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Sorrow In Autumn

Chapter Text

 

The nights fell early now that autumn had come to the wide plains. The chill in the air promising a harsh winter, but tonight at least there was no rain. A light breeze danced through the treetops, brushing the tips of the long, wild grasses in the meadow behind the Allies camp.

In daylight it had been beautiful with sweet meadow flowers and the smell of wild grass, with the mountains towering high above them. Though not as high as Da Huang Mountain he was sure. The legendary place of magnificent pines, healing hot springs and waterfalls...righteous heroes and ancient tribes.

The birthplace of Lord Kunlun, king of Shangbei.

Tonight was a night for celebration and Shen Wei felt mellow and warm, stretched out amid the grasses with only the stars as their witness. They listened to the wind and the constant chatter of the cicadas, watching the torches in the distance, the smoke and flickering flames of the small fires back in the camp, just noticeable over the ridge.

It would be the first time they could rest in weeks, with no crisis to manage, no battle strategy to master or a dawn raid to command. Their enemy had over stretched themselves and their forces, leaving this area barely protected. It had not been particularly difficult to use the resources of the Allies and the willingness of the men and women sworn to fight, to free those held captive in another of the temporary prisons. The Dixingian Army had risen to the challenge and with Allies, they had triumphed.

Together with Kunlun, he had led a sizable force, siphoning them into smaller groups to move them past the watching forces, on the Western front. Buoyed by past victories, they followed and in three days had destroyed nine of the enemy's outposts. Thirty one enemy prisoners were now held captive and many more had died at the hands of the army and Shen Wei himself.

Behind them, over the ridge and into the camp, the Allies were having a riotous celebration with music and dancing. He could vaguely hear the lyrics and guessed the song was one of the more traditional Yashou dances.

He smiled in the darkness at the light rustle beside him and focuses his attention on the man lying beside him.

Lord Kunlun. A man of legend and glory in his own right.

 Long dark hair flowed down a strong back, a lean body born from  years of  martial training and war sprawled over his own


Long dark hair flowed down a strong back, a lean body born from years of martial training and war sprawled over his own. A face of chiseled beauty, with a full mouth framed by a short neatly trimmed beard. The sweet, fierce joy of it steals his breath. All he cherishes in this life is lying in his arms, docile for now but he has no doubt that in a few minutes more, Kunlun will be thinking of the bed they could be sharing. In a tent away from prying eyes.

His fingers lovingly play with the intricate beads woven into his hair, rejoicing in the warm weight resting against his side and he smiles too in love for words, when those eyes of obsidian stared up at him. Kunlun huffs a laugh and Shen Wei thinks to himself, this is what he will die for.

As the less favored son, he had been sent to war at fifteen. Thrown into a world of hardship and never ending battle, with letters sent through the war effort lines, back to the Imperial Palace. Each missive carefully worded, a report veiled as a letter from a son to his mother.

His twin wrote long letters in reply, twisting his heart as each one was filled with his little brother's pain. War then grievous injury had returned his sensitive brother to the Palace, where he was groomed as the successor to the throne. A role he thought, that suited his Didi. Clever, kind and yet ruthless when he chose a course of action...Ye Zun would be a proud Emperor one day, when their mother passed.

He often thought of her, out here in the plains miles from Dixing. She had married an Emperor, a man who ruled with an iron fist. She sat at his side, guiding his hand and gave him twin sons a year after they married. Beautiful, cunning and wise, his mother was truly the Mother of an Nation.

 Beautiful, cunning and wise, his mother was  truly the Mother of  an Nation

 


His father's death had meant a new ruler. His father's half-brother who thought nothing of exiling the Empress and both of her sons to the outer regions. Plague had killed him within five years and his mother, ruthless in her scheming had paved the way for her own succession. She suppressed political revolts and used both of her children to create stability, declaring herself ruler until one of her sons was fit and of age.

Stability was what the nation craved and the court however much they might loathe his mother, needed an Emperor in name, to keep afloat. Ye Zun would soon be Emperor and this had placated the traditionalists, who were well aware that plague had taken the lives of nearly all of the royal family. There was no one else if his mother did not rule and in the middle of a war, they needed that leadership.

It had helped he thought, that his mother's cunning mind had brought them to this point. A warrior with foxfire eyes, did the rest. Victory would not be his mother's glory. It would be Kunlun's.

The war with Southern Haixing had dragged on for seventeen years, displacing thousands of innocent people. The death toll was staggering and victory short lived. Ghost General. That was the name they gave him, after carving a way through the enemy defenses, relentless and fierce.

He would have died three weeks ago, if not for Kunlun. The moment they met, when Kunlun's forces engaged the enemy with greater numbers, the rage of the 'barbarian' tribes overwhelming the front-lines. Kunlun had fired the arrow that had saved his life, ending the enemy General as he stood over Shen Wei.

All he wanted in return was a smile.

A small animal likely a fox darted through the trees, but Shen Wei kept one hand on his saber should it prove a human threat to Kunlun. When nothing else stirred he relaxed back into the grass.

Here there was no time, in this endless moment with only the moon above them. The ink black of the vast world above them, glittering with the light of the stars was well worth the chill in the air.

He watched as Kunlun reached out and plucked one of the grasses, twisted and broken from being used as a makeshift bed. He twirled it as if it was a knife, his smile bright and amused. Shen Wei pulled the cloak back over them both before the chill could reach tender skin.

As he shifted, their bared skin slid together and a shiver of arousal never fully banked stirred in Shen Wei. He felt the slightest sting from the marks Kunlun had left down his hips and thighs, lingering bruises long gone by tomorrow, an impression of teeth on his inner thigh that Shen Wei loved.

The air was cold but he could still smell the scent of sex over the grasses and the green bamboo that clung to Kunlun's skin.

Callused hands picked the loose grasses from Kunlun's long wild hair and he pressed a kiss to one shoulder, partially bared to show off Shen Wei's own marks. Here, in this moment there was no war. Beneath the shade of this old tree, hidden by the grasses and the moon that dipped in and out of the clouds, they were in their own world.

A world of no pain, no loss and only the beat of Kunlun's heart mattered to him here.

Kunlun lay back leaving his side to stare up at the sky, those foxfire depths staring into the darkness as if searching for something. Without his fur-lined jerkin his neck was bare, robes untied as the scent of them hovered in the air. For months, the sight of his collar, the lapels loose and unfolded in way that the courtiers would find indecent, with the way it exposed his elegant collarbones and a hint of his chest...it had driven him to distraction far too many times.

Shen Wei turned onto his side, staring down at the face of the man who had inspired an army, pulled them from the ashes to forge a new future. Kunlun appeared in his world when he stood at his lowest, dreading another battle where more of his men would die. Almost single-handed with vision and a fire burning in his soul that mesmerized Shen Wei, Kunlun had pulled him and the rest of them, from despair's depths to the greatest triumph; a end to the war and the beginning of peace.

"Shěn Wéi." He said to sky, drawing out the syllables, the second tone in his voice sounding more like the mountains, it was to represent. The Shen family before they were rulers had been a mountain people, until Shen Bo brought together a rebellion four hundred years ago. Together written his name meant mountain ghost an irony since he was in love with a man from towering peaks in the North.

"No," Kunlun said to the stars with a raised finger, "I really think Wéi is weak. The Ghost King of the battlefield is so strong!"

It was Kunlun so Shen Wei simply blinked at him. If Kunlun thought his name was weak, then it was. Ye Zun would have been offended, the hint that he was shaming his ancestors too vile not to lash out. His mother would have been equally offended, a name given by his father the former Emperor.

"How about...I add more strokes to the character?"

Baffled, Shen Wei tilted his head to stare at his love. "More strokes?" He asked disbelievingly.

"Ah yes." Kunlun tucked his arms behind is head, his chest stretching with the movement catching Shen Wei's complete attention for a moment, before he looked into amused obsidian eyes. "The world is made up of water and mountains," He said his hand stroking the air for emphasis.

"Those towering endless mountains are like out life journeys. We have to move forward with out burdens on our shoulders," He looked at Shen Wei almost sadly, "With no end in sight."

Shen Wei stared at him breathlessly. Bewitched by those eyes and the kiss-bitten red of his mouth, his words resonating in his chest like the chords of a guqin.

"How about," Kunlun said again, "Shěn..."

Oh how he loved the way that voice wrapped around his name, the syllables conforming to Kunlun's will as his body had minutes ago.

"Wēi". The first tone was followed by his finger rising into the air. "How is it?"

Shen Wei looked at Kunlun's braided hair and said "Shěn...Wēi." Kunlun's voice joined his with a smile and he laughed softly.

"Since it's the name given by Kunlun," He said with a soft laugh of his own, his eyes shining. "Of course I love it."

"From today onward," Whether his family agreed or not, "My name is...Shěn Wēi." Again Kunlun said the first tone with him, a gentle finger pointed at him.

"It's a fitting name for an Emperor." Kunlun said with a smile.

"I don't want to Emperor." He refuted with a laugh.

No. He wanted to leave this war behind him when peace finally came to this land. He could see it now, the end of the war, the disarmament and the shaky first steps of quiet. He imagined leaving the Palace and traveling to the North.

One of his earliest memories was of seeing his mother sitting beside and slightly lower than then Emperor, whose face he could barely recall. He wanted that. To sit at Kunlun's side, his Chieftain's side and join the tribe who had welcomed him into their midst, uncaring he was a Royal Prince.

He yearned for the peace, the quiet of the mountain and the honest hard-working care of the people who looked at Kunlun as their leader. He could learn healing from the Yashou and spend each and every day with Kunlun.

Kunlun rolled over and leaned into him, propped on one elbow. Shen Wei's hands came up immediately to cradle that thin waist and caress his ribs, sighing as Kunlun's thigh intentionally rubbed against his own. "I have something you might want then," He said with that beautiful smile.

"You?" He asked innocently, offering himself, all of him to his mountain Chieftain, parting his legs so Kunlun to slide in-between. Heat was building in his core, want fanning the flames.

Kunlun pulled something from his pocket and held his closed fist above his head. His eyes were dark, gentle and almost nervous...but that could not be. Kunlun was fearless, with words and with actions.

The fist opened slightly and a pendant fell to dangle from one strong finger. "....This comes from my mother's necklace."

It was an orb of fire, brilliant warm jade sculpted into a sphere held by silver and leather. Flames seem to flash in the precious stone, and Shen Wei's hand rose to touch the surface, warm from Kunlun's heat.

"I want you to have it." Kunlun said softly. "Wear it for me?"

A symbol of belonging, something for him to wear and carry a piece of his love for all time. Yes. He wanted to say, forever and always but a tingling sensation came over him, darkness receding.

In panic he clutched Kunlun closer, never wanting to leave. "Kunlun!"

His eyes snapped open to autumn dawn, a soldier awoken by a noise he vaguely recognized. The sun was invisible behind the curtains, throwing the room into shadow, but frantically his hand searched the bed for Kunlun, feeling for his phantom warmth and that intoxicating scent.

He was alone.

The bed was cold and lingering on the pillow was the faint scent of bamboo.

Pain exploded in his chest as it always did, singing along his nerves with the bitter truth that for the moment at least Kunlun was gone his grasp.

Grief held him in a vise grip and he closed his eyes against the unwanted burn of tears.

Blinking to chase away the vestiges of sleep, Shen Wei sat up gazing round the wide bed, seeing the vague outline of his indigo embroidered covers and the wide curtains around the bed frame. The silk was cool to the touch and only his long years of wartime training kept the crushing disappointment from his face.

Beyond the curtain, still bowing was Wu Tian'en, the quiet head of his Imperial household, come to wake him for the morning court session.

"Your Majesty, your appearance is begged in court." Old Wu said formally.

"I will be there in a moment." Shen Wei said directly, his tone brooking no argument. The shadows hid the tears threatening to fall, not that he would allow them, allow the break in his composure.

The grief was raw and heavy in his in his chest, tightening his throat even as he pulled his white silk inner robes aside, to caress the yellow jade pendant nestled between his collarbone. Just above his heart.

Kunlun. Where are you?

 

Chapter Text

 

The decisions you make in the blink of an eye can have the greatest consequence.

No one understood that as well as Shen Wei.

Every year he made sure the entire nation of Dixing recognized and celebrated the three days in the middle of autumn. It was marked by festivals and a spiritual ceremony in every town and city.

He called this time the Memory of Peace with three days of reflection and three nights of festival. Half ongoing memorial for all those lost and partly a celebration of heroism, nationalism and peace. For him more than anything, it was a chance to honor Kunlun.

They would celebrate this together with the joy and resonating grief that the occasion demanded. Thousands of families had lost loved ones over a war spanning seventeen years, their homes and often the village of their birth. Hundreds had been reunited on the famous Flame Bridge, families torn apart like Old Wu and his son Wú Xiǎojūn who had returned wounded but alive.

Lanterns would be lit and candles carried by a procession through the main thoroughfare to the temple. Songs would be sung along the rivers and paper arts would decorate the streets. Colorful and bold like Kunlun himself at night, but tempered by sorrow during the day.

It was his passion that everything Kunlun sacrificed and bled for was celebrated and most importantly...honored. Shangbei had a similar ceremony and the Gates at sunset would glow with ancient power, the stones displaying a riot of colors.

He had appointed Minister Jiang for the task, a man who had lost a great deal in the war and so far he had been pleased with the results. Kunlun would have laughed at the determination Shen Wei was showing. All to honor both him and Dixing's sacrifice.

How he missed that laugh.

Sighing where no one could hear him, the current Emperor of Dixing stepped into the East garden, trailing a hand over the petals of the fragrant flowers, his black robes gliding along the swept walkways, to the pavilion guarded by weeping willows, viridian bamboo and an ancient natural pond.

He crossed the bridge with the light of the stars and the glowing lanterns, knowing full well that the guards and spies were watching. Laughable considering that he held more power in his hand than the enemies that might attack. But, his feet still hesitated as he stood before the curving pavilion decorated with stone tigers and phoenixes.

Not out of fear, but to take a moment to brace his heart.

Dipping gracefully at the waist he crossed the circular doorway and held his breath.

In the center of the pavilion was a beautiful statue of a man. Kunlun looked out over the pond, his face pensive and so perfectly sculpted in the finest bronze, in the dim light he looked real. Shen Wei raised a gentle hand and caressed the perfect eyes, tracing a finger over the full mouth with grief burning in his heart.

 Shen Wei raised a  gentle hand and caressed the perfect eyes, tracing a finger over the  full mouth with grief burning in his heart

He looked fierce, regal and reflective, but the sculptor had captured his youth well. Zhang Shi, the name on the scroll when the statue had been presented to him, was talented after all and he often wondered who this artist was, that could capture that unique face so well. Wondered if he was a soldier who had sat across a campfire with Kunlun, because this detail was more than a simple portrait could provide.

Here he stood; handsome, slender and tall, with upright shoulders that carried tribe and soldier alike, thick eyebrows over deep eye sockets, a foxfire gaze and a high nose. Zhang Shi had sculpted him in his traditional tribal dress, with beads in his long rich hair.

Shen Wei ran his fingertips over the slight waves in the long dark hair, that framed his face. The texture was almost perfect, each line almost lovingly carved.

In his arms was Da Qing. A plump black cat rendered into bronze with his beloved cat bells resting on Kunlun's right hand.

There was a second statue in the grand courtyard, a dragon curling around a rearing horse also in bronze, commemorating peace and the sacrifice of the Allies. This was his.

He rarely came here, the pain far too great.

No one truly understood why the anniversary of the peace accord was a three day celebration and few would question.

Shen Wei, fearless General and proud Dixingian swept out a hand shifting his robes as he knelt before Kunlun. This statue was in honor of the Chieftain, and Shen Wei would kneel as a proper supplicant at Kunlun's knee and worship him. A man he gave all of himself to, a man he would spend the rest of his days searching for.

No, no one truly understood.

For all his power, he had failed.

The furthest Eastern border of Dixing was a land of meadows and rising cliffs. It met the Shangbei border at the foot of a mountain pass with the gateways heavily shielded by Kunlun's people. In the realm beyond those hidden gates, the Yashou lived with the Northern tribes protected within the Yashou Realm.

Many said that this central realm was where the original Haixing lay. Kunlun's tribe protected the gates and the realm which was why it had been vital to form an Alliance with the mysterious mountain people. That and the newly reformed Shangbei was either a powerful ally or a terrible threat.

The Lord Guardian of the Gates was its king, a thing unheard of - and he commanded the ancient tribes, with the bounty of fertile land, ancient knowledge and a large population. Kunlun's army was unmatched with a cunning, resourceful strategist at its head.

There was a trio of gates that had been hidden for centuries. Mai Gui and a reluctant Kunlun conceived a plan to enter the gates using Kunlun's power, to reach the land beyond the valley of the sun, where it met the border of South Haixing. The Haixing forces they opposed had taken Northern land and this place, where the three lands met was the place where the peace deal was born.

A village in the middle of the war, untouched before the bloody fighting came to them

A village in the middle of the war, untouched before the bloody fighting came to them. The Hanga.

The people of the Hanga village rose up against their chieftain and slaughtered his family, siding ultimately with South Haixing. The new Chieftain Sang Zan made a deal with the General Huang Chaoyang who naturally betrayed the boy within a week.

The Chieftain's daughter knew Kunlun and she fled with Sang Zan's help. She warned them of the trap but it was too late. When the Allies came through the pass on the way to the South Haixing border, General Huang Chaoyang attacked.

On the first day, their forces had been nearly overwhelmed by the enemy unprepared as they were. In the middle of the fight, Kunlun and Da Qing had been cornered. His warrior was reckless and brilliant. The enemy walked into his trap and had no idea how proficient Kunlun was with a celestial whip, a cursed dao and his unique talismans.

Initially Shen Wei harbored no doubt that Kunlun would win, watching Da Qing from the corner of his eye slashing down a spearman, but then he saw the archers over the ridge.

He did not remember moving, or screaming Kunlun's name. He remembered the pain, flinging his arms wide in front of Kunlun, his pudao ending the life of five assailants even as he fell. A firecracker in his chest as the arrow hit home and stumbling back into Kunlun, choking on his own blood.

He remembered Kunlun's horror, the way his eyes seemed to fill with tears and rage. The way he dove in snatching Shen Wei's blade to kill the General and so many of his men. He remembers falling to the ground when Kunlun's hands no longer held him.

Lying there watching Kunlun, in all his fierce glory. Dying for you is a blessing.

On the second day he woke only briefly, to the frightened eyes of Wang Zheng. In a time in between night and day, he was cradled in Kunlun's arms, heard his harsh tones and brittle words. His fear. He could smell leather and blood, felt the solid weight of his love, the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, pressed as he was to Kunlun's waist.

It had taken too long for him to realize Kunlun was sitting with him all but sprawled in his lap. It hurt, his chest ached and the very idea that he was here with Kunlun was enough to numb some of the pain, if not the strange heat that burned his skin.

"Is it summer?" He asks, wondering how they came to be in the humid climate of East Dixing. Where they had been exiled once.

"No Xiao Wei. You have a fever." Kunlun answered brushing a kiss on his forehead.

Not even a wound to the chest could stop him reaching for Kunlun. Seeking to soothe, to help. "Yunlan..." 

Foxfire eyes gleamed in the darkness. "Hush my own. Rest."

He resisted but pain and fever held him in its clawed grasp and he was thankful Kunlun was unhurt, fighting sleep but fell back into fevered nightmares, tucking his face into Kunlun's side.

Kunlun won the battle but they were caught with the South Haixing forces just over the rise standing between them and the gateways. He had no idea at the time, but Kunlun had already received news that the Empress was dead.

They carried him to the river right through enemy lines and Kunlun somehow got his hands on a boat. He pressed a letter in Wang Zheng's hands and demanded Chu Shuzhi take him back to the capital. With the Empress dead, the fate of Ye Zun unknown...Dixing needed a king and Kunlun needed him to be safe.

He woke from fever dreams to the rocking of the boat, the pain sapping his energy. Kunlun was in the water, looking down at him from the rim of the boat. He caressed Shen Wei's face.

"Kunlun?" He croaked, throat betraying him as he found the strength to clutch a thin forearm that belied the strength of that arm. He found his hand and tried to move closer. "Kunlun."

Da Qing patted him gently and leapt from the boat, disappearing out of sight. A boat. He struggled to make sense of this new reality and clutched Kunlun. "What is happening?"

"I love you Shen Wei." Kunlun said softly. "Whatever decision you make Xiao Wei...don't regret it."

"Kunlun? Where are we going?" He asks again seeing the night sky and the water dripping off Kunlun's face. "Why...?"

Kunlun kissed him deeply and all the rational thought he held onto vanished, "Xiao Wei."

He didn't see his arm rise, but felt power hit the boat sending him falling back and Kunlun stepped away pulling himself free. Agony in his eyes and his mouth trembled, but he continued to walk backwards. "Go Shen Wei. Save Dixing!"

Shen Wei dragged himself up, fighting to free himself. Chu Shuzhi grabbed him and Shen Wei screamed, "Kunlun!"

His last sight of him, knee deep in dark water on the banks of the river, eyes as dark as black diamonds, sorrowful determination in every line of his beautiful form.

"Kunlun!"

Power encased the boat and he couldn't get free, the water pulling the boat downstream with his most loyal men and Wang Zheng.

Kunlun turned away and walked to the shore.

On the third day, the elite of the Southern Haixing forces vanished. Without a trace, without a word. No corpses, no sign of further battle scarring the mountain. The gateways invisible, Shen Wei could only wonder what Kunlun had done.

South Haixing without a ruler or the rest of their forces gave up. They agreed to peace and Shen Wei wanted blood for his mother and brother, for the people they slaughtered...but for Kunlun he signed the deal and agreed to armistice.

Now there was another anniversary and Kunlun was gone from this world.

 

Chapter Text

There were moments when he wished for more time.

For those golden moments with smiling obsidian eyes and that rich laugh to exist for all eternity. For just another few minutes, giving him enough time to spare some of his men, or save some of the innocents caught in the middle of a war.

For his time in the Palace to fly by faster still, so he could return to the front. For his brother's life, to have lasted years more. For the explosion to have happened just minutes later than it did, so his mother and Ye Zun could have escaped unharmed. For time to be on his side of this conflict just once...for the gift of controlling time. For the chance to save Kunlun.

Days like today dragged on, with the invincible march of time.

It had been ten years.

A decade of mourning, every step weighted with grief and pain that wound around his heart with the chains of loss. The unfathomable idea that Kunlun could be truly gone from his world and yet, Shen Wei refused to believe he was dead.

The pain had become a shadow, the ache of loss bleeding into every action and the memory of Kunlun defining his choices. He had rebuilt the Dixing nation with Kunlun in mind, refusing to follow the tainted footsteps of his ancestors, in favor of creating a world Kunlun would have been proud of. Anything else would be a betrayal.

The autumn seemed colder this year, the skies echoing his mood as the grey clouds gathered above the wide polished steps of the Dixingian Palace.

His expression was hidden from the gathering before him, concealed by the black mask he wore in preference to the beaded curtain, that never failed to remind him of Ye Zun.

The black ceremonial robes he wore lay heavy on his skin. They were embroidered with the dark blue flowers of Dixing down his chest and he could so easily imagine Kunlun grinning at the symbolism, as clever fingers followed the pattern. There was gold brocade decorating the collar, while white tigers curled around the belt and flames ran around the hem in gold thread. Pressed near the hollow of his throat hidden by the robe collar, his jade pendant felt warm. His single comfort.

His hair had been carefully braided, the crown of Dixing secured not by his father's gold pin as Ye Zun had chosen, but by an exquisite white jade hairpin crafted in Shangbei, finished with silver. Three jade charms dropped from the end of the pin on intricate chains. One was the flower of Dixing, a pair of magpies twinned in flight and the third was a tiny cat.

Kunlun had pinned it into his hair one night, on his birthday hours after a battle had ended with Shen Wei's bandaged shoulder. Unhappy lips had pressed kiss after kiss to his chest as callused hands threaded through his hair and by candlelight they had made love, his heart overflowing at the handmade gift. He remembers opening the box, stroking the long elegant pin, that was heavier than fashion dictated...remembers ordering them to make whatever changes to the crown they needed, to make this pin fit.

Remembers the first time it had perfectly held the crown. No riches could compare to what Kunlun made him feel.

If he had to wear a crown, he would carry it with the gift crafted by Kunlun's hands.

He needed those memories as the world came to Dixing, in a flood of dignitaries and barely settled feuds. They came from the Provinces of Dixing, and from the lands beyond their borders.

Envoys, delegates and the leaders of the Allies were now gathered in the Golden Autumn Palace, to commemorate the ten year anniversary of peace. Dixing had opened its dark doors to the visiting emissaries, ensuring that the official three days of the Memory of Peace ceremony were spent with the best of Dixingian hospitality.

The representatives from Shangbei arrived first, through a portal that opened in the pre-determined area. The journey from the center of Shangbei to Dixing would have taken months even at top speed, a feat that Shen Wei considered ridiculous much to the dismay of his court.

The king of Shangbei who had replaced Kunlun, had sent Lady Bao Yixin as his main representative. As the Chieftain of the Syn Qing and one of Kunlun's top allies, she was an excellent diplomat and had a fondness for Dixing...and Chu Shuzhi to be exact. 

Such an excellent man, she had once said to Kunlun's amusement.

This stunning, elegant woman in her traditional grey and white robes, had red jewels suspended in her hair and Kunlun's shield embroidered on her sleeves. She was a powerful cultivator who had fought to great distinction against Southern Haixing and proudly wore the medal Shen Wei had given her, for saving an entire Dixingian regiment.

She bowed respectfully at the top of the steps and her attendants, some from the Syn Qing and others he noted from the Xunxi presented the king's gift in the form of ten tribute boxes.

He greeted her warmly, but he froze  slightly, when he saw Chieftain Zhu Hong of the Da  Huang Tribe, as the second representative

He greeted her warmly, but he froze slightly, when he saw Chieftain Zhu Hong of the Da Huang Tribe, as the second representative. Beloved by the new king of Shangbei, she was the daughter of the Snake Clan, a niece to Fourth Uncle but her mother had been of the mountain people and Kunlun had favored her.

She had long been in love with Kunlun, not that he blamed her and her heart belonged to another now. A truce had lain between them for years, two souls mourning for one man. He wondered what he would think of them now. One now a Emperor, the other now a Chieftain. Both living for his pride in them.

Her dark hair was swept up in the traditional style of the mountains, a Snake headdress of white jade and gold complimenting her red and white robes. She smiled nervously, her tribe something of a curse thanks to all they had done, but forgiveness had cleansed the old wounds years ago. He greeted her gently and thanked her for coming.

She was unused to this much scrutiny but bowed with perfect grace, her wide eyes beaming when she looked at the Empress, the sadness melting away for just a few minutes, when the Empress warmly welcomed her. He nearly laughed when he saw that she had brought Lin Jing, who tripped nine steps up and imagined Old Chu's sigh.

The dignitaries from Southern Haixing, thankfully not including Zhao Xin Ci, had arrived that morning and were welcomed graciously by the Emperor and his Empress, standing so impressively on the high steps leading up the Palace. Gracious...but no one doubted that the Ghost General's hospitality was hinged on respectful behavior, especially with his famed black dao at his hip, frost tracing stunning patterns around his feet.

Da Qing snorted in his memory. "They look like someone stole their last fish."

Kunlun grinned. "The last fish and the wine."

Members from the Yashou tribes had arrived first, bringing tradition and brilliant color to the gathering, greeting the Dixingian groups with honest affection, thanks in part to the trade deal he had negotiated five years back. They brought offerings for the ceremony and various gifts in his honor, greeting him with smiles as they passed up the steps.

It had been strange to witness Lady Fu You, leader of the Snake Clan at the top of the steps. She had unified the Yashou tribes in the war and had fearlessly led raids with little chance of survival. For years she had been a comrade and now in these peaceful times, she often wrote to him as a friend. Standing in the traditional embroidered robes of the Snake Clan, she bowed to them, her smile faintly sad. "Fourth Uncle has brought fruit wine." She said after their greeting.

"We will talk later." He promised, holding her thin hands with both of his own. "It is good to see you."

Fu You nodded, reminding him of long nights in the war tent, her voice strident as they planned the next conflict. She was still the warrior of yesterday no matter that her robes were vibrant and her hair was braided with the pretty pink and green threads he remembered. "Thank you. We have much to talk about."

Worry had burned in his heart since their letter a fortnight ago, but he simply bowed and then turned to welcome Ying Chun gliding ahead of her attendants. The leader of the Flower Tribe beamed at him happily, her dress a vivid blue wreathed with peonies and her hair was crowned in flowers from all over the Yashou lands. She handed the Empress, the flowers of the East and bowed to them. "It is a blessing to see you both so well! Many blessings on your marriage and family."

Ya Qing beside her was as stunning as ever in her flowing Crow Tribe robes, her crown of feathers glinting in the sunlight, repeated regally, "Many blessings."

The Middle States were city states occupying a region between Southern Haixing and Dixing, with uneasy ties to both of the warring parties. Most of them had joined the Allies during the war and now arrived with Lord Mai Gui in the front, beaming with honest pleasure to see them.

This was a surprise. Ma Gui was the Lord Guardian now. The keeper and protector of the free realms. But he had, Shen Wei thought with a smile, been the central leader of the Allies with Lady Fu You.

His robes a forest green, with the Chongsheng Clan fanning out behind him, offering their own tribute. To Shen Wei's delight, there on his sleeves was also the Kunlun shield, embroidered in black thread. 

 

Once the representatives from the former warring states were settled, Dixing threw a lavish official banquet in the Starlight Hall, as the noon sun broke through the clouds.

As Emperor, Shen Wei sat on the raised blue stone platform with the most valued guests seated just before him. The Empress sat at his side, her grace and beauty enviable as she welcomed the emissaries. Her long hair had been intricately braided, adorned with vivid blue Dixingian flowers and a complex gold hairpiece. She was resplendent in her royal blue robes and everything his mother would have loathed.

He knew she felt the weight of the ten years, they had mourned. Her smile never reached her eyes, but her performance was exquisite.

It was hard to believe that he had been Emperor for longer than either of his parents had held onto power. The winds of chaos had finally settled down and the policies that defined his rule, had been set into stone, with support from most of the court.

The Black Cloaked Envoy was a symbol of stability in the eyes of the people, a hero who fixed the economy and brought peace with the help of the Allies. The steady hands that have shaped and guided Dixing into a new era of prosperity.

The Empress was the true flower of Dixing, standing at his side through conflict and peace. Even those who had openly disliked his choice, could find no fault in her charm, in her sweet elegance or her steadfast loyalty.

The Imperial court however, struggled. They were not used to a Emperor, who gave orders and actually listened. A strategist, a diplomat and a heartbroken man with a vision. The Palace soon learned that unlike Ye Zun, Shen Wei could not be rattled, convinced or beguiled. Nor could his Empress be used against him as she held no ambition beyond continuing his rule.

These days they were divided into those loyal to his mother and those who chafed under her leadership. Those who served with him to distinction, like Chu Shuzhi and healer Cheng Xinyan, he had promoted to high positions guaranteeing loyalty.

Shen Wei held too much power and had the backing of the court, whether they liked him personally or not. He held a remarkable understanding of conduct and had no patience for foolishness. He was devoted to the welfare of the people and wielded politics with deftness. He was too popular with their people and he was a hero of the war. Try as they might he had not gone down easily or died from an assassination attempt.

He was a war General, whose early years were spent as a exile, a son of the former Emperor Shen. As a youth he spent little time in the Palace as his mother consolidated power, fought off the claims of various surviving nobles and paid off her debts to those who aided her. At fifteen he was on a war-front that they had been losing well before his boots first touched a battlefield.

Here, at this honored gathering that should have been a glorious night, their two hearts rang hollow.

Music and the finest dancers put on an elaborate display, that Kunlun would have been delighted by. He could see him clearly laughing and clapping at the traditional knife dance or at the flute solo near the end of the banquet.

"Not as good as my Xiao Wei." He would say with a wink.

Southern Haixing's emissaries seemed to struggle with the heat of their preferred flavors, much to his own petty amusement. He had generously invited them to try his own favorites, Mianyang Sanzheng and pearl fish balls in broth. They were the dishes he would have offered Kunlun.

His love had a weak stomach for his all his natural intensity and disliked heavy spice.

Everyone knew that Emperor Shen preferred a good steamboat; the spicy red broth of his childhood, pungent enough to bring tears to ones eyes. Chu Shuzhi personally thought they got off lightly with the fish soup.

He watched amused as Lord Mai Gui shared wine with Chu Shuzhi and he smiled at the noodle dishes that he had requested with Kunlun in mind. Lady Fu Yu of the Flower tribe seemed taken with the famous Wensi  tofu, smiling gently at Mai Gui from across the table.

A love affair that never was. Kunlun had always hoped it would blossom, especially after the war, but so far neither had married.

Shen Wei lifted the soup spoon, but he tastes nothing of the highly spiced broth as he tried to think of what peace had brought them, rather than what it had cost them all.

-----

After the  celebratory luncheon, Shen Wei quickly changed from his ceremonial robes  and invited Mai Gui and Fu Yu to the Palace of Six Phoenixes, to the  four rooms he had taken as his private study

After the celebratory luncheon, Shen Wei quickly changed from his ceremonial robes, in the official quarters of the Emperor. The attendants who aided him in preparing for court, worked quickly, removing the heavy layers and royal jewels, allowing him to leave  in Dixingian blue and grieving white.

Although not protocol, he invited the former leaders of the Allies to join him across the vast complex, to the Palace of Six Phoenixes, away from prying eyes and eavesdropping spies.

The ceremony was continuing with a lantern festival as sunset swept across the land and guided tours around the rebuilt city. There was a small concert and wine tasting, with his loyal eyes and ears keeping careful track of everyone, to make sure no one realized the former Allied leaders were slipping away.

Lin Jing was on a food tour with Hao Shuang, the musician he was enamored with, and Zhu Hong had been roped into joining Fourth Uncle at the concert, along with the emissaries from South Haixing... and possibly the entire Yashou gathering. She would be occupied with the Empress as well, who had invited several famous poets and singers.  Most of his Imperial Court were detained at different events and the Emperor was not expected to return to the main festivities for an hour, to begin the final part of the welcome..

The Royal Guard made sure that no one noticed the two traveling from the main guest quarters to the more secluded Palace, further into the vast palace lands. Chu Shuzhi, also absent from the festivities, personally ushered the former Allies chiefs through the maze of corridors to the Inner Garden, where it was easier to access the Palace of Six Phoenixes. Easier in the garden to lose spies and any curious onlookers keen to spread gossip. Fewer still wanted to chance Old Chu's rage.

And he doubted they wanted to risk getting lost in the confusing, twisting pathways of the Imperial Dragon City complex.

It had been built over a century ago by the earlier Shen dynasty, by one of the wealthier if more eccentric kings, but remained unfinished until his reign began. To his knowledge,  his father had visited once and his brother had never planned on coming here, but today after a little restoration,  it was the grand seat of power his mother had always aimed for.

Combining the austerity of a stronghold and the beautiful craftsmanship Dixing was renowned for, the complex mimicked an arching dragon, guarding the gates of the bustling city beyond its high walls.

When Shen Wei came to power, he had ended the newly begun Dixingian civil war, and pulled the fractured states together as one, but he had little choice but to choose this old complex as his primary base. His mother's palace had burned to the ground and the Lesser Palace was where his twin had breathed his last breath.

A plague and fire damage was infinitely preferable, to the constant reminder of Ye Zun's struggle.

And he was an Emperor of the Shen lineage.

But, for his own sanity, too used to the war tents of the front line and the cavernous base of Yi City, Shen Wei had needed to carve out a space of his own. The constant attention from an army of staff, the lavishly decorated walls and rich furnishings all felt stifling. Shen Wei had spent a lifetime perfecting self-reliance, so struggled in this crafted, rigorously maintained existence.

He needed somewhere he could shut the doors and breathe, where he was not king or general. This haven he found in an old manor, perhaps built to house guests coming to the main palace and ignored all protest, transferring his treasured possessions within a day.

As the months turned to years, he had settled, dividing his time between the official quarters and here... It was not a home, not even close to what he had envisioned with Kunlun...but it was his.

It was sheltered and easily protected by the Royal Guards, but mostly hidden from view by his own power.  It was his sanctuary and few dared to enter. If he was to hear terrible news, let it be here, he thought as he entered through the wide doors.

The main room was a octagon, decorated with rich wood and various pieces of Dixingian art. The circular windows overlooked the East garden and the scent of jasmine drifted in from the ancient vines, heavy with vivid white blooms.

Most of the wide shelves were dedicated to his scrolls, while at the back of the room behind white curtains sat his wide, black lacquered desk. From the main wall hung a tapestry depicting Shangbei, with the mountains of Da Huang in the center and incense burned by the desk. The thin plumes of smoke rising to caress the intricate ceiling.

He greeted them warmly as they arrived,  in his simple black robes, free from mask and artifice, but he searched their faces for any hint of the trouble that beckoned.

"Your letter said that you wished to discuss something of great importance?" He began, knowing full well what it was, but this needed to be said.

Lady Fu You always pragmatic, watched as the silent, efficient servant closed the door behind him, taking away their outer cloaks. She turned back and sighed lightly, while Mai Gui nodded, his face tense. "We have."

"What have you learned?" He asked sharply.

"We feel that it is best if we simply tell you and then explain. We have long been Allies and we feel that we must share this truth with you." Fu You said formally. At his nod she continued, "We have heard from Southern Haixing."

"Zhao Xin Ci is consolidating power once more." Shen Wei said nodding.

"It is more than that." Mai Gui said with a quick glance at Fu You. "They are making claims about Lord Kunlun."

Shen Wei stiffened immediately, his ire rising along with his dark power. It sent a shiver down his spine as he tightened his control, even as the dark beast that enjoyed war, stirred with his anger.

"What claims?" He asked softly, waiting as a viper in the long grasses.

Nervous of his temper as he was of little else, Mai Gui decided to speak plainly. "They are claiming that Kunlun is in fact not his name."

Shen Wei blinked but had little reaction. Fu You frowned, her eyes intent and forbidding, her pupils splitting into long slits with her anger. "Were you aware of this?"

Of the many things he mother had taught him, inevitability was one her main lessons.

War and his mother had taught him that planning ahead and accepting the inevitable was the only way to guarantee survival. She knew that his father had been murdered and accepted that it was inevitable, that her enemies would try for her sons. That strength had guaranteed his survival. This day was not what he envisioned but the consequences were ones he had extensively planned for.

It was time.

Shen Wei held the shards of his heart and took a breath. Oh Kunlun.

"I am aware of it."

His words resonated in the quiet room, across time and battlefields. Even if he had not been aware, at this point in his complete devotion to the man, it would have changed nothing.

Mai Gui's brow lifted incredulously. "You knew?" He looked at Fu You as if asking for answers.

"Why was this information not shared?" Fu You asked, her old irritation surfacing however lightly. "How much else about Kunlun was a lie?"

"It is not a lie!" Shen Wei refuted immediately, lip curled in a snarl, his voice raised to a near shout. The doors opened in another breath, six Dixingian Royal Guard closely following the Imperial Chancellor Chu Shuzhi, blue nets wound around his hands. He had no doubt that Old Chu would end anyone that might attack him and was grateful for his loyalty.

Fu You looked alarmed and Mai Gui stiffened, as if both remembered that this was no war tent or strategy counsel. This was the Palace and his loyalists were determined that his reign would last a full lifetime.

"Your Majesty," Old Chu said with reverence, eying the two Allies carefully.

"An argument among old friends." Shen Wei said without the heat of anger or the warmth of friendship.

The Head of the Guard had served his mother and knew her temper well. He blanched at the familiar expression on her son's face. Chu Shuzhi to his credit, standing beside him simply nodded calmly and bowed.

 Chu Shuzhi to  his credit, standing beside him simply nodded calmly and bowed


"Leave." Shen Wei ordered, throwing up a hand. "There is no danger here."

He waited until they left bowing and the doors were firmly shut. Turning he moved passed his shelves and he guided his old allies through the circular doorway, to the ornate table already set for tea, below the hanging dark energy lanterns.

His dark robes swished around him, temper concealed beneath the deceptively placid expression, but the air in the room had dropped sharply.

"His birth name is Zhao Yunlan." It felt strange and almost traitorous to be saying it aloud. Zhao Yunlan. A precious name whispered in the dark, moaned between writhing bodies and said almost inaudibly on the harsh days, when grief clawed at his throat. More than Kunlun, the name Zhao Yunlan had kept him from the brink of despair and fueled the fire that had rebuilt Dixing.

Ma Gui's eyes were unfathomable, his expression fixed in a neutral mask. Lady Fu You looked focused, her eyes widening fractionally when he confirmed what they already knew. 

"His courtesy name is Kunlun. Given to him by his mother Shen Xi." Shen Wei stated firmly. "His mother was born into a family that has stretched back over centuries. Their first family name, founders of the Da Huang was Kun. It was his right to use the name and so he changed his birth name to Kun Yunlan."

Mai Gui, who had always been close to Kunlun and often gave him free reign despite protests, smiled sadly but offered no protest. "An impossible situation. Thank you for telling us this."

"Is it true then, that he is the son...the only son of Zhao Xin Ci?" Fu You asked lowly. Her eyes fixed on Shen Wei. "Since you know of this, perhaps you could explain it to us."

Shen Wei ignored the silent rebuke, the anger in her tone. It was difficult to speak of these things. Zhao Yunlan had told him in confidence but always said that one day it would come out. Shen Wei could only hope that by taking control of the narrative, he could spare Kunlun's name.

"It would be my pleasure, to correct these errors." Shen Wei said with icy politeness, "Zhao Xin Ci murdered his wife, Shen Xi when Kunlun was ten years old... but I hesitate to offer exact reasons." Shen Wei replied, emphasizing his name and watched as both generals struggled to be surprised that their enemy had killed his Shangbei wife. So many northerners had been murdered at the onset of the 'second war'.

Calling it the second was ridiculous. It was one war really, but the scholars liked to break it into two, as if there had been decades between them, when in fact it was an expansion of the original battlefield.

Southern Haixing had been in conflict with Dixing for seventeen years by the time Shen Wei came to his majority. It raged and slaughtered generations of his people, but it was only when the dynasty of Haxing changed, did the war widen its borders.

Almost overnight through combining the entire region's resources, Southern Haixing doubled its armies and set its sights on conquering the north. Reestablishing Haixing as one massive nation, to destroy Dixing once and for all.

His mother the Empress saw this as the opportunity to help its struggling neighbors. Ye Zun, knowing that Dixing was weakening, losing territory and too many of its people, chose to align Dixing with the Allies of the Middle States. At that point, everyone realized that Northern Haixing had become something new. Something without tie to any of them.

The North was fractured into regions, governed not by kings or sects, but legendary cultivator clans that formed the Nine Tribes, once ruled by a single powerful queen. Once these clans were united by Kunlun, the north marshaled itself into a new nation called Shangbei, with Kunlun as its chosen king.

To Dixing, it was an uncharted world of Immortal weapons, ancient beasts and endless untamed lands. The Tribes were clans with immortal knowledge, secret martial arts, powerful cultivator techniques and the keepers, who held the Gateways. Who knew of secret realms and held knowledge about everything from the underworld to the Forgotten Plains.

Southern Haixing had hoped to crush them individually or convince them to join with them. At that early point before Kunlun, everyone feared that it just might work. After Kunlun took Qiyi, the capital of the Immortals when they still roamed the world, the tide of the war finally turned in their favor.

It was Kunlun who gave them the free world.

So Shen Wei would be damned, if he was going let rumor destroy all Kunlun had achieved. If he let Southern Haixing hurt the greatest hero of this age.

" Kunlun saw it with his own eyes and that day... his father lost all sway over him. He was raised by a clan in the Middle States, until Southern Haixing attacked his home, killing his family. Then he traveled north, where he studied with the Yinran Tribe, with Lord Sha Wei as his shifu."

Mai Gui appeared saddened, staring at his hands as they approached the table but Lady Fu You still watched, waiting like a hawk.

"To answer the obvious question," Shen Wei continued, his tone icy. "His loyalty is entirely to Shangbei and to the Alliance. He is completely estranged from his father and in fact,  had been exiled after his mother's murder."

"To Shangbei?" Mai Gui asked.

Shen Wei knelt before the table, flicking his sleeves to reveal his slim pale hands. In deference to his position, the Treaty or old friendship, they both immediately settled before the table. Mai Gui bowed and offered thanks, to Shen Wei and his ancestors as was tradition in the Middle States. Fu You offered prayer and thanked him, her anger fading to sympathy as he hoped it would.

"No." Calm hands that had once broken the neck of a man aiming for Kunlun's unprotected back, poured three cups of steaming tea, the fragrant scent soothing in the suddenly tension of the room.

Both of these seasoned Generals were kind at heart. They held the lives in their hands closely, willing to do all they could to protect them. He remembered the camaraderie and laughter they shared together. The still and Kunlun's alcohol. The care Fu You showed when she healed Kunlun's broken hand.

"Where was he exiled?" Fu You asked. "How old was he? Not a child surely?"

"It was around the same time as the murder, and it failed when Kunlun escaped. He had by that time already saved Da Qing. They escaped and made their way to the Middle States, aided by a man called Old Li. I believe he was a relative of Shen Xi or her teacher? I am not sure. Kunlun spoke of him warmly."

"Do you mean that..."

"Exactly what are you suggesting?" Shen Wei snapped.

Mai Gui held up his hands. "We are suggesting nothing Your Highness. There were few more loyal to the cause than Kunlun..."

"Without him we would not have won." Shen Wei said flatly.

"Southern Haixing is trying to use this." Fu You said reasonably.

"It would be hard to prove." Shen Wei replied, having waited for this eventuality for a decade. "Zhao Yunlan was exiled as a child, reported to have been killed. As Kunlun, he consolidated the entire North on his own, controlling the nation under one flag by the age of twenty eight. The following year he took lands from Southern Haixing and joined the Allies. There are virtually no records of a Zhao Yunlan."

His spies in South Haixing had searched for them. Peace may stand between them, but Shen Wei did not trust the court of Haixing. His mother had taught him the benefit of a network at a young age.

Fu Yu watched him quietly but Mai Gui nodded, clearly relieved. "Zhao Xin Ci holds a great deal of power, especially over the military. There was no mention of a son."

Shen Wei's spies had told him years ago, that Zhao Xin Ci had been imprisoned before the new dynasty of Haixing, before the so-called second war. Perhaps around the time Shen Xi was killed, but these reports were hard to confirm. The man now, held considerable influence and power of his own. So it wouldn't come as a surprise if he re-wrote the story of his wife's death and conveniently killed off his only child in the narrative as well.

They had underestimated Shen Wei's power and his anger.

"Yet Dixing knew." Fu You said accusingly.

"I knew. Dixing does not." Shen Wei said firmly. "It is not what you are thinking Lady Fu Yu."

Like any good General she knew when to twist the knife. "Why were we not informed? Your allies? I thought your friend as well?"

Quelling his anger in favor of setting the narrative in place, Shen Wei took a breath and sipped his tea. "Do you recall, the day we captured General Zhong?"

"The General who murdered half of my people? The man who set nineteen of our soldiers on fire in a field, then told us where to find their mass grave?" Mai Gui asked, old anger surfacing. "He is one man I cannot forget. He murdered my brother, by bleeding him to death."

Fu You looked at him pained, wanting he knew to reach and comfort as she would have years ago. "What about him specifically?"

"In the tent, after we captured him... General Zhong taunted Kunlun. He claimed he was the bastard son of General Zhao, who as everyone knows is a Royal Prince of Haixing."

The teacup in Mai Gui's hands wobbled and Fu Yu set hers down on the gleaming surface of the table. "He made no mention of it when he came to us."

Most of the people who had known his mother underestimated her. They saw her beauty and clever mind...they rarely saw her dark energy. Ye Zun often sickly, barely understood his gifts but she had taught Shen Wei, a great deal. The son with no ambition who would die to protect his Didi. Dark energy would send Ye Zun mad, just like all the other Shen Emperors, but not Shen Wei. Not his mother's son.

She made them all believe that like their ancestors, they had little dark power. Few knew what the Empress's Ying family could do. Her parents and only sister were dead, murder by the Empress Dowager. So there was no one to tell.

Mother had perfected the Arts that would make her popular with the Emperor, like her painting and her stunning singing voice...in the quiet of her lonely days...she studied dark energy, reading texts that would have ensured her execution should anyone have found out.

Shen Wei's vast power came as a surprise but many preferred to believe the might of the Shen lineage had come back. Upon realizing that Shen Wei's gift was learning...she honed his ability and his mind.

For Kunlun...Shen Wei had used his mother's knowledge and silenced General Zhong. Had he wanted to reveal what he knew, he would have found it impossible.

"General Zhong," He said with distaste, "Enjoyed bringing suffering to others. Kunlun's heritage would not bring you pain. It would not aid him and he knew that. Trying to lure you with promises was more favorable in his twisted mind."

"Why keep it a secret Shen Wei?" Mai Gui asked. "We would not have blamed Kunlun. Not if he had explained."

"You believe that I maintained silence out of loyalty to Kunlun...you would not be wrong. But I also kept the secret for the war effort." Shen Wei said with icy calm, looking directly at Fu Yu.

"Kunlun provided 80,000 men and women with his support. It was his strategy to strike at the heart of Southern Haixing. His plans. He used his talismans and his countermeasures to boundary wards, to enter the fortresses and lands concealed by Haixing's Generals. We could never have achieved that. Kunlun used his own gifts and my Dixingian soldiers to flood Bai City, before they could launch an attack, that we would not have survived."

"And... I remind you, his will allowed us to use Three Realm Gates. Without Kunlun, we would not be here today."

Mai Gui put a hand out to stop Fu You's angry retort, "We are not challenging..."

"Yes, you are. I kept my silence because had word escaped, the Crow and Fox tribes would have turned against him, calling his word tainted. The Chieftains who disliked him or who had feuds with the North, would have attacked him. My own forces, the Dixingian soldiers under my command would have informed the Palace." Shen Wei swallowed and continued quietly, "My mother, the Empress would have ordered his death."

He looked at both of them in turn, earnestly. "Kunlun used his knowledge of Southern Haixing against them. He fought them and never shied away from a fight. I would have died that day, if not for him. We needed him and I trust him. He is nothing like his father. Southern Haixing is his enemy. He would not have sat down to dinner today, if it meant sitting near them. His anger and distrust of them ran deep. "

"He gave his life." Fu You said somberly. "We have never forgotten his commitment or his bravery."

"Nor should you." Shen Wei said waving his hand at the window. "This lantern ceremony occurs every year here in Dixing to remember those lost to us. To remember their sacrifice. Kunlun's sacrifice for peace. I will not let anyone dishonor him."

"We would have been better prepared had we known. But," Fu You looked at her hands for a moment. "I would have been honor bound to have explained to the other tribes and they would have turned against him."

Mai Gui nodded. "If there is no evidence, then they cannot harm Kunlun's name."

"Why speak of it?" Shen Wei asked. "It will help nothing. Most would not believe it and now after ten years, it would be easy for us to tell the story. A story that does not paint Haixing in a favorable light. Their new Emperor is weak. There is the start of a famine in the East and unrest brewing in the Central Plains."

It surprised neither of them, that Shen Wei had planned for a possible war, for a resurgence in violence. Everyone was aware that Shen Wei was an Emperor who had restructured the military, the economy and the primary policies of their nation. He could afford another war, Haixing could not.

Then Lady Fu You looked directly at then Shen Wei and said plainly, "They are claiming to know where Kunlun is."

Chapter Text

There was a new portrait of Lord Kunlun above the Emperor's bed.

No one by unspoken rule, acknowledged the portraits or at least not in front of Shen Wei, his loyalists or the more tight-lipped of the Palace staff.

No one knew how many there were either. There were statues of the man and no one begrudged the memorial to a hero. Kunlun was in poetry and song about the war, and everyone was aware to some extent that he had been friends with the Emperor. Blood brothers. That was a righteous, glorious to thing to have in their culture.

...Perhaps even zhiji. Although that was spoken about less. There was something...nerve-wracking about assuming such a thing...about the Emperor. Not that Butler Wu thought it was likely, Emperor Shen would deny such a thing. He would likely take it as an extreme compliment or simple fact.

But to have a portrait over the bed? Another one in his private study? That was certainly more than friendship.

From his quiet position in the middle of the sitting room, not far from the Emperor's open bedchamber, Butler Wu's eyes traced over the bold features of the man standing at a cliff edge.

The former portrait had hung there for six months, enough time for him to stop blinking at the image of a man standing beneath a tree, the boughs heavy with fresh spring leaves and stunning red flowers. The leaves seemed to be almost caressing his thick black hair with its many braids and his smile was... too seductive to be decent. His eyes...here Wu would always look away.

The expression in those eyes were for a lover.

 

He just hoped it was their Emperor held in the heart of the man, Wu knew was Chieftain Kunlun.

This portrait was different and he was struggling to adapt to it. When it changed and why His Majesty decided to replace one clearly beloved portrait for another, was an enduring mystery.

How many portraits the king had and who painted them was an enduring mystery.

Butler Wu suspected that the king himself painted them and that was...Butler Wu shook his head. Not his place to think about or question.

The eyes were harder in this one, like black jade staring out over the mountain in the distance. His dark hair seemed to blend seamlessly into the cloak around his shoulders and the armor that protected his chest. A tunic of dark blue embroidered with tribal patterns famed among the Shangbei peoples met the dry weeds of the ground. A dao was strapped to his back along with a quiver of arrows.

Here he thought was a warrior. The man who had aided Dixing and saved thousands of families like his own, from having to send their children to slaughter.

Most Emperors throughout known history would not give credit to another man. Especially for something as fundamental as peace. Certainly not, to an outsider with not one drop of Dixingian blood.

Butler Wu doubted that Emperor Shen's ancestors, his mother the Dowager Empress most notably would have agreed with that. He winced simply thinking of her imperial wrath.

Somehow though it worked in his favor, no doubt carefully crafted by loyalists to make the king appear humble and brilliant, which in many respects he was.

Butler Wu did not feel he had any right to any opinion...but he heard whispers and suppressed questions, daily at one point, as to why. What was so magical about Lord Kunlun?

The Emperor not only gave Lord Kunlun almost complete credit for the end of the war, he celebrated the man. He was practically a deity. Anyone who spoke against Lord Kunlun in front of a loyalist hoping for favor, or idiotically in front of the king, found their days numbered.

Most completely missed the obvious answer, simply because very few believed it. The Emperor was not considered a warm man. Beautiful, otherworldly and dangerous yes. He was polite and extremely well mannered, kind and often encouraging. He was fair and diligent, compassionate to a certain well-honed point...

But he was also merciless, highly intelligent -  nothing actually needed explaining so errors or evasion were ruthlessly pointed out, to the discomfort of the court -  aloof to the point of coldness and deeply private.

He outright refused a harem, scheduled all meetings with the Empress, kept up correspondence but had no confident and generally worked, trained or spent time diligently with his daughter. 

The only thing that didn't quite fit was Kunlun.

A legendary friendship, soulmates. Sharing ideas, risk and the heavy, heavy weight of responsibility dropped on young shoulders of people who had already bled because of Southern Haixing.

That wasn't it.

The answer was simple. Emperor Shen Wei, the former and forever Ghost General, the Black Robed Envoy of legend....was in love.

The kind of love that was as rare as it was famous in Dixing, written about in poems and songs. A forever love. An obsessive, protective, consuming love. The most dangerous kind. The kind of love that meant that Emperor Shen, the most dangerous of men in the world, and certainly the most powerful...would risk anything, achieve anything for one man.

A terrifying prospect.

Lord Kunlun by his very position had his own loyalties, his own agenda.

He was not by every account Butler Wu had ever read or heard of, a man that walked the path of another. He had escaped death as a child, walked the nearly lethal path to Gate Master, defeated the Demons of Qiyi, unified a nation and helped win a war against an enemy as powerful as Southern Haixing.

Hardly a man who wanted to sit by another king's throne and embroider.

Staring  at the chiseled face, he can easily remember the days of the war, when  Prince Shen Wei would return to the Palace

Staring at the chiseled face, he can easily remember the days of the war, when Prince Shen Wei would return to the Palace. Emperor Ye Zun, though often unwell would always fret about his brother's return, about his rooms and health. Counting down the days until his older twin returned, safe and heroic.

He was a hero no matter the course of the war, in Emperor Ye Zun's mind and the consequences of speaking out against Prince Shen Wei were dire.

The Empress would be distracted and would pace impatiently waiting for those doors to the throne room to be opened for her son.

There would be a small banquet and celebration in the Palace.

When he returned, Butler Wu was given the great honor of serving Prince Shen. He had looked after them as children and it was a thing of great pride, for him see the men they had become. He silently felt as though he was welcoming a son home, when he saw that tall, lithe figure striding down the corridor, smiling gently at his old servants.

The constant fighting and mounting death toll had long cast a heavy fog of grief on the nation. There was unrest and instability rising, seething as a hot river around the Palace. Objections to the Emperor's policies and ever growing debt had many considering the chances of a coup.

In the middle was Shen Wei. The Ghost General was rarely involved with the court, his reputation feared. He was always so lonely. So remote. Untouchable. His kind eyes were always distant, his smiles polite, every action one of perfect etiquette.

The Empress spoke to her attendants and conversations were overheard. A mother considering marrying her eldest, not just for political reasons, for stability... she wanted him to marry so he could have a family. Something to ground his wandering mind.

Then things changed. Suddenly when Prince Shen came home one year, he was for lack of another word; lively. Willing to try different foods, to see the festivals and told the Emperor how proud he was of him. He put together a very convincing argument for aligning with Shangbei and introduced Lord Mai Gui.

Some said it was the changing of the winds in Dixing's favor, a chance to win the war. But not Butler Wu. He looked at the face of the man he loved as a son and thought, "He's in love."

For the entire next visit the following year, he talked of little else other than Lord Kunlun.

Losing the Empress and then the Emperor two months later, was a crushing blow. Losing Lord Kunlun was a wound that would not heal.

Sometimes he resented the man in the portrait. Painted so lovingly by the Emperor no less, forever adored.

Resented the heavy weight of grief his disappearance had put on Shen Wei, who lived suspended in time. There were days when they had smooth waters, with their Emperor's keen focus and then there were months when he was simply interested in what was required of him.

Always looking, always waiting.

Without Kunlun, Shen Wei might have married well to a woman he could love. Or like his father before him, kept the tradition of the concubine whether male or female and enjoyed life. Lived without this endless, silent suffering.

Then there was the penultimate journey of the year. The quest that took Shen Wei back to the lands that saw the last of Lord Kunlun.

The harsh winters of Dixing sent most of their people, deeper into the underground city chasing the warmth of the earth, the heat that came from the rock. Court was usually suspended during this time, unless there was a crisis of some sort. Traditionally the Emperor either joined his people in the small underground Palace or ventured East.

No. Emperor Shen Wei had never returned to his mother's eastern palace and took this time to make the lonely sojourn back to the old Hanga lands, with an entourage that was entirely for show. Walking in loose fitting black robes through ice storms and snow or if they were lucky, a cold dry winter.

One of the king's largest backers were the Meng Sect. A powerful family of nobles left homeless after an earthquake. Shen Wei built a new city he called Lèguān and the Meng clan numbering in the thousands moved to its elaborate walls, building an empire in textiles using the vast river for trade with the Yashou.

So near to the Hanga lands and the Southern Haixing border, the army built a watch tower and a training base nearby.

The Meng family built a country house and here Shen Wei stayed, spending the time searching the mountains. A lonely figure in black scouring the region for answers.

He had no doubt that Shen Wei would be heading there this winter as well.

Other times, Wu was grateful for Kunlun. The man for all the grief he had caused, had changed Shen Wei for the better. Given him purpose and fire, so he could rebuild a nation ravaged by war, offering new ways to live and enjoy life. Because that was what Kunlun would want.

Kunlun was Shen Wei's hero. His love and all he looked up to. Not his ancestors, or his parents...his twin brother or the legends of the past. A king who called himself a simple lord from Shangbei who taught Shen Wei to laugh.

At the moment though, Kunlun might well be their downfall.

On the other side of the sitting room, the Emperor of Dixing was sitting in his inner robes, one pale hand stroking the yellow jade pendant at his throat. His attendants were rapidly pinning his hair, readying their Emperor for court.

Usually, unlike almost every Emperor in history, Shen Wei often dressed himself. Donning his traditional black robes in a few minutes, his hair quickly braided sometimes by Butler Wu.

For court, it was required that the robes were six layers and only an expert small army could pin such a complex headdress into place. They were efficient, but the Emperor usually enjoyed chatting politely with each one, inquiring after their health and family.

Today, the Emperor was in a foul mood, reminiscent of the worsening weather outside. News that Lord Kunlun might be alive and that Southern Haixing were laying claim to him, had enraged Shen Wei. Add the fact that they had to play nice with the emissaries and this would easily turn into a disaster.

Experience had taught him though, that the worst thing to do was to seem indifferent to Kunlun's disappearance. Every rumor and whisper was to be treated as vital, otherwise it was the Emperor's rage you had fear.

Shen Wei would never give up Kunlun. Would never even consider the possibility that Lord Kunlun might be dead or at least forever lost.

The Chancellor Chu Shuzhi had yet to lift his eyes from the floor, kneeling by his Emperor diligently.

"I want to know why I did not know of this." Shen Wei said the embers of true anger in his cold tone, his voice ending in a near shout. "Why the former leaders of the Allies had to come and tell me!"

"Jade Tiger returns tonight Your Majesty." Old Chu said to the floor, suppressing shivers as the air around the supreme king of Dixing grew ever colder with his anger.

Shen Wei rose from his seat and the other attendants rushed forward to help him into the heavy robes, while the ones who had now finished attending to his hair bowed before vanishing out of the room.

"She has until after the Memory Ceremony to explain why I have not heard of this!"

Chu Shuzhi clearly had no answers for why after years of closely keeping their ear to the ground, they had failed to hear the news.

"Your Majesty."

At his voice, Shen Wei turned to look at Butler Wu who knelt immediately on the floor.

Gathering his courage he gave his vow, "I give relieved thanks that we have received such news."

The tension could almost be heard in the room.

"I will pray for Lord Kunlun's safe return to us. I pledge that I will do all I can to aid you."

Shen Wei strode over there and pulled the old man up, "I accept your vow."

The Emperor dressed his finest court robes, stood to his full height, his eyes dark and cold. "I will destroy all of them before they even think to lay a hand on him."

Chu Shuzhi briefly closed his eyes.

No, that of course was not love.  Butler Wu thought despairing. How could they think it was anything but love!

-------------

The skies continued to reflect his mood as the day wore on.

The thought that Kunlun was out there, alive and perhaps desperate for help had driven him mad for a decade. He had considered every possibility. That he was trapped in another Realm, unable to return, perhaps building a life with someone else. That he was trapped within the Gate. Held prisoner...lost without his memory...

The news that Southern Haixing had secret information regarding Kunlun's whereabouts, had dark power curling around his fingertips itching to feel the cool metal of his blade.

Every day for ten years he had searched, employing every resource, every dark energy array, his own blood and had visited countless standing stones, seers and trackers. At best they contradicted each other and at worst they found nothing.

Every anniversary was a celebration of peace, but for Shen Wei is was dagger slicing another cut into his heart.

Another year without Kunlun...another year of rebuilding.

Another year to be proud of. Another year of mourning.

An Emperor cannot live in white.

Dixing needed a leader, if that man was living to see the face of long lost man...what did it matter?

Grief had shattered his heart, but he had learned how to walk with his head held high. His eyes could not shed another tear, so he let the skies cry for him.

"If I had a choice.." He said once, the burden on his shoulders, the weight of expectation...no choice in life was truly his own. Others feared him, respected him...his own twin brother looked at him as if he should be the brother he knew, a distance widening between them. His mother was more his Empress than the woman who used to sing to him as a child.

Kunlun shook his head, his eyebrows rising over foxfire eyes holding sadness, understanding and pride. "You will still do the same thing."

He sounded so sure, so proud. "Even if this is not what you want to do," He said firmly but gently, stroking Wei's hand between his own. "You will still fight for your conscience."

Then he smiled, a sad infinitely gentle smile. "If you don't like it, then it's better not to live in this world and make another."

Kunlun grinned at his startled expression and Shen Wei fell more in love than he thought possible, beneath the canopy of stars hours before another battle.

When his heart was torn to tattered shreds and the world around him burned, he reached for that unshakeable faith. When the weight of the responsibility held on his shoulders seemed too much to bear, he remembered those words.

Every year, Shen Wei returned to the last place he had seen Kunlun.

The first year after his disappearance Shen Wei spent trying to stop Dixing from civil war while trying to find Kunlun. Splitting his time and focus between the capital and these remote lands. To the detriment of both sides.

By the second year, he was adept at portal travel. Establishing a small dark energy version of the gate, hidden by thick walls and endless wards deep inside his ancestor's mountain shrine. A perfect halfway point between Hanga and Dragon City. Slowly as he grew stronger and more confident in the art, the distance he could span grew ever larger, until this halfway point was all he needed.

He had walked the shoreline of the river, where he had last seen his love and scoured the mountains for answers.

Then an idea came to him.

If he had to be forever torn between here and Dragon City, he needed to make a choice. Dixing would fall to ruin if he left and Kunlun might never be found if he wasn't here.

Extensive reading gave him an answer.

In the winter of the third year, when he returned it was with a special goal in mind.

The cliff walls were etched with arcane markings, the rock singed as if struck by lightning. It was quiet, sheltered by the high walls of the mountain and the sweeping drop beyond the cliff edge. This little plateau was a sacred place, aligning the four corners of the gateways, so they converged on this small area.

Ice gathered along the rock, snow building into a hard layer. It was desolate. The freezing wind whipped around the towering peaks and the trees with their bare branches were tipped in silver frost.

The pathway was black behind him, the night sky invisible behind the grey cloud that promised another storm. Frost crept along his boots in delicate patterns and his black robes danced in the cold breeze but the dao in his hand felt hot.

He reached out with one hand as if summoning the winter storm to him, his heart calling with icy tragedy for his love. Dark power curled around his pale fingers and he felt the moment his power touched the intricate tapestry of Kunlun's wards.

Dark energy stroked along the threads, still shining with that vivid gold light. They reverberated once, then eased their tight hold. They recognized him. Welcomed him and the warmth of Kunlun's power embraced his frozen form. Gold and green wove around him, cocooning him in pulsing bands of energy.

Warm brown eyes closed and he shivered, yearning for Kunlun and immersed himself further within the structure, chasing the phantom touch of Kunlun.

It faded as it always did, leaving the cold to seep into his bones like rainwater.

Every winter, he completed the same ritual, giving him strength to face another year.

Steeling himself, Shen Wei reached within the seething nexus and started to weave.

Time had no meaning in this careful work, surrounded by Kunlun and the promise of a chance.

So hours later, when he fell to the icy ground choking on blood, he smiled in tired victory. His palms slid on the cold rough ground and his heart raged behind the cage of his ribs.

It was done.

If  this gate ever strengthened in power by Kunlun's very return he would  know

If this gate ever strengthened in power by Kunlun's very return he would know. If Kunlun activated it, he would know. If someone attacked it...well the halfway point was not very far and Shen Wei was now an expert.

Sitting on the Dixing Star throne, Shen Wei briefly closed his eyes and felt the thread that connected his power to the gate.

A wisp of Kunlun's power thrummed quietly.

He savored it and used that distant touch as his armor.

The court knowing his mood, tried to make proceedings as quiet and orderly as possible. It passed slowly, time drifting like a boat on the surface of a silent lake, leaving him plenty of time to worry and plan.

Distracted as he was, he completed all of the necessary tasks and at least the ministers were relatively well-behaved. The court scribes were diligent with their notations of each session after all. Distrust of Southern Haixing was high but the outright hatred had faded from most of the hearts here. It was a reprieve not to return to the heavily debated topic of their ten year anniversary including the Haixing emissaries.

Instead the focus was on the earthquake and aiding the survivors. He issued orders for recovery and released the funds officially for the relief effort. He quelled fears about a similar earthquake in the city and orders warnings to be sent out to all the surrounding provinces.

Shortly before the end, a courtier came towards the throne from the right, bowing respectfully. He spoke quietly to the High Official Zhang, whose face tightened as she glanced quickly at the Emperor.

Zhang Ruonan was a loyalist who owed Shen Wei for saving her clan a decade ago and he had found her to be a clever, studious official. She turned from her traditional post, her plum red robes swishing on the stone floor and bowed, before moving up the short steps to the black throne. On a silver platter, she offered him a small scroll.

"Your Majesty." She said humbly, "There is a message for Your eyes to see only."

He took the scroll and Zhang Ruonan backed away bowing deeply. She returned to her post and addressed the Ministers, in her calm authoritative way. He skimmed the false praises and prayers for his life and skipped to the end of the page. Jade Tiger returns tonight. Will not return in time for ceremony.

Tonight he would have answers then. Good.

When the court session finally ended, he wondered who was more relieved as he swept from the room, with his guards and Chu Shuzhi.

Two more days to go.

Chapter Text

The central courtyard was filled with night flowers and glittering dark energy lanterns, in white and yellow. Incense drifted on the crisp autumn night, swirling to catch the faint breeze.

The night sky glittered above them, the silver light of the moon falling into the golden pools of warm light and the small rivers of fires that burned to ward away some of the chill.

The faint heady scent of the blue spider flowers, that climbed in elegant sweeps over the walls, mingled with the pure white jasmine, the Emperor favored. The natural small glowing light in the center of each flower, brought the white moths to glide over the courtyard in swirling patterns.

It was an enchanting sight and enthralled even the Snake Clan, who had openly derided the Yashou celebration last year.

Chancellor Chu Shuzhi's thundering voice echoed across the ancient stone, announcing the Emperor. The grand, intricately carved doors opened and Shen Wei stepped into the cool night air, his Royal Escort fanning out into the shadows the pillars provided.

Silent steps followed the short path lined with yellow stones to the middle of the courtyard, to the blue dais. The cold breeze danced in the wide space, his pale robes fluttering like the wing of a moth, as the charms on his treasured hairpin twirled with the air.

Shen Wei had never enjoyed gatherings, but tonight he walked into the courtyard with the air of a General.

It had been a long day and there was a knot in his chest that refused to ease. Caught somewhere between the constant hope that lived in is heart and the whisper of despair that never truly left. On the surface though he was polite and impeccable. The very image of what an Emperor should be.

There are many types of masks after all, carefully crafted to hide turmoil.

He had learned to walk through the pain, to live with the constant ache of loss and worry. It was harder to live with the yearning. To see his face once more...

What was this or any challenge compared to the loss of Kunlun?

The chill of the frost that followed him hung in the air and the taste of the storm only added to the effect. The late autumn sky seemed to come to the earth with every step he took, the controlled maelstrom of power that seethed beneath the cold air and a face concealed by a mask.

White was the color of grief, but this was a blend of celebration and mourning, so he had chosen to wear a soft shade of lotus purple to signify rebirth and a long flowing cloak in pale magnolia. The flowers that Kunlun had admired in the North, laughing as he pressed the Ghost General against the heavy branches, obsidian eyes dancing with love.

His pendant nestles against his skin and along his shoulders the cloak has been decorated with silver and white. Kunlun's white fur cloak and the silver of his armor.

Zhao Yunlan is in every part of the gathering, from the lanterns to the choice of a temple beneath the night sky.

He  is in every breath Shen Wei takes and as he stands before the audience,  he thinks of the hush before dawn, of watching Kunlun settle into the  saddle of his beloved horse eyes as sharp as black diamond

He is in every breath Shen Wei takes and as he stands before the audience, he thinks of the hush before dawn, of watching Kunlun settle into the saddle of his beloved horse eyes as sharp as black diamond. He thinks of those nights sharing a bath, Kunlun resting against his chest in the warm water. He thinks of the hours spent watching Zhao Yunlan sleep nestled as close to him as possible, breathing his scent and basking in his warmth.

Before them he gleams with the silver light of the moon, highlighting the crown of Dixing and the white jade hairpin.

He is touched that though the Yashou who did not as a rule wear white or blue to symbolize mourning, all of them had chosen to wear the colors in commemoration. Fu You had threaded white ribbon through her hair and wore an outer robe in pale blue over her traditional Snake Clan dress. Even Yaqing has chosen to wear a dark blue outer robe over her black dress and for the Crow Tribe it is a bold statement.

Mai Gui and most of the Middle States representatives had chosen to bind a white cloth around their forearms and many of the other Yashou had chosen their cultural mourning clothing. Zhu Hong has tears in her eyes, standing between Fourth Uncle and Lin Jing, her dress a brilliant white, beside Lady Bao Yixin.

The emissaries from Southern Haixing were wearing grey and carried small candles cupped in their hands.

Shen Wei bowed carefully to the three groups and then turned to face the Memorial Temple, his steps measured. When his boots ceased moving, one of the guards gave the signal. Within seconds, at the other end of the courtyard facing him, the second grand doors were pulled open, the timing exact.

"Make way for the Lady of the Star Flowers, the Empress of Dixing and the Lady of the White Tigers, Princess Anujin!"

From the shadow of the doorway, a lithe figure seemed to shimmer like starlight. The Empress walked forward with such grace she seemed to float gently towards the Emperor, as if carried by the breeze. Her hair was coiled into intricate braids and her gold headdress gleamed. At her wrists the silver bracelets of the Empress glittered and the audience was transfixed.

With the moon above them and the warmth of the lanterns around her, Empress Wang Zheng was painted in golden light.

With the moon above them and the warmth of the lanterns around her, Empress Wang Zheng was painted in golden light

Shen Wei had requested something...bold. A reminder that Dixing had flourished in this time of hard fought for peace.

He smiled at his friend as he took in the stunned faces of the gathering.

She was a vision of pale gold, yellow and white. Snow white pearls adorned the collar of her robes and pale yellow chrysanthemums decorated her sleeves. The talismans depicting Dixing were swirling like liquid gold over her chest and along the skirt of her robes. The Flower of Dixing in her hair moved and fluttered as if the smooth metal was a genuine flower.

Her face was hidden behind a white mask, decorated with tiny chrysanthemums but he knew her sadness as well as he knew his own.

Her heart would forever sing for Sang Zan.

His heart belonged entirely to Zhao Yunlan.

Behind her, bringing a sweet smile to his face was the little joy and pride of his life. His daughter.

In truth, she was Sang Zan's daughter, the image of her true father with warm dark eyes and her mother's soft brown hair. She was the future, the child who would become Empress of the Shen dynasty, raised to uphold the values that Kunlun gave his life for.

But to him and the entire world, she was his daughter, Shen Anujin.

How can a child who shares not a drop of blood with Zhao Yunlan, manage to be so like him? It was a thought that often came to him and he would have named her after his love, if he could have. Instead, they had chosen a name from a famous legend, a daughter of Shangbei and Dixing born centuries ago. Li Anujin was the Queen of the Nine Tribes and her name resounded through history in poems and song. Da Huang was one of those tribes and Sang Zan had been a slave born in Dixing, who had compared his Ge Lan to the brave archer who became a Queen.

Xiao Anujin trailed behind her mother in robes of white edged with pale blue, unaffected by the large gathering and the weight of expectation. He knew that she was counting the steps and trying to remember at ten years of age all the protocol she was to follow. Her bright smile when she saw him was incandescent.

Shen Wei smiled gently and lifted a brow. Shen Anujin nodded solemnly and her attention went back to the flowers in her hand and the count of the steps.

She was adorable and he knew that Zhao Yunlan would have loved her.

Wang  Zheng believed that she had inherited Sang Zan's indomitable spirit,  his determination and endurance

Wang Zheng believed that she had inherited Sang Zan's indomitable spirit, his determination and endurance. As a mother she struggled. Her daughter was a proud Shen descendant, proud of a lineage that was not hers or Sang Zan's. Her daughter had no interest in Hanga culture, of learning about her ancestors on the plains. 

 

Lord Kunlun and his cat were her heroes. Shen Wei was her beloved father and even at ten years old, she was loyal to the Emperor. Planning on joining the Army and rising through the ranks to become Lord Commander.

The court whispered that she had inherited Empress Shen's clever mind and captivating voice making Shen Wei smile.

 

Shen Anujin is a bold, clever child who tries hard to be obedient but she struggles with expectation. Already she is a young warrior much to the consternation of her tutors and her mother, preferring horses and martial arts to dresses. When asked who she admired most, she famously said, "I want to be a Ghost General like Father!"

 

Shen Wei effortlessly became a father, embracing the role that Sang Zan by right should have been gifted. He adored this little girl and thought of her purely as his own child, teaching her as any father should and it was a joy he had never expected. Between considering how to save Dixing and searching for Kunlun, he was now worrying about exams and the quality of Dragon University.

The heavy grief that held his heart suspended lessened when he spent precious time with his child. She was precious and everything he could ever have asked for.

Mother and daughter bowed to him smoothly, the gold and white fabric twirling around Wang Zheng like a river.

"Rise." He said softly and she flowed gracefully to her feet, taking his outstretched hand in a perfect, practiced move. Xiao Anujin took his other hand watching curiously as the audience bowed in respect. Shen Wei eyed the guards and the archers hidden above on the roof, his dark energy suppressed for safety but it would take him seconds to react should anyone make attempt on Xiao Anujin or Wang Zheng.

The audience bowed and curtsied in welcome and Shen Wei squeezed his daughter's hand gently. A count of twenty and the as one mother and daughter let go of his hand, turned to him and bowed, before seamlessly stepping back.

Shen Wei suppressed a smile, wondering how many times they had practiced this move and who got to be the stand in for him.

Wang Zheng moved to stand just behind him, taking her daughter's hand in her own with a sweet smile.

He spread his hands in entreaty towards their Allies, seeing the many faces of the heroes of the war. His speech had been carefully crafted months in advance, poured over by hundreds of scholars and political experts, to avoid any wording that might cause offense. Even a decade on, the peace might be less fragile that it was nine years ago, but it was still an ongoing battle of forgiveness, acceptance and centuries old feuds.

"Tonight, we honor those who gave their life in sacrifice for their nation. For the promise of peace and for better days without fear, without violence."

Shen Wei stared at the gathering, his eyes lingering on the dignitaries from the nations both Allies and his once enemies. "There is no one among us who has not grieved for loved ones lost. Who has not hoped for a better future for their children, to give them a life without war."

"This commemoration began a decade ago to express that grief and to give thanks to all who fought for everlasting peace. Tonight, it is also about celebrating the ties that bind us, the family we found in the hardest of times and the new days to come that shall offer new opportunities for us all."

Shen Wei looked at them all and said , "Tonight I ask of you to remember those we love and to honor them with all of Dixing."

Two hundred white lanterns rose into the sky and met a thousand more from the banks of the river.

----

Chancellor Chu Shuzhi stood with Princess Anujin, as Shen Wei and Wang Zheng began the official ceremony

Chancellor Chu Shuzhi stood with Princess Anujin, as Shen Wei and Wang Zheng began the official ceremony. He was after all supposedly Wang Zheng's cousin and therefore an uncle to Shen Anujin.

All eyes were on the Emperor and Empress as they lit the ceremonial candles and incense.

Here were the inscribed names of the soldiers of Dixing, who died during the war and the names of the fallen Allies. They offered these prayers and heartfelt thanks every year during the festival, allowing the public to view from over the river.

To the eyes of the public watching from afar, on the other side of the bridge and to the dignitaries visiting Dixing for this special celebration, the couple appeared ethereal. Every movement was graceful and steady, the mood of the gathering pensive, reflected in the subdued expressions and in the solemn gaze of the Emperor.

The Emperor lifted his hand and power as black as the night sky swirled into the air, rising to become a golden talisman in the air high above the Temple, glittering in the sky.

It exploded and a shower of gold and blue fell to the river as sparks.

As one, as they did every year, voices rose in the song of the chant, the glory of peace and the commemoration of loss.

It echoed and flowed, those new to the ceremony aided by scrolls but even the stuttering hesitancy of a few, they were entirely eclipsed by the experienced and the fervent. It would be hard to compete with Marquis Yu'er and Mai Gui.

Kunlun would have laughed as the out-of-key Southern Haixing emissary on the left was drowned out by Chancellor Xiaotong, who had quite the operatic voice, her headdress dancing as she sang.

Their voices blended harmoniously together and everyone in the crowd whispered about how stunning they looked and how unified they were. If theirs was a love story, Shen Wei might have been proud.

The only sign that suggested the Emperor was anything other than a reflective king, was the tight lines of tension around his mouth and the unmistakable sharpness of his eyes.

As they walked back across the courtyard, Old Chu and their little girl behind them, a delicate hand resting on his wrist as was tradition, tightened lightly. "Your Majesty?" His Empress asked, her voice soft and hesitant.

"My Queen," He replied eying the Southern Haixing emissaries as they bowed to them as if hoping, she thought that they might be foolish enough to attack. His voice was mellow and warm, but there was steel lying just underneath.

"Will you dine with me tonight?"

"It is tradition, after the ceremony." He replied, a slight admonishment hidden in his tone.

"Yes," She said softly, "But I do not usually have such pressing news to share."

Shen Wei was too well-trained to allow a frown of disquiet to grace his features as they walked towards the gathering. "What news?"

"I did as you asked. I sent attendants for the wives attending. They talked of Lord Kunlun." She said softly, her voice carrying the pain and hope of a decade. The arm beneath her was firm muscle and she could feel the zing of dark power, tightly suppressed for her safety. At her words tension crept into his features and the snap of power nearly had her recoiling in phantom pain, but it was quickly tamped down.

At the end of the courtyard, he led her courteously up the steps to the throne. "Blatant." He said in a tone of ice. She shivered and though she knew she had nothing to fear from him, he still unnerved her when there was nothing of the man in his gaze. Only the General.

Wang Zheng swallowed and as they ascended the final step she added, "So, I ask only to inquire where you would have me wait for you?"

"Palace of Golden Light. It has the best security. I would prefer you and our daughter to stay within its walls while our former enemies are here. Anujin will enjoy the garden and tell her she can bring her cats."

Surprised, her expression cleared from somber to slight confusion, but it vanished as they made their way to the steps of the Palace. The Emperor had been adamant that they would receive Southern Haixing and offer such hospitality no could possibly complain about their visit to Dragon City. Now, after one day he seemed to have changed his mind. A rare thing in their Emperor.

"Thank you, Your Majesty."

Shen Wei patted her hand and with eyes like mountain lion, his smile welcoming...the Ghost General faced Allies and enemies alike.

----

----

Hours after the ceremony Shen Wei extricated himself with a polite smile and with a great deal of calculation. He did not miss the concern in the Empress's eyes or the worry when she saw the number of guards waiting to take her to the Palace situated in the west of the complex. He smiled reassuringly and she nodded lightly, bowing to him before leaving with the gentle grace so beloved in their Empress.

The ceremony itself despite all warning and dire predictions from naysayers had been a great success, with the Allies, with the court and with the public most importantly.

Such a thing was rare.

Zhao Yunlan believed that everyone would embrace Shen Wei and would have thought that his position as the Ghost General and Black Cloak Envoy, would only serve to add to his pedigree. He was the eldest son of the famous Shen Emperor and the twin brother of the most recent king. True there was bad blood over his mother, the Empress even with Kunlun...but he would have dismissed that based on Shen Wei's undeniable charm and success.

"You won a war, what else would they want?" He could imagine an aggrieved Zhao Yunlan demanding.

But Yunlan for all his cunning and that unique, sharp mind would not have anticipated that the greatest impediment to his success was in fact a simple one.

He had no allies beyond the army.

Sent to war as a boy, Shen Wei had only returned to the Palace every year. At first it was every few months, but as he grew older and more accustomed to the weight of being Lord Commander, his return stretched to once a year when he was sure his presence was not needed. When he did return it was for a maximum of three months and he never officially put forward an opinion. Not unless it was directly related to military affairs.

The court saw him as the Lord Commander and the feared Ghost General. He had no allies in court, no backing and only the support of the military. None of the Dixingian noble families beyond the sons and daughters enrolled in the army had an allegiance to him. The clans that had stood behind his mother questioned his worth.

They might have fought for peace, to end the war between three nations...but Dixing was rapidly dissolving into civil war.

Zhao Yunlan had predicted that Southern Haixing was nearing the end of its economic might, with mounting debt and drought that turned fields to dust. He had predicted that the Emperor would not make old bones and the power vacuum created by his death would keep their old enemy occupied for some time.

Zhao Yunlan had also predicted that the Yashou would return to their old homelands and most of the old feuds. The reclusive would return to obscurity and new faces would rise as clan leaders wishing to return to spiritual cultivation that was not based on survival.

His love had also predicted that Dixing would face its hardest challenge now that war was no longer the common ground. His mother had pulled former enemies together for the common good...for survival. Uniting them under her rule by giving them a voice in her court.

All of Zhao Yunlan's predictions came true in the first ten months following the end of the war...following his disappearance.

Shen Wei kneeling by his brother's beside was torn. All of him wished to be on the Hanga plains, to find something that could tell him what had happened. The mountains and red dust of the mountains could not have seen the last moments of Zhao Yunlan.

The angry skies above the river that night framed those dark eyes and that moment suspended in eternal anguish in the center of Shen Wei's heart, could not be the last time he would see Zhao Yunlan. The last time he had felt his warmth, returned his kiss and stared into foxfire eyes.

No.

Yet Dixing was burning and there was no one to save his people, if he did not act.

He stabilized the damaged Gateway and protected the Underground Realm, pouring his broken heart into rebuilding the world his people knew.

His search for Kunlun was frantic and his fear for his brother's life only grew, until everything came to a bitter end. Ye Zun died in his arms and his search only gave him nothing.

Not a scrap of cloth, not a shard of bone.

Until in the last month of winter, Kunlun's dao was found in the river.

There had been a fight and Kunlun's forces had killed a great many of thier enemy before whatever had triggered their disappearance. Enemy and ally alike...simply gone.

As time cruelly marched on Shen Wei was left with few choices.

He had made too many promises to abandon Dixing and Zhao Yunlan would never have forgiven him if the peace he was willing to give his life for, shattered into a thousand pieces returning them to war. But despite the veneer of happy peace, the threat of war never truly left. It hovered like a black cloud, the old animosity far from fading. There was the pain of loss now in nearly every one on the streets in every realm, every nation and with it lived a disgruntlement, a seed of burning anger. 

Southern Haixing had not fully disarmed and a weakened Dixing would be easy to destroy, leaving no one to protect the Yashou Realm or the severely weakened Middle States, when Shangbei was still learning how to be one nation.

To keep his promise to Kunlun, he had to take the throne to save his people. To find Kunlun, he needed the resources of Dixing. To keep the promise to his dying brother, he had accepted the heavy weight of a crown he had never wanted.

Obtaining the crown had been a matter of birthright but keeping the civil war at bay had taken careful planning. This required support and more than strategic thinking.

There were three things a monarch needed to consolidate power in Dixing.

Enough power to prove themselves worthy. A spouse and heir.

A lesson his mother chafed against.

No could argue after witnessing him rebuilding the Realm Gates could argue that he had limited dark energy. He was the strongest of them all. A power contest would end in death and Shen Wei, already an undisputed General was popular with the public.

It was clear that Shen Wei could destroy them all, with the amount dark power condensed in one pale hand.

A spouse and an heir however, were problems he chose to ignore for as long as possible. Until his hand was forced by three nations, his own people and the court.

The problem was a matter of complete devotion. His heart belonged to Zhao Yunlan and no other. A man who was no where to be found and not a candidate for the role of Empress.

In Dixing, the concept of zhuanzhu was a thing of legend and a matter of law. A person so dedicated that they would do anything for their beloved, from murder to great feats that were retold in songs and poems. Such complete devotion to one person for a lifetime was a uncommon thing, but there was a legal right for zhuanzhu, upheld throughout the centuries.

It was forbidden for an Emperor to name their zhuanzhu the Empress. They feared that if so, the Emperor would not consider the nation, only the desires of the one he was devoted to.

Shen Wei had silently declared himself devoted to Zhao Yunlan in the darkness of the mountains, watching the stars in the sky. But they weren't married. Their love and relationship was kept secret from all but a scant few.

He could not marry anyone who would expect a husband and while there were plenty of women willing to marry him for status alone, his own mother had taught him that ambition was enduring and often murderous.

It left a cold, bitter taste in his mouth.

Wang Zheng however, was different. She was devoted to Sang Zan and like him had planned to spend the rest of her life at his side. Her entire family had been murdered by the rebellion, led by the man she loved. She had been raised as a warlord's daughter, taught unhelpful things like sewing and basic etiquette. Nothing that could truly help her survive in Dixing.

She was not a cultivator and her father, the former Lord  of Hanga, was proudly Southern Haixingren and forced Dixingians to work  as slaves on his land

She was not a cultivator and her father, the former Lord of Hanga, was proudly Southern Haixingren and forced Dixingians to work as slaves on his land. Sitting in the middle of a city tormented by loss and with the Peace Treaty only a signed document at that point, Wang Zheng and her unborn child's life were in danger.

Shen Wei gave her the name Wang Zheng and kept her hidden in the estate given to him by his brother. He created a new identity for her as a daughter of the Chu House and later, after the clashing nobles and power hungry former royals of former states were crushed, he offered her a deal.

A marriage that wasn't really a marriage,  a promise of survival for both of them. Her child would be sheltered and protected as his heir, becoming a ruler in their own right upon Shen Wei's passing. Wang Zheng herself was free to do whatever she wished as long as she fulfilled her duty as Empress of Dixing.

This opportunity came from a careful study of marriage customs and royal traditions. Called the three ties, there were three vows and only by uttering all three could a marriage becoming binding. Pausing at the first vow, meant that Wang Zheng was bound to him by the title of Empress alone. She wasn't exactly his wife.

It was a technicality. But as two people praying for the man they loved to return to them, it was vital one.

She was a royal Empress by marriage and when Sang Zan or Kunlun returned, she could ask for a Royal Parting. She would remain the Empress until her death, but her duties as a wife were at an end, leaving him the option of marriage and her the option for Sang Zan to become a imperial companion. No other child would be heir or be officially considered Anujin's sibling.

Not a entirely uncommon thing in Dixing. It was what his grandfather had done. Wang Zheng owned her own properties and with Shen Anujin as his heir, the primary purpose behind a royal marriage had been fulfilled. As Empress she could not marry again without losing her title and straining Shen Anujin's right. It was ancient law and frankly useless, but not even a king can change every law.

But he had planned it carefully when he agreed and when he had asked Wang Zheng for her commitment.  

Their partnership was based on survival and had slowly blossomed into friendship. Two broken hearts mourning family and the love of their lives, thrown into a world neither of them suited, but together... impossibly they had forged a path forward.

Shen Wei huffed a laugh that had the shoulders of his guards tightening with tension.

Kunlun had forged a ring of promises.

Sang Zan aided Kunlun in exchange for Wang Zheng's freedom. She unknowing of this, promised to look after Shen Wei if Kunlun would save Sang Zan. Shen Wei gave his word that he would protect Wang Zheng simply because Kunlun asked him to. And in the middle, Kunlun promised all three of them that he would bring peace.

If only that had not meant that Kunlun had to endure suffering alone. Shen Wei would do anything to undo time.

The moon gleamed with silver light as he crossed the wide bridge into the peony garden just before the Palace of Golden Light.

His eight guards walked with him and he knew that Chu Shuzhi had organized the shadowy figures that followed his procession along the rooftops and through the trees.

His sigh heard only by the night-birds. Not for the first time, he wondered what Kunlun would think of his marriage. Would he feel betrayed? Pleased that Shen Wei had married someone he didn't love?

Would he see that he and Wang Zheng lived in the past clinging to old loves?

Would Sang Zan ever forgive her? His heart heavy with old hurts, Shen Wei quickened his pace.

Along the bridge wreathed in flowers, Shen Wei strode to the gates of the Palace of Golden Light, its gleaming golden doors shimmering with protective wards. It was a Palace of Queens and famous for its lush gardens and covered courtyard where traditionally, the Empress held informal court and entertained guests.

Wang Zheng often smoothed the way for him politically and had found purpose in unifying as much of the court as she could from this Palace. She had no active role in the court by choice, but she was instrumental in ensuring Shen Wei's reputation remained clear and in maintaining a network of contacts.

At all times Wang Zheng made sure she knew where key opinions lay and took her role as Empress seriously. Here in Dragon City and deep within the Underground Realm.

In the main wing, the servants bowed and the Chief of the Palace, Lady An Ran led him into the inner chamber. Her traditional light green robes glowed in the firelight as she bowed once more, before shutting the heavy ornate door.

Wang Zheng had changed from her ceremony robes and had returned to her preferred white robes decorated with beads. Her feet are silent as she turns mid-pace, her face alight with worry.

'What is it?" Shen Wei immediately asks, his mind going to Anujin. 'Is it.."

"No, no." Wang Zheng says reassuring him. "Our little girl is well. She is tired from the gathering and from being awake so early to prepare. She's asleep and the guards watch over her. No one could break through your wards."

"Then what is it?" He asks coming closer to the table set with a light supper of soup and steamed vegetables.

Wang Zheng settles at the table and pours him a cup of fragrant tea, the pretty white and red cups already laid out expectantly. "I had no chance to tell you earlier and I feared the message might be interrupted."

"You said that you had news?" He asked gently despite his urgency and the frustration building in his chest. Wang Zheng was a gentle soul, but having watched her strive forward through many tears and years of hardship, Shen Wei would proudly say that the Empress of Dixing was also strong and loyal.

 Wang Zheng was a gentle soul, but  having watched her strive forward through many tears and years of  hardship, Shen Wei would proudly say that the Empress of Dixing was also  strong and loyal

He respected her deeply and reached for patience. "Are we truly alone?" She asked worriedly.

Shen Wei lifted a hand and a swirl of dark energy rose into the air and flew to the corners of the room. "We are safe from any who try to listen."

"I did as you asked. I sent my attendants the ones most loyal to me, to serve the wives of the emissaries. Servants too, to be my eyes and ears. At first," She said more relaxed now, as she passed him the cup, "They spoke of silly things, but then they began a talk in one of the rooms about Lord Kunlun."

"Kunlun?"

Wang Zheng nodded, earnestly. "One of them, the youngest wife began to talk about how the Emperor of Southern Haixing has begun a campaign against Lord Kunlun once more. Everyone fears that this will break the Treaty."

