Monday, November 06, 2006

1932: 7. The Empty Room of Death

“Wicked men,” the voice of Mister Gaunt echoed from out of the cavernous darkness of the chill, ancient chamber, “I offer you this final chance to repent. The Devil waits, hungry, and I have many men yet to claim.”

Dragon nodded to his fallen Shaolin brothers, and as one, they snuffed out their torches and receded into the gloom, leaving Tom, Hark, and Ruby alone in the pool of green light from Tom’s Chemoluminous Rod.

“So be it,” Gaunt’s voice hissed. Silence blanketed everything. Tom, Hark, and Ruby waited, still as stones, holding their breaths.

Gunfire cracked, sudden and sharp, and in the blazing light from the muzzles of twin pistols, the companions saw Mister Gaunt leaping into midair from the tooth of a stone gear far above them, twisting his body to discharge his guns into the body of the Celestial Sign labeled Dog. Then all was dark and quiet again, save a wet gurgling from above. Blood dripped and spattered to the stone floor just within the boundaries of Tom’s light.

Dog came tumbling from the darkness to hit the stones with a wet snapping, and moved no more.

There was a whisper of silk to Tom’s left, and then a knife blade pricked into the soft flesh under his chin. “Surrender, demon,” shouted the Celestial Sign labeled Rat into the waiting dark, “or we butcher your friends!”

Something fell throught the air, brushing lightly against the back of Tom’s neck, and he spun out of the assassin’s grip to see Rat clutching at his throat, where a fine, almost invisible line was closing around his windpipe. In the green light, only the faintest shimmering reflections betrayed the slender noose of wire, strong as steel, that looped around Rat’s neck and rose up into the dark above. The wire jerked, and Rat with it, like a puppet; there was a cracking sound, like a knife through a head of lettuce. Rat went limp, tongue lolling, and was suddenly whisked dangling up into the gloom.

The air was suddenly alive with the clang of steel on steel, sparks striking somewhere above, and Tom, Ruby, and Hark scattered as Gaunt and the Celestial Sign labeled Rooster suddenly came tumbling from out of the black, locked in fierce combat. The two men landed in a crouch and squared off, the sharp, curving steel talons strapped to Rooster’s hands and feet gleaming dully in the light.

Rooster launched himself toward Gaunt feet first, foot talons flailing, and brought his hands together and down in a savage strike, like the bird for which he was named. Gaunt’s wrists flicked and knives appeared in his hands, crossed like an X to deflect the blow. The impact sent Gaunt stumbling back as Rooster whirled, foot blades spinning, driving Gaunt backward. Behind him, from the shadows, the one labeled Horse appeared, lunging to the ground, bracing himself on his hands, and swinging his legs around to deliver a powerful kick to Gaunt’s undefended back. Tom prepared to cry out, knowing that the blow from the assassin’s feet would drive Gaunt forward to be impaled on Rooster’s claws -- but it was already too late.

For Gaunt had simply seemed to vanish, leaving Horse’s powerful feet to pass through empty air -- and slide with a horrible meaty sound through each of Rooster’s outstretched talons. As Horse howled in pain, and Rooster struggled to free himself, Gaunt appeared again, pistols in hand, and with two blazing reports shot each man in the head.

There was a rush of moving air, and the Celestial Sign labeled Rabbit came bounding over Hark’s head, feet spinning in a wild flurry of kicks, to catch Gaunt across the face with a heavy ironclad boot and send him tumbling to the floor. Rabbit leapt again, heavy boots poised to crush Gaunt’s rib cage, but the Gaunt rolled aside. Rabbit’s feet landed heavy on the stone floor, sending cracks spiderwebbing outward from the point of impact with a sound like gunfire.

Gaunt struck out with the side of his hand, snapping Rabbit’s knee sideways. The assassin shrieked in pain as Gaunt’s feet swung around, sweeping Rabbit off his feet. In a neat motion, Gaunt lunged upright, snatching one of the ironclad boots off Rabbit’s left foot.

Almost casually, Gaunt dropped the heavy boot sole-first from the level of his shoulders directly onto Rabbit’s face. It stayed there, and Rabbit kicked once, and was still.

“More,” Gaunt called to the darkness. And someone dropped with a shrill cry onto his back, driving him facefirst against the stone floor.

Gaunt’s wrists flicked, his daggers appearing in his hands, to stab the attacker. But the one known as Monkey had already vaulted off his back, turning a neat handspring across the stone tiles, to land in a crouch Tom recognized as the monkey style of the Chinese martial arts, low to the ground, loping almost comically.

A low rumble of annoyance issued from Gaunt’s throat, and he got to one knee. And was promptly slammed, hard, from the side, to tumble skidding across the floor, knives falling glittering from his hands.

