"It ain't fair, I'm tellin' ya." The Devil Gang footsoldier got to his feet, breathing hard, and wiped his forehead with the back of one gloved hand. The dim light of the overhead lanterns just barely illuminated the fact that the glove was even dirtier than his face, and he had only made things worse. "Why do we gotta work while everybody else gets to party? It ain't like there's a whole lot left to do down here."
His comrade shook his head, not in the mood to put up with all the complaining. It was bad enough that they were down here, laying down boards and finishing the last of the check-ups on the tunnel. The last thing he wanted was to listen to his fellow footsoldier whine.
And yet the complaints continued. "First our Lieutenants get ghosted, and then we have to work down here into the wee hours of the mornin'. I'm tellin' ya, man, I don't know if it's all worth it." The soldier reached to his belt and withdrew his canteen, taking a long gulp of water and gasping loudly afterwards. "And this tunnel gets pretty damn creepy at night…"
"Look," his companion said, hammering the last nail into his board loudly enough to echo throughout the tunnel, "you don't even know if the sun's down yet. It always looks the same down here: dark. It doesn't get any darker or brighter. You're pissin' me off, so shut the hell up already!"
The first soldier blinked, startled by the reaction. "Geez," he murmured after a pause. "Somebody needs a hug."
Before the footsoldier could realize that it was not his friend's voice that had answered him, a pair of muscular arms emerged from the shadows and took him from behind. One hand cupped over his mouth and nose while the other wrapped around his throat, cutting off his air supply.
The second footsoldier got to his feet, raising his hammer into the air and snarling. He would have charged to the aid of his fellow Devil Gang member had he, too, not been struck from behind. A small, lithe form came flying out from the darkness and a booted foot slammed into the side of his head. The thug was sent sprawling by the blow, the hammer sailing away from his grip and tumbling away into the shadows. He fought his way back onto hands and knees, but the same boot came swinging up from his side, taking him under the chin and knocking him unconscious. His body rolled limply to the side, slumping into the gutter between the wooden walkway and the curved wall of the tunnel.
By then, the first of the Devil Gang thugs had gone limp and sagged in the grip of his captor. His body sank to the walkway, unmoving.
"Goodness," said a timid voice from the shadows. Lau Ban stepped into the lantern-light, his eyes darting to and fro cautiously. "I thought we were not to engage in any physical confrontations this evening?"
Ah Tian cracked his knuckles, stepping over the body of the first footsoldier and grinning eagerly. "Hey, well, you know… best-laid plans and all. Personally, I see this as a pleasant surprise."
On the other side of the walkway, Zhu Lien adjusted her skirt and joined her friends in the lantern's glow. "What were we supposed to do, Ban? There's still a lot more of this tunnel left, and we don't exactly have enough room to slip past them."
She glanced down at the fallen Devil Gangsters, huffing annoyedly. She had not expected to have to exert herself while exploring the mysterious tunnel beneath Guonan, but this did confirm her fears. The Devil Gang was responsible for this unusual little construction project.
The trio had been wandering the tunnels for what felt like hours. Upon re-finding the central storm drain and the recently-constructed walkway within, they had followed its path North. The tunnel stretched farther than Lien had imagined; it seemed to stretch on and on and on, until Lien had begun to wonder if Guonan was still a few meters over their heads. It was an average-sized city, small compared to most of the other walled communities in Silver Province. Lien had walked every inch of Guonan in her lifetime, and she was certain that it would not have taken this many hours to walk from roughly halfway up the city map to its edge.
"What do we do about these guys?" Tian asked, lightly prodding a fallen footsoldier with the toe of his boot. "I don't know how smart it is to just leave 'em here."
Lien shook her head. She did not particularly want to think about it at the moment. "I don't know. Tie them up or something. Maybe we could move them into another tunnel next time we come to a cross section, leave them confused…"
"Miss Zhu," Ban said, rubbing his arms nervously, "I don't know if you've noticed, but we have not come across such a crossway in quite some time… How much further do you intend to go? It seems that this path extends far beyond the walls of Guonan."
"I know. That's what scares me." Lien turned to Ban, her eyes narrowing in the dim light. "Ban, what all's directly North of Guonan?"
The scholar tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Well, Mount Shiyi is immediately due North. Past that, nothing, save for the borders of Gold Province."
Ah Tian stretched his arms and yawned loudly. "Maybe they found a gold mine or something down here? I used to hear stories that there was treasure beneath Mount Shiyi."
Ban nodded. "That does sound possible. When he was still an active member of the Circle, was Devil Yuan not said to be something of a treasure-hunter?"
"Yeah, him and his posse used to go around looking for riches and jewels and stuff like that," Tian said. "That was a long time ago, but I don't know… old habits die hard, I guess."
It was a fair hypothesis. Lien gave a single, slow nod, taking it all in. The Devil Gang muscles in on Guonan and takes over so that they can use this tunnel to mine for gold under Mount Shiyi. And the explosive powder they stockpiled- don't they use that for mining in some places? It sounds plausible. "I guess," she thought out loud.
There was still something that did not quite fit in with that theory. Devil Yuan is a Heavenly King. Lien looked up and raised a finger. "Hey, Tian, Heavenly Kings are supposed to be the best of the best when it comes to martial artists, right?"
The swordsman nodded. "That's right."
"But that isn't just in reference to their fighting ability, is it? I used to talk to a lot of the martial artists that came through Guonan on their way to and from Mount Shiyi. They used to tell me that the Heavenly Kings aren't just fighters. They're supposed to be the absolute best in character… y'know, the purest representatives of the martial arts code of honor and all that."
"Supposed to be, yeah," Tian said.
Lien stared down at the unconscious Devil Gang thugs, their breathing labored and shallow. "Why would someone who was elected as a Heavenly King be willing to kill and terrorize so many people just to dig for gold?"
Ah Tian grunted, surprised at the question. He was quiet for a moment, scratching his stubbled chin as he tided over his thoughts. "I guess they were wrong about him," he offered finally. "It wouldn't be the first time somebody elected as a Heavenly King turned out to be a scumbag."