Exactly as Mai Gui had said. A shard of ice slipped down his spine and Shen Wei stared at his tea, his mind racing to understand what Emperor An Bai was playing at.

"They were gossiping about whether or not it was true that Lord Kunlun had been born in Southern Haixing." She said carefully, "None of them believed it to be true."

That was a relief, Shen Wei thought as he picked up his cup.

Wang Zheng leaned forward, pressing her trembling hands to the table, her heart soaring with the thought that if they found Lord Kunlun, they might just find Sang Zan. "My King, they also said that there was proof that Lord Kunlun was trapped!"

 

shen

 

Chapter Text

There was a frantic edge to the worry building in a once broken heart and with came the excitement, the breathless joy twinned like a pair of birds in mid-flight.

For the first time in years he had new information, pieces of it yet to to form a complete whole...but it was hope. All he needed was more. If he just had the final piece, he would find Kunlun.

Not just Kunlun either. Where his beloved was, had to be where Da Qing and Sang Zan where as well. Then, there was Guo Changcheng. Chu Shuzhi's other half had been missing for the same length of time, vanishing about a few days before Shen Wei had arrived at the Hanga valley.

He had promised both Wang Zheng and Chu Shuzhi that he would do everything in his power, to find them as well. So this mention of his love, was a shining light in the darkness for both of his friends.  

His entire being ached with the promise of holding his beloved again.

Nothing else mattered.

Zhao Yunlan. Oh Yunlan. I'll find you. I swear it.

After dinner with Wang Zheng, a messenger came with urgent news. His Chief of Intelligence had returned and awaited an audience to deliver the report he craved.

Usually he could slip away to the Palace of Six Phoenixes, but with everyone intently watching...he was led with the traditional eight guards to the official Emperor's quarters in the Palace of Moonlight.

A ridiculous name for a Palace predominantly decorated with dark wood, vivid blues and gold.

They swept along the endless corridors, his voice pitched low as he gave Chu Shuzhi his orders, his mind spinning with options, with strategy. His royal robes from the ceremony, swished in time with his measured steps.

No one could fail to notice the famous dao at his belt and way the traditional royal staff was gripped in his right hand. It could have so easily have been his pudao, the long pole weapon that was a true symbol of the Black Ghost General.

The line between Emperor and war general was blurring once more.

Chu Shuzhi easily kept pace and tried not to allow his personal worry regarding his Emperor's mind frame to become visible on his face. It was no secret that Shen Wei was loyal to Chieftain Kunlun and for all he struggled with the man, it had been Kunlun who had saved the Lord of Dixing.

He could remember the stricken look on Kunlun's face that night and way he said, "If he stays here Old Chu...he'll die." As if he could not bear that thought any more than Chu. "Dixing needs him. Your Empress is dead and there is no news regarding Ye Zun."

"He is my Lord and master. He is my Emperor. I will end all before I let harm come to him." A pledge, a vow Kunlun's eyes swore to hold him to, even in death.

Kunlun had carried Shen Wei, delirium making him impossibly dangerous to touch. He would have killed anyone who came close enough, almost feral in his feverish rage. Chu knew that he was one of the bet Dixingian fighters, a honed warrior...but no one could survive Shen Wei.

Except Kunlun. The shameless Chieftain had carried Shen Wei like a bride. A pale sickly face pressed to a strong shoulder, Kunlun murmuring softly to soothe any discomfort. Not once did Shen attack him.

In the middle of the corridor, Li Qian with her attendants Jia Jia and Tan Xiao knelt on the carpet.

The four front guards halted and waited until Shen snappishly ordered, "Rise."

In long dark blue robes, Shen Wei's Head of Intelligence rose gracefully. She was young, only in her early twenties, but had proven herself more than capable of leading a Division of spies and a vast network of contacts. She was around the ninth Chief to occupy the position, as her predecessors where either traitors or died in the line of duty.

Li Qian was someone he had personally trained, graduating from the inner circle of the King's Scorpion training grounds, which was practically its own sect, fiercely loyal to the crown. The same grounds where he and Old Chu had also trained and where all of Ye Zun's guards had graduated.  Few knew that she was the face behind the blue mask of Tiger Dagger.

Another ridiculous but traditional name. His ancestors had achieved many things, but good taste was not always one of them.

"It is time." He stated and pointed with his chin. Li Qian dismissed her attendants who were no doubt waiting to begin whatever task she had already organized. The guards shifted and Li Qian stepped just behind the lead guard nimbly, appearing for all the world like an official attendant.

As they turned the corner, the profile of the Emperor and his guards could be clearly seen through the series of windows his paternal grandmother had installed, the framed etched in dark energy seals. The entire Palace and all spies in the region would know that the Emperor had retired to his official chambers, Shen Wei thought irritated.

Two young guards fresh-faced and proud pulled open the heavy, ornate black doors that led to his Palace wing, the bright blue tassels dancing on the large black ring, held in the jaws of a tiger. The jaws with well-carved teeth closed as the door was opened and power raced over the door in bright sparks.

He stalked inside his chambers, listening as Old Chu shut the doors quickly, the guards disappearing with long drawn out bows as soon as he was safely inside.

"I have never stopped trying to find the King of Shangbei, Lord of the Gates." Shen Wei snapped, "I owe him my life Li Qian." He said his voice tight, the promise of that simmering rage. Neither of his trusted people wilted however, bracing themselves for the coming, probably violent storm. 

"Dixing owes him our freedom and he saved the world, with his sacrifice! Why are they so determined now? What does it mean that Kunlun is trapped?!"

Li Qian stopped at a respectful distance, bowing gracefully. "The current Emperor of Haixing is the driving force. An Bai has declared himself to be an sworn enemy of King Kunlun. His reason is that the Crown Prince was his brother."

"He has had ten years to rethink this peace treaty. I killed most of his father's Generals and would have taken any blade to the throat of the Crown Prince." Shen Wei replied coldly.

The candles flickered wildly for a moment and the air around them seemed charged, as if they standing beneath the wide open sky as thunder rumbled overhead.

"You were not there Li Qian. The crown Prince was the one who killed your parents... who ordered the slaughter of women and children in Shangbei, the Middle States. Attacks cowardly and often in shadow here in Dixing! My own family! Our Beloved Emperor Ye Zun, was murdered by their vile plotting!"

"The court may have forgotten that, but I have not." Shen Wei snarled coldly, then he turned, a different tone now in his voice,  "We were outnumbered. Kunlun destroyed their chain of command and their overconfidence was their undoing."

"What do they have? What do they know?" He asked throwing the royal staff so it landed perfectly on the official blue painted rack.

There was a moment of awe as they looked at the staff, perfectly positioned as if gentle hands had placed there. Then Li Qian blinked. "Empress Qingling, the mother of Emperor An Bai had a vision."

"A vision?" Shen Wei repeated scathingly, his robes swirling around him.

"Yes My King

"Yes My King. According to her vision, Lord Kunlun will bring about Emperor An Bai's death."

"If I so wished, I could do that now." Was the reply from the Ghost General seating himself before his wide desk. "If he doubts that, he is more than a fool. He is an unimaginative one."

"And this has sent him scurrying into the corner?" Old Chu asked coldly, following respectfully behind the king, to stand before his polished black stone desk off to the side.

"No." Li Qian responded promptly, coming to stand in the middle. "It was a court case three days later that sent the King of Southern Haixing into a panic."

"What happened?"

"One of the top Ministers, Marquis Shi Jing brought to the court one Madam Gan Hien. Everyone in the criminal underworld knows of her. She is famous for being a successful 'sorcerer', kept in employment by a noble."

"One of those you gives you a fertility treatment in one hand and offers to poison your husband in the other?" Old Chu said with a sneer.

"She markets herself as a manufacturer of cosmetics, but everyone knows she is a killer by trade." Li Qian agreed, "She is a purveyor of poisons and dark spell-craft. The more important part, is that from what I have been able to find out, she is Shen Xi's aunt and a daughter of the Da Huang tribe."

"If she truly is Shen Xi's aunt and anything like Kunlun's uncle, there is nothing good in her heart." Chu Shuzhi remarked. Which was fair considering the man had sold his sisters, murdered his father and attempted to kill Kunlun.

Shen Wei folded his hands into his sleeves, his slow blink the only indication of shock, "Kunlun's mother?"

Hardly anyone knew who Shen Xi had married. Most assumed she had been married into one of the other Tribes, since her sister had been sent to the Xunxi and the Yinran had claimed Kunlun has theirs. 

Some even believed that Lord Sha Wei of the Yinran had been Kunlun's father, or his late brother. He was his shifu and served as his Chief General for as long as Kunlun had been king.

But this didn't make sense. Surely this was a woman by a similar name. Zhao Yunlan's beloved mother had taught her son how to drive a bargain and how to use your wits to survive. His Yunlan had no tolerance for such evil. His mother had taught him wrong from right, not Zhao Xin Ci.

For all his ability to manipulate, Zhao Yunlan had a kindness in him , one that he said came from his mother.

Li Qian nodded, "Yes Your Majesty.Gan Hien is not her true name and she was not entirely truthful. She was the daughter of the former chieftain but that is not the issue. She claims Lord Kunlun's mother Shen Xi's mother was a daughter of the Yīn An tribe."

"Everyone with criminal intent and enough gift tries to pretend they are descendants of the Yin An." Old Chu interrupted with a grimace."It was so long ago, if they were even real, that any such blood would long have been diluted and Kunlun's uncle hardly needed that as an excuse."

"Southern Haixing burned villages and poisoned drinking water. Of course they would slander a hero with such filthy lies." Shen Wei said with a snarl. "An innocent, murdered woman is no struggle to them."

They were figures of legend after all. The Yin An tribe lived somewhere in the North and were famed for wielding death curses, demonic magic and other heinous crimes. The leader of their people is said to have cursed a tribe who infringed on her land, turning them to sand. They ride in the center sandstorms and bring terror. Others say they were a cursed tribe themselves after angering another legend; Loi Lixue the immortal.

Most debate if they were real and in Shen Wei's experience the dramatic stories are the ones most often retold.

Scholars of Dixing say that they were and that their tribe was annihilated after the meteorite strike.

Li Qian took no notice of Chu Shuzhi and continued. "In this case, no one doubts that it is true. Gan Hien is famed for her poisons and for offering services where she kills through mirrors, crystals or suggestion. She was blamed for enthralling the daughter of a noble, directing her to commit suicide in the river."

"The type of evil Kunlun would have brought to justice." Shen Wei says in a mild tone that rings like a warning bell.

Part of the reason Li Qian is the Head of Intelligence for her ability to adapt to the Emperor's tone, unlike her deceased predecessors. "An evil he would purge," She said immediately, "I would not mention it, My King but according to her former assistant, Gan Hien fled Lord Kunlun's wrath. She has a scar on her back from his celestial whip."

"Does she now?" Shen Wei paused interested. "She was on the run from Kunlun?"

"Two years ago, I befriended Madam Gan's assistant. A woman indebted to her and the same noble. After witnessing the court proceedings, I went to her and asked."

This was interesting...To inspire Zhao Yunlan's rage was difficult.

'Why?' He asked calmly.

"The assistant I befriended didn't know. She told me that Madam Gan was on the run from Lord Kunlun and told the assistant while drunk, that Lord Kunlun had inherited the Yin An gifts and she was jealous of this."

Not the first time that had been mentioned. It was certainly possible, considering Kunlun's significant power....but much of that power came from his own cultivation, the celestial whip's gift to him as his Soul Tool and the Nexus of the Gateways that powered all of the realms.

"She was allowed to stay in Southern Haixing through the interference of Minister Gao who reports directly to Marquis Zhao Xin Ci."

"This was before Kunlun went missing?" Shen Wei asked.

"Yes My King. Madam Gan ran from Shangbei the year after Lord Kunlun joined with the Alliance."

She runs from Kunlun... a near impossible thing and that implied that she had killed someone. She runs to Southern Haixing probably intending to remain hidden despite the risk of being caught. Somehow Zhao Xin Ci finds out about her and through her, he discovers Lord Kunlun.

The tribal name that Shen Xi bestowed on her son was unique. As his father, it would have been the first news regarding his missing son that he had received in years. Shen Wei frowned as he considered Zhao Xin Ci's reaction.

As a father had he been relieved to learn that his son was alive? Or aghast to learn that his offspring was in fact the man unifying the North against the South?

Shen Wei frowned. "Kunlun did not believe in evil cultivation." He said hotly, "Why is she spreading such lies? And what does this have to do with news of his entrapment?"

Li Qian was quick to save herself. "The Yin An tribe is famous for death magic, for demonic manipulation and for wielding ghosts...but it is not the only gift. Control of the voids was said to be one of their gifts and the Da Huang tribe is in turn famous for gateway magic."

If this Madam Gan was on the run from Kunlun...she must have tried to use her knowledge as leverage, earning herself employment.

"How do we know it is true?" asked Chu Shuzhi skeptically. "It seems like a wild tale."

"There are only eight whips of that nature, capable of delivering a qi deviation such as Gan Hien is said to have suffered. Only three have been proven to actually exist. Lord Kunlun's whip is a celestial weapon and a Soul Tool."

This Shen Wei knew only too well.

A Soul Tool was a weapon of great power that obeys only one owner. While not common, they existed in every poem and song about the ancients. In one obscure poem, an immortal by the name of Meixiu melted down her Soul Tool and presented two weapons to her children. The new Tools did not accept their owners and both children died in the coming war.

That poem became very real when Shen Wei was nine years old. Attacked by their Uncle's forces, his mother and her loyalists had been forced to run from a burning Palace. Separated, Shen Wei had been chased into a clearing.

In the dark he had simply run, the flickering torches behind him driving his tired feet onward through the twisting tree roots and fallen leaves. When he fell to the unforgiving earth and tumbled down the mountainside, he had thought that death was all that awaited him.

He had not expected to be saved by a tree or to fall directly onto a Soul Tool.

In a shallow grave, his tiny hands had found a blade and terrified of the men surrounding him, he had grasped the heavy hilt. At one touch his blood sang. Power vivid and raw crackled through him, unlocking the dark energy gifts waiting beneath his skin. It was lightning and freedom, it danced over his skin even as a sense of peace settled over him.

From deep within the earth its sister blade rose to pierce through the cold dirt, summoned to his hand.

His mother seeing the fire of dark energy had given Ye Zun to her General and had run. It was one of the few times he had seen his mother and not the Empress. She had plowed into the clearing to see her son standing in the middle of blacken earth, burnt and yet frozen. Frost covered charred rock in beautiful patterns and her son stood there holding two weapons. A dao smoking with black energy and a pudao pole sword shimmering with unearthly light.

That night young as he was, the Ghost General had taken his first steps.

Kunlun had been different. Late at night curled into Shen Wei's chest as the rain washed over their tent in the middle of the plains surrounded by Dixingian soldiers and Northern tribesmen, Zhao Yunlan had told him the story.

Da Qing had been raised by the Yashou, mostly he had said, by the Snake Clan. When they kicked him out as they were wont to do, Da Qing had found himself in trouble. Wang Shu was the famous monk who chased evil and having never heard of the Cat Tribe had imprisoned Da Qing in the Temple.

Naturally the black cat escaped and took with him a celestial whip in a special bag, Da Qing thought contained money. Wang Shu cursed him to remain as a cat but Da Qing kept running.

Three years later a homeless Da Qing had ended up lost, only to be found by ten year old Zhao Yunlan. He chose Yunlan as his owner and the rest was history.

Zhao Yunlan's natural ability was to lock and unlock spells. His mother had trained him and the tutors tried to tame him, he said with a soft laugh. Eventually, he figured out how to unlock the curse on Da Qing and in gratitude, Damn Cat had given him the whip.

Which could have been the worst decision of Da Qing's life.

The whip was something of a killer.

It killed those it either didn't like or who tried to wield the tempestuous Tool. Since Da Qing had simply carried it, he was unharmed. For some reason, the whip chose Zhao Yunlan.

It did more than that though. For every master the whip had killed, it had first absorbed their gift. This was the nature of the celestial Tool created by the Immortals. When it chose Kunlun, it gave him the gifts it had collected, nearly killing the then eleven year old boy at time.

By the time he was thirty, Kunlun was not only the Chieftain of his tribe but unparalleled in sorcery. Not that he considered himself such.

If you are clever you use whatever you have at hand.

The whip must have delivered a glancing blow to have merely wounded this Gan Hien rather than killed her outright or pulled her back to Kunlun to face justice.

"To avoid execution for her latest crime, Madam Gan stood before the Emperor and told him that in return for her life, she could tell him about Lord Kunlun."

"And the panicked boy said yes." Chu Shuzhi said unimpressed.

Li Qian nodded, "She claimed that he was born of Southern Haixing, a son of a noble."

"People have claimed everything from he summoned Nuwa herself to wild stories of how he turned himself into a phoenix." Snorted Chu dismissively.

Shen Wei had to agree and Kunlun himself would have broken a rib laughing at half of the suggestions.

Still...

"Give me your word on your life that nothing about what I am to tell you, leaves this room. If it does and I find it was you, your life is forfeit." Shen Wei said darkly.

Confused but loyal to the end of their days, both gave their word.

"Lord Kunlun was born in Southern Haixing. He was not born Kun Yunlan. He was born Zhao Yunlan."

Li Qian's eyes were wide but she was reserving judgement. The line between what was truly North and South had long been contested and for decades before the war, scores of families had lived on both sides of the lax border.

Chu Shuzhi however looked betrayed, his affront silenced by a single sharp wave of Shen Wei's hand. "He is the only son of Zhao Xin Ci."

"He's..." Old Chu said his tone wavering with anger.

"He was nearly executed for being of northern blood! As a child!" Shen Wei said sharply and then sighed. In a quieter tone he explained, "In the sheer magnitude of the war, many things have been forgotten. Before the fighting began in earnest, there was lull in the war that lasted a number of years. We were not at peace but some hoped for a treaty."

"That dream ended when Empress Nan Zi was murdered. Some claimed she was killed by blood poisoning using a concoction well-known in the Dixing and that was enough. I was around twelve years of age at this time." Chu Shuzhi added for Li Qian's benefit.

"The lull truly ended when Southern Haixing began closing its borders to the rebelling North. Anyone of Northern descent still within its borders was sent to an area out west. Some claimed there were prison camps, but from what I heard, most of the people sent to that location were executed or died as slaves." Shen Wei added. "This was before the second war officially began."

"None of the Nine Tribes of the North protested." Chu Shuzhi added. "No one protested. Entire villages that one straddled a vague border were put to death or forced to swear alliance to the Haixing crown. Every son was taken for the military and every daughter was recruited by the age of fifteen."

"Zhao Xin Ci or at least the Zhao family exiled Zhao Yunlan for being of Northern descent. He murdered Shen Xi, his mother, a daughter of the Da Huang ruling family." He held up a hand to stall Li Qian. "Yes, I know. There are reports that Shen Xi was trying to escape her husband and others that say he was getting them out and it went wrong. But I was told by her son, who was there...that he killed his wife."

"After that, Zhao Yunlan took the tribal name his mother Shen Xi had given him and declared that the South, especially his father was his enemy. After defeating the Demons of Qiyi, he became the king of the unified Northern Haixing, the kingdom of Shangbei resurrected from the dust. He became Kunlun at the of ten years old."

He was not going to mention General Zhong. The memory of Zhao Yunlan looking at him, waiting for rejection and blame for simply sharing blood with Zhao Xin Ci, haunted him even now. That pain and the fear that had cut Shen Wei's heart to ribbons, could never belong on that perfect face. "He told me this himself."

At that Chu Shuzhi's rage quietened down. If Kunlun had been honest with the then Envoy and admitted the truth...

"I can see why he never wished anyone to find out." He said in a strangely calm tone.

"Yes." Shen Wei said looking at both of them. "The South is his enemy and he believed that only through defeat could there be peace and a future for Shangbei. Mai Gui and Lady Fu You of the Snake Clan are the only other ones currently aware."

"Thank you My King for explaining." Li Qian said with a courteous bow. "Marquis Zhao Xin Ci is never vocal about Lord Kunlun and seemed shocked at the court."

He would, Shen Wei thought. "There is nothing more to be said on the matter of Lord Kunlun's parentage. What did An Bai say?"

"He agreed to spare her if her information was good."

"Was it?" asked Old Chu folding his hands into his sleeves.

"She declared that Lord Kunlun was a descendant of the Yin An and when that offered no reprieve she began talking in earnest. She says that Lord Kunlun was using the Forbidden Gates."

"She must have been lying." Chu Shuzhi argued lowly, though he would not put it passed Kunlun. The man had no concept of shame and a disaster on his hands.

"What made them believe she was not?" Shen Wei asked half a beat later.

Li Qian looked at her Emperor clutching her courage in her hands, "Madam Gan did not say this in court, but her assistant told me that she had claimed years ago, that Fei Hong the bodyguard who failed the Crown Prince used demonic magic."

"The Crown Prince certainly did." Shen Wei said remembering the battle they had faced and the relief all of the Allies had felt when Kunlun had ended his rampage.

Li Qian bowed her head. "What she said next was disturbing My King. The assistant claims that this Fei Hong planned to kill Lord Kunlun and planned to destroy the Gates. His plan though mad, would have resulted in the destruction of Dixing through the direct portal gates to our Realm." Li Qian said softly, as if afraid of her own words.

"She claimed that Fei Hong knew how to invert the Gates and that he was Madam Gan's nephew." Li Qian explained. "When Duke Guo mentioned her nephew, she claimed that Kunlun had battled a demon possessing her nephew within the Hanga lands and admitted about the inverting Gates."

The Realm of the Underground. Each of the three nations had a Realm that they commanded as their own. Shangbei had the Yashou Realm and Southern Haixing had the Xù Realm. If he could truly invert the Gates...this Fei Hong would have caused the destruction of all three Realms and the death of millions.

Zhao Xin Ci was wise enough to know that it would have killed everyone. An Bai might be a fool but perhaps his advisors would explain. This Fei Hong nearly killed them all.

He tried to remember the man but the Crown Prince had surrounded himself at all times with loyalists, it would be difficult to identify this Fei Hong. Shen Wei had distracted the guards on the Prince with Kunlun at his side. Ending the Prince's life had given their forces enough time to retreat.

Zhao Yunlan had been badly injured and Shen Wei frowned as he remember dragging him through the woods with their soldiers.

"He said that night, 'If we don't do this Old Chu, everyone will die.' I thought he meant all of us caught by the Army...not..." Chu Shuzhi murmured, horror in his eyes.

Shen Wei closed his eyes.

"Madam Gan told the court that Shen Xi's older brother, the Chieftain of Da Huang was skilled in high cultivation, as were all of their clan. Like Wang Shu, the monk."

Wang Shu came from there. Another son of Da Huang Mountain.

Clans were always obsessed with lineage. Shen Wei had discovered early on that is not just the Imperial Palace of Dixing that were transfixed by heritage. All the tribes of the North could trace their history to the original Nine Tribes.

Zhao Yunlan had thought it ridiculous, but often complained that he had to appear as desperate for clan approval as everyone else. As the Lord of the Xunxi Tribe was his beloved cousin, Kunlun was often at odds with the Da Huang tribe. Both obscure and  legendary.

The Da Huang clan Kunlun said, were descendants of the Muyun. An ancient clan who carved out a reputation distinct from the other Eight. They were the ones who had recorded the early teachings before the fall of the lands after the meteorite strike. This was generations ago and much had been lost. Famine and war had led to the separation of the three realms and most of the cultivation techniques that were once common. That war had resulted in the Shen family rising from servants to royalty.

The Da Huang clan. They were a blend of untamed tribe and carefully trained cultivators. Zhu Hong was now their Clan Leader and that had not been easy battle.

"She claims that he trained Lord Kunlun to use the Forbidden Gates."

The Forbidden Gates were a ring five gates that led to a realm of desolation. An seemingly endless land never explored. A place where no life grew and no light touched.

To use those Gates would have been a death sentence.

"To channel the energy into the desolation Realm to prevent the destruction of the living." Shen Wei said in a toneless voice.

They bowed their heads as they considered that, until Chu Shuzhi looked up. "Why are they so convinced Lord Kunlun is alive?"

"The  Da Huang tribe teach that there is another Realm

"The Da Huang tribe teach that there is another Realm. One of the outer planes close to the Desolation Realm. It is not officially forbidden but it is locked. It was the creation of one of the Immortals long ago and to open it would be the death of us all."

Shen Wei with haunted eyes looked at her, hope mingling with despair.

"Madam Gan claims that Lord Kunlun opened it. She says that he is trapped within it."

"And why am I only hearing this now?" Shen Wei asked in a deceptively soft tone.

Li Qian immediately lowered her head. Others were fooled, but she had not survived this long by being willfully naive. Shen Wei was not a friend mourning a man who could be a brother to him.

He was a husband searching for his spouse.

Friendship is a gift that can last a lifetime. Bonds forged in battle are unlike anything else with trust and reliance tied so tightly to survival and sanity. But even they, brothers and sisters of battle missing what seemed to be the twin of their soul, did not suffer as Shen Wei suffered. When you were missing the very other half of your soul...things were different. Desperation stark and terrible...duty that chained him here and love that bound him eternally somewhere else.

It was she thought, the somewhere else that she had promised to help him find.

"There is no forgiveness possible My King. I feared that Madam Gan's words were lies. Insults and slander to sully Lord Kunlun's name simply to free herself from the fate she cast on others. She is evil and she has no shame...no honor. To speak of what she said and foretold...I had to know if there was any truth in her words."

Shen Wei regarded her bent head and considered. Anger and frustration simmered beneath his cold mask, but it eased slightly at her confession. To wait and try for proof was not a bad thing. She had not been remiss because she had like so many given up on Kunlun.

"And what proved to you that there was truth?"

"Marquis Zhao Xin Ci, My King." She answered, her head still low.

"What did he do?"

"Emperor An Bai is unaware of Lord Kunlun's parentage and ordered Chancellor Gao to find answers. He referred to Marquis Zhao. The spy I have in place, told me that they spoke of Shangbei. It is true that this other Realm exists. After three days had passed, Marquis Zhao revealed more information."

"What information?" Old Chu asked quickly, fearing the King might have run out of patience.

"To explain this My King, I must explain that I was not alone in this investigation. In the Duke's residence, I met Lin Jing of the Da Huang tribe."

"Lin Jing?" Shen Wei mused.

"They never gave up on Lord Kunlun." Old Chu said. They had been a family for years. All of them missed Kunlun. Even him.

"What I learned from him added to the narrative and added proof, but in the Duke's residence, we learned of a heinous crime."

"More heinous that the potential destruction of Dixing?" Old Chu asked almost scornfully.

"The reason My King, why you were ambushed on the Hanga Plains." Li Qian continued. "Lord Kunlun was betrayed."

The temperature of the room dropped like a stone from great height. Frost appeared like a wave, aching cold spreading in dizzying patterns across the desk, the floor and traveled to the large Shangbei glass vase and the ornate mirror by the far wall. A storm seemed to settle writhing and raging in the center of the room, the pressure pushing down on them even as the cold burned.

Li Qian already terrified of this reaction hurriedly pressed her fingers to her abdomen, activating the warming talisman hidden in her robes. Blessed warmth unfurled in her chest and she could breathe. Chu Shuzhi prostrated and frost collected on his black robes and hair.

"Betrayed."

The word was brittle and almost toneless, but she didn't doubt the banked rage behind it or the face of the Ghost General. She certainly did not doubt the pudao in his grip, the clang as it struck the floor sending dark energy to rise in the air like smoke.

"Yes My King." She managed to say.

"Who?"

The word loaded with ice boomed like a peal of thunder.

"Cong Bo." She said through chattering teeth and tensed her body to stop the shivers.

"Cong Bo is supposed to be dead." Shen Wei said almost conversationally.

"He was in the room inside the Duke's residence."

Shen Wei whirled and power erupted sharply contained and no more terrifying.

"I will have his life for it."

He then turned to them, the pressure easing until breathing was once more possible without the pain, though frost remained. "What did you learn?"

"Cong Bo said that Lord Kunlun was suspicious. That he argued against using the Gates and that he wanted to take the upper path that led through the mountains. He said that someone had tried to kill him and that the tribes were struggling with his command."

They had been but Kunlun understood them and knew he could yet get them to the end of the war.

"Lord Kunlun eventually agreed when he heard that the Crown Prince was going to try for the Gates. He killed him battle and hoped that would end the chance. But the Crown Prince had put it into place. That night fearing that the Gates might be used to kill us all, Lord Kunlun gave a sigil to Guo Changcheng."

Chu Shuzhi shivered and it was not from cold but Shen Wei's hand prevented him from speaking and from any act of violence.

"Xiao Guo did not die."

"Forgive me for disputing your word, but no My King, he did not. Guo Changcheng was put to sleep by Lord Kunlun or Deputy Daqing and has now been found by the Da Huang tribe."

"Found..." Chu Shuzhi whispered. "Zhu Hong has never told us..."

Shen Wei's temper did not worsen but he blinked in confusion. "Why?" He asked echoing the desperate and devastated expression on Old Chu's face.

"Lin Jing told me that Guo Changcheng would have been killed and they have no idea how to free him. He also said that they only discovered that he was alive during the Yashou war commemoration."

"They didn't know? They kept it from Zhu Hong?"

"Yes My King. Lin Jing and Chieftain Zhu Hong performed a private ceremony giving blessing to those that died. He told me that in their culture, they light a candle in memory but the person is represented by a crystal in water. In the older ceremony that they were performing, the candle floating on the water goes out when the name is read. It is replaced by a mourning candle and the ceremony continues. It has never worked with Lord Kunlun or Deputy Da Qing proving that neither is dead, but this was the first time they tried it with Guo Changcheng."

"And?"

"The candle did not go out. They tried again and then began searching. Eventually they tried to summon him through the portal as Lord Kunlun had taught them, when that failed Lin Jing used his gift and tracked him by using the candle ceremony. It took months and then they found him hidden by the White Crane Clan."

"Lady Ah Cy was hiding Guo Changcheng?"Shen Wei said in shock.

"She did not know who he was and took several survivors back who were in similar condition, caused by Southern Haixing's gas weapon. Most have died over time from their injuries and the Clan has been trying for years to wake Guo Changcheng."

Chu Shuzhi looked torn between helpless rage and hope but Shen Wei looked thoughtful. "Tomorrow I will invite Zhu Hong and Lin Jing to tea. I had planned to regardless but I think tomorrow we shall have an talk and come to a new place of understanding."

To Chu Shuzhi he said, "I will wake Guo Changcheng and this is likely what Zhu Hong has come here to ask of me. To tell us this good news if Lin Jing has not already told her, that we know."

"Cong Bo told Marquis Zhao that the sigil is the key to finding Lord Kunlun."

"I had not seen Kunlun for days before the battle. Zhu Hong and Lin Jing were not there. He would have put Xiao Guo on that boat, so he was not there when Kunlun got us to safety. We thought Guo was dead but what if he escaped and came to Kunlun?"

"Kunlun hid him with the refuges before he could be discovered as Southern Haixing. He would have thought that he could just free Xiao Guo from sleep when it was over or the sleep curse was already on him..."

And Kunlun simply used the boy as the holding mechanism for the sigil. Insurance. Kunlun would have been worried at how spread his team was and Shen Wei had not been there.

He had failed Zhao Yunlan, but if he saved Guo Changcheng he might know where Kunlun is.

"Find out exactly what Duke Zhao is planning and where he is going. Contact Lin Jing and find out if they brought Guo Changcheng with them."

Chu Shuzhi rose and Shen Wei held out a hand, "I know your pain and your hope. I know it as I know my own. But we must think of Guo Changcheng's safety. Zhu Hong has worked hard to appear as though she does not wish to be here and Southern Haixing has brought soldiers to protect the emissaries. We must ensure that Zhu Hong is safe and that if she has Guo Changcheng with her, that we are in place to protect all three of them."

"Yes My King." They said in unison.

When they left, Shen Wei looked up through the open doorway at the wall facing the window. Zhao Yunlan beautiful and yet somber, the moment forever captured in paint stared at the ground in the courtyard of Yi City. No thorns around that lovely mouth, clean smooth skin and robes of strong grey. The beard grew back quickly, but here Shen Wei had been unable to touch. Here in this moment, Zhao Yunlan was not yet his.

Betrayed.

As the night drew closer to the coming dawn, Shen Wei knelt by his desk and through the tears gathering in his eyes, he strengthened his resolve. He had failed him and alone, Zhao Yunlan had faced what could have been his end.

No. He would bring Kunlun home.

 

Chapter Text

The sky was tinged with the promise of winter, the dawn a faint glow of pale hues in the far distance. As if the sun feared to disturb the grief soaked pain of the man sitting sleepless. 

The circular window was shrouded against the coming light, shielding the treasures from the threat of fading colors. 

Paintings in exquisite detail filled the room from floor to ceiling leaving only three spaces bare on the south wall, opposite the window. Each one lovingly painted, stood as a shrine to one man. A man with the same face. 

Zhao Yunlan in a hundred different situations, different moods and yet each was so passionately rendered, it felt as though the man in the painting, could come alive at any moment. 

The love sheltered in Shen Wei's heart, was what shimmered through each one, taking paint and transforming it into a memory. 

The warm curve of a cheek, the glint of a hairpin...the twisted complex braids that flowed down a strong shoulder. A smile, the fierce glare of a battle hardened soldier...the sultry, tired look of a man afraid they might not see another dawn. The fearless laughter, obsidian eyes gleaming with boundless amusement. 

The door was locked with eight boundary locks, all of them Kunlun's inventions. 

On the floor against the wall missing the three portraits, ones he had yet to paint, Shen Wei took a deep breath. 

On his lap was a sword, his hand on the hilt white-knuckled. 

A sword that was known to many and recognizable only to a few. Impossibly sharp and imbued with arcane power, it gleamed in the still air halfway between morning's relief and night's sanctuary. It was a weapon of death and in deft hands it had claimed the life of many, on the battlefields of the war. 

It was a wide blade, long and straight with a sharply angled tip. The bronze hilt was twice the length of his own with a double grip, etched in gold. A swirling square pattern, reminding him of intricate braids wound around the hilt and part of the blade. 

This blade was a greater treasure to him than anything in the vault of Dixing. 

This was Kunlun's dao.

He had woken curled into the blankets and furs of Kunlun's bed, inches from its charcoal black qiao. The qiao was missing, but Shen Wei had commissioned a replacement, near identical to the old one.  

He ahd pulled it free from Kunlun's belt in his haste to loosen both robes and armor. He had watched his love strap it to his back, to his side and tuck it beneath a cloak. He had watched Kunlun throw it to the ground in frustration inside cavern rooms or a tent and onto a bedroll. Kunlun had tucked it between them, as they lay side-by-side waiting for an attack, underneath an inn bed and at his elbow when he slept...

Shen Wei had seen it slash down from the saddle of a warhorse, swung high in the air through a field of raging soldiers. Held aloft to embolden their own forces and thrown with deadly accuracy into the chest of the Crown Prince of Southern Haixing.

And that...the Prince's death...that was the reason for this.  

In his early days, Kunlun had made a name for himself in Northern Haxing by unifying formerly warring tribes, under one name and one flag. Under Kunlun they had gained economic prosperity for the first time and he had in his own way, settled feuds going back many generations. 

No one had thought it possible. The tribes were too violent, to distrustful. Southern Haixing had failed to gain the land as a protectorate and Dixing had failed negotiations. They possess power that is not well understood and old ways that unnerve the more superstitious. They all refused to acknowledge the Emperor of Southern Haixing and sometime traded with the local Yashou. 

A Chieftain who came from such a remote mountain, holding a celestial whip seemed something from legend. Stories that Shen Wei ahd avidly listened to around the campfires on the front line. A man who could summon arcane fire or wind at will, who wielded talismans and wandered through graveyards. True stories of wits and cunning, power and fortitude. 

A hero.   

Kunlun held him in enthralled even now, but it was Zhao Yunlan who had laid claim to his heart. He ran his fingers lovingly over the blade and smiled. For each day he had been searching for his love, he had hoped. For each day since becoming Emperor he had been building this room, painting each portrait as an ode to the man he so desperately missed.

Soon Kunlun would be free.

Rising from the floor, his robes swirled around him. Still holding the sword to his chest he raised his hand as he slowly made a circuit of the small room, tracing his fingers along the face of each portrait. He could not say goodbye to Zhao Yunlan even a painted one, without his heart aching.

The locks released the door in a vibrant shock of power, igniting the symbols in bright blue. As it closed behind him, the seal turned in a full circle, the symbols rising off the door to initiate the eight lock system. The lock talismans glowed with an emerald green light before the door mimicked the plain white wall of his bedroom.

He plucked the black qiao from the bed and slid the sword inside, feeling it hum with its own energy. Turning for the door, he paused at the threshold looking at the octagonal room with its pretty windows. This room was his but it was not a home. The Emperor's official quarters were...staged. Filled with lavish furniture and gold walls, richly decorated but simple. Here it was his sanctuary and the place he worked. In the bedroom he slept and dreamed of Zhao Yunlan. Here he painted and hoped. 

His hand rose and dark energy coalesced in a silver symbol. A sharp motion sent the silver mark racing at the door, to disappear through the wood. 

This room from the eagle-headed statue to the shields on the wall, had always been a piece that was purely his. His feet carried him along, through the circular doorway at the end into another space.

The Palace of Six Phoenixes was not a vast structure. It  was an old building with its own charm. He had four rooms he had taken for his private study, one room for his bed with the locked sanctuary...shrine Shen Wei. It's a shrine. He could all but hear Zhao Yunlan's disgruntled tones. The last room was the one in the middle down the long corridor. It overlooked the East gardens and from here he would remember,  playing his dizi or his ruanqin or as he had for some time now, painting when the moon was at it zenith.

The door opened but he did not turn, hearing the soft tread of Butler Wu. "Your Majesty. How may I serve you?"

If Southern Haixing found Kunlun first...

No. Mai Gui might fear that Kunlun had no where to go, but Shen Wei would bring him home and no one would stop him.

The rooms beyond this one led to the second half of his quarters. A space he had planned for Zhao Yunlan. 

The walls were a rich, vivid blue and it was carefully decorated with Kunlun in mind. Some of them were Kunlun's things. After his disappearance he had gone back to the Allied caverns ostensibly to collect his own things. An Emperor in name a week before the official ceremony. A grieving brother, with a back bowed not by war but by pain. 

Zhao Yunlan had no family and his tribe had  already moved on to choosing a new Chieftain, uncaring it seemed whether their king was dead or not. That was hard to forgive. Simply giving up on Zhao Yunlan was surely impossible, but they proved him wrong.

So he laid claim to Kunlun's things. Their new chieftain would not have them to beguile others and his heart refused to give them up, even to Kunlun's beloved loyalists like Zhu Hong or Ling Jing.

Shen Wei eyed each piece of furniture carefully. "I wish for this room to be aired thoroughly."

"Your Will shall been done My King."

The red daybed would have to go. It might have belonged to his ancestor but it looked too uncomfortable for Yunlan. Why had he not changed it before? Kunlun would soon be free!

"I also want that gone." He said pointing at the daybed. "No, replaced. Replaced with something more comfortable and longer. "

Zhao Yunlan was not a short man and he enjoyed lounging in the sun. "More cushions I think and order at least three sets of quilts, blankets and purchase some plants."

Butler Wu unseen by the agitated Shen Wei stared at the floor in surprise but his voice betrayed nothing of his shock or pride. "Traditional My King or would you prefer a differnt pattern?"

A good question. Shen Wei considered it with the gravity of a war strategy or State meeting. Zhao Yunlan would dislike the formal Dixingian pattern, with its dark colors or tiger theme.

"Brightly colored. Different patterns unrelated to the Palace themes. Blue, orange, sand and plum. Yes, a plum tree set." He decided looking at the wide bed. 

"Any particular variety of plants My King?"

"Something non-deadly and attractive."

That was a wide scope Butler Wu thought, but he bowed lowly. "Of course, My King. I shall see it done."

If Northern Haixing didn't wish to protect Kunlun, he would. No mater what his love chose, Shen Wei could give him safety.

sfd

Chapter Text

 

horse

On the edge of a forest a warhorse shifted impatiently, as restless as it's silent rider.

The scent of rain filled the air mingling with the golden leaves of autumn scattered on the ground. The mare dug at the wet ground and tossed her mane, aware on some level that something strange was hovering just out of reach, her senses telling her that danger might be close. A pale hand appeared from the long sleeves of a coal-black cloak and patted her neck gently.

His mare however well-trained could sense the boundary magic and Kunlun's spinning sundial pendant told him it was a strong field, encasing all of the upper part of the hill. Another of Zhao Yunlan's clever inventions.

The wind rustled the leaves and the black cloth of the Emperor's robes billowed in a icy cold dance, but Shen Wei seemed not to notice. For a moment as the cloth rose in the air, there was the unmistakable gleam of a gold hilt.

Fierce chocolate brown eyes were fixed on the landscape before them, the six horses dwarfed by the majesty of the jade green forest creeping up the jagged cliffs of the Middle Province.

Lin Jing reluctantly sitting in the center, looked at Shen Wei's back worriedly, shuddering from the cold and the foreboding silence of the Dixingian soldiers handpicked for this mission. Tan Xiao, the secret agent on his right, offered him a friendly smile.

Directly behind him was Ye Huo better known as Flame; holding the reins of Li Qian's horse with two silent female soldiers. Battle Commander Tu Qiuyue, with her soft amber eyes that were as hard as steel and Mo Bingqing. Whether the latter was intelligence or pure military, he had no idea. Equally he wasn't sure if that was truly her name.

He did know that Tu Qiuyue was a loyalist having served with Emperor Shen for a number of years and that she owed Chieftain Kunlun her life. He also knew that they feared Chu Shuzhi almost as much as the Emperor. His old friend was beside himself, but he could hardly leave Dixing in the midst of all the recent trouble, with Emperor 'in recovery'. As Regent he had remained behind with the promise that Shen Wei would collect Guo Changcheng and return him to the safety of Dixing.

The Emperor didn't look like he needed 'recovery'.

With no protection from the wind, they stood in formation behind Emperor Shen, waiting for Li Qian to return.

High above them the building rose from the trees sitting atop the hill like a boat floating on the waves. Qing Lou or Quiet House was a quaintly named sanctuary, run by voluntary healers and priests. Their specialty was the long-term care of patients affected by the war and they were entirely neutral. It hadn't spared them from the ravages of war but the new building had been partly funded by all sides.

It was a sacred place and its rules had to be respected. It was also the current home of Guo Changcheng, Shen Wei thought looking at the white-washed walls.

For whatever reason, someone had cast what Lin Jing suspected was a kind of own curse on Guo Changcheng. The king would protect his people at all costs, Lin Jing could only assume that whatever had happened to Xiao Guo, had happened well away from Kunlun's protective reach. 

Shen Wei could not wield power in the same way, but he was watched Zhao Yunlan avidly for some time, his best student one could say.

Zhu Hong had sent Lin Jing to the sanctuary the moment they found him but were turned away, as they were neither his family nor his benefactors. It took weeks to learn the right name and it was no one they knew.

Before his forces had engaged with the Crown Prince, Lord Kunlun had sent away all of the vulnerable people, which included Xiao Guo. The plan all along had been to defeat the Prince and then when that was over, rejoin the main Shangbei forces.

Except Lord Kunlun never returned and Xiao Guo wasn't with the support forces that Chief had dispatched from the Hanga valley. Six people were left unaccounted for and perhaps they always would have been, except for people like Chu Shuzhi and Shangbei's Crown Prince, who immediately asked where the boy was.

Someone had sent Xiao Guo well out of the way with a man called Gu Yi, or maybe the man had found him. But both of those scenarios only led to more unanswered, impossible questions.

Gu Yi was an exiled Dixingian but he wasn't a rebel either and there were a handful of such people who worked for Kunlun, as informants and spies mostly. This man had been exiled for corruption apparently during the time of his mother's early years as Empress.

Somehow Kunlun had befriended him...Lin Jin didn't know him and this happened well away from Shen Wei too. From what Shen Wei and Lin Jin could gather, he was in significant debt with Kunlun and there was a chance that escorting Xiao Guo wiped off a 'few' of those bigger debts. When Kunlun had failed to arrive or send for the boy, Gu Yi had arranged for Guo to be sent here.

There was no where else and Gu Yi had never agreed to be a nurse for an sleeping boy.

Three years after the war ended, Gu Yi had died leaving behind vague instructions for his daughter. It had been the first letter from her father in nearly fifteen years, detailing Guo's whereabouts. She had not hesitated to show Chu Shuzhi the letter or explain her choices, believing that it was possible this boy was her father's illegitimate son. She had paid the fee secretly not wanting the scandal of a illegitimate brother to stain her husband's reputation. He was a Marquis and the son of the High Minister for Commerce after all...

Chu Shuzhi would do more than stain his reputation. So this time, Li Qian had gone ahead to the sanctuary with a letter from Gu Yi's daughter, giving them rightful access to Guo Changcheng. Without that, it would take a siege to get entrance within the sacred walls and Shen Wei was trying to avoid attention.

There had been enough of that this month to last him a lifetime.

His horse shifted again and Shen Wei dropped his gaze from the hilltop to look at his hands, clenched around the black reins.

He had nearly died in an explosion two weeks ago. The irony was cruel and the echo to his mother's death was a stab of grief in his heart. The tactician in him knew that it had given him opportunity, a single chance to find Zhao Yunlan.

But still, an explosion.

On the last day of the Memory of Peace ceremony, when all of the dignitaries and former Allies were assembled together, Shen Wei had been shoved into a difficult position on three counts.

That morning he had gathered Fu You, Mai Gui, Zhu Hong and Lin Jing together for a meeting in the Palace of Six Phoenixes, joined there by Chu Shuzhi. It had been a morning of great disappointment, anger and shock, where he had learned things about Zhao Yunlan, the man himself would never have told him about.

Firstly, the Middle States and the Yashou excepting Lady Fu You would not support Kunlun, without far greater proof than they had. They wanted a sign that he was truly alive, in order to assist them or failing that, a declaration about his native status. Southern Haixing? Or Northern?

Shangbei had declared long ago that if Kunlun was found they would protect him at all costs. Shen Wei didn't doubt that.

Zhu Hong didn't have Xiao Guo and despite her best efforts could not retrieve him either, but she had come to speak directly with Shen Wei about it. To her credit, there had only been a lull of two weeks since they had discovered the truth and her arrival here. It had taken that long to find Xiao Guo and when they had, the sanctuary denied her requests.

The Snake Clan was of no help, despite the influence they had over the place. She feared a letter would go astray so decided to come here to request help in person, allaying some of Chu Shuzhi's righteous anger.

In the middle of this, Mai Gui had announced that Kunlun was his shidi. 

Shock had spread around the room, echoed in stunned faces and Shen Wei's sharp questions.

Uncaring of their reactions, Ma Gui amid the arguments had pledged that he would take Kunlun and gladly give him shelter. He had admitted to the table that Kun Yunlan, while he didn't know his birth name, had been an inner disciple for six years with his clan, spending another two at another sect now destroyed.

It had been Ma Gui who had called him back, days before the attack that had killed the Ma family. Shen Xi had been close friends with Mai Gui's mother and the man had long thought of him as a little brother. Even in the face of widespread opposition, he would not deny Kunlun.

Lady Fu You had asked "Why? You never spoke of this. Never." 

With sadness in his eyes Ma Gui had replied, "I thought him dead for a long time. He freed me from the Meishan and we escaped. I was injured and delirious when he gave me to the Snake Yashou for sanctuary, but the Meishan got the remaining Chongsheng to disavow him. The Snakes would not give him shelter and he was forced to leave. They also declined to give me the letter he left behind."

"So they were the ones who spread the rumors about him robbing the place and killing the disciples." Zhu Hong said with anger. "They hunted him!"

"He did steal my mother's jewelry." Ma Gui replied sadly and added before Shen Wei could start shouting, "For me. To pay the Snake Yashou. I was in a coma for seven months."

"I only learned that he was alive when Lord Sha of the Yinran contacted me. Just after his coronation as king, we met halfway into Shangbei." Ma Gui finished. "To answer the obvious question, Kunlun asked me not to speak of it. The Allies needed to remain together and there were parties who would have used it to dishonor me. He refused to let them do that."

Zhao Yunlan had been trained within their clan as a disciple, earning widespread admiration for his skills and a name for himself as a cultivator. Shen Wei had no idea that Ma Gui had been his main backer or his brother.

Ma Gui then admitted that it was not Zhao Yunlan who had murdered his Uncle, like Southern Haixing were suggesting. He had. The man had been attempting to kill Kunlun for the celestial whip, when Mai Gui had interfered. Fu You had been shocked but Ma Gui promised solemnly that Kunlun was his brother, a hero and the Lord Guardian.

"I will gladly stand down from the position, if Kunlun would like to retake his title." Mai Gui had said ignoring Zhu Hong and Fu You's outbursts.

Ma Gui then turned to Shen Wei. "It is a long way to Shangbei and my shidi has many enemies. I ask you Emperor of Dixing where do you stand? Kunlun was willing to give his life for you. He saved your life three times! Will you give him protection?"

"The entire army of Dixing will stand before him and his enemies. He has sanctuary and protection from me no matter where he goes." Shen Wei vowed. "I will repay him with my life and nothing will stop me from freeing him."

As the son of a power-hungry Queen, Shen Wei knew that Mai Gui was a rare gem. Giving up power like that...the title of Lord Guardian gave him almost King-like status in the North and demanded respect from the South.

The following hours were tied up in political affairs until Shen Wei only had dinner to face before the Farewell Ceremony the following morning. Southern Haixing were in the middle of loudly giving thanks for Dixing's grand hospitality in a rambling speech about peace and prosperity when the crisis had begun.

The Palace of White Tigers, the largest hall in all of Dixing had been decorated lavishly and the Palace chefs had outdone themselves with the menu. Shen Wei sitting beside the Empress, simply had little appetite. Wang Zheng had been stunning in lilac and gold, her headdress a towering array of gold flowers, jewels and the famed tiger comb in yellow jade that had once belonged to his mother.

His mind was focused on thoughts of Zhao Yunlan and the knowledge he now possessed about the so-called Fifth Realm. One of the outer planes close to the Desolation Realm...locked but not officially guarded. Guo Changcheng knew something...

Wang Zheng tapped the table gently startling him from his thoughts, but the Southern Haixing emissary was still droning on. His wandering eyes glanced from face to face, gauging reactions...right up until he saw a face he though long dead. Cong Bo. The traitor.

He was on his feet, violating centuries of protocol and startled the emissary into silence. A suddenly standing King usually meant death hovered near. "Capture him!" He demanded pointing at Cong Bo. "He is a traitor."

All eyes turned to Cong Bo, the man dressed as a server. That there would be an attack was almost guaranteed. Of all the people Shen Wei might expect, Cong Bo was not one of them. He certainly didn't expect Cong Bo to enter the Great Dining Hall and release a powerful Haixing Eight Ball explosive device, screaming for revenge.

The Eight Ball had been everyone's fear on the battlefield, but it was not the first Shen Wei had faced such a thing. Chu Shuzhi was on his feet the moment the Emperor rose, but the guards were ushering Wang Zheng out of the room in seconds. Widespread panic had erupted and the signal, the one the Palace dreaded had been sent. Public Attack. The City Watchmen shut down every Gate within ten minutes and the Palace went on standby for a disaster.

It had taken nearly all of his power to subdue the explosion, containing it within dark energy but that meant Cong Bo was free to release his second weapon with Shen Wei so obviously occupied. His best guards pulled Wang Zheng from the room, well trained after his mother's death to prepare for assassination. The smaller explosion killed thirteen people including two Southern Haixing emissaries and injured thirty more.

Mai Gui had been wounded saving Fu You and Zhu Hong herself had been badly burned. Shen Wei wishing he too had access to the Desolation Realm was forced to release the energy so sent it through a portal to the abandoned Western lands. The crater was enormous he was later told.

If he had hoped Cong Bo might give him some much desired answers, he would have been disappointed. Fu You had put a blade through Cong Bo's heart, for harming her beloved Ma Gui.

He didn't blame her. The Snake Yashou rarely sought violence but when they did death was inevitable.

Word spread that the Emperor was injured, but recovering in private. Chu Shuzhi took command telling the court that he was in constant contact with the Emperor. Wang Zheng and Anujin had been moved from the city, disappearing to the country a month ahead of schedule and remained heavily guarded. Those injured were being cared for but the surviving emissaries and their entourage had returned home. Cong Bo was carrying Southern Haixing papers so there was little they could say. Emperor An Bai could say even less, much to Shen Wei's satisfaction.

After ensuring that Dixing and the Underground Realm were safe, he instructed Chu Shuzhi and promptly left the City. This was his chance and he would not waste it.

"Li Qian approaches My King." Mo Bingqing announced, dark energy swirling in her palm, refocusing him in the present.

 

Within minutes, his Chief of Intelligence appeared on the path flanked by Wu Xiaojun, with his perpetual scowl firmly in place. They bowed low and Shen Wei waved his hand in a rare display of impatience. "Well?"

"Guo Changcheng was removed from the sanctuary two hours ago My King."

Shen Wei stopped and nothing stirred in the clearing for a number of minutes. Li Qian and Wu Xiaojun remained locked in a respectful bow, expecting to feel the icy chill of the Emperor's rage any moment now. Surprisingly, silence met their words.

Lin Jing held his breath and his exclamation, thinking dimly that the Chief would have been proud of him. Then he thought of Chu Shuzhi and cringed, unseen by the others who were proving that bowing on horseback was actually possible.

Deep within the dark hood, Shen Wei frowned and power crackled in the air. "How far is the nearest city?" He asked, his tone rigid.

Confused by the question and noticing no one else was going to speak,  Lin Jing said, "Shaohou City is an hour west, Your Majesty."

"That is where we will head now." Shen Wei declared as he turned his horse onto the path.

 

 

Chapter Text

To a man devoted there was no challenge great enough that could shake his faith. Anything was possible. 

The jade pendant at his throat was warm with promise and his heart was fearless as he led his small army into the city. His path and the answers he sought took him to one location, directly in the middle of the hustle of early evening. 

Here and there were remnants of the Memory of Peace festival but the atmosphere was subdued, perhaps due to the recent attack at the Palace. 

As they had entered the gates, passersby glanced at them, eying the plain black robes of his soldiers and the dark blue of Ling Jing's tribal wear, backing away from the chill that followed the lead rider. So Shen Wei dismounted and ordered his reluctant soldiers to find them an inn for the night. 

Battle Commander Tu Qiuyue looked horrified and Kunlun no doubt would have laughed. "My King," She began, her voice soft but urgent. 

"Both you and Li Qian may follow if you wish." He allowed. "Mo Bingqing, make sure we have an exit should we need one. Everyone else, find an inn." 

The crowd parted around them and he led the way to a lavish inn opposite a brothel, with a courtyard and stable. Here, Shen Wei marched forward pushing open the doors even as he gathered dark energy to his hands, but he remained in the shadow of the doorway, hidden from sight.

At the back near the largest tables were seven Southern Haixing soldiers attempting to blend in by pretending to be traders, but their boots were too expensive. The Dixingian innkeeper was filling cups with a strained expression, but the patrons gathered around were fierce in their willful ignorance. 

Shaohou City was a border town and a peaceful population, but they were mostly Dixingian. Penalties for killing or harming each other were high, a consequence of trying to maintain the peace Kunlun gave everything for. Shen Wei thought as he moved closer. 

At his nod, Li Qian moved forward lowering her hood. She wore a simple mask of blue but as Shen Wei expected the Southern Haixingren soldiers looked directly at her, not as a threat but as a beautiful woman seemingly on her own. As she came to innkeeper ostensibly to rent a room, one of the grabbed her shoulder with a leer, his friends laughing. 

Li Qian was an excellent warrior trained since birth, but she knew her Emperor well enough, to see through the simple staging. With the soldiers here, no one would be able to make it to the stairs without bloodshed. Whoever they guarded, the emperor was in no mood to wait for an audience. 

Shen Wei moved a hand in a sharp arc and power erupted. Lighting seemed to spark to life in his hand and it wrapped around the soldier's neck.    

Tu Qiuyue drew her dao ready to die for her Emperor, but Shen Wei lifted his left hand, the Emperor's famed dao shimmering into his hand, frost tracing its icy patterns along the gleaming edge. From within his hood, cold eyes stared at them. "Call your master and tell him, his 'request' has been answered." 

When none of them moved, the lightning pulled the solider higher off the ground, "Now!" 

The innkeeper pressed himself back against the wall and the patrons either froze or  tried to escape past Tu Qiuyue. One of the soldiers, the oldest of the group, said "Threatening us is against the peace treaty. We will have penalty against you." 

"You cannot ask for penalty against an Enforcer, especially not when a crime against Dixing's citizens has been proven." Tu Qiuyue answered giving her King a reason to be here.

"Why would an Enforcer need our Master?" He asked putting himself before the doorway to the stairs. 

"They brought an unconscious boy with them." The innkeeper said looking between one and the other. "Second room on the right." 

Guo Changcheng. 

"This is Dixing and that boy is a kidnap victim. You can call your Master down here or I will put all of you on your knees." Shen Wei stated, "Your choice."  

The older one gestured reluctantly and one of the soldiers at the back moved past him and slipped up the stairs. Li Qian returned to Shen Wei's side and Tu Qiuyue's dao guarded the door. 

"You have no right." The older one said again. 

"I have every right." Shen Wei corrected coolly, thinking how easy it was for them to return to enemies. "Attack my people and they have the right to imprison you or end your lives." 

The soldier returned and everyone looked to him. "Our Master says to tell you, that you are welcome to see him."

He was always arrogant. Shen Wei thought darkly. "Very well." 

He dropped the soldier to the ground letting him wheeze and stepped forward. Li Qian had her own dao out and flanked him until his boots touched the steps, then she turned round and put herself in front of the soldier. "My Master will find the way himself." She said sternly, shoving him back. 

He looked like he wanted to fight but the older soldier and most certainly his commander ordered him to stand down. Satisfied, Shen Wei made his way up the stairs and along the corridor, to the room in the middle. Dark energy primed to defend himself danced around his fingertips as he opened the door. 

It was a spacious room with red curtains around the ornate bed and a seating area to one side. Stepping into the room, old dark wood floor made not a sound but he could see just to his right, his old enemy watching intently. 

Zhao Xin Ci's dark eyes swept up to meet his gaze as he entered but continued pouring tea into two pale blue cups. "About time." He said, his voice as soft and commanding as ever. 

His sand and grey robes were edged with white hiding any number of weapons, including Shen Wei thought grimly, his famous throwing knives. Between them, Zhao Yunlan was the only one would attend a meeting with his only defense his more obvious dao. The same blade hidden in his cloak now. The man had aged over the decade since they had last met, but there was no mistaking the fire in that gaze or the willingness in that heart for murder. 

Zhao Xin Ci was a dangerous, clever man and a powerful one, a noble with enough backing and imperial blood to make a bid for the Southern Haixing throne. Shen Wei also had no doubt that unlike the last several serving Emperors, Zhao Xin Ci would die of old age. 

He held no affection for this man, but there was a strange stand-off that lay between. This man for all that Shen Wei may despise him, was Zhao Yunlan's father and regardless of the circumstances, the war or Zhao Yunlan himself...Shen Wei would not risk hurting Kunlun by killing Zhao Xin Ci.  

It was for that reason that Shen Wei never demanded justice from this man, unlike the scores of others who had wronged Kunlun, never sought retribution and certainly never interacted with the man. 

His choices had meant that Zhao Yunlan did not grow up in Southern Haixing and had never been polluted by this man's beliefs. Kunlun saw Dixing as his allies, as much as the Yashou or other Northern tribes, there was no hate in  his heart, only the desire to protect their rights, their homeland from invasion. 

The same could not be said for Zhao Xin Ci.  

Shen Wei pulled back his hood and took off his mask, not as a symbol of respect but to level the playing field. Zhao Xin Ci may enjoy mind games, but time was of the essence. "Guo Changcheng?" He asked as he walked further into the room.

"Safe for now." He replied pushing a cup across the table. "We have time." 

Shen Wei settled across from him and looked at the cup. Zhao Xin Ci cradled his own carefully and said almost idly, "Strange to see an Emperor so far from his kingdom....and at such a difficult time." 

"If you wanted another war, you are out of luck. Your Emperor gave me assurances earlier this week." Shen Wei announced, curious to see what Zhao Xin Ci would say. 

Zhao Xin Ci smiled but it never reached his eyes. "I had nothing to do with the attack. Minister Gao is an old friend of mine, why would I wish him harm? If anything it is proof Dixing is not as safe as you have us believe." 

"Cong Bo will not be identified. Not by Dixing." Shen Wei countered smoothly. 

"Not a name I know." Zhao Xin Ci said calmly sipping his tea.

Shen Wei leaned forward, "You had no interest in your son's welfare twenty years ago. You have no right to interfere now." 

Rage whipped into those dark eyes like a summer storm, but it was training and an iron will that prevented those throwing knives from appearing. "You know nothing about that." He ground out coldly. 

"Don't I?" Shen Wei asked, "It matters not. Nothing, not you nor anyone will stop me from freeing Chieftain Kunlun."  

"You have no ground to stand on, Your Majesty. My son was kidnapped. By Dixing." 

Is that what he believed? There were several versions of the narrative regarding Zhao Yunlan's 'escape' from Haixing. The man himself never spoke of it, beyond that brief pained moment when he said, "He killed my mother. He is no father to me." 

Shen Wei had always believed Da Qing's account. That Zhao Xin Ci in all his cold-blooded glory had ended his wife's life...but Kunlun another story. Zhao Xin Ci was ruthless and brilliant. On the battlefield over a decade ago now, fate or circumstances had meant that this man had had one excellent chance to kill Kunlun, with a battery of archers and enough distance to end all of them. 

Kunlun could have died that day and Shen Wei had not been there. Yet for whatever reason, this man had chosen not to end  his son's life. Not then and not during the remaining years of the war.  

"Your son was nearly executed for having Northern blood." Shen Wei retorted coldly. "It was Da Qing who got him out and the North who claimed him as their own. You burned those bridges Zhao Xin Ci. It had nothing to do with Dixing." 

"My son was kidnapped and taken from me." Zhao Xin Ci repeated, "I spent a decade looking for him everywhere. Turing over corpses and pushing the borders trying to find him."

"Dixing said they had him. We negotiated with them!" He snarled, "But they refused to give him back." 

"Dixing never had Kunlun. He was taken in by a Northern tribe and raised as a disciple until he was sixteen. Then, the Da Huang tribe took him as their heir. His Uncle tried to kill him." 

Zhao Xin Ci stared at him distrustfully, "Dixing claimed to have him." 

"Whoever you were speaking with was lying. Dixing did not have Kunlun. He met with Dixing only after the Alliance joined forces with my people." Shen Wei refuted. "If he had been held prisoner he would not have trusted us." 

Once bitten, Kunlun would see your end not walk into a meeting, smiling at Shen Wei.

Was that hate in Zhao Xin Ci based on the belief that Dixing had murdered his son? Or at least held him prisoner? Only to discover that Kunlun was in fact Zhao Yunlan? 

Staring at those dark eyes, Shen Wei had no idea if Zhao Xin Ci believed him. "Southern Haixing did their best to kill him. He is imprisoned now because of your people, stopping the mass genocide the Crown Prince began." 

"The Crown Prince was unstable if popular. Not a single member of our party neither knew of his plans or would have agreed with them." Zhao Xin Ci said firmly. "Which leads us to now." 

Yes, it did. It led them ti an impasse.

"Emperor An Bai is unaware that Kunlun is in fact your son. If that becomes public knowledge you will have a great deal to lose." 

"You intend to announce publicly that he is my son?" Zhao Xin Ci asked calmly. 

"A witness told me many things about your relationship with my son." Zhao Xin Ci said, perfectly calm as he drank his tea. As if this entire meeting was one based on mutual respect. 

Cong Bo. Shen Wei thought as he watched his old enemy. If he gained nothing else from this man, Zhao Yunlan had most certainly inherited the same quicksilver mind and suave cunning. His heart was entirely his own and perhaps reflective of his mother's, but to Shen Wei there was only the echoes of his love in this man. 

Just over a decade of war, with all its pains and struggle and another decade as an Emperor, in a lavish Palace surrounded by enemies hidden among loyalists, had taught Shen Wei a great deal. Court life was a  board game with distinctive rules and thousands of agendas, where any goal became an uphill battle of wills, information and whatever price someone was willing to pay. 

As a General he had been a part of it, fought that battle of wills around a table or in the throne room against his own mother, but what he learned...that had been from Zhao Yunlan. 

To his love, the world and every battle was simply a matter of cause and effect. Zhao Yunlan could predict the decisions of his enemy or at the very least his opposition, leading them like a horse to the conclusion he wished then to come to.  Deflection, misinterpretation...flawlessly going off topic...that expression of utmost innocence...In a battle like this Zhao Yunlan could always come out the winner.

So Shen Wei said nothing, sitting before this humble table with the same serene, politely interested expression he wore during court. 

"He told me of how Empress Ye Da-Xia sent the Purple Locust to kill my son." Zhao Xin Ci's eyes were almost as dark as Kunlun's, but though they glittered in old anger that made little sense, they couldn't match the black jade of his son's gaze. 

Zhao Xin Ci clearly sat in a difficult position. Zhao Yunlan was Kunlun. The scourge of Southern Haixing. Their main enemy and the man they loved to hate...and blame for the troubles they faced post-war. He was also his son. The boy Zhao Xin Ci had been trying to find for years only to learn he was his enemy...how far did that love extend? 

Far enough to lead them here. 

Eyes intent, Zhao Xin Ci tilted his chin. "Of course, many say that it was not your mother who sent General Zhu Jiu, but your brother. The Purple Locust was publicly loyal to Emperor Ye Zun."

Experienced ensured that Shen Wei's expression was calm. "General Zhu Jiu was acting on his own." 

"You killed him." Zhao Xin Ci said matter-of-fact. "Right outside my son's room, in the courtyard of the Maquis's former house in Yi City. THe witness I spoke to, said that the fight was unbelievable."

"Clearly he believed it." Shen Wei replied, wondering how Cong Bo had witnessed that. "Your point?" 

"You took the life of the Purple Locust, a Dixingian hero no less, for my son." 

It had been near dawn, he remembered. Yunlan's soft murmur as Shen Wei reluctantly slid free from the warm embrace of his arms. Exhaustion made sure he didn't fully wake, not as Shen Wei brushed back his long braids nor when he pressed reverent lips to the corner of his mouth. In the cold silence of the darkness, he ahd dressed, pulling on Kunlun's under-robe just to breathe the scent of him. A few hours with Kunlun was well worth a sleepless night. 

General Zhu Jiu may have been clever and an excellent assassin...but he was also an arrogant idiot. 

Facing days without Zhao Yunlan as the Dixingian Army followed their orders to move East, Shen Wei had moved the moon and stars it seemed to win just a few hours together. In the light of morning Kunlun would see his 'friend' off, give blessings and nothing more than clasp of hands for goodbye. Shen Wei would have delicious marks over his skin, the scent of his lover and the burning ache that made hours in a saddle a painful joy. He ridden for five days 

Purple Locust thought that Shen Wei was safely asleep in his bed roll on the other side of the Maquis's house. Not pulling away from Zhao Yunlan's warm naked skin, from one last lingering sleepy kiss. He was grateful that he had remained, reluctant to leave...slowly straightening the covers over Yunlan's body and collecting his dao from beneath the bed. Everything in him had wanted to stay, to reclaim his comfortable home beside Kunlun, pressed into Yunlan's back with his face buried his long hair. 

By lingering he was right there in the courtyard when Zhu Jiu chose his moment. 

Releasing a Dixingian Silencing talisman, illegal in all eight Dixingian Provinces...it meant that no one witnessed him killing Zhu Jiu...except Cong Bo. He must have been hidden there...perhaps on the roof? What for? There was no way he could kill Kunlun...Zhao Yunlan would have snapped his neck in seconds. 

Zhu Jiu coward that he was, simply planned to kill Yunlan from the doorway with a poison dart. You didn't become Lord Guardian of the North without remarkable skills or without surviving multiple assassination attempts. 

I would gladly exchange my life for his. General Zhu Jiu was nothing. Shen Wei thought. 

"He was a traitor." Shen Wei said but then laid another truth on the line. "But, yes. I took his life for Kunlun." 

"And yet, you want me to believe that you would tarnish the name of the Great Chieftain? The Master of the Mountains?" Those eyes were sharp, daring him to lie. 

"There are five tribal leaders born in Southern Haixing. That he is your son can only be an advantage to him. It was Kunlun who won the war for the North, he triumphed over you. His own father." Shen Wei observed. 

Anger tightened Zhao Xin Ci's expression but Shen Wei continued. "For you however, things are different. The implication that Kunlun is your son would damage you considerably. Emperor An Bai is suspicious. You are one of his main challengers for the throne."

"What are you implying exactly?" Zhao Xin Ci asked easily but he could see the banked anger. 

"It would not be hard to suggest that you used Kunlun to kill of your main rival. The Crown Prince or General Zhong for example. Upon his death you rose in rank and in power. Most of Kunlun's great achievements have benefited you in some way. Emperor An Bai would be quick to believe this." 

"And you believe you have the means to convince him of this outrageous lie?" 

Shen Wei smiled and it was more the baring of teeth, like a feline predator. "We all have our ways." 

"And before you threaten me General Zhao, remember that not a single one of your shield brothers survived my blade."

He let the demon within his soul enter his eyes, let him see the morass of darkness that craved his death as an answer for the hundred he took during the war. The callous choices that starved over a thousand and let village burn with no salvation. Neither of them were good men but only one was going to survive here. 

Zhao Xin Ci like his son didn't flinch, only looked at him with wary eyes. "How would my death aid you, Your Majesty? I have the boy and we both have someone we care for." 

"Then let us be honest. What do you want?" 

"I wish to know if my son is truly dead and I want your silence." Zhao Xin Ci said calmly pouring another cup for himself, Shen Wei's still untouched.

Shen Wei accepted the cup graciously. "You were ordered by three of your Emperors to kill Kunlun and An Bai would reward you handsomely for it now. Why should I give you access to him?" 

"Because I have the boy and my death would not give you answers. As to my intentions..." Here Zhao Xin Ci paused. "He is my son."

"I never wanted the war. I stood with Dong'Fang." He admitted to Shen Wei's surprise, naming the Southern Haixing philosopher and politician, famed for his agenda over the two warring states. He wished for the two sides to become one...under Southern rule. While some of his beliefs were tame in comparison to others, Zhao Yunlan had flatly declared that the old man was a fool. 

If a kind man wants to own you, how is it different than a cruel one? You might live better Xiao Wei, but you would still be enslaved, your fate and life would never be your own. That is Dong'Fang. I will never have a Master, not him, not anyone. 

Kunlun had mentioned beneath the plum blossom tree, when they lay tangled together that Dong'Fang's policies were toxic but if the North had been lured just enough by the promise of prosperity, it might have worked. The massacre at Yu Wen Pass put an end that dream and to Dong'Fang. 

Zhao Xin Ci might to considered a Northern sympathizer at best, but to Shen Wei it answered nothing. "Your point?" Shen Wei asked. "You despise Dixing and by that extent, my Realm's Emperor. Yet you are attempting a deal with me. Why should I agree and not simply put an end to this?" 

"Guo Changcheng was secreted away by my son. Hidden for what? Regardless of what my Emperor declares, to me Zhao Yunlan is a hero. Without him, we would all be dead." Zhao Xin Ci replied tersely. 

"Yes." Shen Wei said easily. "We would be. Let me make myself clear. Zhao Yunlan will be freed and I will not allow anyone to harm him."

"Why should I let Dixing control my son's fate?" 

As if Zhao Yunlan could be held prisoner. By anyone. As if Shen Wei would harm a single hair on his head. 

"Zhao Yunlan is entirely free and always will be." Shen Wei said boldly. Refusing to mention his own promise to the man. Yours for always. Mine forever. 

"You were right. I killed Purple Locust for him and I will kill a great many more for him. Including you and your puppet of an Emperor. For as long as the Shen family continues, he will have Dixing's protection and complete freedom." 

Zhao Xin Ci put down his cup decisively and Shen Wei waited for an attack, the tension rising to become something living, a heavy weight pressing down on the inn. "Good."  

Shen Wei blinked, his rage temporarily forgotten.

"You are not the only one who would kill an Emperor for Zhao Yunlan." He declared and rose gracefully. "Dixing killed my wife, but they may be my son's only salvation. You," 

The word was said with some scorn, hovering in the air like the shattered glass of the protocols, beloved by both nations that Zhao Xin Ci, with his son's studied carelessness had broken without qualm. You didn't stand before a King. Shen Wei though stared up at him unmoved, uncaring. 

"...Might be my son's only protection." 

Chapter Text

Just a short chapter.

Merry Christmas!!!

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In the room next door, Guo Changcheng had been carefully laid out on the bed, peacefully sleeping. His chest rising an falling evenly and not a hint of an expression marred his young face. The relief was palpable though short-lived.

He did not trust Zhao Xin Ci, not his intentions or his sudden goodwill and beyond his concern for Xiao Guo himself, the young man was the only key he currently had to Kunlun's whereabouts. That made him extremely valuable.

Everyone from Chu Shuzhi to Fourth Uncle had tried at least once to find Kunlun and even more had kept their ear to the ground, waiting for a sign. Once awakened from the sleep curse, Xiao Guo should be able to tell him exactly what Kunlun had said

Shen Wei checked for anyone else in the room and felt the echo of Zhao Xin Ci's wards, then crossed to the bed. Zhao Xin Ci had ordered another pot of tea as they had passed the stairs, mouth quirking as he saw Li Qian at the bottom step. Watching Shen Wei as he checked for the more obvious working of Kunlun's power, the cunning General settled by the table.

"There is no sign of anything." He stated with a hint of impatience, gesturing to Xiao Guo.

Shen Wei smiled thinly. "Kunlun has remarkable skills. One of them is subtlety."

Zhao Xin Ci did not rise to the bait, only frowned no doubt thinking, that the reports regarding Kunlun were full of showy behavior and this did not match with what Shen Wei was hinting at. Kunlun had many layers and that clever mind had spent years weaving an image of himself that both provided protection from his enemies and a cover for his other work.

Shen Wei turned so he was facing Zhao Xin Ci and settled by the bed. He took Guo Changcheng's limp wrist and focused his own turbulent power. Unlike everyone else, possibly in the entire world, he knew the kiss of Kunlun's magic, his power and many of his tricks.

It was too dangerous to lose himself, to mesh with Guo Changcheng's energy and being. The easiest and quickest way to find the threads of Kunlun's spell, but he did not trust Zhao Xin Ci. Not enough to turn his back.

The healers at the sanctuary had searched and the priests had checked. Zhao Xin Ci had no doubt tried everything non-lethal he could, in the hours he had kept Xiao Guo here and Shen Wei would not have been surprised if he had brought 'specialists' with him.

Dark energy gathered in his hand he noted Zhao Xin Ci's immediate unease. It wound its way into Xiao Guo's system, seeking the threads of Kunlun's power, the warmth and beauty of his precious life-force, his echo. The years he had spent with the gateways, offering his own energy to the vast network of Kunlun's greatest spells had tuned his power to Kunlun's. Now it sought the traces, like a moth of a flame.

He blinked in wonder, feeling the outline of the spell, hidden beneath layers where no one would think to look. This was more than a trace. This was a talisman hidden within Guo's body. The winding threads of Yunlan's work shimmered as he touched them, almost as if in greeting.

Those who had tried before didn't know Kunlun, would never have detected this. There was no way he could have done this quickly either, Shen Wei realized. Kunlun must have convinced Xiao Guo to allow this and it would have taken hours. Perhaps days, pockets of time where Yunlan added more to the existing work.

Zhao Xin Ci saw his expression flicker. "Well?" He asked.

Shen Wei had no desire to share all of his findings with this man but for now he was caught. Xao Guo's life hung in the balance along with Zhao Yunlan's. "Kunlun hid the working of this spell in Guo Changcheng's bones."

Zhao Xin Ci frowned both disturbed by this and intrigued

Zhao Xin Ci frowned both disturbed by this and intrigued. "His bones? I have never heard of anyone doing such thing."

Shen Wei was not surprised to hear that. It was a little too close to necromancy and never something a respectable cultivator would announce they had achieved. It was a slight against Kunlun and Shen Wei refused to allow such a thing to become public knowledge. Zhao Yunlan was not a necromancer.

"Kunlun's Uncle tried to kill him with something like this." He said harshly.

Those dark eyes were sharp and cold as they gazed at Shen Wei, who was diligently opening Guo Changcheng's inner robe, just enough to expose his thin chest. The workings did not extent to his heart and they were not using Xiao Guo's life force as a power source either. Just what had Kunlun connected this to? Surely not his own life-force?

"He carved a spell on my son?" Zhao Xin Ci said in cold outrage.

"Not carved exactly." Shen Wei said distracted, "He was jealous of Kunlun and the tribe, now that it knew of his existence wanted him to return to their lands. There would have been a test waiting for him and if proven to be superior in skill to his Uncle, Kunlun despite his age would have been instated as their Chieftain. It is the way of the Da Huang people."

"His answer was to kill my son."

"Yes, but access to him was limited. The tribe which had given him a home were not willing to part with him easily. They cared for him but they also needed his abilities."

Mai Gui loved him as a brother but the clan to a certain extent relied on his skills. Shen Wei had to wonder if they knew of his parentage and planned to use that should Southern Haixing aim for them directly. "He decided to attack using stealth. One of the eldest sons of the clan was to be married and each tribe sent a candidate."

"This I presume was a Clan of the Nine?" Zhao Xin Ci asked lightly, referring to the Nine Tribes of Shangbei.

Little he know that was a clan not far from the Southern Haixing border and Ma Liyan had been his shifu. The Xunxi of the Nine Tribes came much later.

Shen Wei did not answer and simply pressed a hand to Xiao Guo's thin chest. "The candidate he sent was tasked with killing Kunlun. All she had to do was stab him with a blade, but nothing with Kunlun is simple. She could not get close enough so in the end she threw the blade from the platform where the candidates were gathered and only struck him lightly."

"What happened?"

"He was wounded but then fever set in. His shield brother," Shen Wei added thinking of Ma Gui, "Discovered after a week or so that the blade had been carefully prepared. It took them another three days to remove the curse from his arm."

"Is this shield brother still alive?" Zhao Xin Ci asked. The war had claimed enough live for the question to be practical rather than simply cruel.

"Yes." Shen Wei admitted, then pointed at Guo Changcheng. "I can break the spell, but this will take some time."

"Do it then. We have time enough. Did he study this...technique after his own experience?" Zhao Xin Ci asked proving that like his son, silence came at price.

"I presume so. I never had the opportunity to ask him." Shen Wei replied. "Before you ask, no it is not a common practice in Dixing either. However, all royals named as heir undergo a ritual involving this technique."

It was a agonizing process Shen Wei remembered, having the seal of Dixing branded on your sternum. Nothing in comparison to waking up with the shattering realization that Kunlun was missing, his mother was dead and his brother would soon follow. Nothing like the crushing pain after two years of searching only to find Zhao Yunlan's dao, lost in the valley.

A warrior's sword with no master was a sign of death, a body condemned. That was pain.

Zhao Xin Ci said nothing more for a few minutes and Shen Wei concentrated on expanding his awareness. A part of him was focused on Zhao Xin Ci, an enemy at his back and the rest of him was intent on the magic seething from the tiny marks left behind on Xiao  Guo's bone structure. This was clever and complex. The sleep curse a separate matter ensuring that Xiao Guo experienced no pain or discomfort.

The sleep curse was faintly marked on Xiao Guo's chest, sigils almost painted on each rib shining blue in his dark energy vision. The purpose, he realized of the curse was to hide something else. Another talisman. Something neutral that didn't effect Guo in any way. It was just there. Buried out of sight in three fragments. One on either leg and the other on his forehead.

A key?

Reluctantly he withdrew from the gold threads. "Kunlun made this dependent on time."

"Time?" Zhao Xin Ci echoed, "You mean that we have run out of time?"

"No. Not that we are out of time, but that he set into motion a balance." Shen Wei gestured at the boy, "There is a curse and a talisman. Kunlun could easily unlock the curse and the spell at the same time. He made them yes, but his natural skill has always been unlocking."

"As is mine." Zhao Xin Ci said in the gloom, sounding both wistful and sad.

Well, that answered that question. Shen Wei thought as he regarded the man.

"How will you do this?"

"I cannot unlock the spell but I can unpick it from his bones. Enabling you to unlock it safely. If Xiao Guo's heart stops, the talisman will vanish and the sleep curse will attach itself to the nearest living being."

"Clever." Zhao Xin Ci said simply.

"Kunlun always is." Shen Wei said smoothly. "I will begin. It will take some time."

Half an hour passed slowly as Shen Wei teased the spell free, lifting it piece by piece from Xiao Guo's bones. It was a net, but its design allowed Kunlun to place parts carefully, ensuring that the spell only locked when he attached the final piece.

When the serving girl delivered the tea, Zhao Xin Ci poured himself a cup and sat in silence, his gaze off to the side. None of his men dared to intrude, but Shen Wei sensed his own people moving close by. After another few minutes, Shen Wei had eased into the main part of the spell and was teasing it free with the utmost care.

When Shen Wei shuffled forward on his knees and lifted the blanket to expose Xiao Guo's bony legs, Zhao Xin Ci seemed to rouse from his mental wanderings. He raised a hand and gestured at the silent, limp Guo Changcheng, breaking the uneasy silence and said, "This boy was a mystery for some time. Most people think he is dead. His Uncle, Duke Guo Ying was shocked to learn that he was in the Sanctuary. He thinks my son took advantage of him."

Shen Wei had always liked Xiao Guo and learning the truth of his heritage had come as a shock some eight years ago, but Guo Changcheng with his innocence and kindness, could hardly be considered a spy. Even all these years later, he still wasn't sure where Guo Changcheng truly stood, but had comforted himself...and Chu Shuzhi with the peace treaty. What did it matter when the war was over?

"His only living relative beyond the Duke's family. The man has been lighting a candle for the boy for a decade or more."

When Shen Wei concentrated on Xiao Guo's feet he added, "Some say he took him for a lover."

At that Shen Wei laughed and it had a bitter tinge to it. "That is truly ridiculous."

"A  decade ago, Maquis Zhang planned to overthrow the Emperor and had long  been enemies with the newly appointed Duke Guo

"A decade ago, Maquis Zhang planned to overthrow the Emperor and had long been enemies with the newly appointed Duke Guo." Zhao Xin Ci offered, content to talk at Shen Wei and was happy to ignore the protocol that advised against such disrespect.

Shen Wei thought for a moment, "The Winter Revolt?"

Zhao Xin Ci settled more comfortably and nodded. "When he confessed, he told of how he convinced Guo Changcheng to perform an errand for him. To take a condemning letter to an ally out of the city."

"And this letter fingered Duke Guo in the conspiracy?" Shen Wei guessed. Duke Guo was still in power and occupied a rare position in An Bai's court, so he presumed it had been a failure.

Zhao Xin Ci nodded. "Guo Changcheng had never been outside of the capital. He took the letter with carefully chosen escorts and carried it to the border as instructed, but he took the wrong road from Kum City. Then we received word that the North had him. Duke Guo had the coin in hand to pay them for his beloved nephew..."

The implication was clear and Shen Wei glared, "Let me be clear. Kunlun had nothing to do with his kidnapping, or ransom or anything else he has been blamed for regarding Guo Changcheng."

"Then how did he end up with my son?"

This was a question of honor and Shen Wei could hardly be silent when Kunlun was being slandered. "You remember of course Chieftain Chang Ping?" Shen Wei asked.

Zhao Xin Ci held his cup and waved a hand, "I killed him on the field of battle."

"Kunlun would have thanked you. Chang Ping was...vile." Zhao Xin Ci looked surprised at this, dark eyes curious. "If a man could commit a particular crime, then it was likely Chang Ping had done so. He killed indiscriminately. Many privately celebrated his death...including Kunlun. The problem was actually proving he had committed the crime. "

"I met him a handful of times. He loathed the Dixingian forces and often made his opinion known. I learned of this years later from another Clan Leader visiting Dixing," Shen Wei added siphoning dark energy carefully, ignoring the sardonic eyebrow he received.

Chieftain Dong had always been fond of gossip and had signed an agreement to share trade along the river, through his lands so Shen Wei had entertained them at the Palace for over a week. He had been quiet while they were in public but as soon as the doors had shut, Shen Wei had produced a bottle of wildberry baijiu and the elderly Northern leader had laughed merrily. 'You know me well, Emperor Shen. May you live long! "

That was how Shen Wei had discovered the full story of Guo Changcheng and to his delight, two stories he had never heard of, both of them tales of Kunlun's exploits .

"From what I heard, Guo Changcheng was taken captive by a leader of a small tribe near the border. The chieftain owed Chang Ping and Guo was exchanged."

"But Chang Ping territory was so far east, how did Guo get there?"Zhao Xin Ci demanded quietly. "He took a wrong turn yes, but Kum City is a considerable distance to the border."

"He never went to Chang Ping's lands and would have been transported by Chang Ping's men." Shen Wei corrected. "Xiao Guo was taken to Yi City, to the caverns. Chang Ping decided not to sell him back to Southern Haixing and told no one he had him. His plan, thanks to his repulsive nature, was to torture, rape and then possibly send Xiao Guo's body back to his family as a message."

"And yet you call yourself better." Zhao Xin Ci said smugly.

"But he made a mistake." Shen Wei said ignoring that dig. "His men did not take the boy to Chang Ping's rooms as ordered. They took him to mine."

Dark eyes gleamed. "What did my son do?"

Guo Changcheng had been placed on the bed in the near dark and had laid there tied up, frozen in fear for hours. He didn't say that when Xiao Guo was discovered, Kunlun was pressed against the doorway with his legs locked around Shen Wei's waist while the feared Ghost General was busy worshiping his neck and chest.

It was the headquarters of the Alliance, the heavily guarded caverns...Shen Wei had loyalists at every corridor in the Dixingian quarter and Fu You had spies everywhere. How they had brought Guo Changcheng there without trouble was a miracle in itself. He hadn't thought. They had stumbled inside together not thinking for one moment that the room had been compromised.

Usually Kunlun placed his locks on Shen Wei's rooms and his, giving them protection while they slept. At that point, Kunlun had just been named Lord Guardian and Shen Wei had just returned from Dixing.

In all the excitement and a long dinner with the Alliance leaders, he had not had chance to look at his newly provided rooms in the vast cavern complex, before Kunlun had dragged him there. His old one had been given to another Dixingian General, as a courtesy and Shen Wei as Lord Commander had been given a larger one.

For once he had been pleased that his status had set him apart slightly from his men. In a larger room, he could do all the things denied to him in the field. Cooking for Kunlun over the fire-pit. A larger bed with more blankets for Kunlun...thicker walls...

That night, panting as he rocked down into Shen Wei, Kunlun had called fire to the torches and his whip had been in his hand, even before Shen Wei had lifted his head.

"Kunlun was furious when I told him." Shen Wei lied. In reality he had been in a full temper in the room, one hand on Shen Wei's waist. "He believed that Chang Ping had planted the boy in my room as a ploy to discredit the Dixingian forces. Kunlun believed he would later claim that I had molested his nephew or some such lie."

Southern Haixing had tried to plant a lover with Shen Wei multiple times. Zhao Xin Ci himself had tried to send a spy to share his bed. So too had his mother. All attempts had failed miserably and the reports, when they mentioned his personal life spoke only of his friendship with Kunlun, Da Qing and the other Alliance leaders. He was interested in neither man nor woman and there was no scandal despite much intrigue.

"Why would that interest him? Chang Ping?" Zhao Xin Ci asked.

"He disliked the fact that the Dixingian forces had agreed to Kunlun's terms, despite many of his objections. Kunlun's attitude and proven history of success rallied many to his side, as you know. Kunlun believed he had decided to try to divide the Allies and cause scandal. It seemed like him." 

"But my son did not give him back to us." Zhao Xin Ci pointed out.

"Kunlun had no idea who he was." Shen Wei said calmly. "Guo Changcheng was terrified and mostly fainted or babbled when Kunlun asked him direct questions. Kunlun was convinced he was a boy taken from a village or from one of the cities, or possibly plucked off the street. He wanted to take him home but Xiao Guo kept telling Kunlun that his parents were dead."

"He never mentioned his Uncle?"

Shen Wei smiled grimly. "He mentioned him but Kunlun seemed convinced this 'Uncle' was elderly and asked among the tribes for 'a old man Guo'. Guo itself is a common name in the North. To be fair as well, Kunlun was leading the Shangbei forces, the nation itself and directing assaults on Southern Haixing at the time. Eventually he gave up and asked Guo Changcheng if he wanted to stay."

"He agreed to stay?" Zhao Xin Ci asked doubtfully.

"Back then I thought the same. That he was a lost boy chosen as part of a scheme to undermine our unity. Chang Ping certainly did not help, wanting Kunlun to believe he had taken a local. Guo Changcheng was a not a prisoner. If anything he followed Kunlun around and worked as a healer's assistant."

"Did Chang Ping threaten him?"

"Kunlun? Many times before he died. The one moment he accosted Guo Changcheng in the corridor, Kunlun's second nearly killed him. After that, he left Xiao Guo alone. Everyone did."

"He would have been shocked to learn he was Duke Guo's nephew." Shen Wei mused looking down at the boy in question.

"The Duke would like his nephew back."

"That is up to Guo Changcheng." Shen Wei said simply. "He has Dixingian citizenship, bestowed as an honor for his service, when no tribe would claim him and he has a Dixingian lover. I will not stop him going back to Haixing but I will offer him sanctuary if he wishes it. He was loyal and he hero-worshiped Kunlun. I don't think he really understood we were at war."

"Didn't he see the fighting?"Zhao Xin Ci asked crossly. "And surely this lover has long since moved on."

No one could describe Chu Shuzhi as having moved on. Guo Changcheng was the light of his life. It had like Shen Wei, only been duty that forced him to continue. That and the promise of reunion. None of them had. None of them ever will until the one they love is finally proven dead or safe in their arms.

"Kunlun thought he would see a fight, faint and end up dead or cause another soldier's death through panic. The old Hanga lands was as close to a battlefield Xiao Guo had ever seen."

"My son clearly trusted him enough to hide him?" Zhao Xin Ci pointed out. "Many would call him a traitor."

"Dixing is open to him." Shen Wei said firmly. "And his lover in Dixing is waiting for him. The spell is lifted. If you will General Zhao."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

It took hours.

The enchantment Kunlun had woven into this as extra precaution was difficult to unlock but Zhao Xin Ci persevered and eventually, after wrestling with the delicate but dangerous chains on the spell, his former enemy managed to open the lock. 

Shen Wei had no idea what exactly Guo Changcheng was meant to guard but he didn't expect the talisman to explode.

There was no pain only a stinging, pulling sensation and the kiss of Kunlun's power that brushed up against his own like a cat. His dark energy greedily responded but he held back afraid for Guo's life. When the light cleared from his eyes Shen Wei gasped. The world was blurred like a wash of watery ink and it took a moment for him steady his racing mind. 

They were no longer in the inn room and Guo Changcheng was no where to be seen.

The ground was a dark stone and the air smelled mossy and damp. Shen Wei looked around and saw mist hanging in white clouds over a dark pool of water but other the point where the rock close to his feet fell into the pool and the mists around him, Shen Wei could see very little else of his surroundings.

Was that a bridge? Yes there was a bridge. A small quaint bridge stretching over the water, not that Shen Wei could see the other side. It was wood he thought and painted a bright shade of blue. 

His senses were muted and the light was strange, emanating from crevices in the rock. It glowed orange one minute and then blue the next.

He could feel his feet and the cold of the air which was odd, for a Dixingian whose primary gifts including ice, but everything was beginning feel odd. His own breathing was calm, a careful state to ensure maximum control over his power, but he could feel his chest heaving, his heart pounding...but he was calm. Confused and more than slightly alarmed Shen Wei reached out with his dark energy, only to feel it distantly...as if he was separate from his own body.

What was this?

"Where in the world is this?" asked a voice startling him suddenly and he recognized Zhao Xin Ci's voice.

The idea that came to mind was ludicrous but this was Kunlun. It he was right...it was a clever way to show Shen Wei the path using Guo Changcheng himself. Kunlun never did anything for nothing.

"This is a memory. This is what Guo Changcheng experienced." He explained slowly, the idea sinking into his bones as truth. 

"That can't be." Zhao Xin Ci said almost politely and that was odd. The man was never polite and rarely calm.

"The celestial whip collected the powers and abilities of its masters when it killed them. All of these, it gave to Kunlun when it claimed him as its owner. As such, he has this ability. To capture memories."

Zhao Xin Ci was silent and Shen Wei added pointedly, 'It is not a gift he uses much. Kunlun has no interest."

"But we are now reliving Guo Ying's nephew's memory of an event before my son disappeared?" He asked disbelievingly.

"Essentially yes. Kunlun must have hidden the answer within this memory, then put Guo Changcheng to sleep, so he could smuggle him out."

"Yet the boy is essentially his enemy." Zhao Xin Ci said cuttingly.

"As I said General Zhao," Shen Wei enunciated each word carefully in his anger,  "Kunlun did not believe the boy was from Haixing." If he did, he certainly didn't seem to actually care.

They...Guo moved forward in timid steps clutching a small lantern. "Chief Kunlun?" He called out.

"He certainly seems the same." Zhao Xin Ci said sounding amused. "Who calls out like that in a cave?"

A cave? Shen Wei reached out gingerly and realized that rather than the sky or trees above then, towering walls stretched up to meet an arching ceiling. Before he could offer any reply to his former enemy the mist parted as a dark shape launched from the water, spraying Guo Changcheng until he was drenched to the bone.

Shen Wei wanted his dao or his dark energy, but he could hardly summon either here. They were physically not here for a start.  Zhao Xin Ci reacted similarly but also stopped. Xiao Guo cried out in fear and tried to run but slipped on the wet stone, crashing to the ground in a heap of uncoordinated limbs.

His eyes...their eyes were fixed now directly before them, watching as a scaled yellow body the size of a tree moved, rippling with muscle. Then from the mist came the head. Towering above Guo Changcheng, the serpent Shen Wei realized opened its mouth, revealing the sharp points of its long gleaming fangs and a long forked tongue. The fetid breath washed over them and Guo stared in horror at its massive mouth, the pale pink cavity looming over him.

