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Thread: Dragon gazes upon the Blood Moon

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    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Default Dragon gazes upon the Blood Moon





    The Moon and stars hung in the night sky like lanterns, illuminating the courtyard below. The open space was large enough to accommodate hundreds of guests and was tastefully decorated with rocks skilfully sculptured to resemble great peaks and bushes carefully trimmed in imitation of majestic forests. Normally this was a place of tranquillity where one could enjoy a moment of quiet contemplation, but tonight it was filled with dozens of circular tables and surrounded by hundreds of seated guests feasting on dishes fit for the grandest of imperial banquets. Dancers, musicians, jugglers and other entertainers travelled between the tables adding to the festive mood.

    The assembled guests varied greatly from each other, ranging from richly dressed aristocrats to vagabond beggars and every other class in-between. Yet despite the contrasting classes everyone seemed to being enjoying themselves and treating each other with civility if not equality. On the north side of the courtyard was erected a double level platform of wood and yellow silk. The top level was the size of a small table and held a single object, a white jade plaque. Rectangular in shape it covered roughly half the platform's service and was propped upright looking down on everyone in the courtyard. On its surface was engraved the words:


    “By the will of Heaven
    and the order of the Emperor.
    The one who possesses this plaque
    is recognized as the Grand Patriarch.
    With this title comes the right to rule
    all righteous Martial Artists within
    one's realm.

    So it is ordered.”


    It had been more than a millennia since this plaque was created, yet despite the countless deaths of Emperors and the changing of dynasties, every sovereign along with their court upheld this pledge of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, and respected the Grand Patriarch's right to administer justice within the Martial World. It was an arrangement that allowed the Imperial Court a measure of control over the unruly Martial Artists without restricting their independence.

    The lower level of the platform was much larger than the top one and held four desk sized tables with matching chairs. Each table held a selection of the finest food along with eating utensils. One of these dining sets was set directly under the imperial plaque, facing outwards to the courtyard, another was set to the right and the remaining two were placed to the left. The one furthest to the left was conspicuously empty.

    At the dining set directly under the plaque sat the host Yip Manyou with a fixed smile on his lips as he stared down at his guests. An odd mixture of emotions ran through his mind as he contemplated those who had gathered to celebrate his appointment as Grand Patriarch. Most he dismissed as sheep, easily lead and unimportant. Amongst the flocks were a few predators who stirred much stronger emotions within Manyou. Looking to his right he saw Bai Feng, whose plump frame barely squeezed into his chair. His chubby right hand held the leg of a roast peacock, which he tore into between gulps of the bottle of grape wine held in his left hand.

    Despite being well into his fifties Bai Feng had a boyish look of innocence to his clean shaven fleshy face and could easily be mistaken for being a decade younger than he really was. His greying black hair was tied into to a rough plait and the sea green silk robe that Manyou had given him that morning, hung awkwardly off his shoulders. It was not that the robe did not fit, for Manyou had had it tailored made for his friend, it was just that Bai Feng was wearing it carelessly, with many ribbons and straps hanging loose when they should have been tightened. All together the image of Bai Feng was that of a jolly fat man, well into middle age and with his fighting days far behind him. This however was a false image and very few men had survived making such an assumption about Bai Feng.

    Catching his host's gaze Bai Feng smiled good naturedly and waved the peacock holding hand in greeting. Manyou's smile took on genuine warmth and he raised his goblet in a toast. No matter how dark his mood, Bai Feng could always lift his spirits. It was one of the reasons they were best friends. Manyou's smiled wavered as he the silver in his goblet caught the flickering light of the flames coming from one of the fire basins lit around the courtyard. Seeing his reflection on the metal put him in a melancholy mood.

    Staring back were the tired eyes of a man who had seen almost sixty years. Those had been harsh years shown in the winkled skin, greying hair and rugged beard that had once been lush black. His purple robe hung on a still strong body, but despite its strength there was no hiding the sag from the weight of time. Bitter-sweet memories flooded back to him, in his mind's eye he saw another reflection, that of a man in his prime smiling broadly as a wonderful woman presented this goblet to him. Now although the goblet had remained untarnished the same, sadly could not be said about its owner.

    Wishing to distract himself from such thoughts Manyou once again returned his gaze to his guests. His eyes were drawn to the left where he spotted the priest Mu Kong. Dressed in muted grey and black, his white hair held in a bun at the top of his head and his short beard well trimmed the holy man was the very picture of dignified austerity. Thin as Bai Feng was plump Mu Kong seemed almost frail in comparison, but like the former this was also a false image that was dangerous for any who fell for it. As if sensing his gaze Mu Kong turned to face Manyou and lifted his teacup in a toast, the vows of his order forbidding him from taking wine.

    Manyou returned the gesture with a courteous nod. The priest was too aloof for them to ever be friends, but they had a healthy respect for each other and together with Bai Feng the three of them worked well in maintaining peace amongst their fellow Martial Artists. Letting go of Mu Kong's eyes, Manyou looked further down at the empty seat beside the holy man and let out a sigh at the slight from the absent occupant. Scanning the courtyard he found the man the seat had been reserved for amongst a group of richly dressed men at the end of the courtyard, as far from the hosts as it was possible to be without actually leaving the courtyard.

    Yee-man Zhan was the same age as Manyou, and could best be described as a perfectly groomed thoroughbred. Everything about the man was perfect, from his expertly lacquered hair to his tailored shoes, not so much as a thread was out of place. The slight greying at his temple and his immaculately trimmed beard gave him the air of a distinguished statesman whose very presence demanded instant respect. Like Manyou he was also dressed in a purple robe and was another subtle insult to the host.

    Raising his head Yee-man Zhan locked eyes with Manyou. The air seemed to crackle with energy as they stared at each other, reminiscent of two tigers running into each in the jungle. Memories months old invaded Manyou's mind and his left shoulder twitched:


    Hundreds stood around the circular wooden platform that had been raised far above their heads and the noise from so many mouths was almost deafening. Many amongst the crowd had been participants in the tournament to decide the position of Grand Patriarch and now they talked in excited voices as they speculated on the outcome of the epic contest. Both finalists were of almost legendary status and no two persons could agree on who would prevail today. There was however one point where there was no argument, this was going to be a duel that no one was going to ever forget.

    Two islands of calm stood out amongst the teaming sea of people. Standing level to the duelling platform was erected a square tower also made of wood, on which were placed two seats and a wooded stand. The stand held the plaque proclaiming the First Emperor's pledge, while the seats were occupied by Mu Kong and Bai Feng. Neither men had participated in the tournament, but instead acted as its judges and now they sat as still in tranquillity as they waited for the climax of the contest that had lasted weeks.

    At the appointed hour they arrived. Stepping onto the platform at exactly the same time, Manyou and Yee-man Zhan first knelt in the direction of the tower paying their respects to the office of the Emperor, then bowed to the judges who nodded in return, then the duellists turned to face each other. Yet neither of them moved as they stood studying each other. Both had tracked the other as they progressed through the tournament, noting down strengths and weaknesses, knowing that a clash between them was inevitable.

    Hush descended as everyone focussed on the ensuring battle, tension filled the air but not a single whisper could be heard as the anticipation built. Manyou lifted his sheathed blade and saluted his opponent, a gesture the latter did not return. The breech in etiquette caused a ripple of chatter amongst the spectators, but Manyou recognized the attempted at mental manipulation for what it was and smiled politely at Yee-man Zhan letting him know that the ploy had failed. Yee-man Zhan kept his face as impassive as granite as he reached for his own sword and slowly drew it.

    The two-handed hilt and circular guard seemed to be made of polished gold, but was in fact gold leaf sheathed around tempered steel, combining aesthetic beauty with brutal functionality. The blade itself was double-edged, straight and surprisingly eight-sided. Each side was engraved with one of the Hexagrams of the I-Ching, trapping mystical as well as metallurgic strength within its folds. The entire sword tapered into a diamond point that shone the clearest blue. This was the fabled Taihui, the Great Brightness, priceless heirloom of the Yee-man family.

    Manyou however had a magic weapon of his own, and drew his curved single-edged sword at the same time as Taihui left its sheath. Manyou's entire sword, from tip to hilt was made from a solid piece of black iron and appeared crude in comparison to the elegant blade of his opponent. However the ringing of temple bells accompanied the unsheathing of the sword and skilfully engraved script, in ancient Sanskrit ran along the black blade. The sword was a gift from the monks of Seven Suffering monastery, in gratitude of Manyou rescuing their Abbot, who had been held for ransom by a rogue General of the Imperial Army. The monks had melted one of their sacred bells and nine members of their order had been present during the entire forging process, continuously chanting mantras of warding and good-fortune.

    Despite everyone straining all their senses, when the duel did begin it caught all but Bai Feng and Mu Kong by surprise. One moment the combatants were standing statue still more than thirty feet apart, then in the blink of an eye they became a pair of blurs that clashed in the centre of the platform to the ringing of metal on metal. Both men had summoned their Qi energy, allowing them to move at a speed far beyond what should have been possible for mere flesh and blood. With the initial contact made the duellists swiftly exchanged a flurry of blows, too fast for all but the most expert of eyes to follow, as they took the measure of each other.

    A deafening thunderclap ended the first stage of combat as Manyou brought his sword down in a skull-splitting arc and Yee-man Zhan raised Taihui to parry. A ripple of semitransparent energy spread out from where the mystical weapons met and spread outwards rattling everyone it touched to the core. The release of energy swept the duellists off their feet and sent them hurtling back to their original positions where they landed lightly, then started circling each other. Yee-man Zhan forced down his mounting frustration. He had hoped to defeat Manyou quickly and thus proving his superiority over his rival.

    Now it seemed he was in for the fight of his life and it was not a fight he was absolutely sure he could win. However it took only a few heartbeats for his customary confidence to return and he started to feel glad for the opportunity of a drawn out fight. It would give him the chance to slowly humble the upstart, stripping him of his dignity and missed placed pride until Yee-man Zhan felt like ending it. Although traditionally the tournament was not to the death, accidents did happen. A wolfish grin spread across his lips as he pictured Manyou struggling desperately before finally falling on his knees and begging for mercy.

    Manyou caught the grin but ignored it, instead focusing on the glittering point of Taihui as he waited for the next strike to fall. He did not have long to wait, the blade darted out viper fast towards his eyes and was only barely parried. Manyou wasted no time in returning an equally swift strike to Yee-man Zhan's neck, but the latter contemptuously danced away from it. Back and forth they fought, black blade meeting glittering sword with sparks flying from the enchanted weapons. Faster and faster the tempo of the battle went with the duellists reaching almost divine heights in skill and speed. Gradually Yee-man Zhan started gaining the upper hand with a series of lightning fast strikes that but Manyou on the defensive.

    Try as he may Manyou could not regain the initiative and was slowly being forced to the edge of the platform. As if sensing its master's impending victory, the blue glow at the tip of Taihui started to spread along the entire blade, making the cold steel sparkle. Yee-man Zhan pressed his attack and was rewarded as Manyou took one to many steps back and found his left foot dangling of the edge of the platform. Just as Yee-man Zhan was about to finish the fight, Manyou did something inconceivable. Of is own accord his stepped off the platform and started falling to the ground.

    So taken aback was Yee-man Zhan by the unexpected move that he completely missed Manyou grabbing the edge of the platform with his free hand and nearly lost his feet as the wooden planks he was standing on exploded in a fountain of splinters. Manyou's blade sprouted from the platform and would have crippled Yee-man Zhan but for his well homed reflexes. A lifetime of training and battles had conditioned his body to respond without conscious thought and Yee-man Zhan leapt away from the deadly blade. Regaining his wits in mid-air Yee-man Zhan summoned his Qi enabling him to rise twenty feet into the air and float down with no more weight than a leaf.

    Pulling himself back onto the platform, Manyou sent his blade crashing down causing a three feet fissure in the wooden planks that shot in a ragged path towards Yee-man Zhan. Quick as thought Yee-man Zhan switched the Qi flow running through his body and dropped from the sky with the weight of an anvil. Power rippled from where he impacted and spread out to meet the advancing the fissure. An ear-shattering explosion erupted where they met and cloud of dust and splinters blossomed between the duellists. Lunging through the screen of flying debris Yee-man Zhan sent the tip of Taihui towards Manyou's throat, the blade now glowing like a falling star.

    Manyou raised his black blade and caught the deadly sword tip with the flat of his sword. The ringing of bells echoed out and the script along the black sword glowed cherry red. For several desperate moments the strained against each other until a crack, the width of a hair appeared on the dark iron. The crack spread across the entire blade before shattering it and leaving Manyou armless. Elation flooded Yee-man Zhan's mind as he saw his sword continue in its now unobstructed path. But again Manyou did what was inconceivable.

    Instead of leaping aside Manyou plunged forwards as if intending to impale himself on Taihui. At the last possible moment he leaned to the right, the sword tip piercing his shoulder instead of throat. The shock of Manyou's action made Yee-man Zhan slow to respond and the side of his face exploded in pain as Manyou connected with his fist. Reeling from the blow he did not see Manyou follow with a palm strike to the chest that sent him hurtling backwards through the air and straight of the platform dragging Taihui out of Manyou's body along the way. Sinking to his knees Manyou summoned his Qi and activated a few acupoints that stemmed the flow of blood from his wound.

    Pandemonium broke out, with everyone talking at the same time trying to decide the victor. Some argued that Yee-man Zhan was the winner for shedding first blood, but others claimed Manyou as victor for making his opponent leave the platform. Just as events seemed to be turning to violence a voice like thunder rolled over the masses quieting them all. Everyone turned to the wooden tower to see Mu Kong standing with arms stretched out for silence. In the same rumbling voice he spoke:

    “The rules of the tournament are clear. The last to leave the platform entirely or surrenders is to be the victor. Everyone, I ask you all to pay your respects to our new Grand Patriarch, Lord Yip Manyou.”

    With these words Mu Kong saluted the new Grand Patriarch a gesture swiftly copied by everyone else, although grudgingly in some quarters. Manyou forced himself to his feet and accepted the honour, then swiftly left to tend to his wound.



    Memories of that desperate struggle caused Manyou's hand to drift to the bundle at his side. The moment his hand touched the gift from the hermit Weapon-Lord, Dao Gintou, his tension dissipated. Gintou's creations were sought after by kings and princes, treasured above any precious gems or metals. But the Weapon-Lord was notoriously elusive and a popular saying was that one was as likely to capture lightning in a bottle as to find him. Manyou had met the man in his twenties and was one of the few people Gintou could stand being in the presence of.

    On that very morning Gintou had arrived at Manyou's home unannounced and without a word had laid the bundle at his feet before turning to leave. Manyou had called after him, but the Weapon-Lord's only response was to whisper the words “The path leads here”, before departing without so much as a backwards glance. Even as Manyou pounded about the strange encounter the voice of a herald brought him back to the present:

    “Imperial Weapon-Master Gao Yi request an audience with the Grand Patriarch.”

    Manyou nodded to one of his servants who announced the granting of the audience. Gao Yi soon appeared and walked across the courtyard accompanied by nine attendances. The man was well into old age, but his frame was still strong as was expected of someone who had spent his life in a foundry. Dressed in his Official robes he carried an elaborately carved wooden box reverently in front of him. Stopping at the foot of the platform he spoke in a clear voice:

    “On behalf of all the officials of the Imperial Court a present this small token in celebration of the appointment of the new Grand Patriarch.”

    As Gao Yi opened the box the bundle beneath Manyou's hand started to tremble and as Gao Yi presented his gift Manyou understood why.
    Last edited by Mandred Skavenslayer; 11-12-16 at 07:03 PM.

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    Interesting start.

  3. #3
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Desert Dragon




    Mu Kong stared into the deep woods, his eyes lucid and unfocussed as if he was in a trance. As usual he was dressed in his simple priest's robe, that now fluttered lightly in the gentle breeze. Breathing shallowly his chest barely moved, disturbing the tranquillity of the forest no more than one of the trees that surrounded him. The scene of perfect natural meditation had but one flaw to it, that of the tiny crease upon Mu Kong's brow.

    The source of his troubles announced itself in a blaring of trumpets and beating of drums that sent birds scattering from the trees. The priest's eyes snapped into focus as he observed the small procession making its way to him. Dozens of men dressed in furs and leather trampled their way through the woods, shattering the fragile peace by playing their horn trumpets and skin drums. All of them were tanned to some degree and walked with the bow legged posture of people who had been raised on horseback. In the middle of the procession eight men, bigger and more muscular than the rest, carried a large palanquin made of lacquered wood and white silk, upon which lounged two occupants.

    One of them was a woman in her early twenties and strikingly beautiful. Lush jet black hair framed a sensual soft face, dominated by a pair of dark eyes flecked with gold and a pair of full lips. Wearing a flimsy silk gown she displayed generous portions of her ample bosom and curvaceous hips. Her companion could not have been more different. A man in his late fifties, the once muscular frame was now covered by a thick layer of fat. His skin was tanned and winkled showing a harsh life spent under the Sun. All his facial hair seemed to be concentrated in his thick grey-black beard leaving his scalp completely bold. Like his entourage he wore a combination of furs and leather, but while his men clothed themselves in the skins of foxes, wolves and other lesser animals, the bold man wrapped himself in the pelt of a rare white tiger.

    The man's large hands groped greedily at the woman's soft curves eliciting giggles of pleasure from her. Mu Kong averted his eyes and bit back a rebuke at such a display of public carnality. As the procession came to a stop a flag bearer came forth carrying the standard of Tianke Khan, that of a pole with a domed top one half draped with white furs and the other black, thus proclaiming to whom they owed their allegiance. The palanquin was gently settled on the ground and the bold man reluctantly tore his attention away from his bedmate to survey his surroundings. Where moments before those eyes had shone with lust, they now became as hard as flint as he studied the landscape with the eyes of a predator.

    Finally those eyes settled on Mu Kong. The priest and Nomad locked gazes until Mu Kong dipped his head in greeting. Instead of acknowledging, the man scanned the woods once more before speaking:

    “This is a pleasant place. A fitting burial ground for Yip Manyou.” he proclaimed in a booming voice, his Chinese heavily accented.

    “Warlord Sha Long. Beware that your confidence does not become arrogance.” retorted Mu Kong.

    Sha Long responded with a dismissive snort, before returning to fondling the woman. After several minutes the Warlord lifted his head from the woman's bosom and once more addressed the priest:

    “Well? Where is your Grand Patriarch? Or is he like the rest of your countrymen and shrinks in the presence of a real warrior.”

    Mu Kong was saved from answering by the sound of thundering hoofs. Yip Manyou rode into view, flanked by two other riders. All three men wore sombre dark blue robes as befitting the seriousness of the meeting and rode their mounts in dignified uprightness. Both of Manyou's companions were in their early twenties and while nearly everyone focussed on the Grand Patriarch, Sha Long's woman found her attention drawn to them. One of the man was tall and lean, but his posture was that of bamboo tree, thin but strong. His features were serious yet handsome, with a touch of the exotic as his jaw and nose had a strange angularity about them. But it were his eyes that drew the most attention, there was something odd about them that the woman could not quite understand.

    His companion was perhaps half a head shorter, with broader shoulders and was the very personification of a dashing youth. Classically handsome, his intelligent eyes had a glint to them that showed he was someone accustomed to joy and laughter. Catching the woman's gaze he studied her back, those wonderful eyes lingering on her curves and the ghost of a smile flickered on his lips. The woman felt a flush of heat and had to fight to keep her reaction from showing.

    The two young men dismounted and bowed respectfully to Mu Kong:

    “Yip Yongan, apprentice to Grand Patriarch Yip, pays his respect to Reverend Mu” said the taller of the two.

    “Yip Yongle, son to Grand Patriarch Yip, pays his respect to Reverend Mu” echoed his companion.

    After the priest acknowledged their greeting with a nod, they repeated the gesture to Sha Long who replied with another snort.

    Manyou used the moment when his son and apprentice were greeting their elders to study Sha Long. He had heard much about the Warlord and his sovereign. Tianke was not yet fifty, but had united the five most powerful tribes on the Steppes, through a combination of cunning diplomacy and savage warfare. His success had made him the most powerful man north of China and someone whom even the Emperor had to take seriously. The Khan's Warlord and Champion was no less famous. As the leader of the Khan's elite troops, the fearsome Blood Wolves, he acted as the spearhead of Tianke's forces, shattering the back of any armies foolish enough to oppose his sovereign.

    Recently Tianke had cast his eyes South towards the rich lands of China. So far full scale war had been averted by the mediations of the powerful merchants from both nations, but the Khan had been testing the resolve of southern neighbour by dredging up an old grudge. That of the ownership of Ever-white Mountain. The area was a major source of ginseng, a root that had almost miraculous medicinal properties, making it worth its weight in gold. Sitting on the boarder between China and the Steppes, the status of Ever-white Mountain was in constant flux as one side then the other gained the upper hand.

    Tianke had proposed a contest of champions to decide the issue and the Emperor had accepted. The Chinese sent Huang Xiaoguan and Ma Fu to meet the challenge. Both were famed Martial Artists, and Manyou had personally fought Ma Fu four years ago, in the tournament that had made him the Grand Patriarch. He knew that Ma Fu easily ranked amongst the elite warriors of China. Sha Long had killed Huang Xiaoguan by ripping off his head and despatched Ma Fu by plucking his still beating heart from his chest, then as a final insult had declared an open challenge to the whole of China, offering Ever-white Mountain as the prize for anyone who could give him a decent fight.

    The incident had sent tremors throughout the South, with cries of indignation being shouted from the lips of imperial courtiers and Martial Artists alike. Such an insult demanded an answer and all knew that only Manyou could deliver it. Now the champions of North and South met in this tranquil forest, the honour of the countrymen weighing on their shoulders. After a few moments Manyou spoke:

    “Warlord Sha. In answer to your question, yes I do cower before a 'real warrior'. Please be so kind as to inform me when you see one.”

    The taunt had its desired effect and Sha Long leapt from his palanquin with so much force that he toppled it. As the woman went plunging face first to the ground she felt a strong arm catch her and press lightly against her breasts. Looking up she saw the Yip Yongle, up close his attraction was overwhelming and she swooned in his embrace. An amused smile played on Yongle's lips, but it faded in an instant as he turned to see his father spring from his saddle to engage Sha Long.

    They slammed into each other like a pair of duelling dragons, the power from their blows echoing through the forest. Limbs infused with Qi were made iron hard and clashed in flurry of blows. Like twin comets the combatants fell back onto earth, leaving a small crater where their feet touched the ground. The duel raged on as the champions fought like their nations warred. Sha Long was swift, savage and deadly, every attack delivered with berserker strength yet aimed with lethal accuracy. Manyou countered the onslaught with subtle shifting of his weight and perfectly positioned placement of with limbs, channelling away Sha Long's strength as canals directed the raging rivers away from the land.

    Manyou kept his mind calm and his emotions in check as he weathered Sha Long's attack, waiting for an opportunity to present itself. His patience was rewarded as Sha Long sent a wild swipe intending to take his head. Manyou took a half step back, feeling the wind of Sha Long's right fist as it passed in front of his face, then he leaned forwards and slammed his left palm into Sha Long's right shoulder. The Warlord staggered from the blow, but sent a swift kick at Manyou's groin forcing him to leap back in order to save his manhood. Having parted the combatants started circling each other.

    Manyou had the measure of his opponent, Sha Long had prodigious strength, blinding speed and battle hardened skills. But he also had an explosive temper and that was the key to beating him. Yet just as the he was formulating a strategy, Sha Long changed the game. First the Warlord's eyes glazed over in a sickly light, then his entire body began to shake as if gripped by a violent fever. Next the veins in his hands and forearms began to swell until they seemed about to break out of his skin. Before long it really did seem that the blood had burst from the limbs as the skin around them turned a rusty red.

    But then the skin turned scaly and hard, while the nails elongated into black jagged talons. All this happened in a matter of heartbeats and had a grotesque fascination to it. With the metamorphoses complete Sha Long pounced on Manyou like a tiger almost catching him off guard. Furiously the Grand Patriarch backed away, dodging the mutated claws as best he could. Sha Long was relentless in his attack, his monstrous limbs hungrily seeking Manyou's flesh. Before long Manyou had his back against a tree and five ebony nails aimed at his side. In desperation he threw himself to the ground and Sha Long struck wood instead of flesh.

    Tree trunk twice the width of a human torso exploded and Manyou continued rolling in order to avoid being crushed by the falling tree. Rising to a crouch Manyou glanced at the shattered stump to see putrid sap oozing out like pus from a boil:

    “Chimera hands?” whispered Manyou, barely believing his own words.

    Sha Long smirked as he replied:

    “You should be honoured. You are the first person to feel the touch of the Chimera hand in a hundred years.”

    “Longlei!” commanded Manyou, in a now booming voice.

    Yip Yongan reached into his Sifu's saddle unhooking the sword attached there and hurled it to Manyou. Catching and unsheathing the blade in the same movement, a trail of emerald flames erupted from the sword. The weapon was a heavy curved, single-edged sword as favoured by the Grand Patriarch. Neither the steel blade, nor the bronze hilt and guard possessed any adornments, but there was no doubting the power of the weapon as the magical fire flickered along its edge. Sha Long's smirk fell as he gazed in awe at the weapon, knowing if anything could match his dark art it would be this.

    Comforting heat came from the hilt of Longlei, Dragon's Tear, and Manyou's vision sharpened to allow him to view that which was beyond mortal vision. Mystical smoke wafted from Sha Long's claws, curling around him like incense around a statue. The smoke took on different shapes, sometimes a scorpion, or a snake, or a frog or a strange combination of all three. Manyou did not have long to study the phenomenon as Sha Long let out an enraged roar and charged him with both claws lashing out.

    Knocking aside the left claw, Manyou stepped back from the right one, before bringing Longlei down at Sha Long's head. The Warlord stepped back and was nearly gutted as Manyou stopped his attack mid swing and lunged for Sha Long's stomach. Sha Long had not thought it possible to wield so heavy a weapon with such finesse and barely raised his claws in time to deflect it. Sparks and flames flew from where the steel skidded along crimson scales and the fight continued with renewed vigour. Longlei seemed to come alive in Manyou's hand, the flame wreathed blade moving like a Dragon dancing in the Heavens. Sha Long fought with no less skill and greater aggression, as awe gave way to anger and he lashed out relentlessly.

    The storm of magic steel and ravenous claws ended as Manyou took a step back and slipped on a rock. Sha Long was on him as he fell, like an eagle diving down on a rabbit. But as he came within striking distance, his eyes widened in disbelief as Manyou twisted his body bringing up the edge of Longlei. Desperately Sha Long summoned his Qi and created a blast of invisible energy. The blast however was not directed as Manyou, for he doubted it would be able to overcome the enchanted weapon. Instead it was aimed at Sha Long himself in an attempt hurl him away from the blade.

    His own blast hit him like the fist of a giant, sending him flying back from the way he had come. But not before the tip of Longlei had left a bloody trail along his torso. Landing heavy Sha Long felt like he was being cooked alive as the wound burned with magic fire. Exerting his will he made the smoke from his claw flow into the wound, smothering the flames, then using his Qi he activated a few acupoints to numb the pain. He had been remarkably lucky as the blade had missed his heart by less than an inch. As he struggled to rise Sha Long felt the tip of Longlei press against his throat and Manyou looming over him:

    “Yield or die” demanded Manyou.

    “I yield.” replied Sha Long through gritted teeth.

    “Will your Khan keep his word?” asked Manyou, his sword still at Sha Long's neck

    The Warlord nodded slowly, anger choking back his words. Slowly Manyou lifted the sword away, but did not lower it:

    “Let this be a lesson to you. My country's strength is as limitless as the waters of the Ocean and all who dare assault it, invites their own doom.” declared the Grand Patriarch in a voice loud enough for all to hear.

    Picking himself up, Sha Long staggered into his now righted palanquin to be borne away by his entourage. His woman gave Yongle a final longing stare, before hurrying after her people. As the Nomads departed Manyou turned to Mu Kong and thanked the priest for witnessing the duel. Mu Kong exchanged a few short words of farewell then walked away. As Manyou walked to his horse he found his son and apprentice waiting for him:

    “That was very merciful of you Sifu.” stated Yongan with a smile.

    “Not mercy, but diplomacy and self preservation.” answered Manyou. Then seeing the looks of incomprehension of the young men's faces he explained:

    “My decision was diplomatic as killing Sha Long would give Tianke another excuse to invade China, while the self preservation part is because...” lifting his robe he showed them the ragged wound that Sha Long had left on his side. The blood was black and thick like tar as it soaked through the fabric.

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    This chapter is better than the first. Keep up the good work!!

