The ruins of the temple loomed high overhead. The giant stone double doors were ajar, carved with symbols of torment and death. Standing in silent vigil over the doors were two twenty-foot tall statues of hideous snarling lions. From the rents and deep pits along their surface, they had fared only slightly better than the surrounding buildings.
The true sentries of the gate consisted of two infantrymen. From their stance and demeanor they seemed bored, but kept up their watch lest they invoke the ire of their master.
Tian and Chase approached the entrance of the temple. Although Chase had seemed confident in their ruse, Tian found himself feeling uneasy. Subterfuge came much easier to the minstrel than him, and so he had agreed to let his companion take the lead.
“How fares the watch,” Chase said in a friendly tone as they approached the guards, “long, boring work?”
“As typical,” said the guard on the right, “what brings you here this late at night?”
“The warlord is beginning whatever it is that he’s doing, and we were ordered to go in to assist him,” Chase shrugged, “it’s nice to be doing something, but I’m not exactly eager to go in there.”
“I don’t even like standing beside this place,” said the other guard.
Chase nodded his agreement. The first guard regarded Tian, taking in the tabard that he wore. While Chase seemed to blend naturally into whatever costume and environment he found, Tian felt acutely out of place dressed as one of Kharzon’s soldiers. Something must have shown through, because the guard addressed him, “What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing,” Tian said slowly.
“What’s your name?”
“Hey, what’s the hold up here,” Chase interrupted, “if we’re late that’ll be our heads. All of our heads.”
The guard looked back to Chase, but the threat of Kharzon’s anger quieted his concern, “Your friend seems nervous.”
“Look at where we’re going. Is it any wonder the rookie has a bit of the nerves,” the minstrel gave a gruff shove, “personally I told him that he should be grateful for what we’re doing here.”
“How’s that,” the second guard said incredulously, “this is the most boring assignment we’ve had. Creepy, but boring. No one to loot. It’s just bad.”
“Listen to me, boy,” Chase said in a rougher tone, “I’ve traveled with the Free Companies out of Fang’s End. I’ve seen men slit from navel to nuts, burning oil poured down on them, all for the promise of treasure! Have you heard of the wars that are fought by the Free Companies down in the Holy Land?”
The guard that had questioned Tian nodded, but the incredulous guard shook his head. Chase’s eyes gleamed with a perverse horror as he spoke, “Men fight for the treasures of the old empire. People die everyday as their companies give and take land, all to find their treasures. Devices that turn a man to stone, or burn an entire platoon in an instant! Boring? Maybe, but I’ll take boredom and steady pay over sure death.”
“I didn’t mean nothing by it,” the younger guard said defensively.
“No, it’s I who didn’t mean nothing by it. Don’t mind me, just what we’re doing here reminds me of those poor, dead fools in the Holy Land who meddle with things the world buried long ago,” he tossed a skin of wine to the young man, “you two enjoy that. No one will be by for the rest of the night, just don’t get too drunk.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” the older guard finally spoke, “well get in there you two. Don’t mind the temple none, rookie, it’s just a pile of old stones.”
Tian nodded, “I will try my best.”
“That’s what I like to see,” Chase laughed, “a cautious soldier. You’ll outlive us all, rookie. Come on.”
The guards waved them through entrance. Large stone passages were carved into the base of the mountain. Tian and Chase walked for a time until they reached another set of doors, but they were already open. After looking to see that no one else was around, Tian looked to Chase in astonishment, “That was amazing. The way you spoke to those guards was very convincing.”
“I had a little help,” Chase grinned, “remember the grizzled guard back at the well? He was the perfect inspiration. Every army has soldiers like him, and most of the others don’t like to anger them or get in their way. As for that wineskin, I dropped a very slow acting sleeping potion in there. By the time we leave those guards should be asleep.”
“If we leave,” Tian murmured, then said louder, “Good thinking. Let us proceed.”
The chamber in front of them was littered with piles of rubble and the broken pieces of hideously shaped statues. The walls were engraved with testaments to the cruelty of the Netherworld Prince’s reign. Above them the ceiling looked as though it was made to represent the night sky.
In the middle of the chamber was a fifteen foot tall statue made of black marble that had fallen over on its side. It was of a menacing armored form with a fully enclosed helm. The face plate was shaped as a snarling lion, an all-too-familiar sight. A fiery crown was carved into the top of the helmet. Grand archways marked the passages to the north and east, and massive piles of stone showed where the passages were cleared by the warlord’s men.
“So north or east,” Chase asked Tian.
Tian looked between the two passages, unsure which one was the right choice. As the young monk tried to decide, Chase walked over to the eastern passage and noted a long red line drawn across the threshold. It was in relatively fresh paint and obviously had been added since the warlord’s arrival.
“Look at this,” he motioned for Tian, “It’s marked. This must be the right way, so they don’t get lost in the other passages.”
Tian was unsure. A long red line to him meant keep out, but he guessed that Chase knew more about the way soldiers handle things so he nodded, “If you believe this to be the case, then we should go that way.”
Chase stood up and dusted his hands on his knees before making a grand gesture to invite Tian to go first. His ‘kind’ offer was not lost on the young monk, but he stepped across the threshold anyway. When nothing terrible happened he looked back to Chase who gave him a short nod, and the two walked down the long stone passageway. After a time they came to a split in the passageway. The passage continued straight ahead, or they could go to the right or left.
“I do not see another red line,” Tian said.
“No clue,” Chase said, “I say we go to the left.”
“Most people are right handed, so if I wanted to put something important here it would be to the left. That would be the last place anybody would look,” the minstrel pointed to the left, “we will definitely find what we seek to the left.”
