Act VI — Shadows of the Ebondrake
Chapter 1: A Piece of Hope
The sounds of the morning were suddenly interrupted. The familiar deep chanting devolved into yells and sounds of struggle. She and the other children froze as dark warriors in skull masks emerged from every corner.
Someone grabbed her by the hand and pulled her away. She almost fell, but managed to get her footing and scramble into the kitchen along with the others. They hid amidst the baskets in the corner. Everyone struggled to catch their breath and stay as silent as possible. The sounds of the skirmish outside pierced through the walls.
A door broke open and a group of trackers entered. Their skull masks were frozen and expressionless, but their fierce eyes busily scanned the room as if searching for something. They punched open crates and broke pots. The children held their breath. A small Lyn boy pushed against her.
One of the warriors moved toward them. A hint of metal flashed as he knocked over a basket. Her heart raced within her as she searched hurriedly for a way to escape. They were cornered. A hand grabbed the basket directly in front of her...
She gasped and shot forward. A young Lyn boy stood over her, his arms stretched into a yawn. The room was quiet, disturbed only by the sounds of children sleeping and waking. She exhaled deeply. Soft, early morning light tickled her face as she lay back down on her cot. It was only a dream.
The air outside was crisp and cool as she and the others began their morning chores. The monks began their morning chants. The soothing harmony rose to greet the rising sun. All was calm, but she felt a familiar anxiety growing inside her. She stopped walking, waiting for something she hoped would not come.
The chants stopped. Yells broke out as dark figures in skull masks spilled from the lingering shadows. It had happened again. Her dream had been a vision of the future. The future was now.
Chapter 2: Just Like Old Times
It's me, Jinbin. I'm sorry it's been so long since my last letter, but I'm not really good at this. But I'll tell you what I am good at-- fighting! Master has taught me all the essentials-- punching, blocking, and knowing when to stop talking. Master is so silent and wise. I hope I can be like them someday! I can't believe I've trained here for a whole year. I can't visit Sandstone during my training, but you could come up here! I know you're shy, but I promise that everyone is super nice.
Ryu is about my age. He's super strong and tough. All he ever thinks about is being the best, but he's not a jerk about it. In fact, he doesn't talk much at all. I think you'd like him!
Bunyang and Bunah are two of the funniest Lyn I've ever met. They always argue, but I can tell that they'd have each other's backs even in the worst of situations. They're a couple of goof-offs, but I've never seen anyone Windwalk like they do.
Then we have little Jinsoyun! You know, you've always been like a big sister to me, and you took me in when no one else did. I only hope that I can be a "big brother" to Jinsoyun too! She's so sweet and innocent, but I don't think she's old enough to be a real warrior. Bunyang told me that Master's protecting Jinsoyun because a bunch of super-powered angry teenage warriors tried to kill her. Yeah, right! I don't care why Jinsoyun's up here with us-- I'm just glad to have her around.
And, of course, there's Master! I can't believe I finally get to apprentice under the legendary Hongmoon Hero! I'm going to be so strong that you probably won't even recognize me when you visit. You better come soon!
Chapter 3: A Bitter Pill to Swallow
"Ryu, you're bleeding!" Jinsoyun cried. She pulled him away from the Training Dummy and took the sword from his hands.
"Gross." Bunyang whispered under his breath. "Stop, Ryu. Take a break."
Ryu stared in silence as the blood streamed from his blisters and down the lines of his palm.
Ryu couldn't stop. He'd been running ever since a mugger left his father in a puddle of rainwater and blood. He'd been fighting ever since a Guard caught him in the streets of Zaiwei after sundown and kicked him for his trouble.
After he woke from the Piper's song, Ryu kept wandering to the same memory, one he wasn't even sure was real. He saw a vision of his parents in front of him, holding hands and laughing to themselves. The specter of his brother smiled and motioned for Ryu to come closer. When the music ended and Ryu woke in that dark cave, he felt like he had lost them all over again.
But things were better now. He had Jinbin, Bunah, Bunyang, and little Jinsoyun-- all kind and funny and strange in different ways. They ate together, fought each other, and forgave each other time and time again.
Master ripped a strip of gauze and waved Ryu over. "Let's take care of you."
Ryu held still as Master wrapped his hand. The pain didn't matter, not so long as he had a home.
Chapter 4: Unexpected Circumstances
Dodan gingerly laid the chest on the table and snapped open the locks. He glanced at his father, looking craggier than ever in the candlelight.
"Go on," Dochun said. "You are ready."
Dodan turned the gauntlets so the seal of Bamboo Village caught the light. A brand new uniform lay folded at the bottom of the chest. Dodan knew what this meant-- he'd become the new Guard Captain and Dochun would leave to find Namsoyoo.
They never spoke her name. They hadn't talked about her since she disappeared in Zaiwei, lost to the wind. Dodan always knew he wasn't the son Dochun wanted or deserved, but he thought that it didn't matter. Namsoyoo was the perfect daughter, and she was everything Dochun wanted. She was kind, giving, and thoughtful... until she wasn't.
