Zu Ri stood with her head bowed, feeling Elder Yan’s wrath pressing down upon her shoulders. Chains held her in place, loose enough to allow her movement in her prison. The chamber they stood in was dark, set deep within the ground below the Yan manor, a dungeon carved of polished stone.
The Elder’s step’s echoed in the chamber, as he walked. To a mortal, the voice would only repeat a few times before vanishing, but to a cultivator’s ears, especially one trained in the arts of subterfuge as the shadows, the echoing sounds would repeat over and over, growing dimmer and dimmer as they clashed with the newer echoes, creating a blanket of noise. Normally, they would leave a droplet of water, dripping onto an overturned bowl to echo out eternally in the darkness. The nausea and headache that ensued were a part of the punishment she had to bear.
Zu Ri waited with her head bowed, eyes set to the floor. It had been nearly an hour since the Elder had arrived, but he had yet to speak a word to her. Yet Zu Ri knew not to ask the purpose of his visit. She would not move, would not question, not until she was spoken to.
The silence stretched, the echoes and the nausea her only companion. They knew it was not possible to torture her. She could barely feel pain, and was immune to most poisons. To use her own senses and turn them against her was one of the few ways she could still experience anguish like this. But she's dealt with far worse. She knew she wouldn’t break over this. No, this was punishment. To test her loyalty.
A sudden sharp click echoed through the chamber, as the Elder stopped in front of her. She suppressed the twitch from her body, her eyes set at his feet.
“Tell us, shadow. Who do you serve?” the Elder’s voice asked, calm as a still lake.
“You, master,” Zu Ri replied without a moment’s hesitation.
“So you say, yet how is it that you kept what our granddaughter was planning from us? Have you forgotten the purpose for which you were given to her?” Elder Yan asked.
“No, master,” Zu Ri replied.
“Then why? Why have you failed in your purpose, Shadow?” Elder Yan asked. The calm anger in his voice had a sinking sensation grow in Zu Ri’s gut.
“I was not made aware of her plans. She knew I would report to you if we ever found out, and thus kept everything hidden.”
“Have our shadows grown so weak that they must require permission to find things out? Do not speak in riddles and tell us,” the Elder spoke, the anger in his voice growing, as he stepped closer. “Why did you disobey?”
His voice slammed into Zu Ri like a crashing tide and pushed her head further down. She focused on her breath, bearing through the weight as she choked out. “I… wished to protect… the young mistress. Wanted… her to fail and… come around on her own…”
The weight continued to build onto her chest as her ribs creaked under the Elder’s presence. Blood began to pool in her mouth, as her gut began to squeeze. Darkness seeped into her vision, and she felt her mind starting to drift. A gasp for air escaped her mouth in an unsightly display of mortality, and Zu Ri felt the Elder’s wrath crush her spirit.
Then the weight vanished, as if it had never been there.
Zu Ri coughed, steadying her spinning vision. She gathered herself as quickly as she could, afraid of the Elder’s wrath the longer she put up such a display of weakness.
“You do not lie,” the Elder said, as if surprised. “A shadow, growing to care for anyone but their master,” the man said, his eyes staring at Zu Ri’s kneeling form as if watching a fascinating specimen.
“We had chosen you for your loyalty. And because you were the only shadow close to our granddaughter's age. She needed a loyal companion. But perhaps, we had mistaken how far your loyalty to her would go,” the Elder said.
Zu Ri kept her head bowed. She knew she’d overstepped. She’d known it long ago. The day the twins had stolen the book, she’d let them go, hoping when the Elder found out, she would come back around. See some sense. But to think… Zu Ri pushed away the emotions, and steeled her resolve.
“Zu Ri,” the Elder said.
The words made years of discipline break within the girl, as her head snapped upwards towards the Elder, eyes wide in surprise.
“That is your name, is it not?” the Elder asked her.
Zu Ri returned a nod, hurriedly returning her gaze from the Elder, before bowing her head deeper in forgiveness. Her heart thundered in her chest. Shadows did not possess names. It was only the young mistress’ kindness that she had insisted upon using hers. To hear those words from her Master… Zu Ri felt fear grip her heart.
“Look up, Zu Ri,” the Elder said, crouching down. Zu Ri moved back in fear, her back touching the wall of her prison. “Forgive me master. I will not mistake my loyalty again,” she begged, watching the crouched Elder looking at her in silence. Fear wracked her body in place as she pushed herself against the wall.
Elder Yan did not reply, slowly reaching towards her. His hand pressed itself against her cheek, brimming with the love of a father towards his daughter.
“You must understand Zu Ri, what we feel. That demon has not only crippled our children, and humiliated us in front of the entire seventh peak, but he has stolen our Yun’er from us. Now he prances, hiding under the Lord’s name freely, and we are forced to watch. But not if you help us. We have reasons to believe that the boy is a demon wearing human skin. Such a monster has led our Yun’er astray, and in his grasp. But if we can find proof of his nature, and present it to the jade court, then we can bring down the traitorous Lord, and obtain Yun’er back. She has merely been led astray from her Path by the whispers of the demon,” the Elder said, moving closer.
“You understand our pain, don’t you?” he said, and a single tear flowed down Zu Ri’s eyes. She nodded back to the man, remembering the pain she’d felt when she learnt of her mistress’s choice.
The Elder pulled his hand back, rising back up. “Free her of her chains,” he spoke to the chamber. Two other shadows manifested inside. They moved in silence, breaking the chains that tied Zu Ri with a single swift blow, before fading back into the darkness.
“Help us get our Yun’er back, and you can live your life by her side once again,” Elder Yan commanded.
Zu Ri looked at her master, at the man she had sworn to serve. She would bring back her Young Mistress from the demon, and return to the life she had made an oath to spend in her service.
She fell to one knee, and bowed her head, whispering under her breath. “As you command.”