Act XII — The Northern Continent
Chapter 1: A Dream within a Dream
As the sun grew brighter behind the lingering mist of low morning clouds, Dochun paced the grounds of the Dual Hall. The grounds of Heaven's Reach were familiar and at the same time altered. Everything was a bit more worn and weathered, slightly smaller than he remembered - except for the trees near the waterfall that had nearly doubled in height.
He inhaled the crisp, morning air and made his way back toward the living quarters. A lingering soreness crept into his back. In truth, he was the one who was weathered and worn. Remembering how recklessly he once glided across these grounds, Dochun began to feel his age. Heaven's Reach suddenly felt like a time capsule compared to the Realm below considering all that had happened.
Namsoyoo was an Empress now.
Dochun was nearly ready to take over leadership of the Guard, nearly but not quite.
What would that mean for Dochun? A different occupation perhaps? More of a mentor role? Was it time to retire?
Dochun heard a pained noise from within the living quarters, a sound of anguish and alarm. He quickened his steps as something clinched his stomach. Something was wrong. It was as if a lingering shadow refused to die in the dawn. The Hongmoon warrior was in trouble.
Chapter 2: The Imminent Eclipse
In the soft stillness Nayul recited the mantras of his youth.
"The light within reveals the unity throughout. The voice of one is the yearning of all. Light reveals the fractures of the fall..."
Something shook him out of his meditations. For a brief moment his breathing stuttered and a chill seemed to shake the space around him. It was as if something massive and ancient had just passed through his space. What had he caught a hint of? Was something or someone trying to observe him?
Nayul focussed his attention onto this alien presence, though his instincts told him not to. He locked in on fading traces of an energy that felt otherworldly and dangerous. As unfamiliar as it was, it seemed to harbor sentiments that were recognizable, something like hunger or rage.
The presence faded, fixated on something else. It was as if Nayul had stumbled across an apex predator hunting its prey. He dared not probe further, lest he put himself in danger, but before he refocussed his attention, he sensed something very familiar, an imprint of chi that had been touched by the Divine...
Chilling reverberations brought Nayul back to his meditation chamber, the thick weave of a rug beneath him and the openness of cool air above.
That thing, whatever it was, was coming for someone else: the Hongmoon warrior.
Chapter 3: Two Archives, Two Chapters
A metallic click echoed through the dark hall as the old door to the special volumes chamber of the Talus Archives unlocked. Tae shouldered his way in and was greeted by the stale dryness of stagnant air. Aside from a few stately, leather-bound volumes that held military records, engineering diagrams and the like, most of the tomes in here were ancient. Here were the writings of the royal scholars and poets, annals of the early Dominion, and Stratus records from the tumultuous reign of Prince Sogun and what was once the eastern province of Emperor Wan's global empire.
Tae paused to wipe his glasses with his sleeve. The scroll he was looking for was towards the back of the chamber, a request from the Empress herself, though her intent and purpose was unclear.
Tae found the scroll on a darkened shelf and picked it up with care. It certainly wasn't the oldest work in the collection, but given that it was a scholar's translation of an epic poem from Uttara, it may have come from the oldest source material. Unfortunately, this was only the first chapter of a multi-chapter volume. Tae didn't know if translations of the remaining chapters were still in tact. If they were, they were likely held in the Stratus Archives somewhere far to the West. Tae shook his head as he locked up. So much history and culture lost in the schism of decades past.
He stopped in the hall and chuckled, reminding himself that the war was now over. He imagined someone walking through Dasari Palace with an aging scroll in hand, a former rival that was now a potential partner. Perhaps some day soon he and his team could meet with the record keepers in Dasari and exchange selections from their respective collections.
What historical gaps could be filled in? What new discoveries could be made? What unexpected treasures could their joint efforts unearth?
It was one of the new archivists, the energetic young Jin from Jadestone. She was carrying a sizeable tome along with a collection of maps or charts.
"Are you all right, sir?"
