Kunlun was never silent or still. Not for long and it was painful to see it.
It had been easier to suppress his emotions when Shen Wei had been here, when he could focus on what he had to do, trying to mask all he felt seeing his cousin lying so still. Jie Ming was a Clan Leader after all. Now he was alone, it was harder. The jagged hole in his heart, in his life beginning to heal as he drank in the sight of him. It had been a decade, but it could have been a few days. The pain of losing Zhao Yunlan as vivid now as it had been then. Ten years of worry, grief and the crushing weight of never knowing what truly happened to his cousin breaking his immaculate walls.
He feared failing Kunlun and he had in so many ways, he thought. Not that his cousin would agree. That generous spirit would tell him he was doing his best and it was the memory of his cousin's support, a phantom he held in his own heart that saw him through each day. Da Qing would say you could only go forward, do the best you can and one day you'll have fish.
Discovering exactly what had happened, from Shen Wei and Lin Jing had broken his heart. Imagining had always been Jie Ming's downfall. There was hardly a day when he didn't think of Kunlun and Da Qing, trying to live by his cousin's beliefs, his faith that he would find them undying, if difficult. He had considered thousands of possibilities, searched the land often with Shen Wei, the man more of a ghost than a king, but now he could see it...could so easily imagine Kunlun's expression of desperation when he reached for that array. Like a drowning man reaching for the end of a rope.
"I should have been with you." The words were whispered into the quiet air, drenched in regret and sorrow even as a tear solitary and lonely fell onto a dark sleeve. The man kneeling by the daybed pressing his forehead into Kunlun's bicep, knew the bitter pain of surviving only too well. A sigh resonating with sadness was breathed into Kunlun's solid warmth and he swallowed another sound that might have been a laugh or a sob. "If I had just been there...You would say I'm being ridiculous. Crying over you when you're alive. Save that for my funeral Lao Ming, you'd say."
"But you've been gone so long..."
He dried his eyes and smiled thinly. "You would never believe this."
Jie Ming turned his head so he could look his cousin, his savior and his king, the beads in his long braided hair shifting against Kunlun's arm with a light tinkling sound. "Ma Gui. He wasn't pleased to see me. I don't think it helps that you need me." He told him, brows lifting in momentary amusement. "Shen Wei. Your Emperor is pushing himself to the very edge trying to save you. You would be horrified."
Long fingers lifted and worried the edge of the bedding, his eyes on the dark energy lamps carefully positioned throughout the room. "Your father. The first two love you...but him? It will bring trouble to your heart when you learn of it."
"You wouldn't be surprise that I was here." Jie Ming said and smiled weakly. "I've been your healer for as long as I've been your second."
Jie Ming rises to his knees and runs a hand over his cousin's hair, the man he loved as a brother, treasured as his dearest friend, his voice hoarse. "It's time for you to come back. It's going to take me awhile unpicking this mess, but I swore long ago that I would stand by your side. I've missed you so much, you crazy hero. No matter what happens when you wake, I'll be here. I'll be with you. Lockstep."
Lin Jing was next door preparing the array, long lines of cinnabar painting the floor with intersecting white lines. Shen Wei was no doubt organizing Ma Gui and the Haixing General, in-between his many duties as the Emperor. Wang Zheng, he suspected was with Sang Zan, the Hanga Chief lying on a intricate daybed beside Da Qing. Another complex web that one, as intricate as a tapestry.
"If we get you to the North, you'll be unstoppable. Your armies are still there. I made sure you had a stronghold."
"Your father is holding Guo Changcheng hostage." He told Kunlun quietly, voicing his own anger. "I'll need him for this and the wretch knows it too. I cannot begin without him."
"I have so much to tell you." He said with a sigh and pressed his head back against Kunlun's arm.
It was impossible to leave his side now that he knew his cousin had returned. Jie Ming had upheld his promises and carried the burden of Kunlun's duty for over a decade, grief following him like a shadow. It was easier than breathing to step back into the role of Kunlun's second and it was sharp joy in his heart to think that soon he would be able to stand with his savior once more.
