Chapter One: Once Upon A Time…
In the land of Prydain, there stood a tall, light grey castle in the midst of a vast, lusciously green meadow filled with flowers of many types and trees of different sizes. During a wonderfully sunny afternoon, a woman in her mid-teens with long blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and a melodic, youthful voice dashed across the meadow in her maiden dress and black flats. She was laughing as she had done so. Her smile grew with each step she took.
It didn’t matter all that much how heavy the sun rays bore down on her or the small beads of sweat that developed beneath her bangs. Her only focus was getting to the tall tree with the luscious apples. It was large and wide enough to provide shade from the sun. Not only did it cool her, but it kept her well-hidden from the one thing that she tried so giddily to keep away from.
While hiding behind the tree and often glancing around it to see if her pursuer was near, one of the apples from the tree fell and landed on her head with a faint BOINK! If it were not for her hair to cushion the blow of the apple, she would have certainly been in more pain. She looked up to see where it might have fallen from and noticed a small, familiar dog-like creature with shaggy hair taking a bite out of an apple it kept for itself. Seeing the creature, the young woman’s frustrations faded, and she seemed happier.
“Gurgi!” she called to the shaggy creature in the tree. “Do be more careful up there. You nearly gave me quite a stir.”
The creature known as “Gurgi” stopped eating and looked down to see the girl who was rubbing her head. “Uh-oh! Clumsy Gurgi not paying attention to where he is eating. Gurgi apologizes to Princess Eilonwy. Gurgi begs her not tell Taran of his blunder.”
Eilonwy chuckled. “No harm done, Gurgi. Just be more careful next time.” She glanced around the tree, realizing that her pursuer was still nowhere around, and looked back up to Gurgi. “Now, do me a small favor and keep quiet for a while.”
“Is Princess Eilonwy in danger?” Gurgi asked.
“Oh, not at all,” she assured with a smile. “I’m just playing a little game.”
Gurgi jumped excitedly on the idea. “Ohh! A game! Can Gurgi play?!”
Eilonwy shushed him and replied, “You are playing, Gurgi. Stay up in the tree and don’t make a sound.”
Gurgi placed his paws over his mouth and nodded in acknowledgment of the young princess’s request. Meanwhile, she looked around the tree once more and finally spotted her pursuer – Taran, a young man who was not much older than Eilonwy with brown hair and eyes, equipped with his trustworthy sword sheathed at his side. He looked as if he was somewhat out of breath, but was able to maintain a bright smile on his face. Floating near him was Eilonwy’s “bauble,” a small, magical golden sphere that normally accompanied Eilonwy herself; at the moment, it guided Taran in his search for her.
Taran saw the many trees ahead of him that might as well have looked all the same to him. He knew Eilonwy had to be behind one of them. His only clue to finding her was the bauble guiding him – its light blinked when near her, though Taran could never figure out why, regardless of the many times he asked Eilonwy.
While gazing on the trees, he scratched his head in confusion. He asked the guiding bauble, “Can you give me at least one hint?” And, as if answering his request, the bauble circled around his head and did only that. Taran shook his head, knowing just what that gesture from the floating golden sphere meant. “Use my head, eh? Well, much help you turned out to be.”
That was when he heard giggling from behind one particular tree straight ahead, which was the only hint he needed to determine where Eilonwy was hiding. With a sly grin and a plan formulating in his mind, he sneaked his way over to the tree located to the left of the one Eilonwy hid behind. As quietly as he could, he started climbing it, disappearing within the collection of leaves and branches.
Eilonwy looked around the tree again, and she was surprised to see Taran nowhere around. Her smile, which had been registering on her face for nearly a whole hour, suddenly faded into a befuddled frown. Taran hasn’t given up on the game, has he? She was aware of his lack of patience and short-temper; but, she would never figure him to be so childish during a harmless game of hide-and-seek.
Up in the tree, Gurgi’s paws continued to cover his mouth, delightedly keeping in his promise to Eilonwy to stay quiet for her and Taran’s game. This was just the advantage Taran needed, as he leaped from one tree to another, snuck up behind his furry best friend, and snatched him. Gurgi muffled a surprised yelp, as he realized that he was in the arms of his master.
