Date: The 1075th year of the reign of the Demon Emperor
An arrow smacked into the mud in front of Hui’s nose, and she blinked. She suddenly came to the realization that the entire left side of her face was pressed down into the muddy street. Her head was spinning like a top.
She heard the sounds of fighting. Clashing metal. Screaming.
Pain stabbed through her right eye all the way to her left temple, jolting her into lucidity.
She blinked again, then swiveled over and pushed herself up onto her knees. She saw chaos.
People were fighting everywhere. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning illuminated the night sky, followed by a clap of thunder which reverberated in her ears.
A drop of rain hit her nose.
She slowly shook her head, trying to clear it, and that was when another arrow stabbed into the ground, this time next to her foot. Then another and another, eventually becoming a volley aimed directly at her.
Just as she was about to be turned into a pincushion, a blur emerged in front of her, and someone grabbed her by the shoulder. She saw a sword spinning through the air to deflect the oncoming arrows.
“Get her out of here!” she heard someone shout, and whoever had grabbed her arm pulled her off her feet.
Suddenly her vision blurred again, and she felt herself being thrown over a shoulder. Her head smacked against someone’s back, who then began to run at top speed.
At this point, she started to come to her senses.
The sword, she thought. Where is it?!
“I have it,” the person responded. Only then did she realize that she had actually spoken those words aloud. The voice that responded to her belonged to a man, a man she recognized. “Just hold on,” he said. “I’ve got you.”
More running. Turns left and right and left and… she lost count, but as the man ran, her thoughts grew even clearer.
We were betrayed? By who? And… Bao Yang has the sword. Bao Yang? BAO YANG?!
She tried to turn her head to confirm the identity of the man who was carrying her. She was almost sure it was Bao Yang but then again, it was hard to say.
Bao Yang has the sword… and ME?!
Hui’s teeth started to chatter. Everything was falling apart. All the plans. All the training. It was… for nothing?
All of a sudden, she felt herself swinging off of Bao Yang’s shoulder, and then she plopped down onto a hard surface. A box, a crate of some sort. She looked around. They were in an underground chamber or warehouse. She heard running water and saw the glow of torches. Somewhere in the background, she was sure she could detect the chatter of rats and mice.
Bao Yang crouched down in front of her. He was tall, powerfully built, with perpetually suspicious eyes. In his younger days he had been considered one of the top rising figures in the martial world, and had even managed to build a powerful criminal organization that controlled much of the southern reaches of the continent. In the end, he ran afoul of the Demon Emperor. Rumor had it that he had been forced to watch his wife and daughters be raped and beheaded, his lieutenants skinned alive, and his apprentices boiled to death.
After escaping somehow, he sold his services to the highest bidder as a mercenary. Although he was not a villain, he was no hero, and Hui happened to dislike him. What made it worse was that he shared the surname Bao with the most famous woman in history, Heroine Bao. Hui idolized Heroine Bao, and dreamed of accomplishing heroic deeds just like her.
Bao Yang looked her in the eye. “Are you clear-headed?” he asked. “You took a hard knock to the head.”
She put her fingers to her temples and rubbed them gingerly. “I’m fine,” she replied. “What are you going to do with me?”
His face was virtually expressionless as he stared back at her. “What do you think? Get this sword to your Master.”
Her brow furrowed. “But you… you’re….”
This time he frowned. “I’m what? Not one of you idealistic idiots? No, I’m not. But I’ll take any chance I can get to stick a thorn in the side of the Demon Emperor, and helping you people is exactly that. Plus, I have lots of money on the line here. Can you walk? Can you run?”
She rose to her feet and slowly shook out her hands and feet. “I can run.”
“Then let’s go.”
Bao Yang started running, and she followed. It was then that she noticed the cloth bundle strapped to his back, the bundle that until recently, she had been entrusted with. The sword. THAT sword.
That sword was the key to everything. It was the hope. The only hope.
Bao Yang had obviously taken it when she was knocked unconscious.
As she ran, her head cleared, and the pain from before faded into a dull throb. Her training took over, and she began to circulate her Qi. It took a while, but she got her bearings.
She knew these alleys. They were in Yu Zhing, an ancient city that went back thousands of years. Back to the time before the Demon Emperor came. Back before the world began its descent into darkness.
Some legends said that Heroine Bao was born in Yu Zhing, and Hui couldn’t help but wonder if she might have run down this very alley at one point in her life.
As she followed Bao Yang through the alleys, she quickly realized what he was doing. He was taking a circuitous route to their original destination, to the place where her Master awaited.
As she settled into the running, she focused her breathing and her thoughts. Perhaps the plan would still be carried out. If Bao Yang could really bring the sword to the underground temple, to her Master, if the ritual really could be carried out, then… perhaps things would change.
Twenty minutes later, they were in a wide corridor, in the middle of which was a channel filled with flowing water. The rain had clearly picked up outside.
“Everything look normal to you?” asked Bao Yang.
“Well,” he said, “you know what to do, hurry it up.”
