Southtown Syndicate - Chinese Ghost Story

Description: The Capital 7 is almost ready. Only one thing remains to be started--the underground Arena that will serve a very special purpose. But first, the original occupant of that arena must be confronted.. and dealt with.

It isn't for a couple of days that anyone notices. Somewhat odd, given how close there's been control of just about everything on this project... but there it is. Li is notified by radio.

"*chk* Sir? There's a problem. We've... lost the arena team."

"Lost? What do you mean lost? It isn't as though they're a set of car keys."

"Well, uh... they hadn't checked in for a while. I sent Jiang to investigate... and he hasn't checked in either. And now, no one wants to go down there."

Li is silent for a moment. He knows that the arena was the domain of a rather creepy, nasty thing by the name of Marise... and this could certainly be her doing. Then he triggers the radio again. "Call Cheng down there, and wait for me. We'll take care of it." Sometimes things have to be done personally, after all. He shrugs out of his suitjacket and grabs his short-staff, slinging it over his back as he heads out of the office.

At least the Capital 7 is starting to shape up, things looking polished and good, gaming systems being tested and refined, pallets of materials here and there, waiting for distribution and storage. He walks through them all to a small, plain side door, flashing a security card through the reader and stepping through as the door opens--the long corridor leading to the Arena echoes as the heels of his shoes clack on the bare concrete.

Marise. The Devil of Koga. It's a name that has gained notoriety on a level far deeper and more darkly-nuanced than the mere fact of professional pit-fighting, steeped in blood not freely given by desperate men, entwined in the misty annals of history... and the dusty tomes of myth. Rumour surrounds that name perhaps more than any other in the fighting world; at least, in the sort of circles that Mara Malone passes through.

A New Yorker who claims to be an 'occult therapist', Mara has fallen into the company of the Syndicate in part through an unhappy accident. She was, at one time, one of the foremost scholars of mystical artefacts, and spent a segment of her wasted youth chasing down information on the Scrolls of Immortality. Decried by scientists and historians as a fallacy of foolishly ambitious men and deranged fanatics, she took her writings into the brave new era of the World Wide Web before finding an unlikely audience. Finding herself worked over by goons for claiming she could in fact /obtain/ the Scrolls, the rest was a slip and a slide into crime...

Her use to Geese Howard as an advisor in his search has led to her using her latent skill with chi in a predominantly 'support' role, though over the years her own fighting style has blossomed through training and occasional tuition. With the assault upon the Capital 7 completed, and knowledge of the dark history beneath it, she was despatched to serve precisely as she always does; keep alert, and wait until needed.

As Li makes his brisk, businesslike way down that corridor, the murkily-lit passage will lead him first past dripping pipes and clanking metalwork until he reaches the inner doors leading to the arena proper. Inside, the occultist has somehow managed to get ahead of the despatched team, and can be found standing on the walkway overlooking the sight of so much blood sport, bright, darkly-flecked green eyes beholding the spectacle of rust and sepia tone. A hand is pressed to the dirty glass, fingertips whitened as she ponders the scene.

"Pain," she says bluntly, without looking about as Li enters. "So much pain in this place. You'd think we'd learn to leave such things alone, wouldn't you?" Her wide mouth a grim line, she turns to face her superior, the large hoops in her ears jangling. Mara isn't a particularly impressive figure-- average height, slim if generous-hipped build, clad in simple slacks and a forest-green and purple blouse with some vague Celtic motif, beneath a lightweight pinstriped suit jacket. Her hair is a mess of brown-blonde ringlets, her face carrying a quiet intelligence along with the awkward intensity of her type. Of those who believe in weird things.

"There are resonations of something here we should not be disturbing. History has a way of... resurfacing..."

Her question hasn't got long to hang before footsteps echo from behind Li; the rest of the team arriving.

