Eyes of the Dragon (Part 2)

The Library of Amara was a stone edifice in a sea of wooden construction, made of grey stone, it stood a sharp contrast to the other buildings around it. The roof was vaulted, terminating in a two-story tower built into the front. A set of stairs led up to an imposing set of double doors made from iron-bound oak. Flanking the door on either side were two grotesque gargoyle statues. Etched on the stone above the door is the symbol of a stylized open book.

When he reached the large double doors, Tian saw that they were securely bound. A sign was nailed to the doors that read, “Closed by the order of the Mayor’s office.”

Tian looked around the entrance of the library, but saw no way to get through the front doors without breaking them. Despite the importance of his mission, he was not ready to casually destroy the property of others. He walked around the perimeter of the library looking for another way inside. There was another entrance at the back, but it was locked up similarly to the front.

Pondering his options, Tian looked over the building once again.

“There it is,” he said under his breath on his second circuit, “that is my way inside.”

Tian took a running start towards the rear of the building, scaling the outside wall until he was able to leap up and catch hold of an outcropping. Strong hands held firm to the stonework as the young monk shimmied around the lip of the second floor until he found a place to pull himself up to the next level. Unsurprisingly, the second story tower window was not locked, and deftly Tian slipped in through the window. Shutting the windows behind him, he took a moment to survey his surroundings.

In the small room at the top of the tower, Tian saw the remains of an old, simple bed. He wondered who had lived there in the past, for it was clear that the library had not been kept up in a very long time. Next to the staircase that led to the proper library there was a rotting armoire. Walking over, Tian tried to open the old case but it appeared to be stuck. He tried once more and then it opened with a slight crack, only then did he realize that it had been locked. The lock was old and mostly rusted, and inside he found a small glass case. Opening the glass case revealed a miniature looking glass with a cabochon lens made out of crystal.

On the side of the looking glass there was something engraved in archaic variant of the common tongue. Tian read aloud, “Knowledge is the key to understanding.”

He kept the looking glass in hand as he walked down the stairs into the actual library. The acrid smell of hundreds of musty tomes and scrolls hung in the bone-dry air as Tian entered. Despite the apparent age of the library, he could see dozens of tall bookshelves that remained in meticulous order. Thick sheets of dust and cobwebs covered the books, and many of the spines were unreadable. In the undisturbed dust on the floor, Tian could see a single set of footprints that had disturbed the dust between the entrance and many of the shelves. He wondered who had been there so recently, the tracks could not have been more than a month old.

“Maybe it was the Serpent or Kharzon,” Tian pondered as he looked around the room, “Now to find something about the Eyes of the Dragon….”

As he thought about what he wanted the looking glass in his hand grew warm, and then in an instant he suddenly knew that there was a scroll in the library that would answer his question. Furthermore, he knew the exact location of that scroll. Walking through the rows of shelves, Tian came to stop in front of one and, with the knowledge imparted to him, removed an ancient scroll. It was a large scroll with beautifully carved posts, perfectly preserved and on paper that was a brilliant white.

Unrolling the scroll, Tian looked over the orderly columns of beautiful script, and realized that it was a language that he did not understand. Something familiar about the language nagged at him as he continued looking, “Why does this script look familiar?”

Tian thought back to where he might have seen the language before, and then he remembered! In the library at his monastery, some of the oldest scrolls that had survived the fire were written in that same language. He remembered that one of the masters had told him that it was the language of dragons, and very few people still remember how to use it.

“What will I do now,” he murmured aloud, “I cannot read the scroll and I still do not know what the Eyes of the Dragon are for.”

As he said the words, once again the looking glass grew warm and Tian realized that there was another book in the library that had information he needed. Carrying the scroll and glass with him, he walked around until he came across the book in his mind. The other book was a large, iron-bound codex stashed away amongst the heavy tomes. Unlike the other books on the shelf this one had been disturbed recently and was mostly free of dust, the scrapes on the lock indicated that it had been opened recently. It was titled ‘The Book of Zaaz.’

Tian carried the objects to one of the large wooden tables for further study. The table was dusty and had started to decay in the long years of neglect, but it was thick and sturdy. Unrolling the scroll, Tian looked at the language fruitlessly once again. Shrugging, he turned his attention to the large black book. It had a heavy lock on the cover, and he was loathe to simply rip the tome open. Instead he picked up the book and tried to see if the lock could wiggle free, but in the process of moving the book around he knocked the looking glass onto the scroll.

“What is that,” Tian asked aloud as he looked at the now legible words beneath the looking glass. When he moved the looking glass away the words returned to unreadable draconic, but under the glass he could read them as any normal writing. He read the following passage:

”It came to pass that one day, a sky of black stars rose in the heavens heralding the arrival of mighty Xyrix. The Netherworld Prince was cruel and wroth, and great was the lamentation of the people when he visited destruction on their houses.

Pain  and  suffering were to him as meat and drink, and daily he took pleasure in the torment and defilement of the people. He took from them their sacred life essence and encased them in gems of bright color.

Dominion over many lands was his for years numbering eight and eighty. The skies turned black and the heavens wept blood at the innocence the world had lost. Lord Xyrix scoffed at the many attempts to unseat his majesty, and gathered together a host of dark minions to make war upon the lands of men.

The flames of war consumed his enemies and the gold of a thousand great halls was his. It was then that Xyrix gathered his host altogether in the place of Zaaz, and there raised a mighty temple in his name, glistening with the living soul stones of his enemies. Rivers flowed like blood from his ritual chambers.

From that fell throne did Xyrix turn his greedy eyes towards the seas and the lands beyond. Then did the cries of the people reach heaven. In their darkest hour did Zan-rei the Ascendant Dragon come down and make war against Xyrix. His celestial form was of the purest, shining gold and struck terrible fear into the hearts of the wicked.

The armies of the Netherworld Prince were tossed aside by his furor as though nothing. Zan-rei challenged Xyrix himself and their struggle laid waste to the lush land of Zaaz. Zan-rei defeated the mighty Xyrix, but at great cost as much of his life essence was consumed. And even then, the dread sovereign was not destroyed, but contained within a prison of the Dragon’s devising.