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    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Yee-man Zhan stood on his balcony and looked down as the procession passed by. His dark mood contrasted sharply with the joyful music that drifted up to his ears. Twin lines of soldiers in freshly pressed full dress uniforms, flanked a small army of richly dressed musicians and banner bearers. At the very centre of the procession was a highly decorated sedan chair carried by four strong men and flying high above all was the standard of the Emperor himself, a five clawed golden dragon resting on a background of sapphire blue.

    Such splendour displayed the high esteem for which the Emperor held the recipient of the procession and Yee-man Zhan felt his indignation reaching new heights as he thought of that man. Bitterly he rained down silent curses on Yip Manyou for stealing the glory that rightfully belonged to him. As the procession rounded the corner away from sight, Yee-man Zhan gripped the bannister, shaking with barely controlled rage. Soon he would have to acknowledge that low born upstart as his social superior and the thought made him physically sick. So lost was Yee-man Zhan in his thoughts that he did not realize how hard he was gripping the bannister until the marble started crumbling in his hands.

    ####

    Manyou ran his fingers along the sheath of Longlei. Even through the lacquered wood he felt the comforting warmth of the enchanted blade and his anxiety eased a fraction. It had been a month since his duel with Sha Long and as desperate as that fight was, he would have gladly gone through it again rather than face the ordeal that was to come. As the warmth spread up his arm, Manyou's mind drifted back to the moment he had first grasped the blade:

    A kaleidoscope of colours had invaded his mind, drowning his senses and submerging his thoughts. Gradually the colours took on solid shape and slowly coherency returned to the Grand Patriarch. He saw the sky, but not as he knew it. Ten fiery Suns inhabited the Heaven where one should have been, scorching the young earth with their relenting heat. From this ancient sky a majestic phoenix descended, its flight was irregular and its great wings struggling to keep it airborne.

    The divine bird landed heavily and Manyou marvelled at its magnificent plumage. Consisting of every colour in the rainbow the feathers glittered in the sunlight so dazzlingly that they would have shamed any stars ever born of the Heavens. However Manyou's awe was soon replaced by despair as the phoenix curled up on itself and dipped its head in exhaustion. Heavy eyelids closed upon tired eyes and the phoenix slept, but it was not a healing sleep but a sleep of death. The feathery chest rose less and less, until it finally stopped altogether.

    Time passed swiftly and nine of the ten Suns disappeared from the sky. The body of the phoenix eventually sank into the earth until all that was left was a crater showing the imprint of the once splendid creature. Then one day a speck appeared in the sky. As it flew closer more and more details became visible. A long sinuous body came into view and glittered a brilliant emerald green in the sunlight. Manyou looked on in wonder as a massive head crowned with a mane of bone also became visible. Then as the mythical creature landed next to the crater of the phoenix the Grand Patriarch saw the noble features of its face. A hairy snout was flanked by a pair of whip like whiskers. Twin horns topped its forehead resting above a pair of wise but tired eyes.

    Those eyes fell upon the crater and an all too human look appeared in those immortal orbs. It was a look Manyou was familiar with, that of someone who had lost the love of their life and his heart went out to the Dragon. A single tear rolled from the Heavenly creature's eye and fell into the crater of its mate. The tear swelled quickly until it filled the entire crater forming a lake. Manyou looked into the lake and saw the purest water any mortal eyes had ever seen. It was not just clear, but was completely unsullied by the dust of the mortal existence, bringing a drop of godly purity to this unclean world.

    Millenniums flew by and the vision changed. Manyou saw Dao Gintou at the edge of the lake holding a glowing blade fresh out of the forge. Swiftly the Weapon-Lord plunged the white-hot metal into the lake tempering it and giving the weapon its magical properties.


    It was from this vision that Manyou had found the name for his weapon and over the last few years he had come to rely upon Longlei as he would a dear friend. Gently he lifted his fingers from Longlei's sheath and turned his gaze to the left where he saw another sword. Like the Longlei this was a single-edged curved sword, but while the Dragon's Tear was created with a spartan beauty, this other blade rivalled Taihui in being spectacular. The exquisitely carved ivory hilt was covered in diamond pattern reminiscent of a snake's skin and flowed gracefully into the silver guard that had been sculpted to look like the webbing of a spider.

    The sheath was made of the same precious metal as the guard and its surface etched with scripts in ancient Sanskrit, similar to the ones that had once decorated Manyou's black sword. But while the script on the black blade had spread their protective powers outwards, the spells on this sword were directed inwards as if they were containing what lay within. This was the gift Gao Yi had given Manyou in celebration of his appointment as the Grand Patriarch and since that day the sword had only left its sheath twice. The first time was when the Weapon-Master had presented it Manyou. On that night the blade had caught the light of the Moon and refracted it in a glittering shower of crimson light that had bathed the entire courtyard. It was from this incident that Manyou had chosen the name Xueyue, Blood Moon, for this sword. The second time that Xueyue had left its sheath was the only time that Manyou had used it in combat and the Grand Patriarch had never dared use it again.

    A flash of green ran across his vision and Manyou snapped out of the trance Xueyue had woven on him. Without realising it he had been reaching for the sword with his right hand and was only inches away from it when the spell had been broken. Withdrawing his hand Manyou turned in the direction that the light had come from and smiled as he looked upon his battle armour. Like many Martial Artists, Manyou had spent much of his youth in the Imperial Army as part of the agreement between the Imperial Court and the Martial Arts realm. In exchange for their semi independence from the law, the Martial Arts realm would send members of its community to act as champions for the army. The exact numbers of these champions varied depending on whether the nation was at war or peace and could range from a few dozen to thousands.

    Due to his extraordinary skills and fierce intelligence, Manyou had risen swiftly through the ranks until he had become a senior officer earning him the right to have his own armour. The forging of this suit of armour was an epic in itself and it had never let its owner down in the countless battle they had faced together. Even now, although it had not been worn in decades, the armour still sought to protect its master. A gentle knocking on the armouries door told Manyou that the procession had arrived. With a sigh he turned away from his metallic companion and walked towards the doors with as much enthusiasm as a prisoner towards the gallows.

  6. #6
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Black Face and Cat




    The entire household waited in the courtyard, over a hundred servants, retainers, guards and scholar-guests stood in their best clothes, many newly brought for the occasion. At their head were Yip Manyou, flanked as always by his son and apprentice. The Grand Patriarch smoothed down his purple and silver robe, casting quick glances to his sides. To his right stood Yongle dressed in his new sapphire blue robe, tailor made to show off his broad shoulders and narrow waist. His posture was dignified yet relaxed, showing how easily he took to the situation. In fact Manyou could detect the ghost of a smile tugging at the corner of his son's lips, hinting at his excitement at what was to come. Yongle's manner reminded Manyou of the boy's mother and how she used to handle these events with her effortless grace. The bitter-sweet memory sent a sharp stab of pain into his heart.

    To distract himself he glanced to the left to see Yongan standing statue still, wearing a beautiful emerald robe that brought out his exotic eyes of the same colour. Manyou noticed how Yongan's sleeves twitched as he tried not to fidget. The Grand Patriarch smiled, glad that there was someone else as nervous as he was. Looking at them Manyou felt an overwhelming wave of affection and had to fight the urge not to straighten a collar here or neaten a stray strand of hair there. They are grown men, not children any more, he thought to himself, the words repeating in his mind like a mantra. His resolve lasted exactly ten heartbeats before he gave in and started fussing over them. The blaring of trumpets and banging of gongs saved Yongan and Yongle from his doting attention as the Royal procession entered the courtyard.

    Four guards, two wearing red and two wearing black entered first, flanking the gate. They were followed by a man wearing the official garb of a magistrate, a black silk robe embroidered with a golden dragon running across it. On his head was an elaborate headdress with a piece of green jade set in the centre, showing his station as a judge of the third rank. The magistrate was well into middle age and his frame quite heavy with soft fat, indicating a man unused to physical labour. His well trimmed beard and moustache further enhanced the image of an aged scholar. There were however two unique features which set the man part from the normal courtiers. The first was his complexion which was as black as coal, giving him a frightening appearance. The second was the crescent shaped birthmark on his forehead which made him look even more otherworldly, making everyone who looked upon him have the impression that they were facing some demon or god rather than a man. This was Bao Zheng a magistrate whose incorruptibility had earned him the singular honor of being the only courtier ever respected by the Martial Arts Realm.

    Another man followed three steps behind the magistrate. In his early thirties he had a handsome clean-shaven face and was dressed in the red uniform of an Imperial Guard. On his head was a black silk hat declaring him as an officer of the fourth rank. He moved with the grace of a dancer and the handle of the long straight sword on his belt was well worn from use. He was Zhan Zhao, once a Martial Artist known as the Hero of the South, now he was one of the most trusted of the Emperor's elite guards. Stepping pass the gate's threshold Bao Zheng held a rolled up silk scroll reverently before him. In a clear strong voice he spoke:

    “The Royal Order has arrived” to which the Yip household fell to their knees. Receiving the proper response Bao Zheng unraveled the scroll and read:

    “By the will of Heaven
    and the order of the Emperor.
    The victory of Grand Patriarch Yip Manyou
    over the Warlord Sha Long
    has brought glory to the nation
    and honor to the Emperor.
    In recognition of this great service,
    his Imperial Majesty has decreed that
    from this day on Yip Manyou shall be
    granted the title of Marquis of endless Victories
    and the income of a thousand households.

    So it is ordered.”

    “May ten thousand, upon ten thousand, upon ten thousand blessings fall upon his Imperial Majesty” replied the Yip household in thanks.

    Bao Zheng carefully rolled up the scroll and handed it to Yip Manyou who took it with as much reverence as the magistrate had given it. Rising to his feet the new Marquis met Bao Zheng's eyes and received a deep bow from the magistrate:

    “Congratulations on your appointment your lordship”

    “My thanks to your Honor for bringing such happy tidings to my home. Would your Honor care to share some refreshment with me?”

    Bao Zheng accepted the offer and together they walked into the manor.

    ####

    With head bowed Yip Manyou placed the Royal Order on a small gold stand, shaped like the horns of a stag. The stand stood before an ancestral shrine that held dozens of memorial tablets. Surprisingly the family name on the tablets was not Yip but Bai, for the shrine, like the manor belonged to the family of Bai Yue-er, Manyou's late wife. Manyou's own ancestral shrine resided in a much more modest room within the manor and he would make his offerings there when the royal procession had left. After offering incense to the Bai ancestors, Manyou picked up a small wooden box and turned to his guest.

    Bao Zheng sat on a chair against the wall, beside him was a small table that held tea and a selection of cakes. As Manyou walked towards him the magistrate rose and accepted the box the Marquis offered. The box was quite plain and devoid of any adornments or decorations. Its lid was sealed with wax and stamped with the personal seal of the Manyou, that of a phoenix rising from the flames:

    “Your honor, please accept my gratitude for performing this task for me.” said Manyou.

    “It is my pleasure your Lordship. But if I may be so bold, can I ask why your Lordship has decided on this course?”

    “My encounter with Sha Long has reminded me of my age. It is best I make these arrangements while I still can.”

    “Your Lordship must be jesting. I know of men half your age who would envy your robust health.”

    Manyou chuckled at the complement “Now your Honor, if you think flattery will win my favor, you are not wrong.”

    Manyou's words elicited a smile from the magistrate, a gesture as rare as finding clear water within the Yellow River. With a sweeping gesture Manyou pointed to the door:

    “Shall we go?”

    “Where to my Lord?”

    “Why, to rescue Zhan Zhao.”

    ####

    Zhan Zhao saw the blade coming down, but such was its speed that he barely raised his own sword in time to deflect it. As he leapt away from a second even swifter strike Zhan Zhao wondered how he had gotten himself into this. It had all started so innocently with Yongle and Yongan inviting him for a stroll in the gardens. The two young men had been witty company and Zhan Zhao had been enjoying their walk, until they had arrived in this garden where a wooden rack containing a pair of sheathed swords stood. They were heavy curved swords like the type favored by Yip Manyou and as Zhan Zhao turned to his companions he saw impish smiles on their faces.

    Politely Yongle had suggested that they spar. At first Zhan Zhao thought of declining, but a little voice in his head urged him to accept. He had been a long time admirer of Yip Manyou and his legendary prowess. Propriety prevented the officer from challenging the Grand Patriarch directly but that did not prevent him from wondering how he would measure up to such a giant of the Martial Arts Realm. The opportunity to test himself against his heirs was just too tempting and Zhan Zhao had accepted. Now he was thinking that the decision may have been one of the stupidest in his life.

    Yongan advanced steadily, the heavy sword seeming to glide before him. Zhan Zhao had more than a decade of experience over his opponent and he was drawing on every shred of it now in order to keep up with the younger man. Yongan fought with a skill and confidence well beyond his years, his blade moving with a finesse at odds with its weight. However it was the man's control which truly impressed Zhan Zhao. He fought like a master calligrapher wrote, delicate stabs mixed with powerful broad strokes, the perfect combination of strength and subtlety. For long minutes the thud of wood on wood echoed in the garden as their sheathed swords went back and forth.

    Then the breakthrough came. Zhan Zhao raised his sword to block an overhead slash from Yongan, when the latter made a quick flick of his wrist hitting Zhan Zhao's blade from below rather than above. As the sword was already rising the added momentum of Yongan's blow sent the blade spinning from Zhan Zhao's hand. Zhan Zhao however was not called the Imperial Cat for nothing. Leaping into the air at the same moment as his sword was sent skywards, he caught the blade and flipped over Yongan's head. As he passed his opponent Zhan Zhao lashed out with his sword. Yongan twisted away, but not quite quick enough and the sword caught his shoulder in a glancing blow.

    It was not a fatal blow and would have been easily shrugged off in a real fight, but this was not a real fight. Yongan backed away and saluted his opponent in submission. Zhan Zhao returned the gesture, relief washing over him. Then hearing footsteps the officer turned to see Yongle walking towards him, a smile of pure innocence on his lips. The two of them saluted each other and Zhan Zhao prepared himself. He assumed that Yongle would fight in a similar fashion to Yongan and was nearly defeated in the first exchange. Yongle struck like a storm, strong, swift and fierce. Zhan Zhao felt like he was being buffeted by the winds and found himself backing away from the barrage of attacks.

    The officer tried to regain the initiative but Yongle was relentless, his attack never slackening. The younger man was constantly in motion, his entire body twisting and turning as he attacked, his blows coming from every angle, further pressuring his opponent. Zhan Zhao knew that he must counter attack, for total defense would ultimately lead to total defeat, but the risk would be great. His chance came when Yongle sent a horizontal slash at his torso. Bending over backwards, Zhan Zhao felt the wind from the blade as it passed in front of his face, before striking back with a quick stab. Yongle saw the strike and jumped to the side, but still Zhan Zhao's sword managed to graze his leg. Like the blow struck on Yongan this was not a fatal blow, but it was enough to end the duel.

    Clapping floated on the wind and the three of them turned to see Yip Manyou and Bao Zheng applauding as they entered the garden:

    “Magnificent! Officer Zhan, please accept my thanks for the leniency you have shown my boys” said the Grand Patriarch's

    “Your Lordship is too kind. It is I who should thank the young sirs for broadening my view.” replied Zhan Zhao with genuine sincerity.

    As the conversation continued Zhan Zhao could not help but wonder how good Yip Manyou himself was. If his heirs had come this close to besting him, then the Grand Patriarch must be truly frightening in combat. Trepidation and temptation warred in Zhan Zhao's heart as he fought the urge to challenge who was quite possibly the best Martial Artist under Heaven.

  7. #7
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Rivals




    The Royal Procession left with as much fanfare as it had arrived and as the music faded Manyou loosened his collar and let out a deep sigh, a gesture mirrored by Yongan. Suddenly Manyou's head darted to the side as a blurred figure came flying towards him. Raising his hand Manyou caught a large fist as it came hurtling towards his head. For a long moment the two of them strained against each other, the Grand Patriarch pushing against a strength that matched his own. Then incredibly Manyou was pushed a half step back:

    “You are late.” Manyou said in a voice that he tried to make sound angry, but came out sounding happy.

    Bai Feng peered over Manyou's shoulder at the departing procession then grinned:

    “No, I have arrived exactly when I expected.”

    “Uncle!” shouted Yongle in obvious delight, as he jumped into Bai Feng's arms.

    “Elder Bai” said Yongan as he greeted the man with a bow.

    Bai Feng patted Yongle on the back and gave Yongan a friendly smile. Manyou allowed them a happy moment before continuing:

    “This is as much your family as it is mine and I would appreciate it if you took more interest in it.” Once more Manyou tried to sound stern, but the happy mood shared by the three men was infectious and he could not help grinning.

    “No you would not and you know it.” replied Bai Feng with a chuckle.

    “Well as you are here, I guess I better feed you.” said Manyou.

    Bai Feng's eyes shone with anticipation and the family walked home.

    ####

    Bai Feng stared at the suit of armour, marvelling at the craftsmanship in its creation. The shoulder guards were made of interlocking steel triangles hammered onto treated leather. The breast and back plates were each made from a single piece of tempered steel and held together by leather straps at the sides. A knee length skirt made in the same way as the shoulder guards protected the wearer's lower body, and a circular steel helmet with another steel-leather curtain running down the back completed the suit. A semi transparent layer of jade covered the entire suit making it shine an ethereal green.

    Looking at it Bai Feng mind wondered back to the first time he had met Manyou:

    He had been completely lost, the layout of the army camp was as confusing as a maze. He had tried asking directions from a group of passing soldiers and had been directed to the latrines. Now confused and frustrated he was wondering aimlessly around the camp.

    There was a tap on his shoulder and he spun around to see a man about the same age as himself looking back at him. He was tall and well built, with a ruggedly handsome face. His smile was genuine and his eyes warm. With a friendly smile he asked Bai Feng if he was lost:

    “Is it that obvious?” asked Bai Feng

    “I had the same look on my face a couple of hours ago. Come I'll take you to recruitment Officer.”

    “My thanks friend. By the way my name is Bai Feng. Nice to meet you”

    “Mine is Yip Manyou, and the pleasure is mine.”

    And so started a friendship that had lasted nearly four decades.


    The smell of wine brought Bai Feng back to the present and he turned to see Yip Manyou sitting at a small table and filling a pair of wine cups. Bai Feng went to join his friend at the table:

    “Thinking about the past?” asked Manyou as he handed him one of the cups.

    “Have you added mind reading to your talents?”

    “Why else would you be staring at Yunu Peng (Jade Maiden's Cloak).”

    A knock on the door interrupted their conversation and the friends turned to see Yongle and Yongan each carrying a tray of tea and fruits. Placing the trays on the table Yongan frowned as he saw the bottle of wine:

    “We'll just have a couple.” protested Manyou as he caught his apprentice's expression.

    “Probably best is you change to tea papa.” said Yongle with a grin.

    “Now I know why you never bothered to get remarried after my sister passed away. You already have a pair of surrogate wives.” chuckled Bai Feng.

    Manyou shared his friend's good humour, then noticed that the young men were dressed for going out. Yongle was dressed in a form fitting burgundy red robe, tastefully embroidered with gold at the sleeves and collar, but trimmed short so as not to hinder his movement. Yongan was much less eye catching in his dark blue jacket and trousers but that was in keeping with his taste in clothing, which tended towards the practical:

    “And where are you two going?” asked Manyou

    “Just the Zuiren Xiang (Intoxicating Fragrance).” replied Yongle

    “But we'll stay if you want us to.” offered Yongan

    “What, and listen to a pair of old windbags natter on all night. The both of you would be bored stiff.” joked Manyou.

    Bai Feng laughed out at the words and Manyou gave him a moment to compose himself before turning back to Yongan:

    “Now you keep your brother out of trouble.”

    Then he turned to Yongle:

    “And you, get him into some.”

    As the young men walked out of earshot Bai Feng placed a hand on his friend's shoulder:

    “You should be proud, they are good lads.”

    “I only wish Yue-er could be here to see them.” whispered Manyou.

    Bai Feng tightened his grip a little and the friends shared the moment of melancholy.

    ####

    Zuiren Xiang was the most exclusive brothel within the city of Kaifeng, catering exclusively to the nobility. Wealth alone would never gain one entry, unless accompanied by the appropriate title. With such a distinguished clientèle, the establishment provided only the very best of services and proudly boasted that no patron ever left without a smile on their face. From the most prized courtesans to the lowest of serving wenches, every girl that worked within the brothel was the very picture of loveliness, stringently selected for their physical perfection.

    But Zuiren Xiang's girls did not entice their patrons with just beauty, for every one of them was highly trained in the four Chinese Arts, satisfying their clients intellectual as well as physical appetites. Yongle had gained membership through the connections in his maternal family and had extended the privilege to Yongan. As the two of them walked through the door they seemed to pass into another world. White marble faced the walls, pillars and floors making one feel as if they had entered a giant cloud. Soothing music floated on the rose scented air adding to the tranquil atmosphere.

    The ground floor was the common area where guests were greeted. Thin silk curtains cordoned off of the floor, providing a measure of privacy where patrons could examine the brothels selection of girls. The second floor held rooms where the selected courtesans retired with their patrons and the third floor was given over to five plush exclusive suites, reserved for the most elite of clients. The young men were greeted by middle aged woman, dressed like a dignified middle class housewife. The woman was tall and thin, with her youthful beauty still obvious despite her advancing years:

    “Welcome young sirs. What a pleasure it is to see you” she greeted them, her voice soft and cultured.

    “And as always Aunty Ming, it is a delight to see you.” replied Yongle addressing the Madam. Accompany the words with one of his boyish grins, Yongle brought a flash of colour to the woman's cheeks. Yongan greeted the Madam in a similarly polite manner, but restricted himself to only saying her name.

    With the greetings made, the Madam took them up to the third floor to begin their entertainment.

    ####

    Three girls dressed in transparent silks fawned around Yongle, giggling at his jokes and swooning at his impromptu poetry. Yongan watched in amusement as his brother enjoyed the pleasurable dilemma of trying to fondle three girls with just two hands. A wine cup was held out to him and Yongan turned his attention back to his solitary companion. Her name was Xiao Hong and she was a stunning beauty, with a lovely oval face and soulful eyes. But despite her attractiveness she was not a popular courtesan, for she had a fierce intellect and a polite but professional manner, which intimidated a lot of patrons.

    However it was precisely these qualities that had attracted Yongan to her. He always knew exactly where he stood with her and did not have to put up with any false affection, or worst genuine feelings like the other girls often expressed. To him she was a close friend whom he could get intimate with if he so desired. The men turned their attention away from the girls as Aunt Ming entered from a side door accompanied by a troupe of musicians:

    “Young sirs, I have arranged a special treat for you tonight.” so saying the Madam stepped aside and the musicians began to play.

    The music began slowly like a snake rousing from a long slumber. As the musicians played on the star of the performance entered the suite. Shapely sensual limbs moved in time to the tune and well rounded hips swayed hypnotically. The dancer was dressed in a figure hugging blouse, short sleeved and cut low to display a full bosom. Her lower body was covered by a red silk dress embroidered with golden thread that shimmered in the light. A thin red veil also embroidered with gold covered her face, but did little to hide her ravishing beauty. With a complexion like golden satin, eyes that sparkled with ruby heat and full inviting lips the exotic beauty ensnared the watching men.

    Swiftly the music picked up its pace and the dancer's performance took an a wild abandonment, adding a touch of animal danger to her beauty. Yongle's eyes followed her movements with lustful hunger, while Yongan's breathing became increasingly faster. Suddenly the sound of breaking furniture and heated voices broke the enticing spell. Aunt Ming rushed outside to see the cause of the commotion and the brothers looked at each other in mutual confusion.

    ####

    “What do you mean she is with someone else!?” demanded a man at one of the brothel's Madam.

    In his early twenties he had a handsome boyish face and a lean body. Dressed in a fashionable silver robe studded with pearls, he was a striking if somewhat gaudy figure. Sitting at a large table on the ground floor, he was surrounded by a dozen men of same aged and similarly dressed. At his feet was a piles of broken wood, the remnant of a chair he had just smashed:

    “Please sir. I am afraid the Indian dancer has been spoken for tonight. But I promise you her company tomorrow.” pleaded the Madam

    “Look here you old crone. If she is not her by the time I count to three, I will burn this hovel to the ground.” shouted the man.

    “That would be most inconvenient.” said Yongle as he descended the stairs in the company of Yongan and Aunt Ming.

    Casually Yongle took an empty seat at the table and picked up a full wine cup:

    “What happy coincidence to meet the heir of the Yee-man family, the heroic Yee-man Gao.” declared Yongle, in a voice dripping with sarcasm.

    Yee-man Gao stiffened with anger and his entourage rose to their feet forming a loose circle around the Yip brothers:

    “I take it the Indian girl is performing for you.” hissed Yee-man Gao

    “She is.” replied Yongle with infuriating casualness.

    “Give her to me.” demanded Yee-man Gao, his voice tight with barely suppressed anger.

    “Young sir. Let us not sour tonight's good mood. Why don't you and your friends join us upstairs and we can all enjoy the exquisite performance.” Yongan made the offer from his position standing behind Yongle.

    “I do not recall giving you permission to speak you foreign spawn.” Yee-man Gao's words were greeted with laughter from his companion. Yongan's only reaction was a slight tightening of his jaw, but otherwise he gave no other indication of being insulted.

    “I am sorry, did you just call my brother something?” asked Yongle with a pleasant smile.

    “I called him a for….” Yee-man Gao screamed as Yongle flung his drink into his face. The wine stung his eyes, but he did not have long to contemplate his burning eyes as Yongle leapt over the table and fell upon him. As the men crashed to the floor Yongle proceeded to pound Yee-man Gao into oblivion.

    Grabbing the table, Yongan smashed it into Yee-man Gao's companions, before they had a chance to gather themselves, knocking two of them to the ground and showering the rest in splinters. Yongan was amongst them before they could recover, his fingers darting out like the tongue of a snake, striking at acupoints that induced instant paralysis. In the space of a few heartbeats Yongan was the only man left standing. Moving swiftly he pulled Yongle off of Yee-man Gao, then checked the latter's pulse and breathing. He let out a relieved sigh when he found both were still strong. Reaching into his pocket, Yongan pulled out a handful of banknotes and shoved them into Aunt Ming's hand before dragging Yongle away.

    ####

    Yongle stood quietly as Yongan recounted the night's event to Manyou and Bai Feng, his report without exaggerations or embellishments. As soon as he was finished Yongle spoke up:

    “Father, it was me who threw the first punch and I take sole responsibility for my actions.”

    “No. It was my responsibility to ensure Yongle stayed out of trouble, so it is I who should be punished.” protested Yongan.

    Manyou had to fight to keep the smile from his face. Always it had been this way with his boys. Yongle had a natural inclination for mischief and rebellion, which had seen him get into countless troubles growing up. Whenever he was caught he would accept his punishment without complaint, but afterwards he would go and do the exact same thing again. However Manyou had found out that if he punished Yongan instead, then Yongle would never commit the same offence twice. For his part Yongan adored his younger brother and had covered up more than a few of his transgressions.

    For a long moment no one spoke, then Manyou let his suppressed smile show:

    “There will be no punishment as neither of you were at fault.”

    The young men looked at the Grand Patriarch in wide-eyed astonishment, barely able to believe their ears. Seeing their surprise Manyou's smile broadened and he continued:

    “While I would have preferred the situation to have been resolved without violence, I can not fault your actions to Yee-man Gao's provocation.”

    “But Sifu, what if Yee-man Gao tells his father?” queried Yongan.

    “If Yee-man Zhan has any sense of fairplay then he will let the matter drop. If not, then I will handle him.” replied Manyou.

    Concern however was plainly writ on Yongan's face and he seemed about to argue, but Bai Feng pre-empted him by speaking first:

    “Besides, if we make any gesture of conciliation Yee-man Zhan will think we are afraid of him and that would only encourage the man.”

    “Agreed, we will act by not acting. Now the two of you had better get some rest.” commanded Manyou in a voice that left no room for argument.

    The young men obeyed and as they left Manyou let his pride show. Bai Feng was right, they really were fine lads and growing to be fine men. Bai Feng caught Manyou's beaming smile and shared his friend's joy with his own contented grin.

    ####

    With a face as grim as thunderclouds, Yee-man Zhan stared at his son as a young woman dabbed a medicine scented handkerchief on his battered face:

    “Jiejie! (elder sister) That hurts”.” moaned Yee-man Zhan.

    “I am almost done.” replied Yee-man Yin.

    Yee-man Zhan's eldest child was two years older than his son and a charming young woman. Her lovely heart shaped face held a pair of bright intelligent eyes which drew the attention of any one who looked upon her. Her posture and mannerism reflected her noble blood giving her a natural air of command. However her clothing was surprising plain, consisting of a simple light blue dress and a white ribbon that kept her long hair in place.

