This time our picture comes from a former student of mine who I think likes a lot of the same kind of awesome stuff we do. He was in my anime club, so we know already that he has excellent taste. He sent us this picture to see what we could come up with, so I hope we did it justice. Thanks, Brian!
"They're heading toward the city ruins.”
“We don’t know.”
“Do they know about the Old One?”
“We don’t know.”
“Can they defeat it if it arises?”
“We don’t know.”
“There is much you do not know.”
There was silence. Then the whispers began again.
“Find out those things which you do not yet know.”
“The King was not too harsh, Akrin.”
“But we must go now, mustn’t we?”
“Yes. To linger would be unwise.”
“Even to bid goodbye to my husband?”
“Even for that.”
Two slim forms emerged from the knot in the big oak tree that towered over the thick forest. They stretched their leaf-like wings and took to the air without a sound, gliding amongst the branches and skimming across patches of light.
“Akrin,” said the female, “Why do you think the strangers are going to the ruins?”
Akrin shook his blue head. “What I told the King was truth. I do not know.”
“But why do you think they are?” she persisted. “Surely you have a theory. You always have a theory.”
“Ah, but do I ever share that theory?” he asked, a smile pulling at his mouth.
His face turned serious once more. “Lika, I do not like to guess when I do not know enough. It is dangerous to do so. Our actions are bent to our mind’s will, and if our minds are fooled, even by ourselves, our actions will certainly be foolish.”
Lika did not answer. She veered left at a large elm and spiraled gracefully around it. They were separated for a moment.
Akrin looked over at her as they left the tree behind and flew side by side once more.
“Do you have a guess as to why they’d go there?”
Lika glanced at him and then looked away again. “You know the stories,” she replied softly. “The prophecy from the Great One.” She blushed when she saw him raise an eyebrow. “I can hope, can I not?” she asked, almost defensively.
They flew in silence for a long moment, and then Akrin, his eyes dark, said, “The Great One's prophecies have led us to great destruction before.”
“I know to what you refer, but…” she paused. Sunlight bounced off her soft green wings, leaving a shimmer across them as she pulled up to avoid a branch. “but I cannot help hoping.” Her voice ended in a whisper.
“I understand, though I find you unwise,” Akrin said, not unkindly, and they conversed no more but rather flew in silence.
Clouds drifted lazily across the horizon, obscuring the view of Oculus, their Great Moon that hung in the sky at midday. Birds chirped sassily, and squirrels chattered back, flinging insults at the leaf-winged fairies as they zipped past.
“There they are,” Akrin pointed with a whisper.
Up ahead, two strangers loomed hugely above the ground. Akrin and Lika flew high to remain unnoticed. The strangers wore torn and ratty cloaks. Their faces were haggard and brown. Their boots pounded the forest floor as they made their way through the trees. One of their cloaks caught on a low branch and was pulled back to reveal a long, thin sword strapped to the stranger’s belt.
Lika raised her eyebrows at Akrin, who nodded back grimly. The stranger jerked his cloak back around him, ripping another tear in the worn, black fabric.
“How close are we?” he said in a deep, deep voice that gave Lika chills.
“Close,” was the answer, given in a clipped, female tone.
The first stranger grunted and adjusted his sword as they trudged on.
After another hour, Lika signaled to Akrin, who signed back confirmation. The ruins were just ahead. Now they would see what these strangers’ intent was. Excitement caused their wings to hum slightly.
The female stranger stopped for moment, frowning and looking around. “Did you hear that?” she asked abruptly.
“What?” replied the other.
She didn’t respond. They stepped out of the forest just as a wave of clouds crossed the sun, dimming their view of what lay ahead.
The strangers stopped and stared at the ruins shadowed against the great mountain. Lika and Akrin, too, halted and hovered in the suddenly chilly air, feeling the suspense of the moment. A cold breeze ran its fingers over their sensitive backs, and they shivered. Lika momentarily envied the strangers their cloaks, torn as they were. Clothes would be a nice protection against the cold of dusk that would come soon.
The strangers started warily down the hill and then stopped again as if they were waiting for something.
“Where is it?” the man hissed. “You said it was here-”
“Patience,” was the answer. “It will be here.”
Lika found herself holding her breath and looked over at Akrin to see his brow furrowed. He waved her down, and they landed on an overhanging branch with a clear view of the ruins and the strangers.
