Kay-Li and Zee returned to the empress’ private chambers. The living quarters covered the entire seventh floor of the pagoda. There were multiple bedrooms, a sitting area, two fireplaces and a stone balcony. Large, wax candles resting on metal stands illuminated each room. The floors were white marble. Crafted furniture and elegant carpets, brought to the kingdom via merchants travelling the overland spice routes, were carefully placed throughout the rooms. The walls were splendid with gold trimmings and painted scenes of Sapphira’s glorious military history intertwined with beautiful, picturesque landscapes. Against the far wall in the main living area, a rock waterfall had been constructed and its water flowed into a magnificent pool in an adjacent room. The pool stretched for one hundred yards in length, was twenty yards wide and five feet deep. Decorative, ceramic tile covered the interior of the pool. The water was crystal clear.
Ojo sat on the royal carpet playing with a doll. The doll wore the traditional garments of the Tenshi dynasty. In the doll’s hand, Ojo had placed the flower. The flower was still full and beautiful with a strong aroma.
Kay-Li and Zee entered the room. Immediately, Kay-Li smiled when she saw her daughter. She walked over to Ojo and sat down beside her. They embraced. Kay-Li removed the figurine from her hands.
“Who is this beautiful woman, Ojo?” Kay-Li asked. “Would I know her?”
“Do not be silly, mother,” her daughter replied. “It is you. This is how you looked before the darkness came. Do you not recognize yourself?”
“It has become harder and harder it would seem,” her mother shrugged. “Darkness keeps us from knowing the light.”
Three servant girls dressed in red kimono gowns appeared. The empress rose from the floor and approached them. They quickly bowed in unison.
“My daughter and I will be leaving on a short journey.” Kay-Li commanded them. “You will prepare the necessary supplies for us. We will be gone seven days.”
Zee approached Ojo.
“Where did you get this living flower?” he asked.
“I created it,” Ojo replied.
The servant girls bowed again in acknowledgement of Kay-Li’s instructions and silently departed the chamber. Ojo ran over to her mother.
“Where are we going?” she playfully asked.
“We are going out to the country, to a large mountain,” Kay-Li answered. “Now you must go and get your rest, Ojo Tenshi. We are departing very early in the morning.”
She kissed her daughter’s forehead and watched the young girl obediently skip away to another room.
“Join me on the balcony,” Kay-Li instructed Zee.
“Of course, it is as you wish, empress.”
There was a slight, cool breeze blowing in from the east. The night sky was full of stars and the moon, but the celestial bodies gave almost no light.
“We have known one another since we were children,” Kay-Li nostalgically said. “And yet the years have made us strangers, Zee. Can you not still see me as the little girl you used to play with under the trees?”
“Our paths have taken different routes,” Zee remarked. “You are the empress. I serve you.”
“Do not serve man or woman,” Kay-Li said. “Our ways are the ones of wickedness. Only by serving the King will you prosper.”
“The empress is wise,” Zee replied. “You have already resolved to take the journey. But,
will you follow your wisdom and obey the vision. Or will the empress be a prisoner to her own heart?”
“Do you swear by what you saw?” she demanded.
“I do,” the counselor said. “If the empress does not believe…”
“I do believe,” she quickly interrupted him. “However, I cannot help but wonder why the King would demand such a sacrifice of me.”
“Perhaps He desires a test of your obedience,” Zee calmly suggested.
“He knows my heart and that I am not a prisoner to it,” she returned. “He also knows my devotion. Why would He need to test such things?”
“I may meditate tonight more on your questions,” Zee remarked. “If He chooses to reveal more to me…”
“I have heard rumors from the merchants that travel across the vast ocean that the Great Book has been opened,” Kay-Li interrupted him again. “If we could bring the Keeper here to me for an audience our questions might be better answered.”
“They are only rumors, my empress,” Zee replied emotionless. “They are highly unlikely to be true.”
“You are gifted with the future sight,” Kay-Li said. “I trust no one more than you, Zee. You are my friend. I will do what the King has asked me to do, regardless of how difficult it may be for the sake of the kingdom. Now, the hour grows late. I wish to bathe and be alone with my thoughts.”
“As you wish, Empress Kay-Li,” Zee replied. He bowed. She nodded her head. Zee turned and left the chamber. “Good night.”
Kay-Li removed her sword, armbands and the gold armor from her chest. She dropped them to the floor. She untied her boots and slid her pale feet out of them. She removed her pants and shirt. Kay-Li waded out into the pool and began to swim.
