Part XXI: The Temple
Weak light seeped through cracks in the stone above them. Snow and Ya Zhen stood at the dusty bottom of an old well, the cylindrical shape curling upwards into a cone some twenty feet above. Raising the Dire Flame in her hand revealed a base that could comfortably fit nine or ten men, shoulder to shoulder, but as the walls narrowed, the stonework condensed into a three foot opening at the top. Her light barely outlined the large slab covering the well's mouth.
The well had long since dried up, eliminating slippery handholds, but it would still be a climb, cramming fingers into narrow gaps in the stonework, body at the mercy of the strength of mere fingertips, and most importantly - there was the stone slab. She could blast it with a good fireball, but that would alert the Lotus Assassins to their presence, and it would be all too easy to pick them off like fish in a barrel at the bottom of the well. If she waited until she was near the top, however, she wouldn't be able to position herself to use the attack "I hope this is where you spring your devious trap," she said to Ya Zhen, "It would save me the trouble of a climb."
"Not yet," said the demon-girl absentmindedly. Her serpent's tongue circled her lips, and the sussurration echoed in the chamber. "You haven't even gotten me the gem, yet. Siding with you is still the most advantageous move at this time." Snow didn't like the way Wildflower's ruby eyes gleamed in the dark.
"Suggestions for removing that slab, then?"
"I would say stand about five feet back."
Snow nodded and backed away. She understood the rough shape of the plan. The demon wasn't telling her the full story, but there was no time for lengthy interrogations. This alternate version of Ya Zhen had had five more years to roam the earth as his playground than the Ya Zhen she had known, but they traveled together long enough for her to know that there was more ambition in the toad demon than there were clouds in the sky. He was after more than just the jewel. But it was not yet time. Snow retreated with the light into the tunnel that had once led water into the sacred temple of the Water Dragon, and in the shadows, Ya Zhen's form began to grow.
A dark red aura gathered about the girl, rising like vapors from the earth. As Wildflower inhaled, the streams of energy entered into her body and began expanding. Wildflower's torso bulged, her neck seemed to sink into her collar and her arms flattened and lengthened to thrice their original size. In another red burst, the toad demon shed his human shape and in one mighty leap rocketed skywards towards the blocked opening; the large, distended toad body scraped against the stonework of the well and collided with the slab, smashing through it with the force of an entire team of oxen. From the surface it seemed as if a giant beast had exploded into the moonlight air amidst a cloud of rubble and snow. Red eyes gleamed and the scent of iron colored the air. The Lotus Assassins on guard opened their mouths to give a shout of surprise, but quickly deteriorated into lengthy screams. There was smoke in the night sky, and the hall resounded with the sound of talons clashing against swords as the toad demon charged. Ya Zhen grinned to himself, stretching muscles too long confined, rejoicing in the exertion of battle.
In two bounds, Snow catapulted herself up the side of the stone walls, using the ricochet impact as her feet touched the sides to boost her ascent. She came up fighting, fists flashing into black armor she and Ya Zhen cleared the rubble of the well beneath the Temple and forced their way up the stone steps. "Stone Immortal!" Snow cried, and with practiced ease sent a hail of rocks hurtling at the oncoming guards, scattering their ranks. A few stray rocks shattered again glass globes set around the central altar. The little lights exploded with a sickly green and yellow sparkle. She dodged around a heavyset Lotus Assassin while Ya Zhen's large, talons came crashing down on his head. Warm liquid hit her sides. She focused on the lights, her precise shots sending small storms of rocks at each globe until the world was lit only in the shadow of moonlight. Lotus Assassins fought as well as any man in the dark, but the Imperial guards stumbled audibly over each other, striking wildly, and Snow helped a few along their way directly into the blow of the Lotus Assassins' green hands. Ya Zhen would have no trouble finding his targets, and she was already navigating through her enemies by focusing on their auras. She struck right and left, forcing a path to the altar before her.
Three Lotus Assasins converged before her, brandishing their weapons. The one in the center and the two flanking her sides moved in perfect balance using a weapon stance she didn't recognize. Their whirring blades forced her a step back. In the dimness, she saw only a glint of the metal and relied heavily on the aura of their hands to doge. Snow started a bit as her back hit against the wall. Too far. She took a deep breath and tried to relax as she allowed them to approach, waiting for the right moment. Feeling the rough bricks beneath her fingers, she hugged the wall as the assassin in the center came rushing at her, his blade spinning forward like a drill. She sprang, twisting midair as the assassin on her right let loose with a volley of hidden darts. Her vertical leap took her upwards beyond the weapons, and her feet kicked sideways against the wall, sending her into the open area beyond the trio of Assassins. She clipped the last assassin's shoulder as she landed, the force of her entire weight crashing on him even as she turned around again and sent stone blades from her hand into the throats of her two standing attackers.
From the edge of the altar, she sensed a new aura emerge from the shadows, followed by a deeper darkness; the emptiness of a presence that had no soul.
More Lotus Assassins surged in through the doorway to the lower courtyard. Aware of a new danger, but with no time to study it, Snow kicked, boosting the attack with a surge of chi energy as she brought her leg around. The kick gouged a hole in the temple rock and sent pebbles flying. Before the loose masonry could hit the floor her hand shot out and, guiding the projectiles with her chi, she sent the rocks pummeling towards the new opponents with the force of the Stone Immortal move known as "Immortal Descends from the Mountains."
The dark figure moved, slow as if it walked through water, and yet somehow fast enough to intercept Snow's powerful attack. To her surprise, the rock projectiles clattered harmlessly to the ground as they reached the figure, it didn't appear to notice.
"What is that?" Snow yelled to Ya Zhen as the figure approached. The demon made no reply as it hurtled itself into the center of a group of Lotus Assassins, pushing them out into the balcony, roaring as he went. Without guidance, Snow dropped into a Heavenly Wave stance, unsure of the newcomer's abilities.
The figure was large, hooded, and moved with an animal ferocity. It glided into the center of the temple stones, and the Assassins stopped their attacks as it passed, reverently standing aside. The cloak swirled with a life almost of its own.
"Who are you?" Snow demanded directly, unnerved that she could sense no aura to the being. Even the dead had souls. The figure did not respond. "Where is he?" she asked, although she did not expect a reply.
The figure raised a hand. Snow tensed, ready for a blow. But instead it merely pulled back its hood revealing a black lacquered mask contorted in an eternal scowl.
"Death's Hand," she hissed, and immediately shifted into a Tiger's Claw stance.
The figure shook its head, a shrill echoing, laugh resonating from its mouthpiece. It bowed to Snow, almost comically, and as it rose, placed both hands on its head and removed the mask.