Zan-rei’s soul fire burned low, and lo, he lay upon the battlefield slowly fading from this world. And in his final hours, did the Ascendant Dragon call to the stars for aid and comfort. And his plea was heard from on high. Descending from heaven in forms of glory were the Dragon’s siblings, Celestial Crane and Perfect Tiger. And they lent their brother succor as his life waned. They took all that was left of him and placed it into two shining stones of emerald. Then, they hid the stones away before departing back to the afterworld with leaden hearts.”

Looking up from the scroll, Tian realized that all the legends of the order were true. Everything the students and masters took for lesson and legend were in fact actual events, and now someone had taken the legacy of the great spirit that had given its life to save the world. With the power of Zan-rei in his hands the entire world would be in danger if this warlord had a way to harness the power, and Tian suspected that Kharzon would not have taken the eyes unless he had found a way.

No longer in doubt about the importance of his quest, Tian sat the scroll and looking glass down to take up the large black tome once again. With so much at stake there could be no hesitation. He ripped the book open in one swift movement.

Suddenly a fierce wind kicked up, swirling papers and books about. A column of dark smoke rose from the Book of Zaaz, materializing into a nightmarish shape. Two disembodied points of red light stared out through a face that seemed to take the form of a misshapen lion. Shadowy wings spread out from its wispy body, and wicked claws curled out from its hands. It gazed at Tian with a look of intense hatred before lashing out at him.

Smoky limbs raked out as the lion-shaped creature pounced onto the surprised Tian. The young monk was caught completely off-guard as the form bore him to the ground, proving that it was mostly solid. It clawed at him, raking across his chest to leave bloody trails in the wake of dark claws. Tian struggled to get free of the strange guardian, and in his movements he felt the smoke surrounding the more solid form of the creature drawn into his lungs.

He finally managed to roll free of the strange creature, but doubled over coughing as he put a little distance between them. Tian felt the thick smoke in his lungs, but instead of growing thinner it felt as if the smoke were solidifying inside his body. Then a horrible raking, like the claws that had ripped across his chest only it came from inside his body. In terror the young monk looked down at his stomach and saw faint movement that proved part of the creature was indeed attacking him from the inside.

With that terrible distraction, the guardian leapt forward once again to pounce on Tian, but despite his pain he was able to dodge and counterattack with a punch to the creature’s head. The false lion recoiled with surprise from a strike that was able to damage it. Where the punch had landed the smoke making up its form had been diminished. Tian tried to follow up, but instead doubled over as another attack ripped at him from inside.

Tian tried to ignore the pain, but it was unbearable. He realized that between the distraction from inside, and the threat from without, he would lose this battle. So he ran from the creature, sprinting with all the lighting quickness he possessed. Between the many shelves of books, the young monk dodged left and right, trying to lose sight of the guardian.

From behind he could hear the crashing as the smokey guardian smashed through smaller shelves and knocked over stacks of books looking for its prey. Tian dove into a small alcove at the junction of three different bookcases, and tried to focus on the war inside his own body. Closing his eyes he focused his chi and tried to negate the insidious darkness inside of him. In his mind he saw himself as a figure of light, representing the chi flowing throughout his body, but there was a orb of darkness in his stomach. Its darkness was spreading through his body like cracks in a sheet of glass.

Despite the pain and fear, Tian called upon the discipline of his training and marshaled the forces of his mind, body, and spirit. There was a moment of conflict as the alien presence fought back against him, but then it gave way as the tide of his chi washed away the darkness. The wounds inside his body were ghastly, he could sense that, and so the young monk followed that by using his chi to help close the more serious wounds he had sustained. Internal bleeding stopped and wounds that might not have healed faded in the space of seconds, the external wounds were less serious and so in his rush Tian settled for merely stopping the flow of blood through them. It might not have been pretty, but it brought him from being bloody and wounded to fighting shape once again.

Tian stood up, ready to face the dark guardian. It had surprised him, and in that ambush it might have defeated him, but now that he was ready to fight once again he would not allow himself to fall when so much was at stake. The young monk called upon the spirit of Zan-rei, the Ascendant Dragon, and stepped out to face the creature.

The dark lion was thrashing its way through a series of shelves looking for him, and Tian obliged by stepping into a shaft of light pouring in through one of the large stained glass windows. He raised his head proudly and called out to the creature, “Face me again, dark creature. This time you will not prevail!”

The dark lion roared as it caught sight of him, its bloodlust and dark purpose merging into one fierce charge. This time Tian roared as well, he roared his defiance and in his own charge he flew across the floor to meet the guardian. As they closed they both leapt into the air, both intending to pounce, only in the last moment Tian pivoted with the sinuous grace of his dragon namesake to dodge the attack and use a piercing knife hand strike through the chest of the creature. His hand twisted where the heart would be, and his chi flared in response, meeting and canceling the dark energy of his opponent.

Landing on the ground, the dark guardian still impaled on his outstretched hand, Tian finished his roar by clenching the hand into a fist. In the space of an instant the creature flared and then dissipated like so much smoke. Light shone through the window, highlighting the young monk for a moment, and in that moment it seemed to coil around him in a sinuous golden spiral. Then the moment was gone and Tian exhaled deeply.

He caught himself on one of the book cases, staggered by the effort of the battle with the dark guardian. It had been more fierce than any fight in his lifetime. Then Tian looked around and realized that the commotion was bound to attract unwanted attention to the library. Abandoned or not, their final battle had been very loud. Gathering the scroll, book, and looking glass, the young monk put them in his backpack and let himself out the same way he had come inside.

***

Back in the safety of his room, Tian studied the Book of Zaaz. He learned many useful details from the book, one of the most interesting was that the former land of Zaaz was in the middle of the current Rakhan Desert. Authored by a mad disciple of Xyrix, it detailed the location of Xyrix’s temple and by comparing those ancient maps to more current ones, Tian was able to find where the temple was situated.

