Act VIII — The Lost Continent
Chapter 1: The Journey West
General Chol Mugo set his boots outside the door and stepped inside his residence. He tossed his cape to his loyal servant and immediately crumpled on the couch.
"Good to have you back, sir," his head servant said with a bow. "It's been a long month without you."
Chol groaned and cracked his neck. He glanced at the giant portrait of Dowager Tayhu on the wall and sighed. "Remind me never to go to Gunwon again. Cultists... pirates... there's no reasoning with those animals!"
"I take it you were unable to negotiate a trade route for the Empress?"
Chol sighed. "Yeah, and I told her that from the start. She's going to kill me when we debrief about it. Thankfully, that can wait for tomorrow. Now, where's my beautiful Jisu?"
The servant bowed. "The Empress had Madam Jisu escorted to the Harvest Festival this afternoon."
"Sounds charming," Chol said.
"Yes, General," the servant said as he poured the tea.
"So how long is this ‘Harvest Festival' going to take? When's Jisu coming home?" Chol grinned. "I'm going to take her out to a big dinner! Maybe some dancing-- she'll love that!"
"Sir..." The servant averted his eyes. "Madam Jisu is not coming home."
Chapter 2: The Descent
Yunma Fei's words echoed in the warrior's mind. She said that Solak was just a fairy tale, a foolish hope, a death trap. She had all the resources and every reason to be correct, but the warrior was past practical reasoning. After deciding on a course of action, the warrior insisted that Jinbin, Bunah, and Bunyang stay behind in Zaiwei. The apprentices unanimously refused.
"We're family," they said. "We stick together."
Part of the warrior couldn't bear the thought of putting the children in danger, but another part never wanted them out of earshot again. The warrior couldn't lose another apprentice, not after what happened at Heaven's Reach. Ryu's horrific screams still echoed in their memory.
Ryu was lost and gone, maybe forever. Jinsoyun, little Jinsoyun, brought back to life by the Divines themselves, still had a chance, even if it was a chance rooted in myth and legend.
The warrior nodded to the stubborn apprentices. "Stay below deck, and stick together until we land."
Chol Mugo bellowed out a laugh and slapped the warrior on the shoulder. "C'mon, hero! Let the kids have some fun! It's not every day you see Solak from above!"
Chapter 3: A Strange Reunion
The Marauders shoved and jeered Gwon to the back of the inn. Smoke licked the walls and the floorboards were soaked with soju and wine. Some of the miscreants made lewd gestures as he walked past. Some threw glasses and chopsticks. They were wild, uncouth, and free. They were... perfect.
Finally, the Marauders shoved Gwon down, banging his knees into the floor. He heard his shirt rip. Well, rip more than before, anyway.
"We got a young man, here. I think he has fleas!" A woman announced behind him. "Said he wanted to speak to the Admiral. Lookin' to join!"
The legs of a chair screeched against the floor. Gwon heard Chol Mugo gently straighten out the stones on his game of Go. His polished boots rattled the ground.
"Isn't this more of a Dokgom problem?" Mugo's gravelly voice asked as he circled the table. "This boy here, he knocked Dokgom out! He's a lively one. Real fighter!"
Gwon stared at the ground as Mugo's polished boots thunked towards him. In an instant, Mugo used the tip of his blade to jolt Gwon's chin upward into the light. "Well, you're no model, that's for sure."
"And you're no General," Gwon spat back.
Mugo leaned in close to Gwon. Shadows deepened every crag and scar on the man's weathered face. "I think 'Admiral' suits me better," he whispered.
With lightning speed, the Admiral sheathed his sword and stepped back. He stroked his beard with his finely crafted gloves. All the Marauders hung on his every word, every action. Gwon would give anything to have that kind of power.
"Let's get this boy a uniform!" Mugo cheered.
The Marauders thrust their drinks into the air and hollered. They pulled Gwon off the ground and raised him high above their heads.
"Once a Blackram, always a Blackram!" they sang. "Plunder and steal and lie! Once a Blackram, always a Blackram! Brothers in arms 'til we die!"
