The Peculiar Cases of Inspector Gao
Summary: Gao Zhiyang is an honorable inspector working for an increasingly corrupt Ming dynasty. In his remote province, seemingly mundane crimes have often supernatural forces involved. With only his strange friends, his trusty sword arm, and his wits, he has to defend the common people from internal and external threats.
The Warrior from Wa
When a strange raving man in outlandish clothing sauntered into the main street of town, Inspector Gao Zhiyang had no one else that could speak his tongue. His trusted deputy, the ex-monk Su Jiao, had quickly responded to the Inspector's summons, just as Gao failed to keep the gawking crowd of onlookers back.
Despite the bizarre happenstance, Gao hoped not to draw his sword Earth Dragon in the presence of his deputy. It was not due to Jiao's squeamishness he hesitated, but rather his associate's uncomfortable staring at his father's jian as if expecting a sneak attack, especially as the outlander indignantly rambled.
Based upon his dialogue and manner of speech, Su Jiao reported, the crazed lunatic was in fact a warrior noble from the war-torn island country of Wa, origin of the pirates that often raided the coast of the rural Sudong County.
"What shall we do with him, Inspector?" Jiao asked. "He's demanding to speak with a local authority."
"I will talk to him, since Magistrate Fang is occupied with the ladies again," Gao said as he stepped forwards. "Translate for me."
"Yes, sir. I'll introduce you," Jiao said. "The people of Wa are stodgy about their manners for a nation at war with itself, so I will translate your words with the proper honorifics so he stops complaining."
"I am Inspector Gao Zhiyang of Sudong County, and I welcome you to our land," Gao said as he took a step towards the unexpected visitor from Wa. "My duty is to dispense justice and keep the peace. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?"
He folded his hands and bowed, hoping to cool the warrior's hot nerves. Having the perception to recognize a gesture of respect, the foreigner bowed with his hands at his hips. While having the muscular build of a warrior, the act of respect cooled his wrath. Gao exhaled in slight relaxation as the outsider lowered his shoulders, dropping the chances of violent escalation in public with them.
Gao examined the man as he stepped closer. His face was rounded and terminated in a short beard. He wore his hair pulled back into a ponytail consistent with the descriptions he had heard. The guest wore a torn and dirtied silk robe, a kimono, as Jiao told him. He wore a lopsided sash around his waist that undoubtedly had been used to secure his personal weapons. His feet were blistered and raw, which Gao's senses identified as from running across difficult terrain. The Inspector noted the smell of human sweat and brine from his tattered clothing. Red and purple rings of bruised flesh could be seen around his ankles and wrists.
"He says his name is Takahashi Ichiro," Jiao said. "A retainer, a samurai, of Lord Tokugawa of Wa."
"We apologize we were not prepared for your coming, Sir Takahashi Ichiro, but how did you arrive? I was not informed of any emissaries visiting."
Gao nearly choked on his breath. An unexpected warrior visiting from Wa would be an unpleasant surprise foisted upon him by the heavens, but it was far easier to explain than other cases in Sudong.
"He says he's not sure. He was surrounded by a mob, and then the next thing he realized, he was tied up on a ship."
"Did he escape from the crew?"
"He freed himself and swam for shore as soon as he saw land."
Ichiro continued speaking something that Jiao focused on. Gao had barely digested the answer to the prior question when he heard the strange sound from somewhere in the assembled crowd. A split second later, he saw Ichiro grasp his neck and let out a strangled gasp. Before Ichiro could utter a single word, he raised his hand as if to point. For a brief instant, he stood paralyzed like a precariously balanced statue. Gao saw Ichiro's eyes roll up in his head just before he collapsed to the ground.
Immediately afterwards, the crowd went silent before panicking. A cry went out like a demonic wail over the assemblage of villagers before they scattered and ran. Gao's reflexes nervously scanned for some signs of an assailant on the ground or rooftops, but saw none. He ordered to deputy to restore order, which they did rapidly. By the time he could summon a physician for Ichiro, the foreigner had died of a poison dart to the throat.
At the behest of his friend and deputy Su Jiao, Inspector Gao accompanied Jiao to his house, a dilapidated shack surrounded by an overgrown garden and smell of livestock. The former monk's hut was like a shrine to some unnamed war god, with arms and armor from a thousand unknown lands mounted upon the walls and workbenches.
It was only due to his schedule that Gao did not allow Jiao to regale him with tales of how the weapons had arrived in the rural lands of Sudong County. Gao had always admonished his friend to take better care of such equipment, as he had little doubt Jiao kept enough weapons to equip a rebel army in his workshop. Given Jiao had barely survived the raid that burnt down his monastery, his obsession with such things was understandable to the Inspector.
"Was this the sound you heard?" Jiao said as walked towards the Inspector with a curious apparatus in hand.
Among the few components Gao could recognized was a bamboo tube connected to an air-filled leather bladder. Jiao rammed a dart into the tube and levelled it at the wall opposite him. With a twist of his wrist, he opened a valve as air rushed out like a sneezing giant.
Gao blinked, and the next thing he realized was the dart was embedded into the wall halfway into its length. Jiao began to prattle nonsensically, and Gao's mind began to wander towards the recollections that rushed back like the unstoppable torrent of a raging river. He ceased his mental resistance and let his musings overwhelm him.
If Gao had the ego many of his peers did, they would have scoffed at the assignment to Shandong Province's infamous Sudong County. With few exceptions, a narrow strip of fertile land sandwiched between the fog-shrouded Tiger's Teeth hills and the sea, the County's natural magnificence was marred by bandit activity, wokou pirate raids, and stories of stranger things. The forsaken ruins that dotted the sparsely settled coast were home to savage animals, desperate outlaws, and fell things he could not explain.
His wife's ties to the region had and her family's prestige had been one reason Gao had accepted the assignment, but he could not describe a significant fraction of what he encountered. His duties demanded that he regularly deal with matters beyond the mundane trifles of mere mortals. That was one reason he eagerly sought out the counsel of eccentrics like Su Jiao, even if the nobles sneered at him for it.
