Chapter 7:

The Emperor VII - "This Floating Life"

Destiny Marine

Isaac moved cautiously across town, sticking to the shadows, moving through unpaved backroads rather than down the main road. He could see distant dots of light - the cigarettes of roaming samurai on patrol. Isaac kept to the Patuxet outskirts; fortunately, that took him right to the first destination on his life.

Unfortunately, the samurai had arrived there first.

The schoolhouse was a small two-story structure, with the classroom on the bottom floor and Kassandra's living area on the top. Only two samurai came to ambush Isaac at his own home, but Kassandra was a known cultivator. A group of six came to arrest her, their faces hidden from the moonlight under the straw hats they wore. They each gripped their swords tightly as the biggest samurai directed them. His size and the straw cape across his back gave his identity away as the group's leader. Keeping two samurai in reserve with him, he pointed the other three towards the schoolhouse doors.

Isaac kept himself hidden behind the corner of a farmhouse on the other side of the road. He won two fights so far this night, but he knew he couldn't push his luck. One against six would be tough. He pondered his options - ideally, Kassandra would flee out the back door and Isaac could link up with her. Even more ideally - she would've already left.

The captain samurai nodded at his subordinates. One of them raised his revolver and shot the lock off the schoolhouse door. But then the doors exploded entirely outwards, splinters and whole pieces of wood flying towards the three samurai. One of them was swept away entirely by the fireball, while the other two deflected the debris with their swords.

Kassandra evidently did not think that one against six would be tough. After blowing the door off its hinges, she stood in the doorway defiantly, shooting off huge streams of fire from her palms. One blast swept another samurai off his feet, but the remaining four, including the captain, held up their swords up to block the flames. The captain flicked his straw hat away; the moonlight revealed an ambitious grin that could only mean one thing - he felt glad that this wouldn't be a simple arrest.

A few more fireballs kept the samurai at bay, but when one had the bright idea to shoot at her with his revolver, Kassandra retreated back inside the schoolhouse. "Four against one," she called out from the darkness, her voice calm. "Not exactly fair."

Moonlight glinted off the four raised swords. The captain twirled his. “We’re not taking any chances-”

“Four against two!” Isaac yelled, raising his fist right as he activated his cultivation powers. The red lights appeared in fist again, and with that superpowered strength he punched the caped samurai right in the back of the head.

The captain stumbled away, but he wouldn't go down without a fight. Kassandra peered at Isaac from the schoolhouse doorway in shock, but only for a moment. The captain reclaimed his footing while the three samurai backed away in shock for a whole two moments, enabling Kassandra to step outside and blow away one of them with a succession of quick fireballs. The two remaining samurai, keeping their calm composure, split up and went after Isaac and Kassandra in individual fights. Isaac watched as red Rddhi sparked up the captain, stretching into his hands, but he went after Kassandra, and Isaac had his own fight to focus on.

The samurai slashed his sword, seeking to strike Isaac’s shoulder. He sidestepped it, the sword only succeeding in taking a few strands of hair. Isaac continued to bob and weave, his shoes sliding across the dirt below him. The fight in his room had been akin to ambush; he had never fought a man armed with a sword in open combat before, but if he figured out how to defeat a living flamethrower, he could win here, too. As Isaac continued to dodge, the samurai grew increasingly frustrated; he slashed again, but this was with too much power and not enough control. Isaac easily dodged it, then slammed a powered fist into his temple. The sword clattered away as the samurai collapsed.

As for the captain and Kassandra - she was not the type of fighter to use the same strategy as dodging and waiting for the precise moment to strike. She charged her opponent, continuing to pound him with fireballs until one caught him in the chest. The force knocked the wind out of him and seared his torso; he keeled over, but then reached down to touch the earth. A pillar of dirt rose right beneath Kassandra, knocking her off-balance; she sprawled across the ground. His hand still on the dirt, the captain sharpened the top of the pillar and then directed it downwards toward Kassandra's face, but she was quicker on the draw. The fireball erupted from her fist and caught the captain right across his; he collapsed backwards and the pillar of dirt crumpled until it just rained harmless soil over Kassandra.

The two victors caught their breath, looking over the six fallen samurai, but then Isaac finally reunited with Kassandra. Without a word, she took his hand and the two dashed off down the road, taking them beyond the outskirts of town into hill country. On the horizon, the first traces of dawn appeared: light purple and orange streaks dashed across the sky, pushing night away.

“Isaac, thank the Skyfather you’re okay,” she huffed out as they sprinted. “I usually wake up before dawn to cultivate, so I noticed the samurai approaching the schoolhouse. And when samurai arrive, they don't come for just a friendly chat.” She shook her head. "But what about you? You're a cultivator now! What's going on? Did I finally convince you?"

The early dawn conquered more of the sky. Kassandra laughed, but Isaac could detect the fear hidden beneath it.

"It's a long story," Isaac said, not even sure where to start. "But the samurai came after us because the State Police tried to arrest Greg."

They passed below telephone towers, their large steel structures reminiscent of giants roaming the land. The trail that connected all the towers stretched deep into the hills; Isaac and Kassandra stuck close to it.

“Tried? I always knew Gregory was a clever one," she said with a grin. Her confident smile didn't cover all the anxiety beneath it, but Kassandra spoke hopefully. "There’s a Restorationist cell in the town next over. That’ll be a full day of walking and then some, but we can make it. We’ll join up, like I should’ve done a long time ago, and then we’ll go find Gregory-”

“He’s dead,” Isaac cut in, looking off to the side.

Kassandra came to an unexpected halt. Isaac wasn’t ready for that and stumbled a few feet forward; he only avoided falling because Kassandra still held his hand tightly.

