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The Year of the Snake (IC)


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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Early evening


The sun was starting to make its final descent to the West of Freedom City as a cool evening breeze stirred across the grounds of Claremont Academy.  Being a weekend evening, the school's Main Qaud was quiet and empty, save for one lone figure.


Giang Trang was sitting on one of the wooden benches along the outside of the circle of grass in the center of the open air courtyard.  Standing in the center of the grass circle was the statue of a proud-looking Dr. Charles Claremont.  The Asian teen was dressed in a pair of dark blue jeans, a red shirt and a light black jacket, the cool evening air not bothering her in the slightest.


Today marked the beginning of the Chinese New Year, the start of the Year of the Snake.  The start of Chinese New Year had been one of the few holidays Giang had known growing up in Vietnam.  Freedom City's small Chinatown in the West End was having a festival for the start of the Year of the Snake, so the Asian teen was looking forward to the opportunity to attend, having asked John Smith to accompany her.  So, she was sitting in the Main Quad waiting for John to arrive.


As she sat waiting, her posture perfect as always, the Asian teen projected a calm, almost serene presence, despite the faint feelings of excitement she had early brought under control with some meditation. 

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A few minutes later John walked out of his dorm, wearing a bomber jacket unzipped over his t-shirt and jeans. In his hands he was carrying two motorcycle helmets, one akin to a world war two era German stahlhelm with the other a more modern version. He spotted Giang and made his way over to where she was waiting, his pace as exact as an metronome.


"Good evening, Miss Giang. I would like to thank you again for inviting me to see an aspect of your cultural heritage, I hope for today to be rewarding for for both of us." He held out the modern helmet to her. "We can take my motorcycle, but I must insist on you wearing proper protection."


He gave a nod over in the direction of the student section of the parking lot. "Shall we go?" John had already memorized the route and was pleasantly surprised to find it was not too far from where he was talking sword lessons. He was sure that Mister Espadas would not mind his leaving his bike in the dojos' parking area for a few hours.

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Giang gave John a small smile as he greeted her.  "Good evening to you Mr. Smith."  She replied, following the formality John had used, and which he followed with most of the others on campus.  The Asian teen stood to her feet in a graceful, fluid movement.  "You are very welcome," she replied in response to his thanks for inviting him to the festival, "the festival would not nearly be as enjoyable were I to go alone."


When John mentioned going on his motorcycle, Giang gave a small nod.  "Thank you."  She replied as she took the offered helmet.  "I appreciate your concern, I would have been sure to request proper protective gear as well." 


As the two started over towards the student section of the parking lot, the Asian teen spoke up once more.  "I should probably mention, I have never ridden on a motorcycle before." 

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"I could teach you how to drive one later, if you would be interested" He said as they walked over to his bike. "I have to give you some instruction regardless, for both our sakes." He spent the next five or so minutes show her where to put her feet and hands, how to handle corners, where to avoid touching the motorcycle, and ways to indicate if she needed to get his attention while at speed.


He strapped his helmet on and slung a leg over the motorcycle, supporting the weight of the machine easily. Moments later the engine roared to life along with John shooting her an amused look from behind his sunglasses. "Saddle up, I believe is the correct terminology in this case." John waited for her to get on and get properly situated before gunning the engine and taking off to to their location.

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"I would certainly appreciate that."  Giang replied when John offered to teach her how to drive a motorcycle another time.  "While I am not certain I would ever own one, knowing how to operate one might be a useful skill to have at some point in the future."  


The Asian teen paid close attention as John went through the instruction on what she needed to do and be mindful of when riding on the motorcycle with him.  Once John finished, she nodded to indicate she understood and began putting on the helmet he had given her as he got on the motorcycle and started the engine.  Giang's small smile in reply to his comment was lost behind the visor of the motorcycle helmet, but she otherwise wasted little time before climbing on behind him.  She quickly put her feet exactly where he had told her to and wrapped her arms around his waist to help secure herself. 


