Kai Shek was making his way through the thick underbrush when he thought he spotted another form walking amongst the bushes. The figure was covered from head to toe in a red robe, the hood pulled over its head. It walked along as if it feared nothing, and the Samurai allowed himself a mental grin. 'Now's my chance to rid myself of at least one rival,' he said to himself, silently drawing his katana. Leaping onto a sturdy tree branch, Kai Shek waited until the red-robed figure was directly below him, then dropped onto it, bringing his katana down in one powerful strike. His enemy would never know what hit him; the attack came so quick. But as soon as his weapon connected with the cloth, the robe fell to the ground, completely formless. It was as if no one had ever been inside it. "By my ancestors, what magick is this?"
"Sorry Kai Shek, but you'll have to be a lot faster to catch us," a taunting voice called. It seemed to come from everywhere around him, a whisper and a shout at the same time. Kai Shek shook his head as the words tickled his ear, and he pointed his katana at the ever-darkening forest.
"Show yourself!" And now shadows descended from the trees, surrounding the Samurai. They resembled men in form, all wearing robes with hoods hiding their faces.
"Think you can take on all of us?" the mysterious voice wondered. Kai Shek waited not a second more, but charged at the nearest shadow, slicing at it with his katana. The metal connected with the dark mass, but instead of blood, a black mist seeped out of the two halves of the shadow.
"Tricks and illusions! Are you all Ninja?"
"We're far worse than any Ninjas, Knights, or Amazons you will encounter, Kai Shek. Come further, and face your worst fears." As quickly as it had come, the voice faded into nothingness. The multitude of shadows began laughing, and then they disappeared one by one. Kai Shek shook his head to clear it, and then sheathed his katana.
"They will pay for making a fool of me," he vowed, plunging once again into the thick forest. But he gone no more than a few steps before he heard the unmistakable whizzing sound of a throwing star. Throwing himself to the ground, Kai Shek barely avoided the five-pointed weapon as it slammed into a nearby tree.
"My compliments, Samurai. You are as fast as the stories say." The red-robed figure was standing a mere five feet away, and Kai Shek leapt and crossed that distance in one breath's time. But the mysterious figure saw him coming and bolted, the sounds of condescending laughter reaching the dark-haired man's ears. "Come put your speed to the test!" Instead of shouting a retort, Kai Shek race after him, his footsteps crunching the dead leaves that whipped past him as he ran. Amid the twisting and turning of trails, he began to wonder just where his enemy was running. Surely there couldn't be many more of his kind here. Except for the Ninja girl that had come over on the ship with the other warriors. And now Kai Shek glimpsed a dark hole in front of him, and as he approached, realized it was the entrance to a cave. The stranger plunged into the darkness without a second thought, and Kai Shek followed his lead, katana drawn and senses attuned for a sneak attack. But no attack came, and as he ran further and further into the dark recesses, a notion that he was lost crept into his head.
'Nonsense. If I find myself going too far, I can simply turn back,' he convinced himself. Another few minutes passed, and then he saw a much welcome sight: Light. The light intensified until Kai Shek found himself standing at the entrance to a grand cavern. He waited there for a moment, catching his breath and looking around to see where his enemy had gone.
Zun Li had barely begun her exploration of the island when she heard a pair of voices deep in conversation. 'My, my, how careless of those others to make themselves such easy targets,' she thought to herself, silently scaling a tree and taking a five-pointed throwing star from her bag. Gazing down into the clearing below, the Ninja saw two black-robed figures talking in hushed voices. Hoods covered their heads, and all Zun Li could see was darkness where their faces should've been.
"They have arrived at last, and the master wants us to prepare a special welcome for them," one of the figures said, bass voice reverberating among the trees. The smaller figured nodded, clasping its long sleeves in front of it like an obedient child.
"One of them possesses power, so I have heard," the small voice reported, the timbre that of a young boy. Zun Li paused to listen a bit more.
