Act III: The Beast Within

Chapter 1: The Fall of Brightstone Village

Mayor Taywo watched as Iksanun faded into the distance, letting out a heavy sigh. Behind him, his daughter Kuwin weeped openly. It could not be helped. In the years since Iksanun came to live in Brightstone, he had become a part of the village. But now it was time to leave.

Iksanun had glimpsed visions of the future. He had seen that a great darkness yet hunted for him. If he stayed, he would only be putting the villagers at risk. Taywo closed his eyes and thought back to the day he had first met Iksanun.

The traveler clutched his side as he stumbled through the village.

He had almost made it to the entrance of Mayor Taywo's house when he collapsed. Mayor Taywo called for help, and several nearby villagers carried the traveler inside.

Taywo recognized the traveler almost at once. It was Iksanun the Realmwalker, a Guardian of old. His wound was deep. The Mayor's daughter did all she could to clean and bandage the wound, but it still radiated with malevolent energy. Over the course of several months under Kuwin's care, Iksanun finally recovered. The effort of purging the darkness from his body left him weak. He still lived, but would never be the same.

Chapter 2: A Link to the Past and Present

Throughout his childhood, Ilsim was bullied for being both a bastard child and an orphan. But Ilsim was not truly fatherless, for Mayor Taywo had always been there for him.

When the other children teased Ilsim, it was Taywo who chased them away. When Ilsim was sad, Taywo held the boy tight. As Ilsim grew, he began to see in Mayor Taywo everything he wanted to be--a strong Lyn who protected his people, who fought for them against the tyranny of the indomitable Talus Dominion.

Yet despite Ilsim's noble aims, he harbored a deep resentment for the man he held responsible for the occupation of Brightstone, and the death of his mother. The one called Iksanun.

Chapter 3: The Great Escape

The Talus Garrison outside of Brightstone was originally constructed as an outpost in the Talus-Stratus war and served to protect the village from the Stratus army. However, 16 years ago it took on a different, more nefarious purpose.

The Talus army, led by their emissary, Lady Blackrose, invaded and occupied Brightstone Village under the guise of searching it for the Guardian Iksanun. But their true purpose soon became apparent: the capture of Brightstone's soulstone mine.

Up until the first citizens were conscripted to work the soulstone mines, Mayor Taywo instructed the villagers to offer no resistance. He had hoped to protect them from the wrath of the Talus. However, when the citizens of Brightstones realized that there was no redemption in sight, a plan was hatched. The only hope for freedom lay in revolution.

Chapter 4: A Quest Rekindled

Over the course of Iksanun's travels, the Realmwalker experienced many visions, images of what must someday be. Some of these visions were clear, while others lay shrouded in metaphor.

In recent years, however, there were two visions that stood out above all others. The first was much clearer. Iksanun foresaw that a student of Hong Sokyun would appear, branded with the Mark of the Black Rose. If Iksanun was interpreting his visions correctly, only this individual was capable of stemming the tide of darkness Jinsoyun hoped to unleash upon the world. The trouble was that was far as Iksanun knew--both the school of Hongmoon and its master were no more.

The second vision was that of a lone red flower standing defiantly against the great blue sky. Iksanun was certain that this flower was in some way vital to the success of the one who would challenge Jinsoyun; however, the meaning of the flower itself remained a mystery. That was, at least, until he quite literally stumbled upon it.

One day while Iksanun wandered in the Lycandi Foothills, he encountered a beautiful woman garbed in red. She lay bleeding and half-hidden in the brush, having crawled away from the site of some battle. Recognizing her at once, the Realmwalker did the only thing he could think of. He brought her to the safety of his home in the secluded village of Greenhollow.

Chapter 5: The Skyward Path

Shin Hai and her fellow Redguards crept quietly towards the clearing, their weapons drawn. Skyhaven intelligence reports had placed a unit of Talus soldiers in the area, and Shin Hai intended to see that they never left it.

