[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 02-04-2003 @ 03:34 PM).]
Jayhawk, Micah Aragorn and Proconsul Creaticus Dania
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 02-04-2003 @ 03:34 PM).]
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 02-04-2003 @ 03:34 PM).]
Jayhawk, Micah Aragorn and Proconsul Creaticus Dania
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 02-04-2003 @ 03:34 PM).]
"They would come in the night" Rong Ming whispered. "No-one knew when they would come and if we heard any noises we were to shut our eyes tight and pretend to be asleep. In the morning a few more of the men would be gone. One day it was my father."
"I'm sorry," Olivia replied. "I know what it's like to lose a parent. How long ago was he taken?"
"I was a small child" explained Rong Ming. "Six years old. I find it hard to remember him now."
A small tear appeared unbidden on his cheek and though he quickly brushed it away, Olivia had noticed and put her arm round his shoulders.
"Who came?" Titus' voice broke in.
"We didn't know" answered Rong Ming. "We weren't allowed to see. If we saw them, we would be taken too."
All the others had gathered round by now and Civis had a puzzled expression on his face. "What happened to the men? Did any of them come back? Were they killed?"
Olivia glared at him for what she felt was a lack of tact but either Rong Ming hadn't noticed or had chosen to ignore it.
"I don't know what happened to them. If they were killed we never knew. We thought they'd been taken as slaves."
"But you said enslaved or transformed" Olivia broke in, slightly annoyed that her quiet tete-a-tete had been interrupted by everybody. "Transformed into what or whom?"
The boy shook his head. "I don't know. I just heard talk of dragons and strange and evil creatures."
Civis turned to Gaius and raised his eyebrows in an unspoken question. Gaius shook his head. "I don't know, my friend. Of course it's all the doing of the black dragon. I've heard rumours of people being transformed but they're just rumours."
"There's often an element of truth in rumours" Civis said thoughtfully.
Olivia walked away from them huffily.
A fluttering caught his eye and as he turned he noticed one of the buildings had not changed. Or at least not as much.
Stark white walls, with white-glazed tiled roofs, a tower rose upon it's massive white-washed foundation.
Drums and bells were visible on the walkway around it's perimiter, things moved in the shadows. His sharp eyes saw the reliefs carved in the walls, reliefs of demons tormenting men, women and children. The roof combs too were decorated with monsters, not the normal ones to scare away the ghosts, but the actual ghosts themselves.
The few plants growing in decorated pots had dead-white leaves and ebony stalks and flowers.
A place of the dead.
A sudden scream broke through his reverie, and made his heart skip a beat or two. Olivia!
As his companions drew weapons, the tall minstrel's legs took him to where the scream had sounded. His nose gave him the first warning as the stench of carrion hit it full force, three pale maggoty creatures had found the young Roman.
An unclean cross-between men and bats, spindle-limbed, with fingers like twigs growing from those wings. Their faces were hollow-eyed, with blunt noses and sickly red lips, their teeth were like those of bats, needles in bloodred gums. Peeling furs, with scaborus patches, clung to to their skin, their voices, this close sounding like nails on a blackboard.
Olivia had stumbled and was half lying on the floor. One of the creatures held her left hand by the wrist, a second had it fingers entwined in her hair, bending it's face close as if to give the girl a kiss. She seemed paralysed with fear.
[This message has been edited by Jayhawk (edited 01-22-2003 @ 07:25 AM).]
Suddenly she felt rather than heard a presence in her head. It was Gaius' voice but, such was her terror, it took a while before she could make out what he was saying. Eventually she realised the voice was saying 'Banish them, banish them' over and over again. Where was Gaius? She tried to look up but was pinioned to the ground by these dreadful creatures. Banish them? What did he mean? Then she heard his voice again: 'They're in your head; make them go.'
The others were standing behind Gaius Accipter, perplexed. Olivia seemed to be writhing around on the ground screaming for no apparent reason. Titus started to move towards her but Civis grabbed his arm and nodded towards Gaius who was staring at the girl, gold and red lights flashing in his eyes.
Olivia tried to ignore the pain and her fear and concentrated harder than she had ever concentrated before when, all of a sudden, they were gone. She sat up gingerly and looked around. She spotted the others and then fell backwards in a dead faint.
Accipter heaved a sigh of relief. He motioned the others to stay where they were and reached Olivia's side in a couple of strides. He picked her up as if she was a rag-doll and walked back towards the group saying: 'I have to talk to her. There are things she needs to know.'
'But what's the matter with her?' Titus asked. 'She looked as though she was having a fit?'
Gaius smiled down at him. 'No, not a fit. I'll explain what I can later. For now I need to wake her up. You stay here. You'll be safe enough.'
He walked away from the group and gently laid the girl down on the ground. His eyes flashed briefly and she sat up, confused and troubled, and promptly burst into tears.
'Don't worry' he said soothingly, smoothing her hair away from her damp face. 'Things are going well.'
She jerked her head away from him and almost shouted 'Well? How can they be going well? I was nearly killed back there by ... by ... I don't even know what they were.'
'Just listen to me and, for once in your life, don't interrupt until I've finished.'
Olivia opened her mouth to protest, noticed Gaius' quizzical look and promptly shut it again.
'When I say well, I mean that your powers are developing. And more to the point, the Black Dragon realises it too. Those creatures weren't real. They were being projected into your mind by someone with evil powers.'
Olivia opened her mouth to speak again and a smile from Gaius prompted her to continue. 'I don't understand. They were real. I could feel them pull at my hair, scratch my face, screech at me. I could even smell them. How can you say they weren't real? You saw them didn't you?'
'Yes' Gaius admitted. 'I could see them, but the others couldn't. They were real to you but they went when you really concentrated your mind. All I'm saying is that your powers are growing; the Black Dragon is starting to fear them and that can only be good for our quest. I can't tell you more at the moment but you must look after yourself and not wander away on your own. I think what you need now is a good sleep after that ordeal. Rest peacefully and we'll see what tomorrow brings.'
He picked her up again and walked towards an empty hut. Olivia opened her mouth to protest at being treated like a baby, but decided that she rather liked it so shut her mouth again.
Gaius sat watching until she was fast asleep and breathing deeply and evenly, then heaved a sigh at what he knew she would have to go through before their quest was ended.
"Will she truly be well, Gaius?" asked Civis, who seemed as worried, if not more worried than the others.
"Yes, I am very sure she will be well. But this event merely confirms what I feared might be the case. All of us will be under attack by things that are real and things that are not. Our greatest challenge will be to differentiate between what is real and what is imaginary. Olivia, alone and unsuspecting, was assaulted by the Black Dragon. Yet you saw no creature conduct the assault. It was in her mind only. That is why she seemed to be behaving fitfully. To her, the assault was real, the creatures abominable, and her very life severely threatened. It was real to her, very real."
Titus frowned. "But Accipiter, if the creatures were not real, how could she be hurt?"
"Because Titus, should the Black Dragon have succeeded in destabilizing her mind or even in destroying her will to resist, it would be the same as if she were slain by a gladius. She would be lost to our fellowship and gained by the Black Dragon to serve its will."
"I see," Titus said. "I think."
Accipiter hoped it was so. "All of us must be wary for the Black Dragon is skilled at deciphering our fears and can send all manner of creatures to exploit our weaknesses to our great disadvantage."
"Even you?" asked Civis.
"Even me," replied Accipiter, looking down at the ground on which Civis stood. "Zen has told me so." Gaius looked up once more. "Now all of us should select some nearby empty huts to rest. Tomorrow we will attempt to penetrate the Black Dragon's lair. It sits before us where you see the white building among the huts. It is just as Rong Ming described it to me. I will tell you more in the morning. Sin Ying, you will find there is room in Olivia's hut. I suspect she will be glad for the company when she awakens."
Da Long did not wait for his instructions. He positioned himself immediately in front of the ladies' hut and sat down on the ground, his sword carefully arranged at his side to permit easy withdrawal. The others did as they were told. Only Civis hesitated. He walked over to Accipiter and looked the tall man in the eyes, the difference in their comparative heighth notwithstanding.
"I know of one weakness only in you, Accipiter. What others can there be?"
"None I am intimately aware of, but Zen's warning to me was clear and unmistakeable. There is something I must be prepared for, but I do not know what it might be, nor did Zen. He was convinced of this and, so far, he has been correct in all that he said."
"Will you tell me of it if you discover what it might be?"
"Yes. You will be the first I tell," confirmed Accipiter. Civis smiled, if for any reason simply because he felt honored that Accipiter would trust him with this secret. "Because," continued Accipiter, "You may be the one who must save this mission from what I might try to do to destroy it."
Civis stood stiffly, stunned at what Accipiter had just said. It was then that Accipiter's eyes flashed blue and gold momentarily. The tense muscles in Civis' shoulders, arms and back eased. The Roman felt his concern drain away, though Accipiter's words still rang within his mind. He suddenly felt very tired and almost without hesitation yawned in an undignified manner, turned about and began to search out his own sleeping place. As he walked away, Civis said to Accipiter over his shoulder. "Oh well, Gaius. I'm sure we can talk of it later and work things out for the best." Civis uncontrollably yawned once more. "Don't you think?"
Accipiter watched his friend walk away. "Yes, Civis," he said softly, but loud enough for Civis to hear. Then much more softly so that no one could hear, he said, "I hope so."
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 01-22-2003 @ 09:32 PM).]
There were all manner of beasts and creatures that caught Xia Deng's eyes. Some with cloven hoof, others winged and fanged, others clawed. Some wore the faces of the Ch'in, but garrishly so with sardonic grins or demonic scowls. Others looked like no creature on two legs or feet ever before or even now seen in these lands. She shivered as she stared at them, even though the air was not cold and the slight chill carried on the breeze had not yet begun to make it so.
Xia Deng turned to find General Wan Li staring at her. "Is Fu Hachu back yet?" she said. "Is his arrival what you are here to tell me?" she added with a voice edged ever so slightly with cautiously placed distaste.
"No, Number Two Wife." This was said purposefully to annoy Xia Deng.
"Do not call me that. You know I do not like to be called by that title. If you wish to address me, use my proper name or do not address me at all." Xia Deng turned around, her back to the General once more.
The General smiled slightly, satisfied that he had annoyed the haughty woman. "There is something I must ask, Xia Deng," said the General. She ignored him. "Tell me, Xia. Did the boy take so much time to be convinced by your charms to drink the potion that it was necessary to spend so many hours in his sole presence? Or perhaps he fell asleep in the middle of your performance and thus you waited till he awakened to serve him his tea?"
