Even when I became the Paladin, there was a part of me that wanted this tale told. I remember I had also gone to an AA meeting to try and sit amongst others who've suffered. But the thing is like I've said at the beginning of this story my hands were covered in too much blood to be called a victim. And if I have learned anything from this chapter in my life in particular. It's that sin is something that can never hide, denying who you are is an inevitability. After all, it always comes bubbling back.
As I floated between life and death, the only thing I could make sense of was the random images that flooded my brain. The one of which took precedence over all others. A picture of me covered in blood. All I would do was lay there in the darkness as the dried blood of others suffocated my entire body. And as my body laid in the cocoon of the sins of my own making, the only thing I could do was lay there as the voices of the dead yelled my ear. Even to this day, I didn't know how long I put in that cocoon until I finally find the strength to wake up.
I weakly open my eyes up. I see that I'm in bandages and I realize I'm in a large cabin with an old woman knitting something. My mind remembers what part of the world I was in and defaulted to some broken Mandarin. I asked where I was, but the thing Is I was even worse at picking up Mandarin, especially if said in a specific accent. So I fall back on English since that was the 3rd most popular language in the world(the more you know). She spoke broken English in a way I could understand as suddenly she communicated that she would bring a couple of guests. A half hour later I had some delicious soup as five men elaborate robes and ancient weaponry came in. I remained steadfast as one of the many lessons I learned from my odyssey is that no matter what happens always expect the worst outcome. I decided to play the victim as the man spoke more awkward English in an Asian accent.
" I was attacked by some serial killer while I was going on a hike by myself. He kept me in captivity for days. Had all these weapons lined up just waiting to butcher me? I was able to escape and take some weapons finally, but he tracked me down, and we fought. He stabbed and pushed me into the river to dispose of my body. And then you came in."
They seem satisfied with the lie as they decided to converse in Mandarin and after a couple of minutes, the man spoke again.
"You will stay until you recover. What name do you go by?"
I remember what I said to Reyna during our climatic battle. How that Sarah Walters was dead. And if for a second I believed that maybe this was a blessing in disguise. Eclipse probably thought I died and it's not likely they would find this place. Perhaps this could have been a new start.
"My name is Jasmine."
After that, they gave me food and rest though, as a licensed medical practitioner left me a little annoyed as saw that the other occupants of the cabin I sensed could've taken better care of. So I made of note of it as it could be useful in my argument to stay here. After a couple of days, I had gotten many visits specifically an old man had come to visit me one day as I had now finally gotten ready enough to engage in exercise to get my strength back. The old man was around is 60's with stark white hair and a black oriental robe with golden designs of a dragon on top. He looked at me with an aimless look as he asked me in perfect English.
"Greetings Jasmine it seems you have gotten better. If you don't mind, could we take a walk for a good minute?"
Both of us went out, and I could finally see a good look at the village. A series of impressive houses lined up, with children playing around, and old couple talking and even an archery firing range. The sights filled me with an aura of calmness and harmony.
"You're probably wondering why my English is better than most of the people here."
"Well, despite our private life here every few years we still try to make a connection to the outside world and help outsiders hence we bought books on how to learn Mandarin, English, and Spanish. The three most popular languages in the world. I'm just better than most at it. And as you can see here as a leader, I try to keep the life that we live here in order."
"It's certainly one worth protecting," I said with earnest guilt in my eye.
There was a part of me that didn't want to impose. Still, I honestly didn't know where I could go. The outside world had nothing to offer me. How could I go back to my family and hug them with hands soaked in blood? With my face known to the criminal underworld and Eclipse always a single step behind. So I went to the only option I had left — no more mind games no manipulation — just brutal honesty.
"Mr. I understand why you would have such a policy against outsiders. The world is a wretched, chaotic place. And through it all, it turned me into something I'm not proud of becoming. Something that made me shed all semblance of my previous life. I've got nowhere to go. So please can you make this one exception and take me in?"
The looked at me seriously, and after a while, he decides to take the same leap as I did.
"I sense a turbulent storm inside that heart of yours, Jasmine. But I also sense a need for redemption from you. A need for peace. What kind of man would I be if I didn't offer a hand to those in need?"
"Thank you .."
"Lee. You may call me, Lee."
