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Wisdom of the Dragon (Chapter Twenty-Four)
Chapter Twenty-Four In Which There Is Betrayal
"What was that?" Sparrow exclaimed. He and the others were looking in the direction of the explosion. "That sounded like heavy ammunition hitting stone."
"Oh, I'm sure it was nothing," said Jing. "It's probably someone practicing a secret battle move or something."
"Only someone like you would brush off a special destructive power super attack that's normally not humanly possible as nothing," Jane said with her arms crossed.
"Can't argue with that," said Mei Ling, shrugging her shoulders. "But moving on, you were talking about Terrance Knightly?"
"Yes, Terrance Knightly, the founder and leader of the Rowdy Rogues," said Sir Geoffrey. "He is a man driven on a quest to attain absolute power. And it doesn't matter how ruthless he has to be in order to gain it. I think I can safely bet my entire fortune that he is here right now in order to obtain the secrets of the dragon from the legends."
"It sounds like you know him quite well," said Jane.
"You could say that, "said Sir Geoffrey, giving Jane a sideways glance. "In truth, I've encountered him multiple times throughout the years of my adventures."
"Sir Geoffrey is why the Rowdy Rogues have always failed to obtain objects or secrets of immense power," said Sparrow. "He prevented them from gaining the Ankh of Life and Death from the Tomb of Pharaohs. He stopped them in their tracks as they tried to steal information from an alchemy lab under the United Free Lands' government. He kept them from getting their hands on the Crystal of the Cosmic King from the Low Nation's National Museum of Antiquities. And he foiled their plans to hack into the Britannican Alchemy Data Network to steal information on top secret alchemy from the days of Atlantis, the kingdom."
"Thank you, Mr. Hawkins, for stealing my moment to monologue," Sir Geoffrey said with a sharpness in his tone.
"Sorry," said Sparrow, sheepishly shrinking away a little.
"Anyway, Knightly and I have been rivals for many years," the old adventurer continued. "Honestly, I should have suspected that he had something to do with pushing Miss Bai into hiding years ago. And here I thought with the Rowdy Rogues being quiet then that there was nothing to worry about. Oh, how wrong I was."
"Well, that's great," said Harold. "With this, we now know who's the culprit behind those robot attacks and who drove Xiao Mei's mother into hiding. And we have the key to unlocking the secrets that Xiao Mei's mother left behind. All that's left is for the heroes to take care of the bad guys. Once that's done with, we'll finally be able to reunite Xiao Mei with her mother."
"You know the heroes would still have to find the bad guys, right?" said Diana.
"It shouldn't be that hard," he said. "They're after the secret, right? They're sure to show themselves eventually. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they showed up here right now from behind that corner."
He pointed to a corner to their right. And as soon as he did, an armored figure appeared carrying weapons.
"Whoa!" Harold cried out. "Someone DID show up!"
There was a loud bang, and Phoenix was suddenly pinned to the floor by a net.
"Phoenix!" Xiao Mei cried out.
She went to go help her avian friend, but was stopped by Sparrow and Seto who pulled her towards them as Mei Ling and Jing leaped in front of them and the others, facing the armored figure with their glowing weapons. More armored figures stormed in, pointing their blasters at the encircled heroes and friends. Printed on their shoulder pads was the same symbol as the one on the piece of cloth that Xiao Mei and the others had found, the symbol of the Rowdy Rogues.
"Look!" Ai Hui cried out. "That's the same symbol as the one on the piece of cloth!"
"No duh," Seto said. He stepped forward, pushing Xiao Mei and the other children back, preparing to fight.
"There are about ten or so of these guys against about three of us, not counting the kids and the old man," said Mei Ling. "That doesn't look like fair odds. For them, that is."
"Hey, three?" went Seto.
"Me, Jing, and Zhun," said Mei Ling. "You're still a kid, so you stand down. No arguments. Jing, you take the ones at the left. But make sure that the kids don't get caught in the crossfire. I'll take the ones at the right."
"Understood, Madame," said Jing.
"Zhun, you have our backs."
Zhun said nothing.
"Zhun? Hey, what are you - ?"
Mei Ling risked a glance behind, and then whirled around making a wide-eyed scary face. Her husband, wondering what was wrong, slowly turned around. His jaw dropped. Soon everyone was turning their heads to see what had the two heroes in shock. Xiao Mei felt all her insides twist when she saw Zhun stand side by side with the armored men and women.
"Sorry, Captain," Zhun said, remorsefully bowing his head. "But I'm afraid that this is where I have to call it quits with the team. Oh, don't look so surprised. I'm sure at least one of you must have suspected."
