Chapters One through Four

Chapter One: The Call of Stone

Whymer sucked in the cool, sharp winter air of Greystone Quarry, and exhaled a wispy breath as he adjusted himself inside his coat, readying himself for the job ahead. He shielded his brown eyes from the sun and surveyed the high stone wall rising before him. He gave a small huff in irritation at the thought of the greystone slab that Master Dornath Orain, the stonemason he was apprenticed to, wanted brought back. He had, along with Whymer’s parents, founded the Turtle clan, one of the smallest clans in the kingdoms. And, of course, today was the day his master was having company, so Whymer was charged with carrying the slab back on his own. Well, to be completely truthful, Master Orain only wanted the slab cut from the wall and had said they would return for it together on another day, but Whymer wasn’t one to leave a job half-finished.

If he only had half the crew to work with, than he would just have to work twice as hard.

After a quick knuckle crack and some mental preparation, Whymer rubbed his emerald shamrock medallion, the symbol of his family, for luck before he ran his hand over the bandolier crossing his chest, fingering the handles of the different tools he had with him for stone cutting. His hand flinched when he reached the handle worn off his hip. That was the only one not for cutting stone. Instead, he pulled a short heavy hammer and chisel from the bandolier. With cutting tools at the ready, he scanned the wall for a good chunk to cut.

But just for a moment, an icy chill ran down Whymer’s spine and his head whipped around, searching the area. After finding nothing but silent, frosty air, he convinced himself that it was his imagination. He spied some good looking stone in one of the quarry walls and approached it. He rolled his shoulders and prepared to lay the chisel into the stone when he was overcome with a strange sensation, like someone delicately brushed a feather across his mind. It also seemed like he could hear a muffled voice call out of the wall itself. It was a deep, ancient voice, and low as the rumble of thunder. The sound, or at least what Whymer thought was a sound, shook him to his core. It slammed into him like a landslide and brought him to his knees, the hammer and chisel clattering to the ground.

Whymer stared in disbelief as hi hands began to move, heedless of his protests, towards the final handle, the one worn at his waist. Struggle as he might, Whymer couldn’t stop his hands from gripping the handle and drawing the long sword it was attached to. The ancient sword belonged to Master Orain, who had lent it to Whymer in case any stray beasts wandered their way into the quarry. The blade dragged from the scabbard with a rasping hiss and Whymer felt the cold steel of the tip begin to press into his stomach. It was then that the voice became clear to him.

Spill the blood and soil the Earth. Tear the flesh and gnash the bones. Destroy life as Devourer wills, it roared out of the earth, reaching into the depths of his mind, drowning out his frantic panic.

This can’t be happening. I don’t want to die, especially not by having my body possessed. If I die, the Turtle Clan dies. I haven’t finished my apprenticeship, much less made any gold yet. I haven’t even fallen in love yet. I have to much to live for! I can’t die here.

The first sanguine bead began to bubble out of Whymer’s skin when the sword suddenly came to a halt. Sweat poured from him, dripping onto the blade from his forehead and nose, and his whole body shuddered with exertion.

“I won’t die here,” he grunted.

With a roar, Whymer summoned every ounce of his will and wrenched his arms away, flinging the sword across the quarry. He collapsed, panting on the ground, and began to feel control slowly seeping back into his limbs. He also felt warmth, as if a gossamer thin shroud were being laid over his body. As the feeling returned to his fingers, Whymer realized he could detect even the most minute contour of the grain of the stone. He intuitively slapped the ground and could suddenly, momentarily, sense every imperfection in the stone and knew every hidden crack. He was reading the pulse of the earth. He knew, in the span of a moment, the result of every strike with his rock-cutting chisel. He even knew where to plant the chisel if he wanted to cause a quarry-wide collapse, hypothetically speaking.

What on earth had happened? What kind of power could take command of a person like that? He supposed it could have been a nearby Tuner, although Whymer had never heard of any form of Tuning that involved possession. More often than not a Tuner’s attacks would be flying boulders, ice javelins, gouts of flame, or slicing winds. Though he doubted Tuning was involved, the caster would be hard to miss as they would typically glow like they were on fire.

“So Tuning is out of the question… then what?” Whymer asked the vacant quarry in between gasps.

As expected, he was answered with silence. A sudden strong breeze swept over Whymer’s body, bringing with it the return of the unsettling feeling that he was not alone, a feeling that brought to mind the image of beetles scurrying just beneath his skin. However this time, much to his displeasure, Whymer’s frantic search of his surroundings were far from inconclusive.

Standing on the other side of the quarry stood a man, or an emaciated shadow of a man. It was impossibly thin and appeared to be made of nothingness, empty darkness. As little sense as that made to Whymer’s mind; that was the only way he could describe the thing standing opposite him. It stood patiently as Whymer dragged himself to his feet. Its head quirked to the side for a moment, and then it began a slow methodical march toward him. Something in the figure’s grip caught Whymer’s attention as it glinted sometimes in the sunlight. When he realized what it was, he felt his heart jump into his throat.

The thing had claimed the sword he had flung across the quarry, leaving Whymer utterly defenseless. Fear seemed to flood into his limbs, resuscitating them just enough to allow him to back away from the advancing creature.

Shakily, he stumbled backwards until he hit the wall behind him. There would definitely be no climbing that, not exhausted as he was. His mind was racing, trying to plan various escape routes, but then Whymer became conscious of something else, something that had eluded his notice at first. When he bumped into the wall his awareness had returned to him, the feeling of knowing the earth, and more importantly, how he could use it.

With renewed zeal, his hands raced to the bandolier, withdrew another hammer and chisel, and he turned to the wall. The creature seemed to quicken its pace slightly, but Whymer laid into the quarry wall as hard as he could with his hammer, striking the chisel squarely and sending it punching through the stone into the fault-line beneath. He could faintly hear the pounding footsteps of his assailant over the splintering, cracking sound emanating from the wall.

The creature was leaping, sword raised high, when the earth began to quake and all sound was drowned out by its tectonic rumbling. Whymer hastily dove away from the wall as the creature was buried beneath hundreds of pounds of falling stone. The sword, however, was released from its grip at the last second and came sailing through the air towards Whymer who barely managed to get his body out of its path.

He laid, panting and coughing, as the cloud of dust raised by the quarry collapse began to settle. He could feel the chalky powder covering his body, drying out his lips and making the air taste incredibly dry and ashy. With what remained of his strength, he clawed the sword into his grip and propped himself against one of the stone walls, scanning for any sign of the creature. Every sense was on high alert, though he had no idea if he would be able to fend off anything that did show up.

Time crawled by, and Whymer eventually convinced himself that whatever that thing had been, it had been crushed by the avalanche. Relief washed over him and his head tipped back, coming to rest against the stone behind him. He closed his eyes and let the strength return to his body. Most of it, at any rate.

After a fashion, and with no more life threatening encounters, Whymer dragged himself back to his feet, sheathed his master’s sword, and began to survey the fallen rubble. No sign of the shadowy entity remained, which was a good sign, but that wasn’t what he was searching for. He scrambled over the wreckage until finally he found his prize, the perfect slab of stone that Master Orain requested, the whole reason he was out there.

He drew a length of rope from his back and tied an intricate knot around the block so that it could be carried on his back. He gave the rope a test-tug, and it seemed solid enough. That was all fine and good, but carrying the block—solid and heavy like oak—was the real challenge. Not one to leave a job half finished, Whymer hoisted the great stone onto his back and set off for his home, Master Orain’s workshop. Throughout the entire journey his legs felt like they wanted to collapse beneath him, but he simply told himself to ignore it. If he only had half the crew to work with and half his strength remaining, than he would just have to work four times as hard.

There, simple.

In this fashion Whymer grunted and trudged his way over narrow, winding mountain passages and rocky cliff-faces overlooking the misty valleys and deep forests of his homelands, the Earthreach Kingdoms. As the name implied, these lands were home to the elemental spirits of Earth and were blessed with a verdant and rich diversity of life. Whooping, grunting, and roaring echoed up to Whymer from the boundless wildlife below. The animals and wild beasts in the area had been getting more and more restless of late.

Something was coming to the Earthreach.

As if in response to this thought, a patch of Deadwood shivered in the distance. The blighted spot of forest was about two miles in diameter and looked like a giant inkblot left to dry, a mottled pool of blacks and grays. No one in the Earthreach really knew where the Deadwood came from, only that monsters made their home inside. Strange, twisted creatures, defiled by the blight, that hunted in misty nights in the deep forests where the trees seemed to come alive.

Unfortunately, today was not a day that Whymer had the luxury of stopping to enjoy the scenery or to ponder the behaviors of beasts, as the weight of the stone slab threatened to break his will and then his back—in that order—should he falter for even a second. This left him alone with his thoughts...and a giant rock.

He thought about his apprenticeship. He couldn't really decide if it was right for him or not. Granted, he was a fantastic apprentice, doing the heavy lifting, maintaining the workshop, sharpening tools, and what not; but when it came to the actual art, he just couldn't seem to get the knack for it. Any time he experimented with any carving it seemed unnatural, forced. But he had to keep going because, honestly, what else was there?

By the ancient gods that sleep in the Earth, my legs are on fire! Whymer's mind screamed, interrupting his musing, as he plowed ever onward until he reached the high dome made from tens of gigantic interlocking arcs of solid earth that marked the city he hailed from, Harrowhearth.

The common town of Harrowhearth itself was nestled snugly underneath the cage-like dome of earth that rose above. The buildings, the streets, the fountains—nearly everything was fashioned out of stone and wood. Few guards patrolled the streets of the lower city, but a quick look above would prove that the city was far from unguarded.

Sentries marched in pairs through the labyrinth of stone battlements and buildings worked into the giant arcs, transforming the natural formation into a fortress city suspended above the peaceful town below. The massive keep, called upper Harrowhearth, housed things like the barracks for the militia, the historical archives, and the chamber of the elders where prominent clan leaders would meet to discuss this-that-and-the-other.

The town was bustling with activity. All cities in the Earthreach celebrated Disting, the closing of Winter. As the season of Water ended and Earth began, a three week-long festival was held, and the streets of Lower Harrowhearth were littered with different booths vending festive foods, toys for children, and even handcrafts from the different denizens. Work days were cut in half, and a general sense of well being hung in the air.

Soon Winter would be over, the festivities of Spring would commence, and it would be time to plant. This also meant that the streets were packed with people, making it very difficult for Whymer to move through them with his incredibly heavy rock.

As it happened, Gethrin, the leathery representative of the Wolf Clan, passed Whymer’s path in the throng. He was the unappointed head of the chamber of elders, followed more out of respect and deference than anything else. He was one for camaraderie and cooperation between the clans, and had always been like a grandfather or wise uncle to everyone he met. He stopped in the road, standing clear of Whymer’s lurching progress.

“Dust of my Ancestors, been a long time since I’ve seen a Stone Tortoise so big. Wonder what he’s doing in town…oh, wait, I think I see Whymer under there,” he said with a chuckle. After a moment though, his amusement was cut by shock. “By the Runes, lad, is that Greystone?”

“Would love…to chat, Gethrin…but I really…can’t stop. Maybe tomorrow,” Whymer grunted, and kept on. Gethrin nodded in affirmation and proceeded on his was as well, calling to the people to clear a path, and Whymer was fairly certain he heard more jokes about Stone Tortoises.

With leaden feet, Whymer rounded the corner baker’s shop. He inhaled deeply, taking in the aroma of fresh honeybread while the familiar redstone chimney shaped into a dragon’s snout marking the workshop came into view. He groaned as the weight on his back seemed to intensify fifty-fold and almost lost his footing, but still managed to urge his feet onward. Isn’t that always the way? As soon as the goal is in sight, the body always wants to give up, he thought.

What surprised him was the packed throng gathered around the workshop. People from all over town were straining to see through windows and talking amongst themselves in hushed whispers. There was no way that this many people were here for Master Orain's work—not all at once, at any rate.

Whymer quited the buzz of confusion that was creating an angry mob in his mind. He only had enough concentration to put one foot in front of the other, so he drove all else out. He focused his will and marched across the cobbled street towards the workshop.

After what felt like hours, Whymer pressed through the crowd and crossed the low stone wall surrounding the workshop and, with great effort, mustered all of his will to gently lay the stone onto the lawn—next to a carved stone turtle—instead of dropping the damned thing.

With the stone finally at its destination, Whymer sat on the ground, leaning against it. Every fiber of his being protested against what it had been through and rejoiced that it could finally have respite. As soon as the energy had returned to his limbs, Whymer lifted himself off the ground and headed into the workshop. Best see what all the fuss is about, he thought.

As usual, the air in the workshop held an ever-present haze of stone dust, even when no one was working. Whymer readily breathed it in, its smell and taste bringing back all sorts of memories of his long apprenticeship. He removed his master’s sword from his belt and propped it against a wall near one of the worn wooden benches, and then hung the bandolier with hammers and chisels from a hook on the wall.

While the bottom floor was basically one giant room with windows in all directions filled with sculptures, pillars, and workbenches, the top floor was where he and Master Orain lived, and would also be where he would be entertaining his guest, whoever that may be. So Whymer turned towards the stairs and headed up. He moved quickly through the hallway at the top of the stairs, walking past Master Orain’s bedroom, the modest and unorganized library, and several closed doors before reaching the open kitchen door through which pipe-smoke, orange light from the setting sun, and the sound of talking drifted lazily towards Whymer.

“I’m telling you, he won’t—Ah, Sconie! So ye’ve made it back, have you?” Dornath Orain called as Whymer entered the room. The youth wilted slightly at being called by his nickname in front of a stranger, but nodded and offered greeting.

His teacher was a very…alive sort of man, his body covered in strong, firm muscles from years of stoneworking. He was verbose and cheerful, and only grew louder when he was happy and his eyes often held mirth in them that could set others at ease. That mirth was strictly for outside the workshop though, as he was a strong and stern master. His wavy red hair and bushy beard swayed as he laughed heartily.

“Took you plenty long enough. How long’s it take you to cut a single stone? But I know you better than that. Aye, I’m sure you carried the damn thing back on your own, didn’t you? Maybe I should drag our guests along with us next time, eh,” he said.

Which brought Whymer’s attention to the man sitting across from his master. He was just as tall as Dornath, though not nearly as broad. His hair, which was the same red, was kept short, drawing attention to his green eyes that almost seemed to glow like emeralds catching the sun. The hands that extended from his dark robes to grasp the pewter stein set before them were worked with dark, braided tattoos, the style said to be favored by Earth spirits.

Suddenly, Whymer’s breath caught. He recognized this man. He was the most spiritual man in all of the Earthreach Kingdoms, and the single most powerful Earth Tuner alive, handpicked by the Great Spirit of Earth itself. He was one of the four Pillars, the Pillar of Earth, but he had another title.

“You must be Whymer. I’ve heard a great deal about you,” he said in a melodious voice. With a hint of a smile, he added “my name is Sol Dessar. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

What on earth is the Strength of the Mountain doing sipping ale in my kitchen?

Chapter Two: The Weight of Names and Blood

“I suppose maybe a more proper introduction is in order then, eh?” Dornath said, standing from his chair and placing his stein solidly on the oak table. Then, with sweeping motions to each of them, “Sol, this is Whymer, last of the line of Scona.”

Just “Sol”? Not “Lord Dessar”? Whymer thought, How do they know each other? After the introduction had been made, Sol rose from his seat and approached Whymer. His tattooed hands delicately lifted the emerald shamrock medallion.

“An old name, Scona,” he remarked. “Do you belong to any clan?” he asked, releasing the medallion.

“I am Turtle Clan, along with the Orain family,”

“And has the Turtle Clan chosen anyone to participate in the Seeking? It takes place in a few weeks,” he spoke pointedly, cutting directly to the heart of his intention. Whymer guessed that this was likely the subject of his conversation with Dornath.

“You mean that aptitude test for Earth Tuning? None that I know of,” Whymer shrugged dismissively at the question. What a disappointingly mundane reason for a visit from the Strength of the Mountain. Is he on orders from King Eamond to survey the clans? he thought.

To be honest, being the last of the line of Scona, and the only one left of that name in his entire clan, Whymer felt his opinion and involvement in clan affairs to be so beneath notice that he kept himself out of the loop to focus on his craft, such as it was.

“Did you know that each clan is required to send at least one participant within five years or his or her coming of age? The Turtle clan has been absent from the Seeking for some time, and Dornath tells me that you came of age five years ago. And it’s far more than just an aptitude test, lad. While, yes, if enough promise is shown, some individuals will be given the opportunity to train in one of the Earth Tuning academies in Firtstborn, it is also where King Eamond hand-picks members of his personal guard,” Sol said, placing his hands behind his back and ran a swift check over Whymer’s person as if he were conducting the search already. “You seem strong hearted; you’d have to be to carry a greystone slab by yourself all the way here from the quarry. Your potential is not easily overlooked.”

