The trees were black smudges below towering jagged rocks like silent sentries along the rough road towards the army camp on the border of nowhere. A piece of land hard fought for, and utterly worthless. A burial place that vomited evil and swam with resentment, every foul creature imaginable lurking in the shadows. A stretch of rocky outcrops, wide plains and the place that seen more death in ten years than the entire world had in nine.
Only part of that death toll could be blamed on the otherworldly. The rest was war.
In the years to come, this place would become famous, perhaps already was, as the region that never fell from Southern Haixingren hands, that no matter the power and abilities of the armies he faced, the Bronze General dug in his heels and still snapped his teeth at Dixing.
Famous for being one of the very few who outlasted and sometimes bested the Black Robed Envoy.
But no propagandist was going to use the truth, that part of the Dixingian forces had nearly died in resentment-powered quicksand, only to be helped by the Bronze General's forces. Or that the only reason most of the Haixingren forces were even alive was because the Black Robed Envoy managed to dissipate the toxic fog.
As of this month, things were suspiciously quiet.
The scouting mission had achieved many things, but now their eyes were back on the camp, towards their temporary home, the moon hidden behind clouds promising rain. Twelve riders urged their horses forward at a fair speed, as the one in front raised a hand, letting a jade token dangle from a long gold chain.
The ground flashed blue as they rode over a shield line, the horses obeying despite the strange sensation. There were two more to pass before they came to the heavy wooden doors barring access the camp.
Soldiers pulled them open, letting the riders pass into the massive camp surrounding a small building, that deceptively appeared to be a derelict temple.
The leader of the group dropped down from the saddle, the dark cloak over his shoulders displaced for everyone to see the unmistakable bronze armor and the golden face mask just beneath the tall helmet.
"General," One of the lieutenants greeted, coming forward as he motioned one of the lower rank to take his horse. "Welcome back."
"Status Pan Zi?" A dulcet voice asked as the other riders dismounted.
"All is clear General, except," The man replied evenly, his dark eyes conveying a second message.
The Bronze General of Haixing paused immediately, his green and gold earring, proudly declaring him as one of the Fabled Nine Families, catching what little light there was, his face hidden. "What's wrong?"
"A prisoner has arrived, with a contingent of guards and torturers. Orders have come for him to be transported south to Yunping, to General Zhao Xinci, sir." The man added and bowing handed the General a scroll.
"We're a month away from Yunping." The General grumbled. Then he stopped, "Shangbei? They took him from the border? Brought him through here?"
Through the deadly roads and passed the burial plains?
"He's a prize apparently." Pan Zi replied lowly. "They will leave again by dawn tomorrow."
"We wouldn't want to disappoint General Zhao, would we?" The General said as he plucked the scroll from the man's hands and strode off to the tent designated for him.
Behind the mask, no one saw the look of dread that passed across the young handsome face. No one else understood why the general was striding towards his tent as if he was facing down the Black Robed Envoy.
No one knew, not even the general that tonight was going to be a turning point for everyone, that the fate he decided was going to be the best decision of his life, regardless of the cost.
All he knew, was that tonight was going to be the greatest test and that he could not fail.
It took time because he couldn't be seen to be rushing, to organize and prepare for the move, bathe and switch to clean robes and armor. By the time the Bronze General crossed the camp to the temple, the deepest part of the night had come and the watchmen were positioned at every corner.
His men greeted him as he strode into the single barely lit chamber and he waited as one of them triggered the mechanism to open the discrete stairs set deep into the ground. Nodding to them mutely, the General picked his way down the steep narrow steps into the underground catacombs.
Show no reaction. Say nothing. He thought as he entered the secreted world below his camp.
Soldiers lined the walls and saluted him as he passed the food and ammunition stores, following the torch lit corridors until he came to a warded door, glowing with familiar symbols.
The dungeon was simple as these types of chambers went. The General had not been in many admittedly, having spent of his adult life on the front lines, not at the court - but this one was pretty spartan. In the middle of the room, a man in black robes was suspended from the stone ceiling by his arms, his knees forcefully pushed into a pile of chains.
