Authors: Kylie Chan
The water brightened. The Serpent drifted upwards.
The sunlight made streaks of vivid blue in the water.
The Serpent reached the surface and lay, unmoving, just beneath.
It raised its head slightly above the water, then dipped it below again.
There was no answer.
tapped gently on the door. ‘Mum? Dad?’ ‘Come in, sweetheart.’
I opened the door and sidled in. My father was rummaging through his suitcase on the desk. My mother was further inside, folding clothes on the bed.
‘You okay, guys?’ I said.
Both of them smiled weakly at me.
‘You don’t need to worry now,’ I said. ‘That attack’s been coming for a while. I think he threw everything he had at us. It’s finished. It’ll be quiet for a long time.’
My mother came into the little sitting room and gestured for me to sit next to her on the couch. Her bright blue eyes were serious under her short greying brown hair, and her long, kind face seemed more lined than usual. ‘Does that sort of thing happen often?’
‘Small attacks, all the time. Big ones like that, no. That’s only the second or third time we’ve had so many demons thrown at us at once.’ I paused and thought about it. ‘No, actually more than that.’ I smiled an apology. ‘We had about five demons come into the apartment when the Mountain was attacked last January. Then a couple of dozen came at us in China last April. The King of the Demons himself threw about
fifty small ones and a dozen big ones at us in London, August of this year, and then straight after that the little bastard who came after us last night had a go at us with a big group at Jennifer’s house.’ I counted them up. ‘Four, not counting last night.’
‘Jennifer’s house? You mean your sister Jennifer?’ my mother said. ‘Oh, that’s right, Leonard works for Mr Chen.
was attacked? So she knows all about this?’
‘Yes. But Jennifer wasn’t attacked. They attacked us, at her house. Her family weren’t threatened at all, from what I could see.’
‘She never mentioned it,’ my father said.
‘I don’t think she wants to dwell on it,’ I said. ‘It was a very frightening experience for all of them. We’ve posted guards at their house, but no more demons have gone anywhere near them. The demons are after us. Wong wants to take John’s head to the King.’
‘They have a King?’ my father said, coming to sit next to me. Close up, the deep lines around his blue eyes made his tanned, leathery face look older. He studied me with concern.
‘Yeah. Big red-headed bastard. The little creep who came after us last night is his son. The King’s said that anyone who can bring him John’s head will be promoted to Number One son.’
‘They want his head?’ my mother said.
‘John—Xuan Wu—is the mightiest demon killer ever to exist. He ran them all off the face of the Earth a long time ago and they hate him. While he’s weak like this, they’ll keep attacking him. If they get his head, he’ll be gone for a very long time.’
‘What do you mean “gone”?’ my father said. ‘Dead?’
‘No. If they take his head, he’ll revert to True Form. He’ll change into a turtle, combined with a snake, and have to go away for a long time to recover from the
exertion of maintaining his human form to stay with Simone and me.’
‘He’d change into a
?’ my mother said.
I sighed. ‘Yeah, I know it’s weird. Even the other Shen say he’s strange, and they’re all completely unbelievable themselves.’ I explained before she could ask. ‘They’re called Shen . Spirits. Not really gods, but that’s the closest word in English we have for it.’
‘So this guy you’re engaged to isn’t a human being at all,’ my father said. ‘He’s some sort of animal spirit.’
‘Got it in one. He’s the Spirit of the North, Emperor of the Dark Northern Heavens, a combination of a serpent and a turtle.’ They both opened their mouths and I answered before they could ask. ‘Yep. That’s right. He’s
animals. And it gets weirder. The Serpent is missing. Gone. Right now he’s just the Turtle.’ I spoke more softly. ‘It’s killing him to be divided like this. The Serpent is out there somewhere, looking for him, and he misses it terribly.’
‘Christ. Then that Tiger guy…’ my father began.
‘Yep. He’s really a white tiger.’
My mother’s mouth flopped open. ‘We had dinner the other night with a
‘Remember what Leo told you—that he’s about the only normal human member of the household? He’s right,’ I said. ‘John is a turtle. The Tiger, Bai Hu, is a white tiger. Gold is a rock, Jade is a dragon—you saw her. Simone is half Shen; she may take some sort of animal form when she grows up but she’s the first human child John’s ever had so it’ll be interesting to see what she grows into. Michael is half Shen too, half tiger, being the Tiger’s son. He may be able to transform too.’
‘All right. So why were you a snake, love? You’re one of us,’ my father said.
