Secrets of the Hollow Mountain

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Secrets of the Hollow Mountain

Post by Glitter »

Secrets of the Hollow Mountain is a story authored by me and RhystaRose and is a direct sequel to When the Rain Provides.

Located here: viewtopic.php?f=15&t=2003 When the Rain Provides is about half action and half explicit gay M/M/M sex - if you do not want to read will be summarized below

A rundown of the fandom and characters.
The Grave Robber's Chronicles - Daomu Biji is a Chinese tomb robbing adventure ala Indiana Jones, with a little more magic including curses, zombies, corpse eating bugs, loads of weird snakes, the chase for immortality and all sorts of weird mysteries. The world is made up of the Mystic Nine - the Nine Families famous for the tomb robbing business. The show follows the adventures of the Iron Triangle.

The Iron Triangle have been best friends and tomb raiding for almost 20 years together. From left to right: Zhang Qiling, Wu Xie, Wang Pangzi

Zhang Qiling – Called Xiaoge by his two best friends and Ouxiang by Liu Sang, he is over 100 years old. His family merged their blood with the Divine Beast the Qilin which was supposed grant immortality but really tops out around 1000 years. He is the fighter and prefers his sword to guns. His blood has special properties – including repelling insects – and the first two fingers on his right hand are super long. He and his family have a knack for finding, disarming and opening traps and locked rooms. And generally he never says two words when one will do but is fiercely loyal to his companions and can join in the shenanigans occasionally.

Wu Xie – called Tianzhen by Pangzi which means Naïve. He’s the heir of a tomb raiding family and he wants to explore and preserve cultural artifacts. Charming, bold, brave, occasionally reckless, collects found family like knick-knacks collect dust. He’s the scholar who’s just as likely to touch something he shouldn’t as he is to solve the trapped room riddle. Professional shit-disturber though he doesn’t think so.

Wang Pangzi – the heart and care-taker of the group. He saw baby Wu Xie just out of college on a trip somewhere and said “Does this belong to someone? No. Guess I’ll have to take care of it now.” He was an independent tomb raider in it for the money so he has plenty of knowledge of the artifact sand tombs but he’s not in it for the research. Can be a huge troll with a sharp tongue and has a love for tossing dynamite at monsters.

Liu Sang - called Sangbei’er by Pangzi (meaning Jinx) has a tragic but undefined backstory including a wicked stepmother, a house fire and being sold as a child. Liu Sang’s main talent is his super hearing. He was hired for his mapping skills in the show. He uses whistles and listening urns and interprets the sound waves into maps. He can also hear heartbeats and breathing. He’s arrogant about his skills and sharp tongued with it. He doesn’t make friends easily and is always looking for something to go wrong but he was adopted into the group during the adventure from the show.

The main ship in the fandom is Wu Xie with Xiaoge followed closely by the ship of the Iron Triangle. Since Liu Sang was introduced (and the show gave Pangzi a girlfriend) the new big ship is Wu Xie and Xiaoge with Liu Sang.

HONORABLE MENTIONS to characters that are referenced
Hei Xiazi whose name is literally Black Glasses. He is a fierce friend and fierce fighter. As a youth he took an immortality pill he found in a tomb so he’s also older than he looks. He has an eye disease that he covers with the glasses that lets him see perfectly well in the dark. Also an incredible shit-disturber and incredibly competent.

Xie Yuchen – Wu Xie’s childhood friend and the head of the Xie family who deal the antiques the Wu’s find. He only wears white/cream and pink. When Wu Xie first met him as a child he was so pretty that Wu Xie thought he was a girl and called him Xiao Hua – Little Flower which stuck as a nickname. He has access to the family money (that Wu Xie doesn't), is a very competent fighter and sings professional chinese opera.

The first story is summarized thusly: Wu Xie and Xiaoge are in an established relationship, looking to invite Liu Sang into it. So they take him on a trip to a previously explored tomb as a vacation. However, they release a monster that the first team didn’t find and both Xiaoge and Liu Sang are injured in the fight before they kill it. Wu Xie gets them out but the road down the mountain is washed out from the rain. Wu Xie finds a random cabin and they go in to recover. Talking, healing and sex ensue.

This takes place immediately after that story. There IS a bit of M/M/M gay sex in the form of mentions/memories in chapter 1 and the end of chapter 5.
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Re: Secrets of the Hollow Mountain

Post by Glitter »

Chapter 1 Liu Sang


Liu Sang sat up with a start at the shout and the noise of the door slamming open and into the wall. Or at least, he tried to sit up.

In actuality, as he quickly realized, he was trapped between two sets of arms. Strong, nicely muscled arms, but still - trapped.

His instincts all screamed: Run! Get away! Hide! Do something! Instead, he lay there, trying to get his racing heart under control. Wondering if there wasn’t some way he could just sink through the mattress to avoid the next few minutes of his life.

The two men on either side of him tensed with the loud noise, but neither seemed inclined to let him go. Wu Xie raised his head just enough to glance at his watch, then groaned and pulled the corner of the blanket as far over his head as he could manage. Ouxiang merely rolled closer, burying his face in Liu Sang’s shoulder, his arm like a vice around Liu Sang’s chest.

And so, when Pangzi stomped across the cabin floor and flung aside the curtain separating the sleeping area from the rest of the room, Liu Sang was the only one with eyes open to acknowledge his presence. Pangzi stared, gaze tracking over the covered lump of Wu Xie and the bare shoulder of Ouxiang currently attached to him. Liu Sang opened his mouth a couple of times but the panic stopped any words from forming.

“Seriously? Seriously? Now? Tianzhen! Xiaoge! Now’s when you guys decide to do this?” Frowning, Pangzi stepped forward and kicked the sleeping platform. The resulting thud shivered through the frame, the noise making Liu Sang flinch, and forced Wu Xie back out as he apparently felt the need to scowl at the man. Behind Liu Sang’s neck, Ouxiang just hummed.

“I… I… We…” Liu Sang floundered.

“Tsk. You!” He pointed at Liu Sang. “You minx! You man stealer! You huli jing!”

Liu Sang recoiled in horror, mostly metaphorically as he could still hardly move.

“Paaannngzziiii,” Wu Xie whined. “Cut it out. You’re scaring him and we just got him the way we wanted him.” Ouxiang stuck a foot out, tapping Pangzi on the leg.

The tense silence held for another heart-stoppingly long moment before Pangzi’s frown broke into an ear to ear grin and he began to clap. “Good job Tianzhen! You always get your man. Or men!” He held up a hand and Wu Xie leaned up to give him a high five.

Liu Sang started breathing again but he could feel the prickle of sweat at his hairline and his heart pounding under Ouxiang’s hand.

Ouxiang’s moving hand, he realized, as the strong fingers slid across his chest, teasing lightly across his nipple, completely distracting him from whatever weird, non-verbal conversation Wu Xie and Pangzi were having across the bed. He closed his eyes, torn between the sudden zing of pleasure and the residual panic. All in all, he’d prefer the pleasure but the panic was more immediate.

After a long moment, he heard Pangzi moving back across the room. “Breakfast in fifteen minutes!” The man’s voice was loud and gleeful as he pulled the curtains closed again. “I better not hear anything gross in the meantime!”

Wu Xie chuckled under his breath, then rolled over. “That almost sounds like a challenge.”

Liu Sang’s eyes sprang back open, ready to panic again, but the goofy grin on Wu Xie’s face took his breath away instead. He knew the man had a nice smile, but he’d never seen it from this position, or with this level of intent until these past few days. He tried to smile back, but Ouxiang chose that moment to pinch the nipple beneath his fingers, and when Wu Xie swooped in for a kiss he was once again completely helpless between the two men.

Fortunately, after a minute or so of teasing while he struggled to swallow the noises he knew he couldn’t afford to make without adding to his already astronomical levels of embarrassment, Ouxiang pulled back, gentling his touches into soothing strokes, and poked Wu Xie meaningfully on the shoulder.

Wu Xie sighed and pulled away, then dropped back to the pillow. “I guess we really don’t have time.” He trailed his hand along Liu Sang’s arm and up to the side of his face. “Don’t let him get to you, okay?”

When Liu Sang nodded, Wu Xie gave him another one of those blinding smiles, leaned in for one more slow, deep kiss, then rolled away and started rummaging around for clothing.

Ouxiang made a vague noise of agreement, or amusement, then gently tilted his chin and claimed a slow, deep kiss of his own. Liu Sang relaxed into it, enjoying the banked fire before Ouxiang also pulled away.

Sinking back onto the pillow, he admired the lithe muscled form, just a hint of tattoo showing before it was covered. Wu Xie patted him on the leg as he and Ouxiang headed out, pulling the curtain closed behind them and he heard the conversation start up with more bickering and teasing. Liu Sang took a deep breath and held it for a moment before blowing it out, puffing a strand of hair off his nose.

He’d known last night that their quiet bubble, this honeymoon phase, would soon be over. These past few days had been amazing, getting to know these two men in a completely different way. And that was in addition to the absolutely mind-blowing sex. He really had never imagined it could be like that. But all good things come to an end, and this ridiculous level of happiness could never last in the real world.

When they’d gotten cell service back two days ago, Wu Xie had immediately called Pangzi - by then they’d been well overdue. Since then, Wu Xie had spent a significant amount of time on the phone, often sitting in the car to keep his battery charged. Liu Sang had made a couple of calls himself, but beyond making arrangements to delay a couple of jobs, he didn’t exactly have a full social calendar to rearrange.

When he wasn’t on the phone, Wu Xie seemed to spend a good portion of his time in a frustrated sort of half-research mode, where he speculated endlessly about what might be going on with the tomb, but didn’t have the resources to actually investigate properly. A couple of times he’d seemed ready to go back into the tomb right then and there; Ouxiang and Liu Sang had to pull out all the stops to dissuade him, citing Liu Sang’s still-healing ankle and the need for better equipment before they tackled what were sure to be a number of unknown hazards.

When they sat down to discuss the situation, it quickly became clear that they were all pretty pissed off by the situation. Wu Xie wanted to know how the original team had missed the guardian and WHAT it was guarding. Liu Sang was angry that he hadn’t scanned the cave system more thoroughly, trusting the original maps a bit too much. And Ouxiang was angry about missing the trigger and getting poisoned. No matter what it took, they were definitely going back in.

When Wu Xie wasn’t in research mode, he switched almost seamlessly into what Liu Sang had silently labeled full “horn-dog” mode. The sheer volume of innovative suggestions and the enthusiasm he’d shown as he convinced the other two to try them had quickly broken through all of Liu Sang’s boundaries, leaving him feeling a bit untethered to reality, to be honest. He barely recognized himself as he responded enthusiastically. They’d tried all combinations of top and bottom. Wu Xie had wanted to be taken pressed against the window with Ouxiang watching outside. They’d even convinced Ouxiang to be “tied” in front of the fire.

And so, yesterday, when they confirmed that the flood waters had receded to a safe level and Pangzi was headed their way bringing the real world with him, Liu Sang had known it was only a matter of time. Last night he’d made the most of it, storing up memories as best he could.

Now, he sighed deeply, and started searching for his clothing; it was time to suck it up and get back into gear. He really was anxious to get back into the tomb, regardless of how weird or awkward it was going to be. At least Pangzi didn’t seem to be actively upset about the way things had changed, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to make things difficult.

Could one be a fourth wheel to a triangle?
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Re: Secrets of the Hollow Mountain

Post by Glitter »

Chapter 2 Wu Xie

Wu Xie watched as Liu Sang finally came out from behind the curtain, looking way too buttoned up and closed off. He was still ridiculously hot, but that guarded tension was back in his stance. Wu Xie thought back to so many moments over the last few days when he’d been surprised and pleased at how responsive Liu Sang was when he finally let loose. It only made sense that having Pangzi arrive would change the dynamic, but it looked like Wu Xie had his work cut out for him if he wanted to keep this thing going. Which he really, really did. He glanced over at Xiaoge, who flickered a glance to Liu Sang, then back to Wu Xie and nodded in silent understanding. Guess they’d just have to take it one step at a time.

Meanwhile, Pangzi had, as usual, managed to create breakfast seemingly out of thin air, and they had some planning to do.

“Aiyo, Sangbei’er. Over here,” Pangzi called. Liu Sang blinked and scowled, making his way over with a touch of reluctance. However, Pangzi just handed him a couple of bowls to put with the rest on the table, leaving him looking a bit confused. When they were all seated, he seemed to relax just a bit and for a few minutes there was just the passing of dishes and Pangzi sharing the latest gossip. Wu Xie managed to put a few choice bits on everyone’s bowls, just to spread the love.

As they came to the bottoms of their bowls, Wu Xie shoved the last bite into his mouth and gathered his thoughts. “Okay, you know I finally convinced Ershu that we needed to go back into the tomb. And I got him to agree to send hard copies of his information; supposedly everything from the prior expedition, including a more detailed interview with cousin Mingli. None of my other sources had much information at all that was new or useful.”

“Have I met cousin Mingli?” Pangzi mused.

Wu Xie blinked, derailed. “I …think so?”

“Is he the one with the glasses?”

“No - that’s Long-er.”

“The one with the mustache?”

No, that’s A-Hao.”

“How about the one with the…” Pangzi screwed his face up.

“Tsk. No, that's poor cousin A-Yuan and you should be nice. He got hurt on the job!”

“How about that guy with the hair and the goatee? What was his name?” Pangzi squinted at the ceiling as they all stared at him and started to various degrees (zero in Xiaoge’s case) when he snapped his fingers. “Yunlan! Oh, nevermind he was an investigator. He wasn’t even a Wu.”

Wu Xie cleared his throat loudly, “ANYWAY. As I told you before, this was supposed to be the tomb of a minor prince who was exiled here. Apparently, that’s how this area became populated in the first place. Most of the sources agreed on the basics, but there were a few inconsistencies that everyone passed off as personal preferences of the prince. Also, when I described the guardian, we came up with a few potential origins, but nothing definitive. Apparently there are a few groups rumored to be associated with similar creatures, but nothing from around here. I’m hoping we can get something from whatever written information Ershu could find.”

“So,” Wu Xie turned to Pangzi, “you have a package for me.”

When Pangzi grunted affirmative and went to dig in his pack, mumbling about how he's always the one lifting things or delivering packages, Wu Xie started pushing the breakfast bowls away to clear space. Huffing, Liu Sang just began stacking them and took them to the kitchen. Wu Xie smiled at him when he sat down again causing a light flush across his sharp cheekbones. Xiaoge reached over and patted Liu Sang’s knee, which made the blush significantly brighter.

Pangzi snorted. “Put that away, Tianzhen. We’re trying to get work done and I would like to leave some time today.”

Wu Xie blinked, trying to exude innocence, then gave up with a shrug, chuckled and opened the fairly thick folder. He leafed through the first couple of pages, then sighed. “I’m not really sure how helpful this is going to be, but I’d like to spend a few minutes looking it over before we get going.”

He was pleased when Liu Sang nodded and held out a hand for some of the papers. “I don’t have any direct experience,” he said, “but I’m happy to look and see if anything jumps out at me.”

Pangzi got up from the table. “Xiaoge, come help me unload the supplies. It looks like you guys really did a number on this place.”

Some time later, when Wu Xie next looked up, the cabin had been stripped of their packs and a variety of other things that had migrated in from the van. New tubs of what looked like bedding were on the sleeping platform and the kitchen counter had been covered with new jars and containers of food to replace what they’d used. Pangzi was sweeping and Xiaoge was… oh, cleaning the window more thoroughly. He felt a zing across his stomach at the memory.

Shaking his head, he looked over to Liu Sang, feeling a slightly different zing. They may have found it in an emergency, but he was going to miss this place. “Find anything?”

Liu Sang shrugged, shifting a bit in his seat. “Maybe? Tell us yours first.”

“Okay,” he agreed, as the other two returned to the table, “so the report is pretty much useless. They recorded almost exactly what we noted before. It’s a standard tomb for the time period, nothing surprising on the surface. The most notable thing is really the location. Even with the exiled prince rumor, it was a surprise when they found a tomb as elaborate as this one. And yet apparently nobody thought it was important enough to follow up.”

“Until you got the bright idea, that is.” Pangzi's meaningful grin made Wu Xie roll his eyes.

“Right.” Wu Xie shuffled the papers and looked down, resisting the urge to look over at Liu Sang, not wanting to admit how little attention he’d paid to the details before they came. Really, it was just supposed to be a nice little day trip. Who could have predicted? A little voice in his head wryly said he should have known, but he shushed it. They were here now and he was going to make the most of it.

“And look what came out of that!” He forced cheer into his voice. “There’s definitely a mystery here to be solved!” He grinned and waved the remaining papers. “The rest of this is information about the area and the local population. Apparently the water here is really good, so the grass is, like, more nutritious? Something. Anyway the sheep, both mutton and wool kinds, are really good, the sheep cheeses are exceptionally tasty and the local beers are popular. It’s one of those places where there are vague rumors of a mysterious magical power blessing the waters, but there doesn’t seem to be anything definitive.”

Pangzi perked up. “Beer? And cheese? And beer?” Wu Xie slapped him on the head with the papers.

“How about you?” He looked over at Liu Sang. “Anything useful there?”

Liu Sang looked unsure. “It’s hard to tell really. There are several reports here about groups known, or rumored, to have associations with tomb guardians like the one we saw. But none of them really match?” He sounded a bit frustrated.

“I mean, this one,” he held up a small stack of papers, “was known to use big tomb guardians, but they were more like lizards. And this one,” he pointed to another pile of paper, “bred giant, poisonous spiders, but they were more the size of cats. He spread his hands in a helpless gesture. “Maybe I’m missing something, but nothing here really seems to connect at this point.”

Wu Xie shook his head and smiled ruefully. “Unfortunately, that’s about what I expected. Everyone I called had a different idea but none of them really seemed to match. I was hoping maybe there’d be something better in the text, but I guess we’re just not that lucky.”

“Definitely not that lucky in the tombs,” Pangzi said sarcastically, then his expression turned wicked, “but lucky in bed apparently.” He cackled and clapped Liu Sang on the shoulder. Liu Sang promptly acquired both a massive scowl and a bright flush, but before he could bite back, Pangzi continued. “Anyway - sounds like there’s nothing much else here. I say we get going!” He stood, clapping his hands together and rubbing briskly. “I’m going to do a final check on the vans.” Passing behind Liu Sang, he patted him again much more gently before exiting.

Wu Xie started gathering the papers into the file and heard Liu Sang and Xiaoge stand.

“Ummm,” Liu Sang began and when he heard nothing else, Wu Xie looked up to see that Xiaoge had pulled him in for a thorough kiss. At least that part was going well.

Wu Xie smiled, then spoke up. “One more check and we’ll get out of here.” The others broke apart and nodded, heading off in different directions, making sure nothing was left behind. Tearing a sheet of paper from one of his notebooks, Wu Xie wrote a quick explanation to the cabin owner and left his email address just in case. Placing the note on the table, he grabbed his pack and followed his two lovers out the door, shutting it firmly behind him.

Considering the amount of provisions and equipment they now had, they decided to take both vehicles up to the tomb. Liu Sang looked a bit surprised when Pangzi handed him the keys to the SUV he’d brought, but Pangzi just shrugged and headed for the van. “Don’t break anything, Sangbei’er.”

Wu Xie grinned, tossed a quick wink, and headed for his usual passenger seat, leaving Xiaoge to ride with Liu Sang.

On the way to the tomb, Pangzi flashed him a very serious look. “So really Tianzhen, are you sure you guys didn’t just overwhelm him into it?”

“I had a very clear conversation with him about us and,” he waved his hand between them, “us. I mean, he did cry a bit the first night, but Xiaoge is very good with his fingers.”

Pangzi blinked, then his face screwed up into an expression of horror and he reached across to repeatedly slap Wu Xie on whatever he could reach. “How dare you?! How can you do this to me?! How can I even call you Tianzhen again? Ruined!” he moaned. “Ruined.”