Now, Dodan was the only one left.
Dodan trained for years to be worthy of his father's title. He was willing to give everything to protect Bamboo Village, but he knew he couldn't protect his own father from his greatest weakness. Even if Dochun found Namsoyoo, she would only break his heart again.
"Dad," Dodan said. He swallowed to keep his voice from cracking. "Don't go."
He knew it wasn't fair to ask. He knew Dochun would always pick Namsoyoo first, even if she didn't deserve it. Dodan felt his father's rough palm squeeze his shoulder.
Without another word, Dochun dissapeared into the Dragon Pulse.
Chapter 5: Shifting Shadows
"Poharan! We have to go!"
Mak Sobo crashed into the wall as another wave pummeled the ship. He waded through the sea water and shouted into the darkness once more.
"We're sinking, Poharan!" he called desperately into the cabin. "We must abandon ship now!"
Poharan jumped from behind an armoire and choked back a sob. "Not without Grandpa, you coward!" she screamed back at him. "Come closer, and I'll throw you in the brig for insubordination!" She readied her minigun. "You'll never take me! I won't leave Grandpa! I wo--"
Tae Jangum jumped from the shadows and swooped Poharan over her shoulder. "I'm sorry, little Lass." Tae said as Poharan thrashed and squirmed. "Orders from Hae Mujin himself. Sobo, look alive!"
Mak Sobo's knees buckled from the sudden weight. He barely caught the massive minigun in time. Black mist and seawater flooded the hallways. Agonizing screams echoed against the walls. Tae turned Poharan away as several Marauders transformed into monsters and ripped into each other.
Jangum dragged the screaming Vice Admiral to the upper deck. She sprinted the last few steps to the Dragon Pulse.
"No!" Poharan wailed. "We can't leave Grandpa! We can't abandon Bloodshade Harbor! We can't ! I won't let you!"
Tae Jangum grabbed Poharan and jumped into the Dragon Pulse. Even if the Vice Admiral never forgave her, at least she would be alive.
Chapter 6: The Omen of Darkness
There was nothing but the darkness and the pain. There was no sun and no light, no way of knowing how much time had passed.
The ground was rough against his face, but he didn't have the strength to get up. His movements were no longer his own; they belonged to the writhing pain of the corruption within him. He couldn't stop the constant grinding of his teeth that had left his jaw numb or force his fingers to stop scratching now that their tips were raw and their nails were splintered.
He had hoped the pain would grind away his bitterness, but the tremors could not shake out the memories. They just left his mind rattled, jostled by images of the past. His sister's knowing smile flashed across the darkness. He saw his mother and father nodding with pride.
Soldiers dragged his sister away. Colonel Yonkai watched with hungry eyes, his fleshy face twisting into a grin.
He wanted to move, to do something, but he couldn't. He wasn't strong enough to save her. His sister's pleading eyes were swallowed up by the mob of soldiers.
He trembled as more shattered memories emerged: the lifeless bodies of his innocent parents, Jinsoyun extending a hand toward him, a burst of searing energy, an infusion of Dark Chi as his body contorted and changed. He couldn't even save himself. He was powerless and pathetic, then and now.
There was nothing but the darkness and the pain. Or was there more? Was there something else behind him or was his fractured brain imagining things?
Had someone just said his name? Did it matter? He could do nothing but scratch and grind and wait.
"Is power what you want?"
The voice was stronger this time. Perhaps it was real. He tried to turn his head but couldn't.
"I shall give you power, if that is what you desire."
In an instant, the tremors stopped. He had been trembling for so long that the stillness felt like death. Slowly, a new sensation spread through his broken body. His strength was returning.
Chapter 7: Stolen Innocence
He was sweeping the kitchen when he heard it. He had been frantically cleaning up the rice he had spilled across the floor, not wanting his mother to see the mess he had made when trying to reach the almond cookies. She would be home soon. He had to hurry.
Music trickled through the open window. It sounded like a flute. He had never heard the song before, yet for some reason it sounded familiar. The melody grew louder and stronger, tickling his ears and tugging at his arms and legs. He let go of the broom and let it hit the floor with a smack. The only sound he could hear was the music.
He started walking, spinning, dancing without trying, as if he was a puppet being pulled by invisible strings. He didn't care. There was something freeing about letting the music move him. He spun around and stepped through a pile of rice. He vaguely remembered that he had been doing something, but he couldn't quite remember what. It didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was the music.
He moved outside as his hands clapped to the beat. The sing song notes seemed to ripple through the air, as if entire sky was singing to him, inviting him, telling him to move. A little girl came alongside him. She had heard the song as well. Soon others joined them as they made their way through the streets.
He lost track of where they were going or where they had been. He didn't care. The song was leading them on. He lost himself in the music, in the shrill dance of the notes. As the music enveloped him, he thought he heard something that he hadn't noticed before, a dark sound that was slightly off, like a note that was out of tune or out of place.