    As Yee-man Yin tended to her brother, her father's mood got progressively darker. Not only had Yip Manyou stolen his glory, but now his brats had had the audacity to attack his son. This was one insult he would not swallow:

    “Take care of your brother.” Yee-man Zhan commanded as he rose to his feet.

    “Please father, calm down.” pleaded his daughter.

    “Calm down? They attacked your brother!” boomed Yee-man Zhan.

    “Father! Yip Manyou has just been appointed a Marquis. If you confront him now it could be seen as an attack on the Emperor himself.” replied Yee-man Yin, her voice growing stern.

    “To hell with his title! And to hell with the foolish Emperor who gave it to him!” roared Yee-man Zhan.

    “Please father, at least wait until morning. Perhaps Yip Manyou will apologize.” Yee-man Yin said, her voice softening a touch.

    Yee-man Zhan snorted at the words, doubtful that his low born rival would have such manners. But he complied with his daughter's request, as a display of his magnanimity. He would give that peasant this night and then there would be a reckoning.

    ####

    Breakfast at the Yip household was a simple affair, consisting of rice porridge and steamed meat buns. The family was enjoying a lively meal with Bai Feng and Yongle trying to outdo each other at telling jokes, while Manyou and Yongan tried to stop laughing long enough to finish their food. The happy scene was interrupted by the frantic cries of “My Lord!” as a servant came running in. The man stopped as he saw the annoyed glare from Manyou and all colour drained from his face. Manyou softened his stare when he saw the man's terror and spoke in the gentleness voice he could muster:

    “Yes?”

    “Outside...Count Yee-man..sword.” stuttered the man.

    “Let me guess. Yee-man Zhan is outside, carrying Taihui and demanding to see me. Right?” asked Manyou, taking care to keep his voice level so as not to frighten the man even more.

    The servant nodded and Manyou dismissed him. Gulping down the last of his porridge the Grand Patriarch got to his feet and was instantly joined by his heirs, but he waved them back down before they could speak:

    “The two of you finish your food. I will see to our guest.” Manyou commanded, his tone brooked no argument. Then he turned to Bai Feng and said:

    “And you, keep them safe.” to which his friend gave a grunt as he took another mouthful of porridge.

    When Manyou had left the room Bai Feng picked up a plate of steamed buns and got up:

    “Where you you going uncle?” asked Yongle.

    “To your father's armoury. The two of you coming?” and with those words he left the room, leaving the perplexed young men to hurry after him.

    ####

    Manyou walked through the gates to find Yee-man Zhan waiting with a grim face and his hand resting on the pommel of Taihui. His posture was that of a tiger facing a rival and Manyou knew that a peaceful resolution was unlikely. At Yee-man Zhan's side was his son, who despite his injuries was smirking. The self-satisfied brat infuriated Manyou, but he forced his anger down before it could reach his face, and stood facing Yee-man Zhan. For a long time no one moved and the tension grew so thick that it could have been cut by a blade.

    Etiquette demanded that the socially inferior initiates the greeting and while Yee-man Zhan held the hereditary title of Count, Manyou's recent ennoblement meant that he was the social superior, but Yee-man Zhan would be damned before he admitted to it. Finally Manyou seemed to grow bored and with a shrug he turned on his heels:

    “Stop where you are!” shouted Yee-man Gao, his youthful impatience betraying him.

    Manyou did not even pause as he started walking back inside:

    “My son told you to stop.” hissed Yee-man Zhan, his own voice thick with anger.

    The words halted Manyou, but he did not turn and when he did reply it was over his shoulder:

    “I heard him. It is just not my habit to respond to yelping pups.” replied Manyou, his voice as calm as his rival's was emotional.

    “How dare...” began Yee-man Zhan through gritted teeth. But Manyou cut him off by spinning around quickly and speaking over him:

    “Enough. Say your piece and be done with it.”

    Yee-man Zhan's face turned purple with rage, but somehow he managed to restrain himself and reply:

    “Your brats attacked my son. I demand satisfaction.”

    “Very well. I will have them come out and finish the job.” offered Manyou, his voice still devoid of emotion.

    A small crowd had gathered to watch the exchange and Yee-man Zhan could feel their eyes on him. Now there was no way he could back down without considerable loss of face. Once more he spoke:

    “This is your last chance. Hand them over. Now!”

    “No.” answered Manyou, his voice as cold as ice.

    Yee-man Zhan's hand drifted to the hilt of Taihui and Manyou prepared to defend himself, but Yee-man Zhan's eyes darted to a point over Manyou's shoulder. Manyou was too good a fighter to turn his back on an opponent, but shifted to the side allowing him to view he spot Yee-man Zhan had been staring at with his peripheral vision. He saw Bai Feng walking towards him, a plate of meat buns in his left hand and the sheathed Longlei over his right shoulder, with the Yip brothers following behind. Casually he tossed the blade to Manyou who caught it easily:

    “I told you to stay inside.” said the Grand Patriarch, in a tone that made his displeasure clear.

    “No. You told me to keep the boys safe and where could be safer than with their dear old papa.” retorted Bai Feng with a grin.

    “So the son of a washerwoman has been joined by the bastard son of the Bai family and the foreign spawn. Talk about snakes and rats huddling together.” Yee-man Zhan said the words lightly, even as trepidation filled his heart. He knew he was a match for Manyou, but there was no chance of him prevailing against the combined powers of both Manyou and Bai Feng.

    Bai Feng bristled at the insult, but refrained from attacking Yee-man, instead he turned to Manyou and addressed his friend in a voice loud enough for all to hear:

    “Do me a favour. Give this old fart a good hiding.”

    Manyou answered with a grin and stepped through the gates once more. Barely had he stepped away from his family then Yee-man Zhan was upon him, Taihui leaping out of its scabbard and diving towards Manyou's throat with quicksilver speed, its elegant tip dazzlingly in the light. Taihui was met by a wall of green flames as Longlei appeared before Manyou, stopping the sparkling sword. Knocking Taihui aside, Manyou sent a fiery riposte at Yee-man Zhan, forcing him to leap away.

    Waves of emerald flames erupted from Longlei, so intense that Manyou's family felt the heat from a dozen yards away and swept towards Yee-man Zhan. Beautiful silver arcs sliced into the flaming waves, unravelling their power before they could reach their target. Glittering lances shot from Taihui and flew towards Manyou. Each lance was launched from a different angle, but travelled at the same blistering speed, aimed expertly at Manyou's vitals. All were engulfed in the inferno that was Longlei as it spun around its owner.

    Yee-man Zhan became a blur as he lunged through the flames and plunged his shining blade at Manyou's heart. The Grand Patriarch met the attack head on and brought Longlei down in an arc of flaming green. The tips of both weapons met in an earth-shattering explosion that sent a wave of white light and green fire rippling out. Bai Feng dropped to crouch and slammed his palm into the ground. A wall of earth sprang up around the combatants, deflecting the wave upwards and away from the spectators. The wave hit the top of a nearby building, slicing off its roof like a sharp knife would the top of an egg.

    Panic gripped the crowd below and they surged into the streets like a herd of spooked horses. The stampeding mass surged towards the duellist, their momentum threatening to crush the master swordsmen. Summoning their Qi the combatants rose into the air like a pair of fighting eagles and walked upon the sea of people, as if they would a moving carpet, their feet lightly toughing on the crowd's shoulders. Longlei lashed out like jets of dragon breath, while Taihui struck with the power of thunderbolts as the battle raged on. Suddenly Yee-man Zhan stumbled, the shoulder he had been stepping on falling away as its owner tripped. It took only a moment for Yee-man Zhan to right himself, but that moment was all Manyou needed and Longlei came crashing down towards Yee-man Zhan's right shoulder.

    Yee-man Zhan looked on in horror, knowing that there was nothing he could do to save his sword arm. Then at the last moment before Longlei could bite into flesh, Manyou turned the blade smashing the flat of the sword into Yee-man Zhan instead of the edge. The blow struck like a war hammer and sent Yee-man Zhan crashing through a nearby brick wall. For a moment all Yee-man Zhan knew was pain and dust, then as his mind cleared he realised that Taihui was no longer in his hand. Frantically his eyes searched for the blade and found it near the hole he had made when he had crashed through the wall.

    But as he tried to get to his feet he saw Manyou step over the rubble and placed a foot on Taihui. The Grand Patriarch's face was set in stone, making it impossible to read and Yee-man Zhan knew his life was resting on a knife's edge. Finally Manyou spoke:

    “Leave my boys alone, or next time your arm will decorate my wall.” and with these words Manyou turned and walked away without a backwards glance.

    All consuming rage flooded Yee-man Zhan's mind, blotting out the pain of his dislocated shoulder. But the anger was in its turn blotted out by humiliation as he looked up to see Yee-man Gao and saw the look of shock and disappointment in his eyes.

  8. #8
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    First Mission




    Bai Feng walked briskly through the bustling streets of Kaifeng's poor quarters. He was no stranger to this part of the city and would normally have stopped to sample the delicacies of the local food stalls, but today he moved with haste and determination. After several minutes he arrived in front of a large building whose wide doorway was opened and topped with a wooden sign naming the place as Nian Yue Tong (Remembering Moon Hall). Pausing for a moment to look at the Hall dedicated to the memory of his half sister, he hurried inside. Stepping through the threshold he entered a large courtyard where dozens of tables and chairs had been set up.

    Every table was occupied with womenfolk, the aged and children. The few men present, all showed some form of physical disability. Bai Feng spotted Yongle at one of the tables surrounded by a group of children, none of whom were older than ten. The heir of the Yip family was telling them an adventure of Sun Wukong, all the while punctuating his tale with animated movements of his body, making his audience laugh uncontrollably. Although Bai Feng could not see him, he knew that Yongle's brother would be in the store room, taking stock of the Hall's foodstuffs and medical supplies.

    Looking around, Bai Feng found Manyou talking to a man at the front of the courtyard. The Grand Patriarch's companion was about the same age as himself, his complexion tanned and wrinkled, his frame thin and his left arm missing. As Bai Feng walked towards them he heard their conversation:

    “Are you sure you want to do this my Lord.” asked the crippled man.

    “Firstly, my name is Manyou. I am still that boy who stole apples with you when we were young and no title is ever going to change that. Second, I have already discussed the matter with Judge Bao who assures me that the Emperor will approve.” replied Manyou with a reassuring smile.

    “But your Lo.., I mean Manyou. The income from a thousand households.” said the man.

    “Will help build the school these children need.” answered Manyou.

    “Give up Ah Qiang, you know there is no arguing with Manyou when his mind is made up.” said Bai Feng with a smile.

    The crippled man known as Ah Qiang stood and greeted Bai Feng with a deep bow, then excused himself. When Ah Qiang was out of earshot Bai Feng turned to his brother-in-law and let his smile drop, then quickly reached into his sleeve and produced a letter which he quickly handed to Manyou. Bai Feng's expression alone told the Grand Patriarch that this was bad news and when he read the letter he let out a sigh:

    “This is most unwelcome.” said Manyou

    “But not unexpected.” replied Bai Feng

    “I meeting must be called.” sighed Manyou

    “I took the liberty of having one of your scholar-guests start work on the invitations. You just need to decide on the venue.” answered Bai Feng.

    Manyou smiled his thanks to his friend, glad for his help. With last regretful sigh he steeled himself for what was to come.

    ####

    Yee-man Zhan strolled into the Hall as a herald announced his arrival. Flanked by his children, he took in his surrounding with a single glance. Tie Lin (Iron Forest) monastery's audience hall was full to bursting, its large tiled floor having barely enough room for its occupants to stand. As expected the noise from so many people was almost deafening and the herald's announcement was almost lost within it. But the herald was heard and all eyes turned to Count Yee-man and his companion as they made their way into the Hall.

    The crowd parted and the Yee-man family found themselves greeted by Bai Feng and the Yip brothers. Bai Feng smiled as his eyes drifted to Yee-man Zhan's right shoulder, where the heavy bandages bulged under the man's robe. It had been only a few days since Yee-man Zhan's fight with Manyou and the joint was still far from healed. Seeing where Bai Feng's gaze was directed Yee-man Zhan felt his anger rise, but before he could speak the Yip brothers greeted him with deep bows:

    “Welcome Count Yee-man. On behalf of my father I would like to offer our gratitude for your attendance.” Yongle said the words with solemnity and a serious face. He and Yongan had shown the proper respect to an elder, thus making any angry comments Yee-man Zhan might have made appear boorish.

    Biting back his anger, the Count gave his children quick glances and they gave Bai Feng equally formal greetings. With the proper etiquette followed Yee-man Zhan addressed Bai Feng:

    “So where is the Grand Patriarch? He called this meeting and yet he is not here.”

    “His Lordship is conversing with Reverend Mu Kong. They will let you know when you are to be received.” replied Bai Feng.

    The words made Yee-man Zhan bristle as they implied he was a servant waiting on Manyou's pleasure. But before he could answer the slur, Yongle spoke again:

    “Count Yee-man, is that the legendary Taihui?” asked the young man, with genuine awe as he stared at the sword on Yee-man Zhan's belt.

    Yee-man Zhan recognized the attempt to distract him, but propriety demanded that he respond. At first the Count was tempted to shrug off the young man's enquiry, but that would make him look petty. So in order to save face he unstrapped the sword and held it single handedly to Yongle. The insult was subtle but unmissable, as this was how one would hand an object to a servant rather than the son of an equal. Yongle however accepted the sword reverently with both hands and slowly unsheathed it. Running his fingers across the blade he marvelled at the craftsmanship.

    The patterned steel was as smooth as glass and simmered in the candle light. Reaching the tip of Taihui he found this part of the sword differed from the rest of the blade. It glittered like ice in the Sun and felt much cooler than metal should. Yongle had long heard of the story of how a wizard from the North had captured lighting within a shard of ice, thus creating the paradox of cold fire. It was said that Taihui was created around this magical shard and now holding the mythical sword Yongle could well believe it. Re-sheathing the sword Yongle handed it two handedly back to Yee-man Zhan who accepted it with the same ill grace as he had offered it.

    A young priest appeared at the front of the Hall and announced that the Grand Patriarch and Reverend Mu Kong was ready to receive their guests.

    Headed by Yee-man Zhan and Bai Feng, about a third of the crowd followed the priest to the inner sanctum of the monastery, leaving the rest of them to wait in the Hall.

    ####

    Manyou watched as Mu Kong performed the ritual. Normally Manyou was completely blind to magic, but with Longlei at his side he was able to perceive the mystical energies as easily as he would the light of day. Mu Kong's spell was subtle and intricate, drawing on multiple layers of magic and weaving them into a single tight thread running between his hands. When he had gathered sufficient power Mu Kong spread his arms wide and the magic expanded outwards to enshroud the entire room, shielding them from any sorcerous spying.

    With the ritual completed Manyou took a moment to inspect his surroundings. He was in a moderately size room, sparsely decorated and furnished with only ten chairs. Two chairs were placed against the North wall at the head of the room, while the other chairs lined the East and West walls in equal numbers. All the walls were plain except for the North wall, where symbols of the I-Ching had been painted. Light incense wafted from a burner, filling the room with a sense of relaxed tranquillity. Manyou sat on one of the seats at the North side of the room with Mu Kong taking the other, while Bai Feng and Yee-man Zhan took the seats closes to them.

    The rest of the seats were occupied by the heads of the most powerful families and schools within the Martial Arts Realm. With everything in readiness Manyou started the meeting. Rising to his feet he spoke in a strong clear voice:

    “Fellow members of the Martial Arts Realm. I thank you all for attending this meeting. Before we begin I would like to express our gratitude to Reverend Mu Kong for allowing us to hold this meeting at his monastery.” Manyou followed his words with a salute to the priest that was mirrored by his companions.

    Mu Kong returned the gesture and Manyou continued:

    “As you are all aware, three months ago we sent an emissary to the Order of the Trinity Sisters. A few days ago our emissary returned, in a box.” Manyou waited a moment to let his words be registered. There were many worried glances but no one spoke so he continued:

    “This heretical Order has violated the sacred law protecting emissaries. It is an insult we cannot ignore.” an edge had crept into the Grand Patriarch's voice showing how seriously he was taking the matter.

    “If you had listened to my advice and sent a force of warriors instead of a diplomat, those heretics would have been wiped out already.” said Yee-man Zhan his contempt for Manyou made plain in his tone.

    “If you had your way, all we would ever do is fight.” snapped Bai Feng.

    Yee-man Zhan stiffened in his seat, but before he could respond Manyou held up his hand for peace:

    “Now is not the time for blame, but for action. A show of force must be made.” declared the Grand Patriarch.

    “For once we are in agreement. However, I would like to propose that we hand this task to the younger generation. It is time that they showed their worth.” replied Yee-man Zhan.

    “And I suppose you wish to nominate your son to lead this expedition.” said Bai Feng, barely keeping the sneer from his voice.

    “With all modesty aside, I think my son would make the ideal leader.” answered Yee-man Zhan.

    “As shown in how he handed the incident of Longquan city.” said Bai Feng, this time not bothering to hide his contempt.

    “That was an accident!” snapped Yee-man Zhan as he rose to his feet.

    “An accident!? The entire city would have been burnt to the ground, if General Chen's troops had not been there.” barked Bai Feng as he also left his seat.

    “Both of you, sit down.” came the booming voice of Mu Kong. The command in the priest's voice was so compelling the it cut through the red mist in both men's mind and they obeyed, settling on murderous glares at each other.

    With order restored Mu Kong turned to Manyou:

    “Your Lordship. While I do not agree with the idea of making Lord Yee-man's son the leader of the expedition, I do feel that command should be given to someone of the younger generation.”

    Manyou retook his seat and took a moment to think the matter over. There was merit in Mu Kong's suggestion. It would give a chance for the younger generation to earn glory and give vent to their young courage. However Manyou had an inkling of who the priest might suggest for leadership and the idea filled him with dredge:

    “And who would you suggest for taking up the mantle of leadership, Holy One.” asked the Grand Patriarch

    “Your honourable apprentice and son have shown their worth in wiping out the bandits of Black Wind peak and in handling the incident of the kidnapped Persian Princess. I think they will make the ideal candidates.” answered the priest.

    It was just as Manyou had feared. Part of him was proud that his boys were being recognized for their talents and while he was confident of their abilities, another part of him was worried about exposing them to danger. Yes they had handled the two incidents cited by Mu Kong with skill and diplomacy, especially the latter where they had to navigate the treacherous waters of international politics, but the fears of a father still weighed heavily on Manyou. But before he could make up his mind, Bai Feng spoke:

    “I second the motion.” he said with a smirk at Yee-man Zhan.

    Most of those assembled nodded in agreement, except for Yee-man Zhan who glared daggers at Manyou:

    “I see that you have put your time alone with the Holy One to good use.” hissed Yee-man Zhan.

    “Are you questioning my integrity?” asked Mu Kong, his own voice dangerously quiet.

    For a moment priest and Count locked gazes in a silent battle of wills, then Yee-man Zhan let his eyes drop. As arrogant as he was, even he did not dare to challenge someone of Mu Kong's standing:

    “Of course not, Holy One.” Yee-man Zhan replied through gritted teeth.

    With the matter settled talk turned to making arrangements for the expedition. Manyou contributed very little to this part of the discussion. He could see no way of declining the offer without looking like hypocrite, but neither could he stop the feeling of concern gnawing at his heart.

    ####

    Leaning against a pillar, Yongan watched his brother with a doting smile. As usual Yongle was the centre of attention, surrounded by a large group of youths the same age as himself. They hung on his every word, the women looking at him with adoration, the men a mixture of awe and envy. Yongan's smile however came from how his brother had handled Yee-man Zhan. They had decided early on that Yongle would do the talking, as Yee-man Zhan would have taken any words spoken by Yongan as an insult, no matter how respectful they might be.

    Yongan had coached his brother to remain polite and humble towards the Count and to avoid mentioning their recent altercation at all costs. But he had been surprised at how quickly Yongle had defused the situation between Yee-man Zhan and Bai Feng. Yongan had always known that his brother was clever, but this display of self control was most impressive. Taking his eyes off his brother, Yongan looked around the Hall and spotted another large group. They were centred around Yee-man Gao and consisted of allies of the Yee-man family. They cast hostile glares at Yongle's group and whispered snide remarks. Yongan however was unconcerned. Not even Yee-man Gao would dare cause trouble here.

    Letting his eyes drift once more, Yongan noticed a solitary figure standing behind Yee-man Gao's group. He studied Yee-man Yin for a moment, noting her strong eyes which seemed to take in ever detail of their surroundings. As if aware of his observation she looked up and locked gazes with Yongan's emerald eyes. For a long moment they stared at each other, until Yongan nodded politely. Yee-man Yin returned the gesture then went back to surveying the Hall. Yongan walked across the Hall until he stood in front of her:

    “Lady Yee-man, I would like to apologize for the misunderstanding I had with your brother.” he said with a very polite, very fake smile.

    “Young sir is too kind. It was just a little scuffle, there is no need to take it so seriously.” Yee-man Yin replied with an equally false smile.

    Yongan kept the smile on his face. It would seem that Yee-man Yin was much better at playing this game than the rest of her family:

    “Hey! What are you doing just standing?” shouted a man from outside.

    Turning in the direction of the voice Yongan saw two priests standing at the entrance to the Hall. It was too dark to make out any details, but their voices could be heard:

    “Are you new here?” said the one of the priests.

    His companion did not answer, but shoved the priest aside and fled from the scene. Yongan cast a glance at his brother and saw Yongle break away from his group and pursue the fleeing priest. Yongan shouted a warning but it was not heard, or ignored and so having no choice he chased after his brother, leaving everyone else to decide for themselves whether or not to join the chase.

    ####

    As the leaders of the Martial Arts Realm started leaving the room, Mu Kong asked Yee-man Zhan to stay behind. When alone the Count turned to address the priest:

    “You wished to speak to me Holy One?”

    “Ah Zhan, you know that your father was my oldest and dearest friend don't you?”

    Yee-man Zhan did not answer the rhetorical question so Mu Kong continued:

    “So please take my words as those of a concerned friend. Please end your feud with Yip Manyou.”

    “Me back down from the son of a washerwoman? Never!” declared Yee-man Zhan.

    “Is your mind really so narrow that it cannot see past a person's background?” asked the priest.

    “That peasant needs to be put in his place.” replied Yee-man Zhan

    “Surely his many achievements count for something.”

    “The only achievement he ever made was marrying into the right family.” snapped Yee-man Zhan

    “So we come to the heart of the matter. Even after all these years you are still bitter that Yue-er chose him.”

    “He wormed his way into her affections and poisoned her against me!” said Yee-man Zhan his voice almost a shout.

    “If that is what you think, then you truly never knew her.” replied Mu Kong, his own voice deliberately calm.

    “She should have been mine.” said Yee-man Zhan through gritted teeth.

    “She was a daughter of the Bai family. She could never belong to anyone.” answered Mu Kong.

    Yee-man Zhan's face was flushed with emotions and for a moment it appeared that he was going to attack the priest. But instead he spun on his heels and stalked out of the room. Mu Kong shook his head, depressed at his failure and offered up a silent prayer that the son of his friend would one day see the truth.

    ####

    Yongle burst through the canopy with an elated smile on his face. He was really enjoying the chase. Whoever his prey was, they were very swift and had outpaced all of their pursuers, except for Yongle. Using his Qi to lighten his weight Yongle stood suspended above the tree-line and took in his bearings. Spotting a shadow slip between the trees he dived down towards it. As he broke back into the trees he slammed his palm into a branch sending leaves and wood flying towards his prey.

    Hearing the crash the false priest turned to see the shower of greenery come flying towards them and was forced to leap to the side. With his prey's speed checked Yongle was able to catch up. Stretching out his arms he grabbed onto the person and together they crashed to the ground. As they fell Yongle noticed something strange. The flesh he held was strong yet tender, and he knew instantly the gender of the person in his grip. As they hit the ground Yongle spun his captive around and found himself staring into the face of a young woman. In her late teens to early twenties, she had a pretty face with high cheekbones, cherry red lips and large eyes. Yongle's own eyes widened in shock as he discovered that he knew this face:

    “Zi-hsia! What are you doing here and dressed like that?” he blurted out.

    Disentangling herself from his arms she struck a sensual pose before answering:

    “Why, do I look good?” she asked with a mischievous smile.

    Despite his shock, Yongle smiled back and allowed his eyes to travel along her body:

    “Surprisingly, yes.” he replied.

    Their conversation was cut short by the pounding of footsteps and they turned to see Yongan arriving. Yongan stopped dead as the two of them same into view. It took him a moment to recognize his brother's companion but when he did, he nodded in greeting:

    “Lady Lin, this is a pleasant surprise.” he said formally.

    Zi-hsia curtsied to him and returned the greeting:

    “I trust you and your father are in good health?” enquired Yongan as he continued being polite.

    “Oh Yongan, you are as lovably stuffy as ever.” Zi-hsia said with a little giggle.

    Yongan joined his brother in smiling at the charming young woman, before continuing:

    “I assume you are here to observe the meeting?”

    “A girl needs her thrills.” Zi-hsia replied.

    “Well in that case let me invite you to join us.” offered Yongle

    Zi-hsia nodded her ascent, then linking arms with the brothers the three of them started walking back to the monastery. On the way the ran into a group of lead by the Yee-man siblings who had chased after them. Yongan explained that Zi-hsia was the daughter of Lin Jan, the famous scholar-warrior and friend of the Yip family. Zi-hsia had a playful nature and her disguise was merely a little prank. Zi-hsia apologized for her trick and together they all walked back to the monastery.

    The group returned to find Manyou, Bai Feng, Mu Kong and Yee-man Zhan waiting for them. Yongan looked at their faces, Mu Kong was grim and serious, Yee-man Zhan angry, Bai Feng proud and Manyou concerned. The odd mix of expressions confused Yongan, but he kept his own face emotionless as and his companions greeted their elders and listened to their proclamation.

  9. #9
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Journey



    Xia Chi ran a wrinkled tanned hand across his equally wrinkled and tanned face, as if he could wipe away his tiredness. Looking at his caravan as they prepared for the journey south, the old merchant wondered how many times he had witnessed this scene over his sixty two years. Bundles of furs and sacks of incense were being loaded onto camels, to be traded for silks and porcelain in the south. Strong steppe-ponies were being tied together, the magnificent creatures were worth their weight in gold to the Chinese and despite his weariness the sight of them made Xia Chi smile.

    He had been trading with the people of the south since he was ten when his father had taken him on his first trip south. Since then Xia Chi had amassed a great fortune from his dealings with the Chinese, becoming one of the most influential merchant amongst his own people. In his day he had struck deals with great families, dined with princes, rubbed shoulders with generals and in a career highpoint had helped negotiate a treaty between China and the Steppes. In fact, one of the reasons for this expedition was to strengthen the treaty, for he was being accompanied by representatives of Tianke Khan carrying a message from the Great Khan to the Chinese Emperor.

    At the thought of his special mission Xia Chi turned to look at the group of men that made up the Khan's emissaries. There was a dozen of them, all with the look of seasoned warriors. The furs and leathers they wore were of the highest quality and well maintained. Each man was armed with the traditional armament of their people, a composite bow, arrows and a thin curved single-edged sword. They were led by a wizened old man who made Xia Chi look like fresh faced youth and a middle aged man. The younger of the two leaders had the confident air of warrior like the rest of his group. He was unusually tall for a man of the Steppes and had the lean frame of a man born to the saddle.

    However it was his eyes that drew the most attention. They were quite unique and Xia Chi found them strangely familiar, but for the life of him he could not say why. Shrugging off his inability to remember why this might be as a sign of his advancing age, Xia Chi wondered if he should make this his last journey to the south. After all he had enough wealth to last him a dozen lifetimes and three young brides that he really should pay more attention to. Yes this will be his last trip south, after which he will retire to a life of unbridled luxury. He allowed himself to daydream about his retirement and smiled at the pleasures that he would soon be enjoying.

    ####

    Manyou looked at his boys as they sat in the library studying a map of the Northern border. Yongle was making a rough copy of the map, while Yongan noted down places of special interest, such as locations suitable for making camp or places likely for ambush. All this studying was part of their preparation for their campaign and had continued almost uninterrupted since they learnt of their mission a month ago. Both of them had been working very hard to ensure the success of their mission and Manyou could not have been prouder of them.