Wu Xie opened his eyes wide. “I don’t know what your problem is. We researched each other’s boundaries very thoroughly.” Pangzi just continued to moan. “Seriously, we did talk it over. Even Xiaoge talked.”

Eventually the moaning turned into muttering. Again pinning Wu Xie with a hard look, Pangzi growled, “I’m happy for you all. Don’t collect anyone else. Try to keep it in the bedroom. Hurt them and I’ll kill you. There, now I’m done.” And with perfect Pangzi timing, he pulled the van to a stop at the tomb entrance.

Grinning, Wu Xie stepped out of the van, and then his smile dropped as he saw the entrance and flashed back to the stress he’d felt when they were here last: leaving the tomb, injured, in the midst of the storm. Was it really only a few days ago? Seemed like it had been forever ago and also like it had just happened. He’d long accepted the idea that, no matter how many times he survived an encounter like that, the next one could be the last for him or for someone he cared about. And yet each time he went back for more.

And for very good reason, he thought, as he shook off the maudlin feelings. They’d all agreed that this was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up and he couldn’t ask for a better team to tackle it with. He moved to the back of the van, watching as Liu Sang turned off the SUV next to them. The potential definitely outweighed the risks.

Pulling out his pack, he looked at Pangzi. “I figure we’ll set up a staging area in the chamber before the main tomb. We’ll probably need a couple of trips to get everything.”

“Sure.” Pangzi nodded, slinging his pack onto his back. Xiaoge had just taken a step toward the entrance when Pangzi said, “Hold on.”

Pangzi held out his hand palm down. Wu Xie nodded and put his hand on top. Xiaoge stepped back and did the same. After a short, awkward pause, Wu Xie reached over and grabbed Liu Sang’s hand and placed it on top of Xiaoge’s. Pangzi covered it with his other hand. “To another successful tomb trek by the Iron Triangle plus one. The Iron Square! The Iron Circle! The Iron Ring!” He pumped their hands up and down once and threw them up. “YES!” Liu Sang looked stunned but there was a small smile turning up the corners of his mouth. Wu Xie laughed.

Pangzi turned away and draped an arm over Xiaoge’s shoulders. “We need a new shape,” he said to Xiaoge as they started walking away. “What do you think it should be?” Happily, Wu Xie put his arm around Liu Sang in the same way as they made their way into the cave. The shoulders under his arm weren’t exactly relaxed, but he wasn’t being pushed away either.

This time, as they made their way through the passages, although he was paying attention to his surroundings in a very different way, there was still nothing that obviously marked this tomb as important or different. The actual entrance to the tomb area was inside a small natural cave with a hidden bend. The doorway itself seemed to be nothing more than a thin crack that the builders had widened and then secured with a hidden door.

On the other side, a bit of twisting passageway had been worked roughly, mostly to even out the floors. It was dank and stuffy, like a proper tunnel should be, but that was about all he could say for it.

After a short walk, the walls opened into what Wu Xie considered to be the outer chamber. Pangzi and Xiaoge had claimed a patch of floor to deposit all their gear and Wu Xie paused there to shed his pack, rolling his shoulders to stretch out the tension. The sound of Pangzi muttering about heavy things and being a pack mule was easy to ignore.

Looking up, he saw Xiaoge inspecting the rockfall blocking the tomb doorway and made his way over to stand beside him. “What do you think?”

Xiaoge shrugged. “I can move it. Crowbar here and here.” He pointed at a couple of spots.

Wu Xie hummed. “Would that dump the rocks in this room or that one?” Xiaoge shrugged again.

Wu Xie shrugged back. “Just be careful.” Xiaoge nodded and walked back to the pile of equipment.

Satisfied, Wu Xie headed off to do what he should have before, examining the wall carvings much more carefully. Starting on one long side of the chamber, the murals seemed to show a nobleman arriving; the exiled prince of the rumors no doubt. After that, the growth of the village and the construction of the tomb. All the standard signs of prosperity.

Crossing to the other side of the room, he saw Liu Sang coming in with his listening equipment. He looked tense, lips pressed together into a hard frown. Wu Xie stepped into his path, causing him to stop and look adorably confused. Wu Xie quirked an eyebrow, then gave him a quick, soft kiss and moved on, hearing an audible gulp behind him.

Upon inspection, the opposite wall was filled with battle scenes. Again standard signs of success and power. Nothing noteworthy or surprising. One panel in particular showed the prince carved much larger than the figure of the emperor. Wu Xie snorted at that obvious piece of rewritten history.

A sharp clank sounded and Wu Xie turned to watch rocks scattering wildly from the doorway. Xiaoge stepped back in from where he’d hopped away, took a stance and jammed the crowbar into the remaining blockage. Most of the rest of the rocks fell, leaving a small ridge amidst the debris. Pangzi started kicking the smaller stones in various directions and shoved a few of the larger ones aside to clear a path. Looking satisfied, the two men stepped into the main chamber. Wu Xie caught Liu Sang’s eyes and nodded. Also kicking at some of the rubble, he met Liu Sang at the doorway and they followed together.

Pangzi and Xiaoge were repeating the stone removal on the other side, although much more cautiously, pushing stones over the already existing debris to make a walkway. Soon, Pangzi paused at the edge of the debris field to look around, then made his way to the big boulders they’d used as cover. Wu Xie suppressed a shiver at the sight of the familiar niche.

“Huh. Chamber’s bigger than I expected.” Pangzi looked around a moment longer, staring across at the remains of the monster for a long moment before shaking himself. “And that’s disgusting. Okay. Right. Time to get the lights.”

Pangzi disappeared back into the other room and Wu Xie looked around. For some reason he’d expected things to have changed in the past few days, but it looked exactly the same. He felt his pulse pick up for no damn reason and then startled when he was bumped. He whipped his head around, but it was just Liu Sang crowding his shoulder, looking pale in the vaguely blue light of the luminous pearls.

On impulse, Wu Xie turned and wrapped him in a hug. They relaxed together for a moment before they both jumped when Xiaoge placed a hand on each of their shoulders, having approached with his usual stealth. Wu Xie reached over and wrapped an arm around Xiaoge’s waist, pulling him into the hug, letting himself sink into the warm comfort and hoping the other two felt it as well.

Eventually, he cleared his throat and said, “We need better lights. Help me get set up?” Liu Sang dropped his arms a little awkwardly, then nodded, looking grateful for the task.

“Are you ready to start mapping?” He asked as they went back to the pile.

“I want to set up more in the center of the room but yes,” Liu Sang frowned, staring around at the walls. “I’m anxious to get a proper map this time.”

The three of them carried back a bunch of portable battery powered LED camping lamps. They wouldn’t light the whole chamber but it would be a huge improvement. In fact, as the bright white lights drove back the shadows, Wu Xie felt something inside him relax just a little.

“Xiaoge!” Pangzi yelled. “Come get your light! Let's stare at the floor for a while!”
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Re: Secrets of the Hollow Mountain

Post by Glitter »

Chapter 3 Liu Sang

Liu Sang looked around. He and Wu Xie stood near the large boulders with a light shining out from the top of the tallest one. Pangzi and Ouxiang were testing the floor for traps using bright long-handled flashlights with focused beams that threw the unevenness of the floor in sharp relief when angled low. Ouxiang was methodically making his way along one side of the room. Pangzi, on the other hand, was shining his light like a light saber and making whooshing sounds as he swept it around. For all Pangzi’s silly enthusiasm, it was obvious that he was paying attention. On the other hand, it was a big room and the playing around was going to get really annoying really quickly.

Ouxiang had cleared the floor all the way back to the dead guardian so Liu Sang followed him with reluctant curiosity. Wu Xie, lamp in hand, trailed off after Pangzi and, with a quiet word and a laugh, had him checking for traps in a more efficient manner.

Liu Sang came up next to Ouxiang, who’d paused at the monster’s corpse. Even in death, the thing was horrifying and he shivered with remembered terror, the ghostly whistling momentarily filling his ears. Fingers sweeping his hair back across his brow broke the memory. He glanced away, before smiling awkwardly at Ouxiang. This whole casual touching thing was going to take some getting used to. And yet, he couldn’t bring himself to mind, really.

Nodding back with a half smile, Ouxiang continued on with his search of the floor and Liu Sang crouched down to see better with disgusted fascination. In the past several days, time seemed to have caught up with the thing. The spells or rituals holding it together must have dissipated and all that was really left were misshapen chunks of shell, mottled gray, black and a sickly green, surrounded by a mixture of sticky slime and bits of sand or powder that he took great care to avoid.

“What the hell is this statue anyway?” Pangzi’s loud question from across the room broke his tension. Liu Sang blew out a breath and stood. He hadn’t even been aware how tightly he’d been holding himself. Looking around, he assessed how far the floor clearing had progressed. Pangzi and Wu Xie were making their way up the side of the chamber while Ouxiang had finished a sweep up the center and was now testing around the tomb’s dais.

Nodding to himself, Liu Sang made his way back to the equipment pile and extracted his listening case. He walked back up the main aisle, glancing briefly at each statue as he passed it until he came to a central spot, a few meters from the coffin. Setting the case down, he seated himself in a lotus position and began pulling out his whistles and his notepad. Looking over his sounding cups, he chose several that would likely be best for this type of rock.

He took a couple of deep breaths for calm, made sure the lamp was placed for the best light, clicked his pen open and looked up to meet Ouxiang’s eyes over the sarcophagus. Liu Sang paused in delighted astonishment when Ouxiang winked at him, then smiled back. “I’m going to start mapping now,” he called in warning. “Whistles first then the cups if necessary. Be ready.”

Acknowledging noises came from Wu Xie and Pangzi while Ouxiang nodded at him. Picking up the first whistle, he closed his eyes, pulled in a deep breath and blew a long note. The world his ears gave back to him always seemed so much bigger than what his eyes told him. This time was no different. Again he kicked himself for trusting the old maps so easily but soon he would know all the secrets of the mountain for several hundreds of meters. Settling his pad in his lap, he began to draw.

Quickly, he sketched out the known contours and moved on to new things. He added the nook that held the guardian and a couple of similar niches along the walls. Way farther off were other enclosed caves that the builders didn’t use or perhaps had never found and then, something completely unexpected. Blowing again he just listened, frozen in amazement. The echoes coming back confirmed that he’d found something else. Something that sounded very deep.

Liu Sang reached over and pulled a stethoscope and a hammer from the bottom of his case. Putting the stethoscope in his ears, he positioned his cup and slammed the hammer hard against the floor. Leaning the receiver against his cup he translated the new soundwaves. He paused there even after the noise had faded, processing, then grabbed the pad and rapidly added this new information to the map. One more blast from a different whistle confirmed that he’d mapped everything from this position. Packing his case up, he stood to see where everyone else was.

Wu Xie waved over at him. “We’re done if you are! Let’s get some lunch in the other room and plan.”

Liu Sang picked up his case and the light and followed Wu Xie, who was very obviously giving a wide berth to a ring of pebbles on the ground. Liu Sang raised an eyebrow but did the same. Soon they were seated by the packs, sandwiches and drinks distributed, and he turned his attention to Wu Xie. “What did you find?”

“First, we found the trigger that let out the guardian. It was a special floor tile as we’d suspected. Second, we found a couple more similar tiles which we’ve ringed with stones to be avoided. They’re all somewhat out of the way, which is why the first team got lucky. Guess we just got lucky too, to find one.” Wu Xie smiled ruefully. “The murals are all what I’d expect. The only thing that’s a little weird is a few missing spots.”

“Missing?” Pangzi said. “How does a mural go missing? How do you tell?”

Wu Xie rolled his eyes. “Missing, as in somebody obliterated them. It’s just these strangely smooth spots in the middle of some of the images. I’m not sure it really means anything, but it’s interesting at least.” He shrugged and turned to Liu Sang. “How about you? What did you find, Sang’er?”

Liu Sang looked up sharply at the nickname, but didn’t react otherwise. “This mountain is pretty solid, extending quite a ways in all directions, except right around this area. I can hear a couple of small, inaccessible spaces that border the room, probably the trap areas.”

“Do you hear more critters in them?” Pangzi looked intent.

Liu Sang shook his head. “They’re quiet. The guardian is mostly disintegrated, so I think it wasn’t really alive like normal animals? If there are more, then maybe they’re not activated until the trigger is hit.” He held out the map and pointed to the spaces. “I really don’t think they’re anything to worry about.”

“But you do think there’s something to worry about?” Wu Xie asked.

Nodding, Liu Sang pointed toward the dais location, excitement lacing his voice. “I don’t know if we need to worry, exactly, but there’s a space here. It’s small and I wasn’t ‘looking’ down at first. But the cup tells me that it goes down deep. Like some sort of a shaft.”

Ouxiang tucked his trash away. “Show us.”

Liu Sang retrieved a couple of whistles and his notebook just in case and patted down his pockets for an extra pen, noting absently the pocket containing his noise-canceling earbud holder. He leaned over and grabbed a light before starting back into the main room.

In no time they stood in front of the dais and Wu Xie set down the pack he’d grabbed. “Where do you think?”

“Let me blow again.” He only needed a brief note to pinpoint it. Liu Sang ignored Pangzi’s muttering about blowing and Wu Xie’s shushing that followed. He opened his eyes and looked at Ouxiang. “It’s directly below the dais.”

Liu Sang hadn’t gotten to really look at the dais last time, so he studied it while Ouxiang started prowling around the edges. The structure was a little less than knee height and covered in fairly large, rectangular ceramic tiles. Faint residue showed that they used to be brightly painted in white, red and black. The coffin on top was bas relief carved in abstract swirls that were meaningless to him, although maybe they meant something to Wu Xie. The covering slab seemed to have a raised seal on it, but he could only see the edge of it from the floor.

“Here,” Ouxiang said from the other side. They gathered around to see Ouxiang crouched with one foot on the dais; despite the tension of the situation, Liu Sang was distracted for a moment admiring the long, muscular legs clad in tight black jeans. Ouxiang looked up, met their gazes and nodded. Turning back to the carvings, he reached out and pressed his special Zhang fingers along the length of one swirl so that the swirl depressed in sections, finishing at the center.

Shoving off the dais, Ouxiang backed between them as an ancient mechanism rumbled into motion. With a great creak, the coffin slowly slid toward the tomb entrance gradually revealing the tiled surface of the dais. Then, as they stared in astonishment, six tiles near the center dropped a few centimeters and parted, sliding backward under their neighbors and then these six also dropped and slid back, leaving an opening about a meter wide where the seemingly solid surface had just been.

“Huh,” Pangzi said. “That’s a new one.”

Wu Xie chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder.

Even though he knew the size and shape of the shaft from listening, when Liu Sang actually saw the opening all he could think was that it looked really small. There certainly wasn’t enough room for anything useful, like stairs. Looking closely, he could see what might be the remains of a ladder and he could imagine the rough sides might provide handholds for Ouxiang, but the rest of them were definitely going to need additional assistance to descend.

Obviously coming to the same conclusion, Pangzi went back into the other room and returned carrying coils of rope.

Wu Xie dug through his pack and pulled out a chemical light tube. Giving it a crack and shake, he dropped it down the shaft and they leaned in to look down. The blue-white glowstick fell for a long, long time before it stopped, barely visible on the floor far below.

Pangzi uncoiled one end of the rope and, after a moment’s thought, looped the rope around the coffin and tied the rope in a well-practiced knot. He looked down at the glowstick, grunted, and tied another rope to the end of the first muttering, “just in case,” before chucking it in.

Ouxiang went first, lowering himself easily. It didn’t take long before he was swallowed by the darkness and then it seemed to take forever before Liu Sang heard him touch the bottom and the rope went slack. “Close to two hundred meters,” he said. “That’s a long way down.”

“It really is,” Wu Xie agreed, then started pulling the rope back up to take his turn.

When they all reached the bottom, Liu Sang pulled out his flashlight and looked around. It was a plain room - not tiny, but not huge either - with openings in all four of the walls. Moving into a corner Liu Sang sat down to map, pulling the whistles and notebook from his jacket.

The Iron Triangle started examining the walls and shining lights down the passageways; generally, but unobtrusively, hovering.

Pen ready, Liu Sang closed his eyes and blew. The sound echoed away and away and away. When he immediately started drawing with almost palpable intensity, Wu Xie crouched beside him. “What’s the matter? What did you hear?”

Opening his eyes, he stared at Wu Xie in astonishment. “This place is huge. A really extensive complex. It’s going to take me a while to get even this section mapped.”

Sliding a hand under his ponytail, Wu Xie pulled their foreheads together. Liu Sang sank into it for a few seconds, calming his nerves, breathing in the warm scent of detergent and, just, Wu Xie. Leaning back, Wu Xie grinned. “Right. You get to it. We’ll use the time to get the rest of the stuff down here.”

He settled a bit more comfortably into the job and the others set about ferrying down what they considered to be important equipment, which he assumed was pretty much everything.

A couple of the passages, including the eastern passage that went back under the upper chamber, didn’t go very far before they were blocked messily, probably by rock falls. The one to the south was long and fairly straight with branching passages opening into small rooms about the size of a small house, but there were dozens and dozens of them. Opposite that, to the north, was a tunnel that led through several other chambers to a very, very large space. Near the limit of his range, he could hear water - very likely from that chamber. There were a lot of other branches and side passages. Some of them sounded closed off either by doors or walls that he couldn’t quite identify from here, but after an hour he had a halfway decent map.

Clicking the pen closed, he took a long drink from a bottle of water and looked around to see all the gear neatly stacked. The guys sat around a light playing cards while they waited. Liu Sang stood up, stretched briefly, then moved over and sat down in the empty spot between Wu Xie and Pangzi, letting his thigh brush lightly against Wu Xie’s just for the thrill of the touch. Ouxiang cleared the cards away and Liu Sang put the map down where they had been.

He gave them several moments to study it, before he tapped the page. “This is a huge cavern, so it might be a better place to set up a base camp and investigate. I can hear water there, or very close, and I could map a lot more of the complex from there.”

“Traps?” Ouxiang asked.

“Nothing that I can identify from here. At least nothing big. Smaller things we’re going to have to find as we go.”

Ouxiang nodded.

Liu Sang didn’t mention the occasional odd sounds that might be moving objects. Because they also might not be? Structures were easy; they didn’t change. Animals were pretty easy, too. They breathed and had heartbeats and blood circulation. Small creatures were harder, but they generally made noises that were recognizable and somewhat consistent; small repeated movements and such. Especially if there were a lot of them.

Nothing he’d heard here matched that. There was… something. Maybe. But whenever he’d tried to focus on it, he couldn’t get it to resolve into anything, really. It was like static white noise in random areas, so he was probably mistaken. It certainly wasn’t worth mentioning; at least, not until he was more sure.

Wu Xie dragged his finger along the route. “We’re not going to be able to come back here regularly; it’s too far. Can we get everything to the big cave?”

Pangzi eyed the piles. “Should be able to with some repacking. We might have to carry a few things in hand though.”

Some time later, as they were settling their newly rearranged packs, Wu Xie met everyone’s eyes in a final silent check. Nodding, Wu Xie scrawled ‘exit’ on the wall under the hole with chalk and they set off in the direction of the main cavern; Ouxiang in front and Pangzi at the rear.

The tunnels were generally rough hewn but not cramped; wide enough so that they could walk in pairs for the most part. They passed a number of side passages, narrower and twisty, but every time Liu Sang indicated that they should keep going straight. At irregular intervals there were rough carvings chiseled into the unworked walls. Most of them seemed to be abstract swirls, like those on the coffin above, but Wu Xie insisted on stopping to examine and document each one with interest.

As they walked deeper into the complex, Liu Sang developed a vague sense of unease. Every once in a while he caught a whisper of those odd noises. Barely there and fleeting, he still couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just his imagination. A couple of times, he also glimpsed movement out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned his head, there was nothing there. Shadows. He was hearing things and jumping at shadows now. Great way to make a good impression as a stable, useful tomb-raiding companion.