In the back of the book, Tian found a few scribbled notes that had been written much more recently. Between the footprints, the mention of this warlord, and the notes themselves, he was ready to believe that the warlord had visited the library as well. The notes read like the scrawlings of a madman, the first said:

I’ve found it! Why did I not see it before? A thousand nights have I sought to (something  blotted  out  for  several  lines). The prison is merely a host of specters playing their mad symphony alone.

It has taken many tries to get it just right. I’m not sure whether the (unintelligible) is framed in corroded souls, or if the song is seen at odd angles. In either case, I shall infuse myself by means of (blotted out) to achieve the desired effect.

Tian wondered if he had gone back later to blot out parts, of if he had done so even in the throes of whatever had inspired him. He felt that knowing the answer to that would tell him much about the man who was his enemy. In the second note he read:

The result has left me…more receptive to the outer elements. I must probe deeper if the true nature is to be opened to me.

There is a rare confluence of stars that might aid in this. I must be prepared. I must know if the vessels of Zan-rei are the anchor, the barrier that keeps his dark majesty from the world.

Tian shuddered to think that someone would willingly subvert the sacrifice of Zan-rei and release Xyrix. He was more convince than ever that warlord Kharzon was a madman, or at least mad with a lust for power. The final note revealed:

No! Oh gods, he sees me! What horrors fill my mind and guide my hand under that dread scrutiny He has shown me the emerald way of his salvation, and I groan under its terrible weight. Even in dreams do I see his will made manifest in the world. He speaks to me as he does to all his favored in the dark corridors of sleep. He has gifted me with visions, terrible visions, of his will. The second reign will be more glorious than the first! Yes, the return is nigh. Just as Zaaz was the place of his death, so shall it be the place of his rebirth! I will be among the first chosen when he returns, when black stars break open the heavens once more and blood falls like rain!

The full horror of the plan revealed the danger to Tian. He had no idea that when he set out from his temple to recover a relic that it would end up being something so monumentally important to the world. It felt too immense for just him to handle. Tian wondered if he should return to his temple to seek further aid, although that would mean a delay of weeks for the time to travel back to the mountains and then back to Darmane. That would be if he could even convince some of the skeptical monks there that what he said was true.

Grandfather Dragon had entrusted him with the quest. A vision sent by Zan-rei, through the very amulet that he wore, had selected Tian as the bearer of this quest. The young monk looked down at the carved dragon amulet on his chest, questions burning in his heart.

Curling into a lotus position on the floor, Tian decided that the only thing to do was to commune with the spirit of Zan-rei. Through his meditation he would find guidance. Now that he knew the spirit of the Ascendant Dragon truly existed, something before he had believed in his heart without proof, perhaps he would find the guidance he sought.

More time passed as Tian sat motionless. Unlike his previous failed attempt at meditation, the young monk found his center and once there he felt himself tap into something beyond. A presence that called to him as if from far away. He knew without knowing that it was Zan-rei. The Eyes of the Dragon had carried his spirit far away, but through the amulet on his chest Tian could still reach the spirit of the Ascendant Dragon.

Zan-rei called out to Tian. Warning him of the dangers that lay on his path, but also of the greater dangers that would follow if he were not there to stem the tide of evil. Events were in motion, and there was no one else who stood at the ready with the knowledge and the skill to stop Kharzon from calling back Xyrix. Time was flowing out of control. Darkness would cover the world unless Xyrix was stopped.

A knock at Tian’s door intruded on his meditation, it sounded distant at first. Only as he came back to his body and senses did the sound of the knocking increase to a normal volume. For a moment longer the young monk sat motionless, reflecting on the truths revealed to him. Then he stood from his seat on the floor and walked over to open the door.

Kayla stood at the door, wry amusement showed first on her face as she found Tian shirtless once again. However that quickly gave way to surprise and concern as she noted the long scratches down his chest and stomach. They were closed and looked halfway to being healed, but were still long and ugly.

“What the hell happened in that library,” Kayla sputtered as she walked into the small room.

Tian looked down at his chest and touched the wounds carefully, “They were much worse this afternoon.”

“That’s not very comforting,” she growled, “or an answer. What happened?”

Shaking his head, Tian walked over to her, his eyes alight, “I found everything I needed to know in the library, but there was a magical guardian that I fought. It was very difficult to defeat, but I did prevail in the end. Now I know why Kharzon has the eyes and what his plans are. I must leave soon, did you find out for which port he sailed?”

Kayla sighed and moved closer to Tian, “Are you sure you want to follow him? All my sources tell me that he’s very dangerous. He has his own army, and he’s crazy. He’d kill you as soon as look at you.”

“I thank you for your concern…”

“Shut up,” Kayla interrupted, “I know that we’ve only known each other for a couple of days, but so much has happened in that time…don’t treat me like a stranger.”

Tian face became more solemn, “I know that Kayla, I will not deny that I feel a connection with you that is unlike anything I have every experienced, but this is bigger than you and me. It is even bigger than returning a valuable relic to my temple. Kharzon is going to release a demon lord that ruled an entire kingdom long ago, he will take the souls of his victims and use them to increase his power. An eternal dragon had to give his life to stop him before, and now he might return again…if I do not stop Kharzon it could mean the end of everything. Everything, Kayla.”

She looked down at the floor and then out the window, Tian thought he saw tears in her eyes as she turned away from him. He could not bring himself to look at her either, she aroused feelings in him that he did not fully understand. Another look at her face might be enough to make him reconsider leaving, and that he could not do.

Kayla stared out the window for a while longer, neither spoke, until finally she turned around. On the table beside the Book of Zaaz she sat a bag of coins, then she walked past Tian to the door of his room and spoke without turning around, “I thought you might feel that way. Kharzon went to a small trading post called Balik on the edge of the desert. I took the liberty of getting you passage on a ship called the Sun Dancer. It leaves with the tide tomorrow morning. The captain even gave you a discount when he heard you beat some sense into his men back at the Mermaid Inn.”

“Kayla, thank…” Tian stopped, “I hope I see you again someday.”

She did not turn around, but looked down at the floor again before opening the door to leave, and saying, “Just stay alive, then we’ll see about the rest.”