Xia Deng's face turned as red as the buildings outside. "I should scratch out your eyes for that!" she exclaimed. She held up her carefully manicured hands with their elongated, painted nails and made a motion as if simulating the very act itself. "Someday I will, Wan Li. When you are asleep and least expect it. You will feel your eyes as they are scooped out and crushed on your face like small, juice-filled ripened fruits!"
"You will die by my hand if you try such a thing!"
"You will have to find me first, and you will need eyes to do that!" Xia Deng screeched.
The General's face reddened as deeply as Xia Deng's. He took two steps forward, hands clenched, only to be interrupted in mid-stride by the door opening to their chamber. Fu Hachu shuffled in, his sandaled feet making grating noises on the tile of the floor. "The two of you! Stop this! There is work for you soon and you must be ready! What shall the Black Dragon do with you! Cease I say!"
Both the General and Xia Deng maintained their silent glaring, but their attention was drawn to Fu Hachu. "Now then, the boy is where he must be. Those who have been expected are in the city. The Black Dragon is planning even now what will be done about them. I am to ask you this one question. "Why did the abduction of the boy take so long? The draught was brought to him yourself. It had to have been administered while still very warm or its effects would have been wasted. He slept sufficiently according to the formula and time of administering, yet you did not call to the General to carry the Celestial One to the Black Dragon, it seems, until well after the boy should have been asleep."
Xia Deng struggled to maintain her composure. Martialing up her last reserves she replied, "Fu Hachu. What does the time matter? I was ordered to induce the boy to drink the beverage and then to call to the General to alert him to take the boy to the Black Dragon. I did exactly as I was told. There was no timetable given and therefore no timetable to be observed. I serve my masters as they request and as they should be." Her composure by increments strengthened with each word until by the last word spoken it was restored fully.
Xia Deng straightened her back, turned around and walked once more to the window to observe what was left of the setting sun. She heard angered hissing and words exchanged that signaled irritation and frustration. "The answer will be known one day," said Fu Hachu between clenched teeth. "The Black Dragon will have the question answered." She heard both men leave the chamber.
"And so the question shall be answered," said Xia Deng to the empty room. "At a measured time and unavoidable moment." A smile crossed her face as she stared at the dimly visible city and gently placed her right hand on her belly, pressing softly and lovingly as the darkness grew all consuming.
He could feel the Black Dragon, coiled deep below the tower, like a worm at the core of an apple. Sadness was what he felt most, once long ago, in the early dawn of Man, the creature known now as the Black Dragon had been a force of good, a creature of immense power but definitely on the side of Life. Gaius still wasn't sure why it had changed, slowly becomining corrupt, slowly bending it's powers to destruction rather than creation.
He sighed, the only good thing was, that as the creature turned more in itself, it lost touch with the vast cosmic powers that orignally fed it. Slowly losing strength as it grew more embittered, the loss fuelling it's bitterness in an undending cycle.
Dawn crept up the horizon, painting the sky with her many-coloured fingers. As the first rays of the sun crossed mounted the low hills of the east, they seemed to meet a similar light in the seated messenger. Then as the sun's power grew, the light faded and Accipter rose in a single smooth motion.
Time to set things in motion
"Armor, Commander. Ch'in armor," he said, describing the odd looking equipment he offered to Civis and the others. "Go ahead, put it on. You'll find it strong yet light."
The armor consisted of woven bamboo breastplates, shoulder pads of ornamentally engraved hardened leather that curved upwards into points at each shoulder; sections of the same material meant to protect ribcages and something akin to a very large belt with hardened leather obviously intended to protect loin and flanks.
"How can these bundled sticks protect a person?" asked Titus, unconvinced of the value of the breastplate.
"Ahhh, you do not know about the spirit of the bamboo, Titus," said Da Long. Titus's expression confirmed Da Long's assumption. Da Long explained. "The bamboo grows in clusters, the outer lengths protecting the inner lengths in ever expanding circles. None can enter, except from above. Birds hide within its lengths or stand on top. Pan-Da breaks pieces off the outer lengths, but the inner lengths where the spirit resides, is never harmed. The bamboo fears only one thing: fire. Only fire can drive the spirit from the center of the bamboo. We make armor only of the outer lengths of the bamboo. That way we do not disturb the spirit of the bamboo and we gain the same protection as the spirit. Wearing the bamboo we fear nothing, except what the bamboo fears.
"That is correct, Titus."
About this time the ladies emerged, their youthful faces reflecting the morning sun. Both Olivia and Sin Ying seemed refreshed. This was good, thought Accipiter. They would need their strength for what lies ahead.
Breakfast was consumed. Belongings were packed. Armour was put on. Swords were checked and placed in their scabbords. Moments later they stood before two huge ebony wood doors that marked the entrance into the white building that led to the underground world of the Black Dragon... And nine heavily armored, fierce looking guards who stood (every one of them) as tall as or taller than Gaius Accipiter.
"Illusions!" said Civis, tight-jawed.
"Not this time," said Accipiter much to the chagrin of Civis and the others. Civis and the men drew their swords. The boy merely reached up and tapped Accipiter on the arm. "We need not bother with these. This entrance is impregnable. The doors open upon a solid wall. The guards are meant to give the appearance it is an entrance and dissuade us from entering or to engage us in battle should we try. Watch."
Rong Ming knelt down on one knee and picked up a large stone. With all of his might he threw it at a guard. The stone struck the guard full in the breastplate. The guard grunted but did not otherwise move. "Now, watch this," said Rong Ming.
The boy stepped forward placing himself before the others and closer to the guards. As if they were mimicking his movement, the two front most guards stepped forward exactly the same distance from their comrades that Rong Ming was from his. He stepped forward once more and the two guards did the same. Then Rong Ming stepped back and returned to his comrades standing next to Accipiter once more. The two guards returned to their original positions just as had Rong Ming. "See, they will not attack unless we attack first. And we cannot reach the doors without attacking the guards. Once we reach the doors we will open them onto nothing but a wall, that is, those among us who survive the guards."
"How do you know about the wall, Rong Ming?" said Accipiter, a slight frown creasing his brow.
"I uh... Well, I uh... I saw such an attack attempted once. A village revolt. It ended sadly."
"I see," said Accipiter,looking closely at the boy's face. "Is there a better way?"
"Yes. One of the nearby huts is the true entrance. It is plain and undistinguished, perfectly disguised by its total lack of ornament. Inside is a trap door that leads downwards. Only one person at a time may pass through it, though there is no limit on how many in succession can try."
"Which one is it?" asked Civis, keeping his eyes on the guards and not looking at the boy.
"I... I don't know, Commander," stammered the boy. "It changes every day. We must find it and all of us pass through it before the next day comes or we will have to search for it again. But it is near this building. It is always near."
They all slowly backed away from the guarded building and spread out to search for Rong Ming's hut. The guards did not follow, nor did they leave their post in front of the white building.
A voice rang out some moments after the search began. It was Roulv Dania's.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 01-23-2003 @ 03:58 PM).]
Everyone ran in the direction of where Danias voice had come from and found him standing in the middle of a street.
"Follow me. It is right down here" Dania turned around and walked down a narrow path between two houses with the others following like ducklings after a duck.
Dania stopped on the path while looking very self-assured. "Here it is"
Titus looked around on the similar looking houses a bit confused at the proclamation from Dania because they had barely started the search. "How can you know?" As for making his point clear he looked through the window of one of the houses and then at Dania clearly asking for an explanation.
"Well, ever sinse we got here I have had a slight nausea thinking I might have eaten something I shouldn't. When we were at the place yesterday where Olivia were fighting what ever it was, the feeling got stronger. Today when Rong Ming showed us how it works with those guards the nausea also got stronger. As we started the search I came at thinking the nausea had been stronger when I woke this morning then when I went to sleep, so I started searching at the hut where I spent the night, following my stomach so to say, and here is where it lead me"
"Hmmm, and which of them is it then?" Civis asked looking at the three huts in front of them.
"This one" Dania pointed at the house where Titus had looked through the window.
"But how can you know? I didn't see anything in there. It could as well be that or that one" Titus pointed at the small huts build so close on either sides of the pointed out one it looked like they were leaning against it.
"That is exactly why it is that one. Remember the huts we slept in? They were dusty and dirty because no-one dares live close to the white tower, even the pottery where left behind when the owners left, but Civis took a look through the window. "Your're right. Now we just need to find where the entrance is." Dania turned to Gaius "Hope you can help me. I am afraid the nausea will get too strong when we get down in the catacombs. I can't take it any more" Then he turned around and started throwing up. [This message has been edited by Proconsul Creaticus Dania (edited 01-23-2003 @ 07:40 PM).]
Civis took a look through the window. "Your're right. Now we just need to find where the entrance is."
Dania turned to Gaius "Hope you can help me. I am afraid the nausea will get too strong when we get down in the catacombs. I can't take it any more" Then he turned around and started throwing up.
[This message has been edited by Proconsul Creaticus Dania (edited 01-23-2003 @ 07:40 PM).]
"Think of Butara, Roulv Dania. Think of nothing and nobody else. Just Butara," Olivia said,placing her hand gently on his shoulder as he struggled to control the retching. Slowly control returned. The heaving in his stomach lessened. The urge to do so diminished. Finally, it stopped altogether and Roulv Dania was able to straighten and stand without any feeling of nausea at all. In fact, he felt quite normal and well. He looked at Oliva appreciatively and at Accipiter speculatively, a question forming on his face.
"You were never ill, Dania," noted Accipiter. "There was nothing else to be done but combat in your mind what was being placed there by our enemy. Olivia knew this as she already experienced the power of the Black Dragon. She gave you a great weapon since she sensed quite correctly that you, apparently, had become its next target."
Dania glanced at Olivia and smiled. "I thank you, Olivia, for ending the assault and for encouraging me to resurrect something pleasant in my life to use as the weapon." Olivia smiled in return but said nothing as she returned to stand with the others.
Rong Ming appeared behind them, having stepped into and out of the hut while Dania recovered from his discomfort. "The trap door is here. I found it."
"Did you open it?" asked Civis.
"No. I thought I should wait."
"Correct decision, Rong Ming," Civis confirmed. Looking around, the Roman Commander said, "I guess, if Roulv Dania is ready, we should descend into the real Forbidden City of the Ch'in." Everyone nodded or mumbled assent. Accipiter remained silent. To influence and support was one thing. To direct action was another. There were others there who could "direct action" as necessary.
