<br />Welcome to chapter eight! I hope you enjoy this segment of going along with Nellie on her quests. Will she ever get to enter the Dragon Cave to face Dong Huo, the evil warlord? Will Nellie prevail, or will the task get the better of her? To find out, read on . . . .<br /> <br />Nellie Blye smiled and sighed contentedly as she gazed at the lush, beautiful landscape of Shang Simla through the window of the plane. She felt as if she were coming home again. Her fingers grazed lightly over the card Gustav Delven had given her at the museum in France as she absent-mindedly held it in her hand. The thought had crossed her mind to merely toss into the trash bin, but she had stuffed it into her purse instead. The man was handsome and single, or so he said, and he had a certain aura surrounding him that caused her to feel drawn to him while he was in her presence. But then again, so had . . . . Suddenly the card was reduced to a crumpled ball in her fist when her thoughts turned to Ho Sung. Where could he be? She thought as her eyes scanned the landscape below.<br />Nellie had barely exited the plane when her cell phone rang. "
Nellie, this is your friend, Jiang Lu. Welcome back to Shang Simla. Is it true you have found the keystone that the bumbling James Vaughan lost in faraway France? I must see this keystone that can fulfill the prophecy of the Dragon Cave. Bring it to me!"
<br /> <br />After marveling over the keystone for a few moments, his eyes sparkling in wonder, Jiang's expression turned serious when he looked up at her again. "
I have grim news of what lies before you. Dong Huo, the cursed warlord of centuries past, is that which the Dragon Cave was built to contain. He was trapped previously, but now he wakes. He must be defeated by a master of the way of the Resolute Fist. You are that master. Train to the highest level of Martial Arts and break a Space Rock and you will be one step closer to fulfilling your destiny."
<br />Nellie was stunned! All the work she had done, all the exploring, and all the traveling and this was what she learns upon her return? For a moment, she fought the urge to use her own resolute fist upside Jiang Lu's head.<br /> <br />The presence of Jiang's daughter, Liu, snapped Nellie out of her musings of violence and she flashed Liang a half smile. "
You're not kidding, are you?"
she sighed. "
Now, instead of being able to get in there and get the job done, I have to do more work before I can move forward?"
That is correct"
Jiang Lu responded softly. "
Just remember, most anything can be done if you learn discipline and . . . patience truly is a virtue!"
With that, he patted her on the shoulder and followed his daughter into the house.<br /> <br />That is how Nellie found herself at the Phoenix Academy of Martial Arts, practicing on a dummy. The young woman had gone this far, she was not about to allow a little thing such as only being at level seven in Martial Arts to stop her now. She would practice day and night, if necessary, to obtain the skills she needed to succeed. <br />After sparring with an inanimate object for several hours, Nellie was ready for some live action. When she spied a man looking bored, she challenged him to a sparring match.<br /> <br />The pair decided to spar for the best two out of three. The man was good, but Nellie was a little better. She won the first two, so sparring for a third round was not necessary. Nellie's mind went back to when Zhan had said some guys may allow a pretty girl to win, but she knew this was not the case here, because he looked a bit surprised and dejected to have been bested by a female.<br /> <br />In the end, Nellie did not feel or smell too fresh, but she had raised her skill to the next level and was now sporting a new belt to show off her new status in the Martial Arts circle. Exhausted, but satisfied, she made her way back to base camp, took a long hot bath, and made sure to get a good night's rest. She would need all the strength she could muster for what lay in store for her within the next few days.<br /> <br />Bright and early the next morning, Nellie was back at the Academy, working on the strength aspect of her physical fitness. She felt it could not hurt to make sure her workout regimen was a well-balanced one. She pumped iron until she was sweaty and sore before hitting the showers and taking a jog over to The Scholar's Garden. She always loved it there and it was the best place to give her mind a workout now that her body had been put through its paces.<br /> <br />Nellie found a nice spot and sat on the ground to meditate. As usual, she had a difficult time getting her thoughts to smooth out and fade away in order to clear her mind to everything except the positive energy she sought. Again, she thought of Ho Sung. Why was it so hard for her to forget about him and move on? In her heart of hearts, she was worried about him. The young woman could not understand why he would have packed up and left his family the way we had, without contacting anyone he knew since. She said a silent prayer that nothing bad had happened to him. Nellie shoved away that notion and began to concentrate in earnest.<br />Finally, her mind broke free of all conscious thought and began to feel light and airy. As she breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly, her whole body began to feel that way.<br /> <br />Suddenly, Nellie felt as light as a feather. It was as if she were floating. She had never felt so relaxed and peaceful in her whole twenty-two years on Earth. As she concentrated on her breathing technique, the sensation of floating became even more intense and she was startled into opening her eyes. "
I am floating!"