Chapter 4: Into the Wolf's Den
"Captain Gwon," Namsoyoo said, straightening the former pirate's shirt. "Who knew you'd end up being such an upstanding citizen?"
"I'm not exactly a mayor, but, hey..." Gwon said with a smirk. "Sometimes we have to settle for less."
She playfully slapped him across the chest. "Oh, stop."
Gwon scratched the back of his head and scoffed. "About that, settling... Don't you think it's time we moved on?"
Namsoyoo cocked her head. "You're kidding me. You want to leave the Refuge?"
Gwon grimaced. "Yeah. You know, there's the Volkami and the kidnappers, and Mogin's been inviting himself over to dinner and--"
"Gwon, there's no other 'here' here. This place is a wasteland. We're lucky to be alive. Don't mess it up!"
Gwon nodded. "Just the other day, I thought... we really shouldn't stay anywhere for long. You know, let people get a line on us."
Namsoyoo took Gwon's rough hands. Her eyes were gentler than they were when they first met back in Bamboo Village. Gwon knew she only started seeing him out of rebellion against her father. That didn't bother him because he loved her from the moment he saw her. He fell back in love with her every day.
"Gwon, the Blackram can't get you here," she whispered. She kissed him gently on the lips. "You're safe."
"You promise?" he asked.
Chapter 5: Run Aground
Bunah sighed to herself as she watched Master head off once more, leaving her and the other students behind. It had been nice of them to help pick flowers for Jinsoyun. Even with everything that was going on, they still managed to make time for small gestures.
"Geeze, after all this time and Master will still run any little errand asked. Just like back in the old days, huh?" Bunyang chuckled as he stretched back with arms behind his head. Waiting around was boring, but they didn't have much choice.
"Remember how Grandpa kept asking for all kinds of crazy items in return for Windwalking training? Where did Master even find all those?" Even in a dire situation, Bunah couldn't help but giggle to herself. Though as she looked once more to Jinsoyun-- still trapped in her unnatural slumber, with Jinbin standing guard with such resolution-- her laughter faded. "Hey... Bunyang?"
"Hm? What's got you lookin' so serious all of a sudden?"
Bunah struggled to find her voice. "It's just... after you fell off the ship before..." she said in a small, reluctant tone. "Just... just be more careful, okay? I don't want to lose you too."
For all his bravado, Bunyang was silenced in that moment by her concern. It only lasted for a moment, however, before he grinned wide and ruffled Bunah's hair and ears. "Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere. We're brother and sister! Nothing's gonna break us apart. I promise."
Chapter 6: Lessons from the Master
One by one the soldiers-- such as they were-- fell back to the dirt. Gasps for air and low groans from bruised ribs were the only thing heard amid the brief silence as the warrior passed through. When Gwon had called them all over for sparring, they had no idea it would be so intense... yet so brief!
"Man, I thought I was tough... who knew there were warriors like that in the world?" one sighed as he rubbed his sore knuckles.
"If we had a few more of them, we'd be able to clean up this entire region, no problem."
"Even Commander Mogin didn't stand a chance..."
At that remark, gazes turned to the commander in question. Throughout the warrior's demonstration, Mogin had been silent, simply watching in stoic pondering. But now there was a hint of a smile. Finally... there was hope.
Chapter 7: The Fate of Yurido
It always seemed as though that warrior from the Hongmoon School was running off in a rush, a trait which annoyed Gwon. The warrior would show up out of the blue, somehow inject themselves into the thickest patch of problems, and come out the other side for better or worse. But as Gwon watched his somewhat-friend hurry off, he was finally thankful for their haste. He'd have to hurry as well in his trip to the flower fields to await Namsoyoo... it wouldn't do for her to get there before he did.
"After all that's happened... hah! Didn't think I'd be the sort to ever get a happy ending." Gwon chuckled to himself. It was rare that the universe handed out second chances, but perhaps he'd gotten lucky. A long, peaceful life together with the woman he loved more than anything... how could he ever want for anything more?
