The Artificer: Race for the Dragon Seal
By Steven Lourie
Sen Pau was too old to be running as fast and as long as he had been. His heart ached like a blacksmith’s thick fingers were clenching it; the bones in his legs might as well have been made of lead and despite the cool night air it felt like he was breathing in fire with each desperate gasp. Clutching his grey and saffron robes near a belly made soft and broad by years of service in the imperial court Sen Pau glanced over his shoulder as he heard a rustle of cloth carry on the slight breeze to his sharp ears, one of the few senses that hadn’t begun to fail him. His pursuers were closing fast, only his superior knowledge of the neighborhood he had grown up in had kept them from catching him. But they were young and they were many, and the wooden gates with their faded red paint that marked the edge of the district stood but a block from where he wheezed for breath.
They must not have it. He must not have it. The Seal would legitimize that despot’s black grip on this land. Oh Persophia, give me the strength needed to slip this noose of murderers tightening around me. Sen Pau thought before setting off again in a loping waddle.
The dark waters of the Dragon Canal glimmered with slivers of moonlight and the smells of fish and damp wood wrapped around the fleeing monk’s face like rotting silk. Perhaps he could steal a boat, let the current continue what his aching legs had begun, he supposed, clutching at ideas. Puffing, he jogged along the ancient street of octagonal black cobbles, glancing down to the waterfront ten feet below, then along the pale limestone edge of the street to where a flight of broad steps, bowed in the middle from centuries of constant use, lead down to the fishing docks and ferries. Almost...there...he thought, trying to fuel his failing muscles with willpower alone.
Again, his sharp ears twitched as he heard the soft, rhythmic padding of thin leather shoes on stone, Sen Pau not even daring to look back lest the sight rob him of his last, fragile hopes he could escape. Something quick and black darted towards the monk’s defenseless back, hissing through the air with the speed and intent of a viper’s strike. A thin triangle of sharpened metal spun unerringly through the night to bury itself into the soft flesh of the monk’s right calf, drawing a strangled gasp of pain from the fleeing figure. Pitching forward with all the momentum he had managed to gain, the street lunged up too fast for the monk’s age-dulled reflexes and he struck the unyielding stone full-force, the impact breaking his collar bone and dislocating his shoulder with an explosion of pain then sent him tumbling over the edge.
Sen Pau’s second cry of agony as his back hit the waterfront’s slick stones was a gargled moan, blood from a bit tongue and a ruptured lung filling his throat and drowning his thoughts in a coppery deluge. Trying to breathe and choking instead Sen Pau’s right hand, clenching reflexively, gripped the edge of the canal, the cool water licking against his thin, black nails and anchoring his mind against the crushing pain.
The chase is over...there is just one way to escape them now....
Eyes clenched tight and ears roaring with coursing blood there was no way for Sen Pau to sense his pursuers, but he knew they were but steps away.
With your last act, deny them what they want. Just slip into the waters you swam in as a child. Just slip away from them...
Trembling with effort, legs kicking weakly to try and leverage himself over the monk took once last look at the moon floating serenely overhead and, the broken things inside him grating and grinding against each other, plunged into the cool, dark oblivion of the canal.
Seconds later two figures came to an abrupt stop at the canal’s edge, shoulders heaving slightly as their ash grey face wraps alternatively contracted and billowed with each heavy breath. A handful of heartbeats later and their numbers doubled, one of the new-comers, broad-shouldered and long-limbed, crouching at the edge of the waterway and hissing his displeasure.
“ So the old monk had the will to end his life rather than surrender the Dragon Seal to us, “ came his thick, deep voice from the folds of his shadowy silk garb. “ Did any of you see it on him? Did he hide it somewhere during his flight or was this chase just a distraction? “ he asked his fellows, burning yellow cats eyes shifting to the side to watch his subordinate’s postures as they answered. “ I saw nothing, but between his robes and his bulk he could have hid a gong on his person and no one would find it, “ answered one, rail-thin and slightly stooped, crossing his arms loosely as he responded.
I doubt you even looked, the leader sneered beneath his mask.
“ We almost had him until Lau Tei decided to use a throwing shard on his leg. Sent him right over the edge, “ complained another, this one short and powerfully built, yet the voice, however gruff, was female.
“ Cast blame on everyone but yourself as usual, Jang Izo. You let the old wheeze bag drop you with a kick a blind man could have seen coming, “ the fourth member spat back defensively with a pronounced lisp, reptilian eyes narrowed to venomous slits.
“ As I thought, “ the first speaker growled as he rose to his full height, towering above the others and rolling his neck with a crack of bone, “ you assumed the old monk was soft and got stupid as a result. “
“ Don’t try and pin this one on us, Shan Ruhn. You lead this little debacle, the responsibility is yours, “ the slender figure pointed out coldly, the thin, hairless tail that protruded from the small of his back twisting from side-to-side in guarded contempt.
“ I know, Zue Su. I know. That’s why you are going down river to Broken-tooth Bridge and will wait for the monk’s body to snag on the metal grating, at which point you will search every inch of his water-logged corpse until you are certain he does not have the Seal on him, “ Shan Ruhn replied, threat laced through every word. “ You two, “ he continued, eyes fixing on the remaining pair, “ will retrace the monk’s path, checking every crevice, hollow and planter to see if he ditched it during his flight.... “
“ And what of you? “ Zue Su challenged, the contempt thick in his voice.
“ I will inform the master of our failure to catch Sen Pau and retrieve the Seal. I trust there is no complaints about your assignments now, “ the leader demanded with a dismissive snarl. The other three exchanged brief glances and bowed their heads as one before dispersing to their tasks. The last figure lingered for a moment longer, gazing at the water that had stolen their target from them and the moon reflected upon it.
