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brush and ink
the swords of heaven and earth
a letter game
Qing, I am terribly sorry that my letter is late - after everything… 
20th-Feb-2007 12:54 am
vagrant: NO REALLY

I am terribly sorry that my letter is late - after everything that's happened, the house has been in chaos for the past three days and it feels like I haven't had time to breathe, let alone think. I barely know where to start, or how to break all the news to you!

I will start by telling you not to worry. No one is seriously hurt - we have been left cut and bruised and even singed, in Third Wife's case, but we are all in as good health as could be expected. I have sent a letter to Father, who I hope will be returning to us soon, though I pray that he will be able to hide the news from Mother. If she was to ruin her hard earned health with shock over this, I - I don't know what I would do, Sister, but I am already so, so angry.

Three days ago, we were attacked by the Hell's Venom sect.

It was four days after Father and Mother had left for the Xian Wu Springs. Everything had been going well - I was kept busy watching over the business and the house, even though Second Wife was very sniffy about how it was /her/ duty to be overseeing the household while mother was gone. Fortunately for her, I had too much to do to pay attention to her - since when has she ever shown any interest in helping Mother run the house?

Ting was at my side, and Tian Jie helped where he could, which was admittedly not very much. Half Brother Fang had also offered his asistance, and I could not refuse it without triggering his suspicions, though I certainly trusted him with as little as I could. Despite my efforts, he must have seen my wariness after all, for the morning before everything - happened, he actually stopped me after breakfast and asked if I was upset with him.

I tried to hide my unease with surprise, and stared at him. "Of course not. Why would I be? You've been a great help -"

"When you let me help at all, sister."

"But you have other things to take care of. I don't want to burden you, and I've been busy but not /that/ busy."

He raised his eyebrows at me. "I wouldn't like to see you burden yourself either. Father did ask me to watch over everything while he was gone too."

He had? "This is no burden at all. And Ting and Tian Jie have been an enormous help," I said.

He smiled then. "You don't trust me, do you?"

The sudden bluntness of the question almost made me jump. "Why would think that?" I said, hasty.

His eyes were very cool, but his smile didn't change. "Because it's true," he said, and turned to walk away while I stared at his back.

It's easy now to think that I should have known something was wrong, to be sure that I must have been too busy to catch the signs and try to stop the attack. The next day, Half Brother left the house in the morning, and I did not notice his absence until the afternoon, when Tian Jie asked where he was.

He looked worried when I said I had no idea. That at least got my guard up. "What's wrong?" I demanded.

"Nothing," he said, but his tone was far from convincing. "But things are a little... strange. I haven't been able to detect the presence of the Hell's Venom Sect anywhere in the town since yesterday."

I narrowed my eyes at him, but didn't point out that he'd never told me he was keeping such careful track of their presence in town at all. "Does this mean that they've left?"

"Perhaps, but why would they suddenly leave? They've been here for months without doing anything."

"Maybe they finally got what they wanted... whstever it was," I said, frowning in thought.

"But there's been no news of anything strange happening recently. The Hell's Venom Sect doesn't have a reputation for acting so quietly -"

"So you think they could be planning on doing something soon," I realised, and it was a grim thought.

"I don't know. It's too hard to say, I don't know /anything/ -" He grimaced and shook his head. "I make a terrible spy," he said unhappily. On another day, I would have laughed at him but things looked serious and we were in no mood for mirth.

We could think of nothing we could do for the time, though Tian Jie decided to head out again and see what rumours he could find. I thought I would wait for the next morning before making my own enquiries among Father's contacts.

When evening fell, Tian Jie returned again, still with no news. Before leaving, Father had invited Tian Jie to stay - technically, it was so he could help us while Father and Mother were gone, but really it was because Tian Jie had been in danger of getting thrown out of his inn because he'd run out of money to pay for lodgings. Half Brother had still not returned.

After dinner, Tian Jie and I told Ting of our misgivings, and we talked into the night trying to think of what it could mean and what we could do. Ting was hopeful that it meant they had found other business, or targets, to harrass, but I found it hard to believe. When I began to yawn, we realised that the hour was later than we had thought. Saying our good nights, we scattered to find our rooms. I made Ting take the lamp to show Tian Jie the way to his room (it is ridiculous how he keeps getting lost - our house is large, but not /that/ big), and decided in a fit of fatigure to visit the family shrine.

The sky was clouded and the moon a bare sliver of light so that the night was dark, but I wasn't worried. I certainly knew the way well enough to find my way through the shadows - I could have done it blindfolded. Deep in thought, I was crossing the bridge over the pond when a flicker in the water's reflection made me blink and look up -

Just in time to catch sight of a shadowy figure on the roof. I must have been more tired than I thought, for my first reaction was to simply freeze with surprise and then stand there staring like a fool. And it /was/ foolish - I was lucky I'd caught even that slight warning, but by stopping there, /they/ knew that they had been seen too.

