3: Beward the Masked Assassin

So here we are. A mansion with three floors, where the enemies could be hiding in any room. I have to admit that the mansion is so quiet that it feels haunted. It is as if something dark is lurking around the corners and watching us, preparing to strike at the right time.

They said that the mansion had been abandoned for many years. I find that strange. The furniture, the tables, the drawings hung on the wall—they look as if they have been well-maintained. The plant vases along the walls—they are watered by someone. This mansion doesn’t look abandoned to me. Some people have been frequenting this place.

I can hear faint noises of footsteps coming from the higher floors. A moment later, it is back to silence.

Maleek looks at the staircase that leads to the higher floors. “Where do you think the Masked Assassin would hide the Marked Ones? That’s assuming they are still around and haven’t left the mansion yet.”

I see that there are not many rooms on the first floor. “The second floor—looks like they have more rooms to hide around.”

Maleek snaps his finger. “Good. Then my squad and Driesen’s would take the second and third floor. You take the first floor. If you find the Marked Ones, send a runner to my squad. We’ll come and take care of things for you.”

That doesn’t seem fair to my squad. “Okay. Same goes here. If you encounter the Marked Ones upstairs and need our help, just send us a runner too.”

Maleek seems hesitant about my suggestion. “Hmm... if we find the Marked Ones, I’m sure my squad and Driesen’s will be able to take care of it. Do not come up unless we request so. Let’s move out, everybody.” Maleek and Driesen’s squads leave to the second floor.

Kang Yu is not too happy about what he just heard. “I know what Maleek is up to. He’s taking Driesen’s squad with him so that they have better chances of defeating the Masked Assassin and capturing the Marked Ones. When they finally achieve their mission objective, Maleek can report that our squad didn’t lift a single finger to help them. Our squad would be denied performance credits.”

Sharon shares her thoughts. “Talking about working in the same body where the other body parts are quietly working against you. We all share the same goal, so why the competition?”

I say, “It’s all part of the Swordmaster system. The more performance credits you are awarded for a successful mission, the better the chance to rise through the ranks. In order for Jackal to deny us the performance credits, he has ordered Maleek’s squad to be the first that completes the mission objectives. So if his squad were to capture the Marked Ones, even though we may have contributed indirectly to the mission success, nothing will be credited to us.”

Sharon’s heart burns with determination. “Gideon, we are not going to let Maleek take the best meal and leave us the crumbs. I say, let’s snatch the victory right out of his hand.”

Kang Yu raises an eyebrow with a silent laugh. “Your determination is admirable, Sharon. Contagious even for a cynical ‘half-empty bottle’ man like me.”

I look into the eyes of all our squad members. “Well then, let’s see who can be the first to capture the Marked Ones. This may be our squad’s first mission, but we shall not stay the underdog. If we encounter the Masked Assassin, we’ll take him down as a team. We’ll outperform Maleek’s squad in this mission and show them what we are made of. We’ll start with our first floor and search the rooms one by one. Once we are done, we’ll move to the higher floors.”

* * *

Each Swordmaster squad comprises of six members. Ours is a newly formed squad. I am the squad leader.

Kang Yu, my good friend, is my right-hand man and also the team strategist. Though he is a Swordmaster trained in sword mastery, he prefers to bring along his bow and arrows for his missions. Many comrades often laugh at him, saying he is a pretty boy who doesn’t have the guts to fight as a frontliner using a sword. But I think Kang Yu’s strength lies more in his wits and strategies. He finds it more comfortable to engage his enemies from far.

Sharon, my dear cousin, is a top graduate from the Academy’s latest batch. Among her peers, she was mainly recognized for scoring high in her knowledge tests, and also for achieving the greatest improvement in her sword-fighting skills. You may think that she’s a natural-born high performer. But she has not always been like this.

When she first joined the Swordmaster Academy, she had always been seen as a slow learner and could never keep up with her peers. She couldn’t even swing a sword properly. Her instructor had advised her to quit the Academy, go back and help run her mother’s shop.

I remembered the nights when I would drop by her house for dinner, she would often break down in tears in front of me, not knowing if she should

her limitation and just give up her Swordmaster training.

I spent a few weeks teaching her how to master the basics of her sword-fighting skill. After that, due to the busyness of my work shifts, I stopped my training with her completely but she continued to train on her own.

A few years later, the Academy named her one of the top graduates due to her rapid rise from an underperforming trainee. Her sword-fighting skill is astounding, and has improved way so much compared to the first year of her training. Sharon is a testament that if you work hard enough, you will eventually become the best. So you can say that her title as a top graduate from the Swordmaster Academy is hard-earned.

There are three more squad members whom Jackal labeled as ‘misfits’. I have not had the opportunity to know them better yet.

Lionhart—I heard he has a dark past. He had been stealing since he was a child. One day, he stole from a government minister but was caught. Strangely, instead of being sent to prison like other thieves, he got sent to the Academy to be trained as a Swordmaster.

