Sun Mia panted as she ran, pulled along by the ordinary-looking woman who had been selling vegetables to her less than half an hour ago. The woman wasn’t running at random and seemed to have a destination in mind, but Sun Mia wasn’t sure where she was being taken. She had tried to get the woman’s attention a couple of times, but the woman was ignoring her words, and dragging her along with an unusually strong grip on her wrist.
Sun Mia had been initially grateful that the woman had pulled her away from that frightening situation, but now she was getting worried. She wasn’t too familiar with this particular market, and she had no idea where the woman was taking her. Perhaps she was still in danger…
The merchant woman paid no attention to Sun Mia’s worries, however, and quickly arrived at her destination. To Sun Mia’s surprise, this location was an ordinary meat stand, run by a tough-looking old man behind the grill. Had Gan Zhu been here, he would have recognized the old man as the one who had sold him a delicious meat skewer early: Old Mehek!
“…Hmmm?” Old Mehek glanced at the two women approaching his grill, and his brow furrowed slightly for a moment. The expression disappeared quickly, however, and he addressed them with a merchant’s smile: “Welcome! The next batch will be ready in just a minute–”
“Dolgo Mehek,” said the merchant woman firmly. “There’s trouble.”
Sun Mia stood to one side, gasping for breath, while Old Mehek and the merchant woman glared at each other. Not a word seemed to pass between them, but Old Mehek’s expression grew darker and darker. Finally, he gave a heavy snort, and said, “Fine. Take her in back.”
The woman nodded and grabbed Sun Mia’s wrist again. The girl opened her mouth to protest, but a single glare from the woman caused her to snap her jaw shut on the words. Nodding, the woman hauled the frightened girl behind Old Mehek’s grill, into the building behind it, which happened to be Mehek’s own home.
The old man glowered in the direction the two had come from, and narrowed his eyes. Apparently coming to a decision, he turned to his daughter, who had been taking a break at one of the tables. “Bi’er! We’re closing early today! Come help me put the meat away!”
Bi’er nearly fell out of her chair in shock. “What? Father, it isn’t even noon yet!”
“Now’s not the time to argue, girl,” the old man growled. “Move!”
Bi’er jumped, and quickly began helping her father by collecting the uncooked meat and move it back into their house. Meanwhile, Old Mehek quickly and efficiently cleaned and stowed his tools, and slapped a cover on his grill.
Several regular customers had been watching Old Mehek’s actions in confusion, and one of them called out, “What’s going on, Mehek? I haven’t seen you close early in over twenty years.”
The old man paused for a moment as he was about to haul away his grill. He seemed to hesitate, then looked directly at the man who had spoken. “You’ve been a good customer, and a good friend, Reheem, so let me give you some advice: get back home as soon as possible. This market isn’t going to be safe for long.”
“What? What do you mean?” asked Reheem with alarm, his eyes widening as he jumped to his feet.
“Someone just poked the hornet’s nest named Fan, and I don’t know where the stings are going to land,” Old Mehek said grimly. “Best to be off these streets as soon as possible.”
With that, he pushed his cart away, heading for the storage shed next to his house. Reheem stared after him for a moment with his mouth open, before he quickly turned on his heel and hurried away. The other customers who had witnessed the short conversation also found good reason to be elsewhere; although Old Mehek was not exactly a well-known figure, to those who knew him, his word was as good as gold. If Old Mehek said the Fan were coming, then they were; if he said that it was a good idea to leave the market, then they could not leave fast enough. In his own way, Old Mehek was extremely well respected by those who knew him well.
Meanwhile, Mehek had made his way inside his home, where his daughter Bi’er stood staring at the two intruders. Sun Mia looked confused and bewildered, but the merchant woman stood tapping her foot impatiently. Upon seeing Old Mehek enter, she opened her mouth, but before she could say a single word Mehek cut her off. “Silence. Follow me. Bi’er, grab your things, we’re leaving.”
Bi’er gasped. “Father, what do you mean? What… what’s going on?”
“Dolgo Mehek, I–” The merchant woman began to speak, but in a moment Mehek’s hand had closed tightly around her throat, literally choking off her words.
“I. Said. Silence.” Mehek glared furiously at the woman, whose eyes had widened in fear. “Did you think that I would treat you kindly, knowing that you were from the Green Wildness Sect? Or that knowing my name might remind me of past connections? Bah! I’m barely containing myself from killing you on the spot; don’t make my decision easier.”