As the motorcycle started forward, the teenager felt a slight sense of fear mixed with excitement at the sensation, her arms around John's waist tightening ever so slightly for a few moments. But it was not long before Giang relaxed, growing more accustomed to the situation and having complete confidence in John's ability to operate the motorcycle.  Her arms loosened back to a more normal grip as she focused on doing what John had told her she would need to during turns and the like, while also taking a chance to admire the unobstructed view of Freedom City's skyline as they made their way towards the West End.


Even with the moderate amount of traffic present on the freeways this evening, it did not take the teens long before they reached the West End and John had pulled into the parking lot for the Espadas School for Self-Defense and Swordsmanship.  Giang climbed off the motorcycle, having to readjust slightly to the sensation of being still and on solid ground once more, while John shut off the motorcycle.  Taking off the motorcycle helmet, the teen shook out her long black hair a moment before looking back up at John.  "That was-quite an exhilarating experience."  She said with a small smile.


"So, as I am sure you are aware, today marks the beginning of the Year of the Snake."  Giang stated as the pair started off on foot towards Freedom City's small Chinatown.  "That name of course derives from the twelve-year cycle for grouping years in the Chinese calendar, naming each year in the cycle after one of the twelve Earthly branches, or animals of the Chinese Zodiac.  The years are also grouped into a ten-year cycle, which is referred to as the Ten Celestial Stems, or also the Ten Heavenly Stems.  The Celestial Stems are further subdivided, with two stems connected to each of the five phases, or elements of the Wu Xing.  The new year just beginning is a Gui-year, making this year is a Guisi, or Water Snake, year."    

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John tried to make their ride interesting by generally taking the scenic route, including taking the Centery Bridge across the bay. The ride did give hime time to think, especially as to why he had accepted Giangs' invitation. At first he had thought it was yet another case of one sided attraction, but she had displayed none of the warning signs that he had mentally cataloged from those previous experiences. So he had accepted her invitation, and was looking forward to the experience. He had researched the celebration a little, mainly as a precautionary measure.


He pulled off his helmet, his hair looking none the worse for wear.  "I found that I personally prefer the freedom of a motorcycle over an automobile. But they both have their advantages." John said candidly, storing both the helmets in the motorcycles saddlebags. He followed alongside of Giang easily as she explained the nuances of her cultures way demarcating the passage of time. "Fascinating." he chimed in. "It is very unlike the Western Zodiac which is rather disassociated with the Julian calender. But it is intriguing that there are both twelve signs and twelve animals, which probably is not a mere coincidence."

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Giang gave a small smile as John brought up the Western Zodiac, mentioning some differences and similarities between the two.  "Well, I know only a little about the Western Zodiac, but from what I do know, there a number of differences between them.  As to some possible connection between the two and the fact both are divided into twelve parts, I am not aware of any, but there could be some ancient connection, or it may just be that twelve is a common system of grouping, particularly when measuring time."  She replied.


The Asian teen then continued, "According to legend, the Chinese New Year began as the struggle between villagers and a mythical beast called the Nian, which either lived under the sea or in the mountains, depending upon the location of the village.  On the first day of the New Year, the Nian would come and eat livestock, crops and even villagers, preferring children.  According to the legends, the villagers learned that the Nian was afraid of loud noises and the color red.  That is why the celebrations often involve fireworks and there are red lanterns and scrolls used as decoration." 

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"Indeed." He stated as his companion explained the history of the event, as the pair crossed a back street. John started to hear the rapidly closing sounds of people in celebration, his augmented senses making sure they were heading toward their destination. "Well, in my experience half of that legend is true." The clone shot Giang a quick glance as they rounded a corner to the next block  "Explosives tend to disagree with most living things, mythological status irregardless.  My experience with your culture before today is from required reading from texts such as I Ching or the Thirty-Six Stratagems, and a trip to Tian. Which is more an amalgamation than cultural specific."  


