Act IV: The Cost of Revenge

Chapter 1: The Road to Darkness

Mushin's eyes lingered on Yunwa as she floated in silence. Here was the "heir," the one that carried his blood and now, his legacy. He almost envied her youth and her naive innocence. At times, he wanted nothing more than to tear her apart, but he knew that she still had a role to play in the future that he was creating. The darkness may have stripped him of any semblance of mercy, but it had taught him the benefit of patience.

Master Hong's pupil, on the other hand, demonstrated a complete lack of patience, a fact that Mushin would use to his advantage. The pupil had proven so easy to manipulate. The flames of vengeance are easy to fan. What was surprising was how quickly the Hongmoon student had developed in terms of strength and ability. Jinsoyun had spared Hong's student, hoping to secure a vessel for the Divine Mandate Ritual. Her choice could ultimately prove to be a costly mistake, a misstep moving her closer to her own undoing.

Mushin would let Hong's all-too-eager disciple face Jinsoyun first, while he watched and waited. He would let the pawns play their parts before he made his move. All that was rightfully his would eventually come his way. For now, he just had to wait.

Chapter 2: A Village Under Siege

The bright and shining promise of the Talus Dominion had lost much of its luster. The rebuilding of the capital, along with the construction of the altar for the Divine Mandate Ritual, reduced the citizens to expendable cogs in a grand machine. Taxes were astronomically high; forced labor was all too common; punishment was swift and severe. Merchants brave enough to speak out against unfair economic policies were dealt with," while scholars chose seclusion over the perils and corruption of the Royal Court. Given the depths of this oppression, the rise of an organization like the Lumang Syndicate was hardly surprising,

Most early members of the Lumang Syndicate were half-starved peasants. But when Yunsang seized the reins of leadership, the ragtag band was joined by mid-level bureaucrats, scholars, mercenaries, and even former generals in the Stratus Army. Expanding rapidly, the Syndicate staged sophisticated raids against Talus government outposts, corrupt nobility, and similar targets who had oppressed the citizenry. And while their methods were brutal, the people rallied to them. After all, Yunsang had always maintained that he would lay down his Weapons once injustices were addressed and the common citizen had a voice in Talus politics. "We will endure was Yunsang's common refrain at Lumang rallies. "We will endure until peace is achieved."

Chapter 3: A Crossing of Paths

Jiwan the Righteous Blade was aghast as she took in the scene. Her pupil, Jinsoyun, lay bruised and shaking, surrounded by a small army of military officers. These officers, in turn, were all on the ground, writhing in agony. And at least one of the men's arms was bent at an odd angle.

Jiwan had warned Jinsoyun not to interfere with the mundane workings of the world. Mere government corruption? It was a far cry from the true danger Jiwan was preparing her apprentice for. Jiwan ordered Jinsoyun to apologize for her behavior, which the younger woman did only very reluctantly. Then Jiwan inquired as to the cause of the fight. At the heart of the matter was a 12-year-old boy called Yunsang, a slave who had run away from his master, Judge Juntay. Jinsoyun had seen something of herself in the boy, and when the officers seized Yunsang, Jinsoyun lashed out in anger. None of the officers had known that jinsoyun was the apprentice of Jiwan, the legendary Guardian. None of them, save perhaps the judge who gave them the execution orders, could have anticipated her skill or savagery.

As the men hauled a screaming Yunsang away and Jinsoyun bristled with outrage, Jiwan perceived a tendril of Dark Chi slowly rise from her apprentice's body. "Come, Jinsoyun. Now." The tone in Jiwan's voice was unmistakable. Jiwan had seen this dark energy from Jinsoyun twice before, and it troubled her deeply. The trace of Dark Chi faded and passed as Jinsoyun turned to follow her master. However, just as quickly. Jinsoyun instead sank into unconsciousness and fell to the ground. She heard the dim echo of her master's cries as she slipped into darkness.

Chapter 4: Forcing the Enforcer

The only light in the "abandoned warehouse came from candles, which burned flickering and low. An incantation was inscribed in a circle on the floor, and around it the Ebondrake emissaries stood in their black robes. Judge Juntay offered a bow and knelt in front of them.

"You have done as you were ordered, I pray," said one among the Ebondrake, a woman, face hidden under a hood. "Yes, the judge replied. The apprentice of the Righteous Blade rescued the slave boy, as commanded." Judge Juntay then shuffled uneasily. "Whatever you have planned... Jiwan is a savior to our people. Please..." Judge Jin was interrupted by another man in the shadows who stepped into the candlelight. This man was not Ebondrake; he was too confident, too conspicuous. And his presence instantly unnerved the corrupt judge.

"Who is this man?" Judge Jin demanded. The Ebondrake woman lifted her hood and spoke, a strange smile on her face. This is Mushin," she said, as if the judge should have known. "He is the greatest of the Four Guardians. And he is destined to become the lord of the world."

Chapter 5: Looking for Clues

"You dared to use violence against government officers? And all to aid an escaped slave? Outrageous!" Judge Juntay continued to shout condemnations down at Jinsoyun. She was bound and had already been beaten, and she could barely see through the blood in her eyes. A full twenty men and women surrounded jinsoyun, and an energy shot through the crowd as the judge rendered his verdict. "By the laws of the Stratus Empire, I sentence you to death by beheading. The sentence shall be carried out... immediately!"

A man with a huge sword stood in front of Jinsoyun. He was one of the brutes who had beaten the slave boy in the Hao District that day, and now she was to be Jinsoyun's executioner. Jinsoyun's head was forced to the ground, and the man raised the instrument of execution. Jinsoyun shut her eyes.

