Nezin Han was excited. He was going to see his grandson for the first time in four years. Four years of ranging far and wide across the north, and taking the bounty at the edges of the Sea of Snow.
To think that his grandson wished to learn the ways of his ancestors, instead of just the Imperial stuff. To learn the traditions of the Nezin, to learn how to herd the yaks, perhaps to break and ride a fine horse!
The men often rotated through the southern villages, living mostly nomadic lives, but there were many men here today, and his grandson was the talk of their little village. Everybody wanted to see the “imperial boy”.
Nezin Han was ready for a relaxed summer of reconnecting with his kin, and perhaps passing along some of his traditions.
He was just preparing a new tent when he heard the commotion.
Ah, that must be his grandson and his nephew!
He strode out of the tent ready to greet them.
“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, you bastard. I knew you were doing it on purpose,” his grandson declared, glaring at a thunderhoof that towered over him.
His eyes found his nephew, the one who had volunteered to guide Yun Ren, who was wearing a slight smile on his face. It was very strained.
The Thunderhoof snorted.
“Yeah, I’m up north here too. Finally got sick of that patch of grass, and sneaking up on me me?”
The Thunderhoof let out a strange sound, almost like a laugh.
“Well, good luck. Hope ya find what you’re looking for, and never come back to bother me.” He handed the Thunderhoof what looked like several strands of grass, which the giant beast took gently.
The Bringer of Fortune turned from his grandson, and strode away, walking through the village proudly. Several heads were bowed in supplication, and Han himself barely remembered to lower his eyes to one of the Lords of the Snow.
“Hey, Gramps! Been a long time, yeah?” Yun Ren shouted cheerily.
The revelation that his grandson was a cultivator shocked the entire village, but since the man still acted the same, the shock wore off rather quickly.
It was surreal. He helped without complaint, he did manual labour that would take ten men a week in moments. He mastered their style of shooting, he hopped on a horse and broke it in with ease. He herded the yaks without even really thinking about it.
Yet he didn’t seem to have any real driving ambition. He was content, all he seemed to want to do was use his crystal to record images. Han didn’t quite get the obsession, but he studied the images with due consideration. They were quite fantastic. To be able to capture a moment in time like that.
But this drive to record new things meant that after he swiftly explored his surroundings, he transitioned to attempting to paint his recorded images.
He wasn’t particularly good at it. But he entertained everybody with outlandish stories, and the images to go along with them. The Thunderhoof. The Smiling Dragon. Jin and Meiling.
“So… what should we do?” he asked Elder Hu. The wizened old woman, nearly a hundred years old, pondered his question. The first cultivator to ever have the blood of Nezin? What should be done?
“Show him the First Den,” she decided.
“That old place? Well, It might interest him.” And it was the stories of their tribe. Those are always useful.
They turned to look at the boy. Yun Ren was gesturing to the image of the band of stars that decorated the ceiling, mentioning the mountain he climbed to get that precise view.
“They with the Stars will forge a new path,” the old woman croaked again.
“Really?” he asked, his voice deadpan. “That old saying?”
The older woman shrugged.
Yun Ren stared at the hole in the ground curiously. “First Den?” he asked, and his grandfather nodded.
“Yes. They say this is where our Tribe originated,” he explained, as he grabbed a torch. The entrance was rather well hidden, but it was still just a hole in the ground.
Well, it was a welcome distraction when his grandfather had decided to take him on a trip. Not to knock his mom’s relatives, but… this had been a bit boring so far. Sure, everybody was nice enough, but there wasn’t much to do other than more farmwork, and the scenery wasn’t exactly too different.
The clothes were nice though. He’d always worn the soft leather boots his mother made, which were different from the boots that most of the Empire wore. In his opinion they were vastly more comfortable, but the shirts and dresses with the geometric designs made him a bit sad that his mother didn’t wear them too much. They looked cool.
...maybe he should see about getting some for Biyu?
He shook his head out of his introspection, as he wandered down the hall. There were a bunch of images painted, what looked like shooting stars streaking across the sky.
“They say we took shelter here, after some great calamity,” his grandfather explained, as they entered the main room.
Yun Ren raised his eyebrow at the image.
“I thought the fox thing was a joke,” he said, raising an eyebrow at the nine-tailed thing on the wall.
His grandfather chuckled.