In the Odyssey part of Odysseus's journey involved him spending about him being forced to spend seven years of his life with the nymph Calypso and my time here was undoubtedly the best equivalent. For four years, Elder Lee and I engaged in a little bit of an agreement as I got inducted in the harmonic town called Unity. Effectively I had gone to my very roots as I used my hands to heal instead of hurt. My exploits gained me popularity as a special foreigner. Though the friends I had made there were people I treasure with all my heart. A brother and sister duo called Kai and Mei. We naturally gravitated toward each other out of curiosity, and eventually, we became inseparable. Kai who's passion and nobility perfectly balanced with Mei's peaceful and energetic nature. Dark brown eyes and short spiky hair matched with dancing light green eyes and a dark ponytail. The three became so inseparable that to further my new start; I became what the villages call a defender. Defenders protected the populace in case an attack ever happened. Similar to my start in the military before all this pain.
The training program was hellish. My body was pushed to the absolute limit over and over again, and my martial arts knowledge flourished as I got routinely beaten by Mei and Kai. Over time I had picked it up, and my body became a weapon, unlike any other. And what I thought was a rebirth was finally complete with a ceremony held in my honor where I would be bestowed both my mark and weapon that would define me as a defender. For Kai, it was a sword and falcon and for Mei a Lotus and ... 2 sai I kneeled in silence as Lee explained the process that as about to happen.
"Each defender upon completion of their training has there very essence condensed into a mark on their body and a weapon. So that their true spirit becomes known to themselves and all those they meet. When I took the ceremony, I had the mark of the dragon. Wise and powerful, completely meant to move to a higher path. And you Jasmine, I believe that there is righteousness in your soul. However, I believe you are a warrior that knows of tragedy and will do everything in your power not to pass it on to others. A warrior that knows of the sins this world can create. Who battles against them while also healing the innocent. I believe from now on Sarah, you will exemplify the spirit of a paladin, and with this staff, I hope for better or worse, you will carry that symbol."
And with the tattoo of the gladius on the back of my right shoulder and my weapon is chosen my identity as the Paladin came fully into fruition as strong as steel. Too bad that steel would get tempered all too soon.
It was still a mutual benefit as I had become Unity's messenger with regular visits unto the city for medical supplies. And at their insistence, I took them along. The modern world mystified them. Cars had their eyes bugging out of their sockets, but I managed to keep them in line and even give them a little treat. I started making a detour.
"Where are we going Jasmine don't we need to go the other way," said Kai
"Don't worry; Kai live a little. Jasmine hasn't lead us wrong, yet you worry too much. Lead the way," Mei said.
We stopped at a serviceable stir fry restaurant I used on one of my cheat days while training. I explained what to do as a restaurant was a foreign concept to them. Still, they enjoyed Mei had what I had which is marinated pork lo mein while Kai enjoyed pork fried rice. Kai devoured it up and stated.
"Where have you been all my life?"
"This is delicious, thank you, Sarah," said Mei.
From the look on their faces, I knew that we would have to come here many times. And we did but through the most unpredictable of circumstances. We were in the middle of a meal when six bruisers had entered the restaurant with weapons. And judging from the tattoos I had a sneaking suspicion that they were part of the triads. The man on the register sweated with fear but still openly tried to refuse the men. Sadly the conversation quickly became like a powder keg. The one leader started to get heated, and he busted his nunchucks over the register and started threatening people in a frantically chaotic tone. My nerves were on fire as almost ghostly voices began to appear in my mind, and so I got up and went straight into the leader of the thugs.
" I'm a licensed medical practitioner. And I suggest you back the hell off before you find yourself swallowing your teeth."
The leader laughed and said, "Who the hell for you think you are because I don't think you know the one's outnumbered here."
"Your right, ten guys would have at least been a fair fight."
He makes a swing in my direction, I predicted by jumping back only to lunge closer and unleash a throat strike that stuns him. I delivered a shattering palm to his right ear. Another man was mere seconds from cutting me with a blade, but I used the leader's body as a way to hide my spinning back kick. He didn't recover for me to trap his elbow, kick him down, and tenderize his face. Kai and Mei stepped in and were engaging in the fight. I will never forget how beautifully they fought. Kai fought honestly with a swift knee to the gut of a big guy who took it well and quickly jumped to the side to avoid a massive hit but gets eventually knocked into a wall. However, he turns things around by giving a substantial blow to the solar plexus through the tiger claws. He finished off the big guy while focusing all of his power into a one-inch punch to the gut that would have had James foaming at the mouth. Mei was like a dancer as with god-like speed to dodge the strikes of 3 armed men.