Civis looked at Dania. "If you are feeling well enough, Roulv Dania, as the discoverer of our entrance would you like to lead?"
Titus called out to Dania, "Say yes Dania. I shall be the very next, even beside you if we can both fit."
Roulv Dania was relieved that his physical problem had abated but was embarrassed about the display he made during its course. He understood how Olivia must have felt when the Black Dragon attempted its assault on her mind. He realized that Civis, in his way, was attempting to restore the freeman's self-confidence and the confidence of the others in the freeman. There was that odd expression on Civis' face that conveyed a message of "There is more to my simple request than you know". Roulv Dania was silently grateful for the part of the message left unsaid. "Of course, Civis," said Dania. "Titus, if you will, follow me closely; but not too close. There is only room for one through the trap door at a time."
Dania led them into the hut and to the trap door in the floor pointed to by Rong Ming. Cautiously he pulled on the rope attached to the handle on the trap door. The door easily lifted off the floor and the way down could be seen in the dim light radiating from below. Dania motioned to Titus, then he first and Titus second, descended into the Forbidden City of the Black Dragon.
For the second time Pei Lian heard a great roar reverberate down the corridors and chambers of the lair of the Black Dragon followed by a resounding tirade. He only caught bits and pieces of this second tirade, something about "Roulv Dania" just as he only caught bits and pieces of the first: something about a "young woman named Olive" or something similar. He surmised the Dragon was not happy about something. Frankly, he was glad to hear the beast's discomfort.
What Pei Lian was not glad about was the sound of a very large body moving his way. He stared out into the dark as the sound of movement became louder, closer and more distinct. He blinked twice to clear his vision and peered again into the dark. This time, the dark was not entirely black. Two large red eyes staring back at him grew even larger as the bearer came closer. The acrid, sulfuric stench of 'dragon' filled the air. Pei Lian realized very quickly that the Black Dragon was again in his chamber and Pei Lian could do nothing to thwart whatever the foul beast had in mind.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 01-30-2003 @ 08:56 PM).]
It was a horrible sight. Elongated teeth, yellow with use and age, the incisors far longer and more protruding than the rest, lined the entrance to a maw that must be twice the length of a man. Its eyes were cat-like, slitted and red where the pupils expanded to strain as much light out of the dark as they could find. All manner of growth, some resembling the mane of a lion and other growth resembling the protuberances of lizards extended from the visible parts of its head and neck. Its gravelly voice hissed and its breath stank. All in all, it was an utterly disgusting creature, one that Pei Lian would sooner see removed from the face of the earth than be seen ever again. Unfortunately, he was in no position to make it so.
"You are more foul than I could ever have imagined," said the boy emperor with hesitant bravado.
"Why thank you, Celestial One," the Black Dragon said wryly. "I have spent many a millenia perfecting this look. I am most gratified that you have found it to be exactly the way I wanted it to be."
Pei Lian was immediately silent. Clever beast. Lesson learned, I shall not play word games with it he thought to himself. "What do you want with me, beast?"
"Dragon, if you please, Celestial One. There is a difference you know. I call you by your proper title. Please extend me the courtesy of doing so in my house."
"Your house? I know of no such house in the Forbidden City."
"True, Celestial One. Because there is no Forbidden City like the one you think you know. It is all illusion. I have constructed it in my imagination and through my powers given it life. To you it was real. To me it is but magic and toys."
"Why do you hold me here?"
"Because through you I will rule these lands and others to the west. To do that you must be made aware of and accept my power. The others are all in place. You are the last among the chosen who I must 'welcome' into my domain."
"Then Sin Ying must be..." Pei Lian was interrupted by the Dragon's deafening roar.
"DO NOT SPEAK HER NAME TO ME! She is an annoyance, a thorn in my paw, a speck of dirt in my eye." His voice calmed down as he recited a litany of similar metaphors. Hmmm, thought Pei Lian, Sin Ying must not be in league with the Black Dragon or he would not have reacted so much at the mere mention of her name.
"She lives then?" asked Pei Lian, hopefulness suppressed as much as possible in his voice.
"Yes. She lives," the Black Dragon said, irritation etched into these words. "But not for much longer. She accompanies those who think they can survive in my domain and defeat me. NEVER! the fools! They will all die, and your precious Sin Ying as well. Unless..."
"Unless you agree to obey my commands and rule the lands I conquer as I tell you."
The dragon changed his voice into something smooth and purring as if he were feline. "There will be great comfort in it. All manner of pleasures will be yours. Great wealth. Many women..."
"I only need one woman, Dragon. Sin Ying."
The Black Dragon deafened Pei Lian with another roar. "AGAIN THAT NAME! You will change your mind, Celestial One, I promise you that. Accepting what I offer may be the only way your Sin Ying will remain alive. Think on it! I have fleas to crush, and then I will return to hear your final answer. Don't disappoint me, Celestial One. I do not accept disappointments very well." So saying the foremost paw of the dragon appeared from the dark underneath the beast. The paw was as big as the boy emperor. Pei Lian stepped back in fright as brownish yellow claws appeared along the edge of the paw and extended outwards as the dragon's paw approached the bars of the emperor's cell. The dragon scraped his claws down the bars of the cell setting off a screeching noise that found its way to the boy's innards and echoed there painfully.
The dragon's paw and head withdrew into the dark and Pei Lian heard the massive body scrape its way into the passages of the cavern. After awhile, the smell of sulfur and stench of dragon finally dissipated away. Pei Lian was left alone to consider the Black Dragon's offer.
First Dania and then Titus climbed down the ladder. They were quickly followed in succession by Civis, Jayhawk, Olivia, Sin Ying, Rong Ming and Da Long. At the bottom of the long ladder, Dania was pointing to a rope and saying something to Titus. Civis saw Titus nod his head. Dania pulled on the rope and a pulley mechanism was activated that drew the trap door from its open position back to closed, the position in which it was originally found.
Immediately, the cavern was flooded with light from an unknown source. A gruff voice, not a man's and not quite a beast's filled the air. "Welcome to my realm, visitors. I hope your stay here is anything but comfortable and that you shall die as quickly as possible."
"Who are you?" cried out Civis.
"The Black Dragon, of course. And now I have the pleasure of introducing my friends to you. Enjoy yourselves."
Civis and the others looked around the cavern but saw nothing before them but unmoving brown statues of Ch'in in military formation who seemed to be made of terracota. The statuary looked like the images of soldiers since they wore in cast or carved relief some of the same armor and held some of the same weapons carried by Da Long or given by Da Long to Civis and the others. Roulv Dania tightened his grip on his wooden box with one hand and placed his free hand on the hilt of his sword. Something wasn't right here and he sensed the others sensed it too.
A noise that sounded like rock scraping on rock caught all of their ears at the same time. A puzzlement. No particular source of the noise could be identified. Then movement occured. The front ranks of the terracota army suddenly were animated and their heads turned to face the invaders from above. Terracota arms deftly extracted terracota... NO! Iron swords! They raised their swords and gave a silent command. The rank and files of terracota Ch'in soldiers advanced on the invaders. Their dead eyes seemed to promise the same would become the fate of the invaders.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 01-30-2003 @ 10:00 PM).]
The Dragon went back to Pei Lian's prison cell. "Boy! I will not give you anymore time to think! I want your answer right now, Sin Ying or no Sin Ying. They will not survive my terracota soldiers."
"No! But you promised me!" the Emperor protested.
"That is just too bad," the Dragon replied with a snarl. "You will have to rule the world under me. Right at this moment your dear Sin Ying and her friends are under attack by my soldiers. She probably would not survive the day... Hahaha!"
"No! You can't do this!"
"Haha haha! May I have your answer, Celestial One? Yes, OR NO?"
The men drew their swords without any hesitation. There was no time to think. Before they knew it, the terracota soldiers were upon them. Civis held his gladius tight and fought the creatures, men, whatever they could be. Rong Ming ushered the girls to the back.
The soldiers, once made of terracota, were now alive. One by one, their muddy, brown skins seemed to melt, revealing the yellow skin of Chinese. Their hair became black. The only thing that did not turn human was their facial expressions. All of them looked emotionless. They were just killing machines of the Black Dragon.
Da Long appeared to be holding on quite well. He was fighting against three soldiers, with much difficulty though. Dodging a slash to his right, he turned swiftly and cut one of his opponents in two at the waist with his scimitar. With another swing of his arm, the other two were left lying on the ground, lifeless once again. More came. The men decided to form fighting groups and come to each other's help in times of serious danger. Titus was once knocked out by a blow of his opponent's sword. Fortunately for him, Civis killed his attacker and saved his life.
The enemy seemed to flood in on the group. There didn't seem to be any way they could avert this disaster, and this was probably the end of their lives. Accipter stood at the back, looking at the floor. He could not help. This an ordeal these mortals had to pass by themselves. There was nothing that he could do.
Sin Ying was now crying. It seemed like she had to die with the others, her friends. Olivia and Rong Ming looked on helplessly. Their hands were bound too. Neither of them knew how to fight.
A noise above their heads caught the trio's attention. Accipter looked up with curiosity as well. The trapdoor was being opened by someone. Dim light from above flooded into the cavern. A white streak of light zoomed into the underground battlefield. It resembled a flying man. Civis turned back and saw him. Yes! It was he! They were all saved!
