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Blue Wolf Fallow Doe


Triyun
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OOC:  Sarah and I are joint writing it.
 
IC:
 
For decades the Empire of Tianxia expanded its borders across the world and toppled nations when neighbors fell into decidence and decay. Empire's and their rulers weakened with age and while Yuan Jia never alluded to his weakening health, he felt it in his bones. The power and size of the empire weighed heavy on his back, every city, every village, every blade of grass, pushed him down to the ground so that his movements became slow and ragged. Soon it would be son, Leopold, that would rule the Empire, but Leopold was not a Khan. The Crown Prince entertained his concubines, he hunted wild game, and took long trips to the great cities of the world to relax and party. Jia had no faith that when he died, Leopold could take the reigns.
 
The Emperor spent hours within the halls of his shrine to his ancestors. He ran his hands down the jade urns containing the ashes of his people. But even in these sacred spots, he never prayed alone.
 
"Your Highness?" said a woman's voice, not belonging to his wife or his daughter, but his daughter's mentor. The Austrian, Tyrannia, who served as a diplomat and assassin during the age of his wife's reign in Europe. "You seem troubled."
 
He turned back towards her, as he felt the cold wind blowing through the hall.  His brow furrowed as he saw her, his eyes having started to go bad.  "I am." he said wondering why she was here.  "I have become an old wolf.  Unable to defend the pack.  And many enemies circle.  The Lion, the Dark Eagle, and even some may wish the dragon to return." he said sighing.  "It will be up to my heirs, yet neither are ready.  Leopold is a great warrior but his mind is not on ruling.  Cecilia, she's got the brains of the two, but lacks the instincts for war." he said sighing.  "Without the Imperial Family, the Empire, cannot maintain itself.  And without the Empire... the world shall fall into a dark age, of that I have no doubt." 
 
He lifted himself up from the urns, his red armor feeling heavier than it had before.  "Why do you come here?" he asked, "Surely as my daughter's tutor you can't be here to tell me that she's doing poorly?"  The flames of the shrine cast his wrinkles into an even stronger light.
 
"In fact, Your Highness," Tyrannia approached him, "I came to talk so I could reduce your worry. Leopold may not be ready for governance, but Cecilia will not only make a fine bureaucrat, but a fine warrior as well. We have started to train in combat and I hope that by the time of your unfortunate passing to join your ancestors, she will be able to best even the greatest warriors in combat." She lay her hand on his shoulder. "She will defend the pack."
 
"Leopold is the greatest." he said testily, "Trained by my Imperial Captain, Ryu Hayabusa."   The Emperor did not like that the two siblings had started fighting, being selfish.  Had Cecilia sent her? he wondered to himself.  "But I am glad to see that she is becoming stronger.  Let me tell you something though, I love both my children, but we will not have discord among them or politicking.  Be sure to let Cecilia know, I will not forgive one raising arms against the other." 
 
The Emperor's voice started to get angry, then quickly turned to wheezing as he felt the effect of his age on him.  He was not quite able to command the fury he used to, especially today.  He began to lean against the urn to catch his breath.
 
Tyrannia grabbed the Empeor by his chest and held him up gently, like one would a small child. "Your Highness, please," her voice parted her lips in a whipser. "Cecilia would never think something so heinous. I only came to tell you of her progress as a champion of our people." The woman's hand moved up over his eyes, her voice hypnotic with a cadence. "Let me help you Yuan Jia, let me make your last years the greatest of your reign so that when Leopold becomes heir, he will only reflect upon your glory."
 
The old Emperor's mind was tired, and he turned to her nodding, "Yeeess.  Good.  Harmony is important." he said leaning his hand on her shoulder.  "There is much to be done.  Let us return to the court.  Matters of state must be discussed." he continued on as he felt himself both relax but become even more tired than usual.
 
"Come, I will take you to your bed so that you can rest. The day is late, there is no need to continue praying now, your ancestors have heard you." Tyrannia said and walked the Emperor out of the shinre, slamming the doors shut with a loud bang and a smirk. She took the Emperor to his bed, laying him down as the doors opened behind her, Theresia walking in, moderately aged from her youthful apperance, but still commanding the same spunk as in her youth.
 
"Tyrannia, what are you doing here?" her voice, high-pitched, not expecting Cecilia's tutor to be in her private chambers.
 
"The Emperor was weak at the shrine, I brought him back here to rest."
 
Theresia ran to the bedside and took Jia's hand, staring into his eyes. "Rest then, you are still full of life, my love." She smiled and raised her head to the tutor. "You may leave now, Tyrannia, thank you for bringing him here."
 
"Your Highness," Tyrannia spoke, "Though I do not want to be the one to bring up such things, the Emperor has asked me to advise him in these perilous times as I once advised you in Austria."
 
"What?" Theresia narrowed her eyes, "Jia?"
 
"Not to worry my love." he said taking her hand in his.  He did not know what had come over him today, he must have caught a bug or something.  "The burdens of rule are many of us.  Let us let Tyrannia advise so that we may spend the days enjoying this wonderous paradise we have built." he began to cough, why was he feeling so strange.  "I feel tired, let us rest and enjoy each others company if only for a little while, then I can return to ruling in full."
 
Theresia sighed, Jia lost his edge, his inner power. She kissed him on the lips and held back tears. "Of course, of course." The Empress looked up at the tutor and frowned. "You will consult Leopold and Cecilia of the Emperor's weakness. I want them to come everyday to pay their respects and this will be a demonstration of their rule." Theresia stood, "If I find anything strange in government from this day forward, your head will sit in my garden. Is that clear?"
 
"I would never try and take away from your power, my friend." Tyrannia said with a bow then turned and left the imperial quarters. Cecilia would rule. She would rule with an iron fist that Tyrannia would give to her.
 
The Vice Imperator entered the hall where his Gurkha soldiers sat around drinking and eating roasted meats.  The elite unit had just returned with Prince Leopold from his conquest of the ciy of Edinborough.  Hoping for a fight, as per usual, Leopold had lead the vanguard of the airborne into the city.  In the end they had only encountered token resistance as the Irish had faded.  
 
Grabbing a cup, he raised it into the air, "To War!" he said, "May it find us someday instead of hiding in its hole." he said, taking a generous swig of ale and then slamming it down on the table.  The men returned the chant.  
 
The night sooned turned to frivolity, as the men danced alongside ladies of the court whom the Prince had brought in.  Large fires burned in the courtyard as songs of batle were sung.  Leopold looked seeng a woman in a flowing blue dress and golden hair approaching through the shadows.  He stood up setting his flagon of ale down.
 
"Congratulations on your victory, Shizi," Madeline smiled, her pet name for the Prince as she bent down and kissed him on the lips. "I've been waiting for you to return," As a simple concubine without a nation, Madeline recevied no love from the courtiers and even less from the Empress and the Princess, who saw her as a detracting influence from Leopold's governance. But Madeline loved him and often journeyed out of the city when he left on campaign, touring the country alone and learning Chinese.
 
"I heard you alone led the charge into the city."
 
"I missed you too." he said wrapping his arm around her neck pulling her in to kiss her deeply.  "And brough you a gift." he said, presenting her with a diamond laden brooch, which he had taken from one particularly distasteful upper class irish woman's dress directly.  "It shimmers almost as much as your eyes." he added as he reached around grabbing her ass.
 
"So have you come to join us in celebration, or do you bring news?"
 
"A bit of both," she said sitting down on his lap, "Though I only just returned to the capital today when I heard you came back from the war. Your father is sick and your mother is inconsolable, so she decreed that you and Cecilia should take the reigns of government for the next few months, while your father regains his health."
 
Leopold scowled at the prospect of being cooped up in the palace with bureaucracy for the next few months, "Father has Wei for such matters and all his bureaucrats and the Prime Minister.  I should be out there smashing the Empire's enemies.  The People want a general to lead them, not a book keeper.  Besides Cecilia's no good at ruling.  She's all about books." he said.  He thought for a moment, and then smirked.
 
"I know.  I shall name you as my hand in the regency.  That way I can show myself at the front.  If word of the Emperor's weakness spreads, our enemies will look to take advantage of it.  They and our own soldiers must see me leading from strength along the frontiers." he said confidently taking a swig of ale and slamming it against the table.
 
"Your mother would never let me serve on the Regency Council, Shizi, she'd have my head. There is no possible way to do that." Madeline frowned as she touched the brooch. "Plus, Tyrannia has been named as Regency Minister, to advise both of you. Under your father's orders."
 
He frowned, "I am the heir and I will command it so." he said, "Mother will have to accept you some time, and as for Tyrannia, she's even more of a book worm than Cecilia.  Always communicating in secret treaties.  "I will spend the night here, but leave tomorrow to rally the Imperial Knights at the Shaolin Temple.  We will have continuity through my power." he said as matter of factly.  "Afterall am I not the future Emperor?"
 
"I want to go with you then, don't leave me in the capital by myself." Madeline kissed him, "If all these power plays are going on, someone in my position could be used as a hostage, or even worse." She sighed, "Shizi, I wish you wouldn't be so brash with going to get the knights. Your father will think you're going to take power by force and even if the knights listen to you, this would set a horrible presedence for future generations. Those with manpower could take the crown whenever they desire."
 
"Non-sense." he said, "Ryu is my teacher and Jia's oldest friend, I am a trained member of the knights, something my sister can't say.  It only makes sense I go and rally them.  Father always says they are our last line of defense and guardians of the Empire.  He would want me to do this, and when he's better and if I don't he'll wonder why I did nothing to protect the Empire." he declared, certain of what he was saying, "Besides, I will leave some of my best men to guard you.  Only fools would try a coup against Gurkhas or Shinobi.  And anyways, I doubt my mother would ever do such a thing, and as I said, my sister is weak."
 
"Very well," Madeline nodded, though her frown never disappeared. "I will keep things quiet here while you go and retrieve the Knights. I still think this is a bad idea, but I'll listen to you, at least this one time." She smiled and then kissed him again, reaching behind to drink some of his ale and then returning to the kiss.
 
He smirked as he lifted her up into his arms, kissing her as he took her to his bed chamber, his passions stirred by her touch and unwilling to deny them much longer.  
 
The Party went on through the night, deafening other sounds around the Prince's chamber as he lay next to his woman in bed.  He was fast asleep, his senses dulled from the ale, when noises began.  His wolf Yagri began growling...
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Madeline opened her eyes, laying with her arm over Leopold's chest. "What is that?" The wolf growled louder then the sound of blade cutting flesh reached her ears. A man groaned. "Shizi! Wake up!" she yelled out and immediately the sounds intensified. The door to the Prince's chamber exploded as a figure in black armor walked in holding a great sword over his head and shouting strange words in a strange language.
 
Leopold's eyes shot open as he reached under the pillow.  In a lightning flash the prince threw a knife straight at the man's neck as the wolf leapt at the man from behind, its white fangs ripping through the neck of the assailant as blood squirted across the room, the wolf growling in anger.  "Good boy Yagri." Leopold said as he stood, grabbing his sword from the wall.  
 
He turned to Madeline as he heard others down the hall way.  Looking down he could tell what these men were, "Friends from the Pure Lands, Hashashin." he said, "Get dressed.  More will be on their way.  I need you to stick with me.  I must get to father's bed chamber.  No doubt they will want him too."
 
Madeline rolled out of the bed and found a silk cloth that she drapped around her naked body. Ripping the dagger embedded in the man's neck she kept that by her side if she needed to defend herself on the way to the palace compound. Walking down the corridor from the Prince's bed chamber, they found the courtyard of the barracks littered with dead bodies. Some Gurka. Some Hashashin. 
 
Upon seeing the Prince, some of the Hashashin assassins turned their attention to killing the valuable target and soon three assassins attacked him, slicing toward his center with their steel swords. Madeline, without much of a weapon to fight or armor to protect, stood terrified behind the Prince.
 
Leopold rushed them as they came at him.  He pivoted at the last minute to the back of his foot, pushing to one side as he drew his blade.  A dash of silver penetrated the candle light of the hall as he cleaved into one's back, his katana taking the spine straight through as he then spun unto his front foot doing a spinning back kick to the center knocking him into the other and away from Madeline as Yagri rushed them mauling them.  Leopold brought his sword down into one of their necks as the wolf held the other mauled his teeth snarling, its breath against the hashashin's neck, its teeth on the skin ready to pierce it in an instant.
 
"Now you'll answer questions, cooperate and you get a swift death by sword, don't and my wolf gets you as his midnight snack." Leopold said.  "How many are there of you, and where are you moving against each member of my family!"  The Prince said his voice filled with a rage and intimidation foreign to Madeline.  This was his shinobi side, merciless, a terror of the night, one that would break the most hardened enemy's will.
 
