His head was killing him, and just moving his hand to rub his throbbing temples made his stomach turn violently. He let his arm drop back to his belly. Hadn't had a hangover this bad in...he couldn't remember when. Maybe he should just call in sick—
Someone screamed, high and piercing and close by.
Zhao Yunlan gasped, rolled to his feet. It felt like the move left his stomach behind, and when he opened his eyes all he saw was blurry shadows. He blinked, tried to rub his eyes clear while he found his footing. It wasn't just his spinning head that made that a challenge; the ground underfoot was uneven, and damp. Rotting leaves squelched under his boots and he slipped, fell hard to one knee.
A tug at his sleeve, an anxious, high-pitched voice. "M-mister? Are you okay?"
He stubbornly squinted at the closest blur until it resolved into a face—big wet eyes, round cheeks stained with tears, pigtails adorned with yellow bows. Behind the little girl were a couple other kids, cowering fearfully between the looming trees of the mist-wreathed forest.
He wasn't that used to children, but none of them looked even ten. Zhao Yunlan made an effort to smile reassuringly around the throbbing of his head. "Hey, it's okay, it's—"
"—It's coming back!" the boy hollered, pointing over Zhao Yunlan's shoulder. The little girl screamed again, the sound driving into Zhao Yunlan's skull like a diamond-tipped drill.
Under that cry there was a weird harsh rattling, like ceramic plates scraping together. He twisted around in time to see the thing charge out of the fog. Gleaming, nauseating iridescence, like an oil slick, and way too much when it came to limbs—too skinny, too weirdly jointed, too many on one side and too few on the other. That uneven distribution turned its gait into a hobble, but a damn fast one, as it charged for them.
It looked like a nightmare, like something that shouldn't exist at all—not in this world, anyway.
Zhao Yunlan shoved the little girl behind him with one hand, with the other fumbled for his sidearm. A bullet or two through that cluster of compound eyes might slow the monster down.
But the holster under his jacket didn't have his police-issued pistol. Long barrel, wooden stock—he'd seen the piece enough times before to recognize it. His father's Dixing revolver.
Zhao Yunlan swung the gun up, took aim at the thing. If he could hold it off long enough—"Run!" he told the kids, and hoped they heard him through their panic; no chance to check if they were listening, as he braced and pulled the trigger.
The revolver was old and its kick was wild given its small caliber; his first shot went wide. He thought the next two hit, but it was like flicking water at the thing. It didn't miss a hobbling step; the kids were screaming , and it was close enough for Zhao Yunlan to smell the acrid poison coating its serrated mandibles—
—And then its blood, even more rank. Greenish goo splattered across the mud as the monster's carapace was cleaved in two by a sweep of silver. Its latter half jerked another step and then crashed to the ground before Zhao Yunlan like an offering.
Behind that bulk stood a figure, masked and hooded, shrouded in black. It held a curved sword, dripping with the monster's viscous ichor. The darkness of its flowing robes was like a hole cut out of the pale fog, like a shadow puppet, negative space made manifest.
The blade glittered in the haze—clouded sunlight? Bright moonlight? These surroundings gave few clues as to time or place, and Zhao Yunlan had thus far failed to retrieve any details from his aching head.
The kids hadn't gotten far, huddled behind the scant protection of a too-narrow tree trunk. They'd screamed themselves mute and were just gasping sobs now. Zhao Yunlan pulled himself up, did his best to hold the revolver steady, aimed at the figure's carved mask. Its shape was mostly human, but he had a hunch this gun would leave a mark.
Looked human—and sounded human, too, deep-voiced but articulate. "Zhao Yunlan," it said.
Zhao Yunlan stared at it—but then, it wasn't like the name Zhao was unknown in Dixing. And some of those bastards had more insidious ways of getting inside peoples' heads anyway. "Okay, buddy," Zhao Yunlan said. "You want to play nice, then put down the sword."
"My blade?" the figure said. The tone was strange, pitched like a question; but the figure opened its hand and the sword vanished into a wisp of dark energy. "Zhao Yunlan, why—these children—"
The figure started to step forward, and Zhao Yunlan cocked the revolver, the metallic click loud enough to be heard over the kids' whimpering. "You get one more warning," he said. "Stay back."
The figure didn't move closer, but it brought down its hand in a sharp gesture—Zhao Yunlan braced, but it wasn't calling back its weapon. Instead the black cloak and mask dissolved around it, to reveal a man—a man in glasses and a neatly tailored blue suit. And yeah, Dixingren could pass for human if they tried, and most of them did; but still, this guy didn't look like he'd crawled up from any hellish underworld. More like he'd stepped out of a classroom, or an accounting office.
"Zhao Yunlan, are you all right?" the man asked.
Zhao Yunlan didn't lower the gun, keeping his elbows locked so his arms wouldn't shake too hard and his eyes narrowed against the vise of pain around his skull. "I'm just dandy," he said. "So who the fuck are you?"
The man stared at him, eyes wide behind those auditor glasses. He opened his mouth—but whatever he said, Zhao Yunlan lost it as the ringing in his ears crescendoed into white noise, his vision blotted out by the same static.
When it receded, he was on his hands and knees, fingers clenched in the cold mud like he was trying to hold on in case gravity reversed. Maybe it already had; his stomach was flipped, anyway. There was a sour taste in his mouth and his gut was cramped; he heaved again but spat up nothing but bile, everything else already cleared out.
Definitely his worst hangover in years. He hadn't missed them.
Shit—that voice was too close, and Zhao Yunlan threw himself backwards, scrambling away from the man in glasses. The guy had snuck up on him, was reaching out with the same hand that had just been holding a sword, until he'd made it disappear.
But it wasn't just Zhao Yunlan's life on the line here—the kids were still too close, hunkered down with their arms around each other, terrified and unprotected. A second later he remembered the gun—that he wasn't holding, must have dropped it when he'd lost his lunch—dinner? Breakfast?
Now the revolver was in the mud next to the Dixingren's brown wingtips. Wiping his hand across his mouth, Zhao Yunlan staggered upright. Putting himself between the guy and the children, and maybe if he tackled him now, they'd have a chance—unless one of those other monsters showed up—
The Dixing man bent, picked up the revolver—carefully, the kind of ginger caution of someone not used to firearms . But it didn't take much knowhow to pull a trigger. Did that gun even work on Haixingren? Zhao Yunlan had no idea. He swallowed acid, raised his hands placatingly. "Hey, just—don't do anything you'll regret—" Or that Zhao Yunlan's father might regret, not to mention Zhao Yunlan himself—
"No," agreed the man in the suit, quite calmly. He hefted the revolver—then extended it toward Zhao Yunlan. Not aimed but flat in his palm, offering it back to him.
Zhao Yunlan stared. The Dixingren stared back at him, blinking anxiously behind his glasses. "It's not safe here," he said. "Youchong rarely come alone; you must be ready to defend yourself."
"I must..." Zhao Yunlan shook his head—not smart; the throbbing of his skull worsened. He prodded his head, then swore as his fingers brushed a matted spot on his scalp that made the pain surge to dizzying intensity.
"Zhao Yunlan?" The Dixing man lowered the gun to frown at him, a sharp furrow between his brows.
He moved forward and Zhao Yunlan stumbled back, putting up his hands to fend him off. "Back off!"
"You're hurt," the Dixing man said, his voice gone lower, like it mattered—marking his weakness, maybe.
"I'm fine," Zhao Yunlan said.
The man raised his hand toward his head. "Let me see—"
"No—" fucking way, but the guy still had the gun, so Zhao Yunlan swallowed it back, repeated, "I told you, I'm fine."
It wasn't the most credible line reading; the Dixing guy didn't look convinced, anyway. "You're not," he said, "and especially not here—nor are these children, if we don't find the way out of here for all of you—"
"The way out—out of the forest?" and Zhao Yunlan gestured at the tall silhouettes stretching up into the grayness above.
But the man in the suit was frowning harder. "Not the forest, this reflection—you don't remember this, either?"
Zhao Yunlan tensed, gritted his teeth against the spiking ache through his skull. "Remember what?"
"Why we're here—the children are found, but I had yet to locate our escape, when I sensed the Youchong—"
"Hold on—what do you mean, we?" Zhao Yunlan snapped, and the Dixing man immediately shut up, listening as attentively as if Zhao Yunlan were the one with the gun. "Don't try to tell me you're here to help—I saw you vanish that sword; you're Dixingren."
The man started. "So you know about—"
Zhao Yunlan smiled grimly. "Yeah, I'm not your usual beat cop."
"No," the Dixing man said. "I'm well aware." He held out the gun again. "And yes, I'm of Dixing, but I also am here to help you, and these children. I swear."
This time Zhao Yunlan grabbed the revolver. The Dixing man didn't try anything, just let him take it and withdrew his hand.
There were occasionally Dixingren who worked with the SID—his father had mentioned them, grudgingly. Criminals making deals, turning on their own people to get a little more time on the surface. But they could be useful, with their special skillsets.
"So Chief Zhao sent you?"
The Dixing man started again. "Chief—Zhao—?"
Zhao Yunlan grimaced. "Zhao Xinci—otherwise known as my dad. I take it you're here under his orders, working off your time with the SID."
"—Oh." The man frowned. Considered a moment before saying, "No—that is to say, I am working with the SID, but I don't take orders from your father."
There was one other Dixingren who worked with the SID, Zhao Yunlan suddenly recalled. Not that he'd heard much about him—if his old man was grudging about the ones he'd coerced into working for him, then he was utterly resentful of the one Dixingren who he kind of worked for.
But it did explain the guy's initial appearance. "So you're him, then—the one in the treaty. The Black-Cloaked Envoy."
Behind the glasses, the man's eyes widened. "Yes," he said after a moment, cautiously.
"I thought that 'Black-Cloaked' bit was a title," Zhao Yunlan said. "Didn't guess it was so literal." The Dixing man—the Dixing Envoy—just blinked at him again, more like a confused owl than a fearsome arbiter of underworld justice. Zhao Yunlan could see why the guy wore the mask.
"H-Hei Pao Shi?" Off to their left, the children's nervous murmuring rose to louder fear. When Zhao Yunlan glanced over, they all were goggling at him—or rather, at the guy next to him. Of course; whatever the Dixingren looked like now, they'd seen him with the sword and costume before, and hearing a title like that would hardly be reassuring.
The Envoy was also looking towards the children. His face was hard to read, but not obviously threatening, anyway.
And he hadn't used the sword, or the gun. Whatever his angle was, murder wasn't a priority, at least. Zhao Yunlan drew a steadying breath. "You're here to help me rescue these kids?"
The Envoy nodded. "Then let's do that," Zhao Yunlan said, and headed over to them. He wasn't sure if the Envoy followed—his tromping steps through the mud were loud and the Envoy's weren't, even in dress shoes. Though by the prickling at the back of his neck, the guy was watching him again.
The kids were sitting around the largest tree trunk visible through the mists—well, tree-like pillar, anyway; the general shape was natural, but its top was lost to the fog overhead, any leaves or branches hidden behind that pale wall. And when Zhao Yunlan put his hand out to lean against it, the surface was chill and hard and smoother than any tree bark, like the whole trunk had been lacquered while still rooted in the ground.
He pulled back his hand, gave it a shake like he could cast off the sense memory of that too-slick surface as he crouched next to the children. "Hey," he said. "How are you guys doing? Are any of you hurt?"
The kids peered at him, three pairs of round eyes in tear-stained faces. Finally they all shook their heads.
"Great," Zhao Yunlan said, trying for a smile.
"What about you, mister?" asked one of the girls—the screamer from before, with the yellow ribbons.
"'Mister'?" Zhao Yunlan protested. "You mean big brother—I'm Sergeant Zhao Yunlan, how about you call me Zhao-ge."
"Zhao-ge," the girl repeated dutifully. "Are you okay, Zhao-ge? When—when that monster came..."
"I'm fine," Zhao Yunlan reassured her. "It didn't touch me."
"No, before," the other girl said. "When you got that branch, and you jammed it into its mouth, like, bam! but then it was wiggling around and pow! you went flying—" and she traced an arc through the air with both arms "—and you hit that tree really hard—and then you weren't moving, not until Ah-Mei screamed."
"It looked like you were dead," the boy said, and both girls nodded, agreeing, "Yeah, dead."
"Well, I wasn't," Zhao Yunlan said. "I'm okay, and you guys are going to be, too."
"Zhao Yunlan," said the Envoy behind him—creepy, it was creepy, hearing his name in that soft low voice; he swore his heart skipped a beat every time the guy said it.
Zhao Yunlan gave the kids a grimace they hopefully would mistake for a smile, grabbed hold of the weird smooth tree trunk and hauled himself back to his feet to face Dixing's finest. "Yeah?" he said. "This mission is still on, right, your lordship?"
"You remember the mission?"
"Sure," Zhao Yunlan lied. "Find the lost kids, get out of here. Easy."
"Except I haven't yet found a feasible way out for us," the Envoy said, grimly—the guy didn't even need his black robes to bring the darkness. "And I can't risk leaving you to search—with that one dead, more Youchong will be coming, drawn to the blood."
Zhao Yunlan wanted to tell him that he didn't need a babysitter. But really they both did right now; he suspected Dixing's ambassador was more familiar with hunting monsters than childcare. He pressed the heel of his hand to his throbbing temple. "Sounds like we shouldn't stick around here. If we can't get these kids out now, can we get them somewhere safer, at least?"
The Envoy thought for a moment—or maybe was doing something else; he closed his eyes, then opened them, pointed randomly into the fog. "There's shelter, of a sort, a little ways from here."
"Okay, then," Zhao Yunlan said with a careful nod. "Let's go and figure it out from there."
He started to turn back to collect the kids, only to realize that the Envoy had gone still—frozen, looking at him with such unalloyed focus that it sent a frisson down Zhao Yunlan's spine. "What?" he snapped, quelling that shiver.
"You trust me?" the Envoy asked, quiet but intent.
