33: Cave of the Fallen
It was taking too long. Each passing second made Disung nervous. Of course, Joaolong needed to show his respect to the deceased and no doubt, would spend as much time as possible with Yenay. Yet, Disung worried. His gut instincts flared in warning and it had never been wrong before. He had to make sure Joaolong remained safe. Traditions be damned.
Disung dashed towards the cave, breaking Shanhe funeral customs; only one person entered the burial chambers at a time, after a blessing from a holy man, with no weapons. Not even the monk had a chance to stop him, let alone anyone else. Instead, they all gasped and after recovering from their shock, yelled for Disung’s head. He didn’t care. They couldn't follow him inside unless they broke the tradition themselves. For the next few minutes, he was safe.
It felt eerie inside the dark cave. Dust clogged all Disung’s senses as his eyes wandered over the moss that grew in water cracks on the cold walls. This directed him towards the rock coffins, which hid lavish caskets inside; the outside stone protected the rulers while the wood inside provided comfort for the empty shells that were once bodies. Past emperors and empresses of the dynasty lay side by side, resting peacefully in their shelter. Only Weishan and Yenay’s coffin remained open.
Gasps and grunts echoed around the cave, near the exposed coffins. Disung felt the hairs on his neck stand. Silent and stealthy, he approached the area. The noises grew louder, as did Disung’s heartbeat. He pictured Joaolong sprawled in blood. If he died, Disung would never forgive himself.
As his eyes adjusted, despite the lacking firelight from wall torches, Disung froze at the body sunken between two stone coffins. Blood covered their robes. Disung’s insides dropped in despair, causing a horrid feeling to well up and make him nauseous. He wanted to scream. He wanted to run. He wanted to kill.
Joaolong lay limply on the ground. Parts of his face swelled and blood glimmered in the lacking light. Disung’s gut instinct had been right. As always. But it was too late.
Yet his body shook. It inflated once, then again and again. Relief rushed out of Disung. Joaolong still breathed. Against all odds, he lived.
“What is it?” Disung said, noticing his lips moving. Just as he was crouching down, Joaolong spoke louder.
“B-b-behind you!” He stuttered
A sword sliced through the air, narrowly missing Disung as he leaned to the side. In the blade’s reflection, he saw his own surprised expression.
“That was close. It appears I am not the only one with a large sword in a forbidden place,” Disung exclaimed, reverting back to humor to hide his distress. “Not that it would be the first time that happened.”
“Die!” The assassin shouted.
Disung stepped up onto the stone coffin, pivoted his foot and jumped off before finding an advantageous point. He bolted towards the older graves, where cobwebs strung against any protruding surface and the air turned chilly. The assassin, dressed all in black, pursued, lured away from Joaolong.
At the dead end of the cave, Disung and the assassin stared at each other, analysing the next move. The assassin arrogantly showcased his fighting style, hacking a sword in the air to intimidate his enemy. It looked impressive and anyone else would have feared for their survival. Disung did not. Instead, he came up with a nickname for the assassin. Tiger, he decided. Like Master Tiger from the mountains. I wonder if he still boasts about himself. If he is alive…
“Prepare to be defeated!”
Definitely Tiger, Disung confirmed. He grinned and parodied Tiger’s movements, withdrawing his sword and making nonsensical noises as he slowly stepped in a circle. In one clumsy swipe, he dropped the weapon. The assassin seized the opportunity to strike.
But that clumsiness served a purpose.
As the man approached, Disung faked a fall so his hands and feet all had contact with the ground. Before Tiger could attack, Disung spun himself and kicked the man’s shins backwards then extended his arm to catch the assassin by the neck has he fell forwards. He squeezed. Tiger panicked and tried to punch and kick his way free, Disung dodging the attacks but letting his grip go.
“Who sent you?” Disung asked but Tiger ignored him, rising to a steady stance and stalking his prey. “Oh, the quiet type. They always scream the loudest.”
Tiger attacked and Disung crouched low, trying to dodge and strike when his enemy repositioned his weapon. He landed a few blows to the chest, stomach and inner thighs but nothing substantial. It was difficult to dodge the sword as it keenly dived through the air. Disung tried to knock the assassin off his feet again but it failed. Vulnerable, Disung quickly lunged away and rolled on the cold, hard floor until there was enough distance to regain himself. His sword remained metres away, forgotten on the ground.
Time slowed and Disung felt his mind switch. With each passing second, he slowed his breathing and analysed his opponent. Tiger relied heavily on his sword, suggesting he lacked experience in martial arts. To win, Disung had to force him into hand-to-hand combat. However, removing the sword would be tricky. Too tricky. The risk made Disung grin like a madman.
He faked an attack and ran towards his abandoned sword. Tiger predicted this and blocked the path, his sword constantly jabbing at Disung in fluid motions. The weapon that lay on the ground had to be forgotten. Instead, Disung decided to rush back along the dynasty of coffins. He leapt across the closed lids with a racing mind, trying to determine how to defeat his opponent.
Tiger chuckled. “Are you scared?”
“The great Anshu is scared of nothing! Except flying bugs. And angry women,” Disung smirked. “One of those things is the most terrifying creature on this earth.”
“You should be scared of me and death!”
Tiger threw a few blades and caught Disung off-guard. Although he dodged three of the blades – running across closed coffins – one stray sliced near his ribs. Blood trickled down and he staggered at the sudden sharp pain. Tiger grasped the opportunity and ran towards the coffin with a raised sword. This was it.