The man in white robes drew out his sword. There was a gleam from his waist as the sword was unsheathed. The blade of the sword was purple in colour. It was of a dark and dull purple, yet it seemed to be shining as though made of diamond. The man dived down into the hoard of terracota soldiers and attacked them. In the distance, the group could see him slowly move his way back to them. As they and the man regrouped, Civis was wondering. Who Suddenly, the man leaped up into the air and landed back lightly beside Civis. The Roman commander turned his head curiously to see what this hero of theirs looked like. He was a man in his twenties. He had an aquiline nose. Unusual for a Chinese. His eyes were small and looked very intelligent. His build... He was not very muscular, yet he had good martial arts and impressive sword-wielding skills. Civis refocused his mind on the fight. The arrival of this mysterious man still did not mean victory. In fact, they were struggling as before. An endless stream of soldiers came in their way. The man suddenly sheathed his sword back into the scabbard. He opened up his palm, each facing the other, in front of his chest. Concentrating for a moment, there seemed to be a swirl of purple material around him. He opened his eyes and pushed his hands, palms facing outwards, at the soldiers. There was a loud explosion and the terracota soldiers in the front were sent flying back. Those at the back fell like dominoes as they fell upon one another. Alarmed at what they had seen, the group was left gaping in shock. However, there was still no time for them to think about it. The soldiers at the back swarmed forwards for a continued fight. Exhausted by all the fighting, the men were only able to save themselves from the merciless attacks delivered by the soldiers in front. This was impossible to survive. They had to think of something. Terracota soldiers. Chinese. Iron swords. Ch'in armour. Pointed shoulder plates. Bamboo breastplates. Leather sides. All these things whirled round and round inside Civis' mind. Something had to give. Wait! Bamboo breastplates? He looked down at the Ch'in armour he was wearing. Da Long had found it and given it to him for protection. What had Da Long told him? Yes! The only thing that this invincible bamboo-plated armour could not protect against was fire! Yes, that was something that they could use. "Quick! Rong Ming! Go back up and get us a torch! Be quick!" Civis shouted above the clash of swords. The boy obeyed and was back in a flash, torch in hand. "Yes, commander! I have it! What do I do?" Orders for evacuation of the cavern were given. Rong Ming hurried the girls back up to the hut. Accipter, Titus and Roulv Dania left the cavern shortly after that. With the flaming torch in his hand now, Civis was desperately trying to fend off attacks together with Da Long and their saviour. "When I count to three we will all run back up towards the entrance, is that understood? I will burn them all up with fire." "One... Two... THREE! RUN!" Civis and Da Long turned around and ran back. The man in white seemed to have understood their plan and sprinted back towards the entrance as well. He and Da Long dashed up the ladder as quickly as they could. Civis was last. The terracota soldiers were barely five yards away from him, closing in on him with every passing moment. Civis felt about desperately for the first rung. Fortunately, with some light from his torch, he found it and pulled himself up the ladder with much effort. He had barely started climbing when the first of the terracota soldiers raised its sword to strike him. Civis climbed up, avoiding the sword. Halfway up the ladder, he hurled the torch at them with all his might. There was an inhuman scream as the soldiers all perished in the fire. All of them, one by one, were incinerated. Civis clambered back up to the ground of the hut and closed the trapdoor, panting heavily. The group sat down on the floor and sighed an intense heave of relief. Meanwhile, the mysterious man in white was nowhere to be seen...
Suddenly, the man leaped up into the air and landed back lightly beside Civis. The Roman commander turned his head curiously to see what this hero of theirs looked like. He was a man in his twenties. He had an aquiline nose. Unusual for a Chinese. His eyes were small and looked very intelligent. His build... He was not very muscular, yet he had good martial arts and impressive sword-wielding skills. Civis refocused his mind on the fight.
The arrival of this mysterious man still did not mean victory. In fact, they were struggling as before. An endless stream of soldiers came in their way.
The man suddenly sheathed his sword back into the scabbard. He opened up his palm, each facing the other, in front of his chest. Concentrating for a moment, there seemed to be a swirl of purple material around him. He opened his eyes and pushed his hands, palms facing outwards, at the soldiers. There was a loud explosion and the terracota soldiers in the front were sent flying back. Those at the back fell like dominoes as they fell upon one another. Alarmed at what they had seen, the group was left gaping in shock. However, there was still no time for them to think about it. The soldiers at the back swarmed forwards for a continued fight.
Exhausted by all the fighting, the men were only able to save themselves from the merciless attacks delivered by the soldiers in front. This was impossible to survive. They had to think of something.
Terracota soldiers. Chinese. Iron swords. Ch'in armour. Pointed shoulder plates. Bamboo breastplates. Leather sides. All these things whirled round and round inside Civis' mind. Something had to give. Wait! Bamboo breastplates? He looked down at the Ch'in armour he was wearing. Da Long had found it and given it to him for protection.
What had Da Long told him? Yes! The only thing that this invincible bamboo-plated armour could not protect against was fire! Yes, that was something that they could use.
"Quick! Rong Ming! Go back up and get us a torch! Be quick!" Civis shouted above the clash of swords. The boy obeyed and was back in a flash, torch in hand. "Yes, commander! I have it! What do I do?"
Orders for evacuation of the cavern were given. Rong Ming hurried the girls back up to the hut. Accipter, Titus and Roulv Dania left the cavern shortly after that. With the flaming torch in his hand now, Civis was desperately trying to fend off attacks together with Da Long and their saviour.
"When I count to three we will all run back up towards the entrance, is that understood? I will burn them all up with fire."
"One... Two... THREE! RUN!" Civis and Da Long turned around and ran back. The man in white seemed to have understood their plan and sprinted back towards the entrance as well. He and Da Long dashed up the ladder as quickly as they could.
Civis was last.
The terracota soldiers were barely five yards away from him, closing in on him with every passing moment. Civis felt about desperately for the first rung. Fortunately, with some light from his torch, he found it and pulled himself up the ladder with much effort. He had barely started climbing when the first of the terracota soldiers raised its sword to strike him. Civis climbed up, avoiding the sword. Halfway up the ladder, he hurled the torch at them with all his might.
There was an inhuman scream as the soldiers all perished in the fire. All of them, one by one, were incinerated. Civis clambered back up to the ground of the hut and closed the trapdoor, panting heavily. The group sat down on the floor and sighed an intense heave of relief.
Meanwhile, the mysterious man in white was nowhere to be seen...
"You are very observant," said the Black Dragon wryly with a touch of barely hidden sarcasm.
"If you harm Sin Ying you shall never have my agreement!" Pei Lian turned his back to the Black Dragon. This might have been foolhardy in the minds of some, but to Pei Lian, he neither wanted to discuss the matter further with the Dragon, nor did he want to see the Dragon's clawed strike approach if the Dragon so chose. But nothing happened. The cell grew silent once more.
After a wait, Pei Lian looked over his shoulder cautiously and then turned around when he saw the Dragon was gone. "Now where did that beast go?" he said to himself with nobody in the cell but himself to hear. "And why did the beast not respond?" These questions were left unanswered by the silence that permeated everything nearby.
Civis, exhaustion lining his face, pulled himself up to an upright sitting position and sniffed the air in the hut. "The smoke seems a little stronger and nearer now. Do you notice?" he said to Titus.
"Yes, and there's a good reason," observed Titus. The tribune reached across with his hand and pushed a part of Civis' Ch'in pants into the ground, thus putting out the smouldering patch that threatened to burst into flames at any moment. "Looks like you got a little too close to the flames."
"Apparently. Thank you Titus. Nothing strategic near the flame I presume?"
Titus glanced. Hmmm, close, but nothing a prefect in Roma would arrest him for. "No, you're intact."
Civis involuntarily looked towards the ladies who also were sitting on the floor trying to catch their breath and calm their own nerves. Good. It wouldn't do to be climbing down ladders and the like with impolite clothing between himself and their inadvertent glances. He relaxed a little more.
The fire below raged on. Though seemingly real, the terracota Ch'in were merely animated figures given life through the illusionary powers of the Black Dragon. They could withstand fire no better than if they were truly human. But unlike true humans, these figures baked, not burnt.
As the fire reached its greatest intensity and the heat reached its zenith, the remaining terracota Ch'in began to disintegrate into a fine powder that came to rest on the floor of the cavern. Many relatively unscorched soldiers simply exploded into stiff shards of terracotta as the heat pressed in upon them. Before long, all that was left of the terracota army of the Black Dragon was fractured torsos and dust. The fire promptly died out to be replaced by a brief rumbling, a voice-like sound, that could be felt through the floor of the hut and then no more.
"Somthing is very unhappy down there," observed Roulv Dania.
"Good," said Titus quite simply and directly.
Meanwhile, Civis' thoughts turned to the man in white and when it would be the right time to again open the trap door and descend to the cavern below. Suddenly as if a gale had just then escaped the cavern, the trapdoor flew up on its hinges and landed on its back, leaving the entrance to the cavern below gaping wide open. There was silence below and no sound or sign of the conflagration. Civis, distracted by this event, placed thoughts about the "man in white" to the back of his mind and peered into the hole
"It appears," observed Accipiter sighing, "that we have been invited to return."
"It appears you are correct, Accipiter," confirmed Civis.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 02-04-2003 @ 04:22 PM).]
Accipiter grunted. "I'm surprised we escaped as we did."
"Why is that?" asked Civis, Titus at his elbow listening.
"Fire is not an element that should have been effective against earth," said Accipiter.
Titus bent down and picked up a fragment of soldier and examined it closely. "Maybe this is the reason," the tribune said. "Look at this fragment. There are wood splinters mixed in with the earthen pottery. These figures were crudely formed as if the earth was scraped from the ground with whatever debris was deposited. These fragments remind me of something... Hmmm, yes. Egypt. The manner in which they make bricks: mixing straw with mud. These soldiers fell to the fire because part of their composition was splintered wood. It was not their earthen aspect we defeated."
"A keen observation, young tribune," complemented Accipiter. Civis nodded in recognition of the Roman's findings. "Unfortunately, it means something more troubling," continued Accipiter.
Civis finished Accipiter's thought when he remembered something of Ch'in culture and beliefs he learned on his first trip. "The element Earth is yet to be defeated."
"Correct," confirmed Accipiter. "And the element we used to defeat Wood will itself be an enemy to us at some point."
"I do not look forward to that confrontation," said Civis, "the confrontation with Fire." No one added anything to this. "So we are at war with the Black Dragon and his army is made up of the Elements. We should have realized that when we were confronted by his minions on the road to this place."
"I suppose," said Accipiter somewhat mechanically, distracted at the sight of Da Long and Roulv Dania running towards them.
The two men arrived, stopped and took a moment to catch their breath. It was Da Long who announced their discovery. "Hurry, we have found the exit from this cavern into the next... And you should see what we have found! Hurry!"
"Where are the ladies?" asked Accipiter. Da Long and Dania looked at each other strangely. "Why right behind us, of course." They turned and looked. There was no sign of Olivia or Sin Ying. Civis felt his stomach flip, but he retained just enough control to turn on his heels, reach for his sword, and run in the direction from which Da Long and Dania had come.
Shards of wood/earthen soldiers crunched under his sandals as he ran towards the far end of the cavern. He heard crunching sounds behind him that told him the others followed. As he ran he heard a particular set of crunchs that seemed farther spaced yet increasingly closer. He did not need to look to guess that long-striding Gaius Accipiter was very near and maybe only one long step behind.
There ahead he saw the two women and the opening to the next cavern. A red glow emanated from the cavern opening that contrasted with the bright Ch'in clothing worn by the women, and with the white worn by the stranger who stood near them, his sword drawn and ready.
