Amidst the quiet of Shen’s thoughts, Zed arrives. He’s trailed through the monastery's quiet halls by a rigid acolyte, tense beyond comparison. Has not yet learned the balance of dispassion. Shen glances over his stiff shoulders, clearly waiting for the order to throw him out. An order to attack. An order to do anything at all.
It does not come. Instead, Shen gets up from his meditation and counts the steps between them. Seventeen. Seventeen steps and he could hold a blade to Zed’s throat.
A fantasy. His heart is as secluded as the mountains around them.
(“Blind to fear, to hate, to love, to all things that would sway equilibrium.” He knows the saying well. It’s etched into his memory permanently. Dismally permanent.)
“Leave us,” he tells the disciple. The boy hesitates for a long moment. Hasn’t learned yet.
“With honor,” he finally bites out, leaving the two men alone in Shen’s room.
Their uneasy truce is as fragile as spider’s silk. Shen takes a deep breath. The air is crisp from the altitude and the cold. Colder than Kinkou was.
Zed surprises him by speaking first. His voice is metallic and careful. “You’ve rebuilt.”
(I’ve had to,” he could tell him. “You came and took apart everything I had.”)
Instead. “Why are you here?” Seventeen steps. His sword—the metal one at least—rests by his bedside. His spirit sword (his father’s sword) remains on his back but that will not do against Zed.
With a scrape of metal Zed removes his helmet. He looks sickly. Pale hair falls messily across his forehead and there are dark bags under his eyes. They don’t seem as bright as usual, Shen notices. Whole figure looks a bit faded.
“I need your help,” Zed says simply.
(He sits on the steps of Kinkou. The summer air is warm, even here on the Western mountainside, and it smells of rain. Most students are practicing in the courtyard, meditating in their rooms, spending time leisurely wandering the halls.
But Shen has a shadow. Follows him closer than anything else, and he is thankful. Because he can confide his unwanted anxieties.
“I don’t know if I can do it.” He leans his cheek against his knee. “Be the Eye of Twilight.”
Zed kicks his heels restlessly across the stone steps. “Of course you can. You’re perfect in your studies.”
Even now Shen wonders what Zed would have said, if that day on the stone stairs he’d told him what he really meant.
“I don’t know if I want to do it.” A terrifying thought.)
“My help,” Shen echoes numbly. He did not think Zed would come to him for this. Perhaps to deliver a warning or tell him of some important news, or just to finally slice their spider’s thread in two with a hidden blade.
Zed pulls something from a bag on his belt. He holds it preciously before revealing it. Shen can feel the tides of balance thrum uneasily as he looks at the small black box sitting in Zed’s gloved palm.
“What is that.” His words come out flat.
Zed creeps closer, until they’re nine paces apart. He moves as if trying not to disturb a beast. Wary. So unlike him that Shen realizes that he really is faded and sickly. There is something off.
The box is small enough to fit awkwardly in one large hand and engraved on all sides with—something. It’s hard to read with how dark the color is. Doesn’t reflect light correctly. Shen reaches out to pick it up, hand hovering for a brief moment.
“Where did you get this?” He asks sternly.
Beneath Kinkou? Forbidden. At least, it was forbidden. Truthfully, Shen doesn’t know what this is. He hefts the box cautiously. Heavier than expected. He rubs his fingers along the grooves on its surface. A word perhaps? Can’t really tell. Shakes it once. Empty.
There’s a notch in the top edge of the box. A nearly hidden hinge across from it.
“What’s inside?” He asks.
“I wouldn’t,” Zed cautions, weary.
Shen raises the lid a fraction with the sharpest point of his fingernail. Cracks it open enough to know that it is not empty. Something terrible washes over him. Ancient magic prickles at the corners of his eyes, threatening to tip him off balance. He pitches the box towards the ground, acting without thinking.
Zed catches the cursed object before it touches the floor. He cradles it far too gently in both hands, lid back on tight.
“It’s not meant for you.” He watches as Shen breathes heavily, almost frantically.
(His father is a great man. Imposing in his wisdom and clarity. Shen sits now, cross-legged and thoughtful.
“Tradition,” Great Master Kusho says. “It’s our tradition, our duty, to maintain the balance. Prune the Tree.”
“Prune the Tree,” Shen murmurs. He knows the saying well. “Watch the Stars.”
