Saturday, November 04, 2006

1932: 5. The Twelve Celestial Signs

Harker Windham, Lord Havoc of the Lost World, left the ground. His legs coiled like springs, calloused soles of his bare feet scraping against ancient bark, and rebounded off the trunk of a nearby tree. Hark turned a somersault in the air to dodge the swiping tendrils of the Predator Vine, and landed at a run on the vine that held Tom Morrow perilously above the deadly plant’s gaping maw.

“Now, Gaunt!” he called, and on the far side of the plant, there was a sudden burst of air, and something caught fire.

The Predator Vine liked heat, hungered for heat, sensed it, even more than the motions of potential prey, through the network of sensitive roots and tendrils it unfurled beneath its host soil. Fire, Hark had learned in his last battle with the thing, was the ideal distraction.

He shifted balance deftly as the thick, scaly tendril on which he perched swung away from the Vine’s dripping jaws, whipping Tom away from the danger of slow, horrid digestion in its guts, and toward the only comparatively lesser danger of cracking his head open on the jungle floor below. Harker looked up at the dead creeper vines dangling from the tree limbs far above, did some quick instinctive calculations, and gripped his knives tight.

With a piercing cry, he brought the obsidian blade down through the hideous green meat of the vine on which he stood, severing it as if it had been made of water. The vine holding Tom went slack, and began to plunge toward the ground.

Hark leapt, caught a vine, swung one-handed through space, and caught Tom in the crook of one arm, grunting from the impact. The momentum of their swing carried them across the clearing, high into the branches of a tree on the opposite side, where Hark set Tom down with more expediency than grace.

“You all right, old sport?” Hark asked, as Tom caught his breath and snatched up the dangling Morrow Personal Immobilizer.

“I think there are twigs in my hair,” Tom said. “Otherwise, I’m okay. What can I do?”

“Air cover,” Hark said. “If you see anything on the plant that looks lovely, anything even slightly enticing -- shoot it.” He took a few steps back up one knotted limb of the tree, dashed forward, and swung out into the air toward Ruby.

She dangled by one ankle, contorting her body to hack at the tough skin of the tendrils that gripped her with a combat knife drawn from a holster in her boot. The wounds oozed sap that frothed and sizzled in the air; smoke was rising from the blade of Ruby’s knife, and in spots from her jacket where the sap had fallen.

Hark leapt free of the vine, slashing out with an obsidian blade in midair to sever the tendril holding Ruby. He caught her up with his other arm before she could even start to fall, reversed his grip on his blade arm, and slammed hard into the trunk of a tree, plunging the blade deep into the bark to arrest their fall.

“Hot damn,” said Ruby, as Hark hoised her one-handed onto a limb. “That looked like it hurt. Felt like it, too.”

“I’ll live,” Hark said through gritted teeth, hauling himself up on the branch beside her. “Still have your pistol?”

“Sure do,” Ruby said, drawing it from her jacket holster and cocking the hammer.

“Cover Gaunt,” Hark said.

“From what?”

Hark laughed bitterly. “From the offspring.” He dashed along the thick limb, feet thudding hollowly on the wood, and leaped to catch a vine.

On the jungle floor below, Gaunt stood his ground as the hungry, grasping tendrils of the Predator Vine turned and slithered their way across the undergrowth toward him. In each gloved hand, the man in the indigo wrappings held a burning branch, letting them wave slightly at his sides, like an orchestra conductor tuning up.

Buds bubbled and swelled on the Vine’s tendrils, poking through the thick green skin, erupting into flowers of violent orange and sunset pink. They were fat, inviting, arrestingly lovely. Gaunt watched, motionless, as they quivered slightly--

Fine gold dust -- narcotic, numbing pollen, to immobilize the hungry plant’s next meal-- hissed in sudden jets from the flowers. Gaunt thrust his torches at the dust, and the flames flared as the pollen clouds burned to ash. He plunged the flaming brands deep into the flowers, hearing the squeal and sizzle of stored water boiling to steam, and ducked just as the tendrils lashed out in blind wrath.