Tian was in no mood to stand around arguing, and had no better reasons to go any other direction, so he agreed. They walked down the passage to the left. It went for a while before turning sharply to the right. The torches that had been places on the wall throughout the other rooms of the temple were not present there, so Tian lit a torch of his own. He started to suspect that they had chosen the wrong path.
When they reached a large pile of rubble blocking the passageway, Tian knew that Chase was wrong. He looked over his shoulder at the minstrel, who gave a sheepish shrug, “I guess the builders were more straightforward than me. Definitely the right then.”
It took a few minutes to backtrack to the split, where they went to the right this time. Tian led the way with his torch in hand down a passage that was not as long as the previous one had been, but ended at a another set of double doors that had been opened.
This room was illuminated by an ornate brazier in the center. They could see a series of raised stone slabs bearing stone sarcophagi. In the light Tian could make out the details on the closest of them, adorned with nightmare-inducing carvings and screaming faces. In the center of the room was the remains of a man, his black and white tabard shredded to pieces.
“I do not think…” Tian trailed off as he noticed Chase walking past him to the fallen figure. He sighed heavily and followed the minstrel into the room where they walked over to the body on the floor. It was clearly one of Kharzon’s soldiers.
“I wonder what killed him,” Chase muttered aloud.
Tian shrugged, “I do not know, but we should not waste time to find out.”
“But aren’t you curious?”
“No,” Tian shook his head, “we need to find the main chamber. Whatever killed this man is…”
He trailed off as Chase looked dumbfoundedly beyond him, but Tian did not turn around because he could see the sarcophagi behind the minstrel open as well. Dark robed figures pulled themselves from the depths of their resting places to stumble across the stone floor. Chase drew his rapier as Tian readied himself for their assault.
“I did not think this was a good idea,” Tian said.
“Not now, blame me later! Just try not to let me die, okay?”
The figures tried to swarm them, but they were clumsy and could not coordinate their attacks well enough to all attack at once. Because of this, Tian dodged their attempts without too much difficulty and was able to counterattack by spinning out of the way and slapping the attacker with his burning torch. The ancient garments the monster wore went up in a flash, setting it ablaze. As it burned, the undead creature screamed and fell to its knees.
From where he stood, Chase was faring less well. He had already peppered the lead thing with his rapier, but the small holes he put inside it were not doing much good. Falling back from the onslaught of a few of them, he called out to Tian, “My sword isn’t doing any good! Help, please!”
Tian looked over at where his friend stood, and realized that eight of the creatures remained and had managed to separate the pair. Then an idea came to him in a flash. He ran forward and kicked one in the leg hard enough to knock it down, then leapt onto one of the stone slabs and battered another attacker with his torch. From his new vantage point he had a clearer line of sight to Chase and called out to him, “They are vulnerable to fire, catch this!”
The torch spiralled through the air until Chase deftly caught it with his free hand. He brandished it in his left hand, must like a shorter sword paired with his rapier. Instead of attacking with the rapier, however, he used it for parrying and focused on hitting the creatures with the flaming torch.
For his part, Tian was not left defenseless. He drew the jeweled scimitar from his sheath and cut at those nearest to him. Unlike the small holes created by the rapier, his swings were able to remove limbs and heads from his attackers. Despite their numbers the creatures were not able to stand against the concerted efforts of Tian and Chase. Soon enough the pair finished off the last of the undead, with Chase dropping it to its knees with his torch and Tian lopping off its head.
As the last one fell flaming to the ground, Chase pulled out another wineskin and took a long pull, “Killing zombies is thirsty work, want some?”
Tian surprised Chase and himself by taking a sip, “From now on I pick the way.”
A short while later the pair made their way back to the main gallery. The eastern passage had contained three dead ends, one room full of zombies, and another room that looked like it had once contained zombies. As they stepped back into the main gallery, Tian said, “Now we know, the red line means do not enter.”
“No argument here, friend, but at least we know what’s back there now.”
Tian shook his head and walked to the northern archway. He looked down the passageway and noticed that burning lamps lined the walls at periodic intervals. Motioning for Chase to follow him, he led the way down the hall. It was not as long as some of the other halls had been, and soon enough opened into another large room.
The room was decorated with the broken remains of ornate carvings and fountains. It was some sort of antechamber, and had fared worse than some of the other rooms. Miniature cave-ins had damaged much of the architecture and decor. There was a passageway going to the east, but it was clearly blocked by debris. To the west was another passageway that had been cleared.
In the center of the room was the most noticeable figure, a soldier squatting to take care of ‘personal’ business. He was facing away from the entrance that Tian and Chase had used, but turned as they entered the room. When he saw the two of them his brow furrowed in confusion, but then his gaze fell on Tian and then went from curious to alarmed.
Chase followed his gaze and looked down to the monk’s chest where his talisman had fallen free during the fight with the zombies. The emerald set in the talisman was starting to glow with a green light. Nudging his friend, Tian looked at Chase, “What?”
Tian did, “It must be reacting to the proximity of the Eyes.”
“Just great! Can you make it stop?”
“Too late,” Tian replied as the guard struggled to pull up his pants. Running at the man with amazing speed, Tian was not fast enough to stop the guard’s cry, “Intruders!”
He did catch the man with his pants down, and land a kick to his head that sent the man flying into the waste that he and his companions had left over the last week. Between the kick and the landing, the man was knocked unconscious. From where he stood Chase clucked disapprovingly, “That just seems…unfair.”
“No time,” Tian interrupted, “come on!”
The pair rushed down the short passageway to the west. It was only around forty feet long, leaving little doubt that the guard’s cry had been heard in the quiet temple. As they reached the large double doors to the next room, Tian could hear chanting echoing through the chamber behind the doors. With the element of surprise lost, he tore off the tabard and kicked the doors open boldly.