In the growing twilight his father clasps two hands together. Shen hears a rush of wind in the empty courtyard. There is no breeze but a moment later a sword materializes above Master Kusho’s fingers. It glows as bright as a fire, mesmerizing and magical.
“This blade,” Kusho tells him. “It will be yours one day.”
Shen swallows dryly. He forces down his excitement until he is calm. “Yes, father.”
“It is your birthright.” Kusho holds the sword out to him. Lets him see how it pulses with energy. “It is meant for you.”)
“Quiet,” Shen snaps, unusually abrupt. His mind feels—chaotic. Thrown askew by the ancient contents of the black box. He closes his eyes and reflects on himself briefly. A wave of bitterness swells inside his chest. Directed at Zed but he doesn’t know why exactly. He struggles to calm down, struggles harder than he has in a long time. Eventually his breathing evens out.
He opens his eyes. Zed is still standing, awkward and wrong. Far too close. Shen takes a step backwards.
“What ancient magic is that?”
“Truly I don’t know.” Zed slips the box back into his belt.
“Then what do you need from me?” His tone is level, composure regained.
The assassin shifts from one foot to another. “I have spent a lot of time with—this. Learned how to use its secrets—“ Perhaps his eyes shine brighter. “There is something wrong with it now. I’m certain at this point that it cannot be fixed in this realm.” He meets Shen’s eyes. “It’s draining me.”
“Draining you,” Shen repeats.
Zed does not clarify,
He crosses his arms. “I won’t do this. You have tampered with what’s forbidden. Your lack of restraint has dammed you.”
Zed’s eyes flash. “If not you, then who else? You’re the only one that can walk between worlds.”
Bitterness coils greedily around this throat. “Would not have been, were it not for you.” Ten paces between them. He forces his emotions down again. How long will he keep scratching at this old wound?
“You cry of balance.” Zed sounds robotic now. Like his words are being dragged out. “This is something that is unbalanced. I know you can feel it.”
To his credit, he is correct. Shen can sense the strangeness in the air, hyper aware of it now that he’s experienced the cursed magic first-hand. If there’s one way to appeal to Shen, it’s with his sense of duty. Zed knows this, damn him.
“I cannot do this here,” Shen relents after a lull of thought. “Take me to where you got it.”
He closes his eyes. “Take me to Kinkou.”
It is only a few day’s trek through the mountains to get to Kinkou. Shorter for them with how fast they travel. Shen just wants to get it done with. Traveling with Zed is uncomfortable to say the least. Being near him sways Shen’s careful neutrality. Makes focusing his ki harder. He feels farther away from the spirit realm like this.
They journey in silence, stopping only by unspoken agreement when the hour is too late to travel safely. Even then Shen wants to keep going. But he sees how tired Zed is in his movement. Drained, he’d said.
He meditates while the other man rests.
(“This is not what he meant,” Shen whispers.
“Yes it is.” Zed leads them down the steps towards the forest. Their footfalls are quiet. “Watch the Stars. That’s what we’re doing.”
“Not when we’re supposed to be sleeping.”
Zed looks over his shoulder at him. “You can go back if you want.”
He does not. They continue through the forest until Zed stops. He slaps his hand across a tree’s sturdy trunk.
The branches are thick and numerous and they climb easily. Zed matches him, always reaching a little higher, so Shen keeps going as well, till the tree’s highest limbs sway under their movement. Then they finally stop, high above the forest, the ground, the world.
Shen looks up. Stars bloom across the night sky. He knows every constellation, was taught by his father. Can recognize every holy star. He reaches up, stretches his arm as far as it will go.
“Watching the Stars,” Zed speaks up, still hushed so as not to disturb the forest. “You’re too cautious.”
He glances at the other boy. Moonlight bounces across his stark hair. He can see the stars reflecting in his eyes. It takes a couple seconds before he remembers how to breathe again. “I must practice restraint.”
Zed tips his head back, leaning away and causing the tree leaves to shuffle noisily. Shen can’t help but feel like he’s said something wrong.
“Hey,” he prods. When there’s no answer he shakes the branches beneath them. Their high perch sways and he spies the other boy’s secret smile.
“What did you bring me here for?” He looks at the sky again, then back at Zed who immediately turns away.
He shrugs. “Why not? It’s the solstice.”
Shen supposes that is an acceptable answer when it comes to Zed.
”Tell me about the spirit realm.”
Shen realizes that they’ve been so busy with their studies that he hasn’t had the chance to tell him about it yet.
