable life, and all you need do is comply. Trust the government to take care of the politics, and you will get a job, a flat, and other such creature comforts. Deviate from this, and the Establishment will take away your comforts and conveniences, and brand you a troublemaker, a member of the 'lunatic fringe', an anti-vaxxer. Cross the line and the government will file lawsuits or press criminal charges. And you don't know where the line is until you cross it. Most Singaporeans will comply. They have complied their entire lives. The mythos is part of their worldview. They are happy to trust the government until the end. They see no problem with shutting out everyone who disagrees. They want their conveniences, their comforts, their sense of belonging, the feeling of righteousness through obedience. They are afraid of the attentions of the authority, and what penalties may come. What is left for those of us who cannot live like this? We must unmake the Singapore dream. ## **Unlearn Dependency** ![ "Freedom, Silhouette, Woman, Backlighting, Heaven"]( Singaporean politics is centred on the government. Parliamentary debates can be summed up as such: the government should do X, the government should do more of Y, or the government should do a little less of Z. Almost never do you hear, the government should _not_ do something. The few times you do, the motion never passes unless it originates from the government. The government is everywhere in Singapore. The civil service is one of the largest employers in Singapore. Over 80% of the population lives in public housing. Employers and employees alike contribute to the Central Provident Fund, the national government-mandated savings program. Banners and billboards in every corner of Singapore carry government messages. Government regulations cover everything from food hygiene standards to workplace policies, business registration to the flying of the national flag. The government touches nearly all aspects of life, one way or another. The government sets the frame of the Overton Window. It is the axis around which all discussions of politics in Singapore begins and ends. It is deeply embedded in society. It is government taken to the maximum. Maximum government creates maximum dependency on government. It starts with the mind. When a subject sees that the government is the source of all solutions, it does not desire an alternative to government. The subject chooses to place his trust in the government, and contents himself with being a tiny cog in the machine, secure in the belief that compliance brings comfort. We cannot live like this. The government claimed that the Omicron wave has [peaked]( Yet it has also [extended]( the law allowing the imposition of so-called Covid ‘control measures’ to 2023. The implication should be obvious: expect vaccine discrimination to continue indefinitely. Even if measures were lifted soon, should a new variant emerge and take hold, we will likely return to a state of widespread restrictions. Do not hope for a swift end to the pandemic. Do not hope for a permanent end to vaccine discrimination. Do not hope that one day society will welcome you back. It would be nice if these events come to pass, but do not rest your hopes on them. Instead, brace yourself for the worst-case scenario: that there will be no foreseeable end to vaccine discrimination, that society will remain divided against you, that you will forever be treated as a second-class citizen at best. When all of society has shut you out, when the Singapore Dream becomes the Singapore Nightmare, you must unravel the foundations of old beliefs and create new ones suited for your situation. Start with these three statements: No one is coming to save you. No institution will help you. No one cares. The government has no reason to change its ways. It has been wildly successful at securing compliance from an absolute majority of society. Do not hope that the government will reverse course. Do not beg for mercy and magnanimity. Do not seek the approval of those who condemn you. The opposition has no means of directly pushing for change, those opposition members that even care. The Workers’ Party called itself the ‘co-driver’. The Workers’ Party sees no problem with allowing vaccine discrimination against thousands of workers and thousands more of their constituents. When the driver and the co-driver agree on the same destination, there is no difference between them. Smaller parties have even less influence, and cannot be counted on to achieve anything more effective than making symbolic statements in Parliament. However one may feel about them, they lack the resources and influence at present to achieve any meaningful impact. The activists and the bloggers don’t care. Singapore’s civic society is overwhelmingly left-wing. They have no problem with increased government power; they merely wish that power to be used against their enemies. They only oppose increased power if they believe if it will be used against them. Those who do oppose vaccine discrimination are few and far between—and they have even _less_ power than an Opposition MP to effect substantial policy change. The media won’t speak for the minority. Do not count on them to report any news that contradicts the narrative. Case in point: how many Singaporeans are aware of Pfizer’s [vaccine adverse event report](, including the 9-page list of ‘adverse events of special interest’? You cannot depend on an outside organization to swoop in and save the day. You must save yourself. ## **Unmake the Iron Rice Bowl** ![ "Brown Wooden Spoon With Grains on Red Table Cloth"]( Singapore’s labour relationship is based on a tripartite model. The National Trades Union Congress, the Singapore National Employers Federation and the Ministry of Manpower partner to discuss labour policies. The idea is to create a harmonious environment, unlike the adversarial labour relations seen in the West, based on negotiation and respect. This also means that NTUC and SNEF approved of the vaccine mandate. NTUC is supposed to represent workers. They have no problems with the government forcing workers to lose their jobs if they refuse the jab. SNEF is supposed to represent employers. They have no problems with the government turning employers into government enforcers. The only people they represent are the people who comply with the Singapore mythos. For those who need representation the most, they serve the least. The iron rice bowl is broken. You do not owe loyalty to those who are not loyal to you. Any employer who treats an employee is a discardable resource is not owed loyalty. Any employer who fires employees as a first resort following the imposition of the mandate is an employer who will fire _any_ employee they think is a troublemaker. The vaccinated are _not_ immune from such treatment. The mandate merely revealed what lay in the hearts of these employers. Non-compliance with the mandate was merely the excuse they used to get rid of who they perceive as troublemakers. Once they find another excuse, they will act on it. The issue at hand is _not_ the vaccine. It is compliance, and how readily an employer will play the bad guy to ensure your continued compliance. Employers who delight in forcing compliance do not see you as a person, but as a resource, to be squeezed dry, then thrown away once you become a liability. Employment is no longer a partnership, but a transaction. An employee exchanges his labour for money. An employer exchanges his money for productivity. No longer are they bound to any higher code, any semblance of deeper relationships, any notion that they are humans contracting with other humans. If an employer can discard an employee without even attempting to defend him, then an employee can and must do the same to the employer. It is the only rational move to ensure his continued survival. Antifragility and entrepreneurship are no longer optional for the unvaccinated. You must cultivate these qualities in yourself. Alternatively, you must partner with people who have these qualities. Do not hope for steady employment. Instead, strive to maximise your own value, and demand employers to match the value you offer. Employers who can no longer do this must be left behind in favour of those who can. The iron rice bowl is broken. You must make your own living. You must act. ## **Unlearn NATO** ![ "Sheep, Bleat, Communication, Communicate, To Speak"]( When the West sees ‘NATO’, they think of the military alliance. In Singapore, it means, ‘No Action, Talk Only’. Talk is cheap. But talk achieves nothing. Sharing truth and counter-narratives is just talk. While it keeps morale up, it is still talk and nothing more than talk. Singapore is not the West. The mythos of the West is that information galvanizes action. People spread information with the expectation and intention that action will follow. The mainstream media barely investigates controversial counter-narratives except to ‘debunk’ or to smear them. The Swamp does everything it can to suppress inconvenient information. However, the people at the ground level are still motivated to act. Sometimes they even succeed. This is why sharing information works over there. Over here, people do _not _act. For people who have complied their entire lives, self-directed action is an alien concept. The government decides policy, and they obey. When in doubt, defer to the authorities. Three generations of Singaporeans have grown up with this mythos. They have chosen the chains of comfort and convenience over independent thought and deed. You cannot hope that by sharing the counter-narrative enough times, people will finally wake up. You cannot hope that by talking enough, people will finally act. You cannot hope that the opposition, the bloggers, or the media will talk enough that something will finally happen in your favour. You cannot hope that someone else will act for you. All this is nice if it happens. But do not make it the centrepiece of your strategy. Do not even cling to the idea of a single person changing his mind. Do not count on society somehow backing you in the near future. You rely on yourself. You must act. Start new businesses. Learn new skills. Create mutual support networks. Understand what you want and need out of life, then work every day to achieve those goals. Build a [parallel economy]( Talk alone achieves nothing. You must act—even and especially if you are afraid to act. ## **Unmake Your Fears** ![ "Anxiety, Fear, Mystic, Mystery, Ghost, Spirituality"]( Growing up in Singapore, fear is hardcoded into the local culture. You hear it in the way elders speak to misbehaving children. ‘The police will catch you.’ ‘You must be careful.’ ‘Cannot be helped.’ Fear keeps you entrenched where you are. Fear is the reason we are living in such times. Fear is the obstacle that stands between who we are now and who we can become. Fear exists only in your mind. Can you point to fear? Can you summon it on demand? You can _feel_ it, but it is not a thing that exists outside you. It is something that comes from within. It is something that begins with the mind. And the mind is also the end of fear. In the Singapore mythos, fear comes from deviation from the norm, and the end of fear comes from compliance with the norm. You must leave this programming behind. You no longer have the luxury of fear. Societal approval or ostracism no longer matters. What matters is ensuring the continued survival of you and yours. It doesn’t mean you should stoop to outright rebellion and criminal activity, but you must understand that you should no longer seek approval from those who have condemned you. The answer will always be no. You must do what is right by you and yours—not what is popular. You must [cultivate the courage]( to act. To create the life you want. If you do not overcome your fears, then your fears will overcome you.  The moment when you feel most afraid is the moment you can be most courageous. But this requires conscious choice, deliberate action, and intense preparation. Your fears tell you where your weakness lies. What you are afraid of even contemplating is your deepest fear. Therefore, seek out the skills and resources necessary to overcome these weaknesses. If you find yourself prone to over-exaggerating your fears and catastrophizing every little thing, then your weakness lies in giving up reason and clinging to fear. Let it go. If you find yourself downplaying actual threats to life, limb and employment, especially because you are afraid of the true impact on your life, then your weakness lies in willful ignorance. You may wish to shield yourself from the emotional impact of knowledge, but in so doing you merely guarantee a harder fall at the end. You must coldly and rationally assess your current situation, then develop an action plan—and execute. If in your analyses you come up with a series of realistic scenarios that could potentially play out, then you must pre-empt them through training, gathering resources, making contacts, and other such actions. Compliance sprouts from deep-rooted fear. When compliance leads you to life outcomes that you cannot abide by, then you must uproot fear and plant new seeds. Understand what you want out of life. Set your goals. Develop an iron code of values and stick to them. Identify your strengths and weaknesses, then develop the former and patch the latter. When fear rises its head, you must cut it down and push on. It is how you create the life you dream of. ## **Unmake the Singapore Dream** ![ "Mountain, Volcano, Peak, Summit, Countryside"]( For the unvaccinated, the Singapore Dream is dead. They will be shunned in school. They will never be gainfully employed in a position that requires physical presence. They will be treated as pariahs, even after the pandemic is over. They bear the mark of the troublemaker, and there is no redemption from this most grievous of sins. The Singapore Dream is only for those who buy completely into the Singapore mythos. For those of us who exist outside it, we must find a new way of life. We must create a radically decentralized future. A future that does not require trust in nameless, faceless organisations, but where people can trust other people. A future founded on personal character and reputation, smart contracts, privacy, ironclad algorithms, and transparency. A future where anyone can transact directly with anyone else, anywhere in the world. A future where authorities must treat people not as subjects, not as resources, not as cogs, but as humans—or risk being rendered utterly irrelevant. The Singapore Dream is dead. Thus, we must create a new dream for ourselves. We have no other choice. ![]( Want sneak peeks into a better world with me? Sign up for my newsletter [here]( and receive a _free_ ebook! covid @cheah

Road to Chequn Part 5 ![ "Winter Landscape, Sunset, Twilight, Winter, Snow, Cold"]( ## Hit and Run They were being hunted. Outnumbered, outgunned, there was only one thing they could do. And it would take everything they had to do it. “Do you sense the enemy?” Wai Kit whispered. No response. Wai Kit glanced over his shoulder. “_Wai!_ Still with me?” Gam Fong compressed his arms into himself, visibly quaking. But he still held his weapon in both hands. “Cold,” Gam Fong whispered. The suit kept a man’s body warm. It could not insulate the soul. “The Outsiders are making their push. It’s time to hit and run.” Gam Fong stared at him numbly. “Stay with me! We’ve got to do this!” Wai Kit said. Gam Fong sucked in a breath and nodded. Doubling back, the Protectors headed to a copse of trees and lay prone side-by-side. “I’ll spot. You’re on security,” Wai Kit said. “Okay,” Gam Fong muttered. Wai Kit swept left to right, right to left. More figures of black hei entered his field of awareness. But on his display, he saw only unending forests and grim hills. Icy doubt crept into his heart, staining his soul. He _knew_ he had sensed them. Hadn’t he? Or was it another cruel trick of the Abomination? It didn’t matter. Here was a good place to lay in ambush. So he waited, and watched, and waited some more. Something caught his eye. He wasn’t _quite_ sure what it was. But his brain demanded that he look at it. It seemed to be a simple patch of snow. Perfectly ordinary. But… A depression appeared in the snow. He blinked. Another depression. A third. A _trail_. Keeping as still as he dared, he scanned his entire frontage. Eight shallow trails snaked across the snow, moving from tree to tree. Watching them in his peripheral vision, he caught traces of movement, but no shape or form. He peeked at the other side of the river. He thought he saw movement, but there was neither trail nor silhouette to confirm his suspicions. They were sending out scouts, Wai Kit decided. Their shamans must have bestowed invisibility on a contingent of warriors, and sent them forth to hunt the intruders. If there was a squad of eight on this side of the river, there was probably another squad on the other side. Mentally he doubled that number, coming up with a full platoon. A platoon of hunter-killers sounded right. They would be the vanguard, leading the way for the rest of the horde. Once the Protectors were eliminated, the Abomination would commit its forces. Two Protectors couldn’t stop the tide. But they could slow it. “Prepare four grenade-mines,” Wai Kit whispered. Right before the rest of the convoy had departed, the Protectors had given the pair all the grenade-mines they could spare. Each man had eight, four in their kangaroo pouches, four more mounted on their backpacks. Gam Fong crawled over to Wai Kit and emptied the munition pouches on his pack. “Set them to mine mode,” Wai Kit said. Gam Fong took a munition in both hands, then gingerly twisted the setting wheel clockwise. As he continued to prime the other bombs, Wai Kit continued to speak. “I want you to take two grenade-mines. I’ll take the other two.” “Okay.” “When I give the word, I want you to throw your bombs at the edge of the wood to our front. One to the left, one to the right.” “One to the left, one to the right, got it.” “I’ll deploy mine along the river bank. After that, we’ll fall back to the patch of woods far behind us. Then we’ll swap roles.” “Understood.” “Let’s do this.” Gam Fong placed two grenade-mines next to Wai Kit. The senior Protector double-checked that the kid hadn’t accidentally pulled the safety pins, that the bombs were indeed set to mine mode, then scanned the forest. The scouts continued their infiltration. They were now on the verge of crossing a fifty-meter stretch of open land. Wai Kit scanned the woods beyond them, looking for the rest of their comrades. It was a long shot, but you’d never know. He came up with nothing. No shamans, no high value targets. Just as well. They were coming too close for comfort. “Stand by, stand by…” Wai Kit whispered. He rested the crosshair on the leading hunter-killer. Exhaled. Fired. A high-energy bolt struck the invisibility cloak. It seemed to split in half and bend around the monster. But that was merely the visible light of its payload. The rest it bored into the beast in a blast of heat and light, stripping the cloak. Hot on the heels of the first shot, Wai Kit fired again. The Outsiders responded immediately, deluging the woods in a hail of spikes. “Toss the mines!” Wai Kit yelled. The kid flowed into action. He pulled the pin on a mine and threw it to the left, primed the other and tossed it to the right. “Fall back!” Wai Kit ordered. The kid ran. Wai Kit covered him, blasting away at movement, at trails, at anything that presented a target. Spikes screamed all around him, smashing into trees and branches and snow. They were coming closer, closer, pinning him down for the final kill. Wai Kit maintained a steady cadence of