Chanting grew louder as the door flew open. In the room they could see an expansive chamber lit with numerous bronze candelabras. In contrast to the rest of the complex, the rubble had been completely cleared. A dais stood in the center of the room. Unlike the rest of the room, the dais was made of black marble and the silver motes in the stone seemed to twinkle as though a reflection of the night sky.
Standing on the dais were three figures completely cloaked in black cloth. Tian recognized them as being similar to the undead creatures they had fought earlier. They had their arms raised in the air towards the middle of the dais. As they stood there, they chanted in a dark, resonant tongue that seemed almost song-like in quality. The very sound of it filled the pair with dread.
In the middle of the dais an emerald glow seemed to emanate. Looking closer, Tian could see the Eyes of the Dragon glowing brightly in the center of the bizarre ritual. They sat in two depressions on the stone, their inner light swirling around in wispy strands through the air. The talisman on Tian’s chest burned brightly in response to the presence of the Eyes.
Standing to one side of the dais was the proud form of the one called Kharzon. He stood in full battle dress with impatience burning across his determined face. The guard’s call had alerted him and the two infantrymen he had with him, and they stood with weapons readied.
The Warlord’s face twisted in a cruel smile, “Those fools from the monastery – they sent you, didn’t they? Well, you have come all this way on a fool’s errand, my friend. There is to be no heroic last stand here, no epic last battle for the bards to sing of. Soon the ritual will be complete, and the day of my ascension will be at hand! Once Xyrix is bound to my will, the banner of the Black Lion will cast its shadow over all lands. I have foreseen it. No force in this world or the next can keep me from my destiny!”
“…for the bards to sing of,” Chase murmured, hard at work memorizing everything.
Tian charged the dais. His face set in a fierce rictus of determination. The two bodyguards readied their weapons and stepped forward to intercept the young monk. They were dressed in armor of a higher quality than most of the soldiers and carried finely made double-edged swords. Taking their swords in a two-handed grip they attacked in unison.
Their attacks were well-coordinated, causing Tian to retreat before the bodyguards. Unlike many of the others he had fought on the journey, they knew how to properly work together to cut off angles of escape for their enemies. Still, despite their skill, they had never fought someone as agile and evasive as Tian. Dodging left and right, high and low, he evaded their best strikes. The trade off was that he could not respond to their attacks, all his attention was focused on keeping their sharp blades from cutting him apart.
“Chase,” Tian called out, “get the Eyes of the Dragon. We have to stop the ritual!”
“Right, got it,” Chase replied. Torch in one hand and rapier in the other, he moved around to come at the dais from the opposite side. Unfortunately for him, Kharzon took note of his approach and moved to intercept him. The Warlord was wearing finely made scale armor that sparkled in the firelight, and he drew a beautifully crafted double-edged sword from the sheath at his side. It had a gold-handle that was long enough to use one or two handed, with a blade that was wider than average and had an almost bluish tint to the metal. With a start, Chase realized that it must have been made of mithril, which also meant that it was more than likely enchanted.
Suddenly much more concerned, Chase called back to Tian, “I don’t think I can get to the Eyes, I’ve got Warlord trouble!”
Through the furious movements of his own battle, Tian could see Kharzon grinning evilly as he closed on the minstrel. He knew that Chase was not completely unskilled with a blade, but the Warlord was more than a match for him. That meant he had to end his fight with the bodyguards quickly.
Tian moved away from the pair, taking a moment to get his bearings, and then pulled the scimitar from its sheath on his back. The curved blade gleamed in the firelight, gems sparkling dazzlingly, as he closed on the two men. Now that he was armed and could parry as well as dodge, Tian was less overwhelmed by his enemies. With amazing speed his whirled like a dervish in his fight, preternatural awareness allowed him to block or dodge attacks that he should not have been able to see. All the while he started to work in counterattacks and try to get the bodyguards on the defensive.
On the other side of the dais, Chase readied himself for the approach of the Warlord Kharzon. The warlord was not taking him seriously, so Chase decided to use that to his advantage and take a desperate lunge. It worked, catching Kharzon off-guard, and allowing Chase to stab his rapier into his foes chest, directly over his heart. Had it not been for his incredible armor, the stab would likely have been fatal. Unfortunately for Chase, the scale armor was very resilient, and his rapier was not made for use against armor, particularly well-made armor.
Force rebounded through the blade, jarring Chase’s wrist painfully, and then back through the sword. With a snap the blade broke off half way down its length. Chase’s eyes went wide as he regarded the broken sword in his hand. Kharzon’s eyes were wide in shock, for a moment, until the he saw the results.
“Fool, I am invincible! I will kill you and the monk, and use Xyrix’s power to crush anyone who stands in my way!”
“Sure you don’t need a storyteller,” Chase winced as Kharzon closed on him, “guess not.”
With those words, the minstrel brought his torch up like a club and slammed it hard against Kharzon’s shoulders. The armor absorbed most of the solid blow, but it did catch his long silk cloak on fire. With a fierce cry of anger the Warlord struggled to pull it off before the fire spread any further.
With the distraction, Chase cried out again to Tian, “Okay, really, really need help now!”
For his part Tian’s battle was turning back in his favor, the bodyguards realized that their opponent was too fast. Combined with his uncanny awareness they had not been able to land a single blow. The fact that they had not been struck either was simply a case of Tian biding his time for an opportunity to deal a decisive hit. He would not strike and leave himself open unless he knew that it would improve his situation.
Tian fought with his left hand close to his chest, ready to grab arms and push foes into each other, while his right hand wielded the scimitar with a fluid grace. Somehow he found the ability to increase the pace of the fight, his blows coming as a flurry against the two soldiers. Moving so fast that they were pressed on the defensive, as if they were the ones outnumbered.