The assassin smiled and opened his mouth, he had no tongue and make a sound that came off as a laugh as the wolf mauled him. Through his quick death, he never stopped laughing, the eerie echoes fluttering around the barracks long after he died. Madeline stared at the dead bodies and Leopold's figure, heaving and growling under his breath. She made no move, holding the dagger and trying to cover up with the silk robe.
 
"Your Highness," said one of the Gurkas, pushing an assassin off his blade. "We should go to the palace and see if the Hashashin have attacked there. We will follow you and make sure the Emperor is safe. Do you want your woman to come along, it seems dangerous."
 
He turned to Madeline looking at her terrified face.  "No..." he said.  He turned to her and kissed her, "Gurkhas get her out of here.  Yagri you protec Madeline understand." he said.  Wiping his blade the prince sighed, "I want her on a boat and take her south to the Southern Empire, I will meet you outside my aunt's villa in Hanoi Madeline.  It is well protected, and no one will look for you there.  I will leave as soon as this is taken care of."  He gripped her hand in his kissing her again.  "Yagri and my men will protect you."
 
He then turned to the Gurkhas.  "Men!  Your enemy is the Hashashin.  A bastard group from the lands of the Pure Land.  These fuckers are back stabbing cowardly sons of bitches.  But they are skilled.  They prey on fear and intimidation.  I want your force to charge straight through the center of the palace, don't get separated, make noise, kick in doors and hit them head on.  Fight until you recieved too much resistance and then withdraw to the South as well.  It will be glorious... but you will have to do it alone.  I'm going to use the chaos to reach my father and mother, alone." he said sheathing his sword and tying a black mask around his face giving one last glance to Madeline.
 
The plan worked well. The Gurkhas charged out of the barracks and smashed through the palace as the Prince commanded, but as he watched, only a smattering of Hashashin attacked them. The assassins died quickly and the Prince's guards moved out into the city, leaving him alone in the abandoned palace. He walked down the corridors, his feet making no sounds as the lanterns swung on the ceilings. Every now and then, he heard the terrifying yell of an assassin run out from a side hall and attempt to slay the Prince. Leopold made quick work of these single combatants, but as he journeyed deeper into the palace they came out with more strength and had worse disfigurations.
 
As he journeyed toward the throne room and his father's bed chamber, he felt a strange force working its way through the palace. Turning the torch flames strange purple colors. Then when he kicked open the door to the throne room, he found a sight that shook him to the core. Cecilia sat on the Imperial Throne with Tyrannia by her side, Theresia writhed on the floor in chains as the great torches exploded into purple flames.
 
"So nice of you to join us, brother."
 
"What's the meaning of this?!" Leopold barked angrily as his eyes looked to see his mother in chains, "Have you lost your mind sister!"  He was blown away to see the look of the room.  How could his sister, the book worm, do such a thing.  Sit their while their mother was in chains. 
 
He then saw it, sitting next to Cecilia.  His father's sword.  The outrage!  "Mother are you alright?" he asked as he circled towards them slowly his sword drawn in one hand watching both of these two terrible women's reactions.
 
Tyrannia snapped her fingers as Theresia disappeared in a flash of purple light. "There is no need for that. The Emperor is dying, a purge of the old was necessary and the new government can begin. Prince, you are expected to follow the desires of your father. This is the regency council, you, me, and your sister."
 
Cecilia leaned back and chuckled, she looked different, more confiedent, stronger in body and in mind. "What do you say, brother?"
 
Leopold looked as his mother vanished.  His mind was already making the calculations for his decision.  There could only be one.  He walked towards them as if feigning compliance for a second.  Then he leapt.  Tossing a smoke bomb at Cecilia, he drew his sword rushing Tyrannia, aiming to cleave her in two in a single strike.  "I say you can both go fuck yourselves manipulating a sick old man, and chaining your own mother!"
 
Cecilia screamed as the smoke bomb went off and covered her eyes, Tyrannia would not be as easy to distract. Leopold felt his body constrict in the air as a force threw him into the side wall. Jia's sword jumped into the witch's hand as she crossed the room with a smirk. "You are so brave, Leopold, so brave, but you have to understand that where brute force is advantageous, it is nothing when brute force is combined with knowledge." She said and then punched the ground as the palace floor cracked in half snaking over to where Leopold lay. 
 
"You will not interfere if you will not join!"
 
Leopold rolled and sommersaulted as he landed, running towards the wall, he pushed off it jumping between it and a pillar as she cracked the ground below them.  Vanishing into the shadows above in the ceiling rafters, his silently moved leaping down at Tyrannia from behind, slashing at her first with his main sword, then spinning around with quick speed throwing an egg shell into her eyes, as it shattered shards of shaven glass came out like a cloud as he quickly reached for a throwing star throwing at the artery of her neck.
 
"You insolent little brat!" She screamed as he darted along the rafters, though Leopold would have a much harder time than he first thought, for as he darted along the wooden planks, they began too loosen and crack as he jumped. Her magic pulling them down off of the ceiling. Debris and splinters jumped from the walls into his face and his attack down was not nearly as graceful as he first desired. His egg shell missed and while the throwing star sliced into Tyrannia's hand, he landed on the floor. 
 
She reached out her hand, her magic constricting against his body as she pulled him toward her and slice him with his father's sword. The torches burning brighter now as purple flames began snaking across the palace floor.
 
"RRRRRAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!!!"  Leopold cried out as he struggled against her magic.  As the sword approached him, something incredible happened.  Suddenly the flames turned a bright red as the sword leapd from her hands to his.  It felt heavy in his hand, but disrupted her magic just long enough.  He swung it clumsily at her, trying to take advantage of the surprise.  "I'M NOT DONE YET!" he said as the purple flames returned.
 
"Except you are!" She clapped her hands together as the floor and flames lept up punching Leopold in the chest, sending him flying across the room. "I don't know what magic that sword possesses, but it is nothing in comparison to mine." As he flew across the room, waves of fire encircled him, burning his skin as she pulled the fire closer together, leaving him no room to think or to breathe.
 
The smoke of his uniform permeated his nose as he felt himself lifted on fire.  He looked at the sword as he felt himself burning,  "AARRRGGHHHH!!!! ONE MORE TIME!" he said struggling trying to get it to work.  But it was to no avail.  He tossed his belt off as he staggered backwards.  So this is it? he thought to himself.  Almost giving up he tried to focus on the good in life, and what he had lead, calm his mind, to blind himself from the pain.  Then another activation, as the flames turned white and then the ones on him dissipated, but for only a moment.
 
"RUN!" a voice seemed to tell him.  He began to run from the palace chambers into the shadow of the night.  As he looked back, he looked down ashamed, father... mother... wait for me.  He thought.  
 
"I just hope Madeline made it out." he said.  
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The Prince ran out into the countryside, hot tears flowing down his face as the sight of his mother writhing on the floor, the smugness of his sister's grin, cut into his mind. He ran so far, without looking back toward the capital that he soon found himself on the distant hills overlooking the city. Only the wind in the trees made a sound her and he caught his breath as he thought about his next move. The Gurkhas presumably had taken Madeline toward the south, so that was one option. Another was to figure out how to defeat Tyrannia and Cecilia before their work became permanent in the Empire. He sat down. Too many thoughts stormed through his mind.
 
If I'm to defeat them, I'll need no distractions, he thought to himself.  Besides no doubt they'd move on the Imperial Knights next.  He'd be walking into a trap.  With any luck, Chakri was still in power in the South, and Xuehua was not about to let machinations spread here.  Still his gut turned, he wished Ryu was here.  But he'd have to have faith his master had escaped the purge.  
 
Leopold's journey South was a humbling one.  He had spent much of it disguised as a poor traveler, bumming rides on live stock trucks as the tree line turned to jungle and the roads became rougher.  By the time he arrived in Hanoi a day in a half later he stank.  His clothes were torn.  He smelled like a chicken coup.  His skin was turned brown with dust.  His swords were in a ragged burlap bag as he entered the city....
 
There was no way he was going to be allowed to get in the palace.  He instead had to sneak in.  When he dropped onto the balcony into Madeline's room, he found her in the bath, soaking, as she turned towards him, she saw not the prince but what looked like a dirty peasant.
 
Madeline screamed as she jumped out of the bath, covering her breasts and neather regions with her hands. Water splashed around and with her scream, the doors flung open as two young Amazon warriors ran in with their poleaxes drawn, pointing them at the Prince. 
 
"How did you get in here beggar?"
 
"Don't ask him questions, Anita," said the other Amazon, a Chinese warrior, Zizen. "They know they're not allowed on palace grounds." She scowled, "Get back or die, animal!"
 
"Ugh!" Leopold said grabbing the Amazon's pole axe pulling it forward, growling angrily.  "I'm not a commoner!"  He turned to Madeline, "Tell them!" he said as he walked towards her hoping that she would recognize his voice being enough.
 
"Shizi?" Madeline said and Zizen stopped her charge, looking at the rough figure.
 
"Oh, heaven forgive me!" she gasped and fell to her knees, "Highness, we had no idea." The other Amazon, confused at first then followed suit, albiet slowly, as Madeline walked over and touched his face.
 
"You look like hell, did you make it out of the palace alright? What happened? We were expecting you much sooner."
 
"I...." he said pausing as he walked over to her putting his hands into the water splashing it over his face, "I lost.  Madeline... Cecilia she's turned, with her bitch mentor Tyrannia, she's taken the palace.  They have mother.  And father... I don't know.  But Tyrannia, her abilities.  She's stronger, a lot stronger, and has abilities I didn't think possible.  This is going to be a hard fight.  I'm not sure if I can win." he said finally sitting down throwing his hands over his face in fatigue and frustration.
 
"Shizi..." Madeline sighed. She walked over to throw on her robe while the two Amazons returned to their posts near the door, still listening to the conversation. "Just because the enemy is stronger than you, doesn't mean that you can't eventually defeat her. You need to have faith in your own abilities and hone what you you have. I have never known you to give up just because of difficult circumstances." She sat down with him, her fingers interlocking with his, "You are a lion, are you not? And you are worrying about victory?"
 
He smirked slightly, raising his hand to hers kissing it, "Its going to be a long journey.  But one I must make quickly if I'm to save them all." he said to her, "I can't help but worry.  And you, I worry about you, against such power, I'm not sure where you'll be safe.  Besides I know how much you hate the cold of tents..." he added with a slight laugh.
 
"Why are you worried about me? Where else am I going to go? I'm a refugee, the only home I have is right here. I'm coming with you and if that means that I need to have a few cold nights in a tent, well, so be it." She smiled, kissing him. "I'm coming with you."
 
He laughed, kissing her back wrapping his arms around her embracing her tightly.  "We'll need to get you outfitted then.  We can get a message to Chakri here, but the other senior knights... we still must contact them.  But, Ryu and Angelika and Rhee, I don't know where they are, and I must go to Khan Tengri." he said rubbing his chin, "Not an easy journey.  Where to first do you think?"
 
"Why do you have to go to Khan Tengri?"
 
Leopold unsleaved his father's sword.  The blade looked dirty from the journey, but it still held a presence.  He held it in his hand.  "This sword, is the sword of Temujin, its power can only be unlocked by those worthy.  Khan Tengri is the most sacred Mountain, it is there I will learn to use it... if I ever will.  And only with it can I beat her magic.  I won't lie, its a harsh journey.  I really wish we had more of the knights here now."
 
"Well look no further," a booming laugh filled the hallway as the two Amazons stepped aside in shock as Angelika and Rhee strolled into the room. They wore flowing black robes that held tight on their bodies, silver-gray skin that shimmered in the Vietnamese sunlight. "I heard the commotion from up here, but when I heard your voice I figured everything was fine." The Austrian's piercing blue eyes mellowed, "I heard what happened in the capital. Before Rhee and I heard you and Madeline were coming to Hanoi, we were going to attack ourselves. And we would have won."
 
"Master Ryu always said wisdom and humility come with age, I'm glad to see that isn't quite true." Leopold said to his aunt before nodding to Rhee.  
 
"I heard you put up a half decent fight." Rhee said, "But that is troubling, we've had tangles with sorceresses before, they are not to be underestimated."  He clenched his fist at the thoughts of battles long past.  "Either way, we're with you."
 
Leopold nodded smiling, "Thank you." he said, that just left Ryu.  "If that's the case then, I think our course is clear, we must reach Mount Tengri, before the hashashin pick up our trail." he then thought for a moment, smirking, "Oh... Angelika.  Madeline is coming with us, she wants to learn to be an Amazon.  I think she could use a mentor."
 
"Hah!" Angelika laughed, and looked at Madeline, shaking her head. "She doesn't have a chance." The Princess had changed a great deal since Leopold's childhood, though she had always been fiery, the corruption of her bloodstream with Rhee's curse had made both of them youthful again and they became feared adventurers and warriors in the Empire. Like wild bears they ravaged the battlefield then ravaged alehouses. "What makes you think you could ever be an Amazon?"
 