Chapter 8: Inner Peace, Outer Chaos
As an ascetic of his caliber, Grandmaster Nayul gave up many of life's indulgences in his pursuit of self-enlightenment. It was part of his calling--in order to truly harness the vast cosmic energies that flowed through the Dragon Pulses, it was necessary to rid oneself of connections to the world. One could not ascend beyond the world if they were still anchored to it.
Yet, as the powerful realm wanderer sat in the early morning breeze, Nayul allowed himself a moment's enjoyment. It was but a small physical pleasure to relish the cool, refreshing wind of a new day. He really should have been on his way by then, continuing his quest through the northern lands. But he wanted to witness the dawn in that lovely landscape, and so he allowed himself to relax. It wasn't as though there was some event of great importance hinging on his presence back home, after all. What harm was a little leisure?
Chapter 9: Portal of Portents
It was only when he felt a hint of pain that Chol Mugo realized his hands were clenched into fists. He opened his fingers, revealing the brilliant blue Twilight Shard with sharp edges that had jabbed through his glove and almost drawn blood. He resisted the temptation to throw it out of sight. To think that this tiny object once held so much weight.
This fragment of an ancient artifact as old as the Earthen Realm itself, this vessel of latent energy that could supposedly cut through the very fabric of time and space... it now seemed little more than a piece of broken glass. It had failed him.
Monk Hunmyung's elaborate ritual had been nothing but another tease, another glimpse into a portal that led to nowhere. Would this lost city of Valindria be any different? Chol Mugo had talked to countless sages and mystics, chased after ancient tomes and relics, but nothing had brought him answers.
The Admiral raised his weary eyes to the stars and wondered if reaching them would be simpler than finding a way to the Spirit Realm. He pocketed the Twilight Shard, knowing it should be returned to the one who gave it to him. It no longer held much weight. The heaviest thing that Chol Mugo carried had always been the one thing he refused to let go of: the wedding band on his finger.
Chapter 10: Divine Intervention
It was the first time Hiryung had simply used the name "Jyonna" without the usual formality of "Lady" or "Divine Aide." The others nodded in agreement, trying to hide their fear, but their desperate eyes couldn't lie. How could Jyonna abandon them at a time such as this?
The sounds of shouting and hurried footsteps grew louder from the tunnel across the way. Hiryung glanced over her shoulder, and then returned her eyes to Jyonna, her expression pleading. Jyonna was about to shake her head and step towards their unseen pursuers when something tugged at her soul, an echo from the past, a distant memory now made crystal clear.
She was at the base of the Elder Oak, tracing her fingers along the deep, eternal roots, watching the light make silent music upon the tranquil waters below. Ayona hovered behind her, orbiting like a star.
"There will be times, Jyonna, when others will sacrifice themselves to keep you safe."
Ayona's voice was calm and caring, even when the words were harsh.
"Do not try to stop them, though your heart will tell you otherwise. If a friend loses her life, Valindria will grieve. If you lose your life, Valindria will die..."
The yells were fast approaching. A wave of anger and confusion washed over Jyonna, but in the depths of that torrent of emotions, she found something new, a peace that transcended understanding. She exhaled deeply and nodded to Hiryung, who seemed to have regained her usual composure. With a final half bow to the others, she turned and hoisted herself into the well. Hiryung grabbed the crank and slowly lowered her into the seemingly endless darkness below, into a sanctuary of solitude, silent save for the memory of Ayona's words.
"This is a burden that you must learn to bear, Jyonna. Sometimes the greatest sacrifice one can make is to accept the sacrifice of others."
Chapter 11: The Path of Trials
Few could remember the last time a stranger had entered Valindria. It was rare for the Yun to make contact with someone on the outside, let alone invite them to attempt the Path of Trial. It was rarer still for anyone to make it through the Path, to be judged worthy to enter Valindria, the sacred refuge of the Yun.
