When the attack began, Pearl Bright already held a sword in her hand. Otherwise, the old Tiger might well have died with the very breath at which she knew she was in danger.
Instead, Pearl pivoted and her blade cut flesh. A head flew from a neck, a stranger’s hot blood jetted forth to dapple her face and throat. The man stumbled back, sword hilt slipping from nerveless fingers as he fell.
Pearl did not wait to see how her assailant landed. There was no way he was ever picking up that sword again, and too much else demanded her attention.
Around her, what had been a quiet private park had become a battlefield in which Pearl and her associates were outmatched and outnumbered. From a rip in the air, a dozen or more men had run forward. They were clad in the armor and bearing the arms of a bygone day, of a China that might never have existed.
This last did not make those blades any less deadly.
As Pearl swung around to assess the situation, she saw the right arm of Righteous Drum the Dragon removed neatly at the shoulder to drop steaming and smoking onto the grass.
The complex ideograph Righteous Drum had been sketching hung metallic yellow in the air for a long moment, then transformed into an explosion of golden light that caught his attacker full in the face, melting skin to bone, bone to ash.
The ideograph had retained its shape long enough for Pearl to read what Righteous Drum had intended.
Great idea, Pearl thought, but I’m going to need a little space before I can pull anything that complex of .
Righteous Drum crumpled to his knees, his eyes glazed as he clapped his remaining hand over the stump of his arm. His pale lips muttered what was hopefully a healing or binding.
Righteous Drum’s daughter, Honey Dream, the Snake, had run to protect her father when he had fallen. She stood with the curving snake’s-fang dagger that was her chosen weapon in her right hand. With her left she was fishing into the cleavage of her low-cut tee shirt, pulling out slips of red paper already inscribed with elaborate charms.
One of these evidently provided some form of protection that covered both father and daughter, as the man who came racing at them, sword raised, a ferocious battle cry on his lips, learned when his downward cut was halted by some unseen barrier. He reeled back, striving to retain his balance.
Honey Dream did not give him time to recover. Another slip of red paper flew, and when it struck the man in the face the eyelids dissolved beneath a wash of virulent green acid.
Didn’t know you’d brought anything that nasty with you, girl, Pearl thought. Wish I was surprised. Hope you’ve got a lot more.
Righteous Drum would be as safe as his daughter could make him. Since Honey Dream had a Snake’s regard for a whole skin, Pearl thought they’d do as well as or better than if she gave them her aid. Her own people were much more vulnerable.
It took Pearl a moment to locate Des Lee, for the Rooster formed the center of a small knot of armored men. Then one of these staggered back, blood streaming from where his eyes should have been, the long raking marks across his face showing what a Rooster’s Talon could do. The momentary glimpse Pearl caught of Des showed that like Honey Dream he had made enhancing his defense his first priority. Swords torn from their wielder’s hands showed that Des had not forgotten the value of disarming one’s opponents.
Pearl decided she was being foolish not to enhance her own defense, and while her mind shaped the sequence that would summon mingled winds and dragons to protect her, she looked for the two most vulnerable members of her company.
Like Des, Riprap was surrounded by a small crowd of armored men. One lay on the ground, his head an ugly ruin. Two others were battering at his defenses while a third stood back, muttering something, his fingers sketching patterns in the air.
Pearl would have run to Riprap’s aid, but at that moment Flying Claw lived up to his name. The young warrior leapt through the air, screaming like the attacking Tiger he was.
The mutterer was cloven from the top of his shoulder right through his chest. The stroke was so violent, and so eficiently delivered, that it made the near-decapitation that resulted seem almost like an afterthought.
Although battles raged on all sides, still the situation seemed oddly under control—with her own side clearly in the ascendance. Pearl began to think she could turn her attention to completing what Righteous Drum had begun.
Then she caught sight of Brenda Morris. For a moment Pearl’s heart went cold in her chest. Then Pearl began to run.
The morning’s activity had not gone at all as Brenda could have wished. First, well aware that the session was going to involve the physical combat training she and Riprap had been agitating for, Brenda had dressed practically—even if jeans and a long-sleeved shirt had meant she was going to feel the July heat and humidity. As a compensation for the heat, she had braided her long, dark brown hair, then twisted it into a knot at the back of her head.
If San Jose, California, hadn’t been a whole lot more clement than her home state of South Carolina, Brenda probably couldn’t have borne the heavier clothing, but she was being practical. When they got to the designated training grounds, there was Honey Dream in all her exotic Oriental beauty. Honey Dream was wearing nothing but shorts and one of those obnoxious tee shirts that showed of why she needed to wear a bra, whereas Brenda could far too easily do without her own.
Something about the sneer that had flickered across Honey Dream’s face told Brenda that the other woman knew perfectly well that Brenda had figured she was going to take a fall or two.
Then, to make matters worse, Flying Claw hadn’t even looked at Brenda beyond of ering a very casual good-morning. He seemed more interested in talking with Riprap about the baseball bat the big black man had brought along to serve as a weapon.
After some warming up and stretching exercises, they’d paired up. Righteous Drum, a square-bodied, slightly overweight man who rather reminded Brenda of Chairman Mao, had chosen Des Lee.
Des’s first name was actually "Desperate" and his appearance was as odd as his given name. Taller than average, lean without being gawky, Des wore both his hair and beard in a fashion that emphasized his ethnic Chinese heritage. His shining black hair was worn in a long queue. His forehead was shaved in a fashion common when both the expansion of the railroads and the California gold rush had drawn Chinese to the United States in record numbers. His long chin beard and wispy mustache emphasized his high cheekbones and beautifully sculptured features.
However, Righteous Drum’s choice of Des as a sparring partner had little to do with Des’s odd appearance. Righteous Drum wanted to see how Des could use the Rooster’s Talons, the odd weapons Des had inherited from his grandmother, to parry thrown spells. Des had been more than happy to oblige, although it was pretty clear that Des intended to get Righteous Drum to show him a trick or two in exchange.
Flying Claw and Riprap were sparring even before the warm-up was formally finished. Waking Lizard, the long-bodied, lean-limbed Monkey, had insisted that Honey Dream begin with him because they could spar spell-to-spell, and Waking Lizard was still stiff from the injuries he had acquired in the course of his narrow escape from the Lands Born from Smoke and Sacrifice.
That left Brenda to practice with Pearl Bright. On the surface, this should not have been a problem. After all, Brenda was nineteen to Pearl’s seventy-some years