It was hard believe how far they had come. Their past and their meeting began with loss, redefining both of them into the men they were today. They were children born into broken families with lies and secrets surrounding them, until tragedy tore into their lives, bringing with it harsh reality. For Kunlun, it was the murder of his mother. For Jie Ming it was the murder of his Shifu.
There was twenty years between the two events but it set them on a pathway that led first into war and then into this fragile peace. They were children raised by loving hands, far away from the family that once held them, trained by tribes far from the North that was their heritage. Kunlun had Ma Liyan as his shifu, Clan Leader of the Chongsheng and a beloved friend of his mother's. Jie Ming had Bian Yujing, Clan Leader of the Acheng and his father's true love, devoted to his memory even in death.
Both of these fiery women had been killed by Southern Haixing, murders avenged by their students and in Ma Liyan's case, her son Ma Gui.
Jie Ming thought of those losses as he waited, the lamp light flickering with his emotions.
Between one night and one morning the Acheng tribe, one of the most powerful Northern Clans disappeared in a sea of blood. Their city was in ruins, those living taken in chains to be sold or murdered in public executions. Southern Haixing would see them all burn, led by a disembodied woman no one knew existed.
There had been a calm before the storm, before the screams and bloodshed. One woman stood before the armies of Southern Haixing and held two victories over them. They were cold hollow victories, but she refused them, denied them what they wanted the most. The Eastern Gate and the knowledge of the Acheng people.
Bian Yujing the last child in an unbroken line of cultivators stretching back centuries, into the distant past of the Immortals, knew that time was not on her side. She had spent all her long years training, teaching and learning. She knew with the cold certainty of someone who knew war, that all she loved would die within the walls of Acheng, her fury and hate useless against her enemy.
She and their people would not surrender but they would not survive either. Running one hand over the ancient stone, she looked into the distance where deep within the darkness there lay an enemy, powered by hate and greed. A demon that would be defeated in the future, the glimpse she had seen promising her retribution, but it would not be today. It would not be theirs.
Tonight she had a duty to her people but before the sun set, Bian Yujing knew she had to ensure that the future she had seen, would be set in motion. Her last act.
Perhaps one of the people she loved would escape.
Leaving the walls where her Clan prepared for war, her black robes a stark contrast against the pale stone, she summoned her best student. He was not the heir to the Xunxi leadership and so no one had cared where Jie Ming had trained, but her own legend had given rise to his, now the Second Master of Acheng through his own merit. Fitting, she thought. He was her last hope and a piece of the future.
Jie Ming dressed in the more traditional dark purple robes of the Xunxi tribe hurried towards her, following wordlessly as she led the way into the Clan Leader's rooms, his sword strapped to his back. The people they passed were equal parts terrified and defiant, carrying bundles of wrapped arrows and spears to give to the linesmen waiting at the walls.
No one paid any attention beyond that of polite greetings to the two leaders as they disappeared inside the grey walls of her receiving room. Here only a few hours before, the Elders of the Acheng and her Senior disciples had gathered to listen to her orders and her ideas. The tables had been cleared away except for one, just before her Clan Leader seat.
"They cannot take the Gate." She began sternly. "I will ensure it doesn't fall into their hands Jie Ming, but the knowledge we possess is equally as dangerous."
Bian Yujing saw in his eyes the defiance of youth tempered only by his respect for her as his teacher. "What do you need from me Shifu?"
She picked up the package she had prepared. It was deceptively small, the work of hundreds of scholars, generations of ideas and secrets. A reservoir of knowledge too dangerous to be left behind, tucked into a bright blue bag, the talismans stitched into its fabric forcing it to shrink into something that could carried in a sleeve. A letter tied with his father's necklace, explaining her choices and her Gate Wielder token, the black jade ring that would become his.
She could burn the words of her ancestors and though that thought was a knife in her heart, a dishonoring of her people...it was also foolish. The future needed this work.
"You have always placed your trust in me before Jie Ming. I ask that you this for me, without questioning why."