“They do say we’re descended from some great fox, or that it bestowed its power on us… but really, it might just be a story. It’s not like any of us have any special powers. Just eyes that look like this,” he said amused, pointing at his own amber eyes.
Yun Ren nodded along, and with a bit of concentration, made a flash of light. His crystal chimed.
Yun Ren checked the recording. The flash was one way to fix the lighting, but he would have to refine it. It made things a bit unnatural looking. The ancient cave drawing was surprisingly colourful, and had some interesting geometric shapes.
“Supposedly, there was some great calamity, so our ancestors hid here, protected by Nezin the Great Fox,” he said, pointing to the walls, where fire streaked to the ground.
“But… well, none of the other tribes mention something like this. They do have this next one, though.
“The Hero and the Eternal Winter.”
Yun Ren stared at the image of the giant cat-bear thing with giant teeth fighting a man with a spear.
“Hey, mom always told us this one!” he said, grinning at the image.
His grandfather laughed.
“She always was fond of this one. Always said the one about the calamity was too morbid.”
Yun Ren kept recording. There were some stories he had heard, some he hadn’t. There were a few ancient firepits, and what looked like rooms and beds.
And finally, there was the tomb.
Yun Ren paid his respects.
It was an enjoyable day, all told. But his Grandfather was deep in thought, as they made camp outside the First Den.
“...you’re bored at the village, aren’t you?” he asked bluntly, and Yun Ren suppressed a wince. Was it that obvious?
His grandfather chuckled. “I do know the feeling. You want to go and explore, but we’re all too slow, and you feel an obligation. Tell you what, I’ll give you a job. To the northeast, is the Grand Falls. Just before the Sea of Snow. Beautiful place. Fantastic view. It's three weeks by my speed…”
Yun Ren’s eyes widened.
“I want to see it again. Just don't go too far northeast. It gets dangerous up there, so close to the Howling Fang Mountains.”
He pondered the mission.
And with a smirk, he accepted it.
He had permission to go take pictures.
The crystal went up again, capturing the beautiful waterfall and jagged mountains.
His grandfather was right. This place was beautiful. There were thousands of waterfalls up here, snaking down from the mountains, and flowing north west.
Spectacular, sparkling water.
Yun Ren accessed the recording, examining it closely to see the colours, and if the angle of the sun was right. It was sunset, and the light dyed the water lovely oranges and pinks.
The light was as good as he imagined it. But there was something odd about the recording. Part of the cliff near the waterfall seemed blurry. Unfocused.
It was a small part, but it completely ruined the entire composition.
He took the image again.
The exact same part was blurry. He frowned, and turned. Taking another image, to see if it was the crystal acting up. Biyu had said that it could be temperamental, or it could overload and crack, but everything seemed to be fine in this image.
He ran to another position, and took another recording. The same place, from a different angle, was still blurry. He looked up and squinted at it. That part of the cliff looked fine from here.
Yun Ren shrugged, and approached. He jumped across the river, and again recorded the cliff face.
The blurry patch was in the same place. But captured closer, it was even fuzzier. Like the cliff was merely mist shrouding something else.
Something was afoot here.
Cautiously, he came closer. He was alert, his ears pricked and trying to draw upon every ounce of his hunting experience.
But there was nothing. No wind. No strange feeling. He was nearly touching the grey, craggy wall now.
He raised his crystal.
To his eyes, a solid wall.
In the recording, the mouth of a cave.
Yun Ren scratched his chin.
Carefully, he reached out, pressing his hand against the stone. It felt solid enough, but with a slight push—his hand sunk in up to his elbow.
He jerked his hand out, as the rock wall dispersed like a cloud, leaving only a dark tunnel leading forward. He dove behind another rock, and waited for something, some sort of monster, to burst out and devour him for disturbing the illusion.
Yet all he could hear was the thundering waterfall. No shaking earth, or strange roars. Just a cave.
His head poked up from behind the rock.
He stared at the cave.
One foot stepped in front of the other. What was inside it? What was the illusion trying to hide?
It may be stupid, but he could feel the same stirring push to action that he always felt whenever something caught his interest.
Like teasing Meimei until she turned his skin blue. Poking Elder Che to see how far he could push until a hammer was thrown at him. Prodding at his brother until they got into a fist fight.
Hounding a Thunderhoof to see if he could catch another glimpse. Working a hundred odd jobs just to record what he saw in a crystal.
The burning question: what is this? What will it do? How far can I push?