Zhao Yunlan could've lied, could've told him they were best friends, comrades for life; but the sharpness of that gaze would cut through such glibness as easily as the Envoy's blade through that monster. It wasn't worth the effort. "If you wanted to kill me now, you would've already." He shrugged. "So come on—" He couldn't say it aloud; identifying him as 'Heio Pao Shi' was one thing, but actually addressing the guy like some lord in a historical drama, with a straight face...not possible. "—Hei-Laoge."
The Envoy's shoulders jerked under his bespoke suit jacket at that insolence, but he didn't say anything. Just stood silently by as Zhao Yunlan talked to the kids.
It took a little cajoling to get them up and moving, especially when he couldn't promise they were going anywhere nicer. The girl with the yellow ribbons asked hopefully, "Do you have any more candy, Zhao-ge? Those lollipops were good before..."
Zhao Yunlan frowned, dug in his pockets. His leather jacket had a few protein bars and bottles of water. In his jeans he found his phone—no signal, shocker—and a single lollipop. He considered, then held up the candy, said, "Okay, first one to get to where we're going gets it!"
That did the trick—with sugar on the line, they didn't dawdle.
The Black-Cloaked Envoy in his contrarily blue suit led the way through the thickly gathered fog. Zhao Yunlan took the rear, keeping the Envoy in sight and the three children between them. As they walked, the kids talked among themselves, muttered whispers that barely carried between the trees.
Zhao Yunlan kept one ear on them, the other on the creepily silent forest—no birds or insects; he couldn't even hear the rustling of wind through leaves above, or see any through the dense fog. The ground was muddy underfoot, the soles of his boots sinking a little into the damp earth with each step; but there was no moss, no underbrush, just the occasional clot of rotting leaves.
He tried to catch the kids' names in their chatter. The girl with the ribbons was...Ah-Mei? The other two—had probably introduced themselves already, when he'd given them lollipops; but he couldn't remember any of that.
His head was still killing him, throbbing with every step. Concussion probably, and a little retrograde amnesia wasn't that unusual, if he'd met the kids right before the attack. Of more concern was how, when he tried to think back, he couldn't remember how he'd gotten to this forest at all. Much less where this place was, or where was the path out of it.
He couldn't remember what he'd had for breakfast this morning, either, or what he'd done the night before. Trying to recall it made his head pound that much harder. He ground the heel of his hand against his eye, like he could push his sore brains back to a better fit inside his skull—
A hand grabbed his arm, and Zhao Yunlan yanked back, shying away from that unexpected touch. He forced open his eyes, and saw the oily black of one of those too-smooth tree trunks—one that he'd nearly walked into.
A couple meters ahead, the kids were stopped, looking back. And the Black-Cloaked Envoy was standing next to Zhao Yunlan, peering at him with those too-intent eyes behind his glasses. "Should we take a moment to rest?"
Zhao Yunlan shook his head, cautiously to keep from rattling his brains around even more. "No, I'm fine."
The Envoy's look sharpened, from a knife to a needle; but he only said, "Drink some water"—and reached out, so casually quick that Zhao Yunlan didn't even think to stop him. Not until after the Envoy had already pulled a bottle of water out of Zhao Yunlan's jacket pocket, twisted off the cap and handed it back to him.
At a loss, Zhao Yunlan took a couple sips, then diffidently offered some to the Envoy. When he refused, Zhao Yunlan passed the water over to the kids to share, then turned back to the Dixingren, still watching him. "So you don't need sustenance like us mere mortals?"
"You need it more; my dark energy provides me enough strength, for now," the Envoy said.
"Is that why you came dressed for an office instead of a walk in the woods?" Zhao Yunlan asked pointedly.
The Envoy made an awkward duck of his head—almost credibly shy, in spite of what he was. The fog's ambient light softened his stern features, smoothed them into nearly convincing humanity, all gentle dark eyes and sensitive lips. "I wasn't expecting... You were the one to point out that the children would be less intimidated by a professor's suit than a black cloak."
"You mean you'd rather be hiking in half a dozen layers of robes?" Zhao Yunlan said, keeping his tone light, even as his gut did an internal tap-dance routine to the beat of the hammering in his skull. It was one thing for these kids' names to have slipped his mind. But the Envoy hadn't just recognized Zhao Yunlan from a picture his dad gave him or whatever—they'd met already. Had been introduced, presumably for this mission, and Zhao Yunlan couldn't remember a second of it. Didn't have a clue what he'd said before, to a Dixingren—and not just any freak but the most powerful, most dangerous individual allowed in the upper world.
He must not have mouthed off too rudely, anyway, if the guy was still here helping out. Or maybe his father's begrudging admissions were correct and Hei Pao Shi had something resembling a sense of honor.
Or maybe he had another agenda, one that he wouldn't let Zhao Yunlan get in the way of, however obnoxious he got.
At any rate, the last thing Zhao Yunlan needed was for Dixing's mighty Envoy to realize just how hurt Haixing's interim representative was right now. Not when he had three kids to keep safe, from this place, and maybe the Envoy, too. Zhao Yunlan made himself straighten up, put down his hand and widened his squinting eyes. Smiled like the Dixingren's fixed study wasn't bothering him. "Come on, kids, let's get going. It's not much further, right?"
"No," the Envoy agreed—but then stopped, turned his head abruptly to glare into the mistiness behind them.
"What?" Zhao Yunlan said—and then he heard it, echoing faintly through the trees: the clattering scraping of exoskeletal joints. Louder than before—more than one. "Shit..."
The monsters are 幽虫 Youchong ("ghost/underworld bug"), riffing off the drama's 幽畜 Youchou ("ghost/underworld beast").
The last chapter got 7 "poor Shen Wei"s in the comments, I must be doing something right!
The Envoy spun back to catch Zhao Yunlan's eyes, pointed ahead into the fog. "Keep going, that direction," he said, over the insectile chitters of the approaching monsters. "Get the children to the shelter. I'll stop them."
His face—his whole aspect—had changed, from befuddled professor to warrior lord; he spoke with an absolute, assured authority that even Zhao Xinci could only dream of emulating. Such that Zhao Yunlan first responded on instinct, and only caught himself a second later. He turned back, mouth opening in protest—to see the Envoy calling up his eponymous black cloak with a wave of his hand, the hooded robes draping around him as his blade materialized in his fist. Not a sword this time but a glaive longer than he was tall; he deftly swung it around one-handed as he slid into a fighting stance.
Zhao Yunlan's mouth was suddenly dry, for all the water he'd drunk—just, the sheer certain grace of that action—
But the kids had noticed the costume change, too—and now were hearing the incoming monsters, heads cocked and faces going pale. Zhao Yunlan pasted on a smile, waved to reclaim their attention. "Okay, guys, let's see how fast can you go—I'll race you for that lollipop!"
He started to jog, making sure he stayed behind the kids, and the children began to move, though slowed by how they kept peering back over their shoulders. Until the girl with the yellow hair ribbons screeched that glass-shattering scream—then they put their heads down and started running in earnest, so Zhao Yunlan had to stretch his legs to keep up.
He ducked his head for one glimpse behind him, saw motion through the fog and trees. Several hulking shapes, indistinct in the haze—and a whirl of black, like a shadow cut free from what cast it. The Envoy's blade slashed around, and there was a crunch and a squeal, more like a kettle boiling over than a living creature—
Then in front of him, a different cry—one of the kids had tripped, sprawling in the mud. Zhao Yunlan snatched the boy up into his arms and sprinted to keep the two girls in sight, leaving the monsters, Dixingren or otherwise, behind them.
In a minute another shadow loomed out of the fog—stretching up like the trees, but pale instead of dark. Zhao Yunlan skidded to a halt beside the kids, staring up at the...house? Shed? Some kind of structure, anyway, nearly two stories tall and built out of wood—driftwood, it looked like, boards bleached white as bone.
There was what might have been a door in the center of the flat white wall, a rough rectangular outline. Zhao Yunlan kicked it lightly with his boot, still holding the kid in his arms; he didn't dare shout, but asked aloud, "Anyone home?"
The door had no handle, and when Zhao Yunlan gave it a harder kick, it stayed tightly shut. He looked back into the forest—nothing but motionless tree trunks and fog. For now, anyway. The two girls crowded in with him, hammering at the door with their little fists. Zhao Yunlan turned and threw his shoulder against it—
The door swung inward like a latch had been turned, so easily that Zhao Yunlan staggered, barely caught himself. He peered into the shadows—didn't see anything moving, so he hustled the kids inside and slammed the door shut after them.
The girls collapsed on the ground, panting for breath, or else maybe crying. The boy had a stranglehold around his neck. Zhao Yunlan carefully unwound his arms and set him down, put a hand on one small, shaking shoulder and asked the kid, "You okay? Anything hurt?"
His hands and knees were muddy, but nothing looked ripped or bleeding, that Zhao Yunlan could see. The boy sniffled a few times, finally managed to shake his head. "N-no, Zhao-ge."
"Good," Zhao Yunlan told him, ruffling his hair, then stood . "You did great," he told all the kids. "That was some fast running, and we'll all be safe here," hoping as he said it that it wasn't a complete lie.
He wasn't even sure what this place was. He'd have guessed some kind of barn, but inside there weren't any stalls or a loft. No proper floor, just packed dirt strewn with dead leaves. It was all dimly lit from the windows, a few square openings high on the walls. No glass panes in them, as far as he could tell.
Not even a shack, more like a shoddy imitation of one. Like the plywood front of a movie set—a low-budget flick. Though at least there were four walls.
The kids' gasping sobs were settling. Zhao Yunlan took out the lollipop, said, "You all won this, why don't you share it?"
He left them passing the candy back and forth and arguing over how many licks at once were fair, while he went back to the door to listen through it. There was only silence outside—no clicking of wrongly jointed legs, no howling screeches. No footsteps or rustling of a black cloak, either.
Zhao Yunlan took out the revolver, checked the cylinder. For all the shots he'd fired before, it looked like it had a full set of rounds chambered again. Not that they had done much good before. But maybe a few shots would discourage a monster from poking its mandibles inside, if any of the things had made it past the Envoy's blade.
If they had...how many of them had there been this time? Enough to take down Dixing's fearsome Hei Pao Shi? Not an encouraging thought—it made Zhao Yunlan's stomach twist, cold sweat breaking out on his brow. Or else that was the concussion.
The shadows inside deepened as he waited, gradually enough that Zhao Yunlan wondered if his pounding headache was starting to affect his vision. But no, the dim glow outside the windows was fading, darkening to twilight blues. Either a storm was coming in, or evening was falling.
Bad news either way. At least they had shelter. But if the Black-Cloaked Envoy hadn't made it back by nightfall...well, Dixingren should be used to the dark.
Still, Zhao Yunlan was considering how long could he risk leaving the kids to venture into the forest, and how difficult would it be to find his way back in the gloom—when a yawning vortex of dark energy whirled into being in the middle of the shack. As the kids shrieked and scrambled back, Zhao Yunlan lunged to put himself before it, gun ready—
The Black-Cloaked Envoy materialized out of the vortex, which spun shut behind him with a soft whoomph. The brown leaves, stirred by the portal's forces, floated back to the floor around him.
The Envoy was still holding his glaive, its once gleaming blade smeared with foul green-black ooze. He let the decorated end of the weapon drop to the floor, the metal clanging against the wood, as he leaned against it. Under the robes his shoulders were hunched.
"Uh, hey," Zhao Yunlan said, slowly lowering the revolver. "You made it."
"Yes," the Envoy said. He turned his hooded head. "And you—the children?"
"We're here, all okay." Zhao Yunlan waved at the kids behind him without stepping out of the way. "So you took out all those things?"
"A couple," the Envoy said, then coughed. His robes disappeared, as abruptly as the portal had snapped out, leaving him back in the suit. Still holding onto the glaive, though, bracing against it as he wiped the back of his sleeve across his mouth and went on, "The rest are scattered for now, and I left them a trail in the opposite direction of this place."
"Sounds good," Zhao Yunlan said. He holstered the gun and studied the Envoy, leaning against his polearm. "And you're okay?"
"I—I'm fine," the Envoy said. Under Zhao Yunlan's evaluating look, he straightened his back and opened his hand, so the glaive in it vanished back to wherever the rest of his ensemble went.
Zhao Yunlan nodded. "You got back just in time, I was about to head out."
The Envoy's head jerked up; he peered at Zhao Yunlan through his glasses as if he thought he'd misheard. "You were—what?" He craned his neck to look again at the kids past Zhao Yunlan. "Why—you said all the children were here?"
"To find you," Zhao Yunlan said. "See if you needed any help. But I guess you're the expert monster-hunter here."
The Envoy was staring at him, apparently struck speechless by the audacity of a cop thinking he could help in a supernatural battle. Zhao Yunlan sighed and shoved his hair back. It was getting long, kept falling in his eyes. "So what's the game plan, Hei-laoge? Is it riskier to stay holed up here or to keep looking for the way out?"
The Envoy shook his head. "With darkness fallen, there won't be any exit to find. Better to take shelter for the night, and once it's light we'll hopefully have better luck."
"If you say so," Zhao Yunlan said. He clapped his hands together brightly. "All right, kids, who's up for a sleepover?"
The three children looked up at him. Then the girl who wasn't Ah-Mei shook her pixie-cut head, crossed her arms, and sat down on the floor; and the boy burst into tears.
Zhao Yunlan sighed again. "Fair," he admitted. He crouched down to put himself at their eye level. "Okay, I know it's scary here. And I know you all want to be back home in your own beds right now—"
"—No we don't," said the girl sitting on the floor. "It's not even bedtime yet!"
"—Okay, well, I want to be home in my bed," Zhao Yunlan said. "And you could be playing video games or—whatever, the point is, you're going to be able to do all of that tomorrow. I'm going to get you out of here, I promise."
The girls looked hopeful, but the crying boy just started wailing louder. "N-no you won't! We're never going to get out! We're g-going to be here forever until we d-die!"
The other kids' hopeful expressions went stricken, and Zhao Yunlan forced back a grimace, smiled calmly instead, like he would with a panicked witness. "No," he said, "you're not. I'm not going to let that happen."
