Chapter 3:

The Emperor III - "Two Brothers"

Destiny Marine

Nine years ago - two brothers played in the wooded hills surrounding Patuxet, bringing fists to their mouths to make bird calls toward each other.

Seven years ago - two brothers attended their mother’s funeral.

Six years ago - two brothers attended their father’s funeral, their childhood friend crying alongside them.

Two years ago - two brothers sat around the table in their tenement apartment. Night had already descended over Patuxet.

The pencil tapped-tapped-tapped against the paper, then Greg looked over Isaac, already laying in his bed bundle. “Hey, little man,” he said, sounding a little unsure. “You okay with this?”

The words pulled Isaac out of his daydream (was it still a daydream if it occurred during the night?). It was the same one - something about meadows and green fields. There were two chairs next to a garden. Sometimes, he and a woman would sit there, just soaking in the sun. Though he could make out her short stature and long brown hair, he could never remember her face. And then, just like that - the daydream came to its abrupt end, and Isaac forgot all about that woman and her garden.

“Okay with what?” Isaac asked.

Greg spread an arm over his paper. “Kass sending me to school and all that. The only difference between me and you is that I’m two years older than you. I’m not smarter than you or anything. Yet she can only send one of us, and it ended up being me.”

“You’re the smartest person I know,” Isaac answered easily. “You can make those numbers dance. Sure, I can sort of read a dime novel, thanks to you and Kass teaching me, but school’s not up my alley.”

“What’s up your alley, then?”

Isaac shrugged. “Just staying here.” He went to spread his arms wide, but both of them banged into walls.

The pencil tapped-tapped-tapped again, then Greg sighed. “Dad took me around the country once. You were too little for it. But the things I saw…Narragansett feels like the biggest city in the world, the buildings in Acushnet are beautiful, and just taking the train through the countryside…”

The pencil rolled away down the table as Greg looked back at Isaac. “I know you’re content here and all, but I’m afraid that you’ll live a quiet life, which isn’t life at all, but you won’t live enough to know that.”

That must’ve come from one of those big books with big words that Kassandra lent Greg to study for college entrance exams. “I appreciate the sentiment, but I’ll be alright here. Nothing ever happens in Patuxet. I love living here.”

“Do you?”

“Yes…?” Despite it all, as he looked at that low-lying ceiling, feeling cramped in that corner, Isaac couldn’t help but phrase it as a question.


Two months later, something did happen in Narragansett.

Zhanghai Industrial Corporation had purchased the mine a year ago, and that enabled them to essentially purchase the mayor and sheriff’s office as well. Their corporate samurai patrolled the streets, wages went down, taxes went up. An upset faction of miners decided to go on strike, and Isaac could hear the State Police and samurai firing into the crowds all the way from the tenement hall. He could’ve seen it, too - they were on the roof - but he had closed its eyes. In the darkness, he felt safe, as if the chaos didn’t exist.

Greg kept both him and Kassandra at the tenement for their safety. Isaac felt fine with that, but Kassandra stared angrily down at the scene in town, her hands balled into tight fists.

Isaac had to open his eyes. When something like this was staring him right in the face, he couldn’t just duck and hide. He couldn’t make out individual figures, but he could see the rolling mass of people fleeing from the town center. Flashes of orange signified the firing of guns, and every so often, lightning strikes or harsh winds deployed by a cultivator on the Zhanghai payroll ripped and tore through the crowd.

The trio on the roof couldn’t pull their eyes away. Greg looked down in horror. Kassandra bit her lip to keep the frustration from boiling out, but she finally opened her mouth.

“One day…I’m gonna put a stop to all this…no matter what it takes. With you two here, I swear it.”

As for Isaac - he just imagined Greg and Kassandra in that crowd being fired upon, and felt an indescribable amount of gratitude for the three being out of harm’s way. Let others fight the battles. What he saw down there was wrong - but he sincerely doubted the forces on the side of justice needed somebody small like him on their side.


In the present, Greg immediately hung up after that last ominous line over the phone. Isaac stared at the phone in disbelief. How could you end with a sentence like that? His brother sounded injured over the phone - was he in danger? If he had something that could topple the government, then it seemed likely. But why not explain it? Was the phone wiretapped? Was the train coming soon? Or did he just think it would be a cool line? Greg was always a romantic like that.