To the unspoken question, Li nods. He does not have his jovial 'public' face on, but neither is he wearing his mask. This is serious time. "The... being who used to occupy this area was a.. notable being." Torture probably happened down here, in-between the bloodsport. Of course, the bloodsport will continue--after the torture has been washed away. But she doesn't need to know that, does she?

Turning, he glances at the rest of the team, headed by Cheng, a stout, burly man wearing rather stereotypical Chinese 'martial artists' garb, and two others. With a few gestures, Li directs them into a triangular formation, Cheng at the rear.

Turning back to the chi expert, he gestures to the three men. "They're here to protect you," he says, bluntly, as he steps past her. He does not draw his weapon. This is somewhat akin, in some ways, to walking into a dark room, in a horror movie. But Li walks calmly, confidently.

"She dwells here no longer, but, obviously, she's left some... echoes. We'll need to find the crew and see if we can get them out... and figure out how to banish this... stench." It is, after all, a rather disturbing thing, all told, and sets entirely the wrong mood for the place. He wants it to be brutal, yes, but this kind of mood puts people off betting... and that won't do at all.

Notable, and terrifying to both those who encountered and who felt the emantations from her work. Everything is connected in this world, routed through the roiling, invisible veins through which energy eternally flows - though of course it's not so simple, not so neat as to be mapped out and understood. People like Mara spend their whole lives focusing, unable to commit so strongly to the combative arts or even to academic studies; her waking moments are a constant meditation, her spirit always probing.

It contributes to the languidity of her motions as she bows her head and glances toward the opposite doorway. Bearing a card lock like the other, hissing open when operated, it seems innocuous enough - after all, the mechanical and the spiritual are so often separate - but the woman knows better.

"Protect me?" She echoes with a smile, baring slightly jagged teeth, a small gap at the fore of her mouth, "You'll have to be ready to protect yourselves, too. There was a creature here that fed on emotion as much as energy-- a predator in the most primal sense, can't you feel her crying out?" A wondering frown furrows her brow as she glances between the gathered men, those flecked eyes gleaming.

It is Li who gets the final remnant of her attention, coupled with an owlish cant of the head.

"Sometimes, echoes are as dangerous as the physical form. I'm afraid this stench only gets worse. It's the stench of hunger, of a presence that needs to feed to come once more among us. Not decay... more like a memory." Without further preamble she turns and begins walking, drawing the formation behind her, step not precisely slow but, careful. The closer they draw to the door, the tighter a hand draws to a fist at her side, a blossom of internalized chi heightening her aura before it bursts into visibility, coursing beneath her sleeve to ultimately send a pulsing, violet-white spark through her fingertips.

The door opens without the use of a card, revealing the first of many twisting corridors beyond. A veritable labyrinth of pipework and latticed gantries, as Mara leads them within she stops occasionally, here and there, breathing deep as though focusing-- to Li, her aura bristling each time. Her gaze rarely shifts from the path ahead, but her breaths do become tighter, as though she needs to take in less air each time. Or as though she dares not take in any more. True to her word, the stench does happen, and becomes less figurative...

Within perhaps a fifty-foot descent, there is a palpable irony scent in the air. They turn from a series of narrow metal steps into a broader corridor off to the side of the arena proper. The walls are lined with fans behind the latticework, though all but a couple have ceased functioning; one or two still churning around, but slowly, rust screeching on poorly maintained axles to sent a keening shrill through the undercurrent.

More disturbing, the floor is coated in a gentle, rolling mist, and that smell...

"We're in her domain now."

It's like a charnel house, thick and heady, the glutinous foulness of blood and entrails.

"I can feel her... the Devil..." Mara shivers, a full-body shudder that causes her to take a sudden backstep.

"She's touching me. She whispers in my ear."

There are times, Li thinks, that he's glad that he's not as chi-sensitive as some he knows. His 'colleague' back at the temple would have started blasting chunks out of the walls already, doing a lot of expensive damage and not accomplishing much of anything. Li, himself, can feel it, but that lack of sensitivity--just enough to be aware, not enough to be immersed--is probably a good thing right now. At least while he's got this 'expert' with him to do the finer work. The men know enough to be scared--and it doesn't show, really, but the shades can probably sense it. Only Cheng seems stalwart, a cut above the rest. The tension rises as the descent continues--it affects even Li, which he hates and strives to master.

