Lan SiZhui didn’t know where he was. All he knew was that he had been following behind the other disciples when a thick wisp of shadow slammed out of the brush beside him, wrapping itself around him before dropping him in a barren waste. The dirt beneath his feet immediately crumbled, tripping him as he was thrown out of the shadow’s reach. His hands shot out on instinct and he could feel something sharp scratch his hands.
So many thoughts flooded his mind before he could even consider checking the cuts. Where was he? Why was he here? What had taken him here? Why was everything so... dead?
In his state of confusion, he almost missed the crunching of footsteps approaching him.
“Are you lost, child? Or did you plan to run into this old beast?” A rough voice sounded from in front of him. Taking a sharp breath, Lan SiZhui slowly lifted his head to whoever had appeared. He almost wished he hadn’t.
The only way he could describe the being in front of him was… monstrous. He wanted to slap himself for that. HanGuang-Jun always taught him to look beyond appearances, but with his mind scattered as it is, he could only watch as the creature lowered it’s head to his level. The bright ruby’s peeking from behind the dark feathers ran a shiver down his spine, and the way the beak seemed to be permanently curved into a smile did not help his current fear. Pushing its head closer to his own, the creature stared deep into what Lan SiZhui was his soul. It’s head tilted at an unnatural degree.
“What is your name, child?” Well, this could go one of two ways. Either this creature is genuinely interested in a random disciples name, or it wanted his name for some other, nefarious reason. Lan SiZhui was stuck. HanGuang-Jun’s teachings would have him offer his name, but every bone in Lan SiZhui’s body was screaming against that. Giving into his father’s teachings, he took a deep breath of the stale air.
“This disciple is called Lan Yuan, courtesy SiZhui.” Sending a quick prayer, he waited for the creature's reply with bated breath. He watched as the creature’s eyes narrowed, it’s head pushing closer before he could just barely feel the brush of void-like feathers. A moment passed. Lan SiZhui dug his fingers further into the sharp dirt, wide eyes tracking the creatures every move. Before the dirt could do more damage, the creature chuffed, his bangs blowing off his sweaty forehead.
“I never expected a Lan to find their way here, much less a child,” The creature muttered. Lan SiZhui released his grip on the ground, wincing as some of the sharp points fell off his hands. Standing, he watched as the creature followed with its head, keeping the same distance no matter how much he stumbled back. He only stopped retreating when the rough bark of a tree blocked his path, leaving him cornered by the giant creature. As the creature drew closer, Lan SiZhui darted under it, reaching out in an attempt to grab his sword. Before he could get more than a few steps away, he was yanked back by the collar of his robes.
A yelp forces its way from his throat as the creature lifts him off the ground. It takes him a moment to realize that the ground is now a distant view, the harsh winds coming from the creature's wings taking them even higher. He could only hope that this creature stayed far away from the sharp points.
As they continued flying, Lan SiZhui noticed a dark cloud in the distance, and realized that that must be where the creature is taking him. Hopefully it wasn’t poisonous. Tensing as the cloud grew closer, he held his breath during the initial pass, closing his eyes as the temperature dropped significantly. After a moment, he finally released the breath and opened his eyes, noticing that the once barren waste was now a small, run down town. There were no signs of life as they descended towards the center.
The creature released Lan SiZhui a few feet off the ground, and it landed a few moments after him, keeping its wings from knocking the boy off his already unsteady feet. Lan SiZhui watched as the creature ambled over to the entrance of a cave. It ducked under the mouth of the cave, disappearing in the darkness inside.
Taking a moment to gather his bearings, Lan SiZhui straightened his back, making his way over to the opening. Entering the cave, the disciple felt the pressure grow stronger, his golden core pushing back against… whatever covered the inside of the cave. The force of it had him stumbling back, managing to grab the nearby rock to keep himself upright and conscious. A tapping noise started from deeper within, and before Lan SiZhui could think much of it, he felt something sharp grab the back of his robes. Once again, he found himself being carried by the creature.
The crow took him back to the center of the ruins, dropping him from its beak. It shoved its face into his, the same dark aura from the cave now radiating off of the crow.
“Do you have a death wish, child?! That cave is no place for a disciple, much less one from Gusu. I can almost guarantee that somewhere on that wall of rules is written ‘One is not permitted to enter mysterious caves after being taken by a demonic beast’. I swear-“
“You know of our rules?” Lan SiZhui interrupted before he could stop himself. He made a quick note to apologize later, but he found he was too curious to think much of it. The creature, in response, leaned away from him, as if realizing the slip up. It shook its head, clicking its beak a few times before standing to its full height.
“It does not matter,” Lan SiZhui would say otherwise. “Those rules and those sects mean nothing to me now.”
“Were you once a Lan disciple?” Lan SiZhui pressed. The creature seemed to be the talkative type, but after knowing Lan JingYi for so long, Lan SiZhui has learned that not everyone is like Hanguang-Jun.