Nevertheless, Isaac hightailed it out of the office, ignoring the concerned look of the foreman and surprised stares of the clerks. He stepped back out into the night and then dashed back onto the main road. The road ended with the mines on one side and the train station on the other, so a quick sprint through town would take him there. All around him, the nightlife in Patuxet was already in full-spring. And nightlife generally consisted of debauchery and drunkenness spilling out of the town’s saloon. Songs trailed after Isaac from within the saloon; revelers, drinks in hand, called for him.

Since the town was so small, Isaac arrived at the train station before he knew it. To access the rest of the country, all he needed to do was step up this little concrete platform and buy a golden ticket out of the adjacent wooden office. Just like that, he could be in the capital city of Narragansett, in the seaport of Acushnet, in the hinterlands of Quinsigamond. But Isaac never felt the need to leave Patuxet, despite spending many nights gazing at the unassuming structure during his walk home.

The next train would be the last one rolling into the station for the night. The platform was almost empty - a few people sat on benches, awaiting their loved ones or friends. Isaac couldn’t help but pace around, his footsteps echoing off the concrete. His hands felt clammy; they say waiting is the hardest part in normal circumstances, let alone a situation like this.

Cicadas chirped. Crickets sang. The moon hung silently above him.

At last, Isaac could hear it. Down the tracks, the train’s headlight appeared as it emerged from behind the hills. Isaac’s heart threatened to jump out of his throat as the train pulled into the station. It came to a halt with a final mechanical screech, and then steam billowed out of it, ascending towards the moon.

Patuxet was just a minor station on the railroad from Narragansett to Acushnet, so only a handful of people got off. As they reunited with those waiting for them on the benches, Isaac felt his heart plummet. Greg was nowhere to be found. It’s not like Isaac would miss him on a tiny platform like this. He briefly wondered if Greg had collapsed somewhere while on the train, but then, before the train started up again, Isaac heard the distinctive caw-caw of a man-made bird call out in the distance.

Despite the severity of the situation, Isaac let out a goofy grin. He headed in the direction of the call - well, considering the circumstances, he left the platform, walked a little through town, then circled back to avoid any suspicion. Rather than his brother hurting himself, Isaac suspected somebody else had attacked Greg. To avoid taking any chances, he crouch-walked through the shrubbery on the outskirts of town in the direction of the call. The caw-caw came two more times, each one sounding weaker than the last, from a thick patch of greenery further down the tracks, close to the hills. Isaac heard rustling in a row of tall bushes ahead of him; he plunged through and came face-to-bloody-face with his brother.

Half of Greg’s face shone in crimson. “Isaac…glad you could make it.” Each word sounded pained, and his chest rose with each irregular, ragged breath. He tore the bottom of his own pants off to use as makeshift bandages; they were now tied around his head and stomach, both colored a dark red. Despite it all, he managed to smile.

“We’ll take you to the town doctor!” Isaac sputtered out, trying to lift Greg from his resting position among the wooden branches of the bush. His brother lifted a weak hand to stop him.

“It’s too late,” he said with a sad smile. “They shot me as I fled through my dorm window. I escaped for a little bit - just enough to give you that call. I then snuck aboard the train and hid in its bathroom, but I’ve been bleeding and wheezing this whole time. After jumping off at the bend, I crept through a gully to get around an officer searching for me on the tracks. I’ve used up all my strength. It took everything…just to make it here.”

Coarse coughs erupted from Isaac’s dying brother.

“Greg…I’m sorry. I should’ve done something here-”

“It’s not your fault,” Gregory interrupted gently. “It’s all my fault. I’m about to put you through hell.”

“Through hell…?”

Gregory stuffed an envelope into Isaac’s hands. “It’s not much, but…while at the university, I discovered a terrible conspiracy. Everyone in this country, possibly the entire planet, is at risk.”

“Slow down,” Isaac pleaded. “You’re dying, we should fix that first.”

“It’s too late,” Greg repeated. “But you can fix this. But I won’t force you. I have no doubt the State Police will come searching for it. If you hand it over to them, you’ll save your normal, everyday life here in Patuxet…for a time, until the conspiracy achieves their goal.”

