It began with the hand on his neck.
Tighter and tighter it squeezed, cutting into his skin and killing him. It was cold, in the space of this watery prison. Even as those fingers moved he smiled and laughed because even now he had won.
Shi Wudu might die but Shi Qingxuan wouldn’t have to kill him.
Shi Wudu had won.
He died but that was not his end, because he woke with a hand on He Xuan’s neck and a mortal fate dancing above his fingers. He was in a room made of careful bamboo and modest upbringing, lashed together with the care of skilled fingers. A mat lay beneath his knees, the sleeping pad of a man who could have been a god.
It began with his hand on He Xuan’s neck.
The skin beneath his hand was warm with a delicate mortal life. It was not the skin of a ghost, not the cold chill of Black Water. It was strange.
It was a room Shi Wudu had been in before, hundreds of years ago on a night just like this, with the moon filtering in through carefully woven bamboo. Shadows had danced across his hands then, as he’d ripped a happy fate from this man.
That day he’d celebrated as a success.
But this was not before but now, centuries later and with the phantom touch of a cold hand on his neck. He should not have been here; he had died laughing and victorious in a watery prison, with four urns before him and disrespect in his smirk.
This was not that moment.
This was a painful heartbeat in the movement of the world. This was the place where he broke the life of the man who killed him. This was the place where he had protected his brother, as he always had and always would.
This was the place where he forged fate into a sword to be wielded, but it was not a time he’d chosen.
It began with his hand on He Xuan’s neck and the pulse of a man throbbing against his fingers. For a long moment, Shi Wudu didn’t move. He was caught on the surprise of air flowing through his lungs and fingers that answered his call.
He was caught on the sensations of life for a moment too long. Slow like moving shards of ice, the man below him turned. Warm skin brushed against the edge of his thumb to whisper a heartbeat of a man who still lived.
The man turned until all Shi Wudu could see was the glare of golden eyes, and all he could feel was the neck held in his palm. The bamboo walls felt so small, when he knew only the gilded halls of his palace.
He saw hate in those eyes and know this was no mortal He Sheng but the demonic He Xuan.
The word was spat out like poison, ripped from the throat of a man who knew no trauma but had felt every sting of the fate Shi Wudu had stripped away.
It sounded like death, come for him again. Shi Wudu sneered in response and tightened his hands, felt the body beneath him struggle and tremble. Warm skin felt hot beneath him, but the eyes that stared into his were cold and furious.
“You won’t threaten my brother ever again, demon.”
He spoke the words with a sneer and all his pride, felt the pulse under his fingers jump like fish leaping above the waves. There was no fear but fury in those eyes, and Shi Wudu had never hated anything more.
He Xuan may live in that skin but it still belonged to the body of a mortal. Shi Wudu had the power of a god flowing through his fingers, gilded energy made to power the waves and storm the heavens. He could crush this threat before it ever began.
This place, stained dark and eerie with the shadows of night, would be this man’s grave.
He looked down and felt the crush of a hand at his neck, cold and ruthless. He looked down and the demon bared mortal teeth up at him.
Shi Wudu had done so much worse than kill a man.
Before he had been stripped and broken down on He Xuan's territory, made weak by centuries of planned revenge. Before, Shi Wudu had done what he needed to protect his brother, as he ever had.
Now he was free to bring his wrath to bear on this fool’s body.
The neck below him snappe—
Proud eyes blinked awake to darkness, but he got to his feet with golden eyes haunting his memories. Sensations leaked in like the spill of oil over water, unstoppable and slow.
It was cold, chill with darkness. It was dark, with a sky he couldn’t hear. It was quiet, marked by the echoes of a space with no wind.
Shi Wudu did not know where he was.
He took a step, hesitant with the night but strong with his pride and power. As if fading through time, shapes emerged from the darkness, the corners of old walls catching his eyes.
There was a shadowed temple fading into existence around him, the age of centuries marking walls feeble and faint. It grew brighter with the talismans he pulled from his robes, light clearing the way through the dark of night.
