Beren and Mei Fong narrowly escaped a cave-in, tensions ran high between them until they found an underground lake to take a much-needed rest. As the two fell into their slumber, a dark force lurked not far, inching closer in the dark. 

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She was having that dream again. The one she always had, the one with the temple of the Crimson Phoenix, the one with her sisters, and her beloved master. A shining temple set along rocky hills, the trees bloomed blue flowers in the spring, and the weather was always cool. Generations of sword masters were groomed and taught in the Temple of the Crimson Phoenix; a legacy and pedigree that spanned back to the Second Age. The first Crimson Phoenix was a demi-god with the divine mantle of fire. He taught his descendants a unique swordplay that kept him alive during the Avatar Wars of the First Age. When the demi-god passed, his divine mantle was released back into the world. Legends foretold that the mantle would return, but only to one who was worthy.

The legacy endured, flourishing into a school that taught hundreds of students. Then came the day that Mei could never forget, the one that continued to haunt her dreams. She had escaped one of her lessons that day, she was barely a woman yet, frolicking across the hillside with the temple far from view. A man cloaked in tattered, black robes approached her. He asked if the temple was still nearby, she readily pointed at it. The man nodded at her and made his way toward the temple. She didn’t pay the man any mind, perhaps he wanted to become a student, she thought. She could not have been more wrong.

Further and further, Mei journeyed beyond the hills to explore and wander. Eventually, she saw black smoke from the direction of the temple. She hastily returned only to find the temple in smoldering ruin. There were burnt bodies, charred to a shade of black never seen. The Grand Master was slain, beheaded even. She had cried for days before a merchant that normally did business with the temple arrived, she left with him and swore vengeance that day.

Mei Fong awoke in a cold sweat, instinctively reaching for her sword. She paused once she realized her surroundings, Beren sat not far away. It seemed that the warrior had kept watch over Mei while she slept, which irritated her. She had left herself vulnerable. Never since her days as a young girl had she never slept that deeply.

“Thank you,” she spoke. She avoided making eye contact with Beren as she gathered her belongings.

“So you can be civil, and you’re welcome.” He replied. He chuckled to himself and got off his perch.

Once Beren landed, he noticed something in the water slithering close to the shore near them. A large, pale tentacle emerged to strike the pair. Both dodged the attack, but not before any barrage of arms hit the shoreline. Mei Fong parried them with her blades while Beren would deflect them with swift kicks. A pod-like structure soon broke the water’s surface, two cat-like eyes stared at them with ravenous hunger.

“Oh, look! Breakfast!” Beren shouted with glee.

“How can you be thinking of food at a time like this?” Mei cried.

“Survival! Always think about survival! Food can be a scarcity, relish when it arrives!” Beren deflected another tentacle.

Mei Fong released flames on her twinned blades, the creature screeched as the searing heat scorched parts of it. She unleashed her rage and fury on the creature, she was not the mood for mercy. A few severed chunks of tentacle fell upon the cavern floor, enough to give them a clear avenue to the beast. Beren charged forward, jumping off the slimy limbs with grace and ease before plummeting a sharp jab at the creature’s right eye. The strike burst its eye, which sent the creature reeling in pain. Mei Fong focused her ki, channeling the flames sheathing her blades into a single large blade of fire, slamming it onto the creature. The sizzled corpse slowly sank deep into the lake, the two looked on as the smoke faded.

“Nice moves.” Beren complemented, patting Mei’s shoulder before gathering bits of the creature.

Mei sheathed the blades and sighed. She wanted to say something to Beren but paused when her stomach began to growl. It was hours since she last ate anything. Silently, she helped him gather the remains and built a fire to cook the morsels. Once breakfast was finished, Beren let out a relieved sigh of satisfaction.

“Thank you,” she thanked. Again, she found herself saying such words to him.

“Two in one day, that’s impressive. I must be very lucky.” Beren laughed.

“I never had the opportunity to sleep so peacefully or dine with someone that was scum.” She began to tell her story of the Crimson Phoenix temple, of the dark man, and her quest.

“We may be in a contest, a trial if you want to call it that. But no one has to go through this alone, that’s the whole point.” Beren smiled and offered Mei, a hand.

She cautiously took it, and he lifted her gently up to her feet. For the first time, she could almost trust someone again. For now.

“Now, I think we have a trial to finish.”

The underground lake’s shore led down several caverns and even a river. Following it along, they found an abandoned raft and took it along the current. Eventually, the two arrived at a largely fallen structure that resembled a tower. Several dozen stories tall, they spotted the sigil of the previous monastery and believed they were on the right path. Climbing up section by section, the hours passed until they reached the perceived top. Another sigil. They followed it again, this time it lead to a set of spiraling stairs carved from the mountain rock. The stairs led a long narrow hallway with the light at the other end and the sudden refreshing breeze of surface air. They made it.

Beren and Mei looked at each other with smiles, though Mei turned somber for she knew that the next trial would be much harder than the last. While she found friendship with Beren, it would be put to the test soon.

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