In that moment between life and death, all jinsoyun could picture was the kind face of her master. She owed everything to Jiwan. It was Jiwan who found her and spared her in Highland Central. It was Jiwan who hugged her and stroked her hair when the darkness threatened to take hold. Jiwan had trained her harshly but fairly, and each night after a day of endless training, it was Jiwan who rubbed soothing herbs over Jinsoyun's bruises and wounds. Jiwan and Jiwan alone-- not cruel Iksanun or cold Hong Sokyun- had shown Jinsoyun love. Jiwan was more mother than master. If only Jinsoyun could see her face once more. If only Jinsoyun had refrained from meddling with the slave boya as Jiwan would have wanted her to. Jinsoyun wept, the tears mixed with blood.

Chapter 6: The Bully

"Curse you Hao Society thugs! Help!" The woman's yells and screams echoed through the district, Master Naksun gently lifted his hat at the sound. A couple of roughnecks -- low-level Hao men-snickered at the sounds of the woman's cries.

When Naksun ceded his position as master to Leerok, the Hao Society left the darkness of the back alley behind and moved into the light of day. It became a "respectable organization, at least to the uninitiated observer. While they still operated a few of their criminal enterprises, they developed new rules for dealing with merchants and the court system. It was a new dawn. But when Leerok left unexpectedly to establish the Ironsights Academy, the Hao Society was thrown into chaos. Why would Leerok abandon them? Were the rumors that Leerok had joined the Eight Masters true? No one could predict whether the Hao Society would continue toward the light or descend back into the darkness.

Naksun offered a soft smile as he pulled down his hat and continued on his path. The woman's predicament was unfortunate, but he would not interfere. Justice, honor, power... they were empty words to him now. He was but a lone wanderer. No attachments, no principles, and no problems.

Chapter 7: Legitimate Business Practices

"Bah! Just do as you're told, Guard Captain! No questions, and no backtalk!" The decanter flew toward Yu Chun, hitting the wall behind him and shattering into pieces. One of the glass shards grazed Yu Chun's cheek, and blood trickled down his chin. It was all Yu Chun could do to keep from assaulting the man. "As you command... Sir. Yu Chun turned and left without another word.

Corruption was the fledgling empire's silent predator. It stalked every hall and every court, from the slums to the palace. Government officials were not placed or promoted based upon merit. Bribes, blackmail, and nepotism ruled the day. Zaiwei was full of lapdogs, each clawing at each other to devour the smallest crumb. Fat noblemen enjoyed feasts while the poor starved in the streets. It disgusted Yu Chun. All of it.

Yu Chun's patience was rapidly coming to an end. If the gods had any sway, they would guide his hand and correct these injustices. Law and order had to prevail. Yu Chun would rise to Imperator, just as his father before him, and bring balance to the Dominion. He would serve the only true ruler of the empire, Princess Yunma Fei, and bring balance to the Dominion. There was no alternative. There was no other way.

Chapter 8: Foul Mouths, Honest Hearts

The man and the woman stood, facing one another. The crushing silence between them only amplified the sound of the blood dripping from the woman's ravaged eye socket and down onto the tile floor. The man's face changed slightly. Did concern for the woman crease his face and furrow his brow? Perhaps. Or perhaps his face only reflected his acceptance of the inevitable. He turned, and as he walked away he uttered words which reverberated through the woman's very being: "We are lovers no longer. You and I... We are enemies. To the death."

Yunsang awoke from his troubled dream with a deep sigh. It felt like a lifetime ago, and yet the memory was as vivid as yesterday. Juwol... the very name sickened his heart. She was coming for him, and their second meeting was only a matter of if, not when. He needed another drink, but his jug was dry. Yunsang angrily heaved it against the wall. His lieutenant, familiar with the ritual, instantly arrived with a fresh bottle. Yunsang took the liquor without a word and drank it down. He had hoped the alcohol would erase her face from his mind, but he was wrong. "Forgive me, Juwol," he said, gazing at the ceiling. 'I must find my Songbird. Only after that can you take my life."

Chapter 9: The King of Thieves

In the time before Zaiwei had broken free from the Stratus Empire, Yunsang worked as an indentured servant at the manor of Judge Juntay Then as now, servitude meant little more than slavery, and Yunsang's life was hard and unforgiving. Some say his parents had sold him off to clear a debt, while others swore Yunsang was the child of a traitor. But whatever the case. Yunsang had neither the means nor the opportunity to learn more about his parentage.

Yunsang never accepted his lot in life, and he knew he had a larger destiny than menial labor. At age twelve, he staged a bold escape only to be caught by the judge's men. The cross-shaped scar he still bore on his forehead was the punishment for his crime of daring to dream.

"Yunsang. I need you. The call from Lady Soha rang out from across the courtyard. Still smarting from his punishment, Yunsang reluctantly thundered past the fountain. What was so different between the two of them, he wondered. What made Soha "noble" and Yunsang a "slave" outside of fickle chance and the cruelties of an unjust society? This will end, Yunsang thought. The world will change, and I will help change it.

Chapter 10: The Gates Open

*Treason! Is this the reward for loyalty of the empire?"

The Chief General blurted out in anguish. Those sitting around the table shared his frustration and outrage. At the end of the table, Kunma Yom quietly closed his eyes.

The Chief General could not refrain his rage and continued on. "Just months ago, he had his hand on your shoulder and granted you a position in the council, and now he brazenly stabs you in the back. And for what? The conspiracy that you and the queen love each other and plan to assassinate the emperor? What nonsense!"

Kunma Yom silently accepted that the nonsense was, in a sense hall correct. Since when he was a youngster, he loved Nam Seolrin. When he passed his military exams, they had agreed to get married, but never had they anticipated in Nam Seolrin being chosen to be the queen. After that, they became lord and servant, their fates seemingly ripped far apart. He held on to the affection he felt deep within, but nothing more than that. He did his best to serve the emperor as a soldier.