“I’ve only been there three times so far,” he explains slowly. “It’s—different.”
He hunts for the right way to describe it. “Every time I’ve gone there it hasn’t been the same.”
Zed leans closer. Shen can see it now, the Eastern star in the dark of his pupils.
“It’s—bright...” he trails off.
The problem with being trained to walk between two worlds, is that you end up feeling like you’re not a real part of either. Like you might float away as a phantom that belongs to nowhere.
On this hot summer night he feels closer to the earth next to Zed than he has anywhere else.)
He shakes his head clear of the memory. It’s all different now but the sky above him is the same. He glances at Zed, resting quietly with his back turned. (A taunt almost, he knows that Shen could strike. He knows that Shen will not.) His heart hurts. He quickly finds the Eastern star. It is still as bright as it was all those years ago.
Zed’s eyes are red now. He doubts that they’ll ever show the stars again. Even if they did it would surely not be the same. Shen wonders what his father would think of this. Would he be angry that Shen is helping the man who killed him? Knowing Master Kusho—probably not. His father was the embodiment of neutrality in a way that Shen can only dream to mimic. Blind to hate. The answer is there.
(Blind to love.)
When daylight shows itself they continue on their journey. The silence stretches over them. Shen wants to wrap this up quickly. He is too chaotic around Zed. Perhaps the box that he carries with him enhances that. They stop at a pond to refill their waterskins and Shen runs a wet hand through his dark hair. He’d forgone the mask because both of them know who they’re looking at. His reflection ripples and wavers unsteadily.
Zed’s staring at him when he straightens up. Shen almost wishes he could see his face.
“What?” He asks, breaking the silence for the first time. His voice sounds too loud.
“You look the same,” Zed tells him.
He holds his tongue.
Shen keeps up with Zed, shoulder to shoulder as Kinkou finally comes into view in the fading afternoon. They’ve completed the trip in barely two days. Shen gazes at the familiar temple. He’d spent so much time here. Remains calm and still as they get closer.
“It has been many years.” He breaks the silence once more.
Zed’s shoulders hunch. “I regret the way things turned out,” he admits. “Now I would do things differently.”
“You mean kill my father differently?” Shen asks sharply. Remain calm. Remain still. He steadies himself.
Zed doesn’t answer.
He takes the lead now, Zed trailing just behind as he enters the great hall. Kinkou. At least this hasn’t changed. The walls still reach to the sky and the curves and columns remain steadfast and familiar. There are no acolytes that Shen can see. Perhaps they lurk in the shadows.
He spins on his heel to face Zed. “I wish you did not become what you are.”
Zed pulls off his helmet, eyes narrow and dull. “I wish the same for you,” he says bitingly.
Shen doesn’t understand. The same for you? Zed didn’t want him to become the Eye of Twilight? Leader of the now outcast Kinkou? He doesn’t know how to respond because Zed—as always—is unexpected.
He takes a breath to calm himself but now it is even more difficult than before. Watch the Stars. He remembers vividly how bright Zed’s hair had looked in the moonlight. How special his smile had been. The moment he’d leaned closer—
Another breath. He is not calm. They make the quick walk through the great hall past the courtyard and down the Southern steps to the entrance of the catacombs. Shen has never been inside.
Master Kusho would have been laid here.
Zed pushes past him down the rough stairs and into the dark. Shen follows.
In the winding recesses of the maze-like catacombs, Zed stops. Among the ancient artifacts and small memorials a pedestal sits empty. The box, Shen assumes.
“This is where.” Zed pulls the cursed box out again. It clicks into place on the pedestal.
(“Where—what?” He could ask. “Where you decided to throw everything away? What did you mean when you said you wished the same for me?”)
Breathe. A gulp of stale air. The unbalance is getting to him. He needs to fix this. He needs to—look at Zed and his faded face, the years have not been kind, or perhaps that's the magic—there’s a new scar on his cheek— focus .
He presses his hands together.
(His father’s fingers guide his own. “Hold it here. Hold it in your soul. This is most important.”)
Hold what? The narrow catacombs start to glow with light, energy crackling around him. Zed takes a step back and Shen can count the steps. Six between them and he could put his blade to Zed’s neck.
He sees the light reflect in his eyes.