she gasped in astonishment. All at once she felt herself falling, fast.<br /> <br />She cried out as she hit the ground with hard thud. It was lucky she had picked a spot to meditate in soft grass, she thought with a giggle. Nellie was elated! Finally she had reached that higher plane of existence of which the Masters had spoken. It felt amazing and she could scarcely belief that it had actually happened! She had always been a bit skeptical of some of the stories they told, but now she was a firm believer.<br />Wondering if, and hoping, she could reach that place again, Nellie closed her eyes and began to concentrate. Soon all awareness of her actual surroundings left her mind and the sensation of weightlessness flowed into her once again.<br /> <br />This time, Nellie continued her deep, even breathing exercises, and did not allow her concentration to break as her body floated higher off the ground. She had never felt so much inner peace flowing through her and from her. It seemed to permeate her very soul. The young woman's mind drifted to the long journey ahead of her and to the tasks she must perform before she would be able to obtain her goal. <br />A vivid picture of the Phoenix Martial Arts Academy formed in her mind and she imagined herself back there, working out on the practice dummy. Suddenly her body felt as if the substance which held it together had shifted and changed. Though it startled her, she did not break her concentration. Instead, she welcomed the sensation and allowed it to grow inside her, almost consuming her.<br /> <br />Soon, Nellie sensed her body descending downward, slowly this time. Once she made solid contact with the ground, she opened her eyes and gasped as she gazed at her surroundings, incredulous. She was now at the Phoenix Martial Arts Academy! As she slowly rose from her seated position, she realized that she had actually Zen ported herself here! Zen porting is another one of those things in which Nellie had not fully believed. A man stood behind her and when their gazes met, he nodded and tossed her a knowing smile. Nellie's face flushed as she smiled back.<br />"
Time to get back to work"
she whispered to herself as she moved toward an unused practice dummy.<br /> <br />The determined young woman practiced until it was dark. Soon, she was doing moves she had never before done. Her skill was growing more every day. Her heart and mind burned with yearning to reach her goal so that she may move on and learn the secret of the Dragon Cave. It was an emotion that threatened to consume her on a daily basis as it almost took on a life of its own inside her soul.<br />Her body and mind exhausted and spent, she finally forced herself to head back to base camp to rest. Something told her she should not push herself too hard. The last thing she wanted was to wear down her body or her mind.<br /> <br />"
Good morning! Is Zhan here?"
Nellie asked the young woman behind the counter in the spot usually occupied by Zhan Su. Nellie's heart seemed to catch in her throat as she awaited her reply as she remembered what had happened the last time she was in such a situation. The sensation worsened as a picture of Ho Sung's a handsome face with his friendly smile popped into her head. She could not bear to lose someone else dear to her in her life at this point!<br />"
It is his day off today"
the woman replied with a friendly smile. "
Is there anything I can help you with today?"
<br />Nellie smiled as relief washed over her and she blushed hotly, feeling foolish about her previous panic attack, as if the woman had known her thoughts. "
No. Thank you"
she said politely as she turned and walked outside, reaching into her bag to pull out her cell phone.<br /> <br />"
Nellie spoke into her phone, trying to keep her voice calm and even. She felt almost desperate to see her friend. He was the only person in her life who seemed to be able to help her keep her emotions in check where the events in her life were concerned involving her adventures. She wished she could tell him about her involvement with Ho Sung, but she was frightened about the aspect of his losing respect for her, so she felt it was better to keep that secret for now. "
I really need to see you. Can you meet me at the Market?"
<br /> <br />A little while later, the pair was sparring outside in front of the shops. Zhan was one of the best Martial Artists in Shang Simla and Nellie had asked him to teach her some of his best moves. Zhan was more than willing to comply. He wanted his friend to succeed in her quest and wanted to do everything he could to help her.<br />Soon the sparring pair turned into a blur of flying hands and feet. Suddenly Zhan found himself hitting the ground, hard. <br /> <br />Nellie burst into a bout of hysterical giggles as she watched Zhan pick himself up off the ground and dust off his backside. Then she stifled her giggles and forced a more serious expression onto her face. "
I . . . I'm sorry Zhan! I, really, I didn't mean to kick so hard. Besides, I thought you'd duck and I'd miss anyway."
It is my fault for allowing you to catch me off guard"
Zhan laughed. "
You are getting stronger, Nellie. I believe you are not far away from the highest belt in Martial Arts!"
