Gong Guo grinned beneath his tattered black veil as his feet impacted the sand, kicking up a cloud of grey and gold. Before his eyes, the downward sloping dunes stretched onward toward the horizon, and there, at the very edge of his vision…
“It will be half a year before the city returns. You are still certain?” His head jerked to the side as the shadow of his traveling companion fell over him. A retainer of a retainer, Ding Yuan nonetheless matched him in cultivation at the Fortification stage. The man was a hulking brute but surprisingly soft spoken and subtle in his movements.
“If I am not willing to risk death, I will never breach the cyan realm, my friend,” Gong Guo laughed.
Ding Yuan hummed, the sound like boulders tumbling downhill. He peered south, shading his deep-set eyes with a linen-wrapped hand. Like Gong Guo, he wore heavy grey and brown robes that shielded his skin from the poisonous qi of the desert, leaving only a thin slice of flesh around his eyes visible. “There is a difference between risking death and courting her, young man.”
Gong Guo merely grinned at the curmudgeon’s warning. “Indeed so! But all the same, I must. My family cannot languish forever, barely clinging to our title.” Gong Guo’s grin faded as he spoke. Four generations since they had gained their title, and now, he and his brother were the only third realms the Gong clan had. Patriarch Gong had passed, dying in a breakthrough attempt, and though there were a few promising youngsters, those damn Fu clan bandits would not leave them time to grow. He could not fail here. “Please convey to your lords again my thanks for the hospitality of Grandfather Fortress.”
“It is nothing. We merely repaid our debt to Lord Chu,” Ding Yuan replied. “Or we will when I return in half a year’s time. I will wait three days.”
Gong Huo grimaced, scratching his cheek sheepishly at the reminder that he had only been so welcomed due to the… incident with Lord Chu, the barbarian, and the goat. He was glad to be rid of the debt, if he was honest. Holding the debt of a higher noble could be dangerous, especially if one was not careful in asking repayment. “Hah! I will be sure to be here. I would not like to try catching up to Grandfather Fortress on my own!”
“You would not,” Ding Yuan agreed gravely, turning away. Behind them, their mount stirred, twenty meters of brown and grey chitin rising from the sand as six legs churned up sand. Gong Guo sketched a bow to the great scorpion that had carried them this far. The howdah affixed to the scorpion’s back rocked as Ding Yuan blurred, reappearing in the driver’s stirrups, and spoke to the scorpion in its own clicking tongue.
Gong Guo turned his eyes back south to the sea of descending dunes, ignoring the churned sand that billowed out and engulfed him. He traced the change as golden sands dimmed to grey, and then darkened to black. Qi flowed through his eyes, sharpening his vision, and he saw further where sand became grey and white ash and the air curdled in great curtains of shimmering heat. At the very edge of his vision, he saw the Phoenix's Tears, great pillars of twisted volcanic glass, said to be the last remnant of the Purifying Sun.
Here, in the Grave of the Sun, he would rise, or he would die.
Fire was energy and light. It burned and raged, roaring across the land if left unimpeded. Only the lightning that fell from the heavens was a more pure expression of the Nameless Father and the Yang energy which was his gift to the world.
Some may think that fire had nothing at all in common with darkness at first glance. Darkness was many things though. It was a stepping stone toward the element of void, shadows, and opposites, and it was hunger and desire. That was the point where fire and dark intersected. Fire hungered, fire consumed, fore took and took until at last there was nothing left to burn or the sparks were doused.
These were not, Gong Guo mused as his burning sword clove through the crumbling ribcage of an ash-caked skeleton, unique insights. He spun on his heel, his heavy cloak fluttering in his free hand, and deflected the swing of a twisted lump of melted iron that might generously still have called a mace. A second flick of his sword took the head from a shriveled and blackened mummy, still wearing the tattered raiment of a Second Dynasty soldier. He did his best to ignore the way the head still moaned and gnashed its teeth, and instead, he kicked the thrashing body out of the way, opening a gap in the ring of Ash Walkers seeking his life.