“That’s all well and good, Lord Dessar, but I have no interest in studying Tuning. ‘Tuners control the Earth with magic, but a mason controls the Earth with a sharp mind, a keen chisel, technique, and discipline’,” Whymer said, quoting one of his teacher’s old adages. When he noticed that Sol’s gaze kept on him without wavering, he added nervously, “I’m sure there’s at least one person in the Orain family that will be going.”

“I think you’ll find the family of Orain to have an even shallower candidate pool than your own. Dornath here has already tested, and he has no children.” With that, Sol’s eyes swept over the other man, who stared, defeated, into his ale.

“He has a brother and cousins, though. He doesn't really talk to them, but I've heard some old stories,” Whymer supplied.

This was followed by a long silence; broken first by Dornath’s booted feet as he paced towards the window across the table from Whymer.

“Aye, that I do, but they all belong to the Tiger Clan,” he said. Those final words slammed into Whymer like a tumbling boulder.

He stood speechless for a moment, goggling, before it sunk in. His master, a simple stonemason, was connected to one of the most powerful clans in the Earthreach Kingdoms, the one boasting the most elite and influential families, of which Dessar was one. But how?

“Perhaps now I should make an introduction,” Sol began. He nodded towards the other man, saying “Whymer, I’d like you to meet Dornath Orain, formerly Furic Dessar, my brother.”

Whymer looked at the man, perplexed.

“You're brothers? But why leave one of the oldest and most renowned clans and join a fledgling one?” he asked.

“Because I wanted to forge a name for my own self. Because I wanted my worth to be my own, not my line’s. And not measured against my brother's,” he answered strongly. His voice held no malice or weakness, only determination.

“You see, brother, it’s in that second aspect that you and I find our opinions reversed,” Sol said, moving towards Dornath, grabbing his stein on the way. “I want to be known as a proud supporter of my blood, which is why today I humbly ask, not as the Strength of the Mountain, but as a man, to join the Turtle Clan under the name of Sol Orain.”

Dornath's gaze snapped to Sol, “After twenty-five years, Sol? You could've come with me after our Seeking!” Dornath growled, anger creeping into his voice.

This was clearly not the reaction Sol had expected, because he froze. The hint of a smile Sol carried fell, only now becoming recognizable in contrast to the hard resignation that replaced it.

“How could I? You disappeared in the night and I spent the next five years studying under Master Craglan. It took me the next eigtheen to find you, searching when I could. And I went clanless the whole time, I quit the Tiger clan the night you disappeared,” Sol explained, and the absence of anger from his voice seemed to hit Dornath harder than the presence of it would.

Dornath's expression softened substantially, and he murmured apologetically.

“You went clanless? I don't see Gran and Uncle Gjoric takin that very well. And...and what were the last two years for?”

“The last two years I spent working up the nerve to come to you,” Sol said sadly. “I was afraid you didn't want to see any of us anymore.”

“I didn't. And I still don't,” Dornath barked, topping off his ale to avoid looking into his brother's eyes.

The other man's shoulders fell a little, but Dornath, it seemed, wasn't finished. He moved around the table and poured more ale for his brother.

“But you're not just any of them. You're my brother, you great idiot. I always want to see you. The head of the Turtle Clan welcomes ya, Sol Orain.”

They rose their drinks, cheered a toast, and drank together. A long, pleasant silence passed between them before Sol returned to address Whymer.

“Unfortunately, this does nothing to alleviate the circumstances in which you find yourself. The Turtle Clan must send someone to the Seeking, and you're our only candidate. I can tell just by looking that you’ve got far more promise than any of the Tiger Clan brats my cousins have been sending. So what’s your decision? Lose the clan or attend the Seeking?”

“I guess when you put it like that, the answer is simple,” Whymer said, moving towards one of the cabinets and reached for a dusty stone tankard worked with iron braids.

This had been a favorite of his father’s, so he had been saving it for a special occasion, and this sure seemed like one. The silence was thick as he poured himself some ale out of a pitcher fashioned into the shape of a water spirit called a Kelpie. He looked into the eyes of the brothers, his entire clan. Like the medallion, this was another of the most important thing his parents had left for him, a gift far greater than any inheritance. They had left him a family, and he was ashamed to admit to himself that he had held it with measured apathy. He swore to himself that from that day onward, he would do his part to take care of it.

“To the Seeking, and to the future of the Turtle Clan,” he said, raising his ale in a toast of his own.

The brothers refilled their drinks, repeated the toast, and downed their ale together. As Whymer tilted backwards, he began to feel a strange, soft sensation in his legs. He had almost forgotten about the events of the morning, and the weariness sapping into his shaky legs quickly reminded him. His draft was halfway down his throat when his knees buckled and he toppled into his chair at the table. Miraculously, he managed this without spilling anything on his shirt. The two older men stared at the display in amused silence for a moment before breaking into hearty laughter.

“So,” Whymer said, setting his tankard onto the table, “The Seeking. Just what am I going to be in for?”

In truth, Disting served as a buildup for the Seeking –a time for mothers and fathers to swell with pride watching their children set off on the road for Caenkolt, and for youngsters to dream of days when they too might go off on a Seeking journey of their own. Many people would make the journeys as well, not to participate, but to spectate. Whymer had never been, though, so he really had no idea what to expect.

“For starters, you've got a six day journey to Caenkolt, through a myriad of less-than-hospitable terrain,” Dornath said as he moved to the fireplace, grabbing a carved stone bowl from the counter on his way. A pot of beef stew was bubbling on the hearth, and he ladled some into the bowl and placed it before Whymer on the table. “And then after you get there, you've got three days of grueling competition against the youths from the other clans.”

“We haven't much time, so your training will have to be rigorous, and we'll have to start tomorrow,” Sol said, laying a hand on Whymer's shoulder. That hand fell with a gravity of willpower that Whymer would not have imagined the slight man capable of.

The hand resting on his shoulder seemed to carry the weight of Whymer's destiny. What have I gotten myself into? He wondered.

Oddly enough, as Whymer ate his stew and chatted with the brothers, he found himself more comfortable with Sol than he should have been under regular circumstances. The man had a quiet reserve, starkly contrasting his brother's boisterous nature, and held himself with serenity and confidence in a way that made Whymer feel very at ease with his new mentor. Maybe it had something to do with his long history with Dornath? The scruffy, bearded man had always been a part of the family, like an uncle to Whymer and a brother to his parents, and had even taken Whymer in when his dear friends had passed.

Whymer finished his stew and excused himself, leaving the brothers to catch up. They had twenty five years to make up, after all. He walked through the darkening workshop, moving back down the hall and into the small room that he occupied. He undressed and threw himself onto his bed, letting it soak up the tiredness from his bones.

He glanced lazily around the room, faintly registering the old gauntlets his mother had given him, green Earthsteel with a turtle shell motif. She had had them made for Whymer five years ago. She, along with her husband, had been motivated adventurers and an unbeatable team, until they decided to settle down in Harrowhearth, choosing it for its relative remoteness. There, they lived comfortably on their amassed loot and whatever they made doing repairs and odd-jobs around the town.

Whymer remembered wistfully the nights of his childhood when he would sit on his father’s knee and listen to his mother recant past adventures along with Dornath, who would be sitting at the table with a pint, laughing and adding commentary as he saw fit. He remembered how ecstatic they had been when Whymer announced his apprenticeship to Master Orain. He would always work hard at the shop and come home to a delicious dinner and then evening lessons.

Despite Whymer's choice to pursue stonemasonry, he also wanted to learn to be a competent adventurer, should the wanderlust strike him—something his mother and father would joke was in his blood. He eagerly devoured these lessons, learning combat from his mother and general dungeon crawling from his father.

It had been five years since their passing.

Thinking about it caused a heavy lump to form in the pit of his stomach, but he swallowed it down and tried to think of something happy. He would save the clan that they had loved by attending the Seeking. That was a start. He even entertained a few daydreams about fabulous adventures as an Earth Tuner.

The sun, finishing its descent, appeared to set fire to a thick wall of fog that was creeping its way through the legs of Upper Harrowhearth as Whymer drifted into a weary sleep.

The streets of Harrowhearth were swathed in thick mist, catching the light and spreading it all around, making it impossible to discern its source, or even the time of day. The empty streets, silent except for the splashing of a fountain in a nearby square, were bathed in a phantom glow, and Whymer’s breath streamed from his mouth in ephemeral puffs.

A weight at his hip brought his attention down to a sword, unlike any he had encountered before, that hung from his side. He ran his fingers over the long iron handle, noting the lack of cross-guard separating it from the broad double-edged blade. When he looked up he was shocked to find two people, a man and a woman, standing opposite the fountain, watching him.

The man was an average height and lean, with the toned muscles of an acrobat. His hair and eyes were dark, and he was dressed in leathers, lined with pockets. The woman, strong and beautiful, had copper hair that she kept tied back and sharp green eyes. She was covered in Earthsteel armor, the green metal shining softly in the mist. After a few moments, Whymer finally realized why the pair seemed so familiar to him.

The couple standing by the fountain was his mother and father.

He had grown so accustomed to their absence that he didn’t recognize them at first, but it was so good to see them again. Whymer couldn’t recall why they hadn’t seen each other, though, but he also didn’t care. He rushed to meet them, but paused as the mist behind them began to darken. His father, noticing his hesitance, reached out and beckoned silently.

Whymer had missed them so much, and inched a booted foot forward, when a voice—sage, almost the slow rumble of a boulder tumbling from a distance—called out.

“Don’t be led astray, Son of Scona. The wheel of life and death can never stop, and can never be reversed. You know this,” the voice said, bringing his attention to the presence behind him. It had been with him the entire time, but had slipped his notice on account of its enormity, the same way a mountain might. He had known it was there, but thought nothing of it.

“Life and death? What are you talking about?” Whymer called, taking another step ahead. As his foot planted on the cobblestones of the square, the earth seemed to tremble with its response.

“You are deceived, Son of Scona! See the truth and cast off the shroud of illusion!” the voice seemed to tremble with anger, or was it firmness? And then for an instant, Whymer’s vision was clear.

The mist that was shrouding Harrowhearth was dissipated, and he saw what was hidden within. Looming over Whymer's parents was a creature that would be taller than the arcs of Harrowhearth if it stoop straight. It was a massive wormlike thing with spined and armored segments that occasionally leaked a thick fluid resembling…blood? It clung to the earthen arcs above, looking like a centipede slithering through a ribcage.

Whymer was about to rush to his parents, to try to pull them away from the beast. But when he looked to them again, his gaze was met not by his mother and father whom he had missed so, but a pair of tattered wooden effigies with strings extending from their wrists and backs towards the monster, attaching to one of the hundreds of wriggling limbs extending from its carapace.

Whymer stared at the beast for a moment before the fog set back in and the effigies returned to the mirror-images of his deceased parents, thought their movements now looked mechanical to him, no matter how much he wished they wouldn’t. After a long, tense silence, one of them beckoned again, and Whymer thought for a second he could hear the sound of wooden joints clattering together. Then a second voice came from the mist, or was it inside Whymer’s skull?

Not so, these two are not dead. They are inside Devourer now. Why not come join them? All life will join Devourer, when the Dark King rises. Now come, human.

Just as in the quarry, Whymer felt his body begin to move on its own, his feet taking awkward steps across the square. It made him feel powerless, as though all the strength he possessed was meaningless before this creature. At the third step, he felt he could no longer fight against the movement.

So he didn’t. Instead, he focused all of his will on his right arm, struggling to move it across his body. Time was short, so he could not afford to lose his concentration. With trembling exertion, it inched forward. Whymer's hand was over his chest when he noticed a strange purple glow begin to emanate from his palm. It formed a strange glyph that seemed…branded to his skin. The more he struggled, the brighter it shone.

He was now only steps from the veil of mist separating him from the hideous creature. A monstrous appendage that reminded Whymer of a centipede’s leg snaked out of the mist and began to curl around his body just as he gripped the handle of the sword hanging from his hip.

With a roar, Whymer ripped the shining blade from its scabbard and swung at the appendage. The blade cut right through it, sending black blood spraying across the cobblestones. A tremendous roar shook the air. Harrowhearth trembled at the sound, and small chunks of rock fell from above, clattering on the streets.

“Yes, their bodies are dead, but their spirits live on. They live in me, in my clan, in my name and in my blood. I’ll die when I’m good and ready, thanks,” he barked, rage and confidence playing on his face.

“That’s more like it,” the benevolent voice said.

Whymer’s body, apparently free of the beast’s spell, filled with power. It felt solid, like his bones were turning to steel and his muscles to stone. He felt immovable and unbreakable, a mountain incarnate. The earth trembled, Whymer trembled, as the presence called again.

“Now, Son of Scona, strike!”

Whymer raised his eyes to his enemy as it bore down on him, its maw opening to reveal thousands of teeth lined with corpses, some freshly dead and still moaning. It came down on him like a fanged avalanche, but he felt no fear. The jaws came down and everything went black.

A cool wind blew over Whymer’s face, drawing him from his sleep. Looking out of his window, he saw that it was still early morning, though his mind was too active to return to sleep. The town was swathed in shadow, and the only sound was the faint whisper of a soft rain. The quiet alone signaled to Whymer that the Disting revelers hadn’t pulled themselves from their beds yet. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Whymer could see the pale morning light glittering in sheets of water running off the great arcs, the “Falls of Harrowhearth”. He got out of bed and closed his window, silently thankful of his carpet for shielding him from the sharp cold a stone floor would bring. His jaw popped with a long yawn which was quickly stifled when he noticed Sol sitting in the lawn outside.

The man was sitting cross-legged on Whymer’s greystone block with his back to the workshop’s front door, a blue trail of smoke rising and mixing with the rain’s mist. The workshop itself was sheltered underneath Upper Harrowhearth, so he was free of the downpour. As soon as Whymer walked into the yard, Sol tapped his pipe on the stone, emptying its contents, and it disappeared into his robes.

“I was hoping you might have slept longer, you could have used the rest,” he said.

“For what?” Whymer asked.

As if in reply, Sol’s left hand moved in a fist making a quick rising motion. A large, flat stone shot out of the ground a short distance from where the man was seated. His empty hand made a sweeping motion, offering the ‘seat’.

“For your first lesson,” he said.

Reigning his excitement, Whymer sat on the rock, facing Sol. He realized that this was the first time he had personally witnessed Earth Tuning, or any Tuning for that matter.

“Tell me, how much do you know about Tuning?” the man asked, reaching into a small paper bag on his lap. He withdrew a honeybread roll, faintly steaming, and offered it to Whymer, who wasted no time biting into it, letting it warm his hands at the same time.

He shrugged at the question, answering through chews.

“Not much I’m afraid. I know that Tuners channel magic from one of the four elements, and tend to glow while they do it,” he said. Sol gave a small chuckle at that last part.

“Looks like I’ve got a long way to go,” he said, folding his hands onto his lap.

They sat in silence, the sound of the rain crescendoing into a roar in Whymer’s ears. Was Sol waiting for something? Whymer was about to speak up when Sol broke the silence, his breath misting in puffs as he spoke.

“The art of Rekien, more commonly known as ‘Tuning’ is a sacred practice allowing a man or woman to channel elemental energies through their body to be redirected into the physical world. In order to gain access to this power, the practitioner must form a pact with one of the minor elemental spirits.

“This pact is marked on the spellcaster’s body with tattoos that glow with use, thus the telltale glow you mentioned earlier. The color of the glow and, more importantly, the abilities of the Tuner vary depending on which of the four elements his or her spirit represents. Unaided, an Earth Tuner can perform…minor feats,” he said, illustrating this point point with slight gestures of his hands.

He had already moved a boulder creating Whymer’s seat, and with a snap of his fingers and a quick pushing motion, a puff of dirt swept up from the cobblestone street as if by a strong wind. Finally, a flick of the wrist caused a string of pebbles to leap into the air and then come clattering back down. “With enough energy, greater feats can be accomplished, but that is widely regarded as being an enormously impractical waste of magical energy, so Tuners usually stick to the smaller acts, which consume almost no magic.”

“It all seems awfully simple stuff for something people spend years studying,” Whymer interjected before Sol began again.

The man looked at him knowingly and smiled. What did that mean? Was he impressed, or did Whymer just make himself look a simpleton?

“A very good observation, my young student. If your mind is half as strong as your heart, you’ll make a powerful Tuner yet,” he reached into a small pouch and withdrew a wooden needle. He held it between his thumb and forefinger, and the next thing Whymer knew ten small spiked of stone shot from the earth, trailing ropes of vines and root, and lodged themselves into the firewood that was stacked in the yard.

“To compensate, the energies can be altered through various implements, most of which can be found in common households. You could use things like a rope or a stake, but the tuning fork is the most common, which is why so many people call it ‘Tuning’. Keeping a tuning fork on their person will passively increase a practitioners unassisted potential, but it also has practical applications.

