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Xunya’s hooves either clacked against the occasional rock or wetly gave off muffled thuds from striking wet sand and vegetation, its reins led by Min Kaijing as she walked on the ground. A few chi in front of the steed, Master Hu’s heavy footsteps sounded out, and a few chi behind, the Manor folk glided almost as soundlessly as ghosts, betrayed only by the subtle and unavoidable friction of the clothes they wore.
Zhao Yi, swaying from her seat on Xunya’s hard leather saddle, looked at the sea walls on either side. They rippled and glistened in the sunlight of afternoon, but she sword that she could see unfathomable, shadowy shapes passing by just under their surfaces. Suppressing a shiver, she tried her best to not pay anymore attention to sea, instead focusing on Xunya’s braided mane.
…She had only been riding a horse for a sum of less than a quarter of a shichen today, but her stomach and legs were already sore. Why was sitting on a horse so exhausting? The sect didn’t have any horses, so she was only able to practice riding whenever Auntie Min was around, which wasn’t super often. Once a month, maybe. That must have left her… her horse-riding muscles flabby, whichever those were! This shouldn’t be so hard!
The not-underwater-anymore path curved to the right, winding right back to the mountain. It was not a long trek at all, maybe five minutes’ worth, until Master Hu brought them to a vertical crack along the base that was wide enough where the unnatural ice met the natural seafloor. Chunks of ice littered the ground around it, in enough of an amount to seem like it had all come from the weird crack, which also looked like it was trying to reform, its rim growing sharp edges inward.
Unceremoniously, Master Hu swept an unarmed hand across in a vertical arc, and those sharp edges were filed down, thin sheets falling to the ground.
Well… that might answer the question of where exactly the crack had come from. Zhao Yi peered a bit uncertainly at Master Hu’s back. To be able to cut through thick ice that no other cultivator had done before, which took specialized, charmed tools for mortals to harvest in small chunks… how strong was he?
Actually, now that she thought about it, it had taken him several shichen to get to the sect on that very first day, despite neither Ole-Mang’e nor Everice being that far away. If she was measuring from when the erhu had first stopped playing to when Master Hu had shown up, that was the beginning of the previous night to next midday, a total of eight, or sixteen hours; even if he had been slowly lurching at a snail’s pace from being mostly-frozen solid the whole time, it wouldn’t have taken him nearly as long as it had.
Hmm. That meant that something had held him up on his journey for a very long time. She had just been imagining that he had struck just once and blasted a hole out of Everice, but now, it was seeming like he might have had to slowly chisel his way out, instead. Not nearly as impressive, but still impressive, since no one else had exactly ever been able to do it before now.
Or, maybe the right people just hadn’t tried? It wasn’t like she was privy to the history of all Everice entry attempts ever. Perhaps no one had tried hard enough, or hadn’t been able to get close. Xing wasn’t exactly friendly to cultivators, nor violence; there was a high likelihood that no one strong enough for it had simply ever been able to get here. This was certainly something worth asking Auntie Min about, later.
Master Hu went in first, and Min Kaijing pulled Xunya to follow. The tall crack was, mercifully, big enough for it to squeeze through, while Zhao Yi only needed to stoop a little to not bang her head.
She had to continue doing so for few seconds more. Glancing at her surroundings, she noted that the walls did indeed look artificially-carved, though with what, she had not a clue. Based on Master Hu’s previous action, he might have just used his own hands as the tool.
Eventually, the many-zhang-deep wall ended, and she lifted her head up, spine aching slightly, and viewed the inside of Everice at long last.
It was not pretty.
Past the ice wall, the ‘mountain’ was overwhelmingly hollow, this particular chamber having a conical ceiling. Everything was dull with frost, while the midday glow of the sun outside lit the place up with a bright and teal-tinged light. What ruined the prettiness was the bizarre, asymmetrically-shaped ‘strings’ of ice that stretched between random points in the walls overhead, or even came out of the ground and went up above, both of their ends having a transparent web of more ice and frost. It made the place a mess of sharp ice, uneven ground, and obstacles, while the scene above was no better looking.
