Prologue -- Underground

From the Story Arc: The Touch of the Orchid Phoenix (mature readers only)

Next Story in the Arc: Investigation, Part One by People's Blade (Saturday, October 23, 2004)

(posted Friday, October 22, 2004)


The Death Moon choked on his own blood in Yu Bao’s arms. The jagged Circle of Thorns crossbow bolt had ripped his throat open. The pain in their leader’s eyes was a final mix of fear and shame. Yu Bao said a quick prayer to ease his suffering as he died.

“Bu hen hao,” Tiger’s Eye commented with typical sarcasm. That’s not good. Yu Bao once told him he’d die with a wisecrack on his lips. He regretted now how high the odds were that he’d be present on the occasion.

Three days of searching Perez Park by their small team had led them to the door hidden behind a boulder. When Yu Buo noticed the mosquitos fleeing his bare arms, he knew they’d found the entrance to the underground city of the Circle of Thorns. One could smell the magic over the scent of pine and soil.

“Should we report back?” Tiger’s Eye asked. “Return with a strike force?”

The Death Moon shook his head. “We seize this opportunity. A small force moves quietly through grass where an army tramples it down.” Hooded eyes took their measure. “Are you afraid?”

Tiger’s Eye responded with a barked laugh and a brazen push against the door. It creaked open.

“Into the valley of death,” he quipped. The Death Moon missed the reference. It was Western literature, after all.

The three Tsoo warriors spent a full day wandering the torchlit tunnels of Orenbaga. Their training in stealth served them well, and the dim cave offered ample shadows for hiding. Cultists passed beneath them, murmuring in vile tongues. A near miss came courtesy of a horned demon with an eight foot sword and active nose. Yu Bao thought they were done for, but the demon burped and wandered off.

Tiger’s Eye, true to his name, spotted the lamplight first. “There…it’s not torchlight. Could it be our library at last?”

It was, and just as their “informant” had described before dying. A high vaulted chamber, large and spacious, with tables and benches scattered through the room. Oil lamps cast a steady, grim light from the center of each table. There were few shelves against the walls, giving the Death Moon pause.

“This looks too small,” he said, directing them to either side of the room. “But look, there is the tapestry of the sacrifice. This must be correct.”

The scrolls they sought were stored in an ornate green metal box. After endless hours in the dank cave, their final search took but a few minutes. The Death Moon set the box on a table and opened it slowly. Inside, unremarkable, were ten aging scrolls, arranged to show their seals clearly.

The character for “immortality” was evident on each scroll.

Even wry Tiger’s Eye was speechless.

Yu Bao broke the silence. “It’s true…it’s true!” He grinned at Tiger’s Eye, who grinned back.

Even the Death Moon allowed himself a smile. “And the reward is ours. Zuo Kan will make us immortal!”

“I’m not sure I can stand you for that long,” said Tiger’s Eye. They all chuckled.

Now clever Tiger’s Eye stood guard as Yu Bao arranged the Death Moon’s still form. A day in, two days out and still lost…and now without their most able warrior. It was sheer luck up to this point that the Circle of Thorns cultists had not discovered the theft. But the Death Moon’s sniper escaped after the single, well-placed shot. Yu Bao guessed that they had five minutes before the alarm was sounded.

“We’re in for it now, we’re doomed.” Tiger’s Eye gripped his sword with white knuckles.

He was right, they had no hope against a city full of demons and mad cultists. Stealth was their only ally and it was lost to them. The mages were surely casting location spells at this very moment.

Yu Bao breathed deeply and accepted his fate. A calm descended over him, even as Tiger’s Eye fretted more and more. He recalled childhood memories, his mother’s dumplings, his first girlfriend and their erotic explorations. He had lived a short but eventful life. When the cultists came, he would make a good account of himself.

Then he heard it: a small sound, interjected between Tiger’s Eye’s cursing. It was a birdcall.

The sound came from directly above him. There, in the ceiling, fifty feet above, a patch of dim light…an opening to the surface. To reach it would require difficult climbing, uninterrupted by fireballs and crossbows.

Yu Bao knew what he had to do for Zuo Kan’s reward. It was regrettable, but necessary. He stood and adjusted the straps holding the box to his back.

“Brother,” he said. “I see daylight!”

Tiger’s Eye spun. “Where? Where?”

Yu Bao pointed to Tiger’s Eye’s doom. My finger is my most lethal weapon, he mused.

“Down that hall. I will follow you.”

Demons began to wail in the city of Orenbaga.