(There is only one small bed but neither of them complain. Too tired to complain. An entire summer spent on the road. Now it is winter and they keep traveling. The air is cold and the inn they are staying in is drafty. Zed’s feet are colder still when he presses them against Shen’s beneath the blankets. Huddled together for warmth, face to face with each other, Shen is surprised his breath isn’t coming up as puffs of mist.
”How long do you think we’ll be searching?” He asks Zed.
Zed shrugs. Clearly there’s something on his mind. Shen wonders if he meditates much anymore. He never took to it the way Shen did.
The other teen’s frigid leg knocks against his own and he hisses. “Stop that.”
“When we find the Golden Demon I’m going to kill it,” Zed tells him matter-of-factly.
“What—you know we can’t do that.”
“I don’t care.” Zed sits up suddenly, blanket pooling around his waist. “Did you see what was done to that woman? Shen—you saw it!” His eyes are wild, shoulders rigid. “I don’t think this is going to be one of Master Kusho’s stories where there is ‘mercy’ and ‘morales.’ I don’t want it to be.”
Shen is quiet. He did see what happened to that woman. One of the many victims encountered on their search. She had not deserved to die. There was no balance in it. He often thinks about all the grisly scenes nowadays. Nonstop until he can chase them away with meditation.
He sits up too and presses his hand against Zed’s forehead. Cold. Restless. Zed is always restless.
“Calm down,” he tells him firmly. “I saw it, but we can’t.”
“You saw it,” Zed says after a minute, sounding so bitter and different. He let’s Shen’s hand remain. “The Eye of Twilight.” Shen doesn’t understand his tone.
“One day.” His hand falls away but not before it touches briefly under Zed’s eyes, where dark circles have begun to form. “Not yet.”
“What if you never become it?” Zed asks.
Shen laughs at the idea. “It’s going to happen. It’s my destiny. You know I’ve prepared my whole life for it.”
Zed looks at him, gaze unreadable. Shen wants to ask what’s wrong. What that tone meant and what this face means now. Usually he can see Zed’s emotions written clear across his body. When he’s angry his dark eyes flash and he becomes as tense as a typhoon. When he’s happy his smile is lightning, quick and fleeting across his face.
Now he stares at Shen blankly, eyes looking past him.
“Goodnight, Shen,” he says simply. He lies back down on his side, back facing him.
Shen remains sitting for a moment longer. He is confused. Zed often makes him feel like that. Moreso lately. What did he say? His face is burning hot and he doesn’t know why. Dissapointment maybe? He takes a deep breath. Calm. Balance.
Before he rests, exhausted, he silently decides that he’d much rather see Zed’s face than his back. Even if it comes with cold feet.)
Shen does not disappear in a flash of energy like he has many times before. The energy is what disappears. Gone just as quickly as it arrived. For a dreadful second the world is frozen and quiet.
“What happened?” Zed asks.
Shame sets in. His face is hot. What would his father say? Unbalanced . He’s tipped his scales. The Eye of Twilight unable to perform his duty. Shen’s shoulders sag. He stumbles into the wall and lets the stone’s chill seep into his fingers.
“Shen.” He misses his name on Zed’s tongue.
Before, he would not have been afraid to show Zed his weakness. Now he is a cornered dog.
“I—“ He sucks in more stale air. “I couldn’t do it.” He doesn’t recognize the sound of his own voice. Small. “I lack balance.”
He closes his eyes. Can feel the discordance in the air circling around him.
“Of all people—” Zed starts.
Shen’s heart hurts too much. He wants to dissappear. “What did you mean?” He cuts him off. “In the hall. What did you mean when you said that?” He inhales slowly, slides his hands together for meditation this time. A familiar pose. Perhaps if he knows—if he can set it all aside. Blind to all things that would sway equilibrium. Kusho might say that. True neutrality.
Zed yanks his hands apart. Two paces between them, could be less. “Forget restraint. Ignore it.” His voice is acid. It eats its way through Shen’s final inhibitions.
He kicks Zed viciously to the ground, darkness hissing eerily as he lands heavy on the stone. Shen takes his sword off his back—steel, always sharp—and straddles his hips. He lays the blade under Zed’s chin and pictures what it would be like to abandon the life he’s been born into. The image in his mind’s eye is blurry.
“You killed my own father,” he spits, wild. “Broke us apart and took my home!” Almost shouting. Zed is motionless below him, hands half raised. “Betrayed our order, slaughtered our teachers—and you tell me to forget restraint. Had the gall to come to me for help—after everything you’ve done to me.”
