Zhang the Burdened
"To love what you reject the most is to surpass rejection itself. To accept and forgive your enemies is to accept everything. And so those who do this shall grow to envelop the universe." -The Beggar Scroll, written by Zhang
Grandmaster Zhang the Burdened was a human monk, author of the Tattoo Scrolls, leader of the House of the Golden Dragon and a player character in the Shadows Over Elderain campaign, played by Jack. He played a pivotal role in the War of Shadows, the history of the House of the Golden Dragon, and the battle against the Cult of the Immortal Womb before his death at the hands of the Godslayer.
Zhang was born and raised in the House of a Thousand Whispers to Grandmaster Flying Eagle, a highly respected name in the village. Zhang was found to possess an average skill in martial arts, which many would think disappointed the grandmaster. However, it caused quite the opposite response; Eagle derived great pride in his son as he progressed far faster than his more skilled contemporaries, due only to his enormous determination and willpower.
After graduating his classes, Zhang was taken into a meeting of the village elders, and secretly made to take a mighty oath; should his village ever need it, a special seal on his back could be activated and would pull the entire village into his own essence as a last resort. Zhang would take the painful title of ‘house-bearer’, walking the lands in search of safety for his people. After this, Zhang tried to enjoy his life as much as possible, appreciating a free spirit for as long as he could before the day his oath was needed.
He formed many rivals in the village, namely one young man named Ling, who despised Zhang’s ability to succeed despite an obvious lack of talent. Ling failed to see Zhang’s willpower as a reason for his success, and blamed Zhang’s heritage for the unfair respect Zhang had earned among the instructors. Ling, along with his fellow top-level students, vowed to avenge the honor they were never allowed to gain at the hands of their lesser family names. This would later prove to be a great threat to Zhang’s mental balance after his seal was used, as Ling continues to fight against his imprisonment inside his enemy.
The Fall of the House
It was a perilous day when the armies of the Underdark emerged, bristling with mighty blades and unbreakable armor. Outnumbered beyond reason, the elders of the House of a Thousand Whispers enacted their last-resort line of defense: the village was sealed within the tattoos of their most tenacious disciple.
The House’s greatest fear was the loss of their precious knowledge and sacred arts to the outside world, should it ever be used for personal gain. Instead of writing it down in tomes that could be stolen, great masters, on the verge of death, would have their spirits sealed in the tattoos of their descendants or disciples. This takes a great mental toll on the disciple to not lose control of their own body, but in the end, the knowledge is kept alive and the disciple gains great mental fortitude.
It cannot even be imagined what mental torment Zhang endured as his entire homeland was burned into his back.
Confused at the seemingly sudden disappearance of their target, the army stared in intrigue at the now-blank mountainside as Zhang, the mightiest disciple, fled into the forest, whimpering in agony. The scarred monk would soon collapse to exhaustion, saved from certain death only by the intervention of Xhu Luin, a mighty dragon worshiped by the House for centuries. Zhang soon after left for Elderain, in search of a safer land to release his people and let the House flourish in peace again.
Zhang the House-Bearer
Zhang, throughout his pilgrimage, was the personification of willpower and tenacity. With such a great burden to accommodate, the rest of his mind had slowly faded away, making way for the pillars of his mental fortitude to contain a thousand different souls. Happiness, anger, fear, sadness, love; these were but distractions from the great struggle he endured every waking moment of his life.
Of course, the mental burden would go up and down erratically as the souls on his back thought more or less; great fear, joy or rage in the village could and would bring him to his knees. Thus, the village tried to maintain a meditative and eventless lifestyle to ease the burden on their saviour. Zhang’s ability to speak and live normally would thus fluctuate as his village responded to the environment they could all weakly sense through Zhang’s own senses.
There were, however, upsides to this situation; Zhang could commune with elders in the village for advice when not too burdened (eg. at night) or in times of crisis, drawing upon their ancient knowledge to strengthen himself. Also, Zhang's possession of the minds of his people gave him a terrifyingly overwhelming presence in combat; many a foe would later describe fighting him as "facing the silent battlecry of a thousand warriors... the unshakable feeling that you are hopelessly outnumbered, even if you fight a legion of only one". Even outside of battle, the thoughts of so many minds flowing through him lets off an uneasy suspicion that he is in deep contemplation at all times, analyzing everyone he sees with scrutiny. Indeed, if not Zhang, many a scholar within the House was in a constant state of observation, transcribing every sight seen and sound heard throughout the historic pilgrimage taking place. It was only natural many felt watched.