She recalled a time back in her childhood, when she had wandered into the barren forest surrounding the sect while her parents supervised. A tree had been slashed open by something — a yao, maybe, she had never learned what — and actively leaked sap. Being a stupid six-year-old, she had stuck her hands in it, gotten them covered, then played with it. At some point, she had placed her palms together firmly, then separated them, where the sap had then stretched thin between the two, creating sticky and organic strings that she had never witnessed herself before that time.
There. Those were the words for the feeling viewing these ice ‘strings’ gave her.
Words that shouldn’t be associated with ice, to say the least.
Creeped out, she tried to focus on the path in front of her, which Min Kaijing was leading Xunya on. It went on a gradually upward climb; they wound around one ‘string’, then sidestepped another. Some of the strings were only as thick as her arms, breakable-looking, while others rivaled the thickness of the old maples outside her sect, tall and imposing. It whole area was a maze of hazards and blockades, some dangerous tips of the ice jutting out in threatening manners all over.
As they went further and further, the upwards incline eventually peaked, then turned into a downwards slope. Once they were out of the conical chamber and into a claustrophobic ‘hallway’, their surroundings were getting gradually darker, as well.
Deeper and deeper, darker and darker. Zhao Yi tried to mentally measure how deep they were going. At some point, she became positive that they had gone past where they had started out at, but… if they had just been on seafloor-level, what could possibly be down even further?
Intense nervousness crept up on her, a chill tingling across her back, spine, and shoulders. Had she trusted Min Kaijing any less, she would have probably asked the tianma itself to turn back around, since they were smart and ought to know when something was a plain ol’ bad idea.
Master Hu kept on in front, evading more twists and turns than Zhao Yi could count or keep track of, and they followed, bypassing wall after wall of the same old stuff, until something that could be described as a clearing opened up in the middle of the chaos.
When Xunya stepped past the final ice wall of their journey, it whinnied in what seemed like surprise, and Zhao Yi herself was nearly tempted to do the same.
The clearing was bare, surrounded on all sides by more ice walls that reminded her, once again, of the way water splashed out when a rock was dropped straight into it. The ice on the ground was at its thinnest point yet, translucent to the extent that the dark ground beneath it could be seen. In fact, it got thinner the more towards the center it was, ending with just straight sandy soil, frozen dry.
Much more importantly than any of that, located in the middle of that soil was a pair of humanoid figures that were distinct, though each was encased in copious amounts of clear ice, their details underneath diffracted into blobs of colors.
One ‘person’ was laid on their back on the floor, blobs of white and gold visible on them. Their left arm propped them up slightly so that their head was off the floor, while their right arm — bulbous from the coating ice — was raised up above in a gesture that portrayed their desire to protect themselves.
The second ‘person’ was standing over them, their feet astride where the other’s hips ought to be, while a sword was quite obviously held in their hands and pointed straight downwards, the rest of their posture also obviously indicating that they had been about to plunge their blade straight down into their opponent’s chest before their untimely freezing. Whoever this one was, they instead had blobs of black and purple, and their sword, largely excluded from the ice, was extravagantly inlaid with jewels and gold.
Zhao Yi wasn’t going to claim that she was any sort of crime-solver, but since the standing person had clearly been mid-attack whilst the laying person was in a prone position, all of this ice might have possibly been caused by the latter. Someone winning wouldn’t sabotage themselves, while someone losing would probably get desperate enough to do something like this.
For someone to be strong enough to have made all this ice to begin with, then keep it enchanted for a thousand years… were they some kind of god? Considering the Great Wrath killed all the gods, and Everice predated the Wrath, that might not actually be an impossibility.
