Take Up the Cross – CH1: Tomb of the First Emperor

Tip-toeing over trapped tiles, the tanned, lithe man wearing a traveling cloak and ragged merchant’s robes picks through a pile of bones and rubble with his foot. Slightly tall, he’s forced to crane forward, his common-looking face with dark brown eyes revealing a winning smile.

Buried within dripping darkness under hollowed-out stone, a flitterlight hanging from his neck reveals characters chiseled into the floor before him.


Crumbs of bread lie behind in this narrow tunnel, marking the safe passage over the tiles.


Now sure of the tunnel’s destination, he’s briefly paused, marveling at the malice of the tomb’s builder.

The poorly bound book he holds shows characters similar to the ones on the tiles, his eyes studying them intently as he thumbs through the pages.


Eating bread with his free hand, he chuckles.


(The air siphon traps were easier. Serras could just destroy them.)


A nearby mural had listed very specific rules for crossing here. Given the charred bones filling the hallway, the effectiveness of the trap is unquestionable.


(Destroying it could collapse it. Who knows what chaos a single blocked hallway could cause to the overall flow of [aura] down here?)


The location alone remains mortally dangerous, as the First Emperor, uniter of Xin and its greatest tyrant, had laid a still-intact curse upon the lands this tomb resides in. Even now, its evil effects creep upon his [inner expanse], the internal world of his body where his aura flows.

Originally starting with many protective talismans, most have shriveled over the two days spent here.


(If the flow of aura, that wonderful power to change the world, were to suddenly warp and wildly manifest… the rest could immediately fail.)


On a sure timetable to death, Adris has only a day he will begin degenerating into a formless amoeba comprised of corporeal aura.

His mind, his favorite part, will go first.


(One day is more than enough!)


On a landing before a long stairway to the bottom-most levels, an unobvious error had been left on a statue. An incorrect litany would be a desecration not permitted by the First Emperor. Behind it…


(It was a beautifully hidden door.)


Smiling at his own perfect wit, he pokes the next tile, removing debris from it when –


“We are running out of time.”


A deep, assertive female voice jolts his footing, book and bread spread wide to regain his balance. The man looks over his shoulder at the stern, but beautiful, woman only a tile behind.


Possessing flowing black hair that mysteriously follows her body curves, the thin figure wearing a simple dark-blue caftan has no emotion on her face. Only the tense hand on her curved sword and her black, almond-shaped eyes narrowed at him in suspicion indicate her doubts.


“Serras, you can’t leap it. We’ll both die.” Adris smiles while helpfully explaining what he had hoped was obvious.

“You saw the mural, yeah? The instructions for crossing are there.”


“If you’ve figured out the mural, then why is it taking so long? The Xin’Reh detachment High Benefactor Soldon sent cannot be far off.” Needling him, the woman touches a sore spot.


(Yes, a tricky thing, that detachment.)


The Xin’Reh, elite mercenary soldiers of the existing imperial successor states, are truly dangerous in comparison to conscripted peasant garrisons. Soldon, the angry regent in charge of a nearby province, has likely sent his best cadre after the two tomb plunderers.


(It shouldn’t be possible for that fat simpleton Soldon to know where we are, yet…)


Adris’ merry escape through the province had failed to throw off the hounds nipping at them.


“It’s likely that our pursuit has drawn the attention of an ascended being.”

Ascended beings possess mysterious powers, a likely explanation for all oddities. As Soldon’s boss is one, a lasting escape is nigh impossible.

“The moment we ‘borrowed’ Soldon’s Treatise on Domination, it could be inferred that we were after something valuable, given that the First Emperor penned it.”

He frowns, narrowing his eyes at her before continuing,

“And since someone decided to destroy the west wing of Soldon’s estate, I imagine his interest is quite personal. We’ll be lucky if he kills us outright.”


(There are worse things than death that can happen to captured aura users.)


Serras curtly nods.

“I had no other option. The destruction was minor, considering what I am capable of.” Showing rare interest, she uncivilly barks a question.

“What does this trap even do?”


Eyes blank, his frustration with her is hidden only by his smile.


(Minor only in comparison to your talents, not in effect.)


Turning back, he flips to a new page.