"We are!" the boy cried. "We're stuck here and there's monsters and there's nothing to eat and we're all going to die! A-and it's my f-fault!"
Even in the dimming light, Zhao Yunlan could see the kids' faces pale. Then Ah-Mei shook her head hard enough for her pigtails to whip her cheeks, and said, "No, it's not, Ah-Liu!"
"No!" Ah-Mei jumped up, planted her tiny fists on her hips as she stood over the boy. "It was all of us—me and you and Lingling all wanted to come play here, and we all got in trouble here—and we're all going to get out of here, too. Right, Zhao-ge?"
"Uh—sure, right," Zhao Yunlan said hastily. "What she said."
Ah-Mei looked at him—and then over his shoulder, to where the blue-suited Black-Cloaked Envoy was quietly standing. The little girl's eyes were huge, but she firmed her quivering chin, turned back to her friend. "So—so if we all get out, then nobody's in trouble, so it's nobody's fault. Right?"
"Right," Zhao Yunlan agreed again. It wasn't the way the rules had ever worked—not when he was a kid, that he could recall, and definitely not as a cop. But the boy Ah-Liu's sobs were diminishing to sniffles, and the other girl—Lingling, apparently—sidled closer to put her arm over his shoulders.
Ah-Mei huffed out a breath and sank down to the floor, wrapping her arms around her skinny knees.
"It's going to be okay," Zhao Yunlan told all of them. "And hey, there is something to eat," and he reached into his jacket pocket for the protein bars. There were five; he passed out three to the kids, along with another bottle of water.
Ah-Liu and Lingling immediately began squabbling over the chocolate one. Zhao Yunlan took the cookies-and-cream one, offered it to Ah-Mei.
The girl just shook her head, burying her face in her folded arms. "Hey," Zhao Yunlan told her, putting a light hand on her shoulder. "You earned this—you did good there, that was just what your friends needed to hear."
Ah-Mei raised her eyes just enough to see his face, then grabbed the bar, clinging to it with both hands. She was shivering a little—maybe nerves, but the coming night was also bringing the temperature down, a chilly draft coming through those glassless windows. The kids had only windbreakers, and Ah-Mei's legs were bare under her colorful sundress.
Zhao Yunlan shrugged out of his leather jacket, draped it around the girl's shoulders and then stood up, surveying their shelter through the growing shadows. A little heat and light would go a long way towards raising the mood. He dug in his pocket for his lighter, wondering how well those weird too-smooth trees would burn.
"I can make a fire," the Envoy said, speaking up suddenly and closer than Zhao Yunlan had thought—not actually in his ear, but near enough that he jumped, spun around to face him. The Envoy drew back, dipping his head in a way that could be mistaken for deferential, with his expression obscured in the dimness.
Zhao Yunlan swallowed around the thudding of his heart. "Sure, all right," he said, and the Envoy nodded.
As it turned out, making a fire was a more literal proposition when superpowers were involved. The Envoy didn't collect kindling or strike a match—he just snapped his fingers and called into being a wavering golden flame, nearly smokeless and floating in the middle of the room, a couple handspans above the dirt.
The fire was real enough, though, crackling and spreading light and warmth around the confines of the shack. Zhao Yunlan waved the kids over. The children looked between him and the Envoy, silhouetted against the flame; then the Envoy stepped back, and the kids crept closer to gather around it. The flickering fire danced in their eyes, painted their small faces with lively color.
Zhao Yunlan warmed his hands over it, then drew back, into the corner the Envoy had retreated to. "Hey," he said, slanting a look over at him. "Nice going...don't suppose you can magic up some dinner to cook over it?"
"No," the Envoy said, "I'm sorry, Zhao Yunlan."
He sounded like he meant it, and Zhao Yunlan shook his head. "Kidding—that was a joke. Seriously, thanks for this. It helps."
The Envoy nodded. "Light is all the more precious, the darker it gets."
"Guess you'd know," Zhao Yunlan said, then winced. "Uh, sorry, that was..."
"No," the Envoy said, "you're right. Light is treasured in Dixing, even now." He moved, edging a little away from Zhao Yunlan. Or maybe just shifting his weight—he was favoring one side, even without his glaive to lean on.
"So what's wrong with your leg?" Zhao Yunlan asked, pointing. "Didn't notice you limping before."
The Envoy glanced down at his leg. "It's nothing serious."
"Uh-huh." There was just enough light from the fire to see the damp dark patch on the right leg of his trousers. "Let me take a look."
"That's not necessary," the Envoy started to protest. But when he tried to step back he stumbled onto his hurt leg, went pale enough that Zhao Yunlan reached to catch his arm without thinking.
For a moment the Envoy seemed to lean against him—to lean into him, deliberately, his bowed head bumping Zhao Yunlan's shoulder—and then he pulled back. Though his effort to tug his arm away from Zhao Yunlan's hold was pretty perfunctory, considering his true strength. And when Zhao Yunlan tugged back, the Envoy compliantly lowered himself to the floor and let Zhao Yunlan push up the leg of his trousers.
There was a long angry slash down his calf. It wasn't bleeding much, but it looked deep enough to need stitches. And Zhao Yunlan didn't even have a first-aid kit on him.
At his frown, the Envoy said, "It's of no concern—I already dealt with the worst of the damage; I'll be able to complete the healing later."
"You can heal yourself, too? So why wait?"
"I only have so much power," the Envoy said. It was an uncomfortable admission for him, by how he looked down, studiously avoiding Zhao Yunlan's gaze.
Zhao Yunlan glanced back over his shoulder at the flickering fire. "You can't heal yourself and keep that burning at the same time?" he hazarded.
"Not while maintaining the warding around this structure," the Envoy said.
"It's not a proper shield, but it's concealment," the Envoy said. "I'm hoping it will keep the Youchong or anything else from detecting us during the night."
"Smart," Zhao Yunlan commented. He looked down again at the Envoy's leg. "Do you want an aspirin or something? Even if you're going to heal it later, it looks like it hurts."
The Envoy drew in his leg, unrolled his trouser leg. "It's fine. Fortunately I'm used to..." but he stopped, shut his mouth.
Zhao Yunlan frowned at him. "What?"
"No matter," the Envoy said, pulling his lips up into a polite shadow of a smile. "But you, Zhao Yunlan—how's your head?"
"It's okay," Zhao Yunlan said, mostly meaning it. The throbbing had dulled, the knocking of a fist rather than a jackhammer against his skull. Besides, the lingering nausea made it easier to be skipping dinner tonight.
The Envoy didn't look convinced; he raised his hand. "I could—"
"What—heal me with energy you don't have?" Zhao Yunlan ducked back. "Thanks, but no thanks; I told you, I'm good." Not that he would ever agree to any Dixingren's dark energy being forced into him—but that sounded unnecessarily rude even in his head, so he swallowed it back. Said instead, "So is that why you can't just get us out of here? You don't have the juice to take all of us?" At the Envoy's querying look, Zhao Yunlan gestured a circle in the air, a sketchy reminder of the vortex before. "Since you can teleport."
"Ah. Not only that." The Envoy frowned, the furrow between his brows deepening. "I can only move within this place; I can't transport anyone out of it, myself included."
By that frown, the way he was studying Zhao Yunlan's face, Zhao Yunlan guessed that this was something he'd been told already. "Oh, right," he said, as easily as he could manage, like he wasn't missing a day or more of memories. "You're stuck here with us."
"Of course," the Envoy said, and then, oddly, smiled—not those calmly polite manners; a brief but real smile, like he was genuinely happy to be here, trapped in this weird shack in this weird woods with Zhao Yunlan and a batch of kids.
Well, he was Hei Pao Shi; from what Zhao Yunlan understood, he was one of the most powerful beings on the planet, but no one said anything about him being sane. Zhao Yunlan could roll with that. Of more concern was how that smile was really, regrettably, devastatingly attractive.
Outside, earlier, he'd thought it was just the mist, the way it softened the light over those pale features. But in here, limned in the gold of the flickering fire, the Envoy was downright unearthly. And okay, Zhao Yunlan had types, same as any guy, and unfortunately prim bookish nerds in glasses and tight trousers hit him straight in the sexy librarian sweet spot.
Except he'd never met a nerd who could wield a blade like he was right out of some wuxia. And some of Zhao Yunlan's earliest crushes had been the mysterious dashing heroes in cloaks and masks, and yeah, this particular intersection was just unfair. Most especially when he was on a case, with kids to protect.
—Which didn't matter anyway, because this wasn't any shy professor but the Black-Cloaked Envoy of fucking Dixing. Zhao Yunlan tightened his jaw, tore his eyes off those unfairly sculpted cheekbones and stood to rejoin the kids by the fire.
The Envoy didn't say anything, and didn't follow, though Zhao Yunlan could feel his gaze on him, those dark eyes watching from the shadowed corner, beating down on his back like black sunlight.
The kids had discovered that tossing damp leaves into the fire made it flare and crackle. Those low-grade sparklers kept them entertained for a bit, actually got them giggling a couple times. Though even with that brightness, the darkness surrounding them was oppressive enough that Zhao Yunlan didn't need to remind them to keep quiet.
There were a couple mentions of being hungry, but before that became trouble, Ah-Mei turned the conversation to what they were going to eat tomorrow. Zhao Yunlan admired her skill—born politician, that kid, if not company president or chief of police—and cheerfully offered his own suggestions of youtiao and congee.
The last two protein bars he wanted to save, but he passed around another bottle of water. Which then had the kids asking for a bathroom, not that there were any facilities in this weird incomplete structure. Zhao Yunlan debated, finally went to the door, listened close and then cautiously opened it—but before he could step outside, the Black-Cloaked Envoy was there, calling his glaive into his hand as he swept past Zhao Yunlan.
He went a little ways into the forest, then came back to take up position a few meters from the shack, back to them to face the darkness, while Zhao Yunlan stood in the doorway and ushered the kids out one by one. The girls took a little convincing, but needs must. And after all three children and Zhao Yunlan had taken care of business, he called the Envoy back inside and shut the door behind them all.
After that, the kids curled up again on the ground by the fire. Zhao Yunlan didn't bother telling them to stop talking, but their soft chatter soon faded as one by one they fell asleep. When all of their eyes were closed and their heads were slumped, leaning on each other, Zhao Yunlan got up. He circled the shack, and checked the door, wondering how he could secure it. Their little hideout wouldn't be of much good if one of those monsters burst in during the night. Maybe the Envoy's polearm could brace it?
To his surprise, however, the door was locked tight, not even rattling when he put his shoulder to it. As firmly shut as when they'd first found it, for all it had opened easily enough for him before, and he hadn't noticed a lock on it.
Zhao Yunlan crossed over to the Envoy, sitting again in the corner nearest the door. His eyes were closed, though he wasn't asleep, his back straight and his hands folded in his lap. Meditating, or else concentrating on his powers; either way, he opened his eyes as Zhao Yunlan crouched next to him.
"Hey," Zhao Yunlan said, whispering to keep from waking kids. "The door, are you doing that?"
"You said you had a ward or whatever up, so did that lock the door, too?"
"Oh," the Envoy said. He licked his lips. "Ah—yes. Yes, that should hold against anything that tries to break in tonight." He glanced past Zhao Yunlan to the kids around the fire. "They're all asleep?"
Zhao Yunlan nodded, dropped to the ground next to the Envoy and stretched out his legs. "They're good kids," he said. "They're keeping it together better than most adults would, under the circumstances."
"As are you," the Envoy said, his dark gaze moving back to Zhao Yunlan.
Zhao Yunlan shrugged. "I'm a cop; we're trained to handle difficult situations."
"Not like this," the Envoy said, with such serious intent that Zhao Yunlan didn't know what to make of it. The man's face gave away even less than his voice, and the firelight reflecting off his glasses obscured more than the mask would have.
"Anyway," Zhao Yunlan said, stretching his arms and rolling his shoulders, "it's warmed up in here, and with the kids asleep they won't need a night-light, so you can put out the fire. Save up your strength to heal that cut." He hadn't missed how the Envoy had been still favoring his leg when coming back into the shack—he'd been trying to hide it, but he'd been using his glaive as a crutch. And there was a fine sweat beaded on his forehead now, faintly glinting in the firelight, though it wasn't really that warm.
Still, the Envoy hesitated. "I'm not seriously injured—"
"Maybe not," Zhao Yunlan said, "but if those things do find us, I'd rather our heavy hitter wasn't injured at all."
The Envoy was silent for a moment, then dipped his head in agreement. He raised his hand, motioned like he was drawing in a fishing line. The fire went out like the candles on a birthday cake, abrupt enough to make a draft. Cool, moist air rushed in from the windows like it had been waiting for its chance, raising goosebumps on his bare arms. Zhao Yunlan shivered a little in the darkness.
"You're cold?" the Envoy's voice came to him through the darkness—abrupt, maybe annoyed. "You said it was warm enough."
"Yeah, it's fine," Zhao Yunlan said. He pulled his phone out of his pocket—still no signal, but he turned on the flashlight to do a sweep of the shack. The kids were still asleep, and the Envoy was still sitting next to him, the light turning the lenses of his glasses to twin moons.
The phone was at a third battery, so Zhao Yunlan reluctantly turned it off again, put it back in his pocket. Without it, it was nearly pitch black, only the barest glow from the surrounding fog seeping through the windows.
"Let me guess, you can see in the dark?" he asked the Envoy.
"Good. Then I guess you've got first watch."
"Yes," the Envoy agreed.
Zhao Yunlan leaned back against the wall, folded his arms over his chest. His jacket was draped over the three kids, so it wasn't like he was going to take it back, but he regretted not wearing another layer.
There was a rustling in the dark beside him. He peered through the darkness but couldn't make out more than the impression of motion—then fabric settled on him, soft silk over his bare arms. The Envoy's suit jacket.
"Hey, I said I was fine," Zhao Yunlan said, going to push it off.
