Prologue

Prologue

I waited in the large banquet room, riddled with dark candles that cast a dim light on the celebrators.  The heat caused beads of sweat to form on their skin as they drank their ambrosia with glee, lost to the world in their merrymaking.  Their strange, all too insulated dark and white attire caused them to sweat profusely, suffocated by chains of their own choosing.

They yelled, sang, clapped, and danced.  Some fell to the ground and vomited, their stomach proving to be inferior containers to the round glasses they held in their hands.

I did not sway to the drums, drink the purple nectar, or stand to dance.  I sat in the back, a mere shadow against the limelight that celebrated those responsible for the passage of a treaty that brought law to the regional underworld.

“Hey, lady, how ‘bout you and me get a little frisky down back in the alley.” A man, glass in hand approached me.  

Another fool in this gathering of powerful men who believed themselves above the laws set by their society.  He reached out with his hand for a feel, in a clear state of intoxication.

I glared at the man, sending an unspoken message of pure wrath and retaliation if he were to continue his course, causing him to rapidly shrink away, disturbed by the intensity of my reaction.

Few others noticed me at the banquet.  The loud, black drums began a new rhythm, pumping like an invisible heartbeat and they shook me to move.  

I stood and began to walk through the room.  The celebration had lasted long, but the organizer had retired to his quarter hours ago.  I was forced to step around the aging, powerfully built second-in-command of my target, slumped over and passed out at his table.  His greying hair and bulging stomach disguised the danger he could present to me if he were lucid.

I tread lightly, skirting the sides of the room, passing the sound system.  As I passed a group on the west, a table of ashen-skinned men and women, they turned collectively to give me a nod.

At the edge of the room, I passed rows of artificial lights created by the human ferromancers.  

Their technologies, the dreams and efforts of those who would bend nature to their will never failed to inspire awe.

They were a strange but amazing people, these humans.  Even drunk and spewing their innards out, there was a splendor to them.  

The men dressed in light shirts coats that buttoned down the center of the chest, and dark woolen coats that closed around it.  The women wore grand silk dresses, tightly fitted, the flamboyant colors a contrast to the dark tones worn by the men.  

I left the festivities behind and continued to a side staircase leading upwards.  The hallways curved, running around the perimeters of the human citadel.  Slipping through a window, I took care to use a short perception spell inscribed on a scroll to enable a path along the side of the structure.  It would block any prying eyes for a precious few seconds

I leapt and shifted, riding the wind upwards through the night sky.

I took care to slip through the window silently, the 63rd floor from my reckoning.  Turning to the left, I took the hallway that would lead directly towards the chambers in the back, where I would find my mark.  

I stopped.

There were three brilliant lamps on the wall, shining rubies humming at their core.  I walked up to one, cupping my right hand around the glass-enclosed gemstone.  At the heart of the lamp, I could feel the power of thunderstorms and clouds, the throbbing power of storm and sky.

My masters were correct, my mark was no mere mortal upstart.

“Who’s there!” a voice called out, just as I thought to listen for trouble on the wind

I turned my head around towards the shout.

 

There were two guards at the intersection.  I took a moment to survey them as they approached.  They each carried a club in hand, two sticks one longer the other connected at right angles.  Each wore a dark coat that concealed some bulk underneath, which likely held the powerful stoneslingers humans of this age favored, guns.  Spiraling lines from a pocket in their coats coiled to small nodes in their ears, with a thin black line curving to their mouths.  Some mortal communication magic, perhaps?

“Come on now, dis ain’ no place for a lady like you ta be” said the guard on the left in a deep local accent.

“Whatsamattaferu Joe, da lady’s just a liddle lost ‘ere” the other responded. “Ain’ that big ova deal.”

I froze, head downcast in shame before drawing a deep breath.  I felt the currents of wind flowing through the floor, and siphoned from the ruby lamps lining the walls, then beyond, to any nodes within my grasp.  The ethereal energy surrounded me, and I looked up at the guards.  They could see that I was wreathed in a cloak of light.  The one identified as “Joe” frowned and stuttered nervously.

“W-what…what da hell are you!”  

His voice had lost the certainty it held only moments ago.

“Y-ya some kinda ghost?”

“I’m…”

“I’m sorry.”

I shed my illusion, feeling the drain on my being lessen as my disguise to infiltrate the banquet vanished in a cloud of glitter, replaced by my combat attire.  A leather cuirass fell over my chest, under the veil of a hooded cloak.  

They jumped a brief moment in surprise, and began to brandish their clubs before I leapt.  I struck each with a swift round kick to the head, causing Joe to fall and the other to stagger.

I reached into my demesne, my personal domain and drew my weapon – a spear crafted from enchanted Ashwood.  A small funnel of wind surrounded my spear and dissipated while it was drawn, the signature effect of reaching into my personal domain.  Before they could recover from the stunning blows and wind blowing into their eyes, I quickly spun and swiped my spear at the second guard.

