Chapter 10:

The Emperor X - "…But the One That Leads to the End."

Destiny Marine

Isaac and Symanski gazed at Reed in shock. Her mouth slipped open, as if she was about to say something. Isaac didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“You were in the middle of something.”

Symanski threw the pliers at her, then immediately reached for his pistol. Reed merely ducked her head to avoid them, then unveiled her sword. Symanski had time to fire first; Reed actually moved faster than the bullet, tilting her head so the bullet whizzed by harmlessly, taking a few strands of hair with it. She stepped forward and slashed with her sword; Isaac held his breath - yes, he really wanted to escape, but killing a State Police officer in the process would be a serious crime, even if she belonged to the Navy.

She must’ve recognized this, since she slammed the hilt of the sword into his hand, knocking the pistol away. She followed up with a slash into the opposite direction, slicing right through the tubes of blood. Isaac instantly felt like a heavy weight had been lifted off of him.

Reed’s sword was black as night; now that the Reverse Spiral was gone, red light erupted through it, pulsating around the sword in a violent motion reminiscent of a chainsaw. Red energy sparked and flared as the sword picked up in power, striking the walls, floor, and ceiling. Symanski jumped backwards to give himself space; he came up against the wall behind him. He fired his pistol again, but the chainsaw motion knocked the bullets into the floor. Reed stepped forward, the dour look on her face illuminated in bright red; the lights coalesced and surged until she slashed the sword and they exploded off the sword in a singular wave.

The wave moved faster than the sound; it slammed into Symanski, blowing him right through the wall. The sound that thundered afterwards was an ear-splitting screech, as if somebody had hooked up a semi-acoustic guitar to the loudest speaker possible and played a singular note with all their might.

The sound echoed around the room and didn’t fully die out until about thirty seconds later. In the meantime, part of the shack’s roof caved in, falling onto Symanski. With that part of the roof gone, Isaac could see the sky; he had never been more grateful to feel the sunlight on his face. Reed stood in place, waiting for her own sound to conclude; she had her eyes closed and the force of the note was enough to kick up a breeze that made her greatcoat flutter behind her. No doubt, this was all part of the show, and Isaac was quite literally a captive audience.

The returning silence felt deafening. Symanski didn’t get up. Isaac allowed himself to sigh in relief.


When Isaac awoke, his head throbbed, wrapped in pain, like it had been split down the middle. He raised a hand to it and felt the soft material of bandages wrapped roughly around his temple. His hand traced the bandages down to his face, where they were wrapped even tighter around his nose. Even a ginger touch made Isaac wince in pain.As he sat up, the familiar sights of his room came back to him.

The sense of relief was quickly overwhelmed by the unfamiliar sights. The first fight with the samurai left his room a mess and smelling of whiskey. The bodies were gone, but the carnage of the battle - bloodstains and shards from the broken bottle - remained.

The other unfamiliar sight was Reed. She sat at the edge of his bed, kicking her legs idly, reading the newspaper while nonchalantly eating a turkey sandwich she presumably made from Isaac's pantry. When she noticed Isaac’s awakening, she gave him an amused grin. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”

Even the dull tone was enough to make Isaac’s head spin in pain. After a moment, he collected himself. “How’d you know to bring me here?”

“After I saved you - no big deal or nothing, by the way - you told me about your tenement hall and room number before passing out.” She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Only a few hours have passed. We can still take the next train out of here."

"But...why take me here if people are after me?"

Reed just shrugged and gestured with her turkey sandwich. "Free food, Isaac. Never underestimate the allure of using someone's ingredients for your own purposes. And besides...we had enough time to stay here for a few hours. Those Staties are licking their wounds, and Zhanghai...they got some problems."

She held up the newspaper so Isaac could read. Splashed across the top was the headline BOTCHED ARREST OF MINE WORKERS RESULTS IN STRIKES ACROSS SOUTHERN ARCADIA.

"Looks like your little act of standing up inspired some people to do the same," Reed answered. "I told you - information travels fast in the modern age."

"But why would the government allow anti-Zhanghai news in the papers?"

"Couldn't tell ya. Forget it, Isaac. It's politics."

Isaac supposed that, for the time-being, that would be the best answer he would get. He also had more pressing concerns. “How’d you know to find me in the shack?”

“I got back into town this morning and watched Lionheart Blossom Warrior: The Prequel. I found the opening arc to be quite slow. The hero takes forever to actually make his decision to fight for justice. But I’m glad I stuck around, because I did like it by the end. And once I got out of the cinema - I’m glad it didn’t burn down, by the way - I heard all this shindig about your attempted arrest and what-not. I wasn’t supposed to do any fighting today, but…even in town, I could feel the activation of a Reverse Spiral. I don't know the science behind it, but it negates any cultivation within its range. And only the State Police have the technology for it. So, I tracked it down, and here we are."