The third large mural they approached, which looked much the same to Liu Sang, was apparently just different enough to require Wu Xie to point out the details to Ouxiang at great length. When Wu Xie pulled out a notebook and started scribbling notes, Liu Sang gave up and wandered ahead a few meters to the next intersection, listening down it with mild curiosity. Before he’d even registered whether there were any interesting echoes, Pangzi came up and leaned against the corner, arms folded. “So.”

Liu Sang groaned internally, quickly overcome with an entirely different sense of unease.

“I just wanted to say that I’m happy for you guys. I wish you all the best, long happy life, fortune, many children. The usual.” He said in a genial tone, waving a hand loosely. Liu Sang stared, still processing the many children part.

“Also, if you break either of their hearts, I will beat you, kill you and dispose of various parts of your body in the poisonous fog around Thunder City.” In that same light and friendly tone.

Liu Sang blinked several times and pushed his glasses up his nose, fishing for an appropriate answer.

“You got it?” Liu Sang nodded absently. “Excellent! Great talk!” Pangzi leaned back into the corridor and shouted, “Come on, Tianzhen! More just like that to see further in, I’m sure!” And slapped Liu Sang on the shoulder as he walked onward.

Bemused, he watched Pangzi go before realizing he’d just been given a shovel talk. His jaw dropped in outrage. Thoughts whirling in a mix of disbelief and trepidation, he told himself it was just typical Pangzi craziness and continued forward with the others.

After about a half an hour of easy walking amid more incomprehensible carvings, Pangzi clearly became bored because he started singing. He began with a marching song and swiftly moved into drinking songs of various levels of explicitness. While it really annoyed Liu Sang, he had to admit to himself that it provided an excellent source of sound for easy, continuous scanning of their route. And if it distracted him from any slight, unidentifiable noises? All the better.

It was well into the concert when they finally entered a somewhat larger room and the four of them spread out to study the area. This was the only big chamber on the route to their destination. The room was mostly natural, but obvious work had been done to smooth parts of the walls and floor. On each of the long walls were a series of torch holders and a pair of tall, twisting statues with what looked like altars between them. Liu Sang blinked in surprise; a place to worship? So far down in the mountain? He walked closer to the altar on the right wall and saw the remains of offerings: coins and dusty piles that might have been fruit or flowers long ago. He fished out his digital camera and took pictures of everything.

Wu Xie came up next to him and bent down to study the coins before moving on to closely examine the statues. Liu Sang, finished photographing, stowed the camera and wandered around the room a bit more before he met back up with the others in the center.

“What do you make of it, Tianzhen?”

“Well, obviously this is a place of worship. From what I can tell from the statues,” Wu Xie ran his light up and down along the closest one, “it’s some sort of nature religion.”

“Nature? All the way down here?” Pangzi scoffed. “Why not up in the sun and the trees?”

Wu Xie shrugged. “Not sure yet.” He walked back over to the statue and traced the swirls with a hand. “These are vines, leaves and flowers. You can see a bit of paint still here in the crevices. I wasn’t sure in the passageway because the images were so much larger than life-sized, but now that I see these I’m pretty sure they were also flower motifs.” Wu Xie stared for a few moments more then hitched his pack. “Let’s go. I’m really curious what we’ll find next.”

Liu Sang headed for the far doorway, walking next to Ouxiang, listening to Pangzi behind him expound on the flowers he had given and received over the years. As Liu Sang reached the opening, Wu Xie said, “My favorite flower so far is Xiao Hua…”

And then several things happened at once: Liu Sang felt and heard a loud click; the room rumbled and everyone froze; and then, with a scream of distressed metal and the scrape of stone, a large section of the ceiling dropped open like a trap door, releasing a torrent of stone and rubble. Liu Sang saw none of this at first, his vision was just a blur of the world spinning past as Ouxiang grabbed him and essentially tossed the both of them back into Wu Xie and Pangzi. They all ended up in a heap on the floor, Liu Sang on top of Wu Xie, feeling small bits of rock bouncing off his back and legs.

When he’d caught his breath and things had stopped flying around, he lifted his head from where it was tucked against Wu Xie’s ribs as Wu Xie pulled his arms down from around his face and their eyes met. Movement on his left snapped his attention over there to see Pangzi hugging Ouxiang. “Always the best Xiaoge!! So good!!”

Wu Xie’s stunned look morphed into something immensely relieved and he smiled brilliantly, then hauled Liu Sang up by the shoulders and kissed him, soft and wet, until Pangzi started poking at them.

“Come on, come on, enough with the kissing. Soon I’m gonna be blind and need dark glasses all the time like Hei Xiazi.”

Untangling himself from Wu Xie, Liu Sang snapped, “Well no one said you had to look!” He rolled over and stood. “I’m sorry if almost getting killed and being relieved we didn’t is such a…”

“Ahh Sangbei’er I’m sorry,” Pangzi interrupted. In a surprise move he swept Liu Sang into a hug and Liu Sang froze in shock. Still processing how this was even happening, two more arms came around him, one from each side and two more heads leaned in and suddenly he was in the middle of a group hug.

Eventually someone let go and they all stepped back and Liu Sang tried to blink his brain back online. If you’d told him a week ago he’d be involved in repeated group hugs with the Iron Triangle, he would have said that was utterly impossible. And yet…

He turned and surveyed the damage and was dismayed to see the passage essentially closed with more rock than they could easily or quickly move. Ouxiang had gone over there to look at it more closely, but after a few minutes he came back shaking his head. “Too much.”
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Arts & Crafts



Re: Secrets of the Hollow Mountain

Post by Glitter »

Chapter 4 Wu Xie

Wu Xie stared at the huge pile of stone. Too much to move, even for Zhang Qiling, and they all came close to being lost under it. These last several days seemed to have been covered in a golden haze - almost too good to be true - and now this trap had jolted him back to reality. He swallowed against the thought and laid a hand on Xiaoge’s shoulder.

Liu Sang pulled out the map and Pangzi shone a light on it. Tracing a finger over the lines Liu Sang nodded and said, “We can still get to the big cavern. Looks like the best alternative is to go back to this passage and then through that room over there.”

Wu Xie sighed. “Nothing closer? That’s at least a half hour’s walk.”

Liu Sang just shook his head.

Nothing closer. Wu Xie sighed as they set off to follow the detour. He didn’t know why this bothered him so much. Things had been going so well; it was inevitable that some sort of obstacle would appear. He should be relieved that it was something so straightforward, shouldn’t he? It’s not like anyone actually got hurt.

Maybe it was something about the structure itself. For all that the passages were roomy and relatively clear of debris, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something off about the whole place. The carvings were odd, but not all that outlandish. And yet they were creepy for some reason he really couldn’t explain. A couple of times he thought he saw movement at the edge of his vision, but when he looked over there was nothing there. It was probably just his imagination playing tricks.

Fifteen minutes into the walk back, the adrenaline from the near miss had apparently worn off and Pangzi started to whine. He grumbled about landing on his pack wrong, about Xiaoge accidentally crushing his ribs but thanks so much for the save and I still love you, and about the rock dust in his hair. Wu Xie made tutting noises and brushed his jacket clean a little. He knew that acknowledging Pangzi’s silliness was not going to make it stop, but he felt a little like whining himself.

At the turn to the alternate route Liu Sang paused everyone for a brief map check, adding a few new passages on the edges but finding nothing of any significance. Pangzi slung an arm around his shoulders and jostled him when he put his notebook away, then shoved him gently after Xiaoge before he could even compose a complaint. Wu Xie chuckled to himself at the look on Liu Sang’s face.

Another fifteen minutes of twisting hallways and strange murals and the second passage came to the expected room; tall, twisting statues, sconces and altars matched the ones from the first altar room they’d found.

Wu Xie played his light over the contents of the space from just inside the doorway. Ahead of him, Liu Sang sat down in the center of the room, pulling out a snack and laying out his mapping supplies. Exchanging looks, the rest of them split to cover the room; scouring the new chapel for anything they might have missed in the other, and taking more photos to compare later. Wu Xie went over every curve of all four statues. Xiaoge inspected the floor and walls near the exit doorway. Pangzi went over the altars in great detail.

Every few minutes a whistle sounded, and even though Wu Xie knew it was a useful sound it ratcheted his tension up a tiny bit more each time. Walking over to Xiaoge at the far end, he directed his light over the ceiling, searching the crevices for another telltale seam.

“Do you see anything?” he asked and Xiaoge, with a small frown, shook his head.

“Update finished,” Liu Sang called and they all joined him sitting in the center of the room.

Pulling out a snack of his own, Wu Xie looked over the new parts of the map, admiring the sprawl of the complex. He traced the now well-extended route from the vertical entrance, wide mostly straight main corridors; smaller, bending, twisting almost folded passages going off to meet what looked like other main corridors. The map vaguely reminded him of something that he couldn’t quite put his finger on; they were definitely onto something big.

Realizing the other three were all giving him expectant stares, Wu Xie took a breath and shared what he’d been thinking. “It is now obvious to me that this is some sort of flower religion or cult. Once you know how to look at them, the murals and statues, even the emblems in the hallways, are all dominated by depictions of flowers and vines. You all know that our history is filled with flowers and plants with significant meanings. Certain flowers represent the seasons, beauty, fortune, wealth or longevity. Also there’s a great emphasis on important herbs for healing and other purposes that the ancients used and we still use today.”

Everyone nodded.

“Now, I’m not coming up with a specific legend or deity that I can identify in any of the carvings.” Wu Xie paused, raised eyebrows, in case anyone wanted to throw something out there. He glanced at Xiaoge, who shook his head. “This looks like an unknown or at least really obscure practice. I can’t even place the dynasty from the art so far.”

“So what, no treasures? Just plants?” Pangzi grumbled.

Wu Xie shrugged with a light frown. “It’s not all giant gold statues, you know. We could be making history here! Discover a new plant that cures cancer or something. I just don’t know yet. If you look,” Wu Xie clicked on his light and used it like a pointer, “the altar is shaped or carved like a bush. In particular, I think it’s a peony bush.” He played the light over several of the large blooms. “Traditionally peonies symbolize the spring season, fame, prosperity, and most commonly, wealth.”

“Wealth!!” Pangzi’s eyes lit up.

“And also love and romance.” Wu Xie added.

Xiaoge said, “They were often the flower of choice at weddings in ancient times. Because peonies are considered the ‘king of flowers,’ and in imperial China only imperial family members could have them sewn on their clothes. Commoners could not wear anything with peonies sewn on them. This crime was punishable by death.” Wu Xie blinked at him in amazement.

“But wealth! Gold and jades and rare porcelains! Things I can take and admire and sell and make more WEALTH from!”

“Alright, alright settle down!” Wu Xie patted the air.

Pangzi leaned forward and tapped the map. “You think the big water room is the main tomb?”

“No.” Wu Xie and Liu Sang said together.

Pangzi made a questioning sound.

“It sounds like the passages are still converging but not necessarily there.” Liu Sang gestured vaguely at his map. “The big room, which I can tell now has a river going through it, will be better for hearing the rest but, yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s not the most important area.”

Wu Xie shrugged. “Mine is just a feeling but I have to agree.”

“Tch, Tianzhen….” Pangzi sounded exasperated. “Feeling?” Wu Xie just grinned at him.

“Right!” Pangzi clapped his hands. “Xiaoge, if it’s safe, let's go!”

Everyone stood, stowing their trash and Xiaoge held his arm out as a barrier. “Stay here.”

Wu Xie felt Liu Sang move close beside him and bumped his shoulder lightly. He always hated this part, standing and watching while Xiaoge did something dangerous. Xiaoge knew what he was doing, and he was certainly fast enough to get out of the way if he triggered this trap. But Wu Xie had a sudden vision of Xiaoge a week ago, poisoned and barely conscious. There was always a chance that something could go wrong.

Xiaoge walked to the right corner of the chamber, paused and with a deep breath sprinted across the doorway opening, passing over approximately the same patch of floor that seemed to have triggered the trap in the doorway of the first room. Reaching the opposite wall, Xiaoge turned and continued his run until he’d returned to the group at the center. There was breathless silence for one more moment and then with the same scream of metal and stone, a matching trap door opened and the rock poured out. They all turned away, crouching and covering their heads as the smaller bits bounced halfway down the room.

“Was it me or did that seem to take longer to collapse this time?” Pangzi mused, staring at the mess. “Also I guess it’s time for Plan C. What do we do, worship the flowers?”

“It was longer,” Liu Sang frowned. “But we still did something wrong.”

Frustrated and angry, Wu Xie pulled out the high intensity light they had used before. “I need to look over the altars again.”

He strode to the nearest altar and frowned deeply at it; pocketing the coins from the surface, he brushed the top clean and held his light at a low angle over it, gradually making out a pair of shallow, smooth depressions that could represent a place where many hands had been laid. He squatted down near the corner and moved the light down to sidelight the carvings on the front, seeing several other smoother areas that when he brushed the dust off, moved slightly to the touch. Finally! Wu Xie felt a jolt of relief.

“Here! Look!” He called everyone over. “I think we do have to worship here. There are smooth spots on the top and these several spots move on the front carving.” Wu Xie moved to kneel in front of the depressions and felt his knees settle into slight dips. “I think it goes like this.”

He placed his hands in the right spots on the altar and bent forward. From this new position he could see another smooth spot for his forehead and once he moved his head there, his hands slipped naturally to the other worn spots. Lifting his head, Wu Xie checked to make sure his hands were in the right place. Perfect.

“Yes?” He craned to look at Xiaoge who nodded once and said, “Mn.” Wu Xie watched as Xiaoge moved swiftly over to the second altar, brushed off the top and repeated the movements.

Returning, Xiaoge said, “Feels right. The mechanism seems to connect deep in the wall.”

Liu Sang nodded in confirmation. “I could hear it after each of you finished.”

“So now we know what we should have done.” Wu Xie sighed and looked at the giant pile of rocks blocking their way, then over at Liu Sang. “Please tell me there’s another one of these rooms where we can try out our theory?”

Liu Sang grimaced, already pulling the map out again. “There’s one more room over here that looks like it might fit the same pattern.” He pointed to a space on the map. “But it’s the last one. If we hit another one of these traps, I’m not sure if we’ll be able to get through.”

“How long?” Wu Xie stepped over to stand at Liu Sang’s shoulder, putting a casual arm around his waist and leaning in, while making a show of looking at the map. He wasn’t sure which one of them he was trying to comfort, but he was pleased when Liu Sang relaxed into him a little.

“About the same distance as the last one,” Liu Sang said regretfully. “I guess at least it’s not all the way over there?” He waved his hand back the way they had come. “And as long as we can make it through it won’t be too much further from there to that main cavern.”

“As long as we can make it through,” Wu Xie repeated, then gathered himself. No point in being all pessimistic. “Guess we should get started then!” He leaned into Liu Sang for a moment more, then straightened up and grabbed for his pack.

“Great!” Pangzi exclaimed, while he clapped and rubbed his hands together. “The Iron Square is on the move!!” Everyone stopped and stared at him.

“What?” Pangzi shrugged, looking surprised and innocent. “Gotta try out the new shapes somehow.”

Wu Xie laughed as they left the room. “We’ll keep it in mind. Let's keep trying though.”

They had to backtrack several hundred meters to get to the appropriate branch-off, but somehow Wu Xie was feeling almost optimistic and he joined in when Pangzi started up again with the walking songs. In the end, it didn’t feel as long this time to reach the next worship room.

“It’s just ahead,” Liu Sang called.

“Finally!” Pangzi huffed. “Tianzhen, we need real food! It’s time to eat and rest!”

Wu Xie sighed fondly. “Fine. Go find a safe corner and we’ll have dinner.” Crossing the threshold into a room with the now familiar arrangement, he looked at his watch. It had been many hours since lunch and even his snack had worn off. “Definitely dinner. I still want to perform the worship and hopefully disable the trap while you do that.”

Pangzi grumbled unintelligibly and grabbed Liu Sang by the pack. “You come help me, Sangbei’er. Xiaoge will make sure he doesn't get himself killed over there.” Liu Sang flailed a moment as he was tipped off-balance but followed with no more protest than a ferocious scowl and a half-hearted slap at Pangzi’s arm. Wu Xie smiled broadly to see them getting along so well and looked over at Xiaoge to see him sharing that smile.

Together, they turned and walked to the nearest altar. Xiaoge cleared off the top and stood next to him, likely ready to yank him out of the way of anything unexpected. Wu Xie took a deep breath and held it for a moment. This was going to work. It had to. There was probably another above-ground entrance to a complex this large but they didn’t have the time or resources to go find it.

Blowing out his anxieties, he knelt feeling the same faint depressions and glanced up at Xiaoge, who nodded, hands hovering over Wu Xie’s shoulder. Placing his palms on the worn spots, Wu Xie pressed against the stone rubbing slightly to be sure of the contact. Then he touched his forehead to the platform and dragged his hands over the edge pressing leaves and segments of vines before coming to rest on a pair of slightly protruding buds that shifted down and up when he applied pressure.

Wu Xie held the pose for the count of thirty just to make sure. Straightening, he looked up and happily took Xiaoge’s hand for unneeded help rising followed by a short but intense kiss of relief. Arm slung over Xiaoge’s shoulders, they returned to the others where Pangzi had a pot heating over a camp stove.

“Sang’er?” Wu Xie asked.

Liu Sang looked up from whatever Pangzi had him doing, his eyes unexpectedly doe-like behind his glasses. He nodded. “I heard the mechanism shift in the ceiling. I don’t know if it will stay locked until after we’re done eating though.”

Sitting, Wu Xie grunted in agreement. “Yeah - I’ll do it again before we leave.”

“Are we not staying here?” Pangzi asked, sampling the pot.

“I’d rather not. Liu Sang said the big cavern was close, so I think we should push on to reach it before we bed down for the night.”

“Aiyo - fine, if Xiaoge agrees?” Pangzi stared beseechingly at him.

Xiaoge quirked a small smile. “We should go.”

Wu Xie hid a grin as Pangzi heaved a huge sigh that Wu Xie figured was at least sixty percent theatrics and started dishing out bowls.

Dinner was eaten with a relaxed air of camaraderie that reminded Wu Xie of the night at the pools just outside Thunder City, when they were all relaxed and happy to be there after ditching Jiao and the fog. Eventually, the pot was rinsed and the stove was packed and they were all resettling their packs for what was hopefully the last walk of the long day. Wu Xie caught Liu Sang’s eyes and raised an eyebrow, jerking his head at the ceiling.

Liu Sang shrugged. “I haven’t heard anything move.”

Wu Xie shrugged back. “I guess that’s good.”

“Ummm.” Liu Sang looked doubtful. “Just in case?”

Wu Xie smiled and nodded. “Better to be safe,” he called over his shoulder as he headed back to the first altar, repeated his earlier movements, then moved to the second altar, cleaned it and performed the movements again, while the others watched.

When he was done, he cocked his head at his audience, then rejoined them by the exit. “Ready for the test run, Xiaoge!” Somehow, he felt more optimistic this time.

Xiaoge nodded and took off in a repeat of his sprint from the previous chamber. They waited in tense silence for several long minutes after his return before Pangzi’s shouted, “YES!!” startled Liu Sang into a hard flinch. Wu Xie slid a hand under Liu Sang’s ponytail in a soothing gesture and kept it there for a couple of steps as they all started forward, pleased as Liu Sang’s neck noticeably relaxed beneath his hand.

The group’s pace slowed as they reached the archway out of an unspoken bit of caution. Xiaoge dashed across the trigger zone one more time and when nothing happened Wu Xie held his breath and walked through into the newly safe passage, relief flooding through him.

Up ahead, the tunnel curved to the right and on that wall was the most elaborate mural so far. The flowers were more obviously peonies rather than the abstract flowers in earlier murals. The edges of the petals were picked out with twisted gold wires and inlaid with semi-precious stones so that the whole thing glittered in their lights. Wu Xie felt inspired to get some rather artistic photos. Pangzi was rapturous, taking this as a sign that there would be more portable treasures further in. The rest of the walk was easy, almost as if the atmosphere lightened. The air took on a damp smell instead of the previous dry dustiness and they made good time until the passage hit an apparent dead end.