The sound of Zee’s footsteps echoed down the empty corridor on the top floor of the pagoda. He came to a door and quietly inserted a key. The door creaked open and Zee entered. Out of habit and fear, Zee was sure to lock the door. The living quarters consisted of only two areas. There was a sleeping chamber with a canopy bed and a terrace balcony overlooking the city. Zee removed his robes and tossed them onto the bed. Underneath the cloak, Zee wore only a simple black shirt and pants. He walked into the living area of his quarters. There was a fire burning in the fireplace. Surprisingly, there were few furnishings. A long table, similar to the one in the council chambers, rested on a sprawling red and blue carpet. There was another smaller table against the wall. Both were handcrafted and detailed with scenes of Sapphira’s history. There was a beautifully adorned tea pot which hovered over a set of coals. Four cups were placed beside it. The living area had several
statues, gargoyles and ancient warriors, strategically placed in the four corners of the room. Zee casually strolled over to the fireplace and warmed himself. The fire was slowly dying. Zee removed a metal rod and poked at the wood and coals. Sparks and flames shot out. He reached out his hands and warmed himself again. There was only one painting hanging in the room. It was a portrait of the Empress Kay-Li and her baby daughter. Zee closed his eyes after studying the painting for a moment and sighed. There was a gust of wind from the balcony, causing the curtains in the living area to sway. Zee grasped the fire poker more tightly. He turned and could slightly make out a figure standing in the sleeping quarters.
“Who is there!?!?” Zee called out, waving the fire poker like a sword.
“There is no need for violence. It will do you no good against me.”
“Show yourself, before I summon the palace guards!”
The large, armored figure stepped through the curtains. He towered several feet over Zee. Long blades protruded from each metal arm and the top of his helmet. His face was entirely covered by the metal mask. The armor was adorned in bronze, blood red and dark blue colors.
“Rage Ripper,” Zee gasped. “How did you get into the pagoda?”
“It is a cold night. It is not as difficult as one might think,” Rage Ripper remarked. “It is my understanding that Empress Kay-Li will be departing for Mount Sabor in the morning with Ojo Tenshi. Your prophecy must have been very convincing.”
Zee placed the poker down and walked over to the small table. He poured a cup of tea.
“Tea?” he offered. “No, I guess not.”
Zee took a sip of his drink.
“I told the empress only what I saw,” he sadly said. “How do you already know these things?”
Rage Ripper walked over to the fireplace.
“This palace has many eyes and ears which do not support Empress Kay-Li,” he said.
“When will you take me to my audience with Ruby Sage?” Zee asked.
“She is a busy woman,” Rage Ripper replied. “Your meeting with her may need to be delayed indefinitely.”
“You said that she had a device to remove the darkness!” Zee exclaimed. “Have you deceived me?”
“Ruby Sage wants Kay-Li and her daughter destroyed,” Rage Ripper remarked. “I want the Soul Ripper so I may restore my honor by besting him in combat.”
“I have done all that you have asked,” Zee nervously said. He placed the empty cup of tea on the table. “Why are you here?”
“I have brought you your payment for your services.”
“I asked for no payment.”
“Precisely. You are no longer needed Counselor Zee” Rage Ripper remarked. “You have become a loose end in this drama.”
“No!” Zee cried out. He threw the steaming pot of tea at Rage Ripper and ran for the door. The porcelain pot shattered against his armored chest.
“A futile effort,” Rage Ripper casually said, blocking Zee’s path. “I feel no worldly pain.”
Rage Ripper slammed Zee against the wall.
“The Soul Ripper is immortal,” Zee gasped. “He cannot be defeated.”
“Only death is immortal. Good-bye, counselor.”
Rage Ripper turned and jammed his two arm blades through Zee’s chest. Zee let out a yell and slumped to the floor. Rage Ripper nonchalantly walked past the bed to the terrace, climbed over the side and disappeared.
Several hours passed. Zee’s lifeless body remained on the floor. There was a knock on the door, followed by another. The knob on the door slowly turned. The door opened. General Shig poked his head into the room.
“Is anyone here?” he called out. “Counselor Zee?”
General Shig entered into the main living area. Immediately, he saw Zee’s body slumped on the floor. Shig casually walked over and examined the body.
“You have done well, Rage Ripper,” he said.
Suddenly, waves of yellow energy began to form and circle around Zee’s body. General Shig stumbled back in terror, tearing a small piece of his jacket on a gargoyle statue’s teeth.
“What by the gods!?!?” he exclaimed.
Zee’s body flickered and flashed with static energy. Then, it faded away and was gone. General Shig looked around the room in shock. He ran to the door and darted down the corridor.
THE ADVENTURE WILL CONTINUE.......