They spent two long months in the city of the damned, and with each cold step Shi Wudu hated a little less. He felt quieter, cast into silence with only He Xuan for company. The stale air of a dead city lingered in Shi Wudu’s lungs, clogging his throat into sneering silence and making his words lose their bite.
He hated that too.
Together with a chilly quiet, they picked apart the lonely buildings and fine temples apart for clues. Fresh paint led them forward to the hints of life left behind. Here, gambler’s dice, there a silk scarf bright and lush. On one crumbled wall they found a letter, written in a dead language with a shaking hand.
He Xuan had reached for it with cold fingers, paper shadowed under the light of golden eyes. Shi Wudu had taken the letter first, met a stare challenging and proud. They stood there, bound together and full of old hate and new anger.
Then He Xuan stepped closer, pale skin glimmering before a burning talisman.
“You do not decide for me,” the demon had said, with eyes like cracked gold. Shi Wudu had sneered, and shifted the letter to the side, until foreign characters stood stark in the dim light.
“As if you can read this,” he said, and it was truth.
He Xuan didn’t reply for a long moment, but the demon didn't look away until well past four heartbeats. Then the demon clicked an angry tongue, and turned.
The letter was left to Shi Wudu. He could not read the ink stains but he could see the blotches of tears left to dry untouched. Yet the paper was crumpled, as if gripped by uncaring hands. It was a study in contradictions, but Shi Wudu didn’t care to find them. He knew only a cold anger now.
What soul led them on this chase would pay for his displeasure at the end. He would ensure it.
Two months cursed to the demon’s company, standing beside a man with glowing eyes and a hunger like no other, was too much. They grew a grudging tolerance of each other, with crusted lava lining the paths they walked and a broad roof trapping them in. Harsh words turned to snapping silences, and clashes and threats turned to a cold armistice.
They were not gentle, but they were at peace, and that stung so. Shi Wudu hated it, just as he hated how he no longer tensed when He Xuan walked close. The man stood at his side and loomed ever closer, cold breath brushing his fingers to read a lonely letter.
He Xuan had stood so close.
Shi Wudu would not stand for it. The threads of fate binding them together could be traced to this terrible corpse of a city, hints lining a thousand walls and murals painting them bright and damning.
Here they must stay until the mystery was solved, but Shi Wudu would not live with red threads holding him down. He was master of his future, and ever would be.
In crimson and hate, they painted their fate, but he would not let them be bound.
The still winds of a dead city would not let them wander in peace forever. It was at the end of the second month, with another sunless dawn caught between Shi Wudu’s angry fingers, that He Xuan spoke heavy words. They had settled into the walls of a pointless temple, and here they stood, side by side and hate by hate.
They stood too close.
“You know of fate,” the demon said into the silence between them. The words echoed across the walls of the great temple, spinning plaster and murals into dust. They echoed so loudly, in a city of the dead and damned.
Shi Wudu had not expected them, but he had expected something. It had been two long months, but they had left the topic of fate still and dead between them. They had fought, twice, rocking the warm ground and cracking corpse-statues.
They had cut wounds across two bodies, and broken bones together. It had been brutal, and in the echoing silence, they had stared and not spoken.
Fate and four urns were not brought up again. Shi Wudu didn’t quite know why, but he didn’t care to find out. That thought was beneath him, as so many others were, as the doubt filling him was. He didn't want them.
“What of it?” He snapped out, commanding and regal. He met golden eyes and did not back down. A chill wind crept across his face and down his neck, tracing idle lines over proud skin. It was not as cold as fingers had been.
If it cost him his head again, Shi Wudu would never back down from this man.
He Xuan stood still as a cavernous ocean, and in his eyes swam bone beasts.
“If you can steal my fate, why can’t you unwind ours?”
The words were said with the quiet of a grave, and oh did golden eyes burn into his skin. Shi Wudu sneered at them, just as he sneered at the trembling of his chest and the anger in his fingers.
Did the man think him a fool?
“Are you stupid as well as low class?”
