Kunlun comes easy when it is time for his official arrival. Zhao Yunlan is used to playing a part. Used to spending precious energy being as loud and boisterous as everyone expects him to, used to draining himself chumming it up with all the right people to make his job go as smoothly as possible. And really, there isn’t that much difference between being the chief of the SID, or a mysterious general from distant parts. As an added bonus, he is now in a time long before any of the famed military geniuses Zhao Yunlan was forced to memorize in school were born. This makes it an absolute breeze to sound wise and tactical.
The one person who has yet to be formally introduced to Kunlun is Shen Wei. To Zhao Yunlan’s crushing disappointment, the Black-Cloaked Envoy is already gone by the time the welcome banquet rolls around. Fu You and Ma Gui both are very vague on when he might be back, but apparently this is just a normal thing Shen Wei does. It is all Zhao Yunlan can do to keep his requests for information about the Black-Cloaked Envoy to their strategy meetings, where he is sometimes lucky enough to get confirmation that Shen Wei is still alive and well—or was, at least, the last time anyone saw him. Zhao Yunlan waits for Shen Wei’s return, hope mingling with trepidation.
In the meantime, there’s the Hallows. Zhao Yunlan asked them to take him back, and they have—to the Hallows’ own beginning. Fu You and Ma Gui and a small group of highly skilled artisans with and without Dixing powers have been slowly crafting them from what was once a solid block of space metal—the very core of the meteorite that struck and caused such damage to Dixing. Perhaps because it went deep into that realm, or perhaps because it comes from far outside of Haixing’s atmosphere, the thing is loaded with dark energy. Enough that even Zhao Yunlan can feel it when he enters the deep, protected chamber where the Hallows are kept.
According to Ma Gui, the original Hallow was too dangerous to leave in one solid piece. Zhao Yunlan gets a long lecture on the subject, with many footnotes and fascinating asides that all boil down to it emitting a nasty kind of radiation. Not that Ma Gui uses those words, but Zhao Yunlan gathers that leaving it unsplit and unguarded would have been the dark energy equivalent of a nuclear meltdown. They could maybe have tried to get rid of or destroy it—maybe, though that could easily have made matters worse. But with so much of Dixing rendered uninhabitable, Ma Gui and Fu You and the others started working on ways of harnessing its overflowing energy into tools to rebuild.
When Zhao Yunlan first visits the workshop, the Hallows are all distinct and separate, each being given a different form and shape while retaining the essence of a fallen star.
“Though it is strange—no matter what we set out to do, these four shapes are the ones that keep reappearing in our minds when we work on them.” Fu You shakes her head. “There are powers at work through these objects that we do not fully understand—that is why they are hallowed to us.”
That is fascinating, from a metaphysical perspective. However, Zhao Yunlan has more pressing, practical concerns. There are four Hallows. His SID only has three of them, and he knows next to nothing about the fourth. If he learns all he can now, they might have a chance to find it when he returns. At his request, Ma Gui takes the Guardian Lantern out of the small chest of carved and warded green jade where it is kept dormant.
Zhao Yunlan very nearly has another screaming fit.
He knows the damn thing. It stood in his father’s office collecting dust when he was a child. When Zhao Yunlan took over as chief of the SID, he put it in a box together with all the other reminders of Zhao Xinci, and did what he usually does when it comes to things related to his father: promptly forgot about it.
It does sting Zhao Yunlan’s pride a bit, that it was so close and yet they all failed to find it—but on the bright side that is one thing ticked off his to-do list? Knowing he’ll be able to pick it up as soon as he goes back home, Zhao Yunlan makes sure to pump Ma Gui for information about it. He learns that it’s the linchpin in the plan to restore Dixing. Its shape is not all symbolic. Once finished, it will be able to emit enough light and heat to give the wounded realm some ease.
Guiding Zhao Yunlan back to the council chamber, Ma Gui frowns. “The problem with that power is how easy it would be to turn it into a weapon instead. We are so close to completion, but—today we would not dare install it in Dixing proper.”
