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Qin Li's Journey

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The smell of burnt fire powder permeated the air as I approached the compound that was to be the stronghold of the 1000 Dagger's Guild. The main entrance to the west of the compound took the form of a bridge across a high cliff. Once upon a time there would've been clashing waves below us. Now it was just a bed of jade frozen in silence.

"We're late," said the masked man behind me. "The siege has begun." He quickly took out his daggers and checked his belt one last time. "Our plan was for three teams to storm the front with the Obsidian Flame to keep the defensive flank focused. Then two teams would each infiltrate the north and south walls. That is all we need to know at this point. Which direction do you want to take?"

"I would take the direction you failed to mention," I turned around and ran back down the hill towards the eastern end of the compound. "That is most likely where they are keeping their prized possessions or hostages." I knew now to not expect to be always told everything, particularly by assassins who depend on stealth as a part of their living. So I didn't blame the man for what he didn't say. I also knew that, depending on how things evolve, I may need to fight him in order to help Zen.

There is a narrow path barely accessible slightly south of the compound that, for the most part, runs alongside of and, at times, below the compound that we decided to use to get to the rear of the place. And at times we had to climb steep gorges in order to continue eastward. Although the path was not easily detectable to most people, I was sure assassins would know of the path. The fact that we encountered no resistance probably meant that either the path had already been taken by those that had gone before us or, if we were actually the first to try it, a trap was laid in front of us. The latter was not probable since it was just too obvious a route for an assassin to overlook. My companion here was not forthright in disclosing any information on it. And I wouldn't expect him to.

As we slowly made our way across, we heard the fighting above us. Metals clashing and people grunting and hurting in pain. Unlike other types of battles, assassins didn't usually bring along elementalists or other magic users. Their methods were quick and silent, and there was little chance of survival for anyone that wasn't also an assassin. And so their battles were characteristically quiet when compared to others where you'd hear warriors shouting with their blows or fire explosions and wind storms from elementalists. This was one involving a lot of quiet but deadly stabbings, cuttings, and soft puffing noises as each of many shadow steps were being done all over the place. I could tell that there were many such uses of shadow stepping by observing how the air above was clouded by all the black smoke given off from the spells. If an observer from afar didn't know better, he would mistaken the place to be on fire for all the smoke rising up.

At last we made it to the rear. As I expected, we weren't the first to use this route to get into the compound. There was already a series of ropes secured near the top that we could use for scaling the wall. We wasted no time and each took one and started to make our way up. The climbing reminded me of the training we had in Shing Jea when one time I snuck into instructor Zho's class. For elementalists, it was one of those boring energy management courses, so I decided to sneak out and try other courses. I knew very little of the ranger profession at the time and was curious enough to get into one of her training sessions. We got to hunt a large yeti in the western side of Kinya and, after a long day when I thought we were heading back, instructor Zho made us do climbing exercises up the steep hills in southern Kinya. I learned to climb while using my legs to secure the rope, but not before getting blisters on my palm. After the exercise, instructor Zho came around and inspected our hands. Seemed she had taught enough classes to know that there'd always a good number of students that would use their hands instead of legs. "That should teach you a lesson for skipping your own classes," I remember she saying that to me. "You're lucky I am too busy to talk to Vhang about this."

Once we reached to top of the eastern wall, we found ourselves at the rear wall of a courtyard. Normally this area would be a tranquil retreat where one would walk or sit around the calm ponds and contemplate. But what we saw now was an almost choatic series of shadows fighting with daggers, all moving faster than the eye could follow. Clouds of black smoke were formed and dissipated constantly as assassins were shadow stepping in and out of battles. It was as if we were watching ghosts fight. Blood was seen splattering everywhere as daggers enter and leave bodies as each combatant killed each other to survive. A chill ran up my back as I saw the intensity of the fight across the open yard. I had been in similar situations before, but they were all in the dark recesses of Kaineng. Considering the now brightly lit and almost pristine courtyard--normally decorated only by meticulously tended plants and trees whose branches waver slightly to the gentle winds--now lined with crimson fluids of life as each soul gets torn from its body, it was a horrific and awesome sight all at once. I stood there speechless for a moment before I had to snap myself out of it. There could easily had been eighty people in the area. Again, with them shadow stepping everywhere, it was difficult to follow.

"Well. You wanted to take this entrance," the man said as he hopped over the top and jumped down into the yard. "Focus and watch yourself." He then charged into the fray and started to fight. I was not able to tell who were friendly and who were the enemy, since all of them wore black and looked pretty much the same. I decided to not engage in the fight but sneak around the sides to get inside to find Zen.

