Dr. Jourdain opened a creaky door and discovered half a dozen weary children staring into space, fingers peeling poppy seeds from flowers, wrapping bricks of the black gold. The living dead, so young and so empty, in the dank windowless room. She called to them in a whisper, “Hello?” They did not even flinch. She guessed they had been trained to work and react to nothing on threat of violence, or something worse. Dr. Jourdain called the others in, but they could not suggest something to do. Laslow remarked matter-of-factly, “Well, we can’t let them out now. They’re in no state to leave. And it would blow our cover.”
Min knew the children here had likely come from the Chinese mainland. Most were young girls – a few young boys, a couple as young as 6 or so. It was a fate her mother had spared her from no doubt. She could have easily been one of these children. They closed the door on the children, both of the rooms they found. And they passed the dismal sleeping quarters that smelled of urine and mold. The followed the hall which had small shrines in small alcoves carefully prepared with flower pedals and incense, water and a small candle dancing tranquilly in front of a simple mirror.
They came to surreal open-air courtyard, lit by moonlight reflecting off pools off water. Manicured bonsai bordered stone benches. It smelled of fresh conifer and pristine water. The soft trickle of water ran echoed off the walls, tinkling from water running down a fountain of cascading concentric stone circles. The group set to work. Min and Dr. Jourdain threw dirt in the water. Iniwa broke the mirrors. Felix moved further into the courtyard, eyes fixed on the two-story building with multiple doors facing the garden. Laslow took a corner and relieved himself in the water.
It was Felix who saw a set of ornately carved doors open together on the balcony. Inside, he faintly saw glass glinting off firelight and colorful walls of red and gold thread. From out of the room came two tall figures dressed in banded mail, from what seemed to be from one of the East Asian islands. They each carried an obscene weapon on their shoulders – a multi-cylindered, dull metal object, with a string of of a hundred bullets trailing out of it. A gatling gun. The samurai stepped out onto the balcony and scanned the garden, their faces unreadable behind wooden masks of tortured expressions. But that was not the worst part. Certainly Felix shrunk from this. But what he saw next made him wish he had not walked so far away from the others and trapped himself just beneath the balcony.
A figure opened another door on the second floor slowly, its creak echoing across the open-air gallery where everyone hid below. The man or woman, if it could be called that, craned its neck out of the room, silhouetted by golden light. Its dark brown skin had a cadaverous color, and its beady eyes were midnight. Dressed in shimmering purple silken robes befitting a soiled dove or an emperor, it reached impossibly long arms out and gripped the balcony railing. Then it leaned its head over, like a vulture silently surveying the land below.
Laslow slid again the concrete lip of a pool. Iniwa, Min, and Dr. Jourdain shuffled quickly back into the corridor they came from. For a split second it looked like they would get by unseen. But then the large robed figure sniffed and looked below, matching eyes with Felix. Felix tried to put his hands up then saw the samurai train their guns on him and dove. The komainu statue beside him erupted in shrapnel. Laslow pulled his pants up and deftly quick drew his rifle. Dr. Jourdain could see Felix would need a distraction. She slid in and threw a lightning arc toward the samurai, disorienting one. The other fired back and sent her diving behind the fountain. As Min and Laslow opened fire to buy Felix enough time to scamper back to the group, a great shadow extended from the balcony and reached across the courtyard, sunk the water and the stones in blackness. And then, on a closer look, they all saw the fingers leading the darkness. A large hand stretched over all of them, twisting around even the doorway, feeling for them, pulling at Iniwa, running fingertips over Dr. Jourdain’s cheeks. Their blood rushed in their ears. And they swore they heard a cackling. In their ears. An inhuman growl and their world shook. They clenched their teeth and heard an ancient voice speak, “Who is it that comes hither? Just a nightengale on the wind? A kitten? Ahhh I do so love kitten. Come, let me pet you.”
