The skyship creaked gently as it made its way across the evening sky. Above the clouds, it was as if it was floating in the midst of a white ocean, with only a gentle breeze to accompany its passage. Wooden propellors spun lazily, while a large sail did most of the work pushing the ship along, as the sun blazed in the west, doing its best to heat up the world before it would be hidden for another night. A couple of cloth covered wings creaked as they flapped gently and rhythmically on either side of the ship, keeping it aloft.
One of the trapdoors on the ship’s main deck was thrown open, and a slim figure pulled itself out of the darkened hold. It was a young lady, though all could be seen of her was the shape of her body evidenced by the tight black outfit that she wore, and two brown eyes that stared at the sun, as she straightened up, and stood there. It was a while before she seemed to give herself a shake, and put on a darkened backpack, ensuring the straps were tight enough around her shoulders and her slim waist.
Another figure detached itself from the quarterdeck, a gruff looking grey haired man, broad as he was tall. He lumbered towards the young lady, moustache bristling as he spoke. “Are you all ready for the drop?”
She nodded briefly. The wrappings around her mouth muffled her words, but she spoke clearly enough nonetheless. “As always, Kai Ye.” This was her godfather, for she knew no other parent, and he had brought her up as well as he could. She wasn’t sure if he actually approved of what she did, but she didn’t want to ask.
She didn’t want to be disappointed, or to know that he was disappointed in her.
The large man smiled, producing a network of wrinkles and dimples that suddenly transformed his face into a jolly one, instead of the gruff distance it had seemed to display before. Truth be told, he would never stop worrying about his wayward god-daughter, much as he would never stop being amazed by her enthusiasm for these activities, and her abilities which made them possible. He was proud of her, but he also knew that she was too proud to accept simple words as proof of his acceptance and pride. He twirled one end of his moustache with his left hand, as he reached out and offered her a small but heavy bag.
She accepted the bag of gold without a word, tucking it securely into a secret fold in her clothing, before she snapped into a series of exercises to limber up. “Any message for the merchant?” she asked, as she switched effortlessly from one position to the next.
“Oh yes. Tell him the last batch was a little weak. He’s got to do better if he wants to keep up his reputation and our business.” He smirked as he leant against the main mast. “I doubt he’ll bother about what I have to say, but it won’t hurt to improve our bargaining position. If his product wasn’t so good, I doubt we’d go this far to get our supply every time we run out.”
She nodded without smiling. As she finished her exercises, she nimbly sprung onto the side of the ship, hands outstretched to help her maintain her balance, eyes smiling impishly at the master of the ship. With a grunt and a wave, he acknowledged her readiness and bid her farewell in the same moment.
She bowed to him, before she stepped back, and dropped into the clouds below.
The mansion was a sprawling one. The two guards who were rounding the last corner of their patrol were bored, as they usually were. Nothing really happened to their employer, and getting a guard post here meant a good, steady income with very little risk. The guards were well paid because of their proven skills though, and bored as they were, they immediately stiffened and drew their swords when they saw the couple ahead of them.
One of the two men grunted in irritation at the attention. Both clad in nondescript brown clothes, he punched the other in the arm. “I warned you to hurry it up, you idiot.” The other winced, even as he continued to splash more of a golden liquid around the bottom of the wall that they had been working on. Small piles of mud and dirt surrounded the wall in patches, where the men had evidently been digging, The guards realised quickly that most of the stores of the wine that their employer was famed for were located in the storehouse which was backed up against this wall.
“What are you both doing?” One of the guards asked hotly, advancing on the pair. “Whatever you’re doing, you need to stop, and come with us to be questioned!” The man who had punched his colleague came forward, arms outstretched, hands open. “This isn’t what it looks like. It’s all a misunderstanding! Just let us be and we’ll be along in a minute.”
The other guard scoffed. “As if that’s acceptable. Come along now!” He sheathed his sword and reached for a pair of iron cuffs dangling on his belt kept for this purpose.
He would never draw his sword again.