There was an unmistakable thwack that echoed across the water and the snake paused. Guo babbled incoherently but Shen Wei watched in fascination as the snake seemed to burn.  A glowing red ring appeared around its neck and all the flesh on its neck and head...burned away to ash. 

It fell to crumbling ash into the water, but pieces fell as hot embers and Guo whimpered.

Hope lifted Shen Wei heart immediately.

Guo Changcheng's no doubt terrified eyes were fixed rightfully on the man in the center of the bridge, who walked with a lazy gait. Embers fell around the figure like burning rain, but those dark eyes smouldered

Zhao Yunlan.

For a moment Shen Wei forgot his own words. He forgot that this was only a memory, his heart surging to his throat and everything in him wanted to run, to fall to his knees...to embrace this precious man to him. Tears sprang unbidden to his eyes blurring vision, but he couldn't move. 

Zhao Xin Ci seemed frozen, mumbling under his breath. Shen Wei couldn't move and he almost snarled in frustration until he remembered that this was only a memory. This was Guo's life, his experience.  The joy that sung in his heart at the sight of him, filled every fiber of his being.

Every chain that held him captive, the breaking weight of the grief and responsibility he had carried for all these years fell away. He felt lighter, freer and more like the man he had once been. He was a plant shifting to face the light of the sun. He was a bird lifting its wings to soar on the winds.

He was home when he stood before this one man.

Shen Wei watched still crying silent tears of pained hope and desperate quiet joy, as the man halted in the middle of the small bridge.

No painting or sculpture could ever fully capture Zhao Yunlan. The sharpness of his eyes or the kindness in his heart. His smile was like sunlight but it was more than beauty or the razor sharp mind hidden in foxfire eyes. 

Some Emperors are said to possess a room, to draw all eyes to them. Their majesty. His mother, the Empress certainly could. 

Zhao Yunlan was magnetic. A force like no other. He could disappear into the shadows, but he could never be hidden for long. He shone with his own light. 

This was the man Shen Wei would kneel for.

On his wedding day he had imagined what it would be like to hold Zhao Yunlan's hand, to light the candles and offer prayers to their ancestors. It was the only thing that propelled him through the ceremony. When said his vows they tasted like ash, but every word was promised to the man in his heart. He had chosen the most traditional conservative vows he could, because in doing so he pledged neither his heart nor his body to Wang Zheng.

All of him not owned by Dixing or his daughter, belonged to Zhao Yunlan.

When he was crowned Emperor of Dixing, he thought of Zhao Yunlan's smile and his laughter seemed to dance on the wind.

At every event and defining moment Zhao Yunlan had been there cradled in his heart. Seeing him again, flesh and blood...it made every hardship worth it. Every sleepless night and endless day. His defiance that he would find Kunlun once more and the aching pain of realizing that everyone else had moved on. The world had moved on without Kunlun. Everyone but him.

zhao

The long braided celestial whip was coiled over his left shoulder, a plain dark red and entirely unremarkable. The beads woven into his hair flashed like jewels in the strange light and tucking the whip into the crook of his elbow he clapped.

"Sister Hong is going to be so proud!" He crowed looking at them with a brilliant grin. "You didn't faint on us."

"Damn Fatty? Xiao Guo didn't faint. You owe me!" He shouted over his shoulder, his face almost boyish in its mirth. Shen Wei had missed his humor and his fearlessness. He could tell Zhao Xin Ci was shocked and unseen, he smiled with his own amusement.

From out of the water another figure surged. Without taking his eyes from them, Kunlun's right hand was in the blink of an eye, pointing a long red pole weapon, its handle a snarling dragon in gold and flames spun around its blade.

Only those who had fought with or beside Zhao Yunlan knew that his celestial whip could change forms. The wide blade of the guan dao gleamed and slowly Kunlun's eyes shifted almost lazily as he turned to face his enemy. 

The serpent was smaller than the one which had just attacked and unnaturally white. Sharp green eyes were focused on Kunlun and a forked tongue darted out in agitation.

Kunlun huffs and lowers the whip, to Zhao Xin Ci consternation. "Why is he lowering his weapon!"

"Madame White Snake!" Guo Changcheng gasps and Zhao Yunlan rolls his eyes. There is the sound of feminine laughter that echoes around the cave.

In another blink the snake partially transforms. From the waist up the white pattern of her snake skin clings to shapely hips and almost translucent material is draped over her shoulders, barely concealing her breasts. Her face is stunning, her beauty unearthly and Kunlun smirks. 

Possessiveness thrums through Shen Wei and with it a familiar murderous intent. Zhao Yunlan is his.

Her height allows her to stand nearly at eye level with Kunlun and she drifts forward to lean over the railing. For his part, Kunlun does not move and simply watches her approach.

Shen Wei wants to throw her off and his fingers burn with dark energy he holds back reluctantly. This is a memory, he could kill Guo so very easily. That doesn't mean he is unaffected...because oh, he wishes he could slice into her with his own blades. She has no right to be so close.

Shen Wei is immune to the female form and in truth, immune to anyone who is not Zhao Yunlan. So he stares at her boldly while Guo tries to look only at her face with Zhao Xin Ci.

"A river spirit?" He asks, his tone abrupt.

"A snake demon possibly." Shen Wei replies stiffly.

"Why is my son speaking with a snake demon?"

"Kunlun is immune to their charms. His cultivation is too high to be affected and the celestial whip holds over a thousand years of magic." It was the only comfort. Zhao Yunlan could not be bespelled by some waterborne siren.

"No one has ever confused me with Bai Suzhen before." She laughed. "I am Lixue, foolish one."

white snake

"Remember the last time we met?' Kunlun asked sounding almost bored. Guo thankfully turned to look at him and Shen Wei sighed at the sight. He was wearing robes the color of bamboo leaves and no adornment, not even the gold belt of the Guardian. His beautiful thick hair is braided with gold ties and gold bands. No hair pin.

Shen Wei remembered nights fresh from the bath kneeling behind him on the furs of the bed, running the comb through his long, thick hair. He always kissed his shoulder and the back of his neck, listening to Zhao Yunlan's delighted laughter. He would work in sections, those gold ties hanging loose, his fingers twisting and weaving, binding the gorgeous heavy strands into long braids. 

It was not something a Prince does, combing and braiding. The work of a servant. It was unbecoming of a Battle Lord. Unthinkable for an Emperor. It was their secret among many. He loved Kunlun's hair, loved to run his fingers through the thick crown of his head and would always smile at the grumbling. When it was hot, Kunlun was burning; a humid cloud settling over his scalp. When it was cold, his hair seemed to keep the cold with him. It bowed to no hair product or oil and no hairpin could withstand the strain of holding it up.

Shen Wei had no such difficulty. Early into their secret relationship, Kunlun had hurt his arm and his hair had been dripping wet. Shen Wei had been nervous but he offered to help, much to Zhao Yunlan's obvious pleasure.

Then it became a ritual for them. With a smile or a pout he would sit between Shen Wei thighs, massaging the firm muscle or lie on his chest, with Shen Wei straddling his back, clad only in an open inner robe. Shen Wei would de-tangle and smooth, working his fingers through every knot with the least amount of pulling or pain. 

 Shen Wei would lovingly kiss his ear and worked thin black leather ties into the masterpiece, taming the wild wave to his hair that was famous of the Northern tribes. He remembers seeing him... the water, those braids wet and curling as they framed his pale face...the look in his eyes as he would turn around to face Shen Wei... Shen Wei's hands ached to touch them, to feel the weave beneath his hands and tears pricked at his eyes. 

Long strands had pulled free from the exertions and heat of battle, curling around his face adding to his beauty. He smiled but those eyes were sharp, foxfire brilliance held in orbs of black jade. 

"Last time? I called you the prettiest man alive?" She purred and Shen Wei snarled silently. "I would love to curl around you."

"Sorry sweetheart, but I'm spoken for. My Great Beauty would have my head and definitely yours." He replied amusement curling his mouth, eyes glittering. Oh he would.

"She must be pretty." Lixue said regretfully, but then she brightened, her forked tongue tasting the air. "I could still share a nice time with you? You slept with my cousin, Shaoqing."

Shen Wei choked on rage and Zhao Xin Ci said in that strange polite tone, "He did what? Teng serpents are beguiling, famed for stealing souls. They take, never giving. Harming all in their paths. What did this  Shaoqing do to Yunlan?"

Zhao Yunlan shameless as ever simply smiled. "I was sixteen." Whether he said that to the room at large or to Guo, who might tell Shen Wei, he didn't know, but Shen Wei bristled at the thought of some demon taking advantage of a young innocent Kunlun.

"Clearly my son wasn't safe if some demon was taking advantage of him." Zhao Xin Ci said pointedly.

"Shaoqing always did like them young." Lixue agreed, raking her eyes along his form.

"I was thinking more of our bargain."

"C..Ch..Chief Kun..Kunlun?" Guo stammered.

"You're looking for your sister. I know where she is." Zhao Yunlan said calmly and the guan dao with a flicker transformed back to a whip. 

She watched it warily but then looked at his face. "My sister is love with some village girl. She's not even pretty." Her lips curled. "If Wencheng finds her, he will kill her. She is not doing any harm. The girl is blind. So she is immune to our charms and she has some kind of protection on her. My sister simply loves her. Idiot that she is."

"She's afraid of snakes." Her face twisted with her disgust. "Like this one."

She pointed at Guo Changcheng. "Pathetic."

"He's mine." Kunlun said with a cold, hard tone. "No touching the boy."

"Yours for what? To eat?" She asked and for the first time actually faced Guo Changcheng. "He's certainly high in virtue."

"Remember how easily I killed your sire just now?" Kunlun said a sweet dangerous tone. "We had a deal. Your sister's location for the information I want."

She swept her hair of her shoulder and preened, running a hand suggestively down her chest. "You strike such a hard bargain."

Kunlun raised an eyebrow and she huffed. "I broke into the building as promised and found that courtier person that creeps around after the Prince. Duguhun. I went to his rooms and while he was bathing...he is not much to look at... I switched his ridiculous serpent medallion for myself. As a fake medallion I heard all of what they said. I saw the Crown Prince."

She shuddered. "You were right. He didn't see me. Your protection worked. If he had..."

"You would not be here." Kunlun said in a slightly softer tone. 'What else?"

'The Prince is furious because his father is considering the peace deal. Your forces have crushed most of the defenses on border and he said...he said that Dixing wasn't going to be a problem. That he had made sure of it. He ranted about how he was going to make you pay. You killed his brother who wasn't even supposed to be there."

"Why would he care?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "He's killed all of his siblings."

"It sounded really disturbing." She said in reply and Zhao Xin Ci snorted.

"A teng serpent calls it disturbing." He said in the strange tone yet again.

"The man you mentioned...Yifu Hun...he was there."

Kunlun whistled lowly and mists swirled in response. 'So its true. The Haixing dogs cannot control their own puppets, so they play with the Dixingian rebels instead."

"He said that if they couldn't win with his father's men, he would make sure they won." Lixue said. "He hates Dixing. Said they killed his mother."

"His father, the Emperor killed his mother, in the tradition of Haixing men." Zhao Yunlan said snidely and Zhao Xin Ci flinched almost imperceptibly, but bound in this as they were, Shen Wei felt it. "The woman he speaks of was his wet nurse and father's favorite bed warmer."

"As I said, disturbing." Lixue said. "He has organized something in retaliation and has a bigger plan to unleash."

"Did he say anything about the Gates?"

"They shall feel the desolation. That is what he said."

"The plan to unleash the Gateway of Desolation." Shen Wei said coolly.

'My sister?" Lixue asked.

Zhao Yunlan wasn't listening. To Shen Wei's growing worry, he was fidgeting with his whip in what for him was agitation. His thumb was rubbing the leather just before the dragon head and his eyes were distant. At her words, he blinked and looked at her calmly. "Jade River, Dixing. Yan City. Look for the medicine shop on the river owned by a man called Xianwen."

"Dixing?" Lixue said in dismay.

"Your problem, not mine. Oh? And the girl in question is Buliugu Ruolan." Zhao Yunlan said with casual airs and faked concern.

"What does that mean?" She asked aggressively.

"General Buliugu is a hero in Dixing and a powerful sorcerer." Shen Wei said amused. "He is a member of my court."

"You would do well not to anger the father." Zhao Yunlan said. "Better go now. At the Half Moon Festival, Dixing sets enchantments to protect the public in the river. You would be discovered easily and they have many ways of killing serpents in Dixing. Especially the Ghost General's loyalists."

She vanished with a splash and Zhao Yunlan rubbed his eye, looking both annoyed and tired. "Stop quivering like a dying fish Xiao Guo!" He snapped and Guo shot up nearly pitching into the water. We need to find Damn Cat."

 

Chapter Text

Guo's body seemed to shiver and the river, the mist...everything vanished around them. Before Shen Wei could call for Kunlun, truly register the loss of his Yunlan again, the scene around him changed. 

Blinking, Shen Wei squinted in the sudden light. They were out of the cave, in the afternoon sun he realized. Mountain cliffs towered above them, the ground nothing but dust. Spartan trees grew at the base of the grey rock and Shen Wei tried to look around as Guo, but the boy didn't turn his head. 

His eyes were fixed on the line of Dixingian soldiers gathering at the opening in the cliffs, that led out into barren fields. Where they were, Shen Wei couldn't place and he could only presume that this was a part of the journey back from the meeting with the snake demon. 

That Kunlun would undertake a journey like this, in the middle of the conflict was surprising. At this juncture, they were looking at the end of the war. The Alliance had pushed Southern Haixing finally to the brink of defeat. Kunlun was here, not that far from the meeting place where their forces would combine, using the Gates and take the fight to the Hanga lands. The last frontier between them and peace.

He knew this, due to the time frame. This was only days away from Kunlun going missing. From the peace anniversary they all celebrated.

The Shen Wei of this era was miles to the south, leading Yashou and Dixing forces in a battle against General Wu. Ma Gui and his forces were on the sea front, using wind and sail against the South's more advanced ships. It was a split but highly successful plan, boxing Haixing in, where they were vulnerable.

Shen Wei fought for days on that battlefield winning a bloody victory in end, on the hilltop overlooking the plains. When it was over, he did not rest. Could not, fearing for Kunlun's life. He took the remaining army and moved back, which was not part of the plan.

Through Xiao Guo's memories he was learning more about the weight Kunlun carried for the days before Shen Wei had returned for the battle in the old Hanga lands, than he had thought possible. Most of the people who could have told him were either dead or like him kept in the darkness of ignorance. 

He felt a desperate pain in his chest at the thought. His righteous hero had paid a price never meant for him. Oh Yunlan.

In bringing the war to an end, Kunlun had without choice stepped into a trap. He was forced to divert half of his army led by Zhu Hong to the oncoming attack that would come behind them and kept his own eyes squarely on the Crown Prince. 

Zhao Yunlan had wounded him but Shen Wei took his head in Kunlun's defense. His death ensured that the Crown Prince's plan would fail, but Kunlun rightfully feared what the madman had put into place. Dixing was under attack, Shen Wei was too far away and Kunlun was trying to spread the word...but it was too late. 

Shen Wei didn't blame Zhao Yunlan. He could see the toll this was taking, the chaotic pattern Kunlun was trying to weave while trying harder still to keep everyone alive. He had warned them.

When it was over... when his mother was dead and his lover was missing... When his brother was lying so still and in so much pain, he had learned the truth. Kunlun had sent word that they were under attack. Kunlun had warned them that Dixingian rebels working for Southern Haixing had infiltrated the Palace.  He begged them to move the Empress and Emperor out of the way. He told them how they would attack. Kunlun had tried everything he could to warn Shen Wei and the Palace in Dixing. 

Shen Wei never received the message. Perhaps the courier had died on the road, perhaps all the ways Kunlun had tried had failed to reach him, before he returned to Kunlun's side. After that, Shen Wei was wounded, barely conscious. But the Palace? They ignored him and carnage raged. No, he would not blame Zhao Yunlan. His love had tried and in trying had turned his back at the worst possible moment.

So why was he here? Why had Kunlun kept these memories hidden inside a talsiman? It made no sense.

At first he felt foolish relief that his soldiers were there to greet Kunlun, a line of protection his beautiful man hardly needed, but one his status demanded rightfully. He was the Lord Guardian and Chieftain Kunlun. Shen Wei, as in love as he was, expected the entirety of Dixing to respect Kunlun. 

He felt Zhao Xin Ci pause and understood the reaction, but suspicion only rose in his heart when he saw Kunlun's face. Zhao Yunlan was eying the soldiers with a wary expression barely hidden by a friendly smile. 

'Stay behind me." He said to Guo lowly  as he stepped forward. Da Qing kept to his back and his lip curled in dislike. 

"It's Captain Peng." Da Qing said distastefully. 

So it was. Captain Peng had always been a loyal soldier but Shen Wei frowned to see him here. 

"Lord Guardian." He said in an easy tone, standing in front of his regiment, his dao tucked under his arm casually .

"Captain Peng." Kunlun said in an equally friendly tone, "Out on a scout mission? I thought you were in Yi City?" 

"We have returned from there." Captain Peng said with a bow. He was a tall man with a scar curving over his chin. 

"He's come here to kill my son." Zhao Xin Ci stated with some heat.

Shen Wei wanted to deny that but he saw Zhao Yunlan's shoulders stiffen. 

"Against the orders of the Black Robed Envoy?" He made a soft tsk sound. "Old Bro Black won't like that." 

Captain Peng's expression darkened at the casual name. "You never have had much respect for our Lord Envoy. Or our Battle Commander, Prince Shen." 

Zhao Yunlan gasped in mock shock. "I have always had the greatest respect for Old Bro Black." 

"If you have respect for him, what are you doing here?" Da Qing asked. "Yi City is miles from here."

Captain Peng smiled. "There are many who think it is time for a new Lord Guardian." 

Kunlun examined his nails and sighed as if bored. "Says the man who owes money to a Yashou Fox warlord. Does your wife know about the prostitutes and all the debts? That you slept with her cousin?" 

How does he always find out these things? Shen Wei wondered. If he was present in his court in Dixing, he would likely know every piece of scandal, every secret and all the meetings.  It was glorious.

"Was the lady a Snake Yashou?" Guo asked quietly. Both cat and chieftain ignored him. 

"He's a rebel. A traitor. He might be one of those looking to kill the Empress." Da Qing hissed.

"Get ready to move out." Zhao Yunlan replied. "We have to get a warning to Dixing. We have get a warning to the Envoy."

"That won't be possible." Captain Peng said. "The House of Ye are traitors. It's time they died as such."

So here was the conspiracy, among his own soldiers no less.

"Today is your end." Captain Peng said advancing forward, drawing his dao. "I offer you an honorable fight."

"Did the prostitutes at brothel in Yi, call you honorable?" Zhao Yunlan wanted to know, an eyebrow rising. "The flower girl certainly didn't." 

Peng raised his sword in a pathetic attempt at respect and rushed forward, with a snarl. "Time to die Lord Guardian."

The next few minutes seemed to wobble, the world spinning and Shen Wei planted his feet. He wanted to know what this was. What happened. He funneled power gently to solidify the memory, even as Zhao Xin Ci asked, "What is this?" 

When it stabilized, time had moved forward slightly. Peng was fighting Kunlun in the middle of the ground, surrounded by Dixingian soldiers. Da Qing was fighting off to the side, trying to take the brunt from touching Guo who cowered back against the rock face. He tried to fight but a soldier accidentally hit him, aiming for Da Qing and knocked him back in an embarrassing fall. 

Dust blinded them and they tasted dirt, the dry dust choking them. Zhao Xin Ci swore at the boy and cursed Guo Changcheng's ancestors. Shen Wei's gaze flicked from soldier to soldier, trying to see Kunlun even as he swallowed his instincts to fight. To draw blood from his enemies to protect himself, sweet Xiao Guo and Da Qing.  

In the jumble of legs, from his position on the ground, Guo was well placed to see Kunlun facing off against Peng.

Peng was good, Shen Wei remembered, but Kunlun was better.  

Kunlun's robes swirled around him as he ducked and weaved. This was a dance. One would lead inevitably to death. 

Shen Wei had not been present for this fight and so in this memory he was powerful but powerless. His only comfort the knowledge that he had witnessed Kunlun alive and fighting three days later. He had taken a blade to the chest to protect his love, and lain wounded, feverish...destined to remain unwillingly blind to Kunlun's fight for survival...Until now. 

The green of Kunlun's robes whirled as he moved, as unpredictable and unstoppable as a raging river. As water flows around rocks, he pushed the advancing soldiers away from Da Qing and Guo, his dark eyes bright with menace. 

In all his years as a soldier, a General leading a war, then an Emperor overseeing the training of his army...he had never seen anyone fight as Kunlun did. He was a cunning man but in a fight he was a storm. He used techniques he had developed himself and would always use his enemy against themselves, striking in a half second of missed concentration...a blade swift as it was lethal. If Kunlun had a sword in his hand, his intent was death. 

Shen Wei's rage seethed, a maelstrom of power held back only by the knowledge that this was a memory. As the Emperor of Dixing now he was ashamed but as the man who loved the mountain chieftain fighting for his life, he was betrayed. To want harm to befall Kunlun was unthinkable...to try for his life...that was unforgivable. A sin he would answer with death. He would end all thirty of the regiment and Peng would feel his rage if he could, but he could do nothing as Guo tried to get up. 

Kunlun would win, he reminded himself and his anxious heart. He did not die here. 

For all his skill, Captain Peng could not win. He just refused to realize this. 

The gold hilt of Kunlun's dao flashed like sunlight, sparking against Peng's blade. Obsidian eyes gleamed and Kunlun flashed a winning smile as Peng erroneously moved into the step. His plan was use his superior strength to drive his blade forward into Kunlun's heart. 

That smile said it all. At the very last second, with Shen Wei's heart in his throat, Kunlun turned his blade. He angled it down and stepped back from Peng's sword thrust, slicing into Peng's wrist. Blood stained the earth and splashed on Kunlun's robes, but he was not finished. 

The blade swung out of Peng's hand and the shocking pain of it stopped the experienced Captain cold. Kunlun might not have Dixingian strength, but Shen Wei's fox was swift. Kunlun's blade had swiped in a deadly gold gleam across  Peng's throat before Peng's blade even made it to the floor. The clatter sounded so loud in the quick silence. 

Captain Peng crumpled and Kunlun lowered his dao, a single drop of red, red blood dripping to land on Peng's black sleeve. 

Kunlun's stunning face held no expression, but the soldiers knew that this was it. There was no way back. Kunlun had spoken the truth. Shen Wei would slaughter them all for touching Kunlun. For the Alliance deal they might think, but the end would be the same. Harsh and permanent. An example. Shen Wei was a compassionate man when it came to the innocent but he had no mercy in his heart. 

All thirty of them advanced. One of the soldiers, a burly man with scarred arms went for Da Qing. His larger weapon broke Da Qing's dao as they fought, but the wily cat buried a hidden dagger into the man's neck as he jumped free of the clash.  

"Da Qing!" Kunlun called as he pivoted into a wild kick, killing one soldier outright and threw his own dao to the infuriated cat. 

The celestial whip was in Kunlun's hand and Shen Wei smiled at the sight. There was no doubt, that Kunlun had decided that they were winning this fight by any means.

Using a maneuver Shen Wei had taught Kunlun on the sands of the Alliance training ground, Kunlun took out the first eight with one swing of the ancient weapon. It crackled with angry power, glowing red as it embraced Kunlun's fury. 

Shen Wei snarled in fury as his view was blocked when the soldiers moved in on Guo. He scrabbled wildly, crying out as two grabbed him and a third came for him with a dao, aiming straight for Guo's stomach. 

Talismans took them down. Purple light strangled one and the second clutched his chest, falling to the ground gasping. 

"Heart attack." Shen Wei said coldly. The third one, with the blade was only distracted but Kunlun's whip ripped into his back, tossing him to the earth. 

"Get out of it Guo!" Kunlun yelled, as he spun into the air, a swirl of cool green and angry red. 

Four fell to the earth with head trauma when the whip cracked over their heads. Fire whirled and Da Qing snarled as he leapt into the fight, Kunlun's blade flashing as he blocking the dao aiming for Guo. Shen Wei wanted to move, to fight and he suspected that Zhao Xin Ci was no different, but Guo was no fighter. 

The red whip slashed the ground, burning a black line into the earth and Kunlun grinned. They advanced with shouts and three chose foolishly to attack with their gifts. Shards of earth that Shen Wei had witnessing killing Southern Haixingren soldiers broke into fragments with a flick of that whip, spinning into fine dust. 

In that dust Kunlun spun with smooth elegant steps, as number two tried fire. Da Qing cried out as the flames hit his unprotected back and Kunlun turned from his own fight immediately. A Dixingian soldier Shen Wei vaguely recognized was attacking Kunlun with a guandao, meeting him blow for blow. 

Kunlun cracked the whip again and leapt into the air, a mountain cat's grace as he called the flames to his hand. The simple orange flames glowed like rubies around Kunlun. The rebel could not control it nor combat the magic fire twisting into a fire storm around Zhao Yunlan. 

The soldiers backed off and took hold of the wounded. The idiot with the guandao rushed forward and two of the remaining soldiers threw spears.

"Behind you!" Zhao Xin Ci said and Shen Wei blinked in surprise. 

Kunlun ducked and spread his arms, dancing into the air. He twisted and the whip threw one man into the crowd, his neck broken. 

"Come on then! You want my blood? Die for it." Kunlun shouted with a laugh. 

The third Dixingian tried his gift, hurling boiling water at Kunlun aiming Shen Wei presumed, to put out the flames. Kunlun huffed and lifted himself up, slashing across with the whip. The boiling water hit the flames and turned to steam, that spun with the power of the whip. A cyclone of heated air and flames rising behind Kunlun. 

The intelligent ones ran. The others, perhaps no more than ten braced themselves to fight. 

In the air his green robes spread like the wings of a bird and his braids lifted free of their single binding ribbon. His individual braids danced as he fought, ducking and weaving through the remaining soldiers. Power rippled and the last five died not from the slashing whip, but from Kunlun's guandao. 

"Guo! Get Da Qing!" He ordered blocking a dao blade as it came into their line of vision. Guo pulled his knees in, his mouth open in a silent scream. "Go." 

The fire gifts of the Dixingian soldier allowed him to come closer. He was now fighting Kunlun, his sword meeting Kunlun's guandao with a shriek of metal. Sparks were flying from the blades and Kunlun grinned wildly.  

Grey took them once more and this time Shen Wei let it.

---

He was falling from great height... and yet Shen Wei knew his feet were steadily planted on solid ground. He heard Zhao Xin Ci grunt and the air shivered.

When the light cleared from his eyes Shen Wei gasped. The world was blurred like a wash of watery ink and it took a moment for him steady his racing mind. The world was grey again and the moment seemed to slip away from them.

Time was a vague concept now. The grey lifted like a blanket abruptly and Shen Wei felt himself plummeting to the earth. It was jarring, his bones jerking as the grey vanished completely as they seemed to crash into the earth before a roaring fire.

Blinking away the disorientation, Shen Wei's desperate eyes looked for Kunlun and breathed out slowly when he realized that it was an image of Guo's bony knees that swam into view. Well. That was helpful.

"Why are we looking at his knees?" Zhao Xin Ci asked almost politely. "Where are we?" 

From the sounds around them, they were in a Northern camp. Voices speaking with various regional accents were laughing, arguing and chatting. They faded in and out as they passed by but Shen Wei could identify Dixingian tones, threads of their language drifting over the fire.

"Kunlun's camp." He replied. A camp filled with warriors, shape-shifters, healers and cultivators. Someone...a young woman was singing quietly nearby. There was the sound of steel and fire, the clatter of cooking pots and someone was definitely chopping wood. There were horses somewhere behind them and all the smells he had long associated with the front line.

The only difference was, that here in Guo's memories he could not feel the thrum of Kunlun wards or truly sense the man through the hundred or so people around him.  When he had only been infatuated with Kunlun, that hint had been a thrill.  When he knew the seductive bliss of Kunlun's presence, that thrum of power had been comfort. Before he lost him, it had become the feeling of home.

The rooms and hallways of the Palaces, the streets of Dragon City...he had felt lost without that comfort. Unmoored by the devastating reminder every time he rested his bare feet on the ground in the morning, that Kunlun was not here. It was empty. Devoid of that precious kiss of power. There was no thread leading him to Kunlun and no woven energy beneath his feet.

"My son needs to work on this." Zhao Xin Ci griped as some minutes passed, distracting Shen Wei from his thoughts, as they continued staring at the grey robes covering Guo's shins and Shen Wei was about to try something when he felt the shift.

"Oh? I thought I was the evil overlord?"

Zhao Yunlan's voice was always a blessing, but after the fight and the cold reminder of living without Kunlun, Shen Wei's heart surged. Thankfully, at the sound of his Chieftain, Guo's head lifted from his knees.

Just in time to see Da Qing drop to the ground beside the fire, falling in a tangled, angry heap. Kunlun swung a leg over the stone boulder in front of the roaring fire and sat down in a cloud of blue robes. His hair was only lightly braided, hanging loosely over his shoulders and his eyes were dancing in amusement.

The scent of him enveloped Guo and Shen Wei wanted to breathe deeply, having sorely missed it. It was fresh bamboo and mountain air mingling with something masculine, something that was uniquely, perfectly Kunlun.

"We are treating those burns Fatty." He said darkly and produced a pot of salve from his sleeves. He was wearing his fur lined jerkin and he sniffed dramatically as Da Qing tried to get up. "Damn Cat has no sense."

He handed Guo a cup of watery medicinal brew that tastes faintly of anise and ginger. Its hot and Guo beams happily at Zhao Yunlan, who pointedly ignores him.  

Kunlun in his position should allow the healers to treat Da Qing's wounds, but he patiently forces the cat to sit still and applies a dark green salve to the burn on his hand. Da Qing hisses but knows there is no point pulling away. It is the exact opposite of the man in the fight earlier.

This is the sweet, kind heart of Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei wants to lean in. Wants to kiss that toned shoulder, wants to press closer still. I never gave up Yunlan. He wants to whisper that truth in the shell of his ear.  Every night I dreamed of you. Every day I looked for you. Every moment I yearned for you. Stay. 

There is a tenderness in Kunlun that few know, but he feels the intensity of Zhao Xin Ci's stare. This is yet another side of his son. It is not the leader or the soldier. The aloof man or the bright friendly smile of a drinking brother. No. This is the caretaker. Who claims not to care.

Da Qing bumps his head against Kunlun's shoulder seeking comfort and in a rare moment in their relationship, Kunlun uses his free hand to pet his head. "My poor little cat." He says quietly and for once he is not teasing. 

love

Usually Da Qing would bristle but tonight he slumps close and keeps his hurting hand still. Guo Changcheng sits quietly and holds the pot of salve, allowing Shen Wei and Zhao Xin Ci to experience this moment. 

"They will take all from us. Not even let us bury our dead." Da Qing says suddenly. 

"Not while I'm breathing." Zhao Yunlan replied turning the caress into a gentle cuff to the back of his cat's head. "They didn't win tonight did they?" 

"Chief Kunlun?" Guo asks timidly but doesn't flinch when those foxfire eyes look over at him. It is an stunning feeling to look into those depths, to see him. To be able to drink in those beautiful features. He cast his eyes over the bridge of his nose, his lush full lips and sparkling eyes, rejoicing in everything. 

"You did well." Kunlun praises, his tone teasing, those obsidian eyes glittering in the firelight, lips curving into a smile. "We'll make a warrior of you yet." 

"Chief Kunlun? What was that?" Guo bravely asks. "Who did...Lady Lixue meet with?"

"The Crown Prince of Haixing." Da Qing answers glumly, then he grins over Kunlun's hands. "And she is not much of a lady. I can't believe you called her Madam White Snake!"

Zhao Yunlan huffs a laugh and begins wrapping a linen bandage around Da Qing's red hand. "What do you know of him?" 

Guo Changcheng blinks rapidly as he thinks. "He is the Emperor's son. He's married to a noble woman...and he...he swore you kill you." 

"So what everyone knows." Da Qing grumbles. 

"The Crown Prince is not the pretty boy everyone else writes him off as." Zhao Yunlan cautions. "If you asked the Black Cloaked Envoy he would tell you that the man murdered his own siblings in a bid for the throne. He killed his Uncle and three cousins in poorly disguised assassinations." 

"Cut up the body of his female cousin. She was the Emperor's favorite." Da Qing added. "What was her name? Huifen? Huilang?" 

"Huifang." Zhao Yunlan corrects. "I always thought there was something...wrong about that." 

Da Qing blinks and says in an appalled voice, somehow correctly interpreting that statement. "You think he was sleeping with his niece?" 

Guo Changcheng chokes on his water and Zhao Yunlan grimaces. "He is a rapist. Old Li always said that he assaulted his cousin when they were children. Vile man." 

Da Qing shook his head. "Explains how he got a son like that." 

"Mn." Zhao Yunlan replied now plastering the salve over the cat's back. "How did you end up so singed? You are going to have bald patches!" 

"I followed you." Da Qing snarled in reply, but his head didn't lift from Kunlun's shoulder. "I'm still more handsome than that brown thing you were trying to pet!" 

"She was a pretty cat!" Zhao Yunlan refuted. "Not like you were talking to me." 

"He was always jealous if Kunlun paid any other cat favor." Shen Wei explained, trying to ensure that there was no misunderstanding. "There was this small stray Kunlun used to feed. She was missing a leg and I think if given half a chance Kunlun would have adopted her." 

"He killed a small dog when my son was ten." Zhao Xin Ci said mildly. "I never told Yunlan, it was Da Qing." 

"Is that what you would say?" Guo Changcheng asks when there is a break in the argument. 

Zhao Yunlan blinks and then grimaces. "You mean the Prince? No."

"What would you say Chief Kunlun?" 

"That the Crown Prince is more than a murderer. He's not really the Crown Prince any more either." 

Guo Changcheng shuddered and it was a strange feeling. His limbs seem to jerk like the branches of a willow in high wind. "What is he?" He whispered. 

He jerked even more when Kunlun suddenly threw Da Qing in an expert move onto the soft ground capturing his foot. They tussled with Da Qing complaining in a near yowl of outrage. 

Zhao Yunlan was in a staring contest with Da Qing who trying to pull his foot free. After a moment Da Qing grumbled and left the foot where it was in Zhao Yunlan hands. "Idiots don't get cushions you stupid cat. Genji gets that." 

"Is that what you're calling that brown thing!" 

"She is brighter than you!" 

Da Qing sulks and Zhao Yunlan bares his teeth in triumph. Then he turns back to Guo. "The Crown Prince was always...murderous but his rampage only began two years ago. When he started sharing his body with one of the Disembodied." 

Shen Wei blinks and Zhao Xin Ci says nothing. Guo clutches his tea and says, "A...a ghost?"

"No." Zhao Yunlan refutes and wraps a linen bandage around Da Qing's foot, his hands gentle. "Exactly what I said. One of the Disembodied."

"He doesn't know the story." Da Qing announces from the floor. "Not many do. The Disembodied used to be a Dixingian tribe." 

Shen Wei has never heard of this and wishes he could hold Zhao Yunlan's hand like he used to, when they sat by a fire.

"Dixing only became a nation when that monk Shen became Emperor. Four hundred years ago. The Shen family didn't stay Emperors for long either." Zhao Yunlan adds. 

"Before that, long before that, there was a tribe in Dixing. The Xuě." Da Qing explains.

"Tell him the short version Fatty." Zhao Yunlan orders as he ties the bandage.

"Fine." Da Qing huffs. "There was a sickness that ravaged the region, killing many in its wake. Then... this is the short version...there came an immortal."

"Best thing." Zhao Yunlan said sarcastically and Zhao Xin Ci snorts.

"No ones knows his name,"

"Ren Feng" Zhao Yunlan replies and Shen Wei laughs softly.

Da Qing looks at him sourly and then continues, "The tribe beg him for help. They pledge themselves to him if he will help them. They then complete ten great tasks,"

'Amazing since they were dying."

"I won't tell you the tasks because that, will take too long for our great leader," Da Qing says ignoring him, "But when it was over, he asks again what they want."

"This is the important part." Zhao Yunlan adds.

"They say, 'To be free of sickness.' This is what they him."

"Not free of this sickness. Not cured of their suffering. Nothing specific. Always use specifics when dealing with immortals." Zhao Yunlan decrees and Shen Wei laughs softly again.

"If anyone will or has interacted with an immortal in the last millennia, it will be Zhao Yunlan."

"Because they didn't use specifics," Da Qing continues, "The immortal took their bodies." 

Guo Changcheng splutters in fear and Zhao Yunlan grimaces. "He couldn't cure them so he did the easier thing. He chained them to him, with no physical form but took only a few, leaving the rest to die."

'So they became the Disembodied. Eventually, they got free of him and it is said, that they even now shift between hosts. Possessing people, ordinary people and living their lives."

Guo was terrified.

"Two years ago, the Crown Prince of Haixing made  deal with one of the Disembodied. It's not possession...in the traditional sense." Zhao Yunlan said pouring a cup of the medicinal brew for himself and Da Qing. "He made a deal and we must pay for that deal.'

"What do you mean?" Da Qing asked sharply.

"The Disembodied for lack of a better name, got him to a position of great power and enabled the Prince to enact revenge. From what I know now, it was the Disembodied who worked out a way through our wards. The slaughter at Majia would never have been possible otherwise."

Da Qing fell silent for a moment then asked, "What is the purpose? What does the Disembodied get?"

"There is a story written in a book by a mad old monk that says that the Fifth Gate can grant a wish. The Disembodied wants access to the Gate." Zhao Yunlan said casually, as if his words were not breaching the very understanding the world has. As if everyone understood the consequence of such an act.

"This was he feared." Shen Wei breathed. "The Disembodied switched bodies when I killed the Prince. His servant didn't attack the Gates out of loyalty or madness...He was possessed. It wasn't him trying to kill us all...That's why Kunlun went there."

"The temptation must have great." Zhao Xin Ci said flatly.

"But it's a lie." Shen Wei refuted.

"What do you mean?"

"I know Zhao Yunlan and I know when he thinks something is ridiculous. It doesn't grant a wish. Opening that Gate completely would kill us all. He told me what it was. It is the first Gate, created by the immortals. When it destabilized after the Immortal War, Zhao Yunlan's ancestor locked it. It has been an oath carried down through his family. Your wife's family."

"He will have to kill you." Da Qing said slowly.

"Kill me and get his hands on the two remaining keys."

'Are they safe?" Da Qing asked hotly.

"Of course Damn Cat. The final key is precious, I'd hardly leave it around!" Zhao Yunlan argued.

Shen Wei stopped breathing.

Why pull Guo aside and send hm to sleep? Why work so hard to get the boy out of the war front when everyone was going die, if Kunlun's plan failed?

Something precious.

A memory surfaced and Shen Wei took a breath.

Kunlun leaning into him, the door at his back. Drugging kisses and Kunlun's warmth. Love and want had reverent hands caressing every part of Kunlun he could reach. Dark eyes so bright staring at him, a hand stroking his cheek. A moment of tenderness breaking the madness of desire. This was them. He stroked the pendant at Shen Wei's bared throat, dragged fingers down his naked chest. That clever thumb pressed against the tip o his cock and Kunlun tilted his head at Shen Wei's gasp. "Keep it safe for me won't you?"

He tries to speak but loses his words in a gasp as that clever finger is pressed to his weeping slit, rubbing mercilessly. Only Zhao Yunlan could do this, reduce him to a breathless wanton, but his heart sings with the fiery attention that Yunlan gives so few, now focused on him.

"Yunlan..." His voice is a low growl, the embers of Dixing winding through his own accent. The last time Kunlun had done this,  in a tent with his long hair falling over Shen's thighs overlaying with this moment. His own fingers ghosted across Kunlun's back, stroking those long black braids as firelight was casting stunning shadows along those cheekbones.

"Always." He had whispered and Kunlun closed his eyes, then opened them. Shen Wei was breathless seeing that vulnerability, the softness in those eyes. He would burn the world for this man, he vowed then.

"It's precious to me. It's all I really have of her." His mother.

"No," he said pressing fingers to his lips, silencing what he might have said. "I have given you my heart, the only thing of worth I have and my most precious belonging."

His grin was bright. "You're my most precious thing now. You own my heart and I own yours. I'll keep it forever. I'll keep you forever Xiao Wei."

The pendant. His pendant. That was the final key. Guo Changcheng was the second key. The talisman was written into his bones. His virtue and kindness...Kunlun chose him to be the vessel for the key.

"If my son hid the keys...how did the Disembodied manage to steal them?" Zhao Xin Ci asked sharply.

"He didn't steal them." Shen Wei said firmly. "The Disembodied used what the Crown Prince knew to break the seals and tried to open the Gateway by force. It would have killed us all. Kunlun must be trapped inside the Gate."

"At the junction where the Gates opens." Zhao Xin Ci said in that strange polite tone.

Shen Wei gently pulled back from the memory, sure that he knew what Kunlun wished him to realize. The inn room solidified around him and when Zhao Xin Ci opened his eyes, it was to see Shen Wei holding his yanyuedao to his throat.

"So," He said in a pleasant tone pressing the blade to his neck, a line of red forming above the collar of his robes. "How long have you been in a deal with one of the Disembodied General Zhao?"

Chapter Text

Frost ran in delicate patterns along the floor and Guo Changcheng shivered in his sleep. 

The blanket on the bed was no match for the bitterly cold air that swirled in the room, his thin body unable to keep any heat. The small ceramic tea cup from earlier shattered in the sudden chill and the curtains around the bed danced with the icy breeze. The remaining tea in the pot froze, and dark eyes watched warily as elegant hands laid a precious bundle on the scarred inn table. 

The shape was unmistakable for anyone, but it was unwrapped from its fine black silk with the air of an ancient ritual, to reveal a  charcoal black qiao decorated with gold and silver. From its sheath, one pale hand pulled out a wide gleaming blade. A broadsword in one of the most distinctive styles of the Northern tribes. 

A dao that had a story that carried its own legend. It's hilt was long and decorated with blue enamel and silver engravings. The white jade stone hanging on a long blue cord with its bold blue tassel caught the light, letting the other man clearly see the Guardian Order motif. 
   
Even without the obvious proof of ownership, both men could easily feel the arcane power imbued within the blade. It commanded attention. Kunlun had always commanded attention.

Zhao Xin Ci didn't react to the creeping cold, keeping his gaze fixed on the king opposite him, every calm almost dispassionate gesture more disturbing than the last. He watched one long finger caress the blade from hilt to tip, a gold shine seemed to follow and a metallic ring broke the silence of the air. 

"How long have you been in love with my son?" He asked in a polite tone. His expression curious and strangely calm, considering how his hands were bound with dark energy. "It is more than friendship. You love him."

Silence met his words as the qiao was put carefully to one side, as if it was more than a sheath for a warrior's sword, as if it were the finest porcelain, fragile in its beauty. 

'Would you prefer burial or cremation?" Shen Wei asked the man opposite in an equally polite tone. "You did aid me and I am grateful. For that, you have the honor of choosing your final end."  

The Emperor of Dixing sat before the table, as regally as if it were a throne, his forefinger wearing the royal ring continued to stroke the blade. He looked almost serene, his face carved from white jade, so pale against his black robes. Zhao Xin Ci could only look upon him, not in fear as others would, but a certain powerful hate that lent him strength, mingled with a very reluctant respect.

Excluding the jade ring and the mask now sitting on the table not far from the sword, there was nothing of extravagance about him, but there was command in every line of his body. What was in his eyes would make a brave soul falter. The stare he leveled at Zhao Xin Ci was not cold unlike the room, the spreading chill that made the floor creak. No. What was in those twin depths...burned. 

It was a feral rage. The kind that sweeps across a land and leaves nothing in its wake. The kind that can only be feared, born from darkness and hate, bringing with it a madness, a consuming fire that nothing could quench. Yet his face was calm, composed as if this was simply a meeting; a transaction that demanded nothing more than decent manners. 

The words were silent but they were clear. 

Zhao Xin Ci would die today. Die at the hands of the Emperor of Dixing, wielding his own son's legendary sword. 

In a face that held echoes of Kunlun's features there was no response for a handful of seconds, then those liquid dark eyes narrowed. Zhao Xin Ci had never known when to give in and like his son, was a fox with a clever mind.

Shen Wei pressed a finger to the blade and the light of dawn erupted in a small riot of color. Hues of orange, red, purple and pinks swirled and danced with flashes of lightning, as dark energy met Kunlun's sorcery. 

Ignoring the display, Zhao Xin Ci leaned forward, his voice lowering, the dark eyes intent. "I would never harm a single hair on his head! Kill me for being your enemy Emperor of Dixing, but never say I want my son's death!" 

"Burial or cremation?" Shen Wei asked again, hand closing around the hilt of the dao. 

Before Zhao Xn Ci could respond, the door to the room opened and a hooded figure entered. The man was broad shouldered, wearing heavy robes the color of bamboo leaves, a dao strapped to his back. The door shut behind him, his footfalls soft as he walked closer lifting his hood, to reveal a handsome enough face with long upbraided hair swept back to cascade down to his waist. 

Kind brown eyes glance from Shen Wei, over to the bed where Guo still dreams and settle on Zhao Xin Ci. There is a flicker in those eyes and his jaw tightens. He bows politely, raising his fist to his chest in the Northern greeting. Content that his enemy can neither attack or flee, Shen Wei gracefully rises to return the gesture. 

"Lord Guardian."

To his mind, Ma Gui is both an old friend and Zhao Yunlan's brother. "Thank you for the invitation Your Majesty." He says calmly and Zhao Xin Ci glares. 

"You?"

Ma Gui looks to Guo Changcheng and Shen Wei cannot deny that the young man is still under the sleeping curse, "It was not successful?"

"Kunlun placed a sleeping curse on him to hide a talisman." He explains and then gives the only answer he has, "I believe that the curse will remain active until Kunlun himself breaks it."

"It is tied to Kunlun's life-force?" Ma Gui asks worriedly, stepping over the bed to examine Guo. "Are you sure?"

"It seems tied to Kunlun's power. Tethered to Guo's life-force."

"That is extreme. Kunlun would not endanger Guo Changcheng unnecessarily." Ma Gui cautions, his sleeve flicking as he touches Guo's forehead, revealing the pale blue wrist-guards he always wears. 

"Why is he here?" Zhao Xin Ci demands. 

Shen Wei might have ignored him but Ma Gui responds with an stony tone, "To avenge my shidi. To find him and free him Lord Zhao." 

"Shidi?" Zhao Xin Ci repeats in scorn. 

"Yes." Ma Gui answers walking closer. "I have come to every meeting with Southern Haixing and thought of my brother's disgust should he ever learn that you, you of all people, reminded me of him. That I should be thinking of him when talking with you. He didn't tell me his birth name was Zhao, because he was ashamed." Ma Gui said, tears in his eyes. "But, I would never hold it against him." " 

That silenced Zhao Xin Ci for only a moment. "You wanted my son to die so you could have his position."    

Those who knew Ma Gui knew that he was a man of great restraint. A man who brought others together and instilled confidence with his leadership. What few individuals knew was that he was also a man with a long fuse and a violent temper. Zhao Xin Ci fell back to the ground with a thud, his mouth bleeding with the force of Ma Gui's fist. 

Ma Gui was all but trembling with rage. "If he doesn't kill you, I will." 

Gasping for breath, Zhao Xin Ci stared up at the Guardian, "You don't deny it?"

"I would slit my own throat before I would turn on the man I named brother. He has been my shidi since he was ten." Seeing realization dawn, Ma Gui stepped back. "Yes. It was my Clan who raised him. As his shixiong, I taught him. Even when he left for the Da Huang tribal lands, he was my brother." 

"Yet you took his position."

Ma Gui lifted his chin. "I was not going to let them use my brother, stand on his shoulders, corrupt his words, his deeds when they would have gladly killed him where he stood. And before you ask,"

Ma Gui's hand closed around Zhao Xin Ci's throat and pulled him back to where he was sitting. "I planned to give up this position next year. Thirty people have been aware of it for more than a year. When I find Kunlun, it will be his once more."

Shen Wei stood watching and  frowned, a thought occurring to him.  

Kunlun magic was the grace of a white crane gliding through the clouds. Shen Wei's closest imitation was more spear-fishing. Like any skill he acquired however, Shen Wei learned well and practiced Kunlun's techniques with the fervor of a true believer.

Eventually after a decade or more, he had a better understanding of Kunlun's greatest inventions, from his intricate locks to the wards he could build, struggling only with the...living magic he was capable of. Shen Wei could easily communicate with the Flower Tribe, but he could not hear the whispers of plants or see the world in a web of living energy like Kunlun could. 

He focused his dark energy, tensed as if for a fight and then reached. Like a bird plucking a silvery fish from brackish waters, Shen Wei's energy happily closed around his prey. Zhao Xin Ci choked and fell forward, hands twisting as he fought. Shen Wei opened his eyes to meet the bright, startled golden eyes of the Disembodied

He was the Emperor of Dixing for good reason. 

Ma Gui also stopped and glanced at Shen Wei. Proving he was a true leader, he sat down beside the man all but seething with dark energy and waited. 

Zhao Xin Ci leaned back gasping for air. "Do not think I will bow to you." He said in that polite tone. "You are not my king." 

Shen Wei's cold expression did not waver. "Kunlun's blade might not kill you, son of Dixing, but mine will." 

Gold eyes glittered, "I am no son of Dixing. I was born before Dixing was even a name. I am Zhang Shi, son of the Xue Tribe."

"Xue Tribe?" Ma Gui asked, his strong jaw tensing.

"One of the Disembodied. Possessing Zhao Xin Ci." Shen Wei said in a flat, cold tone. 

"No." Gold eyes blinked slowly. "Zhao Xin Ci and I share this body. I do not own him and cannot control him." 

At Ma Gui's now confused expression, Shen Wei reached out a pale hand and gave Ma Gui the shining talisman pulled from Guo Changcheng, now hovering in the air. As soon as he touched it, Ma Gui grimaced and closed his eyes stumbling back slightly. After a handful of moments his face contorted as he moved through the scenes he and Zhao Xin Ci had already witnessed. 

Then he lowered his hand, eyes opening with such an expression of sadness. "Oh shidi. This was what you did." 

He looked at Shen Wei, his eyes showing the conflict of emotion. "We were betrayed. You were betrayed...your family..." 

"Yes." Shen Wei agreed, heart tight with constricting pain, the bitter taste of failure fresh on his tongue. "He tried so hard to warn us...but..he was left to fight this alone." 

Ma Gui looked at Zhao Xin Ci. "So he is possessed? Like the Crown Prince was? Then I assume Fei Hong, the bodyguard loyal to the Crown Prince, the one who used demonic magic...he was possessed?" 

"He was possessed by Yan." Zhang Shi said calmly. 

"Zhang Shi was the name of the one who sent us the sculptures of Kunlun." Ma Gui noted frowning. 

It was strange to see Zhao Xin Ci nod his head in a gesture of respect, "I was a sculptor. My son is the very symbol of peace. I wanted him to be remembered." 

"Your son?" Shen Wei repeated. 

"I am equally Zhao Yunlan's father. I gave him the name Yunlan!" Zhang Shi said proudly, almost defiantly.  "I was the one who told Yunlan, the story of the Xue." 

"Why tell him?" Ma Gui asks. 

"I am one of his two fathers." He says with the same defiance. "I gave him some of my power when he was born. I claimed him as mine. "  Zhang Shi shrugged, a strange action to see with Zhao Xin Ci's body. "He is my son in all the ways that matter. I wanted him to know part of his ancestry."

Shen Wei blinked. If that was true even in the vaguest sense, it meant that Zhao Yunlan had some Dixingian blood in his veins...or was touched by dark energy. His mind whirled with chaotic thoughts and he wondered dimly, what it meant for Kunlun. If it changed anything for him...if it could help him in any way...how Kunlun would take the news...because it was clear he didn't know about this.

"You cannot give a..." Ma Gui began but Zhang Shi interrupted.

Shen Wei would have to tell him. Would have to break the news to him that his father was willingly sharing his body with a Dixingian...

"I have been a part of Zhao Xin Ci since he was twenty one. Before he married. In a way we both made those vows on our wedding day." Zhang Shi looked down. "They told us he would not live. He was born too soon and Shen Xi was so sick...I couldn't help her with her strong Northern blood...but I gave him some of my essence. Some of my power."

That claim was powerful in Dixing. To claim someone as your family was a sacred vow; of love, protection and family honor. Countless stories and histories were filled with such vows, the dramas of the court were based on those resounding beliefs. He had done much the same when Anujin was born. He had claimed her as his daughter and gave her some of his power as well. 

A Shen child must have some dark energy, a gift that must be declared when the child turns thirteen. Sang Zan was Dixingian by birth...Shen Wei had often wondered about his gift.  Was it truly persuasion or possibly the ability to read emotions and use them? Sang Zan had known Wang Zheng was genuine...as he knew Zhao Yunlan had been that day... certainly Anujin had none of those gifts. 

Because he had claimed her, Anujin could wield the cold elements and when she was older, she might be strong enough to open a portal. For the court, the whispers of her already blatantly used power had dispelled some naysayers.

"Explain then." Ma Gui asked. "If you have nothing to hide and if you truly do wish the best for my shidi, then you should have no problem explaining."

Zhang Shi frowned but nodded. "Yunlan did not cover all of the story," At Shen Wei look, Zhang Shi frowned perhaps deliberately misunderstanding his expression. "It is not his fault. The story as Yunlan told it was true. How else do you think he knows the Immortal's name? I simply didn't tell him all of it." He looks wistful now, "He was eight years old. It is not a nice story." 

"And what part did Kunlun miss?" She Wei demanded.

"They are digging up parts of the desert far to the east of Dragon City." Zhang Shi remarked, "We heard about it from a friend. They have called the ancient city they discovered Kōng. From his description I knew what they had found. Some of the statues they unearthed I made. Myself and my brothers, taught by our father to carve jade, to sculpt with clay and bronze."

"You made them?" Ma Gui remarked. "I saw a handful of drawings recently and saw some of the artifacts at the Palace. "They are beautiful, if a little strange." 

Zhang Shi smiled bitterly. "They were slavers and my people, the Xue were used to construct their grand burial chambers and temples dedicated to their deities. By the end of their era, sickness had spread. My only surviving brother and I fled back to our village.  Punishment would have been death but we were desperate."

"When the Immortal came...we thought it was salvation.  Four of us went to see him on the outskirts of the village. Myself, my elder brother Zhang Chen, a boy called Tong and a woman called Yan. I didn't really know her. She was married into Tong's family I think. We were Zhang, as that was the name of our owner. So we were Chen and Shi of Zhang."

Another bitter smile, those brilliant yellow eyes downcast. "He promised us the lives of our families and instead imprisoned us inside special weapons. I was his sword. My brother his shield. Tong was inside the spear he carried and he was only a boy. A child really.  Yan was inside the belt he wore. Inside the stone I think. A purple stone. Something I had never seen before." 

"He created...tried to mimic Soul Tools?"  Ma Gui asked appalled, even as Shen Wei frowned.

Zhang Shi folded his bound hands,  "Imagine waking up trapped, aware but not really...present. It was a long time... too long, before I realized what I now was.  A sword. I watched it all unfold. The war. The battles. My brother was destroyed on the last battlefield of the Immortals and I don't know what happened to Tong. We lay where we fell. I was collected and after that battle I was...asleep? Unconscious? I don't know. For centuries I slept. When I awoke I was inside a monastery, pinned to the wall."

At Ma Gui's expression he shook his head, "No. Not that monastery. Nothing to do with Wang Shu, though similar I think. They didn't hold Judged Beings inside the monastery, they only taught of them.  I was there for a long time until I was stolen. I swapped hands many times until I was given to a man who became Zhao Xin Ci's mentor. When the old man died...Xin Ci was around nineteen...I was given to him."

"You were his sword?" Ma Gui disbelievingly.

"A Soul Tool that defined the usual consequences of owning one. Someone even called me celestial." He said with some irony. "When Xin Ci was twenty one, he went to the Palace. Once we were there, I saw Yan." 

"She had cultivated unlike me, growing in power. She had spent time with that monk, the famous demon killer  Wang Shu. There she learned from the best and became obsessed with the Fifth Gate." 

"Why?" Shen Wei demanded. 

"We were there when the Fifth Gate was closed. Yan believes that the first person to open the Gate is granted a wish." 

"A wish?" Shen Wei said darkly. 

"Yes. It is nonsense." He stressed looking at both of them. "The Fifth Gate leads to a destroyed world and to open it completely would destroy us all."

"Why do they say 'completely'?" Shen Wei asked. "All of the ancient literature seems to suggest that partially opening the Gate is possible?" 

"Not exactly." Zhang Shi replied. "The Fifth Gate was so unstable several immortals, those left after the war, put in place a safety measure." 

"What kind of safety measure?" Mai Gui asked suspiciously.

"A...chamber or initial gateway that leads to the main Gate. Ren Feng talked of it. Some of them didn't agree with the measure, I remember that." 

"And this is where this Yan believes her wish could be granted?" Mai Gui queried, "She was the one possessing the Crown Prince?"  

"She tried to get me to help her that day but all she wants is the return of her family, her home. " He looked at the two men opposite him, "The Xue are gone. Nothing can bring them back. Nothing can pull back the centuries that have past. Even it could...where do my people fit in this new world?" 

"The final battle must have been between Kunlun and this Yan." Mai Gui mused. 

"With Yan possessing the Prince's servant." Said Shen Wei thoughtfully. "You believe that Kunlun is trapped inside this chamber?" 

"It is the only thing that makes sense." Zhang Shi said calmly. "I know he is alive, but nothing short of imprisonment could stop my son from coming back." 

Shen Wei had to agree there. It was the thought that had haunted him for years. The idea that Kunlun was trapped, waiting for Shen Wei...that had propelled him across mountains. 

"If you have known of this Gateway for centuries and known of this Yan's existence since Zhao Xin Ci was twenty one....why are you here now? Why no try for Kunlun years ago?" Mai Gui asked. 

"Centuries have passed yes, and that is why I didn't realize what she was going to do. I didn't know she was possessing the Prince or that her target was the Gate." 

"What changed?" Asked Shen Wei drily. 

"One year ago, Cong Bo came to see us. He wanted revenge. He had been burnt by another. A man called Wang Xiangyang had convinced him that his fiance had been murdered by Yunlan. It was lies." He stressed, as Shen Wei would believe that Zhao Yunlan was guilty.

"This Wang Xiangyang was working for someone else. His pregnant wife had been killed and he blamed Xin Ci. It wasn't his fault. The day his wife was injured was the day there was an attempt on the Emperor's life. It was a festival.  You know this, I'm sure. It was chaos and several were injured. The Palace guards helped Xin Ci because he is the Lord Commander of the Armies. They didn't help his wife."

"And he believes he can bring her back, using the Gate." Shen Wei finished.

"Who is he working for?" Ma Gui asks as well.

"Cong Bo called him Regent. I believe he is Yun Tian."

"The former Regent?" Ma Gui said in surprise. "I thought he was dead."

"There were always rumors that he escaped and the fire than turned his estate to ashes was set by his servants on his orders." Shen Wei supplied.

The Regent was a long hated figure in Dixing and a beloved member of the former Emperor's court. An Bai had ordered his imprisonment, along with some forty others in order to conform to the people's wishes. All of them were famous for corruption and war crimes, not only on Northern or Dixingian soil, but back home in Southern Haixing.

In the end it had been the murder of a fourteen year old which had crystallized the movement against him. His stance against corruption had earned An Bai the people's respect, a badly needed commodity in these trying times.

"Why would he be interested?"

"I believe Yan is possessing him." Zhang Shi said still with that smooth calm. "Xin Ci thought Yunlan was dead. There was nothing else that would stop Yunlan from returning...but I know he is alive. We searched and questioned but eventually the trail went cold. There was no new information. Then Cong Bo." 

He looked at Shen Wei, "You were correct. Cong Bo was the one who supplied us with the information, but he escaped. We did not know that he planned with yet another group to attack Dixing."

"We believed based on what he said, that Yunlan had entrapped himself and Yan to prevent the destruction of all our worlds. Now, I am not sure. The Regent is either doing this alone or he is possessed."

To Shen We there was one important question.

"Do you know where to find the Fifth Gate?"

Zhang Shi nodded. "Yes."

Chapter Text

Moonlight gilded the ground in silver, its stunning light gleaming from its home in the inky black of the skies and the sparkle of the stars. A rare moon tonight, the scholars said. Brighter and larger than it had been in centuries. Not since the days of the first Shen Emperor. The legendary night just before the battle that changed the tide of the war, the beginning of a fledgling nation that rose up to protect itself.  

Whether a sign of prosperity or a bad omen for the future, the people of all nations still gazed up at its brilliance, caught by its spell. 

From between the dry hills not a mile from the town, a hooded figure stood alone. Centered in the shadows, he seemed as much a part of this wild landscape as the sparse trees and the stars above. The moonlight fell so gently onto his long cloak, it reflected the night sky itself, the shining light only deepening the darkness of his hood. The cold air swirled around them but the pendant at his throat was warm with promise. 

In a place that forever would remain the beginning of peace, three parties converged. They had traveled for over a day by horse to this lonely area, to these cursed hills of the Hanga lands that had seen too much bloodshed, betrayal and loss. An ominous cloud of despair seemed to hang with the mists over the once lush fields, the silence broken only the crows flying through the trees, unseen by the riders. 

Nothing else moved. There was no wind and the mists hid the lands stretching out on either side of the mountain pass. Time seemed to hang here suspended, a sense of unease had settled into the hearts of every member of the group, but Battle Commander Tu Qiuyue had forced the Dixingian warriors forward, aware that their Emperor seemed unaffected. 

They, she had decided would not look weak in front of their Emperor or the Southern Haixing contingent that followed riding behind her and just in front of the Northern group. The others were afraid, calling it a cursed land, full of ghosts and demons. Some took courage in having the Lord Guardian ride with them and she suspected the Southern Haixingren soldiers, were more afraid of Zhao Xin Ci.  

On a winding road Shen Wei could follow in his sleep and often did in his dreams, he had led the party of once feuding warriors, deep into territory none of them had ever seen. The mists could not hide the path down the mountain and his mare, bred for war moved easily enough along the rough ground. She had carried him over the hills many times in the last five years, in worse weather than this. Grazed by the shore as he knelt in the cold water and watched as only a horse can, when he summoned the Gates.  

Now they were here. In the ancient sacred place that was his greatest hope and the site of his deepest despair. 

Zhao Yunlan would have found it laughable if he had told him that one day, Southern Haixing, Northern tribesmen and Dixing's finest soldiers would meet in a field bathed in moonlight. To speak of Kunlun. He would have said that his murder must be the topic, for what else would they discuss about him, if not his death? Southern Haixing had such a large bounty on his head and Shen Wei would never let them take it, while he still breathe. 

He would be right about the arguing, but not about the murder. 

At present, Ma Gui and Zhao Xin Ci were in a fierce argument about the Fifth Gate, with their loyal guardsmen squaring off on either side. Kindling, that only needed a single flame for it erupt in a fire that would end the lives of most of them here, too bound to their resentments and hate.  

Shen Wei was quickly running out of patience and his Dixingian soldiers had moved from the shadows around the arguing group to stand with him, partly out of a misguided need to protect their Emperor and partly to ensure they remained with him. Hidden in the middle was Lin Jing, who looked at Shen Wei expectantly from over the shoulder of the faintly scowling Li Qian. 

Ma Gui had recognized him but no one else seemed to know that a member of the Da Huang tribe was with them. Lin Jing knew the Gates, trained from childhood to keep the Old Haixing secrets and the paths within the Yashou gateway. His gifts lay in fortifying the Gate magic, the exact reverse of Chu Shuzhi who could unravel any of the wards. 

Kunlun had once said he was both blessed and cursed to have both of them, working at the same time as Guo Changcheng. Flame had been ordered to keep Lin Jing alive and Shen Wei preferred to have his presence concealed until they truly needed it.  

Shen Wei again looked up into the dark sky and felt his patience run dry. 

Tonight, Dixing honored the first Shen Emperor. A man they only knew through stories passed down through generations; about a great man and often a complicated one. The messages from Chu Shuzhi told him that many were praying for their 'injured' Emperor, leaving small candles at the base of the Kunlun war memorial, asking the Chieftain to watch over their king. 

Strange, how that had brought unexpected tears to his eyes and a well of emotion to close his throat, as he too looked up at the moon, remembering...longing. 

The arguing continued and Shen Wei considered mediating or continuing onward to the cliffs. There was no part of this land he had not explored over the last decade, his mind trying to work out where the best place to summon a Gate would be. Then, from the darkness, Lin Jing said a little too loudly, "I knew it!" 

"Lin Jing." He said quietly as his warriors gathered behind him, half in warning.  

The ward builder however would not be distracted or deterred. "I knew the Chief didn't detonate. I knew it!" 

Shocked by his words, fear rippling through him like the wind through young trees, Shen Wei turned to look at him. "He didn't...what did you say?" 

"Detonate." Lin Jing repeated, as if the word was the answer to his prayers not the terrifying images Shen Wei was seeing.  his eyes all but shining with excitement. "They said... the Elders, that Chief detonated himself here! But his sigil is intact. The Chief made this and...I've never seen anything like it!"  

"Made what?" Li Qian asked urgently. 

"A ring of fire. A dead man drop. Chief only had to pour a little more power into this sigil and.." He opened his hand rapidly demonstrating an explosion. "Everything in this entire area would have been destroyed. No one would have survived."

"Why would they think that? Why would he draw that sigil?" Li Qian asked confused as she looked from her silent king back to Lin Jing. Everyone else in their party was staring at him too, even Flame.  

Lin Jing glanced around and felt for the energy just out of his reach. "Because the Chief knew what it would mean if they..." Jabbing a finger at the Southern Haixingren soldiers,  "Found this place."

'And this place is what?" asked the usually silent Mo Bingqing with a quiet strength, knowing the patience of their Emperor only too well. This was over Chieftain Kunlun and she had witnessed the Emperor's rage over this subject before.  

"I think this was built by the Immortals as a...shortcut? It is not a Gate. Not a full one as we know them, but as a realm opening." Lin Jing explained. 

'What does that mean?" Li Qian asked, wondering if it was the different language or Lin Jing's rambling speech, but that answer didn't make much sense. She glanced at the Emperor, noting how he had stilled, watched from beneath his hood intently. 

Lin Jing frowned as he thought. "Chief always said that the Immortals had many realms. Pockets where they created worlds. He used to speak with the olden Yashou and he said that in their realm there were texts and stories that spoke of many small worlds, built by the Immortals for their own purposes. Havens? Strongholds? They collapsed or were destroyed after the big war. This, I think is the place where you could summon a realm doorway." 

"That is the gift your tribe have, isn't it?" Li Qian asked. 

"Yes." Lin Jing agreed not knowing if that was an insult or a compliment. "Chief could summon any Gate or realm doorway. He could summon cursed armies and he always said the realm doorways were a labyrinth. If they..." Again he pointed at the soldiers, "Took control of it, they could kill everyone." 

Suddenly many things that had worried Shen Wei or angered him made sense. The betrayal of his people for one. They had been so unreasonable, so uninterested in helping him find Kunlun. Refusing to speak with him or any of the Allies. But this...this terrible news...this was why his tribe never looked for him. The Da Huang Elders had written him off as dead. A hero who gave his life destroying these ancient gates. 

"But his sigil is in place?" Shen Wei asked his tone both cold and urgent. 

If it is still here, then Kunlun never had the chance to fulfill his suicide plan, he reasoned over the desperate panic in his chest. Perhaps Yan opened the Fifth Gate and he couldn't stop her so easily. Perhaps they fought and both fell into the Gate? He refused to believe that Kunlun was dead until he had irrevocable proof. 

"Oh yes." Lin Jing said nodding. "I can see it. I can feel it. Chief powered the sigil using the power of the earth. The energy of life all around here. That's why its so gloomy. Life energy is fueling this sigil." 

"Life energy?" Li Qian echoed, disturbed by the thought. 

"Just a little." Lin Jing defended quickly. "A little from the trees and the animals. It should not be affecting the villages in the distance...but...no just here."

Powered by life just in case he needed it for his own death and that of his enemy. A last stand. 

Shen Wei turned around looking at the walls in the darkness. He had done this as a last chance, a way to save everyone. "Can you undo it?" 

Lin Jing paused and then nodded. "Chu Shuzhi would be better at it. I build." He added, but then nodded again. "I can unravel the threads of the spell, but only after you are finished Emperor Shen." 

At the looks he received from the assembled Dixingian forces and the cold emanating from Ghost General, he clarified quickly. "It is too dangerous. Any power put into this sigil could arm it for destruction." 

Shen Wei lifted a brow but it went unseen in the dark. "Can this realm summoning...doorway... call forth the Fifth Gate?" 

Lin Jing blanched and then nodded. "I'll be killed for answering that." 

"No one will kill you." Shen Wei said firmly. "You can have protection in Dixing." A rare and precious thing. Protection. An Emperor of Shen Wei's standing did not offer the shelter of his great wings freely. For ten years Emperor Shen had painstakingly rebuilt Dixing and fiercely defended his people, their traditions and values. Foreigners were welcome and he had not turned away any of the Southern Haixingren that chose to visit, but everyone knew that it was entirely on the Emperor's terms. 

It was difficult not to look upon this black cloaked figure and not see the Ghost General. Perhaps, Lin Jing thought he still was the Ghost General, though now instead of the dark armor of a Lord Commander, he wore the softer colors of peace. He remembered Da Qing's odd question, put to him one day during training. Does a blade cease to be one if it is concealed in a qiao?  

No and the General was a blade he suspected that had only grown sharper over time. 

'They'll find a way." Lin Jing muttered darkly, then sighed. The decision for better or worse was already made. "It's for Chief. He can kill me later."

The eyes of the Dixingian soldiers rested on him, judging and considering. Some of them might even understand his position, though he doubted that any of them would ever be faced with such a decision. The Elders were the keepers of the realms. Their tribe was the first line of defense for the Yashou peoples and had a tradition steeped in secrecy. He would be exiled at best for joining this expedition and killed without mercy when they discovered what he done. 

But...this was Chief. The reckless brilliant man who had pulled Lin Jing from destitution and slavery. Who had freed him. Given him food, shelter. The man who had given him purpose, training and his own brand of encouragement. With Chief, he had always known that however hard taskmaster he might be, Kunlun was also the man who would kill anyone to defend one of his own.

After the war...his life despite everything he tried, had remained suspended. Trapped in that horrible moment when the search party had gone to the Hanga lands and found nothing living. 

He still could see the Yashou and Allied men walking down the mountain road. Could taste the despair at the back of his throat and hear Zhu Hong choking cries, as if it were yesterday. 

Squaring his shoulders with a grimace, Lin Jing nodded shortly. "Yes. You can open the Gate here."

Closing his eyes Shen Wei turned back to face the walls of the cliffs in the distance. He ignored the heated words and constrained shouts, drawing his power from the reservoir deep within him. Instead of voices he heard the rustle of the wind through the fallen leaves, and once more he felt strong warm arms sliding along his waist, callused hands smoothing over his chest. A kiss, sweet and playful pressed too briefly just below his jaw. The brush of a beard against his neck...a breath of warm air against his ear... 

Xiao Wei. 

Where there was now moonlight, that day there had been a weak sun shining high in the cloudless sky over a land far in the North. There were no leaves on the trees around him now, but in his memory, there had been piles of bronze leaves covering the woodland floor, twisting black branches towering over his head in every hue of gold and red. 

Another kiss and a chin landed gently on his shoulder those arms molding over his armor and robes alike. There were threaded braids caressing to his cheek and Shen Wei reached up in the darkness tp tug at his collar. Nestled between his collarbones the yellow jade orb was warm and bright, like a flame in the night air. 

He thought of the cliff walls in Hanga, that were etched with arcane markings, the rock singed as if struck by lightning. The silence, heavy and oppressive within those high walls, hiding a sacred place, aligning the four corners of the gateways, so they converged in one area.

He had no time for arcane markings or for finding four corners. On that autumn day so long ago now, Kunlun had shown him another way. 

Power rose around him and swirled as he called the oldest gate into existence, summoned by the gleaming sword in his hand, the ground fractured and the temperature dropped, lines of frost appearing on the small hill. Ma Gui and Zhao Xin Ci turned and both of them stared in shock as the sky seemed split.  

A dark seam appear and then exploded outward, icy white tendrils reaching towards Shen Wei. 

Emperor Shen Wei had never made it easy for the Royal Guard, unlike many of his ancestors. They waited with conflicted hearts, torn between their oath to protect their ruler and the order the same man, gave them not twenty minutes ago. Do not interfere.

Li Qian stood just behind Battle Commander Tu Qiuyue and watched as the light encircled her Emperor. "What is that?" she breathed, trying to see past the older woman's armor.   

"It has many names. We call it Cang Gate." Lin Jing said breathlessly, whether in fear or excitement he all but shuddered where he stood. "I didn't think he could do it." 

"The Emperor has no limits. Hold the line." Tu Qiuyue  ordered coldly feeling the tension mount ever higher and gestured to the Guard behind her, with a sharp flick of her hand. She had not made it to the position of Battle Commander, survived countless battles and hardships only to fail the Emperor now. Like her grandfather before her, she would trust in her king. "We move on the Emperor's order." 

Light spilled across the shadowy land and three apparitions appeared before the gateway. 

"Show me the lock that fits this key." Shen Wei demanded in a cold order, the collar at his neck open, the symbol of his heart free for them to see. The bright yellow jade was like the sun and for a moment he felt Kunlun. 


 

Chapter Text

No one expected what happened because everyone forgot the simple rules. The Peace Treaty and in many way the war itself had forged connections and once tight chains of ancient laws had slackened over time, until they nearly slipped from memory. 

None of them here actually expected Lin Jing of all people, to react in violence and most would have said that such an act, would be a bluff. Lin Jing was not a good fighter and was surrounded by people far more powerful than he. Not even Shen Wei expected that and he certainly did not expect the stocky Da Huang gate builder to yell loudly. 

In one breath, he had moved from the protective gathering of the Dixingian soldiers and had sliced his hand neatly with a small dagger. The blood dripped to the ground and no one in they moment understood. Then, there was a ripple. 

The ground seemed to shimmer and everyone began to feel the first stirrings of nervousness.  The three apparitions had no faces but somehow Shen Wei sensed that they were amused by this. 

"What have you done!" Shouted Zhao Xin Ci angrily, but Lin Jing didn't react. 

His friend had a wild look in his eyes and he was murmuring something under his breath. There was a flash of light and suddenly when Shen Wei looked down, he could see bold white lines decorating the hard ground beneath their feet. This was no longevity motif, the lines complex and almost woven in design stretching out in a haphazard circle perhaps two wide. 

Did Kunlun make this? he wondered staring at the pattern. How had he made this? When had he done so? 

"Lin Jing!" Ma Gui entreated. "We are not your enemy. Why are you doing this?" 

"Lord Kunlun is one of the greatest Guardians to ever live. You don't have a tenth of his power or his knowledge." Lin Jing said and Ma Gui looked almost saddened by this truth. "You are not one of us."

'We are of the North." One of the men behind Ma Gui said sharply, "We fought together." 

"When he swore on his life," Lin Jing said loudly, ignoring this. "We swore on ours." 

"What are you talking about?" Zhao Xin Ci asked in the same hard tone of anger, advancing forward. 

Power rippled along the lines and everyone stumbled. "I wouldn't do that Southern Haixing. Don't come any closer." Lin Jing suggested brazenly. "These lines are not some pretty design the Chief thought of for fun. All I have to do," 

He raised one hand and power formed in a small, pale blue ball of light. "...Is drop this, on this exact point." Here he pointed to the center of what looked like a flower. "...and everyone here dies." 

"Why?" Ma Gui asked shocked and horrified at what Lin Jing was saying. "We are here for Kunlun. I have come to find my brother."

"You're lying." Zhao Xin Ci stated boldly, but Shen Wei could see doubt. 

"Lin Jing." Shen Wei said, his name neither a plea nor an order, only a friend asking why. 

"You need to get going Emperor Shen." Lin Jing said calmly. "If you don't come back by sunset, I'll drop this ball anyway. No one will walk away knowing about this Gate. The Chief swore it. I'll see his oath upheld, with my life and theirs." 

There was a rustle and Lin Jing only smiled. "Try it Southern Haixing dog. Put an arrow or anything else in me and you'll die anyway. It will blow this mountainside. Chief Kunlun never failed. He always won. No one lives." 

"Why?' Asked Ma Gui again. 

"Because the Gate would kill you Lord Ma Gui." Lin Jing said. "You wouldn't survive it." 

'You will kill us for your Chieftain?" Li Qian asked her voice again calm, looking for Shen Wei for orders. 

"Hold the line." Shen Wei ordered Tu Qiuyue, knowing her courage would prevail. His staunchly loyal Battle Commander would hold the line and gladly die for him. It was sobering and it always had been a knife to his heart, that anyone would die for his orders, but he needed her loyalty. If Kunlun was willing to give his life for this Gate to forever remain a secret, he of all people would honor that. "No one follows me." 

The angles of her face were sharp and when Tu Qiuyue bowed her head, he saw the gleam in her eyes. She would make sure of it. Tu Qiuyue had stood before an army of three thousand men and not once did he see her falter.  "My King." Was all she said, echoing that very day. "We await you." 

The white lines could not be scuffed or erased and she guessed that power was what activated it, so his Battle Commander stepped forward, the open Gate at her back. 

One step, then another. The air seemed frigid around Gate but passing into the Gate was stepping into deep water, a fragment of time where he stood almost suspended...weightless. Energy thrummed against his skin and it took a force of will not to react. A sensation like leaves brushing his skin and Shen Wei opened his eyes... blinked in shock. 

Around him, stretching for miles in either direction was a vast grey scrub-land, interrupted in the distance by the towering black sand dunes. "Xuán Mountains." He whispered through dry, chapped lips.  

If that had been a shock enough, realizing that his hands were bound and there was a weight on his shoulders, only added to his rising sense of dread. 

He loathed this place. This wretched endless land of sun, humidity and humiliation had been the place his father's half-brother had exiled his mother and her children, until he was nine years old. He had expected them to die because he had never put much faith in the intelligence of women, especially his half-brother's pretty wife who nearly gutted him. 

Uncle had wanted her dead for that and had contemplated burying Shen Wei and his brother alive in a pit to punish her. Said Uncle's mistress if you could call her that, had convinced him instead to exile them, to a place where famine was raging. It was either her, Shen Wei mused or had been his Uncle's mother...he wasn't sure and at the time it had been the last thing of importance. Surviving had taken up most of their time. 

Why here? Where was Kunlun and the final Gate? Why show him this?  

He was standing in a broken courtyard he remembered all too well, of sand and small rocks, with the mountains in the distance. To the west was the old road that led eventually to the small town and the country house where his mother resided. Undaunted by her hardship, she had plotted to free them from this fate.

He remembered her kneeling in the dirt, her eyes identical to the two pairs staring at her in distress. Her dress had been a pale pink and she had pressed a hand to his cheek. "You are the Emperor's sons. Show no weakness." She had kissed his forehead, then Ye Zun's and then rose to her feet, a Queen in all but name. He had watched her leave, walking away deaf to Ye Zun's tears or the breaking of his heart. She had simply walked away up the steps and rough hands had pulled them into a cart. 

Wang Zheng would die before she would be parted from their daughter. Xiao Anujin had never known abandonment, her life free from famine or murder and he was impossibly grateful for it. She had witnessed grief and the suffering felt by the surviving, somehow growing wiser for it. She was strong, in mind and spirit and he had no doubt she would have borne this with more grace than he had. 

The chains and the weight on his shoulders was proof of that. 

Beyond the courtyard was the monastery, where he and Ye Zun had been sent. Ultimately, he could see Mother's plan and thought it a clever one. By hiding her children away in this remote place, pretending they were orphans, she had prevented their murder and bought herself a little time to make arrangements. As a child... he had only known grief and abandonment, trying to shield his younger brother as much as he could, but neither of them had ever entirely trusted Mother after this. 

Searching his mind for answers and the world around him for clues, Shen Wei tried to see the point of this memory. For that is what it was. This world was built from his mind, but why this? As a soldier and eventually Lord Commander he had traveled far from these lands. He had fought in the South for years, slept beside Kunlun in the caverns of the Allies Headquarters, faced the worst battles in the west and had rebuilt Dixing from Dragon City in the center. He had even been to the borders of Southern Haixing and the furthest reaches of the Northern lands. 

Slowly as the sun reached its zenith and the burning heat bore down on his unprotected shoulders, a memory surfaced. 

"It doesn't show what you want." Kunlun had said, his eyes distant, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword. "It shows you your wounds." 

Shen Wei had never understood those words and at the time there had been so much going on, what a Olden Gate might show you seemed such a distant, unimportant issue, he had quickly forgotten about it. Zhao Yunlan had been in a glorious temper, he remembered with a smile and it taken over a week for that black cloud to lift. 

Some of the Allies, his mother included had been boasting they had found the secret manuscripts leading to the legendary Third Gate. Which had been destroyed centuries ago according to Kunlun but the Lord Guardian had been forced to defend his information, honor and integrity. 

The only reason he remembered those words, bitten out in that dark tone, was because in that moment when Kunlun was in such a foul mood, everything falling to pieces around them...Shen Wei had realized that he would love Kunlun for his entire life. Not an epiphany...only a quiet vow. 

Like his mother, he had little patience for what he considered unimportant. That he could continue to have endless patience, affection and sympathy for a man determined to prove he needed no one, that he could find amusement in how everyone else tried not been in Kunlun's presence...that was telling. Even when Kunlun lapsed into cold silence, Shen Wei still wanted to be near and rather than argue for Dixing as he should have done that day, his mind had tried to think of a way to make this better for Zhao Yunlan's peace of mind. 

It had baffled Kunlun. Confused him. Why Shen Wei would want to be with him when everyone else was running away. 

It shows you your wounds. 

Why this though? Why this endless desert that was more prison than the dungeons? 

He felt almost guilty as he looked around, seeing the faces of the ones who had tormented him as a young child. The wounds of his soul should have manifested as one of the two wort events of his life. The brutal murder of his mother and the death of his twin brother...or the loss because Kunlun was not dead, of Zhao Yunlan himself. That night lying in that accursed boat unable to get up, to stop Kunlun from leaving...watching that beloved form on the river bank...

Those were his wounds. Not this. 

Except...this was what the Gate had chosen to show him. To test him, he knew.

What they had suffered here lay the foundation of the men the twins became. One always looking for comfort and the other always seeking the life of a soldier, as if trying to prove that he was no longer the broken, bleeding wreck they had left on these sands to die. 

But how did that help him find Kunlun? 

He considered it carefully, eying the men who had beaten him a lifetime ago gathering around him in the courtyard. Then he had been afraid, now he knew that he could kill of them with a single wave of his hand, or fight them with train skill even chained. He had faced worse odds. 

If this was about wounds, about loss and hardship...there was only one thing more difficult than walking up those broken steps to the monastery...and that was the house where his mother lived. Or more precisely, the Palace where his mother had ruled and where she had died. To find Kunlun, he was going to have face his own mother. 

The Emperor of Dixing, the Ghost General of legend gripped the chain holding his wrist and pulled. It broke into three pieces and a simple shrug of his shoulder took the weight from his back. He was no child. His hands were trained and his arms were strong. His back was unbroken and he had never been defeated in battle.

Chapter Text

The crowds in the marketplace took no notice of the dark robed figure riding an equally dark horse along the main street of this ancient city, weaving his way through the stalls and street vendors. A slight breeze was stirring the dark energy lanterns hanging from every shop, the pretty paper the only real color in the entire street. 

The skies above were heavy with the promise of a downpour, a few drops falling to splash against the hood of his cloak. Long pale fingers tightened their grip on the reins and Shen Wei glared ahead, knowing what lay at the end of this path.  

He knew that none of this was real but still had to remind himself of this fact as he moved deeper into the world the Gate had built for him. Spells like this one were built for one purpose. To conceal what they guarded, the spells distracted or tormented whomever entered, depending on the spell-weaver's intent.  These spells were added to the Gates centuries after the Immortal War and that was all Shen Wei knew, as the only man who would discuss spell-weaving with the Ghost General was Zhao Yunlan.

"They are forbidden to do bloodshed. That goes against the rules and it has consequences. Some though like a blood sport of a different kind and others were designed as tests I think." Kunlun had said that day riding beside Shen Wei in the morning light. "Those that fall have wounds too great to overcome." 

Like the spell that Kunlun had buried within the talisman, this world was based on Shen Wei.

Kunlun had once said that the unseen enemy is never what you imagine them to be. He didn't know his enemy so didn't try to imagine what might happen, because he knew his own wounds too well. The life he had led had taught Shen Wei long ago, to be honest with himself no matter how hard that might be. 

None of this existed and the proof of that was the distinct lack of smell. There should have been the scents known to every street and the air  should have carried the fragrance of the yellow flowers, blossoming in the wiry trees growing against the wall, of nearly every house in this ghost city.  

Perhaps scent was too complex to fake, but he could feel the shifting of the muscles in his warhorse's back beneath the smooth leather, her easy gait on the cobbled road. He could feel the leather reins in his hand and the symbol of the Dragon of Dixing stitched onto the front arch of the saddle, denoting it as the Emperor's horse. 

He ran his fingers lightly along the straps around the mare's neck, holding her studded leather breastplate, now speckled with rain droplets.  

All from memory. 

Considering the simple fact that he was riding DaiYu, the mare which had carried him to the Hanga lands, perfect down to the small patch of white on her neck... everything was from his memory. So, Shen Wei wondered idly as his horse passed a small gathering of children playing by the road, who these people were. He recognized none of their faces and yet to be here, he must have seen these people before. 

Ahead of him was an ancient stone bridge, far older than the city nestled behind him in the cradle of a valley. Older than the Palace looming before him now. Protected by a high wall with one entrance on this side, Shen Wei only had to cross the bridge to hopefully meet his final trials and find Kunlun. 

A slight tug on the reins brought DaiYu to a halt, one step from the bridge. A complex knot of emotion tightened in his chest and he again remembered Kunlun's words. It shows you your wounds. 

Few would ever know what this bridge meant and the Gate was using it against him. It was nothing remarkable, although some might considered it hallowed as it led directly to the Palace. 

He had passed along this stone bridge a hundred times or more. Leaving first as a boy and then countless times as a leader. Returning with a contingent of his own forces at the behest of his Emperor in the early spring, the winter, even now in the late autumn. A young Commander fresh with news of an Alliance. A more experienced General with a sweeping reputation wearing Kunlun's inner robes beneath his armor.  

His eyes glanced over the blue glazed terracotta tiles on the rooftops, flanked by armed soldiers that failed in the end to stop the attack that burned these buildings nearly to the ground. The dark energy fueled fire had claimed the city, killing most of its inhabitants. What was left was a ruin only recently rebuilt in full, but for all the convincing the court had tried, Shen Wei had chosen not to rebuild the Ye Palace. 

He had no need for it, he said. It had never been the official Palace of Dixing, only the seat of the Ye State. For centuries before his mother's succession, Dixing had been in endless conflict. The States of Ye, Shen, Ban and Xu were either forging alliances or were at war with one another.

It was why he mused, Southern Haixing had believed war was an opportunity. They thought Dixing in its fragmented state would be easy to defeat and that they would hardly reach out a hand to the North. 

The State of Ye had been small and had long been an ally of the Shen State. His mother had used her Ye family connections to forge a new alliance between the two that ultimately won over Ban State, but it was only when Shen Wei convinced Ye Zun to join the Allies, that the Xu State finally accepted the union. 

His mother had used the old prophecy as a weapon, declaring Ye Zun to be the one who would unify the lands. Not that either twin had really believed that, considering that their father had been the supposed 'chosen one.' 

Rather than  use Dragon City, his mother had chosen to remain here, putting the House of Ye on the map as the capital. 

He looked at the buildings again. There was nothing remotely attractive about the cold grey stone devoid of any life. This stronghold was a far cry from the Palace of Dragon City and it wasn't the Gate that gave it this... eeriness. There were no gardens or life-giving waters, nothing decorative to honor the craftsmanship of Dixing, no flags and no people. It was cold and despite being so close to the city, utterly alone.

It was the place that saw the last breath of the Empress and the place that was often the source of his twin brother's misery.

In this moment so preserved in his memories, it more of a tomb than a Palace. Nothing like the home he envisioned with Zhao Yunlan.  It was ironic really, he thought as his horse shifted restlessly. He had never planned to bring Zhao Yunlan here, never wanted him to meet his family. His mother would have despised Kunlun and seen in her son, the same love she had for a man she could never keep. No, the Empress would have done everything in her power to keep him from Zhao Yunlan and if one whisper had met her ear about Zhao Xin Ci...

Yet, he had wanted for over a decade to bring the same man to Dragon City. Had redesigned the gardens and the Palaces, especially the Palace of the Six Phoenixes...to accommodate Kunlun. His tastes and the things he valued. Wanted to see him examine all of the trinkets and scrolls, the endless books and see him lounge on the furniture, his mind restless, his body lax. 

He wanted to see the wonder in his foxfire eyes when saw the gardens. The brilliant pinks of the Dixing peonies, the blue spider flowers at night and the vivid red of their trees.

Kunlun had dreamed of seeing the miniature penjing, those carefully pruned tiny trees and rocks mimicking natural landscapes. So, Shen Wei had found himself an expert and become an apparent connoisseur of them. People from all over the Realms sent them to him as gifts. Over time he had become quite fond of them and was always looking for one with more color or a more intricate landscape.  
 
Imagining Kunlun in the rooms, at every meeting and gathering...how he would see them and what he would think...that was what had fueled Shen Wei's strength. He would rebuild Dixing for his people and one day, Kunlun would be there to enjoy the peace with him. 

Here was a different story. 

Shen Wei had always found it difficult to return here and never dwelled on why. This place had never been a home, not to him. He had no place within these walls, not even within his own family. He had never found it welcoming despite all of the effort so freely given to welcome him, each time he visited. 

Because that was it wasn't it? He visited. Life went on here day by day and he was constantly absent, so even when he returned he was held at a distance. Not by distrust...although that was there too he was sure, but by the simple fact that he was never a part of the daily happenings. He had no close relationships beyond his mother and twin and was never particularly liked by the court either. 

His loyalty was purely for Ye Zun and that often put him at odds with the court and his mother's schemes. What Shen Wei feared was that by leaving constantly for the front lines, he wasn't here to protect his brother. That fear was proven true, when he lost his twin and his Kunlun in the same year. 

Ye Zun had wished he was here more. His Didi had often expressed how much he missed him and worried for him. How he wished Shen Wei was here to help and guide him. Ye Zun had loved him, that he knew. 

Shen Wei closed his eyes against the memory of his brother's hopeful eyes. The sound of his delighted laugh. 

"Ge ge! Come sit. Are you well Da Ge?" 

Against everyone's advice, even their mother's, Ye Zun had promoted him as soon as he could to Lord Commander, giving Shen Wei complete supremacy over the military and the power to demote or imprison without needing the Emperor's seal of approval. Shen Wei doubted he would ever give anyone that much power in the court, but the reason was the wisdom that few thought his brother possessed.

There was only one person Ye Zun fully trusted, only one he would give unlimited power to. Shen Wei. His own brother who would protect his twin at any cost, a promise Shen Wei had proven time and time again. The court, even the Empress had begun to fear Shen Wei's power but Ye Zun only smiled and decreed that if anyone stood against his brother, they would stand against him too.

Ye Zun made sure that Shen Wei had his own wing in the Palace, a fortune of his own and until the day Ye Zun produced an heir, his twin had declared that Shen Wei was Crown Prince.  A thing unheard of Dixing. Shen Wei might have possessed the skills and power to protect Ye Zun, but his twin as the Emperor, did everything he could to protect Shen Wei from everyone else.

For their entire lives they had tried to destroy his family. So many enemies and old feuds. After coming here to the House of Ye, they tried everything to keep him apart from his brother, never understanding the bond they shared. The promise made by terrified children torn from everything they knew, a promise never to forget. 

Sadness sat heavily in his heart for a moment. 

DaiYu shifted again jarring him from his thoughts. He was not here for maudlin thoughts, for a journey down memory lane. He was here for Kunlun. Ye Zun would have been the first to point that out.

He refused to be baited. It had been nearly twenty years since the moment he had first ridden  along this bridge, his twin brother at his side. The world had been reshaped by his mother, who had used three armies to suppress political revolts, maneuvering herself into power when the old inner state of Dingdun fell. It had been seventeen years since the day he had left along this bridge, a fifteen year old boy with grand delusions, riding beside Battle Commander Yu'Wen.

A great deal had happened over those seventeen years. He had experienced many strange and disturbing events. He had fought in the worst battles recorded in the history of Dixing, led two successful campaigns in the name of Emperor Ye Zun and that was before meeting Kunlun. He had stepped into a world he didn't recognize after that. 

Becoming aware of the magic so present around him and meeting one of the greatest wielders, had changed his perspective. Through Kunlun he had met others, all of them capable of incredible things and had been trained to better use his own gifts. He had fallen in love and found himself in the mountains, so far from this city. 

He had one goal and more determination than ever. He was here to find Kunlun. Nothing else mattered. 

If the Gate wanted a fight, he would give it one. 

"It's not their narrative, if it's my narrative." 

Kunlun had said that one afternoon when they were about to face the Alliance leaders, to discuss what they learned from General Zhong, the name Zhao Yunlan hovering on the air. 

Taking a deep breath, Shen Wei makes his decision and opens his eyes to see the air around his horse shimmer. 

Between one heartbeat and the next, his horse transforms. Her coat is now white and her black breastplate is now a deep blue. His robes have changed as well. His black cloak had been replaced and he remembered this one well. There was leather along the shoulders and chest, his tunic beneath edged in gold. His hair was braided in the style befitting a Lord Commander and his mask was a design chosen by Ye Zun. 

His turned his head slightly and blinked when he saw an army behind him. His troops waiting for the signal to ride into the Palace, with Battle Commanders Pei Huizhong on the left and Zhu Gaochi on the right. Both of them had died a year before the Peace Treaty and he smiled to see them once more, a bittersweet reunion.