She slapped a knife away of one attacker, and so in frustration, he tried punching her, but his momentum was added to her as she used it to slam him into her other attackers. Kai jumped in with a hard stomp to both heads, leaving one left. This guy armed with hook swords knew how to fight. He hooked both of the swords together into a tornado of precise strikes that force her to the counter with a series of small cuts. However, Mei, with a glint to her eyes, launched off of it to flip into a dropkick. The momentum sent him back, but he still blocked it. However, since I had already finished up my fight, which means we jumped in and trapped both of his hands. Then Mei playfully walked over and unleashed her nerve grip, knocking him out. With all the men down and out. I proceeded to talk with one of the few conscious ones.
"If you ever come here again, then you better prepare to sip through a straw for next month."
The men gathered themselves up and left, and with it, the restaurant's staff exploded in congratulations. The owner Mikasushi a man dressed in cooking attire and a missing finger in thanks decided to treat us extra special, and we decided that from now on we would pop by around the city every now and again. Over time we had made a name for ourselves as the Gui (ghost in Chinese) ghosts that struck from the shadows and haunted those who harm. It was a fun past time, finally doing some good for once. And it was a great way to train and bond. I didn't even know how close we had gotten. I remember one night where Mei had woken me up, and we visited the stream where we used to hang out. In the starry night, Mei was completely flustered in anxiety, and after a little time, she finally spoke.
"I wanted to say this for a while, but I never knew how to say it. And I find it silly now because I can beat down triad members easier than confessing. But I need to say this. Jasmine, I love you. Every day I spend with you is a miracle. Your smile is so infectious that I can't help but do the same. I need to know Jasmine; do you feel the same way I do?"
Her vulnerability and question put me through a loop but looking back on it now; I should have seen the signs a whole lot sooner. Then again if I did this, my odyssey would never have happened. Still, even then, I didn't deserve her. She didn't deserve to know of Sarah Walters. She didn't deserve to wake up nearly every night to my night terrors. She didn't deserve to see every day I see myself covered in blood and shadow. Even with this new start, I knew that at the end of the day. There will never be a happy ending for me. And I didn't want to lie to her or myself if it made us feel miserable in the end. So I unfortunately had to decline her loving request.
"I'm sorry, Mei, but I never felt that way about anyone. I've always loved you, and I promise I would give my life for you. But I could never be physical, like that, and I'm sorry if that can displease you for I know what you said took great courage."
Mei took it in stride by saying, "What is it that you Americans always said? Can rejection build character? I'm glad you were honest with me in the end, Jasmine."
As we hugged each other in solidarity, I replay the scene in my mind; I wish I could hug her a little tighter, told her I loved her at least one more time. Right before my past swallowed her up completely.
It had been five months since we made a name for ourselves around the city as The Gui(ghost).And when we were visiting our usual restaurant, Mr. Mikasushi blubbered in saying that the triad had taken his 15-year-old daughter hostage and to specifically told us where to go. And with that threat, I knew I could not run away, no matter how much I wanted to turn back. I offered to give myself up, but Kai and Mei were adamant about going with me. But I told them that with how dangerous the situation is I told them not to hesitate and kill if things got bad and that we would go in quietly. The comment struck them through a loop, but I made them accept. I taught both of them how to blend in with their environment. And as we arrived at the location in complete surrender, I saw a sight that terrified me to my very core. I damned myself a thousand times and questioned if God does have a wicked sense of humor or even a more wicked sense of karma. For right before my eyes laid woman who still haunts me to this day.
"Crap and a half," I said softly.
"My, my, my fate truly does smile on my face today. For now, I get to remove two thorns from my side at the very same time. Hello, Sarah, did you miss me?" said Reyna in sadistic revelry.
In an hour we were all completely zip cupped with a host of men armed with semi-automatics. Reyna hadn't changed a bit from her usual self. Her silver tongue was still there, but now it was sharpened like a dagger. She measured us up and went into a cold speech.
"I don't know about you all, but I've always been a little bit of a control freak. Even if my youth, I always needed to have things go my way or else I snap. Everything had to be spick and span to the most perfect of specifications. Then on one particular day, I had a dog. It was a nice, and it actually made me feel a little less prickly, but one day I returned home and saw it gnawing at my couch. And that was when I couldn't take it anymore. For the rest of its life, I made sure it knew respect until it died. Though I didn't cry much over it, after all, it did its purpose in the end. The moral of the story is I hate when loose ends appear Sarah. I hate it when something gets in my way. There wasn't a single day where I didn't think about you and now that you're under my heel again. I'm not going to let you off it."