His hand bumped the Envoy's, pulling the jacket back up over him. "You'll rest better if warm," the Envoy said. "And I would rather that my primary ally is well-rested, if we are attacked again."
Zhao Yunlan wondered how clearly the Envoy would see his eyes rolling in the dark. "Fine," he said grouchily, and settled back again, tucking the jacket's collar under his chin.
It was more comfortable, the silk lining warmed by the Envoy's body, and lightly scented—not cologne, more like incense, smoky and slightly sweet. It was an oddly familiar fragrance—he couldn't immediately place it, but it was relaxing, made the worst knots in his shoulders unwind a little. Maybe it was from a massage parlor or something.
Zhao Yunlan sat in the dark for a few moments, listening—he could only just hear the Envoy's even breathing beside him, softer than the kids' snuffling across the shack. They were all still asleep, he hoped, but he kept his voice low enough not to carry anyway. "So which one of them is it?"
There was a brief pause before the Envoy replied, "Which one is...?"
"The kids," Zhao Yunlan said. "Which one of them's the Dixingren?"
"The kids," Zhao Yunlan said. "Which one of them's the Dixingren?"
The Envoy hesitated a moment, then began, "I don't know what you—"
"You didn't lock down that door, just now," Zhao Yunlan said. "Or open it, before, when we first got here—you weren't anywhere close. So I'm betting it was the power of one of these kids."
Nothing from the Envoy except silence. "That's why you're here, isn't it," Zhao Yunlan said. "Rescuing one of your own.—Unless that's why any of us are here? That boy, Ah-Liu, he said something about this being his fault..." Before his friend had cut him off—and Zhao Yunlan remembered the girl looking back over her shoulder at the Envoy. Remembered how wide her eyes were—the Black-Cloaked Envoy was a fearsome figure anyway, but his justice fell on those Dixingren who broke the rules, who abused their powers on the surface. "So is the kid from Dixing?"
"All of these children are from Haixing, born and raised," the Envoy said.
"Uh-huh." Zhao Yunlan squinted in his direction in the dark. "And what about their parents? Their grandparents?" He sighed when no answer came. "Look, I need to know what's really going on. Especially if one of these kids might put us in danger."
"They aren't dangerous," the Envoy said. "We're here to protect them, to save them—"
"—Obviously," Zhao Yunlan snapped. He could practically feel the force of the Envoy's attention, that dark-eyed stare still locked on him in the dark.
The Envoy didn't trust him.
—Which, of course he didn't; why would he? It wasn't like the Envoy knew Zhao Yunlan. And it wasn't like he trusted the freaking Black-Cloaked Envoy, not as far as he could throw the guy—who looked pretty solidly built, under that tailored suit.
Yet still, it...bothered Zhao Yunlan. Stung like lemon juice on a papercut, sharper than expected. His headache, dulled, spiked again as his temper surged. "You think I'd forget who we're here to help? You're not telling me the truth because, what—you think I'd kick some poor kid out into the woods with those monsters, just because he was from the wrong side of the planet?"
"I wouldn't think that of you," the Envoy denied. "But...this situation is already so difficult for you, Zhao Yunlan. And I know your history with my people."
"My history..." Right. The Envoy did know Zhao Xinci, worked with him. And Zhao Yunlan knew his father, too. His old man wouldn't be intimidated by a cloak and mask, wouldn't lower his head make nice to an ancient lord just because he flashed some superpowers. Not a Dixingren. Not any Dixingren.
If his dad were here, and found out one of these kids was from down below... "All right, yeah, I know your people. What Dixingren can do. But these kids—whatever else they might be, they're kids. And I'm not my father."
"—No," the Envoy said, a faster reply than Zhao Yunlan was expecting. "You're certainly not, and never have been."
"Never?" Zhao Yunlan frowned, pinched the bridge of his nose to force back the returning headache. "So...which kid is it?"
The Envoy only took another moment to decide. "Both Xie Ling and Zhou Liusheng are Dixingren. Xie Ling has the power of opening and closing. Zhou Liusheng's power...only recently awakened, so I'm not sure of its exact nature. But he can access, or else construct, reflective dimensions."
"A reflective what...?"
"I—we walked into a puddle," said a soft, sniffly voice across the room.
Zhao Yunlan took out his phone, toggled on the flashlight and aimed it across the room. The light shone across Ah-Liu's wet cheeks. The boy was sitting up, apart from his friends, curled into a ball with his arms wrapped tight around his knees.
Zhao Yunlan sighed. "Hey, kid," he said, turning the light back to illuminate himself. "It's okay—come over here, let's talk," and he patted the dirt next to him.
In the dimness, Zhao Yunlan could only just see Ah-Liu turn his teary face from Zhao Yunlan to the shadow of the Envoy next to him.
"It's okay," Zhao Yunlan said. "I told you before, I'm not going to let anything hurt you. Or your friends. Not even this black-cloaked guy."
"Indeed, he won't," the Envoy said unexpectedly, low but certain in the darkness. "You can trust in Zhao Yunlan's protection."
Something about that clear statement was convincing; the boy shuffled over and sat down next to Zhao Yunlan, on the opposite side from the Envoy. Zhao Yunlan put his phone down with the screen on, enough for the mild comfort of a nightlight. "So," he said, keeping his voice low to avoid waking up the other children, "can you tell Zhao-ge what happened?"
Ah-Liu snuffled loudly, wiped his sleeve across his snotty nose. "It—it wasn't the first time. Last week, I figured out how, and I went in, but nothing bad happened..."
"Right," Zhao Yunlan said. "Went in where?"
"Into a puddle," Ah-Liu said. "Only not in the water—into what you can see in a puddle. The way it's darker, and kind of ripply—I went in and I walked around, and then I came out again. I brought a leaf back.
"But they—Ah-Mei and Lingling, they didn't believe that that's where I got it, so I showed them. And then they wanted to go too. So the next time it rained, when there was a big enough puddle—we waited until it wasn't windy so there weren't ripples, and we all held hands and jumped in together. We were just going to play a little while and come back, but then—then one of those monsters came—and we ran—and then we couldn't find the puddle again..."
He was crying in earnest now, loud enough he might wake the other kids. Zhao Yunlan winced and patted the boy on the back. "Hey, it's going to be okay. That's why we're here, to get you out, back through the puddle—isn't that right, Hei-laoge?"
"Yes," the Envoy said.
Ah-Liu was still sobbing. "B-but then me and Lingling will have-haveta go to Dixing. Dad told me, if I ever used any powers, then the-the Black-Cloaked Envoy would take me there. All by myself, without my dad..."
And the Envoy was right on hand to enforce that law, the moment they stepped out of here. Nevertheless—"The only place you're going after this is home to your dad," Zhao Yunlan told the boy. He shot the Envoy a defiant look, but the Dixingren had lowered his head, the shadows like another hood.
Zhao Yunlan crouched down to speak confidentially to the kid—sure he could still be heard, but it couldn't be helped. "Look, like your friend Ah-Mei told you before—everyone's okay, so it's okay," he said. "Once we're out of here, we don't even have to tell anybody that it was you."
Ah-Liu raised his teary face. "But you got hurt?"
"Just a little bump," Zhao Yunlan said, "it hardly even hurts anymore," and he smiled to sell that fib. "So we just won't say anything, and it'll all be fine."
"B-but..." The boy turned his head toward the quiet darkness of the Envoy.
"Don't worry about him," Zhao Yunlan said. "He won't take you anywhere—Zhao-ge promises."
"No," the Envoy said unexpectedly—not denial but confirmation. "I won't separate you from your father, Ah-Liu, nor punish you for an accident."
Zhao Yunlan would've said something, but stark disbelief wouldn't be reassuring to the kid now, and it was still the middle of the damn night. He gave the boy another pat, said, "There, see? So why don't you stop crying—your dad, he'd want you to be brave now, right? My dad always wants me to be brave."
Ah-Liu had downgraded back to sniffles, at least. "Y-your dad? Is that why your head doesn't hurt anymore?"
Zhao Yunlan snorted. "Yeah, pretty much. Now, go back to sleep, okay?"
The boy nodded, but even in the phone's dim glow he still looked watery and trembly. Zhao Yunlan sighed, said, "Would a hug help?"
Ah-Liu nodded again, mutely, but when Zhao Yunlan opened his arms he basically threw himself into them. Zhao Yunlan turned off his phone, tucked the Envoy's jacket around the boy and rubbed his back a bit, until the kid's terrified tears faded into soft wheezy snores, his small head resting against Zhao Yunlan's side.
Zhao Yunlan kept an arm around the boy, waited until he was sure from the evenness of his breathing that he was completely asleep, before he said into the dark, "I'm really not going to let you take him. Or that girl. Just so you know."
"I won't be taking them anywhere," the Envoy said quietly. "There's no crime here, so no justice to mete out."
"Yeah, and I'm sure my dad will see it that way," Zhao Yunlan said. "Because he's so big into forgiving Dixingren, accidents or children or whatever. What are you planning on telling him? That it was some rogue power-user who kidnapped these kids, and then got lost in here?"
The Envoy only hesitated a moment. "I need give no excuses to Haixing's Guardian."
A lord of Dixing, right; he didn't need to bow to or explain himself to anyone, even Zhao Xinci. "Must be nice."
"It is," the Envoy agreed. There was something a little odd about his tone; he almost sounded like he might be smiling.
Though then his voice grew serious again. "Zhao Yunlan, your injury—if you'd allow me—"
Night vision, right. Zhao Yunlan forced open his eyes from their squint, lowered the hand rubbing his forehead almost furtively, like he had some reason to feel guilty for it. "It's fine. Like I told him, barely hurts at all anymore. If you can heal, then heal your own leg."
When the Envoy didn't reply, Zhao Yunlan yawned, leaned back against the rough wooden wall behind him, gingerly to keep from jarring the bump on his head. "So tomorrow, when we have light again, we can find a reflection, get out of here?"
"Yes," the Envoy confirmed.
"You think the kid will be able to do it? Open the portal or whatever from this end?"
"If he can't, then I should be able to," the Envoy said. "The same way I got us here—as I explained before, the power of reflection travel that I know is similar enough to Zhou Liusheng's to allow passage."
Zhao Yunlan winced. "Right," he said. "When we came through before. Together."
He couldn't even see the pale circle of the Envoy's face, but he knew the Dixingren was looking at him through the darkness. "Yes, we came through together, and searched for the children. Then you stayed with them, while I went to find a pool large enough for all of us to leave through."
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said, like this was all old news to him. "And then those things attacked."
"It was my fault," the Envoy said grimly. "I'm sorry, Zhao Yunlan—I underestimated the scope of Zhou Liusheng's ability, even newly developed; I should've realized that this was no limited pocket dimension but a complete reflection, with virtually infinite points of entry and egress for other things to cross into it. Had I been aware of the danger—"
"Hey, I had this gun," Zhao Yunlan said. "I should've been able to take out a monster or two." No doubt Zhao Xinci would've been able to bring all of the creepy things down before the Envoy had to unsheath his blade.
"You had three small children to protect," the Envoy said, sharp enough to sound irritated. By the presence of the kids? Or by Zhao Yunlan's incompetency, more likely.
"Yeah, and if you hadn't turned back up..." Whatever else Zhao Yunlan could say, the Black-Cloaked Envoy was a handy guy to have in your corner. "Thanks for that. And for fending off those things so we could make it here." Putting his own safety on the line to do it, even. For two Haixingren—and a couple of his own people, and maybe that was what really counted for him.
The Envoy was silent, as if he didn't know how to respond to that basic courtesy. Or else was just shocked speechless by it—getting gratitude from a Zhao wasn't likely something he had much experience with.
"So tell me," Zhao Yunlan said, lightening his tone, "is this something that happens a lot on this job? Walking through a puddle into a weird mirror dimension and getting chased by monsters?"
"Not...all the time," the Envoy said.
"You're not really selling it, Hei-laoge," Zhao Yunlan advised. "You know, once my old man gets promoted out of the SID, I'm probably going to be tapped for the job—like, I'm not Zhao Xinci's first pick, obviously, but there aren't a lot of candidates. So we might work together after this."
"...It is likely," the Envoy allowed.
"If you meant it before," Zhao Yunlan said, "about keeping these kids safe—here and out there too, not just dragging them back to Dixing—then maybe it won't be so bad, us teaming up."
There was a pause. Then the Envoy said, evenly and quietly enough to make it hard to read his tone, "So, I'm to understand that if I cooperate with you now, I'll find you more agreeable in our future partnership. While as if I do not, then you'll be...less amenable to work with."
"Oh, I can go way beyond less amenable," Zhao Yunlan assured him. "Try intractable. Hostile. Dissentious. One of my instructors at the academy used 'recalcitrant and intransigent' on an official review. You could pull rank all you want, but I'd make your every interaction with the SID a living hell."
"I don't doubt it," the Envoy said, but he didn't sound overly bothered. More like amused, like he thought Zhao Yunlan was teasing him and was happy to play along.
And. Well. What the hell? Zhao Yunlan still couldn't remember waking up this morning, but he was pretty sure flirting with Dixing's lord ambassador hadn't been one of his plans for the day.
He hoped it was dark enough that the Envoy couldn't see the blush heating his cheeks. Though with the way his luck was going, the Dixingren's night vision was probably infrared. "I mean it, though," Zhao Yunlan said. To make things clear. "Seriously."
"I know you do," the Envoy replied, his voice dropping back to its usual grave composure. "Zhao Yunlan..." and he said it not like a question but as the start of something—but then he didn't go on.
"Yeah, that's me?"
"It is," the Envoy said, "and you are a most uniquely surprising individual."
"Me," Zhao Yunlan said. "Can surprise the most powerful Dixingren in two worlds."
"Yes." The Envoy didn't even try to deny it—no false modesty there. Instead he said, "You...are not what I expected."
"Expected?" Zhao Yunlan repeated. "How'd you even...you mean, I'm not my father."
"Yes," the Envoy said, but even as Zhao Yunlan bristled, he went on, "And no, you're not him; I never thought you were."