Above the mouth of the beast, leaping from tendril to tendril, clinging with only his toes, Hark swung his black stone knives wildly, hacking at one vine, then the next, letting the thing tangle itself in pursuit of him. Too late he saw purple flowers sprout on the vine behind him. Their petals slowly opened, disclosing bristling hearts of purple spines, spines that Hark had seen kill a man in mere seconds.

There were dangling vines above -- but too far. Below, the horrible wet maw waited. Hark braced himself to leap.

There was a spitting sound, and a glob of sticky resin whistled past his ear, slapping against the opening flower, hardening instantly, freezing the spines in place. Tom Morrow crouched against the trunk of his treetop perch, aimed the Immobilizer, and fired more globs of his patented Morrow Quik-Bond Formula tumbling through the air to splatter and harden against the deadly blooms.

“It works!” he shouted to Hark, as the Lord of the Lost World scaled the thrashing tendril toward the safety of the vines above.

“Might you ever test any of these gizmos in the laboratory?” Hark called back, rolling his eyes. ”Just for a change of pace?”

“Who has the time?” Tom replied, nailing two more sprouting spine-flowers with blasts from the immobilizer.

A hoarse cry from Gaunt drew both men’s eyes to the jungle floor. The ground beneath his feet was slithering, shifting, slick green pods bubbling up through the soil. They unfolded like sodden umbrellas, revealing smaller versions of the central beast, each round hungry mouth larger than a man’s head. The Predator Vine was sprouting offspring.

“Hello, little ones,” Gaunt hissed, and thrust his torch into the closest one until the thing withered and smoked. Too fast, a tendril wormed its way through the snapping mass of hungry young to catch Gaunt around the ankle. It yanked, and he tumbled to the dirt, waving his remaining torch as the tentacles that held the budding offspring closed in.

Shots rang through the trees, and as Gaunt flailed with the torch, the heads of the offspring began to pop in bursts of sizzling, thick sap. Ruby snapped off six pistol shots from her treetop perch, flipped open the cylinder with a practiced motion of her wrist to let the spent cartridges drop, and began to reload. Gaunt kicked free of the writhing vines, extinguishing his remaining torch in one final snapping set of chlorophyll jaws, and ran for safer ground.

The offspring, Hark knew, were still connected to their fat, greedy mother. Kill it, and he’d kill them all. Easier said than done.

From his perch high in the tangle of vines that dangled above the plant-beast’s gorge, Hark’s keen eyes spied Gaunt on the ground, waving furiously, black coat swirling as he dodged the Predator Vine’s slashing tendrils. There was something small and shining in Gaunt’s upstretched hand.

Hark nodded, tucking one of his obsidian knives back into its harness on his belt. He hastily wrapped a creeper vine around one hand, shut his eyes, took a single deep breath, and let himself drop.

The maw of the Predator vine loomed below him, undulating hungrily. Dirt tore and roots shifted as it wrenched itself up out of the ground, reaching for its next hot meal. Gaunt flung the thing in his hand through the writhing nest of the Predator Vine’s tentacles, high in the air toward Hark’s falling body.

Hark caught the flare gun from the Cyclone’s survival kit just as the vine around his arm drew taught. For an endless second, he dangled suspended, twenty feet above slow digestive doom.

“You may find this a bit spicy,” Hark warned, and fired the flare whistling into the belly of the beast.

The vine recoiled, launching Hark up into the air ahead of a sizzling, blinding eruption of phosphorescent fire. The Predator Vine exploded, sizzling, flaming chunks spiraling up through the air to ignite the dry fibers of the creeper vines. Hark let go at the apex of his rebound, spinning wildly up into the air, then tumbling down through empty space.

A vine slapped at his face and he grabbed on desperately. In the tree high above, Tom braced his heels against the bark and gripped his end of the vine he’d torn loose from around the tree’s massive trunk. His muscles strained as the sudden force of Harker’s weight threatened to yank him off his feet.

The vine held. Hark swung in a pendulum arc, letting go to roll and tumble in a cloud of dead leaves across the jungle floor. Tom collapsed against a thick branch, letting his aching arms dangle to either side, and breathed a slow sigh of relief.

Gaunt was there to help Hark to his feet. As the lord of Windham Hall brushed himself clean of dead leaves and clinging twigs, the two men surveyed the smoldering, dying wreck of the Predator Vine.