“ Damnable monk had to make this hard for us, “ he finally cursed before turning about and setting off back home with the long, easy stride of a born hunter.
A short time later found Shan Ruhn down on one knee, his right fist supporting his upper body as he leaned forward in a bow, eyes focused on the horizontal planks of rich brown wood polished to a reflective shine directly before him. The weight of the gaze of the one who shared the chamber with him was like a physical burden, every second of silence carrying with it a hundred imagined outcomes, few of which were pleasant for Shan.
The majority of the large, rectangular room was lost in shadow, the only sources of light a wick protruding from a ceramic dish filled with oil, and the sliding doors open behind where Shan knelt that permitted the cold white light of the moon to ghost in. The simple lamp was resting on a low, simple table, sharing the space with an ink block and brush, a sheaf of bleached rice paper, and a folded paper fan. His superior was an indistinct blur at the very top of his field of vision, Shan lowering his head fractionally after he dared to look to try and ascertain the other’s mood by posture. A rustle of silk presaged a slow, steady hand reaching out and grasping the fan before slipping back into the gloom. Shan Ruhn closed his eyes and licked his lips, readying his nerves for what was to follow.
“ I crave your indulgence, Shan Ruhn, one of my brightest pupils. I am an old man and it seems I have misheard you. Please. Repeat your report, “ the other said in a voice barely above a whisper, but strong and rough like a whetstone sliding over keen steel. Shan swallowed to steady his voice as he did just that.
“ Sen Pau is dead. We had chased him to the Dragon Canal when one of my dancers hit his leg with a throwing shard, causing him to topple and injuring him gravely. He managed to slip into the canal before we could reach him. There was no sign of the Dragon Seal. My dancers are retrieving his body and back-tracking the route the monk took to try and see if he... “ Shan explained, only to stop abruptly as a sharp wooden ‘snap’ sounded, the wooden fan being opened and closed with some force.
“ How many dancers did I send with you, Shan? How many did I send to surround and subdue a fat old monk who couldn’t outrun a wheezing nag? “
“ Four, my lord, “ Shan answered, each word feeling like a shovelful of dirt from his own grave.
“ Four, “ his master repeated, spitting the word out like a curse.
Shan said nothing more, as there was nothing more to say.
“ Four, “ the shadowed figure echoed, sounding weary, “ I suppose you think this is my fault, for sending so few dancers to deal with such a cunning and dangerous foe. I had forgotten how far my guild has fallen over the years... “
“ Master, I...! “ Shan Ruhn began, objecting to the feigned self-recrimination.
“ Remove your mask, Shan. I want to look upon the face of the one who swore he would serve me for all of his days without question or failure, “ the figure ordered, his tone drained of all emotion.
Hesitant at first, Shan obeyed swiftly, hands moving up to grasp the dark wrappings gathered at the nape of his neck and pulling them forward and off his head. The head underneath was a tiger’s, proportionate to the size of his body, his wedge-shaped black ears pressed tight against his skull in contrition. A long striped tail draped out behind the bowed tiger-man, quivered slightly with repressed emotion, taking all of Shan’s concentration to keep from lashing anxiously. Yellow eyes with vertical pupils swiveled as if looking for something as the mind behind them worked for something, anything to say.
“ Master, “ he began again, but got no further.
The blow struck him along his jaw line, powerful enough to snap his head to the side and force him to shift his hand to keep from toppling over, black, sharp claws digging shallow grooves into the immaculate wood flooring. Shan tasted blood from split gums as he fought to keep his hand from massaging the stinging flesh. It spoke volumes for his master’s affection for him that it was the fan that struck him and not a blade.
“ You have shamed me, Shan. You have shamed this guild with your actions tonight. Now I must go, meek and humble, before our patron and explain to him why he is not holding the Dragon Seal in his hands this night like I assured him he would. “
“ No, master. Let me go in your stead. Let whatever punishment is to befall you strike me, “ the tiger objected, returning rigidly to his former bowed position, daring to lift his eyes to view his superior.
Having leaned forward to administer the blow Shan’s master was illuminated by the sputtering oil lamp, the faint light brushing over rich orange fur a few shades deeper than even the tiger’s. Large triangular ears sat straight up on either side of a broad skull, tufted and white on the interior, short and black on the back. White markings slivered with grey also marked the cheeks in hazy crescents, the eyebrows, and framing the short, white muzzle with jowls drooping with age. Dark brown eyes reflected the tiny pinprick of light cast by the lamp as they gazed back at Shan, the tilt of the lids betraying both anger and sorrow to those who were used to looking upon them.
“ Don’t compound your folly with such useless suggestions, “ the master berated him, leaning back to once again be swallowed by the deep shadows, his white markings little more than pale blurs giving hints of shape and size. “ He would kill you and think me a coward for not showing up in person, and I still have use of you. Go with your four dancers and search for the Dragon Seal. Use any means at your disposal to find out where it is. Return with it in your hands, or not at all. Go. “ he ordered with grim finality.
Taking up his discarded mask Shan Ruhn rose from his kneel and backed out of the room into the night, only paces apart but the distance now between them like an impassible abyss. Bowing once, stiff and low to his master, Shan turn and left quickly, crushing the silk mask in his hand so tightly his claws drew blood, soaking the thin fabric.
“ I won’t fail you again Master Sho Zun. I will make you proud of me once more, “ the tiger vowed to the night.
Sho Zun sagged visibly after Shan Ruhn had left, a ragged sigh accompanying the action making it seem as if the red panda had shrunk several inches. A wooden panel slid open, a massive dark hand gripping the edge with deceptive gentleness before retreating to join with the huge lurking shadow to which it was attached.
