Act IX — Cruel Reunion
Chapter 1: Unanswered Questions
Chundoon sprung from his moonlit bed and rushed to the table. As if in a trance, he grasped a stick of charcoal and made long strokes on the parchment. With shallow breaths, he drew the fire, the smoke, and Yunma Fei's palace in ruins and rubble. Retaining the vision was like holding on to sand, so he hurriedly outlined the eyes and fangs of the beast, one unlike any he had ever seen before. And finally, he sketched the hero stranger in their last throes of life and fight. Madun told him he would have one day have visions like this. Chundoon never thought he would see the end of Zaiwei, but the premonition was undeniable.
In the morning, Chundoon awoke to the smell of a hot glass of tea. He lifted his dirty face from the parchment and squinted at his visitor. He took the cup from the Blade Master's hands.
"Hope you don't mind," Ku Yang said with a smile. "Your assistant let me in. You said you needed to sleep on it. Have you reconsidered? We offer a great benefits package."
Chundoon resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Barely a day went by without one of the "New Masters" dropping in, begging Chundoon to join their embarrassing band of misfits.
"Oh, you know them too?" Ku Yang said, pointing at the sketch of the hero on the table, "Last I heard, they were helping the Valindrians in Solak." He studied the copious amounts of blood spilling from the warrior. "Looks like they're in pretty bad shape, huh?"
Chapter 2: The Invitation
The Esteemed Empress Yunma Fei, Daughter of Yunma Kahn, Jewel of the Talus Dominion, Merciful Zephyr of the Eastern Continent, and lady of a dozen other titles, had little space for secrets these days. Economists called her into morning meetings where other economists second-guessed every decision. Generals bowed to her in the afternoon and spoke of the lost in simple, shrugged-off numbers. The evenings were spent smiling with diplomats, where she delivered sharp words in a gentle voice. And in between all of that, she had Junghado and Yu Chun doting on her as if she were made of glass.
But the Nameless always found a way to reach her in a few stolen minutes. They took the guise of merchants, couriers, chefs, seamstresses, and gardeners-- all nearly invisible.
Yunma Fei had not noticed the servant entering the room, her face obscured by a large bouquet of flowers. People constantly swapped out the vases around her, as if she had a deathly allergy to fallen petals.
"My lady," the servant said. "I pray the clouds have not offended your gaze."
Yunma Fei perked up instantly at the code phrase. She grinned. "Nuya!" she whispered. "I was starting to worry!"
Nuya nodded. "Don't waste your worry on me." Her face darkened. "I'm not the one in danger."
Chapter 3: The Imperator
Jinsoyun tried to be calm. She knew Jinbin, Bunah, Bunyang, and Master were acting normally. After all, this was a party. They were supposed to be having fun, and she couldn't deny that the palace was beautiful, the food smelled great, and the music was heavenly.
She tried to relax, to breathe, but the walls and ceiling closed in. Everyone stared at her with cruel eyes, like they knew some horrible secret about her past and were going to tell, and then no one would like her anymore.
She had to get out. She didn't mean to be rude, but she ran through all the legs and hands until she was with the fresh air and trees. Master called out to her, but she kept running. She told herself she'd apologize later-- just as she knocked into a young man. He helped her up off the grass and made sure she wasn't injured. His eyes were kind.
"What's the hurry?" he said with a smile. "Was someone chasing you?"
Jinsoyun shook her head.
The man nodded. "You must be with that Hongmoon Hero. I think I've heard about you. Aren't you supposed to be at the party?"
Jinsoyun shook her head again.
"Don't like parties, huh? Me neither. We can wait out here if you like."
Jinsoyun nodded. Then, she stopped. She couldn't help but notice the figures in black walking on the promenade. Usually they stayed in shadows. Usually they wore masks.
The nice man laughed. "What's that frown for? Those are the Ebondrake. I don't know what they told you out in the Talus Dominion, but they're your friends! You don't want to frown at your friends, do you?"
Chapter 4: The Sounds of Betrayal
Bunyang couldn't help but stare at the ceiling through the night, no matter how much he wanted to sleep. Rest just wouldn't come to him as his mind remained active and jumbled with the events of the day. Had it just been the splendid party, the beautiful court maids, and the decadent food from before, he would have been off to dreamland with a smile.
But none of that mattered to him once he saw Ryu again. He was still alive! Though relief filled him when he first saw their friend in the hall, it gave way to confusion.
Why did Ryu act like he didn't know any of them? What was doing with the Empress? And why had their Master gone along with things?
It wasn't the first time Bunyang found himself frustrated with his teacher... Master was a good person, but seemed too indecisive sometimes! Always going along with what other people asked for. It just wouldn't do.