She had honestly been hoping that Master Hu’s ‘mother’ was just stuck from some artifact or something. Now, it was looking like his ‘mother’ was either in the middle of trying to murder someone, or being murdered, and possibly a being that once destroyed the world, or another being capable of putting up a fight against a being that once destroyed the world.
No matter what, this was kind of turning into a worst case scenario. She trusted Min Kaijing, sure, but was she powerful enough to stand against a possible god? Was anyone?
Min Kaijing did not advance more than a few chi past the crack they had used to enter the clearing, which was about twenty zhang around in diameter, itself. In front of her, Zhao Yi could see Master Hu approach the figures without fear, while behind her, the shuffle of the rest of the Manor filing in could be heard.
“I know,” the woman said, releasing Xunya’s reins. Zhao Yi could only see the back of her head, not her expression. “There’s an array around the two. The standing one is pretty obviously a revenant at this point, like your friend here, and is definitely the source of the malaised qi that was reported. The laying one isn’t giving me much; they’re not dead, but they’re not doing well, either. Either way, you’re staying put.”
With that, she stepped forth, the Manor crowd following suit, while Xunya stayed rooted in place. Zhao Yi was forcefully relegated to bystander. “Master Hu,” she called out at mid-volume, “what would they need to do to free your mother?”
The revenant looked back at her from where he was standing a few chi from the ‘ice sculptures’, then at Min Kaijing who had come up beside him, whereupon he pointed at the figure on the floor. “Mother. Break… kff, array, melt ice.”
“…” She had been expecting something more complicated than that, but okay, why not. It made sense.
Master Hu’s finger quickly changed direction, coming to single out the standing ‘sculpture’ instead, and said one very vitriolic word: “No.”
How very apt (and angry!) of him. It also made sense for him to not be too fond of someone that was trying to hurt his ‘mother’.
The Manor people got to inspecting the ground; Zhao Yi couldn’t see anything, herself. Several of them soon unsheathed their swords, then stabbed various points in the ground.
An energy in the air that Zhao Yi had never even consciously registered abruptly went away, leaving the air colder than it had been.
Huh, right. Colder. The air had been weirdly warm up until this point, now that she thought about it, but she had simply taken the warm humidity for granted. Had the air actually just been artificially kept warmer? If so, why?
Perhaps it’d only been a side-effect of the array, not an intended effect, but what was that intended effect? Had Master Hu’s ‘mother’ trapped herself in an array with her opponent? Had there not been a better way for her to get away…?
How odd. Still so many questions, yet so little answers.
“The array is neutralized,” Min Kaijing proclaimed. “It’s lucky for you, ‘Master Hu’, that everyone I brought today has a decent fire root, because that made the most sense for going to a place made of ice. We can get your mother out like how I got you out, but before anything else, we need to know exactly who and what we’re dealing with. I know Zhao Yi promised to help you, and I’ll remind you that there wasn’t exactly a timeframe set where she needed to complete that. Be transparent with us, or we’ll march right back out.”
“I know th—“ Master Hu angrily started, then began to splutter, his rusty voice firmly deciding that any further words would put it over its quota for the day. Following a burst of further hacking, where he’d had multiple failed attempts at speaking and got more and more frustrated-looking, he finally gave up, skulking over in Zhao Yi’s direction while Min Kaijing’s judging stare followed him.
Zhao Yi stared at him in confusion as he came right up to her. What? Did he want her to do something? She couldn’t fix broken throats. Revenant repair was something only high-leveled Revivers did, and the ways they did so were not things she ever liked thinking about.
All she saw him do next was offer his palm up, as if wanting to help her down off of Xunya. Maybe he wanted to show her something?
Understanding nothing, yet not suspecting that he would do anything weird (he was physically incapable of that, really), she took his hand.
That, perhaps, had been a bad idea, as the instant her hand made contact, an invasive sentence spoken with a smooth male tone floated into her head, reminiscent of how the spirits used to be before she had learned to tune them out.
I know who you are.
She automatically snatched her hand back out of surprise, after which, on complete reflex, she smacked him upside the head.
