14 - If I Can Stop Quan's Heart From Breaking

This is Julie Morgan reporting for WCOC News. I'm standing outside the home of County Prosecutor George Kruger who appears to have been kidnapped. A neighbor says she woke up when she heard yelling about 3 am. She looked outside and saw several figures forcing a man into a car. She called the police who arrived within minutes, but the car had already left. Police searched the house and found signs of a forced entry and some blood stains. They are using the neighbor's description to try and track down the car. MCPD says they have no leads at this time, but Kruger is well known for his tough stance on crime and his public diatribes against the Westside gangs, calling them "a blight on our society that should be cut out like cancer". It is possible this abduction was revenge, instigated by one of the many people he has put in prison.


Cataclysm pulled up to the curb and stopped the car. She turned to Anton. "Remember. Keep your cool. Speak with respect. Ask don't demand. Got it?" Anton nodded. She said, "Let's go."

They got out of the car and the Red Banners nearby all suddenly became very alert. Their hands went to their weapons but Cataclysm and Anton turned their palms out to show they were empty. Well, Cataclysm turned one hand out. In the other she held the Blood Swords, gripping them by their sheaths so they were clearly not a threat. As Anton and Cataclysm approached Lord Qi's house, the Red Banner guards watched them carefully but didn't actually draw their blades.

"We wish to see Lord Qi," she said. "I have a gift for him," she added, raising the swords.

The biggest guard started forward. "Give those to me, Maniac," he growled.

Cataclysm stood tall and said, "If Iron and Gold couldn't hold onto the Blood Swords, do you really think you can take them from me?" Then, realizing she was just goading him into action, she added, "Besides, what would Lord Qi think of you treating visitors like this?"

That got him. He snorted and took a step back. "Wait here." He went inside. After a few minutes he returned and beckoned them inside.

He led them to a large, richly-furnished room. The tile floor was laid with delicate patterns and silk tapestries lined the wall. It was surprising to see this much luxury in any Westside home. There were about a dozen Red Banners standing around the edges of the room. At the far end stood Lord Qi and Quan. She was flanked by two of the biggest thugs Cataclysm had seen so far, both armed with massive hammers.

Cataclysm had told Anton that he had to be the one to speak. She was just there as muscle. He wasn't that eloquent but she hoped he could pull this off. She had told him all she knew about Red Banner protocols, which wasn't much. Anton walked to the edge of the carpet leading towards Lord Qi and bowed slightly to him. Lord Qi made an even smaller bow in return.

"Lord Qi," Anton said, reciting the speech Cataclysm had gotten him to memorize, "I have come to ask you for the hand of your daughter, Quan. I bring the Blood Swords as a gift for you if you will grant me this boon."

Qi studied Anton and then looked past him at Cataclysm. "You," he snapped. "Are you the one who invaded my home?"

She had known this was coming. She stepped forward and bowed. "Yes, Lord Qi. I offer my humble apologies. Anton knew nothing of this," she lied. "I acted on my own and I hope you will not hold him responsible for my foolish and impulsive actions."

He frowned. "They say you are not one of the Maniacs anymore. Why did you involve yourself in this?"

That was an unexpected question. Cataclysm stammered a bit as she collected her thoughts. "Lord Qi, if you had a disagreement with Hi Pan I don't think you would turn your back on all of the Clan of the Red Banner. I feel the same. However that doesn't matter because this is not gang business. This is not about the Maniacs and the Red Banner. It is about two young people in love."

Qi snorted but seemed satisfied with her answer. He motioned to one of his bodyguards and the man came forward to take the swords from Cataclysm. She hesitated to give them up but only for a split second. Qi was an honest man...she hoped.

The thug took the swords to Qi and he looked them over briefly before waving the man off. "I will accept these blades as repayment for the insult of invading my home, but they will not buy the hand of my daughter."

"What?" demanded Anton loudly, and Cataclysm quickly put a hand on his shoulder to calm him down.

She was angry but carefully kept her voice level as she said firmly, "That was not our agreement, Lord Qi."

He raised his eyebrows. "Agreement? We had no agreement. You made an offer. I have made a counter-offer. If you disagree you may leave with the swords. However that will be an act of war between our clans."

Cataclysm glanced over at Quan, who looked disappointed but not surprised. Cataclysm was curious if that had been her plan all along. She whispered to Anton, "Ask what he wants. Nicely."

Anton said, "What do you want for Quan's hand?"

Lord Qi stared at him for a long time before finally saying, "I have two conditions. These are not negotiable. Accept them or leave and never see my daughter again. The first condition is that you must give up your allegiance to the Maniacs."

"That's ridiculous!" Anton said hotly.

"Shut up!" Cataclysm hissed at him. She was surprised he was being so impulsive since he was usually ice cold. To Lord Qi she said, "May I ask why?"