Suddenly, the music stopped. He stopped moving. In an instant, he suddenly remembered the rice that he needed to sweep up before his mother returned. He couldn't see it. Everything around him was dark, dark and utterly silent.
Chapter 8: The Black Pillars
Hae Mujin finished off the fiend, throwing it against deck. With a scream, its body broke into cinders that quickly extinguished in the raging waters. Hae Mujin steadied himself, ignoring the throbbing pain in his side and the salt in his eyes. More were coming.
The energy from the black pillars was overwhelming, but he refused to leave. He may have been a pirate, but he was still an Admiral and it was his duty to defend his flagship. More importantly, he was giving his crew time to escape... his crew and, of course, his granddaughter.
Poharan had protested when he gave the order to abandon ship. It was obvious that they were overwhelmed, but she knew him too well. She knew he was giving an order that he would not follow himself. He hoped Tae Jangum had managed to pull her away in time. Hae Mujin was a pirate but he was also a grandfather.
A demonic horde of silhouettes moved toward him. Hae Mujin readied himself for the fight even as the Dark Chi from the pillars threatened to turn his fatigued body against himself.
The deck buckled beneath him. He fell to one knee. The ship had run aground. His assailants found their footing and came after him. He blocked their blows and pushed them back. These weren't fiends. They were his shipmates, fellow Blackram that had been corrupted by the dark energy of the pillars.
Hae Mujin broke through the crowd and moved below deck. He would lure them into a tight space where he could fight them one by one. He moved down a dark hallway, too determined to acknowledge the weariness and pain. He turned, ready to face the fiends, his crew, or whatever came his way.
Something groaned behind him. Before he could turn, something massive lunged at him from the darkness, swallowing him up, merging with his bruised and tattered skin. Admiral Hae Mujin felt the corruption envelop him. Something had lured him into a tight space.
Chapter 9: Fragments of Twilight
For centuries, Masters taught their students that there was only one way to be great-- through constant training of the body and mind. True power came from self-discipline, and every respectable martial arts school was expected to expel any student who even suggested dabbling with the darkness. Dark Chi was for monsters, demons, and fiends, and it had no place in civilized society.
After the massacre in Zaiwei, word spread across the Earthen Realm of the alleged "Hongmoon Hero". Warriors spoke of the hero's unprecedented power, how they survived the Mark of the Black Rose, and how they saved Zaiwei with only a few years of schooling. Villagers from Sandstone Refuge whispered rumors about the Hero's incredible strength, fueled entirely by rage and Dark Chi.
The Ebondrake slithered in from the shadows. They preached the gospel of Darkness, and, for once, people listened. They promised strength to the weak, community to the lonely, and glory to the overlooked. Hard work and meditation became relics of the past. The future lied in the Ebondrake, and it welcomed all.
Chapter 10: A New Alliance
Dokdan frowned at Old Man Cho's filthy rucksack in the corner-- that was, until Cho pulled a bottle from the bag.
"A little early, don't you think?" Dokdan said with a smirk. "You must have the wrong Sage."
Cho tried to laugh, but he quickly frowned instead. "Later than you think, Dokdan." He unwrapped two small cups from a handkerchief and filled them with the liquor. "It seems... He has awoken."
Dokdan's fingertips froze above his cup. "But, the Divine Realm... That's impossible!"
Cho clinked his cup against Dokdan's. "The Divine Realm's appeared to have taken a Divine Sabbatical. We're on our own."
They both took a swig.
"I've seen the signs," Dokdan whispered. "Sandstone. The missing children. I should have known he'd return. What can we do? The Eight Masters are dead, but their successors--"
"I wouldn't trust them with guarding a liquor cabinet, let alone saving the world!" Cho added. "We've already weakened the Sacred Beasts enough. Hansu and Sansu are still busy playing with their Soulstones..."
Dokdan shook his head. "Is that why you're here? You think me, the freeloader, and the drunk should help? We're nowhere near strong enough. It's suicide!"
"We have one last hope," Cho said. "Tell me, Dokdan-- have you heard from the Hongmoon Hero lately?"
Chapter 11: Return to Heaven's Reach
He was running. He couldn't remember how or why-- it was as if he jumped into a dream. The yellow moon illuminated the unfamiliar grass and trees, and he still ran and ran. It didn't matter who chased him. It didn't matter if he felt their eyes on him, even though he was alone. He ran and ran some more, but never far enough.
Without warning, the soft ground gave out underneath him and he crashed down the rocky ravine. Finally, the world rolled to a stop and left him on the shoreline.
His heart raced, but not with blood-- something dark and acrid ran through his veins and pounded inside his skull. He crawled to the dark water and gasped at his broken reflection. That... thing couldn't be him. He struck the water, but the reflection reformed within seconds. It stared back at him in horror.
There was no use in running. The monster already had him.