Choi Yuen Mak ascended the stairs slowly, his arms, ribs, and legs hurting as he did so. He had drunk the healing elixir his brother had pushed upon him before they had stumbled into the clearing. The liquid patched him together in its magical way whilst robbing him of some refined energy. Even if he never said it, he was rather grateful to his brother for giving it to him.
His brother. . .
Yuen Mak hissed in frustration. His brother was the reason he was out here, alone, with lousy backup. His brother, who was the head enforcer on the first level for the Suey Ying tong. Not even a proper triad, just another group of gangsters that had hopes of becoming something more. The only advantage they had was that they were connected to the Ghee Hin triad and thus partially protected.
Partially. That was the thing. They were not even real members, just extra people used to do the kind of things even the triad didn’t want traced back to them. And considering the Ghee Hin was happy to dirty its hands with prostitution, drugs, blackmail, and other forms of exploitation, it said a lot.
Then again, the triads were still careful of the Towers. Not in using them, no. They sent their people through, just like major corporations and clans and families did. Some of the Tower clans were even hidden branches of the triads.
No, what they were careful about was exploiting Tower climbers. Everyone had learnt that lesson a decade ago, when the Parusa had cleared three Towers and then decided to show everyone what happened when you abused the wrong person. He was still being hunted for mass murder by the Filipino government. Rumor was, he had escaped to Australia or America and was clearing their Towers one by one, until he got powerful enough to deal with even more of the gang who had wronged him.
Once they realized the kind of danger they had made themselves liable to, the various organized groups had quickly moved to an arm’s-length approach to all this. It was why Suey Ying’s connections to the Ghee Hin were kept occluded to the highest levels. Like him and his brother.
After all, he was supposed to be the inheritor, the second in command after his brother. He was supposed to be the one they listened to, that the others looked up to and took orders from. Not Ah Yam, that useless, preening fellow who thought he was all that because he graduated from university.
And not even an overseas one, even if he told people that. He’d gone to a twinning program and gotten a degree from an Australian university, though he spent all four of those years in Malaysia. If he’d wanted, Yuen Mak could have gotten a degree like that too. But what was the point?
No one needed to know about organizational structure or accounting. You stood around, waiting for new Tower climbers. Then, when they got here, you shook them down for their stuff. You kept an eye out for those who couldn’t be shaken down, people with the right connections, with the right backing. And you kept shaking them down, so that they never got too strong.
No need for a fancy degree to do that.
And still! Some of his people, his brother’s people, had started listening to Ah Yam. They had started acting as though that man had more right to make decisions for the Suey Ying tong than he did. And his brother, his damnable brother! He had done nothing when Yuen Mak had complained.
So now he was here. With his brother’s favorite kris, to prove him wrong. That he could deal with the problems of the tong like the Thorned Lotuses getting ahead of themselves. Damn women.
He dealt with them though. All of them. Now he just had to finish off that idiot boy. . .
Laboured breathing above him had stopped, and he looked up. His arm carrying the torch had grown tired. He switched it to his other hand, putting the kris in his off-hand for the moment. It wasn’t the best option, but better than dropping the flame.
He saw the silhouette of the fool bent over. Maybe a good couple of floors ahead of him. He would have considered running for it, catching up with the boy. But his own legs were wooden, and exhausting himself before a fight was not the point.
Anyway, the boy looked exhausted too. The young ones were always like that. Thinking too much of themselves. Thinking they could climb the Tower, be the next ranked climber. They pushed and pushed and pushed themselves and everyone else; and led others to their death.
And always tired themselves out.
So he climbed. Slowly. Steadily. Because that was what those who were smart did. Not the book-smart like Ah Yam, but the street-smart, the fighting-smart down in the alleys and gutters of Shah Alam. That’s how he’d win.
He spotted the open door as he reached the landing and hesitated. Then, he switched hands again, for the third time, putting the kris in his main hand. He knew, instinctively, that the end was coming now. The boy was tired, just like him. But he’d hurried ahead trying to get away, exhausted himself out.
Now all Yuen Mak had to do was find him.
There was going to be a trick. All the smart ones, the ambitious ones, had one. They all thought they were so smart, playing their tricks. But it was easy for him to figure it out. After all, he’d seen all the tricks. All their special ideas, their smart thoughts, were nothing new.
He’d be careful, check behind all the open doors, see if the boy was waiting for him. Fool boy, he had opened every door, so he was sure he was near the back. Didn’t matter though. It would be just like him to run all the way to the back, then come to the front to hide, hoping that Yuen Mak might overthink things just like a college boy.
He’d check. Do it right. Just like he had been trained. He pushed each door open, thrust the flame at arm’s length before him so that he could not be struck as easily. And then he stepped in carefully to scan the area, including the back of the door.
Once that was done, he moved to the next room and the one after that. Step by step, he would continue on the same way.
Still, even after he opened the first half-dozen doors on either side, Yuen Mak found nothing but annoyance and impatience building up. Yet, he forced himself to move slowly, carefully, pushing each door open with torch end first and then stepping in, not allowing the boy to escape him.
Three doors before the end, it happened. Fool that he was, the boy thought the sight of a half-dozen beast cores scattered across the ground would be enough to make him lose caution. That he would just pounce at the cores as though he were a greedy babi.
Instead, Yuen Mak slowed down further. He cast a glance at the door right behind him and then the one ahead—the remaining doors facing down the hallway, all three doorways along the wall. All three propped open a little, with the baited one the widest.
Yuen Mak could understand what the boy was thinking. What he planned.
Have him hurry down the hallway, scooping up the cores. From one of the other two doors, the boy would jump out, attacking him while he was distracted.
A child’s prank.
Snorting, Yuen Mak shifted his body positioning so that he could see ahead. He could not guess which of the two doors the boy might be hiding behind, but all it would take was a good push of each door to quickly see if the rooms were empty. Yuen Mak would still be at arm’s length even if the boy jumped out from behind a door.
Switching hands again, he readied his weapon in his off-hand. He would need it to strike as the boy jumped out. Better than crossing his body and facing the wrong way. So with his main hand, he pushed the torch against a doorway.
Only to feel extra resistance. A moment of realization, his body pulling back already, but too late to entirely save the torch as boots filled with water tipped over from the top of the door.
Dousing his flame and plunging the surroundings into darkness.
And that was when a door creaked open, and the boy came for him.