Taran placed one finger to his lips, gesturing for Gurgi to keep silent for him now. As he did before with Eilonwy, Gurgi nodded in assurance. Taran handed him one of the apples he plucked from the tree as a reward. Gurgi instantly started consuming the fruit, while Taran looked down below to see the confused Eilonwy still searching for him.
Taking advantage of the confusion, Taran dropped from the branch he stood on and landed right behind Eilonwy, not making a single detectable sound. Smiling cleverly, he tiptoed up to Eilonwy and, as swift as his body allowed him, wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her halfway off the ground. She let out a hysterical shriek, having no idea who it was that had caught her from behind, and even struggled under Taran’s grasp.
“It’s me, Eilonwy! It’s me!” Taran exclaimed with a chuckle, easing her hysteria before it could get any worse.
Letting go of her, Taran watched as she spun around and glared at him, her once happy and then bewildered facial expressions transfixing into one of anger. “That was not funny, Taran!”
Taran stared at her, very perplexed. “But I thought…”
“You’re supposed to kiss me and then pick me up,” she said, just as she jumped onto him, knocking him off his feet and pinning him to the ground, while locking her lips with his. At first, Taran was even more perplexed, but then he understood what was really going on and enjoyed the passionate kiss.
In the tree, Gurgi observed the moment between the two lovers, as he enjoyed his own love of his life: apples. He took a huge bite out of the new one that Taran gave him, at the same time he finished off the one before. However, he soon found himself on an “apple rush” and went after all the other apples in the tree, biting out of each and every single one of them.
Meanwhile, the long, enjoyable kiss between Taran and Eilonwy had come to a close, and they spent the rest of their time together simply gazing into each other’s eyes. “You had me believe you were truly furious with me.”
Eilonwy smiled once again, gently stroking the side of his face. “Oh, Taran. How can I ever be furious with the man that I love.”
Taran humbly returned her smile. “And I love you, Eilonwy.”
The both of them attempted in another sweet kiss, until something landed with a soft thud near them. Catching their attention, they turned their heads in the same direction and spotted an apple lying on the grass. It didn’t take much of a guess for either of them to figure where it came from.
“Gurgi!” They both bellowed in frustration.
Eilonwy removed herself from Taran, allowing them to get to their feet and look upward to see Gurgi with a bushel of apples in his arms…and one horrified look on his furry face. Ignoring the fact that he dropped two of those apples, which nearly landed on their heads, Taran and Eilonwy were mostly focused on his expression, which worried the two lovers.
“Gurgi? What is it?” Taran inquired.
Gurgi stared across the area at something. Curious to know what, Taran and Eilonwy followed his gaze and spotted the thing that mortified him: a pale-skinned, mustachioed man with an impressive build, yellow eyes with black scleras, and long, balding black hair. His hands were concealed beneath thick gloves made from the dark tan hide of an unfortunate beast. In fact, most of this stranger’s attire appeared to have been made from animal skin, from his hood to his boots. And, to add to his already menacing aura, perched on his shoulder was a falcon.
The sudden appearance of this man spooked Taran to the point that he unsheathed his sword, which he brought for such an occasion, and stood in a fighting stance. Eilonwy stood close behind him, fearing a fierce confrontation on the brink, while Gurgi climbed down from the tree and ran away, dropping apples in the process. His hasty exit was either a sign of his usual cowardice or to get help.
“Taran…” Eilonwy sounded as frightened as she looked, staring over Taran’s shoulder at the outsider.
“Everything will be all right, Eilonwy,” Taran assured her, not once taking his eyes off of the stranger across from him. “What is your business here?”
The stranger was silent for quite some time, and then he answered in a deep, raspy voice, “I seek the one who defeated the Horned King.”
Taran and Eilonwy both reacted in shock, not expecting word of the events surrounding their adventure with the Black Cauldron to have spread so far and wide, just a week after they occurred. Whatever association this stranger had with the Horned King, it was best for Taran to be on his guard.
“I…I am the one you seek!” he boldly declared.
The pale-skinned man stared at Taran long and hard, making no gestures or movements whatsoever. And then, in the blink of an eye, he sent his falcon away and reached behind him, pulling out his sword, which was as sharp as any other but crooked in a way that gave it quite a threatening guise. He jumped and soared high across the air, executing a perfect somersault as he descended on Taran and Eilonwy.
Taran had never seen such quick moves and began to wonder, as this stranger advanced on him, if he was even human. Of course, his focus became more on Eilonwy, who was in harm’s way in the sudden attack. “Eilonwy, run! Get away from here!”