"Uh, yes, of course. Did you fulfill that request from the Agriculture Ministry?"
"Ah, very good. Carry on then."
She moved on and disappeared in the stacks. Tae hurried on toward the throne room and grinned in spite of himself. He was eager to share the requested scroll and wondered what ancient secrets might be shared with him in the future.
Chapter 4: The Polaris
"'The power of Creation,'" Empress Namsoyoo repeated the phrase as Dae shifted uncomfortably.
"Yes, that is the translation, your majesty."
"And do we have any idea what this 'power' could be? An item? Some sort of latent energy?"
"It's... unclear, your majesty. The text is quite ambiguous. We have multiple sources to turn to when it comes to the lives of the northern emperors or trade history and the like, but when it comes to an ancient creation story like this, I'm afraid our resources are rather limited."
Namsoyoo sighed as a sinking sensation set into her stomach. Was this all for nought? Would this costly expedition find anything useful?
She straightened herself as she handed the scroll back to her Archivist.
"Thank you, Dae. If you do come happen to come across anything useful, please let me know."
"Of course, your majesty."
He offered a stiff bow and turned to leave, but hesistated.
"Your majesty, if I may. Sometimes these types of stories use words like 'power' or 'favor' to denote a general blessing or sense of . It's possible this 'power of Creation' was nothing more than an Uttaran poet trying to curry favor with an Emperor by suggesting that the Divines left a special blessing in the North."
Namsoyoo froze in defiance. She refused to believe that they were chasing shadows. There had to be something in the North that could help. Dae lowered his eyes and swallowed nervously. He must have sensed her displeasure.
"I'll keep your council in mind, Master Archivist," she said with a forced smile. "Thank you."
Chapter 5: Rude Awakening
Most of the newcomers were healthy but unimpressive. These were scholars and researchers, people who spent their days in stuffy rooms with books and quills and candles or whatever. Most of them had probably never picked up a weapon in their lives, let alone fought in any battles.
It looked like another boring day in the courtyard. Maybe they should just cancel the fights for the day.
"Hey, Chief." It was the new recruit from the east side. "I heard one of them talkin' about some warrior that came with 'em. Security detail or somethin'." He looked back towards the holding pens. "Not sure which one it's s'posed to be. Maybe that one. Was unconsious, but looks like they're wakin' up."
The captain pushed his chair back filling the space with the sound of grating friction. He stood and approached the captives. Maybe today wouldn't be boring after all.
Chapter 6: Lady in Red
He was late. Again.
Yunwa fought the urge to order a drink from the over-eager server that came by every fifteen seconds. She was here for information, and the trapper sounded like he had a genuine lead on a scepter, whatever that was. Yunwa had slowly grown accostomed to the loose interpretation of meeting times that was so common among the locals, but their tendency to not show up at all still got under her skin.
She'd give him five more minutes. If this lead was genuine, it could be worth her time. She knew a collector who would pay top dollar for relics of the Uttaran Dynasty. He was a frequent customer of the Mirage and had proven on multiple occassions that he was inexcusably wealthy, a rare condition that Yunwa was determined to assist him with.
Yunwa's patience grew thin. She pulled her red cloak tighter and stretched her neck. What a waste of time. Someone approached her from across the room, but it was clearly not the trapper. Yunwa was in no mood to talk to strangers.
Chapter 7: Might Makes Wrong
What was happening? How was this possible?
He had always paid the tariffs on his imports in a timely fashion. He knew which officers to bribe. He had always tried to keep transparent and open raport with everyone at the port.
When the familiar figures disappeared, perhaps reassigned or promoted or injured, he went out of his way to appeal to the new soldiers on site, but his efforts seemed to fall on deaf ears. At one point three different Inheritors asked for a share of his wares, to the point where he could no longer fulfill his clients orders.
Now, after failing to pay a "luxury tax" within a seemingly arbitrary deadline he found himself hear, dehydrated and tattered, tied up like an animal. He wondered what injustice had befallen the woman next to him or the young man wearing high-born vestments from the South. Whatever justice system had brough them all here was inherently injust.