"Even I, who knows little of martial arts and has only a base knowledge of how the Circle of Martial Brotherhood works, has heard enough stories of the Heavenly Kings' valor to convince me otherwise," said Lau Ban. He scratched his nose, which still felt awkward without the weight of his glasses upon it. "I have heard of how Bloodsword Feng, from the previous generation, rescued that village in Black Province from bandits, and how Superleg Kon caught that killer in… what was it? Tienyan, in Red Province, I believe. A year or two ago, that one. And then Sword Goddess…"
"Un-uh. Hold it." Ah Tian's face transformed in an instant, the corners of his lips turning down and his brow furrowing. "That bitch's no saint. Out of anybody, she's the least deserving of the Heavenly King title. She's a scum-suckin' lowlife! She's a…" He trailed off suddenly, seeing the shock on his companions' eyes. "Yeah. She's what I'm talking about. If somebody like her could become a Heavenly King, then I don't see why Devil Yuan couldn't have fooled 'em either."
Zhu Lien raised an eyebrow at her hired sword. "Gee, Tian. Why don't you tell us how you really feel?"
Their scholarly companion shrugged beneath his robes. "That is a bit unexpected. I was aware that you have some issue with Sword Goddess, but… I am sorry. That just goes against everything I have ever heard about the woman." He sighed. "Then again, I suppose you would know better than either of us."
"Yeah, I would," Tian said, folding his arms across his chest. "I know a little too well." Then, under his breath, he mumbled: "If you guys don't quit bringing her up, we're gonna end up running into that bitch sooner or later…"
Lien and Ban exchanged glances. "Anyway, let's press on a little further and see what we can find," Lien said. She reached down and unfastened the outermost sash that held her overcoat against her body and handed it to Ah Tian. "Tie these two up. I want to see if this gold mine theory of yours works out."
Tian took the sash in hand and stared dumbly at it. "I'm not good at tying knots," he said, his tone a little weaker than they were used to hearing.
Lau Ban took it from him, sighing and patting the swordsman on the arm. "Leave it to me, my friend. I may not be much for fighting, but I think I can handle tying up a couple of cold-cocked goons."
Tian smirked, glad to have the task out of his hands. "Where'd you pick that up? They teach you all about bondage at that fancy nobleman school?"
Ban paused briefly, a sly smile crossing his features. "Oh, well, you know. What is that saying? 'Different strokes for different folks'…?"
Lien and Tian both twisted in revulsion. "Too much information, Ban!" Lien said, sticking her tongue out. "I mean… not that there's anything wrong with, y'know, that…"
As he went about the task of tying the unconscious footsoldiers together, Ban's smile widened. "Don't blame me. All of it was Sai's idea."
As the night marched on and the sun dipped low to the horizon, Ah Fei felt himself growing more bold. Most of the Devil Gang's men had consumed enough wine to dull their senses completely, and thus he was able to traverse Zhu Manor's main hall more freely. The dancing girls were still going at it, but the musicians that had provided them their rhythm had abandoned their instruments in favor of feeling up a couple of the Devil Gang's in-house wenches. Ah Fei admired the dancers' dedication to their art; they were giving it their all, even when it seemed he was the only one sober enough to truly enjoy their performance.
A while before, Sai had instructed him to wait in the main hall while she "figured things out." What that meant was that she was to return to him shortly with information on just where it was she and Tu Shen would be spending their private time this evening.
She claimed that she had already found quite a few "juicy" leads and learned some interesting facts. This endeavor with Tu Shen, one of the Devil Gang's highest-ranking officers, would hopefully prove even more fruitful. Unfortunately, it also meant that she would be getting up close and personal with the one person in the Devil Gang she knew the least about. Ah Fei hoped that she would not have to go too far to learn what she needed.
As Fei took a sip of water from a glass one of the serving girls had fetched him, Ah Fei spotted an arrangement of flowers that ran along the pedastal supporting the large, lacquered columns. It was a fine menagerie of flora, and he could not help but smirk when he spotted one particular item amongst the arrangement.
The rose was a relatively rare sight in most parts of Jianghu; it was mostly known for growing in the Western side of the continent, out past Shalys and Bangkomt. Roses were beautiful and romantic with their bold colors and graceful form, and yet the plants they grew upon bore sharp thorns. The idea was not so dissimilar from Ah Fei's ideal of feminine beauty; delicate and elegant, but with a touch of strength.
Making sure no Devil Gangsters were looking his way, Ah Fei withdrew the saber from his sash and carefully cut through the stem of the rose. He tucked his prize carefully into his tunic, hoping the tight fit would not crush the rose.
Now the only question was who to give it to. His first thought ran to Sai; he would present it to her as a way to cheer her up after a night of getting comfy with the sadistic mad men that were the Devil Gang. Something nagged at him, however, telling him that perhaps he should save it. He wondered if Zhu Lien liked roses…
A tap on his shoulder spun him around. Sai stood before him, smirking. "Getting a little too comfortable here, aren't you?" she asked, folding her arms and cocking her head to the side.
"Know thy enemy," Ah Fei said, shrugging. "What's the story?"
"I'm keeping our friend Tu Shen waiting," she said. "Using the little girls' room before I head up to his bedchamber." She leaned in close. "Fourth floor, West wall. Got it?"
He nodded. "I'll be watching."
"Sorry to keep you waiting," Sai said with a sheepish grin as she ascended the stairs.
Tu Shen, leaning against the wall at the top of the stairwell, nodded awkwardly. He still looked uncomfortable and unsure of himself. "It's fine," he said. He gestured toward the hallway and Sai followed him. "I'll apologize in advance. My room is nothing special. I don't often have company, so…"
"Not a problem." Sai tried to sound as flippant as she could; she needed Tu Shen loosened up if she was to get anything good out of him. "You should see my place. It's a total mess."
The young man in black did not respond. He led her to a doorway midway down the hall, then slid the door open and gestured for her to enter. "This is my room," he said. "Please make yourself comfortable." She started to step past him, but he stopped her with a raised hand. "Oh, um- I'm sorry. Did you wear those shoes outside?"
Sai glanced down at her shoes. "Oh, I'm sorry. I did. You need me to take them off?"
He gave a short nod, avoiding eye contact with her. "I'm sorry. I try to keep my floor clean. Can't have outside dirt on the carpet. Sorry if it inconveniences you or makes you uncomfortable."
Okay, well, so he's a neat freak. It could be worse. Sai took her shoes off and sat them next to the door, then gave Tu Shen a reassuring smile. "I was gonna take them off anyway. Feet were getting sore. I can't stand wearing heels. Do they even make that big a difference for you guys?"
He glanced away, shrugging his shoulders, and stepped out of his shoes. Even his socks were black. "Well, come on in," he said, pasting on an awkward smile and ushering her in.
The first thing Sai noticed was the open balcony. The rooftops of Guonan's buildings stretched out as far as she could see. Good, good, she thought. Easy way out if things get out of hand.