She wanted to argue and tell him that she would never leave his side; but the anxiety on his face convinced her that this wasn’t the time. She fell back from the battle, hiding behind the very tree that she used for their game. Only this time, it served as a shield to protect her from whatever blades swung her way.
Holding his sword up high, Taran blocked the first swing executed by the stranger – a swing so powerful that it made his knees buckle. The stranger followed with another, which was twice as fast as the first, and caught Taran right across the torso. He howled in pain, clutching his body and drenching his clear, peach-colored hand with the crimson liquid pouring out from his gashed flesh. He hadn’t bothered paying mind to it any longer, as his hooded opponent forced him to be on his guard again.
The swordfight quickened and intensified each minute, with the hooded swordsman gaining the upper hand and slashing each part of Taran’s body whenever the opportunity was provided. Bits of clothing and flesh were torn from Taran, and he grew weaker every passing moment. From behind him, he heard Eilonwy tearfully plead for his opponent to stop. He wished she had not been there to see him like that – ravaged to the point of near-death.
Eventually the stranger did stop, once he watched Taran fall to his knees – his face cut in several places and sections of his clothes missing, exposing all of the gashes his body sustained from the brutal swordfight. He looked up in his weakened state, seeing the hooded man looming over him. His vision blurred, Taran barely even saw the crooked blade come down across his neck, moving at a speed so fast that just blinking would cause the naked eye to miss it. However, Taran did not blink; he did feel a quick sting over the left side of his neck. After then, he didn’t feel anymore. Only his sight described what he could’ve been feeling, as the world tilted and he fell. He hit the ground and knew for sure that he was dead – his pale-skinned opponent had slain him.
How right he was, once he noticed his headless body collapsing right beside where his head was lying. Although he couldn’t actually feel the emotion coming over him, the shock of his own decapitation registered in his brain, which was the only part of him still alive to see what was happening. Devastation then settled in, as soon as Eilonwy came into view, screaming and weeping uncontrollably over his disturbing state. It was strange to him that he could only see her crying – the world had deafened to him.
Soon his vision began to fade as well, as everything started to get more blurry. His pale-skinned opponent appeared a distance behind the mourning Eilonwy, sheathing his sword back into the holster strapped to his back and his falcon returning to perch on his shoulder. Watching him depart – his deed now done – Taran tried to make sense of what the stranger’s connection was to the Horned King. However, as one who was dying, it was hard to make sense of anything – especially as the world around became nothing else than a black, empty void.
South China Sea – 100 Years Later
The sun set in the distance – its radiant beauty bringing a harmonious sensation over Fa Mulan. She stood at the side of the ship that belonged to none other than the Emperor of China, who requested a “journey of tranquility” for himself and his soldiers. It was a hectic time for the people of China. With the third-year anniversary of the army’s victory over the Huns (as well as the death of Shan Yu) on the horizon, it seemed as if more armies were declaring war against China for various reasons. As much as the Emperor tried to keep the peace between countries, some things were even beyond his own control.
Regardless of the pressure, Mulan and her husband, General Li Shang, were always there to protect the Emperor in his time of need. The week that they spent out at sea was the most relaxing time for Mulan especially, as it felt like the only time she was rewarded with such a pleasantry. Between the setting sun and the cool breeze blowing through her black hair, she could not have imagined anything more…
“I’M KING OF THE WORLD!”
Okay…she could imagine one better thing: not having Mushu tagging along with her on the journey.
There he was – the small red dragon that was her closest companion, as well as guardian and protector – standing on the rail with his arms spread apart, his head titled back, and his mouth wide open with a little gray smoke seeping out from its sides. Cri-Kee was right beside him as well, mimicking the same gesture.
Seeing them both that way, Mulan shook her head and chuckled. “Mushu, you realize it’s called a ‘Journey of Tranquility’ for a reason, right?”
“Girl, do you know how long it’s been since I’ve been out at sea?” he asked her. “I’ve been cooped up on land for way too long. I deserve a moment of screamin’ my lungs out, if you don’t mind.”
Mushu took a deep breath, ready to unleash a howl of excitement amidst the quiet, peaceful atmosphere. However, he was robbed of the chance, once the ship suddenly rocked and knocked both him and Cri-Kee off the rail. Mulan almost fell herself but was able to keep herself leveled. She looked over the side and stared into the deep, dark waters to search for whatever caused the ship to rock.