"I..." Madeline stammered, "I just want to travel with you."
 
Angelika smirked then turned to Anita and Zizen, "You two, you're coming with us. Madeline," she turned back to the concubine, "If you are going to be Empress one day, then you need to craft your own legend. Say hello to your newest Amazonian Guard."
 
The three women looked at each other, barely saying a word, as Angelika smacked Leopold on the head with a booming laugh. "She has a lot to learn and when I teach her, she's going to be able to kick your ass."
 
Leopold growled in frustration, "Still larger than life in your old age." he said to her in mild annoyance at her boisterousness.  He turned to Madeline, smiling, noticing a nervous look on her face, "So... shall we go?"
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The next day they set out from Hanoi, back north toward the Chinese border. In a open cattle truck, the Prince's entourage moved quickly up the narrow roads of the Southeast Asian jungles, unaware that Tyrannia watched them from above. From the Imperial Palace, now firmly in her grasp, she sat in the anscetral shrine and meditated. She saw Leopold moving north and smirked. 
 
"So, the Prince is coming back to face me, this time with reinforcements. Well you will find the waters of the jungle most displeasing to your journey." Her eyes glowed a bright blue as she whispered into the flickering torches of the shrine. "And if the waters do not kill you, then my agents will."
 
Now as Leopold and the others crossed the jungles into China, stormclouds, terrifyingly black hovered around them.
 
The jungles of the Yunnanese-Burmese Border were never fun to pass, but this weather made them almost intolerable.  Leopold slogged through the thick mud as the rain poured down around him.  The sight in front of him was only thicker and thicker brush, and winds which blew rain into his eyes.  His armor was stained brown with he waters around him.  
 
He raised his machete slashing it, chopping through the vines.  One fell dead, with blood spilling out.  "Looks like snake again for dinner." he said as the party continued their way through the terrible jungle.  Soon hopefully they would come to the foot hills of the mountains.  
 
"Snake again." Rhee grunted.  The knight who had acted as their pack mule was none too pleased with the diet menu.  "I'm half impose on a farm house for some decent chickens or a pig."
 
"No, we have to stay off the trails." Leopold said, "There are agents everywhere, and we don't know what abilities they will have!" he declared.  It was something weighing on his mind, how could he fight something he couldn't even see.
 
Since they had abandoned the vechicles in favor of walking across the jungle paths, the women, both Angelika and Madeline, and the two Amazon guards, moved slow. Rough terrain was one issue, but they spent most of their time wading across rivers that suddenly appeared on the map because of the rain. 
 
"Agents?" Angelika hollered, "What do they matter? We'll die from drowning before any of Tyrannia's followers find us." The Prince's aunt had been sour since they abandoned the truck and had become the second pack mule of the journey. She already tossed all of Madeline's wardrobe into the river saying that a future queen needed to deal with hardship. Madeline took the insult, but she moved the slowest, clawing up mud hills and sliding back down when her strength gave out. 
 
"Leopold!" Madeline yelled out from the back. "Can we please stop for the day? We've been walking for over five hours without rest."
 
Angelika frowned, "You just need to learn how to keep up."
 
But even the two Amazon guards began to falter on their steps. "This rain is incredible," said Anita, "It hasn't let up in four days."
 
Leopold stopped turning to Madeline, walking past Angelika, "We need to make it to at least the foots of the mountain it is only another hour walk.  We can get shelter in the cave.  Out here too long and soaking and the water can get you really sick." he said before turning to Angelika, "And you, my mom's told me stories about how you would be very upset as a teenager if anyone spilled something on your dresses.  So put a sock in it." he said poking her before helping Madeline up, wrapping his arms around her to help her walk the rest of the way.
 
"Now shall we continue?"
 
"Ha," Angelika smirked at him and rolled her eyes to the armor she carried on her back. "You're going to learn one day, Prince, that you need to make sure that everyone in your army is content. You might go around and beating up your father's enemies, but you don't know about governance. Don't piss me off or you'll regret it." She said walking away from him and joining Rhee, "Oh and if you have a witty remark to that, I'm going to bury you into the ground here. So learn to shut your mouth."
 
Madeline looked up and stood up on her feet. "Everyone is a bit on edge, Shizi, let's get to the caves and dry off. Then we'll have a better evening."
 
Rhee shook his head, "If you want to scare the kids, you could just eat one of them." joking to his wife as he continued up hills. 
 
"I like a little meat on my food, darling."
 
 It wasn't long before they finally made their way to one of the caves.  The stone passage way went deep into the mountain winding its way through solid stone.  A small stream rolled through and then into a small crack in the wall.  
 
Leopold his stuff down before taking off his boots, letting he sludge water run down from out of it as he lit a fire from some wood laying around placing the boots near, steam rising from them as they were dried out.  "We'll make camp here for the night." he said.  "Between the rain and thick vegetation I doubt anyone's going to see light from the caves, so make fire and get dry everyone."
 
He went over to Madeline wrapping his arms around her, noticing her face seemed upset, as if it was holding back the whirl wind. "You ok?" he asked.
 
Madeline sighed as he took her by the arms and held her close. She leaned down and kissed his hands. "I'll be ok, it's just a lot to handle right now, Shizi." A quiet chuckle parted through her lips and she took his fingers and toyed with them individually. "Are you happy I came with you? I mean, not like happy at the beginning, but now that we've been on the journey. I feel like I'm slowing you down from saving your family."
 
Leopold took her fingers in his hand gripping them, "You are my family." he said to her running his hand up moving her wet strand of hair from her face and kissing her.  "Besides, gives you a good motivation to finally get those Amazon skills up.  No?" he asked pinching her ass as he motioned her to lay with him by he fire.
 
She gave him a delicate smile, not one that had recently belonged to his mother or aunt, but something he had not seen in a long time. A softer understanding of the world. "Not tonight, not here, Shizi, just lay with me." Madeline said and walked over to the fire. The four day journey through the jungle reduced her to a frail shivering body. She would regain her strength of course, but Leopold noticed that even his aunt and the two guards were feeling fatigued and sick, even he probably was no longer on top of his game. 
 
Sleep would come easy that night as the warmth of the fire dried their clothes and guarded them from the wet winds blowing from the jungle. Before Leopold closed his eyes, he heard the last of the raindrops stop and the clouds begin to clear. A brilliant moon shone down from the sky, the next day would most assuredly be easy traveling.
 
The Prince's mind finally gave way to his dreams.  In it he was atop a high mountain, looking out over the Empire.  The lands were his as far as the eye could see, but there was a great darkness.  It stretched over the lands far into the West and East.  Sounds of chains echoed, as the natural world burned, industry was raised to fill a hunger, a hunger of something terrible.
 
Leopold woke up in a cold sweat.  He reached over seeing Madeline still asleep next to him.  The fires were dying down now, as he looked around though, he could have sworn he caught a glimpse of light from where the stream enterd into the wall...
 
Getting up, Leopold walked over toward the wall, the stream disappeared below the rock into a deep pool that rippled. Looking deeper, he saw the ripples increase in speed until a black hand surfaced from the pool and grabbed onto his leg. The hand was abnormally strong and started to pull Leopold toward the pool, to pull him into the deep water.
 
"BLURBBLURB!" The sound echoed out of the pool.
 
"WHAT THE HELL!" he said yelling as he was pulled into the pool.  He felt himself fall down into the icey water, being pulled deeper and deeper, his lungs burning from lack of air.  Reaching to his side he grabbed his kunai dagger slashing across the arm, black blood spilled as he swam to the surface, as others awoke.  He pulled himself onshore catching his breath, "To arms!" he said his voice labored.
 
Angelika opened her eyes first and saw Leopold breathing heavily, soaking wet out of the pool. "Rhee, wake up, our nephew is in trouble, he's talking like he's in military camp again." She jumped to her feet and reached across the yank the Prince over back to the fire as the pool rippled again. One black hand was followed by five and then ten, as the strange creatures bubbled up from the dark pond. 
 
They looked hideious, hunch-back creatures with one eye in the middle of their head, matted black hair and a mouth that was lined with sharp teeth. "MMMMRRRRMMMM!" They moaned together, waking Rhee, Madeline, and the other Amazons out of their sleep. Seeing Leopold wet and shivering and the monsters approaching, Madeline grabbed her own dagger and held it up as the creatures approached. 
 
One came at the Prince, its claws coming down at him.  Lunging at the creature, he drove his knife deep in till he heard a wheeze, then twisted his blade kicking it back as two more came at him tackling him down.  They moved to bite him as Rhee roared out charging into them.  With one punch, one lay dead.  Another got on his back biting him.  Rhee screamed in agony as the acidic saliva of the creature burned into the bite.  Staggering back he smashed it against the wall.
 
Leopold crawled forward making a dash through the Melee to retrieve his weapons, from where he slept.  "What are these." he said to himself.  It was only then that he noticed one was coming straight at Madeline, him unable to get there before it got to her.
 
Madeline lunged forward, burying the knife into the beast's chest. It screamed and leaned toward her, biting her arm and letting the acid sink in. She screamed, but kept the dagger embedded in the creatures chest, then removed the blade and sliced into the creature's neck, droping it backwards. She staggered for a moment, but lacking the time to rest because of the onslaught, she helped the two Amazon guards with their own problems.
 
Angelika, meanwhile, fought back to back with Rhee. She slammed the beasts into the walls with her fists at first, then moved to take her battle axe and cleave them in half as they emerged from the pool. Soon thirty of the creatrures lay strewn across the caves as more and more emerged from out of the black pond.
 
"Rhee, I have an idea!" she shouted. "Leopold get everyone out, we're gonna bring down the cave!"
 
"Are you crazy?!" he said as he grabbed his swords, drawing both, entering the fray, cutting like a storm of steel, holding them back.  
 
"That's a good question!" Rhee said as he charged another one, grabbing a long stone pole, swinging it to throw them back towards the pool, "..... ah fuck it!" he grumbled as they prepared for the next wave.
 
"Fine." Leopold said, grabbing Madeline.  "Lets go now!" he said to her.  "Grab what you can and move."  The prince spun his swords around again slaying another of the creatures.  He couldn't help but wonder, how they had been here in the first place, and what that portended for the rest of the journey.
 
"Ready, Rhee?" Angelika screamed out as she cleaved off another head then threw her axe out to the mouth of the cave. She took her hands and clasped them together in two fists then slammed them hard against the cavern walls. The cave shook with the might of her swing and when Rhee joined in the rocks began to fall. Angelika hit it once more for good measure and the cavern started falling apart. "Let's go!" she hollered at her husband as they started running out.
 
They dove out of the cave as it collapsed and Madeline ran to pick up Angelika from the mud. "Thank you," she said and helped the Amazon warrior to her feet.
 
Angelika smiled and put her hand on Madeline's shoulder. "I saw you back there, not bad, not bad at all."
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Lady Tyrannia sat in the Imperial shrine looking at the faces of Jia's ancestors. Since she had come to the East and learned about the mystical properties of ancestor worship and Taoist magic, Tyrannia searched for a way to harness this power. She spent hours meditating while Cecilia governed the empire. Her power had grown, she felt stronger, more in tune with the natural world, but that was still not enough to defeat Leopold and to fully take power in Tianxia.
 
"He nearly beat me," Tyrannia said to herself, looking up at the Emperor's ancestors. "I have heard that you give power to the chosen and the powerful. Have I not demonstrated this to you. What must I do to unlock your secrets?"
 
She closed her eyes, searching for an answer.
 
The winds howled over the desert, Leopold brought his sleeve in front of him as the rough sand blew.  He squinted his eyes feeling burnt by the bright sun overhead.  It had been a rough journey over the Himilayas, they were now in the deserts of Xinjiang, on the silk road.  This had been the place where his father had cut the gordian knot so long ago.  It was humbling.  So many legends were born here.
 
The Prince's thoughts turned to home, that of his mother, his father, even his sister, all that he had left behind.  Now he was out in this desert, following in the foot steps of giants, seeking a miracle.  He paused as they trudged through the endless sand, turning back to Madeline.  "What am I doing?" he asked, "Why have we gone this far, even if we get past this endless desert, I'm not sure I have what it takes... to do what my father did over again?"
 
Madeline had thought they would have horses to cross Xinjiang, instead the small party crossed on foot, moving slowly and stopping at small villages to rest. Khan Tengri hovered over the clouds in the distance, probably only a few days journey from where they stood. Listening to the Prince speak, she wrapped her arm around his waist. Since Madeline first game to the East, she had changed a great deal. The foppish courtesan was no more, instead Leopold found her grip strong as she pulled him close and they trudged across the sands together.
 