"So who did you think I was?"
"Yourself, always," the Envoy said immediately. "All the same, when I was younger, I was quite different than I am now. I suppose I thought you would likewise be..."
"Be, what—younger? Younger than who?"
That stumped the Envoy into silence. Finally he said, "No matter. But I'm glad that I could meet you now, Zhao Yunlan. I'm sorry that I never did before."
And that didn't sound like banter; there was a weight to that measured voice that Zhao Yunlan felt as if it was pressing down on his own chest. He swallowed around the lump gathering in his throat, for no known reason. "Yeah—uh, yeah," he stammered out. "Likewise. Uh, I guess."
The silence that followed felt different, too. He was sure the Envoy was still watching him, through the dark, but he couldn't imagine what his thoughts were, behind those dark eyes. Though Zhao Yunlan found he could picture the Envoy's face, the intensity of his focus, with a strangely clear vividness, even having no idea what that expression meant.
"You should try to sleep now," the Envoy said at last. "I'll wake you when it's light and we can once more seek an escape."
"What about you?" Zhao Yunlan asked as he settled back. He closed his eyes—not that it made much difference in the dark—and shifted to get as comfortable as he could without disturbing the kid sleeping soundly against his side. "When are you going to rest?"
"Later," the Envoy said. "Once we're free of here."
"Fine," Zhao Yunlan said, yawning. "I'll hold you to that."
"I'm sure you will," the Envoy said.
Honestly Zhao Yunlan doubted he'd actually be able to sleep himself—not in this weird place, not on this hard dirt floor. And definitely not with Dixing's own high lord sitting less than a meter away, close enough that if Zhao Yunlan focused he could hear his quiet breathing through the dark.
Yet somehow that sound, that prickling awareness of nearness, didn't keep him alert; instead there was something calming about it. He shouldn't feel safe, he knew that; and yet his body was relaxing like he was back home in his own bed, in spite of everything.
Maybe the concussion was worse than he'd thought—though his head wasn't pounding any harder than before. Or else he was just that tired; it had been a hell of a day. A little rest, a catnap now, and he'd be up and ready for the rest of the night, whatever happened...
Zhao Yunlan jerked out of a deep sleep, tried to sit up—was stopped simultaneously by the stiffness of his spine and by weights on his limbs, his chest, holding him down.
Disoriented, he forced open gummy eyes, to find a face before him, pale in the dimness but for the intensely dark eyes—behind neat glasses, and a wrinkled dress shirt—
Zhao Yunlan opened his mouth and a name nearly fell out, but it wasn't—he didn't know—"Hei—Hei-laoge?"
Improbably long lashes swept over those dark eyes, opened again as the Black-Cloaked Envoy, sans the black or the cloak, rocked back on his heels. "Zhao Yunlan," he said again. "How do you feel? Your head...?"
His head—right. Zhao Yunlan lifted it, carefully, then blinked in surprise. "It's fine," he said, twisting to get the kinks out of his neck—but there wasn't even a twinge at his temples. "Hardly hurts at all anymore—really."
"Good," the Envoy said, though he still had a look of tightly focused concentration, his brow furrowed so deep it might have been plowed. "And you...do you remember...?"
"...Where we are? How could I forget puddle land?" Zhao Yunlan made another effort to sit up, impeded again. This time he thought to look down—to see three small heads tucked close. The kids were all cuddled against him, the boy on one side, with the Envoy's suit jacket wrapped over his shoulders, and the girls on the other, burrowed under Zhao Yunlan's own jacket.
He glanced back up at the Envoy, who broke out of a strange frozen stillness to shrug slightly. "Later in the night they woke up, and as it was colder, you said they could join Ah-Liu if they wanted."
"You were mostly still asleep yourself," the Envoy said.
"And none of them wanted to snuggle you?"
Zhao Yunlan was mostly joking, but the Envoy just shuttered those ridiculous lashes over his eyes again. "The Black-Cloaked Envoy is hardly a comforting figure."
Zhao Yunlan wasn't entirely awake yet, which was why he came so close to commenting on who here he'd have wanted to cuddle himself. He bit it off just in time, tore his eyes off the Envoy's—dropping his gaze to his chest, and arms, and what the hell, were those sleeve garters, outlining the distinct curve of muscle under the conservative dress shirt, how was that even fair—
"Zhao Yunlan," the Envoy said, with an abruptness that sounded like he was forcing himself back from some distraction himself. "Though I don't think it's quite daylight yet, I wanted to alert you—the Youchong have discovered this shelter."
"Those monsters?" Zhao Yunlan made an effort to get up in earnest, to the kids' sleepy complaints.
"There's no danger as yet," the Envoy said. "They've not made an effort to breach the walls—I think my concealment is effectively hiding us from their senses.
He helped to shift the pile of children off Zhao Yunlan enough for him to get up. Leaving the kids in a drowsy heap—they'd probably be happier asleep than awake in this dreary nightmare; he certainly had been—he followed the Envoy over to the door.
He didn't dare open it, of course. And the small, glassless windows were too high on the walls to see out of, in this bizarre...reflection of an actual building in the real world, he assumed; some cottage in the woods or something.
But when he held his breath, he could faintly make out the scraping of carapaces and bizarrely jointed limbs. Overhead, the roof creaked, shaking a little dust down from the stripped-down rafters.
Zhao Yunlan fought back a cringe, asked, "How long have they been out there?"
"About an hour, since the first arrived," the Envoy said.
"Can you tell how many there are?"
Zhao Yunlan couldn't have said what specific feature changed, but the Envoy's strict expression got a touch more forbidding. "One at first. Four now."
"And maybe more coming?" Zhao Yunlan said, grimacing. "But they're not trying to get in..."
"I think they may be drawn to the dark energy of my concealment, without being able to clearly identify its source," the Envoy said.
"But if you drop the concealment, then they'll just pinpoint us that much faster." Zhao Yunlan chewed on his bottom lip. He wished he had that last lollipop he'd given the kids yesterday. Or better, a cigarette—though there wasn't a pack in his pockets, when he felt for them; maybe he'd gone through what he had before he'd gotten bonked on the head. "These things, they're attracted to dark energy?"
"To life," the Envoy said. "Of any variety of animal; they're carnivorous. But as hunters of Dixingren, they've developed an awareness for dark energy among their other senses."
"Nasty. So you and Lingling and Ah-Liu are going to be special targets."
"When it comes to tracking us, yes. But they'll as happily bite off your head as mine," the Envoy said.
He wasn't quite smiling as he said it, but he wasn't not smiling either, and Zhao Yunlan smirked back without even meaning to. "Great, thanks. So we still need to find a puddle out of this place, and then we have to figure out a way to get to this puddle without getting anybody's head bitten off. And I take it we couldn't just have poured out the water I was carrying to make a portal."
The Envoy shook his head. "Even if we could've make a pool large enough for all of us to pass through, in order to travel, there must be a reflection on either side. While this dimension naturally reflects the original one, a reflection created here has no counterpart in our world."
"So is that how the kids got trapped here?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "The puddle they went through dried up back in the real world?"
"Very likely," the Envoy said. "Now, the SID will have assured the reflection we originally entered through is still there—but I was unable to find my way back before."
"What, you're that bad at directions?"
More than the Envoy's face tightened; his shoulders stiffened under the dress shirt. "I...miscalculated, badly. I believed my powers here would be equal if not stronger than in Haixing, but my dark energy is instead more limited. When I originally tried to teleport us all to the pool, I lost control of the energy, including the signal I'd set to guide us back. It was an unconscionably stupid mistake, and I—"
"Hey," Zhao Yunlan said, "uh—I was joking, okay? Like, I couldn't find my way back either—especially not in that fog, and all those weird trees look the same in it."
The Envoy's shoulders didn't relax. "Obviously it would be all but impossible—that was why I set a signal marker. And I assured you it would work, and you believed me—"
"And then you made a mistake," Zhao Yunlan said. "Which anyone could do—trust me, I'm an expert. And look, Hei-laoge, I don't know you that well, but I kind of doubt you do anything stupidly, or unconscionably. Doesn't seem like your style at all. So why don't we focus on getting out of here, and you shelve the guilt until we're back in the real world. Then you can get my dad to serve it up—he's the master, can beat you up better than you ever could yourself. Okay?"
The Envoy was looking at him—an astonished, desperate, naked stare, not even trying to hide the feelings churning in his eyes, though Zhao Yunlan couldn't identify any of them. Though the intensity made him duck his head, snapping the connection between them. As he swallowed whatever was rising in his throat, he heard the Envoy say, softly, "All right, Zhao Yunlan."
"Great," Zhao Yunlan said. "Now, about these monsters outside...what if they're the solution, not the problem?"
"How so?" He dared peek up to see the Envoy frowning—not doubting but thoughtful. Listening—hanging on Zhao Yunlan's every word, and that was...he didn't know what that was. But it was weird, how easily the Envoy seemed to know when he was joking, versus when it was important. Zhao Yunlan had rarely had any colleagues that could tell. Not his father, certainly.
Zhao Yunlan cleared his throat, said, "Okay, I might be completely off-base, but these Youchong, you said they're carnivores? So they don't live off dark energy or sunlight or whatever; they need to eat meat."
The Envoy nodded confirmation. "But there doesn't seem a lot to eat around here," Zhao Yunlan went on. "Yesterday, walking in these woods, we never heard any birds, I wasn't bitten by a single bug. There isn't even any underbrush or acorns for, uh, mirror-squirrels or whatever. And you also said the Youchong hunt Dixingren, so they're also in our world, not just alternate dimensions?"
"In Dixing more than Haixing," the Envoy said, "but they're not native to dimensions such as this, no." Zhao Yunlan didn't need to continue; he could see the Envoy following his own conclusion, those dark eye gleaming sharply. "You're thinking that these Youchong didn't originate in this dimension but came here same as we did, through another portal."
"Is it possible? Like, I don't know how good bug monsters are at traveling through reflections or whatever..."
"It's possible," the Envoy said. "While the Youchong have no innate dark energy abilities, a reflective portal once opened is permanent—or at least as long-lasting as the reflection in question."
"So maybe they have a nest somewhere around here, with a permanent reflecting pool. That we could use to get back ourselves..."
"...We just have to follow them back to it.," the Envoy concluded. "An interesting idea..."
"A terrible one," Zhao Yunlan corrected. "But I don't have better. And I've only got one bottle of water left, and these kids have been holding it together like champs, but they've got limits. So we have to do something."
The Envoy nodded. "How, though, do we get out of this place to follow them? With my powers limited, I'm not sure I can take on these creatures—not and keep all of you safe from them. Any blood draws them; once one of their number is killed, more are attracted to the scent of the spilled ichor. As well, once I start fighting, I won't have the concentration to keep up the concealment."
"Yeah, about that cloaking spell or whatever," Zhao Yunlan asked. "Is it tied to this place, or could you hide us on the go?"
"It would be harder to maintain if we're in the open, and moving," the Envoy said. "Blocking vision as well as other senses is more difficult, and all the more so, the more of us there are, and the more creatures are seeking us. As soon as one sees through the ward, it can alert the others."
"So if we're all going to sneak out of here, it'd be helpful if we weren't surrounded." The Envoy nodded, and Zhao Yunlan gave him the edge of a smirk. "Yeah, I've got an idea about that, too..."
As it turned out, the Envoy, for all his apparent admiration of Zhao Yunlan's planning skills, was significantly less enamored of his suggested escape strategy. He pressed his lips together so tightly they lost color; even his cheeks seemed to pale, or maybe that was the effect of the light growing outside the shack's windows.
Zhao Yunlan wasn't even sure what the Envoy's problem with it was. It was their best bet to keep the kids safe, anyway. And it wasn't like they could switch roles, not when the Envoy was the one with the magic ward, plus the best bet for protecting the kids if things went sideways.
Despite this, the only reason the Envoy agreed at all was because Zhao Yunlan reminded him that he had the Dixing revolver. Plus the fifth monster that showed up while they argued, which cinched it. The Envoy sensed a sixth one as they woke up the three children, passed around the last water bottle and divvied up the last protein bars, and explained what they had to do.
The kids were almost as unhappy about it as the Envoy. They were also miserable but maybe too scared to cry, and Zhao Yunlan hated being grateful for that, but they needed every advantage now. He winked at all of them and had them all (softly) slap him five for luck, and then he asked Lingling to open the shack door that she'd closed last night.
The girl looked nervously at the Black-Cloaked Envoy, but he only nodded solemnly, and she went and laid her hand flat to the door. She didn't look like she did anything, it didn't even click; but when Zhao Yunlan put his hand against the door, it started to swing open.
He held it in place, looking at the Envoy, waiting for the signal as he strained his ears to listen outside. The clicking rasp and shuffle of oversized exoskeletons was hard to track, the sounds too alien to easily place. But the Envoy had a better sense, and when he gestured that the coast was as clear as it was going to get, Zhao Yunlan didn't hesitate; he shoved open the door and started running.
He caught motion out of the corner of his eye, higher than he was expecting—and kept sprinting. The Envoy was extending his ward to conceal him as long as possible, though he'd warned it would be less effective the more obvious Zhao Yunlan was. And predators were evolved to pick up movement; those compound eyes would catch sight of him any second now, but he needed to get as far away as he could before they did.
The fog was as thick as ever, so that by the time he was ten meters from the shack and risked a look back over his shoulder, it was almost hidden in the mist through the trees. Though he could see the large shape halfway up the bleached wooden wall, and another on the roof, and two more coming around the corner of the structure.
Zhao Yunlan ran a few more meters, then took a breath and shouted into the breezeless, misty air, "Hey, you ugly bugs!" His jacket was draped over his arm; he waved it in the air like a flag. "Tasty snacks! Over here!"
He was far enough away that the flurry of movement around the shack was indistinct through the fog—but he could hear the screeching chitters, as the monsters started to gather—to swarm. All six, hopefully, if it was going according to plan...