Far from being cowed or even silent, the chained man was grinning. Unrepentant in his indifference.
Unadorned dark hair framed a handsome face despite the cuts and bruises, but it was the eyes that caught the General's attention.
'Eyes as black as night. You'd know him when you see him by those eyes. They'll pierce your soul, bright and immortal. He can talk his way through and in anything, distract anyone by going off-topic..."
The words of his dead master wash over him as the prisoner, who never stops speaking in a smooth drawl, his Haixingren accented - glances at him the moment he appears.
And those eyes....coal black and foxfire bright. And the power contained in that deceptively lean body...
...He's talking with flourishes, about an executioner he met a week ago and about a Bi-Fang bird...not something most people discuss chained to a ceiling surrounded by guards who loathe him for being northern and torturers looking for some screaming and bloodletting. So it's almost a certainty that this is the man he's been waiting for.
About four or so years older, he thinks, martial artist judging by his body and the power contained but radiating off him.
"Clearly you're not doing this properly, if he can still talk in riddles." The General snipes as he enters. The guards see his rank first, so bow and saute, the three torturers glare first and then bow...reluctantly.
"General," One of them greets, "We have been instructed to keep this filth in one piece. Near perfect for General Zhao. When we deliver him, then we will have our luck."
And the screaming agony you are hoping for. The General thought. No one gets to be a top torturer for a Marquis like Zhao, if you don't love your work.
"This is not General Zhao's camp." He snaps and a ripple goes through the guards. Coal black eyes watch with interest, not fear. "I will not have a northern bastard with an unsealed core in my camp."
"We have made sure he is no threat." The lead guard says respectfully, his imperial uniform impeccable.
A quick assessment tells him that none of the people in the room save for the prisoner are cultivators. "Good. But I have been instructed to seal his core and cut the prisoner array into him." He tosses the guard the scroll. "It does address the chief cultivator of the camp and I can assure you, that would be me."
"We can," One of the torturers starts, his goatee framing a square jaw.
"Do nothing useful." The General snapped. "None of you, according to my orders are cultivators."
"Terrible thing competency." The prisoner quipped.
The General glances at him and sees the appalled expression in the lines of that angular face.
One of the torturers hit him and his knees slipped on the chains. He looks disgruntled as if someone stepped in front of the light and ruined his sunbathing. But his upper body was a mess of wounds beneath the black robes and his face was tight with something at the mention of General Zhao. Perhaps he knew that no Dixingian or northern prisoner that ever came to the attention of Zhao Xinci ever escaped. That he tortured them and then killed them in public executions in the name of the Emperor.
There are few more fervent that a disgrace brought back into the fold.
The orders did say prepare him for transport, but no one here was going to argue with a General of his standing. "Leave us." He ordered. "I require concentration for the core sealing ritual."
"But," The Imperial Guard begins,
"Do you think a chained man can overcome me and escape through three hundred soldiers?" The General snapped. "Remember your place."
"You dare insult the Bronze General?" One of the soldiers, Wang Meng, older and fairly loyal snapped at the torturers, as he arrived with a tray of cultivation tools, pig blood and blades, interrupting them.
"Thank you, Lieutenant." The General said calmly.
The torturers looked at it with a hungry curiosity that turned his stomach. He motioned to the soldiers and they exited the cell, their boots sounding hollow on the stone floor as they lined up outside in the corridor. The three torturers had no choice but to follow as the General rolled up his sleeves and selected a blade. "Leave." He snapped more viciously.
Wang Meng stepped in front of them, "This way."
He waited with sick dread still roiling through him as the doors closed. The man was silent, watching him with those dark eyes and that smirking mouth. They both knew a core sealing ritual didn't need either blades or pig blood.
He waited for the count of five to pass, before dropping the knife and hurrying over to the prisoner. The general placed his hand on the toned forearm and gently channeled him spiritual energy, sure now that he wasn't Dixingian and this help wasn't going to kill him. The man looked about to speak but the general pressed a gloved hand to his mouth and violently clanged a pole against the wood beam, tossing a crystal the size of his fist onto the floor.
