The Peculiar Cases of Inspector Gao
The Homecoming Derelict
Inspector Gao Zhiyang occasionally wondered about the distant lands laid over the ocean. He had met interesting travelers from abroad, such as an emissary from India, a warrior from Wa, and a shipwrecked Dutchman, but he knew the treasures of the Middle Kingdom were enough to lure greedy and avaricious barbarians from the edge of the world.
His best friend and trusted deputy, the former monk Yu Jiao, had once told him things had once been different. Before the Ming Dynasty isolated themselves from the outer world, they had sent forth grandiose expeditions and treasure fleets under Admiral Zheng He. The treasure fleet had scoured the world, bringing with them the wonders of the Middle Kingdom to impress the foreign and distant lands with. Treasures from ornate jewelry to vast tomes of knowledge were collected for the grandiose endeavor. It all ended ignobly when a gold-strapped Emperor ordered the fleet scrapped.
Inspector Gao had never traveled by sea, save an occasional sojourn by fishing boat when essential that he survey the coast. He was well aware he was a landlubber through and through. He preferred his feet planted on solid ground, and he reflected his ancestral sword's name of Earth Dragon described his dwelling preferences well. He had witness fishermen and sailors living in boats with their families, but he had only occasionally saw a vessel worthy of being described as a ship. The constant fear of wokou pirates necessitated observance of coastal traffic.
The largest ship he had ever seen came while he was on patrol with Jiao in the foothills outside Sudong Village. Wanting to enjoy the weather and stretch, he ordered them to take a foot patrol up the side of the hill that gave a view of the sparking ocean. The cloudless blue sky was especially clear, so he could clearly see sails upon the distant horizon. The massive unfurled sails prevented him from seeing the full body of the vessel underneath them. Jiao stared through a small telescope, before passing it to his superior.
"Either the lenses are not in focus, or that's a bigger vessel than any I've ever seen," the ex-monk said. "If it is that big, it's much larger than the merchant junks, Imperial warships, ramshackle wokou tubs, or European caravels."
Gao beheld the vessel as Jiao prattled, and he swept the telescope across the deck. He beheld not a sole moving across the rotting timbers, but growths of barnacle and sea-life clearly crept up from the sides like an advancing army. The sails themselves were made of flaying fibers, somehow holding together despite bearing the scars of prolonged exposure. Damp pools of bilge shifted across deck as the vessel swayed back and forth.
The bow of the ship cut through the gentle waters like a dagger through flesh. Despite its massive size, Gao could estimate the enormity of the craft from doors and hatches. The deck was easily the size of a noble estate, large enough for an army's parade ground. Rotting ropes and rigging hung from above like moldering cobwebs from some great spider.
Towards the helm of the vessel, a small cabin stood at the apex of the aft deck. Hatches across the watercraft were battened down tightly, their exposed hinges caked with a thick layer of rust. The eerie stillness of the main deck was contrasted with the rapidity that it traveled through the waters on unseen winds. As he behind the craft, he wondered what manner of mariner manned such a ship.
What disoriented Gao was a slight adjustment to the vessel's trajectory. He studied the bow of the vessel as it sailed towards the north, but he could not help but notice slight adjustments made to the vessel's undertaking. What might have been a rudder shifted almost imperceptibly, but it turned its port side ever so slightly. Jiao feigned boredom while Gao studied it, but the Inspector's well-honed senses had allowed him to see the vessel had almost imperceptibly changed course.
"If I didn't know better, I would say it was a baoshan," Gao said, recalling a model he had seen once.
"But none of those have been built since Zheng He's voyages two centuries ago," Jiao said in protest. "And each of those would need hundreds of sailors."
"Exactly, Deputy. It's just changed course, and it's heading for Sudong Village. We're going to find out why."
Jiao's narrow face stared over the edge of the path as his vacant eyes opened wide. His brows furled into an exasperated expression between fury and terror as he looked out over the sea. "If we are getting aboard that, I am bringing everyone and arming them."
"My home is close, so we can ask Fei."
"That's your answer for everything, isn't it?"
"It produces better results than your explosions."
"Inspector, it is not my fault explosions can be an appropriate answer to so many problems in life."
"Jiao, just get the others and grab your favorite weapons. I will meet you by the town square."
Gao heard Jiao grumble something as they descended the hillside path for the village. Below him, he behind the shifting contours of the coastline, as local streams and rivers gave way to marshland after flowing through the rice paddies and down terraced hills. He followed the well-trod path alongside the old canal towards home. He wondered about the shape of the land, wondering if the land shifted and settled over the different eras. Just as the earth shook and coastlines eroded, he wondered if their combined toll maybe analogous to the world itself gaining the wrinkles of old age. He wondered what Sudong looked like in its youth, back before its haggard present.
Gao wondered similar things about the sea. The unbounded ocean had existed long before the First Emperor, and he believed it would be around long after the last one. Dynasties came and went like waves crashing upon the beach, helping make their mark upon history. He had no doubt that beneath the blue surface, existed creatures and mysteries stranger than what dwelt on land. He was primarily concerned the ones that the sea vomited forth on Shandong province's little Sudong Village. Why a vessel of such decrepit condition was bearing down upon the coast with unnatural rapidity was chief amongst them.
Gao came home to find his two servants helping Fei prepare another brew in the kitchen. Yi was helping move a heavy cask of regents into the kitchen, while Liang was boiling water for the concoction. The two acknowledged his arrival with a quick bow of their heads, before returning their attentions to their more immediate concerns. He saw Fei was dressed in a bright white and light blue robe, chanting to herself as she stared entranced out a window. The Inspector tried snapping his fingers, only for Fei to speak cryptically.
"They return home, bearing trophies like scars and scars like trophies," she said. "Unhealed and gnarled, gnashing and crashing."
"Only you could make that nonsense sound delightful."
Yi opened her eyes, and her small, heart-shaped mouth opened up. "Ah, my lovely husband returns. Undoubtedly seeking information about that strange ship about to crash itself into our coastline, I presume?"
