The princess and the turtle were meandering through the Valley of Emperors, trying to avoid the mogu troops suddenly populating it and to find a clue as to what they were doing at the same time. So far, they had no luck with the latter. They hid in every nook and cranny they could find and managed to avoid combat, but they didn’t know anything more than they did couple of hours before. Yaochi kept wondering why wouldn’t the Monkey King tell them more, or why wouldn’t he just defeat them himself. She felt resting this responsibility on the hands of a child – thinking about herself as a child for the first time in years – was just irresponsible, but what else could she do now?
As the day was drawing to a close, Yaochi was lying down on a ledge above one particular tomb, observing the movements. Two mogu soldiers stood guard over the entrance, nearly motionless. This particular property of the mogu always surprised the princess. They were always so similar to their statues. When a pandaren wanted to make a statue of himself, it took a lot of work to get a resemblance half as perfect. But the mogu, not only could they simply freeze in place like a statue, their skin was like stone and their statues looked so much like them. Little did she know how spot on she was about their nature.
Then, suddenly she heard a familiar voice, speaking words she could not understand from her position despite her best efforts. The two guards suddenly stood to attention and from inside the tomb came out none other than Iron Qon. The same red quilen followed him out, before the crimson warlord turned out and barked orders to his soldiers.
“Guard this tomb with your lives. Your lady is taking care of sensitive business inside,” he said, before turning back again and leaving towards another tomb. This was when Yaochi knew she had to get inside, even if she had to kill the two guards. Fortunately for her, the entrance wasn’t directly exposed to any other tomb. She simply stood up and started carefully aiming her bow. In the middle of aiming, she realized she only ever hit someone with an arrow twice and her arms budged in the last moment. The arrow landed right between the two mogu, alerting them to someone’s presence.
Yaochi quickly fell to the ground, trying to hide herself, but dispatching the guards from cover seemed out of the question. The mogu immediately started arguing who was shooting at them, but finally, one of them looked up… and saw Yaochi’s ears on the ridge.
“There!” he shouted, “I told you it was from above!” The princess raised her head for a moment and looked right into the eyes of the attackers. “A pandaren!” the mogu yelled again, “We cannot let one of them report back!” The princess got up and ran up, but then, she stumbled over a rock and quickly tumbled down, right under the feet of her pursuers. She looked up, scared and in no position to fight back, but then she noticed the sky – which has just gone dark. In the end, she smiled.
“What are you smiling at, animal?” one of the guards snarled back. “Now, you’re going to…”
Before he could finish, he was interrupted by a pat on the shoulder. As he turned around, a polearm suddenly pierced his body, splashing a lot of blood right next to the girl. Yu Gwai slowly pulled his weapon out of his guts and then knocked him back, with the girl rolling away just in time. The second guard raised his sword up, but he too was quickly struck down by a blow to the side from the warlord’s ornate weapon. As both mogu were slowly dying on the snow, Yaochi got up. A few days ago so much blood would have made her faint. Today, she is happy the obstacle is gone. For a moment, the thought of becoming so comfortable with taking another’s life scared her, but she quickly snapped herself out of it – this is the time for determination.
Moments later, they were walking into the tomb Iron Qon just left. It seemed there was nothing there beyond a single room, full of crumbling ruins and pieces of an ancient and forgotten past. Yaochi thought how old could this all be. All she knew was that the Pandaren Empire was formed nearly two thousand years ago, and mogu ruled for countless generations before. If this tomb could date back to the times of the Thunder King, or perhaps even before that, it could have been even five thousand years old! Having lived only fifteen years herself, this abyss of time was nearly incomprehensible to her.
Before they had the chance to look around or contemplate the age of the tomb they found, they heard a strange sound, as if stone grinding on stone. Yu Gwai quickly prepared his weapon.
“It’s a trap!” he shouted. “And I don’t mean someone is going to ambush us.” He looked at the girl, already pulling out her bow. “You must have stepped on a trapped tile. There are a lot of those in mogu tombs.”
She kept looking around for arrows or falling boulders, but she couldn’t see anything of the sort. “Why would someone trap a tomb?”
“When a mogu dies,” he said, turning around towards the back wall, “he is rarely buried, at least ever since Lei Shen. The ones that are, were rich and powerful. And they had taken their riches with them to their graves. And assured no one ever steals these riches.” Then, he moved forwards, still on guard, seeing something moving in the back wall.
“Did it work?” the princess inquired curiously.