“Um, where’s the cavern Sangbei’er?”

Wu Xie sighed at the return of the belligerent tone and the massive scowl on Liu Sang’s face.

“It’s right there!” He knocked hard on the wall. “This is definitely a door! Just figure out how to open it!”

“Tch.” Pangzi turned and began to lazily play his light over the walls. “Xiaoge will find it.”

Indeed, Xiaoge was already running his hands over the wall in front of them, his head tilted as if listening to the stone. His slender, elegant fingers danced over the uneven surface, those extra-long Zhang fingers seeming magical. Wu Xie fought down a blush and tried not to dwell too long on his preferred use for those fingers as Xiaoge continued to examine the walls of the passage. A few moments later, with a twist of his shoulders, Xiaoge had the wall rumbling open. Wu Xie shone his light on the trigger as the door swung open inwards and was entirely unsurprised to find a hidden flower carved between a pair of protrusions which apparently acted like a door knob.

Wu Xie stepped through and then stopped dead in his tracks. All four of them stood there for a long minute just staring in amazement.

The cavern was huge; Wu Xie estimated it was two hundred meters long and almost as wide and well over fifty meters high. There were a few luminous pearls in the ceiling scattered down the length but they were old and faded which gave the landscape a surreal, dreamlike quality. All around them stalagmites and stalactites coming down from above glittered and shot random sparks of colorful reflected light. Directly to the right, against the wall, a set of carved stone steps, edged on the outer side by stalagmites, led gracefully down to the main floor. Below them, a deliberately worked path meandered through the cavern floor.

The most impressive feature by far was a wide river running the length of the cavern. The walls where the water entered and exited were heavily carved but it was too far and dim to see them in any detail. The river fed several channels carved across the floor leading into obviously man-made pools. There seemed to be a circle of sculpted columns in the mid-distance, not too far from the river on the other side.

“This is amazing!” Pangzi exclaimed.

Xiaoge nodded. “Beautiful.”

Brimming with excitement, Wu Xie made his way down the stairs and out onto the floor. He paused at the first shining column and ran a hand over the surface. It was cool but not wet despite the humidity. Instead the reflections were coming from chips of colored glass embedded in or cemented onto the stone. He passed his light over all the rock formations in the area and each one threw out dazzling bits of color in turn. It was stunning. Following the path, it was only a minute or two before he reached the bank of the river.

He paused there, camera busy, and smiled when Liu Sang came up beside him. Using the light to pick out details of the river, he tossed a pebble into the water to check the current. “The edges have been worked smooth. The bed is probably smoothed too, possibly even made shallower.” He peered into the clear water. “Doesn't look too deep.”

Liu Sang knelt and put a hand in. “Yeah, not too strong. Shouldn’t be difficult to cross.”

Wu Xie played his light across to the structures on top of a small hill on the cavern floor. “Looks like it might be another altar.” It was still located some distance upstream from where they stood, but he was able to see what looked like an obvious seating area arranged in front of it. “This is fascinating!”

A heavy hand landed on his shoulder. Startled, he looked at Pangzi. “No, Tianzhen. No more exploring today. Xiaoge’s found us a lovely little spot just over there and we’re going to call it a day.”

Wu Xie opened his mouth. “Ah-ah!” Pangzi held up a hand. “I got here very early this morning. I’ve walked a very long way for someone who’s not being chased. I’ve almost had the ceiling fall on my head twice.” He waggled two fingers at Wu Xie. “Twice!!” Pangzi checked his watch, “It’s now officially too late at night to do more exploring if we’re not in an immediate danger.”

Wu Xie held in a grin by brute force as Pangzi made an exaggerated scan of the quiet, sparkling cavern. “Since I’m not seeing anything flying, leaping, snarling, shooting or collapsing, I’m pretty sure we’re in here alone and we are going to sit and drink for a bit and go to bed.” He looked over Wu Xie’s shoulder. “Sangbei’er, push him in that direction, will you?” Pangzi jerked his chin at the indicated area.

Wu Xie laughed then, when a hand nudged him gently in the ribs from behind. Throwing up his hands in surrender he moved as directed, shifting back to sling an arm around Liu Sang’s waist as they walked. It was true that nothing here was blatantly threatening; it was almost like the tension he was feeling earlier had dissipated when they opened the door and entered the cavern. Obviously he knew better than to trust that, but there was also no point in imagining problems when there was no concrete reason to think they existed.

Xiaoge was already seated in a large, almost perfectly round area surrounded by a fairy ring of stalactites and thin columns, one of the camp lights set up near him. Wu Xie admired the amazing coincidence of the almost perfect circle and the builder’s excellent use of the space as he entered the ring and shed his pack. He also admired Xiaoge, leaning against a towering, glittering rock, one arm resting on a raised knee, a soft smile in the corners of his lips.

They settled in and began the process of getting out sleeping bags and other comforts. Wu Xie transferred all their photos to a storage drive and set the cameras to charge. Pangzi leaned his pack against a rock and pulled out his flask with a happy sigh.

“To the successful, so far, adventures of the Iron Circle!” he toasted.

Wu Xie blinked a bit, shrugged and took the flask. He knocked back a shot and as he handed it to Liu Sang said, “Still not sold on the shape but I like it better than the square.” Pangzi threw his head back and laughed, taking the flask back from Liu Sang and reached to tap it against Xiaoge’s water bottle.

They spent an enjoyable hour sipping on the flask and coming up with increasingly ridiculous theories about the possible flower religion. At some point, Xiaoge slid out of the circle and caught Wu Xie’s eye to give a tiny nod. Eventually, when Pangzi came up with a ridiculously elaborate hentai scenario, Wu Xie managed to stop laughing long enough to close the flask and tuck it away in Pangzi’s pack.

“Sleep now. We don’t need anyone with a hangover tomorrow.”

Pangzi grunted assent and threw himself onto his sleeping bag, stretched and wiggled into just the right spot. He grinned at his friend and shifted to see Liu Sang looking conflicted. Wu Xie caught his gaze and raised an eyebrow.

“Are we not waiting for Ouxiang?”

“Naaaah,” Pangzi drawled, eyes closed, “Xiaoge’s good.”

Wu Xie sat down on his sleeping bag next to Pangzi as Liu Sang frowned. Reaching out for the corner of Liu Sang’s sleeping bag, he tugged it closer, aligning them neatly, then held out his hand. “Come on, lay down. He’s fine. He does this.”

Liu Sang hesitated a moment more but a huge yawn seemed to convince him and he scooted over and laid down. Wu Xie clasped his hand, rubbing his thumb lightly over the back, waiting until Liu Sang relaxed.

“Fine, yes?” Wu Xie whispered.

“Yes. I can hear him exploring the room.”

“Mmmmm. Go to sleep. He’ll be back when he’s done.” Liu Sang’s thumb returned the caress and Wu Xie fell asleep and dreamed of rooms filled with flowering vines.
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Arts & Crafts



Re: Secrets of the Hollow Mountain

Post by Glitter »

Chapter 5 Liu Sang Also reminder for the sex at the end of the chapter.

Liu Sang woke with arms wrapped around him, snuggled back against a warm, hard chest. Though this feeling wasn’t all that unusual after the last week, the hard rock beneath him and the extra set of breathing noises made it a whole new experience. He stiffened, heart pounding for just a moment before forcing himself to relax again, listening to the slow heartbeat of his Ouxiang who had definitely NOT been laying between himself and Wu Xie when he fell asleep.

On the other side of the pile, Pangzi rolled to his feet and wandered off towards the river, muttering to himself about his back and the hard stone and how he was getting too old for flimsy sleeping bags. Wu Xie made a snuffly noise and Ouxiang’s upper hand tightened on his shirt with a slight tug.

Giving in, Liu Sang rolled over, letting his cheek rest on Ouxiang’s arm, and met smiling eyes. Ouxiang slid a hand up and pulled the hair tie off his sleep-loosened ponytail, then cupped his head and drew him in for a kiss. Liu Sang’s breath caught and his skin tingled. Leaning forward, he brought their chests together, an unconnected hand trapped between them. Liu Sang twitched a bit in surprise but Ouxiang just pulled him in deeper. Wu Xie’s hand on Ouxiang’s chest curled and then moved, traveling up over his chest to caress Liu Sang’s cheek as Ouxiang continued to control his mouth. Then, through his growing haze, he heard Pangzi coming back.

Liu Sang stiffened and pushed his head back against Ouxiang’s hand. Ouxiang hesitated and then gentled the kiss to a close, letting him duck his head down and force Wu Xie’s hand from his cheek into his hair.

“Aiyo - you three! Right in front of my breakfast!”

“Pangzi!!” Wu Xie sounded like a combination of shocked, amazed and verging on hysterical laughter. “How do you even KNOW that?”

Pangzi gasped. “How do I know that? Do I not use the internet? How do YOU know that? Aiii, no, no, no, no, don’t tell me. Just get up now and Pangye will start breakfast.”

Wu Xie rolled flat on his back and just laughed. Liu Sang pressed his face closer into Ouxiang’s hoodie and waited for his blush to fade. Ouxiang patted him, then with a stretch, reached out and handed Liu Sang his glasses.

Jamming them on, Liu Sang got up and made his way to the river for a shortened morning routine, enjoying the refreshing splash of cold water on his face and a few moments to pull himself back together. He knew there was no real reason to be embarrassed, but it was hard not to feel awkward about the three of them showing affection in front of Pangzi. He supposed it was something he should start getting used to. He kind of hoped it was.

Back at the fire, Pangzi had the camp stove going and a kettle on while he and Wu Xie bickered about internet memes; a perfectly normal morning for them. Hair damp and feeling somewhat more composed, Liu Sang sat down, accepting a cup of tea from Wu Xie. Ouxiang settled next to him, drops of water sparkling on the shoulders of his black hoodie.

“So,” Wu Xie took a gulp of his tea, “apparently Xiaoge had a busy night.”

Liu Sang looked at him in surprise.

Ouxiang nodded. “There is a set of rooms over on the other wall. At least one is full of writings, both books and walls.”

Wu Xie was almost vibrating with excitement. “So that’s where I’ll be spending the morning! And then I want to have a closer look at the altar and everything on the other side of the cavern.” He gave Pangzi a significant look.

The man heaved a sigh. “Yay. A morning full of research with old dusty records. So much fun.” His deliberately slowed eating pace even showed his joy over the prospect. Liu Sang stifled a snicker.

“You are mapping, yes?”

Liu Sang swallowed and nodded at Wu Xie, trying not to get lost in his fond smile. “I expect it’s going to take most of the morning. Especially if there are multiple levels.”

“And Xiaoge is going to…?” Wu Xie trailed off as Ouxiang just raised an eyebrow a tiny amount. “...going to do Xiaoge things that we don’t need to know or worry about.” Wu Xie grinned.

After breakfast, they split up; Ouxiang taking the other two to the rooms he’d found. Wu Xie was already peppering him with questions that Ouxiang mostly ignored with Pangzi grumbling and slouching along in the rear. After a moment, Liu Sang retrieved his whistles and pad, laying them and an extra pen on his sleeping bag. He settled himself comfortably, adjusted the light and took a moment to mentally block out the noises of the river and the people.

Liu Sang loved the feeling of mapping; the thrill of finding places forgotten for centuries and deliberately hidden, even from the people who were supposed to be using the space. He could find them all: traps, pockets, niches, secret rooms, hidden tunnels; the sounds told him everything. The years of practice and training, while brutal, had given him a skill that he actually enjoyed using; enjoyed the sense of pride as the corridors and rooms took shape under his pen.

Almost two hours later, he blew one final, extended blast and just listened, making sure the echoes all came back to match what he expected. Coming out of his mapping haze, he was amazed to see that he’d covered four pages with three levels of twisting passages, nooks and small rooms circling a massive open area.


Laying the pad down, he stood and stretched, then focused his awareness to find his companions. Pangzi’s voice came to him first, followed by the small sounds of moving, breathing and heartbeats from them all. They were still in the rooms Ouxiang found across the cavern, sounding content. Satisfied, Liu Sang popped his muffling earplugs in, enjoying the quiet after all the intense listening even if it was only for a few minutes.

He grabbed a bottle of water, his camera and a light and decided to take a walk to see some of the new places he’d heard. First, he strolled over to the wall near where the river was entering the room and headed away from the water along the wall. As he walked, he passed several chambers that, when he paused in each doorway, seemed to have been storage areas. There were large jugs and jars, stone tools where the handles had rotted away, piles of moldering cloth, and several dozens of wooden clubs that upon closer inspection were actually torches soaked in oil, which seemed to have slowed the decomposition.

He meandered around the perimeter of the wall, listening down the tunnels he passed, the echoes speaking of the rubble blocking them. He was picking his way past where they came in when a small convoy of beetles, each about the length of his first knuckle, scurried past his feet. He lurched back, banged his shoulder into a stalagmite and knocked into a glass decoration which gave a sharp crack as it shattered on the floor. It took a moment to get his breath back while silently berating himself for being jumpy over some damn bugs. Shoving his glasses back up, he continued around the wall towards the water, passing the collection of rooms where the others were currently located.

Eventually, Liu Sang reached the bank of the river again, a loose piece of hair wafting past his nose in the light breeze, and followed the water downstream to where it rushed out of sight beneath a towering tree carved meticulously into the wall. The carved roots framed the edges of the waterway opening and the massive trunk reached upward with a huge spread of branches covering the rock for meters in every direction. He ran a hand over some of the lower leaves, studded with large pieces of green glass and smaller chips of green jade and peridot. The flowers, he realized, were magnolias, picked out with glass and stones in shades of pink, pale purple and white.

He started slightly when another hand reached up next to his to trace a neighboring flower. The white noise from the river and his fascination with the “tree” must be why he didn’t notice anyone approaching.

“Hi,” he felt a little shiver of happiness as Wu Xie smiled and leaned into him. “You done researching already?”

Wu Xie shook his head. “At least half the books are too faded to read. I think the air’s too humid here for paper. The bamboo books held up better so I took them back to camp to read in better light. Besides, I want to finish exploring the cave and the next thing on the list is the altar.” He took several photos of the tree then turned and pointed across the river. “You coming?” Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed Liu Sang’s sleeve and headed in that direction.

The whole length of the bank was worked flat and they followed it easily upstream. When they reached about the halfway point of the cavern, Ouxiang fell into step on Liu Sang’s other side, bumping his shoulder companionably. Soon after, they came to a point where the river narrowed and the path led to a wide shallow platform. Three stubby rectangular brick structures, each at least a meter wide, but only a handful of centimeters above the surface, were equally spaced across the water and each of these foundations had a pair of taller, thinner columns rising from the narrow sides, as if they were intended to support side rails. The water danced more vigorously around the base of the structures. It was deeper here and flowing faster than the area downstream. The tops of a few large rocks peppered the bed both upstream and downstream.

“Used to be a bridge here.” Ouxiang said.

“Yes.” Wu Xie crouched and pulled a few splinters from a hole in the platform. “Looks like age and maybe several floods destroyed it. I guess we’ll have to…”

Ouxiang took a step forward and bounded lightly, like a deer, across to the other bank.

“...jump.” Wu Xie finished with a sigh.

“Mm.” Liu Sang agreed. “Or wade.”

They both stood there a moment before Wu Xie shrugged. He backed up a couple of steps and grinned at Liu Sang like a small child; Liu Sang smiled helplessly back. Wu Xie took two running steps and sprang to the first column, hopping across easily but not nearly as gracefully as Ouxiang.

Until he got to the last foundation, where he landed a little short and the edge of the bricks crumbled under his foot. Wu Xie’s momentum sent him forward but the collapsing footing tipped him sideways. A flailing hand grasped the tall side column and Wu Xie swung around it, one foot going into the water to his knee. An instant later Ouxiang was there, hauling him back onto the bricks. It happened so fast that Liu Sang hardly even had a chance to panic.

Wu Xie laughed in the embrace. “Wooo!”

Ouxiang frowned hard and then whisked Wu Xie to the far side despite his objections that he could make the last jump himself, thank-you-very-much.

Taking a couple of deep breaths to calm his racing heart, Liu Sang met Ouxiang’s sharp gaze as he backed up, then took another breath, held it and started forward. His series of jumps went with no trouble and Wu Xie clapped him on the shoulder when he landed.

“You think Pangzi will make it?” Liu Sang asked as they walked up the slight slope to the altar area.

Wu Xie chuckled. “He’s surprisingly agile for a big man. He won't like it though.”

Liu Sang hummed in agreement, examining the area as they approached. This altar was much bigger than the ones in the trap rooms. It was carved and inlaid all over with peonies that sparkled like the rest of the room. More columns were arranged in a semi circle behind the altar, decorated mostly with peonies but interspersed with leaves, chrysanthemums, plum blossoms, orchids and a few other flowers that he didn’t recognize. The wall behind the columns was covered with a huge mural and Liu Sang could see more murals along the wall, becoming indistinct as they stretched into the dimness. Short pillars with shallow bowls on top ringed the entire area, including the half circle seating area which held the rotten remains of a variety of cushions and stools.

He walked up to the altar, trailing his fingers over the surface, feeling the same mixture of rough and smooth texture as the leaves on the tree. Circling around to the back, he was surprised to find several shelves carved out and filled with books.

“Wu Xie,” he called, “I’ve got more books.”

Wu Xie scrambled up from where he was sitting in the audience area. What was he doing out there? Feeling the vibes?

“Wonderful! These must be really important if they’re being stored by the main altar,” he enthused, pulling them out one by one and piling them on the top surface.

Just then a piercing whistle split the quiet of the cavern and they both turned sharply towards the sound.

“LUNCH!!!” Pangzi bellowed. “Whatever you’re looking at will still be there after you eat!!”

Wu Xie shrugged and picked up a stack of books, then shoved them into Liu Sang’s hands and grabbed the rest. “At least I can dry my foot while we eat.”

Liu Sang juggled them and his light a moment before realizing…“Where’s Ouxiang?”

Wu Xie shrugged again, heading down the path to the river. “I don’t know. Can you tell?”

Before Liu Sang could concentrate enough to listen for an answer, they cleared a cluster of columns to see the river crossing. “Well, I see where he’s been,” Wu Xie said fondly.

Apparently, as they’d been wandering around the altar area, Ouxiang had returned to camp and then strung ropes across the river, tying them to whatever rocks were convenient and making use of the support columns. The crossing seemed a bit safer now with something to grab for balance. Still, Liu Sang was just as nervous going back as he was crossing the first time, because now he was worried about the ancient books clutched in his arms. Despite that, his crossing was smooth and shortly they were back at the campsite.

Depositing his books next to the others Wu Xie had brought back, Liu Sang sat next to Ouxiang and accepted a bowl of noodles from Pangzi.

“So, Tianzhen, what have we learned?”

Wu Xie chewed and swallowed. “I’ve got most of a theory. The murals and carvings in the records room seem to be a summary of the rituals for this area. Also, there are a lot of regular books here, several with multiple copies, like they were teaching basic education. I suspect the carvings around the altar area are actually instructing their entire worship practice. Most of the rest of the carvings are flowers.” Wu Xie pointed at the distant carved trees with his chopsticks. “There are quite a variety, more than one would generally expect to see in a tomb, and this might not even be a tomb.” Wu Xie beamed. “I don’t know <i>what</i> it is yet! Anyway, the predominant ones, as you can see, are peonies. I’m SURE this is significant. Not that they’re actually worshiping the flowers, but that it’s a very meaningful symbol for them.”

He turned to Liu Sang, “How did the mapping go?”

Putting down his bowl, Liu Sang grabbed his pad and flipped to the cavern page. “This complex continues to be huge. Here’s the map of just this cavern.” He pointed to a spot near the river. “This is where we are now.” Liu Sang dragged his finger around the line of the walls and pointed behind them with his other hand. “As you can see, it’s not just a simple cavern. There are a handful of rooms back here. I looked in a couple and they seem to be storage.” His finger moved again. “Here are entrances to the tunnels that link up to the collapsed exits in the other worship rooms.”