“A tuning fork, when aligned to a certain element, can either charge the area around it with energy when it is rang, or conversely absorb energy if it’s still. With the proper implements, a Tuner’s power is raised nearly a hundred times what it would be unaided.”

Sol continued and Whymer sat on his stone in silence for a moment, absorbing the lesson. Harrowhearth was pretty remote and travelers rarely passed through. Tuning seemed so exotic to him, so far out of his reach, almost like another world. But Sol said that he could make a strong Tuner, and the thought of that made small stirrings of hope bloom in his stomach.

The Seeking would tell. What would his life be like if he was selected to study Tuning in Firstborn, the capitol city? Would he go on some kind of lavish adventure? Or were Tuners just glorified soldiers?

His contemplation was broken by Sol abruptly going silent. His eyes narrowed slightly and he quickly pulled a stone arrowhead from a hidden pocket in his sleeve. There was a sound like a stone splitting in two, and a single burst of glowing green sparks leapt from Sol's body.

“Go get my brother’s sword and meet me back here,” he said, his voice hard with a will like iron.

Whymer darted inside without hesitation, grabbing the sword from its resting place against the wall. He wasted no time fastening the scabbard to his belt, but didn’t take the sword alone either. He didn’t know what Sol wanted to do with it. So, sheathed sword in hand, Whymer dashed back out of the shop and returned to Sol, now standing in the cobbled street in front of the shop. He was holding that stone arrowhead in one hand and a woodcutting knife in the other with a short coil of rope wrapped over one shoulder.

“It seems like we aren’t the only ones about at this early hour,” he said.

Whymer scanned the streets, in search of who it was Sol detected. It was so hard to see through all the falls, like trying to look through a veil of smoke, but an idea sparked in his head. He gave a quick, deliberate stomp, emptying his mind, letting the earth do the work. Sol quirked an eyebrow quizzically, but said nothing. It was the oddest sensation, but Whymer knew that some…thing lurked around the corner of a nearby homestead. He decided that he was…seeing through the earth, or maybe feeling would be a better word.

He didn’t have a lot of experience with this new ability, but he could tell that whatever it was, its footfalls were inhuman. Just ever so slightly off, yet incredibly unsettling. He looked towards the presence and saw a dark shape, like a very thin, very frail man, standing very still and staring. It watched Sol and Whymer.

“I thought he died in the quarry,” Whymer muttered to himself in disbelief. Sol turned to him with a serious expression.

“It seems you found more in the canyon than a heavy rock, lad. We’re having a talk later.” It wasn’t a question.

Shifting movements further down the street caught Whymer’s attention, and he looked on in horror as more of those strange, wrong creatures shuffled into view and stared. The sword practically leapt into Whymer’s hands, the sheath clattering to the cobblestones below. He wouldn’t call himself a master swordsman or anything like that, but he was confident he could hold his own.

He gripped the sword tightly with both hands, a very straightforward fighting style more favored by his mother. Without thinking, one of his feet lurched forward, quickly followed by the other, and before he knew it he was charging across the cobbled streets, through the sheets of icy rain, and he was upon the creature.

Its reaction speed was slow and it barely seemed to register Whymer before he rammed the length of Dornath’s sword into its chest, right where the heart should be. It shuffled back a step, but otherwise showed no response. Its body gave no real resistance, almost as if Whymer had ran the blade through a bale of hay, and no blood came out of the back or ran down the metal.

Stones and bones, how do you kill something like this? He thought.

He tried to wrench the weapon free, but the thing grabbed Whymer by the throat and pulled him closer. Then, with its other hand it grabbed his face, one black thumb moving toward his eye. Out of the corner of his vision, Whymer saw the second creature, which had begun advancing on him, become lashed in place by ropes of packed dirt that sprang from the street. He could also feel Sol’s footfalls racing to aid him as he struggled to get the sword free. Would he make it in time? Whymer doubted it; he could feel the thing’s thumb pushing into his eye. He tried to pull away, but the hand closing around his throat pulled him into it.

His vision tunneled, whether it was due to suffocation or the pressure on his eye, he couldn’t say.

In a moment of clarity, Whymer released the handle of the sword, grabbed the thing by the shoulders and rolled onto his back, using his feet and momentum to throw it back. He let the roll pull him back into a standing position, but stumbled down to his knees, gasping for air. His eye seemed to pulse as the pain and tunnel vision cleared. After he had caught his breath, he rushed at the creature again, which had almost righted itself. He heard Sol call again, but his rage had overcome him, not for his adversary, but for himself for his hastiness.

The creature was beginning to reach for the handle of the sword by the time Whymer reached it. He capitalized on its slow reaction time to snatch the sword from it; briefly noting the small hole left in its chest, and quickly lopped off the arm that reached for him. The limb severed cleanly and fell to the ground, the fingers flexing and twitching before falling still. Whymer swung again before the creature even had a chance to react and decapitated it. He took a step backwards as the headless body fell to the ground and turned to dust.

“Looks like that’ll do the trick,” Whymer said before moving over to Sol who stood near the other creature which struggled against its bonds, straining to reach the two. “Cutting their heads—” he started, but was cut off by a quick strike on the forehead from Sol.

“That was a very foolish thing you did, Whymer,” he said, not turning from his captive. He looked as if he might be studying it. “You’re too hotheaded for your own good and nearly got yourself killed. If you’re going to prepare for the Seeking under my tutelage, than you will listen when I say to wait, and in doing so, cool your heels and wait. Are we clear on that?”

Whymer found his shame rendered him incapable of speaking, though Sol seemed disinterested in the answer, or perhaps assumed it would be in the affirmative. Whymer was beginning to see more of Dornath’s sternness coming through in Sol’s instruction. They were brothers after all.

The man crouched nearer the thing and took its hand as it grasped and strained to reach him. His face darkened slightly and his own hand began to tremble. Whymer, fearing the creature may be overpowering Sol, raised the sword as if to remove the hand. But before the blade could fall, Sol’s grip closed and crushed the monster’s hand. He studied its face, or lack thereof, for another moment and then tore the entire arm off.

It didn’t come off like a human arm would. It didn’t seem to Whymer to resist enough, like it separated with far too little effort.

“Hmm,” he mused, “that’s interesting. They don’t bleed and seem to feel no pain. Alright Whymer, the head, if you will.”

Whymer complied and unceremoniously cut the thing’s head off. As the creature’s body turned to dust, Whymer scanned the street for more of them, but found none. He could have sworn he had counted—

His breath caught in his lungs as his vision swung up to the crisscrossing stone paths of Upper Harrowhearth. Above the pair, standing stock still and staring over the sides of the battlements, was a teeming legion of the creatures.

Silently, Sol banished the bonds with a wave of his hand and dashed towards a large pillar worked with a spiral staircase, the nearest entryway into Upper Harrowhearth’s paths. Whymer wasted no time following, sparing one last glance at the surging black tide of enemies waiting for them above.

Toma Yau—The Howl of the Tempest, the Pillar of Wind, the Wielder of the Breath of Gods, et cetera— watched from his reed mat while his students were besieged by the rival dojo. His school was in utter disarray. Paper screens were smashed—their wooden frames splintered by bodies being thrown through them. Racks that were ordinarily filled with training weapons were emptied and knocked over, a few floating in the various fish ponds. The air was filled with the sounds of shouts and weapons—some wooden, some steel—clashing against each other in the quick, steady tempo of combat between trained warriors.

Toma’s students, those trained in the Fist of the Blue Dragon, were outnumbered by their nearby rivals, the school of Heaven’s Thunder. The fight raged all throughout the dojo, though it was not Toma’s place to interfere. He knew he could probably turn the tides if this was an ordinary battle, but he waited for Master Rowa, the Heaven’s Thunder himself. In a battle like this, which was relatively commonplace throughout the Windvale Isles, the heads of the feuding schools would battle and were to face no others.

And so he was consigned to his waiting, watching the battle unfold from the head of a high stairway, meant to mark forward progress. Every day when the school convened, each student would arrange themselves on the stairway based on their level of training, with Toma at the top. It was something of a throne, honestly, though he preferred to think of it as a nest. The nest of a dragon, wild and free, with an entire brood of young drakes training to fly on their own.

To an untrained eye, the fight appeared to be an indiscernible mess, but Toma could read a battle’s pulse. He saw patterns where others saw none, could feel the tide pushing one way or ebbing the other. His students were holding out, but the battle really hinged on his bout with Master Rowa. Morale would turn this fight.

And there he was, standing amid the sea of chaos, a veritable eye of the storm forming around him, for none dared get too close. He slowly and deliberately ascended the stairs, and Toma nearly choked at the gall of the man. Proper manners would have been to wait at the bottom, but with every step he symbolically surpassed years of study and dedication as he approached the peak. The audacity of the man rose Toma's ire, but he forced himself to look past his opponent to see the face of his true enemy, Valua Ioshi, lord of the northwest Isles and member of the Emperor's council.

Not even a week prior the lord had approached Toma, leading a string of men and his simpering adviser, Ugoki Kiotsue, into his dojo, demanding that he choose one to become his apprentice and, ultimately, the next Pillar of Wind.

“The power of the Wind crystal is wasted on a martial artist,” the aristocrat had said, sneering at Toma and stroking his long, slim beard. “You may fight well, but the wind's power is more subtle, better suited for espionage and the...subtler arts. You have kept the power well, as any good custodian would, but the time has come to pass the mantle on to one who would better suit the empire.

“There will be compensation, obviously. You will be allowed to keep, and will be awarded a monthly stipend for your services and cooperation. I will also say, Master Yau, that this is not a negotiation. Refuse this offer and be met with vengeance. I know how your world works, and I know how to destroy you. You have five days to make your decision. I eagerly await your reply,” he said, smiling slyly before turning to go.

“Why wait? I've made my decision,” Toma replied immediately, walking down the stairs to inspect the line of spies and assassins.

There were twelve total. Twelve of the best that the empire had to offer.

He'd fought worse.

Toma sighed deeply, but such was his lot in life, apparently. The day after his meeting with the lord, Rowa had appeared, no doubt hired by Ioshi, issuing his challenge, and gave the Blue Dragon three days to prepare, as was traditional. He had to hand it to Heaven's Thunder, he at least had some honor. The attack had come at dawn.

Toma winced slightly as he beckoned to his opponent, the final movement of their prelude. The fight with the assassins hadn't gone flawlessly—he had been stabbed twice and had sustained a few blows, nothing too serious—but three days to recuperate was fair. He would manage.

Rowa's face went from challenging arrogance to a mask of serene battle rage, and his slow, calculated ascension became a frenzied sprint. A roar of challenge, a mighty leap, and Senba Rowa and Toma Yau were locked in a wild duel, their entire bodies becoming whirlwinds of rapid punches, sweeping kicks, blocks, deflections, and evasions. Their combat became part of the tempestuous chaos that engulfed the Blue Dragon's dojo, slowly crescendoing until the students stopped their own fights to watch the masters clash.

Hammer fist met palm deflection. Hook grapple met reversal. Knife palm met rolling dodge. Dragon kick met jawbone. The two masters became a whirling torrent of cloth and muscle, their attacks, deflections, and dodges flowing from and into one another with precision and grace. Toma wanted to chastise, but was simultaneously incredibly amused with whichever student thought to ring a gong in time with their duel. He peered over Master Rowa's shoulder—a dangerous move, but he took the risk—and was surprised to see all the students were no longer watching their masters, but rather the door

The sounding gong turned out to be a loud bang coming from the door as if someone had struck it with a heavy iron ball. A wary silence fell over the dojo and many of the students moved away, thinking that maybe this was some kind of ambush from a third school, or maybe a monster from another island. They grabbed weapons, standing at the ready to defend their masters from whatever was on the other side of those large wooden doors.

Another bang sounded and one of the doors flew open and sent a large decorative iron dragon's head sailing across the large chamber that collided into Master Rowa, knocking him out cold and leaving Toma standing alone, facing off against empty space. If furious combat kept his attention locked away from the rest of the world, a giant flying dragon head sweeping his opponent brought it to the entryway standing half open and the figure walking into the dojo.

The sight reminded Toma of a heron wading through a still pool, delicate and artistic. The students of the Blue Dragon and Heaven's Thunder dojos stood frozen in place, staring at the newcomer. He was shrouded in a thin white robe with red stitching and slim white pants, his calves and feet wrapped in white cloth. His face was hidden underneath a snow-white hood and behind a red scarf which coiled lazily around his neck. A large white sack was slung over his shoulder and he carried a quarterstaff made of white oak.

A traveler dressed all in pure colors... Whoever this person is, his people are very superstitious, Toma thought. He watched the newcomer set down his sack and slowly approach the stairs, walking measured steps in straw sandals. He also watched a wave of tension spread through the students of both schools, like animals raising their heckles.

The stranger set his sack on the ground, lowered his—or hers, rather, as the face beneath was clearly female—hood and scanned the crowd. Her face was as fiery as the long blood-red hair that spilled down her back, ending just between the shoulder blades, with an ornament bearing a jet black feather woven in behind the left ear. When her cloudy gray eyes met Toma's she jammed a finger in his direction.

“Be you the one who calls himself the chief of this temple?” she asked, a touch of challenge in her voice.

She was an outsider—that much was obvious—but her curious phrasing smacked of no land that Toma had ever traveled to.

“I am,” he responded, careful not to let his amusement show.

He did, however, grimace when a few of his students rushed her, raising weapons and shouting something about how she should address him with proper respect or how she was interrupting a sacred practice. Honestly, he only heard about half of what they were shouting because he was very, very interested in this newcomer, and could have cared less had she addressed him with 'hey, idiot on the pedestal'.

The outlander's staff became a tornado of white oak, creating a loud, whooshing, whirling sound interrupted by a couple cracks on foolish skulls. In seconds, her attackers were laid on the floor and she resumed her finger-jabbing.

“Word of the strength you possess rise from the mouths of others,” she said, as if nothing had happened, “Very well. We shall have a bout, temple chief.”

Somehow, despite this being similar to the situation that landed Toma and his students in this predicament, the Blue Dragon couldn't help but laugh. This girl wasn't a heron at all, she was a rock—no, a boulder—being thrown into a still pond; a whirlwind tearing through a cultivated sand garden. She was delightfully chaotic and Toma could already feel himself being pulled into her maelstrom.

He approached the edge of the staircase, stepping over his unconscious opponent and the heavy iron dragon. He stared into her stormy gray eyes and felt a smile tug at the edge of his mouth as he spoke to his next opponent.

“I may not know your name—“

“Fuo Ku'aya,” she interjected uncouthly.

“--but you are, without a doubt, the most interesting person I've met in a long time. Be at the castle of Taoshu Isle by dawn tomorrow. We'll have our bout, but there's something I need to take care of first.”

He watched her consider him for a moment, probably deciding whether Toma was trying to deceive her or not. After a long, hard stare, she turned, snatched up her sack, and walked away, apparently satisfied. Toma watched her go, dropping gracelessly to rest on the topmost stair, letting his wounds rest and heal as they would. He looked over at the iron dragon, and it's eyes pointed back at him. “You're in trouble, friend,” it seemed to say.

Whymer's blade parted the creature in front of him like it was silk. He and Sol had been working their way through the ranks of the monsters to find what their aim was in Harrowhearth, if they had one. To Whymer, they seemed slow witted and mindless, meant to delay more than anything else. He kept slashing as Sol used the stone all around to spear, crush, and fling the creatures.

Whymer tried to look over the sea of creatures to survey where they were headed, but couldn't get a good enough view to figure anything out. So he tried to use his tremor sense again, stomping firmly on the ground and trying to empty his mind, letting his senses escape him. It was getting easier the more he tried it, but it also made it almost impossible for him to concentrate on his surroundings.

One of the creatures lunged at him, but was stopped by a stone blade shooting from the ground and splitting it in two.

“Focus, Whymer. We may have came this far, but all the progress in the world would be worthless if you die before reaching the end,” Sol barked.

“There's something up ahead. Something...different,” Whymer informed him.

According to what he felt, they were approaching some kind of large room, maybe the chamber of elders. Sure enough, a doorway appeared before them a little farther ahead. Sol pushed Whymer back a step behind him and used Tuning to slide the stones of the walkway out from under the creatures and slammed them back together as they fell through, smashing them.

Sol and Whymer dashed through the doorway, into a large domed room occupied by a round table shaped like a giant wooden ring. This was indeed the chamber of the elders, where the heads of the various clans in Harrowhearth would meet to hold council. It was also the place where one of the Earthreach's oldest relics was housed. On a stone altar in the center of the room was where the Maul of Jurial the Red rested.

The great hammer was wielded by one of the earliest heroes and was fabled to be the one of the implements used to seal a great evil, and the last one remaining, as the others were either lost or destroyed.

