There were mandarin oranges everywhere: bouncing down the steps of the Dragon’s Gate; rolling onto Grant Street and under cars…an explosion of little dancing orange balls.
Kim Wu lay sprawled on the dirty concrete stairs with the wind knocked out of her. The nineteen-year-old hadn’t fallen that hard since she’d taken a header off her bike as a kid. She got to her knees and looked around, but her vision was distorted.
What in the hell had just happened?
She stared at her bloodied palms, forcing her eyes to focus. Forcing herself to think. She’d just gotten off the bus from the Mission District where she’d been teaching a free martial arts class at Dolores Park. She’d been carrying a bag of oranges that she’d bought for her uncle who was in the hospital. She’d started up the Dragon’s Gate steps when something had exploded in her brain—a burst of crazy color and violent sound so powerful she’d been blinded. Her legs had actually gone dead! The next thing she knew she was sprawled on her face.
She gazed about, squinting, half expecting to see the carnage of a terrorist bombing. But everything looked fine. People were walking around as if nothing had happened. Some tourists were taking pictures of the Gate. A guy was smoking a cigarette and holding an ugly dog under one arm, talking loudly on his cell phone in Korean. A bike messenger was pedaling through the center gate—heading up Grant Street and into Chinatown.
But one little old Asian woman was frantically picking up the stray oranges, stretching out her bulky sweater to make a basket of sorts in which to hold the fruit.
“Are you drunk, young lady?” she asked Kim in Chinese. “High on crack?”
“No, grandmother,” Kim replied in the same language, using the honorific even though she’d never met this woman before. Kim was half-Korean and half-Chinese and spoke both languages fluently.
“Then you need to take some walking lessons,” the old woman shot back.
Kim laughed despite herself. The old ladies of Chinatown were certainly a snarky bunch. “Even monkeys can fall out of trees,” Kim said, using an old Korean expression her uncle had taught her. “And thanks for saving my oranges.”
“They’re dirty now,” said the old woman. “Only fit for monkeys.” She dumped all of the oranges she had collected back into Kim’s sack. Then she sniffed disapprovingly and went on her way toward the bus stop.
“You peel oranges anyway,” said Kim defensively. “They don’t have to be clean.”
Kim felt embarrassed. She prided herself on her excellent balance. She taught martial arts at the Dragon Academy—the Kung Fu school her mother’s family had founded fifty years ago and that Kim now ran in the evenings. One of the ways that she demonstrated equilibrium skills to her students was to stand on a high balance beam and let them take turns trying to knock her off with Shaolin fighting sticks as she defended herself with nunchaku. No one ever succeeded in getting her down.
So how come she’d done a face plant on a flight of steps that she’d run up and down a thousand times before?
“Because I’ve never had a Death Star explode in my brain, that’s why,” she answered herself.
She got to her feet and picked up the sack, then started up the stairs again, stepping warily. Passing through the Dragon’s Gate she entered Chinatown; and as she made her way along the sidewalk on Grant Street the colors and smells and noises of the bustling thoroughfare assaulted her senses. The neon signs seemed too bright. The gaudy lanterns too garish. The spicy smells of food wafting from the dim sum shop she was passing…stomach churning. She had always loved everything about this part of San Francisco—her home. But all she wanted to do right now was run away. It was as if something had shifted inside her because of the fall, and the strange burst of light and sound.
Glancing down she noticed she’d torn her new outfit—a Chinese silk jacket she’d worked on all week at the Art Institute where she was going to school. “Friggin’ crap!” she said.
This day officially sucked.
She walked quicker, wending her way to the Chinese Hospital on the other side of Chinatown. Uncle Yong had been admitted there two days ago after complaining about a pain behind his eye. He’d called her that morning telling her that he needed to talk to her. She guessed he was worried about his kite shop. Kim’s twin cousins helped run Uncle’s business, but they were complete tools and aspiring embezzlers, only concerned with their stupid Twitch stream for an idiotic fighting game called Punch Fighter. She’d have to go and give them a stern talking to about how it was their responsibility to keep things at the shop running smoothly until their father was back on his feet.
