A creature erupted from a hole in the wall, screeching with glee and maddened hunger. Its white flesh and sightless eyes twisted grotesquely, as its long claws reached greedily for the flesh of whatever had been foolish enough to venture near its hole.
A crack of a wing splattered it against the wall. Bi De came to a stop, examining the fork in the tunnel, as it split off in two different directions.
‘Are you feeling alright?’ Yin asked, as the fire of the sun roasted another one of the mindless beasts. They would not listen to any entreaty, and even flaring their Qi to try and ward the ravenous things off only served to draw them nearer.
‘No,’ Bi De said simply, bringing his breathing under control, and scowling up at the thousands of tons of rock sitting above his head. ‘This place sits ill with me. The sooner we are back under the sky, the better.’
Yin cocked her head to the side, curious. ‘I find it quite comforting really,’ she said.
Both she and Miantiao had been relatively unaffected by their descent, both used to tunnels and cramped spaces.
It was the second time Bi De had been underground. The first was when he ventured into his Great Master’s Ice Cavern, to retrieve a block of ice for his Great Master. It was a damp and dark place that was in a constant state of flux. Tiny temperature variations pulsed from the Core of the General that Commands the Winter, his Great Master’s golem, creating a distinctly unpleasant feeling.
Bi De would rather be locked in the freezing storage room for a month than be in this cave system for another minute.
On the first day, full of good spirit and vigor, they had begun their descent, picking their way through the narrow tunnels and wading across small rivers. Once or twice they even felt the fresh summer breeze, carried in through holes that managed to plunge into the hill from the surface.
Bi De and Yin could feel the position of the moon and the sun respectively, so that night, at the precipice of a larger cavern, they rested, and prepared for whatever may lie ahead.
On the second day, Bi De’s power began to wane.
It was a slight tickling sensation, but his light began to fade.
He could not understand it at first. He could feel it just as they reached a massive complex of caves, where the darkness became deeper. Where the Holy Moonlight was needed just as much as Yin’s Solar armour.
Why would the moon hide, in this pitch blackness?
He had no answer, as they went deeper. The only solace was that as long as Yin lit the way, he too would have some small measure of his power back. It consumed his thoughts. He could not even enjoy the majestic waterfalls, the strange glowing mushrooms, or even the pillars that grew down from the ceiling. It was all he could do not to run back to the surface.
But he persevered, and they delved. The air stagnated. Some of the tunnels got so small even Bi De had to squeeze, getting dirt all over his feathers.
The creeping feeling of unease troubled his sleep, and plagued him with nightmares.
On the third day, they encountered these.
When the first one had struck, he had caught it instinctively, and apologised for trespassing.
Only furious growls and a snapping mouth had greeted him, until it had to be dealt with.
Needless to say, it hadn't helped his mood.
He focused, feeling the disturbances, minute as they were, in the air, and the draw of the power still far below. They were barely halfway there, by his reckoning.
‘Right is the correct way, I do believe,’ he stated, as he finished contemplating both routes, turning to his companions. Miantiao nodded his head, while Yin was sniffing at one of the dead beasts.
With a shrug, she reached down as if to take a bite, only to have Miantiao swat her on top of her head.
‘Not thessse ones, Yin,’ he muttered.
‘Eh? But you always told me to get as much Qi as I can, and these guys have enough,’ Yin questioned.
‘...and I sssshould not have,’ Miantiao said. ‘Leave them.’
Yin obligingly dropped the creature.
‘Oh, this is one of those things you’re sorry for? The stomach aches and the shits weren’t that bad after I learned how to refine it, so don’t feel too bad, Shifu!’
The snake closed his eyes, grimacing in regret. His tail stroked Yin’s head.
‘Let us continue. But I will not hope that this was the worst of it,’ Miantiao muttered instead.
Bi De startled awake, panting, from a dream he did not remember. He looked around, but it was a futile effort. The darkness was absolute.
He tried to meditate, but that too was for nothing. He was too disturbed. The constant tugging feeling in his Qi was getting worse, the land pulling him down, scrabbling at his Qi greedily.
He bore it. But if it got much worse…
He shook his head. They were close, now.
Slowly, a golden glow started up.
Yin’s dirty, matted fur greeted him, a dull grey rather than pure white.
‘I think I hate this place,’ she stated bluntly. ‘It's a bunch of bullshit.’
Maintiao barked out a laugh, but did not bother to chide her language. ‘Indeed. But we are clossse. Even I can feel that ssssomething is near.’
Indeed, it was ‘bullshit'. They had to go even deeper, and the air was beginning to get outright unpleasant.
It was the seventh day, as far as Bi De could tell, as he had stopped being able to feel the moon on the fourth.
There were few words, as they arose, and continued.
Bi De’s feathers were sticking to him, and even Miantiao and Yin had gotten quieter, their eyes more focused. The dull golden glow coming from Yin was their only comfort. At least the beast attacks had stopped, the emaciated creatures finally giving up their ceaseless assaults. They were not particularly dangerous, but they did add strain.
Today had been boring so far, until they reached a stone archway.
In front of the archway was a skeleton, curled up, as if having drifted off into sleep. A giant beast that looked like it was half cat and half a dog like the ones Bi De had seen in the cities. It had enormous incisor teeth, ready to rip and tear.
‘A temple dog?’ Miantiao asked, referring to the normally stone guardians, carved outside some of the shrines that they had seen.
‘...I do believe so,’ Bi De got out after a moment, glancing at the archway. The character for King stood upon the entrance.
Bi De’s unease grew.
They continued onward. Past the silent bones, and into the hall. This part was obviously man-made, with veins of glowing stone that lit the way, sparking and flickering uncertainly, but it was enough light to see by.