(You may have grown taller and stronger with age, my beautiful Serras, but wisdom is ever far off. In addition, your curiosity will kill us both.)


In the past year, she’s grown ever more temperamental and violent.

Men are reduced to limbs and chopped pieces for slight provocations, and more disappear silently after ill comments spoken.

Though he’d finally confronted her about this troubling and escalating hobby, it has done little to dissuade her blood lust.


(Haven’t we grown sadly distant?)


Lingering only briefly on the thought, it’s quickly brushed aside.

While their progress should be a grand victory for them both, they hardly ever interact outside of necessary coordination.


(Speaking at all would be an improvement given the past two weeks.)


Completely clearing the tile with his foot while carefully avoiding touching it, he is finally satisfied by his examination.

He laughs, bringing her attention to him anew as she expects her answer is forthcoming. Instead of giving one, Adris flips the book closed, stands up, and…


… moves across the tiles without looking at them, swaying in the manner of a lewd dancer. Waving his arms while holding the bread and book, he twists and turns across the tiles.


Serras grips her sword, alert and helpless, as the lithe man dances his way happily to the door ahead, before turning and clapping his own applause with objects still in hand.

Taking a bow as Serras shakes in anger…


“A particularly cruel trap.” He begins his explanation long after it was requested.

“It starts as a guidance on the proper elevation of Power of Spirit, but it’s only an illusion. The real message of the trap is…”

As he moves his feet to spin in place, he smiles widely.

“A fucking dance. It’s the Movement of Weaving Beauty. And the failure to dance it is… immolation.”


Closing her eyes, Serras opens them a moment later with an ignorant look.

“I was never instructed in this dance?”


(Of course not. It’s the dance of a whore before the consummate act. The last twirl before the pillow. You’re far too good for that knowledge.)


With the next characters being a choice between excellent moral choices or “a woman’s invitations to mortal embrace,” any astute scholar would obviously choose ignorant suicide.

[Power of Spirit], the aura training of elevating one’s spirit to rise above a mortal outlook and achieve a divine one, excludes lewd inclinations on the path to ascension.


(Really explains the pile of human bones at this juncture of the hallway, doesn’t it? Victims of the asshole’s debauched joke. Luckily, I’m interested in… many disciplines.)


“It’s a bit esoteric. Don’t worry. Follow these steps…!”


Explaining the movements, he enjoys the sight of his chilly and stoic partner of over twenty years dancing like a woman of pleasure across the tiles. With only Adris’ neck light to illuminate her, the outline of her equally lithe body takes on a sensual flavor he never experiences often enough.

Offering his hand to her at the end of the trap, he hopes the darkness hides any lewdness written on his face, for her slight curves were quite noticeable in motion.


(Now I see the appeal!)


“How was it?”


“Vile feeling.” Her response goes in hand with her eyes full of disgust directed at him.


(Don’t concern yourself, I’d give you an eight out of ten and a tip.)


Focusing on their next impediment, the sealed door’s graven, solid form reflects the Conquest period of the Emperor’s reign. The martial pride of that warring era etched into it reveres the act of killing.


(Fits with the madman’s eternal thirst for blood.)


Ornamentation and raised surfaces around them cast a strange shadow play, showing figures that are hidden unless revealed by light at the proper angle.


(Something few notice. Warring light and darkness hide many of the Emperor’s secrets.)


Tracing his hand over the temple door relief cut into the real door, this is the key hidden in the esoteric pictographic characters revealed only by this shadow play.


(Aura users were rare in the Emperor’s time, presumably due to him culling them. Without the pursuit of aura as an offer of power, most people wouldn’t deign to learn the advanced characters needed to interpret it, even if they could discover it.)


Though his childhood training is useful, Adris can’t help but hate scholars.


(“The temple door of the scholars is the key, yet no intellect is locked within.” A poignant reminder to avoid “intellectuals”, “Oh Benevolent Emperor of Hidden Messages”.)


Pressing on the temple door, however, reveals no mechanism.

Instead, the temple door is just a part of the whole: a wall and not a door.


(That’s new.)


Suffering under Serras’ wilting gaze as he fails to open it, he remembers her utility in such situations.


(She is the ultimate lock-pick, after all. I cannot sense a trap, which means it’s… “fair game” for her.)


Turning to her, he smiles and offers his “truthful” solution.


