Fanfic: A Cypress in Winter – Chapter 14 (Ice Fantasy - 幻城)

Chapter 14

written by UnicornSlippers
edited by DramaPanda

Xun Ru wiped at the sweat running in minute rivulets from his forehead with a grubby sleeve, cursing softly under his breath. It was hot today, and though he was relieved to be free of the bone chilling cold of Ice realm, he was uncomfortable in the oppressive heat hanging over the forest. He looked back at his Ice Tribe companions and chuckled.  If he was uncomfortable, they were downright miserable.  Zhanshi’s hair hung in damp locks, his face shiny with the sheen of perspiration. He did not complain, but periodically glared at Xun Ru balefully as if he was to blame for the inhospitable weather.

After they had broken camp earlier that morning, they had disguised themselves as Fire Tribe soldiers.  Zhanshi had used a simple illusion spell to alter their appearance, giving them dark hair shot through with fiery red streaks, copper-colored eyes, and traditional Fire Tribe clothing and weapons. They had left the horses behind two miles back, an invisible magical barrier erected to give the beasts just enough room to graze and gain access water from a nearby stream.  Xun Ru had been scouting ahead, leading the small party to the hidden passageway that would take them to the palace in Sanctuary. Right now they were near the edge of the forest, the city of Sanctuary in the valley below visible in broken glimpses between the shifting foliage. Xun Ru motioned Zhanshi forward as he parted tangled vines with his hand, revealing a deep fissure in jagged rock that had been concealed by the knotted vegetation moments before.

“This is it,” breathed Xun Ru, peering into the darkness beyond the irregular opening. “This tunnel passes under Sanctuary and will lead us to the palace.”

Zhanshi eyed the murky gap in the rock wall dubiously.  “Have you taken this passageway before, Xun Ru?”

Xun Ru nodded.  “I found out about the passageway when I was training for the royal guard from another trainee.  It’s a good way to leave Sanctuary quickly when you get caught in the hayloft with someone’s daughter.  Or wife.”

Xun Ru gave Zhanshi a meaningful look and grinned, but only received a steely glare in return.  By the God’s Seven Snotty Orphans, Zhanshi was a stiff bastard, thought Xun Ru darkly.

“Is there any reason to think that Fire Tribe has discovered this passageway?” asked Zhanshi, ignoring Xun Ru’s previous comment and waving the other two Ice Tribe guards forward.

“I can’t answer that,” Xun Ru responded.  “But the other side is well hidden.  We’ll come out in the storeroom of the apothecary near the palace.  From there, we will need to travel a few streets over where there will be a row of silk stalls. Next to the last stall on the right, there is an a tavern called The Limping Stag.  Another passageway is hidden in the cellar which leads to the Hall of Amity and Accord in the palace.  It’s a repository for documents and the royal seals of Earth Tribe.  It’s rarely occupied.”

Zhanshi blinked at Xun Ru. “Is that all?” he asked sarcastically.

Xun Ru scowled in response. “Just stay close to me. I’ll make sure we get inside the palace safely.”

Zhanshi studied the breach a moment longer, and then shrugged.  “We’ll have to chance it.  We’ll never get to the palace by walking through the city in these disguises.  Xun Ru, you lead.”  

Xun Ru nodded and started to walk forward into the opening, but suddenly halted, peering into the darkness.

“What is it?” Zhanshi asked, his hand moving rapidly to the pommel of his sword.

“I can’t see.  I need a light source,” said Xun Ru.

“Then create one, Xun Ru,” Zhanshi retorted in exasperation.  “Hurry up. We don’t have time for this.”

Xun Ru clenched his jaw, glad that his rapidly flushing face was hidden in the shadow of the immense rock before him.  

“I can’t.  I don’t have enough magical skill.”

Zhanshi did not respond, but Xun Ru heard one of the other Ice Tribe guards give a low whistle of surprise.  Zhanshi pivoted towards the sound.

“Enough!” barked Zhanshi at the guard, and turned back towards Xun Ru.  He made a quick gesture with his hand and a small, luminescent orb appeared hovering just above his palm.

“Take it,” he said tersely, and handed the orb to Xun Ru.  “And try not to get us killed.”

Xun Ru grumbled and snatched the glowing orb out of Zhanshi’s hand.  It was bad enough that the Ice Tribe captain had commented on his dream last night.  Now these fools knew that he didn’t have magic. He felt humiliated, but he wasn’t going to let them ruin his good mood. He was on a mission in his own realm to save his King, and his dream last night had given him renewed hope that he could win Song Bai’s love.