“ You’re growing soft in your old age, Master Zun. A younger you would have cut that dead weight from our guild without a second thought and presented his severed head to our patron as an apology, “ a bass voice like rumbling thunderclouds observed.
“ Your opinion, as always, was not asked for, Huna. Shan Ruhn will be successful or he will die, by my hand if necessary, “ Sho Zun shot back testily, snapping his fan shut again with the sharp brutality of a breaking bone. A rolling growl only just discernible as a chuckle issued from the darkness, followed by the clink of shifting chain.
“ You should have sent me like I had suggested, Zun. You would have Sen Pau’s broken body leaking blood onto your fine floors as we speak, the Seal blood-stained but present on your table. “
“ And half of the city in flames. I had hoped for a quick and clean end to the rule of Yi Xan, with the last of his loyal retainers rounded up and silenced, but instead I must contend with a loose end and a spoiled, vengeful lord breathing down my neck for results, “ Sho Zun commented bitterly.
“ When the time comes, and you know it will, you will have no choice but to unleash me against your foes. Until then, I suppose I’ll take up poetry. Tell me, what rhymes with ‘hemorrhage’? “
Sho Zun flicked his fan dismissively at the large shape and the panel slowly closed, though the rough, low laughter from behind it took some time to subside.
The chamber was vast, calculated to impress upon all those who entered it that the fate of the land and tens of thousands of lives was decided here. One hundred feet long and half that wide it steadily rose above the grand double doors of intricately carved wood on a series of five steps, each of equal size. Each of these sections played host to two broad pillars of wood polished glass smooth and stained a deep red, the tops and bottoms capped with lotus leaves sheathed in gold. Red too was the immense rug that ran the length of the room, a gold fringe giving way to the sinuous designs of dragons arranged tongue to tail, picked out in fine detail with gold thread yet these were merely a border to the dragon that dominated the middle of the rug and the room.
Ninety feet long and said to be a life-sized representation of a real dragon that lived in the region millennia ago the artistry that went into its creation was unmatched. Each scale, each ridge and each claw was rendered in such detail that when it was first revealed legend holds that several of the prime minister’s entourage recoiled in fright. The dragon it was modeled after, Ru Ma Kyo, or “ Lord of Radiance “ was possessed of wisdom beyond mortal comprehension and, if approached with suitable humility, would impart a secret of staggering insight that would sway the hardest hearts or solve the most complex of dilemmas. Those who did not approach the dragon with humility and demanded knowledge or held darkness in their hearts were devoured instead. That was the two-fold purpose of the rug; so that rulers could derive inspiration from the image of the magnificent creature, but always be aware that no one was above judgment, Ru Ma Kyo’s eyes always upon the ruler of Shu-Tali when he presided over his court.
This is why the one who currently resided on the throne had it moved forward so that it sits on the dragon’s head.
The would-be ruler of Shu-Tali sat with calculated distain on the high-back wooden chair, slouched down and leaning to the left, head propped up by a loose fist while the fingers of his right hand dangled limply over the edge of the broad armrest. His black eyes looked down the vast room and while the sight pleased him, it was not enough. Signs of decay were everywhere, to the splits in the wooden pillars to the frayed and faded colors of the great rug; the signs of the old kingdom where abundant even though the residents of that time were long since dust. Its glory was faded and it wasn’t really his, even if he were prime minister now. It was all borrowed, all inherited by merit of default. The cursed land of Shu-Tali.
Robes of carmine stitched with saffron thread draped his lean body flatteringly, snug enough to highlight his young masculinity, loose enough to add a flair of opulence to his appearance. High-necked and fastened with gold clasps shaped like dragon’s claws the robe terminated just above his knees, the silk pants underneath unadorned with yellow designs and tucked into comfortable leather-bottomed slippers the color of cloudy honey.
Golden rings two finger-widths wide and bearing more embossed images of coiling dragons sat clasped around the base of each of his long, dark ears while smaller, slimmer ones winked dully from several of his fingers. Fur, soft and black, draped his body, the only variation was a small blush of pure white peeking out just above the collar of his robe. He hated it. It was a special kind of hell to hate your own skin, to what to pluck and pull and shave every inch and try and find what you were before underneath it. That yawning well of madness had nearly swallowed him when he had first changed, but he had since turned his loathing outwards.
The doors at the far end opened with a tortured groan of old wood, stirring the flames in the softly crackling braziers towards it. A lone figure was admitted inside, darkly garbed and hunched, moving with the careful slowness of the aged. It was all an act, another deception in this court of half-truths and veiled allegiances, Sho Zun’s advanced years may have taken the lightness from his step and his straight-backed stance, but none of his speed or power.
The seated figure watched the slow progress of the visitor with dull resignation. Judging by Sho Zun’s pace and eyes firmly on the rug as he made his way up, the Seal was not in his possession. He had failed, and the figure’s plans put on hold once again. Few things woke the fire in his heart anymore, conquest his only vice, be it in the bedroom or the battlefield, and the sight of one of his greatest agents coming to him in failure left only the glowing ember of hate alive.
Sho Zun finally reached the last step and knelt before it, the eyes of the old red panda never rising past the figure’s slippers as he settled himself on the rug. The stench of shame hung in the air between them.
Say it. Say my name, the one I took for myself, the one everybody in this miserable land knows me by, the seated figure silently demanded. The name that I wretched from the dead legend of that damned dragon so that even those who refer to me with distain will still offer obeisance.
“ Ru. “
“ You don’t have it, do you? “ Ru began, extending his index and middle fingers on his left hand and slowly rubbing his temple as he spoke, as if staving off a headache.