“The Beast,” Lika mouthed to Akrin, who shrugged, but Lika could see the pent-up energy in his tense shoulders and calves. She felt the energy herself and struggled to keep her wings from fluttering in excitement. She folded them against her back and nestled into them, pulling her legs up and wrapping her arms around her knees.
The strangers were indeed patient.
Dusk was falling when they heard a distant rumble coming from the mountainside where the ruined city climbed and crumbled. The strangers immediately jumped to their feet; the man shaded his eyes and peered toward the mountain, his sword gripped in his weathered hand.
“There,” his companion said in a low voice, pointing to the bottom of the ridge just ahead. Lika unfolded her legs and leaned forward. Her wings slowly fanned out around her as she squinted her eyes to see what the strangers saw. There was a gasp from Akrin, and she swung around to see where he was looking.
A crouching, skeletal form was creeping out of the crevice under the ridge. It raised a long, brown snout into the air and snapped its jaws together. Then its neck emerged - Lika strained to see its body, but the neck kept coming and coming. After a moment, an arm appeared - but was that an arm? It had no hand at the end, but rather four long extensions of bone hung with a brown substance. She looked at Akrin in confusion, and he pointed to his own blue wing. Of course - the arms were…wings?
Lika regarded the Beast in revulsion. It had no flesh nor muscle; how did it move? It had no eyes; how did it see? It must have had wings at one time; how was it alive now?
The stories that she’d always thought exaggerated took form and were rising up before her now. The Beast’s body seemed never to end. The strangers were staring with open mouths as it crept closer and closer, getting larger and larger the closer it crept. Finally, it rose up, and Lika saw that it had no legs - at least not as they did, or the strangers did. It was supported by long tentacles of bone or wood or whatever the creature was made of. The tentacles seemed rooted to the ground as if they moved through the ground instead of on top of it.
Lika had no concept of how large the creature was until it had approached the hill on top of which the strangers stood, staring up at it. It dwarfed them. Then it spread its wings, raised its head and let out the most terrifying sound Lika had ever heard.
Akrin winced, and the strangers staggered back a step.
Lika felt her heart drop violently. These strangers surely couldn’t save them. She had been a fool, as Akrin said, to believe that they could defeat the Beast and break the curse placed on her beloved forest. She felt the tears pricking at her translucent lids. They sparkled as they ran down her smooth green cheeks.
But if not these strangers, then who? No one else had come this close to the Beast in her lifetime, nor in Akrin’s. She felt the flutter of life in her belly, the flutter that she had told no one of yet, not even her husband, and her despair turned to fury.
It was too big, and the strangers were not big enough. She had thought because they were large and had swords that they had a chance, but now she saw that they did not. As they charged, shouting, she stood on the branch and looked down, her eyes narrowing in determination.
Her children must not live in the silence, in the fear, that she lived in now. The curse must be broken.
Taking to the air, she flew around the Beast as the strangers hacked at its tentacles and the Beast made its bone-shaking roar once more. Akrin was frozen behind her, calling out, but she didn’t hear his words. Instead, she felt herself pulled - pulled toward the middle of the Beast, toward the center of its skeletal torso where thick brown vines and great, sharp thorns reached out at her. At its center was its heart, its green, beating heart, and she felt a furious urge to rip it out and destroy it.
But then the Beast moved; it bent down and grasped one of the strangers in its thorny teeth and flung her through the air, roaring its heart-stopping roar. The other stranger screamed and started climbing its leg. Lika was blown off course as the Beast whipped its bony wing around and swatted the stranger off itself. It shrieked and stomped, and the stranger disappeared beneath the brown, churning tentacles.
Then, the Beast saw her. It had no eyes, but Lika felt its focus shift to her as an overwhelming presence approaching her mind. She dove, but it was too late. The Beast drew its wings together with a mighty swing and caught her between two of its long fingers. Akrin was yelling her name, and she realized that he had come after her, but she couldn’t see him. All she could see and feel and smell was the rotting, suffocating trunks crushing her soft wings and body between them. She felt the flutter in her belly once more and screamed out.
Then she heard Akrin. A small voice, barely heard above the roar of the Beast. He was saying, “Sing, Lika, sing!”
Surely he did not believe the prophecy now?
