“And fuck you too, I hope you drive off a cliff and die!” Pangzi bellowed at the car zooming past at a speed that was probably too high for the shitty road that he was stuck on the side of, which hopefully meant that his wish for the driver’s dire fate would come true. The car, of course, didn’t even slow down, the driver giving absolutely no indication that they’d heard him at all. Or seen him - like the three other cars that had driven straight past him in the eight hours that he’d been stuck here in this broken down rental car, because apparently no-one here had the common fucking courtesy to stop and help out a stranded driver.
The fact that had he been one of those drivers, he also wouldn’t have stopped to help out a stranded driver unless he figured there’d be some kind of payment for it was completely beside the point, which was that he was the one stranded, so someone should have stopped to help him out.
He glowered at the rapidly disappearing car, turning the collar of his jacket up against the cold. It had started to drizzle at around hour four of being stuck on this desolate road to the middle of nowhere, a place he would have dearly loved to have never heard of, let alone come near, had it not been for the tip he’d received of some local villagers having some interesting artefacts to sell. Given how far it was from anywhere, especially any known tombs, he was pretty sure that he’d be able to buy them from the locals for a bare fraction of the price he could sell them at, no matter what kind of quality they were.
The drizzle had turned into a steady downpour at around hour six, at which point he’d given up on getting out of his car in futile attempts to wave down the rare passing vehicles - getting soaked just wasn’t worth it, especially since his car was so completely dead that he couldn’t even get anything out of the heater. If he was going to be forced to spend the night in the car, which it was increasingly looking like now that the sun was setting, he wanted to at least be dry.
“Fuck you all and fuck your mothers,” he grumbled, cranking the seat back a little further. Then a thought struck him, and he sat up straight so fast that he almost hit his head on the windscreen. “You better not be going to steal my artefacts!” he shouted at the empty road, in the direction that the car had gone. Damn it. If that driver was competition for his artefacts, there were definitely going to be words when he finally got to the village.
And by ‘words’, he meant he was going to kick their asses and then take those artefacts.
With another grumble, he settled back into the seat and closed his eyes to take another nap while waiting to hear another car coming along the road, so that he could hurl more insults at it when it drove straight past him. He hoped that the rain would let up enough for him to grab the car blanket out of the boot before it got too dark to see, since his useless, signal-less, phone was now out of battery so couldn’t function as a torch for him. Tomorrow, he figured he’d probably have to fucking walk until he found someone willing to help. Knowing his luck, he’d even have to bribe them to do it, too.
He wasn’t sure how much later it was when he was woken from his nap by a car engine and bright headlights, but the sun had definitely long since set, and the rain didn’t show any sign of letting up. Pangzi grumbled himself fully awake, blinking at how bright the light reflecting in his mirror was, and sat up in preparation for getting a lungful of air to let the next driver know what a disgraceful ingrate he was.
Much to his surprise, the headlights slowed down, then stopped next to his car.
He was left gaping like a fish in astonishment that someone had actually fucking stopped, and it took him a moment to realise that the driver of the other car had wound down his window and was waving at him. The guy looked young, maybe mid-twenties, and seemed to be saying something, although Pangzi couldn’t hear it with his own window up and the rain thundering on his car roof. He blinked, finally shut his mouth, and wound down his window.
“HI, DO YOU NEED A LIFT?!” the other driver was shouting.
Pangzi gave him another blink of disbelief.
“CAN YOU HEAR ME?!” the driver shouted, waving one arm wildly, and when he didn’t respond in time the guy leaned on his horn, which blared loudly enough to raise the dead.
“YES I CAN FUCKING HEAR YOU!” Pangzi had to scream to make himself heard over that damned horn, but finally the driver stopped leaning on it, and gave him a wide grin.
“GREAT! SO, NEED A LIFT?”
“Yes!” Pangzi said, nodding, then grabbed his bag and dashed out of the broken car, grateful to find the passenger door of the other car already open. It wasn’t until he was inside the car, the leather upholstery butter soft, that he realized it was a Mercedes - and one of the more expensive ones, judging by how the sound cut out nearly completely when he closed the door. It was warm and dry inside, the radio was playing quietly. There was a pile of blankets on the back seat and a pair of heavy duty backpacks in the back foot wells, some kind of cloth wrapped stick jutting out from one.
“Hi,” said the driver, at a much more normal volume of voice now that he wasn’t having to make himself heard in a different car over the sound of the rain. “I’m Wu Xie! That’s Xiaoge, don’t worry about waking him up, he sleeps like the dead when he wants to.” Wu Xie laughed, as if that was an incredibly funny joke. Pangzi looked at the pile of blankets on the back seat again, and supposed that there could, possibly, maybe, be a person under there.
He then looked at the fancy, obviously expensive SUV, at the clothes the guy was wearing - just jeans, a thin sweater and a denim jacket, but all of them of obviously good quality, noticed the fancy watch just peeking up from under the sleeve, and decided right then and there that the guy was an idiot. A kind and well meaning idiot.
He immediately plastered his most charming smile onto his face. He loved rich idiots.
“Thank you, good man!” he said, smiling wide. He stuffed his bag into the spacious foot well and extended his hand for a handshake. “Thank you for stopping! I thought I was going to have to spend the night in the car at this rate.”
Wu Xie reached over to give his hand a surprisingly firm shake, for someone who looked like a spoiled rich kid. “It’s not a very busy road, is it?” Wu Xie said cheerfully, starting back along the road. “I think we only saw maybe two or three cars passing us in the past several hours. Were you stuck there long? Are you hungry? There’s snacks in the glovebox if you are! And under your seat - there’s drinks in that one. And if you don’t like those, there’s another box of snacks and drinks in the back seat.” Then Wu Xie frowned. “Though Xiaoge might be sleeping on it at the moment.”
Pangzi looked back at the unmoving pile of blankets and decided not to say a word of his concerns as to whether or not there really was anybody there. Instead, he reached into the glove box, expecting to find candy there. And there were some toffees. But there were also protein bars, pilot bread, crackers, all sorts of dried meat packed in neat little foil packages, and - he had to blink at this for a second - something that definitely looked like one of the Russian’s lyophilized military food packs. There was also a small bottle of water and a juice box. There was another bottle of water in a special holder at the door, and when he sneaked a look to his driver, who was now focused on driving again, he saw a similar bottle at his own door, and there were two of them between the seats in the cup holders. When he leaned back, he wasn’t surprised to see more bottles in the back doors.
This guy was turning out to be either an incredible glutton, or one truly strange duck.
He decided to not hesitate and ripped the package of cured meat open - it was very tasty, spicy, and just the right amount of salty.
“Thank you,” he said after swallowing the first few bites. “I was starving there.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Wu Xie replied, letting go of the wheel for long enough to wave one hand dismissively, and for Pangzi to hope very much that this stretch of road was as straight and empty as it seemed. “It’s really awful getting trapped without anything to eat or drink! Where were you headed?” he continued, finally putting his hands back on the wheel so that Pangzi could start breathing again. “The next village? I don’t think there’s a village beyond that, so I guess you must be, right? I’m not sure how much longer it’ll take us to get there, but hopefully they’ll have a hostel or something that’s still open at that time of night.” He stopped talking, but only to take a breath, it seemed. “Well, at worst we can sleep in the car, the seats can go nearly flat and the back seat opens up into the boot to make a nice flat space, I can fit in with Xiaoge there and you can take the front. But I would love a proper bed. You see, I have been driving from Hangzhou and I really want to stretch out some, and I really can’t properly do that in the car because Xiaoge can just get so clingy when he’s asleep, you know?”
No, Pangzi didn’t know, and still was only half convinced of this Xiaoge’s existence at all. “Couldn’t your friend drive, too? To give you a break?”
Wu Xie turned to look at him, his expression hilariously scrunched up. “... it’s best that he doesn’t drive.”
“He can’t?” Pangzi asked, baffled that somebody in this day and age wouldn't know how to drive a car.
“Oh. Oh, no, he can. Technically. He just… doesn’t think that road laws are something that applies to him. Or speed limits. Or right of way. He’s definitely got the whole ‘a car is a deadly weapon’ thing down pat, though.”
Pangzi looked at the absolutely still pile of blankets in the backseat. Then at Wu Xie.
“Right,” he said. “I can drive if you want to rest?” he offered tentatively. He honestly couldn’t tell if the guy was telling the truth, was playing him, or wasn’t all there in the first place.
“It’s okay, I’ve just been drinking all of the canned coffee,” Wu Xie said, in a tone that Pangzi was sure was meant to be reassuring, but instead came across as just manic enough to be horrifying - especially when he looked at what he’d thought was a bag of drinks, and then realised it was actually a bag of empty canned coffees. He was pretty sure that it wasn’t healthy to drink that much caffeine in a short period of time. “Xiaoge’s going to be grumpy about it when he wakes up,” Wu Xie continued, “but, really, it was either I drink all the coffee or we’d have to make more rest stops, and he was so impatient about getting there that more rest stops would probably make him grumpier than being out of coffee.”
