It’s been a while since I’ve posted any free fiction. Today’s short story is from an unpublished idea I have called Demon with 10,000 Fists. It’s probably the closest thing I’ve ever written to traditional urban fantasy (if there is such a thing). There’s a lot of backstory here, but rather than get into it, I figure I’ll just leave it here for you to enjoy. And if you don’t enjoy it, remember, it was free.
It currently doesn’t have a title.
A girl can’t help but contemplate her life choices when she’s punching a man in the face for a rent-controlled apartment.
In my defense, the guy was trying to set me on fire at the time.
Dragon stumbled back and wiped away the blood dripping from his nose. He chuckled and smiled. “You can’t beat me.”
I adjusted my stance, held my fists out before me, and motioned for him to make a move. “I can always beat a gimmick.”
“You think your insults are going to make me sloppy? I expected more from you.” He adjusted his jacket sleeve. Smoke sizzled and a slight scorch was left where his hand touched. He wasn’t as confident as he pretended. Then again, neither was I.
“You need to leave,” I said.
Dragon sneered. Half his face was pink and red scars. His right hand had a few more burns peeking out from the cuffs. I didn’t know how much of his flesh he’d offered up to the flame he loved. I didn’t want to know. The Game demanded sacrifices of its players. We’d all made them, myself included. I didn’t judge Dragon for his choices. I judged him for being a colossal asshole that I would’ve been happy to kill under the right circumstances.
These were not those circumstances. Behind me, the old lady who owned this place lay stiff on the floor. She might’ve been dead, but I doubted it. Dragon didn’t kill someone without making a mess out of it. A burning, blackened mess.
“Who sent you?” he asked.
“Profit,” I replied. “You?”
It was understood then that neither of us were backing down. I’d already been paid by Profit, and accepting a paycheck from her was an unbreakable deal. Not because I feared her, though I did because I wasn’t stupid, but because I couldn’t break it if I wanted to.
Alpha was much the same except that I doubted Dragon even got paid for this gig. Alpha gave orders, and people followed those orders, often despite themselves. I doubted Dragon had any resistance to the compulsion. The guy loved burning stuff to the ground. Maybe more than I liked punching guys who loved burning stuff to the ground.
“Profit’s got more mojo,” I said. “You can’t win this even with Alpha behind you.”
Dragon shrugged. “Says you. Only one way to know for sure, right?” He ran his fingers along an old recliner, and some yellow flames danced along it, eager to get things started and start a blaze. He snapped his fingers. The flames died out. His boss must’ve wanted the place undamaged. That’d work to my advantage.
The apartment, a nice, spacious loft, was important for the Game. All across this city, across this world, there were places of power. They weren’t all Stonehenge or Great Pyramids. Some were quiet, unassuming apartments that sat unnoticed for decades until a Player stumbled across them and sensed their true value. No one knew why mojo gathered in certain spots, but when you found a reservoir, you damn well took it before someone else could.
This was why an old woman was out cold on the floor, and I was staring down Dragon, who would love nothing more than to sear my skin away, layer by layer.
This was the Game, played under the nose of a world full of chumps, who thought their lives added up to anything, but in the end, it’d be the Players who determined the outcome. Still, I’d be damned if I let Dragon claim another chump while I was around. They had it hard enough already.
He must’ve read my thoughts in my face. “You always did have a soft spot for these losers.”
He gave me an opening to respond. I didn’t take it.
“I used to think you were cool, Shaolin,” he said. “Punching through bricks. Flying from rooftop to rooftop. All those awesome roundhouse kicks and crazy ass karate chops.” He imitated a few chops with a high-pitched squeal. “It looks cool. It really does. But, in the end, you and I both know all that matters is mojo. And I bet my mojo beats your mojo any day of the week.”
I had enough. Talking wasn’t going to settle this. Neither of us were that kind of Player. I charged forward and landed an iron knuckle punch into his chest. He fell back against the wall and coughed up some more blood. I followed up with a spinning side kick that would’ve crushed his chest, but he moved aside. My foot pulverized the wall behind him as he grabbed my ankle.
The flesh seared as his fingers burned into me, and the pain was more than physical. It scorched my soul. I failed to stifle my yell as I jumped back. Out of contact, the leg still burned, and the pain danced up my calf like hot spiders.
He laughed. “Got you now. See, I’ve learned a few things. I don’t need to keep touching you to burn you. Once you’re marked, you’re mine. You can feel it now, can’t you? The rising heat. Making you sweat. Making it hard to breath. Hard to think. You’ve lost.”