*The empire has already sent an expedition force to arrest you, sir. Are you going to just stand by" The Chief General was nevertheless a veteran and now spoke in a calm yet firm manner.

"I need some time to be alone with my thoughts. Kunma Yom rose from his seat and left the tent. The long meeting had continued on into the dark of night. The cold wind of the Silverfrost Mountains swept up his deep sigh into the sky. He followed his gaze upward to the lone moon. It reminded him of Nam Seolrin, grief struck with the loss of her only daughter.

Chapter 11: A Welcoming Shot

As Yunma Kahn announced to the world the founding of the Talus Dominion, the Stratus Empire immediately responded and declared war, Fierce conflict broke out between Stratus and Talus on the eastern continent

Although Yunma Kahn was a general of his own league, his meager expedition forces were strained against the might of the millennia old empire. Then, out of the blue, a woman came to the Talus and volunteered to serve. She baffled the Stratus army with inconceivable tactics and strange sorcery, and annihilated enemies on the battlefield using her powerful skills. With her at their side like a guardian angel, the Talus army recovered from their defensive corner and drove away the entirety of the Stratus forces from the eastern continent.

Following a momentary lull of war, Yunma Kahn took care of the disorder of domestic affairs and celebrated those who distinguished themselves during the battles. The woman in black, now a beloved hero of the war, was elected Emissary of the fledgling empire. With it she gained immense influence over the Talus and further helped to shape, its future for decades to come.

Her name was Jinsoyun.

Chapter 12: The Headmaster

The Divine Mandate Ceremony was the dream ritual for any priestess. Hwon the Dark Diviner was thrilled to watch and be a part of the grand ritual. The Divine Mandate was not held for a millennia, since after the founding of the Stratus Empire. To hold the ritual would be treason, as the purpose of the Divine Mandate was to ask the heavens if one was fit to be emperor.

Known to the ranks of priestesses was the Divine Mandate of the Highland Central, held thirty years ago by Prince Sogun, the third prince and a lord of the Stratus Empire. They tried to enact the Divine Mandate with pieces of the remaining documents and it resulted in the cataclysm now known as the Highland Necropolis. Another rumor said that one of the feudal lords of the Western Continent also held a Divine Mandate to prove himself worthy of being king and it supposedly failed miserably. turning the Western Continent into a fiery pit of hell on the mortal realm beyond recovery. However, none have entered or left the West since its descent into death and darkness, so there was no way to know the truth. If one not worthy, blinded by greed and power, stands to be chosen, heaven's wrath will rain down upon the world. Dark Diviner Hwon knew the weight the Divine Mandate carried, so she put aside everything else to concentrate on preparations. For her, to serve Emperor Yunma Kahn, worthy of the Divine Mandate, and Emissary Jinsoyun, who knew so well the process, was a gift given by the heavens.

Chapter 13: The Royal Martial Arts Championship

"Faster, you maggot! The Divine Mandate is almost here!"

The Talus construction site overseer struck the back of a worker with his club. The Lyn's frail and malnourished body collapsed to the floor. Not caring the overseer continued to beat the fallen worker without mercy. Those who witnessed did nothing, lest the beating turned onto them. Among them was Dodan, who was quietly carrying logs around, He bided his time.

Not once over the span of ten days since the Blackram burned down Bamboo Village did Dodan awaken from his deep slumber. Though his bones were broken, skin scarred and blemished, it was nothing compared to the pain inside his heart. The betrayal by Namsoyoo was brutal. After a month or so, when he was able to walk around again, he overheard his father and some of the guards talking. Namsoyoo had been taken by the Emissary of the Talus Dominion to become the queen.

That night, he left his home on crutches. His limping did nothing but slow his journey, but that was of no concern to him. His mixed feelings for Namsoyoo churned inside of him like a vortex of fire. Naturally, his journey faced difficulties from the get-go as he was discovered by Chengun leaving his room, but he was persuaded to tag along on the quest, something which helped ease Dodan's mind a little.

The two struggled to lift a heavy log upon their shoulders. Then, with cursing from a familiar, yet not so pleasant voice, the log rose from the ground. "Funny how this is where we meet again." Without turning around, Dodan already knew who the voice belonged to - none other than Captain Gwon himself.

Chapter 14: Reunions

"All hail his majesty the emperor!"

Following the Emissary's cry, Emperor Yunma Kahn appeared at the main courtyard in his Automaton armor. His giant figure, heavy footsteps and the deep breathing sound behind his helm made him look more like a fierce Mamosu than a man suffering disease. Although Dochun wanted to walk up to his face and demand to know the reason, he suppressed his anger, clenching his fists until his knuckles turned white. The leaflet he ripped off the wall a couple of days ago was crushed between his hands.

When Dochun heard from a Bamboo Guard who had sneaked into the East Continent that the Emissary of the Talus led Namsoyoo into the palace, he immediately made his way here. Word has already started spreading around the capital about how the young beauty was to be named as the empress on the day of the Divine Mandate. Dochun had to make his way into the palace somehow and let Yunma Kahn know who Namsoyoo was. He couldn't let the emperor break the order of the heavens after having already broken his oath as a vassal.

The Martial Arts Championship was the perfect opportunity. The occasion was to be held at the palace, inviting all warriors of the world inside. When reading the words saying the winner will be awarded the honor of guarding the royal family, Dochun's eyes sparkled.

Chapter 15: An Alliance of Convenience

Yunma Fei was being taken somewhere, blindfolded. The ambient scent of dirt and grass carried by the chill air of night awoke her memory. She must be at the courtyard of the Leafshade Courtyard. So, it was indeed Chancellor Jo who arranged for this discreet meeting.

