Chapter 4:

The Emperor IV - "Moment of Truth"

Destiny Marine

Greg was dead. That much was obvious. But no amount of pleading would turn somebody back to life. All Isaac could do was cradle his brother's body in the quiet of the hills. He wasn’t sure how long he remained out there in the shrubbery - between the constant moonlight and chirping of crickets, time seemed to blend together. Perhaps no time had passed at all.

But finally, finally, Isaac knew he needed to do something. He wiped his eyes and went to pick up his brother’s body. Greg often picked him up when they were young kids - now, it was the other way around. One day, his brother picked him up and set him down for the last time ever - if only Isaac had known in that very moment.

But then Isaac paused. Greg had told him a lot in his final moments, and all of it swirled around Isaac's head, fighting for his attention. Conspiracies. Death. Temples. Hideouts. Her. Greg also told him to leave his body there. He mentioned a State Police officer had been searching for him along the tracks, but surely Isaac couldn't just leave his brother's body there, right?

Putting on a brave face, Isaac peered out from the bushes. The landscape of rolling hills and the railroad stretching towards the horizon greeted him. All was quiet. It didn't seem like there were any Staties around. But it's not like they would make their presence known.

Returning to town with his brother's body would certainly slow him down if the State Police were around. And if they did catch him, Greg would be right - he would be in no position to fight. He would either have to give up the key and bunker's location, or get tortured to death. And, according to the rumors, the State Police had perfected the art of torture. Isaac didn't like either of those two options. Most importantly, he had to live. His mind felt so jumbled, but he knew he couldn't get caught here. He loved his ordinary life. But he also loved his brother. He had to see both of them through to the end.

And he trusted his brother, too. Isaac took one last look at Greg. Despite it all, his older brother died with a smile.

Isaac closed his brother's eyes, then offered a silent prayer to the Skyfather above. Greg would be relaxing in His halls now, either continuing his research or cavorting with maidens. Greg liked both of them equally.

The image of Greg in Paradise made Isaac smile. The smile remained as he looked upon his brother one last time.

But then he had to go.

When Isaac got back to town, it must’ve been past midnight since the sound from the saloon had somewhat quieted down. He knew what he needed to do - look at the last will, return home and get the key. But...Isaac understood it was a moment of weakness. He knew it was irresponsible. But if the last will was the final communication from his brother, he wanted to save it. He wanted to save one last new communication from someone dear to him he would never see again. And returning home...his mind in a daze, Isaac's feet instead took him in a walk around town. The State Police! he reminded himself. But the image of the dead Greg overwhelmed him senses and the rational part of his mind.

Patuxet was a small town - Isaac covered its main road in an aimless walk in no time at all. The early autumn breeze felt shrill on his face and the gaslamps lining the street flickered overhead. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Isaac wanted to hit something, so he kicked some rocks; the crashing sounds they made as they skidded away into the darkness gave him no satisfaction.

With a heavy mind and heart, Isaac did the only thing he really could do at this point - see a movie. A terrible decision, definitely. He knew this. But...his brother had died in his arms thirty minutes ago. Sure, maybe there were a number of other options, but he desperately needed the feeling of something familiar at that very moment. A movie offered comfort, a little bit of escapism for the time-being. Just mindless entertainment for an hour to get his mind off of things.

This late at night, only old Zhanghai silent films played, but Isaac forked over a quarter for the film anyway. He stepped inside the cinema; a huge black-and-white projection of an armed monk paid the new entry no mind. Isaac knew Lionheart Blossom Warrior by heart already - this monk had bigger fish to fry. The corrupt Emperor tried to purge him, but only succeeded in killing his family and fueling his heart with revenge.

The only other person Isaac saw in the theater was a young woman sitting in the row furthest back from the screen. She wore a dark green greatcoat over her small frame and slept soundly. Isaac pressed on and found an empty row in the middle in which he could drown his sorrows in kung fu.

Lucky Suga played the warrior-monk projected on the screen. This was in his early days, before a Zhanghai government purge forced him to resume his movie career in the country of Sigismund. He had a raw sort of energy about him - he really made viewers believe the anguish over losing his family, creating a heart filled with a grieving vengeance.

My heart just feels empty. All the energy’s been drained out.

