A/N: Big apologies, everyone. I thought I'd uploaded this before the holidays, but... yeah, not so much. REALLY sorry. :(
And while I'm making apologies, figure I may as well make this one in advance. There will be a delay on Chapter 8. I totally blame Bioware. They just had to make The Old Republic so damned addictive...
Disclaimer: Jade Empire still belongs to Bioware. Do you think they'd give it to me if I asked really nicely?
For a long moment, the trio simply stared.
The elephant demon was massive, even bigger than the ogre. It stood upright, its hulking limbs almost as large as Lienn's whole body, its two tusks each as long as one of her legs. It simply stood there, either unaware or uncaring of their presence, and though it didn't give off the sense of pure evil that the horse demons had, she certainly wouldn't want to see it angry.
"Just back away slowly," Hui murmured, tugging at Sky's arm as she inched toward the gate.
"But…" His eyes shifted to the assorted chests and he fairly whimpered in misery.
"Now," the soldier hissed. "Before it notices us."
Seeing her point, Lienn caught the thief's other arm and between the two of them they were able to tow him back out to the launch room.
The moment they released him, he rounded on Hui. "I thought you were on my side! You agreed that we should clean Gao out if we got the chance."
"I still do," Hui countered. "But there are smarter ways of going about it than throwing ourselves at an opponent we can't defeat. Gao most likely summoned the demon himself; he wouldn't risk it showing loyalty to anyone else. So what do you think is going to happen when Gao dies?"
"The spell will break?" Lienn offered.
The older woman nodded decisively. "Exactly. And most likely the elephant demon will either return to whatever plane it was summoned from or, at the very least, its compulsion to guard Gao's treasure chamber will vanish."
"Leaving us free to loot the chamber without a fight," Sky realized.
"Hopefully. And even if the demon does still insist on fighting us, we won't be any worse off than we are right now," Hui concluded, "but it's worth the risk of waiting."
Resigned, Sky nodded. "You're right. Better to avoid that fight if we can and save our strength for Gao." He paused, looking at his female companions pointedly. "But we are coming back."
"We have to come back here for the flyer anyway," Lienn pointed out. "We can spare a few minutes for you to liberate Gao's treasure."
Hui nodded agreement. "Good. Now, let's take a quick look around this room, see if we can find anything useful before we move on."
They split up, Sky opening some crates and barrels while Hui rummaged through some baskets.
Lienn wandered over to the bookstand, curious if there was anything useful. She found a book on the history of flight and some crumbling sheets of parchment that were almost illegible. They had been torn from a book – a diary by the looks of it – and while the pages were old and damaged, they appeared to have been carefully protected and kept together. Curious, she began scanning one of the passages.
…in his ravings, my husband talked of madmen with eyes of metal and a strange island in the skies. His words frightened me, but none more than when he clutched my arm, suddenly lucid. "It's the tiger," he said, fever burning in his eyes. "The tiger feeds on the stone of the cow, torn from the bovine's innards. All but the cogs are watching… waiting and active… waiting for the tiger to feed." After his recovery, my husband remembered nothing of his journeys or of his ravings, except one…
Ravings, indeed, she thought, but as she was about to put the pages back where she'd found them, she paused. There was something odd about them. They were old, but obviously cared for, almost like they were part of some important secret. Why else would such a thing be kept in this hive of thieves and miscreants? But on the other hands, if they were valuable, why would they just be lying around where anyone could take them?
Maybe I'm making too much of this, she thought. It's possible that they just haven't gotten around to throwing them out. They certainly sound like the ravings of a madman…
Of course, now she had access to a self-proclaimed madman, and it wasn't as though the papers took up much space.
Curiosity getting the better of her, she folded the sheets and tucked them into her sleeve; the ribbons around her wrist held them secure. She'd show them to Kang later and see if he could make sense of them.
Nodding decisively, she joined her friends on the other side of the room. "Find anything useful?" she asked.
"Oh yes," Sky replied, his tone dark. "Come have a look at this."
Lienn walked over and stepped close, looking over his shoulder at the stack of parchment he'd found. They appeared to be some sort of transaction records.
"According to these, the slaving operation here goes beyond Gao. The Lotus Assassins are his primary buyers," Sky explained as Hui joined them.