“This door is the final test. See here? The artwork depicting the soldier weathering the storm, only to then blow it away, is the key. Only someone with sufficient [Acuity of Mind] can open the door. I’m afraid that you, Serras, must prove your worth to the First Emperor using -”


Before he can finish, a stiff hand brushes him aside.

The stern beauty brushes her hair back, then adopts the posture of a warrior preparing to draw her sword.


He watches in fascination as transparent, almost milky, scarlet fluid collects on her now glowing body. Its iridescence falls upwards like reverse rain drops to dissipate in the air.

The air grows heavier than Adris can stand, the walls beating in time with her own heart.


In only one breath, she pulls free her sword from its scabbard, with a flash of death filling the tunnel. A serpent-like whip of pure, scarlet aura escapes the drawing cut, a stream of living lightning impacting on the door and disintegrating all it touches.


Adris grimaces at the spectacle, pulled forward a bit with the wind as it rushes into the revealed room along with debris from the explosion, the traveling wave so much stronger than required.


(As always, superb. Destroying a thick barricade of granite with barely a few moments of circulation.)


Acuity of Mind relates to techniques concerning the externalization of one’s aura, techniques requiring more concentration than raw power.


(Serras is a monster who can imagine the end of an opponent in mere moments. Also a monster who conserves no aura…)


Clapping her on the shoulder, the woman flinches at his touch.

“Man, the Emperor might’ve expected anyone but you to show up. Perhaps he would’ve given up his secrets willingly if he’d known you’d be the one knocking on his door.”

She doesn’t respond to his compliment, but he isn’t concerned.


He is, however, slightly alarmed once her technique dissipates, a huge outflow of ambient aura from the room ahead replacing it. Suddenly drunk on the rushing power, Adris thinks about how he’d found Serras after returning from his scouting expeditions.


(Men, torn to shreds and hanging from trees.)


His work had forced him to often separate from her, such efforts put into misleading oncoming patrols and driving them astray. When he would return, at least one body of a Xin’Reh scout was always discovered, brutally dispatched by a dispassionate beauty.


(Though, it’s odd that none bore Soldon’s colors.)


Adris pushes this thought aside.


Serras had resisted their trip to the tomb, even at the point of reaching it, saying that it was too dangerous. When they’d entered, she’d completely abandoned all resistance.


(But, it hardly seems dangerous with her along.)


Destroying walls and a few traps are her greatest contributions so far, with him handling the rest. The danger seems laughable in comparison to her insistences.


“The main chamber should be ahead!” His laughing exclamation draws only a curt nod.

Though detecting no danger in the outflow of power as he carefully steps past sizzling rock, it still sets him on edge.


(There’s a taste to the air I don’t like…)


The Pinnacle style, the personal architecture of the Emperor and his direct line, rules this revealed procession hall: gold trim, jade carvings, and red markings bearing the Emperor’s family sigil cover every surface, the three signs of his supreme power.

The man who was obsessed with name recognition was vain, but his mastery of the play of light and shadow lives on, with even Adris’ pathetic radiance creating horrifying specters on the room’s surfaces.


(If the Conquest style plays with shadows, then the Pinnacle style is like a puppeteer demonstrating a grand, terrifying spectacle. I knew it was here!)


The lack of prior entry into the room is proved by the dust everywhere, thrown up by the previous conflagration. Along with it, the smell of old decay wrinkles his nose.

He spots a lever set into the wall to his left, the end of it cast in brass and in the shape of a great fireball.


Glancing behind…


(… This must control the previous trap. Easy enough to get out, now.)


Serras stares with impatience as he looks.

When he quickly turns and creeps forward to examine the room for dangers, his concentration is broken by her.


“What are you worried about, ‘partner?’ Wasn’t the door the final test?”

His self-proclaimed partner whispers with uncharacteristic sarcasm, flecked with a hint of malice.

Left to grimace at the comment, he then shrugs his shoulders and smiles handsomely.


The two enter cautiously, moving up the center of the procession path. The large, marble-tiled walkway is flanked by headless statues of warriors, offering mute salute with long, faded banners crossing overhead.

When they get halfway into the room, an unusual wind whips up. It buffets them and sets the banners flapping wildly, dry-rotted pieces of them tearing off and escaping to the infinite darkness of the ceilingless room.