A man's voice moaned in pain, emanating from the center of the crystal filling the room with the sounds of pain, horror and fear.
The man looked at him like he had lost his mind but the general smiled. Reaching into his sleeve, he pulled out a hexagon pendant and even in the dim light, he watched those dark eyes widen as he took in the unique carving of the zhenniao bird flying over three mountain peaks.
"Who are you?" The prisoner asks. "You have his face...."
"My name is Wu Xie, but you know of me by the name Guan Gen." He told him quietly and watched as the burns on his shoulders and neck faded. "I'll get you out."
"Wu Xie? Guan Gen?" The man repeated, "The Bronze General, hero of Haixing? Why would you help me?" He asked, voice rough, those piercing eyes staring at him. "Why do you look so much like him?"
Every instinct said that this man was dangerous and his shifu had always said that his friend was reckless enough, crazy enough to stare down the gates of Diyu without flinching. He didn't scare and he didn't bend, not even when he talked to Hell Guards. There is no man braver and few as arrogant. Shifu had said with a laugh. If he likes you that gangsta will defend you until death.
Don't let him die for me.
"Qi Yu was my master, and I know he adored you, Ma Yunlan. That he taught you for a little while as well." The man flinched for the first time, anger and something else in his eyes. "He trained me too, gave me this when they took his life." He lifted the pendant. "I swore to him that I would help you."
"They did kill him?" The man, Ma Yunlan said sadly. For it was him. He wasn't denying the name, only blinked in brief surprise that Wu Xie had recognized him. "How?"
Wu Xie's nose flares as he ruthlessly suppresses emotion. Three months on and this wound was still bleeding. "Betrayed. Emperor's orders. Public execution." Then he stares into those brilliant eyes, "I killed them for it." Wu Xie told him, "Except for the man who betrayed him last. Zhao Xinci. If you end up there, no one can save you."
Ma Yunlan's eyes went hard at the name, "So it was him." Then as the crystal cried out, a disturbing thing all on its own, he looked at Wu Xie sternly, "This is treason Wu Xie, helping me. Even for your master, especially for him."
Then he tilted his head like a bird of prey, his voice like steel. "What do you want for it?'
"What we both want. What my shifu wanted." Wu Xie told him. "An end to this hell."
"You would help Shangbei win this war?" He asked, slightly mocking and disbelieving.
"If I end up dead or a slave of King Kunlun, at least he will not dig mass graves and burn villages. At least he would not have cut my master into three pieces and left him for the vultures. They told me he was still alive for most of what they did!"
That stilled Ma Yunlan to the point where he resembled a statue, but his were livid. Dark pools of anger and grief. A blink and the hard expression return, grief submerged but not gone. Wu Xie appreciated that.
Wu Xie poured power into Ma Yunlan's meridians, and continued calmer, "They didn't know he was helping you. They killed him for not appearing 'devoted' enough. Claimed he was practicing demonic arts." Wu Xie told him voice breaking slightly. "And you forget, or maybe you don't know. The Wu of Haixing, are gate keepers too. My oath cannot be that different from your king's."
The man looked surprised for a moment, "Then why not defect? Shangbei would take you."
A good question and the answer was more complex than something simple like loyalty or misguided principles. So Wu Xie, not expecting to have to convince this man to this degree, respected him more for it. An easy acceptance was in their lives, unacceptable.
So Wu Xie gave him one answer, true but only half of it. "The Wu family are hanging onto a thread. Any excuse will be enough to have my entire clan wiped out by emperor's orders. I am the only reason they have not been. Zhao Xinci will delight in the opportunity. And the Tribes of Shangbei will not forget the past, even if their king chooses to. There is no place for the Wu."
Ma Yunlan gazed at him solemn now, "If that's true, you are taking a massive risk doing this."
Wu Xie shook his head, "Not all of Haixing agrees with the war. I know your king won't believe that, but its true. Families have lost their children entirely. Five generations are gone. Villages are ghost towns. The emperor has eradicated most of the large families threatening dissent. Clans have burned to the ground, half the country is starving...this has gone far beyond the feud with Dixing. Many have ties and no anger towards Shangbei or the Middle States. This was a war with Dixing and one that's gone on for long enough without resolve."
