Zhong Ding

Traveler’s Log, Hyul 25, Spring.

Day 1

I’m leaving today. I don’t know if I will ever come back… but I have to do this. If I stay here any longer I will surely lose my sanity. This feeling… this restlessness… what is wrong with me? It doesn’t matter now. As soon as I’ve finished packing I will start walking, and I won’t look back. I don’t know where I am going… but I can’t stay here. I’m leaving most of what I won behind. It’s all worthless junk anyway, for the most part. I will take with me only what I can carry in my pack. Most likely I will have to forage for food. Maybe I can sign on with a trading caravan. They are always looking for more guards. I’ll figure something out.

Day 3

Things are going well so far. I walked for two days before finally coming across a caravan at a crossroads. They were happy enough to take on an extra guard, though the pay is far from generous. At least I get to eat. We’re heading east now, towards some town I’ve never heard even heard of. They claim it’s only a few days ride farther out, as long as we don’t run into any trouble. These caravaners love to gossip… and the superstitious nonsense they come up with is unbelievable. They believe in everything from ghosts, to tiny little bugs that will crawl into your ear while you sleep and burrow into your head. I’ve been given the night watch for the next few days. I’d better get some sleep while I still can.

Night 5

*The letters on the page are poorly formed and the paper is slightly torn around the edges*

It’s strange how things that seem ridiculous during the day can come alive during the night. All those crazy stories the caravaners told keep running through my mind, taunting me. I’ve never had a problem with the dark before… but now, for some reason, every little noise is making me jump. Something just doesn’t feel right… it’s almost as if

*The words stop abruptly, and the ink is stained with splatters of ink in several places. The writing picks up again near the bottom of the page, the letters are sloppy, as if they were written by someone in a great hurry.*

I don’t have much time. We’re under attack as I write this. There are at least twenty of them. Black cloaks, and dark blue sabers. They wear some sort of emblem on their shoulders. I only caught a quick glimpse of it a couple of times when the wind picked up a bit. I suspect that

*The words cut off abruptly once more. At the bottom of the page there is another splatter of ink that looks vaguely like it might have been an attempt to draw some sort of symbol*

Day 14

Well… that turned out better than I expected. My boots are completely ruined, my clothes are not much better than rags. I’ve lost my pack, my sword, and my cloak. I have literally nothing left… but it could have been much worse. I managed to hide my Merchant Staff in a hollowed out log before they got to me. I just hope I can find it again. I’ve been walking around barefoot for the last 9 days. My feet are covered in blisters. I’ve done what I can to keep them clean, but I’m still worried they might become infected. And yet, even with all of that… I am happy to be alive. I should be dead a thousand times over by now… but I live. ‘They’ are still out there, hunting me. I’ve managed to evade them so far, but I’m not sure how much longer my luck will hold out. I know what they’re after now. One of the caravaners was carrying a map. I spotted it clutched in his fist after the first attack… he didn’t survive. None of them did. I am the only one left. Fat lot of good this map does me though, for all the trouble it’s caused. I can’t even read it.

Day 16

I finally found my Merchant Staff again. I’m always amazed at how durable the thing is. I wasn’t exactly gentle with it when I was stuffing it into its hiding place. It feels good to have it back in my hands. At least now I’ll have a source of light if I need it. For now though, I need to keep it covered – If they spot a light in this forest at night… I won’t stand a chance. I need to find someplace to hole up for a while, and wait them out. I doubt I can make it to the nearest town on foot, not without being spotted.

Day 24

It’s been five days since I found the cave. I wouldn’t exactly call it cozy, but it does keep most of the rain off. I even risked a small fire the other night. ‘They’ are still out there though. There is no way to know how long they will keep hunting me. I thought they’d have given up by now. That map must really be something special if they want it this badly. Maybe I will take another look at it, though I don’t see the point. I don’t even know why I kept the stupid thing.

Night 25

*The page is wrinkled and torn in several places, as if someone had rolled it into a ball and stuffed it into a pocket.*

I figured out the secret of the map – stumbled upon it, really. I haven’t a clue why it works, but it does. I pulled it a few minutes ago, planning to throw it out and be done with it. As luck would have it, I was using my Merchant Staff as a light, so I wouldn’t trip and kill myself. I glanced down at the map and noticed something different. In the light of my Merchant Staff, the secret of the Map was revealed. I now know exactly where to find… whatever it is that this map leads to. I guess I will find out tomorrow.

Day 26

It took me all day to get here. I’m sure this is the place. There must be a hidden entrance someplace… I just can’t figure out where it is. Maybe I’ll have to use my Merchant Staff again to reveal the passage. I’ll try it as soon as it gets dark enough.

Night 26

I found the entrance. Unfortunately, so did the people who’ve been hunting me this entire time. I think I’ve lost them… for the moment. This place is a maze! I am completely and totally lost. I still have my Merchant Staff with me, but I’ve lost the map. I don’t think it would have done me much good anyway. My Staff though… it seems like the flame is getting brighter. Or maybe it’s just darker down here.