The one bearing the sign of Ox was a mountainous man with a broad, impassive face. He charged again, low to the ground, battering Gaunt with a volley of short, brutal strikes with his fists and elbows. Tom moved forward instinctively, only to find his nose gripped by two strong, skinny fingers. They steered his head in the direction of Monkey, who leered at him and shook his head, as if to say, Wait your turn.

Gaunt curled into a ball, then shot his legs out into Ox’s face, shattering the man’s nose. Ox reeled backwards, giving Gaunt enough time to stagger to his feet. Gaunt struck out with a sharp blow from his left fist, but Ox encircled his wrist with a single massive hand, holding it pinned, inches from the big man’s bloodied face.

Ox grinned, white teeth showing through the red streaming from his swollen nose. Gaunt's fingers moved.

Ox’s face became a sudden cloud of fire -- flash powder, Tom recognized. Ox screamed again, his skin burnt deep red, his eyebrows wisping smoke, and Gaunt tumbled backward, pulling the big man with him. Gaunt brought his feet up under Ox’s chest as his back hit the floor, and kept rolling, flipping the big man over toward the sprawled body of Rooster.

Ox landed on his back, tried to get up, and found himself somehow pinned. He looked down, with considerable surprise, to see one of Rooster’s talons jutting through his chest. His head lolled to the side and his eyes emptied, his face still etched with a look of bewildered astonishment.

Monkey charged forward, leaping and tumbling across the floor, snatching Gaunt’s knives up from the floor and slashing out with them. Gaunt grunted as the knives raked across his upstretched forearm, pistols appearing in his hands, but Monkey had already darted into the gloom.
Again and again Monkey struck from the shadows; again and again Gaunt’s own blades slashed through his sleeves and coat; again and again Gaunt fired the pistols at nothingness, at the empty space where his attacker had been. The smoking shells rang out as they spiralled from the chambers of Gaunt’s pistol onto the stone floor, until both pistols clicked, empty.

Monkey dropped from directly above Gaunt, landing hard on his shoulders, legs wrapped tightly around Gaunt’s neck, ready to snap it. Hark dashed forward, leaping, swinging his blade. A blow from Monkey slapped into his chest and sent him crashing back to the floor, gasping. Ruby drew her pistol, and Monkey hand flashed out, whipping one of Gaunt’s knives at her. Tom dived, knocking Ruby to the floor as the knife whistled inches above their heads. The pistol clattered from her hand and slid into the shadows.

Monkey tightened his grip on Gaunt’s neck, slowly choking him. “Stupid man!” he sneered in Mandarin. “You’re out of bullets!”

Gaunt let the pistols drop from his hands, and shook his wrists. Monkey found two smaller pistols pressed up against his rib cage.

“I’ve got more,” Gaunt replied, in equally flawless Mandarin, and pulled both triggers.

Monkey hadn’t even hit the floor before the others were upon Gaunt, one rippling in a wave of crimon silk through the air over Tom and Ruby’s prone bodies, striking from four directions with singular and deadly purpose. Pig struck low, driving his hands like twin tusks into Gaunt’s lower back. Sheep charged headfirst, driving his iron-hard skull into Gaunt’s stomach, punching the breath from his lungs in a sandpaper gasp. Snake struck from the left, digging two hooked fingers into a nerve cluster in Gaunt’s neck; Tom saw his whole left side stiffen, momentarily paralyzed. And leaping from a stone geartooth above, in the eerie green light, Tiger swung the three-pronged steel claw clenched in his right fist in a long sweeping arc that would terminate in the center of Gaunt’s skull.

Gaunt fell, the guns falling from his fingers. He fell the right, to be precise, and quickly, pulling a surprised Snake with him. Before Tiger could move, his claws found purchase deep in Snake’s face. From the floor, Gaunt drove a flat hand like a knife up under Tiger’s ribs while driving a knee up into Sheep’s jaw. Tom heard bone crack, and saw Sheep spit teeth.

Gaunt scrambled sideways, out through the gap between Tiger and Pig, who now found himself stumbling backward under Sheep’s sagging weight. In a crouch, he swept one leg into the backs of Tiger’s knees, and as the assassin toppled backward, clawed hands flailing over his head, Gaunt rose and grabbed him by the ankles.

“Catch a tiger by the tail,” Gaunt hissed, and heaved with all his might.

He swung Tiger’s entire body into the air like a club. Centrifugal force flung Tiger’s claws out over his head, and there they raked across the throats of Pig and Sheep, and left both men, gurgling, to die. Gaunt kept swinging until Tiger’s head collided with the nearest tooth of one of the great stone gears. Something cracked, perhaps the stone. Perhaps not.