A figure stood near the maul, its back to Whymer and Sol. It was a man with short platinum hair, dressed in a long, black cloak and shrouded by a veil of dark mist that hung around his head and wrapped around his arms, ending in a clawed hand. He reached out, touching the worn handle of the maul, and recoiled as if burned. The mist fell away and a human hand reached out and firmly grasped the maul again. He lifted it, resting it on his shoulder, and moved towards the door on the opposite end of the room.

“I think, perhaps, not,” Sol said, pointing his arrowhead at the man.

Spikes of stone leapt from the walls and flew towards him, changing to steel midflight. However, the dark shroud whipped out like an arm all its own and swept over the projectiles. They simply ceased to be, wiped away from the world. Sol stood, shocked, for a moment, unsure what he was seeing for a moment. Suddenly, a dark shape rushed past him. It was Whymer, dashing headlong at his adversary, sword in hand.

The man turned around, facing the two, and what Whymer saw gave him pause. The shroud that hung around the man, a little taller than Whymer himself and maybe the ten years older, was coming out of his own body, most notably flowing from his eye that was tinged entirely black with a dark purple light shining from within. Whymer attacked, swinging Dornath's sword in a flurry, but the dark mist parried time after time, striking and blocking like a great serpent made of darkness. Sol also joined the attack, raising pillars of stone or swinging blades of steel from the walls, the floor, wherever he could grasp Earth to Tune.

But their target was...unnaturally talented. He fended Whymer's flashing blade off with deft swipes of his clawed hand while the swirling darkness darted about, whisking Sol's attacks out of existence before lashing out at Whymer with a spearlike point. Despite not being able to land a single blow on their opponent, Sol and Whymer were gaining ground, pushing the stranger towards a wall.

Without warning, the Maul came around like a comet. Whymer's first instinct was to block the blow, but an idea sliced through his instincts like a blade, and he moved without thinking. He released the sword's handle with this left hand, only holding it with his right. As the head of the Maul came down, Whymer's free hand shot out and grabbed the haft, trying to hold it in place. Instead of resisting with his arm, he pushed with his legs. In the back of his mind, he called out to Sol, asking him for some kind of magical assistance.

His prayers, it seemed, were answered as the stone beneath his feet began to rise, pressing him onwards. We must think alike, he thought, for them to have that level of synchronization. He pushed against the ground with his feet and threw his opponent backwards.

The would-be thief's heel bumped against the wall, and a minute registering of shock was all the signal Whymer needed. He leveled the point of Dornath's sword at his enemy's heart and rammed forward with a final thrust.

As the blade rushed home, the stranger lowered the dark clawed hand in Whymer's face and he was thrown back by an invisible force. His back slammed into the circular table and he toppled over it with a painful crash. He felt his head slam into the stone altar and everything went black.

Coming to felt to Whymer like being hauled roughly out of a dark, peaceful sea. At first he felt groggy and disoriented, his mind reaching out sleepily for memories to grasp onto as Sol shook him. Whymer's mind suddenly managed to hold onto the memory of the strange man, and attached emotions flooded into him faster than other memories did. Anger at the man who had stolen from his home town, wariness that he might be lurking nearby, urgency to reclaim his sword before the next attack. His eyes snapped open and he sprang to his feet, causing Sol to give a start of alarm. He snatched Dornath's sword from the ground, assuming a defensive stance before Sol's words finally registered.

“It's alright, Whymer, he escaped,” he said, gesturing to a hole in the floor.

It was perfectly circular and cut straight through the stone. With visible effort, Whymer rose slowly to his feet. That force—whatever it was—must have hit harder than he had originally thought.

“How long ago?” Whymer asked, walking towards the hole with grim determination.

The drop couldn't be more than thirty feet, and if that thing could handle the fall than Whymer was sure he could too. He felt himself start to gather speed as his strength returned, fueled by...what? Some kind of burning anger? Determination? Pure mule-headed stubbornness, most likely. He was nearing the hole now, almost at a full run when Sol's hand planted itself firmly on his shoulder. Whymer's instincts pushed him on anyways, but the grip tightened, holding him place.

“Long enough ago that it would be beyond foolish to pursue him. You've shown great heart this day, but it will take more than just heart to defeat that...thing,” he said, his grip on the youth's shoulder never letting up even a little.

This man is the Pillar of Earth, of course I would lose in a battle of wills, Whymer thought. He had nearly forgotten that fact about his mentor.

Maybe it was the troubling dreams, maybe it was the fact that he was Dornath's brother, but Whymer knew in that moment that he had grown far too familiar with Sol far too quickly. He had put his life in the hands of a virtual stranger, he realized, and a wave of embarrassment washed over him. Hesitantly, he relaxed and felt Sol's grip on him do the same. How little he had slept was starting to hit him hard. He would need a proper breakfast if he was going to push through the day.

“We need to regroup with my brother, there is much to discuss,” Sol said, regarding Whymer with a hard stare.

Hard, but not angry. Whymer thought he saw a glimmer of admiration in it, but dismissed the thought, reminding himself again that he hardly knew this man any better than the carpenter on the other end of town.

“I fear that there is more going on here than a simple theft. Events are being set into motion and I have no idea what to expect,” his tone implied that that was a rare thing indeed.

Chapter Three: The Turtle, the Fish, the Fox, and the Crow

By the time the two arrived at the workshop, the rays of the risen sun had punched through the forest surrounding Harrowhearth and lit the streets with patches of golden light. The rain had passed, but a few of the Falls continued to give off a faint hiss as they emptied their reservoirs of collected rainwater. Whymer made sure to collect the scabbard he had previously discarded and sheathed Dornath's sword as he and Sol entered the house. They made their way back into the kitchen and found Dornath sitting at the table, eating a breakfast mash of potatoes, eggs, bacon, onion, and cabbage. When Sol and entered, he started to hail them around a mouthful of food, thought better of it, and washed it all down with a quaff of ale before continuing.

“A fine morning to you two. Starting the training early, then?” he said as he readied bowls of the mash for the pair.

They took seats at the table and ate some of the meal—Whymer with a great deal more gusto than his mentor—before Sol spoke.

“Someone stole the Maul of Jurial the Red this morning,” he said. He waited a moment before moving on. “We tried to stop him, but he escaped” he added.

“Well that was certainly not how I was expecting to start the day. But why? How did he escape? You're the Pillar of Earth! By the Runes, man, he must have been some sort of demon!” Dornath cried, a mixture of vexation and indignation.

“You're closer to the truth than you know, brother. The man Whymer and I fought in the chamber of the elders possessed powers that were unlike any I have ever encountered. I know Earth, I know Water, I know Wind, and I know Fire; and it was none of those,” Sol began somberly, and then turned to Whymer, adding, “he also appeared to be in league with creatures that I have never before seen the like of. Our student, however, has had previous dealings. Perhaps and explanation is in order?”

Whymer felt the gaze of the brothers like iron stakes, nailing him to the spot. Not that he was thinking of escaping, but the weight was almost palpable. He took one last bite of his breakfast—it was quite good. Meaty and filling—and took a deep breath before beginning his tale. He studied Dornath's and Sol's reactions as he relayed his tale of the quarry, the voice, the apparition, his ability to sense through the earth, and his strange dream. Sol appeared thoughtful, as if he was attempting solve a puzzle, while Dornath listened with rapt attention to the details of the tale itself, trying to divine motivations or if there was some piece they weren't seeing.

The way that the craftsman studied the story reminded Whymer of the way he used to when his parents would recant past adventures of their own. Whymer guessed that the two of them were coming at the story from different angles—Sol from a magical and spiritual one, and Dornath observed through the lense of his experience.

“Devourer...,” Sol mused, trying the words out as if he were tasting them. From the look on his face, they were not particularly to his liking. His eyes had a far-off look, the look of a man scouring through his memory for some crucial detail that was just managing to elude him. “We may have to set out for Caenkolt earlier than we planned. I can access the archives and maybe unearth some clues.”

Dornath nodded sagely, “Aye, that sounds the most sensible course. I can have the cart supplied and ready in two hours,” he said. As he got up to go, Sol halted him with a raised hand.

Something has come to the Earthreach, and we can't be caught unprepared. I'll need to get in contact with King Eamon,” he said.

“There's a rookery near the East end of town. I'm headed over there myself after I get my travel things together, I'll show you,” Whymer said, raising from his chair and now empty bowl.

Sol's expression remained unchanged, but Dornath gave Whymer a level look that was both apprehension and concern.

“Are you certain you should be going alone?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think I am,” Whymer said with what he hoped was determination.

The last of the rain had fallen and now drifted through the air in curling tendrils coming from the damp cobblestones as Whymer stood in a lawn of overgrown grass in front of a moderate sized home. It was largely indistinguishable from the other houses around—made of stone and wood, two stories, and had a clan totem in the front lawn. In this case—part of what made the house unique to Whymer—the stone totem was a turtle.

He stood before the home of the late Herger and Keriel Scona. Actually, it was his now, he supposed. Ever since his parents' deaths, though, he hadn't been able to set foot in the building and had been staying with Dornath at the workshop. Even as he told himself that the Seeking was supposed to be a new beginning and that is was time to put old anxieties to rest, a small knot formed in the pit of his stomach. After what felt like an hour, Whymer lifted his leaden feet and crossed the lawn, running his fingers over the stone turtle as he passed, and walked into the house.

Sunlight punched through windows layered with grime and formed bars in the air as it passed through dancing clouds of dust. The kitchen, the first room Whymer visited, was the same as he remembered. The whitewood table surrounded by six chairs, one of which stood slightly askew, the fireplace with a cookpot hanging above the coals, the cabinets holding dusty bowls and tankards—it was as if he had only just left and came back in for something he forgot. Except that the building felt long dead. Somehow, just by standing in one room, Whymer could feel in his bones the loneliness and emptiness that had stagnated over the years.

Fortunately for Whymer, the pantry held mostly cured meats and breads when he left, so the smell of rotten food was blessedly absent from the house. Rodents had more than likely helped to dispose of the food as well. Hope you liked it, he thought as he moved upstairs to his old room.

Though it was smaller than his room in the workshop, Whymer's old room certainly felt more...lived in. Which made sense, it had been, after all. The furniture was largely wooden and the walls were covered with decorative hangings that Whymer had enjoyed. He had mounted a pair of shed koliaki antlers he had found as a child. His set of wooden drawers was covered with stone carvings of different Earthreach totems – the stag, crab, bear, wolf, raven, owl, and the mighty Blackfish. There was also a turtle and a tiger which were larger than their counterparts.

There was even a powerstone lamp standing on the nightstand, towering over a stack of dusty books. He walked across the room and gave the powerstone—a small red nugget set into the base of the lamp—a nudge. His touch sparked a low red light in its heart and a flame burst into life inside the glass body. Powerstones, the only good thing made in the Flamehaven, he thought.

Whymer could feel the wood and rugs through his boots as he paced around the room, and he could see his younger self going through the motions of living. Sleeping, reading by the lamplight, studying clan and Earthreach history. Memories and visions flooded and coalesced until it seemed to Whymer that the room was packed with him and all of his younger selves.

This life is over, he told himself, it's time to move beyond the past and forge my own destiny. He focused his mind, stopped letting it wander, and banished the visions. It felt a little like killing his old self, but he kept telling himself that it was time to get over his grief, his doubt, and move forward. He could still remember the smiles of his younger selves, the happiness he had felt in that life. But all things change. I have to keep moving.

He extinguished the powerstone lamp, said his goodbyes, and made his way through the house towards the door, but stopped just before leaving. Something—nostalgia, maybe hesitation to leave-- drew him to the hearth.

With hands moving more from memory than command, Whymer brushed soot and old dust away from the cold fireplace, revealing the mosaic of green stone beneath. It was crafted primarily out of jade, with other stones in varying shapes and shades of green mixed in. The shards of stone didn't form any one specific image, but rather seemed to hint at images that the viewer had to seek out.

When he was a child, Whymer and his father would play a game where they would find shapes by the fire. Now, on the verge of his journey to adulthood, Whymer found himself smiling down at the old hearth, his eyes immediately finding their old starting point, a turtle—its stones sides smoothed from being outlines thousands of times by reverent fingers. From there his eyes began roving aimlessly over the green stone maze, putting together haphazard images. A giant fanged fish, a running fox, a crow in flight, a—

Whymer was being watched.

It was the same feeling as in the quarry. That unpleasant feeling like something was writhing under his skin. He spun, grabbing the fire iron. At first he saw nothing, just an empty room with sunlight spilling in through the windows, casting shadows in the far corner.

Except that that thing standing in the corner wasn't a shadow.

It was another of those fiends, a creature made of empty darkness. It had knocked over a wooden walking staff which was now rolling slowly across the room towards Whymer before running out of momentum and coming to a stop just outside of the shadows. Whymer held the fire iron like he would a shortsword—not his most preferred weapon, but it would do—and watched the thing apprehensively. Killing it would be a simple matter, just whack the head off with a clean swipe at the neck. Than why are you hesitating? He asked himself.

At first the thing just watched Whymer, its form shifting between hues of black, blue, and purple with faint tendrils trailing off of its body. But then, just as Whymer was about to rush it, it began to walk forward. It was the same slow march that the others took, but there seemed to be something a little bit more...intentional about the way this was approached Whymer than the way other ones would. With the pair in the streets, it was more like they only perceived Whymer as something to be attacked, whereas this one gave off the impression of a more conscious thought, that it chose to move towards him.

It took a step into the light, and Whymer could make out contours of a body. It was more than a form that resembled a man, this one actually had dimension. Ripples in its chest like skin stretched over ribs, a hollow below where and empty stomach would be. There even seemed to be a face. Or...maybe a bag stretched over a face?

There was no hair, mouth, or ears to speak of, and the nose was more like the head coming to a small point where the nose should be, but the shape of gaunt cheeks, hollows where closed eyes would be, and even the points of cheekbones could be seen. What kind of demon is this? Then there was a feeling, like a caress on Whymer's mind, ever-so-delicate, but just enough to send a chill down his spine.

Then the eyes appeared.

They were less like eyes than pits of darkness where eyes would go. They were huge, vacuous things that resembled a circle a child might draw with charcoal, filled in over and over and over again until the charcoal was nothing but smudge on their fingers. The second those eyes locked on Whymer, he felt like an intense pressure was crushing down on him. The iron dropped from Whymer's grip and he fell to his hands and knees, gasping for breath. It took every ounce of his will not to collapse under the weight of the creature's stare. It padded across the room towards Whymer and he could see a sinister grin spread on its face. Like the eyes, it wasn't so much an actual smile as an even deeper darkness that looked like a grinning mouth full of jagged teeth.

“Spill the blood and soil the Earth. Tear the flesh and gnash the bones. Destroy life. Rip, shear, crush, grind, mutilate...” it chanted as it moved towards Whymer, though the mouth didn't move.

The voice echoed inside his skull, seeming to come from the walls itself. Whymer's arms started to tremble with the effort of holding him upright. Then, unbidden, his right arm lurched to his stomach and gripped at his shirt, ripping a hole in it. His arm threw the cloth aside and then, to Whymer's mounting terror, returned to his stomach and began to rake gory furrows into his skin. Blood dripped from his fingers and the rips in his body as his hand continued its grisly work. Whymer found that the only control he had over his body was the power to scream, he couldn't even look away.

The creature's foot came into view and it stopped its guttural chanting, allowing Whymer's arm to rest, but he still hand minimal control over his body. With what little strength he had left, he fell on his side, clutching the wound in his flesh. It didn't seem to be as bad as he was sure it looked, but his mind was in such a flurry of panic and shock he couldn't be certain.

Whymer could feel the creature's mind on him like a vast weight, rooting him to the wooden floor next to the jade hearth. How could something's consciousness exert such a control over a physical body? It kicked Whymer with a very real foot and he rolled into the hearth, bumping into it. He felt his mind running through the stone, becoming aware of all of its pieces, even the large, heavy one near the roof that was coming a little loose.

The creature stooped down, grabbing the fire iron that Whymer had dropped, and raised it like a spear as if to stab him. He wanted to defend himself, maybe to grab the iron, or at least to stop it from piercing anything important, but his arm wouldn't respond, so he just felt himself reaching out with his mind rather than his body.

He just willed it.

The creature recoiled, clutching its head, as if struck, and for a moment, Whymer felt himself linked to something beyond it. Some awesome, terrible force, like an earthquake incarnate. It appeared to Whymer as a great eyeless beast with a thousand mouths and ten thousand legs, each one like the legs of some enormous spider, straining and writhing in a tomb of crushing blackness. Whymer could feel its mind as it thrashed against the walls of darkness, and was paralyzed with fear at what he felt through it. It didn't feel rage at its prison, or hatred against those who sealed it there. No, it was a much simpler thing than any of that.

It only knew hunger.