Once they reach that rolling mist, can scent the old blood, flavored with the screams of those that Marise damned, the two other men gulp, nervously. And one of them points. "Sir," he says, his voice quavering slightly. Up ahead is the crew--or, rather, what's left of them--standard blue coveralls filled with dessicated things that were corpses. The man who pointed out flinches, his feet shifting and scraping along the concrete floor. "W-we shouldn't... we shouldn't be here..."

Grimly, Li turns to the man. "This is my building now. I will not let the echoes of some -hag- keep me from my domain." In three swift strides he's crossed back to the man and snatched him by the collar, pulling him nose to nose. His voice doesn't rise, but the menace in it deepens like the sharp drop off a cliff. "Do you understand me?"

The man nods, still shaking, and Li releases him. "Malone," he says, after a long moment. "I meant what I said. How do we clear these shades from the building?"

Bodies. Mara sees them but seems to look beyond them, her shuddering backstep soon followed by a curious glazing of her features. Those bright green eyes widen and lose focus, her lower lip curling and trembling following her announcement. She /can/ hear something, behind the screeching of dilapidated machines. The faltering of the men is something Li can fix, but she seems untouched by the show of leadership. At least until he repeats his intent, his voice reaching through the others...

"We confront them," she replies with a shake of her head, as though simultaneously denying the suggestion of another thought. "We confront her handiwork, peer between the lines, then show our might. This is about power, on a level beyond our own, but-- the material can hold sway. It can."

Slowly she walks forward, the mist rolling about her ankles, parting before the polished toe of her boots. At the back of the group, the remaining man - face covered by shades, gun gripped in a shaking hand, starts forward as if he means to follow her. Then stops, when he realizes the others do not move. A moment later, Mara stands over the shrivelled corpses, breathing in their rot, or at least she should be...

"There's nothing left. She's taken it all... these are not even the remains of men. Nothing."

Another pulse of energy runs down her left hand, which is quickly clenched. The spark dispels in a vapour, crawling up her forearm, nestling about the joint of her elbow. It doesn't seem natural, and should Li move to get a vantage; her face is pale, the faint pricking of sweat on her features.

"B-Before I uncovered the truth of the Scrolls," she begins to speak slowly, forced to grit her teeth and draw herself up - an external show of strength to cover for the battle raging in the centre of her being, "It was hypothesized that they represented something more intangible than an object to be seized and controlled, to be read and understood. In some sense, they were; but... there are other legends, that things continue to live even through the blackest and most final of ends, that there have been those capable of sustaining through their energies. Perhaps even growing stronger, if they're able to find a catalyst, to reach their potential..."

Abruptly, she turns, face a horrified rictus. Behind her, barely glimpsed, one of the bodies seems to move.

"This is what she /wants/! The Devil called, and we responded!"

From behind Li, there is a scream, high and pitiful, as the shades-clad man falls to his knees. Energy coats his body, appearing much like the mist as he seems to collapse into it, clawing at his face, the shades tumbling away to reveal eyes a pure black-- in the moment before he drops like a discarded sack. The corpse atop that miserable pile shudders and begins to rise, folding up to full height with a nauseous creak...

For Li, this is all foreign. It is one of the truths of his training that his ability in chi--his training in its use, its potential--was neglected. He's always just seen it as a tool, a thing to be used. Now he's witnessing something quite the other. His eyes widen--the Fear grips even -him-, as that corpse begins to rise behind Mara, behind her horrified cry. It's that shout that snaps him back, as his man, the lesser of the men, crumbles. The other is not far behind, but does not find himself succumbing just yet... and Cheng, unarmed, just growls. Not the talkative type, but sturdier than he looks, even, as he steps past the crumpled man and points, a grunt aiming the still-standing man at his colleague.