The soldier frowned. "Didn't Kang say the Lotus Assassins who took Li took a number of other people as well?"
Slowly, Lienn nodded. "I think he did. So the twenty or so we rescued are the ones the Assassins didn't want?"
"Or maybe they're new arrivals," Sky suggested with concern. "Either way, it begs the question: what would the Lotus Assassins need with so many slaves?"
"My first thought is to work on the Wall, but they wouldn't need a consistent supply of prisoners for that – only enough to replace the ones who had died. And unless they've taken to killing them for sport, they wouldn't need that many in their fortress…" Hui shook her head. "This is… troubling."
"Could Kang know?" Lienn asked. "I know he doesn't really seem to be all there, but he may have overheard something."
The soldier nodded agreement. "Perhaps." She glanced towards the door through which they'd entered. "I'm going to go ask him. Why don't you two see what else you can turn up."
"Actually," Sky said, "it might not be a bad idea to have Kang and Pinmei come wait at the flyer, now that the way is clear."
After a long moment, Hui agreed. "That might be best. We may have to leave this place in a hurry." With that, she headed back the way they'd come.
Sky and Lienn returned to their search but found little that would be of use. Within moments, they were interrupted by a cheerful cry of, "Daddy!" as Pinmei came racing in and nearly tackled her father.
Lienn glanced up long enough to smile, seeing Hui and Kang enter at a much more sedate pace, and then removed the top of a wicker basket to find…
"Food," she declared, pulling out a handful of buns. "And plenty of it."
"Thank goodness," Sky said, deftly catching the two buns she tossed him and offering one to his daughter. "Slowly," he admonished as Pinmei took a huge bite from the doughy roll. "If you don't eat it slowly you'll get sick." The girl nodded up at him, her cheeks filled almost to bursting.
Hui came over to inspect their find as Lienn took a bun for herself.
"Not a lot of variety," the soldier noted as she too took a bun and bit into it. "Mostly bread, a bit of dried meat, but it'll hold us for a while if need be." Nodding approvingly, she re-covered the basket and balanced it against her hip, setting it down near the flyer. "We should take it with us when we go."
Lienn nodded, then glanced toward Kang, who was puttering around his flyer. "Kang?"
"Busy busy, no time for chatty chatty," the inventor declared and proceeded to ignore her.
She glanced to Hui.
"He didn't know anything," the soldier informed her. "I don't think he notices anything that isn't related to his inventions."
Lienn shrugged. She was disappointed but not particularly surprised. "So, what now?"
Cautiously, Hui walked to the door through which the ogre had entered and looked up. "I think we're almost at the top." She looked anxiously at her companions. "We should hurry. The sky is growing lighter; I think it's nearly sunrise."
Sky nodded decisively and turned to his daughter. "Pinmei, you stay in here with Kang. You don't follow me and you don't go into that room," he pointed to the treasure chamber. "It's very dangerous in there."
"I'll be good, Daddy," she promised.
"That's my girl. We'll be back soon." He popped the last of his roll into his mouth and motioned towards the door. "Let's finish this."
The trio headed up the next set of ramps, eyes peeled for any sign of opposition. It quickly became apparent, however, that their caution was unnecessary. There was no one on the long ramp upward, and as Hui had noted, they were nearly at the top.
The early morning light was dim, but it was still easy to see that the pinnacle of the pagoda was far better appointed than the lower levels. There was an intricately-carved, red-lacquered railing that appeared as decorative as it was functional. The walls were of paneled mahogany, and even the red pillars – displayed prominently throughout the architecture of the entire complex – seemed better-carved and polished up here.
"Still no guards," Hui noted. "Do you think they're inside with Gao?"
"Would you want any of this rabble in your room while you slept?" Lienn asked rhetorically.
Sky chuckled. "A fair point. Traps then?"
"Maybe," Hui agreed. "Can you...?"
Sky nodded silently and then crept to the top of the ramp. The women watched as he cautiously slunk his way along the walkway around the structure, maintaining a careful distance from the walls. He briefly disappeared around the back, only to reappear on the far side moments later.
He stepped close to a section of paneling directly opposite the ramp, inspecting it while taking care not to actually touch it, then beckoned his companions to join him.
