No wind blew over ancient buildings, but Shi Wudu felt like he was pulled in a thousand directions by the threads of fate. The weight of chill air gripped his skin, but he did not shiver before it. He stepped and felt the dead wind tremble around him. There was a frost like an abyss filling the street, made of the fury of two Masters of Water.
It was loud as the lightning before a storm, and he glared cold eyes at He Xuan. A breath filled his lungs, and he pressed a hand against his side and felt the sting of broken ribs.
Gold eyes tracked the motions but looked only furious. In the silence of a dead city, they felt heavy on his skin, and heavier still when they narrowed in understanding. Shi Wudu snapped out his fury, cold as a sheet of ice.
“Again, if you dare.”
It was a foolish thing to say, but Shi Wudu didn’t care. Let the demon rage at him, let sharp nails rip into his skin; they stood on equal ground now, and there was no battle he would lose. He sneered and taunted and felt phantom hands on his neck.
He Xuan looked hungry for violence, and it was that hunger that filled the air. It was strong as static, pressing through the death of a city to curl on his shoulders. Shi Wudu rolled the weight off and pulled at the strings of his power, energy coiling at the edge of elegant nails.
It wasn’t enough.
The demon leapt forward again, and this time Shi Wudu wasn’t fast enough. A cut scored his cheek, bright with pain and sharp nails. He hissed against it, felt the furies of his pride stir under his skin.
How dare this demon lay a hand on him again? How dare He Xuan touch him?
The man had been nothing but a pathetic mortal once, with a life that Shi Wudu had deemed unimportant. And it had been, before Shi Qingxuan’s fate. He would do anything for his brother, if it cost him a thousand years and a thousand cuts. Shi Qingxuan would live a good life, long and prosperous. Shi Wudu would ensure it.
And if it meant stealing the life of a single man to make it so? There had been no easier decision.
But now He Xuan was Black Water Sinking Ships, feared supreme come to drown the world. Now the man had golden eyes that glimmered with power, and a glare that matched his own. Shi Wudu traced a single finger across his cheek, felt it come away wet and damning.
Across the edge of his nail collected a hint of blood, crimson and dark as night beneath stone sky. It was a rare sight; with his skill and the water that protected him, Shi Wudu was never hurt. It had been long decades since the last injury, and that had been at the hands of his heavenly trial.
For that and that alone, Shi Wudu had allowed wounds. That was before he had been thrown to the floor of a watery prison and ripped apart.
He could handle any pain, but he had not expected that cut. He had expected the matching cut on He Xuan’s cheek, bright on the pale skin of death.
They were truly cursed, and oh how he wanted to rage like a storm in winter at that.
The realization seemed to strike He Xuan at the same time, hunger turning to a cold rage in a heartbeat. The demon leapt forward again, and this time Shi Wudu snapped out a quick hand to catch at black robes. His hand closed around a strong wrist mid-motion, moved angry strength to stillness.
He did not want to be touched again.
The demon’s skin felt cold beneath his fingers, like frost spread across a still water. Shi Wudu wanted to rip that hand off, as he wanted to see this man dead for making him kneel.
With the last of his restraint, he did neither.
“Can you not tell our fates are bound, demon?”
His words echoed across dead air and made it breathe anger. It made it heavy too, and stung his throat with each sharp word.
He hated the need to say it almost as much as he hated being bound to this pathetic demon. Golden eyes narrowed, a cavernous hunger glinting from the corners of that look. He Xuan stood silent and cold for a long moment, hand tense in Shi Wudu’s grip.
Then strong muscle went lax, ice melting to water.
The demon pulled away in a slow motion, hand moving like the deepest ocean currents. He Xuan still stood too close, a towering presence at his side.
Shi Wudu wished for his fan, to slash gold eyes to shreds. He would have carved them out himself too, if not for this curse.
Fate had him bound to this path. That did not mean Shi Wudu would not walk it with a fiery anger.
“Did you do this, tyrant?”
Shi Wudu sneered, insult coiling over his skin. It was pathetic that the man thought him capable of this. It was infuriating that He Xuan thought Shi Wudu would ever bind himself to a demon.
“Why would I tie my life to your pathetic soul, demon?”
The words echoed out into the empty city but did not sound harsh enough. Shi Wudu wanted them to cut into cold skin and make it bloody. He had taunted this man to murder before. He could do it again, if he wished it.
It was a good thing for them both he did not.
Golden eyes stared at his cheek, and he could feel their weight as he could feel the blood dripping from the fresh cut. He Xuan raised a hand to his own cheek and felt for the matching cut.
They shared the same rage then.
“Our fate isn’t ours right now,” the demon said, as if it was a revelation. The words stung like nothing else could, made of Shi Wudu’s greatest fear and truest enemy. He wanted to rage before them, wanted to break out his oceans to scatter the world to pieces.