"You...are willing to be a spy...for my king?" Ma Yunlan sounded out, his voice covered by a man's deathly scream from the crystal. He glanced at it, "Clever device."
"Thank you. I made it myself. It can capture sounds." Wu Xie admitted. "And yes. I am willing to take shifu's place, as Zheniao."
"In return...?" Ma Yunlan drawled. "This is too big a risk for,"
"There is something I want. A promise." Wu Xie said boldly.
Ma Yunlan smiled, a cold smile and waited.
"When your king wins this war," Wu Xie said slowly, treason tasting bitter on his tongue, "Let it be known the Wu Clan are not to be eradicated or enslaved. None of us were Shangbei's enemy."
"Your service for the freedom of your family?" Ma Yunlan suggested, "Its a risk. The Wu family are powerful."
Rather than be insulted or disappointed in the distinct lack of trust, Wu Xie nodded in agreement and threw out the one piece of knowledge his family would kill him for admitting. "My family are the ones who run the Ghost Roads." Wu Xie told him starkly and added one final thing. "Ma Liyan owed Wu Erbai her life years before she was sect leader. He gave her a set of pearl earrings. She never took them off. After....The man who murdered her?"
Something dark and vicious appeared in those eyes and Wu Xie knew he was one step on a short road for bringing it up. But courage was strangely one thing he never lacked. Sense he lacked in abundance, but not courage. "Wu Erbai is the one who cursed him. Death by a Thousand Cuts."
The Ghost Roads were genuine dirt roads and cultivation powered tunnels that moved refugees from one area to another. It was estimated that hundreds fled into Shangbei using these Roads, led by masked cultivators for free. Before the war aimed beyond Dixing, the Wu Clan had moved people to the Middle States as well. And Ma Liyan had astonishingly been a friend to his Er-shu, who despised most people.
Dark brows rise over those intense eyes, and Wu Xie said, "I can prove it, if you don't believe me."
"I owe him then. You were the one who got Lao Qi in and out undetected?" Ma Yunlan said ignoring that offer. "He pretended to be you didn't he? Like twins."
"Through a network of tombs." Wu Xie told him. "To get out now, you are going to have to use one. Five li away there is a cave system, you'll find a boatman, I'll take you there."
Ma Yunlan looked at him and then nodded, "Fine. By my blood, I swear the Wu Clan will go free."
"You will try to vouch for us?" Wu Xie pressed, "Your king has no love for us, for all we are cousins of the Xunxi and Syn Qing. We were once one tribe."
That seemed to surprise him as well, but it wasn't common knowledge. "The first leader of the Xunxi was not a Jie. They were a Wu. Wu Qishan. You'll find him in the records."
Ma Yunlan laughed but it wasn't mocking. "I will vouch for you, if you keep your word. Lao Qi spoke highly of his student, there was love in his words. " He said sharply, eyes boring into his so intensely it was hard to keep looking at him. "Betray him, even in death and I will have your head Wu Xie, grandson of Wu Lao Gou."
"Betray his good word for you, Ma Yunlan, son of Ma Liyan." Wu Xie replied icily, "I will take yours. King Kunlun is not the only one capable of burrowing through shields and tunneling through spaces. My shifu treasured your friendship and called you his brother. I will take his place, honor his pledges with my life."
Ma Yunlan smiled with far more warmth and laughed softly, "Well then, in return for protection and the end of this war, I'll accept on behalf of my king."
"What do you want in return?" Wu Xie asked calmly.
That head tilted again, "What do I want?"
"Your king will do nothing for my family without something valuable in return." Wu Xie said as the crystal screamed and begged a little.
"How did Lao Qi communicate with you? He said he could find you anywhere." Ma Yunlan asked instead.
"We created the cover of a sweetheart in a village called Banai. All of the letters are written in code, faked about her family and daily life. Soppy romance. All of the mail is read, summaries passed to more trusted officials."
