Act XI — Balance of Power

Chapter 1: Waiting for Dawn

Namsoyoo almost choked on a cough once she entered the Grand Hall. Every surface, be it a table, a chair, or a mantle, was covered in flowers. Some smelled sweet... others were on the verge of rot.

"Princess, are you well?" a Court Maid said, "Shall I call the Royal Healer?"

"No, I—" Namsoyoo started. She turned and suddenly noticed the dozens of servants standing near the walls, each hanging on her every word without daring to meet her eye. "What's this about?"

"Princess Namsoyoo!" an Advisor said with a smile, "Today is the day we pick out the centerpieces for your Royal Coronation! All the finest florists of the Empire have sent their wares, all seeking to please you."

"Oh," Namsoyoo said. "Do you... have any Bamboo Blossoms?"

The Advisor tried to hide his chuckle. "No, no Princess, I'm terribly sorry. Only the finest is allowed here."

Namsoyoo cocked her head. There had to be at least thirty varieties of flowers, each in at least eight hues. The Advisor walked her around the room, pointing out the history behind each Plum Blossom, Orchid, Chrysanthemum, and Peony. She tried to listen, but her eyes couldn't help but wander to the steps leading up to the Palace. Since she arrived, she had imagined Gwon sprinting up them a thousand times. He promised her she'd never be alone again.

Now that she was surrounded by thirty or so servants, she realized he was right.

"Well, I don't know," she said. "What do you like? What do the people here like?"

The Advisor smiled a rictus grin. "Everyone will like whatever you choose, Princess. After all, you are chosen by the Divines. You cannot make a wrong choice."

"Right," Namsoyoo said softly. "Never made a wrong choice in my life."

Chapter 2: As Above, So Below

With a second, Chansik was in the air and his back slammed against the wall. He grunted as he tried to push the teenage boy's arms away from his neck. The kid may have looked lanky, but he was immovable.

"You think you're funny, chief? You think you're real smart, huh? Why don't you say that again?"

Chansik could have sworn the kid's eyes turned bright white, and that his angry grimace bared fangs. Chasik choked on his words as his vision faded to black.

"Kangsan, no!" Bae Ling said, running to the stoop. "No! We do not choke clients!" she shouted at him. "At least, you don't," she added quietly.

Kangsan dropped Chansik onto the stairs.

"You don't understand," Kangsan whined as Chansik screamed and stumbled out of Brigand's Row. "He said it wasn't even bad that Hanu and Sunu were missing! He said that they were worthless and no fun and not even that pretty and that's so wrong, because he's just a—"

"Shh," Bae Ling said. "I know you miss them. But honestly, Kangsan, sweetheart, we can't afford to scare away clients right now. If you really want to help, how about you keep an eye out for any Ebondrake? Trust me, I will find Hanu and Sunu. Cross my heart."

"Yeah yeah," Kangsan said, pouting. He sat on the stoop and rested his hand on his chin as he watched the street. "Some good this'll do."

Chapter 3: A Realm Above

"Master?"

The warrior woke up, as if from a dream. Or was it a nightmare? The voice was familiar. It belonged to Jinbin. Jinbin was here. Of course Jinbin had come along with Bunah and Bunyang. The warrior got up and blinked, eyes still adjusting to the harsh brightness outside. Jinyung stood with arms crossed, irritation blazing in her eyes. She stood like a statue, as if she had been fixed there for eternity, waiting for the warrior to emerge.

"It's about time you got up!"

In spite of her anger, the warrior was overjoyed to see her. It was always good to see Jinyung. Bunyang yelled at the warrior to follow. Lusung needed to be found. As they turned, there was a hint of something just outside the periphery, a trace of shadow and wavering light. The warrior turned but saw nothing, only the familiar serenity of the cookery and the isles floating amidst puffs of cloud. Taking a deep breath, the warrior exhaled with a strange but simple gratitude and ran after Bunyang.

There was something else they were looking for as well. Perhaps another person? Whatever it was, it faded into the morning air.