He knew Bian Yujing could see the future in glimpses, had proven it to him several times over the last five years of his training, but it was still a heavy question to ask anyone. To the pride of his ancestors, he only bowed with grief already in his eyes. "I swore to serve you faithfully Shifu."
Tucking a long strand of his hair behind his ear in one of her rare motherly gestures, she looked at the boy she had trained, fostered and loved. The son of the man she would love until her last breath. Jie Tui would be so proud of him. She could see him in those dark eyes and in his quiet strong manner.
This would be the last time she would see him, see those dark eyes so like his father's and grief held her throat for precious moments. She liked to believe that this could have been her son in another life. He had certainly picked up several of her habits, she thought with a smile.
Jie Ming would not die here. It gave her the courage to die herself. A mother's love, she thought and hoped the woman she had once called her friend might forgive her. Bian Yujing's claim on this boy was strong.
"There is a man in North. He is your cousin." She told him, breaking a decades long silence, with no preamble, no gentle cushioning to ease the sting or the surprise, her hands finding his arms.
Dark eyes narrowed in shock and Bian Yujing nodded, warning him with single look not to speak. "Your mother was a daughter of the Da Huang tribe, but a granddaughter of the Xunxi. Your Uncle, the leader of the Da Huang cannot be trusted, he serves only his tribe and his interests. He sold his younger sister to Southern Haixing."
A gasp quiet and pained left his lips and she nodded. "She is dead. Her son is not. His courtesy name is Kunlun. His given name is Zhao Yunlan. He is the future of this world. Do not hold his heritage against him. He has turned from them and shall be their end."
She had in effect thrown his world into chaos more than war and the threat of death ever could. One more way in which he resembled his father. Immovable, unstoppable unless you know them, unless you were one of the precious few tucked into their heart. Very few in this world of the courage, the strength to be gentle, to be kind when hate is far easier. Clever, passionate and kind, her boy was a fierce warrior when provoked, but as serene as a summer lake at any other hour.
She could only hope that Kunlun would be kind to him.
"You...wish for me to find him?" He asked softly, blinking as he tried to control what he felt. Betrayal, shock and that unending courage, in a generous heart. He was willing to welcome this cousin, to call him family and Bian Yujing swallowed at the realization. "My cousin?"
"He will defeat Southern Haixing." She told him, "He will unite the North, but he must live to reach that goal."
Bian Yujing released his arms and stepped towards the window, her long robes brushing the dark wood floor. Like his father, Jie Ming would not give up on those he loved. He would fight and possibly defy her simply to help defend Acheng. Death beckoned and grief tore into her heart. Steeling herself, she turned back and smiled. "The Acheng have never been defeated. We are one of the Nine Tribes."
He bowed in respect, believing her to be infallible, invincible. "One of the greatest."
She tasted ash and bit back her grief as she lied. Lied to save him and the future. She could not bring herself to regret, to feel any guilt for deceiving him. "I cannot leave when the threat lingers Jie Ming. We do not know when Southern Haixing will attack."
The lie was cruel but he had to survive. "The future has shown me that Kunlun must survive and I cannot leave."
"You wish for me take this quest in your name Shifu?" Jie Ming asked. It was a great honor and a terrible burden to carry an oath belonging to one's teacher, but this boy had never lacked commitment or courage.
"Kunlun must be saved." Bian Yujing said decisively. Returning to stand before him she once more held his arms. "It has taken me a long time to find the truth. Your mother asked for me to find her sister, Shen Xi. A brilliant young cultivator with so much potential, thrown away for personal gain."
"At first, I thought her son was dead as well or a proud son of Haixing, lost to us. Now I know this is not true. He escaped and found his way to the Chongsheng."
"The Chongsheng Clan in the South near Dixing?" Jie Ming asked, thinking no doubt of the Great Clan Gathering when the tribes last assembled.
"The same. Take this journey in my name Jie Ming to the city of Wenjing, and greet your cousin. Tell him of Southern Haixing's plans and give your sword to him in service. You can trust Kunlun. He will save us all."