Shi Wudu stared down a ghost and hated the truth. He spoke anyway.
“Something brought us here and tied your low class life to mine.”
It was all he could do to make the words harsh through the beating of his heart and the fury pounding under his skin. He had looked at what lay between them and seen red dancing lovely and strong in a dead wind. The threads that bound them were so vicious, and so unstoppable. This was nothing he had ever wanted, not with this demon and not with anyone.
Shi Wudu felt anger swell like sea currents in his skin. It was an unstoppable force, made of the swirl of a hurricane.
He Xuan just glared back, equally furious. In this, at least, they were in agreement. Shi Wudu looked away, across the dark roads and beyond the reach of his talisman.
That light flickered so softly, on the black waters of this river.
“Where is this city?” His words were snapped and terrible, and they echoed out across dead sculptures and grave-buildings. He did not expect an answer, not from the demon with the cold eyes. If he didn’t know this ancient place, there was no reason for He Xuan to know its stone walls.
He did not expect the answer he got, either.
“Mount Tonglu,” He Xuan said, stepping towards the curve of the river. The water greeted him with each step, dancing up like a living beast until the demon stood on a bank and stared into writhing black water.
Shi Wudu sneered against the shock crawling up his spine. He sneered against the hint of steely fear too, borne from long centuries of rumor and myth. The demon capital, the birthplace of the worst of all ghosts; Mount Tonglu was not a place Shi Wudu wanted to see let alone step into with a supreme at his side and biting for his throat.
He looked at the pale man standing before him, and watched golden eyes catch on dark swirls of current. The man looked furious. Good, they should both be angry.
“Well?” He asked, impatient and cold as he could make it. “Fate brought us here. Why are we here, demon?”
The question echoed out over writhing water and sounded as demand and command. It sounded loud, in this city of silence and cracking darkness.
Shi Wudu spoke it anyway. This was He Xuan’s birthplace after all, the kiln that had forged a pathetic ghost into a filthy demon. The man had to know something.
For a long moment, there was no response. Silence whispered across the space between them, made from the demon’s angry stare.
“That isn’t the question you should be asking now, tyrant.”
Gold eyes stared out at the water, and at last Shi Wudu thought to follow them. Still water did not writhe, and there was no power there but spirits. A thousand glimmering eyes peered out of the water, chittering sharp teeth and whispering of an endless hunger.
The river was filled with rats.
Shi Wudu hissed, the sound sharp and angry between them. He took a step back, summoning the clear droplets lingering in the air. They curled across his hand as weapon and shield, but he would be hard pressed to kill so many spirits.
He Xuan only stepped closer.
“The Water Master is a coward,” the demon said, taking slow steps forward. Black hair shifted with each movement, a waterfall of spilled inky down the man’s back.
Shi Wudu wanted to cut it off and make He Xuan feel the same disrespect of losing arms. There was darkness falling across his shoulders, but he stood proud and cold in the shadows.
How dare this demon slander him so? He had taunted the man into murder, and He Xuan believed him a coward.
Was the demon stupid as well as bitter?
But no, Shi Wudu could only wish that to be true. This enemy had proven a challenge; He Xuan was sharp and cunning, though a sentimental fool. Only a fool would let themselves grow so attached to the idea of a family to spend centuries in silent revenge.
Only Shi Qingxuan was worth that pain. Shi Wudu would do anything to protect his brother, if it cost him a hundred years of angry planning. But he wasn’t so fool to abandon all that he was to do it. Memories of a watery prison and cold stone beneath his knees shook that thought to pieces. He stopped, took a breath that echoed through cracked lungs.
Perhaps he was such a fool, but he wasn’t nearly so pathetic. Black Water had gripped his hair and asked him to kneel before those he’d wronged. He had done it for Shi Qingxuan, just as he had made the demon kill him for Shi Qingxuan.
Perhaps he understood the demon well after all.
“Pathetic and a liar,” he snapped, making the words as harsh as his disdain. They echoed loud as crashing waves over the chittering of ten thousand rats.
The demon walked towards the river without a word, dark robes shifting like deep currents. The rats were massive, easily the size of a small beast, and small eyes glowed a haunting red.
Had Shi Wudu held the smooth wood of his fan, he would have swept them all away in the torrents of a hurricane. It would have been easy to kill them all, crush their hungry jaws beneath his power.
Without his fan he would have to boil the very blood in their veins, call to the water that made up corrupted bodies. He would have to reach for them.
But there was no need. He Xuan took quick steps forward and raised pale fingers. Like moths drawn to flame, the rats surged forward, leaping up in the air to snap at the edge of a strong hand.
It was a horrific sight, but Shi Wudu did not look away. He should not care if He Xuan was eaten alive, nor did he care if the rats were destroyed.
But fate bound him to this demon, and Shi Wudu would act to protect He Xuan, if only to protect himself.
