“Where’s Shen Wei?”
The team gathered in a semi-circle around Zhao Yunlan exchange another lightning round of glances that end up pinning Da Qing. He’s still got his arms wound around Zhao Yunlan’s torso, but can’t fail to notice the pressure of those pleading looks. Giving Zhao Yunlan one more squeeze, the cat takes half a step back, fingers of his right hand still locked in the fabric of Zhao Yunlan’s jacket sleeve. “I’m sorry,” Da Qing says, looking at least half as miserable as the words make Zhao Yunlan feel. “Ye Zun—Ye Zun took him.”
No. That can’t be. This is a nightmare—Zhao Yunlan travelled through time, and he’s still too late. How can he be too late? “When?” It comes out a croak, but Zhao Yunlan doesn’t care.
“Right after… right after you left,” Da Qing says.
Zhao Yunlan nods, because of course everything went to hell the moment he turned his back. He shouldn’t have left—but he couldn’t have stayed. And now Shen Wei is paying the price for that. “Took him?” Zhao Yunlan manages to ask.
“Alive,” Lao Chu says, in brusque reassurance. “We weren’t fast enough to stop him.” Not an apology, not an excuse, just a fact. Somehow, that helps. “One moment that bastard Ye Zun was out cold, the next he had some kind of portal going, and he grabbed Professor Shen.”
“And—and he still had the Dial,” Xiao Guo says, voice trembling as he steps in to make sure Lao Chu doesn’t have to be the only bearer of bad news.
“Okay,” Zhao Yunlan says, and tries to remember how to do this—how to stand and breathe and think—over the white noise of panic closing in over his senses. He licks his lips. Looking at the distraught faces in front of him, he sees guilt and anger and worry—all of his team waiting for Zhao Yunlan’s orders, prepared to do whatever he asks. If he falls apart now, they won’t know what to do—they can’t.
A mental to-do list is taking shape amidst his internal chaos, and the first item on it turns out to be charge phone. That makes his lips twitch in amusement that is too close to hysteria for him to want to stretch it to a smile. Slowly, Zhao Yunlan straightens up rather than force Da Qing to catch him. “How long was I gone?”
“A day?” Da Qing says, and looks at Lin Jing for confirmation.
Lin Jing doesn’t even need to check the time. “Twenty-four hours, almost exactly.”
Ye Zun’s had Shen Wei for twenty-four hours. Haixing hours. Time in Dixing can be—tricky. Whether that makes it better or worse, Zhao Yunlan doesn’t know. The irony of it makes him laugh, low and harsh—all he set out to do was try to make it so Ye Zun never took Shen Wei in the first place, and instead Zhao Yunlan has ended up handing Shen Wei to his unhinged twin. Again. And this time, Ye Zun might not be satisfied simply playing games—this time he might want a more final sort of revenge. Now that Zhao Yunlan has seen the full extent of the terrible, wrong-headed hate Ye Zun has for his brother, it’s only too easy to imagine Shen Wei dead at his hands. Zhao Yunlan tries not to, he really does, but can’t control a shudder of horror at the memory of what the Dixing rebels did with their prisoners.
“Chief Zhao?” Xiao Guo’s hand timidly brushes the arm Da Qing isn’t clutching. Zhao Yunlan opens his eyes with a start, and focuses on the kid. He looks pale and drawn, but he’s wearing one of his own sweaters now, and he seems to be in too much pain from his arm in its sling to be on the good meds anymore.
“How—how is Professor Shen?”
Zhao Yunlan blinks. “What?”
Xiao Guo’s head bobs nervously, but he squeezes Zhao Yunlan’s arm a bit harder. “Your superpower. You said it only worked on Professor Shen, so I was hoping—I was hoping when you came back you could tell us how he’s doing?”
Zhao Yunlan stares at Xiao Guo, then gently detaches his arm from Da Qing so he can ruffle the kid’s hair. “Good thinking,” he says, and closes his eyes. He had forgotten, completely. Zhao Yunlan only had the ability for a few… was it just hours? So long ago now it’s hard to remember exactly. Back in time he tried and failed to get the connection open with Xiao Wei, and then he stopped thinking about it. But now that he’s back in his own time, maybe…
The Hallows are there first. Three of the four—their voices now distinct enough that he wouldn’t have needed to be told the Dial was missing if he had taken a moment to listen for them. But he pushes his sense beyond that, to something that isn’t mind as much as heart—reaches for that warm glow under all the pain and panic, and holds on to everything he feels when he says Shen Wei’s name to himself.