"Right as always, Yi. Any potions you'd like me to try? Any spells or incantations?"
"Not today. Just come closer."
Gao stepped forwards as Yi caressed his forehead with the back of her palm. He held her for a sliver of eternity, grateful for the chance to be with a wife that understood his responsibilities. He noted she was already clad in a belt with two scabbard, one holding her jian and the other held a Taoist exorcist's wooden sword. As he held her, he noticed the mail under her robes. She tugged him gently towards the door.
"I've always wanted to travel the world, to see the things my father's library told me of," Fei said with a sigh. "But I suppose a massive ship lingering offshore has never boded well for the town."
"Most of the foreigners here have brought trouble with them," Gao said. "Things may have been different once, but we must rely on each other for now."
"I agree, but I still wish I could see the world," she said. "A ritual of mine yielded some unexpected results. Let me explain on the way."
As they walked towards the front door, Fei dismissed her servants. "Good work today, but next time, watch the portions of the hallucinogenic mushrooms."
Liang bowed as Gao returned the gesture, and they gaily strolled outside. Due to his house obstructing the view, the Inspector could now longer see the ship or its billowing masts. He momentarily pretended the vessel had vanished from the sea, and with it, the stress that it had brought him. Fei tugged him as they walked towards the town, eager to share something with him.
"My divination ritual failed, but I was able to feel specific sensations."
"Why don't we go back and try the ritual together?"
"You'll be needed down there soon enough, but I doubt we'll have any more luck," Fei said. "And to be honest, I was confused by what I saw and felt."
"And what was that?"
"Longing, wrath, anger, homesickness. But also great sadness."
"Sadness and fury are but feuding siblings," Gao said, quoting some poet he had long since forgotten. "But that is why I sent Jiao to retrieve his heavy weapons. If there is a threat, we can deal with it."
"You're starting to talk like him now."
"Rituals cannot solve all problems, so that's why I need explosions. I need the correct tool for the correct job."
"A good point, but explosions cannot harm the immaterial," Fei said as she rested her hand on the wooden sword. "Yet I do not know what we will encounter aboard that ship."
"You really want to go onto that creaking tub?"
"You will need every tool available. Never hurts to be prepared, my dear. Perhaps there are friendly foreigners aboard?" she asked, half-jokingly.
Gao sighed. He had no doubt Fei could handle herself, but he did not like to expose his loved ones to needless danger. Whatever unknown perils awaited on the ship would be nothing compared to the guilt he would feel if some terrible fate befell Fei. He knew she could handle herself well enough, but the failure of the divination left him with nothing but unease. Significant threats and spirits required explosions and rituals respectively, but he had no idea which would be necessary.
As Gao beheld the ship, he noted something curious. The vessel had stopped a kilometer from shore, as if held down by some invisible anchor. The cerulean blue sky shifted towards an ominous overcast gray that smothered the sunlight of the early morning. The wake from the displaced water still continued to travel towards the shore even as the ship remained stationary upon the waves like a floating fortress. He breathed deeply, and Fei embraced his arm as she preternaturally felt the apprehension within him.
Inspector Gao approached the square of Sudong Village, where villagers were gathering before the statue of the famous Song Dynasty inventor Chang Fanrui. They milled about in curiosity and tension as they beheld the vessel berthing itself silently offshore. From the makeshift weapons in the villagers' hands, the Inspector wondered if they thought it was some sort of wokou ploy to get close to shore. At the very least, pirates were familiar threats.
"Clear the way. Here comes the Magistrate!" shouted Jiao from somewhere in the crowd. The chime of brigandine armor and marching boots parted the assembled crowd like a headsman's blow. Jiao and the other deputies stood to the side as the corpulent girth of Magistrate Fang half-waddled through the opening, flanked by a quartet of bodyguards. Fang's reddened face and flustered expression told the Inspector all he needed to know. The dark stains on his rich red robes bespoke of a hastily interrupted meal.
"People of Sudong Village, do not fret!" he said. "Head back to your homes. The great Inspector Gao will handle the abandoned ship."
The hushed whispers spread like plague contagion through the crowd as they turned to see Gao and Fei. The Inspector and his wife bowed before the Magistrate, having already accepted the responsibility that would follow.
"It is just a derelict that ran aground on a sandbar," Fang said in a jovial tone. "So pay that wreck no heed."
The crowd began to disperse, grumbling with disappoint as they left the village square. Gao could empathize, as the entirely predictable and repetitive lives of the villagers had been disrupted by a unique event. He would have considered it fortuitous under other circumstances, but whatever the inscrutable Will of Heaven was, he was certain the ship bore some potent malignancy that snuffed his wife's potent magic. As little as he knew about all things nautical, an aura of unnatural power surrounded the distant hull.
The Magistrate approached Gao, order his bodyguards to step to the side. The Inspector bowed as Fang unceremoniously took a swig from a flask from his bodyguard's hip. He emptied it in one gulp, before loudly belching in the now-deserted public square. The Inspector thought he would have seen Chang Fanrui's statue stare if it had been any louder. "Inspector, you have to remove that ship. If the fishermen are too afraid to work, then my favorite restaurants won't have any seafood dishes. If I send for the Imperial Navy, it would take at least a month for them to get here, but it's unlikely they would bother with helping us."
"Understood, Magistrate," Gao said. "I will do what I can, but I'll need a boat."
"I told your deputy to find one. The fishermen won't mind."
Gao cursed to himself as he gazed down towards the waterfront. Waves lapped gently against rotting wooden piles, all with growths of mollusks and barnacles that resembled some maritime fungus. Jiao walked through the forest of masts with his subordinates, Deputies Di and Bao, hauling a massive cannon hefted above their heads. Behind them, the hunched Deputy Shen panted as he trudged with a sack of cannonballs over his shoulder. Gao wondered if the burlap bag weighted more than the poor young man Jiao had undoubtedly bullied into carrying. At the front of the parade of armaments was Jiao himself, arquebus in hand as he clanked like a walking armory.