With an almost whispering motion, the man in brown drew a slender sword which had been hidden in his clothes, somehow wrapped around his waist. With a gurgle, the approaching guard found the sword blade protruding from his throat. He collapsed to the ground, twitching, as the man in brown straightened, saluting the other guard with his sword.
With a roar, the guard leapt forward. He was a skilled swordsman, and his sword was angled deceptively high as he swung towards the man in brown. As the man raised his own sword to deflect the blow, the guard changed his hold on his blade, and directed the blow towards the unprotected stomach of his target.
With a shock, he realised that the man in brown had easily shifted his weight. His sword swept into empty air, even as the man in brown smoothly lowered his hand, driving his sword deep into the chest of the guard, tearing through cloth, leather armour and human flesh.
The guard slid off the sword as the man in brown pulled his arm back. The swordsman calmly wiped his sword on a swatch of grass next to the two dead men, even as he spoke over his shoulder. “Are we done here?”
The other man finished arranging some other articles and laid a few more bottles of yellow fluid around the sodden wall which he had been working on. With a clap of his hands, he nodded at the swordsman. With a grunt, the swordsman took a small bow off his back, and fired an arrow into the darkening night sky. As it flew up, it made a loud whistling sound, like the cry of a dying bird.
Without looking back, both men began to run away from the mansion into the forest.
As she fell through the sky, the coldness of the wind beat against the little of her face that was exposed. But she was used to this, and actually enjoyed it. She twisted her body about in the wind rushing around her, laughing as always at the freedom and exhilaration of what she was doing.
The strange whistling sound pierced even the rush of air around her masked ears. The cloth around her ears was thinner, as it was around her mouth, protecting her from the wind but allowing her to speak and hear. As she heard the unexpected sound, she maneuvered her head down, and dived, eyes alert for any unexpected behaviour.
And she found it flickering from the forest below, three lit arrows rising, flames on their tips as they rose. As she watched through narrowed eyes, she calculated their trajectory to end near a mansion which was at the edge of the forest, on the outskirts of a town below. Whatever it was, those arrows definitely were meant for some mischief for that mansion.
She wanted that mansion’s owner unharmed. His wines and draughts were among the best in the nation, and he was used to visitors dropping in at odd hours.
With a breath and a thought, a small gust of wind blow sharply at the arrows, and an eddy of air spun them in the air where they were caught. As they spun, she spread her hands, and with a jerking motion, she swept her thoughts towards the air around the arrows.
The arrows flitted back down to earth, in the direction they had been fired from.
He cursed even as his arrow left the bow. A master archer, he led this band of three for the second phase of the operation. When they heard the whistle, they had thrust their arrow tips into the small, banked fire in front of them, then pointed their bows towards the mansion which they had calculated earlier. In his own mind, he counted till 10, giving his colleagues enough time to clear the site, before he softly gave the order to fire. All three arrows left the bows at the same time.
But as he fired, he knew – he just knew – that the arrow he’d chosen had betrayed him. He never missed, but the arrow had sung differently as it rose away, and this shot would miss. It was the reason there were three archers instead of just one, and the other two arrows would strike true. But he was irritated that he would miss his shot even if no one would see it.
He didn’t know that it would save his life.
All he heard was a couple of meaty thuds, and a whisper of sound. He held his bow ready, another arrow already strung without any thought, as he waited for more sound to figure out what was happening. Instead, he only heard the rustling of cloth behind him.
He turned around to see his archers crumpled behind him, one arrow sticking out from each of their heads. The arrows had pierced through their skulls and only the feathered ends could be seen. With trembling hand, he reached to the end of one of the arrows, and his questing fingers found the proof he needed.
It was one of the arrows they had unleashed earlier. The fletching on the arrows of his team was pretty unique which improved the chances of a good shot. It was part of their pride that they made their own arrows, and allowed them to ply their craft undisturbed by inquisitive government officials.
A couple of steps away from where he had been standing, the last arrow was still quivering where it had struck the ground. He knew that it was only sheer chance that the arrow had not functioned as it should have. As a result, it had now returned on that misdirected flight, into the ground a way behind him, instead of into his skull.
