Chapter 41:

The Vandelay IV - "The Eight-Steps Killer"

Destiny Marine

Somewhere nearby, a train rumbled through the night, while the Saturday evening traffic and pedestrians continued down on the street below. All were completely oblivious to the plight of the two Navy cultivators, who stood stoically as Eight-Steps Killer Sam readied his blade for this third Third Step.

Isaac briefed himself on his options. Based on the first two attacks, Sam would continue to flash back-and-forth across the top of the park. If Isaac guessed correctly where he would strike, he could block the blow. If not, Sam could cut him to shreds. Considering there were so many angles to attack from, the game seemed pretty rig. And all things considered, Isaac was still pretty piss-drunk. One day, he would have to work on his drunken fighting techniques. But right now, he devised a new plan. If nobody survived the eighth and final step, and the fight was stacked against him, Isaac would just have to negate both. The time had come for a dramatic escape.

“Isaac, I got a way out of this,” Kieran whispered, his voice hoarse. He evidently reached the same conclusion as Isaac. “But to do that, we need to make it to the other side of the park’s summit. Got any ideas on how to do that?”

Between the two cultivators and the other side of the summit was Sam, of course. Isaac couldn’t see what lied below the crest of the hill, but thick concrete and metal highrises loomed over the park.

“We have to split up,” Isaac realized. “You loop around to your right, and I’ll go around to my left. He can only come after one of us.”

Kieran gritted his teeth. “He’ll come after me. He doesn’t need me alive, so he’ll use the opportunity to slay me and then corner you.”

Moonlight reflected off of Sam’s sword. He had no reason to let them talk for this long except to give them false hope. Perhaps that made the kill and victory more satisfying to him.

Isaac shook his head. “I’m not trying to use you as bait or sacrifice you so I can escape on my own-”

“I know,” Kieran said, cutting Isaac off. “And I didn’t have a life-changing revelation just to die five minutes later. You know he’s going to come after me. Use that opportunity to figure out any clues about him. It’s our only chance of making it out of here alive. And meanwhile...” he looked at his stump with surprising composure. "I think I might have some tricks up my sleeve."

Life comes at you fast. Isaac didn’t wake up this morning thinking it would be possibly either his or Kieran’s last day on earth. And, even when facing down Sam, he still felt confident it wouldn’t be.

“Alright. Let’s get it.”

The two nodded at each other, then dashed off in their arranged directions. Kieran immediately went onto the grass while Isaac crossed back onto the paved pathway, his footsteps smacking against the concrete. Sam briefly looked at Isaac, then turned his attention towards Kieran. Every one of Sam’s movements made an imprint on Isaac’s mind. Any little detail might provide a clue towards survival. Sam gripped his sword firmly and his eyes followed Kieran for a moment. Isaac expected Sam to widen his base, to assume a stance to launch his Third Step from, but instead, he only shifted his foot a little, then disappeared.

A cry echoed through the park. Kieran stumbled forward, red spraying from his thigh, as Sam reappeared on the other side of him. The killer mutely watched as Kieran could no longer stay on his feet and collapsed to the ground. Blood started leaking from him, but his chest lightly rose and fell. Isaac needed to do something fast, otherwise it really would be Kieran’s last day on earth.

Isaac slid to a halt and faced down Sam. He would need to survive the Fourth Step and retrieve Kieran. Defeating Sam was optional; escaping with Kieran to get him medical attention was mandatory.

Shadows danced across Sam’s face as he flicked the blood off his sword once again. “Last chance. Give me your brother's research now before I cause any further damage.”

Isaac raised his fists. “Come and take it from me.”

Through the slight tilt of his head, Sam looked like he approved of that answer. As Isaac readied himself, Sam shifted his foot to Isaac’s left, then disappeared. For all three steps, the time Sam disappeared and reappeared had been the same. Hoping that all the patterns would continue for the Fourth Step, Isaac timed his punch and then swung to his left.

A sharp gong sound cracked through the park. Sam reappeared right next to Isaac with shock on his face; Isaac had struck the flat side of his sword right as he approached, blocking his attack. With Sam’s eyes wide from surprise, Isaac moved faster, delivering an uppercut into the bottom of Sam’s jaw. Right as Isaac connected, his |Fists of Anji| went off, delivering an electric charge directly into Sam’s head.

The killer’s face was illuminated in bright red light that seared and burned parts of it. Though he remained ominously quiet, Sam stumbled backwards, his straw hat flying from his face. As the distance grew between him and Isaac, he managed a weak counterattack - a simple swing of the sword - that caught Isaac’s hand as he withdrew.