"This is the door," he murmured quietly as they approached. "These four panels fold inward to create an entrance. They're not locked, and I can't see any traps."
Hui frowned. "No guards, no traps, not even a lock on the door… Either Gao has put the fear of the gods themselves into his followers or he's arrogant beyond all measure," she muttered.
"Or possibly both," Sky agreed.
"If we're careful, and very quiet, we might be able to avoid a fight," the soldier murmured.
"I'll do it," Sky offered. "I have the best chance of getting through the room without waking him – there could be traps on the other side."
Lienn realized what they meant just as Hui was nodding her agreement. "Wait, you mean to just kill him in his bed? We're not even going to give him a chance to defend himself?"
Hui and Sky exchanged a perplexed glance.
"Lienn, sometimes one has to make hard decisions in battle," Hui explained neutrally. "Gao is an adversary we may not be able to defeat in combat. If we can avoid taking that chance, we should do it."
"It doesn't seem very honorable," the younger woman complained.
"Maybe it's not," Sky said, "and if Gao had shown he possessed any sense of honor whatsoever, I might feel badly about that, but he hasn't. He abducts women and children, tortures and sells them, preying on anyone who isn't strong enough to defend themselves. And I doubt that anyone he's sold into slavery would care whether he was given an honorable death, just so long as he wasn't able to hurt anyone else ever again."
Lienn frowned. There was no arguing the man's complete lack of morals; she'd seen that same behavior in his son often enough. But she'd been taught that there was a difference between defeating an adversary in combat and murdering them in cold blood. The idea of killing Gao in his sleep seemed far too close to the second option for her liking.
"Facing Gao in battle could mean the death of one or all of us," Hui added. "Are you willing to risk that if you don't have to?"
Slowly, the young Spirit Monk shook her head. Sky and Hui had already endangered themselves to help her; she couldn't risk their lives any more than she already had. Especially when doing so would condemn Kang and Pinmei, who waited below. Perhaps Hui was right; this could just be the first of many difficult decisions she would have to make.
"Let's just get this over with," she conceded reluctantly.
Sky nodded and reached for the door panel…
And a fiery explosion blew all three of them backward.
Lienn's breath left her in a rush as she was thrown into the railing, the lacquered wood driving into her midsection. She gasped and choked and swallowed hard as her abused stomach heaved. Breathing deeply, she tried to right herself, but only succeeded in toppling over and landing on her backside. She took a few deep, even breaths, then used the rail for support as she pulled herself to her feet.
She glanced around for her companions. Hui lay unconscious on the walkway, most likely having hit her head on the railing as she fell, and Sky…
Where was Sky?
Fearing the worst, Lien hung over the banister, gazing downward… and let out a deep sigh of relief. Sky had apparently not been knocked over the side as she'd fear, but rolled down the ramp and was now jogging back up to join her.
She was about to check on Hui when the panel doors were thrown open and an enraged figure appeared on its threshold.
Gao the Greater turned his furious gaze on her, his rotund form filling the doorway. "You dare intrude on my private sanctum? Fools! It's not yet even dawn! How many times must I tell you…?" His eyes narrowed as he seemed to see her for the first time. "Wait, you're not one of my servants. I know you. You are one of Master Li's students! You… you're the one that Gao told me about! The one that we captured!"
"That's the trouble with taking prisoners who can fight back," Sky pointed out as he arrived at Lienn's side. "Eventually they will."
"To be fair, it's possible mediocrity just runs in the family," Lienn suggested, shooting a scornful glance at their captor.
"How dare you!" Gao bellowed. "My Gao is every bit as talented as you, and then some! But that was never good enough for Master Li; you were always his prize pupil. Well, damn you and that school! My Gao may have wanted to finish you himself, but I won't have him sully his hands with such filth. I know the styles your broken old master taught you, and I know how to beat them! In my son's name, I swear that your death will be both slow and painful!"
Gao planted his feet and spread his hands. Smoke began to drift upward from around his feet, and Lienn swore as she realized what was happening. With a fierce lunge, she tackled Sky; they hit the floor hard, inches from where Hui had fallen, just in time to see the slim form of a dragon curl itself around Gao's body.