It was probably unimportant.

Chapter 4: Unreal Tournament

Let it be known that by decree of his Eminence, Emperor Gwang, the Imperial Tournament will be held this year on the hallowed grounds of the Aransu School. Any accomplished warrior who claims citizenship within the Stratus Empire may register via their local administrator for the honor to compete before his Eminence and the Royal Family. All recognized clans within the Crimson Legion and the Cerulean Order will be limited to three competitors per clan.

The majestic Aransu School, home to one of the oldest clans in the Realm, has the honor of hosting this historical competition. On this location where the legendary Zulia Aransu first mastered the art of conjuring powerful Thralls, the barrier between the Realms feels immaterial. Experience the supernatural grandeur of these sacred grounds as the most skilled warriors from across the continents compete for the honor of being named the Emperor's next champion.

The Imperial Tournament will be like nothing you've ever witnessed before, a once in a lifetime experience, a dream turned into reality.

Chapter 5: Heaven's Breach

Jinsoyun regarded her old master with... what was that in her eyes? Doubt? Pity?

Whatever it was, her gaze hit the warrior like a punch to the teeth.

Tricked again. Of course. Everyone knew that Master Hong and Yungmuk... and Gilhong and Jinyung and Hajoon... and little Bunah, Bunyang, and Jinbin... everyone knew how they died. Everyone knew that the warrior couldn't save them. To dream that they were all together and happy as one big family was inexcusably foolish. It was a childish notion, and they were a fool for believing it.

Kangsan and Jinsoyun walked confidently to the exit. The warrior gave one last long look at the fantasy before following closely behind.

Chapter 6: Nature of the Beasts

It is said that the Dawn's Edge was born upon the Saucha Stone, where the light of the sun meets the shade of the Dawnspring Forest. It was forged of flames and shaped by flowing water, for in this realm, even the elements coexist in harmony. Earth and metal, wood and flame melded together until the great blade emerged from the reflective waters, the lake and the sword forever linked. Both the Lake of Reflection and the Dawn's Edge reflect the truth and provide a means to follow it: one is a door, the other a key.

It was an odd truth that was reflected in the eyes of a Saberfang as it looked upon the pristine waters. Its eyes were so clouded with envy that it could not see its own reflection. All it saw was the Saucha Stone. Something gnawed at it from within, something like a hunger. As its paws grew wet, it could feel a cold reprisal from the waters. The slick stones seemed hard and jaded. As it carried the Saucha Stone away in its mouth, the sun burned angrily above. The lake dissolved into vapor, thousands of droplets rising up like insects. For a moment the Saberfang paused and watched. It felt the weight of the stone in its mouth and the lingering chill on its fur.

The Saberfang almost turned around but something seemed to call to him, a voiceless whisper in the air. The stone was his. No one else could have it. It turned away and hurried into an ever darkening forest.

Chapter 7: Reflections

It didn't matter that Guardian Maiden Songmi was the grandest protector of this domain, or that she had kept its core citizens in peace for eons, or that she was the sole keeper of the Starbridge, or that the very life force that kept Savan Village alive flowed through her being. The people, led by the charismatic Laofu, informed her that they had already allowed a mortal into their midst. They told her that this warrior was the only hope the Realms had to stop the vile Mushin, who was operating under the delusion that he would climb to the Apex and confront the Highest Powers of the Divine Realm.

They never demanded Songmi's approval, but they also failed to ask for her permission. Songmi forgave them for that. She was not a dictator. She was not cruel. The people had garnered the courage to approach with her with a solution, so she owed them her trust in return.

This festering problem could no longer be ignored. She'd felt the forests twist with hysteria and their madness creep into the edges of her own psyche. If help wasn't coming from above, then their only choice was to trust this Jyansei from below.

Chapter 8: The Realmwalker

Junghoon had long waited for an opportunity like this—an attack, a real one, with this so-called Divine Fist, this golden boy of the Three Sages, this mere mortal who believed he could challenge the unquestionable order of the Divine. Junghoon polished his helmet, oiled his armor, and sharpened his sword. He practiced his form and rehearsed the grand speech he would give once Mushin approached him.