Serra’s blade is free in a moment, while Adris’ back to hers as he whips out a small pole that elongates into a spear when turned. Her eyes dart around, searching the shadows for enemies, growing nervous at the danger eluding her.

When Adris pats her back with five fingers, then raps her twice with his knuckles, she calms.


[Five enemies, both sides of the hall.]


Already extending his aura senses using his Power of Spirit, he eliminates the need for eyes and ears. The enemy’s own aura betrays them, lighting them up in his hidden second sight as they move.

When the entities close on them, Adris is shocked, rapidly striking her back with a hand gesture he has only used once before.


Serras goes rigid with recognition, then excites visibly as her aura is let to flow without limit or conservation.

Adris considers voiding his bladder at the despair of his discovery.


(Memories chained by a total madman.)



A strangled groan rises, joined by a chortling cacophony filling the hall.

Their hostility peaks by being spied upon.


(The Emperor’s tomb guards are tortured revenants, unliving bodies of those who failed their ascensions!)


A flash of light fills the chamber.

The shining, rising slash produces a thud from a furry, boned creature’s knees impacting the ground before her.


Her body crouches low after this technique, allowing a lightning-fast spear to clear her head, the point plunging into the creature at the spot of Serras’ deep cut into its flesh. As Adris vaults his partner, his spear bursts the monster’s aura core, the central spot where aura circulates within an inner expanse.


When the spearpoint glows in its mass, blades of energy erupt out of the creature, its juicy insides spraying out.


Serras rolls to Adris’ side as he lands, her body narrowly avoiding two strikes from scything arms, the creatures’ weapons awash with lightning and fire. An enormous wave of shaking aura blows out from her blade in response as she rises.


The twin monsters closing on them are flung moaning back into the darkness.


As they fly, Adris twists his spear before removing it, fully destroying the core of the creature. With the spearhead freed, the monster falls supine while gushing ephemeral fluids onto the stone floor, its wound somehow gasping in agony.


Serras faces the entry door while he faces their destination, backs to each other once more.


The crippled monster is revealed as a mass of flesh with mystical characters carved into it. This vaguely humanoid shape more closely resembles a living tree made of bone and stone, covered in mossy fur and smelling of rotten earth.

While its aura core bleeds out, the dying creature struggles to right itself even with its death evident, clutching its wound to hold back the tide.


The sentience that drives it…


(Cannot be a brain.)


For the creature has no head.


The passage of time is possibly these creatures’ truest enemy, as the monstrosity’s body is decayed and in disrepair, reducing its original strength considerably.


Pulled back into the fight, Serras taps her right foot, setting Adris to shift right instinctively.

Now facing statues, he feels an unknown force circulate a massive quantity of aura from behind and above. His body feels liquid, a hostile technique washing through him and forcing him to grit his teeth to resist passing out. Struggling to correct the flow of his internal expanse, it continues to melt despite his efforts.


(High level! My insides will escape!)


The excruciating pain ceases when the room grows chill. Growing coldness born of Serras’ own technique forces an inferior one from her area, freeing Adris.


A monster larger than the headless one rushes out toward Adris from between the shadows of two statues. Looking like an ape with four arms and two legs, this tortured body with nightmarish legs made of its own mummified, internal organs trundles at full speed.


A sinister, purple aura licks off the sword-like tips of the creature’s appendages.


Rapidly knocking the ground three times with the butt of his spear, Adris then pulls a charm from his robe, rubbing the six-sided gem against his spear.

As it dissolves like sugar dipped in water, the spearhead jolts with arcing lightning.


Lunging forward to intercept the monster, his boltlike blow is deflected by sweeping arms against his precise thrust, in accordance with Adris’ predictions.

Arcing lightning meets fire, the concussion of the resulting clash stalling the creature’s charge, allowing Adris to retreat to his original position.




A green flash turns the room into permanent winter, leaving him confident that the west wall has been consumed by ice, but Adris’ assailant ignores this and charges.

Deflecting the first strike, Adris’ impaling counter-attack is met by the monster’s own parry as it blindly seeks to eliminate all distance to mount him.




When its claws come in all at once with its large body following, Adris leaps upwards with all of his might.