Just as Pangzi opened his mouth to comment that Wu Xie would need to stop to pee eventually because all of that caffeine, plus liquid, will demand its dues soon enough, he saw an old, crooked sign telling them that the town he was going to was 50 kilometers away. “Guess we are on the right track!”
“Oh thank God,” Wu Xie said fervently. “It’s only been ‘go straight’ for the last however many hours. I was starting to think I was going insane.”
Pangzi still wasn’t entirely convinced that the guy wasn’t insane. Of course, he was beginning to think that he himself was, too, as he came to a startling realisation.
“Fuck,” he groaned. “If I’d realised it was this close, I would have just fucking walked instead of sitting in my car for eight hours. I could have even got there before it started raining.”
“How long would it take you to walk fifty kilomoreters?” Wu Xie said, his eyebrows rising in interest. “But look on the bright side! You’re not going to have to put up with your muscles hating you in the morning, and we got to meet!”
“Depends how much motivation I have,” Pangzi replied. “And once it started raining I would have been very motivated.”
“I would die,” Wu Xie announced. “Poor Xiaoge, though. Whenever we hike or travel the mountains, he always forgets my speed is maybe one twentieth of his, and then he has to loop back for me all the time. I feel bad. He always makes like three times the distance I do because of that.”
“No dying,” came a grumpy voice from the back seat. Pangzi turned to look, but the pile of blankets did not appear to have moved at all.
“Oh, are you awake now, Xiaoge?” Wu Xie asked, sounding even happier than before.
“No,” said the pile of blankets, then fell silent while Wu Xie just laughed.
“Alright, no dying,” he agreed. “Because I will not even think about trying to walk 50 kilometers in one day, let alone in under eight hours like Pangzi can.” There was no response from the pile of blankets, and Wu Xie just shrugged. “He fell back asleep,” he said to Pangzi. “He does that, just falls asleep anywhere when he wants to. I’m so jealous.”
Pangzi looked at the unmoving pile of blankets, baffled that there actually was someone under them.
“Hello,” he said to the blankets, but got nothing in return, no words, not even a twitch of movement.
“Ah, Xiaoge doesn’t like strangers. Don’t mind him,” Wu Xie said quickly. “Tell me, what are you travelling for? You sound like you are from Beijing.”
“You have a good ear for accents for a southerner,” Pangzi said, nodding as he reached for one of the bottles of water. That salted dried meat was making him thirstier than he’d thought it would. “I run a shop, and so sometimes I come to these little out-the-way places to see if there’s any local specialities that might be good to stock, you know? As novelties that most people wouldn’t come across. What about you? What brings someone like you - and your friend,” he added, glancing back at the pile of blankets, “all the way out here.”
“Visiting family,” Wu Xie replied immediately, and Pangzi gave him a sidelong look, ready to call bullshit on that. This guy was definitely not from anywhere near here, especially not since he’d said he’d driven here from Hangzhou, and had a Hangzhou accent to match. “Xiaoge has distant family in the area,” Wu Xie continued by way of explanation, and, well. That was entirely possible, Pangzi had to concede to himself. He still hadn’t got a look at this Xiaoge, and three words hadn’t been enough for him to get a sense of the man’s accent. And distant family, that made it even murkier. He swallowed a mouthful of the water, and admitted to himself that he really couldn’t think of many reasons why a rich kid like this would be all the way out here, so ‘visiting my friend’s distant family’ was reasonable enough.
“They meeting you up in the town?” he asked, thinking of the car that was clearly more expensive than probably the yearly income of half of the town residents combined. The ones working legal jobs, at least. His contacts definitely made more, or would make more once they showed him the stuff they promised. The pictures they sent to him weren’t the best quality, but enough to recognize that those incense burners were old, really old, and could fetch a damn good price.
“Oh, no, they’re a little ways out of town,” Wu Xie said. “It’s unfortunately too late to go there tonight, so we’ll just find a hostel for the night and then continue on in the morning.” Wu Xie nodded to himself. “Xiaoge will like a rest in a proper bed, too.”
“Won’t you get that when you get to his relatives anyway?” Pangzi asked, and Wu Xie grimaced.
“Um… if they’re anything like those of Xiaoge’s relatives I’ve met so far… not necessarily?” He sighed. “I swear, first time I, uh, stayed with them, it was like I was sleeping on stone.” He laughed again, as if this was some kind of personal joke. “Proper beds at a hostel will definitely be much better!”
“Not very hospitable?’ Pangzi ventured delicately.
A complicated expression passed through Wu Xie’s face. “They are, ah… how to put it. Not very friendly in general?”
Pangzi looked at the unmoving pile of blankets in the back seat. Yeah, he could see how that might be.
“You plan to stay long?” Pangzi asked after a moment.
“Just a few days at most. We might need to organize some transportations for… family stuff, but it shouldn’t take that long, I think.” Wu Xie turned to look at him briefly. “And you? Is this a longer stay?”
“Well, it was supposed to be just a two day trip, but now I will have to stay and wait for my car to get towed, and then fixed, so who knows how long that’s going to take.”
Wu Xie winced sympathetically. “Ah yeah, that’s tough. Hopefully you will find somebody to do it.”
Pangzi heaved a deep sigh. “I’ll find someone for sure. How much it’s going to end up costing me, that’s another matter entirely. Hopefully I’ll find something good so that this trip will at least be worth it.”
“Good luck!” Wu Xie told him sincerely. “I’m sure it will! You can only have so much bad luck on one trip, right?”
“Don’t say that out loud, or you might jinx it,” Pangzi warned him.
Wu Xie laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m a pretty lucky person,” Wu Xie said, his eyes straying to the rear view mirror. It took Pangzi a second to realize he was looking at the pile of blankets that was his Xiaoge.
So they were that way.
It wasn’t Pangzi’s place to judge, only that he thought the guy was somewhat naive for going to see his lover’s family, especially if they lived in such a backwater place. His wealth probably protected him in the city, but in sparsely populated places like this people still had all sorts of old beliefs that only propagated in the isolated little communities where making babies was the most important thing.
They talked the whole way to the town, Pangzi telling Wu Xie all about his shop, and maybe exaggerating his success a tiny little bit, but despite the fact Wu Xie talked even more than Pangzi did, all he found out about Wu Xie was that he had a shop that was doing fairly well, but was nothing like the kind of businesses his uncles ran. He only knew that Wu Xie liked to travel a lot, but not where or what for. It was funny, for someone who talked so much, he didn’t actually say much of value.
Pangzi couldn’t decide if it was a sign of remarkable intellect, acting skills, or just the sheer level of scatterbrained energy the man seemed to emanate. His companion didn’t say a single word for the rest of the trip. He also didn’t move. If Pangzi hadn’t clearly heard him speak a few grumpy words, he’d still think that the man didn’t actually exist.
The rain was considering letting up by the time the Mercedes went from flying down an empty road to crawling through the village, the road narrowing with buildings around it such that Pangzi wasn’t sure if another car could pass them in either direction without clipping the side mirrors and the very least. It was late, but not so late that everyone was asleep - lights still shone in windows, although the rain kept everyone indoors and the road empty. Wu Xie paused one to check the map on his phone - he’d downloaded it, he cheerfully told Pangzi when Pangzi asked how he still had reception, but that still didn’t answer how the hell the kid had a full five bars visible on his phone here in the middle of nowhere.
Finally, the Mercedes pulled in next to a building that was about twice the size of the houses around it, a worn side above the door that Pangzi couldn’t quite make out through the darkness and rain.
“Here we are, the one and only hostel here,” Wu Xie announced, killing the engine. “Xiaoge, help me get our bags out of the boot?”
Pangzi turned around to see if this mysterious Xiaoge had even heard Wu Xie, as deeply asleep as he seemed to be, and almost had a heart attack when he found someone sitting up ramrod straight right behind him, wide awake and so very still that he might have thought it was a fucking corpse, were it not for the fact that he could see a pair of bright, intense, and clearly alive dark eyes focused on Wu Xie, see the hint of colour in the chiselled cheeks. The man was young, probably a few years younger than Wu Xie, even, and pretty enough that he could probably make a career as a TV star if he ever wanted to. Despite his youthful age, his intensity and the still, controlled way he held himself screamed ‘danger’ to Pangzi as he let out a nervous laugh.
“Ah, xiaoge, xiaoge, you scared me for a moment,” he said. Those dark eyes didn’t so much as flicker in his direction, the young man giving absolutely no indication of having heard him as he just nodded at Wu Xie, picked up the wrapped stick thing that Pangzi had noticed earlier, pulled up the hood of his hoodie, and stepped out into the rain.
“Don’t mind Xiaoge,” Wu Xie assured him. “He’s not that good with people.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Pangzi replied dryly, turning up the collar of his jacket again and grabbing his bag. “Hey, let me give you a hand with your bags, it’s the least I can do.”
“Oh, you don’t have to…,” Wu Xie began, but Pangzi was already out of the car and instantly regretting it. That car heater had worked really well, and the cold was somewhat of a shock, even though he’d been expecting the rain. He grunted, slinging his bag over his shoulder and hurrying around to the back of the car.
