The walls of the tomb were covered in multi-coloured splotches, like somebody had taken entire buckets of paint and thrown them against grey stone.
Yun Ren’s eyes were unfocused, distorted colours and bands of mist swirling around his hands.
His Qi churned and twisted. There was a brief flash of light.
The Guardian’s tail slapped against the back of Yun Ren’s head, nearly bowling him over.
“None of that, boy,” the fox scolded. “Distraction while training is a sin, it leads to injury or death. Especially when mixing pure light with the shadowed illusions of the foxes, as you were so foolishly doing.”
The boy flushed, scuffing his feet like a much younger lad at the scolding.
“Why were you trying to add such light to the illusion, anyway?” the fox asked.
Yun Ren frowned at his hands. “Well… Jin showed me this cool thing a while ago. You poke a hole in a box, and it’s a bit like a recording crystal. But upside down, backwards, and reversed. It showed an image of whatever the hole was pointing at. He kept saying how light could be captured that way, but he didn’t know how to catch it, other than that it involved specially treated paper.”
His Qi welled up again. Flashes of light. Sparks of the cold fire of the foxes. Dregs of mist.
They were working together. Shifting, and roiling uncertainty, wobbling… but not in danger of destabilizing.
The Guardian’s gaze sharpened, as the boy’s scent got stronger. His amber eyes were focused intently on Yun Ren’s work.
Light and shadow. Fire and mist. Something churned, scratching at the back of the fox’s mind.
“...you never did tell me your mother’s name, boy,” the fox mentioned.
“Hm? Oh, Hu Li. Nezin Hu Li.”
The pieces clicked. Nezin. Su Nezin, his Great Aunt. His namesake.
Soft fingers through a pup’s fur. A gentle humming voice. A single memory.
From the scent, and the light… of the line of his Great Aunt, Su Nezin.
The Great Defender, the first daughter, inheritor of the blood of Da Ji? He still remembered kowtowing to one of her robes, an artifact of their kin, one of the few that had survived the fall of The Misty Fang.
...or Shouded Mountain, as the humans called it.
How could her bloodline have grown so weak? How could he have lived here, while kin wandered the lands so close by?
The fox was startled out of his introspection by a whoop of joy.
“Yeah! See, I thought the light would help out!” he shouted. “It makes things… less wobbly? A bit more solid and firm, yeah?”
Instead of a splotch of colour, this one was much more defined. There were shapes now. Something long and sinuous, with bright blue scales.
The Guardian took back his ill thoughts of the boy’s poor comprehension. He learned quite quickly, when he wasn’t tasked with reading.
And the illusion was different. Brighter, somehow. Not the illusion of a trickster. But something more honest. Something that would stand proudly in the light, not trying to hide or confuse.
The fox chuckled at the joy sparking in all too familiar amber eyes. Oh, he was definitely kin, alright. Every damn pup looked like that, when they finished their first illusion.
It was something beautiful.
Ah, how his dear companion would have loved to see something like this.
“...Yun Ren.” The young man perked up.
“This one is Su Nezan. And the one who rests here is my companion, Zang Wen, she who was known as the “Summer Sky Thunder”.”
The boy nodded politely, but did not seem to know her name. That was fine. It was hundreds of years past her death.
But hopefully, his little cousin would wish to learn.
“Now, practise makes perfect, cousin.” Nezan said, and Yun Ren nodded eagerly….before pausing.”
“Really? You too? I got enough of that ‘related to foxes’ stuff back home, damn it!” He muttered. “And really, you look exactly like my mom when you turn into a woman!”
Oh, so that's why he was so repulsed.
“You know, most nobles just seemed to think that made it better.” Nezan mused.
Really, they were entirely too eager to bed their brothers or sisters. Strange creatures, humans.
Yun Ren’s face went all jittery, swapping through a myriad of emotions of disgust and horror.
Nezan laughed, and with a swirl of whitre fur and tails, plucked him up.
“Now, to a section that is less colourful. Don’t layer too many illusions on top of eachother!”
Yun Ren’s brief struggle ceased, as he realised he was perched on Nezan’s back.
“...this is pretty cool.” he said, looking around the cave.
“If you wish to ride me, all you must do is ask~” The lilting, female voice tempted.
“I hate you. I hate you so much.”
Cackles echoed through the cave.
So amusing, his little cousin was.
The sword rattled again.
There was once a woman.
A powerful hunter of beasts. A slayer of the wicked. With her blade of light, she cast down their illusions. With her blade of light, she ended the lives of the demonic spirit beasts.