    The brothers had decided that Yongan would have overall command of the expedition and he had set to the task with his usual meticulous care, gathering every scrap of information about the enemy, the terrain they would be traversing through and the strengths of their allies. In the course of his studies he had learnt that the Order of the Trinity Sisters was a cult the originated from the West and had first appeared in China about five years ago. Their doctrine seemed to be the veneration of three mother-goddesses who ruled over Heaven, Earth and the Underworld, from whom they believed all other divinities were born from. The prominence they placed upon these goddesses, meant that they viewed all other religions as merely the worship of the goddesses' rebellious children and so degrading them.

    Such a radical view had seen the Order pushed out of China proper and settle in the north, where they had gained a massive following amongst those marginalised by traditional society. Recently their power had grown to such proportions, that they were levying tributes in three provinces making them even more powerful than the local Imperial representatives there. Fearing the presence of such a powerful organization, the Emperor had repeatedly sent troops to suppress them, but the Order was ruled by a trio of witches, whose awesome powers had consistently repelled the Imperial forces. In desperation the Imperial Court had asked Manyou to intervene.

    Yongle had worked just as hard as his brother, travelling to the various schools and families that would be taking part in the campaign. Using his considerable charm Yongle had done his best to build new alliances and strengthen existing ones. He learnt the names of all the prominent people involved and did his best to win them over. In the course of his duty he had spent a lot of time with Lin Zi-hsia. Officially he was giving her information on the campaign so that she could record them in the works of her father, who was compiling a record of the great events within the Martial Arts Realm. However, Manyou noticed that these meetings often ended up with the two of them having their hair and clothing in disarray.

    Now looking at his children he was loathed to disturb them, but the matter could not wait. He knocked gently on the door to get their attention before walking into the room. He placed a small wooden box on the table and opened it. Reaching in he took out a pair of metal plates. The plates were circular in shape and about half the size of a man's palm. Made of black steel they had been shaped into stylized dragons with eyes of emerald and strung through with silver chains. Beckoning the brothers forward Manyou spoke:

    “I had Reverend Mu Kong make these from shards of my former sword. Both of you are to where them around your necks and are never to take them off.”

    The brothers nodded and Manyou proceeded to put the amulets on. When he was tucking Yongan's amulet into his collar he noticed that his apprentice was already wearing one there. Lifting the charm out Manyou saw that it was a small piece of white jade worked into the shape of a wolf. The Grand Patriarch remembered handing the charm to his apprentice on his third birthday. Yongan's mother had asked him to give it to the boy as she laid on her deathbed, having sacrificed her life in giving birth to him. It was the one link Yongan had to the family that he had never known. Lifting the jade pendant off his neck Yongan tied it around his belt instead.

    As Manyou was about to take his leave a servant knocked on the door. Manyou summoned the man in and told him to speak:

    “My Lord, Lady Yee-man has arrived and is requesting an audience.”

    “I will receive her in my study. Have refreshments prepared and make sure the lady is comfortable.” ordered the Grand Patriarch.

    The servant hurried away and Manyou turned back to his children:

    “I wonder what this is about?” queried the Grand Patriarch.

    “There's only one way to find out.” replied Yongan and the three of them left for the study.

    ####

    Yongan and Yee-man Yin walked along the garden with one of the lady's maids following at a distance close enough to see, but not hear them. Yongan had been surprised when Yee-man Yin had asked to speak to him alone, but had consented to the request after obtaining his Sifu's permission. After several minutes and the necessary niceties Yee-man Yin reached into her sleeve and pulled out a letter:

    “Young sir, I would like to know if there is any mistake in this.” the lady asked as she handed the letter to Yongan.

    Yongan skimmed through the letter. It was written by him and had been sent to Yee-man Yin yesterday. It contained a request that the young lady accept the position of second in command of the campaign:

    “No Lady Yee-man, there is no mistake.” answered Yongan's

    “Young sir, if you are trying to win favour with my father you are going about it the wrong way. Your offer should be made to my brother.” said Yee-man Yin with the same false smile she had given him at Tie Lin monastery.

    “I made the decision on merit alone.” replied Yongan, his voice and expression serious.

    “Merit?”

    “I know that it was you who informed General Chen to be at Longquan city.”

    “Oh, and how did you come by that piece of information?” asked Yee-man Yin taking care not to confirm or deny the fact.

    “The General is a dear friend of my Sifu.” answered Yongan

    “And from this one incident you have determined my worth?”

    “In the last five years your brother has undertaken thirteen missions, all of which had been successful due to incredible strokes of luck. I suspect that if I investigated them I would found that a rather brilliant young lady was involved in all of them.” said Yongan as he allowed a smile to sneak onto his lips.

    Yee-man Yin's smile turned into one of genuine respect and they continued their stroll.

    ####

    Three women sat in a large circle made of white powder, their heads bowed and their lips whispering a rhythmic mantra. The women sat in a triangle exactly three feet apart from each other and rocked slowly in time with their chanting. The woman on the right could barely be called such, for she was barely into her teens, her features and limbs fresh with the bloom of youth. The woman at the centre was a matured lady, her well formed curves hinting at her bountiful nature. The woman to the left was a crone, her body so shrivelled that it appeared almost mummified. Suddenly the chanting stopped:

    “The Celestial Wolf descends from the North.” said the youth.

    “Brothers of destiny rise from the South.” answered the middle aged one.

    “Both must be stopped.” declared the crone.

    The three of them turned to face each other and nodded. With the decision made they rose and swept away the ring made from the powdered bones of thirty female babes all of whom had been sacrificed on the third day of their lives.

  10. #10
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Wolf in the Dragon's den




    With a single stab Yongan planted the pole into the earth, then moved aside to allow others to tie the ropes. The scene was repeated a dozen times across the clearing as camp was being set up and everyone did their part, without exception. Taking a moment to survey the site, Yongan was pleased with how things were progressing. Tents would be up well before nightfall, leaving plenty of time to prepare a hot supper. Although he would have preferred the march to have continued for a few more hours, his brother had advised him that the comfort of the group was just as important as the speed of their progress, after all it was no use arriving on time if they were unfit for the task.

    As if responding to his thoughts, Yongan heard his brother's laugh and turned to see Yongle with a group of men breaking the earth with shovels, as they started digging the trench that would surround the camp site. Despite the hardships of travelling, Yongle was in his usual cheerful mood and his good humour was infectious as the men around him set to their task with wide grins. Another voice from the other side of camp drew his attention and Yongan turned to see Yee-man Yin organizing the cook fires for the night's meal. The woman had justified his faith in her from the moment she had accepted his offer. She had a talent for anticipating the group's needs and delegating exactly the right people to meet those needs, making Yongan wonder how he had ever got by without her.

    Someone swore loudly and as he looked in the direction of the shout Yongan's good mood evaporated. If there was anyone that could be called dead weight within the group it was Yee-man Gao. The man had been in a sour mood ever since Yongan had made him dismiss his man servants, stating that non-combatants were not allowed. Ever since then Yee-man Gao had been a constant source of irritation, questioning every command, making snide remarks behind Yongan's back and doing as little work as possible. Right now he was shouting at a man carrying a handful of firewood who had bumped into him.

    But just as Yongan was about to intervene, Yee-man Yin walked swiftly across the camp site and gently pulled her brother away from the unfortunate man. The siblings exchanged words with Yee-man Gao making wild gestures of annoyance and Yee-man Yin speaking quietly, as she attempted to pacify him. After several moments Yee-man Gao settled down and grudgingly went back to work. With the situation handled Yongan turned back to where the command tent was being erected. The work was well under way and so he decided to seek out the priest Zhi Da. The holy man was one of ten warrior-priests that the Order of the Broken Sword had contributed to the campaign. They acted as the source of protection against sorcerous attacks and the main means of communication.

    Each priest was allocated to one of the ten groups of fifty warriors that made up the expedition and used their magic to keep in contact with each other. Of the rest of the warriors, three groups made the greatest contributions. The Yip and Yee-man families each sent a hundred men, while another power family, the Yans sent fifty warriors. Yongan was especially thankful for the contribution of the Yans, for they were famous for their ability in using Qi to manipulate their body weight, thus making them ideal scouts. With the three families accounting for half of the expedition's numbers the rest were made up of warriors from other schools and families.

    Yongan found Zhi Da at the edge of the camp, where he was preparing to perform the rituals needed to ward away harmful magic. A small incense burner was placed on the ground in front of the kneeling priest, who had his hands clasped in a prayer invoking the protection of the gods. Quietly Zhi Da started reciting the mantra intended to attract the gods' attention. Slowly the holy man felt the divine power well up within him and started making a series of complex hand gestures to manipulate the power into a protective shield around the camp. Yongan stood quietly and waited for the ritual to be completed before making his presence known:

    “Holy man.” greeted Yongan with a bow.

    Zhi Da stood and returned the greeting. In his early forties he was short and lean, with a balding scalp. Like the rest of his Order he was dressed in a simple grey and black robe devoid of adornments:

    “You wished to see me Young Sir.”

    “Yes. I wanted to ask you to make contact with your brethren.” replied Yongan.

    “Certainly, I will perform the ritual immediately.” replied the priest.

    Yongan nodded his thanks, then saw a man emerge from the trees and come running towards the camp site. Recognizing him as one of five the scouts he had sent out, Yongan called him over to receive his report:

    “Young sir, there is a caravan being attacked in the woods. The rest of my group sent me back to report while they kept an eye on the situation.” reported the scout.

    “What are the numbers involved?” asked Yongan.

    “There are about two dozen men in the caravan and they are being attacked by a force nearly double their size.” replied the scout.

    Yongan nodded: “Go into the camp and find my brother. Have him assemble twenty men. I will be there shortly.” ordered Yongan.

    As the scout left Yongan turned back to the priest:

    “Holy one, it would seem that you will need to perform your ritual back at camp.” said Yongan.

    Zhi Da nodded and gathered up his incense burner before following the young man back to camp. On their arrival Yongan saw his brother giving the scout a drink while questioning the man about what he had seen, while Yee-man Yin was gathering the men he had asked for. Leaving the young lady in command, Yongan and his brother along with the twenty warriors, followed the scout into the wood. They had travelled for about half an hour when the sounds of fighting could be heard. Shouts and screams echoed through the woods, accompanied by the ring of steel on steel. Yongan's group soon found the rest of the scouts, who were hiding in the trees near a dirt trail where the caravan had been attacked.

    Instructing his men to wait, Yongan and Yongle crept through the undergrowth until the trail came into view. They saw a group of horsemen formed into a loose circle around a pack of baying camels. The caravan was surrounded by a ring of men armed with spears and wicker shields who were using the forest for cover. The thick trees made it difficult for the horsemen to mount an effective charge and so they were reduced to shooting at their attackers with their composite bows, but the wicker shields were proving an effective barrier against the arrows. Yongan studied the scene in detail until he found what he was looking for, then tapping his brother on the shoulder he indicated that they should return to their men and the brothers silently crept back they way the had come.

    ####

    Yongle, along with his men took their position and waited for Yongan's signal. His brother's plan had been good but risky, with the men broken into four groups of five they would attack from all sides. However if the enemy did not break quickly, then they would be quickly overwhelmed. Yongle felt his hand sweating from where he clutched the hilt of his sheathed sword, his brother having ordered all weapons to remain undrawn until the last moment for fear of alerting their enemy. Quickly Yongle wiped his hand on his clothes, less his blade slip from his grip when he drew it. Then the time for nervousness ended, a flash of metal from the other side of the trail told him that Yongan had made his move.

    In an instant twenty blades were drawn and twenty men shouted at the top of their voices making it sound like they were ten times their actual numbers. Pouncing upon the unsuspecting spear-men they wreaked havoc, cutting down stunned men before they even knew they were under attack. Yongle carved through the enemy like a shark through the waves, leaving a trail of butchered bodies in his wake. Although this was not his first battle, he still felt the thrill of combat as if anew. His senses were razor sharp as he hacked into men with blinding speed, severing limbs and ending lives with every stroke. The sensation of having the power of life and death was intoxicating, almost addictive and Yongle had to fight a separate battle in his mind so as to not be consumed by the red mist.

    Then his target came into view, a big burly man holding a massive bronze club. The man was clearly the leader of the ambushers and Yongan had ordered his brother to kill him, reasoning that the body could not survive without the head. Yongle's gaze met the man's and the unspoken challenge with given and accept. Bellowing like an enraged bull the man took a two handed grip on his weapon and charged. Grinning like a tiger Yongle leapt to meet his opponent. Tempered steel hammered into heavy bronze and the club-wielder took a step back, a look of shock on his face at being forced back by a man barely half his weight. Yongle pursued the man mercilessly determined not to give him time to recover.

    Forced onto the defensive the man knew he was doomed, for his large weapon was ill suited for this kind of fight. Desperately he screamed for help, but his men were preoccupied with keeping their own lives and paid him no heed. Before long the tempest that was Yongle's sword found its mark and the man fell to his knees, his life blood pouring from his open stomach. Yongle loomed over the man ready to deliver the final blow when a blood curdling noise came from the caravan. The howls of a thousand wolves erupted from the caravan striking fear into all who heard it. Spectral versions of the predators appeared around the caravan glowing an ethereal green before rushing forward. Men screamed as the ghostly wolves devoured them tearing out throats, rippling open stomachs and biting off limbs.

    Incredibly the other worldly beasts only attacked the spear-men, leaving the caravan's rescuers unmolested. It was too much for the ambushers and those who still could fled into the woods with the ghostly beasts on their trail. With the danger passed Yongle stared at the caravan, wondering whom amongst them had such power. Three riders stepped from the caravan and trotted slowly forwards. Yongle felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see his brother:

    “Shall we go see who we have rescued?” asked Yongan, his voice steady and his lips lifted in a reassuring smile. His brother's calm demeanour steadied his own nerves and together the Yip brothers went to meet the riders.

    The three riders dismounted as the brothers approached and met their rescuers standing in a line. Yongan was surprised to discover that he knew one of them. Standing in the centre was Xia Chi, a long-term trading partner of the Yip family and familiar enough with the brothers that they greeted him as uncle. The men flanking the merchant were unknown to him. One of them was a wiry old man in his late seventies. He scowled at the brothers as if annoyed by their presence, but Yongan could think of no reason why he should be. The other was well into middle age, but the knotted muscles on his arms showed that his fighting days were far from behind him. Yongan blinked in surprise as he met his gaze and found his own emerald eyes staring back at him.

    Xia Chi smiled broadly as he greeted the brothers:

    “Young sirs, what happy coincidence to find you here.” he said cheerfully.

    “Uncle.” greeted the brothers.

    Turning to his companions the merchant introduced the old man as Kan Xing and the other as Gao Tianci. After exchanging greetings Yongle invited Xia Chi and his companions to their camp, an invitation that was gladly accepted by the merchant.

    ####

    Yongan filled Kan Xing's and Gao Tianci's wooden bowls as they sat before a camp fire with an iron cauldron bubbling above it. Kan Xing asked if there was anything more bracing to drink and Yongan apologized that they did not have anything, for he had forbidden any of his men to consume alcohol. Kan Xing seemed about to speak but Gao Tianci cut him off:

    “Please do not mind my friend. Us men of the North are used to the warmth of strong drinks, but we are very grateful for your hospitality and rescue.” He spoke in a gentle but clear voice accompanied by a charming smile. His Chinese was pronounced with care and very slightly accented, making it clear that it was not his native tongue.

    “You are most welcome my friend, but you are being modest. That spell I witnessed shows that you hardly needed rescuing.” replied Yongan returning the smile.

    From the corner of his eye Yongan saw Kan Xing smiling smugly at Yongan's words and this told him that the old man had performed the spell. Gao Tianci's eyes darted to his companion and saw the same look Yongan had spotted. The old man's smile faltered and he stared deeply into his bowl. Gao Tianci turned back to Yongan:

    “Young sir is too kind. It was merely a little trick and unworthy of your praise.” The man seemed determined to downplay his group's ability and Yongan sensed that it would be a fruitless task to try and pry any more information from him.

    Suddenly Gao Tinaci's eyes went to Yongan's waist. Following his gaze Yongan saw that he was looking at the jade wolf hanging form his belt. Gao Tianci blinked and turned back to Yongan's face:

    “Forgive me young sir, but may I enquire as to where you acquired that pendant.” His smile was still there as was his gentle tone, but Yongan detected a slight tightening of his voice.

    “My mother left it to me.” replied Yongan.

    “And your mother's name is.” asked Gao Tianci, as a trace of hardness entered his eyes.

    “I am afraid I do not know. She passed away when I was born.” answered Yongan. He felt a little peeved at the progressively more personal questions.

    As if catching his mood Gao Tianci's eyes softened:

    “I am sorry for being so intrusive, it is just that your pendant seems to be of Mongolian design which piqued my curiosity. Please forgive me.” The words were spoken with a small nod of apology.

    Yongan accepted the apology and the rest of the nights conversation passed by with causal small talk, although Yongan did notice Gao Tianci would stare at him intensely when he thought he was not looking. The stare was not hostile, but curious as is the man was trying to make up his mind about him.

    ####

    Yongan entered the tent he shared with his brother to find Yongle and Zhi Da waiting for him:

    “Holy One.” he addressed the priest with a nod.

    “Young sir. As you commanded I have observed our guests and can say with certainty that the man called Kan Xing is definitely a spell-caster and one of considerable power.” reported the priest.

    “How does his powers compare to yours?” asked Yongan.

    “From your brother's description of his spell, I would say he is much more potent than myself.”

    Yongan took a moment to think, then turned to Yongle:

    “Notify Lady Yee-man to place a discreet guard on our guests.” then Yongan turned to Zhi Da: “Holy One, please do whatever you can to protect the camp.”

    Having received their orders Yongle and Zhi Da left the tent, leaving Yongan to settle down for a sleepless night.

    ####

    Gao Tinaci stared after Yongan as he and his men continued on the journey North, while his own group prepared to travel South. Hearing footsteps approach he turned to see Kan Xing walking up to him:

    “Could it be him?” asked the old man.

    “He is of the right age and there is no mistaking his eyes or the pendant.” replied Gao Tianci.

    “Then why did you...”

    “We have a mission to complete and I will not delay it for personal matters.” Gai Tianci's words were spoken as a statement not an explanation.

    Knowing that he did not want to discuss the matter any further, Kan Xing turned and walked away leaving Gao Tinaci to stare after the departing men with a look that could almost be longing.

    ####

    “The Celestial Wolf has escaped our trap.” declared the youthful witch.

    “And has met the Brothers of destiny.” said the middle age witch.

    “Now the shaman has shielded the Wolf from our divining.” stated the old witch.

    “We must concentrate our efforts on the Brothers of destiny. They are the immediate threat.” said the youth.

    The other two nodded their agreement and the three witches started discussing how best to do this.

  11. #11
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Best laid Plans




    Yee-man Gao stoked the fire and stared gloomily into the flames, wishing with all his heart that the stick was a sword and the flames Yongan's heart. He knew for certain, that the foreign spawn had chosen this freezing night to have him take the night-watch and the fact that he had to obey him rankled him no end. For the hundredth time he wondered what the Elders were thinking when they appointed that brat to lead this expedition instead of him. How could they have given the honour to a barbarian, while he the scion of the noblest family was forced to take orders from him. Then again those old fools had appointed the son of a washerwoman as the Grand Patriarch, so he guessed he should be surprised at their stupidity.

    The whole idea of a night watch was ridiculous, after all who would dare attack them, thought Yee-man Gao to himself. Just the mere mention of his family name would be enough to strike fear into the hearts of most men, but the fact that Yongan had decided to set one anyway proved his timidness and unworthiness to lead. Suddenly a movement in the trees caught his attention. At first he wanted to dismiss it as the wind or some forest creature, however if it turned out to be something more he did not want to give that brat the opportunity to accuse his of dereliction of duty. Picking up a torch he went to investigate. Initially he found nothing and was about to return to the fire, then he glanced down and saw the print of a boot on the wet grass.

    Yee-man Gao made a quick search of the area and soon found a trail. It lead away from the camp and was quite broken, showing that whoever made it had considerable skills in stealth. However being a gentlemen, Yee-man Gao was well versed in hunting and could follow it easily. Quickly he went back to the group of ten that made up the night watch. Telling one man to report to the command tent he lead the rest of the group into the woods making sure to mark his route. It was not long before they found a small hunter's lodge, where the window glowed with candlelight. Signalling his men to follow Yee-man Gao drew his sword and kicked the door down before charging in.

    ####

    Yongle whipped his sword from its scabbard as he spun around. Behind him came the rustling of clothes and he knew that Zi-hsia was reaching for her throwing knives. Quickly he shot a hand in front of her as he recognized Yee-man Gao and his men as they burst through the door. For a moment the eleven of them stared at each other in silent shock, until Yongle smiled:

    “Young sir, is there something I can do for you?” he asked in an amused voice.

    “Ah...I thought...no forget it. I'll see you back at camp.” stammered Yee-man Gao in confusion, before he hustled his men out.

    Yongle turned back to his companion, the smile still on his face:

    “It would seem my dear, that our liaison will have to be cut short. I will see you soon.” he said following his words with a quick kiss her to cheek. But just as he was pulling away, Zi-hsia wrapped her arm around his neck and took him in a passionate kiss on the lips.

    Forcing down the heat rising in his body, Yongle tore himself from her embrace and left the lodge. Returning to camp he was welcomed by a barrage of smirks and whispers, making it clear Yee-man Gao had spread the word of his dalliance with Zi-hsia. The flap of his tent flung open and Yongan stepped out, his face grim:

    “Yongle! In here now.” he commanded before turning around and walking back in.

    Yee-man Gao smiled at his rivals embarrassment. He was going to have a lot of fun milking this incident.

    ####

    Xia Chi stared up at the massive bronze gates and felt his heart miss a beat. Despite all his years trading with the Chinese he had only seen the Imperial Palace from a distance, let alone been invited within it. But here he was, dressed in his finest sable fur waiting to be welcomed into the residence of the Dragon Emperor. The great gates were truly a wonder, polished to a mirror shine they glittered like gold in the morning sun. The walls to either sides of the gates were nine feet high and painted a bright red, while the roof seemed to have been tiled by gold. Such opulence could have only been afforded by the very richest of rulers.

    Standing at the foot of the gates was the Dragon Emperor and his entourage of ninety nine officials. The officials were made up of thirty three court officials, thirty three military officers and thirty three religious leaders, all of them were dressed in the finest clothes and shone as brightly as the gates. But the most dazzling figure by far was the Emperor himself. Dressed in a long golden silk robe, studded with nine hundred and ninety nine pearls he competed with the Sun for brilliance. More pearls hung from his golden crown looking like a veil of stars, shielding his divine face from the unworthy gaze of the commoners.

    Xia Chi looked at his own party and knew that in their own way the people of the Steppes were as impressive as the Chinese. They were also one hundred in number made up from members of the Khan's emissary, the Mongolian ambassador, his staff and Xia Chi himself. All were dressed in the rarest of furs, decorated in precious metals and gems any one of which would have fed a common family through many generations. But like the Chinese, one amongst them stood out. The man Xia Chi had known as Gao Tianci had revealed himself to be Tianke Khan on arrival at the Mongolian Embassy. Xia Chi had thought he was going to faint when he discovered this. He had sat around the same fire, drank and joked with the most powerful man in his people's history and been completely ignorant of the fact.

    The Khan however had not made the slightest of changes in his attitude towards old merchant. He still talked to him as a respected elder, asking Xia Chi to tell him about his travels and laughing at his rude jokes. Today however Tianke was all seriousness and appeared as much a god as the Emperor did. Dressed in a cloak of pure gold skilfully spun to look like fur, he practically shone with his own light. On his lead was a golden crown stubbed with gems that refracted the Sun in a dazzling display of colours.

    As the Mongolian party reached the gates, Emperor and Khan stepped forward, each accompanied by a single attendant whom held a box. As demanded by protocol the Emperor spoke first:

    “Great Khan, I welcome you to my land and home. May my hospitality be worthy of the honour you have paid us.” said the Emperor in Mongolian.

    “Great Emperor, I am humbled by your generosity. Please accept this insignificant gift as the smallest token of the esteem with which I hold you.” replied the Khan in Chinese.

    The Khan's attendance, the man known as Kan Xing stepped forward and opened the box revealing a fur cloak. The skin was as white as snow without even the smallest speck of dirt to blemish its flawless surface. The Emperor's eyes widened in awe and stretching out his fingers he gently touched the fur as he would the delicate skin of his most beautiful concubines. The fur rippled like water upon being touched and the Emperor quickly withdrew his hand amazed by what he had seen. The cloak was made from the skin of the Snow-riding fox, an animal as rare as the legendary phoenix. Said to ride the winds of snow storms, hundreds of years could pass by before anyone could catch a single glimpse of the creature. To make such a cloak that the Khan was presenting to the Emperor would have taken dozens of such foxes.

    But it was not just the rareness of the gift that made in valuable, for part of the animal's magic was retained in its fur and whoever wore it would be able to travel with the speed of the wind, leaping over rooftops and riding the breeze with ease. Clearly pleased with the gift the Emperor beckoned his own attendant forward:

    “Great Khan, there are no words sufficient to express my gratitude for your gift. Please accept this unworthy token of our eternal friendship.”

    The Chinese attendant opened the box and at first the Khan thought it was empty, then the sunlight struck the centre of the box and the faintest outline of a cloak could be made out. Woven from the cocoon of the Divine-worm, the cloak was as thin as mist and weighed as much. The skill needed to work such a fine material begged imagination making this a truly unique creation. Yet like the Khan's gift, the Emperor's also had a magical quality to it, for the near invisible silk cloak was stronger than any armour forged from metal and was proof against any sharp weapons.

    Tianke Khan returned flattering words of gratitude. Then side by side, Khan and Emperor entered the Palace as brother monarchs.

  12. #12
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Raven's Peak



    Yongan and his men arrived at the field just before midday and found the vanguard already there preparing camp. The hundred strong advance guard had arrived at the designated meeting point in the morning and in accordance with Yongan's orders were making preparation for the arrival of the rest of the army. Yongan knew that the bulk of his forces would trickle in as the day progressed with the final one hundred rearguard due to arrive by the evening. This field had been chosen as the rendezvous point as it was at the foot of Raven's Peak, headquarters to the Order of the Trinity Sisters. Casting his gaze upwards he studied the mountain with the summit that dipped like a bird's beak, giving the place its name. It was a perfect location to fortify with only a few treacherous paths snaking up to the summit where a temple-fortress had been built.

    After months of travelling they had finally arrived, but Yongan felt no elation for he knew that the real mission would start now. Taking the peak would be difficult bloody work and victory was by no means assured. But Yongan kept all his doubts from his face and lead his men onto the field.

    ####

    “I say we take advantage of our enemy's mistake and strike. NOW!” demanded Yee-man Gao.

    Yongan surveyed the command tent observing the reaction to Yee-man Gao's words. The last of the troops had arrived a couple of hours before dusk and the expeditions leaders had just gathered in the tent, when a scout had reported that the disciples of the Order of the Trinity Sisters had left their temple-fortress and were making their way towards the camp. The Order's two hundred strong army had stopped within sight of the enemy and started making camp, paying no heed to the enemy so close by. This turn of events had caught the expedition's leaders by surprise and now they all turned to Yongan for guidance. However it was Yongle who answered:

    “So says the fool who rushes in.” he said with a chuckle.

    “It would seem your dalliance with Lady Lin has unmanned you.” snapped Yee-man Gao.

    Yongan placed a hand on his brother's shoulder pre-empting any retaliation from him, before answering Yee-man Gao:

    “Young sir, we are deep within enemy territory. The situation calls for caution not valour.”

    “I would say that cowardice runs in your family, but that would be...” Yee-man Gao let his words trail off as he smirked at his rival.

    Yongan felt his brother tense under his hand and tightened his grip. But before he could reply Yee-man Yin rebuked her brother:

    “Brother, you will show the proper respect to our commander.” her voice was as hard as ice just like the stare she gave her sibling.

    “If he is too timid to act, then he does not deserve to lead.” barked Yee-man Gao.

    Yee-man Yin was about to reply when Yongan held up a hand and addressed the leaders:

    “So far our journey has been completely without incident. Not a single attempt had been made to hamper our progress and now the enemy has left their well fortified position to meet us here. This means one of two things. Either our enemies are idiots and completely lacking in common sense. Or they are prepared for us.”

    “So what does our fearless leader propose?” asked Yee-man Gao, his voice thick with sarcasm.

    “We need to move them from their prepared position. If we move around them and cut them off from Raven's Peak, we will force them to either fight on ground of our choosing or retreat back onto the peak where we can contain them.” answered Yongan. His words met with general agreement from the rest of the leaders, but Yee-man Gao was not prepared to concede defeat so easily:

    “My forces will not be party to such a cowardly tactic.”

