‘So how does it feel?’ John asked me.
I shook my head and turned on the spot. ‘I keep expecting guards to come and march me into Court Ten to see Pao.’
John turned as well, facing the end of the causeway. The causeway no longer met the island; there was a moat between the two masses to stop demons from crossing from the demonic to the Celestial side of Hell. The Tiger’s Number Three, Katie, was on guard, holding one of the laser weapons that were the only way to destroy the hybrid armoured demons. This was a more polished version; not held together with duct tape.
‘Dark Lord,’ Katie said, saluting us. ‘Lady Emma.’
‘Hi, Katie,’ I said.
‘Any attempts at incursion since the Southern Bastion fell?’ John said, approaching her. ‘The phoenixes are preparing to retake the South. Is there any movement on the demonic side?’
She backed up a single step, then straightened and stood her ground as John neared. ‘No, my Lord.’ She looked from me to John, her face expressionless.
‘Give me a moment,’ John said, and the Turtle separated from the Serpent. Both of them slid into the water without leaving a ripple.
‘You’re marrying that?’ Katie said.
‘Oh, not you too,’ I said.
‘I mean, I’ve seen his human and Celestial Forms around the Heavens, and for an old guy he’s okay, but …’ She took a deep breath. ‘That?’
‘I’m a snake as well, Katie.’
‘You’d have to be, to be attracted to it.’
I turned back to the water; I could sense him returning. ‘He’s the hottest damn thing on the planet.’
‘I think your own serpent is,’ he said, floating out of the water and recombining. Yin flowed out where the Serpent connected with the Turtle and disappeared into it where they touched. The cloud of yin dissipated and he landed lightly in front of us. ‘No movement; the demons aren’t aware of the Phoenix’s plans. And you were correct, Emma. I think there’s more but I can’t see them.’
‘More of what?’ Katie said. ‘Demons?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Planted like landmines. The one that took me to Hell was in the ground and invisible to all of us.’
‘Fuck.’ Katie scanned the battle-scarred landscape. ‘I can’t see anything.’
John stomped away over the ground, the Serpent writhing above the Turtle’s shell. ‘Let me have a look.’
‘Holy fuck, that’s disturbing,’ Katie said.
John’s Serpent looked back at us while the Turtle continued to search. ‘Madam, you sound very much like your father.’
‘If you mean I swear a lot, actually I sound like my mother,’ Katie said, and grinned. ‘English actress. They swear worse than Dad.’
‘Oh yeah, I’ve met some,’ I said. ‘They use language that makes your father sound tame.’
‘Emma, Three, here,’ John said, and we went to join him.
Katie stood two metres back, then visibly rallied and stood next to the Turtle’s head.
‘Katie, I’ve seen you ride a horse headlong into a goddamn tank. I cannot believe the Dark Lord’s True Form is freaking you out,’ I said.
‘Get used to it, Emma,’ John said. ‘Children tend to run screaming.’
‘Katie’s nearly two hundred years old.’
John’s Serpent’s head swung towards Katie, making her take a step back. ‘You’ve never seen me before?’
‘Dad allowed us to train with the Horsemen, but he kept us in the Western Palace where we’d be safe,’ she said. ‘It’s only since Lady Emma pulled his whiskers out that he’s given us equal access to the front line and field missions, and the opportunity to prove ourselves.’ She poked her thumb into her chest. ‘I wouldn’t be Number Three otherwise.’
‘Well done, Emma,’ the Serpent said in its female voice. ‘Katie, change to your own True Form and have a dig here.’
She put the laser on the ground, then changed to a snow leopard. She snuffled around on the dirt, then proceeded to dig.
‘Yes, it smells weird,’ she said. She stopped and snuffled again. ‘Really disgusting, actually. Like bad meat.’ She dug again, and her claws scraped on rock. ‘There’s a stone here.’
‘That’s not a stone, that’s the head of a stone dem—’ I began, but it was too late.
The demon surged out of the ground, grabbed Katie around the throat, and threw her away. It was made of stone, but not individual rocks floating together; it was more like a human-shaped creature of clay. It paused for a minute, then took three fast steps towards me.
I summoned Dark Heavens and filled it with shen.
John moved faster than was visible — the Serpent grabbed the demon by the head, the Turtle took its arm, and they ripped it apart. The stone reformed, taking the human shape again, and John surrounded it in a cloud of yin. It dissolved.
I ran to Katie. She was lying face down on the ground in human form.
‘Uh, I think my neck’s broken,’ she said. ‘I can’t move.’ She spat dirt. ‘Fuck. Do me a favour?’
‘Leave her, I can fix it,’ the Serpent said.
‘At least turn me over, I can’t breathe!’ she said, choking.
I turned her onto her back and her head flopped sideways. Her eyes glazed over and she stopped breathing, then disappeared.
‘Damn, a hangman’s fracture. I shouldn’t have done that,’ I said.
‘She’s Immortal, it’s not a big issue,’ John said.
‘Talk to Pao. He’ll keep her for ages since we sent her there.’
‘I am,’ the Turtle said in John’s male voice, then added, ‘Nope. He’s holding on to her to punish us.’
‘Bastard,’ I said under my breath. ‘Can the Tiger send another senior child down? We need someone to run this —’
Michael appeared next to John. He squawked and jumped back. ‘Holy shit!’
‘Oh, for god’s sake,’ I said with exasperation. ‘It’s not that bad!’ I picked up the laser weapon and pushed it at him. ‘Take this and guard Causeway Eight while Katie’s stuck at Pao’s pleasure.’
