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  1. Xiao Lok stood up from where he’d been kneeling, the ruined corpse he’d been examining still sprawled on the ground at his feet, and turned his gaze out towards the township of Chengxiang where it lay spread out in the valley far below him and several kilometers away. His partner Gu Bolin glanced up briefly as he rose but then turned his attention back to the desiccated corpse where it sprawled on the ground at their feet. Xiao had no idea what his partner thought he was going to find there, but figured he’d leave the older man to it; he much preferred the view he was seeing now. Though getting here had been enough of a workout to make him glad – yet again – for his status as a nova. Xiao Lok was one of SASA’s newest agents. He was a nova, even if he was what the Westerners called a ‘blip’, a low-powered nova only moderately more capable than a ‘baseline’ human. Sometimes being a member of SASA thrilled him and sometimes it galled him. Before his eruption he’d worked as a member of Chongqing’s police force and had worked many a long, hard hour to earn his way up the promotion ladder, achieving Detective status at a much younger age than was the norm. Then he’d erupted and had been immediately transferred into SASA, where he’d had to undergo rigorous training of the kind that made his days back at the police academy look like a vacation. Working for SASA was far more prestigious a career than working for some local police force – even the Chongqing local police force – but he’d still gone from being one of the fastest rising stars in the municipality to being just another greenhorn in a much larger organization. Gu Bolin was his first partner in the State Administration of Super-human Affairs, and this was only their third case working together – and if events so far were any indication it was shaping up to be an unpleasant one. Granted, SASA agents didn’t generally work cases that were dull or mundane, but Xiao hadn’t yet worked any that had been quite so inconvenient to investigate yet, either. Gu had assured him this was nothing and he just needed to give the job a little more time. Xiao wasn’t sure he believed that, but knew the case was even less pleasant for his partner – one of SASA’s baseline agents – than it had been for him, so he held his tongue. For starters, the victim – one Dengfeng Sun, a Buddhist priest – had died (cause of death and motive, if any, still undetermined) at a small temple just outside of the town of Chengxiang of Wuxi county, in the far northeastern corner of the Chongqing Municipality. For Xiao and Gu, based as they were out of the city of Chongqing proper, this had meant several hours’ drive along the Hurong Expressway, followed by a few more hours’ drive on the 102 Sheng Dao up into, and then back down out of, the mountains that Chengxiang and the upper tributary of the Yangtze river it sat next to were nestled in between. Then had come even more driving as they’d gone right on through the town of Chengxiang itself, crossed the river, and ventured out into the tiny townships of the surrounding area. An hour of this had finally brought them to the end of Provincial Road 102, after which point they’d actually had to hike on foot up what had to have been at least several thousand steps (at least!) before finally reaching their destination: Yuntai Temple, perched, at more than 1200 meters above sea level, atop Yuntai Shan. The view was spectacular. Needless to say though, this had totaled out to quite the trek. For Xiao it had mostly just been tedious and, at times, annoying (though the views, as they’d ventured further up into the mountains, really had been quite lovely), but for Gu Bolin, baseline (and older than Xiao by several years, too), it had been a veritable marathon. And, having finally arrived at the temple atop its mountain, they’d been confronted with a true mystery. Dengfeng Sun had been a Buddhist priest, of advanced age and some authority, from nearby Chengxiang. He’d been at the Yuntai temple to inspect progress on work being done there. “A temple” had been at Yuntai for more than 600 years, but the current temple, as well as the nearby bell tower and the large church building on the next hill over, were all recently built and were only the tip of the iceberg. The State-run Buddhist association had big plans for Yuntai, and once all of the plans for construction were completed the temple would be a sprawling complex draping itself over much of the mountain’s northern face and covering more than 3,300 acres. But for now it was just a small temple, a bell tower, and a (admittedly large) church building, all sitting at the very top of the mountain overlooking the river and the nearby townships thousands of feet below. According to what Xiao and Gu had been told so far, the priest, Dengfeng, had come up to the temple to inspect some recent additions, had done so, and had then exited the temple building itself, gotten about 10 meters, and had then died. In a most… unusual fashion. What, precisely, ‘unusual’ was supposed to mean in this context was not something that had been made immediately clear to the SASA agents, but they’d certainly understood what it meant once they’d arrived on the scene. Dengfeng’s corpse was emaciated – almost mummified. In fact, if it weren’t for the eyewitnesses who could verify the man’s death, Xiao and Gu would not likely have believed the body on the ground in front of them had been alive anytime in recent history. But then, that was why SASA had sent them to investigate; it wasn’t everyday that they received eyewitness reports of a man dying from on-the-spot, real time mummification while others watched in horror. Xiao Lok turned from admiring the river