"I've been wondering why the princess of the Dominion wanted to be the leader of such a treacherous group as the Skyhaven Resistance. Surprised that I did nothing while aware of your little secret...?"

The Princess was not at all startled by his direct words. She knew that he was not there to threaten, but to negotiate. Moreover, she was well aware that he meant to help her undermine the absolute power Jinsoyun had obtained over the Dominion. Not for the sake of loyalty and the well being of the Dominion though.

Chancellor Jo provided the Skyhaven Resistance extravagant funding and Yunma Fei did not deny his influence. She was disgusted by his intention to become her puppeteer when she took the throne, but she had no other choice but to play along. She needed his resources to expose Jinsoyun's schemes and to avenge her father. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, she told herself over and over.

Chapter 16: Business Unusual

Amidst the laughter of patrons and merry singing Yehara sipped her drink in silence. Out the window, she could see the crescent moon as it crept behind clouds.

"I pushed her too hard. She found her niece, Yunwa, after arduous effort... only to have her vanish like the moon outside. Yehara wanted Yunwa to learn and master the arts quickly, but compelled by her playful and free nature, the girl ran away. Though born with powerful spirit, without thorough training, she would become a target of the forces of evil before long.

Yehara used all her available resources to find her niece. Finally, a tip came from the Hao Society of the eastern continent, on the other side of the ocean. She received word that a courtesan and a man with long black hair entered Zaiwei with a girl of Yunwa's age.

She had no idea who they could be, but assumed they weren't rookies, Yunwa may not be trained in the arts yet, but to suppress a person with such spirit requires great skill. She was certain they were after the power of Mushin's Legacy within her niece. But what if... Yehara assumed the worst then shook her head, dismissing the idea outright. Right now, the courtesan was her only lead. They said the woman was not of just any backwater brothel. So she stealthily slipped into the most high class club in the city: The House of Pleasures.

Chapter 17: The Mysterious Prayer

"She wants us to spread Dark Chi on purpose?" Hwon asked again.

The Dark Seer Captain nodded without a word. Hwon and her fellow Dark Seers knelt before their Captain at the courtyard of the Emissary's quarters. They were all priestesses of the Talus, named not just for the black garments they wore, but because of the dark spells and spirits they wielded.

As with the others, Hwon was also young when she was chosen and brought to the palace. It was the Emissary, Jinsoyun, who reached out to her while she stood aghast in front of the mangled body of her father.

She lived in the slums with her alcoholic father. Every day, he would return completely drunk and beat her senseless. During the daily beatings, she closed her eyes and turned her thoughts to the emptiness within, hoping for refuge. When she focused on that deep darkness, she lost sense of her body and was relieved of all pain.

One day, the dark spoke to her. "Well, well. Beaten again? You call that a father? He's no human. He's nothing but trash. Trash. Shall I tell you of a way to escape this misery? It's easy. Just free your rage, your anger. That's all there is to it. I'll take care of the rest."

When she opened her eyes, her father was nothing more than bloody pieces strewn across the room. After that day, she followed Jinsoyun into the palace. The Emissary and the other Dark Seers were like a new family to her, and she found meaning for her life from Jinsoyun's words.

"If that is the will of the Emissary, we will obey without question, Hwon answered to the captain as she rose with new intent.

Chapter 18: Toppling the Giant

Yu Chun waited and watched from a distance, not wishing to interrupt the sparring session. Wooden swords came together in a flurry of swift strikes. One was wielded by Yunma Fei, heiress to the Talus throne; the other by Junghado, her faithful bodyguard and mentor in the martial arts, generally regarded as the most skilled swordsman in the Dominion. Junghado countered Yunma Fei's attacks with serene precision, as if he could see each strike long before it came.

Junghado's artistry with the blade masked his humble background. He had been born into poverty, an orphan of unknown origin with no possessions, no clan or respected lineage behind him, and seemingly no prospects for a future outside of begging or stealing. What Junghado did have was a raw determination to learn and to survive, a determination that caught the attention of a patient monk, who tempered the determination into patience before placing a wooden sword into the boy's eager hand. After years of perfecting his craft, Junghado emerged from obscurity and displayed his skills on the world stage, becoming the unexpected but undisputed winner of the Talus Martial Arts Championship. When given the opportunity to lead elite, forces or become a Talus officer, Junghado opted instead to be a bodyguard to the princess, as if content to return to the shadows.

Yunma Fei blocked Junghado's attack and brought the melee to a stalemate. Yu Chun suspected that her mentor was holding back. The princess lowered her weapon, noticing Yu Chun from the corner of her eye. Yu Chun stepped forward, bowing to the woman he served and the friend he had come to respect.

"Yu Chun," said the princess. "What news do you have for us?"

Chapter 19: Damning Evidence

The judge tried to remain calm amidst the growing chaos. The sounds of a makeshift battering ram, striking the front gates reverberated through the estate. "Father, we have to leave! Now!" His daughter was in the doorframe, already packed with a bundle over her shoulder and nervous impatience in her eyes. *The back gate should still be clear," he said. "I'll be right behind you." She nodded uncertainly glancing at his satchel on the table and the nervous expressions of the men around him. Her eyes met his one final time, those probing eyes that knew him better than any others. They seemed to search him, pleading, begging him to be true to his word.

Not long ago it had seemed like Yunma Kahn's rebellion was all but defeated, a bright flame that was to be quickly snuffed out by the superior numbers of the Stratus Army. Now, hall the city was burning and the small Talus army seemed to be an unstoppable force led by a mysterious woman in black...

Judge Juntay emerged in time to see the iron gates fall and rebels spill forth where they were met by his guards. His men moved with him toward the wall.