Civis quickly positioned his gladius and bellowing the traditional battle cry of the Roman Legionnaires charged directly at the white-clothed stranger.
"Wait!" cried out Accipiter. "No, Civis!" cried out Sin Ying and Olivia both. But Civis couldn't hear or wouldn't hear, animal instinct and battle fever having taken hold. His mind screamed "ATTACK!" "KILL!" "DESTROY!" and continued to scream these commands at him repeatedly, each time more insistently, more loudly. The Roman Commander saw a haze form before him, but within the haze, focus was sharply centered. He gripped his sword tightly, ready to raise it and strike down the enemy, no not the one enemy. He must strike down both enemies! The two! The women! Both of them! Strike them down! Strike them BOTH down, NOW!
Civis took satisfaction in the terror that appeared on Sin Ying's and Olivia's face as he rapidly approached them, his eyes focussed on the two women and no others. He was close enough now. Crying out in a gutteral, bestial scream of rage he elevated his sword intending to render Olivia into two pieces. He brought his sword down only to find it suddenly balked by the upraised sword of a strange Ch'in wearing white cloth. Civis' sword rebounded off the Ch'in's sword and flew out of his hands and back over his head.
Suddenly Civis was cast to the floor from behind, falling heavily and skidding on his belly across the abrasive pebbled dirt. A great weight was on his back and he couldn't move, nor could he reach behind himself to remove the weight that pinned him there. He heard a vaguely familiar voice calling his name. "Civis! Stop it!" it yelled. "Civis, it's the Black Dragon! Stop it! Its in your mind! Fight it! Fight the Dragon!"
The haze began to fade ever so slowly and his vision became more like it had been before. The voice still screamed at him. "KILL!" "DESTROY!" "ATTACK!" But its insistence was diminishing. "KILL!" And weakening. "Destroy!" And fading from thought. "Attack." Then it was gone.
Civis lay calmly, breathing hard from the exertion but not in a labored way. The voice telling him to stop became recognizable. "I'm... I'm well now... I will be... I mean... I won't hurt anyone," said Civis in a low, strained voice. The Commander felt the weight lift off of his back. A pair of strong arms helped him to his feet. The voice now had a face. "You are with us again, are you not, Commander?" asked Titus, the concerned face and voice before Civis.
"Yes, Titus. I am with you." Civis looked beyond Titus and saw the two young women. Accipiter was standing behind them, a comforting arm placed around the shoulders of both. Tears trickled in rivulets down the cheeks of both women. Civis hung his head and looked away. "Take charge for me, Titus," he said. "I am no longer worthy." Titus made some comment that sounded like "Nonsense!" but Civis didn't listen.
In looking away, Civis saw the white garbed Ch'in stranger standing alone, his sword, the one that balked Civis' gladius, hanging loosely in his right hand. In his left hand was Civis' gladius. Civis made no move to retrieve it. What was the point? He would only use it again to harm the mission, not help it. It was better he didn't carry the weapon at all. No, do not carry the weapon. Simply leave. He was not worthy. Leave... Abandon the mission... Leave... It was a voice sounding almost like his who told him so.
Civis began to walk back towards the entrance to the cavern of the earthen soldiers, where the trap door waited open for his leaving. The women backed away from him as he walked past. Civis noticed their flinching and backing away and the melancholy within leaped twofold. He was not worthy... Abandon the mission... Another must lead...
Accipiter tightened his hold on the women for reassurance. It wasn't necessary. Civis would not think of harming them. He could not harm anyone. How could he? He was defeated... The mission ended... There was no purpose... There never was... Leave this place... Never return... No purpose... Leave.
"He is still in the grip of the Black Dragon," said Accipiter through clenched teeth as the Roman walked by him ignoring his very existence. Turmoil. Conflict. Argument. Decision.
All movement ceased in the cavern. All were frozen in place, eyes unblinking, unseeing beyond what they had already in that instant seen. There was no sound. There was... nothing. Civis could not move, but he was aware: Movement to his side, now to his front. A figure, a shining figure, clothed in white moving to a place before him. It stood there looking familiar but not quite so familiar as to be easily recognized. Civis struggled to say something. His mouth would not work; his tongue was frozen; his vocal cords were rigid and inflexible. He could not speak. He could only look and listen.
The figure began to move, to change. What was at first the image of a brilliantly illuminated manlike figure became something else. Great wings began to spread, ebony in color, totally in contrast with the white of the figure's gown. Contrary to expectations the dark wings glowed brightly, amazingly so for objects that were darker than night.
The wings continued to spread until they reached their full extension. This was followed by a voice, a very soothing, comforting voice. Civis recognized the voice, but he was powerless to say so. The voice seemed to come from nowhere but was everywhere, carressing, calming, without and within.
"Civis... Civis Romanus... My friend..." said the voice.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 02-14-2003 @ 06:11 PM).]
"You know me, Civis. Think. Let your thoughts travel, wander, moving westward." The voice was soothing, calming, but not apparently coming from the apparition. The voice seemed to be everywhere; but the face of the apparition and its lips, if you could call those places high on the apparition those things, never moved. "Send your thoughts there, to the west."
Something pulled hard on his mind like a chain attached to his ankle. Civis nearly cried out, but he could not speak least of all open his mouth to cry out. "Listen," rumbled a deep voice. "Listen to me. Go nowhere but away. You are safe with me. He leads you to disaster and death. The mission is ended. He wishes to hurt your comrades for naught. Stay and he shall, leave with me and he shall be powerless to act." The rumbling voice faded away, the chain pulled harder on his mind.
The air shimmered between himself and the apparition. A panorama materialized and sharpened into focus. Tall cypresses framed a structure. To the left in the distance was a stable. To the far right were iron gates and a road to the structure. A villa it was called. His villa. He recognized it now. The oak doors opened and out stepped three figures. Two were women of about the same height. One was a boy, smaller than the women. All were dressed as if for a festival.
Civis couldn't move, but it seemed the panorama made up for his imobility, for the image expanded and came closer so that the figures became increasingly recognizable. One of the women was older, about the same age as Civis. One was only half his age, not a child, but in those tender years between childhood and maturity. He recognized them: Apolita and Apollonia, mother and daughter. The boy was Civi, his son.
The rumbling voice entered again. "Do not look... They are but shades... Harm will befall you if you look," warned the voice. Civis wanted nothing more than to see them with his mind's eye. Apolita smiled. She waved and said something to Apollonia and Civi. They too smiled. The boy stepped forward and elevated something in his hands. Civis recognized it immediately.
"The mission is ended... All is lost... Go... You are defeated..." the voice rumbled.
The object in the boy's hand grew larger as the scene drew closer. Civis was confident he knew what the object was. Olive leaves intertwined to form a circle, open in the back, closed in the front: a crown worn by victorious commanders on their triumphant return to Roma. Victory.
Civis had never known defeat. He had engaged in lost or inconclusive battles, but never had he lost a campaign or failed on a mission. This would be the first time... First time? Why? Had he lost a battle or even seen a casualty among his comrades. Failed? They had penetrated the domain of the Black Dragon and even now were seeking the beast within its lair, the mission having begun thousands of kilometers away in distant Roma. There was no failure! There was no defeat! The voice that rumbled is a lie!
The chain holding his mind shattered and he found he was free. Just before the scene faded he thought he saw the face of Apolita once more. Soundlessly she formed words with her lips. Civis couldn't be sure, but he thought they were "I love you." Then the image of her face faded away completely. The apparition was all that he saw now.
The glowing figure of an ebony winged man began to darken even as the wings returned to their folded position. Moments later the figure was gone and Civis found he was free to move. He didn't know whether time had passed or not. The word "nonsense" in the voice of Titus seemed to echo in his ears as if recently uttered. Civis stopped, straightened up his slumped shoulders and turned around.
Civis saw Accipiter standing next to Olivia and Sin Ying, his green eyes studying him intensely. The Roman commander reached for his sword and remembered belatedly that it was missing from his scabbord. He grunted and then walked determinedly back towards Accipiter, the women and the others. As he walked by Accipiter he looked up at the tall man, sometimes minstrel, sometimes adventurer, and nodded. Nothing more needed to be said.
As he approached Titus and the others, Civis set his teeth and said loudly enough for all to hear, "Come with me, there is a dragon to kill... And I shall appreciate the return of my sword." He said this with such emphasis they all drew the same immediate conclusion. Civis Romanus was himself once more.
Deep in one of a group of adjoining caverns a great bellowing roar of anger and frustration sounded once again.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 02-24-2003 @ 08:29 PM).]
The Ch'in stranger studied the somewhat taller, muscularly shouldered man standing expectantly in front of him. Civis waited patiently, but unyielding, as the stranger sorted out what he planned to do about Civis' request. Suddenly, without any warning, the Ch'in gracefully but swiftly elevated the sword, juggled it smoothly and presented it to Civis handle first, the blade end resting lightly in his hands. The Ch'in placed his feet together and bowed, his face looking down at the sword and not at Civis.
Startled, but not fearful, Civis took the proffered sword from the Ch'in's hands carefully so as not to cause hurt with the blade's sharpened edges. He then bowed to the Ch'in, showing proper respect as well as gratitude for the gracious return of his weapon.
Pleased with Civis' response, the stranger ended his bow and looked Civis full in the eye with an expectant glance. Civis understood. There was to be a communication. He hoped he would be able to understand the man as well as the man would understand him. "What is your name so that we may address you properly, and why are you among us?" said Civis to the white-clothed stranger, hoping that what he might have failed to say properly would be clarified by Accipiter who had joined them with the two women at the tall man's side.
Civis waited patiently for the stranger to respond.
"I am honored to meet you Han Xin. Thank you for the return of my sword."
"Without doubt, Commander, I should not have found it so easy to capture if you were not being afflicted by the Black Dragon."
Civis bowed once more to acknowledge the complement. "I am not sure how easy or difficult it might be and I would very much appreciate not needing to find out." This time Han Xin smiled and bowed. Two warriors completed the salute to each other's skills.
"Please tell us, Han Xin, why you have chosen to take the same path to the Black Dragon as we."
"To free my village and to find my beloved who was taken from me by the Black Dragon when I opposed it in the village. I followed you here after learning of your mission and seeing you oppose the Dragon's demons. I know your names..." Here Han Xin began a litany of their names and some of the facts he knew about them. When he came to Sin Ying, he bowed deeply acknowledging his respect for the Number One Wife of the Eternal One. Finally he concluded by saying, "The one you call Zen guided me to you."