It traveled just shy of his neck seeming to miss him entirely.  

Shock riddled his face as he felt the effects from my swing a moment later, and a fountain of blood spurted from his neck

I’m sorry.

Before he hit the ground, I twirled in the air and reached for his belt, rolling my fingers.

The other guard, referred to earlier as Joe, gasped as he fumbled to stand up.  He bellowed into his earpiece while drawing his weapon.

“INTRUDER! SIXTY THIRD FLOOR WEST W-”  

He suddenly pause and looked down.  His dying companion’s gun was pressed firmly against his chest.    He quaked with fear and the color drained from his face.

I’m sorry

Two shots rang out, and I swept out his knee with my spear, causing him to fall.  I let the gun drop as I re-enabled the safety mechanism, letting it fall to the floor with a clang along with its victim.  Spear in hand, I turned down another corridor, following the layout of the building I had memorized from a map.  I flattened myself against the dark wall as a squad of guards stumbled on the dead or dying men.  

The new arrivals began to shout frantically, raising the alarm.

I peeked out into the corridor, and a guard at the intersection spotted me.  He began pointing and yelling at my direction and I ducked away, running along the corridor.  

More lamps shimmered faintly on the walls here.  I drew on them, replenishing the reserves I had drained from maintaining my glamour for so long. The reverberation of thunderstorms rang through my bones, and my muscles came to life, increasing my speed.  Running ahead, I threw open the door and shut it behind me and hesitated for a second, just long enough for the guards to see me before I dashed into the room.  I felt a drain as I called up a wall of air pressure to hold the door momentarily closed.

The guards began to hammer and throw their bodies at it the door while I glanced around the room.  It was an elegantly decorated room with furniture – tables, sofas, chairs, and an array of modern tools I did not understand.  A sky roof shone with the city lights overhead, with a large metal cone standing over the roof.

Understanding what I needed to do, I steeled my resolve and jumped, while shedding my current form.  I shrank to mere inches tall in a flash of light and flew upwards, towards the far upper corners of the room and hid in the shadows.  My spear was held at a ready pose as it began to draw from my strength, the ancient wood thrumming with power.  Beneath me, the door began to crack in rhythm with a resounding BANG.

The door shook and burst open, with a guard holding a larger gun with two barrels led his way into the room,  Nearly a dozen guards spilled in behind him, holding their guns out and walking in a tight formation to cover all angles.  They frantically pointed their weapons around the area, searching for signs of movement.  

When I saw that no more men entered, I channeled power into my spear and swept out to the side, severing the last critical support I needed to.

I dashed, channeling the wind to increase my speed as they spotted me and fired, metal pellets landed in clusters behind me.  The roof collapsed, burying my pursuers beneath thousands of pounds of metal, stone, glass, and water.  

I turned away from the horrible sound of the screams and gurgling, the shattering of stone and glass, and breaking bones.  

There were two more lamps here containing sapphires, one on each wall.   Making a blade of wind with enough pressure a to cut through steel and stone had nearly drained my mana entirely.  I drew upon them to replenish myself to a fraction of what I had before entering the prior room.  

My target was inebriated without doubt from the banquet, but he was in his place of power, surrounded by nodes of mana prepared to use at a moment’s notice.  They were finely crafted – made to be inaccessible to other human mages and imbued with copious amounts of energy.   From what I had seen, he also had a very capable and well-trained security force ready to assist him.

I floated down the last room leading to the target’s chambers, the light dimming as the lamps were drained of their splendor.  The large room was some sort of large work space, lined with pillars, fine artwork and a large desk looking over the city below.  Across from the desk, were several couches and a large screen that looked over the room.  Three guards were ahead, treading forward carefully in a tight formation.  I could not be more thankful in that moment, that humans had a terrible tendency not to look up.

I couldn’t channel enough power to give my spear any meaningful reach in my natural form, so I dropped down between them, shifting into my larger form and swung my spear.

Two heads rolled, and the third stumbled while clutching his throat.   I raced forward, shifting into my normal flight form as the men behind them panicked and began firing.  Their projectiles split around my wall of wind, and I bolted down the hallway striking with my spear, shearing through the necks of four more guards who fired at me in sheer panic, a far cry from the careful, tactical approach of the guards from before.

They began to panic, some yelling for help and others crawling away from me.  I cut down a few more, then flipped into the air, tucking into a roll and anchoring myself with a wave of air pressure.  I landed and released the wave, staggering the remaining group of men I landed into with a strong gust.  

I lashed out, the tip of my spear glimmering against the light of the oriental lamps above.  Quick, elegant snaps, one after another.  I could not block out the screams of dying men as my weapon pierced their hearts, or ignore the sight of seeing them fall.  