But Lika felt the pull of Akrin, the pull of her people, the pull of her forest, and the pull of the Great One - and Lika took as deep a breath as she could manage between the crushing fingers of the Beast, and she sang.
The only words that came to her mind were the words of the prophecy. And so she sang the prophecy as she remembered her mother singing it to her as a little girl, as she remembered her father singing it under his breath as he gathered acorns from the trees before he died of the curse, as she remembered singing it to her little sister as she, too, lay on her cursed sickbed.
The song of the fairies
The rise of the Beast
The forest troubled
The Monster unleashed
To fight, to die
To sing, to fly
Two strangers will lead us to peace.
She sang it and sang it again and sang it again until the great fingers pushed all the air out of her lungs. Then, just as her vision was blurring, and as she fought with a last, desperate effort to hold onto her life, she heard a great crack that echoed off the mountainside. The fingers loosed, and she fell, her wings crumpled and weak. She closed her eyes in surrender to death...
And landed in fabric.
She opened her eyes to see Akrin flying across from her, holding a green heart cloven in two, and the Beast crumbling in pieces upon the ground. She shifted her gaze and looked up.
The stranger was looking down at her. Her scarred face was scratched and bloody, but her eyes were as gentle as they were surprised. She slowly let down her cloak, with which she had caught Lika’s falling body, and laid her on the grass.
Lika backed away, staring up at the stranger's matted hair and jagged sword. The stranger saw her staring and hastily put away the sword.
“Do not fear, tiny one,” she said, and her voice was soft and hoarse. “I will not hurt you.” They both looked at Akrin and the pile of skeletal rubble that littered the bottom of the hill. “I would not have imagined that ones so small could defeat one so large,” said the stranger in a tone of wonder.
They were both silent for a moment, marveling together.
“Perhaps with a Beast so large, the conqueror’s size need not matter,” Lika whispered, her lungs expanding with joy, and her heart pumping life joyfully through her veins once more.
Akrin landed beside them silently. He held out one piece of the heart to the stranger, who took it in her hands, still staring down at him.
“And perhaps one should have faith in the Great One's prophecies, which are bigger than oneself, after all,” he said.
Lika smiled slowly.
“Xao, behind you!”
The older man dropped to his knees and rolled as a beast came hurtling from the base of the tree behind him. The mamuu caught hold of the edge of his traveling cloak with sharp claws on the end of its scaled, ape-like arms. The young woman took a swing at it with her curved blade, but the mamuu was too quick and ducked out of the way. The elder dislodged a stone from under a nearby root and shouted to the younger, “Shen, down!”
She ducked low and to the side as the rock flew right where her face had been and crashed into the open maw of a second mamuu with a dull crack - breaking off several fangs. The creature howled and thrashed about, holding its broken face with its smaller, secondary set of hands while it searched blindly for its target with its larger arms. Xao took up his staff and swept the legs out from under the first beast while Shen raised her sword and brought it down, this time finding its mark in the mamuu’s chest.
Heavily wounded, but still alive, the creature kicked up at Shen, knocking her back and off balance. It got to its feet and again assaulted Xao. Though later in years, Xao was as agile as he had ever been and deflected the attack with calculated precision, returning with a series of blows to the beast's already wounded chest and ribs. Enraged, the mamuu took a wide swing at Xao, who easily ducked under the attack, raising his staff and catching the beast in the jaw. He then flung his staff over the creature’s head, delivered two more powerful elbow jabs to its midsection, removed the sword from the beast’s lung, hip-tossed the monster into a nearby tree, and caught the staff before it hit the ground. Shen had seen Xao fight in competitions and had sparred against him hundreds of times over the years, but she was still surprised when witnessing his full potential in actual combat. She was reminded she still had much to learn.
Xao gently but accurately tossed the sword back to Shen as three more mamuu appeared from the tall trees surrounding them. Shen cut across the blinded mamuu’s chest, putting it out of its misery. They then stepped closer together - now standing back to back, keeping watch in every direction around them. They stood for several moments, waiting to see who would make the next move, before they heard the unmistakable roar of the alpha mamuu.
The alpha stepped out with a confident swagger from behind a thick tree almost six meters away. The other mamuu grew silent, and Xao put out an arm, signaling for Shen to stay behind him. Xao and the alpha locked eyes, and the air grew thick with anticipation.