Before Lionhart got transferred to my squad, he was caught stealing from his former squad members. Somehow, they settled the dispute internally. Once again, Lionhart escaped being charged for theft, but then he ended in my squad. Somebody in the higher ranks has a great sense of humor planting a thief among the Swordmasters?

Jega—our huge-sized friend shall provide us with the raw strength our squad needs. He too has an interesting dark past.

His mother worked at the brothel as a you-know-what. When he was a teen, one day his mother got jeered by some street kids for her job. Jega stood up for his mother, gave a little knock too hard on the kid, and apparently that kid never woke up again. Like Lionhart, Jega was not sent to the prison. Instead, he was enrolled into the Academy and later graduated as a Swordmaster.

A thief and a former murderer in my squad. A double coincidence of somebody in the high ranks trying to suppress my squad’s potential?

Tori—as for her, I still can’t figure out her story yet. She’s the daughter of a rich businessman. From the reports I heard about her, she can’t fight at all. For someone who failed all her sword-fighting skill tests in the Academy, how she successfully graduated and was placed into my squad, is a mystery I can’t even figure out.

So a thief, an ex-murderer and a failed graduate—all conveniently and strategically placed in my squad. A triple coincidence for such odds. Who is so intent on making my squad filled with ‘losers and misfits’, as others would call it?

But I’m not one who sees them as losers or misfits. Everybody in this world just needs someone to believe in them and they will rise above your expectations. Our squad of six shall rise above our underdog status.

* * *

There are three rooms on the first floor which we need to investigate. I try to open the door to the first room. “It’s locked. Lionhart, do your thing.”

Our squad thief, Lionhart inspects the door knob. “We can easily force this door open. But wait, I hear noises from the inside.”

I signal my squad to prepare their swords, in anticipation of an enemy attack. “Do you think the Marked Ones are hiding inside?”

Lionhart sticks his ear close to the door and listens intently. “Too much movement noise for the Marked Ones if they are trying to be discreet.”

Kang Yu says, “I say it’s the undead, for sure.”

I believe Kang Yu is right. I give my signal to Jega. Our huge-sized squad member kicks down the door with a loud thud that probably alerts everyone in the vicinity to our presence. We are immediately greeted with three ghouls inside.

The three ghouls spring at us. Jega charges forward and is quick to kill the first. I kill the second, and then Kang Yu takes down the third with his bow and arrow.

Sharon studies the slain ghouls. “I’ve heard many stories about the ghouls in the Academy. But I have never encountered one in front of my eyes.”

Sharon almost wants to touch the slain ghouls but decides to hold back. “I know during the war, the Immortal Lord would offer the citizens a chance to live by

ing the Mark. But what turned them into this monstrosity after they died?”

I know that part of the story well. “By

ing the Immortal Lord’s offer to live a little longer, they unknowingly

the cursed power contained in the Mark. After the Marked Ones die, their bodies would be raised as ghouls that would serve in the Immortal Lord’s Undead army for eternity.”

Kang Yu shakes his head. “What an irony. By

ing the offer to live a little longer from the enemy, they end up living in an eternal state of damnation as ghouls.”

Sharon says, “Gideon, earlier you mentioned that the enemy is gathering an army of Marked Ones in this City. Could the Masked Assassin be killing these Marked Ones so that they would turn into ghouls? Then the Masked Assassin will let the ghouls loose upon us.”

Kang Yu says, “Gideon, this is clearly the Masked Assassin’s dirty work. We need to be careful.”

* * *

Outside the second room, a loud scream bursts forth. Is somebody being attacked? We barge into the next room. A masked figure quickly escapes our sight and slips through another exit door.

It is the Masked Assassin!

Lionhart and Jega attempt to pursue after the masked figure through the exit door but come back immediately after I order them not to.

I say, “The key to defeating the Masked Assassin is to do it as a group. If you’re lured away from the group, you’ll be picked off one by one.”

A lady with the Mark on her forehead lies half-dead on the floor, sprawled in her own blood. Apparently, the Masked Assassin was trying to kill her in order to turn her into a ghoul. Such a despicable act killing the Marked Ones off just like that!

I stare at the dying girl. Her blood covers the Mark on her forehead. She raises her hand as if trying to say something. Then her hand falls lifelessly onto her stabbed chest, and she breathes her last.

Kang Yu says, “Gideon, she’s going to turn into a ghoul soon if we don’t ‘end’ her.”

I raise my sword in preparation for a swing. “I know what needs to be done.”

I look at my cousin, who is uncomfortable with the whole ordeal. “Sharon, I know this is your first mission with the Marked Ones. If you’re not comfortable with this, just look away.”

Sharon covers her mouth and then takes a deep breath. “No, cousin. I’m a Swordmaster. I’m strong enough to take this.”

I swing my sword and decapitate the girl’s head. That is meant to prevent her from turning into a ghoul. The other squad members look unfazed, but Sharon doesn’t look too fine. “Are you alright, Sharon?”