The golden glow faded, as Yin let her technique drop.
Bi De panted, as he stumbled on a slightly raised piece of stone.
Yin caught him. She was concerned and confused.
‘Shifu, he is so strong, why is he…?’ she asked.
‘He is a creature of wind and ssssky, of the moon. Being sssmothered in this oppresssive place must be unbearable. Support him as you can, Yin. There is no shame in this.’
Yin nodded, and the golden light began to glow again.
‘Well, you just lean here, ‘kay?’ she told him, allowing him to press against her side. ‘I’m good to keep going, and once we get back out, he’ll be all good, right?’
‘A likely outcome,’ Bi De confirmed, his voice strained, but the warm glow chased away some of the fatigue. ‘Thank you, Yin.’
The rabbit grinned, and nuzzled his side.
This leg of the walk was much easier, and allowed Bi De to take in his surroundings.
The walls, along with the veins of crystal, were filled with murals. Murals of harvest and huts, of mountains, and men fighting great beasts.
As the trio continued on their path, deeper into the tunnel, they changed.
The people were met by a man, and behind him stood a woman, seeming to float on air. Where he went, the pictures changed.
The harvests got larger. The huts turned into palaces. The men and beasts toiled together in the fields, their blades being beaten to plowshares.
They danced. They danced together, for the man and the woman, who held out their hands, and gave blessings.
Until they came upon the last room. The last cavern.
The walls of the room were glowing dully with blue veins of crystal. Some had jutted outward, forming spikes from the wall, and one particularly large vein was wrapped around a more recogniseable crystal, seated on an altar.
A recording crystal.
The pull seemed to radiate off it..
They approached slowly, wary of some kind of trap, yet there was none.
There was silence.
He knew roughly how to work the crystal, and there was nothing else here. This is where they were meant to be.
And it was just a recording crystal, was it not?
Bi De reached forward, and placed one of his claws on the crystal’s surface.
But unlike His Master’s, this crystal did not project. Instead, he felt himself being drawn inward.
A storm of emotion. He flailed around for a moment, as he was plunged into chaotic waters. It was all he could do to focus upon his mission, and not be dragged by the currents, when he was... slammed into something, for lack of a better word, emotion filled his chest, and he gasped.
“Hey, shorty, what the hell?” a frazzled woman barked, as she stormed into Bi De’s rooms. She looked like she had just been startled out of bed, with her messy hair and drooping clothes. He snorted at the nickname, as he was now taller than her, but he supposed he would always be short to her.
“Felt that, did you?” Bi De asked her with a knowing smile, as he turned the map he was looking at toward her. Her eyes narrowed at the spirals and swirls upon it. The work of nearly a decade.
“You— geh! Now I know why you wanted to know that!” the woman huffed, as red tinged her cheeks.
Bi De’s grin got a bit wider. “It’s just my way of giving back. Of growing together. In time, we’ll usher in a new dawn.”
The woman sighed, as she embraced him. “You didn’t have to, you know.”
He did. He really did.
Something twisted and skipped. Visions flashed. They were his memories, and yet they weren’t. They were nothing like his Master’s recording crystal. They were too intense, they were like he was actually there, in human form.
A woman eating a rice cake. Of festivals, empowering the earth.
Of himself and his dear companion teaching the dances to the people.
He was happy, so happy for a while.
And then it all started to go wrong.
Bi De fell to his knees as the last demon died, panting with exhaustion.
He stared at the devastation the demons had wrought, wrath like a star glowing in his chest at the blackened corrupted land.
He pulled up his sleeve, and stared at the blackened skin there. He grimaced.
How ever could she stand this? How could she smile and shrug it off?
He pulled his sleeve back down, and rose. He would have to ask Shu Xiong for her help to fix this. And perhaps send some gifts to the giant green bear’s cubs. She was quite the doting mother...
Happiness switched to pain. To violence. Defending his home and his friends from those that would wish him harm. Of people calling him Lord, or Master.
“She’s using you,” the beast hissed. “Though your life may be long, longer than most... you will never be immortal. Your bones will rest here forever. Bound to this base earth, and more food for your ‘friend’.”
Bi De destroyed it utterly.
But something ticked in the back of his skull. Memories of unease.
Years passed by in flashes of emotion. Of joy and hope, of loss, of pain. Of wars. Of battling for a hundred years. Of his friend's pain, that she just laughed off, like ift was no big deal.
And blank eyes staring, as the world began to break.
“I’m sorry, Tianlan,” he said, as his dearest friend’s form cracked.
As did someone else.
‘Bi De!’ Yin shouted.
Paws gripped him around the shoulders, and jerked him back.
He staggered from the crystal, collapsing to his knees.
“Wha—” he gasped, finally noticing the flickering lights as the crystal dimmed and brightened uncertainly.
‘The entire formation in the walls is in flux,’ Maintiao muttered. ‘I do believe we need to leave.’
Yin nodded, about to pull him away.
‘Wait. We need the crystal!’ he demanded. The vision was still unfinished.
‘How?! It's attached to the wall!’ Yin explained, looking nervously at the crystal.
Bi De rose on unsteady feet. He examined the crystal, as it pulsed again, where the crystals had grown from the wall and connected to it, wrapping around it.
The hall rumbled.
Bi De lashed out with a kick, and severed the connection close to the wall.
The crystal dimmed.
Miantiao’s tail, crippled though it was, lashed out, pulling Bi De and the crystal to Yin, as the rabbit took off.
They prepared for some form of collapse, as they dashed madly out of the tunnel… and yet…
The rumbling stopped.
But Yin did not.
‘We’re getting out of here,’ she snarled.
Bi De nodded, as they bounced up the hall.
He was very tired.