It takes more than just a breath or two, but nobody around him interrupts, or asks any questions. Zhao Yunlan sinks deeper into the sensations of self until he finds something other—and there it is. The awareness he has of Shen Wei. Weak and thready, it’s as bad as any technological connection between the realms would be. But it’s there, and it’s open, and when he focuses on it with all he is, he senses something like a heartbeat that isn’t his own. It’s edging into ragged, fillng him with a deep distress—but that might just be his own feelings getting in the way.
Zhao Yunlan opens his eyes with a gasp, and Da Qing slides an arm around his waist. “Lao Zhao?”
“He’s alive,” Zhao Yunlan says, and takes a measure of comfort from the certainty in his own words. “He’s still alive.”
There’s a ripple of smiles and sighs of relief and hands reaching out to clap Zhao Yunlan on his back—and doing more than that, too. He lets his team steer him to the couch, where he sits down and inhales the nostalgic umami smell of cheap instant noodle seasoning. “What about Ye Zun?” Zhao Yunlan asks, because the one shot was all it took to keep everyone safe right then—but clearly he should have put another few into that bastard for good measure.
“I kind of thought he was dead?” Lin Jing offers. “I mean. Until he wasn’t.” Sang Zan nods to Lin Jing’s point.
“It took Lao Li an hour to get all the blood off the floor,” Da Qing says, nodding at the old man.
“But he got up and—and took Shen Wei?”
“Ye Zun did not get up. He moved,” Wang Zheng explains, and waves her arm around. “Like so. And Professor Shen—it was like they both fell into a hole, that was there and then gone.”
So maybe not playing dead as much as using the last of his strength to get away—and take his brother with him, because that’s the kind of thing Ye Zun does. Zhao Yunlan curses the lost opportunity. If he could have gotten another clear shot—He cuts the guilt-trip short to get back to what he’s missed. “Alright. Want to tell me what’s wrong with takeout, that we’re digging into my emergency lunch stash?”
Another round of wincing and glancing ensues. “Haixing—the Ministry—has declared a state of emergency,” Lin Jing says finally. “Thanks to Xiao Guo’s uncle.”
“Minister Gao didn’t want to,” Xiao Guo explains.
“Everything went kind of crazy right at nightfall yesterday,” Lin Jing continues. “All the measuring instruments, and the social media we were monitoring—everything. It was a little bit after Ye Zun... Um. After he left.”
Left. With Shen Wei. Zhao Yunlan takes a moment to let the panic at that run its course before he speaks. “Are you saying we’re under attack from Dixing?” But if so, why is the SID sitting around eating noodles? Even without their chief, they should know better.
“S-scouts,” Sang Zan says, as quickly as he can. “No attack.”
The former clan chief knows a thing or two about war, and Zhao Yunlan nods slowly. “So you got on the line to the Ministry, told them everything I’d warned them about was about to go down—and Minister Gao had his head so far up his own ass you had to get Guo Ying to sort him out?”
Xiao Guo looks amused, and then scandalized at his own amusement. “Well—”
“Yes,” Lao Chu says. “Then we lost touch with Changcheng’s uncle. But by then there were enough things happening all over the city that the Ministry couldn’t ignore it anymore.”
“Things?” Zhao Yunlan doesn’t like the sound of that.
“Power cables turning to vines, bridges crumbling to dust, ambulances following phantom calls out into the wilderness,” Lin Jing says. “And lots of random ‘muggings’ and ‘gang attacks’ that just happen to be clustered around known Dixing portals.”
“And they’re passing it off as what?” Zhao Yunlan asks irritably. It sounds like too much of a mess to fly under the radar—which is why he kept telling Minister Gao they needed to prepare the city’s population. “Terrorism?”
The awkward glances are getting really old. “Uh,” Lin Jing says, clearly feeling he has done his duty already.
