Marco crouched next to his master in the shadow of two leering demon statues standing sentry at Bongeunsa Temple’s arched gates. His hand rested on the hilt of a dagger tucked into his belt, and he gazed down the one thousand steps leading to the sacred summit. The slender woman had emerged from the tree line in her steep ascent up the temple’s stone stairs. When she finally stood before Marco and his master, her pale skin bore a light sheen of sweat, and she breathed heavily from the exertion of reaching the high peak.
“I am honored to be granted an audience with you.” She bowed low. “My current troubles are beyond the scope of my capabilities to resolve, so I was forced to seek help from the old men in my neighborhood who even the geondal respect.” She paused. “They advised me to contact you.”
She unslung a thick satchel from her shoulder and held it out with both hands. “Fifty million won.” She placed it on the ground at their feet. “My bloodline has always been independent, but now my children’s children’s children will be indebted because of the loans I took to obtain this vast sum. I saw no other way to avenge the disgrace my name has suffered.”
Marco’s master nodded. “Only a handful of Shin Seoul’s citizens know of the existence of our Order of the Blade. We are sought for missions when the fulfillment of the goal is absolute. Once we are flung into the ocean, we sink without hesitation to deep depths into the darkness. Are you sure your vengeance is as unflinching as our dedication will be in avenging you?”
The client’s expression turned fierce, the aggrieved pride in her eyes feral. Marco tensed slightly and tightened his fingers on the hilt of his dagger. He noted her lack of technological upgrades, external and internal. Had they been implemented in her body, he would have sensed them through a disturbance of his spiritual energy. Every organ this woman possessed, however, was the one that had grown in her mother’s womb before her birth. In 2056 Shin Seoul, this surprised Marco. The only other humans he knew without technological enhancements were monks, like him, living in the extensive forests surrounding Bongeunsa Temple.
“Nothing else matters to me as much as this,” the woman stated in a firm, clear voice. “My daughter must be returned, and the Pop Singer must die.”
Though Marco could only venture into Shin Seoul on missions, he knew the Pop Singer’s music.** Bongeunsa forests, a wonder of natural aesthetics developed after the Reunification War, maintained a strict policy. External tech was technically forbidden on its green grounds. Daily visitors of the one hundred million populating new Seoul still brought the modern music with them through tiny audibles tattooed on their flesh. Even here in the midst of the extensive park, Marco did not escape it.
“Two days ago, the Pop Singer entered my restaurant. Our establishment is famous, marked on virtual maps throughout the webisphere. A hundred twenty years this summer, my family would have been selling heuk dwaeji from secret recipes handed down to us from our ancestors. Many international stars have sat at our tables, and we work diligently to give them a taste of the ancient in today’s modern world.
“But the Pop Singer.” Her voice turned hot with disgust. “He came with his band of hoodlums, harassed my waitresses as if they were also on the menu, and intimidated my male staff that tirelessly tried to appease their voracious appetite.
“The Pop Singer himself took interest in my daughter, Yang Su Bin, only now in her first year in high school. He lured her to the private booth that we had graciously arranged for him and his closest associates, and he betrayed our trust by assaulting her while his friends covered her protests with loud talking and laughing. When the Pop Singer finally left, his associates refused to pay the bill for the food and liquor they consumed. Hundreds of thousands of won, a pittance to someone as wealthy as that foreign devil.”
The client’s hands clenched into tight fists. “The police interviewed him and said that Su Bin willingly gave herself to the Pop Singer.” The woman spat on the ground. “Lie! They said the food I gave them wasn’t fresh.” She spat again. “Lie! They said the restaurant was damaged before the singer came with his band of hoodlums.” A third time the woman spat. “Lie! The police cover up the abuses of the rich, not wanting our country to be embarrassed by causing an inconvenience for the famous singer from the western world. And now Su Bin has disappeared, taken to the Pop Singer to be punished for reporting his assault. She will be treated as a slave to his whims, and when he tires of her, he’ll discard her as he’s done to so many young girls in countries he tours.
“So I come here to you, and with a steady hand I fling you into the ocean. The Pop Singer took from me my reputation and my daughter, the two things I hold most dear in this world. Now take from him what he holds most precious. His life.”
High up on the temple’s summit, the wind blowing through the twisted mouths of the demon statues leering behind them took on a pained wail. Of anguish or ecstasy, Marco could not yet determine and would not know until the mission was completed.