Gao's mind returned to the present as Jiao demonstrated his device once more. Another dart was driven deep into the doorpost. With poison, the Inspector imagined that such a projectile would not need to penetrate the skin deeply to score a killing blow. The bolts of the repeating crossbow he had once used had been dipped in poison for the same reason.
"So, what are you thinking?" Jiao asked.
"An assassin with an apparatus like that was responsible for killing the warrior. Do you have any others like that?"
"No, but I imagine others could construct such devices rather easily. The technology is obscure, but old. It is merely the same principle as a blowgun, with breath replaced by an air bladder to launch the dart."
"Yet we did not see an assailant with a blowgun in the crowd, and the distance involved would have been too great for someone to draw one unseen."
"If I may suggest, this type of weapon seems too exotic for an inexperienced or novice killer."
"What about a thrown blade, Deputy? I have heard of assassins with exotic throwing blades in Wa."
"Yes, and I think it is unlikely."
"Can you demonstrate for me?"
"Yes, Inspector. See that wooden target?" Jiao gestured towards a wooden board leaning against the wall opposite them.
Jiao hurled a dagger with a practiced overhand throw, only for the handle to strike the target and clattered to the floor resounding with an almost mocking ring. Jiao muttered a curse under his breath and tried again. His second attempt was more fortunate than the first, for the blade landed partially embedded in the wood by its tip. The third blade struck directly into the board, but knocked the second one loose. Cursing under his breath, Jiao stabbed the second one back into the wall.
"No need to continue. I can see how such an attempt would be innately fraught with difficulties, especially in public."
"I have heard rumors of even less efficient and more impractical designs, such as star and circular shapes," Jiao said as he rummaged through a drawer.
"No need to demonstrate them. I can imagine why the killer would use such an apparatus to deliver the poison dart. Deputy, remember that the bigger question is why."
Jiao sighed as he slammed the drawer closed, undoubtedly sad at the loss of a chance to demonstrate another strange weapon. Jiao tried to clear his mind and allow ideas to percolate into theories. The potential line of inquiry all led towards a common direction.
"I have some ideas," Jiao said, as if just remembering the circumstances under which weapons were used. "The civil war in Wa maybe spilling out into surrounding lands. Perhaps the warrior had enemies that wanted him dead?"
Gao was had been thinking down a similar line of thinking, but some unanswered questions existed. The politics in Wa was just as lethal as enemy blades, like a late Tang dynasty court.
"It is easier to kill a warrior from Wa in Wa. Why take him out here? If his foes intended to murder him, would not it be easier just to dump his body at sea?"
"What if he was merely an incompetent or unlucky wokou pirate?"
"Not impossible, but remember the rope burns?" Gao said. "Hard to fake those. Also, his robes seemed ill-fitted for life at sea."
"But why would pirates leave a hostage so well dressed? Would they not want to rob their victim as well?"
"Why indeed," Gao said, wondering aloud. "But it may be there are facts we are not privy too yet."
"Assuming we ever find out."
"Deputy, it is our duty to find these cretins that would bring their disorder to our shores. Inform Magistrate Fang of what transpired. Assemble a search party and check for the man's tracks, or any sign of illicit activity along the coasts."
"What about you, Inspector?"
"I must attend to a domestic matter first," Gao said with a slight bow. "I thank you for everything, Deputy."
"Very well, Inspector," Jiao said, returning the respect. "I shall meet you at the marketplace in two hours to update you."
With that, Inspector Gao took his leave from the deputy's house and the arsenal of weapons that were Jiao's only kin. The overgrown gardens at the edge of his dilapidated house might make an outsider suspect none lived within, but Gao knew any who tried intruding did so at their own peril. The destruction of Jiao's monastery in a bandit raid had affected him deeply, but Gao had suspected Jiao's grasp on reality had always been tenuous, like a fraying thread above a candle. He tried to ignore thoughts of what might happen when he finally snapped.
The walk from Jiao's house and workshop to the village center was brief but scenic. The sparsely populated Sudong County had its infamy, but a walk down the old path was enough to convince him it was worth fighting for. The Tiger's Teeth hills over the western horizon were shrouded in fog, giving the unearthly impression their peaks floated upon the earth. Around the base of the tallest hill, the Regal Mount, snaked a silt-choked canal dating from the Sui Dynasty. He would not surrender it to the corruption from within or without, for he knew the people that depended on him accomplishing his duty.
Descending from the hilly road, Gao could see the familiar shape of his home. While underwhelming to outsiders, Gao had to inform them that Sudong Village was the largest settlement in the County and its namesake. The downtown consisted of a shop-lined main avenue with the straightness of a sword cut. In the center of the street was the open plaza in which the warrior was poisoned, but was previously famous for a statue of the Song Dynasty inventor and polymath, Chang Fanrui.
At one end of the street was Magistrate Fang's estate, the gaudy dwelling of the nominal village leader and Gao's immediate superior. At the opposite, less affluent end was a small shrine that had originally been Buddhist, but had been long given over to the motley blend of folk religions that was popular in rural Sudong. Down towards the shrine, a path meandered up a hill towards his own home.
Gao eagerly awaited a chance to see Fei after all that had happened. Undoubtedly, she would have heard what occurred in the town square that day. He hoped she had not been there to witness it. He reflected what she had seen already was far more than any woman should, much less a lady of noble birth like her. It was not uncommon for prestigious officials and wealthy nobles to have multiple wives, but he always wondered how they managed it. Fei was more than enough for him, for strength and wits he had seen within her unassuming form concealed were that of a mongoose hunting cobras, and he did not want to divide his time amongst several women when he already found his soulmate, and more pragmatically, not to risk offending her wealthy family.
The estate Gao lived within was humble for a man of his station. It sat atop a small hillock in view of a mountain creek that lazily spun the waterwheel of mill downstream towards the village. The house itself was rigged by gardens his wife and their two servants maintained with a zeal bordering on religion. The Inspector did not know all the names of flowers, herbs, and spices that grew there, nor which were strictly ornamental and which where edible, but he was content to ask those more familiar which such things.