The last guard fell, and I lowered my spear, feeling the full weight of my sins as the dying men mewled for their mothers.  I turned, and continued on my way, sandaled feet falling on the soft carpet, running red with blood.  

One guard crawled away, blood rushing forth from his leg, which was severed near the ankle. The brown skinned warrior was young by even human standards, and it looked as if he had not crossed his second fort year as of yet.  His wound was likely lethal and it would be an excruciating and slow death without immediate attention.  

I walked over to him, grim-faced and prepared to put him out of his misery.

*BOOM*

A resounding crash filled the room, and I felt an object slamming into my shoulder blade, drawing blood and jolting me with a flash of pain.  I whirled around, and whirled around, regaining my balance with a gust of wind.  

Looking up the steps, a human had exited from the room within and was holding a smoking gun.  The somewhat tall, barrel-chested man wore a simple blue overcoat and shirt, with brown trousers along with a belt.  He looked nondescript, like a commoner of this era if not for the sheathed sword and several flasks on his belt, no doubt filled with alchemical ingredients.  A scar – more prominent than the ones that already covered his chest, ran from the gray hairline on the left side of his forehead down to his nose.  It was my target – the man known as Yang Wu Xuan.

“Your quarrel is with me, yāo jīng” he spat, leveling his gun at me.

He looked pointedly at the young man writhing on the ground, and kept his weapon raised at me while walking over to check on the youth.  Wu Xuan drew a flask from his belt, pouring it into the guard’s mouth.  The youth’s spasmed in pain and writhed in agony as his wounds rapidly sealed and his foot re-grew, and stopped, rendered unconscious by the Golden Elixir.

I balked, and I was struck by guilt in that moment.  I knew the amount of time, resources, and effort that would go into creating a Jindan that could close a mortal wound so quickly was nothing to be laughed at.

I had not been sure if Yang Wu Xuan’s benevolent demeanor was merely a front, but this all but confirmed that it wasn’t.  He had used an incredibly valuable elixir on a mere foot soldier.

Wu Xuan noticed .my reaction, and his gaze softened, causing him to lower his weapon to his side.  He turned his back to me without a hint of fear, and carried Vihaan to his chambers before strolling to the windows behind his large work desk.

“His name is Vihaan Choudhury,” he said, his reflection showing a somber gaze as he watched over the city.

“I know the names of each and every one of the men and women who I’ve employed.  This brave, young fool came to secure my safety the moment the alarms sounded,  This is the least I could do for him.”

I cursed my name, cursed that man with all my being, that I would have been forced to kill so many who would not deserve it.  I want to stop, I want to scream.   

“We were poised to bring order at last to this city, to both the humans and the twilight realms alike.”

His hands graced over an object on his desk, a small picture of him with a young man, woman, and two children.

“You have consumed the mana I had stored in my thunder lanterns somehow, cut off from my workshop and the Fu talismans I am famous for.  Now you catch me isolated, sleep deprived, and intoxicated from a banquet that was to celebrate peace,.  I am aware that you have collapsed the primary entrance to my chambers.  It will likely take my men time to dig through, far too long to reach us in time.”

I gazed at him, with a strong desire to scream, to stop, but I could not no matter how much I willed it.  My hairs stood on end as I mentally prepared myself for our inevitable clash, and a lazy draft billowed through the room causing my cloak to flutter in the wind.   

“You are wordbound strike me down tonight, I see.  The people of this city need me, and I will not go quietly.  Do not make the mistake of taking me for easy prey, assassin.”  

He turned around, drawing his longsword in two hands, sheathing his gun.  The sword was a fine weapon of eastern make inscribed with Chinese characters.  The moonlight shone brilliantly off a set of eight coins bound to the blade.

“Lín bīng jiàn yīxiàn zhèn zhàndòu!”  He shouted, sweeping his sword along the floor.

Suddenly, all the pillars in the room lit up, along with the artwork strewn across the room.  

He had turned this entire room into an Eight Trigrams array.

Yang Wu Xuan struck, swinging his sword with his considerable weight behind it.  I nimbly leapt to the side with a twist, and he followed, stepping into an aggressive stance favored by the Northmen in his original country.  He moved incredibly nimbly for a man of his size and charged with a thrust.  I felt a thrill as the blade struck the pillar next to me, causing it to resonate in a brief glow.   A small explosion arose where the blade landed and released a spark of electricity which coursed through me with a resounding boom.  The shock forced me to fall into a roll across the room, and I flipped over a couch to regain my footing in a three-point crouch.  

Leifa Thunder magic, originally created by magicians tapping into the veil of existence to banish demons and unsavory elementals using the energy of the heavens.  It was said that even the mightiest of rakshasas and demons could not resist the effects of a powerful Taoist practitioner.  Unfortunately, as a creature born from the wind, it would not be nearly as effective against me.