"And this girl exists?" Ma Yunlan asks. "Please tell me it is not Huo Xiuxiu. The current young leader of the Huo family? Lao Qi said you were connected. Her and Xie Yuchen of the Xie Clan?"
"Childhood friends. The Emperor murdered her aunt. Qi Yu helped her" Wu Xie defended. "But no. Its not her. Her name is Xiao Bai. She is my shimei. She passes the letters for me, but that is all of her involvement." He added fiercely.
"I see no reason to get her involved." Ma Yunlan said with a shrug that didn't seem possible suspended from chains.
"Good. We're running out of time." Wu Xie healed as much as he could and set about not doing the core sealing ritual but painting another array, in cinnabar and pig blood on his chest.
He tied a woven bracelet onto his forearm, single pretty charm dangling from one end. "Don't take this off, until you are clear. They won't see it. Observant ones might hear the sound of the charm, but it should be quiet enough to be missed."
A touch of power to the crystal and murmur of words older than either of them, and the array lights, the bracelet glowing. Suddenly, wounds appear all over Ma Yunlan's chest.
All of them are fake, but they appear and feel real. An array looked like its carved bloody and raw into Ma Yunlan's chest and abs, the pig blood staining his black robes, dripping a bit more onto the floor.
The burns are vivid and purple bruising appears around the chains.
Ma Yunlan looks down speechless and then frowns at Wu Xie, "I didn't know the Wu were illusionists."
Wu Xie shrugs, "I learned young." The Wu were not, but Qi Li was. And his master had trained him well. "If the bracelet is undisturbed, the illusion will stay. The array will make your power appear non-existent or very low, consistent with being sealed. Try to look exhausted."
Ma Yunlan smiled at him, just as the crystal went silent. Wu Xie spread some blood over his hands, staining his sleeves and nodded. "You have my word and my pledge, Ma Yunlan."
"And you have mine." He said in reply, his smile bright, his eyes foxfire bright.
When the light of dawn was just beginning to appear on the horizon, Wu Xie watched blank faced as the guards hauled Ma Yunlan from the temple into the waiting escorted carriage. He was still pretending exhaustion and didn't put up any fuss as he was loaded inside with all of the care a stall owner might treat a cabbage.
For a moment he could almost feel his shifu's hand on his shoulder, the long fingers tightening then releasing in reassurance. I'll save him. He promised to the whisper of his master and teacher.
Wu Xie bid his farewell with military grace and before it left the courtyard, he returned to his tent, as if this mattered very little. Life at the camp went on and no one questioned anything, all interest fading after a day as he hoped.
He set his plans into motion and prepared.
He waited the requisite three days, taking his men back out on a supposed 'scout' mission. This was important for two reasons. Firstly, he needed them well away from his camp so no suspicion could fall on him, guaranteeing a death knell for his family. Secondly, he needed them closer to one of the Ghost Roads.
Uncle Three always says that grave digging, tunnel building and tomb robbing, all need one thing. Patience. Then he would add, "And knowing where to strike."
Wu Xie chose his strike as carefully as he could.
There were three carriages to disguise which one held the prisoner an an escort of thirty men. Ten on horseback, ten at the rear, five scouts and five procession guards.
They were a long way from any villages and were taking in the inland road rather than risk being too close to the border with their cargo. Like a finger skating long a painted road on a map, Wu Xie calculated the time to get to one specific point and left his camp on a scouting mission.
The wheels strained as they drew closer to Mingsha, the remnants of an ancient city, cursed and damned. An unholy sound broke the oppressive silence of the road and a thousand bats soared across the sky bringing the procession to a halt. The commander cursed and the guards froze when another unearthly sound followed, a pained overly loud moan.
"What is that?" One of them demanded.
There was a bang and green smoke drifted rapidly through the trees, bringing with the scent of cloves, ash and something rotten. The guards tried to cover their faces and the commander called at them all to keep moving, but soon enough most of were lurching, stumbling and eventually after only a handful of moments, they had collapsed, horses and all to the ground.
