“This is boring,” complained Misty Peak for the fifth time.

Sen ignored her while he finished adjusting the formation flag’s position. The work would have gone much faster if he hadn’t had her tagging along and doing her level best to get him to do anything except finish the formation. Content that the flag was in the best place he could manage with someone constantly breaking his concentration, he stood and gave the fox woman a hard look.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think that you were trying to make sure I don’t finish this or that it won’t work properly. Almost like you’re still trying to make sure your grandfather doesn’t actually get that relic he wants.”

Misty Peak rolled her eyes. “It’s not like he’s dying immediately. Another day or two won’t make a difference.”

“Maybe not to him, and maybe not to you, but I have places that I need to go after this. Places where I’m already overdue.”

“I’m sure that they’ll understand.”

“Maybe,” said Sen.


He thought about Falling Leaf and Fu Ruolan. It was all too easy to imagine how unimpressed both would be with his explanation about why it took him so much longer to get back than anticipated. While Falling Leaf might just give him the cold shoulder for a year or two, he cringed to imagine what kind of punishments Fu Ruolan might dream up for him.

“You know, on second thought,” said Sen, “that’s probably not true. At all. Besides, if you’re this bored, go bother your grandfather. Or go fetch Li Yi Nuo and bring her back.”

“I don’t actually like him very much.”

“Your grandfather? Why not? He’s personable enough.”

“To you, maybe. It’s different if you’re a fox.”

“How so?” asked Sen.


“Well, he treats you like a person. No, that’s not quite it. He treats you like a peer, which is just the most unfair thing ever. Because you aren’t even close to being on his level.”

Sen shrugged. “True, but it’s not like I have any control over how he treats me.”

“I know,” said Misty Peak. “It doesn’t make it any less frustrating. He treats me like a child, and I let him. Which I hate.”

“Why do you let him if you hate it so much?”

“This is what I’m trying to explain. I can hate him in my heart. I can even try to kill him. But outside of that, if he lays down the law and I’m not ready to challenge his position, I have to accept it. It’s part of my nature. And since I’m now completely sure I can’t take him in a fight, and not at all sure the stories I heard about him were true, I’m not going to challenge him.”

“Oh,” said Sen, “that sounds wildly inconvenient.”

“It is. As for the sect girl, I don’t want to spend any more time with her than necessary.”

“That sounds like an argument for giving her back.”

“You haven’t made an acceptable offer for her,” said the fox in an absurdly exaggerated haughty tone.

“Not true,” said Sen in an equally exaggerated reasonable tone. “I offered you those fine loose pebbles. Pebbles that could only be sourced from beyond the bounds of human civilization. Pebbles that could only be acquired at great personal risk. That offer stands.”

“I feel like someone might have told you that you were funny sometime in the past. You shouldn’t have believed them.”

“I’m hilariously funny but that’s not the point. What is it that you want?” asked Sen. “Make a reasonable proposal, and I’ll consider it.”

“Fifty gold tael,” said the fox.

“If that’s what you want, ransom her back to her sect. They might let you extort them that way. I certainly won’t.”

“Oh fine. You’re no fun,” she said before falling into a thoughtful silence. “Take me with you into the ruins.”Stolen content alert: this content belongs on Royal Road. Report any occurrences.

That gave Sen pause. He had been under the impression that foxes couldn’t enter the ruins at all. Hadn’t that been the reason Laughing River had recruited him in the first place? Of course, he’d gotten that information from the elder fox. That made it more than a little suspect. The fact that Laughing River hadn’t gone in to get the treasure himself, however, did lend the idea a certain patina of believability. It minimally suggested that there was something blocking the fox from getting at what he wanted. Even if there were some kind of trick that would let Misty Peak get in, though, why would she want to? There were undoubtedly treasures of some kind in the ruins that she’d want, but the risks were absurd for both trying to get in and get back out. It would likely be easier and less risky to get treasures and relics from somewhere else. Which meant that there was either something specific in the ruins that she wanted or something that she wanted to make sure that Sen didn’t find. Like a spatial treasure, he thought.

“Why?” he asked.

“What’s with that suspicious look?”

“It’s because of all of the suspicion I’m feeling right now. I wear my heart on my sleeve.”

“If only,” muttered Misty Peak.

Sen didn’t respond to the obvious attempt to get him off-topic.