*Find the judge!" "Kill him!" He was not surprised by the words. He knew he was a target, a symbol of the old power structure, the Stratus Empire that was falling apart. As his men began to fall, he did not reach for his sword. Pain exploded through his back. He turned in time to see a woman in black stabbing him again in the chest. Her face was pale, almost expressionless. He fell amidst cheers and noticed in the distance, his daughter stopping near the rear gate, watching in horror and disbelief. His strength bled out of him as one final thought came into focus. His inner voice yelled what his outer voice could not.

"Soha, run!"

Chapter 20: Thorns of the Black Rose

The girl was limp, nearly lifeless, but the power of her aura was undeniable. Jinsoyun knew that Yura's words could rarely be trusted, but in this case, they rang true. Yunwa was Mushin's her. She could serve as a vessel for the Dark Lord.

Perhaps it was fitting that the legacy of Mushin's original power, the power bestowed to him from the Divine Realm centuries ago, would live on in the vessel. After all, it was Mushin's meddling that had ruined her original candidate, Hong's last disciple. The warrior had shown much potential, but was now weak and wavering. Chi that was once expansive and powerful had been corrupted and forced along a narrow path. This was the signature work of a master manipulator, the same evil puppeteer that had ruined her life so long ago.

She gave a final glance to the dying Hongmoon student. Master Hong's legacy would die with his final disciple and soon, Mushin's heir would, wield his own power against him. The Four Guardians had failed. A new era had begun.

Chapter 21: The Man in the Iron Mask

He leaned forward, exhausted, letting his head hit the cold brick. The prison was dirty, but almost comfortable, a quiet, predictable sanctuary hidden away from the uncertain chaos of everything outside. Dochun knew his reunion with Namsoyoo would be tense, but the way she had publicly denied him and denounced him like a stranger had pierced him to the core. Namsoyoo had always been like a daughter to him. He had helped her take her first steps, guided her and encouraged her as she grew and found her own way. Now, he had finally reunited with her to find her more distant than ever.

Namsoyoo's piercing eyes were burned into Dochun's memory, as was the image of Yunma Kahn, ruler of the Talus Dominion, a respected general, and decorated hero. The emperor's appearance was just as shocking as Namsoyoo's behaviour. The man that Dochun saw on the throne was not a man at all, but a person imprisoned within a suit of armor. The suit was supposedly built to preserve the health of the emperor who had been brought to the brink of death by disease.

"Who I am..."

The voice broke through the walled silence from somewhere dark and deeper in. Dochun couldn't see the speaker, but it sounded like a man broken by years of torture and solitude.

"I am... who I am," said the voice, louder this time. There was still strength in his words and something else, something familiar, a voice that Dochun had not heard for many years...

Chapter 22: The Eight Master's Sacrifice

"What troubles you, Madun?"

He turned to face Onmyung. As she often did, she held a small flame in her hand like a candle, making her eyes dance.

"Is there something about your vision that bothers you?"

She knew there was more too it. Taywong had suspicions as well. Madun wanted to share his uncertainty and his fear, but assumed this was his burden to bear alone.

"Madun," said Onmyung. "If there's more, you should share it. We're all in this together."

She let the flame go out.

They all gathered and listened.

"The next time we see the vessel," said Madun, trying to calm the tremor in his voice. "The injury will be severe. I... I believe there is only one way..."

"One way for what?" asked Myo, who crossed her arms with her usual impatience.

Taywong closed his eyes, as if he already knew what was next.

"To keep the vessel alive, we must sacrifice ourselves."

The silence was palpable. Looks of uncertainty, shock, and stoic contemplation crossed through the faces around him.

"Is there no other way?" asked Onmyung.

"With the Four Guardians gone," said Taywong. "This... vessel is our only hope."

Myo stiffled a laugh. The others grew silent as the weight of reality settled in. To Madun's surprise, Gunma was the first to break the silence.

"I left Silverfrost for one purpose, to stop the darkness and save the Realm," he said quietly. "For that purpose, I'll sacrifice anything, even my life."

Onmyung nodded. Myo smirked. Jinwong raised his axe,

"The mighty Jinwong does not fear death!"

Leerok put a hand on the Gon's massive shoulder.

"I don't see what the big deal is," he said slickly. "We've all seen how Madun's visions work. At this rate, I figure I have at least twenty more years to live..."

They all laughed, keeping the silence at bay, at least for a brief moment.

Chapter 23: Dochun's Memory

Namsolyn clung to the arm of the soldier. Her fear was mixed with gratitude and longing as they fled. He touched her hand gently, still aware of the sounds of conflict.

He had always been the serious one. Even when they were children, she had been the one that smiled and laughed and he had been the one who kept a stoic face, trying to impress the adults with his rigid manners and respect for tradition. She loved to talk. He was almost always quiet. Some were worried the boy could not speak at all, so rare were his awkward utterances, but eventually he found his voice, and even learned to relax a bit in Namsolyn's presence. The son of a decorated officer in the Stratus Army, Yunma kann followed in his father's footsteps, learning to wield the sword, investing his time in scrolls of military history and strategy. He didn't have many friends outside of the boys that he trained with, but Namsolyn learned how to draw him out of the often merciless world of the martial arts. She knew Stratus history better than he did and knew how to sing and entertain. Yunma Kahn was stubborn, but he soon found his heart melting. As he softened, Namsolyn, found in him an unexpected kindness that drew her to his strength,

Now, at last, they were together. For years, their relationship had, been that of servant and master, an unexpected and unwanted development. Namsolyn had been chosen to marry the Emperor, just as Yunma Kahn became a general, pledged to serve her and her husband. Now the Empire was being severed in two. The Talus Dominion was breaking away from the Stratus Empire. In that painful divorce, an opportunity arose. Now Namsolyn and the man she loved could finally be together.

