Gan Zhu was shocked, and unwittingly he froze in place just like the man had ordered.
It was unfortunate, but Gan Zhu had become arrogant. Even knowing that he had made an enemy of the strong and terrible Fan clan, he hadn’t believed they could track him down so quickly, and so he hadn’t bothered with any basic precautions. In addition, this assassin had known enough about his demonic abilities as to hide his own breath — but Gan Zhu had never explained his abilities to anyone! How had the assassin known?
“Step forward,” the man ordered coldly. Gan Zhu slowly obeyed, taking two steps into the room. The man, whom he had still not laid eyes on, quickly kicked the door shut before moving around to Gan Zhu’s front, maintaining a distance between them.
Just like his voice, the man’s garments were foreign and unusual. He wore a overcoat of an unusual cut, made of some leathery beast skin dyed black. His pants, too, were black, as were his shirt and gloves; however, the scarf wrapped around his neck was silver. His clothing was entirely made of materials Gan Zhu didn’t recognize. A heavy bracer was wrapped around his left arm, made of metal and other, less common materials.
The assassin wore a brown hat on his head, pulled low over his eyes, and across his face he wore a red piece of cloth, with an unusual mandala pattern embroidered into it. His entire face was concealed, except for his cold green eyes, and as he met the assassin’s gaze Gan Zhu shuddered. He instinctively realized that this man was a true expert, a killer without hesitation or mercy. Gan Zhu had met the gaze of several strong experts without flinching: Li Stahn’s eyes, for instance, projected an even more bloodthirsty aura than this man’s; Fan Bin’s eyes, on the other hand, held a perfect unreadable serenity. But compared to the man in front of him, they seemed too immature, to the point that the pressure couldn’t even be compared!
In his right hand, he held a strange, misshapen artifact. In form, it had the appearance of a short tube attached to a hand grip, with something like a miniature crossbow trigger below the tube. The tube was pointed straight at Gan Zhu’s heart, and the light glinting off the cold gray metal sent a chill down his spine. Gan Zhu had never seen an artifact like this one, but the man’s attitude suggested that whatever he held was a truly dangerous weapon, and not to be underestimated.
However, Gan Zhu was not willing to simply give up his life here. He gathered himself and prepared to leap at the assassin. Hopefully, if he could surprise the man and make him let go of the strange artifact in his hand, he might have a chance to escape…
But as if reading his mind, the man spoke again. “Don’t try it, boy. If ya jump me, I’ll just shoot ya, and then where will we be? And even if ya manage to get the gun… Well, I’ve got some other tricks in my bag. Ya ain’t gonna win, got it?”
Gan Zhu grimaced. “…Who are you, senior? I haven’t heard of any foreigners working for the Fan clan before, so you must be one of their hidden experts. May I at least hear the name of the person who kills me?”
“The what clan, now?” asked the man, and there seemed to be a hidden smirk in his voice. “I ain’t working for any damn clan, and I have no intention of killing ya as long as ya behave. So calm down, boy.”
“You…” Gan Zhu blinked, surprised. “If you aren’t working for the Fan clan, then why did you find me here? Did I offend senior somehow?”
“Hey, hey, quit calling me old, ya punk. I spent most of that time frozen, y’know…” The man took in Gan Zhu’s confused expression, and sighed. “Know what? Never mind. You can call me Lost Justice. As to why I’m looking for ya… Well, there’s someone who wants to meet ya.”
“Lost Justice,” murmured Gan Zhu, intrigued almost against his will. “Is that a name, or a title?”
“Yeah, it is,” said the man firmly. Gan Zhu blinked, but before he could enquire further, Lost Justice spoke again. “So, just to make sure… Yer name is ‘Gun Joo,’ right?”
Gan Zhu coughed, and said, “Gan Zhu. My name is Gan Zhu.”
“Eh, close enough,” shrugged Lost Justice. “My employer wants to meet ya, so I came to pick ya up.”
“Your… employer?” Gan Zhu furrowed his brow, his expression darkening. “So you are working for the Fan clan.”
“Nah, I told ya I ain’t working for any stupid clan. For one thing, I could tell yer damn clan to go to hell and make it stick… Never mind. No, my boss is kind of a big deal, but… she can’t come see ya herself right now. So here I am.” Lost Justice shook his head in apparent distraction… but Gan Zhu had been watching his eyes, and the cold vigilance in them hadn’t faded even slightly.
“So then… What does your ‘employer’ want from me?” the young man asked cautiously. However, Lost Justice just shook his head.