Accipiter needed no further convincing. "Then you are welcome among us," he said without further ceremony." Civis nodded in agreement then turned his attention to the entrance to the next cavern. He raised his sword and pointed in that direction. "And, as I said before the Black Dragon so rudely interrupted my intentions, we go there and into whatever is beyond." They all began to walk in the direction to which he pointed.
The entrance to the next cavern narrowed, darkened and then twenty long steps later, widened and opened into something completely unexpected. Bright ambient light from no definable source illuminated the vast red Ch'in city that lay before them. Indeed, as they emerged from the entrance, the passage seemed to close behind them and the surrounding walls and floor of the cavern took on the look of day, earth and sky where it was visible in and around the city.
They all, even self-assured Han Xin, took a sharp intake of breath in reaction to the sight of the brilliantly crimson colored structures, one after the other standing erect and stately among the paved streets. Civis looked at Accipiter, an unspoken question in his eyes.
"Yes, Civis," responded Accipiter. "Powerful spells at work here. Very powerful. The greatest concentration of such power I have ever witnessed. We must be cautious, we must..." Accipiter's words and thoughts were interrupted by the sight of the most magnificently sculpted figure, amazingly beautiful face borne by the most attractive Ch'in woman he had ever seen. She glided effortlessly up to them displaying a disarming smile radiating warmth and welcome.
"Greetings, visitors. You were expected." She glanced coyly at Accipiter, who felt tenseness lesson and a strange warmth suddenly materialize in his chest. "Follow me to your place of rest, she said."
Civis asked the questions on the minds of all but one. "Where are we and who are you?"
The Ch'in woman continued to focus her eyes on Accipiter but dutifully answered Civis' questions in the order asked. "Why... You are, of course, in the great, fabulous Forbidden City; and my name is..." But the woman was not permitted to finish. It was Sin Ying who interrupted. "I can tell you who she is," the young woman said, her teeth clenched and her fists balled. "She is Xia Deng, Wife Number Two to my husband, and most likely the cause of our problems."
Xia Deng continued to smile, though her words were touched ever so slightly with subtle venom. "Ah, Sin Ying. Imagining trouble where there is none. How unworthy, but how very much like an unnecessarily fearful favorite of the
young Eternal One. Now, follow me if you please." Xia Deng bowed and turned around, then began gliding towards some unknown destination within the Forbidden City.
Accipiter felt confused about how such a beautiful woman could possibly be a source of trouble, or ever be a pawn in the claws of the Black Dragon. His confusion increased the further into the city he and the others walked.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 03-14-2003 @ 04:17 PM).]
"Accipiter, I remember these buildings appearing on the upper surface, but they were illusions."
"Hmmm?" Accipiter seemed far away, his eyes sweeping from building to building and stopping each time to gaze on Xia Deng whenever her image crossed their path. "Buildings, yes..." Accipiter's voice tapered off.
"I mean," persisted Roulv Dania, "these are even more detailed illusions than we first saw."
"Uhh, yes, detailed... Very detailed... buildings..." Accipiter did not look at Dania. The freeman frowned. This is not like Gaius Accipiter, he thought. "Accipiter!" Dania said loudly. "Gaius Accipiter! Are you listening to me."
Suddenly, the tall man focussed his intense green eyes on Roulv Dania. There were flecks of gold scattered here and there about the jade, and then tiny, ever so tiny spots of red began to chase the gold flecks all around. Accipiter's brow knitted. His teeth clenched, jaws tight, Accipiter said, "Of course I am listening to you, Roulv Dania, and should you say anything of value I shall be more than happy to respond!" Gone was the soothing voice, in its place was a harsh, penetrating, stabbing voice that sought the center of Dania's chest and delivered a powerful blow with an invisible fist.
Civis, well in the lead, treading behind the Ch'in woman his hand on his sword, turned his head to see what the disturbance might be. He saw Accipiter turn his eyes and face from a staggered Roulv Dania and saw the tall man's usually placid, benign expression return. Hmm, considered Civis, must have been something Dania said. His former slave could be somewhat uncareful about his words. Civis turned his head towards Titus, but the tribune was himself too interested in his surroundings to pay much attention.
The only one who seemed disturbed, unknown to Civis, was Olivia. There was something beginning to gnaw at her: a sense, a feeling, that not only was something wrong, but dreadfully wrong. No, she concluded, it wasn't her this time. The Black Dragon was not aiming something at her. It was someone else. Sin Ying? Her guard? The newcomer in white? She couldn't be sure. One thing she knew, it would never be Accipiter. It must be one of the others. Accipiter must sense it as well, which is why he is being so short with Dania. Like her, she surmised, Accipiter must focus on the source, but unlike her, he is more likely to find it. At least she believed this to be the case.
Beautiful buildings, thought Accipiter admiringly. Wonderful buildings... The Emperor should be proud to live in such a magnificent city. He, Accipiter, will have to complement the Eternal One on his choice of color and architecture. So beautiful... Like the woman... He must be closer to the woman... Never leave her side... Be one with her... Forever... Yes, forever...
Accipiter stretched his legs and began his peculiar long stride soon leaving a bewildered Dania behind. Gaius quickly closed the distance between himself and Xia Deng, nearly pushing Civis out of the way as he claimed for himself a place at her side.
Civis frowned at the discourtesy displayed so uncommonly. Sin Ying felt heat rise up the back of her neck and a wave of jealousy crash over her that threatened to overwhelm whatever self control she possessed. Olivia read Sin Ying's expression like the pages of an opened book. "Uh,oh. Trouble!" she murmured in a low voice. She was right, but just how much trouble she could not possibly fathom in that brief moment.
The boy, Rong Ming, silent through all of this underground journey, wordlessly looked upon all of this, a strange expression on his face.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 03-17-2003 @ 04:16 PM).]
A small court yard appeared, with a quite pond, tall trees giving shade, which was peculiar as there did not appear to be sun. Xia Deng bid him to sit and his tall form plopped down unceremoniously on the silk cushions.
"Let's take a break from this incessant walking. A man needs a drink."
Watching the tall man stretch like a cat, Olivia noted his eyes were no nearly completely red, his smile, normally gentle, now held a hint of cruelness. She shivered.
Something was seriously wrong.
Xia Deng approached again, holding a goblet of delicate wine. With his right hand the angel took the goblet, while with his left he pulled the Ch'in woman closer. She resisted for an instant then, flowed onto his lap. Her nails traced the countours of his face, then her face bent closer as Accipter drained the goblet. He dropped it as she bent closer and kissed him full on the lips. The hand that had dropped to goblet, moved back to trace the generous contours of the woman on his lap. Accipiter seemed oblivious to the stunned expressions on his companions faces.
After a moment of stunned silence Sin Ying was the first to move. She stepped up to the couple on the couch and tried to drag Xia Deng away from the man she was kissing. Quick as a snake the woman twisted and pushed the girl backwards with a force that made her stumble and fall. Xia Deng turned back to business, her tongue touched the tall man's earlobe and she whispered.
"Jealous little wench. She'll have to wait her turn."
A cruel smile briefly distorted the perfect features.
She bent closer for another lingering kiss.
Light ripped through the fog in the angel's mind, as he heard those words. The idea that Sin Ying would want to replace the woman in his lap, rang so false the veils burned away, like fire chasing through cobwebs.
Xia Deng felt the body underneath her grow rigid, and leaned back slightly.
"What..." she murmered.
The angel's hand clamped her's just behind the wrist, in a vice like grip. His eyes shone, but not the earlier sullen red, but blazing gold.
"Snake" he whispered.
Xia Deng lashed out with her other hand, nails poised like daggers, but was caught, a fraction from Accipiter's face.
"Snake" the angel spoke again, louder, as he stood in a fluid motion, dragging the woman with him.
Her face twisted, her whole body convulsed and changed. Clothing faded and black scales flowed into being, slowly disolving.
"So close..." the creature hissed, then disappeared completely.
Nonetheless, when the event ended, Civis could not restrain the little demon inside himself that itched to have its words heard. So Civis, a wry smile on his face, the demon clawing at his lips, approached Accipter as the tall man straightened out his clothing and wiped away the residue of the false Xia Deng that only he could see.
The demon escaped. "Uh, Accipiter," began Civis. "You have some peculiar tastes in women. I like mine with wine as well, Gaius, but without the scales." Accipiter's brow wrinkled and his usually pale face reddened ever so slightly, more with mild embarrassment than with anger as he recognized the friendly teasing in Civis' voice. Accipiter grunted in response but offered no retort.
Civis's attention moved away from Accipiter in that moment as he noticed that Titus, Han Xin and Da Long were concentrating on something deep in the Forbidden City. He stepped quickly to their sides to see what it was about.
Titus pointed down the street running between the two rows of red buildings just as three figures, twelve feet in height, stepped from some unseen side street onto the same street as theirs. The first figure was dressed in blue Ch'in silk, an invisible breeze seeming to cause the material to flow, like the surface of a river all around the figure. The second was dressed in Ch'in armor swirling with the colors of orange, yellow and red as if some artist were stirring his paint pot filled with paints in these hues. The third giant wore plates that shimmered with reflected light, glistening like the surface of a gladius in the bright light of a noonday sun.
Civis felt more than saw that Accipiter had joined them. His calm voice returned, Gaius confirmed with his words what the others suspected. "Three ambassadors from the Black Dragon it seems." Accipiter paused as he appraised what powers they might possess. "The blue demon is Water. The gleaming one is Metal." Here Civis interrupted him. "Let me guess, Gaius. The rainbow demon is Fire."
"Correct, Civis," confirmed Accipiter.
"And the ones gathering behind the demons?" asked Titus.
"Their army," said Accipiter.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 03-20-2003 @ 12:36 PM).]
Her mind went back over recent events and she felt somehow let down. She had put Gaius on a pedestal and thought that he knew all the answers; that he would protect her and teach her what she needed to know. Yet he had fallen to the wiles of the black dragon just as she had. Would she be able to trust him again?
However that wasn't all. There was another small nagging feeling in the back of her mind. She went back over what had happened ... that vixen leading Gaius away from them, the kiss ... and suddenly she realised what the nagging feeling was. It was jealousy! She almost laughed at herself. Why should she be jealous? Gaius was probably old enough to be her father. Strange, she didn't know how old he was; he seemed ageless. Titus was interested in her so why should she have felt jealousy of the false Xia Deng?