"My... sword?' Jie Ming repeated, something in his eyes showing her how his soul was rebelling against leaving the Acheng. To offer his sword was to forsake his allegiance to her and swear it instead to Kunlun. A breaking of the ties he had never expected.
"Yes. Acheng will stand with him." If any of us survive, they will, she thought. If not, you will stand for us. I will be with you, in your heart and in every swing of your sword.
He knelt and held his sheathed sword up before her. Blinking back tears, she rested her hands on the silver qiao hiding the blade, then lifted a hand to stroke his head. "I have always been proud of you Jie Ming. I have always loved you as my own. I have never been good at showing such affection, but I have always felt it."
He rose, dark eyes shimmering with emotion and she clasped him an embrace, "Shifu...Aunt." He whispered. 'You have always been my family."
Bian Yujing stepped back her eyes burning. "Remember what I have taught you. Remember who you are. Take this package with you and make sure it doesn't fall into enemy hands."
"I will return." Jie Ming promised and she smiled, praying he never would.
"One day Jie Ming, the future will be bright with promise."
Her glimpse of the future did not show Bian Yujing the betrayal he would suffer, the wealth of her enemy nor the true extent of their influence. The sheer number of strategists with both the hate for the North and dedication war needed. She did not see that her Jie Ming would have pursuers moments after he left the walls of Acheng.
Soldiers he dodged and evaded, scouts he avoided. Far beyond the anticipation of Haixing, her student would make it almost halfway to the Chongsheng capital of Wenjing, but eventually a fight would leave him wounded. In his time of need, he would ask her old friend Chou for help. Never would she think that he would send her student to the arms of Haixing, so willingly, so helpfully.
If she had, Bian Yujing would have cursed him, her promise to the old Lord Guardian a distant memory.
The future didn't show her student wounded and alone, drugged by her friend as the Haixing soldiers came. He was outnumbered and friendless, but he fought as well as he could, nearly winning against them all, until Chou's array hidden in the dirt finally stopped him.
That bright day in the future was not today.
The sky was a beautiful blue, the white clouds drifting so carelessly by in the wide open world above them. Careless he thought, because what did the clouds care for the scene below them, for the blood that had been spilled?
Nothing, he thought and Jie Ming smiled through split lips, through the very pain of breathing. Everything he had fought for, bled for, had come to nothing. His mission had come to failure and now the very world would lie at Southern Haixing's feet, if Bian Yujing's vision was true. They had lost before it had even begun.
His body was broken and his energy sealed, yet nothing compared to the pain in his heart. What did torture and humiliation matter when he had had so greatly failed his Shifu? He gave them nothing and they didn't exactly understand who he was, his name meaningless to them.
As it had been to his own tribe.
He could remember that early time and the feeling of helplessness, of being an unwanted burden. His father had died, leaving him the third lesser heir of the Jie family. He could barely remember him and nothing of his mother. He had no siblings and no surviving relatives willing to take him in. That was when Bian Yujing had arrived, her black robes almost shimmering in the sunlight, as she strode inside the courtyard of the family house in the Xunxi lands. The famed half-Dixingian warrior and Third Gate Keeper, trained by the Lord Guardian Gao Zichen, she brought her own legend, fearless as she defied the tribal customs and her own promise.
"I will be your Shifu." She had told him, then five years old with hope in his eyes, as she reached one hand down to take his. "When your older, you will be my disciple."
She always looked otherworldly and none had ever defeated her. She was a champion whose battle prowess was something whispered about in stories. No one else saw her laugh or heard that light teasing tone. Only him. Tears surfaced and he swallowed them back, grief simmering.
There had been rumors about her and his father for years. That they were more than fellow students, loyalists of the then equally famous Lord Guardian. Some of it slander and some of it to his eternal fascination, actually true although far more chaste than the sordid tales people preferred. That she loved his father he had no doubt, but he also knew that she admired his mother. There was no affair, nothing remotely dishonorable, only tragic.
If Bian Yujing had not be betrothed to their sworn brother Li Huan, they might have married. His father might not have returned home and agreed to a political marriage, that stranded his only child in a sea of factions with their own agendas. All that pain and sacrifice only to mourn Li Huan less than a month before the supposed wedding.