“Zei Qiu,” Zhao Yunlan guesses, feeling as if he owes Kunlun’s name to hold a personal grudge along with his professional antipathy to the cruel leader of the Dixing rebels.
Ma Gui nods. “With his powers of persuasion, he could easily turn one or two of our artisans, and have them revise the intent of the Lantern.”
Zhao Yunlan considers this. “So—your craftspeople, they can still change the Hallows now?”
“Yes, of course. That is how we have been shaping them, all this time, and taming the destructive effects of this star-heart.”
“And you trust all of them?”
Ma Gui gives a pale version of his usual beatific smile. “I would like to. They have all worked so hard. But the minds of men and women can sometimes be very easily swayed, and Zei Qiu’s gift—it takes a strong constitution to resist him, I know.”
Zhao Yunlan nods. He’s heard enough about Zei Qiu’s methods of mind control and torture to understand. “Right. So what’s your plan, if you can’t just screw in your new lightbulb down there?”
As always, his deliberate choice of words that should be incomprehensible to Ma Gui does not faze the man. Something about being attuned to the meaning of words, not their sounds—Zhao Yunlan admits it does make life in the past a lot easier. “We must put precautions in place,” Ma Gui says. “Only install it when the time is right, of course—and make it so that it won’t work in the wrong hands.”
“Sounds good. And how are you going to do that?”
Ma Gui makes sure to usher Zhao Yunlan into the council chamber, and not until he has satisfied himself that they are alone does he sigh. “By exacting a price so heavy only the righteous would pay it.”
And now it’s starting to sound less good. Zhao Yunlan swings himself up onto the council table, crosses his legs and sits, leaning forward. “How, exactly?”
Ma Gui’s dismayed hesitation is another bad sign. The man has a huge, tender heart—he is no general, to lead armies into battle, but a Guardian, trying to keep his people safe as the world itself has turned into a battlefield. “A life,” he says softly. “Would it that it could be me—if I am still around when the right time comes, I was hoping… but we can’t know.”
“It’s the only way. Zei Qiu and those like him—they would never give themselves for any cause. They are all selfishness and greed, and—”
“Hang on.” Zhao Yunlan puts a hand up. “You’re making this Lantern to benefit all of Dixing?”
Ma Gui nods.
“But instead of a light switch to turn it on, you’re going to use human sacrifice?”
The words make Ma Gui flinch. “It wouldn’t be… it wouldn’t be forced upon anyone unwilling. Couldn’t be—only one with pure intentions could—”
“No,” Zhao Yunlan says, and fishes out one of the precious few lollipops he has left. He toys with it, but doesn’t unwrap it.
Ma Gui looks both ashamed and defiant. “We have had endless discussions. All other alternatives—nothing else would work. It would be far too easy for someone to steal it, or worse.”
“You can’t let one of these things kill people. Not on purpose!” Not that the other Hallows won’t, in their own ways, but Zhao Yunlan doesn’t feel it’s necessary for Ma Gui to know that.
“We must,” he retorts grimly.
“You absolutely must not,” Zhao Yunlan says, feeling every inch the Guardian himself. Ma Gui might be making plans for now, but in ten thousand years the only people who know about the Hallows are Zhao Yunlan’s team. And he is absolutely not letting any of them lay down their lives to light a fucking lantern.
It’s not easy to make Ma Gui angry, but there’s a thundercloud look about the man now. “Then what do you suggest, Zhao Yunlan?”
Ouch. They have been faithfully calling Zhao Yunlan Kunlun-jun even in private, ever since that first meeting, and Ma Gui speaks his full name like a slap. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t mind, though—if someone dropped in from the year 12,000 CE and told him he was running the SID wrong, he’d probably be a little pissy about that, too.