A woman dressed in elegant evening attire sauntered into the room, her eyes doing a cursory scan of the torn sleeves, bruises, and scrapes. He met her gaze briefly before lowering his eyes.
Was this his new... "master?" Where would she take him? Would he ever see his wife and son again? How would they cope when he was gone.
There was no justice in Uttara. A man could be an ambitious merchant one day and a battered slave the next.
Chapter 8: A Mine Like a Steel Trap
"You should be more careful."
Yunwa rolled her eyes.
"Oh please," she said. "You sound like Auntie Yehara. She taught me Kung Fu, you know? That jerk just got a cheap shot in."
She dusted off her clothes and rubbed the bruise on her elbow. Okay fine. Maybe it was a bit more than a cheap shot.
She glanced around at the writhing soldiers scattered across the chamber. Well, she wasn't going to get any information out of this lot. That door closed the second her "luck charm" raced into the chamber. If she was going to unearth information about the Aurite operation or stolen artifacts or anything else, it wasn't going to happen here.
The odd aroma still hung in the air. Whatever concoction they were feeding the captives, it smelled surprisingly delicious. The hint of spices reminded her of her time in the Mirage when she would run through the great kichen and swipe samples when the chefs were distracted. When it came to the current offering, she would save the taste testing for someone else.
With a sudden gasp, the warrior dropped to a knee as if a great weight had just fallen on them.
"Hey, are you all right? What's going on?"
The warrior's eyes clouded with darkness as they slowly got to their feet.
"Seriously, what's going on? You're starting to scare me."
The warrior lurched forward, lost and listless. In an instant, eyes that looked alien and fierce locked onto Yunwa. The warrior walked forward with the same determined poise that they had when they first entered the chamber. They dropped into a fighting stance, but there was no one left to fight. The only one left standing was Yunwa.
Chapter 9: Band of Bandits
Come on, Yunwa. That's too reckless, even for you.
Jaijin watched as Yunwa stormed into the outpost completely oblivious to the sentry in the far corner who had caught sight of her while she was still on the ridge. Within seconds the alarm was raised and she was completely swarmed. The Imugi fought like feral creatures, relying more on brute force and intimidation than tact and skill, but Yunwa could only dodge so many crushing blows and wild swings.
Jaijin exhaled with annoyance as he tightened his belt and checked his blade. Just then, a roar of alarm exploded outside the main gate. Someone else was attacking the Imugi, and based on the cacophony of pain they were leaving in their wake, they were having a much easier time of it than Yunwa.
Jaijin approached cautiously and caught glimpses of the newcomer as they carved their way through the bandit hoard. Their style was unfamiliar but clearly effective.
This must be the warrior from the South that Mirae had mentioned. "Warrior" was a bit of an understatement, that much was clear. What was far less clear was this outsider's true identity and their reasons for being here. Was this warrior truly a new ally or something else entirely?
Chapter 10: The Deadlands
Yunwa felt her heart throb, desperately echoing through every fiber of her being as the strangling sensation tightened around her. It felt like drowning without water. It felt like everything around her was sinking. It felt like...
It felt like when she had been trapped... by Mushin.
Yunwa groaned and shook her head. She had all but forgotten her blurred recollections of that time, the long disjointed hours suspended in darkness, floating but heavy, not quite dreaming but not quite awake, free but helpless, calm but tortured, an inexplicable peace countered by the gnawing sensation that she was slowly losing everything that made her who she was...
It couldn't happen again. There had to be a way to resist the stiffling energy. She turned her head slightly, every movement slow and labored. The warrior was on the verge of collapse with no signs of their usual calm, collected power.
Yunwa gritted her teeth and tried to steady her breathing even as her lungs burned. She scanned the bleak, burning horizon and found only shadows and ash. There was no one to turn to for rescue, no where to look for relief.
With no other options, Yunwa closed her eyes and tried to search within.