“He’s…no, that can’t be true. How do you know that?”

“I was there when he died,” Isaac painfully admitted. “Around midnight.”

Isaac lurched forward when his friend gave a sharp tug on his hand, pulling him closer. Kassandra's eyes were wide. “You're serious?"

Isaac could only nod.

Kassandra closed the distance and hugged him. Her arms wrapped around his back tightly, and she cried into his shoulder. “That’re both idiots...we’re just a trio of big idiots, aren’t we?”

Isaac returned the embrace by wrapping his own arms around her. “He said he was sorry he couldn’t finish college after you spent all that money on him.”

The sobbing turned into something mixed with laughter. "He's something, alright…”

Kassandra wiped her eyes and then separated herself. She placed her hands on both of Isaac’s shoulders, and that look of determination returned to her eyes. “It doesn’t matter anymore. The past is the past. But let’s do this, Isaac. Let’s go to the Restorationists and change this country. If not for ourselves, then for Gregory, so nobody else has to die, so trios of children can enjoy peaceful views without any fear. You with me?”

Above them, rolling clouds moved slowly across the light purple sky. Already, the sun got to work on warming the land. This would probably be the last day where it still felt like summer. The only audience for Isaac’s fateful decision would be the lonely couple of shacks dotting the road to East Sachem Temple.

The offer from the movie theater entered Isaac’s mind. What's the best way to fix a country? Join Reed and do it from within, or join Kassandra and do it from without? Change it from the inside, or topple the whole thing entirely?

Isaac couldn’t answer an abstract question like that. As many things did, it came down to a personal decision. He had known Reed for about fifteen minutes. He had known Kassandra his whole life.

“Let’s do it,” he said, full of determination. "But first-"

He directed them towards East Sachem Temple, picking up the trail to it a little ways off from the telephone tower trail. He caught her up to speed along the way about the events of last night. By the end of his story, Isaac realized that long night had finally ended. A new day had arrived, and that meant new beginnings and new possibilities. And, even if Greg was gone, he still had one good friend with him.

Birds chirped, spurred on by the young sun as Isaac retrieved Greg's last will and testament from his jacket. With careful fingers, he ripped open the top and pulled the slip of paper out into the open. Normally, Isaac would be heading down into the darkness of the mines around this time. It felt good to finally be out in the sun for as long as he wanted to be.

As Kassandra looked on, Isaac read Greg's last direct communication aloud.

Dear Isaac,

If you’re reading this, I must have passed on. Hopefully it was in a memorable manner. I’m writing this inside the bathroom I’ve holed up inside on the train to Patuxet. The State Police arrested my associates and nearly captured me as well. I’ve bandaged my wounds, called you from a payphone, and fled town on the train, but I've been bleeding heavily this whole time. This train ride to Patuxet will be the end of the line for me. I’m afraid to die. Incredibly afraid. And there’s still so much work to do. But everything in this floating life has been destined - we simply don’t know.

By reading this letter, you’re also about to discover my greatest regret - that I did not respect your wishes. You wanted to live a normal life, yet my actions will have uprooted you from our home in Patuxet. I know Kass and I have always wanted a better life for you, but at the same time, we have no right to tell you how to live. If you want to live a quiet life as the world comes to an end, I have no right to judge you for it.

But the world is ending, make no mistake. Once I discovered this, I couldn’t just sit idly by. This conspiracy I’ve discovered - it involves all branches of the military and all aspects of civil life. Arcadia will be destroyed, and the world will be enslaved.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Rddhi. That’s why I went to school to study it. But maybe I’m just like you, Isaac. I didn’t want to be a mutant. Even as I got deeper into my investigation, I could still pretend life was normal because I wasn’t a cultivator. Becoming a cultivator changes the very reality you experience. I wanted to save the country and world, but couldn’t take that step from ordinary human to cultivator. If I did, perhaps I wouldn’t be dying right now. But, at the end of the day, I’m a coward, someone who merely collects information rather than acts on it.

Make no mistake, Isaac - I’m the one who destroyed your life. Had I kept my head down, we would still be together, and you’d still have the old life in Patuxet. But the world is cruel. When forced to choose between saving the world and my brother’s wishes, I chose the world. And now you’ll have to suffer for it. I’m sorry.

And Kass - guess I'm not as clever as you thought. I most likely destroyed your old life of teaching, too. But I know you want to change this country. I'm giving you the same decision as Isaac - you can take up the mantle of my investigation and, unlike me, actually do something about it.

As for my last will - now that I'm thinking about, I have very few possessions to give out. The State Police likely seized my bank account, not that there was much in it anyway. The only thing I can bequeath to both of you is my spare journal at East Sachem Temple. Well, Isaac can have my cultivator card collection I left back home in Patuxet. And Kass, the spare journal also contains the moonshine recipe I got from Old Lady Tsukikage. That's right - I did manage to convince her to give it to me so we could keep her family recipe alive. So I guess I have three things to give you.

I'm rambling now. I guess dying does that to you. But now that I know the end is here, it's freeing in its own sort of way. I'm going to cherish my last remaining moments. I'll deliver this letter to you, Isaac. I will do it. And if I can do that, I'll die with a smile on my face.

Love you both. And I’ll love you always, big man. Give ‘em hell out there.

Both Isaac and Kassandra paused when they reached the end. An uncomfortable amount of red blood mixed in with the black ink, but Isaac could understood his brother's emotions through the words on the page.

With unsteady hands, Isaac placed the letter back inside his jacket. “Greg, you really are such an idiot.” He wiped his face and felt the sun on him. “You call yourself a coward. But you put your life on the line, and now I don’t even have a body to bury for you.”