"Due to my unfamiliarity, please do not hesitate to provide translation or explanation when you think necessary. I am unfortunately not a polyglot." He could probably find some linguistic software in his combat armor, but he was attending this function as his civilian ID.

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John was indeed able to hear the sounds of music, numerous voices blending together and similar sounds indicative of a large celebration as they drew closer to Freedom City's Chinatown.  There were a number of other people along the sidewalks as well, apparently heading in the same direction.


Giang smiled back at John as he mentioned most living things not reacting well with explosives.  She had just been about to comment on his mentioning reading the I Ching and the Thirty-Six Stratagems, both of which Giang had studied herself, when she heard his final comment about his prior interactions with Asian culture.  The teenager came to a halt as she looked at John, her face clearly showing surprise.  "You have been to Tian?"  She asked.

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John was not expecting her to stop, so he turned to face Giang after she had fallen behind. "Yes. I was invited to participate in a tournament they were hosting, along with Morgan, Vicki and other selected heroes that met their criteria. In my case that was surviving an impromptu fight with one of the celestial handmaidens. However, the tournament was disrupted when multiple yao guai attempted a coup by gorging themselves from the pure chi that flowed from the Seat of the Pellicuid. I fought alongside Sun Wukong and Guan Yu, in a hastily thrown together taskforce to repel the invaders. Ultimately, we succeeded." he had looked around before telling Giang this, as discretion was needed.


"If you would like I could make some queries about traveling to Tian, as I would like to visit acquaintances I met there the first time." He nodded, and gave her a smile. "If I had to be honest, you do remind me of the handmaidens of Tian. Silk hiding steel."

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Giang was listening intently as John described more about his trip to Tian along with Morgan and some others and almost missed his compliment.  "You honor me with such a comparison."  The Asian teen replied.  "And I would be greatly honored for a chance to visit Tian, should I be deemed worthy to enter."  She added.


Recovering from the shock of John's statements about Tian, Giang started forward once more towards their destination.  "I appologize for my reaction."  She stated.  "It was just a surprise to hear you so casually mention a visit to Tian.  But as to what you were saying before, I have also studied the I Ching and the Thirty-Six Stratagems, thought perhaps it would be best to save a discussion on those for another time."


The pair turned a corner, and up ahead was the large wooden gate that straddled the street, the "official" entrance to Freedom City's Chinatown.  The street up ahead had been closed off to traffic for night, and decorations filled the air above the street.  Large red lanterns had been hung from the gate, and smaller ones were strung from buildings for several blocks ahead.  Cables had been stretched between the buildings high above the street, from which hung brightly colored kits of butterflies, dragonflies and various birds, filling the air for several blocks.  The streets ahead were crowded with people, making their way past the open shops and restaurants towards the main celebration beyond. 

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Meanwhile, towards the middle of Freedom City's Chinatown, Fred Furlong and Harry Hound made their way through the crowds out to celebrate the start of the Chinese New Year.  The two private investigators had decided to attend the festivities in the hopes of finding the teenage girl they had been searching on-and-off for over the past week.   They had confirmed she was in Freedom City, and that she was a metahuman, but they had also managed to learn that a number of criminal organizations in Asia were searching for the girl as well.  In fact, only a few days ago, an assassin from one of the Tongs had tried to kill them and their Chinatown contact, Mr. Chen.


How much luck they might have in finding the girl in this crowd was a big question.  There were hundreds of people gathered in the closed off streets tonight, and the air was filled with the sounds of firecrackers, music and the like.  For Harry, his normally keen sense of smell was being overwhelmed by the smell of gunpowder, people and the many exotic foods that filled street vendors and restaurants along the busy streets.

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"Hellfire and damnation" cursed Harry as he was jostled for the umpteenth time on the street. 


"It's impossible. I can't smell anything above this..." he said, wafting a hand in front of his nose as yet another cracker went off. 


"I can't seen nothing..." grumped the Mess, his short height giving him little view in the throng. He was more than able to elbow his way through the crowds, like a little cannonball, but he could't see over them. 