The creature seemed to recoil at the question. It’s eyes narrowed into thin slits as it’s feathers ruffled, stepping back towards the cave.
“Me, be a part of the sect that, above all others, despises my existence? No. That was only a silly dream…” The creature mumbled, just loud enough that Lan SiZhui could hear. The disciple was once again left in the middle of this run down town. He had no idea where he was, and no clue as to what this creature wanted with him.
Brushing off his now stained robes, he readjusted his headband and took a look at his surroundings.
Nearest him was a small, overgrown plot of soil, with that looked to be dried lotus seeds strewn about. Whatever roots had tried to sprout from these seeds obviously did not last long. There was also a larger section that looked like it had been in the middle of being plowed, before whatever happened here… happened.
Lan SiZhui moved away from the ruined farmland, moving closer to the surrounding huts. Most had collapsed in on themselves, but there was one resting on a small incline that still seemed livable. He stepped inside the dusty building, coughing as the humid air filled his lungs. Covering the lower half of his face with his sleeve, he continued deeper. Something seemed oddly familiar about this place.
The boy stepped into a side room, finding a small bed fit neatly in the middle with ruined toys surrounding it. Lan SiZhui found himself filled with sorrow as he thought of what this child’s last moments were like. He sent up a quick prayer for the child’s soul, hoping that they were far away from any danger, whether it be in the afterlife or somewhere on this plane.
A warm feeling replaced his sorrow, but it was quickly turned cold as a low grunting came from outside the house, just outside the window by his head. Turning slowly, Lan SiZhui found himself staring into the dark eyes of another beast, the decaying wooden bars covering the window the only thing keeping him separated from it. The beast tilted its head, revealing the beginnings of large antlers sprouting from above it’s ears.
Just as the previous one did, this creature's eyes narrowed as it took in the human, it’s ears flat against the side of it’s head.
After a moment, the creature’s ears perked up, it’s eyes going as wide as they could. Lan SiZhui could hear the brush of some fur from behind the beast, sounding almost like a dog’s tail. It stepped away from the window, nodding its head towards the houses’ entrance, before returning it’s gaze to the disciple.
Schooling his features, Lan SiZhui took shaking steps out of the room, keeping his distance from the wall to avoid any surprises. He arrived at the main area of the building, spotting the antlers of the beast as it waited by where Lan SiZhui was dropped off by the other creature. The two locked eyes as the disciple slowly stepped through the threshold.
He froze once again at the top of the incline leading to the beast. The beast tilted its head upon noticing his stop, taking a slow step toward the teen. Standing his ground, he looked for any signs of aggression, but found none. It took no time at all for the two to be face to face, the deer-like beast leaning down just enough to look Lan SiZhui in the eyes.
They stood like that for a moment, the only noise coming from Lan SiZhui’s shaky breath and the creature's steady huffing.
Feeling confident that the other would not attack, Lan SiZhui raised his hand to the creature's snout, resting it on the coarse fur just above the nose. A heavy breath blew his hair, and in a moment of childish glee, a small laugh forced itself out of his throat. The creature huffed another breath in response, pushing its nose against the disciples hand. The thumping sound reached Lan SiZhui’s ears again. This time, however, he could see the tuft of fur that made up the creatures tail shift side to side.
Lan SiZhui moved his hand across the fur, taking in the way the dark brown, almost black, color shifts as he pushed it aside.
Stuck in their own moment, both failed to notice the crow emerge from the cave. A loud caw snaps them out of it. Lan SiZhui and the creature tense, backing away from each other and looking towards the crow.
“I see you two have gotten acquainted,” the crow noted as it strode over to the pair. “However, I doubt you will see each other for much longer.” The deer stomped one of its feet, grunting and earning a glare from the other beast.
“We can’t keep him. Who knows what the clans will do if they figure out where he ended up.” Once again, the crows words were met with the deers nonverbal disagreement. Lan SiZhui found himself stuck between the two as they switched to a fully silent argument.
Eventually, after the beasts seemed to reach some sort of stalemate in their ‘conversation’, Lan SiZhui was hauled up by the crow, too quick for the disciple or the deer to react, and found himself once again hanging in the air by the scruff of his clothes. His breath stopped at the sudden gain in height. The pounding of his heart could just barely block out the rush of wind as they pushed past the dark cloud, and soon they were approaching the ground.
Tossed none too gently onto the ground, Lan SiZhui caught himself against a tree. The creature flew up to rest on a branch, although the distance didn’t lessen the threatening aura it produced.
“This is as far as I can take you, kid.” It lifted its head to look past the disciple, “That shiny border just down there will take you out of the Burial Mounds, and, if nothing else today goes wrong, won’t let you come back in. Just stick to the path you’re on now, and you should make it to the nearest town.” The crow ruffled its feathers, picking a few debris out of its wings. Spreading out its wings, the creature took off from the dead tree without another word.
Lan SiZhui turned to face the barrier. Somehow, he doubted that this would be as easy as the crow claimed.