Zhao Yunlan taps the wrapped lollipop against his lips thoughtfully. “It needs a safety catch,” he says, thinking out loud. He still doesn’t understand the full intricacies of how the Hallows work, but from what Ma Gui has told him a lot of it seems to be the wielder’s intent. Which matches with his own experience of using them in their final form. “It has to be for the good of Dixing…” And then he nearly swallows his lollipop, wrapper and all. “That’s it!”
It isn’t Ma Gui’s fault he never thought of it—he doesn’t have Zhao Yunlan’s advantage of actually having been to Dixing, of having seen the effects of both the lasting peace and the poor conditions. But Zhao Yunlan has. What’s more, the chief of the SID is intimately familiar with how the most desperate and adventurous of Dixing spurn the dull grind of a shadowed existence, for any kind of foothold in the daylight world. And he understands, as Ma Gui cannot, that those people don't want a weapon.
They want a sun.
“If it’s for Dixing, then make it for Dixing,” Zhao Yunlan says, waving his lollipop to emphasise his point.
“But—we are!” Ma Gui’s confusion makes Zhao Yunlan shake his head in impatience.
“Not one life,” Zhao Yunlan scoots closer to the edge, the words welling up in an excited jumble. “All lives. Or as many as you think you can get.”
“Don’t make the Lantern take a life. You don’t want that—nobody wants that. Make it take belief. You can do that, right?”
Ma Gui blinks. “Belief? We—yes, but—”
“The population of Dixing. They’re who you need behind this. Not one person—not someone like yourself or Fu You or even Zei Qiu, deciding what the power should do. But the people who need it.”
Ma Gui’s eyes widen—widen and brighten, before a shadow falls across them. “But Zei Qiu,” he says. “Or anyone like him, with the power to rule over minds. That could be disastrous, if they can turn the belief of an entire people.”
Zhao Yunlan remembers Ye Zun. Swallows. Lets his thoughts spin for a second, until they land on Ye Zun’s opposite. Shen Wei. Always Shen Wei. Of course. He smiles, feeling warm and grateful, and decides he needs to thank Shen Wei for this as soon as he can. “No, that’s not your safety catch,” he says. “The people are your light switch. The safety—that is in the nature of the belief.”
Ma Gui is frowning, but not disapproving—more like he’s trying to race ahead to Zhao Yunlan’s conclusion. “You mean—make a condition?”
“What is the one thing that you all have here?” Zhao Yunlan gestures with his lollipop at the entire complex of caves, the Dixing and Haixing and Yashou all living and working side by side. “The thing that is anathema to Zei Qiu and Ye Zun and those kind of guys?”
Clearly Ma Gui has been living in the strange harmony of his alliance for too long, because he doesn’t seem to get it—doesn’t understand how rare and precious it is to have all three people living side by side, rather than trying to push each other out or keep each other down. Making the others pay obeisance to the given superiority of your own kind, Zhao Yunlan thinks drily.
“You’re all people. Not Haixing or Dixing—here, you work together because we are all the same.”
The smile on Ma Gui’s face when he gets it—really gets it—could probably power Dixing for ten thousand years. Zhao Yunlan answers it with his own, and finally unwraps the lollipop. It’s even sweeter than he remembers, and he makes it last a long, long time, as Fu You and Ma Gui and he talk about the future of the Guardian Lantern deep into the night.
The night Zhao Yunlan gets his wish and Shen Wei finally returns is when everything goes to hell.
And not only because it’s the day Zhao Yunlan finally wears his precious phone battery flat, staring at his own shadowed reflection as the angry red LED in the corner flickers and dies and doesn’t come back on no matter how long he presses the power button.
It’s been—time. It’s hard to make sense of it when the days above ground all look much the same: not very warm and not very bright. And of course, any time he’s too busy to head outside he can’t even tell if it’s day or night.