"But you aren't your father, the enemies are different now, small and unseen. There aren't these great monolithic states to conquer anymore, Shizi. But you are thinking too far ahead. Worry about what is in front of you right now. Saving your father and mother and defeating Tyrannia. If you think about too much, your mind won't be sharp for the final fight."
 
He smiled taking her hand, squeezing it, and kissing her.  "Yeah... I guess so." he said.  He still felt unconvinced, but he would have to go on.  Afterall what choice did he have with so many counting on him.  It was strange really.  Up until now he had felt possessed by a great strength and determination, always a sense of destiny.  But now, doubt had crept into his mind.  It troubled him.
 
They continued through the great desert towards the mountains in the disance.  He could see shadows of riders on either side of him as he went.  But each time he got close they would vanish into sands and blow away futher off.  A chill ran down his spine.  
 
Towards the end of the first day of their trek across the desert they came to an oasis.  Water never tasted so sweet to his mouth.  Leopold bent down to drink it, taking a generous amount in the cup of his hands splashing it over his face, basking in its coolness as the dirt washed away. He looked back turning towards Madeline.  "How're you..." he started to ask before Rhee grabbed his head, holding it tight shaking his head.
 
"Arrrggghhh.... roooaaaaawwwrrr!!!!!" he yelled, he started to have his transformation take effect for a moment, only to stop panting heavily, "Raaaah... something.... my head... hurts." 
 
When Rhee released Leopold, the Prince fell to the ground and into Madeline's arms. She held him tightly, fearfully of the sight of the knight struggling with his own inner beast. Angelika ran from their bags and tackled Rhee to the ground. "Something in the air, it's causing him to change. You two, go to the mountain, it isn't safe here for you anymore. I don't know if I can hold back Rhee...I don't know if I can hold back myself." She said, then when neither of them moved, Angelika scowled. "I said move!"
 
Madeline grabbed Leopold by the arm and lifted him up as they started running back into the desert toward the rocky slopes of the mountain. The sword at his side vibrated with energy as they heard the shouts of Angelika and Rhee transforming into beasts. Not far behind, the two Amazon guards followed Leopold and Madeline into the desert.
 
"We'll stay by your side," they said and bowed, "We don't understand what is going on."
 
The ground began to shake as a wind picked up around them.  What started as a gentle breeze soon turned to a howling wind battering against them.  The amazon warriors were blown back, further and futher behind.  Leopold reached out to grab Madeline's hand.  Holding it firm he initially had her, then found his grip slipping as grains of silken sand came between them.  Their gripped slipped from each other as both fell away.
 
"NO!" he cried out as she slipped further from him.  Leopold found a mound of sand appear around him burying him down into the desert, not noticing the sword beginning to pulse energy like never before, even as he became encased in a prison.
 
Madeline found herself sucked down from the sands into a chamber below.  Before her a man dressed in goldn robes stood.  Around his neck a jade necklace with skulls wrapped around.  His fingers had long nails flowing from it, wrapped in gold.  He wore a tall pointed hat and floated above the floor.
 
His features were decriept.  His face had dried out long ago, and his eyes were a milky opaque color.  He turned to her, "YOUSSSS THE GIRL!!!!" he said, his eyes fixed on her, "YOUSSS MIND, WHY CAN I NOT PEER INTO IT?!" he said as he approaching her, his long finger stroking her cheek.  "THE OTHERS THEY WEAK, BUT YOU!!! STRANGE!"
 
Madeline backed up into the wall, terrified at the man's complexion and the sound of his voice. He looked otherworldly, a contrasting mixture of death and long life, like a vampire but with an Eastern flare. She reached down for her dagger, holding it tightly in the palm of her hand, she pressed it against his side. She tried to growl, but the strangeness of the man turned it into a whimper. "Who are you? Where am I? Please, tell me."
 
Leopold felt an echo of a voice in the distance.  Help, it cried.  It sounded feminine.  Vaguely like Madeline's voice.  But.... more.  It was more than that.  It was hers to be sure, but many more than that as well.  He reached out, to try and touch them.  But he could not.  He felt the sword pulse in his hand.  Lifting it up it started to glow.  Walking forward, it lead him towards a point, parting the sand as he went.
 
The creature came towards her smiling, "Not so strong now. Are you?" he said.  His magic was strong now.  The creature's mind dominated her own, borrowing deep inside hers.  Her biggest fears were amplified.  But then he hit a wall inside her.  A shining light insider her mind, acting as a shield to him.  She had, the gift... he shut his eyes turning away.  "RAAAAHHH!!!!!" he said raising his hands.  "From where did you get that?!" he demanded.
 
Madeline didn't understand what happened. For a moment the creature hovered over her as ten million terrors entered her mind. She saw spiders and snakes, flooded streets and dead friends laying on the ground. She saw herself trapped in rooms, much like the chamber with no way out and the air getting thin. Then the creature fell back, hissing at her as she dropped to the ground. Madeline moaned, holding her head, her brain throbbed and she leaned against the wall.
 
"Wha? I don't understand..."
 
The creature shreiked, "NO!!!! THE WITCH SHE LIED TO US!!! SHE PROMISED SOULS!  SHE DID NOT TELL US A DESCENDANT OF THE PLANE WAKER TRIBE WAS HERE!" he said crying.  "I WILL NOT BE CAST AWAY BY YOU!" he said.  Raising his hands, great sand warriors formed around her from the skeletons of many lost travellers on the silk road.  Armor and swords of sand formed as they charged to attack her.  Their blades clanging against her gladius as she tried to hold them off.
 
The creature again dug into her head with his magic, trying to bring back her terror, stop her from fighting.  But as he did a loud roar echoed through the chamber as Leopold burst in.  "LET HER GO!!!" he said.
 
The creature turned to Leopold raising his hand a lightning bolt crackled off sending the Prince flying backed as his body writhed in pain.
 
Everything was happening so quicly. As Madeline stirred, she went over the amount of time that had passed between falling into the chamber and the present. Five, maybe ten minutes at most. The very thought made her mind spin. She tried to stand up, tried to make sense of the chaos happening. Then Leopold burst in and was subsiquently thrown back into the wall by the vampire-like creature.
 
"Shizi!" she yelled out and barreled through two of the skeletons to hover over his body as their enemies approached. "Shizi," she said again, "You need to get up, I need you."
 
Leopold struggled to stand, as he did a voice echoed in Madeline's head, "Calm yourself child.  It is you it fears."  The voice was soothing, like that of a mother, one lost a long time ago.  "This is all an illusion.  You alone have the power to resist this creature.  Its power comes from those who believe its tricks to be real.  You must see beyond the plane of what is seen, and cast off this illusion."
 
Leopold came at the creature again.  His sword caught the next lightning bolt, tossing it aside, but he was feeling wary.  He wanted to get angry, but he felt helpless instead.  More creatures appeared from the sands.  Wolves, bears, men, their skeletons all became one with the sand attacking the Prince.
 
Leopold swung the blade, its magic shattering them, as he cut towards the creature.  But it was no use.  More minions continued to appear, and the Prince's will kept fading.  "So tired." Leopold moaned as he felt the fatigue in his muscles.
 
The horde of skeletons became too much, the vampire's voice merged together with the voice of the woman, and beyond that Leopold's moans pierced Madeline's ears. Her head twirled in a frenzy of noise, confusion, fear, and anger. She held her temples and fell against the wall, writhing in terrible mental pain before screaming out. 
 
"RAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!"
 
Then with a wave of energy, the chamber went dark.
 
Leopold was knocked down to the floor.  He stood, but stopped as he ached, feeling like he had been socked in the gut by Rhee.  "Uhhhhhhh." he said as he tried to look around, but it was pitch black.  Raising his lighter, he brought a flame alive, looking through.  The skeletons were gone.  No sign of the creature either.  
 
"MADELINE!!!!" he cried as he grabbed his sword looking around for her.  As he turned the flame towards the corner where she had been, he saw something incredible as the orange light reflected off her flowing fiery golden hair that drapped down her back.
 
"Shizi?" she said looking into the light and reaching out to grab his hand. Her skin tight and strong as she brought him close to her in the dark. "What happened, is the vampire dead?"
 
"I don't... know?" he said unable to take his eyes off her.  Her skin was still glowing, from her release of magic.  It had a golden bronze hue to it, her courtly dainty figure been replaced by a strong muscled frame, slender and fit.  The loose robes she wore for desert travel were no longer so loose, and her blue eyes now glowed in the darkness, two blazing sapphires letting her see far beyond a normal girl.
 
"How... do you feel.  You look different." Leopold started.
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Madeline looked down at her hand and clenched her fist. "I feel stronger." She looked up at him, "There was a voice, I don't know who it belonged to, maybe my mother. It said everything was a lie around us and that if I let go, it would disappear. Then everything went dark. Madeline ran her hand up her arm and felt the tough skin that wrapped around hardened muscle. "I feel incredible, Shizi, truly." 
 
Taking his hands, Madeline kissed him on the lips. "Thank you for coming, thank you for defending me. This is all so strange."
 
Leopold returned her kiss, as he wrapped his arms around her he felt a passion for her he had not felt in some time.  Smiling he looked up as a hole had a bright white beam of moonlight shine through towards them.  Taking her hand in his he kissed her again, "We should return." he said to her, the others would be hopefully returned to normal by then.
 
Upon returning to camp they found the scene ravaged by the fight between Rhee and Angelika.  The other members of the party had scattered, returning only to find the Amazon warrior claiming to have been wrestling Rhee to the ground.  Which evidently required some rather loud screams.
 
With the spell broken they were free to continue their journey onwards to Khan Tengri, the journey to the base of he mountain was uneventful.  It was a long hard hike, under blaring sun, but at last they had reached the foothill.  It seemed like their troubles were behind them.  When they reached the stoney path up, Leopold had set down his pack.  It was mid day.  The sun shined brightly as he took Madeline's hand in his.  He had noticed a change in her since the cave, she had become more adventurous and full of life.  Gone was the courtesan pretty girl who just made a good slam piece.  Slowly he felt closer to her, more a partner than his flavor of he month.
 
"There it is Khan Tengri." he said looking up at mountain cutting up into the heavens.
 
Madeline stared up at the mountain before them, the great peak disappearing among the clouds. "It's a gigantic mountain, I've never seen something like this in Europe."
 
"Asia is full of suprises," said Angelika laying a hand on the Prince's shoulder. "There is a wise man on the mountain who is responsible for gathering the peoples of the Steppe together. If we are going to mount an attack on Tyrannia then you need to speak with him and declare your desire to rule Tianxia by yourself." The Amazon sighed, "But you realize doing so will be the end of your father, correct?"
 
Leopold felt a pit in his stomach.  He did, but he had not wanted to dwell on it.  He would have to force his father to abdicate, somthing, Jia may never forgive him for.  The man had been a force of natur, subdueing the world, and shaping the arc of history.  But even more than that, it meant Leopold would take the mantle from him, never able to give it up till old age claimed him and he too was too exhausted to rule.  Was he ready for that.  He looked at Madeline squeezing her hand and then back at Angelika.
 
"It does not matter whether or not I'm ready.  My father is too tired, but his vision still breathes, and it needs a sword.  I will be that because nobody else can.  I will march on the Forbidden City and restore this nation." he said, "But... how exactly do I go about this?"
 
Angelika pointed at the mountain, "You will learn, just as your father learned before he defeated the King of Cochin. You fight a different enemy now, one that hides in the shadows and one that is not as easy to destroy. But you have to destroy them, the mountain will tell you." She took Madeline by the shoulder and brough her away from Leopold. "C'mon, he needs to do this by himself."
 
Madeline walked away, looking back at him before they settled into the tent.
 
Leopold looked back at her as he headed up the mountain path towards the summit.  The trail was narrow and rocky.  It winded up through sharply cut ridges towards the snow capped peak. Each step the prince took he felt a strong wind blow over him, cold and biting.  His sword felt heavy on his back, weighing down the higher he ascended.  What could he find here.
 
He thought of the fight he had had with Tyrannia.  An enemy in the shadows.  Angelika was right.  What had they encountered?  This magic was beyond a target he could reach out and strike.  It concealed itself in a shadow, a shadow he could not reach into.  The prince was now deep in thought, becoming absent minded of his surroundings.
 
When he looked up next the Prince say a small wooden building decorated by flying penants, flapping wildly in the mountain air. Bronze casted bells rang slowly and the slow vibrations of a Gu Zheng's strings filled his ears. In Mongolian script a sign on the top of the building read, "The Sound of the Mountain."
 
When he walked in, his boots clicked on the wooden floor and in the center of the room a bald man sat at the Gu Zheng plucking the strings with a smile. He gestured for him to come closer with a wave of his hand and then turned slowly as his strumming stopped. 
 
"Who are you?"
 
The Prince looked at the strange man as he heard the docile tones played from the string instrument.  He could not place them, even feeling like he had heard them before.  Circling the wooden room, he felt one hand go to his sword, very suspicious of what was in front of him, with the expriences they had had coming here.  "Who are you?" he asked the man as the princ readied himself.
 