Tian watched her leave and his heart sank, he did not want to see her go, but he could not ask her to come with him to almost certain death. He was sure that if he had asked she would have come along, just as he was sure that she knew he would not ask. Unlike before, Tian did not deny his feelings or even attempt to push them aside. His communion with Zan-rei made him realize that in order to win the day he would need everything he had inside, every single bit of it.

***

The next morning Tian stood by the docks looking for the Sun Dancer. He had little trouble finding the docks, but navigating through the press of the crowd was confusing. So many ships looked identical, but a helpful harbor man had recognized the name of the ship and given him directions.

Dock Nine. The ship was packing on the last bundles of cargo as Tian caught sight of her. It was not a beautiful ship, but it would get him to the Rakhan Desert. Once he picked up the trail of Kharzon, Tian knew that he would find the temple of Xyrix. The maps he had found in the Book of Zaaz corresponded to many modern maps, and he found that the temple was built at the base of a large mountain peak in the center of the desert. Finding it would not be difficult for the young monk.

As Tian neared the Sun Dancer he recognized some of the sailors from their fight back at the Lonely Mermaid Inn. Kayla had not been joking when she said they worked on the ship. For their parts the men all gave Tian a wide berth. A man that he did not recognize caught sight of him and walked over with the confident swagger of a ship’s captain.

“Ahoy there,” the man yelled as he came across the boarding plank to greet Tian on the dock. He was a large burly man in his late middle years, despite his bulk he moved with the step of a man who was completely at home on a moving ship.

“Hello, sir,” Tian replied, “I am supposed to ride with you to Balik.”

“Aye,” the captain said eagerly, “indeed you are! Having you aboard will put the fear of the gods into my men, and that’s enough for me! I’m Captain Trask and you’re welcome aboard the Sun Dancer. As a paying guest you’ll get the other private room aside from mine. That work for you?”

“That will be just fine, sir.”

“None of that, call me Captain! I’m used to it, and more respectful.”

“Yes sir, Captain.”

The burly captain put an arm around the young monk and laughed with with a gusto, “I’m going to like you, son. You can fight from what I hear, and you’re respectful. Come aboard, we’ll soon be leaving.”

Nodding, Tian shouldered his backpack and prepared to board when something caught his eye. Turning he saw Kayla near on the other end of the dock watching him. The captain boarded the ship as Tian walked over to the young woman. She was dressed in her leathers and was armed as well, with a rucksack on the ground beside her.

“Kayla,” Tian smiled despite himself, “I did not think you would be here.”

“You did say that you wanted to see me again.”

Tian laughed, a short chuckle that seemed so out of place even he looked surprised. Then he smiled and laughed again, more comfortably, “I wanted to ask you to come with me, last night.”

“I was going to go with you anyway,” she gestured to her bag.

“Please do not.”

Kayla’s face fell at the words. She did not look surprised, but she was disappointed, “Been thinking about this?”

“Yes,” Tian nodded, and then took her by the shoulders and pulled her close. For a long moment he just held her in his arms. They both relaxed into each other, the worries of the world on hold for a single perfect moment. Then Tian pulled back and brought up a hand to tenderly caress Kayla’s face before he kissed her. It was not a fierce kiss, instead it was tender and loving. When he finally pulled back, Tian said, “I can finally admit my feelings, but I need someone to come back to, right? You would not want to take that from me?”

This time she was the one who touched his face, as Kayla nodded, “Glory hog.”

“True,” Tian said as he held her once again, “after all, I am the Chosen One.”

Kayla hit him in the stomach playfully, “Me staying constitutes a promise to return on your part.”

“Trapped by my own words…it is a deal.”

They stayed be each other as the last of the cargo was loaded, not saying anything, just enjoying their last moments together. Neither one wanted to be the first to leave, but the decision was made for them as the captain yelled for Tian, “Tide’s moving out! Got to go!”

“That’s you,” Kayla nudged Tian, “get out of here before I get tired of having you around.”

Tian reached down to pick up the backpack he had dropped during their embrace. He felt different after seeing Kayla again, as if there had been a hole inside of him that was now filled. Seeing her was final ingredient to prepare him for what lay ahead. In that moment he felt more than just the calling of duty and justice, more than someone to protect, he was no longer only defending the happiness of everyone else the world, he was defending his own happiness as well.

“I will see you – ”

Kayla laid a finger on his lips, “Make happen, don’t just say it.”

They shared one final kiss, a memory to keep with them, and a promise of the days to come. Then Tian shouldered his bag and boarded the Sun Dancer. He looked back from the edge of the ship as they pulled out of the docks and headed across the vast sea.

Back on the dock, Kayla watched the ship pass out of sight, and for a long time after that.

***

Tian’s journey aboard the Sun Dancer left something to be desired. The captain was polite but busy, and the crew were wary and kept their distance but still held a grudge towards him. Churning seas and the dubious crew made his trip quite tedious. While he had heard tales of great sea monsters and all manner of ocean peril, his trip passed without incident. Most of all he thought of Kayla who he had left behind, and the warlord Kharzon who lay ahead. As dangerous as their confrontation was likely to be, Tian was ready to have it done.

It promised to be another listless day, but then a shout from the crow’s next caught his attention, “Land ho!”

As the sun rose into the sky, Tian could make out a harbor against the distant shifting sands of the Rakhan Desert. On the very edge of the horizon he could barely see a range of very imposing mountains on the far side of the desert. Among the craggy peaks there was one mountain in particular that dwarfed the others and came to a nearly perfect conical point.

A sinking feeling came over him, but Tian managed to suppress it. He knew that he must go to that mountain and brave all the dangers there. As the ship came into the harbor, he knew that his journey was not over. Kharzon was waiting with the Eyes of the Dragon, and if Tian did not get there soon enough, Xyrix might be with him.

The trading post of Balik was far from the size and resources of Darmane. A small group of desert people maintained the post and provided for the travelers as they passed through. Though lacking the immense size of Darmane, there was still the opportunity to acquire supplies and information. Tian said his farewells to the captain of the Sun Dancer and made his way into the city to prepare for his journey into the Rakhan Desert.