Gao saw Jiao stop before a rowboat at the end of the pier, where an old fisherman struggled with his net. Jiao grinned a predator's sneer as his lips turned and eyes narrowed. With a vigor uncharacteristic of his age, the fisherman bolted out of the boat and down the wharf. Gesturing to the other deputies, he began to deposit the weapons within the rowboat. Di and Bao took position at the oars, but the cannon made the craft sag noticeably in the waterline. Jiao opened the rear of the cannon, and impatiently directed Shen to begin loading.
"Inspector, behind my latest masterpiece!" Jiao said as Gao and Fei approached. "I've improved the Ba Mian Shen Wei Pao, the brass breech-loading swivel gun, to have better range, power, and accuracy. Wait until you see the special shells I've prepared."
"I'm sure it will be nice and bloody," Gao replied.
"Now, now, I'm sure they will be exciting to watch," Fei said. "Deputy Jiao, your fireworks are always entertaining."
"Thank you, Lady Fei," Jiao replied with an exaggerated bow. "Why don't you and the Inspector climb aboard? We'll do the rowing and the aiming."
"Deputy, can you move us in front of the bow, hopefully where they can see us?" Gao asked.
"Yes, but why ruin the advantage of surprise?"
"There is no element of surprise, as they can obviously see us rowing towards them in this sluggish sow of a boat. We are simply going to send a message."
"Of course, Inspector. Warning shot it is," Jiao said, before ordered Di and Bao to begin paddling.
Gao and Yi climbed in, and they began to move towards the anomalous ship. The massive veterans rowed with the disciplined unison of galley slaves. A blank of dark clouds moved rapidly from over the edge of the horizon as though fleeing an unseen peril. The sky became dark and overcast as they paddled closer to the hull of the ship, and the Inspector struggled to adjust to bobbing up and down in the surf. He was unsure if the unease that churned in his stomach was due to the seasickness, his growing anxiety, or both. Fei saw his face, and slipped him a tincture in a small ceramic vial. It quelled the nausea for the remainder of the trip, but other things unnerved him.
As the rowboat approached the treasure ship, Gao held his nose as an unseen sea breeze blew a sulfurous odor from the ship. The wind whistled through the tattered sails like a wailing spirit, and an unnatural stillness remained upon deck. The only song the Inspector heard from within were what he presumed were the vessel's rotting timbers groaning and settling. A chill ran down his spine as he saw something flash upon the deck.
Gao raised his eyes, but found nothing. No one else aboard the launch changed their gaze, save Jiao. "Something the matter, Inspector?"
"Give the vessel a warring shot when I wave," Gao said. "Right across the bow."
"Sure you don't want it in the hull?"
As tempted as he was, Gao decided to stick to the proper protocol instead. He stood up, waved a red silk cloth in his hands, and cupped his mouth at the deck. "Hello, is anyone aboard? I am Inspector Gao Zhiyang from the village, and I want to know if anyone's there."
He waited for a long money, with only a low, wooden groan within the ship answering his query. Eager for activity, he waved to Gao. He wondered if whomever staffed the derelict was occupied with some other concern. He and Fei plugged their ears as Jiao fired the cannon as a manic grin crossed his face.
The explosion was much louder than Gao thought it would be, despite the fact he had covered his ears on the other side of the boat. The thunderous report of the cannon pushed the boat backwards, and Gao felt his nose overwhelmed by the acrid stench of gunpowder. Through the short-lived smoke cloud, Gao could hear the whistle and splash of the cannonball as it sunk below the waves. He thought he heard something skittering against soft, rotting timbers in the hull of the ship, but he quickly dismissed it.
"We're coming aboard," Gao shouted to no one in particular. "The ropes, please."
"Here," Jiao said as he handed Gao a knotted line terminating in a grappling hook. He turned to the other deputies. "You lot stay here in case we need to leave. Load the chain-shot, and shoot only if I tell you."
"The what?" Gao asked.
"Chain-shot. Two cannonballs connected by a chain. You should see what it does to masts or a line of brigands."
"I'd rather not, but thank you anyway," Gao said. "Fei, mind accompanying us? I would feel more secure with your charms and potions."
"Hmph," Jiao grumbled as he hurled his line over the side.
Gao went up first after tugging on the rope to ensure it was secure. Before ascending, Jiao handed him and Fei fully-loaded repeating crossbows. He pulled himself up the rope, struggling to maintain a grip as he felt the full weight of his armor, crossbow, and sword. He imagined himself falling into the choppy waters below and having to be fished out by an embarrassed Fei, so he tightened his grip as he continued to climb. He grunted as he clambered over the side. He laid on the deck for a moment before recovering, deciding there was a good reason he had not been a pirate or sailor.
Gao drew his sword and looked around the vessel's deck, expecting pirates to rush him from every hatch and shadow. Behind him, the muzzle of Jiao's arquebus probed above the railing before the former monk pulled himself over, his spindly body moving like a hunting spider. Behind him, Gao helped pull his wife up, gingerly and deliberately as not to let her slip. Fei stood up on deck with her wooden sword and longsword in each hand, as if ready to greet a crew of ghostly wokou.
Gao stood between Fei and Jiao as they scanned the deck with their weapons out. With only a cold breeze and overcast sky to greet them, the Inspector cautiously advanced towards the cabin. He walked past a mast thicker than any tree he had seen, across a deck larger than his estate. He tried to imagine such a vessel being assembled in a drydock years ago, but the cyclopean scale of such a shipyard stretched even his imagination. He pressed the tip of Earth Dragon against the mast, cutting a narrow notch into the damp wood.
"Inspector, just say the word, and I'll put one through her hull. The only treasures on this ship are mildew and rotting timber."
"As much as I would love to agree with Jiao, we can't leave now. We need to find out what guides this ship," Fei said. "There is nothing natural about this vessel, and I have no idea why it returned here. Although I am curious to see if there are foreign things aboard."