Pangzi was a worldly man who’d seen his share of money in his admittedly not yet very long life. He was a self made man, had pulled himself out of poverty by sheer determination and skill. He didn’t know his father, barely remembered the echo of a woman he thought might have been his mother. He remembered hunger and cold and living on the streets, various orphanages, and the few families that took orphans like him in for the benefits. He learned the trade through stubbornness, waded through blood and filth to get to where he was now, and he was not an easily intimidated man. Even then, seeing the five bags inside the humongous boot that were very clearly designed to fill the space perfectly, without a single scrap of space wasted, made him jolt, reminding him again that Wu Xie was clearly coming from money, and a lot of it. He just… didn’t act like most of the spoiled rich heirs Pangzi saw pretend to know anything about antiques. He loved fleecing those idiots for hefty sums, selling them common and worthless things.
Wu Xie didn’t have that same kind of arrogance, that attitude of looking at everyone down his nose, and it made him forget the difference between them. The bags were a reminder.
He watched as Xiaoge unzipped one of them and pulled out two small overnight bags before closing the boot, not bothering to zip the bag up again. He didn’t close if fast enough for Pangzi to miss the somewhat bulky, but obviously high tech GPS unit, nor the paper service tag attached to it that read ‘Wu Sanxing’.
Wu Sanxing. Now that was a name that Pangzi was familiar with, as was pretty much everyone in the tomb raiding business. He’d even worked with the guy a few times. Absolute untrustworthy asshole, just like every other tomb raider out there. And, now he thought about it, hadn’t the guy mentioned his nephew ‘Xiao Xie’ a few times? Except the way he’d talked about his nephew, he’d thought it was an actual kid, not a mid-twenties adult.
Although, to be honest, with how naive Wu Xie was, ‘kid’ wasn’t the most inaccurate thing he could call him. He snorted. Tian zhen wu xie, indeed.
Right. Tianzhen, that’s what he was calling this kid now.
“What did you say your uncles did again?” he called over the rain to Tianzhen as they hurried to the door of the hostel and pushed their way in to blessed warmth and dryness.
“Oh, Sanshu owns an antique shop,” Tianzhen replied carelessly. “And he’s done some, um, archeological consulting before. Ershu runs a few businesses, but I couldn’t really tell you the details, it’s not like I have much to do with them, after all!” He grinned, the corners of his eyes crinkling up adorably in a way that made him look both younger and far too innocent for his own good.
Well. Fuck. That pretty much confirmed it, even if the label on the GPS hadn’t been perfectly clear. Pangzi knew that Wu Sanxing owned an antiques store, had competed with him for artefacts on a dig, both wanting them for their own store. And he sure as hell knew that Wu Erbai had his fingers in multiple businesses.
Which led to the question of what the goddamn heir to the fucking Wu family of the Lao Jiu Men was doing in this out-of-the-way place with a heavy duty GPS unit and bags full of what he was now sure was equipment, because Pangzi would bet damn near anything that it was a lot more than ‘visiting my boyfriend’s relatives’. If Xiaoge was even his boyfriend at all. After all, what better way to have people look away than to make them think the two guys were on a romantic getaway. It was kind of brilliant now that Pangzi thought of it. He turned his gaze to Xiaoge again, this time assessing him as he would a specialist, and he immediately saw what he’d missed before. The man didn’t go to the small counter to talk with the owner, he placed himself beside the door, leaning against the wall and watching the whole room. His position, probably not accidentally, meant he could control anyone coming through the main door, and had a good line of sight on the stairs leading up. Pangzi eyed the cloth wrapped stick and considered the possibility it was some kind of weapon, maybe a long knife of some kind? So Tianzhen wasn’t as helpless as he looked, had a bodyguard with him, but the guy, though looking professional, was so young as to be a veritable baby, and just one? They could get overwhelmed easily if they met a larger group. It was stupid, trying to go for a dig with just one person as backup. He wondered if the kid was trying to prove something to his uncles - given how Wu Sanxing had talked about him, and the way he’d acted the whole way here, Pangzi suspected that he’s spent his entire life being protected from the nastier side of the Wu’s business and was now just at the right age to be rebelling against that protection, trying to make a name for himself and earn some respect. Which, honestly, good for him, but his lack of experience was definitely going to get him hurt, if not killed. He just hoped that it wouldn’t be this time.
He should, Pangzi realised, really stop expressing hopes, even just to himself, because he always, always, fucking jinxed himself.
It was about mid-morning when he was making his way back towards the hostel, boots splashing through the puddles in the road, and in an excellent mood. The rain had stopped just before breakfast, the clouds had cleared and it was a beautifully sunny day, and his first inspection and negotiation had gone fantastically. The seller, an older guy, had told him that the pristine - pristine! - pottery bowls, incense burner, and bronze bracelets had been found after the recent spate of rainstorms had triggered a mudslide, uncovering a brick wall with a rough hole in it, and washing away a few dozen items that had probably come from inside the hole.
Pangzi had managed to walk away with a good half dozen bowls, three incense burners, and two bronze bracelets for an absolute song, along with the location of the mudslide and the hole - and also many, many warnings from the old guy not to go investigating himself, that that section of the mountain was haunted, that often people would go there and never be heard from again. Pangzi was used to these kinds of tales in places like these, and figured it was even odds whether the locals were just superstitious, or whether they were hiding something out there that they didn’t want strangers to know about. Either way, there was pretty clearly a tomb here, one that hadn’t been fully cleared out yet.
No fucking wonder that Wu kid was here.
He noticed that Tianzhen’s car was gone when he came back, of course he did, the Mercedes stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the old, cheap cars that dominated the landscape of this town. What he didn’t expect was to hear several voices coming from the inside of the hostel. He hesitated at the door, listening to the commotion inside.
“What the fuck do you mean, you don’t know where those two strangers went? You are completely useless, old man, tell us at least which direction they drove off in!” A raspy voice was hissing and Pangzi knelt down on the ground, pretending there was something wrong with his shoe to give him an excuse to listen without having to go in.
“The boy was too nice, he can’t be that kind!” the older man who ran the hostel said, his voice trembling.
“He is definitely that kind, a goddamn thief, coming here and thinking he can take our stuff for himself. We will teach him what’s what around here.” The raspy voice was getting more agitated and Pangzi heard at least for different people echo their leader’s words.
“If he really went into the mountains…,” the owner said, “there’s no coming back from there. You know that. Everyone knows that. Nobody ever came back from there. Remember what happened ten years ago? They were just stupid kids going into the mountain on a dare and none of them ever returned, my boy also never came back,” the owner said, his voice tight with emotion. “If he… if…”
“It doesn’t fucking matter,” the leader said. “There are things that the rain washed down the mountain. He can steal those and where will that leave us? He has no right to those, they are on our land and belong to us.We should be profiting from them, not some rich yahoo who hasn’t had to work a single day in his life.”
“I really don’t know anything, they left very early and didn’t talk to me,” the owner said, and Pangzi felt his eyebrows go up because he heard Tianzhen talk to the old guy yesterday, and considering how chatty the guy was he definitely would have at least said goodbye to the owner before leaving. He also knew that they hadn’t left that early - he’d waited until the rain had stopped and he’d had breakfast before he went looking for artefacts to buy, and he hadn’t seen either of them even leave their room by the time he’d left.
“No matter,” the leader of the gang said. “The ground is so wet we will be able to track the car tracks anyway. Fucking useless.” There was a bang and yelp from the hostel owner, and then a group of men were spilling out of the hostel, conveniently missing Pangzi hunched under the wall.
Fuck, it seemed Tianzhen had got himself himself an angry mob on his tail.
Pangzi sighed, double checking that the gang had gone before he straightened up and went into the hostel, barely glancing at the shaking hostel owner as he made his way up the stairs towards his room. Well, this wasn’t his problem. If the guy wanted to be in this business, he had to accept the risk, and Pangzi sure as fuck wasn’t going to tangle with the local gang when he could get what he wanted by swindling the people selling the artefacts they’d so conveniently gone and collected for him.
Except Tianzhen probably didn’t know the risks fully, not if he was as sheltered as he seemed. Fuck, he’d only brought one other person with him, and for all that that Xiaoge was clearly an experienced fighter, they were going to be vastly outnumbered. And out here, away from most authorities, Pangzi wouldn’t even put it past the local gang to have a couple of guns.
Which definitely made it even more not his problem. He didn’t like being shot at even when he was the one robbing a tomb, let alone when he was actually keeping his nose clean(ish) and conducting (mostly) legitimate business.
But he did owe Tianzhen a favour for rescuing him from spending the night in a freezing, broken down car in the middle of a fierce rainstorm. And, much as he hated to admit it, he’d come to like him too much to want to see him killed on what was clearly his very first tomb expedition.
Pangzi sighed, putting the bag of pottery and bronze down on his bed, then turning around and walking out of his room, locking it behind him. The hostel owner had seen him come in with Tianzhen the night before, seen how Tianzhen had treated him like an old friend. Maybe he’d be willing to tell him the information he’d withheld from the gang. If Pangzi hurried, then with clear and accurate directions he could probably beat the gang to Tianzhen and Xiaoge and warn them that they were in danger. What they did after that was entirely up to them, he certainly wasn’t going to stick around, but at least his bastard conscience would be soothed after it had now decided that it actually existed.