No one spoke of him except to say that he was a brilliant swordsman and a poet. His Mistress certainly never mentioned him.
From these turbulent waters, Bian Yujing took him to Acheng and gave him the training that few would have the chance to learn. She gave him a home and taught him all she knew, with an unyielding but fair hand. She had been his parent, his teacher and now he had failed her.
Acheng was gone. His Aunt was gone. Southern Haixing had destroyed his home but for her last act of courage, of honor, they wished to execute him. Lady Bian Yujing had sealed the Gate and all of their knowledge had vanished.
She would have been enraged to learn that he had been betrayed, by her old friend Chou. He could imagine so easily her dark eyes bright with anger, one hand clenched on the hilt of her sword.
In the middle of the wide dais, with skies above Jie Ming waited for his end.
The chains that bound his wrists pulled his aching bleeding body in two directions, his broken leg throbbing as he rested his weight on his knees. All around him were guards, in their grey robes, sneering at him as they insulted his ancestors. They enjoyed their taunts and the odd kick or two, that sent pain ricocheting through his system, but they held their weapons mostly for show. It sent a burning ember of shame through his heart when he realized they were right. What he could he do to them? Broken and chained?
Letting his head hang low he stared at the blood falling in crimson patterns on the white stone. His blood. Beyond the dais, the courtyard led to wide steps forcing the eye upwards to the opulent red building designed in traditional Haixing style, with arching corners and a boldly yellow roof.
His guards shifted and he heard the tell-tale signs of the gathering above. Someone important had arrived, so it wouldn't be long.
Something touched his sealed energy, like the brush of fingers along his arm, startling him into lifting his head. No one else seemed to realize it. Several men in expensive robes were sitting down in the shade of the building above him and the guards were lining up, ready for the execution. Generals or royals attending for show as they congratulated themselves in they how well they had succeeded in a mass slaughter. Rejoiced in their cruelty and gloried no doubt in his Shifu's death.
Turning his head away in useless scorn, he stared at the stone floor. From the corner of his eye he saw a cat, agile and black leap from the upper railing of the building on the left, scaling onto the yellow roof. His lip split further when he smiled at the sight. He blinked when the cat disappeared not sure if it was his vision or the knock to the head distorting his sense of time.
Then there was a flash of reddish orange in his peripheral vision and a zing of energy that ran in a long line down the main strut that held the balcony. He didn't have any time, distorted or not, to think about what that was. Another breath, maybe two and the world shifted violently in a wash of red light. The building to the left exploded, raining down rubble and wood into the courtyard, a chunk of stone hitting the main guard standing over him. Screams filled the air and the guards around him shouted angrily.
Jie Ming tried to sit up to see what was going on, but the air was heavy with dust and debris. One of the guards directly in front of him fell to his own knees when the building on the right exploded, a current of gold energy running this time over the front arches. An explosive talisman? An array? He wondered with a morbid sense of awe. He had thought he would die by the executioner's hand not in the middle of someone's revenge.
All around him people were running and the guards were getting to their feet, their captain shouting orders. One of them raised his weapon at Jie Ming who pulled at his chains, glaring at the guard. There was the unmistakable crack and snap of leather so loud even over the shouting. The guard crumpled to the dais, his eyes sightless as blood poured from his mouth.
Something long and red, like the tail of a great snake slashed through the dusty air and another five guards fell, amid the chaos around them.
That was when Jie Ming saw him.
Rising up like a defiant king, a man in long dark robes walked up the short steps to the execution dais. He seemed immune to the disaster around him, unaffected by the dust or the danger. Eyes as dark as night gleamed and he ducked with flawless grace as one of the guards rushed to attack. He swung out with his right hand, a long red pole weapon, a guandao blocked the strike and a long leg rose to kick the man in the chest.
Somehow he found the time to flash a bright smile at Jie Ming, as if they were meeting in the street, as if he was a neighbor or an old friend.
