Chapter LXXVI: Death of the Empress
Deep under the earth, a strange altar stood in the centre of the room. A carved circle, with four pillars at the cardinal points. Each pillar of a different design. One, a series of circles. Another, four vertical pillars. The third bore a series of horizontal carvings, and the last, a series of diagonal carvings. I had a feeling this was significant. Doorways led to the left and right, and straight ahead. I proceeded down the corridor to the right, dispatching the patrolling guard with a single blow to the back of the head with the hilt of the sword. His unconscious body was hidden in a darkened corner. Despite the events of the past few nights, I hadn't developed a taste for death, didn't want to kill where unnecessary. A patrolling guard on his own was not worth the blood on the blade. On a more pragmatic level, I didn't want his blood to alert more guards. I followed the corridor to its end, where it branched in two directions.
At the end of one branch, I saw a stand, four vertical pillars. On its top, an elephant carved out of jade. Two men stood on either side of the doorway, crossbows in hand. No way to get past them. I sighed. I didn't like death, but it seemed to follow me everywhere I went.
The element of surprise is a powerful thing. It would be imagined that two men with crossbows would be able to do damage to a vampire. If that vampire raced towards them at superhuman speed, brandishing a sword, and one of those men happened to misfire, then that advantage is lost. A crossbow takes a long time to reload for one man. By the time he managed to recoil the line, his companion was dead, having frozen under the assault. They had no reason to believe I had even got down to this level of the temple. To get to this corridor? Unimaginable. The first guard fumbled, trying to load the crossbow. I did not give him a second chance to fire, thrusting the blade through his chest. He looked up, surprised. His expression seemed to say 'but I wasn't ready yet!' He died, just the same.
I took the jade elephant from the pillar, and turned to look down the other end of the hallway.
The events on the other side were the same, even with the element of surprise gone. Taking the jade dragon, I returned to the centre of the room, and proceeded down the corridor on the right. As the layout was the same on either side of the temple, symmetrical in design and thought, I quickly acquired the jade cat and crane.
In the central chamber, I placed each of the animals on the pillars. The elephant on the four vertical pillars, the crane on the pillar with diagonal slashes. The dragon went on the pillar with the horizontal slashes, and the cat on the pillar with the series of circles.
The animals placed, a design created out of light appeared in the centre circle. It span on a central axis, a humming filling the air, the room around it distorted. There was nowhere else to go. Nothing else to do. Bracing my shoulders, readying my sword, I jumped into the light.
The travel seemed instantaneous. A blurring of light, and the room changed. It had felt as if the room had changed around me, rather than me moving.
Ming Xiao stood, a look of fury on her face, her hands on her hips as she saw me. I landed on the ground with a loud tap, my boot-heels slightly cracking the marble surface. Something else was in her eyes. I smiled. Fear. It appeared, at least in one way, that her admiration was genuine, as she had said.
'Surprise!', I said loudly with a flourish.
'You're very confident for a woman that hid as far away from me as it was possible to get. Not just the deepest part of a sorry temple, but in another dimension too!' I frowned, my voice becoming serious. 'My path is my own, Ming. No-one, especially not a vile manipulative creature like you will choose it for me.'
Her voice became distorted, ugly.
'They will tremble at your death! 1,000 years of torment await you!'
Ming Xiao transformed into a hideous mixture of sea-dwelling creatures. Slime poured from her body. Was this the true form of the Kuei Jin? Or a form similar to that created by Gangrel abilities? It repulsed me. I never had liked the smell of fish. I quickly sheathed the sword as the monstrosity slithered towards me. I had a feeling it wouldn't be of much use. Ming Xiao lifted her head back, then thrust it forward, spitting loudly. A stream of liquid escaped her maw, flying towards me. Swearing, I jumped out of the way, landing on my knees heavily. The liquid hit the wall where my face had been, the wall hissing as it melted, bubbling as it dissolved. A tentacle swung towards me, hitting me hard across the head. I toppled backwards, and then rolled out of the way as the tentacle slammed into the ground, causing more of the marble to shatter. I stepped up, and jumped off the platform, landing in the sticky, slippery liquid that coated the floor. I ran past the deformed, deluded priestess, ripping off my jacket. Throwing it behind me, I took a strap from around my shoulder, glad that I'd taken the precaution despite the extra encumbrance. More of the corrosive liquid was spat at me as I ran to the other side of the room. Droplets hit my arm, causing me to wince as it liquified the skin. I turned, taking the large metal barrel in my hand, holding the trigger in the other. Flicked the switch. Faced the demon-bitch, who stopped slithering after me, and pulled back with a shriek.
Ming Xiao screamed again, realising why I had the large cannister on my back. I smiled grimly, stepping towards the creature. In desperation, it grabbed one of the pillars on the floor in a tentacle, threw it at me with incredible force. Panic hadn't improved her aim. I ducked easily, continuing to walk towards her.
'It's finished.' It wasn't a victory cry. It barely constituted a whisper. Yet it summed up everything I felt, everything that had happened over the past few nights. She had manipulated, murmuring in darkened shadows with the Jester-king as they plotted death after death. Manipulated each other. Manipulated me. The manipulation was over. The first blow would be struck here. With the death of an Empress. I pulled the trigger.
Ming Xiao screamed again, this time in an all too human voice. I would not relent, I would not show mercy. Could not. The flames covered her entire form, the skin peeling, melting, bursting. She tried to pull away from the flames, but couldn't escape. It filled her every pore, the liquid gas in the cannister emptying, the flames burning brightly as they brought her down. She screamed again, desperate, a sobbing, wracking noise echoing from her ruined body as the fire did it's terrible work. Her skin began to come off in large rubbery chunks, coated in slime and bile. Still the flame covered her. I let go of the trigger, the gas spent. Unstrapped the cannister, let it fall to the floor. Still she burned, turning to the left, to the right, trying to escape the flames. Slowly, the fire began to go out, but it was too late. Ming Xiao, leader of the Kuei Jin of L.A, great Priestess of Chinatown was finished. She fell to the floor, that sobbing noise still emerging from her burnt maw, her skin oozing fluid, the smell of scorched flesh overpowering even the smell of the corrosive purple liquid that still bubbled venemously. She crawled towards me, sobbing. I pulled out the handgun I had kept with me. Fired. Again. Again. She was finished. But unlike some, I was not a monster. I wouldn't make endure 1,000 years of torment. I wouldn't let her endure a minute more.
I emptied the entire clip on her body, and finally, the sobbing ended. The body stopped moving, collapsing in on itself. I sighed. Despite my bravado, despite my anger, despite the betrayal I had suffered, I had not savoured her death. The only death that truly mattered was LaCroix's.
Walking to the other side of the room, I picked up the bizarre cylindrical object which had to be the sarcophagus key. With Ming Xiao's death, the portal reopened. I jumped through, once again emerging in the chamber under the earth.
I emerged some time later. Unfortunately, every temple member had known when the Priestess fell, and it was necessary to fight my way out. I emerged from the temple grounds, and climbed into the waiting taxi, covered in the blood of many, my clothes tattered.
'Take me to LaCroix's tower. It's time to finish this.'
The taxi pulled up outside the building. As I climbed out of the taxi, the driver turned to look at me for the first time. What was it about him? Merely a glance, and my mouth dried, my whole being intimidated.
I swallowed, then replied hesitantly.
'I dunno. I kinda prefer fate I make myself. See you around.'