“No idea. All I know is that yer our ticket off this rock. So, let’s stop flapping our gums and get moving. And no funny stuff, or we’ll get to see just how thick yer skin can be.”
The two stood in silence, staring at each other, and Gan Zhu tried to decide what his options were. It was strange; Lost Justice did not have a martial aura, just like Gan Zhu himself did not, but simply standing there he was the most dangerous person Gan Zhu had ever encountered. He could not even imagine winning against this man.
“May I ask a question?” Gan Zhu asked eventually.
“Sure, if it’s quick,” Lost Justice responded easily.
“What level of cultivation are you?”
Lost Justice blinked. “Cultivation? Do I look like a farmer to you, boy?”
“No, no,” said Gan Zhu, quickly shaking his head. “I meant, martial cultivation. I presume you have exceeded the Qi Gathering stage, but I cannot tell what stage of Core Refining you have attained. Unless…” Gan Zhu drew a quick breath, and continued. “Have you reached Void Transcending?”
Lost Justice stared blankly at the young man for a long moment. Then suddenly he snapped the fingers on his free hand, as if suddenly remembering something. “That’s right, she said something about a ranking system, didn’t she…” he mused aloud. “Like Adventurer Guild ranks, except they actually mean something. Sorry, boy,” he said sardonically to Gan Zhu, “I don’t show up on yer little organizational chart. If you want to know how tough I am, how does ‘tough enough to kick yer punk ass from here to hell and back’ strike ya?”
Gan Zhu swallowed. Although his voice sounded like he was making a joke, Lost Justice’s eyes coldly promised that he was not even slightly joking.
“So, are we good?” Lost Justice said, in a tone that implied the only possible answer would be yes. “I can’t hang around here too long, according to the boss, so let’s get this show on the road.”
“…Where do you want to take me?” asked Gan Zhu slowly. He still wasn’t completely that he wanted to meet this man’s “boss,” and if they had to travel a great distance, he might have more chances to escape…
“So do you agree?” Lost Justice asked. “I need to hear a ‘yes’ out of you, boy, then I can explain where we’re going.”
The two men matched gazes for a full minute. Eventually, the one to give in was naturally Gan Zhu. “…Yes,” he agreed through gritted teeth, openly and obviously reluctant.
“‘Bout time,” muttered Lost Justice. To Gan Zhu’s shock, the man suddenly placed his artifact in a holster attached to the side of his coat. Sensing an opportunity, he gathered himself to jump at the man, but Lost Justice completely ignored him and stepped over to the closed door. He raised his now empty right hand and knocked three times: a slow, measured, and solid strike. Then without further fanfare, he pulled open the door.
Gan Zhu’s jaw dropped. Instead of the dilapidated hallway that should have been on the other side of the doorway, the frame seemed to hold a murky, ever-shifting liquid barrier. Instincts that he did not understand started screaming at him: this portal was extremely dangerous!
“Shit, it worked,” muttered Lost Justice under his breath, although Gan Zhu barely heard him. “Guess I would have been screwed if it didn’t though… Hey! Wake the hell up!”
Gan Zhu jumped slightly, and looked back at Lost Justice. Without his noticing, the strange, dangerous artifact had appeared back in the older man’s hand, and was pointed at him once more.
“I get it, boy. I don’t want to walk through that thing either,” said Lost Justice, and he did sound slightly sympathetic. “Unfortunately for me, I’ve got my orders, and unfortunately for you, you’ve already agreed. So get going.”
“This… what… what is this?” sputtered Gan Zhu. He had seen many strange things, including the crystal demon palace in the very depths of the Cerulean Abyss, but nothing gave him such a horrible feeling as this murky portal. It felt… wrong, on a fundamental level. His gaze shifted between the doorway and Lost Justice, as though he wasn’t sure which danger he feared more. “Who… what kind of master do you serve?”
Lost Justice’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “She’s not my master, boy. Just my employer. And she ain’t a person ya keep waiting. Move.”
Gan Zhu gulped, and nodded. He finally — finally — realized that he was completely out of his depth. His only hope was to go along with events and hope that Lost Justice’s master — no, his employer — was not capturing him in order to kill him, or worse.
With trepidation, Gan Zhu stepped cautiously up to the murky portal. He reached out a trembling hand, and touched the shifting surface; when it seemed to cause him no harm, he took a deep breath. This breath seemed to steady him greatly, and he glared defiantly at the disturbing portal. He stepped forward as if charging into battle, and the surface of the portal did not so much as ripple as he passed through it.
