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Shi Qingxuan picks up the sword. The handle is cold in his hand. He’s held many swords over the course of his lifetime and subsequent (wrongful) ascension, and though he’s no connoisseur or martial god, he knows when a sword is good and well-balanced.

This sword is one of the finest he’s ever held, rusted and dull as it was. It must have belonged to someone imminently famous, or inherently wealthy, but years of neglect have blunted its edge, eons of salt water have formed clusters of dull red rust along the once-shining blade.

A fitting end, he thinks. Very poetic, using a sword that has fallen so far to take the life of one that has plummeted from grace.

Ming Yi – no, Black Water Sinking Boats – is still watching him, his golden eyes narrowed and slitted like a cat’s. He feels a prickle of – something, some emotion that is greater than words alone, trailing down his spine.

His brother is also watching, though warily now that Shi Qingxuan holds a sword in his hand. He looks at his brother, who has borne the weight of so many lies on his back for so many years. His brother, who has tried his best to keep him from harm, who has gone so far as to turn himself into a thief and a liar to save his little brother.

He looks at the sword in his hand. He Xuan holds up his brother’s head by the hair, baring his brother’s throat. Even from afar, Shi Qingxuan can see his brother’s throat bob as he swallows.

“Well then, go on.”

The voice is Ming Yi’s, is Black Water’s. It’s the voice of his best friend, and his worst enemy. It’s the voice of someone he’s known for so many years. It’s the voice of someone he never knew. It’s the voice of the man he has wronged for all this time.

He looks down at the sword, at its rusted, faded blade.

He runs a finger along it, testing its sharpness. Sharp enough to cut through flesh and bone, though dull enough that there would be pain.

He looks at his brother, who’s closed his eyes, as if waiting for Shi Qingxuan to strike him down.

He looks at He Xuan, who looks back at him with his emotionless yellow eyes and his blank, blank mask of a face.

His brother, or his godhood.

Shi Qingxuan almost laughs at how easy the choice is.

He holds the sword firmly in his hands. He wills his hands to stop shaking. He takes one step forward towards his brother and the demon, then another, and a third, and he keeps going until he is standing in front of them, barely an armspan away.

Choosing between his brother and himself is almost too easy.

He breathes in.

He lifts the blade up, higher and higher. He holds the sword between his clenched hands, blade pointed downward at his brother’s bared throat.

He sees the glimmer of unshed tears in his brother’s eyes.

He brings the blade down.

Shi Qingxuan is lauded as the Wind Master, who is known for his whimsy and not for his prowess – there is a reason he’s not a martial god after all. But he knows anatomy. He knows where the major organs of the body lie.

The rusty sword slides home between his ribs.

He read once, some time long ago, about a hero who sacrificed himself to save his people. He doesn’t remember what the book was called, or where he had read it, but what he does recall is the scene where the hero raised his sword up high in the air and drove it through his own chest.

The book had portrayed the scene in vivid detail, down to even how easily the sword slid through bone and tissue like it was all paper; how the hero felt no pain at the action, but instead a glorious, joyful bliss that he could use his own body to protect his people.

In the book, the hero had collapsed slowly and gracefully towards the ground as the people around him gasped in shock. His red blood ran down the blade of his sword in steady trickles, forming a small puddle beneath his prone body. His vision slowly darkened. His breaths gradually grew fainter. Those around him screamed, but he heard them as if he was slowly sinking underwater.

After the first, pain-free breath after he drove the sword through his stomach, Shi Qingxuan finds out that fiction is just that – a fantasy.

Nobody had written about how much it hurt to be stabbed through the chest. A choked moan escapes from his lips, despite his best attempts to press them tightly together. His nerve endings are on fire, and it’s as if a hot iron brand had entered his stomach and was searing it from the inside out. He forces himself to release his grip on the sword even as his hands scrabble to pull it out of him. The area where the sword entered pulses with every breath he takes.

His brother’s screams are very loud, and Ming Yi – no, He Xuan’s eyes are round. There’s no underwater mumbling, nor is there any sort of fading vision.

He takes one more step forward, and he feels his legs give out beneath him from the pain. His knees hit the ground – one thunk, and another.

His brother rushes forward and catches him before he falls forward. Shi Qingxuan only realizes he’s screaming and crying when his face falls into his brother’s shoulder.

“It hurts, ge, it hurts.”

He knows He Xuan is watching, and he turns his gaze to him.

“Did it hurt this bad, Ming-xiong? He Xuan? Whatever should I call you?”

He feels a laugh bubbling up from – from somewhere, he doesn’t know where.

“Did it hurt? Do you feel pain?”

So he laughs, and he laughs, and then he starts to feel light-headed from all the laughing. Or maybe it’s the fact that one of his lungs isn’t working properly anymore. He can feel the way his chest is tightening and his breaths are catching in his throat.

“Ge, it hurts. I can’t breathe properly. Ge.”

His big brother looks down at him with absolute despair in his eyes, and he feels his heart break once again. Or maybe it’s just one of the pieces of it shattering anew, because he’s only now realizing how much he took for granted.

His luck. His luxurious life. His brother’s unconditional love.

He Xuan’s unbounded hate.

He’s so tired of it all.

“Qing Xuan, don’t close your eyes. Qing Xuan!”

He opens his eyes – when did they close? – and he realizes he’s lying down. Someone’s hands are pressing down on his wound. He’s lying in his brother’s lap.

“Ge?”

“Good. Stay awake now.”

The hands press down harder, and they start tugging on something. Shi Qingxuan screams when the sword gets jostled and every nerve ending in his chest is lit on fire.

“Ge-ge, it hurts, please, make it stop, please.”

Someone’s saying something, softly. He strains to hear it.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please. I’m sorry.”

But it’s too much effort, and he slips under. The darkness is cooling, and he welcomes its painless, soothing embrace.

He breathes in. And out.

In.

Out.

In...

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