    “They are not your forces, they are mine by authority of the Grand Patriarch. Are you challenging that authority.” said Yongan, his voice barely a whisper, but full of menace.

    Silence filled the tent and everyone waited for Yee-man Gao to respond. The man's face turned red with rage at having been outmanoeuvred. If he opposed Yongan now, he would set himself against the office of the Grand Patriarch which would result in his family being ostracised from the rest of the Martial Arts realm. However Yee-man Gao was saved from answering by the intervention of his sister:

    “Young sir, please do not misunderstand. We hold no office in higher regard than that of the Grand Patriarch. Of course we will respect your decision and carry out our duty.” said Yee-man Yin, her voice clear and respectful.

    With Yee-man Yin's words the discussion turned to how they would mobilise the troops. For the rest of the meeting Yee-man Gao sat in silence, smouldering on his humiliation and imagining all the ways he could get back at his rival.

    ####

    Yongan and his brother looked over a map as they planned for the morrow's actions. It had been decided to let the men have a night's rest in order to recover from their long march. Night watches had been set up and fortifications had been raised in case of a sneak attack by the enemy. The tent flap flew open and Yee-man Yin came rushing in, concern written on her face:

    “Young sir, my brother has launched an attack on the enemy!” she said to Yongan.

    “He has what!?” asked a startled Yongan.

    “He managed to convince nearly two hundred men to accompany him. I only found out when I went to his tent and found it empty. While looking for him a ran into a sentry who was hurrying to report seeing them leave in the direction of the enemy.”

    Yongan turned to his brother:

    “Gather as many of the Yans as you can and go bring Yee-man Gao back. If he resists, use force. However if he has already engaged the enemy then aid him.” Yongle nodded his understanding and rushed out of the tent. Next Yongan turned to the lady:

    “Have everyone roused. We march immediately.” He commanded.

    “I do not want to sound callous, but is it really wise to risk more lives by marching into a trap?”

    “I cannot risk loosing nearly half my forces and besides the damage to moral for doing nothing could be as disastrous as stepping into the trap.” replied Yongan.

    Without further argument Yee-man Yin left to carry out her orders. Yongan gave himself a moment to curse Yee-man Gao and swear to the Heavens that he would thrash that brat to within an inch of his life when this was over, before he hurried out to help organize the troops.

    ####

    His sword lashed out and three throats were slit, spraying him with blood. Yee-man Gao shielded his eyes with a hand before seeking his next opponent. A wolfish grin split his lips as he surveyed the scene of carnage he had created. The attack was going well, the enemy having been caught off guard were in disarray, while his own forces pressed deep into their camp, slaughtering all before them. Yee-man Gao felt the familiar thrill of battle, truly there was no purer expression of his superiority than to have his enemies lying dead at his feet. Let that timid Yip Yongan cower in his tent, while he gained the glory for vanquishing their foe. He would show those decrepit old fools their mistake in appointing that foreign spawn above him and revel in the praise they will inevitably shower upon him.

    Yee-man Gao was brought out of dreams of glory when he spotted the prey he was seeking. Three hooded figures huddled on top of a small ridge nearby, surrounded by a shield wall. Behind the figures towered a single warrior, dressed in black armour darker even than the night. To look at him gave one the same feeling of dredge as a condemned man would feel when staring at the gallows. Immediately Yee-man Gao knew that the hooded figures were the Three Witches and his heart soared with excitement at the prospect of killing them. With a shout he caught the attention of the men around him, then he charged the ridge, followed by thirty warriors who had answered his command.

    Like an avalanche cascading down a mountain, Yee-man Gao's party swelled in numbers as he got closer and closer to his prey. Finally when he was only a few yards from the shield wall he let out a lusty battle cry that was echoed in a hundred throats. The triumphant roar however was abruptly stopped as a wall sprang up between the two groups. Yee-man Gao was able to throw himself into the air inches before hitting the wall, but the men behind him were not so lucky. Thorns as thick as human limbs and as sharp as spears impaled most the front rank, killing dozens in the blink of an eye, while the few who were quick enough to halt found themselves pushed to their deaths by those following. But the deadly wall was not yet finished, as vines the size of bull whips lashed out and wrapped around more troops like the tentacles of a gigantic beast, before pulling them towards a deadly embrace.

    Summoning his Qi, Yee-man Gao drifted back towards his surviving men and landed amongst a sea of chaos. Where moments before there was a victorious army, there now stood a panicked mob trying to make sense of the sudden reversal. As Yee-man Gao looked around for the pair of warrior-priests that had accompanied his men, hoping that they cold overcome the plant wall, disaster struck again. The enemy that he had thought were broken had rallied and were pressing his own men from both flanks. Trapped between the enemy troops and the wall of thorns the situation seemed hopeless. Yee-man Gao felt panic swell in his heart, and desperately sought an escape route as his ring of men thinned at an alarming rate.

    There was a cry from the warrior beside him and he turned to the man staring in terror at the sky. Dozens of dark figures descended from above, the steel blades in their hands glinting like falling stars. Yee-man Gao raised his sword and prepared to defend himself, but was stunned when the new arrivals fell on the enemy at the rear of his army. Crashing down like a comet the carved a path through the enemy line, creating an escape route for the embattled warriors. Yee-man Gao's heart leapt as he saw Yip Yongle fighting at the forefront, surprised at the novel sensation of being glad to see his rival:

    “RETREAT!” shouted Yip Yongle, his voice enhanced by Qi to carry over the noise of battle.

    Yee-man Gao's men needed no further encouragement and quickly fled through the path created by Yip Yongle and his men. As he escaped from the trap Yee-man Gao noticed that the men running beside him were the warrior-priests he had previously been searching for, but he had no time to berate them, as suddenly the men in front of him came to a dead stop. As he looked for the cause he saw a large group of men baring their way and despaired as he thought they were more enemy troops. But his fears were unfounded as he saw Yip Yongan and his sister at the head of the army. Cheers rang out amongst his men as they turned once more and laid into their foes with renewed vigour. The priests that had been flanking Yee-man Gao broke away and ran towards their own brethren as they emerged from the new army.

    The ten priests formed a spearhead with Zhi Da at its point. As one they lifted their open hands, palms facing upwards, to chest height. Golden flames danced along each priest's hands then streaked outwards to connect with one another creating an arrowhead of magic fire. Together the ten priests pushed their palms forward and the flaming arrowhead soared over the heads of the battling men and hurtled towards the wall of thorns. With a roar like that of a hungry dragon the flames engulfed the wall and quickly reduced to ash that blew away in the wind. The tide of battle changed once more and the followers of the heretical Order found themselves back on the defensive as the swollen ranks of their enemy pressed forward.

    ####

    Yongle hacked at the mass of warriors before him, his heavy sword rising and falling like a hail of deafly rain. His body was a blur as he powered through his enemy with wild abandonment and he felt the red mist rising once more. With a great effort of will he drew himself back from the edge and focussed on his goal. He was nearly at the shield wall at the foot of the ridge. Channelling his Qi he prepared to leap the dozen or so feet that would take him beyond the shield wall allowing him to attack it from behind. But just as he was about to make the great leap, his nostrils were assaulted by a stomach churning stench. The smell was that of rotting flesh and it broke his concentration, looking around he saw men clamping hands to their mouths in an attempt to stop gagging.

    The source of the smell showed itself as a wave of filth appeared above the ridge and came washing down towards him. Brownish red in colour, the wave was made of putrid blood and rotted offal that bubbled as it drew ever closer. Yongle lifted his blade before him, even though he knew the futility of the gesture. Suddenly the skin on his chest prickled with heat and the wave parted before him, without so much as a drop landing on him. Reaching up he felt the amulet his father had given him tingling with heat and knew that it had warded him form the spell. The men around him however were not so lucky and dozens dropped to ground their flesh boiling with disease. Feeling a build up of pressure from behind, he risked a quick glimpse over his shoulder and saw the warrior-priests forming a circle. Together they thrust their hands skywards and a cleansing wind sprung up, whipping up the diseased wave and scattering it.

    Raising his sword above his head Yongle infused the blade with his Qi making the metal shine like a star, rallying those around them. A group of twenty swordsmen formed up around him and with a defiant roar they threw themselves at the shield wall. Yongle's glowing blade came down cutting a shield and its wielder neatly in half. Another warrior took the man's place and Yongle lunged his sword forward punching through the shield and into the man's heart. Around him the swordsmen had forced a breach in the shield wall and was trying to widen it so that their comrades that followed could take advantage of it. Yongle knew that victory was within his grasp and redoubled his efforts. Suddenly a shadow fell over him and he looked up to see the large warrior that had been standing with the witches come swooping down towards him.

    Frantically he backed away and narrowly avoided being split by a heavy axe. The weapon slammed into the ground and power rippled outwards clearing a space of twenty feet from the point of impact. Men were sent flying by the ripple and Yongle had to use his Qi to root himself to the ground. As the dust settled the axeman rose and Yongle studied his foe. The man was huge, taller even than his brother and much broader. His dark armour covered his shoulders and torso, while a circular helmet covered his face except for his chin and mouth. The axe in his hand had a butterfly blade and a spiked top making it effective for both slashing and thrusting. Runes had been cut deep into the blade and they glowed an angry red, letting Yongle know that he faced mystical as well as physical opposition. However before the two of them could engage there came a scream from the rear of Yongle's army.

    Resisting the urge to look behind Yongle concentrated on the enemy before him, casting aside any concerns for whatever new horrors that now assailed his forces.

    ####

    Yongan spun around and saw grey fingers dig their way free of the earth. Swiftly the rest of the body emerged revealing the dead form of a man with an arcane symbol etched into its forehead. The scene was repeated across the rear of his army and he forced down his terror at the unholy sight. Slashing down with his blade he separated the corpse's head from its shoulders, but still it continued to rise, its skeletal fingers seeking human flesh. Yongan could feel the fear spreading through the ranks of his men and knew something had to be done quickly. Then as if in answer to his prayers there came a great uproar from the rear of the enemy. Yongan smiled at the fruition of his plan and although he did not turn around he knew victory was his.

    ####

    Hundreds of men came pouring into the rear of the disciples of the Order of the Trinity Sisters causing mass panic amongst them. The new arrivals were dressed in rags and armed with sharpened bamboo sticks, but fought with the skills of seasoned warriors. At their front was Lin Zi-hsia her throwing knives striking at the enemy with deadly accuracy. Where her blades flew another acolyte of the Order died. Quickly the vagabond warriors made for the ridge and there was nothing the surviving members of the Order could do to stop them. However just as the first of them stepped onto the ridge there was a massive explosion and a huge cloud of black smoke enveloped the ridge. After several moments the smoke cleared and the ridge was empty its hooded occupants having vanished.

    ####

    Yongle dodged to the side letting the descending axe pass him by, then sent his own blade in a decapitating arc at his opponent. Sparks flew as the blade was blocked by the metal shaft and Yongle leapt back as the axehead was thrust at his face. Yongle battled back and forth with his opponent pleased that he had found someone whose skill and ferocity matched his own. Blows that would have killed a dozen men were traded at lighting speed but still neither combatants could gain the upper hand. The stalemate was finally broken when Yongle leapt over a swipe that would have cut his legs away and brought his blade down in a skull splitting arc. The sword was met once more by the metal shaft, but this time Yongle's weapon shattered and he was sent reeling backwards through the air, to land heavily.

    The axeman stalked forward eager to end the fight, but found his way blocked by Yongan. With the witches fled, the animated corpses had fallen back to their lifeless state allowing him to come to his brother's aid. With a roar the axeman charged, his axe swinging in glittering circles. Yongan ducked and weaved avoiding the axe, his own sword striking out viper fast as he took advantage of every opening in his opponent's attack. The axeman however had preternatural reflexes and would always bring his weapon back just in time to ward away Yongan's blows. Finally after exchanging dozens of blows the axeman was able to catch Yongan's sword between the axe's blade and spike. The two of them strained against each other pouring all of their strength into the contest. Yongan's sword glowed white hot as he channelled his Qi into the metal, while the runes of the axe burnt an inferno red.

    Suddenly the sword snapped and Yongan found himself unarmed. Grinning wickedly the axeman advanced. But before he could strike he felt a displacement of air from behind and hurled himself to the side, a fraction of a second before a heavy jade cudgel came crashing down on the spot where he had stood. Rolling to his feet the axeman stared at a man dressed in rags, with unkempt grey hair and a scruffy beard. Driven to a mad fury by being denied his prey twice, the axeman leapt forward bringing his axe down to bisect the man. The axe was stopped dead by the cudgel an inch away from the man's head and try as he may the axeman could not move it. The vagabond struck out with his free hand and sent a palm strike that was so fast that it ignited the air, wreathing his hand in fire.

    The axeman took the blow on his arm guard and was hurled high into the sky, the heat from the blow penetrating even the metal. However as the man sailed through the air a dark cloud enveloped him and he vanished from sight. Yongan stared at his rescuer, then saluted sharply:

    “My thanks Guild Master Dao.” he said to the vagabond.

    The Guild Master smiled and gave a quick nod before returning to the fray leaving Yongan to tend to his brother.

  13. #13
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    The sound of merriment echoed through the temple-fortress' great hall. With their leaders fled, the surviving members of the Order of the Trinity Sisters had swiftly broken, leaving the way open to the temple-fortress. Yongan and his forces had quickly taken over the structure and subdued the few remaining occupants. As soon as they entered, the brothers had divided with Yongan searching for the Order's treasury while Yongle gathered up the enemy survivors. Both brothers had succeeded in their tasks, with the treasury now being guarded by Yip family retainers and the remaining Order members restrained but otherwise unmolested. The prisoners would soon be handed over to the local authorities who would also undertake the task of mopping any residual forces of the Order.

    The great hall was where the Order had celebrated its festivals and was suitably furnished for such a function. Decorated with gold and jade, it was spacious enough to accommodate dozens of revellers. At the head of the hall were three ivory thrones, where once the three witches had sat, now occupied by the leaders of the alliance. Yongan sat on the central throne, with Guild Master Dao to his right and Yee-man Yin to his left. The other leaders of the alliance and the elders of Guild Master Dao's Beggar Guild, sat at the tables dotted around the hall. Yongle sat with Zi-hsia and whispered sweet nothings into her ears, making her giggle even as she tried to bandage his wounded arm. Yee-man Yin saw Yongan looking in his brother's direction and could not resist commenting:

    “That is hardly proper behaviour.” she said with a grin that robbed her words of any malice.

    Yongan turned to her and Yee-man Yin was taken aback by the smile on his face. Gone was the calculating politician who had sparred words with her at Tie Lin monastery and the ruthless leader of the expedition. In his place was a young man taking delight in his siblings happiness. But the moment passed and Yongan's emerald eyes hardened as he put on the fake smile that was his mask:

    “What else can an older sibling do, but indulge the whims of their younger.” Yongan replied.

    A strange feeling of disappointment settled on Yee-man Yin as she saw Yongan put up his defences, but she subdued her feeling and changed the subject:

    “So how long have you had this arrangement with Guild Master Dao?” she asked.

    “My brother and Lady Lin had been in communication with the Guild Master since the beginning.” Yongan replied, still keeping his fake smile.

    Yee-man Yin fought down the resentment building in her heart. As his second in command she should have been privy to his dealings with the Guild, but the fact that he had kept her in the dark showed how little he trusted her. But Yee-man Yin was determined to show not the slightest hint of her hurt, but instead she mirrored his fake smile before congratulating him on his foresight. After a moment she let her smile fall and she spoke with all seriousness:

    “Young sir, as loath as I am to sour tonight's celebrations there is a matter that must be attended to.”

    Yongan nodded his understanding. Rising to her feet Yee-man Yin called for silence, her Qi enhanced voice carrying over the noise of the hall. When all were quiet she issued a command and the doors of the hall were swung open. A solitary figure strolled in, his clothes torn and bloody. Stopping at the foot of the thrones Yee-man Gao stared Yongan in the eye:

    “Yee-man Gao, did you or did you not disobey a direct order?” Yongan asked.

    “I did.” Yee-man Gao replied, his voice devoid of emotions, for his sister had warned him beforehand to keep his answers truthful and short. The both of them knew how serious the situation was and even Yee-man Gao was sensible enough to suppress his normally antagonistic attitude towards Yongan.

    Yongan turned to Yee-man Yin:

    “How many people did we lose?”

    “One hundred and fifty eight.” she replied.

    “One hundred and fifty eight lives lost because you could not obey orders. Do you have anything to say for yourself?” demanded Yongan, his voice as hard as stone.

    “No.” answered Yee-man Gao, although in truth he had plenty to say, he knew the futility of arguing with the facts.

    Yongan turned to his brother:

    “What is the penalty for such a crime?”

    “Death.” replied Yongle his features and voice as hard as his brother's.

    Yee-man Gao's eyes widened in fear and he fought down the urge to shake. He wanted to shout out against the injustice of it all, but his sister had warned him that any outbursts would only harm his case and so he kept silent. Long minutes dragged on, until finally Yongan pronounced his verdict:

    “Yee-man Gao, as punishment for your actions the Yee-man family will forfeit their share of spoils and you will be placed in a stockade for the duration of our return journey. Yip Yongle will carry out the punishment, after tonight's celebration.”

    Yee-man Gao felt his previous fear be replaced by anger at the humiliation of the proposed punishment. But his mounting rage was quelled by the icy stare of Yongan. Those emerald eyes had taken on a dangerous light and Yee-man Gao knew how close to death he was. So with as much dignity as he could gather, the heir to the Yee-man family turned and stalked out of the hall.

    ####

    Yongan and Guild Master Dao walked along the battlement of the temple-fortress, having slipped away from the great hall. When alone Yongan reached into his sleeve and pulled out a bundle of bank notes that he presented to his companion:

    “As agreed Guild Master, here is your five thousand weights of silver. I will arrange for your share of the treasury to be brought to you before you depart.”

    The Guild Master took the notes and tucked them into his sleeve without counting:

    “As straight forward as ever, this is why I like doing business with your family. Give my regards to your Sifu and tell him to have the Grand Patriarch's plaque ready for when I win it of him in the next tournament.” said the Guild Master, his voice full of nothing but good humour.

    Yongan nodded politely and the two of them started walking back to the great hall.

    ####

    The three witches huddled around a small fire, their cloaked figures throwing ominous shadows on the cave wall. Standing to one side was their guardian, his massive axe resting on his shoulder. Suddenly the flames flared up rising to the height of the cave roof. Swiftly the flames took the shape of a hooded figure and the witches pressed their foreheads to the floor:

    “We your loyal servant welcomes you Great One.” the witches said in unison.

    The figure spoke directly into the minds of the witches:

    “You may rise.”

    The witches raised their heads, but kept their eyes on the ground:

    “Great One, we have brought shame to you by loosing Raven's Peak and await your punishment.” said the youngest of the witches.

    “Raven's Peak is nothing. Our enemy think they have broken us, but like the Hydra we will become ever stronger with each blow we suffer.” declared the fiery figure.

    “We humbly await your orders, Great One.” said the middle aged witch.

    An image appeared in the minds of the witches, showing a wooden cottage set deep inside a forest:

    “This is the Purple Pine Forest on the outskirts of Kaifeng. Follow the instructions I will place in your minds and revenge will be ours.”

    The witches pressed their faces to the dirt once more and received their orders.

    ####

    Manyou tightened his grip on the scabbard of Xueyue (Blood Moon) and could feel the power of the blade even through the enchanted silver. He was in the inner sanctum of Tie Lin Monastery, a room that was exactly thirty three squared feet in diameter. There were no windows in the room and the only light came from the candles set against the walls. The walls were made of iron and were exactly three feet thick and engraved with ancient spells written in the extinct language of the Shang Dynasty. Apart from a couple of prayer mats the only furniture in the room was a small shrine that held a wooden baton stained black and carved into the form of a dragon. Only here in the holy of holy did Manyou feel safe to draw Xueyue.

    However the Grand Patriarch was not alone. Looking up he saw Mu Kong and Bai Feng standing at the closed iron doors, each of them holding a book in their hand. The books were the combined efforts of all three of them over nearly half a decade and could truly be called treasures of the Martial Arts Realm. Slowly Manyou placed his hand on Xueyue's hilt and took a deep breath. He tried not to think about when he had last drawn the sword, but the scene came unbidden to his mind. He saw the charred remains of a once prosperous coastal city, its buildings smoking ruins and its people butchered. He remembered looking at the abused bodies of men, women and children and the feeling of rising rage at the people who had caused this destruction.

    He had found the pirates that had sacked the city and in his anger he had drawn Xueyue. Men had died in droves to feed the hunger of the blade and Manyou recalled the intoxicating allure of wielding such a weapon. His rampage only came to an end when he came face to face with the captain of the pirates. He was a man from the far west tall in stature, wide of shoulder, fair of skin, sprouting a mane of red hair and a thick beard of the same colour. Manyou had cleaved through the man's steel helmet and taken off half his face as easily as splitting a melon and as the man fell Manyou had brought the blade down for the killing blow.

    As Xueyue descended a boy no more than ten threw himself between the fallen captain and the blade. The child had the same complexion and hair as the stricken man, making it clear he was the captain's child. Although he only had a fraction of a heartbeat, Manyou's skill was sufficient to have stopped the blow, but he did not. It was as if a demon had taken over him and filled his heart with glee for every life he was taking. Xueyue had cleaved the boy in half, splattering his blood all over the Grand Patriarch. It was only at this point did Manyou come to himself and realized what he had done. Horror and disgust filled his heart, forcing him to flee the scene. From that day on he had never dared to draw Xueyue again.

    Until now. Tentatively Manyou drew the blade, like a man pulling a snake from its hole. At first nothing happened and Xueyue appeared as any other mundane sword. But then a streak of crimson flashed along its edge. The flash of red lasted no longer than the space of a spark and would have been missed had Manyou not been looking for it. Slowly the Grand Patriarch channelled a trickle of Qi into the blade, and the red flash appeared again. Gradually as Manyou channelled more Qi into the blade the flashes of red become more frequent, until they pulsed like the beating of a heart. As Xueyue stirred Manyou could feel the spells on the iron walls pressing down on him, trying to suppress the waking beast.

    The Grand Patriarch began to move. Slowly at first as if he was underwater, his every movement made with exaggerated care. Swiftly Manyou picked up speed and it was not long before Xueyue became a crimson whirlwind. Manyou felt the blade become fully awake and the frightening yet enticing hunger start to grip his heart. Here was the moment of truth, where he would discover whether all his, Bai Feng's and Mu Kong's work had been in vain. With a roar he exerted his will on Xueyue, feeling the intelligence trapped within the blade pushing against him. The strain was incredible, like trying to push back the sea. But just as he thought he could take no more, the fight was over. Like a wild stallion being broken by its rider, the beast within the blade submitted to his will and Manyou knew that he had finally tamed Xueyue.

    Slowly winding down his movements he turned to his companions with a relieved smile, which they returned. Picking up the silver scabbard, Manyou re-sheathed Xueyue, knowing that from now on he would be able to wield the blade without fear of losing control again. His companions opened the heavy iron doors and three of them stepped back into the light.

  14. #14
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    The sun felt good on his face, making Manyou feel reborn. He looked down at the sword in his hand and could feel the beast within Xueyue. It was like running his hand through the mane of a tamed wolf, the beast was submissive but still dangerous. It had been a long journey discovering the means to control the magical blade and there had been many times when Manyou had contemplated giving up and destroying Xueyue. But his native stubbornness had refused to let him do so and he had persevered. Now the task was complete and he felt like a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Never again would he fear losing control to his blood lust and committing the horrendous crime that he had once done. From this day on he was Xueyue's master and not its slave.

    Turning his head Manyou smiled at his companions. Both of them had worked as hard as he had in working out the combination of Sword Art, Qi manipulation and complex mental exercises needed to tame Xueyue and this victory was as much theirs as it was his. Bai Feng caught his smile and returned one of his own, patting Manyou on the shoulder. Mu Kong smiled at the younger men like a proud teacher would at a pair of talented students. Together the three of them went back to the main building of Tie Lin Monastery. On arriving at the main hall they saw a priest waiting for them. Seeing the trio he hurried towards them:

    “Reverend, there is an Imperial messenger waiting in the reception hall for the Grand Patriarch.” he said to Mu Kong.

    Swiftly the three of them went to the hall where they found a young man dressed in the livery of a palace eunuch. The eunuch bowed to Manyou:

    “My Lord, his majesty wishes your attendance at the Imperial Gardens, tomorrow on the hour of the Dragon.” he said to the Grand Patriarch.

    “My thanks for the message. Did his majesty say why he wanted to see me.” asked Manyou

    “I am afraid this lowly servant does not know. But his majesty indicated that it was a private matter.” the eunuch replied.

    Manyou thanked the messenger once more and Mu Kong had one of his priests see to his comfort. When the eunuch had left, Bai Feng turned to Manyou:

    “What is that about?”

    “No idea, but we better get home. I have a lot of clothes to air.” Manyou replied with a smile. Bai Feng gave a hearty laugh and after a quick farewell to Mu Kong they did just as Manyou had suggested.

    ####

    Manyou fought the urge to scratch as he followed the eunuch. Although the messenger had implied that the Emperor's invitation was an informal one, he had decided to err on the side of caution and wore his formal court garb. A sapphire blue silk robe, embroidered with a golden phoenix on the front and pack. On his head was a small golden crown that covered the topknot of his hair. This was the first time Manyou had wore his full regalia and it felt very awkward. Suddenly he was very glad that he was such an infrequent visitor to court.

    After winding through what seemed like an endless series of courtyards and passageways, which had left Manyou feeling hopelessly lost, they finally reached their destination. The eunuch announced his arrival and Manyou entered the garden with his hands clasped before him and eyes averted. Sinking to his knees to gave the traditional greeting of wishing his liege three times ten thousand blessings. But before he could complete the greeting by kowtowing three times, the Emperor spoke:

    “Please rise your Lordship, there is no need for such formality. I merely wished to introduce you to a new friend of mine.” The Emperor's voice was clear but soft, lending credence to his words.

    Manyou obeyed and rising to his feet looked up at his host. The Emperor was dressed in a simple gold colour robe, unadorned and his hair held in place by a small golden crown that was equally plain. A man well into middle age the Emperor sported a well trimmed moustache that leant him an air of scholarly sophistication. Manyou nodded to his sovereign before turning to look at the man sitting beside him. In his mid to late forties, the man was dressed similarly to the Emperor and held himself with the same majestic poise. But there was a strength in his eyes that spoke of a seasoned warrior. However it was not the power in the eyes that made Manyou's heart miss a beat, but the fact that were identical to the emerald eyes of his apprentice. A sense of foreboding settled on his shoulders and Manyou suddenly wished that he had declined the Imperial invitation.

    ####

    Yee-man Gao glared at Yongle as he unlocked the wooden board that restricted his hand and neck. Having reached the outskirts of Kaifeng, Yongan had ordered his brother to release Yee-man Gao. Yongle stared back with as much hostility as his former prisoner:

    “Do not look at me like that. If it up to me you would enter the city like this.” so saying Yongle removed the stockade and walked away without giving Yee-man Gao the chance at a rebuttal.

    Yee-man Gao continued to stare daggers at the back of his former jailer as Yongle draped his arm over Zi-hsia's shoulder, walking towards the city in triumph. Yee-man Gao silently swore that he would have his revenge, no matter the cost.

    ####

    Manyou stood in front of his family shrine and gently stroked the memorial tablet of his late wife. Having just had supper with his family he had come here in desperate need of solitude. Never had eating with his boys been such an arduous task, turning what should have been a meal to celebrate their safe return into an almost torturous ordeal:

    “How I wish you were here.” he whispered to his wife.

    Bai Yue-er had been the most wonderful person Manyou had ever known. Strong in will yet gentle in nature. Her beauty matched only by her fierce intellect. But it was her strength of spirit that he truly missed. Throughout their time together she had been his emotional anchor, freely giving him her silent support when times had got tough. How he wished he had that support now. A gentle knock at the door and the voice of Yongle drew him back. As tempting as it was to dismiss his son, Manyou knew that to do so would be neglecting his duty as a father and so asked him to enter:

    “Papa, what is going on?” Yongle asked as soon as he was through the door.

    At first Manyou was tempted to deny that there was anything wrong, but one look at the concerned yet stern expression of his son told him that he would not believe the lie:

    “I swear you are getting more like your mother every day. I could never keep any secrets from her either.” Manyou said with a sad smile.

    “You barely spoke a word during supper and you kept on staring at Yongan like he had grown a second head. Have we done something to upset you?” asked Yongle.

    “No.”

    “Then what is it?”