They would have marched behind him anywhere, proud to serve with him even in this strange little world the Gate had constructed. Both of them and the soldiers behind them were perfect, right down to the scars he remembered and the worn armor, dented in some places. Tu Qiuyue was just behind Zhu Gaochi, waiting for her Emperor's orders as she was on the other side of the Gate.  

Pei Huizhong, one of his bravest warriors, had led the infantry into battle against Haixing General Biao, dying when an arrow pierced her armor. She was the highest ranked Ban State soldier in his army and she had spent years proving her loyalty. Zhu Gaochi had not only defeated Zhao Xin Ci's forces beside Shen Wei on the coast, but he had used his dark energy gifts to destroy many of the Southern Haixing ships out in the bay. Death for him had come when a lance had been hurled towards Shen Wei and his old friend had chosen to die for his Lord Commander. 

If the Gate wanted him to cower or to lose himself in memory. It would wait for eternity. 

The palace guards raised a shout and the grand doors of the stronghold opened, showing them the wide courtyard of the Palace. He heard his two Battle Commanders shift in their saddles and knew they were prompting each other to speak. Another breath and then he heard Pei Huizhong's strident voice, "My Lord?" She asked, a note of concern in her tone. 

"Let us show our greatest respect for Our Emperor." He declared and hear a cheer go up in the ranks behind him. 

---

It should have taken forty minutes at best for them to dismount, report to the Deputy Commander Zu Chongzhi, who would be waiting on the steps, wearing his official robes. Another victim of the fire. Shen Wei had never particularly liked the man, chosen by the Empress as a reward for his loyalty. He was one of the original warriors who had aided his mother when she had escaped exile and stood as one of her loyalists.    

In times past, he always greeted Shen Wei formally, but as Prince's reputation grew and word of his deeds reached almost legendary proportions here in Dixing, according to Ye Zun, the Deputy seemed to like Shen Wei less and less.

After this, they would perform the required bows as a show of respect before the doors, all before ascending the white steps to the Palace, escorted by the officials, guards and Deputy Zu.

Deputy Zu Chongzhi would have given his report to Shen Wei and would have received his orders in return. He usually as they ascended the steps made some mention of the current court happenings, the king's mood and of course who might be in audience with the Emperor. 

This time, flanked by his Battle Commanders, Shen Wei simply ascended the steps with the grace expected of an Emperor and the defiance of his mother. He walked through the doors not as a Prince or as the Lord Commander, not even as a king. No, he walked inside as the Ghost General, the feared Commander who reclaimed Dixing's borders. 

No one stopped him and no one questioned him.

He walked towards the ornate doors leading to the Emperor's court and the guards opened them as the golden light of the spellwork recognized the seal Shen Wei wore on his armor.

Twelve great pillars held the famous domed ceiling of the throne room. Each one was made from precious green stone and large gold dragons wound around the base. The floor was a rich wood, so highly polished it gleamed and in the center was a silk carpet that led to the throne at the back.

His heart in his throat, grief heavy in the air his eyes against all protocol, stared directly at the raised platform.

He didn't see the eyes of the Ministers, some welcoming other damning, staring at him from all sides. Both of his Battle Commanders remained behind him, but none of them mattered in this tormenting moment.

"Some like a blood sport of a different kind and others were designed as tests I think."

On the left dressed in gold and black was his brother, his twin and his Emperor. Ye Zun's eyes behind the curtain of beads, shone with honest delight and he sat forward, ready to welcome him  officially. Beside him on the left, was the Empress.

Her red painted lips smiled immediately and her soft brown eyes beamed as she saw him standing there. He could have been thirty or four years old. That expression was the same.  She always seemed so ethereal and stunning. Her presence a power of its own and she commanded without saying a word. She was captivating and beautiful.

It is a hard thing to wonder if your parent truly loves you. His mother is a great actress, weaving her lies and her plans around all who serve her or conspire against her. He know this and it is not bitterness either. She taught them this, Shen Wei more than Ye Zun. She died and he never knew the answer.

Were her sons the delight of her life as she claimed or were they simply pawns like everyone else? Through them she commanded a nation, gained her revenge and lived the life of a Empress. She also suffered and was willing to suffer more if it meant her children lived.

No matter the answer, he would always love her and Ye Zun. They would always be kept in the center of his heart.

Shen Wei, son of the Empress strode forward and pulled free his dao. With all the rage grief can give, he struck at the air.

It was madness but there was tearing sound, a rip like silk tearing.

The throne room was gone in a blink.

He now stood center of the space, for Shen Wei had no name for the place where he stood. It was neither solid and seemed endless, a grey like storm clouds just before the dawn. The platform was gone and in its place was a ring of fire, a pillar of flame that burned without any fuel below it. 

Shen Wei's eyes left the flames and lifted, wondering if it was ceiling or sky above him and his heart skipped a beat.

There above the flames, surrounded by fire was Zhao Yunlan.

Chapter Text

"Kunlun!" 

The name rang out over the emptiness, echoing within this created space, amplifying the fear and crushing anguish in the Emperor of Dixing's voice. The desperation and wrenching cry of a broken heart, still bleeding after all these long years. 

It was Zhao Yunlan. There was no doubt in his heart. 

It was him! He breathed his name, all but choking with the stunning realization, that he had found him. He had found Kunlun. Joy more powerful than he had ever felt before surged to his throat, tempered only by the agony of seeing Kunlun was trapped. 

Stumbling forward, blind and deaf to everything but that beloved form, his eyes fixed on the man high above the ground. He shouted again, the joy twinning now with worry, woven into the syllables of a precious name. 

"Zhao Yunlan!"

Nothing. Only the echo of his own voice. For the first time in his long battle experience, Shen Wei didn't check his surroundings before hurrying blindly over to the flames. His boots carried him closer without conscious thought, his feet walking on stone but he couldn't see the ground. Nothing stirred in this strange place of nothingness. 

It felt like a tomb. Dense with the weight of hollow loss, of death. 

He knew that Kunlun had been imprisoned, had known it in his very bones. Had to have been trapped because otherwise he would have returned to Shen Wei. He wasn't dead. He was here. Had been here all this time. Here in this unforgiving place, so far from Shen Wei's protective embrace. 

All the times he had been to this damned land...all the tears he had cried on these shores...all the times he had camped within these hills searching, hoping, screaming Kunlun's name to the cold winds...and here he had been. 

If he had found Guo Changcheng before...if he had done so many things differently...

Kunlun. Eyes blurred with tears stared up at him, frozen in time, hardly daring to believe that this was real. Not some torment that the Gate was attempting. Oh let it be true, he thought breathless with pain and hope. 

Zhao Yunlan. Kunlun. His Ah Lan. Xiao Lan. The earth beneath his feet, the life in his blood. The reason his heart still beat.

This had to be real.  

A third cry echoed brutally, "Zhao Yunlan!" 

He hung there, suspended somehow in the air, the flames dancing around his limp form. There were rocks, barely more than fragmented stones drifting around him, like carrion crows circling a battlefield. His face, his beautiful cherished features were bloodied and he didn't stir as Shen Wei reached the fire. 

He could feel the heat and the thrum of energy that was in no way natural. Like a dark energy fire, he thought wildly. Exactly like the one which had destroyed the Palace and claimed his family's lives. 

Kunlun couldn't hear him. He was trapped and thought himself alone...perhaps he was unconscious...thoughts spiraled in Shen Wei's mind, each possibility only growing more dire as the minutes passed by. 

Looking around for answers, for some mark or doorway, something that might free Kunlun, Shen Wei turned slowly. His eyes widened when he realized the full extent of the scene before him, partially hidden in the shadows and vague greyness of this place. Nothing here seemed to actually exist...yet he was standing on something and Kunlun was clearly barricaded within flames. 

Think. He thought viciously. Think. Kunlun's life was on the line. 

The Northern tribes gifted with the knowledge passed down through generations, stories told through the ages from one elder to the next heir. They never spoke of what they knew. Guarding such knowledge with their lives. They were an ancient people, far older than the nation of Dixing or Southern Haixing. They kept their secrets and the war meant that even fewer knew those secrets now.

Shen Wei knew more than most about the Old Gates simply by living with Kunlun and his love had mentioned on more than one occasion, that the Immortals who built these Gates between worlds, were obsessed with ritual. To have a successful ritual you needed participants. 

Rituals demand organization and careful planning, an audience. Becoming an Emperor had taught him this painful lesson. Everything in the court required a certain amount of ritual, protocol and planning. Something on this scale would have required this place to have a solid form, he thought considering the size of the space.

But, the thought did occur to him that this Gate was designed to blind intruders with illusion. To test and torment them into possibly taking their own lives.

The trick would no longer have any power over him, now that he had proven it to be a lie. The illusion, the torment only worked if the intended victim believed in the lie and Shen Wei knew the truth. This place had once been an inner sanctum of some kind, built to guard the second doorway. 

Turning away from Kunlun was harder than he thought possible, his heart aching the moment his eyes left Kunlun's beloved face. He stood before him as he would have done in battle, protecting his vulnerable back. 

Slowly his conviction won the silent battle. As he planted his feet, the darkness in him rising to face this challenge, the Gate seemed to acknowledge his position.   

Within three breaths the space around him changed. Eight walls appeared, not entirely solid but in the center of each wall was a glowing gold talisman. As if summoned by his will, the space seemed to restructure itself. Shapes appearing in the grey confines beyond where Kunlun was suspended. 

There had never been any mention of the Immortal design when they built the original Gates, but it seemed everything here was designed to mimic a structure familiar to the Immortals who built them. There were pillars made of stone set in an odd arrangement and each one had strange faces carved into the middle, their features elongated and morose. 

The floor was now a web of complex lines forming a large talisman in white over a smooth surface, that was neither grey nor black. Kunlun was trapped just before the white lines and as he watched the rock fragments locked together forming eight stones, which revolved smoothy around his body.

This was nothing from his memories or imagination. This was the inner sanctum of the Fifth Gate. Somewhere from here was the locked second Gateway that would destroy everything. 

Despite the more solid surroundings Kunlun never moved, as if he too was made of stone. There were eight smaller white talismans, standing at the corners of the main pattern. Places for the participants or audience to stand? The way to unlock the second doorway? 

As things settled,  one thing became clear, the more he looked. 

A battle had raged here. 

There were two bodies lying on this floor, both of men and Kunlun's celestial whip, in its guandao form was jutting out from the center of one man's chest. The man the Disembodied woman Yan had possessed? The simple red tassel connected to the dragon head hilt of the guandao, seemed to swing like a pendulum. A slow arc left to right. 

That had to mean something. The celestial whip was as old as this Gate, forged by an Immortal. It hoarded power and abilities, killing hundreds over the centuries looking for a master.

What here, other than Kunlun was affecting it? 

Shen Wei turned in a slow circle, eyes going back to Kunlun with desperation. 

There were rules to these spells. Kunlun was an inventor and he had his own code, his way of doing things...but even he followed the rules. The problem was that Shen Wei didn't know all of the rules, didn't know enough about weaving to understand the layers to this spell. 

Never had Shen Wei felt more out of his depth, but refused to allow fear or despair to cloud his thinking. Lucky for him, that was something he had great practice in. 

Taking a slow step forward, Shen Wei waited. Nothing stirred and a quick hopeful glance showed him that Kunlun had reacted. One step from the celestial whip, exactly what he feared happened. When he ahd first entered the Gate was still trying to distract him, now it was actively responding to him. 

The tassel stopped mid-swing and Shen Wei watched as the walls pulsed, the gold talisman dimming for a moment. Each wall seemed to freeze, ice forming over its surface until he was looking at glassy white window. Within each window except for the one on his left, there was a single body. 

Shen Wei's eyes widened as he saw the unmistakable outline of Da Qing's rigid body. No...

Spinning around he looked back at Kunlun, staring at his beautiful chiselled features. What had happened here? 

Navigating around the talisman was difficult but eventually Shen Wei made it over to the wall where Da Qing was trapped. Seven slots filled...why were there two bodies on the floor and Kunlun trapped above? 

The three apparitions appeared without sound, without anything to announce their presence. Shen Wei faces them with the same righteous courage Zhao Yunlan had marveled at on the battlefields. 

Their faces could not be clearly seen, but he could easily identify the Guardian symbol on the large gold belt they wore over long dark robes. One held a guandao, the other a scroll and the third one was carrying a a dao at his waist. They spoke as one, a ringing voice neither female nor male, ancient and sonorous.  

"You trespass Dark One, son of YeBai." 

YeBai was the Immortal who first used dark energy, separating the Immortal race into those who used cultivation energy and those who followed YeBai's teachings. His followers used this new found power and as legends tell, their descendants were given one gift to wield for their own. YeBai's descendants became after long centuries, Dixingians as they are today. YeBai's choice was the beginning of the Immortal War and some bitterness clearly remained. 

Others might fear but Shen Wei was unbowed. "There are three people here, wrongfully trapped. I will collect these three." 

"You have no rights to command here." A warning. 

Shen Wei was the not the warrior Kunlun had first met. He had learned as he did all things, how to navigate politics and how to bargain or deal when you would rather do anything else. Kunlun was an expert at verbal traps and Shen Wei had been a devoted student. "Outside a gate builder is arming a talisman array capable of destroying this Gate." 

"Nothing can destroy the Gates." 

"This can." Shen Wei replied coldly. "You know of the array. It will seal the true gateway forever."  

"If that is true the three will die. You will win nothing Son of YeBai."  

Shen Wei smiled grimly. If he couldn't free Zhao Yunlan, he would die with him. "Death is not something to be feared. Failure is. The Gateway is known, has been accessed. Destroying it will break the Accords. The orders set by the Immortals." 

"To release the three will not be possible."  

"Why?" Shen Wei demanded.  

"The one," Here the apparition on the left points to Kunlun, "Locked away himself to prevent the Gates being opened. He is poisoned by the Disembodied One.'

Yan must have attacked and like his father, Kunlun could only offer up so much resistance. If she thought she could take Kunlun from him, she was sorely mistaken. "I can end the Disembodied."  

"Only an Immortal can do that."

Proof then that Kunlun was right, the Immortal had taken thier lives and enslaved the ones he was interested in. " 

"And a mortal with an Immortal Soul Tool. YOu said rightly I have the blood of the dark energy Immortals." He pulled his weapons from his cloak, the long dao gleaming in the strange light while his yanyuedao, cracked th ground beneath his feet. 

"Those are the blades of Meixiu."  

"Also famed for her skills with dark energy." Shen Wei answered, his stance protective. 

A beat and then, "Those of the dark can end such creatures...We will end all lives here to prevent the Gateway opening without the ritual. It is almost complete."

Seven of the eight slots were filled and Shen Wei had no idea what Yan had done. Thinking quickly he said, "The Gateway is only fit for an Immortal to pass between its hallowed walls. These are mortals. The three I want are mortals however gifted."

There was silence for a moment and then they spoke, in the same unemotional tone, tinged with contempt.  

"We will release the trap and you must kill the Disembodied One. It is unclean and not befitting." 

"The Disembodied One believes she can resurrect her lost ones. This is not possible. They are long dead."

"Her lost ones cannot be returned. The Gate can only be opened by the Righteous Ones."

And who knew who the Righteous Ones were. Perhaps Kunlun himself did not know. It was easy to believe that his Yunlan, with his confidence and vast knowledge, would have all of the answers...but Shen Wei knew that such a belief was unfair. 

The last words they spoke sent a chill down his spine.

"If you fail, we will end the lives of both."

Failing Kunlun was never an option, not then when they were both Generals fighting a hopeless war and not now when his life hung in the balance.

He looked at the assembled three apparitions not bothering to hide his own contempt. Shen Wei knew from experience that it was unwise to continue with only half of the bargain decided and this was certainly half. "I will take the three and leave this Gate, forever locked and never to be found." 

"The Immortals shall know." 

"He," Shen Wei said pointing at Kunlun, "Is a descendant of the Immortal Méh-è. He wields her celestial whip."

Méh-è was one of the Great Builders, the forger of the gates. She was revered and feared in equal measure and the three apparitions looked towards the whip which begins to hum.  For Méh-è had a darker legend, as a Slayer of Immortals who had strayed from the path, if the old translation could be believed.

Shen Wei threw his last bargaining chip at their feet. "He must complete his Destiny. The other two are his...disciples." 

"We find this to be true Dark One. Méh-è protects and guides her descendants. We will aid you."  

 Shen Wei had enough time to turn towards Kunlun before the white talisman on the ground rose up into the air, spinning around Kunlun's form. It expanded and a blue light appeared around the edges of the white lines. In another breath the talisman shattered and the flames around Kunlun vanished. 

"We will hold him. Your sentiments are too  great for rational thoughts."

His sentiments. Did these creatures have no understanding of love? Of devotion?

"Do not hurt him." Shen Wei said his tone icy.

"End the Disembodied One." Was their only reply.

Was it murder when Yan had been trapped unable to die for millennia? Chasing a dream that became her driving obsession? He understood far better than anyone else could. Love had propelled him to search every rock and tree in the Hanga area looking for answers. It had driven him to make decisions his younger self would never have entertained.

He had always been ruthless, but losing Kunlun and the endless search for him had taught him patience and resilience.  Becoming Emperor had made him aware of his people's welfare and the failing of every Emperor before him. Becoming a father had given him sanity, stability and a child's innocent love.

He could not say he would have followed her path, but he understood Yan.

On the other hand, the same woman had destroyed countless lives, bringing ruin and persecution on thousands across three nations. The Decrees signed by the Crown Prince of Southern Haixing had allowed torture, murder and mass graves. Ten years on, what the Crown Prince had done, what he or rather Yan had ordered, resulted in war crimes unimaginable to anyone praying for a loved one. 

Yan was Dixingian and Shen Wei was the Emperor of Dixing. It was his duty and his burden to act as Justice. As Executioner.

The relatives of those slain would demand retribution if they knew who had murdered their loved ones. They would demand such of him. Demand that she be tried and damned for what she had done. The lives of the Northern tribes she had destroyed must be answered for and even those in Southern Haixing, condemned by her order.

"I am ready."

Green bands of power held Kunlun's form and Shen Wei reached into his core, his dark energy summoned to his hand. It thrummed along his skin, an ocean of raw power demanding to be let free.  Staring at the man he loved, treasured and worshiped, he reached out with threads of power.

It had worked with Zhang Shi and the Disembodied One sharing a life with Zhao Xin Ci had promised him that if summoned, Yan would not be able to resist. He was more than a powerful being, with near mystical gifts, he was an Emperor, a true successor to YeBai's descendants.

However wronged she had been, Yan of ancient Dixing was not using Zhao Yunlan. She had hurt Yunlan, forced him to sacrifice his life and his freedom to stop her. She would pay for that. 

Unlike with Zhang Shi, Yan was suffused into Zhao Yunlan to his relief. She was blocked form his mind and unable to control his body. No force in existence, either now or millennia ago could act against Kunlun's formidable will. It was surprisingly easy to pull her free of his body.

As he had expected, her immediate plan was to attack and find a suitable host she could control. Her screams of rage bounced off the walls of the expanse, echoing in the vast inner sanctum. She lashed out at him and met the dark energy swirling across his skin. Her rage became pain and she launched again at Kunlun.

Dark energy held her tightly. "Yan of the Xue."

Again her rage became a screaming howl and she thrashed in his hold. Kunlun's face contorted as if he was in pain and Shen Wei made his decision.

When Yan again attacked, he let her come closer. He felt her rage and her madness. She had no remorse and she cared nothing for her victims. His blade swung destructive energy clamoring within him as his other hand brought his yanyuedao down in a wide arc.  A light flashed as the blades once owned by the Slayer of Immortals ended her life. Yan was no more.

Within a breath his blades were again sheathed with his cloak and his arms gathered Kunlun to him. He was real. Alive. His breaths calm and his heart was strong...Kunlun. It felt like a dream.

"You have ended the Disembodied One."

"As part of my bargain." Shen Wei replied. "Release the Ca Yashou and the Hanga Chieftain Sang Zan. I take them with me."

The others were dead and those three lives were what mattered.

At the Gates still in standoff with Lin Jing, tensions rising as the Dixingian soldiers defended the man claiming to be delivering their end stood before the Gate. No one except perhaps Tu Tu Qiuyue expected the portal that appeared in the middle of the marked ground.

The Emperor of Dixing was kneeling on the ground holding a body close to his chest. On either side of him was the body of an unconscious man.

"Kunlun!" Ma Gui shouted in joy. "My brother!"

"Lin Jing, let everyone leave then throw your ball of power. I will Seal the Gateway." Shen Wei commanded looking down at he precious face tucked into his chest, hardly able to believe he was looking at Zhao Yunlan. 

Chapter Text

The rising sun brought hope.

The sky was still grey with the passing of the storm that had raged overnight, a downpour that had washed down the mountainside into the vast river, until it raged across the plains flooding forest and farmland alike.

No one spared any interest in the talk of brilliant light and a talisman high in the night's sky above the Hanga valley. Nor did they care when travelers spoke of a tremor through the earth, so violent one traveler fell from his horse. Storms in this region were violent and the Dixingian garrison on the other side of the valley was always running drills with vast arrays lighting up the sky at odd hours.

Especially not when more important news had arrived.

As the warmth of the golden light filled the sky, the brave ventured out of their homes, thankful that the city of Lèguān had survived another onslaught. Word spread from the courtyard of the Meng family compound to the furthest street in the growing city, carrying even to the guards on the high walls of the Southern Gate.

The Emperor had arrived during the night, riding through the storm.

Many mourned the lost opportunity to see the royal carriage and escort, riding so proudly through the streets of their city built by the Emperor, to honor the clan of Meng. There had even been a few occasions over the years when the Emperor could be seen riding one of his horses, dressed in black finery much to the excitement of the waiting crowds.

Others could scarcely believe that the entourage had made it unscathed through the worst storm in recent years. Trees had fallen along the road and the bridges were flooded, icy water still swirling in ever growing pools, flowing down the pathways of the Meng Sect stronghold.

The Sect quickly put up the flags welcoming the king and the Meng family rejoiced in seeing Shen Wei returned to them. Incense burned throughout the city and passers-by stopped by the compound gates, passing on wishes for his luck and protection

Then the shocking news followed. The Emperor had not come alone.

---

The head of the Imperial household, hurried along the polished wood corridors glittering with the early morning light, leading several well-trained, highly discrete Dragon Palace attendants to the ornately carved door of the Emperor's quarters. Archways curved over their heads reaching down to meet stunning motifs carved into the walls and they passed decorative lotus ponds set into the floor with dark energy, the water gently rippling.

He had handpicked all of them to serve the Emperor when he came to Lèguān to scour the mountains beyond the city and the old Hanga valley, searching for Chieftain Kunlun. They carried a light meal and a chest containing the robes the Emperor had requested.

Robes, Wu Tian'en knew with certainty, did not fit the Emperor.

Lastly, they carried a chest containing medical supplies and it was this that worried the old Butler.

The Emperor had commanded upon his arrival that the Chief Healer of the Meng Clan attend him in his rooms. Butler Wu had been given only a little time to properly greet the Emperor before their king was striding away, leading a stretcher carrying a man wrapped in blankets. The Emperor had then ordered rooms to be prepared for two other injured men, but refused for them to be transported to the Healing Wards.

Battle Commander Tu Qiuyue, with her armor still dripping with rain water, stalked behind the king followed by Mo Bingqing and the Lord Guardian himself.

Rumors took flight and the Clan Leader struggled to put out the fire of excitement and suspicion, with members from two Northern tribes walking through her halls. Butler Wu had no fears about his people. The assembled staff behind him were discrete, all too willing to keep the Emperor's secrets and that was why he had chosen them.

The Chief Healer was an old man who had served for roughly sixteen years during the war, highly experienced in trauma and disease. To Butler Wu's surprise he didn't question the king's orders that they not to be placed in the wards, when the man was usually dogmatic about such things. He seemed to realize before anyone else, that the king was protecting these individuals. He had never served with the Emperor, but revered him as the Ghost General who had turned the tide of the conflict, bringing peace. His family had been homeless after the earthquake and his war pension had barely covered necessities, when the Emperor had declared he was providing them with a new city.

He would not question the Emperor only offer his skills.

In the reign of the Queen Mother and Emperor Ye Zun, it was a well known fact that the Crown Prince of Dixing was adverse to seeking the help of healers. Butler Wu remembered how the the Chief Healer assigned to the Crown Prince's army, had complained that the Ghost General used the ancient technique of forcing healing using dark energy, rather than seek his help. The Queen Mother in a rare show of honest emotion had been horrified. Her son was unrepentant.

So for this man, determined to deal with any weakness or illness on his own, to demand the presence of the Chief Healer had trepidation twisting Butler Wu's stomach into knots.

They had been impatiently waiting for the Emperor for days, worry only growing when the delay lengthened. Butler Wu had only limited information about the king's recovery after the attack on the Palace and he feared the worst.

The Meng Clan were merchants and traders in these new times, but during the war most of them had been soldiers, scouts or medics. When they heard of the attack and the news that the king was still determined to recover within the walls of Lèguān, the Meng family, famed for their arrays and spell-weaving had set to fortifying the compound.

Clan Leader Meng Changying had welcomed home her younger brother, the Imperial Secretary Meng Zhengqing only three days ago. He had been injured in the attack and was only fit to travel after the Emperor had been escorted from the Palace. He had brought news that the Emperor was recovering well and the attacker had been a deranged person, currently with no name. Southern Haixing had suffered as well, a bittersweet thing as it meant that the Peace Treaty had not been violated.

The Emperor was staying in the mountains beyond Dragon City while the worst of his injuries healed and then would make the journey to Lèguān.

All they could do was wait.

Now the Emperor had returned bringing not his sorrow, a powerful figure from legend lost in the agony of grief, withdrawn and cloaked in sadness...No, this time he had brought others with him. The Lord Guardian and several of his people, with orders to treat them well and to allow none to leave, unless with the express agreement of the Emperor.

 

That was odd and it only added to the Meng Sect's fears. Coordinating with the Dragon Palace, they had organized an escape route for the king should they need it and had drafted every former solider in the city, to stand ready should there be an attack. The Meng Sect had survived nine sieges, three famines and an earthquake. They would not fail their beloved king.

In the quiet corridor Butler Wu paused and turned to look at the assembled servants. Just behind him in her usual flowing pale green robes, Lady Li Shuchun nodded with a courtier's charming smile. Many would think of her only as an older noblewoman, famed in the Palace for organizing the Emperor's personal attendants and for being the Queen Mother's secretary. Few knew that she was also highly trained and to Butler Wu's knowledge had killed four assassins with her hairpin and a curtain cord. She would without question kill to protect the Emperor, she had known from the cradle.

She was a woman to be feared and respected, a thing many a fool had forgotten. Li Shuchun handled many of the king's private papers and ensured that his attendants were loyal. Within a matter of hours, she had quelled most of the rumors and shamed anyone breaching the code of silence.

A trusted runner, Wen Yu halted near the window just beyond the line of Meng guards. Disguised as an attendant, she would take any messages or orders from the Emperor and Mo Bingqing stood ready just behind the procession of servants. She had swapped her armor for dark blues robes and a golden hairpiece, denoting her as a highly ranked Royal Guard, her dao sitting proudly at her waist.

Sighing, Butler Wu turned back to face the door. The Meng compound had none of the complex dark energy locks of Dragon City Palace, only a carved wooden door with the dragon of Dixing sliding endlessly in a loop over the raised carvings, it's wooden eyes blue with power. Butler Wu raised his hand displaying the Imperial gifted ring and the dragon paused.

A light blue light flashed over the door, awaiting the Emperor's approval, then the door slid soundlessly open.

The walls within the antechamber were a pale green and the floor was the blue tinged wood famous in Dixing for its strength. Butler Wu glanced around as was his habit, checking for possible trouble. Satisfied by the quiet room with its pretty, intricate furnishings, he then crossed the floor to the pale sand carpet, with the large blue motif of the Dixing Star Flower, to reach another door with three tigers and the crescent moon.

The procession followed two steps behind him, waiting for the next door to be opened.

The central tiger opened its mouth in a silent roar and Butler Wu grasped the revealed handle, pushing lightly. The door folded back forming a circular entryway, the latticework of the Meng Sect expanding out from the frame to join to the ceiling. Down a short flight of blue stairs they entered the receiving room. There were several large plants carefully situated around a black stone table and a large tapestry depicting the mountains and Hanga valley on the opposite wall.

On the left was another door, a darker blue with nine dragons denoting it the Emperor's sitting room and bedchamber. Beside the tapestry was a second door with three dragons leading to the Emperor's study.

Lady Li Shuchun motioned for the other servants to set the ornate table with the Emperor's tea and to set the chests down carefully in a smooth line. THey set them down silently and at her next command turned and left the chamber, bowing as they did so. They would wait outside in the antechamber for her signal, expecting that the king would wish for a bath and clean robes.

Lady Li Shuchun nodded to Butler Wu, signalling that it was time to approach the Emperor, gesturing pointedly at the sitting room door. Usually there would be no hesitation, but today was not a typical day and they both knew what this could mean. They could only hope that they were ready for what was to come.

Unsmiling and unfailingly dignified, she turned in a swirl of green, only slightly darker than the walls, to reorganize the table, awaiting the king's next orders.

The nine dragons stilled as he approached and again he raised the ring. The door opened and Butler Wu stepped inside, the door shutting swiftly behind him. He kow-towed smoothly and only stood when he heard the Emperor's tired but sharp, "Rise."

The scene that greeted him had heat rising to burn his cheeks and for a moment he was traitorously but fervently glad that the Queen Mother and Emperor Ye Zun for that matter, were not here to witness this.

When they built this small Palace for the Emperor, the architect had pursued the Emperor's request for a place of reflection and solitude. There was little furniture and the decorations had been chosen carefully, a balance between honoring the king and the quiet sanctuary the Emperor had asked for.

The Meng family had commissioned two highly ornate open daybeds in a theme they knew the Emperor favored. Dragons for the symbol of royalty, magnolia flowers and intricate latticework, with protective spells woven into the precious wood. They served as a place for quiet relaxation and contemplation or if the mood took him, the Emperor could play any one of his musical instruments in this serene place.

Kneeling beside the daybed, dragged from its customary position near the window, the Emperor of Dixing caressed the cheek of the bearded man lying before him. He was unmasked, his noble features bare for all to look upon the face of the king. There was tenderness in his eyes, as those long fingers gently stroked over the dark brows before sliding up to curve over the crown of his head.

The arm in his grasp was lovingly cradled, a soft linen bandaged expertly wrapped around the middle of the man's forearm.

 

 

His black robes pooled around him elegantly, his hair a dark waterfall of warrior braids. His face was pale, lips almost bloodless with exhaustion he would deny vehemently. His eyes were focused on the man, whose head lay pillowed on the king's forearm, but his own head was tilted, acknowledging Butler Wu's presence.

There was something achingly soft about the Emperor in the way he held the man and something fiercely predatory at the same time, sending a shiver down the old Butler's spine. He was reminded yet again that this was the Queen Mother's son.

He remembered starkly the day Shen Wei had fallen to fever not three days after returning home from the front lines. The wound to his leg was infected and Queen Mother sat by his bed for days, denying all calls for her time or attention. She had sat biting her lip as he slept fitfully, her hands gentle as she pressed a cold cloth to his burning forehead. At the sound of the door she had turned, he remembered. It had been this same expression, he thought. A defiant fierceness.

He felt as though he had just intruded on the lair of a mountain lion or a dragon from legend. The king's position by the daybed was both loving and protective, half cradling the man to his chest.

The Emperor was not an demonstrative man nor was he overly emotional. He was the reserved quiet twin when the Emperor's son had been young, always protecting Ye Zun. The king had always shown a mild affection for the Empress and obviously adored his daughter. Shen Anujin was the only one who was allowed concessions, the only one anyone had ever witnessed the king expressing affection and pride for.

The one time the Crown Princess had taken ill, the king had remained by her beside for hours, singing to her and telling stories in a quiet voice, sharp eyes watching everything the Imperial Physician did. 

But this...

There was only one person the man could be and that was Lord Kunlun, king of Shangbei.

Butler Wu had never met Lord Kunlun but he had been living with his ghost for ten years. Even here from the door, he recognized the features he had unintentionally memorized from seeing the statues and portraits of the man, some painted by the king himself.

Then his eyes shift to the right and he stares unblinking, scandalized. There sitting at the table with his head on his folded arms was the Lord Guardian. Asleep. The shock of such a blatantly disrespectful act had a gasp leaving his throat, in an undignified and disrespectful manner. His eyes darted to the Emperor and Butler Wu stared at the small smile of amusement curling the corners of the Emperor's mouth.

"He cannot be blamed." The Emperor said calmly, still stroking Chieftain Kunlun's brow. His other hand was on his chest, transferring dark energy into the prone, injured body. "He drank the tea I personally laced with a sedative."

Unlike the rumors surrounding the Queen Mother, the Emperor had never ordered or delivered poison to anyone. If the king wanted your death he would grant it personally. So, the casual admittance that he had drugged a former comrade and the Lord Guardian was equally shocking. "Your Majesty?"

"He has not slept for days and his worn himself thin keeping the illusions in place." The Emperor said calmly. Too calmly, Butler Wu thought.

To Butler Wu's mind, it was no excuse, but he only said deferentially, "Yes, Your Majesty."

This was a difficult position. It was clear that Emperor was not announcing Lord Kunlun's return, yet to not express joy regarding such a return might offend the king. "May the blessing of Heaven be upon Lord Kunlun."

Shen Wei's head turned fully and he looked momentarily at his most trusted servant, his eyes straying back to Kunlun for some sign of him waking. "Your sentiment is appreciated."

Butler Wu bowed once more, waiting. The king continued smoothly, "I am not announcing his return, just yet. He is injured and there are many who would claim his life. Speak of this to no one."

"I will speak not one word My King." Butler Wu swore and prostrated before his king.

"Rise."

Butler Wu rose to his feet and folded his hands demurely. "Your orders Your Majesty?"

There was a pause and the Emperor's shoulders tensed. "Take Lord Ma Gui to the guest quarters nearest here. Have Mo Bingqing cast one of her illusions on him."

"At once Your Imperial Majesty."

"What is being said?" The Emperor asked

Butler Wu folded his hands. "Opinion is in disarray Your Majesty. It is believed that the people accompanying Your Majesty are Northern tribesmen. Rumor is split between those who believe Lord Ma Gui, asked for Your Majesty to negotiate peace between warring Chieftains and others who believe Your Majesty came across a party of tribesmen, heading here to trade, that were lost in the storm. They believe that Lord Ma Gui is here to honor Chieftain Kunlun and was possibly invited here to commemorate the ten year anniversary."

"Lord Ma Gui's illusions are holding well then." the Emperor said sounding vaguely amused.

Several things began to make sense for Butler Wu and so he agreed carefully. "Yes, Your Majesty."

"Those not clearly a part of Lord Ma Gui's party...where are they?"

"The Meng Sect do not trust them having never met them before. They are housed in a building some distance from here Your Majesty. Battle Commander Tu Quiyue diffused a tense situation last night, not long after you returned My King. This has added to the belief that are in conflict or unknown to Lord Ma Gui's people."

"The...Chieftain of the other tribe...he is behaving?" The Emperor asked, shoulders still tense.

"He is demanding an audience My King." Butler Wu bowed as he said this. "Clan Leader Meng Changying is requesting His Majesty's wisdom. She wishes to know what Your Majesty wishes her say to both Dragon Palace and in announcement."

The Emperor sat back as ethereal as a mountain spirit, but something dangerous had settled in those regal features, muscle and power coiled like a crouching tiger.

"Send for hot water and bring the items I requested here. There are messages by the table, have the chosen runner send them to the Palace, Chu Shuzhi's eyes only." Then the king leaned forward, allowing Butler Wu to witness the soft kiss he placed on Lord Kunlun's brow. "Tell Lady Li Shuchun to suppress any interest and have her check on the other two men. I will speak with Meng Changying in two hours time."

"I have no need for attendants. Have a bath prepared and I shall need clean robes."

"All has been prepared My King." Butler Wu said bowing once more.

---

As the door closed Shen Wei felt his composure fall, like a glass crashing to the ground to shatter into a thousand shards. Leaning down he pressed his face into Zhao Yunlan's throat, feeling the steady beat of his pulse and the easy rise of his chest.

For a moment he could pretend. He could believe that everything was well and focus his soul on the joy of Zhao Yunlan's return.

His love still wore the blue robes he had last seen him in, that last glimpse of him on the shoreline that had haunted him every moment of every day they had been apart. That memory had been a dagger buried between his ribs, a flash of starling pain when he moved too quickly or breathed too deeply.

When he breathed now through the knot in his throat, a staggering breath that would have alarmed Kunlun had he been aware, Shen Wei could smell that precious alluring scent he had missed so greatly. Ah-Lan. He focused his mind on the feel of the strong muscle of Kunlun's chest and the curve of his shoulder, the achingly familiar feel of the blue fabric beneath his cheek...

There was fear roiling in his stomach, tightening around his heart like a vise, as the light of a new day filled the serene room.

Kunlun would not wake.

At first he had tried to deny the panic like denying a fire, fuel could put out the flames but reality with its terrible claws bled any hope away. He tried to blame exhaustion, injury and the after-effects of the Gate, all terrifying by themselves, but as the hours passed, Shen Wei couldn't deny it any longer.

They had tried everything.

The last spell they had tried had drained Ma Gui so completely he had fainted, for all he had told Butler Wu that he had drugged the Guardian. Dark energy had healed his wounds and Ma Gui had poured spiritual energy into Zhao Yunlan's meridians. Nothing.

Kunlun had been hurt. Badly. They had found a gash stretching from his ribs to his navel, bleeding sluggishly now he had been freed from the stasis given by the Gate's magic. He had a cut on his leg and his face was bloodied, thanks to his split lip and the wide cut above his brow. His jaw and left arm were bruised, angry swirls of purple and green painting the skin there.

Sang Zan had not a single mark on him but Da Qing had been equally injured. The battle they had fought must have been hard won. A grim battle, Shen Wei decided stroking Kunlun's hair. It was still damp from the rain, tangled as it came free from its braids. He brushed the strands back from his face, wishing it was an early morning ten years ago, when he was only treasuring the quiet minutes where he could adore Kunlun as he slept. Waiting for him to open those foxfire eyes and smile sleepily at Shen Wei, chin tilting to welcome a kiss...

"My love." Shen Wei whispered, lifting the hand he was holding to his heart back up to meet his lips.

After Shen Wei had healed every injury with dark energy, Ma Gui had anxiously begun his own examination. They had found no sign of a curse or talisman and his own dark energy had found not the slightest hint of a traumatic head wound. Sleep claimed him and nothing would wake him. Exactly like Guo Changcheng.

The Chief Healer had agreed could only suggest a restorative cure and claimed Kunlun was

Shen Wei pressed a kiss to Zhao Yunlan's perfect lush mouth and another on his forehead, his fingers curling into Kunlun's ruined robes.

Nothing else existed for Shen Wei only the man he worshiped lying in his embrace. "Come back to me." He pleaded softly.

When there was no reply, no response Shen Wei smiled fiercely. "I will never give up on you." He breathed and nothing stirred in this quiet intimate space, his eyes burning. "You are free from the Gate, from the torment inflicted on you. You are in this world as you are meant to be. I will free you from this."

"Whatever this takes my love, whatever I need to give of myself...it is yours."

Pressing a final sweet kiss to Kunlun's mouth, he used whatever conviction he had left to rise from his place beside Kunlun.

He had no answers for the future, but there was only love in his heart, only the need to cherish.

Zhao Yunlan was perfectly happy living in a mess, sleeping beside roadsides and sheltering in trees or the ruins of what was once temples or houses. He never complained about where he slept. What he was though, was fastidious about personal cleanliness . He would always find a river or a lake, keep going until he found a well to wash his clothes and himself, no matter the temperature.

So lying here with dried blood and mud decorating his beautiful skin, was out of the question if he had been awake. Realizing he had spent ten years without a bath would have sent him searching for soaps immediately...the price Shen Wei always thought, of being raised by a cat.

Shen Wei was more than happy to wash him down in the bed, but asking for a basin and soap would attract attention he didn't want. Servants eager to help and perfectly demure that he didn't want in here, near Kunlun...touching him.

Leaving the room for the antechamber, Shen Wei looked for the chest and chose from the nearly folded robes, the blue first layer robes and a clean set of white undergarments. These were Kunlun's, taken from the Yi caverns when it became apparent no one else wanted them. Shen Wei had kept them for this very purpose.   

Returning to the bedroom, Shen Wei went to the bed and smiled at the sleeping form, before  crossing to the wall. He opened the hidden door to a candlelit passageway, that led down to the bathing room, set into the foundations of the Meng house.

The attendants had lit several candles around the rim of the wide sunken pool, the mosaic tiles gleaming in the warm light. It was filled by a geothermal spring directly beneath the Sect compound and added as a gift to the Emperor when they construct this country house.

The bathwater was the perfect temperature scented with aromatic red leaves and white petals, soothing and fragrant. Nodding, Shen Wei left the bathroom and returned to Kunlun's side, kneeling before the daybed, his robes elegantly flowing to the ground.

After healing his wounds, they had left Kunlun in his ku and inner robes, so it was the work of moments to remove the last of his clothing. He would hate to be so disheveled and to lie here covered in dirt for all to see. His Kunlun for all his acting skills, had his own pride, but it was Shen Wei's quiet joy to care for him as he always had. To have his love here, real and solid in his arms was a precious gift and Shen Wei would see to it that Kunlun wanted for nothing.

Gathering Kunlun into his arms sealed many of the open wounds in his own heart, the scars receding with every step he took along the passageway to the bath.

Settling Kunlun into the fragrant water, Shen Wei used dark energy to remove his own robes, the heat settling into his bones.

Another light flick of his hand had energy rising to support Zhao Yunlan as he slept, ensuring his head remain clear of the warm water. Taking the heated cloth Shen Wei soaped and scrubbed gently, washing away all the traces of dirt and dried blood from Kunlun's beautiful skin.

Thinking of all the times he had sat here, soaking in the rising heat wishing Kunlun was here with him, Shen Wei smiled.

He would find answers. Kunlun would be free.

 

 

Chapter Text

The pale green cotton curtains swayed gently with the breeze, the scent of jasmine and red arrowhead flowers drifting in through the wide reception room. Through the petal shaped doorway you could catch a glimpse of the white mountain trees that Lin Jing had only ever seen in Dixing. Trees the Meng family must have brought to the Hanga valley, from the Shen State when they arrived here. 

He wondered if Wang Zheng would recognize this land now, reshaped by the hands of the Meng Sect.

A single red petal floated down from beyond the arch, falling to the highly polished bamboo floor, before the curtains brushed it away as the breeze lifted the light fabric. 

Lin Jing without lifting his head glanced around, to see if anyone had noticed what he was doing, the array he was drawin with a piece of cinnabar. 

Polished stone nearly the color of the bamboo floor dominated the room on the left. It formed a low platform sculpted into the Flower of Dixing, its many petals curving upwards embracing the smooth white stone of the throne, beautifully carved with all of the regal symbols. Intricate latticework reached up behind the seat, framing the Emperor's head. 

At the foot of the platform were two small bamboo tables, denoting the men seated there as guests of the Emperor. Standing just to the right of the throne was Li Qian and on the left was another woman carefully coiffured, her grey hair contrasted by her dark robes with gold brocade. In her hands she held a long scroll with a tassel at either end which she presented to the Emperor with a flawless bow. 

Emperor Shen took the scroll and gently held her arms as she rose from her bow, supporting her carefully with a light smile.

On the other wall facing the throne was Tu Qiuyue, dressed in her official armor with one guard placed at either end of the room and one in the doorway. 

Ma Gui sat on his right, hands resting on his knee with his sword placed just so on the table. He wore his typical robes of pale blue and black, his hair loose on his shoulders in the tradition of the Chongsheng Clan. His eyes never lifted from Kunlun, his jaw set, eyes openly worried.    

The young attendant speaking with the Emperor bowed and left the throne area promptly. As soon as he did so, the Emperor shifted slightly in his seat, his gaze returning to Lin Jing. 
  
The autumn air was cold, but beads of sweat rolled down Lin Jing's spine as the Emperor of Dixing returned to staring at him. It was heavy enough to be a physical weight pressing against his skin and the discomfort was starting to wear on his concentration. 

He tried to focus on the task at hand, but it was difficult. It was surreal to even be here and disturbing to be leaning over the two people he had been searching for desperately, grieving for...and he knew that neither man would much appreciate all this attention, lying on daybeds in the middle of this vast room. 

When he had first entered, Lin Jing's heart had nearly seized seeing Chief lying here, eyes closed with his hands folded on his chest. If there had been his sword and whip by his side, it  would have completed the funeral image. 

Far from the bloodied man Lin Jing had seen when the Fifth Gate closed, the Chief was now dressed in a set of black robes, embroidered in the style befitting his Lord of the Mountains status. 

His dark hair gleamed with the light of the sun pouring in from the open doorway, playing along the strands until it seemed that the fire of his great power shone through him. He looked, Lin Jing thought, untouched as though all of the pain and torment he had been through had only been a dream. He wished it had been. 

The guilt he felt, the guilt and hollowed loss that tormented Zhu Hong...Lin Jing didn't think that would fade over his lifetime. Not that Chief would accept it. He would force all of them to move on and build a net of safety for them as he had long ago, simply by being who he was. It was what Chief did. They didn't deserve him...but Lin Jing had missed him, his humor, his undefeated confidence, even his irritating habits!

Lin Jing supposed after long thought...that he was the head of their family, more than a Lord or Chief. Without him they had been boats unmoored for a decade, fulfilling duties without really feeling whole. 

That, he thought was the price of losing your leader. Nothing feels right or safe, when the person you rely on the most is no longer there. It sits like a stone in your heart, leaving you bereft. Wandering around looking for that same sense of home that came with the Chief. 

The Hanga Chieftain whose name Lin Jing couldn't remember was still in his tribal robes and Lin Jing's didn't linger too long over him. Da Qing beside him looked tired, as if he was taking a long deserved nap in the sun, uncaring of the activity around him. His old robes of black and crimson had been swapped for Lin Jing's spare blue robes. They were a little too big and Deputy would be outraged, but someone had made sure that Da Qing had his headband and his gold bells.

The Emperor was still staring. 

Those sharp eyes were unblinking and the Gate Builder trained as he was, could feel the storm of power all around him, the hint of lightning, the sparking fire of the Ghost General that had brought fear wherever the Black Robed Envoy had walked in the Allied camps. Those that were dark energy sensitive among the soldiers and scouts often could barely sit with him, the foreboding nature of raw dark power too much to bear. 

Lord Kunlun? Arguably the most powerful cultivator the North had, seemed to immune to this effect. In-between the flirting and death-defying acts of loyalty, you could often find them sitting together, the Envoy's power hidden by Kunlun's skillful shields. 

They shared a lot more than battle plans Lin Jing was sure. Deputy had just looked at him pityingly when he had mentioned it and it had broken Zhu Hong's heart years before the end of the war. 

Lin Jing had come here to find the truth, with the thin hope of recovering Chief Kunlun's body if it was true that he was dead or in his wildest dreams freeing the Chief and his friend from whatever had imprisoned him. The Fifth Gate...that he hadn't expected. 

But standing here now, sweltering under that unblinking stare, Lin Jing realized he was also ending a decade of heartbreak for the Emperor. Lin Jing shuddered. What he must have been through all these years...and where did it all fit with Wang Zheng? With the Chief? 

He would never admit it, the Chief would probably kick him for thinking it...but he was happy for them. The Envoy certainly made the Chief more bearable to live with...and together, Southern Haixing had no chance of winning. Now there was no war, no conflict to bind them together...but he hoped they could be happy. 

"Have you discovered something yet? Or are you just holding them for no reason?" Zhao Xin Ci asked scathingly breaking the uneasy silence of the wide room. 

Lin Jing looked up and glanced at the former General of Haixing standing off to the side of the Emperor. The man lived for a war with Dixing, so he had to wonder how comfortable he was staying here, surrounded by the enemy. He was wearing purple and cream robes, in the classic combination of Southern Haixing, the gold brocade down his sleeves announcing he was a Duke. 

"Patience is a virtue." Ma Gui said calmly, his tone cold. 

"Impatience cost Southern Haixing the war and hundreds of their army." The Emperor said sounding vaguely amused. "We highly doubt they will taste the fruit of endurance now." 

Zhao Xin Ci looked furious but bit back any aggressive comment, in favor of smiling coldly like any scorned courtier. He bowed in mock respect, but with enough effort few could call him on it. "His Majesty won several victories through entrapment."

Lin Jing winced and hoped that when the weapons began flying, none of them hit the Chief or Deputy. 

"An interesting claim from the man whose king ordered mass graves to be filled by Northern villagers." Shen Wei replied almost sweetly and Lin Jing saw Tu Qiuyue's hand tighten on the hilt of her dao. 

If he ignored the lavish silk and the intricate crown affixed to his immaculate ink black hair so carefully braided, there was little difference between the Emperor of Dixing and the Ghost General. There was no mask to hide his features but Lin Jing still looked away, focusing his gaze on Da Qing's bony wrist in his left hand and the Chief's equally bony knee in his right. 

Lin Jing knew enough to tell that everything Shen Wei was wearing down to the way he was sitting on the slightly raised platform, was a ploy. He was dragging his pudao through the sand, he thought, the wickedly sharp blade cutting a demarcation line, daring Zhao Xin Ci to try his best.  

Instead of his usual black, the color most associated with his military might and terrifying powers, Shen Wei had chosen elaborate chestnut robes and the magnificent jinbu, Lin Jing knew the Chief had commissioned for the Envoy.

The Chief had wanted something elaborate, so had chosen a long gold chain that certainly wasn't Dixingian fashion. The tassel was a pale gold and when he was standing it fell below his knee. A white jade tiger medallion was suspended just above a enamel vermilion tree carved in the traditional Northern style. The vermilion tree had many names but it was one of the symbols of the Da Huang tribe and to see it hanging from the Emperor of Dixing's waist spoke volumes about the Chief's gift. 

Lin Jing knew that the medallion was imbued with Chief Kunlun's power and several protection spells, but it was a gift Emperor wore with obvious pride, when an Emperor he could wear an symbol and the fervent would say it was blessed. 

He looked back at the parchment in his hand and gently positioned it on the Chief's chest. He prayed that he had remembered it correctly but reminded himself that he had been copying that array for the last four hours in preparation for this moment. It had to be right. 

"I am here to determine what has befallen Lord Kunlun." Zhao Xin Ci was saying in some reply to Lord Ma Gui. 

Lin Jing tuned them out and looked briefly at Tu Qiuyue watching as she stared down Zhao Xin Ci, pursing her lips in an expression of distaste. She was stunning, he thought. Then, turning back to the Chief he poured power into the Chief's array, the one he was only supposed to use in desperate circumstances. 

This, he thought was desperate. Chief was fast losing this battle and nothing else was going to work. Not if he was right.

The Chief was going to kill him. 

Breathing out he tried to brace himself, to breathe deeply and center himself with the threads of power. As it turned out he really didn't think this one through. 

As soon as the array activated it rose from the small sheet of parchment and glowed a vivid purple, which Lin Jing knew was a bad sign. Then it engulfed Lin Jing and the three men, the repeating pattern of the interwoven spell forming a pulsing dome over them. 

The Emperor of Dixing was on his feet in seconds and Ma Gui was shouting, his words muted behind the dome, the table knocked over in his haste.  The older woman had a spear in her hand and all of the guards surrounded the throne area. Lin Jing could smell the tang of iron and felt the painful burn of raw power unchecked and wild. 

This wasn't going to plan, Lin Jing bemoaned, trying to channel new power through the array, his silent chanting beginning to calm the spike in energy.

Then the Chief moved. 

Da Qing reared up claws extended, hissing as his eyes bled to a bright yellow. Black lines like chains held him back and he fought viciously against the bonds, all meaning stripped back from his words, the sounds becoming pained growls. He was feral and caught, one outstretched hand slashing through Lin Jing's sleeve. 

Sang Zan simply twisted on the daybed, his features in agony as he writhed, calling out one name over and over again. "Gelan! Gelan..."  

Black lines were wrapped around the Chief, but he still struggled into a half sitting position, his handsome face twisted into a snarl. There was pain in his foxfire eyes and then the bright spark of recognition, lips curling back to show his teeth stained red with blood. His lip was split once more, blood running down his face from the cut above his brow, his hands red from so many cuts...

"Chief!" Lin Jing gasped, breaking the sacred rule of a quiet mind during these kind of spells. 

Those obsidian eyes fixed on Lin Jing between the beds and Kunlun's shoulders tightened, black lines multiplying the longer Kunlun struggled against his bonds. 

Chief Kunlun shouted two words in the Olden Tongue and shoved his hands outward. Lin Jing flew backwards breaking the dome. He smashed into Zhao Xin Ci's table, cups shattering under the impact, the wood splintering into a thousand pieces. 

Kunlun's hands clenched, black lines tightening around his wrists and his back arched in pain, but his eyes staring at the ceiling were victorious, lips now curling into a smile. He gave a low wounded cry, half strangled and fell back to the daybed. A puppet with cut strings. 

The dome shattered as Lin Jing slipped from consciousness.

Shen Wei was already moving, his hands finding Kunlun's skin before either Tu Qiuyue or Ma Gui could stop him. The cuts had vanished, his skin unblemished, unstained by the blood from before. His body was limp, one boot now hanging off the bed. The black lines were gone and he was so cold...

Shen Wei's heart was pounding against his ribs, his hands so battle hardened were shaking as he brushed Kunlun's fringe away from his face. He raised his head and stared at Ma Gui who was gripping Kunlun's arm, his brown eyes wide and horrified. 

Zhao Xin Ci was standing near, his face pale. The General swallowed and then knelt, gathering Da Qing from the floor and laid him carefully back on the daybed with Li Qian's assistance. 

They were exactly as they had been before whatever Lin Jing had done. Asleep. Perfectly relaxed and calm. 

Forcing his hands to lift from Kunlun took some effort and stepping away from him felt like a betrayal, but Shen Wei moved over to the crumpled form of Lin Jing, followed by Tu Qiuyue. The Gate Builder was alive. Shen Wei breathed a silent sigh of relief, then he gently turned the man over. 

His face and chest were badly cut, his back bleeding from where it had struck the table. Shen Wei summoned dark energy into his hand and checked him over. No head injury, just bruises and some painful lacerations. "Lady Li Shuchun." 

The spear vanished much to Zhao Xin Ci's bemusement and the woman he had dismissed as an elderly attendant, calmly straightened her sleeves.  "Your Majesty." 

" Master Lin Jing needs a healer." 

-------

If the reception room had been bitter with old feuds, it was now heavy with tension. 

Shen Wei was torn between anguish and anger, after witnessing Kunlun in the throes of torment. The relaxed pose of his body and even breathing, nothing more than a lie. For hours he had believed that Zhao Yunlan was asleep, unaware of the world as he lay in dreams. Now he knew that somehow Kunlun was still fighting a battle on his own.

He had been chained and hurting, bloodied and nearly feral in his rage. All he could hear in an endless loop was that pained heart wrenching cry. A sound of torture, of hopelessness or a defeat that only Kunlun could feel. It tore at his heart and his dark energy brimmed with the need for action, for violence. 

Lady Li Shuchun had followed Kunlun as they carried the unconscious men from the room and he knew his Imperial Secretary would protect him, with a runner in place if anything should happen and standing orders to summon the king with dark energy.  It physically hurt to be absent from his side, doubt settling in behind his breastbone as the gurney carrying Zhao Yunlan passed the doors but he couldn't remain here.

Standing before his throne, the Emperor of Dixing gently touched the dark energy thread connecting him to Kunlun. Lady Li Shuchun had taken him back to the Emperor's quarters and from the distance he knew she was planning to lay Kunlun in the Emperor's bedchamber. Pleased, Shen Wei turned his attention to the man kneeling before the throne.

Lin Jing quietly nursing his bruised arm sat before the Emperor on his knees hardly able to believe he was here. Tu Qiuyue stood with her back to the doors and her eyes were focused on Lin Jing, as if waiting for him to prove he was unreliable.  

"As Lord Commander of the Emperor's forces We bore witness to the many acts of courage that battle demands. As the Black Robed Envoy, We developed strategies that often involved complex dangerous missions  within Southern Haixing's controlled territory. Lord Kunlun sent you on many of these missions." Shen Wei intoned. "You were one of his most trusted."

"The man We met over a decade ago, would have gladly died for Lord Kunlun." Shen Wei began watching Lin Jing's expression, pointedly using the Imperial 'We', with both Zhao Xin Ci and Ma Gui seated nearby. "The man We saw in the Hanga Valley was willing to die to complete what Lord Kunlun began." 

"That man would never bring harm to Lord Kunlun. Yet, Our guests have...advised Us that you are placing the interests of the Da Huang Tribe above the safety and well being of Lord Kunlun. They have suggested that his death is what you desire." 

Lin Jing looked stricken at the very thought but he did not speak, his eyes sorrowful. 

"We disagree. Whatever you attempted earlier was not intended to bring harm to Lord Kunlun."

Shen Wei genuinely believed that he had been attempting something with the aim of helping Zhao Yunlan, of freeing him, but was growing impatient with the secrets Lin Jing was trying to keep. Secrets that might hold the key to freeing his love and this silence was hardly helping. 

"You believe that Zhao Xin Ci plans to kill his son to end the scandal and the risk of discovery." Shen Wei stated and watched from the corner of his eye as Li Qian reached into her plum colored sleeve, to no doubt grip one of her own throwing knives. Zhao Xin Ci must have reacted...or Zhang Shi. 

"You also believe that Ma Gui chose ambition over his shidi, by becoming the Lord Guardian so soon after his brother's disappearance." On his right Lord Ma Gui's shoulders tensed. "You have wondered if he had some involvement or if his desire for power outweighed any loyalty." 

Shen Wei waved a hand to command his response and Lin Jing nodded. "For weeks we waited for answers, then for years we received none Your Majesty. It seemed as though Lord Ma Gui had what he wanted from us."

"You were not aware that Lord Ma Gui came to see Us in Dixing searching for answers." And confessed then that he was Zhao Yunlan's shield brother. "It was decided that to find those answers Ma Gui would rise to the position of Lord Guardian." 

Lin Jing looked confused and Li Qian's hand remained in her sleeve, her dark eyes narrowing as she watched Zhao Xin Ci. "It was...arranged...that he would become Lord Guardian?" 

"Your silence makes little sense to Us." Shen Wei said watching Lin Jing's face. "Unless that silence is unwilling."

Lin Jing said nothing but Shen Wei read his eyes, the wide hopeful expression. "Lord Guardian," 

Ma Gui rose from his seat and bowed to Shen Wei, "Yes, Your Majesty?" 

"Our friend here is being held under a geas."

The Lord Guardian was always a fair man, honest and his pride held in the values of his Clan were strongly influenced by his belief in justice. He stepped forward without hesitation and walked over to Lin Jing who watched his approach with apprehension. Ma Gui placed a gentle hand on Lin Jing forehead and summoned spiritual power to his hand. 

There was a odd sensation and Lin Jing gasped dropped down on his hands and knees. The mark was now on a piece of parchment held in Ma Gui's hand, a dark web of interconnecting lines as red as blood. "Who placed this geas on you?" He demanded his voice deceptively soft. 

"The Da Huang Tribe." Shen Wei said calmly settling back onto his throne.   

"Explain your actions." Ma Gui ordered with a low voice. "The array you used...it was Kunlun's wasn't it? What was your intention?" 

Lin Jing might have argued that he owed Ma Gui nothing and would gladly take his punishment, but Shen Wei interfered. "The most important thing here is to free the three men trapped. A man willing to die for his Chief, is not the man who would give up on him. You have waited years for this opportunity. Answer Our questions." 

Lin Jing coughed and sat back on his heels before kow-towing and Ma Gui having no other choice, returned to his seat. "Many thanks Your Majesty, Lord Guardian." 

"The Da Huang Tribe will not thank Us, nor you. We are willing to provide for you, in return for the answers We seek." Shen Wei announced and in this rigid Imperial environment he had created, neither Zhao Xin Ci or Ma Gui himself could bring themselves to object. 

"All I wish for Your Majesty, is to help Chief Kunlun." Lin Jing said kow towing again. 

"Answer Our questions." Shen Wei ordered and Lin Jing nodded. 

"You were too familiar with the Hanga lands. How long have you known of the Fifth Gate? That Kunlun was trapped within?" This was Zhao Xin Ci's argument. That Lin Jing had too easily manipulated them and the scene at the Gate had not endeared the Builder to either man. 

Lin Jing gasped and looked up at him in shock. "I didn't! We were told that Chief was dead. That he had died a hero stopping Haixing from destroying the Gates and they told Zhu Hong that when she became Chieftain. I only knew about the Fifth Gate when Your Majesty told me, that the Disembodied Yan had been looking for it. I didn't know before that. I swear on the honor of my family." 

"Then how did you know of the Hanga?" 

Lin Jing folded hands. "I've spent the last ten years trying to piece together what led to this, to Chief sacrificing his life." He looked back at Shen Wei sadness in his eyes, "The simple answer is Southern Haixing." 

"Many would be content with that. The Elders were. Zhu Hong was." He added quietly.  

"But you were not." Shen Wei spoke with rigorous calm and saw Lin Jing nod. 

"No, because of what Chief said. The last time I saw him, he said, 'I know you will not take advantage of my friendship. I know you will see this through. Remember what we are when I'm no longer here. Remember my vow. Your vow.' What could that mean if he wasn't sure he would die when he reached the Hanga lands?" Lin Jing asked plaintively. 

The fist around Shen Wei's heart clenched and Shen Wei felt as though a thin thread was all that held his control, held him back from edge of madness in his own anguish. 

"I knew of the Hanga from before. I learned from stories I heard when they finally let me leave the mountain, that Chief had vanished here." Lin Jing admitted. "There are three days unaccounted for YOur Majesty." 

"What do you mean?" Shen Wei asked, distracted from his pain and guilt for a moment, the air growing colder by the second. 

Lin Jing swallowed thickly and bowed on his knees. "Your Majesty, forgive me. To understand what I attempted, what I have been trying to do, only makes sense if you learn of the path that led Lord Kunlun to this very point." 

This was the heart of it, Shen Wei thought grimly. This was the baring of the secrets Lin Jing was keeping and the promise of answers subdued much of the raging fire in his blood, the clamor of his dark energy for vengeance. "Then explain. I cannot say for the constitution of Our guests,"

Ma Gui looked offended and Zhao Xin Ci offered a baleful glare before his expression smoothed into prideful coldness. "But We, have eternity if you needed such time." 

Lin Jing blinked and seemed to realize that this was not a simple thing. "Thank you, Your Majesty." 

"The Elders received a letter from the Chief two days after..." Lin Jing realized that he was walking on thin ice so tried to find a better way to phrase his words. He didn't think 'after Chief saved you' would be received well.  "After Chu Shuzhi was...after Chief sent him and the other injured away by boat. Two days. One day after that it was reported that the Allies, our enemy and the Hanga people were gone. Chief traveled further north with a small group or alone and fought this Yan." 

He had known that there was a time delay in theory but grief and all his attempts to find Kunlun for the last decade had never turned up any answers. Lin Jing it seemed had found some of them. 

"When I asked, when I tried to leave...the Elders placed the geas on me. Chieftain Zhu Hong could have released me...but she believes the Elders."

"And the Hanga?" 

"Four months before we parted, Chief heard rumors that the Crown Prince was actively...seeking information about the region. Not the Hanga specifically, but the general area. We heard that it was...controlled by Dixing, but others said it was a Southern Haixing territory. I approached Chu Shuzhi," 

Shen Wei saw Tu Quiyue's expression and suppressed a wince. The Chancellor's military career was well discussed but few mentioned it and him so casually. "And what did Our esteemed Chancellor say?" 

"That the region was contested and hardly populated. A week after he left for Yi City, Old Chu sent the Chief a document detailing what he could find out, on the chance that the Chief was right and the Prince was trying to gain land. We studied the area and the Chief was...fascinated by the Hanga."

"Why?" That brilliant mind was always active, building connections from facts however obscure, but rarely was he focused on something so remote to what he had been doing at that time. Shen Wei remembered the scenes from Guo Changcheng's memory, the snake demon and the mission Kunlun had convinced her to undertake. Kunlun had been obsessing quietly over the Crown Prince for some time. Shen Wei could only wonder why he had never mentioned any of this to him, beyond what all the Allies discussed about the Prince. 

"The more we asked, the more the stories about the region justified the Prince's interest. Traders spoke of strange things about the Hanga, that they had power like Dixingians but others said they were Haixingren. One trader had lived with them for several months. He learned their language and was friendly with their Chieftain. The original one not Sang Zan." 

Wang Zheng's father then, Shen Wei thought. "And Lord Kunlun was pleased with this?" 

"He was pleased with what the trader told him about their beliefs." Lin Jing said after a moment of thought. "Chief wasn't interested in them as a people, he was...curious about the region." 

"In what way?" 

"Chief believed that the Hanga were remnants or a nomadic tribe that decided to remain in the fertile valley. He believed that the region had been populated before much earlier. Chu Shuzhi told us that the Xia State of Dixing had conquered another...regional kingdom called the Yong? This was over a hundred years ago, he said." 

"Yes." Shen Wei agreed mouth twisting slightly. "The kingdom of Yong was claimed by the Xia kingdom and it was two hundred years ago." 

"Thank you Your Majesty." Lin Jing said quickly. "Some of the...slaves they kept were Dixingian. Chief was interested and he wanted to know more but...it wasn't possible." Chu Shuzhi wasn't interested and thought Chief was obsessed, but he didn't think that would be popular to say either. "With the trader's help he collected a written text of the Hanga language and believed that the cliffs fromn the trader's description might have been a ritual area, or the home of a Soul Tool; or some artifact from the Immortals."  

"Something the Crown Prince of Haixing would be interested in." Shen Wei finsihed, his tone cold.   

"When I learned Chief had gone there...I wondered if it was trap or Gateway. But  didn't know about the Fifth Gate." Lin Jing proclaimed earnestly. 

"Why? Why did you not know about the Fifth Gate?" Shen Wei demanded. 

"The histories were lost." Lin Jing admitted. 

"How clever." Zhao Xin Ci remarked qietly and Shen Wei glared at him but Lin Jing surpringly answered. 

"It was." At Shen Wei's look he quickly added, "Her name was forbidden as punishment, but she was healer and she stole the histories." 

"How?" Shen Wei asked baffled. 

"Southern Haixing likes to say we are illiterate, but the Da Huang have thier own language. In the time of Chief's granfather a poet from the Ban State of Dixing came to visit the mountain, looking for some holy spring or soemthing." 

A poet from Ban? Shen Wei thought but did interrupt as Lin Jing continued. "Scouts found him on the road nearly dead from Violet Sickness." 

It had many names, some less romantic, but the Violet Sickness as Lin Jing called it, was a plague that swept through the Ban kingdom killing hundreds and leaving them open to attack from Ye Zun's forces. It was a fever that disrupted the dark enrgy blance in its victims often fatally, and caused purple discoloration of the fingernails like vivid bruises. As far as Shen Wei knew, it only affected Dixingians.  

"The tribe took him in and healed him. The Ban...Chieftain?" Lin Jing asked tentatively but Shen Wei didn't mind. Outsiders knew little of the Inner Kingdoms before they were unified and this was something Shen Wei preferred.  

"Before We Unified, they had a king." Shen Wei said plainly. He had always wondered how the Sickness hadn't spread to the neighboring peoples and they clearly had Kunlun;s ancestors to thank. His mother's older sister had died from it he thought...

"Thank you Your Majesty. I apologize for my misunderstanding." Lin Jing bowed once more. At Shen Wei's dismissive wave he continued, "In return for knowledge, the Da Huang Tribe offered the cure to the Ban kingdom." Lin Jing explained. 

"You came to Dixing?" Shen Wei asked surprised. The court had claimed that no Northerners from Da Huang had ever been to Dixing. A mistake he would rectify when he returned to Dragon City. 

"Oh yes. Five of the best scholars were sent to the Ban kingdom...to..."

"Pingyang, the capital city of Ban and home to Dixing's first University." Shen Wei added. 

"Yes, Your Majesty. They learned well and when they returned the Chief's grandfather compiled a new history on the Gates, with parchment the Ban kingdom provided as a gift." 

"But this...healer stole the records." Shen Wei asked and saw that Ma Gui was transfixed ,while Zhao Xin Ci seemed to be staring into space, listening intently. 

"She waited until the first day of summer when the tribe celebrates with a festival. Traditionally, juniors between fifteen and sixteen years take their first guard duty at sunset, while everyone else gathers around the fires in the courtyard to honor the ancestors. She killed two boys both fifteen and Chief's grandfather. It was lucky that his grandmother was in the courtyard or else Chief would never have been born!"

Shen Wei had no words to describe the feeling that sentence evoked. It was something like dismay and outrage when he considered any of the times Kunlun might not have lived or the chance he might not have met his love. If Kunlun had not decided against the original route across the bridge that first day, Shen Wei would have died on a cliff edge wounded and defeated one li to the south. If Kunlun had agreed with Da Qing five months later and decided to leave that fateful dawn on the scouting mission...he again would have died. Betrayed by one of his own soldiers.   

"She was found deep within Dixing, dead on a bridge with half of the manuscript. The other half was never recovered." Lin Jing finished quietly.

"Why Dixing?" Shen Wei asked. 

"No one knows. She was a long way from a city. She had been  on the run for three months tracked by our scouts." Lin Jing said clearly enamored with the mystery. 

"And the array earlier?" Shen Wei asked, "Your intention was not harm, so what exactly were you trying to achieve?" 

Lin Jing looked down, "That array...it's one of Chief's. It's a... presence release spell. Chief developed it years ago to release  trapped souls in Gateways.

"The words he spoke, what are they?" Shen Wei wondered, "I've never heard of them before."

"They are Hanga. It's their language." Lin Jing replied. "Chief believed that the tribe...Sang Zan's people were not the original inhabitants of the valley." 

Mai Gui rose again from his seat and bowed to Shen Wei, "May I ask a question Your Majesty, of Master Lin?" 

Shen Wei waved a hand and Ma Gui turned to Lin Jing, "You are the son of my first cousin and you chose to follow Kunlun when he left for Da Huang Mountains. I understand now, thanks to the great wisdom of His Majesty, that you believed me to be complicit in your forced silence. I assure you, that is not true." 

Lin Jing bowed and Shen Wei nodded in approval. Ma Gui bowed to Shen Wei again in official thanks and in respect for his status. "I am sure that all of us here have reached a point where we must ask the important question. In your years of research, have you come to a conclusion? Do you know what happened to Kunlun, Master of the Da Huang Mountains, beloved disciple of my Chongsheng Sect?" 

Lin Jing looked at the former Allied leader, standing beside the seated Haixing General and then up higher to where Shen Wei sat, "I have." 

"What have you learned?" Shen Wei asked pointedly. "What is it that you believe is happening to Kunlun?" 

Lin Jing thought of how to safety phrase this and took a breath, "I don't believe that Chief was thinking of suicide as the Elders claimed."

Lin Jing failed to look up at his audience at this, so missed horrified expression on Li Qian's usually demure face or how Tu Quiyue braced for a violent storm. He missed how Zhao Xin Ci clenched his jaw tamping down the immediate pain and how Ma Gui's eyes grew wide, shining with tears. He certainly did not hear the sharply inhaled breath from the throne. He didn't see the way color faded from the noble face, until all that was left was devastation, despair in the heart of the great Emperor. 

"I believe that this Yan knew that Chief was following closely behind. She needed the lives of the Hanga and the captured Allies to perform the ritual that would summon the Gate. She slaughtered them and used the Prince's loyal forces to delay Chief."

Ling Jing swallowed and looked up. "I believe that His Majesty, the Emperor of Dixing saved the Chief's life. Without the energy transfer...Chief would be dead." 

"I believe he succumbed." 

"To what?" Zhao Xin Ci asked sharply, breaking his long silence. 

"To the hidden array that was not Hanga-made."

There was a pause in the room for a few moments, broken by Shen Wei. "You believe that Kunlun and the others are affected by a...older array, already present at the cliffs?" 

"I saw evidence of it Your Majesty. This is what is keeping Chief asleep, trapped in the array." Lin Jing replied steadily. "Same as Guo Chenagcheng." 

"Lord Kunlun placed a sleeping curse on Guo Changcheng." Zhao Xin Ci disputed, clearly trying to understand what had happened to Guo. 

No one expected Lin Jing's immediate anger or his vehement denial. "How dare you! Chief would never do that."

"Are you so sure?" Zhao Xin Ci asked pressing the issue. 

"Chief always said the only difference between a sleep curse and a drug is that you can measure the drug. Most sleep curses fail quickly or the victim dies. Chief would have drugged him, if he had to fake an injury and only with Xiao Guo's consent." Lin Jing said viciously, " And such things are against the code of the Lord Guardian! Curses are the work of the dark cultivators, mercenaries paid for dirty work that can't be traced."

"How do we free Kunlun?" Shen Wei demanded, interrupting what would be a long argument. 

"...I do not know about about the array to disarm it." Lin Jing admitted. "Chief's array, the one I tried earlier should have removed the first array..." 

"Who would have this knowledge?" Shen Wei asked, dark eyes staring unblinkingly at Lin Jing. 

"One of the Hanga."

"The Disembodied Yan slaughtered the remaining tribe." Ma Gui said pointedly. 

Lin Jing didn't look at the Emperor, only said in a hopeful tone, "Not all of them. Some of them are sheltered in Dixing." 

Shen Wei stared at Lin Jing and heard the unspoken name. Wang Zheng. 

 

Chapter Text

Silk strings rise to blend with the thunder as it rolls across the sky.

Another storm to be feared as the darkest hours of the night  gave rise to a fierce downpour. Cold rain fell in endless tears pouring along the roof to cascade off the tiles and drip from the white leaves of the young trees outside. Icy water swirls in ever growing pools, flowing down the pathways of the Meng Sect stronghold and lightning flashes in the sky.

As the city waits for dawn hoping this too will be a storm without causalities, the sound of the Emperor's zhongruan joins the rumble of thunder and the beat of the rain.

Kunlun had loved the sound of rain. It was the sound of solace, he said once. Everything is more alive after a rainstorm. Sharper, purer. The scent of the wet earth and the faint kiss of lightning in the air, mingling with hope. "Like you Xiao Wei." He had said with that quick grin, those foxfire eyes gleaming. 

He had tilted his face up to the sky and Shen Wei had somehow fallen more in love with this precious soul, despite the panic driven anger blazing in his heart. This reckless, gorgeous man who had thrown himself halfway across a battlefield to find Shen Wei. His man who could find joy in things everyone else ignored, the darkness never finding a home in his generous heart.

The war had perhaps made him stronger, made both of them stronger he thought. But, those broad shoulders carried weight that was enough for twelve men, responsibility given to a brazen youth who had proven himself a better leader than all the Elders of the North combined. But he was still Zhao Yunlan.

As unchanging as the mountains and as stubborn as a donkey.

Zhao Yunlan

The strings resonate perfectly as long fingers strum gently, the melody as beloved as it is sweet. Dark energy threads through the air rippling as it surrounds the bed, weaving around Zhao Yunlan's sleeping body. Light flashes in tiny pulses as power threads thorough Zhao Yunlan's meridians and Shen Wei feels the glorious presence he has so dearly missed.

The more he plays the stronger that presence seems to be. Shen Wei yearns for it. He funnels power carefully, knowing how dangerous dark energy can be, how destructive but Lin Jing believes that it is actually having a healing effect. The Hanga didn't seem to have experience with dark energy, not in its raw form. Their slaves would have gifts but only the ones subtle enough to go unnoticed would have survived. 

This ancient array and its effects didn't seem resistant to dark energy, so the more Shen Wei gave of himself, in careful quantities the stronger Kunlun became. 

Shen Wei would gladly give all of his life-force if it meant Kunlun could be free, but alone dark energy could only help him, not cure him. So he played all the songs he knew and blended power with love.

This song is the wind through long grass, the scent of magnolia and Zhao Yunlan's vivacious spirit. It is a song of their days together, the days of horses and the morning sky. Nights when a single glance at the one who held his heart was enough to carry him through weeks of hardship. 

Kunlun had been so enchanted by Dixingian music and had beamed at Shen Wei with honest enthusiasm, when he had admitted that he could play three or so instruments. 

It had slipped from his lips, this confession of musical skill, he remembered with a quick smile. Zhao Yunlan had sat beside him in the early days of their friendship, fingers tapping in time with the beat of the drums and how his eyes had shone with delight. He remembered how the smoke from the campfire had danced in the air, the crisp coldness of the night, giving him the pleasure of Kunlun sitting close to his side for warmth

Weak to the bone, Shen Wei had wanted to have that look of wonder focused on him, a selfish want that had him admitting things he usually never spoke of.  

He was of the sovereign family and music had long been both a tradition, and necessary to his education. By twenty he was a Master of the Nine Arts and by twenty five he was the Lord Commander of Dixing. Such accomplishments had demanded study and experience, lest he bring dishonor on his family. 

The zhongruan he had learned in the monastery as a child, mastering the pause and the power of the resonating strings. Both he and Ye Zun had mastered the guzheng but it was the dizi that had truly inspired him. Though not popular in the court, it had long been his preferred choice to represent the Shen lineage, something dignified in the eyes of his mother, an accomplished flutist herself.  

Of course being his mother, music had to be honed into a weapon. A touch of dark energy and the right intent could transform a series of simple notes into a formidable offensive or a quick shield. They learned how to identify when music was being used to alter moods and perspectives, when it was innocent and when it was destructive. 

He had surpassed expectation with his natural skill, but never found enjoyment in his instruments. Not until Kunlun. Sitting there before him, his eyes soft with wonder or lying beside him on their makeshift bed...playing for Kunlun was a gift. His enjoyment, becoming his own. 

"Play me a song?" Kunlun had asked with his back to an old magnolia tree, tired from days of fighting and heartsick by their losses. Kneeling in front of him, Shen Wei would have dome anything he asked, simply to lift that raw, wounded look from those precious dark eyes.  

Shen Wei had played the melody for the first time, a song he would only play for Kunlun. 

Each note rings out clearly dancing in the air with the raindrops, dark energy swirling around Shen Wei as he lays his heart bare. Exactly as he was now.

He couldn't blame the rain for the way his sight blurred or the knot in his throat.

The wide Imperial bed in the center of the generous rooms had been lovingly carved from hardwood, with sweeping dragons and magnolia flowers. Here in the warm glow of the dark energy lamps, Zhao Yunlan lay motionless. Only the beat of his heart and the soft breaths, Shen Wei counted with desperation proved he still lived.   

Zhao Yunlan had returned to his arms. Free from his prison but not freed from his torment. Perhaps somewhere in his mind he was fighting or worse yet, perhaps his soul was. 

Shen Wei had played for Zhao Yunlan for ten years, silently, foolishly hoping somehow wherever he was, Zhao Yunlan could hear him. Now he would  hope his music and his dark energy could help his love.

"Xiao Lan." He whispered and though he knew his love would not wake, he still watched his stunningly beautiful face, heart clenching at the thought that this was only a deception. That Zhao Yunlan did not lie in dreams but in torment. "I'm here Xiao Lan. I'm here."  

Shen Wei lifted his hand from the strings to gently caress one pale cheek and smiled through the stab of pain. Years ago lying on bedrolls and blankets, in caves and camps alike, Kunlun would have made a muffled sound in his throat and turned his face into the touch, those long eyelashes fluttering. Those foxfire eyes would blink open and Shen Wei's heart would stutter as it always did, his ribs too small to contain the love he felt.

His hand glided down Yunlan's elegant neck and found the sound he treasured most in this world, second only to his beloved voice. Zhao Yunlan's heart beat with a steady tone and he slowly moved his hand in a gentle caress across the smooth silk shielding Yunlan's chest.

In this moment with the storm raging above them everything seemed softer, the sharp edges of this never ending panic blunted into something bearable.

"Just a little longer my love and you'll be free." He whispered leaning forward to kiss that pliant lush mouth.

It had always been easy to lose himself in the memories of the past. Now, it was hard believe that this was not a dream.  That Zhao Yunlan was lying here, looking so out of place in this bed. The covers were tucked around his waist, a dark blue embroidered with small pale songbirds, making it look Shen Wei thought with a rare soft huff of laughter, as though Yunlan was lying in a field of birds. 

He would grimace at the pattern and be convinced that the birds were staring at him. Perhaps he would even know a spell that could do that, Shen Wei thought fondly...And the birds really didn't go with the carved dragons. It wasn't a favorable omen to put a creature that was undeniably a predator above a flock of small birds, but the embroidery was exquisite.

Not that he had actually slept in this bed more than a handful of times and hardly cared what cover it had. The stars were usually his canopy and the ground his bed when he came to this valley. Sometimes he would imagine Kunlun's complaint, "But you have a bed! With those little birds!" and smile up at the stars. 

It seemed so far away from their bed in the Allied headquarters, or in their unofficially shared tent, curled together in the same chrysanthemum quilt Shen Wei used in Dragon Palace even now. Some of the color had faded and the stitching was as rough as ever, but if he tried hard enough he could sleep buried in the heavy folds.

Returning to his zhongruan, he began strumming one of Yunlan's favorites. Once more dark energy began to rise and drift to the sound of the melody.  The tempo of the song quickened before falling back to the evocative tones that had so enraptured Zhao Yunlan. 

The candles flickered as lightning raced across the sky and Shen Wei watched the shadows dance. He hadn't pulled curtains closed around the bed, irrationally wanting the candlelight, despite his excellent night vision. This way, he promised himself, there would be no chance that he might miss any subtle signs of discomfort in his beloved.

Shen Wei knelt beside the bed, his eyes opening to stare at Zhao Yunlan's sleeping face, his heart twisting in worry and hope. His love didn't stir and so Shen Wei played, smoothly transitioning into the Northern folk song he had often heard by the fire, the easy notes rising as lightning flashed in the window. 

Shen Wei's fingers suddenly fly, blurring as he strums faster than the monks of his childhood prison would have allowed. This now is the river outside, violent and powerful. It is the charge of horses across open land. The pride and strength of the Northern peoples, this harsh landscape filled with so many broken dreams. 

His dark power continued to pour healing energy into Zhao Yunlan's body, exactly as Lin Jing suggested. But what the Gate builder didn't know was that

Slowly, he returned to the song he had written for Zhao Yunlan.

There was another reason he was here in the middle of the night, playing for his love.

When morning came, he would need to have his decision ready. There would be questions to answer and orders to be given, a plan laid out to ensure Kunlun's safety and freedom. But that was hours away yet and Shen Wei was thankful because, the decision he needed to make was both simple and risky, no matter which path he chose.  

Lin Jing had claimed that the only way to free Zhao Yunlan was to ask one of the 'surviving' Hanga to unlock the array holding Kunlun prisoner. There was only one problem with that idea. 

There was only one true Hanga survivor. Wang Zheng, the Empress of Dixing. 

The Da Huang tribe and and as far as he knew, three other Northern clans had descended on the Hanga valley over a week after Kunlun had forced Shen Wei to safety. They had fought the remaining Haixing army taking most of them prisoner. Three days later Southern Haixing's then Emperor had declared not defeat, but willingness to agree to a peace deal. 

Some said this was because they were near to defeat, but others including Kunlun had believed that Southern Haixing simply could not afford to continue the war effort. With civil war rising within the Haixing controlled provinces, a famine and in-fighting among the elite of the court, peace was cheaper. 

By the time Shen Wei had returned to consciousness after his terrible fever, he was in Dixing and the terrible truth of what had happened to his family had been made clear. He had demanded answers, expecting he thought with pain rising in his chest, to learn that Kunlun was on his way. He had stood there praying they were not going to tell him that Kunlun was wounded...the thought of him missing, presumed dead...that had never been an option.  

What no one knew at the time was that the Da Huang tribe had purged the valley. He knew now they were looking for the Gate. Which meant that the ones who had searched the area knew that Kunlun had not detonated his explosive array, yet they had said nothing, leaving only after they murdered the remaining Hanga. They were called rebels and Haixingian sympathizers, a war crime so easily covered up. Lin Jing to be fair, had no idea they had done this and even if Zhu Hong had known, she would have powerless to have stopped them.

Why had they murdered them?

Shen Wei believed that the Da Huang had not been ignorant of the Hanga. The doorway keepers as they were always known, were ruthless when it came to guarding the Yashou, their secret realms and their history.  If they believed that the Hanga were going to sell the secret of the Gate or had attempted to help Southern Haixing in any of their  gate related plans, the only answer was death. Either that or they hadn't murdered them and they had died when the Fifth Gate was opened in the sacrifice, Lin Jing believed Yan had used to force open the Gate.

Whether the blood of the slain Hanga stained Da Huang tribal hands or not, they certainly ensured that none of them would survive after the valley was 'purified'.

They accused the Hanga of demonic arts and cursed their name, so no tribe no matter how progressive, would dare to dispute them. Wang Zheng was truly the last of her people and to survive she had needed to deny all connection to the valley, to her family. She had been cast out by her tribe after they had murdered her family, but Sang Zan though her savior, and her lover was also the reason she was an orphan. Then  after the war, she was damned. If anyone had discovered her heritage, she would have been killed or publicly shamed. All of the Northern tribes, Sects and his own forces would have demanded her death, believing her a demon.

She had already faced execution once on the charge of demonic sorcery, he couldn't let her face that again. He had promised Zhao Yunlan he would keep her safe and Kunlun's final letter...that soul destroying note written so hurriedly in Kunlun's atrocious writing...had asked him to hide her and hinted correctly, that Wang Zheng was pregnant.

Chu Shuzhi had come up with a simple, but highly effective plan. Ge Lan became Wang Zheng, the survivor of the massacred Wang family, a direct cousin of the Chu House. Her apparent parents, both loyal Shen State nobles had been killed along with her brother. A tragic tale no one wanted to discuss.

The actual daughter, Wang Hien had died with them but so too had most of their servants.

No one knew what the daughter looked like, only that she was young, clever and accomplished. Somehow Chu Shuzhi had quelled any disagreement from the Chu House and Wang Zheng was presented as the heir of the Wang estate.  Suddenly she was wealthy and Dixingian noble born, but to Wang Zheng that meant she was more out of her depth than ever before.

Chu Shuzhi had helped the Wang survivors reintegrate into Dragon City and despite the continuing worry, no one had spoken out against Wang Zheng and as the Empress, she had no filial obligation to her half-cousins...she rarely saw them.

She was going to cry, Shen Wei thought in the darkness.

In the ten years since that day, Wang Zheng had fiercely defended Shen Wei on more than one occasion, proving her loyalty to him countless times, but as much as he wanted to help her with this, she might be their only salvation.

He could not think of the word 'wife'. Theirs was not a marriage, only a friendship flourishing despite being bound by legal chains.  Over the years she had become the sister he never had, a friend always in his corner and the one person he trusted in Dixing beside Chu Shuzhi...but he never loved her, not like that.

It was a relief to her that he did not. He was her elder brother, her teacher and friend. A husband truly only in name.

Still, she had braved situations that would have most running for the hills.

She had weathered scorn and disdain with grace, never letting them see her tears. She had stood proud when the rumors about Kunlun and him circulated. Whispers of how her husband seem to love the departed General Kunlun more than her. How she had failed to produce another child. How the former Empress wold have called her a commoner. Slander never said loudly, calling her unattractive, unfit and ill-bred for the position of Empress.

More than the unkindness, it was the well wishers that both of them struggled with. Allies across the lands and influential women who befriended Wang Zheng giving her some protection, who commented on how strong their marriage was.  How she was a remarkable woman for keeping her husband faithful to her when most Emperors in history had a harem of concubines...how powerful their love and commitment...

Despite all he had done her and her family, she loved Sang Zan still. When Shen Wei told her that her love had returned, she would be overjoyed and afraid. Not of him but of what Sang Zan was going think when her marriage was revealed. 

Not that he blamed her. How could he lie here with Kunlun and not fear the moment when Zhao Yunlan realized that he had a wife? Even if it was a lie, he was still married.  His stomached churned at the thought and he pressed his trembling lips together .

Not now. Don't think of that now. Think of the current problem.

The simple truth was that he couldn't ask Wang Zheng to come here. 

No one could know that she was Hanga by birth, that she alone might be Kunlun's salvation.

It would risk both of them too greatly.

So, the only answer was to leave the Meng Sect stronghold and travel somewhere with a full entourage of people where Wang Zheng could either quietly appear or better yet, had ample reason to be in residence. The only problem was that subtlety demanded that routine could not be overtly damaged.

Wang Zheng usually spent the worst of the winter in the Palace of Clarity deep within Ban State where the weather was kinder. After leaving Dragon City, the Empress was hidden away in the mountain retreat built by his grandfather. Which conveniently was a his usual portal destination when he left the Hanga valley. 

This might be the answer. Leaning over the bed, Shen Wei, Emperor of Dixing gently kiss Kunlun's brow.

--------

Feuding relatives and former warring enemies share many of the same traits.  Chiefly among them, Shen Wei thought was the shouting and the ease of simple statements turning into betrayed expressions or immediate fury.

The fact that Ma Gui and Zhao Xin Ci were at each other's throats was not a surprise. The fact that the Meng leader Changying was standing before them with nine guards, appearing for all the world as though she was considering gutting both of them, was not.

He had always known her be serene and commanding, perfectly controlled regardless of her situation. Meng Changying had been held prisoner by South Haixing and despite all they had done to her, she remained proud. Unbowed. Neither had the earthquake, he mused, although that event had brought her immense personal tragedy.

Pausing down the long corridor, Shen Wei looked over the balcony and marveled at how two leaders had within the space of one morning, brought the calmest person he knew, to near rage.

"What is this?" Shen Wei asked Lady Li Shuchun who stood not three steps behind the Emperor, steps in front of the guards and Battle Commander Tu Quiyue.

"The tribal leader is in constant argument with the Lord Guardian, My Emperor." Lady Li Shuchun said softly. "Leader Meng Changying is considering imprisoning them in a separate building."

"Guo Changcheng is a traitor." Ma Gui said loudly, his voice easily carrying up to Shen Wei. 

"All the more reason why he should be returned to his family in Haixing." Zhao Xin Ci said calmly, with the air of  man who knows he will win. "You have no proof against him, because none existed." 

"He should be formally recognized as one your dogs!" Ma Gui snarled. 

"We are supposedly at peace Lord Ma Gui." Zhao Xin Ci refuted smoothly. 

"Bring all three of them to my audience chambers." He ordered with a sigh, continuing to walk towards the carved doors. This was getting out of hand! He thought irritated. "And find Lin Jing."

The doors ahead opened quickly and the guards around Shen Wei tensed, but he held up his hand recognizing Li Qian immediately. She bowed immediately, her robes nearly the same dark blue as his own. "My King, forgive me."

Shen Wei, in no mood for unnecessary formalities waved a hand impatiently, "What is it?" 

"News has reached us My King. The Lady of the Star Flowers, the Supreme Empress of Dixing has sent word that she will soon be arriving here." Li Qian said in a rush.

Well that changed things.

Chapter Text

As the soft petals fell to the earth with the quick hands of winter, one lone figure stood untouched. 

When counting the petals failed to calm her raging spirit, Wang Zheng resisted the urge to pace around the circular pavilion, cut into the walls of the mountain and watched a flock of birds as they passed over the city. Wishing she too could fly. 

The urgency to come here to this small mountain city only a few days travel to Hanga, had eased into a constant aching worry. All she knew, all anyone knew it seemed, was that the Emperor was injured and had decided against advice, to return to the Hanga lands to mourn for Kunlun.

She might have believed it, had it been any other year. If the world had not been rife with rumors about Lord Kunlun once more.

She alone knew his pain like no other. Wang Zheng knew what it was to cry endless tears for a lost love. To sit in the silence and hear a voice you have longed for, only to realize it is but a memory. To never glance at the night sky, no matter how beautiful for fear of the nightmares you will have, the scream trapped in your throat.

A grief so powerful you dreaded the change of the seasons, the chasm between past and present widening with every year. For her, summer came with grief threaded through each day, with memories of Sang Zan and the scent of flowers bringing tears to her eyes. Sometimes it felt as though she could turn and he would be there, with that shy smile, looking at her with those soulful eyes. Sometimes she looked at her daughter and saw Sang Zan in every smile and gesture, in her daughter's boldness, in her bravery.

For a child so young Anujin understood that both her parents carried pain, carried sadness in secrets never shared and stories never told. She knew her mother needed distractions in summer when the days were not humid or dry and her father needed space in late autumn. Wang Zheng never asked, for she had no answers to give, but she wondered if her child thought it was the pain of the war. There was no one Dixing untouched by the war, no families left that did not bear the scars of loss and her daughter was surrounded by such echoes. 

All she could do was make sure summer days were everything her daughter could hope for and breathed a sigh of relief when she had things she could devote her attention to. Like Anujin's archery competitions and her own music practice, as the Empress was expected to open the summer festival showcasing her musical talent.

For Shen Wei summer was always a busy time, but as soon as the leaves began to fall, his heart would always turn cold. He tormented himself by returning to the valley each year in autumn, where Lord Kunlun had sacrificed himself, but the daughter of the same lands, could not...had never found the strength to return.

But the world had changed and Wang Zheng found hope burning anew in her own heart and a terrible trepidation, that lingering fear of disappointment crushing her chest when her dreams once more shattered.

This was not the years of the past. All of the pieces she had gathered from multiple sources and all of her best spies, did not lend the story credibility.

In everything that had happened, the assassination plot that nearly left Shen Anujin orphaned, the child Empress of the nation, such things had understandably slipped from Wang Zheng's mind. She and her daughter were rushed from the Palace in a frantic flight, taken to safety and hidden carefully, all but barricaded inside one of the oldest Shen strongholds in the country. 

In the quiet, when the panic had receded and her little girl had begun asking questions, worry for her father in her sweet eyes, only then had she begun to question. Things didn't make sense. For the first time since meeting the Black Robed Envoy, Shen Wei's actions didn't make sense.

When all those responsible for the plot had been taken into custody and Dragon Palace was deemed safe to welcome the return of the Emperor, Shen We did not arrive to see Xiao Anujin. He sent word that all was well and cautioned her to be careful, but no one had reportedly seen the Emperor since the attack.