He reached out and took her by the hand. Come. Let us get a few supplies and go to a place that is more peaceful and quiet.<br /> <br />"
It says here that the best method for breaking a Space Rock is total concentration, discipline, and confidence. You must believe you can do it in order to succeed. The slightest hesitation may end with disastrous results!"
Zhan read aloud to Nellie from the instructional book he had picked up at the bookstore before leaving the market.<br />Nellie swallowed the bite of hot dog she had in her mouth before answering. "
That actually makes sense. Now, you have been reading that thing long enough, so come sit down and have some food!"
She scooted over and patted the spot beside her, but he continued to read until the sun had gone down behind the mountains. Finally, he sat and grabbed something from the basket.<br /> <br />"
I'm worried, Zhan"
Nellie remarked softly, trying to keep how frightened she was from showing in her voice. "
What if I'm not good enough? What if I break my hand instead of the Space Rock? What if all this is for nothing and I am preparing to walk straight to my death down in the tomb beneath the Dragon Cave?"
She released a heavy sigh and waited for her friend's reaction to her solemn words. <br />The silence grew almost deafening as Zhan downed the hotdog he was holding in three bites and reached into the basket to grab another. Finally, instead of biting into the new one, he spoke, "
These hotdogs you Americans eat taste very delightful!"
<br /> <br />His goofy smile faded away and his eyes turned serious as he locked them with hers. "
You are a strong woman, Nellie Blye"
he said quietly. "
Your body is strong and healthy, you are of strong will and spirit, and you have proven you have the determination to complete this quest. If you continue the way you have, I have complete faith that you will prevail and come out on the other side even stronger than you are already!"
<br />Zhan laid the hotdog aside and took both her hands into his, squeezing them firmly, and continued, "
There is just one thing . . . you must remember to always follow the ways and teachings of the Order of the Resolute Fist!"
<br /> <br />The next day, Nellie headed straight for the Phoenix Martial Arts Academy and began her training regimen. She spent the entire day there, practicing on the dummies, sparring with willing opponents, and practicing her board-breaking skills. <br /> <br />By nightfall, she had earned the right to wear a new belt. As she remembered the words Zhan had spoken to her, she vowed to herself to wear it proudly. Nellie held her head high and her step was light as she headed back to base camp for a good night's sleep.<br /> <br />By dawn, Nellie felt ready to attempt the breaking of a Space Rock. She felt honored and proud to be wearing a new Martial Arts outfit. Besides the fact it meant she had reached the highest level, she felt the colors suited her nicely. After doing a few warm-up exercises outside the base camp, she hurried over to the Academy to attempt to perform her greatest feat yet. <br /> <br />For nearly half an hour, Nellie stared at the Space Rock she was going to attempt to break. It was large, heavy, and thick. She stood above, performing her deep-breathing exercises and imagining the rock breaking easily under her assault. The young woman was having a difficult time imagining that she could actually do it, despite all her training and preparation up to this point.<br />Her mind drifted back to the words Zhan had spoken to her two nights ago, she envisioned his gentle face and the intensity with which his eyes gazed into hers, and then she inhaled a deep breath and released it slowly. She brought her arm up high over her head. Suddenly, she emitted a sharp cry while bringing her hand down with all her might as she imagined the rock breaking into pieces when she made contact.<br /> <br />Nellie stood for a moment, her eyes closed, as the slight sting she felt in her hand faded away. When she opened them again, a huge grin spread over her face at the sight of the large rock broken into two pieces lying on the ground in a cloud of dust. She had done it! For a moment, she merely stood gaping, incredulous. She had actually managed to break a Space Rock with her bare hands! Holding her hands up in front of her face, she gazed at them in astonishment for several long moments. It all felt very surreal to her and for a while she wondered if it were all a dream. Suddenly, she sprang into action and ran inside to find Jiang Lu, where she knew he was working out in the gym.<br /> <br />"
I did it, Jiang!"
Nellie cried breathlessly as she interrupted the man's workout routine without a second thought. "
I am now at the highest level in Martial Arts, and I have just broken a Space Rock!"
She paused for breath and then continued more calmly. "
I am ready. Now, may I have the keystone that will unlock the Dragon Cave?"
<br />Nellie's expression of glee turned serious as she watched a series of emotions play across the man's face. He stood in silence, gazing sorrowfully at her for several endless moments before he finally began to speak.<br /> <br />"
I am filled with woe, Nellie! Despite your successes, fate seeks to stop you at every turn. I have read more deeply into the prophecy texts. It is written very clearly that only the grand master of the Martial Arts tournament can defeat Dong Huo. He is protected by an evil spirit that only the grand master can break. Win the tournament; then speak to me."