He looked down, felt the bitter taste of failure cloud his tongue as smoke. For the long years of his life, Shi Wudu had not failed. No task was too great for him. No mountain stood too tall for him to wash away, and no enemy was too fierce for the water dancing at his fingers. He had risen to godhood by the virtue of his skill and the strength of his resolve.
He was the Water Master, and before his might all but Jun Wu trembled.
That was, until He Xuan.
He looked at the strong shoulders of a ghost and saw the mortal lurking under dead skin. He looked at cold eyes and felt a challenge rise in his blood, hot like magma and the roar of a waterfall.
He looked at the man who had bested him and forced him to kneel on filthy stone. Shi Wudu had won then, but it had cost him so much.
What would it cost now?
Before He Xuan, before this dead city with its shell-corpses and sun that never rose, he had never tasted loss.
He hated the flavor.
Slowly, torn from his pride, he spoke. The words were cold as ice on his tongue, and he let them sting with all his fury. But two months in this place made their echo quiet and resigned.
“I tried as soon as I knew we were bound. The threads were too tight.”
And that was truth, but not the whole truth. His power was great as the oceans, skilled at shifting fortune and deft with the touch of fate. But the strings that tied them together were a deep and merciless red, and Shi Wudu knew those couldn’t be cut.
How he hated them.
“Did you not have enough power?”
The words were blunt with something calmer than hate, and Shi Wudu wanted to snarl at them. He wanted to feel spite and lash out, whirlpools gathering at his fingertips.
He did not.
Instead he bared his teeth into a sneer to hide bitter currents running through his heart. Red, the threads had been such a hideously beautiful red. Shi Wudu watched them dance now, catching in a dead wind and moving with each breath between them.
Ghosts didn’t breathe, but gods did. He Xuan could not know.
“Your disgusting energy isn’t needed, demon. It can’t be cut.”
Cold fingers wrapped around his wrist, quick as a silverfish. Shi Wudu could have fought them off and washed them into nothingness, could have bruised He Xuan’s wrist and body in turn.
He sneered and waited instead, regal with impatience. He did not kill a ghost; he didn’t even know if he could without cutting into his own soul.
He didn’t even know if he wanted to. Why bother killing He Xuan when the life the man walked was twice the suffering?
Shi Wudu’s thoughts turned, as they had so many times over the long days, to Shi Qingxuan. Was his soft brother living and well? The man surely mourned him; Qingxuan was too gentle to not, and loyal to a fault. That had cost them both so much, on the island with swirling black waters.
Qingxuan would want He Xuan alive, too. A good thing that Shi Wudu didn’t care for weak opinions. A bad thing, that Shi Wudu still didn’t know if he would kill He Xuan.
“Try again,” the demon demanded, energy curling from his fingers and pressing at Shi Wudu’s skin. It felt like a whirlpool was being channeled into his bones, made from the sand lingering at the depths of the ocean.
Power flowed into him and Shi Wudu could only grit his teeth to keep from gasping. There was a tide swirling in his blood, and it felt cold as black water.
It felt like He Xuan, and that was all the more unsettling.
“I have tried,” Shi Wudu snapped, and did not shift beneath the rushing spill of water in his bones.
His words weren’t sharp enough, because He Xuan just took a step closer. They stood toe to toe now, anger burning between them like challenge. They were two beasts, leashed together for mutual destruction.
But the hate had shifted to the ropes that tied them, and Shi Wudu could only feel slighted pride at that. Two beasts would fight beside each other, for all the snarling hate between them.
The skin of a ghost was not as chill as he had thought, it seemed.
“Again,” He Xuan said, and more power flooded into Shi Wudu’s wrist to boil through him. The demon had devoured ten thousand souls and more, and here and now that energy was given freely.
If only Shi Wudu could kill He Xuan, this would be the perfect moment. If only he still wanted to.
“I cannot, demon.” Each word was pulled from his pride and the broken shards of his failure, and each one stung all the more. What would his brother think, he wondered, if Qingxuan saw how little control Shi Wudu had in this moment?
