6: Out of Our Way, Swordmasters!

Upon reaching the other side of the portal, I unplug the Portal Stone that powers it. The blue light of the portal fizzles into nothingness. We are now in the forest at the edge of the City. Our next objective is to gather all the refugees at the next checkpoint—an abandoned mansion on the hill.

However, the abandoned mansion is not our end destination. Once we reach there, we have to wait for another portal to open. That portal will lead us back to New Haven. It is the only place in this City that will accept the Marked Ones and provide them with a safe refuge.

I look at Nisa. My heart feels drawn to her well-being. I cannot imagine what life had been for her living under the rule of the Undead. Now, she’s just a few hours away from her life of freedom. I have to ensure that she and her father get to New Haven safely. I believe she will love it there.

As we walk through the forest, Nisa comes to my side. “Kiera, thanks for coming back for us. We were held back on the way to the rendezvous when we saw many ghouls blocking our route. We had to wait for them to leave. When we arrived at the rendezvous and nobody was around, I was afraid that we had been left behind by the rescue team. It was such a scary feeling. I thought our lives were over. Why did you choose to come back for us?”

The answer to Nisa’s question would bring me back to my childhood days as well. “When I was younger, my town was attacked by Hezekiah’s Undead army. While my townspeople escaped, a group of us was left behind. I thought I was going to die. Then someone came and rescued us. He said he heard that our group was left behind, and had come back all the way to rescue us. If that person hadn’t come back and rescued my group, I wouldn’t have been alive today. Today, I owe my life to that stranger.”

Nisa says, “Do you know who that stranger is?”

I say, “It’s funny to receive kindness from a stranger. I didn’t even ask for his name. After that incident, I figured that since I had been given a second chance, the best way to repay what the stranger had done for me would be to help others gain their second chance as well. So I dedicate my life to New Haven’s cause which is to provide a new home for the Marked refugees.”

Nisa nods her head with excitement. “You know, one day, when I grow older, I want to be like you as well. I want to go back to the Outside World and rescue all my friends who are still under the Undead’s rule.”

I sweep my hand through Nisa’s rumpled hair. “You will, Nisa. I believe you will.”

* * *

While my group is moving through the forest road, we hear noises of commotion not far ahead.

Ryo goes over to scout and comes back with a disturbing report. “Kiera, you won’t believe this. Five refugees from Ganeson’s group have been captured by the Swordmasters and are being escorted away. I think these five couldn’t keep up with Ganeson’s pace and were separated from their main group. While finding their way around, they must have attracted the Swordmasters’ attention. With the Mark on their foreheads, the Swordmasters would instantly arrest them without any question.”

I weigh the options we have. “If we rescue them, this would alert the Swordmasters to New Haven’s presence in this vicinity. They would sweep this area of the forest until they find our next portal location at the abandoned mansion.”

Ryo says, “We can let the five be taken by the Swordmasters. After all, they do not know the exact location of the mansion. By the time the Swordmasters take them back to their headquarters and interrogate, the rest of us would have been back to New Haven safely.”

I sigh at the options we have. “But on the other hand, if we allow the five to be taken away by the Swordmasters, that’s life imprisonment for them. Escaping from the oppressed rule of the Undead to finally end up in our city prison, what sort of rescuers are we? My heart cannot allow that to happen.”

Ryo says, “It is bad enough that the Undead Patrol may be tracking the Marked refugees to our next location. If the Swordmasters join in the fight, we will be smacked right in the middle of two attacking forces. What do you think our Captain’s decision would be in this situation?”

I say, “Seriously you want to know Ganeson’s decision? He’s the main reason why these five refugees got left behind and picked up by the Swordmasters. I suggest, we attack the Swordmasters and rescue the five refugees. Ready for a fight?”

Ryo shows six on his fingers. “You’re not letting me have a say in this matter. I’m the only one here capable of fighting. Six Swordmasters against one. You’re trying to push me to use my powers, aren’t you? ”

I say, “The Swordmasters patrolling the forest area usually are rookie scouts. They shouldn’t be too difficult for us to take them down. Please, Ryo, if you don’t help them, who else will?”

Ryo pauses for a moment to think. “Fine, I will fight the Swordmasters. But I will refrain from using my Time powers. They remind me of the past which I’d prefer to leave behind.”

“I understand, Ryo. I will not force your hand on this.”

Ryo is gifted with the manipulation of the Time element. He can slow the time of those surrounding him in relative to his.

Ryo came from an elite society of people known as the Time Monks. However, when the war started, the Immortal Lord Hezekiah attacked the Time Monks, seeking to exploit their powers. As a result, the Time Monks were the first group of people to be destroyed by the Immortal Lord.