Cheng understands what Li wants, as he moves towards Mara, swiftly for a man of his bulk, intent on reaching out and pulling her away--as Li draws his shortstaff and lunges, with a sharp, explosive cry, wielding his own chi, imbuing the staff with it as he seeks to put it right through the skull of that reanimated body. "So, this is what she wants? A sacrifice? Very well," he grunts, as he lunges.

"Then we shall sacrifice _HER_. She will burn upon the pyre of my ambition! This place is MINE!" And, so saying, he whips the staff around him, the weapon blazing with power, looking to literally obliterate that walking corpse.

Those often dismissed as psychotic, or delusional, know well what chi is capable of. But there are few, even amongst the more prominent of those who most effectively use it, that maintain the same awareness. The energy that binds and enervates, that strikes and defends, has been the driving force behind so much of what is considered 'supernatural'-- truly, there is no such thing. Outside the other mystery of Psycho Power, chi itself can be traced for the responsibility in most every phenomenon. Disappearances, hauntings, bizarre weather patterns, religious mythos... so much is affected and perpetrated by the stuff that fighters channel.

It's why men such as Geese and Rugal Bernstein are so fixated upon it.

As Li strikes, his own native power cleaves a numb line through dead flesh. The corpse-creature recoils, tottering one half upon each leg as it falls into twain. The man left upon the ground writhes and moans, thrashing until his cry becomes a mere burble, and the remaining forms begin to rise also, creaking into position in a ring around the Serpent as their greatly-former comrade collapses.

Hauled aside by the stout enforcer, Mara pulls herself free with an unsettled smile and accompanying shiver, a brittleness in her manner as though his touch had disrupted her work - but in truth, she is simply as disturbed as they all are. Her murmured thanks is hurried, her flecked gaze observing the coalition of corpsemeat with frantic concern. Her fighting abilities are rudimentary, compared to the man standing in their midst. She has a different role, assumed with only a moment's thought as she sinks to one knee, movements orchestrated and deliberate, as though she were going through some much-rehearsed ritual.

"Li!" She cries out, pressing both palms through the mist, her skin paling further as she does so. There's a soft clank from either side as beringed fingers set against the metal underneath. "No, the... the place is what we must give her. She desires power through sacrifice, but to drive her out-- to destroy, is too much. The walls, the floors, the very air in here binds her to this earth. We came as trespassers, we should be..."

The very fact of what she must say is fearful, terrible. It is also alluring.

"We should be proving our spirit is strong, and allowing her to work /for/ us!" Shaking the sweat from her face with a toss of her head, Mara presses her hands more firmly downward, keeping contact with the dark underbelly that surrounds them. A barrage of contained sensations, the fractured memories of the Devil and the pain she has wrought, comes soaring into the woman, until her very skin pulses with the dark energy she allows within. "Your mettle will be tested; but I... I can show her! She is-- was, the essence of the Circle."

One of the corpse-creatures lunges, with surprising speed twisting a dessicated backhand into a clawing motion at the Serpent's gut.

"Let her become the essence of the Pit. Slave to your ambition, but alive and feeding, as she desires!"

So, a test, is it? to exert his will and gain dominance over the shades of the Devil of Koga? Li is up for that challenge. Surrounded by undead enemies, shades of his former workers, Li shows no hesitation; he steps into that backhand, taking the hit to his side as he spins around and drives his opposite side's elbow right into the temple of the zombie, following through with a staff strike--a sword-like, reverse-grip stab--through the thing's heart. His aura blazes fiercely now, uncontrolled but proud, as he moves from the target he'd taken down into the center of the circle. "'Give'? I do not -give- anything here. She has taken my workers. Mr. Chao there is not long for this world." Indeed, Cheng stands ready to stomp -that- guy to bits the moment he tries to rise, if indeed he does.

He whips the staff around him, locking it against his body, wrapping his left arm around it, ready to strike at a moment's notice.