“It’s an ancient ruin that hasn’t been disturbed for probably thousands of years. There are bound to be all kinds of powerful, valuable, and unique things in there that a girl might want.”

“There’s also a treasure that your grandfather needs to save his life. One that you’d be ideally positioned to steal or keep me from getting if you were on hand. If it were to accidentally fall into your storage ring, that would certainly rectify that power imbalance between you two, now wouldn’t it? I mean, he’d probably do just about anything you asked to get his hands on it.”

Misty Peak got very serious in a hurry. “You may be right about that. Here’s the thing. I’m not that suicidal. He might play at being the kindly old man with you, but play is all it is. He can turn ruthless as fast as any other old monster. You don’t survive long enough to become an old monster without that capacity. Just look at you.”

“What about me?”

“I’m smart enough to know that not all of those stories about you are true, but most of them have something in common.”

“What’s that?”

“When you take a position, you are uncompromising to a level that most would consider madness. That makes you ruthless in the pursuit of your goals at times. Now, how ruthless do you think you could become if you’d had a few thousand years to hone those tendencies?”

Sen didn’t particularly like the comparison or the implications, but he couldn’t really deny them either. “Pretty damned ruthless, I would imagine.”

“Exactly. If I tried to hold that treasure hostage, the value of my life would drop to nothing, immediately. The best outcome in that situation is that he hunts me down and does unspeakable things to me until I hand it over.”

“Weren’t you worried he’d do that if you interfered with me?”

Misty Peak sighed. “That’s different.”

“How is that different?”

“I think you’d need to be a fox to understand.”

“Try me,” said Sen.

“All right. If I could manipulate you, trick you, or simply kill you, then I’d have only outmaneuvered a human cultivator. Since you are kind of famous, I’d have come out of it looking good. In the end, though, I’d have only indirectly inconvenienced my grandfather. It wouldn’t be seen as a direct challenge to his power or authority because I interfered with you, not him. He might have even been a tiny bit impressed, even if he was annoyed. If I take the treasure and try to use it to force his hand in some way, that is a direct challenge. And he would crush me.”

Sen tried to sort out the implications of what he’d just heard, while also trying to decide if he believed any of it. While he sort of understood what she was getting at about indirect influence, it also sounded like a lot of ridiculous hair-splitting to him. That made it a challenge for him to believe. The problem was that he lacked the background with the foxes to know if it actually was ridiculous, or if it just sounded ridiculous to him because he was a human. Given that the stakes were someone’s life, Sen decided that it simply wasn’t his decision to make. Plus, there was the potential problem of actually getting her into the city.

“I’m not going to pretend that what you just said makes sense to me, and I’m not sure it particularly matters. Laughing River told me that there are protections in place to keep foxes out of those ruins.”

The fox woman jerked a little at that as if it was new information. “He really said that?”

“He did. What? Did you think he recruited me for this on a lark?”

“Honestly, yes. You owed him a favor, I assume. So, why not send the human folk hero in to do the job instead of doing it yourself?”

Sen frowned. He hadn’t considered that possibility. He was starting to wonder if he wasn’t being paranoid enough about this entire venture. On the other hand, he didn’t think that old fox was lying to him about that part of it, either. If it were his life on the line, Sen wouldn’t trust the task to someone else unless he had absolutely no other choice.

“I suppose it’s possible,” Sen admitted, “but also not relevant for your purposes. So, here’s what we’re going to do. And by we, I mean you, Misty Peak. If you can talk your grandfather into letting you go, I’ll take you along. Getting into the ruins is on you, though. I don’t have the knowledge or the means to get you past whatever protections are keeping your grandfather out.”

“He’ll never agree to that,” objected the fox woman.

“I guess you’ll just need to be extra charming, instead of your usual level of charming.”

“I’m not sure anyone is that charming. Wait, what do you mean by my usual level of charming? Are you saying I’m charming?” she asked while grinning at him.

Ignoring her question, Sen continued. “Assuming you can talk him into it, and that you can actually get into the ruins, your safety is your responsibility. I don’t know what we’ll find inside, which means I can’t make any promises about either of us getting back out.”

“So, you’d just callously abandon me if we get into trouble?”

Sen stroked his chin a few times before he said, “Don’t be silly. I’m not a monster. It won’t be callous.”