The woman nodded, frightened. She had obviously not expected Old Mehek to react so violently, and it had put a large dent in her confidence. Sun Mia, meanwhile, was terrified. Not only had this woman brought her to some unknown place against her will, the old man they met there seemed to hold an extreme hatred for that very woman! Once again, she began to wonder if she would ever see her home again while still living.
And then the old man looked over at her for the first time, and Sun Mia froze. However, contrary to her fears, a gentle smile appeared on the old man’s face, making him appear years younger. “I’m sorry for frightening you, young lady. I assure you, my argument with the Green Wildness won’t extend to you. I understand that you are a member of the Sun household?”
Sun Mia couldn’t speak for a moment, but the man’s gaze reassured her somewhat. Although she was still frightened, she forced herself to say, “Yes… I am Sun Mia, the personal servant of Sun Lan. I…” she swallowed, then continued, “I’m not important enough to be worth any ransom…”
Old Mehek waved this off. “To the Fan, you are worth some money apparently. But I have no intention of currying favor with that nest of vipers. You are safe here, girl, and I will see you safely delivered back to your people.”
The merchant woman seemed to want to say something, but Old Mehek pointedly ignored her. Speaking only to Sun Mia, he said, “As soon as my daughter returns, we will be heading underground. Do you know of the Underworks, girl?” Sun Mia shook her head, and the old man explained, “This city, like many others, was built atop the ruins of another — an ancient city that was not raised by human hands, but a race of demons. Though those demons are long dead, the tunnels of their former city remain.
“In the light of day, the Fan Clan seems to have complete control of this city; but down there in the dark, their rule is not nearly so complete. There are many eyes, down in the dark, and very few of them belong to Fan Gen. Down in the Underworks… is where the Sun still have a little strength. I cannot deliver you directly to the Sun estate, but I can pass you along to those who can.”
“…Can I trust you?” asked Sun Mia, her expression caught between hope and fear.
“Of course,” said the old man with a gentle smile. His smile quirked a little as he added, “On my honor as the best purveyor of grilled meat in this North Pine City.”
The merchant woman stared at him with a strange expression on her face, but Sun Mia giggled and nodded. At that moment, Bi’er came hurrying into the room, with a large bag strapped to her back. “I’m ready, father! I checked everything just in case, and everything is there.”
“Good,” said Old Mehek. “Let’s go, then.”
“Okay!” replied Bi’er enthusiastically as she started moving toward the door. “Where are we going?”
“Not that way,” her father said drily. The young woman blinked.
“Huh? This is the only door out, isn’t it?”
“Of course not,” said the old man with an impatient fondness. “Never live in a place with only one way in or out.”
“Then… the back window?” Bi’er asked, startled.
Old Mehek rolled his eyes. “Just follow, girl. And stop making so much noise.”
The old man led the way back into his house, with the two girls and the older woman following close behind. The room he brought them to was a storeroom, filled with barrels and boxes of various necessities. He went to the very back, where a large, sealed barrel of ale stood looming. Bi’er had often wondered where and why her father had acquired the barrel, especially since he never seemed to drink from it. But today, she watched open-mouthed as her father picked up the barrel without seeming to feel its weight, and set it gently to one side.
Giving the barrel a fond pat, Old Mehek turned back to the place where it had sat, where a metal ring lay revealed. Mehek reached down, twisted the ring, and let go, causing a section of the floor to fall away, revealing a ladder reaching down into the darkness.
“Welcome to the Underworks, ladies,” said Old Mehek with an odd, fey smile. “Starting here, the rules are a bit different…
“I will descend first, followed by the Sun girl, and then Bi’er. The one from Green Wildness will guard the rear.” Mehek glowered at the woman once more. “I don’t need to explain the consequences of failure, do I?”
“No, sir! I shall do my duty!” responded the woman instantly. She seemed to have suppressed her fear, but there was still an edge of wariness in her voice, as well as something the other two girls couldn’t identify. Oddly, her instant acquiescence didn’t seem to please Old Mehek, who simply grunted before jumping through the trap door, without even bothering to grab the ladder on his way down.
Sun Mia looked cautiously at the trap door, before turning to look at the other two women still standing there. The merchant woman, or whoever she was, was staring into the darkness with a complex, pensive expression; but the girl, Bi’er, gave her an encouraging smile. “Go ahead,” she said brightly to Sun Mia. “I’m certain father knows what he’s doing. I just wish he’d explain a bit…” she trailed off, a little sadly.