Dark, gelid qi coiled through the channels in his legs, and he vanished into a blur, skipping across the dunes like a tossed stone skipping through water. He had to keep moving. To stop at night was to invite death.
Though the Walkers were weak individually, they were endless, and no technique of his could give them a final rest. In addition, their strength grew with their numbers, ancient bones remembering skills from lives long lost. His first night out in the sands had taught him the folly of standing to fight the Walkers under the wan and faded light of the moon, and his second night the folly of expending his qi freely in this hungry land.
And yet, the restless bones still feared fire. They shied back from it, if only a little, despite the burning qi that suffused the grave.
Even now, in the dead of night, the desert seethed with heat. It poured from the ground like an oven, heating the air, and whorls of fiery qi danced in his spirit sight, devouring moisture, devouring life. Only his garments, given to him by Ding Yuan, shielded him from the desert’s hunger. Without it, he could have survived for a time, shielding himself from the desiccating heat with his own energies, but he would have swiftly exhausted himself.
Pressure, then pain, bloomed through his right foot, and Gong Guo hissed out a curse and stabbed his sword down, destroying the mummified skull that had begun to form in the sand and ash. He had allowed his thoughts to wander too much.
Here, the ground itself roared with hunger for life. Another bound carried him high into the air, and though he could not fly, he spread his cloak, stiffening the fabric with qi, and glided on the wind. There were two hours yet until sunrise when the Walkers were at least somewhat suppressed.
Even now, the desert shined in his sight. The conflagration of fire and death that raged in every particle of sand and ash danced before his eyes, a tapestry of gigantic scale and lurid detail. The dance of ash on superheated wind, the reaching claws of the desert, the all encompassing, all devouring hunger that laid here, barely chained beneath the earth... He had been right in his surmise. There were certainly lessons to be learned here. Lessons which would serve his clan well, if he could codify them well enough.
Gong Guo grinned, drawing a twinge from the long white-seared scar that now cut across his lips. The fire in his spine burned with delight, and the darkness curling through his limbs stirred with desire. After two months, he had the workings of a technique, a simple thing suitable perhaps for one of his nephews or nieces to cut their teeth upon, but a true technique, something which he could make a central part of his Way, still evaded him.
And just as before, his eyes turned south, ever south. He stood now in the liminal band where sand mingled with ash, and the vast monoliths of twisted volcanic glass, like black bonfires frozen in time, loomed ever higher. To the south, the endless white storm of choking, clinging ash still raged, and even here, kilometers away, flakes brushed past him, crying out faintly in his spiritual senses, hungry for heat and vitality.
He had been warned not to go beyond this zone for good reason. No cultivator who still relied upon mortal organs and vitae for life could survive the lands beyond the Tears. However, the ash storm itself…
It was a barrier, so much like the barrier which held him back from the peak of the third realm and the beginning of the fourth. If he meant to brave that barrier, could he not brave at least the first steps of this one as well?
His grin widened, and Gong Guo tasted the coppery flavor of his own blood. His wound had split open. Some would imagine it a bad omen, but Gong Guo was not so superstitious. He turned his eyes to the writhing ground below where the dead seethed with hate, hundreds upon hundreds of empty eye sockets staring up at him with hunger.
... When the Sun rose then. There was a difference between risking death and courting her, after all.
Gong Guo fled across the desert, and the Ash Lord followed.
Battle had worn Gong Guo’s cloak to tatters, and what remained of it, he had gathered about his mouth and nose, protecting his lungs from insidious, clinging ash. Around him, the wind screamed, an endless wailing symphony that had long since reduced his hearing to an uncanny ringing. Thick, cold ash clung heavily to his limbs and coated his face, threatening to gum his eyes shut forevermore.