"Bah, no power is a match for ours. You will do well to learn that."
"Yes teacher," the small one replied, bowing to the supposedly older man. Suddenly he looked up into the trees, and Zun Li swore she felt accusing eyes staring at her. "Teacher, we have a spy."
"Then let us make haste." The robed people turned to leave, but Zun Li landed in front of them, both sais drawn and pointed at the strangers.
"Not so fast. First you're going to tell me where to find the weapon of legend," she ordered. Both figures chuckled softly.
"Come and claim it at the Cave of Secrets, if you feel up to the challenge. You might even see some old friends there," the older one informed her. With that, both strangers disappeared in a cloud of black smoke that had sprung up from nowhere. Coughing, Zun Li returned to the safety of the shadowy trees.
"The Cave of Secrets they said? It shall not be too difficult to find, and then those two shall pay. I will not be made a fool of twice," she vowed. Suddenly the Ninja sensed a presence directly above her, and narrowly avoided a kick from one of the robed people. It looked like the smaller of the two, and Zun Li drew her sais and glared at him.
"If you wish to find the cave, then follow me," he ordered.
"I do not take orders from robed pipsqueaks." Though the hood remained in place, once again Zun Li felt angry, accusing eyes staring at her. This strange child was beginning to make her nervous.
"Do as you're told or die, Ninja scum!" he shouted, drawing a katana from mid-air it seemed. He then flipped over her head and hit the ground running. Zun Li wasted not a second more, giving chase as fast as she could. The boy ran faster than she'd thought he could, but she powered up her legs to try and decrease the distance between them. Through the twists and turns of the forest they ran, and she was starting to wonder where exactly this cave was. If he led her to a dead end now, she would never be able to find her way back to any of the main trails.
"Are you leading me to the cave, or into a trap?" she called up.
"I will leave that up to you!" Now he seemed to increase his speed even more, and dashed into the dark mouth of a cave that seemed to simply appear in front of them. Wasting not a moment, Zun Li put her daggers into her sash and raced after the boy, plunging into the darkness without a second thought. But as she ran blindly through the inky darkness, thoughts of a light source did make their way into her mind.
'I should not have run blindly into here,' she chastised herself. 'I am as blind as a swallow in the night.' The footsteps of her quarry were the only thing that convinced her she was going to right way. And then up ahead, Zun Li saw a trickle of light. The trickle expanded until she saw the silhouette of the boy running out of the tunnel and into what appeared to be a large cavern. Sunlight flooded the tunnel as she drew her sais, and stepped into a cavern that had a large opening in the roof. That was where the sunlight was coming from. As the Ninja looked around, she no longer saw her quarry, but saw instead the Samurai as he emerged from another tunnel.
Minsarra was setting up camp in the rays of the mid-afternoon sun when she heard leaves crunching all around her. Picking up her staff, she leapt into the nearest tree to see if she could spot the intruders. Sure enough, a pair of blue-robed figures waltzed into the clearing she had found, the hoods of their robes pulled up over their heads so she couldn't see their faces. 'They don't look like warriors,' she said to herself, taking up a fresh grip on her staff. When the strangers were directly below her, she jumped down at them, swinging her staff. But to her surprise, the weapon seemed to pass right through the figures!
"Very good, Minsarra. You have trained well," the taller of the two praised, alto voice sounding oddly familiar to her. The smaller figure was in a defensive crouch, and the Amazon thought she sensed anger from it.
"Who are you? Why are you here?"
"We're here to guide you to the weapon, that's all," the robed woman said, her face still an eerie wall of darkness. "After all, don't you feel it's your destiny to claim it?"
"Of course it is. Now where is it?"
"In the Cave of Secrets, which lies in the direct center of this island. But be careful, there are many traps and tricks there."
"You will probably fail," the small figure stated, standing up straight. Her voice was of a slightly higher pitch than the older woman's, and sounded as if it belonged to a young girl.