“ Ever since I came to Shu-Tali I had heard tales of the efficiency and skill of the Lonely Dance, how they never fail a contract, how they possess such skill as to slip past a manor full of guards and slay a single man without spilling a drop of blood. They could hide behind the shadow of a bamboo stalk, leap over a castle’s wall with a single bound and charm the birds to act as their spies. All of these feats and more are attributed to your guild of assassins, and yet here you kneel, humble as a school boy caught skipping class, and are about to tell me you have failed. Is that correct, Sho Zun? “
The guildmaster’s hands tightened as he listened to Ru speak, his head bowing lower as each caustic word was heaped upon him.
“ You are correct, “ the guildmaster finally replied, touching his head to the step before him, “ my dancers killed the man thought to be carrying the Seal, but he did not have it on him. They are searching diligently for it, but I fear I cannot even give you a time frame in which it might be found, “ Sho Zun finished, lifting his torso up to its previous level.
“ I assume those that failed have been punished... ? “ Ru prompted with a disappointed sigh, not even looking at the kneeling man before him.
Sho Zun swallowed hard before speaking. “ No. At this point it is counter-productive to eliminate those dancers who were closest to finding the Seal. “
Ru growled in displeasure, sneering at the guildmaster. “ And you couldn’t even give me that satisfaction, Sho Zun. I do not tolerate failure and I’m surprised that someone with your ruthless reputation does. My position as incumbent prime minister is tenuous, each day that passes takes me further from that lofty appointment. Bring...me...that...Seal! “ Ru ordered, biting off each word like a curse. “ Now be gone, I tire of the sight of you. “
Sho Zun touched his forehead to the step again and rose, his movements stiff, though it was wounded pride and not age that afflicted the red panda. The guildmaster was barely through the door before Ru heard the soft tread of two pairs of feet steal up behind him, though this was only a courtesy; they could be absolutely silent if they so chose.
“ Oh poo, looks like the celebration we were planning for tonight will have to be postponed, “ one pouted.
“ I had such high expectations of Sho Zun. A pity. Probably for the best we didn’t join his little guild when he offered, “ the second mused, stopping beside the throne and draping an arm over the backrest. Ru actually found their presence a balm, invoking a bemused smile on his thin lips. He looked to his flanks, eyeing the comely shapes of his two closest minions.
They moved and walked with all the lithe grace one would expect of their feline heritage, their short, soft fur the color of ripe wheat that faded to cream along their throats and torsos and marked with ebony rosettes. Ru knew every one of those spots intimately, the subtle differences between the twins in the thick black stripes that rose from their brows, how the tip of Lin’s long, lush tail twitched when she was excited or Lim’s habit of extending and retracting her claws when frustrated. He knew those spots because in addition to being his spies, enforcers and advisors they were also his lovers, and their consummate skill on all of these things one of the few things that made his new existence bearable.
“ Should we keep a discreet eye on his dancers? He could already have it and is planning to use it a leverage against you, “ Lim suggested, running a gentle finger along one of Ru’s ears.
“ No, give him enough rope to hang himself with. In spite of his failure here tonight he still possesses a network of spies and informants unrivaled in Shu-Tali and I would rather not have his agents and my own chasing each other around in the shadows, “ the would-be prime minister countered, leaning into the caress.
“ What if he cannot find it? “ Lin queried, drawing a sharp glance from Ru, the ocelot woman knitting her brow and bowing her head in apology for bringing up such a scenario.
“ Then he will have out-lived his usefulness to me, and Arghan will turn their guild and its members to cinders. Such a show of brute force should give me all the influence I need to keep the ministers in line and the people under my thumb without the Seal’s symbolic power. Still, for now we will play their game. Now, leave me, I have a state funeral to arrange and a stirring eulogy to write, “ Ru said with a dismissive wave of his hand. The twins bowed respectfully and padded off, one set of amber eyes seeking out the other’s and locking meaningfully before they slipped out of the room.
The scent of them on his nostrils had only just dissipated when the great doors at the bottom of the room creaked open, admitting a breathless young servant in. Ru barely had time to feign stirring from a sleepy reverie before the page stumbled to a kneel before him.
“ My lord minister, “ the servant managed between gasps, “ Prime Minister Yi Xan is dead! “
Leaning forward, Ru slipped on mask of barely repressed sorrow and replied; “ Do tell... “
Draev’s breath came in irregular gasps, his heart hammering at the interior of his ribs and all strength stolen from his limbs. He had pushed himself hard in the past; trying to out-run collapsing ruins, fending off vengeful guardians and struggling against some of the most savage weather the world could throw at mortals, but even he had his limits. Trembling, he managed to reach out and seize his assailant in a weak grip, his hands coming to rest on the full outer curve of a set of sky blue hips. “ No...more, “ he begged, his voice as weak as his body.
“ Oh Draev, only three times? You’re not getting old are you? I can’t tell with you mortals sometimes, “ a chiding voice replied from above him.
The djinn, newly released from her month-long exile inside her brass lamp, had exploded out from the spout in a torrent of sparkling blue smoke, her tall, curvaceous form had scarcely materialized before her scant clothing, some strips of blue silk held in place by golden medallions, dropped to the floor and she was upon him. Such was the case when Draev had found her lamp some years prior, the insatiable genie breaking her sexual fast on his mortal flesh... and nearly breaking him in the process. The artificer knew what to expect, but mental preparation helped little with the physical demands.
Jegna currently rode his hips, rubbing the last of his most recent ejaculate between them with lazy circles, looking back at him over her shoulder, barely winded and eyes still lustful.