‘Ma’am,’ Michael said, edging around John to take the weapon from me.
‘Talk to him, John,’ I said.
‘Is that really you, Lord Xuan?’ Michael said.
The Turtle’s eyes were full of amusement, but the Serpent showed its usual lack of emotion. John turned to face Michael and he took another step back.
‘Wait a second,’ I said with quiet wonder. ‘You’re enjoying this.’
‘Oh my god, you are.’ Michael grinned. ‘Did it freak Katie out?’
‘She used some language, yes,’ the Serpent said in its female voice.
Michael’s mouth flopped open. ‘You’re female?’ He looked from John to me, his eyes wide.
‘Cut it out, John,’ I said. ‘We need to see if there’s more of them.’
‘There are,’ the Turtle said in John’s male voice. ‘I can’t see them, but I can smell them.’
‘Whoa,’ Michael said. ‘You know, you seemed really normal when I was part of the household in Hong Kong.’
‘There’s no need to be insulting,’ John said.
Michael cocked his head. ‘When I was living with you, it was all straight male turtle —’
‘Straight?’ John said.
‘Perfectly aligned,’ I said.
‘Oh. Yes. I am,’ John said.
‘Are you gay female serpent as well now?’
‘For an Immortal you ask a very mortal question, Michael,’ John said in his male voice.
‘Labels,’ I said with scorn. ‘You should know better. We are Shen, spirits incarnate. Our bodies are merely instruments for our spirits, and gender is a part of the instrument.’
John changed from his male to his female voice. ‘You are attempting to label something that is the essence of the Tao. I cannot be labelled, categorised, analysed or comprehended, because I just am.’
‘But are you two spirits?’ Michael said. ‘Are you two separate consciousnesses, one male, one female, or are you one combined mind? How does that even work?’
‘I am yang and yin joined into yin,’ John said with both voices, the sound resonating through the air.
‘Holy fuck,’ Michael said, his eyes wide.
‘Stop playing with Michael and find the rest of the demons,’ I said.
‘What demons?’ Michael looked around. ‘There’s nothing here.’
‘They’re in the ground, planted like landmines,’ I said, pointing at the hole. ‘One was in this, waiting, and when Katie dug it up it broke her neck.’
‘Where is it?’
‘I yinned it,’ John said.
‘Okay.’ Michael turned to scan the island. ‘And there are more?’
‘I think there are about fifteen of them all over the island,’ John said. He stomped between us and we followed him, dwarfed by his enormous shell. ‘I can’t see them at all, and they’re almost impossible to smell unless I’m right on top of them.’ He stopped. ‘Yes. Take True Form and dig here.’
Michael changed to his golden tiger form and snuffled around on the ground. ‘Can’t smell anything.’ He dug, sniffing at the ground at the same time. ‘Nothing here.’
Simone appeared next to her father. ‘Daddy, I have to be in class in ten minutes, and it takes at least twenty to make the trip back from Hell. What’s so important?’
Michael stepped back and shook his shaggy tiger mane. ‘I don’t think there’s anything here, my Lord.’
John concentrated on Simone, his turtle eyes half-closed.
She nodded, then turned and studied the island. ‘Nope.’
‘Just you then, John,’ I said. ‘What a pain.’
The Serpent separated from the Turtle and slithered in one direction, while the Turtle stomped in the other.
‘Serpent,’ I said.
‘Turtle, then,’ Simone said. ‘Michael, stay with Emma.’
I followed the snake as it slithered across the ground, appreciating the way John moved with effortless, sinuous elegance. He was incredibly hot.
I can see your face, Emma, he said. Are you really admiring my ass?
Hell, yeah, I said. When are we doing snake on snake? We still haven’t tried that.
I want you to be sure.
See this face? I said. This is the face of sure.
‘Hold,’ the Serpent said in its female voice. ‘The Turtle found one.’
‘Can Simone take it?’ I said.
‘Easily. She’s yinning it. Done.’ The Serpent moved over the ground again. ‘There’s one close by.’
The demon charged out of the ground five metres away and thundered between John and Michael to attack me. John slithered to it and grabbed it in his mouth, and Michael raised the laser weapon at it. John yinned it at the same time as Michael activated the weapon, and the laser went straight through where the demon had been and hit me in the throat.
I didn’t feel it at first, then the pain struck and I couldn’t breathe. Everything went grey and the ground spiralled towards me.
‘Oh shit,’ Michael said. ‘God, Emma, I am so sorry.’
I wanted to tell him it was okay but the words wouldn’t come.
The Serpent came to me and touched me with its nose. Everything went cold and dark. So cold. The cold was so intense that I wanted to scream, but no noise came out. I felt the Serpent’s desperate concern as it healed me — it never wanted to lose me again. I touched its consciousness and we shared a moment of joined awareness, then the cold was gone and I shivered uncontrollably.
‘You could have just let me die,’ I said.
‘And put you at Pao’s mercy, right after we sent Katie?’ John said. ‘He’d keep you for a month.’
‘He wouldn’t do that, would he?’ Michael said.
John changed to human and helped me up. ‘How long was it last time?’
‘Two and a half weeks,’ I said. I shook myself out. ‘That’s three. Let’s find the rest of them.’
John changed back to Serpent and looked out over the landscape again. ‘Hold. We found another one,’ he said. ‘We’re yinning it. Four.’ The Serpent raised itself on its coils. ‘We need to pick up the pace. The Turtle’s winning.’
‘Your other half is winning a competition with yourself?’ Michael said with disbelief.
‘I know. Can’t have that,’ the Serpent said, and moved off.