I was truly the ideal assassin for Yang Wu Xuan, and I cursed the circumstances all that more for it.  

Seeing me fumble for a moment, he carried his momentum forward and struck out again.  I changed to my small form and launched myself to the side with a gust of wind.  His blade left another crackle where I was crouching a second earlier, and we continued our dance.

I released a gust of wind behind me and flew at him, striking downward with an overhand thrust with my smaller spear.   He dodged, then backhanded me with an unbelievable amount of force, and I felt a crack in my ribs.  I struggled to reorient myself in the air as he fired a burst with his gun, and I quickly dodged behind a pillar.

Sharp enough reflexes to catch me out of the air, even with the wind enhancing my speed. Engaging at full size will be a mistake.

I turned back into my fighting height, and as expected he charged at me again with a wide swing, I tucked and rolled to his right, away from his dominant swing angle.

Throwing a burst of air to control my momentum, I came up behind him and slammed the point of my spear into my opponent’s open right flank.

“Tao gives birth to One” he recited as I began my roll “Yù Qīng: Honoured Lord of the Origin”

The trigrams briefly hummed, and something impossible happened.   My cloak was caught and torn on his belt as he turned to meet me, drawing my momentum to throw me careening off to the side.

Probability and luck manipulation?

Whatever it was, he would not be able to sustain it effectively for long.  Luck magic always had an enormous mana cost attached.

I shifted and flew into the air, and he drew his gun.  He fired at me as I swerved in tight, unpredictable spins and turns to find an opening.

I found a blind spot with some difficulty, and I dived to thrust at him only for him to step back.  I shifted into my tall form, and followed him with a balanced thrust.  He executed a perfect counter stroke, coming within a hair of taking off my head as I leaned back.

This man was dangerously skilled with a sword.  

Too many human wizards became reliant on the power of their mysteries in battle, not knowing what to do when caught without preparation.  Yang Wu Xuan was not guilty of that crime.

Seizing the opening his counter-stroke provided me, I pivoted on my spear for a wind-enhanced double crescent kick.  My kick pierced through a crackling barrier and drew blood.  He was thrown a dozen feet back in the air into what I expected would be a painful tumble.

“One give birth to two – Shàngqīng:  the Supreme Pure One”

My eyes widened as something that looked like a Chinese warrior of old caught him when he started to fly back.  It immediately began to shoot spectral arrows at me, clipping me on the side of my left leg and drawing some blood while the brightness of the room flickered.  The ghostly apparition flickered with the room and quickly vanished.

We were both wounded, but we still fell into battle stances.  I attacked with vigor, throwing my spear in a flurry of thrusts as he stepped in between them, aggressively countering with broad, sweeping swings.  I weaved outside of an overextended swing stepping to his right and managed to land a quick shallow jab to his ribs.  He wheezed with pain and fatigue, and I could feel the wind of his weapon passing just a hair’s breadth away from my body as he struck back.

I timed my next move carefully, then dashed through his counter-stroke.  Expecting another strike at his ribs, he drew his sword to a guard as I burst past him into his chambers, where he had left Vihaan on a futon.  I leaned forward, feinting a strike at the guard, hoping to bait him into a mistake.

“Two gives birth to Three – Tài Qīng:  “The Universally Honoured Virtuous One.”

He appeared in a flash of light at a trigram line located in his room, back turned to me.  Taking advantage of my momentary surprise and lack of balance, he delivered a one-handed turning back swing at my exposed stomach.  I leaned backwards to avoid it, allowing him to walk past the effective range of my spear in an ironic inverse of our earlier exchange.  He dropped into a low stance, and carried his momentum forward, rear fist crackling with electricity as he delivered a shattering punch into my chest.

Baji Quan…

Light filled my vision, and I felt a jolt of pure agony as thunder rang out through my body, partially caving in my ribs.  The punch sent me across the floor, causing blood to spray from my mouth.  The glass behind me shattered, and the shock blow reverberated through the building.  Through my blurry vision, I looked up and saw him following slowly, huffing in exhaustion.  The glowing pillars flickered, indicating a severe strain on his rapidly fading qi.  

We both understood in that moment, that if the events leading up to the battle had not been stacked as badly as they were against him, I would have been long dead.

I knew what had to be done here, as distasteful as it was.  Yang Wu Xuan’s living space was set on the top floor of his personal citadel, the building that bore his legacy.  It extended to look over the city with a hanging balcony over a park..  He would allow no innocents would be harmed in my next move, and there was only one way for someone like him to respond.

I stood up, and readied my spear, letting the most of my remaining mana flow through, angling for a wide room sweep towards Vihaan.  

He faced me grimly, and settled into a wide stance in anticipation, chambering both arms.

I swung my spear, and the rippling winds surged forth.

“Three gives birth to ten thousand.  Ten thousand embrace the yin and yang.  Five points…”

The building creaked, and we fell.

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