fire, riding the delicate balance between volume and sustainment. His hei points ran down by the hundreds, then the thousands. Thirty thousand, twenty nine thousand, twenty eight… “Set!” Gam Fong called. “Moving!” Wai Kit scooped up the other two grenade-mines and ran like a rooster. Munitions pressed against his pecs, he sprinted for the second-tallest tree in view. He crooked his right finger and pulled the pin on the mine in his left hand. He mirrored the process for the other hand. Then: “Suit: Bear, Bear, Bear!” Suddenly energized, his arms felt weightless and free. He dropped the pins behind him, twisted his body, and threw the right-hand mine in the direction of the river. He torqued the other way, then flung the other munition at the river bank. “Suit, terminate Bear!” He skidded to a halt by the tree. Spikes whistled through the air. Snow exploded. Branches collapsed. Trees groaned. “Gam Fong!” Wai Kit yelled. “Here!” the kid shouted. Off to the left, a reflective strip floated in mid-air. It was the only piece of the kid’s suit that the helmet goggles could see. As the Outsiders continued to lay down suppressive fire, Wai Kit scooted over. “Give me your mines!” Gam Fong turned his back to Wai Kit. Wai Kit hurriedly pulled all four grenade-mines off the backpack. As he worked, soft _pops_ awoke in the forest. The munitions had awoken. Sixty seconds after deployment, the outer case of the grenade-mine would pop open, unfolding into four sections, like the petals of a flower. The force flung the munition into the air. Then it would land upright, stabilized by its petals. Moments later, it would fire four tripwires in every direction. Anything that tripped the wire would receive a faceful of frag. Dialing the munitions to mine mode, Wai Kit sent a flurry of thoughts towards the Outsiders. _Come on, chase us, you know you want to, come and destroy us—_ A terrible psychic roar blasted from the Abomination. His brain shook. His eyes watered. The world trembled before it. And a mine detonated. It was one of the mines he had thrown in the direction of the river. The enemy had tried to flank them. Now they were paying the price. “They’re getting close,” Wai Kit said. “Same drill as before. You initiate with a shot. I’ll toss the mines to cover our front. Then you throw the mines at the river, and we fall back.” Gam Fong said nothing. “_Wai!_ Still here?” Gam Fong shook his head. “Yeah, yeah. What the devil was that?” “The Abomination is angry.” “Look. Isn’t it closer?” Wai Kit looked up. A black pyramid overshadowed the valley. The enormous edifice towered over the surrounding hills, casting them in deep shadows. He couldn’t help but imagine that it was swallowing up the very stars, slowly but inexorably eating up all light in the universe. Deep inside he knew he’d only seen a tiny component of the colossal creature, and already he felt his nerves unwinding, his thoughts disintegrating. It was a thing too enormous to ever be understood by man, and to see it in its entirety is to be shattered forever under the weight of such knowledge. “The enemy is coming. Pay attention,” Wai Kit urged. Another mine detonated. Then another. The scouts had reached the woods. In moments, they would overrun the Protectors’ former position. Then they would expose themselves again. “I see a trail,” Gam Fong said. “Eleven o’clock, ninety meters, near the tall tree.” A shallow trough appeared in the snow. “That’s one. Keep an eye on it,” Wai Kit said. He swept the tree line. But all he saw was the steadily encroaching warrior. The Outsiders were becoming more cautious, keeping their forces behind cover. “Light it up,” Wai Kit ordered. Gam Fong fired. The first shot stripped away its cloak. The second burned it down. The third attracted a hailstorm of return fire. Gam Fong screamed. Wai Kit flung a mine to his left. Then turned and tossed it to his right. It bounced off a tree. It landed next to him. He held his breath. His mind blanked. “I’m hit!” Gam Fong yelled. Reason rushed into Wai Kit’s brain. “Can you move?” Wai Kit shouted. “I— Yes!” “MOVE! NOW! I’LL GET THE MINES!” Gam Fong rushed into the darkness, his gait unsteady. Wai Kit picked up the remaining two grenade-mines and followed. The primed mines popped. Wai Kit didn’t dare to think of the death in his midst. He simply pulled the pins on the two munitions in his hands, powered up his suit muscles, and threw them in the direction of the river. Hypervelocity spikes chased the Protectors to the next concentration of trees. Gam Fong dove behind a bunch of roots and gasped in pain. Wai Kit slid down next to him. “How bad is it?” Wai Kit asked. “Got my right shoulder,” Gam Fong hissed. “Feels like the bone is broken.” “What about your left arm? Is it any good?” Gam Fong gasped in pain. “Yeah.” “Get your mines ready. All of them.” Warning chimes sounded in his helmet. The heat gauge flashed red. Soon, the suit would go into emergency mode and expose the radiators fully. At that point, stealth would be severely degraded. But every last bit helps. “Switch to combat mode,” Wai Kit said. The capacitors discharged. Power flowed into his artificial muscles once more. The cooling fins extended, now blowing off heat. Snow melted all around him. The combat software activated, his IFF beacon sparked up, a blue outline appeared around Gam Fong’s silhouette. As Wai Kit scanned, Gam Fong prepared his grenade-mines. Awkwardly he fished them one by one from his pouches, then dialed them to mine mode. Trees rustled. Wind howled. Another mine went off. Cosmic hate roiled off the Abomination, the rage of a god seeing its creations despoiled by some insect. Black hei scourged the world. Wai Kit swore it was sending orders, casting magic, marshaling its forces for a final charge. The Protectors couldn’t kill all of them. But they could bleed them white. And maybe, just maybe, delay them long enough for the relief convoy to arrive. Gam Fong set the last grenade-mine down. Then he twisted around and reached into a pouch. “What are you doing?” Wai Kit whispered. Gam Fong held up an Outsider core. And squeezed. “You sure you want to do this?” Wai Kit asked. “We don’t have a choice!” “What do you think it will do?” “Supercharge my prisms. Top off my cores. Heal my wound.” “And permanently stain your soul.” “We’re in grave danger. How can I not use it?” “Is the situation hopeless?” “We’ve got an Abomination bearing down on us, we’re outnumbered, we’re—” “Is the situation hopeless? Yes or no?” “And if I say yes?” “Then consuming the core won’t help. If you must die, then die with a clean soul, lest you suffer a worse fate than death.” “What if I say no?” “Then why consume the core? You don’t need it.” Chuckling, Gam Fong shook his head. “Unbelievable.” “It’s how I survived for so long,” Wai Kit said. “Leopard Two to Leopard Three, come in,” Sam Yung interrupted. “Leopard Three here. Go ahead.” “Leopard Three, we have returned to the village, and we’re loading up the civilians.” Wai Kit blinked, then looked at the clock at the upper right corner of his display. “You’re over three hours early!” Wai Kit exclaimed. “I radioed ahead before we left. Chungfa City mobilized a relief convoy. We met them halfway down the road. We swapped drivers with them, then headed back to Chequn.” A pang of relief escaped Wai Kit’s lips. “_Zetin zedei_,” he whispered. “How long do you need to load the civilians?” “Ten minutes, maybe less. We’re stuffing everyone aboard now.” “The Outsiders are committing their forces. We’re harassing them, but we’re outnumbered. We’re pulling back after ten minutes.” “Got it.” Wai Kit tapped Gam Fong. “You heard that? Ten minutes. That’s all. You can hold out for ten minutes, right?” Cold invaded Wai Kit’s chest. Shivers ran down his spine. Ten thousand voices gnawed at the edges of his hearing. He couldn’t begin to imagine what the kid was experiencing. Gam Fong nodded. “Ten minutes? I can hold for ten hours if I have to.” “That’s the spirit. Now put the core away.” The junior Protector obeyed, his movements increasingly stiff and jerky. Wai Kit hoped he could continue to hold out. At least, long enough to survive this. Snow crunched. Twigs snapped. Heavy feet shuffled. Scanning the world before him, Wai Kit saw footsteps in the snow, shadows flitting among the trees, darkness spreading across the sky. The Outsiders were coming. “I’m going to draw them towards the river,” Wai Kit whispered. “Once you hear the shooting, throw the mines forward. Then fall back.” “Roger.” Wai Kit slunk off to the southeast. He still had four grenade-mines remaining, and he wanted to make the most of them. Keeping to cover and concealment, he moved from tree to tree, seeking where the forest was densest. He picked a thick tree to make his stand, then oriented himself towards the enemy. More trails appeared in the snow. A full squad of warriors. They were moving parallel to the tracks he and Gam Fong had left behind, following their trail yet wary of more traps. Wai Kit steadied himself, his breathing deep and regular. A fresh footstep appeared. He aimed slightly ahead of it and fired. The bolt caught the scout in the lower leg. Its foot flew off in a bloody spray. The monster toppled over, hollering at the top of its lungs, then aimed its left arm in his general direction and sprayed down the trees a volley of spikes. Wai Kit was already in motion. As projectiles ripped into the tree, he headed towards the river, hopping over roots, ducking under branches. He rounded a tree trunk and snapped off a couple of shots towards the Outsiders. A fresh fusillade followed. He scooted away, making his way to the river bank. And on the other side, a squad of Outsiders unleashed hell. Storms of high-velocity spikes screamed around him. Dropping to the snow, he cursed under his breath. He thought he was drawing them into an ambush. They’d been ready for him. Keeping low, he crawled