Kim loved her uncle. He was her mother’s younger brother, and he’d taught Kim martial arts from the age of three, and encouraged her to follow her dream of becoming a clothing designer. Uncle was funny and kind. She’d never heard him utter a mean word about anyone. Kim’s father, however, was straight off the boat from mainland China and very stern. She had fought with him her entire life. He had wanted her to become a doctor but she had refused, and this had created an impenetrable wall between them.
“Thank god for Uncle Yong,” she thought. She pictured him running across the sand at Ocean Beach, string in hand, with one of his huge dragon kites soaring in the sky above him. The name Yong meant “Dragon” in Korean, and Uncle had always joked that Kim was “Half-Yong but 100% Dragon.” He told her the tale of the family’s progenitor—a Korean warrior-woman who lived two thousand years ago and who’d bonded with a dragon spirit, helping to lead an army against demonic invaders, thus saving the world.
It was a great story. But Uncle really seemed to believe, with all his heart, that it was true. And that’s what made him so special.
Ducking down an alley she saw the Preacher in his refrigerator box, reading a book. He glanced up when he saw her. The hulking homeless man had a long black beard and crazy eyes; but he gave her a friendly wave as she approached, smiling sweetly.
“Hey K-K-Kimmy,” he stuttered, “I want to tell you about this crazy dream I had last night.”
“Gotta get to the hospital,” she replied, tossing him an orange. “I’ll catch you later.”
“Oh, a dekopon!” he exclaimed happily as he grabbed the orange. “These are e-e-expensive.”
“They’re my uncle’s favorites,” she said over her shoulder as she strolled past.
“But my d-d-dream—” he stammered. “You were fighting this evil dude in a skull mask!”
“Fill me in on the rebound, Preacher.”
She came out of the alley and turned onto Jackson Street. Up ahead was the new modern-looking Chinese Hospital, with the original hospital still standing right next door. The old hospital’s roof was shaped like a pagoda.
“Bruce Lee was born there,” Uncle Yong had told her a dozen times. “And I was born in the very same room twenty years after him.”
Kim was just about to cross the street when she glanced up at the top of the old hospital and stopped short. Her arms went slack and the bag of oranges slipped from her hands yet again. “Holy—!” Someone was on the pagoda-shaped roof, five stories above the street—standing on the narrow tiled edge in the Kung Fu position called “the Dragon”—legs spread wide and arms out. It was a man, teetering on the brink of death.
And even from this distance she could tell that it was Uncle Yong.
Recklessly sprinting across the street, she dashed between moving cars, and into the hospital, flying up the six flights of stairs until she came to the roof access. It said “No Entry” but she barreled right through, bounding across the roof until she got to the edge where she skidded to a halt.
“Uncle,” she said breathlessly. “What are you doing?”
He cocked his head slightly but did not turn to look at her.
“Ah, Kim, I have been waiting for you,” he said with his smiling voice. “Such a beautiful day to die.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked, her voice trembling.
“The Dragon chooses when to leave us,” said Uncle Yong. “And who to pick next.”
“Uncle, you’re scaring me,” Kim said, utterly bewildered and starting to panic. “Get off that ledge. This is nuts. Don’t mess around.”
He switched positions, spinning fluidly on one foot until he was facing her in the Mantis position. His laughing eyes stared at her with affection and he smiled broadly showing a golden incisor. His face seemed to be glowing. As if it was radiating an inner source of light.
“Nothing to be afraid of,” he said. “I’m so proud of you. The Dragon chose well. I was merely a vessel used to carry it for a time…until you were ready.”
Kim’s skin erupted into goosebumps. She had never heard her uncle talk like this. Was he having some kind of suicidal reaction to medication? She got up on the ledge and walked toward him with her palms up.
“Uncle, don’t do something crazy. You have to tell me what’s going on? Are you in trouble? Are you sick?” She felt her eyes welling up with tears. “I brought your favorite oranges.”
“Where are they?” he asked with a laugh.
“I dropped them,” she said. “In the street. But you can peel them.”