<br />He gave her the phone number of the one she needed to beat in order to win the tournament, and he then turned and walked away.<br /> <br />Nellie took her frustrations out on the gym equipment as she pumped her legs furiously up down on the machine. How could this be? She had gone through all her paces, just as instructed, and now she had one final obstacle to cross before being able to enter the tomb of the Dragon Cave! <br />After Jiang Lu had walked away, Nellie had stared at the piece of paper with a phone number on it for several long moments before taking out her cell phone. Why not go ahead and do it now? Nellie dialed the number, arranged a match, and then decided to work out and get pumped up while she waited for her opponent to arrive. With a few minutes left, Nellie headed for the shower to clean up and get ready.<br /> <br />Li Yuan was a big woman who held a lot of Martial Arts skill and experience under her belt. She had a black belt, but claimed she did not like to brag, and besides, she thought the blue one was prettier. Despite the fact that the woman was older and more experienced, Nellie faced her without fear. The younger woman was determined to reach her goal. The lure of the Dragon Cave seemed to be calling out to her, and the prospect of exploring it fully filled her with an almost unbearable sense of urgency.<br />When the sparring began, Nellie's moves were methodical and precise. It was almost like an out of body experience for her as she watched the whole thing from above. Soon, it was over and Nellie once again was looking at things from her usual perspective.<br /> <br />"
I cannot believe it"
Li Yuan muttered softly as she walked away from Nellie. "
I was bested by a mere sprite of a girl from the West!"
<br />Nellie could hardly believe it either. Her heart was filled with a mixture of elation and dread. She was elated for having won the match, but a touch of dread crept in as she thought about the task ahead of her. As anxious as she was to get going, she felt the icy fingers of fear trying to close around her heart. Nellie had no way of knowing what dangers lay ahead, waiting for her in the Dragon Cave. Shoving away her doubts and fear, she left the Martial Arts Academy to go in search of Jiang Lu. She found him at the Market, as usual.<br /> <br />"
Now you are the undisputed master of the tournament. I doubt there is a mortal alive who could defeat you in combat. Unfortunately, Dong Huo is no longer a mortal. He is not bound by the life force that binds me and you. I think it is best if I construct an Amulet of Righteous Protection for you. Bring me three pieces of Jade and I will build the amulet."
<br />Fortunately, Nellie had three pieces of Jade in her bag from her explorations. She handed them over to Jiang Lu and then sat down to wait while the amulet was made. Finally, Jiang called to Nellie and he placed the amulet firmly into her hand.<br /> <br />"
Master Nellie, the time has come for you to face and defeat Dong Huo in his eternal prison, the Dragon Cave. Take this keystone, enter the Dragon Cave, find Dong Huo, and defeat him in combat. Do this, and you will forever preserve the safety of the people of Shang Simla. Go now, chosen one."
<br />The hour was late and, once again, Nellie felt the need to be alone, so she purchased her needed supplies and headed out to Camp Chrysanthemum, the nearest camp ground to the Dragon Cave.<br /> <br />As she set up camp and prepared to cook her evening meal, Nellie allowed her mind to drift back in time to a place she rarely ever allowed her thoughts to venture anymore. She had been born an only child to two very loving parents, who had been very attentive to her needs, at least as much as their lifestyles would allow. Her father and mother had been well on their way to becoming great adventurers, therefore they traveled a lot. Nellie loved to sit and listen to them tell her the stories of their adventures upon returning home. Her eyes would glisten with excitement, and her heart would race upon hearing about the tombs they raided which held sarcophagi with mummies hidden inside.<br />Whenever they left on a journey, Nellie would cry and beg to go with them, but she would always be dropped off to stay with her grandmother while her parents were away. They had always left her with a promise, though, that as soon as she was old enough, she could accompany them.<br /> <br />Fate, however, had stepped in and the promise never saw fruition. When Nellie was only twelve, instead of welcoming her parents back home from their latest expedition, she received tragic news. Both her parents had been killed when a tomb they had been exploring collapsed down upon them. It was evident that they had survived the initial blow and had found refuge in an undamaged pocket of the tomb. It was unclear how long they had survived, but when their bodies were found a week after the tragedy, they had been locked in each other's arms.<br />Nellie had gone to live with her grandmother, who had always been dead set against all the adventuring nonsense, after the accident, but Nellie made a silent vow to herself that when she grew up, she would follow in her parents' footsteps and become a great adventurer. Now, she was well on her way. After her grandmother died when she was twenty, she received a decent trust fund her parents had set up for her. She had used the money to get a cheap place to live, so that she would have enough to begin her own adventures.