Iniwa rushed forward and charged up the stairs even as the samurai unleashed innumerable bullets. Fingers clawed from the darkness at Min and Felix and Dr. Jourdain, keeping Felix against the ground shooting at the sky. It was Min who pointed them to the sky at a creature hovering – the robed figure hovering like a black angel. She’d swallowed an Owl’s Sight elixir, her only dose, allowing her to see the shadow against the moonlight. She unloaded her pistols, gritting through a nasty swipe of shadowy fingers that came from nowhere. Laslow took two careful shots, the rifle echoing through the courtyard. Dr. Jourdain flung the arcs of lightning upward. But only Min succeeded in wounding it – surprising it into fleeing. Iniwa busied himself by crushing one samurai with a heavy strike and flinging another through the railing and a hard fall on the stone below. Just at that moment, Ru came out of one the remaining second-story rooms naked and took a shot at the creature in the sky, wounding it further. Now it flew for its life, bitter and hateful sputtering with the effort. Min shot it once more, and nearly killed it. She watched it drop to a rooftop and slide over the edge out of sight, but she was sure it was still alive.
In the moments after Ru apologized to his attendant, a fox-eyes sharp-witted woman who had been in his room with him, enjoying the scented bath, when they’d been interrupted. While the others regarded her with suspicion, there was all-together too much to be done and too little time to ask too many questions. Dr. Jourdain tried to engage her in conversation and Ru took note of the fact that the woman took an exceptionally long time in getting her things together. They searched the upper rooms quickly for the manager’s ledger – Ms. A, and realized the creature they had fought, an oni sorceress, was in fact Ms. A. Her full name was Ms. Ama No Zako.
The next half an hour was a scramble. Someone came in to the garden with the a sort of assistant manager, but this new gentleman looked precisely like a bookish and hawk-nosed Ru. He held enough sway to convince the manager not to cause trouble so long as the group left quickly – not out of any good will, apparently, but because it was all better for business. This group was clearly equipped to deal with their immediate security, so best to quit while the losses were acceptable. And those losses were quite lucrative. The group found a safe and with the help of the faux-Ru the group gained access to the safe. Unfortunately, in related investigations, Felix opened a desk only to have a cold curse fall over him. While he couldn’t be sure at first, he grew ill as they began to leave and the group knew they’d have to deal with that before the night was through.
Leaving the Ivory Onyx in a right mess, they waltzed back down the corridor until Min stumbled into the work rooms with the children. But they still weren’t sure what to do with a dozen orphans whose families were still on mainland China. Dr. Jourdain would stand for nothing else but to leave with the children. Iniwa stood quietly by and watched, as did Felix although he looked a bit more uncomfortable, while Ru affirmed Dr. Jourdain’s stance. Min, still unsure, looked to Laslow who tried to explain that they’d be doing the children no favors by letting them onto the streets of Shan Fan free. They might even get the parents in trouble or be cutting off a source of income for the parents. Dr. Jourdain and Ru looked horrified, and that eventually convinced Min to help Dr. Jourdain with translations. The two women convinced the children to follow them with some effort. And so, a little confused, a lot richer, one man cursed, they all left the opium den with a dozen weary children. Min knew an orphanage, one of the only ones in town, led by a stern New England emigrant woman. They handed over the children there, and Felix left the woman an additional generous sum to her stunned gratitude.
The next day Felix was doing only worse. None of Dr. Jourdain’s science could do any good. Iniwa conferred with the doc and told her this was a sickness of the soul. They decided to seek out someone who knew what to do with the dark arts of curses. They discovered Yan Lo’s little house of hor…um…antiques. He took Felix back into the shop alone and Felix came back out weary but on the mend.
And with that they left Shan Fan, hot on the trail of Min’s mother. The ledger revealed the location of her estate – outside a town called Lynchburg. They walked out into the coming storm. Three days later they were crossing a rope bridge against howling winds, slicked by rain, hanging over a seventy foot drop above churning waters and jagged rocks. Felix caught just a glimpse of what might have been a maze dragon. The bridge snapped and left Felix and Ru cut off from the group. It was the only bridge for miles. Now it would be up to Iniwa, Laslow, Dr. Jourdain, and Min to finish the quest for Min’s mother at last.