He lowered his head slightly and bore into her eyes. “Be brave,” he whispered, “and you will save the world.” And then, arching his back, he let himself fall backwards off the roof.
Kim screamed and ran to where he’d been, reaching out her hand to grab him. But all that she touched was a golden mist that scattered on the wind. Her uncle had vanished.
“What are you doing over there! Hey!”
Kim turned toward the angry voice. A security guard was standing behind her. She became aware that an alarm was ringing. She must have set it off when she’d come onto the roof.
“My uncle was here,” said Kim in a daze. “But he’s gone.”
“Step away from the edge! Now!”
When the security guard learned why Kim had come to the hospital, he led her directly to the intensive care ward. Through a viewing window she saw Uncle Yong lying on an operating table. Tubes were coming out of his nose and arms. But the equipment had been turned off. The doctors and nurses were taking off their blue gloves and writing things on charts.
“I don’t understand what’s going on?” said Kim as a nurse approached. “I just saw my uncle. I just talked to him.”
“Are you Philip Yong’s family?” the nurse asked sympathetically.
“I’m his niece.”
“Mr. Yong had a massive aneurism about fifteen minutes ago,” explained the nurse. “We tried to operate but…I’m so sorry. He passed away just a few minutes ago.”
Kim reeled and slumped into a chair. Uncle was gone. And she had just had a conversation with his ghost.
Three days later Kim sat in her uncle’s little library listening to the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour on an old phonograph from the 80s. The Beatles had been Uncle’s favorite band and he had introduced Kim to them, telling her that they were the Western World’s greatest contribution to the arts.
One corner of the room was taken over by her cousins’ computer equipment: a PC and an Xbox and stacks of games and old consoles, controllers and headphones were strewn everywhere. Through the years they had filled Uncle’s room with all of their gamer junk.
On the opposite wall was a framed poster for a city-wide protest march against the megacorporation Ultratech—a protest that her uncle had helped organize a few years ago. Uncle had hated that company with a passion. “Ultratech makes weapons for a war that only they want the world to fight,” he’d always say. And he was vehemently opposed to the Killer Instinct Tournament—a contest pitting fighters from around the world in brutal contests, sometimes against Ultratech inventions. He’d forbidden Kim to ever participate in one of these events. “It would debase your training and your spirit,” he’d told her with passion.
Downstairs, the kite shop was filled with family and friends who had gathered to pay their respects after the funeral. Earlier that day, everyone had followed a brass band as it had marched through the streets to the temple, playing a dirge version of “Kung Fu Fighting.” Inside the shrine, people had burned joss sticks and little paper models of things that Uncle Yong might need in the afterlife—a house, car, food, etc. Kim had burned paper models of R2D2 and C3P0 because Uncle had loved Star Wars so much.
The music drowned out most of the noise, but she could still hear a dull roar of voices rumbling below the thin floor. Uncle had had a lot of friends. He had been loved. But Kim didn’t want to be with anyone right now. She was too depressed and confused. She had been trying to make sense of what she had seen—or what she thought she’d seen—but it didn’t seem real anymore.
“But it was real,” she said out loud, her voice full of defiance. It all made sense, in its own crazy way. Uncle had had an aneurism—that must have happened at the exact moment she had experienced the explosion in her brain on the steps of the Dragon’s Gate. And when she’d talked to him on the roof…well…that had been his spirit in the moments before he’d died. Then his spirit had turned to a golden mist and…
“OK, I’m friggin’ losing it,” she said.
There was a knock on the door and her mom poked in her head. She looked very sad but wore a faint smile on her lips.
“Yes mom. I’m coming down.”
Kim started to get up but her mother held up a hand for her to stay sitting, then she went over and turned the volume down on the record player.
“I didn’t come up here to ask you to come down,” said her mother. “I need to give you a gift. My brother asked me to give it to you if something ever happened to him.” She bent down and pulled some books off a shelf. Then, to Kim’s surprise, her mother slid apart a secret panel. Inside was a long, black lacquered box. She lifted it with both hands and set it on Kim’s lap. It was heavy.
“Uncle wanted me to have this?” asked Kim.