But it’s best that Kunlun keeps busy, or Zhao Yunlan might start losing his mind. He’s tried befriending Da Qing, who narrows his eyes disdainfully and finds other places to be. At least here Da Qing isn’t the gossipy type yet, holding himself apart from other Yashou. It’s unsettling to see him that way, but also probably for the best—if he were as familiar with everyone here as he is with the SID team, Kunlun’s reputation might suffer a fatal blow.
There’s plenty of other people to talk to, of course. Many of them with fascinating lives and stories, and if Zhao Yunlan can get them sharing it’s a great way to kill time—almost everyone he gets to open up is a fantastic storyteller. There’s not much other entertainment to be had, so these people know how to spin a tale. But many of them are intimidated by Kunlun-jun’s lofty status and unfamiliar customs, forcing Zhao Yunlan to work hard at putting them at ease enough for a conversation.
Hence sitting in his cave with his dead phone, feeling exhausted and on edge, wishing he could just go home. He might, soon—work with the Hallows was progressing well last time he checked up on it. Which Kunlun-jun has been kindly asked to not do quite so frequently, as it is making the artisans skittish and the guards who open and close the series of doors leading down there… well, Fu You had politely said ‘slightly distracted’, which Zhao Yunlan interpreted as ‘sick of your face’.
All in all, it’s a shitty day, until he gets news that the Black-Cloaked Envoy and his party have returned. Then it becomes a pretty excellent day. Zhao Yunlan has never been happier to sit in the council chamber and listen to a report than when Shen Wei shows up in person to talk about places he and his forces have been, and the people they’ve helped and the skirmishes they’ve fought. Zhao Yunlan has enough background now to sort out what was done for tactical reasons, and what Shen Wei did simply because someone needed his help.
Zhao Yunlan catches Shen Wei’s eye a couple of times, and each time there’s a shock of warmth through him at how happy Shen Wei seems at the attention. So clearly he didn’t actually scare Shen Wei off for good last time—and maybe Zhao Yunlan’s admonishments worked, because the Black-Cloaked Envoy solemnly reports all injuries, and then adds that he himself has sustained none. When Shen Wei mirrors the smile Zhao Yunlan gives him at that, it becomes possibly the best day of the entire past.
And that’s when the screaming starts.
Weapons drawn, the two of them get the council guards to close up around Ma Gui and Fu You, and follow the commotion of people shouting and pointing until they can hear heartrending screams echoing through a deep tunnel Zhao Yunlan knows only too well. The first set of doors in to the Hallows stands open, and the guards he saw only this morning are dead on the ground, faces mottled and contorted in agony. Next to them, the friend who stopped by for a chat and found them is on his knees, keening. His grief is painfully raw, but Zhao Yunlan forces himself to tune it out. “Dixing power?” he asks Shen Wei, who shakes his head.
“It doesn’t feel like it at all.”
“Poison, then.” Zhao Yunlan points to a pair of shattered wine cups, which certainly weren’t there earlier.
Together, they head further into the passage, where the bright ambient lights are eerily dim, and everything is far too silent. At the next set of doors they find another tragedy.
Strange, that all four guards should drink the poisoned wine and not suspect a thing. Strange, unless it was served with a smile by a familiar face. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t like that thought at all, but when they get to the final door, it is worse. It too is open, and in the workroom beyond—a feast interrupted by death.
Food and drink are arranged on the workbenches, but the men and women Zhao Yunlan has seen patiently crafting the Hallows lie collapsed. Some are moaning—and that is the only relief they get. That some of their people are still alive. Many are not.
The Hallows, of course, are gone.
Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei make it back through the tunnel intent on taking their grim report to the council, only to find a battle raging above. Their thief might have worked with smiles and poison, but the getaway is clearly being handled by the brawns side of this operation: a good-sized showing of the rag-tag barbarians Zhao Yunlan has learned to identify as Zei Qiu’s Dixing rebels have stormed them, some making it as far as the main tunnel.
Side by side, Kunlun and the Black-Cloaked Envoy can keep them from getting any further. There are other fighters, of course, and life-and-death struggles everywhere. But without saying a word, they both gravitate to the point most important to hold. And then they hold it.