"You may call me Sheng Tzu and I am the man who lives on this mountain. But you have come to me, why should I say anything about myself? Who are you that speaks so boldly as if strangers should care who you are?" Sheng never moved off his seat.
 
"I am Leopold, Crown Prince of these lands.  This mountain is my future domain, that is why!" he said, his voice booming, annoyed by the presumption of an old man. 
 
"You are no one's Crown Prince, you are a child." Sheng mused and began playing the Gu Zheng again. He frowned, "And because you are a child, a great man will die."
 
He looked at he man growling angrily.  Leopold felt his rage burning inside, at the assertion.  He was losing time, he had to get back and did not have time for riddles.  He turned towards the man drawing his dagger slammng it through the strings cutting them.  "I have no time for your riddles peasant.  I am on an important quest that the whole of this nation is depending on me for.  Tell me who you are and what you mean, NOW!" he declared.
 
Sheng smiled and waved his hand as the dagger fell down to the floor and the strings reattached themselves. "The people depended on that great man, you are not him. The people do not care about you. You should go, you are not ready for wisdom." He then returned to playing the instrument. 
 
"My father?" Leopold said with a realization, "No." he said, "My father is ill, but I will protect him, just like I will protect all of them.  That is why I am here.  It is my job to defend those who can't defend themselves.  Now will you serve me and your nation, or will continue to be the shit bag you've been being?!" he demanded to know.
 
Sheng looked up with a smile and stood up. "You are so Confucian it pains me. Your mother, your mother would be disappointed." He walked to the side of the room where a pot of water boiled. "You pushed a dagger through an instrument and expected me to help you. You hold your chest out to fight and expect people to bow, but, young prince, that did not always work. Your father was more than just a warrior. He understood the way the universe flowed and his wife understood that.  You have enemies, yes, they are great in number, but your warriors will not save you from your enemies. No, your people will save you. Why are you a man when you speak down to those who you do not know? Why do you deserve to lead?"
 
Leopold paused, frustrated by these questions.  Of course he deserved to lead, it was what he was born for and trained for all his life, "I am the strongest!  The strongest must lead, who else will face enemies fearlessly, crush them, and see them driven before the Empire?!  You may think its wrong to stick your chest out in the fight, but my father's strength came from leading the Vanguard fearlessly.  I will do the same!"
 
"But your father always led, if you were the strongest, you would not be seeking my help." He smiled and poured a cup of tea.
 
"I'm seeking a man who will unite the Steppe.  I merely stopped here to ask for directions.  Tell me where I can find this warrior so that I can show him my strength.  I've enjoyed my time here riddle maker but I must be getting to business." he said as he began to walk from the house.
 
"I am that man."
 
Leopold turned growling, "I don't have times for your games.  IF and that's a big if, you have a point get to it.  I have witches to smite and as I said an Empire to save.  I can tell you one thing.  If you think stalling me here is going to hurt my will, or stop me from fighting this maniac you have another thing coming.  Now are you going to help me or fucking not?" he said furious at this old man.
 
Sheng closed his eyes and then threw off the top of his robe, revealing a strong core as he turned and walked over to Leopold. "Then draw your sword, Prince. You have as much arrogance as your father."
 
Leopold raised the Tengri Sword, in his hands.  Its long handle still felt unbalanced, but he would need to learn to fight with it sometime.  Besides he had to be much faster than this old man.  He twirled it around in intimidation of this monk smirking.  "Geasers first!" he said.
 
Sheng smiled and walked over, watching him twirl the sword and then shot his arm forward. He grabbed Leopold's wrist and stopped the swinging of the blade then threw the Prince into a gong on the far side of the room. The sword twirled over the floor, landing back at the Prince's feet as he rose slowly up from the trembling gong.
 
"Rise, Prince."
 
Leopold got up angry.  With great speed, he grabbed the sword as he lept forward, cutting the gong from its strings.  He tossed it like a frisby at the monk to distract him as he came around from the side.  He swung the heavy blade over his shoulders down with tremendous force at the man, his mind filled with fury.
 
The monk ducked under the flying gong as it burst through the door then side-stepped out of the way of the blade as Leopold brought it down to the floor. Then he felt a strong hand chop to the back that sent him down onto the stone as the monk folded his hands. "Every sword strike should be thought of before it is swung. The archer sees the arrow in the stag then shoots."
 
Pushing himself up, he upper cutted the monk.  The prince's speed increased as his anger did. He drew his second short sword gripping it the blade down in his hand.  He swung around like a storm of blades slashing at the monk, his speed and fury relentless, "I think you'll find quantity has a quality all its own!" he cried. 
 
"Perhaps, but not here," said Sheng as he flipped around and kicked out Leopold's feet. As the Prince fell, the monk took his elbows and speared Leopold in the back, slamming him to the floor. "He who can master quality with the individual and quantity on the battlefield will win. But never give the Master stale bread when he desires only sweet flour."
 
Leopold looked up at the man, his anger starting to subside giving way to frustration.  He was not fast enough for this monk.  But maybe if he could learn his secrets.... if he made any sense.  "You talk in god damn riddles speak normally!  What is sweet flour even, I'm not a chick, I don't fucking bake."
 
"Why use one hundred men to win a battle when five will do? If the five are well trained. You use two swords but cannot hit me. I use no blade but have destroyed you. And you should learn to bake, even Temujin did not sit in the saddle all his life and you are not him."
 
Leopold grumbled as he got up sheathing his swords, looking at the old man he scoffed as he leaned against the wall, "You are big on criticisms, where is the path, where are the solutions old timer?" the prince asked, he did not like getting criticized like this, still half of the mind to try a surprise attack.
 
"But I have not criticized, I have given you solutions. Do you understand them? Or have you never thought beyond the tip of your blade?" The monk's smirk grew wide as his eyes seemed to dart down the hill toward where Madeline slept.
 
Leopold paused looking down, the hill at her.  A smile also came to his face, before turning back to him.  "I..." he said, "I will try.  But, it will take time.  I don't think you can say my father changed overnight either.  But today, today I need the Horde, for all my people.  Only then can I stop what is happening.  And if I do not, there will be no one left for you to teach." he said, resigned to it.
 
"Then we have work to do," the monk smiled, "I will call the Horde and hopefully when they arrive, you will be a leader worthy of Tianxia."
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The Prince stayed with Sheng for two weeks as the monk went to release ravens to fly to the outlying tribes of the Steppe ordering the chiefs to come and pay homage. In the meantime, the monk taught Leopold the necessary skills not only to become a great emperor, but also to become a better fighter. "Your enemies," the monk said, "Were weak. This world is weak, but there may come a day when you must fight an enemy far stronger than yourself. You must be able to best him no matter how strong his power. And that," Sheng pointed to the Prince's head, "Comes from there."
 
That was not to say that Leopold did not benefit from the training as it continued. The sheer intensity of Sheng's program broke the Prince, but from those shattered pieces, the monk created a stronger man. Truly, Leopold felt more free, his movements more fluid, his strength more centered in his body. 
 
"And when the Chiefs come, take the name your woman has given you, they will respect you if you become one of them. A great Khan, born from the cold dirt of the steppe."
 
Finally, Sheng could see the clouds of dust forming on the horizon. He walked into the monastery and found the Prince sitting in a pair of loose pants in the middle of the floor. "Shizi? Are you ready?"
 
Shizi looked up at him, the tengri sword balanced in his hands, no longer feeling clunky, but slender and fast.  He opened his eyes and looked up at the man, not moving his neck.  "There can be no hesitation.  It is time to march." he said as he stood up.  "I thank you for your guidance Sheng, but now I must leave you.  I have already decided on a course of action.  I will march my army on Chongqing.  The western city where my father took China from the pretenders." he said.
 
He reached out his hand to shake the man's hand.  "There they will come to face me.  And when they do, I will be ready with the gifts you have given me." he said clenching his fist as he dusted off his pants and looked up at Khan Tengri smirking at the mountain.  "Is there any parting wisdom for me friend?"
 
Sheng smiled as he took his hand, covered in red paint, and scratched down the side of Shizi's chest. "You should be contemplative and help the weak. You should be always aware that you are not the most important man on earth or even worth more than a worm on the ground, but, never forget you ARE the Wolf of the Steppe. The Wolf takes what is his...sometimes without asking right or wrong." The monk smiled with a wild grin.
 
Shizhi smirked as he turned back towards the camp, waving casually over his shoulder.  Coming down the mountain, his face was thick with stubble, and dirt covered most of him.  His brownish black hair was long and tied back behind him.  His shirt was in taters almost not there,  his toned body covered with scabs and scars from the rough journey to this place.  
 
Approaching the camp Amazonian guards raised their spears o him, not recognizing he dishevelled Khan.  "Halt." one said as she looked at him.  
 
Shizi looked at her smiling devilishly, "Listen Lieutenant.  We did this once in Hanoi, and I took you easily enough.  You don't want to try it now." he said winking at her.
 
"Priin..." she started.
 
"Khan." he said as he walked past her into the camp.  It had now grown much larger, with many of the army units in the West having gathered here.  Walking over towards where the tent was he threw open the flaps as he roared loudly, knowing it would wake Madeline up.  "WOMAN WHERE IS MY BREAKFAST?!" he shouted.
 
Madeline jumped out of the furs scattered over the floor and looked up at him, "Shizi?" she said in suprise, "You're back?" She jumped out of her bed, wearing a long shift over her body and hugged him tightly. "The army has assembled, most of the Chiefs are confused as to why they've been assembled. Rhee has been talking with them, but I don't believe they want to follow you, the don't believe anything as to what has happened to your father."
 
Shizi laughed at her as she told him the story.  He grabbed her ass, spanking it and lifted her up into his arms kissing her against the totem, then setting her down.  "I guess I'm just going to have to hit them over the head." he said.  "Get dressed, I'm going to go talk to them.  If they won't listen to reason, I'll just have to settle this with the old ways." he said, as he headed back out of the tent.
 
He then glanced back at her as if something caught his eye, "By the way you look different.  Did something change?" he asked as they walked through camp.
 
She smirked at him and then pulled him back into the tent. "I don't want you going off anywhere until I at least get dressed and we both get cleaned up and if you ever ask for breakfast like that again, I'll cut out your tongue." Her spirit and body pushed a swelled level of confidence. Madeline kept Shizi with her for the entire morning as they called for food, hot water, and clothes. She dressed him in the ancient garb of the Steppe Khans and then wore her own robes that alluded to her role as Queen. It seemed a bit overreaching, but Madeline did not care, she was as important to this campaign as Shizi.
 
After eating, bathing, and dressing, the two warriors walked out into the camp and toward the central gathering of the chiefs.
 
Shizi approached the central fire as war chiefs and officers stood around the fire grumbling about why they were here, and where was the Vice Imperator.  Rhee was trying to calm their voices, even as the accusations started it was he and Angelika that were making a play for the throne, when a voice boomed loudly.
 
"ENOUGH!" Shizi shouted as he walked into the middle of the gathering.  He stood resplendent in his red armor.  In his hand he held the Sword of Tengri.  He slammed the hilt into the stone loudly as he looked at them, roaring with passion as he spoke.
 
"This land is the very land where the Great Empire of Tianxia was proclaimed.  It is where we broke the back of the Cochinse and then the Nords.  It is where we conquered the Steppe and set free the peoples from the gates of Europe to the Pacific Ocean.  It is here we took a stand against that which was wrong with this world, and forged an Empire anew.
 
Today that dream threatens to fall.  Not by my Father's hand but by usurpers who have poisoned him and seized the throne.
 
I say enough!  The strong must rule the Empire, not to remove my Father, but to save his legacy!  To see him properly honored.  I come here demanding your fealty.  I will take your strength and March into China, like Genghis Khan before me.  I will take the city of Chongqing, and challenge the usurpers into the open field.  Then I will destroy them.
 
Your oath obligates you to follow me.  Will you honor it?" he asked his voice threatening and commanding at he same time, as if to challenge any one of these strong personalities to question him.
 
"And who are you who we should follow? If the Emperor has fallen why should we help his loins?" said one of the Chiefs of the Kara-khitai standing up.
 
Shizi smirked at him and raised his sword, pointing it directly at his neck.  "Because I am the Khan of Khans.  And the strongest of these lands.  Now, will you submit, or must I challenge you to single combat as is the laws of old?" The Khan asked.
 
Rhee shifted his gaze to Angelika whispering, "Is the kid crazy, he's seen enough fights, but these guys have seen real wars, wars against the old enemies.  Not the cowards of the world today." he said feeling uncomfortable, knowing all could be lost in a single bad cut to the Prince's body.
 