Xao reached ever so slowly beneath his sash belt and removed a piece of paper the length and width of his forearm. Shen recognized it as an alchemic glyph charm, but didn’t recognize the symbols or script. Xao spoke softly but kept his eyes on the alpha: “When he drops to his knees, take off his head.” Shen gave a quick grunt of understanding and repositioned the sword in her hands, glancing nervously at the other mamuu still surrounding them. Xao then stood up broadly and pounded his chest with his fists, shouting a war cry similar to the alpha’s. The alpha mamuu’s eyes grew wide and burned with anger as it ran forward madly. Xao lowered his shoulders and ran to meet it, hands low and to the side. As they came together, Xao suddenly shifted his momentum and ducked backwards just under the mamuu’s arms and belly, reaching up and placing the charm on the creature’s stomach and tumbling back to his feet. The beast skidded to a stop and turned with alarming speed and agility to rush the old man again. Xao stood, calmly placing his hands together and interlocking his fingers with his little, index fingers, and thumbs extended. There was a small burst of light and the charm lit up like flash paper. The mamuu slowed to a halt just in front of Xao and clutched just below the ribcage where the charm had been. Its flesh and hair were melting into a grey ooze that dripped and slopped into a thick puddle at its feet as it dropped weekly to its knees.
Seeing her chance, Shen ran her index and middle fingers along the dull back of her blade activating the alchemic runes engraved along the length of her sword. She stepped on a raised root and vaulted off the base of a tree, cleaving the mamuu’s head from its shoulders as she flew past. Shen landed next to Xao as the mamuu’s head landed in his open arms. The body slumped lifeless to the jungle floor. Xao raised the severed head and gave another primal war cry, staring down the rest of the beasts. Tentatively, the rest of the mamuu troop stepped back and turned one by one to run back into the jungle.
Xao gave a nod of satisfaction and placed the head on the top of his staff. Shen removed a cloth from within her cloak as Xao walked over to collect his own cloak and retrieve a shallow pewter bowl from one of its pockets. Shen watched in disgust as he casually returned to the fallen alpha mamuu’s body and scooped some of the melted flesh from the half-congealed puddle. He half slurped, half chewed, a mouthful of it. Shen’s stomach churned. Xao offered her the bowl, wiping a small bit from the corner of his mouth. “Mamuu is incredibly tough,” he explained, “so this makes it much easier to ingest.” When Shen didn’t take up his offer, he returned the bowl to his lips happily and started kicking loose leaves and stones out of the immediate area. Shen decided she didn’t need any supper that night.
An hour later and night had already fallen. Darkness came quickly this deep in the jungle as the trees were too thick to let much of the sun’s light through to the ground. It was only five or six hours past noon, but the night sounds of the jungle had already started, and it was incredibly difficult to see. Straining her eyes, Shen made a small glyph in the ground with her finger and piled small twigs and leaves in and around it. She closed her eyes and focused her mind while making the proper hand sign. After a moment, a spark ignited and lit the kindling into a small fire. Xao removed an everspark stone from his satchel and threw it into the flames to keep it burning throughout the night.
“Shen,” Xao started suddenly, “tell me the story of Life and Death.”
Shen was taken aback by Xao’s request. He was an old man but had asked her to tell him a children’s fairytale. It wasn’t the strangest of requests she had received during her years of training, but it was still odd.
Shen stared into the fire and recounted as best she could. “The Ancient One had two children, Gaia and Shinji. Gaia was a beautiful goddess who loved life and happiness. Shinji was a strong god who loved death and destruction. One day, when the world was new, Gaia and Shinji fought with each other as to who would rule the world. Their struggle dug out the great lakes, rivers, and oceans which were filled with the Ancient One’s tears. Finally, Shinji decided to take on the form of a great dragon and began to fly away. Gaia, however, turned into a mountain and landed on his tail to keep him in place so he could not flee. They cast such great spells on each other that both were undone and their powers were spread across the world.” Shen looked up at Xao who smiled gently and gestured for her to continue. “It was said,” she continued, still looking at him, “that the collision of their powers created the first humans who built the first village there at the foot of that mountain and called it Shangri-La. It was also said that the people who lived there held the secret to eternal life. ”
Xao continued staring into the fire. “Shen, you have been my disciple for fifteen summers now. I have taught you much, and you have learned well.” His raised his eyes to meet hers. “But what I am about to teach you is more important than anything we have yet discussed.”