I ran my hands through my hair. ‘I honestly don’t know. The whole thing has me really worried.’
‘The lady last night,’ my father said. ‘What was her name?’
‘Kwan Yin. Goddess of Mercy.’
‘She said that being with him has changed you,’ my father said.
‘Frankly?’ my mother said. ‘Yes.’
‘In what way?’
My parents shared a look. My father shrugged. They both smiled slightly at me.
‘You have no idea at all,’ I said.
Neither of them said anything.
‘Would you say that I’m more cold-blooded?’
My mother shifted. ‘I wouldn’t say that you’re
‘Yes,’ my father said. ‘You always were a bit of a heartless bitch, but now you seem even more heartless.’
My mother was horrified. ‘Brendan!’
‘Last night, when we were threatened by those things. She was only worried about Simone; she didn’t even seem to notice us. When that black guy, Leo, said he wanted to die for them, what did she say? “Fight well.”’ He turned to me. ‘You were quite happy to let him go in front of you and die, Emma.’
‘So was John.’
‘Yeah. He’s unbelievably cold-blooded too.’
‘You don’t know everything about Leo, Dad. He’s terminally ill, he has AIDS. For him, to die on the battlefield protecting us would be the greatest thing in the world. I sincerely hope he doesn’t die in a hospital bed. He deserves much better.’
‘Oh my God,’ my mother said softly, her eyes wide.
‘Are you worried about catching it?’ I said. ‘I thought I knew you better than that.’
My mother snapped out of it and focused on me. ‘You just said that you hope he doesn’t live as long as he can, that you hope he
can die sooner, in a fight. You really
‘She is learning our ways and attaining the Tao,’ the stone in my ring said. ‘She is becoming detached and part of the
My parents cast around, bewildered.
‘Who spoke?’ my father said. ‘Sounded like an Englishman.’
I showed them the ring. ‘The stone talks. And I wish it would
‘My Lady, your mother has a headache and needs her morning caffeine hit, and your father is starving,’ the stone said. ‘Stop talking their ears off and take them to have some breakfast.’
‘He’s right,’ my father said ruefully.
‘Do not refer to me as
!’ the stone snapped. ‘Gender is reserved for you animals. We stones are above that sort of weakness. I don’t know why I give you the benefit of my wisdom when you insult me so casually.’
‘Come on, guys,’ I said, rising from the couch and opening the door to lead them out.
‘Why do you put up with that, Emma?’ my father said. ‘I’d be throwing that bloody thing down the toilet.’
I sat my parents down at the kitchen table. ‘Where’s Simone?’ I asked Ah Yat.
Ah Yat concentrated a moment. ‘Miss Simone and Master Leo are in the training room together.’
‘And Lord Xuan?’
‘Right here,’ John said from the doorway. He came in and sat at the table across from my mother. ‘Morning, Brendan, Barbara. Tea,
,’ he ordered without looking at Ah Yat. Ah Yat busied herself with the teapot while my mother’s coffee infused.
I glared at him. ‘Stand up.’
His face went rigid and he didn’t move.
‘Celestial Highness Emperor Xuan Wu of the Dark Northern Heavens, you stand up right now,’ I said.
His face went wry and he rose, pushing his chair back.
I moved as close as I could to him while still remaining safe. He towered over me, a good head taller. His long hair was already coming out from its tie. It was more than four months since his last energy session with Ms Kwan and he was running low. He looked in his late forties; his hair had turned grey at the temples. He smiled slightly at me and his eyes wrinkled up.
I pointed at his black cotton pants. ‘They were new. Leo bought them only a couple of weeks ago.’
He glanced down. They already had a hole in the left knee.
‘You did that deliberately to annoy me, didn’t you?’ I said fiercely. ‘To get me back for throwing those old ones away. I
you not to wear them for Short Weapons.’
He threw himself down again and pulled his chair closer to the table. Ah Yat presented him with the tea and he poured for himself. ‘I am a creature of my word, and it was an accident,’ he said. He turned to my parents. ‘Has she always been this impossible?’
‘You are absolutely the scruffiest Immortal I have ever met,’ I huffed. ‘I’m surprised your Celestial Form is so tidy. Your armour doesn’t have any holes in it. Why do your clothes?’
‘That is extremely good coming from you,’ John said mildly. ‘Look at your jeans.’
I glanced down at my jeans and felt my face redden. I pulled a chair out and sat next to my father. ‘I didn’t know that was there.’