Another figure rose from the roof and I regained my sense enough to shout. "Tian Jie! Ting! In the garden! Intruders!" I screamed as loudly as I could, then ran forwards even as the first attackers lept down into the garden, and more figures rose from the roof and the shrubbery around me. I will be honest - for a moment, I felt fear in a way I'd never known before, so that I thought I would stumble and fall under it. How many intruders were there? Who were they? If they were the Hell's Venom sect, they would not be easy opponents and it felt like we were being surround by a small army.

"Ling!" Ting's voice cried across the garden, and the fear in her voice woke me. I did not only have myself to protect, but everyone in the house, and with Father gone -

With a cry, I summoned my sword and spun aroud to take stock of the situation. I was surrounded by at least seven or eight of them in the garden alone, but I could see two or three other figures moving towards the house itself, where the wives and children were sleeping. I swore and shouted.

"Ting! Wake the wives and children! Get them armed and away from here!" I shouted. "Tian Jie! Cover her!"

"But Ling!"

"Don't argue! Quickly!" I cried, even as one of the black figures whipped out a blade on a chain at me and I leapt out of the way. The fight fell on me as the other intruders closed in together, and I set my teeth and sprang into the dance. When I try to remember the details of the fight now, everything is a blur in my mind, each move and attack so swift it seemed a miracle I remembered to breathe in the midst of it. Somewhere in the midst of the fight, I realised that Tian Jie had not heeded my order to protect Ting, but had thrown himself into the battle as well. I felled my second attacker just as he managed to throw someone, hard, into the pond where they landed with an enormous splash and were still.

"What are you /doing/?" I tried to shout, even as I drove a man waving two hooked swords back. The attackers were very skilled - more skilled than most fighters I've met, and I did not doubt that they belonged to a sect as notorious as the Hell's Venom. I was very barely holding my ground against their combined onslaught, but I could not fight /all/ of them at once, and I could not stop them if they tried to attack the rest of the house.

Sweat trickled into my eyes as I fought grimly on. For all that I would have preferred Tian Jie to stay with Ting and the others, I cannot deny that the two of us fighting together were a stronger force than either of us battling alone.

When orange light suddenly lit up the garden, I started and turned instinctively towards it - my distraction was dangerous, and I got a slash on my arm that nearly made me drop my sword. I cried out, but my voice was lost in the twin war shrieks of two very familiar voices. If I had not been so hard pressed at the time, I would have stopped to stare, but I barely got a glimpse of Third and Fourth Wives as they stood beneath a torch they'd somehow hung by the roof to throw light over the garden. Third Wife held a whip and Fourth Wife held a long spear, and before I could blink, they threw themselves at the attackers with furious cries.

Given how they spend most of their time bickering over petty household things, I'd completely forgotten that they /were/ the daughters of Yu Yan Wei, one of the jiang hu's most famous women fighters before she retired. And while their years of domesticity might have rusted their skills, I don't think anyone could doubt their fighting spirit, and together they were still a strong enough force to face the Hell's Venom Sect.

With their help, Tian Jie and I had a little more breathing space, and I began to think a little more clearly. The attack was vicious, and I was not sure how we could drive the attackers away. But we couldn't keep up the fight for the rest of the night either. The firelight in the garden suddenly flickered, and from the corner of my eye, I saw one of the attackers whirl the torch around their head like a weapon, even as they ran towards the family shrine.

I had no idea what they meant to do, and I didn't want to find out. I certainly couldn't let them set fire to to the shrine, which was what would happen if I let the madman go. Calling out to Tian Jie, I raced after him, and managed to catch up to him just as he reached the steps to the shrine. He made the mistake of turning to look over his shoulder as I shouted and approached, and I swept my sword at his feet, causing him to stumble. The torch flew from his hand to fall on the ground, and I tried to put it out, but a second intruder came from behind me and then I found myself facing two attackers. The man who'd taken the torch was the same attacker with the blade and chain, I realised, and the second was a swordsman. They were both highly skilled, and I had great difficulty fending them off.

"Ling!" Ting's voice came from the shrine. I barely heard it, locked as I was blade to blade with an attacker, but I certainly heard the sudden call of her zither. I tried to find the breath to tell her to run away - what was she doing here? Where were the children? It was too dangerous - the attacker with the chain and blade yelled as he was knocked off his feet and now I could hear the /children/. I swore, but by now I was incapable of arguing with anyone. Between them, they must have managed to trap and tie him down.

This left me to deal with the swordsman, and I struck with renewed vigour. Of all the attackers, I suspect he was one of the strongest. His face was heavily masked, so that only his eyes were visible, but something about his movements struck me as strange. Then ducking, twisting his blade up at an angle so it almost stabbed me in the shoulder, I realised that I'd /seen/ that move before. The realisation was sudden enough that I hesitated for a moment - and his sword caught me on my left side. But I brought my own blade up quickly enough to catch the worst of the attack, even as it cut away the mask covering his face and then Half Brother stood looking down at me.

My side screamed, and I crumpled to the ground, barely biting back a cry. In the distance, I heard Ting cry my name, but her voice was suddenly very far away. I fought the giddiness and brought my sword up again.

