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[And they weren’t his friends… AND THEY WEREN’T HIS FRIENDS!]

Thought Finley in recognition, the importance of these oh so simple words not lost on him as they now reverberated through his head and kicked his brain into overdrive once more.

Thoughts of betrayal and treachery raced through Finley’s mind as he thought of the one who had led them here, the independent cultivator who claimed to have witnessed Howling Sword Duncan murdering his friends from afar before running to get help.

Looking to him now in that split second after Duncan’s words landed, Finley was shocked to realise that the man was no longer where he thought he was.  In fact, he was shocked to realise that he’d actually overlooked him for some time and hadn’t even registered him while assessing the strength of their party.

Realising the danger this could mean for them all despite the advantages they still held and despite the fact that the others would no doubt come to the same conclusion as him mere moments later, Finley decided to shout out a warning lest any of the others were slow on the uptake. However, just as he began to open his mouth to shout out a warning, he finally saw the rogue cultivator out of the corner of his eye and knew it was too late.

No one was quite sure when he did it, but during that short exchange of words just now, that rogue cultivator that had led them here in chasing after Duncan had managed to soundlessly and inconspicuously move towards two of the others, aptly positioning himself to strike whilst leaving his first opponent at least, completely helpless.

That was why in that split second after Duncan had spoken, when all those thoughts had rushed through Finley’s mind as he processed the situation, it was already too late.

It was why when Finley finally caught sight of him again after the mere fraction of a second that had passed as all this took place, he had already managed to thrust his sword through the side of one of the two hired hands of the Fischer clansman with everyone else caught unawares and unprepared.

Shock. That was only thing that could describe how Finley felt as he went wide eyed at the sight of this scene. Shock at having been taken unawares. Shock at having lost one of their group before any of them were able to even react. Shock at the realisation that he must have struck before Duncan said his last words, given that he had not only completed his thrust but was actually already withdrawing his turquoise clad blade, and shock at the situational awareness that Duncan possessed given that the rogue cultivator in collusion with him wasn’t even within his line of sight.

All of these thoughts raced through Finley’s mind in a split second of pure shock that left him momentarily stunned.

[Shit!] he thought, drawing his eyes away from the rogue cultivator just in time to see a flash of blue accompanied by a loud screech as Duncan drew his sword.

…………………………………………………

Looking at Duncan’s back, John couldn’t help but think of the bodies he had found not long ago, lying dead beside the remains of a dead qi beast and yet clearly not killed by it. Instead the wounds on their bodies, a mix of cuts, stab wounds and other injuries of indeterminate qi arts clearly showed that they were made by a human cultivator or cultivators.

There was no doubt about it. The killer, or killers, had struck again.

It was a story he had grown used to in recent months. Parties of cultivators going missing while out on hunts, men found dead by the sword instead of beast and personal harvests disappearing from peoples abodes in Forestview. There were even some of his fellow disciples who were currently missing that were thought to have been killed by this infamous but as yet unknown murderer and thief. No one even knew if it was the work of one or of many. The only thing people knew was that too many had died in suspicious yet similar circumstances for it to be a coincidence or merely a bit of bad luck during this hunting season.

Nevertheless, looking at Duncan now, John couldn’t understand why he would be the murderer, why he would do all this. When he had first heard from Finley, a Flowing Water Sect disciple who had approached the site of several dead bodies he had found and informed him of the situation he was in rather a bit of disbelief.

Duncan was a renowned name in these parts, a young genius who came from nothing and yet had been able to leave his mark in the minds of others. A young man who could challenge some of the best independent qi expansionist cultivators despite them having many more years of experience, training and guidance to boot. He was even said to be comparable to and even better than many sect disciples and clansmen at similar cultivation levels, a praiseworthy achievement considering the martial capability of the sects and some of the major clans.

It wasn’t an over exaggeration at all to say that he was an inspiration to many cultivators young and old who came from similar backgrounds as him and thus worthy of great respect.

So why? Why would he do this? It didn’t make sense that someone who was that strong, who had made a name for himself despite all the disadvantages in life that he started with would do this, and yet, he was the one they found after following the trail from the dead bodies.

Up until then, as he travelled with the others in following the trail of the murderer, John had still been unsure. He couldn’t help but wonder if the independent cultivator had seen wrong. Maybe the murderer only looked similar and so had been mistaken for him, or maybe the killer intentionally made himself look like another in order to protect his identity, creating an unsuspecting fall guy should he fail to finish everyone off, as he had failed now.