She was the Pride of the Shrouded Mountain. Until one day… she betrayed the sect. The Blade of Light slew all who approached. Her lightning scorched and ruined all who dared appear before her.
And with her, fought one of the monsters. One of the wicked creatures, that twisted and shifted, normally cowering from the light.
Befuddled by a fox, a most humiliating end.
She slew many, as befitting of the rising Star of the Shrouded Mountain. She crushed all who opposed her.
And yet, the brave Disciples of the Honoured Founders had their own strength. One managed a lethal blow, and the Blue Sky Thunder was driven from the field, disappearing forever.
Many would wish to find her corpse. Or at least, her wondrous blade, and return such a treasure to the hands of the righteous.
Lu Ban closed the scroll in disgust.
‘With our revealing light, and the artifacts of our ancestors, no shadow will hide from us!’ a voice boomed out in the courtyard.
He rolled his eyes at the answering cheers, as ‘Brother’ Kang made a speech to the Fulmination Assault Group.
Through careful research and months of cataloging disappearances, his Senior thought he had a good idea where the Fox’s lair was. A full scale raid, to retrieve an artifact and a core.
While Young Master Zang Li was “given the great honour” of being in command of Fangtip Fortress while the Sect’s forces went off to obtain glory.
A bold-faced plan to attempt to halt his growth, sending him to this Heavens Forsaken mountain, where there was snow in summer.
On top of that, he was ran around constantly, with barely any time to cultivate. Sent to exterminate beasts, or receive tribute for the great machine that was the Shrouded Mountain. He had slain many denizens of the mountains already, harvesting their cores. Over half of them would go to the sect. A disgusting tax, levied so the unworthy could have a chance to shine.
He couldn’t even skim off the top with ‘Brother’ Kang watching him closely, as the Elders still seemed to think he would need a minder.
There was a rustle of clothes, as the fool himself appeared in the room, flaunting a movement technique.
“Do you think my speech was rousing enough, Junior Brother?” he asked, smirking.
Lu Ban smiled without sincerity. “It was most rousing,” he sneered, sarcasm thick.
The older man laughed at him.
“Ah it is most unfortunate that you can’t come, and witness our glory. But you must stay out of trouble, yes? I’m helping you, junior. Commanding Illustrious Fangtip Fortress will surely see your worth rise in the eyes of our elders!”
Lu Ban said nothing.
“And... well, here. These need filing. Make sure to get it all done, yes?”
Lu Ban nearly struck him down right then and there, but held his fury. It would do him no good right now. He had his freedom, but the rest of the Elders held their grudge. They were watching to see if he made any mistakes.
If that bastard came back, and if Lu Ban had a hair out of place… he would report it. Like a child streaming to his big brother.
Lu Ban remembered that beating he received from the brat well. He also remembered the feeling of smashing a rock into the back of the boy's head as he swaggered off.
At least Kang wouldn’t be breathing down his neck the entire time. In the man’s own words, which Lu Ban had overheard “There is nothing to get into trouble with up here.”
Lu Ban snatched the papers out of Kangs hads, and stormed out of the room, the smirk boring into his back.
Lu Ban snarled, as he stomped into the library. The filing took most of the day, and by the end of it, his blood was boiling.
Even the library here was a disappointment. There were no secret texts, or anything of real value. Just basic techniques.
An utterly worthless place.
He was so fed up that he moved slightly too quickly, the air pressure knocking a precariously placed scroll in this dim, unused corner of a library.
The scroll fell, and with it, half the scrolls on the shelf.
Lu Ban debated just leaving them there. He glared at the shelf—
There was something in the back of it.
His eyes narrowed, as he approached. A panel, nearly invisible, had been knocked loose.
He finished prying it the rest of the way open.
Within the small, cared out space, there was a scroll.
‘The Blade of Fire’ it read.
Intrigued, Lu Ban reached in, and took it out, cracking the seal, and glancing through the contents.
His eyes widened.
A wizened old face, sitting silently in the cave. Milky white eyes that saw nothing, and yet everything. He sat before an emaciated boy, as the child writhed in agony at learning his secrets.
“Let me tell you, child. Talent and power? Those are secondary. The most important thing a cultivator can have...” A grin without teeth, only blackened gums, “...is luck.”
He tucked the scroll furtively into his robes, and set about replacing everything.
Slowly, a smile spread across his face. Perhaps there was some trouble he could get into up here after all.