Yi was a local servant that helped in the house and garden, a teenage boy that alternated between living in the spare cottage behind the garden and his family's house in the village. His chiseled face gave him a handsome appearance, which made Gao think he would be a sought-after husband in the near future. He bowed to the Inspector as he climbed the stairs. The other servant was Yi's energetic female cousin Liang, who personally assisted Fei around her house. Liang's round face always struck Gao as adorable and girlish, even though she was well into her teenage years.
Liang serendipitously appeared from within the house as Gao opened the front door. She bowed as the Inspector walked by, and he returned a nod of his head, as befitting his own station. He entered the house to see Fei stretching with a peach wood sword in hand. While the traditional weapon of a Taoist exorcist, Gao ensured his wide was familiar with it and its metal counterpart. His experiences had given him the unconventional view that a woman without a weapon was unfit for marriage to an Inspector.
"Welcome home early, my husband," Fei said as she stepped out to greet him. She was slightly shorter than Gao in stature, but her presence in the tight corridors of the house easily dwarfed his own like an insect before the sun. She wore her red robes and had her long, silken hair pulled back into buns. Her chin converged down to an arrowhead while her light brown eyes seemed almost golden. Her face had a distinctly solar radiance, but something about her poise brought to mind a distinctly avian form. "I had feeling you would be back after Yi told me of the unpleasantness earlier."
"No, I'm simply adoring you," he said. "And the wealth of knowledge you possess."
"The truth comes out," she said with a giggle. "But my knowledge was gleaned from my father's library of sorcery, alchemy, and the like. What of those esoteric arts interest you today?"
"Perhaps you can tell me," Gao said as he produced the poison dart from a small leather pouch. "There is some foul concoction on this, potent enough to fell a warrior from Wa. It may have dried, but I am desperate for any information on his killers."
"Ah, a question I can answer. Come with me," Fei said as she beckoned her husband.
Gao followed Fei into what was undoubtedly the most queer and peculiar room he had ever been inside, let alone in his house. The fact such a strange room was juxtaposed against the mundane facilities of a bedroom and kitchen was curious enough to most visitors, but Gao had never quite adapted to it himself. He doubted Fei did, either.
A superficial glance of the room revealed it to be a study or library, arranged according to the principles of feng shui. Scroll cases were stacked within a wooden case resembling a honeycomb. To its side were two bookshelves holding titles in both Chinese and foreign tongues, each being a cosmopolitan literary medley. Besides the sunwards window of the room was a desk with paper and writing implements nearby. The burnished cabinet beside it was partially opened, allowing bizarre fragrances of alchemical substances and curious tinctures to waft out. From the excited look on Fei's face, he knew he would soon be seeing some of its contents directly.
Fei left the room for a moment to return with a rolled up mat, which she unfurled on the floor. In the center were concentric circles radiating out from a stylized sun. A five-pointed star was drawn in the center, with some of the lines bearing a slight curve. From what he understood of Fei's notes, the Elder Sign was the conduit for a number of useful spells. Some outsiders had errantly associated it with their version of the hell king, but the symbol was far older than that.
"What manner of forces will we be invoking today?" Gao asked with some trepidation. "Don't you have something that can simply give me a name and evidence?"
"That is not how these invocations work, and I have no urge to trifle with eldritch powers. Remember what happened when my uncle tried toying with one of the rituals from the Book of Dead Names?"
"Yes, and I understand. What do I have to do?"
"Just what I tell you," Fei said as she ran her fingers along the back of Gao's neck. "I don't want to have to clean you up like my poor uncle."
"You must have already started the ritual, because I see a vision of loveliness."
She quickly kissed Gao before replying. "Flattery will get you somewhere, Inspector. I honestly cannot tell what you are about to experience, but some of the answers you seek may already lie within you."
"Any answer is better than none. But can't you tell anything from the poison dart?"
"Only that it is one of countless concoctions that can end a life from a flesh wound, but it must lose its potency after it enters the body. It is obviously dry now, and safe to handle from the way you carelessly brandish it."
"Maybe I'm already dying."
"We all were, from the moment were we born," Fei said, quoting one of the poets whose name escaped Gao. "But less morbidly, it will be a focus for the ritual. Now, have a seat in the center."
Gao sat down in the center of the mat with folded legs. Despite having undergone the experience many times before, he never quite adapted to the surreal experience. He drank a special draught from a ceremonial cup his wife presented to him and immediately closed his eyes. The bitter elixir worked its way down his throat, causing him to cough while he struggled to gasp down air. His vision exploded into stars as Fei spoke the incantations.
"Cut these eyes, and he shall see. Split the liar's vision for thee," she said in a tone that subtly unnerved Gao. "By the Gate, by the Key, reach a covenant of shadows for he."
Fei's voice vanished from Gao's vision as the colors vanished, removing the sole reminder of familiarity as his consciousness faded into oblivion. As it vanished, he tried to recall Buddhism, Taoism, and any creed he could like a drowning man to flotsam. Definite thoughts eluded his mind as his awareness became fluid and timeless. He felt as though he sipped the headwaters of eternity, only to be pulled back before fully losing himself within.
The next lucid thought Gao had was staring through the eyes of another. The briny smell of ocean air and burning pitch intermingled in his large nostrils. He felt the gentle swaying of the ship through calloused bare feet expertly balancing upon a rugose wooden deck. From his borrowed senses, Gao saw darkness unfurling around the ship in all directions. A circadian rhythm slightly altered from his own instead granted him the vitality of awakening fresh and full of vitality. The lack of any visible light source aboard the ship, such as torches or lanterns, did not inhibit the crew from seamlessly performing their duties. Above him, the even light of familiar stars now seemed distant and colder like celestial revenants.