"We'll just see about that. Show me this cave." But the two figures merely shook their heads and leapt into the thick leaves of a tall tree. They moved with a speed that Minsarra had only seen on the battlefield. A speed that implied danger was coming. The Amazons were masters of quick concealment, but these strangers appeared to be even better. For all practical purposes, they seemed to have melded with the forest itself.
"Come to the cave and fulfill your destiny, Amazon," Minsarra heard as she looked around in slight amazement.
"What odd women. But I will not fail in facing my destiny. That weapon will be mine." She headed off again after quickly collecting her things. She thought she saw the two women leaping from tree to tree, walking on the branches as easily as she walked along the ground.
"Keeping up with us? I am impressed," the older one said. Now Minsarra broke into a jog, staying even with her "guides" as she wove in and out of twisting paths and thick underbrush.
"We're not so hard to follow, but it takes more than speed to find the weapon," the younger one stated. The Amazon was beginning to dislike this egotistical brat. What right did she have to tell Minsarra what she would have to do? The weapon would be hers no matter the cost. Suddenly a cave appeared before the runners, and Minsarra immediately halted. The two women leapt gracefully from the trees and landed on the hard-packed earth with little more than a soft grunt.
"In there?" the redhead asked her faceless allies. They nodded, then walked into the darkness of the cave. It seemed to swallow them up, and Minsarra took a deep breath before striking her flint and lighting a small torch in her pack. "I hate caves," she whispered to herself. She followed the dark tunnel for a while, her eyes not detecting any other passageways. Finally though, she saw a glimmer of light up ahead, and breathed a sigh of relief. The glimmer turned out to be a large clearing, which might have been the central cavern. Holding her quarterstaff at the ready and extinguishing her torch, Minsarra looked around to try and find her mysterious "guides". Though she saw no sign of them, what she did see brought a smile to her lips. Making their way out of two other tunnels were the Samurai and the Ninja, their weapons out and ready for a fight.
Derek sensed that something was watching his small group, and whispered to Goldflame: "How long have we been watched?" The palomino was momentarily surprised, but then remembered that he and Derek shared a special link that allowed them to sense the other's emotions and thoughts. It was part of the bonding that each Star Knight went through in order to secure a trustworthy mount of his own.
"I'd say as soon as we stepped off the boat. But I still can't see them, and the stars know I've tried," he whispered back.
'Are you talking about that strange scent that's been following us since the beach?' Spirit Walker broke in to Goldflame's thoughts.
"Wait, have you all noticed that we're being followed?" Thareni turned and nodded her head, and Frel'dom echoed the gesture.
"Did you think you were the only one with fine-tuned senses, my hoofed friend?" the Barbarian questioned. Goldflame seemed to blush, and Derek patted his steed and smiled.
"We're not used to other people paying attention to their surroundings. The other Star Knights are so confident that no one can touch them, that they rarely think twice before charging ahead," he explained.
"You sound as if you've never done something that stupid," Thareni retorted, stopping for a moment. Now it was Derek's turn to blush.
"Truth is, I was that stupid. And it almost cost Goldflame his life."
"Hey, I was the loyal steed. I should've watched where I was going."
"What happened?" Frel'dom asked, leaning against a tree to listen. Thareni and Spirit Walker also seemed eager to hear this small tale, and Derek sighed before continuing.
"I had just recently been knighted, and my unit was assigned to patrol one of our western borders. I thought I saw something sneaking into a bush on the outskirts of a forest, so Goldflame and I went to check it out. The others said they would ride to a nearby meadow for some rest. Well, when I got to where the thing had disappeared, I didn't see anything no matter how hard I searched the underbrush. That was when I heard the explosions."
'Explosions?' Spirit Walker asked.
"Our main enemy is the Kingdom of the Waves. They have perfected the use of black powder to make explosives," Goldflame told her.
"And they use it against us quite liberally," Derek added.