Her reverie was suddenly broken by a touch on her arm and what felt like a bolt of lightning going right through her. She looked up and saw Accipiter studying her with a quizzical expression on his face. Her face flushed a violent red as she realised he probably knew what she had been thinking but all he said was 'Olivia, we need you.'
She looked where he was pointing and saw the giant demons.
Accipiter guided Olivia to Civis' side. He also waved to Sin Ying and brought her forward as well. "Here is our army, Civis. Command them!" Then Accipiter, charged not to interfere, only influence, stepped back. Civis appraised the situation quickly.
There were no cross streets between themselves and the demons. The demon army could approach them only by frontal assault straight down the road the companions were using. The street was narrow. The full demonic army could not attack them at once. As armies go, this one was small. There were only a few dozen of each ilk. Maybe 72 demons in all. Then, of course, there were the giants. The ancient story of that Hebrew, what was his name? Hmmm. Samson, yes. That's the name. Slew his enemies with a bone one by one because only two at a time could engage him. Not quite the same, but then there were more with Civis than were with Samson.
"Da Long, Han Xin, Titus and Dania! To my side!" cried out Civis. "Two on each side, shoulder to shoulder. I'll anchor the middle. Olivia and Sin Ying, behind us! Rong Ming, stay with Accipiter!"
They responded immediately. The demon army began a leisurely stroll down the street as if confident that an easy victory was at hand. Pilas appeared at Civis feet and the feet of the others. Olivia? Civis turned. The woman's eyes were closed. Civis glanced at Sin Ying. Her eyes were closed as well.
Five hands reached for pilas, five pilas flew into the air, five pierced demons fell to the ground and disappeared into vapor. The buildings' facades wavered, then steadied.
Five more pilas appeared. Five more demons fell. Annoyed, the demons stepped up their pace, beginning to walk swiftly towards the intruders. The crimson of the buildings lost its lustre. The ornamentation looked less bright, less striking. One of the giant demons bellowed something unintelligible and all of the lesser demons halted in midstride, waiting. One of the tall demons stepped forward and motioned to his own followers to accompany him. They gathered closely to his side, each and every one of them with their blue clothing moving like the flow of a river. Water would make the first attack.
Olivia felt something touch her mind. A woman appeared there, her gown flowing from shoulder to ankle with the colors of autumn, of the harvest, of rich fertile earth. "My name is Gaia," whispered the voice. "I tend to the earth," she said. "I carry the lifeblood of the land. Too much and I carry it away to vast pools you call seas. Too little and it flees to the sky to return again another day. Just enough and it rests in the soil to nurture life. Do you perceive too much or too little before you, young seer?"
Civis heard Olivia whisper "Too much... too much..." but didn't know why. He threw a pila. This one missed as the blue demons stayed cautiously out of range. Annoyed, he looked for another pila. One appeared where the other had been. He reached for it and as he did so he felt a series of jolts shake his feet.
Olivia kept her eyes closed even as the earth shook beneath her feet. She saw Gaia slide one palm of one hand against the other, up and down, up and down. Beneath the feet of the blue demons and their 12 foot leader the earth suddenly spread open. They fell into the crevice, the tallest of them being the last to fall. The earth closed around them leaving in the place where they had been nothing but viscous, supersaturated mud.
The demons roared in anger then in anticipated triumph as the next in their number stepped forward. The intruders would now have to deal with the next among theirr antagonists. The red, yellow and orange of the demons before them brightened to signal their readiness even as the red of the Forbidden City dulled more noticeably than before. The intruders would now have to deal with Fire.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 03-23-2003 @ 04:37 PM).]
"You can't rest; you can't succumb; there is still work to be done; your friends are in mortal danger."
"Go away" she muttered under her breath, but a combination of the compulsion of the voice and her recently awakened feelings towards her mentor forced her to listen.
Another voice broke into her thoughts, that of Sin Ying saying simply "Follow me". She suddenly knew, as if by telepathy, what Sin Ying was going to do and stood up and walked with her, hand in hand, round the back of the five warriors to the far side of the cave so that the muddy quicksand was between them and the fiery demons and their huge leader.
Titus opened his mouth to call out to the girls and looked round wildly at Accipiter expecting him to call them back but one look from the eyes flashing blue and gold silenced him.
Whilst the pilas were still flying at the advancing demons, a sudden unintelligible roar from the fiery giant halted his minions' advance. Total silence descended whilst the giant leered at the two girls who were sitting on the cave floor.
All of a sudden the silence was broken by singing; a song of such ethereal beauty that it filled the cave and echoed off the shimmering buildings. The giant started walking slowly towards the two girls, one step at a time, entranced by the pure music pouring from them, his leering face fixed on them. Nearer and nearer he came, his demons following him. The girls' faces were full of fear, but they kept singing what turned out to be a siren song.
Suddenly the giant stopped and looked down. His foot was slowly sinking in the quagmire with a hissing sound. He brought his other foot down in front of it to try to get some purchase but the same thing happened. He was sinking further and further in and, the more he struggled, the more he sank. The demons rushed round him to try to pull him out but, one by one, they disappeared with a hiss of steam. Finally the red, orange and yellow demons together with their giant leader had gone as if they had never been. Only then did the girls stop singing and hug each other in relief.
Titus was about to run over to Olivia when Civis pulled him back into line with a growl and a nod at the giant clad in metallic plates who, with a roar, was once again advancing on them.
Civis and the others hastily reached for fresh pilas. Five were launched into the air, each pila striking its target... with no effect. The pilas simply shattered against the skins and clothing of the giant and its demons and fell to the ground as shards. A second volley was released and the same thing happened again.
The clanging stopped. Metal paused about thirty strides away and let out a deep rumbling laugh that echoed within the chests of each man among the intruders. The demons also halted and they too laughed, derisively, demeaningly, at the weaklings who dared to attack them. Where Water failed and where Fire failed, cold, hard, everlasting Metal would win the day.
Again the young women were called by Accipiter's voice in their minds. Exhausted, staggering, they rose to their feet, helping each other up. As quickly as they could they hurried to the opposite side of the street, still behind Civis and the others. At least twice one or the other of the women tripped and nearly fell, their exhaustion gaining increasing power within their bodies.
"To us, Civis!" cried out Olivia. "To us, all of you! Back, far back."
The words she sought appeared in her mind and Olivia prepared them. First she called to Sin Ying. "Sing, young sister! Sing like you have never sung before."
Sin Ying's sweet voice sounded a peculiar oriental melody that caught the attention of Metal and his minions. Well warned of the danger of their song, it did not move from its spot, nor did the shorter demons of Metal. Sin Ying sang on, her Ch'in words carressing, soothing... Civis was entranced, as were the others.
Then Olivia voiced the silent prayer she remembered. "Come to me Great One. The time is now. We mortals of the land are at their mercy... They who deny you... They who see themselves greater than you. Come to us now, ruler of Olympus... And seal their doom."
Something happened none could explain in the days that followed. The ground that had first been firm, then softened with Water, that became the quagmire that claimed Fire, now began to boil as if something sought its surface from below. Great globs of blackish substance began to erupt, rise up and fall towards Metal. Then the old man appeared leaning on his staff
He seemed too wizzened to live. Yet alive he was. As Metal watched with puzzlement, the old man lifted his staff and pointed to Metal. He turned his head to Olivia and moved his head and eyes as if asking a pointed question. Olivia nodded. Yes, she signed. They are the ones. The old man smiled and turned himself in such a way as to directly confront the demons. He rapped his staff on the earth three times. The transformation began immediately.
The years fell away from the old man's face and body; defying reason, he grew to a size rivaling the giant. Metal watched the transformation in awe. Never before had such been seen in this land. His minions shrank back, fear kindled in their empty souls for the first time.
Metal had waited enough. He charged. Jupiter laughed and pointed his spear, once a staff, directly at Metal. A charged bolt of heat and lightning shot forth and slammed into the giant causing it to stagger backwards, nearly falling. Jupiter didn't pause but a brief moment. Bolt after bolt struck demon after demon leaving a smoking remnant where a demon once stood. The giant was now alone. Sin Ying continued to give voice to her song. Accipiter moved closer to the ladies, his eyes glowing brilliant gold, the blue sparkling repeatedly, red emanating from around ebony pupils.
Metal recovered, bellowed and charged. Jupiter aimed his spear at the roiling, black oozing ground before Metal. The giant, anger contorting his face, paid no attention. Again a bolt of lightning leaped from Jupiter's spear, this time striking the churning earth. Metal charged into the black ooze just as the bolt struck. The earth erupted into white hot flame rushing upwards as if a giant bellows sent it there with its cyclonic breath.
Metal stopped in its tracks and look stupidly around as the flames rose violently up and over his head. He looked down at his hand only to see it and the arm to which it was attached simply, unalterably, thoroughly... melt away. Metal's scream echoed all around the cavern and the city nearly deafening them all. Then the giant simply liquified and plopped to the ground, a melted, unmoving mass.
The old, wizzened man was standing in the place where once stood the giant of Olympus. He held his wooden staff in hand and teetered on his feet, but he didn't fall. Instead, the old, wizzened man cackled, then winked... Then he disappeared.
Sin Ying ceased her song. It was Da Long who reached her side before her knees buckled. He caught her and laid her down in the shade of a overhang. Olivia collapsed into the arms of Accipiter. The tall man placed an arm under her knees and under her back for support then lifted her, holding her securely in his arms.
Olivia dreamt. Soothing sounds and murmurs filled her mind coming from somewhere else. Music of the lute drifted above a serene scene filled with the calm waters of a lake. She floated above the lake's water, no boat between her and its depths, just air. Her gown, thin, filmy, blue, barely opaque brushed lightly against the shallow waves, but the material never became wet. A current carried her, not the current of the lake but a current in the air. She seemed bound for the shade of a great tree. She did not know how she travelled or why. It simply mattered that she did, and in so gentle a manner as if there might not be any movement at all.
Accipiter nodded to Titus and gave the unconscious woman to him. Titus stiffened his arms to receive Olivia. He held her gently and carried her to a place near Sin Ying. Slowly, carefully he placed her where the shade was deepest. They all sat down and soon they slept. All except Accipiter, who stood without pause, his jade eyes reflecting golden glory... and the blue of a mountain borne lake.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 03-25-2003 @ 00:28 AM).]
He looked up and around and found Gaius staring at him with those mysterious colored eyes that never ever seemed to be the same color twice. But he was used to it by now and accepted it without reservation.
"Did you sleep well, Titus?", asked Accipitor.