Finally Tian lashed out when the bodyguards bumped into one another. The opening was tiny, and only lasted a moment, but he seized that moment. He kicked the knee of one soldier, dislocating the joint, caused the first man to stumble, as Tian came across with a punch that caught him on the side of the jaw, laying him out. The second bodyguard was less fortunate as he tried to attack Tian during the move, and only struck air as the monk dropped low and brought his scimitar up under the man’s arm.
Arm flying free from the soldier’s body, Tian spun once more, ending up behind him and brought the scimitar across the man’s neck shearing his head from his shoulders. The head dropping to the ground and rolled with a metallic clang as the helmet hit the ground. Tian fanned his scimitar out in a movement that sent blood flying from the blade before he ran across the dais and jumped high into the air, just as Kharzon threw off his flaming cloak. Although caught off-guard, the Warlord was a masterful swordsman and caught the descending attack with his own sword.
Tian fell back as his charge was defeated, and felt the scimitar give way before the fine blade in Kharzon’s hand. Although his own weapon was well crafted, it could not stand directly against the enchanted mithril blade. Pulling away, Tian drew his sword back to the ready and noticed a large notch that had appeared in his scimitar.
Kharzon laughed, “My blade is an ancient treasure, I took it from the king of a mighty nation. He begged me to spare his family, and offered his sword as a prize for just that…so I took this blade and beheaded his queen in front of him.”
Stepping forward, sword at the ready, Kharzon growled, “Now I’ll use it on you!”
Tian faltered for a moment. Unsure how to handle the raw brutality of the man before him, but then he hardened himself. He would not let this tyrant take the world, his brothers at the temple, or Kayla waiting for him back in Darmane. Even if it took his very last breath, Tian vowed to stop Kharzon.
Leaping into the air, he came down at the Warlord once again. His blade sang as it streaked through the air, his chi flowing through the sword as if it were an extension of his arm, directly towards Kharzon. Expertly the warlord tried to spin his blade in a defensive parry, but the attack was too fast, too powerful. Tian brought his blade down in a powerful cut that screamed as it hit the armored chest of the man before him.
Expertly crafted armor, powerful enchantments, these things could not fully stop Tian’s mighty blow. Cutting a deep rent through Kharzon’s armor, Tian made a long gash across his chest. What would have been fatal, however, was diminished by the defenses. Stumbling from the force of the strike, Kharzon struggled to catch his balance.
Tian landed with the grace of a dragon, and extended his blade into a fighting stance, “You are not invincible!”
Chase watched the fight from the side, breathless with relief. Kharzon’s next strike would have likely taken his life. The display of skill between the two opponents was dazzling. Although Tian had struck a decisive blow, Kharzon was still in the fight and as the two traded blows a terrible realization dawned on Chase. Despite his skill and speed, Kharzon’s blade was carving notch after notch into Tian’s scimitar. How could his companion defeat a man with a blade that could cut through anything?
Then Chase realized another important detail that had escaped his notice. With Kharzon occupied and the bodyguards down, he could take the Eyes of the Dragon. For the growing number of times Tian had saved his life, Chase felt he owed the young monk that much at least. Carefully this time, lest he arouse the attention of Kharzon, the minstrel crept onto the dais.
He also tried to stay out of sight of the undead creatures performing the ritual, but he need not have bothered. They were completely engrossed in their ritual and paid no mind to battle or bard. Torch and broken sword at the ready, Chase edged further along the dais until he neared the Eyes of the Dragon.
They were massive emeralds, larger than he had known even existed. The gems were flawless and glowed with a green light. For a moment he was caught by the awe-inspiring beauty of the relics. Tian had told him about the legends of his temple, and at the time he had dismissed it as religious claptrap, but Chase had to reconsider. They were obviously magical.
Reaching down he touched one, it felt warm to the touch but did not react unfavorably. With a great deal of relief he tried to pull it free of the altar stone. It did not budge.
“What,” he exclaimed, “oh, come on! That’s just not fair!”
Chase looked around in exasperation, just in time to see the wounded, but still living, bodyguard coming at him with a sword. Leaping out of the way, the minstrel regarded the soldier warily. Obviously one of his legs was wounded, as evidenced by his limping, and the entire right side of his face was one massive bruise.
“You look terrible, my friend,” Chase said, keeping his distance, “why don’t you limp on out of here and live on?”
“I will fight to the death for my master Kharzon,” the guard said angrily.
“Wow. You sure?”
His answer was an attack. The man was an expert fighter, and Chase was unsure if he could have beaten him normally, but between disorientation and limping his ability was much diminished. That being said, he still had trouble keeping the determined man at bay with a broken sword and torch.
“Perfect,” Chase said angrily, “nothing is never easy.”
The battle with Tian and Kharzon was not going any better. Tian struggled to keep the warlord from completely destroying his sword, but it was very difficult to keep himself from parrying. Every notch on his sword represented a time his life was saved, or a moment when he might have ended the fight. The side effect was that the scimitar was looking jagged, and some of the notches had deepened to the point that he was worried about the structure of the sword.
For his part, Kharzon knew exactly what he was doing. Tian suspected that it might have galled the warlord to depend on the power of his weapon to win the fight, but not enough to risk losing without it. They traded blows and parries, Tian spinning and dodging, while Kharzon moved deftly, if with less grace and speed, his armor and weapon making up the difference.
Their dance continued in earnest when Kharzon pressed an attack, recklessly throwing himself at Tian over and over, until the monk was forced to parry again and again. The critical moment came when Tian tried to deflect one particularly fierce overhand strike, but Kharzon’s sword caught on a deep notch and sheared the entire top half of the sword away. As it spun through the air, Tian looked at the remains of his ruined blade with wide eyes.