“ You want to hear me beg? Is that what your little monkey mind wants to hear from the all-powerful genie? If it gets you hard again I suppose I could swallow my pride for a few moments, “ she mused, not even waiting for a reply.
“ Oh please master, fill me with your cum, fill me till I burst! I’ll take it all, anywhere you wish, just fuck me! “ Jegna pleaded in a breathy, sensual voice. She reached back and held his hands against her blue flesh, making him grip and knead the soft flesh, her buttocks parting and squishing with their combined efforts. The sensation was pleasant, but Draev, who felt like a dried, wrung out rag just went limp and tried to calm his breathing and heart.
“ Draev, don’t you dare fall asleep on me! I know how you men are... “ she threatened, releasing his hands and lifted herself from his body, only to hover over top of him on her hands and knees, golden eyes boring into his barely opened ones, her long, thick hair cascading over her shoulders in midnight blue rivulets. Her large round breasts, each as large as his head, brushed insistently as his shaven chest, bulging or jostling on occasion as she fought to rouse him from his sex-induced lethargy.
“ What do I have to do, Draev Vel’Marat? “ she asked, exasperated, dainty blue eyebrows knitting together.
“ You can’t build a fire with ashes, my dear. I just need a few hours rest and I’ll have another go at it, “ the artificer offered with a heaving sigh, trying to buy time.
“ Alright, you’ve forced my hand. I wanted to keep this as a last resort, something I could always hold in reserve, but you leave me precious little alternative, “ the djinn concluded enigmatically, the warm, tingling feel of her flesh, like barely suppressed energy, leaving his own as she rose from the low bed they had shared for most of the day.
Once standing she set her hands on her cocked hips, staring down at him past her prominent tits, plump blue lips quirked in thought. The artificer arched an eyebrow, not certain where the genie was taking this.
“ Tie me up, “ she insisted flatly.
“ Huh? “ was all Draev’s mind could piece together to offer in response.
“ You heard me, and I won’t beg. You’ve had your chance to do so in the past and the four winds know I’ve teased you with the thought enough. But no more teasing. Do whatever you want and I’ll pretend that I can’t escape your little conjurations. You’ve longed to see my exquisite blue form restrained, well, now is your chance, “ she purred, slipping her hands along her body provocatively, lifting her breasts and letting them drop with a breath-taking wobble.
Open-mouthed with a heady mix of exhaustion and possibilities the artificer finally reached a conclusion and, with a drawn-out grunt, managed to slip free of the tangled sheets and sex-dampened mattress to stand more-or-less upright beside the genie. A broad grin had already formed on Jegna’s lips, pleased both by the prospect of more sex and that she was getting her way.
It was difficult for Draev to clear the fog from his thoughts and conjure the things he pictured in his mind, but soon he had everything he wanted. A black leather arm-binder kept the djinn’s arms in a neat line down the middle of her back and made her ample bosom even more prominent. Leather straps an inch wide and of the same dark hue were cinched around her ankles, just below her knees and across her shapely thighs, indenting the curvy flesh and keeping her legs locked together. Finally, a ring gag was introduced to her eager mouth with a hungry groan from the trussed genie, her lust reaching its melting point as this final piece of apparel completed her “surrender”.
Draev hated to admit it, but as he stepped back to admire his handiwork the sight of Jegna like this stirred some embers of passion that apparently still lurked inside his weary form. Testing her bonds and wiggling, all manner of small, breathy noises coming from her open mouth Jegna made a show of her new-found “helplessness”, breasts jostling with unabashed vigor.
“ Very nice, “ the artificer drawled appreciatively, walking around the bound genie. Jegna whined hungrily, bending her knees and arcing her back, offering her soft blue rump to his eyes, hands or whatever else he wanted to use.
“ Oh, I see one more thing I should add, “ Draev noted clinically.
“ Hmmph? “ Jegan replied.
Mind clearer now thanks to the methodical application of the bonds Draev was able to apply an enchantment to the bound blue-skinned woman, touching the back of her neck with his index finger and speaking a single word of terrible power.
The dijnn squeaked as a sharp but rapidly fading pain burst from where Draev had touched her, sending a tremble along her limbs.
“ Mmpph! “ she grunted sharply, glaring at the artificer.
Draev threw his hands up defensively, “ Whoa, easy, just helping you play the part of the helpless damsel, “ he explained hastily.
Still glaring, Jegna strained against the arm binder...and a look of confusion slipped over her face. She tried again, breasts wobbling deliciously before she emitted an inquisitive squeal.
“ Yeah, you remember the Mark of the Mundane, had it applied to me back in Tulain. Unpleasant business, as you no doubt recall, but it did allow me to learn said curse. I tweaked the formula a bit, much less pain for one, for my own use, “ he explained, shuffling back towards the bed that beckoned to him.
“ Dmmmff! “ Jegna squeaked, incredulous.
“ Your natural power will burn the curse off in a few hours, it was intended only for mortals after all, but that will give me said hours of much needed sleep, after which time I will find some physical way to apologize for your inconvenience, “ the artificer concluded, collapsing into the bed and, after a brief attempt to wrestle the covers over his naked form, fell promptly into a deep and exhausted slumber.
Jegna’s muffled curses and threats went unheeded.
Saril’daa stood in a large, rectangular courtyard bordered with steep, gabled roofing over open areas used for sparring and exercise, the large grey slabs of limestone beneath her feet indented from precise katas performed daily for centuries. Three large, broad steps edged the centermost area, the path before her continuing up before terminating at a long wooden building with a weather-faded green tile and wooden, serpentine dragons at the corners. The elf was flanked by four shoulder-height ceramic pots glazed a deep red and spaced five paces apart. One contained soil and had some sort of stunted juniper growing in it, one was filled with water, one served as a lit brazier and the last was drilled full of holes so that the wind whistled through it with even the slightest breeze.