“Hey, what do you want to do, when all this is over?” the fox asked, as the commotion behind them intensified. The entire village was packing up, and leaving, while the defenders stayed.
Hopefully, they could buy enough time.
The woman with blonde hair considered the question, as if she had never thought to think about it before.
She frowned heavily.
“I don’t know,” she stated, her eyes unfocused. “But… those illusions you showed me, that night. The one of the dance… I liked it. Do many places have festivals like that?”
“Yes, I’m sure of it. There are more festivals and events than can be counted!”
Wen smiled, staring up at the sky. “Then I shall see them all! And bring something back. I’ll tell everybody of the things I’ve seen, and you can make illusions, so it will be like they were right there with us!”
The sword on her back rattled.
The woman chuckled at the action.
“Seriously? Why do you even like tea getting poured on you? You’re going to rust! Strange thing.” The woman sighed fondly. “We’ll find you tea, at least one from each different province!”
It rattled again, pleased, as the fox laughed.
They made so many promises that night.
And kept not a single one.
Yun Ren’s illusions improved with time. They got sharper, their colours clearer.
Until finally, there stood an image on the wall. A direct duplication of the one in his crystal. It was still fuzzy at the edges, and still imperfect… but it was clear.
Yun Ren exhaled, his eyes slightly unfocused.
“Thank you,” he said earnestly. Yun Ren bowed, his eyes to the floor.
The fox smiled at him.
“You know, there are many more techniques here, if you wish to learn. Many secrets my companion found.”
A leading question, yet the boy shook his head.
“Sorry. I gotta get back to gramps soon,” he declined. “Let him know I’m alright.”
There was a brief, violent surge of possessiveness. Another one was leaving. More kin, gone, more friends disappeared.
The fox crushed down the feeling.
“Hey, you wanna come too? Meet everybody?” Yun Ren asked, suddenly struck with an idea.
Nezan considered the offer. He was not bound here. Not really. But… he was loathe to leave his dear friend’s resting place.
“...perhaps I shall visit them,” the fox mused. “After I finish repairing everything, perhaps.”
“I’ll tell everybody about you. And… I’ll come visit again, if you want? Before I return south?”
“...no, I shall come to you. I don’t want to ruin all my hard work. Making illusions like that is tough, I’ll have you know! But enough of this. We shall celebrate your accomplishment!”
Nezan retrieved a special vintage. One of the last ones remaining.
“Oh, honoured sir~!” a female voice singsonged, as the fox returned. Yun Ren’s face made that delightful twitching motion, as he beheld the female form, clad in a beautiful, if revealing dress.
The one that looked like his mother.
The woman shifted back into a fox, after the drinks were poured.
Yun Ren took a sip from the vessel, and his eyes bulged out.
“The hells is this?!” he asked, staring at the vessel in wonder..
“Spiritual wine,” the fox replied, taking his own sip.
The boy took another drink, and giggled, his face already turning red. The wine was quite potent. Nezan’s Qi slunk around him.
“Tell me, Yun Ren… What is your goal? Your dream, your reason for being?” Nezan asked.
The boy’s bleary eyes focused for a brief moment, under alcohol and suggestion.
The fox chuckled, as the boy got out his recording crystal again.
He regaled Nezan with stories, stories of where he came from.
He told a tale of a farm. Of a magnificent chicken. Of a carp that became a dragon.
He told of a wicked fiend that had tried to take a friend.
The story of a tribe. A tribe that honored and venerated a fox, who called her the great guardian, who delivered them from a calamity.
Each tale was accompanied by an illusion.
The image of a mountain. The image of a lake. The image of a woman with freckles, grinning, and a large man sticking his tongue out. Even as sweat beaded on his brow. Even as his cultivation enhanced voice grew hoarse, he spoke.
“That’s my dream. To travel far and wide. To see it. To record it… and then come back home, and share it with everyone. Moments in time, captured in light.”
Yun Ren’s eyes sparkled with light and conviction. The conviction he once saw in his dear companion’s eyes.
Nezan smiled into his cup.
But for all the boy’s conviction...
“The world is not kind enough for conviction alone,” Nezan whispered.
The boy’s drunken mind churned, and he sighed. “Yeah. Yeah, I know that some people are assholes. Or I could screw up, and offend somebody, on account of me bein’ a country hick and all. But… well, I’d still like to do it anyway, yanno?”
“Yes... yes, I know,” the fox whispered. “Yun Ren... could you do one last thing for me?”
The boy nodded guilessly.
Nezan touched his paw to his head, drawing out a cherished memory. Yun Ren’s eyes went blank, as he beheld a moment in time.