    “It is something I must discuss with your brother first. Please do not ask anything more. I will talk to him in the morning and if he wants to he will let you know.”

    Yongle wanted desperately to press for more information, but the look of pain in his father's eyes made him hesitate. Nodding slowly he walked outside and spent a night in sleepless worry.

    ####

    Yongan's mind was in an emotional maze as he tried take in what his Sifu had revealed. That the man he had known as Gao Tianci was actually Tianke Khan was shocking enough, but then to discover that he was kin to the mighty ruler was unbelievable. Looking into his Sifu's eyes he saw the pain there and was instantly struck by a great weight of guilt:

    “I am sorry.” Yongan whispered.

    Manyou placed a hand on his apprentice's shoulder:

    “Silly boy, there is nothing to be sorry about.” he said smiling gently

    “But I am...”

    “You are my son and there is nothing Tianke Khan, the Emperor or Heaven itself can do that will ever change that. If you wish to go to back to your native land, then you go with all my blessing. But if you want to stay, then there is no power on earth which I will allow to take you away.” Manyou words were spoken as a statement that went a long way to settle Yongan's heart. But his brow was still knit in worry:

    “But Sifu. What if Tianke Khan...”

    “I can handle him. Just follow your heart and know I will support your decision.”

    Tears tugged at the corner of Yongan's eyes as he looked at the only father he had ever known. Manyou's heart went out to the young man and he gently wiped the tears from his apprentice's cheeks. Hurried knocking came from the door followed by the agitated voice of Yongle. Opening the door Manyou saw concern written plainly on his son's face:

    “Father, Uncle Xia Chi has arrived with Gao Tianci.” Yongle said quickly.

    Manyou turned to his apprentice and saw the look of lost on his face. The Grand Patriarch's face set as hard as stone as he turned back to his son:

    “Stay here with your brother, I will see to our guests.”

    “But father...”

    “Do as I say boy.” Manyou's tone left no room for argument.

    “Sifu.” cried Yongan as Manyou was about to leave.

    Manyou turned back to his apprentice with a reassuring smile:

    “If you wish to see him then come out. But take all the time that you need.” So saying the Grand Patriarch left to meet the Khan.

  15. #15
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    The limits of Khanship




    Manyou stepped into the courtyard to find Bai Feng standing cross armed and staring at their guests. His features was neither overly friendly nor openly hostile, but carefully neutral. Like a bear who had just emerged from his cave to find a pack of wolves waiting for him. He was aware of the danger, but was unwilling to do anything that would initiate violence. Stepping passed his friend, Manyou studied the men from the Steppes. Both Xia Chi and Tianke Khan were dressed as wealthy middle class gentlemen, their clothes well made but not gaudy. Xia Chi's eyes darted nervously between his Khan and the Grand Patriarch like a deer caught between a pair of tigers. Tianke Khan smiled warmly and held his open arms to his side in greeting. Standing behind them were twenty stoutly built men, eighteen of them carried nine heavy wooden chests between them while the remaining two held the bridle of a pair of horses.

    The beasts were the most magnificent warhorses Manyou had ever seen. One as black as coal while the other as pale as moonlight. Both were massive in height and wide of shoulder with powerfully muscled limbs. Such animals along with the procession that they had been part of, had drawn a lot of attention and Manyou could hear the crowd outside chattering excitedly. Suppressing a sigh the Grand Patriarch performed his duties as host and greeted his guests with a polite bow:

    “Lord Gao, Brother Xia. Welcome to by humble abode. Please accept my apologies for not greeting you properly” Manyou said.

    “Your Lordship is too kind. It is us who should apologise for arriving unannounced.” replied Tianke Khan with a bow, while Xia Chi continued looking around nervously.

    “Please come in for some refreshments, my noble guests.” offered the Grand Patriarch.

    “I thank you for your hospitality my Lord. Please accept this small token of my gratitude.” as the Khan spoke, the chests were lowered and opened. Each chest was filled with nuggets of gold and silver, precious uncut gems or rare incense. With the material gifts presented the two horses were brought forward:

    “Hanxue ma (blood sweat horses)?” asked Manyou.

    “Your Lordship is most perceptive. Yes these are Hanxue ma. We brought three breeding pairs with us. Two of which were presented to your Emperor, while we have saved this pair for yourself.” answered the Khan.

    Hanxue ma, were steeds of legendary reputations said, to be able to travel a thousand leagues daily without tiring. Such a breed was used almost exclusively by the Imperial family and so were a gift of immeasurable value. However Manyou's face did not betray even the smallest hint of happiness. In fact his features clouded over as if in anger. Stiffly he turned to Bai Feng:

    “Please take brother Xia inside for refreshments. There is something I must discuss with Lord Gao.” Bai Feng nodded, then lead Xia Chi and his men inside leaving the Grand Patriarch and Khan alone.

    “Your majesty. Please believe me when I say I hold your personage in the highest esteem. However I must tell you that my apprentice is not for sale.”

    Manyou braced himself for the angry retort he knew was coming, expecting a barrage of threats and insults from the Khan. However he was to be surprised, for instead of being angry the Khan burst out laughing. It was a full-bellied laugh and Manyou found himself grinning along:

    “Your Lordship's reputation for honour is truly justified. But you misunderstand. These gifts are to thank you for your service to my family and nothing more.”

    “Service?”

    “By saving and raising Yongan you have preserved the only child of my brother. Thus allowing me to honour his name. For that you have my eternal gratitude.”

    Manyou nodded his acceptance of the Khan's words. Seeing the favourable reaction Tianke Khan spoke on:

    “Your Lordship. May I see my nephew.”

    “Your Majesty, nothing would give me greater pleasure. However as you can understand, all this has been a great shock to him and he needs a little time to adjust. I beseech your Majesty to grant him a little indulgence in this matter.”

    Silence greeted the Grand Patriarch's words, which stretched to an uncomfortable length. Both men stared at each other, harsh emerald eyes warring with deep brown orbs. The tension was thick in the air begging for violent release, but before the situation could deteriorate further a familiar voice called out from behind Manyou. Turning the Grand Patriarch saw his sons standing there:

    “Sifu. Can I have a word with our guest?” asked Yongan. His voice steady.

    Manyou nodded and stood aside as his apprentice stepped into the courtyard.

    ####

    Tianke stepped into the small study then turned to look at his nephew. He had the high cheek bones of his father mixed with his mother's softer jaw. His emerald eyes were inherited from their shared ancestors and the Khan felt the urge to embrace the long lost son of his brother. As if sensing his desire Yongan stepped back skittishly and Tianke felt a touch of disappointment at the reaction. After a moment of uncomfortable silence Yongan spoke:

    “Your Majesty.” he said formally.

    Tianke smiled reassuringly:

    “I understand why you do not call me uncle. I am practically a stranger to you.”

    “I do not want to leave with you.” said Yongan. His tone making it clear it was a statement not a request.

    Tianke forced the smile to remain on his face as he responded in the most level of voices:

    “I respect your decision.” So saying the Khan stepped passed his nephew towards the doorway.

    Suddenly Yongan spun around:

    “Your Majesty!” he called out, a note of desperation entering his voice.

    As the Khan turned Yongan studied him. He wondered how much this man resembled the father he had never known. He tried to imagine the face but could not. Tianke stood silently, his eye gentle as he patiently waited for Yongan to speak. Tentatively, his voice barely a whisper Yongan spoke:

    “Could you tell me about my parents?”

    Tianke smiled warmly and gladly obliged.

    ####

    Dozens of snakes, scorpions and venomous frogs crawled amongst themselves as they tried in vain to climb out of the iron pot. Suddenly a pair of large hands were thrust into the pot with such force that they squashed a particularly fat frog, splattering thick ichor everywhere. Instantly barbed tails and sharp fangs attacked the intruding hands, but were unable to penetrate the tough skin. Again and again the hands plunged into the vat of creepy crawlies, until every one of the once living creatures had been turned into a thick pool of black goo. Sha Long bathed his hands in the poisonous liquid and activated his Qi, manipulating it in the secret way of the Chimera hands. Slowly the liquid seeped into his hands blackening the skin to a tar like texture.

    When the entire content of the pot had been absorbed, Sha Long lifted his hands up. The Warlord spent a moment admiring the ebony darkness of his skin before continuing the process that merged the toxic liquid with his own Qi. Slowly the blackness dissipated and his hands resumed their natural colour, but Sha Long could feel the poison settle into his core and adding to the fast store of toxin already there. Gently he ran his hand across his chest where Longlei (Dragon's Tear) had left its mark. In many ways this was the deepest scar he had ever suffered. Not because it had nearly cost him his life, but because the man who had inflicted it was still alive. Never before had someone managed to wound him without paying the ultimate price and this stung Sha Long's pride much more than the physical blow.

    There was a knock at the door and thinking it was a servant bringing refreshments Sha Long summoned them in. However when the door opened Sha Long fell to his knees as his sovereign Tianke Khan and his Sifu the shaman Kan Xing stepped in:

    “Your Majesty!” said Sha Long as he waited for his Khan to acknowledge him.

    Walking unhurriedly Tianke went towards the only seat in the room and sat down. Kan Xing followed the Khan and stood to his left side:

    “You may rise.” said the Khan. As Sha Long obeyed the Khan continued to speak:

    “How are your injuries?”

    “Of little consequence my liege. I am however most eager to avenge myself upon Yip Manyou.” replied Sha Long.

    Tianke Khan smiled, shaking his head slightly:

    “While I am glad to see such fire in your belly, I must inform you that revenge is not possible.”

    “Your Majesty?” asked the startled Warlord.

    “The pale giants are massing on my western border. So I have journeyed here to negotiate a pact with the Chinese Emperor and it will not do for you to kill one of his favourites.” answered the Khan.

    “But Majesty, as a warrior I cannot accept the insult of losing to a weak Southerner.”

    “Yet you must, for the sake of our nation.” said Tianke Khan.

    “But my honour demands revenge!” snapped back Sha Long.

    The smile fell from Tianke Khan and his eyes hardened as he replied:

    “As my Warlord you belong to me. So does your so called honour. Your miserable life. Even your damn soul is mine and I am ordering you to abandon your revenge.”

    Sha Long took a moment to decide on his next step. He had served the Khan for nearly three decades and knew how Tianke dealt with those who defied him. While the Warlord had no desire to join them, his pride would not allow him to even countenance giving up his revenge. With eyes firmly fixed to the ground he replied:

    “I resign my position as Warlord.”

    This time it was Tianke's turn to take a moment. Sha Long had served him loyally for many years and his prowess as a warrior was hard to come by. Neither were traits that he took lightly. Keeping his voice level, the Khan spoke:

    “You are aware of the consequences of your decision. Your family onto the ninth generation will be killed. Your clan will be reduced to the status of slaves. You will forever be an outcast to the Steppes, refused shelter, food and drink in all camps under my authority. Is your revenge really worth it?”

    Sha Long did not speak, merely nodded his head. Once more silence filled the room, then Kan Xing addressed the Khan:

    “Should I invoke the Soul Claw, Majesty?” he asked the Khan with no more emotions than if he had offered water.

    Sha Long fought down a shudder at the Shaman's words. The Soul Claw was a curse that did exactly as its name suggested and clawed ones soul from their body. All Kan Xing needed to invoke this most dreaded of curses was a sample of the victim's hair, skin, blood or other bodily fluids. Like all the high ranking members of Tianke's court, Sha Long given a sample of his blood as a sign of his loyalty. Looking up at his Sifu, Sha Long knew the words were no idle threat, for the Shaman's loyalty to Tianke was absolute and the he would not hesitate to destroy even his own apprentice if the Khan wished it. Tianke let the threat hang in the air for a moment before speaking to Sha Long:

    “My negotiations with the Chinese Emperor are to last three months. You have until them to reconsider. Choose wisely.” So saying the Khan rose to his feet and walked out without a backward glance. Kan Xing followed his Khan out and also avoided looking at his apprentice.

    ####

    Sha Long watched from the window as the Khan left his cottage, taking Sha Long's women and servants with him. The message was clear, everything Sha Long possessed had belonged to the Khan and he could take them away as easily as he had bestowed them. Tianke was giving his Warlord a taste of what it meant to be without his support. Part of Sha Long wanted to be angry at his Khan. Why could the Khan not understand the importance of honour. That the soul of a warrior was found in battle with victory feeding it and defeat diminishing it. If Sha Long did not defeat Yip Manyou then his spirit would forever be reduced, until slowly it shrunk to nothing. But try as he may the Warlord could not bring himself to hate Tianke for he understood why his Khan had done what he did.

    Tianke held the security of his nation above all other concerns and everything he did was directed towards this end. Honour, glory, pride even morality were expendable in the Khan's eyes, so long as they aided in the survival of his people. It was a great philosophy that Sha Long admired, even if he could not follow it himself. Suddenly his ears pricked up and the muscles of his shoulders tightened. Summoning his Qi he started transforming his hands into mutated claws. Without turning he spoke:

    “Whoever you are, you had better leave for I am in no mood for games.”

    A trio of giggles answered him:

    “We are glad that your Khan's disfavour has not diminished your senses.” answered threes female voices in unison.

    Sha Long turned to see three women standing there. One a youth, one middle aged and one a crone. He had no idea how they had got in but he suspected sorcery was involved. Keeping his body ready for battle he spoke:

    “What do you want?”

    “Why, to give you what your Khan has denied.” said the crone with a cackle.

  16. #16
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Gifts



    Yongan went through the menu once more, making sure that it was suitably impressive for tonight's festivities. It had been a month since his and Yongle's return and his Sifu had decided to a throw a banquet to celebrate their victory. When Manyou had shown them the guest list, both the Yip brothers had been shocked. Every prominent member of the Martial Arts realm, high ranking court officials and religious leaders had been invited. Yongan had been surprised by his Sifu's decision, for Manyou normally disdained grand events and it seemed very out of character for him to celebrate their victory in such ostentatious fashion.

    He was roused from his musing by a knock at the door, but before he could answer Yongle stepped in holding a red envelope that was obviously an invitation. Yongan tried giving his brother a mock frown at his rudeness but it ended up turning into an indulgent smile instead. Yongle took a seat next to his brother and put the invitation on the table:

    “Another invitation for your Highness” Yongle said with a tone of mock deference. He had taken to addressing Yongan by the royal title ever since learning of his brother's origins, but had otherwise changed nothing in how he behaved around him.

    “Who is it from this time?” asked Yongan with a sigh.

    Word of his heritage had spread like wild fire throughout the city, for it was impossible to keep any secrets for long in a metropolis like Kaifeng and the sensational nature of this news stoked the flames of gossip to a fever pitch. Not three days after the Khan's visit, the Yip family had been flooded by well wishers and invitations to parties for the Grand Patriarch and his royal apprentice. It seemed that everyone of importance within the city wanted to see the new prince:

    “No one less than Admiral Zhen.” replied Yongle with a smile.

    “Have one of the scholar-guests send the usual reply.” said Yongan. In order to cope with his new found popularity, Yongan had come up with a polite but non-committal thank you letter which he had the family's scholar-guests reproduce and send out on mass.

    Yongle chuckled at his brother's reaction, taking obvious amusement at Yongan's embarrassment. Not wishing to give his brother the opportunity to make fun of him, Yongan decided to change the subject:

    “Do you think it is strange that Sifu has decided to throw this banquet?” he asked.

    “A little. But the victory at Raven's Peak was no minor event and some sort of celebration would be expected.” answered Yongle

    “But why such an extensive guest list? Sifu has even invited his three senior apprentices, whom he did not even invite to his inauguration feast.”

    Yongle thought about this for a moment. He too had been surprised to find the names of his father's senior apprentices on the guest list, for although they had close links to his family they very rarely visited, due to the fact that they resided far away from Kaifeng and were spread widely across China. In fact the last time he had seem them all together was at his father's fiftieth birthday celebration, nearly a decade ago. The brother's were interrupted by a knock at the door. A servant entered after being summoned and informed them that Manyou wished to see them at the Yip ancestral shrine. The brothers exchange a questioning look then proceeded to the shrine.

    ####

    The Yip brothers received Manyou's gifts with bended knees and bowed head. The Grand Patriarch placed a book into each of their hands then stepped back to watch their reactions. Yongan looked up and read the cover of the book in his hand. “The Art of Demon Taming” was written in bold characters and in his Sifu's hand. Yongle copied his brother's action and read “The Art of Dragon Bonding” on the cover of his book. Manyou smiled at the look of shock on their faces:

    “The two of you hold in your hands he sum of my martial arts knowledge. I know you will use them to make me proud.” He declared with complete confidence.

    The brothers could only stare at the Grand Patriarch in wide-eyed astonishment, humbled by the magnitude of the gifts. Manyou chuckled at their reaction:

    “Now you better go back to your rooms and get changed, the banquet will begin soon.” Manyou said.

    Rising mechanically the brothers got to their feet and walked dazed like to their rooms.

    ####

    The courtyard was packed with people. Hundreds of voices took part in dozens of conversations. Rivers of rare wine were drunk and mountains of the exotic food eaten. Yet the night was still young and the celebrations would continue for many more hours. Yongle was returning from the stables where he had taken a dozen beautiful young women to marvel at his father's new horses. Yongan found himself with his back against a wall as three men tried to talk to him at once. Ever since the first guests had started arriving, Yongan had found himself besieged by people wishing to make the acquaintance of the new prince. He was not used to being the centre of attention and found the sensation very unpleasant, especially as he recognized that a lot of the people trying to talk to him were people who would normally snub him.

    From the raised dais at the front of the courtyard Bai Feng observed the Yip brothers and smiled, wondering how two people so different could have been raised in the same household. The loud voice of a herald cut through the noise announcing the arrival of the Yee-man family. The crowd parted and Bai Feng stepped down from the platform to greet the new arrivals. Yongan took the opportunity to excuse himself from the unwanted conversation and joined Bai Feng, quickly followed by his brother. Yee-man Zhan and his children were dressed in the usual spectacular manner and wore so much jewellery that they practically shone with their own light. Even Yee-man Yin had put on her best clothes and jewellery for the occasion, accentuating her natural noble beauty. The two older men greeted each other formally, then the Yip brothers stepped forward to welcome their guests. But just as Yongan was about to bow Yee-man Zhan held up a hand to stop him:

    “Your humble servant would never dare receive a bow from your Highness. I must say that this old fool was truly taken in by your Highness's performance. Who would have guessed that the nephew of the Great Khan could portray a lowly apprentice so well.” Yee-man Zhan said with obvious sarcasm.

    The implications of his words were plain to all who heard it, for he was suggesting that Yongan was a spy for the Khan and so implying that the Yip family were in collusions with a foreign power. All conversation had stopped as everyone waited to see how Yongan was going to respond. Fixing on his false smile, Yongan nodded politely to the Count, the way he would to an equal. Then he burst out laughing:

    “Elder Yee-man, I had no idea that you were so skilled in jesting. Pretending that you are foolish enough to believe that a newborn infant had the intelligence to befuddle the Grand Patriarch himself.” said Yongan between chuckles.

    Bai Feng's heart swelled with pride at how Yongan had turned Yee-man Zhan's words back at him. He had pointed out the absurdity of Yee-man Zhan's accusation, while making it sound like a joke so avoiding challenging the man directly. Now if Yee-man Zhan tried pressing the issue he would make himself look like a fool. Casting a quick over his shoulder, Bai Feng saw Yongle scratch his nose, trying to hide a smirk behind his hand. Further conversation was forestalled by the striking of a gong that announced the arrival of the Grand Patriarch. Dressed in his formal purple robe Manyou stepped onto the platform accompanied by Mu Kong who was also dressed in the formal black and grey robes of his order. Following them were the Grand Patriarch's three senior apprentices.

    The oldest of the apprentices was Yuan Fei, a man in his late thirties, who had the large build of a brawler. Born to one of the oldest military families in China, he was a lieutenant in the imperial army guarding the empire's southern boarder. He walked with the precision of a trained soldier, holding Xueyue reverently before him. Walking beside him was the second most senior apprentice, Zhang Men. In his mid thirties he had the lean stature of a journeyman. He was heir to one of the wealthiest merchant families in the country and in his thin arms he held Longlei. Walking a measured three steps in front of them was Wang Hai, who in his early thirties had the thin waist and broad shoulders of a swordsman. Of the three he was the only one who had a humble birth, being an orphan of Nian Yue Tong (Remembering Moon Hall). He had caught the attention of Manyou as a child and been taken in by the Grand Patriarch as his third apprentice. Now he was a member of the Imperial guard and had a reputation that rivalled the great Zhan Zhao. In his hand he carried the jade plaque, that was the symbol of the Grand Patriarch's office.

    Holding out his arms the Grand Patriarch greeted the crowd:

    “My honoured guests, I welcome you to my home and offer you my humble hospitality. May your visit be pleasant. First I would like to propose a toast to the brave warriors who made their noble sacrifices at Raven's Peak.” A servant stepped onto the platform carrying Manyou's goblet filled with wine.

    Taking the goblet the Grand Patriarch poured the drink onto the ground a gesture mirrored by all the guests. With the dead honoured Manyou continued:

    “Honoured guest, we are here today to celebrate the victory at Raven's Peak. However there is another matter that I call on all of you to witness.” Excited murmurs rose from the crowd at the Grand Patriarch's words. Manyou looked directly at his son and apprentice:

    “Yip Yongan and Yip Yongle, step forward.” Manyou said.

    As the Yip brothers began to walk towards the platform a shadow fell upon the courtyard, eliciting startled cries from the crowd. Manyou shot his gaze upwards to see a huge black column of smoke obscuring the full moon and casting the dark shadow that had frightened his guests. For a moment the Grand Patriarch thought that one the city's great buildings had caught on fire, but there was something odd about the black pillar that told him its origins did not come from so mundane a source. Suddenly he realized that the pillar was moving against the wind towards his home. Whatever it was it was not smoke. Quickly the black cloud fell upon the courtyard, accompanied by the beating of countless tiny wings. It was a cloud of bats and as the flying rodents fell onto the crowd they let out a collective squeak of ear-bleeding intensity.

    Screams rang out as everyone was engulfed by the living cloud that bit into cheeks and scratched at eyes. Yee-man Zhan summoned his Qi and used the power to expand his aura, forming a glowing silver dome that surrounded him and his children. Any bats that flew into the dome were instantly shredded to bloody ribbons. Bai Feng ran in front of the dais, his arms held to the sides and his fists clenched tight. Suddenly the ground around him sunk down, as if an invisible giant had stamped on it. All the bats caught in the area were instantly flattened to the ground, with the same fate befalling any other flying creatures that ventured too close to Bai Feng. The Yip brothers leapt onto the platform and stood in front of Manyou taking defensive stances, ready to any repel bats that got by Bai Feng.

    The booming voice of Mu Kong rang out as he recited a mantra and his hands shot into the air. His palms seemed to drink in the few specks of moonlight that had broken through the cloud of bats and glowed a divine silver. Forcefully he brought his palms together and a thunderous clap echoed across the courtyard, followed by a shower of beautiful tiny lights, like silver dust. Where the dust touched human skin they vanished without harm, but when they came into contact with the bats, they caused the furry bodies to explode. Mu Kong's spell galvanised the other holy men spread amongst the crowd into action. Quickly mystical fires and magical lightning erupted across the courtyard clearing away the few remaining bats. With the living cloud dealt with a measure of calm returned, but just as things started to settle down another attack began.

    Hundreds of hooded figures dropped from the sky and fell upon the crowd with deadly blades. Although unarmed everyone within the courtyard was a seasoned warrior and now facing a human foe they fought back ferociously. Yee-man Zhan exploded his aura and showered the nearest group of enemies in silvery sparks that cut deep into flesh. A ring of robed assailants bore down on Bai Feng. Dropping to a crouch Bai Feng smashed a fist into the ground and the area around him exploded, throwing broken bodies into the air like dry leaves. A dozen hooded figures took to the air and floated towards the platform. The Yip brothers braced themselves for battle, but suddenly something from behind flew over their heads. There was a flash of red and the one dozen hooded figures became two dozen falling bodies, each one of them sliced cleanly in half. As the bodies hit the ground not a single trace of blood could be seen, for every drop had been sucked into Xueyue which drank deeply.

    Landing lightly Manyou held Xueyue to the side, the magical blade glowing hungrily. Suddenly the ground in front of the Grand Patriarch exploded, throwing up a massive cloud of dust and bodies. When the cloud cleared Manyou saw Sha Long standing before him, his mutated claws dripping with blood. With a roar Manyou launched himself at his foe, Xueyue coming down in a murderous arc. Crossing his claws above his head Sha Long caught the blade. The scales of his claws was almost an inch thick, and stronger than tempered steel, yet still Manyou's blow nearly sliced into the flesh beneath. With a tremendous effort Sha Long pushed the blade away and slashed both his claws at Manyou's face. The Grand Patriarch stepped away from the disfiguring attack and the duel began in earnest.

    From the platform Yongle observed the fight between his father and Sha Long. The skill of both men was matched only by their viciousness. Never before had Yongle seen his father fight this way, it was like watching two monsters of hell fighting over a damned soul. Blood red blade hacked relentlessly at thick scales, while dark claws skidded across red glowing steel as they sought out flesh. The tempo of the fight was blisteringly fast and Yongle was amazed that anyone could survive within the savage storm of blade and claws. Finally after several punishing minutes Manyou got through Sha Long's guard and Xueyue went in an upwards sweep towards Sha Long's chest. The Warlord threw himself backwards, avoiding Xueyue by a hairsbreadth. Landing on his back Sha Long rolled away from his foe.

    As Manyou charged forward Sha Long sank his claw deeply into the ground, then violently yanked it out again. Stone slabs that paved the ground were flung into the air and flew towards Manyou. Xueyue came down and the wave of stone parted. Manyou saw Sha Long take to the air and fly away. With his fury still not sated, Manyou summoned his Qi and launched himself into the night sky in pursue of his foe.

    ####

    From his hiding place in the thick branches of a tree, Eric saw Sha Long run into the forest with Manyou on his heels. Xueyue glowed menacingly in the Grand Patriarch's hand and Eric fought down the urge to touch his helmeted face. He had lost count of the times he had woken in a cold sweat, as he dreamt of the moment when that demonic blade had taken away half his face and ended the life of his son. Torturous memories came flooding to his mind, as he recalled months of agony at the hands of the witches, their painful spells forcing bones back into place and skin to regrow. Many times Eric had considered ending his suffering, but whenever the cowardly thought entered his mind the image of his boy being butchered would appear, steeling his resolve and allowing him to push through the pain.

    The men were close enough to allow him to make out the facial features. Manyou's face was contorted into that image of murderous hunger that had plagued Eric's dreams for so many nights and he felt terror creeping into his soul. He forced the feeling down, reminding himself that the witches' concealment spell will keep him hidden until the right time. Just a little longer...Eric thought to himself, Just a few more moment and all his fears and suffering would be over. Just a few more moments and his son's soul would be at peace and he would be able to sleep at night. Just a little longer…

    ####

    Sha Long stopped mid step and leapt backwards, twisting in mid air he swooped down on Manyou like an eagle, his dark claws aimed at his foe's face. Manyou raised Xueyue just in time, stopping the claws a hairsbreadth from his eyes. Using his grip on blade as leverage, Sha Long flipped over the head of Manyou and landed back to back with the Grand Patriarch. He expected Manyou to do what any normal person would do and turn around to face him, but instead his opponent jumped forward and Sha Long's claws found nothing but air as they closed to the sides behind him. Spinning around as he landed Manyou sent Xueyue sweeping down, unleashing a wave of crimson light at Sha Long.

    The Warlord threw himself to the side as the wave carved a massive groove on the ground where he had stood. Rolling to his feet Sha Long pounced on his enemy, his claws raking at Manyou like the paws of a tiger. Manyou met Sha Long's savage attack in kind, Xueyue striking down with berserker fury. The duel appeared mindless as the combatants tore at each other in seeming madness, but the trained eye could see the unearthly skill being displayed. Every advance, retreat, attack or block was executed with perfect timing with not even the tiniest movement being wasted. Manyou sent a horizontal slash at Sha Long's chest, and the Warlord caught the blade with the palm of his claws. Sliding his left hand up the back of the blade and tightening his right hand's grip on the hilt, Manyou rammed forward, lifting Sha Long to his toes. Grimly the Warlord held on as he was flung backwards into a tree. Despite the pain raging up his spine Sha Long refused to let go of Xueyue, knowing to do so was to invite death.