With no instructions, Wang Zheng was torn. It was clear that Shen Wei expected her to go to Ban State for the winter as was her custom, but this was no ordinary time and it was far too soon. It would be weeks yet until Dragon City officially closed for the worst of the coming storms. She might have believed that Shen Wei was determined to move forward and offer their daughter normalcy, but it did not explain his absence. 

So she was left with one answer. Shen Wei was injured and desired for his perceived weakness to be hidden.

But if that was true why had he not arrived to see his beloved daughter or sent for them? The only injury that would prevent Shen Wei from seeing Xiao Anujin was something near fatal. In panic she had demanded an answer from Chu Shuzhi, only  be told that while he was injured, it wasn't severe. 

In her confusion, she imagined Lord Kunlun as he might consider the facts. She had heard enough stories about the man from her own child and thought of his clever mind during the brief time she had known him. Once the world had whispered the name Kunlun and shouted it from every hillside. 

Lord Kunlun was the man who somehow unified the entire Upper North on his own, controlling the region under one flag by the age of twenty eight. Exactly what the Nine Tribes had sworn no one could do. His campaign against Southern Haixing had been as brutal as it was successful, taking back lands well before he joined the Allies officially.

With the amount of cultivation power he had and the strategic mind capable of amazing plans, they now taught to the young recruits of the Dixingian military, it really didn't come as a surprise when the then Lord Guardian challenged him. Nor was it a surprise when the Lord Guardian lost to him.

The first thing Lord Kunlun always did, according to her daughter was to consider all the facts he knew, then consolidated them into a known map of enemy movements. 

In the stress of holding the Memory of Peace ceremony, opening the doors of Dixing to their former enemies and allies alike, Wang Zheng's focus had been on the preparations. Between her various duties as the Empress, she had their guests, the tensions and the thousands of small decisions that Shen Wei had no time for, to worry about. More than that, she had been worried for Shen Wei's state of mind.

Still, some things had caught her attention even as distracted as she was.

Why would Zhu Hong look so gutted when they returned from gardens the day before the banquet? It was the ten year anniversary but that hadn't been answer enough. She had thought at first her old friend had argued with Lady Fu You, the Snake Clan a sensitive topic for the young Clan Leader, trying so hard to follow in Kunlun's great footsteps. She didn't press but Zhu Hong had seemed genuinely upset, trying to hide it by focusing on her disciples.

Then after the attack, Lin Jing had disappeared days before Zhu Hong officially left and without any reason. He was not an important member of the gathering, so it was difficult for her to inquire too deeply.  Chu Shuzhi was keeping a tight rein on things in Dragon City, but her spies said that he was uncharacteristically emotional. She also learned  that the Lord Guardian had argued with Lady Fu You. Zhu Hong had been there as well and things had been described as aggressive. Ma Gui then left the city, despite his own injuries and no one knew where he was either.

The attack had been brutal and was too reminiscent of the horrible events they had suffered before. Wang Zheng had never seen Ye Palace but she had been with Shen Wei in the aftermath, both them struggling in the wake of losing their loved ones in the Hanga valley, only to walk among the devastation left behind after the bomb which stole from Shen Wei his only family.  Chu Shuzhi had lost his twin brother and at first she had thought that this was a reminder of his own loss.

Ma Gui and Shen Wei had little in common and a strained relationship, but what they did have between was Lord Kunlun. Shen Wei had told her about the meeting and it shocked her that the Lord Guardian was Kunlun's adopted brother.  She felt for him. To lose your only living family like that...

In fact when she considered it, Lord Kunlun was only thing all of the people around her had in common. From Lin Jing to Shen Wei himself, it was Kunlun that united all of them. New information had surfaced and if there was a chance however small that Shen Wei could find Kunlun, her husband would do anything to try.

So, she assumed he had come here to the lands of the Hanga people, injured but with hope burning its eternal flame in his heart.

...Leaving Wang Zheng with no choice but to follow, after ensuring their daughter was safe.  Every step closer to her former home was a knife in her heart, the pain so great she wondered how she could still breathe. Sang Zan. Her old home...the need to pace grew stronger.

In her ear she could hear her mother's voice, so beloved and so exasperated, telling her that proper young ladies are serene. They are calm and they certainly do not pace like wild animals in stressful situations. Stress was for men to worry about. "Smile daughter." She commanded the young naive Ge Lan. 

"Don't pout like a child." Her brother said dismissively. The last words he spoke to her, she remembered with a spark of pain, the grief and guilt a familiar companion. After so long she could barely remember the timbre of his voice.  

The Empress of Dixing certainly did not restlessly pace. Perhaps if war was declared, Wang Zheng mused, perhaps that would be excuse enough. Though she doubted the Dowager Empress, mother of the twin Emperors would have shown the slightest fear over war, thinking of the only publicly displayed portrait of the late queen. In those mirthful, bright eyes there was such coldness.   

Shen Anujin daughter of the green valleys and the flower fields, would never have met her grandmother's approval. Perhaps neither of them. Young ladies do not dream of becoming Lord Commanders, practicing cultivation and breathlessly wait for their twelfth birthday, when the training sword could possibly be replaced by an weapon befitting the heir of Dixing. 

Shen Wei would not say, his lips curving in a slight smile, but she knew that the sword in question had been forged on her second birthday and the Emperor himself had tested the first blade and had found it wanting.  

Another petal falls and one of her attendants behind her shifts with a rustle of silk.   

The Ge Lan of ten years ago would have been too consumed by pain to have returned . She would have stumbled climbing the sheer rocks of societal expectation. Ge Lan would not have chosen her finest white robes and walked entirely without chaperone to this lonely pavilion, uncaring of anyone else. She would not have stood unmoved as her bodyguards, the Clan Leader of this mountain and her attendants rushed up the pathway to follow in her wake.  

They could judge and they would regardless of what she did, but her status meant that they could not question. 

It was not in her character at least not in Ge Lan's to take advantage of others, but in this world she had created for herself, the Empress of Dixing stood proudly beneath the heavy boughs of the yong trees framing the curving roof, her golden phoenix headdress contrasting with the stunning blue blossoms above her.  

There were many moments in her life she wished she could relive, Wang Zheng thought ignoring the army of attendants behind her. Moments, where the choices before her had seemed so impossible, the pathway so difficult. Moments when she wished she had spoken up or had chosen a different path. Regrets were a burden she feared she would carry for every day of her life. 

Standing here in the middle of the wide pavilion, with the earth dropping away into the vast gorge below and the mountains soaring high above them to touch the clouds, Wang Zheng knew she was making the right choice.  

She was no longer the child trying to stand tall beside her mother, or the young girl hopelessly in love with the man damned to end them all. Ge Lan was a girl who lived in the past. A name never spoken. A secret she would keep. Her precious child, her daughter would grow to become a powerful woman, never knowing the truth of her heritage. 

This too was a regret Ge Lan lived with. Wang Zheng however, knew the price of both life and freedom. To relinquish all of what she been had been a painful severing, there were no point in denying this even to herself, but with the loss of her past, Wang Zheng was reborn. 

She was now a wife and a mother. She was the Empress of Dixing and the people of this nation, Sang Zan's people...were hers to protect. Wang Zheng refused to let them down.  

Reaching into her sleeve she pulled free a single jade talisman. Little more than a coin, it fit neatly into the palm of her hand. It was a vivid but pale green, the simple charm she had carried as a token of strength through every trial and event. 

Wang Zheng smiled gently thinking of how she had told her attendants on her wedding day, that it had belonged to her mother. An heirloom. The perfect excuse to allow her to carry it with her, as she walked the lonely path to the Emperor, a soul as broken by love as hers was. The only friend in this raging world she had, who understood her past and her present.

Her mother would have considered the design ugly, but such precious, perfectly sculpted jade was a status symbol her mother would have adored.    

Wang Zheng wondered what her family would have said if they knew it had been taken from Lord Kunlun's hair. 

She should have given it to Shen Wei and the guilt lingers in her heart, for robbing him of something that belonged to his love, but something had stilled her hand. This little token was a reminder of her past, of Ge Lan and Sang Zan in the summer fields. It was a reminder of her promise to Kunlun, the cunning, vivacious hero she had met during the final days of her old life.  

The Lord Guardian had been a storm contained, the magnitude of who he was hidden behind a bright smile and deft words. She remembered him as a hero and never forgot that he was the reason Shen Anujin lived in this world.  

He had pressed it into her hands, shock running through her blood like an army of soldiers, her hands shaking with pain. Sang Zan was gone. She didn't know where but he was gone and she had nothing left. Kunlun had been the only solid thing in her world, telling her to hold it and not let go.

This small token had been an easy weight, a task for her crumbling mind to hold onto. Those dark eyes had held hers and for a moment she had been able to breathe, his unshakable confidence guiding her into the boat, beside the limp form of the Black Robed Envoy. 

"Look after him. Take care of him." He asked, his eyes imploring no matter how the words had been a demand. It was one breaking heart to another, a soul forever bound willingly and the parting was going to shatter everything vital within themselves. 

"I will." Ge Lan vowed, looking down at the pale features of the man she would one day marry to save them both.

"I will." She vowed again holding the token that was preventing Shen Wei leaving the boat, whispering the words as the Envoy's scream of pure anguish had tears running in rivers down her cheeks. He was losing the one he loved, losing Kunlun and she was terrified she had already lost the one she would die for. She cried for Sang Zan, for the lands that would never be her home again. She wept for her family and for the Lord Guardian, knowing in her heart that he was giving his life for them.     

"I will." Wang Zheng whispered to the wind a decade older and a lifetime stronger, restlessly plucking at her long sleeves, the golden embroidery catching the light. She had kept that promise for ten years and no one, especially not her husband was going to force her to break it. Not while she breathed, she vowed. Kunlun gave his life. There was no greater sacrifice and she would not allow that to be disrespected, determined that what he gave of himself was honored.

The agony Shen Wei had lived through, all of that pain and sacrifice had to mean something. She had watched and shared the burden of loss, believing that one day they would see their loved ones again. She would hold Sang Zan's hand in hers, see his smile and hear  that soft laugh of shy happiness once more. Some days it was only thing that could pull her to her feet. 

Perhaps only in death, but until that day she would stand for they believed in. In the green valleys of the past, she could reach back her hand and find Sang Zan's gentle fingers already reaching in return. She had carried him her heart for all these long years, letting his memory be her shield. If she stumbled now she could turn to Shen Wei and he would give her his strength, his wisdom and friendship freely.   

She would make not her ancestors proud she knew, they would not think highly of her for so proudly embracing Dixing, but she hoped she might make Kunlun proud.

"Your Majesty," One of her senior attendants inquired, her voice perfectly pitched to sound pleasant. It would be believable if Wang Zheng didn't know that Lian Huizhong was a trained bodyguard, currently dressed as a servant. Wang Zheng though knew partly it was because they were worried she would become sick and that was something no one wanted to explain to the Emperor. 

Before she could reply, the sky darkened, a sudden sharply cold wind sending leaves and blossoms scattering to the ground.

"Imperial Majesty."  Lian Huizhong tried again concern now coloring her words, as she took several steps forward with the other bodyguards.

"No." Wang Zheng said firmly. 

As lightning raced across the skies and the thunder rolled threateningly above, the Empress of Dixing refused to move and the foxfire eyes in her memory glinted with amusement. 

There was a tingle in the air and the token in her hand shone with green light for a brief moment, before Wang Zheng carefully tucked it away. It always warned her when dark energy was near, or when a spell was taking effect. Freed from protocol for this brief instance, Wang Zheng turned around to look at the scene behind her, with a child's humor and Lord Kunlun's laugh in her ear. 

Her twelve bodyguards were frozen, their expressions filled with concern or studied neutrality as they been moving to coax her inside. Her five genuine attendants all noblewomen from influential families, stood on the bridge leading to the pavilion. They dared not ask what she was doing, not even Jiang Yimin her friend and personal handmaid. 

Blue light arched down from the skies striking the ground before her, but Wang Zheng simply adjusted her sleeves and smoothed the creases from her skirts. 

The frigid air stings her exposed skin, but she plants her feet and lifts her head. The figure of a man wreathed in shadow appears from the light and the metallic ring of the hilt of a distinctive pudao striking the ground has frost spreading across the stonework. 

Wang Zheng gracefully drops into a deep bow, her sleeves stroking the ground like the feathers of a crane's wing. "Your Majesty, welcome to the mountains." 

With the storm came the rush of the Emperor's power. It swept across this small city and between one breath and the next, all those within paused. They were frozen. Suspended in the moment, mind closed even as their heart beat. The Clan Leader stilled just as he was about to sit and a singe leaf fell onto the head of the spy waiting in the shade of the tree.

A long fingered hand lifted and the famed pudao of the Black Robed Envoy vanished. Nothing moved except the wind here in this suddenly silent city and the woman waiting for him, dressed in her preferred white robes. He stared at her as she bowed and his mouth twisted in annoyance. Reaching out with his energy, he searched every corner of the city beyond and relaxed fractionally when there was no echo of his own power. His daughter was not here. 

Well, he thought. That was something.

Clearly he should have paid more attention and been more stringent in his orders, but his anger was tempered by the simple fact that Kunlun would have called him foolish. Wang Zheng was not one of his soldiers. She had placed her life and the life of their child in his hands to protect. A thing Kunlun would have reminded him of, possibly with one of his rare stern looks. 

It was a slightly bitter thing to remember, but Zhao Yunlan would not have been surprised that Wang Zheng had come here, facing her painful past and the dangers of the present. He would have anticipated it. 

It was easy to imagine what he would say. A dark brow rising over those sharp eyes,'You are worried for her life and for her safety.' He would have pointed out. "And you are letting my father and the petty politics get to you.' 

So he looked at his only friend in this ravaged world and frowned at her defiance, at how she had put herself through all this pain unnecessarily. Coming to the old Hanga lands would be torment for her! Chu Shuzhi would pay for allowing the Empress of the nation to move without the usual guards and requirements, rules he had put in place for a reason!

The line of soldiers above did not soothe his anger. The worry had not left him. In all that he had done and all that he fought for, keeping his own family safe had proven to be his greatest challenge. He had failed his twin and Emperor despite all that he had vowed. He had failed Kunlun and his own mother. 

The idea that he might have failed Wang Zheng and Shen Anujin was a knife between his ribs, lending his anger fuel.

"I had not expected you act irresponsibly Imperial Empress." He intoned, his voice was quiet but it still rang out over the pavilion, breaking the cold silence. Using her title and not her name was the only indication he gave of his temper. He reined in his power and the storm eased, the frost ceasing its path along the stonework.

Wang Zheng had a fierce bravery to her, one that had impressed Kunlun and earned his respect. Something never freely given. She raised her head and took off her white mask, so she could look at him squarely. "As Imperial Empress, I did not expect to have to reassure our daughter that her father still lived." 

"I did not expect for there to be gossip. People asking each other how our daughter would lead the nation as a child!" She said sharply, refusing to raise her voice. 

Shen Wei frowned at her surprisingly harsh words. "The Palace was informed that I was healing well. That there was no need for alarm. I sent word to you as we agreed." He refuted, defending himself. "Where is Anujin?" 

"Safe with Chu Shuzhi guarding her." Wang Zheng replied and then frowned, betrayal in gaze. " Were you even injured?"

"I was injured, though not severely or we would not be having this conversation." Shen Wei snapped, the father showing in the eyes of the Emperor for a brief moment. "What did you tell her?"

"Chu Shuzhi told her that you are delivering justice for those slain and she believes I am making my yearly visit to Chengbi." Wang Zheng replied sharply,  "She even told me it was important not to miss it, that the other representatives would be waiting." 

The rebuilt city closest to the border of Dixing. Wang Zheng made the journey there every year as the diplomatic representative of Dixing and connected with the Yashou, Nine Great Tribes and smaller Northern Clans. They always had an end of the year gathering, but Anujin was too young to participate. It was a commemoration of the war and Shen Wei preferred to avoid it.

Although disappointed that she could not attend, Anujin understood that this was an important duty and a sad time. Chu Shuzhi would surround their daughter in loyalists and nothing would happen to her, Shen Wei knew. He would depart for the Hanga lands a few weeks before Wang Zheng's scheduled trip to Chengbi and he could easily imagine her waving from the Palace steps, a small army behind her.  

"Lord Commander Chen Ming has returned to the city and the Head of the Palace Guards is there as well." 

Shen Wei looked at her sternly and was about to begin an argument when Wang Zheng stepped closer. 

"You have found Guo Changcheng." It was not a question, Wang Zheng folded her hands as she stared at him. "You did not tell me this."  

Shen Wei felt the first stirrings of worry beyond the ties of his family in his heart. "How did you hear of this?" He demanded. 

"Xiang Gong." Wang Zheng said with great dignity. 

"How?" He demanded again taking a step forward, alarm in his eyes. "A-mei tell me how." 

"There have been no whispers of this." She reassured him quickly. "I made sure there will be none as well."

Which meant that she had complained to the the Palace of Interior Affairs and likely to Chu Shuzhi directly. "Then how?" 

As if realizing she will gain no confirmation or denial until she admitted how she knew, Wang Zheng folded her hands. "There are only two names that inspire an expression of fearful agony in Chu Shuzhi. The name of his twin brother and Guo Changcheng." Wang Zheng replied. "He personally came to retrieve us and when a messenger came, that expression was there for me to see. All of the Palaces speak of how he is more volatile than usual. Emotional, one claimed." 

So there was no rumor as of yet. Shen Wei thought and sighed waving his hand abruptly. "If you had waited, you would not have needed to come here. I was intending to meet with you in Lotus House." 

"So it's true?" Wang Zheng asked, her expression clearing from anger to something hopeful. "You have found him for Chu Shuzhi? You can reunite them?" 

Any anger that remained in his heart fled at her simple happiness for Chu Shuzhi. Wang Zheng's thought that they could reunite them, bring happiness to someone else had not a glimmer of jealousy or sorrow. For all she had suffered, Wang Zheng never lost her kindness or hope, giving him strength when he needed it the most. 

"I...It's not that simple." He admitted, his dark robes vanishing to reveal the blue robes she had personally embroidered.  

Her hope shuttered immediately, eyes filling with tears. "He's dead? Oh no. Does he know? Is there a body?"

Shen Wei moved swiftly and took Wang Zheng's arm, her hand falling into his after long practice. This was not protocol or the support of a good brother though, this was going to be the hardest conversation of his life and the only hope he had left. He led her over to the carved bamboo seat near the railing and gently guided her to sit down. 

His spell would hold and an missed hour would be strange but eventually it would be dismissed as a bizarre occurrence. He could hear Kunlun laugh in disbelief at that and smiled at the memory. "Guo Changcheng is alive, but trapped."

Wang Zheng settled on the seat and clutched his hand. "Trapped? Can you save him?" 

Taking a breath, he told about what Li Qian had discovered about Cong Bo and how their enemy believed that Guo Changcheng had been put to sleep by Lord Kunlun. He told her about the White Crane Clan and the journey to find him. Wang Zheng covered her mouth with her hand when he explained that Kunlun was the son of Zhao Xin Ci but he knew that Wang Zheng was the last person who would decry Kunlun for having Southern Haixingren blood.

She blanched when he told her about meeting with Zhao Xin Ci and Zhang Shi, the sleep curse and the Gates.

"He's sharing his body with an ancient man?" She asked, blinking rapidly. "A Dixingian? When he hates us so much?"

"He blames us for the loss of his son." Shen Wei said darkly.

"The only one to blame for that is himself." Wang Zheng said firmly. "Lord Ma Gui must be struggling."

He reached the part where they arrived at the array markings in the valley, watching her face carefully."Did you ever see them?" He asked neutrally.

Wang Zheng nodded, "No one ever spoke of them. There was power there."

"Sometimes you could find bones in the dirt. Beads and pieces of weapons. Father once said that they were old, older than the Hanga. I don't know if that was true."

"Weapons?"

"Mn." Wang Zheng said. "Lord Kunlun asked about them Asked where they were like he knew that they existed. No one spoke of them. It was law of the tribe. Father said that meddling with such things would be the ruin of us all, but I know that prisoners, thieves and...anyone Father wanted to get rid of was taken there to be killed."

He was going to take Sang Zan there and..."

"Kunlun asked about them? Why didn't you tell this?" Shen Wei asked sharply and Wang Zheng flinched.

"I did! I warned you about them. I told you not to interfere with the sigils! When you first went there to find Kunlun!"

She had told him that it was old boundary magic and begged him not to interfere with it. It was designed against dark energy, she said. Not once did he ever find those markings. The symbols on the walls had all seemed to be ancient tribal drawings or protection sigils so old they no longer contained any power.   "When did he ask you?"

"It was when you were unconscious. I was sitting there and he was asking about us...about my father and the bodies..." Wang Zheng said in a rush. "I told him many things I shouldn't have! Told him things Sang Zan didn't know. Things I wasn't supposed to know."

She gripped his hand tightly. "The hills have a way of making you forget. If you get lost out there you'll never find your back."

Shen Wei suppressed his instinctive reaction and turned to her more fully. "Wang Zheng... A-mei...did anyone in the tribe ever suffer a sleep curse? Strange things happening to them?"

She nodded. "Not a curse...not like what you said Guo Changcheng is..." 

"What?" He asked quickly seeing her face. "What is it?"

"Sometimes...perhaps twice a year someone would come before father and...they were often injured..."

Exactly like Kunlun, "...And?"

"Sometimes they were merchants and other times it was one of the slaves...villagers." She corrected wincing at the term that had defined Sang Zan for most of his life, "They could come before father, as if drunk or possessed. Father was hailed as the king because he could undo what it was. What had hurt them."

If these people had come across the original Immortal array and suffered for it...like a malignant force waiting for prey...then it might mean Kunlun could be set free. "What happened to them A-mei? Could he save them?" He asked urgently.

"Yes. Father saved them...later another...villager claimed that Father had deliberately lured them to the array so he could 'cure' them. That Father had been taught by his father the same wicked trick." Tears pooled in her eyes. "I didn't know if it was true. I didn't want it to be true."

But there was so much of her family she didn't know, kept away from the violence, kept innocent. "Did you see how he did this?"

She Wei prayed she had and of there had been some kind of amulet or spell, it was something he could find. "Wang Zheng?"

Wang Zheng cupped their joined hands with her other one and smiled gently. "I wasn't supposed to know. I was curious so I watched. I watched and listened every time. One time my father instructed my brother how to do it."

Relief caught his throat and for moment Shen Wei leaned forward and imply breathed. "You can save them. You can save Kunlun."

Wang Zheng smiled with watery eyes and nodded.  "I'll do everything to try."

"What do you need?"

"Father used an array that allowed him to enter the dreams. He said that was what they were. It was a spell that held you in, trapping you. He said others could manipulate the array, make it show you nightmares, a way to drive someone mad."

Fear gripped Shen Wei once more. "Nightmares?"

"He was talking my brother through the process. He said if my brother didn't draw the spell correctly, he would bring harm. It is has to be someone of Hanga blood."

"Why Hanga?" Shen Wei asked, knowing what he was asking her risk by doing this.

"When my brother and I were born, we were taken to that array and blessed with fire and water. We were given...no blessed by the hills in return. You know I can create...light in hands? Everyone thinks that it's my gift?"

"Is it a being?" Shen Wei asked. "Did a being grant you that gift?"

Wang Zheng thought about for a moment, time and distance allowing her to consider things differently to how Ge Lan would have perceived them. "From what you have told me...I think that the Guardians of the Gates gave the Hanga blessing to live there. I think this array Lin Jing is talking about, the one that Father could cure...was a Seal. I think Father could sever the connection with the Seal, freeing the person."

"So this Seal is...feeding off of Kunlun?" Shen Wei said with a terrible coldness.

"If the Seal is now...tainted? Dark? I don't know...but if it is...bad somehow, it has a connection to the Gate. You said that Lord Kunlun was trying to stop Haixing's plan to annihilate us all, that Kunlun was supposed to detonate the array to destroy the Gate?"

"Yes? He didn't have chance to..."

"What id the Seal was what stopped him? The Gate claimed them because that was what the Seal wanted...What if someone else is controlling the Seal? Or if the Disembodied did something to Seal trying to break into the Gate?"

"It is strange that she managed to do that, with Kunlun right there." Shen Wei mused. "You think Yan, the Disembodied used the Seal to control the Gate?"

"It makes sense." Wang Zheng said slowly. "No one was ever fully asleep and never suffered for longer than it took to get to Father."

"If she damaged the Seal or commanded it to hurt Kunlun..."

"The Seal never killed anyone. Father always healed them but I don't think Father would have risked us, when he took us there unless he knew it was safe."

Shen Wei considered it. "Was it against the law for his slaves to go there?"

Wang Zheng winced again but nodded. "They were never allowed close to it. Everyone knew it was bad unless Father was near."

"Do you think you can break the Seal or its connection to Kunlun?"

"I will try everything to help him." She vowed. "Tell me what happened please."

So he told her the rest and she nodded as she listened to Lin Jing's explanation. Then frowned listening to his words. "Why was Lin Jing so angry? I didn't know he had such a problem with Ma Gui."

"He believed that Ma Gui chose ambition over his shidi, by becoming the Lord Guardian so soon after his brother's disappearance, and I suspect that Lin Jing thought, that he might have had a hand in keeping it quiet. Lin Jing has had few he could confide in and Kunlun often said that he could be paranoid."

"Poor Lin Jing. Why didn't he tell us?" Wang Zheng said sadly. "I thought he knew I was his friend and he must have known you would always listen, if it was about Lord Kunlun. No matter what was happening. You might be the Emperor of Dixing but you would listen."

"The Elders were keeping him locked in and Zhu Hong...I think their friendship soured a little."

"Does she know?" Wang Zheng asked, her tone soft.

"No. With all the Da Huang Tribe have done, I don't trust them yet." Shen Wei said looking at her sleeves, as the wind caught the ends of the fabric. "I don't want them here."

"Lord Kunlun is the king of the Upper North." Wang Zheng said wonderingly. "There will be many who would not want him to take back that title. The East on our border owe him a great deal. He might not be the Chieftain of the Da Huang or the Lord Guardian any more, but he is the only one the Upper North will concede to."

"The Upper North is no longer one territory." Shen Wei said sadly. "Some of them became Dixingian. Others are now independent, fighting with the other Northern Clans."

"They would expect him to come back to them." Wang Zheng said thoughtfully. "The Shang'Guan Clan in particular is now a powerful force. Their leader is loyal to Kunlun still."

She looked at him and patted his hand. "He achieved so much when he was still little more than a youth. Whatever he decides, he will forge a new path."

If he was king of the Upper North there was no possibility that he would stay with Shen Wei and there was enough selfishness in his heart to want that to fail. On the other hand the threat of him taking back the North was enough to give many pause. Wang Zheng was right. There was nothing beyond Zhao Yunlan when he wanted something.

"What happened Xiang Gong? If he is not walking around, something must have happened." She asked anxiously. "Did...did you see anyone else?"

Looking at the mountains, Shen Wei began the next part of his story, telling her of the Fifth Gate. How he had stepped into it. How Kunlun was trapped.

"You went inside the Fifth Gate?" She repeated aghast. "The Seal must have been a way for them to open it or control it."

He described the Gates and the vision he experienced, finding Kunlun and their escape to the Meng stronghold. Watching her face, he saw her wonder mingle with horror. When he finished, he held her hand quietly. He had expected her to launch to her feet, expected joy or perhaps tears, not this shocked silence. 

"Sang Zan is alive A-mei. I brought him back to you." He whispered. 

"Sang Zan." She murmured the name, like a prayer. "For so long...I nearly can't believe it to be true...he's really there?" She turned tortured eyes to be his and Shen Wei blinked way his own tears. 

"He's there." He said softly. "Sang Zan is alive but he's trapped exactly like Kunlun.  You can save him."

Wang Zheng nodded and her face lit up. "He's alive."

"He's alive." Shen Wei echoed and patted her hand. Frowning when her face fell. "What is it?"

"He will hate me." She whispered.

"I'll find a position for him. He'll be welcome in Dixing." Shen Wei said quickly. "But...Anujin is still my daughter. "

Wang Zheng shook her head. "She's your daughter." She agreed. "But...could he meet her?"

"She cannot know." Shen Wei said firmly. "She is the heir to the throne. One day she will be Empress of this land. No one can question her heritage, least of all herself."

They had discussed this when Anujin was born and Wang Zheng agreed. Without Shen Wei her child would have nothing, with her silence her daughter had a future few children could imagine. Shen Wei loved their daughter more than life.  She worshiped the ground her father walked on...to learn that she wasn't his...it would destroy her.

"If I am there, he can meet her." Shen Wei offered, doubting that such a man would want to meet the child of his soulmate, a child that was not and never could be officially his. "He can know the truth...you are free to love him Wang Zheng. To share your life with him. It will never be public...but if he is willing he can be with you. I'll make sure it happens, that you are safe."

"I vow the same with Lord Kunlun." Wang Zheng said firmly.

For a little while they were silent, holding on to this tenuous brilliant future.

"Can we trust Ma Gui? He's Lord Kunlun's brother?" Wng Zheng asked suddenly, leaning her head on Shen Wei's shoulder. "Can he know that I am Hanga?"

"No. I don't trust him with this." Shen Wei repiled immediately. "The more people who share a secret A-mei, the less likely that secret will be kept." 

Wang Zheng's mouth firmed and she gripped his hand tightly. "They know that I will come to you, but they have no right to ask when." 

Shen Wei had to admit that was true but saw little benefit to lying. He was about to point that out when Wang Zheng continued. "If I come to...to...the Meng city as a...guest, with my face concealed...you would have your Hanga survivor and I would freely be able to help." 

"If...when...I could see Sang Zan without bringing shame to your name." She added, her eyes filled with hope that he would allow her this. 

As if he would deny it. He wanted her happiness, knowing her broken heart as he knew his own. "That would work A-mei. Soon they will be free." 

Chapter Text

High above ancient roads, deep within the soaring mountains, a gateway opened, black tendrils of power reaching into the air. The boundary wards rippled in warning and word carried as two black cloaked figures walked along the frozen path to the deep red gates of the Upper Shangbei.

Hidden guards most living and created watched as they came closer to the eastern gates, shielding the legendary city of Qiyi, with its official Palace built into the mountain rock, once owned by an Immortal and the vast lands beyond of unnatural beauty. 

These gates were rarely used and only ever to receive Dixingian emissaries or the Emperor when he visited in secret. Word was sent, carrying to the center of the Palace, to the desk of the most powerful man in all of Shangbei within the time it took for them to arrive.

They crossed over the ornate bridge, power shimmering in the air as they were allowed to enter. Together, silent and formal, they knelt before the giant stone warriors flanking the massive doors and placed a large chest on the icy ground. They rose as one and bowed to the silent gates, the wind whipping around them as they waited.

At some unseen command, the gates opened and a man tall and resplendent in dark purple robes strode quickly into the crisp mountain air, ignoring all those rushing behind him.

"Your Majesty," They both greeted, bowing once more, "The Emperor of Dixing sends his regards, with wishes for your good health."

"As I send mine." The man replied, "However, His Majesty Emperor Shen is said to be injured. Have you need of us?"

Had peace turned to war finally?

They bowed, their black robes swirling in the cold wind, "His Majesty wishes us to convey a message and bring with us a Imperial Gift."

"Your message then?" The man asked not unkindly, dark eyes sweeping over the familiar features of these two emissaries, then to the chest.

The one on the left bowed and folded his hands, "His Majesty Emperor Shen gives this message, Your Majesty. Our wait has come to an end. "

The man blinked and a sharp inhale could be heard in the icy stillness. He closed his eyes and seemed to hold his breath, a black ring on his hand sparkling suddenly. A smile small but brilliant curved a sculpted mouth and those eyes opened. He watched them in silence for a moment and then said, "Return a message on my behalf."

"We await your words, Your Majesty." They said perfectly in time, so their voices flowed as one.

"Tell Emperor Shen that he will have my sword and my life."

They waited a beat and then bowed, "We shall deliver your message."

When he waved them off, they bowed and turned, retreating back up the mountain path to the portal still glowing on the snow covered platform. The man glanced at the chest, noting it was larger than previous ones and gestured at the disciples behind him to bring it inside.

Deep within their light filled cavernous home, he sat beneath the framed portrait of their beloved Lord Kunlun as they set the chest down, his heart beating fast. Waiting until they had left, he asked for tea and the man in purple gently opened the lid, smiling sadly up at the striking face. He was alone so he said softly, "Are you back? Have you returned to us biǎodì?"

"Let our wait be over." His plea was quiet, then he smiled, "Let's see what your Shen Wei has sent us."

He  had expected the scroll, the Dixingian Imperial Scroll signed with the  Dragon Seal and wrapped in dark blue silk

He had expected the scroll, the Dixingian Imperial Scroll signed with the Dragon Seal and wrapped in dark blue silk. He expected the touch of dark energy, cold and yet so vibrant. He had expected the formal tributes that were custom, Empress Wang Zheng's letter and the addition of the tea Shen Wei had mentioned during the Memory Ceremony.

What he had not expected, was the dark energy that rose from beneath scroll. It pulsed and glowed with white light deep within the black ball as it hovered before him.

Obsidian dark eyes so similar to the ones in the portrait above him watched the ball for a moment, then long fingers opened the scroll, breaking the Seal, a black jade ring glinting in the light.

The message was simple and the calligraphy was beautiful as it flowed across the page. Something, he thought idly that neither he nor Kunlun could ever brag about. Their writing was hardly legible on the best days.

Much has happened. We have found Kunlun. He has returned to us. Come to us in the Hanga Valley, safe with the hospitality of the Meng Clan.

We await you.

For a moment he hardly seemed to breathe, tears filling those eyes, a laugh that was half joy, half disbelief. The weight of grief and the agony of loss, lifted away so suddenly for all it had been yearned for, it left him feeling off-kilter. Like he could fly and as if he moment from the greatest fight of his life. "I knew you not gone. I knew you never leave us willing." As the lone tear trailed down a pale cheek, those eyes focused on his cousin's face.

"I will bring you home." He vowed. "No one shall stop me. "

He looked back at the scroll and frowned, "Meng Clan?" The man whispered surprise flashing across his handsome face. Confused he stared at the words then back at the ball. There was only one way to know, he thought. Taking a breath, reaching for the ball, knowing that the Emperor of Dixing would not waste time with a letter, when he could share what he wished for you to know...using less orthodox means. "He must have discovered something about Cong Bo."

The only sound in the ancestral hall was a quiet gasp, as the man fell to the woven carpet. The servant carrying the tea tray rushed to his side, and one of his disciples shouted for a healer, another for the Gate Keeper.

Staring up at the face of Kunlun, the man in purple smiled, through his tears. "Oh biǎodì..."

He needed a map and the exact location of this Meng Clan.

He needed a map and the exact location of this Meng Clan

----

The night air was fragrant with midnight flowers and tense with anticipation.

Shen Wei stood at the top of the steps flanked by the Meng Clan and his personal Royal Guard, allowing him to see the wide circular courtyard below and the sweeping mountains, that were a wash of dark ink in the night sky. The dark energy lamps had been lit, lining the halls and gardens, attracting the nectar moths to flutter around the steps, their pretty green wings bathed in warm light.

This was nothing like the lands the Hanga used to know, he thought. In so few years, the Meng Clan had made this their home and everything from the architecture to the gardens were sign of new life, without he thought any echoes to the past. It appeared as though this vast stronghold had been here for centuries not a handful of years.

Everyone had been instructed, orders obeyed and every preparation imaginable had been seen to by diligent careful hands. Not since the early days of his first battles had Shen Wei felt this nervous, the wait unbearable. But better, he thought, to ignore the churning of his stomach and the ache in his shoulders outside in the cool air, than be forced to hold an impromptu court in the overly warm rooms beyond the doors behind him.

Neither the Lord Guardian nor Zhao Xin Ci could speak with him here, in the rigid Imperial formalities that held a tight grip on the hushed silence. Speaking was beyond him, nerves and hope like twin vines winding ever tighter around his heart.

The incense sticks in the large decorative vases on either side of the dais had burned the length of a finger when orange light appeared in the center of the courtyard, steps away from where Clan Leader Meng Changying stood ready.

She quickly raised a hand, her orange sleeve rippling and all of those gathered tensed. The guards had their hands on their weapons, Zhao Xin Ci took an unnecessary step forward and the concealed archers aimed carefully. The Emperor of Dixing nodded with satisfaction.

Two guards dressed simple black robes stepped from the circle of  the portal and took an unprecedented five steps forward before bowing

Two guards dressed simple black robes stepped from the circle of the portal and took an unprecedented five steps forward before bowing. Both of them were Empress Wang Zheng's most trusted guards, pretending to be simple escorts for the eyes of the North and South of Haixing. Their faces were covered by black half-masks and their weapons were concealed within heavy cloaks.

Shen Wei had always favored protection that was deceptive. If one was not looking for a guard, one did not expect their demise and these were masters of illusion, carefully chosen for their unwavering loyalty.

From the portal came a petite figure wearing pale blue robes, her face hidden by the hood of her long cloak and a mask that was a far cry from the elaborate white half-mask of the Empress embellished with gold and pearls. The Empress never wore pale blue either and he wondered where she had found them. Shen Wei's chest tightened with emotion he could not allow himself to feel, as he watched her fall to her knees gracefully.

Others would think this was an act of fear or humility before the Emperor of Dixing, but Shen Wei knew that it was a prayer for the family she had lost. She was asking for forgiveness for returning and permission from Shen Wei to enter.

He understood, as one who once walked into a ruined Palace wondering if there was anything left of his mother to bury, everything distant and hollow. Even now he refused to go back, as the Fifth Gate had already proven. How hard for her was it? To come here to this sweeping valley where her family had been murdered, where her tribe turned against her? Where she had found and lost the love of her life. The place where her people had been damned and her along with them.

This was the very bravery Kunlun had admired.

Shen Wei wished he could step down there and stand by her side. In any other moment he would have. Taking advantage of royal conduct and protocol to offer her comfort and reassurance...to remind himself he had one ally in this life. For as long as they known one another, they had always tried to support in each in their pain. It was expected of him to take her hand. Encouraged. But here, he couldn't. Here, she was not the Empress but a Hanga woman saved from the cruel fate of murder.

Three more guards stepped from the portal to stand behind her, all of them women except for the man just behind Wang Zheng. As the Head of the Empress's security, Yi Chen traveled wherever Wang Zheng went, moving now to protect her back as she knelt.

Shen Wei moved down the steps decisively, breaking the rigid line of formality. Suppressing a smile as the guards and assembled attendants startled. Pausing only as he reached Meng Changying, who immediately bowed, her orange robes rustling with the jingle of her many bangles.

"Rise." He commanded, disliking seeing his sister so despondent.

At once all of the guards and Wang Zheng herself rose to their feet, though the guards still bowed their heads. "Clan Leader Meng, Lady Li Shuchun."

She stepped forward immediately and his Imperial Secretary defied her age and materialized at his left elbow, with the slightest gust of wind. "Please escort Our guest to Our Receiving Room. Make sure she is comfortable and keep her company until We arrive. This mission is of the highest importance to Our success here tonight."

Both of them bowed and Meng Changying reached out her hands to Wang Zheng with effortless grace. To her mind, if the Emperor believed this woman to be important, she would use all of her Clan to protect her and that was exactly what Shen Wei was counting on. Meng Changying would refuse all entry to those chambers and Lady Li Shuchun desperate to help revive Kunlun for him, would see that Wang Zheng was well. Yi Chen stepped forward gesturing to two of the guards to follow.

They waited as Shen Wei turned moving to stand in the main part of the ornate gardens, confusing his onlookers. Although not really appropriate, Meng Changying was forced to move pass the Emperor with her head bowed as she led the procession up the steps and inside. Yi Chen made sure that the two guards flanked Wang Zheng, protecting her from the probing gaze of the Lord Guardian and anything Zhao Xin Ci might do. Tu Qiuyue painfully aware that this was the Empress, stepped aside, quickly motioning Mo Bingqing and Flame to follow.

Nothing, she thought could be allowed to go wrong.

Shen Wei stood among the fragrant flowers and waited

Shen Wei stood among the fragrant flowers and waited. As it turned out he didn't have long to wait.

A portal not of his making, ripped open a channel in the fabric of the world and nine cultivators wearing dark green robes stepped into the courtyard. The guards had been informed that there would be two portals, so they tensed but didn't react violently, content to wait. Battle Commander Tu Qiuyue had silently followed behind her king and stood with a hand on her sword as the cultivators appeared.

One flick of her hand and the archers would fire while Meng Chen would use his gift to create a barrier before the Emperor. It gave her some comfort considering how boldly Shen Wei was standing on his own.

Ma Gui frowned and leaned forward not sure if he should be defending the Emperor or remain on the sidelines while the others waited for Shen Wei's reaction.Beside him Zhao Xin Ci watched with a guarded expression, his own guards flanking him.

As one the cultivators knelt in greeting, their hands held open before them in the Northern gesture of respect, then folded with same grace to rest one hand on top of the other. Shen Wei huffed a sigh and waved one hand, prompting the guards to relax.

Ma Gui gasped and Zhao Xin Ci's brows rose in surprise. The Emperor of Shangbei was rarely seen, but there were always whispers of his great deeds. Clever and reclusive he was said to have stepped into Lord Kunlun's former role as the Gate Master, wielding that power deftly. He seemed to be reluctant for peace, sending emissaries only when Shangbei had to be present. He refused contact with the Middle States and traded almost exclusively with Dixing, building a prosperous nation exactly as Kunlun had always hoped.

"You are late." Shen Wei said tartly. "Is Our summoning of least importance?"

A man's voice resonated across the gardens, carrying easily to the dais. "Your Majesty, Supreme Emperor of Dixing, forgive this one for his disrespect. The Gates have seethed with energy and the Realms have shuddered."

Everyone paused at this, fear and uncertainty rising along with the undeniable fact that the Guardian Gate Order was in the courtyard. Perhaps destroying the Gate without warning, wasn't the best idea. Ma Gui thought. But why have they come? An audience was nearly impossible to have granted...

"I could not leave Your Majesty, without ensuring all within the Realms were safe." The man said in the same serene tone.

"Then rise, Your Majesty, Emperor of Shangbei, Standing Lord of the Gates." Shen Wei declared, his eyes glittering in the light.  It was good to see his friend. "You are always welcome in Our lands."

Standing Lord. The title was one given to Kunlun when he unified the Shangbei clans into a cohesive whole once more. A nation that could stand up to the Middle States who had always held more wealth and power and to Southern Haixing, when invasion came. Powerful enough that the Alliance had asked him for his help and recognized - as Kunlun never had - the title for what it was worth.

Even Ye Zun had recognized him as an Emperor in his own right, no matter how outraged Mother had been, calling Zhao Yunlan an audacious, shameless nobody. He was audacious and often shameless, but he was Kunlun. He had never needed to be anything else.

Ironically as well he had the prized blood of the Nine Clans and the royal blood of Southern Haixing in his veins.

A leader of a nation is a king, in their world. Kunlun thought it was an imposition and never called himself a king. He was the Lord Guardian of the North and this was what he was the most proud of. That was the position he valued.

When he went missing Jie Ming had reluctantly taken over as his heir, but forced everyone to accept that he was only the king for as long as they needed to wait for Kunlun's return. No matter what else could be said, Jie Ming was loyal. Devoted to Kunlun as his second, his cousin and shield brother.

As far as he was concerned, only Kunlun was rightfully  king of the Shangbei and the true Lord of the Gate Masters, Keeper of the Realms.

Kunlun would have said that Jie Ming, his beloved cousin was far more suited to it than he.

As one they rose and the parties that stood with both Zhao Xin Ci and the Lord Guardian were shifting with either unease or anger. "Gate Master?" Ma Gui whispered. "Why have they come?"

The man in front swept off his wide hood and bowed once more to Shen Wei. His hair was braided with white jade tokens and the beads of the North. His robes were the darkest shade of purple, the design near identical to the ones Kunlun had worn and his sword, Shuanghua was almost as famous as Kunlun's, shimmered in the light of the stars.

"Our deepest thanks for your kindness and for your forgiveness Your Majesty."

"The Emperor of Shangbei?" asked Zhao Xin Ci glancing at Ma Gui. "Surely he has not come himself."

"No." Lin Jing replied, his expression full of awe. "He has. Chief meant everything to him...I just didn't think he'd come here."

"You did blow up the Fifth Gate." Zhao Xin Ci noted drily, "Perhaps that is part of the reason."

Shen Wei smiled hearing both the conversation at the edge of the gathering in the quiet of the night and saw the undisguised hope and excitement in Jie Ming's dark eyes.

"I trust your injuries have healed, since the attack on Dixing?" Jie Ming asked, just to make sure. "I sent as many healers as I could when word reached us. To think Cong Bo could have such a thing..."

She Wei nodded grimly, "He had help." A meaningful glance to the side ahd the light in Jie Ming's eyes shifting to calculating expression Shen Wei had seen often during the war. "All healed, but I left them thinking I was wounded and bed-bound."

"Good. You had me worried. Xiao Lun would have been furious." A smile of his own quirked his lips at Shen Wei's suddenly chastised expression, fleeting but proof of how much this man still loved his cousin. Then he sobered, "How is he?"

There was hope in those eyes and in every line of Shen Wei's body. "He is inside. His condition is the same. He does not wake nor respond to any attempts to reach him. He needs you Jie Ming."

He looked overwhelmed for a moment and then Jie Ming smiled fully, a rare sight that would have made Kunlun happy. "He already has me at his side. Lockstep." He whispered, "It fills my heart with more joy than I can express, to hear that he is with us again."

"I as well." Shen Wei said softly.

Jie Ming looked at him squarely and bowed, "I have had the great honor of fighting along side the Supreme Emperor as we fought for the future." Raising his sheathed sword, he knelt with it displayed in his hands, "However I may serve, I shall with all of Shangbei behind me. In the name of our ancestors. In the name of Kunlun."

"We bid you welcome Lord Jie Ming."

If Da Qing had been  Kunlun's right hand man, Jie Ming was his left

If Da Qing had been Kunlun's right hand man, Jie Ming was his left. Jie Ming had been a good friend to Shen Wei for many years now and had always supported his relationship with Zhao Yunlan. Saying famously that it was the best idea Kunlun had ever had.

Everyone knew that Kunlun was the Chieftain of the Da Huang, an honor that had now fallen to Zhu Hong, but few knew that he was also revered by the Xunxi, who all but worshiped the Gates of old. Kunlun's mother Shen Xi had been a mystery to Shen Wei, a painful subject he never broached with his love. After losing Kunlun though, he had learned of some things and other truths had been given to him in confidence by the very man who now stood before him.

Shen Xi had been the younger sister of the childless Da Huang tribal leader, but her older sister was married into the Xunxi. In fact, Kunlun's maternal grandmother was Xunxi, from a family of cultivators that were prominent in their Clan. It explained Kunlun's abilities and his features. The Xunxi were always praised for their beauty.

The Xunxi were one of the Nine Tribes of legend and certainly the largest of all the tribes, able to wield the elements and the portal gates with deft hands. The great rivals of the Da Huang. Their cultivation, training and beliefs were closely guarded secrets, but what everyone did know about the enigmatic tribe was that they guarded the Yashou Realm. They had survived years of war and now owned the mountains in the middle of Shangbei, down to the Henglong river, that bordered Dixing.

When the Chieftain of the Xunxi, a revered position almost like that of a king to them, had died it left a difficult power vacuum. He had been too young to marry apparently and there were no direct heirs. So it fell to the line of the Chieftain's first cousin. Jie Ming, the only surviving child of Shen Xi's sister was a potential but so too was Zhao Yunlan.

After the war, when peace finally came, there were many scholars especially in Dixing at Shen Wei's command, who wrote a new history on Shangbei. When Zhao Yunlan acted to consolidate the North into one nation, he did so in three deft steps that no other military commander could have emulated.

His three acts were legends of their own, defining events that were forever tied to his legacy.

He defeated the Demons of Qiyi, freeing the enigmatic city in the heart of Shangbei and the home of the Clouds Immortal. This was where the power of the Gates had been devised, always considered the capital of the land until the great fracture, when Southern Haixing separated from the north. Then it fell to darkness and evil slipped through the door.

This victory, his charisma and clever mind allowed him to unify four of the Nine Tribes under his command within weeks. His cousin Jie Ming was made Chieftain of the Xunxi partly as his birthright but also for his position as  Gate Order Master, Kunlun's direct subordinate.

He quickly announced his intent to serve as his second and placed the Xunxi as Kunlun's primary supporters. A tenuous position considering the ages old feud they had with the Da Huang, but as Jie Ming pointed out, without Kunlun, the Xunxi would have been forced to defend the Gates from Southern Haixing alone.

A very real fear after Southern Haixing took control of the Eastern Gate, eradicating the Acheng tribe, once one of the most powerful Middle State Clans and murdered the Elders of the Guardian Gates Order.

His third act was to step into this final role, carving a place for himself as Guardian Gate Master, Lord of the Gateways. Not simply a title either. The power the Immortals forged is the Nexus, which chooses the Gate Master. A complex ancient source that fueled all of the Gates, maintaining the portal lines.

Kunlun was a brother to Jie Ming and if the man had not been fighting in the West on Kunlun's orders...he would have followed Zhao Yunlan into the Fifth Gate. He was more than loyal. He was a disciple, Kunlun was the only thing left he had to believe in.

Shen Wei knew that he needed that loyalty and the remarkable skills of the Xunxi if they were to free Kunlun.

"He's waiting for you." He said gently and watched Jie Ming grip his sword.

"I will follow wherever you lead Your Majesty." He said with a bow.

Shen Wei turned abruptly, his cream robes decorated with silver dancing as he strode back to the steps, nerves now giving way to determination and hope.

When Jie Ming passed Ma Gui though a conflict erupted. Shen Wei turned and the guards moved in to intercept what could become a spectacular fight between two powerhouses.

He advanced forward but Ma Gui stepped into his path, blocking his way. Shen Wei sighed and the guards hesitated . Unperturbed, Jie Ming stared him down. "We are welcomed by the Emperor of Dixing. This is not your land."

When he stepped into the light, his features were unmistakable and shared with Kunlun himself, until they looked more like brothers than the cousins they were. Dark eyes stared at Ma Gui with a cold expression and the Xunxi behind him had a hand on their swords.

Bloodshed was likely, for Jie Ming much like Zhao Yunlan, never backed down from a fight. 

 

 

 

"Why would you come here?" Ma Gui asked.

"I might ask the same of you." Jie Ming replied coldly, anger simmering in his tone.

"I am here for Kunlun, for my shidi." Ma Gui answered, his tone rigid.

Jie Ming's expression if possible grew only colder. He stepped closer as bold as Zhao Yunlan and just as fearless. "The Chongsheng abandoned Kunlun. You didn't stand with him, not as a General and not as his family. You are not his family. How dare you look me in the eye and say you are here for Kunlun."

Then his eyes slid to Zhao Xin Ci, "And you now stand with him."

"Why would the Xunxi Tribe of legend wish to be here?' Zhao Xin Ci asked in a studied neutral tone. "And who Emperor of Shangbei, are you to Kunlun?"

"Kunlun is our rightful king." Jie Ming hissed in reply. "That you Haixing dog do not know this, is no surprise. Make any move and I shall remove your head and your son shall thank me for it."

Then unexpectedly, Jie Ming bowed shallow and a mockery of respect. "As to who I am, there are many answers to this."

Staring beyond Ma Gui's shoulder to look directly into Zhao Xin Ci's eyes, Jie Ming smiled coldly. "I was named as Lord Kunlun's heir and I stood as Lord Kunlun's second-in-command. I am also the one who killed your half-brother Zhao Guangyi on the Western border."

Anger lit Zhao Xin Ci's eyes and Shen Wei waited, dark energy curling around his hands.

Jie Ming continued, his eyes dark and for a moment he looked so much like Kunlun, it stole the breath from his lungs. "But, perhaps worst of all, I am your nephew. Son of Shen Miaorong, sister of Shen Xi. Older cousin of Kunlun, family of Da Qing."

Ma Gui sighed, "All I want Jie Ming, is to free my shidi. He is my family, just as he is yours. I want him to be safe and healthy."

Zhao Xin Ci blinked rapidly, his face blank with shock, much to Shen Wei's interest. Family lines in Dixing were openly talked about, the importance of family paramount in their society. Remarkably in the North, it was possible to have five generations fighting together, with no idea they were related.

Dark eyes slid back to meet Ma Gui's gaze. "Strange how that hasn't mattered for a long time." Jie Ming snaps, "Kunlun has not mattered to you, but he does to me. I fought armies for him, in his name. I fought the Demons of Qiyi at his side. Remember that. Stop me again and you will breathe your last."

"Reunions can be passionate." Shen Wei said in a crisp tone and heard Kunlun laugh in his memory. "But perhaps you can... reunite at a later time?"

Ma Gui stepped back and bowed formally to Shen Wei in apology. Zhao Xin Ci stared after Jie Ming as he ascended the steps to stand a respectable distance from the Emperor.

-----

One hour later Jie Ming finally broke his concentration, golden light slowly fading from Kunlun's body. He had been kneeling beside him, his head bent as he examined the array safely, golden lines forming a spiderweb pattern that hovered just above the floor.

Despite his position as King of Shangbei, Jie Ming had no interest in power games or court etiquette. Shen Wei had made it clear that he didn't either, his focus was on Kunlun, not court protocol or cross-nation politics.

He had already declared years before that Jie Ming had no need to bow to him, declared him exempt from such things. To bow once to Shen Wei was a show of respect, for Jie Ming to continue doing it was an insult. And Jie Ming was always respectful.

Their friendship over the this last decade had been a lifeline to them both. Jie Ming was one of the few who knew the truth about Wang Zheng and Shen Anujin. Neither of them had ceased searching and both had some patience in waiting, ever hopeful and yearning. One for a brother and the other for the love of his life.

He watched Jie Ming carefully, reverently touch Kunlun, his eyes overly bright as his hands trembled.

It was easy to see here in this hopeful quiet, how alike the two men were. The same slightly wavy hair and similar black jade eyes... although, Shen Wei thought to himself, Zhao Yunlan's eyes were true foxfire. There was the love of a sibling in the way Jie Ming held his hand and in the way when he had first entered the room, he had bent down to kiss Kunlun's forehead, whispering to him. "Oh biǎodì, what have you done?"

Lin Jing stood by nervously, the room quiet with only Tu Quiyue and the Emperor accompanying Jie Ming.

Shen Wei had forced himself to sit on his throne, his eyes fixed on Zhao Yunlan's prone form, once more lying on the daybed. Beside him was Wang Zheng, twisting the white fan in her hands as she looked at Sang Zan, tears trailing down her cheeks. The wait was becoming unbearable.

"This will not be quick." He said finally replacing Kunlun's hand carefully by his side, with one last clasp. He then rose and knelt at the table facing Shen Wei and Wang Zheng, with Lin Jing beside him.

Wang Zheng looked up immediately, "What do you mean?"

"Lin Jing's...attempt although dangerous," Jie Ming began glancing at the suitably embarrassed Lin Jing, "Was very enlightening."

"Explain?" Shen Wei asked, keeping the bite of impatience and fear from his tone. "There is no need for courtesy here. You carried me across a field once and I helped smuggle you across the border. We have seen the best and the worst of each other."

Jie Ming inclined his head and raised his hands towards Shen Wei in a silent gesture of respect. He then took a tentative sip of his tea, left to cool in a pale green cup, a hand still on Kunlun's arm as if he couldn't really bring himself to part from his cousin.

Shen Wei understood the feeling all too well. Separated from the daybed where he lay, it felt as though any moment Kunlun could vanish from his sight. Jie Ming too had been Zhao Yunlan's healer, his confidante and untiring support. All that trust and devotion meant that without Kunlun, without the center of his world, Jie Ming for all his skills, his cleverness and responsibilities, had been cut adrift.

It had taken so many arguments and the promise of Zhao Yunlan's return, to help Jie Ming find his feet when Kunlun went missing. So much had happened so quickly and his friend for all his strength had fallen into depression, guilt and a stilted  half-suppressed mourning. Shen Wei had not been at his best either, his heart torn to shreds, his family decimated...his own pain and guilt threatened to burn him to ashes....

...but Kunlun would never forgive losing Jie Ming to his demons. If Kunlun came back and found Jie Ming like this or dead through grief-fueled stupidity, he would never forgive himself. That and Shen Wei couldn't stand the thought of losing Jie Ming either. He was a good man and a good friend all through the war. He had saved Shen Wei's life and guarded Kunlun.

"We do not see eye to eye over a great many things, mostly over Kunlun...but I do respect Ma Gui. As a General who led us to victory, as a cultivator and as a person. Ma Gui doesn't understand this type of cultivation. There is a burden to bear when you do. A responsibility."

"My biǎodì always understood this. "

"I believe that Her Majesty Empress Wang Zheng is entirely correct about the Hanga array, and I have no doubt that the former Hanga Chieftain used it to his advantage." Jie Ming replied, ever the scholar. "However, this is both familiar and strange to me. This array is far older than the Hanga. I believe my biǎodì thought that it truly was old boundary magic, similar to many arrays of its kind in the North, but not the same type you are familiar with."

Jie Ming took another longer sip and set the cup down. "Hundreds of years ago, the land now known as Dixing experienced terrible earthquakes and even today, liquid fire runs in the black earth of your eastern provinces. Because of this, much of your land is devoid of the same scars you can see in the North. These scars are remnants of the Immortal War. "

"Kunlun spoke of this once." Shen Wei said leaning back in his seat.

"The Chongsheng Clan are a righteous people. Ma Gui himself is a talented cultivator, healer and inventor." Jie Ming said carefully, "But it is Shangbei that has the most experience with the Immortals. The Chongsheng Clan are closer to Dixing and have lost much of that knowledge when their ancestors were robbed of their homes after the flooding and fled to new lands."

"This array was created not as a protective boundary ward but as a suppressing array, hiding the Gateway from any interest."

"How would that work?" Shen Wei asked.

"Her Majesty Empress Wang Zheng, is perfectly correct. It is a Seal, but the array hiding the Gateway is the...outer layer like a cloak that lies on top of the Seal."

"And the Seal is what controlled the Gateway?" Wang Zheng asked her eyes wide.

"The Seal was created to hide the Gate and in this it is familiar. All Gates built by the early Immortals are guarded by an outer Seal."

"But its not a Seal built by the early Immortals." Lin Jing theorized, his hands excitedly moving as he considered this.

"No." Jie Ming replied. "It is a Seal built to ensure that certain people, enemies if you like could not find the Gate. This was what affected the people visiting the Hanga."

"How could my father help them then?" Wang Zheng asked quickly.

"Because he could end the effect on the person. All of these visitors were non-cultivators?" Jie Ming asked.

"Yes, all of them were non-cultivators that were affected." Wang Zheng confirmed with a nod of her head.

"Did any cultivators fall afoul of the trap or did they die?"

Wang Zheng thought about. "Not that I saw. If anyone died, I never knew."

"This confirms your theory?" Shen Wei asked.

"Yes, it does." Jie Ming confirmed. "My biǎodì would have thought it a Gate Seal, hidden by an array made to look like boundary magic. When he was asking about the Hanga valley, this is what he would have been searching for. A Gate reputed to be in this area, a place that was of suspiciously strong interest to the Crown Prince."

"Did he ever mention he was looking for it?" Shen Wei wanted to know.

Jie Ming frowned and glance down at his cousin, "No. I knew that he was stretching his hands in all directions...I knew that he was focused on the Crown Prince as we all were...but he never mentioned that he thought an answer might be found in the Hanga valley." He looked at Wang Zheng and added, "My  biǎodì has always been a little secretive. He claims never to be a scholar, but he hoards knowledge and only admits to it when he needs to. This is his way."

"But it was not just a Seal to hide the Gate?" Wang Zheng asked confused.

"No. This Seal reacted to the fact that Kunlun is a descendant of the Immortal Méh-è like myself. Rather than harm him, it claimed him. If he had not been injured and possessed by the Disembodied he likely would have escaped quickly, considered a son of the Righteous Ones the Gate told you about... the early Immortals." Jie Ming added seeing their confusion. "The Disembodied triggered the inner wards, confusing them. The dark energy Immortals, like Meixiu were not enemies back then. The war between the dark energy Immortals and the Righteous Ones's first Immortal descendants came much later."

"So what exactly is holding then now?' Shen Wei asked. "You said it would not be quick."

"No it will not be. I am grateful to the maker of the old array." Jie Ming said surprising all of them "Without it, my biǎodì would be dead. Killed by the Seal."

Shen Wei closed his eyes for a moment and Wang Zheng gasped, her hand covering her mouth. Lin Jing spilled his tea and looked at Jie Ming with horrified eyes.

"It is the Immortal Seal that is trapping him, believing him to still be possessed and it no doubt tried to kill the others too, or they were dying when Kunlun reached for the array. My biǎodì triggered the array, of this I have no doubt. He would have known, even if he realized it nearly too late, that the boundary array would have a stronger effect. By binding himself into that array, he protected the others."

"But why?" Lin Jing asked plaintively. "Chief was the Lord Guardian, the Keeper of the Gates!"

"When the Disembodied possessed him the Seal thought him a corrupted son of the Immortals. An abomination it wants to destroy, but the old array is what is holding Kunlun's life in stasis. The merchants that visited the Hanga only briefly touched the boundary magic. Kunlun is immersed."

"But you can free them?' Wang Zheng asked, alarm in her voice.

"Oh yes. I can free them from the Seal. I will need your help Lin Jing, Your Majesty, to stabilize Kunlun's life-force. This is only possible with both you and the Empress to free Kunlun. Ma Gui and I dare to say it, Zhao Xin Ci if you trust his intentions, can break the Seal." Jie Ming said confidently. "It will take at least three days."

 

 

Chapter Text

The early hours of dawn is a time suspended, still carrying the hush of heavy night. A time when anything seems possible.

The storm has passed the prior day, but the grey of the skies lingered with the autumnal promise of misery. Shen Wei watched the morning light begin its immortal combat with the shadows of the night. The world was quiet, a hush over the compound of the Meng Clan before the activities of the day began in earnest. 

But silence is something difficult to bear, when your heart is troubled. When worry and fear accompany every thought no matter how powerful your hope or faith. 

The unnatural stillness of the room seemed heavy and nothing stirred. In the center of the ornately carved bed Shen Wei lay curled into Zhao Yunlan's side counting his breaths, trying to suppress his own emotions and wandering thoughts. He lay over the covers wearing only his inner robes, his hair cascading along his back in a loose braid, a river of ink black fading into the darkness. 

Sleep had eluded him and he had played his dizi for most of the night, rejoicing when Kunlun's power seemed to awaken, the thrum of energy returning to his skin. His own dark energy continued to swirl around his love, long after the final notes had disappeared from the air. Rest was a hopeless thing though. His dark energy would sustain him for days to come, the odd hours of sleep he had stolen over the last few days, more than enough to empower him.

If he closed his eyes he could so easily imagine that he was ten years in the past, listening to Kunlun's heartbeat as he drifted into dreams. When he closed his eyes he was plagued by the fear that this was all a dream or that his love might breathe his last without watchful eyes. The stress of it kept him on edge, as if ready to draw his sword, his heart only eased by Kunlun's undeniable warmth. 

He stared at the handsome face of his soulmate and worried. Were his dreams pleasant at least? Or were they nightmares with no reprieve? Was he even dreaming?

Rising onto his elbow, Shen Wei leaned over him and kissed the corner of his mouth, long fingers brushing over his beard. Wondering not for the first time, if Kunlun knew he was here, that Shen Wei was fighting for him. Would it lessen his pain if he knew? Shen Wei sighed lightly his fingers returning to Yunlan's chest, gliding across his soft black robes in a pattern only Zhao Yunlan would understand, he thought with a weak smile  

The knock at the door disturbed his quiet study of Kunlun and Shen Wei tilted his head, eyes flicking over to the door. 

"Your Imperial Majesty." Butler Wu's voice was soft and surprisingly gentle. Usually he would never dare to interrupt the Emperor, but it was his duty to officially wake the king in preparation for early morning court. Now and then the king would actually be asleep, but on most occasions, the Head of the Imperial Household would find Shen Wei working, already fully dressed in the first three layers of his court robes. 

Ignoring this interruption for the moment, Shen Wei tipped his head down and kissed Kunlun with all of the love of his black heart, "Soon my love. Soon you will be free." 

Turning over he slid from the bed and walked to the door with his hair almost fully unbound, his white inner robes barely tied. "What is it?" 

To his eternal credit Butler Wu's expression remained perfectly placid as he rose from his immediate bow. "Your Majesty, Chieftain Jie Ming has requested that he be allowed to visit the Hanga Valley to investigate the array with Master Lin Jing." 

If he had asked hours before, Shen Wei would have gladly escorted him there himself, but he saw no reason not to agree. Jie Ming was too experienced and far too cautious to trigger anything dangerous.  "Granted. Inform him that he must take appropriate precautions and several guards. I expect a full report when he returns. Tell him midday." 

That should give him more than enough time to examine the array and the Seal. He looked back at Kunlun, admiring the way the weak sunlight fell across his brow. "Arrange a gathering of our guests in my receiving room at midday. We shall have Our answers then." 

"Your Majesty." Wu Tian'en bowed gracefully his own eyes lifting to the man who ruled the king's heart. Let this be worth it, he thought. 

---------

Midday arrived with painful slowness, the hours dragging like heavy cloth through deep water.

For once, Shen Wei's usually highly focused concentration was wavering. Remaining at his desk constantly where the Imperial missives from Dragon City, continued to grow was impossible, when it was only a short walk to the bedroom where Kunlun lay unresponsive, trapped in dreams. He had confirmed the situation in the same code he and Chu Shuzhi had used in the war and reassured him that Xiao Guo was well if currently unconscious. He had in turn received confirmation that his Xiao Anujin was enjoying her time with Chu Shuzhi, her attention focused on horse riding lessons and the Lord Commander of Dixing,  who was running drills in the courtyard.   Once this was done, very little could hold his attention, his eyes drifting back to the bedroom doorway, where he could just see the end of the bed.

In moments like these, when agitation was all he knew, he wondered how he had survived ten years, when ten minutes away from Kunlun was hard enough.

By the time Tu Quiyue arrived to escort him to the receiving room, Shen Wei had given up any pretense of working and was sitting beside Kunlun, his limp hand clasped in his own, pressed into his chest, his blue sleeves brushing over Kunlun's waist. 

There had been other times when he had suffered impatience and several of them had involved meetings, but this was Kunlun. His life, the lives of the other men with him, Da Qing and Sang Zan...Guo Changcheng... Once they had discussed their plan, he was sure they would begin immediately. Reversing what the array had done to Kunlun was imperative and Shen Wei had no desire to waste time on anything else. Jie Ming certainly wouldn't waste a moment.

Yet, when his Battle Commander arrived, he was reluctant to leave. The fear lingered and he bent forward to kiss Kunlun's brow, tucking his face against Zhao Yunlan's jaw, breathing in the scent of bamboo. "Leaving you has always been difficult," He whispered, "But now it feels as though it is the day of parting once more. Only this time there is no boat. No shore. You left me once. Please don't do so again."   

'Your Majesty." Butler Wu said in the doorway, eyes downcast in respect. 

Shen Wei nodded and after a long moment pressed one last kiss to his captive hand before lifting the bed covers.  He gently tucked his arm beneath the blankets and rose, kissing his hair just before he turned to the doorway, the Emperor of Dixing once more, all traces of the sweet lover vanishing as pale hands rearranged his robes, checking his white jade hairpin was secure. "Remain here. Inform me immediately if there are any changes."

Butler Wu agreed without any hesitation, "Of course Your Majesty."

Tu Quiyue could feel the intensity of the Emperor's presence as they walked to the official receiving room and wondered at its cause. It brought an explained chill to her back and had her hand tightening instinctively on her sword. She for one, never forgot that this was the Ghost General, the famed Black Robed Envoy who marched on Southern Haixing without any hesitation. She had seen how quickly his pudao could appear in his hand, his strike as precise as it was deadly and knew that in combat he would refuse to be shielded.

She would never admit it, but it was a relief in some ways when the doors opened for the Empress, a few moments after they arrived. The king was not seated but instead standing in the middle of the room, between the arranged tables, tension in ever line of his lithe warrior body, however disguised in lavish robes.

It was strange, Tu Quiyue thought to see the Empress of Dixing dressed in blue and stranger still not hear the formal call announcing Her Imperial presence. She had ordered the other guards to wait at the doors and only allowed Flame to guard the Emperor from behind the throne with Li Qian hovering in the shadows. Assured that no one could hear them, Tu Quiyue bowed in respect to the Empress who smiled sweetly from behind her mask, Yi Chen following behind her.

As soon as she entered Shen Wei lifted a hand in silent entreaty. Wang Zheng came to him with grace in her steps and excitement in her heart, drawing back the hood of her cloak, "Your Majesty." She said as she bowed.

"A-mei." He said chidingly. 

She rose from her bow and clasped his hand tightly. He could feel her nerves and her enthusiasm, letting it chase away some of the shadows, the never-ending worry. When she stepped closer, Shen Wei gently lifted off her mask and at once all of the room dropped to one knee in the traditional Dixingian Imperial greeting. "Your Imperial Majesty." They clamored, confused and more than a little shocked. 

"Guard this secret with your lives." Shen Wei warned them. 

Shen Wei took both of her hands in his, nodding towards her formal seat beside his on the dais, the unmistakable position of Empress. It was important to say this, to clear the air. "No matter what happens a-mei, my house is your house." He said softly. "You are Empress of Our lands, nothing can change that."

Wang Zheng smiled, her eyes bright as she tightened her own grip on his fingers. "No matter what happens," She echoed in the same soft tone, "They will be free Xiang Gong. I have faith that all will be well. Hope that there will be no more sadness...but if they leave or stay, forgive us for our choices or condemn us...they are free. They are alive." 

Shen Wei closed his eyes and slowly nodded, a punishing mix of hope and fear swirling in his chest. She was right. They would be free. No matter what Kunlun chose or Sang Zan...no longer would they be trapped, not in the Fifth Gate and not here in life. Neither would they.  All those who loved them were forced to live wishing, dreaming and grieving for all their years to come. Never moving on from the past and never looking forward to the future. That part... that era at least would be over.

"My place in this world," Wang Zheng  continued, a promise in her voice, one he had not asked for, "...Is by your side. The side of my brother, my king and the father of my daughter. Dixing is my home, my people. I am no longer of this place, but of a nation I pledged myself to ten yeas ago. I do not regret this. No matter what happens."

"My sister is wise." Shen Wei said with a quick smile, relief he tried so hard to deny, blooming in his chest. "I would never wish for you to relive your pain Wang Zheng, but I am glad you are here."

"Ten years ago...one year ago, I could not have said this...but so am I." She replied closing her eyes for a moment and Shen Wei sighed, her bravery always humbled him. "The pain is not so great when we have a new future to look forward to."

Shen Wei released one hand and led her over to the table he had prepared. It was the position of honored guest directly below the dais, a white cushion already laid on the floor, embroidered with the small birds, the Meng Clan seemed to favor. "I will not tolerate them if they are rude to you." Shen Wei announced as she put on her mask, his hands lifting to rearrange her hood.

"Jie Ming has always been a good friend to us both Xiang Gong. The Lord Guardian is never rude and the Haixing General is never anything but." Wang Zheng replied with a laugh. "He will loathe me for living when he knows that Lord Kunlun was trapped here."

"He has no right," Shen Wei began in a soft but distinctly angry tone.

"Zhao Xin Ci is a complex man and guilty of many things, but I suspect he genuinely loves his son." Wang Zheng said interrupting him before he could continue. "If half of what he said to you was true Xiang Gong, he had dreamed of finding his son, of returning him to Haixing."

"Haixing would kill him." Shen Wei said flatly, "And Kunlun would never agree. He would likely start another war."

"But the dreams of a parent do not die easily." Wang Zheng said calmly. "He is sharing his body with a Dixingian. A thing no one would believe. How much of his reputation is based on lies, when that is true? His son, the child he does not know,  is his enemy as an adult and yet we are peace now. That does not sit well with him. That and this Zhang Shi seems to love him if not more than Zhao Xin Ci. Perhaps he wishes to earn some forgiveness from his child or at least return him to this world, whether or not Lord Kunlun despises him."

"What is it?' Shen Wei asked curious when she paused.

"Forgive me," She said.

"Say what you will." Shen Wei said eyebrows rising. "I have never censored you and will hardly begin now."

"He has just learned that Jie Ming is his nephew, but does not understand why he is so loyal to his cousin. Why Jie Ming will risk everything. It is not common in Southern Haixingren families from what we have seen."

It gave him something to think about as he waited. As soon as midday officially arrived, the doors opened for Zhao Xin Ci. His old enemy was dressed in his formal robes of beige and purple with grey embroidery down his sleeves. His bow was quick and formal but his eyes lingered on Wang Zheng intently, "Your Majesty,"

"My Lady."

Shen Wei lifted a hand and gestured to Wang Zheng. "This is Lady Qin. She is my guest and under my protection. With her assistance, we will free Kunlun."

There was a gold gleam for just a moment in his dark eyes before they sharpened,  and Zhao Xin Ci bowed again to her, "My own people have no love for Lord Kunlun." 

An understatement considering Southern Haixing's position and Shen Wei did not stifle his snort of disgust, which Zhao Xin Ci ignored. "But you have my deepest gratitude and I shall offer my own protection as well. I can only offer all I have in thanks and say this,"

"I am a cultivator of some note." Another lie since he was one of the most revered Southern Haixingren cultivators, not nearly as high as Kunlun's but certainly higher than most. "However, I may help I will do anything to assist you, in freeing... Kunlun." His voice hitched slightly on the name and Shen Wei knew it was not the one he preferred to use. The name Zhao Yunlan hovered in the air between the throne and the floor where he stood. Unspoken but there all the same. 

Thankfully before anyone could reply, the door opened again this time for the Lord Guardian, his steps hurried.


 

He bowed when he reached the middle of the room, "Your Imperial Majesty." Shen Wei nodded in acceptance and Zhao Xin Ci retreated to his table, escorted by Li Qian without so much as a glance at Ma Gui. His eyes were fixed on Wang Zheng who folded her hands, so used to the scrutiny of the court, neither his stare nor his interest disturbed her.

Ma Gui didn't seem to notice Zhao Xin Ci as he walked towards the throne, bowing once more before he turned carefully towards the Empress. "On behalf of my beloved shidi, I can only give my heart's deepest gratitude for your kindness, My Lady. Your agreement to help save him and the others entrapped is beyond what I could hope for, when the Da Huang have taken so much from you."

Zhao Xin Ci snorted and Wang Zheng shifted uncomfortably, but Shen Wei didn't interrupt.

Without lifting his head Ma Gui continued, his voice resonating, "Please know My Lady, that my brother would never have agreed, would have done everything including give his own life, to prevent what happened and if my injuries had not prevented me, I would have given my own life to have stopped them."

"Please know as well, that my brother will never forgive the Da Huang and will surrender any tie to them, renouncing them as any family of his. "

Wang Zheng was silent and Shen Wei could only guess her feelings. The Da Huang had murdered her people, condemning them as demonic practitioners and yet she was helping Kunlun, the famed Chieftain of the Da Huang. Even Zhao Xin Ci acknowledged this great debt. This was more than anyone else would do in her position, Shen Wei was sure, even with a royal command. Ma Gui's words also surprised Shen Wei, the confident belief that Kunlun's anger over their actions would make him publicly renounce the tribe, leading inevitably to questions that would force Kunlun or Ma Gui to then publicly declare them excluded from the Lord Guardian's Realm. An action that would cause many to demand that the Yashou Gateways no longer be accessible to a tribe that cannot be trusted to uphold righteousness.  To support Kunlun and perhaps as his own belief, Jie Ming would loudly call for an inquiry. 

"If there is ever anything you might need from North Haixing or something that I may assist you with as Lord Guardian, I give my word My Lady, that I shall devote everything to see it done." Ma Gui declared dropping to one knee, leaving no doubt that he knew exactly the identity of Emperor's Hanga guest. "I have prayed for this day. For the chance to see my brother once more and I know thanks to the Da Huang, you will never have such an opportunity. It brings grief to my heart and I know it will wound my brother deeply."

Wang Zheng rose at this and bowed graciously. "There are moments that are forever burned into memory Lord Guardian. The night I met Lord Kunlun is one such moment. It was Lord Kunlun who helped us. He spoke of peace and sanctuary. He gave his life to save us all."

Ma Gui's eyes were bright as he lifted his head, his grief plain to see. Wang Zheng looked at Shen Wei who nodded in silent agreement. "Lord Jie Ming explained to me what Lord Kunlun risked and what he sacrificed. I could never hold the actions of the Da Huang against him. He was kind to me and helped me when no else would. I would not be alive now without him, nor would many of the people here today."

Ma Gui  and Zhao Xin Ci both bowed at this, but she continued carefully. "Nor do I hold their actions against Chieftain Zhu Hong who tried to stop them. In the years since, Chieftain Zhu Hong has tried to correct the record and tirelessly championed Dixing's right to protect the Hanga Valley. Even in Dixing, I have heard stories of how she risked her own life to take the leadership of the tribe away from the man who wished to see the Hanga eradicated. She killed him and declared his death as justice for the people he slaughtered. She did this in the name of Lord Kunlun. She punished the others who helped in the death of the Hanga and exiled those with lesser ties to the massacre."

"I believe from what I have heard, Lord Kunlun would be proud."

Ma Gui bowed, "Your kindness is a marvel. My brother will rejoice to see you well."

At Shen Wei's gesture, Li Qian pretending to be nothing more than attendant escorted him to his table beside Zhao Xin Ci, the remaining two tables across the aisle were empty. Zhao Xin Ci raised a hand in a violent gesture that had Shen Wei on his feet and Tu Quiyue raised her sword when moments later a bird made entirely of green smoke appeared through the closed door. It was a swallow and it flew directly to Shen Wei, landing in his hand. Shen Wei closed his eyes and the bird disappeared.

"I have just been informed that Lord Jie Ming and Master Lin Jing will be a few minutes late. They spent this morning at the site of the array."

Ma Gui frowned but said nothing. Zhao Xin Ci however looked first at Ma Gui, then at Shen Wei. "Was that safe?"

"Lord Jie Ming needed to see the outline of the array to determine its effects on Kunlun." Shen Wei explained stiffly. "He is greatly experienced."

"I would not provoke him." Ma Gui suggested in a cold tone. "Jie Ming listens to everyone but he only obeys Kunlun."

Thinking of what Wang Zheng had said earlier, Shen Wei decided to intervene. "Lord Jie Ming was first trained by the Acheng."

Ma Gui looked down immediately and Zhao Xin Ci's eyes widened. "We never agreed with what happened."

That was surprising considering Zhao Xin Ci's great achievements in the war, but it also whispered of the political faction Zhao Xin Ci either supports or uses as his backers. A glance at Li Qian told her to investigate. It was time to reassess what his father-in-law was doing these days.

"Jie Ming, like Lady Qin was the sole survivor of the attack." Shen Wei said simply, his tone devoid of emotion as he waved one hand at his 'guest'. Wang Zheng flinched and Ma Gui looked uneasy. "He was to be executed and was saved in broad daylight by Kunlun, who gave him a home and vengeance."

The doors opened a third time and all eyes turned to see Lin Jing carrying a scroll, with Jie Ming steps behind him. For a single moment he looked exactly like Kunlun and Shen Wei smiled at the resemblance.

They were soaked along their shoulders with rain water and Jie Ming's hair was wet, "Your Imperial Majesty." They both said loudly as they bowed. "Lord Ma Gui, Tribal Chieftain Zaofu." 

"Lord Jie Ming, you saved Our life twice on the field of battle. You also gave shelter without hesitation to my brother, Our Beloved Emperor Ye Zun when the enemy betrayed Us. You were willing to take a blade meant for my Beloved Emperor and that alone is a debt We cannot never repay."  Shen Wei said for the benefit of the guards as much as Zhao Xin Ci, this he knew would be heard beyond these rooms. "We owe Our life to Lord Kunlun and to you."

"You are exempt from such formal courtesy. Rise and tell Us what you have discovered." 

Jie Ming blinked surprised by this, but he bowed more shallowly than before.  He nodded at Lin Jing who stepped in behind him and both of them bowed to Wang Zheng, "Lady Qin."

"We investigated the array and I know how we can free them." He announced.

"How?" Shen Wei asked immediately.

Lin Jing stepped forward and handed Shen Wei, the scroll. Li Qian frowned at the lack of protocol. No one was simply supposed to hand the Emperor anything, but Shen Wei plucked it out of his hand like a bird of prey. Opening it, Shen Wei sat on the edge of his seat and looked over the diagram Jie Ming had drawn. 

"As you can see there three rings surrounding the array itself. This has protected the inner working from the Seal's influence."

After spending a few moments memorizing the scroll, Shen Wei handed it Li Qian who took it to the tables where Ma Gui and Zhao Xin Ci sat waiting. Ma Gui anxiously looked over the contents with Zhao Xin Ci craning to see the same picture. "This is the array itself?" Zhao Xin Ci asked.

Jie Ming retreated to his table, his robes brushing the floor. "It is. As you can see the spellwork is ancient."

"We however discovered something more alarming." Jie Ming said and Lin Jing nodded, sipping his tea.

"What is it?' Ma Gui asked immediately.

"Lin Jing discovered sign s of further tampering."

"We did visit and activate the Gateway." Zhao Xin Ci pointed out. "It would surely show some sign of this."

"Not like that." Lin Jing refuted stubbornly. "We never touched the Seal. It failed to activate when His Majesty called the Gate. I thought it had been removed or was too old to have one. The Seal itself was damaged by Chief's power. I would know it anywhere! But furhter along there were signs that someone had interfered with the spell Chief hit it with."   

"Without activating my cousin's denotation array."

"Why didn't that explode when the Disembodied tried to activate the Gate?" Ma Gui asked. "Clearly my brother set it in advance."

Shen Wei frowned at their display of mild possessiveness over Kunlun, the defining lines of brother and cousin. The curious thing though was Zhao Xin Ci's expression as he looked at Jie Ming. It was something close to wonder and touched greatly by sadness. He seemed to be taking this remarkably well. Shen Wei would have expected him to react more strongly, when he learned he had a nephew. 

The friction between Jie Ming and Ma Gui had been present for years. Once Shen Wei thought they had been close or at least on better terms...what had happened to change that he didn't know. Kunlun now seemed to be the only common ground between them and the source of their disagreement. Cloaked of course in politeness and respect. 

Lin Jing was also Ma Gui's relative and was even now walking a fine line between the Da Huang, the Lord Guardian and the Xunxi. A position Shen Wei did not envy. Ultimately though, Lin Jing's loyalty was to Kunlun.

The problem was that most of the room was primarily loyal to Kunlun if you discounted Wang Zheng, when even Zhao Xin Ci, a royal noble of Southern Haixing was choosing to side with Kunlun.

Jie Ming closed his eyes monetarily, as if in pain. One Shen Wei shared at the very thought of Kunlun dying. "The array my cousin set was primed only to his gate-influenced power. Lin Jing has a similar hybrid of cultivation power and gate energy circulating in his system. Same as I. I presume that something prevented my cousin from setting off the trap before the Gate was opened. I am beginning to believe that there might have been a third party that night."

The sound of metal and ice rang around the room, the guards stiffening in surprise even as all eyes turned to the Emperor. Outwardly there was little change in his face but his eyes were smouldering and in his hand was his legendary pudao.

"Can they be traced?" He asked smoothly, his voice too even, too cold.

Jie Ming no stranger to the Emperor's anger simply nodded. "If they are near or connected to Kunlun I will be able to track them and certainly identify them."

"If this third party attacked Chief while the Disembodied tried for the Gate, Chief would have no time to detonate." Lin Jing theorized.

"He also would not detonate the Gate if Da Qing and the others were close by, which they must have been for them to be trapped with Kunlun." Ma Gui said firmly.

"It could have been someone else from the Crown Prince's forces." Zhao Xin Ci said surprising everyone with his honesty. "That battle was never authorized to take place by the Generals of War Council or by the Emperor. Only those loyal to him followed him there, the rest of the army that engaged with Northern forces that day, were purposefully pulled from a returning regiment eight li to the east. The only battle authorized was the one the Emperor of Dixing won two days prior. The remaining Haixingren forces were ordered to retreat to defend the ridge position. The final order never came from a General. The Crown Prince was never supposed to be there."

Blinking at this knowledge, Jie Ming asked, "Where was he supposed to be?"

"Thirty one li to the south."

"Surely someone questioned?" Ma Gui asked.

"Several Generals. It was even reported back to the Southern Haixing Generals that the Crown Prince had been kidnapped." Zhao Xin Ci repiled careful to use Southern Haixing.

"Did he have any known associates that would try to help him now?"

"He's dead." Zhao Xin Ci refuted, his scorn evident. "That's one thing we do know."

"Do they?' Lin Jing asked. "This Disembodied woman seemed to have made herself a network. How else did she find out about the Gate? The Crown Prince could hardly do that much legwork. He had a very recognizable face and was too arrogant to work himself."

"You think someone has been trying to free the Disembodied?" Ma Gui asked, considering it. "It's certainly possible. If so they might already know that His Majesty exited the Gate with only the men from our side."

'But perhaps thinks the Disembodied is among that number." Jie Ming concluded. "They may be watching the Meng Clan area."

"This is Dixingian land and Our Realm." Shen Wei said coldly. "If they attack, they will die long before they touched any of them. Yan, the Disembodied is dead. We killed her with Our blade, witnessed by the apparitions of the Gate." 

"If the array kills anyone Dixingian...why did it allow the Emperor of Dixing himself to enter?" Zhao Xin Ci asked brazenly. "This Seal has the symbol for repelling dark energy."

"The Fifth Gate was built by the First Immortals, the Righteous Ones." Ma Gui said simply. The second war of the Immortals took place centuries if not millennia after the first twelve gates were made. In the second war, the twenty-seven gates we are more familiar with, were created along with the main Nine Realms that we know of."

"Three of the twelve were destroyed. One is the Gateway of Desolation and the other three more famous ones are the Realms of Yashou, Haixing's and Dixing's Underground Realm." Jie Ming said pointedly. "At the time of the First Immortals, those with dark energy gifts were not at war with the ones who wielded cultivation energy."

"So the Seal has been corrupted?' Zhao Xin Ci stated calmly.

Dark eyes looked for the veiled insult and then nodded. "In essence yes, but the Seal attacked my cousin when he was possessed. The Seal is not the original either. Lin Jing discovered evidence that the Seal was replaced during the second war. During the early phase when the system they used was slightly different. You can see the extra sigils marked around the Seal's inner talisman. They were precautions not found in later versions, like the Gate within Southern Haixing or in the Upper Marshlands of Shaohao." 

"Did Lord Kunlun break the Seal or damage it when it attacked him?" Wang Zheng asked softly.

Knowing she wished to protect Shen Wei, Jie Ming and Lin Jing both nodded. "We believe that the Seal was activated by the Disembodied One. Lord Kunlun mastered the Three Realm Gates and could wield the armies of the Hidden Gates. So when she activated the Seal, we believe she activated the protection sigils and Chief, in trying to protect the forces with him and possibly the Hanga, broke the Seal. She did not know enough about the Seals of that time, to avoid them. " 

"Which likely killed the body she was occupying at the time, this Fei Hong if that story is true." Jie Ming continued.   "The Seal is still active only in a partial sense. It is connected to Kunlun, using his power or life-force to remain." 

"Without a body she attacked Chief and tried to steal his body. Which was foolish if not suicidal." Lin Jing finished.

'Why suicidal?" Zhao Xin Ci asked or rather Zhang Shi, in his polite tone, his eyes gold.

Jie Ming blinked at him and openly stared, his gaze vaguely hostile, but it was Shen Wei who answered, "Jie Ming and Kunlun studied under the Four Great Gate Masters. Yu Fengli, Zou Hunluan, Guan-yin and Fandui Loi. You could not find cultivators more experienced or better trained."

"When you wield gate magic," Jie Ming said calmly, "Your cultivation energy changes significantly. As children we underwent the rituals needed to build tolerance. It would kill an adult such as yourself if you attempt such a thing, without having had that training. When such power circulates through the body, it would destroy a being such yourself. His Majesty was allowed entrance into the Gate, because he was holding my cousin's sword and the Seal was broken. As it is one of the twelve, the Fifth Gate held no issue with His Majesty's dark energy. If anything the strength of his power convinced the Gate he was truly a disciple of the Immortals."

How does this help Kunlun?" Shen Wei asked.

"We must break the three rings of power before we can undo the array. First however, we must destroy the Seal. The longer it remains attached to my cousin the more damage it will do, both to his body and to his mind." Jie Ming said looking at each of them. "You must understand, my cousin is using his life and power to shield Da Qing, Guo Changcheng and Chieftain Sang Zan. Those are the ones we know of. We do not know what else my brother is maintaining."

"You believe Guo Changcheng to be a part of this?" Ma Gui asked.

"I believe that Kunlun planted the talisman within Guo Changcheng for his own reasons and that he used his power to smuggle the boy out of the hostile lands." Jie Ming said thoughtfully,  "The only problem was that Kunlun was still connected to that spell when the Seal reacted and when he reached for the array. If he was using his life-force to tether the talisman or used it to make the talisman, the spell of the array would affect Guo Changcheng even from a great distance."

"Xiao Guo was supposed to be with us." Lin Jing said sadly. "He always remained in the camp but that day we separated when the Crown Prince  died and the forces had to split to cover the two battles. Xiao Guo remained with Chief."

"He sent the non-combative forces to safety." Jie Ming said softly. 'The villagers, the scouts and Xiao Guo went into the forest along a path that before the battle with the Crown Prince, was a safe route out into the mountains."

"What is your plan?" Shen Wei asked directly.

"This will be difficult Your Majesty. Lady Qin must be able to restrain the array when I undo the inner workings. To do this, I must connect with Kunlun himself. This is only possible with Lady Qin's help. Before this however, I cannot expend too much energy. "

"Can I simply break the power rings?" Shen Wei asked considering the diagram he had memorized.

"For this to work, your dark energy would be better applied in breaking the Seal completely Your Majesty. You have destroyed one before and you did break the Eight Pillars during the war when Southern Haixing tried to entrap you."

That had been a particularly bad day and at the time he had been more focused on getting to Kunlun who was fighting injured on the other side of the barrier. Really, the Pillars had simply been in the way and Shen Wei had thought he had inadvertently set off an ancient trap not one Haixingren made.  

"Show me what needs to be done and I will break it." Shen Wei vowed.

"It will take considerable power and you will be weakened for some hours afterwards." Jie Ming continued. "After this is done, Lin Jing will guide Ma Gui and Chieftain Zaofu in destroying the rings. The rings are fluid in nature, revolving with whatever power it can find. In this case, I believe it is using residual power in the earth and possibly any cultivation energy it can make contact with. Meng Clan members walking by for example. Each one must be stabilized, unlocked and then broken." 

So, Lin Jing to stabilized, Zhao Xin Ci to unlock and Ma Gui to break the ring entirely.

"Again this will take considerable energy. When the final ring is broken, Lady Qin and I will begin. I will use my connection with my cousin to forge a new bond. Using this, I will enter the array tethered to you, Your Majesty on this side. Lady Qin can use Lin Jing or Ma Gui as her tether, whichever you prefer. Chieftain Zaofu...his natural unlocking ability will hinder this process here. If he is willing however, he will be able to maintain the stability of the array."

"If you are willing." Jie Ming asked challenging him directly.

"I am." Zhao Xin Ci stated. "When do we begin?"

Chapter Text

Guards flanked Shen Wei as he made his way through the lush garden, planted with a wealth of medicinal herbs and cultivated wild meadow flowers, that Wang Zhang had once gathered as a child. The fragrance lingered even as the hands of winter caressed the air, leaves falling like rain from the many trees around the walkway. 

Having faced war and constant heartache for so many years, Shen Wei in these far more prosperous times, had promoted such cultivation in every city in Dixing, giving rise to local styles and a new garden competition, that had turned devastated land into something for the people of Dixing to enjoy. It had been simple but highly popular, a way for remembrance without forcing his people to remain locked in the past.  

Kunlun always celebrated living things and was a proud owner of several plants Shen Wei had kept lovingly for a decade now. With such strong dark energy gifts, particularly that of the cold elements, he never interfered with them personally, but everyone in Dixing knew they were prized. 

Kunlun would be proud of them. With constant care his small purple potted shrub was nearly a tree and his blue willow brushed the ceiling of Shen Wei's private study. The Imperial Household had been trying subtly, delicately even, to suggest that the pot might be too small to house it now, but it was Kunlun's chipped yellow pot and Shen Wei was not parting with it.

Soon, Kunlun would be able to decide, he thought with an eager smile.   

As the afternoon light turned the leaves of the remembrance trees to bronze, the Emperor found his way to the central courtyard of the Meng stronghold.

He simply could not wait any longer. 

There was a knot behind his breastbone and hope quickened his stride much to the barely concealed consternation of his Battle Commander. It would be undignified to run and excessive to open a portal directly into the rooms, which were the only reasons he had waited this long. 

Finally the stone walkway led him to the building heavily protected on five sides by the Meng Clan. There were steps leading up to the door, the wide circular courtyard where he had met Jie Ming watched by soldiers and clansmen alike. 

Shen Wei swept up the steps and barely waited for the guards to pull open the ornate doors. Darkness met him as he marched inside, following the hallway to the circular doorway that waited for him. There were sigils painted onto the bamboo floor and paper talismans pinned to the walls, shimmering with power.  

The air shuddered and Shen Wei felt the caress of Jie Ming's unique energy, that hinted at violence as he moved inside. Jie Ming's wards, he thought approvingly, were strong but always fair. Candles burned in every corner, glowing with a slight purple hue, the thrum of power tracing along the walls to greet him. 

The ceiling arched down with intricately carved woodwork offset by the vivid blue curtains tightly drawn against the light. In the very center lay Kunlun, the array built from colored sand formed lines intersecting in odd but deliberate patterns, that spread out across the highly polished grey stone floor. 

As always his eyes fell upon Kunlun first. 

Like the clash of swords, it hit him each time he entered a room to see Kunlun there, a half-second of disbelief followed closely by a rush of love and desperate worry. He was here and soon he would be free.

Compromises it seemed, were actually possible he thought, as his eyes took in the robes that Shen Wei had neither commissioned nor chosen for this event.

