“Tired?” Tianzhen repeated, as if it was the first time in his life that he’d heard the word and he didn’t quite understand what it meant.
“That’s an understatement,” Pangzi said. “He sounded fucking exhausted.”
“Yes, I mean no, I mean… Xiaoge never gets tired!” Tianzhen said, his tone steadily rising in pitch.
“Everyone gets tired,” Pangzi said. “Maybe he’s got high stamina, but hey, he’s just fought some kind of ghost guardian thing that caused a damn earthquake, after pulling off some xianxia shit, so no wonder he’s tired.”
“You don’t get it, Xiaoge doesn’t, he isn’t… quick, we need to get out of here and find him,” Tianzhen announced, resuming his infernal wriggling.
“Be still!” Pangzi snapped at him. “We’re not getting out of here if you just lay there and wriggle around like that. We need to lift the lid back off.”
“Then lift it,” Tianzhen snapped.
“I can’t do it in this position with you wriggling like a worm on a hook, let me just…” Pangzi started wriggling himself, slowly turning, and maybe taking more time than was necessary to press against all the soft bits under him. He enjoyed all the yelps and hisses that that got him and took them as his due after all that he had gone through. Eventually, he ended up laying on Tianzhen’s chest, staring into the guy’s very wide eyes, and then he wriggled some more to position himself better.
He braced his legs against the coffin, feeling something dry crunch under his him and bits of something dig painfully into his knees, and pressed his back against the lid, trying to use as much of his weight as possible to shift the damn thing while Tianzhen yelped and wriggled around some more, being an absolute pest.
“Hey!” Tianzhen complained. “You’re squishing me again.”
Pangzi rolled his eyes again, and stopped trying to lift the lid. “Do you want to get out of here or not?” he asked in exasperation. “Either stay still and stop complaining, or help me get this thing open so we can get out.”
“How can I help you? You are on top of me!” Tianzhen cried, still fucking wriggling, what the fuck was wrong with this guy, Pangzi was five seconds from just really fucking crushing him to death.
“Use your fucking legs and help me lift the damned lid! It’s heavy and it feels like something is blocking it,” Pangzi grunted, pushing at the lid again. “Anyone would think you’d never been trapped in a fucking coffin before.”
“Um,” Tianzhen said, looking in between them, the small space still lit up blue by his phone. “I haven’t,” Tianzhen said, sounding surly.
Then he wriggled again, what the fuck, was this man a goddamn octopus or something? And then he lifted one leg and braced it against the lid beside Pangzi.
“You have two legs don’t you?” Panzgi said, narrowing his eyes at the obvious display of laziness. He wasn’t going to do all the work around here. “Use it and put your goddamn back into it while you are at it.”
“This is a bit…” Tianzhen trailed off, staring at Pangzi with those wide, doe eyes that had no right to belong on any guy over the age of six.
“Just fucking do it!” Pangzi snapped. “Or I swear to god I will squish you until you cry.”
“I’m doing it!” Tianzhen cried, wriggling some more and putting his other leg against the lid, effectively trapping Pangzi between his thighs.
“I don’t see you doing anything other than procrastinating,” Pangzi grumbled, assessing the skinny legs. Useless, that's what they were. “Do you even have any strength in those things?” He lifted one arm to groupe around the jean clad thigh, finding some muscles, but not too much. This guy was so fucking helpless, for a moment Pangzi was filled with a sense of deep pity towards Xiaoge. Poor guy had so much work to do that it wasn’t even funny.
“Could you not,” Tianzhen said through gritted teeth, staring at the hand Pangzi still had on his thigh.
“Not what?” Pangzi asked, still frowning at the useless legs “Do those things even work?” he asked after a while. “It’s like bones and some skin, barely any meat on them at all.” He squeezed again just to make sure, and yeah, nothing of value there. “Does your Xiaoge not feed you enough? If you were a pig I wouldn’t even buy you for a hotpot,” he announced.
