A Novel by Simon Nguyen
Chapter I: Prologue
Night had fallen over the prosperous trade city of Dosi. Known for its exquisite ceramics, Dosi was a multicultural center embracing cultures stemming from as far as Peleusia. But as the night watchman banged his gong for the third time, the city was soundly asleep.
Things were quite different on the outskirts of the city. Thousands of colorfully patterned lanterns copiously lighted the city’s suburbs. At the center of the exclusive community was the mansion of its wealthiest member – the Cha’s family. What a magnificent mansion! The profligate architectural design could even surpass that of the imperial palace. It was adorned with the most expensive of floor tiles, rare antiques and works of renowned masters.
The mansion was more decorative than usual as the family was preparing for a grand feast celebrating the birth of the Cha’s only heir. Traffic outside the luxurious dwelling was unutterably busy, with horse carriages carrying invited guests coming and supply wagons leaving. When the incense clock signaled one and a half hour past midnight, things finally settled down. The main mansion gate shut and the feast was to begin.
The main hall was packed with guests. The guests ranged from the most influential to the wealthiest. Even the honorable magistrate of Dosi and his highest-ranked deputy were present, despite the stacks of paperwork awaiting them at their desks. All of the guests were accompanied by their servants, carrying boxes of expensive gifts assorting from giant pearls to silk rolls of the highest quality.
The guests were greeted by Cha Ri, the head of the Cha’s household and the father of the newborn. He was a man in his late thirties with a mediocre built and half-gray hair. After all the guests had settled to their respective seats, Cha sent one of his servants to his wife’s private quarters to bring her and the newborn son to the hall, so he could introduce his son to everyone.
Half an hour had passed but the servant was nowhere in sight. Not wanting to test the guests’ patience, Cha decided to go to fetch his wife and son himself. Just before he was about to leave the hall, the main door suddenly swung open. The servant who was sent to fetch the newborn appeared at the door and immediately collapsed upon entering the hall. The servant’s body was covered with flames. Cha quickly ordered the other servants to put out the flames. The magistrate’s deputy who stood near the door helped carry the man to a nearby chair. After leaving the servant a few minutes to recover, Cha inquired him.
“What had happened that left you in this condition? Have you seen my wife and son?”
The servant replied: “I was on my way to the lady’s private quarters when I was struck by flaming arrows coming from above. I felt something terrible had happened so I decided to go back here to report to the master.”
The news caused a stir among the guests. Everyone hustled out of the hall, rushing toward the main gate. But it was too late. Heavy smoke had consumed the whole mansion. The path to the main gate was engulfed by fire. Just when the crowd was still pondering what to do, they heard a dreadful sound coming from above. The night sky suddenly brightened. Shower after shower of flaming arrows struck down mercilessly at its victims below.
The scene on the ground was chaotic. People were scrambling for cover. Unfortunately, the empty square on which they were standing provided them with no shelter. The arrows completely overwhelmed its victims. Their agonizing cries could even be heard leagues away.
While the guests were leaving the hall, Cha remained inside. When he built his mansion, he had carefully designed a system of secret passageways that was intended to be used as an escape route. Cha used one of the passageways to come to his wife’s private quarters. When he got there, he saw his wife lying cold on the ground. She had apparently died from inhaling too much smoke. Known as a man with few expressions of emotion, a drop of tear came down from each of his eyes.
The sorrow was brief, however, as he realized sadness will not bring his wife back. After calming himself to a degree, he started to look around the room for his son. He found the toddler lying on his wife’s bed. The baby was still breathing, though his breath was very weak.
The joy he felt when he learned his son was still alive was short-lived, as the room’s ceiling was starting to look like it was about to collapse. Cha quickly put his wife’s body on his back and his son on his arm. He then carried his loved ones back into the secret passageway, which eventually led him out of the mansion.
After Cha left the mansion and was at a safe distance, he spent a brief moment looking back at his home. Witnessing his fortunes being burned to the ground, he took a deep sigh. Shrugging off sorrows, he started moving toward the city hoping to find a shelter for the night.
When Cha was about halfway to the city, he reached a small forest called the Phantom of Darkness, which served as the midway point between the city and its suburbs. From afar, he could spot a man standing stoically at the farthest end of the forest. As he approached the man, the dim moonlight allowed him a better look at the stranger.
The man was about 6-foot tall with a slim figure. He wore a blue robe with half of his face covered by a black mask.
“I have been waiting for you, Cha Ri.”