Chapter 24: The Road to Redemption

The valley felt unchanged. It was as if time had passed over it like a cloud that carried rain for everyplace but this. Junghado retraced the steps of his childhood among the monks, stepping over the stones where he had once carried a bucket of water every morning, noticing the trees where he and Yu Chun would try to hide, Everything was as he remembered. Even Hyundam, the monk that had supervised his training, seemed to be ageless in his own way.

A large mountain of a man followed Hyundam with a stack of firewood over one shoulder. It was Yunsang, leader of the notorious Lumang Syndicate, a formidable warrior, a looming and intimidating presence. Junghado didn't trust the man, given his history and reputation, but old Hyundam walked beside him with the demeanor of a teacher leading a child. Hints of resentment and frustration crossed Yunsang's face, but he seemed to accept and submit to all of Hyundam's words. Perhaps the changless valley could change the heart of a criminal.

An hour later, Junghado sat across from Hyundam, watching his mentor poor two cups of tea. Hyundam waited until the tea had cooled a bit, letting silence and stillness fill the small room. He offered Junghado a cup. Junghado nodded with gratitude. "The warrior will recover," said Hyundam finally. "The cost and sacrifice has been great, but this one brings hope." Junghado nodded and smiled. He felt an unspoken burden rise from his shoulders and mingle with the steam from his tea. This place had always offered hope, and hope seemed to be in short supply of late.

Chapter 25: Mother's Garden

It was too early. The sun was still hiding behind the peaks of Silverfrost. Only the pale light growing in the horizon and the sounds of activity in the kitchen gave any hint that morning was near. Junghado covered a yawn. The monks always began their routine at an inapproprate hour, but Junghado was only seven years old. Normally he could sleep in until the bell for morning chores, but today Hyundam had shaken him out of his bed.

"We have visitors today," he explained. "I need your help with preparations."

Junghado followed him into the kitchen where tea was already boiling, bowls were being washed, and another monk was busy chopping herbs. Junghado watched the man work, noticing the quick movements of the blade. Perhaps he could help cut vegetables. Hyundam smiled, noticing how Junghado's eyes brightened, but he didn't hand him a blade. Instead, Junghado was given heavy wooden bucket.

The cold water hit him like a knife. The bucket spilled all over the frosty rocks, as Junghado landed in the stream. His shortcut had, failed him. He picked himself up and winced. His knee was bruised. He took the bucket back the way he had come, but stopped at the sight of a large group of people in bright clothing on the road.

"Young man," said an official sounding voice. "Are you all right?"

The man was tall and appeared to be some kind of soldier. Junghado hung his head in embarrassment and nodded. He waited for the soldier and the others to go by, keeping his head bowed in respect. These people looked important. He was wet and dirty. He shivered a bit, as the final group of soldiers made their way to the monastery.

He was about to run to the well when he noticed that someone had, fallen behind. It was a little girl in bright silks. She was looking at him. Junghado didn't know what to do.

"Here," said the little girl with a smile. "You can use this to dry your clothes."

She offered a small embroidered cloth. Junghado stepped forward and accepted it dubiously.

"Your majesty," said one of the soldiers. "Come along now.",

The little girl skipped down the road to join the others. She turned to offer one final, friendly smile. Junghado couldn't help but smile in return. Morning had come.

Chapter 26: Fugitives

"Your majesty, you must go," Baekmuki said to Yunma kahn. "We will buy you some time." Yunma Kahn regarded his soldiers. They were all bound to die because of his mistake.

Kahn knew he should have never trusted Jinsoyun. She told him that the Divine Mandate ritual would prove to all the disbelievers that Kahn was the true heir. All he had wanted was to unite the Empire, and instead he had doomed them all.

Yunma Kahn ran his fingertips over the Imperial Seal one more, time. "My death won't mean much to Jinsoyun," Kahn said, handing Baekmuki the Seal. "This is what she truly wants. Keep it safe, and, please, protect my daughter. Don't let Jinsoyun take her too!" Kahn left his armor and weapon with Baekmuki. "I'm trusting you with the Dawnblade, old friend," he said with a sad smile. "May we meet again."

Kahn snuck out under the floorboards as Baekumi gathered his troops. The once-Emperor crawled through the murky sewers as the soldiers clashed weapons and gave their lives in his name. Finally, there was silence. Kahn peeked through a grate. In the light of the moonlight stood two silhouettes surrounded by fallen bodies. He recognized Jinsoyun's svelte frame, but he had no idea who was in the massive suit of armor...

Chapter 27: The Frozen Rise

"Chengun, I'd like you to meet my son. He'll help you find your footing in the Bamboo Guard." Chengun meekly emerged from behind Dochun's massive frame. He gave a clumsy bow. "You don't need to bow to Dodan," Dochun said with a laugh. "If you're not careful, it'll go to his head." With a skeptical squint, Dodan glanced over Chengun's raggedly clothes and split shoes.

Chengun swallowed nervously. Now that the Blackram had robbed Chengun of his parents and home, he wasn't sure if he belonged anywhere. "Well, you may not be much," Dodan said, flicking Chengun's thin bicep, "But I enjoy a challenge. I'll make a soldier of you yet, Chengun! You're my new assistant! Let's run some wind sprints!", Dodan grabbed Chengun by the wrist and pulled him outside. "Yes, Master Dodan!" Chengun stammered. "He's not your master!" Dochun called out to the two boys. "Dodan! He's not your assistant! Wait!" They didn't listen or wait. The boys were out of earshot within seconds. Dochun shrugged and laughed to himself. At least his son finally had a friend.