His master standing over him stirred, and said, “Your request has been declared for all relevant forces to hear. The Pop Singer will be killed, and your daughter will be freed. You must remain here until my agent returns.”
Marco’s master reached out and touched his shoulder. “I release you from the chains binding you to these hallowed grounds. Now sink fast and steady without the slightest resistance into the black depths.”
His master removed his hand from his shoulder. Marco tensed, and launched himself off the ridge down the one thousand steps leading up to the summit. Dusk swept through the dense forests surrounding Bongeunsa Temple. Developed after the Reunification War, the sprawling park spread out over three-dozen blocks in the center of skyscrapers rising up from the glittering concrete streets of the megacity.
Marco’s dark clothes rustled as he sailed halfway down the stairs. He landed and pounced forward again, cutting through the night air to slip into the branches of the surrounding trees. Marco darted through the green leaves, detouring every time he felt the suction of park visitors’ tech upon his spiritual energy. The closer he approached the city, the greater the disturbance to his aura, until it almost overwhelmed him. Three hours. That was the maximum amount of time he had to penetrate the city, get to the Pop Singer, kill him, retrieve the client’s daughter, and return here. These things Marco knew, but they did not worry him. As his master had said, Marco would not fail, and the mission would be completed. The outcome was certain.
At the perimeter of the forests, Marco shot out of the branches of the trees, skipped across the roofs of cars on the congested six lane street running along the park, and leapt to the side of Samseong Electronics rising fifty stories into the sky. He darted up the side of the building, the air whistling in his ears, the sounds of the city dimming as he reached Samseong’s apex to leap over the top and balance on the railing encircling the tower. Around him, Shin Seoul threw garish lights of pulsating LEDs into the opaque sky.
Marco walked around the circumference of the skyscraper until he faced north. He crouched down, closed his eyes, and steadied his breathing. He focused, shutting out the real world around him and honing in only upon himself. He pushed deeper, connecting to his core, and allowed his spirit to manifest itself in a continuous stream of chants that flowed up out of him through his slightly parted lips.
The distinct flutter of wings in the wind hovered at the edge of his consciousness. Marco opened his eyes to a dozen large crows soaring around him in a vortex of black feathers and sharp caws. Within the breast of each of bird, he spied the bright souls of the recently deceased vibrating with a peculiar light. Without physically moving, Marco reached out to them and requested some of their energy before they left this plane to the next. The crows reassured the souls that this loan would not weaken them before their long journey, and that Marco’s ancestors, a powerful cabal already existing on the other side, would be in their service should they need assistance in the realm beyond the living.
The souls conceded, and power flushed through Marco, so much and so intense that it threatened to drive him mad. Years of training tethered his mind to sanity, and he tempered the incredible power bequeathed upon him in moments.
A particularly large crow landed on the railing before him and let out a sharp caw that reverberated through Marco’s body. It gazed at Marco with bright, shiny eyes, took several regal steps towards him, and opened its long, black beak. At the top of its throat, Marco spied the hilt of his kal jaro. The preternaturally sharp blade became available to him only on missions, its edge having to be continuously sharpened by craftsmen in the heavens lest it become dull.
Marco reached into the crow’s maw, grasped the kal jaro, and pulled it out, sheath and all, from the bird’s guts. He tucked the sword in beside the dagger, tied the embroidered sageo cord to his belt, and bowed low to the majestic crow. He waited until the flapping of their large wings grew distant as the large black birds swirled in wider circles around him until they dispersed into the night sky.
20:35. He had an hour to reach Incheon International, twenty minutes to infiltrate the vast airport terminals handling flights from all over the world, a moment to kill the Pop Singer, another to retrieve the client’s daughter, and an hour and forty minutes to return back to Bongeunsa Temple.
With no time to waste, Marco flung himself over the edge of Samseong Electronics and ran down the side of the building. At the tenth floor, he slid to an abrupt stop, and stood vertical against the surface to watch the traffic on the street below him. Several minutes passed before one of the hotel express buses heading to the airport turned on the far intersection and headed his way.
Marco slightly bent his knees and popped off the side of the building to land silently on the bus. He pressed himself down on the roof, and watched the outside world pass quickly around him. The Pop Singer’s octaves blasted from storefronts and created a high-pitched city soundtrack.