valley below them and looked towards the small gathering of Buddhist priests gathered nearby. “What did you say he was doing just before he died?”, asked Xiao, emphasizing the ‘just before’ part of his question and looking to the young priest who’d been acting as their chief guide so far. “Inspecting the alters inside of the temple”, was the young man’s simple reply. They’d gone over this with him before, but something about the chain of events was bothering Xiao. According to the facts they’d been given, Dengfeng had performed a perfectly routine, if very thorough, examination of the interior of Yuntai temple and, having finished with this, walked outside where he’d promptly begun screaming in apparent agony and had literally shriveled up and died while the horrified Yuntai priests attending him had watched. Bearing in mind that nothing in the case made much sense yet, these facts weren’t adding up for either of the SASA agents. Something was missing. Just then Gu looked up from where he was, still crouched next to Dengfeng’s desiccated body, and said, “Xiao, take a look at this.” Xiao Lok crouched down next to his partner and allowed the older man to point out what he’d found. “Look here and here”, Gu said quietly, pointing with a pen to some easy-to-overlook abrasions on the old priest’s clawed and shriveled fingers as well as to some kind of sediment or powder dusting the robes just underneath those hands. “It looks like he was holding something, doesn’t it?” Xiao took a moment to examine Dengfeng’s fingers and robes, then looked up to meet Gu’s expectant gaze and nodded silently in agreement. He gave the man a single pat on the shoulder and stood up again, turning back to the gathered priests. Xiao took a few steps until he was standing next to their young, priestly guide and asked, in a quiet tone of confidentiality, “Was the priest carrying anything when he left the temple? His hands look as though something’s been torn from their grasp.” While Xiao had pitched his voice in a quiet and seemingly confidential tone, he’d still – intentionally – spoken just loud enough for the other priests gathered nearby to hear. He’d observed them from the corner of his eye as he’d done so and, as he hoped, his question had gotten a reaction. A few of the priests were now nudging and whispering to each other, eyes bouncing surreptitiously between Dengfeng’s corpse, the two SASA inspectors, and the temple building behind them. “Care to share with the rest of us?”, Xiao asked them. This time his voiced was edged and hard, and made it clear that it would be in their best interest not to dissemble. Gu Bolin had finally stood up by this time and was now bearing down on the enclave of whispering monks with a glower that was something of a trademark of his firmly affixed to his face. In exchange for their services and loyalty to the Party and the State, SASA agents were given broad authority with relatively little oversight and they had already developed a reputation amongst China’s population for having a rather imperious and haughty attitude. Xiao Lok was hardly an exception, but Gu Bolin could really take it to another level when he wanted to. “Out with it monk!”, snapped the older SASA agent, having apparently chosen one of the two priests in the middle of the whispering group to bear the brunt of his indignation. “What aren’t you telling us? Or is it you we should be investigating here?” “No sir!”, the young man exclaimed and somehow managed to point at the corpse and wave both hands simultaneously. “I swear to you, I had nothing to do with this!” Gu Bolin covered the remaining distance between himself and the unfortunate target of his ire and, his glower still marring his already less-than-appealing features, jabbed a pointing finger into the poor trembling monk’s chest to emphasize his words. “You, and your companions – No! Your co-conspirators! – are hiding something!”, the SASA agent shouted. Personally, Xiao thought his partner was overdoing it, but he’d learned a long time ago that while liberal Capitalists in the West might not approve of such ‘bullying’ the truth was that it got people talking. “Just tell us what you know”, Xiao demanded, backing his partner’s play (though his own tone was noticeably less imperious). “We only want to determine what caused this poor man’s death. Once we’ve solved that mystery our superiors can ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again. Helping us helps the State.” “Yes”, Gu continued, catching his partner’s cue and running with it, “and if you lie to us you work against the State. Keep it up and I can personally guarantee that you’ll lose all of your funding for your precious temple!” As previously mentioned, Yuntai temple was to be the center of a massive rebuilding effort by the State-run Buddhist association with a final estimated cost in the millions of Yuan. Work on it all had barely begun, and to have all of that funding cut would leave the priests living and ministering here with little or nothing except a mark of shame for such a monumental failure that would haunt the rest of their priestly careers. The frightened young priest that Gu Bolin had singled out was still just staring wide-eyed at his tormentor, but one of his associates was a bit quicker to take initiative. “The Hēi Long!”, he exclaimed, “Dengfeng Sun was trying to remove its effigy from the shrine inside of the temple!” “What?”, asked Gu, his tirade cut short by this unexpected revelation. “The effigy of the Black Dragon”, declared another of the monks, “Dengfeng declared it unsuitable for a place at our shrine, saying that it hadn’t been cleared or approved by our head office in Chengxiang. We told him that couldn’t be, that the effigy’s inclusion at the shrine