Despite that, he bounded into the teeth of the wind for what followed was far more terrible. Even in his early months, bounding through the sweltering hills, destroying the Ash Walkers which rose endlessly from the dunes, some part of him still had not believed the tales which his hosts had told him of the desert.
Behind him, the thump of a thousand pairs of boots against the earth told the truth of it. Clad in the ruined finery of an Imperial dynasty long dead, wielding weapons of steel and bronze warped by tremendous heat or brands of flame, the Ash Walkers came. They marched with all the discipline they had held in their lives, but their empty eye sockets burned only with hate.
Even now, he felt the gaze of the lord of the host on his back. Clad in armor of molten gold that dripped and spattered where he stepped and wearing the badge of the fallen Lu upon his helm, the lord had been warped by death. The bright plume on the lord’s helm devoured light, instead of radiating it, a sparking, hissing tongue of black flame. In his hands was a warped and pitted spear of bronze whose weathered edge left wounds of blackened flesh in their wake.
Six times, Gong Guo had struck him down, and six times, the Ash Lord had risen again. Each time, the lord’s host grew. A tattered regimental banner flew above their heads now, radiating the power imbued in it by a crafter a millenia dead. With each clash, Gong Guo’s command of ash grew, the howling storm carving lessons into his flesh and spirit alike. Yet each battle had been more fraught and had seen Gong Guo’s exhaustion and wounds grow.
The howling wind screamed heedlessly through it all. The ash threatened to devour him, his feet sinking into the soft ground with every step as the wind tore at his limbs and pushed him back, and yet, the heavy boots of his pursuers fell upon the sliding dunes as if they were hard-packed earth, and their banner fluttered as if there were no more than a light breeze about.
He had been a fool to approach the Tears. He knew now why even the mighty Guo clan and the implacable Grandfather Fortress did not set foot in this place despite the veins of rich metals and crystals which jutted from the ash. He knew why they did not touch the Tears themselves, those monoliths of the most spiritually potent obsidian that he could imagine. He had attracted only the barest attention of the desert, and he now fled on the edge of death.
He remembered seeing a deep crater, yawning in the earth, stone and soil fused into a hellish funnel of jagged gleaming glass, and perched over it, a vast skeleton, a beaked skull of shimmering prismatic bone stained with darkness. The skeleton’s eye sockets had been wide enough for a troop of tall men to walk through side by side, and its skeletal wings were fit to cover the sky, still burning with black fires of ragged plumage. Whether the bones were alive or dead he could not say, for they transcended such petty things. Whatever it may have once been, now it was [Consumption].
Yet the divine bones felt small compared to the wrath which radiated from that pit. The magmatic glow and impossible heat that radiated from the depths of the earth defied sight and sense. It was a wound in [She Who Was], and the fury of [She Who Was] radiated outward as a terrible heat fit to reduce even the mightiest Immortal to dust. He understood now why the desert of Golden Fields proved so resilient.
Hissing arrows of ash and glass punctured the ground near his feet, and Gong Guo grit his teeth behind his tattered cloak and pressed himself to go faster. For the better part of two days, he had fled, and at last, the ash began to seem a little thinner, the wind a little less powerful. He spun on his feet, sword trailing a roiling plume of desert ash to devour the missiles that threatened to bury him. He kicked out, and the meters-high edifice of ash roared, rippling across the ground as it bore down on the regiment following him.
He did not stay to watch it scatter uselessly on their spears. Infused with his qi, the ash would at least slow them for a moment. He grimaced as his qi ebbed ever lower and hissed at the spark of pain from qi being channeled through his damaged meridians; his meridians had been like this ever since he had tried to recover his qi in the Grave. He could only hope that they would heal with time. His dantian emptied, and for a moment, he felt, deep in his own belly, the bellow of [Consumption] that echoed from within as well as without.
But he could see the sun again, if only a glimmer. A spear of frozen ash carved a gash in his side, and Gong Guo ignored the blood that wetted his side, devoured by the hungry ash clinging to his body. The wind struggled in his grasp as he gathered it around his legs, and ahead, a stretch of ash trembled and solidified, forming a depression in the dune ahead.