Clearly Jie Ming and Ma Gui had come to some agreement. The robes Kunlun was now wearing, were ornately patterned, in shades of white, dark blue and a silvery grey in the particular style of the Chongsheng Clan. By contrast, his hair had been carefully braided and pinned in the distinctive style of the Xunxi. 

The belt around his waist was one many had seen on the battlefields, made by the Xunxi years ago,  but Shen Wei remembered his own fingers loosening it from around Zhao Yunlan's waist. If he closed his eyes he could trace the exact contours of the silver emblem hiding the clasp... the edge that was worn from his whip being tucked unceremoniously into his belt...

He was beautiful.

Suppressing his need to touch and the urge to tidy those robes, Shen Wei gripped his jade flute. A gift from Kunlun years ago and an instrument to help his love.

He wondered if Kunlun would have liked them and saw from the corner of his eye, Tu Quiyue's lightning quick smile.

Shen Wei had been a nightmare for the Imperial staff when he had been only the Lord Commander of Dixing. Frighteningly self-sufficient, polite and the beloved brother of the Emperor, it was difficult to argue with him, but Butler Wu had been forced to set down some guidelines.

Unlike his twin, he disliked excessive decoration, fuss or interference. He had learned to cook and to perform other domestic tasks that ensured his independence, in complete defiance of expectation. Things that were not considered befitting for his status like dressing himself or making his own tea, something he continued to do as Emperor. To the court he remained a battle hardened commander and to the Imperial houses he was an anomaly who followed the same principles as the first Emperor Shen, such as self-reliance and a strict adherence to duty.

Shen Anujin had been raised in the same thinking, unlike her mother who had been raised with servants or  Kunlun, who rarely bothered with taking care of himself.  She was determined to be as equally self-reliant and Shen Wei had to admit she could pin his hair better than he could. He smiled at the memory of those small hands reaching up with the thin braids, dark energy clamping the stool to the floor. 

Kunlun would have laughed. Will laugh when he sees her sitting on Shen Wei's dressing table.

Shen Wei knew he was pushing at the boundary of propriety. Kunlun was sleeping in the Emperor's bedchamber and said king was keeping a vigil at his bedside... It was difficult to balance his desperate need to be with Kunlun, to care for him and yet protect him by keeping certain boundaries. The same ones he had tried to maintain back during the war. 

In heart he refused to keep those pretenses. That Kunlun was a friend and a hero. Not his very reason for living.

But even he had found it difficult to admit in front of his Imperial staff and guards that he had been caring for Kunlun personally. That there had been no servants. No other hands but his own had touched Kunlun's skin. He was so vulnerable like this and Zhao Yunlan he knew, would hate this.

Shen Wei had cared for him and gladly would for the rest of his life...but they were not married and even that was not enough of an excuse for an Emperor. Not to his beloved's older brother and cousin. The North had different customs and expectations after all.

Jie Ming who had witnessed Shen Wei performing a hundred or more 'domestic' tasks for his cousin during the war, simply smiled at him, when it was announced they would prepare Kunlun for the ritual, without actually admitting what this preparation was. Ma Gui might be unable to imagine Shen Wei lovingly combing Zhao Yunlan's hair, but he certainly could. 

It had been equally difficult to be grateful when Ma Gui announced that they would not require any assistance, making it clear that neither Shen Wei nor his Imperial staff needed to interfere. 

A muscle had twitched in Shen Wei's cheek and Jie Ming had sworn that they would take the utmost care of him. That wasn't in question, but Shen Wei still wished he could have helped. He would have chosen robes that actually fit better.

Dragging his eyes from Kunlun took effort, but Shen Wei glanced around the room curiously, then at the sand. Expecting cinnabar Shen Wei stepped closer to examine the fine lines of light blue, red and yellow spiraling inward to eventually meet a dark violet threaded through with white. This was an inner border that pointed inwards at key points. 

Perhaps monastery sand art was similar but this was a pattern that was like nothing Shen Wei had ever seen before. 

Tu Quiyue glanced at her Emperor and stepped to the back wall away from the array but close enough to defend her king should the need arise. She watched as the Emperor's hand twitched as if he wanted to reach for the man in the center, his boots shifting half a step towards the man of legend. The charms dangling from his Imperial white jade hairpin shook as he halted, mouth twisting in something too close to grief. 

Time flowed by slowly and still the Emperor remained where he was until the doors opened to reveal Zhao Xin Ci. 

The Southern Haixing nobleman stepped inside, his bow flawless. "Your Majesty." He greeted coolly and Tu Qiuye curled her lip in distaste. His respect for her king was not even skin deep.

His dark eyes glanced at everything and then settled on Kunlun. "I would have expected them to be here." 

There was no question as to who them was referring to. Shen Wei easily irritated with a fist of worry in his chest, glanced at his former enemy and said coldly, "They are completing the final preparation work. Occasionally even you must wait." 

Zhao Xin Ci as immune as ever simply nodded, "I've spent most of my life waiting for my son. To meet him for the first time. To see him again and now to free him." 

"Are you prepared?" Shen Wei asked abruptly.

If he was insulted, Zhao Xin Ci gave no sign of it as he watched Shen Wei eventually crossed the room to the requisitioned  royal seat. "I am." 

"Then sit." Shen Wei said motioning to the table. "They will be a few minutes."

It was surreal for Butler Wu to enter and set down the Imperial tea set only a short distance from Kunlun's unconscious form, but neither Shen Wei nor Zhao Xin Ci allowed themselves to show any sign of discomfort.From time to time he noticed him looking at the flute but Shen Wei refused to explain and he deigned to ask.

"I have met him before." Zhao Xin Ci sudden words broke the rising tension and distracted Shen Wei from his growing impatience.

Ma Gui was the Lord Guardian and so it fitted that they had met before, which left only Jie Ming. "I'm sure you did on the field of battle."

"No." Zhao Xin Ci remarked. "Not in battle."

Shen Wei's eyes for the first time since entering the room left Kunlun's form and looked at his former enemy. He wondered how the shock of learning that Jie Ming was nephew had affected the older man, but this was interesting news. "When?" He asked despite himself, curiosity beckoning.

"When the States of the North were unifying."

Shen Wei was saved from further questions when the doors opened to reveal Jie Ming and Ma Gui, Lin Jing following closely behind. "Your Majesty." They greeted, bowing as one.

"Are we ready?" Shen Wei asked immediately.

"Yes," Ma Gui replied, "Lady Qin will come to us in another hour or so. "

Lin Jing smiled at Tu Quiyue and bowed to Shen Wei. "It would be an unnecessary drain on her, Your Majesty and there is no need for her skills for now. Lady Qin is monitoring the others for any signs of distress as we work. She will send a messenger should any of them react negatively. She understands the signs better perhaps than we do."

"Very well. We will summon Lady Qin later. How do we proceed?" Shen Wei asked, rising from his seat.

Jie Ming handed him a music score and moved to stand in line with Kunlun's head. He glanced at Zhao Xin Ci and nodded politely if frostily. "If you intend harm to my cousin, you will die by my blade." He announced cordially.

Gold eyes suddenly gleamed and Zhao Xin Ci's face frowned, "There is no need to threaten us. We would not be here if we did not desire above all else to save our son."

'You have no claim on him." Ma Gui said coldly as he stepped to stand at Kunlun's feet. "You lost that years ago."

"When you prevented my son from coming home?" Zhang Shi asked hotly.

"Argue about this later." Shen Wei snapped. "Kunlun is not a prize! He is very much his own person and I suggest you learn to respect that. He needs no one."

"I neither believe you nor trust you." Jie Ming said firmly to Zhao Xin Ci, then bowed lightly to Shen Wei. "Forgive me. My love for my cousin is that of an older brother and cannot help but be protective."

"I, of all people know this. Kunlun is no different. We breathe here today, because of this one man and he would never ask for anything in return." Shen Wei said as he waved a hand and glared at the other two.

Jie Ming gestured to Shen Wei's flute, 'If you play Your Majesty, we can work assured that Kunlun's energy remains calm. Channel as you have been doing, enough energy to keep his power and heart calm. At this point, stress for him might be very dangerous. I want to avoid this as much as possible, as we don't precisely know what the array has done to him."

"I thought you knew?" Zhang Shi accused and Shen Wei's eyes shifted to stare at him, a muscle jumping in his cheek.

Sensing Zhao Xin Ci may die before they even began the ritual for his cousin, Jie Ming simply rolled his eyes. "If the array is keeping my cousin in perfect stasis, he will be as he was, when he was trapped. In the middle of fighting." Jie Ming stressed, "If however, he has been kept in dreams, the array will affect his heart. It has forcibly calmed him. Once he perceives change or a threat, he will counterattack."

"We have had years of peace to adjust ourselves. My brother only knows war at this point." Ma Gui added. "Please let us begin."

Shen Wei lifted his flute and began to play, dark energy swirling around the white jade, to then drift towards Kunlun. The notes rose and fell like waves against the sand. It was hope in the early dawn light and the wind through the trees. It was dusk beneath the branches of a plum tree, Kunlun's laugh in his ear. 

Zhao Xin Ci stood as directed in the middle, his feet at Kunlun's waist, opposite Lin Jing. Jie Ming and Ma Gui raised their hands, as Lin Jing knelt, laying one hand on Kunlun's abdomen. After a second, Zhao Xin Ci also settled on his knees, his hand gently lowered to rest beside Lin Jing's, his dark eyes on Kunlun's face. 

"I will act as a stabilizing force but the rest is up to you." Jie Ming said calmly and focused for a moment.

Kunlun's body minutely jerked as Jie Ming accessed the array and Shen Wei paused for half a breath, his eyes fixed on Kunlun. "What was that?" Zhao Xin Ci demanded. He moved. Is he in pain?"

"The array." Ma Gui said. "Patience."

"It's working." Jie Ming said urgently. "Be ready, I'll summon the Seal."

The sand lifted from the floor, gathering in the air in the colored lines, suspended in the exact form of the array. Light penetrated the sand, making them glow and black lines appeared once more on Kunlun's skin. Shen Wei carried on playing smoothly transitioning into another song, dark energy still tethering Kunlun to him, allowing him to gently ease energy along the connection.

Jie Ming's hands twisted in the air, green energy blending with purple so dark it was nearly black, his jade ring glinting in the light. Above Kunlun, hovering in a ghostly blue was the Seal. It was circular with sigils set at odd angles in a ring.

Kunlun's body seized and like before, the black lines bond his hands and feet. Jie Ming gasped and Shen Wei stopped playing his heart pounding in his throat. Those dark eyes were open and he twisted like a snake , straining against the bonds, wounds re-etched into his skin, dripping blood. His bloodied mouth was whispering something unheard, eyes bright and wild, "Chief!" Lin Jing cried.

"Calm him down!" Jie Ming ordered, eyes worried  as he struggled to hold the Seal, staggering back as the sigils brightened.

Giving up on the flute, Shen Wei rushed forward and dropped to his knees, immediately cradling Kunlun's head. The silk strands of his hair fell against his skin as Shen Wei gently guided his thrashing head onto his knees, pushing dark energy as carefully as could, with terror in his heart and Kunlun's obvious anger. 

After a few tense moments Kunlun was fighting less, the Seal unable to hurt him through Shen Wei's dark energy barrier. He couldn't see Shen Wei, eyes closing in pain as the black lines tightened, but that only meant he could access his own power. Gold light suddenly lashed out from Kunlun's prone form, his hands going white as he aimed at the thing that was hurting him. 

It rebounded inside the barrier and Shen Wei gripped him tighter, "What is he doing?" He demanded, "Kunlun?"

"I didn't think he would have enough power to do that!" Ma Gui said gasping.

Zhao Xin Ci looked down at his struggling son who was still fighting and then back up at the Seal. He studied the lines and interlocking sigils in the Seal carefully. "There are three weak points!" He shouted,  "Almost like cracks."

"You aim there, I'll hit the rings!" Ma Gui said soft green energy flowing from him into the array.

Zhao Xin Ci reached for the Seal, one finger drawing a talisman in the air. It ignited with amber light and the Seal shuddered. Shen Wei watched as Kunlun's mouth paused his silent chanting with a soundless gasp of surprise, eyes opening to stare sightless at the ceiling. Shen Wei felt tears prick at his eyes when he saw him mouth, 'Wei.'

"I'm here." He whispered unheard in the room as Zhao Xin Ci channeled more power into unlocking the protections on the Seal and Ma Gui battered its defenses, green mingling with amber, the light darting through the sand. 

Kunlun suddenly arched upward, a silent scream on his lips, hands reaching up.

"Chief!" Lin Jing shouted and Ma Gui very nearly paused, horror painting his features. Frantic, Lin Jing began chanting and the sand lines stabilized easing the pained expression on Kunlun's face. 

Kunlun snarled and gold power erupted, golden lines weaving in the air to disappear at the corners of the room. "Kunlun!" Shen Wei cried and tried to hold him more fully, dark energy coalescing around his body.

Possibly because he panicked seeing his child in so much pain, or the instincts of a battle-born General, but Zhao Xin Ci chose to funnel far more power that anyone thought him capable of into the Seal's weak points. Ma Gui counter-acted and contained the Seal as it exploded.

Kunlun fell back to the ground, a silent laugh gracing his lips, eyes closing much to Shen Wei's panic. Zhao Xin Ci simply collapsed and Lin Jing despite his issues with the man, did try to soften his descent.

"He's okay." Jie Ming said softly, looking at them as they gathered around him. "It worked. Whatever Zhao Xin Ci did worked."

"What did he do?" Shen Wei asked his hand stroking over Kunlun's hair.

"He broke the Seal." Ma Gui said shakily, his face pale, lips trembling.

"No, he shattered the Seal. I've never seen anything like it." Lin Jing said in awe. 

"It worked." Jie Ming replied his hand on Kunlun's chest. Shifting on his knees he reached for Zhao Xin Ci and channeled power into his prone form ,"It's affected his heart. He nearly killed himself to that."

It was hard to say if Jie Ming approved or not but Zhao Xin Ci had done the impossible. Shen Wei signaled Tu Quiyue who nodded and opened the main doors. She spoke quietly to the guards and one of them left his post. "Attendants have been called, Your Majesty." She said with a bow.

"What now?" Ma Gui asked breathlessly.

"Nothing for you, unless you want to end up like him." Jie Ming said sternly pointing at Zhao Xin Ci. "I warned both you that this would take enormous power to achieve."

"Worth every moment." Ma Gui replied and frowned, "Surely I can help?"

"Of course," Shen Wei said avoiding the inevitable argument. "What do we do now?"

"We break the three outer rings, which should be easier than I first thought with the Seal so thoroughly destroyed." Jie Ming said as he checked Kunlun again. "When that is complete, we will summon Lady Qin."

 

Chapter Text

As the moon rose to her full glory, Shen Wei sat back and dropped the red stained cloth into the bowl beside him. 

With the first and second parts of the ritual behind them, Shen Wei had ordered that they move Kunlun to another location, away from the mess of sand and the wreckage of the room. 

Jie Ming had followed him and watched fascinated as Shen Wei had used dark energy to heal all of Zhao Yunlan's injuries, before taking the bowl one of the servants had provided, to clean the blood and sand away. The Emperor ignored everyone else and focused on Zhao Yunlan completely, going as far as expertly dripping water into his mouth and ordering another servant, to ask the kitchen to make a weak congee.


Every motion sparked old memories. There had always been care in their love. Sheltered from prying, judging eyes they had gently taken care of each other, even without the excuse of exhaustion or injury.  For him, it was something he learned from Yunlan.It allowed him to become someone separate from the General, Prince or Envoy, carving out a space for Shen Wei to exist in the middle of the carnage. To become more than his bloodthirsty reputation or the symbol of cold, highly focused leadership.


For a moment he was back in time, hours after a battle, sitting beside Kunlun who had painstakingly washed Shen Wei's skin free of blood and dirt, piecing him together with deft hands and foxfire eyes. Making him want with all of his black heart to mold himself into someone Zhao Yunlan would want to keep.


They never spoke of victory or failure and Shen Wei learned to relax, to give himself what would become precious memories in the future. Aware they were too battle-worn to think of new plans and the full weight of their losses. They were young leaders holding up more than their armies. They were the morale of their nations and the only defense against invasion, fighting against a people more advanced, better funded and generally larger than either of theirs.  Southern Haixing had an empire back then, but they had wit and a rebellion strong enough to win.


In these stolen snatches of time, they could focus on something that was not the hardships they overcame, the public face they offered their forces  or the next strategy. Shen Wei learned that sometimes the best part about surviving, was simply to lean into the one who loves you and breathe, to feel their warmth and know in every fiber of your being that it was over. 

The younger him would have called it a brief reprieve, but that version of himself would have eroded completely without his foxfire eyed Chieftain. The war was killing him as surely as a festering wound would have.


Sometimes he wondered if those quiet moments were what carried him through the war, allowing him to be the man he was today. The man who found it within himself to lead a nation, who knew how to smile. The man who loved his child and while he could find no contentment in life without Zhao Yunlan, he had found his peace with the past. Because the tenderness and love Zhao Yunlan gave him was the very reason, Shen Wei didn't lose himself completely.  

This righteous hero and the owner of his heart was resting on another daybed in the Meng Clan's Room of Solitude now, the pale blue curtains closed tightly, with only Jie Ming to see him gently washing Kunlun's skin. They had brought the others here too and Shen Wei looked at them now. 

Sang Zan had no visible wounds and that was suspicious to Shen Wei's jaded mind but Jie Ming had been tending to Da Qing, wrapping the injuries neither of them could heal. Unlike Kunlun, Da Qing's face was lined with stress and his hands flexed restlessly against the daybed. 

Jie Ming had said that this was a good sign. 

Despite his ordeal, Kunlun was lying worryingly still and Shen Wei's hands were already tucking a softer cushion beneath his head, hoping to give him some comfort. 

He smothered a undignified, all too telling yawn and straightened Kunlun's outer robes. Shen Wei could not remember a time when he felt more drained and yet, his dark energy rose dutifully to his command. If he had not led the life that he had, he might have put it down to stress and worry. 

He had traveled for weeks and as a young officer had led scouting missions in difficult terrain. Shen Wei had fought battles that lasted hours, that edged into days of misery and unending combat. He had fought campaigns that lasted years, unifying Dixing, then to do his part in a war that ran for nearly two decades. 

It was fair to say there was little he had not experienced and few horrors left that he had not witnessed or discovered. He could see in the faces or in the eyes of every soldier, the toll of war by the end of it. It was why he had forced the court to agree to compensation for every family struggling with the loved ones that returned...changed. 

In unifying Dixing, he was facing his own people, but carried the banner of his twin brother. The very leaders or descendant of them, he now looked at each morning for court. Against Southern Haixing...it was an entirely different battlefield. It was a conflict that was fueled by trained soldiers and led by experienced cultivators, wielding dark energy or cultivated power capable of killing an entire field of warriors in minutes. 

That was stress. 

This was a kind of exhaustion he had never felt before. Even in the days following his brother's death and in the weeks before that, trying to pull together the Imperial court and the nation in the days after the murder of the Ye House. Even then he had not felt this. 

He felt as though he could simply lie down beside Kunlun on the daybed, uncaring of dignity, his many duties or a lifetime of Imperial protocol and sleep for a year. 

Jie Ming said it was the Seal's effect on anyone with dark energy, that he would be fine in an hour. Shen Wei snorted when he remembered Tu Quiyue's face when he continued by adding, that if Shen Wei had the dark energy core of an average Dixingian, he would have died after the first incense stick had burned completely. 

He looked up now as the man tied a bandage on Da Qing's hand, in a sad effort to stop the cat's claws cutting into his own palm, when he was distressed. 

Jie Ming had removed his outer two layers and was wearing an interesting sleeveless set of robes, in a similar style to what Kunlun was wearing now. Except Kunlun had a white hanfu beneath the sleeveless Northern banbi.

Tu Quiyue had raised a curt eyebrow clearly trying to decide if this was indecent or a disrespect to her sovereign. Shen Wei looked at the toned arms on display and wondered at the choice. Jie Ming's clothing choices were always conservative, regardless of the color or pattern. For him to show so much skin...well it was a surprising sight. 

Kunlun would have laughed. 

He remembered Kunlun wearing something similar, on the third time they had met. His had been black and he had said something about Gate magic and an old ritual, apologizing for his appearance...though his words had fallen on deaf ears. To his shame back then, all Shen Wei had wanted to do was stare at the bared skin. To marvel at his beauty and...he really should paint that memory, he thought with a slight smile. 

Finished, Jie Ming turned to him and smiled down at his cousin. "Thank you for your excellent care of my cousin, Your Majesty." He said with a slight bow. "It eases my heart." 

"And mine." Shen Wei said honestly. 

Jie Ming nodded and smiled with a touch of old sorrow in his eyes. This might be the future, but letting go of the past was no easy feat, not when re-living memories was your only comfort. "We shall begin the final phase of the ritual when Lady Qin arrives." 

"How shall it work?" Shen Wei asked, his eyes falling back to Zhao Yunlan's face. 

"Lady Qin confided in me the exact ritual." Jie Ming said coming over to the daybed, one hand reaching to rest on Kunlun's foot. "The array traps the person so their physically unconscious or barely lucid from she told me. However, my cousin is both a Gate Master and a supreme cultivator."

"How does that change things?' Shen Wei asked. 

"Normally an array of this magnitude would not be able to hold my cousin." Jie Ming said bluntly. "Lady Fu You or Da Qing alone? Yes. Zhao Xin Ci? Perhaps. But my cousin is too knowledgeable and too powerful to be easily contained. There is Gate magic in his very blood now, in his core, same as myself." 

"You believe something else is acting on them?" Shen Wei said slowly, with cold fury lacing his words. Icy air suddenly swept into the room and Kunlun shivered. 

Tu Quiyue braced herself for the Emperor's rage but then watched shocked as the king paused, anger forgotten when Chieftain Kunlun moved. He blinked down at him and then looked up at Jie Ming, his expression mutinous.

"This third party we are unaware of?" 

"I believe so, or else something older embedded in the array." Jie Ming shrugged helplessly. "I wish I could know for sure. More than anything I wish to keep him from further harm."


"Which is why I wish to ask His Majesty, something of great importance." Jie Ming said formally, his shoulders go back. "This is neither the place or the time, but I know not of another opportunity."

"Speak plainly." Shen Wei instructed, in no mood for preamble.

"His Majesty is of course aware that the North is on the brink of war. With itself. The Middle States and the Upper North have never been so far apart. When my cousin awakes he will have a difficult time ahead."

"Whatever Lord Kunlun decides, he will have the full support of Dixing." He declared and Jie Ming relaxed.

Kunlun would, regardless of what he chose personally, have that support. Shen Wei had rebuilt Dixing and made sure that he had the finances and the armies for another war if peace fell apart. For years, things on the borders had slowly degenerated, until this bitter point had come to the light of day and Shen Wei would not be surprised if Emperor An Bai was fueling it somehow.

The doors opened abruptly and Wang Zheng swept inside, her robes plain and her mask firmly in place. Behind her trailed Lin Jing watched closely her guards. Shen Wei quickly set aside the bowl and rose to greet her. He took both of her hands and squeezed them gently as Tu Quiyue and Jie Ming bowed formally.

Lin Jing bowed and said in greeting, "Your Majesty."  The Gate builder seemed tired but no less excited. At Shen Wei's gesture he went to Kunlun's side, laying out his tools on the floor.

"Is it time?" She asked, her eyes searching his.

"Yes. Are you sure?" Shen Wei asks in return, his heart torn but the determined nod she gives him settles the chaos within him. She has made her decision and he admired her all the more for it.

"I am ready." Returning his clasp, Wang Zheng as graceful as ever, then turns away and nods at Jie Ming. She takes a seat on the free daybed positioned so it is beside the one that cradles Kunlun, arranging the skirts of her robes as if this was a normal event. The role of Empress demanded constant grace and a flawless reputation, something Wang Zheng had carefully cultivated to survive the court.

The doors open once more to allow Zhao Xin Ci to enter. The man looks recovered, the unhealthy pallor vanished thanks in part of Jie Ming's generous act of care, that saved the old General's life. "Your Majesty," He greets with the same calm poise that has often defined the man. "Lady Qin, Lord Jie."

"Not him again." Lin Jing muttered almost inaudibly.

"Just in time." Shen Wei said dryly and stepped away to stand where Jie Ming directed. As much as Shen Wei didn't want the man here, the deal he had secured for Guo Changcheng demanded that he be present and the man was useful.

Jie Ming flatly ignored him and settles on the floor between Wang Zheng and Kunlun, offering her an gentle smile.

"Should you be wearing something so disrespectful in front of Lady Qin and the Emperor of Dixing?" Zhao Xin Ci demands looking pointedly at Jie Ming's bare arms. The General's sense of propriety rearing its shocked head had Shen Wei glancing at him with something close to amusement.

There was no way for Shen Wei to defend him without disrespecting his Empress and Wang Zheng herself could say nothing that would not reflect badly upon her honor. Jie Ming however simply glanced him unimpressed. "Lady Qin, in her eternal wisdom understands why I am dressed this way. I have informed her of my reasons."

"And what are they?" Zhao Xin Ci challenges, staring down at his nephew boldly. 

Instead of a verbal answer, Jie Ming reaches a hand up and pressed a single finger glowing with golden power to his bare upper arm. From across his shoulder and down across his bared skin, black lines appeared. Sliding down they intersected in a wash of ink and swirled into a carp, its tail sweeping as it swam along his bicep down past his elbow, leaping like the great Kun to fall as a tiger along his forearm. As they watched, the symbol Kunlun had taken as his own, the Bi’an tiger settled along his wrist and hand.

Golden and black lines formed the body of the tiger with the head of a dragon, its horns curling upwards as its tail lashed once before stilling. Wrapped around his upper arm now was a complex lattice of red and black lines, the outer edges filled with curling scaled forms so intricately detailed. The many layers of the tattoo were tangled but beautiful as they swirled inward around the symbol of the Gate Masters.

Shen Wei had glimpse this only once but for the others in the room, they were speechless. The Bi'an tiger so prominently displayed.

Jie Ming simply reached over and touched Kunlun's hand with same glowing finger. He lifted his arm and pushed back his sleeve, letting them watch the same tattoo settle, the same  Bi'an tiger resting on his hand. Shen Wei frowned looking at it, not because it was a tattoo or because it marked Kunlun's skin...not exactly.

Dixing had a complex relationship with markings, from deliberate scars or tattoos but he personally had no opinion on the subject. The cause of the indescribable feeling in his chest was only that despite all they were to each other...he had never seen this. 

Lin Jing sighed put upon and lifted his own sleeve. Again they watched the Bi'an tiger settle and noted that the tattoo across his upper arm was different to what lay on Jie Ming's skin. With a deep sigh he then reached over and touched Da Qing. Instead of a lattice, Da Qing had a complex painting of various colors and a different symbol, far smaller than the other three.

"The Twelve Tigers." Zhao Xin Ci breathed before turning away as if to silently declare that this was the limit, the last thing he could stomach. Shen Wei found it highly amusing, knowing many of the customs of the North and South of Haixing. 

There were twelve of them and they had many names for Kunlun had never given them a name. They were the highly trained loyalists that wielded great power and were all but invincible in battle. They had one thing in common, a tattoo on both hands depicting the Bi’an tiger. This was symbol that Southern Haixing feared, for these were the agents that would appear like smoke, devastate their plans and sometimes their fortified buildings too and then disappear without a trace.

These were the agents that Southern Haixing wanted more than Kunlun himself. In battle they used the complex wards Kunlun favored and used their gifts with remarkable accuracy to take down hundreds of fighters. From the elements like water to explosive attacks, they surged against Southern Haixing, using the Gates to their advantage.

Within weeks of joining the Alliance, Kunlun and his Twelve had decimated much of their enemy forces, re-taking cities that were once firmly under Southern Haixing's control.

And Kunlun wondered why he was hailed as a hero, Shen Wei thought with loving pride. 

Jie Ming laughed softly and Wang Zheng with a life of court behind her simply asked, "Why the carp? The tiger I understand. It is a symbol of  justice and righteousness, but is the carp for success or to depict a Kun fish?"

Jie Ming set down his array with cinnabar, his strokes precise and answered with an impish smile. "Not exactly. Although that would have been fitting for my cousin. No, it is a carp because of what happened."

At her confused look or perhaps in defiance of the mounting tension, Jie Ming continued as he placed his final marks. "We didn't meet as children." He explained and Shen Wei saw that Zhao Xin Ci was listening carefully, "I was to be executed and my cousin saved my life."

Ln Jing coughed and Jie Ming glanced him, then nodded calmly. Curling his fingers, Lin Jing cast a spell into the air, colored sand blown from his palm collecting into a swirling cloud. Jie Ming sent a talisman which flew like a bird into the center of the sand cloud and an image appeared. 

As if realizing he could accomplish more if his audience was distracted, Jie Ming showed them the memory of that day. He showed them his execution and Kunlun's timely rescue, with Shen Wei in particular marveling at how  young Kunlun was. He couldn't have more than eighteen, his face free of thorns and Jie Ming was not much older.

Pride and a fierce love had a savage grin on Shen Wei lips as he watched as Kunlun fought as he always had. With everything he was, brutal and as a swift as a striking snake. 

He then showed them a old inn on the riverfront, Haixingren soldiers walking down the dock area in the afternoon light, but Zhao Yunlan sat in corner, drinking idly from a small cup. His foxfire eyes were on the street, but his gaze kept sliding to something on the left.

He was so young." Wang Zheng said quietly.

"The Chongsheng had my cousin as their General during the civil war of the Middle States." Jie Ming said with a carefully neutral tone.

"They had a civil war?" Wang Zheng asked for in all her studies, she had never heard of this.

"Oh yes." Jie Ming answered, drawing another line. "It's rarely mentioned. Some of the states sided with Southern Haixing and others with the Upper Northern clans. The Chongsheng were not neutral. They are and always have been enemies with Haixing, thanks in part to the assassination of Ma Gui's family. His two older brothers, grandfather and sister. At the time, Ma Gui claimed Kunlun as his shidi." 

"When did that change?" Zhao Xin Ci asked sharply.

"It didn't. Not really." Jie Ming answered and grimaced. "But Ma Gui was poisoned and the Chongsheng for a little while was owned by the Meishan. They really didn't like Kunlun. My cousin hid Ma Gui with the Yashou Snake Clan. They owed him and he then plotted to take back his home."

"But saved you during this time?" Wang Zheng asked.

Jie Ming smiled and for am moment he looked just like Zhao Yunlan. "He did more than that."

Within the cloud they heard Da Qing report that if they kept going up the river, they would hit the border and over the border was the Southern Haixing base where all the idiots went to get recruited into the Army. Zhao Yunlan, who had been sitting there expressionlessly, his dark eyes glinting in the half light, suddenly grinned. It was a startling sight, the sudden animation of his face.

He said brightly, "Well that's settled."

"...And that's Chief." Lin Jing said with a raised finger.

"You trust me?" Zhao Yunlan asked, his eyes intense as he looked at Jie Ming, but that gaze seem to burn right through you. As if even here, years later and halfway across the cultivation world, he could see your very soul. Shen Wei squared his shoulders instinctively and felt the others shift.

Jie Ming replied silently and that bright smile returned. "Good. Damn Fatty is too loyal and terrible taste in owners, so he doesn't get to vote."

Da Qing spluttered and punched Zhao Yunlan in the arm who had the cat in a headlock in seconds.

In another breath they saw all three of them on a boat just before an old bridge, Haixing soldiers everywhere. "Has he lost his mind?" Zhao Xin Ci groused as he watched. "Why here? This is the worst possible place!"

"That's why it worked." Jie Ming answered with a cheerful tone. "We were betrayed and hunted."

"I mean no disrespect to Lord Kunlun," Wang Zheng began gently knowing both Shen Wei's and Jie Ming's protectiveness over Zhao Yunlan, "But why didn't he open one of his legendary portals?"

Jie Ming laughed, "It's hard to believe I know, but were were not Gate Masters back then Lady Qin. There was no one to teach us such things, so we learned ourselves. I knew more than him, trained as I was by the Acheng, but Kunlun had no elders other than Ma Gui, who was not much older." 

"From here," He said gesturing to the river scene,  "We eventually learned from several venerable teachers and earned our place as Masters, but it took time and a long journey."

"Is this the time Lord Kunlun met the Bai Ze and you saw the evil of the Chi Mei Wang Liang in the wild mountains?" Wang Zheng asked, knowing both of those stories well from her daughter.

"No that came later." Lin Jing said with a grin of his own, "But they did meet a Daoshou about a week afterwards. That's where the idea of the tiger came from."

Sometimes it was hard to fathom Kunlun's mind and his imagination.

On the river, there was a delay and the water of the river was becoming turbulent. Kunlun was discussing something with a vendor, when a great wave rose, smashing into the dock. Kunlun was splashed with water and frowned as f he had seen something particularly distasteful.

"That was a water ghoul," Lin Jing explained as Jie Ming set the final outer edges of the array. "Da Qing told me the story. Chief had to subtly use his gifts because the cultivator Haixing sent made the problem worse."

As the dark form of the ghoul rose from the water, Jie Ming stood up in the boat, one hand on his concealed sword. Kunlun effortlessly tugged him  down and threw a talisman from his hand with a look of concentration. He chanted something and as the cultivator rushed forward trying to use a spell net, too weak to actually do anything, Kunlun used the whip in his right hand.

The guandao spun easily into the ghoul's dark shape just as the net landed. The ghoul froze, fiery cracks appearing as the whip returned to Kunlun's hand, moments before it dramatically exploded.

The crowd cheered and rushed to thank the stunned cultivator just as another wave hit the dock. When the water settled, Kunlun's whip was a holding a large carp. He looked at the fish with a disgruntled expression and Da Qing nearly fell overboard laughing.

Wang Zheng laughed and Shen Wei smiled only looking back at Jie Ming when he announced "We are ready."

Jie Ming gently takes the Empress of Dixing's hand in his, making sure that he is seated lower than Wang Zheng, by positioning himself on the floor. It's the only nod to respect and protocol that he can offer, but he knows that Shen Wei is far too focused on Kunlun to notice. 

Lin Jing tightens his grip on the outer array, built as a precaution. If Kunlun fights back, he could easily level the building and none of them would forgive themselves if this ended in tragedy. His cousin least of all. 

Of course, they don't admit this to Shen Wei or Zhao Xin Ci. 

The Hanga array is simple but highly effective and as Wang Zheng chants the ancient words with a confident voice, she lays a hand on Kunlun's arm. Jie Ming opens his mind and powers to whatever will happen and closes his eyes. The scent of the incense is strong, mixing with Wang Zheng's floral perfume and he counts his cousin's breaths, reaches to feel the stedy thrum of Kunlun's power, like an echo of his heartbeat. 

Like diving into warm water they submerge. 

There is ground beneath his feet and Jie Ming feels his chest expand with his first careful breath in this strange world, so he opens his eyes. 
 
He had been taught that expectation was the enemy of success. When you over-focus, over plan or rely what worked in the past, especially in a fight, things slip from your grasp. You can anticipate your enemy but expecting someone to react in a specific way or events to line up perfectly without intervention, is tempting fate. 

Nothing could have prepared him for this. 

He had stayed in the Hanga Valley for many nights over the years. He took a yearly journey to this scarred, beautiful land that saw the last moments of his cousin's life, if you believed some, or if you asked Shen Wei, the place that had the answers to the mystery that haunted their hearts. 

So he knew the landscape as only one who walked the same path could, eyes always searching for some clue and a heart heavy enough to feel numb in his chest. He knew the sky, the exact angle of the constellations against the mountains when you were lying among the rocks in the valley, the space between the jagged peaks that would always welcome the new dawn and the storms that would come at the worst times.  

After so long spent in the miserable solitude of the grieving, eyes finally dry after a river of tears, this valley had begun to represent both pain and consolation. The repentance that leaves a hollow behind and the sorrow he hides behind duty. Coming here was a quiet agony made worst by weeks of suspense, the building pressure of actually leaving, the roads that took him so slowly to this lonely place. 

Being here was the closest he could come to equilibrium. The closest he could be to his best friend and only family. The grief was there, always there, a space in life carved in the shape Kunlun, now empty. Not a hint of his irrepressible smile, his bold unapologetic presence and his precious friendship. Only echoes. 

He walks  as if pulled into the valley, the heart of this region. His feet find purchase on the rocks as they have so many times before, with eyes blinded by tears, memories or heartache.  

Wang Zheng is there somewhere behind him, but he cannot look at anything but what lies before him. 

Shen Wei was right. The answers were always in this valley. 

The sky is not the ink black of the cosmos, glittering with the lights of the stars. It is a sickly yellow, the clouds an odd shade of reddish grey, as dust whirls around them. He cannot feel the dust, should in fact be choking on it as he has before in the sandstorms of the North...and the moon is lit by a backdrop of fire. 

Towards the back there was a man dressed in Southern Haixingren armor, the red cloak and heavy plates down his arms more functional than elaborate. This was a warrior who had seen front line combat.  

This must be Yan, possessing Fei Hong or someone else from the Crown Prince's army. Far from participating, he was simply standing there, hands outstretched as if he was trying to snatch the moon. 

Around them chaos whirled with the clash of swords, the screams of the dying and the brutal energy of defensive power. The air smelled of blood and smoke, the ground wet with mud. Northern soldiers and a handful of Dixingian warriors were fighting against the Southern Haixing forces, but that wasn't what caught Jie Ming's attention. 

The array is on the ground, the detonation attempt is frighteningly active, waiting on that final command. In the middle of the battleground is Kunlun. 

Da Qing is circling around the array, his eyes wild as he weaves his way through the attacking forces. Jie Ming watches as he kills one soldier and snarls as another comes, only to fall to the ground lifeless when the red whip slashes down. 

"Sang Zan!" Wang Zheng's cry is plaintive, afraid as she sees her first love battling at Kunlun's side, his earrings swinging with every strike. They are keeping the others back, buying Kunlun time, he realizes. Blindly he grabs Wang Zheng as she rushes forward,

"Wait!" he tells her. "Don't try! This has already happened!" 

The whip transforms and Kunlun dodges a strike, his guandao now in his hands. 

Thinking quickly Jie Ming releases Wang Zheng and runs forward, dodging an attack with the fluid grace of someone used to a battlefield. He slams his forearm into the exposed face of a Southern Haixingren soldier and spins expertly, snatching a spear from the body of a fallen soldier. He plants his foot and hurls the spear with an Acheng war cry.

It flies true and pierces the throat of the man he suspects is Fei Hong.

All of these characters, except for the three he is trying to save, are already dead.

There is no telling how anyone would react, but his cousin being the man he is, simply turns. He's covered in blood and filth, eyes a little wild still, but he sees Jie Ming and laughs. Everything else, every soldier and Da Qing himself pauses, suspended in motion.

Jie Ming realizes that he was right. The array is not powerful enough to hold Kunlun completely, which means that his cousin on some level knows he is trapped.

He wants to run to him and throw his arms around his cousin, wants to tell how much he has missed him, loves him and he knows however foolish, that he will try to pull a promise from Kunlun, never to do this again...

He does none of these things and only smiles tremulously, his view of his cousin blurring as his eyes fill with tears he thought long dried.

At the sight of his distress, his cousin left the array, something he would never have done in the real world. A detonation array was not something to ignore.

He walked slowly up the embankment towards them and Jie Ming said in a voice thick with barely suppressed tears, "Be ready."

At the sight of Kunlun's easy stride and those dark piercing eyes, Wang Zheng swallowed and looked past him to Sang Zan. "I am ready."

"No one is." Jie Ming said with a laugh. No one was ready to deal with his cousin, not even Shen Wei.

Chapter Text

A single raindrop fell from the dark sky to land on metal, sliding down armor to splash on a heavy boot.

Hidden in the trees, with over a hundred men below him, a scout lifted his wet hand and scowled at the promise of rain, but kept his eyes fixed on the stronghold in the distance, painfully aware of the level stare aimed at him, from his Battle Commander waiting on a fallen tree below. 

They had been hidden here for hours and the wait was beginning to take its toll but their orders were clear. Orders from the center of Dragon Palace, signed by the Chancellor himself.  They were to keep watch and if there was the slightest hint of trouble, they were to act to defend their king. This was the sole purpose for their presence in the Hanga Valley, having left their watch tower post to the east.

Their Battle Commander, all too aware he was leading some of the youngest recruits into combat, had camped close to the new Meng city, wondering silently, as he was sure many did, why anyone would attack the most feared General in Dixingian history.

The scout's eyes suddenly widened as the sky seem to explode in a riot of color. Green and white lit the darkness  forming the unmistakable pattern of the Dixing war flag. Every citizen knew it well and the scout shouted down to his Commander, "It's the signal! The war flag! The Emperor is under attack!" 

------

There is the smell of iron lingering in the air mingling with the chrysanthemum oil and incense that follows Jie Ming.

There are corpses lying in the mud of her homeland, the once peaceful, green valley where Wang Zheng had walked with her father as a child was gone. Replaced by this horror, a scene of death and cruelty. She knew violence but never believed that there was any shame in wanting a life without it. 

It was a hollow feeling to realize that the good memories of the past were further away than she thought.

Wang Zheng would like to deny it, for it was at odds with how he was in most situations, but Shen Wei had a certain, undeniable and unearthly savagery to him in rare glimpses. Always something to do with protecting their daughter or Kunlun and he never hesitated in his decisions to defend Dixing.

Fighting for his nation was written into his bones, she thought. So too was the fight, she had seen that first hand when Cong Bo attacked, and when one of his ministers years ago had turned on him in the middle of court, only to die with a single swipe of his pudao. She remembered how Shen Wei had calmly sat back down on his throne and apologized to her immediately, for the violence and for the stains.

It was something she had simply been forced to come to terms with, but here and now, she saw how war had forged Shen Wei, honed both his mind and his wits. She had always wondered how Shen Wei had survived years of war, keeping the very core of himself intact. His morals, his kindness and patience, now she wondered how anyone survived this without going mad.

Nausea rose and her eyes looked past Kunlun's imposing figure to Sang Zan in the distance. Her heart soaring like a swallow on the breeze, as she looked at him. The memory of him had been edged in pain for all the years of their parting, a long knife never blunted and she embraced the sharpness of it. She deserved the pain of her grief, for she lived and prospered when Sang Zan, for all he had suffered, never had the chance to live.

She could never grasp him in her memories, he was intangible. Framed in golden sunlight and the stars. In the eyes and in the mannerisms of her daughter, who looked so much like him. He was her love and his ghost haunted her, but slipped away as life so cruelly went on, time uncaring.

Untouchable just as he was now.

Focus A-mei.

Shen Wei's voice echoed in her ears, from the days of his tireless tutelage, broke her gaze. She focused back on Kunlun who stood before them now in his armor, eyes somehow both fierce, angry and curious.  He was a part of this world of violence and terror but looking at him now, he seemed so out of place at the same time. Some people she had learned only fit their chosen world, whether they were a courtier or a carpenter. She could be meeting him on the road or in a corridor, in peace or in war and she thought he would look the same.

Here in this created world, those not of its fabric are haloed in purple light, so Wang Zheng can easily see who are trapped and who are long gone beyond the reach of the mortal life.

Her father had warned that the old array was made to keep secrets, warned too that her brother should not give of himself.

He had seemed to understand, but Wang Zheng had never attempted anything without giving all of herself to the task. Not falling in love, not becoming the Empress nor in championing her causes or in motherhood. She gave herself and to this cause, she would give more.

 

Kunlun threw his arms wide, his famed sword nothing but an illusion but it glinted in the yellowish light, and he used it to gesture around him, glaring at Jie Ming, "Not you too! Don't you know better?"

"We are here to free you!" Jie Ming replied his voice rising as he stared at his cousin, with a tragic expression, "It's been so long."

Eyes as dark as the deepest shadows looked from her to Jie Ming, a smile that was genuine but worn around the edges appeared as he slowly lowered his arms.  If she had expected him to try to work out if they were real, she would have been disappointed, for he glanced from one to the other before saying, in a deceptively soft tone, "You should not be here cousin. This is the worst kind of array." 

"I had to come." Jie Ming said in a subdued tone despite his defiance, his eyes glued to Kunlun's every move. "I had to try. You would have done the same!"

There was a distance between only because both were aware that there must be, otherwise she knew, Jie Ming would have embraced Kunlun by now, no matter how angry he might be.

Kunlun blinked and scowled at Jie Ming, but Wang Zheng saw the moment the purple light changed, dimming as the array tightened its grip. There was a pained look on his noble face and Jie Ming stepped forward, panic in his eyes.  "Xiao Lun! Biao?"

Wang Zheng never one to look away, took his arm in a firm grip.

A single touch was all it took for the world to change, for the scene around them to become hers. For a single moment all her pain, her grief, the very trembling steps that brought her from a field of flowers in sweet daylight to the night by the shore, when she faced her destiny to become one of the last of the Hanga. All of it was exposed to Kunlun.

"Xiao Lun! Wang Zheng!" Jie Ming's distressed voice faded as if it were only the voices of the wind through the mountains.

Zhao Yunlan was there with her as she looked into the eyes of a slave surrounded by the meadow's beauty, the man who would break her world to sharp pieces, then rebuild it with careful hands, sliding into her heart to stay for eternity. He saw the moment Sang Zan killed her father. When he proclaimed that slavery was no more, that the tribe was free. The moment they turned against her, clamoring for her death. 

Kunlun pulls free from her weak hold and stares as they watch her failed execution, Sang Zan's agony. The promises of Southern Haixing and she felt his sudden revulsion as they watched some of the elders of the new tribe, discussing the future with the Crown Prince. The press of Sang Zan's  body in the shadows as they listened, his whispered words, "We'll leave Ge Lan. We'll go to them. Find this Kunlun." 

The freezing rain on a lonely road, stumbling into the arms of the Alliance soldiers. They watched as Sang Zan tried to bargain with Kunlun, the same sharp eyes watching them and heard the words again, framed by an understanding smile that eased their hearts, "I have my own Great Beauty Chieftain Sang Zan," 

Kunlun's eyes glancing kindly at Wang Zheng who gripped Sang Zan's arm in fear and false bravery. "And there is little I would not do for my wife." 

The promise that resonated through time, a torch carried by Shen Wei, by Zhu Hong and Chu Shuzhi, first came from the lips of this defiant leader. "No harm shall come to Ge Lan. She will live free no matter what happens." 

When the world righted itself they were standing on the shore, clouds drifting across the moon, ethereal light stroking the dark water in streaks of milky white.  

Kunlun like the moon above drifted to the shadows of the old ginkgo tree that stood like a silent sentry before the rippling waters. The past him that came from Wang Zheng's memories carried Shen Wei, a pale face pressed into his shoulder, a black cloak trailing behind him, loose on Shen Wei's wounded form. They watched as Kunlun stepped into the water towards the boat, the leaves of the weeping willow caressing his hair, as if it knew the breaking of his heart. 

They watched as Chu Shuzhi, bloodied and still was propped in the boat, a cut below his ear bleeding freshly. A soldier led Wang Zheng into the boat, the stones on her dress glittering for the span of a heartbeat, until Kunlun handed her a dark cloak. 

The trapped Kunun watches with heartbreak in his eyes until he turns back, to look at her from the shadows. His gaze is weapon, cold and predatory now as he assesses her in silence.

"Chieftain Kunlun," Wang Zheng begins but gets no further when he interrupts.

"Tell me daughter of the Hanga," His tone is friendly and bright but his eyes are molten, inescapable. "Why are you here? It's not because you want a partner for a little trip.'

He takes a step and Wang Zheng feels trapped, knowing the power this man has, but his next words shock her. "Has my cousin finally found a woman he likes? Are you doing this for him?' He asks almost hopefully, "Do I have a tángsǎo now?"

Wang Zheng's face colors instantly and she frowns at him, "No! Jie Ming and I are friends." It's a direct attack on her honor and reputation, she should be furious not flustered. "I'm married."

"Well don't drag along his feelings then." Kunlun says sagely. "I won't forgive you for it, even if he does."

"No!" Wang Zheng says frustrated and almost amused. This is the Kunlun from some of the stories she has heard. The man who could sell you, your own house in five minutes, and drive you to madness with misdirection. Following the path of his thoughts is so challenging and the way everything he says has more than one meaning is a nightmare. No wonder Shen Wei so hopelessly loves him, she thinks. "There is no feelings! I am here to help you! To repay my debt and because..."

Dark eyebrows rise and she stumbles forward, "Because of Sang Zan...and for Lord Shen Wei. For Zhu Hong and Lin Jing...for Chu Shuzhi and for Old Li who misses you and Da Qing like a father misses his sons..."

"You know of me and know Jie Ming..." He says thoughtfully, "What are you to Zhu Hong?"

Wang Zheng took a breath and said strongly, "A friend."

His head tips to the side, "To Chu Shuzhi?"

"A sister."

"So family in Dixing and to Old Chu of all people!" He says with an ironic smile, "You know the array and so they convinced you to do this."

"I do this of my own will." She says earnestly. "You saved my life. I owe you." 

Kunlun laughs and turns from the shadows, "We both know that's not the reason, or not entirely."

"You are here for Sang Zan."

Its the truth, not all of it but it sits at the very heart of it, of her. "Yes."

Kunlun shakes his head, "They should not have sent you, whether you agreed or not."

Shen Wei rarely spoke of Kunlun over the ten years they had known each other, his pain too great, but others often recalled the Chieftain. Zhu Hong especially. She had learned that Kunlun protected his people as best as he could, using his wits to give them the best possible chance. The man in those stories would not wish someone he loves to throw away their life, to help him.

Shen Wei had paid with his life, his soul and heart for ten years, perhaps for as long as he had known Kunlun.

"The world has moved on Chieftain Kunlun," She said not unkindly, "There is another night and then a new dawn. There is duty and always another problem or task to fill the time...but we have never left this day."

Wang Zheng gestured with tears in her eyes to the boat bathed in moonlight for a brief moment. "They have searched for you, bled for you...Shen Wei never gave up hope. He comes here trying to find you. Now he has, he will never give up."

Kunlun looks back to the Shen Wei who is waking in the boat, a pale hand gripping Kunlun's sleeve. He closes his eyes and then looks back her once more. "How long Ge Lan?"

The name is startling and she stares at him for a long moment. No one calls her that, or even utters the name. Not even her own lips form the sounds of her birth name in the hush of her rooms...her daughter will live her entire life and never learn this name she is sure.

He is waiting for an answer, patient and silent. Wang Zheng draws air into her lungs and says in a strained voice, "Ten years."

Kunlun runs a hand over his face and his lips move for a moment, soundless in his pain. "Ten years?" He laughs then, hollow and slightly bitter. "No wonder Lao Ming looked like that...Where is he anyway?"

"He will break the array from the inside as Lin Jing works on the outside." Wang Zheng tells him.

"Nothing I've ever done has worked." He says ruefully in reply, "But then, if they can work without ending up attached to the jujube tree that acts as the living anchor."

"A tree?" Wang Zheng exclaims and Kunlun turns immediately.

"Tell me they didn't send you in here without knowing how the array actually works. Tell me they know that this the Fifth Gate of legend."

"They know it is the Fifth Gate." Wang Zheng said quickly, "Lord Shen Wei went inside it."

Kunlun blinked and stared, "...He...He went inside the Fifth Gate..."

He turned around and then turned back just as abruptly, "I am the only one with any sense? And," He said sharply with a finger raised high into the air, "He calls me reckless. Me. And then he does that." 

Kunlun looks back over the water and grimaces as he watches himself place Shen Wei in the boat. "My wife is mad." He mutters and walks forward, with Wang Zheng following behind. 

"What do you mean about the tree Lord Kunlun?" She asks as she comes to the shore line with him, lost and more than a little bewildered. She had learned from others though that was a common experience with Kunlun.

"They should not have sent you. but worse still to let Xiao Wei here." Kunlun said as he watched Shen Wei's boat. "His dark energy would have destabilized the array with this abundance of resentful energy."

"There was no one else." Wang Zheng said loudly, "The Da Huang killed everyone else!"

Kunlun turned and stared at her, his foxfire eyes alight, "If that is true they will pay with their lives. I gave no command for that." He said harshly, "But if you want to survive this Ge Lan, you need to understand that this is not simply a trap. It is not the mortal realm. It is a fragment of the true Second Bridge of the old self-righteous Immortals."

"You cannot break the array and you cannot open the gate either."

"Then how do we get free?" Wang Zheng asked, "How did my father?"

"By someone else opening a portal through to the damaged bridge platform of the old gate that we are currently standing on. The crazy idiots used a Seal to hide the Fifth Gate using what they thought was a old array.  When the Da Huang lost the histories, they failed to recover three manuscripts. "

"And someone used the manuscript to.."

"Summon the Fifth Gate using this bridge section." Kunlun waved his hand. "It was used as a test. The Immortals used these bridges through to their hand crafted realms. Anyone they brought with them would pass tests on the bridge." He shrugged. "I'd say it was war, but really I think it was for amusement."

"So if I tell Lord Jie Ming...he will know how to open the bridge?' Wang Zheng asks hopeful.

"Not exactly." Kunlun warned. "He will need something personal from all three of us. Your Sang Zan, Da Qing and myself." 

"How personal?"

A grin bold and infectious was aimed at her immediately, humor in his eyes, "Not too personal. but something worn or often held by the person."

"I have a bracelet that belonged to him." Wang Zheng admitted softly. "He gave it to me as a promise he would return."

Kunlun nodded, 'That would do. Ask if him if he has anything of mine or Damn Fatty's around. If he has, tell him to use the ritual of the Falling Moon and that it is the same for the eucalyptus tree. He'll understand."

Wang Zheng nodded firmly, "I will tell him."

 

 

Chapter Text

Love is courage and indescribable pain. It is strength and it is mercy, even when it mercilessly breaks your heart.  

Wang Zheng could hardly feel the tears on her cheeks, when Lord Kunlun suddenly wrenched free of her grasp, his dark eyes flashing. The world crashed into a blur of color, the corpses and nearly overpowering stench of blood, disappearing as if they had never existed. For a moment she could barely see and struggled to regain some control over herself, before she fell victim to the gate magic, seeping through this false realm.


The ground was the same, memory and expectation maintaining the illusion as Kunlun stumbled back a step or two and sat down on a smooth rock, heedless of his sword, his armor..the fight raging around him... 

The rock appeared seeming so out of place in this battlefield, untouched by the fighting and bathed in afternoon sunlight, while all else appeared dark, gloomy and ominous. He settled blindly onto its familiar surface, with its long cracks and dry chalky texture, as he struggled to make sense of what he had learned, dread heavy in his heart.  

Nothing in this scene or in this very world was real and he had known it for such a long time now. Had lost himself to it, exhaustion and injury wearing him down until he had accepted the role the Gate had given him. It had served him well that faux submission. 

He had used everything he knew to weave himself into the bridge, until it saw him as a piece of itself, one of its founders, its creators. It allowed him to protect the others, to shield them so completely he could hide them in the depths. It also critically allowed him to act as a final block for anyone trying to open the original Gateway, the other one this bridge was connected to. A Gate that led to a void. If Desolation was legendary and world-ending, this would be far, far worse.

Having awareness again was shocking and new. His old power and memories restored to him, when before there had just been light, heat and pain. An agony so intense, nothing beyond the feeling had remained, nothing but his will, his control...

He almost wished he could return to the fires, after everything Wang Zheng had shown him. The memory of Shen Wei's immediate disapproval at that reckless, thoughtless and no doubt self-pitying remark would have been amusing, sweet even...had it not plunged a dagger through his heart. 


The Gate responded to his turmoil, the roiling emotion in his chest as he tried to make sense of what he now knew, had seen. Shen Wei had come for him. Had married but had not given up him. Going as far as to come here, to open the Fifth Gate, an act of sacrifice that had his hands curling into fists.  

Ten years. 

He laughed to himself, hollow and hurting and bent his head to stare blindly at his boots. They were scarred from war and covered with streaks of blood painted over the heavy unforgiving mud. Some of that blood was Shen Wei's, he remembered with another jolt of pain. From when he had stepped in front of a blade, meant for him. For a second he felt the weight of Shen Wei falling into him, the spray of blood as it arched in the air and the choked, pained sound that broke from Shen Wei's perfect, sweet lips.  

He rubs his fingertips together and tries to breathe through the knot in his throat. He was weary and hurting, burning with Gate energy that no mortal was ever meant to touch and hollow with the knowledge that Shen Wei was...married...untouchable...as lost to him as... 

He swallowed uncaring of the burning for once. He didn't blame Shen Wei. How could he? Zhao Yunlan was the one foolish enough to fall in love with a man who chained to duty. He's known, he reminded himself clenching his hands, that one day Shen Wei would leave him. The Imperial Court would never have accepted him to have married a common cultivator, of Southern Haixing blood too.

Surely though as Emperor....He shook his head. What did he know of court life, of Imperial laws? Only what Shen Wei had unwittingly revealed. 

"Lord Kunlun!" Wang Zheng says urgently, her voice a plaintive cry. "They need you!" 

He looked up and stared at the deceptively fragile woman standing not far away, the white fabric of her robes glowing with the Hanga connection to this old bridge, spanning two Gates and millennia of secrets. Shen Wei's wife. His Empress. 

The pain had tears burning in his eyes and the solemn resignation further breaking his heart. His Xiao Wei had found a wife, in the fugitive from these lands. A marriage and a daughter. 

"Lord Kunlun!" She tried again, daring to move closer. "Please. You must fight." 

Zhao Yunlan doesn't know what to do with his broken heart, he should be angry, betrayed perhaps, but its hard to think beyond the pain. He's drowning and he can't think, caught in the burning energy and the heartbreak amplified by the gateways.

He doesn't know what might have happened if the entire world hidden within the Second Gate's broken, semi-corrupted bridge had not violently shuddered, ripples of colored light spreading across the sky. It triggers something in the illusion magic and suddenly, the breath in his lungs no longer feels as though it is hot ash and charcoal dust. 

He staggers like boat without a mast, listing to the side before he rights himself, rolling smoothly to his feet when his rock vanishes. Shaking his head, with little bright spots of color dancing in his vision, Zhao Yunlan thinks, that somewhere outside this realm he must have a body, but he's somehow disconnected to it and he can't begin to work how to locate it.


That startles a dry laugh from his cracked lips. He can just imagine Jie Ming's face, the consternation for losing the basic connection to his body. He can also hear Shen Wei's focused, quiet lecture on well-being. 

The chains that held him are loose now and like the cunning fox, he sidesteps all attempts to corral him back into his cage. Because now, he has alarm and worry for his family, to break through the disorienting pain. 

Another ripple. He watches it as it travels across the sky. That was bad. Ignoring Wang Zheng, Zhao Yunlan stretches out his hands and connects once more to the bridge, seeking answers. His awareness allows him a moment of pure clarity, allows him to take a step back from the seething energy around him and focus. Falling to floor in grief might be tempting, but he's had long practice with defiance. With forcing himself to carry on, to battle through his own agony with a sword in hand.


If that ripple means what he thinks it probably means...then it was time to leave this bridge before it collapses, killing all of them in the process.


Thinking quickly as he separates what he knows from all that is intrinsically bound up with the gate magic, Zhao Yunlan reaches outward. The bridge accepts his actions easily, aiding him as he touches the outside world, using the channels Wang Zheng has unknowingly built into this bridge. He finds Jie Ming easily on his first try, their old connection forged through Gate magic far more powerful than this and he breathes more freely when he finds that familiar, soothing resonance.  So that wasn't his imagination or a good hallucination. It really had been Jie Ming. 

A pause and then he frowns, power coalescing around him, "What the hell is Lao Ming doing here!" 

"Trying to free you!" Wang Zheng says plaintively in answer. "Please Chief Kunlun." 

Nothing really makes any sense right now, but he trusts Wang Zheng against his own judgment. He remembers the bleeding frightened Ge Lan, standing shivering on the banks of the river, huddled near Shen Wei in the boat next to Chu Shuzhi. "We made a deal." He remembers now, his tone cold.

She looks up at him, her eyes wide and filled with tears, but to her credit, she holds his stare. "Shen Wei for Sang Zan." 

"Is that why you married him?" He asks as the wind picks up around them, unable to keep the bite from his tone, the betrayal from seeping into the question. 

She looked as if she had been slapped but stepped forward, ignoring the rippling energy, "I've kept him safe. My daughter...is Sang Zan's child." 

Zhao Yunlan blinked at her, feeling more like himself the longer he focused. The world shuddered again preventing him from answering.    

"What's that?" Wang Zheng cried, "Where is Sang Zan?" 

Reaching for that connection to Jie Ming, he prods it carefully, exactly as he had a thousand times before. There is a delay and then he feels Jie Ming flinch away from the pain Zhao Yunlan cannot really hide. Then before he can retreat, a flood of gentle warmth, relief and affection filters back to him, along with an iron grip. 

Like a hand curling around his own, his cousin's magic finds his. Zhao Yunlan laughs and tugs that feeling not expecting Jie Ming to open his meridians, locking his own power around Zhao Yunlan's.


"Lao Ming is more powerful than I remember." He muses aloud and smiles.


Zhao Yunlan lifts his hand and manipulates that power slightly, until the world around him dips lightly and he standing exactly where Jie Ming is, hovering neither within him or far from him. He can feel Jie Ming welcome him, rejoicing in his return and smiles. Whatever happens he still has this.


Letting go just slightly, he feels Jie Ming's dismay and winces as his cousin instantly tightens his grip, as if he is afraid. Zhao Yunlan tries to reassure and makes it so Jie Ming can still sense him.

He tries not be hopeful that Shen Wei is here, that he'll get to see him one last time...he could be happy with that, he thinks and smiles.

....Time to go to work.

 

"Wang Zheng,"


She turns to him, suddenly there glowing softly in white. "What is it Lord Kunlun?"


"I'm going to need your help."


----


The courtyard was on fire and the winged beasts from nightmares soar across the sky. 

It was something from legend, impossible and yet impossibly real as the rear wall of the Meng stronghold fell crashing to the ground. Soldiers too young to have seen the war and far older commanders surged, brave and clueless as the enemy they fought was of the skies not the land. They brought out the flaming spears and tried firing them from the ramparts.


Archers fired arrows into the night air that did little damage to the massive creatures and the strongest cultivators from the Meng Clan could only do so much.


Shen Wei looked out across the battlefield, glaring at the creatures attacking his land and his people. The black cloak of the Envoy appearing around him, wreathed in black smoke and icy air.


A person can have many faces and many roles in life, shedding each one like a snake loosing its skin, or changing for a single time like a moth. Shen Wei in one lifetime had been many things. He had been forged like a blade for one purpose, found an echo of that calling in his Soul Tool, the curved hilt of a sword, the heft of a pudao. 

But he was not a moth. He was the snake. 

This journey to free Kunlun had brought his own life into perspective. Parts of himself he had buried. The Fifth Gate had ripped many of his old barriers away, leaving him raw and once more in mourning. Grief an ceaseless bubbling fountain of pain.  Once as a child he had been an outcast, then a wángzǐ of Shen, a transformation that was something from a story. To him life in Ye had been uncertain not glorious, safety a forgotten dream. The rise of the Dowager Empress was bloody and he was suddenly a general in name only, still a boy in a position meant for a man. His twin was king in another breath and he was Lord Commander, his troops calling him er-dianxia. 

Conflict expanded beyond unification and he took his weary soldiers to a new war, the name Ghost General sending fear through the hearts of his enemy. He was the Black Robed Envoy to the Alliance and wángchǔ to Dixing.

He was Shen Wei to Zhao Yunlan.

Brother Black to Kunlun.

Ghost King to the North. 

Now, he was Emperor of Dixing who still worshiped a Chieftain from the upper reaches of a land still shrouded in mystery. 

He was legend and fear. He was flesh and blood. He loved so deeply, he embraced ruin but lived for a single chance. A promise given in moonlight and held in foxfire eyes. 

A promise no one else knew of, a dream he never shared and a love that was as secret now as it was then. Very few knew that he lived for one person, that he had been slipping away nearly broken by war, a plummet he wouldn't survive, and the only hand that snatched his wrist was the hand of the most famous Guardian to ever live. 

In the candlelight decades after that defining day, when he had first traveled over that bridge into Ye City, Shen Wei realized that he had never given up any of his roles. Just as Kunlun had never given up on him. 

Dark energy collected at his fingertips and the cold metal of his sword was cradled in his questing hand. They would never get close enough to hurt Yunlan.    

There was a single thread, the last of the frayed ends of a decade-long memorial, a day of loss that never ended bound with the unearthly patience of darkness waiting for light. 

He had walked on the blood soaked ground of chaos, through the fire and danger of war, a calm settling into his black soul as the armies came for them, the surge of soldiers and the clash of weapons. The vicious satisfaction that his enemies had fallen hidden by dignified calm. 

Shen Wei felt that steady calm once more and the cold rage that was forged in the fires of grief, in the fear of loss, the shadow of the possibility that the man lying behind him vulnerable and lost, could be ripped from him so easily. 

He had barely survived searching for Kunlun...losing him to death would be his end. 

All around him they clamored, not unlike those battlefields now in memory. A cacophony of voices demanding he run, escape like a coward, to preserve Dixing or asked for orders, waiting for his command. He snorted at the irony. 

What was the point of the blood in his veins if Zhao Yunlan died tonight? Nothing. Nothing would have meaning and there would be no future without Kunlun, because it was clear that the danger to the world had not passed.


Did they so easily deluded themselves that the man they called king was not the same Lord Commander who had earned the name Ghost King? 

Shen Wei stalked to the edge of the steps, the pedant warm at the hollow of his throat, protectiveness curling around him.  He walked forward ignoring all of them and the black robes of his battle days settled around him with the violent storm clouds of dark energy. . 

Clan Leader Meng Changying stood beside him, her head bowed, her war breastplate barely hidden by her flowing robes. He suppressed a sharp smile, knowing it would look predatory. It seemed he was not the only one waiting for the enemy to make their move.  

"My King," She began deferentially, "The enemy has nearly breached the wards. Reinforcements are already here. The Meng Clan is yours to command." 

So it was, but did she know that Dixing was Zhao Yunlan's to command? Did she realize that Shen Wei would go to far greater lengths for this one man than for his nation? 

"His Majesty should leave." Zhao Xin Ci pointed out, his tone sharp. 

"Southern Haixing Emperors always call for retreat, when fire comes too close." Shen Wei said, his tone dripping with ice. "Their arrival has made it unnecessary to track down our mysterious third party. They wish to kill Kunlun. I would hardly leave without introductions." 

"Your Majesty," Lady Shuchun implored. 

"Spare your breath." Shen Wei said but not unkindly,  his tone unflinchingly polite but steel ran through the words nonetheless, "This city will not fall, but the vulnerable must be protected. Clan Leader. Evacuate the city." 

"My King," Someone gasps and he looks back at the scene before him to see Jie Ming and the Xunxi cultivators joining the fight. Jie Ming strides boldly, uncaring of the danger and Zhao Xin Ci growls something unpleasant.


Shen Wei glances at him and sees his face tight with something that might be worry.


He wonders dimly how Kunlun would react, to the sight. The realization that Zhao Xin Ci might care for his cousin.

Blue lightning twists unnaturally in the air as Jie Ming's hands rise, a coil of pure energy slashing through the air, annihilating one of the beasts easily. He twists and ducks without pause as another creatures dives to attack. One of his disciples blasts the creature with fiery earth, a ball of seething molten rock, burning it to charcoal so it falls as fine powder.


Lin Jing whirls into the fight, proving his status as one of Kunlun's Twelve,  and he throws a handful of paper talismans that launch at another creature, dissolving it's protective armor until it crashes to the ground. 

Shen Wei walks calmly down five steps and raises his own hands. Finally his rage has a target, his grief an outlet that he can wield. Pouring dark energy in his hands he hurls it at the four creatures descending in a smooth almost triangular formation, that speaks of another person's direct control.  There was nothing of chaos of primal instinct here, he thought.


Another wave came and Shen Wei threw a wave of dark energy that spread into the sky, destroying nearly twenty of the beasts as they dove into area.


From the break in the wall, thirty men streamed into the courtyard, inhuman growls and snarls filling the air, along with the tell-tale stench old blood.


"Mogwai!" Lin Jing yelled hurling more talismans as the horde came closer. Jie Ming threw out his hand and in the moonlight with the War Flag glittering above them, Shen Wei saw the spark of the black ring he wore. The ring flashed with unearthly light and chains deceptively thin, coiled around Jie Ming's wrist.

 

Five mogwai fell to blue lightning and a shock-wave that drove soldiers and demons alike to the ground. They were corpses with sharpen teeth and the grave magic that directed them was tainted a dark brown, swirling with black resentful power. Yellow eyes filled with malice gleamed from within the cloud of power and the oppressive weight of their hatred.


"What are they?" demanded Zhao Xin Ci, his own sword in his hand, his loyalists backing behind him.


"Demons." Meng Changying said sharply, her own guards forming a circle around her. "They feed off souls of the living and the darkest of sins. You might be unfortunate enough to see one in a lifetime and live to tell of it, but this many...its unspeakable."


Tu Qiuyue tries to stay close with the rest of the Royal Guard, but Shen Wei bares his teeth in a wordless snarl that is somehow more frightening than the demons surging towards them. He moves so nimbly away from them and takes a single leap high into the air, his sword arching down to slice into two of the demons, who scream. A sound that rings across the stones of the courtyard, chilling the blood of all who hears it.


Shen Wei seems immune and twists gracefully, ice forming in the air as dark energy raw and cold follows his blade as it beheads another three.


Meng Changying bellows a war cry and runs to follow, the Dixingian forces marshaling behind that wordless cry, knowing only that the battle had begun. One of Zhao Xin Ci's soldiers stutters and watches, saying close to his ear, "I've never seen the Ghost King fight. It's like the legends say."


"He has no mercy." Zhao Xin Ci replies darkly and follows down the steps partway. There were enough Generals and soldiers in Haixing that to this day, dreaded to sleep fearing the same nightmare that plagued him from time to time. The Ghost General, a blur of black as he decimated their forces cutting down even the best fighters with ease, as he held the flank of the Dixing army. Or worse yet, as he protected Lord Kunlun's back. His masked face was the last thing you saw before the end. No, he thought grimly, Shen Wei had no mercy, but he loved Zhao Yunlan.


"Nothing gets up these steps." He orders striking down at one of the demons, but neither his sword nor his cultivation power was enough to kill it outright. Zhang Shi stirs and sends a bolt of dark energy down  his sword arm, giving him more power. "This filth...They want Yunlan." He whispers in his mind. 


Mogwai keep coming and before long the courtyard is a battle ground.


It s a shock, painful and sudden when Jie Ming staggers. For a moment Shen Wei fears the worst, seeing his normally calm face pinched and ashen, his lips nearly bloodless. He still reacts to an encroaching  mogwai, killing it easily with a swing of his sword but it costs him. He's distracted and chokes out the name "Kunlun."

Instantly, Shen Wei grabs his arm and pulls him back to the steps, where they have a defensive line, Tu Quiyue directly behind him, with her guards. As soon as thry get close enough, Zhao Xin Ci grabs his arm in a steadying grip. "What is it?" He demands harshly. "Are you injured?"


Struggling out of his former enemy's hand is necessary for all the energy it robs him of. "No. It's Kunlun."


There was a frozen moment of stillness, as the Emperor registered the words. "What is Kunlun doing?" Shen Wei asks urgent and sharp from beside him, half torn between returning up the steps to the guarded room, where Zhao Yunlan lies and continuing to face off against the creatures their currently hidden enemy has unleashed on the Meng Clan.


"He's in so much pain..." Jie Ming gasps. "He's using the old connection." 

Shen Wei's heart plummets when he hears the world pain and fear has his grip tightening on his sword. Unknowingly his power destroys more of the creatures, mindlessly reacting to his panic. "Pain? As we saw before?"


"How are you able to commune with him?


"The connection is stable now.." He says slowly. "He suppressing the pain...I think...he's broken some of the chains...no wait..."


Jie Ming tilts and this time Shen Wei moves in to grab his shoulder, wondering if his healing power might channel to Kunlun as well.

Then those dark eyes lift and stare at Shen Wei with horror and he feared the words he would hear, all of his being braced, poised on the edge of no return, "He's burning alive." The words were whispered but it could have been shouted. It resonated cruelly in Shen Wei's bones and his heart broken, even as rage lifted its ancient head, seeking blood.

Zhao Xin Ci sucked in a sharp breath and his lips parted soundlessly.

"He's been burning alive for ten years."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The words cannot make sense but they ring through Shen Wei's heart like the tolling of massive bells. 

Burning. Alive. 

Zhao Yunlan. Hurting.

 

"No one could... survive that." Lin Jing says his tone vibrating in the night air with shock. Then he blinked and said in a strained voice, as if hoping someone would correct him, "Chief? Not Chief."


Whatever reply Jie Ming might have made, it's lost as he lurches forward choking as the pain increases. The deceptively delicate chains around his wrist glow ominously, but  Zhao Xin Ci grabs his shoulder once more to steady him and for once he doesn't fight his former enemy. His face is ashen and his lips are trembling as he silently chants something Shen Wei cannot hear. 

He does hear him say in a gasped breath, "For all my days," like the echo of a vow, a piece of himself whispered and held. 

There is no sound save the thudding of his own beating heart and the only thing he can feel beyond grief is the swell of his power, almost thrashing against his will. Power and strong emotions are a poor combination, proven when unbidden as another creatures flies too close, Shen Wei incinerates it without blinking. 

Swallowing, Shen Wei stares at Jie Ming as if trying to deny what he has heard. Zhao Yunlan's precious, beautiful face was so calm as he slept and Shen Wei had feared it hid some great harm. Now he knew what it was, what Yunlan was suffering...Shen Wei's throat closed. 

Burning. The flames that had surrounded him inside the Fifth Gate...the boundary holding him and the strange way the Gate Guardians had reacted to Shen Wei...

How long before pain was all he knew? Had he called out? How long before even the strongest mind broke?


He felt irrationally angry that the Gate Guardians supreme in their callous arrogance had not mentioned that Kunlun was in two places. That Da Qing and Sang Zan were with him somehow.


Had the Gate tried to take their minds? Had Kunlun done this to save them? Or worse yet, had this been forced on Kunlun, by someone or something?


He had had thought that being Zhao Yunlan, they simply had little control over him, because he was Kunlun. Not that he was...split? Stretched? The idea alone had a shudder dancing down Shen Wei's spine and cold dread settling in his  core. Whatever Yunlan was, whatever state he was in, it was hope pure that sparked in his heart hearing that Kunlun was aware enough to speak with Jie Ming.


It did not take long before Shen Wei remembered why Kunlun could do this, his hand tightening around the hilt of his sword.

The reason why he could hide life-force and why if he had wanted to, with enough Gate energy stolen in careful amounts, he could in theory at least, make an illusion then thread their lives into the bridge. Kunlun had one tool at his disposal, one creation powerful enough to be used in this way.


Shen Wei in his worry and joy at having Kunlun back, had forgotten the gift, the bracelet that adorned Zhao Yunlan's wrist.

 


Buried in Dixing's endless deserts deep in the south, there were fragments of meteorites that contained the highly prized shimmering white metal, the first Emperor of Dixing had romantically called Dragon Pearls. It was rare, but had been found in large deposits before. The first Emperor had built his crown with Dragon Pearls and a few other royals had followed his example over the centuries.


Six months after meeting Kunlun for the first time, Shen Wei had been recalled home. His brother had declared that the traitors who had tried for Shen Wei's life, were to be executed, leaving what happened to the traitor's families up to him to decide. All of their wealth and estates were transferred into Shen Wei's name, causing a massive upheaval in Ye Zun's court, even with Mother when the noble's extended family became Shen Wei's to command directly. 

It was more power and wealth than many felt comfortable with Shen Wei commanding.


Overall it had been an uncomfortable, needlessly stressful time, his waking moments spent trying to organize the upcoming military campaign against Southern Haixing, while dealing with court officials who wanted final decisions on a hundred or more questions, regarding taxes, land and the fate of people he never knew existed. 


Until Butler Wu had uncovered that one of the nobles possessed a necklace made from Dragon Pearls, handed down through their family line.


It had been ridiculously heavy and to Shen Wei an ugly, useless ornament ...until he had researched what this material could do.  It had taken over a year and several talented craftsmen to create, carefully paid for their skill and silence, but eventually he had been able to give Zhao Yunlan a gift on the night before he was made Lord Guardian of the Realms.


Far from being solely decorative, or a token of his love, his devotion, Shen Wei had bound dark energy within the stone, a unique binding array and a protective spell that would work...for as long as Shen Wei still breathed...designed to strengthen the spell automatically by taking some of his power in a fine thread. Too small to be discovered by an enemy and tracked...and too small to have any impact on Shen Wei's high energy power reserves.


He would have needed to be at his lowest to sense it and that had only happened once in ten years. After he had rebuilt the Underground gateway...he hadn't felt it then...but he had been near death. And delirious with a fever for a week afterward. What use would he have been?


The bracelet was still around Kunlun's wrist now, as he slept. Mistaken for the purest jade or confused for another precious Dixingian metal by Haixingren, most people including Ma Gui has overlooked the simple bracelet as jewelry.

The only piece of jewelry Kunlun would wear.

Zhao Yunlan had survived using Shen Wei's power. Not the bridge or the Seal recognized dark energy due to their age, while the Fifth Gate had been in two minds about Shen Wei's power. Perhaps that was why. It sensed that Shen Wei's power was already inside itself. An echo.

Shen Wei had been his shield all these years and yet couldn't find him. A bitter, painful irony.

He was waiting to be freed, holding onto Shen Wei. 

Shen Wei clung desperately to that thought and tightened his grip on his sword, hurling power at a mogwai as it moved nearer, its fetid blood spraying the ground. "How do we free him?" He demanded. "How do we open this bridge?" 

"He..." Jie Ming began his voice a harsh imitation of his usually soft tones.

"How do we know it really is Chief?" Lin Jing asks and lifts his hands in surrender as three furious people look at him. "We have all been taught about the demons that prey on the people searching the Gates! I really want it to be Chief! But...is it Chief?" 

Shen Wei has no doubt but no proof and Zhao Xin Ci looks momentarily gutted. Jie Ming huffs a pained laugh, "He wants noodles." 

Shen Wei despite the situation and the desperate agony of knowing Yunlan is trapped and hurting...tortured..smiles for a moment. Whatever he has suffered, he is still Zhao Yunlan.

 

"Noodles?" Zhao Xin Ci repeats quietly, dark eyes sliding between the three of them, his tone strained, their sanity, perhaps even his son's clearly questionable. 


"A demon would prey on emotion, on the loss." Lin Jing says grinning. "Chief would want noodles, like Deputy and his fish." 

He would have anything he could want, Shen Wei vowed. Anything, if he just came home. 


"He says he cannot open the bridge himself." Jie Ming tells them, "He's keeping Deputy and the Hanga Chieftain alive. If it realizes they are there, it will see them as intruders."


"He's been hiding within it?" Lin Jing repeats sounded impressed. "Chief really is one of a kind!"


"Hiding?" Zhao Xin Ci repeats interrupting Shen Wei and Lin Jing, ruthlessly.


Dragon Pearls were renowned for blocking energy signals, Shen Wei thought helplessly. When he had presented it to Zhao Yunlan, he had smiled almost shyly, the look in his eyes soft and wondering...


"The bridge was created as a doorway into a realm, now destroyed or so we assume. It's purpose was to confuse enemies if I understand him correctly. To save them from the Fifth Gate and the Seal, Kunlun submerged them into the bridge section. Concealing their life-force so neither the Seal or the Gate could use it." Jie Ming said frustrated, "He's in so much pain...it's like listening to errant thoughts. You would be hardly coherent!"


Zhao Xin Ci doesn't react to the barb, likely because he's been accused of far worse, and only blinks at his nephew. "It will hurt them? Or kill them?"


"Kunlun sounds uneasy," Shen Wei says quickly, glancing at the raging battle. And that simple fact was enough to worry Shen Wei immensely. Kunlun never feared easily.


The ground shudders beneath their feet and Shen Wei looks up, sword raised. The Royal Guard cluster closer and Lin Jing has a burning talisman in one hand ready for battle. Zhao Xin Ci's gaze is hooded, his grief submerged once more. 


From above the walls of the Meng a portal crashes to the ground in a way, Shen Wei had never before witnessed.


The Royal Guard moved like lightening to stand before him, swords and dark energy at the ready. Tu Quiyue, her eyes blazing snapped commands and Flame lit his hands, orange wreathed his hand flickering wildly.  Jie Ming stood up to his full height, despite the pain and the weakness that was obvious to all who knew him.

Lin Jing has a burning talisman in one hand ready for battle. Zhao Xin Ci's gaze is dark, his grief submerged once more. 


Into the spider's web a group emerged, the archers once useless now stood ready, arrows notched from high above waiting for the signal. The Xunxi warriors lingered in the shadows  and Zhao Xin Ci's guards moved in tighter around him.


No one was actually expecting the man who walked from the center of the swirling portal, into the light gleaming from the War Flag above.


"Gao Jingfeng?' Zhao Xin Ci's tone was stunned, his sword wavering.


As time moved on, warfare had shaped Shen Wei from a naive child to a feared Lord Commander, with the weight of Dixing's freedoms and future resting on his shoulders.  Peace won with Zhao Yunlan's blood had changed very little. At this point his power was well established and his popularity with the public remained strong. The court couldn't replace him with the number of loyalists he held in key positions and under his rule Dixing was thriving.


That didn't mean that Shen Wei had not kept a close eye on both the North and Southern Haixing. Personal wealth that was undisclosed meant that he could use a network of spies with reports sent to him weekly updating him on all of the political matters, their disputes and plans.


He knew everything of importance within Southern Haixing's Imperial Court. Shen Wei knew Emperor An Bai's staff, his problems, his enemies and should he need to, every possible way to kill the young king. He knew every member of the court as well as he knew his own.


Kunlun would have approved and he had long thought with a private smile touched by sadness, that he would have known even more.


So he knew Minister Gao, a highly respected former General who had served under Zhao Xin Ci for over a decade. Popular, well-placed and steady, he was favored by the king. He was less conservative in his views and had been appointed recently as the Chief Negotiator for Dixing and the North.


He certainly had no record of him possessing such remarkable powers, able to breach dark energy wards with an unstable portal. It was such a risky thing and Minister Gao was usually a great believer in risk assessment.


Sweeping his sword back into the folds of his robes, Shen Wei stood as an Emperor facing this new threat.

Behind him were twelve men and three figures struggling in manacles, black hoods obscuring their faces, in a scene familiar to anyone who had seen prisoners of war. Dread only intensified in Shen Wei's stomach and Lin Jing gasped.


"Minister Gao?" Shen Wei called in his most polite tones, edged with cold malice, "So far from Southern Haixing, what brings you here?'


"Your Majesty," Minister Gao greeted with a nervously polite smile, bowing deeply. His dark blue robes were decorated with dark grey, a set Shen Wei recognized from his reports as the Minister's usual court outfit. An odd choice, he thought suspicion worming its way into his mind."I hope our presence is not an inconvenience."


You break into a stronghold on the edges of firmly held territory, well known to be the Emperor of an former enemy nation, preferred place of rest and call it an inconvenience? Shen Wei frowned in distaste.


"I cannot say I would invite you," Shen Wei replied coolly, "But, you are the Chief Negotiator. Has Emperor An Bai, the Glorious Son of Southern Haixing, decided to declare war on Dixing?"


Every Dixingian soldier tensed and the Northern forces assembled around the steps glanced at the King of the Upper North. 


Jie Ming, who had reluctantly taken the title after Kunlun's presumed death, glared balefully at Minister Gao and gestured to the hooded figures. "You bring prisoners with you, to demonstrate your commitment?"


"My commitment has always been to my nation." The Minister said almost dreamily.


Zhao Xin Ci uncaring of protocol or the danger his own life was in, should Shen Wei raise his hand, stalked forward. "Why do this?" he demanded loudly. "You were the one who wanted peace! You stood up to the Emperor, helped to draft the peace treaty! Why come here and risk everything you worked for? Doing this, you are threatening war!"


"Kunlun must be stopped." Minister Gao said in a placid tone. "You know this old friend."

"You helped me to find him!" Zhao Xin Ci said, betrayal in his tone.


The hooded figures were kicked down by their guards and the hoods pulled off roughly. Lin Jing snarled and made an aborted step forward. Jie Ming hissed like a cat and Shen Wei bit back his anger at the sight of Zhu Hong and Lady Fu You, bound and gagged on the floor. Both had been beaten, but Zhu Hong's gaze was murderous. 


"No." Jie Ming said sharply and Shen Wei winced, knowing his fondness for the Chieftain of the Da Huang. He wasn't sure if it was love but the look of outrage and horror on Jie Ming's face was more than friendship. 


The third had Shen Wei scowling deeply. On the floor trying to rise to his knees was his old mentor and advisor, Professor Zhou. Shen Wei had promoted him to Minister of Ceremonies year ago, and knew that at this time of year, he would be visiting his sister as he drafted the exam for next year  at the Imperial University.

"Kidnapping one of Our citizens and one of Our Imperial Ministers, is an excellent precursor to war.' Shen Wei said coldly, his voice ringing across the courtyard.


Zhu Hong chose that moment to kick a guard and slam her head into Minister Gao's leg, toppling him. He let out a sound like a wounded animal and lashed out with power, his eyes turning to an unnatural cold blue.


Jie Ming shouted, "Zhu Hong!" He threw out a hand and blocked the blast of energy before it touched her, but it didn't stop one of the guards from hitting her.


"...And that was all the proof we needed," Lin Jing drawled loudly, "We have another Disembodied trying to kill us!'


"Under possession, this would not be a direct break in the Treaty," Shen Wei offered. "Surrender and I will consider before We arrange a military response."


Seeing Gao Jingfeng sway suddenly and back away from Zhu Hong, Zhao Xin Ci moved closer to him, his hands outstretched. ""Gao Jingfeng, listen to me."

"Stay back, or I will kill them." The Disembodied hissed.

"Why did you bring them here?' Shen Wei demanded to distract the Disembodied from what Jie Ming was doing. It was obvious why the being possessing the Minister had come here. What was not clear was what he wanted from Kunlun.

"I want Kunlun." The Disembodied replied, confirming Shen Wei's fears. "Give him to me and I won't kill them."

To bargain with someone devoted was madness in itself. This being might have hostages, but Shen Wei was not powerless here. He was helpless and was possibly even more ruthless than his reputation implied. This being would not cross this threshold, his hands would never touch Zhao Yunlan, this he swore. He could see it answered in Zhu Hong's furious eyes. She would rather die than betray Zhao Yunlan.

"Why Lord Kunlun? He has done nothing to you." Shen Wei snapped, dark energy dancing in black smoky clouds around his feet, terrifying his Guards.

"He has the key!" The Disembodied shouted. "It passed to him through that filthy family!"

"What key?" Zhao Xin Ci demanded, "There is no key."

"You are a fool if you believe that mortal." The being replied, the Minister's face ashen and he swayed slightly. "This human husk is weak."

"My friend has a strong constitution, you are weakening him. Release him." Zhao Xin Ci commanded.


The mists thickened in the valley and drifted like clouds into the courtyard, the array cut into the ground beginning to glow like fire. Jie Ming began chanting, his voice low and measured, then after a beat Lin Jing joined him. Blue lines followed the glow of the array, new lines adding themselves, spreading out across the stones.


Shen Wei didn't know what they were doing, and could only hope that whatever it was, it would help Kunlun.

"Kunlun has the key to the Fifth Gate. He was the Gate Master of the North, the king. He's the reason we failed!"

"Failed to open the Gate?" Shen Wei finished. "You and Yan were working together. She promised you the Gate, the wish you would both have, for it is the same wish. The same pain you carry. Kunlun ruined that when he stopped you."

"He killed Yan's host and tracked her to the array. I was behind them. When I arrived, he had broken the Seal and fragmented the control over the Gate. He ordered the Guardians to hold the perimeter! He used ancient laws and commanded them to take us as unclean intruders!" The Disembodied shouted.

"But you escaped." Shen Wei added. "What did you do to Kunlun?"

Trapped him. Forced him to suffer excruciating pain. Pain you will feel, that I will make you feel.

"I planned to take his body." The grin was cruel and the Minister's eyes burned with false blue light.

"So did Yan." Shen Wei said swallowing rage.

"I used what I had learned Emperor and I turned the Seal on him. An attack dog not even he could block." The smile turned to a smirk, "He fell into the Fifth Gate rather than let us have what we deserved! His sacrifice." He sneered, laughing. "He doomed himself to fires!"

Zhao Xin Ci lashed out sudden and rage-filled, doing exactly what Shen Wei himself wanted to do. His sword would have struck the laughing maniac, but he ducked with more speed that a mid-level cultivator like Minister Gao should have been able to move, especially with a well-documented war injury to his right knee. 

Red power struck like lightning, arcing high in the air and the laugh became a scream.  "You will stop."

All eyes turned to the steps and Lin Jing paused momentarily in his chant. Lady Fu You looked stunned as she tried to shield Zhu Hong and Professor Zhou.

Shen Wei could honestly say that he never witnessed Ma Gui truly angry. The older warrior was always calm and exuded a steady presence, his words often softly voiced but they always held the heft of command, of strategies and years of bloodshed. Ma Gui was the heart of the Alliance, the voice of reason, his power quiet but undeniable. 

Kunlun had always listened to Ma Gui, respect and support in his eyes when Ma Gui spoke. For a long time there had also been the shadow of sorrow, of something Shen Wei was afraid to name as guilt. Such things were misplaced with Zhao Yunlan. Every action, every step he took was marked with the consequences he had already decided to accept. Very little came as a surprise to a mind like his, so every reaction to his choices had little impact upon him. 

Whatever had happened between was always there, like a bloodstain. The pull and shove of their relationship was quiet, but to Shen Wei who watched Kunlun with loving, devoted eyes for months before that kiss beneath the stars, it was curious, even strange. 

Ma Gui was protective of Kunlun, never allowing naysayers to undermine him or the danger in their missions to fall to him alone. Some said it was because Kunlun was the greatest asset to the Alliance and many more suggested that Kunlun with his own military might, political support and undeniable position of Gate Master, could leave at any moment. 

To see his mouth twist in rage, clever eyes sparking as he descended the last of the steps was almost unnatural. Lines of twisted silvery grey wrapped around Minster Gao and he choked falling to the ground. Zhao Xin Ci moved closer, sword still in hand but with some concern for a man who obviously an old friend.

"If you want my brother, Tong of the Xue Tribe," Ma Gui's voice trembled with rage but reached every corner of the room, exactly as it did in the Tribal Assembly. "You will have to kill all of my people, the Xunxi, the Emperor of Dixing and as Southern Haixing will tell you, we are not easy to kill."


Zhao Xin Ci came closer still and Gao Jingfeng shook his head, a hand pressed to the ground, "Xin Ci? Old friend is that you? Where are we?" He asked, dazed and lost.


Those dark eyes shifted to gold, "Who ever you are, leave him alone." Zhang Shi said tipping his hands.


In a flash brown eyes surged with blue and the Disembodied, if that was what it was, lashed out. "All these years and you don't recognize me Zhang Shi!" He screamed, a sword in his hand.

Realizing what he going to do, Shen Wei threw out his hands and blocked the surge in power that would have incinerated all of them around the steps. Ma Gui shouted, "Fu You!" and wrapped power around the hostages from considerable distance before the guards could hurt them.

Zhao Xin Ci would have died instantly if a dark figure had not stepped in front of the blade and the raw power.

Kunlun.

The blade pierced through his battle armor from behind and Shen Wei screamed. He didn't register shoving forward, or the resounding cry from Jie Ming or Ma Gui. He didn't hear Zhu Hong or the Royal Guards shouting. All he saw was Kunlun, his face turned slightly from the impact of the blade slicing into his side. The grimace of pain that touched his face, before that intense, sharp look was leveled up to the steps, unerringly finding Shen Wei's face.

His dark hair was free from its confines, flowing down his back in a darkly jeweled waterfall, his eyes...his foxfire eyes were bright even as fire burned beneath his skin, flickering in his blood in a way that should have been impossible.Must be impossible.

Bloodied lips framed a few words that Shen Wei could not hear but read easily.

Shen Wei. End him.

 

Chapter Text

For a moment there is no sound, no world beyond Zhao Yunlan.

He wants to act, to step forward and simply end the Disembodied for daring to touch Kunlun and wants to obliterate it for hurting him, but the Disembodied unfortunately, while enraged was not an idiot. 

An injured tiger is no less dangerous and Kunlun was far more cunning than most people ever could be, his reputation singing through the Realms, there in whispered conversation at every gathering for years after the war ended, applauded by Dixing under Shen Wei's watchful eye and cursed liberally in Southern Haixing.

Kunlun was the face of peace and the name that spoke of bravery and war.

Tong would have to be a fool not to remember that the man he condemned so cruelly was a legend in his own right.

And to have fooled someone as suspicious - and one could say equally as cunning - like Zhao Xin Ci...that took patience and restraint. This plan to stop them from finding Kunlun, had been carefully tended, as his identities must have been. Minister Gao was highly respected and even if this possession was new, this Tong must have been possessing someone else highly influential.

Someone who triggered Empress Qingling, the mother of Emperor An Bai, the 'vision' Li Qian had told him about. The person who organized Cong Bo and subsequently Zhao Xin Ci..someone who had remained hidden to Zhang Shi. Someone who had schemed and survived even after the war, the defeat of Southern Haixing and the beginning of the fragile armistice.

Tong was a boy whose life was stolen, freedom snatched from his hands by a cruel means, wielded like a tool by an Immortal. Madness had taken him as clearly as it had Yan, but despite everything, he was not an idiot and so quickly pulled the blade free from Kunlun's side, in a move that had Shen Wei's entire being cringing in silent grief.

"Biaodi!" Jie Ming screams and Shen Wei hears the fear tangled in the word.

Kunlun is surrounded by fire and the blade, the blade that should have been slick with red blood slides free from his body, almost clean. Shen Wei blinks and something like dread settles in his heart.

Staring up at his son, Zhao Xin Ci sees not the feared warrior, the king of the North who waged his own war and forged peace with his own blood. He sees his child, five years old playing with a wooden figure in the garden, sunlight gleaming off his hair. He sees serious foxfire eyes listening to his stories and hears him laugh, childish and happy. He sees his terror when Shen Xi fell, his mother's blood staining one cheek. 

