As it is written: “At Winter Solstice within the Year of the Scarlet Witch wise men shall gather to stand between Darkness and Light.”
20 Nightal, 1491 DR, Winter Solstice
The monks entered the cave and started to investigate. They found it half filled with two pools of water. A narrow flow high in the eastern wall feeds the pool, which drains out the western end of the chamber to form the stream that flows out of the cave mouth below through a small fissure. Small indentations in the stone floor serve as natural containers holding the water in. The sound of the flowing waterfall echoes through the cavern, creating a pleasant echo that resembles a melody. The air was fresh and pure perfumed by the bloom of plant life.
All around them was thick, green peat moss, on the walls and ceiling. It seemed to resembled a hardy underground garden filed with all sorts of edible fare. The cave was dotted with growths of amaranth, mushrooms, asparagus, burdock, cattail, thistle, clover, and chicory.
Shensheng investigated the water first. He noticed that it was spring water, flowing clean and fresh. Sampling it carefully, he found that it was refreshing and cool. He decided that it must be flowing up from a nearby aquifer. He pricked his finger, placing the wound under the flow of water steadily cascading down the cave wall. He noted that it did not seem to have any healing properties.
Jet-Lee stood just outside the cave, glancing around and keeping watch. He had no true want to enter the cave at this point. He could only assume that it contained the lair of some monster that they would be expected to destroy. He crossed his arms, and leaned against the cool stone, allowing his new allies to do the exploring for him.
Zhang began sampling the mushrooms dotting the cave, gathering several of them for additions to his recipes. He took several samples of the thick moss, adding it to his healing kit. He knew this moss was called Sphagnum and had been used for centuries as a dressing for wounds. Since it is absorptive and extremely acidic, it inhibits growth of bacteria and fungi.
Lough knelt next to the pools of water. He noticed that the bottoms of the pools were etched with strange symbols that he identified as Druidic ogham. These runes spelled out the exact prophecy that was apparently being fulfilled tonight:
I see them, but not now;
I behold them, but not near;
A voice shall come at Winter Solstice;
A Scepter shall rise out of the Darkness,
And batter the brow of Evil,
And be the catalyst of Light’s return.
All the while, Tayming remained at the cave’s mouth. His interest was with the lifeforms that made their homes in the cave. He noticed the usual crickets and snails that would be expected to be in such a vibrant environment. But he did take note of the nests of swiftlets, small birds that create edible nests. These nests are often collected in the Eastern nations of Kara-Tur for use in soups, spices, and aphrodisiacs.
But then suddenly a man’s scream cut through the night air. The intensity of the scream unsettled the monks momentarily. It was the cry of a dying man, desperate and primal.
“Help me,” shouted the voice. “They’re going to kill me!”
The young man ran through the dark forest, clutching his cold, numb arm to his heaving chest. He moved as quickly as he could, stumbling as he fled. He shouted loudly again for help, begging for assistance from anyone that might hear him. He knew this forest was sacred to the Fey. Maybe, just maybe, one of them would come to his aid.
He was small for his age with almond skin and pale blue eyes. His head was shaved bald as was the tradition of his Order, and a large tattoo covered his forehead. He was wearing a yellow traveling cloak over his baggy orange keikogi shirt and dark brown pants. He was covered in wounds and his clothing was smeared with dark red blood.
“Help me!” he shouted again, stumbling through the underbrush and leaning for a moment on a oak tree. He was out of breath, gulping for air like a drowning man. He wheezed, trying to find focus by gripping the rough bark of the oak. Glancing back, he saw them moving effortlessly through the mass of thickets and trees, six dark figures that intended to steal his very soul.
When he had started on his journey from the Dessarin Valley several days before, he hadn’t realized that it would end this way. He had been summoned by some force that drew him towards the High Forest like a magnet to iron. He had followed the Long Road, cutting through the countryside as the shortest and best route to the High Forest. Everything had gone well during the trip … until tonight.
He had reached High Forest just after nightfall. He noticed the bright shining star that filled the otherwise empty night sky and knew beyond reason and logic that it hovered over his final destination. He had followed the star through the Fey forest, searching after it like a sailor does a lighthouse in a storm.
He didn’t fully understand why they had started hunting him other than they claimed he had trespassed on their holy place. He hadn’t done it on purpose. He respected all places of worship for all beings. They had wailed and cried after him, claiming that he had committed some unforgivable sin. They kept shouting about “The Forbidden Grove” as they chased him, swearing to their dark deities to sacrifice him and eat his soul. Every time they caught up to him, they would hiss and snarl at him, launching bolts from their hand crossbows. His body was bleeding from multiple wounds inflicted by their aim. He could feel the poison coursing through his veins but knew that it would have no effect on his due to his Ki. Poison as well as disease no longer afflicted him.
