"We mimic the story," the Lorewalker said. "A cub named Li Tao chased his bandicoon kit into the maze. He soon realized he was being followed."
A massive head hung beyond the corners of their vision. Long, sobbing breaths painted the sides of their faces, sour and hot.
"Even though he was too frightened to look, little Li Tao still understood that here was someone even more frightened than he was. So he reached back…"
She reached back. A huge, misshapen paw closed gently over her own.
"… and led poor Emperor Ku out of the maze."
Sunlight, white and blinding, appeared ahead. Ziya and Druz, both striving for nonchalance, strolled briskly for it.
They entered the light. The two goblins looked back and flinched simultaneously.
The emperor was gone. So was the maze. Lorewalker Shuchun stared sadly at her empty paw.
"Fear and paranoia make monsters of our enemies," she said softly. "Someone has to reach out first."
They continued to walk through the light, following the Lorewalker.
"Where are we?" Druz said.
"In the lorevault," Shuchun said.
"Very helpful," Ziya said. "Which story? 'The Light of Eternal Boring'?"
"I like boring," Druz said. "It rarely tries to kill you."
"Yeah, I'm sure you live a dangerous life," Ziya said.
Druz raised an eyebrow. "You have something to get off your chest?"
"Since you asked, yes," said Ziya, turning on him. "It's easy for you to talk about peace. You've been living in luxury with Gallywix for years while I've been on battlefields. Everyone I joined up with is dead. Peace isn't possible, Druz. If you fought on the front lines at all, you'd know that!"
The light gently pulsed once. Lorewalker Shuchun stopped walking and sniffed the air.
Gripping the ring around her neck until it hurt, Ziya expected Druz to shout at her. She wanted him to. Instead, he sighed.
"You remember the Trade Wars, Sergeant?" he said.
"B-barely," Ziya said. "I was too young."
"I wasn't. Cartel fighting cartel. Brother fighting sister. I was workin' for Mr. Gallywix back then, too, as you know.
"And you're right. I never saw a front line because the Trade Wars didn't have one. We fought for tunnels and storerooms throughout the Undermine. Ambushes weren't fancy pincher maneuvers in open fields, but some bastard kickin' through a wall you thought was solid. Of course, the Peace War was worse."
The light was pulsing faster now. Druz glanced around, then drew his rifle as he spoke.
"You can't stop war, Sergeant. Not for long. It keeps comin'. Mr. Gallywix keeps winnin' 'em, too. Sometimes by the right bomb at the right time. Sometimes it's an alliance with a powerful idiot. And sometimes it's a scary weapon he can use as a deterrent."
"And now your master strategist thinks peace is the best move," Ziya said, rolling her eyes.
"That's right," Druz said calmly.
"Impossible," Ziya said. "If the Alliance doesn't wipe out the Horde piece by piece, they'll enslave us like they did with the orcs."
"As it happens," Druz said, "I agree with you."
"Yeah. I ain't ever known Mr. Gallywix to be wrong, but I wouldn't give him more than one in a hundred for pulling off peace. He can turn the other trade princes and princesses against each other and come out smellin' like sugared daisies, but against the pinkskins and their allies? I think we have to keep on fightin'."
"Stop," Lorewalker Shuchun said. As gently as she had said it, the word still had the raw force of an order. The light around them flared like wildfire now, bleeding white. Heat fell on them like a dry, scratchy blanket. The white resolved into dunes curving away in all directions. An infinite desert.
A gauntlet carved from sand burst through the nearest dune. Another gauntlet followed. Then seven.
"I thought so," Lorewalker Shuchun said, pleased. "This is one of my favorites. 'Di Chen and the Desert.'
"Proud Di Chen was the finest fighter of his time," she said. "No monk could best him. He slapped arrows out of the air with ease. Mountains were slight inconveniences that could be leapt over or kicked through.
"He was bored out of his mind. In desperation, Di Chen asked the desert witch Lui Ka for a true challenge.
"Amused by his arrogance, the witch gave him his wish: he would fight the desert itself. Each grain of sand became a fierce warrior intent on Di Chen's death."
The warriors closed in. They looked like mogu in plate armor, gauntleted hands flexing.
"So these guys are intent on our deaths?" Druz said, wrinkling his nose.
"Oh yes," Shuchun said.
"Good," Druz said, and he fired. Three sandy heads exploded. "I was startin' to think I'd brought the gun for nothin'. Sergeant?"
"Already on it," Ziya said. Druz dropped to a knee to reload, and Ziya vaulted over his broad back and buried both daggers in the nearest warrior's chest. It stumbled and collapsed in a mountain of sand. She threw one blade into the snarling face behind it, dove through the disintegrating enemy to catch her weapon, crouched, and pounced into the middle of the remaining three. Steel flashed in a spiral, and the soldiers fell apart joint by joint.
A hot breeze coiled over the empty desert. Grinning, Ziya returned, sheathing her daggers…
Thirty more warriors burst from the dunes, shrieking in rage and hate.