“Uh huh - makes sense.” Pangzi nodded.

“The really good stuff is on the other side of the river. Here’s the altar.” He pointed. “All along this wall here are bigger rooms and short corridors leading to what I’d call suites of smaller rooms.”

“Living areas?” Wu Xie asked.

“Possibly.” Liu Sang agreed and flipped the page, “and we were right in thinking this isn’t the main room. We’re here now.” He pointed to a space toward the side of the map. “And beyond here it just gets more complicated. There’s another large space there.“ He pointed to another spot further up the page. “It’s at least half again as big as this room.”

“Oh. My. God...” Pangzi moaned. “That’s huge!!!”

Liu Sang nodded and tucked some hair behind his ear. “Yes. There are two levels that circle that main cavern and one level beneath. The passages are all curved and filled with dead ends and weird little nooks. It’s very unusual, almost like a maze, and there’s no direct path through it. We essentially have to go through the maze to get to the center.”

“It’s a flower,” Ouxiang said.

“WHAT?!” Everyone exclaimed in various volumes.

Ouxiang pulled the book over and flipped back to the beginning of the lower maps. “Here,” he traced a long finger along their route. “Stem.” Then over the curving passages they hadn’t explored because they eventually returned to the main corridor, “leaves.” Ouxiang flipped back to the maze and traced the passages. “Petals.”

“Holy shit….” Wu Xie breathed. “Even the alternate worship rooms are at the tips of ‘leaves’.”


Liu Sang stared in astonishment. Even though he’d drawn it, he hadn’t seen it. Amazing!

Wu Xie took the notepad and spent several long moments over the pages, thoughts whirling behind his eyes, before Pangzi cleared his throat.

“Errrrrrm, so where’s the entrance to this maze?

Liu Sang tugged the book gently away from Wu Xie and pointed. “Here, in this back wall, but it doesn’t seem to be on the same level as the rest of the cavern floor.”


“It’s up higher. Like where we came in? We came down all those steps.” Liu Sang raised an eyebrow and waved his hand vaguely back toward where they entered.

“AH!” Pangzi leaned back and brandished his flashlight. “Okay. So time to do more exploring!”

Wu Xie bounced up, enthusiasm almost brighter than his flashlight. Liu Sang took a moment to carefully stow his maps. A hand appeared in his vision; he grabbed it and let Ouxiang pull him to his feet.

“Thank you for the ropes.”

Ouxiang’s mouth tucked up in a tiny smile and they followed after the others who were halfway to the crossing already. Liu Sang grinned a little to himself as he watched Pangzi hop across the stones. Wu Xie was right - Pangzi was perfectly fine at it and hated doing it immensely.

“Show me the door.” Ouxiang murmured. Liu Sang caught his breath at the low tone for a moment before mentally slapping himself - it surely wasn’t intended to be seductive - and nodding. He couldn’t help the little glow of delight, though, at being alone with his idol. Wu Xie and Pangzi were working their way down the wall, examining the murals with much excited chatter and bickering over interpretations. He and Ouxiang walked past them to a point beyond the end of the murals and then past a few nondescript openings before they came to the right location, effectively in the opposite corner of the large room from the one where they’d entered.

“It's up there.” Liu Sang aimed his light about four meters up where there was a visibly smoother section of wall. Ouxiang nodded and made his way swiftly up the uneven wall. Liu Sang never failed to be amazed at how easy he made it look, when a normal person would have to actually climb. Liu Sang followed along with his light as he made his way up, but it was only a minute or two before Ouxiang flipped back off the wall and landed beside him, frowning.

“But that <i>is</i> the door,” Liu Sang insisted.

Ouxiang tipped his head. “Yes. There are holes where there was a ladder.” Surprised, Liu Sang aimed his light on the floor looking for holes but didn’t see anything.

“Sangbei’er!” Liu Sang started at Pangzi’s call. “Come show Tianzhen where the interesting rooms are!” Liu Sang scowled and began to turn to tell him to shut up but was caught by Ouxiang’s gaze as he smiled, shook his head and winked.

“I need to look around more for the trigger. I will use my own light. Thank you.” Ouxiang clasped his hand and squeezed gently.

Pushing aside his vague hopes of having more time with just Ouxiang, Liu Sang sighed and shouted, “Coming!” Ouxiang inclined his head and turned back to the wall. Liu Sang watched the trim form for a few seconds more before heading back to the others.

Wu Xie and Pangzi were standing in front of the rooms he and Ouxiang had walked past earlier, clearly done looking through them. Liu Sang beckoned as he came up to them, altering his path to head across the cavern. As they cleared a group of columns, they came to another carefully worked path.

Liu Sang marveled that most of the floors in this entire cavern had been smoothed around the stalagmites and columns so that they weren’t climbing over and around formations; in this back half of the cavern it was even more obvious. That took TIME and EFFORT. This path, extending from the altar to the complex of rooms they were going to, had been carefully shaped to fit the terrain. There was even a carved channel cutting through the path no more than a handspan across and deep, carrying water from the river and across the room.

Shortly they were standing in a big open area before an outer wall. The remains of tables or benches and large shallow bowls filled with ash were scattered across the space. Several large brick stoves, each with a pair of holes for pots, were built against the wall between the doorways.

“A common area?” Wu Xie’s tone was amazed.

“Huh. Looks like.” Pangzi lit a match and wandered over to a bowl. He crouched and dropped it in. The match burned briefly among the ashes but shortly went out without igniting anything else. Pangzi shrugged and stood.

Pointing at the opening farthest to the rear Liu Sang said, “Big room, probably storage.” Moving his finger along the wall, “Probably storage, suite, corridor to more rooms, suite, corridor to more rooms and two more probably storage.”

“Traps?” Pangzi asked.

“Nothing I can hear.”

Wu Xie added, “Seems unlikely in the living area but be careful!”

They bumped fists and Pangzi headed off. “I’ll start over here. You guys have fun with the others.”

“Storage first or suites?” Wu Xie asked.

Liu Sang shrugged. “I looked in some storage rooms on the other side. They hadn’t held up well, but I suppose we should check to make sure.”

Wu Xie shoulder-bumped him as they walked off in the opposite direction from Pangzi. Liu Sang snorted at him.

“What did Xiaoge find?”

“Nothing yet. The door is there but the ladder up to it is gone and he didn’t find the trigger right there, so…”

“Unusual, but he’ll find it.” Wu Xie’s confidence was reassuring.

They reached the farthest room and went in. It did, in fact, look like the other storage rooms, only larger. There were rows of shelves that had been mostly emptied but still had collapsed with the weight of the years. Shards of pottery and other debris made a huge mess. Wu Xie swung his light around and sighed. “Let’s go.”

The second room was in slightly better shape. Larger jars and stacks of ceramic plates and bowls were placed on the floor and therefore still mostly intact. Liu Sang picked up a bowl, blowing the dust out to see an etched flower. He showed it to Wu Xie who nodded, unsurprised.

When they came to the next doorway, which ought to be one of the suites of rooms, the floor of the entrance was covered with hundreds of wooden beads. Liu Sang crouched and picked up a handful, shaking a loose piece of hair out of his eyes. “What are all these?”

Wu Xie picked up one for closer inspection then looked up at the top of the doorway. “Looks like they had a beaded curtain strung across.” He nudged a clear path through and went into the first room.

Following, Liu Sang found himself in a wide low-ceilinged room. There were niches carved in the walls covered in soot from the little bowl candles in them. Wu Xie was trying to light one and Liu Sang was pleased when he succeeded. The new light showed a massive garden carved into one wall and doorways in the far and left walls.

They spent quite some time exploring the three rooms. Or rather Wu Xie explored and Liu Sang trailed around behind him making occasional noises to show that he was listening to the stream of speculations and trivia. Liu Sang guessed both rooms to be sleeping quarters though there wasn’t much in them beyond rotten wood frames.

Turning back to the doorway, Liu Sang started at the black figure filling it, sucking in a gasp. Then his eyes and ears registered Ouxiang and he scowled at his unnecessary jumpiness.

“Xiaoge!” Wu Xie sounded delighted as he went over and grasped his hand, tugging him into the room. “How did it go?”

“Mn. Didn’t find it.” Ouxiang’s frown was tinged with worry.

“It’s ok. You will. We will.” He leaned in and kissed him lightly, and then their whole demeanor changed as Wu Xie backed Ouxiang heatedly against a wall, a simple kiss turned into nothing less than an all out invitation to sex.

Liu Sang watched, frozen, entirely unsure how to react to this development, his mind going off on all sorts of wild tangents. Was this typical for them? Standard part of the tomb exploration package? Had they forgotten he was there?

And then the sight of them in the darkness of the room and the golden light coming in through the doorway reminded Liu Sang of their first night and he was instantly half-hard. In the past he hadn’t thought of himself as overly sexual, in fact he’d had a long dry spell before all this, but the last week of practically nothing but sex seemed to have rewired his brain. As he watched from across the room, the kiss became even more involved, Wu Xie sinking to his knees, pushing clothing aside and fumbling with Ouxiang’s belt buckle, and he was wholly overwhelmed by the depths of his passion.

Shaking with desire, Liu Sang looked up and caught Ouxiang’s eyes, dark and glittering in the light like the cavern outside. When Ouxiang raised a hand to him, his paralysis broke and he crossed the space in an instant, leaning up against that firm torso and claiming his own desperate kisses.

Moments, or hours later, Ouxiang pulled back with a gasp, knocking his head against the wall. Liu Sang dropped his head onto the nearest shoulder, breathing heavily, then reached down and brushed Wu Xie’s hair, admiring the erotic sight of Ouxiang’s cock disappearing into Wu Xie’s mouth.

Wu Xie opened his eyes and tipped his head enough to meet Liu Sang’s gaze. Pulling back, he gripped Ouxiang’s shaft and ran his tongue around the head, putting on a show. With his free hand, Wu Xie reached up and palmed Liu Sang’s crotch, causing him to moan loudly, his knees going weak.

“We’ll have to be quick,” Wu Xie murmured against Ouxiang’s skin, making him tremble slightly.

Ouxiang didn’t say anything, just tangled his fingers in Wu Xie’s hair and thrust in with determination. Wu Xie grunted and sucked hard, tightening his grip on Liu Sang’s cock at the same time. Fire shot through him and he worried vaguely about coming in his pants like a teenager. Beneath his head, Ouxiang’s chest rumbled almost subsonically as he tensed and shuddered, releasing into Wu Xie’s talented mouth.

Then, Wu Xie’s hands were shoving and twisting Liu Sang’s hips back against the wall and before he could process it, his pants were open. The cool air of the cave was briefly shocking, but immediately followed by the scorching heat of Wu Xie’s mouth. He could feel Ouxiang’s heaving chest against his arm before all thought was obliterated by the hot, soft, slick of Wu Xie’s tongue. The whole secret rendezvous feel of it, the fear of Pangzi catching them, his overwhelming desire for these two men, combined with the tension of the last few days; he wasn’t going to last long.

It felt like forever and no time at all before Wu Xie caught just the right spot with his tongue and cupped his balls in just the right way. Lightning shot up from his groin and the room went dark for a moment as he spilled into Wu Xie’s mouth. Liu Sang slouched, panting against the wall trying to reboot his brain when he heard Wu Xie yelp and felt a thud beside him.

Prying his eyes open, he turned his head to see that Ouxiang had swapped places with Wu Xie, who was now gasping against the wall with Ouxiang’s dark head buried in his crotch. Liu Sang reached out to sweep hair out of Ouxiang’s eyes, watching for a long moment, then straightened up and covered Wu Xie’s mouth with his own until his muffled cries and shaking ceased.
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Arts & Crafts



Re: Secrets of the Hollow Mountain

Post by Glitter »

Chapter 6 Wu Xie

Wu Xie panted. Liu Sang pulled back so he could get more air but left their foreheads resting together. The feel of warm hands fixing his pants back up penetrated his haze. Liu Sang jerked against him and his breath caught, followed by the sound of a zipper as Xiaoge did the same for their lover. A moment later Xiaoge pressed his brow to theirs and Wu Xie just basked in the feeling for a moment.

Eventually they straightened up, readjusted the rest of their clothing and hair and generally tried to look like tomb explorers again rather than a group of men that just had a quickie in a dark corner. Wu Xie took a drink from his canteen and cleared his throat a little sheepishly. “So that’s a no on the door to the maze at the moment?”

Xiaoge nodded, grinning as he flipped his hood back up.

“Are you coming with us to explore the next corridor?” Liu Sang asked Xiaoge.


“WOOOO!” Pangzi’s delighted shout echoed through the cave.

“Tianzhen! Tianzhen!!” Wu Xie rushed out and spotted his friend way down near the rear corner of the cavern, waving madly with a huge grin. “There’s a HOT spring here! And it has SEATS carved into it! We are so ALL relaxing in it!!!”

Wu Xie looked at the others and grinned. Liu Sang huffed. “Well…let’s go see it then.”

Together they walked past various cave doorways. Wu Xie was still itching to go explore the rest of the complex but some instinct was telling him that this was more important. Pangzi was practically dancing with joy and Wu Xie was a little surprised that he wasn’t already stripped and in the water. He was waiting outside the last doorway which had a much wider opening than the others.

“So I explored the corridor and this set of rooms and there’s some more books and murals of people in gardens. Some very pretty pieces left in a room in the back. The storage room over there,” Pangzi pointed, “is a mess and I was expecting the same thing here but I went in and WOW! Well, it’s still a mess but WOW!”

Pangzi linked his arm with Wu Xie’s and started dragging/walking him in. Wu Xie threw a grin with raised eyebrows over his shoulder at Xiaoge. Then he quickly straightened out as he stumbled a bit over some uneven floor.

“TA DA!” Pangzi crowed, dropping his arm.

Wu Xie stared at… a storage room. There were collapsed shelves against the long wall mixed with piles of rotting cloth. On the nearby short wall were the remains of more shelves and many, many tiny pots, cups and jars. There were piles of what used to be tables scattered about.

“Pangzi, what?”

“Tch. Not here! Keep going! Come on Xiaoge! Sangbei’er!” Pangzi grabbed his arm again and hustled him forward.

Then Wu Xie could see the other exit in the room and as they went through this new doorway, he could feel his eyes widen in amazement. In front of him were a series of irregular pools of various sizes, all with steam vapors rising from them. The area was a good ten meters around with the walls forming a horseshoe shape, the door they just came through located near the end of one of the arms and the other end presumably connected to the main cavern. The floor here was well leveled and smooth paths had been worn by many feet. He walked over to the largest pool and squatted beside it. The edges were smooth under his fingers and when he dipped his hand in the water it was just the right temperature for a comfortable soak. Shining his light into the water, he could see smoothed off stone seats and cement benches.

“We’re in that back nook of the cavern.” Liu Sang said, shining his light over the walls. Wu Xie followed the light to see intricate murals.

Readying the camera, he went over to look more closely; the murals showed a series of activities. First, people entered a room, leaving piles of cloth on shelves. They then came out into the hot spring area and seemed to honor a flower before rinsing with buckets and then soaking in the springs. Wu Xie swung his light back to the wall beside the door and there was a massive, carved peony, at least a meter across. The final set of murals detailed the people, now redressed, as they crossed the cavern, climbed a ladder and exited through a door.

Meanwhile, Pangzi kept up a running commentary as he tested the temperature of each of the pools and laid out his plans for pool hopping. Wu Xie turned, spotlighted his friend and said with fond exasperation, “Pangzi! Explore first! Soak later.”

“Aiiiiyyyyooooo,” Pangzi moaned. Sometimes, Wu Xie thought, Pangzi had missed his calling; he would have been a great actor.

“Plenty of time for soaking later. There are still more rooms to explore. Or maybe you could go with Xiaoge to look at the door again?”

“What?” Pangzi’s head snapped towards Xiaoge. “What happened with the door? It didn’t collapse did it? I didn’t hear anything!”

Xiaoge shook his head. “No nearby trigger.”

Pangzi immediately went over and gave him a one arm hug, grinning at the tiny smile he received. “No door is going to defeat Zhang Qiling, our Xiaoge!” He started them heading back to the main open area. “Pangye will help and together we will defeat this centuries old door.” Liu Sang chuckled beside him as Pangzi’s voice faded to an indistinct mumble as they rounded the corner.

Wu Xie echoed his smile. “Come on, I want to keep looking.”


They backtracked to the complex of rooms they’d planned to enter before the hot spring detour but there was nothing new there. More sleeping quarters, likely for lower ranked people judging by the minimal ornamentation on the carved flowers.

That left the rooms Pangzi had been in. The small suite of rooms was identical to one they’d already looked through, so they made their way down the final corridor, doing a cursory check of the front rooms and found more of the same. Finally, when they walked into the last room, they found the items Pangzi had mentioned. The room was quite a bit larger than the others with a surprisingly high ceiling and walls smoothed to a high polish, even showing the remains of being whitewashed.

“Looks like the rooms of an important person,” Wu Xie commented.

“Because of the size?”

“The size,” Wu Xie agreed, “the extra level of care on the walls.” On one wall he spotted a carved alcove. “A place for knick knacks.”

Liu Sang snorted, “I doubt they called them knick knacks.”

Wandering over to the shelf, Wu Xie chuckled. The shelf of the alcove was covered with the remains of a cloth, the high quality of the silk threads in the embroidery still gleaming occasionally in the light. Several dusty vases revealed painted flowers on their surfaces when the dust was brushed off. Next to him, Liu Sang carefully picked up an exquisite glass peony bloom.

Turning, he spotted something odd in the far corner. He walked over, stepping over the remains of a sleeping platform and approached the wall. There was a fold in the rock that was rotated out in an obviously unnatural way, so he pulled the door open a bit more and then jumped when a handful of beetles scurried down the wall from where they had been hiding in the door crease and disappeared into a shadow by the floor.

Stamping down on a shiver, Wu Xie said, “Huh. Pangzi didn’t mention a secret stash.” In the little space was quite a pile of jewelry: loose carved gems, flower shaped beads in pouches, jade hairpins. Gorgeous things. He snapped a few pictures, selected a few items to keep for reference, and closed the door on the rest, noting the location of the latch.

Behind him, Liu Sang sighed. “I need more water.”

Looking at his watch, Wu Xie frowned. It was too late to tackle the maze today, even if they found the door trigger right away. “Let’s head back. I have more reading to do. Since we can’t move forward we might as well indulge Pangzi with his soak after dinner and use that as thinking time.”

Liu Sang nodded, tucking a loose hair behind his ear and leaving a smear of dust on his forehead. Wu Xie grinned.

“I know I could use a bath after the dust.” He reached out and wiped the smudge away, chuckling a bit as Liu Sang went cross-eyed watching his fingers. “Come on.”

They retreated to camp after a brief stop to splash water on their faces. Settled on his sleeping bag, Wu Xie set up one of the small camping lights. He handed a portion of books that they had brought back from the altar to Liu Sang with a crooked smile that turned into a full smile when Liu Sang huffed and accepted them. They settled in for a stretch of uninterrupted research, accompanied by an occasional unintelligible noise coming from Pangzi in the back of the cavern.

Eventually, Pangzi and Xiaoge’s return broke through his academic haze. Blinking, he turned to Liu Sang only to find him waking from a nap next to a neat pile of books and notes. It was nice to have someone around who shared a bit more of his academic interests. Also, it didn’t hurt that he was adorable when he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and yawned widely, giving a sheepish grin at being discovered sleeping. Wu Xie’s heart swelled.

He reviewed what Liu Sang had written while Pangzi prepared dinner, working all of the new information into the overall theory he was developing.

“Ah, Tianzhen! Here. Put that down. Eat now.”

Wu Xie accepted his bowl and blew on the steam before stuffing a large bite of noodles into his mouth. The rich flavor of the broth filled a hole he hadn’t even noticed. He opened a bag of something crunchy and took a drink of water before asking how it went with the door.