“Finally! Now I can end this battle, and you’re life,” Kharzon growled, and extended his sword into a charging thrust.
Time slowed down once again. Tian realized that it was his training kicking in to save his life. He wondered what he could do in the desperate situation, fear was at war with survival instincts, and tried to concentrate. He absorbed every detail of Kharzon’s strike. It was elegant and simple, powerful and deadly, fast and skillful.
Like any attack, however, it left an opening. No attack was perfect. Tian realized that, but also knew that he would not be able to decisively wound the magically armored Kharzon with his bare hands. Only with great luck and surprise had he penetrated the armor that first time, there was little chance that he could do so again with his bare hands.
In that moment of clarity, Tian thought back on the events of his journey. Everything that had happened to carry him to that moment. Kayla figured heavily in those thoughts, but there was more to the journey than just her. He thought about his fight in the library, and his fight with the Serpent, even remembering the final words of Grandfather Dragon, “May the Dragon guide you.”
That was it! Just like in his fight with the Serpent, or when he fought the library guardian, he needed to think like the Dragon. The hallmark of the Dragon was wisdom. The Dragon could be graceful like the Crane, and fierce like the Tiger, but the true Dragon was wise. A Dragon observed and then acted in perfect harmony with the universe, in such a way that grace and force were only used in their proper, perfect degree.
Looking at Kharzon’s attack once more, Tian realized that the warlord was more similar to his bannerhead than even he knew. The Lion fought much like the Tiger, fierce and powerful, but the Lion was also proud. Unlike the Tiger that fought to win, the Lion fought to dominate and impress. Kharzon was a fierce and powerful fighter, but he wanted to dominate Tian as well as defeat him. Which was why, when he had Tian in a vulnerable spot, instead of continuing to fight wisely and seize the advantage slowly, he leapt to crush him in one mighty blow.
Tian centered his mind, body, and spirit. Standing perfectly still, even in the unreality of his slowed perceptions, the young monk reached out with his awareness and waited.
Kharzon’s thrust moved forward. Unstoppable like a Lion’s roaring charge.
Tian watched in silence.
In the last possible instant, as the tip of the uncanny blade touched his chest, Tian bent backwards like a sinuous dragon. The sword cut though his tunic, but did not cut his flesh. A sound cut the air as the blade missed his target, but time did not speed up yet. Instead Tian kicked up, hitting Kharzon at the vulnerable joint of his elbow, an impact his armor could not prevent. This sent the sword spinning into the air.
Tian followed the kick by springing fluidly back to his feat, nearly floating on the air, and delivered two more powerful kicks to the rent in Kharzon’s armored chest. With perfect awareness and precision he reached up and plucked the sword from the air in the same moment, spinning it around to rest on Kharzon’s throat as the warlord landed hard against the stone wall.
From across the dais the bodyguard saw the result and called out to his master, “My lord, no!”
Chase looked to where Tian stood holding the sword to Kharzon’s throat. The Warlord was frozen in shock, but Tian stood with a perfect calm as he regarded the enemy he had defeated. From the other side of the dais Chase stared in amazement, “I can’t believe it…”
“Now put a stop to…”
Tian trailed off as he looked to the Eyes of the Dragon and the undead performing the ritual, and Chase followed his gaze. A burst of heat emanated from the center of the dais. The swirling green energy turned a vengeful shade of red. The fire of the candelabras transformed into the glow of crimson eldritch energy.
A hulking figure in black armor stepped out of the light, brandishing a flaming broadsword. Points of red balefire burned in the eyes of the helmet made to look like a demonic lion. The dark presence seemed to survey the room before it turned to regard Kharzon.
“Xyrix,” Kharzon cried, “Know that I possess the Eyes of the Dragon! I have freed you from your prison, but mine is the power to send you back as I choose. Serve me well and you will be rewarded. I demand that you grant me the power to crush my enemies and hold dominion over the lands of men!”
“Silence vermin,” a booming supernatural voice answered. Kharzon stammered in surprise and fear slowly filled his eyes.
“It was I that sent dreams of conquest to you. I am the author of all your ambitions, but not even the Eyes have the power to enslave me fool!”
“But, but…my destiny…” Kharzon seemed confused.
“Your destiny was of my invention , so that you might free me from my eternal prison,” the ancient voice spoke embodying hate and malice, “So, now receive your reward, you who would see Xyrix, Prince of the Netherworld, as his slave.”
Xyrix pointed a wickedly spiked gauntlet at Kharzon and the Warlord flew bodily towards the Netherworld Prince, screaming and flailing ineffectually to escape his fate. Xyrix touched the man and he immolated immediately into ash, but his soul remained a moment, shrieking before it too was consumed.
“You as well,” Xyrix gesture to the surviving bodyguard, “your master’s promise is yours as well. Give me your soul.”
The bodyguard flew through the air, screaming much like the Warlord had, and was consumed in the same manner. Chase ran to Tian’s side, and the two men looked upon the terrible figure that stood before them. As the soul of the bodyguard was consumed, Xyrix turned his gaze upon them and laughed before gesturing to Tian. The Talisman of the Dragon Guide flashed brilliantly on his chest as Xyrix tried to pull Tian towards him.
“You! You defy my wrath somehow. It matters little, for though I am weakened now, I still possess strength enough to sate my thirst with your blood!”
Xyrix brought his broadsword to bear and advanced upon Tian. Yet in mid-step he froze in place, along with the rest of the room. Even the dancing eldritch light was still. A beautiful emerald light seemed to pour into the room from the Eyes. The bands of light coalesced in the air into the face of a magnificent golden dragon. His deep green eyes were filled with righteousness and compassion. When his spoke his voice resonated with the wisdom of the ages that calmed Tian’s fears and soothed his soul.