Again Lord Qi took his time before replying. "It would not benefit me to have my daughter married to a member of a rival gang. And if he stays in the Maniacs, some day we will face each other in battle."

Cataclysm thought about that. "He's right," she mumbled to Anton.

He whirled on her. "That's easy for you to say since you already turned your back on us."

She glared at him. Keeping her voice low she said, "Say that to me again sometime when we aren't surrounded by Red Banners. I dare you. But this isn't about me or even about the gang. How do you think Quan will feel if you have to kill her father someday? This is the only way."

She could see the conflict in his eyes. He said, "Do you have any idea what you are asking?"

Cataclysm looked at him, stunned. "Are you kidding me? I am the one person who knows."

He looked chastened. "Yeah, I guess so."

She turned back to Qi. "Lord Qi, let me clarify. You are asking him to leave the gang, but not to break off contact. You are not asking him to abandon the clan that has become his family, correct?"

Lord Qi mulled that over and then nodded. "Yes, that would be acceptable."

She looked back and Anton. He blew out a breath. "Fine. If I have to choose between Quan and the gang, I choose Quan."

Quan looked relieved. Cataclysm said to Qi, "You said there was a second condition?"

"Yes. I must know he is worthy of my daughter. If he were one of my clan I would already know from his past battles, but since he is an outsider he must prove himself by defeating me in single combat."

Anton looked surprised, but Cataclysm wasn't. Single combat was big among them. Anton turned to her and whispered, "Look, I can handle myself on the street, but Qi's a powerful wizard. I don't think I can beat him."

Cataclysm agreed, though she didn't say so. She said, "Lord Qi, can he choose a champion to fight for him?" Anton looked hopeful but then his face fell when he heard the answer.

"No. If he is not strong enough to defeat me, he cannot protect my daughter."

A new voice broke into the conversation. Quan said, "Father, there is one case where a champion may be chosen."

"Silence!" Lord Qi commanded. "You are here to witness this discussion, not to participate."

"Sorry, father," she said, but she gave Cataclysm a significant look.

Cataclysm's brow furrowed. "What is she talking about?"

Qi waved her off. "It doesn't apply to this situation."

Cataclysm was annoyed but she kept her voice calm. "If we are doing this the Red Banner way, it is only fair I...er, Anton know the rules."

Impatiently, Qi said, "If either party in a challenge in injured after the challenge is accepted but before combat begins, then a champion can be chosen. However if the young man challenges me, we will settle this immediately so there is no chance of that."

Cataclysm was puzzled. That didn't seem helpful. But as she looked back at Quan, the girl was giving her an intense look as if she was trying to communicate something. Cataclysm looked at Anton and then back at her. Quan couldn't be saying what she seemed to be saying, right?

Slowly Cataclysm said, "Anton, what would you face to be with Quan?"

"Anything," he said instantly. "I'd swim the ocean. I'd fight Grond. I'd..."

"Yeah, okay, I get it." She sighed. "Challenge him."

Anton looked surprised. "You think I can beat him?"

"Only if he has a heart attack. But I have a plan."

"You want to tell me what the plan is?"

"Nope. Better you don't know. But you two will be together." Probably, she added to herself.

Anton shrugged. "I guess there isn't any other way." He raised his voice and said, "Lord Qi, I challenge you to a duel for Quan's hand."

Lord Qi nodded. "I accept the challenge."

Cataclysm mumbled a quick spell and slammed a searing blast of flame into Anton's thigh. Surprised by the attack, he collapsed to the ground with a scream. He twisted around to glare at her. "What the fuck?"

Cataclysm ignored him. "Lord Qi, Anton is too injured to fight. I will fight in his place."

A stunned silence hung over the room, broken only by Anton's whimpers. Quan was cringing and had her eyes squeezed shut. Lord Qi's mouth was open and he kept looking back and forth between Anton and Cataclysm. He said, "Do you accept this woman as your champion?"

Anton grated out, "Yes." To Cataclysm he said, "I'm going to fucking kill you when we get out of here."

"Consider it payback for your earlier crack. And I'm about to risk my life so you can get laid, so you're welcome."

Lord Qi shook himself back into the moment. "Very well. Let us go out to the practice yard."

Cataclysm was going to help Anton, but two Red Banners came forward to pick him up. They handled him with surprising gentleness. One glanced at Cataclysm and mumbled, "You guys really are all crazy." She took that as a compliment.

The group trooped out through a back door to a weapons training field. In one part were practice dummies, archery targets and racks of wooden practice weapons. In another area were exercise machines and some of those odd wooden structures martial artists used to toughen their hands and arms. Off to one side was a roped-off platform that was clearly an arena.