back, back, away from the fire— Tongues of white flame arced across the river and fell among the forest. Snow exploded into steam. Branches ignited. Flames leapt from tree to tree. Burning liquid dripped from the branches, melting through the snow, igniting the ancient undergrowth. Wai Kit fired a quick burst, hosing down the general direction of the shaman. He picked himself up again, scooted to the rear, found a tree, sprayed them down again. Soft _pops_ echoed in the woods ahead of him. “Mines deployed! Moving out!” Gam Fong shouted. The junior Protector’s weapon shouted also, drawing attention to him. A blizzard of spikes fell his way. Red swatches appeared in his display, the suit computer suggesting the enemy’s location. Wai Kit shifted left, then loosed a fusillade of suppressive fire. He fell into a rhythm. Five shots in one direction, fall back, another five shots, fall back again. When he ran out of forest, he held in place and ripped off a few more shots. His hei points fell rapidly, now breaching the 19000 mark. “Set!” Gam Fong shouted. “Moving!” Wai Kit yelled. And ran. Spikes nipped at his feet. Fireballs burst around him. Invisible warriors gave tongue to battle cries. He switched to Rooster mode, becoming a blur. And a spike slammed into his chest. The spike punched through the suit’s outer camouflage layer. The inner layer hardened, becoming as strong as diamond. The spike shattered, but so did the defensive shell. The kinetic energy bowled him over, knocking him facedown into the snow. What the devil was that? He’d been shot from the _front?_ No time for that. Ignoring the pain in his chest, he rolled to the left. Snow geysered where he’d once lay. “The enemy has flanked us! They’re boxing us in!” Gam Fong shouted. His weapon screamed defiance into the dark. Warriors roared in reply. Ice water flowed through Wai Kit’s veins. Not here. Not now. Not when they were so close. “Leopard Three, Leopard Two! We’re on the walls and we are providing fire support! Keep your IFF on!” Heavy guns roared. Bolts slashed the darkness. Wai Kit propped himself up on his belly. His suit computer identified a blurry mass as a warrior, aiming off to Wai Kit’s right, at Gam Fong’s position. Wai Kit fired, blasting its extended arm. The warrior howled in pain. He fired a short burst, drilling through the tree, hoping to score a vital hit. Then he got up and ran. A second spike struck him in the back. An explosion rocked his helmet. Alarms rang. A cold, wet sensation covered his lumbar region. But he was still on his feet. He could still fight. Glancing at the side, he checked his suit readout. Armor at 83%. Penetration in the suit pack. The suit’s defensive nanofluids were flowing to the hole, trying to patch the opening. The water bladder must have been punctured. Over time, the spilled water would freeze. That would complicate things. But it didn’t matter. Either he survived long enough to fix it in safety, or soon it wouldn’t be a problem. He stumbled past the tree line. Instinctively he sought cover behind a tree. A thick one. Nearby, a volley of spikes sawed down a weak tree. A blurry mass peeked around a tree off to his left. A red silhouette appeared around it. Without thought, without hesitation, he lifted his weapon and blasted it one two three four times and it fell. Gam Fong screamed. Wai Kit spun to his right. A warrior pinned Gam Fong to the ground, mounting him in a full guard. Right fist holding down his good arm, it raised its left hand, ready to pulverize him. Gam Fong bucked and threshed, but he couldn’t throw off the beast. Wai Kit shot it in the side. It turned to him. He shot it in the head. It fell. Gam Fong threw it off. An Outsider screamed. Wood crunched. Feet thundered. Instinctively Wai Kit threw himself forward. A colossal monster bulled through the dark. Arms shielding its head, it bashed aside a flurry of branches and kept going, roaring at the top of its lungs. Wai Kit dodged it by a hair and stumbled against a root. He caught himself with his hands, spun around, and pressed the trigger. _BEEP_ Insufficient power. The warrior crashed into a tree. Hurriedly Wai Kit fixed his bayonet, moving towards Gam Fong. Howling, the Outsider turned to face him and retracted its forearm plates. Wicked claws shot out, extending well past the length of its knuckles. Charging at Wai Kit, it raised its left fist, preparing for the killer blow. Wai Kit counter charged. “Suit: Dragon, Dragon, Dragon!” Power poured from the three fields, energizing the suit’s entire body. His right foot rushed in with a powerful rooster step. His Type 77 raised high, pointing at the sky, covering his right side. His lift knee shot up, protecting his low line. The weapons collided, human steel against alien bone, deflecting the blow. And he paused. Glaring at the Outsider, his gaze bored into its face. He blasted it with his intent, his hei, the essence of wrath manifest. Anticipating a high line attack, the Outsider raised its right arm, covering its head. And _now_ Wai Kit struck, dropping low and bursting in with his left foot, an eagle diving on its prey, thrusting his bayonet into its right kua, into the fold that joined the pelvis to the leg. The warrior folded around the blow. The spike bayonet sank deep, forcing it down. Unbalanced, the warrior fell onto his back. He retracted the blade, then thrust into its exposed throat and fired. The blast obliterated its head. Stepping down from Dragon mode, Wai Kit rushed over to Gam Fong. Lying on the ground, the kid moaned, completely insensate. The hei around his head was blackened and incoherent. He must have taken a blow to the head. At least the innermost layers of the suit had sealed off the wound, stopping the bleeding. “Gam Fong! Can you hear me?” Gam Fong groaned. Firelight rushed behind Wai Kit. Hypersonic cracks thundered anew. The Outsiders were renewing their assault. Now that the Protectors had destroyed the blocking force, they no longer feared friendly fire. “Leopard Two, Leopard Three. We are pulling back to the village. I am bringing back a casualty. We need all the suppressing fire you can deliver.” “Understood. Suppressing now.” A storm of light screamed overhead. Blizzards of spikes answered. Heavy bolts pounded the earth, interspaced with lighter bolts. Wai Kit dug into a thigh pouch and drew a rescue tether. He clipped one end to a D-ring on the top of Gam Fong’s backpack. He lifted a flap over his pelvis, revealing another D-ring, and attached the other end of the tether. Weapon in both hands, he backed up, heading towards the walls. “It’s almost over,” Wai Kit said. “Just hang in there!” Groaning, Gam Fong reached around, taking his weapon in his left hand. “Can you hear me?” Wai Kit pressed. “Yeah,” Gam Fong muttered. “We’re going to get out of this! Stay awake!” Gunners dueled in the dark. Spikes blasted into rammed earth. Fireballs traced deadly arcs across the river. As he walked backwards, Wai Kit blasted away at red patches in his field of view. Now and then, Gam Fong blasted away too, awkwardly aiming with one hand. Wai Kit glanced over his shoulder, avoiding the trees. He released his weapon and drew a grenade-mine. He set the munition to mine mode and tossed it at the river. He threw his second at the forest ahead. The third he picked a random angle between the woods and the water and tossed it. “Open the gates!” someone shouted. The gates swung open. Guardsmen stepped out, shooting into the dark. Wai Kit took control of his weapon and backed up into the village. A long line of trucks filled the main road. Some were Shepherds, others a mishmash of civilian trucks thrown haphazardly together. The front of the queue was already moving off. The final Shepherd in line waited for them, the doors thrown wide open. Sam Yung rushed over to Wai Kit, then looked down at Gam Fong. “How bad is it?” Sam Yung asked. “I’ll… live…” Gam Fong muttered. Wai Kit detached Gam Fong and stowed the tether. Sam Yung picked up the wounded man and carried him to the last Shepherd. The last militiamen on the walls fell back. First the guardsmen, rushing for the trucks. Then a team of Protectors leapt down from the walls, cradling heavy guns to their chest. Fireballs and spikes pounded the walls, chasing off the humans. Searing light flashed, and the gates caught fire. “Come on!” Sam Yung called. “We’ve got to go!” “Wait!” Wai Kit replied. He drew his final grenade-mine. Rotating the selector wheel, he ran for the gate. In the distance, other munitions detonated. Every blast brought a fresh wave of alien scorn, pounding his brain with renewed violence. He sucked down a breath, fighting through the pain, and dropped to his knees. He scooped out a handful of snow from the ground. Placed the munition at the bottom of hole. Pulled the pin and the safety lever. And ran. “Let’s go!” Sam Yung yelled. The wounded man stood by the final Shepherd, beckoning Wai Kit over. Wai Kit sprinted as fast as his augmented legs would take him. Behind him, past the battered walls, monsters howled in rage and triumph. Cold winds blasted through the roads, seeping through his suit to freeze his soul. Wai Kit clambered aboard the Shepherd, squashing himself among his brother Protectors. “Last man!” he yelled. Sam Yung returned to the vehicle commander seat. “Move out!” Sam Yung ordered. The driver hit the accelerator. The Shepherd shot forth, following in the tracks of the trucks ahead. Deep booms carried down the street. Fireballs arced over the walls, exploding among houses. Through the window, Wai Kit saw Elder Che’s home burn. The firelight illuminated the piles of supplies they’d been forced to leave behind. _Another town gone_, Wai Kit thought. _Another light extinguished_. The man next to him moaned in pain. It was Gam Fong, he realized. “Gam Fong, still alive?” Wai Kit asked. Gam Fong nodded. “Yeah. I blacked out for a bit, I think. What happened?” “We’re