‘My Lord Mr Donahoe, my Lady Mrs Donahoe, what may I prepare for you?’ Ah Yat said.
‘Just Brendan, and if you have any cornflakes that’d be great. Otherwise, whatever’s going,’ my father said.
‘Just some fruit and toast, please,’ my mother said.
Ah Yat nodded, smiled, and disappeared. Both my parents jumped.
‘No cornflakes,’ I said. ‘She’s gone to buy you some.’
‘Speaking of armour, I must have some made for you,’ John said.
‘Don’t worry about it. Right now, every attack’s an ambush so there’s no point,’ I said. ‘And how come I came back with clothes on last night? I shouldn’t have been able to conjure them.’
‘What are you talking about?’ my father said.
‘When we transform, we lose the clothes. Of course,’ John said.
‘The Tiger loves it,’ I cut in. ‘Shocking exhibitionist.’
,’ John said, glaring at me, ‘we conjure the clothes when we return to human form.’
‘But I shouldn’t have been able to do that,’ I said.
‘Obviously the Serpent in you could,’ John said. ‘The stone was right: we must start some more advanced training with you. Who knows what you’ll be able to do? Try something now,’ he said, sitting straighter. ‘Try calling me.’
I thought hard at him.
‘Nothing,’ he said, sounding disappointed.
I shrugged. ‘Not surprising. The snake’s probably hiding right now.’
Ah Yat appeared with the cornflakes and placed the breakfast things on the table in front of my parents.
‘Thanks,’ my father said and poured the cereal. ‘How old are you, John?’
‘I have no idea,’ John said.
‘You look about forty or forty-five,’ my mother said.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Far too old for me.’
‘I’m probably in the region of four to four and a half thousand years old,’ John said amiably. ‘I have no recollection of being born. I don’t know exactly when I gained consciousness. I joined with the Serpent about three and a half thousand years ago.’
My parents stared at him, speechless.
‘About three thousand years ago the human form was Raised and I was promoted to Dark Emperor,’ John said, almost to himself. ‘Celestial General. That sort of thing.’
‘And you still haven’t grown up,’ I said. ‘Tea, Ceylon. Toast with peanut butter, please, Ah Yat.’
Ah Yat disappeared again.
‘Must have run out of peanut butter,’ I said. ‘Don’t know why all the demons like it so much. Remind me later to ask her for a shopping list—we can order in bulk on the internet, have it delivered, and she can stop flitting around like that. People at the supermarket will notice.’
‘She probably changes her form if she has to go twice in a row,’ John said.
‘Eat,’ I said, gesturing towards my parents. ‘You’ll get used to it.’
‘Why black?’ my mother said. ‘You only wear black. Everything. And Tiger the other night—he called you a Black Turtle. What was that about?’
‘You know the Suzy Wong reference?’ I said, and she nodded. ‘Well, Black Turtle is Cantonese street slang for pimp. The turtle in general is renowned for its…’ I grinned at John, ‘
, and there are a lot of nasty insults surrounding it. It’s not a good idea to say the word anywhere near anybody.’
Ah Yat appeared with a jar of peanut butter in her hand. She put it on the table in front of me.
‘Did you pay for that?’ I said.
Ah Yat didn’t reply; she just turned and busied herself at the sink.
‘You dishonour us, Ah Yat,’ I said. ‘Later, you will go back there, pick up one of these, pay for it and put it back on the shelf, and that is an order.’
‘I’m a turtle egg,’ John said.
Ah Yat silently collapsed over the sink.
‘See?’ I said. ‘He just called himself a motherless bastard.’
‘Well, I am,’ John said mildly. ‘I have no idea as to my origins or heritage. I just
Ah Yat disappeared.
‘Damn. I wish you’d stop doing that,’ I said. ‘It’ll take ages for her to pull herself together and come back.’ I turned to my parents. ‘What would you like to do today? Would you like to see the Academy? Some kung fu? The students would love to show you.’
‘Anything you like will be fine with us, Emma,’ my mother said weakly.
‘Sunday, Emma,’ John said.
‘Oh yeah, I forgot,’ I said. ‘I’ll find Simone and let Leo go. He should have said something.’
‘Go,’ John said.
Leo and Simone were working with the sword together. Simone was using my weapon.
‘Can you make it sing, Simone?’ I said.
‘Watch this.’ Simone put the sword out in front of her and stilled. The sword made a pure resounding note of indescribable beauty. Simone ran it through a gentle scale, each note making the air vibrate in harmony. The sound stopped and she relaxed.