But as great gouts of fire spewed forth, what Lienn had mistaken for Dire Flame magic was revealed to be something much worse. For out of the flames stumbled two of the dreaded horse demons.
Gao's malevolent smile was lost on his adversaries as they literally leapt into action. Apparently having the same thought, both Sky and Lienn jumped away from Hui's prone form, fearing the soldier might accidentally be set alight if the battle remained too close to her. Sky made a great leap backwards, around the side of the outer wall, while Lienn tumbled past Gao into his private chamber.
As he pulled his blades, Sky was relieved to see the nearest demon lumber past Hui, completely fixated on him. He knew from their previous experience that it was best to stay behind the creature whenever possible, but to do so now would lead it right back to the unconscious soldier. So, seeing little choice, he danced backward, taunting the creature into following him.
Lienn gave the room no more than a cursory glance as she rolled to standing and drew her sword. It seemed to be an ornate bedchamber combined with an office. That was all she had time to note before she was forced to dodge a fireball from the horse demon. The flames spattered harmlessly against the room's far wall, and Lienn came to the quick conclusion that there must be some sort of protective magic on the place to prevent the furnishings from igniting. However, from the look of alarm on Gao's face, she suspected there was something in here he didn't want getting caught in the crossfire.
Then the sorcerer sent a fireball of his own her way and she was once more focused on the battle.
She leapt into the air and realized a moment too late that her trajectory put her directly between the demon and Gao. She landed and immediately rolled to the right, and was pleased to see that it was too late for the sorcerer to change the angle of his immolation attack; as a result, the flames spewed futilely at his own summoned demon. The horse was immune to fire, and thus took no damage from the attack, but it did give Lienn the opportunity to deliver several sweeping gashes to Gao's exposed side.
Once he deemed he was isolated enough, Sky began to attack his opponent in earnest. Even knowing what was coming, he was unprepared for the searing pain as his swords slashed viciously at the demon's back and his hands ignited. The beast slowly shifted to face him, and with thoughts of Kang's excellent salve foremost in his mind, he flipped over the demon's head and this time aimed for the back of the creature's neck; he didn't know if that would do any critical damage, but he figured it was worth a shot.
Unfortunately, the attack didn't seem to faze the creature, which shrieked and shifted to face him, so apparently they didn't have the kind of weak points one would expect from a living being. Which meant destroying it was probably the result of simple accumulated damage.
With that in mind, Sky slipped behind the creature once more and, bracing himself, drove both blades in all the way to the hilt. Gritting his teeth against his burning fingers, he dropped to his knees, taking the blades with him. The demon screamed in anguish as it was ripped open from shoulder to waist, and Sky finally released his hold on the swords as he was blown back in the death-explosion. He grimaced, gritting his teeth as he slid painfully along the pagoda floor.
For a long moment he simply lay there, panting. The pain was excruciating, but in the distance he could still here the sounds of battle and knew that Lienn must be putting up a good fight.
Slowly, awkwardly, he pushed himself to sitting, then, with his forearms braced on the outer railing, up to standing. He glanced at his swords, lying on the floorboards where they'd fallen in the blast, but one look at his ruined hands told him there was no point him retrieving them; he doubted he could grasp one well enough to sheath it, never mind fight with it.
He stumbled around to the front of the structure and was relieved to see Hui starting to come to. The soldier had the foggy look of someone who'd just awoken, but the fearful look in her eyes told him that the battle had not gone unnoticed.
Carefully, he knelt by her side and she looked up at him in confusion.
"Gao caught us," he explained quickly. "You were knocked out. Lienn's…" He glanced to the young Spirit Monk and noted, thankfully, that she was still holding her own against both the demon and Gao. He displayed his scorched hands and looked at the soldier helplessly. "Can you…?"
Hui nodded, shaking her head to clear it and drawing herself to her feet.
Lienn landed a glancing blow on the horse demon and danced away before she could be too badly burned. Her hands throbbed, but by alternating between the demon and Gao, she seemed to have spread the pain out enough to make it manageable. Unfortunately, this meant that she was only able to whittle away at her opponents' defenses, and while they were both clearly hurting, they were nowhere near incapacitated.