evacuating.” The northern gate collapsed with a loud crash. The howls of warriors filled the town. The final mine exploded. _Chew on that_, he thought. The convoy headed south. Through the gates, down the valley, to warmth and safety and civilization. “Pretty dramatic for a first job,” Wai Kit remarked. Gam Fong shuddered. And chuckled. “_Too _much drama.” “If you want to stay in the Protectors, you’ve got to be prepared for this.” “Not sure if my heart can take much more of this.” “Strengthen your heart hei.” This time, everyone in the truck laughed. Then Gam Fong sighed. “Was this worth it?” he wondered. “What is?” Gam Fong gestured with his good hand. “What’s the point of fighting if the Abominations are going to win anyway?” “Every day humanity survives is a victory.” “We can’t fight them. They’re going to wipe us all out. We barely survived this time. What about—” “We survived. That’s what matters.” “But—” “No buts. We lived. We won. Now go rest. You’re going to need it.” Gam Fong fell into a sullen silence. Wai Kit sighed. He hoped he believed at least half of his words. Steeling himself with a breath, he looked out the rear window. The Abomination was _there_. Where Chequn once was, the Abomination now stood. All traces of human settlement had been utterly erased, absorbed into the immensity of the thing. It wasn’t a pyramid, he realized, but a… a _shape_. That was the only word he could find. Its upper half had the pointed tip and angular sides of a pyramid, but its lower half was a chaotic sea of alien angles and fractal branches and rotating facets and other things that pained his eyes just to look at. And it was huge, higher than the mountains, reaching forever into the sky, swallowing all that was into itself. There was no resisting it, there was no fighting it, there was only death or flight. Unbidden memories rushed through his mind. Many-angled things floating through the sky. Hordes of monsters overwhelming soft humans. Objects, buildings, _people_ falling apart and disappearing under the gaze of cosmic gods. Desperate chants of holy scriptures in a futile bid to hold them back. He shook his head. Cleared his thoughts. And extended his awareness. Rage emanated from the Abomination, so hot it could flash snow to steam and melt steel in an instant. Hate poured off every square inch of its being. It greedily consumed all around it, yet it could not have what it truly wanted: the flesh and bones and souls of living men. Behind its enmity, Wai Kit sensed an incredible, inexpressible, undeniable frustration. What emotions he sensed, he knew it was but the tiniest drop in the ocean that was the Abomination’s emotions—if indeed an Abomination could be said to feel anything at all. Its sheer psychic mass would crush the soul of any man who got too close, then drown it forever in an abyss of never-ending torment. But it did not pursue the humans. It could _not_ pursue them. Which meant that, for all its immense power, it was still limited. One day, humanity would discover the limits of the Abominations and take the war to them. One day, humanity would reclaim the world. One day. And maybe, just maybe, he would live long enough to see that day. He leaned back, closed his eyes, and allowed himself to dream. ![]( Newsletter subscribers get advance notice of my upcoming stories and writing updates. Sign up [here]( and receive a _free_ ebook! fiction @cheah

Road to Chequn Part 4 ![ "Winter Landscape, Sunset, Twilight, Winter, Snow, Cold"]( ## **Alone in the Night** The hours flew by in a rush of activity. The Protectors dumped all their cargo and shoved as many women and children as they could into the Shepherds. The patients were quarantined to Leopard Two. Sam Yung left the dead Protector with the abandoned goods, making more room for the living. When the cargo bays were completely filled up, the Protectors jammed more people into the front cabs. They could only hold seventy-three out of three hundred and fifty-two inhabitants. The moment the convoy left, Wai Kit and Gam Fong sat down with Elder Che and Captain Che, leader of the town guard. Over a late lunch, they discussed the defense plans, the contingency plans, the plans for a final stand. The town guards were not Protectors. They did not have the weapons, the equipment or even the training of the Protectors. They didn’t even have Seven Stars Three Fields suits. But their mission was not the same as the Protectors’. They simply needed enough to defend their homes and the surrounding region. Unlike the Protectors, however, they had an intimate knowledge of the landscape. Wai Kit and Gam Fong quizzed the captain intensely, building up a map of the land, reconciling it with the pre-Winter maps they had loaded into their suit computers. Then came a delicate question. “Why do you place skulls on stakes?” Wai Kit asked. “To send a message to the Outsiders,” Captain Che said. “What kind of message?” “‘Come here and die’.” “Did it work?” Captain Che frowned. Elder Che sighed. “It helps the young vent their frustrations,” the older man said. “Previously, they sent raiders here once every year or two. Recently they came once a month, sometimes once a week. Rarely do our guards survive the encounters unscathed, and often those who travel without protection disappear into the wilds.” “Did four men disappear recently?” “Yes. We sent out a hunting party three days ago. They never returned. Why do you ask?” “We… found their remains on the way here,” Wai Kit said delicately. Captain Che sighed. Elder Che buried his face in his hands, muttering under his breath. “I told them it was too dangerous,” Elder Che said. “This is why we placed the skulls. To frighten the Outsiders,” Captain Che affirmed. “When did you put them up?” “Two weeks ago, after their last raid. They killed two of ours, so we brought out the bones of all of theirs that we’ve killed since the beginning of the year.” “And you say the Abomination appeared this morning.” “Yes,” Elder Che said. “Have you considered the possibility that the skulls merely signaled a willingness to escalate?” “You’re saying we attracted the Abomination?” Captain Che demanded. “We display their dead. They display our dead. Has it changed the dynamics between us?” Wai Kit asked. Captain Che scowled. Elder Che shook his head. “I told them not to do it. They went and did it anyway,” Elder Che said. “You’re blaming us for that… that _thing_ to the north?” Captain Che fumed. “We’re not here to cast blame. We’re here to figure out what’s going on, so we can help defend your town,” Wai Kit said smoothly. The Ces relaxed. Slightly. “What’s your plan?” Captain Che asked. “You already have a solid defensive position. All you have to do is man the walls and keep the Outsiders away.” “What about you?” Wai Kit smiled. “We do what we do best." \*\*\* Nightfall. Torches burned along the rammed earth ramparts, a gesture of defiance against the cold and the dark—and because the town guard lacked night vision gear. The guards were out in force, manning the high battlements, their heichung charged and ready. A reserve troop waited in the center of town, ready to respond to emergencies. The menfolk of the town—and more than a few of the women—had grabbed what weapons they had on hand, and either barricaded themselves in their homes or positioned themselves by the gates. The defenders numbered two hundred and seventy-nine. The Outsiders were endless. The Protectors might have superior equipment, training and hei capabilities, but there were only two of them. They wouldn’t make a significant difference on the walls. Thus, they did the only thing they could do. They headed north. Towards the Abomination. Towards the armies that served it. Swinging on silent hinges, the northern gates opened a crack. Just enough to admit a single human. Through that opening, a fresh flood of hatred and hunger poured into the town. Cold sank into Wai Kit’s bones, a cold that bit deeper than the Eternal Winter, a cold that his suit’s climate controls could not battle. The guards flinched away, hiding behind the thick walls. The civilian volunteers huddled together, seeking a warmth they would never mind. Wai Kit, caught in the full blast of the diabolical emanation, stood firm. Then peeked over his shoulder. “Last chance to back out,” he said. Gam Fong clenched his teeth and gripped his weapon to his chest. “I’m going.” “_We_ are going.” The Protectors slipped through the crack and slunk into the shadows. The gate shut behind them with a solid boom. And then, they were alone in the night. Crouching behind a bare tree, Wai Kit scanned the world before him, taking his bearings. The valley was steep and narrow, the White River a rushing, winding stream cutting through the earth. The forest had thinned significantly. Boulders dotted the landscape, their silhouettes softened by heavy coats of snow. He drew a breath. The air was thin, but not so much it would hamper his performance. Between his suit and his breathing techniques, he would be able to fight as well in the mountains as at sea level. He took another breath, long and low and deep, listening now to the world around him. He heard the burbling of the waters, the susurration of a gentle and steady breeze, a sharp crack as a dry branch shattered under the weight of snow. He heard no sounds of life. One last breath. And he looked up. The night gazed down upon him. Fields of cold stars illuminated high mountains, remote and uncaring. To his eleven o’clock, between two peaks, there was a swathe of total blackness, a void that sucked in all light. Yet in that field of nothingness he thought he sensed countless billions of eyes, opening and closing, drawing in hei and shooting out hate. It was a pyramid of eyes, and he saw but only a tiny facet of it. But it was larger than in the afternoon. It was coming closer. And it was hunting _him_. “Suit: Phantom mode,” he whispered. The