Eyes of the Dragon (Part 1)

Eyes of the Dragon

by

Jesse Reed

On a lonely mountain peak there is a school of monks that carries the legacy of heaven. They live and learn in the tradition of three heavenly spirits that gave them their blessings. These spirits are the Perfected Tiger, Celestial Crane, and Ascendant Dragon. Long ago the Ascendant Dragon expended much of his life force in battle with a demon lord that would have destroyed the world, and in defeating the creature, fell to earth to die. Such was not the case when his divine siblings arrived to save their dying brother, as they bound his remaining chi into two large emeralds so that he might live on. These emeralds were called the Eyes of the Dragon, and were entrusted to a group of devout monks on a mountain called Greenspire. In gratitude for their service Perfected Tiger and Celestial Crane also passed on their blessings to the monks, and for a time all was prosperous.

Unfortunately time is long and the memories of man are short, and over time the monks came to regard the Paths of Dragon, Tiger, and Crane as nothing more than philosophies. They forgot the sacrifice of Ascendant Dragon, and they forgot the reason behind their sacred duty to forever guard the Eyes of the Dragon. This was a grave mistake, because the demon lord Xyrix was not destroyed in his battle with the dragon, but was instead imprisoned in a tomb at the site of their battle. For ages he has stirred and called out to those with weak spirits and ambitious hearts. The monks of Greenspire live on in peace, never suspecting that the key to the destroyer of the world is in their possession, and that there are people who want that key.

Tian Long stirred in his humble bed. His rest was fitful and sleep was long in coming, and when sleep finally did come to him it was an endless cascade of fire and torment. As horrible visions washed over his mind, Tian Long was pulled into wakefulness by the resounding clang of the large temple bell. For his brothers to ring the bell at night could mean only one thing, an intruder on the grounds.

The young monk sat up in his bed and sprang to his feet lightly. He wore his clothes in sleep, as the mountain was cool even during the summer due to the elevation, and only had to step into his boots before he was out the door. His feet were a blur of motion as Tian ran through the temple. His short black hair waved and his dark eyes were set with concentration as he scanned the area for intruders. Listening intently, Tian could hear the voices of his fellow initiates on the other side of the expansive courtyard. Aside from their increasingly faint voices, he could hear nothing but the sounds of water running through the beautifully sculpted garden of the temple.

Unsure whether to continue his search alone or join the others, Tian looked around and on his second glance he noticed the large doors of the sanctuary were slightly ajar. It was nearly impossible to see in the faint light of the night sky, but the left door was pushed in just enough to allow a person to slip through. Given the weight of the doors it was little surprise that an intruder would not take the time to close them, effectively trapping themselves in the sanctuary.

Tian sprinted to the sanctuary and slipped catlike through the small opening without slowing. Skidding to a stop, he looked around the sanctuary for any sign of the intruder, but saw no indication that anyone else was in the room. Rubbing his head in confusion, he walked closer to the three large statues that dominated the room. To the left was the graceful figure of Celestial Crane, and to the right was fearsome figure of Perfected Tiger. In the center was the serpentine form of Ascendant Dragon, Tian’s name sake and the spirit guide of the philosophical path that his journey followed. Despite the general opinion around the temple that the spirit guides were nothing more than images to provide inspiration, Tian had often felt a calling every time he looked over the three statues. Especially when he gazed into the emerald eyes of Ascendant Dragon, the two emeralds often pulled him into their depths, showing him hints of a turbulent universe beyond the monastery that longed for harmony.

Two emeralds? Tian looked again. One emerald.

That was the only warning he had as a crossbow bolt shot from the shadows, streaking towards his exposed throat. Time seemed to slow for the young monk as he saw the bolt nearly freeze in mid air, and could make out every detail from the dark fletching at the back to the wicked barbs on the tip. He could even see a strange oily substance glistening on the metal of the tip. As he tried to move, Tian realized that his own movements were slowed as well. Whatever skill allowed him to perceive things in such detail and speed, did not allow him to step out of time completely. Regardless of that limitation, his training came back in an instinctive flash, and Tian sidestepped and caught the crossbow bolt in one perfect motion. Spinning to retain some of the velocity of the projectile, he then launched it back in the same direction it had come.

Leaping from the shadows to dodge the unexpected counter attack, a dark figure landed in a crouch at the base of the three statues. The figure was poised and ready to strike like a cobra, and wore a hideous red and white mask made in the likeness of a snarling demonic lion whose mouth was frozen in a perpetual scream.

“Who are you? Why are you here,” Tian asked.

Without a sound, the dark figure attacked Tian with a series of short quick strikes aimed at vital spots. Tian dodged deftly and tried to keep enough distance to keep from being tagged with those attacks. It took another couple of movements before he realized where he recognized the intruder’s style.

“Black Serpent Way,” Tian exclaimed, “are you here with your brothers?”