My fear and rage took control, as I stated.
"What the hell are you even doing here? How the hell did you find me after all these years?!"
"And where is Mikasushi's daughter," said Kai.
"The brat is fine; she served her purpose. And for why I'm here it's all thanks to you Sarah. We managed to assimilate the Nexus, and now almost all the crime in Asia is under our control. Most of our agents oversee the major crime gangs, and with you never turning up a body, I decided to keep my enemy close in case you ever resurfaced. And the rest is history though it seems you have brought some new friends."
Kai and Mei looked genuinely confused, and like a snake, Reyna pours more venom into her fangs.
"What is she talking about Jasmine," said Mei.
"Ah, so they don't know about our little history together? They don't who you are? Well, I guess it's time to enlighten them. For you see my young prisoners, your friend "Jasmine" is a complete and utter devil. One of the best I've seen as well. You should see some of her work to it's quite remarkable. She would burn them, shock them, chipped away at their very soul and body until they begged and screamed for the mercy of death to claim them. Here victims called her Saytan, the devil itself and she worked under me to for two years. It didn't matter who they were or what they did all that mattered for your so-called friend was how much pleasure she would get. And she enjoyed it all."
I couldn't even look them in the face as I knew what she said was 100% right. Anyone who crossed me ended up in a body bag. So I finally dropped my facade that I held for four years. Sarah Walters came back from the shadows of my mind. She demanded I showed no weakness to my oppressor.
" You're right Reyna; there was a part of me that enjoyed taking a life. And if you don't let them go that part of me you so eloquently described will come again and drown you in a pool of your blood."
Mei and Kai looked terrified with my bloodlust filling the entire room like a maddened predator.
"Sorry, Sarah, I can't let them go they have a larger purpose of playing. A purpose in destroying you utterly."
She interrogated us for a brief period, asking for information about where I lived. Reyna got under my skin like a virus as I stood by while my friends suffered. And I couldn't keep up the charade of Saytan any longer as my face winced at every single cry I heard from them. Until finally Kai breaks and tells of the Unity's location. And Reyna poured napalm into the wound.
"I want you to know that what I'm about to do in these next few days will be spawned entirely from your actions. I told you at the beginning of our arrangement that there is no choice. That you'll never live a normal life and any chance of you trying to escape it will only end in sorrow."
The next two days all we could do was wait in agony as our minds thought up of every dark thought she had in store for us. Kai and Mei with beaten up faces each looked like they were on the brink. Kai was silent as rivers of shame appeared from his looks alone. And Mei steadily looked to me tell them if it was going to be okay, but I couldn't even tell a lie that I didn't believe in myself. All I could see was how this would end in ruin.
Eventually, after an eternity, she piled us in trucks and drove us to Unity. In reflection, it seems as though history repeated itself as I kept seeing glimpses of Aman and my time as a slave to him. That seemed like a thousand years from now. The truck finally stops as Reyna hogtied us onto the ground. My senses took over as I saw triad members of every shape and size marched towards the beautiful village under the pale moonlight. Nine men and Reyna kept watching over us as the carnage continued begun.
Thirty minutes passed, and the sound of the crawling insects got overtaken by the crackling of a fire. And all I could do was think of the body count of such tragedy with my hands itching and glowing from the blood on them. Only Reyna's acidic voice brought me back to focus with a cocked gun.
"Excuse me, Sarah. I would like you to bring your attention over to me."
I tried to move, but knew, so one of the men awkwardly picked me up to see Reyna with a gun aimed at both Kai and Mei. My heart beat like a machine gun; my eyes already erupted tears my mouth held off from every curse word imaginable, my hands burned even further. But I just gave up and pleaded.
"Reyna I'll do anything please stop this. Not them, they don't deserve this."
"You're right, Sarah, they don't deserve it, so I'm giving one of them an out. I'm giving the mercy of death so that they don't have to feel the burden of a survivor. They won't feel the burden of knowing that in some way, they were at fault for this tragedy. They don't have to live knowing that their precious friend caused all of this. So the only question I should ask is who first?"
"Me first, I am the one responsible for this chaos, after all. I deserve to be in hell for what I've done," Kai said honorably.
"Kai don't you dare do that if anyone shoots me and please just let Sarah go," Mei said.