"Sejuk," said one of the older Chiefs of the Naiman to the Kara-Khitai, "There is no reason for blood today, this man is the son of the Emperor and as such we should respect his position." Then the older man turned to Shizi, "The question to you, the question that you can answer to prove your loyalty to the Empire and to our peoples is simple. A Khan that cannot lead is no Khan. In the olden days when the Khan fell from his horse, he was killed and buried where he lay. Yuan Jia has fallen off his horse and lays dying. You, O Khan of Khans who presumes so much. If these userpers are defeated, will you kill your father to become Khan of Khans?"
 
Shizhi looked at them and shook his head, "No.  I am not going to kill him.  The old ways have much to teach us, but this is tha man who united the tribes, who defeated multitudes of enemies.  I will not kill him.  I will give him rest.  I do not believe that we can simply put ourselves above others and judge them, especially those who still have much to teach us." he paused then looked everyone in the eye.
 
"But make no mistake I will rule, and I will bring my Empire into line." he said, "It is up to you to choose to follow me or not.  But there will be no man who will be a barrier to me.  That is how it was with Yuan Jia, that is how it will be with the reign of Yuan Shizhi.  Make your choice, are you with me or against me." he said standing his ground before these men.
 
"Shizi?" said the Chief of the Jaruud, "Who is Shizi? You, Prince, have a European name. What is the meaning of this?"
 
Madeline then rose from her seat and joined Shizi at the center of the circle. "He is as European as the Mongols who once crossed the river Danube to raid the cities of Hungary and Austria. He is as European as the Huns who burnt down the arches of Rome." She took his shoulder and held him tightly, "He is Yuan Shizi, he is Emperor and Khan. If you would strike him, you will strike me and like the Golden Empress of yesteryear, I will destroy anyone who comes between me and my goals."
 
She took out her dagger and cut a line at her side and then took it and cut a line across Shizi's chest. "We are children of the Steppe! We are of the earth and of the sky! Who here says we do not have the blood of the spirits who roam forever on this grass sea! Bow to him! You owe him your loyalty! HE IS YUAN SHIZI!"
 
The crowd chanted loudly, "YUAN!  YUAN!" they said hitting their shields with their swords pounding them loudly.  Slowly the naysayers were drowned out by chants of the dynasty.  Shizhi turned to Madeline, embracing her in a deep kiss as red banners were raised around the mountain base.
 
Meanwhile in the Capital, a tall lanky man, olive skinned, with a long thin goutee approached the throne.  He let a swift bow as his loose fitting black robes drapped over the floor.  He looked at Cecilia, sitting on the throne, and then the imposing figure of the Regent, Tyrannia.  
 
"Your Imperial Highness, Your Eminence." he said, "I bring word from the Hashashin scouts in the West.  The Prince Leopold has assembled the Western Clans to his cause.  The Knights are also with him, except for Knight Captain Ryu who remains unaccounted for.  They say he plans to march back East.  He's claimed the title, of Emperor and Khagan.
 
Such treachery against Emperor Jia must not be allowed to stand." Mustaffah said.  The Vizer of the Hashashin clan smirked as he looked at Tyrannia, communicating with their eyes, past the Princess.
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"No, it cannot," said the Princess as she rose from her seat. Her onyx eyes shimmered in the dim torch lights of the palace. "If my brother thinks he can just raise an army for himself and take power from my father, he will be gravely mistaken. He is heading East toward the capital?" Cecilia said, receiving a nod from the Hashashin. "Then I will meet him before he ever reaches central China. We will break the Steppe peoples like my father broke the Indians." She scoffed, "Leopold puts too much emphasis on those backward tribes. A bunch of men laying around in dung-heaps and living in tents."
 
"We have an army ready," said Tyrannia, "Your father has approved their creation."
 
"Good, then I will go myself," Cecilia sighed, "When Father dies, and Leopold is dead, I will be Empress in my own right and the people need to know that I prevented chaos from happening."
 
"I am sure, Cecilia," Tyrannia smiled, "The people know who their true leader is and it is not your brother."
 
---
 
Leopold wiped the sweat from his brow as they crossed over th great plateau towards th hills of Sichuan.  The air here in Tibet was thin, and mountains taller than he had ever seen crossed the horizon reaching into the skies.  His head was wrapped in a while turban, and his arms in a loose fitting coat.  
 
"An army which can march through these lands, must have the endurance of a thousand men on the China plain." the Prince observerd.
 
"That's why no army has gone through here in centuries." responded Rhee as he pulled his horse up behind the prince.
 
Leopold nodded.  He looked back at the vast column stretching as far as the eye could see back behind him.  These were his men.  Many had seen many winters, further still too few.  They were not the soldiers of the East, but they had spirit.  He looked over to Madeline.  She was dressed in a turqoise robe, with a see through veil of he same covering her face.  
 
"How're you holding up Amazon?" he asked.
 
"As best as I can," she said riding by his side, Madeline's robes flapped wildly in the wind as she pulled the reins of her horse and closed the distance between her and the Prince. "The soldiers look ready for batte, Shizi, and I feel ready for battle with you." She smiled and looked over the horizon. "Do you think your sister or Tyrannia will challenge us before we reach the capital or do you think we'll have to siege the palace?"
 
Shizhi smirked, "She'll come out." he said.  "I'm 'unpredictable'" he said in air quotes, "I just may be mad enough to pillage her beloved libraries and sanctuaries.  At least that's what she thinks." he scoffed as he looked towards the horizon.  "Its a question of what she brings to meet us and where."
 
Then on that horizon, shadows appeared.  Soldiers marching in step.  In their hands they held rifles and wore bright forest green uniforms.  Shizhi looked out squinting.  "Looks like we have company." he said.
 
"She's here already?" Rhee asked.  
 
Shizhi motioned for a pair of binoculars to be handed to him.  He raised them up looking through them towards the approaching men.  Looking at the approaching force he smirked, "No... she's not."  The prince shook the reins of his horse dashing forward through Tibetan plateau kicking up dust as he road. 
 
"Friends!" he said as he approached the Gurkhas.  "It does me good to see you!"
 
"And you general!" Colonel Gasturama said salutng him.  "It took us some time to find you.  But it seems we came in time." he said, as he saw the other companions approaching through the dust.  "It seems your sister has assembled an army, and it is two days march.  General... it is large."
 
Madeline stayed back as Shizi rode ahead with Rhee to meet the Gurkha commanders. Angelika rode aside her and chuckled, "You're riding well, Madeline, you've adapted well to this life. Even if you did have a little bit of enchantement to help you along."
 
"Didn't you receive the same kind of enchantment?" Madeline asked as they began riding down a long slope to the plain below.
 
"Heh," Angelika smirked, "I did, I'm not trying to demean you, child, I'm simply saying it's a pleasure to have you in the company."
 
Madeline nodded and gripped the reins a bit tighter as her horse bucked his head. "So, do the Prince and Princess get along at all. When I shared his bed back in the capital, I barely ever saw Princess Cecilia. Sometimes I thought she was just dead and a memory the imperial family kept around for ancestor worship."
 
Angelika laughed, her voice booming over the mountains. "No, she is very much alive, but Cecilia keeps to herself. My oldest sister, Cecilia's aunt, Magdalena, that's who she takes after. Quiet, stern, with piercing eyes and cold stares. Cecilia loves books, loves reading, loves writing, something that the Prince," Angelika smirked, "Never cared much for. You couldn't have seen to more different people growing up. Cecilia is still a virgin while her brother, and I mean no offense, well, you're not the first."
 
Madeline took a deep breath and shook her head, "Of course not, you think I'm naive, Angelika?"
 
"Not at all," she reeled her horse as they approached the Gurkhas, "I don't know what will happen though, I sense grief, a lot of grief in the coming days."
 
Shizhi looked at the terrain scouting it with his eyes.  It was not the forest of Chongqing.  But he had little choice if Cecilia had moved that quickly.  He wanted to seize the initiative for the fight and force her to react.  Cecilia he had no doubt had read many books and would have many numbers, very organized.  He had to turn that into a weakness.  
 
"Good news." he said to the woman as they approached.  "I'm going to go be bait for my sister.  Madeline.  Can you command the Horde forces while I draw the bulk of her army up a hill with my Gurkhas.  It should be pretty hard, being outnumbered ten to one, so I'll need you to be pretty swift in your counter attack." he added casually. 
 
Madeline rode forward from Angelika and unsheathed her sword, "Of course." Her curved steel blade shimmered in the air and she threw off her turquoise robes revealing a leather curass that held up her chest, her broad shoulders and tight stomach. Madeline wore a reinforced leather skirt that moved tight around her stomach and revealed her tanned legs and powerful thighs and calves. Her body shimmered with power and she commanded a strong presence already as the sun shone off her sword and her tan skin, sweat making her shimmer. "You can depend on me, Shizi, for everything!" She leaned forward and kissed him hard on the lips before galloping out to the front.
 
"Soldiers of Yuan Shizi! You who have followed him over the mountains of the Kush, follow me now on the final ride to glory! I am his Queen! I am his Khaness and you owe me your loyalty!" Taking her sword she cut a slash over her palm and once the blood began to flow, made two long swipes down her face, covering her face in her own blood. "The blood of my body will be repaied ten fold by the enemy." Madeline began howling, beating the sword into her chest as she felt power surging through her body. She reached up into the sky again, thrusting her sword to the heavens and then started to lead the army toward the forest sprawled over the plains. Deep within the woods, Cecilia's army assembled in the trees, moving slow toward the otherside. Both armies began creeping quickly through the thick bamboo poles, approaching destruction.
 
Shizhi's preoparations were meticulous even as his Khanness gathered th bulk of the army.  Shizhi had issued orders for the bulk of his Gurkha's to take positions on the hills around where there army was being assembled on the Plateau, setting up positions with their 80 mm field mortars to shell the approaching army of Cecilia's forcing them to react.  
 
Meanwhile Shizhi had already made the decision to do what he always did.  Attack.  Using the spare horses, he had assembled his best Gurkha rifles to act as skirmishers and draw the first blood.  As Ceclilia's armies moved out of the bamboo forests into the open fields, the sound of rifles echoed as the Gurkhas opened fire, targeting officers first.
 
Swiftly Shizhi and the Vanguard mounted their forces falling back, before they could pursue and repeated this tactic, drawing Ceclia's army further and further into the open field, aiming to have them bring out their best troops to meet the harassing.
 
Shizhi smirked, as he enjoyed the chase, "NEVER TOO GOOD AT TAG WERE YOU SIS!" he taunted through his horn, letting his sister know exactly where he was.
 
In the center of the carnage, Shizi saw Cecilia and by her side another figure pointed his scimitar at the Prince. A Hashashin rider, the clan leader charged through the array and jumped off his horse at the last minute to engage the Khan. "We may lose this battle, Khan," said the assassin, "But I promise you, you will not see a day after this!"
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Shizi smirked as he looked at the man charging through the carnage.  He threw a smoke bomb at him.  Grey smoke filling the air as he got back on his horse and fell back, turning and firing his rifle into the group coming at them.  His Gurkhas continued their fighting retreat towards the hills.  Letting Cecilia's numbers grow longer as they pursued.  Letting her Hashashin military advisers grow angrier.
 
Just like Alexander, he thought to himself as the reached the base of the Hill.  Raising his hand, the mortars opened up into the extended column of Cecilias army, while the Gurkha rifles then opened fire, targeting the leaders of the enemy units.
 
The sound of the Mortars going off was the signal for Madeline to charge with the full force of the Horde Cavalry, straight around, and flank the enemy, pushing them into Shizhi's position on the hill.  The Anvil and Hammer complete.  Shizhi drew his father's sword in one hand, his katana given by Master Ryu in the other, standing above the chaos, waiting for the Hashashin to catch him.
 
"Come on gramps.  Lets go brah." he said mockingly.
 
The assassin appeared through the smoke, holding a scythe in his hands and sweeping it toward Shizi's legs as he let out a roar. "You will not have a chance, you cocky bastard." The assassin commanded a strong presence on the field, he stood nearly six and a half feet tall, a head over the Prince and his feet made the ground rumble. With a few sudden swings of his weapon, surprising Shizi with his speed, he knocked the Prince to the ground. The assassin brought the weapon above his head and yelled out, "And this is where the Khan of Khan dies!"
 
"No!"
 
Madeline cried out and the assassin's scythe met with her sword as she held him back from slicing into Shizi's chest. "You will not harm him!" she said and pushed the assassin back over the ground. 
 
Shizhi pushed from the ground coming up.  Swinging around in a circle, he caught the scythe between his blades, pulling it forward towards him.  He then brought his leg up extended a perfectly times side kick into the Assassin's ribcage, making a snapping sound as he went.  He turned to Madeline.  "Get Cecilia.  We can end this right now!" he ordered.  
 