"Stand down, interloper!" he recited in his golden mirror. He unsheathed his immaculate diamond-encrusted blade. "Or face the might of the Divine!"

Unfortunately, he never got a chance to say his speech, as a woman in snakeskin pushed him off the walkway-- that was his first death, and not too painful. His second death was caused by a giant claw impaling him through the chest-- that was considerably more painful, and quite the teaching moment. Junghoon waited for another death as he slowly bled on the marble bridge. He buried his face in his helmet, too ashamed to face his peers, who were barely holding their own against the fiends spilling through the rifts.

Even with the great Iksanun, the Luminaries weren't enough to stop Mushin. Junghoon silently prayed for a miracle.

Chapter 9: The Atheneum

Was there a plan from the beginning?

Is it possible that the Divines in their wisdom saw even these darkest of days or was everything they ordained from the first Divine Mandate ceremony to the anointing of the Guardians simply a false semblance of hope?

There are those who worship the Divines and there are those who blame them for every catastrophe. If the Divine Realm is meant to be exalted and separate from the Earthen Realm, why should the two interact at all? The Divines established the Divine Mandate to bestow their blessings and briefly open a portal that connects our Realm with theirs, but, in doing so, they provided the means to open a gate to the horrors of the Dark Realm.

Did they foresee that as well? Were the horrors of demons and dark chi part of their plan? Who can answer such questions? Surely no mortal has the answers, but the time will come soon when the horrors of the Dark Realm will breach the sacred heights of the Divines. Then they will have to answer for everything they did and all they failed to do.

Chapter 10: The Fourth Guardian

Mushin inhaled deeply, enjoying the simple pleasure of breathing despite the acrid air. For a moment, he thought he caught a whiff of her perfume. Closing his eyes, he tried to remember her knowing smile, her absurdly long hair, and those deep eyes that seemed to see all of who he was and all he wanted to be. She was the first person he felt truly at ease with, the first to see past the facade and accept him just the same. He wanted to say he had spent his life serving his people, marching out to face whatever threat emerged on the horizon, defending the Empire against foreign invaders, fighting the battles that others could not. In truth, he had spent his life trying to prove his worth, desperate to silence the critics, rise above the lies of his scheming half-brothers, and earn the approval of his people and his father. Facing foreigners in battle came easy. Facing his opponents at home was the real challenge.

Yet with Yura he had nothing to prove. Her laughter cut through the absurdities. Her embrace disarmed him, bringing him into the present where all he had to do was simply be. She was his sanctuary. After a lifetime of fighting, in her he found peace... and rest.

He looked up towards the Heavens, searching for light amidst the shadows and dust. Why him? Why now? Now that he had found the love of his life, must he abandon her? The Sages had told him he could save this world, but his world was nothing without Yura.

But he had made a promise to the Sages, to the other Guardians, to himself. He would make the sacrifice. He would give his life so they could go on living. He would give his life to save the Realm and everyone in it.

Mushin exhaled, knowing what he had to do. He stepped forward, slowly but with determination moving toward the nexus of chaotic energy that stormed before him. Every step brought him closer to death, yet his purpose had become increasingly clear. He would go into the darkness, not to save this Realm or the people who never seemed to accept him nor to fulfill his promise to the Sages or even his fellow Guardians. He was doing this for Yura.

As the darkness began to take him, he couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Chapter 11: Death of a Dream

There were so many messages that morning that the pigeons formed a cloud that blocked out the rising sun. The news spread in disbelieving whispers, then in excited shouts, and then in fireworks and drums. Revelers flooded the House of Paradise, with barely enough room to stand as they raised their glasses and cheered that same cheer:

"To Mushin!"