"Did you ride towards the explosions?" Thareni asked, urging him to continue the story. She had always loved both tales of bravery, and tales of stupidity, because both served to educate.
"Not only did we ride towards them, we charged towards them. By the time I got to the meadow, all I could see was smoke and debris. Then I heard shouting and the metallic clang of swords. So I drew my sword and spurred Goldflame into a charge…" His voice dropped off there as his hands curled into fists. Goldflame nuzzled his companion, eyes large as he coaxed Derek into finishing the story. "The moment we stepped onto the field I saw holes in the ground, like something had forced its way out of the earth. The next thing I knew there was this loud bang, and I was flying through the air. When I looked back I saw Goldflame on the ground, covered in blood and burns. He'd stepped on an explosive buried in the ground, and it had nearly taken his back legs off." Derek bit his lip as the memories came flooding back. Goldflame had been taken back to the castle for treatment, but the healers there had not been hopeful of his recovery. Even Derek's commander had suggested he find a new mount and put Goldflame out of his misery. But the stubborn young man with the purple eyes had refused to let them kill his friend, and had worked to get the palomino back to the way he had been before the accident.
"But Derek, how were you to know there were buried explosives?" Thareni tried to console him. "You were young and impetuous. It happens."
"My foolishness almost killed Goldflame! A friend I had come to trust and depend on." A heavy hand rested on the Knight's shoulder, and he looked up to see Frel'dom with a grave expression on his face.
"And how many of those mounts were put down because their companions were only concerned with having a horse to ride?" The seriousness of the question was quite clear.
"Three, I believe. Three of the horses that were injured ended up being killed. Their Knights didn't want a lame mount."
"If I had been human, I would've shown them "lame"," Goldflame snorted in disgust. Though his breed had long been kept by the Kingdom of the Stars, most of the Knights there were so pompous it made him sick.
"Well spoken for an equine," a tenor voice broke into the conversation. Immediately they all backed into a circle, weapons drawn. Spirit Walker snarled at the forest, showing off her razor-sharp teeth.
"Who's there? Show yourself!" Thareni ordered. A chuckle now reached their ears, but no one else appeared before them.
"Are you all as impatient and demanding? I would've thought better of a Ranger." Thareni blushed slightly, but quickly shook her head.
"Who are you?" Frel'dom asked as politely as circumstances allowed.
"You may think of me as a guide. Follow my voice, and you will find the first part of your adventure waiting for you."
"First part?" Derek asked warily.
"What do you think we should do?" Goldflame asked the warriors.
"We can always follow with our weapons drawn," Thareni suggested.
'That way we can fight if we have to,' Spirit Walker added.
"If this "guide" knows where the Cave of Secrets is, perhaps we should chance it. After all, with Spirit Walker's ability to sense magick, she will be able to tell us if we are getting closer," Frel'dom wisely stated.
"Sounds like a plan to me," Derek agreed as they began walking in the direction of the voice. Afternoon came swiftly as they navigated the forest's twists and turns, all by following the strange voice.
"Keep walking forward. Yes, that's it. Now take the left side of the path. My, you follow directions very well. Nothing like your compatriots."
"Our what?" Derek asked.
"The other three on the island," the voice replied. "Oh, surely you didn't think we'd be leading just you three to the weapon?"
"We?" Frel'dom broke in.
"Don't worry, you'll see when we get there."
"Spirit Walker, are we going the right way?" Thareni inquired.
'The magick is getting stronger, and it is the same type I detected earlier. So I would assume we're getting closer.' Just then they broke through the trees and came upon the opening of a cave. The black maw seemed to devour any light around it, and both animals stopped short.
"Anyone got a torch? I've got flint and steel," Thareni said. Derek rummaged in the saddlebags for a moment before producing a torch. The Ranger lit the large fire-stick, and then they stepped into the pitch-blackness. The voice had faded into silence, and so the small group followed the tunnel for what seemed liked a mile or more, being careful of the sharp rocks that stuck out from the floor and walls.
