It had been, up to that point, a pleasant walk in the woods.
Zhao Yunlan was feeling good - satisfied, even. Getting out of Dragon City for a day was a privilege. Serving the people of Haixing was even more of a privilege, in its way. He was glad that he’d been able to clear up the inquiry that had brought him up to the small mountain settlement. It was a close-knit community that had been startled to encounter a family of Flower Yashou and *their* settlement. Thankfully, the leaders of both communities had been sensible enough to call for a negotiator before things got ugly.
A trip out of town, a peaceful settlement between the Yashou and the humans, and even better, Zhao Yunlan had convinced Shen Wei to come along with him.
It hadn’t been easy, but a little “you’ve been working too hard” followed by “actually *I’ve* been working too hard” and concluding with “think of the good will this mean for human-Yashou relations” had prised away his favorite professor from his desk.
Zhao Yunlan paused in his walk down the firmly-packed dirt road, and put his hands on his hips. It was brisk enough for his heavier jacket, but he wore it open as a concession to the warmth of hiking up the settlement area. He pushed it back with his hands and rested his thumbs on his hip bones. He pushed his shoulders back and took a deep breath.
Shen Wei stopped as well, just a few steps downhill. He turned to look back at him. The late-afternoon sun danced through his hair, turning a few dark strands to golden brown. He had taken off his glasses a while ago and tucked them into one of his many pockets, wrapped in a handkerchief. Like Zhao Yunlan, he wore a warm coat, but had left it unfastened for the walk. Unlike Zhao Yunlan’s casual t-shirt and overshirt, he had on a close-fitting black sweater, and, amazingly, no sign of a collared shirt or a tie, at all.
His professor met his eyes and a flash of bemusement lit up his face.
“What?” he asked. Zhao Yunlan grinned at him.
“The outdoors agrees with you!” he said. He threw his hands out in an exaggerated gesture of breathing deep. “All this air! I can see why the Flower Yashou like it up here.”
“Yes, I’m hoping the territorial agreement helps them thrive. They’ve had to hide for so long.”
Zhao Yunlan was about to make a joke about flowers hiding from the sun, when a burst of noise, like a huge crow cawing, came from a point off their path.
Quirking an eyebrow at each other, the two men stepped into the shadows in unison. The hard-packed dirt and gentle hill soon gave way to rocky terrain as they walked. Just as Shen Wei was stopping to look around, the sound came again. Shen Wei winced a little.
“Sounds like a cranky baby,” said Zhao Yunlan, clapping his hand on Shen Wei’s shoulder. “Maybe a baby the size of a boulder.” He smoothed a thumb over Shen Wei’s shoulder. Shen Wei’s forehead was wrinkled a tiny amount, which meant a headache that would make most men weep.
“Something’s not right,” Shen Wei admitted. Zhao Yunlan nodded and they both moved forward more cautiously. They came to a large rocky outcropping. Zhao Yunlan signed when, after circling the whole thing, he found a crevice between two large boulders. It was clearly the start of some kind of cave.
“I’ll take a look first,” he said. He knelt down and took out a flashlight, readying himself to poke his head and shoulders inside. Shen Wei knelt down beside him and put a hand in his belt, just in case.
The hole was cold, as he expected, and it smelled terrible. His flashlight showed…well.. a lot of rock and dirt. He scuffed at the dirt, at a loss at what else to do, but he couldn’t hear anything aside from his own breathing. Maybe it had just been a weird wind phenomenon.
Then an enormous sound filled his ears and everything went black.
“...unlan! Wake up!”
Why was his leg shaking?
Why was his mouth full of dirt. And it was dark even though his eyes were open - heavy-dark, and cold.
Zhao Yunlan spat, and groaned.
The shaking stopped.
A heavy sigh answered that. Zhao Yunlan gradually pulled himself up to a seated position. His head was ringing a little, but otherwise he felt okay. He reached out and found Shen Wei’s arm, and patted it reassuringly.
“Are you all right?” he demanded. It took an active bit of restraint for him not to run his hands over Shen Wei to look for injuries. Shen Wei’s warm hand came up to fold around his.
“I’m fine, really.” he said. His hand stayed on his and Zhao Yunlan decided that was a good thing, so he turned his hand and held hands with Shen Wei properly.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“The sound came again, and you passed out and slid forward. When I held on, we were both pulled in here. We’re under the rocks.” Shen Wei sounded frustrated, with an undertone of something else in his voice. Zhao Yunlan had a bad feeling.
“What else?” he prompted.
“Something is interfering with my powers.”
“I tried to wake you up, and I almost passed out, as if the effect reversed itself on me.” Ah, so that’s what that sounded like when Shen Wei was scared. Zhao Yunlan squeezed Shen Wei’s arm and puffed out his chest, even though he knew his friend couldn’t see it.