Grumbling to himself about suddenly turning stupidly soft-hearted, even if he did owe Tianzhen a favour, he stomped his way downstairs and waved down the hostel owner, going over to him so that he could speak quietly enough that no potential listeners could hear.
“Hey, grandpa,” he said. “You wouldn’t happen to know where my friends went today, would you?”
The man looked conflicted as he looked at Pangzi, his wrinkled hands clutching at the end of his sweater. “Your friend is in trouble,” the man said eventually.
Pangzi sighed theatrically, pretending that he didn’t already know that. “Ah, fuck, what has Tianzhen done this time? I swear, that guy is way too eager to go exploring and stick his nose in everything sometimes, I’m sorry if he’s accidentally stepped on some toes. Was it the camera again?” he added, remembering that Tianzhen had mentioned he had a photography hobby. “I bet it was the camera.”
The man looked relieved, as if the excuse took some weight off of him. “He went to the Jagged Tooth Peak, the north side I think, and that irritated some people. It’s a bad place you see. Very bad. He really shouldn’t have gone there.” The old man sighed, rubbing his hand over the very short, gray hair.
“Ah, too steep?” Pangzi made a show of guessing. “Cliffs? Stuff like that? City kids, I swear, they have no concept of how dangerous mountains can be, they just see some pretty scenery that would make a good picture, and off they go with no care to their own safety.” He sighed again and shook his head. “Which one is Jagged Tooth Peak? I will go and try to get him before he gets into more trouble.”
The man sighed, fidgeted even more, and sighed again. Then he reached for one of the old tourist pamphlets stocked on a tiny shelf beside the counter. The laminated paper creaked, clearly old and unused, as he spread the map on the counter. He pointed at a spot not far from the town. “This is Jagged Tooth. There’s only one road leading to it and it’s in a very bad condition because nobody would dare go and fix it. I don’t know how far you can get by car, but I would expect not far. It’s a haunted place. Anyone who goes anywhere here,” he circled the whole mountain with his finger, “they don’t ever come back. Every few decades kids decide it's just old people’s superstitions.” His voice dropped and started shaking. “They go there on a dare.” He paused. “They never come back.”
Well, fuck, wasn’t that just even better? Pangzi had seen and heard of far too much in his career as a tomb robber to just dismiss stories like that out of hand. Ghosts and zombies and shibie didn’t leave the tombs they were in, at least not that he’d ever heard, but if dumb, unprepared kids fell into a tomb? Yeah, they were probably going to die. Hell, it might not even be because of the tomb that was somewhere up there, it could just be that the place was riddled with underground caves or something like that. On the plus side, if it was mostly inaccessible by car, then if he hurried right now he had a decent chance of catching up to the other two.
He nodded at the hostel keeper’s warning as he examined the map, committing the way there to memory. “Then I had better hurry before something happens to them,” he said. “Thanks very much grandpa.”
He took the tourist pamphlet and stuffed it in his pocket as he hurried out the door and towards the mountain, hoping that he’d get there in time.
And if not, well, at least he’d tried.
The old motorcycle he’d hired in town was a drag to ride, the engine coughing and sputtering, barely making it up the not very steep mountain. But it was still a good help, letting him gain distance fast. He didn’t see the gang on his way up, and that was worrying, but there was a chance they were still searching for the Mercedes’ trail. He pushed the motorcycle as far as he could before the area became too overgrown and too steep for the thing to keep going, so he switched to walking. He wasn’t quite sure where to look, but he found the traces of the mudslide that must have washed out the artefacts and just followed the edge of it, hoping to find something of value.
What he found was a thin stream of smoke barely rising above the tree line before it was dispersed by the wind. It was actually lower than he was and he cursed, turning and running down as fast as the damp ground and thick vegetation allowed towards what he thought might be a camp.
He was out of breath, sweaty, and red faced by the time he ran into the small clearing, or rather a circular space, on a mostly rocky ground that wasn’t as squelchy as the rest of the forest. There was one large tent set up already, a tarp stretched between two trees under which the GPS unit and some other equipment was set out, with some more bags beside them. There was a small fire going in the middle of the camp, and there was another tent, not set up yet, only stretched out on the ground, clearly in the middle of being done. Tianzhen wasn’t there, though, he was away from the clearly half finished work, crouching on the ground between two large trees and trying to take a picture of something up in the branches, the camera hiding most of his face.
“Tianzhen! I mean, Wu Xie!” Pangzi panted out, too out of breath to call like he’d intended to.
Tianzhen clearly heard him, however, because he jumped and spun around, the backpack that he apparently hadn’t got around to taking off yet sliding just slightly on his back. Upon seeing Pangzi, he broke into a wide grin, one that didn’t quite meet the eyes that darted to the side of the camp that Pangzi wasn’t yet in the right position to see properly.
“Pangzi!” Tianzhen said, sounding just as cheerful as he ever did. “What a surprise! What brings you up here? Didn’t you say you were going shopping today?”
“Where’s Xiaoge? We need to get out of here right away!” Pangzi panted.
Tianzhen blinked at him, his eyes getting so wide that Pangzi could tell even from this distance. “What? Why? Xiaoge’s exploring. What’s wrong?”
“You can’t just come into someone else’s territory to rob a fucking tomb and not expect to be hunted down and killed, and guess what? People who consider themselves the owners of this territory are about to come here and kill you for the offence. We have to run right the fuck now!
“What?” Tianzhen was blinking at him those large, unknowing eyes. “But I’m just taking pictures...”
“Don’t even bother,” Pangzi interrupted. “I saw Wu fucking Sangxing’s name on that GPS.”
“I can explain!” Tianzhen waved his hands and blinked some more, looking very much like a child caught with their hand in a cookie jar and definitely not understanding the sheer scope of danger he was in.
“Explain later,” Pangzi said. “We have to get Xiaoge and get out of here right now, before they get here!”
“Ah…” Tianzhen blinked those wide brown eyes at him again. “That, um. That might be a problem.”
“It is already a problem!” Pangzi was rapidly running out of patience. He stomped towards the guy and grabbed him by the shoulder. “Move!”
“No, no, wait!” Tianzhen stumbled, then batted at Pangzi’s hand, finally actually sounding worried. “I mean, leaving is the problem! Xiaoge hasn’t made it safe yet! We have to wait for him first.”
Pangzi growled, literally growled in frustration. God save him from idiots and innocents. “You are not going into the tomb! You are going to run down that mountain as fast as your legs can take you, understood?”
“I can’t.” Tianzhen sounded even more worried now, even slightly desperate. Then he froze, looking at something over Pangzi’s shoulder. “Oh. That’s not good.”
Pangzi slowly turned, already knowing what he was going to see, and cursing himself for staying to try to convince Tianzhen to get out of here, instead of just delivering his warning and leaving like he’d planned to.
Coming out of the trees at the edge of the mudslide area, climbing over the ones that had been knocked over by said mudslide, was the gang he’d seen at the hostel. All of them were armed in one way or another - mostly clubs and knives, but ah, yes, there were a few guns like he’d feared - and all of them looking decidedly unimpressed to find him and Tianzhen there.
“Fuck.” Pangzi could outrun knives and could deal with clubs but fuck, he couldn’t really outrun a gun and would rather not get killed here.
“Quick,” Tianzhen hissed, his own hand clenching in Panzgi’s jacket. “Into the tomb!”
“Are you crazy?” Pangzi hissed back, even as a sinking pit in his stomach told him that this was, horrifyingly enough, their best option at this point. No matter what was in the tomb, there was at least a chance that they could find a hiding spot in there and could sneak out afterwards. Out here, though? Outnumbered and definitely outgunned? Fuck.
“My uncles tend to think so,” Tianzhen agreed, tugging at Pangzi. “But if we get to Xiaoge, we’ll be fine. Come on, quick, follow my lead and don’t touch anything down there!”
Before Pangzi could try objecting again, the gang began to charge at them, and then he couldn’t follow Tianzhen fast enough, ducking around the tent just as a gunshot ran out. A couple meters from the camp was a dark hole in the slope, right in the middle of where the landslide would have been, ringed by broken brick. Some bricks were scattered around the hole - evidently, it hadn’t been large enough for Xiaoge, so he and Tianzhen had widened it. Pangzi just hoped it would be large enough for him as Tianzhen disappeared through it and he scrambled to follow, the shouts of the gang behind them, another shot hitting way too close for comfort.
“Remember, don’t touch anything. Especially artefacts. No matter if you see a diamond the size of a golf ball, do not touch. Not even the smallest of things!” Tianzhen was repeating
“They want to kill us anyway, I don’t think grabbing some souvenirs is going to change anything,” Pangzi grumbled.