“I am not a fucking pig!” Tianzhen yelled, finally doing some fucking work and pushing against the lid. Pangzi was half astonished that they didn’t just break when Tianzhen exerted some force, but apparently they weren’t quite as useless as they looked.
“Pigs have some muscles on them so yeah, you definitely are not a pig!” he said, and also pushed, feeling the lid shift under their combined efforts.
“Shut up and push!” Tianzhen snarled, his legs trembling like the useless sticks they were.
“Hey, I am the one who has been doing most of the work here, I had to get you angry before you did anything other than wriggle around like a fucking fish choking on air,” Pangzi retorted, straining against the lid. He could feel it shifting a little more now, the both of them moving it centimetre by centimetre.
Pangzi’s back was wet with sweat and aching from the pressure by the time they heard something crash and the lid shifted suddenly a lot more, widening the gap enough that they could now squeeze through one by one.
He had to brace his knees on top of Tianzhen again to force his upper body through the gap, which gave birth to a lot more wriggling and cursing from the guy, but eventually Pangzi was out in the room and assessing the damage as Tianzhen, still cursing up a storm, climbed out second.
Once Tianzhen was out and had taken a look around at the cracks running up and down the walls, over the ceiling and the floor, at the debris scattered on the floor, one corner of the room damaged more than the rest, he sighed. “Xiaoge really threw a tantrum this time, didn’t he?”
“Well, tell him that his tantrum nearly got you and me both killed,” Pangzi grumbled. “Especially because you wouldn’t fucking move at first.” He found one of the flashlights that was miraculously still working and picked it up, examining his bandaged arm. All the exertion now meant that it was soaked through with blood, something the pain itself could have told him, and he grimaced. Nothing to do about it until they got out.
“He told us not to move!” Tianzhen snapped, bristing again.
“I don’t think he meant ‘sit still and let yourself by brained by a falling rock the size of your head’!” Pangzi snapped back.
Tianzhen scrunched up his face. “It’s co...,” he started.
“Don’t you dare fucking say it,” Pangzi warned. “Or I’m going to brain you with this flashlight.”
Tianzhen scrunched his face even more, his hair dusty like hell from his close cuddle with the dead guy in the coffin. “It really is, though,” he said, sounding surly like a five year old denied a dessert.
Pangzi just rolled his eyes. “No matter how complicated it is or is not, how do you think he would have felt if he’d come back here and found you dead under a pile of rocks?” he asked pointedly.
“Um...” Tianzhen looked shifty again. “Probably not very pleased,” he admitted eventually. Reluctantly. Clearly unwilling to admit to a mistake in judgement. Fucking rich kids. “Anyway,” he said suddenly, sounding fakely cheerful. “We should go and find him now! I bet he is down in the sacrificial chamber!”
“The sac… what kind of fucking tomb has an actual sacrifical chamber?” Pangzi demanded. Tomb sacrifices, yes, that was common to certain eras, but an entire chamber just for sacrifices? That was a new one to him.
“All of the so called Wang Zanghai tombs,” Tianzhen said, then looked down on the floor and used his shoe to clean some of the dirt off of it, revealing the grooves that Pangzi had noticed before. “See those things?” Tianzhen asked, pointing at the grooves. Now that Pangzi looked at them, there were more of them there than he’d initially realised. And they were wet, Pangzi realized. And as he directed his flashlight at the grooves he noticed that what he’d first assumed was just dirt was actually shining a dull brown-reddish in the light.
“Those things serve to collect blood from the victims the guardian kills and funnel it to the sacrificial chamber, which in turn binds the guardian tighter to the tomb. The guardian is forced to kill, and each time he kills the spell that keeps him here gets stronger, forcing him to kill again and again.” Tianzhen cleaned up a bit more of the debris scattered floor with his shoe and Pangzi could now definitely see that the blood was moving in the thin grooves, slowly, inexplicably draining the blood away.
“That’s just evil,” Pangzi said. “Brilliant but evil,” he added, looking at the room with new eyes.