All of these details the black-clad bodyguard had taken in when she had first arrived, but as those same broad steps were now filled with outraged students who flocked to their master’s defense, loose, billowy garb snapping with their swift movements and wielding blunted metal swords Saril’s attention was turned elsewhere.
“ Okay, perhaps calling the master of the dojo a ‘has-been bag of bones’ was not the most constructive way to deal with the situation... “ Saril admitted, hand slipping up to grasp Amalleah, who prompted shivered in a silent rebuke.
‘ I understand that you are frustrated that Draev is with Jegna right now, but this isn’t the first time your emotions have landed you in a dire situation, ‘ Daa gently reminded the cursed elf via telepathy.
“ I know Daa, I know “ Saril mentally hissed in return, gauging the odds arrayed against her, “ but right now I don’t need a lecture, I need a strategy. I came here to learn how to synchronize Amalleah, you, and myself better and blow off some steam, not get pummeled by a bunch of bald kids. “
‘ To be fair, Saril, only most of them are prepubescent. At a simple glance there are fifty-one assailants between the ages of eleven and nineteen surrounding us. The colored markings on their faces likely indicate skill level, placing us against twenty-two foes of at least middling proficiency, “ the slimbiote assessed calmly. Directly ahead the one student who had been translating Saril’s request to the elderly master kneeling on a flat cushion raged at her in heavily accented tradespeak.
“ You, a foreigner and a woman, come here and demand to learn our techniques, and then insult our master? You are a foul-tongued bitch who needs to be shown her place amongst her betters... “
A full second passed as three female minds registered the spiteful words, Saril’s face falling from an expression of faint concern to deadpan as she gazed at the speaker.
‘ Oh, emotions be damned. No one insults you like that and gets away with it, ‘ Daa stated, her normally sing-song voice flat and edged with uncharacteristic hardness, the sword-maiden vibrating in Saril’daa’s palm and sending a jolt of fierce pride through their empathic link.
Drawing Amalleah with a single, crisp motion Saril’daa leveled the gleaming sword’s tip at the speaker, looking down its curved, razor-sharp edge to the man’s eyes.
“ Come and get your spanking, boy, “ she challenged.
Aghast at this new affront the speaker looked back to the stern-faced master, who squared his shoulders and barked several short, gruff commands then nodded once. Instantly those of the lower marks, the gold, greens and oranges, stepped back and lowered their swords, leaving crimson, umber and black, twenty-two in all. As one the senior students began to pace forward with implacable focus, dark eyes like those of a hunting hawk’s on scurrying prey.
Stepping back a few paces to stand directly in the middle of the four ceramic pots Saril’daa began to size up her opponents, judging who would be the first to strike, who would bide their time and wait for her to become distracted. No matter how skilled they were, they had never fought an opponent like Saril’daa.
As the elven warrior had predicted an umber, with much to prove in the eyes of their master, attacked from the rear with a burst of speed and sound, his blunted blade descending like an executioners axe, ringing musically as Amalleah smoothly intercepted the attack with the minimal amount of effort, Saril’s simulated arms the only part of her that moved. An eye blink later Saril’daa ducked down and planted a vicious mule kick to the student’s solar plexus, the black flesh of her leg rippling with the force as she sent the umber skidding four meters back and clutching his chest. Hesitancy instantly seized the lower grades as they looked to those with the black markings for guidance, Saril’daa’s arms returning to their front guard position.
A series of looks and slight nods passed amongst the senior-most students as they arranged themselves an equal distance apart, and, at some imperceptible signal, attacked in rapid succession with a fierce cry. Saril’daa grabbed the stabbing blade of the first attack and guided him past her twisting body, letting the blunt tip of his weapon strike the attacker coming at her from diametrically opposite side in the ribs with a pained grunt. Sparks flew as Amalleah’s magically sharp edge parried and then cut through the next nearest strike aimed at Saril’daa’s throat, sending that black staggering off-balance before he recovered by tumbling clear with a perfectly executed roll. Amalleah’s edge sang twice with a sweeping parry, knocking back the incoming blades with an elegant pivot of Saril’daa’s body, the slimbiote’s strength more than a match for a human’s.
All of this granted Saril’daa only a moment’s respite as her opponents quickly recovered and attacked again, their fervor growing under the judging gaze of their master. Saril’daa was forced to charge forward to avoid all the strikes aimed at her, barely able to deflect several rapid blows and still taking a solid hit on her thigh, a strike that would have left a normal opponent limping and in pain but to Saril only a violent shudder reached her lower body. Three crimsons then attacked from the front, Saril’daa bracing herself and letting all three swords strike Amalleah’s edge, her black limbs barely recoiling from the force before she hauled back and bowled all three over with a titanic heave. A desperate response to four strikes from behind forced Saril’daa to leap up and plant a foot on the water pot, vaulting off the edge in an acrobatic back flip to land six feet behind her assailants, her success cut short as a blow avoided too slowly cracked painfully against the elf’s shoulder blades, eliciting a gasp of pain from her. Driven by pure instinct Amalleah lashed out, slicing through the cloth and flesh of the attacker, only the split-second intervention of Daa kept it wound from becoming fatal.
Saril’da collapsed backwards onto her legs as a pair of scissoring blades from both flanks knifed the air where she was standing a heartbeat before. A sweep of her legs kept the assailants at bay for a moment longer as she regained her feet, now in a low crouch, Amalleah held in a reverse grip behind her back, left arm extended to ward off more attacks.