The Time Monks not only possess the ability to manipulate Time on a small scale but on a larger scale, they have the ability to manipulate the timeline as well. When Hezekiah attacked the Time Monks, the timeline manipulation ability was what he sought. Deciding not to surrender their power to the enemy, the Time Monks fought to their death. Ryo lost his wife and baby daughter in that tragic battle. Ever since then, he has devoted his life to helping the war against Hezekiah. That is why he joined New Haven.

In the eyes of the world, the Time Monks are extinct. That makes Ryo the last of his kind. So far he has been keeping his Time power a secret from everybody, not even the Leadership of New Haven know about it. I’m the only one who know his secret. And I perfectly know why. His people were exterminated because of the power they possessed. He doesn’t want his Time power to be exploited by parties with selfish agendas.

However, there is another secret which I have yet to uncover. Ryo claims that each time he uses his Time power, he would be overwhelmed by a sense of depression and hopelessness. He doesn’t want to be reminded of his past identity as a Time Monk because it brings up memories of him witnessing his wife and daughter died. Despite my good intentions to help him overcome his traumatic experiences, he still finds it hard to let go of that past.

But I’m not saying it is an easy thing to battle his past ghost. He has been battling it for many years.

I’m not so worried about Ryo’s fighting skills. Even without using his Time power, Ryo is a rather formidable hand combatant.

Ryo says, “Kiera, you go confront them first. Once I’m ready, I’ll circle to their rear and give them some beating.” Ryo puts on his own version of the black mask and disappears into the forest, seeking for his best spot to ambush the Swordmasters.

I put on my black cloth mask, and prepare my staff and short sword. Nisa looks terrified when she sees my black mask. “Kiera, I’ve seen that black mask before. It is the same worn by Assassins sent to kill the Marked Ones to raise them as ghouls. Why are you wearing that?”

I say, “Fear is a useful weapon. The reputation of the Assassins strikes fear even into the most capable of Swordmasters. The Swordmasters may be competent fighters, but even they will think twice if they are to come into a head-to-head combat with an Assassin.”

* * *

I walk into the open road and raise my staff towards the six Swordmasters. “Let the Marked Ones go.”

The Swordmaster squad leader steps out. “These Marked Ones are found traveling within the jurisdiction of our City. We are under orders to arrest them instantly upon finding them because they are Hezekiah’s agents sent to infiltrate our City and spy on us.”

I say, “Hezekiah is too busy fighting a war somewhere else that he hardly has time to send refugees to spy on us. These Marked Ones are innocent refugees just looking for a chance to start a fresh new life away from the war. You are doing them an injustice if you throw them into prison.”

The Swordmaster says, “The Marked Ones are dangerous. If they die, they will turn into ghouls and tear our City apart.”

I look around to see if Ryo has got into a position to attack the Swordmasters. No sign of him yet. I need to stall time in order for his surprise attack to take place. “And I think you’re brainwashed to judge all Marked Ones as unworthy. You don’t care about the real person behind those Marks on their foreheads.”

One of the Swordmasters murmurs to his leader something about me wearing an Assassin’s mask.

The Swordmaster loses his patience. “Why am I even wasting my time talking to you? You’re an Assassin sent by Hezekiah to destroy this City. We will now attack you.”

Where did Ryo leave to? He knows I’m not a good fighter. If the six Swordmasters decide to attack me together, I’ll probably be the one captured. “Swordmaster, there are things in this forest that are too dangerous for your squad to take on. Listen to my advice, your squad needs to leave this forest now or I’m afraid you will die getting caught in a crossfire.”

The Swordmaster raises his sword at me as I try not to appear shaken. “You dare threaten us? Take down this Assassin!”

“Over my dead body!!! Hyaah!!!” Ryo leaps out from the trees and attacks the Swordmasters one by one. In a matter of ten seconds, all the Swordmasters are groaning in pain on the ground.

I help to free the five captured refugees and bring them to rejoin with Nisa’s group. We quickly move throughout the forest road towards our next destination—the abandoned mansion. Ryo frequently makes a few trips further backward to ensure that the Swordmasters are not following us.

Nisa comes up to me. “But why do those soldiers want to capture us?”

I know Nisa just escaped her oppressive world to enter ours, with similar resemblance of oppressiveness. “They are called the Swordmasters. They are the army and police of the City. In the eyes of the people, when the Marked Ones die, they will turn into ghouls, the very undead creatures that fill the ranks of the Immortal Lord’s army. Therefore, the ruler of this City, Lord Wrazen has declared the Marked Ones as a threat to the people and are to be captured on sight by the Swordmasters.”

Nisa says, “Sounds like we are not welcomed here. Has the City always been like this?”

