Prompt: The old master of martial arts entered Kowloon. Desperately he sought his star pupil; together only they could close the inter-dimensional portal to the frosted caramel ‘ice cream demons’ of a new dark aeon.
Kowloon had gotten worse since the last time he’d seen it. Master Ten had been off in the western world, tricking foolish white men out of their money by feigning weakness and then besting them in combat. He had planned only to return to China upon the bending of his back that would undoubtedly come with his imminent sixties, but he had received a request he could not refuse.
That request asked that he return to Kowloon, the walled city, the forgotten shadow of China’s rush to modernism, in order to expel a most ominous and unpleasant force. He hadn’t done work like that in a decade, but apparently, as the message said, there were no other masters remaining who were capable.
Master Six had fallen ill after too many ‘well-deserved rests’ with young women. He died with a smile on his face and his hand on the neck of a bottle. Master Four had vanished into the sea with his boat and a full net of fish that had avoided capture for a hundred years. Master Three was alive and well, but a coward who had given up their training to become a mogul in the oven industry.
Their names were numbers not because it indicated their skill, but because it indicated the order of their training. Master Ten was the last pupil taken by Master Zero. They had no proper names anymore, to prevent the dark forces of the world from tracing their papers and comments to their loved ones. Ten had nothing but respect for Zero, and so had not objected to the assignment.
His traditional clothing was subjected to jeering as he walked down one of Kowloon’s dark streets. At the sound of it, more people leaned out from the ramshackle floors above, occasionally spitting on him or dropping single noodles from their chopsticks into his hair. Ten watched a child lean out from the third story, his home having no wall on that side, and slide down a bundle of electrical cables like a rope. He scampered off into an alley. That alley might be worth investigation, but Ten needed to find his pupil first.
The assignment could not be handled alone; Ten had taken a few students of his own, but only one of them was in Kowloon. The young lady was called Ten Andhalf, but she’d likely gone back to her legal name since they’d last sparred. They hadn’t parted on the best of terms, but Ten hoped her family had not moved.
He found her and her mother hanging clothes out to dry, guarding them against common thieves, in a filthy paved courtyard between towering buildings of clashing color and chipped tile-work. Kowloon’s characteristic cables crisscrossed the yard, with one, repaired in a few places by tape, hanging low enough for them to hang their clothes. He presented himself to them, arms folded inside his robe, and all his dignity lost thanks to the small pile of trash atop his head.
“Master Ten,” Andhalf said at the sight of him. She put her hands on her hips and started to bow, but stopped herself. Her mother had no conflict; she waved the man away with a disrespectful huff and went inside. She stood behind the door, fanning herself, and waited for Ten to leave. “I see you haven’t learned how to blend in.”
“I have no desire to blend in with criminals.”
“We’re not all criminals,” she said, pushing a lock of hair back over one ear. She went back to her chores. Master Ten came closer. She was still young, barely twenty, but he could see the lines in her face caused by seeing the sun only between the shadows of Kowloon’s filthy towers.
“I apologize,” he said. Her face whipped back towards him, freeing her hair again. “My time in the west has coarsened my manners. I have urgent business here and I need your help. There are demons afoot.” As if in response, a pack of children poured into the courtyard, laughing and playing. They tossed a knitted ball back and forth, something full of dried rice but shaped and colored like dumpling with a smiling face. Their noise was constant, but they couldn’t distract Master Ten.
“There are always demons afoot,” Andhalf shouted over the children. “That’s why I quit. You can’t beat them. They’re taking over; that’s why this place grows poorer and more cluttered every year. I know Zero filled your head when you were a kid, with all that stuff about the hundred masters the order would train, but we didn’t make it to eleven did we?” The dumpling ball passed in front of her face and she swatted it away. A frowning child picked it up off the pavement and wiped it clean. He growled at her.
“You forget. Ten masters were to train ten masters; that was to be the hundred. Even if he passes it can still be done. Regardless, I’d think you would jump at the chance to rid your home of one more demon.” The ball flew in front of his face this time, and he caught it. It felt odd. He examined it closely, sniffing, but a tall child ripped it from his hands and resumed their game. Master Ten began to pace back and forth, taking note of how the children shuffled out of his way like lily pads around a swimming goose.
An ice cream vendor rolled his way into the courtyard. He was a smart man, following the children most of the time. He stopped his cart, opened its parasol, and lifted the lids of several containers. The steam of melted salted caramel filled the air. He shouted prices. Master Ten thought they were reasonable; perhaps he would have time for a small bowl of red bean. That was his favorite. It would have to wait until after the battle of course.
The dumpling flew in front of him again. He snatched it. All of a sudden the children were all around him, clawing at his robe and shrieking. He took a deep breath, swept them away with the gentle wind of one kick, and jumped. He hung by one hand from one of the many cables, out of reach of their tiny claws.
“So this is where you’ve been hiding,” he told the dumpling ball in his hand. “You see Andhalf. They disguise themselves as toys, to possess the innocence of children, to grow more criminals for Kowloon’s labyrinth.” He was about to crush the ball in his grip, destroy the demons’ nest, but someone threw a blender at him from an open window. A sympathetic no doubt, someone who had been a child holding a demon-possessed toy at some point. Ten dropped it. Andhalf tried to snatch it, but it bounced off her fingers when she was tackled by a child.
The ball sailed through the air and landed in the open vat of liquid caramel. The ice cream vendor yelled, reaching in to clear the obstruction. The caramel scared him off with sudden bubbling. He ran down the alley, babbling about fanged faces in the dessert.
Andhalf immediately grabbed a broom from where it leaned against the wall. She spun it, reminding herself of the weight of a weapon, and held it behind her back. She knew what was coming. Now that they had been found out, the demons would jump to a more suitable home. The caramel was very pliable. They used it make a variety of forms; they became scuttling, shining, brown things the size of small dogs.
The collections of caramel flesh and toothpick teeth attacked. Kowloon was their city, their beautiful raw slum, like a rotting plum covered in fresh bite marks, and they would not tolerate the students of purity. They charged at Andhalf, but Master Ten dropped down from the wire and squished one with a mighty stomp. The children finally fled. Master and student stood side by side, their old technique, and fought off the caramel hordes.
The squealing demons attacked with whips of piping hot caramel, but Andhalf spun her broom and pulled it all in, even chopping up one of the demons as if by propeller blade. Whenever they tried to sneak under them and stick them to the ground, they leapt into the wires and fought there. All the while Andhalf’s mother watched from the window, fanning herself and grumbling. Yes, there were demons and criminals everywhere, but that was just the world. The chores still had to be done.
When the last golem of caramel and spite was splattered, they stopped to breathe. Andhalf tried to put her hair back behind her ear, but it was full of the sticky stuff. She dropped the broom.
“You know what Master Ten… I’m coming with you, wherever you’re going.” Her shoes made awful sounds as they stepped in the drying caramel. She stuck a finger on a hanging spattered dress and licked the caramel off. Without bodies, the demons had nowhere to go but back to the winds. It was too bad there was no wind in the deepest parts of Kowloon.
“What’s changed your mind?” he asked, trying to hide how overjoyed he was. “I thought there were demons everywhere.”
“There are, but this mess is here. I’m not cleaning it up. We stay on the move, and I never have to pick up a broom again.” Master and student bowed to each other. They left Kowloon, that courtyard both cleaner and dirtier than before. Perhaps the next generation of master, the full hundred, would be able to clean both sorts of messes without growing frustrated.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by moonraker0071 during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!