“That Minister Gao,” Da Qing says with an angry toss of his head. “Once the Haixing forces mobilized, he went ahead and told everyone it was Dixing.”
“Gao did?” Zhao Yunlan asks, incredulous. Gao, who spent that entire terrible meeting back when Shen Wei had come along to the Ministry flat-out denying Zhao Yunlan’s requests to inform the citizenry of the impending danger. “So—that’s good? People are getting a chance to prepare—to evacuate?” Another astoundingly loud silence greets that optimistic statement. “Okay, what?” Zhao Yunlan sighs.
“Minister Gao was really unhappy about Uncle getting the military mobilized,” Xiao Guo explains. “He—he didn’t want his department to take the blame, for, um. Wasting money? So… um…”
“That spineless garbage made a public announcement explaining the entire situation was the result of the SID’s ‘negligence’,” Lao Chu says with a scowl.
“But fucking Gao didn’t want the public to know we even exist!” Zhao Yunlan says, trying to come to grips with the general calamities going on right on top of the very personal calamity of knowing Shen Wei is back in Ye Zun’s hands.
“That was true when you left,” Wang Zheng says curtly. “It no longer is.”
“So you were holed up in here not just because of the curfew,” Zhao Yunlan says, “but because…”
“There’s an angry mob outside,” Zhu Hong snarls, taking it as personally as Zhao Yunlan himself is. Of course she would—there’s a reason Yashou tend to keep to themselves, and angry mobs are certainly part of that, historically.
“And some soldiers,” Xiao Guo says in attempt to cheer everyone up. “Making sure they don’t get close enough to throw more rocks!”
They’re throwing rocks? At his team, who have done nothing but their best to protect everyone all this time? “Do we even have any orders?”
Da Qing snorts in disgust. “To ‘stay out of trouble’.”
Yeah, Gao wouldn’t want the scapegoats out and about righting wrongs and showing everyone where the real negligence lies. “Well. If we can call off the invasion there won’t be any trouble to get into,” Zhao Yunlan drawls. Having seen firsthand what happens to a mind-controlled army that loses its master, it’s not difficult to choose the best cause of action. “Do we have any information on the Dixing portals?” he asks.
From the way everyone looks at him, they clearly understand why he wants that information. They’re not wrong—he’s absolutely going after Shen Wei as soon as he possibly can. It just so happens that when he does, he will also take out Ye Zun, which will solve all of their Dixing problems in one fell swoop.
“Sorry, boss,” Lin Jing says. “We don’t know for sure, but the readings indicate they’ve gone one-way: Ye Zun can definitely open them, but we probably can’t.”
So add ‘get portals working’ to Zhao Yunlan’s growing to-do list. Unless he can get the Hallows to take him to Dixing somehow? That could work—Zhao Yunlan isn’t entirely sure how, but he knows someone he can ask. “Oh, I think we can,” he says, and the way Lin Jing actually looks hopeful instead of skeptical is a nice boost to Zhao Yunlan’s confidence.
After all, he’s fairly sure he owes Ma Gui and Fu You a surprise call from right about now to sometime before he showed up to be their Kunlun. They can sort the details out together, and he can give them a speech that inspires confidence and bolster their spirits so they’re inclined to overlook how very strange he is when he meets them for the first time.
It’s a good plan. It’s also the last known point Zhao Yunlan has in the future, so once that call is done, anything could happen. “Right.” Zhao Yunlan exhales slowly, and rubs the back of his neck. “So. Did I miss anything else while I was gone?”
Zhu Hong squares her shoulders and tilts her chin up slightly. “Ya Qing initiated the contest for role of High Chief. It’s going to take place tomorrow, at dawn.”
Considering everything else going on, that’s practically good news. “Oh,” Zhao Yunlan says, “in that case I need to brief you.”
“Brief me?” Zhu Hong’s voice rises in confusion.
“Yeah—I’ve got that taken care of.” Zhu Hong stares suspiciously at him, and Zhao Yunlan waves it away. “Aiya. Don’t worry about it. I had plenty of time to sort it out.”
“In the twenty-four hours you were gone?” Zhu Hong says flatly.