As I was making my way around, I didn't notice it before a dagger stabbed into my arm. It was the first of three heading my way. I quickly ducked and was able to avoid the last one, but the second one sliced across my back as I bend down. That was stupid. One of them could've hit my head!

Armor of Earth

Another stupid move. I probably attracted the attention of all the assassins at the place. For a brief moment, I thought everyone had stopped fighting because they were all surprised. But just as quickly the battle continued. One of them charged toward me. He knew I was heading toward the inner halls and was attempting to stop me. At this point, everyone knew I was here, so I might as well cast away.

Ward Against Melee

Stone Daggers

One dagger struck the assassin in the shoulders. He dodged the other one. He quickly pulled out the stone shard and hurled it aside and continued to come straight at me. Despite my reservations, I fell back to what I knew best.

Fireball

Just as he was about to reach me, he was stopped in his track by the fireball. And for a moment he was distracted by the flames. That was all the time I needed.

Inferno

In a blaze that caught the attention of the people around us, the attacker burst into flames and started to shriek in pain. I resisted the initial urge to help put out the flame and continued my way to the inner hall. I didn't know if I had any more energy left, but I didn't want to stay and risk getting hurt. Just then I felt something sharp eating into my back. Quickly ducking down, I heard the sounds of two blades hitting the stone wall behind me and bouncing off onto the ground. I looked at and saw two assassins heading my way. They must be too exhausted to shadow step. I concentrated and gathered my energy to fired off another shot.

Meteor

A large boulder materialized from the airborne dust and gathered energy to form the flaming boulder that fell and stomped the two assassins, knocking them off balance and onto the ground. I picked up the two daggers from the floor and, remembering what Zenmai taught me, used all my might to hurl them at the two.

Dancing Daggers

One of them was a lucky shot and caught the assassin off guard and struck him in the neck. He reached for the dagger but soon collapsed. The other was faster in getting up and, probably due to my lack of the skill, actually caught the dagger with his hands. He calmly walked toward me and effortlessly waved his hand. Before I knew it, the dagger struck me in my chest. I lost balance and fell back onto the ground and slid back until my back slammed against the stone wall behind me. He then slowing took out his fighting daggers and started running toward me. I had no energy left to do anything. I couldn't believe this was how it was going to end.

Concentrate! Qin Li!

Flare

He was quick enough to dodge the flare! And soon enough he reached where I was sitting and started to swing at me. I had no energy left to cast any spells, so I raised my arms to block the attack. Thanks to armguard that I strapped on, they actually made pretty good armor against physical attack. I felt his dagger glide across the sheath of armors on the armguard. He wouldn't make the same mistake twice. I quickly did a scissor kick with my legs. However, he was in a very stable stance and stood his ground, although momentarily confused. That bought me some time.

Breath of Fire

A disk of fire illuminated around us. His armor caught on fire immediately, and it burned his body briefly. His natural reflex was to step back and away from me to wait until the fire died down. When it did, he approached me again and lunged with his dagger. It was too fast for me to block, and it stabbed into my abdomen. A searing pain overwhelmed my senses, and I heard nothing for a moment. All the fighting noise had gone quiet. The only thing I saw was that the ring of fire had returned, and he again stepped back away from the fire, leaving the dagger lodged into me.

I tried to stand up and didn't have the energy. Half kneeling on one leg, I pulled the dagger out, and a stream of blood followed it. Only this time, the blood wasn't red but took on a black color. And I couldn't stop the blood from rushing out. I stumbled away and toward the hall. He looked at me slightly puzzled and amused. I felt a shortness of breath and coughed and saw more blood coming out. I didn't want to be dealt my fatal blow from the back, so I turned toward him and pointed the dagger at him.

He looked around and, surveying the area, decided to leave me and took on another assassin. I guessed he figured I didn't have much time left and didn't want to waste his time with me.

I felt I was about to lose consciousness. So I quickly stumbled my way into the hall to look for Zen. The interior was even more tranquil than the outside. The shiny wooden floor reflected the skylight from the atrium where a tree stood. As I started moving, the floor seemed to get closer. And before I knew it, my face was next to the floor. This was it, I thought. This was how it was going to end.

Get up! You are stronger than this!

"I can't. I can't move."

I didn't get beat by such a weakling! Concentrate all your strength and get up! Zenmai is straight on and to the right.

"Who.... ?"

Go! Now! Don't waste precious time!

"Yes... Go straight...."

I gritted my teeth and crawled straight ahead down the hall. I couldn't get up to walk, but my arms had enough strength to get me moving. Despite losing most of my strength, my legs felt the wet floor as I dragged myself forward. I figured it was probably the blood. The floor was clean, but it was dry.... I was so tired. I wanted to rest on the floor. This comfortable floor.