And strike he does, taking the initiative, going after another corpse, without hesitation. He may not like or enjoy killing, but these men are already dead--are no longer men--and so he simply does not care. He strikes for vitals--the head, the heart.

"If it is simple blood she wants, then it is blood she shall have... but at -my- discretion," he says, his voice urgent but calm.

It's a mystery to even those scholared in the arcane and occult, how it was that such a capricious and unpredictable soul as Elle Belmounte's was able to enslave the Devil of Koga to her will. But mysteries breed theories, and the ringleted New Yorker now couched in the wreathing, sapping touch of Marise's mist, has to this point only been able to imagine the relationship as one of mutual regard. That the bloodthirst of both women enabled them to reach an arrangement, that what Marise now screams in her ear...

Was, at one time, delivered to the leader of Blackjack with much the same force and insistence.

"To give," she breathes, watching Li's second decayed opponent shudder and break, flesh snapping almost as though it were never there at all - it's almost too easy, but his aura makes it so. His own pride and self-belief, his conviction and refusal to bend that knee. "To give is to concede! A weak man gives, a strong man allows another to partake of his benevolence. Two strong men, united..."

Mara closes the lids over her flecked eyes, shuddering as the third corpse receives a lashing of the staff, chest caving inward and a portion of fragmented skull tumbling into shards beneath parchment flesh as Li's assault drives through. But this one remains standing, lunging back into him with a creak of ruined skin, its left leg soaring to slam with hefty weight into his own opposing calf-- a sweep, as though the body remembers. In life, this one was a talented youngster. In death, talent persists even as age peels meaninglessly away. The next nearest creature is moving to capitalize, lips soundlessly parting in a wailing kiai as both dessicated hands are extended, palms bearing to thrust into the chest at a high angle, pushing Li down. Toward the mist.

In tandem with this action, one of those ancients fans clunks and screeches. The pace of its spin quickens, and with a dull roaring the gathered mist begins to pitch and buck, cascading from the walls and looping in indistinct tendrils. The air that blows through it is rank with that charnel stench, and warm; as warm as the blood flowing from a freshly opened wound. The fan keeps quickening, getting faster and louder.

"There is always a stronger!" Mara shouts over it, her accent becoming lost in the raising. "The Devil's power eludes mortal hands, but she needs this place! She needs material, she needs man! Grant her that and we remain... withhold--" Her voice breaks and falters, a choking noise emerging easily missed beneath the chaos erupting in the dank chamber. Eyes opening, wide, the woman breaks contact with the floor to reach for her throat, where a tendril of mist loops and winds, a faint and tightening corona.

It only takes a moment before the blood begins to seep from a thin, perfect line.

Indeed. And Li -is- a strong man. Strength is not, necessarily, begotten by kindness, or benevolence. There are many such men in the world who prove this with their mere existence. Li -works- for one. And he aspires to be amongst their number. To be one of those men, the legendary, the strong. If he must subdue this demon in order to do so--then he will. The impact of the sweep brings him down to one knee, to be sure--pure physical action and reaction ensures that. But the end of that staff glows again and a yellow-orange-white glow slashes through the circle of bodies surrounding him, as he rises again, spinning in a complex dance of strikes that cuts the air like a corkscrew around him, forcing the zombies back--the staff cracking into the reaching zombie's arms, sweeping them away, literally. As he goes, he continues that spin, reaching out wider and wider with it, until the staff is extended fully, putting him at the center of a four-foot radius circle.

Can the shade of the Devil of Koga understand his words? Perhaps they might understand his intent, as he gathers his chi, pulling it to him once more, strengthening his aura and pooling that energy. "Understand this, Devil of Koga! If you will not submit to me, I -will- destroy this place! You seek blood and pain, but if you persist you will have -nothing-!!" With a quick, sure movement, he sheathes his weapon on his back, and then, crouching, he leaps--and as he clears the head-height of the zombies..