"Returned? What? You know something you're not telling us?" Jiao grumbled. "What is there to worry about if we simply blow this garbage scow into flotsam?"
"Perhaps releasing foreign diseases, hungry monsters, or wicked spirits on Sudong Village," Fei said. "But yes, Jiao, my earlier divination shared with me a yearning of sorts to return somewhere. Why else would it be here?"
"Wait, that's it!" Gao said as he wrapped gently on the cabin door. "This ship, it's come home."
"Slow down, Inspector. Does this mean I can blow it up now?"
"Not until we investigate further," Gao said as he looked at his two companions. "But ships like this were sent out centuries ago to the edge of the world. What if one went to far?"
"And they brought something back, or perhaps, is trying to," Fei said. "Yes, this is making sense, but it does make me wonder."
"It's obviously not good for whatever unlucky bastards crewed this wreck. Something is steering this ship, and I doubt it's human."
"Only one way to find out," Gao said. He pressed his body weight against the cabin door, only for the decaying timbers to resist his gradual push. Jiao stepped up, and kicked as hard as he could against the center of the door. The door buckled inwards, but resisted the forceful strike upon it. Jiao grasped his leg and began swearing, hopping around like his foot was on fire. Gao barely suppressed a chuckle, but Fei giggled.
"You could just try this," Fei said as she pried the hinges out with her sword. Gao heard the monk grumble as the door collapsed from the frame. "Geometry makes life much easier."
Before Gao could peer within the darkened room, he saw Jiao aiming his gun at something within the yawning cavity of blackness. His curiosity was only whetted when a malodorous stench assaulted his unprepared nostrils. As daylight filtered into the cabin, he was greeted by the putrefying, partially mummified corpse of a sailor. His skeletal hands had been worn down to claw-like talons, a corroded dao saber laid on the ground before him, and a thick layer of dust indicated the absence of movement for a long time. The Inspector wondered if some quirk of the sea air kept the body preserved for the innumerable years it had laid there.
Gao almost jumped when a loud bang resounded within the enclosed confines of the noisome cabin. A tongue of fire and smoke momentarily illuminated the worn furniture of the cabin. The sailor's decomposing head exploded, painting a black ichor across the wall behind him. The Inspector's eyes traced the projectile back to its origin to find Jiao hastily reloading a smoking gun. Gao heard the ex-monk's apology when his ears had stopped ringing.
"Sorry, Inspector, just wanted to be sure," he said apologetically with a bow of his head. "He's dead, so he won't mind."
"While I can understand the urge, at least give us some warning next time," Gao said. "Fei, is there anything poisonous or toxic you can see inside?"
"Some of the mold and fungi growing on bodies may be, so put these over your months," Fei said. She produced a trio of silk masks from her belt, and slid one over her mouth and nose before doing the same for Gao and Jiao. "There. That should help."
Even with the mask on, Gao smelled rank and fetid odors wafting up some unseen origin. Retrieving a lantern, he had Jiao light it as he inspected the cabin. While the furniture had all rotted away and he could find no books or scrolls, he did see a staircase leading down. Jiao approached the steep flight of stairs to the lower decks first, looking below with the lantern suspended from his gun's muzzle. Looking down, halted at the top of the stairs.
"Exactly what are we looking for, Inspector?" Jiao said, with uncharacteristic pauses between his words and waver in his stance. "Why must we descend further into this floating tomb?"
"Because duty demands it, Jiao. If we do not find a log, a journal, cargo manifest, or something similar, we will not know what we are dealing with. The people of Sudong, to say nothing of Shandong Province, may be put at risk because of it," he said. "That is why. Use of force or spell without knowledge could make the problem worse."
"Understood, Inspector," Jiao said. "Lady Fei, what do you think is here?"
"Something powerful and something strange," Fei replied. "But I appreciate your assistance, Jiao."
"Thank you, Lady. You are too kind."
"Just cautious. You may be concerned with foes that threaten your body, but I am concerned with foes that threaten your mind."
"Luckily, the Inspector's with us, eh? The best mind I've ever met."
"Just focus on your surroundings, Jiao," Gao replied.
"There's a long hallway below. Must run under the deck," Jiao said as he began his descent.
Gao placed his foot on the decaying rungs of the staircase, praying to whatever gods would listen that it would hold his weight. As the lantern light danced strangely around him in those cramped quarters, he thought he heard murmurs down the hall. He paused, and when he turned his head, he heard them with preternatural clarity.
"Captain, we have lost sight of the Admiral's flagship and the rest of the fleet. No one is following us," said a frantic voice with a familiar accent.
"Good, helmsman. Now plot a course due south," spoke a rough Cantonese accent.
"But Captain, that will take us into unknown waters!"
"Do not worry, for we will be kings of our own paradise. The Manuscripts have yet to fail us," the Captain said. "Now change course."
The conversation ended as soon as it began, and Gao briefly searched for the unseen speakers. Jiao followed him with nervous eyes as Fei quixotically leveled her gaze at him. "I guess no one else heard that?"
"What?" Jiao asked, his face revealing a moue. "Inspector, please tell me you're not going as crazy as me."
"I heard voices. Something about a helmsman being ordered to sail to the far south, away from the rest of the fleet," Gao said, wondering how judgmental his companions would be.
"Probably psychic emanations from long ago," Fei said. "Did you hear any names or dates?"
"No, but if I do, I will tell you," Gao said as he continued his descent to the hallway beneath.
The hallway beneath was not the claustrophobic warren that Gao had feared it would be. The beam from Jiao's lantern illuminated particles of dust floating in the corridor as it gently shifted from side to side with the rest of the ship. More fungal growths, like the ones in the cabin, grew along the places where the walls met the floors and ceiling. Somewhere before them, condensation dripped down from the moldering ceiling like a weeping widow. He saw an unidentified dark ichor dripping from a gill-like fungal growth, and instinctively avoided as he past by.