He could reach out and touch his cheek now, so real, so alive...his son...the baby in his arms holding his finger. 

But those eyes, the eyes that haunt him only blink. A generous mouth inherited from his Haixing grandfather twists as the sword pierces his body, the only sign of his pain. Then those eyes move passed him, mouthing words Zhao Xin Ci cannot understand. 

Then he moves. 

Fire erupts around him...within him. 

Flames flicker deep within his skin and terror strikes deeper still within the father, once left to search the dead for his child. 

Tong or whoever it is that possesses Minister Gao, pulls his blade free and stares at Kunlun with hatred. Shen Wei moves to attack, to do something but Tong points the blade back at Kunlun.

Kunlun staggers slightly as the blade leaves him, but only grimaces. He moves out by three steps, then pivots gracefully wreathed in dark smoke, his eyes shine like black stones and his tone was rigid, cutting through the panicked silence. Only once before had Shen Wei heard him speak with such cold finality and that had been at the execution of a traitor. 

"It's over." He said, his voice resonating, unbowed no matter his injury which makes Shen Wei halt. How is he unbowed?  "Your revenge is unsatisfied. It always will be." 

How is Kunlun still standing and why is there fire beneath his skin? Zhao Yunlan is rarely cold, often his anger is a righteous fire like his defiance. Is this Kunlun?

"The Immortal who did this, who created this vicious circle of revenge and bloodshed was killed millennia ago. By one of the descendants of Méh-è." Zhao Yunlan snapped and Shen Wei blinked hearing the immortal often called the Mother of the Gates, the immortal who began the Guardian Order.   

"You took from me!" Tong shouted sounding like that broken boy, "My hope, my wish!"

Foxfire eyes hardened and against the blood on his lips, it gave Zhao Yunlan a foreboding expression. All of the wounds Shen Wei had healed, all of them from when Kunlun had been trapped were present on him now. The gash on his brow, the cuts on his hands...and all at once Shen Wei remembers his bloodied victorious smile back arching on he daybed, Lin Jing unconscious on the floor...

"I took from you?"

Dark brows lowered like the settling of bird wings. "Like the Immortal you loathe, both you and Yan had not a single care for the lives around you. You used and stole, murdered and eventually not even life mattered. You didn't care that opening the full Gate would destroy life in this world. That the second bridge was too unstable to be used." 

"They mean nothing." Tong sneered.

From this angle he can see Zhao Xin Ci, staring at Kunlun with a wrenching expression. "As your people meant nothing to Ren Feng, when he let them die, when he severed the connection to your body." 

Tong moved forward to strike, using Minister Gao's battle training to swing the long sword in a cruel arc. Kunlun as nimble as a dancer moves at the last second, those dark robes swinging around his boots like a flock of crows. 

Shen Wei's heart is in his throat, but he knows Kunlun's fighting form, knows that five thousand men were not enough to defeat Kunlun in battle. Knows too that he will kill Tong with dark energy if an opportunity arises. For now he is too close to Kunlun's skin. 

Tong lunges and again Kunlun moves, one hand behind his back in a show of gentlemanly honor. Shen Wei doesn't believe it and knows that it simply for his audience. Kunlun fights like he does all things, without mercy and it is a style that Jie Ming has forced the Xunxi to adopt. He has no mercy for Tong, Shen Wei can see it, read it in the motion of his feet. 

He's moving Tong away from the hostages, luring him. Enraging him not with his usual unapologetic bright smile or devastating words gloved to hide the vicious sting of the scorpion tail.

Tong swings and Kunlun flawlessly moves again. This time the Disembodied lashes outward not at Kunlun but at the hostages. Kunlun surges and the black smoke blocks Tong's strike, "Jie Ming!" He shouts, a warning and a command in his voice, but there is urgency biting at his words. 

Jie Ming shoves forward without care for the Royal Guards or the cultivators standing around the steps, guarding not just the room above, but Shen Wei.  He leaps into the air with a swirl of dark purple and with a snarl curling his lip he slams his hand down, power arcing.

The blue lines drawn into the courtyard erupt in a series of sparks and Lin Jing follows him, pressing his hands at the same repeating symbol. Another line of power joins the blue and the courtyard becomes a spider's web, that Shen Wei doesn't dare join, knowing that the intensity of dark energy is often destructive to these arrays.

Zhu Hong surges up like a tidal force and she kicks one of the guards standing over her, "Xiao Ming!" She calls and the shock of the endearment is lost in the stress. Shen Wei knows what she's going to do and strikes the guard before he can retaliate. Her lip is bleeding and her eyes red with Yashou power, Zhu Hong uses herself and the third and final pin of energy. 

The array lights and power rages. Shen Wei tries to get closer to Kunlun, shouts for him desperately, but the onslaught is too great. Throwing up his hands, he calls on his dark energy to shield them, and as the earth shakes Shen Wei protects. 

"Kunlun!" He calls trying to see him, to find him in the storm, desperation building in his heart.

"It's the bridge!" Lin Jing yells over the winds that tear at the building. "It's open!" 

Jie Ming wrenches forward and he crosses the invisible barrier. The winds die down and the power stops battering Shen Wei's defenses. Then he sees the bridge.

There was no description and Shen Wei had little time beyond fear for Kunlun's life to wonder what it might look like, but this sight would not be one he might imagine. Manifested here in his courtyard, the bridge becomes what it must look like to Zhao Yunlan, that twists something painfully in Shen Wei's chest.

There must be holes in his heart now, lacerations where grief and pain cut at him. There are thorns in his throat and horror finds him, gripping him in cold hands of miserable fury. This is what Kunlun has suffered. This is what Zhao Yunlan, his precious, beautiful Ah Lan has suffered, endured for ten years. It's unthinkable. It's unbearable and Shen Wei grieves that Zhao Yunlan had to bear a single moment of it.

Every moment of pain Shen Wei would have borne for him. That he stands before it now, proves that Zhao Yunlan is fearless in a way Shen Wei could only hope to be. But stand he does, unflinching as Tong shies away. As Zhao Xin Ci backs off shocked and uncertain.

There is none of the ceremony of the Fifth Gate. No ritual or oppressive power. There are no guardians or ancient rites. 

Perhaps in another time the steps that form were once pristine. Intricately carved with repeating sigils and depictions of animals, the wood and stone of the foundations are carved with beauty in mind. Perhaps they were even alluring once, attracting the curious to ascend the steps to the unknown wreathed in smoke. 

Now, fire curls and rages trailing down the carved railing, smoke billowing as the shadows draw in closer. A drop falls below the bridge and all of it fire, a pit of endless flame and the scent rising from it is molten metal, almost like blood. Every instinct screams to run, the resentment and surging energy more than enough to warn away the foolish. 

Flame curls around Kunlun and the ground beneath his feet is filled with embers, hot coals burning with a red glow.

Shen Wei doesn't take his eyes off the bridge for a long moment, then shifts his gaze to trace the same flames burning beneath Kunlun's skin. Terror finds a home in his heart and with it a perfect calm. If he is to die here today, he will do so with Kunlun. 

If he lives, it will be with Kunlun. There is no other choice. 

"You cannot save them!" The one called Tong shouts, brandishing Minister's Gao sword. Suddenly brave even as he cannot bear to look at the flames.

"Save them from you?" Kunlun voice asks but the one before him did not speak, Shen Wei never saw his lips move. Frozen in place, Shen Wei is so short a distance away from his love and a entire province away from where wants to be. He's waiting for a chance but at that voice, ringing with amusement and the darkness of Zhao Yunlan's anger, he pauses. So does Tong.

Searching, Shen Wei turns his head and sees another Kunlun, just as he lands nimbly in the courtyard, his black robes settling around him like the wings of a raven.

For a moment he remains crouched on the ground where he lands, his hair framing his face in profile so beautifully, one hand pressed to the ground, the red whip lazily curled over his knee.

Shen Wei knows him, knows the curve of his jaw even at this distance in this terrible light. Knows the kiss of that power as it appears as if it had always been, there and so missed.  There was the zing of that unmistakable magic that flowed in Kunlun like the great rivers of the North.

"What is this? Your best illusion? Your precious Kunlun is dead!" Tong shouts.

There is a laugh, rough with disuse but oh that's Zhao Yunlan. That's Ah Lan in all his glory. Love and wonder pour life into Shen Wei's parched soul, a desert in the rains, flowers pushing through the sands to bloom in a riot of color. Hearing him, seeing him is a gift, an answer to his prayers, to his undying hopes.

He's alive. He's awake. He's here.

It beats with his heart, every pulse strengthening Shen Wei, pulling fatigue from Jie Ming, helplessness from Ma Gui.

This is Kunlun.

"You tried your damn best." Zhao Yunlan says as he rises, the whip unfurling in his hand, power biting the air.

Foxfire eyes blaze with unnatural heat as he stands, wounded but somehow unbowed. His robes are his customary black of battle and the bracelet on his wrist glows, but his grin is savage.

"But you didn't kill me. You didn't damn me either." Zhao Yunlan says, his lip curling in feigned sympathy. "Not even when you set the Fifth Gate to implode with your stupidity. That was a good try. I'll give you that. You impressed me."

The other Kunlun grins, blood spilling over his lip. "We are unbowed." He says his tone still cold.

This is the Kunlun Shen Wei remembers and his hear soars, even as panic has his dark energy manifesting around him as splintering cold. There cannot be two Zhao Yunlans and he doesn't think his heart could take choosing the right one and potentially losing the wrong one.

"This cannot be." Ma Gui gasps as there is the unmistakable thwack of a whip.

"Wait...there's two Chiefs?! Like twins?!" Lin Jing asks startled from where he crouches on the stone tiles.'There can't be two of them!"

Jie Ming rises with his sword in his hand,  "Concentrate." He orders and steps forward mindful of the active array.

"Lord Kunlun!" Wang Zheng voice breaks over the tension like a wave striking the shore. She stands at the top of the steps, her face ashen, her guards around her trying to pull her back from the danger, "You must reform! Lord Kunlun!"

Tong charges at the Kunlun made of fire and Zhao Xin Ci surges to intercept. Steel meets with a scream of metal and the spark of power. "Get away from him Tong!" Zhang Shi shouts, eyes blazing gold.

The second Zhao Yunlan dodges an attack from a guard and goes to the second Kunlun. "So it began and so it ends. You won't win Tong of the Xue Tribe. Your Fate ends here." 

The twin forms of Zhao Yunlan look at one another and both reach out a hand

"You stole everything from me!"

"I didn't steal your life!" Zhao Yunlan says curtly, "I was not the Immortal who did this to you. But you, are the one who tried to kills us."

"You missed the curse on the Seal." The first Kunlun adds,

"This is just getting too much." Lin Jing says. "Two Chiefs?"

"I'm not your king right now," Zhao Yunlan says turning unerringly to look at Lin Jing, "But, I'm sure I can convince Lao Ming to give you additional training Fake Monk."

Tong throws Zhao Xin Ci off and charges at Zhao Yunlan. Something in Shen Wei finally snaps, a thread breaking under the weight of his grief. His sword never touches Zhao Yunlan, either of them.

Instead it meets Shen Wei's blade and the Disembodied meet a gaze of chipped dark stone, burning with hate.

The Royal Guards rushed forward having noticed belatedly that their Emperor could move far faster than any living being, and was facing off against Tong before any of them had a chance to follow. Tu Quiyue released a harsh breath that was for another person a bellow of rage, and shouted at them to attack the guards holding the hostages. They were the Royal Guard. If the Emperor was in battle, they battled with him and tried to make sure he lived.

That was all that mattered. The Emperor of Dixing must survive.

But there was murder in Shen Wei's heart and a blade in his hand. No one enjoyed the way Shen Wei fought, except perhaps Zhao Yunlan. He was ruthless and brutal...Tong really didn't stand a chance, Lin Jing thought.

Chapter Text

 Those who are desperate enough to be brave, will try any way to survive. Those with evil intent will wait a thousand years if they must for one opportunity to hurt someone. 

Tong may have possessed warriors and may have fought in the Immortal wars, possessing a spear against his will, but very few were of Shen Wei's impeccable skill, who fought with a cold ferocity that had claimed armies. His ability to predict his enemy was only outmatched by his speed and ruthless strategies. 

His patience, Kunlun would always say. 

Minister Gao had neither the finesse nor the strength to fend off Shen Wei's vicious attacks, his sword flashing ever closer to skin, dark energy clinging to his blade as the light from the War Flag glinted off its razor sharp edge. 

Tong was trying to deflect with cultivation energy blended with his own dark power, but Shen Wei did little more than blink and adjust his own attack. 

Realizing that his friend was close to death, at the hands of his former enemy and the nightmare of every Haixingren General, Zhao Xin Ci left the middle ground between his son and the steps, the wide courtyard suddenly open as the mogwai were defeated and the others backed away from the spectacular fight. 

But as Zhao Xin Ci moved to intercept Shen Wei, he met the blade of Mo Bingqing. Her blue armor shone in the light and there was determination and no small amount of anger in her eyes. The Royal Guard flanked their king and she blocked his attack with the agility of a dancer and the power of a ranking Dixingian cultivator. 

"You will move back, or you will die." She promised him, her tone calm, raising a second sword up to her cheek. The promise was clear, if he attacked she would block and bury the second sword in his flesh without pause. 


Shen Wei sidestepped a direct attack and there was the audible crack of bone as the hilt of his blade, broke Minister Gao's left arm. 

Zhao Xin Ci grimaced and Mo Bingqing added dark energy to her threat, "Stand down, or die." 

"Is Dixing so blind they cannot understand possession?" He snapped at her, his hate of Dixing undeniable in his voice.

If possible her stare only hardened. "He faces our Beloved Emperor in honest combat. If he is too proud to yield and too determined die, he will breathe his last by the Emperor's blade."

Watching from the sidelines, Jie Ming had only the worry for his cousin in mind. As soon as Tong is pushed away from Kunlun the pervasive resentful energy is far enough away, that Jie Mign no longer fears setting something off. He is by his side in a breath, gripping his arm just to feel his solid warmth, "Xiao Lun!"

He should have addressed as his king, should have bowed or saluted him, but nothing could stop Jie Ming pulling his cousin's long, finely muscled frame into his arms. The Xunxi gathered around them and bowed, a chorus of "Lord Kunlun!" and "Zhugong!"

"Lao Ming." It was spoken as a relief, as a hope and the love of a brother. Kunlun hugged him back tightly and laughed. "It's been so long."

"Too long." He said pressing the words into Kunlun's shoulder. He has to stop speaking just to clear his throat, because his eyes are burning but something wild and hot unclenches in his chest when those wiry arms return  his embrace.

"...Is everything... are you..." Kunlun starts pulling back to look at him. There's concern in those dark eyes and lines of pain around his mouth.

"No wounds, no fatalities." He says from an old habit, a phrase spoken in tent doorways and from horseback.

Kunlun grins, "Why haven't you married Zhu Hong yet?" He asks brows rising in fake innocence.

Jie Ming splutters like a candle in a breeze but doesn't let him go. There's the clash of swords reminding them they are not alone in the world and both of them turn.

"No one fights like Shen Wei." Kunlun muses sadness in his tone that has Jie Ming frowning. "Wait..."

Perhaps Tong realized finally that against Shen Wei he couldn't win, because before Shen Wei could strike again, black smoke burst from Minister Gao, pouring from his mouth and nose in a violent expulsion. The black form seethed and roiled, dodging Shen Wei's calm attack aiming for escape or Shen Wei himself.

Shen Wei shifted using his sword and power to deflect but even as he moved he felt the coming storm, the change in the energy he could feel. The power he was subconsciously still focused on. Kunlun.


The Kunlun trapped still in the bridge threw fire blocking Tong's attempt to possess Shen Wei and the Zhao Yunlan newly awakened, flicked the red whip. 

A crack in the ground formed as the whip slashed the earth when Tong moved. Undaunted Zhao Yunlan grinned and twisted with the grace of a dancer, the whip suddenly far longer than anyone else had realized. Singing with Kunlun's rage, the whip channeled Gate magic into every strike, the energy concentrated and raw. Red power hit Tong with unerring precision, cutting glowing red fractures in his incorporeal form, as it were molten metal half hidden by black smoke. 

A snarl curled Shen Wei's lip and he turned on one foot so gracefully, to bring his weapon up at the last moment his power changing his blade into it's rarest form, a kwandao. The large blade sliced into Tong's smoky form right along those red cracks and sparks exploded outwards as death finally claimed the Disembodied

Tong was no more.

The traumatized boy torn from his family and his own body, who took his hate and bitterness forging into a vengeance that nearly killed them all, was finally gone.

Jie Ming doubted he would be granted peace by the Heavens. Not that he long to think about it, because his cousin crumpled to the ground.

There had been many times over the years when his skills as a healer had not been enough. Times when his knowledge could find no pathway through the dark times. Moment when he despaired. None of those times could compare to the fear filling his heart when he realized that he had no idea how to help Kunlun.

Either Kunlun.

He glanced up at the second version of his cousin who was surrounded by flames and watching Shen Wei fight with a cold expression, as if his personality had been pared back and all that was left was the ruthless, fearless commander.

This wasn't Gate magic. He knew that well enough as a Master of the Gates and he cursed his lack of knowledge as he knelt down beside his cousin, trying to support him. "Xiao Lun?"

Every student of Gate magic learns that there are some gates locked for good reason. The Immortals created gateways to realms of their own making, their worlds beyond human reality. Some of these were stable, habitable and vast, like the Yashou realms, others were broken pathways promising death. 

The early gates were creations spoken of in old texts and dreamed of in theories spanning centuries. No one was supposed to find one. 

If anyone could he supposed it would be his cousin. 

The Fifth Gate had been the center of so many of those theories, but Bian Yujing had been clear. To open one of those gates was to bring about ruin. 

And so the early Guardian Order had been afraid. Terrified that one day someone would try or perhaps someone had back then, when such things were bared for all to see. When the world was chaos and the Immortals were gone. 

Only one texts speaks of that time. He remembers how he and Kunlun had poured over its crumbling pages, then years later in the caves of Míshi when they walked the path of the Gate Masters, so naive to think that this path might save them, they saw the carvings in the sandstone walls. 

The Great Seals were created to hide the first Gates. No really new what they did. Some suggested their purpose was to hide, others said that they redirected people away from the area. But, the Seal itself was was carved into stone and time changed all things once thought permanent. A small change in the array structure and misdirect could easily become lure. 

He had wondered if that was what had happened. The Seal over the Fifth Gate was luring people here, its range limited but powerful enough to call to travelers wandering by. Rumor and story that made its way to the ears of the Crown Prince, of the Disembodied woman called Yan...Kunlun's ears.

Then there was the old array, made for some purpose before the Seal was forged. An array that traps a person so they are physically unconscious or barely lucid from what Empress Wang Zheng had told him. 

Something corrupted the Seal...Yan activated it, thinking it would kill Kunlun and his cousin broke it, but couldn't destroy it.  So it was connected to Kunlun, using his power or life-force to remain, to sustain itself. Like nothing he had ever seen before. 

What he didn't understand was the Second Bridge. A permanent, stabilized path made between two gates. A rare form and something legend barely mentioned. Then, there was the brief strange whisper from Kunlun, about a jujube tree that acts as the living anchor for the bridge. 

That was not uncommon. Not really. There was after all a eucalyptus tree that connected the human realm to Hell. It's branches and leaves in the living realm, its roots in death. There was a pine tree that connected Mishi caves to the world above.   

It was the Second bridge and it was connected to the Fifth Gate? Or put here for some other purpose locked to a tree? That made no sense. Unless this was the hiding place of the Bridge and the Gate could be summoned here...partly because of the Bridge, its power and the very purpose behind it's construction. Connection. Call the Gate and the Bridge connects to it...If that was true...it was too powerful to be allowed.

What if it wasn't the Fifth Gate Yan wanted? What if it was the bridge? 

What if the Seal added centuries after the Immortal war, after the Gates were concealed...was actually for the bridge? 

And the array was actually the control for the bridge?  

"Xiao Lun, what is happening to you?" He demanded  softly, trying assess him as he had a thousand times before, as his healer and second in command. Worry had his tone sharpening and fear had his hand clenching, his ring sparking. 

"It mirrored my consciousness." His cousin gasped, pain tightening his jaw. His words resounded and a silent command had their soldiers moving to cover them.

"The Bridge or the Gate?" He asked quickly, one of his silver needles in his hand and Kunlun laughed roughly as he pressed it expertly into the correct point. Between their connection and his training, Jie Ming set about realigning his qi in the middle of a battle. 

"I missed you cousin." Kunlun said on a ragged gasp of pain. "Missed your beside manner. I didn't miss your needles!" 

"I missed you more than words could say." Jie Ming promised rubbing his shoulder gently, his voice hoarse with emotion, "Don't let it go to your head." 

"The array tried to steal my consciousness and we were sealed in within the first doorway of the Gate." Kunlun coughed, "I couldn't get out. Then I realized that the Disembodied trying to possess me had activated the Seal. It latched onto Fatty and Sang Zan." 

The Gate had Kunlun and the bridge claimed Da Qing and Sang Zan. Oh no.

"You used astral projection to mirror your consciousness?" Jie Ming hissed aghast and terrified for what that might mean. 

"No." Kunlun said a little too calmly. "I anchored myself in the bridge to hide us. The Gate would have used us as a sacrifices. When it registered that were unconscious it left us as potentials. Yan, her name was...she had the gift of mirroring. I used it."

"As if you were awaiting to be sacrificed? Those blood rite were real?" He repeated imagining what might have happened, what those depiction on sandstone had suggested, then Jie Ming paused, 'You what?!"

"They were real. The Second Bridge is locked on one side and Fatty was stuck. The Disembodied couldn't possess me and Fatty lived." Kunlun said darkly, "The Bridge is attached to the tree Lao Ming." 

"Why...?"

"The bridge isn't just a path between two Lao Ming," Kunlun said hoarsely, "Its a portal chamber. From there you can open any of the Immortal realms or at least that's what the Fifth Gate guardians were having meltdown over." 

"You bargained with them?" Jie Ming realized. 

"More like they couldn't stop me." Kunlun corrected, "I could open one of the Gates of Hell, but it would be messy. I tried calling to you and using the Hell Guards, but when are they ever reliable?" 

"Forgive me." Jie Ming whispered, "If I had known...if I had heard...I should have been with you." 

"Did we win?" Kunlun asked, "Is there really peace Lao Ming?" 

"Yes." He whispered tears pricking in his eyes. "I failed you." 

"If there is peace," Kunlun said firmly, "Then you made me proud." 

Any other words were cut off as Kunlun bent over, "Hurts. Oh Hell, Lao Ming." 

"What happens now? How do we undo this?" Jie Ming asked supporting him anxiously, the Xunxi still around him. 

There was a deafening cracking sound and Jie Ming turned to see Kunlun on his knees, jaw clenched in agony as the bridge broke apart! The cousin in his arms was only slightly better, hands wide as if trying to stop the walls around him caving in. 

No. "Biaodi!"

There was a rustle of cloth and Shen Wei was suddenly with them, his robes fanning around him as he knelt beside then cold air bringing the kiss of frost, the the scent of metal and the zing of dark energy. His noble face was ashen with tension, eyes wide with fear not even battle had managed to put there, his hands hovering uselessly over his shoulders, "Kunlun!" 

The Royal Guard followed and Tu Quiyue put herself at his back. "My King," She said whether in shock that the Emperor was willingly on the floor, kneeling no less, or some kind of warning that he was in danger. Either way, Shen Wei ignored her, focusing on Kunlun, his solid, warm shoulder beneath his desperate fingers and the pain tearing its way through the man he loved. 

His cousin was not a man who tolerated public vulnerability, so to hear him groan and see him hunched in agony, had Jie Ming's hands twisting in the air weaving a new array with purple light, his mind racing as he thought about this. He was cursing. He never cursed. Jie Ming had been raised by a woman who demanded of him the epitome of control and gentlemanly honor.

To hear such a foul curse that could only have been said by Zhao Yunlan first, sent dread to shiver along the skin of every Xunxi warrior and the Emperor of Dixing.

"It's beginning." Was all Jie Ming said before closing his eyes, hands building an array from his own power. Violet lines were winding in the air forming a solid shape with arching walls.

Heat spread along his side and through his hands, as if Kunlun was burning from a fever...

"What's happening?!" Shen Wei demanded of anyone who might tell him. 

Zhao Yunlan gave a jagged laugh from bloodied lips, "The bridge is breaking. I've released them," He coughed, a deep wet sound that had fear spreading through his chest. 

"...They...free now." He gasped, reaching out to clutch Shen Wei's hand.   

"He's pulled Da Qing and Sang Zan from the bridge, using the Lady of Hanga as his focal point." Jie Ming added, "You could have waited!" He said in worried admonishment. 

"No time cousin." Zhao Yunlan said coughing. "I hate this." 

It was said so fervently that Shen Wei rubbed his back soothingly, "It will be over soon. You will be free."

That he said it without tears, through the painful lump in his throat was an achievement he could be proud of. If his voice wavered, he had said it quietly and Zhao Yunlan never mocked his weakness. 

The grip on his hand tightened and any words Zhao Yunlan might have said were lost in a soft, agonizing keening sound as the bridge made a sound of screaming wood and the crackle of hot flame. "What must I do?" Shen Wei demanded of Jie Ming. 

For his part the King of the North shot a worried glance at Kunlun and shouted over the cacophony, "Focus on his life force and lend him power! When you feel it expanded suddenly pull it towards Kunlun!" 

Shen Wei knelt behind Kunlun and held both his shoulders, focusing on his breathing, the warmth in his arms, the restless power of his energy so familiar and beloved. "Ah Lan." He whispered. 

"Who knew reforming yourself took three people?" Zhao Yunlan remarked hoarsely and somehow pulled a small shattered laugh from Shen Wei's lips. 

Then he said in soft admonishment, "Don't joke about your life." 

"Now!" Shouted Jie Ming and the entire courtyard was bathed in white light, so bright everyone covered their eyes. Shen Wei pressed his face into Zhao Yunlan's hair and didn't simply pull, he sheltered. He gathered and held that life- force as he was embracing his love himself. 

Using his dark energy he trained his energy, commanded it to focus on Zhao Yunlan's living breathing form, the tiny thread of connection between the, bound by the Dragon Pearl bracelet. Then, as if he was sparring he shoved all that power, that beautiful precious life, so vivid, so ferocious into the body in his arms. 

Zhao Yunlan cried out, a muffled snarl of wordless pain that Shen Wei immediately dampened with dark energy, bathing him in cool waves of healing until the worst of the storm passed. 

When Shen Wei opened his eyes he was on the ground and the War Flag had finally disappeared above in the night sky. He felt as though he had fallen into deep water until he registered the hand gripping his robes. Scrabbling as he would never admit to, Shen Wei found the strength to lift his hand and fumbled until he found the wrist connected to that hand.

It was reflex, martial training to free himself but he softened his grip as soon as he felt the bright spark of Yunlan's Dragon Pearl bracelet. Then he clutched it, smoothing his fingers along a deceptively thin forearm, the wards within the bracelet welcoming him. 

It must have been a  few minutes but he felt like it been hours. Shen Wei pulled on his legendary will to turn his head. With his long thick hair tossed inelegantly over his shoulder, his robes smoking slightly, Shen Wei thought Kunlun had never looked more beautiful.

Zhao Yunlan was dry heaving on his hands and knees, with Jie Ming trying to get him to breathe. Everyone else was on the ground. Kunlun's free hand was buried in his robes and the courtyard was a smoking ruin. A whisper of power told him that everyone was alive except for Tong and the wards on the buildings had withstood the onslaught of energy. He would have to thank Lin Jing for that.

Zhao Yunlan cursed and then sat back on his heels, Jie Ming hovering over him with one hand on his pulse to assess him. He swallowed and smiled down at Shen Wei, "Looks like I'm one body now. With intact senses too." Then he grinned seductively and Shen Wei braced himself, "That could have been fun. Having two of me."

"Except for the 'going to die part'. " Jie Ming said crossly, "And the nightmare of having two of you running around causing chaos."

Zhao Yunlan laughed, full and deep causing Jie Ming to smile as Shen Wei had not seen him do for a decade. "One Kunlun is all the world needs." He tried to sound firm from his position, gingerly sitting up to face Kunlun, but he knew he sounded entirely too tender, to raw to hide how much he was feeling. The relief, the joy, the worry.

Within those foxfire  eyes was a gentle warmth that chased any lingering shadows from Shen Wei's heart. He leaned in and...

A sudden, loud bang was followed by an ear splitting  inhuman yowl that had those trying to rise, cringing where they were. Tu Quiyue and Mo Bingqing were the first to stand and his Battle Commander looked anxiously at him to see if he was alright, "My King?"

Kunlun tried to rise and Jie Ming caught him, "That's Da Qing."

"Chief! Chief!" Someone called in a young voice and the barely standing crowd parted miserably for the tall, lanky form of Guo Changcheng who tripped just as he found Kunlun. Lin Jing who groaned loudly steadied him and tried to hug him. "Xiao Guo! You're awake!"

"What is it? I just reformed and there's a crisis." Kunlun said and Shen Wei rose to his feet, hiding the dizziness and his smile, at the grumble.

"Someone tried to kill us." Guo said weakly, pointing with a trembling hand back at the steps.

Wang Zheng.

Shen Wei glared and Guo paled instantly, "Where? What happened?"

There's another yowl and a dark shape lands from height. Kunlun reaches out immediately nearly toppling himself to catch it. "Damn it Fatty! Not even nearly dying for ten years was able to diet you."

Ten years? Kunlun knew that it had been so long? Shen Wei looked at Jie Ming and saw him wince as he looked at his cousin. Then he nodded and shot a warning look at Shen Wei. Don't you dare hurt him.

Da Qing transformed and Jie Ming smiled widely, "Qing-ge!"

"Ming-ge!" He says brightly, "You freed us!"

"Because I of course was sitting on my ass. While it was on fire." Griped Kunlun but he was smiling, before his mouth sharpened to a grim line. "Where's Wang Zheng?"

"She's with this whole army of guards and Sang Zan nearly killed himself tussling with one." Da Qing replied, "I blocked the dark energy attack though."

"Is she safe?' Shen Wei demanded, "Flame! Find out!" He ordered sharply, knowing the man would act quickly. He felt Zhao Yunlan's gaze and tried not to react.

Zhu Hong pushed her way through the crowd, "Kunlun? Deputy?" She said, her eyes filling with tears.

"Sister Hong?" Zhao Yunlan said worriedly, just before she pitched sideways, blood running freely down her side.

"Zhu Hong!" Jie Ming gasped catching her. He held her to his chest and looked at Zhao Yunlan, with that helpless expression that was so at odds with his smooth competency. He touched her arm as Jie Ming lowered her the ground, "Who stabbed her?"

"I did Lord Kunlun."

Shen Wei turned swiftly, his sword poised with all of his Royal Guards flanking him. A man stood in the center of the courtyard a sword at Ma Gui's throat, with a woman holding a sword to Zhao Xin Ci.

"Sha Ya!" Lin Jing cried, "What are you doing?"

"What I have to." She replied, her braids tucked into a hood, her eyes dark.

"This courtyard will never be the same." Zhao Yunlan said to no one in particular.

"Don't tell me she's your lover?" Da Qing asks smacking Lin Jing in the arm. "Really?"

While Shen Wei had little care for his former enemy, he had tried to protect Kunlun so it could be said that Shen Wei owed him something, but Ma Gui was Kunlun's brother. His former Alliance General and the Lord Guardian. A friend in a time when Shen Wei had few that he could call allies.

Kunlun turned signalling something to Jie Ming who passed Zhu Hong carefully to Lin Jing, those soft eyes hardening to ebony.He felt Kunlun freeze slightly at the sight, then forcibly relax.

"Well that''s obvious." Kunlun said lightly spreading his hands wide, a friendly smile fixed in place.

Those foxfire eyes were brilliant with rage, but his tone was even. "The question is why. What has my shi-xiong done to you?"

"Shidi." Ma Gui said softly, "It's you. You've come back. Shidi."

"Such a reunion." He sneered, "So many people who prayed for your return."

Zhao Yunlan looks away from Ma Gui and shrugged, "I'm hard to lose."

"Your Disembodied master is dead. Surrender before you join his fate." Shen Wei said harshly.

The man had the gall to laugh, provoking his Royal Guards, "Show respect to the Supreme Emperor of Dixing." Tu Quiyue said sharply. She was trying to put herself first to distract and Mo Bingqing had moved in to his right to act as a shield with Tan Xiao. They were aiming to cover him as they escaped. 

"You have no interest in respect." Zhao Yunlan said calmly, "Not when you want His Majesty dead."

His title sounded so...wrong in Zhao Yunlan's voice. As if he were a stranger, a known entity that lived in a far off land. Not as Zhao Yunlan knew him. Not as the man who had loved Zhao Yunlan for as long as Fate had given them, who knelt for him and killed for him. Would gladly die for him. Not a lover or even a friend. A king. And not Zhao Yunlan's king either.

Zhao Yunlan straightened his robes and looked at his enemy, assessing him Shen Wei knew. "Only a man with a death wish or one with a thirst for vengeance walks into chaos this great. You certainly didn't come for me. "

The man bowed, "So the rumors and legends are true." He said scathingly, "The Great Kunlun is clever after all."

"I wouldn't say that." Zhao Yunlan said and that was a blatant lie. There was no greater genius than the man before him, Shen Wei thought. "But I fought two wars for vengeance, for freedom also. So I know the look of a man who will die to see his revenge succeed." 

"Why are you seeking revenge?" Jie Ming asked, once more calm and decisive stepping closer to guard his cousin's side. "I do not know you and you are not Northern."

"The infamous First Bi’an Tiger, the Bearer of Sunhui, the legendary ring of Lady Bian Yujing of the Acheng." He said mockingly, "The sole survivor too of the massacre. Did you run? Is that why you lived?"

Rage filled Jie Ming's expression and sparks of grey and black erupted from the ring he wore. A Soul Tool made in the Second Immortal war legend said and like the celestial whip, it chose its master. Kunlun pressed a hand to Jie Ming's arm.

"My cousin lives because he's too stubborn to die and he wanted revenge on Southern Haixing." Zhao Yunlan said smoothly. "He wanted them to pay in blood and they did."

Again Shen Wei noticed Zhao Xin Ci wince and doubted it was entirely due to the blade at his neck.

Then Kunlun tilts his head, "But why would a Dixingian rebel care?"

"He is filth." The man, the rebel replied looking at Jie Ming with honest hatred.

"If you have an issue with Lao Ming, I'll tell you now that he followed my orders." Zhao Yunlan smiled, "Every death, every drop of blood on his hands is on mine." 

"Ma Gui!" Lady Fu You's voice rang out and she stumbled to the front, her eyes blazing. "Who are you to threaten the Lord Guardian?"

"Fu You be careful." Ma Gui says quickly.

It was rare to see her angry, Shen Wei thought. Even in battle Lady Fu You was calm, but now she trembled in anger, blood running down her cheek. "You kidnapped Chieftain Zhu of the Da Huang and myself from the Yashou Snake Clan. Why?"

"Because," A feminine voice said and again they turned, to see another woman lowering her hood, to show off her mistakable Southern Haixing braids. "We want this to end."

"So you plan to kill three kings and a noble in the middle of Dixingian territory, surrounded by witnesses? If you kill them all they will just make up stories and start another war. You'll be killing families from Dixing and Haixing. Maybe for another twenty years." Jie Ming snapped.

"Was the whole time I was gone this exciting?" Zhao Yunlan asked no one particular.

"Most of the excitement happened in the first three years." Shen Wei told him calmly, "These last few years have been quiet. I take it you are behind the attack on Dragon City, the explosion Cong Bo set to kill both Us and Our court? Presumably to begin that war?"

"I want you die." He said, his tone suddenly cold.

"You ant your king to die." Zhao Yunlan repeated.

"Not my king!" He shouted, "Not any longer!"

"They are not wrong," Zhao Xin Ci in Zhang Shi's calm, smooth tones, "This will begin war. Do you want that for the generations to come?"

"They want war." The woman said coldly. "You took everything from us and we wish to return the favor, Marquis."

Zhao Yunlan's eyebrows rose and then he laughed turning everyone's attention back to him. "I remember you now. You don't know me that's clear. You were working as a spy, within the Alliance. Huang Linqi, daughter of General Huang Chaoyang. You wanted revenge back then for your lover."

"He killed him!" She said pointing at Jie Ming, "He destroyed everything!"

"She's talking about Li Jiaqi." Zhao Yunlan said smoothly to Jie Ming, "The one who tried to kill me for  Huang Chaoyang. The one who came through the roof back when I was unconscious in Shanzhai. Fatty bit him."

Jie Ming raised an eyebrow, "He tried for my cousin's life. I gave him an honorable death, more than he would have given Lord Kunlun."

"Ma Gui outed you as a spy and made sure to drop you near the border. You failed the ninth test." Zhao Yunlan spread his hands, "That was ten years ago."

"Ten years is nothing compared to the pain of our loss, not that you would understand that!" The man snapped, walking forward n his rage.

"You used Yan and Tong didn't you?" Zhao Yunlan replied uncaring of the insult, "Did you want a wish too?"

"No." The man said coldly, "I want Zhao Xin Ci dead and I want the Emperor of Dixing to scream with his last breath."

Chapter Text

The threat of death never seemed far away.

Shen Wei wanted to angle his body so he could shield Kunlun, an urge that seemed to have immediately reawakened in him so easily after ten years of standing on his own. He was hyper-aware of every breath Kunlun took, the strength of his thrumming power, every shift of his body, the sound the fabric of his robes made when he moved. He wanted to press close and after he had been through sit him down so he could rest.

He wanted to promise him that Shen Wei's love was still his.

The robes that hung from his frame showed how much weight he had lost. His cheekbones were sharper, eyes deep-set and shadowed, bruised from all he had suffered.

As much as he feared hearing of it, Shen Wei wanted to hear everything that had happened to him, every hurt and every scrap of his ordeal...but he didn't know if his heart could take it. Guilt and pain washed over him, just at the thought of how much Ah Lan had been through these ten years. That he was alive and sane was miracle enough, to have him breathing beside him, real and solid...that was beyond a dream.

To hear that someone wanted him dead barely caught his interest. His main goal was to remove Kunlun and Wang Zheng to safety. What happened after that was a bonus or necessary consequence.

But he knew he was caught and that infuriated him.

When he had been Lord Commander, he thought of his Emperor first. How his actions would effect Ye Zun, effect the nation. Now he was Emperor, he had to think of his people, balance consequence and justice. As Shen Wei, he thought of Xiao Anujin, his child's future and safety. He thought of Wang Zheng and his promise to her.

He thought of Zhao Yunlan.   Because while he was newly returned, his place in life was not certain. He had to protect him, no matter what his mountain king thought.

He could, he mused simply kill the kidnappers and end this situation. It would not be honorable but it would prevent the outbreak of war and the death of thousands. If the crowd here thought him ruthless and murderous, would that protect his love ones?

He could and he wanted to.

Rage simmered and his power echoed that desire for breaking bone and spilling blood. It always had, no matter how righteous he tried to be.

They had attacked him, on Dixingian soil. As the Emperor he could not ignore this fact or suppress the inevitable rumors. And somehow, some way he thought bitterly, it would be blamed on Kunlun. Of this he was sure.

That was the simple problem. Any action taken now would resound in consequences he had to be willing to bear. It was no good surviving today to bring war on the lands tomorrow.

Jie Ming as the King of Shangbei would not and could not ignore it either. An attack had been made on his people and Jie Ming was only forgiving to his family. His distrust and hatred ran deep for Southern Haixing, enough to overcome his despair over the number of causalities they had suffered, the number of prisoners of war he had saved. His kindness was contradictory . His loyalty to Kunlun absolute.

To learn there had been a plot against Kunlun, one he too had failed to see and stop...Jie Ming would not be swayed.

War would begin again.

Who would want all of them dead? Emperor An Bai possibly. Shen Wei is his enemy as the main supporter of Kunlun and Zhao Xin Ci's death could only be a benefit if he fears for the throne. But why would he risk the Lord Guardian and the king of Shangbei? Unless he didn't know that Jie Ming and he were friends? That in a time of need and help Shen Wei would reach out to Kunlun's cousin? 

One glance at Kunlun's face was more terrible than Shen Wei feared. He looked disappointed. His anger would be righteous, his contempt for this situation, understandable. One of his many masks would be preferable, but this look of unfeigned discouraged hurt to see.

Always, Shen Wei had wanted Kunlun to return to a world remade in peace. A world he could rejoice in, unburdened and whole. The world they dreamed of.

Now seeing that expression, Shen Wei felt as though he had failed.

He looked back at the kidnappers and tightened his jaw. They would pay and if anyone of them had anything to do with what happened to Kunlun, they would feel his wrath.

Shen Wei believed that there was judgment after death for all things done, things that were not moral like murder. He believed that unrepentant had to atone. Fully expected to be judged for his own crimes and part of his grief had been the knowledge that his mother, perhaps even his brother had been judged. The Empress Dowager had certainly murdered and schemed. His family were not innocent.

But, he believed in forgiveness and above all, he believed that there was peace in death.

Zhao Yunlan had not died. He had suffered for ten years. Burning alive. Unimaginable pain while trapped by power older than this land.

Zhao Yunlan had unified the North nearly bloodlessly by proving he was more powerful and by using the very laws of the land against those who would have killed him for trying. He governed and unified. He protected and under Kunlun the North had prospered.

In the war against Southern Haixing, Kunlun had fought for Southern Haixing's defeat, for their surrender. He took out as many military installations without field battle, to reduce the number of deaths. He tried.

He was not perfect in the eyes of the world, but he was to Shen Wei.

To learn that you had been willing and ready to put everything on the line, had inf act stopped the end of the world by sacrificing yourself. By pitting wits and knowledge against the arcane, the vengeance of a soul driven mad...he had ended the war and the threat to life. Then came back only to learn that all that he had done, all that he had suffered had only given the world temporary peace.

Not only that but Zhao Yunlan's shixiong had a sword to his throat, held by a Dixingian. A rebel, but still a Dixingian. His father had a Southern Haixing rebel threatening his life and this was the part that didn't make any sense.

As the Royal Guards surrounded him, swords and power raised, he gestured abruptly. If they acted and the Lord Guardian died, that would be a political crisis. If he let his Guards kill Zhao Yunlan's brother, his love would never forgive him. If Kunlun wounded one of them trying to protect Ma Gui, Shangbei would have attacked Dixing. Publicly.

If Zhao Xin Ci died here, it would be said that he lured his old enemy and butchered him on Dixingian soil, sparking another war.

This entire set-up suggested Southern Haixing. It's practically their trademark. Get a group together, lull them into false security and then deal the final blow. Zhao Xin Ci would have enemies... he certainly did ten years ago. Jie Ming had enemies in the past and the instability of Shangbei could be a decisive factor. Ma Gui as the main general of the Alliance certainly does. 

They were held in this stalemate not by greater power or skill, not by fear or overwhelming numbers. But the simple fact that all of the people here were leaders and if one of them died, with the way things are in the world, war would be the only answer.

Another glance and he saw the disappointed replaced by the mask Kunlun had worn most of his life.

"So this is the Great Kunlun? Master of the Mountains?" Sneered the man, holding his sword to Ma Gui's throat.

"Were you expecting me to be shorter or to have horns?" Kunlun asked with mocking wide eyes, calmly referencing that ridiculous rumor about him when he defeated the Demon of Qiyi. "Or naked draped only in gold, rare jewels and some kind of pearl necklace thing?"

Everyone had heard that story.

"Who are you?" Shen Wei demanded, his tone icy, pulling the attention of the crowd away from Kunlun. His love was on the outside of the group, closer to where the bridge had been. As is always the way with these things, the crowd had divided itself into Northern supporters, Dixingian soldiers and Lord Ma Gui's people. All of them were waiting for some kind of signal and it wouldn't take much for someone to try and be stupidly heroic, escalating this crisis.

Zhao Xin Ci seemed to be mostly watching his son, dark eyes noticing the hand pressed to his waist. The Xunxi waited and Jie Ming edged closer to his cousin, his stance defensive. Good. If they stood together they may get out of this situation without breaking the Treaty. Shangbei was declaring that they stood with Dixing. Ma Gui was the Lord Guardian under threat and this was a scenario Shen Wei could work with.

"You cannot do this without consequence." Lady Fu You snapped out, fear for Ma Gui in her voice.

"You wanted me to know who would end my life and why." Shen Wei continued coldly. "Why hide your name now?"

The man sneered at them, "You wish to know my name?"

Kunlun had limited patience. He was a man who plot for weeks, who could pretend to be idle and yet manipulate from the shadows, an entire empire. He could sit still for hours assessing, planning...but he was also highly impatient when provoked. "From your accent you are from Dixing. Southern border but have spent time in Southern Haixing. From your sword you were a soldier and your features are that of Xia. That you have brought such a sword, means that you wish all to know that you defected from Dixing, but your robes signify that you have one master."

Everyone glanced at Kunlun, surprised. Everyone but Shen Wei who nodded in agreement. Kunlun gestured to the simple grey robes that all of the attackers wore. "You broke in here, using the mogwai as your distraction. Such demonic magics have a high price and while you are tainted with it, none of you can wield them."

"A traitor." Shen Wei pronounced and stood next to Zhao Yunlan, his eyes piercing. "A traitor working for a coward."

The man tightened his grip on Ma Gui who winced slightly. "Remember I have the Lord Guardian in my hands. You call me traitor? Fair enough. I have no love for Dixing and you are not my king!"

"From your age, you are old enough to have been loyal to Emperor Tang Li of the Xia, before the Unification of Dixing by Emperor Ye Zun."  Kunlun ventured and Shen Wei frowned.

"Emperor Ye died on his back!" The man snapped and Shen Wei snarled.

"How dare you!"

A gentle hand on Shen Wei's arm stopped his attack and the Royal Guard stared in shock. No one touched the Emperor, certainly not so casually as if they had Divine right. Even Zhao Xin Ci stared in open shock, but Kunlun ignored them. "If this was over Dixing you would not be here with a Southern Haixing fugitive and a expensive mercenary army."

At the words mercenary army Tu Qiuyue signaled the soldiers waiting in the wings and the man pressed his blade firmly into Ma Gui's neck, sending a trickle of blood down his exposed throat. Kunlun glared and Lady Fu You said frantically, "Lord Kunlun!"

The man laughed, a bitter sound. "Well spotted Lord Kunlun." He smiled cruelly, "You are right. We are here for more than that. My name is Wang Xiangyang and I am here because the false king of Dixing colludes with Southern Haixing! He,"

He jerked his head towards Zhao Xin Ci, "Killed my wife!"

Shen Wei's shoulders lifted, "You sneer at the name of Our king, Beloved Emperor Ye! Now you dare to say that We collude with Our greatest enemy?! What next?"

He didn't manage to say any more. A smirk formed on the man, Wang Xiangyang's lips and then Kunlun moved.

His hands shoved Jie Ming, twirling his cousin around by the arm. The momentum and the martial training that told him just how far he could propel Jie Ming before he broke his arm, had Kunlun stepping into the space where Jie Ming had been.

Jie Ming followed the movement, his trust absolute and tried to pull his cousin with him but Kunlun staggered. "No!" Zhao Xin Ci cried as Kunlun's body sagged, an arrow pierced through his shoulder, perhaps even his lung. Blood stained Kunlun's mouth as he dropped and chaos reigned.

"Uh." The sound was torn from Kunlun's lips and Shen Wei used his sword to hit the next arrow, dark energy vaporizing every single one in the sky, catching Kunlun immediately.

Zhao Yunlan was a warm solid weight in his arms and Shen Wei heard the sharp intake of breath, as the pain fully registered.

The courtyard was in a frenzy but the hostage takers remained where they were and tightened their hold. One of them, a woman lifted her hands and projected a pink hued power that protected them, like a shield.

His long body dropped and Zhao Yunlan's face was tight with pain. Dark energy in Shen Wei's rage sparked, rippling into everyone in the courtyard, painful and freezing. It flowed up the legs of everyone except Zhao Yunlan and most people doubled over.

Ma Gui took advantage having a higher pain tolerance than most. He rammed his elbow into Wang Xiangyang's side and Jie Ming threw one of his throwing stars which stabbed into Wang Xiangyang's shoulder. Ma Gui twisted and tore himself away, only to be grabbed by Fu You. "Ma Gui!"

Tu Qiuyue lunged forward and met Wang Xiangyang's sword, "Traitor!" She shouted and threw energy into her blows, in the way only the top tier of Dixing's soldiers are taught.

"Biaodi!" Jie Ming cried and took his other arm leaning him back against the water feature in the center of the courtyard. "Protect!" He shouted at the Xunxi, who joined the Royal Guard flanking both kings as they knelt with Kunlun.

"Shidi!" Ma Gui's voice added to the chorus but the Southern Haixing traitors still held Zhao Xin Ci and three others, two from the Lord Guardian's group and Lin Jing, who watched panicked as Kunlun went down. "Chief!"

"It is time to take your lives for all you have done." Huang Linqi shouted and there was a shiver in the air. Zhao Yunlan's eyes widened, "Shen Wei!" He choked out in warning, head tilting down, the whip curling around his wrist openly as Jie Ming worked on the arrow. 

Without thought, Shen Wei leaned in and kissed Zhao Yunlan's forehead. Kunlun gasped and looked up, just as Shen Wei rose from his crouch.

 

Within one breath, Shen Wei moved. His sword was in his hand, dark energy curling around the blade, as he shifted, meeting the oncoming attack. Through the hole in the wall, figures came running. Dressed in black they were masked by a cloth piece covering their mouths and they carried swords, decorated in the Middle States style. 

"Subtle." Kunlun choked.

Shen Wei glared and his lip curled in a snarl. Tu Quiyue shouted at the Royal Guards, at the soldiers still standing, as she blocked Wang Xiangyang's blow, "Protect His Majesty!"

The Royal Guards engaged immediately, gathering around their king while trying not to get in his way. Not an easy feat, considering the speed and ferocity with which Shen Wei fought. This was a man who had honed his skills in mass combat, in the thronging fierceness of battle, on blood soaked ground in the worst conditions, so he met every blow with at least two of his own.

As one masked attacker surged to strike, Shen Wei had already moved plunging his blade without any mercy into the chest of another, before turning back with the grace of dancer, slicing into the belly of the next. The enemy fanned out in a circle trying to overwhelm Shen Wei with sheer numbers, but the Royal Guard closed in like a net, striking any that came close enough.

Archers rained arrows into the group still coming through the opening and Dixingian soldiers following Tu Qiuyue's frantic gestures, cut off the attack as they arrived. Flame set three on fire as they entered and Li Qian buried throwing knives in any of the oncoming attackers, she could reach.

It was like watching rabbits in a tiger's den.

For every one move the enemy made, every swing and strike, Shen Wei had already reacted, with merciless force.

His legendary sword beheaded the tallest of the group, his robes swirling around him as he wove and dipped, blood arcing into the air.

From the opening and over the wall, a feat considering the height of the stone fortifications, came another group. They wore green and landed in the courtyard, engaging or avoiding the Dixingian soldiers.

Jie Ming pulled Shuanghua from his back, eyes as harsh as flames, as he connected the green feathers of the arrow he pulled steadily from Kunl,un's back, to the green clad attackers. "Bioadi, stay here." Rising, he put himself at Kunlun's back as they attacked and like Shen Wei's didn't hesitate to kill the first man, his long braids swinging as ducked, throwing power to knock six of them back. 

The Xunxi were torn. One the one hand there was their current king fighting. One the other, there was their former king standing to one side with no sword as it hadn't been returned to him. Who protected and who acted? 

Kunlun already in pain, had little patience for dithering and snapped, "Protect Jie Ming. Guard his flank." 

He could have moved to protect his cousin but the hostage takers were armed and had swords to both Ma Gui's neck and General Zhao's.

More importantly, the arrow had been tipped with slow acting poison. Because someone clearly wanted Jie Ming not to simply die, but fade slowly in great pain. That would be answered for in blood, Kunlun decided coldly.

Unfortunately for them, Kunlun was in a slightly different position. There was Gate magic thrumming through him and dark energy that was trying to repair his injury from Shen Wei, who somehow managed to combine martial arts and long distance healing. 

It meant the poison was doing its thing, but at a slower rate blocked by Shen Wei's energy, buying him some time.

He was willing to bet that Shen Wei could pull the  poison from him or else, Jie Ming who collected such things, might have an actual antidote. After all, in his experience people tended to go with what was available or recommended when it came to poisons. Rare was the person who actually managed to find and afford the rare poisons, because obtaining such things was usually deadly.

Jie Ming was an odd combination of highly trained cultivator, martial warrior and well trained healer. He like Kunlun, knew most of the plant based poisons in the Middle States and all of the venomous snakes.

If it was snake or mushroom he was dead, if it was a plant...

His shoulder was beginning to burn, but whether that was from the poison or the dark energy, or the torn muscle, Kunlun at this point wasn't sure. His reformed body was battered, his injuries from the battle ten years ago lingering, thanks to the sheer maliciousness of the Immortals in their Gate trapping design.

With the smoothness of a man who had spent too many years in violence, he faced them easily. 

Unable to help himself, Kunlun still glanced at Shen Wei and then his cousin, assessing the enemy. Satisfied that none of the fighters sent in to kill his family were actually anywhere near their skill, he felt content to turn his back.

"You let them fight for you?" Sneered the man holding Lin Jing, who lifted his hands in anger only to see his Chief's immediate glare. He recognized that sparking warning look and lowered his hands with that strange feeling of grief-tinged affection and a healthy dose of Chief-related fear. 

Chief had a plan and a glance down told him that Chief also had the Gate array still active. Only the truly foolish thought they could box in Chief. He thought and nodded, his heart settling in his chest.

Kunlun clutched his wounded shoulder and simply lifted a brow, "Considering that your forty men are now reduced to eighteen and the remaining sixteen that were their reinforcements happen to be dead, by my hand...yes."

Da Qing appeared and pressed close to Kunlun, his eyes flickering from brown to yellow as he sized up their enemy. There was a stolen sword in his hand and the tattoo of the Bi'an Tiger clear on his exposed hands. "Zhugong!" He cried and turned viciously to face the hostage takers, a stolen sword in one hand. "Lin Jing!"

"Shidi." Ma Gui said imploringly leaving Fu You to grip his shidi's wounded form. From his inner robes he tore a piece of cloth and pressed it to the bleeding hole in his shoulder, transferring spiritual power to help heal the damage.

Kunlun lifted a hand and pressed his fingers to the bleeding cut on Ma Gui's neck, smearing the blood. "What's her name? The one trying to skewer Wang?" He asked softly.

Ma Gui's eyes met his and he saw the anger sparking there. A rueful smile caught his lips and he pressed more energy into Kunlun's shoulder. "Battle Commander Tu Qiuyue."

"I shall owe her for taking his life." Kunlun said solemnly, as Da Qing reached his arm.

"Zhugong!" He cried and bravely faced the hostage takers, a stolen sword in one hand. "Lin Jing!"

Kunlun flicked a brow at his shixiong and smiled, leaning into his strength. "The Middle States attack us now shixiong."

"How right you are," The man holding Lin Jing sneered, "The Great Kunlun and his wisdom."

Kunlun said smoothly, leaning against the water feature in the courtyard. "This is pigs to slaughter and you know that. You attacked the Emperor of Dixing and his Royal Guards, who are not ornamental." Zhao Yunlan gesturing towards Tu Qiuyue who had Wang Xiangyang bleeding. "They will kill every one of your men or die trying. The Lord Guardian and the Xunxi too. You broke the Gate Magics treaty and threaten the Peace Treaty. In a courtyard with nine of my Tigers and a Southern Haixingren reunion party."

"So what must be asked, is what you want for the lives you hold?"

"Justice." Shouted a voice from the side and one of the green clad attackers came forward avoiding the sword of a Xunxi warrior.

Ripping his mask away from his face, Kang Laiyi Clan Leader of the Middle States Clan Kang came into the light.

Far from being awed, Kunlun pulled a face and said, "Age may have made you pettier, but hasn't made you prettier."

Chapter Text

Dark eyes holding foxfire brightness in their dark depths, watched and calculated. 

 

The Gate whispered to him, its power still seeping into his blood. Anger and worry coursed through him, making him feel even more unstable with the amount of power loose in his system. When he closed his eyes, the former king of Shangbei could see the energy coursing through everyone in the courtyard.

The light hidden within everyone glowed, but in Shen Wei is was nearly blinding. Ten years had reinforced Shen Wei's power, a fountain of rainbow lights flowed through him, disappearing into darkness that surged in him like the tide. Again and again. A storm that raged, lighting as it flashed across the sky. This was Shen Wei. Winter's cold and the fire of the earth bound into one.

Shen Wei.

His heart had traitorously beat faster when Shen Wei had kissed his forehead and hope, that cursed, blessed thing that had kept him alive and...Shen Wei wasn't his anymore.

Somehow everything he had survived at this point was easier, burning alive was easier, somehow so much easier than facing a reality where Shen Wei would be forced to walk away from him.

He had seen in those eyes beyond the fierceness, the desperation in that kiss, the fear...he had seen the grief before it had been marshaled by anger.

Focus, he chided himself.

There was no question even now that Shen Wei loved him still. Even without that kiss, what Wang Zheng had told him...shown him...all that grief and pain...perhaps some of it was for his brother, his mother...but most of it was for him.

Shen Wei kneeling in the snow...Wang Zheng terrified of upsetting him more, grieving for Sang Zan watched as his Wei cried, a trembling name in near silent gasps, 'Yunlan'.

Shen Wei seated on a throne with the tigers and dragons woven around. Beautiful, untouchable, remote. "Lord Kunlun will be remembered as Dixing's hero." Shen Wei said, his voice colder than ice. "Announce my decree."

He had broken Shen Wei's heart.

He, Zhao Yunlan had wielded the dagger that was buried in Shen Wei's ribs and he knew, didn't he? He knew when he fell, when his own death seemed so certain, that Shen Wei would endure. He would not stagger, he would stride with the weight of his pain and the world on his shoulders, bear it all for the promise of seeing Kunlun again.

Xiao Wei.

Focus on the pain.

His shoulder burned and Zhao Yunlan straightened his spine.

Everyone dies here if he fails and someone has to benefit. He's ten years out of date but can see that the players are blinded by old scores, the war and the scar of his disappearance. Wang Zheng was right about that.

One thing he knows as he breathes through the pain, the Gate magics destroying the poison, is that he wasn't suppose to be here. He was the one thing none of their enemies considered.

A smile curved a lush mouth.

He could use that.

----

The shock on their faces at seeing Kunlun alive lasted for several long moments, long enough for Shen Wei to move from the edges, where his opponents lay dead and shift across the entire courtyard to stand in front of Zhao Yunlan.

Staring, other people staring was an uncomfortable side effect of loving Kunlun, but there would be no touching, Shen Wei thought darkly.

 

Ma Gui blinked but Kunlun didn't seemed surprised and only continued staring coldly at the man standing in the middle.

It gave everyone enough time to collect around or carry on fighting behind them. Shen Wei knew they were winning without checking and glanced worriedly at Zhao Yunlan.

Facing them was the leader of the Kang Clan, one of the most influential clans of the Middle States.

Shen Wei had little respect and even less mercy in his heart for the man standing before them. When he had still been the Ghost General, the Middle States had been torn between loathing Kunlun and adoring him.

Perhaps that was the fate of every leader. Every choice and decision was under immense scrutiny, resources had been scarce and even Shen Wei had been able to admit, begrudgingly, that placing your life in the hands of a stranger was not an easy step.

To Shen Wei, Kunlun had proven himself a hero, righteous and strategic. To others, it was only his victories that truly mattered.

What Shen Wei was only just beginning to understand was the sheer magnitude of what it had taken for Kunlun to return to the Middle States.

Trained and raised from the age of ten by the Chongsheng Clan, Kunlun had been held responsible for the attack by Southern Haixing, the slaughter of the tribe and the death of its beloved Clan leader.

The Meishan had convicted Kunlun and would have killed him if not for Ma Gui. Beaten and disavowed, Kunlun had faced death easily to free Ma Gui. The act of surviving, of running with his unconscious adopted brother, was enough to cast him out.

Not that it helped them when the histories were written.

In the peaceful times that followed Kunlun's sacrifice, that divide had been ever more present. A few of the Clans that formed the cluster of nations within the Middle States, paid their respects to Kunlun and had some agreements with Dixing or Shangbei. Others like the Kang, Geng and Jiao had aligned themselves a little too quickly with Southern Haixing.

Then eight years ago a single death caused a ripple through the world and new animosity to bloom like invasive fungus.

None of these clans came to Dixing to honor the ten year anniversary. None of them honored Kunlun and every one of them regularly sought favor now with Southern Haixing.

That Shen Wei could not forgive.

This man, Kang Laiyi had been a fool during the war. Hot-headed and naive, he had barely made any contribution to the war and often sought conflict with Kunlun. He was known in Emperor An Bai's court and somewhat distanced these days from Geng Zaicheng, the more sensible of the two. He had learned to fear Shen Wei's wrath only a year ago.

For the last few years he had been fighting in the Lord Guardian's court for justice against Shangbei, aided in part by Southern Haixing.

"How much of a paltry award will Emperor An Bai give you?" Shen Wei asked coldly. "For encroaching on Our Land and threatening Us directly? Are you planning to try for Our Life?"

The Royal Guards made it over to the center and clustered once more near him. Wang was dead and Tu Qiuyue hurried nearer to him. Shen Wei glanced at Kunlun carefully. He was deathly pale and his hands were trembling. The sooner they could end this, the faster Kunlun could recover from all he had endured. 

"Why have you come here?" Demanded Jie Ming as he rushed back to the center where Kunlun was leaning against the statue. Zhao Xin Ci strained against the blade at his neck but watched his son glare at the man in front like he was meeting a demon.

Which was strange considering how Lord Kunlun was famous for his glib attitude and unfailing laid-back personality. Zhao Xin Ci always believed that he must be acting because no commander could be so successful if they struggled with sincerity.   That and he was his son.

 

The sight of Jie Ming seemed to push Kang Laiyi from his shock. He glared at Kunlun, "Ten years you have been gone! Cried over like some maiden! So it is true. The Master of the Mountains is hiding here!"

"Trust me," Kunlun said dryly, "Another two hundred years would be too quick to see you again. And maiden? Really. Ten years and your insults haven't improved." 

"You are making a conspiracy over nothing!" Lady Fu You admonished standing near Ma Gui, "Lord Kunlun was trapped here. Has been trapped for ten years. Tonight he was freed!"

"If that's true, then he can give himself to justice!" Kang Laiyi shouted angrily.

Jie Ming immediately put himself in front of Kunlun and the Xunxi gathered protectively. Shen Wei already riled as he was, simply stepped forward, "You have no rights to Lord Kunlun. You would not even be alive without him!"

"Why do want Lord Kunlun?" Zhao Xin Ci asked, his voice cutting through the argument neatly.

Kunlun huffed and folded his arms, but Lady Fu You scowled, "Yes, why do you wish harm on Lord Kunlun?"

"Zhugong is not the one you want." Zhu Hong said sharply, stepping into the light half supported by Da Qing, who looked helplessly at Kunlun.

 

 

"Hiding a wanted fugitive now? Is this how your hero is supposed to behave Lord Ma Gui?" Kang Laiyi asked curtly.

"Fugitive indicates that you have convicted the Chieftain of the Da Huang." Kunlun said in a smooth voice that had everyone listening. "On what grounds? And in case you have not noticed, this is a difficult situation with hostages."

His head tilted and a coy smile played around his mouth, "Unless of course you are admitting that you are a part of this attack on Dixing?"

Kang Laiyi looked at Zhao Xin Ci, the first attackers and then back at Kunlun, "We received proof and have every right to come here to apprehend a fugitive. Unless the Emperor of Dixing is truly giving protection to a criminal? A murderer?"

"You accuse Lord Kunlun of murder?" Shen Wei spat, his voice venomous but icily cold.

"I'm the one you want." Zhu Hong snapped, "Leave My King and Lord Kunlun alone!"

Jie Ming elbowed his way to the front, his sword dripping blood onto the stone at his feet. "You cannot do this!"

"She confessed." Kang Laiyi said loudly. "She confessed to the murder of Gao Fang! You may care nothing for the man who was once your sworn brother but I..."

"Gao Fang?" Kunlun interrupted and Shen Wei turned at the disdain in Zhao Yunlan's voice.

"He's presumed dead." Shen Wei said in explanation. "They have been trying for years to pin his murder on you or Jie Ming."

Unsuccessfully. Convicting the king of a nation as a diverse and powerful like Shangbei was near impossible without undeniable evidence and enough public support for an outcry. No one in Shangbei cared and Shen Wei denied them the remotest possibility of Dixingian support.

"Gao Fang was murdered by your hands?" asked Zhao Xin Ci, still with a sword at his throat, but he looked at Zhu Hong with a complex expression.

Jie Ming momentarily looked anguished, "Zhu Hong  had nothing to do with Gao Fang's disappearance! She wasn't there! She was fighting for our freedom."

 

"You have argued this point for years. You have no evidence and hearsay!"

Shen Wei looked at Kunlun's stormy expression that was slowly and surely replaced by a blank, cold stare. Without pause, Shen Wei shifted and summon to his hand his pudao. Power shimmered and frost cracked the stone, as Shen Wei let the full weight of his dark energy manifest in the air, the point of the hilt slamming into the ground.

"Your Clan has invaded my land. You come here to threaten Us!" Shen Wei raged, "You have no standing and no rights here. Not even Southern Haixing has been so bold!"

"He killed my brother!" Kng Laiyi shouted, "And he," Pointing at Jie Ming, he raised his sword, "Has lied and covered for that bastard!"

"Zhu Hong is innocent!" Jie Ming snarled.

The attackers led by the unnamed man watched as the argument played out, seeing leverage in this turn of events. Zhu Hong was sacrificing herself and it seemed that no one could stop them taking her. As Kang Laiyi moved forward with his guards to capture her, Jie Ming moved forward to stop them.

Bloodshed was inevitable and a bad situation was about to become a crisis and the flag dropping for the onset of war.

Kunlun's patience snapped like a fraying thread.

A hand familiar and so beloved reached out and with power brushed against Shen Wei's back. He turned immediately and looked into obsidian eyes, weary with pain and fatigue. He wanted to say that he could end this and Kunlun could rest, promise that he would take care of him, a thousand other things that danced on his tongue like half-remembered dreams.

He never expected Kunlun to dip into a bow.

Shen Wei's hands clasped his forearms in what he knew was a punishing grip, saw the suppressed wince, knew that all the betrayal and hurt he felt at the gesture, was there in his eyes for the world, for Kunlun to see, but he didn't care.

"Never bow to me." He ordered sharply. "Never. Kunlun,"

"I ask for your permission and give my promise that none of your people will be hurt by me or mine." Zhao Yunlan said and then he winked.

A curl of power golden and olive swirled from Kunlun's hand and drifted into Shen Wei. It met his own dark energy and warmth spread through him, settling seductively in his dantian. It was a tease and a promise one Kunlun had used before in caverns and on makeshift beds. 

Like a kiss it lingered and then drifted back, harmless to his health and something else entirely for his ever hopeful heart. "We grant you permission."

Zhao Yunlan smiled at the tiny hitch in his voice and even demons feared that smile.

 

 

"You have my gratitude." Kunlun said formally and long fingers caressed his as Shen Wei pulled together his tattered thoughts and stepped back. 

There was nothing like a warning when Zhao Yunlan harnessed the power brimming in his veins. No lights or glowing eyes or anything Kunlun would consider too dramatic.

Although what you called the activation of the Gate array and the explosion of power that blew everyone except Shen Wei off their feet, if it was not dramatic.

It was often said that everyone has a line in the sand, a line that cannot be crossed, an incursion that could never be abided, forgiven...

For Shen Wei that was his family. Zhao Yunlan. Any harm to them could not forgiven and must be prevented at all costs, to himself, to the world itself.

For Kunlun that was any attack or threat to the people he considered 'his'. Similar really, but Zhao Yunlan was not one to make obvious threats or reprisals. If he had to wait twenty years for revenge he would. If he could mastermind a way to take vengeance using someone else he would. Time and distance meant nothing. Every consequence planned, every eventuality already considered the moment perhaps the offense had happened.

He was brilliant and utterly ruthless. That laid-back nature hid a cunning mind.

To Shen Wei, if Kunlun had been openly provoked he would have acted with consequence in mind. A duel, a public humiliation for his enemy, justice sought in blood if it came to that. Whatever happened Kunlun would be in the right, Shen Wei believed that. Kunlun never attacked anyone without valid reasons.

He wasn't moralistic, what survivor was?

Power pulled Zhu Hong upright and behind Kunlun, oaths bound in blood summoned the Bi'an Tigers here to him. All of his people, behind him with Shen Wei just off to the side. The balance had shifted.

Not a single Dixingian was harmed and the Royal Guards surged to their feet, angry and vengeful, only to see their Emperor standing beside Lord Kunlun. Everyone else including the other hostages were on the ground, but not a single stone was damage in the courtyard or the buildings themselves.

A lot harder than simply destroying the entire structure.

 

 

"Did you?" Zhao Yunlan said sharply looking at Zhu Hong. "You're good at a lot of things Hong-er, but betraying me is not one of them. I ordered that the idiot could not be killed, so did you end him or not?'

"If I killed that idiot, I would have done so in honest combat and thrown his pitiful carcass off the nearest cliff for the birds pick clean." Zhu Hong  snarled, stopping everyone. "Killing him would have betrayed you."

"Shidi?" Ma Gui admonished halfheartedly. If "Was that necessary?'

"Chief?" Lin Jing asked picking himself off the floor.

"That worked." Da Qing added looking from left to right.

Kang Laiyi screamed wordlessly in rage and Kunlun flicked a brow at him and zapped him with power, knocking him down again. His guards fell against a shield that only dark energy would have a hope defeating.

"And the confession? Since when do you break? Did I teach you nothing?" Kunlun demanded angrily. "And him really? A child could play with Kang Laiyi's head!"

"For Jie Ming!"

 

"Xiao Lun?" Jie Ming said softly looking from one to the other.

"How dare you!" Shouted one of Kang Laiyi's guards.

Kunlun looked at them coldly, "He poisoned me, I hurt him. Fair trade."

 

Chapter Text

The air was vibrating with power like a plucked string, tension seeping through the assembled people, followed by closely by the threat of violence.

Standing at the back of the courtyard, with a ruined wall and the Hanga valley sweeping down below him in paintbrush strokes of black and green, Kunlun however exhausted and now wounded, faced the forces against him with the same easy courage and sharp mind.

This could have been ten years ago, his cousin as untouched by the hands of time as the great pillars of the Gates.

The ones before him, perhaps even Zhao Xin Ci, had no idea what Kunlun was truly capable of, if provoked. And, Jie Ming thought as he looked between the parties, no one else realized fully that for all Kunlun's pretense of courtesy, the Emperor of Dixing was going to agree to whatever Kunlun planned.

The Emperor of Dixing was going to fight at Kunlun's side and the forces across the courtyard would die here tonight.

And that was going to be a problem

And that was going to be a problem.

The love of his life, Zhu Hong would forever be hunted.

Kunlun would be forever tainted by the bloody massacre he was more than capable of, blamed and shunned for this single night. Forced in Jie Ming's nightmarish visions of facing justice in the Lord Guardian's court or elsewhere like the Middle States.

Shen Wei would end them all.

And everything Kunlun had suffered and ensured would be for nothing. The hollow, broken years of searching for him would be worth nothing.There was one way to save his family and Jie Ming was going to take it, if he had to die to do it.

Kunlun was annoyed and that was edging to true anger. Shen Wei knew it and hovered close enough to guard his back with the Royal Guard on his left side. Lin Jing now free was trying to get to Kunlun's side and Zhu Hong knelt before Kunlun.

Two thousand li from this cursed place and a lifetime ago, a small child had pressed as close to his Shifu's robes as he could without admitting he was terrified, and stared up into the weathered face of a true Seer

Two thousand li from this cursed place and a lifetime ago, a small child had pressed as close to his Shifu's robes as he could without admitting he was terrified, and stared up into the weathered face of a true Seer. Eyes the color of rust had watched him with some interest and a long stained finger had pointed at him almost threateningly. His Shifu, Bian Yujing had simply regarded her with a cool gaze, but her hand had been tight on the hilt of sword nonetheless.

So easy to dismiss, but most of what she had said had come true in the first few years and he only remembered some of it. The sentence that ruled his life, guided his choices was what had captured his attention. If he closed his eyes he could still hear the grating tone of her halting words, "He will need to choose between past and future. A line of thread suspended like a web between two. He must choose. "

He put it out of his mind and between training and his education, it was easy to forget.

On a bridge leading out of the city of Nan'Gong, with the University rising behind them guarded by its twin pagodas and famed nine bridges, he remembered. The words seemed cruel then, resonating in his soul, in the carved hollow where his beliefs used to lie, now ash along with Acheng.

The autumn trees had been resplendent in gold and red, leaves falling to cluster on the smooth waters of the smallest river, like golden boats. The air had been fragrant here with the scent of the ferns and the forest. When he had studied here, this bridge had been his refuge.

The last time he had walked resolutely over the arching bridge, he had believed that the moment the Seer had spoken of, had come.

On the other side of the bridge were three figures. The three friends he had believed would stand by him until the last. Geng Zaicheng, the eldest of their group, had watched him leave with an expression of betrayal and beside him, Kang Laiyi had half turned away. Framed by the sunlight, Gao Fang the heart of their quartet had been three steps ahead of the other two, his eyes begging him to turn back, his calls falling silent as Jie Ming crossed the bridge.

It had felt so surreal at the time

It had felt so surreal at the time. A terrible dream. Acheng was gone, his Shifu slain. Rage and the agony of grief had tormented him, but the Middle States Clan leaders had denied him. Cut him down like an old tree.

Denied that Acheng had fallen to Southern Haixing. Denied that his Shifu had fallen as a hero, a martyr for freedom. Denied that he, Jie Ming was now the only one left. Such betrayal could never be carried and ignored. Their words broke what was left of his heart and all the ties that once bound him to these people, were severed with a bloody broken knife stained with ash.

A-Cheng and Xiao Laiyi had thought it was decision they could change, that he could stay here and just carry on. An ultimatum issued from the elders hidden behind their words yes, but a harsh choice from them as well. Stay with us, or leave.

Gao Fang, so kind and loyal had begged for a third way. Had offered a way to get revenge, but to stay. To stay where it was safe. To stay with them.

He couldn't. The Clan Leaders had called him a liar, mad with grief, confused. Because of course when you were arming for war with your Shifu, when you on your knees about to be executed, it was easy to be confused.

He remembers in the middle of the bridge, a man on a white horse appeared through the trees. Kunlun.

"I thought we were meeting at Riyi?"

A flash of a devilish grin. "It was crowded."

Running from the armies looking to kill him, his cousin had risked his life to find him, unwilling to leave him to his fate. Unwilling to desert him as everyone else had.

Wrapped in a dark cloak that no doubt hid Da Qing, his newfound cousin had offered him a hand as easily as breathing. Years later and two wars behind them, Jie Ming had wondered at such easy acceptance from a man habitually distrustful. Sliding up into the saddle behind Kunlun was the closing of an era, the end of his old ties, the bonds to the very people he had thought of as family.

A choice, that unlike his former friends, Kunlun never once asked him to make.

From that day, Jie Ming had never wanted to look back.

In the second conflict this time with Southern Haixing directly, Kunlun had been forced to offer aid to the Middle States. It was the right thing to do and Jie Ming refused to allow the shards of his heart, his grief to stop him from standing beside Kunlun, when he left for the negotiation.

Now, Jie Ming wondered if this was what the Seer had meant, or if she had only hinted that this choice had to be remade more than once.

Past or future. Back then the question was Kunlun or us? Then answer was simple however painful. A promise to his Shifu and taken from his own heart, Jie Ming had pledged his sword and life to a cousin he had just met. A man supposed to bring a new dawn of peace across all the lands and realms. A man who had the mind and the sheer indomitable nature to not only swim against the tide, but pull everyone into a new world with him.

A brother he had missed with every beat of his heart.

Then he looked at Zhu Hong. She knelt beside Kunlun, bloodied and defiant, so beautiful in the light of the stars.

Past or future?

Past or future?

There is no life in the past. He cared for Gao Fang, for all of them really still even after all these years, but there was no future without Zhu Hong. There had been no life for the ten years Kunlun had been gone.

His Hong'er.

Every moment with Hong'er he had treasured for years. From the day Kunlun returned to their camp with a struggling group of Yashou survivors, his eyes had been drawn to her. Beaten down and so injured, Zhu Hong had still tried everything she could to protect those with her.

Slowly she had learned to trust them and any fool could see that she adored Kunlun. He never treated her as a glass figurine, but instead taught her to value herself in that unique way of his. Like Jie Ming, he restored the shards of their broken forms, rebuilding with patience, caring hands and a confidence in them that was unshakable.

He never said that she couldn't fight because she was a woman, or smaller or more fragile, or any of the things other people said. He told her to get on with it. When Fourth Uncle demanded she came back to the Snake Clan lands, Kunlun asked her what she wanted.

The look in her eyes when Kunlun offered her a position as a Bi'an Tiger. Her pride when the painful ritual was complete, staring at her arm in wonder.

Jie Ming resigned himself to loving her quietly, his hands open in friendship only.

Until a fated trip to meet the other half of their army. Jie Ming had argued that he should come too, worried at the thought of Kunlun going to the mountain pass without him or at least Shen Wei to guard his back. Kunlun had waved away his concerns and told him to meet the Dixingian Army in his stead. Jie Ming wondered at the rift between him and Shen Wei, when he knew for a fact that his cousin was far more than infatuated with the Ghost General.

A brutal attack near a cliff answered Jie Ming's worst fears. Reports of an explosion and a path littered with the dead had him running for Shen Wei's tent. They were missing for eleven days. Long frustrating days where Shen Wei had been nearly mad with worry, combing the area with dark energy, as many soldiers as he could spare and Jie Ming had been behind him with every try. They found them eventually deep in the mountains in a bandit camp.

He never forget seeing Kunlun barely standing but still fighting, sword flashing with every blocked blow. Hong'er had been only a foot away, slipping in the mud as she tried to hold her own in the freezing cold mud, the weather sapping her strength.

Two against ninety three were not the best odds and they had been fighting all night. Terror had gripped Jie Ming's heart at the thought he and Shen Wei might have been too late, never finding even a corpse after the bandits were finished.

Zhu Hong had come to his quarters in the middle of the night and said, "I thought I had no chance with you. That you would never want someone...someone like me."

Her eyes had been so wide, her hands twisting in the folds of her robes, "But...Kunlun told me...he said you...that I had a chance."

"I thought you loved him?" He remembers saying dimly, hardly able to believe this was happening.

"I thought I was only a...sister to you." She said softly, but she didn't deny it outright. Then she squared her shoulders with that same fearless courage, but Hong'er eyes told him how badly she wanted to run. "So tell me now. The truth."

He remembers wondering if this was some scheme of his cousin, then dismissed it as a disloyal thought. Perhaps he really had misinterpreted her interest? He remembers feeling as though he was soaring and falling as he stepped closer, taking her hand in his, hoping that the trembles he felt were not his alone.

"You must know the truth." He said softly edging closer, "You've owned my heart from the day I saw you."

The tears had shone in her eyes as she smiled up at him, "I was afraid I would never see you again." She had whispered, "But I knew you would come for us. I just had to keep fighting."

"I feared I'd be too late." He confessed softly.

Officially they were engaged by the end of the month and Kunlun was so happy for them

Officially they were engaged by the end of the month and Kunlun was so happy for them. He announced Hong'er would be his biǎosǎo and promised after the main battle, they would have a grand wedding.

Three weeks later Kunlun went missing, the world imploded and reformed as a landscape Jie Ming didn't recognize. They clung to each other, like drowning sailors, trying to make sense of this world, determined to find the truth. She brushed away his tears and promised they would find Kunlun, as she tried to make sure he ate something or slept for an hour or two. Hong'er was the reason he kept Shangbei from falling.

Sometimes he regretted  them not marrying then, but things were so broken, the future bleak.

If he had to lead Shangbei without Xiao Lun, he wanted her to rule beside him.

The world conspired against them.

Hong'er's father was the younger brother of the Chieftain of the Snake Clan, Fourth Uncle. Her mother though had been a daughter of the Da Huang Clan's Chief Healer, so when Kunlun fell she was ordered to return to the Yashou Realm. She planned to tell them she was getting married.

Nether of them expected the Realm to be locked for two years after three Yashou Leaders activated Kunlun fail-safe mechanism should Shangbei fall.  A revolt against peace that Jie Ming had to face while praying that Zhu Hong was alive.

When she was released finally, he thought this was the chance. This time they would stay together and for three months in the aftermath of the chaos, he believed that to be true. They worked together forging a new treaty with Dixing, for trade and military support. Shen Wei was willing for Kunlun.

Zhu Hong offered to go for the negotiation, only to be told that no one from the Da Huang could come. Shen Wei's letter was a soft blow on paper, but a tidal wave for his Hong'er. This was how she learned that the Da Huang tribe wiped out the Hanga. Her horror had pierced his heart, but no words could make what happened any less horrific.

Six days later while he was in Dixing, Zhu Hong was kidnapped by the Da Huang.

This was the worst part, he thought. The hardest thing to explain to Kunlun, who was going to be furious.

The Da Huang used their abilities and hoarded treasures, artifacts of Immortal power to make some temporary realms of their own. Perhaps they had been doing this in the ancient past, but certainty not while Kunlun had been watching. It went against the very rules of the Gates.

They locked themselves away for five years. For Zhu Hong and Lin Jing it was five months.

Of course while she was there, Zhu Hong challenged the leader to a death match. She shouldn't have won and only told him after it had happened. When she was lying nearly dead in a home that wasn't hers, because Lin Jing finally worked out how to undo the mess of the barriers. 

Five years of endless attempts to find them, exactly like Kunlun. It drove him nearly mad.

Zhu Hong was shocked at the length of time, compounded by the sheer disaster that was the tribe's place in Shangbei.

The Da Huang kept her as a hostage against Jie Ming and that was one crime, false realms, mass execution of civilians now formally part of Dixing

The Da Huang kept her as a hostage against Jie Ming and that was one crime, false realms, mass execution of civilians now formally part of Dixing...the crimes seemed endless.  Once that was over, the Tribe was to be stripped of it's powers, it's command over the Gates.

At first, Zhu Hong couldn't marry for three years when her father, a man she barely knew had been killed. The former King of Shangbei was 'presumed dead'. Jie Ming had to find him and that took every last reserve he had, between trying to break into the false realms and combing the Hanga lands for answers.

Now her Chieftain was dead, Zhu Hong had to officially mourn, govern a shamed tribe and publicly repent.

She decided to save Kunlun's reputation and the Yashou was so divided. They wanted her to marry a good son of the Snake Clan, not the son of the Xunxi from an ancient bloodline.

Divided by different promises, they lived apart. Zhu Hong became the Da Huang Chieftain and risked assassination to try to build a new reputation for the clan, tried to use everything she had to support Jie Ming.  She pledged thirty thousand troops should the peace deal fail and every meeting where the Tribes came to Qiyi, was the joy that gave him life and a dagger in his heart. 

I have to repent to Kunlun. For the last Hanga survivor, Ge Lan. I have to remake the Da Huang. I will only shame you until I do. We'll live apart and one day, maybe I'll be worthy.

Nothing he tried changed her mind.

When everything settled a year ago, he tried again. The Snake Clan were again trying to force her into marriage and he offered his hand, heart in his throat. It had been the best moment of his life when she had said yes.

Naturally, eight weeks before their wedding, the Middle States began campaigning against her. Claiming she had murdered Gao Fang, who had gone missing two years after Kunlun went missing. Two months after Zhu Hong had returned from the Yashou Realm. At the very point in time, she was supposed to be visiting her aunt Lady Fu You.  

She admitted easily that she wasn't with her aunt. That she had not lied to him, going through with her visit. It had soured over her marriage which Fu You didn't agree with. She had left in a temper and admitted meeting Gao Fang. Admitted she hoped he was dead, but wouldn't say any more.

He stared now at the woman he loved even if he had wondered if she had killed Gao Fang. 

Why?

He had left Gao Fang in the past. They had amended their friendship to a point, but Jie Ming was the ruler of Shangbei, the gulf between them was massive.

Was that really why she had avoided marrying him? Was the world conspiring or was it Zhu Hong herself?

He should have dragged her, however angry with she was, to Qiyi where Kang Laiyi wouldn't have found her. She would be safe right now if he had gone against her will.

Past or future?

Well they were not killing her

Well they were not killing her.

Jie Ming stepped furiously into the path of the argument, plunging his own power into the raging network, just hidden below the slightly shuddering courtyard stones. The power Kunlun was amassing should they need to fight their way out.

His voice was dagger sharp. "So, presuming that you are the dramatic entertainment, to allow those with a beating heart to stew in their guilt,...when to we get to the revenge you obviously crave?

Zhu Hong looked worried, her dark eyes so wide and afraid. Kunlun's smile was proud, still surprised that Jie Ming would take his side. Then he leaned forward, eyes intent. As if to say, whatever you do, I'll back you.

Gathering the strength that had seen him through his darkest days, Jie Ming turned knowing he had family at his back and faced his former friend

Gathering the strength that had seen him through his darkest days, Jie Ming turned knowing he had family at his back and faced his former friend. "None of you counted on the Gate Master's return, but you forget that neither I nor the Emperor of Dixing, are ever defenseless."

"Surrender now and you might just live." Jie Ming said, pouring his anger into his voice.

Kang Laiyi's face twisted into a snarl, "He murdered Gao Fang! You are nothing more than a wretched.."

"How dare you!" Zhu Hong snarled. "First you say I killed him, now you are blaming the Master Guardian!"

"Finish that sentence," Kunlun said with venom, "Don't leave me in suspense."

Ma Gui tried to step in, the remaining men loyal to the Lord Guardian gathered behind him. "There is no need for this. The appropriate channels of justice have not been honored."

"He wouldn't know honor if it threw him in Southern Haixing." Kunlun said darkly and Shen Wei snorted. "But he was already there wasn't he? Bending over for Duke..."

"The North has not be honorable in many of our dealings." Zhao Xin Ci interrupted sharply.

"That's so sad." Kunlun shot back, "We should work on our trust issues."

Shen Wei's long lashes hid his eyes as he briefly looked down, in amusement or exasperation, Jie Ming wasn't sure.

Kang Laiyi straightened, "We have tried for justice and have been blocked through corruption."

The unnamed man leading the attack on the courtyard, raised his Haxingren sword, the black decorative lines nearly invisible in the dim light. "We want justice!"   

"Why the hell do your care about some Middle State son?" Kunlun asked coldly. "He's not part of your desperate plot."

"The answer is simple enough," Zhao Xin Ci said into the tense silence, "Did Chieftain Zhu Hong murder Gao Fang or not?"

Jie Ming wasn't sure if the man was trying to give his son an out, or was scheming for his own mysterious purposes, but either way, Kunlun's eyes narrowed dangerously.

"She did not and Gao Fang would never want this." He said sternly, not entirely sure if he believed it himself, but that was what Hong'er had said.  "You will die if you attack." He said to the man, "And that won't bring the war you hope for." 

"Gao Fang!" Kang Laiyi all but screamed, "What would you know? He fought for you! Tried to find you for years no matter what we said!"

Kunlun snorted and Zhu Hong turned her head to look at Kang Laiyi in disgust. Shen Wei seemed to glance between the two and faced their enemies, as if proclaiming that the truth hardly mattered. Zhao Xin Ci trying not to react to his son's animosity, said to Kang Laiyi. "If she didn't kill him and there is proof of this, can you really continue this campaign?"

"A General of your reputation should hardly be concerned over Shangbei's treachery. You should be grateful we are here to rescue you!"

Before his son could say anything, Zhao Xin Ci stared back with the same cutting stare, "We are at peace. Thousands of souls perished trying for stability. We've had ten years to hash this out. The Emperor of Dixing invited me here and he wouldn't be so stupid as to ill me on his own soil."

"Invited you?" Kang Laiyi said bewildered.

"That is what I said." Zhao Xin Ci said tersely, "For Guo Changcheng, nephew of Duke Guo, to be rescued."

"Duke Guo?" Kunlun asked in surprise and Shen Wei glared. Saying it so publicly was akin to painting a target on Guo's skinny back. "Our Xiao Guo?"

Jie Ming however breathed a little easier. Zhao Xin Ci wasn't looking for war, if he was trying to smooth things over. Not that he was going to feel grateful to the General who wanted to take Shangbei for Southern Haixing. "You are outnumbered."

The former king of Shangbei ignored them all and looked at Zhu Hong. Jie Ming has never considered himself fearless, never so far removed from reality to claim a good warrior could be, but he was privately glad that level, piercing gaze was not resting on him. Zhao Yunlan had a great many skills, but that penetrating stare never failed make him feel guilty.

"Did he break the bargain?" He asked, his voice perfectly calm and heavy with words unsaid.

Zhu Hong raised her chin, unafraid but unsettled rather than defiant like he would have expected. "He did not,

A bargain with a Gate Guardian was bound by rules so ancient only the Order really understood the terms

A bargain with a Gate Guardian was bound by rules so ancient only the Order really understood the terms. Not even the Lord Guardian of the Realms could undo one or interfere in the terms. There were clauses written in blood and words that could invoke the worst punishments imaginable.

A secondary crisis was the simple fact that a deal with Zhao Yunlan was like the darkest seas. As smooth as glass on the surface and just as deceptive as the deepest ocean, teeming with ulterior motives like fish shoals. This otherworldly man was armed with the sweetest voice, a placid handsome face, a silver dipped tongue and a beautiful siren smile. He could confuse, deviate from topic, misdirect and challenge the sanity of the strongest minds. Not to mention shatter patience in a few moments.

If he cared for you, he would make sure you were safe even as he wrecked havoc on the world. If he didn't...the terms of the deal were always in his favor, even when it seemed as though he couldn't possibly be lying.

"Did he break it?" Snaps Da Qing. "I told you he was better dead."

"What bargain?" Ma Gui demanded, knowing this better than anyone, ahead of Jie Ming, who glanced worriedly between Zhu Hong and Kunlun's stony face.

"Gao Fang." Kunlun answered, his tone more suited to words like "poison' or 'traitor'. He glanced at Jie Ming and he could see something vaguely like guilt in Kunlun's eyes. Oh no.

"He made a deal on the blood stone."Da Qing adds sullenly.

"With you?" Demanded Kang Laiyi hotly.

"No, with the first king of Southern Haixing." Came the sarcastic reply.

 

"Over the blood stone." Jie Ming repeated faintly.

"What does that mean?" Shen Wei decided to ask, seeing that Zhao Xin Ci and Lady Fu You looked lost as well. 

Everyone expected the same harsh treatment when he replied, but Da Qing's tone was now more absent than angry. "The blood stone is a ritual that goes back to the first Gate Guardians. It means that if Gao Fang failed to keep his end of the bargain he would die of blood poisoning."

"He would never bargain with you." Kang Laiyi said sharply, "He hates you."

"Why? I thought you were allies?" Zhao Xin Ci asked.

Rather than answer in words Kunlun released a breath that might have been an irritated sigh. With his right foot he kicked expertly at the hit of a fallen sword and threw it into the air. Before Shen Wei could stop him, he sliced open his forearm on the blade and drew with his left hand a symbol in the air. The talisman drawn in blood sat suspended there in midair, the droplets at the edges poised to fall at any moment.

The air shimmered and then the earth rocked violently.

"I pray the esteemed Emperor of Dixing will accept by humble apologies." Kunlun said with a deferential bow that had a growl forming in Shen Wei's throat.

"I accept." He said as calmly as he could while trying to catch Kunlun's eyes.

A tower of stone tore through the ground and reached high into the sky. It was white, polished and pearlescent with red lines weaving their way to the very top. Written in vivid blue, names were carved into three sides and symbols along the fourth. "Gao Fang." Kunlun intoned and a line near the bottom shone gold, while the symbol side, Jie Ming could just see from this angle, glowed black.

This was the tower of inscription that stood before the Gate Guardians temple. Jie Ming thought as he watched his cousin. Only the true Master of the Gates could force the stones to reveal the deals.

"Looks like he kept his word." Kunlun said blandly. "And he's not dead."

"What is this Lord Kunlun?" Zhao Xin Ci asked politely and Jie Ming could just see the gleam of gold in his eyes.

Kunlun glanced at him, expression firmly neutral. "The Tower of the Ages. It is a record of every deal ever done with the Guardians of the Gates."

Turning, Kunlun waved a hand and the blood talisman changed forming two separate symbols. The tower collapsed back into the earth like snake returning to its burrow. The stone of the courtyard returned to it's previous state, with not a crack or a scar to prove that the tower had ever been there.

All noise in the courtyard ceased. The wind died down and not a single thing moved, as if struck to silence. A black gate appeared and Kunllun looked at Jie Ming who shrugged subtly. If they needed reinforcements, why not have a way to summon them. Of course with this Gate, Jie Ming could call on anything from the Ghostly Beasts to the immortal armies of Qiyi itself..

"He is dead."Kang Laiyi said firmly, "She killed him!"

"Do you want me to check with old Ox-Head and Horse-Face?" Kunlun asked calmly, "Or one of the guardians of Youdu?"

"You believe Gao Fang to be in Hell?" Jie Ming asked doubtfully, but genuinely.

"They are enemies!"

Kunlun ignored them and looked at Zhu Hong, "If he didn't break the deal, why did you seek him out?"

Zhu Hong didn't waver, "One of our trusted spies said that he had information about what happened to you."

Kunlun closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. "So you went to break his bones until he talked. Good plan." He added drily. "Who was the spy?"

Zhu Hong glanced at the crowd, then volunteered a single name, "Zhou Mu."

"Why would Gao Fang know anything?" Zhao Xin Ci asked sounded irritated and Jie Ming wondered if the man was annoyed he hadn't known a source of information existed. "What is he to you?"

"Why didn't you tell me?" Jie Ming found himself asking.

"Because if he was responsible,' Kunlun explained, "Our Zhu Hong was going to bring him to the Gate, dying or not."

He looked at her, "You wanted to know if he was seeking a cure for the blood poisoning."