Every victory against the Talus, no matter how small, dealt a blow against the machinations of the one who really controlled the Talus Dominion. If the Talus soldiers were made to believe that this war was unwinnable, perhaps they would lay down their arms, and the Skyhaven Resistance could finally return power to the people who so loved their country.

As the Redguards moved, a sensation of terrible foreboding came, over Shin Hai. It was the same feeling she had in the presence of the Emissary and her lackeys. Shin Hai whirled around to the sound of a shriek, cut inexplicably short. A fellow Redguard stared out in horror as blood gushed from her own throat. She clutched at her wound helplessly before collapsing and becoming perfectly still.

As Shin Hai raised her blade to defend herself, a dagger soared through the air towards her. Another Redguard lunged in front of Shin Hai to deflect the weapon, only to be struck in the heart, Shin Hai caught the girl as she fell, and stood there paralyzed. "Run!" the dying girl choked. And then she was gone. Pulled by an invisible force, the dagger tore itself from the body of the dead Redguard. It flew into the waiting arms of the woman in black leather, the Emissary's lieutenant, She gave a menacing smile and licked the blade clean. Shin Hai's veins turned to ice.

Chapter 6: Blood of the Wolf

There were many factors leading to the rebellion that inevitably resulted in the founding of the Talus Dominion. The corruption and tyranny of the Stratus Empire played no small part. Taxation, oppression, conscription... the Stratus seemed to have their greedy fingers in everything, and both humans and Beast Kin alike were fed up.

The internal squabbling of the royal family did not help matters. In fact, it was this infighting that finally destroyed the trust of the people, Driven by jealousy of his brother, Emperor Wan, Lord Sogun's schemes to take the throne resulted in the unthinkable: the destruction of Highland Central.

The people could bear no more. The Talus rebellion was born. Claiming the great city of Zaiwei as their capital, the people of the Eastern Continent declared their independence, Unwilling to part with such vast quantities of natural resources and territory, the Stratus Army rallied to suppress this insurrection, War had come to the Earthen Realm.

Chapter 7: Bark at the Moon

Many of the Beast Kin tribes of Moonwater Plains each held unique and varied faiths. The Lycandi worshipped the Mighty Lycan, a wolflike Sacred Beast and protector whom they regard as their progenitor and motherly goddess. The Hoglin tribe, to the contrary, had no organized religion, but believed in pragmatism, introspection, and cycle of rebirth.

The Ploggles had a number of contradicting faiths, from the worship of a handful of esoteric, elemental gods, to a complex pantheon of sacred beings such as the Golden Giganura, The Simyu tribe did not worship so much as revere their king and renowned sacred beast, Ogong. Above all they pursued perfection of the physical form and sought to assert their dominance through combat. Finally, the Snapjaw faith had its roots in mysticism. They placed their faith in a handful of wizened Sages who guided them in matters both strategic and spiritual.

In ancient times, when the Dark Lord last attempted to cross over to the Earthen Realm, humans and Beast Kin stood united against his terrible army. Likewise, for centuries thereafter, the Four Guardians and Sacred Beasts worked together to combat the armies of darkness.

But the Four Guardians were gone, and the Beast kin had experienced continual disappointment in the actions of humans. With faith in humans waning, the Beast Kin began to wonder if they would be best suited abandoning humanity entirely.

Chapter 8: Right Under Our Noses

Coming from the bloody world of Martial Society, the beauty and serenity of Hogshead Pastures was almost hypnotic. Hardworking farmers, far removed from the conflict and duplicity that seemed so abundant in the Eastern Continent, labored contentedly over their fields while pigs grunted in their pens.

The Hongmoon Warrior sowed seeds diligently, sweating in the dirt as naturally as the humble folk who made this land their home. A gentle wind swept over the calm land and rustled the grass, Could it be possible for one so burdened as the Warrior to let go of the past, to start a new life here? How easy it would be to lay down one's worries and regrets and embrace the simple things in life. Yet Jinsoyun was still out there. She was already responsible for so much death and suffering. How many more would die if the Warrior was to give up their quest? Alas, such thoughts are no more than wishful thinking, Until Jinsoyun was dead, there would be no rest for the sole survivor of the Hongmoon School.