Tian found the heat of the desert to be oppressive, and knew that things would be worse once he moved away from the coast. Therefore the first order of business was to purchase supplies and proper attire for traveling through the desert. Captain Trask had recommended a merchant in town named Rafan, that was in his own words, “Not a total lying bastard.”

Rafan’s shop was a large white cloth tent. Stepping from the baking sun into the shade was surprisingly refreshing. The interior of the tent was covered in all manner of treasures and mundane items from far away. Rafan sat near the center of the tent in a comfortable looking chair that had been placed on a large, ornate rug. He was an attractive, tanned man who appeared to be in his middle 30s. Standing close beside him was a huge man with a shaved head and a long goatee. The large man wore a small purple vest, white trousers, and a huge curved sword on his back.

“Welcome to Rafan’s shop, fair traveler, I am Rafan and this large man is my friend Faln,” Rafan spoke in a loud, theatrical voice and had a wide smile as he walked over to greet Tian.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, merchant Rafan, you were recommended to me by Captain Trask of the Sun Dancer.”

“Ah yes, he is a good man, Captain Trask,” Rafan leaned in and raised a hand conspiratorially, “he was a famous pirate hunter not long ago, and only recently turned to hauling cargo. The Sun Dancer was once the dread of every pirate between here and Darmane and across the long passes to Fang’s End itself.”

Tian did not recognize Fang’s End, but Rafan spoke of it with an excitement that bespoke a proud and impressive city, so he nodded along. He still had much of his money that the monks had given him along with the Serpent’s coin as well, Kayla had been helpful in that regard, but had no idea what desert supplies might cost him.

“I need to travel across the Rakhan Desert to the Shav Mountains, there I need to reach the tallest peak,” he interjected, “therefore I need supplies to cross the desert.”

“The Shav Mountains are unlucky, some say cursed, and Great Shav is the worst of them all! Are you certain that you must go there?”

“Absolutely. My business is essential,” Tian did not want to go into details about his quest, but he could not traverse the desert without the proper expertise. Lying would not help him reach Kharzon alive anymore than revealing everything.

“Traveling the desert alone is very dangerous for the experienced, a newcomer would die in a day. Therefore my first piece of advice is to join a caravan, there are many merchants passing through the desert, for a price you can ride with them,” Rafan tapped his chin thoughtfully, “but they will not approach the mountains. Perhaps you will find one that is passing within a few days of it. That is the most you can hope. From there you will be on your own.”

“That is fine with me. I require clothes, supplies, and a mount.”

“Ah! Now we get to the enjoyable part of our time together. Sit and we will discuss what you need, and what you can afford,” Rafan laughed as he guided the young monk further into his tent.

Sometime later when Tian emerged from the tent, he wore the layers of a desert traveler and was burdened with far less gold. In addition to what he had purchased, Rafan and his servant Faln had taught Tian much about the desert. From their dealings, Tian had walked away with knowledge as well as clothes, supplies, and a camel.  Mounting the beast, he pulled his head coverings up and covered his mouth with the cloth as he had been shown. Then he went to find a caravan.

***

Traversing the desert was more difficult, but also more enjoyable, than Tian’s voyage across the sea. His training enabled Tian to cope with the challenges of desert travel easier than even seasoned travelers, and the merchants and their guards were much less rowdy than the crew of the Sun Dancer had been. The merchants that had agreed to Tian’s presence were all private and quiet, and the entire trip might have passed mostly in silence were it not for another traveler that had joined the group.

Chase, as he called himself, was a traveler and professional minstrel. He was quite the storyteller, and had built up a name for himself as a finder of new tales, at least to hear him describe it. Despite his adventurous nature, Chase did not take to the desert as well as his companions and complained endlessly about the discomfort of traversing the sandy wastes. More than once he had offended the merchants and Tian feared that they might ask him to leave the caravan, which could easily mean death in the desert.

For his own part, Chase did not intentionally try to offend their hosts or to make a nuisance of himself, but the unintentional result was the same. Tian had trouble looking past his rough edges, but also found himself liking the minstrel. Because of that the man had picked up the habit of hanging around Tian as they rode, and filling the long ride with a never ending torrent of tales and talk.

While it was enjoyable at first, Chase was a good storyteller, it began to wear on Tian’s nerves after a while. It was primarily, he knew, because of the anxiety of facing the warlord and his army, but also it was because so many of the tales were about heroes succeeding despite the long odds. Instead of comforting him, it simply made Tian keenly aware of the width of the gap between truth and fiction, and made him wonder if his own quest was hopeless.

The other main reason that Chase annoyed Tian was that he relentlessly hunted interesting tales, and his instincts told him Tian was one. Between his private nature or his disciplined silence, something alerted Chase to the presence of an interesting story surrounding the young monk. Cleverly the minstrel had pressed Tian during their trip, trying to get his story in almost unnoticeable little pieces. Before he was fully aware of the situation, Tian had revealed where he was going and where he was from. Once he realized that Tian refused to reveal more, but the privacy only seemed to intrigue Chase even more.

Because of his tiresome traveling companion, Tian found himself relieved as the caravan neared the point of his departure. The merchants were desert people much like Rafan, and they had steadfastly refused to get closer than a three-day ride from the mountains, despite the additional travel time to their destination. When Tian had mentioned his intention to travel there the leader shook his head and spat on the ground. Misgivings or not, they made no effort to hinder Tian’s plans however, and so it was when they stopped to make camp that one of the guards approached him.

“We are at the closest point to the mountains now,” he said briefly, “my master says that now is the time for you to leave if you still wish to do so.”

“Thank you,” Tian said with a polite bow, “I will take my leave shortly.”

The man simply gave a short nod and walked away. Tian was grateful for the timing, as Chase was not nearby. As was his habit when everyone started making camp, he had wandered out to inspect the sunset. When the work was done he would return, as usual, to take his rest with everyone.

Tian knew that he could make good time towards the mountain traveling at night and camping during the day. Without the bulky caravan to slow him, or to make night travel too risky, it would be the best option. Also it would ensure that he arrived at the mountain at night, he did not wish to approach to the warlord’s army during the day.