As the rats leapt so too did He Xuan’s long fingers, cutting powerful lines through a dead wind. They swayed as if summoning whirlpools, slow as still water. The vengeful rats swirled to greet pale skin, small jaws snapping and chittering into the silence.
They stood no chance.
It took the demon a single bite to devour ten thousand spirits. A single bite, furious and hungry as a starved man, snapped the energy from the air.
It didn’t even look like He Xuan had opened his mouth particularly wide— but oh the spirits were sucked in as fish before an ocean beast, made to be devoured in one cavernous swallow.
Ten thousand powerful ghosts swirled into a meal for a supreme that didn’t need to be any stronger.
Shi Wudu couldn’t help the hint of fear crawling up his spine.
There was the lava of death above them, and here he was trapped with a demon of power like no other. He didn’t know how much energy He Xuan had just consumed, but it was enough to make golden eyes glow bright as the sun.
Shi Wudu could not look away from those eyes, even as he felt their threat to his pride and plans. He has worked far too hard to flinch and waver before a demon.
He Xuan stepped closer and Shi Wudu couldn’t help but shift. The animal urge in the back of his mind wanted him to run, to put harsh waters and between him and this beast.
But Shi Wudu did not back down. He was a god, and ever was he brave. He Xuan would not take his goals from him, not even in this city of old dead and cataclysmic destruction.
Not even when they were tied together by a fate neither had chosen.
“You are disgusting,” he said at last, watching the last scraps of ghosts disappear down He Xuan’s throat. They slipped into pale lips like currents disappearing into the depths of the ocean, swift and hidden away.
It was a disturbing sight, for all the horrors he had seen.
Shi Wudu could not look away and so he sneered.
“You made me this way,” the demon replied, with eyes like stars and molten gold. The demon took threatening steps closer, lifted a pale hand into the air.
For a heartbeat, it looked like the man would reach for Shi Wudu’s neck. Did the demon want to break it as a mortal spine had been snapped, so very recently? Did those fingers want to rip his head off again, and let him win?
Shi Wudu didn’t know, but he glared that hand into stillness regardless. He was the water of winter, made strong and furious.
Let the demon try to frighten him. Shi Wudu would always win.
But they couldn’t kill each other for now, and so He Xuan stared with golden eyes but lowered those deadly fingers.
They walked on through the city, free to explore now that the rats were devoured. Each door whispered tales of families and laughter, of fights and crime and loud drinking. The stones beneath his feet were worn smooth by thousands of feet, and with each step Shi Wudu felt ghosts linger in the darkness.
This city had been lived in once. The buildings were made with an eye of love, elegant lines of temples made for beauty and the humble lines of homes made for comfort. The human shells took that beauty and made it haunting, but Shi Wudu couldn’t bring himself to care.
Mortal lives were lost every day. Illness took them slow and swords took them quick, but still people died. Many had been lost in a single night in this city; the agony painting the grotesque statues told that well.
Shi Wudu had no pity. They all would have died in the end regardless. Why did he care for a few lives, when there were so many left standing?
Why would he have cared for He Xuan’s?
Long hours of wandering and harsh silence took them past a thousand buildings and ten thousand bodies. Their pace began with the rage between enemies, and each step shivered at their malice. But that faded to sharp anger quickly enough, under the press of time.
They walked and did not speak, shepparded on by the glint of that brilliant talisman.
Silence greeted them, spilling from the thresholds of a thousand doors and the stone walls of a hundred buildings. Only one stood out from the rest. A temple clung on at the end of a wide street, grand but rotten and cored out with age. The stone was not weathered but dusted, and the wooden side door had dissolved long ago.
But the plaque was wet with fresh paint.
Shi Wudu could smell it from here, the scent curling into his nose to sting. He could feel it too, the hints of moisture clinging to worn stone. From the slow shifting at his side, He Xuan felt it too.
They were not alone in this city.
Head held high as it should be, Shi Wudu walked in and felt the world shake before him. The temple gates pressed open, the chill of sunless bronze leeching into his skin and leaving it covered with a delicate frost. It was not as cold as ghostly skin had been, beneath his fingers.
Shi Wudu didn’t think about it more. He sneered the memories away and took elegant steps into the temple, the ripped sleeve of his robe trailing weakly in the air. Like a shark smelling blood, He Xuan followed.
They spent silent days studying the temple, and it spoke a story Shi Wudu had read before, long weeks ago.
It was the tale of a prince driven to desperation. It was the tale of a man made god by skill, and failure by a mortal nature.
Bright murals told the tale of destruction, in vivid paint and old walls. There were the marks of a living soul in this city of the dead, and each one was carved into the walls of these temples.
Shi Wudu sneered at the stories. That prince had been a fool to risk so much, and weak to fail.
But fresh paint told him this story meant more to the threads that bound him, and so was important.
The prince was still a fool.