Chapter 9: And Now For Something Completely Different

The secret to the Talus Dominion's newfound military might, the thing that had finally secured their independence in the face of such a powerful opponent as the Stratus Empire, were known as automatons. Automatons were technical masterworks formed from metal. These machines were granted motion by moving cogs and mechanical joints and then imbued with life--some might say sentience--by the soulstones which powered them,

Technology had come a long way over the last few decades. Skilled artisans could muster up mechanical toys and clockwork contraptions capable of motion. But none of these inventions could begin to compare with the dexterity, durability, and deadliness of automatons. Unquestioning and incapable of fear, automatons were undoubtedly the ultimate soldiers.

The creation of modern automatons was a union of science and mysticism. Skilled engineers crafted the physical frame of the automaton, deciding its form and function. Meanwhile, a charm such as those created by the Earthseers was required to channel the power of the soulstones, to give life to lifeless machines. While early automatons developed by Stratus scientists were relegated to farming and menial tasks before the Talus-Stratus war, it was the Talus who first thought to weaponize them. It was also the Talus who discovered how to grant the automatons intelligence,

The technological mastery of these astonishing machines was unparalleled in the world, with one exception: the ancient Naryu kingdom that once spanned the globe. It was only at tremendous effort and expense, and with years of experimentation, that scientists were finally able to rediscover the long-lost technology that had once brought the Earthen Realm to its knees.

Chapter 10: A Pig in a Poke

Dressed in the garb of a commoner, Iksanun searched Hogshead Pastures for signs of his old friend Laofu, Laofu was a Sacred Beast, wizened by centuries or perhaps even millennia of experiences. Now, as in centuries past, Laofu was the spiritual and diplomatic leader of the Hoglin tribe.

To many. Hogshead Pastures seemed like paradise. But the quiet villages and rolling hills belied a truly gruesome history. Centuries ago, the Pastures were the native homeland of the Hoglin people. Then humans came and conquered the land in a long and bloody war from which the Hoglin never recovered, In more recent times, the Hoglin people had become secretive and extremely territorial, keeping mostly to their hidden, fiercely protected dens. Iksanun surveyed the landscape, and pondered the whereabouts of Laofu. The Sacred Beast's aid would be urgently needed in order to avoid catastrophe.

Iksanun winced suddenly, and nearly fell forward as the pain of his old injury flared anew. While he had fully recovered physically, the terrible wound plagued him still. Iksanun was lucky to have survived it, although purging the Dark Chi which once festered within had taken nearly all of the old Guardian's power. With a tear in his eye and a bitter sorrow in his heart, Iksanun thought back on that tragic day.

Had it really been so long since that day? It was on that day that Jiwan's brightest pupil stole the Twilight's Edge and used it against the Four Guardians. That was the day that Jiwan died, and Mushin and Iksanun were brought low by the mark of an impure soul wielding a weapon of power beyond reckoning. Had Jiwan's pupil succumbed to darkness, or were they simply showing their true colors for the first time? "I suppose it does not matter," thought Iksanun. "The Four Guardians are no more. Now Jinsoyun threatens the world, and there is only one among us who can stop her."

Chapter 11: A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing

Ilsim hurried towards the Sapphire Basin. There was not much time before his meeting with the leader of the Skyhaven Resistance, and he could not afford to miss it. As he ran, he recalled his conversation with Mayor Taywo.

"The fate of Brightstone lies in your hands, Ilsim," Mayor Taywo said, "We must join the Skyhaven alliance. It is our only hope against the Dominion. Speak with the Skyhaven commander and tell her. Tell her we will join." Ilsim's hands trembled as he contemplated what Taywo had said, "It is all right to be scared, Ilsim" the old Lyn said.