“Rarely,” he responded. Finally, a large section of the back wall moved with a loud rumble and a slender, but tall silhouette stepped through the shadows.
“Actually,” a feminine voice responded, “it kind of is an ambush.” Finally, a female mogu with red skin, wearing an elegant dress and a lot of powder on her face stepped out from the secret compartment, with a stone tablet in her arms. Yaochi turned to her and looked her over.
“Diaochan,” Yu Gwai responded, “Iron Qon’s consort. The true manipulator behind his constant betrayals.” The female mogu just smiled at the description.
“I hear my reputation precedes me.” Diaochan then looked at the pandaren girl with disgust. “Your slave is a bit young for combat,” she said.
“She is not my slave!” Yu Gwai protested. “We are here to stop the return of the Thunder King.”
“Too bad,” the consort replied, tapping the tablet with her fingers, “because you would have to go through me first.”
“What is it?” Yaochi shouted, aiming her bow at the woman.
“And why would I tell you?” Diaochan yelled back. “Kneel!” she shouted, raising one of her arms.
“I am princess Yaochi, I only kneel before my father!” the girl replied.
“Ah,” the mogu sighed, “so you’re the girl Kun Yomi failed to kill, twice.”
“Enough talk,” Yu Gwai said, standing between the princess and the consort, “Give us the tablet or you’ll have to face my blade!”
The female mogu just smiled deviously. For a moment Yu Gwai regretted he would have to fight someone so attractive to him, but he remembered his lessons – he would not let lust get the better of him. “So be it,” she responded, setting the tablet down on the floor. She quickly pulled at something through her dress, revealing a katana, neatly concealed inside the clothes. After slowly pulling it out, she posed ready for combat, raising the sword in the air with one hand. “Let’s dance.”
Diaochan took to the air like a bird. With a simple leap, she was rotating in the air with a sword drawn and her dress flapping around in the wind, revealing the chainmail hidden under the dress. Even though Yaochi was her enemy, she couldn’t deny a certain grace to this attack, a grace she did not expect from a mogu. But as she landed, all of Yaochi’s admiration for her dissipated with the metallic clang of her katana clashing with Yu Gwai’s polearm. He immediately pressed at her, but she did not relent. In fact, she began to attack faster and faster. The girl could only see a flurry of steel, without understanding how can Yu Gwai parry all those attacks.
With enormous difficulty, it turns out. The jade warlord was definitely out of practice, but even so, he was holding back the extreme speed of his opponent. Just like she announced, she was dancing all around him, with an unnatural speed and accuracy. At certain moments, he was thanking Yaochi in his thoughts, because the blade on the other end of the polearm was what saved him from many of the blows. He was doing a good job fending her off, but he was getting tired and couldn’t get on the offensive.
Finally, she struck slower and stronger, and didn’t immediately pull her katana back. Instead, she remained staring Yu Gwai in the eyes for a moment. “Give up now,” she said, with a devious smile, “and I’ll make sure we have some fun before I give you out to Kun Yomi.” But the warlord only snarled back.
“I am not so easy to sway,” he said, before pushing back at her sword with all his might. “Is that all you had to do to get Qon to do your bidding?” As she slid back on the floor, he charged back and attacked with the top blade, even though she easily parried him. “You just said you’ll let him ride, and he did everything you commanded! Just as I always thought,” he said, pushing again, and forcing her back another couple of steps, “He is weak.”
That comment only provoked another fury of blows from Diaochan, dancing again around Yu Gwai, although she seemed to have lost some of her grace. “Iron Qon is not weak! He is the strongest of you all!” she yelled, without stopping her attacks. “He will outlive you all!” Her next blow sent the warlord back a couple of steps, but he quickly regained his balance. The consort, meanwhile, just stood in the middle of the room for a moment. “With my help, he has slain many former servants of Lei Shen. Soon, he will be the only one left standing old enough to elicit any respect from these new, simple mogu. Then we will not need the Thunder King. There will be only Iron Qon.”
Yaochi didn’t want to lose the chance and began preparing to shoot the woman, but before she could release the arrow, her dance began again. At this moment, she wondered how soldiers manage to shoot anyone in the midst of battle. Her every shot needed great concentration and time, two things she would most certainly not have with enemy warriors screaming around her and approaching her with their blades drawn. She did once manage, in an impulse, to shoot the mogu who came at her with a hammer, but she doubted impulse and luck was everything one needed to become a good archer. There was something else she missed. Something bigger than a several feet-tall, dancing mogu woman.