Without wasting any time, he led his camel in the direction of the Shav Mountains. Even at night they would be visible in the moonlight, and during the day they stood out on the horizon. Finding them would be little trouble, the trouble would be waiting for him.

Securing his supplies on the camel, Tian led the camel out into the desert alone. The time for companions had passed.

***

Traveling at night thought the desert was treacherous and slow going, but it brought a release from the relentless heat of the day. Tian’s eyes were keen and his footing sure, so he had less trouble than some other might. However he did find himself leading the camel as much as riding it, just to be certain on some of the more difficult dunes. It was while leading the camel over one of the dunes that his eyes caught something strange.

If it had not been perfectly highlighted by the nearly full moon then it might have escaped Tian’s notice. As it was he saw what appeared to be a figure laying down in the desert after the dune. He cautiously approached, not sure if it was friend or foe. Leaving the camel behind, he sneaked up quietly on the person.

Only as he was right upon the figure did Tian realize that he need not have bothered, it was merely the remains of an unfortunate traveler and a camel. Standing over the figures in silence, he said a short prayer for their spirits. Then he searched the man and his camel. Though he found the idea repugnant, the desert was harsh and he could not afford to pass up valuable supplies for his quest.

His search yielded two full waterskins, a small pouch of gold and gems, and a finely crafted scimitar. Tian took the first two items, and then more closely inspected the third. During his training at the temple he had learned to use many different weapons, and the sword was his favorite, but not this type of sword. The scimitar was most similar to the single-edged broadsword he had learned to use, but it was the double-edged straight sword that Tian preferred.

Preference or not, it was a fine weapon, if somewhat gaudy. The previous owner had encrusted the hilt and sheath in semi-precious gems. Tian decided to take it, many enemies were more difficult to defeat unarmed, and it would match his disguise as a desert nomad for when he arrived at the camp. He slapped the blade back into the sheath and strapped it to his back when the young monk was startled by the sound of a high-pitched scream from nearby.

Lightly he sprinted across the treacherous sands and crested the nearest dune to see a flash of something jet black in the night. Lunging at a figure on camel back was a scorpion easily the size of a horse. Its claws clicked open and closed as its segmented tail curled back like a serpent ready to strike.

Again the mounted figure screamed, it resolved itself into a man’s voice. When he caught sight of Tian he shouted, “Need some help over here!”

His voice was familiar, but the sound of his words prompted the creature to strike. The man leapt free of his mount when the scorpion latched pincers onto the camel’s front legs. While the man landed safely and rolled away, the camel let out a strange sound and struggled to get free. At least until the scorpion’s stinger plunged itself into the mount’s neck. There was a spurt of something dark that sprayed across the sand. Then the camel bucked and fell onto the ground.

Tian was still in shock from seeing the strange giant insect. Then he came to his senses and ripped the scimitar from its sheath on his back and charged ahead. His charge was silent in the night air, and when he reached the scorpion’s side the young monk brought his blade down on one of the rear legs. It was a clean cut and sheared completely through the black carapace. The rear leg fell free and thick ichor spurted from the wound.

With an insectile scream, the scorpion spun around to bear on Tian, its stinger hovering threateningly overhead. He readied his sword and held perfectly still. The scorpion had the advantage of size and limbs, so Tian knew he had to lure it into a failed attack before he could close. Otherwise the pincers could trap him long enough for the poisonous stinger to finish the battle for good.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tian caught sight of the stranger drawing a weapon that shone in the moonlight and edging around behind the scorpion. The man moved well enough, but Tian knew that he had to hold the creature’s attention or it would likely be fatal for the would-be assistant. Large black eyes gazed at Tian as the scorpion moved closer, the moonlight illuminated his reflection as it moved to attack.

Just as he had seen with the attack on the camel, the scorpion’s pincers shot out to grab Tian so that the stinger could finish the job. What the scorpion could not expect was the young monk’s lightning fast reaction. Instead of dodging left or right, he leapt over the clacking pincers and onto the head. From there he ran forward along the scorpion’s back and directly toward its tail.

Reflexively the scorpion tried to stab at him with its tail, but Tian was ready. A mighty swing of  his sword clipped the stinger from the tail as it dove towards him. It went spiraling away amidst another spray of ichor. With a screech the scorpion bucked and tried to throw him off of its back, spinning left and right like a wild horse. The creature’s wild thrashing distracted it from the threat of the other man who sneaked up unseen and waited for his opportunity.

As it spun wildly to the right, finally throwing Tian from its back, the man lunged forward burying his rapier deep into the monster’s eye. Violently it recoiled from the terrible attack, and the man retreated. On the other side of the scorpion, Tian sprang to his feet and used the opening to bring his sword down on its head. It did not sever the head completely, but cut through the chitinous shell and deep into the flesh beneath. The sword rose and fell two more times and then the front of the creature’s body fell into a oozing mass on the desert floor.

Both men took a moment to catch their breath where they stood, before Tian turned to regard the person he had saved. The man wore desert clothing, which was little surprise, but when he threw back his head coverings Tian recognized him instantly, “Chase! What are you doing here?”

“I followed you, my friend,” he grinned in the moonlight, “surely you didn’t think I would pass up solving the mystery you presented to me. Little did I know that you would save me before I could catch up. What a battle!”

Chase walked over to his fallen camel. When he saw what had happened to it he shook his head and started pulling his supplies off the creature. Tian walked over to join him, unsure what to say to the persistent man.

“Now this is bad luck. I liked that camel, too. I even named it,” Chase continued talking as he worked, “Called it Narandias, he was an old tutor of mine. They even looked alike. It’s a shame, a real shame.”

“You cannot follow me,” Tian finally interrupted, “I am going somewhere that is very, very dangerous.”

“Ah, you mean I might get attacked by giant scorpions if I go there?”

“Yes, the desert can be dangerous, but my destination is dangerous.”

Chase tied most of his supplies into a large pack and threw it over his shoulder, “Right, right, I’ve heard people talking about the mountains.”

“I am not talking about legends,” Tian said, “there is a warlord camped there with a small army, and they are only the mundane threats. I also know that a great evil resides there, and this warlord is on the verge of releasing it.”