Through the trees, three men rushed onto the road, swords drawn. Wu Xie scrambled over the fallen unconscious bodies of the regiment and motioned with a scarf over his face, to the other two. Opening the carriages they found unconscious soldiers until the last one.
Semi-conscious now and still chained, Ma Yunlan lifted his head from the floor of the carriage and stared blearily at Wu Xie. "About time." He said roughly.
"We're right near the tunnel." Wu Xie told him, "Here let me help."
The guard stirred before Ma Yunlan could do more than made a warning sound of alarm in his throat. Wu Xie's blade was faster, across the throat of the first one and buried in the second man's chest. Ma Yunlan looked at him and reached for his arm when Wu Xie came closer, tools in hand to unlock the chains. "Pouch. Qiankum. Second carriage. It has my sword. I don't want it in Zhao's hands."
Pan Zi nodded at Wu Xie from the doorway. "I'll get it."
Pulling the chains off him, Wu Xie hurriedly hauled him out of the carriage and whistled to the other two men. "We have to go!" He told Ma Yunlan and quickly helped him over the bodies and back into the trees.
Pan Zi leapt from the second carriage. "There are four qiankum pouches!" He said handing them to Wu Xie. A red one with silver thread. A purple one with white. A blue with flower embroidery and a black one that for a moment Wu Xie was sure it was moving.
Must be a trick of the light. Without ceremony, Wu Xie handed Ma Yunlan all four and gripped his arm firmly, waiting to be leaned on, or attacked for touching him. When Ma Yunlan only stumbled forward, Wu Xie took it as acceptance. Hr was thin, but there was hard muscle beneath his hand and a riptide of power just hidden beneath the surface.
His golden core must be exceptionally powerful! Wu Xe thought.
"What was that?" Ma Yunlan asked coughing as they made it to four horses down the hill.
"A Wu specialty." Wu Xie told him and was actually impressed with the man's constitution. Most people would be out cold after that exposure. "They're not dead. I want General Zhao to find them."
"He'll come?" Ma Yunlan asked slightly slurred.
"He always comes when you don't want him." Wu Xie told him and surprisingly as he helped onto the horse, Ma Yunlan laughed. Despite the dizziness he must be feeling, Ma Yunlan rode with a straight back and a tight grip on the pommel of the saddle.
Wu Xie led them down the old path deeper into Mingsha itself, where the old stone city rose around them in crumbling ruins, scattered shadows and that creeping foreboding sense of a tomb.
So far Wu Xie had proven himself honest. There was not yet an abiding trust between them, but Ma Yunlan didn't hesitate to follow him
"Wang Meng guard the entrance. Keep hidden. Pan Zi take the rear. Ma Yunlan, watch your step. The path inside is steep. The fog will still be affecting your senses a little. Have some water." Wu Xie said handing Ma Yunlan his flask as he led them through the rubble to a entrance-way barely more than a stone slit in the wall of the cliff.
"Whose tomb is this?" Ma Yunlan asked drinking the water.
"This city fell to plague centuries ago." Pan Zi told him quietly, taking a torch. "Most of the dead before the rest of them fell, were entombed here. We found it when a storm hit during a battle with the black robes."
Haixingren soldiers predominately wore red or sandy colors to blend in with the environment, with a sun motif, although Wu Xie himself wore black and bronze armor. Dixing royalty however wore blue and their soldiers all wore black. So there was the incredibly creative, general slur for anyone Dixingian.
"Is it true you fought the Black Robed Envoy over quicksand?" Ma Yunlan asked as they went deeper, his voice neutral but his eyes reflecting the flames of the torches were just as intense.
Wu Xie had a feeling the truth might just be safer, despite what his uncle, either of them, would say. "This land makes fools of us all. It seethes with resentment and hate from the massacres this region has seen. Its better to say we are all trapped here. The Lord Commander," For that was what Wu Xie preferred to call him, "Was caught in quicksand through immense bad luck and one of his own men's poor choices."
"Must have been hard to free himself." Ma Yunlan continued in that strange tone, but his eyes were somehow sharper. As if he was daring Wu Xie to lie to him.