With the creature's hold over him broken, Whymer regained a little control over his body. He only had one shot, so he took it without hesitation, rolling into the cold fireplace as hard as he could. If he hit hard enough, he knew could make the loose stone come free. It gave a small jiggle as the creature recovered, a far cry from what Whymer had been hoping for. It came at Whymer again with the fire iron, an angry, earsplitting hiss escaping from the blackness between those horrible triangular teeth.

Whymer threw himself against the hearth again, certain the stone would come free this time. He could sense it through the wall, could feel it nearly falling out of the wall. The second Whymer's shoulder hit the fireplace, the stone shot forth like a cork from a bottle. Dirt and debris rained on Whymer as it violently exited its niche and shot straight through the demon's head.

The head burst open like an overripe melon, releasing a squealing, squeaking, clicking sound like a dying insect and splattering the walls with black ichor. The thing fell to its knees, and Whymer could see its body flaking away in dark specks, looking like ash in the wind. It fell forward, slamming into the floor with a wooden thump, but the sound persisted, and hundreds of horrid insects flooded from its neck, scuttling towards Whymer.

Panic flooding his limbs, Whymer managed to haul himself from where he lay and scrambled for the door. Heart pounding, he threw it open and tumbled onto the lawn next to the stone turtle. The swarm followed like a dark puddle of writhing bodies and limbs. What I wouldn't give to be a Fire Tuner right now, Whymer thought.

But that would mean being from the Flamehaven, where a swarm of angry, hungry bugs and homicidal shadows would probably be welcomed guests, so maybe this was preferable. There was a loud rumbling and a small quaking, making Whymer lose his footing, and he fell to the ground.

To Whymer's surprise, he wasn't engulfed by the insects. He looked back to find an enormous boulder of iron—which must have emerged out of thin air, as ridiculous as that sounded—had crushed the swarm. His heartbeat slowed down and he could hear someone panting. It was Sol, holding a tuning fork in one hand, its prongs releasing a low hum, and a fist-sized emerald in the other. The stone, along with Sol's eyes, seemed to be shining a brilliant green light.

As Whymer's adrenaline abated, he felt a warm softness spread over his body. It seemed that transporting the greystone slab, the morning's fights, and the afternoon's flight were taking their toll on him. Darkness crept around the edges of his vision and he saw the green lights fade, Sol rushing over to him, and calling for healers before sleep, or perhaps unconsciousness, took him.

Whymer's mind unclouded to the feeling of being jostled about in the back of a wooden, roofed wagon. He was laying on his back in the dark, resting on a bed that was built right into the floor. He sat up, pulled his heavy, fur-lined cloak off of him to find his wound bandaged, and climbed to the front where he opened small door.

Sharply cold air and gray, cloudy sunlight flooded into the wagon and Whymer was staring at the backs of Sol and Dornath Orain, who immediately turned around intending to lay him back down, but after an initial inspection gauged him safe to be up and about. Beyond them, Whymer could see the clear blue sky, the endless green of the Earthreach with patches of old snow, a pale gray road winding through the trees—thin alpines broken periodically by colossal oaks—some of which were bare but most stayed lush through the Winter, nourished by the spirits of the Earth. There were also three other carts and a swarm of other men and women on the road.

Some people walked alongside the carts in short bursts and others were astride loping ferigs, creatures best described as a cross between a mountain cat and a golden eagle. They had hooked beaks, feathered crests that gave way to short, brown fur on the body, sleek muscle and razor sharp claws. They were also affectionately called “Reachers”, for their long, many-jointed arms that helped them to climb swiftly through the dense forests of the Kingdom.

He could smell the pine, the mud drying, and the faint hint of life beginning to overtake the cold sterile scent of winter. He climbed out of the wagon, bracing against one of its sides for support, and stood on the driver's bench behind the Orains, letting the cold air wash over his wounds as he looked out over the convoy.

They were headed to the Seeking.

It took Erano, the carpenter's son, looking over at Whymer and frowning, for him to realize that he was dressed only in his pants and boots, completely naked above the waist save for the bandages wrapped around his stomach. He and Erano had known each other since they were children, so he assumed Erano must be worried about his injuries. He took his other hand, clenched it into a fist, pounded his chest—hiding in a wince—and let out a hearty laugh, which caused Erano to smile and turn back ahead. That was better.

All of Whymer's levity, however, drained when he saw the cast of Sol's expression. He was staring at the road ahead, but not seeing it at all. He seemed to Whymer to be looking beyond it, lost in thought.

“I finally realized where I had heard the name 'Devourer',” Sol said gravely, glancing up at Whymer. He turned back to the road and twitched the reigns on the oxen pulling the cart before continuing,

“there is one referred in the old texts as Agathuin, 'the One who Consumes', and he is a servant to Rixis, the Spirit Defiler, a creature from the blackest depths of time and creation whose sole aim is to engulf all worlds in darkness...”

Chapter Four: As Fog Rolls Through the Valley

The lanterns outside of the Pink Lotus, white paper painted with the inn's emblem, cast the cloudy day outside with a path of light, leading travelers in. On days like today, with the air thick and gray with cloudy fog, paths of lanterns were the only way for anyone to find their way around Jashero. It was days like this that Mokarian, the innkeeper, relished.

Farmers from the outlying lands were unable to work, travelers found it impossible to move on their ways, and those already out sometimes managed to grope their way through the murk until that faint flickering lantern drew them in. Even a few of the Emperor's Galeblades, warrior nobility, took time out from patrolling the streets to relax—it was as hard for them to find criminals as it was for criminals to find crimes. So many idle hands, and idle hands need distractions in the form food, drink, entertainment, bathing, or beds. Fortunately for them, Mokarian and the Pink Lotus would always be more than happy to supply any of these, for a price.

And then there were those who came to the inn for...other pursuits. Mokarian thought he could almost hear their din through the floorboards, but told himself that it was just his imagination, he was very careful when it came to discretion. If the coin on a day like today was good, it was a pittance compared to what he would be making from the dangerous men below.

Mokarian imagined them down below. He could see them in a haze of pachu smoke, taste the expensive wines imported from the Wavecrest Seas, and hear the thunder of dice met with cheers and groans from the onlookers.

And then there were the Red Jaguar rooms. Yes, Mokarian had collected a very nice haul of Red Jaguar tokens today. He was very proud of his fair prices, charging two tokens to rent and ten to purchase. Yes, the business from today would be worth a small fortune when he sold the tokens back to Kiotsue upon his next visit to Taoshu. If the Red Jaguar rooms proved anything, it was that nothing sold like fine skin.

Mokarian had to suppress a sneer for the slack-jawed commoners above. They were so...lawful, with their teas and games of Goshaku. A few of the Galeblades were swathed in a wreath of tehanyu smoke, but by and large the wildest indulgence these folk partook in was Mokarian's ghostwines.

It was all so very boring.

Mokarian propped his elbow onto the counter in front of him and rested his chin in his palm. There was a stage at the far end of the room with giant red shutters. Mokarian typically kept those shutters open, letting the inn's garden beyond serve as an aesthetic backdrop for the entertainment he hired for his patrons, but thought the haze beyond a bit too dreary. So today, the musicians and tamiyo dancers set up festive paper banners to perform in front of.

The inn had settled well into a tranquil complacence when the doors opened and all conversation was smothered by silence. Every eye turned to the misty portal with fear and awe, drinking deeply from the sight in the doorway.

Tendrils of mist reached into the inn with the probing gray tentacles of some curious shade. The murky day receded slightly from the center, giving birth to a figure wrapped and hooded all in white. Flowing white hooded robes with red stitching, a red scarf, sandals and a quarterstaff made of white oak gave the wanderer the look of a night phantom, a lost soul looking for respite.

“Hail, stranger. Encounter any spirits out in the mist?,” Mokarian called jovially, receiving no answer. instead, the stranger's hood cocked a little to the side, the same way it might when studying some strange animal.

The inn let out a collective sigh of relief when the specter stepped over the threshold of the inn. It was common knowledge that spirits, as it so happens, cannot enter a dwelling uninvited. The stranger set its staff of white oak by the door and approached one of the Lotus' patrons, wooden sandals clattering slightly across the floor. It glided across the room and dropped a fat, golden coin into a wooden bowl.

“Your words sang true, the Blue Dragon chieftain will combat me on the morrow. His strength is promising,” she said. Her voice, rich with youth and fire, carried across the inn's pregnant silence and danced in Mokarian's ears.

He had wondered how long it would be until the famed “Dojo Hunter” entered the Lotus. Rumor was that there was a man—apparently no tale was beyond the distortion that multiple tellings would give—who went from village to village in the Windvale, seeking those with great strength. “Who bears the strength to match that of the Tengu?” 'he' would ask. The strange turn of phrase always stood out more than the obvious feminine voice, it would seem.

Whenever anyone could figure out what the question was—if they knew someone who was considered mightier than a Tengu, the half-bird race of monks who sequestered themselves in the highest peaks of the Windvale's mountains—they would give a name, usually the leader of a nearby dojo or an admired warrior. From there the Dojo Hunter would find that person, duel them, come out the victor, and move on. Rumor also had it that the Dojo Hunter always paid for good information with heavy golden coins that had not been used in the Windvale for over a century.

The origin of the Dojo Hunter was a matter of great speculation. Hell, a lot of the rumors had passed through the Lotus at one point or another. Some people thought she was battling the most formidable opponents in the hope of founding her own school. Other rumors said she was searching for the man who had murdered her master and razed her old temple. Mokarian, however, had his own theory.

In all likelihood, this Dojo Hunter was just another bastard left over from the Tengu War, nearly two decades before. Blightstorms—clouds of tainted wind—erupted over one of their mountain temples, twisting the Tengu that lived there into horrid, bloodthirsty creatures—later named the Onmoraki—that flooded the lands below, a village called Ukyoban, slaughtering all in their wake. The Emperor tried to resist, sending his Galeblades and armies against them, but no one man could stand against the Onmoraki. There were many losses before the Emperor and his eight lords sought out the aid of the Tengu, hoping their might would be enough to quell their dark cousins.

Accounts from those who were there—or claimed to be there—stated that the Tengu agreed to help the Emperor and his poor subjects, but only for a price. The Emperor promised them gold and riches beyond measure, but the Tengu weren't interested, the only thing they asked for in payment was the life of one human child from the besieged area, explaining that a life is filled with nearly limitless possibilities, each of which would pay for the life of one Onmoraki.

Only one child could be found, the newborn babe of a poor farmer and his wife. With a heart heavy with grief, the farmer relinquished his young to the Tengu for the sake of his home and for his country.

Their price paid, the Tengu immediately leapt to action in a storm of shadows taking flight. They fell upon the Onmoraki with steel, wood, and claw, in a storm of blood and dark feathers. The battle raged for days, but eventually the Tengu won out, leaving no Onmoraki standing. After the last beast had fallen, they silently returned to their temple, secluded in the mountains. To this day the people of Ukyoban refuse to turn their gaze to the old mountain temples where the Blightstorm still stands, dark and silent as an open grave, for fear of visiting its terrible fury again.

By Mokarian's estimation, the great Dojo Hunter was little more than some sad child whose parents were butchered at the hands of the Onmoraki and was hoping to glean some sense of vengeance by defeating a Tengu singlehandedly. Pathetic, really.

After the Dojo Hunter was thanked by the patron, a haggard old farmer, she moved with that otherworldly grace to the Pink Lotus' counter. She slapped another of those coins on the polished wood, a thick, heavy thud sounding its report.

Mokarian tried to suppress the urge to lick his lips when he saw the glittering gold—he was a professional, dammit—and stared into the Dojo Hunter's hood where her eyes would be. She obligingly lowered the hood, letting her scarlet hair—interwoven with a single black feathered ornament—tumble down and rest on her shoulders.

She was pretty, with a fierceness to her that most women lost at a young age, finding it 'unfeminine'. Break that, burn the feather, cover up the freckles, and she may even have the potential to be very pretty. Then she could fetch a nice price in the Red Jaguar rooms. He could charge whatever he wanted, ten tokens to rent, fifty to buy, and people would pay it.

But, Mokarian thought, How would it feel to own the Dojo Hunter? Red wasn't his favorite flavor of wine, true, be able to drink, as deeply as he desired, from wine that not even the Emperor himself would ever taste? He would trade all of the Red Jaguar tokens he had made today for that chance. He had decided, the Dojo Hunter would become part of his collection.

He was careful not to let his thoughts play on his face, bit his tongue to stop himself from licking his lips as she regarded him. The tension turned Mokarian's throat to sand as he stared into those hard, steel gray eyes and waited for the hammer-blow that was sure to follow.

“Upon which road do I find the path to Taoshu?” she asked. Mokarian, caught unprepared for such a mundane question, had to swallow the answer he could already feel forming on his lips. Slowly, a low murmur of chatter and music returned to the inn, she was only looking for directions, and to Taoshu, no less. It was only the capitol for the northwest region.

If she didn't know something as simple as where the local lord ruled, she must really not be from around, and not just from a different region either. She must be from a different country altogether, which certainly explained her odd dialect. The Earthreach, maybe? That made the most sense, since her fair complexion would never put her among the sunnier climes of the Wavecrest.

But that didn't mesh with his theory about the Tengu Wars. Mokarian had never met anyone from the Earthreach, maybe they were all battle-crazed maniacs like they were rumored to be. Yeah, that had to be it. This Dojo Hunter was just a tourist, come to the Windvale chasing tales of the mighty Tengu, looking for the biggest challenge. To think there was an entire country full of classless heathens with nothing better to do than fight.

Some people...

Mokarian did his best to stifle his contempt, wearing the mask of a kind innkeeper with a warm hearth and a hearty laugh for all who passed through. He smiled the smile of a man who wouldn't raise an eyebrow to the woman's inane question, the kind of simpleton from her native land.

“Taoshu? Why, it's only a half-day's journey to the north, but I wouldn't recommend travel of any kind in this weather. You could wander right over the edge of a Skyfall or into a Harpy's den. Why not stay here for the time being? We have warm food, soft beds, and drink enough to quench even the mightiest thirst,” he said.

“My destination is to be reached by sunrise next, I haven't the time,” she said, but Mokarian saw the way she eyed the steaming meat buns carried out of the kitchen by the serving boy, and the pot of soup set to simmer in the cookfire. Her clothes, though kept clean, had the look of being slept in and Mokarian suspected that she had not bathed in anything other than rivers and mountain runoff for some time.

“I'll tell you what, have a meal and a bath before you go, and since you're not staying the night, it'll be on the house,” he said, smiling. He saw her consider it doubtfully, wanting to agree to it, but holding back. He had to get this girl to stay, at least long enough for him to round up some men from below, so he pressed a little harder, “I'll even give you one of our lanterns to help you find your way through this murk. I promise, you'll be to Taoshu by tomorrow morning.”

After a long pause, she gave a nod, and Mokarian felt a surge of excitement. He had her. Now all he had to do was keep her at the inn until he could spring his trap. He gestured for her to sit at the bar, reached under the counter, grabbed a wooden bowl, and filled it with the soup from the pot. He set it down before her on the counter and bent beneath to get a damp cloth for her to clean her hands with. By the time he came up, however, she was already devouring the soup, gulping down the steaming stuff like it might escape her if she gave it half a chance.

Mokarian just stared, stunned, as she set the bowl down on the counter, clean of every last noodle, snatched a few meat buns from a passing serving boy's tray, and set upon them. When she noticed him watching her unladylike display, she paused, lowered the bun, swallowed her mouthful and then regarded them with the cold eyes of the hard, fearless warrior that had walked into the Pink Lotus not minutes before. The girl was gone, the Dojo Hunter had returned.

“I will partake in bathing now,” she said as she strode, bun in hand and head held high, towards a set of doors that led to the Lotus' bedrooms. She opened the doors, saw the hallway beyond, quickly shut them and walked in the other direction towards the baths, her face unreadable, but her eyes betraying a hint of embarrassment. She was almost through the sliding door into the cloudy day beyond, the haze outside mixing with steam from the bath and creeping through the doorway, when Mokarian called out to her.

“Don't you want to know anyone mightier than a Tengu?” he asked. She stopped midstep turned her head to regard him over her shoulder, her eyes razor sharp with suspicion. “They say that the Red Jaguar have all the real power in the Windvale. To go against them is where true danger lies.”

She stared at him for a moment in silence, and then looked away, walked outside, and was devoured by the mist and steam without uttering a word. The door slid shut with a wooden snap.

As soon as she was gone from view Mokarian beckoned to the serving boy, told him to lock the bath—that their new guest would want her privacy—and to mind the counter for a while. He then disappeared into one of the back rooms he kept for guests who wished to pay for their privacy. It was currently unoccupied, the tables immaculate, the polished wood floor clear of any sort of dirt.

Mokarian's straw sandals slapped on the floor as he crossed towards the back of the room to a small alcove set into the wall. There was a long tapestry hanging there depicting the birth of Origaze, the goddess of pathways. According to legends, she was born when a ray of pure moonlight fell on a lotus bud, which sat for a hundred years, slowly growing larger and larger until one day it bloomed, bearing the beautiful goddess into the world.