All six, coming for him, and Zhao Yunlan swallowed around his dry tongue. Yeah, this was some plan...maybe the Envoy had had a point. He clutched his leather jacket in one hand, drew the revolver with the other, backing deeper into the black-treed forest.
He waited until he could make out the glitter of the first monster's compound eyes through the fog, took aim and fired. The shot echoed through the silent woods. Even with the gun's kick, he was pretty sure his shot hit home, by how one of those gleaming facets winked out—but the monster didn't flinch or stop coming, and there were other ominous oil-slick silhouettes right behind it.
This had better work. Though he wouldn't have long to regret it if it didn't. Zhao Yunlan swung the jacket around his head like a sling and tossed it.
He couldn't have asked for a better throw; it landed square on the first monster's head, above the clashing mandibles, the long sleeves wrapping around and blotting out the other compound eyes. The monster screeched in protest, rearing up on its rear pairs of segmented legs, and he fired two more shots into the jacket covering its head.
Staining it with the monster's own ichor, along with what was already soaked into the jacket's leather—the faint coppery scent of human blood—or Dixingren, though it smelled the same to him.
Zhao Yunlan had just wanted to use the blood dried on the Envoy's trouser leg from his now-healed injury. But when he'd suggested it, the Envoy had simply said that fresher would be better, and had summoned his blade to slice his arm open before Zhao Yunlan could even call him crazy. Only a few drops, though he'd had the distinct and disturbing impression that if he'd asked for more, the Envoy wouldn't have hesitated to shed it.
But a few drops was enough, especially when they were laced with the Envoy's dark energy. The monster was clawing at its own head with its front grasping limbs, and the other monsters, clicking and hissing, had slowed their charge to circle the afflicted one. Not to help their buddy, Zhao Yunlan didn't think—but he didn't stick around to find out what they were going to do with those serrated mandibles. Instead he backed away as quickly and quietly as he could, into the mist and trees.
He crouched long enough to scope up a handful of the muddy earth underfoot, spreading it haphazardly over himself to block his scent as he circled back through the forest. None of this would count for anything if the monsters tracked him back.
Spotting the shack through the trees, Zhao Yunlan went left—which was east? South? Who knew, in this place; it might not have all the cardinal directions anyway, or maybe extras, between all the different points of the real world it had reflected.
The fog was thicker on this side, clouding anything more than a few meters away. He thought he was almost to the agreed-upon point when he heard noise through the cloying mist—the squelch and patter of altogether too many small hooked feet on the mud.
Zhao Yunlan took a step back—and no leaves rustled, no branch broke underfoot, but the sound up ahead changed—a clicking, a hiss, and then the rippling rhythm of those inhuman steps, resuming, faster. He couldn't even see the thing yet, but it was onto him. And he didn't have another distraction on him.
He took another step back, raising the revolver, weighing his odds of running—but those jointed limbs could move faster than his own pair of legs—or standing his ground—with a gun that couldn't take the thing down but could make it bleed, sending that stink through this woods like a reeking beacon—
A tight grip closed around his arm, swung him around and back against a tree trunk, its creepy mirror slickness hard against his shoulders, as a solidly muscled body pressed flush against him.
A moment later, the monster charged past, so close that Zhao Yunlan could see the mottled, greasy iridescence of its carapace—and then it was gone again, rushing blindly away into the fog.
Zhao Yunlan breathed out shakily, and felt the Black-Cloaked Envoy do the same, close as he was. It must have been an extra effort for the Envoy, to ward both of them from an active hunter; he didn't move for a moment but leaned against Zhao Yunlan, his head to Zhao Yunlan's shoulder, so that whatever he was saying was muffled by his shirt.
"Uh, what?" Zhao Yunlan asked, and the Envoy drew a quick breath, straightened up.
"Zhao Yunlan," he murmured, so near and gazing at him intently through his glasses. His hand was still wrapped around Zhao Yunlan's arm, gripping hard enough to bruise. "You're all right?"
"I'm fine," Zhao Yunlan said, keeping his voice barely above a whisper. "You, the kids, you all got out safely?"
The Envoy nodded, and stepped aside enough for Zhao Yunlan to see the children, crouching together beside a tree trunk only a couple meters away.
Zhao Yunlan blinked, then gave them a little encouraging wave. "Wow, that ward really works—I didn't notice any of you."
"Fear increases alertness, but it's also easier to misdirect," the Envoy said. "But you'd have seen through it soon enough. You managed to draw away enough of the others that we could remain hidden as we escaped. We heard the gunshots—how many did you take out?"
"Uh, one, hopefully," Zhao Yunlan said. "Not by the revolver, but by the others, anyway. Your blood really is monster catnip."
"Not by the revolver?" the Envoy repeated, frowning. "Your aim is better than that."
"Yeah it is, but these bullets—or whatever the hell this thing fires—don't do much to these monsters except piss them off."
"What?" The Envoy was staring at him again, eyes narrowing behind the round lenses. "They're of Dixing; it should do considerable damage."
"I'm betting whatever's messing with your own dark energy is screwing up this piece as well," Zhao Yunlan said, shrugging. "That's how they nearly got me the first time, I think."
"Zhao Yunlan—did you know your gun was ineffective against the Youchong? Already, when you volunteered to be the distraction?"
"Well, it wasn't like we had much choice—you're the only one who can do this warding trick, so you couldn't play bait, too. And even if you could've lent me your sword or whatever, I probably couldn't have done more damage with it than the gun," Zhao Yunlan frowned back at the Envoy, whose face had gone from pale to ashen gray, a match to the swirling fog. "Hey, are you okay? The warding's not taking you too much out of you, is it?"
The Envoy eyed him for another second, then slowly shook his head. "It's all right. But you—"
"I know, if I'd screwed up, all of you would've paid for it. But it worked out. Hey, kids, come on, time to get moving," and Zhao Yunlan gestured to the three.
To the kids' credit, not one of them even whined; they all just got to their feet, jostling each other, and scurried over to Zhao Yunlan. They nodded obediently when he told them to keep quiet and keep close, clustering around him like three dirty-faced, big-eyed satellites.
"So, that way?" Zhao Yunlan asked, pointing in the direction the last Youchong had crawled from. The Envoy nodded, and they set out walking through the weird misty woods.
The fog if anything was thicker than yesterday, and the bare, swampy earth was spongy under their feet, squelching and sticking. And yet there were no puddles, just dull, dark mud. Zhao Yunlan wondered how there was so much moisture around—because it only reflected forests when they were wet? Or was it some property of being reached through a puddle, that the water soaked everything?
They were going the right way, at least; the muddy ground took tracks clear as a plaster cast, and the distinctive arrow-headed ripples of the barbed Youchong feet were as easy to follow as a paved footpath.
Like ants, the Youchong followed single-file trails; the tracks were closely overlapping, wending through the trees in a purposeful line. It also made the monsters easier to avoid—especially with the Envoy, who either had amazing hearing or some other senses at the ready; he gave alerts before Zhao Yunlan ever heard a click or a hiss. Then they'd all scramble off the path to cower in the concealing fog, Zhao Yunlan putting his arms around the kids, while the Envoy raised his hands and reinforced his warding.
When the Envoy was really concentrating, Zhao Yunlan could feel it, pressure in the air, his ears popping. Everything looked the same to him; he could see the kids and the Envoy as clear as ever. But each time the shadow of the Youchong scuttled past through the mist without hesitating, oblivious to them.
It worked—but it was taking a toll on the Envoy; he looked more drained every time. After the third, he stumbled when they started walking again; after the fifth, he was swaying where he stood after the Youchong had passed, his eyes squeezed shut and his hands still raised.
The kids looked that much more anxious. "Zhao-ge?" Ah-Mei asked. "Is—is Hei-ge okay?"
"Hey," Zhao Yunlan said to the Envoy, "I think we're good now?" and he touched the Envoy's shoulder. The Envoy sighed, lowered his arms as he slumped a little into Zhao Yunlan's steadying hand, eyes still closed.
"You going to be okay?" Zhao Yunlan asked him. "Should we take a break?"
"No," the Envoy said, hurriedly opening his eyes. "It's all right—it's not physical depletion; my dark energy will replenish as quickly walking as standing still."
It wasn't difficult walking, anyway; they seemed to be on a shallow slope, gradually going down. The kids weren't even that tired yet, but the Envoy wasn't moving as fast as he had been.
Zhao Yunlan, taking their six with the children between them, frowned at the Envoy's gait, one step now a little short. He ushered the kids further ahead on the path, so he could keep his eyes on them while he matched pace with the Envoy, on the side of the leg he was favoring. He slipped his hand under his elbow as he muttered, "I thought you healed your leg."
"I did," the Envoy insisted, but he accepted Zhao Yunlan's support, enough to lengthen his stride.
"So why are you limping again now?"
He glanced sidelong to see the Envoy grimace. "I'd thought it was sufficiently mended—with my energy so limited, I opted to conserve it for the most important tasks."
"Like healing my head? Which I told you not to do?" There wasn't even a lump anymore, when Zhao Yunlan had felt at the spot with his fingers, just a little lingering soreness.
The Envoy had the good graces to wince, at least. "I didn't think you'd notice."
Zhao Yunlan supposed he should be upset, should be disgusted and furious—a Dixing power being used on him, without his permission. Though it was hard to get as mad as he should, with a pain-free head, and the Envoy for all his apparent power leaning on his arm now, his face wan and drawn. "It was just a bump; you didn't have to do anything."
"It was a serious concussion," the Envoy returned with no little heat, "and if you'd been struck again, or if your condition worsened—given that your memory was already—" but he cut himself off.
Zhao Yunlan sighed. "So you noticed after all. That I forgot a bit."
The Envoy stumbled, slipping a little in the mud; Zhao Yunlan tightened his grip to steady him, and the Envoy leaned more heavily on his arm. He took another step, then admitted, "A bit—yes, I'd noticed. Though it may not be entirely due to your injury; this place could have deleterious effects on Haixingren."
"Ah-Mei seems okay," Zhao Yunlan said, looking ahead at the kids dutifully trudging along.
"So far," the Envoy said grimly. "Another factor I should have considered...but the sooner you're out of here, the sooner those effects may be reversed. I only hope—" Then he stopped, pulling Zhao Yunlan to a halt beside him. "I hear another one," and Zhao Yunlan hurried to round up the kids again and get them off the path.
They huddled in the fog, Zhao Yunlan straining his ears through the odd airless pressure of the warding—but he didn't hear anything pattering through the mud this time. He looked to the Envoy, who had his eyes closed again but his head lifted, turning in the short, sharp motions of a bird of prey. "No," he murmured, "Not one—many—they're—"
A shiver went down Zhao Yunlan's spine—how many might be coming—but then the Envoy opened his eyes, glittering dark through the heavy mist, and said, "I think we've reached the nest."
If the Envoy had been reluctant before about letting Zhao Yunlan go off on his own, he nearly pitched a fit now, when he knew about the gun and all. Unfortunately for his argument, nothing else had changed; the kids still needed protection, and the Envoy was still the best choice for that, so it was Zhao Yunlan who crept through the trees to scout out the Youchong's nest.
It was warmer now, and the fog had lifted a bit. The sky, or whatever was above them, was still lost in haze, beyond the skeletal black tree branches reaching overhead—no leaves left on any of them, that Zhao Yunlan could see, just the dead ones on the ground; maybe even mirror plants couldn't thrive on the strange not-sunlight here. But it was clear enough that when he pressed himself to a slick tree trunk and peered around it, he could see the whole monster nest, further downslope.
It looked something like an ant mound, except instead of a little pile of grains of sand, it was a sizable hillock made of rocks ranging from gravel to chunks larger than basketball. The flat top of the hill was round like the crater of a volcano, several meters across. And sunk within it was not a hole in the ground but a perfectly circular pool, black water protected from any breeze by the surrounding wall of rocks, so its surface was still enough to perfectly reflect each stone and pebble ringing it.
And reflect the few Youchong, tending to their hill, arranging more rocks with their mandibles. As Zhao Yunlan watched, another pair of monsters crawled out of the pool. The water barely rippled as they emerged, and not a drop showed on their carapaces. Both were holding more rocks; they dropped these to roll down the slope, then one skittered off into the forest on the opposite site, while the other crept on its multitude of legs back into the water, vanishing beneath its mirror surface.
Zhao Yunlan made his way back through the woods to where the Envoy and the kids were hiding. "The good news is, the pool's right there in the open," he said. "The bad news is that there are half a dozen Youchong standing guard, and more coming through."
"That won't be so much of a problem," the Envoy said, looking thoughtful. "You said there were six?"
"Five, plus the one that went into the woods, and the seventh that went back through. And who knows how many on the other side of that portal."
"Youchong nests are rarely larger than twenty," the Envoy said. "Between these and the ones we've already encountered, there shouldn't be more than a couple on the other side. That's good."
Zhao Yunlan raised his eyebrows. "'Good' must mean something different in Dixing. We're not getting to the other side at all, if we can't get through the monsters on this one. Your warding won't work on that many out in the open, will it?"
"Definitely not with five of us," the Envoy confirmed.
The kids were listening closely, their eyes huge and frightened. "M-maybe," Ah-Mei stammered, "maybe some of us could—"
"No!" Zhao Yunlan said in the harshest whisper he could manage, perfectly timed with the Envoy's sharp shake of the head.
"It won't be necessary to leave anyone behind," the Envoy followed up, his certainty reassuring enough to ease the kids' panic. "The plan before will work as well now—I can act as the decoy to draw them away."
"Or I could," Zhao Yunlan began.
The Envoy shook his head. "I'm the more tempting target; as you said, even my blood appeals to them, and my dark energy all the moreso. It should be a sufficient distraction for you all to get to the pool and through it—with luck I can also attract the last of the Youchong on the other side, leaving that way completely clear.
"—Though," he added, his face drawn in concern, "there is one thing you should know—the odds are high that this reflection goes to Dixing, not Haixing."
The kids gasped, wild-eyed again and clutching each other. "Makes sense," Zhao Yunlan said slowly, "if that's where these monsters usually come from."