Several severed fingers splattered onto the concrete. All the adrenaline covered the pain of losing fingers, but perhaps the feelings were one and the same at this point. As Sam struggled on the ground, holding his face, Isaac sprinted over to the fallen Kieran. He used his good hand to check Kieran’s pulse, then immediately hoisted the somewhat-dead, somewhat-alive cadet over his shoulder.

“Isaac,” Kieran choked out. “Don’t leave me behind. I really don’t want to die.”

“You and me both,” Isaac mumbled, already sprinting as best he could toward the other summit. Perhaps the morning laps at training really came in handy, after all. The distance closed fast, but all the while, Sam loomed in the background. Isaac didn’t look back, but he didn’t need to - he could feel the gathering energy in the Rddhi as Sam prepared his Fifth Step. Isaac wouldn't escape in time, and his mind blanked on answers on what to do. And then it was too late - a rustling cut through the air as Sam launched himself toward Isaac.

Another gong sound rippled across the park. Isaac stumbled forward from the unexpected collision. Surprisingly, he felt no worse for the wear - the collision struck Kieran, not Isaac himself. As Isaac gathered himself, he glanced backwards; Sam's sword arm was bent entirely the wrong way, with his sword clattering away on the ground. Strewn across his shoulder, red lights sparked through Kieran. A moment ago, his wounded arm ended in a stump; now, it ended in a thick pillar of iron. When Sam struck it, the iron must've proved stronger, so strong that it broke his arm entirely.

Kieran flashed Isaac a weak grin. "I produced enough iron from my upper arm to block his attack." He almost slumped into unconsciousness, but pulled himself together. While moved to retrieve his sword with his remaining good arm, Isaac took off once again. A small wooden fence marked the edge of the summit. On the other side, the hill gradually sloped down to street level, but this side seemed like more of a cliff.

“Jump for it!” Kieran ordered.

“Off a cliff?!”

“You’ll see!”

Wind rustled. Sam had already started his Sixth Step, but the wooden fence was right there, and against his better judgment, Isaac hit it in stride and leapt over it, into the unknown.

Unfortunately, this side of the summit was indeed a cliff. Fortunately, an elevated rail track ran right below it. Right as they jumped, a train surged by below them, the metal offering them a landing pad. Had they jumped ten seconds earlier, they would’ve been crushed. With the benefit of hindsight, Isaac realized Kieran must've been using his cultivation powers to sense the arrival of the next train.

With a sharp thud, the two cultivators landed in a heap on top of the train. As for their opponent - he remained standing by the wooden fence. His hakama billowed in the breeze, and then he was gone. The train continued on.


Isaac awoke to a stinging sensation in what remained of his fingers. It seemed like every time he returned to consciousness after a fight, the pain was the first feeling to welcome him back to the land of the living. Then came sights - as usual, Isaac was in the hospital building of the base, the once-unfamiliar scenery rapidly growing familiar to him. An autumn rain fell outside, drops striking the window and then sliding down, out of sight.

There was a rustling sound next to his bed. Isaac tensed up, since the last time he heard rustling, Sam appeared, but this time it was just the sound of someone moving inside their sleeping bag.

“Isaac, you dumb bastard,” Reed greeted as she freed herself from her sleeping bag, positioned right next to Isaac’s bed on the ground. “Here I am, thinking you skipped out on the movie marathon of a lifetime, but it turns out you just had to go and get yourself into a fight. How dare you almost die on me.”

Isaac glanced down at the sleeping bag. “Were you hanging out here the whole time?”

“Of course. I’m the leader of Squad Reed, after all.” She took a seat on his hospital bed, kicking her legs idly. Now that Isaac was awake and talking, she seemed a little more relaxed. “How are your fingers?”

White gauze and bandages covered the stumps. They must’ve been cleaned and changed already since there was only the tiniest hint of blood on them. And, come to think of it, Isaac could’ve sworn the fingers had been cut closer to his hand. Due to the power of cultivation and recovery, they must’ve already been growing back.

“They’ll come back, alright,” Reed confirmed. “But not quite right.” She opened up her greatcoat, then pulled up jacket and undershirt, revealing the normal pale skin around her stomach. But over her stomach - where Panama blew up her insides - the entire area was a sickly gray, looking more like the smooth surface of a glass doll rather than human.

“So, the price of cultivating otherwise irreplaceable injuries is…turning gray?” Isaac asked.

“And losing bits of your humanity,” Reed nonchalantly supposed. “But it should go back to normal after a few years or decades...maybe."

Isaac briefly wondered how his gray fingers would look, then slumped back into his pillow, feeling exhausted. Everything after escaping Sam felt like a blur - making it down to a station while carrying Kieran, bloody footsteps as they approached the naval base, the guards calling for corpsmen.