Pangzi made a sound of disgust. “Nowhere. We went over every surface we could both realistically reach for meters in every direction. We tried the light thing looking for pressure plates or smooth spots. Nothing.”

There was a long stretch of conversational silence as they all contemplated this.

“We’re gonna find it though! Anyway… hot tub after dinner?” Pangzi asked, slurping his broth.

Wu Xie laughed. “Yes Pangzi, hot tub after dinner.”

Pangzi nodded, “Cool.” He squinted in thought for a moment. “I think I saw some jars by the pools we can use for rinsing, just like in a regular bathhouse. If not, there were plenty of others that looked intact.” He shrugged.

“Are you planning on using random cultural artifacts as your bath jug?” Liu Sang’s tone was both horrified and amused.

Pangzi just shrugged again and nodded, taking another bite of noodles. “Don’t want to make the pools dirty.”

Liu Sang rolled his eyes and glanced over. Wu Xie met his gaze, grinned and shrugged. It was Pangzi, what were they going to do?

Eventually they finished dinner and everyone went through their bags for bathing items and clean clothes. Wu Xie and Liu Sang grabbed camping lights and Xiaoge brought his sword; Pangzi had his flask of alcohol conspicuously placed on the top of his pile.

Entering the hot spring area - and no he wasn’t going to question the geology of it, he’d seen too many weird things in tombs - Wu Xie held his camp light high. In the rear corner of the nook was a little pool probably only big enough for two people or several children. Spread through the rest of the area were three somewhat larger pools, each likely able to seat four to seven people depending on their level of familiarity. Closest to the entrance was the biggest pool. Wu Xie guessed it could hold up to a dozen people or so. Surprisingly, as Pangzi had suggested, there were several intact jars by the smallest pool.

“So what was your general plan?” He asked Pangzi, vaguely remembering his complicated ramblings from earlier in the day.

“Ah the little pool is rather cool, the middle ones are pretty hot - good for laundry and such - and the big one is a comfortable temperature. Right now I think I'll rinse off, then stick with the big one for a good soak.” Taking a few steps forward, Pangzi set his pile of supplies down by the edge of the largest pool, then shed his jacket and the rest of his clothes, keeping only the small towel to hand for modesty. Heading deeper into the bathing area for the smallest pool for his bath house rinse, he quickly found an intact jar from where they were collected against the wall next to the smallest pool. Humming to himself, he filled it and dumped it over his head for a good rinse.

“Ahhhhh, lovely!” He bent to do it again.

Wu Xie raised an eyebrow, then looked at Liu Sang and Xiaoge who both shrugged, then followed Pangzi’s example, leaving their clothes behind and heading toward the rinsing jars.

As he followed suit, Wu Xie mused that the sound of water pouring was echoing through the area for the first time in what was probably centuries. He shed his clothes and grabbed his towel. On his way over to the small pool he passed Pangzi, damp and happy, coming back for his soak and slapped him wetly on the shoulder.

Joining his lovers, he let Xiaoge pour a couple of jugs of lukewarm rinse water over him and poured a few in return. It was entirely not his fault if he got distracted by the sight of where the rinse water was traveling and perhaps let his fingers follow the water a little too closely down Xiaoge’s shoulders or Liu Sang’s back before his fingers were lightly smacked away. When they were all three thoroughly wet, Xiaoge herded them back to the large pool and Pangzi before things had a chance to get too far out of hand.

Wu Xie settled into the perfectly warm water, and the surprisingly comfortable seat, with a sigh and amused himself by watching Xiaoge’s tattoo become visible and brushing Liu Sang’s fingers under the water. The water was clear but dark in the dim light of the cavern and it was surprisingly deep below the rocks he was using as footrests. When he directed his light downward, there was a small dark opening at the base where he could feel the hot water wafting up, so Wu Xie pictured the pool looking something like a funnel.

“Mmmmmmmm,” Pangzi groaned, head back and eyes closed. But after a long, content silence (for Pangzi) he cracked an eye open. “Okay, so what is the purpose of this room?”

“Cleansing I think,” Wu Xie waved in the direction of the river. “Purification before going on into the main area. Also, since there are a lot of rooms, a place for studying the rituals of the religion maybe. A place to prepare to join by learning the sacred texts, then you move on into the maze to prove your worth before you get to the main chamber.”

“Where there might be a tomb?”

Wu Xie nodded, “Where there might be a tomb.” He ran a wet hand through his hair. “We’ll definitely find something interesting in the main cavern. Nobody goes to this much trouble without hiding something that they, at least, consider important.”

Pangzi grunted in agreement.

“That room with the pretty pieces you found looked to me like it could belong to the most important person here. The…head priest in charge of making sure the disciples were prepared, perhaps. And like I said, they taught basics in literacy, other normal things and also gardening. A lot of horticulture for various regions and climates that covered most of ancient China. So I think there must have been some place above where they were growing things - I’m assuming flowers as opposed to food. Or rather mostly flowers and maybe a little food.”

“Weird.” Pangzi declared lazily.

There was another brief stretch of silence, broken only by water sounds as Pangzi wet his hair several times. Liu Sang was sunk down almost to his chin, eyes closed and Xiaoge was watching everything with sharp dark eyes.

“Hey you know what I haven’t seen yet?” Pangzi asked in a thoughtful tone.

“Mmm?” Wu Xie didn’t bother to actually ask.

Pangzi raised a finger, “BUGS! Usually we’ve seen at least one swarm… Mass? Herd? Of them by now.”

“I saw a bunch of beetles this morning,” Liu Sang opened his eyes, “I was walking over where we came in and a group wandered past. They didn’t seem interested in me though.”

“Huh, actually I saw some this afternoon in the head priest’s room. Gave me a start. Xiaoge?”

He inclined his head a little. “Saw several while looking at the artifacts in a hidden compartment in the priest’s room.”

“Mmm, just me then? Bugs must know better and to come anywhere near the great Pangye!” he declared.

Wu Xie laughed. “I have to say, even though there are beautiful flowers everywhere, something about the corridors on the way here was creepy. Kept triggering my ‘something’s watching’ sense.”

Liu Sang sat up. “OH! Me too. Nothing really to hear but like there was something just under my hearing coupled with that feeling of ‘just around the corner’ but not. If you know what I mean…” He trailed off and sank back in to his chin.

Pangzi reached back for his flask, took a swig and handed it to Wu Xie. Raising a pointing finger he intoned, “And we shall weather these trials of bugs, creepy corridors and further unknown dangers with the same cool, calm competency that we always have.” He accepted the flask back from Liu Sang. “And then we ask Xiaoge to beat up everything else.” Pangzi toasted the man and took a drink, then sputtered as Xiaoge sent a large splash at him.

Wu Xie threw his head back and laughed with Liu Sang as Pangzi sent up a storm of complaints. Xiaoge just smirked.

The flask went around in silence a few times until finally it was empty and Pangzi dropped it back on the floor.

“A-ha! Got it!” Wu Xie started as Pangzi’s exclamation broke the comfortable quiet.

“We are the Iron Pyramid!”

Everyone contemplated that for a moment. Then Xiaoge said, “Pyramids have five points.”

Pangzi’s delight morphed into horror. “No no no no no no!” He waved his hands in a stop motion frantically, flinging water drops. “No fifth person!!” He paused, frowning deeply, eyes squinting at the ceiling as if trying to banish unpleasant images. Then his face relaxed back into delight and he held up a finger, “No!! A pyramid like the dice you use for D&D. They only have four sides!”

Xiaoge tipped his head a little in acknowledgement, a smile just peeking out. “But do we explain each time that we mean the die and not the monument?”

“Xiiaaoogeee!” Pangzi wailed.

Wu Xie laughed until he fell over onto Liu Sang.

Suddenly Pangzi froze mid-wail, eyes widening, and they all tensed. “Something moved! I moved something! Something under me shifted! Shit, Tianzhen!!”

Liu Sang sat up tall and cranked his head toward the nook opening. “Something’s moving. I can hear stone grinding from across the cavern.”

Next thing he knew, Xiaoge was out of the pool, steel in hand, naked as the day he was born. A flash of pale skin later and he was gone around the corner to investigate. The rest of them scrambled out, cursing as they tried to shove wet limbs into clothes. They were still in a huge state of disarray when Xiaoge came back a long (short) time later. He looked like some ancient warrior god come to life, gleaming in the dim light.

“The door is open. I don’t see anything down the tunnel.”

Wu Xie collapsed on his ass in relief, feet still tangled in his jeans, underwear clutched in his hand. Then his brain kicked in. “The door’s open? Pangzi you did it!” He kicked the jeans off and went for his towel instead.

“I did? Haha I did!” Pangzi was also toweling off and dressing but with less mania now. “How did I do it?” He pulled up his pants and leaned back over the water with his light. “I don’t see anything but I could probably sit on it again…?”

Wu Xie waved his hand, nerves jangling. “No, no, no, no. Just leave it.” He stood and finished dressing. “I need to go over the murals again.”

Xiaoge looked up from tying his boots, dressed and done while the rest of them were still struggling with shirts, and nodded, then clapped a hand on Pangzi’s shoulder and urged him up. “Oh my god, Xiaoge! I thought we were going to die! Sucked down into the hot tub of doom!” Xiaoge handed him a shirt and went over to Liu Sang where they touched foreheads briefly. Wu Xie turned away, reassured that everyone was all right. He needed to figure this out.

Starting back at the beginning of the murals, Wu Xie tuned out the noise of a rambling Pangzi blowing off his nerves. He aimed the lamp at the beginning figures and studied the whole sequence again, this time paying more attention to the people rather than the actions. After a short but intense study session, Wu Xie turned around to see them all waiting for him around the big pool.

“Okay, so,” he returned to the initial panel, “this guy here,” Wu Xie pointed, “has fancier hair. I’m thinking he’s the disciple in charge of the initiates, leading them through the ritual bathing process. At the right point, while in the pool, this guy” he directed the light to the right spot in the illustration, “triggers the hidden latch, just like Pangzi did, and off they go to the next adventure, happily impressed by the magic door.” Wu Xie turned back around. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were triggers in the other larger pools too.”

He walked back over and scooped up his pile of clothes which someone had folded for him. “I think we should go back to camp, get some sleep and hit the maze first thing in the morning.” Pangzi loudly agreed and the others nodded.

Back at camp, it only took a few moments to stow everything and settle down on their sleeping bags. This time, though, Xiaoge deliberately placed himself on the outside rather than between Wu Xie and Liu Sang. Despite the excitement, the hot water had done its job and Wu Xie dropped off to sleep quickly.

A hand shaking his shoulder woke Wu Xie way too early according to his internal clock. When he opened his eyes, Liu Sang was leaning over him looking anxious. “I hear something moving. Something’s coming. A LOT of somethings.”

Wu Xie scrambled up, getting his boots on as Xiaoge woke Pangzi.

“What’s going on?” Pangzi’s question echoed his own thoughts as Wu Xie’s nerves shot sky high.

“The door is still open. Something’s coming up the tunnel and will be entering the cavern in a couple of minutes.” Liu Sang paused, eyes going distant. “Beetles. It’s that swarm we were missing yesterday. And it’s now! They’re coming in now!”

Just like that, Wu Xie became aware of a change in the noise of the cavern. A low thrum almost, topped by a rustling noise like paper crumpling was faintly noticeable over the gentle wash of the water; the sound of millions of little feet against stone and hard shells rubbing against each other.

Wu Xie pulled his long knife from his pack sheath and quickly retrieved his gun as well. “Let’s go.” Pangzi made an affirmative noise as he took the gun when Wu Xie handed it to him. Absently he noted that Liu Sang had acquired a long knife of his own.

The four men swiftly made their way to the waterside. As the sound grew louder, Wu Xie noticed that Liu Sang had slipped in his ear plugs. Clicking his light on, Wu Xie aimed it across the river to the slight rise at the altar and moved the light over the area. The previously smooth floor now shimmered with movement, light reflecting off a seemingly infinite mass of shiny, hard bodies. Liu Sang sucked in a gasp, paling, and Xiaoge drew his sword, though he just stood at the ready.

The bugs ebbed and flowed, covering the cavern floor almost seamlessly; eventually making their way to the river’s edge where they fell off into the water in large clumps, pushed from behind or just mindlessly walking forward. They didn’t seem capable of flight or, thankfully, of swimming, washing downstream and out of the cavern with the current instead. Also, Wu Xie reflected with relief, they didn’t seem to be able to get across at the makeshift bridge.

For a long while the four of them stood and watched, amazement mingled with horror, as the swarm continued to move. Xiaoge played his light over the ceiling regularly to make sure the insects weren’t climbing the columns to cross.

Eventually, as time went on without imminent threat to their side of the river, they settled into something more relaxed, squatting or leaning against columns as they waited it out. After about fifteen minutes, according to Wu Xie’s watch, the mass had thinned out noticeably. The floor was visible in large patches and their movement seemed to have slowed.

Occasional groups of wanderers had, in fact, made it over to their side of the water. In these small clusters, the insects didn’t seem any more interested in them now than when they’d encountered them earlier, so the explorers just stayed out of their way. Wu Xie wondered whether the calm behavior would continue if they started killing the bugs, but had no real desire to put that to the test.

After a half hour, Pangzi went back to the camp and returned with food for everyone, acting on an unspoken agreement that there was not going to be any more sleeping that night. Wu Xie joined Liu Sang with his breakfast, bumping their feet companionably together. “Sang’er, how does it sound over there? Is the swarm done? More coming? Where are they going?”

Liu Sang was leaning on a column, arms folded and tipped his head a bit as he answered. “They seem to just be finding cracks to go off into and are,” he waved a hand, “redistributing throughout the system. The swarm seems to be done but I can still hear insects in the tunnels. They sound like they’re moving more aimlessly, like the ones we saw earlier. There still seem to be a lot of them, though,” he waggled his fingers toward the other shore, “milling around over there.”

Pausing to evaluate options, while he finished eating, Wu Xie made a decision. “All right. Let’s pack up and get ready to move. Start thinking of ways to get through to the door with the least amount of… ruckus.”

It was only the work of a few minutes for everyone to pack, even with Wu Xie taking the time to securely stow all of the old books. He shouldered his pack and turned to the others. “Okay. Everybody ready? Thoughts?”

“I’m not feeling confident enough to ‘dance’ our way through.” Pangzi muttered sarcastically, then he raised an eyebrow. “Do you really think we’ll rile them up if we start stepping on them?”

Wu Xie shrugged. “Historically, it hasn’t gone well.” Pangzi grunted assent.

“My blood,” Xiaoge offered.

Wu Xie reached out and clasped his lover’s shoulder. “Not unless it’s a last resort.” He took a deep breath and blew it out, staring at the floor he mused. “Typically insects don’t like fire…”

“OH!” Liu Sang exclaimed. “There are a LOT of torches in the storeroom back there.” He pointed. “They seemed like they’d held up pretty well considering.”

“Show us.” Xiaoge said with quiet command.

It was a short walk to the storage room and Xiaoge picked one up from a pile as they clustered around him. He hefted it a couple of times and produced a lighter from somewhere. The torch went up with a satisfying woosh and settled into a stable flame after a few long moments. Xiaoge met Wu Xie’s eyes and tipped his chin to the door. “I’ll try it.”

They followed Xiaoge's swift, purposeful steps back to the river, though Pangzi did have to dodge around a small puddle of insects. Xiaoge didn’t even pause at the river’s edge, just leaped from one bridge base to the next with his usual grace while the rest of them lined up at the edge to watch. The landing area was briefly clear when he touched down, so Xiaoge walked calmly over to the nearest patch of bugs and lowered the torch to ankle height. Wu Xie’s breath caught unconsciously as he watched.

The bright light made the insects sharply detailed for an instant before they parted from the advancing fire. A moment later the insects streamed away from the light and heat like the torch was a boulder in a river, creating a horseshoe shape around Xiaoge’s feet until the area was clear. He straightened up and returned to the landing step, laying the torch on the ground.

Reaching to untie the end of one of the safety lines, he said, “I will rig this to make climbing up to the door easier for you. Get the rest of the torches for traveling.” Pangzi immediately stepped forward to get the other end freed while Liu Sang headed back to the storage room at a brisk pace. Wu Xie watched for a moment as Xiaoge collected the rope and torch and moved away.

A hand slapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, you heard the man.” Pangzi said cheerfully, steering him back toward the supplies. In short order they were reassembled on the far side landing, all the torches they could find strapped to their persons. Pangzi lit one for each of them and they started for the door, carefully sweeping the fire towards any insects headed their way. Wu Xie didn’t fully relax until they were standing below the exit, rope hanging down the wall, while Xiaoge stood in the doorway with his torch guarding their approach.

Pangzi considered the rope and the wall behind it for a moment. Then, he surprised Wu Xie by leaning forward and tossing his torch straight up. Xiaoge snapped out a hand and collected the torch easily. Pangzi nodded and hauled himself up the wall, clapping Xiaoge on the shoulder and taking the torch when he reached the top.

Wu Xie and Liu Sang exchanged looks. He wordlessly waved Liu Sang toward the rope next, turning to dissuade another patch of bugs. Liu Sang started the climb still holding his torch, but quickly jumped back to the ground when the fire came too close to his hair. It took him two tries to throw it so Xiaoge could catch it and he climbed the wall with bright red cheeks. Xiaoge handed him the torch but stopped him to add a forehead touch and a few murmured words. Thankfully, Wu Xie managed his on the first throw and before long they were all out of the river cavern.

Stepping into the maze, it was like the whole atmosphere changed. The first few corridors they traversed with ease and the bugs skittered away as they approached with the torches. The walls were narrow, but not oppressively so, and they were decorated with twisting vines and leaves carved at about shoulder height on both sides.

Still, it somehow seemed darker than it should have. And Wu Xie wasn’t entirely convinced that all of the movement he sensed was bugs. It almost seemed like the vines on the walls were moving at times. They all (except Xiaoge of course) quickly became very jumpy, twitching when the torches popped and flinching when someone kicked a stone.

After a while, the path became torturous; constantly changing directions and levels. They would be going along quite a ways in one direction, then have to go down or up and head back the other direction, more often than not seeming to double back on the distance they’d just covered. Liu Sang insisted that this was the only way through, regularly shaking his head no when they got to a side path that really seemed to be headed in the ‘right’ direction, often to Pangzi’s very vocal frustration.

The first time they passed a short corridor that the map said would be a dead end, Wu Xie insisted on heading that way anyway, just to see what was there, dragging the others reluctantly behind him. In fact, the path ended as they might have expected, with a small alcove containing an ornate statue of a beautiful woman draped in vines and flowers. Wu Xie took pictures and made some notes, but he didn’t think there was anything of particular significance in the imagery.

The next few side paths ended in a similar manner, the differences in the statues being superficial at most, and eventually the others started refusing to let him go. Pangzi began whining, of course, but when Liu Sang started showing reluctance and Xiaoge flat out refused to follow him, he was forced to admit there wasn’t much of a point in checking out each one.

In fact, all of the passages started looking the same after a while, which was clearly what had been intended. If you had no map and no way of knowing where to go, getting lost in here would be almost inevitable.

After they’d been walking for an uncomfortable few hours, they stopped at the entrance to a side passage to take a water break; all four settled on the floor for a few minutes rest. Pangzi insisted on having food and pulled out fruit and bags of chips. Sitting beside him and munching, Liu Sang pulled out the map and pointed to indicate their location. “I actually think this side passage might be a little different from the others,” he said, as he traced the path with a finger. “We’re back toward the outside of the ‘flower’ and it’s a little bit longer. Might be worth checking out.”

Wu Xie’s heart fluttered a little at Liu Sang’s proud grin, like he’d discovered this just in order to make Wu Xie happy. Taking one last swig of water, he stood back up. “Well, let’s go check it out then!”

Pangzi groaned. “Another dead end with another statue? No thanks. Just pick me up here on the way back.” He settled back against the wall and closed his eyes, clearly intending to take a nap.