Titus still a little drowsy and once again stretching answered,"Yes I did. Except I thought I might have been having a dream which would disappear when I awoke. But I see that was the dream for we are still very much where we are when I closed my eyes."
Accipitor chuckled slightly and said," It would seem so young Tribune."
Titus rose and looking down at the others he noticed he couldn't detect the signs of sleep. He looked for the telltale rising and falling of the chest to signify breathing or the occasional turning over or even a snore.Their eyes were closed but it seemed their bodies were listless. He kneeled down to Civis and putting his hand to his commanders shoulder slightly shook him to get a response. But there was none. Titus shook harder saying,"Civis, wake up! Wake up!" but getting no response. He stood up and did the same to each and received the same response....nothing.
"Gauis, what is wrong with them? What happened while I slept and why didn't you wake me?" Titus said looking at those eyes.
Accipitor sat crouching as a toad would be upon a stone watching and waiting for the nearest insect to come by and devour it with one quick swipe of his tongue. And all the time just saying the same thing over and over and over again,"Did you sleep well,Titus?"
Titus confused was talking to himself,"What has happened? Why won't the others wake up? And why is Accipitor sitting like that repeating the same thing again and again."
This time he addressed Gaius,"Why won't they wake up? Accipitor help me wake them. Stop asking me the same question over and over." Titus grew angry at his inability to wake the others and Accipitor's refusal to help except to badger him with his continuos," Did you sleep well,Titus?"
In his anger and frustration he withdrew his gladius from its sheath and pointing it at Gauis said," Stop your talk and help me or you will not watch again through those eyes. Accipitor stopped and breaking out in laughter looked at Titus with those eyes again, taunting him. Titus had enough and raising his sword moved to end this torment..........
About to bring down his sword he felt the soft touch of a hand wrap itself around his sword held hand and a voice that whispered,"It is alright Titus we are here. We are awake. We are ALL awake. It's time for you to do so also. Come back from the dream world of the Dragon." Titus as if his sight and sound had disappeared for a moment felt the rush of the real world return to him and as he opened his eyes it revealed him kneeling over a resting Gauis Accipitor with his sword poised above his head and ready to strike except the hand of Olivia was around his and lowering it.
Her voice whispering in his ear,"It is past,Titus. You are awake and among friends again."
Titus lowered his sword and felt the softness of Olivia's cool hand on his face as it brushed and cooled the rage that had been drawn from him in his dream. He looked at the smiling face slightly covered with a smudge of mud and smiled back at her saying,"I'm alright now. Thank you." he brought his hand to Olivia's face and wiped away the smudge gently. Turning to see the others looking at him with concern, he was about to put their minds at ease when Accipitor, who never really sleeps but seemed to have broke his thought concentration turned to Titus and asked, "Ah, Titus! Did you sleep well?"
Titus didn't answer but just smiled as did the others.
[This message has been edited by Micah Aragorn (edited 03-26-2003 @ 01:22 PM).]
They agreed almost without speaking about it. They would stay there for the next few hours and find what they could to eat, either from the meager supplies in their packs, or somewhere within the Forbidden City. It was the boy who returned with a basket of rice cakes and handed them out with little or no explanation about where they were found.
Accipiter studied the rice cakes a moment then reached across and more violently than was common grasped Sin Ying's wrist just as she was about to bite into the rice cake. "NO!" cried out Accipiter. "Do not eat these! They are poisoned!" Fortunately, none except Sin Ying had decided at that moment to eat the rice cakes. The horror of what might have befallen them sank home. It especially disturbed Accipiter for he knew of all of his myriad gifts, powers and abilities, curing a victim of poison was not one among them.
Accipiter spun on his heels and confronted the boy. "Why have you brought these to us?"
The boy looked blankly at Accipiter and then burst into tears. "I... I didn't know, Master Gaius... I thought only of them as food, not poison." The boy cried unconsolably, then violently cast the few rice cakes in his basket onto the ground at the side of a building. He came back still sniffling. "I saw them inside a nearby building. I didn't know. I'm... I'm sorry... Everyone... I'm sorry." He turned his back and walked a distance away.
Civis called to him. "Rong Ming, return. It was a mistake. You couldn't have known." The others echoed Civis. The blank look on Rong Ming's face returned, the barest hint of a smile turning up at the corners of his lips. The boy, his back still turned to them, nodded to signal he heard. Then he turned around and took a place on the ground nearby, but not particularly close to the others. There he sat, his thoughts kept entirely to himself.
The door burst open and an exceedingly unhappy Fu Hachu burst into the room startling Xia Deng from her reverie. The minister stood in the center of the room, his hands buried deeply in the exagerated sleeves of his silk robe. "Cursed foreigners!" he bellowed making the walls appear to vibrate with the loudness and resonance of his voice. "Every attempt foiled!"
"Are we having a difficult time of it, Fu?" asked Xia Deng, her silky voice quintessentially papered with just the right amount of derision so as to communicate the point but not trigger wrath in return.
"Yes, very difficult... I... I mean the Black Dragon cannot quite find the right one to bend to his will. They are strong minded indeed."
"How has the general fared?" asked Xia Deng, her interest not quite what it seemed.
"How do you think? Shall I describe his current status to you? Of course, you simply must know musn't you?" Venom dripped from every one of these words. "General Wan Li will not trouble you any longer. What he used to be is now shredded and lying on the floor of the Black Dragon's lair. His lifeblood drains from his corpse and stains the claws of the Dragon and the floor on which he lies. Shall I say the Dragon was not happy to see his demons destroyed with ease?"
"I told you so," Xia Deng commented.
Fu Hachu's face seemed to swell and purple with rage. "So! You told me so! I bow to your brilliance and foresight, Fu Hachu left the chamber. With the door closed behind him he withdrew his hands from his sleeves. Despite their contact with the shiny, smooth, exquisitely embroidered material, they were still stained red, his nails more darkly stained than the rest. He left the area, dark thoughts churning in his troubled mind. Xia maintained a calm exterior, but inside she trembled. She had never seen Fu Hachu so angry, nor sensed within his words such sharp bladed daggers. Perhaps she shouldn't have said what she said. Too late. There was no retrieving her words. The Black Dragon commanded and she would have to obey. There was a consequence to disobediance on her part; but other than what happened to the General which would never happen to her, she could not remember exactly what the consequence might be. Now let's see... What should her plan be? An idea occurred to her. It seemed clever enough to work. She decided to try. Just before she left the structure and entered the streets of the Forbidden City, she took the precaution of tearing her gown in a few strategic locations just enough to convey her plight and to show just enough of herself as well. A little dirt rubbed here and there... A brief test of her feigned staggering, hurtfilled walk... Yes, she was ready; but she sincerely doubted that the intruders were ready for the real Xia Deng. ____________________________________________________________ The red eyes of the Black Dragon, suddenly reappearing before the Celestial One after a long hiatus, bore in on the young man's person with penetrating power. The Emperor in his cell steeled himself but felt his resolve thinning as the Dragon's glare continued. "You think you are winning, boy?" rumbled the Dragon, its voice causing the bars of the cell to vibrate. The husband of Sin Ying gulped, but answered forthrightly, "Yes." The Dragon's eyes reddened further and the beast inhaled as if planning to suddenly exhale and treat the boy to a blast of Dragon heat. The Dragon changed its mind and slowly let its breath out filling the room with its stench but not its heat or fire. "There have been setbacks, that is true; but minor and unworthy of concern. Even now, I plan one of my two strongest attacks. The outcome is nearly assured. You shall soon have one less wife and I shall soon have many less annoyances. It won't be necessary if you agree to my offer." "Never," said the Emperor. The Black Dragon slammed a red-stained claw on the earth of the chamber. "You refuse for nothing!" he bellowed. "Your empire, your city, your admiring subjects, all of it is false! A mirror of my power! Nothing more! What exists does so because I will it to be! Be the Emperor of the Ch'in! The Emperor of NOTHING!" The red-eyes flared and then receeded. The Dragon was gone once again. The Celestial One sat down on the makeshift sleeping cot, his legs shaking unlike never before. [This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 03-26-2003 @ 09:25 PM).]
Fu Hachu left the chamber. With the door closed behind him he withdrew his hands from his sleeves. Despite their contact with the shiny, smooth, exquisitely embroidered material, they were still stained red, his nails more darkly stained than the rest. He left the area, dark thoughts churning in his troubled mind.
Xia maintained a calm exterior, but inside she trembled. She had never seen Fu Hachu so angry, nor sensed within his words such sharp bladed daggers. Perhaps she shouldn't have said what she said. Too late. There was no retrieving her words. The Black Dragon commanded and she would have to obey. There was a consequence to disobediance on her part; but other than what happened to the General which would never happen to her, she could not remember exactly what the consequence might be. Now let's see... What should her plan be? An idea occurred to her. It seemed clever enough to work. She decided to try.
Just before she left the structure and entered the streets of the Forbidden City, she took the precaution of tearing her gown in a few strategic locations just enough to convey her plight and to show just enough of herself as well. A little dirt rubbed here and there... A brief test of her feigned staggering, hurtfilled walk... Yes, she was ready; but she sincerely doubted that the intruders were ready for the real Xia Deng.
The red eyes of the Black Dragon, suddenly reappearing before the Celestial One after a long hiatus, bore in on the young man's person with penetrating power. The Emperor in his cell steeled himself but felt his resolve thinning as the Dragon's glare continued.
"You think you are winning, boy?" rumbled the Dragon, its voice causing the bars of the cell to vibrate.
The husband of Sin Ying gulped, but answered forthrightly, "Yes."
The Dragon's eyes reddened further and the beast inhaled as if planning to suddenly exhale and treat the boy to a blast of Dragon heat. The Dragon changed its mind and slowly let its breath out filling the room with its stench but not its heat or fire. "There have been setbacks, that is true; but minor and unworthy of concern. Even now, I plan one of my two strongest attacks. The outcome is nearly assured. You shall soon have one less wife and I shall soon have many less annoyances. It won't be necessary if you agree to my offer."
"Never," said the Emperor.
The Black Dragon slammed a red-stained claw on the earth of the chamber. "You refuse for nothing!" he bellowed. "Your empire, your city, your admiring subjects, all of it is false! A mirror of my power! Nothing more! What exists does so because I will it to be! Be the Emperor of the Ch'in! The Emperor of NOTHING!"
The red-eyes flared and then receeded. The Dragon was gone once again. The Celestial One sat down on the makeshift sleeping cot, his legs shaking unlike never before.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 03-26-2003 @ 09:25 PM).]
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