As he ran, he finally reached the place where the star was leading him. He saw a small grove of tress and inside if it stood five men that he somehow understood where monks like himself. He dashed through the clawing, tangled tree branches and burst into the grove. Exhausted, like a rabbit finally reaching its hole with the fox on its heels, the young man shouted for help one last time and collapsed to the cold earth.
The flap of wings could be heard above. In these days, the appearance of dragons was common but they generally flew high in the air not at the treetops. The four monks looked to the night sky to glimpse the shape of a large wyvern. It soared past at amazing speed, disappearing into the darkness.
Lough and Zhang took to the treetops, launching themselves up in gravity defying leaps. Zhang watched as Lough tracked the wyvern, calculating when would be the precise time to act. As the winged beast swerved and glided into a return path towards the two tree-topped monks, Lough tapped into his powers over the shadows, and Shadow Stepped to just above the wyvern. He teleported with a burst of mist and smoke above the creäture, and dropped on top of it, grappling with practiced movements to restrain the monster.
It howled in anger, twisting this way and that in mid-flight trying to shake the monk loose. Lough held on for dear life, realizing that he had miscalculated his ability to wrestle with the wyvern. He conceded in his mind that it had not been his master’s intent that such a Kata be used within this situation. However, Lough was known for using his knowledge eccentrically. The anatomy was the same. He simply needed to improvise.
Zhang responded by leaping to another nearby treetop, and leaping into the air to attack with monster with a relentless series of lightning-quick punches and kicks. He felt the strikes land solidly on the wyvern’s scaling skin, hearing the satisfied crunch of bone and cartilage. The monster cawed louder, hissing with rage.
Lough used the opportunity to adjust and take hold of the wyvern’s neck in a solid grip. His grapple was successful this time, and the creature’s eyes grew wide as it’s air was choked off. Zhang noticed that Lough was smiling as he and the monster dropped from the sky into the woods with all of the grace of a block of granite.
The six figured walked into the small grove without hesitation. Shensheng and Taming called out to them, warning them off and giving them the opportunity to retreat. The robed figure in the center called out to them with a stern voice. It was a woman’s voice, purring with the sultry undertones of lust. Jet-Lee twirled his rokushakubō staff in the air, pointing it menacingly at the six dark strangers.
“This one is ours,” she said bluntly. “He has something that we desire. He is ours!”
As the dead wyvern plowed into the dirt to their right, Zhang glided to the ground and fell into a defensive stance. Lough landed not far away, crouching down as he landed. They stood between the other two monks and the six robed figures. And then for just a moment, nobody moved. They were painfully still, each group assessing the intentions of the other.
Tayming moved first, rushing to the side of the fallen monk. He saw that he was wounded, and turned him over, quickly patting him down. Finding nothing, he frowned. Tayming had hoped to find whatever valuable item that the bald man was carrying with him. And then he touched the fallen monk’s arm … and gasped. It was solid stone … petrified.
Shensheng clenched his fists, calling forth his ki to create a Sun Shield. Monks of the Way of the Sun Soul learn to channel their own life energy into searing bolts of light. They teach that meditation can unlock the ability to unleash the indomitable light shed by the soul of every living creature. As he stepped towards the robed figures, he was suddenly wreathed in a luminous aura that glimmered brightly within thirty feet of him, and continued to extend outward an equal distance with dimmer light.
The six robed adversaries hissed and shielded their eyes against the sudden light. In a world of constant twilight, it was unexpected to have such radiance suddenly appear. The six of them seemed to move as one, each flinching and shielding their eyes. They stopped their approach, two of them moving their dark red robes to show that they held small hand crossbows. Their movements also revealed shimmering skin the color of opal, and the sensual curves of female flesh, barely covered by thin black fabric.
Jet-Lee ran forward, launching into a jump and seemingly floating through the air. The landed in a crouch, and started to batter one of the robed figures with amazingly accurate strikes with his staff. The woman fell backwards, firing her crossbow wildly and missing.
Tayming remained crouched down by the fallen monk, a puzzled look on his face. Lough glanced at the Long Death monk for a moment, and then Shadow Stepped again, teleporting to directly behind one of the robed figures. Shensheng and Zhang moved as one, lunging forward and attacking the women with amazing speed. Zhang’s last strike was a very skillful elbow strike to his opponent’s chin, causing her to reel backwards and throwing her hood back away from her beautiful face … framed with a mass of hissing, snapping snakes.
“Medusae!’ shouted Shensheng. “They’re all Medusae! Don’t look into their eyes!”
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