The question of how a ship and crew could so flawlessly navigate at night without lights was one his Inspector's mind was keen to attack. He found himself theorizing he was observing some vessel of well-experienced smugglers, wokou, or other maritime outlaws. The implication that they knew the waters they traveled very well made wretched his stomach, for he instinctively felt the bearing of the vessel was towards the desolate coasts of Sudong County. Despite his hunch, he still felt something was deeply amiss with the lumbering gait of his borrowed legs.
The creak of a hatch opening on deck temporarily disrupted the synchronized labor of the crew. Two burly sailors with sunken, milky eyes and sleek, shaven heads hauled up a smaller man behind them like a prize catch. His smaller stature belayed the muscles revealed by his ruffled clothing and chaffing of his rope bindings. The stench of human sweat emanated from the prisoner's damp body. Gao immediately identified Ichiro, even though the warrior far less battered than his appearance in the marketplace.
"I hope you are ready for a vacation, Takahashi Ichiro," came low and throaty words from Gao's borrowed mouth. While he could not understand the Wa language, he felt each word was uttered in it. "For it will be permanent if your lord declines the ransom."
"Unhand me, you dishonorable wretches!"
"Honor?" Gao felt the speaker's muscles contort into a bemused grin wider than his own. "I would not lecture about honor after you disrupted our sacred ceremony."
"Your profane desecration of that woman's body could not go unpunished."
"Says the man slinking through our village like a poisonous viper."
"My duty is to deliver justice to the farthest corners of my master's land," Ichiro said with a defiant grin on his face. "And you are not only a lawbreaker and murderer, but a defiler of the natural order itself!"
"Natural order? We are the kin to the sea itself. What paltry warlord rules in your pitiful country does so at our whim. I have stood at the head of our order far longer than your pathetic lord has reigned on his throne, and we shall endure long after the end of man."
"And I will end it!"
"I see the boys below have pulled their punches," the speaker said calmly. He tightened his muscles before jamming his fist into Ichiro's exposed midsection, causing the retainer to grunt. "No longer."
"I've felt women punch harder than you, fisherman," Ichiro said with a chuckle.
The speaker stepped away from his prisoner, as if indecisively weighing punishments for such insolence in his mind. He stared out over the darkened waters for a moment, and the distinctive lights of Sudong's coastal settlements floated on the horizon like paper lanterns loosed upon the waves. Gao did not know how the identification was made, but presumed the body he wore had an uncanny sense of direction. He looked back at the hostage, apparently deciding on a suitable torture.
It was then Ichiro acted. Twisting himself free with a single fluid motion, he wriggled free of his two burly captors and bolted across the deck. The speaker lunged at the fleeing captive with the reflexes of a wrestler, but narrowly missed the nimble samurai as he vaulted over the edge of the ship and vanished under the dark waters below. Some of the sailors ran to the edge of the deck, as if to leap in after him.
"No, not now. The current's too strong here," the clear commander of the vessel said with a more authoritative and irate tone. "We know where his destination is. Junpei, deal with him in town."
"Yes, Master Mori," said one of the sailors with a rat-like face and croaking voice. "After I intercept him, I will meet you while you load at Riptide Cove."
"Excellent, Junpei. The apothecary has a special poison from blowfish venom, just for such an occasion. I've prepared these, just for you."
Mori handed a bundle of glistening darts to Junpei, who bowed. As the earliest rays of predawn light arose over the wine-dark sea, Gao could feel the vision slipping from him like an elusive dream. The ship deck vanished from his view as Master Mori's heavy footfalls faded into his memory. As he transitioned between the vision and the present, the Inspector felt himself wading through the waters of eternity as he found himself back in his study.
Returning from the ritual always left Gao feeling dizzy and slightly nauseous. Intrigued by the vision he had experienced, he momentarily wondered if it was truth or some insane hallucination as he entertained the possibly of Ichiro as a counterpart and compatriot of sorts. If the vision had the veracity his mind reassured him it did, then he had an idea as to his next destination. Fei stood above him, offering him a small bottle in hand.
"What is this?" Gao asked as he unquestioning accepting his wife's gift, even though he already knew part of the answer.
"The spell also affected me. I was granted a vision of the poison being brewed from blowfish toxin. This is the antidote to the blowfish poison, so long as it is administered in time," Fei said. "After all, the difference between medicine and poison is dosage."
"You shouldn't have."
"Yes, I should have. Did you see what you needed?"
"Yes. Thank you, dear."
"Just come home alive."
Gao hugged his wife before departing back to the village. His mind remained in a euphoric state from his trip home as though his brief visit had been a full and restful sleep. While he had a feeling of what Jiao would inform him of, he wanted he hear it directly from his deputy's own lips. He desperately sought independent verification of what he had seen, as he felt a silver of guilt for relying upon insight granted beyond the keening of mortals. Approaching the market square where Ichiro had died, Gao saw Jiao conversing with an unexpected individual.
The man wore blue and white silk robes, and his stocky build bore a paunch from years of revelry in the baser pleasures. His hirsute beard and eyebrows seemed like thick hedges that had not been trimmed in years. He listened to Jiao speak in between sips from a flask on his hips, while his disinterested eyes would turn to follow women walking past him. He ignored Gao until the Inspector was directly in front of him. The official's bodyguard, a lithe and armored man with a dao saber sheathed in his belt, glared at passersby like a guard dog.
"Greetings, Magistrate Fang," Gao said with a bow. "I hope our investigation has not disturbed you."
"No, it hasn't," Fang said. "But I hope you catch that killer soon. The girls don't want to walk outside, and my favorite restaurants are losing business. I'd send a small army to catch him, but that daft Officer Sun's says there's weapons missing from the armory. I give him full authority over military matters, and he can barely be bothered to be my bodyguard."
"Not to worry, Magistrate, as I have the contents of Jiao's house. Maybe they all went there?"
"Assuming Jiao wouldn't scare them off," Fang said with a chuckle to himself. "But the few soldiers at my disposal are needed to keep the main roads free of bandits."
"That's quite alright, Magistrate, as I have all I need to catch the killer."
"Very well, Inspector. Despite what Officer Sun says, I know you are the right man for the job. You've never failed me, and I know you will not."
"I am merely doing my duty."