She skirted a dagger of ice that Gao hurled at her, slashing at the sorcerer's legs along the way, and felt a fierce swell of joy as she spotted Hui advancing on the horse demon from behind.
With new resolve, Lienn tumbled away from the demon – leaving it to the soldier – and focused her attention on Gao.
As she quickly found, Gao's magics might be powerful at range, but in melee combat, they were a hindrance, leaving him open to all manner of attacks. After receiving a deep gash in his tubby midsection and another in his left thigh, he apparently came to the same conclusion and switched to a bare-fisted style she was unfamiliar with.
But for all his bragging, his movements were slow and ponderous – and no match for Lienn's lightning-quick reflexes. She swept out in a devastating whirlwind attack that he only partially managed to block, then tumbled away before he could retaliate. As Gao tried to reorient himself on her, she lashed out again, this time from the other side.
By now, Gao was a bloody mess, but still, he fought on. Falling back on his magic, Lienn spotted the instant he prepared to immolate her with Dire Flame. But that power took a few moments to summon, and she seized the opportunity.
Flipping into position behind him, she drove her sword through the back of his neck.
There was no scream, no explosion. The power around Gao simply faded as he slumped to the ground.
A moment later, the horse demon – its summoner vanquished – was consumed in a pillar of fire and disappeared.
Lienn and Hui simply looked at each other; after such a momentous battle, it almost seemed anticlimactic.
"You alright?" Lienn asked.
"I will be," the older woman assured. "I could use something for this headache, and perhaps some of Kang's ointment," she displayed her somewhat blistered hands, "but I'll be fine."
Lienn nodded in relief as Sky came hobbling in, looking much worse for wear. To her surprise, Pinmei was at his side, her little arm stretched around his waist, and while he'd put a comforting arm around her shoulder, Lienn noticed he was careful not to touch her with his damaged hand.
The thief's eyes immediately settled on Gao the Greater's corpse. After a long moment, he nodded and looked up at Lienn. "I wanted nothing more than to see that man die. Thank you," he said sincerely.
"I'm surprised," Hui noted. "I got the impression you wanted to do the job yourself."
"It's true, I had hoped he would die at my hands," Sky admitted, "but I'm not the only one Gao's brought suffering to. Somehow it seems fitting that Lienn should take vengeance for all of us."
Lienn looked down at her captor's remains and shook her head a little. "Was this about vengeance? I thought it was about making sure that Gao never hurt us or anyone else ever again."
Sky looked away and nodded a little, seeming slightly ashamed. "Perhaps you're right. I guess sometimes it's hard to see the big picture when you've been wronged so personally." His eyes were on his daughter.
"Well, either way, it's done," Hui declared in a no nonsense manner. "Here," she said to Sky, pulling out the pouch with Kang's burn solution, "let me see your hands."
As Hui began layering salve onto Sky's fingers, Kang came bouncing cheerfully into the room.
"Hey, ha, ha! Much kicking and such! Really gets the blood flowing! And explosions. Lots of blood flowing from those, too." Seeming completely oblivious to the plight of the injured fighters surrounding him, as usual, he turned to Lienn. "The Amber Mosquito will cross the sky at your whim… for a short way. We can make it as far as that nearby town, Tien's Landing. I know the winds between here and there. Mostly. I mostly know the winds. It will be fine."
"What do you mean, 'know the winds'?" Lienn asked.
"Strong winds can crash any flyer if the pilot doesn't have a wind map," Hui explained as she treated a few minor burns of her own. "The map shows which air currents are safe for the flyer to ride. You can't navigate the skies without one."
"Not safely anyway," Sky added. "If you intend to go after your master, you'll need a wind map to the Imperial City."
"Exactly," Kang declared. "Without it, boom! Short trip."
Lienn considered for a moment. "Gao's pirates have a whole fleet of flyers. Shouldn't there be some wind maps around here somewhere?"
Hui nodded slowly. "There would have to be. The Lotus Assassin have complete control over who receives the maps, so they're very valuable." She glanced over to the office section of the suite.
"No," Sky said, "if they're that valuable, they'll be in the treasure chamber."
Kang nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, I saw you got the immovable door open. Well done! I'll leave the searching to you; I have to go make the Mosquito ready for some flying."