Tianzhen nodded, looking solemn. “To get rid of the guardian, Xiaoge had to get to the main sacrificial chamber and destroy the sigils that keep the guardian bound. We were hoping that if we just destroyed the sigils before the guardian got triggered, then it would just go away. But thanks to those guys, that plan went to shit really fast.” Tianzhen sighed. “Why do people never fucking listen when I tell them those tombs are fucking dangerous?”
“To be fair,” Pangzi said, “you didn’t actually tell those guys that. Probably because we were too busy running for our lives from them.”
“My research said that at least forty people died or disappeared on this mountain, and that only in the last seventy years. One would think it was enough for people to learn not to come here?” Tianzhen said with a sigh.
“They lived here,” Pangzi pointed out. “They were from the village. Their parents and grandparents and great grandparents probably all lived here, too.”
“They also died here,” Tianzhen said. “There’s probably draining coffins nearby. That’s where the guardian usually puts the bodies of slaughtered people to drain them of blood,” he added absently. “Usually there should be no less than twenty of such coffins. They will have bodies in various stages of decomposition in them since that was where the captured Zhangs were put after the tomb and the village below was raided by Wang Zanghai forces.”
“Charming,” Pangzi said, then paused. “Wait, are you saying that everyone who died in the village got put in them? I thought this guardian thing was tied to the tomb, not to the village as well.”
“I mean the ancient times, when the tomb was taken over. The Zhangs usually had a settlement nearby, for people who guarded the tomb and also just took care of it, you know? This place required upkeep, and preparation for when a new body was sent here to be interred from different parts of the country. So Wang Zanghai’s forces would first attack the settlement, slaughter or capture all of the people there - and that includes women and children. And after they cleaned out the tomb and changed it, they would use the captured people as sacrifices, some of them to be sacrificed as part of the ritual to create the guardian, while the others would be fatally wounded and forced into the coffins to be slowly drained of blood to fuel the spell that kept the guardian tethered to the tomb.” Tianzhen paused. “And since so many people disappeared around the mountain, not just in the tomb, that means the guardian can move around above ground, right above where the tomb is. As far as he and the spell binding him is concerned, directly above the tomb is basically the same as being inside the tomb.”
“So if people found some artefacts washed out by the water, but it was anywhere directly above the tomb, the guardian considered them intruders?”
“Yes. Only those who took artefacts that were washed farther away from the tomb got away with it.” Tianzhen paused. “Though I wonder if the guardian didn’t somehow sense who those were, anyway. Some of the victims I traced were children of people who I knew traded some artifacts from this area.”
“Well, that’s fucking cheerful news for me,” Pangzi said. “Since I got sold artefacts this morning by someone in the village.”
“Oh, it's a really bad idea to buy anything from this kind of tomb before the guardian is disabled. Xiaoge doesn’t know how far the guardian can sense or how long it remembers.” Tianzhen shrugged. “We never got a chance to test that.”
“I really hope Xiaoge disabled the guardian then,” Pangzi said faintly. “I kind of like living.”
Tianzhen nodded. “I’m sure he did, he wouldn’t say he was done otherwise. But I still worry. He should have come back for me. He’s never just left me behind like that.”
“Maybe he needed to take a nap?” Pangzi suggested. “He did say he was tired, and he sounded it, too.” He shone the flashlight around the room. “Okay, so which way do we go to find him?”
“That shouldn’t be hard, he usually leaves marks for me to follow!” Tianzhen said, obviously cheering up. “Those tombs are a fucking nightmare to navigate otherwise. The first one took two days to walk from the entrance to the main sacrificial room, and that was with knowing the damned shortcuts.”
“Two days?” Pangzi said, feeling disbelief settle over him. “How fucking big is this thing?!”
“The first time, it took a few dozen men and quite a few trucks to clear it out. Oh, and Xiaoge will want to blow this thing up after he is done. And we can only take the things he says are good for taking. If he says no, we leave it and do not...”
“Touch, yes, I got it. Don’t touch anything I’m not specifically allowed to,” Pangzi said, starting to walk after Tianzhen, who had already left the room and was making his way down the dark corridor, shining his flashlight on the walls, clearly looking for something.