Lost Justice nodded, then sighed to himself. “Hate this part,” he muttered to himself, before walking calmly through the portal. Strangely, although his passage was much less abrupt than Gan Zhu’s, the surface of the portal was actually disturbed as he passed through. A single ripple marked his passage through the doorway; and before the surface could calm, the door to Gan Zhu’s room shut silently behind him. If anyone with the proper senses had been present, they would quickly realize that the strange portal had closed for good, and not even the slightest trace had been left to suggest where it might have led. However, there was no one present who could sense such things…
No. There was one person who noticed.
That man, who hadn’t been in Gan Zhu’s room even a moment before, rubbed the top of his bald head in puzzlement. His eyes were squinted almost shut, so it was impossible to read the emotion in them, but a somewhat worried frown seemed to pull at the corner of his lips.
“What was that?” Zebu Biel muttered. “Did someone just kidnap my irreplaceable hero?”
That was Gan Zhu’s first impression of the space he had entered. He was surrounded on all sides by black, and above as well. It seemed both like the black was a wall right next to him, and an emptiness that extend far beyond his senses.
In this space of absolute black, Gan Zhu was standing on… a grassy hillside. The grass was a greenish-purple that Gan Zhu did not recognize, and covered the hill that sloped gently upward. At the peak of the hill, a wooden cabin could be seen. Behind Gan Zhu, the grass ended abruptly, as though the black was a curtain that had dropped upon it.
This impression was reinforced as Gan Zhu watched Lost Justice stagger out of the blackness and onto the grassy hillside. The older man staggered slightly as he landed, and one hand reached up to clutch his head. “Grrr… I hate that part. Hate it,” he growled to himself.
He paid no attention to Gan Zhu, who had the sudden impulse to attack the man while he was distracted; but Gan Zhu controlled himself. After all, at the moment, he had no idea how to escape this place, and he didn’t want to accidentally offend its master by assaulting Lost Justice. After a moment, Lost Justice looked up, and glared flatly at Gan Zhu.
“Let me guess… Ya didn’t feel anything, right?”
“I… wouldn’t say I felt nothing,” said Gan Zhu cautiously, slightly unnerved again by Lost Justice’s glare.
“But ya ain’t suffering from a giant headache, right?” insisted Lost Justice. When Gan Zhu shook his head, the older man let out a long-suffering sigh. “Of course not. Bastard.”
Gan Zhu opened his mouth to respond, but eventually closed it without saying anything. It seemed safer.
Lost Justice cursed under his breath, in a language that Gan Zhu had never heard before. It only took a moment or two before he recovered himself, however, and he gestured up the hill with his strange weapon. “Well, what are ya waiting for, boy? She’s waiting up there.”
Gan Zhu looked at the cabin and swallowed. “Senior…” he trailed off, unsure of what he wanted to say.
“I told ya not to call me that,” grumbled Lost Justice. “C’mon, kid, get a move on. She’s not gonna eat ya.”
“Eat me!?” exclaimed Gan Zhu, eyes wide. “Is your employer a high-level monstrous beast? Or… a dragon!?”
Lost Justice stared blankly at the suddenly panicky young man in front of him. And then, he burst into unrestrained laughter. “HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Ohhh, that’s rich! A dragon, ha ha ha! A beast, ha ha ha ha…”
Gan Zhu stared blankly at the older man, who had nearly doubled over in laughter. Lost Justice quickly brought himself under control again, but for some reason he couldn’t stop chuckling. The gaze he turned on Gan Zhu was still sharp, but seemed much warmer than it had before. “Heh heh heh… Boy, that really cheered me up, thanks.”
“I… Was that really so funny?” asked Gan Zhu, confused.
Lost Justice waved his hand. “Eh, you’ll see. Come on, boy. Let’s go meet the ‘dragon.’” Still chuckling, the mysterious man walked cheerfully up the hill, followed by a puzzled and apprehensive Gan Zhu.
The hill was not too wide, nor too steep, so it took only a minute or so before the two men reached the cabin. Gan Zhu felt that it was deceptively ordinary; intuitively, he realized that this place was not what it appeared to be. In fact, it reminded him a bit of the locations he visited in his dreams, the strange landscapes where he trained with the demon woman, Marah…
Without seeming to notice anything amiss, Lost Justice marched right up to the door of the cabin. To Gan Zhu’s surprise, the man did not knock or ask permission to enter, but rudely opened the door and marched in while shouting, “I’m back!”