He swore. And started to run.
The two figures in brown jogged steadily under the canopy of the forest. One of them was shorter, and he cavorted from tree root to tree root, talking to himself, giggling every now and then as he twinkled along. The other, taller figure seemed to take this in stride, jogging at a steady pace, ignoring the capricious behaviour of his colleague.
But he slowed after a while, and cocked his head back in the direction of the mansion from which they were jogging away from. “Shang, do you hear anything?”
Shang giggled, as he juggled a glass bottle from one hand to the other. “Other than myself, you, and the trees?” With a sudden motion, he stopped. “No. Nothing.”
“Something’s wrong. It didn’t go as planned.” The taller figure turned to run back towards the mansion, at a faster pace than before. “You go on ahead to the rendezvous point, Shang. I’ll meet you there later.”
Shang looked uncertainly at the retreating back of his friend, still holding on to his glass bottle, while balancing on the stump he was on.
“Okay Li-ang. I’ll meet you there later.”
As she approached her landing spot, a clearing next to the mansion where the arrows had been headed originally, she cleared her mind and extended her palms downwards. Instantly, a rush of air gathered below her, cushioning and arresting her fall, directing her into a little whirlpool of air that had her landing on the ground, palms first, without even a bump. The first time she’d done this, she’d ended up bouncing all over the place. Now she simply balanced on her hands for a little, before she pushed herself gently, and righted herself.
Only a whisper of air alerted her in time. Immediately, she concentrated and a wall of air slammed up around her, tossing the arrow that had been directed at her face upwards, spinning it and breaking it into small shards with the sudden violence of the wind. She glared murderously at the man who was running toward her, bow drawn with another arrow fitted to his string. Without pausing, he released, and drew again even as the arrow left his bow.
This time, the arrow stayed stuck in the wall of wind protecting her. With a toss of her head, she directed it back towards him, but he dodged easily.
He didn’t hesitate. A couple more arrows were returned to him at high speed before he discarded his bow, and drew a short blade, rushing towards her. And the battle was joined.
It was a quiet, strange battle to behold. She drew no weapons, but as he struck towards her side, a flicker of wind pushed his aim wide. It happened again and again, and he was visibly frustrated and even frightened by the time he stopped to gather breath.
“What are you?!” he breathed. And then he lunged again. But this time, at the last minute, his blade flickered and as he caught it with the other hand, he plunged it upwards, towards her belly. This time, he thought he succeeded.
Only to find that his blade had been stopped even before it had penetrated her clothing. As if caught in a tight vise, it was stuck, with only the feeling of a vortex of air spinning around his hand being any clue as to what happened.
With a curse, he let go of the blade. And then a gust of wind blew him back, slamming him into a tree behind him. As she approached him, as he stared into his eyes, leaves started to whip up all around him, while he was held in place, limbs unable to move, against the tree. And then as he roared at her, the leaves started to whip against him. Softly at first. Little cuts started to open up on his clothing. As he continued to struggle and roar, the little cuts started to be stained with blood. At that, he stopped for a moment, glaring at her.
“Are you ready to stop?” She leaned against another tree, staring at her nails. “When you’re ready, we can talk. Properly. I want answers.”
The next few minutes were occupied by very colourful swearing, which questioned the quality and origins of her ancestors. This was followed by another strong whirlwind.
“Are we ready now?”
He glared at her. Cuts were on his face now, but he remained defiant. “Witch!” He spat at her, but the spittle flew out of his mouth, and splashed back on his face.
She smiled. “That’s okay. I’m sure the guards here will want to have fun with you. The wind will hold you here till they arrive.” She turned to leave.
And was brought up short by an extended blade, the tip of which was at her throat.
Li-ang had watched and waited, moving quietly. He had relied on the erstwhile archer keeping the young woman distracted, while he moved into position. He had almost been able to thrust the sword into her unprotected back, but she had turned around at the last minute. Now his sword was at her neck – and she was glaring at him.
Without another word, he thrust his sword forward.