“No touching,” Tianzhen repeated, his voice getting higher. “It’s… it’s all trapped, okay? If you touch anything before Xiaoge says it’s safe, then you will die. Horribly. Now come on, quick, if we stay here we’re sitting ducks.” He grabbed Pangzi’s arm, tugging him along the corridor, away from the light from the hole and into the darkness. “There’s got to be a doorway or cross corridor around here somewhere…”
Pangzi stuck his other hand out to touch the wall, stumbling along after Tianzhen as his eyes began to slowly adjust to the dark. Behind them, he could hear the voices of the gang at the hole into the tomb, then the sounds of people jumping in after them, of more shouting and cursing. He suddenly felt nothing beneath his hand as the wall ended, either a doorway or another corridor, he didn’t care, but he tugged Tianzhen through it just before a flashlight lit up the corridor behind them.
“That way!” There was a shout and then another shot, echoing shockingly, painfully loud in the narrow space and downright rattling his brain as he and Tianzhen ducked into the corridor and stumbled deeper, the man pulling out a small flashlight from somewhere. The flashlight didn’t really illuminate that much, just a tiny little sliver of dusty stone floor, and jumped wildly around as they ran down the corridor, saw another, and turned there. Pangzi nearly slipped on the old, crumbling stairs just behind the turn but Tianzhen grabbed his jacket and pulled him up enough that he avoided face planting.
“We need to find some treasure,” Tianzhen panted as they slipped into yet another corridor, confusing Panzgi completely.
“I thought you said not to touch it because it’s all fucking trap… oooooh.” Pangzi cut off as he thought he realised where Tianzhen was going with that idea.
“Yes, but the ones behind us don’t know that!” Tianzhen yelped when a weak beam of light appeared underneath their feet and ran faster.
“Best treasure is usually further in,” Pangzi said, tugging Tianzhen through another doorway. “If this is like most tombs, anyway.”
That made Tianzhen laugh for some reason, the sound odd and raspy with his strained breathing. “It’s anything like a normal tomb,” Tianzhen said, then cursed frantically, pulling to a stop and grabbing Pangzi by the collar to force him to stop.
“What?” Pangzi snarled, rubbing his neck where his shirt nearly choked him.
Tianzhen was shining his flashlight at the sides of the corridor they were about to run into. Pangzi could see creepy faces carved into the sides, twisted in anger or screams, their mouths open. The mask-like faces were carved in lines starting at knee high and then about hip and so on, stretching all the way to the ceiling, on both sides of the corridor.
“We can’t go this way, we have to go back,” Tianzhen said, his voice incredibly high and stressed. He took a couple of deep gulps of air. “Although if they don’t see us do that, they might keep going… quick, where was the nearest doorway behind us?”
Pangzi studied the carvings for a moment, how they were spaced, and felt a shudder. “Trap?” he guessed.
“Trap,” Tianzhen agreed. Pangzi didn’t ask how Tianzhen knew that when the trap hadn’t been triggered, but figured he could ask later, if they survived this. Instead, he turned and hurried back down the corridor, looking for a doorway or alcove or something they could duck into. Ahead, he could hear the sound of the gang getting closer and closer, and spotted the light of their flashlight bouncing off of one of the walls.
“Fuck, maybe there’s another one,” Tianzhen started shining his flashlight over the walls and floor, revealing more carvings, then suddenly made a kind of strange sound, half a victory shout half a yelp as he kicked the wall, grabbing onto Pangzi in the same moment.
Pangzi didn’t yelp, he screamed the whole way down as the floor under them tilted suddenly and they were sliding down, down, into utter darkness, then landing painfully on the ground somewhere below. Or rather Panzgi was landing painfully, Tianzhen got the bonus of soft landing by the virtue of falling on top of Pangzi and squishing the breath right out of him.
“Tianzhen,” he finally managed to wheeze out, “what the fuck.”
“Sorry,” Tianzhen said, not sounding sorry at all. “But there should be one of the coffin rooms with treasure somewhere along here! Come on, quick, before they catch up!”
“Rooms?” Pangzi asked, surprised to hear the multiples.
“Yep,” Tianzhen agreed, as if this was a completely normal thing. “It’s not the central tomb, not yet, but there should be a lot of ancillary coffin rooms. Wang Zanhgai’s tombs were actually repurposed tombs from a different family who preferred tombs in which they could bury a few dozen of their people.”
“This is a Wang Zanghai tomb?!” Pangzi screeched, not even caring how much the sound travelled or if the gang behind them heard them. If this was a Wang Zanghai tomb, then it didn’t matter. They were both dead anyway. Everyone in the business knew that going into a Wang Zanghai tomb was a fucking death sentence - except, apparently, for Tianzhen and his friend.
“Technically it’s a Zhang tomb, it was stolen and repurposed by Wang Zanghai,” Tianzhen said, somewhat waspishly.
“I don’t care if he stole it from the fucking heavens or from Difu itself! Don’t you know that these places are fucking suicide traps?! No-one’s ever come back from trying to rob one!”
Fuck his life. Seriously. This is what trying to do a good deed got him. If, by some miracle, he managed to get out of here alive then he was never going to be that stupid ever again. Selfishness all the way, that’s how he would live his - hopefully - very long life, with no more idiot rich kids or inconvenient attacks of conscience.
“I did,” Tianzhen said absently, shining his small flashlight around and clearly absorbed in trying to read the dirty murals on the walls.
“Bullshit. If anyone got out of a Wang Zanghai tomb alive, the whole fucking tomb industry would know about it. That would be the biggest damn coup in years. In decades. That’s a complete game changer if people can survive those tombs, everyone would be racing to get in and find all those hidden treasures.” He reached out and tugged Tianzhen’s arm. “Fucking… Tianzhen! We’re still being chased by people who want to kill us, in case you’ve forgotten!”
“People can’t,” Tianzhen said, turning to shine his flashlight at pangzi. “Only Xiaoge can, and he lets me, too. Nobody else will be able to. Believe me, I saw over fifty people die in front of my eyes trying,” he said, his voice low and tight.
Pangzi stared at him. He didn’t think the guy was joking, not at all. Either it was true, or he believed it was true.
“Just you and Xiaoge, huh?” he finally said. “That’s comforting.”
“He makes them safe, then I can come down. He also lets some of my uncles’ people come in and help transport the goods out after he makes the place safe, but he always gets the only say in what gets taken out and what stays.”
“Maybe I should change my name to Wu so he’ll let me out, too,” Pangzi said, half-jokingly.
“I will tell him you came to save us, that should help!” Tianzhen promised earnestly.
“Should,” Pangzi repeated, staring at the younger man as he set off down a corridor. Above them they could hear sudden screaming and the sound of some kind of machinery working, the rumble of it travelling all the way down. Tianzhen paused and looked up, a complicated expression on his face. “I think they entered the corridor.”
“Yeah,” Pangzi said, listening to what was no doubt screams of agony and fear. There were some gunshots, too, but he didn’t think those would help against a trap. “Yeah, they did. I wonder how many died in it?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Tianzhen sighed. “They won’t be able to leave the tomb anyway. We just have to make sure they don’t find us before they trigger the final defense mechanism.”
“What is the final mechanism?” Pangzi asked, dutifully following after Tianzhen, stepping over some debris that fell down from the water damaged wall. There was a flash of gold in the rubble and he stared at it, wondering if it was really so dangerous to just pick up one little souvenir?
Tianzhen shuddered, not looking at him. “It’s the trap on the treasure. As for what it is… just hope you’re not unlucky enough to find out,” he said.
Just then they found a crooked and mostly out of its hinges wooden door, the ancient wood still holding out well, although it was warped somewhat from water damage to the wall in which the hinges were set.
“Help me out with it,” Tianzhen said, putting the flashlight into his mouth and reaching for the crooked door. Under the layer of dust and grime, Pangzi could vaguely distinguish a tree relief. There were also strange grooves in the floor, going under the door.
Together, they heaved one wing and let it crash to the floor with a mighty sound, kicking up a huge amount of dust.
“Wanna bet they heard that?” Pangzi asked wryly, dusting his hands off.
Tianzhen coughed and pointed with his head to the room they’d just opened and the three coffins mounted on a raised podium that was clearly made of jadeite - if not the highest quality, still an expensive slab of rock. In front of the coffins were literal piles of goods. Ancient pottery, covered with dust webs but completely unharmed, sitting in neat rows. Long, skinny, pale vases as tall as Pangzi’s waist, short, chubby ones that flashed iridescent colors even under the layer of grime, and tiny, delicate ones scattered everywhere. There was also bronzeware ranging from incense burners, to all sorts of lamps and braziers, to jewelry arranged on wide platters. There were also gold items inlaid with precious gems, flashing brightly in the small light of Wu Xie’s flashlight, making Pangzi’s heart pound.
“There they are!” somebody shouted behind them, and Panzgi acted by pure instinct, grabbing Tianzhen by the arm and all but lunging inside the chamber, avoiding the treasure and diving behind the coffins.
“Don’t tou…” Tianzhen began as Pangzi easily hauled him along - really, the guy was far too scrawny.