"Such humility! My books are always open to you, Inspector. Officer Sun, will you fetch another cask of wine from the store? I want enough to last us until the end of the week."
"Be glad you have money, Magistrate, for I couldn't afford all of this booze on a soldier's pay," Sun said.
"Less talking, more carrying. I am not paying you to speak."
The groan of grudging affirmation from Officer Sun came before he vanished into a nearby shop, with the Magistrate behind him. "I'm sorry to take my leave so early, but I have other business to attend to. Good luck."
Gao bowed to his superior, and Jiao mimicked it. Once they were out of earshot, Jiao wasted no time uttering complaints under his breath, as if the Magistrate could hear him. "Of all the wretched bureaucrats in the Middle Kingdom, why do we have such a useless fool as a Magistrate?"
"Come now, Jiao. The Magistrate is more than a sybarite. I know he scored very well on his civil service exams, and the new irrigation system is based on how he waters his garden," Gao said. "He might have been a better artisan or engineer, where his urge to avoid work could have produce more helpful inventions for the country."
"I still don't like him."
"He's not as bad as the Magistrate before him, who micromanaged every aspect of an investigation. At least Fang will give us the essential breathing room to complete our assignment, if only to avoid more work. Furthermore, he has influential family as far as Sichuan and the Imperial Court, and they placed him here to be rid of him while saving face."
"I'm just amazed how you acted in front of him with a straight face. I would have burst out laughing if I was the Inspector," Jiao said with a sigh. "But he probably single-handled keeps every restaurant, tavern, and brothel in this village in business, which is impressive."
"Enough, Deputy. What have you found?"
"The victim's trail starts at the rocky beach near the Razor Rocks. Most of the footprints washed away, but I found a piece of rope that looked like it was crudely hewn against a sharp boulder."
"So our victim might have jumped from the deck of a ship, and let the current carry him close to shore. Still, making it ashore and to town after escaping from captivity is an impressive feat."
"Assuming that story is true, Inspector."
"Call it a hunch. Have I ever guessed wrong?"
Gao shushed his Deputy before Jiao could correct him.
"Now, Deputy, I want you to gather the others and arm them with whatever weapons you'd use to take a ship."
"I have it from a reliable source that the killer may be involved with a crew of wokou, so I want everyone ready for the task."
"So, just the five of us against the odds, eh? I can't fault you on bravado, Inspector."
"Six of us," Gao said, correcting his subordinate. "I doubt Fei would want to miss out on this."
"If she's coming, then you must be worried about monsters."
"Only the human ones, but I like to be prepared. Are you refusing an opportunity to put your arsenal to the test?"
"Never, Inspector. I will rally the others."
"I will meet you at the Razor Rocks in an hour," Gao said. "I know you will not disappoint me, Jiao."
"I aim to please. Or kill. Mostly kill."
Jiao said, chuckling at his only joke before turning back towards his house. Gao took the opportunity to ready himself for the ordeal that undoubtedly awaited them.
The Razor Rocks were an outcropping of stones sticking out into the ocean that had claimed a number of seagoing craft. Gao knew that locals would often venture out to scavenge flotsam or look for survivors when the tide shifted, flitting in and out like birds picking the teeth of a crocodile. Beyond the Razor Rocks was a brief but treacherous stretch of coastline called the Navigator's Bane, as it was riddled with innumerable coves, tidal caves, and constricted channels. Its presence alone was enough to wholly deter sane captains from the coast, which made Sudong Distract so appealing to smugglers and unattractive to merchants.
Gao had taken several trips amongst the cave-riddled warrens, and he recalled a larger inlet by the name of Riptide Cove. The name had been given to it by some unfortunate sailor that once crewed the wrecked junk that had been reduced to a shattered skeletal husk in the surf between two cliffs. It was there he felt the answer to his case rested, as well as other unanswered questions that had been nagging him.
Gao was relieved that he would not be alone. Fei was beside him, bringing both wooden and steel swords to deal with monsters of the supernatural or mortal worlds. Jiao arrived with the other deputies in a horse-drawn cart rattling with the weapons within it. Gao knew stealth would be preferred, but he had to be ready in case it failed.
Gao saw that Jiao had brought the handful of deputies under his command. He looked in the back of the carriage and saw Di, Bao, and Shen all clanking like kitchens in their equipment. The two hardened veterans, Di and Bao, wore armor of woven metal plates with leather underneath. Looking at the experienced way they held their crossbows, Gao exhaled in relief that he had recruited them instead of one of the outlaw bands that terrorized the remote roads. The brace of curved dao sabers on their belts reminded Gao of a kitchen implement scaled to cleave human meat. From what he had seen, the Inspector preferred to have the veterans on his side.
Gao recalled that the other deputy, Shen, was the youngest of the lot. Jiao had recruited him as an apprentice craftsman for his own endeavors, cynically promising him the chance to learn how the gear he forged was used. He was older than Yi by no more than a couple years, but the involuntary quiver in his arms as he held a crossbow would only be cured by ending another's life. Part of the Inspector felt guilty about blooding the young man, but given his line of work, it was a grim necessity best done early.
It was with no small amount of revulsion that Gao saw Jiao was the only one among the wagon clearly relishing what was to come. His deputy had come well prepared, for across Jiao's back was strapped an arquebus of his own design and across his chest was a bandoleer of polished daggers and ammunition. He had expected no less, given that he had caused the mad dog the chance to slip his leash. The twitch of his fingers along the stock of his repeating crossbow was of eager and wanton anticipation instead of apprehension.
In contrast to the violent men sitting in the cart, Gao saw his wife was no slouch herself. Trained in matters supernatural and martial, she bore the silver-edged jian of her own departed father with the comfortable ease of the peach-wood sword in her other hand. She was dressed in a light robe that almost entirely concealed the chainmail underneath, with a belt around her waist containing the arsenal of herbs and poultices for both mending and rending flesh. Her rope dart would have been entirely concealed in her sleeve, if she had not spun her sword around. She retrieved a crossbow for herself and handed another to Gao. He grabbed a supply pack, produced a length of rope from within, and ordered his followers to secure themselves to each other.