This time, she took the lead. She led him through the corridor, carefully avoiding the stones she knew to be traps. In one place she indicated for him to duck down, and he followed suit. When they reached the thick, wooden door at the end of the corridor, she checked the secret symbols carved off to the side to make sure that it was safe, then knocked in the prescribed fashion.
The door was unbarred and opened, and light spilled out to reveal a hall filled with candles.
Her Master sat cross-legged at the far end of the hall, flanked on either side by various robed figures. Some were monks or nuns, devotees of Hen-Shi, who most people said was dead. The others were disciples of her Master, the remnants of one of the most ancient sects in the world, whose robes were embroidered with a symbol resembling an intertwined dragon and phoenix, the mark of Sunan and Bao.
Whenever Hui saw that symbol, her heart filled with awe… and hope. She had grown up hearing stories about Sunan and Bao, and could recite every one of them by heart. She knew the Tale of the Emerald Monk, the Ballad of the Timeless Master, the Defeat at Heart’s Ridge, Sunan and Bao Steal the Sun… and so many more.
Bao Yang brushed past the disciple who had opened the door, who smiled oddly at him as he passed, although neither Bao Yang nor Hui noticed that. As Bao Yang stalked across the temple toward Hui’s master, he reached up and untied the bundle strapped to his back. The sword.
Hui quickly trotted to catch up.
“Greetings, Iron Crab,” her Master said. He was a middle-aged man with long salt-and-pepper hair, and piercing eyes.
“Dispense with the formalities,” Bao Yang replied. “Here’s the sword, now where’s my money?”
Hui hurried around to sit down cross-legged next to her Master.
“As direct as ever, I see,” her Master said. “Give me the sword. Once the ritual has begun, ensuring that the sword is legitimate, I’ll give you your money.” He reached into his robe and pulled out a plump bag, which he placed on his knee. A muffled clink could be heard as he did so.
Bao Yang glared for a moment, then frowned. Finally, he threw the bundle over.
Hui’s Master grabbed it and quickly unwrapped the cloth. Inside was what appeared to be nothing more than an ordinary jian sword.
When Bao Yang saw it, he snorted. “That’s it?”
Hui’s Master breathed out slowly. “This is most definitely… it.”
He held the sword aloft with both hands, whereupon one of the monks who had been kneeling off to the side rose to his feet and took it into his hands.
“Begin the ritual,” Hui’s Master said. “Our friend here is anxious to leave, as am I.”
The monk nodded. Simultaneously, two nuns appeared from the nearby shadows, carrying a small iron cauldron between them, which appeared to be filled with white sand. They placed it onto the floor in front of Hui’s Master, whereupon the monk carefully stabbed the jian sword down into the white sand. A handful of incense sticks appeared in the monk’s hand, which he placed into the sand around the sword, arranging them in a complex formation. The nuns produced a brazier, which they used to light the incense sticks.
Bao Yang snorted again. “You people are crazy,” he said. “I told you from the beginning your little trick wouldn’t work. Did you really think you can force that sword to fail in its function? Now, give me my money.”
“There is more to it than that,” replied Hui’s master
Suddenly, green smoke began to rise up from the incense. At first, it simply swirled around the cauldron like ordinary smoke, but then, it began to form the shape of an hourglass. At the same time, complex green and yellow symbols began to appear on the blade of the jian sword. Light began to shine out. Hui’s master smiled.
“It is authentic,” he said. “Very well, take your money and go.” With that, he tossed the bag over to Bao Yang.
Bao Yang snatched it out of the air and, without another word, turned to leave.
It was at this point that a cold voice split the air.
“You won’t be going anywhere, Bao Yang!” The voice came from the disciple who had opened the door for them moments ago.
Bao Yang stopped in place and placed his hand on the handle of the sturdy mace he kept tied to his belt.
The disciple stepped forward, and as he did, his facial features suddenly began to flow like water. He grew taller, his clothes changed, and a moment later, he was a different person.
He looked like a scholar, with long green robes, and a fan tucked into his belt.
“Hidden Arrow!” growled Bao Yang. “I should have killed you when I had the chance!”
The man he had referred to as Hidden Arrow smiled. “You always know how to pick the wrong side, Bao Yang. Are you sure you don’t want to come work for me? I could always use some brute force to crack skulls here and there.”
Bao Yang spit onto the ground. “I’d rather bash my own skull in than be a whore for the Demon Emperor!”
Hidden Arrow’s eyes flashed. “If it’s death you seek, I can accommodate you!”
Bao Yang hefted his mace. Further back, Hui’s Master rose to his feet, as did all the monks and nuns. Weapons were drawn.
“Hidden Arrow,” Hui’s Master said. “Why do you tread this path? Surely you see that our world is a dismal one. A world of pain and suffering, of choking clouds and fire. If you schemed against the Demon Lord instead of people like us, we might be able to live in a very different world.” It seemed obvious to Hui that he was trying to buy time.
Hidden Arrow chuckled. “I have my own plans, and they’re none of your concern. Who are you people anyway? The Golden Dragon sect? The Pure Phoenix sect ? Don’t you know that Sunan and Bao died a millennium ago? What’s done cannot be undone.”
“You don’t know that, Hidden Arrow.”
