White Knights and Dark Days
A Shaolin Ambassador Adept on a quest to recover a sacred relic
Zhuang Yulong wears the traditional garb of his sect, heavy roughspun hempen robes dyed a sunburnt orange trimmed in white, with a satin undercoat beneath to keep him cool and dry. When he began his travels he also donned an unassuming matte black armored vest to protect his vitals from danger. His robe is notted at the waist by a coarse rope, and the observant among them notice there are several lumps along his waistline and the hems of his sleeves where throwing knives and stun grenades have been stashed. A string of black wooden beads has also been knotted at his belt.
Across his back is slung his prized possession, the claymore Sil-snyen, a gift from his mentor. The weapon’s scabbard is leathern and decorated with a scene of The Buddha meditating amongst some fawns in a pine forest. The crossguard is V-shaped, and the Awakened observers among them can feel the astral presence of the ancient weapon. His skin is the deep olive brown of rural Chinese stock, his muscles and movements honed from the Adept’s Way. When Yulong shifts his robes, a fearsome dragon tattoo in emerald and gold can be seen decorating his left shoulder and pectoral, snaking away beneath his armor. When Yulong speaks, his voice seems to convey almost palpable force, as if his words held sway over one’s thoughts and movements. It does not take an Awakened’s senses to recognize that he has focused his adept powers on the techniques of verbal command.
When Zhuang Yulong was a child, he used to run after master Jin Shifu through the monastery courtyards, crying out after him.
“Shifu, shifu, please tell me, who were my parents?” he would ask, tugging at the hem of his orange robe.
Then Jin Shifu would snatch the robes from his little fingers, wheel about, and glare down at him obstinately. Suddenly, Zhuang Yulong would remember his training, clasping fist in palm, the respectful gesture of the Shaolin temple. “Jin Shifu, forgive me!”
The master’s laughter would fill the temple halls. “Little Yulong, have I not told you before, your mother is Tian, the sky, and your father Di, the earth,” here he would stamp his foot on the worn stone. With a twirl of his walking stick, Jin Shifu would pull down the shoulder of Yulong’s robe, revealing the intricate dragon tattoo which snaked across his torso. “The great dragon Yinglong brought you to us from the celestial kingdom, and ever since you have been bothering me with your questions! Back to your training Yulong, the grounds will not sweep themselves!”
Zhuang Yulong’s earliest memories go something like this, although he had never felt truly out of place at the Shaolin temple in Henan, China, for orphans in a buddhist temple are not an uncommon sight. What did set him apart from his brother monks was the dragon tattoo which wrapped around his chest and back, an intricate work of gold and green which his own master Jin Shifu had applied to him as a child.
Despite the solitary lifestyle of daily zen practice, at an early age Yulong exhibited a tongue as gilded as the markings on his body. When the young boys were sent to walk the village streets to beg their daily meals, the other monks would come back with wooden bowls half filled with stale rice, while Yulong would stride triumphantly home, his own bowl brimming with tofu, broccoli and other delights from the wives he had impressed with his honeyed words.
At the age of 16, after Zhuang Yulong had demonstrated proficiency in the 72 Shaolin arts, his Shifu took him aside, bringing him to a small hill covered in clusters of pagodas.
“You have proven yourself well today, and now you are grown. Bare your chest, Zhuangzi, and take your place amongst the masters.” The old monk paced about him, studying his strong young form, the ripple of the dragon beneath his arm, its lion’s head snarling upon his chest, faded yet still striking. The seal he had cast all those years ago.
Jin Shifu’s hand lashes out, his fingers a claw, thudding into the boy’s chest once, then again, delivering a flurry of strikes along the boy’s pectoral and abdomen muscles. He gasps, draws back, then inhales deeply, his body flooding with some unknown electricity.
“Master, what. . . what is it?” He manages to gasp.
The old Shaolin abbot only smiles. “The Way which cannot be named is not the Way. The energy which can be named is not the energy.”
The monk takes another deep gulp of air, his body feeling as if he were experiencing it for the first time. His fists spring from his sides, lashing out casually at the Shifu with a one-two jab. The old man’s hands fly to parry, quick as ever, batting the probing shots down and away. “Good, my son. You swim well in the stream. Now I will show you the waterfall.”
Zhuang Yulong continued to live among the other monks at the Shaolin temple into his twentieth year, his skills in the martial arts quickly outpacing the other monks with the help of his adept abilities. He studied the standard pantheon of Shaolin techniques, learning to focus his qi in order to quicken his steps, repel the opponent’s attacks, and add unnatural strength to the force of his blows. For two seasons, a visiting monk from the Canton region taught him the ways of Jeet Kune Do, and he became entranced with it’s ebb and flow, how one could splash aside blows to then return with a volley of hornet’s stings.
Yet he loved Tai Qi Chuan most of all, for the way it seemed to calm the fabric of the world as he lost himself in its deliberate steps. When Yulong and Jin Shifu would spar in this style the master’s body would be in constant motion, denying any strikes or grappling techniques as a worm denies a bird. Then suddenly, the limber old man would be beneath his guard, with a leg or arm locked to break. With time, Yulong learned to rival his master in Tai Qi, drawing crowds of younger monks whenever they would duel.
He would be twenty-two when he befriended his first foreigner, a young man named James Behuniak. It was this same day that Zhuang Yulong obtained his two-handed claymore, Sil-snyen, a foci gifted to him by his new friend James. This was also the first day that Sil-snyen would take a man’s life while in Yulong’s hands.