The room was every bit as spotless as Tu Shen's comments had led her to expect. The carpet was a lush red and seemed almost as if it had never been tread upon. A large bed with a blackened wood frame, surrounded by translucent red curtains, lie before her. The sheets were folded neatly, showing not a single crease. The only other decorations in the room were a fanciful overhead lantern, a large armoire, and a full-body length mirror on the wall. There were no trinkets, no toys, no fun little decorations to spice things up.
Nothing to freak out about, she told herself. Maybe he's just boring.
"This is it," said Tu Shen as he slid the door shut behind him. "Do you like it?"
She continued looking around, pacing around the room a bit. Boring as it was, she did like the way the carpet felt beneath her feet. She glanced out over the open balcony again; it was a fine view. "It's cozy," she said.
"You like the view?" He stepped alongside her, rubbing his hands together nervously. "I always keep the balcony open, unless it rains. I love the open air, especially when it's warm, like tonight."
"Yeah." Sai glanced over to find Tu Shen staring out into that same view, almost hypnotized by it. The air of menace he had carried before seemed to be fading as he relaxed. Sai exhaled and joined him in staring out at the city below them. "That's one of the best things about this city. The archetecture here is pretty beautiful. Especially the rooftops- all the little gargoyles and spires and things. I love little touches like that."
"It is beautiful," he said. "So, uh… I'm sorry, I'm a terrible conversationalist."
"No, no, go ahead."
Tu Shen smiled sheepishly, his face reddening a little. In spite of herself, Sai allowed herself to realize that there was something oddly charming about the young man. He was actually rather good-looking, if a bit effeminate for her tastes. "Um, tell me a little about yourself, Sai. You grew up here in Guonan?"
"I did." She paced away from the balcony and stood next to the bed. "May I?" The young man nodded, and she sat down- a bit gingerly, hoping that she did not mess up the sheets too badly. "Yeah, I've lived here my whole life. Kind of hoped that I might get out of here someday, but… that's not easy without support from anybody."
"You don't have any family?"
Sai pursed her lips and exhaled. "Not anymore."
Tu Shen rubbed his neck and looked down. "I'm sorry. I don't know what I'd do without my family. My sister, I mean."
"She's nice," Sai said. "You're lucky to have her."
The young man glanced around, seeming to sink back into the awkward, shy state he had only just broken out of moments before. "She, uh… Mei asked you to do this, didn't she?"
She saw no reason to lie to him. "Yeah, she did." She threw on a smile and leaned forward, putting her hands on her knees. "But I was curious about you anyway. It worked out."
He seemed to like that, and slowly slipped over to the bed and sat down next to Sai. "What'd you do before all this?"
Sai sat up a little straighter. "Well, when I wasn't working as a private tutor, I was the administrative assistant at the Guonan City Archives and Public Library." She said it proudly; it was rare for a common-born woman to rise to such a prestigious position in Jianghu.
The man in black seemed impressed. "Sounds important," he said.
"It was, I guess."
"The building was burned down. The owner was killed." By your gang, idiot, she nearly added. How in the hell could he possibly be surprised by that? Nonetheless, she suppressed her anger. "But I'm here now, so I guess everything worked out okay."
He shook his head, as if realizing the role he and his Gang had played in her story. "I'm sorry about all that. Have you been… okay since then? I mean, how much do they pay you to work these parties?"
"Enough," she said. "I'm good at saving money. I don't do a whole lot when I'm not working with the Gang. Just kind of lie around the house and read, and that doesn't cost a single Tael." She looked away, fixing her bangs. It was time to change the subject; after all, she was here to gather intel, and the longer she stayed the focus of the conversation, the longer she would have to remain in his company. "So what about you? How'd you end up with the Devil Gang?"
To her surprise, Tu Shen snorted. He glanced back over the balcony, a coldness coming over his pink eyes. "My sister is married to Devil Yuan, you know. She married him when she was seventeen. I was only a kid back then, but I joined up because I knew I couldn't let her run off on her own. I'm her brother. It's my duty to protect her." He looked back at Sai and continued: "No offense, but women need the watchful eye of a man to keep them from falling into sin."
Oh, no, that's definitely not offensive at all, Sai thought. She had to fight hard to keep herself from objecting. "Well, can't her husband do that himself?"
The young man's eyes narrowed. "I would be a fool to trust him with her completely. He's a great warrior, but he's godless. Mei needs me." After a second's pause, he lightened up a little. "I don't mean to sound too hard on Devil Yuan. He has been a good friend and a mentor to me. Since he married my sister, I've fought my way up the ranks so that I can be at his side. I can keep Mei safe best from there."
It was kind of noble in a sad, old-fashioned way. If she had not known better who she was speaking with, she might have found his devotion to his sister touching.
"He's my brother-in-law, but he's also our leader," Tu Shen continued. "I sometimes have my doubts about if he is the right man for my sister, but… he is driving us forward, pushing us toward the fulfillment of our noble cause. We may choose the Devil as our front, but we are servants of God."
Servants of God, Sai thought. Oh, great. Now our crime syndicate is a cult.
"I don't know if Devil Yuan even realizes it," Shen said. "In fact, I doubt he believes in any Gods. Nonetheless, he was chosen. We all were."
Sai caught herself staring, wide-eyed, as Tu Shen's fanatical talk went on. He finally glanced over to see her reaction and stopped himself, raising a hand in self-defense and smiling. "I'm sorry, that was rude of me. Do you believe in God, Sai?"
Now there was a loaded question. She looked away to buy herself a moment to chew over her response. "Um, well, I wasn't raised very religious," she said. "I'll put it to you this way: I don't not believe in the Gods. I just don't, uh… I don't want to limit myself to any one way of thought just yet." It sounded decent, and it was mostly true.
Tu Shen nodded once, his smile broadening. "I believe in God," he said.
"You keep just saying 'God,'" Sai noted. "Not the Four Gods? Something else, huh?"
"Yes. One God. The God who lies beneath the earth. He has a plan for us all, Sai. Even if you don't believe in Him." He got to his feet and began pacing around, and Sai realized that she was in for a lecture. "He reaches out to His faithful even as He dreams. He wants to come and fix everything, you know. This land is filthy and corrupt. The government is weak and the noble families have grown decadent. The cities are overpopulated. There's no law, no order, and yet Jianghu is supposed to be the most powerful nation in the world! If we're doing this bad, then what does that say about the rest of it? There's the war up North with those hicks in Jyungka. There are plagues in Shalys. I hear the civil war never stops in Farouk. Aropea is a land of hateful, greedy fools. Seiryuu has been a hive of scum and villany since the beginning. Don't you think we're living in an awful world, Sai?"