He turned on his heel and set off into the passageway, vowing to put as much distance as he could between himself and his companions as they traveled through the tunnel.

Xun Ru moved nimbly through the familiar corridor, the dim radiance of the sphere in his hand casting a dark, misshapen silhouette of his figure on the earthen wall.   As he progressed forward, he began to think about Song Bai as he had a hundred times already today.  He recalled the image of her standing naked in the forest, silvery moonbeams washing over her pale, supple skin as her leaf-green eyes flashed eagerly. He could still feel her sweet, warm breath on his cheek as he buried himself inside of her velvety depths. The dream had felt so genuine, so natural that he still had trouble believing that it hadn’t actually happened.  

Regardless, he was now more determined than even to make sure it came to pass.  He had seen that same heated look in Song Bai’s eyes when she stole glances at him.  Despite their earlier quarrel at the barracks in Snow Blade City, he was sure that he could convince her that they should be together.  If he could save her father, perhaps it would help soften her attitude towards him…

Xun Ru’s contemplations were suddenly interrupted by a hard push and a noisy grunt in his ear.   He spun around, sword instantly in his hand.  One of the Ice Tribe guards, Tao Min, was standing a few steps behind him, rubbing his nose.

“Ouch,” complained Tao Min.  “Why did you stop so suddenly?”

“Why are you following me so damned closely?” griped Xun Ru. “I was… thinking.”

Tao Min was the youngest immortal in their party, and the friendliest of the three Ice Tribe guards.   While Xun Ru wouldn’t go so far as to call him likable, he was tolerable.  

This one needs a lot more training, thought Xun Ru, which made him wonder not for the first time why Zhanshi had brought him on this mission.

“I wanted to talk to you,” responded Tao Min.  “...and apologize for earlier.”

He had been the guard that had whistled previously, Xun Ru realized, and though he was surprised by the apology, he didn’t let it show.  He regarded the younger guard for a moment and then turned to continue down the passageway.

Undeterred, Tao Min caught up to him and started chattering excitedly.

“I noticed you in the practice yard a few days ago.  You beat some of our best swordsmen, Xun Ru.  You used moves and techniques I have never seen before.  It was amazing. Can you teach me?”

Incredulous, Xun Ru stopped, and Tao Min bumped into him again.

“First,” growled Xun Ru, “...get off my ass!  Second, do you think Zhanshi or your precious Ying Kong Shi would allow me to train an Ice Tribe guard?”

Tao Min looked thoughtful for a moment.  “We don’t have to tell anyone.  You can train me in secret.  In return, maybe I can teach you some of our magic?”

Xun Ru’s mouth fell open at the suggestion, but the old anger and resentment quickly came rushing back in to replace his momentary shock.

“It’s not about learning spells, Tao Min.  I don’t have the ability.  Even if I did, I couldn’t do Ice Tribe spells anyway.”

Tao Min shrugged.  “Maybe you could.  Have you tried?”

Xun Ru rolled his eyes and without another word, he turned and stomped off down the tunnel.  He was starting to suspect that Tao Min was much younger than he originally thought. He was clearly naive and hopelessly stupid if he thought that he could teach Xun Ru Ice Tribe magic.  Or any magic at all.  The idea was preposterous.

Where did this adolescent come from and why was he allowed join a mission as important and dangerous as this one?  And why, by the God’s Ugly Concubines, was Tao Min suddenly clinging to him like tower ivy?

They walked in silence for another thirty minutes, Tao Min still following Xun Ru but keeping his distance.  They finally came to the end of the passageway, marked by a rotting wooden door.  There was an old sack of grain laying against the door, the burlap fabric frayed and  covered in dirt and insects.  Xun Ru stopped and whirled around, half expecting Tao Min to barrel headlong into him again, but the guard was standing a few paces back.  He was regarding the sack with an expression of fascinated horror.

Xun Ru snorted. “You Ice Tribe immortals are a prissy bunch, aren’t you?  Are you afraid of a few bugs, Tao Min?”

Tao Min shook his head, but kept his eyes glued to the skittering insects. “No, I am not afraid, but it doesn’t mean that I like them.  We don’t have such repulsive creatures in Ice realm.”

“Repulsive?” Xun Ru asked, his voice colored with amusement.  He reached down and plucked a large spider from the mouldering fabric, tossing it in the young guard’s direction.   Tao Min yelped and danced aside as if struck with a hot poker.