No, Bunyang decided, he would get to the bottom of it himself. He'd figure out what was going on if it was the last thing he'd do!
Chapter 5: Water Under the Bridge
Flames engulfed the ships of Fortune Harbor, spreading like the incendiary news that had permeated Gunwon City and awoken the slumbering ranks of the Stratus military. The reports were scattered and inconsistent. Minister Janyong had been attacked. Reinforcements were needed at Sweetwater Pavilion. The reports claimed the instigators were outsiders, assassins masquerading as ambassadors from the Talus Dominion. Of course, any homegrown rebels that had the audacity to oppose the Stratus throne would also have been labeled as "outsiders," even if they had spent their entire lives within the walls of Gunwon City. The Empress Dowager seemed to blame any sort of civic unrest on foreign entities, as if acknowledging even a hint of discontent among her own citizens somehow called into question the legitimacy or effectiveness of her rule. If she couldn't unite her people with devotion and trust, she would try to unite them through fear of the unknown and the alien.
As Choi Jina made her way across Sweetwater Bridge, the sounds of battle cut through the smoky haze. Shields were broken. Arrows were deflected. Spears snapped in two. Then suddenly, the sounds ceased. The silence was broken only by the crackle of fire over water and then by the faint sounds of a few shrill, nervous voices, voices that sounded like… children.
Someone was coming. Choi Jina readied her blade and waited. Salty mist and the smell of burning ships mingled with a hint of breeze as a figure materialized before her. It was an outsider, but one that Choi Jina had met before.
Chapter 6: Hide and Sneak
Choi Jina slipped behind a stack of crates and steadied herself, slowing her breathing behind her mask, trying to become one with the night. She could hear the pacing of the restless guards less than a stone's throw away. She hoped the warrior would find her before the guards did.
The Imperator's Tower was still impossibly far away. In the wake of everything that had happened at Sweetwater, the number of guards assigned to the Sovereign's Estate had apparently tripled, as had the number of Ebondrake assassins waiting in the shadows.
This was madness. Why was she helping this warrior? Why was she hiding herself from soldiers who had sworn allegiance to the same Empire?
Yet even as doubt and fear gripped her stomach, Choi Jina felt it all dissipate before a growing resolve. The warrior hadn't convinced her to go down this path. Choi Jina had chosen it for herself, even before the warrior had arrived. For too long she had let her suspicions steep and grow stagnant, materializing only in words that were left unspoken and restless energy that had no outlet other than the listless pacing of sleepless nights. The warrior's arrival was simply the impetus she needed to take real action and to finally seek answers to all the questions that hung above her like darkening clouds. The risks were high, yet they came with a sort of relief.
Choi Jina had helped uproot the Tyrian Cult in the Cinderlands only to find the Stratus Capital in the grips of an even more powerful and radical cult. She needed to see how deep the corruption had spread, even if it came with the risk of being branded a traitor. She had to believe that she was still serving the Empire, even if it meant trying to save the Empire from itself.
Chapter 7: Ryu's Return
Choi Jina made her way down the darkened staircase. A slight creak in the final step seemed to reverberate through the unnatural silence. The first floor of the Imperator's Tower looked as empty as the second. The air felt heavy, still, and lifeless, in stark contrast to the nervous restlessness of the scores of guards outside.
She moved quickly and cautiously until she reached a sort of office: a long room that was mostly empty except for a wide, ornate desk near the far wall that was illuminated by a pair of red amber lamps. A ledger was open next to a pair of scrolls and a single page of parchment that was half-covered in what looked like fresh ink. Choi Jina stifled her curiosity and forced herself to turn away from the unfinished letter, or order, or whatever it was, as the warrior entered the room behind her.
They weren't here for documents, at least not yet. They were here for the Imperator.
Rifling through his private correspondence didn't strike her as the best way to start a conversation, especially given the awkward circumstances. She only hoped there was some truth to the warrior's claims, as absurd as they seemed. If Imperator Ryu was, in fact, this warrior's former student, then perhaps he would be willing to talk. Even if he proved to be suspicious and guarded, Choi Jina had to believe that his words and even his silence could shed some light on what the Empress Dowager was up to and perhaps make this whole reckless endeavor worthwhile.
A subtle noise caught Choi Jina's attention. She glanced at the warrior, suddenly aware of how much the two of them must look like a pair of burglars. She moved back towards the doorway, hoping to retreat into the shadows, but the sound of approaching footsteps stopped her short. She cursed herself silently for going so far into a room with only a single exit. There was no escape now. Someone was coming.