“Welcome back,” came a low, attractive female voice from inside the cabin. “You seem to be in a cheerful mood. Did something happen?”
Lost Justice chuckled in response, but didn’t answer.
Outside the door, Gan Zhu hesitated. It had been some time since he had had to greet anyone formally, and the manners he had learned from his mother and father seemed distant to his current self. Nevertheless, he tried his utmost to behave himself in front of this unknown expert, whom even the dangerous Lost Justice seemed to obey.
Accordingly, he clasped his hands in front of his body and lowered his head. “Pardon my intrusion. This humble Gan Zhu… seeks entry,” he finished, realizing that he no longer remembered the correct phrasing.
He could hear Lost Justice snickering in the background, and his expression darkened, but the female voice answered him solemnly. “Yes, please come in.”
Gan Zhu braced himself with a deep breath, and stepped through the doorway. Inside, the light was dimmer, but he had no trouble seeing that the single-roomed cabin was almost entirely empty, without furniture or decoration. Lost Justice leaned against one wall, his weapon stowed once more and his arms crossed in front of him; but Gan Zhu barely gave him a glance. Instead, his eyes were drawn inexorably to the figure seated in the center of the room, eyes closed.
The woman wore a tattered blue robe over armor, in a style that seemed less foreign than that of Lost Justice, but still quite unusual. The armor especially seemed to have been crafted from some unusual material; Gan Zhu was reminded of an insect’s carapace, although he had never encountered an insect large enough to be used as armor. She wore gloves and boots similar to those of Lost Justice, and similarly Gan Zhu could not identify the materials. Over the back of the simple chair she sat upon hung a large broadsword, and Gan Zhu could tell that it was a dangerous artifact with a single glance.
The woman’s skin was paler than lily petals, and her lips were painted a striking orange; a similar color highlighted her closed eyes. Her beautiful silver hair was cut short, solidifying the impression of a warrior woman, and Gan Zhu seemed to detect a subtle green tint within the silver locks. Her face was not quite beautiful, by the standards Gan Zhu had grown up with; but it held an appealing strength and dignity.
The chair she sat on seemed to be a simple one made of wood, but as Gan Zhu gazed at the woman seated upon it, he began to get a strange impression. Somehow, this whole space — the hill, the cabin, everything but the surrounding black — was somehow being projected from this simple chair. And that chair was entirely under the control of this strange, eerie woman.
“Excuse me,” began Gan Zhu, speaking politely to the woman in the chair. “This humble one is named Gan Zhu. May I ask the name of the honored expert…”
Gan Zhu trailed off, because the woman had finally opened her eyes. To his shock, her green eyes emitted a noticeable glow, as though lit by an inner power. Her sharp gaze seemed to look through Gan Zhu, seeing through his every thought and intention. A shiver ran down his spine, and he stiffened, suddenly realizing why Lost Justice had been so cautious of this woman.
And then she smiled, and the penetrating feeling left him. Her smile was gentle and understanding, and it softened the merciless knowledge implied by her gaze into something more forgiving. All of the sudden, Gan Zhu was reminded of his mother, Mir Nanai; for some reason, this gentle smile seemed to be similar to that smile from his childhood, when he would show off and brag in front of his mother and sisters. It was an indulgent smile, full of fondness and familiarity, and Gan Zhu found himself relaxing almost against his will.
“Thank you for coming, Gan Zhu,” she said. Her voice was accented like Lost Justice, but her pronunciation of his name was much more accurate. “I’m sorry that I had to call you here, and I am glad that you accepted my invitation.
“I have no name, but if it pleases you, you may call me ‘the Oracle.’”
- Introducing special guest characters, the Oracle and Lost Justice! They are dimension travelers from The Oracle and the Gunslinger by my friend OhMarioWV. He had previously offered to let me use the character of the Oracle in one of my stories, but I seem to have surprised him by letting her show up here. Regardless, he helped me adjust Lost Justice’s dialogue in a very timely fashion, allowing me to release this chapter earlier than I expected. So a round of applause for OhMarioWV! 😀
- As to why they are showing up now… actually, it seems I can’t explain it without spoiling the next chapter, so you’ll just have to wait. 😛
- Speaking of the next chapter, I won’t be able to put out another chapter of Anubai until October, after our move. So hopefully this chapter is less cliff-like than the last one. 😉
- I will still be posting on Fridays and Sundays, incidentally, so don’t expect me to go dark. I just won’t have time to write full chapters. Don’t worry, I’ll find something for you to look at. 🙂
- Thanks for reading! 😀