Act VII — Shattered Empire
Chapter 1: The Mysterious Stranger
It seemed like an ordinary morning fog, at least at first. Surely it would burn off by the afternoon. But it remained, clinging to the soldiers' armor and making the air thick and foul. But only when the first soldier collapsed-- with tendrils of fog seeming to tear at his flesh-- did Bak Murang fully realize the danger they all were in. The fog appeared when the Empress Dowager sealed the gate. What had she done to them?
Soldiers in arms-- men and women who had fought together and laughed together-- attacked each other with murder in their eyes. One woman plunged her dagger into her friend's back as the young man tried to scream some sense into another recruit. Another soldier, barely a teenager, fell on his own sword in order to spare himself from the devouring fog. Survivors desperately clawed at the gate that the Empress Dowager had sealed, crying for rescue. The gate never opened.
Chapter 2: Any Port in a Storm
It had been a long time since Hae Mujin had set eyes on the bustling port city of Faircloud Harbor. Yet many of the sights and smells were just the same, ringing familiar in his memory. He looked to his crewman with a smirk and threw his head back, laughing in that same boisterous laugh that so often echoed through the Blackram Shipyard.
"What's wrong, afraid of a few guards?" the Admiral chuckled. "We'll be careful, but the Stratus here aren't much an issue. They're all so wrapped up in their own corrupt playpen that they won't even notice us."
Hae Mujin's boldness had led the Blackram through tough scrapes and into victory many times before, in past troubles where they didn't have a favorable warrior to help them. Hopefully parking their ship and crew right on the Stratus' doorstep wasn't going to be an end to that good record.
Chapter 3: Storming Faircloud
Buyang, Bunah, and Jinbin all peered from around a corner to keep a careful eye on the strange sight before them. They knew going in that the Ebondrake Cult would be their enemy once they'd set out into Faircloud Harbor, but this was something else! The cultists walked among the citizens in full dark regalia, treated with respect and deference! None of the merchants flinched away from them; nobody seemed to think it was odd at all!
"This is just weird..." Jinbin grumbled as he tried to ignore the weight of Bunah leaning in over his shoulders for a better view.
Bunah agreed with a nod. "No kidding. Normally all we'd see is a couple of cultists shouting their hooey in a few villages, but nobody ever takes them seriously."
The whole situation just seemed wrong to Bunyang. Everything seemed backwards ever since they'd left home. "I'm gonna go spin their helmets around. That'll show 'em for being so smug." Bunyang didn't even hesitate to leap from their hiding spot. It was all his sister could do to desperately hold onto his tail in a vain struggle to keep him from getting them all killed.
Chapter 4: The Lone Dissenter
It was simple, a standard charm tied to a bit of red string, yet it quickly caught Ku Yang's periphery as he walked towards the stairway to the Eastwinds Inn. Perhaps that was all that it had ever been, a simple string for a charm.
He remembered the first time he had caught Gunma staring at it. His normally steely eyes flashed with concern... or was it guilt? For a moment, he looked much younger than his years, like a child that had been caught stealing a trinket. He quickly calmed and smiled, slipping the faded bit of yarn back into a small pouch. Ku Yang never asked Gunma about it.
Gunma would sometimes ask questions, but he almost never answered them. Even queries directly related to training were often ignored. Quick answers seemed to ruin the possibility of a thin smile later on, given with a nod when one of his students would finish training. Over the years, the secrets to Gunma's mastery of the blade became increasingly clear, but most of the questions that surrounded Gunma the person remained.
On the morning that Gunma was to leave for the Viridian Coast to join with the rest of the Eight Masters, Ku Yang awoke early to find his mentor and see him off. He found him seated on a stone near the sparring grounds with his sword in its sheath. His provisions were all packed away in a small satchel, all except for a small, faded red string that he held in his fingertips. His eyes moved to Ku Yang.
"I... I'm sorry," said Ku Yang. "I just came to say goodbye."
Gunma's smile was warm. "I'm glad you did." He put the string back into its pouch and stood.
"We're going to continue training together," said Ku Yang. "I spoke with the others. We'll improve our techniques and search for new ones, if we need to. The elders still have some of the scrolls from the early years..."Gunma nodded in approval, but his eyes were distant.
"Master..., are you all right?" Gunma nodded with a bit of a laugh that was uncharacteristic. "That bit of yarn. What is it?"
Gunma said nothing at first, as if he himself wasn't sure what it was. "It was a gift," he said finally. "It was supposed to be a gift for my father. She picked it out for him."
Ku Yang hesitated, sensing that he had trodden upon a deeply personal memory. "She? Master, who was it?"
Gunma met his gaze in a moment of calm clarity before he turned away. "Jinsoyun."
Chapter 5: The Last of the Eight
"Knock knock!" a cheerful voice called from the other side of the door.