Her mother nodded, then put a hand to her mouth. “He loved you,” she said. “You were his favorite. He felt like you’d save the world someday,” she added. “Just like me.”
Kim gave a slight smile. “Thanks, mom.”
Her mother left the room and shut the door.
Kim stared at the box for several minutes. It had a carving of a dragon on the top that was gilded with gold. The box was very old. And this was no cheap import or knock-off—it had obviously been made by a master craftsman.
She tried to open it but there didn’t appear to be any hinges or a lock. The lid would not open.
The door flew open and her cousins, Michael and Jeremy, came storming into the room. The twins were heavyset seventeen-year-olds with matching glasses and crewcuts.
“We need the room,” said Michael.
“We’ve got our live stream,” added Jeremy.
“You’re going to talk about Punch Fighter on the day of your father’s funeral?” Kim asked with disgust.
“We grieve in our own way,” said Michael angrily.
“Yeah,” added Jeremy. “Don’t mock our way of expressing emotions simply because they’re different than yours.”
Kim rolled her eyes, muttering “Have fun PewDiePie wannabees” under her breath.
“He’s on YouTube!” said Michael.
“Duh. We’re Twitch streamers,” added Jeremy.
“Who cares.” Kim grabbed the dragon box and went downstairs. But the cacophony of conversations in the crammed shop practically made her want to scream. She ducked out the back door.
The alley was completely empty of people. Red paper lanterns swung lazily in a slight breeze. Neon signs flickered in the dusky light—signs for the beauty shop, the funeral parlor, Chinese newspaper office, and the Auspicious Paint Store. She sat down on her uncle’s yellow motorcycle and sighed. Maybe she would just take off right now and ride over the Golden Gate Bridge and head up Highway 1 to Point Reyes.
She looked around and sighed again. This alley was where she used to practice Kung Fu when she was a little girl. Her uncle gave her lessons during his work breaks; and Kim diligently went through all of her positions for hours on end…
A wind whipped through the alley just then, causing the clothes hanging on the lines between the buildings to dance crazily. Her skin went cold and she shivered. She thought she saw someone out of the corner of her eye and whipped her head around, but there was nobody there. But for a heartbeat she would have sworn she’d seen a teenaged girl with a deathly pale face, long black hair and a tattered robe…hunched over and leaning on a naginata—a Japanese pole weapon.
“Yep. Definitely losing it,” said Kim under her breath.
Glancing at the dragon box still clutched in her hands, she saw something that she hadn’t noticed before: there was an indentation on the side of the lid, just big enough for a thumbnail. She slid her nail in and pushed. There was a distinctive click sound and the lid opened a tiny bit. Her heart pounding in her chest, Kim opened the lid all the way to reveal a velvet interior…and nothing inside.
Kim frowned. She didn’t understand. She was hoping that it would be a relic from the past. Some ancient weapon that only she could wield. Like her beloved nunchaku.
As if responding to her wish, the interior of the box started glowing with a scintillating light. A set of golden nunchaku materialized before her eyes—beautiful chain sticks with handles resembling a dragon. Kim gasped and reached out, grabbing one of the handles. But the light became unbearable and she squeezed her eyes shut, staggering backwards. She tripped and fell on her backside and felt something strange…grass!
She opened her eyes and squinted…at the sunlight! The Chinatown alley was gone. She was now standing on a hillside in front of a massive standing stone inscribed with the ancient Chinese character for “dragon.” She could feel the sunlight on her face. Smell the grass. She was actually here, whatever this here was. She was not imagining it.
Sitting in front of the monolith was a Korean man of indeterminate age, dressed in silk robes. He had a long salt and pepper colored mustache and goatee; and was smoking a beautiful ivory pipe. His eyes were like molten gold orbs with a cat’s vertical pupils. Lithe and muscular, he had the dignified yet modest bearing of a Kung Fu master; she sensed there was great strength and balance within him. But the most remarkable thing about him was when he spoke—flames emanated from his mouth, curling around his whiskers without burning him.