Finally the figure did speak with a sinister laugh, “I left those fools behind me years ago, and use my training to benefit myself, not some lazy old masters in the brotherhood.”

He followed the statement with another series of quick strikes that sent Tian reeling across the floor of the temple. Catching himself, Tian stood solidly and spread his arms wide, the time for questions and retreat was over!

“So be it,” Tian said resolutely, “I cannot let you take our holy relics.”

Sprinting at the serpentine thief, Tian launched a fearsome jump kick. Dodging out of the way, the figure caught his balance and circled cautiously. Tian did not let up, and pressed the attack with a series of spinning kicks that cut the air around the figure, and cornered him for the turning palm strike that caught him in the center of his chest. Flying backwards, the thief caught himself on a hand and his knees and slid for a few feet before skidding to a stop. He violently coughed blood that landed in a long spatter across the floor, then thief slowly pushed himself to his feet and stared at Tian. Where before there had stood a young initiate, now there was a fierce dragon warrior.

As the two figures prepared to close the distance, sounds of footsteps and shouting approached the outside of the sanctuary. Tian instinctively looked towards the large doors to see if his brothers had arrived, but it was a costly mistake that the thief exploited. A flick of his wrist hurled two black throwing spikes in the air towards the young monk. Tian tried to dodge or deflect but he was caught flat footed and they found their mark. All the power and confidence that Tian had felt flowing through him began to fade as he slumped to the floor. In that same moment the doors pushed inward and a group of monks burst into the large room.

The thief gave Tian a mocking salute and then the large emerald in his left hand glowed, summoning the other Eye of the Dragon to his hand. At the entrance the other monks readied weapons to attack, but the thief said a strange word and his mask flared with bright light. In the space of an instant he vanished.

Then the poison on the spikes did its work and Tian passed out.

***

The next morning Tian awoke in his bed to the sound of soft knocking at his door. Still ragged from the events of the previous night, he had been treated by the best healers in their temple. Between the treatment and his own training, the poison had been mostly purged from his system. There was only the faintest trace of disorientation and weakness to suggest that he had been poisoned in the first place.

A soft series of knocks sounded once again, and this time Tian responded, “I am awake, please enter.”

Another initiate, slightly younger than Tian, entered his room and gave a respectful bow. Tian sat up and gave a seated bow in return. Then the younger man spoke, “Grandfather Dragon requests your presence in the sanctuary.”

“Thank you, I will be there shortly.”

They exchanged bows once again, before Tian pushed himself from bed and quickly cleaned and dressed himself. He had expected that the masters would question him about the intruder, and the anticipation helped shake the last of his fatigue. The trip to the sanctuary was quick, and shortly thereafter Tian found himself standing before the three leaders of the temple. Beneath the statue of Ascendant Dragon was Grandfather Dragon, the oldest of the three grandmasters, who stroked his long silver mustache and bearded chin thoughtfully as he regarded Tian. To his left sat Grandmother Crane placid and unmoving, while Grandfather Tiger to the right watched with alert eyes, they deferred to Grandfather Dragon as was appropriate.

Grandfather Dragon pulled the crossbow bolt from his robe, his keen eyes studying every trace of the wicked barbs and fletching, “I have meditated through the night on the intruder, seeking why the eyes were stolen. Though the greed and vice of the outside world do not find a home within these walls, we know it drives the hearts of many men. And yet, I find that the true purpose behind this act of desecration transcends mere avarice.”

Tian pondered on what Grandfather Dragon said, and it made sense. The Eyes of the Dragon were likely to be valuable, they were emeralds the size of a man’s fist, but very few outsiders even knew of the eyes. In addition to that, the intruder had access to powerful magic, the mask that allowed him to teleport away must have been a very valuable item. It was clear that serpentine intruder was no average thief.

“The Eyes of the Dragon have been in our keeping since the founding of the order many centuries ago. We know these sacred relics contain great magical power, but the nature of that power remains unknown. Seven generations ago a great fire in the monastery destroyed many of our ancient scrolls, and sadly, much knowledge of the elder days was lost to us. Our legends of Ascendant Dragon, Celestial Crane, and Perfected Tiger are merely remnants of what once was,” Grandfather Dragon finished with great sadness apparent in his voice.

“During my contemplation, I was gifted with a vision from the Ascendant Dragon. I beheld a distant place, older than most realize, which I believe is the port of Darmane. It is there the intruder has fled with his prize. In this vision, I was filled with the knowledge that forgotten lore of the eyes could be found there as well. I sense the hand of destiny in these events.”

“We three Grandmasters have spoken, and we agree that one must be charged with bringing the Eyes of the Dragon safely home where they belong. We believe this Chosen One should be you.”