“You’ve been out for a whole day,” Kieran called out, sitting in the bed next to Isaac. His upper chest would’ve been bare, but bandages covered where Sam struck his back. Isaac then realized bandages covered his own back; he had been so focused on the fingers that he forgot Sam had struck him elsewhere, too. Unlike Kieran, however, Isaac's arm wasn't covered in steam. White clouds billowed from Kieran's stump, drifting away towards a ventilation duct in the room's ceiling. Already, it seemed like some of the arm had already grown back.

Based on his classes and rumors, the steam could only mean one thing - a high-powered cultivation healing pill exclusive to the elites of Arcadia. Apparently, the cultivation that went into the preparation of the pill meant that only specific bloodlines could make use of it. If Isaac were to take that same pill, there was a very good chance he would explode (allegedly) and die (far more likely).

The steam shifted as Kieran moved his stump a little. "Mackenzie used her influence within the family to get me one of the pills," he said, apparently having noticed the way Isaac took a long look at the missing arm. "I couldn't refuse her kindness."

Isaac waved the conversation away and crossed his arms together. “Hey, how come you woke up first after getting so battered back in the park?” he complained.

Kieran smirked. “I’ve been thinking. I used to think I was better than you because I thought I wanted to be a Cartwright. But now I know I’m better than you simply because I’m me.”

Reed looked back and forth as the two men laughed.

“Kieran really does have jokes,” Isaac warned with a grin. But then he paused. “Wait - I was out for a day?”

His two companions nodded. “Some things have happened,” Reed began, but three men entered through the door at that time to explain for her.

The first man could be described as rotund, his hair neat and mixing blonde with the silver of old age. He dressed sharply in a business suit and strolled over to Kieran’s bed like he owned a place. “Kieran, I came as soon as I heard of this vicious attack. To think - someone would stoop so slow as to disrespect the Cartwright name by attacking you like this!”

“I’m alright, Father,” Kieran said tiredly.

Mr. Cartwright - the patriarch of the whole corporate conglomerate, then - stood at the foot of his bed, shaking his head. “The state of the Navy and Cultivator Marine Corps…truly sad. Have we lost all respect?”

“Perhaps it’s just the actions of the brass,” the second man, looking middle-aged with graying hair, opined in a low voice. He wore a similar uniform as Connor, giving him away as Naval Police, but he had shiny stars on his shoulders indicating he held a higher-rank. A brief squeeze of his leg from Reed and subsequent curt look of warning from her made Isaac realize that this must’ve been Vice Commandant Spinelli of the Naval Police himself.

Since he was a member of the brass himself, Spinelli must’ve been blaming his fellow leaders - one of whom, General Stockham, stood right next to him. “I believe this is connected to our earlier investigation," the general reminded him.

“Of the smuggling?” Spinelli exclaimed. “Stockham, that’s Naval Police business. I suggest you stay out of it.”

“Just doing my part to protect Arcadia and her interests,” Stockham said jovially, defusing a potential confrontation before it arrived. He stepped towards his cultivators, but Cartwright blocked his path.

“General, when you do something about this, I want Mackenize and Kieran on that mission,” he said in a tone that couldn’t be refused. Cartwright cut a lot of checks for the navy - and the look on Stockham’s face indicated he knew that. “This is an assault on the good name of the Cartwright family itself. I won’t allow that to go unpunished. When your response comes, I want the media there. I want journalists and novelists covering it. I want a photograph of Mackenzie hauling this killer away, and I want her interviewed afterwards. I need this story to overshadow a bank run at one of my institutes.”

Kieran slumped into his bed. Stockham briefly made eye contact with him, then looked back at Cartwright. “I’ll do what I can.”

“You’ll do what I want,” Cartwright corrected. “I'll be speaking with Mackenzie now." He departed in a huff. Spinelli gave Stockham a smug grin, then followed Cartwright out the door.

The smile never left Stockham’s face, though there was a slight bit of strain to it. He arrived next to Kieran’s bed. “You don’t have to join the counterattack if you don’t want to. Your recovery calls for another few days of bedrest-”

“I’m in,” Kieran declared.

“You don’t have to do something for your family if you don’t want to,” Reed added. Her voice sounded like she was speaking from experience.

“I’m not doing it for them.” Kieran looked at his stump, now covered in gauze. “I’m doing it for myself. I want to take this guy down before he hurts anybody else. That’s what I want.”

Stockham then looked at Isaac. Once again, the everyday life of training had given way to another mission. But there was no point in training if it wasn’t used for something. “He took the words out of my mouth. I’m in.”

The general nodded in approval. “Excellent. The briefing for our counterattack begins in twenty minutes. I’ll see you all there.”

Destiny Marine