capacitors discharged en masse. Ripples passed through the outermost layers of his suit. The active weave transformed, altering its surface properties. Light bent _around_ the suit, the entire spectrum of light, infrared to ultraviolet and all the colors in between. Clad in a thin layer of active weave, his pouches, power cable and weapon transformed as well. Cooling fins along his backpack partially retracted. His active glass visor tinted, matching the colors of the night. The inner display grabbed the feed from the helmet’s integral cameras and reproduced the world in true color night vision, with a thermal overlay, turning night to noon. In the space of a heartbeat, Wai Kit was a ghost. A full-fledged defensive operation required much equipment. Gun emplacements with interlocking fields of fire. Barbed wire. Foxholes. Trenches. Mines. Artillery. A full-fledged Barrier. All the Protectors had was what little they had packed for what was supposed to be a resupply operation. In the absence of a strong defense, their only recourse was an even more powerful offense. Wai Kit waited until the capacitors completely recharged, helping the process along by breathing hei into his prism. Then, leading the way, Wai Kit faded into the night. Discreet infrared patches on his backpack and the back of his arms and helmets helped Gam Fong track his position. The senior Protector chose his steps with care, keeping to rocky patches and areas of thin snow whenever he could. Every footfall was a deliberate exercise, capturing as much sound as possible while still retaining balance. He was a slow-moving smear, a suggestion of a silhouette, no more. Phantom mode was passive. Once activated, it consumed no power to maintain. But it came at great cost. His artificial muscles were completely disabled. His suit would support its own weight, but the rest was on him. Most of the advanced features shut down—tracker beacon, sound tracker, early warning system—leaving him to fall back to a more primitive method of war. Heat built up easily inside the suit. It had to be expelled to prevent heat stroke. Though Phantom mode rendered the suit nearly invisible, it could do nothing to hide heat plumes. The solution was to produce as little heat as possible, only enough to keep the water bladder and critical systems from freezing. Phantom mode couldn’t hide tracks either. But there were ways around that. And it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, under certain circumstances. The Protectors headed down to the river and hopped in. The fast-flowing water came up to Wai Kit’s knees. It would erase his tracks completely, and the suit would keep him insulated. Once again, he walked like a chicken, grounding his weight onto one foot, lifting the other high, and bringing it down. Gam Fong did his best to imitate him, but the lad lacked experience, and splashed about more than Wai Kit. That couldn’t be helped, but at least the sounds of the river helped to mask the sound. Following the river, crouched over to reduce their profile, weapons held above the water, the men headed north. Wai Kit extended his awareness. Beyond the senses of his suit and his body, his mind touched the world around him. It was like a field extending in all directions, with himself in the middle. Any living thing that entered the field, he sensed immediately. A living mind might dampen its hei, but could not completely erase it. He knew without looking that Gam Fong was five paces behind him. His hei burned bright yellows and greens, though his suit attempted to mute it. Tiny insects drifted downstream, almost invisible to the naked eye, their bubble-like auras brushing up against his own. The trees around him had hei fields of their own, many of them huge and full, but they lacked the consciousness that elevated them into a true sentient being. His mind emptied. His heart stilled. He was here now, in the present, completely and totally engaged in the moment. He released all thoughts and emotions as they formed, returning again and again to a state of primordial silence. What few conscious thoughts he allowed were all related to matters of tactics and movement. He was an empty vessel, allowing the universe to flow into and through and out of him. A hei field appeared in his awareness. Dark and sticky, a red crystal buried in a mound of tar, it was the hei of an Outsider. Its contours sprang into his awareness, and immediately he recognized the distinct profile of a warrior. He halted and lifted his left fist. Gam Fong halted. Wai Kit held his hands up, mimed breaking a branch, then pointed to his left. Keeping low, he stepped out of the river and went prone along the river bank. Gam Fong splashed his way out of the water, then tapped Wai Kit’s shoulder. Wai Kit crawled up the river bank and poked his head above a slope. Fifty meters away, an Outsider warrior stood guard beside a tree. It stood stock-still, its head swiveling back and forth at regular intervals. It was like a living robot—and, for all Wai Kit knew, it was just that. Wai Kit scanned again, with his eyes and with his awareness. Now confident that there were no other threats, he stabbed two fingers of his left hand at his eyes, pointed at the warrior, and brought his fist above his head, thumb pointed to the rear. Gam Fong acknowledged with a shoulder tap. Wai Kit then pointed to himself, then at the warrior, and mimed cutting his own throat. Gam Fong tapped again. A heichung bolt released a blast of light, sound, heat and hei. It would attract the attention of the Outsiders. Wai Kit had to deal with this one the hard way. Pressed against the earth, Wai Kit made his approach, inching across the snow-covered earth. He moved aside twigs and stones if he could, avoided them when he couldn’t. He moved in a swooping arc, aiming for the woods behind the warrior. A half-hour of deliberate crawling brought him to a thick tree. He rose to a knee, shouldered his weapon, and scanned. Still no signs of threats. Steeling himself, he peeked out of cover. The warrior was thirty meters away, still focused forward. Keeping it in his peripheral vision, Wai Kit bounded from tree to tree, staying away from anything that could make a sound. Now it was three trees away. Two. One. Rising to a deep crouch, he held his weapon behind his hip, keeping it from bumping into his leg or pack. He approached the warrior from the right, his eyes trained away from it, counting off the paces to the target. Ten. Five. Three. One. Releasing his weapon, his right hand flew to his chest, dipping into his suit’s kangaroo pouch. His fingers closed around the curved handle of his combat knife. He drew it in a reverse grip, swiftly and silently, bringing it to his ear, and lunged. In a single swift motion, his left hand seized the plate covering the back of its neck, his knife hooked its right elbow, and his left boot kicked the back of its right knee. As it yelped in surprise, he dropped to a knee, pulling it down towards him, yanking its arm clear of its body. He rammed his palm into the side of its head, pinning it against his knee and baring its throat, and sank the blade deep into its neck. And cut out. Hot blood gushed from the massive wound. The monster struggled, trying to bring its weapons to bear. Pinning it down with his bodyweight, Wai Kit stabbed it in the thighs, in the groin, in the gaps in its armor. The warrior cried out, a horrific liquid gurgling, rising to a keen pitch, and slowly fading out. At last, it went silent. Wai Kit raised his arm in Gam Fong’s direction, turned the reflective strip towards him, then waved vigorously. The junior Protector eventually got the message and rose to his feet. When Gam Fong was next to Wai Kit, the senior Protector went to work. He thrust the knife into the monster’s soft flesh and cut away its carapace, then unzipped it from sternum to groin. In the dark, his adrenaline still pumping, his hand slipped and his blade punctured the viscera. The meat was irrevocably contaminated. It didn’t matter. Let the Outsiders choke on it. He scooped out the guts and fished out the core. That was all that mattered. The heat gauge on Wai Kit’s screen flashed yellow. He was _sweating. _Not a good sign. He cleaned his blade, then returned to the river and fully extended the cooling fins. The water sizzled softly as the fins dipped into the river. He continued wading upstream, heading north. Gam Fong followed. The air grew thicker and colder. A nameless, all-consuming hatred billowed from the Abomination. It swamped Wai Kit, threatening to smash him into the chilly waters. There and then, he _knew _that it knew that he had ended its warrior’s life. The Abomination’s baleful gaze swept the valley, a palpable force that pressed against the world, as invisible and as irresistible as gravity. An icy wind blew among the trees. The Protectors doubled over, keeping a low profile. Gam Fong slowed, his motions jerky and hesitant. Wai Kit held his weapon close, breathing slowly and rhythmically, Still they continued, advancing on the Abomination. An Abomination could _not_ be slain. Countless numbers of brave and foolhardy souls had attempted to kill one, and every one of them had vanished forever. The closer one came to an Abomination, the greater its psychic field. Past an invisible threshold, one known only to the monster, a living soul instantly died. Or went permanently insane. They were close. Too close. He was a stalk of springy bamboo in a snowstorm. The closer he approached the Abomination, the fiercer the winds and the snow. He bent in the face of the blizzard, preserving his sanity and strength. But there was only so far he could bend before he would break. More thoughts intruded into his mind. He was mad. He was going to die. The Outsiders would kill him, take him, drag him away into the dark, transform him into some unrecognizable horror. The Eternal Winter would claim him, body and soul, and he would never— He breathed. He exhaled. And hei fields intruded into his mind. Two of them. He called for a halt. Then another hei field appeared. A fourth. More. The Abomination was sending forth its troops. ![]( Newsletter subscribers get advance notice of my upcoming stories and writing updates. Sign up [here]( and receive a _free_ ebook! fiction @cheah