Before the Assassin had an instant to recover, Shizhi swung the two blades over his head bringing them down on to the scythe's shaft shattering through it.  He then spun around doing a spinning round house kick striking the assassin the the face.  "Yield." he ordered.
 
The assassin fell back and cursed with his weapon shattered, "Do you think that you will have it so easy, Prince?" He reached into his robes and pulled out two daggers. Holding them between his fingers, he threw one, and then the other at the Prince's neck. They blades sliced through the air with deadly accuracy. 
 
"Hopefully not." Shizhi said mockingly.  As he brought up the katana blade in a swing box stepping to the side as one cut through his hair.  He caught the second dagger with the curved back of the Katana manuvering trapping it, as he brought up the Tengri Sword in to the air.   It twirled in his hand as he swung it around straight across the neck, its long reach making it hard to escape.
 
A spray of blood hit Shizi in the face as he connected with the assassin's neck. The Prince's opponent made a gurgling sound then dropped to his knees with a scowl, looking up at Shizi with quickly fading eyes. Then he dropped face first down into the dirt and when Shizi looked up, he saw Madeline and Cecilia engaged on the next hill over.
 
Madeline had rushed off, after deflecting the Hashashin's scythe, to find Cecilia in the middle of her army, trying to keep the Imperial soldiers from faultering. She had skills at commanding, she had learned while in the care of Tyrannia, but her soldiers lacked the will to fight against the Prince, many of the soliders had served with him previously, the thought of destroying the Imperial Family in civil war became too much and many started falling back. Madeline caught up with Cecilia on the hill and hollered out, "Princess! Surrender now, the battle is lost!"
 
Cecilia turned her horse, her black hair flying in the wind as she narrowed her eyes and held a spear at her side. "My brother's whore? Coming to fight me? Well then! Come!"
 
The two women charged at each other, screaming as they met, their clash knocking both of them off their horses. Madeline and Cecilia hit the ground hard with a loud thud and blades of dead grass fluttered over them. Groaning they stood off the ground then thrusted forward into battle. Madeline's blade coming down against the wooden shaft of Cecilia's spear. The Princess moved fast, parrying attacks and knocking Madeline to the ground. For a girl who spent all her time in libraries, she had strength not unlike her brother.
 
"Fight me! Don't run away, whore!" Cecilia cried out and jabbed her spear into the ground before Madeline rolled to the side. Then the concubine-khanness swept the Princess to the ground, cutting into her legs. 
 
"Never, Princess." She said and they moved back and forth over the hill, slashes on their face, sides, and thighs. Then, out of breath and on opposite sides of the hill, Cecilia rose her spear for one last attack before she heard Angelika shout out.
 
"Stop! Cecilia! The battle is lost!"
 
Shizhi was coming through the battlefield like a knife through butter.  His swords were covered red, not unlike his armor, the blood red that his father wore on his conquest of Cochin.  Behind him Gurkha soldiers were marching in lock step.  Many of the soldiers she had mustered from China seeing a Khan, were starting to switch sides.  There could be no denying the power of a Yuan Khagan.
 
He game towards Ceclia, the banner of the Yuan behind him.  "Cecilia..." he said looking at her.  "What happened to you?"
 
Cecilia looked up at him and spat on the ground, "So what will it be, brother, am I to die for trying to save our parents' legacy? You're a traitor and a renegade. You will destroy the Empire, you mean to kill Yuan Jia!"
 
Shizhi shook his head, "No.  No Cecilia, I fight for our father and our mother.  Our mother you and your traitorous bitch teacher have in Chains right now.  Father has groomd me to rule.  He has always wanted me to.  It is I who have failed him, by not being the man I could be.  Until now.  And he needs me, our mother needs me, and this country needs me to save it from the ruin you invited in here.  You're so self sure that you know more than anyone else, you've invited enemies in to destroy our country from the very bowels of hell itself." he yelled back.
 
"But its not too late you can still atone!  You are my sister, your blood is good, you just need to remember it!" he said.
 
"You were always groomed to rule, you were taken in by mother and father, you were their shining star and what happened to me? I was locked away in a room to be some kind of priest, some kind of museum exhibit, of how Austria still existed this far east. No! I don't want any of that, not anymore! It's your turn to be the monument to mother's past life, I want to rule!" She charged at him, "And you won't take that from me!"
 
Shizi let her come at him, he caught her spear in between his blades, pulling it forward, extending his knee into her chest.  As she gasped for air, he dropped his weapons, striking her hands, letting the spear hit the ground.  He grabbed her hands spinning them around into a wrist lock and then throwing her to the ground.  
 
"Yield little sister.  This is no time for games and petty jealousies, the world will be destroyed by what you bring." he said.
 
Cecilia hit the ground and crawled at the grass, struggling to breathe, hot tears running down her face. "Then just kill me. I just want to die."
 
Madeline and Angelika stood still, looking at the Prince, then each took a step forward and tried to pick Cecilia up. She writhed and squirmed from their grasp, sobbing on the dirt.
 
"Shizi..." said Madeline in a whisper to him.
 
He continued to hold her down there, "No..." he said as he released his grip.  He left her down in the dirt.  "Because of you Mother and Father may already be in danger, alone in the palace with that mad woman.  If that's the case you could be the only family I have left." he said.  He turned to Angelika and Madeline.  "The Amazons can decide her fate.  I'm going to go kill a witch." he said as he picked up his swords wiping them off and preparing for the final assault.
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Madeline and Angelika watched Shizi walked off as they reached down and picked up the defeated princess. Tears flowing from her eyes. "Calm yourself, Cecilia, no one is going to hurt you. You're safe with us." Said Angelika and took the black haired girl in her arms, carrying her toward the camp a few hills away.
 
Madeline stared out as the Prince walked off, far in the distance the Imperial capital shimmered in the sun, golden spires twirling up into the air. A hollowness came into her heart, there would be more bloodshed before all this finished. The hollowness came from her desiring more, the thrill of battle excited her, but the feeling of taking life made her nerves quake. She did not know who she was anymore.
 
Shizhi looked towards the horizon.  His army was now stronger, and he had felt alive with battle.  But he knew the truth.  Cecilia for all her books was a girl, playing at being queen.  Tyrannia was a different beast entirely, willing to sacrifice whole swaths of the country to achieve victory.  Such an enemy was dangerous in a normal situation, cornered she was potentially a disaster.  He turned to Madeline, "If I am to win this, I am going to have to win this with still having a kingdom to rule." he said.  "Killing her is no problem, doing it properly... that will be hard."
 
He sheathed his blades, looking at his father's sword.  It seemed like an eternity since he had last wielded it against her.  In that fight Shizhi had barely escaped with his life.  This time he'd have to do a lot better.  He then turned to Rhee and Angelika, "Reassemble the army.  We rest for several hours, then we do a forced march on the capital, we'll need to catch them by surprise before they can reassemble."
 
"Do you think a forced march would be wise, Yuan Shizi?" said Rhee walking aside him. "We have won a great victory here, but men can be fickle in terms of loyalty. We may want to rest for at least the night. The march to the capital will not much time. It might be better to be rested then fighting already fatigued."
 
The Khan turned to him, "They will march because we have to.   War requires we take the best hard path, not the ideal path.  Our army must get to the capital and seize the initiative before they have time to react to the news of their defeat here.  Warfare is built on speed and initiative.  As soon as one side claims it, they have to keep it going till they kill their enemy, or else they forfeit it.  Now prepare the men, I will hear no more of delay." he said walking away turning back to Madeline.  
 
"Are you alright?" he asked her looking over her body, covered in the blood of foes.  She seemed shaken by the events of the battle.
 
"I will be," she rested her hand on his arm. "A lot has changed since we left the capital. What has it been? Six months? More? I've lost track of time." She looked at her hands, "I've changed since then, you have as well, but I'm not sure if I like it. I'm not sure if this is me anymore. I feel different." Madeline looked back up into his eyes, "I feel good, but I feel different, and I'm not sure what to do."
 
Shizhi wraped his arms around her, holding her.  "You're sexier than ever." he said with a wink at her, admiring how toned her body had become.  "Do you remember when we first met, and I said you had a sense of adventure in you waiting to come out?" he asked smirking.  "I think it finally has."
 
She smiled and kissed him. "Thank you." Madeline looked over the hills rolling off toward the capital. "You really do see so many incredible things beyond the city walls."
 
He smiled returning the kiss, taking her hands in his, "Yes.. but my eyes are only on one." he said smiling at her, "And before we go into what will be our greatest battle, I need to ask you..." he said dropping to his knee taking his dagger slicing open his hand, the blood flowing he grasped it in hers, "Join our bloods together, you will become my Khanness when this is all done.  Marry me."
 
Madeline gripped his hand tightly and kissed him, their lips joining together as she sliced open her hand. Their blood flowing down over their wrists and arms, the army cheering as they displayed their passion on the hill.
 
Shizhi smiled broadly as his embraced her tightly, locked in a kiss with her for what seemed like an eternity.  Finally breaking it he gave a cocked smirk, "And is that... a yes?"
 
"It is," Madeline smirked and joined the kiss again.
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The army marched over rough terrain and sweltering heat, their gear clanging against their tired bodies.  Officers kept them moving forward in a forced march towards the capital.  Grumbling and desertion were punished most harshly on site by sergeants.  The War Council which now consisted of Shizhi, Madeline, Angelika, Rhee, and several of the gurkha officers would erupt in argument as many urged him to pause.
 
Shizhi was determined not to though.  He knew that Tyrannia would not give up the capital without a fight.  Already, it was said that her rule in other parts of the Empire was fraying, and that Imperial garrisons had taken it upon themselves to leave the far rungs of the Empire to return to their homes.  If she had fled, she'd have little place to go which wouldn't want her head.
 
Tredging through the woods he finally came to within ten li of the city walls, "Do you smell smoke?" he asked Madeline?
 
Madeline sniffed, her eyes narrowing, "Yes, I..." Then they rounded the hill. The capital stretched out in front of them, at least, what remained of it. Qingyuan once stood as one of the great metropolises of the Empire, now ash swept through the streets as buildings crumbled down becuase of a passing wind. The vanguard gasped and turned to whispering to each other. Tyrannia did not simply take the capital, she destroyed everything and left the Emprie to burn. 
 
"That bitch," Angelika clenched her fists. In the distance, the Imperial Palace still rose from the ruins as a symbol of the lasting glory of the Empire, but now soot covered the gilded walls, keeping away the shine from the sunlight. Smoke rose into the air and from their vantage point, the bodies of thousands littered the streets.
 
"This...this can't be..." Madeline said trying to turn her horse away.
 
The gates hung open, inviting the Prince's army into the wasteland, but what he would find there would only be greater heartache as the fields around the capital burned of acid and plague.
 
Shizhi road in atop his horse looking angrily at the wreckage that had been left.  His sword in his hand.  He couldn't hear even the sound of the street dogs.  Nothing.  It was quiet.  "They must have locked the doors... from the inside." he said as he road therough the army behind him.  So many were dead...
 
He turned to them.  "To the palace." he said as his horse marched through the streets, "And get Cecilia out here.  I want here to see this." he ordered as his horse took off at a face pace.  A mad quest for power, that's what this was.  He could not understand why anyone would do this. War was one thing, but war was to be waged against armies, not civilians.  
 
"I... I never have seen something so total." as this he said to Madeline as they approached the gates of the palace itself.  "Father never waged war like this.  It was considered dishonorable.  How could someone be so cruel?" he asked. 
 
Angelika rode beside him and sighed, "Different enemies, different wars, Tyrannia has no honor, she has no shame, she kills, she destroys, because she lacks humanity. But that simply means we need to destroy her totally." When they approached the palace doors, Shizi found them locked and barred. Their entire journey to the gates, not a soul had come to them, not an ally, not an enemy, no one.
 
Cecilia rode on the back of Angelika's horse, trying to cover her eyes from the destruction. "I didn't plan for this, I swear, I didn't know she would do all this to the people?"
 
"You don't make alliances with evil, girl," said Angelika, "In the future, you would do well to remember that." Indeed, the destruction was unfathomable, a skeleton of the city remained.
 
"Barred?" his aunt said, when they approached the gates and with a snarl she jumped off her horse. "Rhee, come here, help me with the door." Both of the warriors took the gates and ripped them down, revealing the long passages of the grand hallway. Still not a sound came out from the marble pillars that stretched up to the ceiling, no bodies covered the floor, everything had been abandonded.
 
"Shizi," said Madeline, "I can feel her, she's watching us, she's close."
 
Shizhi looked around the room, it was completely quiet.  She was waiting for something.  No doubt she had magic ready.  Perhaps she still thought she had a chance to salvage the situation.  She still had Jia and Theresia.  Perhaps they were hostages.  He did not know.  He got out from the room, heading into the covered courtyard walkway.  The burned embers of he floor creeped as he moved slowly towards the pond around which the Imperial Personal Quarters and shrine once stood.
 