"Do you suppose this is the Cave of Secrets?" Goldflame whispered.
"It would appear that way," Frel'dom replied.
"This place is creepy," Derek brought up.
'Thareni, the magick is getting stronger,' Spirit Walker told her friend, a shiver racking her body.
"I'm sure it's only a little further," Thareni assured her.
"I hope so. Then maybe we can get some answers," Derek said. Just when everyone was beginning to think the tunnel had no end, a glimmer of light appeared a few feet away. The glimmer turned into a feasible light source, and in another few minutes, the group entered a brightly-lit cavern. Everyone was awe-struck… Until they saw the other three warriors emerge from other tunnels, all with their weapons drawn and pointed at each other.
The walls of the cave were glistening with water that dripped from unseen crevices and cracks. Up ahead, sunlight shone through a hole in the ceiling, shining down on an open space ringed by a ledge of rock. Along this ledge stood robed figures, all standing still as statues. The robes ranged in color from pale yellow to pitch-black, the hoods of the robes pulled up over their owners' heads so their faces were hidden in shadows. The scene sent chills down everyone's spines. In the center of the space stood another figure, this one dressed in a white robe. The cloth seemed to reflect the light, giving the wearer an almost angelic appearance. But it too had the hood pulled over its head, and only a dark void showed where the face should be.
"Where are we?" Derek wondered aloud, shattering the silence that had enveloped the cave. Everyone still had their weapons up, glaring at the other warriors in silent agreement that questions would come first, and then there would be fighting. The figure in the center stepped back against the wall, addressing them with a voice that bounced back off the rock walls.
"You of the six kingdoms of the mainland, know this: Generations ago, a weapon of incredible power was created by us, the mages of the Eternal Temple. Our ancestors were sent for by the gods over great distances, and assembled here." The voice held a tenor pitch, and its owner sounded rather young to the gathered warriors. Thareni placed this man at no more than eighteen, though she wasn't certain he was entirely human. His voice also seemed to be the same one that had led her group here.
"Why here?" Minsarra wondered, gazing around the dank space with a look of both curiosity and disgust. She wasn't very fond of caves in the first place, and this history lesson was already starting to bore her. The Amazons liked wilderness, and being able to see the sky. If Minsarra didn't find the weapon soon, she was nervous about her body's possible reaction to prolonged exposure to closed spaces.
"Because a mighty Temple lies beneath our feet," the figure continued, his eyes traveling over all of them, assessing the warriors who had journeyed here for what they thought would be an easy treasure hunt. 'No no, my intriguing friends,' he thought to himself, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. 'You will have to earn the right to find this treasure.'
"This is the Temple of Eternity?" Thareni asked in mild shock. This cave, however large, did not seem a fitting setting for the legendary Temple of Eternity. Her people knew well the legends of the mages of this place. How they had traveled from all parts of the world when the gods called to them for help. How they had pooled their magick to create a weapon that would end the ever-growing fighting amongst the flourishing kingdoms. And finally, how the knowledge of such a weapon had pushed the mainland kingdoms into an all-out war. The war that they were still fighting to this day, and that a few of the kingdoms wanted to end.
"This cave is merely our "proving grounds", if you will. Only those strong in mind and body are permitted in the Temple proper. Each of you will have to prove their worthiness in a series of tests that we have devised. Only those who pass all the tests will be permitted to enter the Temple."
"And where is this so-called legendary weapon?" Zun Li demanded. The figure shook his head, and they all heard him laugh softly. Around them, the other robed figures were also chuckling. "Am I that amusing?"
"Such impatience I expected, Zun Li," the white-robed man said as the laughter died down immediately. The figures on the ledges returned to their statue-like state. "The weapon is kept inside the Temple, for obvious reasons. Once you enter the Temple, there will be one final test to see which of you is truly worthy to bring our treasure back to the mainland with you."
