Liang Xin! Come out of that tree right now! The imperial guards are almost here. We need to prepare for their arrival!
You swung down from an old oak tree and patted the trunk.
"Thank you for allowing me to rest in your branches. May your roots remain sturdy." With that, you lightfooted towards Hefei Marketplace to buy provisions and weapons. There was no telling what would happen when the guards arrived.
Near the Duel Grounds, you could hear the clash of swords meeting and the thud of bodies tumbling into the dirt. But then, amidst the whirlwind of sounds, you catch on to a private conversation.
"With the annihilation of the six clans, we will be able to take over. They are already nothing, weaklings because of the loss of their Dragons. Eliminate the clans and we will finally be in power."
"You know my price."
"Yes, your terms will be met."
"Very well. Various taverns will be occupied by my disciples. Send word for me and I will meet you again soon."
The rustle of a cloak could be heard and you let out the breath you didn't realize you had been holding. What could all of that have meant? Would the Black and White clans truly become extinct? Such a massacre would devastate the Land... You had to warn someone, anyone...
Forgetting the errands you had gone for, you rushed off...
too late. The mysterious person with the Japanese accent had mingled in the crowd and was impossible to find. You stood still in the middle of the busy marketplace, among the loud negociations between sellers and buyers, the clashes of weapons and the rumble in the arenas and the incessant yells of charlatan alchemists selling their fake gold, that made conversation in the marketplace virtually impossible.
A deep breath to calm your mind as your Masters had thought you... cut out the voices and the clash of metal... open your mind to the sound of the wind and let your thoughts flow like water. Suddenly it occurred to you that you'd heard the other voice before. That mysterios cloaked one, you know that man, you too like many others have bought strange weapons of unknown powers from him when you've met him in remote places throughtout the Land, though his cold eyes always gave you chills.
On a whim, you follow a group of warriors rushing out of Hefei and... what is that crowd of mixed white and black clan members doing? You line up with them and in a gesture of imitation prepare your money pouch. Shivers go down your spine. It is indeed him, Fan Shu, the black market dealer.
"Eleven thousand", said the same cold voice you had heard earlier. You gulp, empty your pouch and receive a piece of black cloth in return. Its touch makes you uneasy, it seems to tingle with negative energy but there's no way back. If anyone is to believe you, you must find out what's going on.
Following the crowd, you set foot in Bloody Plain, the most infamous battleground throughout the Land... and freeze in horror. The bloodshed unraveled to your eyes must match that of the War of Nine Dragons ten years ago.
"Prepare to die!" yells a voice behind you. The swift sword movements taught by Wu Tang?! How come you're attacked by a brother. It only stuns you for a fraction, until you notice the black cloth covering his face and dart off before he can reach you. You stop your lightfoot just after you have crawled into a cave to escape the madness and gather your thoughts. You recognize the place... it's the Cave of the Conqueror. Realising you're not safe, you dart deeper into the darkness before slumping down.
As you steady your breath and feel the black cloth in your hand thoughtfully, a steady but not unfriendly hand rests on your shoulders and startles you.
"You have come to the right place, Xin. I need your help."
Gazing up, you gasp. It is Him, as if stepped out of paintings, come alive from scrolls retelling the History of the War. But he's alive, in flesh and with a sad look upon his face: the Vagabond.
"Ten years ago, I came to this Land to stop the clans slaughtering each other to extinction. I am not sure now that removing the Dragons was such a good idea.", he says thoughtfully as he sits down next to you. "However, the need salvation again, from another threat."
"Who are these people?"
"They come from across the Sea, wielding a new and deadly Kung Fu. You might have heard of the Easterners..."
'But... that cannot be. All the clans, black and white, put up a good fight in Liaodong. They haven't got further than that. And I know that in each clan, masters have arisen that have reached the enlightenment of Hermits. They even managed to defeat the Ayakashi, the fearsome ghosts that guard the Easterners' ships."
"It is true. And the Easterners as well have realised that by mere force, they cannot conquer the Land. The clans, weakened though they might be, will stand up against them wherever they meet. Against such determination, not even the Masters of the School of Rising Sun can weather.
However... they are shrewd as they are strong. If you cannot destroy a community from outside, you must make it crumble from the inside", he added with a bitter smile.
Understanding dawns upon you. "The masks", you whisper to the Vagabond's nod.
"Indeed. I don't know what it is... but it makes people go out of their minds. They feel powerful, invincible and forget all their teachings. They run amok against rivals and friends alike. Wearing that", he explains pointing to the mask "will make a Shaolin forget all mercy of Buddha, a Wu-Tang draw sword against a friend or a Demon ignore the orders of his Emperor Himself. The brave and the coward alike will relish nothing but slaughter, preying on whoever they can."
A heavy silence falls, interrupted only by the Vagabond puffing his pipe. You are caught as if in a dream. When the last whirl of smoke dissolved, he put it aside and stood up resolute. Wrapping his cloak around him, he prepared to vanish into the depth of the cave.
"I need you to spread the words to anyone who will listen - let them stay away from that wicked Fan Shu and his masks. If this madness spreads, it will be the downfall of all clans."
written for a "continue the story" contest..