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Dead, Gone, and Other Temporary States of Being

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Jashin and his priest scream. The seal fractures — and something is pulling her, like a hook through her heart — and she's dead anyway because the seal is bright white and hot and then there's nothing —

Nara Shikako drops from the in-between space into a cold room and lands on a cold body. A corpse.

"Shizun!" a voice calls, alarmed and angry.

The strange natural chakra of this place rises and flexes, crackling like a thunderstorm about to burst open. Shikako rolls to the side, falling off the bed the corpse is laid out on, and hits an icy stone floor hard on her hands and knees. Shikako is covered in blood, blood so fresh she's left smears of it on everything she's touched since she arrived. Her hands are covered with it. Her clothing is soaked. It's all over her face, her neck, her mouth. Shikako should be paying attention to the strangers around her, the yelling and commotion, but instead she retches until she's dry heaving and dark spots are creeping in on her vision.

A hand touches her shoulder. No one here has chakra she recognizes (no one here has any chakra) and someone in the room sounds pissed that she's here, but Shikako doesn't have the energy to fight. She lets the hand guide her to lay on her back, away from the mess she's made. Shikako's abdomen screams with pain; she makes an involuntary sound and the hand on her shoulder is joined by another hand that helps ease the motion.

"She's not what I was promised," someone else says, from the vicinity of the corpse. It's probably the one who'd shouted when Shikako had arrived and slammed straight into a corpse. Is this a funeral?

A second voice, nervous, says, "The gods work in mysterious ways—"

"She's dying," the man who's trying to help Shikako interrupts. He speaks in the matter-of-fact manner of a medic nin, and he's leaning over her, taking one of her hands in his and pressing two fingers to her wrist like he's taking her pulse.

"Can you help her?" asks the first voice, curious rather than urgent.

"She's not a cultivator," the man taking her pulse says. Strange energy floods Shikako's arm, her shoulder, creeping towards her chakra coils. "I...don't know what she is."

Shikako is exhausted — and terrified — and this is the worst rescue ever, but she wants to live and no one seems to want to kill her. She scrabbles at her throat with the hand that's not being held and pries the Gelel stone free of its necklace.

It should be a simple movement, to bring the stone down and press it into the wound. It's not. Shikako's hands shake from exhaustion and pain, and are still numb and raw from being pressed against the iced floor. The little shard of Gelel slips from her fingers and goes clattering and rolling away. She grabs for it once, fails to get even close, and then has to watch it get farther away. Impossibly far.

The Gelel stone comes to rest against someone's shoes. The shoes of a man dressed in black sitting on the bed next to the corpse, paused in the middle of stripping the corpse's now-bloodied clothing.

"Please," Shikako says to this stranger. He's not her enemy, and he had asked if she could be helped even though her arrival had also ruined whatever strange funeral service he's holding for this well-cared-for corpse.

The man in black picks the stone up. He holds it gently, even though he couldn't possibly know how important it is. "It's okay." His voice is soft, probably because he thinks she's dying. Because she is dying. He stands to cross the distance in one quick stride and sinking to his knees next to her. "Here. I'm sorry you were brought here." He tries to press the stone into her hand.

That's sweet, but it's not helpful. "Put it in the wound," Shikako tells him. Her vision is greying out at the edges.

She hears the medic leaning over her mutter, "An artifact of some kind...?" and then the man in black is following her instructions, pushing the Gelel stone into her abdomen.

It's exactly what Shikako needs. She passes out.

Shikako wakes up again. She's been cleaned up, in that way that happens when someone wants an injured person to be clean but doesn't want to dunk them in a bath. She's in different clothes, a set of white pants and a shirt that feel more like undergarments or sleepwear than clothes meant for the public. When she stirs someone leaves the room. Someone else stays — a girl a little older than Shikako wearing clothes that Shikako would label "Chinese" if China were a place that existed anymore. Land of Honey has some similar fashions, and places farther afield even more so, but Shikako can taste the strange natural chakra of this place and know that it's...wrong. Like oatmeal raisin when you expected chocolate chip.

"Please drink," the girl says. She pours a gently steaming tea into a perfect, delicate cup. "Lord Luo Binghe will be here soon."