Road to Chequn Part 3 ![ "Winter Landscape, Sunset, Twilight, Winter, Snow, Cold"]( **From Beyond the Stars** With one man dead, another injured, and a vehicle damaged, the convoy had to reorganize. The Protectors replaced the damaged tires with their spares. Though they were run-flat tires, they wouldn’t last indefinitely, especially in this terrain. They pulled out spikes that had stuck in the windows and windscreens, allowing the self-healing glass to seal the holes, trying to maintain a modicum of visibility. They zipped up the dead man in a body bag and placed him in the rear of the last vehicle. Sam Yung insisted on driving. Wai Kit insisted on placing his Shepherd on autonomous guidance. With his head and hand injury, anything less would be irresponsible. A Protector from Leopard One volunteered to watch over Sam Yung. That freed Leopard Three to take the lead position. The final hour of the drive took the diminished squad deeper into the valley. The forests thinned out. Stumps dotted the land. The river grew narrower, congested with ancient rocks and packs of floating ice. The convoy slowed, navigating subtle elevations and sudden depressions. A path opened in the forest. What road there might have been once was now blanketed under generations of compacted snow. As Gam Fong followed the gentle curve, Wai Kit felt a sense of dread creep into his heart. He looked and he looked and saw nothing in the forest, but with every passing minute he developed the unshakable feeling that there was _something_ in the woods, huge and unknowable and _hungry_. He emptied his mind, bringing his awareness to his breath. Emotions like these do not emerge without reason. He simply let them go, allowing his subconscious to float the source of these feelings to the surface. But all he sensed were dark ripples across his consciousness, emanating from a distant source—far away, yet too close. Then he saw the heads. Severed heads spitted on long stakes lined either side of the road. Leaning in, he needed a second to recognize that they were the heads of Outsider warriors. “What the devil happened here…?” Gam Fong muttered. Their eyes and tongues had been plucked out, the fur stripped off, but the carapace and bone remained. Cracks and fissures bore mute testimony to fatal wounds. Empty eye sockets tracked the convoy as they passed. “It’s a message,” Wai Kit murmured. “To who?” “The Outsiders.” The road led to a fortified gateway. Rammed earth walls loomed over the convoy. A man with a heicung guarded the gate. Two more walked the walls. Their mounted bayonets gleamed in the sunlight. “Halt!” the gate guard yelled, holding out a hand. “Leopard callsigns, halt,” Wai Kit relayed. Gam Fong eased on the brakes, bringing the vehicle smoothly to a stop. As they approached, Wai Kit saw hundreds, _thousands_ of spines embedded deep in the walls. Patches of hardened leather covered spots in the wooden gates. The guard, dressed in a heavy fur coat and time-worn boots, wore his exhaustion plain on his face. As the guard approached, Wai Kit lowered his window, opened the glove box, and removed his cargo manifest. “Identify yourself,” the guard said. “We’re Protectors, with a shipment of essential supplies. We’re here from Cungfaa City,” Wai Kit said. As he spoke, he held up his paperwork, letting the guard see the logo of the Protectors emblazoned across the header. Relief washed over the guard’s face. “Wonderful! You arrived just in time.” Gam Fong thumbed over his shoulder. “What’s with the skulls?” “The Outsiders,” the guard spat. “They’ve been raiding our town for the past week.” “I’d heard about that, but I didn’t know it was this bad,” Wai Kit said. “It’s worse. Elder Che can fill you in. He’s in the big house in the middle of town.” The guard shouted to his buddies on the wall. The guards on the wall shouted back down. Slowly, ponderously, the heavy gates swung open. Like most of the frontier towns Wai Kit had seen, everything here was built from wood and thatch. Small and cozy, their steeply-arched roofs shed the constant snow. Children gaped as the Shepherds rolled past, their mothers hovering close by. Armed men patrolled the streets, some nodding or waving at the Protectors. Wai Kit waved back. Most of the people resembled each other in varying degrees. Wai Kit wasn’t surprised. After all, this town was founded by the Che clan and their retainers. The remoteness of the location ensured little fresh blood came from elsewhere. The scholar in him wondered how susceptible they were to inbreeding and hereditary disease. The soldier in him focused on more important things. Though the town was peaceful, the air was tense. Everyone was wound up, ready for action, even as they went about their chores. There were no motor vehicles in sight, only hardy livestock penned in yards. Many yards were completely empty. Empty. That was wrong. Chequn was too poor to afford a dedicated power generator. It relied heavily on coal and firewood for warmth. Yet the stacks of firewood he saw were tiny, what few of them there were. The livestock, most of them horses and yaks, should be out and about, foraging for food, not cooped up in pens. Chequn was under siege. And every single person, he realized, was either studying the ground or facing away from the north. The deeper they drove into the village, the deeper the sense of dread became. Thick and cloying, it weighed down on his heart. Every breath drew more of it into his lungs. Strange shapes darted to and fro at the edges of his sight, disappearing whenever he turned to look at them. At the very edge of his hearing, he thought he heard a stream of soft whispers, trying to worm into his soul. “Do you feel there’s something… wrong?” Gam Fong said. “Yes,” Wai Kit said. “What is it?” Before he could answer, they had arrived. Elder Che commanded the largest dwelling in the town. In ages past, his cabin might have been little different from the other houses in the village. Over time, they had added wings to the structure, joined by covered walkways. The original structure was ancient but dignified, while the logs that composed the wings still retained a hint of youthful lightness. Elder Che stood at his doorstep. Bent over from the weight of decades, the wizened grandfather slowly shuffled over. Wai Kit climbed down from the vehicle, retracted his visor, then punched his right fist into his left palm over his heart and bowed. “Are you Elder Che?” The man’s face lit up. “Yes. You must be the Protectors.” “Indeed. I am Leung Wai Kit, convoy commander. We’ve come from Chungfa with the supplies you requested.” “Thank you. But I fear you are too late.” “What’s wrong?” With his thumb, Elder Che pointed to his side. “Do you see that peak?” North, down the main road cutting through the village, past the gates at the far end of Chequn, rolling hills loomed above the walls. Shrouded in thin mist, they were blanketed in leafless forests. Save for one. Black as pitch, sharp and angular, it peeked between two larger hills, revealing only a small slice of itself, no larger than a thumbnail. Though it must be kilometers out, Wai Kit swore he saw multitudes of tiny eyes opening across its exposed face. Every visible eye turned its gaze on him. In that moment, they poured out an ocean of malice, of hunger, of pure, naked hate, an unquenchable desire to consume, to destroy, to annihilate. In the face of such cosmic animus, he was but an insect caught in a blizzard, to be buried under a world of snow, to be digested and forgotten and be cast forever into an abyss of nothingness so total no conscious mind could comprehend it. The Protectors flinched away. Everyone but Leung Wai Kit. “Yes,” he said simply. “You… you can look at it?” Elder Che marveled. “Not my first time looking upon an Abomination.” A sovereign among the Outsiders, or more accurately a god, an Abomination was the apex Outsider of the wasted earth. Every Abomination was unique, every one of them an entity that could not exist in a universe governed by rational laws. Accompanied by armies of lesser Outsiders, their arrival coincided with the coming of the Eternal Winter. History did not remember if they were first of the Outsiders to arrive, or the last. But scholars and soldiers alike agreed on this: Everywhere an Abomination went, death and madness followed. “You are strong indeed,” Elder Che said. Wai Kit shrugged. “We are still breathing. We are still sane. Therefore, we are far from its death zone.” “But we are too close,” Gam Fong whispered. “It is far outside weapons range.” “But it wasn’t here yesterday,” Elder Che said. “When did it appear?” “This morning. When the sun rose and the morning mists cleared, it was already there. It must have moved through the night, yet the guards swore they had seen and heard nothing.” “Abominations are unpredictable that way.” Elder Che shivered. “For ten generations, our remoteness has been our primary defense. We’ve only ever had to fight small groups of scouts and raiders. Now… doom has found us.” “We must evacuate the town,” Sam Yung said. “The Chungfa City Barrier will hold the Abomination at bay.” That was the common belief. Countless people over the ages had attested to the Barriers keeping lesser Outsiders from breaking through. No one had ever seen an Abomination approach a Barrier, much less test one. “If we dump our cargo, we can make room for evacuees,” Wai Kit said. “How many people do you have?” “Three hundred and fifty-two,” Elder Che said. “We’ll only have enough room for one-fifth