Yu Gwai continued to fend off Diaochan’s attacks. Although it was becoming harder and harder as time went on, she too seemed to be getting tired. Her attacks were increasing in intensity and losing her famous grace – by this, the warlord knew he struck her weak point. And he did not want to stop.
“You sound as if there was a plan,” he said, pushing her back with the middle of his polearm, “But I think you’re exactly what all the warlords say. An old woman who doesn’t really know what she’s doing.” She kept attacking, but her patterns were getting predictable. Cut from the left, cut from the right, full turn, another cut from the left. She clearly could not concentrate any longer. “Admit it, you just tell him to betray his companions and commanders out of boredom.” Although you wouldn’t be able to tell it through the powder and her red skin, she must have been getting red with anger. She finally struck a powerful blow into the middle of Yu Gwai’s weapon’s shaft, strong enough to make him groan and bend over slightly.
“You know nothing,” she yelled, slowly punctuating her words and resting the end of her blade on the floor. “I worked on this for centuries. Your taunts will not change the fact that soon, you will be dead. And after that, all the others will die. If you truly wanted to stop the return of Lei Shen, you should have let me go,” she said, visibly tired. Then she pointed her katana in the warlord’s direction. “But it’s too late now. And now you will…”
Before she could finish the sentence, Yu Gwai arose with a loud roar and struck as quickly and as powerfully as he ever could. The shaft of his weapon hit Diaochan’s jaw and knocked her back. Then, his lower blade cut into her hand almost to the bone. In shock and pain, she dropped the sword and staggered back until she hit the railing behind her. The jade warlord, finally triumphant, walked up slowly to her, breathing slowly and loudly from the fatigue.
“Here’s lesson number one they would give you in my clan,” he said, laying his polearm’s upper blade on her chest, “Never listen to the enemy.”
“Listen,” she yelled out in desperation, “we can kill Iron Qon together. We can kill Kun Yomi. We can destroy Lei Shen once and forever. Then you will be the only king the mogu will ever need. Hell, you can even take the pandaren girl with us.” He smiled at her for a moment. She thought her offer was tempting him. “We can rule the mogu together.”
“What did I just say?” Yu Gwai responded, “Never listen to the enemy.”
Her roar filled the hall a moment later. When Yaochi looked at them, Yu Gwai’s blade was driven through Diaochan’s chest and Qon’s consort was spitting blood. It was as if she tried to speak again in her last moment, but nothing coherent came out of her mouth. Finally, the warlord pulled out his blade and let her now lifeless body slide onto the floor.
The mogu then slowly turned around and looked back at the girl. “Get the tablet,” he said. “We will figure it out later if we destroy it or bury it where they can’t find it.”
Without a word, Yaochi ran for the tablet and grabbed it, but with all her might, she could not pick it up. “It’s too heavy,” she said, “I’ll need you to get it.” Yu Gwai just sighed and walked up to her slowly. When he looked down at it, he saw the tablet engraved with letters even he never knew – an alphabet far predating even the mogu. Perhaps the gods themselves wrote it, he thought. If that was so, the magic on it must have been powerful indeed.
Yu Gwai knelt down to pick it up and easily lifted it off the floor with one hand. “It’s not heavy at all!” But before Yaochi could respond, suddenly a wave of water and storm hit them from the back and knocked them into the stairs right before them. Stunned, they could only groan and try to get up as a familiar voice was getting closer.
“Thank you so much!” Kun Yomi said, entering the chamber. “You got the tablet for me! You even killed Qon’s treacherous woman.” They could hear as the azure warlord picked up the tablet they just fought so hard for. “You know,” he said, “when you escaped me, I promised myself that I would kill you next time I see you. But you gave me such a great favor!” Kun Yomi laughed out loud, his roaring laughter echoing across the room. Yu Gwai tried to get up, but still stunned, he only felt a knock in his backside. “Don’t even try. For this favor, I will give you a very special gift.” For a moment, Yaochi wondered if he would let them live. “I will give you a very slow death. Soon, you will die in this tomb and I will take my rightful place as the right hand of the Thunder King.”
Yaochi managed to only turn with her face back up. Yu Gwai got up just in time to see Kun Yomi standing in the entrance with the same, malicious smile on his face. The warlord charged, as fast as he could, but the azure warlord pressed a button outside and a large stone slab moved in front of the entrance, completely blocking it. The princess got up only to realize they are now trapped in an ancient tomb, while their enemy is about to bring Lei Shen back from the dead.
TO BE CONTINUED
In reality, written by the author of the Arakkoa Chronicles.