Act X — The Gathering Dark
Chapter 1: Dwindling Light
The rice was dry and stale. The handful of vegetables that remained were wilted, shrunken, and overgrown with mold. Jinsoyun held her breath as she gathered up the spoiled food into a bucket. The rain was still coming down as she stomped her way to the refuse pile. Everything was wet and dark, saturated in rain and remnants of tears. Mud clung to her feet, as if trying to slow her progress.
Water cascaded over the curved tiles of the Dormitory, which loomed large and empty. It looked like a very large building now that the others were gone. Jinsoyun imagined waking up in her bed and seeing all the others unused. What would happen now? Would more students join? Would Master still want to teach?
It all looked so different, so dark and uncertain and soaked. It felt as if the rain would wash everything away, as if the buildings and gates would all slide off into the ocean. She couldn't remember the last time it had rained like this at the Hongmoon School. It had rained the day the New Masters had taken her away, but not like this.
A distant flash of lightning illuminated the roof of the Master's Quarters. In an instant she saw rain and a roaring fire and three bodies in the mud, all wearing white Hongmoon uniforms. She saw lifeless dogs and geese, and felt something in her hand, something like the handle of a sword. An otherworldly power surged through her fingertips, a power she had never felt before…
Or had she?
Jinsoyun stumbled as the bucket of spoiled rice slipped through her grip. She felt dizzy as she dropped to her knees. The damp stench of the compost helped her get her bearings. She must have slipped in the rain. The bucket had grown heavy. It was half full of water now, but she managed to dump it out with the refuse and make her way back to the Cookery. She turned back to where the rain was soaking the fields and the trees and the open Duel Hall beyond. She watched and waited, but rain seemed to wash all things away. Whatever it was she thought she had seen, it was gone now. It must have been some kind of dream.
Yet somehow it felt like a memory.
Chapter 2: A Rising Threat
As if the crashing pots, the screaming fiends, and the Guild shills of Merchants Square telling him how to his job weren't making it hard enough to concentrate-- Namgun also had to deal with Soha's Ironsights imbeciles blasting off a round every second.
"Shooting the Rift. Yeah. That'll work," Namgun said under his breath.
Soha snapped to face Namgun. She cocked her rifle and he ducked out of instinct. With a gunshot, Namgun was suddenly splashed in black ichor. The fiend's body clunked to the cobblestones behind him.
"Do your thing, Chi Boy!" she demanded over the whipping air. "We don't have all day!"
Namgun rolled his eyes. He pulled a new, unstained Spirit Charm from the inside of his sleeve. Block out all distractions, he told himself. Block out the smell of the gunpowder, the taste of the fiend's blood that had sprayed at the side of his face, and everyone's stupid and unhelpful comments at the worst possible time.
He closed his eyes and focused only on the charm and the Rift. With it, he felt the pulling of another Realm, clawing at the edges of his sanity. He fought that and finally felt the Rift closing. The pull, the agony, shrunk smaller, and smaller, until...
A shockwave of light erupted through the sealed portal. In an instant, all the fiends dissolved into ash.
Once the dust cleared, Soha scanned the mess of rubble and wood that once was Merchants Square.
"Namgun! Namgun!" she shouted. The other Ironsights members joined in the search.
Finally, Soha caught a hint of his purple belt. She threw the rubble off him as he groaned.
"Namgun!" she cried "You did it! I can't believe it, you magnificent jerk! Are you all right?"
He groaned and spat out blood from the corner of his mouth. "Yeah," he whispered hoarsely. He slowly reached into his robe and pulled out a splintered piece of bamboo. "My flute broke my fall."
Chapter 3: Sage Advice
Mushin hadn't expected this. Had he foreseen his fate, would he have acted differently?
The question caught his breath short as the energy of the Hex Barrier siphoned his strength. Three Grand Sentries towered before him, giants made of metal and gears. Their unseeing eyes didn't acknowledge him. Had they been soldiers with souls, perhaps they would have been on his side. His opponents lacked the courage to stand face to face. The proclamation of his sentence was conveniently made from the balcony above. They had been trying to unseat him ever since his first military victory. They would not accept an upstart bastard as one of their own, let alone let him lead Imperial troops into battle. Who was he to ignore the orders of the generals and advisors? Who was he to actually win? He had been winning for years. He won on the field in countless campaigns against bandits and invaders from every far corner of the Realm, and yet it seemed his most formidable foes had been close to home all along, if he could even call this his home.