“Hah, at last the day has come when Brother Black has to be rescued by this humble servant!” Zhao Yunlan could imagine the withering eyeroll that Shen Wei was absolutely not expressing at his antics. Zhao Yunlan’s enthusiasm was soon punctured when he realized that neither of their phones had any power.
Zhao Yunlan got to his feet carefully, cautious of what might be a low ceiling. Fortunately, he found that he could stand upright. He quickly pulled Shen Wei up with him.
“Did we come down a tunnel?”
“Yes, but I can’t find it back. It’s like it closed up behind us.” He could feel Shen Wei hesitating in the way his fingers fidgeted minutely against his. The professor continued, “I don’t think there’s a source of air.”
“Well, I wasn’t planning to sit around and wait for Chu-ge to wonder what happened to us, in any case. Let’s explore.” Shen Wei made an assenting sound and the two of them stepped forward cautiously, with the hands not clasped together outstretched before them.
The dirt stayed level, but their hands didn’t reach any walls. Before long, Shen Wei pulled them to a halt.
“We’re not moving in a straight line,” he said. Zhao Yunlan blew out a breath forcefully.
“Okay, we need to anchor ourselves, and search in a radius, then. Do you have any string?”
Between the two of them, they were able to find enough string, and a couple of hair pins (“what? Zhu Hong dropped them.”) Using the hairpins, they anchored the string in place and held onto it while they walked in a slow spiral outward, knotting the string as they paced to mark the intirations. On the third spiral, Shen Wei’s feet knocked against something soft.
He knelt, and found a dead crow. It was limp, but not damp - decomposed enough to be dried out and stringy. Then he found another, and another.
“Zhao Yunlan…” he began, but his dearest friend spoke over him.
“Yes, I’m finding them, too. How fresh, do you think?” Shen Wei tried to stay dispassionate as he felt among the small bodies. So much death. He hoped they hadn’t suffered.
“They seem to be in different states of decay. I’m not feeling any fresh blood, or any warmth, at all.”
“The smell is pretty terrible, but also not really fresh, if you know what I mean.” Shen Wei smiled in the darkness, sorry that he couldn’t see what was certainly an entertaining expression of disgust on Zhao Yunlan’s face.
“Ah, Shen Wei, Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan said, bringing his warmth over to crouch next to Shen Wei, crowding him pleasantly from hip to shoulder. “What have we found, a crow graveyard?”
“Maybe? I don’t know much about Yashou Crow rituals, or regular crow rituals, either,” he admitted. The Crow Tribe was incredibly insular, and even in ten thousand years he’d never learned much about them beyond what was necessary.
“This can’t be Yashou, can it? They all seem like regular crow corpses,” Zhao Yunlan sounded doubtful to Shen Wei’s ears.
“Whatever is warping my energy can’t be coming from regular crows,” he pointed out. Shen Wei rolled forward onto his knees. Zhao Yunlan came with him. Both of them froze in place as a new sound crept out of the darkness. It sounded whispery, but solid, and it was coming from several directions.
“Hello?” said Zhao Yunlan, provokingly.
The sound coalesced into a massive rustling.
“It’s wings,” Shen Wei said. He held out his hand, unable to resist the pressure of being in total darkness, and tried to summon dark energy to his hand. He could feel the thrum of it, but in the next moment it sizzled and sparked. Suddenly, he could see. Yellow light spilled from his hand.
A thousand glittering eyes looked back at him from the dark.
Zhao Yunlan cried out and smothered his hand with something. The light went out and suddenly Shen Wei realized that two of his fingers were burning with pain. Zhao Yunlan was patting his hand with great vigor and Shen Wei realized with a sickening lurch to his stomach that he could smell burning flesh.
“Your hand was on fire,” Zhao Yunlan gasped, pulling that hand to his chest and slowly unwrapping it. The air on his burnt skin made Shen Wei audibly wince, his breath catching. He twitched his fingers, and thankfully could feel that it felt like blisters, but nothing worse. Still, it hurt.
“Did you see?” he gasped out, breathing through the pain.
“Yeah, yeah, lots of birds,” Zhao Yunlan said dismissively. He was wrapping something smaller around Shen Wei’s hands. It was probably some kind of kerchief, the sort of thing Zhao Yunlan usually had tucked away in a pocket for the sake of picking up evidence. When he was done, he let go and put his jacket back on. Then his hands were back, holding Shen Wei gently by the arm. What he said next belied the gentleness in his touch.
“What was that, Shen Wei,” he said, his voice hard, “you knew that you would get hurt.”
Shen Wei decided to deflect.
“The birds didn’t attack us, which was good,” he said, “and I think I saw something else.” Zhao Yunlan was not to be deflected.
“You knew you’d get hurt, but you used your powers. Why? Why do that for no reason?” Shen Wei heard the tremble in Zhao Yunlan’s voice and knew that his friend was seconds away from shouting.