Based on everything he knew about her, Reed seemed a little on the lazy side. "You willingly stuck your neck out to go against the State Police?"

She looked at him as if he were simple. "Isaac, we're talking about a twenty dollar referral bonus here. That's eighty movies. And, don't get the wrong idea, but I can't just let a fellow Suga fan die, you know?"

Despite all the smugness and coolness radiating off of her, Reed did do something Isaac felt grateful for. “Thank you for saving me.”

“Yeah, I’m sort of a hero.” A second turkey sandwich rested on her lap - she offered it to Isaac. Though he probably needed it, his stomach roiled and he weakly waved it away.

Reed didn’t seem to mind that. She started eating it herself. “You ever had a reuben, Isaac?” She looked disappointed at the confused look on his face. “A reuben. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of it? Picture this - corn beef, cheese, thousand island dressing, all mixed together in a grilled sandwich. It’s the Skyfather's gift to the world. You want to thank me? You can treat me to one in the capital.”

Isaac had more important issues than sandwiches. “Symanski...he burned a letter and journal before you arrived. Did any part of those survive?"

Reed thought about it. "Oh yeah. My sword did kick up a lot of ash. And you mentioned a letter and journal, too. Unfortunately, the letter's gone, but I did save a single page from the journal. Just some nonsense, though. Didn't mean to read it, either. Reading other people's diaries isn't really my style."

A single page? Isaac felt a pit in his stomach as Reed handed the partially burnt-page from the journal to him. Sprawled across it, seemingly without a cipher, was the words (phrase? name?) Jasiel Abderrahmane Njord.

He only had a single clue to help him uncover the conspiracy, and not exactly the most helpful clue at that. But then he tightened his fist. It would have to be enough.

Isaac also had another loose end. "Did you come across a Statie taking away a girl with auburn hair? Her name’s Kassandra…she’s a real good friend of mine.”

Upon seeing the downcast look in his eyes, Reed set the sandwich back down on her lap. “Sorry to say that I didn’t.”

Isaac tried to get out of bed, but the world spun around him and he collapsed. “We need to move…we need to rescue her.”

Reed spoke softly. “Sorry, Isaac…but there’s no chance of that anymore. She's a cultivator, so I’m assuming they took her to the Castle. That’s the highest-security State Police prison in the entire country. There’s not a chance we can get her back from there. At least, for the time-being.” She picked the turkey sandwich back up and gestured at him. “If you want to save your friend, come with me, Isaac. The Navy will train you to cultivate the right way. And I’m not the type of girl to do midnight knocks on the door. I’m only on the side of justice when there's a reward, but I’m never on the side of injustice, you dig?”

“To get my friend back, the Navy would have to go against the State Police,” Isaac mumbled. “Would they do that?”

Reed shrugged. “Who knows? The Cultivator Marine Corps has a new guy in charge who’s not particularly loyal to anybody. I don’t give a rat’s ass one way or the other, but some people there do. I’m sure you’ll do great things with us.”

Do I go and seek out the Restorationists on my own? All I know is they’re in the next town over. I wouldn’t know how to find them, and the State Police will be on my heels the whole time. If I join the Navy, I’ll be shielded from the State Police, I’ll have an ally in Reed, and it sounds like I can still change the country from within. But...I would have to partake in the dictatorship in order to destroy it.

“I’m a coward,” Isaac admitted. “I’ll join the Navy.”


“For taking the easier option.”

“You’re not a coward,” Reed corrected. “You’re only human. More than human, in fact. Not only are you a cultivator, you’re a protagonist.”

“...a what?”

“A main character.” She exhaled when Isaac eyed her in confusion. “C’mon. You’re from a small town, you had a life-changing moment, you got a call to adventure, you refused that call, but the call doesn’t like that. And now you’re off on your adventure.”

Isaac didn’t like his life being boiled down to something equivalent to a movie. “How do you know something like that, anyway?”

Reed finished her sandwich and wiped her hands against each other. She then brought them to her face and closed one eye; she placed her index fingers and thumbs in a square shape over the other to mimic a camera. “If it weren’t for the Rddhi, I’d be a movie director.”

“You said conscription started at Circuit 1B. Couldn’t you have stayed at 1A and avoided it? You could film movies that way.”

That just earned him an empty laugh. “Sometimes, reality throws you into a life you don’t really want to live. All you can do is bitch about it and then live it.”

After everything that had happened these past few days, Isaac could only answer with an empty laugh of his own. “No kidding.” He lost his brother, lost his friend, lost his job, lost his place in town, lost his everyday life he cherished so much. But he made that decision himself.