The last dregs of the qi regenerating in his dantian rushed to his legs as his feet touched the depression, and the ash rippled, snapping upward into a dome and launching him into the air. Wind corkscrewed around his legs, launching him still further, tearing through the grasping wind, and finally, Gong Guo released his grip on his tattered cloak.
The worn cloth rippled and snapped out, its ragged edges catching the wind one last time, as Gong Guo soared free of the storm. He laughed aloud as he saw blue skies again, despite the painful prickling on his skin, now shorn of the protection of his qi and cloak alike. He kept laughing even as he crashed into the golden sands some kilometers away, sending up a plume of dust.
Gong Guo knew he must have looked manic, mad even as he laughed uncontrollably, his eyes wide, tears digging slow channels through the ash that coated his cheeks. Slowly, after many minutes, he stopped when even his immortal constitution demanded air. At last, Gong Guo dragged himself to his feet and looked down upon the storm.
It churned unchanged, as it would for all time, Gong Guo thought. Perhaps far in some unforeseeable future, that wound might close, but it would be in time as measured by mountains, rather than men or Immortals. Death ruled here, and her throne was unassailable. The least of its warriors had nearly smote him for his insolence.
“But I,” he croaked, his grin making the ash flake from his face, “will not die there.”
He had even, he mused, gotten what he came for. Perhaps others might have a more refined and polished insight, but as he turned his senses inward, his dantian rumbled, and [Consumption] yawned. He shivered, as understanding, raw and primal, coursed through his thoughts.
He breathed out and opened his eyes. He had found the root where fire and darkness became one, and though he never wished to plunge into that storm again, the vision would guide him for the rest of his days.
“I have to make sure those days are not short indeed.” He chuckled as he turned away from the storm. Even under the noonday sun, he could hear the lesser Walkers beginning to clatter and rise. It seemed he would be running for quite awhile yet.
Gong Guo let out a long breath, sending his graying mustache swaying as memories faded away, and he was left once again in the dim light of his study. The jade tablet he held in his hands shook slightly as he remembered the ventures of a much younger and more reckless man. Within the tablet were all of the arts he had developed based on the insights he had gained during his time in the desert, from the humble Ashen Shadow art to his own Eternal Ashen Yearning art.
“Father, the Lord Marshal is here,” his youngest son, Gong Da, said deferentially from the door of his study.
“And I shall not keep him waiting,” Gong Guo, Patriarch of the Gong clan. said as he turned. He had achieved the fourth realm and even reached the cusp of the fifth, but he had balked at the sacrifice his Way demanded to go further. He could only hope that one of his descendants would refine the family’s path to something less harsh. Perhaps his granddaughter would succeed; she was such a bright young girl. “Son, I shall be giving this over to you,” he said gravely, holding out the tablet.
Gong Da’s eyes widened as he gazed down at the slab of jade, its surface a spider web of formation characters. “Father… The family archive? Why would you remove it from the vault? With so many of our soldiers away…”
“It is precisely for that reason that I want you to take it away,” Gong Guo said, pressing the tablet into the boy’s hand. “I’ve no doubt that Lord Chu will lead us to victory against Ogodei’s horde, but…” Gong Guo shook his head, not able to maintain his normal smile. “Black Jade Mountain is gone.”
“This will not be a battle without damage,” the boy murmured, gingerly accepting the tablet.
He clapped his son on the shoulder. “Indeed, but homes and fields can be rebuilt. A family is a bit harder. You will go north and shelter with the Luo son. Take as much of the household as you can manage.”
“I will not betray your trust, Father,” his son replied fervently, bowing his head.
“I know,” Gong Guo said with a touch of affection, striding past his bowing son. “Now, I’ll need be off. I doubt Lord Chu will be late to his own war council after all!”