The inventor hurried out of the room and over to a lever in a small alcove off the outer walkway. As they followed, Kang pulled the lever, and far below them, the entire roof of the launch room folded open with a massive groan.
Obviously far less impressed with that bit of engineering than the others, Kang then trotted back down the ramp to see to his flying machine.
Lienn, Sky, and Hui just looked at each other in bafflement.
Lienn shook her head. "All right, why don't you two go see what you can find in the treasure chamber. I'll take a quick look around here and then join you."
Sky nodded and turned towards the ramp, not quite as eager to pillage Gao's valuables as he had been – Lienn had to assume it was a result of his injuries – but obviously not willing to pass the opportunity up. His daughter went bouncing after him, and with a sober glance, Hui followed.
When Lienn turned back to Gao's room, her eyes automatically landed on the growing pool of blood surrounding Gao the Greater's body.
She had killed him.
Even after all his evils, his unchecked cruelties, she couldn't help but feel guilty.
She had been the instrument of his death.
She wasn't sure why this particular death bothered her. Gao had had no redeeming qualities so far as she could see. And if she'd remained his prisoner, she would have been tortured, used, and either sold or killed – and her companions with her; she had no doubt it was self-defense. The Jade Empire was well rid of him.
And yet, staring down at his lifeless body, it troubled her.
And she wondered: why him, why now? Was it because she knew him, knew his name, knew he had a son who would mourn him. Surely the bandits and pirates she'd killed had families too, but she'd hardly given them a second thought. And there were far more of them than there were of Gao; it seemed as though she'd left a trail of bodies in her wake ever since she'd left Two Rivers.
That thought snapped her back to her senses.
She had to rescue Master Li, and she had some sort of destiny to fulfill, but right now, she just wanted to go home. Home to Two Rivers. To talk to Dawn Star, and let her friend reassure her. She knew it was childish, but she just wanted someone to tell her that everything would be all right.
But she didn't have that luxury.
Stoically she stepped around the body and began rifling through Gao's personal effects. She found a heavy purse of silver, which she laced to her belt, then tossed in a few essence gems she found stashed in a drawer. She'd examine them later to determine their quality.
There were lots of papers scattered across a table, and she took a moment to skim over them. Invoices. Account records. A few communications from the Lotus Assassins, which she set aside to take with her.
She was about to toss the remaining papers away when two words jumped out at her.
She grabbed the sheet and began reading as quickly as she could.
Her dread grew with each word, and suddenly something Gao the Lesser had said flashed across her mind.
"Everything you have is already gone; my father has seen to that!"
Snatching up the papers she'd collected, she turned and fled the room.
She raced down the ramp and into the launch room. Sky was just leaving the treasure chamber and Hui was loading the last basket of food into the flyer.
"Did you find the wind maps?" she demanded without preamble, bringing her companions up short.
Sky shot Hui an uneasy look. "Yes. Kang's examining them now, but we should be able to get to the Imperial City," he answered carefully.
"What about Two Rivers? Can we get there?"
"Why should we go there?" Hui asked.
In response, Lienn thrust the topmost sheet of parchment at her.
The soldier looked over the document, her expression grim. "Attack orders," she said aloud for Sky's benefit. Then she looked up at Lienn, her gaze solemn. "I know what you're thinking, but we can't help them."
"We have to!" Lienn insisted.
"These orders were most likely issued by the Lotus Assassins," Hui argued, "probably when they discovered Gao had captured Sun Li. That was almost a full day ago. Your village is already gone. I'm sorry."
"No!" Lienn argued, shaking her head in violent denial. "It's not too late! It can't be!"
"Why would the Lotus Assassins want Two Rivers destroyed?" Sky asked. "What's the point?"
"They would consider it Li's base of operations. That in itself is enough. But..." The soldier frowned, worried eyes focusing on Lienn. "Gao the Lesser was here. If he told them about Li's interest in you..."
A chill swept through Lienn's body. "They wouldn't destroy an entire village just to get to me." It was as much a question as a statement.
"To kill Sun Li's secret protégé?" Hui offered. "They most assuredly would. The Lotus Assassins would sacrifice a dozen such villages to end the threat you pose to the Emperor. Which is why you cannot go to Two Rivers."