"Zhun!" Sir Geoffrey cried out. "What on earth do you think you're doing?"
"I suspected that there was a traitor or an enemy on the inside," Jing admitted. "Anyone would realize looking into the automatons that attacked so far. Not wanting the others to be in danger for figuring it out too was why I rushed to keep the evidence away from them."
"Say what now?" went Qiang Shi.
"But I never thought that it would be you."
"So, you came to me to look into the evidence out of a sense of trust and not because you wanted to test me, which I had thought." Zhun said. "Wow. I'm sorry that I ever doubted you, Jing. And I'm sorry to disappoint your trust. Really. I am sorry."
"You were the one who sent those automatons to attack me and Xiao Mei, weren't you?" Jing said. "And that thief who tried to steal the diary during the day of Mei Ling's sword dance performance was also your doing."
"Guilty as charged," Zhun admitted. "That thief, by the way, was a very expensive, custom automaton that I had a hand in making. I may not be much of a mechanic like you are, Jing, but I think I can do some decent work when I put my mind to it."
"Why?" Mei Ling said. "Why are you betraying us?"
"It would be pointless to tell you that," Zhun replied. "You wouldn't believe me even if I told you. Now, enough small talk. Drop your weapons and surrender quietly. And I mean all of your weapons."
"Not happening," said Mei Ling. "Jing!"
Jing tore out a pocket watch and pressed the button to pop the clasp open. The gears inside turned at rapid speed and glowed blue. A bubble of blue energy spread from the gears and engulfed the children and Sir Geoffrey in its embrace. Xiao Mei could feel the hairs on her arm stiffen as energy crackled around her and her friends.
"There," said Jing, looking proud of himself. "Now we don't have to worry about anyone other than you all getting hurt. And trust me, while I do not condone violence, I will make you hurt a lot."
"Took the words right out of my mouth," said his wife. She had on a vicious grin on her face, the kind a warrior who welcomed battle would make. "I'm going to make you pay for this, Zhun. Helping out a bunch of villains. But first I'm going to make said villains pay for what they did to a little girl's family!"
Zhun sighed and shook his head, as if there was no helping his two former friends.
"You really don't want to do this," he said.
"No, we don't," said Jing. "But you've left us no choice."
"Well, here's where you're wrong, again," said Zhun. "You do have a choice. You could either A) drop your weapons and surrender quietly, or B) take responsibility for what happens to the kids back at the temple."
The two heroes stiffened.
"Despite knowing that there was a traitor among you, it was really careless of you to leave the temple unguarded like that," said Zhun. "Honestly, I had expected that at least one of you would have stayed behind to protect everyone. But then again, I suppose you expected me to do that in your absence, seeing as you really trusted me."
"Don't tell me you . . . " Jing said before Zhun cut in.
"Of course I did," he said. "I'm a traitor, remember? The only reason I've turned on you all now is because I just got the signal that said that the first phase of the plan was done. As of this moment, the Dragon's Temple is now under the control of the Rowdy Rogues. And all of this temple's people are our hostages."
He pulled out a simple bronze disk with a blue stone at the center. After pushing a button on its side, the stone on the disk lit up, displaying a hologram image in the air of groups of robed children and adults sitting on the floor as armed men and women stood around them.
"Elizabeth!" Sparrow cried out. "Elizabeth is in there!"
He was right. Elizabeth could easily be seen among the cluster of people, her maid uniform and pale face being like a flashing beacon in the crowd. She was sitting with the others, her face as stony as ever. Being so still, she could have been mistaken for a doll.
Zhun pushed another button. And then the crowd erupted in panic. There was no sound, but it was obvious that they were screaming in fear.
"What did you do?" Jing demanded to know. "Stop this!"
"Don't worry," said Zhun. "No one's hurt. The first one was just a demonstration to show that this isn't a bluff. But the second will be the real thing if you don't drop your weapons this instant and surrender. You have five seconds. Four seconds. Three seconds. Two - "
Jing's staff hit the floor with a clatter. It rolled to Zhun's feet after its owner had kicked it his way. Mei Ling let her practice sword drop and kicked it to Zhun as well.
"Thank you for making the smart move," Zhun said. "Sir, it's safe to come out now."
At Zhun's signal, an old man with a neatly trimmed, graying beard and a round belly stepped out from the shadows. Despite his advanced age, he seemed at home with the armor he wore, moving fluidly with a spring in his step. His sharp green eyes held onto only one person who was standing inside a dome of energy.