Wu Xie snorted, "It would have been a death sentence. Too bad for him, he owed me his life." Then he amended, "...Until he repaid it five months later when a resentment ward broke. No one knew it existed. Without him we all would have died."
Bizarrely he added, "There are few as honorable as Lord Commander of Dixing."
This incredibly treasonous statement earned him a wide smile and an approving look. "Which is why peace is possible." Ma Yunlan said. "If there was only hate, we would all be doomed."
Wu Xie had to admit this was true and led them across a narrow stone bridge, "Mind where you step." He warned.
Along corridors and across a maze of small interconnected rooms, disabling his own traps, he brought them to the grand ceremonial chamber. "Here." He said.
"What happens now?" Ma Yunlan asked as they crossed into the circular room, Wu Xie lighting the torches.
"We access the Ghost Roads." Wu Xie told him.
Ma Yunlan stood in the center before the strange altar that might have once held a coffin, watching intently as Wu Xie cut his forearm, etching another line below the others, that he knew Ma Yunlan would see. Blood dripped into the stone formation on the altar and Wu Xie quickly drew an array in the air with it. Gold symbols locked into a vast array that dropped to the floor, pulsing with power.
The power spread and licked up the walls like flames, forming symbols and radicals like frost on stone. "Where do you need to go?" Wu Xie asked Ma Yunlan seriously. "This tunnel is not a long distance one. I can send you over the border to Dixing easily, but the commander there right now is fiercely anti-Haixing and northerner. He's kill you on principle."
Ma Yunlan thought for a moment, "We're not that close to Shangbei, Wu Xie." He looked at Wu Xie a moment. "If you took an oath to the Gates and you were trained by Qi Yu...I don't feel too worried about admitting what I am."
"Also a Gate Master of some kind. I know. I pretended to seal your power didn't I? I could feel it." Wu Xie interrupted. "I took the Eight Oaths. You need not tell me more."
Ma Yunlan grinned, another unexpected reaction. "All Eight? That's impressive. But, you're right. I am a Master level. If I add gate power to this tunnel would it be able to go further?"
Wu Xie considered it. "Possibly. As a Master you should be able to stabilize it. As only you are entering it, it should hold long enough. I need to lock it into a tunnel anchor somewhere."
"My people have no idea I am in Haixing." Ma Yunlan told him. "I was supposed to be meeting a man called Jiang Wantang. You know him?"
"Him?" Wu Xie's brows rose in surprise. "Why? That man is a rat on his best day."
"Ah. I take it he sold me out?" Ma Yunlan asked.
"You and everyone else he can for money." Pan Zi told him. "He's in a deal with Marquis Zhao."
"He was offering info on shifu, wasn't he?" Wu Xie said with a sigh.
"He was." Ma Yunlan studied him, half leaning on the altar. "He told about his execution and that his student was still of unknown identity."
Wu Xie closed his eyes. "I was sent here and Master cut ties officially so I could not be blamed." He adored his shifu, but the older man was wily, mercurial, enigmatic on an average day and rarely told you anything in full. Frankly, if Ma Yunlan was anything like Qi Yu, his people probably thought he was doing something innocuous, not realizing he was even having a meeting with an arms dealer.
But he couldn't blame Ma Yunlan. He was right at the epicenter when the world blew apart and Qi Yu was blamed by Zhao Xinci. Ma Yunlan was in Shangbei with little information. It was care and loyalty that led Ma Yunlan from safety. Wu Xie was hardly any better.
"Is this place near a Gate or remnant?" Wu Xie asks instead.
"A temple of sorts. My people will be looking for me there." Ma Yunlan told him.
Gate Temples were rare. There were four in the world and the Wu alone knew where the fourth one was concealed. That left Sangzang on the border in Upper Dixing, Wang Min in the mid reaches of Shangbei, where many of the upper gate masters teach, but this is guarded and warded heavily. Lastly, there was... "Zhuangzi is a bit of a stretch. I can use the crystals embedded in the outer room as the anchor....are they marked with the Six Radicals of Mu?"