“Did you know,” Hark said at last, “that after we fought the last one of these things, some absolute bastard had the gall to send me a bouquet of flowers?”

“That was me,” Gaunt replied, and made a rattling sound that might pass for a chuckle.

“I couldn’t even set foot in the greenhouse for a solid week,” Hark groused. “And I was raised in the bloody jungle.”

Ruby came sliding down the trunk of her tree, gripping a vine, bootheels scraping against the bark. Across the clearing, Tom was leaping cautiously from branch to lower branch, making his wobbly way down to join them. “That’s what I like about you boys,” Ruby said, tugging at the sleeves of her jacket to see the spots where the Predator Vine’s sap had scorched the leather. “One outing with you, and suddenly a milk run to Burma with a cabin full of goats sounds like a week at Pismo Beach.”

“So,” Tom said, flexing his arms and elbows to work out the lingering kinks, “that was fun. Anyone else see that door on the far end of the chamber?”

It bore the same archaic runes around the archway, but where the last door had been polished steel, this was heavy carved stone, blocks of strange and sneering faces.

“I remember this one,” Ruby said. “This was the room full of dead machines, right?”

“It was,” Tom said, grasping hold of one of the thick stone rings that dangled from the door. “Let’s see if it still is.”

The room was pitch dark, light from the greenhouse room spilling in a pool across wide squares of cool stone, then shriveling back to nothingness as the doors swung shut behind them. There was a wet shaking sound, and a quick snap, and green light bloomed in the darkness from the glowing plastic rod Tom held aloft in his hand.

They walked in silence and bobbing green-black shadows through the ancient, ruined workings of strange stone machines. Wheels and gears jutted from the walls, scaling upward into the black pool of the distant ceiling, and carved stone pistons, some half-crumbled with age, rose from neatly carved pits in the floor. It looked to Tom like the workings of some primitive calculating engine, scaled to skyscraper size or more -- but what equation it could possibly have been meant to uncode, even Tom’s mind could not begin to fathom.

They had walked for five minutes before anyone realized they were not alone. Harker stopped, holding up a hand, scenting the air. “There’s someone--” he began, and stopped, for in that instant he felt the cold edge of a blade pressed just against his throat.

“Greetings,” the darkness said softly, and torches flared, and twelve men in red silk robes appeared all around them. One held a loaded bow, arrow nocked against the taut string, bladed tip pointed directly at Ruby’s ear. Another stepped out of the shadows directly before Tom to rest the tip of a long slender dagger lightly against Tom’s sternum.

“Your arrival has been anticipated,” the man said. Tom’s eyes flicked to the Chinese character painted in gold on the front of his silk robes, and to the similar calligraphy on the eleven other men surrounding them.

“Dragon,” he said to the man before him, and then, nodding at the others, “Horse. Pig. Monkey. Rooster. You’re the Twelve Celestial Signs.”

Dragon made the merest of bows. “You are well-traveled indeed, Mr. Morrow.”

“The Twelve Celestial what?” Ruby asked, resisting the urge to scratch a sudden itch on the side of her chin.

“Fallen Shaolin monks,” Tom explained. “I heard about them last year in Shanghai. They were banished from their order for stealing forbidden secrets -- the hidden twelfth scroll of dim mak, the death touch. Yin Po Lee told me they were the deadliest men in the East.”

“And how is dear Yin Po Lee?” Dragon asked with polite indifference.

“Dead,” Tom replied calmly. “He had some trouble with a vat of molten gold.”

“Apt,” Dragon said, “for the Merciless Thief-King of the Coast. I have heard much about you, Mr. Morrow. Please believe me when I say I am truly aggrieved that I have been requested to kill you.” The tip of the knife dug a little deeper into Tom’s chest. “If you and your two companions would be kind enough to kneel, I am prepared to extend you the courtesy of doing so painlessly.”

A slow smile spread across Tom’s face. “Two companions?” he said, looking first at Hark, and then at Ruby, and then at the empty place between them.

Above them, in the darkness, there came low and ragged laughter, echoing. And for the first time, Tom saw the faces of the deadliest men in the East fill with mortal terror.

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