Beneath the tapestry was a small boxlike table laid with a green cloth, a bottle of wine, a small ceramic bowl and a single lotus bloom made of spun glass. Mokarian pressed the small bowl down with the palm of his hand and turned it clockwise until he heard a click and then a sliding sound coming from behind the tapestry. He stood and moved the tapestry aside, revealing an opening into a dark, cramped room with stairs going down directly to the left. Mokarian stepped through the opening, staring directly at the particularly gruesome tapestry hanging opposite him.

It pictured a red jaguar crouched beneath a banyan tree, sinking its teeth into a galeblade. The warrior's eyes were filled with terror and he futilely clawed at the earth to escape his fate. Upon closer inspection, one would see that the jaguar was not naturally red, a few patches of golden fur stood out on its hide.

No, the jaguar was made red from the streams of oozing blood that flowed from the other shredded men dangling from the boughs of the banyan tree.

“We suffer not those who presume to control us,” Mokarian chanted, using the archaic dialect as he turned and strode down the stairs, into one of the hideouts of the Red Jaguars.

The narrow wooden steps descended into the dark for what seemed like ages, the only light coming from small candles mounted on the walls, nearly burned down to nubs. Mokarian made a mental note to have them replaced. Finally, he came to a heavy wooden door and frame worked into the rock. Sounds more akin to an Earthreach tavern or a Flamehaven Bar than a Windvale Inn seeped through the heavy wood, muffled to little more than murmurs. There wasn't a chance of them being overheard upstairs, Mokarian reassured himself.

He opened the door and entered into a stone cavern. Wooden structures were assembled inside, giving it the slanted, haphazard feel that every encampment of thugs and cutthroats should have. The light in the cavern came from braziers set upon pillars that stood just above a man's head, from lanterns that hung off of sides and corners of the wooden buildings, and from small fissures in the walls that also allowed the mist to seep in.

Roughly twenty men in loose fitting red robes lined with black occupied the cavern. Many bore tattoos, and more than a few had the sweeping, spiraling yellow marks of Wind Tuners. All wore weapons slipped through the belts of their robes—heavy swords called aruong, short and quick butterfly swords, throwing axes, and spiked chains. They wore their hair in all different styles. Mokarian could see some with topknots, some that looked like vagabonds with long untamed hair, some with close cropped hair, some completely bald—their hair replaced with tattoos—and all manner of facial hair. There was one thing that the twenty men had in common, however. No matter the hair style or weapon choice, every single man in the cavern had a shriveled, black, killer's heart.

Mokarian included.

The Red Jaguars were a dangerous bunch, that was to be sure, but here they were mostly just loud. They cursed, shouted, laughed raucously, slopped wine everywhere they went, brawled for almost any reason, and gambled in every manner they could think of—cards, dice, drinking challenges, feats of strength, brawls, and animal fights. As if the thought were a cue, Mokarian crossed a dirty circle where dirty men shook fistfuls of money and shouted at a pair or snarling turotan. The scaled rodents bared lines of needle-like teeth at each other and beat their wings—the membranous webbing removed, reducing the wings to little more than a set of long, bony appendages.

Mokarian pressed through the crowd, past the makeshift gambling dens, the clouds of pachu smoke, the puddles of spilled beer, wine, and blood, and made his way to the back of the cavern, headed towards one of the inn's lanterns, the only colored light in the cavern. It cast a pink light over the paper screened door it hung over and the counter before it. Two men dressed in dark blue robes stood behind the counter—Ahachek, Mokarian's partner, and Ketoma, his assistant. Two red robed men, covered in thick muscle, stood on either side of the door, short warclubs at their belts and heavy swords on their backs.

At Mokarian's approach, Ahachek glanced at a small clock on the counter and then at his ledger, looking very comfortable in the den of gangsters. Ketoma just looked bored. Ahachek handled all of the currency—gold pinions or tokens—that the Lotus took in from the Red Jaguars. He also controlled who passed by the large men—the pushers, as he called them—into the Red Jaguar rooms. Ketoma, on the other hand, was simply the boy who went into the storeroom for whatever it was that a Red Jaguar would want.

Mokarian could hear the sounds of money being made on the other side of the door. It was the sound of pleasure, both for the men who made those sounds and for the man who sold them that pleasure.

“Mokarian, you're early,” Ahachek commented, nodding to the innkeeper. “Today we've made six hundred and fifty-four pinions, though the day is still young. At our earliest convenience we'll need to restock on our Frostcurrant wine, the expensive one from the southern Wavecrest. We have also pulled in fifty tokens—Two girls, Kio and Uwe were sold, one man rented the twins, Ashi and Wo, costing him six tokens, and there were twelve normal rentals. These tokens are potentially worth an additional three thousand pinions. Coupling the aforementioned expenses and the cost of replacing the girls, that brings our total profit to—”

“Ahackek, I'm taking my cut of the tokens right now, and I need to see Horun,” Mokarian demanded impatiently, cutting off the accountant's expense report. Ahackek, usually dry and impassive, was slightly taken aback at Mokarian's behavior. He blinked at him, coughed, and then reached beneath the counter, producing a bulging pouch that made a wooden rattling sound when he set it down.

Mokarian upended the back onto the counter, spilling the nearly forty wooden coins, hand-carved from rare wood found only on the southern isles, picturing a jaguar in mid-pounce, its claws and fangs bared at imaginary prey. He and Ahackek split them, Mokarian with much more fervor than the other. Mokarian added his cut—twenty tokens to a small wooden box he kept beneath the counter containing more tokens he had accumulated over the past few months—one hundred thirty tokens in all—and moved towards the two men guarding the door beneath the pink lantern. They moved aside with a wave from Ahackek, sliding the door aside and permitting Mokarian into the the Red Jaguar rooms.

Beyond the door was a long, dark hallway. The floor was of a polished darkwood, of far better make than even the Lotus and the walls on either side were paper screens mounted in thin wooden frames. It was all, truly, exquisite craftsmanship, and the only light came from pale blue light that shone weakly through the paper screens, leaving the hall itself in a sort of dreamlike darkness. A few of the lights cast silhouettes of those beyond, men and women engaged in all sorts of primal rutting, the sounds of their pleasure coming through the wood and paper walls, filling the hall with carnal music.

Mokarian moved quietly down the hall, to a door at the very end of the hall, listening for a few moments before speaking. The man beyond, Horun, seemed to be enjoying the merchandise quite a bit, that should put him in fine spirits. Not wanting to be rude, Mokarian waited until Horun was finished, and then waited slightly longer still before he cleared his throat loudly.

“I hope you're enjoying yourself, Horun,” Mokarian said, taking a minute to pause before sliding open the door. The room was square, and hardly fifteen feet in either direction. In the center of the room was a thick stuffed mattress, like a giant pillow, layered with blankets. The back wall was entirely wooden, worked with many shelves for wine, pachu pipes, clothes, weapons, decorative plants, and the pale blue lanterns that cast the light into the room. There were also sliding doors concealed in either side of the room leading to narrow passages that the girls would move through.

Horun sat on the mattress, clothed in only his blood-red robe, of a much finer material than that of the other thugs. He was a large man, cut of the lean, tone muscle of hunting cats. His black hair was long and loose, his eyes dark and hard, he kept his mustache trim, but the rest of his facial hair was rough on his face. He was idly fondling a panting, naked Suime, the golden haired beauty from one of the southern isles—his personal favorite—and puffing on his pachu pipe, making the room appear to be veiled in a thin mist. He regarded Mokarian heavily for a time, drawing out the silence, breathed deeply from the pipe and then spoke, his words growling out of his mouth in a thick cloud of smoke.

“Yes, innkeeper, but now there's a fly buzzing in my ear and it's killing my mood,” he said. Mokarian had to hand it to the man, he had a good glower, “You've had your pay from me, so say your piece and be gone.”

Rather than speaking, Mokarian tossed the pouch of tokens into the room. It landed on the ground and the wooden coins spilled out with a clattering. Horun stared at the pieces suspiciously, then at Mokarian.

“Most people pay this kind of money for the death of a lord or warchief, innkeeper. Name your job, and the Jaguars will see it done.”

Fuo let herself sink chest deep into the hot waters of the open-air bath, feeling her road-weariness seep out of her. It was a large pool, likely designed to be used by many patrons at once, and she could see tiny pinpricks of red light under the water through the steam and fog.

The elders praised cleanliness, though Fuo was sure they would argue that the warm waters and scented soaps of which she was currently partaking to be of excess. They surely would tell her that the mountain streams were enough and that she was already becoming soft.

“The body can become cleaned in the purity of nature,” she agreed, talking to imaginary elders, scrubbing away some dirt that had obfuscated itself, “but through what means does the spirit become cleansed? The bath of which I partake refreshes the mind and makes the body rejuvenated.”

Fuo smiled, feeling she had won against her imagined adversaries. But then the answer came to her and she could feel her smile melting into an expression of annoyance.

“Meditation,” she grumbled. It seemed to Fuo that every turn in her life was met with meditation. Whenever she was caught singing while doing her chores, meditation. Whenever she would finish her day's training, meditation. Whenever she got tired of constantly meditating, meditation! The elders would tell her that it was vital to 'tame her wild spirit', which only really meant that they thought that she wasn't demonstrating the proper decorum for one of her order.

Regardless of the reason, Fuo still found meditation to be tedious and she wound up falling asleep eight times in ten. And yet, after a minute of grumbling, she was sitting on a rock in the center of the bath, her legs crossed and the palms of her hands delicately resting on the surface of the water. She closed her eyes and let her consciousness slip out of her, down her shoulders to her fingertips, and then over the surface of the water. She poured every ounce of her concentration into her breathing, her thoughts becoming as the weather, a mist that was imperceptible in shape, but omnipresent.

It felt...actually quite nice, and her concentration broke just enough for a small spike of irritation at the elders that dispersed even quicker than it arose. Time slipped away from her, and she was almost certain that she was asleep.

She saw herself crouched down in the old temple, her home. She could hear all the brothers and sisters practicing outside, see their silhouettes dancing across the paper screens that separated them. Then Old Crow spoke, his tone heavy with authority, from his place among the elders who were seated in a row before Fuo.

“Your time amongst us is at its end, Child of the Autumn Wind,” he said. “Your travels will take you far and you will struggle much, but this path is yours and it is fixed.”

“The quest that has been placed upon your shoulders is one of fierce trial. You will become as the wind, traveling from place to place, seeking warriors of comparable strength to the Tengu,” said another.

“But we are forbidden leave of the temple unless for a cause of great necessity. Such has been our way for days beyond counting,” Fuo protested.

“But you are not of us. Your place is among us, but not of a one with us,” came the heated reply from one of the elders, irritated that Fuo had interrupted . The rejection in the words cut Fuo to the core, and she quickly found her silence.

“Combat them, Child of the Autumn Wind, until only yours is the name with which they reply. Only then, will you be counted as one of us,” said a fourth elder, who was particularly fat.

Fuo only nodded in assent.

Was it because of her wild spirit? Was that why the elders were discarding her? Hot tears welled in her eyes, but she wept not and said nothing. She hated herself for her foolishness, that she had never taken her training as seriously as the other students, despite her aptitude.

This is but a test, she told herself as she felt her heart begin to drop into her stomach. They wish to see my strength of will and my fortitude in battle. I shall crush my foes and feel not dispirited. That is the only path.

The elders rose from their places and exited the temple, leaving Fuo to her preparations. She was about to rise when she saw that Old Crow had remained with her. He reached down and wove a small ornament with a single jet black feather into her hair. He spoke again, his tone grandfatherly this time.

“Fly with swiftness until home is in your view, kin in kind.”

“I will feel not dispirited,” Fuo chanted hollowly, emerging from her dreamlike trance. She kept her eyes closed and her fingers on the water's surface, but allowed her thoughts to wander as they were want to. She thought that it may be a good idea to study the vernacular, as her speech seemed jarring to the people she communicated with. Maybe she could practice her low speech.

But that was a matter for another time. She came fully out of her trance, rejoining the present in a sea of clouds that stretched in every direction. It drifted through the room as fog, rose up from the water as steam, and even sank into its depths as a reflection. She felt as the ancient god, alone in an endless world where sea and sky were one. She smiled and swept her fingers delicately along the surface of the water, caressing it and making the most minute of ripples.

And then she grinned and did the most ungodlike thing. She yelled aloud and rolled gracelessly off of her rock and splashed into the hot bathwater. Interestingly enough, the world beneath the surface was much the same as the one above, but instead of gray murky fog and rising steam, the opaque waters were tinged pink from the tiny lights—upon closer inspection they were glowing gemstones—burning like stars all around the bath.

Fuo played about in the bath for a time—swimming, blowing jets of water out of her mouth and nostrils, putting her red hair in front of the gems to make it blaze like a sunset—and generally being anyone other than the infamous “Dojo Hunter”.

Taming Fuo's wild spirit could wait until she was back at the temple.

Fuo was doing a handstand underwater—her pale, naked lower half flailing about in the cloudy air—when she heard a sound through the earth and water not unlike a boulder being shifted aside followed by many footsteps.

Her instincts and years of training kicked in immediately. She slipped her entire body beneath the surface as silently as a fish and listened as hard as she could, letting the bath's cloudy depths speak to her.

Several people were making their way into the bath through some alternate entrance. She couldn't accurately judge how many, but she was willing to bet that there was more than three of them, six at most. It wouldn't be long before they were inside the wooden enclosure surrounding the bath. She definitely didn't have enough time to escape, so she emerged from the water slowly and glided silently back to her little island. The bath was utterly silent, save for the babble of the flowing water. Whoever had joined Fuo wanted to catch her by surprise and was mustering all their stealth.

Fuo marked a few silhouettes shifting through the steam as she crept onto the stone, slowly and carefully as a rainbow lizard. One of them moved over to where Fuo was almost certain she had left her clothes. She scanned her vicinity for anything she could use as a weapon—she didn't have a lot of time before the men had searched all around the bath and would start searching the waters. She could maybe dislodge one of the large rocks, but that would make too much noise and would be wet and unwieldy. She would probably end up doing more damage to herself than any of the intruders.

The only thing she could find to use was the bar of bright pink soap she had set in a small crook in the rock before she had begun meditating. She would just have to make due with her fists, maybe sneak up on one and disarm him. If she was quiet and cautious she could pull it off.

And then the man who was standing by her clothes scooped up her robes and pressed them to his face, inhaling deeply and growling with pleasure. Fuo saw red.

She grabbed the soap.

The thug breathed deeply of Fuo's scent, which was decidedly earthy and neutral since she had gone so long only bathing in clean mountain water. It wasn't a very feminine smell, but he got what he was looking for out of it. It was the act of smelling a woman's discarded clothes that was important. Unfortunately for him, the heady rush of bliss prevented him from detecting the furious naked girl that flew at him out of the mist and steam.

She had jumped from her small rocky island, easily clearing the six or seven feet to the wooden deck attached to the inn proper. She took two silent steps and leapt at the red robed man in a swinging kick aimed at the back of his neck. Her foot struck him at the base of his skull—the poor visibility threw off her aim—with the force of a lumberman's axe, sending him slamming face-first into the polished wooden floor of the deck with a loud slam, a small crunching sound and a pool of blood spreading out from the broken nose.

Fuo wasted no time lifting weapons off the man, or even taking her robe. Instead, she found her next target, a nearby silhouette that turned sharply at the sound and was moving slowly towards her. She threw the bar of soap at him and dashed after it, her feet making a mixture of soft padding and splashing noises. The man froze, realized he was being targeted, and charged forward, weapon held high.

Or, at least, he would have charged at Fuo if he hadn't stepped on the bar of soap that she had sent sliding towards him. His foot slipped right out from beneath him, leaving him staring up into the fog and haze, his weapon—one of the heavy aruong—clattered to the floor. Fuo was upon him before he had even begun to fall earthward, placing a palm upon his sternum and sending him hurtling downward with a powerful slam. The impact only winded him and left him seeing stars, but the kick connecting squarely with his jaw knocked him out cold.

Now that it was apparent that all element of surprise had been lost, Fuo's assailants abandoned all premise of stealth and called out to each other, the sound of their voices moving in both directions around the bath, cutting off any option of retreat, not that Fuo had even considered it.

“Giun, what's going on?”

“Did you get her, Feng?”

“Do you think she's trying the door?”

“Put your weapon away, you idiot. The boss wants her alive.”

One man charged from Fuo's left, back towards the Pink Lotus' door, and two from her right. She reached down and grabbed her most recent victim's aruong, raised it high over her head, and hurled it at the two men. It spun into the haze, cleaving at rolling spiral of air as it flew, and was soon lost in the murk. A wet sinking sound told her that it had found its mark, and she turned quickly to meet the lone man coming from the deck.