She gulped. "It could be better."
"It will be," Shen said, moving to his armoire. "We're going to make it better. He's guiding us."
The lunch she had eaten earlier that afternoon was starting to rise in the back of her throat. There was more here than just a shy, weird Devil Gang flunkie. This Tu Shen believed everything he was saying; it showed in his eyes. They were startlingly clear. Sai was starting to feel very thankful for that open balcony.
The sun was disappearing behind the rooftops now, the sky a brilliant orange that faded into purple. Tu Shen sighed with satisfaction as he beheld the sunset. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" he asked.
Sai was very, very thankful to change the subject. "It is. Hey, Shen, listen. I'm thirsty. Do you think we could have some drinks brought up?"
He glanced back at her. "Oh, sure. Definitely. What would you like?"
She reminded herself of her mission and put her best smile on. "Your God have anything against you drinking wine?"
"Well, I don't really know, but… I mean, my body is a temple…"
"Oh, come on," she said, leaning back. She postured herself seductively, bringing her legs up onto the bed and propping herself up on one elbow, allowing Shen to take in all the curves of her form. "It's a special occasion."
His eyes danced up and down her, and he swallowed hard, almost as if he wanted to ask some higher authority for permission. "Sure," he said after a moment. "I'll get us something." He started toward the door, pausing briefly before he slid it open. "I'll be right back."
With that, he was gone, and Sai found herself bouncing to her feet and dashing to the balcony. She glanced around at the surrounding rooftops. Where are you, Fei? She thought. I just need to know you're here…
She did not have to wait long.
"Psst! Up here!"
Sai glanced up to find Ah Fei hanging over the edge of the roof above her, directly above the balcony. He was grinning. "How's your date going?" he asked.
She let out a sigh of relief. "He's a strange one. I'm learning a lot of interesting things, though. This is turning out to be a blessing in disguise."
"Oh yeah?" the spearman, still disguised in his Devil Gang garb, asked. "Where is he?"
"Getting us some drinks." She put her hands on her hips and grinned up at him. "If I can get this kid drunk, then there's no telling what we might be able to learn." She chuckled at a sudden thought, then decided to share: "Assuming he doesn't bore me to death with his religious banter first."
He seemed to be following along. "Well, I'll be right here in case anything happens."
"Good," she said. She puckered up and blew him a kiss. "Thanks, Fei."
The spearman grinned eagerly and disappeared from view. Sai trotted back into the room and sat back down on the bed, tugging at her robe a bit so that it exposed a little more skin. She had no plans to actually sleep with Tu Shen; although she hated to admit that he was an attractive young man, the thought of sharing her body with him was repulsive. It pained her to think that she had been willing to do so in the past, and she hoped it would not come to that tonight. Nonetheless, she began to mentally prepare herself for the possibility.
Please don't hold your alcohol well, she thought.
It took an uncomfortable amount of time for Tu Shen to return. He slid the door open and stepped into the room wearing a nervous smile, carrying a tray in one hand that held a pair of glasses and a jug of what seemed to be the same stuff Koh the Mountain had been drinking earlier. He sat the tray down on the armoire's shelf and popped the cork out of the jug. "Sorry," he said, glancing back over his shoulder at Sai as he poured the drinks. "I didn't know what sort of drink you might like, so I had to ask Koh." He turned and offered a cup to her, and Sai took it. "He said you love this brand. What is it called?"
Like Koh really knows me so well, she thought, taking a sip. "Dongzhuo Prestige, I think. He introduced it to me. Not my favorite, but it's okay."
The young man in black was a bit gingerly in pouring his own glass. "I'm new to this. Please don't laugh at me." He slowly raised the glass to his lips and tipped the glass back just slightly. He handled it as if the wine were some sort of volatile substance that would blast him to smithereens should he upset it.
"Go on," Sai said, trying to sound as encouraging as she could. The sooner he got drunk, the better- and at this rate, it was going to take him all night just to get through one glass.
He finally threw his head back and took a swig, wiping a stray bead of wine away from his lips with the back of his hand. His face twisted in agony as he forced the wine down, and Sai could not help but giggle. It reminded her of the first time she and Ban had snuck wine out of her father's cellar; neither of them had been prepared for the strong, bitter flavor. This Tu Shen, one of the Devil Gang's most feared men, had not even been born yet when that happened, Sai realized- and she suddenly felt very old.
Tu Shen looked almost devastated. "I'm sorry," he said, his face still warped in disgust. "I can't say I've got much of a taste for it…"
"No shame in that, sweetie. Not everybody drinks wine for the flavor. It'll loosen you up." She got up from the bed and laid a soft hand on his shoulder. "And if anybody needs loosening up, it's you."
He looked away as if ashamed. "You think I'm too uptight?"
"I wouldn't say uptight," she continued, leaning in close so that she could speak directly into his ear. "But it does seem like a shame that an interesting young man like you keeps his heart hidden behind a wall."
Shen was quiet for a moment, then suddenly drank down the remainder of his glass in a single gulp. Again, his face crinkled at the taste, but he seemed to shrug it off a bit and managed a smile. "I've always felt that a man should not burden others with his feelings," he said. "My father used to tell me that I wasn't manly enough. Wasn't strong enough. He said I was a little girly-boy…"
"That's awful," Sai said. He sounded genuinely hurt by the memory of his father's words. He's a Devil Gang stooge, she reminded herself. Don't feel sorry for this bastard.
He poured himself another glass of wine as he continued. "When I was little, and he was teaching me the foundations of our family's Black Eagle style, the training was just… just incredibly hard. Sometimes I didn't think I could do it, and I would cry…" He took a gulp, his eyes narrow. "And he would call me a weakling and a coward. I don't know if maybe he thought he was toughening me up, but I was hurt by what he said. I really was. And…" Another gulp. "And mother was no help. She just told me to be strong, and that's it. Can you believe that? 'Be strong, Shen.' But she didn't tell me how I was supposed to be strong. She just left me to figure it out on my own!"
Sai found herself sitting back down on the bed, quietly sipping her own drink. She thought she saw a hint of wetness in the pink eyes of her host. "I am so sorry," she said. "Sounds like you had a bad relationship with them…"
A loud thump echoed through the room as he slammed his glass down on the shelf. "I hated them both," he hissed through his teeth. "Mei, she never understood it. She still doesn't understand it. I hated them." His fingers curled into claws, and Sai could see the tension in his body even through his robes. "They… they never supported m… me. They wanted me to be like them, but th… they… they didn't understand me. They laughed at me… b… behind my back."
