Excerpt: The Sixth Precept (2)
Prologue: Ise, Japan–1910, C.E.
The bullet struck the old man’s shoulder. Piercing his suit jacket, the deadly projectile skimmed off the thin layer of protective mesh the old man wore underneath his clothes and ricocheted away like an errant beam of light.
Spun completely around by the force of the shot, the old man fell hard against the wall at the back end of the alley. He lay stunned and gasping for breath as he blinked in surprise. No, he thought, struggling to get up from his knees, his hat falling to the pavement, his shoulder throbbing. I must get away. I must get the Sacred Artifact to the girl!
Despite the openness of the marketplace at midday, despite the throngs of people all around him, the old man had been discovered and followed. He reasoned the alleyway might afford some cover, might enable him to lose those who followed him. He had committed the layout of the city to memory; he knew exactly where to go. But it had not been enough.
He tried to lever himself up with his ebony walking stick, gripping the sculpted ivory handle tightly. But despite the training he had gone through, despite the years of conditioning, both mental and physical, his weakened muscles failed him–now at the penultimate moment of his life.
The bruised and burning pain in his shoulder caused him to cry out and lean against the cool brick of the building. Frantically he felt for the artifact, nestled in his inside jacket pocket. Yes, it was still there, at least a reproduction of it was. Others of his sect were searching the country with their own facsimiles as well. The one he sought as She-Who-Comes-Before may, in truth, not be the one.
It was only luck and risky prediction that had brought him to Ise. He must, at least, hide the artifact he carried somewhere. His attackers must not find it, copy or not, or all would be lost!
But, as two figures marched purposefully towards him, he knew he was too late. Here in the back streets of this sacred city, amid the closeness and dirty confines of this alleyway so near to the Ise Jingu, the Shrine of Amaterasu, he would meet his ignoble end.
And all for nothing! He would never attain the goal of the Shuugouteki! He would never get the artifact to the girl, even though she was one of many who might be the Yomitsu’s forerunner and ancestor. He had failed!
No, he thought grimly. By the Yomitsu, not yet! It was in an alley the legends said the Spirit Winds took Ko the Little to safety–through the Void to a future time. Perhaps this deserted street would afford him his own salvation as well.
Two men walked confidently toward him, agents of the Totou, he knew beyond any doubt. Who else would hunt him down so brazenly and in broad daylight? No mere thieves or cutthroats were these two. They had the power of that malignant cabal behind them–they had discovered him and his purpose and were poised to stop both.
“An old man!” one laughed, eyeing him disdainfully.
“A black African, as well,” snorted the other. “The Shuugouteki must be desperate to drag the bottom of the pits for one such as he.”
Both were arrogant young Japanese, trim and lean with hard features and glittering eyes, and dressed, like himself, in western business suits–wool jackets over vests with chained pocket watches; derby hats perched atop their heads. The Totou and his own group had changed with the times; both had always kept in touch with new developments, new styles, devices and inventions. It was how they had blended in and survived all these centuries.
Perhaps one such invention could save him now. He must complete his mission! The warlord Omori must not defeat Ko the Little at the Pavilion of Black Dragons on that day so long past! The Yomitsu must send Ko back through the Void from that future time to her own past time to prevent victory by the followers of the Left Hand Path! The Sacred Artifact in the hands of She-Who-Comes-Before would set those wheels in motion. If the old man could delay these two…
“You can have all of my money,” he said in perfect Japanese, feigning ignorance. “Please. Just leave this unworthy one alone.” As he spoke, he shifted his body subtly, maneuvering his walking stick to a forty-five degree angle–its gold-encased foot on the pavement and the handle pointed straight at his two attackers.
Young fools, the old man thought, more sure of himself now. Had these two just followed him, kept their presence hidden, they could have captured both objects of their hunt. They had just needed to wait. The over-confidence and deadly enthusiasm of youth would be their undoing. If so, their masters would not be pleased that the identity and location of the Yomitsu’s possible forerunner had not been identified.
Thank the Yomitsu they didn’t send a shadow-tracker in their stead. The Totou must have thought one old man not worth that unholy creature’s time. “I… I don’t know what you mean,” he said, running his right hand slowly up to the handle of his walking stick.
The second agent walked to his comrade’s side, a sneer creasing his face. They both stood in front of him now, only a couple of feet away, well within range. “Talk, old one!” the agent barked. “In the name of the Eminent Lord, who is the girl? Where is she? Tell us now and your death will be quick!”
As if in answer, the old man’s gnarled, black finger found the firing stud on the underside of the walking stick’s handle. “The Eminent Lord?” he said, uttering that cursed name with disgust. “I think not!”
He pressed the stud, closed his eyes and turned away.
There was a popping sound as the handle exploded. Shards of the glass-lined interior blew up and out like a cloud of stinging bees.
The young agents reacted quickly, covering their faces and ducking as they stumbled backwards. But not quickly enough. Several of the glass and ivory splinters had found their mark, piercing the skin on the agents’ unprotected foreheads and jawlines.
The two men dropped their guns, tearing at their collars as they struggled for breath. The fast-acting poison coating the glass, a derivative from a certain puffer fish found off the coastal waters of Japan and more powerful than curare, instantly closed the Totou agents’ lungs and throats and began to stop the beating of their hearts.
Faces purpling and swelling, the two men fell to their knees, convulsing, their eyes bulging. They hit the pavement, jerked a few more times and then lay still.
The old man let out a long, ragged breath, turning away from the horrible sight. At the entrance of the alleyway, business went on as usual in Ise. No one passing looked towards him; no one had seen or heard what had happened.
Gingerly, he picked out a couple of small glass splinters that had backfired and pricked his own flesh. He flicked them to the ground, a shudder running through him. A momentary dizziness passed and he relaxed. The poisons he and his fellow Shuugouteki members had taken in small doses every day for years would give him the immunity he needed. At least long enough to accomplish his task.
He struggled to his feet, his victory empowering him, and forced himself to rise despite the sharp pain shooting through his right wrist. Broken, he thought with a grimace. By the recoil of the shot. They had warned me that might happen, especially for one with bones as old and brittle as mine. But… He looked at the two bloated corpses, a rueful smile crinkling his leathered face. This old black African, wounded and broken, is still alive.
Leaning on his damaged walking stick with his left hand, he shuffled down a side alley and then into another intersecting street. The Ise Jingu complex was not far. I must find the girl, he thought, short of breath. I sense no one else following me now but these two may have others with them. I must be quick!
He had served the Shuugouteki all of his life. Their mission, conditioned in him since birth, had become his–they must stop the Totou from changing history. And the Shuugouteki could do it, if their members adhered to their own intricate plan and all of its complex parts as they had done over the last three centuries.
Three centuries, he thought in wonder. And finally, we could be close.
He walked briskly now, his group’s lifelong purpose giving him strength. I pray she is the one, that she is the forerunner. Perhaps I will be granted the knowledge to know if that is so before I finally pass through the Veil to the Other Side.