He hated that thought as he hated the red threads that danced across his vision, sparkling in the light of his talisman.
He Xuan could not see them. He Xuan did not have the skill at fate and the eyes of a god. He Xuan did not know they were red.
It was such a pathetic thing to be grateful for, but in this city of the dead, it was all Shi Wudu could grasp.
There was a long moment of silence, and golden eyes stared through it. They cored into his skin as challenge and cold assessment, but Shi Wudu did not shift before them.
He feared no demon.
Cold fingers let go, and left more chill in their wake. He Xuan did not step back, the eyes of a hungry beast burning into him. Shi Wudu stood strong and proud, a regal beast in his own right.
They did not speak.
A cough interrupted them, loud and dry in the echoing silence of a dead city. As one angry army, they turned, water flowing up black and clear.
The man that stood there had a young face and old eyes, hair stretching long and endless over a strong back. Fine robes marked him as a cultivator, and dust and grit marked him as a traveler.
There was paint coating calloused hands.
“This is a temple,” the man snapped out, voice echoing like teacher to student, like it wasn’t strange that a living heart beat in this city. “Can you not defile it with fighting or fucking?”
Shi Wudu had never stepped back faster. He had never moved forward faster either, snapping out a hand to send rushing water forward, a wave of power made brilliant and clear. It was collected from a still river that shouldn’t have obeyed him, and the air droplets that moved to his every wish.
The man moved, but with two heavenly trials to his name and water at his call, no force could escape Shi Wudu.
He did not look at He Xuan, standing beside him. He did not watch black water slide beside clear to bind the man tighter.
“You,” he said, with an icy cold born from months of fury. “Have you done this?”
Shock flashed across the man’s face, followed by the pained lines of sympathy. He did not look bothered by the water tied across his wrists, and did not seem to care at the glares of two water lords.
The man was staring at the air between them instead, tracing the threads that Shi Wudu didn’t want to see glimmering.
“He tied you with fate,” the man said, quiet as a whisper and loud with shock. It rang through the skeleton of a dead city like the bells of fate.
Shi Wudu hated it.
They asked a thousand questions, with sharp demand and sharper threat. To each the man replied, but to each Shi Wudu felt lies.
What is the date, He Xuan asked, in a voice like cold logic and born from knowledge of the city around them. The man’s answer sent colder shivers down Shi Wudu’s spine.
Two hundred years before that moment on an island with black water. Two hundred years before Shi Qingxuan looked scared and bound in iron chains.
Two hundred years too early.
Who did this, Shi Wudu asked, with regal fury boiling in his veins. He had been trapped in a city of the dead with a demon, bound by fate and hate.
Fury was too quiet a word for what his raging pride felt.
“I do not know what he is going by in your time,” the man said, standing in the grounds of a temple with fresh paint and old walls. Bright eyes flickered like silverfish, searching for a quick escape, perhaps.
Shi Wudu sneered, loud in the silence.
“I don’t believe you,” he snapped, and opened his mouth to say more. He would lash the knowledge from this man with a thousand droplets of clear water, and he would glare as he did. No one disobeyed him.
But the sound of black robes rustling stopped him as black water had stopped his heart.
“Then who is he now,” He Xuan asked, voice quiet and sharp. The demon shifted, and old eyes shifted with his motions. The man looked wary, at the sight of a hungry ghost.
Shi Wudu wanted to rage.
“I’m not going to tell you. Learn to figure it out yourself,” came the response at last, dry as dust but made of a resolve Shi Wudu heard deep in his bones. He sneered into the silence, pride making his glare cold as the sting of a winter storm.
Shi Wudu wanted to destroy the city around them. He took a deep breath instead, thought of how tightly the threads were wound to his heart and soul.
It must have been someone close to him, to lay such a careful trap. It would have taken long years to spin the threads into being, and longer still to make them strong.
It had to be someone in the heavens, with skill and power to rival his own.
“You know that the threads are—” The man’s voice was light and curious, shredding heavy thoughts into tatters.
“Enough,” Shi Wudu snapped, letting his voice raise as sharply as he could. It cut the air like a knife, breaking through the tension lingering in an old temple.