was one of the conditions given by our largest contributor of funds for the temple’s construction, but the elder brother wouldn’t listen and insisted on removing the Black Dragon’s effigy at once. He was carrying it when he… died.” Xiao Lok thought the monk sounded as though he’d been about to say something different and had thought better of it at the last moment, but before he could ask him about it his partner interjected loudly. “He was carrying a statue when he died? In his arms?”, Gu demaned. A few of the priests nodded in the affirmative. “Then why did you remove it?! You’ve tampered with the scene of the crime! With evidence! Explain yourselves at once!” The young monk that Gu had initially targeted for his tirade appeared to have gotten his wits back again, and this time it was he who answered first. “Pardon us, sir, but we couldn’t simply leave it there!” “Of course you could!”, Gu countered angrily, “It’s easy, you just don’t pick it up! There, simple! Problem solved!” At this the gathered monks began shifting anxiously and exchanging sidelong glances of discomfort with each other. The young monk who’d answered Gu did so again, “Oh no, sir! To do so would be absolutely unacceptable.” “What nonsense are you speaking?”, Gu lamented, “It would have been the opposite of unacceptable. In fact, I’d have commended you for it, if you had. Right, Xiao?” Before Xiao could comment, the monk corrected Gu. “My pardon sir, but I did not mean you. I meant it would have been unacceptable to the Black Dragon!” The other monks were nodding at this, and it was Xiao’s turn to ask, “What?” “Isn’t it obvious, sir?”, the monk asked him, “Our venerable brother, Dengfeng Sun, was struck down by the Black Dragon for his disrespect towards its effigy and for attempting to remove it from its rightful place at the shrine.” Xiao and his partner were both stopped up short by this remark and they exchanged a long look with each other while each tried to determine where to go from here. The Chinese Communist Party had had to pull its fellow countrymen out of the mire of superstition and religious dogma by its collective bootstraps, but even so it was not terribly uncommon to hear superstitious comments in this country. Xiao’s own mother had been fond of visiting a local fortune teller to have questions of finance and home troubles answered for her. But to hear someone – even a Buddhist priest whose religious beliefs were, presumably, much stronger than those of most of his countrymen – make a claim that was as flatly outrageous as the one that some minor god had struck a man down dead in broad daylight simply because he’d dared to move that petty god’s statue was – well, it was outrageous. “Where is the effigy now?”, asked Gu Bolin, “Back in place at the shrine, I take it?” One of the priests nodded silently. “Show us”, said Xiao. As a group the monks all turned and began walking back towards the temple building, which was not far away to begin with. As they walked Xiao fell into step next to the monk who’d suffered the brunt of his partner Gu’s wrath and who had revealed to them why it had been deemed necessary for the dragon-god’s effigy to be moved. Xiao asked him, “What did your fellow priest mean when he said that the effigy’s inclusion at your temple’s shrine was a condition of the funding you’ve received?” “Well not all of it”, answered the young man, seeming to have recovered already from his fear and now speaking in a mild tone and with a slight smile on his lips. “But the source of most of our temple’s funding was very specific in her desire that the Black Dragon have a place here at Yuntai.” Xiao nodded a little impatiently at this unnecessary clarification and asked, “And who was the source of this funding, exactly?” The monk’s eyebrows rose at the question and he seemed to hesitate momentarily, and so it was that they were passing through the temple’s doorway and the shrine and effigy in question were just coming into view as he began to answer. “It is Madam Wu herself who has provided the bulk of the funding for the building project here”, he finally answered, finishing just as the group came to a stop before the shrine. Xiao Lok stared at him. Madam Wu, he thought, well this adds a whole new dynamic to the investigation. Madam Wu, real name Wu Zhilan, frequently referred to by those who knew of her as Empress Wu, was the most powerful woman – indeed, the most powerful individual of either gender – in Chongqing’s municipality. In fact she was rapidly becoming one of the most powerful individuals in all of China, and it was rumored that one could feel her influence all the way to Beijing itself. Her husband, Wei Keung, had been the party chief of Chongqing’s municipality until his untimely demise (that some said was caused by Madam Wu herself). Wu Zhilan’s nickname, the Empress Wu, was a reference to China’s first (and, so far, only) female Emperor, Wu Zetian. It was also a reasonably accurate indication of just how powerful the woman really was, too. “The Empress” was known to have strong ties with the Communist Party’s liberal wing and had been kicking up some controversy lately because of her support for many religious activities, shrines, and temples. (This was to say, rather, that she had been kicking up more controversy than normal, as the simple fact of her being a woman who wielded great amounts of power within the traditionally male-dominated Communist Party made her the center of an ongoing controversy as it was.) Personally, Xiao admired the woman for her savvy in providing such support. The truth was that religion and superstition – in a variety of forms – was making a comeback in China. In some of the more backwater portions of the country it was more accurate to say that the Party