This close he can clearly see Zed’s dull crimson eyes. They didn’t used to be that color. They used to hold the stars.
“You are damned! I would kill you—a thousand times over.” It’s getting harder and harder to talk. Too stuffy down here. “I would kill you in both worlds, again and again. I’ve thought about it many times.” Shen grits his teeth, forcing the words out one by one. “I’ve spent—too many nights dreaming—about—“
They sit out on the steps in comfortable silence.
The tree sways beneath the moonlight. He remembers the instant where Zed looks away, caught staring.
Maybe if he’d said something else. Maybe if he’d left his hand on his face for a while longer.
Shen lets go of his sword and it clatters against the ground. He reaches behind him and pulls his spirit sword off his back. At least that remains. It glows especially bright in the dim catacombs. He holds it up above Zed’s face. Sallow skin. Sickly and odd.
He tilts the blade until he can see it for certain, the blue spark in Zeds eyes. The red doesn’t reflect but the blacks of his pupils do. Zed looks up at Shen, unblinking.
Something in him—escapes. Shen sets the sword aside gently. He leans down, back hunched, in pieces, to rest his forehead against the base of Zed’s neck.
“We’re too different now,” he confesses quietly, voice breaking. “Too much has changed.”
Zed’s hands move slowly. One ghosts across his shoulder. The other curls around his wrist.
“I wish you never became the Eye of Twilight,” he rasps. “You had emotions before. Now you’re—stone.”
That’s it then? The calm that Shen seeks. Equilibrium. Blind to fear, to hate, to love. He’d worked so hard for it. Raised to be true neutrality.
Maybe if he’d comforted Zed differently that night. Instead of “calm down” he could have listened. Let him express his pain. All the strange expressions and moments where Shen had felt like he’d done something wrong click into place. He’d gotten more mellow as he’d grown older. Swallowed his emotions down with meditation and balance. Repressed everything as he learned and grew into his role. His duty. It’s his birthright to walk between worlds and use his father’s sword and Prune the Tree and Watch the Stars and—
“I used to wish that too,” he whispers.
—unknowingly leave behind someone he cares about until they leave him behind as well.
“You could have told me.” He looks at Zed. His face could catch moonlight. “I—“ he doesn’t know what to say. It’s not like he can fix it.
”It wouldn’t have changed anything.” Zed’s fingers are still looped around Shen’s wrist. “Your life was chosen for you as soon as you were born. Nothing I could do would have changed that.”
His heart aches still. Different now. It doesn’t ache with years worth of emotions. Only regret. Perhaps it hurts worse.
He touches lightly under Zed’s eye. The frailest, most melancholy pressure. “I’m sorry for your pain.”
Zed’s hesitant palm finds the center of his chest. “I’m sorry for yours.”
Their truce—the spider’s thread that connects them—remains. Shen helps Zed unsteadily to his feet and picks up his father’s sword— his sword. He sets it on his back and rolls the tension out of his shoulders. He doesn’t feel balanced, not like before. But between them he can feel something new. It is not as discordant anymore. Life has fallen even between the two of them.
Shen focuses on that when he brings his hands together and channels his ki . Energy crackles around him and this time he doesn’t fail.
The otherworld is bright. Always bright. Shen covers his eyes with one hand. Through a narrow break in his fingers he can clearly see tangled tendrils of black coursing through the dreamy, blurry atmosphere. He can’t see where it ends. The shadowy strangeness seems to stretch forever into obscurity.
That will not do. He takes his sword and steps nearer. Cutting all of them is a bad idea he thinks. Doesn’t feel right. Shen finds the threads that are most twisted and slices through them carefully. He spends time untangling the darkness till eventually what remains flows freely into the fog.
He breathes—the air is lightning here, alive in his chest—and hopes it is done.
Zed is waiting for him when he returns. Shen always feels like a ghost when he comes back from the spirit realm. Today is not an exception. Zed brings him up into his quarters and lets him rest in his bed. He looks healthier already, Shen thinks tiredly. His eyes shine in the low light and there is more color in his face. He meditates while Shen lies down.
His heart still hurts. What would his father say? Kusho had believed in mercy to a fault. Blind to hate, blind to love. Equilibrium is as bright as the otherworld.
Maybe one day once his wounds close Shen will peek through his fingers and see Zed.
Maybe Shen will see the stars in his eyes.