Xun Ru laughed quietly as he watched the Tao Min flatten himself against the earthen wall as far away from the spider as possible.

“Okay, Tao Min, get ahold of yourself.  How far back are the other two?” asked Xun Ru, still chuckling.

Tao Min looked down the passageway, an unreadable expression on his face.  “They should catch up to us soon. Have you thought about what I asked earlier?”  

He waited patiently for an answer, but Xun Ru could tell that Tao Min was anxious.  He kept glancing down the tunnel and fidgeting nervously with his sword.  

Something more complex was going on here that Xun Ru had not yet pieced together, but it was starting to get interesting, he thought.

“We’ll talk about it later.  Right now we need to focus on getting into the palace,” Xun Ru responded, just as Zhanshi and the other guard emerged from the dim tunnel behind them.

“Talk about what?” said Zhanshi, eyeing Xun Ru suspiciously and then turning his austere gaze upon Tao Min.

Tao Min opened his mouth to speak but Xun Ru cut him off.  “Tao Min was asking about the insects in Earth realm.  He finds them quite fascinating.”    

Xun Ru smiled and motioned towards the grain sack that was squirming with glittering beetles and dark, gangly-legged spiders.  

“Hideous,” the Ice Tribe captain exclaimed.  “Those filthy beasts are found in the Mortal realm in our world. I detest them.”

Xun Ru had to fight the urge to burst into laughter again.  His companions might have strong magic and powerful weapons, but they were still afraid of a few harmless beetles and spiders.  He had noticed that Ice Tribe were a rigid clan, lacking the ability to quickly adapt to new surroundings.  This was likely due to their frozen, unchanging realm.  It was just the type of thing that could get them killed in Earth realm. The environment here was constantly growing and transforming into something new, and often the inhabitants were dangerous if not deadly. These men would have never made it out of the mission alive without his help, and this gave him a renewed confidence.

“Starting now, you will follow my orders,” said Xun Ru.   Zhanshi started to protest but Xun Ru spoke over him.  “This is my city, Zhanshi.  I know these streets and the palace like the back of my hand.  All of you will do exactly as I say or you will end up impaled on the end of a Fire Tribe pike.  Do you understand?”

Zhanshi nodded curtly and motioned at the other two guards.  They bowed respectfully to Xun Ru, indicating that they were his to command.

“Good,” said Xun Ru.  “Here is the plan…”


Song Bai gripped her longbow firmly in her right hand, holding it out steadily in front of her body.  She reached down and lightly grasped the feathered end of the wooden arrow that was stuck upright in the snow beside her.  She notched the arrow and slowly drew the bowstring back, the muscle in her arm flexing against the natural strength of the wood.  She mentally evaluated her target, adjusting her stance to account for her estimation of the arc and drop of the arrow.  Finally, she released the arrow with a snap of the bowstring and the shaft launched into the afternoon sky, speeding towards the target set up on the other side of the practice yard.  Her eyes narrowed as she waited patiently for the target to receive her arrow, but with a blinding speed it soared over her goal and disappeared somewhere behind the barracks. She cursed loudly and retrieved another arrow from her quiver.

She was confused and angry today, and it was throwing off her target practice.

“Would you like some friendly competition, Princess?” said a mellifluous voice behind her.  It was the Ice Tribe King, carrying his own longbow and looking relaxed and sociable.

“I would not,” said Song Bai snappishly, pretending to inspect the fletching on her arrows and hoping he would go away.  She didn’t trust herself to speak to him civilly just yet.

Shi looked surprised and set his bow down carefully on the ground.  He walked over to her and gently put a hand on her shoulder.  “What is wrong, Song Bai?”

Song Bai shrugged him off and moved to take her stance, meticulously calculating her aim, and let loose another arrow.  It whizzed past the target with a buzzing hiss, missing the top by several inches.  She cursed again and tossed down her bow, making a loud clattering noise as the weapon skittered across the frozen ground.

Shi was taken aback not only by her crude language, but also by her changed attitude towards him.  Something serious must have happened for her to be so completely altered from dinner the night before. She refused to even look at him.

“Please, Song Bai,”  Shi tried again. “Obviously something is wrong. What is it? Maybe I can help.”

Song Bai looked up, fury swirling like twin storms in her eyes.  Shi took a step back, realizing that he was in trouble.

“Where is Xun Ru?” she asked accusingly.

“What do you mean?” he responded smoothly.  “Isn’t he in the barracks?”