Hidden Arrow snorted. “Hand over that sword immediately, and you might leave this place alive!” It was at this point that Hui noticed the rustling sounds coming from the shadows in the corners of the room.
The House of Paper Shadows? she thought, and her heart began to pound even harder.
A voice suddenly rang out in Hui’s mind, her Master’s voice. Hui, Hidden Arrow is a Profound Master, and utilizes deadly poisons! Prepare yourself!
Yes, Master! Actually, Hui needed no prompting from her Master. She was young, only about fifteen or sixteen, but was more experienced than many fighters in the world.
“Screw you, bastard!” shouted Bao Yang, suddenly lunging forward with his mace. “Bone Blasting Mace!”
His mace smashed through the air toward Hidden Arrow, but ended up blasting nothing but air. Hidden Arrow shot backward at incredible speed, then snapped his fan open.
In the same moment that a metallic drone filled the air, Hui twirled her fingers, causing her twin daggers to whirl as she spun into the move Deflecting Canopy.
In front of her, her Master’s sword flashed through the air as he utilized a Profound Master’s version of the art.
The world suddenly seemed to slow down in Hui’s eyes.
She saw a storm of needles spreading out through the room, a tempest, more needles than she had ever seen in her life. Bao Yang, the closest to Hidden Arrow, deflected some of the needles, but was hit by at least two, and instantly began to drop down to his knees.
At some point, shadows had stretched out from the walls and attached themselves to the monks, nuns and other disciples, making their arms and legs leaden and immobile. One of the monks took a needle to the eye, and started to flip backward into the air. Another was hit in the shoulder, spinning him to the left.
Hui watched in horror as one ally after another was hit with needles. Only her master, with his brightly spinning sword, seemed capable of deflecting all the needles. Hui was positioned directly behind him, and was thus able to benefit from his shield. That, coupled with her own version of Deflecting Canopy, ensured that she was not hit by a single needle.
The entire fight was over in a matter of seconds. Bao Yang was now on his hands and knees, vomiting blood. Most of the monks and nuns had been killed in the initial volley, and those who had not been were now vomiting blood or twitching in seizures.
Her master stood in front of the cauldron, only an arm’s length from the sword, which was now thrumming with magical power.
“You’re too late, Hidden Arrow,” he said. “The ritual is complete. The time has come.”
Hidden Arrow sauntered forward, chuckling. “I think not. You’re getting slow in your old age.”
Suddenly, Hui’s master staggered slightly. He reached his hand up to his neck, and when he pulled it away, a needle could be seen held between his thumb and index finger. A tiny drop of blood rolled off the end.
Hui’s heart lurched into her mouth.
Her Master’s voice suddenly spoke into her mind again.
Hui, prepare yourself. I will throw you the sword in the moment before it is activated. You will take my place to accomplish this mission.
Hui’s mind spun, and her heart began to pound. Master, I can’t! I was supposed to stay here!
Hidden Arrow walked up to Bao Yang and grabbed him by the hair. “Your martial arts fell behind mine decades ago. When we first met, you might have been able to defeat me with a bull rush, but now? Don’t make me laugh.” He lifted his foot up to Bao Yang’s shoulder, then kicked out, sending him toppling to the ground in a pool of vomit and blood. “Cutting your head off would be too quick. I think watching you die this way will be much more enjoyable.” He turned toward Hui’s Master.
You must accomplish the mission, Hui. I’ve been hit with Hidden Arrow’s enhanced Hellebore poison. Even if I use the sword, I’ll still die after reaching the destination. When I throw it your way, all you have to do is grab on and hold tight.
Hui resisted the urge to cry. Master, I’ve memorized the Song of Bao, but I haven’t mastered the Trance Touch Incantation!
“I don’t think that sword does what you want it to,” Hidden Arrow said, folding his hands behind his back. “But I don’t really care. Even if you somehow manage to FORCE it to fail, you’ll still die within minutes, no matter where you end up.”
“Fine then,” her Master said. Hui, you have the foundation, you just need practice, and more power. Once you reach your destination, you will have plenty of time. Prepare yourself.
Her Master’s hand snaked out, grabbed the sword, and then sent it shooting toward Hui with a burst of Qi. Hui leaped forward, hand outstretched toward the hilt.
However, her heart trembled when she noticed that Hidden Arrow’s hand had also shot out from behind his back. He made a flicking motion, and a needle began to speed toward her.
It moved faster than the sword, much faster. Backed by Hidden Arrow’s Profound Master Qi, the impact itself would likely kill her, and if it didn’t, the poison surely would. She watched the needle get closer and closer… but before it arrived, her hand clamped down onto the hilt of the sword.
Time seemed to slow… and then stop. Brilliant colors burst out from the blade, surrounding her. It filled her eyes until all she could see was painful whiteness. Then… she vanished.
The needle smacked into the stone wall, and cracks spread out for at least a meter in all directions from the point of impact.
Hui’s Master chuckled. “It’s done.”
Hidden Arrow gritted his teeth. “I still don’t believe that you can manipulate the Sword of Time in that way!”
“It doesn’t really matter what you believe, does it? One thing is for certain, though, Hidden Arrow. I might be about to die… but I’ll be taking you with me!”