“Tian Long, my ancient enemy stands before you. Though he is but a shadow of himself, he is still a calamitous foe. I know that you are a brave soul, but bravery alone will not prevail here. And so, I commit to you what strength of mine that remains that you might finally end this threat to the lands of mortals once and for all. Go now and show the Prince of the Netherworld that the light of Zan-rei, the Ascendant Dragon, still shines upon the world even now!”
Tian stepped forward and bowed his head respectfully as the emerald light washed over him.
In a flash time snapped back into synch, and Xyrix still advanced on Tian. Chase stood by his side, but none of the others had seen what transpired. Tian could feel the power of Zan-rei flowing through him, a god-like force of harmony and wisdom. With the strength of the Ascendant Dragon he stepped forward to combat Xyrix.
“What are you doing,” Chase yelled as Tian moved in front of him, “we’ve got to get out of here!”
Ignoring his friend, Tian slowly moved into a fighting stance. As he shifted into position an emerald glow came into being in his eyes, before spreading to cover his body, encasing him from head to toe. Xyrix stopped when he saw the power flowing from Tian, shouting, “So Zan-rei has empowered you to stand against me? If he thinks that a mortal can contain my power, then he is sorely mistaken.”
“It is not a mortal that stands before you Prince of the Netherworld,” Tian said calmly, “but the power of the Ascendant Dragon.”
Tian extended his sword, point first, towards Xyrix, and as he did emerald energy flowed down his arm. The energy passed over the sword, infusing the mithril with the power of Zan-rei, causing the sword to change and a golden dragon to etched itself down the length of the sword. The sword pulsed with the same divine chi that lived in Tian.
“Your evil ends now.”
Xyrix regarded Tian with a gaze that was more cautious than it had been. Warily he raised his sword to the ready and advanced to meet the divinely empowered young monk. Tian waited patiently for his enemy, and then met him with his sword. Emerald and crimson light flashed through the air as their swords met, raw power causing the temple to shake.
Chase jumped out of the way as a huge stone fell from the ceiling to smash on the floor. He looked back to where Tian battled Xyrix, and then toward the door. His head turned between the two, obviously torn, before he steadied himself. Shouting to Tian, he said, “This place is coming down, be careful!”
Their movements blurred as the pair fought faster than mortal eyes could perceive. Eventually Chase could only see two streaks of light shooting through the temple and colliding with one another, each impact shaking the mountain itself. The battle grew so terrible that Chase finally ran from the room. He felt shame for running while Tian still fought, but the forces being unleashed threatened his very soul. Between that and the collapsing temple he could not risk staying, and so he allowed himself to run away.
In the main chamber the battle raged on. Their battle was different from that of normal mortals, this was a fight between divine beings. Raw power surged around them in waves of emerald or crimson as they struck at one another.
Xyrix was relentless in his onslaught. He knew nothing of defense as he unleashed himself upon Tian like the eruption of a volcano, deadly and inevitable. With the power of Zan-rei, Tian fought like a hurricane, calm and tranquil at his center, but a raging torrent on the surface. They met like two opposing forces of nature. The mountain shook with their fury.
Tian felt a transcendent calm as he faced Xyrix. In terms of raw power the fight was beyond his understanding, at least before Zan-rei came to him. For all his skill and power, however, Xyrix was even more predictable than Kharzon. The Warlord had been overconfident in the way of a mortal, but Xyrix fought with the overconfidence of a god. Despite his previous loss to Zan-rei, the Netherworld Prince could not conceive of defeat at the hands of a mortal. In direct contrast, Tian was a mortal with the powers of a god. He had melded the harmonious skills of Zan-rei with the tenacious survival instincts of a creature that had to struggle for every moment of life.
Xyrix never stood a chance.
Outside the temple the mountain shook. Each tremor became worse until rocks fell obscuring the entrance to the complex. Chase stood outside the doors long after the guards had awakened from their slumber and fled. As far as he knew the entire army had fled when the tremors grew strong enough to cover the entrance.
For hours the battle continued, Chase knew from the impacts that continued to resonate through the foothills. He was forced further away from the temple entrance through the night, unable to stand for all the tremors.
Just before dawn Chase saw the battle come to a close. A crimson glow enveloped the mountain, spilling out to turn the grey pre-dawn sky red. It lasted a long moment until it was overtaken by the most brilliant emerald light that exploded like a starburst above the mountain’s peak.
Chase knew that his friend had won.
Dawn was farther away from the port city of Darmane, but Kayla woke in the night and walked out on the balcony of her apartment. She was a successful member of the Thieves Guild and her home had a beautiful, and expensive, view of the entire harbor. Not for the first time since Tian had left, she looked out over the sea and wondered about his fate.
As she looked across the ocean something stirred in the night sky. It was barely visible at first, but moved with an uncanny speed across the sea and over the city. The emerald light touched Kayla Keen and she knew that Tian had completed his quest.
Peace and tranquility washed over her, calming her fears and soothing her soul. She said a silent prayer for the man she had only known for a short time, but had grown to care for deeply.
The monks of Greenspire Mountain gathered in the night as the three masters walked out on the parapets of the temple. Scattered around the courtyard the younger monks looked up to their masters with confusion and curiosity.
Time passed slowly for the crowd.
Then the night sky lit up as a wave of emerald light passed overhead, illuminating everything in its path. The light washed over them, imparting a sense of peace and tranquility to all present. Without understanding what was going on the younger monks cheered and then raised their voices in unison to praise their missing brother.
On the parapets where the three masters stood, a peaceful smile spread across the face of Grandfather Dragon.