Again, Sai thought she saw tears forming in his eyes. "We don't have to talk about this anymore, Shen. Really."
He slowly picked his glass up again, lifting it slowly to his lips. "They're dead now anyway," he murmured. "Just like them to abandon Mei and I when we needed them most." He drank down the last of his second glass, setting it down a bit more quietly this time. "I'm sorry. That's why men shouldn't share their feelings. It's so embarassing…"
"No, no," Sai said, trying her best to sound comforting. "I feel like I understand you a little better now. I had a hard time dealing with my parents, too. My dad was a playboy, you know. He always had mistresses coming and going out of the house, so I never really had much of a mother figure. And he wasn't very supportive of me, either."
His head dipped solemnly, hiding his eyes from her view. "You probably think I'm an unstable mess," he said.
"I think you're a young man who has had a hard life." She offered her glass to him, and after a moment he poured her another round. "I think it's very brave of you to take on all this responsibility with the Devil Gang. I mean, you're one of the highest-ranking members, you know? All that, and you're still trying to do what's best for your sister. I'd say that's pretty admirable, Shen. Pretty damn admirable."
The sad thing was that a part of her actually believed what she had just fed him. Again, she had to remind herself of what she was really doing here, why she was in the Devil Gang's headquarters chatting it up with one of its most mysterious and frightening members. She thought about burying Rin, Kii, and Wang, and her sympathy for Tu Shen faded quickly.
"I haven't really told very many people all the stuff I just told you," Tu Shen said. "I don't really have anybody I can talk to privately. Just Mei, and my Uncle Han."
Han. There was that name again. True, Han was a fairly common name in Jianghu, but the fact that both Mei and her brother mentioned a Han in the same night intrigued her. It was a trail she felt compelled to follow. "I don't think I've met Han."
"He's my biggest supporter, and I guess I could say my best friend." Shen stepped away from the armoire and sat down next to Sai. His guard was finally starting to drop. "I know some people around here don't like him, but he's a genius, you know. He's the most pious man I've ever met." He leaned closer to Sai, an excited, boyish grin coming over him. "He's the one who set me on the path to God."
Not this again! Sai groaned in her mind, but allowed the young man to continue, sipping her wine as she followed along.
"He believes in me. He has faith in my strength and supports me. Sometimes he can be a little irritating, though… and he's also nosy. He sticks that big beak nose of his into my business all the time." He scratched his head, grinning. "I'm glad to have him around, though. He's the one who's really in charge. I'd rather answer to him than Devil Yuan any day."
He's the one who's really in charge. Sai could not help but smile. This was turning out to be most educational. Remembering how Mei had acted when she had mentioned Han earlier, she decided to throw another one out there: "Mei doesn't seem to think much of him."
Shen rolled his eyes. "She thinks he's creepy. I don't know. Maybe he is a little. That's okay with me, though. I guess I'm a little creepy myself." His reaction settled it. Eunuch Han and Shen's "Uncle" were definitely the same man.
She jabbed him lightly in the arm. "You're not that creepy."
"I'm not?" He looked like he had just won some kind of prize. "I'm glad to hear you say that." He reached over slowly, his fingertips brushing the top of Sai's hand. "Can I, uh… Can I see your h… h… hand, Sai?"
"Um, sure," she replied. And this is where he starts to lay it on thick. Oh, boy. She steeled herself mentally for what she was sure was to come.
The young man took her hand in his and raised it before him, his eyes pouring over its every detail. He examined her palm closely, then played with her fingers a bit before turning her hand over again. "You have… beautiful hands," he said quietly.
"You paint your nails the same color as mine."
She glanced at his hands and realized that he was right. His fingernails were painted the same ebony shade as her own. "Wow," she said. "Somebody's got good taste."
He smiled, still staring at her fingers. He had begun to stroke the back of her hand with his. "Well, I love black, you know."
"I noticed!" Sai laughed, half-forcing it. "I always do my nails black. It's a good color for me."
Shen chuckled as well. "Well, my nails aren't just painted for fashion's sake, you know." He held up one hand before her. "This paint is a compound toxin made from the venom of six different poisonous snakes. It's lethal when introduced into the blood stream, but I'm immune to it myself, of course. Pretty cool, huh?"
Sai blinked, stunned. Those same nails had been stroking across the back of her hand moments before. "Um… yeah. Pretty cool there, Shen. Poisoned fingernails."
Another laugh came, this one heartier than the last. "Don't worry," he said. "I wouldn't hurt you. Besides, if I accidentally cut you, I have an antidote with me at all times." He raised his hands, turning them over in front of her as if to show that he had no tricks up his sleeve. "I would never hurt you."
This man might have been a lost soul in need of comfort and companionship, but he was also a hardened killer. He was laughing about the idea of killing someone with poison that he wore on his fingertips. Sai felt a shiver go down her spine and nearly lost her smiling façade. "I'm glad to hear that, Shen. I wouldn't expect you to."
They continued to talk for some time, and to Sai's disappointment, nothing the young man in black said taught her anything new about the Devil Gang. He talked at length about his training in the Black Eagle style, how he and Mei had lived as beggars on the street for years before Devil Yuan had taken them in, and about how much he hated people in general. His eyes stayed fixated on her hands for a long time, and Sai eventually decoded that it was a fetish of some sort. It could have been worse, she supposed. After another drink or two, Shen seemed to become a bit more brave, and had begun kissing the top of her hand repeatedly in between sentences.
"This doesn't… bother you, does it?" the young man asked, smiling sheepishly up at her. She could tell from the glaze in his eyes and the waver in his voice that he was getting drunk, and felt a small victory. Things would get easier from hereon.
"Not at all," she said softly, allowing Shen to continue.
"Sometimes the people in this Gang amaze me," he said. His lips travelled down the back of her hand to her wrist, kissed her there once, and then he began to travel up the length of her arm until his head nearly rested on her shoulder. "I mean, think about it. Most of the footsoldiers, you know, they're just disgruntled… um, what do you call them? Deserters? People who quit the Army."
Sai was aware that many of the lesser thugs in the Devil Gang's ranks had some military experience, although their poor combat skills implied that they were probably not destined for greatness in that field anyway. "Yeah. Why is that, anyway?"