He came bursting out of the mist with a glaive pointed forward. Fuo took a moment to remark at the foolishness of this red robed man, who would charge blindly into the fight with his weapon lowered in the hopes of skewering her, running the risk of killing his companions by mistake. She easily deflected the glaive with a slight nudge of her left hand and brought the right fist hurtling into his nose like a shooting star. The thug charged right into the attack, though she misjudged where his nose would be—he was particularly short—and ended up striking him right in the forehead.

The glaive fell to the floor and he stumbled backwards, reeling and clutching the spot where she hit. She pursued him into the obscuring mist with the hope to incapacitate him before the apparent last of the thugs—she couldn't be certain that there weren't more laying in wait—could close in on her. Within three steps she was upon him, still stumbling backwards but beginning to turn as if to run. Her body moved automatically, placing a few quick steps, turning, and striking like a snake with a spinning backfist. This time, her aim was true and she caught the man right in the cheek and sent him tumbling into the bath.

Which left only one. She turned to meet him, but had misjudged where he would be. The man was right behind her, charging like an enraged animal. He was a huge, bald man, with a body of rippling muscle—barechested with the upper half of his red robe hanging over his black belt—and Fuo's weak reflexive strike had as little of an effect on him as if she had thrown a pebble. He crashed into her and knocked her off her feet, sending her tumbling and rolling backward. She hit hard against a big, decorative stone, and gasped as the wind rushed out of her. She gathered her wits as quickly as she could and rolled breathlessly out of the way as he came at her again. Fuo had enough time to roll onto her feet and catch her breath before her assailant rounded on her again.

The juggernaut of a man had caught her unaware, had made a fool of her, and now approached without fear. He would pay for that. Fuo planted her feet and centered herself, drawing in her anger and transforming it to strength. She wouldn't kill him. No, he would live to regret crossing her.

He took a heavy step forward and threw a punch, but Fuo had anticipated the attack and was moving. She flew, back-flipping over his strike. In midair, her back arched over the man's tree-trunk of an arm, she grabbed his fist—her fingers locking onto the muscles in the palm that moved the thumb—and his elbow, keeping the joint extended. Then she swung her entire weight around the thug's arm as if it were a pole, kicking her legs out ahead of her to throw her forward. His arm twisted and he cried out in pain. His arm tried reflexively to bend, but Fuo pressed as hard as he could on the elbow, so the man's body caved in its stead. She felt his shoulder pop out of place and he tumbled to the ground, but she released her hold and soared upwards into the mist before she could fall with him.

She let herself gain as much altitude as she could before twisting her weight about in midair, righting herself in the vertical sense. She was now about six or seven feet directly above the prone man, who was attempting to pop his ruined arm back into place, his face a mask of fury and pain. Now she plummeted, directing a gravity-fueled kick directly at the pressure point of the man's good arm. Left pectoral, just next to the heart.

The kick connected and she twisted her foot, wrenching the thug's arm away and wracking him with more pain. Then her other foot swung across his face like a pendulum, knocking him out.

So someone wanted to take her captive, did they? She glanced down at the unconscious man she still stood upon and watched droplets of bathwater fall from her hair and body onto the red robe he wore around his waist.

“So, it is the desire of the Red Jaguars to have a bout, eh?” she said, walking back to her clothes. She pulled her white undergarments—just enough cloth to be decent—over her hips, slipped her feet into her sandals and quickly rebound her breasts with a long, white cloth as they were already starting to ache. She didn't bother with the whole ordeal of redonning her robe, which could take a great deal of time. Instead she walked towards the back of the bath to find the hidden tunnel to where the thugs had emerged from. A large stone had been moved aside using greased wooden tracks revealing a dark pathway into the earth.

There were people waiting to see her, after all.

At the bottom of the stairs was a sliding wooden door that stood open into a dark storeroom. The room was occupied by rows of shelves filled with a variety of things, but mostly alcohol and clay pots of different buds for smoking. The only light came from four candles burning weakly on stands around the room. There were several other doors set into the walls, which Fuo assumed led to different secret entrances around the inn, or perhaps the township. The air was cold and clammy against her bare skin, and she could feel gooseflesh rising all over her body as her hair turned to damp, dirty ropes of crimson.

She swore inwardly. She was going to need to take another bath after she was done with this mess.

Not a lot in here that would suffice as a weapon. Fuo kicked herself for not going back to reclaim her staff, but she could make due. Unfortunately, she was in a bit of a bind, as she had no idea which of the doors would take her to the person who had sent those thugs after her. She wanted to know why, but mostly she just wanted to punch them in the face.

There came a clattering sound from one of the doors and Fuo reflexively threw herself behind one of the shelves and crouched down. The door made another latching sound as it was unlocked and opened inward, releasing a young man into the room. Fuo couldn't see much from her hiding place, but she saw some sort of haphazard encampment filled with red robed men through the doorway.

The youth walked through the shelves, grumbling something or another about not being paid enough to be a glorified serving girl, grabbed a small box began to fill it with bottles and pots. Fuo acted swiftly, grabbing a heavy pot off her shelf and pitching it with all her might at the youth's head. It struck with the appropriate shattering sound and he crumpled to the floor, requiring no further work from Fuo.

Weakling, she thought. The sound, apparently, attracted the attention of some of the men outside. Fuo heard a few of them get up from where they were seated, moving towards the storeroom to investigate.

“What's the matter Ketoma? You'd better not be getting into the ghostwines, or the boss'll have your hide,” one of them called in mock concern, “are the boys back yet? I want to get a look at this girl the innkeeper is so hard about?”

Time was short, so Fuo quickly extinguished the candles, grabbed the limp body of the youth—Ketoma, apparently—and pushed him into a dark corner, obscured by boxes. She had just enough time to dash behind the door before three red robed thugs loped into the room. Their eyes had the cast of men heavy in drink as they leered about the room, fingering their weapons.

“Sure is dark in here, Ketoma. If we didn't know any better, we'd think you were borrowing one of the girls for a quick tumble when you're supposed to be getting us our pachu,” one of them jeered, cracking his knuckles. Fuo had just marked their location in the room when the door leading up to the bath swung open and a red robed figure stumbled in. He wasn't the juggernaut, and the others should have been knocked out for hours. He came in, panting and clutching a wound that dug deeply into his shoulder.

Fuo cursed inwardly again. The aruong had missed its mark. She should have known better than to assume she had killed him. His eyes were wide with panic as he scanned the room.

“The girl, she...”

Fuo slammed the door shut, plunging them all in total darkness.

Quicker than the bite of a Kengyo lightning snake she was upon the first man, striking at where the back of his neck should be with a heavy chop. He let out a small, gurgled gasp and slumped forward. She'd had practice with fighting blind, and she closed her eyes and let her ears take over. She heard rustling cloth as men fumbled in the dark, the rumbling of a shelf shaking when someone bumped into it, and the panicked whimper of the wounded thug.

“What happened?” they called out stupidly. The two remaining armed men fumbled with their weapons, the breath of metal against a scabbard telling Fuo exactly where one of them was. She targeted him next, kicking hard at his weapon hand. The kick struck home, and the man dropped the weapon, crying out in surprise. Fuo snatched the weapon in midair—recognized the weight to be that of a cutthroat's dagger—and brought the pommel hard against the man's nose.

She judged from the feel of the strike, the soft give of an eyeball, that his head had moved marginally from her estimation. She pulled the dagger back, adjusted her aim, and struck between the eyes, knocking him out. She heard a whirling sound coming from her left and ducked under the swing of a weapon, something wooden that was lacking the slicing sound a bladed weapon would make.

She judged by the slap of a foot that her opponent had reached out, swinging wildly, where he thought her to be. He was well within striking range, so Fuo plunged the dagger into his thigh and placed three quick, hard punches in his stomach and chest, disarmed him, and used his weapons—a pair of tonfas—to strike him across the throat and skull. He collapsed within seconds.

It felt good to have weapons again. It was like slipping on sandals after walking barefoot. She gave the tonfas a few experimental swings in the dark. They were well made and practically anxious for some action, which Fuo was happy to oblige.

Fuo could hear a man dashing towards her from the darkness across the room. She estimated that he was trying to fight using sound as well, charging towards the sounds of struggle. She listened for his footfalls to draw near, stepped to the side, and placed a well-timed upward tonfa swing to his jaw followed by a whirling blow to his skull. The crack of the wooden weapon was followed by a satisfying thump of a body hitting the floor.

The wounded thug that had come from the bath was easily dispatched, as the sound of her wooden sandals approaching made him nearly pass out from sheer terror. A tonfa strike across the jaw did the rest.

She moved through the darkness to stand in front of the door that would lead her back into the cavern. She could go about this two ways. She could search the other doors of the storeroom and maybe find a direct route to the Red Jaguars' “boss”, going around the room filled with maybe two dozen adversaries, or she could kick open the door and tear through them like a hurricane through a wheat field.

Rage bubbled hotly in her stomach as she listened to them carouse through the door. These men had tried to subdue her with force and take her for their own. They wanted to use her as they had no doubt used, and would continue to use, countless others. These men lived their lives without fear of justice, using intimidation, bribery or any other underhanded means to wriggle out of trouble.

“Who bears the strength to match that of the Tengu?” she said as she twirled the tonfas, kicked open the door and dashed into the cavern filled with bloodthirsty cutthroats.

“You're telling me you touched the beast's mind?” Dornath asked after Whymer had finished explaining the events at his home.

It was true. When the thing—the Voice of Devourer—had exerted its control over Whymer's mind, he had reached out with his will and connected with it. With that connection, Whymer had had his vision of that horrible monster, Devourer, and absorbed some of its knowledge. He had learned about the Voice of Devourer and the baneshades, the humanoid shadow creatures that he and Sol had been fighting. Whymer didn't really understand it at all, but it seemed to him that they were hollow bodies made from emptiness. Sol assured him that this would make sense after a few more Rekien lessons.

“It was already connected to my mind, extending its will over me, so it wasn't really that difficult,” Whymer replied, taking a bite of his dried beef. It was tough and salty, but he thought it was very good.

“Lad, please don't use the words 'not difficult' when describing forging a connection between minds,” Dornath laughed, sending booming guffaws across the encampment.

The convoy was taking a short break from their travels and were gathered on the side of the road around their carts and wagons, eating and chatting amicably. They were all natives of Harrowhearth, but by tomorrow evening they would be passing through Egreth—Harrowhearth's nearest neighbor—and more would doubtlessly be joining. The Turtle Clan kept to themselves when discussing matters of Spirit Defilers and nightmare creatures that lurked in the lightless depths of the Earth, though. There was no sense in creating unnecessary panic.

Sol had yet to explain his thoughts about Rixis and Devourer, saying that he didn't want anything to influence Whymer's recounting.

“And this connection yielded nothing about our...thief?” Sol asked, idly turning a stone arrowhead over in his hands nearby.

“Nothing,” Whymer said.

“Then he is no agent of Devourer, is that what we're to make of that?” his question was punctuated by the crack of a splitting stone and the wave of green light flashed briefly off of Sol's body. He flicked his wrist, pointing the arrowhead at a nearby fallen log. Earthen arrows shot out of the ground, dirt flaking away as they flew to reveal hard wood underneath, and sunk into the log with a series of quick knocking sounds. Sol frowned hollowly in what Whymer could only interpret as dissatisfaction with the result.

“That's what I make of it,”

“Then who or what in the dark below was it?” Dornath barked angrily.

“Just a thief, I suppose,” Whymer responded. It was probably the greatest understatement he had ever made, but it was the only answer he had, given the evidence at hand.

“Whatever he is, the theft of a prized artifact does seem minor compared to the possible return of Rixis,” Sol said. He seemed agitated, Whymer guessed he was the kind of person who hated not having the answers he wanted at hand. Whymer hated it, too, but there was little sense in fighting what couldn't be changed.

Or maybe he was worried about the terrible demon trying to cover the world in darkness. It was anyone's guess, really.

“We'll stop him, Sol,” Whymer said, trying to be his most reassuring. Sol regarded him steadily, but he did notice a small crack in his hard expression, exposing a hint of a smile. “I know I don't have the most experience with this sort of thing, but if Rixis appears in the old texts, then he must have tried something like this once, and our world hasn't been swallowed by darkness yet.”

“You might be right,” Sol said, a spark of confidence returning to his eyes, “we may yet have the strength.”

“All you can do is hope, brother. That, and fight like a koliaki whose just come into his horns,” Dornath laughed. Sol and Whymer laughed as well. Their business concluded, they rejoined the other members of the caravan. There was a cluster of youths talking excitedly, who called for Whymer join them.

Among the amassed pilgrims was the carpenter's son, Erano, who waved at Whymer when he approached. He had kept his dark hair short for as long as they had known each other, and had often come by the workshop, bringing bags of rolls that his mother had baked to look like little turtles. While he visited, Erano had tried his hand on a few projects and turned out to have a better knack for carving than Whymer, which was frustrating. Whymer wondered how he would do in the Seeking.

Erano had always been surprisingly talented in a number of different fields, especially archery, so Whymer didn't want to count him out just yet. The Seeking would tell.

“Hey, Whymer. How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Recovering,” he replied cheerfully.

“What happened?” one of the other youths, a gawky lad who Whymer assumed had just come of age, asked. Now he was in an awkward situation. Sol, Dornath, and Whymer had chosen not to tell anyone else about Devourer and Rixis' supposed awakening, but Whymer tried to be as honest as he could. Plus, he was an awful liar.

“I found a monster in my parents' house and it attacked me with a fire iron,” he answered. There, he had managed to tell the truth without mentioning anything he wasn't supposed to. Granted, the wound to his stomach had come from his own hand, under the influence of something far stronger than he, but a fire iron had been implemented at one point of the fight, so it worked out The boy goggled at him, then frowned skeptically, probably trying to decide whether Whymer was lying or not.

“By the Runes!” one of the girls gasped, her face filled with worry. Some of the other youths, boys a few years younger than Whymer, put their heads together and murmured in hushed conference, but they were still loud enough that Whymer could hear what they were saying.

“You think he ran into the thing that Hulaf saw when we were packing the cart?”

“I don't know, 'Laf said it was a gigantic worm.”

“How many worms have you seen pick up fire irons? Don't be a fool, Jagram, your brother was seeing things.”

The argument began to get more heated, but it didn't have time to escalate any farther, because Whymer grabbed the boy who first mentioned the worm—Jagram—and turned him so they were face to face.

“Your brother saw what?” Whymer demanded.

“He—he thought he saw a giant worm slithering around outside of town. It stayed in the mist, so it was just a shadow, see. B-b-but when the mist cleared it was gone.” This gave Whymer pause. Devourer's presence manifests outside of town while Whymer has a little chat with it's proxy. It could hardly be a coincidence, but what was it? Perhaps nothing more than the impression left by Devourer being near? It was more than Whymer could answer, though. That much he knew, and it left him with lingering agitation. This whole business was giving him nothing but more questions without answers.

If he ever ran into Devourer, he was going to kill it for being such a damned nuisance.

Fuo ducked under the sword-swing of her red-robed opponent, striking him in the shin with her tonfas. The man dropped to one knee, putting his face in the perfect position for a rising knee thrust. His head whipped back, blood spraying from his nostrils down his face and onto his chest. Fuo flipped over the thug, locked the tonfas under his chin, and hurled him through the wall of a nearby lean-to, sending the entire thing toppling over him.

With that taken care of, she quickly ducked out of the main causeway and into a refuse filled alleyway, scanning vigilantly for her next opponent. There had been two enormous men at the far end of the cavern who had certainly seen Fuo as she battled her way through the red-robed thugs, but hadn't moved to engage her. Instead, they pulled free their weapons and split up, heading in different directions throughout the cavern. Fuo hadn't seen either of them since.

Just then, Fuo stepped on an old, warped piece of wood. It bowed under her weight and snapped in two, and Fuo's foot fell into a small hole in the dirt and stone alleyway.

It was a momentary distraction, but it was enough.

One of the goliaths came bursting through a rotten wall, slamming her with one of his tree-trunk like arms. The blow smashed Fuo directly in the chest, winding her and throwing her into another wall, smashing straight through it into a cramped room. She hit the floor and rolled right over the smoldering embers of a small cook fire.

Fuo's naked skin screamed at her as she was singed on the coals. Her body was in blazing torment but she couldn't even find the breath for an angry growl. For a moment that stretched into eternity she lay on the reed matted floor struggling for air. Finally, she found her wind and drew a ragged breath into her lungs, just as the other titan walked into the room and rose an aruong in the “headman's stance”. Fuo rolled out of the way, her escape marked almost immediately by the sound of a heavy blade chomping into wood and reed. She sprung off the ground and dashed at her foe, springing nimbly over his back as he wrenched his sword from the floorboards. There was a sound like a splitting melon, a shower of splinters, a glint of freed steel, and the man was turning around to renew his assault of Fuo.