Get up! Keep going! Don't die a failure!

I was back in Shing Jea. The training bells rung at some ungodly time in the night, it seemed.

"What in Balthazar's name?! What time is it?"

"Wake up, Qin. It's time for training! Get up or you'll get us in trouble again."

I remember that voice. It's Kisai. "Leave me and let me sleep."

"Get up, Qin! Get up before you get us in trouble. We have to go save Zenmai!"

"What?"

"Get up! Get up now before it's too late. Zenmai needs us."

"Zenmai?"

"Yes. She needs your help now! Don't fall asleep or Master Togo will die! They will all die! Get up! Don't fail her the way you failed Master Togo!"

"No!" I have to get over the pain. I can't fail again. Not again. I continue crawling toward the intersection of the hallway, each breath more difficult than the last. But I can't disappoint her. I just can't let another die due to my inaction. Not this time. Not this time!

"We all failed Master Togo, I'm afraid."

"What? How?"

"He had been slain by Shiro. We're too late."

"What?! No! That can't be! Let me go! Let me save him. He's Master Togo. He can't die. He just needs our help. Let me go."

"No. It's too late, young one. I'm a healer, yet I can't save him. I'm afraid we're just too late."

"Someone must be able to help him. Anyone? Any of you? Jamei? Together you two must be able to do something. Tell me what I can do. I will do it."

"We're too late."

"Oh the gods! Why? With all these damned spells I can't do a thing to help him! I can't help him. I can't ...."

"The important thing is that we regroup and face Shiro. Master Togo must not die in vain. We must complete what he started."

"I hate these spells! I hate these spells! They are utterly useless other than to hurt, and when it comes to actually make a difference, they are nothing!"

"Qin, a fire elementalist--"

"Is useless! I'm useless to help Master Togo. It's all my fault. I had been useless to the team from the start."

"Qin! Listen to me. It's too late for Master Togo, but we can finish the task. You must be strong and continue on. You must save Zenmai."

"Zen--what?"

"Zenmai. You must save her. She's just beyond the corner and to the right. You must reach her!"

"Yes. I must reach her. I can't let her die like I let Master Togo die."

There is the corner. Now turn right. She's just ahead. Keep going. The pain is gone. But I'm weak. I must go on.

"Qin. You must not blame yourself. We all failed, but at least we rid Cantha of Shiro. That is what Master Togo would've wanted."

"I had let everyone down. I let Master Togo down. Father was right; I am not fit to be a hero. I could've done something. Had I paid more attention in class I would've been able to recall something. Armor of Earth, Sliver Armor, anything. But I am such a fool. I am a miserable failure."

"Come. Emperor Kisu wants to honor us for saving Cantha."

"No. You go. I--I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."

"I am Mhenlo. I was a student of Master Togo. Look. You're a good student. You should be proud. You must free yourself from this guilt. Let me help."

"What can you do?"

"I can help you deal with this unfounded guilt that you have, blaming yourself for Master Togo's death. Yes. It is a great loss, but it's not all your fault. And you saved Cantha. Here. Close your eyes. Let me help you forget...."

"But--"

"But you must not forget to stay strong and help others that can't help themselves. Like Zenmai. You must help her now."

"Zenmai...."

"Yes. You must help her now. Go to her and give her these daggers and gears to free her. She's just inside. Go to her now."

Yes. I will save her. I must save her. I cannot fail again to save those around me.

I slid the door panel to the side and saw a yound girl tied and hung from the back from the ceiling. She saw me and tried to speak, but her mouth was gagged. It was Zenmai, but her hair was down and looked like was beaten. Fortunately, she looked still quite energetic and healthy.

I struggled with my last breaths to get to where she was hung, her feet dangling above me trying to reach me. I couldn't stand up, but I reached for and pulled out a dagger from one of the armguard's sheaths and, trembling, placed it between her toes. At that point I collapsed, staring straight up at her, unable to move anymore. She repositioned the dagger and tossed it up with her feet with the agility that only she had. And whether it was luck or not, it fell into her hand where she then tipped the blade and started cutting away at the ropes binding her wrist.

I did it. Finally. I didn't fail her. I hope Master Togo would forgive me. I hope I've redeemed myself. And now it's time. It's time to go. I smiled at her and closed my eyes. I hope her the best. And now I must rest.
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Comments

  1. Noa Brightington's Avatar
    Breadth of Fire

    Do a quick edit then delete this comment.
  2. Noa Brightington's Avatar
    pokes qin.
    Keep going. Don't let the silence stop you. We're all waiting like rapt schoolkids at storytime.