Tian looked up at the three Grandmasters, taking in their gazes, and then up to the statue of Ascendant Dragon. When he saw the empty spot where the Eyes of the Dragon had been, his purpose became crystal clear. Determination was mirrored in his eyes as he shifted his gaze back to Grandfather Dragon. When he saw the looked in Tian’s eyes he gave a small nod and broke into a rare and gentle smile, “I knew that you would accept before I even asked. Your journey will be difficult, but we know that you have the training and the spirit to return with the Eyes of the Dragon.”

Grandfather Dragon removed an ornate emerald amulet from his neck and handed it to Tian, “This is the Talisman of the Dragon Guide, it bears a connection to the Eyes of the Dragon and will help you on your way. It will tell you if the eyes are near, and has other powers as well…if you are capable of unlocking them.”

Grandmother Crane motioned to Tian and handed him a small bundle of items, “Inside you will find provisions and as much money as we could find, I hope it will help you on your journey.”

Grandfather Tiger was last, and handed Tian the crossbow bolt that he had taken when Grandfather Dragon set it down, “This is very distinctive. Use it to find the thief. Take it.  Remember your training.”

Taking their gifts and advice, Tian gave a deep bow and then turned to leave the sanctuary. As he left, Grandfather Dragon spoke last, “May the Dragon guide you.”

It took very little time for Tian to gather his few belongings. Soon enough he was departing the monastery on his quest. Word must have traveled fast, because as he walked out of the front gates the entire Order lined the walls of the gate, chanting in sublime voices for his success and safe return. With his heart filled, Tian waved to his brothers and gave a short respectful bow, before turning to walk down the mountain road.

Descending the mountain, Tian was struck by the awe-inspiring landscape – the craggy, snow-capped mountains, the brilliant green of the verdant valleys below and the feathery plume of water cascading from a high cliff face in a perfect waterfall. There was a magic to this place, as though the erhu and bawu instruments sang their melancholy music in his heart. Tian knew that he must return to this place one day.

***

Darmine was a bustling port city. It was a large city by any measure, but to Tian who had been raised in a remote mountain temple it was overwhelming. To the east of the city lay the mountains of his home, and north were fertile plains. The weather was warm and brisk, especially given that it was summertime. Used to the cool mountain air, Tian removed his over robe so that he dressed in a loose pair of trousers, boots, and a sleeveless vest. Warmer clothing went into the backpack he carried, as the young monk approached the eastern gate of the city.

Unlike the much busier main gate to the north, the eastern gate saw far less traffic. The few guards on duty spent their time drinking and gambling, and none of them bothered to question the rare traveler passing in and out of the gate. As he walked through the large gate, Tian looked down at the amulet he wore and noticed no sign of the Eyes of the Dragon in the area. His heart sank as he stepped out on the main avenue that ran near the gate, and had to jump out of the way as a wagon sped by.

“Watch where yer goin'” the driver yelled.

The bustling street caught Tian off-guard, and he found it very difficult to concentrate. His keen senses and attentive nature worked against him as sensory overload set in.

“Out of the way…”

“…then I took ‘es purse…”

“Treasures from far away!”

Tian caught sight of a pair of guards lounging nearby and approached them. The pair were talking and laughing, but grew silent as the noticed him approach. Nearer to the pair, Tian said, “Pardon me sir, I am here looking for a man who should have arrived a few days ago. He would be slender and a little less that my height, and carried crossbow bolts that look like this.”

He showed them the bolt. The first guard examined it and shrugged before passing it to the second who responded much the same. After handing it back the first guard said, “I would check with a fletcher, he might be able to help you with that.”

Bowing respectfully, Tian replied, “Many thanks, noble sir.”

The guard’s eyes narrowed for a moment, thinking he was being mocked, but then he faintly smiled when he realized he was not. There was a moment as he seemed to be considering how to properly respond, before he said, “You’re obviously new in town, and don’t look too rich, so let me give you some advice. If you’re looking for a cheap place to stay check out the Lonely Mermaid Inn. There are a few rough sorts in there, and they’re connected to all sorts of disreputable people who might’ve heard of this fellow you want to find. Just be careful.”

“Again, my thanks.”

The guard nodded and waved Tian off as he bowed, and the young monk went on his way. He decided to see about the place to stay, and then he could continue his search. Also he could ask at the Inn for direction in his search.

The Lonely Mermaid Inn was a two-story structure near the docks district. It was a dive in every sense of the word. Over the entrance was a shingle with a crudely drawn mermaid, she was not wearing any clothes and was clearly meant to be top heavy. Tian was a little shocked to see something like that out in the open, but continued inside anyway and was less surprised to see that the interior was even less clean than the outside of the building.

“Whaddya want,” the bartender asked gruffly as Tian approached.

“I would like a room, please.”

“That’ll be,” he paused, eying the young monk, “five gold pieces for the night.”

Tian reached into his pouch and slowly counted out the money. Cities were more expensive than he realized, and hoped that he would not have to stay long. Especially if that was a cheap Inn compared to the rest. The bartender snatched up the gold with a surprisingly quick hand, and then reached under the counter to give Tian a key.