<br /> <br />That night, as she lay alone in her tent, Nellie imagined she heard the Dragon Cave calling out to her, whispering her name in a raspy voice. Suddenly, her complete loneliness and aloneness struck home, settling into the pit of her gut like a heavy stone. The young woman often wondered if growing up with such a sheltered life, under the watchful eye of an over-protective grandmother, without the benefit of a father figure, had been what had made her so susceptible to Ho Sung's advances. It had felt wonderful to gain the attention of such a strong, caring man. Her guard had been down and she had opened her heart up to him completely, too quickly, only to be tossed aside later like an old shoe.<br />As her eyelids grew heavy and she began to drift off to sleep, she vowed to never let any man into her heart so easily ever again.<br /> <br />The day dawned bright and sunny, which went a long way to cheering Nellie's heart, despite her dangerous journey ahead. After breakfast, she felt compelled to meditate awhile before packing up and making the short hike to the Dragon Cave. As she performed her deep-breathing exercises, her mind began to clear of all the baggage from her feelings the night before, pushing thoughts of her parents' tragic end out of her mind, along with the fact that if it happened to her, she would be found all alone, just the way she had lived her life.<br />Finally, she rose with a heavy sigh, packed up her gear, and trudged slowly toward whatever destiny fate had in store for her.<br /> <br />Nellie paused for a moment just outside the entrance to the Dragon Cave. Once again, she could feel its magnetism, as if it were trying to pull her inside, to consume her. "
Don't be silly!"
she scoffed to herself. "
It's only a cave, not a living, breathing soul!"
But as she began move closer, she had her doubts. Sighing heavily, she went inside and made her way to the one door that had been previously locked to her.<br /> <br />Still, the young woman hesitated as she stood, gazing at the keystone plaque. Saying a silent prayer, she inserted the keystone and stepped inside the door.<br /> <br /> And so it begins, she thought as she gazed down at the staircase she was about to descend.<br /> <br />After passing through a small room and picking up a few Ancient Coins and then another, Nellie entered a room which held statues that needed to be moved.<br /> <br />Then she had to pass through three tiny rooms before entering a larger one. A locked door stood to her left and she spotted a statue straight ahead. The only thing she knew to do was to move the statue and look behind it.<br /> <br />She found a hole that contained a hidden switch, which unlocked the door she had just walked past. She hurried back to the door and cautiously stepped inside.<br /> <br /> There were fire traps all around and a couple of rubble piles that needed to be destroyed, so Nellie got to work.<br /> <br /> After slipping past them, she discovered a place to put one of her crescent keystones to good use.<br /> <br />Eventually, Nellie made her way around the room, collecting all she could find and even made it into the center room to pilfer from there as well. Finally, she went through the previously-locked door and found her way into a room with several staircases leading down from opposite directions. She picked one and made her descent.<br /> <br />That's when Nellie realized why the stairs went in opposite directions. She had to utilize two of them in order to reach her goal. First, she went down one side and moved a statue into place over a floor panel, which disabled one of the fire traps blocking her path. She then went back upstairs and down to the other side.<br /> <br /> Once she pulled the other statue onto the floor panel, the last fire trap was disabled and she was able to pass into the next room.<br /> <br />For several moments, Nellie just stood, pondering the writing on a plaque on the wall. "
What could that mean?"
she whispered to herself with a furrowed brow. She shrugged and slowly walked around the wall and down a narrow hallway. It was not long before she understood the meaning of the writing on the wall.<br /> <br />As Nellie moved slowly through the maze of hallways, she noticed statues lining the path, all facing certain directions. Going on a hunch, she would line herself up with a statue and move down the aisle the way it faced. As she passed by certain areas, fire traps would appear down the path she had not taken. She soon realized that as long as she kept in line with the statues in the direction they faced, she would miss the traps.<br /> <br /> She paused to read another plaque on the wall. It was an obvious reminder to keep in line with the statues, and that is exactly what she did.<br /> <br /> When she came to a place that seemed like a dead end, she inspected a wall and found a secret door.<br /> <br />She went through and discovered another secret door behind the first. After pushing it open, she found herself in a room with a mixture of fire traps and electricity traps filling it almost completely. She found a way around them and noticed more statues pointing out the way. <br /> <br />There most certainly had to be a secret door here because the statues did not lie and there were three of them pointing right at the wall! Nellie began to inspect it carefully and soon the door was revealed and opened to her. She smiled happily and stepped inside a new room. The smile was wiped from her face suddenly as her eyes fell upon another plaque on the wall and her brain comprehended its message. <br />The words etched onto the plaque sent an army of chills spiraling down Nellie's spine and made her blood run cold . . . .<br />