He moaned a little, nuzzling his head against her shoulder. "Because they're angry with the government, like the rest of us. The Xianda Royal Family is a bunch of, uh…" He trailed off, instead wrapping his lips around the base of Sai's neck and sucking gently. "A bunch of heathens, you know."
This was definitely starting to pay off. Sai felt herself starting to grin, and not just because Tu Shen's neck-kisses tickled her a little. This sudden bout of anti-government sentiment was helping fill in the blank spaces of the Devil Gang puzzle.
Suddenly, she felt him draw away. His eyes had grown wide. "What's up?" she asked, wondering why he suddenly seemed so startled.
"These are my sister's earrings," he muttered.
"Yeah," she said, not trusting herself to come up with a believable lie. "She gave them to me earlier today. I don't really know why. They're nice, though, aren't they?"
His brows furrowed intensely for a moment and he drew further back. His gaze turned to the floor as his expression darkened a bit. "S… sorry," he said after a moment.
Sai was not sure exactly why the sight of those earrings had spooked her host so, but then again, he was getting pretty drunk. She shrugged it off and took a sip of her own drink.
After an awkward silence of nearly a minute, Tu Shen sighed, leaning back and staring up at the ceiling. "Sai, do you… believe in love?"
Oh, no. She was glad that he had positioned himself to where he could not see her face droop in dismay. We've been talking for less than an hour and now he's in love with me? "I, ah… yes. Yes, I believe in love, Shen."
His tone was dream-like, almost euphoric. "Good. Maybe you can help me with something. There's a girl… no, a woman. A woman that I'm in love with." He sat back up, staring into Sai's eyes, forcing her to put her smiling mask back on. "She doesn't know it yet, but I love her. I can't stop thinking about her, no matter what."
Sai nodded sheepishly. "I see. Love can be a powerful thing, Shen. It's one of the most extreme emotions. It can bring incredible pleasure, but it can also bring incredible pain. You have to be careful when it comes to love."
"She's beautiful," he said, still staring into her eyes. "She has hair as black as midnight and as fine as silk. She has skin as pale as the moon. She's near to me, but she still has no idea how deep my devotion goes…" He glanced away, his smile spreading. "Very near to me…"
Sai bit her lip, her brows raising. "Um… I'm sure she'll be thrilled to find out. You're a really interesting guy, Shen. Quite the catch."
His smile faded a bit. "I'm afraid that this woman doesn't feel the same way for me, though. I think she likes me. Maybe she loves me. But she doesn't love me the way I do her. I just don't know what to do next…" He got to his feet, turned, and stared down at Sai, his expression growing solemn. "What do I do, Sai? What do I say to the woman I love? How can I tell her what she means to me without scaring her away?"
A weak chuckle escaped from Sai's lips. She could practically feel the color draining from her face. "Maybe… you could give it some time, you know, and think about how you feel?"
"I've given it time," he said. "I've been thinking about it for so long now- I've been thinking about it this whole time we've been talking. I don't know how much longer I can wait!"
"Well, I'm sure if you keep thinking about this, then the answers you seek will come from within you. You shouldn't try to rush it."
He did not seem to like that reply. His expression faded into a shallow frown. "That sounds like something my mother would say," he snapped. "Giving advice without bothering to explain what it really means…"
"I'm sorry," Sai said, shrugging. "I don't know what else to tell you…"
The young man's brow furrowed and he raised both hands to his head, his fingers clutching at his hair. Sai slipped back a bit onto the bed, putting a little distance between herself and Tu Shen. His mood was changing too rapidly, too wildly; she did not like where this was going.
A low groan escaped from beneath Tu Shen's clenched jaws. "I'm so confused," he hissed. "Why won't anybody tell me what I'm supposed to do…?"
"Hey, Shen, calm down," Sai said, no longer able to hide the fear in her voice. "Breathe. Relax, man. Um, do you need another drink?"
"I don't need a drink…" He looked down at Sai, his face clearing a bit. "No. I need something else. Not a drink…" He kept shaking his head, as if trying to clear the cobwebs from his mind, until finally his eyes seemed to clear and the muscles of his face relaxed.
He took a step forward, his hands raising slightly and moving toward Sai.
Oh, hell no, she thought, and her fear turned to rage in an instant. She brought up one foot and planted it in Tu Shen's chest, pushing him back. "I don't think this is what you need, Shen," she insisted.
He reached down, stroking her leg, and she pulled it away with a startled gasp. She rolled back across the bed, putting it between her and the man in black. She took a step away, breathing heavily, and tucked her right arm behind her back. She felt the handle of her knife in its hiding place within her sleeve and felt reassured.
The young man's face had changed. The shy, stuttering, emotionally tormented youth of before had changed. His brows were raised slightly, but his jaw was clenched and his eyes wide and clear. "Don't be scared," he said. "Please, don't be scared, Sai. I'm not going to hurt you. I just get so frustrated, you know, and I have to let this out…"
"I don't think I'm ready to take this kind of step in our relationship," she said, reminding herself not to blow her cover prematurely. "Not on the first date. I'm sorry, Shen. I like you, I really do. But we're not doing this."
He stepped around the bed and continued walking toward her, each step measured and sly, like a cat; and yet, there was something crooked, something off about his movements. "Why are you acting so scared? I said I would never hurt you. I wasn't lying. I promise you on my parents' graves that I'll be gentle."
Sai felt her heart pounding against her ribs and took another step back. The balcony, she thought. Ah Fei. This won't get out of hand.
The look in the young man's eye said differently. A calm smile- a horrible, wickedly calm smile- had crossed him now. His brow had begun to dip down a bit, casting a shadow over his eyes. "You don't even know what I want to do yet," he said. "You might just like it. You look like a bit of a slut, don't you?"
"A bit of a what?!" Sai snarled, baring her teeth. She took another step backwards and felt the soft carpet replaced by the chilly tile of the balcony underfoot.
"Women," he murmured, that sublime smile never fading. "You're all the same. You tease, you let on. You make me think you want me, and then you try to run away when I reciprocate." He cocked his head to one side and let out a short, clipped laugh. "I thought maybe you were different than the ones before, but no. You're a slutty little tease, just like the rest of them."
She did not realize she had moved until her left hand made impact with the young man's face, the audible whap surprising even her. She took a step back, her own hand stinging from the impact, and felt her back bump up against the railing of the balcony. A bolt of panic shot through her. Okay, Fei, now'd be a great time to drop in!
Tu Shen was completely unfazed by the strike. "Ouch," he said sarcastically. He took another step forward, one hand closing around Sai's wrist and the other grabbing her right arm. "Stop pretending you don't want this!"