Shen had rarely seen this kind of sternness from Xao before. He was always a serious man, but he was lighthearted in his teachings. He did not joke much, but he did not take things too seriously either. Clearly, what he was about to say was of incredible importance.
“Shen,” he continued clear and stern, “those are not just children’s stories.”
Shen didn’t know how to react. What could he mean? As if reading her thoughts, Xao explained, “Gaia, Shinji, Shangri-La…they are real. The Emperor,” both Xao and Shen extended their first two fingers in front of their face and bowed slightly, “has sent us on a mission to Shangri-La to retrieve something for him.”
“The Emperor,” they saluted again, “knows they exist.”
Xao nodded slowly. “The Emperor,” another salute, “and the head court alchemist,” he put a hand to his chest, “have always known about Shangri-La. It is a secret that has been kept for the last three dynasties.”
“Are we actually going to Shangri-La? Are Gaia and Shinji still there? Are the stories about immortality true? Does the Emperor intend to live forever?” Shen almost forgot to salute the Emperor’s title. She was reeling from this new revelation.
Xao chuckled slightly. “Yes, yes, no, and no. We have been summoned to Shangri-La at the foot of Mount Gaia which still sits beside the transformed body of Shinji. No, there is no true form of immortality, though there are some who have tried to create a way. And no, the Emperor has no intention of immortality. Shangri-La is the heart of an incredible power; it is the birthplace of alchemy. There, deep in the mountain, is the still beating heart of Gaia. There is an ichor that, if properly extracted and worked, can create the Great Panacea. That is what our Emperor has instructed us to gather. It is believed that he has been poisoned with black scorpion venom by assassins from Taishin.” Shen gave a small, contained gasp, her eyes growing even wider. Xao raised a hand reassuringly. “There is no known cure for the black scorpion. However, that is only because the Grand Panacea is kept a secret. ”
“If that is the case then we need to be on our way!” Shen started to her feet, but Xao reached across the small fire and caught her sleeve.
“Shen, sit and be calm.”
Reflexively, Shen and Xao both crossed their legs and sat straight, their hands on their knees, taking deep breaths. After a minute, Xao continued, “The poison was distilled and administered improperly. It could eventually be lethal, but it will take another few weeks to take full effect. The journey ahead of us is still dangerous and will require patience. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand.” Shen maintained her posture. It helped clear her mind and process all she had just heard.
“Tomorrow we will rise early and head out. We should reach the city by mid-day where we will make camp again. Shangri-La is not a place to traverse at night. Gaia birthed alchemy which gives us the power to manipulate life, but Shinji birthed kahmen.”
A shiver went down Shen’s spine.
“Kahmen…the night demons? They are real too?”
“Unfortunately, yes. They are the guardians of Shangri-La. No, they do not cut toes off of disobedient children, but they do devour the souls of the living. However, they only exist at night, so as long as we move quickly and precisely once in the city, we should be fine.” Xao rolled up his cloak and set it under his head as he propped himself against a tree.
Shen went to ask another question, but Xao was already asleep. Since as long as she could remember, he always fell asleep the instant he chose to. Or at least, that is what he pretended to get out of conversations and arguments. Either way, she knew conversing was now pointless. She rolled up her cloak as well and tried to sleep, but between the lack of meal and the story of the kahmen, sleep did not come easily.
Xao woke Shen up the next morning before the sun had a chance to stream through the jungle canopy overhead. “We should head out now if we want to make good time.”
They packed up what little they had brought with them and started off in the direction they had been moving the day before. Xao removed the mamuu head and cleaned the end of his staff before moving on. The next few hours went by in silence other than the occasional sounds of the thick jungle. The heat grew slightly as light started to spread patterns on the ground.
Just before the sun was at its peak, Xao and Shen came to a sudden clearing at the edge of a tall hill. Shen’s jaw dropped in utter amazement and awe. Before them stood a mountain, unimaginably vast in both height and width. At the foot of the mountain was the skeleton of a dragon equally grand, the bones held together by a millennia of jungle growth and plant life. Almost eclipsed by the two remains of the wrestling gods were the ruins of an ancient city built out of massive slabs of stone covered in all manner of jungle vegetation. Shen could hardly believe what her eyes were seeing.
Xao turned and stretched out an arm. “Shen, welcome to Shangri-La.”
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