The Gobi Desert. Late afternoon
In the scorching region of Khara-Khoto, amidst a town of eerie structures that had been abandoned centuries ago, several shrouded figures were huddled around a campsite, their visors screening their eyes from the inhospitable howling of tempestuous wind.
“Is this the place, Yelu?” shouted one of the trekkers. “We’ve been trying to get here for weeks.”
“Yes. The City of Black Water, called Etzina in the writings of Marco Polo, that Venetian explorer. There are whispers,” cried the other called Yelu, over the screaming wind and holding up his scarf to stop too much sand from flying into his mouth. He paused, mindful not to gasp or panic, or else his mouth would be filled with even more grit. “That this could be the place. The place where a fragment of the elixir of life is located.”
“Well, the thunder and lightning are gathering at places of great magical power and history,” shouted the final trekker, his body swathed in dark green and white robes, like the others. “Regions exhibiting anomalous characteristics… some might call magical.”
“This place creeps me out, Babuhai. No, scratch that,” said the largest of the men, who looked Mongolian. He looked at the stone towers of Khara-Khoto, their ominous spires stabbing the churning sky. “This place terrifies me. This was where the founder of our first empire, Genghis Khan, waged his last campaign against the Tanguts. It’s where massacres were committed and a flood wiped out the defenders. It’s a cursed place by both Tangut and Mongol.”
“Well, just remember, Arban: we’re being commissioned by Lady Kam Chik-leoi, comprador of Bjorgman,” shouted his compatriot. Babuhai slapped a hand on the other man’s shoulders. “Me and Yelu are Manchus, and your and our services required by the Chinese connections to Lady Kam. And by the river and desert spirits, I’ll be damned if I’m not going to get paid what she’s promised us – a fee more handsome than any of us have seen before.”
Babuhai, Yelu, and Arban were independent explorers that made their living guiding locals and foreigners alike across vast tracts of hostile environments and contested territory across the northern Qing Empire. In the past month they’d received a secretive assignment from Lady Kam, whose emissaries kept mum about her reasons for seeking them. All they needed to know was that there was a fragment of an artifact of mysterious power, and Lady Kam’s network of informants across China had identified its location in the Gobi Desert. Under the strictest of confidence, the three men were to sneak into the legendary abandoned city of Khara-Khoto, get it, and get the hell out.
“Under no circumstances can this expedition be traced to Lady Kam,” said the agent who had approached them, “and most certainly not to the company she works for, or the person backing her.”
“Well, then, shall we get started?” said Babuhai, as they made their way to a tower they’d marked on the map, boots grinding along the sandy ground. Yelu had a shovel, pick, and other excavating tools, along with a rope and lamp. Arban, being larger and stronger than his Manchu counterparts, took the pick and began to work at the sandstone at the base of the tower, and it began to slowly crack. “Is it usually that easy?” asked Babuhai.
“No,” grunted Arban, “but that’s the point. There’s a secret, buried deep in here. A chamber. And it’s here that we’ll get our treasure, and earn that vast sum of fortune promised to us by that secretive Lady Kam.”
Yelu, seeing the progress Arban was making, began to set up the explosive packets, lining the perimeter with satchets of black powder. The trio weren’t just professional explorers, they were seasoned treasure hunters. “The sum she’s promised us would let us retire within a few months,” he chuckled, shaking his head. “I almost wonder if it’s too good to be true.”
“Or if whatever’s inside, this so-called elixir fragment, is as precious as Kam seems to think,” said Babuhai. “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” said Yelu, lighting a torch he’d lifted from his pack as Arban backed away with his pick. “Let’s blow this baby apart.” Torch ablaze and roaring with fire, he tossed it along the perimeter and a series of concentrated, deafening explosions ripped through the desert vicinity, blowing a hole cleanly through the Khara-Khoto tower. The three men shielded their ears for several tense seconds, waiting for the smoke to blow over them, before they gathered themselves and prepared to enter the chamber inside the tower.
“Ready?” called Babuhai over the shrieking sandstorm.
Yelu and Arban nodded. They could see stairs leading into a mysterious darkness. But before they could even peer into the darkness of the vault, a howling shriek from behind sent them jumping, and Yelu immediately lifted his rifle and aimed it at the source. “What the…” he muttered, as a hooded, smaller figure – from the frame, it looked female – made its way toward them. “How the hell did you sneak up on us? Who are you?” he barked at the woman, whose entire body was cloaked in grey.
Without answering, the interloper interrupting their dig revealed a dagger in her hand, which seemed to shimmer with ominous power. Yelu and Arban yelled in hostility and lunged at her, with Yelu firing his gun and Arban drawing a large knife. But before any of them could even blink, the woman had lifted her hand, the dagger shooting directly for Arban and thrusting into his chest. He gasped, knees buckling, and Babuhai screamed in disbelief. Yelu fired several shots at their mysterious attacker, the shots ringing out amidst the howling wind. But the woman lifted her hand, the dagger slipping out of Arban’s fresh corpse and flying about the air with unfathomable speed, effortlessly parrying the projectiles from Yelu’s rifle with a mind of its own. Then, in a rapid heartbeart, Yelu blinked in sudden cold fear as he glimpsed the hooded woman just in front of him. He could barely make out her shrouded gaze before she backhanded him with blinding, unbelievable speed, breaking his jaw cleanly and sending him rolling away. “Oof!” Babuhai roared and tried to run the woman through with his bayonet, but the other simply stood still and allowed him to make contact. The bayonet’s sharp metal tore at her cloak but, upon stabbing her, promptly snapped in two, seemingly failing to hurt her at all. He looked at the woman, too stunned to react as she also backhanded him, breaking his nose instantly and almost comically as she sent him spinning into the air, before he landed painfully on the Gobi sand.
The figure slowly made her way toward the struggling Yelu, who groaned and tried to aim his rifle at her. But before he could scramble away, the dagger she held in her hand moved, as if by its own will, and shot directly at Yelu’s face, piercing into his forehead and penetrating into his skull. As he shuddered and then lay still forever, the dagger reversed course, lifting itself with a sickening sliding sound from Yelu’s head and flying back into the waiting hand of the female figure.
“Foul trespassers. By my honor as a Moonborn of old, before the sun rose on humanity,” whispered the woman, “I won’t let anyone take my fragment of what Mother entrusted to us. To those of us that defied her son, our brother, Yixin, and survived his onslaught millennia ago.”
She pointed her dagger at the trembling survivor, Babuhai, who’d fallen on his rear and was clutching his bloody nose in agony. “Do you wish to live, baby mortal? For me to spare your miserable life?”
Helpless and broken, Babuhai nodded sullenly, knowing that there was no hope of besting her.
“Then tell your Chinese employer, or better yet, the one that employs your employer, that upstart queen from a snowy land far away – Anna of Arendelle – that she’ll never lay her eyes, let alone her hands, on even an inch of this fragment, let alone the elixir reconstituted.”
The apparently immortal woman’s eyes flashed.
“Queen Anna is in over her head. Tell her that the Moonborn will resist her designs on the elixir of life viciously, ferociously. And if Yixin and his minions are on the move again, we will stop at nothing to keep the elixir from him, even if it destroys Arendelle and the world.”
HAS ANNA CROSSED THE RUBICON?