Yet, here was an outsider speaking with Captain Yujinn. All around them, conversation stopped. The music was interrupted. Guards stepped away from their posts to catch a brief glimpse of this strange and unexpected visitor, a warrior of some kind, a traveler from another continent. The priestesses intuitively noticed that this warrior embodied a unique and powerful chi. Those who were especially observant noted the control and restraint in the warrior's interactions, words spoken in good faith, respect given where deserved, selfless intentions threatened only by a hint of impatience, as if the warrior was desperately searching for something.
Most were too polite to stare for long. They went back to their work, their walks, their conversations. The music resumed where it had left off as soldiers returned to their posts. The outsider was strong but kind. Perhaps it would be nice to have a visitor.
Yet among the Yun there were a few who remembered the last time an outsider had come to Valindria. They held their gaze for a bit longer than the rest, as if searching for something hidden in the warrior's shadow. Even if the warrior's intentions were noble and pure, the very presence of an outsider had disturbed the long held peace, just as a single drop of water sends ripples across an untouched pool. It was as if the ancient roots of the Elder Oak itself had shuddered underneath them.
An outsider had come. Fear followed in its wake.
Chapter 12: The Secret City
"But, if they're all female, how do they...?"
His voice trailed off in embarrassment. The Chancellor smiled, amused by her pupil's honest awkwardness.
"Well first off," she said. "It's not polite to stare."
He quickly lowered his gaze as the Yun girl continued to browse the wares on the other side of Merchants Square.
"Secondly, I honestly don't know. What I do know is that the Yun are all tied to a sacred tree, the Elder Oak as it's sometimes called. Perhaps, their... reproduction is linked to the tree somehow, I honestly don't know."
He nodded and glanced at the cart of curios nearby. The Dragon Trader turned towards him with a smile. Thankfully, she was approached by another customer.
"The Elder Oak is on Solak, or so I've heard," continued the Chancellor. "The literature is a bit convoluted. Some claim it has a massive root system that stretches across the entire continent, reaching even into the Spirit Realm. I'm not certain that's even possible. I've also read about a Yun who is somehow linked to the tree, a 'Divine Maiden' as they call her. The stories are quite exaggerated: her beauty is such that a single wink could give a man a heart attack. Her gown is made of moonlight and her crown is crafted from stars. The Elder Oak needs her light to live, just as a normal tree relies on the sun for sustenance. Fact and fiction are hard to discern. Some say that if the Elder Oak dies, the Yun would die along with it."
"Which must mean the Elder Oak is still alive," he said. "It somehow survived the Divine Mandate Ritual that ruined the rest of Solak."
"Yes, I imagine so."
He nodded thoughtfully and caught himself looking across the square again. He found the Yun girl talking to a merchant about a tonic.
"Please let me know if you have any questions."
It was the Dragon Trader. She smiled and pulled back her hair, revealing for a brief moment, a pair of pointed ears, the ears of a Yun. She busied herself organizing a few stack of tomes along the side of the cart. His eyes met the Chancellor's in silence. They each had lots of questions, but neither knew which were appropriate to ask.
Chapter 13: Beneath the Bowers
The priestesses who visited the evening before would normally have filled Ayona the Divine Maiden with joy as they regaled her with songs and tales of the east lands. But Ayona was instead filled with a sense of dread. With her empathic link to the Elder Oak, Ayona could sense that a great warrior had just ventured through the Path of Trials. This warrior was noble of spirit and pure of intention, she was sure, but their tremendous chi was cause enough for caution.
However, this great warrior brought another presence, another immense concentration of chi, and this is what truly disturbed the Divine Maiden. Was this presence a relic of power? A beast of legend? A person, or even multiple people? The energy that trailed behind the warrior was such that even the Elder Oak could not discern its source or level of threat. The Path of Trials was designed to prevent the unpure of heart from entering. How would the labyrinthine cavern react to a presence so clouded, so unknowable?
Ayona awoke with a start. A Yun, a child, cried out from the In-Between. It was a cry so piteous that even the Elder Oak shuddered and vibrated. The warrior's arrival had seemingly set so much in motion. Or was it fate? In any case, Ayona intuitively knew she would have little say in what was to come.