Perhaps that was what had turned him into a soldier in the first place, even more than his prowess and and his training and his rage. He needed to prove that he belonged, that he had a purpose despite his mixed blood.
Yet, he had always been different, and more importantly had always acted differently. His counsel came from what he saw on the ground, from the trenches he shared with common soldiers, and from the crowded street markets where the working people lived and struggled and died. Such a perspective was rare in the royal chambers of an Empire and a threat to those who rarely worried about such things. He had won the hearts of the people, but in doing so, had threatened the privilege of the elite. Attacking the Grimvol without authorization was simply the offense the generals and minsters had been waiting for.
Everything became strangely quiet. Mushin felt suddenly small next to the imposing stairs and giant men made of steel. What method of execution would they use? What lies would they sow to justify themselves to the people?
His strength faltered. The barrier dropped. Something like a cloud flowed over the stones before him. Three figures suddenly appeared. They looked like a trio of uncles, but something about their presence felt strange and otherworldly. Mushin wondered if he had already been executed. Perhaps these three would guide him to whatever realm waited beyond.
Chapter 4: Mushin's Legacy
"Which of us will mentor him?"
It was an odd question. Dokdan turned to face Podan, who stood with a distant look in his eyes, as if he had asked the question to the passing breeze.
"We all will," Dokdan replied. "Just as we did with the others."
"Yes, I know that," Podan said, turning to face him. "But I think you know what I mean."
Dokdan exhaled and folded his hands behind him.
"It's true that we all advocated for one of the first three, "he said. "I was the one who found Hong and spent the most time with him."
"Just as I was the most devoted to Jiwan,"" Podan said softly. "And Jakdan poured the most of himself into Iksanun."
Jakdan snorted at that.
"Even if that were true," he said, getting to his feet, "They all made their own choices. Their fates were in their hands. You're talking like we made them into who they are now..."
"No, it's not that exactly," said Podan stoically. "It's more the fact that we chose them each for a reason. We saw in each of them a piece of ourselves. They mirrored, in part, our values and our strengths."
"I suppose," Jakdan admitted. "They mirrored a lot of our weaknesses as well."
"True," said Podan. "Perhaps that's what worries me most."
"What do you mean?"
"Mushin's weaknesses. I'm not sure where they lie. I only know they exist."
They all considered this. Jakdan paced. Podan studied the ground. Dokdan toyed with his beard before finally breaking the silence.
"You're right," he said. "And it is for that reason that we should all be involved in his guidance and his training. We don't know as much about Mushin as we do about the others, but for better or worse, we know what he must do."
Chapter 5: Valindrian Pledges
"No, Jinsoyun, stop for a second," Dodan said gently as he took the hammer from Jinsoyun's hand. "You don't hold it like that. Put your thumb on the handle so you'll have control. Like this!"
He positioned the nail over the piece of wood and hammered it twice until it stayed in on its own. "See! It went in straight. We'll just fix these."
Jinsoyun watched with wide eyes as he used the claw of the hammer to pull out her bent nails from the side of the house.
"I... I was just trying to help," she said quietly.
Dodan smiled and placed his hand on her shoulder. "Hey, you're a big help! My best helper!" He looked over his shoulder. "Isn't that right, Chengun?" he shouted.
"Yes, Master Dodan!" a voice answered back from the distance.
"I can just watch," Jinsoyun said. "Master never lets me fix things on Heaven's Reach either. Or use the stove. It's not safe."
Dodan spun the hammer in his hand and offered it back to Jinsoyun. "You can play with a sword but can't play with hammers? Ha! I'm going to have a talk with that Master of yours. Now, what you say we try one more time? This village isn't going to rebuild itself!"
Jinsoyun grinned and took the hammer.