“ This is bad, Daa, “ Saril admitted silently, panting as she scanned the area.
‘ I know, Saril. I can only do so much to protect your vulnerable areas, and I feel Amalleah resisting my movements, going for the kill to protect you in kind. If we continue this way it will become a bloodbath, and once a life is taken we will not simply be allowed to walk away, “ the slimbiote explained grimly. “ I know your blood’s up, but perhaps we came into this situation half-cocked. Insults begat insults and now we stand on the threshold of killing because of pride. ‘
“ How did you think this was going to end? “ Saril mentally shot back, flustered.
‘ If all three of us were working in sync with one another, we would probably stand a pretty good chance of winning without killing, but you still fight to avoid all injury like when you still had your complete body, Amalleah has never been taught to pull her blows, and I have to protect your physical body from harm. It is all too much for me to handle. Please consider what I have said, ‘ the ooze pleaded softly.
“ Okay, fine, “ the elf conceded, “ but who’s going to tell them that? “ she asked, feinting an attack to keep an advancing crimson at bay for a second longer.
‘ We need to get the master’s attention, let him know that we are willing to back down if he is willing to let our own insults slide, ‘ the slimbiote said.
“ I think I know how to do that... “ Saril replied simply, a plan forming as the next barrage of attacks swept towards her.
Amalleah was a blur of silver as she spun and deflected the blunt swords of her attackers, sparks and severed pieces of metal falling to the stone floor, Saril’s eyes and body focused on one foe in particular; the interpreter. Sensing this, the other students rallied to his defense, forming a wall of bodies and blades. Taking one broad step forward Saril’daa suddenly vaulted skyward, the ooze of her legs compressing and then explosively releasing like a coiled spring. Flipping and spinning through the tight arc of her leap Saril’daa landed directly behind the speaker, her free hand grasping his sword arm and twisting it around behind his back with one fluid motion of supernatural dexterity and strength, her sword coming up to point at his bare throat.
Upon seeing their senior’s life in mortal danger the others came to an abrupt halt, their expressions an array of concern and anger. Slowly they began to filter off to the sides, ready to strike the moment she let her guard down.
“ Kill me if you must, but you cannot win here. My fellows will strike you down before my corpse hits the stone, “ her captive hissed defiantly, straining against her grip.
“ I know, “ Saril responded, Amalleah’s tip indenting the skin under his chin, making the student stiffen even more.
Her next move surprised them all as she spun the two of them around to face the master, his stern face unmoved except for a slight widening of his eyes. Several tense moments passed before Saril’daa acted...tossing the student onto the stone before her, and then, looking the master in the eyes, went down on her knees, laying Amalleah out in front of her, head bowed. She heard the shuffle of sandaled feet rushing up behind her, Daa tensing protectively around her body in preparation for the blows that were even now descending towards her defenseless back...except a shouted command from the master halted the weapons, the students looking up at him, uncomprehending.
Raising her head Saril once again locked eyes with the wizened master of the dojo, the two regarding each other silently before he bowed his head incrementally towards her. Taking up Amalleah and sheathing her along her back Saril’daa rose to her feet and walked away, edging past the clustered students, some tending to their wounded, who could only impotently watch her leave.
‘ A wise choice and a clever move, ‘ Daa congratulated Saril as they walked past the large gates of the dojo onto the bustling street beyond.
“ But a futile trip, “ Saril responded sourly, “ it only highlighted that we still have far to go to compliment rather than fight one another and I got my body and my pride kicked around, “ she finished with a sigh, tensing the muscles along her back where she was struck. Daa immediately set about massaging the bruised flesh, the pressure of dozens of fingers rubbing and soothing the area while her voice soothed Saril’s troubled mind.
‘ Perhaps there’s something else that can fill the void...? “ the slimbiote suggested lightly just as smell swept over Saril’s nostrils, something sweet and fried coming from a vendor cart down the street.
“ Sugar... “ the elf muttered simply, increasing her pace.
The stairs were old; little more than grey, crumbling slabs protruding from the loam of the forest like aged teeth from gums. Roots snaked along their periphery and moss draped them, untouched by passing feet or a caretaker’s pruning. Four gateways marking each of the four seasons stood, cracked and warped by the weather, along the path, greeting only the faded memory of visitors past.
The winding stairs, stitched into the side of a forested hill, terminated at a stone walkway, the flat chunks heaved and angled as the earth underneath had shifted and settled with the passage of time, which in turn lead to a temple constructed from the wood of the very forest that surrounded it. It had been a proud, oft visited shrine in its day, carefully tended by an order of monks who prayed, ate, slept and tended to the spiritual needs of the surrounding villages.
What was left of it now was the moldering ribs of its support beams, the flesh and skin of its roof and walls long rotted away, as had the bodies of those same monks who fell suddenly one day, their lives snuffed out by a most terrible magic ritual preformed miles away in the capital city. Where once devotional candles sat burning upon tiers of wood arose a great and mighty tree, smooth-barked and sinuous like a clutch of serpents. Its trunk was broad enough that ten men could not stand around it and, arms outstretched, and touch each other’s fingers. Its towering branches were bare, even though the height of summer was mere weeks away and the trees around it were lush with greenery. Instead, tiny green buds, closed tight against the night, littered its wooden limbs and, with enough patience and focus, one could swear that, as the minutes passed, each bud grew and unfurled just a little more.
In truth this was the case. By morning, tiny leaves of brightest green would have sprouted, growing at an exponential rate that by the time the sun hung directly overhead its foliage would rival that of any of its sister trees. By mid-afternoon, the leaves would become rimmed with orange and yellow, the vibrant colors growing as the sun set until, as it dipped below the distant horizon, the first leaves would begin to drift to the forest floor in a soft rain of ochre and saffron.