The creature strikes empty ground, looking up afterwards to follow a sky-borne man.




A flowing blade emerges from thin air to reward its lack of attention.


A swordmaiden brings down her weapon with both hands, no care for guile evident, entrusting the strike to overpowering strength. The glowing-blue sword shines like the Sea of Stars, the only one to be found in Xin, as it mows through the creature’s hasty block.

Accompanied by a phantasmal sound of ocean spray, the monster’s haphazard defense ends in its own bisecting explosion, with the titanic strike sending chunks of its desiccated flesh hurtling into the darkness behind the statues.


Landing adeptly on Serras’ shoulders, Adris looks to the entry door to see the twin creatures of fire and lightning closing on them once more.

The creatures begin to circulate hostile techniques, as he leaps back into the air with her boosting him.


(Too late, bastards.)


Grinning and pulling out a brown ball, he crushes it in his hand.

Dust erupts and surrounds his body.


Rearing back with his spear, Adris’ muscles grow thick like cord wood as he combines an aura body technique with his weapon.

The dusty air locks him in place, his body moving like a whip as he winds up.


“My wife takes flight!”


([Piercing Death].)


The loosed spear carrying half of his aura reserves screams like a shrill bird as it flies inexorably toward its target, closing on the revenant at the front of the charge.

The creature registers the threat, uncertain whether to dodge or deflect, finally choosing to knock it wide with its bladed arm.


(Perfect. Good game.)


Redirected it is, but not to the right side of the creature as it intended. Instead, it spirals to the creature’s left with a snake-like twist. The first revenant looks back, stunned, to see its ally erupt into ichor and gore as the lodged spear manifests an aura explosion.

The spectral blades and residual lightning kill it outright.


Turning back towards Adris to seek revenge, the single, blinded torso eye of the revenant is instead pierced by a phantasmal killer emerging from the dark.

The bloated eye of the creature Serras is stabbing pops as she retracts her sword.

Lazily turning from it, her victim is motionless, before a dozen more shadows emerge from the darkness.


These phantom assailants carve up the monster and the floor itself, sending the chunks end-over-end into the entry door of the hallway. Adris lands in time to watch an immense flash from the hall disintegrate the pieces that spill over into it.


The entire walkway in front of Serras is a spray of ichor and chopped stone.






Name: Adris fehl Dain
Race: Xin’El, Emperor’s Child (Human)
Sex: Male
Age: 3*

Occupation: Charlatan/Swindler; Xin’Reh (former); Soldier of Fortune; Bounty Hunter
Discipline: Spear Veteran; Aura Warrior, School/Specialization: Self-Taught


[Piercing Death] – “Produces blade-like aura at the point of penetration, destroying a creature from the inside. Of no use if you can’t hit, it’s a mortally wounding strike, otherwise.”

[Tool Savant] – “Adris is a tool-collecting-and-utilizing fanatic. Most men would consider him disgusting for loving tools more than his own partner.”

Disposition: Deplorable / Adaptable / Sarcastic
Alignment: Chaotic

Eyes: Black
Hair: Black, with strands of White
Skin: Tanned


R-Value – “Please load additional feature.”


C-Value – “If all men looked like him, it might not be odd for women to think that the gods had painted the world in only the drab color brown? While not ugly, would he not exemplify the idea that ‘normal’ is perhaps indistinguishable from ‘undesirable’?”


“A rather plain-looking man wearing traveling robes, what he carries hidden is far more dangerous than his appearance lets on. A disarming smile, leads to you being suckered. A clever tongue, leads to your sorrow. Possessing quick wit and intellect, hubris and arrogance are certain to follow. Well known across the floating islands of Xin, but not by name, only by reputation. Owed many favors, but not with great joy, and certainly not love. The only person he seems to care about other than himself is his lifelong partner.”


“Surely this is the protagonist. Or did I mix him up with the antagonist? It might be a bit odd, but he is surely the focus of the story from the perspective of the reader. Neither devil nor saint, he’s consistently Adris. Perhaps that should be his alignment, instead… Though the author might borrow the name, this character is considered to be the epitome of what the author would not do, so please enjoy his suffering.”