"You!" I bit out. He did not attack, only stared down at me, face expressionless. "If you want to attack us you'll have to kill me first!" I said, furious.

"I don't think I have to," he said, voice cool, and I followed his glance to see that the garden was on fire. Third Wife and Fourth Wife had been forced to retreat to the side, and if it was any consolation, it looked like we'd gotten rid of most o the attackers.

"And it looks like all /your/ friends are gone, so you won't get what you came for either," I said.

"Don't worry," he said. "If the house burns to the ground tonight, we it won't be hard for us to come back."

"Not so long as I'm around," I snapped, but then a movement made me turn. One last figure stood on the roof, gazing down at the garden. The woman wore no mask, and her long hair flowed in the wind.

The Black Lotus.

Second Wife's sister. Even as I watched, she raised her hand in a gesture of command, then with a flick of her wrist, threw something into the blazing garden -

"Get down!" Tian Jie roared. "That's -"

The slow burning flames /exploded/, the heat searing against my skin, and behind me, I heard Ting scream, long and terrible. When I opened my eyes again, the flames had grown, flickring up to almost a man's height. No one in the garden could survive the inferno, and soon, it would reach the houses around it.

I was bleeding and exhausted and angry - the world seemed to swin around me in a haze of heat and pain, and my knuckles clenched so tightly around my sword, the others found that they could not pry it from my fingers. The Sword of Earth must have felt my rage, but I thought I could hear it sing to me, even as I forced myself up and drive its blade into the ground.

There is no way I would have ever tried to do this otherwise, but I wasn't thinking then. Perhaps it was the Sword of Earth tha guided me. Behind me, I could hear Ting's frightened weeping, and Tian Jie's frantic attempts to comfort her; and I could feel the figure on the roof, and hhalf Brother, watching me. I couldn't let them win, and I /couldn't/ let them hurt the others, not even if it killed me.

Hand gripped around the hilt, I felt it begin to tremble, then realised that the earth eas trembling beneath me. Then with a long, slow crack, the earth within the garden seemed to rise, then turn on itself, sinking into a depression in the ground and taking the fire with it.

I heard a gasp and turned to find Half Brother staring at me. I staggered to my feet and lifted the sword. "Leave." I said. WHen he didn't move, I almost screamed. "LEAVE!"

Before my second command could die away, he had leaped up onto the roof, running towards his waiting aunt.

A cry split the night even as they vanished. "No!" Second Wife called out, desperate. "Ah Fang! Come back! No!"

For a moment I stood, staring down at the destroyed garden while voices swirled around me, and the remaining smoke drifted away into the night sky. Then I finally fainted.

If you think of it, we were lucky - if the three of us had not stayed up so late, if Tian Jie had not been there, if they had sent more attackers, if I had not managed to stop the fire, we might not have saved the house. Worse still, we might be dead. My injury is not serious, though the doctor wants me in bed until the end of the week. there is too much to do for me to lie around healing, but with Ting to take care of me, do not worry, I am not straining myself. The morning after the attack, I sent a letter to Father bearing news of what had happened. I am sure he will return swiftly, and to make sure the letter reaches him as quickly as possible, I sent it with Tian Jie.

Hell's Venom must have meant to take advantage of Father's absence to destroy us - when he returns, the risk will be much lower and I'm sure Father will be able to rally his friends around him as well. Tian Jie says that he has also sent a message to his teacher, and that he will come to San Dao as quickly as he can.

In the meantime, we are working on repairing the damage to the house. The garden seems irreparable, and might take months to rebuild and replant, but at least we are alive to rebuild it, Ting says. Thankfully, the children came out of the fight ubscathed except for a few bruises. Ting was not hurt in the fight, though I am afraid the fire must be giving her nightmares because she has been very pale in the mornings. Third and Foruth Wife have both been very proud of themselves, and horribly indignant that anyone would dare to attack our family, even as they briskly set the house to order again

Second Wife has not said a word since that night. She is barely eating, and will not leave her rooms. To look at her, you would think she had aged twenty years in a day, and I am surprised her hair has not turned white. At least we are sure that she had nothing to do with the attack. Half Brother - if I can even call him a brother now - and his betrayal, have hurt her more than the rest of us put together.

I feel sorry for her - she placed so much hope in him that watching him leave without a backward glance seems to have robbed her of her will to live at all. I even tried to persuade her to eat myself - I don't think Half Brother deserves her grief, if he would plot an attack against a house full of women and children and his own mother.

For the time, there is nothing I can do but wait. I hope that things are going well on your side, and be careful in your meeting with Long Gui! I really do not know if Junwei could possibly be related to Tian Jie - Tian Jie at least seems much less malicious and hostile, and while he is rash and foolish sometimes, his temper is not easily provoked. He also said that he was an orphan. Perhaps later, when things have settled and Father has returned, I'll ask him about his family again.

Take care of yourself, Sister, and write soon, if you can. Send my reassurances to Aunt, and tell Ping I almost wish she'd been here for the excitement. I miss you both.

Xue Ling
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