Deep in the Rakhan Desert stood the Shav Mountains. Once the center of the great and terrible Zaaz Empire, now it was a wild and untamed land. At the foothills of the greatest mountain of Shav an army scatted to the four winds and only one man stayed behind to wait for a friend that had fought deep within the mountain.
Three days passed slowly as Chase waited for Tian to emerge from the fallen temple. He was not prepared to give up on the young man who had risked his life and soul to save the world, and though his patience grew shorter he continued to wait.
On dawn of the third day Chase woke and walked to the collapsed entrance of the temple once again. He had cleared the smaller stones away from the entrance, but it had been slow and difficult work. There was more than one occasion when shifting stones had nearly crashed down on the minstrel, and yet he had returned each time to continue digging.
That morning was like the others as Chase rolled up his sleeves and prepared to get to work. He grabbed a stone the size of a man’s head and lifted it with some difficulty from the great pile of stones remaining. As he did, Chase heard a noise from the other side of the rocks. His heart raced in excitement as he started tossing stones away in a frenzy.
From the other side of the stones came a muffled voice, “If anyone is on the other side, please stand back.”
Even muffled as it was, Chase recognized Tian’s voice and shouted back, “It’s me Chase! I’m here!”
“Stand clear, please,” Tian said from the other side.
Moving back a fair distance, Chase stood free of the pile. To his amazement there was a sound like a giant hammer had been smashed against the pile from the other side. It struck two times, each time sending smaller stones flying and resonating through the area. On the third strike the bigger stones shifted and rolled free, creating an opening big enough for Tian to slip through.
The young monk’s clothes were dirty and tattered, but he carried Kharzon’s sword in a sheathe on his back and something was tied into a makeshift satchel around his waist. Despite the layer of dirt and dust on Tian his face shone with relief as he gazed upon Chase. In his hand he held the magical fan that Chase had given him. He rushed over to embrace his friend, and the two clasped forearms fiercely before pulling each other into an exuberant hug where they pounded one another on the back.
“You survived! I knew you’d make it through,” Chase exclaimed, “and I knew that wind fan would come in handy!”
“That makes one of us, my friend. I woke up this morning, surprised to wake up at all, and then used this thing to get out of there. I am very glad to see you, and to be free of that temple.”
Eagerly clasping him on the shoulder, Chase stared at his friend in amazement. Then he noticed something out of place. If he were not a minstrel, ever observant and noting details, then he easily would have missed it. As it was, he stared at Tian for a long moment before speaking, “What happened to your eyes? They were dark, but now they’re green.”
Tian looked surprised himself, “Zan-rei told me that his power would have a lasting effect on me, but I did not know that my eyes had changed.”
“What other effects did he mention?”
“Nothing in particular,” Tian smiled, “when he claimed his power from me, he simply said that some bit would linger on in me and my descendants to come.”
“Amazing, absolutely amazing,” Chase muttered, “this is going to make the best story. You have to tell me everything.”
“Then come with me back to my home on Greenspire, my brothers will be honored to meet you and you can get the rest of my story.”
“That’s a deal,” Chase said, “we’ll take a ship there from Balik.”
Tian nodded, “Yes, but we need to pick someone up on the way.”
The monks of Greenspire gave Tian and his friends a hero’s welcome. After his arrival the monks held a ceremony where they restored the Eyes of the Dragon to their rightful resting place in the temple sanctuary. Then they had invited Kayla and Chase to stay as their most honored guests.
Although temple monks are not known for extravagance, they treated their guests as royalty for the week of their stay. During that time Tian spent much of his time being passed between the three grandmasters for discussion. They spoke about his journey, first about the facts and events of the quest, but then more about the consequences. The younger monks spent much of their time between training listening to Chase’s stories. For her part, Kayla wandered the temple thoughtfully, meditating on things as much as Tian, in her own way.
The three met in the evenings for meals, and chatted about the experiences they had shared. Chase had grown increasingly uncomfortable sitting alone with Tian and Kayla. Both were polite to one another, but a dangerous question lurked beneath the surface of their conversations, and the minstrel wanted no part of it.
Therefore it was after a week of celebration and relaxation that Chase announced that he would be leaving the following day. The monks were disappointed, but it was the casual disappointment that can only come from seeing a guest depart just before he had become a burden. Kayla revealed that she would be leaving the same time as well, and neither she nor Tian looked at one another during the remainder of the meal.
That night Chase sought out Tian. The young monk had spent almost all of his time deep in conversation with the three masters, but he was lucky enough to find him during one of his rare waking moments alone. Tian sat in the center of the sanctuary meditating before the statues of the three temple gods. After the events of their journey, Chase felt a little more friendly towards the deities and gave a respectful bow to the statues as he entered.
“Hello, Chase,” Tian said without rising or looking behind himself, “what brings you here?”
“I’m leaving tomorrow, and I had hoped we might talk a bit before then.”
“Of course,” Tian rose smoothly to his feet, “I am sorry to see you go.”
“It’s been great here, really relaxing and all that, but I need a little more excitement in my life. Reflection is lost on me.”
Tian’s lips raised in the barest hint of a smile, but did not follow through on the expression.
“I wanted to talk about you,” Chase continued, “you seem…different.”
Tian’s face maintained its serene expression, but there was another faint hint of emotion beneath. Taking a deep breath, the young monk finally spoke, “Zan-rei’s essence affected me more profoundly than I originally suspected. I have been working with the masters to understand the changes.”
“Ah, I figured it was something like that. If you don’t mind I’ll probably leave that part out of the story, people prefer simple happy endings.”
This time Tian did manage an actual grin, but it faded soon afterward, “I have heard your evolution of the story, after a few more tellings I doubt that I will recognize it as my own.”