Name: Serras fehr Almet
Race: Xin’El, Emperor’s Child (Human)
Sex: Female
Age: 3*

Occupation: Manslayer; Xin’Reh (former/disavowed); Soldier of Fortune; Bounty Hunter
Discipline: Sword Warlord; Aura Warrior, School/Discipline: Self-Taught

Disposition: Chilling / Hateful / Nostalgic
Alignment: Chaotic

Eyes: Black
Hair: Shining Black
Skin: Tanned


[Unnamed Techniques] – “Serras has mastered many annoyingly powerful techniques over her lifetime, though I wonder if she’ll ever thank the person who helped her do it?”


R-Value – “Please load additional feature.”


C-Value – “Her beauty is perhaps like the lingering and deathly frostbite of a frozen winter night? While you might seek out her slender, yet womanly, body, mayhaps all you shall taste is the dirt? Unless your name is Adris, in which case you still might taste your own blood? A solid, desirable nightmare clad in flesh, like moths, men are drawn, but is it the beauty that calls to them or the hatred underneath…? Is it any wonder that she has never married?”


“A cold beauty who rejects pleasantries, she seems more committed to her blade than to belonging to humanity. Why she follows Adris can be explained by the tortuous path their relationship has taken to reach the tomb they are in. Though they fight like more than siblings, and have committed to the future together, perhaps there’s more to be said and little time to say it? If Adris is the brains, then Serras is surely… The only person she seems to care about other than herself is, oh… nevermind.”


“Surely she is the primary heroine! No? What, she’s moe, ain’t she!? I’ll fucking murder you, you little piece of-!”


Flitter Light – “ Relatively cheap aura tool which uses contained aura to produce a light that is invisible to anyone without at least marginal aura sensitivity.”

Inner Expanse – “The interior world of an aura user, where the techniques they claim reside in, and where their aura circulates around in. It can be best understood as being a mental body overlapping their physical one.”

Xin – “World of the main character’s origin. A broken, floating continent contained within the clouds that never part. A place where aura reigns, and life is harsh.”

Xin’El – “The people of Xin. Of them, the two mentioned are the Emperor’s Children (unmentioned, but comprising the populace of the Emperor’s domains) and the Southern Barbarians, who reside more towards the great torch sun and live in warmer lands.”

First Emperor – “The true lord of Xin, the uniter of all Xin’El, and the absolute tyrant of a long-lost period. Nobody recalls his name, and for that, we should be grateful.”

Aura – “The power of the world of Xin. A strength obtained by reaching out to the environment and allowing the secrets of the world into your own body. Allows the user to produce many strange and supernatural effects. Decides the person’s place in the world, as only the strongest users of aura can be said to be secure.”

Clear Mind – “The mental state reached when one becomes perfectly serene and wrenches free their own aura, giving it form for the first time and allowing them to utilize it. This is the first thing a prospective aura user must achieve.”

Power of Spirit – “The discipline of training related to the soul, of which Adris is proficient. The aura training of elevating one’s spirit to rise above a mortal outlook and achieve a divine one, so as to grow in ability.”

Acuity of Mind – “The discipline of training related to externalizing power, of which Serras is a master of. Techniques related to the externalization of one’s aura, requiring as much concentration as they do power.”

High Benefactor Soldon – “The foremost collector of the Emperor’s artifacts, and the man that Adris and Serras rolled over to obtain the book needed to find the tomb.”

Aura Revenant– “Undead-like creatures created by the mixing of two great fetishes: failing to properly ascend in power, and corpse repurposing for tomb guarding. They have all of their powers in mortal life, plus unyielding bodies that fear no death. If they were not in disrepair, not even Serras could’ve beaten them.”

Spear Veteran – “One whose capacity with the spear relates not to developed raw talent, but rather to constant life and death struggle with the weapon. If you use a weapon for long enough in combat, congratulations, you’ve survived for a reason. Often self-taught, these veterans make use of any dirty trick and technique at their disposal to live another day longer.”

Sword Warlord – “One whose capacity with the sword extends beyond mere talent, merging with plentiful combat and duel experience to become a force on the battlefield. Unlike saints, who receive proper instruction, warlords are often self-taught or of poor instructors, consigned to survive by equal parts developed talent, and a veteran fighter’s developed guile and intuition.”

  • Modified for clarity and reading. (Again.)

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