"Yes." She said firmly. "I tracked his whereabouts. He wasn't in Nan'Gong. He was traveling through the Jade Forest."

"In Fox Territory?" Kunlun said sounding interested, "What did he say?"

"He claimed he was innocent and that he hadn't broken your bargain. We argued and then we were attacked."

"Lies." Kang Laiyi said darkly.

"By what?" Da QIng asked, his brows mockingly high, "You are one of Kunlun's Tigers, what got the best of you?"

"Men dressed like him." Zhu Hong said pointing at the unnamed man. "At least thirty of them. We both fought them. They killed my two guards and one of them was a Dixingian. He broke the earth, throwing both myself and Gao Fang."

"And then?"

"I woke up in a hut tied to a pole." Zhu Hong admitted, "Held by the Sishui."

"A pole?" Da Qing repeats and Guo Changcheng blanches.

"I thought we killed the Bandit King?" Kunlun asked in surprise.

'This was his brother." Zhu Hong admitted. "Gao Fang sold me to them. He was there in the room and gloated that you were dead. Then he left. I didn't kill him."

"He would never!" Kang Laiyi shouted and Jie Ming found words trapped in his throat. Denial that his old friend would do that but this was Zhu Hong! She had no reason to lie and to tell Kunlun a false story was impossible.

Kunlun reached a hand upwards and golden power swirled like typhoon for a moment. Then he smiled darkly, "He broke his word."

"Kunlun?" Shen Wei asks softly and Jie Ming closed his eyes.

"Doing that doesn't  break the bargain." He then looked at Kang Laiyi. "He might be alive but for doing this...He dies." 

"Didn't the bargain have expiry date?" Zhao Xin Ci asks

"Oh yes." Kunlun said calmly, "When he dies."

 "Since Zhu Hong didn't kill him,  why don't you think about the reparations you should be making to the Emperor of Dixing." Kunlun suggests coldly to Kang Laiyi.

"Gao Fang was murdered!" Kang Laiyi shouts. "You bring this Zhou Mu then!"

"He's dead." Jie Ming admits to Kunlun.

 

 

"Why would Gao Fang do this?" Jie Ming asked glancing from the ones holding Zhao Xin Ci and Ma Gui, then back to Kunlun. This really wasn't the time for his brother to do something rash, but Jie Ming had never wavered in his faith, no matter what Kunlun said or did.

Kunlun sighed and Zhu Hong bit her lip. "Gao Fang believed that I conspired to lure you away from...Nan'Gong. That I was the one responsible for Acheng."

"What!" His own voice cracked, "He what?"

"He loves you." Zhu Hong adds and looks away as Kunlun glances at her disapprovingly. 

"Why didn't you tell me? I could have..."

""You said you never wanted to speak of it. You told us to leave the past where it was. We tried to honor that, "  Da Qing explained, "He believes that Kunlun cursed you or used a spell on you. He never accepted that you were angry. Every change from the man he remembered only proved to him that Chief had..."

"Ruined you." Kunlun added.

"What a fool." Shen Wei snaps angrily.

"You deny it?" Kang Laiyi asks pointing at Jie Ming. "He is not the Jie Ming we knew."

Jie Ming glared at him. "Southern Haixing does that." He swung an arm towards Kunlun, "He is my family. My cousin. My king. I went to war. If not for him, I still would be!"

Then he stared directly at his former friend and said, "I cannot forgive you."

"For what?' Kang Laiyi demands. "We stood by you!"

"Gao Anagong and your mother knew nine days before the attack on Acheng that it was going to happen." Ma Gui interrupts. "They admitted it."

"All this time," Fu You says into the shocked silence. "Why did you never say?"

Ma Gui looks from Jie Ming to Fu You. "He told me when he died. Gao Anagong. There is no proof. Kang Keqing told Jie Ming to his face." 

Kunlun ignores him and Jie Ming tries to focus on the now. Kunlun's eyes are sorrowful and Zhu Hong looks down.  "Zhou Mu worked for Ya Qing, wouldn't she know?"

"You are a liar!" Huang Linqi snapped. "Yet you wrong us! You are lying about this too!" 

 

"Mother would never.."

"You know damn well she would. Don't lie to me that you didn't know. Gao Fang found the truth! He admitted it to me!" Jie Ming snarled, stalking forward to lifted Zhu Hong from the ground. He ignored her stunned expression and held her hand. "And you are not murdering anyone else in my family."

"We wrong you?" Kunlun said quietly, deadly in his anger. "You come here, you threaten the king of Dixing, the king of Shangbei. You put yourself in the position of the wronged and,"

Kunlun stopped the violent anger in his eyes fading and nodded to himself, "Ah. Of course."

"What is it?" Zhao Xin Ci asked, seeing the expression on his son's face turn to ice.

"You have no heart!" Huang Linqi shouted from beside Kang Laiyi. "Just like him."

"She certainly doesn't," Kunlun said blandly a hand on Shen Wei's arm the only thing preventing him from attacking. "I have been accused of far worse. But you made a mistake, one she will not forgive."

"Who?" Jie Ming asked tersely.

"Ya Qing."

"She did this!" Shen Wei shouted angrily, a volcano erupting from silence. His long hair moved like a wave, his eyes usually so calm flashed with rage and Zhao Yunlan watched him as entranced by him as always. With a glare that had caused more than one soldier on both sides to crumble, he looked at Zhao Yunlan. Only Kunlun could see the anguish behind the rage.

"After all you did for them!" He warned but Kunlun still shifted so he was separate from the group.

Lady Fu You put a hand to her mouth, "Ya Qing!"

Unexpectedly Jie Ming felt laughter in his chest, dry and regretful. "Aiya...If I hadn't been so distracted I would have seen it. She was counting on this. Clever. Oh so clever. She took advantage of me."

"Of us." Kunlun said looking at him.


Kunlun nodded and winced, "She was the one who told me of the Crown Prince's plans. She was the spy on the Palace."

"The Crown Prince. The Disembodied. The Fifth Gate. He was so determined that if he couldn't win, we would all die. Yan and her schemes. I didn't realize until it was too late. Dixing."

"Do you like talking to yourself?" Huang Linqi demanded.


"Why did you trust her?" Zhao Xin Ci. "That was stupid."


Shen Wei's temper was rising and Zhao Yunlan could see it well in the tight jaw and sparking eyes. He looked his own father in the eye and thought that this was the first time really that had been before the man, close enough to touch in twenty years. "Because if she was telling the truth, and she was if not all of it, the world would have ended."


Kunlun's smile was dagger sharp as he turned back to the rebels.  "When does my old friend arrive?"

"After all, she does like to gloat over live ones just a much as corpses." He smiled again, "More vulture, than crow really."

Lady Fu You stepped forward, "Lord Kunlun, what happened to Gao Fang and how are you sure that Ya Qing is behind this?"

"Gao Fang is alive. Ask him." Kunlun replied coldly, "As for Ya Qing, she was my spy."

Ignoring the threat of the attackers and the groups gathered around, Kunlun reached a hand into the sky. Power in green and gold swirled around his hand the sky seemed to bleed.

Red clouds gathered and most of the gathered ones stepped back, "What are you doing!" Kang Laiyi shouted, but Shen Wei stepped forward blocking his path to Kunlun.

"Try and I shall end you life!" Shen Wei said coldly.

A crack like that of a whip sounded, but the red whip was still curled around Kunlun's wrist. There was cracking sound and from the red clouds a single black form fell to the ground.

It surged to its feet, wings as black as coal flapped becoming a dress with flowing black robes. From the red and black, came Ya Qing, her feathered headdress iridescent for a moment.

She didn't waste any time either. As soon as she fell to the ground she attacked.

Between one blink and the next, she threw a weapon. Zhu Hong shouted and pushed Jie Ming to one side putting herself in Ya Qing's path.

The whip unfurled and the ground fragmented

The whip unfurled and the ground fragmented. Pieces of stone rose with the force, hurling both Zhu Hong and Ya Qing into the air. Jie Ming threw raw power at Ya Qing fueled by his anger and a guandao was pressed to her neck.

It had been sudden but brutal, the ground sizzling where the power had scorched the stones. Everyone stared at the figures surrounded Ya Qing, her dark eyes staring at Kunlun with open mouth shock.

Zhu Hong tumbled free and Da Qing grabbed her, just as Shen Wei stepped in.

Ya Qing swallowed and looked up at Kunlun. "...Lord Kunlun." She gasped.

"Sister Qing." Kunlun replied coolly and the blade didn't waver.

Kang Laiyi and others could only look on as Kunlun confronted her. He tutted loudly, "All these years...no joy in seeing me? After all we have been through together?"

"You were dead." She said and she looked wildly to the right where Lady Fu You and Shen Wei were standing. She looked back at Kunlun and then at the hostages.

"You seem busy." Ya Qing remarked, "But why the blade?"

Kunlun smiled as if this was a chance meeting in the street. "The problem with old friendships I find," Kunlun said loudly, "Is that they often sour over time. People drift apart."

"Ya Qing." Lady Fu You snapped, "You and your clan chose to leave the Yashou. You took your own path after the murder of a young Fox tribesman. You have no protection from us!"

 

 You have no protection from us!"

Chapter Text

The entire world seemed to tilt, transformed and altered in a way that seemed so farfetched.

Shen Wei had a moment to think, that if he had been told any of this in his official chambers or in a throne-room audience, his anger would have promised death. Anger at what could only be blatant lies. A story to amuse someone else, foolish enough to believe that Shen Wei could fall for such a fantastical idea.

The Yashou could not be responsible even a wayward tribe like the Crows.

It just could not be possible.

It couldn't be possible because Kunlun had been the one to free them. He had freed them, reunited them, gathered them to him, with cultivators and northern tribes of legend and woe. Gathered, sheltered them, fed and clothed them.

Kunlun had done precisely what no one would do.

He had taken the slaves of Southern Haixing and freed them. Gave them back dignity and hope.

Gave them the Yashou Realm. Unlocked it, after everyone else had been searching for that cursed Gate for centuries.

A Yashou who had risked her life time and time again for freedom, could not have been the one to betray Kunlun. Tell him enough truth to lead him to save the world and damn himself.

This was how they repaid him.

If the words had not spilled from the lips of the man he would burn the world for, Shen Wei would never believe it. Never suspect. Willing, oh so willing to lay the blame at the blood soaked feet of Southern Haixing. The scores of enemies that Kunlun had waiting in the shadows, the wretched who had not the courage to stand in the open and decry the King of Shangbei, but the ones who rejoiced at his presumed death.

Abruptly, Shen Wei remembered the memories planted in Xiao Guo's mind. The serpent who Kunlun had bargained with, his spy. He had known then that Kunlun had operated using more than one in a vast network.

He remembered Chu Shuzhi saying that Kunlun that night, the night he had last seen his love in the boat...Shen Wei swallowed hard and looked at Zhao Yunlan, drinking in the sight of him. Old Chu had told him that Zhao Yunlan had sent a messenger for reinforcements...had that been Ya Qing? It had been lost in everything else, tucked away but what had that changed back then?

Had she watched as Zhao Yunlan almost alone, with a wounded Da Qing and untrained Sang Zan, fought the centuries-old hatred of Yan, possessing the Crown Prince's bodyguard? Had she gloated? Yearned to pick at his bones, watch him bleed...

Freezing wind danced through the courtyard, whipping low to the ground and heavy white frost claimed the stones, weaving patterns like feathery tree branches along the walkways. The enemy cried out in shock and rage when the cold dark energy seeped into the frost-work and crawled up from the ground, encasing them in ice, trapping legs and swords where they were. The ice pulsed with dark energy, like a network of arteries, rendering them incapable.

Rage seethed through him, his breath sharp and rapid.

So many years he had tried and failed to find Kunlun

So many years he had tried and failed to find Kunlun. So many nights praying for his life.

So many cruel anniversaries and so much pain. Years of torture. Burning agony trapped alone and desperate. Years of holding on, through unimaginable pain to keep Sang Zan and Da Qing alive.

Had he lost himself to dreams eventually, blocking out the pain? Had he screamed for Shen Wei for Jie Ming?

Could he forgive them for failing him?

An Emperor cannot live in white and atonement could do nothing.

Someone had used them, used him and he had so blindly let them.

Empress Qingling, the mother of Emperor An Bai had been plagued by a vision. Shen Wei had not believed that, but the Crows were more than capable of planting thoughts. Marquis Shi Jing had suddenly brought Madam Gan Hien to justice before An Bai. A noble pet cultivator and subtle murder expert once on the run from Lord Kunlun, desperate to tell the court she was Da Huang and Shen Xi's aunt. Who ignited debate over Kunlun and told Zhao Xin Ci in the middle of the court that his son was trapped.

Since hearing of it Shen Wei had wondered who would have the knowledge, enough of the facts to whisper them to a murdering private cultivator like Gan Hien. The big facts like the Fifth Gate. Who knew that Minister Gao who even now was standing half behind Zhao Xin Ci, would know the truth and tell Zhao senior. Confer with him and defer to him. Was he even then possessed by Tong?

Then of course there was Cong Bo. The dead man who came from the shadows to blow up the Memory of Peace gathering. Cong Bo who just happened to be available for Zhao Xin Ci to interrogate.

Finding out about Guo Changcheng...a ceremony so old hardly anyone used it anymore, that Zhu Hong jsut happened to choose, to honor Guo? To check if he was dead? Did she think this Gao Fang had killed Guo Changcheng? Who planted that thought?

At every turn Shen Wei had been confused about Guo Changcheng.

Kunlun would not tolerate curses and he loathed sleeping spells. Yet Xiao Guo had remained unconscious no mater what anyone tried. But Kunlun had woven an enchantment into the boy's mind. Was the plan to find Shen Wei and show him or would Xiao Guo 'remember', alerting Shen Wei that the enemy was planning to kill the Dixingian Royal Family?

How would knocking Xiao Guo out help him escape? What if it wasn't Kunlun's talisman...For his brilliance, his man was not the only cultivator with an understanding of dark arrays.

Proving he was still the proud General of Southern Haixing, Zhao Xin Ci only glanced at the immobilized enemy and looked at Ya Qing with an expression nearly as cold as the ice beneath his feet. "Why have you conspired to bring us all here, if you never intended to help us find Kunlun?" 

Despite his turmoil, Shen Wei doesn't miss the dark eyes that flick to study Zhao Xin Ci, surprise in those depths

Despite his turmoil, Shen Wei doesn't miss the dark eyes that flick to study Zhao Xin Ci, surprise in those depths.

The Crow tribeswoman simply stared up at Kunlun.

This trusted agent had either known about Tong or found someone else who could wield him. Found these exiled soldiers and vengeful souls to do her dirty work.

The plan was simple and yet the amount of work to pull it off must have taken years.Shen Wei doesn't want to be impressed, when everything Ya Qing has done has caused so much pain, for so many including Kunlun, but he has to admit this was a well thought out plan.

Lure Zhao Xin Ci with the promise of finding his son, knowing he was bright enough to steal Xiao Guo. That he loved his son enough to try.

Lure Zhu Hong into using Lin Jing. Desperate to prove Kunlun was alive and equally desperate to win back the Da Huang's charred reputation, she must have known Zhu Hong would reach out. Order Lin Jing to find the truth or simply allow him to escape.

Lure Shen Wei, not directly like the others, but with intelligence gathered information and people he trusted. The promise of finding Kunlun if Cong Bo failed.

Entrap Ma Gui into coming to Dixing, with whispers of Zhao Yunlan's identity chasing him. Using Lady Fu You to corner him into an audience. Perhaps Ya Qing was the one who leaked the information that Kunlun was in fact Zhao Yunlan, that he had been disavowed.

If Ya Qing was also the one who framed Zhu Hong, she might too have been the reason the Yashou Realm locked. Why this Gao Fang was in the Jade Forest looking for something. If he is in love with Jie Ming, he must hate Zhu Hong almost or more than he loathes Zhao Yunlan.

Gao Fang was clearly being used to hurt Jie Ming, roping Kunlun into an awkward situation and part of the reason Zhu Hong was trapped.

In all the time they had together, Shen Wei had known there was tension between some of the Middle States and Shangbei or Northern Haixing as they liked to call it. Shen Wei had put it down to animosity and jealousy, mistrust over where Shangbei was in the complex order of the lands. Some of the Clan Leaders were too power hungry to enjoy someone more powerful than they, having the fame of heroism.  

Now thinking back, there had always been anger in the eyes of the usually impenetrably calm Jie Ming. Again Shen Wei had thought it tensions over kingdoms, Southern Haixing and Zhao Yunlan himself simply changed the subject when questions arose.

Gao Fang had certainly been distrustful of Kunlun.

Acheng.

A city state that had been mentioned in random moments. Shen Wei had heard that it had been destroyed by Southern Haixing, with no survivors.

Shen Wei glanced at his old friend and thought sadly that his pain must have been same. The same horror, grief and rage. The same as the moment Shen Wei realized Ye City was all but gone.

Zhao Yunlan for his part doesn't react, his eyes returning to stare at Ya Qing

Zhao Yunlan for his part doesn't react, his eyes returning to stare at Ya Qing. His celestial whip was glittering with power, the snarling dragon in gold and flames writhed around the pole near its blade.

"To begin a new war." Zhao Yunlan said calmly. "The best way to do that is lure the right people, some with sweet words, others with fists in the wounds of grudges long held and still bleeding."

Shen Wei wanted to laugh.  Give them enough time and Southern Haixing would cross the line. He knew this perfectly well. It was his line. He had carved it into the dirt and waited. They would break the peace. He wouldn't. But that didn't mean he wasn't ready for them to.

Feeling a sense a betrayal, Shen Wei looked at Jie Ming.

The current king of Shangbei had a snarl etched on his features, his eyes as sharp as a dagger. Shen Wei had no doubt his thoughts were mirrored. Like Shen Wei, Jie Ming had spent ten years holding together a nation and building for another war.

Forever proud as if she still flew in the skies, Ya Qing eyes are sharp. She stays down on her knees unwilling to test the promise of Kunlun's guandao, but tilts her chin and says snidely, "You always were the best. The clever fox has returned."

Beautiful and forever wild, Zhao Yunlan smiles. "I'm not that easy to kill." He copies her tilted head. "But it wasn't my death you wanted. You would have engineered that one, if you had wanted to. I hardly the time to object with end of the world right upon us."

His smile turned sharp, a bared scalpel that shone in Shen Wei's eyes. "You didn't expect me here."

"Why do this?" Lady Fu You demands, fury in every line of her body. Shen Wei had no doubt that if she had been in her serpentine form, she would be hissing in rage. "Ying Chun swore for you!"

"I never asked her to!" Ya Qing spat, eyes blazing. "She had no right to interfere! If you wanted peace snake, you should have executed me too!"

"Now, that's interesting." Zhao Yunlan said slowly, a direct contrast to the bitter anger swirling around them. He looked at the attackers shouting abuse, trapped in ice and Kang Laiyi who was trying cultivation energy to melt the cage around him, then back at the feuding Yashou.  "I take it, this means Ying Chun is alive?"

"She remains the head of the Flower Tribe." Jie Ming assures him, one arm protectively around Zhu Hong's waist, who looks torn between exhaustion and anger.

Zhao Yunlan looked at Ya Qing and said in a voice devoid of emotion, "The road of war is stained with the blood of the forgotten. "

"He won't be forgotten." She snarled rising up to her knees. "If I have to carve his name on their corpses myself! They won't forget."

"Ah." Zhao Yunlan says without much inflection and doesn't look away from Ya Qing. "If that's the case, there is only one other person in this world who could cause you to get involved in this."

So it wasn't power for power's sake, Shen Wei thought.

"What happened to him? Your Cheng Musheng?" He asks almost sympathetically.

Shen Wei frowned. Who was that? Noting that Da Qing had immediately shifted, eyes fixed on Zhao Yunlan, worry in his eyes. No..not just worry, anger too.

"A lot of people wanted you dead." Ya Qing said and Shen Wei's lip curled. Dark energy wrapped around her throat.

"You broke the Treaty. You tried to kill Kunlun, trapped him!" Jie Ming said, each word a knife, his hand closed and she gagged, choking.

Zhao Yunlan's hand closed around his arm and his fingers stroked his wrist. "Let her speak. Shen Wei."

It was an order and Emperors do not follow orders. The Royal Guard tensed, torn between defending their king and the bone-deep knowledge that Shen Wei would kill them for thinking about touching Kunlun.

Defiance lit those eyes, rage and pain battling common sense. Shen Wei looked at Kunlun and saw nothing but calm reassurance. How he was capable of that after all he had been through was a mystery to Shen Wei, but the glance towards Ya Qing was hard, cold and calculating.

It was that look, the battlefield commander that had no mercy, who weaved chaos in every fight and who fought at Shen Wei's side forever unflinching. That was what had Shen Wei's arm lowering.

In all his love for this man, in all his precious memories, he had not forgotten why he had been entranced by him in the first place. Why this man had been his hope. This was Lord Kunlun, the general who took on an entire nation, the strategist that defied all the enemy's hopes. The man who fought five hundred troops with ten men and one horse.

But it was the Emperor of Dixing who looked at her coldly. Power whipped and lashed, the freezing cold reaching into the sky, to form a towering cloud of ice shards, glittering unnaturally with dark energy, sparking like lightning every few moments.

"If you do not answer Lord Kunlun's questions, I will annihilate every Crow in the forest beyond."

Jie Ming stepped forward, eyes burning "Answer and I won't curse your brethren to the darkest pits of Qiyi. Who helped you?" 

The fear in her eyes told him that his guess was correct. "Confess your part in this, and I will not hunt every single one of your clan to extinction." Shen Wei added.

For most it would be an idle if cruel threat. For Shen Wei and Jie Ming, it was a vow and one they would complete, entirely of their own power and probably in minutes. She knew it as she stared up at Shen Wei, the point of his sword aimed at her.

"Cheng Musheng was executed for his crimes." Ma Gui stated loudly and Ya Qing's eyes burned. "He murdered Li Huixi."

"Xiao Xi?" Da Qing repeated. "Xiao Xi is dead?"

"She was murdered nine years ago." Zhu Hong said softly, "I'm sorry Kunlun, Da Qing."

"Ah Cheng did not kill her!" Ya Qing said sharply. "They demanded justice, called him a killer! They used the ancient system when I said no. Dragged my nephew to the Yashou Realm and executed him."

"Why would he kill her?" Da Qing demanded, "Did he do something and she found out?"

"What was the reason you suspected Cheng Musheng?' Zhao Yunlan asked Ma Gui seriously.

"Who is Li Huixi?" Zhao Xin Ci asked.

"Ma Gui's goddaughter and a healer in training." Lin Jing told him quietly. "Cheng Musheng was a young Crow scout who worked for Deputy more than Chief. He was good at tracking long distances and gathering troop movements."

Zhao Xin Ci could hardly be happy to hear there was a Crow Yashou watching the movements of Southern Haixing's army, but Shen Wei doubted he had been unaware of the possibility. "Why would he kill this girl?" He asked instead. 

"You would know him by another name." Zhao Yunlan said coldly. "Hu Jun. The young servant employed by the late Duke."

"He was working for Southern Haixing!" Ma Gui almost shouted, "And you try and claim him innocent? He came to us and we let him in."

"His Majesty Jie, did not inform us that he had disbarred Cheng Musheng

"His Majesty Jie, did not inform us that he had disbarred Cheng Musheng." Lady Fu You said in a brittle voice. "His dislike of Clan Leader Ma Gui, as this was before he took on the role of Lord Guardian, went before his decency."  

"My decency?" Jie Ming repeated icily. "It took less than a day for the Middle States to withdraw. The actual fighting only ceased three weeks after the peace treaty had been completed. The Allies abandoned us and were quick to forget Kunlun. We did not."

"We have waited and searched. We have bled and mourned. We have made sure that his return is one of glory and victory." Jie Ming added. "Cheng Musheng was to be executed in Qiyi along with the other traitors."

"Clearly you failed to keep him." Ma Gui replied sharply.

"Clearly you were helping yet another traitor against Kunlun." Jie Ming said coldly. "Strange that, isn't it?"

The in-fighting that Kunlun had correctly predicted. Zhao Yunlan sighed and Shen Wei listened, watching Ya Qing closely. Ma Gui continued staring at Kunlun imploringly almost, "He was a scout of the Allies. So many many of us were staying in the old Haixing compound. When we let him in, he claimed that he going home and we offered him rooms. Two days later I found him holding a bloodied knife kneeling beside Xiao Xi."

"He didn't kill her!" Ya Qing shouted, "You claim he did with no evidence! Just like every other murder you have gotten away with!"

"Cheng Musheng went missing for three weeks." Da Qing said eying Zhao Yunlan. "The summer we took the Riyi governor." 

"He infiltrated into Southern Haixing royal ranks and reported back what he discovered." Ya Qing said hotly.

"He began working for a General," Zhao Yunlan eyes met Zhao Xin Ci's across the courtyard, "Who gave him false information in return for information on Dixing."

Jie Ming turned to look at Kunlun, "I didn't know that. About a month after your disappearance, I discovered links to the attack on Dixing and his connections to the rebel leader responsible for the slaughter of Ye City."  Jie Ming said in flat tone. "Cheng Musheng was witnessed going to the rebels. He claimed it was under your orders, but I knew that you had only just discovered the plot in Dixing through the traitors who tried to kill you." 

Before Zhao Yunlan could say anything, Shen Wei moved in. "We do not hold Lord Kunlun in any way responsible."

"Chief would have killed him." Lin Jing added helpfully.

"Which meant he was useless to Southern Haixing, distrusted by Dixing and disbarred from Shangbei." Zhao Yunlan concluded. "One of them framed him you thought, so why not kill them all?"

"You would have listened." Ya Qing said, "But you got yourself killed."

Zhao Yunlan didn't point out he was alive, just nodded. "So you planned for war instead."

 

Chapter Text

Sometimes clarity is an idea or a word, startling in its impact. Settling like a stone on a river bed, as if it had always been there just out of reach until that moment or grasped in desperate fingers. Poets wrote extensively about such moments, in long flattering ways.

To Zhao Yunlan it was and always had been, a punch to the face.

Standing in the middle of this ruined courtyard ten years into the future, he suddenly understood Ya Qing's plan as if he had written it himself. It was surreal being here and half of his mind did wonder if this was an elaborate dream, but not even his imagination could create this disaster.

It wasn't what he would have done by any means but it was the kind of plan he knew how to guard against.

He had walked into the fires thinking - not that he would ever admit this - but that if his death might solve anything, it might allow Shen Wei, his beautiful Ghost General a chance to live

He had walked into the fires thinking - not that he would ever admit this - but that if his death might solve anything, it might allow Shen Wei, his beautiful Ghost General a chance to live. Sending Shen Wei away on that boat had been the best decision of his life, for all the pain it caused.

As the fires consumed him, he had thought that his mother would have been proud. He had thought that Jie Ming would marry Zhu Hong and live a good, noble life with the stability and happiness they deserved.

For peace.

His only regret was that he couldn't save his cat and that he couldn't send Sang Zan back to Ge Lan, the Hanga princess.

He hadn't expected the burning desire for revenge over himself. That Shen Wei would be trying to balance vengeance with adhering to 'what Kunlun would have wanted'

The pain of the blow like truth, registering more than settling. This clarity was nothing tranquil or really if he was honest and he rarely was, sudden. This wasn't a shock for all he wished it was. It was bitter and should be panic-inducing if he was inclined to panic.

They wanted war.

By killing the Empress and Emperor of Dixing just after Kunlun went missing, Southern Haixing crossed a line that could never be forgiven. To Zhao Yunlan's mind, it took the immense strength of character and will that only Shen Wei possessed, for him to actually agree to peace, when everything in him must have clamored for war, for blood, for revenge.

Hell, Dixing must have been shouting for revenge and the political factions would have harnessed Shen Wei's bizarre reluctance against him tenfold. The murmur of kin-killer, Emperor slayer ... It had been there and Zhao Yunlan knew it as if he had been hearing the whispers himself.

They murdered his didi. His king yes...but he was little brother, his to protect and guard. The primary purpose that kept Shen Wei going through every dark year and crushing event. They murdered his mother. The woman who defined Shen Wei, for all she constantly hurt him.

Helped immensely by Zhao Yunlan himself disappearing. 

What exactly had Shen Wei promised so he and his loyalists could live? Or had he simply killed the lot of them? No...that wasn't Shen Wei's style. What was the deal behind closed doors?

There would have been one. Shen Wei rarely spoke of the court and his family beyond the orders of his king...but there were plenty in the Dixingian forces, Chu Shuzhi for example or Healer Cheng.

How much of Southern Haixing's problems had been engineered by that clever, patient mind? How much downfall and suffering had he caused, without a drop of blood staining his hands?

The Middle States once again attacking Jie Ming had only widened the chasm, the idiots thought they could breach with nice words and accusations. As if hate and betrayal simply goes away after a decade.

As a nation Shangbei had held onto hate and rage against Southern Haixing for generations. What was a decade? Plus he was Xunxi, a tribe who held grudges like others held onto prized heirlooms.

There was the gleam of the Ghost General in Shen Wei's beautiful eyes and rage in his stance, pared back to the battle hardened warrior, the diplomat that must have happened in the years since to run a kingdom like Dixing, vanishing like he had never existed.

There was always something beautiful, icy and feral in Shen Wei. Like his Soul Tools, he had been honed by years of hardship, endurance and a terrifying, barely hidden blood lust.

Tempered now by grief. Fueled by pain that lingered in his bones. Wrapped around Kunlun and that undying loyalty. 

Jie Ming was no different and Zhao Yunlan had to wonder if by supporting each for all these years, they had fed each other's distrustful paranoia

Jie Ming was no different and Zhao Yunlan had to wonder if by supporting each for all these years, they had fed each other's distrustful paranoia. He would be a fool if he believed that Jie Ming had moved on. Gao Fang for all he loved Jie Ming, had never understood one basic fact.

Jie Ming had cut ties because he blamed all of them. He saw them as traitors.

Shen Wei had undoubtedly known this and used it, preparing the two nations for war.

Ge Lan...um Empress Wang Zheng had told him in emotions and flashing images the main events of the years. Shen Wei's sharp mind had certainly not blunted over this time, nor had that desire for payback.

So much for dying for peace, he thought with a sigh.

The problem was that, for all her hate and clever planning Ya Qing wasn't Shen Wei. She didn't have the resources or the patience for the long game. She was impulsive and easily offended.

Ying Chen was certainly not tempering this rage. She was the one person Ya Qing actually loved. If Ying Chun had chosen to support her idol, Shen Wei and clearly broken things off with Ya Qing, that would explain the rage against Shen Wei...Ying Chun had always sided with Shen Wei. He was her hero, her friend and one of the kindest people alive...but he thought even she must have had her limits.

Which meant there must have been an...aggressive fight. Ya Qing was ambitious and mercurial at best. There was no doubt that Jie Ming was sheltering the Flower Tribe leader or Shen Wei was himself. They always had cared for her and only Lao Ming's magic could hide the more sensitive Yashou...

 They always had cared for her and only Lao Ming's magic could hide the more sensitive Yashou

...Hell...If the Crow Tribe had been ousted...he would have changed every ward, every shield, every secret entrance. He was the Second Gate Master. It had been his duty to maintain security on all the ways in and out.

Barred and distrusted that would have prompted her to reach out to someone. The questions was who?

Southern Haixing was the quick answer and not necessarily wrong.

Zhao Xin Ci...his father...was here in this courtyard and he didn't believe for a second it was simply to find him or hostage Guo Changcheng, who made no move to stop as he hid in Kunlun's people. Had she been in partnership with him?

Were they his people still?

Did he have a place anymore?

No...He might despise Zhao Xin Ci but he had been forced to accept during the war, how his father actually thought. This wasn't his style. Making nice with Dixing must have cost him and he was the type to have blackmail on other people. His hands, he thought bitterly were always clean. 

"Kunlun?" Shen Wei asked softly just then, eyes of rage becoming the gaze of a lover, gentle and concerned, a hand moments away from lifting

"Kunlun?" Shen Wei asked softly just then, eyes of rage becoming the gaze of a lover, gentle and concerned, a hand moments away from lifting.

Kunlun glanced to the side and saw Shen Wei's stance, remembered the forehead kiss and Wang Zheng desperation to make him hear that Shen Wei had never given up on him. 

He, Kunlun was in the middle, he realized like another punch to the face.

Jie Ming hadn't attacked because Kunlun was here. Shen Wei had focused on protecting Zhao Yunlan's flank, allowing him to take the lead when as a king he should be out in front. A move that could be considered losing face. Same for Jie Ming.

Jie Ming had a kind heart but angered enough and he would level this courtyard, Shen Wei be damned. Not that Shen Wei would stop him. It would be for Kunlun after all...

That's why Zhao Xin Ci was waiting. One wrong move against Kunlun and the emotionally charged pair could attack with justified rights. This was Shen Wei's land and Jie Ming could claim he was defending his ally...

The problem was the if one of them died tonight, war was guaranteed.

Zhao Xin Ci didn't like the odds obviously, of Southern Haixing winning.

That should have pleased him. It would have pre-burning alive.

But...He had joined the war effort to fight back Southern Haixing, to drive them from their land. To enact revenge for his mother and the thousands cruelly slain. He had taken oaths that were based on keeping order and dented them to win peace through violence.

The same oaths were in effect now too. He above all was the Gate Master and the nexus of power that controlled and fueled the Gates, created by the Immortals, flowed through his veins. He had bound himself to it, until death. It had sustained him, the vast vortex of power keeping him alive against the odds. 

They had peace however fragile. People could actually live without fearing invasion. They had done it. Won those new years of sunlight and hope. Not a reprieve for another few years.

Swallowing all emotion and the hapless feeling that he despised, Zhao Yunlan smiled confidently at Shen Wei, then turned back to Ya Qing.

"Ya Qing, Ya Qing." Zhao Yunlan said with a tut. "Taking blame like this is so respectful."

Shen Wei blinked and looked at him with something like outrage, restrained out of love.

"How much did the new king of Southern Haixing pay you?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "Or better yet...how much did the Dowager Empress promise you?"

Shen Wei was watching now, waiting poised like a snake in the grasses. Ma Gui was worried and tried to move closer only to be blocked by Jie Ming, who seethed silently.

Ya Qing twitched and her eyes if possible gleamed. She sat up straighter and Shen Wei's lip curled slightly. Patience wearing thin,  Zhao Yunlan thought, an old thrill beginning to spread through him. Focus...but damn was he beautiful...and married...

"Did she promise a new home? Ying Chun's love once more? The downfall of all your enemies and hers?" He continued and missed Zhao Xin Ci incandescent anger.

Shen Wei didn't and only nodded at his former enemy.

"She aided you?" Zhao Xin Ci asked coldly. "Betrayed the Emperor?"

"Well Southern Haixing does love a good assassination plot." Zhao Yunlan answered breezily. "Who is the Dowager anyway? What king are we on?"

"Emperor An Bai." Shen Wei answered gently.

Zhao Yunlan squinted and thought for a moment. Southern Haixing was an empire that stretched across nineteen kingdoms, pressing up against the Middle States to the northwest and Dixing along the western edges of the their borders. Thanks to this more fragmented system, ruling dynasties could be chosen theoretically from any of the small inner kingdoms...and he had never heard of the An family...

"Wasn't it the Lu family before I became a furnace piece?" He asked and tried not to wince when Shen Wei's eyes turned glassy, missing Zhao Xin Ci's horrified expression and Jie Ming's trembling lips. Ma Gui simply closed his eyes and Da Qing moved closer to Zhu Hong.

"Do not joke about burning." Shen Wei said softly but firmly, looking up at him beneath long charcoal lashes, grief in his voice lingering like winter.

"After the war," Ma Gui said in a strangled tone,  "the Lu Dynasty fell and a period of civil war began further damaging the nation

"After the war," Ma Gui said in a strangled tone,  "the Lu Dynasty fell and a period of civil war began further damaging the nation. Assassination of nobility became common, with potentials dying before they even made to the throne. Even with the An Dynasy that had finally offered Haixing stability, it too had begun, with the assassination of An Chu, the crown falling to An Bai his eldest son."

"Lord An Chu was a war hero," Zhao Xin Ci said in a strained tired voice,  "Beloved by many,"

"For the number of Dixingian soldiers he had slaughtered." Shen Wei added.

"And was crowned king when the main branches of the royal house fell." Zhao Xin Ci continued as if Shen Wei had not spoken. Rude.

"And the Empress is?"

"Empress Qingling, daughter of magistrate He, and the mother of Emperor An Bai." Lin Jing answered smiling at his Chief. 

"Well that answered that one. The He clan were in a generations long feud with the Zhao. Empress Qingling would not lose an opportunity to kill Zhao Xin Ci, the head of the Zhao family." Da Qing said eying both sides critically.

Shen Wei frowned and Zhao Yunlan ignored the sideline looks from those who actually knew his birthright. His father was glaring at Ma Gui and Shen Wei seemed to be hovering between rapid violence and calculating all the steps of the enemy's plan so far.

"She is using you Ya Qing." He said instead.

She stared up at him and seemed to understand the offer he was laying at her feet. The chance to live. The chance to walk away with her Crow family intact.

"You died! She offered us shelter when everyone else threw us out!" Ya Qing said loudly. "All I had to do was lure everyone here using your name!"

"Kunlun sacrificed himself!" Shen Wei snarled, then  shouted. "This is how you repay him! Using his name!"

"You all abandoned him!" She shouted in reply and Shen Wei's mouth trembled in upset as well as anger

"You all abandoned him!" She shouted in reply and Shen Wei's mouth trembled in upset as well as anger. Ma Gui looked stricken and Jie Ming's face hardened.

"We both know," Zhao Yunlan said coldly, "What would have happened if I had failed to get to the Gates in time. We all know that out of everyone here, who the damn Gate Guardian is. Me. What happened in this valley was my duty, my responsibility and let's face it, it was the end of the world."

"Don't bother guilting me Ya Qing. Even if we had not been fighting Southern Haixing on all sides, if there had been no war to start with, Yan wanted the Fifth Gate. The war gave her the Crown Prince. If not him then it would have been someone else and a matter of time. What happened would have happened regardless."

"You used me to get them here." A hand was imperiously waved over the group, encompassing enemy and ally alike. "So what now?"

She vacillated and Shen Wei's temper was fraying rapidly. "Tell me and I will let your family live."

She looked at him sharply, as did Shen Wei. "You may have been kicked out of the Yashou tribes, but there are plenty of Realms out there, where you could forge a new life. Plenty of lands in the north."

"Exile." She said flatly.

"Opportunity." He replied.

"You will die otherwise." Shen Wei said firmly, clearly hoping she wasn't going to agree. "You are a traitor."

Ya Qing gazed at Kunlun and faced him on her knees. "Lord Kunlun has always been just."

"The Empress plans for all of them to die."

"How?"

Ya Qing frowned. "She made sure I didn't hear..." Seeing his look she added quickly, "Something to do with the Gates. With the power here."

"

 

 

Chapter Text

In legend there are few descriptions of dread in the context of the battle hardened. A myth that those who have seen the worst of all horrors,  can somehow be immune to such things.

Shen Wei once walked his men through a village, on a bright hot day. A detour unplanned after a battle, successful and brief with Southern Haixing's forces. This was before Kunlun, when only whispers of his exploits had just begun to filter down the mountains to the ears of the Allied armies. Stories around campfires and a something like white-hot hope surging in his heart.  

That village was something he wishes he could forget. The horror of it choking, but painfully diluted and rendered dry fact in the reports. That seemed as unforgivable as traipsing through a graveyard that had once been an home to near a hundred people.

Every single life that once walked the simple pathways, the children who once played, the elders who once sat by the great tree in the afternoons....all of them were dead. Corpses strewn across the ground stained by dried blood, the smell of rot putrid in the air and the flies...

Years later, Shen Wei's stomach still clenches at the memory. 

He felt dread when he heard the strange buzzing, the sound so loud in the quiet. It settles now like a stone in Shen Wei's heart. It meets rage and the forever storm of grief that howls and snarls, creating a distracting loop that only experience can suppress. Perhaps there will be a time when he doesn't feel this cold rage, that coils in his heart and burns.

Perhaps when he knows Kunlun is safe, when he is happy and stretched out in the sun like a cat, tired and lazy, for once not needing to rise to face off some crisis.

Focus is important. It is vital if he wants Kunlun to live.

He's held onto that image for ten years

He's held onto that image for ten years. Longer if he is honest. Somewhere along the road to this point, an unfathomable, unimportant moment for all it is momentous - he fell in love with this foxfire eyed champion. He fell in love and everything shifted. Everything became balanced on the knife-edge of Kunlun. If he breathed, Shen Wei could breathe.

Right now, tension seeped rapidly into the deceptively relaxed stance of the man he loves. Those eyes are polished black diamonds glinting with sharp edges and the light of the cosmos. As he watches the tension becomes predatory stillness, poised for action.

Shen Wei knows this stance well and has waited for it on battle fields in the past, with a restrained eagerness that cannot be explained. Kunlun is glorious like this. He is always beautiful and can only be majestic - even when he's collapsed with exhaustion on a tent floor.

He knows that mind is rapidly considering a thousand or more possibilities, threads held by clever fingers spanning in every direction and it never stops being entrancing. This is the moment he has never been able to capture with ink and paint, with charcoal lines. The hawk as it is poised to dive, tracking its prey so carefully.

Kunlun steps back from Ya Qing, his feet light as they swivel him to face the courtyard, eyes tracking

Kunlun steps back from Ya Qing, his feet light as they swivel him to face the courtyard, eyes tracking. "What is it?' Jie Ming asks immediately, stepping closer so Kunlun is bracketed between Shen Wei and himself.

He catches those soulful brown eyes and something passes between them. The silent lines of a conversation only they understand. Even Da Qing who has known both of them the longest, cannot hear what is said, only gauges Kunlun's reaction. The Shadow Omen as Da Qing was often called, appearing before chaos comes, holds his sword borrowed from somewhere, poised ready for a fight.

Da Qing seems horrified that Zhao Xin Ci is here and looks at former friends and enemies alike, just in case one of them attacks Kunlun. It says something Shen Wei thinks, that he is not questioning Shen Wei's motivations and has his own rapid conversation with Lin Jing and Zhu Hong, who pull Guo Changcheng to them.

Jie Ming curtly nods to him

Jie Ming curtly nods to him. A promise kept, a line strung between them that has pulled taut in the past. One promise. Keep him alive, protect his flank. Its as natural as breathing, but Shen Wei refuses to lower his sword from Ya Qing. He will honor any deal that Kunlun makes, because while it might sound nice on paper, Kunlun is never forgiving against those who wound his family.

Ma Gui is torn as he so often was in the past. Caught between protecting Kunlun and acting as the Lord Guardian or Allied General must. He and Fu You were the leaders of the Allied war. Shen Wei was the third as the representative of Dixing, but there is no alliance here. Those not with the enemy or outright with Kunlun are left in an isolated position.

Clan Leader Meng Changying stands at the stop of the stairs, guarding the Empress. Her second or at least one of them, bows near the outer flank of the Royal Guards. He is wiry soldier, hands and face scarred from fire long ago. Clever and loyal, his eyes are lowered, his tone respectful. "Your Majesty, our Glorious King,"

Then he bows to Jie Ming, "Your Highness King of Shangbei," but Jie Ming for a moment seems unsure which of the cousins he is referring to and glances at Kunlun. The second of the Meng, then turns directly to Kunlun and Shen Wei's ire begins to rise, "Lord Kunlun,"

"We of the Meng have built every protection and guard this land dutifully. Our Supreme Emperor visits yearly. No one has been allows to enter this sacred place. No would be allowed to bring harm."

"You say this to Lord Kunlun!" The arrow of pure outrage flies from Shen Wei's control, his voice a sharp biting shout that has every Dixingian in the area flinching, perhaps every living soul except for Kunlun who leans forward, amusement curling his lips. Shen Wei's temper is sudden, the crack of a whip no one expected. Even when it is expected, it still causes that flinch. The clang of a prison door, the snap of bone...its in that tone wreathing around every word.

Its the promise of retribution.

The second flinches and prostrates immediately. "Forgive this one's impudence, Your Majesty!" He says immediately, plaintively and Shen Wei glares unmoved. The Royal Guard stills into rigid lines of tense reaction, even Zhao Xin Ci looks perturbed. Kunlun simply smiles and nods.

Shen Wei frowns darkly at that impish smile and says, "Do not excuse him!" Its as sharp of a rebuke as he is physically capable of making with Kunlun, more waspish than frightening.

Kunlun shrugs in a faux helpless gesture that has Shen Wei shifting, innocence feigned that no one in their right mind would believe. The anger subsides and Shen Wei simply frowns at him.

The Royal Guard, Li Qian and Butler Wu all lingering in the courtyard, can hardly believe that such a simple thing, cools that terrifying rage. The Emperor's temper is rare but a thing of legend. Its the same as a tiger's anger and in many respects far more dangerous. There is after all a chance of surviving the tiger. There is no chance of surviving an enraged Shen Wei. Not only is Kunlun unbowed by it, he actively smiles.

"I would never question the competence of Dixing's cultivators, or the Royal Guard of Dixing." Kunlun begins and the softened gaze threatens to glare at him once more, but Kunlun as always shifts tactics. "However, there was no need for anyone to break into your halls, if that is what's worrying you."

It will in a few moments. It will anger him immensely and he will inevitably fear for his daughter, the what if...but Kunlun's eyes hold his attention completely. Shen Wei suspects his own people especially Li Qian, desperately wants to ask why. Jie Ming and the other Tigers say nothing, clearly aware of the answer. Zhao Xin Ci asks before Shen Wei has to. "Why? What has been done?"

"Are you questioning Empress Qingling's decisions?" Kunlun immediately counters, a brow rising suggestively.

"You have only the word of a Yashou criminal." He replies, too calmly. Then his eyes slide to solid gold and the flicker of Kunlun's eyebrows suggest that he didn't expect that. He looks at Shen Wei in question, a shimmer of vulnerability that was going to edge to anger any moment now.

What the hell was that? What is my father? Why is he here and is he possessed? Why is no one else worried about this?

Shen Wei wanted to sigh and wanted to soothe that expression away with his fingers. The dread intensifies. He supposes in theory at least, Jie Ming as Kunlun's once-perhaps always-second should be the one to tell him. He is his cousin and Da Qing is shifting in agitated curiosity. Ma Gui is his shi-xiong and perhaps too has greater right...but in truth Shen Wei knows in his heart that Kunlun is not going to ask them.

It terrifies Shen Wei that he doesn't know where he stands with Kunlun. Where they stand. But, whatever exists between them, whatever questions or betrayal Kunlun might be feeling over Wang Zheng...that look at least promises that Shen Wei is the one to answer this question. The one who has to map out the truth about Zhang Shi.

At the moment he's asking the boundaries of this revelation, the edges of it. Is this a threat Shen Wei? He can hear the unspoken question,  Did you know about this?

Shen Wei nods briefly and while his sword never lowers he does make a subtle gesture with his hand. I know of it. It is not a threat.

Zhao Yunlan looks at him suspicious and unhappy with this, as he absorbs all the things said and unsaid. He gauges it and something too close to tears burns the back of Shen Wei's throat, when Zhao Yunlan chooses to trust his judgement, without the barest hint of an actual explanation.

Zhang Shi silences the Southern Haixing group, "That the Empress Dowager should choose to attempt our murder is not a surprise to us. Should it prove true."

...and that was proof that his men are loyal and of the Zhao Clan, because not one of them protests.

"What is of interest is that someone has chosen to potentially murder the former leaders of the war effort."

"War effort?" Kunlun says in a good nature tone that hides a striking guandao. Oh that's offense. It takes Shen Wei by surprise and his own anger varnishes in the face of that tone.   "Is that the Southern Haixing term for a war that nearly destroyed the cultivation world, driven by greed and the desperate Haixingren need to own everyone else?"

"Do you think we will bow to you?" Jie Ming snarls.

"We are at peace." Minister Gao says in an earnest tone, affecting dismay.

Shen Wei has no proof. He doesn't believe it so strongly it can overcome his distrust of the man...but if Wang Zheng is right, Zhao Xin Ci  loves Zhao Yunlan. It must be hard to see those tense lines, the distrust. Difficult yes, and Shen Wei tries very hard to avoiding imagining Shen Anijin growing up one of his enemy, becoming the central figure of the enemy in particular.

But damn is that anger was bright. Blindingly bright. There is anger here and its not for all that was done to Zhao Yunlan, but some for the simple fact that Zhao Xin Ci would die. His stubborn reaction, planting his feet in the face of this disaster, coming here in the first place.

Perhaps he will not die here but afterwards, for being seen siding with Kunlun.

It wasn't that he wanted Zhao Xin Ci to die....Shen Wei had always suspected as much in the complex mess that was the war, his family, his murdered mother and all the ties to loyalties split over the realms. If he did, Kunlun would have found a way for him to perish painfully.

But he might not want him dead, but that didn't mean that Zhao Yunlan forgave him for his mother. For what he had done to him. To others. The war, his stance, his hatred of Dixing. Any of it.

For a moment Shen Wei smiles. Of those watching him and any number of them are some of his most loyal, most dedicated, none of them have ever witnessed him smile delicately. A shy upturning of his lips and a fleeting sweet glance at Kunlun.

In another moment it returned to that slightly savage expression in his eyes and the far more familiar, calculating expression seen in royal court

In another moment it returned to that slightly savage expression in his eyes and the far more familiar, calculating expression seen in royal court.

Perhaps the smile was a trick of the light.

Only Kunlun could tell them, that such a smile was reserved for when Shen Wei was inordinately pleased by something.  That something was usually Kunlun. Always Kunlun - not that Zhao Yunlan knew that.

 

Shen Wei glanced around the courtyard and nodded in satisfaction

Shen Wei glanced around the courtyard and nodded in satisfaction. They had all seen Kunlun's reaction. They knew now, had seen it, been reminded of Kunlun's anti-Southern Haixing stance. His distrust and his anger. Zhao Xin Ci had no hold over him.

"Do not lecture me about peace. I died for it. "  Zhao Yunlan says in a deceptively friendly tone. He lifts his guandao and props the massive blade against his shoulder, the air thickening with the promise of violence and tilts his head slowly, "Tell me Minister,"

Its practically a purr and Shen Wei wanted to feel it against his skin.

"Have you ever been tortured in chains? Using the Forbidden Arrays?"

Minister Gao rallies at that. "Blood-spellwork is illegal in our nation!"

Kunlun's smile was grim. "You must have been proud of your training programs then. Because I have. " He points at Jie Ming with an easy flick, "He has. You chained him on his knees, ready for execution. What was his crime? You might forget. Your age and all. I'll remind you,"

Minister Gao was red with anger and Zhao Yunlan smiled coldly, "It was for surviving the genocide of Acheng. An order first devised by Duke He and signed by your Emperor, carried out by Zhao Guangyi ."

"And I have to say," Foxfire eyes flick towards Zhao Xin Ci mercilessly, "For all his wealth, General Zhao's hospitality is poor. "  

"You don't have any proof of that!" Minister Gao said sharply.

"Your brother murdered his first wife. " Zhao Yunlan snapped back coldly, "He buried the body beneath the white magnolia tree. You killed the lover and buried his body on the back mountain. Your brother told her family she had run off with him."

Shen Wei laughed softly and Kunlun looked at him unimpressed. Minister Gao blanched and Zhao Xin Ci rallied, "We are not here to fight you." He said it determinedly. "Your network of spies was also nearly your undoing, for all it aided you in the war. What must be done now?" 

The answer to fears that Zhao Yunlan was somehow loyal to Zhao Xin Ci should have died with these words

The answer to fears that Zhao Yunlan was somehow loyal to Zhao Xin Ci should have died with these words., Shen Wei thinks faintly. My love what they have done to you and still you protect.

Then he thinks, Let me protect you. You didn't before. You sent me away.

For ten years he has wondered if that was purely to save Dixing, to allow Shen Wei o save his family, because Kunlun of all people knows what it is like to lose a mother to violence. He's turned it around, thought of it with a dagger dragging along his ribs or perhaps his ribs broke along with his heart, perhaps that is what the pain is, the origin.

He has never wanted to think that Kunlun was saving him. He cannot, refuses to even allow others to think it...the one blow that might kill him. Scatter his mind so fundamentally, he will be nothing but leaves on the wind.

They were supposed to fight together. Breathless words and unspoken pleas. His own voice ragged with fever, broken with fear screaming Kunlun's name. All his names, to the silence of the night on a boat, surrounded by the ink blue unfeeling waters of a river.

He stares at the tense lines of Kunlun's bare arms and something wild settles, smoke fragrant and heady on the wind. Here Kunlun has cut his line in the sand and because of it, Shen Wei makes his decision. Weighed not solely for the man he loves, but for his lands and for his people. The future resting uncomfortably in his hands.

It is a bitter thing, something that must be hidden from the scores of people that are his own enemies

It is a bitter thing, something that must be hidden from the scores of people that are his own enemies...but right now Shen Wei finds that he cannot trust what he will do. What he wants to do.

There is too much on either side of this rope bridge, knotted and strung for peace as it straddles two sides filled with surviving generations that grew up with war. Nearly twenty years after all and thirty years before that, when the last peace time failed.

In time it could be stone, if trust holds out long enough, but there are corpses buried on both sides, killed in war. There are streets mourning families, children never to return. There is grief and still there is anger, toxic and staining.

He cannot trust himself, balance his own anger and hate.

Jie Ming is the same, steady hands and clever eyes. A healer and a warrior, bringing both to his leadership. In this, he is as compromised as Shen Wei.

He chooses Kunlun.

Standing behind his back staring at the long beautiful line of his body, the long braided hair and felt the power thrum.

Flicking a hand towards Ya Qing, he bound her with dark energy. Freeing him to step closer, to leave her watched by the Royal Guards.

Whatever he decides, Shen Wei thinks, I will stand with him. Let him guide my hands and lead my heart.

Coming nearer to his side, he sees those foxfire eyes blaze as Kunlun directs his attention on the man, his tone sharply inquiring almost coldly curious. It should ring with rage and there is fury there, buried beneath the layers, but Kunlun is an expert in slipping knives beneath the guard of the foolish.

"Have you ever had to escape a mass grave? As a child?" That stops Gao and Zhao Xin Ci blanches, lips parting as he recoils from the implication. "I have. I discovered that day that bones can leave... scars."

Let them hear how he made peace through his sacrifice but how he has never forgiven. Shen Wei thought. Let them hear that he was never one of them. 

Shen Wei waits for a moment to see if anyone is foolish enough to mention the Hanga and the Da Huang. If they mention Acheng and the other cities, towns and villages Southern Haixing burned to the ground. Surprisingly, no one does. Perhaps they are too taken aback actually hearing the leadership that embodies Zhao Yunlan. The power of him, when the carelessness attitude is stripped back.

This is the war general no could quite bring themselves to spite.

"Lord Kunlun," Lady Fu You asks looking between him and Zhao Xin Ci, no doubt seeing the resemblance

"Lord Kunlun," Lady Fu You asks looking between him and Zhao Xin Ci, no doubt seeing the resemblance. "What is going on?"

Zhao Yunlan waves his hand sharply and the line of Shangbei, even Jie Ming himself subsides. "The Dowager Empress of Haixing is getting even."

"Over the Crown Prince and the end of the war?" Ma Gui asks frowning.

"She used to sell information to Dixing!" Ya Qing shouted, "Against the Crown Prince!"

"Do you have proof that We bought such information?" Shen Wei asks cuttingly. In truth it was likely his mother had done so. Unfortunately. It was hardly a slur that could go unchallenged though.

"A clever way not to provoke war but to gain what she feels Haixing has lost." Zhao Yunlan said instead. Ignoring the argument and Shen Wei's question. "If all of the leaders here, two Emperors, the Allied Generals, the original Haixing General Marquis of the Western Army and Dashuzhang Gao Jingfeng..."

"If we are killed, there is nothing stopping her next plan." Jie Ming continues calmly.

"If she has done what I think she has, we need to evacuate this city

"If she has done what I think she has, we need to evacuate this city." Kunlun said urgently.

Meng Changying's second still on the ground, spoke, "The city has been evacuated My King."

Tu Quiyue said urgently, "Shall I give the order to move the Empress, Your Majesty?"

"Give the order. Move the Empress to safety. To the rendezvous point as planned." Shen Wei ordered and then added, "Take the Hanga man with them. Keep him under watch. Knock him out if you must." Flame bowed deeply and then disappeared into the crowd.

Jie Ming raises one arm bent at the elbow, sleeve drawn back to reveal the Bi'an Tiger tattoo still twisting around his skin, glowing with power. He lays his left hand over his arm, back straight as he bows, the black ring on his hand glinting then flashing with fire.

"We of Shangbei honor the Lord Gate Master, Keeper of the Realms, the secrets and the Nexus that connects and powers all of the Gates." He intoned and the Shangbei loyalists kneel immediately. He was too once their king after all.

"We shall adhere to your wisdom." Jie Ming adds as Kunlun lays his own hands on top of his. Letting his own tattoo activate, the spiraling colors, the fish as it jumps lands as a tiger. "We shall fight at your side. We claim you as ours."

"You honor me." Kunlun says fervently, "You always have and you have made me proud."

Jie Ming smiles, eyes too bright and rises, "All of us, are at your command. Your Tigers will always serve. The others are waiting, I kept them on standby. " He steps back to fit neatly at Kunlun's side as if he had never moved. A king proud and bold on his left, a small army backing up around him. Zhu Hong, Lin Jing, Da Qing and Xiao Guo. The Xunxi and still more waiting for the command.

"We are with you Chief." Lin Jing said boldly.

"My life and blade are yours to command." Zhu Hong added stepping forward bloody but unbowed.

Ma Gui stepped past the others and held out his own sword, "To the end shidi. My life and blade is yours. I and my power is yours to command."

An echo of a different time. Shen Wei has handed Kunlun his sword, handed him daggers and his own heart. Arrows to notch his bow and poles in a fight. The deaths of others laid in Kunlun's waiting palm. Fitting he thinks, to offer him all of Dixing.

If he chooses peace, I shall guard against the inevitable descend back to war.

If he chooses war, I shall fight beside him.

The only thing Shen Wei couldn't plan for and could barely think of  lest it come true, was the possibility that Kunlun in all his outrageous, tempestuous glory might decide to become a rogue cultivator. Entirely uncaring of the enemies he had, the price on his head, Southern Haixing's treachery...all of it, any of it!

...Or retire to some distant mountain to mange the Gates. ...And that meant that Shen Wei would have to something drastic....Better Zhao Yunlan realized now that Shen Wei would only leave him alone, if that was what Kunlun actually wanted. So he too steps forward, robes swirling around him.

"We of Dixing," Using the Royal 'we' casually, "Honor the Lord Gate Master."

Honored him in festivals and statues, temples and stories. There were poems and songs dedicated to him and three were known to be the Emperor's favorites, sung at royal gatherings, ceremonies and the Memory of Peace attendance. There was even a military ceremony now called the Kunlun Blessing. Honored him with every breath and all the love in his black heart. 

Kunlun blinked at him eyes widening in surprise when the king of Dixing executed a similar bow. "Those who have trespassed on Our land shall be punished. Those who have come with malice shall face justice." A flick of his hand imperious and sharp had previously unseen soldiers march forward from the corners of the courtyard, siphoned through side doors waiting for the signal. They moved quickly and gripped bound arms, swords pointed without hesitance.

"Those who came as hostages are now free. Those who aided Us in Our Mission shall be rewarded."

He knew that every Dixingian in the courtyard and possibly beyond was listening. "However," Shen Wei paused and faced Kunlun once more, "Only the Lord Gate Master has control over the Nexus, that powers the Gates. Only the Lord Guardian of the Realms can understand."

"We too shall adhere to your wisdom. The enemy shall not be allowed to slay my people. They will not bring bloodshed unanswered. Ask of Us, Lord Kunlun and both We and Our people shall aid you, as you did us, selflessly and tirelessly."

Kunlun seemed lost for words

Kunlun seemed lost for words. It lasted for a solid minute. Then he blinked and bowed in return. "The honor as always is mine."

There was a question  in his eyes and a frown around his mouth, but Kunlun was always easily focused on the crisis at hand. "I can reassure Your Majesty that no one under your command could do this. This was no mistake of the Clan here."

Clearly Zhao Yunlan had no idea who these people actually were, why they were here or why any of these people were here. And had decided to only care about it when he actually needed to. It made Shen Wei smile. Oh he had missed this man.

Shen Wei nodded instead, "The Meng Clan have always been my loyal."

The Meng present seemed to relax, the idea that they had failed so badly cutting deeply. "What do you suspect this to be?"

"I ask Your Majesty, that you have the prisoners removed. Any one of them could be a trigger."

Shen Wei raised his hand lowered his sharply. The soldiers began shoving the half-frozen attackers towards the steps leading off to the left.

"What else?" Shen Wei asked expectantly.

"Your detonation array already dealt with the Fifth Gate." Jie Ming told him with a glare. We'll talk about that later, unspoken but heard judging by Kunlun's immediate defensive shrug.

In answer Zhao Yunlan opened new gate in an explosion of jade green light, tendrils of black spiraling around the edges

In answer Zhao Yunlan opened new gate in an explosion of jade green light, tendrils of black spiraling around the edges.  "Its anchored to the other of the valley." Kunlun says calmly, then points to Jie Ming's portal, "If this goes wrong be prepared to move your people."

"What is it?" Shen Wei asks quickly.

"The valley is anchored to a tree, forming the center of an old network. It's why the Fifth Gate could be opened here. Its a place of ritual from the time of the Immortals and one of the final battles raged here."

"If she has found a way to access the network, she could easily destroy the area." Kunlun finishes urgently. "It will cause the second original Seal, not for the Gate but for the ritual caverns that house the old array, to detonate."

 

 

Chapter Text

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Nothing stirred in the world for a long moment and the only sound Shen Wei could hear with the thrumming beat of his own heart and could only focus on the thrum of Kunlun's power as it reestablished itself.

"Detonate?" Shen Wei repeated and saw the same horrified expressions on the faces gathered around them. "This entire region is primed for an ages old detonation array?"

"No." Kunlun said calmly, far too calmly. "But it is an unnecessarily complex network bound to something living. Each ritual cavern hides a portal, a small barely formed gateway structure leading to abandoned realms or broken gateways. My detonation array would have destroyed only the surface of that network, not the complete thing."

"But," Zhu Hong ventured from behind Jie Ming,  "The Empress wants to destroy the entire network? Won't that be suspicious?"

"Not here in Dixing, a long way from her. The attack on Dragon City you told me about, that was the distraction. She wanted Emperor Shen out of the city."

Shen Wei wondered when and who had told him about that, but focused on Kunlun's eyes. They were dark, his mouth slightly pinched as he rapidly considered every option available to him. Shen Wei felt as though he had been transported back ten years, watching this same man weighing his every choice on the eve of battle.

It was both glorious to see and terrifying. It was soothing for this was Kunlun, the greatest strategist Shen Wei had ever met and drove home to him the consequences of this night, the ripples that spread out in the distant reaches of the empire. Still, he stuck with his choice. He would follow Kunlun, rest in his hands once more the fate of all their people. Not fair perhaps, but Shen Wei knew his own mind and his own desire for revenge.

"When did you realize this?" Jie Ming asked softly, horror in his eyes.

"Inside the Gate, arguing with the Keepers." Kunlun said in a brittle tone. "The Empress has outdone herself. Lao Ming," Kunlun said loudly and his cousin moved quickly to his side.

"Kunlun?" He asked, touching his arm. "What is is?"

"Imagine for a moment that you have schemed and planned, sacrificed and paid your dues, all for this one pivotal moment. You've brought everyone to a remote place, historic and one could say the closing of a circle. You bring them here and what do you do now?" 

 You  bring them here and what do you do now?" 

"Well she wants revenge." Jie Ming replied. "Wanted to bring everyone together, that could only mean she wants to kill us all."

"Which would be hard to do with a handful of men, some revenge obsessed idiots and the subtlety of a rampaging panda." Kunlun said drily.

"Panda? I don't think pandas rampage." Jie Ming said after a moment, "But I see your point biaodi. Killing any of us singularly would be a challenge and I say that honestly without pride, but to kill us all would not be easy. There is a good chance of survival."

"So what do you do?" Kunlun asked tilting his head.

"Use the Gate magic or whatever this is, to rig a certain death." Ma Gui said calmly. "Shidi. We have brought this to you." He added mournfully.

"You entered the trap with us." Zhao Xin Ci said coldly, glancing at Ma Gui.

Kunlun ignored him and looked at Ma Gui, "Better with me here and besides, I'm free! Better excitement than burning alive." He said in an attempt to be reassuring. Shen Wei winced and Jie Ming looked slightly nauseated. "Jie Ming, can you summon some of our Tigers?"

Jie Ming smiled at Kunlun, soft and pleased. "Of course." Turning he went to the portal he had opened shimmering in the night air and drew a complex gold talisman, before throwing it into the portal. "It's sent."

Within moments the portal expanded and several highly armed people hurried through the tunnel to the northern reaches. In the front unmistakably was General Yang Mi.  The king of Shangbei's current Deputy strode out holding her sword, her violet robes flying behind her, with a small army of spear-men and sword carrying Shangbei Royal Guards flanking her.

"Your Majesty

"Your Majesty." She greeted formally, bowing to Jie Ming. Yang Mi  paused and blinked rapidly seeing Kunlun. "I have assembled forces ready to...to...?" She trailed off sounding shocked, "My King,"

"Its him." Jie Ming said with feeling. "He's back Yang Mi."

Kunlun smiled. "Good to see you shimei. As stunning as ever."

Yang Mi looked at him with an odd combination of forced respectfulness considering their audience and joy. She dropped into a low bow, then rose at his exasperated command and smiled. "I always said you were too bold to die." Kunlun gave her a mock-wounded look and she moved forward and took his offered hand.

"Your orders?" She asked, stepping back into her role.

"The enemy surround us. Guard Jie Ming's back." He said quietly as she stepped back. Nodding she turned and greeted Shen Wei with a deep bow, "Your Majesty,"

"General Yang." Shen Wei said warmly. "It is good to have you here."

And it was. Yang Mi was one of Kunlun's main loyalists, after he had saved her from a Southern Haixingren prison years ago. They had slaughtered her family, her entire village and Kunlun had given her as he had so many, a new life and the promise of revenge. Once a promising young disciple of her clan, she had proven herself a worthy General, leading several assaults on Southern Haixing outposts.

Stalking through the portal after Yang Mi was a tall man in violet, leading another group of Xunxi warriors. His hair was heavily braided and the symbol of Kunlun boldly on the front of his fitted robes. This was Kunlun's student, his only disciple and the current serving Lord of the Xunxi.

He took over reluctantly when Jie Ming was made king of Shangbei. Shen Wei had always known him to softly spoken, quiet but decisive and shockingly fast with a blade. The troops of the Allies had whispered his name Red Tail Snake and Shen Wei knew from first hand experience he was lethal in a fight.

"Xiao Jie!" Kunlun called sounding pleased and the man stopped mid-stride. He moved faster than the eye could track and grabbed Kunlun in a tight hug, nearly swamping him in violet material, as his sleeves came around his back.

Kunlun laughed and Jie Ming smiled. "Missed me that much Xiao Jie?" He asked when he finally stepped back, keeping one hand on his arm.

"You promised you would come back shifu." Jie Xiefu said softly, his eyes watery. "I hoped, we prayed...we never stopped looking. Da Qing?"

"He's here." Kunlun said pointing to the cat who waved happily. The younger man was perhaps five years Kunlun's junior and Shen Wei had always known to him to be a brother to both cousins, adopted when they found him in a prison, hours from being executed.

From behind him, the portal sparked violently and changed color, becoming an emerald green. It widened and formed an arch, like a doorway to a garden. Marching through the swirling power, in dark robes was a trio all dressed in blue. 

Lord Sha Wei of the Yinran was one of the greatest generals of  Shangbei and one of the Gate Masters who had trained Kunlun and Jie  Ming

Lord Sha Wei of the Yinran was one of the greatest generals of Shangbei and one of the Gate Masters who had trained Kunlun and Jie Ming, strode out onto the stone tiles, his gaze already assessing for attackers. Broad shouldered with sharp eyes and imposing in long midnight blue robes, with a five-ringed dao in his hand, his gaze swept across the courtyard, landing squarely on Kunlun.

Ye Chang Qing was right beside him and he stared in shock at the sight of Kunlun and an entire courtyard full of problems. Then he sighed making Kunlun laugh.

Lowering his weapon, Lord Sha walked towards Kunlun slowly and lifted a hand touching his face. "He said he would bring you back." He said in a soft voice trembling with emotion.

"Shifu." Kunlun said humbled by his reaction, "You knew I was coming back. I promised you."

"Reprobate." Lord Sha said with a watery smile. "I've missed you."

Kunlun laughed and then he stepped back and bowed with his hands folded, "This one greets Our First King and His Majesty."

Rising he looked around the courtyard and greeted Shen Wei formally, then their Allies. After no more than a few moments, he was standing tall beside Jie Ming, who offered his hand to both him and General Yang. Gold light glowed over their combined hands and then Lord Sha swore. "The Fifth Gate?!"

"What can I say shifu? I aim big." Kunlun said with humor, even as Yang Mi stared at him, then at Shen Wei.

"This is your shifu?" Minister Gao demanded from beside Zhao Xin Ci.

Lord Sha never one to back down from a fight, stepped forward. "You think you have rights to demand anything from my king, Southern Haixing?" He said curtly, his eyes sparking with anger. "But yes. I have the honor of claiming the First King of Shangbei was once my student, my disciple." 

"And just to make things more complicated," Kunlun said loudly, "This is my disciple." He said slinging an arm around Jie Xiefu, who smiled gently.

"So," Lord Sha demanded coldly, "What treachery have you committed now? The Empress is after both my kings and your worthless hide."

Zhao Xin Ci stepped forward eyes narrowed in a look of pure hatred and Kunlun sighed. "If you two would like to do a war enactment, do so later." He called tartly, then softened his tone marginally as he addressed Lord Sha, "We don't have time shifu."

"We don't follow your orders!" Minister Gao said hotly.

"You can be silent, or I'll throw you from these lands or better yet, throw in a dungeon for entering my lands." Shen Wei snapped, ice crackling from his pudao striking the ground. "You will respect Kunlun, or lose your life!"

Every Dixingian in the courtyard turned on the Haixingren group at the rage in their Emperor's tone.

"Hah!" Lord Sha said in disgust. Then he turned to the rest of the group, "What now?"

"A detonation ring is difficult to create, but not hard to trigger." Jie Xiefu said as the information spun around the circle, all of them too experienced to to do more than linger briefly on the consequences, as they focused on the main threat.

"If that is the case Lord Kunlun, why are we still alive?" Lady Fu You asked curiously, coming closer.

"Because it has not been triggered yet." Lin Jing remarked in answer. "The event that was supposed to trigger it hasn't happened, because no one was counting on Chief actually being alive and recoverable. What is the trigger?"

"Power." Kunlun said blandly, glancing at  Ya Qing who stares back. "What do old dogs of war do when threatened? When insulted and driven to rage? Helped along by Crow magics?"

 "What do old dogs of war do when threatened? When insulted and driven to rage? Helped along by Crow magics?"

Crow magics  were famous for being able to manipulate emotions, particularly fear. When people were driven to terror they either went mad believing they were fighting for their life or froze. "They fight." Shen Wei said, smiling at the term. Most would never call Kunlun a dog of war. He was more a demon or a dragon.

"Throw power, because martial arts would not be enough to win against Lao Ming for example." Kunlun said with a proud look to his cousin. "If my Tigers could be so easily killed, we would not have unified Shangbei."

"How would power trigger the trap?" Zhao Xin Ci asked directly, staring at his son.

"Your Majesty," Kunlun says ignoring him and addressing Shen Wei who turns to him immediately. "When you constructed this compound and the city at its feet, I assume that you chose this location for its highly defensible position and access to resources?"

"Of course." After months of planning and arguing.

"It was also the primary piece of flat ground." Kunlun said and Da Qing nodded, forever the scout.

"Yes and above the flood plain." Shen Wei said worry surging into his heart. "What are you saying?"

"At the time we believed that this, the flat piece of ground was used as a ritual place." Da Qing said in answer. "Not a burial ground like the Crown Prince believed, but somewhere to access the power we realized was in the caves, during our first scouting mission around the area. Sang Zan told us about the caverns and how the Dixingian families and other slaves went there to worship their forbidden gods."

"You thought the former Crown Prince's interest lay in the caves." Lady Fu You concluded.

Jie Ming turned to Kunlun and the two of them shared a silent conversation. Jie Ming's eyes were wide and shocked, then confused and angry, while Kunlun communicated his opinions with raised eyebrows and slow nods.

"Would you like to explain Lords?" Lady Fu You snapped. "If we are running out of time as I suspect we are, secrets will only kill us all."

"His Majesty is not duty-bound to soothe your fears." Jie Xiefu said in a soft but cold tone. "Patience, Lady Fu You. Neither of my kings will let you die."

Kunlun nodded to Jie Ming and lifted his shoulders in an indifferent shrug, but his cousin stared at him as he answered. "There is only one array that she could be taking advantage of. One that is both old enough to be present before this land was occupied by the Hanga and a strong enough network to trap lives."

"And one of the few made mention of, in the Gateways Histories written and translated in Southern Haixing, two hundred years ago. Its in the Imperial library." Kunlun added blandly.

"That is a bold accusation." Ma Gui said calmly. "Why would she do this?"

"Revenge." Zhao Xin Ci said coldly. "Destroy Emperor Shen and you damage Dixing. Kill Emperor Jie and you destabilize Shangbei and destabilize the Gate Masters. End the Lord Guardian and there is no balance. Kill me and you have chaos in Southern Haixing, unseating those who are question Emperor An's right to rule. The world falls and the only person, we would leave our posts to find is Kunlun."

"This is not Kunlun's fault." Shen Wei snarled, just as General Yang  Mi raised her sword in anger.

"I never said that it was." Zhao Xin Ci said, or rather Zhang Shi when the eyes turned gold for a moment. "Simply that he was the lure."

Kunlun looked like he wanted to argue this point, but Shen Wei turned to face him fully, distracting him. "Kunlun? What is the array?"

"The Tri-Layer Dragon Tail." Lord Sha Wei said calmly. "Enough power striking the surface above the array, for it is one that can be buried, chained to a living thing, would trigger it."

"A tree." Kunlun put in, eyes distant. Then he looked back at Shen Wei steadily.

"That would work." Lord Sha admitted. "The Dragon Tail array is a spiral with a solid core of power in the center. Defusing it would require removing the chain to the tree and its connecting points to the caves."

"Then what must we do?" Shen Wei demanded stepping sideways to stand Kunlun's side. 

"If you hold a shield over the area, to protect your people, I will access the core with Jie Ming." Kunlun said decisively. "We've done it before."

"Access a core of power?" Zhao Xin Ci demanded, "That would be suicide!"

"For you." Lord Sha Wei snapped. "It can be done safely. Here, there is likely a fading core to have lasted so long. The Fifth Gate was probably its main source. Cutting off the caves would reduce it further, but would require a large amount of power needing conduit out somewhere."

"We would conduit the power along new array lines." General Yang suggested. "Funnel it into the caves, into those portals."

"Would that be stable?" Zhu Hong asked concerned. "Would the paths still be there or able to take power?"

"They were stable ten years ago." Kunlun said calmly. "They lead to empty realms. Many of them will rejuvenate with power or implode." 

 

Chapter Text

                                      

 

Fear has a way of propelling reactions. Sometimes this is the only way to survival. Sometimes it leads to death.

"Running will trigger it." Zhao Yunlan said flatly at the suggestion, offered by more than one panicking person. This was also said in a tone that implied, You came here, without thinking this through, don't start crying now.

Since Shen Wei was the Emperor who controlled this land and these were technically people somewhere on a scale between guest and invader, he decided to deal with the situation before it derailed any further. 

"If we move the people here, it will trigger the mechanism?" He asked directly.

Kunlun nodded, "You can move them further back, but thanks to the great plan to bring the Bridge here, it attached this plateau and the lives currently standing on it, to the array."

"But the shield will protect them?" Shen Wei asked clarifying.

"Yes

"Yes." Kunlun looked determinedly at Shen Wei. "The energy running through the array was put into use at a time when dark energy immortals were in conflict with everyone else. It will rebound against the structure."

"Will that be safe, if you and Jie Ming are inside the array?"

Kunlun considered this and Shen Wei waited. Because he was poised right in front of Kunlun and exuded supreme authority, no one else dared to interrupt. 'To take apart the core structure, we have to disconnect the power lines." He mused and Jie Ming helpfully nodded his assent. "However,"

"However?" Shen Wei asked, his tone gentle and undeniable.

"The last time we did this," Kunlun indicated Jie Ming and himself with a wave, "We made a loop array too late in the process."

"Would a power relay in the form of a flower array help shifu?" Jie Xiefu asked in that pleasantly soft, deep voice from behind Kunlun. "It might feed the rebounding power into the conduit channels?"

Again he considered. "Actually that might be the best thing for the job." Kunlun grinned at his former student. "Clever." He praised and Jie Xiefu bowed.

                                                  The only silence in war, is the wait between battles

The only silence in war, is the wait between battles.

Shen Wei stood before the courtyard, watching as the prisoners were hauled away, with difficulty thanks to the ice. He visually checked every rooftop and the hole in the wall, shifting closer to Kunlun.

He watched the Haixingren group move so they stood more firmly together, gathering beside and around Zhao Xin Ci, whose dark eyes never left his son's face.

Jie Ming was organizing the division of labor as Kunlun had called it. They needed some people with skills like Ma Gui to stand close to the caves down below in the valley. Kunlun had muttered and walked the courtyard once, a hand lit with golden power. He had announced the range was not a standard easy shape. It was locked into place by six points and that required six people to monitor the individual anchors.

Lord Sha with a sharp look at Zhao Xin Ci, took Lin Jing, Zhu Hong and Lady Fu You, with two others he had brought to hold down the anchor points. He left with a gentle clasp of Kunlun's shoulder and a murmured conversation.

"He'll explain what they need to do." Was all Kunlun said.

The Dixingian people who were able to assist were currently being lined up by Jie Ming. Da Qing had been sent with Jie Xiefu and a handful of others like Guo Changcheng to the caves. Signal flares would light up the night sky when they were ready and in place.

Jie Ming had asked the awkward question of if they needed Wang Zheng's help. Kunlun had not looked at Shen Wei once, but replied no. Wang Zheng was better well away from this area. The array knew her power, knew her essence. It would use her an a temporary anchor, if it could.

Zhao Xin Ci had agreed as the leader of the Southern Haixingren group to assist in conducting the power out of the center and into the cave. Which Shen Wei preferred for two reasons. Firstly, this put him in front of Shen Wei where he could watch him and took advantage of the very gifts that Kunlun had inherited. For all he didn't want to compliment Zhao Xin Ci, the man was a skilled cultivator.

Now, Zhao Yunlan surveyed the courtyard with him in these few calm moments, that Shen Wei knew in his bones was the wait. Everything in him, every nerve and every piece of his mending heart wanted to just pull Zhao Yunlan from the wreckage of the Meng compound and take him somewhere else, somewhere safe. 

                           It was an old urge, carved into his bones, present in every fight he  had shared with Zhao Yunlan

It was an old urge, carved into his bones, present in every fight he had shared with Zhao Yunlan. Perhaps it was love, perhaps it was fear of more grief, perhaps the need to take Kunlun's burden for his own and the selfish desire never to see Zhao Yunlan in pain.

Never voiced. Never allowed free rein. Kunlun was no coward and no novice to the harsh, brutal reality of battle. His martial arts were his own design, a style embraced by all of Shangbei's top cultivators now. It was vicious, lethal and highly focused. It was elegant, swift and unpredictable.

This was his hero, the legend who had pulled Shen Wei from the depths of despair. Pulled the entire war effort from their knees to the light of victory and the promise of peace.

No, asking him to run was impossible. Even now he stood as a general and a king, bold and defiant until the last. Spending every moment until safety could be found, protecting his back? Absolutely. So he stood close and asked, "What next?"

Kunlun ignored everyone else and smiled that bright dazzling smile that transformed the world. "Live until the storm has ended."

This war is a storm, but it shall not doom us. We shall live and fight until peace can be found, Kunlun said once. Only he would be quoting himself. How shameless. How impossibly precious to hear him.

"Shen Wei," He said tone sharpening to something serious, "Whatever happens, I'll come back."

                      Lead filled his spine and dread drowned his heart

Lead filled his spine and dread drowned his heart. The dark seas of despair roiled and lapped ever closer to his feet, the tides of grief looming like a storm on the horizon. It was too much. The jagged rocks might tear him apart, but he would climb to the summit, he would follow no matter the cost to himself.

Not again. He couldn't. He had made it this far, bleeding and grieving, but now Zhao Yunlan had returned, whole and warm beside him...he couldn't loose him again. He couldn't.

"Where you go," He began wanting to sound sharp, to sound authoritative, bold...but his voice cracked and his tone was a warning and a plea wrapped in one sentence. No he was not staying behind!

For ten years Kunlun had burned alive. For ten years he had spent every day searching. For ten years he had dreamed and wished and hoped. Every single one of those days, there had been the guilt, the sorrow, the slow poison of recounting that night. The memory was jagged glass, cutting and yet no amount of blood was enough.

By saving Kunlun's life on the battlefield, he had forced Kunlun's hand. There was no changing or redeeming this fact, he'd had long enough to think of every possibility, until madness threatened.

By choosing to save Zhao Yunlan's life in this way - by not choosing another split-second option - he failed the greater task of following. No longer capable, no longer strong, Kunlun sent him away, as he sent all of those who were not strong enough for the fight to come.

It was how Kunlun always saved so many, given ample chance for civilians to escape or for the wounded to be moved to safety. It was how and why so many of his people would die for him alone.

For ten years he had wondered what would have happened if he had been strong enough. If he had been well, unbowed by fever or wounds.

There was no reprieve. No solace to be found. Only guilt and the bittersweet comfort of faith. Only routine and internal court power struggles, the duty to and of an entire nation.

In hollow quiet there was only memory and guilt.

Sometimes when the world bent and warped, he could feel the rough sides of the wooden boat. When he was overly tired he felt as if he was back there, the boat rocking sometimes violently as power pushed it along the river. He felt the press of the wood against his hand when he walked the aisle to the throne for the first time.

When winter approached, with his eyes closed he could easily imagine himself back there, screaming for Kunlun until his throat bled.

Sometimes when he mind wandered, he walked the path from the river to the valley, each step that Kunlun would have taken etched into his soul. Some nights it would not be battles, blood or fire that haunted him.

Not the wreckage of his family, the loss of his Emperor and brother. Some nights it was a clear crisp autumn night, the stars above in their celestial beauty. It was the smell of the withering trees and the coming of winter. It was the scent of bamboo and plum wine. It was watching that beautiful, proud, broad back retreating into darkness, water swirling around his green robes.

There was an unnamed madness at the thought of returning to that state. The wait. The hope. The fear. The pain.

Death was kinder by far. And if he should die for Kunlun, it would be a mercy. For living again without him, tangible proof that he was gone would end him so thoroughly, there would be nothing left.

Where you go, I go.

Kunlun, ignorant or denying these stark thoughts, that must be painted across Shen Wei's face, shook his head, "What she has done either by her hand or by the help of others, would have destabilized the Gates. I'll need to fix that."

You can't follow. 

                       "There is no boat and no fever for you to use

"There is no boat and no fever for you to use." Shen Wei snapped, for once revealing his hurt.

Rather than react in anger or defense, Zhao Yunlan smiled sadly and that was worse. How easy it was for Kunlun to break his heart, even as he repaired the fractures it had already sustained from losing him.

"We can argue about that night, but I won't regret it. " He held up a hand to forestall anything Shen Wei might have said in reply, "I survived because of my heritage. Yours would have killed you and there would have been nothing I could have done."

Dark eyes were the entire cosmos, bright and consuming. Shen Wei couldn't blink, couldn't look away. "I hate that you have lived with this pain. I would rather burn alive for a thousand years, lose my mind and my will if needs be, then put you through that agony Shen Wei! But at least that boat allowed us both to live."

The stony certainty in his voice cracked to reveal pain and something vulnerable. Anger bled away hearing that. Kunlun's confidence could lead armies, but his vulnerability would always inspire protectiveness and tenderness in Shen Wei.

"I knew that if I held on, you would find me. You would come. If you lived, you would come for me. Besides," He added, a little ruefully, but his eyes were full of thorns, each one an echo of pain. "I'm not dying. I just got my body back."

It was cruel in a way and a little callous, but Shen Wei was forced to acknowledge that if Kunlun said he would have died, then he would have. His love never lied about such things. He stretched the truth but the defiance in that gaze told him, it was true.

Had he not dwelled on this for long enough? There was no clean cut answer. There was what he wanted to be true and what could have been. Along that road lay madness and Kunlun was unrepentant and always would be. Arguing about it would only lead to pain and he had just returned. Why add hurt when he should be fully rejoicing?

The unchanging thing, is that here and now Shen Wei had found Kunlun, had found a means and the right people to free him. Dowager Empress of Southern Haixing and her plots be damned. They had succeeded in what they had been trying to do for too long.

"You would only say this if you know there will be danger. To your life." Shen Wei said flatly.

"There is no danger to my life. He might be married...but zhiji is here. Most of my Tigers are here." Zhao Yunlan says pointedly, as if Shen Wei is overly worrying. "I have to do this, or we die anyway."

Unseen Zhao Yunlan hand gently caressed his, hidden Shen Wei's long sleeves. Shen Wei wanted to close his eyes at the touch, so familiar always cherished. Kunlun's subtle reassurance, his reminder that Shen Wei had his hero by his side.

He can remember a hundred times or more when he stood as the Crown Prince in white, then as an Emperor, feeling the phantom caress of that touch. Walking down corridors and through armies the phantom brush of Kunlun's shoulder, the caress of his hand...this was sanity.

"Promise me." Shen Wei begged desperately. "Promise me that you will come back." 

"I swear." Kunlun said low and earnest. "I swear that I will come back to you. That I will hear what you want to say. That I will bear it."

Any reply Shen Wei could have made, should have attempted was lost in shock. Bear it? He repeated but Kunlun was already moving, ignoring everyone else, to stand in the middle of the courtyard.

The signal flares lit up the sky.

Kunlun opened his hands and the golden light shone. A nine pointed flower array appeared in the sky, massive and beautiful. It floated to land hovering at Kunlun's waist height.

Jie Ming strode quickly to meet Kunlun in the center. "All of our people are gathered at the key points." He told Kunlun.

"What is your command?" Zhao Xin Ci loudly asked.

Kunlun looked at his father and then glanced at Shen Wei.

"A ring of power will form at your feet. His Majesty Shen Wei will hold the barrier and let no energy escape. Lowering the barrier before it is safe, will let the power collapse. It will kill us," He said indicating Jie Ming, "Near instantly."

"You could have said that before." Shen Wei admonished tartly.

Kunlun's grin was immediate and unrepentant. Then he sobered, his gaze sharp. "Jie Ming and I will open the core, separate the layers and unhitch the anchor points."

"You will channel the power along these lines, " Kunlun said indicating the interconnecting flower array segments. They followed a petal formation and then channeled down into a an opening, like a funnel.

"The people at the caves will keep the power flowing, pulling it into the realms that lie in the caves." Kunlun added, "Eventually, the cave system will collapse. Jie Xiefu has portals placed there, so all parties can escape and will appear beyond the gates of the city."

"Lord Sha will lock the realms and Jie Ming and I will lock down this array."

"What are you not saying?" Zhao Xin Ci asked and stared at his son. "There is something else? Tell us."

Kunlun stared at him and then said, "Jie Ming and I may be knocked out in a power backlash. If that happens you will have to shut the gate with Lord Sha and shrink the dark energy barrier slowly.

"Kunlun," Shen Wei said loudly.

"Its the only way." Kunlun snapped his gaze never leaving Zhao Xin Ci. 'Do you agree?"

"I came here to find you and keep you alive." Zhao Xin Ci admitted roughly. "Don't think I'll let you die now."

                 "

 

Chapter Text

                                                          

 

Things always run in circles, Ma Liyan once said. If you look, you'll find the shape but not the beginning or the end.

At the grand age of twelve years old, Kunlun had no  idea what she meant by that. Everything that had happened to him, had clear beginnings and he was living the outcome. Years and countless battles later, even with all he had experienced, tragedies and joys among them...it still took nearly dying....and a lot of time burning alive to think about a lot things he had avoided thinking about.

Being trapped with yourself, buried in your own mind to be able to function in such pain...well everything was something. A distraction and a way to hold onto the essence of who he was.

Da Qing and Sang Zan needed him to function, so he could protect them. Simple.

Lao Ming was relieved and awed that he had kept his mind after ten years. So was he. But the reason he still had his own mind and will wasn't anything special. No secret techniques or mental fortitude. He was too stubborn and he loved too fiercely.

And it was there sheltered temporarily from agony, that he had examined his choices, experiences and thought in more detail than they would probably be comfortable with...about the people he loved.

He realized that Ma Liyan was right. The clear lines he had felt so strongly about when he was twelve had blurred over the years. There were official records and dates, but when he thought about it, when had everything begun to go so wrong?

This, Zhao Yunlan thought as he surveyed the wreckage of the once pretty, tranquil courtyard, was definitely a circle. Here, desperate and bloodied, his heart raw and anger boiling in his veins, he had made what he had hoped was not going to be his final stand.

Here, on this plateau dipping down in a green lush valley, the past seeped through the rocks, shifted in memory but always lingered, creeping like winter shadows. He had found it eerie. Rich with power if you knew where and how to look. Verdant and beautiful with wildflowers and clear skies.

Bitter with resentment, blood spattered with a revolution. A story told and retold in every culture, in the history of every tribe. The uprising led by Sang Zan was not the first of its kind. The hate that ran in cracks, revenge that promised the slice of a honed knife. It seethed in these lands.

The Immortals had their battles and their escape plans. Giving up their power or having it taken, was what ended the immortality part giving death instead. If he was sentimental or truly believe, as some scholars from all the lands did, that the Immortals were somehow pure and perfect, he might have considered this special land. As it was, Kunlun had spent a lot of time with one foot in his own grave. For many reasons, not all of them righteous, he had hunted demons, purified yao and purged evil for a number of years. He had a Soul Tool that liked murder and which had given him like a wedding gift, thousands of years of power and knowledge overnight.

Which at eleven years old was a bit much.

Zhen Hun seethed in his hand, coiling around his arm like a snake, biding its time ready to lash out in defense, already craving the fight.

No, they had seen these lands for what they were. Da Qing had smelt it, heard and felt it too. Something old and brittle still lingered here.

As he moved into position, he found it hard to come to terms with what had happened. Not to him. That was an inevitable part of the plan when things had started to go wrong. He made the best decisions he could at the time and managed to save himself, Da Qing and Sang Zan.

He went into that Gate not entirely sure if he was coming out alive, not with Yan possessing him. The memory of that invasion was like soaking in slime. Cold and thick, heavy with resentment and a twisted snarling hope.

He went in there thinking of Shen Wei. Of his home and his family. Thinking that even if he died, they still lived. His hope was that he could spare Fatty and the Hanga Chieftain. He put everything into their lives and found willpower he didn't know he had.

He thought he had found strength when he pulled himself through a mass grave. When he lost his mother. When he was re-forged by the nexus. Chosen by the whip Zhen Hun. When he had to let Shen Wei go to save him.

But cobbling himself together was more strength that he thought he could have.

Weakness is not something that he can afford right now

Weakness is not something that he can afford right now. So he saunters forward half of his mind already mapping out the array, its potential weak points and countermeasures he was going have to take, to protect the lives around him.

The last time they did this, disarmed a detonating array had been a terrifying experience, but he and Jie Ming had taken that risk alone. There was no Zhu Hong waiting for her fiancee. No city just out of reach to burn to the ground like the city in Ye that claimed Shen Wei's family.

If he lived to be a thousand, he would never forgive himself for failing Shen Wei. For not being able to stop that attack.

Everyone he loves is in one place and if he can't pull this off, they are all going to die.

He doesn't want to consider what might have happened, if he was still trapped or did in fact die ten years ago. They would have congregated here and would have inevitably started a fight and blown themselves up.

Damn the Empress to hell, but it was a good plan.

Kunlun walks into place and outwardly he's unruffled, even as he begins the opening array. It's a skill honed over time. In reality, there is fear that's been rattling around in his throat and dose of rage that settles in his bones. All of the people he loves are here. He was used like twine and feathers dangled in front of a cat, to lure and call.

Used to bring the cleverest people he knows to one spot where they can be eliminated and the idiots never questioned. They should have! They of all people should have known better! But he can't be angry at Shen Wei and Jie Ming at the same time. Not when they are both staring at him like he's going to drop dead if they blink.

And he has no idea what to think about Zhao Xin Ci. His father. The man who murdered his mother, standing here in Dixing apparently willingly. Who was lured here to. To kill him? But that doesn't actually make any sense even though his cynical hurting heart wants to just believe that, because it is easier than considering the alternative. If his father doesn't want him dead...what does that mean? 

I came here to find you and keep you alive.

Watching him closely from the side, those gold eyes that he certainly didn't remember. Possession? Shen Wei knew and hadn't taken any action, so clearly there was some status quo here. Kunlun hated confusion and the distinct impression that there was a threat just beyond his reach. 

But in this, he couldn't just rush forward. He needed information.

Then there is the Empress

Then there is the Empress. The question was how did she know? How did Dowager Empress Qingling know about the caves, about the Hanga lands? The old Crown Prince was from a different family line and while Southern Haixing's royalty was a spider web of different tangled families, there was little to no collusion between them. Each one had an equal shot at the throne, so they were in it for themselves. The Crown Prince had been a narcissist well before being possessed by a mad ancient. If anything post-possession they thought he was more stable.

Lao Ming said that he and Shen Wei came here to try and find the truth. Shen Wei had built a small thriving city right by the valley. Expensive and a commitment to an area close to Southern Haixing but pretty remote.

If she didn't have spies monitoring their former enemies, Da Qing was a mountain dog. 

Spies that brought her information about these sojourns. A city of immigrants was easy enough to hide some spies in, as long as they spoke Dixingian like a native. Maybe Shen Wei had ordered that no one was allowed in the valley, because there were no signs of