“Yeah, that’s pretty much it,” Tianzhen said, stopping by some brickwork. Pangzi saw a few scratches on the wall, but still jumped when Tianzhen pressed one seemingly identical brick and the whole damn wall receded with a rumbling sound, revealing a narrow passage behind. “A shortcut!” Tianzhen said cheerfully, and immediately stepped into the passage.
“Just out of curiosity,” Pangzi asked, walking into the passage after Tianzhen. “What would happen if I did touch one of those ‘not approved’ things?”
“He’d kill you,” Tianzhen replied matter-of-factly. “So I advise not doing that.”
“Yeah,” Pangzi said watching the way Tianzhen walked fearlessly through a haunted tomb, one full of deadly traps and god knew what else. “No touching.”
“Definitely no touching,” Tianzhen said, stopping by yet another brick and pressing it. This time the floor in front of him fell away, revealing a long carved staircase.
“Is this the workers’ tunnel?” Pangzi asked, noting the near complete lack of decoration and the way the floor wasn’t made of polished stone slabs, but just simple bricks, or in some cases just carved in the rock itself.
“The original builders didn’t seal the tombs so builders didn’t end up trapped inside, but they sent people in to take care of the tomb, so they left passages. This way the servants and those that were carrying the new bodies to be interred didn’t have to work their way through all the traps.” Tianzhen seemed to cheer up the longer he spoke. “They even have little storage rooms squirreled away in places, some of them even had access to running water and had a waste disposal system built in!” Clear excitement built up in Tianzhen’s voice. “Considering the times and the usual lack of regard for human life then, it was a standard for work conditions that I doubt even imperial workers ever got to enjoy.”
“This family, Zhang right? Must have been hella rich and powerful,” Pangzi said. “If they even treated their workers well.”
“Yeah, very very big, too, though I don’t think they ever officially held power? I never really found any historical records that would say that they competed for political power, but I bet they shook things from the shadows. One can’t really amass this kind of wealth if they don’t dip their toes into politics.”
The stairs were narrow and slippery, the stone worn and in some places pretty damaged, so they had to walk slowly. At the bottom of them there was a new corridor that also had shelves cut into walls, containing simple oil burners and sealed jars.
“Is that oil?” Pangzi asked, shocked.
“It should be good still,” Tianzhen said. “They had a way of sealing the jars that really helped up well over time. I’ve used it in other tombs and it was always viable.” Tianzhen pulled out a small knife and worked the seal on the jar open. He then poured the pungent and too thick oil into the lamps and lit them, passing one to Pangzi and taking one for himself. “Let’s save the flashlights as much as possible.”
Despite being warned that the tomb was big, it still seemed completely impossible to Pangzi that they had to walk for several hours to reach their destination, even though they mostly walked through the ‘shortcuts’ Tianzhen found and only a little through the actual tomb corridors, passing veritable mounds of gold and bronze, so much untouched and perfectly preserved pottery that Pangzi’s heart ached.
By the time they walked through a pair of giant double doors, one of which was hanging off its hinges, Pangzi was exhausted and felt like his legs were about to fall off. Somehow, Tianzhen’s useless legs still managed to carry the other guy, so he had to admit that maybe they weren’t quite as useless as he’d originally thought.
Tianzhen stopped at the doors, sighing slightly as he took out his camera and snapped a couple of shots of the giant tree engraving that took up both doors.
“Usually, they’re in much better condition than this,” he said as he took the photos, getting Pangzi to shine the flashlight at particular parts so that the engraving showed up in the photos properly. “But Xiaoge and the guardian must have still been fighting when they got to here.”
He put the camera away and walked through them, Pangzi right behind him, and when Pangzi got a look around the next chamber he gasped, almost dropping the flashlight. There was a fucking tree made of fucking gold and silver in the middle of the room, it’s branches adorned with little platforms holding a myriad of treasures. Tianzhen barely glanced at it as he headed for the double doors on the other side of the room, also engraved with the tree motif.