Regret immediately overcame her, the sensation of her stomach dropping at her own unthinking rudeness practically weighing her down to the ground…
Wait, no! Why was she feeling bad? It was this guy that decided to just butt-in to her head! He deserved the slap!
“Of course you know who I am! I told you my name! Are you trying to be mysterious?! Quit it! Be straightforward!”
Master Hu didn’t move from the hit, let alone be hurt by it, yet he stared slightly wide-eyed for a full few seconds. Her reaction hadn’t been within his expectations, most likely.
Fuming a bit, she nonetheless reached for his still-offered palm again. There was proper business to do; she would chide him about his lack of etiquette later. “Warn people when you’re about to intrude into their minds! I know you can’t talk well, but it’s really rude! Now, explain yourself!”
Snickers sounded out all around the chamber.
His ever-impassive face at least had the decency to be a bit sheepish, but he re-established contact.
I meant that I know what sort of person you are, he communicated, sounding a bit apologetic. You haven’t told me, but I know that you hear ghosts. I’m not a ghost, but being dead loosens the spirit from the body enough for communication like this. Once you get older, it won’t need physical contact, either.
Why does it need physical contact? she asked back, except once the first word came out of her head, he broke connection again, brows furrowed with… something.
Shortly, he placed his hand back against her tinier hand that he had left hanging. Please do not mentally communicate back, and just keep it one-way. To pass specific things along a connection requires practice, else a deluge of superfluous thoughts will overwhelm the receiver.
“…” So, he was saying that her brain was too noisy.
The irony of just having scolded him for being mentally intrusive was not lost on her.
Gritting her teeth in embarrassment, shame, and irritation, she said, “Fine. Get on with it!”
“Yi’r, you okay over there?” Min Kaijing called from where she was.
“Yes! He can’t talk physically because his throat doesn’t work and I can’t talk mentally because my mind doesn’t work! It’s fine!”
…Your mind doesn’t not work, you’re just untrained.
“I know! Just say what you want to!”
Some of the adults were snickering nearby again. Zhao Yi’s face heated up even further. She didn’t have to be able to see it to know that it was as red as a chili.
Dangit, now she was flustered! And embarrassed! A bad combination! She needed a distraction!
Okay, just calm down, Master Hu tried to soothe. They wish to know who these two are. I can show you what I remember, but I must warn you that my memory is damaged, more feelings than facts anymore. I know that the one in the ice is the mother, and I know that the standing one has done unspeakable evil, but I know neither of their names.
Her brows scrunched. “Damaged? Why?”
I am unsure. Many things damage the mind, but in my case, it could have been any combination of time, death, and the evil one’s qi lingering around here. Perhaps all three have had their hands in it. I will not know whether these memories are destroyed or simply cut off from me before I have time to meditate.
She inhaled, then exhaled, inhaled, then exhaled. Once calm, she nodded. “Explain what you mean by the ‘evil one’s qi’?”
I heard what the woman with the weird arm said about malaised qi. The evil one has always given such qi off, but the seal placed on him has weakened due to time. He is a son of the Yellow Emperor, once revered as being a god of the seas despite his violence and arrogance. His qi sickens those not strong enough to resist it over time. This hatred he has with the mother is because the mother aided with the war against the Heavens.
While he spoke, he was providing her with images and raw emotions from his own mind, painting a picture of a vindictive man that had destroyed wantonly. Even so, it was, as Master Hu had said previously, a bunch of strong feelings yet vague details strung together, where no one’s faces, names, nor even defining traits were present. Everything was just a blur of what it should have been.
Master Hu continued to narrate, while Zhao Yi spoke everything he wanted to say aloud. It was little wonder why he had opted to use her as a mouthpiece, because the man was a bonafide chatterbox.