Shikako is tired, but she sits up, waving off the other girl's help. She doesn't want to be touched. She does want the tea, and if they'd wanted to kill her they'd have done it already, so Shikako takes it.

But Shikako can't drink yet. There's a metal bowl at the girl's elbow with a dirtied rag hanging over the side — evidently they hadn't yet had the time to clear away everything they'd used to clean her. Shikako gestures at the bowl. "This is rude," Shikako says, "but I need to spit."

"Oh," the girl says. She looks a little mystified, but she holds the bowl out gingerly and doesn't look offended. Probably because Shikako was recently injured and covered in blood; manners matter less around injuries and gore.

Shikako leans forward, carefully, and scrapes the inside of her mouth with chakra, beautiful chakra that leaps to her control eagerly and does its job well. The urge to spit out the blood and bile in her mouth as forcefully as possible is strong, but the water is already dirty and it would be even ruder to get anything on the girl who's so helpfully holding the bowl out, so Shikako uses chakra rather than force to make sure every last bit of everything is out of her mouth and slide it into the bowl as politely as possible.

The girl moves the bowl away and, looking a little alarmed, asks, "Are you still bleeding inside?"

"No." Shikako can tell just from how moving had felt that everything where she was wounded is tender but fine. She grimaces. "It...wasn't my blood."

If it had been, Shikako would have just swallowed it.

The girl doesn't seem to know what to say to that. She just sits and holds the bowl and looks at Shikako. That's fine. Shikako's not in the mood to attempt small talk, so she's glad to just sip her tea and think.

Lord Luo Binghe, the girl had said. Or, that's what Shikako had heard, but the girl hadn't said exactly that. Not "Luo Binghe-sama" but something similar, and Shikako had just...heard what she approximately meant, and the same was true for everything else the girl had said. That's weird.

Shikako decides not to think too hard about the language aspect of things until she can actually do something about it.

Luo Binghe is likely to be one of the men who had been there when Shikako arrived, probably. The medic, maybe? Shikako tries to enjoy her tea and not worry about it. She should probably eat some actual food, but she's not willing to reveal her hammerspace yet. She has no idea how they'd react to a seal like that, and it might be important later to have a secret stash of weapons and supplies.

She's not really hungry, anyway.

When Luo Binghe arrives, he turns out not to be the medic. Instead, he's the man who'd sat with the corpse and pushed the Gelel stone into Shikako's abdomen. He's even taller than Shikako had first thought, as tall as Ibiki or Jiraiya. He has a delicately drawn red marking on his forehead — a seal, maybe? — and he's carrying a tray of beautifully arranged food.

He dismisses the girl and her bowl of dirty water with just a look, and then sets the tray of food down on the side table. The girl lingers in the doorway, half hidden, looking at the back of Luo Binghe's head with a strange sort of intensity. But there's no threat to it, it's more...okay. Well. It's basically the way Sakura used to look at Sasuke.

Shikako does her best to ignore it. This whole situation is bad enough as it is.

"I hope you're feeling better," Luo Binghe says. She's pretty sure he's also pointedly ignoring his lingering admirer. He introduces himself, explains that Shikako is in a place called Huan Hua Palace in a country or region she's never heard of, and adds, "Mu Qingfang of Cang Qiong Sect said there was nothing more he could do for you, but I could call him back if you have need of him."

"I'm...fine," Shikako says cautiously.

She's not, really, she's so exhausted she could sleep for months and she's in no condition to do anything strenuous, but she hasn't forgotten what that medic, Mu Qingfang, had said — she's abnormal in some way. Probably her chakra system, because the people here feel weird but definitely don't have chakra.

Sounds like an excellent reason to not let anyone go poking around more than they already have.

"My name is Shikako," she adds belatedly. She leaves off her clan name — it's probably not relevant here, so providing it would be meaningless, and it's standard practice not to provide more information than strictly necessary when confronted by an unknown person in an unfamiliar situation.

"Shikako," Luo Binghe repeats, pronouncing the name carefully. It's probably unfamiliar to him. "Forgive this one for saying so, Shikako, but...although Mu Qingfang was unfamiliar with your physiology, he was certain that you have suffered a terrible spiritual injury. Deeper than the wounds caused by any mental manipulation known to us."