"The path is too treacherous for horses, so we continue on foot from here," the Inspector ordered. "Keep alert, as the path is narrow in some points that are ripe for ambushes."
Inspector Gao led the party up a narrow and winding path up the side of a rocky coastal cliff. The path beneath him was barren ground coated with irregular spread of pebbles, not yet ground into sand by the slow passing of ages and pounding of the surf. He marched them through the ominous, shadow-haunted defiles where only the desperate had trod. He knew the contours and shape of the land like a lover's body, from his occasional sojourns along desolate patrol routes.
While he saw no signs of outlaws on the way up, each breath became harder as they climbed. The air was thick with dust and the weight of ancient violence. Gao knew of no battles or heinous acts committed there, but the presence of the jagged sea-cliffs seemed as though they had forced themselves up in an act of vehemence against the heavens themselves.
While ascending towards the summit, Gao saw a number of curious and unnerving sights. Towards the summit of was a cliff face of exposed chalky stone, a type Gao had not heard about. The bones of some titanic creature were partially entombed within, yet as solid as rock when Gao ran his hand along the cold stone in on a whim. While he had heard of dragon bones before, the warmth of the remains relative to the chill-touch of the nearby rock made him think of something deeply amiss. Patterns reminiscent of seashells, tropical plants, and stranger things where embedded around the bones, as if some ancient shore had been ripped skywards in some chthonic bout of viciousness. He shuddered at thinking of the force or age involved in such things.
Gao had no doubts that the view from the top would have been beautiful on some days. He stopped momentary so that his party could savor the panoramic view of Sudong Village and the farms along its periphery. He felt tension on the rope beneath him as Shen struggled to keep pace, only to be helped along by Di and Bao. As the rope slackened, the Inspector breathed deeply as he longingly stared at the even higher and more distant peaks of the Tiger's Teeth. The stark hellscape around him was a contrast to the serene, flowing hills off in the distance. He thought he saw a broken pagoda nestled between two distant hillocks, but it quickly slipped from his mind as more immediate concerns troubled him.
"Where now, Inspector?" inquired a restive Jiao.
"Inside," Gao said as he pointed to a cave entrance ahead of them. "I want you to keep weapons ready in there."
Gao drew his longsword and twirled it with a flourish. The glint of sunlight on the steel temporarily blinded Jiao as he raised it in front him. Brandishing it like a torch before the darkness, the Inspector examined the cave entrance. From the entrance, he could clearly see human footprints in the dirt just inside the entrance. He could spot several pairs, judging from the size of footwear, and the freshness indicated a recent upswing in traffic. Requesting a lantern from Jiao, he stepped forward into the subterranean blackness of the uncharted caverns.
Gao noted the path dropped steeply and abruptly, but the descent was comfortable due to the handholds cut into the walls. After taking a large gulp of air, he felt a strangely cool and fresh breeze instead of the stale, humid air he had anticipated. Each second he remained in the cave, the insufficient flame of the candle cast an orange light upon the ground, illuminating the telltale footfalls of a well-trod path. Near a particularly flat stretch of passage, the tunnel split in twain. When he observed the total absence of traffic down one warren, he put a plan into motion that sprung directly formed into his head. Having his party waiting a short distance down the untraveled tunnel, Gao quenched the flame and waited. The darkness was not as total as he anticipated, for his eyes had acclimated to the tunnel.
Fortunately for Gao, they did not need to wait long for visitors. The Inspector readied his sword and ensured the rest of his party had crossbows loaded and cocked. In his pursuit of outlaw adversaries, he had trained himself think like them. He pressed himself against the tunnel wall, allowing the footfalls to get closer.
"The boss' contact says he saw a horse and cart near the beach," said a voice with a harsh Manchu accent. "Probably just some lost merchant."
"Then maybe we can lighten their pockets," said a second, Cantonese-accented voice. "But we'd have to haul the loot up the hill."
As the footsteps drew closer, Gao drew his sword and stepped out. "Freeze!" he said as the rest of the party leveled their crossbows. One of the outlaws had a small lantern, so he wisely decided to surrender instead of fight. In the dim light, the Inspector could see a hirsute Manchu beside a smaller Cantonese man, both of which had swords sheathed and hands in front of them.
"Gentlemen, you are going to lead us to your boss," Gao said. "If you cooperate, you will receive leniency. If you don't, you will receive none. No tricks, or you die first."
With a whistle, Gao gestured Di and Bao to gag his prisoners and bind their hands. While the Inspector would have preferred to interrogate them, instinct and experience told him the outlaw-plagued cave was not the safest place to do so. From the daggers the two veterans held at the captives' throats, Gao had no doubt that they would cut throats or inflict any torture he could conceive with the emotional reaction of chopping vegetables. For those reasons and their armor, he had them walk before he did. Di and Bao held the outlaws in front of themselves, leading the party towards what was undoubtedly a brigand-infested nest.
"Ingenious, Inspector. They'll lead us right to their hideout," Jiao said in an excited whisper. "I have just the thing for large groups."
Gao had Jiao prepare whatever wicked surprise he had in store while they continued downwards. Gao could feel the air freshen as they descended further, with the salty smell of ocean water becoming more obvious as they approached the hideout. The Inspector imagined they advanced in proximity towards some concealed cove or harbor, a perfect base for smugglers or pirates. The wide, fearful eyes of his captives hinted of terrors greater than he could inflict awaiting them.
As the blinding radiance of the sun filtered from a nearby tunnel, Gao pondered that the terminus of their quest was near. He recalled a lonely patrol from two years prior, when he had first gazed upon the cavern hewn by the grand opulence of nature. He recalled witnessing the solitary spectacle of an explorer of a long-lost world, unseen and unmarred by human exploration. He never forgot the vision of the high noon sun reflecting off the seawaters onto the cavern ceiling, projecting squamous shapes of shifting illumination. Nor did he forget the way that shouting from the cavern's entrance caused a mighty reverberation of the sound.