Chapter 14: Enter the In-Between
This one wasn't like the others who passed through the In-Between. This one was no withered soul driven mad or revered master overcome with Dark Chi. The Keeper had seen many souls, many faces, and none for long. Why was this one different?
Most passersby were consumed by the wraiths, their souls torn asunder, their screams heard by the Keeper alone. The Keeper understood that such pain was part of a soul's journey, simply a lesson doled out by the Divines. It was not his place to judge; it was only his duty to observe.
Yet, as he stood among the decrepit buildings of the In-Between, the Keeper wondered-- what had this small child done to be sent here, to a place like this? The wraiths snarled hungrily in the distance, undoubtedly sensing the presence of a fresh soul... an innocent.
The Keeper observed the unconscious girl for a few more moments. He turned to one of the few standing buildings in the courtyard. No, it was not his place to judge. It was not his place to interfere in the will of the Divines.
The wraiths snapped at the Keeper's back. He held out a pale hand and they halted in their tracks.
It wasn't his place to question the Divines. But, then again, what Divine would curse such a child?
Chapter 15: A Matter of Death and Life
The first rift opened near the courtyard, just as the eager young musicians were preparing for their seasonal concert. Out stepped a gnarled, twisted creature, reeking of death and hungry for blood. It was a thing of nightmares. The concert spectators fell over themselves as they attempted to flee; surely the demon delighted in their panic. Its very presence drove them to stampede their fellow Yun like mindless Iron Ox. A contingent of Valindrian soldiers pushed through the maddened mob and met the demon, who by now had been joined by two of its kin. Defeat was swift for the hapless soldiers, but death was far slower to follow. The demons enjoyed watching their victims suffer.
"Sunyung... An invasion... We're..."
Sunyung's second-in-command, Ukeena, stumbled into the barracks and promptly collapsed to the floor, unable to finish her fevered warning. It was only after an alarmed Sunyung turned the warrior over did she realize the extent of Ukeena's injuries. A demon had clawed her from shoulder to hip. All Sunyung could do was hold Ukeena as she drew in her last labored breaths. That, and vow revenge on whatever evil creatures had done such a thing. Tears could be shed later. For now, Sunyung felt only rage.
Chapter 16: Broken Vow
Sunyung had threatened to do this before, ever since they were kids. Seojin had heard it a thousand times. Jyonna was Sunyung's responsibility to protect, and that meant protecting her from the worst fate of all-- becoming the Divine Maiden and forming an inseverable bond with the Elder Oak. This was also the fate Jyonna had been preparing for her whole life, and also the one thing keeping Valindria from crumbling into a thousand pieces! Why was Sunyung being such a baby? She talked a big game, but on the inside, Seojin knew that Sunyung was soft. Softer than Jyonna, that was for sure.
The town was in an utter state of panic. Ayona was dead, and Jyonna was judged as too naive or too inexperienced for Maidenhood. And on top of everything else, now Sunyung had kidnapped Jyonna! Seojin was left to fend for herself in the palace, barking orders and trying to put on a brave face, and even the level-headed priestess was becoming frayed. As her world fell apart, Seojin's only solace was imagining her dear friend Sunyung squirm when she returned-- safe and sound-- with Jyonna. What fitting punishment would Seojin order for Sunyung when she skulked back into Valindria? Head to toe scrubbing of the Healing House with the tiniest brush they could find? Rotten vegetables pelting in the courtyard? Yes, that. That would do nicely.
Chapter 17: The Elder Stone
When a member of the Khashabi tribe dies, their body is ritually burned, but not before a single seed is plucked from the body. The seed is planted in the ground to give way to a new Khashabi in a cycle of life the tree people have honored since time immemorial. However, in cases where a truly enlightened Khashabi dies, their seed grows an Elder Stone instead. This powerful and potent stone is reserved for nourishing the Elder Oak itself, and particularly in times of drought, disease, or other crises.
