A Finished Story
I opened my eyes and saw wood. A wooden floor, decorated with a strange pattern drawn in what seemed to be some sort of finely ground powder. It looked vaguely like a Chinese bagua pattern, and I found myself in its center. The room’s walls seemed awfully thin, with light filtering in through thin membranes which covered large, unpaned windows. Thick, sturdy wooden beams were clearly visible in the corners of the room. The people, however… the people were what caught my attention.
The first thing that struck me were the men. There were many of them, many more men than women. The men were mostly muscular and well-built. I suppose another girl, an older girl, might have found them attractive, but I was utterly unimpressed. Despite being a fourteen year old in the midst of puberty, I had never quite submitted to the type of gushing my peers seemed so eager to engage in. In the interest of maintaining my friendships, I had eventually made efforts to learn what was considered physically attractive in a male, but these characteristics never inspired more than indifferent academic curiosity in me. These muscular men that dominated my field of vision wore clothing that was cloth overlaid with metal armor. They looked just like the ancient Oriental warriors that populated the picture books of my childhood. They stood, staring at me in silence, bombarding me with a silent pressure.
The feeling of a trembling hand in mine caused me to look down and to my right, where my seven-year-old sister stood, clutching my palm in a white-fingered grip. She was visibly shaking, fear etched into her features, too afraid to even cry. Naturally, I was afraid as well, but I forced myself to remain calm, to prevent it from showing. If Eury saw that her dependable older sister was afraid, she would certainly break down. Consciously trying to stop my knees from shaking, I was about to offer hollow words of reassurance, but I was startled out of my efforts by a deep, imperious voice.
The men were arrayed in two rows, one on each side of the room, and there was a singular man with a wholly different atmosphere who sat between the heads of both rows. Elevated above the others by virtue of a platform flanked by magnificent sets of stairs on each side, the man was sitting upright in an ornately carved throne that featured carvings of dragons, cast in an excessive amount of gold. Just from a glance, it was clear that this man held the most authority in the room. It was he that spoke. The moment when he opened his mouth was the moment when I realised that this place was not my world. The language he spoke was unfamiliar yet nostalgic. It was certainly not English. It sounded slightly like Chinese, but was distinctly different. Yet, though it was my first time hearing this language, despite recognising it as a new, unknown tongue, I was able to understand what he said. The man stood up from his throne and descended the steps, keeping his gaze fixed on me.
“We called for a hero, priestess.”
Though he looked at me, his words were directed at one of the few women in the room. The women in the room were all dressed in clothing that seemed woven from silk, ornate white robes that folded across their bodies and draped along the ground, long sleeves obscuring their arms. They all wore their hair in the same style: chest-length black hair, fringe neatly trimmed to end just above their eyebrows. The woman that had been spoken to differed from the others slightly in that she held an long, unadorned wooden staff in her hand and had a flower brooch pinned to the shoulder of her robe. She bowed deferentially and responded in a soft windchime-like voice.
“Indeed you did, my lord. This is the hero you sought.”
“This? I asked you to summon a warrior, not a maid! She’s a child, a girl! Look at her, can she even hold a sword? She looks liable to topple over from her own weight! You expect me to believe this girl is the hero that will lead us to victory?”
My prideful side wanted to defend myself, but I remained silent. It was true. I had never lifted anything heavier than my schoolbag, and I certainly never tried lifting a sword, nor had I ever felt the inclination to do so. However, the priestess spoke up, assuaging the man’s concerns.
“Emperor, this is the hero the gods have sent you. Despite her appearance, she has most certainly received the blessings of the the gods. She is the hero that is meant to lead your armies into battle.”
“I suppose the gods are mocking me then. A child, as a hero. Ridiculous! In that case, Priestess, if she is a hero, do tell me: what blessing does she possess?”
The man – the emperor – sneered as he retorted. The priestess quietly brought her staff forward, intending to tap me on the forehead. I wanted to slap it away, to try and claim some degree of power over this situation, but the immense pressure that the emperor and the other armored warriors were exerting prevented me from moving a muscle. Unable to resist, I could only watch as the staff lightly touched my head and began to glow. The priestess promptly withdrew the staff and spoke in a clear voice that carried throughout the hall.
The emperor raised an eyebrow, stroking his goatee. The warriors that surrounded us began murmuring restlessly, the previously quiet hall now abuzz with discussion. The murmuring abruptly died down as the emperor opened his mouth.