Chapter 28: Her Brother's Keeper

Soha pulled her coat tight as she labored through the frigid wind and into the cavern. With a sigh, she laid her weapons and supplies against the icy walls. All was silent except the wind whistling through the bare trees.

Weeks ago, her father had spread a large map of the area on the dinner table. He pointed at this cave and told his family to meet him, there if worst came to worst. She laughed at him as she filled his cup and passed it back to him. "Don't you think you're being a little dramatic, Father?"

Now, Soha couldn't get the image of his pale, bloody body out of her mind. She shivered and tried to remember his voice. Even that was slipping from her. Soha blinked out a tear that froze on the tip of her lashes. Someone choked a cough nearby. Soha snatched her gun and loaded a round with shaking hands. Slowly, she ventured deeper into the dark cave. She heard a click, as if someone had mirrored her action, loading a bullet in a gun she could not see. She froze. The recesses of the cavern were almost pitch black. The stranger was under the cover of darkness. She was exposed in the fading light. Soha lept to the nearest shadowy corner, hitting the rock wall hard, as she turned and readied her rifle.

"Soha?" A lean young man stepped out from a dark shelf. Soha exhaled deeply, lowering her gun. "You scared me," she said. "I'll tell you what's scary," he said. "How good my new dance moves are." He began to strut around, swinging his rifle and pushing his backside against the icy wall. Soha shook her head. The cave felt warmer already. Even in the wake of the worst day of her life, Leerok's antics could make her smile.

Chapter 29: Rekindling a Dying Flame

 Byunga tapped out the last few drops onto his tongue. He swallowed, them with a grimace and threw the bottle against the wall.

"Another!" he shouted with a slur, "Another for the great Chief General!"

He snapped at a nearby Herbalist.

"What, you didn't hear me? You don't think I see that cask on your back? Give it to me! By the order of the Emperor!"

"Sir, this is an antiseptic. For surgeries," the Herbalist explained.

"Sassin' me?" Byunga slurred.

He reached for his scabbard but missed the blade's handle. He lunged forward and immediately crashed face-first into the snow.

Byunga woke several hours later, only to roll over and see a strange wandering warrior blocking his light. Byunga considered arresting the warrior and confiscating any alcohol. However, he stopped once he saw the warrior's expression.

The warrior didn't pity him, or hate him, or even look angry. This warrior was clearly on a mission, and Byunga knew he was about to be recruited.

Chapter 30: Atop a Lonely Mountain

It's up to you," Baekmuki said with bloodied teeth.

He squeezed Yehang's shoulder as he stumbled to the steps at the base of Jiwan Peak. Blood stained the snow behind him.

"I'm coming, Jiwan," he whispered before collapsing. Snow drifted and settled over his corpse.

Yehang mouthed a prayer and turned to face Jinsoyun.

"Jiwan loved you," he spat. "And you killed her! Your filth will never be allowed to enter the holy place! To arms!"

The Silverfrost warriors readied their blades and surrounded, Jinsoyun. They all knew the story, the story of how Jiwan took pity on a poor ragged girl and raised her as a daughter. In return, Jinsoyun had now killed her master and stolen the Twilight's Edge,

The Silverfrost Clan had failed to protect Jiwan that day. They vowed to never fail her again. "Kill her! Leave no trace!" Yehang cried. All the Silverfrost warriors charged Jinsoyun at once.

Chapter 31: Relics of the Past

"Master, you can't..." Jinsoyun whispered, pulling on Jiwan's robes. Tears filled her eyes.

"It's not fair! You shouldn't have saved me!"

Jinsoyun had overheard Jiwan talk with the other Guardians. A true Guardian couldn't have attachments to this world. They weren't supposed to act selfishly, or raise a family, or love. Jiwan had been a great Guardian... until she raised her blade to save Jinsoyun.

"Saving you was the greatest act I've ever done," Jiwan whispered, taking Jinsoyun's face in her hands. "Soyun, I'd do it again. I'd do it every single day for you, my apprentice."

She kissed Jinsoyun on the forehead.

"My daughter. Don't try to stop me. Now, are you ready?"

Jinsoyun knew what Jiwan meant. She had begged Jiwan not to do it, but the Guardian could be quite stubborn. There was only one way to cleanse all the Dark Chi from Jinsoyun's small body, only one way to save her from becoming a monster. Jiwan would have to pass all her chi into her apprentice.

Chapter 32: The Return of the Emperor

Her last thoughts weren't of kindness and mercy. They weren't of Jiwan and her endless compassion.

They were of the Groundshaker trying to kill her. They were of the Divine Fist lying and condemning her to death. They were of the Realmwalker, who had despised her from first sight.

Jinsoyun was reborn in the fall.

She pledged herself to the darkness as she sunk into the abyss. When she finally awoke, she felt neither cold nor pain. The Dark Lord's power surged through her and protected her from ever feeling anything again. A cruel smile passed across Jinsoyun's lips.

She had risen.

She was ready to strike.

The world was at her mercy, and she would have her revenge.

Chapter 33: Calm Before the Storm

Lusung had spent all week planning this meal. He never considered himself much of a chef, but he was determined to get every detail right. The dumplings pork buns, and egg tarts were his mother's recipes. Whenever he made them, he thought fondly of the long mornings before family holidays in a kitchen cloudy with steam and a house full of laughter.

Lusung whistled as he set the Hongmoon table. This was Cricket's first Hongmoon Ceremony, and Lusung was determined to help his friend feel at home. He carefully hung the decorations, remembering his own first Hongmoon Ceremony and the long path that had brought him here. After struggling and begging on the streets for years, he finally found Master Hong. Lusung begged to be taught the Hongmoon Arts, and, after several years, Master Hong finally accepted him as a student.