The captain dressed in his official red robes stepped over the dead body of one of his comrades and pulled his sword. He rushed at the man who smirked, meeting the arc of the sword with his own weapon. The officer fell backwards with the force of the blow, a loud ring trembling through the air, the sword in the captain's hand vibrating.
"Behind you!" Jie Ming shouted in warning, straining against the chains.
The man ducked once more and the pole weapon changed into a slithering whip that moved at his command, striking with violent red energy at the guards appearing in the dust. He blocked the next strike from the captain with another weapon, a saber that shone with golden power. He dropped to one knee then twisted outwards in a move Jie Ming had never seen before, delivering a killing blow to his opponent. The tip of his sword driving into the man's back, deep into his heart. Flowing to his feet, his savior was just in time to snatch the whip as it returned to him.
Wielding it now in his left hand, he moved his saber up at breathtaking speed, catching three swords before they touched his skin and swung his left hand outward. The whip slashed down, slicing through the chains, a fiery red trail burning through the white stone.
Suddenly free Jie Ming fell forward but pride and anger had him rising to his knees. Whoever this man was, he would not disgrace his ancestors or his Shifu any further by failing to stand with him. Pulling on the remaining chains he got to his feet, trying to keep the weight off his broken leg. Using his wrist Jie Ming gathered the chain still connected to the manacle and swung at the guards advancing on his savior.
His strength was lacking but the blow knocked the other men to the ground giving his savior time. Still using the chain, Jie Ming used it to block the attack of an enraged guard, snarling with fury.
"Time to go." The man suddenly shouted in a cheerful voice from behind Jie Ming. "Damn Cat! Where are you?"
To Jie Ming's surprise the black cat he had seen earlier darted through the legs of the guards, toppling three so they fell down the steps into the courtyard. He leapt upwards, claws extended and landed on the man's shoulders just he grabbed Jie Ming. He landed against a solid chest and breathed in the scent of bamboo.
There was a muttered curse and the zing of raw power, before the world dipped around them. Jie Ming felt as though his soul was being ripped from his body as he fell through the skies, the blue above him blurring violently. Nausea rose and the world spun over the man's shoulder, the guards... hundreds of them now running through the open doors of the red building, one of the finely dressed officials waving a scroll, as if he wanted to take flight.
The next thing he saw was a lake just before he fell, body going limp from blood loss and exhaustion.
It was the buzzing that roused him from the comfortable darkness, incessant and so loud.
Jie Ming forced his eyes open to stare up at the blue sky darker now than before. There was a line of green blurred in his tired eyes dividing the sky...he blinked rapidly. Those were trees and the blue below the trees was water..
Confused and more than a little alarmed, Jie Ming took stock of his condition and listened for any signs that he was not alone. He was lying on smooth stone with a rounded edge, grasses rising on either side of him.
His leg had been straightened and bound with a splint, his wounds wrapped with the faint scent of bitter herbs lingering the air. His body ached but the seal on his spiritual energy had been lifted, power flowing through him with every breath, slowly trying to heal his injuries.
This was not the white dais where he had expected to die and he remembered with widening eyes, the man with the whip and the...cat...a legend of its own.
There were voices low and casual from somewhere behind him and he was unbound. The burns from the energy infused chains wrapped in clean bandages, the edge of one smeared in something purple. Putting one hand on the stone, ignoring the jolt of pain from his wrist Jie Ming eased himself upright.
Before him stretching as far as the eye could see was a lake, shimmering with golden hues in the warm sunlight. Dragonflies hovered over the grasses and as he watched a silvery fish surfaced, plucking an insect from the air before vanishing, with the slightest ripple. The stone where he was lying jutted out over the water and in the distance a duck floated by, ignoring the sight of him.
Turning from the waist ignoring the pain, he looked towards the voices. Two men sat around a campfire and even at this distance he recognized his savior. They were sitting beneath the shade of an old tree, a small fire burning merrily, bags on either side of them propped against the tree trunk. Both of them were young and slender but the man on the right was tall, his long legs stretching out to prop on a tree root.