His grip was like iron. Sai struggled, but his hands would afford her little movement. Where the hell is Fei?! She thought, trembling helplessly in his grip. "Shen, look, buddy," she stammered weakly, her voice wavering. "This whole aggressive act? That isn't the way to do it. This isn't how you act toward somebody you love!"
The calm smile vanished in an instant, and Tu Shen's face exploded with rage. "What?!" he screamed. The low, quiet voice that had to fight back its stutter was gone, uprooted by a brutal, throaty snarl. "You arrogant bitch! I wasn't talking about you!"
In that instant, Sai saw the demon that wore the mask of a troubled young man in black. Terror gripped her heart like a vice, and all thought of her mission, of Lien, of Fei, of Ban, of the Devil Gang, of Guonan, of anything disappeared. She was staring death in the eye, and her mouth hung open silently, a scream stifled helplessly in her throat.
Somehow, through the crippling fear, Sai remembered what she had done the last time she had found herself at the mercy of a man. How she managed to find the strength to tear her knife from within her sleeve, she did not know- but suddenly her right arm shot up, tearing itself from Tu Shen's grip, and its blade met his flesh.
His body seemed to melt into darkness as he spun away, yowling in pain. Sai pushed herself back against the railing so hard that she nearly broke through it, and gripped her blade tightly. It felt warm in her grip, and her fear began to fade away. This was more like it. Three Devil Gang footsoldiers had attempted to take advantage of her in the past, and they were all buried beneath the ground now. The same blade that had claimed their lives was now levelled at Tu Shen, who snarled at her even as he sank to his knees, his face buried in his hands.
"Don't you ever touch me again!" Sai shrieked, empowered by the sight of blood dribbling from her knife. "You come another step closer and I'll cut you to pieces! I'll kill you, you understand?!"
His furious growling faded as he lowered his hands. "Wrong," he said, his voice lowering into a calm but threatening tone. He raised his head slowly, until Sai could see the blood weeping from his left brow, where her knife had carved a trench three inches long, straight into his hairline. The eye beneath the wound had turned red from the blood dripping into it, but Tu Shen seemed hardly interested in the wound. His eyes were fixed on her, staring straight through her. He spoke clearly, making each word utterly and inarguably clear: "I'm going to kill you."
She had hardly finished interpreting the words he had spoken when everything suddenly went mad. Her vision blurred and she saw the impeccably clean bedchamber spinning before her, heard a loud thump that seemed to come from inside her and reverberate through her bones. She felt the balcony behind her crack and shatter, saw her knife flying from her grip and spiralling into the air, saw the night sky above her, felt her feet leave the ground and gravity take its hold upon her- but never did she see the blow that caused it all.
She would have died an instant later had a powerful arm not swept around her body, pulling her back onto the balcony even as Tu Shen was sent staggering backwards by a powerful kick.
"I'm sorry," Ah Fei said as he tried to help Sai back onto her feet. "I should have acted sooner."
She could not hear him. She merely stared, her eyes wide but focusing on nothing. Her head rolled to the side, slumping against his shoulder even as her legs collapsed out from under her. Fei caught her, hugging her tightly against his body.
"Sai!" he gasped. "What's the matter?!"
"A spy," came a low, calm voice. Tu Shen got to his feet, straightening his robes as he calmly turned toward the interloper. "I should have known. No matter. The deed is done."
Ah Fei stared down at Sai, her eyes slowly rolling back into their sockets. A thin line of blood oozed down from the corner of her lips, dribbling onto his shoulder. "What the hell'd you do to her?" he snarled, shaking Sai gently, trying to rouse her back into consciousness.
Tu Shen smirked, wiping blood from his brow with the back of his hand and slinging it away. "Judging from that kick you gave me, you must be a martial artist of some skill. I assume, then, that you are familiar with dianxue."
He was. Dianxue was the manipulation of acupressure points or xue, a skill primarily used in the traditional healing and medicinal techniques in Jianghu. Martial artists had learned how to use these same xue to manipulate their opponents' bodies, channeling their qi into the foe's pressure points and damaging them from within. Using dianxue to paralyze or incapacitate an enemy was a common technique in the martial arts of Jianghu, but this did not look like anything as merciful as paralysis. She was bleeding from the mouth- what the hell had he done to her?
"I have halted her breathing, among other things." Tu Shen sounded awfully proud of himself, pressing one hand against his still-bleeding brow even as he took a threatening step forward. "Your friend Sai is already dead."
Ah Fei's teeth gnashed together, and he felt his free hand gravitating toward the saber tucked into his sash. In his day, he had seen many evil men. He had done business with some, killed others. This boy, however- perhaps younger even than Zhu Lien- stared at him with eyes that dripped evil. With the heightened awareness his training had brought him, he could feel the murderous intentions of his foe pulsing in the air, making his hair stand on end and his blood boil. He wanted nothing more than to tear his borrowed sword free and slash this monster disguised as a man to pieces, but if what Tu Shen had said was true, then there was no time for that. If he engaged the boy now, Sai would not survive.
Without a word, he lifted Sai into his arms and leapt from the balcony.
He bound effortlessly to the nearby rooftop, his qi empowering his movements. As anxious as he was, his mind was as focused as ever, his breathing clean and measured so that his energy could flow most efficiently. His legs pumped as he shot across the tiles, leaping again to the next building. He moved like a blur, hopping the gaps between the buildings effortlessly before finally allowing himself to drop to street level, where his movement was halted only momentarily.
He needed to put distance between himself and Zhu Manor- between Sai and her assailant. He cut around corners and blasted through alleyways, moving with a speed that bordered on inhuman.
A whimper caused him to slow to a halt. He looked down at Sai, who seemed to be regaining consciousness. The color had drained from her face completely. He lowered her to the ground, sitting her up and propping her back against his chest. There was no time to lose.
What xue had Tu Shen struck? Ah Fei's mind and heart raced as he glanced over Sai's body. A bruise, quickly blackening, had formed on her chest- just below her collarbone. Fei's eyes narrowed. This was not going to be easy; his understanding of dianxue was not terribly advanced. His Master had taught him many things, but acupressure was not the focus of the Crimson King's martial arts.
The Master did teach him, however, that all dianxue techniques had counter-techniques designed to reverse their effects. He combed through his memories, trying to identify exactly what he needed to do in order to give Sai her breath back and, with any luck, save her life.
Another strained gasp from Sai nearly shook him from his thoughts. She was in pain; it must have been terrible, because she began to fidget restlessly in his grasp, her fingers tightening around the hem of her robe and squeezing until her knuckles turned white.