“Last room on the left, upstairs. You get one bowl’o stew, one mug’o grog. Anythin’ else costs extra, got it?”

Nodding, Tian pulled the crossbow bolt from his backpack, “I am looking for a man who carries more of these, have you seen him? Or do you know where I might find a fletcher?”

“Ain’t seen nuthin’ and don’t know nuthin’ ask sumbody else.”

Tian turned away from the bartender with growing frustration, and made his way to one of the tables to sit for a moment. He had hoped that the bartender might know someone who could help. The young monk pondered his next course of action while trying to tune out the commotion of the other patrons. During his reverie, he was soon interrupted as he noticed a young woman walking towards him with an intent look on her face. She was dressed in form fitting leathers that emphasized her slender form, and had blonde hair that was cut high above the shoulders, but did not detract from her inherent femininity. The way she walked was very attention grabbing, and even someone as inexperienced as Tian was confident that she wanted the attention.

Although Tian grew up in a monastery with woman as well as men, his focus had always been on his training. The woman of his Order were his sisters the same as the men were his brothers. Therefore the blatant look the woman leveled his way was quite jarring. She reached his table and gave him a wide smile, “Hello there, stranger. New to town?”

Tian was frozen for a moment before he remembered his manners and stood up to greet her in return, “Yes, I have just arrived from the mountains to the east. My name is Tian Long. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

Her smile froze as she looked at him speculatively. There seemed to be a momentary hesitation, as if she debated with herself, but then a moment later her smile warmed. With a more genuinely friendly expression she sat down.

“I can tell you’re not from around here, darlin’, I can spot an outlander from a mile away, mainly by how clean they are,” her laugh singing silvery. “Allow me to introduce myself, stranger, my name is – ”

“Kayla Keen!” a voice boomed behind her. A large man in a dirty jerkin brandished a belaying pin menacingly in one hand. He was impressively dirty and anger radiated from his every movement and expression.

“I’ve been waitin’ to run into you again,” his voice slurred.

“Wish that I could say the same,” the woman returned. The man’s bloodshot eyes narrowed dangerously.

“Get ‘er boys, and her friend too!”

“Can we not talk about this,” Tian said raising his hands,”I do not wish any trouble. Please leave me and this woman alone.”

“Don’t bother,” Kayla interjected, “he’s even more stubborn than he is ugly.”

The leader of the men growled to his companions, “That’s it, get her!”

Tian moved in front of Kayla as two of the sailors moved forward with their belaying pins at the ready. They were both burly men and fit from a life spent at sea, but as they moved Tian could see that neither of them had the skilled steps of a true warrior. He resolved not to do any lasting harm to them.

Seeing no threat in the slender young man, the two sailors charged in beside one another. Tian moved like his namesake, both swift and powerful, a foot lashed out low catching one sailor on his knee and sending him head over heels in pain. The other sailor was stopped by a backhand to the temple, and a twist of Tian’s wrist that disarmed him and used the man’s momentum to flip him onto his back. In the blink of an eye, both sailors were on the ground clutching at injuries and trying to catch their breath.

“Wow,” Kayla said in a hushed voice, “that’s amaz…watch out!”

Her warning was unnecessary as the closest sailor swung at Tian as he recovered from his last movement, but with preternatural awareness the young monk dodged the sneaky blow. Turning in a full circle Tian brought his leg around in a reaping kick that violently knocked the pin from the sailor’s hand. Without even a moment to recover, Tian lifted into the air as his other leg spun overhead to crack against the sailor’s head. Even after purposely pulling the blow, the man still fell bonelessly to the ground unconscious.

Coming to a stop, Tian took a deep breath and centered himself, “Please let us stop this senseless fighting.”

The other sailors looked at their comrades, downed so fast that none of them had a chance to  react, and seemed ready to back away. Unfortunately for Tian their leader had the courage of strong drink and raised his pin high as he shouted, “There’s seven o’ us and only one a him!”

Not ones to be called cowards, the remaining men followed their leader into the fray. Tian knew that he was far more skilled than the men, but their sheer numbers meant that he spent more time avoiding strikes than dealing them. Gracefully he dodged their clumsy strikes and restrained himself from counterattacks that would severely injure them. High and low, side to side, Tian moved through the crowd with a liquid grace. Constantly moving he kept the men off-guard and never gave them a chance to mob him at once.

Soon enough only three of the seven stood against him, but it was in the process of dodging one of their strikes and pulling Kayla out of the path of another, that an attacker stumbled into an onlooker. The crowd had retreated from the fight with the grace of experience, but this time the stumble caused a chain reaction that left many with spilled drinks and angry expressions. Nearly in unison the other patrons of the Inn leapt into the fight with a gusto. Not all of them went after Tian, in fact most avoided attacking him from the front, but the commotion was massive. Furthermore some of the sailors that had been knocked down were slowly regaining their feet.