"Listen.  This is going to be a tough battle.." he said to them.  "If it appears unwinnable.  I want you to not wait for me, whatever happens, she cannot be allowed to be the undisputed ruler.  It will bring the ruin of the Empire." he said.
 
"So what are we supposed to do?" said one of the Gurkhas, "If you die, who will be our Emperor?"
 
"That passes to Cecilia," said Angelika, "And if she cannot handle that, then there are Yuan Jia's family, that is how this will play out." She took Shizi firmly by the arm, "That said, do not die. We will not go any further, I don't know what else could be lurking around, and Cecilia's safety is paramount. Madeline, go with your husband, defend him, in the Amazon way."
 
"Of course," she nodded and took Shizi's hand.
 
Angelika turned and stretched her back. "I'm getting too old for this." She said and began walking back through the halls with Rhee, the Gurkhas, and Cecilia.
 
With Madeline by his side, she looked toward the throne room. "Are you ready?"
 
Shizhi nodded as he tightened his grip on his sword, "Yes." he said.  "Ready as I'll ever be.  But regardless of what Angelika said, I mean it for you too, if the fight is going south, run and I'll hold her off.  Only one person more should die today, whether its me or Tyrannia.  I don't want to bear the thought of losing you my love." he said taking her hand squeezing it and kissing her gently.  He then walked forward into the chamber, Madeline behind him.
 
He had his sword ready.  A long stair case ascended to where someone sat on the throne.  It was hard to make out who from here.  When he had lost fought here, he had been roundly defeated.  Now he sought a rematch.  "TYRANNIA!!! COME OUT WITCH!!!!" he yelled.
 
Madeline smiled as they kissed, grasping her sword tightly in her hand, "I'm coming with you, you're the only friend I have left here. If you die, I might as well die too."
 
They walked into the throne room together, once the place where international diplomacy was conducted the world over, where states from across the world came to pay tribute, only one figure now sat on the throne. Her white hair long, flowing over her shoulders, her eyes a piercing blue, her arms powerful with new magical strength as she raised her hands and the doors came crashing closed. "I am here, Shizi of the Dung Heap. Do you come to pay tribute?"
 
"Yes.  Of steel and blood." he said to her as he looked across the hallway at her.  He was ready for a figh, his red armor glowed brilliantly against her magic.  The Tengi Sword waved in his hand, and his mind and body wre centered.  "Last time you caught me by surprise.  But I think you'll find many things have changed.  I'm giving you a choice Tyrannia, bend the knee renounce your powers, and you can spend your life in a monastary paying for what you did through good works.  Or you can fight me and be destroyed."
 
"I see you have your father's sword, that much has changed." She stood up and started walking toward them, her own sword dangling at her side as she smirked. "But what has really changed, Leopold? You've trained, to be sure, but have you really learned what is necessary for governance? Your people are not happy, there is rebellion every where in the empire, discontent from your father's rule. What will you really change?"
 
"Your rule not his." Shizhi responded sternly, "People follow the just and strong.  They hate the corrupt however clever they think they are being.  And you're a mere jester." he said as he lept forward at her.  His sword sung in the wind glowing as he swung it down at her with speed nearly twice what it had been in their past match.
 
She lifted up her hand and smiled, as her magic caught the sword, though with a bit of resistance. "Ah, you are stronger than before, good, you'll give me a real fight." She threw him back against the wall and looked at Madeline, "You see, bitch? He is just a boy like before." Then she jumped into the air and pulled out her sword and charged toward him, attempting to pierce him the chest.
 
Shizhi caught her sword, as his blade glowed with its mystical power.  He let it speak to him as her magicks started to dissipate for an instant.  He swung around tripping her.  Their swords clanged as he fell back from where they were motioning with Madeline to follow him.  He kept his sword raised up as he retreated, falling back towards the shrine.  "This boy has learned a trick or two."
 
Tyrannia smirked and flew back onto the floor as they started to duel, their blades clanking together as they started dancing across the floor. The witch's magic at full power as bursts of energy pushed out of her body, making every one of her strikes faster, harder, and stronger. Sparks started to fly as she grinned, grinding her teeth with anger, "You have learned a trick or two, but let's see what you really know!" She raised her other hand in the air and shot a fireball into his chest.
 
Shzhi leapt back as his sword began to glow green.  The blaze of fire burst out around him. A side of his armor burned clean off revealing his scarred chest below.  He leapt from the floor, catching her sword, spinning it around he forced it into the air striking her with the pummel of his sword, sending her staggering back and throwing a smoke bomb into her face. 
 
The Khan then took Madeline by the wrist and started running pulling her closer to the shrine as his sword began to become brighter.  He felt a spirit take control of his movements, "Come on hurry!" he shouted.
 
Tyrannia feel back when he threw the bomb with a scream, then Madeline's eyes widened as she saw the sword glow with new power. She ran across the throne room and grabbed onto the sword. Madeline felt a burst of strength that passed through her body and her eyes turned to a bright green color as they both took the weapon. When Tyrannia recovered from the shock of the smoke bomb, she stared for a moment at the green sword and raised both of her hands into the air.
 
"Your ancestors will not save you, Shizi, not when the very power of nature is on my side!"
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Tyrannia feel back when he threw the bomb with a scream, then Madeline's eyes widened as she saw the sword glow with new power. She ran across the throne room and grabbed onto the sword. Madeline felt a burst of strength that passed through her body and her eyes turned to a bright green color as they both took the weapon. When Tyrannia recovered from the shock of the smoke bomb, she stared for a moment at the green sword and raised both of her hands into the air.

 

"Your ancestors will not save you, Shizi, not when the very power of nature is on my side!"

 

The torches in the palace blazed with green light as the building shook, she closed her eyes and when she opened them, they blazed with bright green hues and her smile turned truly...wicked. Tyrannia's arms bulged with power as she slammed both of her fists into the ground and cracked the floor of the throne room. Her robes tightened and split off her body as she howled in laughter. "YOU THINK YOU CAN DEFEAT ME? LITTLE MAN?" She lept into the air and crashed onto the floor, her hands glowing with flame. "YOU KNOW NOTHING!"

 

"Bigger they are harder they fall." Leopold said as his eyes flared green.  The sword spoke to him telling him not to worry.  He stood his ground as his sword focused he ancestors powers, feeding off everything, slowly gaining strength, like a lightening rod in a great storm.  Leopold felt himself changing.  It was strange.  He'd never felt like this before.  Calm yet chaotic.  Looking upon Tyrannia he did not feel fear.  He felt excited. 

 

He raised his sword and charged her as his hair lengthened, and the parts of his body exposed from her burning off the armor bulged with strength.  "MAYBE NOT BUT I KNOW YOU CAN'T WIN!" he cried out as he let out a howl, "ROOOOAAAARRRRRR!!!!" he swung the sword down at her.

 

Madeline watched in awe as the two titans did battle on the throne room floor. Every strike they made seemed to shake the very earth, but for Tyrannia's magic and strength, the sword cut her again and again, red blood squirting out of her body as she screamed in rage and pain. She blasted him with a ball of fire, then tried to back hand him, Shizi stood firm. But her strikes weakened him. She seemed relentless.

 

"YOU'RE MINE!"

 

Tyrannia yelled and pushed Shizi to the ground, her fingers grasping the hilt of the Tengri Sword. "THIS ENDS NOW!"

 

"AAAARRRRGGHHHH!H!!!!!" he said as she blasted more of his armor.  In its place was green skin, charred but not broken.  He grabbed her leg, his strength much faster than before he lifed her into the air and slammed her down onto the floor.  He felt his left arm starting to give way, out of place, he grabbed his sword with his right and swung it down at her with great force, his blade coming down.  It struck her skull, a horrid popping noise echoed through the room, as Shizhi cleaved through her entire body.

 

The Khan fell back, onto the floor breathing heavily dropping the sword.  "Its...." he started to say over before the pain overtook him.  He collapsed in exhaustion.  He had finally done it.

 

Though Shizi's eyes closed, Madeline watched the grotesque end of Tyrannia. Her body bubbled apart as the sword cleaved through her head, screaming in agony as her veins swelled with blood, bursting out of her body and soon, all that remained of the Regent was a puddle of thick, green, goo. Madeline vomitted on the ground first then went to help Shizi. The next sound she heard was a thump on the ground near the throne. Theresia, appearing out of thin air, released from her interplanary imprisonment by the witch.

 

The Empress moaned in pain and shook her head, "What the hell?"

 

"Empress Theresia!" screamed Madeline, "Please, help, the Prince, he's injured."

 

Theresia jumped to her feet and ran over to her son, gazing down on him, barely recognizing him. "Leopold?"

 

"No," smirked Madeline, "He is Yuan Shizi now."

 

---

 

Days later, soldiers had cleared the charred rubble out of the capital. The Imperial Court started to return to the palace and Yuan Jia's health had returned, but he faced a terrible prediciment. Whether Shizi wanted it, the way of the Clans governed Tianxia. There could not be two Emperors. If Shizi's rule was to be final, Jia needed to pass into the next life.

 

This placed Theresia in a precarious position, she could either return to Europe and take the veil of a nun or head out into the wilderness, the idea of taking her life, as much as she loved her husband, was simply too much.

 

She stared at him from the bed as he stood looking at himself in the mirror. "So...Jia...what is to be done?"

 

The Old Wolf looked back at his wife lovingly.  Her looks still made him stir like the day they had first met.  He smiled, time flew.  Had it really been that long?  Was he really this old? 

 

"For the first time.  I am unsure.  It seems one thing I've learned though is that I am no longer the Khan I once was.  It it is time for me to head on.  I have lived a full life, as this nation's ruler. And I belive after this great tragedy there is much to be redone, but if I could have fallen this easily.  It cannot be me who leads it out of this." he walked over to her taking her hand in his and kissed it.  "You have mothered a strong son.  He will rule alright.  And as for me.  I know I will never be able to quit battle.  And so I have few years left eitherway.  Come my love, let us go pray to the anscestors.  And then, in the morning, I will end it on my terms." he said.

 

He looked into Theresia's pale blue eyes running his hand up her cheek, as he felt a tear form in her eye.  He planted a soft kiss on her lips and smiled meekly.

 

"You are going to take your own life, Jia? What about me? What will I do?" She held his face near hers, starting to cry.

 

"You will endure.  Heal our daughter, keep our son strong and wise.  I love you with all my heart, as I love our children.  If I remain, Leopold's grasp on the throne is weak.  So much of the Empire has already been destroyed.  We need a strong ruler to keep it together.  I am too old, it has to be Leopold or he's tainted when in five or ten years his time comes again, and he's the one who had his shot and gave it up.  Then I fear for our family.  You know of the fates of the Romanovs, of the Bourbons, of all great Dynasties in times of turmoil who are selfish.  We must be selfless for he sake of our children, our nation, and our legacy.  Fear not, whatever our fate, NOTHING can keep me from you in whatever world awaits." he said passionately kissing her.

 

She took his hands and stood up, holding back her tears as they started to walk through the palace. Leopold had taken the name Yuan Shizi, the celebrations were happening all over the city, but the Emperor and Empress, had their own meeting with destiny. They walked silently toward the shrines in the back of the palace, dismissing the monks there to pray alone. Only the smell of incense and the ringing of a quiet gong somewhere off in the distance vibrated through the air.

 

He held her hand as he bowed down to the stone floor calmly looking at the great shrine.  He like many before him were now staring into the face of oblivion.  Searching for somthing beyond it.  What was silence?  True silence?  What was enlightenment?  He had pondered these questions for years.  But the truth was, he did not know, and he had no desire to know.  He was a wolf.  His desire was to be alive, to fight for what was right, and to bring about what he thought was a better world.  Sitting in his corner at peace, that was no contentment for a man who had conquered the world.

 

"I... do not know... what is next." he said to her finally, his eyes for perhaps the first time in all she had known him showing true fear.  His grip of her hand tightened.  It was at his moment he noticed a glow.

 

Theresia looked up when he gripped her hand and her eyes blinked, the tears running hot down her face. The torches all around them started to burn brighter, the shrine and the very room they in started to pulse with a blazing white light, it made her pupils shrink with the brightness and she turned away. "Jia? What's going on?"

 

"I don't know." he started as he felt his skin burning.  He was on fire.  His flesh was burning away from him.  It was painful yes, but it wasn't consuming.  It was different.  He looked around his senses heightened and the aches in his old body vanished.  He was being stripped down to his core self.  Just a spirit.  He looked across, able to see her there.  She was floating next to him, in something beyond the universe.  "We're not home anymore." he said slowly.

 

"No," Theresia's voice echoed, "And...we'll never be home again.." she reached out to him and grabbed his hand as they traveled...beyond the beyond...to a plane and a world.

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