Facees, people that had gone under the laser at plastic surgeons so that their features would be shaped into a mirror image of the Pop Singer, dotted the crowded sidewalks as Shin Seoul’s citizens went about their daily routines. Students in uniforms gathered around holograms of the Pop Singer shooting up from handheld mobiles, and sang karaoke of his most popular songs. Posters projected onto the glittering streets showed the Pop Singer in his numerous starring roles in cocoon theatres that immersed viewers in 5D experiences. Known for doing his own stunts in action movies, the Pop Singer had had numerous expensive upgrades allowing him to perform extreme acrobatic maneuvers with ease.
Incheon International Airport bubbled up from the ground in the shape of several crystal umbrella domes signifying hope after the devastating Reunification War. The main terminal was 80 meters high at its cupola. When the express bus passed underneath a series of arches spanning the entrance ramp, Marco placed his hands flat on the roof and pounced upwards. He caught onto the side of the arch and pulled himself up. He then hopped to the adjacent arch that stood slightly higher, then the next, and the next, until he reached the sloped edge of the umbrella dome. Here he cut across the sky to land on the transparent surface, and he darted across the crystal sections.
Marco sought out the densest group of people. He found them flanked by camera crews and anchors of local and foreign news organizations camped outside of the roped off doors of an exclusive priority lounge. Marco walked to the adjacent section of the dome and peered down inside of the lounge. Spacious, it boasted only a handful of private booths, and elegantly set tables throughout the room.
Behind a polished bar stood a row of waiters all poised to appear by a patron’s side at the slightest indication of a desire. At the roped off doors stood four airport security guards armed with assault rifles, their smart sunglasses wired into ports embedded in their collarbones.
At a wide oval table in the center of the room sat the Pop Singer with his entourage. A young blonde male whose true age was hidden behind the expert cosmetic surgery that would leave him forever appearing a teenager, the Pop Singer sat relaxed in blue jeans and vest, and spoke to a gray suited man beside him. Two guards, former military personnel from their stance, stood a pace behind the Pop Singer. They bore no visible weapons, and their eyes remained revealed. It didn’t matter, as no one present met their unwavering gaze.
Surrounding the oval table were dozens of young girls, all sitting on the floor, their eyes trained towards the Pop Singer for just a glance from him. But the male continued his conversation with the man next to him, and every now and then he petted the black hair of his newest acquisition sitting crossed legged at his feet. The client’s daughter, Yang Su Bin, a spitting image of her proud mother, noticeably shivered every time he touched her.
Eight strikes. Studying the room and its occupants, Marco calculated he’d need only eight strikes to accomplish his mission. And with time running out, he began.
One. Resting his hand on the hilt of his kal jaro, Marco inhaled and exhaled several times in quick succession, then issued a sharp, high pitched shriek that shattered the sections of the thick dome ceiling around the oval table. The crystal rained down in jagged shards glittering in the lounge light.
Two. He flung himself down the eighty meters in the midst of the bright shower. The moment he touched the ground, he whipped the kal jaro from its sheath, and the blade sliced cleanly through the closest guard’s flank, severing his kidney, liver, and stomach. Marco spun with the momentum, and the blade smoothly slid out of that guard to be plunged into the left ventricle of the next one. The other two armed security personnel, having recovered as their companions fell, raised their guns to fire.
Three. Marco uttered a quick prayer, and the bulbs of the lounge flared brightly against the dome’s raining crystals. Artificially enhanced vision exposed to the sudden glaring prism of light all temporarily became blinded. Marco sheathed his sword to keep it razor sharp in its sheath, and he shot forward into the dozens of young girls screaming and crying in a chaotic horde, their pale faces covered with blood from the cutting crystals. The two military personnel behind the Pop Singer drew Para pistols from artificial compartments embedded in their torsos, and fired. Marco spun the teen girls before him for cover, their blood creating red vortices in the sparkling air.
Four. Marco snatched the dagger in his belt and flung it at the bodyguard to the right. A soft glow coated the weapon, and it whistled in the air and struck the bodyguard in the eye with such forced that his head snapped back with a sickening crack from his spine. Marco detoured in that direction, coming around the oval table so that the Pop Singer was between him and the second bodyguard’s line of sight.
The guard released the trigger so as not to shoot the Pop Singer. Marco didn’t pause while he unwrapped the sageo cord from around his belt and twirled it around his hand. Su Bin, springing to her feet, leapt in front of the Pop Singer and spread her arms wide to stop Marco’s attack.