“Not touching, not touching!” Pangzi cut him off, shoving him to the ground behind the first coffin as footsteps and flashlights heralded the entrance of those of the gang who’d survived the corridor trap. He peeked around the corner to see how many were left, only to quickly dive back on top of Tianzhen, sheltering him as shots rang out and hopefully didn’t ricochet off of anything and into them. There were still half of them, at least, from the quick glance he’d managed to get, and it was pretty clear that either the gunmen hadn’t got caught by the trap, or they’d retrieved the guns. Either way, it was very not good, he and Tianzhen were trapped in this room now. He glanced around quickly, not seeing any entrance or exit other than the one they’d come through.
“Is there any other way out of here?” he hissed to Tianzhen, ignoring the current gang leader shouting out taunts and threats as he began to cross the room. Then stopped.
“Laoban, look at all of this,” one of the other guys said. Pangzi could see the flashlight lights moving around the room, clearly lighting up the treasure in there.
“This is even better than the stuff that got washed out,” another one said. Pangzi could hear clinking as someone - a couple of them, actually, from the sounds he was hearing - picked up some of the items, and despite Tianzhen’s warning he felt incredibly jealous. There was some really good stuff in here. “We’re gonna be rich!”
“Get rid of these outsiders first,” the boss ordered. “This is all ours, they can’t steal any. Or tell anyone else about it.”
“Well?!” Pangzi hissed to Tianzhen, still covering him, and now hearing someone moving towards the coffin they were sheltering behind.
“Close your eyes,” Tianzhen whispered back. “It’s about to get messy.”
Messy was the right word. There was a sound first, a roar like water rushing through a too narrow space, or maybe wind, and then the head of the ringleader was separated from his body and flew through the air to bounce off of the wall behind Pangzi and Tianzhen, falling to the floor with a dull thud, blood trailing from the severed neck, eyes too wide and staring straight at Pangzi as the head rolled to a stop just by his feet.
He flinched, prepared to get up, grab Tianzhen, and run away from whatever the fuck was happening now, but Tianzhen grabbed his arm and pulled him back down.
“Stay here,” Tianzhen said, as Pangzi heard another of the gang scream, then abruptly cut off. “Stay here, and keep not touching anything.” He paused, then took a deep breath. “XIAOGE!” he shouted, his voice echoing around the room, managing to even drown out the other shouts and screams.
The roar came again, low and reverberating right through Pangzi’s bones. The room - already dark - became even darker, but in the wildly wiggling flashlight glow Pangzi still saw something darker again, as if it was made of the deepest shadows. It moved shockingly fast, aiming at the gang members, something long and thin - a black sword- flashing before the man it was stalking was cut into pieces. Pangzi saw a whole arm and shoulder be separated from the body, exposing bloody insides of the chest, then another slash that basically cut the body in half. It was a whirlwind of blood and death, people screaming and the low roar intensifying, rattling right through his very soul, making his legs heavy with fear and his heart beat triple time.
“You!” Pangzi jerked around at the shout from their other side, seeing one of the gang coming around the edge of the coffin, long and wickedly sharp knife in hand and waving it towards them. “This is all your fault!” the man accused, a wild look in his eyes as he lunged at them.
Pangzi shoved Tianzhen to the side, out of the way, instinctively sure that the kid was not a fighter at all, and jumped between him and their attacker. He’d dealt with guys with knives in a fight before, and was confident he could take this one, as skinny and panicked as he was. It led to him being perhaps a bit too overconfident, earning him a stinging slash to his arm that cut through shirt and skin alike before he managed to grab the guy’s wrist and twist it until he heard it snap.
The tip of a black sword going through the assailant was so quiet compared to the roar around them that he didn’t even notice it coming out from the back to the front, the tip exiting almost smoothly through the stomach, until he saw the man’s eyes widen and his jaw fall open in a wordless scream. The tip of the sword twisted as Pangzi watched, the cutting side rotating upwards and then it jerked up, cutting the body open with audible crack of broken bones and the wet, sucking sound of flesh giving up as the blade went all the way up from the stomach to the shoulder, pretty much slicing the man open like one would a leek for cutting.
He died soundlessly, his mouth still open, blood pouring freely from it as he slid down at Pangzi’s feet, revealing the man behind him.
Xiaoge was a jarring sight in his ordinary black hoodie, the hood now down and his youthful face on display. He was pretty, shockingly pretty, with a chiseled line of his jaw, sharp cheekbones, and absolutely black eyes framed by ridiculously long lashes, his short hair still long enough to fall into his face in slightly damp - bloody - strands. His eyes were cold, though, no reaction to the noise or the death, the chaos seemingly unable to affect him at all.
“Xiaoge!” Tianzhen exclaimed happily, scrambling back up to his feet and apparently ignoring the sounds of fighting and dying still happening on the other side of the coffin. Pangzi was afraid to look over at it, afraid to take his eyes off of Xiaoge and the sheer, terrifying, almost inhuman menace that radiated from him. All of Pangzi’s instincts were screaming at him that he was in danger, so much danger, that he needed to run run run. He tensed, then Tianzhen was patting him on the shoulder.
“You remember Pangzi, right, Xiaoge?” he was chattering, as if Xiaoge didn’t look like he was half a second away from carving them up as easily as their attacker. “He came to warn us about these guys, and then helped protect me from them! Oh, look, Pangzi. You got hurt!” The cheerful tone dropped to one of worry as Tianzhen took his arm. “This was from when you saved me from that knife attack just now, wasn’t it?”
Pangzi knew very well that Tianzhen knew that it was. It had happened right in front of him, after all. But he got the distinct feeling that Tianzhen wasn’t asking for confirmation as much as he was stressing to Xiaoge what had happened, that Pangzi had been protecting him and helping him.
Xiaoge’s eyes dropped to the wound and he shifted, the sword - just as black the one he’d saw in that mass of shadows before - dropped a fraction, blood and ichor and even chunks of flesh dripping off of it and splattering to the ground in an obscenely brutal display.
He wasn’t staring at Pangzi with that same cold look as before, but the gaze now was just as unsettling, somehow managing to be devoid of all human expression anyway.
“Don’t move,” Xiaoge said, his voice quiet but low and very, very smooth, his words sounding out just after the room went suddenly quiet.
Half afraid to even breathe too loudly, Pangzi gave a nervous swallow and finally managed to tear his eyes away from Xiaoge to glance over the coffin at the rest of the room, moving nothing but his eyes, knowing deep down that even so much as moving his head would be deadly.
Even knowing that everyone else was dead, he hadn’t quite expected the sheer scale of bloodthirstiness. The boss wasn’t the only one who’d been beheaded, and several of them had been fully dismembered. Blood painted the floor, the treasures, even splashed up on the wall. Some had tried to run, it seemed, but only one had managed to reach the door, where his body lay in two halves, a spray of blood visible in the torchlight even out into the corridor.
And in the middle of all of that was a column of pitch-black shadow. He couldn’t even say it was because this was a dark, underground tomb, couldn’t tell himself it was just normal shadows, because several fallen flashlights were shining right at it, the light swallowed by that darkness that revealed nothing but a glint of dark metal.
Pangzi swallowed again, feeling frozen to the spot.
“Right,” he said, barely audible. “No moving. Got it. Not moving at all.”
Then he looked down and saw that the shadows were now all around them, or rather they were covering the whole floor of the room, moving and pulsing like a living thing, but there was a circle of clear space around him and Tianzhen. It looked like something was actively pushing the shadows away, there was a sense of movement there, as if the shadows were hitting an invisible wall.
“Be careful,” Tianzhen said, his voice soft and eyes focused on his friend. “Don’t let him hurt you.”
Xiaoge nodded, the movement slight and barely there, and then he turned around, putting his back to them and facing the room that was now nothing but a wall of impenetrable darkness.
Pangzi watched as the young man looked to the left, then to the right, seemingly unaffected by the darkness everywhere, and then he moved, like some kind of swordsman in a wuxia drama. Or maybe xianxia, given that when he exploded into movement without a warning he slashed that black sword with a gold handle up, the swing generating something like a force wave, or maybe wind, slamming into the darkness and making it boil and weave. Then Xiaoge slashed again and again, his movements so fast that it was impossible to track them. The noise returned, a rumbling roaring low sound that triggered something primal in Pangzi’s brain. But with each slash the wall of darkness relented, wobbled, and gave. It surged up and at Xiaoge, a blade suddenly appearing in the midst of the shadows and slashing at him, but he parried the suddenly materializing sword with a lightning fast move that morphed into yet another of those impossible slashes of his.
The sound was terrible, echoing right through Pangzi’s bones, making him tremble. But Xiaoge was gaining ground, each time he stepped forward with yet another slash he didn't step back again, slowly forcing the darkness back.
Suddenly, with the sound of a sudden vacuum, the shadows disappeared through the now visible door and Xiaoge ran after them, not even sparing them a look.
“Should we…” Pangzi started, his voice shakier than he ever remembered it being.
“Stay here,” Tianzhen said. Pangzi turned to look at him, shocked by how steady his voice was. The man looked… not unaffected, there were clear signs of stress. His eyes were tight, his lips pale and somewhat bloodless from how hard he was pressing them together, and there was a jittery kind of nervousness to him, but he wasn’t looking like Pangzi expected him to look. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen this kind of thing, Pangzi realized.