Qi and Cataclysm entered the ring. He said, "Do you know the rules?"

She nodded. Keeping any hint of smugness out of her voice, she said, "Iron and Gold explained them to me. No flying. No leaving the ring. Keep spells inside the ring. Battle until someone yields, is unconscious or dies. No breaks. Battle starts at the gong."

Each of them went to one side of the ring. As she did, Cataclysm suddenly realized Qi had an advantage. If he were smart--and she had heard that he was--he would have talked to Iron and Gold to learn about her fighting style. She on the other hand knew nothing of his other than the fact he used electrical magic, like most of the Red Banners.

Cataclysm stretched a bit to loosen her muscles. Qi stood there unmoving, and she wasn't sure if he was meditating, studying her, or just waiting patiently for her to finish. When she was ready she nodded to the man standing next to the gong. Qi did the same. The gong rang and both sprang into action.

Cataclysm wrapped herself in a cloak of flame while Qi went right for an attack. A bolt of lightning crackled towards her and splashed against her fiery shield. She was able to divert much of the energy, but the electric shock still made her muscles tingle. She threw out her arms and launched a cone of flame at him. He dodged aside, surprisingly nimble for his age, but was unable to escape the wide cone. She turned to keep the torrent on him as he moved. He put up a quick defensive spell and then launched another lightning bolt.

She finally had to let the rushing fire die down as it drained her energy, but as she did she saw small flames dancing along his clothing. He ignored the fire, instead casting another spell that surrounded Cataclysm with a tingling cloud of electrical particles. She concentrated, re-establishing her connection to the primal Fire so she could strike again. Another lightning bolt arced towards her and she didn't try to defend. That was a mistake. The cloud somehow magnified the bolt, and she felt her muscles lock as electricity flowed through her and sparks coruscated across her skin.

She struggled to breath even after the electricity was gone. She reached out to the flames on his clothing and pulled the energy into her, and the healing warmth soothed her aching muscles. This time she threw up a defensive shield as he attacked, diverting much of the energy, and when his attack was done she quickly blasted him with bolts of fire. He tried to dodge these and, though they were easier to avoid than the cone, she was able to fire a rapid barrage and he was forced to keep dodging.

They continued to go back and forth, exchanging flame bolt for lightning bolt. Both of them tended to favor attacks over defense, but she realized she had one advantage. She could use the flame to heal herself, but he appeared to have no healing magic. In addition, the more spells she cast the stronger her connection with the elemental Fire became.

He stumbled, obviously tiring. That realization filled her with energy and she again bathed him on a sheet of flame. He tried to counterattack but miscast the spell, and only a weak trickle of electricity reached her. She kept up the pressure on him and he threw up defense spell after defensive spell. At this point it was only a matter of time. She continued to batter him, driving him back into a corner of the arena where she could keep hammering spears of flame into him.

When he fell, a Red Banner warrior leapt into the ring with a blanket to beat out his burning clothes. Cataclysm walked over to look at him. He had some burns, but nothing that looked too bad. He might not have curative magic but there were healers in the Red Banner who would be able to help him. He opened her eyes to look at her and she reached out a hand. He seemed surprised, but took it and she helped him stand up.

"Honorably fought," he said.

"You too."

He waved off the Red Banner who had helped him and studied her as the man left the ring. When they were alone, Qi said, "For the record, I had planned to let the young man win." Cataclysm was stunned into silence. "The bravery and dedication to Quan it took for him to face me even though he would lose told me he was the right man for my daughter."

Cataclysm looked over at Anton, his face screwed up against the pain. "Kind of wish you'd told me that before." She turned back to him and said suspiciously, "You didn't throw our fight, did you?"

"No. I didn't need to. You took me by surprise. I knew you had some knowledge of magic, but I never expected a Maniac to be so skilled." Sternly he added, "I will not make the same mistake should we meet again."

"I imagine you won't," Cataclysm said. Lord Qi turned to look at his daughter, doting on Anton, and his face clouded. Cataclysm said, "You don't like him, do you?"

"No."

"I'll tell you exactly what I told him. You two have one important thing in common: you both love Quan. The best thing you can do for her is to suck it up and get over it. If you try to drive a wedge between them, it will only hurt her."

Qi glared at Cataclysm. "You are very presumptuous," he said sharply, and then added, "but very wise. I shall consider your words." He gave her another one of his penetrating looks. "It speaks well for the young man's character that he has friends such as you."

"Your daughter could do no better."

"It is too bad so few Maniacs have the honor you do."

Cataclysm bristled at the insult to the gang, but knew getting annoyed wouldn't help. She said, "And I'm glad the Red Banner warriors fight much less well than you do."

Qi looked offended, but then got the joke and gave her the barest hit of a smile. He inclined his head slightly at her and exited the ring.