Meanwhile, General Shang exited from the Emperor’s quarters and moved out onto the deck, his sword drawn and a heavily disgruntled look on his face. He glanced at all of the soldiers running around – some looking over the rails, just as Mulan was doing, and others making status checks over the ship. For a journey that was supposed to be filled with tranquility, no one on that ship seemed to be experiencing any right then.
“What is going on here?” Shang asked. “Are we being attacked?”
One soldier replied, “It doesn’t seem so, sir. It could be possible that we might’ve gone over some rocks.”
“Rocks?” Shang remarked with a look of disbelief. “If we were sailing over rocks, we would be somewhere near land. Do you see any land around us, soldier?”
Daunted by the harsh tone in the general’s voice, the soldier apprehensively glanced around and saw the large body of water that surrounded every side of the ship. In response to the question, he sheepishly stated, “No…sir.”
“No, there isn’t!” Shang snapped, his voice clearly heard from the others on the ship, including Mulan, who looked on him in surprise. “Why don’t you do what you are trained to do and find out what is disrupting the Emperor’s voyage?!”
After momentarily staring in bewilderment over his commanding officer’s more-strict-than-usual attitude, the soldier carried out his order and walked away from Shang. Once the soldier was away, Mulan took a moment to approach her husband and say, “Shang, I know things have been rough, but please try to…”
“You order the men the way you want to when I am not in command,” Shang retorted. “In the meantime, let me handle this my way. Understood?”
Mulan had disappointment in her eyes as she watched Shang return back to the Emperor’s quarters. Ever since the wars began, he became just as hard and take-charge as he was the moment she first met him – only this time, it seemed to have been much worse. And yet, she could not blame him for acting so sternly around everyone, considering the fact that he had not been able to relax in the past three years. Not even she could remember the last time they were alone together, with no fighting or bloodshed around them.
“Don’t have to ask or anything…I’m just fine!” Until the moment she heard him start complaining, Mulan had completely forgotten about Mushu, as he and Cri-Kee were thrown off the rail from the sudden shifting of the ship.
Looking down, she saw him lying there with a peeved look on his face. “Oh, Mushu, I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
“Would you be okay if you fell twenty feet and landed on your butt?!”
Mulan chuckled over his exaggeration. “Twenty feet?! Mushu, the distance between the rail and the deck is much less than that.”
“What? Now you’re a mathematician?! As if being a boy wasn’t enough for ya, now you’re gonna lecture me on angles and distance?!”
She just shook her head and grinned, while he continued on with his ranting. Glancing back at the rail that he had fallen from, she noticed a pillar of steam seeping up from behind it. For a moment, she wondered if the ship had sustained damages from the “bump” they sailed over. To make certain for sure whether or not if it did, she dashed back to the rail and looked over again.
What she had seen confused her: one section of the ocean surface was bubbling near the bottom of the ship. Mushu, who spent almost two minutes complaining to no one but himself, stopped as soon as he noticed Mulan looking over the rail. He got even angrier and shouted to her, “Hey, hey! Don’t be pretendin’ to ignore me while I’m in pain!” He then climbed up on the rail, with Cri-Kee following him, and glanced over to see what Mulan was seeing. “Oh, man! What is goin’ on here?”
“I don’t know,” Mulan uttered in concern.
“Well, don’t look at me,” said Mushu, before pointing to his mouth. “This dragon don’t get seasick.”
Mulan pretended to ignore Mushu’s disgusting comment and focused on whatever was causing the water to bubble. However, before she could even see it happen, something bobbled through the surface and bounced against the hard, wooden exterior of the Emperor’s ship. Everyone onboard heard the loud thud it made and joined Mulan, Mushu, and Cri-Kee at the side to see what had surfaced.
The object appeared to have been a black cauldron with markings on all sides of it that looked very alien to the China-born soldiers. They began questioning each other, asking for a best assumption on where the cauldron might have come from. Some of them imagined it to have been on a ship that sunk recently or long ago, while others presumed it might be a bad omen – sent by the gods as a warning that they were sailing on cursed waters.
Whatever the case, Mulan opted for one thing: “Let’s just leave it. I’m sure it’s junk left behind by someone.”