“Xiaoge isn’t done yet,” Tianzhen said, sinking down to sit cross legged exactly where he stood. He looked at the severed head not far from him, grimaced and unfolded his legs. Then, trying not to look too closely at what he was doing, he gingerly kicked the head further away from him, but didn’t actually move from the spot he was in. Pangzi was pretty sure it was exactly the same spot - right down to a millimeter even.
Pangzi carefully lowered himself, trying to ignore the bloodstains slowly seeping towards them, and also sat down.
“So, want to tell me what’s going on?” he asked after a few long moments of nothing happening.
“It’s… complicated?” Tianzhen tried, looking over at Pangzi and blinking those huge, innocent eyes of his.
“Uh huh,” Pangzi replied. He examined the slash on his arm - deep enough to keep bleeding, but not so deep that he’d need stitches this time. He held it up to show Tianzhen. “The innocent look might work on your parents, Tianzhen, but I think I’ve earned some actual answers, don’t you?”
Tianzhen’s face went through a series of expressions: stubbornness, guilt, ruefulness, sheer damn panic and settled on… a mulishly stubborn expression that Pangzi was starting to suspect was the guy’s default.
“It really is very complicated,” Tianzhen said, more decisively now.
“I’m sure it is,” Pangzi agreed. “But we’re not going anywhere right now, are we?”
Tianzhen looked strange, like he was surprised by Pangzi pressing. Well, if he had Xiaoge hovering over his shoulder for all of his conversations where he was asked to spill the truth, Pangzi could understand people backing off in a hurry. “What, um, exactly would you like to know?” Tianzhen asked hesitantly. “I think this,” he made a weak motion with his hand, “is pretty self explanatory?”
Pangzi looked at the blood seeping ever closer, at the corpse almost severed in half, at the head, and pulled a face. “Normally I see something like this, it’s two rival groups fighting over the same tomb,” he said. “Or a group where one side tried to stiff the other on the treasure. Once, just once, I was unlucky enough to go into a tomb with a zombie wandering around, and it killed a bunch of people before we finally managed to kill it. I have not, however, seen… whatever the fuck that was. Let alone a ‘whatever the fuck that was’ that showed up the moment someone touched some fucking treasure. Let alone whatever the fuck is going on with your friend. So no, it’s not self explanatory at all.” He made a show of settling into his spot on the floor, ripped off the rest of his sleeve, and began bandaging his arm. “So go ahead and tell me what’s going on, Tianzhen, I’m listening.”
“It’s a security measure created by Wang Zanghai. He was a great architect, but he only managed to create so many tombs during his lifetime because he stole most, if not all, of them,” Tianzhen said slowly, clearly measuring his words. “This system, the ‘guardians’, is why he was so popular.”
Pangzi looked over at the carnage again. “And why no-one survives going into them, I guess. Go on.”
“That’s it,” Tianzhen said decisively. “This is what’s happening in the tomb.”
Pangzi tied off the knot of his makeshift bandage and examined it, satisfied that it would hold. “Okay. So what is a guardian? And if you say ‘that was’, Tianzhen, then first I am going to scream, and then I am probably going to get up and kick something.”
“Don’t you dare kick any of the things in here!” Tianzhen hissed. “It will bring the guardian back, and I don’t know who will move faster, the guardian or Xiaoge!”
“Then you better tell me what they are,” Pangzi told him cheerfully.
“I can’t tell you something I don’t know,” Tianzhen said, spreading his arms in a helpless gesture.
“Oh, come on, Tianzhen, you’ve clearly got some idea about it all,” Pangzi said, shaking his head. “I know people think I look dumb, but I haven’t survived this long by being actually dumb.”
“I don’t know as much as you think. I know the guardians used to be human, then they were changed into… this. Through a ritual of some sorts. They are bound to the place and they guard it viciously. There are certain rules that govern them, though.”
“Don’t touch anything,” Pangzi said, remembering Tianzhen’s insistence on that. Remembering the ‘guardian’ had shown up when some of the gang had picked up treasure. “That’s one of them, isn’t it?”
“It’s more of a loophole than a strict rule, but touching the artefacts definitely catches their attention. Not touching them makes the guardian confused about what to do. They are meant to stop people from leaving, but not from coming in. So technically, if you came in and didn’t touch anything, they won’t attack.”
“That’s… very specific,” Pangzi said, frowning, feeling like there was something obvious he was missing there. “How did you learn all that?”
Tianzhen rubbed his hands through his hair, leaving it all messy and sticking up, making him look even younger than before. “I… entered a tomb like that, once,” he said finally, reluctantly.
“You said that you’d been in a Wang Zanghai tomb before,” Pangzi remembered. “And that you left it, because of Xiaoge. Xiaoge who got here… amazingly fast once you screamed for him, now that I think about it. And who is now going toe-to-toe with some kind of ghost-guardian creature.”
“He was already inside the tomb, and it makes sense he hadn’t ventured too deep yet,” Tianzhen said, looking at Pangzi with dark eyes. “And he definitely could hear the commotion, especially once the trap above triggered.”
“You don’t seem that worried about him fighting that thing. I’ve seen people get more worried about fighting another human. And he can fight it, these guys,” he waves his arm around, “didn’t have much luck. And what the fuck did he do with his sword? That was like some xianxia sword glare shit, not anything a real person would do in the real world.”
“How would you know?” Tianzhen asked, lifting his eyebrows, “do you know everything in this world?”
“I know people,” Pangzi replied. “If people really could do that shit, the army would be all over it. The underworld would be all over it. Everyone would want to get their hands on that ability, fuck, that would make swords at least as good as non-automatic guns.”
“I don’t think the military or the underworld has enough patience and ability to self sacrifice to learn the ancient arts like that. They are all about immediate results. Xiaoge’s family keeps those arts a secret for a reason, anyway.”
“Oh, would that be the same family you came to visit out here? In a place where the locals refuse to go? Where there’s nothing but mud and trees and a tomb?”
“As impossible as it sounds, I never lied about that. I just never specified if that was living family, or dead.”
Pangzi blinked, then blinked again. “Wait, his family is buried in here? He’s a descendent of Wang Zanghai?”
Tianzhen’s face twisted angrily. “No,” he said sharply. “He is a relative of the original builders of this tomb, the ones who spent decades building it, burying their people here, and then were slaughtered for the location and so that Wang Zanghai could make yet another of his disgusting tombs.”
“He came to rob his own family’s tomb?” Pangzi was somewhat bemused. That had to be a first, as far as he knew.
“I told you Wang Zanghai stole them, didn’t I?” Tianzhen said, sounding exasperated.
“Yeah, but he must have left some of the original stuff here if Xiaoge’s family is still buried here, right? You just said that you were lying about ‘visiting family’, just that they were dead.”
“You think Wang Zanghai would in any way respect the bodies of the original occupants?” Tianzhen asked, a bitter twist to his lips.
Pangzi shrugged. “No idea,” he said. “I’ve come across stolen tombs before, but usually the original occupants were completely evicted. But they can’t have been this time, not if you were telling the truth about not actually lying about Xiaoge’s family being here still.”
“A few remained inside,” Tianzhen said slowly. “Those that were slaughtered as burial sacrifices for the new owners. That’s who we are here for.”
“Huh.” Pangzi considered that for a few moments. “Is that why you robbed that other Wang Zanghai tomb? The one where you met Xiaoge? That’s the one your uncle’s men also got to come and go from, right?”
“Wang Zanghai didn’t let Xiaoge’s family rest in peace, so we won't let his people rest either. After all, what better revenge then undoing everything the man did over his lifetime?” Tianzhen asked. “As far as I’m concerned, everything in these tombs belongs to Xiaoge anyway.”
“Wow, your Xiaoge must feel very strongly about his family history,” Pangzi said weakly, trying not to let it show how insane he found the whole thing.
“It’s… complicated,” Tianzhen said, looking tired and cornered, but still mulishly stubborn. He looked, for lack of a better word, willing to go down with this ship of his. It was the kind of loyalty that Pangzi hadn’t seen in a long time, someone so willing to keep other people’s secrets. He didn’t have anyone who would do that for him. It made him feel briefly jealous. He wanted something like that for himself, too.
“I feel like there’s many complicated things about your Xiaoge, aren’t there?”
Tianzhen opened his mouth, most probably to deflect, when they heard the first rumble. It was low, and Pangzi thought he felt it in his bones more than heard it at first. Then the rumble intensified, becoming stronger, louder, almost like the roar of a sea during a storm or a rock avalanche incoming. He lunged at Tianzhen as a big chunk of rock fell from a crack that suddenly appeared in the ceiling.
“We can’t…!” Tianzhen began to exclaim as Pangzi knocked him aside, the momentum sending both of them rolling past the corpse, past the coffin and into the main part of this chamber again, just as the rock crashed to the ground where Tianzhen had been sitting, shattering and sending fragments and rock dust everywhere.