The War of Shadows
Thirty Years of Peace
The past thirty years had their toll on Grandmaster Zhang, of the House of the Golden Dragon. After his epic journey to carry his people past danger and save his homeland, the grandmaster had chosen a life of meditation and teaching, cultivating his people’s culture and passing on the great martial arts secrets he has learned throughout the ages.
Under Zhang’s guidance, the House was known to interfere little with the politics of Elderain, seen more as an independent protector of its own justice in the valley rather than an entity over which other political figures hold sway; Zhang cared little for the affairs of nobility, deciding after a few gatherings that they had little interest in his people or the promises of cultural integration offered to him by his new King. Because of this, he was often seen as lazy or uncaring about his duties and gained many a disapproving eye among his regal peers. This could not be further from the truth; Zhang’s mute political voice arose by his will to protect his people from the manipulative, conniving and selfish affairs of Elderain’s upper echelons. Other than defending the interests of his village on the rare occasion they were ever challenged by a culturally insensitive politician, he was often known to retreat to the tops of the mountains his home village reside upon, meditating deeply and laying the foundations of deep and powerful martial arts styles never seen before him.
The grandmaster took on many a student, but none compared to the power and skill of the Three Disciples: Jun Wu, or Iron Ox, whose indomitable strength and iron will felled even the walls of a castle; Hua Chen, or Hidden Demon, whose fearsome mastery of the shadows strikes fear into the hearts of the most steeled warriors; and Xiun Lee, or Chirping Sparrow, whose voice magic had been sharpened under her master’s tutelage into a dreadful and unpredictable martial art of its own. These three were set on countless great quests by their master, and saved the land from many a grave threat. They were revered across Elderain for their heroism, and their master knew them to be his finest achievements and future successors.
Left to his own devices as his students protected the valley and the House, Zhang soon finished his Tattoo Scrolls, a set of 5 scrolls containing powerful wisdoms brought to the grandmaster from the painful and enlightening burden he carried when his people rested upon his back. They taught of the Five States to be achieved to reach enlightenment.
Beggar. Warrior. King. Exile. Master.
Their teachings, once read and understood, were able to bring forth a deep attunement to the nature of Everything and to unlock hidden potentials. However, Zhang soon noticed several disciples collapse under the strain of the scroll’s writings, having not been steeled for the deep introspection and self-confrontation that follows their comprehension; Zhang, having found these secrets while under inconceivable mental strain and agony himself, had not considered how the mind of the unprepared would react to what he had endured. Thus, for the safety of his pupils, the grandmaster chose to lock the scrolls away, until a student was deemed ready to handle the wisdom within.
The secrets contained within the Tattoo Scrolls came to be the stuff of legend; rumors circulated that their contents would grant the reader immense power, giving them the strength of an army and the wisdom of a god. It was inevitable that many an ambitious and naive warrior would try and get their hands on the scrolls. Time and again, revered fighters and warriors from across the lands would come to the House, begging, bartering, demanding and even threatening for the scrolls. Every time, the grandmaster would smile and refuse. Surely a shame; the House could have bought the world if Zhang were to listen to the prices he’d heard named.
The House could have also avoided the fate Zhang was destined to endure.
One night, as the grandmaster meditated atop the highest mountain peak, his peaceful state of mind was interrupted by a sudden and powerful vision. He was stood in the middle of Void, surrounded by his five Scrolls.
A faceless man stood before him.
“Your scrolls. They are not complete.”
The grandmaster stared in confusion. The man continued.
“You believe there to be only five States to understand. Beggar. Warrior. King. Exile. Master.
There is another State. Beyond these noble Five.”
Zhang’s brow furrowed. He had felt his work was incomplete in the past, but could not pin down why.
“I shall tell you this state.”
Zhang found himself unable to repeat the name uttered by the faceless man. The Nameless State. The Sixth Step. The Agony of Existence.
Zhang raced down the mountain in panic and feverishly spent his night writing down the horrors of his enlightened new wisdom on a sixth Scroll. Unable to cope with the knowledge, he took a mighty pilgrimage throughout Elderain in a vain effort to find peace again. Alas, it was a vain pursuit; the might of the vision clouded his judgement almost beyond repair, and he returned home empty-handed.