Chapter 6: Reaching for the Sky
Jinsoyun slammed her blade into the Dummy's legs, hacking at it over and over as if she were trying to fell a tree. When the blade got stuck, she cried in frustration and punched the wood instead, throwing thud after thud as her face grew more frustrated and her knuckles became raw.
Sunyung uncrossed her arms and approached Jinsoyun.
"It's nice to let it out, isn't it?" Her voice echoed against the cave walls of the Hideout.
Jinsoyun heaved in a few breaths and threw her arms to the side. She squeezed the tears from her eyes and nodded her head.
"Hitting things helps me feel better too," Sunyung said quietly. She reached up and brushed her fingertip on the shuriken lodged deep in the Dummy's head. "And as your Master can tell you, I've done a lot worse."
Jinsoyun shuddered another breath. She turned her head and stared in silence at the simple drawing on the boulder to her side. Jyonna, Seojin, and Sunyung had drawn that self-portrait back when they were little girls. They promised to never leave each other's side, to be best friends forever. When Sunyung saw Jinsoyun's face, her heart dropped. She knew exactly how the little girl felt.
Sunyung opened her mouth to speak, hoping she'd find some comforting words on the way.
"Hey, Sunshine!," Seojin called from the opening of the Hideout. "Iroko told me the Fragrant One is breaking through Skysage and into the Citadel. At least... I think that's what he was trying to tell me."
Jinsoyun suddenly turned and looked up at Sunyung. "Will you protect Master?" She pulled on Sunyung's wrist, "Please! You have to make sure that--"
Sunyung knelt down and met Jinsoyun's eyes. "Of course. I promise."
Chapter 7: Grand Reunions
"I see you've found a new throne for your noble ass."
Yunma Kahn let a smile cross his face.
"I have more nobility in my ass then you have in your entire person,"
Yunsang laughed as he leaned his massive polearm near the break in the wall and stretched out his neck.
"You're right about that, my friend," he said. "I was never one for high society."
"I'm not sure I was either..."
"I would have enjoyed the wine though, I'll tell you that much."
Yunma Kahn considered the quiet of the dusty ruins around him and tried to imagine what it looked like when it was still a bustling city. His thoughts turned to Zaiwei, as they often did. He wondered how "his" empire was doing. He wondered how his daughter would rule.
It was a cruel fate he had forced upon her. He gave her the throne and abandoned her, not because he didn't want to guide her, but because he didn't know how. He had been locked up too long, an artifact of a bygone era, an emperor that no longer knew his empire. She had learned to lead on her own terms, without the trappings of her family name. She deserved the throne, a throne free of his shadow. His disappearance was the best gift he could have given her.
It was still the hardest gift to give.
Now he spent his days with a quasi-reformed criminal alcholic and a cryptic monk that covered his eyes. He and Yunsang had both abandoned their positions of power... and their daughters. Perhaps they both needed to get away to find where they fit in, to find the right path back to what they had left behind. They were a pair of blind men following a man who appeared to be blind. Perhaps, in some twisted way, they were both where they needed to be... for now.
"We have visitors."
Yunma Kahn hadn't seen the Grandmaster approach. The monk stood stoicly, facing faded ruins and nothing in particular. Yunma Kahn's hand went to his sword as he noticed the horde of demons. They came in waves, their claws scratching the ancient stones. Yet they moved past, to the south, seemingly unaware of the trio.
"What in the..?" Yunsang cut himself short as he shouldered his weapon.
"Come," said Nayul. "Let's not keep them waiting."
Chapter 8: Keepers of the Gates
It came out unconsciously.
He couldn't let his master do that because of him.
And then countless attacks were coming at him.
Jinbin wished that everything would be over when he opened his eyes.
Everyone was in Heaven's Reach training, eating dumplings, and when he woke up, he was in a grim village.
There, adults, kids, the elderly, kind-looking people, scary-looking people, were all in a line, slowly walking somewhere.
People wearing black clothes and hats were telling them to move towards a big gate in the distance.
That's when Jinbin realized where he was.
And when he was about to arrive in the place they called the Hall of the Dark Prefecture, demons started pouring out, and it seemed like they were absorbing the dead to get stronger.