“Let’s get out of here,” Kayla shouted into Tian’s ear, “the guards will be here soon and they don’t care about who started anything. It’ll be to jail and a fine for everyone.”

While Tian might not have wanted to violate the city laws, he felt his mission was much more important. Furthermore the apparent corruption of the city could easily extend to those guards that Kayla claimed would arrive soon. With only a little reluctance he gave a short nod and said, “Let us get out of here!”

Tian followed Kayla as she moved through the crowd with surprising grace, leading him to wonder how much danger she had been in all along. Soon enough they were out the door and down a side alley. Kayla led Tian through a dizzying maze of tiny alleys and streets until they were many blocks away from the Lonely Mermaid Inn. Tian was able to keep pace with Kayla, but once again he was impressed by her speed and endurance. She was clearly no damsel in distress, as he had originally suspected.

A short time later they stopped in a small alley that came to a dead end. There were no doors or windows in the alcove and Kayla indicated that they should rest there for a bit. Tian stretched his arms briefly, having enjoyed his brawl a little bit more than he felt was proper. At the same time Kayla stretched into a catlike pose and held it, along with every bit of Tian’s attention. She noticed his gaze and purposely held her pose a moment longer than was necessary before giving him a warm smile, “Thanks for that, those guys were more trouble than they’re worth.”

“There is no need for thanks. I could not allow ten men to attack you.”

“Ah, so if there had been less I would’ve been on my own,” Kayla grinned wryly.

“No that is not…what I meant was…”

“Don’t get so flustered, I was just teasing. I really do appreciate your help, those louts were out of control.”

“That is very true,” Tian agreed, still a little flustered.

“So tell me, Tian, how can I return the favor,” Kayla closed on him purposefully, “I do so hate to feel like I have a debt hanging over my head.”

Swallowing loudly, Tian spoke with a short squeak, caught himself and started again, “Yes, I am here on a quest for my temple, and I seek a man who stole our most prized relics. He fights with the style of the Black Serpent Way, is fond of using poison, and carries more of these.” He held out the crossbow bolt for Kayla to examine.

She nodded as Tian finished, barely even needing to see the bolt before she answered, “Oh that guy, he’s bad news. Everyone calls him The Serpent, big surprise. Recently he’s been blowing the gold he got off of some big score he made recently, and bragging about it too. So that was your temple he hit?”

“Yes, it was,” Tian replied, his shame over the loss in the sanctuary returning, “I faced him in our temple’s sanctuary and could have defeated the man, but I was distracted at the critical moment and he poisoned me with his darts. The next time I face him I will not lose!”

Kayla’s face sobered for a moment at the fierce change in his expression. He hardly seemed like the same naive young man that had been sneaking covert glances at her. Tian’s demeanor soon returned to normal as he centered himself and returned his attention to her. She laid a hand on his shoulder for a moment, “I’m sorry to hear about that, but if you’re already up after getting hit by his poison you must be tougher than you look.”

“Learning to resist poison and other things is part of our training,” Tian said off-handedly, “What else can you tell me about this Serpent?”

“Well he has a large black serpent tattoo on his neck and often goes to the market to spend that money he loves to brag about,” Kayla rolled her eyes, “he’s not a member of the Guild, and the higher ups said not to tangle with him because he’s dangerous. If you could handle him, though, that would look pretty good on me…in return I would be willing to help you out with what you need while you’re here.”

“That would be more than acceptable, Kayla. I give you my thanks,” Tian bowed deeply.

“Hey, hey, no need to be so formal with me now, after you saved my life and all. Okay, let’s go. I’ll set you up with a much better place to stay than the Mermaid Inn, and I’ll ask around about the Serpent. Tomorrow we can check the market.”

“Many thanks.”

Kayla laughed and did not bother to correct Tian that time.

***

That night a shirtless Tian sat on the floor beside his bed in the inn that Kayla had suggested. It was much nicer than the Lonely Mermaid Inn, and even a little cheaper after she had gotten him a discount by haggling with the owner. He reflected on his good fortune in finding and assisting the young lady. Despite her very distracting nature he felt that she would be helpful in his quest. The part of himself that was more honest appreciated her distracting nature, which is why his attempts at meditation were going so poorly. He tried once again to center himself and focus his thoughts. As was typical of his training, he used his meditation as a work out for his body as well. Muscles worked against each other in a concert of movement, and soon enough his forehead and upper body were glistening with sweat.

Tian focused on all the different groups of muscles in his body, working them against one another until exhaustion began to settle deep into his limbs. As his body grew heavier, Tian’s mind became increasingly refreshed. He went over each of the days events, and then discarded each one for later inspection. As he let go of each memory his spirit became lighter, until finally he came to his thoughts about Kayla herself. Not surprisingly they were the most tenacious and resisted his attempts to push them aside. The calm stillness of his mind and spirit grew increasingly turbulent as Tian failed to purge thoughts of Kayla.