"But—but if we go to Dixing," Ah-Liu started.
"Then Zhao Yunlan will keep you safe, and take you home from there," the Envoy assured him. He looked back to Zhao Yunlan. "Whoever you meet in Dixing, simply give your name, and you'll be escorted to the gate to Haixing, with all the children. You have my word."
"Uh-huh," Zhao Yunlan said. "And what about you—wouldn't it be even more convincing if the Black-Cloaked Envoy himself were telling them to let us go?"
Said Envoy blinked at him, guileless behind those round lenses. "Yes—yes, of course, that would be—"
"Because you're coming with us through that portal, right?" Zhao Yunlan said. "You said this was the same plan as before—so you make a distraction, and then sneak back to come with us. That's the plan, isn't it, Hei-laoge?"
"I'll follow when I can," the Envoy said. "If they're not lured far enough away, the Youchong can pursue you into Dixing—that portal will still be open. The only way to ensure your safe escape is for me to lead the Youchong as far from the nest as I can. Once they're safely distant, I can come back and join you through the portal, in Dixing."
Zhao Yunlan narrowed his eyes at the Envoy. "Come back with what?"
"If you're going to be leading these guys on a chase, baiting them with your dark energy—which you've used so much of already that your lips are gray—then where will you get the juice to teleport yourself back?"
The Envoy drew himself up, and it was like the mud and wrinkles on his suit fell away; he didn't actually don the black cloak of his office, but he didn't need to. There was cold fury in his eyes, in the uncompromising set of his jaw, at the presumption of a mere Haixingren questioning his ability. "I'll manage," he said shortly, and power pulsed in those words, the strength of a high lord of Dixing.
Twenty-four hours ago, it might've rattled Zhao Yunlan. But he'd seen a lot since then, and not just of this mirror realm. Enough that he thought he might know this Dixingren—this man. Maybe not all of him, or even most. But enough. "You're not planning on leaving yourself enough to make it back—hell, this distraction you've got in mind, are you really going to lead them away? Or just take them out, and yourself with them?"
The Envoy stared at him, the sham fury in his eyes gone out, but whatever feeling was left...was real, Zhao Yunlan thought, though he couldn't identify it, couldn't even fathom how deep it went. But it made that pool plunging between worlds look shallow. "Zhao Yunlan," the Envoy said, and his voice cracked, "if I can save you from my own mistakes—just this once—"
"Your mistakes, my mistakes—I don't give a fuck," Zhao Yunlan said. "I'm just not letting anybody die for me. Not on my watch." He bit down on this thumb, studying the Envoy's pale, resolute face. "So this distraction you were thinking of—do you need to be there for it? Or could you project it away from you—like, make a big ball of dark energy for them to play with and roll it away from here?"
"I might be able to temporarily manage something of the sort," the Envoy said, "but it wouldn't engage them for long—and the moment I crossed through the portal, it would vanish anyway, and then they'd come through after us."
"And there's no way to just destroy the portal once we're through it? Strand these monsters here for good?"
The Envoy shook his head. "The only way I know of to destroy a reflective portal, once opened, is to break the mirror in question. But water can't be shattered. If the pool could be drained...but from your description, this is more than a puddle we could trample into the ground. And I won't have the power to do anything more, not until I've regained my strength."
"Power," Zhao Yunlan repeated, thinking. "A Dixing power..."
He lifted his head—and saw the Envoy simultaneously do the same, as if they themselves were reflections of one another, a bridge crossing worlds. The realization showing so bright in the Envoy's eyes Zhao Yunlan knew was a match for what shone in his own.
"Zhao Yunlan, perhaps—" the Envoy began, just as Zhao Yunlan said, "Hei-laoge, do you think—"
They both turned to look back at the kids."—Together, perhaps, " the Envoy said, "though it may not work—"
"—but it's our best bet," Zhao Yunlan finished.
He went over, crouched before the watchful kids. "So, you guys ready to get out of here?" he asked, and wasn't surprised when they all nodded hard enough to shake their heads off their necks. Zhao Yunlan smiled at them. "Great! Because to do this, we're going to need help from you. Ah-Liu, Lingling, I know what your parents told you, but it's going to be okay—after this, the Black-Cloaked Envoy over there is going to owe you one..."
The Envoy didn't actually make a big ball of dark energy to distract the Youchong.
What he did make was a shadow—an unsettlingly solid-seeming shadow that prowled on four lanky limbs, with long spectral talons that dug gouges into the soft earth and energy trailing from it like smoke. It wasn't quite what Zhao Yunlan would've pictured as bait. More like a nightmare to run screaming from. The kids covered their eyes and ducked behind Zhao Yunlan, who didn't blame them.
The Youchong apparently had different standards, though. As soon as the Envoy sent his projection stalking around the rim of the giant anthill, the monsters dropped their rocks and lifted their heads, feelers twitching. If they'd been cats instead of giant crab-bugs, they'd have been pricking up their ears.
The Envoy let his shadow-thing linger in place, oozing energy, until almost all the Youchong were moving; then it bounded away, into the forest, and the Youchong made clicking hisses and scuttled after it. Even as they watched, a couple more of the bug monsters crawled up out of the pool and joined the chase.
Only two Youchong stayed behind. They looked about the same as the others to Zhao Yunlan's unpracticed eye, maybe a little bigger and nastier. If the Envoy was right about his monster biology—what kind of professor was he pretending to be, anyway?—that would be the queen and her guard.
But they were, luckily, on the farther side of the pool, busily poking at some of the rocks—"So their eggs are probably over there?" Zhao Yunlan muttered.
The Envoy nodded. "If we don't disturb them, they shouldn't attack."
He sounded out of breath, his voice strained; there was sweat beading on his pallid forehead. "You gonna be okay?" Zhao Yunlan asked him.
The Envoy nodded. "I can maintain the projection."
"Not what I asked," Zhao Yunlan said, looking across the hill. The Envoy's shadow creature had disappeared into trees and mist, and the Youchong were vanishing after it. Now or never.
"Okay, kids," Zhao Yunlan said. "Just like I told you—on my count, you run, fast as you can—get up that hill and into that pool, and we'll be right behind you. Got it?"
The kids nodded, crouching like runners waiting for the starting pistol. "Three," Zhao Yunlan counted off, "Two, one—go!" and they were off, scrambling down the slope as fast as their short legs could take them, and then clambering up the steeper side of the Youchong's mound, using both hands to climb.
Zhao Yunlan would have been right at their heels, but he was pacing the Envoy—who started off okay only to nearly take a header halfway down the slope. Zhao Yunlan grabbed his arm, kept him from faceplanting in the mud as they slipped down to the base of the hill. The Envoy staggered, clinging to Zhao Yunlan; he was coughing, a spot of red at the corner of his lips.
"Zhao Yunlan," he gasped out, "you should—"
"—drag you up this anthill? Yeah, that's the plan," Zhao Yunlan said, pulling the Envoy's arm over his shoulders and giving him a push at the small of his back to start him moving upwards. "You just keep that shadow going until we're through, okay?"
He felt the Envoy nod where his head was falling against Zhao Yunlan's shoulder. He was climbing, or making a go of it at least, stumbling between the mound's larger rocks. The gravel slithered out from under their feet, difficult to get purchase on.
The kids, with their lighter steps, were already almost to the top of the mound—then over, and then Ah-Mei screamed her piercing shriek.
The Envoy's head jerked up at that cry, and he made a concerted effort to move his legs, so that he and Zhao Yunlan got the rest of the way up to the crest of the hill.
One of the oversized Youchong was still on the other side of the pond, busy with its rocks; but the other—either the queen or the guard, Zhao Yunlan didn't have a clue which—was now on this side, between them and the water. It was standing over a cluster of oval iridescent stones the size of beach balls, rearing back on its mess of hind legs, hissing with its jagged mandibles spread as wide as the span of Zhao Yunlan's arms.
The kids screamed back at it—and threw rocks, picking up handfuls of the pebbles that made up the mound and chucking them at the thing.
Even the monster was startled enough by this assault to freeze for a moment. Though at the next shower of stones rattling against its carapace, the Youchong shook off the threat response, dropped back to the ground and started up the hillside. Its horde of barbed feet were surer on the loose gravel than any of theirs.
"Go for the pool!" Zhao Yunlan shouted. Leaving the Envoy slumped on the ridge, he threw himself forward, scrambling to get between the kids and the charging Youchong. He drew the Dixing revolver as he skidded down the slope—if he was going to go out, it would be guns blazing—
—Or the Youchong blazing. A ball of fire roared past Zhao Yunlan, close enough to singe his goatee, and crashed into the monster with the force to flip it over onto its back in the gravel. Its limbs twitched and jerked in the air as the flames engulfed its body, flickering blue-white heat that reflected brightly in the still-smooth pool.
Zhao Yunlan looked back, in time to see the Envoy risen to his knees at the crest of the hill. For an instant he posed there, white-faced and bloody-mouthed, one hand raised with all his fingers aimed toward the burning Youchong. Then he crumpled and collapsed like a sand castle melted away by the tide.
Acrid black smoke billowed up from the Youchong's burning carcass. The kids, almost to the water's edge, stopped to stare at it, and then back at the fallen Envoy.
"Pool!" Zhao Yunlan hollered at them, like a reverse life guard ordering everyone into the water. "Now! I've got him!"
He dashed for the Envoy, panting for breath, stubbing his toe on every rock on the way. The Dixingren was still breathing but he was out cold, and even with adrenaline pumping his deadweight was unwieldy. Zhao Yunlan crouched, dragging him up—
Small hands helped, grasping the Envoy's dirty sleeve. Zhao Yunlan looked down to see Ah-Mei, her teeth gritted in a tiny grimace of determination. "He saved us," she said, "so we gotta save him—even if he's scary."
Zhao Yunlan in spite of everything grinned. "Yeah," he agreed, and with her help pulled the Envoy over his shoulders in a fireman's carry.
On the other side of the pool, the other Youchong—the queen, maybe?—skittered sideways and back—then lifted several mismatched legs and issued a squealing cry, like the scream of metal being twisted in a car wreck. Zhao Yunlan winced and Ah-Mei flinched, covering her ears.
"Sounds like the cavalry's coming," Zhao Yunlan muttered. It was only a matter of time anyway until the others returned; the Envoy's dark energy shadow would've gone out when he did. But they'd be booking it now, with the boss calling.
Zhao Yunlan heaved himself to his feet. With the Envoy draped over his shoulders, he might not have managed it on the gravel if Ah-Mei hadn't been there, a too-short but surprisingly resilient crutch. They lurched together to the edge of the pool—the other kids were gone, hopefully already through, and Zhao Yunlan stared down at the water. This close it was rippling, just slightly distorting their reflections. Even in the forest's foggy light, he couldn't see past the surface to what was underneath. It could've been an inch deep, or a mile.
He glimpsed motion, another reflection skating across the dark water—looked up and saw the first of the Youchong coming up over the crest of the mound before them, clacking its mandibles together.
Ah-Mei opened her own mouth to shriek. Zhao Yunlan gave her a shove and sent her into the water—she fell into it without a splash, just her body meeting its reflection and sinking into one another, until both had vanished into the smooth surface without another trace.
Zhao Yunlan took a breath—unnecessary, he hoped—and dove in himself, along with the Envoy. The surface of the pool rushed up to meet them, and then they were in it. There was a disorienting rush, like tumbling into churning waves, no idea which way was up—
—And they were through—he was standing in shadows, ankle-deep in icy-cold water and sinking, back curved over with the Envoy's limp weight.
"Zhao-ge!" high voices called, and Zhao Yunlan staggered toward them. The water tugged at his legs as he stepped out, drawing him back down into it, like sucking mud. It tripped him so that he stumbled to his knees on the rocky ground, just managed to slide the Envoy's unconscious body off his shoulders without dropping him too heavily.
His eyes were adjusting to the faint orangey light, so that he could see the kids, Ah-Liu and Lingling both, crouching by the pool. They were holding hands between them, with their other hands reaching down to touch the water, their fingers just brushing their reflections. Ah-Mei stood behind them; she had her hands on both of their shoulders, was telling them, "You can do it!"
"But where is it?" Lingling was saying, "there's nothing there to, to—"
"I—I don't know," Ah-Liu whimpered back, "that's just what it feels like—Ah-Mei, I'm trying, I can't—"
"—It's okay," Ah-Mei said. "Lingling, remember when those bullies came, and we hid in the fort in the playground? And there wasn't really a door, but I tossed those leaves up in the air, and you closed them? Like that—just pretend Ah-Liu's throwing the leaves for you—"
"Oh," Lingling said, in a different tone, "oh, okay, I—"
It wasn't quite a sound, or something Zhao Yunlan could see, or even feel—but it was not unlike the clatter of a door slamming shut, the whoosh of displaced air when an airlock seals. He knew it had worked, even before he reached his hand to the shimmering surface of the water, scooped up a wet handful that didn't try to transport him anywhere.
He grinned, but before he could say anything, Ah-Mei squeaked, "You did it! You did it, you guys are both so awesome!" and she tackled her friends, knocking them all sprawling.
Zhao Yunlan took the moment of celebration to scan their surroundings. They were in a cave, it looked like, or maybe a Youchong nest—hive? Burrow? The rocky ceiling was low, only a few meters above the pool, lit by the smolder of orange magma flowing sluggishly down one wall.
Given that they weren't burned to a crisp—in fact it was pretty chilly—Zhao Yunlan guessed this must be Dixing. But there weren't any Youchong that he could see, and only silence down any of the dark tunnels around them.
He prodded the Envoy's shoulder, and was relieved to get a groan in response. The Envoy's eyes fluttered open—he'd lost his glasses in their escape, and his unshielded eyes were huge and dark in the cavern's dull glow. "Zhao Yunlan?" he mumbled.
"Right here," Zhao Yunlan said, taking the Envoy's hand to pull him up sitting.