"I'm not scared," Ilsim said, and he believed his own words. In truth, he was honored to be trusted with such an important task, Ilsim knew full well what hinged upon this meeting, perhaps better than the Mayor himself. The boy gave a weak smile. "I... I know what needs to be done," he said. "I won't fail this village.

Chapter 12: Professional Courtesy

Pain, Soul-rending agony. That was all Gwon knew as the doctor tried desperately to bandage the hole in Gwon's abdomen. It would be so easy to just give up, to die. Then the pain would finally be over. But to die here would be the coward's way out,

This very moment, the woman he loved was being held captive, Namsoyoo is alone, Gwon thought. She is a prisoner somewhere, and she's terrified! It was bad enough that they had nearly killed him, and had succeeded in dispatching most of his crew. But what was truly unforgivable was how they had humiliated him.

The Woman in Black and her henchmen had made a fool of Gwon in front of his own crew, right before they took his love away from him. But that was a sweet lie, for the truth itself was far crueler. Namsoyoo had gone with the Woman in Black of her own free will, and that pain was far worse than any injury of the flesh. Gwon screamed in anguish as the doctor continued his work.

Chapter 13: The Commander's Shadow

Yura had spent years mastering the delicate art of deception, but Jinsoyun presented a unique challenge. Her eyes were so calculating and her voice so cold and monotone that she was nearly impossible to read, Jinsoyun held Yura partially responsible for the loss of Mushin and his descendant. At times, her words even suggested that she knew about Yura's connection to the fallen Guardian.

Yura didn't like Jinsoyun, but knew she had to walk a delicate balance. After all, Jinsoyun held the Twilight's Edge. The Divine Mandate could not be completed without it.

Yura decided to wait and see how events unraveled. Perhaps she and Jinsoyun were both using each other, neither one trusting the other and neither one ready to fully part ways. Perhaps the greatest skill that Yura had learned across the years was not deception, but patience.

Chapter 14: Plogging Along

Iksanun stood admiring his latest disguise with great satisfaction. This would've fooled his own mother! The Realmwalker was roused from his musings by a familiar sensation. It was a dark, foreboding presence, one that he had felt stalking him since leaving Greenhollow.

Iksanun frowned. Such a being would not be fooled by a disguise like this, no matter how authentic or masterfully crafted. He knew that even in his weakened state, he remained a Guardian. The demon would recognize his aura anywhere. But he would not have to confront his hunter so soon. There was a place he might go. Amidst such an enormous concentration of Dark Chi, he would be quite difficult to track. It was decided. He had to journey to the Highland Necropolis.

Chapter 15: Beware The Snapjaw

The Snapjaw Proving Grounds had drank deep on the blood and sweat of many warriors locked in primal combat. It was a place of immense significance to the Snapjaw tribe, used for rites of passage and in the selection of new leaders. For the Snapjaw, who revere battle, the Proving Grounds were the nearest thing they would ever get to a temple.

It was therefore altogether appropriate that Chieftain Hammerjaw found himself there, breathing in the frenetic energy that hovered in the air. Not far in the distance, the sound of metal on metal rang out as young Snapjaw warriors tested their mettle against one another.

"You are troubled, Hammerjaw," Elder Clapjaw stated plainly. "Hmph What of it?' Hammerjaw responded gruffly. "If you don't want to talk about it, it's fine," Clapjaw grumbled. "But you forget that I'm the one who has to deal with it if you get distracted and let a shambling corpse cave your head in."

Hammerjaw gave a grunt of dissatisfaction. "The dead are acting up again. He just won't stay dead," he said, "Doyung?" the Elder asked knowingly. Hammerjaw cracked his massive hammer against the ground and then heaved it up again before walking off in silence.

Elder Clapjaw ran his tongue against his bony lips. It was clear the humans haunted them still. Every day they had fought to contain the tainted monsters that humans had set loose upon the world, By contrast, the Snapjaw were respected even amongst the Beast Kin for their incorruptibility. Meanwhile, the humans sat in their grand cities, blissfully ignorant of their crimes.