“Well,” Zhao Yunlan says. “About that…” And as the others eat the cup noodles Zhao Yunlan has no appetite for, he gives them the shortest possible version of the events ten thousand years past, keeping well away from anything Shen Wei wouldn’t appreciate him spreading around. He may mention the hair, though. A few times. Anything to distract himself from the overpowering urge to go get Shen Wei back from Ye Zun right this moment, plans and consequences be damned. Anything to distract from the fear that this time, he really might be too late.
Shen Wei is no longer in the SID lab.
He should be. He remembers the Hallows shining and time folding in on itself. He remembers his determination to stop Zhao Yunlan crumbling helplessly when, for a moment, Shen Wei was vividly certain Kunlun was standing right in front of him. And with Kunlun’s words still unmaking everything Shen Wei knew, the world itself disappeared.
And it is still—not there. Dark energy, thick with familiar malice, covers his eyes and nose and mouth and binds his limbs. The senses he still has tell Shen Wei that he is in the nowhere that is between places. It isn’t anywhere anyone ought to be—Shen Wei can feel the wrongness of it, and Ye Zun is having to struggle to hold them both in this space. Taking advantage of Ye Zun’s distraction, Shen Wei strikes out instinctively. Ye Zun counters, but his powers are waning, and there is more desperation than finesse in his attack. It is not one that Shen Wei should fail to stop—but Ye Zun combines it with a burst of movement, transporting them.
Shen Wei tries to refuse. To his shock, what repels him is not Ye Zun’s own powers, but those of the Longevity Sundial. Shen Wei remembers holding on to the Hallow, but now it’s gone. Gone, and obeying Ye Zun’s commands. Despite Shen Wei’s attempts to resist, he finds himself wrenched to Dixing.
Ye Zun loses control of his portal a moment after doing so would have been fatal. He loses control of his portal, but refuses to relinquish the hold his dark energy has on Shen Wei, who can’t see and can’t gasp when his body slams into the hard ground. Curled on his side, Shen Wei tries again to break free, but though he can feel his brother growing weaker and weaker, Ye Zun is stubbornly refusing to release him. Shen Wei hears wheezing breaths—not his own, as no oxygen is making it to his burning lungs—and running footsteps, and then everything goes very vague and jumbled.
The next thing he knows there are legs blocking his view. So he can see again, even if the world is tilted on its side. And he can breathe. Maybe he should be doing more, but it seems like a lot already. He can barely follow the frantic activity happening. People are crowding around a figure in bloodstained white slumped on the ground. Shen Wei knows who it is though he can barely see him, and he would go to his brother, but his body is refusing to move.
The men are talking, beseeching the prone figure they surround. “Please, boss, tell us what to do—”
“Is that the Longevity Dial? Lord Ye Zun has talked about it, maybe we could—”
“Doesn’t anyone have a healing power?”
“We have to do something!”
“Lord Ye Zun—tell us what to do—boss!”
Dixing is so dark. It’s getting harder to follow what all the legs are doing—Shen Wei blinks, and blinks again. The panicked voices and his brother motionless on the ground are all feeling familiar. Does this mean he’s stirring again? Does Shen Wei need to go? Has Ye Zun managed to steal more lives, more powers?
Moments long unremembered swim to the surface of Shen Wei’s awareness, brighter than anything he can see in front of him.
He had been so bright, Ye Zun. And the panic—that had been Shen Wei’s own, back then, ten thousand years ago. “I just found him again—he didn’t… he didn’t want to, he didn’t mean—” But the Hallows’ touch were all over Ye Zun, who lay curled up where they had dug him and the Hallows out of the fallen mountain.
Still and silent and distant, Ye Zun had been somewhere between sleeping and waking, still listening for the Hallows’ song. Taking them away for safekeeping had not changed that.
And to the others of the alliance it had not mattered what Ye Zun had meant—only what he had done.
“I could take him,” Shen Wei had offered. “Far away—somewhere safe, somewhere he wouldn’t—” He had already known there would be nowhere safe. Not for someone so radiant with power. Someone whose mere presence could imbue mundane objects with enough of the Hallows to do great harm—or steal any living being’s power for himself. Shen Wei had known what the answer would be, and yet the combination of stern refusal and sad headshake had felt like the end of a dream.