Shikako has to take a careful breath in and then let it carefully out. There are bandages wrapped around Shikako's midsection and the sticky-itchy feeling of medicinal paste — Shikako's not sure how much she needed them, given the Gelel stone's power, but it's still nice that they'd tried to patch up her seemingly fatal wound even if it now somewhat restricts her breathing. The teacup is still lukewarm in her hands, but her arms are getting tired from holding it up. There are birds in the trees out the window, calling softly and making the branches wobble and shake.

"We aren't certain why you arrived," Luo Binghe goes on. "It wasn't the result promised. But...if it was my ritual that so grievously injured you..." He glances down, mouth tense and eyebrows furrowed, his expression caught between shame and dissatisfaction.

"No," Shikako says.

Luo Binghe looks up at her. "No?"

Carefully, distantly, trying to push the words out without looking to closely at them, she clarifies: "I was trapped. With enemies. No way out."

"What kind of enemy," Luo Binghe asks, "can do what was done to you?"

Shikako breaks her teacup. It shatters in her hands, fractured by the accidental application of chakra-enhanced strength. She'd reached for her chakra to reassure herself it was still there and forgotten she was holding the cup.

"Oops," she says blankly, looking down at her hands. She hadn't reinforced her skin; blood wells as tea soaks into the sheets. Shikako holds her hands up awkwardly to keep from bleeding on the linens.

Luo Binghe's hands intrude carefully into her field of vision, holding a clean rag he must have retrieved from the various medical supplies still scattered around the room. Slowly, he clears the remains of the poor, beautiful teacup from her hands and presses the clean rag to her new cuts.

It stings, and the pain clears Shikako's head a little.

"I shouldn't have asked so bluntly." Luo Binghe's tone is soft and apologetic. "Whoever they were, you're safe here," he says firmly. "You can stay as long as you like."

Shikako wants to go home, but she doesn't say that. She doesn't say anything, only looks down at Luo Binghe looking at her hands. When the bleeding has mostly stopped he pulls the rag away and replaces it with a new one, this one damp with clean water. He works quickly and efficiently to clean her hands, then apply some kind of medicinal salve, and then carefully wrap each cut.

It's really not necessary, because Shikako can and will heal the cuts herself as soon as she's alone, but it's...nice. Luo Binghe touches her gently but without acting like she might be fragile, and doesn't press her with questions or other demands. In fact, he does most of the talking, freely offering information about Huan Hua Palace's defenses and staffing that no ninja would ever pass on to a newly-arrived stranger.

Huan Hua Palace is apparently a sect of people attempting to achieve immortality via the use of qi, which is the name for the not-chakra power they use that feels like an extension of the natural energy of this place; they're essentially all sages. Normally that would fill Shikako with both overwhelming intellectual curiosity and a deep, practical need, but she's too tired for that. It's enough to know that this place is moderately well defended, entirely too trusting, and full of people who are experts in various matters.

When he's finished, Luo Binghe pauses minutely before releasing her hands. "These arrays," he says, "do they bind you?"

His eyes are focused on the edge of her resistance seals, where they circle her wrists. Given that he can't see that the extend up her forearms nearly to her elbows — most of the seal is hidden by her sleeves — it's not an entirely implausible hypothesis. And they do, technically, restrict her movements, since they are her resistance seals. But that's probably not the kind of binding Luo Binghe is asking about, given that Shikako has just told him she was held captive before being yanked accidentally into his ritual.

Shikako shakes her head. "They're mine." Luo Binghe doesn't need to know what they do.

Luo Binghe releases her hands, finally, but he only looks more interested in the seals now. "You must be advanced in your apprenticeship if you're already creating full arrays," he says.

"I finished my apprenticeship," Shikako fibs, because there's no way she's going to be able to pretend to be a novice if she wants to actually work towards going home. She didn't technically have a sealing apprenticeship, just a few conversations with Jiraiya, but being on a genin team is probably analogous to an apprenticeship.

It's important to say things that are mostly true while in enemy territory with no way to get home. Now is not the time for complicated lies.

"This one understands," Luo Binghe says. "The ritual that brought you here was meant to summon help with a matter of some importance. Perhaps it didn't fail completely."

Shikako blinks slowly at him, keeping her face carefully blank. "You were trying to kidnap someone just to demand their help?"