That morning, Zhang awoke to find his horrible Sixth Scroll gone. Stolen by thieves in the night, while he lay unable to defend it and his Three Disciples were away protecting Elderain. The grandmaster could not even begin to fathom the consequences of this loss, and no sooner had he come to his senses than did news arrive of many a horrible cult forming in the mountain ranges to the south. They had read the Sixth Scroll, and they had found a hysterical enlightenment. An ecstatic horror that dribbled from tears in their eyes and from howls in their mad laughter. They too had seen the Faceless Man, and He had told them of the Timeless Powers - ancient magics from a time long forgotten, that shake the very bones of the real and the surreal.
They were the Faceless Children, and they dreamt of the End Times.
Zhang knew the knowledge in the scroll had to be taken back at all costs; the world was not ready for the horrible knowledge within its writings. The grandmaster quickly gathered his Finest Three, and set out to find this cult and put an end to the mortal danger he had plunged the world into.
But before he left home, he felt… an urge.
An urge to bring with him paper and quill.
In case any further revelations were to come.
The Fallen Kingdom<insert recap of the epilogue session>
Upon following Thak Jr. through the portal, Zhang was separated from the rest of the group. The last he saw of them, they were falling through the layers of the Abyss, scattered to the various demiplanes that constitute that terrible inferno.
Zhang found himself on the 230th layer of the abyss, a plane known as The Dreaming Gulf. It is a dark, windy, and phantasmagoric realm that contains floating dreams of evil gods of dead pantheons. These dreams are then slowly processed by the Abyss itself and released on the Prime Material Plane in the form of loumara demons. Zhang was tormented by these dreams, seeing in them the visions of the faceless man that had inspired the writing of the sixth scroll. It took all his years of training and meditation, fuelled by the burden he had carried during the War of Shadows, to retain his sanity in this realm, paralyzed in a meditative state.
Over time, however, Zhang’s immense mental fortitude allowed him to fight back against the oppressive dreams. Indeed, he was able to invade the minds of the dead gods and tear what little information he could from them. There, he learned that the Faceless Man resides at the bottommost layer of the Abyss, the 666th layer.
Determined to find him and the answers that he seeks, he summoned the willpower to dream himself away from the Gulf. Using every lesson he ever learned, Zhang fought his way through the Abyss, becoming known as the Pilgrim amongst the demons who lived there. They fled at his name, and cursed him in their dark holes, not daring to approach him when he passed.
Zhang eventually met the Faceless Man after the time-equivalent of a hundred years, during which he did not age. He met him on the 503rd layer, the demiplane of Torremor, which was an enormous tangle of pieces of masonry such as bridges, arches, beams and pinnacles held together by chains. Their facedown was a battle to last the ages. Zhang was hopelessly outmatched in power, but his techniques and ingenuity were the equal of or even surpassing the Faceless man. They fought for a year and a day, at which point the Faceless man cast Zhang down and imprisoned him in a mental cage.
There, he told Zhang what he seeks in Elderain: a boy, an empty vessel, which he created many years ago. This boy was to become an unstoppable force of destruction, killing and absorbing the powers of the gods, and ending the cycle of the planes. This ending was what Zhang saw in his dreams, and what he wrote upon the sixth scroll - it is a terrifying void of sheer nothingness. The death of all souls. The ending of time and hope and life forever.
However, he was tricked by one of his servants, Deionarra, who stole a different child to be raised as the Godslayer. This was Thak Jr. He discovered the treachery upon the Godslayer killing Lolth, when he was unable to absorb her entire essence, only her power. Enraged, he sent the Godslayer to Elderain, to find the boy and bring him to the Abyss. This, of course, was foiled by the heroes of the war.
And now, he hears that this boy has been found by one named Palaros - a servant of Ao, his ultimate enemy. He sends his Godslayer out into the planes, to find a way to Elderain, now under the terribly fragile protection of a dying Pelor.
Zhang, at this point, realised he desperately needed to get to Elderain. He needed to stop what would happen if the Godslayer was able to get his hands on the Faceless Vessel.
So he unleashed the power he spent a year and a day building up within his tattoos. The Faceless Man was caught by surprise, and Zhang escaped, climbing his way back up through the Abyss, to the city of Sigil, despite his power being severely depleted by the act.
Knowing that the way to Elderain is shut, he petitioned the immensely powerful Elemental Lords, who held fast the Planar Gates to the Prime Material Plane, eventually winning the favour of the Prince of Earth. He allowed him passage to Elderain, where he wandered, searching for the Sixth Scroll.
And now, he has found it. In Ancleft, where the Sixth Scroll was buried in the home of St. Michael, he found the scroll alongside Anouk, Aeryth, Robert, Chrysalia, and Y'lhana, and decided to travel with them, as he is deeply aware of how much protection Robert will need from the Faceless Man.