They both engaged in a frequented conversation that tears my heart in half. All I wanted to do was make end like a dream but no. Like any good nightmare, it doesn't end as my emotion is so much I couldn't even process the interplay spoken until two gunshots ring out as Mei hit the ground. The only shock overtook me, and at that moment I knew something in me broke so entirely that I don't think I'll ever be able to put it back. Even now I say that if I could take it all back, I would. If I could turn back time, I knew she would've lived such a blessed life without my wretched self in it.
I thought Kai would be next to die until my senses focused on seeing 2 of the scouts that we're setting a perimeter. Until Master Lee holding a golden kusarigama with a straight blade on the other end descends from a tree and slits the nearest man's throat with a speed of a tornado. Before the other scout could react, he lifted the bladed end of his weapon that struck the scouts head. The others turn around only to see a veil of smoke from a smoke bomb. Then seven gunshots ring out, and seven bodies hit the floor. Lee walked out of the smoke with his weapon in hand. His rage was on full display as he threw away his smoking gun.
"Hammurabi once stated eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. But after what you just did I think I'm willing to add life for a life for the innocent blood spilled here today."
Reyna was about to strike with her gun, but Kai with rage managed to roll in Reyna's way which messed up her aim. Lee took the split second for all it's worth as he again launched his kusarigama at an angle that slices her hand open and forces her to drop her gun. Her resolve returned as she pulled out both of her knives in a reverse grip while avoiding another strike. The next few minutes are a frenzy of rapid slashes as like an extra limb; Lee makes every attack a precise one. However, the chain finds itself wrapped around Reyna's upper body. With her immobilized Lee advanced closer with him revealing his scythe part but Reyna jumped out of the way of the slash only for Lee to pull her back in to have her do a reverse sweep. With Lee thrown down by the surprising move, he let go of his weapon. Before she could stomp on him, he flipped back and charged back into a now freed Reyna. Before she could get her bearings Lee's true mastery throughout the battle unleashed itself. Seemingly dozens of techniques were used some old and some new all with blinding speed. Reyna was left a beaten mess but still held a trick up her sleeve as she managed to use a host of smoke bombs and escapes from a grappling hook.
Lee decided to let her go and free us from our bindings so that we may say goodbye to our dying friend. Mei was bleeding from 2 bullet wounds, but her face was still at some form of reassuring calm as she talked to the 2 of us. I broke down as Kai, and I said sorry again and again, but she quieted us both down, her eyes saying that she made peace with what was about to come. Even when I tried to deny it all her last words echoed in my very soul.
"It's okay guys. It's okay. We'll off have to do this sometimes anyway right? Please grant me one request. Both of you, Both of you take my weapon. I know it he isn't your cup of tea but. Can you at least let me go knowing that I can still protect you both? Can you do that? Because you all are so precious to me, so very precious."
Her life slipped away, and my world grew cold and bitter. I lost all the light that I had left in my hell of a life. When morning came, we buried the dead and rebuilt though Kai was a wreck. He stayed in his quarters with no one to aid him as I knew I would only make the wound hurt. Every breath I took made the injury hurt. So while rebuilding, I took a gun from the chaos and went far into the forest to be alone.
I still remember how my hands were close to the trigger that my heartbeat out of my chest in emotion. To be or not to be was the question I needed answered as I remembered the tempest of chaotic thoughts, Reyna's words entered in my mind. I didn't want to be the survivor. And then I remember Mei's confession when she said those three beautiful words, and in the end, I threw the gun away. I never knew if it was loaded or not. Because in a sickening, wretched way there was somehow a part of me that didn't want to be the coward. That there was a part of me that still wanted to live on after such a nightmare. But not in the way one would think.
I realized at that moment that Sarah Walters was who I am. And no identity was ever going to change that. I realized that this life is one that I will not escape until the day death finally comes for my forever bloodied hands. I realized that in a way, Elder Lee was wrong about me. I was no Paladin. A Paladin was a noble warrior of the highest caliber who fought with honor, and that didn't fit me. Instead, it will be the symbol that I know I'll never be able to be. I know now my place is a phantom in darkness now and forever as I battle all the demons that come from it. All so tragedies such as this will never happen again. And to make sure that Mei didn't die for nothing. I carried her sai, leaving from the place I called home with my glowing red hands itching for the blood of Reyna, wishing that her death made by the very weapon of the person that brought her undoing. At least she won't live long enough to regret her mistake.