If he was right, the only thing keeping me from going up like a roman candle were my personal stores of mojo. Those couldn’t last forever.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “All you gotta do is hit me hard enough.”
Laughing, he burst into flame. The fire covered his entire body. It sizzled around the edges of his suit, and his eyebrows smoldered.
“Take your best shot then.”
When you get a call from Profit, you answer it. There were a lot of Players in the Game, and where they sat on the invisible scoreboard that kept track of such things, nobody really knew. But Profit was in the top ten, everyone agreed, and she could destroy most of us with a phone call and the loss of a teeny tiny bit of cash from the pile of money that gave her her mojo.
For most people, money meant happiness, control, security. For Profit, it meant power in a very literal sense. Part Gandalf the Gray, part J.D. Rockefeller, Profit’s bank accounts controlled the fates of nations. Her campaign donations made people into presidents. Her debt collections unleashed natural disasters. And if she called you for a personal meeting, you damn well went.
For a Player, she was a great source of mojo, and I’d worked for her before. We didn’t usually meet face-to-face. We didn’t talk on the phone. Most of my orders were given to me by the army of employees at her disposal. That was the way I liked it. Profit might not have been God, but she was a god, and I was a demi-god at best. I liked the mojo she threw my way, but I also liked being mostly ignored by her while she was throwing it.
Her secretary was a tall, handsome man who wore glasses and a crisp black suit. He was Superman trying to pass as nebbish Clark Kent and failing. Not that I found him imitating. A chump was a chump was a chump, even if working for Profit.
He didn’t smile at me. “Do you have an appointment, Ms. . . . ?”
“Shaolin,” I replied, though he knew I was due. He was simply reminding me of my place. Profit never saw anyone on time. Knowing that, I didn’t bother showing up on time, but I always had to wait.
“She’ll be right with you,” he said.
“I just bet she will.” I took a seat in the waiting area outside her office and flipped through a magazine I’d read a couple of times already. Ten minutes later, I was allowed to see Profit. Her assistant made sure to emphasize the word allowed.
Her office was a giant empty space, aside from a weird sculpture and her desk at the far end. The walk from the door to that desk was another reminder of how unimportant I was. She didn’t get up to greet me. She continued going through papers. I sat in the chair opposite the desk, folded my hands in my lap, and enjoyed the view in the window behind her that overlooked the city. I waited another three minutes to be acknowledged. I timed it.
“You really should take care to project a more professional image,” she said.
I shrugged. “Business casual isn’t my style.”
I tended toward loose T-shirts and relaxed-fit jeans. They were easier to move in. Not that I couldn’t kick ass in an evening gown and heels. I just preferred not to. Profit might not have liked it, but she didn’t hire me for my fashion sense.
She nodded to an envelope on the desk. I’d known it was mine but hadn’t touched it until given permission. There was a check, a contract, and a piece of paper with an address written on it.
“I need you to go to that apartment, have the current tenant sign the contract, give them their check.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“They might need some convincing.”
I glanced at the number of zeroes in the check. I had a hard time imagining anyone could say no to that. For a chump, it was a lot of money. For a Player, it was a lot of money and mojo.
She didn’t elaborate on the kind of convincing that she expected. I was only really good at one kind.
“You know I don’t beat on chumps,” I said.
She looked up from her desk with a slight, amused smile. My ethics were an anomaly among Players, who usually saw chumps as unworthy of consideration. Even the best Players tended to not give a damn if a few innocent people got hurt if it helped them advance their position on the scoreboard.
“Hurting people is what you do,” she said.
“Hurting bad people is what I do.”
She shook her head. “No such thing as good or bad. Only Players and chumps, opponents and collateral damage.”
I noticed she didn’t mention allies, but when you were high enough on the scoreboard, there was no such thing. Only tools to be used and discarded and enemies to be crushed.
“I don’t hurt chumps,” I said.
Profit stopped working. She leaned back in her chair and sized me up. I did my best not to twitch, but it felt like God was deciding whether She should step on me or not.
“You’re not going to win with that attitude.”
“That’s my problem,” I said.
“You won’t have to hurt her. She’ll take the check. They always take it in the end. But I need you to do this because there might be some trouble, and despite your haphazard appearance and unprofessional attitude, you come through. I value reliability.”
“Stop. You’re making me blush.”
If Profit ever laughed, she might have then. She went back to work without saying another word to me. Her assistant appeared like a phantom over my right shoulder. “This way, Miss Shaolin.”
“It’s Shaolin,” I said. “Just Shaolin.”