Doorways on either side of the hall were nowhere to be seen, although Gao was unnerved by the bunks of skeletal sailors he saw within. Many of the hammocks and makeshift bedding had decomposed to the point where he could not tell the difference between it, the crew's remains, and the hyphae that extended from the fungus along the walls. The grotesque medley was a fusion of organic components he had no desire to touch if he could avoid.
Gao noted a more disconcerting detail about the doorframes as he slowed his pace to a deliberate stroll. Jiao's light indicated buckled members and twisted metal hinges, which told a tale of forced entry that even advanced age could not hide. He futilely hoped it was due to rot, rather than violence. As he continued onwards, he wished Jiao had enough ammunition to destroy all of the skeletal mummies they saw. He accidently stared into one's empty eye-sockets before continuing onwards.
Near the end of the hallway, Gao saw Fei clasp her forehead. He ran towards his wife to grasp her if she fell, but she instead caressed his forehead with an unnaturally cold hand. The chill caused him to involuntarily close his eyes as he recalled visions of a profoundly different era. He heard the Captain and helmsman speak once more, only in at a higher tempo and raised tones than before.
"Two crewmen died brining the tattooed savage aboard, Captain! Why must we take these prisoners?"
"You will know soon enough, helmsman," came the Captain's nonchalant reply. "Do not ask above your station."
"We committed mutiny for this?"
"It is not mutiny if you are the Captain," came the Captain's smarmy voice. "Helmsman, you are dismissed. Say anything more, and you will feed the sharks."
The conversation faded away gradually, as if both speakers had stormed away from the other in the utmost haste. As the sounds echoed in his head, Gao heard the ambient sloshing of condensed moisture on the ground, and the groaning of the planks underneath his feet. Below him, he heard the cracking of wood as the member finally yielded to the stress of ages. He stepped beside a propagating crack with a dancer's grace, only for a hole to open beneath him. Jiao and Fei grasped at him, but he saw them vanish from his vision as darkness consumed him.
Gao was conscious, but wished he was not. His eyes were opened wide in fear, but his vision was blocked by abject blackness. The walls were soft and fetid with lubricating moisture, and he felt as though he was a bolus of food being forced down a titanic gullet. He was certain he was moving, until he felt a blast of pain from striking something hard. Fortunately, he found himself able to stand up and draw his sword.
Gao probed through the darkness with his blade, only to strike something metallic. A torrent of blued lightning forked through the darkness, eerily illuminating the room for a fraction of a second. The ceiling above him was a squamous fungal carpet, and before him was an apparatus of cyclopean proportions. He could see his blade had struck box-like device of an unknown metallic alloy that the lightning had originated from. Bundles of root-like growths traveled from the device to a larger machine beyond.
As the lightning coursed along the bundles along the floor, Gao wondered what his careless blundering had wrought as an unseen mechanism stirred to life. Another burst of lightning struck the bulbous portions of the machine beyond, and the Inspector beheld the scale of the machine before him. The lightning was caused finger-like projections of fungal growth to rise along the distant want all bathe the cargo hold in a curious, soft yellow light.
Gao rapidly searched for an exit from the room and the miasmic odor that now wafted from the illuminated wall. He could see knotted and gnarled growths that held skeletons tight against the walls around him, still clad in the rags and rusted artifacts from at least a dozen unknown cultures. In the corner stood the sole exception, a massive man of dark skin covered only by geometric tattoos. For some inexplicable reason, the growths did not envelop him completely. Before the lightning-discharging apparatus was a book of oddly dry quality, as if special care had been taken to preserve it.
Acting on intuition, Gao rolled under an arc of electricity as the smell of ozone assaulted his nostrils. With the tome in one hand and sword in the other, he darted towards the other side of the room. He sprinted with his sword raised, already knowing the target before him. He could not rationalize his course of action to himself, but he pursued it nevertheless. As he hacked through the tentacular hyphae held the tattooed man, another telepathic emanation echoed in his mind.
"We're freezing to death at the edge of the world, and all we have to show for it are the lightning machine from the desert ruins, the cancerous infestation eating our ship, and the Captain planning to move inland. I agree with Yang's idea for stealing his Manuscript, but I fear what we may find in the hold," came the helmsman's voice in a hushed, conspiratorial tone. "We should have never abandoned the Admiral for the Captain's lies."
Gao awoke to find the large brown eyes of the prisoner sizing him up. The large man's face was completely covered with dark green tattoos, as were his shoulders and hands. They ran down his body like a biography of blood, and his bearing was uncharacteristically martial. He grabbed at Gao as the Inspector stepped back, only to nearly trip over two corpses entangled in a bundle of thick, briar-like growths.
"Ka mate!" the massive warrior said as he took a massive step forward, pounding one fist into the other. "Ka mate!"
Gao did not need a translator to understand the nature of the threat. The warrior picked up a jadestone club from the ground, and twirled it in his hands with the speed of an experienced fighter. He rhythmically stamped his feet and pounded his feet while shouting in his native tongue. He glared pure hatred upon the book in Gao's hands, but circled outside the range of Gao's sword while he undoubtedly searched for an opening.
Another burst of lightning filled the room, causing the erect spindles on the wall to glow more intensely. Gao stepped back as the lightning arced wider, and the warrior ran towards a corner unblocked by the fungal roots. He smashed at the wall with his jade club, before kicking it with the bottom of his bare foot. Splintered planks exploded outwards as the warrior smashed through, undoubtedly seeking escape. Gao was not curious enough to stick around to behold what was to happen.
Gao followed the tattooed warrior into a hallway of nearly identical condition to the one above them. The Inspector heard an explosion resound through the corridor, and he immediately figured Jiao and Fei would be somewhere above them. From the way the warrior's head turned, so did he. He followed closely behind the massive man as he bounded up a half-rotted stairwell in the time it took Gao to clear the first few steps.