Liu Sang stood up and closed his pack, like it hadn’t even occurred to him not to follow.

“Xiaoge?” Wu Xie looked over and received only a flat stare in return. “Right. We’ll be back in a few minutes.”

As they walked down the passage around a slight curve, Wu Xie bumped Liu Sang’s shoulder companionably. “You could have stayed with the others.”

Liu Sang shrugged. “I wanted to come.”

He smiled and gave his shoulder another bump. He could already see the expected statue in the distance. As they approached, the wall's vines were carved more abundantly than in the other alcoves and seemed to radiate from her in all directions. She was, as with the others, beautiful and intricately carved but unusually, she was crowned. Also she wasn’t just draped in the flowers but was offering several peonies in her hands.

“I think you were right. This one seems special!” Wu Xie noted the differences in his notebook and put it away, then smiled up at her and traced the exquisitely carved petals in her hands.

Until her hands shifted down and the floor fell out from under his feet.
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Re: Secrets of the Hollow Mountain

Post by Glitter »

Chapter 7 Liu Sang

One minute Liu Sang was smiling at Wu Xie’s back, happy to have found something that pleased him and fondly amused at his complete focus on the statue. The next, he felt his feet go out from under him and his stomach flew into his throat as he began to fall. And fall. He screamed and reached out, but he couldn't get a firm grasp on anything. Hands scraping against rock, his body bounced and slid. It was as if the entire world was collapsing around him. Frantically, he reached out again and for a moment he thought he could feel something warm in his hand, but it slid through his grasp. And then he felt a jolt and knew nothing more.

When he came back to consciousness, the first thing he noticed was the headache. Then, he tried moving his arm, but it was oddly heavy and took a lot of extra effort. Finally it slid toward his face and he heard small objects clicking around him as he moved. His eyes flew open, although he couldn’t really see much and the memory of the fall came rushing back. Coughing, he pushed down a wave of panic and forced himself to listen. No loud noises. But… There! A heartbeat and breathing.

“Wu Xie,” he tried to call, but he could barely make a sound. Clearing his throat, he tried again. “Wu Xie!”

There was a low groan in response and he struggled to make out shapes in the dim light.

“Wu Xie!” He managed to sit up, feeling things shift around him, debris falling away as he moved. He was relieved to realize that he wasn’t actually buried and the space above him was fairly open. He was not so relieved to realize that he had apparently re-injured his ankle and it throbbed painfully every time he moved his leg.

Slowly, he crawled toward where he knew he'd find Wu Xie. After what felt like an eternity, he finally could feel warm flesh under his fingers. A hand?

“Wu Xie.” He grabbed the hand, brushing small stones away from the attached arm, and managed to fully uncover Wu Xie’s head, relieved to confirm by touch that the other man’s breathing and heartbeat were as regular as they sounded. When he shook the shoulder beneath his hand, Wu Xie finally groaned again and started to move.

“Slowly,” he cautioned, “there’s rocks.”

“Liu Sang?” Wu Xie sounded dazed, but his voice was clear.

“Hey there.” Liu Sang helped him to sit up, brushing the rubble away as best he could. “Guess we triggered something.” Liu Sang tried for casual, although he wasn’t sure how well he managed it.

“Guess so.” Wu Xie coughed, leaning heavily into Liu Sang’s shoulder. “How far did we fall?”

“Hmmmm,” Liu Sang picked up two rocks to knock together and took a moment to listen, trying not to wince too noticeably. The pain in his head didn’t help his concentration but he could manage an estimate. “Not as far as I would have thought. Maybe thirty meters?”

“Could be worse.” Wu Xie coughed again and then groaned as he shifted around. “My ribs think it was farther.” He raised his hand to touch Liu Sang’s knee. “How are you?”

“Okay,” Liu Sang maneuvered his arm around Wu Xie’s shoulders. “I was just worried about you.”

“Really?” Wu Xie patted his knee, then ran his hand upward to brush Liu Sang’s hair away from his face, his hand comfortingly warm until…

“Ow,” Liu Sang yelped and flinched away in spite of himself. “Ow. Okay, I guess I hit my head?”

“Mmmmhmmm, seems like,” Wu Xie agreed.

“And twisted my ankle,” Liu Sang sighed. “Just when it was finally feeling better.”

“Ouch,” Wu Xie commiserated. “I suppose that’s one definition of okay.”

“Yeah,” Liu Sang gave a humorless chuckle. “If that includes being lost in a pit full of rocks underground.”

“Well,” Wu Xie said wryly as he groaned with the effort of taking off his backpack, “I don’t know about that. I have this friend who can map places just by sound, so I’m not sure it’s possible to be truly lost as long as we’re together.”

Liu Sang flushed a little, feeling the praise warm him in completely inappropriate ways. He coughed a little and started to remove his own pack, prioritizing the search for a light of some sort since he’d dropped his flashlight in the fall. “Figuring out where we are and getting out of here might be two separate issues you know.”

“Sure,” Wu Xie agreed easily, patting Liu Sang’s knee again as he deposited his backpack in front of them. “But I’m still glad I’m not here by myself.”

“Me too,” Liu Sang replied, letting the thought truly sink in. It seemed like ever since he’d met Wu Xie he’d been in one dangerous situation after another, but somehow, through it all, he’d stopped being alone. Was that why he was here now? Was he really just going to keep walking into these hazardous situations just to keep this connection? Was he just clinging to some weird romanticized idea of a relationship?

He finally fumbled a small flashlight from his pack. “Watch out for the light,” he warned and aimed it away from either of their eyes.

Blinking back at him, Wu Xie gave him a smile of approval and he suddenly realized, yes. Yes, he was clinging to the connection. And yes, he was going to continue to cling to it for as long as this ridiculous man agreed to keep him around. Did he even really have a choice? In spite of himself, he smiled back and reached out, letting his hand rest on Wu Xie’s shoulder as he basked in the feeling for a moment.

When Wu Xie’s attention shifted away, he let go reluctantly and watched as Wu Xie rummaged through his pack and pulled out a first aid kit. They then spent a few minutes shifting around as they traded off holding the light and patching each other up. Wu Xie’s external injuries amounted merely to a variety of bumps and bruises, while Liu Sang ended up with a bandage wrapped tightly around his ankle and ointment on a couple of light scrapes. By the time they were done they’d both taken painkillers with some water and Liu Sang felt at least a bit more settled.

“Can you hear anything?” Wu Xie’s tone was way too gentle. Clearly Liu Sang wasn’t hiding the extent of his headache.

“I haven’t tried yet,” he admitted sheepishly. “I was letting things settle a bit.” He closed his eyes, steeling himself for the effort.

“You can wait.” Wu Xie’s hands cradled his face, stroking lightly over his temples. “Don’t hurt yourself.”

“It’s okay,” he turned his head into one warm palm without opening his eyes. “It’s important.”

And it really was okay. The pain was still there, but manageable. As he extended his hearing, he almost immediately heard the anxious knocking he’d more than half expected.

“They’re there,” he translated, “and okay.” He heard Wu Xie let out a relieved breath. “Up and… way off to the side?” He tried to focus, but the sounds were confusing. “I think we must have traveled quite a ways horizontally.” He opened his eyes and reached for a rock to reply, acknowledging their message and reporting that they were both okay.

After a bit of back and forth, he and Ouxiang established that the area where they fell was completely blocked or locked and the others hadn’t found any promising ways to access it. The pit where they’d fallen turned out to be fairly small and Wu Xie had been able to explore while he was “talking”, but there were no immediate indications of an exit. It didn’t take long for them all to realize that the next best step was for Liu Sang to pull out his tools for a mapping session.

“Can you manage it?” Wu Xie’s eyes were filled with worry. Obviously he could tell that Liu Sang’s head was still pounding. But what choice did they have?

“I’ll be fine.” He tried to smile, then gave up and just set about preparing everything he’d need and arranging it neatly, only stalling a little in anticipation of the discomfort.

Meanwhile, Wu Xie fidgeted. Seemingly unable to sit still, every couple of minutes he shifted around or moved his light, rechecking areas he’d already been over thoroughly as if he thought something might have changed in the time since he last looked.

Finally, Liu Sang grabbed his wrist to stop yet another sweep of the light across the room. “I’m going to need you to be quiet.”

“I know,” Wu Xie huffed. “I just wish there was something I could do to help.”

Liu Sang thought for a moment, then decided there was no harm in indulging himself just a bit. He pointed at a spot against the wall. “Go sit over there?”

Wu Xie gave a dejected little sigh, then moved where he’d pointed, clearly thinking he was being moved out of the way. Liu Sang smirked for just a second, then slid his items over into the same space and sat down with his back to Wu Xie’s front, urging his legs apart so that he could basically use him as an armchair.

Wu Xie caught on quickly, with a much happier sigh, and wrapped him in strong, gentle arms. “This will help?”

“It will,” Liu Sang admitted, relaxing a bit into the embrace.

“Good.” Wu Xie rubbed his arms, then gently brushed the hair out of his face. “Will it bother you if I move?”

“As long as you don’t make a lot of noise it’s fine.” Liu Sang hummed in pleasure, turning his head into the touch. “It’s good.”

Wu Xie fell silent, but continued to run gentle hands through his hair and over his shoulders, carefully avoiding any injured places.

Content, Liu Sang took a deep breath, then set to work.

In the end, it wasn’t too bad. Since they were obviously in a space he’d missed previously, Liu Sang only had to map out the area that connected their current position to the main part of the maze. Once he understood the pattern, the structure of the additional passageways quickly became clear. It was no wonder he’d missed it; the tunnels were small, barely large enough to crawl through so he’d dismissed them, and they were far enough below the lowest level of the maze that he hadn’t examined the space closely at all.

With his new perspective, he could sense several pits like the one they were currently in scattered around the maze area, each with a slanted shaft, obviously intended to drop unsuspecting subjects from the maze, and a horizontal tunnel that led inward, presumably to rescue them. Like spokes on a wheel, these exit tunnels led to a ring-shaped passageway centered below the maze. Several narrow, vertical shafts lead upward from that passageway to some of the dead-end locations in the maze that he’d previously mapped.

Coming back to himself, he took stock of his physical well-being. He was almost comfortable, leaning against a soft, warm surface with strong hands massaging his temples. Sure, his head still hurt, but not much worse than it had before he started. Maybe there was something to be said for working like this. Wonder if he could convince Wu Xie to make it a regular thing?

Stretching his arms a bit, he leaned his head back onto Wu Xie’s shoulder, opening his eyes and tilting his head. Wu Xie obligingly leaned in for a thorough kiss, draining the last of the tension he’d been feeling. Definitely something he could get used to.

“Looks like it worked?” Wu Xie smiled and gestured toward the notepad where he’d been adding to the map.

“It did.” Liu Sang held the map up so that Wu Xie could look at it over his shoulder. “This place just keeps getting more and more complicated, but at least there is a way out.”

“That’s reassuring.” Wu Xie was still running a hand absently up and down along his side.

“We should be able to get out right there,” he pointed to one of the walls. “Obviously we haven’t been able to open a door, so I’m guessing that must be because it’s triggered from the other side.”

“Can you give Xiaoge directions to get to it?”

“Of course. This shaft,” he pointed on the map, “is the closest to their current position. Assuming Ouxiang can find the entrance, he should be able to get to us without any other big issues.”
Setting action to his words, he reluctantly shifted out of Wu Xie’s embrace, picked up the rock he was using earlier and started tapping out instructions, telling both men to come down and bring all of the equipment.

“There’s a bright side to this.” He tried to make it sound entirely positive. “If this works the way I think it does, once we get out of here we’ll be really close to the end of this maze.”

“Really?” Wu Xie perked up a bit. “That’s great!” He looked a little more closely at Liu Sang. “Wait. Why don’t you sound very enthused?”

“I’m not.” Liu Sang gestured at the map again. “They’re narrow tunnels, barely big enough to crawl through. It’ll take us where we want to go, but it’s not going to be comfortable.”

“Of course not.” Wu Xie shrugged. “At least it’s a shortcut, right?”

“Right.” Liu Sang sighed. “And I guess if I’m crawling, I’m not putting as much weight on my ankle.”

Neither of them seemed to gain much comfort from that. Wu Xie checked the exit wall again, confirming that there was no sign at all of a door trigger, then they settled in to wait. Liu Sang tapped periodically for updates on Ouxiang’s progress, but otherwise it was quiet and a bit stuffy.

Still, as they lay curled together, exchanging gentle touches and occasional idle kisses, Liu Sang thought again how nice it was not to be alone.

Some time later, he became aware that Ouxiang was very close. He stretched and wiped his eyes, feeling Wu Xie stir beside him. Had they actually fallen asleep? No matter. He could hear Ouxiang approaching in the corridor outside and tapped an acknowledgement, letting him know exactly where they were.

Short minutes later, he heard a mechanism click and the wall in front of them slid open easily. Liu Sang caught a glimpse of a small, relieved smile before Ouxiang was dragged bodily into their space, Wu Xie seeming determined to touch as much of him as possible.

Liu Sang sat back, a little amused by Wu Xie’s overt enthusiasm, then pleased and a bit confused when Wu Xie practically shoved Ouxiang toward him, as if expecting him to perform the same sort of whole-body check. Seeming not at all surprised by this behavior, Ouxiang just rolled with it, giving him a warm hug and a lingering kiss and quietly murmuring, “Are you all right?”

“I am,” he sank into the embrace. “Mostly. I have a headache and my ankle got twisted again, but it’s not bad.”

He supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised when Ouxiang insisted on checking it out for himself, complete with running commentary from a hovering Wu Xie. He tried to convince them it wasn’t worth taking the time, Pangzi was waiting for them after all, but Ouxiang was stubborn and in the end it was just easier to let him reassure himself. Liu Sang refused to admit out loud that he also did a better job of wrapping the bandage tightly, immobilizing his joint in just the right way. Really, he just wanted to be done and get out of here.

Finally, they set out, Liu Sang leading the way, since he knew where they were going, and Ouxiang bringing up the rear. When they reached the central ring, Pangzi was waiting impatiently and immediately started complaining about how long it had taken them and how miserable he’d been waiting in the tunnel.

“At least you weren’t dumped down a long shaft with a ton of sharp rocks and then trapped there!” Liu Sang knew he shouldn’t snap, but really, was it necessary for him to complain the whole time?

“Aiyo, Sangbei’er, good to see you’re fine.” Pangzi shrugged the sharp tone off. “You gotta get used to that kind of thing running after Tianzhen. And Tianzhen! You look well enough, for touching things you shouldn’t.”

“What makes you say I touched something?” Wu Xie asked in mock outrage.

“Didn’t you?” Pangzi said knowingly.

Still rather annoyed, Liu Sang just crawled past and kept going, assuming that the others would catch up with him eventually. The central ring tunnel was slightly larger than the one from their cell, but not nearly large enough for anything like standing up and he was ready to be back in the more open spaces.

From there it was still a long crawl that made their earlier trek through the maze look like a garden stroll, but eventually, they reached the best point for re-entering the maze. Liu Sang signaled Ouxiang that this was the right shaft, then they all moved out of the way so he could climb up and drop a rope for them. After that it was short work to climb up and out until they were all, finally, collapsed in a familiar looking tunnel.

“I thought we were going to be closer to the end of the maze?” Pangzi looked around as if expecting some kind of obvious sign.

“We are!” Liu Sang closed his eyes and gave a short knock on the wall. “Much closer. I promise! It all just looks the same.”

“How close?” Wu Xie asked, trying to sound like he was up for it.

“Maybe another hour or two?”

“No way.” Pangzi sounded very determined. “Nope. No more. Not right now. We need a meal and a rest.” Without even waiting for the others to agree, he set about making camp.

Liu Sang felt no need to argue, dropping his pack against the wall and following it with a sigh. At this point he was looking forward to food, more painkillers and the reasonably comfortable surface of his sleeping bag.

During dinner, Wu Xie rallied enough to add a twist to his theory of the purpose of this part of the maze. Since they’d decided that this was a trial maze for initiates, there had to be a way to rescue the washouts and that’s basically what they’d done; triggered a trap and had to be “rescued”. There were some jokes tossed out about failed college classes that Liu Sang let wash over him with just a few smiles at the clever ones.

When dinner was packed away, he swallowed more painkillers and settled himself into his sleeping bag. Pangzi had claimed Wu Xie’s one side and Wu Xie pulled Liu Sang down against his other. Ouxiang sat at the end, his legs stretched out against Liu Sang’s side, clearly set to keep watch for a while but also clearly unwilling to be out of touch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Liu Sang quickly fell asleep.

The morning brought a relief of his headache, but not much improvement to his ankle. Ouxiang’s gentle hands checked and rewrapped it while Pangzi was cooking, but there wasn't much else to do other than to keep up with the painkillers. Wu Xie was in high spirits now that they were so close to the end and that made breakfast entirely entertaining but soon they were eagerly on their way, ready to be finished with the maze.

The distance to the final inner ring was no more than another kilometer of twisting passages but it felt long. Longer than it would have taken before, when his ankle was in better working order. Eventually they made it through, the arrival made clear by an obvious change of architecture. Coming out of a narrow pathway, they entered at the side of one end of a long, slightly curved room with a high domed ceiling. It wasn’t too wide, only about five meters, with a detailed figure of a person holding a torch high carved on the wall opposite the doorway. Liu Sang figured this was supposed to be an initiate as the clothing matched that of the people in the murals by the hot pools.

Ouxiang entered the room first, but they all quickly followed behind and stopped in front of the carving. Wu Xie clapped his hands, his leather gloves muffling the sound, and stared up at the figure. “Okay this should be the inner ring. We get through these rooms and we’re finally at the main chamber.”

“Fantastic.” Pangzi’s tone was a mix of relief and sarcasm.

They made their way through the room with a practiced wariness. As they passed the center of the room, Liu Sang heard a series of thunks in the walls. “STOP! We’ve triggered something.”

Immediately Ouxiang drew his sword. They all unconsciously formed a square, backs together, and scanned the room with their lights in all directions. There was a breathless pause and then another swarm of beetles poured from the shadows in all directions. Or the same swarm, who could tell? They were even coming from above, occasionally just dropping to the floor.

Pangzi yelped, he and Wu Xie cursed and they all pressed closer, shoulders and arms pressed together. Ouxiang said, “Torches.”

Shit, the group hadn’t bothered to light any this morning. Liu Sang scrambled to get a torch free from the strapping on his pack. His elbow crashed into Pangzi’s as he tried to do the same. Bright golden light sprung up behind him and he caught sight of Ouxiang already waving his torch at the insects as he craned his neck, trying to see why his torch was hung up. The light doubled as Wu Xie lit his from Ouxiang’s, then took a moment to help get Liu Sang untangled. Shells crunched under their boots with unpleasant popping noises before all four torches were lit and finally the tide of pests began to recede.

Liu Sang blew a breath that puffed hair from his nose and reveled in the sounds of breathing, steady fire and the retreating noise of all those little feet. “Yeah - okay. They’ve gone back into the walls.”

Wu Xie let out a huff. “We passed the test.”

“Eh?” Pangzi asked.

“We forgot. This is a trial. We aren’t necessarily going to be killed unless we’re stupid. We’re supposed to figure it out to get through. We even got a hint.” Wu Xie pointed his torch back at the carved figure, whose robes seemed to move in the flickering light. “He’s got a torch. It’s not in the position for use against the swarm - that would have been too obvious - but I’m pretty sure he was telling us how to prepare. So…”

“So you think these are going to be trial rooms with hints?” Pangzi ran a hand through his hair, then sighed. “Alright, let’s get to it then.” Wu Xie patted him on the shoulder.

They made their way out through the end of the room and down a short corridor to the next doorway. Just through the entrance, on the wall to their left, was another carved figure. This one was shown in a kowtow position and Liu Sang frowned. How was bowing going to get them through this room?