“What’s junk?” She heard the voice of Shang speak out and turned to see him there, standing behind them all with a look of fury. “I thought we were keeping this ship together. What are you all doing?” He joined everyone near the rail and saw the cauldron floating in the water. “You are all focusing on this?!”
“Shang, I was the one who saw it first,” Mulan said in defense of the soldiers. “I was just about to tell them…”
“What did I tell you about giving orders while I’m in command?!” Shang once again interrupted her, making her very upset in the process. “This is not your ship to command!”
“And it’s not yours either!” Mulan retorted, her eyes glaring right into his.
A bright flash came through the atmosphere, followed by the loud pop emitted from the sudden thunderstorm brewing over the sea. The wind began to pick up intensity, nearly blowing some on the deck back a few feet. Matters became worse as soon as the tides started getting wild, rocking the ship much more violently than before. In just a few seconds, chaos erupted among the once-tranquil space – the “journey of tranquility” became a mission of survival.
Shang immediately began barking orders to the soldiers, sounding tougher than he did only a moment ago. He sent them all into separate areas of the ship, having them perform different actions to keep it steady and intact. His main priority was to get the Emperor and everyone else safely back to land, before the storm ripped them all to shreds.
Mulan hung on tightly to the rail, doing whatever she could to keep herself alive. Mushu and Cri-Kee particularly seemed to have been doing their own part in it, leaping off the rail and running across the deck while avoiding the feet rushing over them. “Mushu!” Mulan cried. “Hide in the Emperor’s quarters!” The dragon didn’t think twice on her command and ran directly there, with Cri-Kee clutched in his hands.
With her friends safe and Shang busy keeping the ship together with the soldiers, Mulan looked over the rail once more to see if the black cauldron still floated in the raging waters. But as soon as she looked…
A pair of viciously glowing red eyes stared into hers, paralyzing her with intense fear. She felt a skeletal hand reach out and clutch her throat so tight that the sharp tips of its fingers dug deep into her skin and drew blood. Mulan could barely even gasp, as the hand’s violent grip robbed her of voice and breathing. Within seconds, she felt herself becoming very cold and drained of all energy.
Mulan stared into the face of her attacker, only to realize that there was no face there – only a skull with the same red eyes that struck her with a sense of intimidation like no other (not even from her confrontation with Shan Yu). This skeletal creature wore a red hooded robe with antlers protruding from its head. It was truly mortifying, and if Mulan had any life remaining in her, she would’ve dreaded its appearance more than she already had.
But she no longer had any life in her. Her skin got very pale, and her eyes were dilated. Death came to her slow and painful, not the way she would have imagined to leave the world. And she certainly would not have expected it to come at the hands of such a frightening, undead adversary like this. Not once did she even defend herself from the unexpected attack.
Across the deck, Shang turned to Mulan and gasped in horror, met with the sight of his beloved wife being held four feet off the deck by her bloodied throat, dead at the hands of a creature unlike any he had seen before. Anger quickly overwhelmed the shock and Shang let out a wild scream, lifting his sword high in the air and running towards the creature that murdered the woman he loved.
The creature heard Shang’s screaming and looked his way, seeing him advancing in its direction. It made no attempts of escape and only stood there, cackling sinisterly. Evil laughter resonated throughout the area and was soon overshadowed by another pop of lightning. A flash of light came once again and then…
All was normal again – the storm and creature both vanished without a trace.
Unfortunately, one result of the events that just occurred still remained: the dead body of Fa Mulan. There she was, lying near the rail where she was attacked, her neck bloodied and having a very pale complexion. All of the soldiers stood where they were on the ship, looking on in disbelief over what had transpired. Shang could barely move himself, staring at his wife’s lifeless body on the deck. Tears began to stream down from his eyes, as he thought about their last moment together, which was nothing but bickering and yelling. It was not the last memory he wanted to have of her, but it was unfortunately the way it had to be.
Shang was finally able to force himself to move his feet and go to his deceased wife, dropping down to his knees and picking her up gently. As he cradled her in his arms, his face was heavily masked with tears and a feeling of pure rage filled his heart. When he finally reached his boiling point, he screamed to the heavens above, echoing throughout the calm sea. Somewhere out there was the creature responsible for the death of his wife; and as much as he wanted revenge, there was no way he would be able to find it. If only he could’ve called someone to help him.
But who else could he have called?