“He has his reasons.” The older woman spoke up, unexpectedly. “I simply didn’t expect…” Like Bi’er, she trailed off without finishing her thought. Giving herself a visible shake, she looked over at the other two. “Come, let us be off. It would not do to keep him waiting.”
The Fan commander knelt alone in the deserted market square. All the nearby merchants had long since fled, some not bothering to gather their own wares before they left. The commander stared at the fallen bodies of his men, and a series of uninterrupted curses left his lips. Nevertheless, he did not rise to check for survivors, nor did he begin running back to the Fan estate to report that his squad was wiped out. He remained kneeling in the road, and did not move.
No, he could not move!
At the time, he had thought the strike he had taken from Gan Zhu, although heavy, was a simple punch. But before he realized it, his entire body was gripped with a stinging pain, and his muscles no longer seemed to support him. Even before Li Stahn and Gan Zhu had disappeared from in front of him, he had collapsed to his knees with a groan; however, no one had paid any attention to him, not even the lowly bystanders. Belatedly, the Fan commander realized that Gan Zhu’s attack was nothing so simple as a punch!
Suddenly, three figures appeared in front of the Fan commander. The man on the right wore a white robe and a black mask, while the man on the left wore a black robe and a white mask. But neither of these unusual figures drew the commander’s attention, for his eyes had focused on the figure in the center: a tall young man with golden hair and amber eyes, and a slight, peaceful smile.
Suddenly sweating, the commander tried to raise his arms to salute, but his arms still refused to move. Frightened, he shouted out, “This lowly servant greets the First Young Master!”
“Commander,” responded Fan Bin. His smile never changed as his eyes travelled over the abandoned market square, and the corpses of the Fan guards and the servants who had accompanied Fan Mitsu. “Pray tell this prince, what happened here?”
The Fan commander nearly babbled as he described the events that had occurred since he entered the market. Fan Bin’s expression naturally didn’t change, but when the commander began to speak about the sudden appearance of Gan Zhu, the two masked men seemed to exchange a look.
“You could not guess at this unknown youth’s true cultivation? Why is that?” interrupted the white-robed man.
The commander looked blankly at White Robe, before turning back to Fan Bin. “Young Master… who are these men?”
“They are my assistants,” said Fan Bin absently, while apparently looking at something in the distance. “Treat their questions as my own.”
“Y-yes, sir,” responded the commander hesitantly. “Er… The youth, who named himself Gan Zhu, did not seem to have a strong martial aura at all, but he wasn’t moved by the swordsman’s terrifying aura, which would seem to imply that he was even stronger. However, the swordsman seemed to dominate the youth in combat, and neither side could quickly overcome the other.”
“Interesting,” said Black Robe, scratching at his mask. White Robe seemed pensive as well; Fan Bin, on the other hand, seemed to have lost interest.
“Also…” began the commander, before he suddenly hesitated. White Robe and Black Robe immediately focused on the commander again, and he swallowed before continuing. “There seemed to be something… wrong, with that Gan Zhu.”
The two masked men waited, but the commander seemed to be having trouble finding the right words. Black Robe finally grew impatient, and said, “Out with it, man! Wrong, in what way?”
“He was just… wrong,” mumbled the commander. “It was like he wasn’t supposed to be there at all. He didn’t seem… human…”
Beneath his mask, Black Robe’s eyes narrowed. He started to walk towards the commander, but a small gesture from White Robe caused him to halt, and settle back again. Silence passed between the four men for a moment, before Fan Bin spoke at last.
“So if I understand properly,” he said, “the man who identified himself as Gan Zhu killed your men and… injured… yourself, while the man he claimed was Li Stahn of the Infinite Sky Devil Sect killed these men, who were servants of the Fan clan.”
“Yes, sir,” the commander said immediately. Suddenly, his brow furrowed. “Young master… I seem to hear some commotion nearby.”
“Pay it no mind,” Fan Bin said dismissively. “We will need to pursue the culprits, obviously, but it seems that it will be difficult to hunt them with mere soldiers. I will need to ask my father to send a stronger expert… great-granduncle Fan Danal, perhaps. It’s the only way to be sure…” The Fan commander naturally wasn’t familiar with Fan Bin’s expressions, but Black Robe and White Robe shared a glance when they noted Fan Bin’s widening smile.