“Don’t worry about that for now,” he said. “We’ll strip most of it out later, once we know it’s safe to do so. First, we need to check on Xiaoge.”
Pangzi still couldn’t help staring and gaping at the tree as they passed it and went through the other set of double doors, these ones also broken open, and found themselves in another coffin room. This one only had one coffin, and lots of treasures around it, and carvings and murals on the walls. Tianzhen didn’t try to photograph these ones, just headed straight for a hole in the floor against one of the walls. Pangzi yelped and reached out to grab him before he fell in, then realised there were stairs leading down.
“Hurry, bring the flashlight,” Tianzhen said. “It’s down here.”
At the bottom of the stairs they found Xiaoge sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall, his sword loosely clasped in his arms and his eyes closed.
“Xiaoge!” Tianzhen exclaimed, hurrying over and kneeling next to the man, shaking him gently while Pangzi shone the light around the room, taking in the altar at the center with a skeleton laying on it and iron spikes driven through parts of the skeleton into the stone. He made a face at that, and scanned around the rest of the place. There was a green stone circle set into the floor around the altar, that looked like it had been blasted apart in places, and the stonework of the floor inside the circle and leading up to the altar was likewise blasted and torn up. Outside the circle were scattered piles of more bones - probably the sacrificed Tianzhen had talked about, he guessed.
When he turned his flashlight to Tianzhen again, he was the one to yelp and cover his eyes because Tianzhen was kneeling nearly astride Xaioge’s legs, holding the other man’s face in his hands and kissing him. In public! Where Pangzi could see!
“Tianzhen!” he yelped. “My poor, delicate eyes!”
“Then don’t look!” Tianzhen snapped, pulling away long enough to glare at Pangzi before diving back in, pressing his lips against the seemingly still asleep Xiaoge’s.
“He can’t even consent!” Pangzi yelled, feeling suddenly protective of his saviour. Tianzhen was clearly taking advantage! “Do you even know what consent is?!” He shook his flashlight as if the light jumping all over the place could push Tianzhen away.
“He is my boyfriend!” Tianzhen hissed.
“He still isn’t conscious to be able to say yes! What did your parents teach you!? Are you some kind of feral creature raised by wild wolves? It’s the twenty first century, you need to ask first!”
“Damn it, Pangzi!” If looks could kill, Tianzhen would have definitely murdered him on the spot. “Xiaoge and I know what to do in situations like this. It’s not like he has no idea!”
“Wu Xie.” That was when Xiaoge chose to wake up, his voice sounding soft and somehow less.
“Hi!” Tianzhen said, sounding so sappy that Pangzi immediately felt nauseous, like he did after eating too much sugar in one go.
“Oh my god,” Pangzi turned his flashlight and face away. “This is worse than seeing you kiss him,” he complained. “I think I’m about to become diabetic just from the sound of your voice.”
“Shut up, Pangzi,” Tianzhen said absently, then his voice slid back into sappiness. “Xiaoge, you’re awake! How are you feeling?”
“Fine. Tired,” Xiaoge said in that low, slow way of his. “I can’t secure the tomb yet,” he added after a second.
“It’s fine. You did a good job. Let’s just get out and camp outside for a few days until you feel better, yes? Then I will call my uncles to get the transport here when you say it’s okay.”
Xiaoge made a small hum in response that Tianzhen seemed to understand perfectly, because he nodded. “You know Pangzi saved me again in that room, when rocks started flying. He pushed me into a coffin to do that, but he did save me. How about we give him some of the stuff after you clear it?”
Xiaoge shrugged softly, his eyes never actually going to Pangzi. “Spend it.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he will spend all of it,” Tianzhen said fondly.
Pangzi snorted, of course he would spend any money that came his way. That’s what he did this whole thing for, wasn’t it?
It was six or seven months later that Pangzi found himself lounging back in one of his new armchairs, wriggling a little to try and get it as soft and yielding as his old and falling apart one had been. It just needed more time, he figured, time and use, but that didn’t mean he wished it was already at the appropriately comfy state.