Suga pointed at a government samurai whom he had at his mercy. Huge text came over the screen.


If the State Police killed Greg, then I oughta go after Chief Amien. But Amien has thousands of armed troops protecting him. All I have is myself. And Greg...I know I should avenge him…I know I have to avenge him…but what can someone like me even do? Greg’s smarter than me; I’d die an even quicker death.

The arrival of another movie-goer interrupted Isaac’s mental monologue. With light steps, a young man walked down the theater aisle, coming to a stop at Isaac’s row. Nonchalantly, he shimmied past empty seats until arriving right next to Isaac and plopping himself down. His thin frame and smoothness of his face meant he wasn’t a fellow miner. He had an academic look about him, emphasized by the suit and tie he wore. Aviator shades covered his eyes.

Perhaps it was wrong of him, but this was the final straw for Isaac after a stressful night.

“Can I help you?” he asked, trying to keep the annoyed tone in his voice down.

“I spotted you while walking around town,” the man answered, his voice deeper yet smoother than Isaac expected. "I tried to catch up with you, but you walk like a man on a mission. Had to follow you all the way in here. But don't be alarmed - I knew Gregory."

Isaac tried to stay calm. I don’t think this guy’s a Statie. Could he be from his college?

The man chuckled. “I guess I should explain myself more. I work at Wampa College and met Gregory there. While he studied the Rddhi by day, Restorationist sympathizers in the school faculty gave him access to classified documents by night. I helped too - I’m a janitor there, so I have keys to everything. Gregory promised me he’d share everything he found. After seeing the bloodstains in his room, I take it he’s no longer with us. So, the onus falls upon you, his brother. I’d very much like to know what he found.”

The implication was clear. Isaac didn’t want to give anything away. “First off, what makes you think I’m his brother?”

That earned him a quiet laugh. “You look like the splitting image of him for the Skyfather's sake. And I only met Gregory a few times, but he never shut up about you, either.”

A smile crept across Isaac’s face for a moment, but then he regained his composure. Outside of Greg's last will, Isaac didn't have anything related to his brother and government secrets on him. But the man operated under the assumption Isaac did. Him being part of Greg's little circle at school made sense - in the modern mass society, it takes a group to make a difference. But, had Greg wanted to hand these over to this janitor, then he would’ve mentioned it.

“I don't know what you're talking about," Isaac said with best poker face. "And why should I trust anything you say?”

The man tossed away the aviator shades. Under the glow of the movie projector, his crop of blonde hair appeared so light it looked almost white. The skin on his face looked silky smooth; in another life, Isaac would’ve asked what kind of lotion he used to achieve that.

“Alfie,” he introduced himself, extending a similarly-smooth hand. Against his better judgment, Isaac shook that hand. Alfie’s hand clasped around Isaac’s, threatening to crush it; two of Alfie’s fingers extended outwards. Once pale and smooth, they now took on an ugly purple appearance.

Red light sparked through them. Just a brief flicker. But that could only mean one thing.

“A cultivator,” Isaac mumbled. Having never met one before, he expected them to appear like they do in government posters - chiseled jaws, strong builds, firm salutes to the Arcadian flag. This guy looked like a breeze might blow him over.

But his grip was strong and the two fingers, acting as the equivalent to a pistol, pointed menacingly at Isaac’s chest.

"I don't have anything from Greg," Isaac said, since that was sort of the truth.

Alfie snorted and his eyes narrowed. “There’s no need for violence. Just hand them over.”

To emphasize his point, more red light flickered from his fingers.

Shit...I lost control of myself. I went to the movies! I let my emotions get the better of me. Greg always said a sharp mind was a person’s strongest asset. I can't let it happen again. But for right now...he doesn't believe me when I say I don't have any government secrets on me. Perhaps I can use that to my advantage? I need to think of my options here.

“So…your Rddhi power is turning red?” Isaac asked, sweat on his brow, stalling for time. Do I yell out? Maybe that girl in the back will wake up and get someone.

“Don’t stall and don’t yell,” Alfie warned. “I’ll kill that girl too if I need to. I’ll burn this whole cinema down. Just hand over the documents and it’ll be like I was never here.”