When Gao beheld the same humongous cavern in the present, he first thought he was staring at a completely different chamber. The carcasses of shattered vessels filled the edges of the concealed cove, victims claimed by the riptides. The cavern held enough area to nearly completely hide a ramshackle dock and ship, a design from Wa eerily identical to the one he had glimpsed in his vision. In its full daytime glory, he could see the deck held structures resembling castle ramparts and towers beneath the masts. Crates and urns were stacked alongside, cargo ready for rapid departure. Within one open chest, he saw the seal of the local armory on the helmets piled within. He mentally rewarded himself for solving where the missing weapons had gone, and soon realized how they had arrived.
Merely by listening, Gao could tell the crew of the vessel were not from Sudong County. The linguistic medley of alien tongues formed an incomprehensible pidgin, with only a few components that the Inspector could identify. He identified the Guangdong dialect of ruffians, his own mother tongue, the harsh Manchu and Mongolian syllables, the oddly familiar words of Wa, and stranger ones he could not identify. Near the end of the dock, his muscles tensed he beheld the tallest of the smugglers, almost entirely covered in dark, wet rags. The sight of the traitorous Officer Sun talking beside him and pocketing a bag of coins was what incited him to action.
Inspector Gao made the decision to forsake stealth for intimidation. He ordered the prisoners brought forwards into the cavern entrance, with Bao and Di behind them with daggers at their throats. Shen, Fei, and Jiao had crossbows ready, while he pointed his distinctly at Officer Sun.
"Through yourself upon my mercy and live. Resist and die! Your comrades' lives depend on it!" Gao said, letting the acoustics of the cavern echo his words.
Pandemonium broke forth amongst the smugglers, as the disciplined crew dissolved into factions. Some reached for weapons. Others leapt into the waters, trying to swim to freedom. Some ran for the ship, as if to make ready to sail. An even smaller number of similarly shrouded crewmen formed a human wall in front of their obvious master. Undisturbed and irritated by the spectacle, the tall shrouded man simply whistled. On cue, two of his personal guard released arrows into the necks of their two captives while he gaily ascended the gangplank.
While conflicted by a desire to preserve Sun alive for interrogation and a far more suitable fate, Gao took what he deemed was his literal shoot at justice. The bolt veered from its intended target slightly and struck the Officer in the throat instead of the torso. Sun gurgled helplessly while the Inspector focused on more immediate concerns. The brigands had begun to regroup, forming ranks like a well-trained military unit. From the way the shrouded Wa-born warriors commanded the crew, he suspected they were one.
Gao narrowly avoided a volley of arrows that punctured through his robes but entirely missed his body. A group of spearmen charged him, but hurling his lantern at the first bought him the time he needed to open the unlucky young man's arteries. With a well-practiced riposte, he evaded his comrades' counterattacks and thrust Earth Dragon through another's throat. The last of the trio smashed the butt of his spear at Gao's throat, only for a crossbow bolt to drop him. Glancing behind him, he saw that the hawk-eyed Shen had been cured of his apprehension as Jiao ruffled his hair.
Gao fell back to his comrades, pleasantly surprised to see they were holding their own. The enemy archers no longer fired at them as they took cover behind stacks of contraband, so he instead saw a mass of swordsmen and spearmen charging towards him. He monetarily imagined the original owners of Jiao's collection had armed themselves and sought revenge upon the former monk.
Jiao unleashed a flurry of bolts from his repeating crossbow while muttering a litany of curses. Di and Bao grimly held their flank, their twin sword style reaping lives with the casual ease of a harvesting farmer. Shen covered their advance with crossbow bolts that were fired at an ever-quickening rate as it became easier. Fei used her steel and wooden swords while nimbly maneuvering around the enemy line, skirmishing and evading like Mongol cavalry.
Lost in the battle himself, Gao cut down a brigand before noticing the vessel's sails had been fully unfurled. The smugglers' ranks had completely buckled, with the few remaining formations beating a hasty fighting retreat towards the gangplank. The brigands that had leapt into the water climbed up on deck, but the master of the crew stood nonchalantly in the center of the teeming throng of outlaws. He ran forwards, eager to intercept the vessel as best as he could.
"Not to worry, Inspector," said a reassured Jiao from somewhere behind him.
The fiery report of the arquebus behind Gao temporarily deafened him as a flaming projectile brightened the cavern. He heard the rocket whistle as it spiraled through the air before smashing into the main sail of the vessel. He did not know how the sail combusted so rapidly, nor how Jiao was able to reload and fire rockets at the other sails of the vessel faster than a crossbowman could. From the rapidity of the smuggler captain's head rising up, nor did their enemy. When the captain impotently shook his fist, Gao knew their plans at flight had been for naught.
As the flames spread across the ship's rigging, the brigands began diving back into the water. Gao saw the vessel reduced to a smoldering tub of flames that would soon be a funeral pyre for the unfortunate. Eager to cut the head off the wokou gang and provide some degree of finality to the case, he charged towards the fleeing captain like a hungry tiger. The Inspector landed on the gangplank when a familiar hissing sound filled the air, and he felt a bite like a serpent's in his chest. With trepidation, he looked to see a familiar type of poison dart protruding from a gap in his armor. He felt his body go limp, but he could still see.
Towering above Gao's prone and vulnerable form was a tall smuggler with a torn shroud around his head. Beneath the ripped and tattered garments, Gao saw a distinctly familiar face from his vision. The rat-like visage of Junpei smiled as he raised a sword, preparing to finish the Inspector. As the arc of the weapon dropped, the handle of a thrown knife caused the assassin to instinctively jerk back defensively. A second hurled dagger nicked Junpei's nose, causing him to close his eyes and flinch. In the brief interval, an infuriated Jiao simply inserted the third blade into Junpei's exposed armpit.