They all spent a long moment studying the figure before turning almost as one to the awaiting challenge. The room itself was long and narrow with a pair of gutters about a handspan wide along the base of each side wall. The walls were extensively carved with the usual flowers and leaves but in unusual profusion: the blooms crowded together with petals overlapping, the centers carved deep and dark.

Pangzi huffed. “Are we supposed to bow our way through empty space?” Unknowingly echoing Liu Sang’s earlier thoughts.

“Errrr…” Wu Xie hummed noncommittally. “No…?”

“Tch, Tianzhen! That’s not helpful at ALL!”

Wu Xie waved his hands at them and stood there thinking for several long minutes, staring at the mural. Eventually he said, “I think we have to crawl.”

“Seriously?” Pangzi sounded outraged. “What happens if we don’t?”

Wu Xie shrugged. “You get hurt?”

Pangzi subsided into unhappy muttering as Ouxiang stepped forward to just before where the flower carvings began. Handing Pangzi his torch, he gracefully sank to his knees, adjusted his sword and kowtowed. Then he seamlessly shifted into an elbow walk and cautiously made his way forward. Liu Sang ruthlessly stamped down his immediate thoughts about how sexy Ouxiang looked moving like that. Then…something clicked in the walls.

“You’ve triggered it!” He called, voice tense. Ouxiang froze and a moment later stones started whizzing out of the walls. They clattered against the opposite sides and tumbled down into the gutters. After a split second of absolute terror, Liu Sang processed what was happening.

First the stones weren’t all that big, the largest were oblong and about the size of his thumb. So they would hurt a lot but probably weren’t lethal. Second, the rocks were being flung from the center of the flowers on both sides of the corridor, falling into the gutters and were being processed back up by a series of old gears he could hear churning behind the walls to be flung again. Third, the pebbles were being launched from a little above knee height and higher and so Ouxiang was completely fine though his pack was being clipped occasionally by the lowest of the projectiles. Liu Sang blew out a relieved breath and sagged a bit.

After a crawl of about seven meters, the carvings stopped. Ouxiang crawled a bit past that to near the end of the room just to make sure. Then he stood and turned back to them, completely unruffled as the stone shower tapered off.

“Right!” Wu Xie said brightly. “Looks easy!” Liu Sang shared a look with Pangzi as Wu Xie knelt in the same place as Ouxiang.

He also kowtowed and stretched out and began his elbow walk. Unlike Ouxiang, Wu Xie had brought his torch. For a few meters it was fine, he held it flat and shoved it ahead of him as he crawled, but eventually he forgot and turned his hand so the torch was straight up where it promptly got knocked from his hand by the next barrage. Pangzi chuckled and Liu Sang snorted in amusement. He could see Wu Xie thinking about retrieving it just from the back of his head.

“Wu Xie.” Ouxiang said in a forbidding tone. Wu Xie heaved a sigh and quickly finished his crawl out to where Ouxiang helped him up.

Liu Sang waved his hand, inviting Pangzi to go next. Pangzi waved back in refusal, then made a sweeping bow with a leading arm that made Liu Sang roll his eyes with a slight smile. He shrugged and dropped his torch. Stepping forward, he knelt, crushed the small tingle of embarrassment he felt as he bowed and began his crawl. It was actually pretty creepy to crawl over the floor, feeling the thrum of the machinery. As well as hearing the movement all around him, the low flying stones tugged at his pack in an unnerving way and he was very careful to keep his head low. Ouxiang’s hand was there again to help him up, which just left Pangzi.

He muttered to himself for a minute, standing in a pool of light just at the edge of darkness. He knelt, paused, then stood up again.

“Come on Pangzi! What’s the matter? Are you okay?” Wu Xie called.

Pangzi waved dismissively. He stilled for a moment, then bent and placed his torches on the floor beside Liu Sang’s dropped one and shrugged his pack off. Kneeling again, Pangzi dug into his pack for a minute.

“What is he doing?” Wu Xie wondered.

A moment later Pangzi pulled out a bright red canister and after a brief bit of fiddling, squeezed the trigger of the little camping fire extinguisher and put the torches out. Then he packed everything back up, strapped the torches on top and resettled his pack.

“Aaaahhhh,” Wu Xie called, slightly sheepishly. “Good thinking.” He clicked on a flashlight.

Pangzi put a hand on his chest in acceptance. “It’s no trouble at all.” Then, giving the walls a stink eye, he tensed, bouncing on his toes slightly and took a deep breath.

“OH shit - he’s gonna run for it!” Wu Xie muttered. And as soon as Wu Xie finished Pangzi did just that. He wrapped his arms around his head, bent over low and just charged down the hallway. Pangzi got pelted, of course, but finished in a fraction of the time and apparently the delight and the adrenaline of the run was well worth the bruises if his giant grin was any clue. Wu Xie called him an idiot and tousled his hair.

Liu Sang sighed but kept his thoughts to himself, clicking on his flashlight. Ouxiang bumped his shoulder and gave a small smile. Liu Sang smiled helplessly back. Turning, they headed off down the corridor, leaving the quiet rattle of stones settling into place and the light of the lost torch behind them.

It was only a few minutes walk to the next room and the next test. This time the room was actually much more like a modern room in dimensions, comfortably square, but there were decorations on the walls on both sides. Wu Xie walked up to the figure carved on the left side wall and as they spread out behind him, something triggered the mechanism.

There was no time for Liu Sang to even call a warning before wooden gates dropped down, sealing off both entrance and exit. Without a word, the explorers split to examine the barriers. They were made of wooden planks strapped together with iron bands; the wood itself was oiled and lacquered so that it had held up well after all this time.

“Shit!” Pangzi cursed, banging on a crosspiece.

The group returned to examine the carved figure. This time the person was seated at a low table with objects on it. Wu Xie stepped forward and traced the shapes with his fingers. Liu Sang caught Ouxiang tensing from the corner of his eye but nothing else happened.

“It’s a game. A puzzle room.”

“And what if we can’t do it?” Liu Sang asked hesitantly.

“Well the initiates would likely get rescued eventually. Now though, I assume Xiaoge could get through the wood with his sword, and if not Pangzi could blow a small hole in it.” Wu Xie raised an eyebrow. Pangzi shrugged and nodded.

“Alright Tianzhen, figure it out.” Pangzi sat himself under the figure and pulled out a water bottle. Liu Sang decided that this was an excellent idea and sat nearby, also getting out water and a snack.

Wu Xie and Ouxiang turned their attention to the opposite wall. There were a pair of shelves on either side of a center carving. In the light of their flashlights, Liu Sang could see that the center carving was an eight pointed star or flower with a carved center and ridges around eight unadorned petals. Sitting on the shelves were small stacks of tiles. As Wu Xie picked one up and turned it around in his hands, Liu Sang could see a flower carved on it. Each shelf had three distinct piles on it.

“Help me bring over one of each?” Wu Xie asked Ouxiang, who nodded and started carefully gathering. Soon they were sitting in front of Liu Sang and Pangzi with the petal shaped tiles spread out on the floor between them. Each tile had a different flower on it like the columns at the altar in the river cavern. Chrysanthemums, bamboo, orchids, plum blossoms, magnolia, peony, rose, lotus, hibiscus and several others Liu Sang didn’t know were depicted with amazing realism.

Wu Xie dug into his pack and pulled out a lamp, a snack and a handful of the books from the cavern. “Okay, so. I’m pretty sure we have to put the right tiles in the right spots in the flower.”

“And you have an idea how to do that? ‘Cause there are hundreds of combinations here, twelve tiles and eight spaces.” Pangzi eyed him skeptically.


“THANK you Xiaoge. Thousands of combinations.”

Wu Xie nodded, chewing. “Pretty sure I saw it in one of the books.”

“Pretty sure...” Pangzi looked at the ceiling in disgust, then rolled his head to look at Liu Sang. “You got your ear plugs right? If I need to blow something up?”

Liu Sang chuckled and nodded as Wu Xie huffed in outrage. They settled into the break while Wi Xie researched.

“Found it!” Wu Xie crowed, startling Liu Sang out of a doze. Wu Xie unrolled a book on the floor and pointed. “Here, see! Looks like the shape on the wall.” Wu Xie caught Liu Sang’s eye and winked. “This was one of the books from the altar. I figured they’d be important.”

“Okay, I need… peony and rose.” Wu Xie grabbed those two and hopped up. Ouxiang picked up the book and followed. In short order Wu Xie had inserted all of the petal tiles into the form on the wall. The mechanism clicked and the gates began to rise. They packed up, Wu Xie and Pangzi collecting most of the remaining tiles for further study. Then they set off for the next room which they encountered far more rapidly than Liu Sang would have preferred.

Pausing in the doorway, Pangzi inquired, his tone curious but tired, “Sangbei’er, how many of these rooms are there?”

“Five,” he sighed.

“And how many have we done?” Pangzi asked with the air of a man who wasn’t going to like the answer.

“Three,” Liu Sang said morosely.


Wu Xie pushed between them, slinging an arm over each of their shoulders. “Come on, sooner begun, sooner done.” He grinned, tightened his grip, and dragged them into a room that looked remarkably similar to the first room where they’d encountered the swarm of bugs. Liu Sang hoped that that wasn’t a sign.

Ouxiang already had his light on the carved figure and soon everyone’s light was focused on the clue. This time the person was shown with arms spread wide, head back and mouth open. They contemplated this in silence for a bit.

“I don’t get it.” Liu Sang said, pushing his glasses up.

“I’m pretty sure what I’m thinking is NOT …what they wanted me to think.” Pangzi rubbed his chin.

Wu Xie just sighed and began to move closer. A moment later Liu Sang heard it. “It’s triggered!!”

Everyone froze, eyes alert, for the space of three breaths before the shadows moved. Liu Sang swung his light around and caught a glimpse of what looked like a vine whipping through the air. Then Pangzi cried out, startled, as something slapped him with a sharp thwack.

Liu Sang couldn’t see what it was, because at that moment a vine wrapped around his ankle and yanked. It was all he could do to get his arms up to shield his head before he hit the floor. He shouted in combined outrage and pain as the vine dragged him by his bad ankle across the room. Liu Sang dropped his light, scrambling frantically and uselessly at the uneven floor as he went. On some level he registered the sounds of everyone else’s struggles and the bright shing of a blade.

A second vine snapped out and caught his left arm. That shocked him out of his initial panic and he was fumbling to draw the knife hanging on his belt when his feet suddenly crashed into the wall, sending a fiery spike of pain up his legs. The vine on his left arm hoisted him upright so he was pinned, back to the wall. Sucking in air, he finally yanked the knife free and went after the vine where it was holding his arm, but since the vine had pulled his arm straight up, he couldn’t see and he was in danger of cutting himself accidentally, so he had to quit after a few ineffective swipes. Liu Sang tried straining forward, pushing away from the wall with his free leg, but all that did was put pressure on an already uncomfortable arm and a bad ankle. He collapsed back, shook the hair clear of his eyes, clamped down on his fear and scanned the room.

The floor was littered with unmoving bits of vine, but the remaining intact vines were still lashing back and forth. Pangzi was on the floor, on his back, slashing at a thick vine around his waist and leg. Wu Xie was sitting awkwardly near a wall, hands cradling his head. Ouxiang was a blur of black and silver in the shadows, cutting any vine near him or Wu Xie. Then Ouxiang grabbed Wu Xie, hauled him to his feet and dragged him towards the exit, hustling him out into the dark corridor.

Pausing in the doorway, Ouxiang assessed the room and met Liu Sang’s eyes. Ouxiang nodded and began his advance. He stalked through the room cutting everything with efficient swings. He freed Pangzi without even slowing and the big man scrambled up and raced out of the room. He took two fast steps and leapt up, slicing through the upper vine holding Liu Sang’s arm and landing directly in front of Liu Sang. Another swipe freed his foot, Ouxiang slung Liu Sang’s arm over his shoulder and they left with all possible speed. In the corridor, Ouxiang lowered him to the floor next to Wu Xie and they all panted in silence as the sounds of the vines moving slowly ceased.

It took a long while for his thoughts to settle. The feeling of being restrained called back uncomfortable memories of being taken by Jiao's thugs. His hands clenched and he looked down in surprise to see that he was still clutching his knife. He pried his shaking fingers from the hilt and sheathed it carefully. Lacing his fingers together, Liu Sang rested his head against the wall and tried to focus on controlling his breathing to calm his nerves. Ouxiang knelt next to him and without a word, embraced him, tucking Liu Sang’s head against his neck. Liu Sang wrapped his arms around the solid chest and just was for a few minutes, breathing in the familiar scent of his lover under the rock dust.

Eventually and a few too short minutes later, Liu Sang lifted his head and met Ouxiang’s eyes with a tremulous smile. Ouxiang smoothed his hair back and kissed his forehead, his eyes crinkled with his smile. “Better?”

Liu Sang nodded.

“Good. Rest.” He shifted away to run a hand over Wu Xie’s head, in a motion both comforting and checking for injuries, pulling him into a hug as well.

“The fuck, Tianzhen?” Pangzi was seated against the other wall, digging in his pack where he soon pulled out the container of pain pills.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. Let me think about it.” Wu Xie still sounded dazed.

“Aaah, sorry. Here, have some painkillers.” Pangzi handed over the bottle and Ouxiang opened a water container. After Wu Xie was done, Ouxiang passed them over to Liu Sang and he happily downed a couple.

Ouxiang then settled next to Panzi, shoulders wedged together as they all recovered their breaths, waiting for the pills to kick in. Wu Xie stared blankly at the opposite wall for a long time. Eventually he said, “I have a guess.”

Pangzi made a questioning noise.

"I think we were supposed to say something or sing something. Some sacred chant or hymn or something. That’s why the long pause before they attacked.”

Pangzi groaned and slid sideways to lay back on the floor.

They sat for a while, letting the pains settle, and Liu Sang pulled out the map - just to check. Wu Xie leaned over to look and pointed. “One more?”

“Yes. One more, then we’re at the center,” Liu Sang tried to sound professional and not tired and worried.

Wu Xie rubbed his shoulder in silent support. “Let’s get there then.”

Liu Sang took a deep breath and tucked the map away, noting that there were still a couple of torches strapped to his pack. Ouxiang helped him to his feet and handed him a flashlight. Liu Sang blinked at it then up at him, Ouxiang smiled.

Then Pangzi moaned, loud and dramatic, “Why Tianzhen? Why do you kick Pangye? Jail! Jail for Tianzhen! Jail for a thousand years!!”

Liu Sang looked over, jaw dropping to see Wu Xie standing next to Pangzi who was still on the floor. Wu Xie was grinning.

“More internet memes? I’m impressed!”

“Pangye has depths.”

Wu Xie snorted and started hauling him upright until, with a lot of grumbling, Pangzi went.

The mood as they walked was a mixture of anticipation and tension. That last room had been a lot more vicious than they’d been expecting and now they were all more wary about the final room.

Liu Sang slowed to a stop at the edge of the chamber, noting absently that everyone had paused there with him. Four lights found the carved figure and they examined the details from a distance. The person was shown in profile kneeling tall, arms extended out in front of them, a long thin object like a rod or possibly a sword held upright between their hands. The room was much larger than the previous four, longer than it was wide with two rows of slender columns extending down its length. The layout reminded him uncomfortably of the upper room where the guardian attacked a week ago, even though the slight curve of the walls kept the far end in darkness.

Liu Sang blinked for a moment, then turned his head to Ouxiang standing next to him. “Would you get a torch free for me?” A moment later there was tugging on his pack followed by fire that blazed up; Ouxiang handed him the torch with a tiny nod.

Wu Xie leaned forward past Pangzi from where he stood at the end. “Why the torch?”

Liu Sang hummed. “Feels right. More light and a big weapon are never a bad thing.”

Pangzi laughed, reaching behind Ouxiang and slapped him on the back, then set about extracting two torches from his pack too. Handing one to Wu Xie, he lit them both. Ouxiang lit his own torch and stepped forward into the room, drawing his sword.

They spread out behind him, walking warily into the room and it was only a few moments later when Liu Sang heard a mechanism kick in.

“Get ready!” he called. And they again shifted unconsciously into that square formation. A door swung open in the wall just past the carved figure and a creature skittered out. Liu Sang froze in fear. It was another one. Another not-spider guardian just like before! His free hand jumped to cover his ear in a panic response.

“Shit!!” Pangzi exclaimed.

Ouxiang stepped forward from the group into a guard position, sword drawn, and Liu Sang took a deep breath, forcing himself under control. Blinking at it he noticed several new things. First, it was about half the size of the original. The not-spider above had been person sized, legs holding the body up to approximately head height with its upper legs extending above three meters. On this one, the tips of the feet came up to about his waist, with correspondingly smaller legs, though it still had claws and spikes. Second, instead of glowing sickly blue he thought it wasn’t glowing at all until it passed through a column shadow when he could see it was in fact glowing a fetid yellow. Third, and most important was that the whistling was absent. It WAS making a clicking sound, but it was a more normal shell on shell and claws on floor clicking sound. That mind numbing, ear scraping whistling wasn’t there. The last thing Liu Sang noticed was that it wasn’t alone.

“Xiaoge! There’s more coming!” Wu Xie called.

Another came from the same doorway, and looking frantically around, Liu Sang saw at least three more emerge from the shadows. A solid crunch said someone got in a good hit. Liu Sang didn’t see who, as one of the creepy little buggers was almost in range.

He swung the torch at it and it swayed backwards.The light in the room swayed and shifted as they used the torches as clubs, creating odd shadows. Pangzi was cursing creatively behind Liu Sang while Wu Xie seemed to be saving his breath for grunts of effort. The not-spider shot out a leg and sliced through the hem of his coat and Liu Sang retaliated by bashing it solidly. It collapsed straight to the floor and Liu Sang hit it again and again and again. He might have kept hitting if another hadn’t entered his line of sight.

With a snarl, he lunged for this second one. The creature responded with a quick leg swipe that tagged him in the left sleeve before it jumped up onto a column, hanging there sideways. Gritting his teeth, swung his torch like a bat and squashed it into the column. Chest heaving, Liu Sang spun to face the room, holding his torch off to the side.

Wu Xie was leaning on a column, breathing hard, face pale, the remains of two or three not-spiders mashed on the ground in front of him. Pangzi was vengefully and deliberately stepping on all the legs of the squished mess in front of him, a trickle of blood sliding down one cheek. Ouxiang, standing farther down the length of the room, was posed like a hero in a costume drama, missing only the robes and hair. The bodies of his enemies lay scattered at his feet and around the room. Liu Sang shook his head at his own fancy and mentally slapped himself back into focus. Looking around, he tried to count the number of mini not-spiders from the corpses but there were too many legs to really tell except that there had been many more than the initial five he’d seen.

Wu Xie looked up, caught his eye and said with a tired laugh, “Good call with the torches, Sang’er.” Liu Sang swallowed, blinked and grinned back.

“You ok?” He stepped over to Wu Xie and leaned on the column next to him

Wu Xie leaned their shoulders together.“Yeah - I’m good. Head hurts and I’m ready to sit down for a while. We’re done, right? Last room?”

Liu Sang nodded.

“Great. I want to go see the central room after all this work.” Wu Xie raised his voice, “Come on Pangzi, let’s go find a nice place for lunch.”

Pangzi shook the hair from his eyes and sniffed, “Won’t be hotpot.” Ouxiang came back and put a hand on Pangzi’s shoulder. “See! Even Xiaoge wants hotpot after all this!”

Wu Xie laughed then hauled himself and Liu Sang off the column and started towards the end of the room. As they walked Liu Sang could finally see the rear of the room that hadn’t been visible from the entry. The chamber ended in a pair of massive doors carved with a huge, magnificent peony blossom made of so many intricate petals that it covered the majority of both doors. Liu Sang took several photos.

Stopping a short distance away, they watched Ouxiang walk up to the doors. He spent a few intense minutes looking everything over and then sheathed his sword, paused to throw Wu Xie a look over his shoulder and then shoved open both doors.

Liu Sang gasped as sunlight came spilling through.
sir, that's my emotional support long haired male character