"Try to stay still," Fei said, doing his best to remain calm. Odds were that Sai could not even hear him. "I just need a second…"
I need more than a second, he realized as sweat beaded upon his forehead. I need an expert on acupressure. I need a goddamn miracle.
No, there was no time for panic. He pulled down the hem of Sai's robe and pressed his fingertips against her back. Focus, Fei. Find the flow of energy. Find what's wrong. Fix this.
He shut his eyes tightly and exhaled. All other things faded from his mind as he tried to interpret what he felt within Sai's pain-wracked form. It was akin to holding a balloon full of water and feeling the way the water flowed through his palms, but much less distinct. He breathed in, calling upon his reserves of internal strength, and concentrated.
Now he could feel the energy flowing within Sai. It grew in clarity until he could almost visualize it in his mind. Yes, there was something horribly wrong- a disruption in her flow of qi that was making it impossible for her to breathe. He could feel the strain on her lungs as they fought to work, and searched his mind for a way to alleviate the pressure.
That same energy was beginning to wither within Sai's body. In his mind, he could see the flow beginning to thin. She was fading away with each passing second.
Isolate the disturbance. Find the right xue. Apply the counter-technique…
She's dying, Fei! Do it!
Her body was growing limp in his grip again. This time she would not be able to wake back up.
His fingertip pressed suddenly and harshly against a point between Sai's shoulderblades, and all of his strength- all of his intent, all of his qi- rushed through the point of contact.
Sai gasped, bolting upright. A horrible, agonized wail escaped her lips before she sank back against Fei again, wheezing, gasping for breath. This time, it came to her.
Nervous laughter escaped from Ah Fei, who slapped himself on the forehead, roughly sweeping away the sweat that had accumulated there. Did it, he thought. Thank the Gods. He wrapped his arms around Sai and squeezed her, overwhelmed with relief. It had been too close a call.
"Ow," she whimpered weakly, and Fei released her. She stared up at him, her eyes reddened and wet with tears. A sob or two later, she managed a feeble smile up at her savior. "What took you so long?"
Fei laughed again, rubbing his temples. They were throbbing. "I'll have to apologize later, Sai. I'm just a little overwhelmed right now."
She turned over and crawled up onto her hands and knees, huffing loudly. "Yeah," she gasped after a moment, shaking her head in disbelief. "Yeah. Can we go home now?"
Fei brushed himself off, still chuckling anxiously, and gently helped Sai to her feet. "I think that's a fantastic idea," he said, lightly patting her on the shoulder. "Let's-"
In retrospect, Fei was not sure what clued him in to the danger that was approaching. He saw nothing, heard nothing- and yet, some disturbance in the air made him suddenly jump, pulling Sai with him back toward the building closest to them, drawing a startled gasp from the poor woman.
A deafening crack filled the air like thunder as a strip of pavement where they had been moments before was ripped from the ground and disintegrated before their eyes. A trench several inches deep had been gouged out of the ground in the blink of an eye.
The same disturbance alerted Ah Fei again, and he pulled Sai into the alleyway adjacent to the building. Another crack tore through the air and Fei felt a sting as debris lashed across his face. What the hell?! He thought, keeping his grip on Sai tight as he dashed through the alley, panic shooting through him.
A hint of movement above him drew his gaze, and a jet-black shadow bolted across the gap between the buildings on either side of him. They had been followed.
The street beyond the alley was an inhabited one. Fei hoped this was a stroke of luck and bolted for it. He saw bodies shuffling about, saw merchant stands- and remembered all too late how complete the Devil Gang's control of this city was. Crowd or no crowd, he and Sai would find no sanctuary here.
Another crack shattered the street before him, sending bits of stone shrapnel flying in every direction. This one was clearly not aimed at Ah Fei himself- it was meant to cut off his forward movement. Fei's heels grinded against the street as he tried to change direction, even as the startled citizens nearby began to shriek in terror and run for cover.
Then came a brutal impact, more powerful than any Ah Fei had ever felt in his long career as a martial artist. Something slammed into his chest and the ground disappeared from below him. He heard Sai screaming in panic in his ear even as they tumbled together across the cracked ground.
Fei rolled to a stop, catching himself on his palms and pushing himself back up. Before he could get his wits about him, a familiar voice made his attacker's identity clear.
"Foolish," said an almost serene voice. Tu Shen stood some twenty paces away, slowly stepping toward him, his hands at his sides unthreateningly. He wore a calm smile on his boyish features, but that same manic glare from before had yet to fade from his reddish-pink eyes. "Did you think I wouldn't follow you? Why?"
The saber that Sai had given him was ripped from its scabbard as Fei regained his footing. He breathed heavily, dreading the prospect of fighting this young man. He shot a quick glance down at Sai, who was crawling backwards on her hands, eyes wide with alarm. "Sai, I want you to get as far away from here as possible," he said as sternly as he could. His voice broke as he talked, and he felt a throbbing, burning pain deep in his chest. Whatever blow Tu Shen had used to strike him moments before had been a formidable one. "Understand?"
Without a word, Sai scrambled to her feet and darted toward the nearby row of merchant stands.
"It doesn't matter," said Tu Shen. He cocked his head to one side as he approached, slowly closing the distance between himself and Ah Fei, each step measured and calculated. "I applaud you for managing to reverse my technique. Perhaps I deserve it for being arrogant enough to use a slow-killing maneuver. Nonetheless, you have merely delayed the inevitable. Once I am done with you, I will find Sai and she will be killed." The corners of his lips turned up into a vile smirk. "It will not be a quick or peaceful end, I'm afraid. I don't take well to betrayal."
Fei gripped the saber tightly in his hand and took his fighting stance. "Speak for yourself," he huffed. He reached up and tore the black Devil Gang bandana from his brow, hurling it to the floor. "You want to dance, kid? Step up!"
He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. Even as he stood his ground against the advancing Tu Shen, Fei felt dread looming in his soul. His spear was kilometers away, Sai was still in danger, he knew nothing of Tu Shen's fighting abilities, and to make matters even worse, the pain in his chest was beginning to spread.
Give me strength, Master, he thought, gripping the hilt of his borrowed saber tightly.
[Closer: Good grief! This was tougher cookie than I thought it would be. Anyway, I wrote most of this one reeeeally late at night, so I'll probably be going back through and editing a lot in the next few days. Hope you guys enjoyed it, and the next one should hopefully be coming soon!]