"No, that just makes it more important that I do go!" their young leader countered. "I can't let all those people die because of me!"
"You can't help them, Lienn!"
"I have to try!" Turning to their mad-genius, she asked, "Can you get us to Two Rivers? Do the wind maps show the way?"
"Yes..." Kang answered, though his tone was less than confident. "Yes, I think the Amber Mosquito can take us there. And I know a nice safe landing place outside of town. Very unlikely we'll crash. Very unlikely."
"Then we're going," Lienn declared, leaving no room for argument.
That didn't stop Hui, however. "We can't. Your master is running out of time, and before we can rescue him we have to return to Tien's Landing and find the amulet fragment."
"Forget the amulet! It doesn't matter."
"The amulet is vital–"
"Well, it's also lost under several thousand gallons of water and we have no way to get to it!" Lienn cried. "But the people of Two Rivers are in danger now, and I'm going to save them! So you can either help me, or get out of my way!"
Hui looked helplessly to Sky for support.
He glanced down at his daughter and shook his head. "Sorry, but I'd do the same in her place."
The soldier sighed in defeat. "Very well. We'll go to Two Rivers. But you should prepare yourselves for the worst."
A silent figure slipped out of the shadows of the launch room and turned his pale, almost gray-skinned face upward, toward the billowing gray exhaust trail left by the stolen flyer. His mistress would not be pleased.
And when his mistress was displeased, people died.
Inquisitor Lim, newly appointed liaison from the Lotus Assassins, let his dark gaze wander the launch room. The signs of battle were everywhere, just as they had been in the lower levels of the fortress; he could only assume that the operation was a total loss. All he could do now was try to gather enough information about what had happened here to buy his life.
He was like a ghost crossing the room, his steps silent; the crimson and black silk of his robes didn't so much as rustle, nor did the gold plates of the armor he wore over them creak in his wake. Even a missing eye, hidden behind a rust-colored scarf that covered half his face, didn't impair his movements.
Stealth was the way of the Inquisitors.
Swiftly and silently he made his way to the pinnacle of the complex, his one good eye taking in the gruesome scene dispassionately. Then he turned back the way he'd come and swept down the ramps, through the launch room, and into the madman's workshop.
He walked straight to the communicator the mad one had built. It was a large urn made of gray stone, elaborate designs carved into its surface. At the top, where the urn should have opened, large green, multi-faceted crystals grew; from their center rose a tall metal rod, the top shaped like a mushroom: the projector. From the base of the urn jutted a large horn-shaped protrusion that allowed for sound.
He stood before the contraption and bowed low.
Almost immediately, the crystals began to glow and the image of his mistress materialized. Big as life, her feet were planted among the crystals, and blue energy wafted about her transparent figure.
"Grand Inquisitor Jia," he intoned, glancing up.
His commander appeared as she always did. Elaborate crimson robes were bound by an armored plate of black and gold around her middle. Armored gauntlets bound her wrists and armored boots protected her legs below her billowing black pants. Her face, as always, was hidden behind a theatrical mask: a white, oval-shaped face with tiny openings for eyes, a thin, straight nose, and a small, pursed mouth of red. Stylized black eyebrows curled unnaturally high, and below them the face and cheeks were stained red, fading lighter and lighter until it reached the chin, where it once again became white. The mask was framed by ebony black hair bound back from the face and decorated with heavy ornaments of solid gold.
He had never seen her real face and doubted that anyone had. At least not anyone who had survived the encounter.
She gazed down at him with an air of disapproval. Of course, disapproval was the only emotion the mask ever seemed to convey.
"Report, Lim," she instructed without preamble, her voice just as cold and hard as the porcelain of her mask.
"I'm afraid I have bad news, mistress," Lim confessed, his voice nasally and obsequious. "I arrived at the fortress to find Gao dead and the slaves gone. The entire operation is a loss."
"All lost?" Jia demanded. "Fools! What about the new flyer?"
"Stolen. By the vigilantes who killed Gao, I believe. They took the mad inventor with them as well."
"How do you know this?"
Lim grimaced at the suspicion that laced her voice. "I watched them leave, mistress."
"And yet you made no effort to stop them?"