Brutally, desperately, they hold it.
The rebels are almost all Dixing, almost all susceptible to the revolver’s lethal force. And those that somehow move too fast, or come too many at a time—those Shen Wei deals with. They fight side by side in near-perfect sync. The only thing that mars the flow of that is when Shen Wei insists on stepping in front of Zhao Yunlan, using his blade and his body both to cover Zhao Yunlan instead of defending himself. And that of course spoils Zhao Yunlan’s aim, so that he has to stride out in front of Shen Wei to get his next shot off. It might have gone on like that forever, a succession of moves until they were at the tunnel entrance—except finally the hallway lies empty of anything but corpses.
They wait for a few heaving breaths, as the first spike of adrenaline drains from Zhao Yunlan’s system, leaving him sweaty and jittery. The tunnel carries echoes of shouts and clashing metal from the surface. Running footsteps close in from the other direction. For a second they move back to back, ready to defend from both directions—and then their own forces come into sight. “Hold this position!” Shen Wei orders, and looks at Zhao Yunlan, who nods. No further words are needed for them to set off towards the surface together. Following the fighting—following the stolen Hallows.
It’s night, above. The darkened skies cast hardly any light at all—behind that veil of dust, the moon seems a ghost of what Zhao Yunlan still thinks of as normal. The chaos outside is lit only by watchfires and torches. The rebels are outnumbered, and seem to be fighting to flee. The allies are reluctant to let them go, so close to their innermost defenses.
It is entirely unclear if anyone outside knows that the Hallows have been taken, or if the thief has been spotted.
Shen Wei immediately offers his support to a group of younger recruits whose numbers are not making up for their underdeveloped skills. Letting Shen Wei get swallowed by the fray, Zhao Yunlan goes to the most senior officer he can spot. She doesn’t need his help, so he makes sure not to get in her way as he calls a couple of questions. Then he goes to drag Shen Wei back out of the battle.
“Hey!” Shoulder to shoulder with Shen Wei, he shouts to make himself heard over the clamor. “Zei Qiu’s people have all been retreating in that direction,” he points with his revolver, “and one of the sentries reported seeing someone leaving with a yowling sack before these guys attacked.”
“Like a cat,” Zhao Yunlan says. Now, his witness didn’t actually state the exact nature of the yowling, but he’s got a feeling his damn cat’s gone and gotten himself in trouble.
They set off with the battle still raging behind them, letting the rebels that try to avoid them get away, and dealing swiftly with those who attack. “The Hallows’ jade boxes were still in the workroom,” Zhao Yunlan says, squinting at the path in the dark. “So the thief must have tossed them into something light and easy to carry—like a sack.”
“Which you think Da Qing is in?” Shen Wei asks—not doubtfully, just going over the facts. He’s striding forward without any hesitation at all. Because of course Shen Wei can see in the dark.
“I do. Either he got thrown in during a fight, or he figured it would be the best way to find out where the thief was going. And I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get a cat out of a sack when it doesn’t want to go, but—” Zhao Yunlan stumbles, just catching himself before going down over another fallen tree. “But trust me, it would be quicker to just carry the whole damn thing along, cat and all.”
“And quicker with a dead cat than a live one,” Shen Wei says grimly. He may be younger than Zhao Yunlan could ever have conceived, but this sort of thing he understands.
“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan agrees, a spike of fear stabbing through his ribcage.
“Here,” Shen Wei sticks his hand out. Zhao Yunlan looks at it, uncomprehending. “I’m faster in the dark,” Shen Wei says, glancing down, like he’s worried maybe Zhao Yunlan will disapprove of this fact.
Zhao Yunlan does not. In fact, he grins as he catches the outstretched hand, without a moment’s hesitation. He trusts Shen Wei to lead him in the most blinding dark—with a little light to see by, he feels safe enough to run. “Let’s go.”