Tayjin squinted in the darkness. The other Masters snored and slumbered on the floor in different states of disarray. He cautiously stepped over them, only knocking over a few empty bottles on the way to the door. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and reached for the knob-- just as the door exploded into splinters.
"Knock knock, my babies!" the woman called into the room. She snapped her fans closed. Moonlight illuminated her silhouette.
The disoriented Masters reached for their weapons... until they caught her gaze.
There she was: the Grand Enchantress, the lost member of the original Eight Masters, Sanzu of the Supreme Sacrifice. She had changed her appearance, but her power was unmistakable.
"You're the new class, right?" Sanzu asked with a smile. "From what I've heard, you dummies could use a mentor!"
While the other New Masters dropped to the floor to kneel, Unak kept her dagger drawn.
"Sanzu, you're dead."
Sanzu shrugged and laughed. "There are ways around that, just ask Jinsoyun! And, speaking of the little cutie..."
Chapter 6: Hitting the Wall
The first Ebondrake Scouts to at the palace gates were left in a state of shock. Barricades were ruined, Stratus soldiers laid low in droves... Yet there was no sign of any rioters or enemy soldiers-- just a swath of destruction all the way up the main stairs.
"Soldier, report! Where are the enemies? What happened here?" the leader of the scouts demanded of a slightly-less wounded soldier slumped against a nearby pillar.
"N-not enemies, sir. Just one... a warrior... we didn't stand a chance." it was hard for the poor man to speak as his ribs ached with every breath.
The Ebondrake Scout was grateful for the way his ritual mask hid his entire face from view. It was the only thing that prevented anyone from seeing the look of utter horror dawn on him.
A single warrior? It looked like the stairs had been sieged by a small army! He ignored the soldier's wheezing as he turned and hurried back toward the palace. The Empress Dowager needed to be warned...
Chapter 7: Treasure of the Kameleon
"The Croxar and the Kameleon are constantly at odds, despite their numerous physiological similarities. However, their combined forces keep the Forgotten Forest in check! It's a symbiotic relationship! One race guards the treasure, the physical Naryu relics, and allegedly the Naryu Dynamo, while the other race works to keep the chi fluctuations of the Chondra Fragments from overwhelming the natural order! If one race stopped doing their job, then the results would be catastrophic. Now some of us in the Society believe this is how the Celestial Basin was formed..."
Bae Ling gently straightened out her napkin and sighed. The bottle of expensive soju was nearly full. The rice, noodles, and dumplings had long gone cold. None of this was on her tab, but she couldn't help but wonder...
"Yu Chungjun, did you invite me out to the finest restaurant in Faircloud just so you could lecture me about a bunch of lizards?"
His eyes widened. "Lizards? No, no, my dear, these are sentient, highly-intelligent guardian beings who have developed their own culture and..."
Bae Ling poured herself another glass.
Chapter 8: The Iron Shadow
Bemused, Chol Mugo regarded the motley crew that had dropped from the kites and onto his deck. He was the Admiral of the Blackram South Fleet, the man who made the Stratus nobility quake in their feather-lined boots at court as they tried to figure out his next move. And here he was, entertaining the Bulbari-brained plot these "Hongmoon" stowaways had hatched.
Attack Dasari Palace with a handful of kids? It was insane. It was whistling in the dark. And yet... wasn't this just the type of scheme he would have dreamed up in his earlier days? A chance to "stick it" to the Stratus Empire-- the bureaucracy he had vowed to fight after their inaction cost him the life of his wife and his children?
Chol Mugo found himself smiling at the ragtag martial artists who had invaded his boat. A glint of mischief sparkled in his eye. "I'll help you get inside the palace," he said, "but from there, you're on your own." A proper compromise, he thought. Even rediscovered exuberance has its limits.
Chapter 9: Crystal Conquest
Juna watched the carrier pigeon once again circle the area with exhausted wings, too frightened by the constant violence and screaming to ever land. With her luck, the letter was an emergency notice from the Admiral. She ripped off the crust of her roll and tossed it into the grass.
"Come on, you're safe here," she whispered.
According to the Archaeologists, the Celestial Basin was once a mountain with a name long forgotten, functioning as some sort of vacation resort for the all-powerful Naryu. The Naryu, being the geniuses they were, somehow managed to explode the mountain into the sky, leaving a smoldering crater behind. After that, a few wild species settled in the Basin and warred each other for a few thousand years.
The Four Races forgot about the mountain, until some Zaiwei Archaeologists discovered how powerful and profitable Naryu Artifacts could be. It was a priceless, once-in-a-lifetime find, a fascinating look into Naryu History.
Juna didn't care how special these Crystals were. All that mattered was that they could power the Iron Shadow.
Chapter 10: Down in Flames
Sanzu was deceiving everyone. Ku Yang was certain of that now. Any last lingering doubt evaporated when he heard an Ebondrake agent utter her name in a half-whispered conversation that he only caught hints of from this place in the shadows.