"Enough talk," Kai Shek spoke up. "When do we begin these tests of yours?" Frel'dom now looked from one robed figure to the next, and he could almost feel their eyes burning into his, the knowledge of what they would say next now coming from his mouth instead.
"If we knew when and where we would be tested, that would not be fair. The tests will come when they choose, and we must be ready at all times for anything they might try."
"Well spoken, Frel'dom," the stranger commended. "You are truly a man of his people and his gods." Then the white-robed man stepped away from the wall, and a tunnel appeared behind him as if someone had pulled away a cloth covering it. Just beyond the mouth of the tunnel was the deep green of a thick forest. A dirt path wound its way through the tall trees, disappearing into a mist that hovered a foot off the ground. "Here is where your journey truly begins. Work alone or together as you like. Just remember: Every step may be a test, and every test is another step forward or back." The six warriors stepped into the forest a bit hesitantly.
"Is that all mages are good for is riddles?" Minsarra shot back, but gasped when she looked back. Everyone turned to see what had startled the Amazon, and expressions of surprise echoed from all of them. What had once been a tunnel was now a wall of solid rock. Frel'dom inspected the impossibly smooth stone, pressing on the surface to see if there was a hidden door. But he found nothing but the coolness of the cliff wall, and turned to his traveling companions with an apologetic shrug.
"It appears we can only go forward," he told them.
"Well, isn't this just wonderful," Goldflame sighed as Derek patted the stallion's head to cheer him up.
"I don't intend to spend my time talking with the likes of you," Minsarra brought up, adjusting her pack and then pulling herself onto a low tree branch. With the grace of a cat she climbed the tree until she was lost in the leafy branches. "I'll take the high road," she whispered to herself. Zun Li turned from watching the Amazon to find that Kai Shek had disappeared.
'He moves faster that anything I have seen. But he cannot outrun me forever,' she convinced herself as she took off into the dense undergrowth, her footsteps silent even over dead leaves and twigs. Thareni looked at the small group that was left. She knew how to survive in the woods, and Spirit Walker would be her backup if anything happened. Frel'dom would keep them safe if any large predator or one of the other warriors decided to drop by unannounced. And Derek… Well, Thareni wasn't quite sure what he could do, except get himself into trouble.
"I'm still a Knight," he pointed out, startling the young Ranger out of her planning. He smiled sheepishly when she turned questioning eyes on him. "Why did you say it that way?"
"Say what which way?"
"You said "I'm still a Knight", like you were defending yourself. But I didn't say anything that would warrant such a response."
"You didn't?" Derek sounded genuinely puzzled, and Thareni shook her head. She was beginning to think there was more to Derek than she had first thought. Certainly his impressive powers of mind back on the ship were proof enough that surprises lay in store throughout their trip.
"My friends, I suggest we do not waste time," Frel'dom wisely suggested. "If we are to have any hope of reaching this Temple, we must first pass our tests. And to do that, we must take a step forward."
"I am in agreement with our large friend," Goldflame added. "And night will soon be upon us. I say we try and find a place to camp."
'Thareni and I will take point,' Spirit Walker said to him. The wolf and Ranger walked a few steps ahead of Derek and Goldflame, and Frel'dom took up the rear. He noticed that while Thareni had her sword drawn, and he kept a firm grip on his axe, Derek made no move to draw his sword. The thought that his arm was still hurting him briefly entered the Barbarian's mind, as Derek did not seem to be a complete pacifist. However, his refusal to draw arms against Minsarra was still a bit of a puzzle. There was something about the young man, an aura around him that Frel'dom could barely sense. He had power, and it was not just the momentary power he had displayed on the ship.
'I wager these mages know of his power. They seem to know more about us than we know ourselves.' Quickly shaking off the last of his worries, Frel'dom fell into step with his friends, keeping a sharp eye on the forest and the path ahead.