Then, as the last touches of color fled the sky before the velvet curtain of night the tree would become as bare as if in the depths of winter, ready to begin the cycle anew the next day.
It was clear that this tree was birthed of greater forces than water, soil and sun, that the quiescent power that flowed where ever its roots and branches spread was unearthly. In tune to this energy a lone figure reclined beneath the tree, draped in a loose-fitting robe of rough spun cotton the color of storm clouds. Thread-bare and stained with both dirt and the green smears of vegetation it was the garb of one who tilled the soil, of a walker of rural paths. She was both of these and more, in touch with the ways of the forest, with its flora and fauna than the most seasoned woodsman or trapper.
Liua Hin Chae was a priestess, and to a follower of Persophia this tree was her altar, the woods her cathedral. She was among the first to change from the curse of Shu-Tali, wandering frightened and alone for nearly a year, until she followed the stairs up to the temple seeking shelter and instead found it cold and dark, its inhabitants reduced to bone and leathery strips of flesh. A single shaft of moonlight from a displaced roof tile shone down on a tiny sapling sprouting through a knot in the wooden floorboards, adorned with a pair of tiny, fragile leaves.
Despair had swept through her at first, the shelter, the comfort of other’s company she was seeking was once again denied to her. Weeping, clutching her rags, she turned to leave but instead heard the tiniest noise, like the inquisitive whimper of a newborn. She approached the tiny sapling, the tears darkening the already dark fur along her muzzle forgotten, and knelt before it, listening to the barely audible yet unmistakable sounds coming from the illuminated plant. Exhausted and without any idea where to head next, the young Liua curled up next to the sapling and slept, somehow not feeling so alone.
When she awoke the next day she was surprised to see a handful of tree nuts and a small, bruised apple laid out beside the sapling. Frightened that she might be being watched at first, hunger eventually won out and she devoured the simple fare quickly. She never did see her mysterious benefactor, but with her needs met Liua didn’t wander far, awaking each day to a small meal and the comforting murmur of the plant. As the weeks passed the sapling, impossibly, began to teach her how to forage for herself, not with words, but in her dreams she saw herself walking through the woods, picking the appropriate plants, drinking from the streams that ran clear.
Months passed, then years, Liua and the tree growing in tandem until both were tall and healthy. The tree had begun to teach her about other things as well, about the mother of all forests and wildlife, the one who made the tree a beacon of hope and renewal and needed an emissary to help those who could not hear her voice. Liua agreed without hesitation or doubt, her soul, her life inextricably bound to that of the tree’s.
That was two hundred and three years ago. While Liua’s body and voice appeared to be that of a woman in her middling years, she was as hale as she was in the flower of her youth, and would continue to be so while she preformed her duties in this world. Her eyes closed in silent commune with the earth beneath her and the tree at her back, one of her dark, triangular ears twitched as she heard a bird in flight; not unusual, but there was urgency in this one’s movements. A messenger.
Liua’s eyes gleamed as her lids parted, reflecting the glow from the lightning bugs that lazily danced around the area, adding their soft light to the wane illumination provided by the moon above. A small shape darted into the clearing, flying directly to Liua, who extended a finger for it to alight on. It was a crown thrush, a male, its throat marked with patches of gold and red, the irony that it was the favored messenger of one who served a lord was not lost on her. Its movements were distressed and its tiny heart hammered so fast Liua could not discern one beat from the next.
“ Calm yourself, little one. He who sent you must be in quite the rush to push yourself so hard. What is your message? “ she asked bemusedly, though a spike of uncertainty had now lodged itself in her mind.
A voice came then, distant and weak like she were being spoken to by someone far away. Sen Pau, for all his devotion to Persophia, was not the strongest in the ways of their goddess.
“ Xi Yan has been murdered. I have hidden the Dragon Seal. Look where loyalty lies, “ came the monk’s words, spoken to the thrush and repeated to her through the conditions of the simple enchantment. While his voice was faint, the urgency in which they were spoken was not. If his lord was dead, murdered, then as a loyal servant Sen Pau’s life could indeed be in peril as well. Producing a seed from her robe she gave it to the thrush and with the slightest of gestures it took wing with its prize in its beak. Liua then lowered her arm and pondered this latest development.
Xi Yan had been a good leader to the people of Shu-Tali, strict yet kind, one who would nurture his people’s growth yet not let rot take hold out of misplaced compassion. His death was a set-back not only to the people of Shu-Tali but to Liua’s own efforts. She also knew of the one who had likely had a hand in his murder, a black soul with venom in his heart and earthy power on his mind. Sen Pau had spoken his concerns to her about Ru many times, and always she had counseled watchfulness and patience. Ru’s movements had apparently become too well hidden for even Sen Pau to guard against, the path to the highest appointment in the kingdom now as open as the earth ready to receive its former occupant.
Liua closed her eyes once again, reaching out to the tree and through it, her goddess. There was concern there, a sense of foreboding, both rare emotions for the tree. It foresaw grim, dark happenings in the future, and while the world of mortal concerns was not her prerogative, she knew that such events could spill out in unexpected and destructive ways. While Liua preferred a deft touch in guiding the people of Shu-Tali, working through intermediaries and seeking to guide rather than control, she realized may be forced to take a more direct hand in the days to come.
She, an emissary, would need an emissary herself, one who could travel the foreign world of civilization and bring peace to this kingdom that had seen so much death and upheaval already. Calming her thoughts Liua settled her body against the tree’s thick trunk and fell asleep almost instantly, seeking the face of the one who could aid her.