“Stop lying to me, your Majesty,” Song Bai retorted.  “I know about the mission to Earth realm.  Why didn’t you tell me?”

Shi growled and clenched his fists.  That idiot Servant Master must have told her sister, about the mission and she had then told Song Bai.  Wu Zan’s flirting had gone from entertaining to a liability.  His job description was going to have an addition to it after Shi was finished with him: eunuch.

“Song Bai, please don’t be angry.  I am only trying to help.  I sent some of my men into Earth realm to find out what Mao Jiang is planning.  I also commanded them to find out if your father and the rest of the Earth Tribe royal family was alive.  Xun Ru found out about the mission and insisted on going.”

“With all due respect, your Highness, you should have asked my permission.  Xun Ru is mine to command, not yours,”  Song Bai replied heatedly.

“You are right, Song Bai.  I should have consulted you.  I apologize for not doing so, but I didn’t want to raise your hopes in case the outcome was unfavorable,” Shi said as he moved towards her and tried to place his hand on her arm again.  She moved away from him, shaking her head.

“Your Majesty, I realize that I came to you and asked for help, but do not misinterpret that for weakness.  I am capable of protecting myself and making my own decisions.  Please stop treating me like some delicate flower.”

Shi listened to her quietly, knowing that anything he said right now would likely just upset her further. Normally, a woman raging at him over one of his royal commands would have been exceedingly annoying, but Song Bai was different.  He was distressed that she was so angry with him and worse, suddenly so cold.  Though it unnerved him, he desperately wanted to touch her and offer comfort.

“Just because I want to protect you doesn’t mean that I think you are weak, Song Bai,” he said gently.  “But you are right to be angry.  I will involve you in any discussions regarding Earth Tribe in the future.  And will you please call me Shi?” he added, smiling hesitantly.

Song Bai didn’t respond, but instead turned away from him and stared out across the snow- dusted practice yard, folding her arms across her chest.

Shi sighed, his warm breath billowing out into the cold air in a cloud of hazy mist.  “Song Bai, I am sorry. I don’t know what else to say.  Can please ask your sister to not speak about the mission to anyone else? It could risk the lives of my men, Xun Ru and your father.”

Song Bai turned back towards Shi, a puzzled expression on her face.

“What does my sister have to do with this?” she asked.

“I assumed she was the one who told you about the mission,” he responded.  “Or was it Wu Zan?”

“Neither,” she said.  “Last night I had a dream about going to speak to Xun Ru in the barracks and he was missing.  In the dream, Xing Jiu told me about the mission to rescue my father so I went to join them in Earth realm.”

Shi shook his head in confusion.  “So you found out about the mission from a dream?”

“No, this morning I went to speak to Xun Ru and I couldn’t find him anywhere. None of the stable boys or soldiers had seen him, and his horse was missing.  I thought that he had decided abandon us after our argument yesterday morning, but that dream kept nagging at me.  I went to seek out Dream Master Xing Jiu, thinking that he could help me interpret my dream.”

Shi fet a sense of dread as an idea began to snake its way through his brain.

“I found Xing Jiu in the Imperial Library and he told me that you had sent your men into Earth realm on a mission to save my father, just like in my dream, and that Xun Ru had joined them.  He said my dream indicated that I had some hidden talent at foretelling, and that everything I experienced in my dream would come to pass.”    Song Bai’s cheeks flushed inexplicably at this last statement.

Shi narrowed his eyes, a volcanic rage beginning to build in his core as he realized what Xing Jiu had done.  “What happened in your dream once you met with Xun Ru?”

The delicate blush on Song Bai’s cheeks flared into two bright red spots. She fumbled with her words, being taken completely off guard by Shi’s insightful question.  “I…we...talked.  I told him I wanted to join the mission to help rescue my father.”

Shi knew how Xing Jiu’s dream magic worked, and he was certain by the look on Song Bai’s face that talking wasn’t the only thing that had happened when she had met Xun Ru in her dream.  This must be why she was being so cold to him now.  A wave of jealous fury washed over him.

“Excuse me,” he said abruptly and disappeared in a shower of glittering ice and flashing blue flame.

Song Bai blinked in surprise at Shi’s rapid departure.  She felt exposed and embarrassed after his questioning, as if he had seen what had played out between herself and Xun Ru in her dream just from reading her expression.  It was clear that something had made him very angry, because she had seen his blue eyes shift to metallic copper just before he disappeared.