As Gao climbed the steps, he saw sliding tendon-like fibers in the wood, which extended and retracted at sporadic intervals. The warrior before him bounded under them and ripped through others. For the ones the tattooed man missed, Gao cleaved through with his sword. "Tekeli-li!" came a squeal from deep within the bowels of the ship. He wondered if such growths were responsible for controlling the sails, masts, rudder, and more. If so, he hoped his actions would keep the disgusting creature from retreating out to sea.
At the summit of the stairwell, Gao saw Fei and Jiao fending off a host of decomposing adversaries. The skeletal mummies from before had awoken, clutching rusted swords and makeshift bludgeons in their hands as they descended upon his wife and best friend. The fungal growths that covered their bodies jerked and retracted, as if giving the rotters the strength and direction of a living assailant. Even so, Gao saw their spasmodic movements carried massive heft to them as he saw how Fei was neatly knocked off balance parrying one of their blows.
Before him, Gao saw the warrior easily smashed his club through the mushy skull of the nearest abomination. The tattooed man fought with reckless abandon and the speed of an expert daggerman, bringing the stone club on a small crowd of undead as though it was a light steel blade. Gao charged in with Earth Dragon drawn, only to have to make two cuts to a creature's neck to put it down.
"Over here!" Gao shouted, hoping to draw the attention of his overwhelmed colleagues.
"About time you showed up. Who's the friend?" Jiao said in a grumbling tone as he loaded another explosive cartridge into his arquebus.
"Not sure, but he's good a bashing heads. Just stay out of his way," Gao replied.
A small army of rotting sailors simultaneously charged out of the rooms in the dim hallway, overwhelming Gao's nose with the pungent odor of decay. The warrior, realizing the odds had shifted, muttered what was undoubtedly a curse in his native language as he took a step back. The Inspector saw a corpse-sailor hack at the warrior's back with a rusted blade, drawing a crimson line down his tattooed flesh. The fighter's large brown eyes pleaded wordlessly with a single expression of pain towards Gao. " Āwhina!" his pained voice uttered.
Gao thrust his sword through the shoulder joint of the undead swordsman that was about to decapitate the wounded man. The delay did not put the creature down, but it was enough for the wounded warrior's furious rage to finish the job. An uppercut with the club was all that was needed to complete what the Inspector had started. Bits of decomposing brain and cerebrospinal fluid splattered across the floor like holy water from an aspergillum. "Ka poi!" the warrior shouted victoriously.
Gao looked up to see the celebration had been premature. A mob of infected corpses with blades held high had closed the distance while they had been occupied. He looked to the other end of the hallway, only to see Jiao aiming his arquebus in their general direction. He grabbed the warrior and pulled him back just as the rocket left the gun's barrel. The projectile erratically spiraled through the air for a long second as the mesmerized creatures observed it. Then it exploded.
Gao had tackled the warrior as the shock wave erupted through the hallway. Heat and pressure scalded his face, but he saw the warrior was savvy enough to bury his eyes and face in his hands. Gao's ears rang for a few more seconds before he worked up the nerve to look behind him. He stood up to see that the monsters that had stormed out into the corridor had been reduced to quivering chunks of meat and shattered bone fragments. Jiao cackled to himself as he loaded another one. "That's how I clean."
"Then no wonder your place is a pigsty," Gao said. "Even by pig standards."
Gao turned to see the warrior staring at Jiao with wide eyes and opened arms. "Kia ora!" he said in a deep and undoubtedly grateful voice. The ex-monk bowed his head, while Fei looked on in curiosity. Gao scanned the hallway and listened. He could not hear any skittering abominations or rasping groans, so he relaxed momentarily. He handed the hefty volume to his wife.
"I found him imprisoned in a strange room downstairs, with a machine that generated lightning and this book," he explained.
After treating the warrior's wounds, Fei opened the first page and began to flip through it. Gao saw six holes had been poked to bind the rice paper pages with a pair of silk chords. The pages were dry and free of the dust he had expected to find in a tome that bore the unmistakable air of forsaken antiquity with it. The title page bore a title and the name of an author that had provided commentary to that particular draft: The Pnakotic Manuscripts, with insights and notes by the Song Dynasty statesman and poet Wang Anshi. While he was unfamiliar with the title, Gao immediately recognized the book as one of immense value.
"Ah, this explains much," Fei said with a contented grin. "This priceless work was probably sent with Zheng He's fleet, but its secrets might have been too appealing for the Captain."
"What is it?" Gao asked. "And can we use it to stop these blasted creatures?"
"Yes. Take us to where you found this. We have to break the spell," Fei said. "No wonder my divination spells did not work, with a power this potent involved."
"What do we do about the brute?" Jiao asked, pointing at the tattooed man.
"He's coming with us, Deputy," Gao said. "I think he likes you."
Gao beckoned towards the warrior, who followed closely behind Jiao. Gao could see the warrior pantomime firing the arquebus, only for Jiao to hold it tightly and wordlessly rebuff him. The way Jiao clutched his sword and gun reminded the Inspector of an insecure child with a beloved blanket. "Pu," the warrior said, pointing at the weapon.
"Not pu. Arquebus."
"Hey, can you be quiet back there?" Fei asked, putting her finger to her lips. "The last thing we need are more infected corpses."
"Pu," the warrior said in a hushed tone. Jiao did not bother responding, which relieved Gao. He did not know to what extent the newcomer understood them, but he was at least aware he was among allies. Gao drew his repeating crossbow, and Fei did the same, so that he could easily put down any creatures at range before they closed the distance.
The descent down the broken stairwell seemed longer than Gao imagined it. The first time, his dead haste had undoubtedly caused him to miss certain details. The fibrous lines he had cut were starting to repair themselves, so he hacked them again out of no other reason than spite and paranoia about moving out to see. Again, an unseen voice chittered, "Tekeli-li!"
Gao saw Fei's eyes widen and lips form a grin after that, as if she was struck by epiphany. "It's not only humans that desire to return home."
"What are you going on about? Do the monsters want us to blow them back into Diyu?" Jiao said, grumbling under his breath.