On the long walk out the office and the longer elevator ride to the ground floor, I had time to consider the job. I knew the apartment was a place of power. It was the only thing Profit would pay this much money for and the only reason to send me to secure it. With some luck, it’d be a simple transaction, but Profit didn’t send me on many simple jobs. She always knew when trouble was coming and when my particular skillset was required.
The truth was that I did hurt people, and as long as those people deserved it, I didn’t mind. I did sometimes feel bad about that and that my moral code, however unusual, was all just so much bullshit, a silly little justification to beat the hell out of people. Like everyone, I was a prisoner to my nature, but the contrived guilt about that at least helped me sleep better at night.
Profit had been right. I’d found the old lady on the floor with Dragon ready to do unspeakable things to her. Now, I stood there as the heat climbed up my leg and my vision blurred and Dragon, covered in fire, leered at me.
I hadn’t planned on going out like this, but the Game had its winners and losers. Every Player thought they were a winner until they finally lost, and most everyone lost eventually. Crossing paths with the wrong guy on the wrong day to discover that their mojo was stronger than yours. It all came down to mojo. The fire, the martial arts, the business empire, they were all merely how that mojo expressed itself.
Right now, Dragon’s mojo overshadowed my own. He landed a flaming punch across my chin. His form was lousy, but my reflexes were slow, my senses dull. He kicked me in the side in a move I should’ve easily dodged. I lashed out with a textbook shadow strike. He blocked it.
Nobody blocked a shadow strike this close.
He grabbed my wrist, and I stifled a scream as he scorched my flesh. The heat coming off his body combined with the heat building in my gut made it impossible to concentrate. I could smell both of us burning, but that fire only made Dragon stronger.
His sweltering breath washed over my face. He laughed.
“I always knew I could beat you.”
He reached out with two flaming fingers to poke out my eyes. I seized his arm and twisted. He yelped as I flung him across the room. He landed on the couch, setting it ablaze. I struggled to gather my wits while he got to his feet. The flame that consumed the couch didn’t spread, but it was more heat to overwhelm me.
“Some fight still left in you, Shaolin. Good. I want you to go down slowly. You want to punch me? Kick me? Go ahead. I can take it.” The flames on his body brightened a blinding white. “Can you?”
I gather my mojo in a tight ball between my hands. If he’d have had any sense, he would’ve stopped me, but Dragon made the mistake of thinking he’d won before the fight was over. I thrust forward the quenching wind palms. It pushed forth a wall of air that shoved Dragon back a few steps, and also extinguished the couch and Dragon.
Before he could react, I leapt forward and kicked him across the face. His neck didn’t break because my focus was still off.
He triggered his engulfing flames again, but the quenching wind took care of that. I smashed an elbow into his neck, and he fell over, choking. He tried raging at me, but all that came out was a pathetic croaking.
He tried burning up again, but the scales had tipped. It was barely a sputter.
The heat in my body was dying. I still had trouble breathing, but I could focus past it.
Dragon had fight in him. I had to give him that. He stood on uneasy legs as fire sparked in random points on his body. He tried one clumsy punch that I dodged without even thinking about. I shoved two fingers into his ribcage and twisted, then stepped back as his fire died away.
I let him recover a bit. When his voice came back, he said, “What the hell did you do?”
“Mojo blockage,” I replied. “You’ll recover from it in time. Or not. But you’re finished for now.”
He looked at his hands and sneered. “You can’t take away my fire.” His skin reddened as scars on his face darkened.
“You don’t want to do that,” I said. “Blocked mojo has a way of—”
Geysers of flame burst out of every orifice in his body and burned a couple of new orifices while they were at it. Screaming, he fell to his knees and burst into a smokeless blue fire. He said something or maybe he only gagged on the flame raging within. He collapsed on his face, twitching a little, popping, sizzling. I let him burn for a minute before putting him out.
I limped over to check on the old woman. She was alive, all right, and when she came to her senses, I’d give her the check. I had a feeling she’d sell. If the check didn’t convince her, the stench of burning flesh was sure to.
You would think getting rid of a body would be hard, but Profit had a way of taking care of problems. The mess was cleaned up. The old woman, her name was Joan, took the money. It was a smart move. Now that the apartment was public knowledge among the Players, it wasn’t a safe place to call home.
It didn’t hold enough mojo to make it worth much to Profit, but it was a boost to me. She didn’t want it, but she didn’t want any other Player having it. The deal was simple. She paid the rent. I lived there. Half of the mojo filtered up to her, half came to me. I made sure it didn’t fall into unapproved hands, and the boost made me a better troubleshooter. There weren’t many win/win situations in the Game, so I took them when they came along. Living here was bound to have consequences, but it beat the hell out of my old place.
And after a while, I barely even noticed the smell.