“Stories grow the same way people do, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.”
Tian nodded. Then the two regarded each other in silence for a long moment. It stretched on to the point of discomfort before Chase spoke, “About you and Kayla…”
“No need. She understands my commitment to the temple, and now with my changes I need to be even more dedicated. I could hardly abandon my place here when I know that I will be the next leader of this temple.”
“Is that what you want?”
“It is my path.”
Chase shrugged, “Well you seem pretty sure, I doubt that a mangy wanderer like me can change your mind. Just…well it seems to me that a person should be able to reach enlightenment anywhere and men carry their gods with them.”
Tian’s brow furrowed as the words.
“I’m just saying, the temple got along before you, and Xyrix is gone now. Do they really need you here? Maybe you should stop worrying about the temple, or the masters, or even Zan-rei and figure out what you want?”
Tian laughed. A clear, bell-like tone that carried through the empty sanctuary. It was not mocking, but instead was cleansing. Tension faded from his face, “You sound much like Grandfather Dragon.”
Chase looked taken aback, “That’s the last thing I expected you to say.”
“Nonetheless, it is true,” Tian smiled, “if you will excuse me, I think I need to talk to someone before she leaves tomorrow.”
Returning his smile, Chase gestured for Tian to leave. With a new spring in his step the young monk left the sanctuary to talk, really talk, with Kayla for the first time since his return.
The next morning the temple was abuzz with the news that along with Chase and Kayla, Tian would be leaving as well. Most of the monks were shocked by the news, but Grandfather Dragon merely nodded knowingly and smiled one of his little smiles. As a proper send off for the heroes, the monks held one final celebration. Unlike the first celebration, this was tinged with a degree of sadness at the departure of one of their brethren, but also with a degree of anticipation as well.
Tian, Kayla, and Chase stood in the center of the courtyard as the monks gathered to see them off. Chase wore his traveling clothes, and was surprised at how wistful he felt about leaving, but was much happier after Tian had decided to let him keep the rubies. Kayla was dressed in a long silk gown that a few of the female monks had made for her as a present. She stood beside Tian with a smile on her face and the two were constantly finding excuses to touch one another in small ways. Every look they shared was fresh and new.
The three grandmasters came out last. They stood serenely on the stairs above the courtyard and the monks fell silent as they regarded the crowd. Grandfather Dragon spoke to the assembled crowd, “Today we send off three heroes who will be forever remembered in our histories and records. Two of them were outsiders who gave of themselves to help us on our way, and the third was one of our own who leaves us today to see the world.”
“To the two outsiders we give you our eternal gratitude, you are outsiders no longer and will forever be counted as brother and sister to the members of this temple. In our gratitude we give you our promise that you will always have a home here should you desire it,” he turned his dancing eyes on Kayla and continued, “to one of you we give our honored hero to travel by your side. We hope that one day you will both return to us, for we are now family.”
“To Tian Long, son of our hearts, we bestow upon you three tokens to remember us,” he motioned for Tian to approach.
Tian stepped onto the stairs to meet the three masters. He wore trousers and tunic made of fine green silk and trimmed in gold that had been a gift from his brother monks. His green eyes sparkled as he looked back to Kayla once more, then he reached the masters and knelt before them, placing his forehead upon the ground.
“Rise,” said Grandfather Dragon, “and receive our blessing for your journeys to come.”
Grandfather Tiger stepped forward first, handing over the sword that Tian had carried back from Zaaz. He had crafted a new sheathe for the blade that was green with a golden dragon running down the length. The gold hilt had been reworked into a dragon’s head with two emeralds sparkling in the eye sockets. A long green tassel dangled from the hilt as well.
“I reworked the sword to remind you to be ever vigilant,” Grandfather Tiger rumbled, “there are always more enemies on the horizon.”
Bowing deeply, Tian accepted the sword.
Grandmother Crane stepped forward next, gracefully moving into the spot that Grandfather Tiger vacated. She presented the magical fan that Tian had used to free himself from the destroyed temple. It had been a blank white fan, but now delicate calligraphy ran up and down its surface. Upon closer inspection Tian recognized that it was written in Draconic script, and that unlike before, he could understand it.
“I have written our scriptures on this fan,” Grandmother Crane said softly, “and added to the fan’s enchantments so that you will always remember our teachings in overcoming obstacles in your way.”
Bowing deeply, Tian accepted the fan.
She flowed away from him as Grandfather Dragon came forward last. The old man smiled comfortingly at Tian and laid a hand affectionately on his shoulder as leaned close to speak. His words were whispered softly to the young man, and none of the others present could hear what he said. Then the old man leaned back and presented the Talisman of the Dragon Guide to Tian, “This is rightfully yours now. Though we continue to honor our three guides, you are the true disciple of Zan-rei the Ascendant Dragon.”
Tian accepted the talisman, and then knelt to place his head on the floor once more. He gave the masters three kowtows before slowly rising to his feet. They bowed in return to the young monk and then he returned to his friends in the courtyard. Chase slapped him on the shoulder, and Kayla intertwined her hand with his. The three friends walked out of the courtyard and away from the temple.
As they departed from the serenity of Greenspire Monastery, the entire Order lined the walls of the gate, chanting in sublime voices for their safe journey and prosperous futures. They descended the mountain amidst the awe-inspiring landscape – the craggy, snow-capped mountains, the brilliant green of the verdant valleys below, and the feathery plume of water cascading off the high cliff face in a perfect waterfall. There was a magic to that place, as though the erhu and bawu instruments were singing their music in Tian’s heart.
“Missing it already,” Kayla asked softly as they walked.
Tian shook his head, “We will return here one day. Together.”