Chapter 16: The Highland Necropolis

Iksanun surveyed his new surroundings. The Highland Necropolis, Hmph! Still as bleak as ever. Once the capital of the Eastern Continent, the city of Highland Central was a place of splendor. Its markets bustled with the haggling of merchant and customer. At night, it was a sea of lights in the darkness. But now, the old metropolis was little more than a city of the dead, all but deserted by the living. The only ones who dared take up residence in a land of bloodthirsty undead, Fiends, Occult abominations, and those corrupted by Dark Chi were the unflinching Snapjaw.

It was a mere 30 years ago that the Highland fell to disaster. It was then and there that the Realmwalker learned how much destruction the greed of one man could wreak, Prince Sogun's thirst for power had destroyed a single city. But Iksanun knew that Jinsoyun's ambition could destroy the world. Iksanun had been there on that accursed day, as had the other Guardians.

"Dammit, Jiwan," Iksanun muttered, "Not a day goes by where I don't wish I'd stopped you." He shook his head, "Stupid, naive woman... Your faith and kindness may have killed us all." Iksanun collected himself. He still had something to do here. The Snapjaw Sages awaited.

Chapter 17: Strange Aeons

Chieftain Hammerjaw watched with a sense of great sadness as Doyung's specter faded into nothing. Doyung's spirit was finally free. No longer was he doomed to wage the same old battle, time and time again. After all this time, he would be able to join his wife in the Spirit Realm and know no more sorrow. Hammerjaw should have been elated for his old friend to meet such a fate, and yet, within his mind he had come to a dark realization. Never again would he face Doyung in battle. Indeed, so long as he walked this realm, he would never see Doyung again. Despite being happy for his friend, there was something deeply troubling in that knowledge.

There was no more time for pity or remorse, Hammerjaw still had work to do. There was still the matter of the arrogant warrior. They had come out of nowhere, perhaps the most formidable human he had met since Doyung. If there was a chance that this warrior could prevent the tragedy of Highland Central from being repeated on a global scale, then it was Hammerjaw's duty to help them.

Chapter 18: Sins Of The Past

Doyuhan swore he would never forget. Indeed, the events of that day were perhaps his most vivid memory. Doyuhan had witnessed the fall of Highland Central as a boy. He still remembered how the people, screamed for help, even while they were being butchered by his father's soldiers. There in the refuge shelter... there was so much blood, so much screaming.

Now, with the benefit of time, Doyuhan understood why his father had done what he had, but he could never truly forgive him. It was on that day, even as he took hold of the hand of the soldier who would lead him to safety, that he made his decision. It was the decision that guided him still to this day. Doyuhan would survive, at any cost.

Chapter 19: What The Soldier Saw

Prince Sogun was furious. His youngest brother Wan had ascended to the throne, and in his paranoia, the young Emperor had cast his brothers out of the capital, Sogun was sent across the sea to rule some backwater colony. No matter how much he indulged in drink and the company of beautiful women, the Prince could find no way to conquer his frustration. Sogun became callous and indifferent to his subjects to the point of cruelty. He retreated more and more into the safety of the palace, brooding in silence. However, a chance conversation would soon change everything. It was a handmaiden named Yura who told Sogun of a ritual performed in ancient times, the Divine Mandate ritual.

To think that he, Prince Sogun, could prove himself worthy in the eyes of the Heavens to rule the entire Stratus Empire, that he might oust his insolent brother and claim the throne! The thought was irresistible. With Yura as his guide, Sogun become wholly consumed with researching this ceremony. By the time he learned the full extent of the sacrifice that the ceremony entailed, he was beyond reason, The throne would be his. This was the beginning of the end for the young prince, and for Highland Central.