    Blood red blade strained against dark mutated claws as each fought of dominance. Manyou channelled every ounce of physical and Qi strength into Xueyue, knowing that Sha Long was doing the same. The strain on his body was immense, like fighting the weight of a mountain, but he refused to back down. Finally just when he thought he could take no more, Manyou felt a weakening in Sha Long's Qi and knew that his enemy was at last approaching the end of his strength. But just as the Grand Patriarch was about to make one last effort, he saw Sha Long's gaze flicker upwards. There was a flash of red and Sha Long was sent crashing through the tree he had his back to. Manyou threw himself to the right as Sha Long was sent flying, but he was too slow, and an axe head crashed down onto his left shoulder. The axe cut through muscle and bone with ease, severing Manyou's arm in the blink of an eye.

    Roaring in agony, Manyou quickly activated a few acupoints, numbing the pain and stemming the bleeding. Swiftly he leapt backwards towards his new attacker, flipping Xueyue into a reverse grip as he went. Slamming into an armoured body Manyou leaned slightly to the left, stabbing Xueyue backwards towards his opponent's torso. The attack was only partially successful as Xueyue was deflected by the axe's shaft and scraped against ribs instead of burying itself in the man's gut. Manyou snapped his head back and felt the back of his head smashing into his opponent's mouth knocking out teeth. As the man stumbled back Manyou sent a backwards kick into his chest, lifting his enemy of his feet. Suddenly Manyou froze, as he felt a deathly cold spreading up his left side.

    Looking down he saw his wound frosting over with ice that was creeping up his body. Summoning all the power within Xueyue, Manyou directed it against the ice and halted its spread. But just as he was winning his battle against the cold, Sha Long flew at him. Slowed by his injuries Manyou could do nothing as the claws plunged into his chest. Flesh tore and ribs cracked as the claws went for his heart. With the last of his diminishing strength Manyou swung Xueyue down. Pain made him miss his mark and the blade cut into Sha Long's collar bone instead of his neck. Instantly Sha Long stopped pushing with his claws, as doing so would also drive Xueyue deeper into his own flesh. With swift kick Manyou sent Sha Long flying, and gritted his teeth as the claws were torn from his body.

    Drawing on all of his fury, Manyou poured it into Xueyue. The blade's red glow became blindingly intense as it enveloped his entire body and his attackers halted, knowing that to approach Manyou was to invite their own destruction. The stalemate was broken by the sound of running feet. Both Eric and Sha Long were grievously wounded and in no fit state to face new opponents and so took to their heels. Manyou kept the murderous glow going until he was sure they had fled. When he was certain that his enemies had left, Manyou let the light fade. He stumbled a few steps, then plunged Xueyue into the ground and leaned on it like a walking stick. He knew he was dying. His strength was spent and he could feel the cold in his side and the rot in his chest spreading. He had only heartbeats left, but he felt neither pain nor fear. Instead his heart filled with a strange kind of contentment.

    He smelled the sweet fragrance of his mother's baked biscuits, heard the powerful voice of his Sifu as the man corrected him, tasted the sweet flavour of his first wine which had been shared with Bai Feng. He smiled as he saw his children playing in the garden, the sun shining off their youthful skin. Someone touched his remaining hand and he felt a familiar warm embrace like a cloak of sunlight wrapped around his shoulders. Looking up he saw his wife. Yue-er was giving him one of her radiant smiles and he felt his heart melt in her presence. He let go of Xueyue and went with his wife.

    ####

    Yongle fell to his knees at the foot of his father's still form and wailed his grief. Yongan stared at his Sifu, his mind unable to accept what his eyes were seeing. Silent tears rolled down his cheeks and when he spoke it was but a whisper:

    “What are we going to do without you, papa.?”

  17. #17
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Those left behind




    Exhausted Yongan sank into his chair and ran his palms across his face. Tomorrow was the seventh day after his Sifu's interment and he had pushed himself to the brink of collapse preparing for it. Part of the reason he was working so hard was necessity. Yongle had been in an almost trance like state since his father's death. He slept, ate and made offerings at his father's shrine but otherwise did nothing else. He only spoke when talked to directly and even then only gave the shortest of replies. It broke Yongan's heart to see his brother like this and he longed to hear his cheerful laugh again.

    The older of the Yip brothers had also found little help from Bai Feng. Everyday at the crack of dawn, the elder would have a swift breakfast then leave and not return until deep into the night. Yongan knew that the man spent his days contacting all of his informants within Kaifeng in pursuit of Sha Long. Bai Feng used the hunt to distract himself from the pain of losing his friend and Yongan could not blame him. Yongan himself was using the task of organising his Sifu's funeral to avoid having to face his own sorrow. Every night he retired to his bed physically and mentally drained, leaving no energy to mourn.

    Shaking his head in an attempt to clear it, Yongan reached for the plate of cold meat buns that was his lunch, when there was a knock on the door. A servant entered at his summons and informed him that Yee-man Yin had arrived and was requesting an audience. At first Yongan wanted to deny her request but decided against it, due to a mixture of good manners and curiosity. He told the servant to have the Lady received in one of the antechambers. Sparing a moment to compose himself, Yongan left to receive his guest. Yee-man Yin was dressed in a sombre dark blue dress, she wore no jewellery and her face was devoid of all cosmetic. She was accompanied by a single maid, who was dressed in the same simple manner.

    Yongan greeted her with a short bow and she returned a polite curtsy then dismissed her maid. When alone Yongan spoke:

    “Lady Yee-man, how may I be of service?”

    “By talking to me.” she replied, her voice gentle and soothing.

    Yongan was taken aback by the strange request and looked at her in bewilderment:

    “I am sorry?” he asked in confusion.

    “Talk to me.” she repeated.

    For a moment Yongan was tempted to ask her to leave, but the sincerity of her voice touched something deep in his heart. Yongan had never been popular amongst his peers due to his foreign origin and cold manner. With the exception of Yongle he had no friends of his own age, nor had he ever wanted them. But now, looking into Yee-man Yin's imploring eyes he suddenly realised how lonely he had been. His Sifu's love had shielded him from his loneliness but now his Sifu was gone and he felt the full force of his isolation. Suddenly his knees buckled. Yee-man Yin caught him and helped him into a chair.

    He looked up with an apology on his lips but one look at those eyes, so full of concern and he broke down. Yee-man Yin cradled his head on her shoulder and he wept, releasing long suppressed tears. For a long moment they stood there, she making soft comforting sounds while he cried. He cried for the man who had cherished him as son and whom he had adored like a father. He wept for never having told Manyou how much he meant to him, how everything good in his life he owed to him. He wailed in fear of an uncertain future without the one constant figure in his life. Yee-man Yin let him weep until he was spent.

    Slowly, reluctantly Yongan broke away from her embrace and she felt a sense of loss in her heart:

    “My apologies for my behaviour.” Yongan said as he wiped away his tears.

    Yee-man Yin gave him a comforting smile: “Sorry is a word that never needs to be spoken between friends.” she replied softly.

    Yongan smiled weakly and then took her offered hand, making his first true friend.

    ####

    Bai Feng stared at Yunu Peng (Jade Maiden's Cloak). Today was the seventh day of Manyou's interment and Bai Feng knew he would have to leave soon. However he found himself fearing to do so. He had managed to avoid all involvement in the funeral, as if doing so would stop it from being real. If he stayed away from the funeral, then his friend would not be dead. Even now Bai Feng was hoping that Manyou would miraculously walk through the door but that did not happen and Bai Feng knew he could not hide any longer.

    He wondered if he was born under a cursed star. Everyone he had ever loved had left him. His mother had been taken away by illness when he was seven. Then his half sister, that most gentle of souls had gone a mere two years after giving life to Yongle. His father had soon followed, the old man's heart having been broken by the lost of his lovely daughter. Now Bai Feng had lost the brother of his heart. Clenching his fists he forced the despair down. There was no use feeling sorry for himself. The dead were dead, but he was still alive. As he could not bring them back he would honour their memory.

    Reaching behind the stand that held Yunu Peng, he pulled a hidden lever and a panel in the wall slid open. Reaching in Bai Feng pulled out a bundle. It was as long as Bai Feng was tall and as wide as a man's forearm. The object was wrapped complete by a grey cloth. Clutching the bundle Bai Feng turned and walked towards the door to make his final farewell to his best friend.

    ####

    Yongan and Yongle bowed to Bao Zheng acknowledging the judge's libation, as he offered incense at their father's shrine. Bao Zheng returned the gesture and took his seat. Next Zhan Zhao made his offering and received the same gesture from the brothers. The two Imperial Officials were the last mourners to arrive and with the appointed hour fast approaching Mu Kong rose from his seat. Walking to the front of the shrine the priest prepared to deliver the eulogy. As he drew breath a herald announced the arrival of an unexpected guest.

    Yee-man Zhan and his children strode into the hall amidst a cloud of whispers. Although an invitation had been sent to the Yee-man household, few had expected them to accept, for the feud between the heads of the two families was widely known. The new arrivals made an offering of incense and Yee-man Zhan spent a long moment looking at the shrine of his rival. He had expected to feel elated by the death of Manyou, but instead he felt strangely empty. He tried telling himself it was because he had lost the chance to humble the man himself, but deep down he knew it was more than that.

    Suddenly the memories of another funeral surfaced. He remembered being in this exact same hall, standing in this exact same spot and offering incense to another shrine. Quietly he mouthed the name that had been on the memorial tablet of that other shrine “Bai Yue-er” and he understood his feelings. Despite his hostility towards Yip Manyou, the man represented a link to the only woman he had truly loved. With his death he had taken that link away and it was this loss that Yee-man Zhan was now feeling. Forcing the emotion down he made his face stone cold and turned to the Yip brothers to receive their bow, then turning with a flurry he addressed the mourners:

    “Fellow members of the Martial Arts Realm. Today we mourn the loss of our Grand Patriarch and while we express our sorrow we must also bare in mind other matters.”

    Fevered whispers spread through the mourners and Yee-man Yin stepped close to her father whispering into his ear, only to be dismissed by an annoyed wave of his hand. Holding up his hands to silence the crowd, Yee-man Zhan continued:

    “A snake is incomplete without a head and as much as it pains me to say it as this time, our thoughts must turn to selecting a new leader.”

    His son cried a warning from behind and he turned to see Yongle shoot to his feet and come rushing towards him. The young man did not stop until he was practically stepping on Yee-man Zhan's toes. The older man saw the fury in Yongle's eyes and nearly bulked in shock. Gone was the good natured young man and in his place was an angry warrior on the brink of explosive violence:

    “My father has barely been laid to rest and you are already trying to usurp his position. Does dignity mean anything to you!?” Yongle heated words were spoken so loudly that they were almost a shout and the entire hall tensed.

    Yongan was beside his brother in an instant and grabbing his wrist pulled him back a step:

    “Lord Yee-man, please forgive my brother. This is a most difficult time.” although the words were spoken as an apology, Yongan's tone was stiff with his own suppressed anger.

    “And what makes you think you have the right to speak, foreign spawn. It was one of your kind that killed the Grand Patriarch.” said Yee-man Gao.

    Yongle tensed and Yongan tightened his grip on his brother. Just as violence was looking inevitable a strong voice spoke from behind the Yip brothers:

    “Do I have the right to speak?” said Bai Feng as he stalked into the room, still holding the bundle he had retrieved from the armoury.

    Stepping before Yee-man Zhan he stared at him angrily:

    “Today is the seventh day of Manyou's funeral rites and so I will pretend that I did not hear your brat's insult. But do not push my good-will.” Said Bai Feng in a tone that made it clear that this was no idle threat.

    Yee-man Zhan forced down his own rising fury and replied with a tense voice:

    “Very well, we will let this matter drop. But the issue of a new Grand Patriarch must be settled.”

    “I agree.” said Bai Feng much to Yee-man Zhan's surprise. So shocked was the latter that he was rendered speechless, so Bai Feng continued:

    “I propose we settle the matter at the Grand Patriarch tournament in six months time.”

    “Six months! That is far too long a time.” declared Yee-man Gao.

    Bai Feng turned to face the younger man and Yee-man Gao took a step back at the murderous glare in his eyes. With the youngster cowed Bai Feng turned back to Yee-man Zhan:

    “Well? Do you still have a shred of decency?” asked Bai Feng.

    Yee-man Zhan met his gaze steadily and the two of them engaged in a silent contest on wills. The deadlock was broken by Mu Kong's booming voice:

    “I agree with Lord Bai. We should honour the memory of Grand Patriarch Yip and leave the position vacant until the next tournament. I trust there is no one here so shameless as to challenge the motion?”

    Yee-man Zhan felt the eyes of everyone fall on him. Part of him wanted to settle this matter now. He had spent five years in Manyou's shadow and the thought of waiting another six months grated on him. But if he pressed the issue now he would appear disrespectful to the dead and lose face amongst his peers. So swallowing his anger he turned to face the priest and bowed:

    “Very well holy one.”

    Then turning on his heels he stalked out of the hall with his children trailing after him. Yee-man Yin paused to give Yongan an apologetic look then hurried after her father.

    ####

    The seven of them were in the study. Bao Zheng lifted high the box Manyou had entrusted to him so that all could see. Putting the box down on a desk, he broke the wax seal and reaching in took out an unopened envelope. In a clear solemn voice he read its contents:

    “I Yip Manyou have entrusted the honourable Judge Bao with this, my last will and testament.

    To everyone present I want you to know that I think of you all as my dearest family and offer you my gratitude for how each of you have enriched my life by being part of it. I consider myself the most blessed of men, for I have known the warmth of a loving parent, been nurtured on the wisdom of a great teacher, known the comradeship of true friendship, the joys of pure love and the pleasure of watching several amazing young boys grow to manhood.

    Yuan Fei, my oldest and most difficult apprentice. You came to me as a rebellious eight year old, who resented his father for sending him away because he did not love him. But believe me your father cherished you above all others, so much so that he endured the pain of being separated from you in order to give the best start in life.

    I remember that throughout your tutelage you only ever smiled when you were riding and so I leave you my stable. You can take as many of the horses as you like, or you can leave them here, they are yours to do with as you please.”

    As a military man Yuan Fei was not given to open displays of his emotions and outwardly he remained as impassive as stone. However those who knew him recognized the great effort he was putting into keep his emotions in check by the tightening of his eyes and jaw.

    “Zhang Men. My clever boy, you studied under me because of your love of Martial Arts, but I hope that you have also learnt the importance of Martial Virtue in our time together. Your family's wealth means that you want for no material items, so I leave you my library, for I remember the many happy hours you spent there quietly studying.”

    Unlike Yuan Fei, Zhang Men was not so good at controlling himself and upon hearing his Sifu's words he broke down. Burying his face in his palms he wept opening, uncaring what others thought. Yuan Fei put a hand on Zhang Men's shoulder in an attempt to comfort him. Bao Zheng waited a moment for Zhang Men to compose himself before continuing:

    “Wang Hai. Of all my apprentices you are perhaps the most driven. All your life you have reached for the stars, refusing to let your humble birth hold you back. I cannot tell you how proud it has been for me, watching you become the man that you are. To you I leave Nian Yue Tong (Remembering Moon Hall), knowing you will help others from there reach as high as you did.”

    Wang Hai fixed his eyes to the ground fighting back tears that threatened to overwhelm him and silently swore to his beloved Sifu that he would continue of make him proud.

    “My sons Yongan and Yongle. I know the two of you are hurting now, but there is no need to do so. I am with your mother now, telling her how wonderful the two of you have been. All of my worldly possessions are to be divided equally between the two of you. I know that the bond that you share will ensure the continued harmony of my household. As symbols of your new authority Yongan will have Xueyue (Blood Moon) while Yongle will have Longlei (Dragon's Tear), may the two of you use these blades to bring honour to our family.”

    Yongle was sobbing openly on hearing his father's words and Yongan put an arm around his brother's shoulder wishing that he could take away Yongle's pain, even if it meant doubling his own. Once more Bao Zhang allowed a moment for things to quieten down before continuing:

    “Finally we come to Bai Feng, the brother of my heart. You have always doted on my sons as if they were your own and so I know you will not refuse becoming their guardian, until such time as you see fit to let them be on their own. In the name of our friendship I beg you to suppress your wonder lust and disdain for responsibility for a while. As strong as my sons are, they still need a father and I can trust them to no one but you.

    I want you all to know that I have been proud of each and everyone of you. You have all lived honourably and I know you will continue to do so. I leave you with my prayer that I will not see any of you again for many long years.

    Yip Manyou.”

    Except for the sobbing of Zhang Men and Yongle, no other sound could be heard in the study as everyone lost themselves in their thoughts. Bao Zheng placed the letter reverently on the desk and left, leaving the family to grieve in privacy.

    ####

    Bai Feng stood in the centre of the training hall, the bundle held vertically in front of him. The hall was a large room and held no furniture, except for racks of weapons placed against the walls. Swiftly Bai Feng unwrapped the bundle, revealing a long metal staff that glittered like a shard of sunlight. The staff appeared to be made entirely of gold, but was in fact forged from a unique alloy that prevented it from rusting and made it as hard as diamonds. Running like water along the length of the staff were two characters, which proclaimed the weapon's name, 'Tianzhen' (Sky Needle).

    Running his hand along the mirror smooth surface Bai Feng whispered to the weapon:

    “My apologies for waking you old friend, but I need you in order to honour a great man. Will you accompany me once more?”

    The cold metal gradually grew warm, signalling Tianzhen's consent. Bai Feng thanked the magic weapon, then removing it completely from the cloth began a practice with it, knowing that he would soon need all of skills in the coming days.

  18. #18
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Spellcasters



    Kan Xing sat cross-legged on the floor, in front of him was a large golden bowl filled to the brim with the blood of one white lamb and one black lamb, whose limp bodies lay on either sides of the Shaman. Closing his eyes in concentration Kan Xing began the rhythmic chant to attract the attention of the spirits. Starting slowly his voice quickly built up speed, until the ancient words seemed to tumble from his mouth. As the chanting quickened the Shaman started violently rocking from side to side, as if he was being buffeted by powerful winds.

    The spirits answered Kan Xing's summons and appeared as a carpet of thick mist on the floor. The Shaman took a deep breath inhaling the entire ghostly fog. His tiny frame seemed to expand as the spirits infused with him, body and soul. Kan Xing held the energy for as long as he dared, feeling his ribcage expand so much that he thought it would break through his skin, then in one long breath he expelled the spirits into the bowl. The blood started bubbling as soon as the spectral smoke fell on it and it was not long before it was boiling.

    Quickly the liquid started evaporating until it became a fine mist, floating in front of the Shaman. Reaching into his sleeve Kan Xing pulled out a small corked bottle of Sha Long's blood. Uncorking the bottle he thrust it into the crimson mist. The blood mist swelled around the bottle catching the scent of its prey, then slowly solidified in mid air forming rough shapes. The faint outline of a landscape could be made out and Kan Xing started smiling as his spell took effect. Suddenly the picture started shaking violent before quickly breaking up all together, the blood splattering on the ground.

    The Shaman stared in disbelief at his broken spell, then sheepishly turned to face his Khan:

    “Well?” asked Tianke Khan

    “It almost worked my liege. I am sure that next time...”

    “Always next time. Is that your mantra now?” interrupted the Khan.

    “Your majesty. You know I am loyal to you to onto death. But very powerful magic is protecting Sha Long.” said the Shaman quickly.

    “More powerful than yours?” asked the Khan, an edge creeping into his voice.

    Kan Xing chose his next words very carefully:

    “Only here in the South lands, if we were to return to the Steppes...”

    “We are not going anywhere until that traitor is dead.” declared the Khan, his tone making it clear there was to be no argument.

    “Perhaps if I try a different...”

    “I grow weary of your excuses old man. You have failed me for too long and I am starting to think that perhaps another Shaman might serve me better.”

    “Your Majesty! I swear no other Shaman could possible do any better.” pleaded Kan Xing.

    “Very well. I give you ten more days. Either bring me Sha Long's head or your own.” so saying the Khan rose and walked away without a single backward glance.

    Kan Xing wrung his hands in worry, knowing that his sovereign was making no idle threat. Silently he cursed his former apprentice. Why had that fool defied the Khan and brung disaster on to both their heads. When news of Yip Manyou's death had reached them, Tianke had immediately ordered Kan Xing to invoke the Soul Claw. Both of them had been shocked when the dreaded curse had failed to take effect and the Shaman had had a hard time convincing his Khan that he was not shielding his apprentice.

    Since then Kan Xing had used every divination spell he knew to try to find his apprentice without success. The Shaman however took solace in knowing that he was not the only one who had failed to locate Sha Long. The entire Martial Arts world had been scouring the whole of China to no avail. The search had been motivated by a mixture of vengeance, wounded national pride and greed, for Zhang Man had offered a sizeable bounty in gold for Sha Long's head. The sum was said to be enough for a man to live several lifetimes as a prince and had incited every bounty hunter in the country to seek out the former Warlord.

    But it was the actions of the Dragon Emperor that had most surprised Kan Xing. The Emperor had issued two decrees in the aftermath of Yip Manyou's death. The first was to posthumously elevate Yip Manyou to the Duke of National Pride and the second was to declare Sha Long an enemy of the state. The second decree meant that any Chinese citizen had the right to kill Sha Long on sight and made anyone aiding him into a criminal punishable by death. That a sovereign would make such decrees showed how highly he had thought of Yip Manyou, however the Royal order had an unexpectedly violent side effect, for many took it as an excuse to attack the foreigners within Kaifeng. A string of xenophobic attacks had erupted across the city, which only subsided when the Yip family publicly denounced them.

    Kan Xing turned his thoughts back to the task of locating his apprentice, knowing that his Khan would not take the failure of others as an excuse for his own. He knew that if he could muster enough power he could break through the magical wards protecting Sha Long. However here in China the spirits responded weakly to his summons and the land barely answered his commands making it impossible for him to gather the power he needed. His winkled old face crumpled even deeper as an idea came to him. He detested the thought even as it entered his mind but knew it was the only way. Clenching his fist in anger he called to his servants to prepare his palanquin.

    ####

    Yongan took a deep calming breath, then slowly let it out as he opened his eyes. Before him in the dim candle light of Tie Lin Monastery's inner sanctum was the sheathed Xueyue, its silver scabbard glittering in the flickering light. Months of strenuous practice and almost complete isolation had culminated in this one moment. Now he would find out if he was worthy to wield his Sifu's blade and take up his legacy. Without hesitation he stretched out his hand and grasped Xueyue's hilt. Having spent so long preparing, he was a little surprised by what happened. The ivory hilt felt completely normal.

    There was no sensation of heat, no sudden burst of power, absolutely nothing happened. Tightening his grip Yongan drew the blade in one swift movement. The steel slid out of its scabbard with a noise like a wild animal slipping its lease and immediately Yongan felt the presence of the entity trapped within the blade. It was as alien to him as he was to an ant. The first thing he felt was the entity’s ravenous hunger. It had a thirst for blood and death so great that it could drink an entire world dry and still not be sated. Yongan felt his own thirst for revenge respond to the entity's hunger. It was a thrilling sensation, knowing that in his hand he held a weapon that could make all his desires come true. That with this blade he could satisfy any whim he ever had or ever will have.

    The desire to give into the blade was painfully tempting and Yongan found himself slipping into its seductive embrace. Suddenly a voice in his head told him to stop, to step back from the edge and see the malign entity for what it was. The voice snapped Yongan out of his trance and the entity roared in frustration. The red hot fury of the beast hit Yongan like a wave making him fell like a mouse being pounced upon by a cat. Drawing on his courage he faced the entity refusing to be cowed. Once more the beast's raged threateningly in anger but this time Yongan was ready and weathered the emotional storm with resolution.

    Slowly the entity subsided and Yongan dared hope that perhaps he had won, then the whispers started. At first he could barely hear them, the voices were as soft as a summer breeze. Gradually they got louder and Yongan was startled when he realised it was his Sifu's voice. His Sifu called him foreign spawn, green-eyed freak, a jinx that had caused the death of two sets of parents. His Sifu said that if he continued to live he would bring about the death of Yongle and that he should plunge Xueyue into his heart now in order to save his brother. Yongan felt despair grip his heart and the urge to give into it was overwhelming, but just as he was about to surrender to the despair he saw the lies for what they were.

    His Sifu would never say these things to him. Always the man had treated him like his son and there was no way he would do anything to hurt him. Steeling himself with this knowledge, Yongan clawed his way out of despair and once more faced the beast. The entity subsided once more having met a will as strong as its own. Yongan knew that this was only the first of many battles in his war to master Xueyue, but he had won it and that gave him confidence to fight on. He spared a moment to admire the blade them slammed it back into its sheath, then slowly got up and walked towards the iron doors.

    ####

    Watching the doors open, Mu Kong let out the breath that he had not realised he had been holding. As Yongan emerged the priest felt pride swelling in his heart. For the pass few months he had worked with the young man as he sought to master his Sifu's art. Rising before the first rays of the sun and not retiring to bed until deep into the night, Yongan had spent nearly every waking moment practising the first level of 'The Art of Demon Taming”. The initial stage of the art was called 'Forging the silver armour' and consisted of a series of ardours mental exercises designed to condition ones mind from the mental assault Xueyue was bound to unleash.

    Mu Kong had helped Manyou create this stage, basing it on the mental disciplines of his own order and so making the priest the ideal candidate to train Yongan. From the very beginning Mu Kong had been most impressed by the young man, who was intelligent, humble and diligent. But it was Yongan's control which had truly earned him Mu Kong's admiration. Despite his obvious desire to master the art, he refused to rush his training always taking great care to master every aspect of each exercise before moving onto the next one. Mu Kong could see why his Sifu had decided to leave Xueyue in his care.

    Even so Mu Kong had been concerned when Yongan had decided to draw the magic blade. The priest had taken every precaution to make the test as safe as possible, having it conducted in the most heavily warded place in the monastery, with himself waiting outside ready to intervene at the first sign of danger but still he could not completely eliminate all the dangers. The wards would stop Xueyue's influence from spreading out of the room but would do little to protect Yongan and while Mu Kong could move swiftly he knew that the blade would consume the young man in the space of a breath if it found him too weak. However Yongan had prevailed and returned to the light, although with the strain of the ordeal being clearly visible.

    His complexion was worryingly pale, his eyes watery and his brow drenched in sweat. He looked like a man who had just recovered from a great illness. Even so he gave Mu Kong a weak smile as he stumbled out. Rushing forward the priest shot his hand out to steady his young charge:

    “How are you?” asked Mu Kong.

    “Tired.” replied Yongan softly.

    “You did very well.” said the priest, reassuring the young man.

    “It does not feel like I did. I had never felt such a malignant force, I feel like my mind has just been savaged by a wild animal.”

    “You do not know how close to the truth you are but it is over now. Take a few days to gather yourself, then we will begin training on the next stage.”

    Yongan nodded his agreement to Mu Kong's suggestion but as they started heading towards his room an acolyte of the monastery appeared. The man was obviously agitated but seemed reluctant to voice the reason for his distress. Mu Kong helped Yongan onto a nearby stone bench before turning his attention to the acolyte. The man whispered urgently to his order's High Priest and as he listened Mu Kong's face visible darkened. Turning back to Yongan he forced a smile through a face like thunderclouds:

    “Yongan there is a matter that I must attend to. My disciple will help you to your room.”

    As Yongan nodded Mu Kong turned and walked towards the Main Hall of the monastery, his steps steadily but his shoulders squaring as if he was preparing to face an enemy.

    ####

    Kan Xing turned as Mu Kong entered the Hall. The priest's expression could in no way be described as welcoming, in fact the Shaman could detect the barely concealed hostility in Mu Kong's eyes. Stopping within arms reach of the shaman, Mu Kong gave a tight nod of greeting:

    “Shaman.” Mu Kong said in a flat tone.

    “Priest.” replied Kan Xing in an equally emotionless voice.

    “What do you want?” asked the priest, keeping his voice colourless.

    Kan Xing fought to keep his temper in check. Mu Kong's attitude bordered on being rude and as the Shaman of Tianke Khan, Kan Xing was not used to being treated this way. Forcing down his rising anger he kept his voice level as he spoke:

    “I have come to offer you aid.”

    “I need no assistance from the likes of you.” replied Mu Kong sharply.

    “Still so self-righteous!” said Kan Xing, no longer bothering to hide his anger.

    “Compared to you so is a dog!” snapped back Mu Kong.

    Kan Xing raised his hand, which quickly became enveloped in a green halo. Mu Kong did not seem to react but the shaman could detect a solidifying of energy around the priest and knew that he had activated a powerful warding spell. Tense seconds passed until slowly, reluctantly Kan Xing lowered his hand and snuffed out the light:

    “I have not come here to fight but to offer you aid in locating Sha Long.” the shaman said through gritted teeth.

    “So you have failed to locate your wayward apprentice.” mocked Mu Kong

    “No more than you have.” retorted Kan Xing with a snort.