Looking back, he could trace the outlines of her strategy. She only revealed herself after five of the New Masters had been chosen, until disagreements and failures had sewed distrust in their ranks, until their need for a veteran leader was undeniably clear. She arrived like a resurgent phoenix, new life born from the ashes in the midst of so much death, while the rest of the Eight Masters, their family and mentors, were gone. No wonder they were so quick to trust her. They had been thrust into roles that none of them were ready for, while Sanzu played her part with the meticulous poise of a master performer.
Ku Yang darted to another rooftop, searching for a corner to hide in. It was no use. His pursuers outnumbered him and they knew the shadows better than he did. He dropped down and weaved his way back toward Gebang, to the familiar place where he grew up before training under Gunma, to the simple tenement that had been built by the Empire to house refugees. Perhaps the Ebondrake had fewer eyes and ears in such a lowly neighborhood.
The Ebondrake were targeting him-- perhaps Sanzu had caught word of his arrival in Gunwon and wanted him captured. Few things escaped the notice of the Ebondrake, except, perhaps, the dangers that now moved amongst their ranks. Sanzu was after something. The Ebondrake, the New Masters, and the young Hongmoon student were all pawns in whatever game she was playing. They would all be tossed aside once they had served their purpose, but what was she after? What had led her to Gunwon?
Chapter 11: The Grand Enchantress
It was well known that the legendary Twilight's Edge had the power to open doorways between Realms. After all, a doorway to the Dark Realm had been the crux of Jinsoyun's scheme. But could a fragment of the sword, once shattered, offer a similar power? Not the power to travel between Realms, perhaps, but the power to travel instantaneously to points within a Realm itself?
This is the hope Zulia clung to as she prepared a Dark Arts ritual inside Dasari Palace's East Gate. She knew the Edge's explosion had lodged a sliver of the sword in Jinsoyun's body. Now she needed but to extract it, relying on the power trapped in the discarded Stratus relics that cluttered the Inner Sanctum. Would her theory bear fruit? It didn't matter much. She'd have plenty of fun trying.
Jinbin looked forlornly at little Jinsoyun, sleeping her never-ending sleep on the bed. He had been gifted a new sister, and now she had been taken from him, just like his parents before her. Sensing Jinbin's gloom, Bunyang tried to lighten the mood with his usual silliness. Jinbin cracked a smile, but his gaze, as always, came to rest on Jinsoyun-- his sister trapped in a shifting world of dreams and of nightmares.
Chapter 12: Soul Searching
The Empress Dowager had always been shrouded by a cloud of mystery, and it was from that cloud that the rumors began to spread.
Many claimed that she was a celestial being sent directly from the Divine Realm, that she had descended into the Earthen Realm centuries ago during the last successful Heavenly Sacrament to serve the Stratus Emperor and his people. What else would explain her ageless beauty and commanding presence? This was the claim made by the Empress Dowager's most loyal subjects, by those who saw hope in her regal eyes and were more than willing to sacrifice part of their hard-earned income to keep their champion safe and satisfied in the sanctuary of Dasari Palace. After all, hadn't she sacrificed her divine privilege to live among them?
There were others, however, who harbored doubts. While they lived lives marked by loss and hard labor, they saw the Empress Dowager living a life of luxury, locked away in her opulent palace, surrounded by officials who seemed to be increasingly corrupt and ineffective. If the Dowager truly was from the Divine Realm, why was the Stratus Empire seemingly falling apart under her watch? Why did she spend so much time set apart from her people? The loyalists would claim that their divine deliverer had to kept in the palace, sealed away like a precious jewel, lest her purity be tainted by a world that was too base for her sacred beauty. Others saw her divine privilege claim as a facade, a convenient cover for a reclusive ruler who had failed her people.
The doubters quickly learned that these sorts of rumors were best kept private. Those who didn't silence themselves would find soon find themselves without a voice.
Chapter 13: The Persistence of Memory
There is a small, cold space between the Earthen Realm and the Spirit Realm. The few who know of this place call it the In-Between. Souls trapped between the two Realms-- either by ancient incantation or by powerful and unresolved emotions in life-- gather in the shadows of this place. Neither living nor truly dead, these wayward souls can sometimes wander for centuries, their minds frayed and their memories faded. Zulia had doomed Soyun to such a fate in her mad hunger for the shards of the Twilight's Edge.
It seemed Soyun's only salvation lay in the Western Continent-- in Solak, the Land of Twilight where the veil hangs thin between the realms, and where the In-Between might be glimpsed or even accessed by the most powerful of martial artists. Was traveling to such a wasteland a fool's errand or a suicide mission? The odds and the risks did not matter. Even the slimmest of hopes must be clung to in times of desperation.