One such crisis was the misguided Divine Mandate Ritual that corrupted much of Southern Solak. The Khashabi's precious cache of Elder Stones was gradually corrupted, a process which took generations. But in the end, most stones began to emanate pure Dark Chi, corrupting the minds of the specially-appointed Stone Keepers who guarded them.
The taint spread, and the Khashabi were displaced from their ancestral home. They made mortal enemies of the vicious Avamar Tribe, who had completely succumbed to corruption and regularly conducted raids against the tree folk. The Khashabi safeguarded their last remaining untainted Elder Stone in Twistroot Cave, and were devastated when they learned that Twistroot's Stone Keepers had succumbed to the same corruption that had driven their forebearers to madness. Had their last remaining stone succumbed to darkness as well? The possibility was too terrible to even fathom.
Chapter 18: The Wailing Wind
It was said that the Skyrift Altar's creator-- a woman known only as the Builder-- desperately desired to reach the Celestial Realm and join the Divine Hermits in their paradise of enlightenment and tranquillity. She was an architect and a mason from the east, drawn to Solak by pure faith. She brought five ships and over three hundred workers to fulfill her vision of a structure which would reach high enough to pierce the celestial sphere. Construction lasted for decades, and dozens of her workers paid the ultimate price for the Builder's holy aspirations.
No one-- at least no one in the Earthen Realm-- knows from where the Avamar tribe came. But when the Builder's masterpiece grew perilously high, the bird-like Avamar swooped down from the clouds and laid siege to both the structure and the Builder's workers. The Builder likely perished in the attack, and the Avamar have continued to preside over the ruined platforms of the altar, ready to discourage any earthen creature who dares to reach for the heavens.
Chapter 19: Heaven and Earth
Sunyung was torn. That warrior-- that foreigner-- had ruined everything! Before the "hero" emerged from the Path of Trials, she had a life. A plan. A purpose. Ayona would reign as Divine Maiden for decades, and Jyonna would have ascended to Maidenhood only in her old age, when her and Sunyung's best years were already behind them. It would have been the final capstone to a life well lived. And now? It was like Jyonna was being cut down in her prime, a sapling not given enough time to mature. Sunyung was taught that Maidenhood was a lofty and beautiful thing, but that was before it touched her life so deeply. Now? It felt like a death sentence.
Still, as the hours passed, Sunyung's anger and jealousy and longing changed into something that surprised even her-- a sense of duty. The Elder Oak would die without Jyonna, and Valindria with it. Jyonna was right-- there were matters of more importance than the two of them, however painful it might seem. Sunyung had always viewed Jyonna as the one with her head in the clouds, and herself as the realist and pragmatist. But now, in the midst of a true crisis, Jyonna was proving herself to be the practical one. Well, no more. There was still time for Sunyung to grow up. And there was still time to help Jyonna restore the Elder Oak.
Chapter 20: Restorations
Divine Maiden Jyonna beckoned to the warrior; in turn, the warrior nodded to the Hongmoon apprentices, and the young Yun girl was laid upon the altar beneath the Sacred Bowers. Soyun was neither alive nor dead, but trapped in the nightmarish world of the In-Between, a place for wayward spirits and cursed beings who could never find rest.
Mushin had stolen the life and power of the previous Maiden, Ayona, but the Elder Oak was more powerful than even Mushin had imagined, and it gave its lifeforce freely to Jyonna. She alone had the power to snatch Soyun from the In-Between's dark abyss.
Jyonna focused intensely. She had opened portals with her flute, but never one like this. A rift to the In-Between yawned wide, and a bluish ball of pure Chi floated down to Soyun's motionless form. The soul had finally reunited with the body.
After what seemed like an eternity, Soyun opened her eyes. Jyonna, drained from the ritual, still managed a smile. Soyun turned to her master, and her heart burst with joy. She did not recognize where she was, but she was with Master, and that meant she was going to be okay. In the end, the Hongmoon Hero's efforts had all been worth it. Soyun was whole once more.