The Envoy blinked at him. His once-smooth hair was a tangle and somehow he'd gotten a smudge of dirt swiped across his nose, as perfectly centered as if a makeup artist had applied it. "Did—did they—"
"They did it," Zhao Yunlan said, smiling fit to hurt. The Envoy's hand was still clasped in his, so he squeezed it in reassurance. "It worked, we're back, and safe—in Dixing, I guess?"
The Envoy lifted his chin to look up at the ceiling. "Yes," he said, "this is Dixing." He started to grin back at Zhao Yunlan, bright and meaning it, and Zhao Yunlan couldn't take it anymore; he leaned over and pressed his lips to those smiling ones.
It registered what he had done—what he was doing—about three seconds later. Zhao Yunlan jerked back with a choked gasp, his hand falling from where it had somehow ended up cupping the Envoy's face. His other hand was still holding the Envoy's, their fingers entwined, so it took him another couple seconds to untangle them.
The kids all were watching them. Ah-Mei looked bored, Ah-Liu was wrinkling his nose and muttering, "Eww, mouth-cooties," and Lingling was starry-eyed with her hands clasped over her heart.
"Zhao Yunlan?" The Envoy was also staring at him, too shocked to move.
"I—I have no idea why I did that," Zhao Yunlan stammered. Sure, Da Qing might tease him about being a horndog, but the whole joke was that the damn cat knew how little action he actually got. And on the job—with the freaking Black-Cloaked Envoy of Dixing—while in Dixing—Zhao Yunlan wondered if he could blame the deleterious effects of the mirror dimension for how he'd apparently completely lost his fucking mind.
"It's..." The Envoy reached up as if to fix the glasses he was no longer wearing, briefly hiding his eyes behind his spread hand. "It's fine, Zhao Yunlan."
He pushed himself upright. Zhao Yunlan scrambled up to offer support, but the Envoy was steady on his feet now, as if he hadn't just regained consciousness. "So how do we get out of here?" Zhao Yunlan asked him. "Just pick a tunnel and start walking, or—"
But the Envoy shook his head. "That won't be necessary; I can take us to the gateway directly." He started over to the children.
"You sure you're up for it?" Zhao Yunlan asked, striding after him. "We could hang out here a bit, give you a breather to recharge..."
"We're in Dixing," the Envoy said. "Dark energy is all around, and as that's a medium for my own portals—" and he raised his hand, called into being one of those swirling vortexes of energy, and in one quick motion swept it over the children and then Zhao Yunlan and himself—
"—moving is a simple enough matter," the Envoy completed, looking just slightly smug.
The children exclaimed in excitement, jumping to their feet to join Zhao Yunlan in looking around. Rather than the Youchong nest, they were now standing on the corner of a quiet city street, lined with houses with lights glowing cozily in all the windows. In front of them was an imposing, overwrought dragon gate. That looked like the Dixing Zhao Yunlan was expecting, anyway; the houses with their cheerful illumination, less so.
He found himself wondering where the Envoy lived in Dixing—if he had one of these warmly lit homes. Did he just hang his cloak and mask on a hook on the door, stick his glaive in an umbrella stand and then put his feet up by a toasty lava-fed hearth? Somehow it wasn't as funny an image in Zhao Yunlan's head as it should be. He found himself hoping it was true. That the Black-Cloaked Envoy had somewhere he could go where he could just relax and be comfortable, when he wasn't off risking his life to save his people, plus the occasional hapless Haixingren.
"Hey," Zhao Yunlan said, and the Envoy immediately turned from the gate to focus that unique attention on him. "Uh, before we get back and have to deal with everything, I just wanted to say thanks," Zhao Yunlan said, and held out his hand.
The Envoy blinked down at it. "...You already thanked me?"
"Yeah, well, I can again," Zhao Yunlan said. "For everything, all of this—we'd never have gotten out of there without you. I'm glad we had you along."
The Envoy blinked again, brow furrowed; then he took Zhao Yunlan's hand, shook it. "I can't say I'm glad you were in danger, Zhao Yunlan," he said, "but as you were, I'm grateful that I could accompany you through it." His tone was solemn, but his lips were curving a little, and an unlikely spark of humor was dancing in his eyes. "We make a good team, I believe."
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan agreed. "Yeah, our partnership is going to be...uh..." He should probably stop gazing into the Envoy's eyes sooner or later. "I'm looking forward to it."
The Envoy just smiled at him, then turned back to the gate—he had to tug his hand free of Zhao Yunlan's to do so, and Zhao Yunlan let go with an embarrassed start. He hid it by calling the children back over—the two Dixing kids were looking nervous, but Ah-Mei had her arm around both of their shoulders, going up on tip-toes to do so, while she reminded them that Zhao-ge had promised they wouldn't be stuck here, that they'd be seeing their families soon.
Meanwhile the Envoy was doing...something; his spread fingers and the set of his jaw implied effort, though Zhao Yunlan couldn't see anything different about the gate. But Ah-Liu and Lingling both made startled sounds, looking closely between the carved pillars.
"The gateway is open," the Envoy announced.
Ah-Mei said, "Great—let's go home!" She bounced forward, yanking her two friends with her, and all three of them vanished into the empty space between the gate.
Zhao Yunlan wondered how long it was going to take him to get used to that. He glanced at the Envoy, who nodded, and together they stepped forward—
—whirling, tilting—burning cold and brilliant darkness; black holes and starfire, and was this the vertigo of standing over an abyss, or the headiness of freefall—
—he had been here before, or he would be here later—he was standing, falling, staying, fleeing—in the very center of it, or spread all through it—boundless permeation, every drop of vacuum filled with an infinity of—
"—Zhao Yunlan?" A hand on his arm, strong and secure, steadying him as he hadn't needed since....
Zhao Yunlan rubbed his eyes, blinked back the dizziness of the travel. He thought his head might be aching again, but then it passed. He squinted, shaded his eyes anyway—they were standing in sunlight, painfully bright after Dixing's night, and the foggy forest before that.
The kids had their hands cupped around their eyes, looking around anxiously. "Is this..." Lingling started to ask.
"We're back in Haixing," the Black-Cloaked Envoy said, and the kids stared at him, then at each other—then started to shriek in delight, jumping up and down.
Zhao Yunlan appreciated their enthusiasm though winced at their pitch. He dug his phone out of his pocket and turned it on. As soon as it found a signal, he called Da Qing. "We're back," he said, then spoke around the cat's babbling, "—yes, we're all fine—we're at the Dixing gate—yeah, it's a long story. But we've got all three kids—not a scratch on them—okay, maybe a little light trauma, but don't tell their—yeah, sure. We'll meet you all back at the SID—okay."
He hung up, put the phone back in his pocket and pulled out his wallet instead, took out a few bills and told the kids, "There's a meat bun seller on the corner at the end of this footpath. Why don't you guys go buy as much as you want, and then we'll get you back to your folks?"
The children all screeched, louder than any of the Youchong had been; then they took off, pelting down the path. Ah-Mei only just remembered to grab the cash before dashing after her friends.
Zhao Yunlan grinned, then turned back to his companion. "So, Hei-laoge," he said, "will you be able to take us direct, or should we get a cab?"
He was watching closely, so he saw the flicker of those thick lashes at the address—so brief, and then that knitted brow smoothed out into calm courtesy. "With a little time to gather my strength, I'll be able to bring us to the SID. ...Besides, I'm not sure a taxi would stop for us now."
Zhao Yunlan looked between them, at two days' worth of wrinkles and stains on their disheveled clothes and the mud flaking off their faces. "You have a point. Okay, then let's go get some meat buns while we wait," he said, slinging a casual arm over those slightly stiff shoulders. "Unless the kids have eaten them all already..." He hoped not; his stomach was rumbling audibly with the thought of food.
Though hungry as he was, just being out in the sunlight was so pleasant he couldn't resist relaxing in it, slowing to enjoy its warmth, and the solid presence of the body next to him. Leaning on him a little—"Your leg okay?"
"It will be." A pause, and then, "Zhao Yunlan, now that we've safely returned, there's something you must know, about your injury, and your head—"
"—Yeah, thanks for that, too, by the way. Even if it didn't fix everything—getting out of there, it was definitely easier to do all of that without a concussion."
"You're welcome." It was said softly—genuine, of course, but tempered. "But you—"
"Wait, I'm not done." Zhao Yunlan exhaled, noisily driving the air through his teeth. "About our escape—what the hell was that plan of yours? Making yourself into bugfood?"
"I wasn't planning to be eaten." That, now, was sharper. "As I told you, I intended to return to the pool, once I knew all of you were safe."
"And just how were you intending to get back, unconscious, with your dark energy drained, and oh, your head bitten off by a giant bug monster?"
"They were only Youchong," and yeah, he'd hit a nerve. "It was one thing protecting the children and you, but on my own, even with my powers so limited, they wouldn't have been so great a challenge."
"What, so no decapitation? Just a little maiming—maybe a hand? An eye?"
"I would have made it back, eventually."
"You mean that?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "Getting back, that really was the idea?"
"It was." He meant it; Zhao Yunlan could hear it.
"...You know, for a legendary warrior, you totally suck at plans," Zhao Yunlan remarked. "What if you screwed up, huh? What the hell do you think I'd have done, when I got my memories back and remembered what happened—that I'd gone and let you get eaten by monsters? You were going to risk doing that to me, Shen Wei? Without even a goodbye kiss?"
"I was—" and then Shen Wei stopped, stumbling to a halt so suddenly that he nearly pulled Zhao Yunlan off his feet with his far greater strength. "Zhao Yunlan...Zhao Yunlan?"
"Yeah, that at least I didn't forget," Zhao Yunlan said, "or it could've gotten really confusing..."
Shen Wei grabbed Zhao Yunlan's face in both hands, scrutinized his eyes with desperate intensity. "You," he choked out, "are you—"
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said, "it's me." He smiled a little. "Guess going through the gate did a reset—it's all of me, now," and he dipped forward in Shen Wei's unresisting hands to close the last distance between their faces.
Shen Wei kissed him back, at first as tentative as he'd been in the Youchong cave, then giving into it—as Zhao Yunlan enthusiastically responded, he answered, surging, claiming. Wrapping his arms around Zhao Yunlan to yank him closer, like they were in their bedroom back home rather than in a public park in broad daylight.
Fortunately most Haixingren were still in the habit of avoiding this corner of the gardens, even if the gateway was now open knowledge rather than spooky rumor. Besides, Zhao Yunlan thought as they finally parted, it wasn't like anyone was going to recognize them anyway, between the mud and the rest. Forget the Envoy's mask; he'd bet Shen Wei's most devoted students would walk straight past him now without a second glance. The kinder ones would probably offer some cash.
Still, once separated, Shen Wei recalled their surroundings enough to take another step back. "The children," he said, "we should go make sure—"
"They survived a monster-infested mirror-dimension," Zhao Yunlan said. "They'll be okay eating meat buns in a park at noon." Besides, they were far enough down the path now to hear the kids, gleefully shouting their orders at the poor seller.
"You should eat too, Zhao Yunlan, and have more water—"
"I will," Zhao Yunlan said, "as long as you do, too."
"All right," Shen Wei said, with the patience of a partner who has figured out that mutual concession is the fastest route to obtaining agreement, and Zhao Yunlan grinned.
Then he snagged Shen Wei, pulled him closer again, off the open path and under the protective shade of a willow. Shen Wei didn't resist; he let Zhao Yunlan tip their foreheads together, his hand on the back of Shen Wei's neck.
"I'm sorry," Zhao Yunlan said quietly into the space between them.
Shen Wei was going a little cross-eyed, focusing on his face from so close, and Zhao Yunlan could practically feel his brow furrowing against his own. "What for?"
"For forgetting you. For putting you through that all over again—that's twice now that you've had to introduce yourself to me, when I should've known you. Known what you mean to me."
"It wasn't your fault—and besides, this wasn't—"
"Yeah, well, time travel, concussion—it wasn't easy for you, either way."
"No different for you," Shen Wei said, "when first I saw you, and walked away unknowing."
"You didn't even look back!" Zhao Yunlan said, but when Shen Wei would've tried to explain, Zhao Yunlan put his fingers over his lips. "Xiao-Wei, it's okay. Besides, you were trying to make it up to me right after, while I was a total dick to you. Both times now."
"Not at all!" Shen Wei fiercely protested, riled up as he never would be defending himself. "You had no reason to trust me, the first time or this one—and yet you still worked with me, still spoke to me honestly, still—"
"—still thought you were the hottest damn thing I'd ever laid eyes on," Zhao Yunlan said, which he was pretty sure was not what Shen Wei was going to say, but he didn't want it overlooked.
It stopped Shen Wei short, anyway. Zhao Yunlan could feel the heat rising in the back of Shen Wei's neck, under his palm. "Zhao Yunlan—you didn't—"
"The hero of Dixing, with the blade, and the glasses, and those trousers? The kids were probably the only thing that protected your virtue last night, if I'm going to be honest," Zhao Yunlan told him.
Shen Wei gaped at him, and that was just too tempting; Zhao Yunlan ducked in, stole another kiss from that lushly open mouth before he pushed them apart. "I've been on the clock over twenty-four hours; my shift's definitely up," he said. "Let's get back to SID and get these kids back to their folks. And then we can go home and have a real meal, and I can show you all the things I've got back in my memory now. Like, oh, that time with the feather duster and the—"
"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei said, more than a little desperately, as if Zhao Yunlan couldn't see the color flooding his ears even through the dirt. "The children—"
"—are fine," Zhao Yunlan said. "And I'm fine, and you're fine—you saved all of us. Terrible plans notwithstanding."
"We," Shen Wei corrected. "We did it. Saved them, and yourself, and myself as well. With your complete memories or without them; now, or before—you are Haixing's hero, Zhao Yunlan, and I am—will always be—"
"I know," Zhao Yunlan said, and grinned. "I remember," and taking Shen Wei's hand, he pulled him back into the sunlight.
Like the sound of a falling tree in weird mirrorverse, a story's not a story until someone's read it — so much thanks to everyone for reading, and the bookmarks and kudos and comments, and if you have the time I would love to know what you thought!