"It's still our best bet. Trying to find this girl is like trying to find a needle in a haystack...hey mind where ya going!" he yelped as a rather more inebriated man staggered into him. 


"We need more eyes. Let's see if our friend Mr. Chen can help..."

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Mr. Chen answered Harry's call quite quickly. From the background noise Harry was hearing through the phone, it sounded as if Mr. Chen was somewhere in the middle of the Chinese New Year's celebration as well. "Good evening Mr. Hound." Mr. Chen answered. "It sounds as if you have decided to search here in Chinatown tonight as well.  That should help make things easier.  I have other reasons for attending tonight, but, I have taken steps to try to help locate her if she attends."


"I have several associates who are located around the area the celebrations are taking place in. Once I heard from any of them, I will pass the information along to you.  Having you here already will make it much easier for you to find her quickly."

Edited by Thevshi
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Her companion waved off her apology. "You will find in time that with our other jobs provide ample opportunities to go very many unusual and esoteric places. To be perfectly honest, I tend to remember people over places."


John glanced around as they walked, taking in his increasingly colorful and loud current surroundings as they got to outskirts of the celebration. The clone looked a bit wary and confused, which was likely due to the amount of people and the unfamiliar area. "So...what does one exactly do at this type of New Years' Festival? Is it like the western celebration where it seems to devolve into drunken revelry on purpose or is it a proper holiday like Oktoberfest?"

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"It is a true holiday in several Asian countries."  Giang started in answer to John’s questions.  "Traditionally, it would last over fifteen days, but most countries have now shortened the holiday to a three or four day period."


"There are a number of traditions and practices followed over the days of the New Year.  They often involve an attempt to start afresh and seek to ensure prosperity and happiness in the coming year."  The Asian teen continued.  "Many are more private or personnel, such as visiting family and elders, attending certain ceremonies at a temple.  There are prayers and ceremonies for the Jade Emperor and Guan Yu, as well as to others.  But as for celebrations such as this, they are a public way to recognize some of the traditions, such as trying to frighten away bad spirits and the Nian."  She gestured off to one side of the street as a string of firecrackers was set off, giving the clone a small smile to hopefully put him a bit more at ease.  "There will also be Lion and Dragon Dances, which are also performed to help frighten away the Nian and other bad spirits."


"Consuming alcohol is not a specific focus of such celebrations.  Though, like with any festivity, there are likely those who take the opportunity to engage in such behavior."  She added, glancing over at one person passing them who appeared to be a bit inebriated. 

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Giang and John stopped by a small food stand that was selling a variety of dim sum dishes.  Giang bought a couple of taro cakes, explaining to John that like many Buddhists, she refrained from eating meat on the first day of the Chinese New Year, a practice that was generally believed to ensure longevity.  The pair then continued along the street, taking in more of the sights and sounds of the celebration, Giang explaining a few other traditions as they went.




Harry and Freddy had decided to stop along the side of one street for a bit and were watching as people came and went, waiting to for any word from Mr. Chen.  They had not been stationary too long when Harry's phone rang.


"She is here Mr. Hound."  Came Mr. Chen's voice over the phone.  "One of my associates spotted her on 83rd Ave, heading north towards the center of the festivities.  She is in a red shirt, black jacket and jeans.  In addition, she is also in the company of a teenage boy, Caucasian about six feet, short blonde hair and wearing a bomber jacket."

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"We got a hit!" Harry yelled to his partner as a firecracker went off. 


"What?" yelled back the Mess through cupped hands. 


"I said...we got a...oh never mind!" he threw his hands up - a difficult feat given the jostling. crowd, and beckoned the Mess to follow him. 


And her..what? boyfriend?...who knows? but it makes things even more complicated, especially if he was another mutant, with the ability to fire lightning bolts from his fingers, and a trigger finger to go with it...


"Be careful, for God's sake!" he said to the Mess. "Don't startle her, no lefty, no righty, and none of your bloody tricks!" he explained to the Mess, who shrugged and grinned. 