As if in response to his thoughts, there was a knock at his door. Smoothly rising to his feet, Tian walked over and opened the door to find Kayla standing before him. Unlike earlier in the day she was dressed in a simple tunic belted over a long skirt. The casual clothing unexpectedly enhanced her beauty, turning the previously vampish young woman into someone more approachable and warm. Tian stood in silent observation for a few moments before Kayla’s words snapped him free, “Can I come in?”

“Yes, please come inside, my apologies.”

Kayla walked into the room and wryly noticed that the orderly young man had laid his few belongings out in a neat arrangement on the small table beside the washbasin. The tidiness of his room was at odds with what was the norm for the city, and was just another example of why Tian stood out so much.

“Did I interrupt anything,” Kayla asked, gesturing to his shirtless form.

Tian’s eyes widened and he pulled his sleeveless tunic on in one movement.

“You didn’t have to do that on my account,” she drawled languidly.

“Thank you for helping me find this inn,” Tian changed the subject, “it is much nicer than the Lonely Mermaid Inn.”

“Naturally, that place was a dive. So as much fun as it is making you uncomfortable,” Kayla raised a hand to stop Tian’s objections, “I came here to say that there is a good chance the Serpent will be at the marketplace tomorrow. He has not been back for a couple of days, and he has been a regular there.”

“Excellent! Soon I will be able to get the eyes back from him.”

“The eyes? Is that what he stole?”

“Yes, the Eyes of the Dragon. My Order’s most important holy relics. They are a pair of matching emeralds, about the size of a grown man’s fist. Grandfather Dragon says that they are highly magical, and in the wrong hands could be dangerous.”

Kayla slid her arm into Tian’s and pulled him to the bed to sit beside her as she said, “Dangerous how?”

“Um,” Tian tried not to let himself get too distracted, “I am not sure exactly. Most of our scrolls were destroyed in a fire long ago.”

“What a shame, if you knew more about the eyes that could help in your search.”

Nodding absently, Tian continued nodding as her words sank in, “Absolutely, if only we still had access to records from that time. It was over two hundred years ago. None of our Order were alive then, and no other sources in the region go back that far. The knowledge is lost.”

“That is a long time ago, but I have something in mind that might help you.”

Tian cocked his head to the side in surprise, Kayla seemed to have something new up her sleeve, “How is that possible?”

“There is a very old library in town. It’s been closed up, but if we get inside there might be something that can help you,” she gave his arm a squeeze, “I’ll take you after we visit the market tomorrow.”

“If so then…I have no words to express my gratitude. I will owe you a great debt.”

“Between helping me with those sailors and getting rid of the Serpent, we’ll be more than even. Anyway, it’s getting late, I should let you get back to…whatever it was you were doing,” she gave Tian a wink, “I’ll be here for you tomorrow morning. Not too early, but before midday.”

Tian stood up and walked her to the door. He was sorry to see her go so soon, but she was right, tomorrow would be a busy day. As they reached the door, Tian opened it for her, “It was good to see you again.”

Kayla’s flirty demeanor dropped for a moment as the simple compliment caught her off-guard. It was only a moment, but in that moment she was not the savvy scoundrel, but simply a girl pleased to hear a compliment from a boy. For all of his naivete, Tian managed to recognize the moment as well, and they shared something in their eyes. All too soon the moment passed and the cares of a busy and demanding world intruded, pressing them to say farewell.

“You’re sweet,” she said kissing his cheek, “that’s a nice change. Good night.”

Tian stood in shock as Kayla walked down the hall, calling out to her at the last moment before she was out of sight, “Sleep well, Kayla.”

***

The market district was near the center of the city, between the main gate and the docks. Its placement was appropriate, it was the beating heart at the center of the winding body of Darmane. The market consisted of three long, wide streets surrounded by shops that faded into a network of spider-web roads and dead-end alleys. Street vendors crowded in a dense press of humanity that made it difficult to see very far away.

Tian had difficulty navigating through the thick crowd, his natural instincts towards politeness keeping him from pushing people out of his way. Kayla had no such problem and took the lead, clearing a path that stayed open just long enough for the young monk to follow her. His heart beat a fast pace in his chest as he contemplated his rematch with the Serpent. Their last fight had been close, but before his distraction Tian felt like the tide shifted in his favor. With a second chance close at hand, he wondered if that perceived advantage had been only in his head.

At first as they passed through the market Tian gazed warily at every stranger they passed. Not only was it exhausting, but soon Kayla pulled him close and roughly whispered in his ear, “Stop that! If you keep glaring at everybody it’ll alert the Serpent. Just pretend we’re out shopping, and learn to look without looking.”

Tian gave a reluctant nod. Every instinct in his body told him to be on-guard against his enemy, but Kayla was right. Without luring him into the open it might be impossible to catch the Serpent before he found out that someone was looking for him. It took an effort, but Tian focused on pretending to shop with Kayla.