“...move,” Tianzhen finished weakly, looking at the fallen rock.
“You’re welcome,” Pangzi told him, looking up at the roof nervously. More cracks were appearing as the rumbling continued, and dust and smaller, pebble-sized stones fell from them. He scrambled to his feet and reached down to haul Tianzhen up, too preoccupied with the imminent threat of being buried alive by this earthquake to be concerned by the blood and corpses here, or even the priceless treasures.
“We can’t move from here,” Tianzhen said, looking at the ceiling nervously.
Pangzi growled, then looked at the doorway and the corridor beyond, where another rock fell from the ceiling with a crash.
“Fuck,” he said with feeling, then turned to the nearest coffin and began shoving at the lid. “Give me a hand with this, will you?”
“What are you doing?” Tianzhen exclaimed. “We can’t take anything from here yet! Even if we could, now is not the time!”
“Shut up and help me get the lid open enough for us to climb in,” Pangzi grunted, feeling the heavy lid start to move under his shoves. “We can’t move from this room, but we’re going to get squashed like bugs if we don’t find some shelter - and this is the only shelter here. Hope you don’t mind getting friendly with some old corpses.”
Tianzhen’s eyes were hilariously wide, enough that Pangzi had to keep in a snort of laughter. He pushed once more and the lid shifted far enough that it looked like they could climb in.
“Get in!” Pangzi snapped as an even greater tremor almost knocked them both off their feet. When Tianzhen didn’t move, Pangzi grabbed him and began to lift him up, intending to just stuff him into the coffin if he had to, before Tianzhen remembered how to move again and began to scramble up and in himself. “Hurry, hurry,” Pangzi added. “I think this earthquake is getting worse.”
“It’s not an earthquake,” Tianzhen shouted over the din of falling masonry. “Xiaoge is fighting the guardian,” he managed before he yelped, and there was a sound of something dry crunching as the old bones of the original owner of the coffin was crushed under Tianzhen’s weight. Pangzi didn’t wait, he just hiked his leg in and wiggled through the hole as fast as he could, narrowly avoiding being brained by a soccer ball sized piece of rock falling from the ceiling. This time Tianzhen’s yelp was much louder, and Pangzi felt a fleeting sense of vindication that it was him landing on the lying bastard this time, not the other way around. The padding was of course sub par to what he had obviously provided for the guy, but still better than nothing.
He ignored the wheezes and frantic wriggling underneath him and instead reached for the lid, using his legs to brace some of the weight of the lid up, pulling the lid closed enough that only a sliver of a crack remained to ensure they had a steady stream of air. He did it just in time before the whole coffin echoed with thud after thud of debris falling on top of it, each impact loud enough to rattle their brains.
Tianzhen kept wiggling frantically underneath him, jabbing at Pangzi’s side almost continuously. “Move, move,” he kept repeating. “I can’t breathe!”
“You can so breathe! if you couldn’t breathe, you wouldn’t be able to complain!”
“Do you even know what I’m laying on? Do you know what’s poking me in places nothing like that should ever poke me?!” Tianzhen cried out, trying ineffectually to kick Pangzi, but the position he was in meant he could only flail uselessly under him.
“Don’t be such a baby,” Pangzi said ruthlessly. “What tomb robber hasn’t had to crawl into a coffin at least once?”
“Me!” Tianzhen snarled, his breath fanning over Pangzi’s ear unpleasantly. “I’ve never had to crawl into a coffin!”
“You have now! Consider it an initiation into the business.” He paused as the coffin rattled again with a loud crash as some more rocks fell onto it. “Unless you’d rather be out there?”
“I would rather not be squished to death in a goddamn coffin! You are heavy!” Tianzhen snarled breathlessly.
“And you’re bony!” Pangzi snapped back, enjoying this far, far too much. “I am going to have bruises for days from your bony elbows when you fell on me earlier.”
“That was an accident!” Tianzhen thrashed ineffectually under him in a helpless rage. “This is torture!”
“This is pragmatism,” Pangzi countered. “You’re not strong enough to have pulled the lid closed.”
“I don't see why I would need to with you acting like a useful shield!” Tianzhen said, full offence.
“Oh? And how exactly would I have been able to shield you if you were on top of me?”
Tianzhen thrashed some more, then there was something that felt very much like a bite to his shoulder. it wasn’t strong enough to hurt, not through the leather jacket Pangzi was wearing, because really nothing worked as well as leather when it came to crawling through corridors and risking getting squashed, with things falling onto him every so often.
He still yelled in offence and did his own thrashing, making sure to become as heavy as possible, vindictively enjoying every yelp and breathlessly offended cry.
He was so focused on being as much of a nuisance as possible he didn’t even notice when the noise outside the coffin stopped, the silence nearly as deafening as the noise before.
“Think it stopped?” Tianzhen asked, realizing the same thing that Pangzi did, that it was quiet outside now.
“Shh,” Pangzi said, straining to listen through the stone lid. He could hear a last few small stones falling and rolling across the floor, then silence. No tremors, no rocks falling, nothing. “It seems to have stopped for now,” he agreed finally. “How long do these fights normally last, anyway?”
“No idea,” Tianzhen said, still breathless. “I never saw it go this fucking bad before.”
Pagnzi grunted. “What changed this time?”
“Those other people,” Tianzhen said. “Usually it’s just me and Xiaoge first, and no-one else comes in until the guardian has been dealt with. But this time, those guys came in and triggered it off.”
“Great,” Pangzi said. “If they weren’t already dead, I would fucking kill them myself.” He paused, listening again. “It’s still really quiet,” he said. “So maybe it’s over now. Fuck, I wish we had some way to know for sure.”
“We can ask Xiaoge, I suppose,” Tianzhen said from under him.
“How are we going to ask? We’re inside a damn stone coffin, possibly covered with rocks, and fuck knows where your friend is now. Unless you want to try yelling for him again, but that might draw both of them.”
“There’s such a thing as phones, Pangzi,” Tianzhen said with the air of a man rolling his eyes. Hard.
Pangzi rolled his eyes in return, even though Tianzhen couldn’t see it. “Yes, Tianzhen, and what part of ‘deep underground inside a stone coffin’ are you missing? There wasn’t even cell phone signal in that village, let alone under this much fucking rock and dirt. If there had been, I wouldn’t have been stuck in a broken car for eight hours.”
“I don’t know what kind of lousy phones you are using,” Tianzhen mumbled, starting to wriggle madly under him again, becoming all knees and elbows without warning. Pangzi yelped and cursed, but Tianzhen managed to shift a few centimeters to the side and stick his hand between their bodies, or rather just under Pangzi’s ass.
“Hey!” Pangzi yelped, offended. “Where are you touching? At least buy me dinner first!”
“Oh for…! I'm trying to get my phone out! Unless it got crushed under your monstrous weight!” Tianzhen panted out, and kept groping around under Pangzi’s ass for a definitely too long period of time.
“You’re just complaining because you don’t have enough meat on your bones. Just you see, if we ever get trapped somewhere without food, I will last longer than you because I have more fat on me.”
Tianzhen made an odd sound at that and kept groping around. Finally, he made another, triumphant, little sound and pulled his phone out. He lifted it up, the screen lighting up, making everything glow blue in the artificial light. There was some more wriggling before he managed to get the phone anywhere close to their faces and Pangzi saw that the fucking thing had full bars on it.
In a stone coffin.
It had full cell and internet reception.
“What,” he said slowly, “the everloving fuck?”
Tianzhen hushed him like an irritable young mother and tried to get to his contacts menu.
“No, Tianzhen, I mean it, what the actual fuck? How the fuck do you have any signal down here, let alone full signal?!”
“It’s not that deep? Like, phones these days have awesome reception. Don’t they?” Tianzhen asked, having the unmitigated gall to sound baffled.
“Not that awesome!” Pangzi yelped. “There are no towers anywhere around here! That’s not even a satellite phone, and even that would amaze me if it got signal this far underground!””
“Why would you need a satellite phone when the cell reception is so good these days?” Tianzhen asked, shushing Pangzi again when he found a contact named ‘me’ on his list and called it.
The phone not only called the number, Pangzi could hear it connect, the steady beeps of measuring out the time. Three, five, ten rings later the connection dropped unanswered and he could hear the way Tianzhen sucked in a breath, the body under him tensing.
“What?” he asked, immediately on edge.
“Xiaoge always answers. Always. He would never just…” Tianzhen stopped talking and called again. The connection took forever, the rings going and going until finally, the call snapped into place. Pangzi could hear the rustling of clothes, maybe skin on plastic as somebody, presumably Xiaoge, lifted the phone to his ear.
“Xiaoge!” Tianzhen exclaimed. “Why didn’t you answer before? Are you okay? Where are you? What’s happening?”
“Done,” Xiaoge said after a long moment, his voice shockingly low for someone so etherally pretty.
“Why didn’t you pick up? Are you hurt? Is something wrong?” Tianzhen was pelting the man with questions when even Pangzi could tell the guy on the other end was exhausted.
“Tired,” came the probably severely understated answer, and then the connection dropped.
“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.