"Well, hello Bartholomew," said the old man. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"
"Terrance Knightly," Sir Geoffrey spat. "That it has. I assume that you're here to get your hands on the secret of this temple personally. You always did like to do things yourself."
"Then we are no different, Bartholomew," Terrance Knightly said. "Always the adventurer. Forty years and neither of us have changed, it seems."
"So it seems, Terrance."
"Bartholomew? Terrance? Master Geoffrey, you're on first-name terms with this villain?" asked Ai Hui.
"Well, of course we are," said Knightly. He had the ears of a hawk. "We were friends, after all."
Everyone exploded with "Huh!?" The old men ignored them and continued.
"It doesn't have to be this way, Terrance," said Sir Geoffrey. "If we join forces instead of working against each other, we could be a force the likes the world has never seen before. It would be just like the old days."
"That is something I should be saying to you, Bartholomew," said Knightly. "There is still a chance for you to stop. What you are doing is not the way."
"And you think yours is?" Sir Geoffrey snapped. "On that, I cannot agree on."
"Then you leave me no choice," said Knightly. "The magazine and the diary are coming with us, of course. But so, too, will the girl carrying said items in her arms."
"What?" exclaimed Sparrow.
"No way!" cried Ai Hui.
"You can't!" shouted Qiang Shi.
"Over my dead body!" snarled Seto.
"Ditto!" Diana, Duncan, and Harold screamed.
"Do you think I will let you take her?" Mei Ling growled.
"I'm not giving you a choice," said Knightly. "Or would you rather witness the end of the entire temple? Remember. Just one push of a button is all it will take."
"Why me?" Xiao Mei asked. "What do you need me for? Are the diary and the magazine not enough?"
"Who knows what more puzzles that mother of yours has in store?" said Terrance. "According to Zhun, only someone who knew Miss Bai would be able to solve the riddles she left behind. If there are more puzzles in that diary of hers, that is who we'll need to finally get to the secrets hidden in this temple. Of course, I don't expect you to do all the work. It took the efforts of a team to get you this far. Fortunately, I have experience with puzzles and everyone on my side is willing to navigate the dangers. Plus, she'll be added insurance to make sure that you lot don't cause me anymore trouble. Now, release that force field. She can't go anywhere with that in the way."
"Is the power of an ancient dragon so important to you that you'd risk exposing a young girl to danger?" Jing said, glaring reproachfully at the villain. "That is what you are after, is it not? When thinking about the secrets of this temple, there could be only one that a power-hungry villain would be interested in."
"I must do everything I can in order to keep this world from taking a wrong turn," Knightly replied.
"The last man thought the same thing when he sought the power from the dragon's wisdom," Jing said. "Look where that arrogance led him."
"Fortunately for me, I'm not him," said the old man. "Now, the force field. Please."
Jing hesitated. But when Knightly raised the disk, the alchemist pressed a switch on his glove, and the force field disappeared in a flash.
"Now, child," said Knightly. "Please come this way."
Xiao Mei's mind was racing. There must be something she could do. She was certain that her mother would not want the secrets she discovered to fall into the wrong hands. But if she refused, then something horrible would happen to the captives. As a doctor's apprentice, and a future doctor and healer, there was no way she could allow others to get hurt.
"I will give you five seconds to comply," the old man said. "If you don't come here when those five seconds are up, I will push a button, and something not nice is going to happen. Five seconds . . . Four seconds . . ."
There was no other way, Xiao Mei thought. She had to give up. But just as she was about to walk toward the villain, Dr. Green stopped her.
"Wait!" the scholar cried out. "Take me, instead."
"And why would I do that?" asked Knightly.
"I've been researching this temple's history since I first got here," said Dr. Green. "As lead scholar of that research, wouldn't I be the better choice to show you the way?"
"True," Knightly admitted. "But because I need someone who knew the scholar who researched this place before you, even if I do let you tag along, I'll still take the girl."
"No you don't," said Dr. Green. "I know Pei better than anyone in this world. And that's because . . . "
Dr. Green reached into her pocket, causing the men around them to stiffen and look more aggressive, but all she was reaching for was a makeup removal kit. She wiped away the makeup that made her skin a shade paler than it actually was. Molding also fell from her face, showing her cheekbones were actually higher than they earlier appeared. She also ran a comb through her hair. The comb's teeth glowed green, and as it ran through her hair, the deep red strands transformed to black.
"I'm Pei," said the completely transformed woman.
- Wisdom of the Dragon (Chapter Twenty-Three)
Now we see what the maid has been up to.
- Wisdom of the Dragon (Chapter Twenty-Five)
In Which Heroes Deal With Shocking Truths Behind Bars