The commander coughed, and said diffidently, “Um, young master. I seem to see smoke from burning buildings. And I’m fairly certain I can hear screams…?”
It was not Fan Bin, but Black Robe who answered. “Today’s incident has been seen as an act of rebellion against the Fan clan, and Fan Gen has given orders. This district is to be burnt to the ground, and everyone within killed, be they man, woman, or child.”
The commander nodded, unsurprised. The thought of Fan Gen letting any sort of challenge to his authority go unanswered was unthinkable, only… “It seems like Master responded especially quickly,” the commander said, but Fan Bin and the others seemed to ignore the implied question.
“More importantly at this moment,” said Fan Bin, suddenly giving the commander his full attention. “You cannot move, can you, commander?”
Fear appeared in the Fan commander’s eyes once more. “Forgive me, young master, I cannot. The attack I took from that Gan Zhu character seemed simple at first, but in a short time I found myself temporarily incapacitated. I’m certain that I can recover, if you just allow me some time…”
The commander gazed pleadingly at Fan Bin, who instead looked over at White Robe. “What do you think?” he asked.
White Robe steepled his fingers in front of his mask pensively. The commander thought there was something incongruous about the gesture, but before he could work out the reason, White Robe spoke. “It is very strange. I have only ever seen signs like these in cultivation accidents, when an expert tries to cultivate too quickly and sends the Qi in his body surging out of control. The arm was broken from the initial blow, but the rest of the damage… seems to be from his own cultivation running amuk!
“Nevertheless, the dantian is intact,” White Robe finished. “Given time, this man could correct the damage done to his meridians, and return to full health.”
“That is good news,” said Fan Bin, and the commander sighed in relief. “However, there is simply no time left.”
Fan Bin’s hand flickered, and the commander felt a sharp pain in his throat. His eyes widened, and he opened his mouth to speak, but he immediately began to choke on the blood that was pouring into his lungs from the hole in his throat — the hole placed there by Fan Bin’s dagger!
As his consciousness faded, the former commander heard Fan Bin’s voice, as though at a great distance. “Thank you for your loyal service, commander. Please consider this your reward from this prince: the right to face death ahead of the rest. There will be many, many others joining you soon…”
Not comprehending the words, he fell into the darkness.
Turning away from the former commander whose body had finally collapsed in the street, Fan Bin hopped slightly and landed on top of a nearby building, followed closely by White Robe and Black Robe. He looked out upon the chaos, where Fan soldiers were slaughtering civilians, burning down their homes and businesses, and looting anything they wanted. His mild smile never left his lips, but his eyes were cold, and no one could tell what he was thinking.
Eventually he asked, “Were there any survivors?”
“Fan Mitsu escaped,” answered Black Robe instantly. “The servant girl from the Sun seems to have disappeared. The few reports I have say she was last seen being kidnapped by an unknown woman. A number of people seem to have left the area at the first sign of danger, and escaped the encirclement before it could be closed. Not counting those who may have fled into the fallen city; at least four unknown entrances have been discovered.”
“I do hope no Fan soldier has attempted to enter the Underworks against this prince’s orders,” Fan Bin said musingly. “It’s still too early to provoke the hidden dragons down there in the dark. Soon enough, soon enough… But little Mitsu slipped out, did he? If only those instincts of his were paired with actual talent, he might be something to watch. Much like our friend, Sun Tzi, wouldn’t you say?”
Black Robe and White Robe shared a glance. “Should I take care of him, master?” asked Black robe.
“Who, Fan Mitsu?” Fan Bin laughed, then hesitated slightly, before saying, “No. It’s fun watching him scurry around.”
“As you wish, master,” Black Robe said. Fan Bin noticed the slightly disapproving tone, but did not respond.
They watched the fires for a while, each thinking his own thoughts. The one who eventually spoke up was White Robe, and his voice was contemplative. “That Gan Zhu might become a problem.”
Fan Bin smiled his gentle smile, and said nothing in return.
In a forest several kilometers away from North Pine City, there was a clearing. It was not a natural clearing, but a clearing created when all the plants and trees within had been blown away! Within stood two men, glaring at each other: Li Stahn and Gan Zhu!
- Yeah, I ended up overwriting the preview chapter. Mistakes were made. I’ll do better next time.
- There’s a lot I could say, but I keep hitting things that would be spoilers. Meh. 😐
- I blame Fan Bin. 😛
- Anyway. Thanks for reading! 😀