At the bottom of the stairwell, Gao saw the room had shifted since he had last been there. Bulbous stalks growing from the wall now provided a yellow light with an artificial intensity akin to the noonday sun. The tendrils shifted and danced as discharges from the lightning-discharging apparatus grew more regular between intervals. Along the floor ran an illuminated stalk of muted intensity that connected a pair of briar-impaled corpses with the place he had found the book. As he stepped forwards, he noticed the walls subtly start to writhe.
A blast of musky air hit Gao in the face as he traced the tendrils' movement with his eyes, like the breath of a slumbering dragon. The tendrils began to retract, and the skeletal mummies attached to the wall began to advance. The formerly-human creatures hissed and snarled from rotten windpipes and decomposing lungs, producing utterances like a tattered blacksmith's bellows. With rusted blades from a dozen unknown lands, the creatures descended upon the Inspector's party.
Gao had not been waiting idly for the monsters to finish him. Instead, he cranked the handle of the repeating crossbow as fast and hard as he could, turning the first monster to approach him into a pincushion. The bolts punched clear through rivulets of rusted chainmail, but the creature did not flinch. He dropped the bow and cleaved its head off with Earth Dragon, sending it sprawling backwards. He kicked the carcass backwards, causing the head to tumble off the body.
Gao heard another explosion as Jiao fired into a charging mob of shrieking creatures, sending charred fragments flying across the room. The former monk jammed an explosive rocket cartridge into the breech of his weapon, but the other creatures did not wait for him to reload. Fei was able to drop two with expertly placed crossbow shots to their heads, but the others wore rusted helmets that provided enough protection from the bolts. The warrior charged forwards, grabbing Gao's discarded crossbow from the floor.
Despite his misgiving, Gao saw the warrior understood how to operate the weapon. His massive, muscular hands emptied what remained of the magazine in a split second, prompting him to curse as a creature with a spear charged at him. The warrior instead smashed the crossbow against the undead spearman, before finishing him with his club. As the creature collapsed into a heap, the warrior stomped the infected corpse's still writhing arm beneath his massive foot.
"Behind you!" Gao exclaimed to the warrior, pointing behind the tattooed titan of a man.
A creature had flanked behind the electric apparatus, and would have stabbed the warrior in the back with a curving, wavelike dagger had Gao not warned him. The warrior instead heaved the abomination into the lightning apparatus as it discharged, reducing the creature to burnt charcoal. So great was the force of the body impacting the machine, that it toppled from its stand to the floor beneath.
Gao would have exhaled in relaxation had he not see the thorn-tangled corpses rise to their feet. The remains of two men, both wearing what little remained of ornate tunics, were entangled at a skeletal level by the fungal tendrils. What remained of each hand of theirs terminated in a lash-like tendril of jagged thorns. The two eyeless skulls were fused in a horrid, unblinking unison that focused on the book in Fei's belt. Two massive thorns near the cheeks of one skull gave it a porcine appearance with boar-like tusks, and two quills upon the other skull's head gave it the appearance of a bull.
Gao heard the rocket's hills before he saw it flying through the air towards the aberration. The beast whipped the rocket out of the air like an afterthought, causing it to explode harmlessly in a far corner of the room. With a foresight born of a malign intellect, the creature charged at the ex-monk as he reloaded. Gao slashed at it as it charged by, but the creature shrugged off his blade as though it was a dull razor.
Before Gao realized what was happening, he saw the arquebus flying through the air as a tentacle wrested it from Jiao's grasp. As another tentacle shot towards his wife, he swung as hard as he could to cleave keep it from reaching Fei. Brackish bile wept upon the floor like otherworldly rain, but the creature's limb coiled around the tome. Before Fei could react, it flew from her belt and into the creature's grasp.
"Ka mate!" came the voice of the tattooed warrior as he charged behind the creature. Utterly heedless to the dangers to himself, he vaulted upon the creature's shoulders with something metallic in his hands. "Pu," he said as he pulled the trigger.
The explosion that followed blew the creature's arm, feet, and head off. The warrior was blown back into a wall, his body covered in bleeding lacerations and bruises. His eyes were closed, but Gao had more immediate concerns. The strangely undamaged book had landed beside the lightning apparatus, and the creature still stood. Thinking quickly, he ran towards the book and the device. Predictably, the abomination followed with an eyeless sense guiding it.
Gao saw the relentless pursuing creature persisted in darting towards him as fast as its wounded legs would carry it. It ignored Jiao and Fei swinging at it, and Gao waved them off as he did not want to expose them to danger if his gambit failed. Recalling what happened when his blade first struck the apparatus, he struck the device when the creature was in range. An arc of lightning struck the aberration in the torso, reducing its tendrils to ash. Another psychic emanation struck Gao's mind as he kicked the remains to be sure.
"You fool! You've doomed us all!" exclaimed the Captain's distraught voice. "You've bound us both to the ritual arrangement. We'll both die here!"
"Captain, I never wanted it to come to this, but you left me no choice," came the serene voice of a helmsman that had accepted his fate. "You convinced us to betray the Admiral, to trust a tome of esoteric lore. You raided like a pirate, captured men from foreign lands, and bound them to this creature to break their minds. Then, you did the same to your own men for doubting you."
"They were going to die. This was the only way."
"No, Captain, there was always another way. We were sent to show the rest of the world the glory of the Middle Kingdom, but all we found were mutiny, madness, and murder. The tattooed islander remains asleep, but he will retain his mind, unlike the rest."
"You fool! We could have been kings! Emperors! Gods!"
"No, Captain. We were just mutineers. I just wish to see Sudong Village again," the helmsman said. "Come, Captain, it is time to sleep. We will die, but we will return home. Our country will have its treasures once more, at least."
Gao exhaled in relief as his foot struck the abomination's remains, crushing them into dust with a trivial ease. Jiao gingerly cradled what remained of his arquebus, but Fei was trying to treat the warrior's wounds. The islander coughed up blood, and he slowly opened his eyes. Jiao presented him the broken weapon like a gift. "Pu," the stubborn ex-monk said in agreement.