"Relax, Harry. It's just a girl..."


"Yeah, but this smell's fishy to me...." muttered the Hound, to himself, as he pressed on to 83rd Avenue. 

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Giang and John's path led them to an intersection from which the sound of heavy drum beats that had been echoing throughout the neighborhood originated. A large crowd of people had gathered around the intersection of the street the teens were on and another, the center of the intersection clear for a group of Lion Dance performers.

There were eight "lions" of various colors in all, moving about the intersection of the two streets to the beating drums, cymbals and gongs. The dance movements of the lions was quite active, including jumps and leaps coordinated between the two individuals that made up the same lion. As John watched the performance, he realized that many of the movements used were also found in various Chinese martial arts, he had certainly seen Giang use some of the movements and stances before.

The music for the Lion Dance was being performed live as well, by a group of nine men playing various drums, cymbals and gongs. Each of the musicians were dressed in what looked like yellow martial arts gi, with red trim and had a large, stylized mask that covered their entire heads.

Harry and Freddy reached the intersection with 83rd Avenue to find the large crowd gathered around to watch the Lion Dance performance. The air was filled with the sound of the drums, cymbals and gongs that were being played for the dance. Trying to find the girl and her companion was going to be something of a challenge in this crowd.

Edited by Thevshi
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John was generally a very observant individual, but the current environment was filled with distractions: the crowds, the performs out in the intersection, the loud music and the firecrackers going off elsewhere.  As such, he almost did not notice an Asian man in his mid to late-thirties that had appeared behind him and Giang.  This was partially because there were Asians and Asian-Americans all around them.  But this man did stand out a bit, as he was considerably better dressed than most of the festival goers, wearing a medium grey suit with a golden colored tie.  However, it was more that as he had gotten closer, John also realized that the man's gaze was fixed on Giang.


But at the moment John realized this, the man had stopped, and spoke in an even voice that was somehow audible over the music accompanying the Lion Dance.  "Xian Lou Khan."


Beside him, Giang tensed, and turned slowly to look at the man, who gave her a small bow. 


<"Your esteemed father wishes for your return.  I am here to see that you do.  Please do not create a scene by attempting to resist.">  He stated in Mandarin. 



Managing to maneuver themselves to the front of the part of the crowd nearest them, Harry and Freddy began scanning the crowds around the Lion Dance performance, looking for a sign of the teenage girl and her companion.  All the noise and commotion from the Lion Dancers, not to mention the large number of people, made the process more difficult, as the two private investigators took their time looking at different sections of the crowd before moving on to the next.


Harry was the one to spot her and her companion first.  They were on the opposite side of the intersection from he and Freddy, with all the Lion Dance performers directly between them in the middle of the intersection.  The girl had just turned around to face an Asian man in his mid to late-thirties who was wearing a medium grey suit with a golden colored tie.  The man seemed to be speaking to her, but Harry could not hear anything over all the racket around him.

Edited by Thevshi
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While Giang had initially been enjoying the Lion Dance performance, it had not taken long for her to realize that something was odd.  There were far more "lions" in the performance than would normally be the case.  As she began to study the scene before her closer, trying to discern some reason that this many different ones would be used together, she heard a voice behind her use the name she had chosen to reject when she had fled her true father's house in Hong Kong.


The Asian teen felt her blood run cold, as she tensed somewhat and slowly turned around to face the man who had spoke to her.  She did not recognize him, but that was not necessarily a surprise as he bowed to her and spoke in Mandarin about taking her back to her father.


"John, we are in trouble."  She stated, as she took a half step backward, as a shimmering sheen of water began to form around her.

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The Hound started pushing through the crowds as best he could. He was not particularly tall, or particularly strong, but he had a kind of wiry vitality to him - suitable for forcing his whip like body through the masses. The Mess was not far behind, moving forward like a cannonball. 


"Over here, I got her!" he said, turning back and getting an accidental elbow in his nose as reward. 