Soon enough it took less effort as the pair made their way through the marketplace, looking over the many wares. The vendors made every trinket out to be a lost treasure, but Kayla was quick to deflate their overblown talk. Whenever they did find an item of real value it was usually priced much too high, at least according to her. Tian wondered if she really felt that way, or if it was simply a part of their cover so that they could continue moving through the market without stopping to purchase. Regardless of the truth, Kayla’s entire focus seemed to be on shopping, so when she very briefly whispered in Tian’s ear it was unexpected, “There is a man following us, don’t look, he has on a large grey-hooded cloak. It might be a pickpocket, or it could be our man. I’ll flash him the guild sign, if he doesn’t respond then it probably is him.”

Kayla casually turned to face the direction of their hooded watcher. She stretched her neck and at the same time brought her hand across her belt and made a strange gesture. It was intricate, but also very quick. If Tian had not expected it, he might have dismissed the movement as some sort of idle fidgeting.

Apparently the hooded figure felt the same way, because he gave no response to the movement and instead appeared to turn his attention back to the vendor near him. Kayla finished her movement and then casually turned back to face Tian. Her eyes widened and she gave a very slight nod. They continued walking, only they turned down one of the many small alleys leading off the main road. Once there they turned to the right once again and then flattened against the wall to see if their pursuer had followed.

Long moments passed as Tian waited for the man, and just as his anticipation got the better of him, the hooded man entered the alley. Kayla readied a throwing dagger that had been hidden somewhere on her person, but Tian laid his hand on hers and shook his head, “I must have him alive to answer my questions.”

He moved to step out to face the figure, but Kayla caught him and whispered fiercely, “You can’t just walk out there. Let’s ambush him, it’s too dangerous.”

“No. I need to do this to atone for my prior failure.”

She looked at him as if he were crazy, “If we surprise him, it’ll be much easier.”

Tian laid a hand on her shoulder, “I thank you for your help. I must do this alone.”

Before Kayla could raise further objections, he stepped out into the alley in full view of the hooded figure. Standing openly before the figure, Tian addressed him, “I am Tian Long of the Order of the Enlightened Way and I am here to return what you stole from my home.”

“Yes, I know who you are,” the stranger said as he pulled back his grey hood, revealing a hard-lined face. Curving down the side of his neck was a tattoo of a sinuous black serpent. The man’s burning eyes bore into Tian like daggers. “I’m not sure how you found me,” the Serpent said in a steely voice, “but it will be the last thing you live to regret.”

In a fast rush the Serpent came at Tian, lashing out with two throwing spikes as he charged the young monk. This time Tian was not distracted and caught them deftly between the first two fingers of his right hand. Standing completely still he narrowed his eyes and tossed the poisoned darts into the remains of a nearby wooden crate. Then with deliberate slowness he stretched into his fighting stance and waited for the charge of the Serpent.

In the precise moment as the Serpent closed he leapt into the air, his hands forming into twin finger strikes aimed at both sides of Tian’s vulnerable neck. At the last possible moment, Tian whipped his rear leg around in a long spinning kick that connected with the chest of the leaping thief. Tian’s upward force crashed against the entire weight of the Serpent’s body, folding him in half over the leg and then sending him flying back several feet to crash onto the ground, rolling to a stop against the nearby wall.

Stunned the Serpent tried to push himself up against the wall, but stumbled and slipped back to the ground. His free hand went to his chest as the dark-clad man tried to steady himself. Looking up with shock on his face, the Serpent spat a mouthful of blood onto the ground, “You can’t stop me, fool!”

Pushing himself back to his feet, the Serpent took his fighting stance once again. This time he approached more cautiously, hands as quick as snakes, ready to try the defenses of this surprising young monk. Tian was once again in his fighting stance and stood perfectly still, waiting for his enemy to attack. The Serpent let loose a flurry of blows, serpent hands striking with precision and speed.

Tian moved in along the centerline, his hand curling into a palm strike that impacted against the center of his enemy’s chest. Then he followed that with a rising palm strike to the base of the chin, and a straight kick that caught the Serpent in the chest once again. Off-balance from the strike to his chin, the Serpent went down once again, and this time he did not get back up.

Standing over his downed enemy, Tian went through the movements of a much more formal bow than normal. His arms flowed out and around before coming to his side as he flowed from fighting stance to bow and paid his respects not to his fallen enemy, but the spirit of Ascendant Dragon that was the guide on his path.

Kayla watched in shocked silence as Tian finished his bow, then she rushed over to his side, “That was amazing! He didn’t lay a hand on you, not a single hit.”

Tian felt the last remnants of his focus fading as the fight had ended, giving Kayla a small smile he said, “I have regained my pride with his defeat, now I will regain my honor.”

At that he turned to regard the gasping figure on the ground. The Serpent was clutching at his chest, the first kick had done major damage, but it was the second that had broken something. Tian could see that it was difficult for the man to breathe. He had to ignore his strong desire to help the fallen enemy, the important thing was getting the Eyes of the Dragon. Kneeling beside the Serpent, Tian said, “Where are the Eyes of the Dragon?”

