Warrior(The Dragon King Chronicles)By: Ellen Oh
Kira was on the hunt. Her boots crunched softly on snow-covered ground. Icicles hung like shimmering crystal blades from the bare tree branches above her. Yet the delight Kira initially had for the wild, breathtaking landscape and the beauty of the ancient forest was short-lived. She had no idea where she was and she no longer felt the deep isolation of the eerie woods. There was a trail of human footprints before her.
She was not alone.
Welcome to the Sea of Trees, a voice whispered. Stay here with us forever. Stay. Stay.
Suppressing a shiver, she studied the tracks. One person. Heavy gaited, large in size, and most likely male. The footprints led her to the entrance of a cavern that gaped open in the forest floor—a fierce black maw, as if a gigantic imoogi, a cursed half-dragon, half-snake-like creature, had tunneled its large serpent body and erupted from the ground. Unrelenting darkness layered with cool fog met Kira’s gaze.
She blinked and her yellow tiger’s eyes adjusted to give her night vision, but it was still difficult to see.
She descended with caution down the rough stone staircase, slick and treacherous from the snow. The interior walls of the cavern were made from ancient lava flows and were draped with sheets of ice. The long narrow corridor twisted and turned before entering a large cave. Huge ice formations hung from the black ceiling and lava shelves decorated the walls. Toward the end of the cave was a narrower passage that led down into a chamber filled with red light and pulsing heat. As Kira approached the beckoning light, the floor became wet with melting water. Although she’d hardly felt the winter cold outside, down here in the caves, she could feel the heat emanating from underground.
Bending low, she entered the narrow passage and walked through. It opened into a wide cave dominated by a pool of molten lava that boiled in the center, shooting up large flames. The lava began to churn and bubble over explosively. From the depths of the fire rose a dark gray column that erupted into the blazing figure of a demonic visage. Once again Kira was faced with the Demon Lord.
“You have failed me!” The voice sounded like the grumbling of earthquakes.
A figure lay prostrate before the Demon Lord. He wore a heavy silk brocaded coat, and his hair was oiled and slicked into a fan-shaped queue topknot that was folded forward. When he raised his head, Kira focused on the long jagged scar etched into his cheek and jaw. Even with his bearded face contorted with fear, he was a cruel-looking man. He displayed a large, jewel-crusted gold medallion on his chest, and the richness of his clothing established his high ranking.
Small winged imps flew out of the Demon Lord’s gaping mouth, launching themselves at the nobleman’s face with sharp talons that scratched, pierced, and pinched his exposed flesh.
“No my lord!” The nobleman tried to protect his eyes, fighting off the imps that were attacking him. “I have done all that you’ve asked. Please! Spare me! Let me prove myself to you!”
The imps subsided with one last painful gouge. They hovered in the air above him, their claws outstretched in readiness. The nobleman lowered his trembling hands from his bloodied face and prostrated himself again before the Demon Lord, begging for mercy.
“Why should I bother? You will only fail me again.”
At his words, a larger group of imps assaulted the daimyo, shredding his fine robes and ripping chunks of hair. His once immaculate appearance was now a tattered mess. They left him shaking violently on the ground.
“Please master, please give me another chance,” he cried.
Kira felt a sick kind of pity for the nobleman. He was nothing more than a puppet for the Demon Lord, and yet she felt sorry for him.
The nobleman pulled himself slowly to his feet, keeping himself in a bowing position before his master. “The Guru king and the Hansong prince will die soon. I promise this my lord. I shall not fail you again.”
Kira gasped. This was Daimyo Tomodoshi, the human medium of the Demon Lord. He was the reason for the Yamato invasion of the Seven Kingdoms. He was the reason for the loss of her parents. Her pity disappeared as fury ignited within her.
Now she knew the face of her enemy.
Now she knew who she had to kill.
Another flock of imps flew at the daimyo. They ripped his clothes off his body and slashed his naked flesh with their razor-sharp claws, until he was a bleeding mass from head to toe.
The great demon head laughed. “No, you will not fail me again. I have something for you.” Another imp flew from the gaping mouth holding a long rectangular box in its claws. The daimyo cringed as it screeched and flung the heavy metal box at his feet before returning to the flames.
The daimyo opened the box with shaking hands. Inside were seven daggers with long, thin, sharp black blades that came to a wicked tip. Each blade was inscribed with unreadable characters etched along the middle. Smoke seemed to rise from the deadly weapons as they glistened. They whispered of a dark death.
“Don’t touch them with your bare hands if you value your life,” the Demon Lord said. “They carry something very special on them—a part of my essence. Choose your assassins wisely!”
Tomodoshi snatched his hand away and snapped the box shut. “It will be as you command.”
“And what of the girl?” The flames shot higher.
“She will not see another birthday,” Tomodoshi said with an ingratiating bow.
“No,” breathed the voice as the figure in the fire began to fade. “Bring her to me alive. I have other plans for her.” The imps raced into the fire as the demon face disappeared with one last mocking laugh that sent shivers down Kira’s spine.
One imp spun around and came flying at her face, its claws extended. Kira ducked and ran, feeling the claws snatching at her hair as she fled from the overpowering heat.
Ten days had passed since Kira had defeated the evil shaman and his imoogi. Ten days since the Iron Army had beaten the Yamato army and freed Hansong. She was finally home. And yet in those ten days, Kira had not returned to her family house. She’d been avoiding it. Her brothers had asked her to look for her mother’s treasure box, which was hidden in her mother’s rooms. They’d refused to let the servants into the area, wanting Kira to have her private moments alone with her memories. But Kira hadn’t been ready.
She’d been present when her father was killed. It was his heroic sacrifice that had allowed her to save her cousin, Prince Taejo, from Lord Shin Mulchin and the Yamato army. But she’d been forced to leave Hansong without seeing her mother, only to hear that Shaman Ito had murdered her mother and trapped her spirit in the shadow world with his dark shaman magic. When Kira had killed Ito, she’d freed her mother’s spirit so she could alight to heaven. But Kira had never forgiven herself for leaving her behind, even knowing she had no choice. Every day, she was filled with a desperate longing for her parents. She missed their love and wisdom. Being in Hansong again, Kira ached for them with a fierceness that was almost crippling at times. But her guilt had kept her from her family home. Until now.
After a few days of finally feeling safe, the frightening visions had started again. Shaken, Kira sought out the one place that she’d always felt the safest—her mother’s rooms.
Kira stood in the women’s quarters of her family home. Here her mother had sat on the cushioned warmth of the heated floor, embroidering on luxurious folds of colored silk. Now the large lacquered chests that held the silks and threads were destroyed, their delicate contents befouled by the muck of enemy boots.