She had been working the balcony that night, in a private booth with a wealthy man. Yura heard everything in bits and pieces—Mushin killed the Dark Lord... Peace was upon us... He didn't make it, but no one possibly could. She heard heartbreaking scraps from the rabble, over and over again, as she pretended to be intrigued by her client's business exploits. She tried to be professional, but the more she heard, the more her gentle smile tried to kill her, the more her tears threatened to escape, and the more her heart promised to burst from her chest. Her shaking hands slipped and the soju missed the cup. It pooled on the tablecloth.

Kyungchul was on her in a second. His rough hands gripped her bare shoulders.

"How are we doing over here?" he asked the businessman. "You know, Yura was Mushin's favorite girl!"

The businessman clapped in delight. "Congratulations!"

Chapter 12: Visions of Fate

Fate is not a singular path. It is a crossroads from which several paths diverge. Though gravity and fortune may push and pull, and the Divine and the Dark may bend the Realms to their wills, they will not and, in truth, cannot interfere with the most essential facet of the mortal soul, the inherent power of free will.

Even so, there are a finite number of possibilities from which to choose. Knowing that an outcome is possible will either bolster those who can manifest it or provoke those who can prevent it. It is for this reason that mortals are barred from the Chamber of Fates and Luminaries are forbidden from returning to the Earthen Realm. For the Chamber of Fates holds the secrets of all the possible futures. It is the multi-faceted map where all the pathways are traced.

Perhaps such knowledge is too great for any mortal to know. All who live in the Earthen Realm should be grateful that the Chamber of Fates and all that is held within are kept at a distance. It can only be by those select souls who are deemed worthy as they pass through the one-way gate of death.

Instead, mortals should focus solely on what lies before them in the present moment. The decisions they make are more powerful than they know.

Chapter 13: The Apex

For so long, the answers had been simple. In her first life, all she wanted was to survive. Then, after she fell, all she wanted was power. In time, she had an Empire at its knees and a Realm at its breaking point.

She'd known this warrior as a pathetic whelp, barely able to fight. She'd known them as the champion who faced her sword and ended her reign. But, most of all, she knew them as the kind-hearted Master. They had taken her little hand in theirs and brought her into a new family, with new friends and brother and sisters. They taught her that love didn't end when life did. They taught her that true strength lied in compassion, vulnerability, and trust.

All paths, all her lives, had led to here, at the top of creation, facing a power none of them could comprehend. As Jinsoyun stood at the doorway to the Apex, she finally knew that her fight was over. She finally knew where she was meant to be.

Her Master would have to face the Divine alone. Whatever questions waited ahead, she trusted her Master would have the answer.

Chapter 14: Down to Earth

Iksanun was talking again. He did that a lot. Jiwan engaged with patience and endurance, but Master Hong’s attention was elsewhere. He could feel his student approaching.

He tried to recall the moment so long ago when the Hongmoon School was attacked, when all his students were cut down save one, the one they called "Cricket." He knew then that all his hopes and dreams for the school, all that he had taught and tried to build among his pupils, rested squarely on the shoulders of one student. It was a heavy burden to bear, but there was no one else to carry it.

Master Hong could only watch from afar as his Cricket struggled to learn and develop and fight and forgive. Other teachers emerged along the way: Old Man Cho, the Eight Masters, the Sages, the monks, even Brother Hajoon did his part with what time he had left. It was only in brief moments of conversion that he was able to give something to Cricket: a bit of Divine Chi shared before the battle with Jinsoyun, Hongmoon secrets in a hidden training room, knowledge about who Mushin was and who he could be. These were all he could offer: sparks of light to help guide the way.

Cricket still carried those sparks, but now there was so much more that came with it: the chi of the Sacred Beasts, the scars of countless battles, the rewards of teaching, the sorrow of loss... and, perhaps, a bit of the Divines themselves shared from time spent in the Apex.

"Master Hong..."

It was Jiwan who spoke this time, in her polite and proper tone. She did that a lot. In this case, it was unnecessary. Master Hong knew his student had arrived.

The time of the Four Guardians had come and gone. The Earthen Realm had a new champion.