He spoke some more on the ‘standing one’, some about himself (he was an erhu spirit, go figure), some of what he remembered of the Great Wrath, and what surprisingly little he remembered of his ‘mother’. For some reason, he could not recall anything about her except that she had helped the rebellion in the ancient war, and had done so for the sake of the world, so she wouldn’t harm it and those that came from it — that last bit was pure emotion, but he appeared to believe in that well enough. From what Zhao Yi felt from him, he didn’t feel a sense of love towards this ‘mother’, but a sense of duty, like protecting her was just something he had to do.
He was also very adamant in the fact that the ‘mother’ was not specifically his mother, but a mother. He was also very adamant in the fact that this ‘mother’ was not even a woman, nor a man.
Oops… well, it wasn’t like it wasn’t easy to just stop mentally thinking of them like that.
When questioned by a Manor-goer, he claimed that he wasn’t sure where Everice’s ice had even come from, as he was positive that the ‘mother’ didn’t have abilities to create it. The ‘opponent’, meanwhile, had control over water as a god of the sea, but that didn’t match up with what Zhao Yi had thought earlier about the victim trapping their attacker. What would be the point in the ‘opponent’ trapping themselves in ice?
Another Manor-goer pointed out that while water-rooted people had tremendous abilities over that element, they had no control over the temperature of said water; the only elements that could were fire and metal, where the former heated up, and the latter cooled down. Master Hu had no answer for this, only saying that he couldn’t remember the ‘mother’ having any powers like that.
Master Hu did confirm that the seal that had been put in place on the ‘opponent’ had been placed by the ‘mother’, yet he had no idea if the array, which used the mother’s qi to keep the ice enchanted, had been set up by them at all.
Conversely, he could not remember as to why he had been, or how he had gotten into, Everice in the first place all those centuries ago, though he knew that he had been playing his erhu specifically to attract someone’s attention.
Like all things that had come from this day, there were some answers, but yet more questions. When did it end?
At the tail-end of this summary being finished, their palms broke away from each other. Min Kaijing was heard to hum. “If we hadn’t been sent here specifically to deal with that malaised qi coming out, I would honestly leave all three of you to rot. The world doesn’t need more potential danger in it.”
Zhao Yi fidgeted a little. This whole thing made her uneasy, too, but… “What are you going to do, Auntie Min?” she called out.
“I don’t have a problem with freeing this guy’s so-called mother, because their qi levels are going to be bare for a while. The other one is just going to have to go, which you’re not sticking around for.”
With finality, she turned and ordered for all eight of the Manor folks to gather around and get to work circulating the ice. Two were made to stand by, keeping watch for if anything went amiss, as their powers could be volatile.
Master Hu, Zhao Yi, and Xunya watched them work — or at least tried to, as the crowd was making it impossible to see anything other than copious clouds of steam curling upwards to condensate against the craggy roof of the chamber.
It took mere minutes for the ice to melt (Min Kaijing commented something about ‘overkill’). One particularly large individual in the Manor crowd was seen to remain stooped, back to them, while the rest straightened back up, then shortly stood and turned around, leaving the misting crater behind them.
With one look at what — or who, rather — they were holding, it was quite obvious as to why the biggest one amongst the crowd had been told to pick them up.
This ‘mother’ person was obscenely tall. Granted, she… no, Master Hu had said that they weren’t a she or a he, right? So, xe wasn’t standing up, but Zhao Yi could still tell from their gangly limbs and the way that they already dwarfed who was holding them. Xe was also dressed in pretty, if torn-up black and bronze-colored robes, and xe was dreadfully pale, with equally starch-white hair. It was especially striking when contrasted against the black robes and lion-like mask of the one carrying xer.
Unfortunately, she was destined to be too far away to make out xer details. As the carrier made to walk back towards the entrance, right in Zhao Yi’s direction, they got stopped halfway through their course by yet another member scuttling up in front of them; they had been one of the people set on watch.