He listened and stared at the pair of them. They were arguing about the merits of raw fish, but at the movement his savior's head immediately swiveled towards him, braids similar to his own tossed over one shoulder. Perhaps he would expected suspicion, even indifference but what he received was a bright smile exactly the same as the one had seen on the dais. "You're awake!" He said loudly as if this was great news.
The other man smaller and distrustful eyed him carefully, his gold headband glinting in the sunlight. Jie Ming remembered the cat and thought to himself, He's Yashou. I didn't know there was a Cat Tribe.
Jie Ming tried to smile in return and pushed himself to his feet. He would have toppled over into the water, if a strong hand had not caught his arm. "Steady now. Don't undo all my hard work." His savior admonished in easy tone, the scent of bamboo returning now.
"I was the one who slaved over that salve!" The Cat Yashou interjected loudly.
"What, by carrying it here?" His savior sniped with a grin.
Gripping his arm to keep him upright Jie Ming had his first true look at his savior busy arguing with his cat. It wasn't an insult to his abilities he realized, the way his savior turned his head as if Jie Ming wasn't a threat...no he genuinely believed that Jie Ming wouldn't attack him. He was showing trust far greater than Jie Ming felt he deserved.
Thick eyebrows only highlighted a pair of deep-set foxfire bright eyes that were as dark as black jade, shadowed further by long lashes. His face was handsome with sharp cheekbones, a high nose and a generous mouth, the friendly smile transforming his face from a chiselled mask to something disarming. From his light grip on his arm, Jie Ming could feel the power beneath his fingers, a maelstrom of energy and the muscle of an experienced swordsman.
A kernel of suspicion formed in his heart. There were few cultivators as powerful as this man and Jie Ming could feel the hint of Gate energy lingering on him. He was also sure that the man could feel a mirror of it within Jie Ming but he didn't react
Unsteady on his feet though he was, Jie Ming dipped into a low bow, once more ignoring the pain. "My Lords, there are no thanks enough for your rescue of his one."
"Aiya! No need to be so formal." His savior replied hastily, "Come now, no bowing your back is wounded and I only have so many bandages. Or else you'll be using my inner robes."
That would not be the reaction of the average young master but somehow Jie Ming respected him more for it.
"If it's been on you, I don't want them." The Yashou said tartly with a charming smile, but Jie Ming saw approval in his gaze.
His savior ignored him and gentle callused hands shifted to support Jie Ming, "Come and sit by the fire. It's too hot for one, but I'm not eating raw fish."
"He doesn't like fish." The Yashou man said as if this explained some dark evil.
"He likes them raw." His savior replied, "Bones and all."
"Cat often do. It gives them indigestion though." He said without really thinking, allowing himself to be led to the campfire. "My own cats were fond of pheasant."
"Cats? You had more than one?' The Yashou man asked sounding aghast.
"Fatty will eat just about anything." His savior said dismissively.
Jie Ming pulled on his arm and they stopped just before the fire, the Yashou watching them closely. "I apologize for my bad manners. I am Jie Ming, second master of the Acheng Clan." His eyes were beginning to burn but he continued, decorum demanding he introduce himself to his savior, whether his name was known or not.
The Yashou man rose and bowed lightly, "Da Qing." He announced and then returned to his seat, poking the fire with a stick. His casual indifference belied by the intensity of his gaze on his savior. "You look like you're from the Xunxi."
"Fatty." His savior warned but Jie Ming nodded.
"Well spotted, Yashou Master." Earning him a pleased look from Da Qing and a huff from his savior. "I am a son of the Xunxi but I was trained by Bian Yujing, Clan Leader of the Acheng."
His savior let go of his arm now they were near the trees and Jie Ming could brace against a young sapling. He bowed formally, his face cleared of all expression a wariness in his eyes, but before he could speak, Jie Ming answered for him. "You are Kunlun, second master of the Chongsheng Clan, son of Shen Xi."
His eyes sharpened even as his smile widened and a warning crept into his voice, "Our friend is ahead of us Fatty."
"No," Jie Ming replied feeling tired, the misery of losing his home clawing at his throat. "It was to you that I traveled."