[He’s certainly strong enough to take the blame] thought John at the time, rationalising that the culprit would want to shift the blame to someone who was recognisably strong enough to have committed the atrocities that had been taking place over these past few months.

But all these thoughts eventually came to a loggerheads with the truth when they finally reached the ends of the tracks and caught up with the murderer.

At first, John was truly in disbelief, his first thought being, [Could it have been a coincidence?].

His second, [Could the real killer, by some blind luck, have happened upon the real Duncan and then given us the slip?].

The third, [Or could the dead men have been in the wrong? Could they actually be the attackers, but they bit off more than they could chew and now the lone survivor is trying to deal with Duncan by any means he can before the truth comes out?].

But no, as he closed in on Duncan and took up his position behind him, all his doubts, even the new ones that had just sprung up in his mind were cast away. There was no other killer, no person masquerading as another, and Duncan being the one standing here wasn’t a coincidence.

Duncan was the one they found at the end of this trail because as the independent cultivator said, he was the murderer. The idea that the real killer could have first disguised himself as Duncan and then miraculously happened upon him as he was running away from the scene of his crime whilst simultaneously leaving easy enough tracks for a group of skilled hunters and trackers to follow before then giving them the slip and disappearing into thin air was laughable at best.

John couldn’t even reconcile the thought that this was some private dispute unrelated to the murders that had been taking place or that the dead could have possibly been the attackers and Duncan the victim because he knew even as he thought it just how absurd it was. The scene he had seen was unmistakable, just like several others he had also seen. This was without doubt the work of the infamous murderer and although up till this point he hadn’t wanted to accept that a person of such renown as Duncan, a person who had come from nothing and made a name for himself was the perpetrator of all these acts, he had no choice but to accept the truth before him and everything that meant about a man he once respected.

[That’s right; he might have been worthy of praise once but not anymore. With the strength he’s attained he could have made a good life for himself but instead he chose this] thought John as he heard the others telling Duncan that he would pay dearly for his crimes.

“And rightly deserved as well” said John in agreement.

“We all come out into this forest to train ourselves and make a living by hunting beasts; but instead, you’ve been hunting people, killing them and stealing their gains for yourself. These actions of yours, they’re despicable”

Nevertheless, despite his words and despite accepting the truth before him about who Duncan really was as a person and the things he had done, John just couldn’t understand why he would do this, why he would choose this path in life. But alas, that was the path he had chosen and after just a few moments of waiting and pondering John was pulled out of thoughts when he heard Duncan confirm it by his own mouth, confessing outright to the crimes he had committed.

[So there it is] thought John when Duncan said the words “Fine, I admit it”, not quite sure if he was relieved or not that he came right out and said it rather than trying to deny it.

[At least he can come right out and said it. I suppose that’s better than if he were to deny it]

As the conversation continued however, John’s new understanding of Duncan deepened and his opinion soured as Duncan merely laughed off his actions to Finley.

[What a heartless bastard. After everyone you’ve killed you just laugh. You really are despicable, aren’t you] thought John, deciding once and for all that Duncan was wholly and completely irredeemable.

At this point, John stopped his internal musings in favour of adopting a more readied state. He knew, now that Duncan had come out and admitted it, that they were going to fight soon and he needed to be ready for it. It was, after all, if Duncan’s reputation was anything to go by, going to be a daunting task to subdue and kill him.

Of course, he supposed that would only be the case were the situation not so one sided right now. It wouldn’t do to be careless lest anyone receive a major injury but with the strength of their party, especially Finley, who was at the 9th level of qi expansion and an inner disciple of the Flowing Water Sect, John couldn’t imagine Duncan escaping from this encounter. However, as Duncan said, “I don’t make mistakes”, a gnawing feeling started to grow in his heart and he started to feel as though something was wrong.

“And yet here we are” said Finley, speaking to Duncan.

“And here you are, surrounded by us”

“Yes, and being the proud and just men that you are, you rushed over here without telling anyone else, am I right?” said Duncan in response.

Upon hearing these words, John sharpened his gaze at Duncan’s back as he realised what was wrong. It was nonchalance. His nonchalance and complete calmness at the situation that had unnerved him and now that he had said those words those feelings grew into a legitimate and pressing concern.

And it wasn’t just him he realised. Finley and the Fischer clansman had both been affected by them too and that was why he believed Finley said what he did next, as means to reassure himself and the others too.

However, just after, Duncan replied with words of his own.

“No, there are 7, and they weren’t his friends”

And then, all hell broke loose.

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jmj1011995

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