—talking about healing, still. Young, scared men. But why? No healing was needed for Ye Zun, not when he was overflowing with life. Shen Wei doesn’t understand—wants to tell them, No, no don’t bring a Hallow, if you do he’ll be too strong—
The only place safe enough to hold Ye Zun was right in their midst; the only thing powerful enough to contain him was something that had yet to be built. And when it was finished—how long until it would be safe to release him? How long would Shen Wei have to wait? None of them could tell him. He didn’t know himself. All he knew was that Ye Zun glowed with the destructive force of that star-heart they had broken apart and tamed. All Shen Wei knew was that every time his brother woke, he screamed for more.
—screaming now. There is light, and screaming, and because it’s a Hallow, Shen Wei thinks danger, and tries to move. To protect those standing and watching, before they too are absorbed—
Watching them entomb his little brother, watching them draw up the seals and the instructions to pass down to future generations—Shen Wei thought that he had already grieved his dìdi’s loss, but not like this. This was worse than loss. It was one perfect moment of joy and hope on a muddy mountainside twisted into endless despair. So many desperate dreams, so much carefully nurtured hope that he might see his beloved brother again—and then Shen Wei was faced with Ye Zun. A shattered man who refused to talk or listen, who refused to do anything but reach for power now denied him.
Before finally containing him, the alliance had kept him carefully locked away in the chambers that once had been the Hallows’ birthplace. But even behind solid doors Ye Zun’s waking moments spread terror among those around him. Every time, the same panic—”Lord Black Cloak! Envoy, please come, it’s the Hallows Thief, he’s—” and Shen Wei going to quell it, pitting his own gifts against those his brother had managed to steal along with the Hallows’ powers.
—the figure in white is stirring now, while another lies still and empty next to him. The legs crowd in, joined by hands as they reach down and smile and bow and scrape. Lord Ye Zun. Boss. He is awake—
With Ye Zun being Zei Qiu’s heir in power and ambition, it was too dangerous to let any in Dixing come near him, even contained and entombed. If he gathered people to his cause—well, they had all seen what death and devastation would follow such a man.
And so, when the time came to complete the work, Shen Wei knew what he must do. As the older brother, this had always been his responsibility. With his own hand, he laid down the final seal on Ye Zun’s living tomb, and then added one more for himself.
Those who had known what Shen Wei intended could not persuade him to change his mind, just as he had been unable to change theirs. His people could do without his blade, in this coming age of peace. And he would have been a poor leader if he couldn’t trust them with the treaty—trust them to act in Dixing’s best interest in his absence. Shen Wei would stay, to make sure Ye Zun didn’t break the fragile peace. Didn’t claim any more Dixing lives. That would be enough. Time passing would help, eventually. The terrible energy trapped inside Ye Zun would fade infinitesimally with each turning of the seasons.
And yet when Shen Wei did as he must, there was no peace in the thought of that long sleep. Not when he did not know how long he was leaving the world for—not when he could not say if he would emerge before Kunlun returned. Shen Wei would never have refused this self-imposed duty—this one and only thing he could do for his brother. But his last thought before time fell away was of Kunlun believing Shen Wei had broken his promise, and as Shen Wei closed his eyes, his heart was heavy with grief.
Shen Wei slept for ages—slept, and dreamed, and kept sleeping. When Ye Zun stirred, Shen Wei woke, and pulled them both back under. Generations came and went. His brother’s crime was slowly forgotten. The Black-Cloaked Envoy’s legend remained. And one day, Dixing’s need became so great that they broke the irreplaceable seal that held him. Dixing’s powerful and desperate came for him, and asked for his help, and Shen Wei went.
—Is that what is happening? Is it time to wake, to go find what has happened to the world, and what Ye Zun says now to words of peace and reconciliation? Shen Wei can’t remember, but he feels the imprint of a Hallow’s power in the air.
Instinctively, he goes to quell it—Sleep, dìdi, sleep—and maybe just as instinctively Ye Zun strikes at Shen Wei with everything he has. Which is his full power, newly restored, along with the shining Dial in his hand. A killing blow, and Shen Wei can do nothing to avoid it.