    This time it was Mu Kong's turn to keep his temper. As much as he hated to admit it, Kan Xing was right, he had failed in divining Sha Long's location despite months of trying. Although Mu Kong despised the treacherous shaman he knew the man was well versed in the magical arts and being Sha Long's Sifu he may have a way of finding him. Swallowing his pride Mu Kong once more spoke in his flat tone:

    “What do you propose?”

    Kan Xing allowed himself a small smirk of satisfaction then started outlining his plan. Mu Kong listened quietly for several minutes until the shaman had finished. As loath as the High Priest was to allow such a ritual to be performed on the sacred ground of his monastery, he knew Kan Xing's proposal represented the best chance of finding Sha Long. Reluctantly as if the movement was causing him immeasurable pain Mu Kong nodded in agreement.

  19. #19
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Uneasy company




    Yongle faced his uncle across the courtyard, his hand resting on the pommel of the sheathed Longlei (Dragon's Tear), which hung by his side. Yongle studied his uncle, noting the absence of the smile that normally adorned Bai Feng's face. Holding Tianzhen (Sky Needle) vertically by his side, Bai Feng looked at his nephew sternly, his posture relaxed yet alert. Yongle rushed forward as swift as the wind, his fingers tensing as he prepared to draw Longlei. Suddenly the tip of Tianzhen was at his throat and Yongle had to dive to the side to avoid having his windpipes crushed. With a flick of his wrist Bai Feng send Tianzhen hurtling towards Yongle and the latter had to lift the still sheathed Longlei to block the attack. Yongle felt like he had been charged by a bull and found himself flung high into the air to land twenty feet away from his uncle.

    Barely had his feet touched the ground and Yongle was airborne again, leaping high he drew Longlei in a fiery emerald streak and brought it down on Bai Feng's head. Bai Feng took a step back rotating his grip on Tianzhen as he did so, bringing the staff down on the back of Longlei adding to the weight of the falling blade and making it plunge deep into the stone paved floor. Yongle yanked his sword free in a shower of stone and barely managed to parry Tianzhen as he leapt away. Bai Feng advanced upon his nephew and despite his vastly greater bulk easily kept up with the younger man.

    Yongle darted back and forth trying to get within striking distance, but no matter how fast he moved or from whatever impossible angle he attacked from, the tip of Tianzhen was always pointed at his throat and Bai Feng would be infuriatingly out of reach. With mounting frustration Yongle started attacking wildly, his movements quick but undisciplined. Tianzhen struck the back of his hand and sent Longlei spinning out of his grip, then the tip of the staff came to rest on Yongle's throat. For a moment Yongle glared at his uncle, then his gaze dropped and he backed into a bow of defeat:

    “Thank you for the lesson Uncle.” Yongle said, keeping his gaze on the ground.

    “You must learn to control your temper. Your initial movements were crisp and sharp, but then you got frustrated and careless. If you do that when facing Sha Long he will rip your throat out faster than you can blink.”

    Yongle did not reply to his Uncle's words, he just nodded his head and went to retrieve his sword. Staring after him Bai Feng suppressed a sigh. He hated criticising the boy. For the last few months Yongle hard worked tireless in mastering the Art of Dragon Bonding and had made amazing progress in learning the first of the Art's three stages. Yongle had quickly memorized the movements of the Dance of Flames, the external form of the Art of Dragon Bonding, and through relentless practice he could now perform the moves without conscious effort. However if he could not control his temper then he would never advance to the next stage.

    As Yongle sheathed his blade a servant came running in:

    “Sirs, sirs there is a messenger from Tie Lin Monastery.” shouted the man.

    Yongle's face lit up. He had not seen his brother in nearly six months and his heart filled with excitement at the prospect of news from him. Quickly Yongle hurried to the Reception Hall where the messenger would be waiting with Bai Feng following.

    ####

    “Dage (elder brother)” shouted Yongle as he practically jumped into Yongan's arms.

    Bai Feng smiled dotingly as he watched the brothers share a heartfelt embrace. The two of them had not seen each other in months, ever since they started studying their respective Arts and it gladdened Bai Feng's heart to see that their fondness for each other had not diminished. Taking his eyes off of the brothers Bai Feng turned to give Mu Kong a respectful bow. The priest had summoned him and Yongle to Tie Lin Monastery but his message had told them not to arrive until the hour of the Pig, deep into the night. The cryptic message had intrigued Bai Feng and now on arriving at the appointed hour his curiosity was further aroused.

    Besides Mu Kong and Yongan there were four others. One of these was Lin Zi-hsia, holding a food basket she smiled as she watched the Yip brothers. Standing besides her were two men in their mid fifties. One was the vagabond Guild Master Dao San, wearing an uncustomary clean robe and holding the Jade Cudgel that was the badge of his office. The other man was dressed in the hat and robes of a scholar. His face was lean and clean shaven. His eyes were alert but not unfriendly. Bai Feng recognized him as Lin Jan, Zi-hsia's father and friend of the Yip family. The last person was the shaman Kan Xing, who wore an elaborate cloak of black dyed fur and white feathers. Nodding to each men Bai Feng turned to address Mu Kong:

    “Holy one, we have arrived as requested. May I enquiry as to the reason for your summons?”

    “There is still one more party to arrive. I beg your patience for just a bit longer.” replied the priest.

    Barely had Mu Kong finished speaking than Bai Feng heard footsteps from behind. Turning he saw Yee-man Zhan and his family. Both Yee-man Zhan and his son were armed, the father with Taihui (Great Light), the son with a long straight sword sheathed at his belt. Yee-man Yin however, held a lacquered wooden basket and smiled brightly as she saw Yongle. Her father however scowled as he spotted Kan Xing:

    “What is that savage doing here.” Yee-man Zhan demanded, not bothering to greet anyone.

    “He is here as my guest.” replied Mu Kong, his tone daring Yee-man Zhan to challenge him.

    For a long moment no one spoke, with Yee-man Zhan looking like he was contemplating turning around and storming off. Finally he tore his gaze away from the shaman and gave Mu Kong the briefest of bows, barely observing the demands of etiquette:

    “Holy one, why have we been gathered here tonight?” asked Yee-man Zhan.

    Mu Kong addressed his answer to everyone:

    “Honoured guests. Please accept my thanks for answering my invitation. I have asked you here to aid us in a task.”

    “And what task would that be, Holy one?” asked Bai Feng.

    “Shaman Kan Xing and I have devised a means to locate Sha Long. However there is considerable risk to our proposition and so we require your assistance.” answered Mu Kong.

    The priest and shaman went on to explain the details of their plan with everyone listening in silence. When finished the Holy men turned to each person in turn and received nods of agreement. With aid secured Mu Kong and Kan Xing began their preparations.

    ####

    Yongan removed the stopper from the bamboo container and inhaled deeply, taking in the broth's delicious aroma. Bringing the container to his lips he took a deep draught savouring the wonderful flavours:

    “Well?” asked Yee-man Yin as she watched.

    “Lady Yee-man, there is no end to your talents.” replied Yongan with a smile.

    Yee-man Yin smiled back, glad that he enjoyed the ginseng soup, yet feeling a little guilty that he did not know that she had had one of her maids prepare it. It was not that she did not want to cook for him, it was just that she could not even boil water without burning it. Yongle's laughter drew their attention and they turned to him talking to Lin Zi-hsia, while holding a plate of sugared cakes that she had prepared for him. The four of them had been given the duty of guarding the Main Hall, while their elders performed the ritual to locate Sha Long. The ladies had taken the opportunity to present their gifts to the Yip brothers.

    The happy atmosphere however, was broken by a loud snort from Yee-man Gao, which drew everyone's attention. He had also been given guard duty, but had decided to keep himself apart from the others. Now seeing the Yip brothers enjoying their food he let his frustration show. Yee-man Yin looked her brother in the eye:

    “Erdi (younger brother), do you have something to say?” she asked sternly.

    Yee-man Gao shrugged but did not reply:

    “In that case be quiet and stop embarrassing me.” continued Yee-man Yin.

    “It is YOU who is embarrassing me! Being so friendly with that savage!” shouted Yee-man Gao.

    “What did you call my brother!?” said Yongle as he shot to his feet.

    Yongan rose swiftly and grabbed his brother's arm:

    “Let it go Yongle. We have our duties perform.” he said to his brother.

    “Erdi, you will apologise.” said Yee-man Yin, her voice growing cold.

    Yee-man Gao ignored her but she was prevented from further comment when Yongan held up a placating hand:

    “Please Lady Yee-man. Let us forget this matter.” Yongan said calmly.

    Yee-man Yin and Yongle acquiesced to Yongan's words and settled down once more. Yee-man Gao gave a final snort before turning his back on the four of them.

    ####

    Kan Xing sat cross-legged in the centre of the Hall, at his feet was a large bronze cauldron filled with the blood of three ravens, three black furred puppies and three black scaled eels. The animals of air, earth and water had been ritually sacrificed and their blood prepared in order to attract the attention of the spirits, that Kan Xing needed to perform his spell. Opening his mage-sight to their fullest he studied his surroundings. Tie Lin Monastery was a wonder in geomancy architecture with every wooden beam and every fired brick expertly placed to draw in mystical energy, with no place more so than here in the Great Hall.

    The Great Hall was the focal point of all the magic gathered by the Monastery. Here the magic was broken down and recreated into powerful warding spells that protected the building from magical attacks and shielded it from mystical spying. If the Great Hall was the heart of the Monastery then Mu Kong was the heart of the Hall. Magic poured in and out of the High Priest like streams running into and out of a river, connecting him to every inch of the Great Hall and by extension the entire Monastery. As Kan Xing looked on, the priest started moving his hands in a series of arcane gestures, slowly shutting down the powerful wards of the monastery in order to allow Kan Xing to perform the spell of seeking, that would otherwise have be snuffed out of the monastery's defences.

    While the priest performed his task Kan Xing studied their companions, each of whom sat at one of the cardinal points of the Hall, in a cross-legged position and facing away from him. Facing the North was Bai Feng whose aura appeared as a big dent that bent the flows of magic with its weighty presence, like how a massive boulder in a stream changes the course of the water around it. At Bai Feng's side was Tianzhen, which glowed like a staff of golden fire hinting at the mystical powers locked within the weapon. In stark contrast to the subtle display of power in the North, the South blazed in the dazzling silver aura of Yee-man Zhan, whose brilliance was matched only by Taihui which crackled with lightning as it rested across his lap.

    On the East was the vagabond Guild Master Dao San whose aura smouldered like banked fire. In his hand he held his Jade Cudgel, which unlike the other weapons showed absolutely no magical properties. In fact, the area surrounding the cudgel was completely devoid of any traces magic at all. Kan Xing knew that this was the secret of the weapon, for it was the very antithesis of magic, completely inert to its effect and protecting its wielder from being directly influenced by it. In the West was the Scholar-Swordsman Lin Jan, his aura a gentle shower of snow drifting down from a still sky. The only solid part of the man was around his waist, where a solid ebony band stood out against his shifting white aura.

    These four men were the greatest Martial Artists of China and their mighty presences were needed to safeguard the holy men. Kan Xing's spell would gather a colossal amount of magic which would attract the unwanted attention of certain entities. With the Monastery's defences taken down the priest and shaman would be vulnerable to these otherworldly beings and so they had gathered these four great warriors, whose fierce auras would protect them. Sensing the last of the monastery's wards being deactivated Kan Xing began his ritual. This time the spirits answered him quickly, even willingly, drawn to this sacred place like moths to a flame. Power swelled within the shaman much swifter and in greater amounts than before and Kan Xing felt his entire body swell to accommodate the influx of energy.

    In the corner of his mind Kan Xing felt the approach of the demonic entities he knew would be coming. The auras of the four great warriors intensified in response to the otherworldly presence and Kan Xing breathed a mental sigh of relief at the effectiveness of the barrier. Knowing that time was of the essence he continued his spell. Releasing the built up energy which manifested as a cloud of green spirits, Kan Xing channelled it into the bronze cauldron. Like before the cauldron quickly bubbled and hissed. Reaching into his sleeve the shaman pulled out the vile of Sha Long's blood and removed the cork.

    This time however, he poured the content into the cauldron, knowing that if the spell failed this time then there was no point in saving the blood. The crimson liquid in the cauldron exploded in a fountain of red, which hung suspended in mid air. Slowly the blood started taking shape and Kan Xing felt the familiar resistance of the spell that shielded his former apprentice. This time however, the shaman had sufficient strength to overcome this obstacle and channelled his stored power into his spell. For a moment the opposing ward resisted before being overwhelmed and the blood swiftly became a crimson picture of a mountain range.

    The picture shifted quickly to show a great gate, cleverly hidden inside a cave mouth. The vision focused in on the gate then passed though it and travelled swiftly through a series of complex tunnels before stopping outside a paper screen. For a moment the spell was stopped by a final ward placed there. With a concerted effort Kan Xing pushed through this final barrier and the picture shifted a final time, then formed into the likeness of Sha Long. Kan Xing smiled as he fixed his spell onto his target, knowing that from now on he would be able to find the man no matter how well he hid. With the task completed the shaman ended his spell and signalled for Mu Kong to reactivated the Monastery's defences. Once the Holy place was secured the shaman shared his knowledge with his companions and they began to plan on how to catch their prey.

    ####

    The middle-aged witch bolted awake, her eyes wide with shock and quickly sent a mental warning to her sisters:

    “Our defences have been breached.” she thought.

    “Where is the breach?” asked the voice of the crone.

    “Centred around Sha Long.” answered the girl.

    “Then it is time to move our guest.” declared the middle-aged witch.

    “It is a shame, he could still have been useful.” thought the girl.

    “He is only a tool. We will find another.” thought the crone, a statement that her sisters agreed with wholeheartedly.

  20. #20
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Dragon Slayers



    Yongan sat at his desk and went over the piles of papers stacked in front of him. With Sha Long located, attention had shifted to how to snare this most dangerous of prey. From Kan Xing's visions it was obvious that the former Mongolian Warlord was residing in a heavily fortified location and that a formidable force would need to be assembled in order to bring him to justice. To this end Yongan and Yongle had curtailed their training in order to organize the men needed. Volunteers were easy to come by for every major family, school, military institute and even religious orders who wanted to contribute to the task of getting revenge for the Grand Patriarch. In the end it was decided that a thousand warriors would be sufficient and the decision as to whom these would be would be left to the Yip family.

    Both Yongle and Bai Feng had decided to let Yongan compose the list on candidates, trusting in his sound judgement. Yongan had chosen three hundred of the Yip family's retainers, including himself, Yongle, Bai Feng and his late Sifu's three senior apprentices. Another three hundred warriors were chosen from the Yee-man family and included Yee-man Zhan and his children. Yongan had chosen the numbers from both families carefully to avoid slighting Yee-man Zhan, while still maintaining the position of his own family. The bulk of the remaining troops came from the Beggar's Guild and Tie Lin Monastery the latter of which provided the magical protection the small army needed. Finally there was the Shaman Kan Xing and his retinue of fifty Mongolian archers, who represented Tianke Khan and his support for this undertaking.

    Now Yongan was organizing the mass of materials needed to keep so many people in the field, a task that would likely keep him up late into the night. There was a knock on his door and a servant entered on being summoned:

    “Yes?” asked Yongan.

    “There is a Lord Gao asking to see you sir.” answered the servant.

    “Invite the gentleman to wait in the Main Hall, I will be with him shortly.” As the servant left to carry out the instruction, Yongan filed the papers away, then left to greet his visitor.

    Tianke Khan turned around as Yongan entered the hall. Seeing his nephew the Khan took a step forward with arms open to embrace him. Yongan stopped well out of arm's reach and bowed formally:

    “Your Majesty.” said Yongan.

    Forcing down the feeling of hurt the Khan gave his nephew a short nod:

    “How are you doing my boy?” asked Tianke in a rare soft voice.

    “I am well, and your Majesty.”

    “I am sorry that I was not here when you needed me. I wanted to attend your Sifu's funeral but...”

    “I am grateful that your Majesty did not, for that would have made the situation very difficult for everyone. Please accept my thanks for your Majesty's restraint.”

    Tianke took a moment to study his nephew's words, but could find no hint of resentment or sarcasm so took them for being genuine:

    “You will be setting out on your mission soon?” Tianke asked.

    “Yes, within the next few days in fact.”

    “Is there anything you need? Gold, men, horses name it and its yours.” Offered the Khan

    “I thank you for your offer Majesty, but we have everything in hand.”

    Tianke Khan picked up a lacquered box that was lying on the table and offered it to Yongan:

    “At least take this.” he said opening the box.

    Yongan peered inside but the box appeared empty, then the candlelight hit it at the correct angle and the faint outline of a cloak could be seen. Although he had never seen it before, Yongan knew this was the fabled cloak made from the silk of the Divine-worm, that the Emperor had gifted to the Khan:

    “I cannot accept so valuable a gift, your Majesty.”

    “You can and you will. I have failed to protect you for over two decades and I am not going to let you go hunting Sha Long without protection.” said the Khan in a tone that made it clear this was not a request.

    “Even so...”

    “Yongan. Your grandparents died when I was just five and it was your father who raised me. Although barely into his teens at the time, your father never uttered a word of resentment through all the hardship in raising a child, single-handed on the harsh Steppes.
    I had sworn that if one day I became a man of substance I would repay his kindness. But your father left before I could fulfil that promise and I have ever felt indebted to him. Please do not add to my debt.” said the Khan, a touch of sorrow entering his voice.

    The sincerity of the words touched Yongan and he accepted the gift. As he turned to leave Tianke patted Yongan affectionately on the cheek, unable to resist the impulse. I look on embarrassment flashed across Yongan's face, then he smiled back at his uncle.

    ####

    The thousand strong force marched with efficiency and gloom, with everyone's heart set on the single goal of revenge. They had been travelling for fifteen days in almost complete silence, with the absence of the usual banter associated with men on the march. In another three days they would reach their destination and a sense of tense anticipation had settled on everyone. From his position with the rest of the leaders at the head of the expedition, Yongan saw one of Kan Xing's men come riding towards him. Stopping a respectful distance away the man bowed deeply:

    “Your Highness. My master wishes a word with you and the rest of the leaders.”

    Yee-man Zhan bristled at the slight, for in terms of seniority the man should have addressed the request to him, or Bai Feng. But he bit back an angry retort as Yongan dismissed the man. The leaders exchanged a few words then started making their way down to the centre of the column where Kan Xing's carriage was located.

    ####

    The six of them sat in the carriage and listened to Kan Xing:

    “Our prey has moved.” declared the Shaman.

    “Where to?” asked Yongle, his youthful impatience betraying him.

    “To the West.” replied Kan Xing.

    “How long has he been on the move and how fast is he travelling?” asked Yongan

    “I noticed this a couple of days ago and he is travelling around 40 to 50 leagues a day, your Highness.” answered the Shaman.

    “Is it possible that this could be a trick?” asked Yongan.

    “No. My spell is infallible, your Highness.” assured Kan Xing.

    “So what should we do?” mused Bai Feng.

    “We pursue him of course.” said Yee-man Zhan.

    Bai Feng ignored him and turned to Yongan:

    “Well my boy. Any ideas?”

    Yongan thought for a moment then addressed his answer to everyone in the carriage:

    “Judging from the speed of travel I would guess that Sha Long is travelling in a group of about a dozen men. It would be difficult for us to catch him if the entire column was to give chase. Instead I propose we select a hundred men to pursue Sha Long, while the rest under the leadership of Guild Master Dao and Elder Lin continue to our original destination in case this is a ruse.”

    Dao San and Lin Jan nodded in agreement. Yee-man Zhan thought for a moment trying to think of a way to discredit the suggestion, for he was loath to follow the orders of a savage. But try as he may he could not. With the decision made, the leaders left the carriage to begin the preparations.

    ####

    Sha Long slumped onto his back, discarding the woman after having spent his passion on her. Ignoring her sobs he closed his eyes and enjoyed the gentle rocking motion of the carriage. The vehicle, the woman and his dozen or so attendances had been provided to him by the three witches, to see to his comfort on his journey to the West away from his pursuers. Part of him resented the need to flee, his warrior spirit yearning to stay and face his enemies. But the sensible part of his mind told him this was the wisest course, for as powerful as he was, even he could not stand before the fury of an entire nation.

    Idly he touched the scar on his collar bone. Even after nearly half a year and the magical healing of the witches the touch of Xueyue still pained him. He knew he was lucky to be alive, for Yip Manyou armed with the magical sword was a terrifying opponent and the single blow he had landed had almost sucked every drop of blood out of Sha Long's body. But the deepest wound the former Warlord felt was in his soul. He hated defeating the Grand Patriarch in such an underhanded way and had raged against the witches for days afterwards.

    He had been tempted to leave their employ, but his injuries and the fact that he had nowhere else to go had compelled him to stay. Lazily he reached for a bottle of wine by his side and emptied the vessel in a single draught. Lying back once more he slowly drifted into sleep. His rest however was not peaceful. He dreamt of being pursued by a demon of blood and fire, who chased him through a realm of darkness. In the distance he saw a bright light blazing and ran towards it, only to stop dead as the light revealed itself to be a great bear, with snow white fur and a vicious face that made it as terrifying as the demon. Turning to his left Sha Long saw a spectral wolf barring his way, its fanged mouth drooling in hunger. Spinning around Sha Long saw his final avenue for escape blocked by a green Dragon, its emerald scales beautiful and frightening in equal measures. With a collective roar the four beasts pounced and Sha Long woke screaming.

    The fog of sleep clouded his mind making it difficult for him to concentrate. He shook his head in an attempt to clear it but to little effect. This struck Sha Long as odd, for he was not usually so sluggish. Suddenly a sense of unease seized him, the was a slight wrongness to his surroundings but his befuddled mind prevented him from realising what that was. Summoning his Qi he sent a stream of power running across his body and soon discovered traces of a drug in his blood which was dulling his senses. Forcing the drug to the surface of his skin he expelled it through his pours as discoloured sweat. With his mind cleared Sha Long became aware that the carriage was empty and stationary and there was the ominous absence of the voices of his attendances. Once more drawing his Qi to him, Sha Long started transforming his hands in preparation for battle.

    ####

    Yee-man Gao drew his sword and ran towards the lonely carriage, determined to be the first to strike a blow at Sha Long. An arm barred his way and he turned to see his father's stern face:

    “Wait”. Hissed Yee-man Zhan.

    The carriage exploded killing a dozen men in a shower of lethal splinters. Sha Long emerged with a savage roar, his body naked except for the white tiger pelt wrapped around his waist. In the moonlight the man looked like the Avatar of some primitive war God and Yee-man Gao froze in terror. Others however were made of stronger stuff and charged the man. Howling like a wolf Sha Long leapt amongst his attackers, his mutated claws ripping the faces of his first two victims. The man plunged deep into the crowd, his fearsome talons felling three men with every strike and he struck often. His half naked body moved like a blur, easily avoiding the clumsily blows aimed at him, his powerful claws sweeping away the few strikes that came anywhere near him.

    There was method to his madness. By pushing deep into the enemy he was using the press of bodies as a shield from the most powerful individuals, for in order to get to him they would have to plough through their own ranks. His plan however, scuttled when a streak of golden light plummeted from the Heavens. Hitting the ground near Sha Long, the golden streak revealed itself to be Tianzhen and power rippled out from where the staff struck the ground. Quickly the ripple spread out hurling bodies into the air and clearing away the area around Sha Long, whose superior Qi power kept him rooted to the ground.

    The former Warlord had little time to comprehend the change in his situation as a pair of powerful blades came hurtling down towards him. One of the blades was wreathed in emerald flames, while the other glowed a ruby red. Sha Long raised his claws to block the blows and sank down to one knee by the power of the Yip brothers' attack. Furious at being humbled by the young men, Sha Long let out a deafening roar and shot to his feet hurling the brothers away as he rose. A dazzling star came flying towards him and Sha Long barely got his claws up in time to parry the tip of Taihui. Sha Long struck back quickly but Yee-man Zhan danced away from the blow easily, flashing a mocking grin at Sha Long as he went.

    Detecting movement from the side, Sha Long lashed out with his claw and swatted away a thrown knife from Lin Zi-hsia. Pain flashed across his right shoulder and Sha Long spun around to see Yee-man Gao slashing at him with a bloody sword. Sha Long grabbed for the upstart but found his blow blocked by Tianzhen. Golden staff and mutated claw met with a thunderclap, hurling both Sha Long and Bai Feng into the air. Landing lightly Sha Long took a defensive stance and his enemies circled him like hunters around a wounded wolf. Letting out a blood-curdling howl Sha Long plunged both of his claws into his chest. His enemies were stunned by the apparent suicidal move but were in for a shock.

    The mutated scales from Sha Long's claws sprouted from where he had plunged them into his own body and quickly spread to cover the entire surface of his skin. Zi-hsia hurled three knives at once, but they all bounced harmlessly off of Sha Long's scaled hide. The Yip brothers attacked together, each hacking into a side of Sha Long's neck. Yet even their enchanted blades could find no penetration and they were forced to leap away from Sha Long's deadly talons. Sha Long's eyes narrowed as he spotted Yee-man Gao standing beside his sister. Sha Long roared and charged the man who had wounded him. Seeing the danger Yongan ran towards Yee-man Yin intending to get her out of harm's way. But just as he was about to get within reach of her someone grabbed him by the shoulder and held him like a shield before Sha Long.

    Someone else barrelled into Yongan and swept him, along with whoever was using him as a human shield off their feet and rolling away from Sha Long. Coming out of the life saving roll Yongan saw his brother beside him and knew it was Yongle who had saved him. Sha Long made to pursue them but Tianzhen appeared before him. The Golden staff was lying horizontally at chest height in front of Sha Long and Bai Feng stood behind the former Warlord holding both ends of the staff. Bai Feng drew the staff towards himself as if intending to crush Sha Long between the staff and his bulk. Instinctively Sha Long threw his claws out to stop the staff and found them pinned against his own chest as Bai Feng closed his crushing embrace.

    The two big men struggled against each other Sha Long desperate to break loose and Bai Feng equally determined to keep him trapped. Taihui fell from the night sky, its glittering tip stabbing into the top on Sha Long's skull. Sparks flew as magic steel hit mutated scales and all three man strained against each other. Yee-man Zhan used his Qi to suspend himself in mid air, then let go of Taihui moving the palm of his sword hand so the it hovered just above the pommel of his sword. Channelling his Qi, Yee-man Zhan made Taihui spin like a drill, striking even more sparks from Sha Long's head and forcing Bai Feng to turn his face away. Sha Long thrashed around wildly, desperate to escape as he felt the building heat at the top of his head.

    Suddenly there was a loud crack and a sharp stab of pain ran through Sha Long's head. The pain was only for an instant but was the most excruciating Sha Long had ever felt. Mercifully it passed quickly, Taihui piercing his brain and ending his suffering.

    ####

    Yee-man Gao looked down on the body and smiled self-satisfyingly. There was a tap on his shoulder and as he turned Yongle slammed his fist into his jaw, knocking Yee-man Gao off his feet:

    “How dare you!” bellowed Yee-man Gao from the ground.

    “The next time you use my brother as a shield I will gut you!” shouted back Yongle as he loomed over Yee-man Gao.

    Yee-man Zhan's eyes blazed with fury and he stalked forward, Taihui raised to strike. Tianzhen appeared in front of him, held by Bai Feng:

    “He deserved that. Now you can let the matter go and leave with whatever dignity you still have, or you can join your brat in the dirt.” said Bai Feng, his voice a whisper so that only Yee-man Zhan could hear him.

    Yee-man Zhan quickly assessed his position. Everyone had seen his son's cowardly act. If he was now seen coming to blows with Bai Feng he could further tarnish his reputation and damage his chances of winning the title of Grand Patriarch at the next tournament. With a great effort of willpower, Yee-man Zhan lowered his blade before slamming it into its sheath wishing that it was Bai Feng's chest:

    “Let's go.” Yee-man Zhan growled to his son, then turned and walked away.

    Yee-man Gao stared in shock at being abandoned by his father and felt every eye on him as he suffered in his shame. His sister tried to help his rise, but he shrugged off her hand and ran away as fast as he could. Yee-man Yin turned to Yongan and mouthed the word 'sorry'. Yongan smiled back and nodded his understanding, then Yee-man Yin went to find her family.

    Bai Feng walked towards the corpse of Sha Long which was quickly reverting back to its normal state, except for the claws which kept the mutated scales. Lifting up the claws with Tianzhen, Bai Feng turned to the Yip brothers who understood his intention. Yongan and Yongle raised their blades and together brought them down onto Sha Long's elbows, severing the instruments of their father's death.

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