The Serpent scowled and made no move to answer. Tian shook him fiercely, ignore the pain that washed over the injured man’s face, “Answer me or I will end your life.”

Kayla moved, as if to interject, but at the last moment she stopped and allowed Tian to continue. The young monk held onto the front of the Serpent’s tunic and raised his other fist as if to strike the fallen man. Their eyes met for a moment, and then the Serpent looked away in fear and shame before answering, “Spare me and I will answer your questions.”

“I will not take your life if you tell me where to find the Eyes of the Dragon.”

“I gave them to a warlord named Kharzon. He paid me well to retrieve them from your temple,” the Serpent winced, “before he hired me I never even knew that such a treasure existed.”

“I think he is telling the truth,” Kayla said, “I never heard of them before now either, and I would have if word had gotten around.”

Tian nodded slowly.

“More? Okay, okay, I gave them to Kharzon a week ago. He and his men boarded a ship heading for the Rakhan Desert,” the Serpent wheezed a moment and then continued, “his standard is a white flag with a snarling black lion emblazoned on it. He has some sort of army in the hinterlands, but he only took part of his forces to the desert. Okay? That’s all I know.”

Tian felt anger boiling up inside of him. He had hoped to find the Eyes with the thief, only to find that they had been taken by some warlord to a desert. They were even further out of his grasp than he had known. As he looked down at the Serpent his anger grew in fits, and he was on the verge of acting when Kayla laid a calming hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t let your anger get the best of you, I can tell that you’ll regret it.”

Tian’s anger stubbornly held on for another moment or two, and he gazed down at the Serpent, watching the man shrink before him, before taking a calming breath. She was right. He was not following the path. What would be the good of finding the Eyes of the Dragon if he forgot the Path of the Dragon along the way. Tian realized that in his rush to save the Eyes, he had begun to wander from his teachings. Giving a silent prayer to the Ascendant Dragon, Tian resolved to be more vigilant in the future.

“I will spare your life,” he said finally to the frightened man, “but you will leave this city and never return. Never come back to this place or my temple, or your life will be forfeit.”

The Serpent nodded, “I swear it!”

Helping the man to his feet, Tian watched him stumble to his feet. As the Serpent moved to leave, Kayla stepped in his path with her hand outstretched, “I think you’re forgetting something.”

Confused, the man wheezed, “What do you mean?”

“Your money,” she gestured to the large purse on his belt, “hand it over.”

Tian felt a twinge of disappointment. He had really thought that Kayla was helping him out of gratitude, and maybe something more. To see that she just wanted money hurt him more than he wanted to admit. Forcing himself to look away, he tried to ignore the feeling in his chest.

Reluctantly the Serpent handed over his purse to the young woman. She hefted it in her hand with a grin, then she stepped out of his path and motioned for him to leave. Tian did not turn around as Kayla walked over to him. Touching his right shoulder, he turned to face her as she stepped to his left playfully. When he spun around towards her, she slapped the large purse into his stomach. Tian was surprised by the move and almost dropped it as he looked at her with a puzzled expression.

“It’s the money he got from stealing your treasure,” she smiled tenderly, “I only take from those who deserve it.”

Kayla stood by his side in silence for a long moment as he pondered all that had occurred. He had grossly misjudged her, and the realization that he was wrong made suppressed emotions spring to the surface. Tian took a deep breath, not to ignore his feelings, but to acknowledge them. When he finally looked up she touched his cheek with a tender expression, before finally saying, “So you’re off to the desert?”

“It is my only clue, I hoped for something more but I must work with what I have.”

“Maybe I can narrow that down for you,” Kayla said, “I have some friends at the docks, I might be able to find out what ship Kharzon used and where he sailed to.”

“Once again I am humbled by your generosity.”

“Well it only goes so far,” Kayla said with a wry grin, “this time I’m going to have to pay for the information. It’ll take a while, and some money, so hand over some of that big pile of gold I just gave you.”

Tian returned her grin, more than happy to pay for the information. He handed over half of his remaining gold, “Will this be enough?”

“Way more than enough, I’ll bring you back your change after I buy myself something nice,” she winked, “why don’t you go to the library while I get the information. We can meet at your room tonight and catch each other up.”

Nodding, Tian said, “That is fine. Please be careful.”

“Take your own advice, that library is closed up for a reason. You’ll have to break in probably, that won’t be a problem will it?”

“While it is not my preference, sneaking into an abandoned library is less of a crime than letting this warlord get away with the Eyes of the Dragon,” Tian gave a quick bow, “I will see you this evening.”

Kayla winked in return and then left for the docks. Tian looked once more in the direction the Serpent had gone, and then again at the departing Kayla, before turning away to go to the library.

(Continued in Part Two)

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