It had all happened innocently enough. The foreigner was visiting the temple on behalf of his ancient order, A group of western Christians who simply called themselves the Crusaders, their sigil a plain silver cross on a black field. The man himself was youthful, fit, handsome and easy to speak with, much like Yulong himself. His mere presence seemed to recall warm summer days, and his voice felt rich as a hoisin sauce and twice as soothing. Yulong felt himself compelled to do whatever it was the man asked of him.
The Crusader explained his purpose for visiting the temple, describing some shadow organization which had been thieving ancient artifacts from across the world and smuggling them back to the CAS for reasons unknown. He asked to see the Shaolin Temple’s own relic blade, and to Yulong’s surprise, the old abbot Jin Shifu consented, leading them down below the pagoda gardens, past the Crypts of the Five to levels Yulong had never seen.
The man was an adept himself, Yulong could tell by the way he carried himself—spine erect, his every step mindful and full of purpose. He wore a western-style leather jacket with a suit of mail clinking softly beneath it, and a silver cross hung from his neck. On his back he wore a long sword, double-edged and well worn, with a V-shaped cross guard and a pommel in the shape of a dove. The scabbard was leathern, inlaid with a scene of fawns, lotus petals and a seated Siddhartha. Yulong had difficulty taking his eyes from the beautiful weapon.
They reached the lowest levels of the crypts, coming to a raised dais with a sword resting upon it, wrapped in velvet. The abbot lifted it gingerly, holding it up to catch the light of Behuniak’s torch. “The blade Haku, our most sacred relic. It was given to our temple by Bodhidharma when he came from the south to bring the dharma and face the wall. Some say it was the blade his brothers used in an attempt on his life, others that it was the sword Shen Guang used to take his own arm. I believe Haku learned the teachings of Bodhidharma when it travelled in his company.”
The sword was magnificent. Its blade curved forwards at the waist, and was covered with the finest inlays of jade Yulong had ever seen. It shone magnificently even in the depths of the Shaolin temple.
“A fine blade indeed, Master Jin. But no longer safe here, I think,” Behuniak rumbled. “We should move it back to our bastion for safekeeping.”
As the Crusader spoke, a black rope shot down from the darkness above, wrapped once around the relic weapon, then yanked it up into the void above. The abbot gave a shout of surprise, but Behuniak immediately hoisted his torch into the air after it. Suddenly, the cavernous space above them was lit, and Yulong could make out a half-dozen dark forms clinging to the stalactites above them. A dagger shot from the Crusader’s open palm, bringing down the intruder who had taken the sword. Jin Shifu caught Haku in one twirling motion, Behuniak drew his own sword, and the black-clad figures dropped down all around them.
The melee was a blur. Jin Shifu whirled between two assailants, his movements impossibly quick as Haku flashed through the gloom, separating limbs from bodies. Behuniak was engaged with another two, backpedaling as he parried the advances of their katana.
Yulong snapped to his senses as another ribbon of silver came keening in at his throat. He ducked and spun low, his padded sandals sliding on the stone floor, sweeping at his opponent’s legs. The man leapt backwards to avoid being tripped, but ran up against the curve of the cavern wall, and Yulong ducked inside his guard, raining down strikes to his face, neck, and chest, his fists thundering like a stampede of water buffalo.
As his first opponent slumped to the floor, he heard Behuniak cry out, and turned in time to see his claymore being knocked from his hand by a backwards kick. The sword came sailing towards him, and he ran forward to meet it, catching it from the air. As his fingers closed around its hilt, he could feel an incredible sensation, as if he were looking into the eyes of a wild creature as they chanced upon each other in a quiet forest.
He advanced on the Crusader’s adversaries, and the first of them plunged forward with his katana. Sil-snyen danced out, batting the jab aside. Yulong stepped into his counter-swing, connecting at the shoulder and burying the blade past the man’s heart. As he wrenched the sword free, it hummed in his hands, vibrating like the copper singing bowls of the Tibetan monks.
The last man backed away, his eyes wide with fear, and Yulong stepped forward through the spray of heartblood to face him. He brought Sil-snyen down in a two-handed chop, glancing off his opponent’s blade. The claymore seemed to twist in his grip, and he rolled his wrists to keep up, bringing the sword back up to strike at the man from below. The man’s guard was good, but Sil-snyen seemed to know his opponent’s every move, urging him onward, and Yulong became lost in the play of their blades until suddenly there was silence, his claymore buried hilt-deep in the man’s gut.
Yulong yanked the blade free, and Sil-snyen throbbed once again in his hands, the tone higher in pitch than before, cutting through the gloomy quiet. He turned to give the blade back to its owner, but Behuniak only shook his head. He was clutching his arm, blood seeping between his fingers. “Mister,” Yulong said in broken English, “Please. You take.” He held it out, the steel still ringing unnaturally.
“Oh no,” the Crusader replied, “Sil-snyen is yours now. She never sung for me.”
From this fateful day, Yulong set forth from the Shaolin temple for the first time in his life, spending his adult years traveling under the tutelage of his mentor, James Behuniak. With the Crusader, Yulong has learned to expand his adept powers, gaining some mastery of the arts of persuasion and voice control, along with a solid grasp on the English language. He has also tempered his Shaolin martial arts with the more practical knowledge of the questing adept, learning to wear armor, gain tactical advantages with exotic grenades, and how best to combat the gun-wielding adversary of the modern world. His journey has recently brought him West, to North Carolina, where rumors of the shadow organization have drawn a sect of the Crusaders, Yulong and his mentor among them.
Always in the back of Yulong’s mind is a longing to return to his home in Song Shan, the sacred relic blade Haku safely in hand.