I remember a period where it wasn’t always like this. Those were the good days when the City was still under good governance. “No, there was a time when the Marked refugees could live freely in the City. I used to work as a counselor at the refugee center that helped people like you to settle down into their lives in this City. However, there were those in the government who were uneasy about these arrangements. They thought that the Marked Ones were dangerous and should be held in a prison, not living freely.

“Then the Black Night Incident happened. Hundreds of Marked refugees died mysteriously and caused a ghoul outbreak—destroying an entire district together with its five thousand citizens. The damage to the City was irreversible. After the outbreak was contained, without investigating further into the root cause, the government issued a law to arrest and imprison all the Marked Ones.

“The Marked Ones who used to live freely, were suddenly hunted down like criminals and thrown in prison without trial. As long as they carry the Mark on their forehead, they will be arrested on sight by Swordmasters. That was when Shadowman started New Haven in a secret location for the Marked Ones so that the Swordmasters can’t find you all. A place where you can live freely without fearing of being thrown into prison.”

Nisa says, “If we live under Hezekiah’s rule, the Marked Ones might be killed by the Undead lords in order to bolster their Undead army. If we are captured by the Swordmasters, then we are forever trapped in their prison. Looks like we have not much choice but to seek refuge in New Haven. It is the only place that can accept our kind.”

Upon reaching a certain part of the forest, suddenly my heart feels heavy as if something is pressing against it. “Wait, Ryo. We need to stop moving. I sense a strong presence of death and fear coming from ahead.”

Ryo goes further up the forest road to scout and returns. “Looks like your intuition is right. The Undead Patrol is further up this current route.”

I say, “Then we might need to make a detour. We have to exit this route and use the uphill path. Our next checkpoint is just down this path. If we take the uphill path, we need to walk a full circle up the hill to get to the abandoned mansion. I know it would be very exhausting to the group. But confronting the Undead Patrol is totally not an option.”

Ryo smiles quietly as he listens to my strategy. “I think you will make a great captain for rescue missions. Your leadership intuition has saved us over and over again. The fifteen refugees following your lead right now can testify to that.”

Am I supposed to feel flattered over Ryo’s remark? “I’m not a good fighter, Ryo. It’s one of the requirements to become New Haven’s captain, therefore I’ll never be one.”

Ryo says, “But you instill courage and hope among the people you lead. You see, that’s the problem with New Haven. They put too much emphasis on fighting skills. A good captain doesn’t necessarily need to be a good fighter, but a big heart for the people he or she is leading.”

This is the first time I hear Ryo giving me such compliments. “We’re still not out of harm’s way yet. I will gladly accept your compliment once we get everybody back to New Haven safely.”

So I share the detour plan with the refugees and they are more than willing to take the rocky uphill path. After a few minutes of journeying up the hill, we hear deathly screams from the location of the former route we almost took.

Ryo disappears for a moment to get to a higher position and scout what had just happened. He returns with some news. “It’s the Swordmasters who are trying to track us. I think they encountered the Undead Patrol. They did not stand a chance against the Undead Patrol’s size.”

This could prove to be another problem. “Then it becomes highly important that we must not allow the Undead Patrol to find all the Marked Ones gathering at the abandoned mansion.”

Ryo seems doubtful about my statement. “But what if the Undead Patrol comes knocking at the door? We can’t run away from the mansion because the portal to New Haven will only open up at that specific location.”

I say, “Then we need to discuss with Ganeson on a solution. Together with his militias, we must defend the mansion from the attacks of the Undead Patrol. However, I’m concerned that Ganeson will be another problem we have to deal with. I clearly disobeyed his orders and rescued Nisa’s group. What do you think he would do to me?”

Ryo shakes his head. “Not good. New Haven takes acts of disobedience very seriously. I have seen operatives who went against their captain’s orders, usually they are permanently banned from participating in future rescue missions.”

Ryo thinks for a moment. “If Ganeson decides to report you up to New Haven’s Leadership, I have a suggestion to counter him. We can submit a case of no-confidence against Ganeson’s leadership. He’s clearly leaving refugees behind due to his incapability in leadership. We can rally some of the refugees we rescued as witnesses. I’ve seen some operatives done that before. The Leadership of New Haven would listen to such cases.”

That is a drastic action to take. It’s very unlike my nature to go against my Captain who is working together to help the refugees. “I’m not sure if I have the heart to do that. It was Ganeson’s recommendation that helped me to secure a place in New Haven’s rescue division in the first place. He knew my desires to help the refugees in the Outside World and had spoken to the Leadership to allow me to join the rescue division. Without his favor, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to be here. Even though he can be a tough leader to work with, I can’t see myself pressing a case against him.”

I look behind and see the weary faces of the fifteen refugees following our lead. My utmost concern goes to Nisa, she’s just a young girl looking for a place to call home. “Ryo, if I were to take the fall for them, then so be it.”