“Ah, so that’s where Kharzon was going.”

“You know of him,” Tian was shocked, “How?”

“I’m a minstrel, I talk to everybody. I was in Balik for a while before I set out,” he gave an immodest grin and continued, “I’m safer going there with you than staying out here alone. I’ll get lost, or eaten, or worse. At least there I can blend in. If you win the day, hey I’ll have a great story, if you fail then I claim you took me hostage and join them to help entertain the soldiers. No need to worry about me. So, where did you leave your camel?”

Tian was astonished by the man, but knew that he could not leave him in the desert alone. So he made a decision, “I will allow you to travel with me. However I have a few requests. The first is that you do not betray me until I am already captured or dead, alright?”

Chuckling, Chase motioned for him to continue.

“The second is that you assist me, if you are coming along then you should be useful. Last, you must follow my instructions, particularly when we reach the camp. There are strange, magical elements involved in this quest and you could get us both killed if you act rashly,” Tian locked his eyes on the man, “my quest must be successful.”

“I knew I was right to follow you. You’ve got a deal,” Chase smiled, “so really, where’s your camel?”

***

The mountain grew steadily in their sight over the next couple of days, finally dominating the landscape before them. They crested a large sand dune on the third night when they caught sight of the temple complex that Tian recognized from the Book of Zaaz.

What should have been the pair of towering ziggurats of carved yellow stone was in utter ruin. The remains were immense, hinting at just how pervasive the structures must have been at their height. Great mounds of earth lay beside the ruins, uncovering the enormous double doors that led into the heart of the complex, the Temple of Xyrix. Two large lion statues guarded the massive double doors.

About four hundred yards from the temple area was a cluster of white tents. In the distance they could see pockets of infantry making patrols around the outer perimeter of the camp. All of them wore white tabards emblazoned with the image of a snarling black lion, a symbol that was also reflected in the banners that fluttered softly in the desert wind.

As they stood there looking down on the camp, the talisman on Tian’s chest began to glow a soft emerald color and felt warm against his chest. Looking down at the item he knew that the Eyes of the Dragon were close. Despite their desperate situation, a surge of relief washed over the young monk. For better or worse, by the next morning his quest would be over.

“Does that mean they are near,” Chase jarred Tian from his thoughts.

“Yes, they are most likely in the Temple of Xyrix.”

“Well can you turn that thing off? Walking around with a green glowing necklace is likely to get us caught.”

Tian nodded and concentrated for a moment, then the emerald glow slowly faded away. During his journey he had started to gain greater control over the Talisman of the Dragon Guide, and had learned that detecting the Eyes was merely one of its powers. Turning to look back over the camp he tried to spot the main tent, and had little trouble doing so. Warlord Kharzon’s tent was a massive pavilion that dwarfed any of the other tents on the field, even the supply tents were no match in size.

They set a makeshift camp where they left their supplies and Tian’s camel. He set out food for the creature and purposely did not stake the reins to the ground. If they did not return he did not want the creature to die tied to one spot. At least without them it might make its way to the camp or somewhere else.

Once they were ready, the two men pulled their head coverings up and hid their faces. In addition to the soldiers Kharzon had brought, only a tiny fraction of his army, there were many desert nomads that had joined him. With their outfits it would be simple to pose as one of them. Tian had debated sneaking directly into the temple, but he needed to see if Kharzon was in the camp. Even if the warlord and Eyes were not there, perhaps they would find some useful information before penetrating the temple.

Entering the camp was not difficult. They simply walked boldly into the camp. The soldiers on patrol were lax anyway, given the remote nature of the region, and were trained to watch for sneaky intruders. Tian and Chase made their way slowly through the camp, listening for information and trying not to appear conspicuous as they walked for Kharzon’s tent. Along the way they overheard a few interesting things:

“I’m telling you I saw them,” one lounging soldier said to another, “They were moving and walking around like men, but there was something very wrong about them. The boss seems okay with them, but I don’t want to go anywhere near them.”

They passed the pair of soldiers and walked further, slowing as they neared the large supply tent near the center of camp. Once there they stopped and made a pretense of drinking from their waterskins as they listened on another conversation. What started as idle chatter led into something that caught Tian’s attention, “Did you hear? They tried it again last night and nothing happened. They say that tonight’s supposed to be different, what with the stars’n all, but that’s nothin’ new. Whatever it is, I hope it hurries up so we can get out of this blasted place.”

Beside him another soldier opened his mouth to respond when he seemed to notice them. Chase made a show out of drinking from his waterskin, but it ran out in mid pour. The guard motioned for the pair to walk over, and when they did said, “If you’re out of water get to the well. It’s not too late to get some water, if you miss out they won’t give you any until tomorrow. Get a move on, and bring me back a skin as well!”

He tossed his empty waterskin roughly to Chase, who responded in a surprisingly good imitation of the regional accent, “Yes, most respected officer, I humbly go to fulfill your request.”

The soldier seemed to appreciate the flattery and waved them off. After they walked away, Tian leaned over to softly say, “That was very convincing, how did you imitate the accent so well?”

“Speaking and singing have many crossovers, and telling stories is better with different voices. Let’s get to the well, it’s close to the warlord’s tent and there might be some useful things to learn there.”

“What about the soldier, will he come looking for you,” Tian asked.

“He wouldn’t leave his post during watch, and by the time he gets off it’ll be too late,” Chase said, “besides he couldn’t pick me out among the others. We’ll be fine.”

Together they made their way to the well. Around the well was a clearing where many people had set up cook fires and laid out blankets on the ground for the desert people to sit and eat. The soldiers had set up a few tables where they laughed and gambled as the took their food and drink. Also, unlike the desert people, they seemed to be drinking alcohol.

It was late, so most of the desert folk had returned to the cluster of tents on the other side of camp. There were several soldiers sitting at the tables and laughing loudly. Tian and Chase approached the man who sat beside the well and he nodded as they walked up allowed them to haul a bucketful of water to fill their waterskins. Then they grabbed bowls and filled them from a nearby stew pot that had been left unattended, and sat on one of the blankets nearer to the soldiers.