Chapter 8: Going Postal
Senha wished she could have helped the warrior with the monster formerly known as "Minister Janyong." She wished she could have fought through the demons and saved the poor children locked in the guest quarters. But, quite simply, that wasn't in her job description. She was to remain in the shadows, observe, and report any findings to Empress Yunma Fei. The Nameless weren't meant to be remembered as great warriors or heroes; they weren't mean to be remembered at all.
None of the guards stationed at the gates stopped her from taking the servants' passages. She seamlessly joined the stream of court maids and attendants until, at last, she entered the Royal Dispatch.
It was nearly empty-- no surprise. Given the hour and the state of panic in Dasari Palace, she couldn't blame the scholars for abandoning their posts. Senha immediately grabbed the Dowager's incoming mail and searched for any suspicious addresses or correspondence. She had to figure out what terrible scheme the Dowager was planning next.
Suddenly, she heard small footsteps. She slunk back into the shadows.
"No one gets in or out," a boy said. "If you disturb me before I'm done with the prisoner, you're dead."
"Yes, Imperator," the guard said. The heavy locks snapped shut.
Chapter 9: The Way Out
It all happened far too quickly.
It was just a moment, just a few seconds... no time to act. No time to move. She could only watch.
The sight of Ryu, a shout, the flash of steel.
Jinsoyun couldn't tell if she'd screamed or not. She found her voice too muffled against Jinbin's arm as he held her tight, to shield her from that terrible scene. But even as her voice was drowned to nothing but whimpers, it was no use. It all happened so fast, yet time seemed to stretch out in slow-motion.
A flash of steel.
She could only watch as Bunyang collapsed. Her own eyes as wide and shocked as his, caught in that horrid moment of confusion and betrayal. As he fell, as Master arrived too late, as Ryu somehow grinned in the wake of what he'd done... she could only watch.
Why could she only watch?
Chapter 10: Prison Break
"Welcome home," the Dowager had said. "Enjoy your stay, princess."
That had been days ago, maybe weeks. Since then, the sands of Bamboo Village and the Solak sunsets had become more fantasy than memory. Silent guards with stale loaves of bread were her only company, and no matter how much she screamed through the bars of the cell, no one ever spoke back... not to her, anyway.
If all the people she had hurt along the way could see her now, they'd laugh. They'd tell her that she got what she deserved, that she should rot there, that they all would have better off if Dochun had never taken her in. Maybe they were right. Maybe this was the only fitting home for her. At least she couldn't hurt anyone from here.
Memories of Gwon hung in the cell like a specter. She saw his crooked smirk, felt his calloused hands, and could almost hear his sarcastic voice. Once, she had dreamed of marrying him. She never wanted to settle for an anonymous and provincial life, but spending it with him made the thought bearable.
Part of her knew the truth about what happened to him. Part of her wouldn't dare think it.
Still, with every hour, the truth only became more undeniable. No one was coming.
Chapter 11: Love Lost
It didn't feel real.
Bunah stared listlessly at her own empty hands, flexed them into fists, and squeezed until her nails nearly drew blood. But it didn't feel real.
She hadn't seen it happen. The last thing she recalled was Ryu's strike across her jaw and the dull impact of hitting earth before it all went dark. Yet when she awoke to her family all crowded around her, teary-eyed and pained... she couldn't believe what they told her.
He couldn't be gone. The words echoed in her head like a mantra, like a desperate prayer to the Divines. Her brother couldn't be gone.
She hadn't seen it happen. How could she have just laid there as her brother died beside her? Died trying to protect her? He was always trying to protect her... Bunah's mind raced and her chest ached just trying to make sense of it all. She couldn't even figure out who to blame. Ryu? The Dowager? Herself?
The cell door opened and their Master hurried in, last as usual. In the past Bunah had felt a rush of relief when Master arrived to pull them out of a tough spot. ut now... all she could think of was Master's claims of how they would all be together, how they'd be safe as a family. Where had Master been in Bunyang's last moments? Why hadn't Master been there to save them all?
She didn't know if she could blame Ryu, or the Dowager, or herself. But as their Master stepped over to speak with her, grief across their face, she knew who was really responsible.
Chapter 12: A Reason for the Treason
Show no hesitation or doubt. Exhibit calm at all times, until your outward composure becomes your inner truth. Do not give in to fear or emotion. Focus solely on the problem at hand, until you find a solution.
Choi Jina steadied her rapid breathing as she scaled the broken wall that surrounded General Hondu's estate. The words of her instructor replayed in her mind, echoes from a bygone era that now seemed distant and distorted. They were words she needed now more than ever.