Gaunt dropped Tiger’s limp body. His shoulders drooped, and he breathed even more raggedly than usual, right arm clutching his left, trying to squeeze sensation back into the reawakening muscles. Tom saw something move in the dark behind Gaunt, a glint of golden thread, and before he could shout a warning, Gaunt whirled--

And Dragon struck, fingers digging into Gaunt’s chest, squeezing, twisting cruelly deep into the muscle. Tom had only heard the technique described in whispers, by ancient masters who shuddered at the thought.

“Dim mak,” he said softly.

Dragon smiled, withdrew his hand, and folded the fingers one by one back into his palm until the knuckles cracked. Gaunt staggered forward, sagging against Dragon, his knees seeming to melt away from under him. Tom heard Gaunt draw several harsh, shuddering breaths.

And then Gaunt began to laugh.

Softly at first, then louder, until he threw back his head and all but howled with maniacal delight, his laughter echoing like a cloud of bats in every corner of the chamber.

Dragon drew back, stunned, eyes wide with horror. “This cannot be!” he spat. His hands shot out to once more administer the deadly strike, but this time, he froze. Gaunt held a sawed-off shotgun in one gloved hand, pressed full against the assassin’s stomach, angled up.

“You sought,” Gaunt said, through the tattered trailing-off of his laughter, “to stop my heart.” He leaned his face in close, and whispered into Dragon’s ear. “But I have none to stop.”

The report of the shotgun echoed through the chamber. Dragon flew backward off his feet and vanished into the dark.

And Tom, at last, found himself letting out a breath he’d been holding for the last five minutes.

He helped Hark to his feet, still wheezing a bit from Monkey’s strike, as Ruby borrowed the Chemoluminous Rod to rummage around in a corner and recover her pistol. Gaunt stood still, the shotgun having vanished back into the folds of his coat, and looked in turn at each of the dozen dead men lying around him.

“You’re alive,” Tom said to him. Gaunt nodded.

“Scar tissue has its uses,” he rasped. His finger nodded in midair, wavering from one dead Celestial Sign to the other. “Six thousand, two hundred and seventy-eight,” he said at last, with grim satisfaction.

“You cracked six thousand, old man?” Hark asked, his breath returning at last.

“Business is good,” Gaunt nodded. “Shall we go?”

“You didn’t have to kill them,” Tom told him softly. “You’re good enough. You could have showed them mercy.”

Behind his wrappings, Gaunt’s eyes slowly narrowed. “I did,” he replied, his voice barely more than a whisper. The two men stared each other down for several long seconds, until Ruby physically wedged herself between them, a hand on either man’s chest.

“Enough,” she snapped. “We don’t have time for this. Listen.”

Tom felt it now: A soft vibration thrumming through the stone floor, and the faint roar of distant, vast machinery.

“He’s starting it up,” Tom said. “Let’s find the next door.”

It was solid white marble, smooth and cold to the touch, and when Tom and Hark hauled it open, all four companions shielded their eyes from the sudden burst of harsh white light.

The room was wide, and vast, and completely empty. Aside from the thrum of the machines, louder now, there was nothing within but a grid of squares, roughly nine feet to a side, painted across the floor, and one final arched door on the far side.

“More redecorations,” Ruby sighed. “I don’t suppose we just get to walk across?”

“Let’s find out,” Tom said, digging in the pockets of his jacket. “I’ve got just the thing.”

He drew forth a small apple. The others looked at him strangely. Gaunt coughed.

“What?” Tom said. “I get hungry on adventures.” He lobbed the apple high into the air, and watched it thunk down on a square in the center of the room.

Oiled hinges slid. The four adjacent squares flipped over, and machinery unfolded on springs, surrounding the defenseless apple. A flamethrower roared; an automated pair of machine guns spat bullets into the floor; and from opposite sides, a set of scissored blades snicked through the air a dozen times in a single second.

Then, quietly and dutifully, the machinery retracted, the panels flipped back , and four innocuous white tiles surrounded a scorched, bullet-pocked tile and the charred remains of Tom’s apple.

“You must be joking,” Hark said.

“He’s really stepped his game up, I guess,” Tom said, letting out an amazed breath. “I wonder how he got those blades to fit--”

“Focus, Morrow,” Gaunt hissed. “How do we get across?”

Tom closed his eyes and popped a stick of gum into his mouth. He chewed softly, the fingers of his left hand unconsciously straying to the signet ring on his right, twisting the silver band with the round, polished nugget of amber band back and forth. His companions waited. A minute passed.

Tom’s eyes snapped open. He spat the gum neatly back into his wrapper and stuck it in his pocket for later.

“We don’t,” he said, and grinned.

1 comment:

Bigmouth said...

Hey you only have 4,133 words to go! Or, are you trying for 95,000 by the end of the month?