“We’re in danger,” he said in Korean. “The evil is coming. It is reborn. The Shadow Lord has brought it back to life with his growing power. You must find the Watchman of the gods. Together you can defeat Gargos.”
“Who are you?” asked Kim in amazement. “And who’s the Watchman? And what the hell’s a Gargos?”
“These questions will all be answered in time,” said the strange man. “But for now, know that I am Yeouiju. You can call me Yeo.” He bowed slightly, then gazed at her with his hypnotic eyes. “And I choose you.” He stood up and rushed toward her like a meteor trailing a blaze of light, slamming into her chest.
Once again Kim was knocked backwards. She felt something warm inside her, as though her body had been infused with the light of the sun. Her heart seemed to swell in her chest, and she laughed without knowing why. Her right arm tingled.
“Whoa!” she shouted. Her arm was now emblazoned with a beautiful dragon tattoo, curling around her limb from the shoulder to the back of her hand.
The hillside and standing stone started to shimmer and dissolve, as though they were made of nothing more substantial than particles of light. The Chinatown alley rematerialized before her eyes. She was back home.
But now a little dragon was with her, swirling around her body—a creature made of light. She felt an outpouring of love for this thing. It was part of her now. She realized that she still held the nunchaku. She did a basic spin to test the weight. It was heavier than the ones that she trained with. She tried a more difficult move—
She’d knocked herself in the forehead. The dragon snickered as she leaned over in pain.
“Not funny,” said Kim, but the pain suddenly went away, and Kim knew that the dragon had done this: it had healed her.
She started to practice in earnest. She had no idea how much time passed. The sun went down and the moon rose. And still she continued on, filled with more and more confidence. Overhead spins, switching hands, behind the back passes, somersaults…all with the nunchaku blazing with its golden light. She had never felt such power! Such speed! She paused, wiping the sweat from her forehead.
And then everything changed in an instant. She felt a cold thrill go up her spine coupled with an overwhelming sense of dread—a nightmarish feeling that something horrible was coming to get her.
“It is here!” said Yeo the Dragon urgently.
Kim spun round and saw a menacing figure standing in the alley, fifty feet behind her. It was a man—a blue-skinned man, his left pectoral and left arm covered in tattoos. The lower half of his face was hidden by a skull mask, and he carried a wicked saw-like blade in one hand. His white pupil-less eyes glowed with the cold light of the moon.
“A thing born from evil,” said Yeo. “Jago’s shadow-self.”
This Shadow Jago was dressed vaguely like a Himalayan monk, with silk pants, a ragged loincloth, and a bulky sash across his torso. His knees were protected by hideous armor faces resembling tiger skulls. Kim remembered her uncle mentioning the Killer Instinct Tournament fighter Jago: a warrior-monk from the Himalayas. But he was supposed to be a good guy.
“Foolish child,” Shadow Jago said with a cruel and mocking voice. “Do you think that you stand a chance against the might of Gargos?”
“Who the hell is Gargos?” Kim asked.
“No time to explain,” Yeo told her quickly. “This warrior is dangerous. It is a demon. We must defeat it.”
“Give me the weapon,” commanded Shadow Jago, “or I’ll saw it from your dead hands.”
Kim bristled and twirled her nunchaku. “I’ve got a friggin’ dragon,” she said. “You can see how this ends, right?”
Mira slowly backed away from the werewolf, positioning herself between the snarling beast and the relic on its wooden stand.
Sabrewulf let forth a feral howl, but the look in his eyes darting from Mira to the relic and back again was clearly human. He knew why she had broken into his castle, that look told her. And he was not pleased. Crouching low, he tensed his shoulder muscles and legs, ready to strike.
“That’s Aganos and Thunder up there!” Mira said swiftly, buying some time. “They’re working with the Night Guard, and they’ve come to take you back to my sister’s headquarters. To imprison and torture you.” In truth she had no idea why the two former Killer Instinct fighters were storming castle von Sabrewulf, but this seemed like a logical enough reason. The important thing was that she needed this creature to be her ally. At least for now. She could kill him later.
To be continued…
© 2016 Microsoft. All rights reserved.