Over the last several hours, she had fully transitioned from decorated Stratus operative to enemy of the Empire. What's more, she had taken her most trusted agents with her, endangering their lives along with her own. In the process of breaking arguably the most wanted fugitive of the Stratus Empire out of Gunwon Prison, she had also somehow managed to ally herself with Talus Empress Yunma Fei and find a girl that claimed to be the true heiress to the throne.
Could this girl truly be the daughter of the late Emperor Wan? She certainly looked the part, both in her absurdly fancy attire and in her likeness to the late Empress Namsolyn whose thoughtful eyes still watched over the empire from countless scrolls and tapestries.
Choi Jina leapt down to the courtyard. There were no guards in sight, only the cracked stones and overgrown weeds of an estate that had fallen into disrepair. It was a clear reminder of how far the former Imperator had fallen out of favor with the Empress Dowager. Yet the disgraced General still had influence within the military. More importantly, he still had the Wan Di Compass, the artifact which that could confirm whether this girl was truly of royal lineage or if she was yet another silver-tongued charlatan parading as a princess.
Choi Jina had been so focused on escorting this girl, this "Namsoyoo", to General Hondu, that she had no idea what to say to him when they arrived. The General had a reputation for angry, drunken rants, for lashing out at almost anyone and everyone. This included the Empress Dowager herself. Choi Jina hoped his displeasure with the Dowager's dealings would overpower any irritation he might have towards three fugitives showing up at his estate late at night to ask for a lineage test.
Choi Jina laughed to herself at the absurdity of it all as the warrior landed beside her. It was too late to turn back now. Show no hesitation or doubt. Exhibit calm at all times, until your outward composure becomes your inner truth.
Chapter 13: The Rising Darkness
General Ang Hondu's mind raced, fighting off the lingering effects of the soju he had downed earlier in the evening.
The Wan Di Compass didn't lie. This girl was the daughter of Emperor Wan and Empress Namsolyn, but how could that be? Ang had heard from multiple sources that the young woman had been killed in the Divine Mandate Ceremony in Zaiwei. Yet here she stood, clutching the small cut on her hand, looking frightened and uncertain, but somehow managing to maintain a sort of quiet strength. Her eyes were soft but steady, wide but focused. She looked at him for a moment, and in that brief exchange Ang felt as if the late Empress Namsolyn herself was standing before him, waiting, watching from beyond the grave, yet somehow ushering him forward.
Ang glanced at Agent Choi Jina and saw a similar wave of understanding wash over her face. Then there was this warrior, this fugitive who had only just escaped from Gunwon Prison and was being hunted down by every elite guard in the city. Would he throw in his lot with this trio, with a pair of escaped prisoners and a rogue agent? It was a fool's errand. He had already tested the limits of the Dowager's patience. If he crossed her again so directly, the consequences would be severe. He imagined the distant coldness in her eyes as some pompous minister announced that he would be stripped of his rank and title. Perhaps he would then be thrown into Gunwon Prison, caged up like an old dog, left to rot and fester in the darkness.
He could stop it now. He could turn them all in and perhaps restore some trust with the Dowager. In time, perhaps, he could regain some of his lost credibility, become an advisor to the Imperator, and restart regular training sessions with Prince Subin…
Namsoyoo's watchful eyes caught his once more. He glanced at Choi Jina and the warrior and was sobered by their quiet determination. He stifled a sigh and knew what he had to do. Three against an Empire. What difference would a fourth make? He had no idea, but he knew he had to try.
Chapter 14: Meeting the Prince
The lines had been blurred for too long, but the truth was becoming increasingly clear. General Ang Hondu stepped over the body of a young Stratus soldier, the flickering corruption still burning over him like a dark flame. Dozens of others were strewn across the courtyard, their burning bodies twisted and contorted.
The Stratus Army had always had an uneasy alliance with the Ebondrake, if it could, in fact, be called an alliance at all. The Ebondrake might help the military track down certain fugitives and people of interest, but would almost never share information, and when they did, they would never reveal their sources. Stratus soldiers watched over the city while masked Ebondrake cultists seemed to continuously watch over them. They had no known commanding officers that the Stratus Generals could coordinate with, let alone any visible chain of command. They worked in secret, yet seemed to have access to most of the military's most confidential secrets. Increasingly over the last several months, the Ebondrake seemed to emerge from the shadows more and more, walking amongst the soldiers and commoners as if they were the true enforcers and peacekeepers of Gunwon City and the Stratus military was little more than a symbolic relic of a bygone era.
Now, it seemed, the Ebondrake had grown bold enough to attack Stratus soldiers outright. What had prompted such an attack was unclear, but their proximity to Prince Subin's Royal Chambers was deeply unsettling. General Hondu felt his hands tighten into fists as if anticipating what was to come. He would not and could not tolerate the Ebondrake any longer. Whatever their plans were, there was at least one General in the Empire that would oppose them.