Chapter 20: Rise of the Four Guardians

Iksanun caught his breath. The battle was over, but it was hardly a victory. There was no saving Highland Central. It was all they could do to seal the corruption within the land, to prevent it from spreading to the rest of the Eastern Continent. The fight against the demons, corrupted soldiers and risen dead of the withering necropolis would have been all but impossible with just three Guardians, but Hong, Jiwan and Iksanun were not alone. They had not only the Sacred Beasts on their side, but their old friend Mushin. Together, the heroes made short work of the monsters seeking to escape the Highland and wreak havoc in the lands beyond,

By the gods, Mushin was finally back! While Iksanun found Jiwan distant, and Hong Sokyun to be rigid and no fun, he had always felt at ease around Mushin, Mushin had been a general in his own time, and had a good sense of humor about him. He was also noble to a fault. The last time the Dark Gate was opened, when the Dark Lord attempted to enter the Earthen Realm, it was Mushin's sacrifice that saved the day. Mushin bravely threw himself into the Dark Gate and sealed it from the other side. Seeing that Mushin had survived all these centuries only to fight once more at their side made Iksanun ecstatic. Mushin's escape from the Dark Realm was the only conceivable silver lining to the tragedy that had befallen Highland Central.

Now that the corruption was sealed away, there was one thing that still troubled Iksanun: the matter of the little girl Jiwan pulled from the rubble of Highland Central, The girl was already corrupted. Before long she would be transformed into a fiend and would be lost forever. The only merciful thing to do was to kill the girl before that happened. That was when Jiwan did the unthinkable, infusing her own chi into the girl in an attempt to purge the darkness from her. Jiwan had always been hard to read, but her actions had come as a great surprise to Iksanun, who could see no conceivable good in them, Not only had Jiwan given up a considerable amount of her own power, but she was acting in contradiction to the will of the Heavens, She was forming an emotional attachment to the girl, one which might be exploited by the enemies of good.

Chapter 21: What Have We Learned?

Yura had underestimated Iksanun. Even in his weakened state, he was still one of the Four Guardians. Perhaps the fact that she could not beat him should come as no surprise, for the Guardians were chosen to receive knowledge of the heavenly arts because they were already the greatest of mortal warriors.

Indeed, even Jinsoyun had struggled against Hong Sokyun despite the poison that coursed through his veins, Maybe Jinsoyun was right, Hong had died trying to save his pupil, and Jiwan too was betrayed by love. Perhaps the best way to dispatch Iksanun once and for all was to exploit his own weakness.

Chapter 22: In the Hall of the Monkey King

Ogong have benefit of many centuries to acquire wisdom and grow as person. But Ogong not always so considerate of humans. Long ago, in Ogong youth, Ogong believe only in fighting and mischief. Ogong fight and train, always wanting to prove strength to world.

One day, Ogong have become so strong even Heavens above recognize Ogong's might, Sages in Heavens say, 'Ogong so strong, why no direct energies towards establishment of better world for all?' Ogong not think much of this, because he think to self, 'What is in such pursuits for Ogong? How this make Ogong stronger?' But Sages invite Ogong to Divine Realm, rare privilege to any. Ogong strong, but dare not incite rage of gods. So Ogong go, speak with Sages. In end, he pay them little mind, Sages cannot tell Ogong how helping them make Ogong stronger. For so-called sages,' Ogong think them dumb.

But before Ogong return to Earthen Realm, Ogong do something he should not have done. Something unforgivable. Ogong eat peach from great Tree of Immortality. Fruit of Immortality was gift reserved for sages who spend countless years in pursuit of enlightenment. For mortal to consume tasty god-fruit was thought sacrilege, Gods become angry! Gods use power to strike Ogong dead. One problem with plan: Ogong now beyond reach of mortal judgement. Ogong return to life. This scare Sages in Heaven, but what can do?

For many years, Ogong use undeserved gifts to bully others and make trouble all throughout Eastern Continent, Ogong not proud of actions. Over years Ogong challenge many great warriors, defeating all. Then unthinkable happens. Man named Hong change how Ogong think of puny bipedal creatures, Earthbreaker Hong was 'Guardian. He challenge Ogong, and Ogong lose! Ogong gain much respect for Earthbreaker. Ogong consider deeply words of strong man, stops mischief.