Disung staggered, lost his footing and descended upon the readied blade. He cursed but acted according to his impulsive plan. Mid-air, he kneed the sword out of Tiger’s hands and used his weight to shove the assassin to the ground. They collided in a great heap and Disung ignored any pain from the landing to swiftly pound Tiger. With no time to recover, the assassin fell into Disung’s mercy.
“Who hired you?” Crack! One finger broke and the man screamed, his mind catching up to his dire situation. Disung put on a smug smile.
“Told you the quiet ones scream the loudest. Tell me who hired you.”
“I-ah—” Crack! Another finger broke. Another shriek echoed around the cave.
“Who hired you?” Disung asked again and broke another finger. “Tell me now or I will ensure you have no functional fingers left. No one will want to hire a cripple, not even to clean a brothel. Now tell me who hired you to kill Wang Joaolong.”
The fear in Tiger’s eyes filled Disung with regret and disgust; he loathed torturing people. On the outside, he looked like a beast but inside, it messed him up. He felt like the Fox, acting without remorse or mercy.
“It was Zhao Cheng! Zhao Cheng did it!”
“How do I know you aren’t lying?”
“I-it was,” Tiger croaked as Disung bent another finger back, ready to snap it. “He was ordered by the Crowned Prince! I overheard him complain! Please! Spare me! H-he accidentally told me it was the prince’s desire!”
This was bad. Disung internally groaned; this made it Huli’s fifth attempt at killing Joaolong. Disung still remembered the first, when he just accepted the role as guard and Huli became enraged about Joaolong’s studies that impressed the emperor. Yet, those jealousy fuelled attempts were long in the past; the new assassinations had a greater motive and Disung had an inkling about the reason. There would be no peaceful nights in the future.
“W-what will you do with me?”
“I won't slice you into pieces. This is sacred land where blood should not be spilt,” Disung said lightly, despite the serious context. “But I will take you to soldiers for them to slice you into pieces. No one hurts Wang Joaolong and lives to tell the tale. Tell your employer that.”
Disung broke Tiger’s nose with a sudden, short-ranged punch. The pain caused him to faint. Meanwhile, Disung ignored his own wounds and rushed over to Joaolong. More blood pooled around him, indicating he had been stabbed multiple times. Most of his robes were now stained.
“Joaolong! How badly are you wounded?” No reply came. “Joaolong!”
“I will live,” Joaolong coughed. He looked pale and incredibly tired. They needed to leave right now. “Go to the empress.”
“No. We must leave.”
“Go to the empress’s grave first. Find it,” Joaolong said and handed over a small note. On the parchment was a letter to Joaolong, ordering him to look in a slot in the side of the stone grave. At the bottom, Disung recognised the empress’s signature. “I was given this years ago and ordered to only open it during her death. The assassin caught me before I could do anything.”
“Find it first! That is an order!”
“As you wish,” Disung sighed and unwillingly moved away from his dying friend.
Before dipping his hand inside the stone grave, Disung paused and knelt. It felt wrong not to give the empress – the person who brought honour to his family – respect before leaving the cave.
“Wang Yenay, empress of Shanhe. I have nothing to offer but kind words and remorse that your final day came too soon. You were the sun on a cold winter day in the Lotus Palace and many will feel the chill without you there. I will never forget the kindness you gave me and I will do my best to protect the greatest secret of Shanhe.” Disung stopped to control the emotions that cracked his voice. “It is with a heavy heart that I offer you my little toy boy. It was gift from my father to bring me amusement and I hope it distracts you from the pain you felt in this lifetime. May you find peace.”
The token was gently placed in the grave next to the empress, nestled in fine blankets. There were no intricate details of finesse about the wooden man but the value came from sediment. Disung remembered when his father first carved the figurine and all the training sessions it developed Disung’s attacking skills. Since his father’s death, it was kept as a reminder of the man that was Liu Hanxiong.
The offering contrasted greatly with the gifts of divine food and riches, whom were presented by those seeking blessings from the royal family. Anyone close to the empress knew she did not care for such things. Joaolong’s gift acted similar, the letter appearing too simple for a ruler.
“He stirs,” Joaolong gasped, referring to Tiger.
Without another word, Disung searched in haste. The secret compartment was easy to find, Disung learning of its existence years ago when he hid the item here, under the empress’s order. He knew this day would be coming but it felt like a dream. Carefully, he slid his fingers into the slot inside the stone coffin, that no larger than a woman's delicate hand, and felt around. Not a single cobweb entangled his fingers.
While he searched, he helplessly stared at the empress in her open grave as he reached and searched. Even in death, the empress looked lovely. Lavish white and red robes concealed the fatal wound on her chest but did not hide everything. A red rash covered her hands, neck and face under the makeup. Under further inspection, flakes of skin could be seen sprinkled over the robes. Decomposition did not do this to a body; Disung knew from experience.
“Could it be?” Disung murmured, bewildered. The rash... perhaps... But it could not be possible. There were witnesses that saw Jiang murder the empress. If the empress had been poisoned, then the sword hadn't killed her.
Disung felt something brush against his fingertips. Carefully, he pulled out the object from the slot. It was cool to touch with ridges as if carved. This wasn't right. Despite the darkness, he recognised the item immediately. Disung cursed loudly and returned to Joaolong.
“Someone has taken what is yours,” Disung said bitterly. “The Fox beat us again.”
The Fox token read: the sunrise will come with the mountain clan’s approval.