Now it only showed him a place he didn’t recognize.
Shi Wudu felt the edge of a cold fury spill across his skin, a match for the fear creeping down his spine. He had been standing above He Xuan. He had killed his enemy.
He had felt pain himself, a phantom crushed bone splintering from his neck to make him shiver. Shi Wudu hated that. He would sneer and snarl before the very heavens he stood among, if it made the feeling fade.
But the heavens were nowhere to be seen, and neither was the demon. Shi Wudu was alone in this old temple, and he couldn’t help the clinging fear.
What had happened to Shi Qingxuan?
For long days he walked dirt paths and felt the very air tremble at his steps. There was no breeze in this place. Outside the temple was a city of cold stone and ancient murals, with a hard ceiling of settled stone high above.
This place was wrong, made of old history and the graves of a country long since dead. It was all the worse for the phantom warmth he felt beneath his fingers when he lingered too long in thought.
He had killed He Xuan, felt a mortal life fade beneath his hands. He had no regrets, but now they were a life for a life, and there was a weight across his chest that was unfamiliar. It felt invasive, like there were threads tied to his very soul and made heavy. Each step shook his skin with it, and each moment passed by in only the light of his talisman.
Shi Wudu had blinked cold eyes awake to the corpses of ten thousand statues, and there was no sun to be seen.
Why was he here? What threads wrapped around his spirit and drew him to this place? Why did he still feel warm skin beneath his hands?
Even as he took commanding steps through the city, he did not know. Even as he stared down the empty streets and watched them stand a silent vigil, he didn’t know.
There didn’t look to be a living soul in this entire city, but something told Shi Wudu that was very wrong. There was a trembling edge to the air that felt like death walked cold steps on hot ground.
Shi Wudu walked them too, and he was death in his own right. He flexed the strength of his fingers, felt the blood beneath his skin race to his call.
This was his body as a god, with all the power it knew and could summon from cold water. There were no wounds washing across the stretch of his skin, and no bruises to match the phantom hands at his neck. He stood on streets he didn’t recognize, with old resentment pounding beneath each of his footsteps.
There had been fresh paint in that temple, and each mural had told the tale of a kingdom long dead and lost to volcanic ash.
Fate had brought him here, but Shi Wudu was no fool; he had fought the threads of fate long enough to know when someone was twisting them. He called to the weak moisture in the air, let it coil across his skin as a thin armor.
The streets were too exposed, but Shi Wudu would walk them with his head held high. He was the Water Master and feared no enemy. A clear target would draw out any attacks, summon enemies to his feet.
Then he would make them kneel.
As he walked the dead streets Shi Wudu had only one proud thought; this was all He Xuan’s fault, he was sure.
Long moments passed without time, the sun hidden away behind sheets of rock above. It could have been weeks and Shi Wudu wouldn’t have noticed, a godly body craving no food and no rest.
He kept walking, charting out the city with a keen mind and sharper memory. This was enemy territory and a land of clues in one; he would know every twist and turn if it cost him a year.
For every moment he had felt a tug at his skin too, a hint at the edges of his vision and hovering across the back of his bones. With each step he took it urged him onward, pulling him ever closer to the center of a dead city.
He couldn’t help but think something waited for him at the end of these broad roads, lurking and patient. He sneered at the feeling as he sneered at the fake flutter in his hands.
Shi Wudu recognized the touch of fate when it dared kiss his skin. He would rip it free like the parasite it was, pull it up by the roots and drown it in his victory.
But for now he had to let it rest. He had tried cutting it out with the precision of a swordsman, taking power to the hints that danced across his soul. Four trembling heartbeats later, he could not rip it free. The threads were bound into his spirit tight as a vice, and no matter his ruthless skill he could not break them. They were forged strong as divine steel, made to trap him into a fate he had not chosen.
He hated them, as he hated the chill that went through his skin at the sight of them. Red had always been such a garish color.