That’s right. If I just tell him about the key and the hideout, I can go back to everyday life. I can forget about revenge. I can forget about death. I can just-


Isaac knew he could never go back.

“Alright. I’m going to reach into my jacket now to get them for you.”

The tight grip on his hand remained as Isaac slowly reached into his jacket. He felt the paper inside and slowly withdrew it into the open. When the envelope became visible, Alfie’s eyes widened, believing he finally found his alleged prize.

Alfie’s grip over Isaac’s hand meant Isaac already possessed direct contact with his opponent. In that moment where the envelope distracted Alfie, Isaac made his move. He grasped that threatening hand and twisted the two fingers away from him. Immediately, half the cinema was lit up by the red flickers of Alfie’s Rddhi activation throughout his body, but Isaac used his other hand to keep the documents close to his chest. If he played his cards right-

His guess was correct. Alfie wouldn’t risk destroying the documents by firing on them. That moment of hesitation enabled Isaac to fling Alfie’s arm away, which then fired. Isaac expected the boom of a gunshot, but instead, the fingers hissed as bright flames exploded from them in the manner of a flamethrower. The stream of fire rocketed into the air above them, the light of the projector reflecting through their flickers.

Escape wasn't possible. Alfie could just shoot that giant stream of fire at Isaac and he would be, quite literally, toast. Isaac brought his fists to a flamethrower fight; the only way to win would be to his opponent here and now.

Isaac sent a right hook at Alfie’s face, making a solid impact that sent the man spinning out of his seat and onto the ground. Laying on his back, Alfie raised the finger flamethrower at him, but Isaac stepped on his arm below the elbow, forcing the flamethrower to fire off target into the air again. The fire and flames licked at Isaac’s face; sweat poured down him.

Possessing little knowledge of cultivation, Isaac decided to brute force his way to victory. A flamethrower couldn’t work if snapped in two, so maybe a finger flamethrower would work the same way. Having a weight advantage over Alfie, Isaac dropped to one knee that conveniently landed across Alfie’s nose. He then reached for the two fingers, but red sparks erupted from them.

Isaac swore and withdrew his smoking hand. It wasn’t burned by the flamethrower; it was burned by the sparks itself. The moment of surprise gave Alfie a chance; he used his free arm to return the favor by punching Isaac across the face. At the same time, the flamethrower gun went off, igniting the wooden chairs in the row in front of them. The heat and shock was enough for Alfie to squirm free; he backhanded Isaac, then tossed him into the central aisle of the theater.

Lionheart Blossom Warrior continued playing unabated; perhaps the projectionist fled. Perhaps the girl in the back was still asleep. They would be of no use to Isaac, who only managed to groan and sit up before the finger gun pointed at his face from inches away.

“I won’t burn those documents by blasting your face,” Alfie taunted. “Last chance to hand them over.”

Ah, I see.

Humans or not, cultivators were certainly not ordinary. If Isaac had a gun or knife on him, maybe his chances would be better. But he brought his bare fists against Alfie’s bare fists, and Alfie’s bare fists could also shoot fire. The fight was rigged from the start.

The Emperor covered one side of Alfie’s face. Suga, at the Emperor’s mercy, covered one side of Isaac’s face.

I should’ve stayed on that rooftop with Greg and Kassandra during my last night here forever. But forever’s impossible. Time keeps moving. I want to live. I want to stay down in the mines. I want my everyday life. But I don’t want an everyday life stained by turning my back on my brother. He forced me into this position by going against the government. If he didn’t, I could’ve stayed here forever. But we live in a land of injustice, and he couldn’t just sit idly by. And now, neither can I. I’ll defeat Alfie and bring justice to this country. And to do that…first, I need to become a cultivator, here and now.

Isaac heard lots of rumors about how to unlock the Rddhi. Years of meditation. Special pills and potions. Powerful bloodline ceremonies. A less-talked about rumor was that of the here and now - someone is forced to make a life-altering decision upon pain of life and death. In that moment, faced with all those options, they choose their path and they realize, they understand, and they achieve Satori.

How do I know a word I’ve never heard before?

Faced with a fork in the road, Isaac made his decision. For the sake of his brother, for the sake of his future, for the sake of the here and now.

Red lights erupted from his fists.