The man looked at him for a long moment, gaze heavy with exasperation. Traveler’s robes shifted in a still wind, bound by the trembling of clear water. Black water stayed still and calm.
Shi Wudu did not look at He Xuan, keeping his cold stare fixed on the man with the tired eyes.
He didn’t care to look at the demon.
“The young are always such fools,” the man said at last, voice wry in the silence. “But I’ll let you make your own mistakes.”
But Shi Wudu had seen red threads binding the man too, with the skill of one used to manipulating fate.
If he was a fool for denying fate, then he wasn’t the only one.
“At least I did not spend long years running,” he said, and the words felt wry and darkly amused. It was a guess, but from the tiny flinch it was spot on.
The man only laughed a small laugh, too old to sound bitter. “Running is better than fighting, if you ask me.”
A good thing then, that Shi Wudu hadn’t asked.
Mei Nianqing, the man was called, and the name sounded too truthful and hollow as the corpse-statues around them. He walked light and irritated steps, but never failed to turn to Shi Wudu and He Xuan with words and quick wit.
He talked with the aching voice of the long-lonely. Shi Wudu scoffed at the sound, felt a surge of disdain rise in him. He felt sympathy too, ruthless and unwanted. How long had Mei Nianqing been alone? How long had the man spoken sharp words to empty streets?
How long would it have taken Shi Wudu to feel the same loneliness, if he hadn’t been stuck with the damned demon?
That thought was washed away with a wave of anger, gilded foam crashing across his skin and mind. He would not bear such weakness, not when he had threads to cut and fate to bend.
Not when Qingxuan stood unprotected. Mei Nianqing was weak to feel loneliness, and Shi Wudu was not weak enough to fall prey to the same fate.
Once, calloused fingers had pulled out cards like a street performer flourishing out a final act. The deck was a worn thing, stained by mud and streaks of flaking paint. It was well-loved too, with finger prints marked across every face.
Shi Wudu had never owned something so frivolous as a deck of cards. No, that was Pei Ming’s vice, and the man knew better than to bring anything but cards lined with gold and held in carved jade. Ling Wen and he would accept nothing less than the best, and Pei Ming had ever understood that.
They had played a few times, over the centuries. Three Tumors working a cancerous game, with Ling Wen winning every hand.
Shi Wudu did not miss that.
But he did play, with Mei Nianqing.
Mei Nianqing knew more, of this Shi Wudu was certain; long pain painted the man’s lips, even as it fastened them closed.
But he would not talk.
They did not use force, though Shi Wudu’s fingers twitched for it. In a week perhaps, when all exploration was exhausted. Then he would twist the blood in the man’s veins for answers. In a week, if the card games died down and the lonely voice didn’t echo through broken temples, they would ask with crueler tools.
Long months passed, held on the corners of old buildings and dead statues.
Shi Wudu returned to the still water of a dead river. There were no currents now, and no rats to make the water boil.
It was but water, and he stood before it as the Water Master. It still did not wish to obey him, for black currents dwelled beneath the surface, as Black Water stood behind him.
He Xuan walked the slow steps of a shark to meet him, standing at his side with only a single cold glance. They stood and stared into the water. Threads of hate bound them as easily as threads of fate, red and glimmering.
Shi Wudu felt no disgust, for the first time in a long time. He did not know what to think at that, his pride washing through his blood like fury.
He did not want to flinch away. He did not want to sneer. He did not care to move. They had a lead to follow, but they were still bound to this city of bones made dust.
He hated this ease, and wanted none of it. It felt like his pride had been stripped away and replaced by a pathetic swell of water and lingering emotion. This man had threatened his brother. This man had killed him. Shi Wudu didn’t want to kill him in return, and that stung so.
He spoke without thought, but it was filled with the still water before him.
It was filled something that wasn't hate.
“I saw four urns,” Shi Wudu began, and it sounded like the first notes of a death knell. He kept speaking, cold as the frost of winter.
“Who died, for your poor fate?”