Five. Marco whipped the blade from its sheath and hurled it directly at Su Bin like a spear. With a sudden flick of his wrist before the tip pierced her skull, the blade’s trajectory jerked around the client’s daughter to slide cleanly through one side of the Pop Singer’s throat. Marco flicked his wrist again, and the blade slid out without resistance to snap back into his hand. Finally reaching Su Bin, he spun down around her and stabbed forward, pushing the blade into the bodyguard’s groin. The man screamed, but Marco didn’t slow, and slipping through the guard’s legs, he ripped the sword from the guard’s abdomen and impaled it into his back through his heart.
“No!” Su Bin crouched down by the Pop Singer’s lifeless body and yelled over and over again. “No, no, no!”
Six. Marco grabbed her by the shoulder, turned her to him, and whispered, “Silence.” The hysteria consuming the girl dropped from her face, and her eyes became glazed.
Seven. Marco pulled the comatose Su Bin into his embrace, crouched, and leapt up the eighty meters to the cupola.
Eight. Another shriek erupted from him, and what was left of the crystal roof above the wide oval table exploded outwards in a brilliant explosion. Back outside, Marco skipped along the metal beams once webbed through the crystal panes, ran back down the arches, and leapt to an express bus leaving the terminal and heading back towards the city. Behind him, airport alarms finally blared.
22:55. Marco rolled off the top of the bus and landed on a side street near the Samseong building. Hoisting Su Bin onto his shoulder, he entered the park, and ran along the forested floor until he reached the one thousand stairs to the Bongeunsa Temple. The trek into the city had weakened his spiritual energy, so when he emerged over the summit, Marco’s exhaustion left him panting. He laid the girl in front of her mother, who beamed in joy.
“The Pop Singer?” she asked, and crouched down to brush strands of Su Bin’s hair from her forehead.
“Dead,” Marco’s master answered. “Wake the girl,” he commanded Marco, who dropped to one knee and breathed into the girl’s ear, “Speak.”
Life flared back into her eyes, and she jerked away from Marco and looked wildly to her left and right. Despair choked her voice when she asked, “Where is he?”
“Su Bin.” Her mother tried to lay a hand on Su Bin’s shoulder, but was shrugged off roughly by her daughter. “Su Bin, be still. You’re with me again.”
She gazed at Marco, her features contorted with hatred. “You killed him. I saw you, you killed him.”
The woman caught her daughter before she could evade her again, and she shook her hard. “Don’t be stupid, child,” her mother said firmly. “This man rescued you from the foreigner, and he avenged the honor of our family. We can continue now in our family tradition in the same manner as we did before he ever entered our restaurant.”
Su Bin, shaking, whispered hoarsely, “No, no, no!” She struck the sides of her head with the heels of her palms. “We were to marry.”
“We were to travel the world.”
“I would have had the life I always dreamed of.”
“Su Bin!” The client pushed her daughter away in disgust. “Don’t be stupid. He promises that to girls all over the world, and they follow him around like sheep obeying his every perverted whim.”
“It was different for me,” Su Bin shouted, and her mom swore in increasing frustration.
“Why were you different, stupid little girl? What do you think you possess that every other silly 15-year-old girl doesn’t? What makes you think you’re so special?”
“He made me think I’m so special.” Her proclamation echoed through the temple, and Su Bin collapsed to the ground and buried her face in her folded arms. Her long black hair muffled the uncontrollable sobs wracking her body.
The woman stared at her daughter in disbelief for several moments, then turned to Marco’s master and bowed low. “I thank you for all you have done. It’s time we left.”
She turned back to her daughter, who jumped to her feet.
“There is nothing else for me, no reason to go back to my ordinary, boring life.” Her body curling in upon itself, she wailed her grief into the wind. Her mother reached out to her, but Su Bin whipped away from her, ran towards the summit, and jumped. The client lurched forward to catch her, her outstretched fingers just barely brushing against her daughter’s shirt but coming up short. For a moment, Su Bin hovered in the air over the thousand stairs leading to Bongeunsa Temple. Her hair streamed behind her, her clothes billowing as she soared towards the trees. Then she tumbled out of the sky and crashed down onto the stone steps to disappear in a bloody bundle beneath the tree line of Bongeunsa forest.
by Todd Sullivan