He unleashes his chi, a large, spherical blast of it, pure power, with no subtlety at all, flaring outwards like the explosion of a bomb, a bright, brief flare of true life for the undead to burn against.

Dead flesh recoils, dead bone shudders and snaps, before the resolute snap and swing of the Serpent's staff. Chi /is/ in everything, and it carries inherently within those motions. Even were they not backed, bolstered an strengthened by the more deliberate and focused summoning of his spirit's harnessed energy, it would be a feat for these mere and broken constructs to stand before him. The billowing mists part and sway until Li stands within an area of clear space, the rusted metal lattice visible underfoot-- above, dank pipes and hard stone.

All around, the occultist and the enforcers that follow the Serpent have fallen deep into the moist, rank fog, the remaining nameless stammering as he backs off to set himself against a wall. Stout, stalwart Cheng may fare better... Mara is lost upon the ground, though the blood continues to ripple from her throat as the Devil's leash tightens, the threat coursing through the one creature in this mess that can hear her. Feel her, with absolute clarity. The New Yorker whimpers, trying desperately to remain focused, to maintain coherence...

But it's Li who finds the way.

Destruction is not what the Devil of Koga seeks - it is too blunt, too simple, lacking the horror and subtlety of her work throughout the infinite ages of man. Her unseen claws loose their grip upon the unfortunate woman forming her mouthpiece, the words of the Serpent coiling through the dark underhalls of the Capital 7. The Circle itself seems to resonate in the moment before his chi blast is unleashed, the darkness darkening further, the outlying corridors falling into absolute pitch. And for a moment, the light dims in here, too.

Until it is lit by that blast, scattering the animated horrors into grim, ragdoll piles.

In the wake of Li's raw energies, the mist begins to clear, seeping into the floor and the pipes upon the ceiling, as though drawn back by unseen hands. The screeching, screaming fan begins to slow, heavy whooshes of the old blades drawing to a background hum as the unnatural grasp upon cold metal is released. One man remains down as the others draw themselves upright, sweating and fearful. Their comrade resembles the corpses of the others, now, sucked absolutely dry-- so dead as to seem inhuman, soulless. Drained.

Mara remains kneeling, but she is breathing now, taking deep breaths as she fingers the wound at her throat.

"The Devil understands..."

Her gasped words are pained, but she manages to stand after a moment, shaking her ringleted head, hoops jangling as she gathers her jacket around her, another shiver wracking her body. It /is/ cold down here - colder than it was, with the moist warmth of so much vestigial chi, but that foul odour in the air barely lingers now, just that background scent of blood and rust. It's an improvement, certainly.

"We cannot drive her spirit into dust, but she will prey on our offerings. It's a blessing, of sorts."

Her tone says it all, numb and tired. Weary and scared.

It is a blessing only so long as it does not become a curse. If blood is the gift, it will need to be given freely...

She understands. Hmph. Li aspires to be the devil those make deals with, not the one making the deals... this is an arrangement that may last only for a while. But, as he struggles to control his breathing--summoning up that energy, though made easier by emotion, was no small task for him--he merely nods. "Very well," he says, casting a glance around at the place. If she understands... well, there'll be a test for that, won't there? Cheng will help her up; everyone else, Li sends back with a mere look.

His lips quirk in a sardonic, not entirely unamused smirk. "I hope she doesn't mind some remodeling being done. As it is now, this place will never hold the bloodlust that I want it to hold." She may have thought that the pain and blood of her victims was the sweetest nectar... but Li? Li will feed her that same blood and pain, amplified by the rotten, decadent lust for violence that only those who are degenerate and wealthy -- and those who are degenerate and strong--can bring. It may not be a chamber of horrors, a circus curiosity of a freakshow, but there will be blood.

"Let's go," he says, curtly. "I'll have a new crew in to clean up and begin renovating after we're clear." And with that, he begins walking out of the den of the Devil.

Log created on 10:15:36 05/30/2012 by Li, and last modified on 09:56:43 05/31/2012.