Isaac wiped his face and took a deep breath. “I’ll do it,” he declared, much more confident this time. “I’ll go back with you to the capital and join the Navy.”

“Excellent. I think you’d look good in a sailor suit.” She pointed a finger at him. “I’ll warn you, though. Life isn’t easy for a protagonist. You’ll experience tragedy and hardship, failures and defeat, and there’s no guarantee of survival, let alone a happy ending.”

Isaac gave her a dry look. “You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”

Reed then jabbed a thumb at herself. “I said you’re a protagonist, Isaac. That’s because I'm the protagonist. I’m living my story, and your story just happened to collide into mine. That’s how life works, after all.”

She slipped off the bed and stretched her back. “Well, we got a little bit of time, so I’ll give you fifteen minutes to pack and go through your affairs. I’ll be waiting outside. I can be on guard if those State Police officers show up again.”

With light steps, Reed departed his apartment, leaving Isaac alone in it for the last time. He sighed and slowly got out of bed. His legs wobbled and his head swam at first, but he caught himself and groaned. He folded the letter and kept it in his jacket pocket. Packing went quickly - just a few sets of workman's clothes, Greg's dozen or so cultivation hero card collectibles, and a family photo.

So much had happened these past few days. Not, not days - it had been a single night and day. If only he could go down to the mines one last time. To the saloon. To anywhere in town. But at least he got to say one final goodbye to his home.

Isaac hoisted the backpack over his shoulders and stepped into the middle of the room. Memories washed over him - his mother preparing dinner, his father reading sports scores to him from the newspaper, late nights with Greg and Kassandra. Isaac gave it all a sad smile.

“See you later.”

Isaac closed the door on that old apartment and that chapter of his life.


No State Police officers or Zhanghai corporate samurai bothered Isaac and Reed as they waited at the train station. Patuxet had its back broken two years ago; no strikes here. The town seemed as quiet and normal as ever, as if the past night and day never happened. To most of the people in Patuxet, nothing was too out of the ordinary. They continued on with their normal lives.

The sun set over Patuxet one last time as the train rumbled into town, forming a huge array of orange behind the station. The train pulled to a stop, smoke drifting from both above and beneath it, a whistle going off to let the whole town know it had arrived.

“No car today unfortunately. Budget cuts, they tell me. But I guess it could be worse - you ever rode a train before?” Reed stood up from their bench. “It’s pretty neat. Walking and carriages are for squares, Isaac.”

Isaac chuckled, clutching his golden ticket in his hand. As Reed moved toward an open door waiting for them, Isaac stopped and took one last look at the town.

The people had already moved on. Nobody came to see him off. Between his own soiled reputation and threats of State Police violence, he didn’t blame him. In another life, he would’ve loved to have simply gone about his business and ignored someone like him, too. But that’s not the life he chose.

All the way in the back of town, he could just barely make out the lights of the mine. While the laborers still had a few more hours down in the mines, the administrators and clerks had been let up for the day, drinking merrily outside the saloon. Workers lit the series of gaslamps that illuminated the town clinic, the reopened cinema, the schoolhouse, the tenement hall. A few carriages moved down the only paved road in town.

Isaac blinked. Somebody, after all, did come to see him off.

She stood beyond the train station, in the middle of the road through town. Something about her felt off - she didn’t seem like she was entirely there. The gaslamps revealed a translucency to her, as if she was a living daydream. She was short, and long brown hair went down to her shoulders. She gave him a bittersweet smile.

Isaac gasped as he pieced together her identity - she could only have been the Gardener mentioned by Greg. She was supposed to be dangerous, yet she carried an immense sorrow and nostalgia with her.

Wait…do I recognize her?

Isaac quickly turned to study his companion. Reed, with her short stature and messy brunette hair, stopped and looked back from the open door, beckoning him to board the train. Isaac took another look at the waiting woman, studying her intensely, then back at Reed. When their eyes made contact, Reed looked six years younger.

“Isaac, as a growing boy, it’s not good to stare slackjawed at a woman,” Reed teased. “I might just break your heart one day.” When Isaac didn’t answer, her face shifted to confusion. “Something up?”

Breathlessly, Isaac looked back towards the road. Nobody was there to see him off.

Was I…was somewhere there? I can’t remember. I must’ve been daydreaming.

“Just taking in the sights one last time,” Isaac said. A gentle, bittersweet feeling and an understanding of the inevitable passage of time washed over him. The last immediate look, right when a person tears their eyes away, is never quite satisfying. But then the train whistle blew, and he gathered his things.

Isaac followed her on board. The train departed into the night.