Immortality punish Ogong in way gods never can. Centuries pass, family and friends grow old and die, but Ogong stay the same. Ogong grow sad and lonely. In great period of introspection, Ogong consider his fate and responsibility to Earthen Realm. After much thought, Ogong decide he lead Simyu tribe into new era! Ogong teach his philosophy to Simyu people who think him god. Many more centuries come. Then Guardian called Iksanun arrive to plead for Ogong help. Iksanun say, 'Great darkness approaches. Student of Hong need chi!' Ogong no forget past. If student's need is true, then Ogong no can refuse request! 

Chapter 23: The Sky's Burden

"Is this really the path you wish to walk?" Junghado asked, "If your father or anyone else discovers..." He trailed off, and Yunma Fei nodded. "I am well aware of the consequences," she replied.

Yunma Fei had thought long and hard on the matter. It was not that she felt the Emperor was unsuited to remain on the throne, but rather that she knew Lady Blackrose could not be trusted. Before Blackrose arrived in Zaiwei, no one had ever heard of her, and now she was the Emperor's most trusted advisor. There was something off about her. Something malevolent, Yunma Fei's veins seemed to turn to ice whenever the two were in the same room. Under Lady Blackrose's guidance, the Emperor was acting more and more irrational. The people were beginning to whisper.

"Well then," Junghado said, breaking the silence, "Let us set our plan into action." Yunma Fei rose from her seat. She gathered up a bag of her belongings, along with the blade her father had bought for her when she was just a child. She surveyed her chambers, unsure whether she would see them again. "I only hope I have the strength for what comes next."

"My lady," Junghado said, "I have seen the burdens you carry. For you, the weight of the sky itself seems no trouble at all.

Chapter 24: Promises

The man named Doyuhan had sharp eyes, and had the aura of a gallant commander. It was said he was a retired officer of the Stratus Army. Now the man stood in the empty tea room and regarded Yunma Fei with suspicion. "You've gone to a lot of effort to track me down, Miss... what did you say your name was?" "Yunma Fei," she said simply.

"Yunma Fei?" Doyuhan laughed. "Okay, sure. And I'm a Simyu's uncle. Well, what is it you want with me?" "I have heard of your little band of rebels," Yunma Fei said. "I have also heard the whispering of the people. I know that many believe this empire is beginning down a path of ruination."

With a thud, Yunma Fei placed an ornate box on the table and lifted the lid open. Doyuhan stared at the contents, dumbstruck. He had never seen so much gold in his life. "What... what is this?" Doyuhan stammered.

"As I said, at this moment your movement is small," Yunma Fei repliec. "But the people believe in your sentiments. They don't trust what the Dominion is becoming, and they want to be heard. We can be their voice."

Yunma Fei drew a silk cloth from her bag and flattened it on the table before speaking again.

"I have come here today to offer you two things," she continued. "The means to raise an army, and a banner to unite them." Doyuhan gazed, at the flag that now lay unfurled before him. In the center of the flag was the face of the wind god Fujin, and below it, the words "Skyhaven Resistance." Doyuhan stood a moment in silent thought, Then he drew a dagger and ran the tip along his palm, resulting in a thin trail of blood. Doyuhan offered his hand. "Commander, you have my blade."

Chapter 25: A Knife in the Dark

"Who else has seen this report?" Doyuhan asked. Ugum crossed his arms. "Just you, me, and the scout who intercepted those orders."

The Talus were urgently searching for their princess. That meant she was had traveled outside the capital, far from the safety of Zaiwei and the royal guard. The Skyhaven had never had the opportunity to deal such a blow to the Dominion. If they could only capture her, their resistance would finally have real leverage over their enemy. What price would the Emperor be willing to pay for the safe return of his daughter? Would he be willing to go so far as to abdicate the throne? Of course, it could be a trap. If the information was false, many Skyhaven operatives would forfeit their lives.