Lusung knew why Master Hong had taken so long to admit him: he had been trying to teach Lusung the importance of patience. Lusung laughed to himself as he poured a special cup of tea for his dear Master. Lusung had already waited years to have his revenge on Yonkai. Surely he could wait a few days more.

Chapter 34: A Call to Arms

The Divine Mandate Ceremony neared its inevitable conclusion, but Mushin had yet to make his appearance. Jinsoyun wasn't overly concerned. Once the Dark Gate opened, everything would change. After all, Mushin had made a name for himself by closing the Dark Gate the first time around, or so the stories claimed. He wouldn't be able to resist the pull of the Dark Gate, not with so much at stake. This time, he would not escape justice.

Of course, many things had not gone as planned. The original vessel for the ceremony, Master Hong's last apprentice, had proven to be corrupted and useless, then somehow managed to survive and escape the prison in Zaiwei. This was not a concern, however. Gubong would hunt down the last member of the Hongmoon School and tie up all loose ends by whatever means necessary. Jinsoyun had a new vessel now, one with enough power to bring the Dark Lord into the Earthen Realm. The corrupt and unjust powers of the world would all be swept away in his wake.

Even Mushin, the "Divine Fist," would fall. He was the last of the Four Guardians, but the first to betray Jinsoyun. She could not forgive Hong or Iksanun for the roles they had played in Jiwan's death, but Mushin was the true architect of it all. Mushin had killed her mentor and torn her world apart. She would repay him in kind, even if it meant destroying the entire Realm in the process.

Chapter 35: Divine Madness

Yura's grasp of the ancient Naryu language was limited, but she knew enough to discern the details. She held the delicate scroll closer to the candle, sending spectral shadows against the dusty shelves of the old Stratus Library. Her status gave her access to such places, but she had no desire to be discovered, lest she risk spilling the blood of some rambling guard onto the ancient texts.

The Divine Mandate Ceremony needed to coincide with an eclipse, an alignment of heavenly bodies signaling a temporary link between the realms. The door between the realms required a key, the mysterious Twilight's Edge. Once opened, the Heavens would anoint the next emperor. Only one who belonged to the lineage of the royal family and was accepted by the Divine Realm could be anointed.

Yura unraveled more scrolls, her scarlet eyes hungry for more details. The same door that opened to the Divine Realm could, connect to the Dark Realm as well. If someone of the chosen royal blood was used as a sacrifice, the Dark Gate could be opened. Yura focused on an odd Naryu word "markra." It usually referred to a pot or a vessel, but here is seemed to be talking about a person. Of course. This type of Divine Mandate Ceremony required a person with great potential, one that could be "filled." This person would be consumed by the presence of the Dark Lord himself, providing the ruler of the Dark Realm with a presence in the Earthen Realm, allowing him to rule with absolute power.

Yura pulled her fingers away. The scroll started to singe. She smiled and let the flames run their course, then blew out the candle. Everything was pitch black as Yura made her way through the silent corridors. She had never been afraid of the dark.

Chapter 36: The Emperor Strikes Back

Yura beamed at the fiery eclipse overhead and laughed with delight. Walls shattered, fiends swooped upon civilians, and the very soldiers, sent to protect the city rose against it as soulless monsters. The greatest warriors of the Earthen Realm fought alongside the remaining Sacred Beasts, screaming and slicing and struggling against all of their inevitable deaths. She had waited so long for this day, and she wanted to savor every sanguine detail.

Yura strutted along the shadowy rooftop until she spotted Jinsoyun below, still holding the sword that kept the royal brat pinned to the altar. In spite of everything, Jinsoyun still kept a serious frown on her face. Yura rolled her eyes. Some people were simply determined not to enjoy themselves.

Zaiwei would fall, surely--but not before a fantastic show. Yura wished she could stay to witness the inevitable showdown between the Earthbreaker's successor and the Dark Lord's resurrected, emissary, but Mushin was waiting. Besides, the two of them had something much more fun in mind.

Chapter 37: The Final Battle

Jinsoyun finally saw what Master Hong had seen in the warrior. The warrior had first overcome her curse, and had now managed to overcome her as well. With a bitter laugh, Jinsoyun accepted that her path of vengeance, one that had empowered her blade while destroying her soul, was finally at an end. She had nothing left inside, her to mourn, no love or hope to drive her to take her next breath

The warrior brandished Twilight's Edge and readied it for the final strike. The warrior had killed countless others to reach her, and was sure to end her miserable life in an equally brutal fashion. The blade plunged into Jinsoyun's shoulder. She sensed no pain at first, but instead heard a voice, one she hadn't heard in decades and had long accepted she would never hear again.

"Soyun," Jiwan said, "Come with me..."

She felt Jiwan's grace and mercy in the warrior's act of clemency, in the touch of her Master's Righteous Blade. How was this possible? Had the warrior truly granted Jinsoyun forgiveness, after everything she had done, after all she had become? It was inconceivable. It was miraculous. Jinsoyun watched with teary eyes as the warrior ascended toward the Dark Lord's portal. Win or lose, there was no future left for her in this Realm.

She wished only for another chance...

Chapter 38: Endings and Beginnings


A lifetime had passed since the warrior had answered to that, nickname. The warrior had tried to follow the Hongmoon Way and had failed time and time again. The warrior trudged through the darkest paths and had lied, killed, and stolen to attain revenge for the fallen Hongmoon School. There were unforgivable actions too numerous to remember, but the warrior had been granted life and another chance time and time again.

Master Hong... The Eight Masters... Iksanun... dear Hajoon... they all had seen some greatness in the warrior, and had given everything to keep the warrior on the righteous path.

The warrior could never repay them all but vowed, with that final tearful goodbye, to do everything possible to right the wrongs of the past, to turn all enemies into allies, and to live and love according to the Hongmoon Way.