“Is that so…? Jingce.”
One of the warriors, the one closest to us, stood up abruptly, keeping his head bowed.
“Lend me your sword.”
“Yes, my emperor.”
The warrior, Jingce, drew his sword and reverentially presented it, hilt-first, to the emperor. The emperor wordlessly took the weapon and placed it on the ground in front of me. I simply stared at the weapon, confused. Surely he did not expect me to wield it?
“Pick up the blade.”
The emperor fixed me with a harsh gaze as he spoke in a commanding tone. Surrounded on all sides by men with swords, I had no choice but to be do as I was told. I moved to step forward, but I was jerked backward by Eury’s fingers, clinging tightly to my right hand. I turned to look at her, but she was staring at me in worry, frantically shaking her head. I tried to comfort her with a smile, but there was no disguising the trembling that overtook my hand.
“Pick up the blade, would-be hero.”
The emperor repeated his order. All around me, several of the warriors placed their hands on the hilts of their weapons, outrage plainly visible on their faces. Left with no choice, I stepped forward and picked up the sword in my left hand, keeping my right hand joined with Eury’s hand. The moment I picked up the sword, I felt a jolt of recognition: somehow, I knew how to use it – not just the simple slashing and thrusting motions I had seen on television, but I properly, truly knew how to use it – I knew how to balance its weight, how to angle it to protect the edge, how to move to maximise the cutting power. It was knowledge I should not have possessed. As I stood back up, the emperor dashed toward me, drawing his sword and slashing with it in a single motion. My body moved on its own. My arm, holding the sword, expertly parried the attack, then parried the next three strikes. After a flurry of blows, I found myself holding the blade pointed at the emperor’s throat, his own sword lying on the ground some distance away. As I returned to my senses, my eyes widened in shock. Somehow, without trying to, I had fended off and disarmed a hardened warrior with an unfamiliar weapon, without letting go of Eury’s hand even once. Me, who had never touched a sword in my life.
The men in the hall began to draw their swords and approach as I was preoccupied with trying to understand what I had just done. However, they were stopped by the emperor, who raised his hand to stop them while staring down the length of the blade. He looked right into my eyes, causing me to shiver. A fierce fire burned in those eyes. One which burned with ambition and pride. The emperor spoke.
“Very well. You will suffice, hero. You will lead our armies into battle.”
Perhaps it was the feeling of having the blade in my hand that emboldened me, but I was finally able to speak for the first time since I appeared in that room. Yet, my first words were not the inquiry about my situation that I intended. Instead, what I spoke was a challenge, lured out by the emperor’s unwavering gaze.
“Why should I listen to you? What if I were to pierce your neck right now?”
The emperor responded in a way I did not expect: he laughed. He laughed, then turned his head to the side and lightly pricked his neck on the tip of the sword. Even as I gasped, horrified, I heard Eury’s voice from behind me, a sharp cry of pain. When I turned to look at her, I saw rivulets of blood leaking from a puncture in the side of her neck, in the same place where the emperor had been injured.
Horrified, I dropped the sword and hugged Eury as she began to cry. While holding her to my shoulders, I glared at the emperor, who simply watched on with the confidence of someone who knew he had power. His face betraying no hint of emotion, he spoke again.
“As you can see, it is in your best interests to serve me. If you lead my armies to victory, I promise that girl will come to no harm. If, however, you refuse…”
He turned to the priestess, who nodded and tapped her staff to the ground. As she did, Eury’s body went rigid, her screams of pain tearing through the air. She convulsed and twisted, tears freely flowing, screaming in agony. Panicking, I shouted at the emperor.
“Alright! I’ll do it! Now stop hurting her!”
The emperor nodded to the priestess, who tapped her staff on the ground again. Just as abruptly as it had started, Eury’s body relaxed, flopping forward into my waiting arms. She was unconscious, but she was alive. I breathed a sigh of relief, then turned to the emperor in anger, posing a question through gritted teeth as I felt her weight in my arms.
“Why Eury? Why is it that she is the only one that feels the pain? Why not me? You keep calling me a hero. If I’m a hero, then what is she? Why is she here with me? Is she a hero, as well?”
The emperor’s answer was short and simple.
“There is only one hero for each nation. That girl is simply leverage.”