It was the middle of the day, and he found himself with nothing to do. He had someone else he’d hired to mind the shop for him. He had no money worries, since the artefacts Tianzhen and Xiaoge had given him had sold for more than enough money that he only really needed occasionally get new stuff for his shop to sell, and even then, he didn’t need to actually go take the risks himself. He had new furniture, good food, the life of leisure he’d always dreamed about.
It was not what he’d imagined it to be.
Sure, he was no longer risking his life on a regular basis, so probably had a longer life expectancy now. He wasn’t risking arrest and life in prison for tomb robberies anymore. Wasn’t getting injured so often. Had pretty much everything he’d ever thought he wanted.
And he was completely and utterly bored.
After flicking the TV on and off for the sixth time, getting yet another snack, and wandering over to the window to stare out of it for a bit, Pangzi pulled out his phone and looked up a particular number. He contemplated it for a bit, then hit the green call button.
“Hello, Pangzi,” Tianzhen began, a note of surprise in his voice.
“Tianzhen!” Pangzi cut him off with a cheerful bellow. “Tianzhen, I have a problem!”
“...and what would that problem be?” Tianzhen still sounded puzzled about why Pangzi was calling him after six months.
“Everything,” Pangzi responded. “You and Xiaoge, you were very generous with those things you gave me, you know…”
“Don’t tell me you’ve already spent everything you got for them?” Tianzhen sighed, and Pangzi snorted.
“Of course not! Only a complete idiot would be able to waste that much money in that short a period of time. But that is the problem, you realise, Tianzhen?
“I have all this money,” Pangzi explained. “I don’t have to worry about it. Fuck, I don’t even work in my own shop anymore, I got someone else to do that. I’m basically retired now.”
“Uh… congratulations?” Tianzhen obviously did not get it. “Isn’t retirement what people want to do?
“This Pang-ye is too young to be retired, Tianzhen! I’m in the prime of my life! Like you! Are you retired? No,” he continued on, going right over Tianzhen’s attempts to answer that. “No, you are not. You are still going out and doing fun things!”
“I… like what?” Tianzhen said eventually. “I can tell you, Pangzi, dealing with my uncles is not really fun.”
“You know that’s not what I meant,” Pangzi said. “I meant like exploring tombs and running from angry rivals and finding traps to disarm. Or blow up. Did you know that blowing up traps is an excellent way to disarm them? I’m an expert at it.”
“You could go and find a tomb to rob if that’s what you want to do,” Tianzhen said.
“I could,” Pangzi agreed. “But it was much more fun doing it with you and Xiaoge. Are you doing that again any time soon? Need anyone else for your team?”
There was a thump on the other side of the phone, as if it had been dropped, then silence for a few moments before Tianzhen spoke again.
“You want to work with Xiaoge again?” He sounded even more surprised now than he had at receiving the call in the first place. “And me? But… with Xiaoge? You’re not scared of him?”
“Of course not,” Pangzi replied. “I mean, he’s weird, but who isn’t weird in our business? And he can be a lot intimidating, I won’t deny that, but scared? Nah, I’d only be scared of him if I was working against him. Or you. Which I don’t plan to do. He absolutely knows what he’s doing, and fuck, I owe the guy my life, right? That’s all the recommendation I need to work with him again! And you, hey, you’re still goddamn naive and new to this business, but you’re not dumb and you’re good company, which is more than I can say for a lot of us. And me, well, I have a lot of experience in tombs and you know I’m not going to double-cross you. So what do you say? Got anything fun coming up where you could use another person along?”
There was more silence for a few moments, then Tianzhen just laughed. “Why don’t you come to Hangzhou and we can talk?” he suggested. “I’ll send you the address.”
“Sure,” Pangzi said. “How about tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow’s fine. We’ll see you then!”
Pangzi made his farewells and hung up the phone, whistling as he tossed it back onto the armchair and wandered off to his computer to book tickets down to Hangzhou for tomorrow.
Goodbye, boredom. He could hardly wait.