Like a fox getting drawn into an interesting trap because something shiny caught his eye.
Some said he was a fool. In the end, he was just curious.
And the cave was far, far too interesting.
Yun Ren chewed his lip as he stared at the yawning mouth of the cave. The inside was shrouded in fog; but with a crystal chime, most of that went away, revealing a rather well constructed path.
Yun Ren took one hesitant step in. And then another. He descended into the cave with nothing but a crystal and his wits.
And a burning need to know what was inside.
The cave was very long. That was about all Yun Ren could say about it. Long and foggy. For the first couple of minutes, he had been hesitant and cautious, slinking along the wall and taking a recording every step, examining it for any new revelation…. but there was nothing. Nothing but a few things that looked like gates, along with degraded looking scraps of paper on them.
He could make out the squiggly designs, and maybe formations on them. It was a bit nerve wracking, and he quietly resolved himself to immediately run if a strange voice popped into his head.
Those stories always ended with the person releasing an ancient evil or something.
After a few hours of walking, he came to a set of stairs. There didn’t seem to be anything suspicious about them, so carefully, he ascended.
And walked into what looked a bit like a house.
Or at least a house, like First Den was a house. The walls were all stone, and there were jars lining them. They were a bit dusty and the glass ones were filled with what looked like pills. Little, multicolored things.
Yun Ren very carefully didn’t touch them, and considered turning back, but... well, it may be abandoned?
The next room was a library of sorts, with a bunch of scrolls and books. There was a kitchen and a closed door that he didn’t try.
Lastly, there was the room. Crystals glowed from the ceiling, a jagged mass that illuminated the area, and the thick covering of grass. Delicate, almost crystalline flowers poked up from the soil, swaying in a non existent breeze.
It was absolutely beautiful.
Yun Ren’s crystal chimed.
This place was amazing!
He wandered through the grass and flowers, occasionally recording another image. This place was weird. There was even a big old tree growing down here!
But this was not all that was in the room. There was a stone tablet, a grave marker, near the back of the room.
And beside it was a sword.
It was a beautiful sword. It was pure white with rippling patterns that swirled across it. There were several characters on the blade. Summer’s Sky, it read. The sword shone like a star.
As he approached he felt it. He felt the power. Felt the Qi radiating off the blade beside the grave.
Slowly, he approached the old marker.
And turned his head from the sword to the grave. He bowed his head, giving a bit of respect to whoever was laid to rest here.
Well, Yun Ren was glad he hadn't gone snooping any further. He was no grave robber.
But hopefully, whoever made this place wouldn’t mind if he took one thing.
He bent down, and plucked one of the beautiful blue flowers. Hopefully it would press well. And that Biyu would like it.
He smiled at the flower. It was really pretty.
He turned, intending to leave.
His body seized up, as he felt hot breath, and saw white fur.
‘Don’t go too far northeast.’
He looked up. And up. He stared blankly at the fox, who was nearly twice the size of Wa Shi, when he was a dragon.
...the tunnel led north-east.
In fact, he was probably under the Howling Fang Mountains right now.
It stared at him curiously.
“...uh, sorry for intruding?” he asked, his voice catching a bit in his throat.
The fox seemed intensely amused.
“You are a strange one, child,” it spoke, the words coming out of its mouth, instead of the strange not-speech most animals used. “Most would try to claim the blade.”
“I don’t think I need another sword. Elder Che is pretty good.” He tapped the hilt of his ordinary iron blade. The fox’s smile widened a bit. “And... well, it's somebody’s grave, isn’t it? Ma always said that graverobbing was bad karma.”
“Indeed it is, little one,” the fox stated. “I would have devoured you had you dared to touch the blade.”
Yun Ren swallowed thickly.
The fox sniffed at him, its eyes widening briefly.
“It has been many, many years since I have seen such an honourable young man. I am amused, and so you may ask a boon of me,” it started magnanimously.
Yun Ren nearly reflexively said “nothing”, but the fox was watching him closely.
He pondered the question for a second.
“...were you the one who did the illusions?” he asked.
The fox raised a brow, its expression becoming bored. “Indeed, you wish to learn how to befuddle your enemies?” it asked, seeming a bit disappointed.
“…uh… not really? I kind of just want to learn how to transfer these images to something permanent.”
The fox stared blankly at the image on the wall. Slowly, its shoulders shook. It opened its massive maw wide, and began to laugh.