Day 27

My Staff is definitely getting brighter. I’ve been walking in circles for hours. This place is seriously a legitimate labyrinth. I’ve heard stories about this sort of things… but this is unreal! There are carvings on the walls; giant statues made of stone… something about all this feels familiar for some reason. I just can’t put my finger on it. I’ve figured out that the flame of my Merchant Staff gets brighter if I walk in a certain direction. I’ve been following it as best I can, but there is no pattern to these tunnels, I end up backtracking more often than not, and I’ve run into dozens of dead ends. If I don’t find a way out soon, I’ll likely starve to death.

Night 27

I’ve never seen anything like this, ever! I can’t even look at the flame on my Merchant Staff anymore, for fear of going blind. I’ve taken to holding it a bit behind me so I can see where I am going. I think I’ve finally found something- an exit, hopefully. I’m standing in front of a door – at least, I think it’s a door. I’ve never seen one quite a big as this one. I’ve tried everything I can think of to open it, but nothing works. I’ll keep trying, but

*A jagged tear appears in the page, as if the writer suddenly tore through it with his pen*

They’re coming for me. I don’t know how they made it through that maze, but they did. If I can’t get this door open… Well, this will most likely be the last thing I

*The writing cuts off abruptly once again, and the page appears to have been burned at the edges, the corners blackened and curled inward*

Day 28

Well… that was an unexpected turn of events. I’m still not sure exactly what happened back there. My Merchant Staff just flared up, out of nowhere. It nearly blinded me, too. I’m still seeing spots. I didn’t really have much time to think about it though. At some point while I was still completely blind, the door opened up. Try and figure that one out. I was more than a bit surprised myself. I went inside, and the first thing I noticed was that there was a sword, stuck point first into the floor. There was a rough shape cut into the floor around the sword. It was something I had seen many times before: the symbol for earth. My hand had closed over the hilt almost before I realized what I was doing. It felt warm to the touch. I half expected that it would be stuck firmly in the ground, but to my surprise, I was to pull it free quite easily. The blade was pure white, and it shined brightly in the reflected light of my Merchant Staff. I bent to examine it, and noticed that there was something engraved on the blade. “Zhong Ding” I read aloud, marveling at the sound of the strange words.

I stepped into the center of the room and glanced around at my surroundings. Not the most defensible of locations. I could hear the footsteps of my pursuers rapidly approaching my location. There was no way I would be able to hide before they reached me. I would have to fight. The odds of my surviving the encounter were not good, but it was either that or give up. I never give up. I grinned in anticipation, having made my decision. Zhong Ding felt good in my hands. It was light as a feather, and it seemed to move as if it were an extension of my arm. I felt myself moving, almost unconsciously, to center myself directly over the symbol of the earth. I was ready.

The sound of approaching footsteps slowed as they reached the room. Three men stepped into the room, dressed in the same black clothing I remembered from the night of the attack on the caravan. I could see the symbol on their shoulders easily now, in the light of my still burning Merchant Staff. It looked like a cloud of gray smoke, spiraling inward, with a small white dot at the center. The men smiled smugly as they entered, showing the whites of their teeth. They drew their blades and attacked. I felt a surge of adrenaline rush through my body as I avoided the first strike. Three swords came at me all at once, and I could see my death rapidly approaching. One sword was about to impale me through the stomach, another was cutting through the air straight towards my exposed neck, and the third came at me from behind, slicing towards my legs. I felt myself moving, almost unconsciously. The sword in my hand came up out of nowhere and somehow managed to block the strike aimed at my neck. I simultaneously twisted my body to one side, and kicked out with my left leg, avoiding the blow to my stomach, and somehow connecting with the sword arm of the man behind me.

They staggered back, staring at me in disbelief. I was a bit surprised myself. I looked down just to make sure I was still in one piece. I looked back up just in time to see the next attack coming in for the kill. I moved. I gave myself over completely to the fight, no longer having any time to think about how it was possible that I hadn’t been killed yet. My mind went completely blank, and I allowed my body to react, somehow anticipating each blow. The hilt of Zhong Ding grew hot in my hand, and I felt my stance shift slightly. I attacked, somehow still managing to fend off the blows rained down upon me, and slowly started to push the men back. It seemed as if the fight lasted for hours, but it could only have been a few minutes at most. I landed a blow on the first man; cutting deep into his right shoulder He dropped his blade with a cry, his sword arm now useless. The other two hesitated, a glint of doubt now gleaming in their eyes. I took the opportunity to attack, driving them back even farther, and scoring several shallow cuts. My arms felt like they were on fire, and I was sure that I would drop to the ground out of pure exhaustion any minute. I was just about to give up, when they finally broke. They turned and fled down the passageway, no doubt going for reinforcements. I sagged against the wall, exhausted.

My memory of the next few hours is a bit… foggy. I wandered back out into the labyrinth, and picked a turning at random. I’m not really sure how long I was down there, but eventually I made it out, by chance rather than by any skill of my own. My pursuers had very nearly found me at least seven times while I searched for a way out, but I managed to evade them. I’m outside now, and planning to make my way back to the road, and hopefully to the nearest town. I’m tired of living off of rodents and berries.