"Why were you coming to see me?" Kunlun asked and it was him. There was no denial, not in his voice nor in his eyes. "And how do you know of me?"
"I didn't until recently. " Some of the truth if not all of it." My Shifu gave me your name before I left. Shifu asked that I deliver a message to you."
"...Your mother Shen Xi was my Aunt and a hero to a great many." He replied not sure if the man watching him was going to attack. "I apologize for our meeting... cousin. I hoped it would be in Chongsheng, where I could give you proof."
"What proof?" Da Qing asked sharply. "And how do we know you are telling the truth?"
That was an excellent, difficult question. He swallowed and considered everything he knew about his family, everything Shifu had said. "My mother's name was Shen Shou, she was married to my father Ji Tui of the Xunxi. Both of them are dead. Your given name is Zhao Yunlan. You escaped from Haixing and honor your mother."
There was a pause and then Kunlun laughed, it resonated and Jie Ming smiled. Those dark eyes shone as he bowed. "I am honored to meet you cousin."
There was one question Jie Ming needed to ask seated now in front of the fire, cooking the fish Kunlun had caught in the lake. They watched not with suspicion but with the great interest of people who cannot cook, Kunlun handing him a wooden spoon from somewhere, already calling him Lao Ming.
Later, he would realize that Kunlun was watching over him, taking care of him in a way that was mindful of his pride and his resilience, but it would be a support he would come to rely upon in the years that would come.
It was a truly surreal experience. He felt as though his heart had been ripped free of his body and yet he still breathed. He had lost everything he held dear but before him was the pathway Shifu had laid before him. This was not Wenjing but here was Kunlun.
Tell him of Southern Haixing's plans and give your sword to him in service. You can trust Kunlun. He will save us all.
He had lost everything else, but he had Kunlun. This hero who would save them, bringing peace to a world constantly warring or on the precipice waiting for death. He had put all of his faith in Shifu and she had told him to trust this man. To give him his service and loyalty.
"Is it true?" He asked, his voice soft but he looked at Kunlun, the soup .
Kunlun grimaced in sympathy and the rarest words one could ever hear from him. "I am sorry."
He closed his eyes and Kunlun touched his arm, " Lao Ming." He said softly and there was sorrow in those eyes now. Jie Ming could only nod at him, grief silencing him. "Word reached us too late. When we arrived Acheng was..."
Jie Ming nodded through the pain and Kunlun hesitatingly continued, understanding the devastation this new brought to his newly found cousin. "The Eastern Gate has been destroyed from what we heard."
"Shifu." Jie Ming breathed the word. She had said she would not let them take the Gate.
"We...There were no known survivors of the Gate when it was destroyed. It detonated the remaining parts of the city, decimating the Haixing forces but..."
"It killed my people at the same time." Jie Ming whispered, tears finally spilling down his cheeks, grief breaking his barriers already worn thin from his near execution.
"Clan Leader Bian Yujing sent us word through the Gate." Da Qing said solemnly and Jie Ming simply nodded, too lost to really respond.
"What Fatty meant was," Kunlun explained quickly, "...Clan Leader Bian Yujing sent her sword through the Gate as a warning."
Jie Ming looked up and stared at Kunlun as he pulled from the bag his Shifu's sword. He took the blade with reverent hands and ran his fingers along the silver hilt, engraved with protections and then holds the light blue tassel. He lets anger burn through him, lets it simmer in his heart even as he decides his purpose.
He rises holding the sword and Da Qing tenses, but Kunlun watches him, his dark eyes sorrowful. Holding the smooth lacquered wood in his palms, Jie Ming kneels. He hears a gasp but he doesn't pause. "I, Jie Ming Second Master of Acheng, pledge my life to you. I pledge my skills and my knowledge. My friendship and my experience. For all my days, in war and in peace, I shall follow you."
A disbelieving laugh had him looking up, throat constricting. Kunlun knelt in front of him which was not how the ritual was performed and placed his hands on the sword. "I accept and I pledge cousin, that I shall always try to be worthy of your devotion."