Chapter 15: Uncivil War
Ang Hondu never thought he'd live this long.
When he first enlisted, he embraced the theatrics of it all: the ornate uniform, the constant war with the immoral enemy of the East, and the way children and adults alike would look at him with pride and reverence. He loved the Tempest Empire, knew the story of Emperor Wan by heart, and romanticized the idea of one day dying for the great and true Empress Tayhu, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
But that didn't happen. He lived on. He got older, rose through the ranks, commanded more soldiers, sent them to die, forgot their names, and did it again. He lived alone in an enviable estate, surrounded by Ebondrake who served as both his guards and his captors. Empress Tayhu not only knew him, she despised him, and she would one day make him disappear. In an instant, he would be as forgotten as the once legendary General Chol Mugo.
After he left the banquet, he waited for death. He stood proud in his foyer, wanting to see his killer coming.. Instead, he met Choi Jina and two enemies of the state.
The young woman before him in the absurd outfit didn't inspire much hope for the Stratus Empire, but her blood was pure and her words were true. While none of this was what he expected, at least he was granted one final chance to die for something worthwhile.
Chapter 16: Dark Dilemma
They had their chance, but they didn't want to learn. They chose instead to argue, divide, hate, and fear. They had forgotten what he had done for them. With a blink of an eye, Mushin's sacrifice was scarred and downgraded to a myth. The greatest empire in history was left to collapse into rot.
They had their chance, and they couldn't stop him. Jinsoyun, Zulia… and even the "Hero" had failed. Every pathetic choice they made played into his plans, because they were predictable, emotional, foolish creatures, just like all that had come before them. They believed they were in control, but they still brought him the Stratus Heir, and, more importantly, the Twilight's Edge. Now, he was complete. Now, everything was in place, as it should be.
Man wasn't made to lead man. There was a natural order, and it was time they were all ruled by a Divine Fist.
Chapter 17: The Edge of Twilight
As his master pulled the glowing sword through the air, Jinbin got to his feet, as if in a dream, as if the sword was pulling him along with it. The shock of watching Bunah die had left him empty and numb. First Bunyang, now Bunah. It was too painful to be real.
"I couldn't save them," he thought to himself. "I failed."
He watched as his master began to focus. The blade steadied and pointed at the princess as she fought with her bonds. He could see the desperation in his master's eyes, the torment of weighing the life of the princess against the life of the empress and Jinsoyun and...
In an instant, feeling returned to every fiber of Jinbin's being as he realized what was about to happen. His master had no choice. His master would do anything to save the last students of the Hongmoon School, even if it meant traveling to a lost continent or entering the realm of the dead... or murdering a princess. With a tormented look, his master turned away, an outstretched hand holding the sword steady, the blade still aimed directly at the princess. A quick flick of the palm would send it towards its target.
Jinbin readied himself and watched the glowing blade, his countless hours of training preparing him for a split-second reaction. He had been taught to be quick, to be focused, to be kind.
"Don't worry, Master," he thought to himself." You might not have a choice, but I do."
Chapter 18: What Remains
Despite the rain, it seemed too quiet. Unbearably quiet.
To look around the old Hongmoon training grounds, one would never think it was once so lively. There were still flashes of memory; times when Jinyung would drag the other students out of bed by their ankles. Times when Hajoon would come scampering over with some new trick to play on Lusung. Master Hong's smile even as time and illness wore at him. Later on, that spirit of closeness and laughter was replaced with new faces... Bunah and Bunyang sneaking away from their lessons. The times Jinbin would dutifully shuffle parts of his dinner to Jinsoyun's plate to make sure she ate enough The way the kids would all gather together for training, to play.
How many times could everything be lost? Echoes of "Cricket!" and "Master!" rang out amid the crashes of thunder in painful reminders of what had once been. How many times could there be nothing but failure at the end of so much effort? Nothing but loss and death, no matter how hard they all fought? How many times could they rebuild a life just to have it torn down?
Could there be any justice? Could there be any forgiveness? After so many failures, so many mistakes, how could there be any apology good enough?
"Master?" Jinsoyun asked in such a small voice. "We... we should go inside. Out of the rain."
To move felt distant and numb. But what else was there to do? All that was left was to pull upright, to take Jinsoyun's hand as she stepped ahead to lead away from the shrine, and feel the weight of the world crush down yet again. Maybe there would be rest. Maybe a new plan of how to move forward.
But there would be no peace, despite how quiet the Hongmoon School had become.