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All That Glitters...
Acient roots, sinuous trees and thickly-leafed vines clinging to the rocks all but obscured the path through the lush jungle. Three men sweated as they hacked their way onward, driven by hearts filled with greed and dreams of untold wealth. For six days the jungle had defied them, but now the temple reared from the undergrowth. Its facade was carved into a colossal stone outcropping, with blossoms of red and blue spreading around its base. Serene statuary filled golden alcoves and garlands of golden orchids were entwined around its eaves.
“You see, Horta?” said Wren. “Didn’t we tell you the temple was real?”
“So long as the treasures inside are real” said Horta, tossing aside the blunted hatchet and drawing a freshly sharpened sword. “You both staked your lives on that, remember?”
“Don’t worry, Horta” said Medra, with a rasping cough. “You’ll be able to buy your own palace after this.” “I’d better” said Horta. “Now draw your blades. Kill anyone who gets in our way.”
The three brigands approached the temple, weapons glinting in the setting sun. Horta saw its corners were not sharp and defined; every edge flowing together instead of meeting at angles. As they made their way inside, they passed between two magnificent Ionian Whipwillows, their trunks curved to form an entranceway, with bark so white it seemed painted.
“Why aren’t there any guards?” he asked, as he stepped inside.
The question went unanswered as his eyes adjusted to the sepulchral gloom of a chamber hewn into the rock. The arched roof was carved with bas-relief, and every wall glittered with colored chips of glass to form a mosaic of vivid landscapes that rippled with light and life. Ivory tablets engraved with ancient Shojin parables were situated upon pillars of carved bronze, and gem-studded idols of jet stood watchfully in sunken alcoves. Statues of warrior-gods, each trimmed with gold, stared down from plinths of porphyry and jade.
Horta grinned. “Take it. Take it all.”
Wren and Merta sheathed their swords and flung open their packs. They began filling them with everything they could reach: statues, idols and gemstones, whooping with glee as they dragged a fortune in gold behind them. Horta circled the chamber, already planning their deaths when they got back to civilization, when he noticed that one of the statues was moving.
At first glance, he’d thought it to be a painted idol of a warrior monk, seated with his legs crossed and his hands resting on his knees. His back had been toward Horta, but now the man stood and turned on the spot with the fluid ease of a coiled snake. Lean and powerfully muscled, he wore loose-fitting trousers and a red bandanna across his eyes.
“Not so empty after all” said Horta, flexing his fingers on the leather-wound grip of his sword. “Good. I was hoping I’d get to cut someone up.”
The monk cocked his head to the side as though listening to sounds only he could hear and said “Three men. One with a blighted lung, another with a weak heart that will not see out the year.”
The sightless monk turned and stared directly at Horta, though there was surely no way he could see him through the thick fabric bound across his eyes.
“You have a twist in your spine” he said. “It pains you in the winter and forces you to favor your left side.”
“What are you, some kind of seer?” demanded Horta, nervously licking his lips.
The monk ignored the question and said “I am Lee Sin.”
“Is that supposed to mean something?” asked Horta.
“I give you this one chance to put back what you have taken” said Lee Sin. “Then leave this place and never return.” “You’re in no position to make demands, my blind friend” said Horta, letting the tip of his sword scrape across the stone floor. “There are three of us and you aren’t even armed.”
Wren and Merta gave nervous laughs, wary of the monk’s confidence even in the face of their advantage of numbers. Horta gestured with his free hand, and his two companions moved to flank the monk, each drawing a curved blade from leather sheaths.
“This is a sacred place” said Lee Sin, with a rueful sigh. “It should not be desecrated.”
Horta gave the others a nod. “Put this sightless fool out of his misery.”
Wren stepped forward. Lee Sin was moving before his foot hit the ground. The monk went from being utterly still to a blur of motion in the blink of an eye. His arm whipped around and the hard edge of his hand struck Wren’s neck. Bone crunched and the bandit dropped, his head twisted at an unnatural angle. Lee Sin swayed aside as Merta slashed with his sword. The blow was wild, and the reverse stroke flashed over Lee Sin’s head. The monk dropped flat, twisting as he fell to sweep his shin out and scythe Merta’s legs out from under him. The bandit collapsed, his weapon skittering away over the tiled floor. Lee Sin sprang to his feet and hammered his heel down on Merta’s sternum.
Merta gave a strangled cry as his ribs cracked and the splintered ends were driven into his weak heart. Stolen gemstones spilled from his fallen pack as his eyes bulged in agony and he fought for breath like a landed fish.
“You’re fast for a monk” said Horta, slicing his sword through the air in a series of blindingly swift maneuvers.
“But I’m no slouch with a blade.”
“You believe you are fast?” asked Lee Sin.
“Trained by the best, so you won’t find me as easy to beat as those two idiots” said Horta, nodding toward the bodies of his former companions.
Lee Sin made no reply as they circled one another. Horta watched as the blind man tracked his every motion. The monk’s steps were fluid and precise, and Horta had the uncomfortable feeling that every passing second was revealing more of his own abilities to his opponent.
He roared and threw himself at the monk, attacking in a blistering series of high slashes and lunges. Lee Sin swayed aside, moving like a wind-blown sapling as he dodged, deflected and spun away from Horta’s desperate strikes. He kept his blade in constant motion, forcing Lee Sin back with every attack. The monk hadn’t even broken a sweat. His impassive mouth, covered eyes and casual disdain infuriated Horta.
He gathered himself for one final attack, drawing on every scrap of training, fury and strength he could muster. His sword cut the air around the monk, but never once made contact.
Lee Sin spun away one last time and bent his knees, his body taut.
“You have speed and not a little skill” he said, sinews pulsing beneath his skin “but anger colors your every thought. It has consumed you and has led to your death.”
Horta felt the air in the chamber grow warmer as streamers of energy coalesced around Lee Sin. A fiery vortex engulfed the monk and Horta backed away in terror, his sword falling from his grip. Lee Sin was trembling, as though fighting to control energies more powerful than he could contain. The chamber reverberated with the sound of a rising wind.
“Please” said Horta. “I’ll put it back. I’ll put it all back!”
Lee Sin leapt, propelled by the blitzing hurricane of energy. His foot hammered into Horta’s chest, hurling him backward. Horta slammed against the wall and stone cracked under the impact. He fell limply to the floor, every bone in his spine shattered like broken pottery.
“You had a chance to avoid this, but you did not take it” said Lee Sin. “Now you pay the price.”
Horta’s vision greyed at the edges as death approached, but not before he saw Lee Sin return to his seated position. The monk’s back was to him, and, as his posture relaxed, the vortex of lethal energies began to dissipate.
Lee Sin bowed his head and resumed his meditation.