“Are you sure this guy’s safe? Looks like some kind of predator jing,” came the new person’s womanly-sounding voice. She then proceeded to reach out and grab one of the white-haired person’s hands, messing with xer fingers. “Look at those nails, they’re worse than Kaijing’s claws. And these teeth…”
Min Kaijing, who had also stalked on over, smacked the woman’s hand that was pulling up the stranger’s lips to examine xer teeth. She did not look amused. “Piyou, stop touching people when they’re asleep,” she chastised.
“But I’m not wrong,” ‘Piyou’ nearly whined. “There’s sharp teeth and claws. Wolves and foxes don’t use their claws much… with all that white, do you think xe’s a tiger?”
“Piyou, that’s not relevant right now. Don’t get in Wenren’s way,” Min Kaijing said, slightly more exasperated.
“I’m just saying, I don’t know if jings like this should be around kids.“
“Xe isn’t even conscious. It’s fine.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s fine. Tiger jing are just as volatile as real tigers, wild and unpredictable. Who knows if xe’d try to swipe at the girl the instant xe startles awake? Does anyone have chains? We should proba—“
“Shut up,” Min Kaijing snapped, her annoyance now clear. Ooo. Zhao Yi had only ever heard her have that tone with Huailu Cong. “Since you didn’t want to listen the first time and instead wanted to talk back, you’re on nighttime stable duty for the next half a year. Keep trying to argue and see what happens.”
“But… but the smell is beyond foul! And that’s not fair, you know jing are dangerous!” ‘Piyou’ whined again. Wow, Zhao Yi had never heard a grown adult sound like this before.
“I don’t give a hen’s ass. That’s another month. Move.”
Before ‘Piyou’ could annoy everyone further, a very loud, sonorous boom rolled through the chamber, bouncing off the walls to echo in the ears.
Zhao Yi froze in fear, Xunya simultaneously whipping its head back with a surprised snort and retreating a few paces. The successive sounds of what was distinctly swords leaving their sheaths was heard.
The three nearby looked back at the six they had left behind; all of them had their weapons at the ready, pointing them at the remaining figure in the ice. Said figure now had a huge bundle of cracks starting at its shoulders, and the arms raised above his head were shifting.
Zhao Yi’s heart leapt.
She heard Min Kaijing swear, then draw her own sword. Looking back to her, she came to see that the one carrying the ‘mother’ had scampered away to set xer against the wall, ‘Piyou’ was making herself useful, and only her Aunt’s back as she face away from her.
“Xunya! Run back to the surface!” Min Kaijing ordered, leaping over to the source of the excitement.
Zhao Yi nearly wanted to protest, but Xunya flicked its head to gets its reins into her hands from where they had been hanging in front, then swiftly began to turn around.
“Master Hu!” she shouted at the dumbstruck revenant, who was staring blankly, perhaps even dazedly, at the cracking ice sculpture. “Help them if you can!”
That was all she managed to get out prior to Xunya darting back through the entrance and taking off at a speed incongruous to its massive workhorse size.
The translator says: In Yan, which the Reviver sect is mostly influenced by, there’s five pronouns in usage; he (他), she (她), it for inanimate objects (它), it for animals (牠), and xe (祂). The last one is used whenever the speaker is unsure of someone’s gender, or if the other party is neither male or female, which fall under the category of ‘shuangxiang’ (双像 or 双相), lit. resemblance (to) both, or ‘jinghun’, lit. jing-souled. The xe pronoun was inspired by the fact that jing, non-human entities (like foxes, statues, etc.) that cultivate humanoid forms and are frequently revered as divinities, have no or differing grasp on gender as a concept.
In Xing, there are only two pronouns; person (他) and not-a-person (它). Xingese use pronouns to announce personhood, not gender.
Of note, all these pronouns are pronounced exactly the same in spoken word: ta. So, since Zhao Yi has decided that the pronouns are xe, that’s what she interprets other people to be saying, regardless of their actual intent.
Normally, I leave this stuff in the text, but everyone in-universe is so used to these concepts, I don’t think it’ll ever be discussed in casual conversation…