“I needed,” he corrected himself, “we needed to know more. You’ll run out of air down here.” He put his unharmed hand on Zhao Yunlan and ran it up his arm until it was resting on his shoulder, at the base of his neck. He took a moment to be glad of the warmth and solidity of the man.
“We don’t know how much time we have,” he said quietly. Zhao Yunlan said nothing. Shen Wei could hear him breathing with the kind of deep steadiness that spoke to him trying to hold control of himself. Suddenly, Zhao Yunlan stepped into his space. Shen Wei’s hand fell naturally off his shoulder and down Zhao Yunlan’s back. He felt Zhao Yunlan's whiskery face next to his, his beard soft against his cheek. The warmth of him was against his chest, and for a moment all of his senses were concentrated on the point of his skin where Zhao Yunlan was breathing.
One breath. Two.
“Don’t do this,” said Zhao Yunlan, his voice a gentle rumble in Shen Wei’s ear. “Don’t cast yourself aside for me.”
“I do what has to be done,” said Shen Wei quietly, desperately. “It’s what I know – it’s all I know – to do.”
“You don’t have to throw yourself at every problem like,” Zhao Yunlan dug his forehead briefly into Shen Wei’s shoulder, almost throwing him off balance. Then the feeling of him was gone, except for where he still held onto his arm. “Like you’re just… kindling looking for a match,” he continued.
Shen Wei could feel his face go cold and he knew that if he could, he would be summoning his robes of office right now. Maybe it was good that the darkness hid him from Zhao Yunlan’s piercing view.
“I do,” he said. “I’m the Black-Cloaked Envoy. It’s my duty.”
“Not to me,” shot back Zhao Yunlan. “Not to me.” His voice was a little hoarse, like he was forcing words out. “You don’t owe me your duty, Shen Wei.”
Shen Wei shook his head, even though he knew Zhao Yunlan couldn’t see it.
“You do the same,” he said. Zhao Yunlan said nothing in return, but his hand squeezed Shen Wei’s arm, just a little, then again and a third time, like reassurance. Shen Wei’s heart turned over a little, Even when arguing, Zhao Yunlan would never leave him alone in the dark.
“You do the same,” he repeated, “You’re Chief Zhao of the S.I.D. You have a duty to give your time and your strength and intelligence for the people.” He felt Zhao Yulan shift his grip to cradle his injured hand in both of his.
“Are you admitting that you’re one of my people, now?” he asked, a hint of teasing mirth in his voice. Shen Wei knew it was just a cover for how upset he was, but the teasing still made him feel better.
“We’ll discuss that later, when we get out,” he said, trying to sound firm instead of relieved.
“All right,” his friend said, all business. “What did you see?”
Shen Wei tugged Zhao Yunlan with his good hand. He described what the flash of light had shown him: just behind the watching murder of crows, he had seen something reflect the light, like a prism. It reminded him of the prison that Sang Zan had been trapped in, only much smaller. After a short whispered discussion, it was Zhao Yunlan who inched forward, the retrieved string now tied to his wrist, with the other end tied to Shen Wei’s uninjured hand.
Slowly, slowly, Zhao Yunlan approached the crows. He could hear their feathers, and the scrape of their beaks as they groomed themselves, and each other. His ankle found a jutting rock, and he realized that he had finally found a wall. The crows were perched in a thick crowd on hundreds of nooks and crannies in a granite wall. Unnervingly, they made no sound as he came within arm’s length of them.
“Hello,” Zhao Yunlan said, trying to sound as non-threatening as possible. He tried to imagine that it was a crowd of students, guarding a cake they meant to give to Shen Wei. “I’m just going to reach past your beautiful feathers. I’m not going to touch any of you. I have the deepest respect and admiration.” He took a step forward, hand outstretched.
“You are the most amazing crows I’ve ever seen, or not seen, since you blend so amazingly with the dark. Have I mentioned that crow is my second favorite color?” he knew he was babbling a little, but he was close enough for those hard beaks and sharp talons to take a big piece of him, and so far no crow had moved.
He took another step. His neck was now in pecking distance. His hand met rock. He felt around a bit, hoping to feel smooth crystal.
For a long minute, all Shen Wei could hear was Zhao Yunlan’s clothing creak. The soothing babble had stopped. Then the string tugged in his hand. He reeled in Zhao Yunlan like a fish.
“Got it, hah, got it, I hope,” Zhao Yunlan said in his ear as he stumbled into him. A smooth crystal about the size of his phone was pressed into his good hand. Shen Wei sent the smallest, gentlest tendril of mental inquiry into the crystal. A series of images flashed through his brain and the crystal vibrated in his hand. He dropped the inquiry and felt dizzy.
“This is the source of the interference,” he confirmed.