Greg reached up and placed a tender hand on Isaac’s trembling shoulder. “I won’t force you to follow my footsteps. You can sacrifice your everyday life here to save the country’s populace, or you can keep your everyday life for a few more years. You can risk your life and fight for the sun or keep your quiet life in the darkness. I’ll leave that choice up to you.”

“It doesn’t have to be like this!” Isaac once again tried to lift his brother from the bushes, but his own legs felt like jelly and Greg’s body felt limp.

“You want to know something funny?” Greg asked with a chuckle. “I studied the Rddhi at school to learn its secrets. But I could never unlock the ability to cultivate myself. I mean, the number of users is already miniscule, but still, they say anyone can cultivate if they truly believe and try hard enough…”

More quiet spurts of laughter, mixed with coughs. Greg shook his head. “But I never fully tried. To unlock the Rddhi is to go beyond an ordinary human. Once you take that first step, you can never go back. I…wanted to stay ordinary. Maybe, just like you, I wanted that everyday life. But, to keep something like that, you have to fight for it. I’m just a fool who wasn’t willing to go above and beyond for it. To match a cultivation conspiracy, you need to become a cultivator yourself…and I wanted to stay ordinary after all.”

The image of Greg’s broken body burned itself into Isaac’s memory. “And look where fighting got you!”

“If I rolled over, I’d just lose this life in a few years anyway. By fighting, I had the chance of getting it back someday. And I fought for the chance that nobody else would have to lose theirs in place of mine.” He leaned back and smiled. “I only have one regret…well, you’ll figure it out soon enough.”

The envelope felt light in Isaac’s hands. Greg’s gaze turned serious. “This is my last will and testament. Open it once you're ready. If you decide to say goodbye to your ordinary the secret wall panel in our home. The key to my hideout's in there."

The brothers kept their money in the secret wall panel, so Isaac knew about it, but...


Greg gave him a weak grin. "I told you I was staying over girls' places during that week at the end of summer, right? If only they were so lucky. I spent the night in my hideout just outside of town, updating a spare journal. The State Police probably seized my main journal back at the dorm, but the spare doesn't contain every detail about the conspiracy, but it'll be enough to get you on the right path."

Isaac felt dazed and overwhelmed, but he tried to keep his head straight. "Where's the hideout?"

"A little bunker at East Sachem Temple," Greg answered. At least Isaac understood that; the "temple" was an old ruin in the hills beyond Patuxet.

Greg suddenly coughed; blood splattered against the dirt below them. "But, if you choose to keep your ordinary can give the key from the safe and the bunker's location to the State Police. I'm sure they'll talk to you soon. As long as you keep your head down after that, they'll let you live. They like people who keep their head down."

Ravens flew overhead; Greg's eyes narrowed. "But if you do keep it, do not give it to anybody else under any circumstances. You can’t be sure who to trust. From the past, present, and future, things are already in motion. And watch out for her.”

“Her?” Isaac repeated. “Don’t just speak cryptically like that.”

“I could never figure out her identity…but she’s dangerous. The Gardener who appears in humanity’s dreams. The short woman with long brown hair. Something happened six years from now…and she came back here afterwards.”

Isaac had no idea who this woman was. “Six years from now? What are you talking about? Can't you just tell me about the conspiracy now?"

Greg just shook his head. "Even if I did, you wouldn't understand it. It'd be like trying to explain quantum mechanics to someone who doesn't even know his multiplication tables."

Isaac didn't know what either of those meant, so even though he frowned, he understood Greg had a point. But the conspiracies could wait - he needed to get his brother to a doctor.

More coughing. Greg waved Isaac's concerns away. "One last thing - leave my body here. If you try to carry me back home, the State Police will catch up to you - and you'll be forced to hand the key over, rather than choosing for yourself. Do me this one last favor, Isaac."

One final look from Greg, just for a moment, calmed down Isaac’s heartbeat and breathing. The anticipation in the build-up to the end - that’s the worst part. But once he reached the end, all he could do was grow quiet in understanding that this was the last moment.

“You’ll understand one day, Isaac. Tell Kass I’m sorry. She spent all that money for my schooling and I couldn’t even make it to graduation. As for you, you already know this - I love you, big man.”

The moonlight continued shining.