The streets held his cold anger and he could not think to mind. This place was dead and buried, but he did not know its past.
He did not want to. Shi Wudu wanted to wash it away and return to the familiar company of his brother, the sharp barbs of Ling Wen and stupid smirks of Pei Ming.
With every piece of sneering pride in his veins he wanted to be home.
But there was no exit to this place. He had scoured the edges of the city and seen only the fading memories of poverty. There were no doors but dried lava, and no sky but stone. He was trapped in the grave of ten thousand souls and he could only snarl at it.
There was only path ahead; he needed to find water.
It took him long hours to find a river, even with the blood beneath his skin leading the way. Under the proud sky of the heavens, water came to his command like a chained beast, following each movement of his hand. Each flick of his fan summoned hurricanes, and each cold word flooded riverbanks.
Shi Wudu was a god to be feared. His power was vast as the ocean, and his temper was fickle. He did not like it when the waters under his command disobeyed.
But this river didn’t want to obey. He looked into its depths, watched black water writhe and shift. It looked alive as water should not, and Shi Wudu had a terrible feeling he knew why. A chill crept across the skin of his spine, frost spreading across still water.
Under a skyless dawn he turned and met golden eyes.
He Xuan looked cold as ice and twice as angry, standing on the bank of a deadly river. Golden eyes were glimmering in the half-darkness, lighting the very air around them like the sun had fallen into the ocean.
Shi Wudu looked at him and sneered, fingers twitching at his sides. There was battle lust collecting at the edge of his skin that he didn’t want to admit to, strong as the hint of phantom hands in his hair.
It had been long weeks since he had seen another soul, and the weak and fluttering part of him had missed that contact. The true him wanted to use all his pride and skill to rip He Xuan to terrible pieces and damn the consequences.
The threads of fate that bound him were such a vile color.
“Of course, it’s you.”
His words were hard and harsh. They echoed strangely in the silence of a dead city, bouncing across the corpses of buildings and the stone of coffins.
Shi Wudu would have spoken more, the anger of a fresh death clawing at his skin. This man had dared to put Shi Qingxuan in danger, had dared to try to hurt his brother.
The rusted iron of an axe still glimmered in his memories, no matter how many days he had spent in a dark city.
Shi Qingxuan would not have recovered from killing him. That gentle soul was too bright to take the stains of blood. It wouldn’t have recovered from a pauper’s death either, and neither would Shi Wudu.
He bared his teeth in the sneer of fury at that thought, staring into gilded eyes. How dare this demon hurt Shi Qingxuan?
He spoke but his words were cut off by a flash of movement, bright in the darkness. Only a god’s instincts had him shifting in time, feet light on ancient ground. He leapt back, felt the edge of strong fingers catch at his robes.
They tore, under He Xuan’s nails, the fine silk of his sleeve shredding into tatters. Shi Wudu hissed his displeasure and struck back, furious as a whirlpool. He may not have his fan to make the blow unstoppable, but his hands were lethal too.
The water he had collected from air and blood for long weeks sprayed forward to make the motion strong.
He Xuan moved but not fast enough, the anger burning golden eyes burnished and shone. Shi Wudu felt his palm catch hard muscle and bruise. It would have been a deadly blow, to a mortal. He Xuan merely rocked back a few steps, face cold and angry.
The man didn’t look to have felt anything, but Shi Wudu had. A bruise was blooming across his ribs, and it would surely be black and painful.
A moment would wash it away, a surge of power brushing color from his skin. It would be nothing, before his power and the body of a god.
But Shi Wudu had bruised. He had struck He Xuan and felt his palm hit skin cold skin, and been bruised himself.
The silence of a dead city held him tight, but Shi Wudu could only swallow, loud and angry in the quiet. The talisman shone with a never-fading light, but he felt like he had been drenched in darkness. The threads of fate that bound him were not tying him alone, and they glimmered crimson and terrible in the ink of night.
He hated their color all the more, knowing they tied him to He Xuan.