"It seemed... unwise, mistress, in light of what I overheard. They are searching for an amulet, which they believe to be hidden somewhere near Tien's Landing. One of them remarked that it was lost underwater; I suspect it can be found in the ruin of Old Tien's."
Lim watched his mistress carefully as she absorbed that news. The Lotus Assassins had spent years searching the Empire for some sort of special amulet. No one seemed to know exactly what it was or why it was important, but they all knew the finding of it would buy them great favor with Grand Inquisitor Jia. And – by extension – Death's Hand and the Emperor.
"Indeed..." Jia's tone was calculating. "You have done well to bring this to my attention. I assume these criminals are on their way to Tien's Landing as we speak?"
"No, mistress," Lim fawned. "There was some argument over their destination. They claimed to be going to a village called Two Rivers."
"Are they?" There was no mistaking the cold pleasure in her voice. "That simplifies things considerably."
"What is your will?"
"I will send troops to rendezvous with you at Tien's Landing. You are to find the amulet fragment and have it delivered to me personally. Then, when these vigilantes arrive to search for it, you are to destroy them, capture the mad inventor, and return him and the flyer to the Imperial City."
"I will not fail you," Lim groveled.
His leader's tone was unforgiving. "See that you don't."
The Amber Mosquito sailed across the sky, its puttering engine leaving a trail of smoke behind it.
Five people were squeezed into the tiny cockpit, all staring out the glass in anticipation of their arrival in Two Rivers. Kang was, as usual, quite cheerful and completely oblivious, humming a little tune as he steered his creation onward.
The other occupants weren't nearly so relaxed.
Hui was sitting beside Kang at the controls for the flyer's weapons; she was leaning forwards, searching the skies for any sign of Gao's returning fleet. Lienn sat behind her, hovering over the older woman's shoulder as she searched the countryside for familiar landmarks. Sandwiched between Lienn and Sky, who had seated himself behind their pilot, Pinmei's eyes were bright; the child didn't seem to understand why the adults were worried and spent her time admiring all the shiny controls Kang had installed in his machine.
The first sign of trouble arose when they entered a river valley. Tiny flecks in the distance, appearing to be large birds, caught Hui's eye and she grimaced.
"There, flyers," she observed, curling her fingers around the weapon controls. "You're sure these weapons work, Kang?"
"Of course they work. Do you think pirates would have me build them a ship with weapons that don't work?" the inventor argued.
"That wasn't exactly a 'yes'," Sky noted dryly.
"Well, this should make for an interesting test run," Hui muttered and opened fire on the flyer careening toward them.
A stream of tiny metal pellets spewed from the flyer's nozzle and tore apart the incoming ship's wing; it nose-dived toward the ground in a trail of smoke.
"See, I told you it would work," Kang bragged, but there was no reply as the other enemy flyers darted out of the cloud-cover and returned fire.
The atmosphere in the cockpit was reduced to tense silence. Kang concentrated on dodging the incoming projectiles while Hui focused on taking down as many of Gao's ships as she could.
The Mosquito lurched horribly; Sky and Lienn braced Pinmei between them as they were all nearly thrown from their seats.
"Don't let them hit us! I just finished this thing!" Kang yelped.
"Dodging is your job," Hui reminded him irritably. "I can only shoot what's in front of me... Oh no..." The last was muttered as two enormous flyers suddenly came sailing toward them. "Those large flyers can drop explosives. Don't let them get above us, Kang!"
At that, Kang pulled hard on the steering harness and the Amber Mosquito rose high into the air. "They won't be able to reach us at this height," the inventor declared. "They're too heavy."
"Bring us into a dive," Hui instructed.
Realizing what she had in mind, the mad genius dove toward the nearest of the flyers, Hui firing all the way. They traced a line from its nose to its tailfin and the flyer went down in a smoking ruin. They repeated the maneuver with the second flyer and it too was out of the fight.
"No more?" Hui mused, searching avidly for any stragglers as they cleared the relative safety of the valley. "The big ones must have been bringing up the rear."
"We're safe then?" Sky asked, carefully loosening the grip he had on his daughter.
"No..." Lienn murmured.
It took them all a moment to realize that she wasn't, in fact, answering Sky, and they followed her unwavering gaze to the landscape below.
Two Rivers was burning.