"Goddamn it!" he swore, checking he wasn't going to get a nosebleed. It interfered with his canine senses, he had learnt. But fortunately his partner was an expert at stopping nosebleeds. Or, he realised with a cold shudder, causing them. 


"Finally!" he said, elated "we got her! piece of cake from here, buddy! piece of goddam ca....ooooerrr....." he tailed off, as he saw the water swirl around Tsunami. 


"Errr...you take it from here...." he said to the Mess, stopping and letting his partner surge on ahead. 

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John was idly keeping pace with Giang when his internal threat warning radar went off, causing teen to scan his surroundings. He saw the fear response the man caused his companion as she went on the defensive almost immediately. The clone also noted multiple incoming hostiles judging from the movement of the crowd. They were ignoring him, so it appeared that their target was Miss Giang. Unacceptable. Unable to armor up with this many witnesses, he surveyed his options and came the conclusion that they needed a distraction...

He could do that.

"MEIN GOTT! THOSE MEN HAVE GUNS!" He bellowed, playing the part of a hapless tourist and gesticulating wildly in the direction of the men pushing through the crowd towards them. Turning his attention back to Giang, he mouthed 'run' and prepared to use the onset of chaos to thin out their attackers.

Edited by Semi-Autogyro
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The people right near John and Giang had just been noticing the shimmering sheen of water that had formed around the Asian teen when John yelled out about the men across the way having guns. The reaction was about what one would expect, the crowd right around the pair and the Asian man in the grey suit began to cry out in panic and start to trying to move away from the perceived threat.


All around the intersection, other members of the crowd had similar reaction, as the beat of the drums came to a halt and the Lion Dancers all stopped as well. Over where Harry and Freddy had been pushing their way through the edges of the crowd to get over towards the two teenagers, the people near them quickly began to drawback, pushing against those behind them as they tried to get away from the two men who suddenly found themselves with a lot more room to maneuver.


Seeing John mouth the word 'run', Giang turned and when the only direction that was really open to her given the man in the grey suit and the approach of the two men across the way, she ran out into the intersection, heading in a direction that generally led away from both potential threats. But as she reached the middle of the intersection, the Asian teen suddenly realized she had gone in the worst possible direction.


Spread out around her in the intersection, the various Lion Dancers had tossed aside their lion costumes, reveling men dressed in scarlet martial arts uniforms over which they wore gold colored armor and mask that generally resembled a snake. The musicians, having also pulled off their masks and yellow costumes, were also similarly dressed in the scarlet uniforms and golden snake styled armor. About half the men were armed with bo staffs, which had been hidden inside the lion costumes or near their instruments. The other half each wielded a pair of butterfly swords.


However there was one armored figure that was among the "musicians" who was not brandishing any hand held weapon. His golden armor was a bit more ornate than the others, and covered more of his body. It was also reinforced around his elbows, knees, knuckles and feet, providing built in weapons that could be employed with a wide variety of attacks.


The armored men had completely encircled Giang, though several were facing outward, towards John or Harry and Freddy, as well as looking for any other external threat.

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As Giang moved  away and the armored men that had been wearing the lion and musician costumes reveled themselves, a slightly disappointed look came to the face of the man in the grey suit, quickly followed by steely look of determination.  With a swirl of white smoke, the man vanished from where he had initially confronted Giang, reappearing in another swirl of white smoke across the intersection, just outside the circle of armored men and in the direction Giang had started to move towards.


<"Fangs, remember, only minimal force to subdue our master's daughter!">  He yelled out in Mandarin.  <"No such restriction for anyone that interferers!">


The man then made a few hand movements as he seemed to be chanting something.  As he finished, a ghostly golden fog began to billow around him, swirling up into the air until it took the shape of a massive serpent that raised up in preparation of striking.  The members of the crowd that had previously been hesitant and uncertain after John's distraction were now no longer hesitant, as many screamed at the sight and turned to prepare to flee in terror.  Those that had already been trying to seek safety now began to speed up in panic. 

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