“How do you know my name?” Cha asked, giving the stranger a curious look.
After a brief thought, Cha spoke to the man again this time in an angry tone.
“I know who you are. You must be of one of them. It’s good that you have come to me. I would have sought you murderers sooner or later.”
Cha gently put his wife and son onto a bulk of grass nearby and quickly drew his sword.
“Draw your sword. Let get this over with.”
The angry expression shown by Cha and the fact he was carrying his dead wife and son perplexed the stranger.
“I can see that you are tired. I won’t take advantage of your fatigue. I will let you attack me twice without counterattacking.”
Hearing these words, Cha became even more infuriated. He let out a loud shriek and swiftly moved toward the masked man like a tiger chasing down its prey. His speed was startling. In no time at all, he was within striking distance. He struck his sword hard at the man’s neck hoping to quickly finish him off. To his astonishment, however, his sword caught nothing but empty air. The man disappeared just before the blade of Cha’s sword could get to him.
While he was still pondering what just happened, a voice came up from behind.
“Your sword wielding skills are pathetic. You are giving Tosan’s fencing style a bad name.”
Cha turned and saw his targeted man standing behind him. The inconceivable agility and speed demonstrated by the masked man put fear in his heart. He now realized the quality of the opponent he was facing. This was a martial arts’ expert whose skills may be beyond those of his. Calming down from his initial emotions, Cha tried to weigh in on what strategy he must employed if he was to escape unscathed. While he was absorbed in his thoughts, memories of his youth came back to him.
When Cha was young, he spent seven years at Tosan’s School of Martial Arts studying the fine points of Tosan’s fencing style. His mentor was Master Summer, one of the school’s four headmasters. His mentor was very fond of him. Cha was one of only two pupils being taught Master Summer’s secret technique. His mentor carefully instructed the two to use this move only as the last resort, fearing a hasty revelation would weaken its effectiveness.
While Cha was still engaged in a reminiscing of the past, the voice of his opponent interrupted him.
“Make you second move quickly. I’m starting to run out of patience.”
Cha knew this was the right time to use the ultimate technique. He widened his stance slightly, bent his knees and leaped straight up. His body soared, disappearing into the night sky. He reemerged a few seconds later, making a furious downturn toward his opponent below like a meteor sweeping down on earth.
It took only a span of two heartbeats before the tip of his sword got to the man’s forehead. But once again, the man’s remarkable agility allowed him to dodge Cha’s strike. He only managed to slash a tiny bit of hair from his opponent. The masked man, showing no sign of concern, continued to speak with an arrogant tone.
“You had your chances. It’s now my turn.”
The man drew his sword and started attacking Cha. After a few exchanges, it was apparent he was the superior swordsman. What was puzzling about his techniques was their simplicity. The movements of his sword were predictable, but all of them were deadly strikes intended to exploit Cha’s weaknesses. Cha was like a puppet being controlled by a puppet master.
After a few more scuffles, the man had had enough. He pretended to open up his left shoulder, inviting Cha to strike. The poor man fell for the trap. Before Cha’s sword could get to the man’s shoulder, the sword of his opponent had already pierced through his abdomen. The masked man withdrew his sword from Cha’s body. Blood streamed out from his wound like violent flood waters. He collapsed and his body descended onto the ground.
As Cha’s heartbeat was furiously coming to a stop, the only thing on his mind was his wife and son. He wanted to see them for the last time. Cha crawled toward the nearby bush where his wife and son were lying. When he was within a couple of feet from his son, the lower half of his body became numb. He could no longer move.
Drawing up his remaining strength, Cha stressed his arm toward his son’s tender hands hoping he could touch them for the very last time. But when he finally touched his son’s hand, he could no longer feel its tenderness; his whole body had now become numb. Tears came from his eyes and they were his very last ones. A gentle night breeze swept through the forest, fluttering the blood-stained grass.
Observing the unexpected drama, the masked man was consumed with guilt. He pondered whether or not he had done the right thing by killing the poor man. Taking a deep sigh, the man was about to step away when he heard a baby’s cry coming from where his victim’s body laid. He took a few steps closer and saw the son of the man, whom he had just killed, stressing his little arms and voicing his discomfort after a long slumber.
The man removed his mask and opened a modest smile at the little one. An abrupt voice from his head, however, interrupted his geniality.
“The boy must die. If you spare him now, he will cause trouble later on.”
The man’s facial expression quickly changed. He drew sword once again preparing to do what his natural instincts instructed him.
...........End of Chapter I.........