With his last bit of strength, Gao tapped the bottle of antidote on his belt. He struggled to hold onto consciousness, but it ebbed away like the tide outside the cavern. His will to return home to Sudong Village kept him battling onwards, hoping that one of his comrades would know what to do. He looked and saw Jiao reaching for him before he went black. In a moment between life and death, he thought he heard Master Mori's voice from the dream. He chided himself for not drawing the parallel between the vessel's commander and the smuggler captain. His ruminations were abruptly terminated when something viscous and cool slid down his throat.
With a newfound burst of vigor, Gao opened his eyes and leapt to his feet with his sword drawn. In the center of his vision was the titanic form of the smuggler captain himself, barreling directly at the Inspector. He stood his ground and thrust with his sword, but the lissome giant deftly evaded the blow with a side lunge. Gao slashed upwards, but succeeded only in cutting the cloth wrapped around the captain's head. Immediately, he knew his secret.
Gao had heard of sailors wearing wet cloth to keep themselves cool and moist on particularly hot days, but the captain wore such garb for another reason entirely. Beneath the dark blue shawl had been an utterly inhuman head. His skin had a sickly, grayish green color to it, a hue Gao had never seen amongst any group of humans. Given the shape of what could only be Master Mori's misshapen head, he understood why. It resembled a profane confluence of amphibian and piscine features, a frog-like cranium with a mouth like a toothy fish. His bulging, milky eyes stared inhumanly straight at the Inspector, radiating hatred like the light of a gibbous moon.
Master Mori needed to say nothing, but Gao immediately understood his intentions. The Inspector stepped between the sea and his enemy, bracing himself to receive another charge. Instead of repeating his prior tactic, Mori pulled a sword from a fallen man and swung at the Inspector. Gao crouched, narrowing avoiding an enraged strike meant to bisect him. He threw himself to the side, feeling warm blood along his leg as something had been cut. Standing became agonizing, but he knew Mori's superior strength and reach meant he was able to win in a sword fight.
The fish-thing that was Mori did not seem to care about Gao once the Inspector had abandoned his position. With a clear path to the sea, Mori began to run. His inhuman gait was in full display for all the occupants of the cave to witness as he prepared to flee. As his leg departed the ground after his first bound, he crashed to the floor of the cave. Behind him, Gao saw Fei pulling the rope dart taught. "Get over here!" she shouted.
Before Mori could recover, Gao cleaved at the monstrosity's neck as hard as he could. The Mori's tough scales yielded before the Earth Dragon's edge, and the Inspector drove his heel into one of the Master's bulging eyes as he partially decapitated his target. Mori flailed wildly and emitted an earsplitting wail sound somewhere between a throaty croak and human scream. Immediately afterwards, he drove the blade harder and completely served Mori's head.
Looking up, Gao saw the battle had been won. The wokou that had not fled had been cut down or shot by his deputies. The enemy had fought to the death in most cases, but he reasoned it was unlikely they would take any prisoners. Even if some of the smugglers were creatures like Mori, Gao doubted they would be back anytime soon. Even they were ruthless criminals led by strange creatures, he had to respect their fighting ability and morale.
Fei approached him, and began to mend his wounds. Fortunately for him, his armor had prevented him from taking several mortal blows. While he was being treated, he wondered if his enemies had not been volunteers, but enslaved and ensorcelled by some foul magic. He wondered if Mori's cavalier attitude towards the lives of his underlings was simply a means of using fear and intimidation. Either way, murderers had been paid back in like.
"So, Inspector, what now?" Jiao asked as he enviously looked at a chest of swords.
"Now, we make a thorough review of the scene, explore all necessary evidence, and present our findings to the Magistrate," he said. "And you will all be getting bonuses."
Jiao nodded contentedly while Fei embraced him. Di and Bao raised their bloodied swords in celebration, while Shen continued throwing up into the water. While the day had been theirs, he knew the remainder of their day and much of the next would be devoted towards monotonous procedure and activity. He sighed in relief, for he felt that from some afterlife, Takahashi Ichiro was smiling upon him.
The following afternoon, Inspector Gao met Magistrate Fang in the same square where Ichiro had died. The Magistrate was accompanied by two comely young women in states of partial undress while he sipped from a flask of alcohol. The Inspector assumed that the news had reached the Magistrate well before the meeting, giving him yet another reason to celebrate. In a proper respectful manner, Gao bowed to his superior.
"Greetings, Magistrate Fang. I am content to say the investigation has encountered some…complications."
"But you caught the killer, right?" Fang asked. "That's what I've heard, so I made sure all the fine establishments were operating."
"No, I did not. The suspect died resisting arrest, but I believe he was sent by the captain of a wokou crew. The foreigner was a hostage of theirs that escaped, so they sought to eliminate the risk directly."
"Pirates? Not again."
"The entire crew and their vessel were destroyed in an escape attempt," Gao said with a sigh. "But I believe the wokou were primarily weapon smugglers rather than pirates. They aimed to shift the balance of power in Wa's civil wars by importing arms. Remember the missing weapons from our armory? They were loading them onto their vessel, aided by Officer Sun. I presumed his motives were entirely monetary, aided by a lack of oversight."
"I was wondering why I haven't seen him much, but that's a hefty accusation to make, Inspector."
"I have records of his transactions, right here in this ledger," Gao said, producing a small book from his bag. "I recommend more thoroughly and frequently vetting the activities of those you delegate responsibilities to, Magistrate."
"After this unpleasantness with Officer Sun, I will."
"Thank you, sir. I trust you," Gao said. "Because I took the liberty of checking your books, which you left open to me, and found no evidence to implicate you. Furthermore, the local girls and bartenders all have alibis for you."
"I am your boss, you know?" Fang asked as he took a step back, his senses regaining enough soberity to comprehend the gravity of Gao's activities.
"Yes, and I am merely doing my job," Gao said with a bow. "Do we have an understanding?"
"Yes, we have. Thank you, Inspector," Fang said with a brief bow of his head. "I have other business I must attend to."
The girls giggled as the Magistrate led them back to his manor. Inspector Gao turned away and returned to his own work. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw the bowing figure of Takahashi Ichiro. When he looked back, he saw nothing but smiled nonetheless.