Unlike the other tables, the soldiers nearest to them were not laughing or gambling, but sat in silence for a few moments. Only two of them sat at the table, and one of them seemed more than content to relax in silence. It was the other man who glowered as he drank, and with every sip seemed to grow more angry. Until finally he leaned across the table and spoke, “How long are we gonna be out here?”

The other soldier simply shrugged and continued drinking, but that was not enough for his companion, who kept talking, “It’s bad enough that we’re in the desert, but we’re just sittin’ here! Where’s all that gold and treasure that Kharzon promised us? I signed up for the bounty, not so I could play soldier in the desert! Am I right? You with me?”

Finally the other soldier leaned forward. He was older than the other man, and had a wicked scar running down across his left eye. When he spoke it was in a quiet, low voice, “Shut your stinking mouth and go to bed. I don’t care if you want to get yourself executed, but I’m not looking to join you.”

“But…”

“I said shut it!” The man lunged forward and in the blink of an eye had a dagger to the younger soldier’s throat, “I’ll slit your throat myself before I let you talk me out of my head. Sleep it off, pup. I been in real merc companies, and this is fine by me. We’re still getting paid and no one’s shooting us full of arrows, or dropping burning oil on our heads. So I’m gonna enjoy it.”

The older soldier shoved him away, anger and shame burning on his young face, but a look into the man’s serious eyes sent him scurrying away. Once he was gone the older man chuckled and went back to his drink.

Tian and Chase stood up and walked away from the well. No one bothered them, or even paid them much attention as they circled around the tents to where the firelight was blocked. On the darker side of the tents they walked close to each tent as they made their way to Kharzon’s tent. From inside one of the tents they heard voices as they walked. Tian motioned for Chase to stop as he listened.

“Don’t go anywhere near the Warlord’s tent,” a voice said, “I saw him when he returned from the temple the other day, and something sure had set him off. And when he gets angry, people start dying.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. I heard he took his three bodyguards and set up camp inside the temple. He’s not coming back out until he’s done whatever it is we’re here to do.”

“Well I hope he does it right, if something goes wrong he’ll take it out on us.”

“You know that’s right,” the second man replied, “now shut up, I’m trying to sleep.”

Tian motioned for Chase to follow him again and they crept quietly across the desert sands until they neared the warlord’s tent. Even without Kharzon around there were still two guards outside the entrance. Near the entrance of the tent was an ornately embroidered white flag bearing the snarling black lion that was his symbol. The guards stood with the casually watchful gaze that most guards use on a long, boring assignments. Therefore they did not notice the two figures creeping around the back of the pavilion tent.

Tian kept a watchful eye as they reached the very back of Kharzon’s tent. He could see no one, and doubted that anyone could see them in the darkness. Chase grinned and pulled a dagger from his robe, “Time to make new door for our friend the warlord.”

The minstrel slowly cut an opening large enough for the two of them to enter. With a flourish he held open the cut for Tian, and said, “After you, dear sir.”

The young monk crept cautiously through the opening. The inside of the tent was dim, but there were a couple of lamps burning on the tent poles. It seemed the guards had orders to keep the place lit in case the warlord returned. The tent was richly appointed with comfortable pillows, small pieces of stone statuary, and even a large throne in the center. Despite the opulence, it appeared as if it had been abandoned for several days. Aside from the few lamps the guards kept going, it was unused.

“Look here,” Chase said in a soft voice, “I think I found our friend’s journal.”

Tian listened but also started searching through the tent as the minstrel spoke. He did not want to walk into the temple unprepared. Chase read through the journal, flipping past many pages fast, but then lingering on others. As he read, Tian continued his search for anything else that might be of use.

Eventually his search yielded something as Tian found a small chest hidden behind the warlord’s bed. He tried to open it, but the chest was locked. As he attempted to look for a key, Chase walked over and spoke once again, “It appears the would-be conqueror has been having trouble integrating his soldiers with the desert people. He’s been planning to make a few ‘examples’ to get things back on track. What a friendly fellow.”

“Anything else useful,” Tian asked softly as he searched, “anything about the temple?”

“Yes. First it seems like they only have another month’s supplies, so if he can’t get this ritual done in that time they will have to leave. Also he’s getting angry about the lack of success so far. His journal says that he knew they had to wait for the right alignment of stars and forces, but he didn’t like that one bit,” Chase shrugged, “guess he’s lacking in patience.”

“Well I found a chest over here, it might have something useful in it. I just cannot find a key.”

“Ah, not a problem. I might’ve bumped into a lock that opened once or twice in my life,” Chase handed Tian the journal and started to work on the chest.

Tian skipped to the end of the journal and read the last entry:

“What am I missing? What critical element is absent to rob me of my divine right? The Devoted themselves have risen of their own accord to assist me, but even their aid has yet to bring forth their master. This failure galls me, and is nearly as intolerable as the desert sun itself. I know I am close to something – I feel the strands of fate moving about me. It is possible that the confluence of the planets and the invisible stars will prove a catalyst for the ritual itself. I must see this through to the end. It must be done.

Tomorrow I will set up temporary quarters inside the temple for myself and I won’t emerge until Xyrix is finally made manifest in the world. By the dark light of Avenius, Zy’ll and Galshok, I will enter the Temple a mere Warlord, and emerge the Emperor of all Men!

“Oooh, look what I found,” Chase said, pulling Tian’s attention from the journal. The minstrel held up a fair sized coin pouch, “Platinum, not just gold. We’ll sort this out later. Also rubies! Check them out.”

Tian caught the rubies he threw, they were impressively large, “Very nice, but we must get to the temple. Kharzon is working at the ritual as we speak, there is no time to waste!”

“Okay, okay, just one last thing,” he held up a folding paper fan, “I think you might like this. Just hold onto it, okay?”

Nodding, the young monk stuck the fan through his belt, “We must go.”

“You’re right, you’re right. We’re not mercenaries, time to be heroes. Let’s go to the temple.”

“For once, I agree with you completely,” Tian said.

“Good, because I have an idea on how to get in the temple. All we need to do is stop by the supply tent.”

(Continued in Part Three)

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