'Demons even in death...?' He thought, just as he saw someone he thought he shouldn't have seen.
Chapter 9: Restless Spirits
"I'm so proud of you, sleeping all by yourself. My big girl, not scared of anything." The mother brushed her daughter's hair from her forehead and kissed her gently. "Good night, my little princess."
The daughter stifled back a yawn. "I'm not sleepy!" she said. "Tell me the story! Tell me it again!"
The mother chuckled. "My little princess, so demanding! Which one? I have so many stories."
"The one about me! And the forest."
The mother tilted her head and hid a smile. "Oh? I'm not so sure I know that one..."
"Once upon a time!" the little girl started, sitting up in her bed, "Daddy was on a long trip for the Prince, through the scary desert. And one night, these bad bandits attacked, and they stole all of Daddy's things and his money and they had a big fight and the beat Daddy up and left him all alone. Also, you were at home and you were sad because you wanted a baby."
The mother nodded gently as she sat on the chair near her daughter's bed. "Oh yes... I think I do remember this one. Daddy was scared. He wandered for days through Solak, until finally he found a beautiful glowing forest with lush fruit and sweet water. Within this forest were warrior women as beautiful as they were deadly. He knew they would kill him if they saw him, for they had sharp weapons and tongues like snakes. He hid in the trees until the sun went down, then finally entered their golden city, all alone. Then he heard a cry in the dark and lonely night..."
"And he found me!" the little girl shouted, throwing up her arms.
"That's right, Jinsoyun! He found you!" the mother said. "And from the moment he picked you up, we were blessed. The Divines guided him back home. When he came in through that door, he told me he saved you, but you know what I think?"
"What?" the little girl yawned.
The mother playfully tapped her fingertip on her daughter's nose. "You saved us."
Chapter 10: Diverging Paths
He wrapped the cloth around his face and kept close to the walls. He had assumed the tunnels would be darker, but the lanterns on the walls formed a string of pools of bluish light. The stones were uneven, but smooth and surprisingly wide. Perhaps these so-called secret halls were originally built for another purpose. The Empyrean Citadel hid many secrets, too many for Minister Runka's taste.
He peered around a corner and found a stone gate framed by intricate ironwork. This had to be it. He approached cautiously and listened for any signs of life. All was still, quiet as a catacomb.
He pulled out the medallion he had stolen from the General's quarters and used it to open the gate. Was this what he was now, a skulker and a thief? Was he so isolated in his opinion that he had to steal and spy to prove his points?
A set of stairs led down to a chamber. A series of large pipes protruded from the walls. There were shelves holding scrolls and tables covered in countless pages, some old and faded, others with fresh ink. Runka went to the new pages first, for many of the old were in ancient scripts that only the scholars could read, the scholars that had been meeting here covertly, working with the Chronicler to piece together some puzzle that seemed to weigh heavily on the Prince of late, but what was it exactly? Why were these matters not discussed with the rest of the Regent Council?
He found a rough illustration of a sword and a star. A map showed suggestions of an expedition. Runka lifted it up to try to discern the locations, but his eyes were suddenly drawn to the words scrawled on the page underneath.
Something gripped the Minister's stomach as his eyes scoured the pages. What was the purpose behind this? Prince Sobu's brother had already been chosen. What would happen if the incorrect heir went through with the ceremony? Who had led the Prince down this path... and why?
Whispers cut through the air. Minister Runka set down the pages and turned to the listening pipes, wondering where they led. Was someone meeting in the Throne Room or the Council Chambers?
The voices came again. Louder this time. They weren't coming from the pipes. They were coming from the corridor. Minister Runka's heart began to race as he ran back to where he had entered. Footsteps approached as he pressed himself against the wall. Was this where things would end, at the base of these darkened stairs? To meddle with the royal records was considered an act of treason, and the Prince's paranoia was quickly degrading into rage.
The footsteps stopped. Runka heard a suggestion of laughter. He forced himself to continue, up one stair at a time, always as close to the wall as possible. Near the top, he saw two figures further down the tunnel. One was the Chronicler's daughter. The other was the girl they called Jinsoyun.