of that number,” Gam Fong said. “At least save the children and the sick,” Elder Che pleaded. Wai Kit scratched his bald pate. “Very well. We will bring them out in the first wave.” Elder Che blinked. “First wave?” “Yes. We will evacuate the most vulnerable to the city. Then we will organize a larger convoy to pull out everybody else in the second wave.” Hope beamed from Elder Che’s face. Tears welled in his eyes. “_Duoze! _We can never repay you enough.” Wai Kit smiled gently. “We are Protectors. We leave no humans behind. And on that note… I’m staying here.” Gam Fong blinked. “Why?” “It’s half past noon. By the time the relief convoy gets here, it’ll be well past midnight. Maybe much later. Until then, someone has to coordinate the defense.” “I can do it,” Sam Yung said. Wai Kit shook his head. “You can’t fight effectively. Not with your busted prism. Get back to the city and organize the convoy. That’s how you can best contribute.” “I’ll stay,” Gam Fong said. Wai Kit blinked. “This is your first job.” “You need someone to watch your back. And we only need three men to drive the trucks.” “We’ll be operating much closer to an Abomination than any man has any right to be.” “I’m ready.” “We might have to fight a flood of monsters.” “Your heichung isn’t going to be enough.” Wai Kit leaned in. “If you want to stay, I’m not going to stop you. But no one will think less of you for evacuating.” “Why are you staying, then?” “Someone has to do it.” “And someone has to watch your back. I’m staying.” Wai Kit sucked in a lungful of bone-chilling air. “Alright. When this is over, I’ll put in a good word for you. Until then, it’s you and me against an army of horrors from beyond the stars.” “I’m ready.” No man would ever be fully ready to face down an eldritch evil. Not until or unless he had survived the encounter. But there was no use telling the kid that. It would merely sap his morale. Instead, Wai Kit turned to his fellow Protectors. “It’s time for us to save the day again. You know what you have to do. Let’s get to it.” ![]( Newsletter subscribers get advance notice of my upcoming stories and writing updates. Sign up [here]( and receive a _free_ ebook! fiction @cheah

Road to Chequn Part 2 ![ "Winter Landscape, Sunset, Twilight, Winter, Snow, Cold"]( ## **Wanbak** They laid the remains of the dead Outsiders on the snow. Seven warriors, one shaman. It didn’t necessarily mean there were eight enemies, only that they had recovered eight bodies. As Sam Yung stood watch, the Protectors broke out their field knives and multitools, and got down to the bloody and grisly work of field dressing the carcasses. The process was straightforward. Cut out the carapace plates. Unzip the body from sternum to anus. Remove the viscera. Separate the internal organs from the bowels. And remove the core. Where most animals had hearts, Outsiders had cores. A fist-shaped lump of smooth crystalline matter, located in its center of mass. Like the dantin of the human body, an Outsider’s core gathered and concentrated hei from the cosmos. He could turn it in for a bounty. Or… Gam Fong held a core in his hand, admiring it in the sunlight. Grasping it with his fingers, he squeezed the lump, as if trying to crush it with his bare hands. “Stop,” Wai Kit said. Gam Fong blinked. “Excuse me?” “I know what you’re doing. Don’t.” “Why not?” “It’s profane.” “Profane? What do you mean?” “How does the core feel?” Gam Fong hefted it. “Warm. Heavy. Dense. It’s filled with hei.” “Not just hei. Bak.” “Bak?” “Yes. From the term wanbak, the incorporeal essence of consciousness. When a living being dies, its wan leaves the body, while its bak stays behind. That core contains a lingering fragment of consciousness.” “What’s the problem?” “If you consume the core, you’re not just consuming the stored hei. You are also absorbing the bak. It is profane.” Shaking his head, Sam Yung strolled over. “Not that this again.” “It doesn’t make it any less true.” “Hei exists. But wanbak? Really?” “How do you know hei exists?” Wai Kit asked. “We use it. We can measure it. It powers our guns, our gear, our vehicles. But wanbak? How do you know it’s even there?” “If you cannot measure something, does it mean it doesn’t exist?” “_Aiya_, you’re not a monk any more. Save it.” “It doesn’t make consuming cores any less dangerous.” “It’s not dangerous. It makes you powerful,” Gam Fong said. “In the short term, yes. But it changes you. When you kill a living being, its mind becomes violently disturbed. It leaves behind a bak filled with hatred and sorrow. When you consume a core, you consume the hatred and sorrow of the one you’ve killed. It contaminates your own wanbak, twisting your very essence.” Sam Yung sneered. “I need that power now.” He held out his hands. A bloody bandage covered his right hand. In his left hand, he held a core. “Look at this, rookie.” He crushed the core. A burst of searing golden light flashed from his fingers. Dust showered in the air. Sam Yung inhaled sharply, pulling as much hei as he could into his being. Golden light, softer and weaker, surged through his right arm, gathering in his hand. Sam Yung breathed deeply and audibly, his eyes squeezed shut in total concentration. When the light faded, he unwrapped the bandage and flexed his hand. The exposed skin revealed in the torn fabric of his glove was as pink and smooth as a newborn’s. “See? Good as new. And now I’ve increased my hei by a hundred and eighty points.” Wai Kit shook his head. “The spine also broke your prism. The magic didn’t fix it. And if you want power, neikung is a safer and more sustainable way to grow your hei.” Sam Yung waved his hand dismissively. “We don’t have time for that.” Gam Fong interrupted the exchange. “How is consuming a core different from eating meat?” Wai Kit could explain it, but he doubted the kid would appreciate a full explanation at this time. Besides… “Fundamentally, there is no difference.” “You eat meat too!” Gam Fong exclaimed. “Only vat-grown meat. Meat that had never been alive, that had never possessed wanbak.” “You don’t have to observe the Five Precepts anymore,” Sam Yung said cynically. “Didn’t you just break the first of them?” “It doesn’t mean I should just turn my back on the teachings completely.” “Our suits and weapons are made from Outsider cores. How are you not contaminated?” How could Wai Kit begin to explain a lifetime of training to someone with no background in such things? “I do not eat my kit. That’s the difference.” “We’re down a man. The kid needs to cultivate hei. Why are you stopping him from becoming more powerful?” “Because trading your soul for mere power is never worth it.” “That’s what you think. You had the opportunity to cultivate hei the old-fashioned way from grandmasters. Most of us never will. We have to use what works for us.” “Gam Fong, what do _you_ think about all this?” Wai Kit asked. Gam Fong looked down on the core. “I… I don’t know.” “We’re not expecting to face combat. Just stow it somewhere safe. You don’t have to do anything about it now.” Gam Fong nodded. “Alright.” Sam Yung shook his head and walked away. Wai Kit reminded himself that the Protector had been wounded. He’d taken a hard blow to the head, then he’d been shot in the hand. Even though he’d just used a healing skill, a man who had recently experienced such trauma couldn’t be expected to comport himself the same way as a calm and healthy one. Per Protector etiquette, the spoils of war went to the killer. Joint kills were, in theory, divided among the ones who had worked together to fell a monster. Not Wai Kit. He never split the cores of joint kills, preferring to give them up entirely. The Protectors thought he was strange. He didn’t want the fruits that came from splitting a soul. Wai Kit dropped the three cores into a spare pouch into his backpack. Under more normal circumstances, the Protectors would have continued to process the carcasses. They would remove the skin, pack the meat, take everything useful they could from the bodies. Not now. They’d spent way too much time stationery as is, and there wasn’t any space in the trucks to stow harvested bodies anyway. Instead, they hung them from the trees. Far, far from the tent. As they readied to depart, Wai Kit checked in on the tent one last time. It was a four-man tent, a goodly size for a hunting party. Personal effects lay scattered across the tent floor. Dried blood caked the interior fabric in wild sprays. Drag marks led to nearby trees, to the carcasses Leopard One had spotted. They were human bodies. Four men, butchered and gutted and exposed, exactly in the same way the Protectors had done to the Outsiders. But left out for far longer. Long enough for the beginnings of rot to set in. Gut piles lay at their feet, blackened and swollen, infested with mold and maggots. Wai Kit didn’t know whether the Outsiders had learned this behavior from humans, or if they had developed the practice by themselves. What he did know was that man and monster alike were caught in this torrid spiral of jangwo, each doing unto the other before they could do the same unto them—or perhaps _because_. The Outsiders didn’t need to do this to feed. Or if they did, they didn’t have to hang the bodies by the clearing. They’d done it to attract the attention of passers-by. And to ensure that the survivors would remember. Wai Kit stood before the bodies, clasped his hands, and lowered his head. _“Nam mou oneitofat_.” He recited the mantra thrice, then bowed. Though he had traded his robes for his suit and his begging bowl for his gun, he still remembered the vows. He was not a priest. It was all he could do now. The Protectors had to move on. But when he returned, he would pick up where he had to leave off. As a man, he could do no less. ![]( Newsletter subscribers get advance notice of my upcoming stories and writing updates. Sign up [here]( and receive a _free_ ebook! fiction @cheah