Fuo spun her tonfas, smacking the wooden arm hard against the wrist of her colossal opponent. She aimed for the lead hand he used with his aruong, letting the flick of her wrist do the work. There was a satisfying crack and the man grunted in irritation, dropping the sword. He immediately went for the war club with his good hand and swung it at Fuo.

Rather than leaping backwards, which would have doubtless put her well within reach of the other large man, who was likely trying to flank her, Fuo jumped up over the war club's swing, spinning like a dancer, and swinging both of her tonfas at the man temple.

Both tonfas struck home and the man stumbled backward, looking a little dazed. Fuo took the opportunity to press the attack, dashing forward and jabbing both tonfa points into his solar plexus. He collapsed like a deflated balloon, winded. Fuo finished the job with two strikes to the back of the skull and then spun to face her other opponent who was doubtlessly coming to bear down upon her.

Instead of a hulking juggernaut, Fuo found herself facing a scrawny man with a pinched face standing at the far end of a ratty alley. A devilish grin spread on the man's face, making Fuo want to strike it even harder, and he raised a chipped stone knife towards her. Unthreatened, Fuo spun her tonfas and ran at him, but he didn't flinch or flee, whether out of stupidity or desperate courage, she couldn't say.

She was halfway down the alley when she noticed the yellow light coming from the cloud-shaped tattoos on his legs.

A horizontal blade of glowing golden wind flew down the alley, cutting broom handles and discarded crates as it passed through them. Fuo's eyes widened and she panicked, raising her right arm in a block meant to turn a sword aside.

The glowing wind blade bit into the wooden arm of the tonfa, sliced through it, and slashed into her chest below the collarbones. The cut wasn't fatal, like that of a shallow sword slash, but blood was already beginning to well out. It appeared that the Tuner's attack had a harder time cutting through living flesh than it did wood and inanimate objects, but Fuo wasn't keen on taking many more hits like that. She would bleed out if she wasn't careful.

The Tuner renewed his assault, throwing more wind blades at Fuo, but she was ready for them this time. She advanced slowly on the Tuner, sidestepping, sliding under, and jumping over the golden blades. She was nearly to the mouth of the alley when he changed his attack, raising a length of rope in his other hand, and glowing yellow streams of solid air flew at Fuo's arms and legs.

She tried to dodge, but reacted just a little too slowly as the ropes tied themselves around her left arm and leg, immobilizing them. Just then, the second of the enormous men dashed around the corner of the alley and rushed Fuo, raising his aruong in a swing that was doubtless meant to decapitate.

Fuo, with her good right arm, hurled her tonfa as hard as she could. The juggernaut simply jerked his head to the side and the tonfa sailed by, unhindered, towards its intended target. The weapon struck the Tuner between his eyes and he let out a cry of surprise and pain.

The roped binding Fuo's arm and leg swiftly vanished, their creator's concentration broken, and she dropped low to avoid the swing of the human wall rushing at her. His sword struck solidly into the wall of one of the lean-tos that made up the alley and bit deeply into the wood.

The man tried to wrench his sword from the wall, but Fuo was already in action. She ran towards and then up the opposite wall, vaulted over the enormous man, placed both sandaled feet against the back of his head and kicked off, slamming his face into the wall and sending her in a vaulting leap towards the Tuner.

The Tuner, who now looked truly afraid, raised his knife and his tattoos started glowing again. Fuo, knowing she would be unable to dodge in midair, whipped her other tonfa at him. It missed his head, but struck him in the shoulder, turning his aim off just enough to send the wind blades sailing aimlessly into the cavern.

Fuo landed and closed the remaining distance in a short roll. She sprang up a foot or two away from the Tuner, who was readying another attack, but Fuo was quicker on the draw. She jumped and spun, placing a heavy straight kick in the center of his pinched face. He sailed backwards and landed on the stone floor with a heavy thump.

With the Tuner, and the rest of the thugs in the cavern, dispatched, Fuo took a minute to check the wound on her chest. As she suspected, it wasn't fatal, it was hardly any worse than the minor cuts and bruises she had sustained against the other twenty or so other men. The worst wound she had sustained in the entire fight was likely the throbbing burn on her side from the cooking fire. She would have to add some poultice to it when she returned to her belongings.

Fuo bent down to reclaim her tonfas, but one had been cut to kindling by the Tuner's air blades and the other was missing its long arm, rendering it completely useless as well. She tossed them aside and headed to the closed door that the two behemoths were guarding. Whoever meant to have her captured was most likely beyond that door, or had already received Fuo's vengeance. In either case, there were still challengers to be faced, so long as the Red Jaguar bared its fangs.

Fuo ran her fingers through her hair, trying to pull out a few tangles while she had a moment. Yes, a second bath would certainly do.

She kicked the paper screen door, tearing the paper and reducing the wooden framing to splinters. Light from the cavern spilled into the hallway of polished darkwood, but beyond that there was no illumination. It was utterly dark and silent as death, and when she stepped inside the clatter of her white oak sandals against the wooden floor sounded monstrously loud.

Fuo entered the hallway and waited, listening. It truly seemed like there wasn't a soul in the hall, that all those who were within had come out when the fighting started. She smirked, for that was how all the best traps were supposed to seem, so she slipped out of her sandals and set her bare feet silently on the cool wood floor. Then she charged headlong into the screen at the very end of the hall, diving through it and tumbling into the room beyond, ready for a fight.

Fuo had never really been one for subtlety.

Her wariness, it seemed, was unwarranted. No swords came chopping down at her, no ropes or blades of wind either. She was completely alone in the square room.

“That was quite an entrance,” a man commented from somewhere outside the room. His voice was low and rich, that of a man in his prime. A door at the side of the room slid open to reveal the speaker. He had heavily scarred, tanned skin covering thick, toned muscles. In the low light, his eyes looked as black as the long loose hair they looked out from, and his red silk robe looked like a shroud of blood. Fuo stood and faced him, resting on the balls of her feet so she could move at a moment's notice.

“Are you Red Jaguar?”

“Let's hope your exit can be as exciting,” he said, paying the question no mind. He raised his arm and pointed a weapon, two steel barrels atop one another attached to a wooden stock, at Fuo. There was a thunderous roar, and a brush of wind blasted past Fuo's face and a wooden shelf behind her exploded in a shower of splinters.

What manner of sorcery was that? She through furiously, scanning the room for something she could use as a weapon. At the very back of the room, resting on a stand, was a curved ruong. She considered dashing for it, but without understanding the strange magic her opponent was brandishing, she thought it unwise. Instead, she would wait for an opportunity. She was confident in her ability to survive one or two more attacks from the strange weapon.

“Impressed? Say what you will about the Flamehaven, but those Magitech people sure find interesting uses for Powerstones. I had to pay a small fortune for this, but I'd say it's worth the price if it can give a fighter like you pause,” he laughed as he adjusted his aim at Fuo's chest, likely her heart. “Now, would you rather I just kill you, or do you want to have a little fun first?”

“I ask again. Are you Red Jaguar?” Fuo asked. She was actually very surprised at how levelly she kept her tone, because beneath the surface her mind was racing. She would have to time her break for the sword just right. Too late, and the man's weapon would do its work; too soon and he would simply have to readjust his aim. “It would be unwise of you to make my query thrice posed.”

“So you're pretty and feisty, I can see why Mokarian wants you. Do me a favor and don't make me ruin you, he paid me a lot of money to bring you in,” he said, gesturing absently with the nose of the weapon, but Fuo didn't move. She made an effort to keep her eyes from the ruong, lest she give her plan away, and stared directly into the eyes of her enemy, letting her fury blaze behind her eyes. She took a deep breath. Her chance was coming. After a waiting a few seconds without any sign of compliance from Fuo, the man sighed. The barrels of the weapon lowered to Fuo's legs. “Have it your way.”

Fuo bolted to the right, and everything played out at a crawl, taking the space of an eternity. There was another blast of thunder. Light from the belch of fire illuminated the ruong on its stand. A hole erupted in the floor behind where Fuo had stood a moment earlier. The man spat out a curse.

Fuo's hand closed around the ruong's handle.

She ripped the two-and-a-half feet of curved steel from its sheath and charged at her aggressor, holding the weapon in a reverse-handed grip. His face read panic, fear, and anger. He took a step backwards into the hallway, probably to retreat, and reached with his left hand to close the sliding screen. But Fuo was upon him in the space of a breath, placing a heavy palm thrust into his chest, making him stumble back into a wall and sway off balance. She had him right where she wanted him.

Her training screamed to follow a setting push with a heavy, blunt attack to the neck or skull. The sword's handle felt firm and solid in her grip, she could likely incapacitate him with a strong pommel strike. But another voice, one that she was frightened to realized was her own, whispered to her.

This man makes sale of women. He sews misery and profits in blood. His atrocities must not go unpunished. And she was in a position to see it done.

She flipped her grip on the sword, holding the ruong's point over his solar plexus. She could easily drive the blade through his body. She had never killed anyone in her travels, but that didn't mean she couldn't.

Or wouldn't.

“Are. You. Red. Jaguar?” she asked through gritted teeth. She watched his face contort in rage, he barred his teeth like an animal and spat back at her. Then, the hand that Fuo thought was being used to close the door came from behind his back, pressing another of his thunderous weapons to her temple.

“Horun Udeshi, at your service,” he said as the weapon went off. As soon as she saw it, Fuo had thrown herself backwards, and Horun's weapon struck the ruong's blade instead of her skull, and the steel shattered like glass. The handle reverberated painfully in her hand and she dropped it with a cry. If she pulled back, they would be back to where they had started, except there weren't any more ruong for Fuo to use to defend herself. She could maybe escape, but she had never suffered a defeat since her departure from the temple.

And she'd be damned if her first would be at the hand some flesh peddling, talentless scum, with some miserable, shameful fate awaiting her. She needed to press whatever advantage she had before he could aim his weapon at her again. The odds of her pulling out in a prolonged fight were slim at best, she would need to end this quick. In one strike if at all possible.

Fortunately, such a possibility existed. She had one last move in her bag of tricks that she could use to seal this fight.

Time crawled as she planted her feet and inhaled deeply, focusing and centering her energies.

I've used this technique once already on the journey, it will be a simple matter.

She went through it just as the elders taught her to in her head. She cleared her mind and her world became still, going into a kind of battle meditation.

Surely this man, this Horun, can't be harder to break than the door to the Blue Dragon's temple...

She took a running step, a small jump, pirouetting onto her left foot, tucking her right in and making a full turn around her body before shooting out into Horun's chest. She poured all of her focused energy, her concentration, and the fury of her wild spirit into that single kick.

Horun folded and flew into the wall behind him. He crashed through it and tumbled end-over-end through a dirty hovel filled with sewing implements, scared women, and one petrified innkeeper who was trying to shield himself behind as many women as he could. Horun slammed into a stone wall and lay utterly still.

Fuo walked into the room, lit by a few candles that burned weakly from lonely corners of the space, and checked Horun. He didn't stir. She kicked his head hard against the wall for good measure, took the weapon from his hand and tossed it across the room. It struck the floor and let out one final roar, eliciting a startled squeak from Fuo and a terrified scream from the girls and innkeeper. The girls were garbed in loose robes with sashes that were lazily tied and barely holding the entire ensemble together, the reason for which was obvious. Many swayed drunkenly or stared with the unfocused eyes of those who had been poisoned with mind-clouding drugs.

“Did...did you just...fight your way in here?” one of the girls, a tall, chestnut haired girl, asked. She stood at the head of the group, offering what little protection she could. She, at least, was lucid. It was at that moment that Fuo realized how she must look to these women, with her wild, tangled hair, growing collection of bruises, and smears of blood and dirt.

“Properly garb yourselves, your time in this place has reached its end,” Fuo barked, staring at the innkeeper. Was he the one Horun called Mokarian?

“But what about the men?”

“They have been dealt as they were due.”

All of them?” a blonde girl around Fuo's age asked incredulously, turning towards the cowering innkeeper, an unspoken threat in her voice. A few of the girls, unable to control their nerves, ran from the room in terror. Fuo hoped they could find their way out without hurting themselves.

“All of them,” Fuo repeated, letting the silent severity weight the short confirmation. At those words, the innkeeper squealed and tried to dart through the girls, but the tall one grabbed him by the loose collar of his shirt. He turned on her, snarling, and tried to claw at her hands. He froze, however, when Fuo laid a hand on his shoulder and turned him to face her. His eyes bulged and his breathing was hard and frantic. A horrified shriek sounded from the main cavern. Fuo guessed the girls had discovered her handiwork.

“It seems your shield has taken its leave of you, Mokarian,” she used the name like a weapon. She saw everything, what he had done, what he planned on doing, the malice and cruelty that lurked in his heart. And he knew it. He was ruined.

“These girls came to be here by your hand, did they not?” she asked, not that he needed to answer. Disgust started to give way to boiling rage as she watched his wide, darting eyes. This creature used his inn to house the Red Jaguar, let them steal young girls, and commit filthy atrocities. And he could do all of this with an absolutely clean conscience until the day came that he picked the wrong target.

There was a heavy tension, he unsure whether or not she would attack him—she wasn't certain either—the other girls unsure how to proceed. Most just wanted out of the dark, cave-like room, but a few fire-hearted ones wanted to let their fury against the man that imprisoned them. She let her silence weigh against him while she decided what to do. After a time, though, the fear and panic left the innkeeper, and he glared maliciously back at Fuo.

“What I would have done to you,” he growled, sweeping his eyes over her body. His gaze felt like oily filth being smeared across her skin. He lingered on the white cloth covering her breasts and her short undergarments, his face breaking into a sickening grin, all traces of fear so far gone Fuo thought maybe she had imagined it. He reached toward her longingly. “I would have enjoyed breaking you. I bet you're delicious.”

Fuo's revulsion surged and she grabbed his hand and elbow and broke his wrist in one quick motion. He howled in pain, and Fuo pushed him back to the women who had stayed behind. It took three of them to hold him down.

Which left one to handle the cloth scissors.

Fuo took her leave of that dank, awful place before its taint could take hold. The elders had taught her at a young age that evil places carried dark energies that would cling to bright souls and infect them. And the best way to cleanse that kind of stain was, of course, extensive meditation, and Fuo was simply not up for that.

She was picking her way through a thoroughly wrecked makeshift gambling den, stepping calmly over prone bruised men, when the Galeblades arrived. Due to the heavy fog, however, only five could make it, but their work had been mostly taken care of, anyhow. The five Galeblades were garbed in their yellow and black uniforms, part flowing robe and part armor of overlapping steel plates. Each one bore a long, straight sword—better for close quarters than the long spears they typically used. When they saw Fuo, practically naked and bloodstained, one sheathed his weapon and rushed to her, raising the smooth face-guard of his helmet, and reached out to help her.

“Those to whom the assistance offered is more so required are further still,” she said, waving him off and gesturing vaguely towards the door in the back of the room. This was met with confused silence from the Galeblade, who cocked his head quizzically. Perhaps he thought she was drugged and should help anyways. “Go!” she shouted. And reluctantly, they did.

After a fashion, Fuo managed to find the long, narrow staircase that lead to the private room in the back of the inn. The Galeblades had ripped the sliding mechanism out of the wall, so the secret passage remained open. She stumbled through the small opening into the inn proper. The common room was in an uproar, the girls who had escaped previously were sitting, huddled together among the short tables, sobbing or hyperventilating. The inn's patrons were gathering around them offering whatever comforts they could—blankets, food, drinks, a comforting ear—for the trembling girls.

So, when Fuo appeared bruised, bloody, and practically naked, a group of people, the old man who had tipped her off about the Blue Dragon, the tamiyo dancer and her musicians included, flocked to her to ask how she was and offering to call the local healer. Fuo practically had a steaming meat bun shoved into her mouth. Whether this was out of concern or thanks, she couldn't say.

“A bath would be preferable, though my thanks go with you,” she said, politely pushing through the crowd, but taking the meat bun, and stumbled to the inn's bath house. She slid the door open and stepped once more into the gray world of steam and fog, pierced periodically by weakly flickering flames and winking red starlight from beneath the water's surface.

She stepped out of her sandals, savoring the feeling of her bare feet on the smooth wooden deck. She was gathering up her scattered clothes when she found a slim, folded piece of paper tucked away inside her brilliant red scarf. She set her clothes aside, unbound she breasts, slipped out of her short undergarments, snatched the slip, and unfolded it as she stepped into the warm water, her bruises and aching muscles crying in euphoria at the warmth.

She stared at the paper for a moment, frozen in shock, her blood running cold. The paper slipped from her hands into the stone bath, the ink flowing into the water forming a dark cloud of red tinted black.

Printed on the paper was a single line of text and a stamped crimson jaguar.

We'll meet again at Taoshu, Dojo Hunter.