His hands raised.
And the stone room changed.
Light. Clouds. A horizon with mountains...
And a woman with blonde hair, smiling softly at the rising dawn.
The boy staggered from the strain, thumping to his knees, and slumping against the fox.
Nezan smiled fondly at the boy. Truly, he was blessed by the heavens to have such a fortunate encounter.
“G’nnight….” he slurred, utterly spent.
His face was so peaceful. Dreaming about a future, and all the things he would see. Nezan… would like to see that future. He tapped his chest idly.
The fond smile on the guardian’s face turned wicked.
But really, now, falling asleep on a fox? On a known trickster? The boy was asking for it.
And he did say he needed to get back to his grandfather. But first… Auntie Nezin’s blood should not be in such a sorry state!
The first thing that Yun Ren realised when he woke up was that he was naked.
The second thing was that he was tied, upside down, to a tree.
Yun Ren groaned.
Bastard fox. Really, he said he’d let the thing visit, and then it ties him up naked after he got drunk?!
He glared out at the forest, his headache swiftly subsiding, and saw the clothes folded neatly, along with his pack.
...some of the anger dissipated.
He flailed about for a moment, kicking his legs, before he managed to get a good grip on the tree.
The ropes snapped, and he thumped headfirst into the ground.
A bit of the anger came back.
He grumbled, as he pulled on his clothes. He rubbed his nose at the near overpowering smell of dirt in it. He had half a mind to go storming back—
His pack was slightly too heavy.
He frowned, and opened it.
His eyes widened, and he closed it again.
He counted to three, and opened the pack. Yup, still there.
Several crystals, a pressed flower, some bottles full of pills and a strange, shimmering gem, along with a note.
“A gift for you, and your lover. We may meet again,” it said, with what looked like a lipstick kiss on the corner of it.
“...damned fox,” he grumbled.
He finished collecting everything, and strapped his sword to his belt.
It sat a little bit awkwardly, so he adjusted it. He was so totally going to come back and ruin the Fox’s illusions later.
Two weeks had gone by, and not a day passed that Nezan did not stare at the mural of his dearest friend, before he began his work.
The tunnel was in terrible disrepair. Really, the talismans were degrading far too quickly. Probably the lack of Qi in the Azure Hills, causing strange eddies in the dragon veins.
It would be months of work, and with Yun Ren having opened the path, even longer!
Ah, but it was worth it. He would complete his duties, and… maybe he would venture out, and see his kin. Witness their lives.
But... it would be irritating. Nezan sniffed at the outside air, and gagged. How could people live in this desert? And it would only get worse the further he travelled.
He shook his head, huffing as the dawn light crested the horizon.
Nezan hummed, as he began to weave his shadows, and paused mid-technique.
He glanced at the sun again.
Little golden motes danced around his fingers. It was a struggle, to form it right, but it came surprisingly easily.
“Hup, Ha, And then make it all twisty~” Nezan sang to himself, as the illusion formed.
Yun Ren’s little explanations helped a surprising amount.
Nezan laughed at how amateurish his attempt was. Sure, it would hide things from a distance, but if somebody got close enough, the description wouldn’t hold.
He shook his head, and wandered back inside. Urg. Cleaning was always so annoying, the dust getting in his white fur...
To say Kang was livid was an understatement.
“You assured me that this information was correct.” He ground out. The Fulmination Assault Group was milling around a waterfall, boredom clear on their faces. The simpering little disciple flushed at the accusation.
“It should be here—it has to be around this area? Perhaps the lack of Qi is interfering—” it stuttered.
“Are you saying this artifact, The Illusory Shadow Seeker, cannot detect the foul beasts?” Kang asked him. It was a dangerous question. The Mystic Treasure was another of the reasons that they were so successful in rooting the demonic beasts out. To question it… it was not done.
“...no, Senior Brother. If it cannot see the darkness, then there is none.” The man whimpered.
“Exactly. Perhaps you need some remedial lessons with the rest of the information group. To think you came highly recommended.”
The man bit his lip, his face going red.
“One more sweep. If we find nothing, then this search is fruitless, and we return.” Kang barked out.
The great mystic artifact rose in the air, spinning and spiraling, glowing with inner light. The most devastating weapon against the foxes, the weapon that sniffed out their shadows wherever they might hide…
Went dark and silent, detecting nothing.
The Fulmination Assault Group packed up and left, beginning the dangerous trek back up the mountains.
Kang could just imagine the little bastard smirking at him.