was in retreat in the face of this religious resurgence. Madam Wu was very effectively forestalling any such occurrence in Chongqing by doing what most of the Party was too afraid to do, except in the most half-hearted of ways, and her own power and policies were now inextricably intertwined with religious and superstitious belief in the municipality. And that was all well and good, but now Xiao Lok found himself caught in the middle of what had suddenly become a very delicate situation. They would need to examine this “Black Dragon’s” effigy, and to run some tests on it as well in order to properly conduct their investigation, but doing so would make it difficult for the priests here and could potentially be seen by the Empress as a challenge to her power. And speaking of that; if rumors started to spread that a man had been struck dead on the spot simply for removing one of the Empress’s favored deities from a shrine of her choosing, the entire situation could quickly get out of hand. Gu Bolin had not heard the conversation between his partner and the monk, and so he remained completely ignorant of the Black Dragon’s exalted status as one of Madam Wu’s favored little gods. He stopped before the temple’s shrine and, his frown still very firmly fixed in place, demanded loudly to know which of the effigies before him was the Black Dragon. One of the monks pointed and Gu found himself regarding the statue of man seated, and dressed, in a manner fairly typical for such “honored ancestor”-style statues. As was typically the case for Chinese dragon deities, the “Black Dragon” was here represented as a human being, dressed in appropriately regal robes and with appropriately sage-like facial hair. All in all the Black Dragon didn’t look that impressive to Gu Bolin. “This is it?”, he demanded to know, looking from priest to priest with an expression of incredulity. “I’ve seen more impressive effigies at the family shrine in my father’s home!” The gathered monks chose, wisely, not to respond to this taunt. “Well you wasted your time”, Gu declared, turning his frowning countenance back to the Dragon’s statue. Leaning forward, Gu poked at the statue with the same pen he’d used to examine Dengfeng’s corpse, eliciting small gasps of dismay and disapproval from a few of the watching Buddhist priests. The SASA agent threw them a withering glance at this but he nonetheless pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and, using that, shifted the statue this and way and that as he gave it a thorough looking over. This seemed to appall the gathered priests just the tiniest bit less than poking it with a pen had. When Gu examined its base he immediately saw more of what appeared to be the same powder that had he’d noticed on Dengfeng Sun’s robes outside; though it appeared to be just some powdered clay worn lose from the statue’s bottom, the power and the statue would still need to be analyzed properly. Gu looked back to the monks and finished his sentence from a moment before, “we’re just going to have to move it again”, he said, “and hope your meddling hasn’t hopelessly contaminated any evidence we might have pulled off of it otherwise.” “You mustn’t do that”, said the priest who Xiao Lok had been speaking with as they’d entered the temple. “That effigy was placed there and blessed by the holy woman Plum Flower Sika herself.” “Even if I knew who that was”, pronounced Gu Bolin, adding quickly, “and I don’t – it still wouldn’t make a difference. I promise you that your statue will be returned to you as soon as our people are done analyzing it.” “Please”, entreated the young monk, “you cannot do this. The Black Dragon’s presence here brings our temple great good fortune, and if you remove it you can only bring calamity on yourself.” “Are you threatening me?”, demanded Xiao’s partner. To this the young priest could only shake his head in the negative and, bowing at the waste, say that he begged the inspector’s forgiveness for his rudeness. Gu was looking appropriately huffy about all of this, but was somewhat distracted now, as he had his cell phone in his hand and was regarding its display with a look of disapproval. “Reception up here is lousy”, he muttered. Turning his attention back to the priest before him he said, “You and I aren’t done yet. I’m going to step outside and, assuming I can get any reception on top of this mountain, I’m going to find out what’s taking our forensics group so long to get out here. Once they get here we will tear this place apart and you’ll wish it were just a ‘divine’ calamity you were dealing with. Then we’ll see how uncooperative you all are.” Gu Bolin threw one more disparaging look at the Buddhist priests before him and then he turned and walked out of the temple. Xiao Lok watched him go while debating within himself. He knew that his partner might not be so eager to mistreat the priests or their idols if he knew that it was Wu Zhilan herself who’d installed them all here, but he also knew that Gu was right about needing to go over everything forensically, and that that would mean moving the Black Dragon’s effigy – and probably carting it off to a lab somewhere for at least a few weeks, too. This was one apple cart that was going to be disturbed no matter what, and if Gu wanted to be the one doing the disturbing then so much the better. A part of Xiao wanted to tell his partner what was at stake here on Yuntai mountain, but the other (larger) part of him saw an opportunity to navigate a tricky situation with his career still intact and, frankly, he was inclined to take advantage of that opportunity now that he’d seen it. These thoughts were still passing through Xiao’s head when the screaming started.
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