“Can we smash it?” Zhao Yunlan asked eagerly. Shen Wei patted his hands.
“That might be unfortunate,” he said. “Do you remember how much energy there was in the crystal that trapped Sang Zan? Also,” he said, because he could hear Zhao Yunlan drawing breath to argue, “the energy in this crystal is what is holding back all those crows from attacking us. They were probably drawn here, and they’ve been dying slowly, unable to leave. The more of them that die, the angrier the remaining crows are. If they’re released from the trap…”
“Ah,” said Zhao Yunlan. They were both silent, their hands close around each other.
“What would be the fastest way out,” Zhao Yunlan mused, finally. “Should we go to Dixing? You can drop us straight through the floor in a portal.” Shen Wei held onto Zhao Yunlan a little tighter.
“Yes, that would be the fastest,” he said, “but it would still take at least three breaths”. Shen Wei felt Zhao Yunlan run his hands up his arms, all the way up until he could feel those precious hands cupping his face. Zhao Yunlan’s breath was on his face and he realized that he had leaned in very close.
“I’ll break it with my heel,” Zhao Yunlan said, pressing his forehead to Shen Wei’s. Without a word, Shen Wei passed the crystal to Zhao Yunlan. One hand still holding on, drifting back down to his wrist, Zhao Yunlan knelt and put the crystal under his right foot. He wiggled his heel, getting a sense of the thing. The dirt was packed hard here, and the crystal had a flat side that he was sure he could crack with a single stomp. He tucked his other foot next to Shen Wei’s for an instant while he let go with both hands and shrugged off his jacket again. He wound it tightly around his left arm.
“You’ll be fine,” said Shen Wei, “I’ll be quick.”
“Of course you will,” Zhao Yunlan responded, cheerfully.
Zhao Yunlan brought his heel down with his whole weight. For a moment he thought he’d missed, but then he felt his heel sticking in the dirt. Blue light spilled out from under his foot like a faucet turned on. He could see Shen Wei standing in front of him, his eyes closed in concentration. There was a smear of dirt diagonal across his face like a child’s finger painting and his hair was a wreck. Zhao Yunlan had a moment of glee at his beloved friend’s disarray before the attack fell.
Crow screeches split the air around him - not like the concentrated cry that had summoned them to the rocks - but a thousand individual crows screaming on top of each other. Fortunately not all of them could gain good air speed in the cavern, but the three that flew at his head and neck were enough to startle him.
Zhao Yunlan swung his arm sharply, fending off the birds. He stayed close to Shen Wei and braced himself. In a breath, he was swarmed by crows. Those who had managed to get airborne dive-bombed him with no regard for staying aloft, while others flapped just enough to get momentum to hit him the middle. Others scrambled toward him on talons and attacked his legs. He swung both arms but stayed quiet, unwilling to break Shen Wei’s focus.
All he could see was black feathers. It felt like a hundred scrapes and pecks, like being rolled downhill over gravel. He shut his eyes but it felt too off-balance and he was afraid that he would accidentally step away from Shen Wei, so he opened them again.
Scrape, peck, impact. Crows were throwing themselves at him like they could bodily pummel him to death. He kept moving, flinging his arms out like a whirlwind to keep the crows away from Shen Wei.
A scrape across his forehead. A hard jolt to the inside of his arm that made one hand go numb. A hit, while he was turned, to his upper back so solid that he almost folded over. Blood was flowing into his eyes. Still, he moved, and defended.
Then he was falling.
The stop came fast, but he landed on something relatively soft. He gasped, hard, and wheezed and coughed. Spots danced in front of his eyes and he shut his eyes for just a moment.
Zhao Yunlan cracked his eyes open. Over his head was, surprisingly, his own ceiling. He blinked. Yep, still his own ceiling. He took stock, wiggling his fingers and toes. Everything seemed present, and he seemed to be in his own night clothes, too. When he turned his head, he realized that his head and shoulders were dotted with small, neat bandages. As he was poking at one on his shoulder, a gentle cough alerted him.
“Stop that,” said Shen Wei, as he sat down on the bed beside him. He had a mug in his hand, which he set down on the bedside table. It smelled good, like spices and herbs and chicken. Shen Wei took his hand away from his shoulder, and kept it. Zhao Yunlan saw that the burn on Shen Wei’s hand had been bandaged professionally. He was also in different clothes, and looked clean but tired.
“So, it worked,” Zhao Yunlan said. Shen Wei smiled at him, the small crinkle in the corner of eyes sending a small shiver through Zhao Yunlan’s chest.
“We are going to revisit the conversation about sacrifice,” Shen Wei said. Zhao Yunlan felt a grin slide across his face. He loved a good argument with this man.
“Oh, are we,” he responded, tapping his fingers against Shen Wei’s.
The sun shone through the windows, and if there were birds singing, they were careful to do so far away from the building.