Ma Yunlan studied him and Wu Xie made himself look back, to meet that gaze. Then he laughed, amused and almost wistful. "Wu Xie Ah...Lao Qi taught you well. They are and Twelve Radicals in Lilong Script."
Wu Xie opened his mouth and then closed it. "One day when there is peace....generations beyond ours might serve the Gates together once more."
Ma Yunlan watched him and then abruptly, to Wu Xie surprise, he nodded. "Is that a good enough anchor?"
"Yes. It won't last long though."
Ma Yunlan gave his power into the correct channels as Wu Xie demonstrated, turning the gold color to a fiery red. Pleased, having already felt the enormous shift in sheer potential now at his hand, Wu Xie rapidly changed several radicals and altered the pace of the pulsating power. To Ma Yunlan he said, "Step into the center! When I give you the signal step forward. Imagine its just a doorway."
Of course nothing even the best plans never stay simple for long.
The tunnel roared to life, ripping through space and across distance until a mirrored shine appeared before the altar and Ma Yunlan. Colors, oranges and silver blended and twirled nauseatingly for a long moment and then a picture emerged. A circular room, lit by candles. There were pillars showing all of the Gate symbols and three men who had turned, swords raised at the obvious intrusion.
All three wore their hair in braids and they shouted as they saw Ma Yunlan, running forward. Ma Yunlan's hand shot out in a sharp gesture and the three men paused before the mirror.
And that was when all hell broke loose.
Pan Zi gave a warning cry "Black Robes! Black Robes!" and twelve or more Dixingian scout soldiers swarmed into the room. Wu Xie snarled a curse and Ma Yunlan stumbled as a dagger was thrown at his back.
Wu Xie hurled a curse and a defensive array and reached for Ma Yunlan. As the man fell forward, one of the men in the mirror, the tallest one was already pressing forward, eyes intent on Ma Yunlan. The resemblance between them, made him wonder if it was his brother.
Wu Xie couldn't risk it. He grappled and caught Ma Yunlan tightly, "Wu Xie!" Ma Yunlan gasped, moving against him as another knife was thrown. "Come with me!"
"They'll kill my family. Go! I'll wait for you!" Wu Xie said and called the wind. Sand lifted and with it Wu Xie pulled his sword. With his other hand he hurled Ma Yunlan forward, pushing him into the mirror and turned to swipe at the scout launching through the sand and power, knees drawn up, sword raised. "Haixingren bastard!" The man was shouting.
Wu Xie killed him with a blow, turning back to lock the tunnel and end the connection.
There was a distortion, a blur of time and then to Wu Xie's relief Ma Yunlan fell into the waiting arms of the man on the far right, who stared at Wu Xie in shock. A stunning heart-shaped face, framed by long braids, a fringe of dark strands scattered across a generous brow...a perfect poet's mouth and exceptionally long fingers gripping a short sword...
Wu Xie had never seen anyone so otherworldly and so beautiful.
For a moment their eyes met. Unfathomably dark eyes met his and Wu Xie felt as though he had stepped off a cliff into mountain air, as if the years of sandstorms, wide plains under a blue sky and the choking bitter grief of corpses littering blood soaked ground - all of it, was gone. A weight lifted.
Somehow he knew this man. Yet he would never know this man. A strange grief touched his heart at the thought.
Then the other man blinked, his arms around Ma Yunlan and he hurled a sword through the portal killing the man - no men at Wu Xie's back.
Shocked Wu Xie stared at him, unthinkingly showing the man his green inlaid sword, the name Zhu Ding inscribed just below the hilt. The man nodded as if Wu Xie had told him a secret and he grasped Ma Yunlan tighter, alarm in his barely expressive face.
Wu Xie threw the array at the tunnel with a blast of raw power, "Go!" He shouted at them, at Ma Yunlan, at Panzi.
With those eyes at his back, joined now by Ma Yunlan who was struggling upright, to leave hopefully not return for Wu Xie's fight, the Bronze General slashed his sword in a quick attack, the calm serenity of battle settling into his heart, as he pulled the short...saber free and used it to fight off their attackers.
It was done. Ma Yunlan was free.
Peace had a chance.