Doyuhan stood in silence for several minutes, thinking. "We must learn more before we act," he finally said, "I want you to investigate this, quietly. Take only your most trusted men. And report only to me."

Chapter 26: A Road to All Things

"Doyuhan bolted upright in his bed. He was soaked with sweat. It was the same old nightmare, the day Highland Central fell. If he closed his eyes, he could almost feel the soldier's hand around his, leading him to safety. Doyuhan stepped out of his tent and into the fresh air. He began to wander the camp in the gentle pre-dawn light. His scrappy band of rebels was already up and about, preparing for the new day.

After he escaped the ruins of Highland Central, Doyuhan served for a time in the Stratus army alongside his father's surviving soldiers. After a number of years he left the military. He traveled to Dominion lands in pursuit of a simpler life, and for a time he found it. It was during this time that he began to witness the struggles of the people around him--honest, hardworking folk writhing under the thumb of a greedy and oppressive government.

Doyuhan could not stand idly by and watch. So he formed a coalition of the willing, a militia dedicated to punishing those Talus lords and governors who took advantage of their subjects. They worked at night and in disguise to prevent retribution. But his soldiers were poorly armed and underfed. It was ridiculous to think they could take on the corruption of the Talus empire alone. And yet, Doyuhan knew he had to try. As he ambled aimlessly, a scout approached.

"Hey boss, there's a woman who's been asking around for you by name," the scout said. "Says she's got a business proposition. It could be a trap. Want us to take care of her?"

"A woman?" Doyuhan stared quizzically. "No, I'll hear what she has to say. Set it up."

Chapter 27: What Is Rightfully Theirs

"It's up to you," Jinsoyun said as she gave the dagger to Ilsim. Ilsim took the dagger with trembling hands and hid it within his shirt. "Think about all you have lost," Jinsoyun continued. "You can save your people, Ilsim. Fulfill your promise and I will free you from all of your suffering."

With that she walked away, and Ilsim was left alone to contemplate what he must do.

Chapter 28: The Dying of the Light

As the bastard child of the Naryu Emperor, Mushin was last in the line of succession. If that was not a sore point growing up, then the constant teasing of his siblings surely was, Mushin's mother was a royal concubine who had died when he was a young child. While the Emperor considered Mushin his own flesh and blood, his duties as ruler of the immense Naryu Empire left him little time to spend with the boy.

Scorned by his brothers, Mushin made friends with an old wooden training dummy in the palace basement. Sometimes he talked to it, as if its silence was a sort of patient understanding, the type of understanding one would expect a brother to have. Most of the time, however, he fought it. He punched and kicked at the hard wood until his knuckles grew raw and his ankles were sore. He channeled all his frustrations into the blows, but the dummy stood resolute, never falling, remaining firm until Mushin was breathing hard and sore. No matter how hard Mushin worked, it never seemed to be enough,

When he came of age, Mushin joined the Naryu military and quickly rose to the rank of general, Free from the stifling and cruel atmosphere of the palace, Mushin traveled the land, settling disputes throughout the Naryu colonies. Despite his young age, Mushin soon became the greatest, most respected officer in the land. Everywhere he went, he won the respect and loyalty of his fellow soldiers.

Sadly, Mushin's brothers grew jealous of his success. They feared that with all of his might and charisma, Mushin would undoubtedly win the Emperor's affection, along with the throne they believed was rightfully theirs. It was by their scheming that Mushin was framed for treason. Mushin's brothers exerted all their influence to spread the rumor that Mushin intended to take the throne by force.

It was by the order of his own father that Mushin was arrested, Mushin was heartbroken. The only person whose approval he had ever desired had condemned him to death. Was this Mushin's reward for years of service to his Empire and his family? How could the Emperor ever think that Mushin would betray him, or his own people? It was then that Mushin first felt the darkness in his heart. It was then that he gave up on his people.