Gao saw the islander try to say something, but instead hemorrhaged black blood with a throaty cough. The islander closed his eyes and grinned contentedly as he slumped against the wall. Fei's eyes told Gao all he needed to know. She frantically checked for a pulse, but none remained. "You pass from this world among friends," Fei said softly. "To wherever awaits you."
"We never knew his name, nor where he came from, and we probably never will," Gao said. "But we can honor his courage and sacrifice."
Gao bowed his head for a moment of silence, hoping whatever awaited the island warrior would be worthy of a just and powerful warrior. As another blast of the humid air hit him, he focused on more immediate concerns. "Fei, can you tell me anything about this room? There was obviously some sort of ritual here."
"According the emanations and how this room was set up, the mutinous Captain headed to the bottom of the world to bind a servitor to the ship," Fei said. "The fungus, the infection, the tendrils, and the rest may all look like different things, but they are all components of one larger creature."
"And what about this room? And the infested sailors?" Jiao asked. "Did it turn on them?"
"No. The Captain had prisoners from around the world attached to the servitor in such a way that all their knowledge of their homeland would be given to the Captain and officers. However, it was always fatal to the victim."
"That would be useful for piratical activities. Disgraceful bastards, acting like a bunch of wokou," Jiao said, muttering. "And dragging down our country's reputation."
"But what about the warrior? Why wasn't he harmed?" Gao asked.
"The helmsman had sabotaged the ritual to stop the Captain's raiding. The warrior slept in a sort of magical hibernation, instead of being digested alive."
"The creatures awoke when I hit that strange thunderbolt machine with my sword. Why didn't they attack us earlier?"
"Because the infected corpses were kept as worker bees, to help repair the ship when necessary. The Captain probably tried infecting the crew's bodies over time, as attrition took its toll. I imagine some of them were unwilling, but the helmsman was able to organize some kind of counterattack," Fei explained. "But that machine was an artifact the crew retrieved and used as a power source for the ritual."
"And I guess that failed, since I guess the big creature was the Captain and helmsman together."
"It was a pyrrhic victory. The servitor was bound by a combination of rituals from the book and power from the apparatus. The helmsman was able to break the Captain's control, and even change course to Sudong Village, but he succumbed next to the Captain," Fei said. "But the servitor recognized them as its masters, so it tried to protect them as best it could. As you can imagine, it wasn't smart enough to realize they were dead. It was able to resist my spells, though."
"Now what happens?" Gao asked. "Any risk that we're infected?"
"No, because I can order the servitor to ignore us. It's the only thing holding the hull together, so once I release it, the thing will sink quickly."
"Hey, Inspector, how about we check to see if we can find any loot? I want to study the lightning launcher," Jiao said as he hefted the apparatus in his hands. "Still, why did it take so long for the ship to return?"
Fei shrugged. "The crew dealt with strange powers, but I imagine even the servitor's powers had their limits on how fast they could maintain and move the ship. But, dear, I think we should make a search for valuables on this ship. We could find historical treasures thought lost forever."
"So long as there is no danger from those low rent jiang shi."
"Now I have seen the ritual chamber, I can grant them rest," Fei said. "Come. Let's search the vessel."
Gao had little interest in remaining aboard the floating sarcophagus, and would have run back to the deck if anyone other than his wife and best friend had been his companions. Jiao took the warrior's club with him, but Gao partially felt that he should leave it with the islander's peaceful body as a memorial. Jiao's avarice triumphed over Gao's hesitation, but the former monk was smart enough not to test his fortunes again.
The trio scoured the hull from top to bottom, but found little aside from a handful of rusty baubles and old coins. While no scavenger, he could tell that the rot and ruin was so thorough, little would remain worth salvaging. Most of the metal objects aboard the vessel had corroded into worthless slag, and most of the printed and written materials had been ruined by the ambient moisture of the ship. Gao presumed the Manuscripts was made of special materials, had been specifically treated for durability, or had some enchantments on it that gave it the unexpected longevity. By the time they returned to the other deputies, the late afternoon sun was beginning to set behind them.
Gao helped Jiao lower their treasures into the rowboat below, and then lowered Fei before him. He descended into the boat, and he gestured to Jiao to cut the treasure ship's anchor rope. The current pulled the derelict vessel away from the coast, and the other deputies began to cheer. Fei spoke a few words in an esoteric language never meant for human tongues, and the hull began to sag lower in the waterline.
"Where will the servitor go?" Gao asked. "You said it is now harmless, right?"
"Home, to an icy wasteland at the world's end," Fei replied. "It will not bother us any longer, but I would not recommend conjuring one up."
"Do you still want to see the world? Even after all of that?"
"Of course, dear," Fei said, sighing. "Without exploration, we cannot further our knowledge of the world and nature. One rogue ship should taint Zheng He's entire legacy."
"Even if they bring back dangerous things?"
"Especially if they find dangerous things. How else will we be able to understand the things that threaten us? Besides, it was a foreigner that saved our lives."
"I understand your point," Gao said, looking Fei in the eyes. "I just hope we don't expose ourselves to something we could have prevented."
"Hey, Inspector," Jiao said. "Watch this. Time for some fireworks."
Jiao's cannon erupted, and a pair of chained cannonballs hurled through the air like a set of bolos. The central mast of the baoshan crashed down like an ancient tree yielding to a lumberjack. The other deputies raised their hands and began applauding like infants, while Gao found himself joining in with the puerile revelry of simple destruction and explosions. The second shot put a massive hole in the hull, and the third shot caused the aft of the vessel to begin taking on massive amounts of water. He wondered if he would have signed on to such an expedition, should a similar opportunity occur to him. At the very least, he had to acknowledge their courage, whether foolhardy or fulfilling. As the last treasure ship of Zheng He was consigned to the ocean floor, Gao saluted the memory of those aboard.