Sharon gives me a disgusted look. “I can’t help to wonder what if one day I’m forced to do the same thing to a dying loved one who is Marked, to prevent them from turning into a ghoul. These Marked Ones, they don’t deserve such fate.”

Kang Yu doesn’t show any compassion when it comes to the Marked Ones. “The day they receive the Mark, they are already dead. They have become nothing more than pawns of war for their evil masters.”

As Swordmasters, we can’t allow ourselves to be clouded by emotions. Our mission to protect our City takes higher priority than our sympathy for the Marked Ones. I have to remind myself that every day.

I say, “There’s nothing else in this room. Let’s search the next room and see what we can find.”

As we move towards the third room, Sharon whispers to me, “Cousin, what would you do if you are forced to receive the Mark? Isn’t it better to die than to sell your soul?”

Personally, I think this is a tough question to answer. “Twelve years ago, when I was still in our former city, my school was attacked by the undead. All of us had been taught well that if the enemies were to force us to receive the Mark, yes, we would rather die an honorable death than to sell our soul to them. I remember faces of friends who promised that we would stand strong till the end.

“But on that day, I saw many of them succumbed to the Mark. Some received the Mark because they didn’t want to die. Some received the Mark because the corruption of soul is nothing compared to having their future taken away from them.

“But there’s one group of people that received the Mark for a reason I find hard to

. Do you know for what reason? They did it for their loved ones. Threatened with the death of their loved ones, they damned their soul so that their loved ones may live. To me, being forced to choose between honor and our loved ones, that’s the most difficult decision you would ever have to make in this lifetime.”

Sharon pauses to ponder about the story I just told her. “I certainly don’t want to be in that position as well. But what if I have to choose, what would you tell me to do?”

Now it is my turn to pause long and think about the answer. If I tell her to choose honor, am I heartless that I would rather uphold a principle than to save a loved one? But if I tell her to choose the loved one, am I damning my principle by choosing the path that would corrupt her soul?

I whisper my answer into Sharon’s ear.

Sharon looks at me with a mixed expression of determination and dilemma. “Cousin, I totally understand. And that would also mean...”

Before Sharon can finish her sentence, I stop her. “Let’s hope we don’t have to come to that point.”

* * *

We have searched all the rooms on the first floor of the mansion but found nothing else. The Masked Assassin is clearly in the mansion, but probably on either the second or third floor. Maleek and Driesen would have higher chances of encountering him.

The Marked Ones must be hiding on either the second or third floor, where Maleek and Driesen would have higher chances of finding them.

Lionhart says, “What now, Gideon? We have already searched every nook and cranny on the first floor. Nothing here that can help our squad accomplish our mission objectives. Shouldn’t we go join up with Maleek and Driesen’s squad on the second and third floor?”

I know Maleek will make a big fuss about this during the mission debriefing if our squad decides to drop by unannounced on his floors. “Lionhart, could you do me a favor? Could you locate Maleek’s squad and try to see what they are up to? Just make sure they don’t find you spying on them.”

Lionhart nods. “Don’t worry. avoiding being caught is what I’ve been practicing a lot lately.” He leaves our squad immediately to attend to the little mission I assigned him.

Kang Yu touches my shoulder and shows me the hush sign. “Gideon, I saw something in the backyard of the mansion.” Kang Yu and I head over to the kitchen and take a peek at the window overlooking the backyard of the mansion.

I am shocked at what I see. More than thirty ghouls walk aimlessly around the backyard. Some are burnt to the ground. “Kang Yu, what do you think happened here?”

Kang Yu says, “I think some fight took place here a while ago before we arrived. Care to hear my crazy theory?”

“Go ahead and flex your creative mind.”

“Could this be an execution ground for the Marked Ones? The Masked Assassin killed some Marked Ones to turn them into ghouls.”

I think Kang Yu’s theory has a loophole. “If the Masked Assassin wanted to raise some ghouls to fight us off, then why did he leave them in the backyard? Why did the Masked Assassin light the ghouls on fire?”

Kang Yu says, “Could somebody else be fighting the Masked Assassin and the ghouls? But who?”

I say, “I don’t know. But let’s hope those ghouls in the backyard don’t find their way into the mansion.”

Lionhart returns with a disturbing look on his face. “Gideon, something terrible had happened on the second floor. I tracked Maleek’s final location to a huge room. When I entered it, I saw heavy casualties.”

I say, “So Maleek did encounter the Masked Assassin on the second floor. They didn’t send a runner to request for our help in their fight. I assume they managed to defeat the Masked Assassin and arrest all the Marked Ones.”

Lionhart pauses to catch his breath. “No, Gideon. The Swordmasters are the ones who suffered the heavy casualties.”

No! This cannot be! I gather my entire squad. “We need to go up to the second floor right now and help Maleek’s squad right now.”

Lionhart interrupts me. “Wait, it’s pointless. The Masked Assassin had already destroyed both Maleek and Driesen’s squads. I didn’t find any survivors.”