"Of course not. We were aiming for a god." He says this like it's a very typical thing to do, and also a little more earnestly than she'd have expected — eager for her to believe he hadn't purposefully snatched her into this world.

"Oh," Shikako says, lacking a better reply while her brain catches up with the implications of this new information.

It makes a certain kind of sense. She had been in that god-space, that unreality, a place that wasn't really a place, where only willpower really mattered — and of course grabbing a human would have to be easier than grabbing whatever god they were aiming for. If they'd set the ritual up to use the least power possible, taking the path of least resistance the way Shikako would design any seal for a similar purpose...

"I don't know how to summon any gods," Shikako says carefully, which is actually true. Gelel had been...a whole complex thing. Jashin doesn't even bear thinking about. Summoning the Shinigami is apparently extremely possible, but whatever notes exist on the hows and whys of Naruto's seal aren't the kind of thing anyone's just left laying around where Shikako could swipe a copy.

Still, she feels more settled now that she knows he wants something from her. Even if it's something Shikako can't or won't give, negotiation is familiar and making herself useful will make the people here more inclined to help her get home, so long as she's not too useful.

"That's only one avenue being explored," Luo Binghe says dismissively, because he apparently has the resources to try to summon gods and try other things. "It might be that you have some other answer. Tell me — do you know anything about the preservation or resurrection of the dead?"

What's dead should stay dead, Shikako wants to say, but that's definitely not what Luo Binghe wants to hear. Instead she says, "That depends on why you're asking."

There's a momentary pause, and then Luo Binghe sits back. Shikako hadn't been unaware that Luo Binghe could likely be dangerous to her, but now his eyes have a strange light to them. "My teacher died before his time. Saving my life. I need to bring him back."

There's a lot of emotion packed away into those three sentences, but not a whole lot of actual information.

Luo Binghe leans forward. "I have promised Shizun that he and I would never be parted. If you can assist me in any small way, whatever reward you desire will be yours."

Some parts of what he's said don't need much thinking about: Shikako has no interest in helping anyone raise the dead for any reason, even if Luo Binghe's teacher was the best teacher in the world. Without chakra coils Edo Tensei probably wouldn't even work, and it's hard to even be sure if souls work the same in every universe. Shikako definitely isn't going to try to find out, so it will be basically true to say she knows nothing helpful about raising the dead.

Other parts are more complex: Shikako has a really easy solution to body storage, assuming she can fix the problem of no one here but her having any chakra to activate a body scroll...but should she?

Ninja don't really hold with life debts being important, and because this isn't the village Shikako is technically in enemy territory, so professionally there's no reason to help more than she feels she needs to to survive and Shikako wouldn't feel bad about screwing any of these people over to get home.

But she is stuck here for the foreseeable future and she's too weak to even make it out of this palace. For now, she's reliant on Luo Binghe. Depending on the local socio-political climate she might still be reliant on him later, at which point it might become awkward to try and explain why she'd held back fairly innocuous technology about corpse storage — the body scroll is so ubiquitous back home that even the small, minor villages have it. Shikako's pretty sure it was deliberately leaked because everyone suffers when bodies aren't properly cleaned up.

So. If she's going to share it, probably better to do it now than it is to wait. Luo Binghe has clearly already guessed some of what she might know just because she's covered in seals. Also, and the importance of this can't be overstated, it will give Shikako something to do. Anything besides thinking about what happened, about Aoba, about if she'll be able to get home, about what she'd seen

A project will be nice. A simple challenge.

"I know an...array that can be used to store corpses without allowing them to decay," Shikako says, using Luo Binghe's word for seals.

"How soon could it be prepared?" Luo Binghe asks. Then he gives her an appraising look — probably realizing that she'd almost died not too long ago — and adds, "Is it taxing? We can prepare a room and assistants—"

It's almost tempting to let him go through the time and trouble of preparing things she doesn't need just to give herself a little breathing room, but Shikako shakes her head. "I don't know what kind of arrays you use, but I just need ink and paper," she says, and she means to explain more about body scrolls to mitigate Luo Binghe's expectations, but they're interrupted by the arrival of a young woman dressed almost entirely in a variety of red scarves.

"My lord," the woman says, "Mobei-jun has returned."

Luo Binghe rises from his seat. "When Qin Wanyue comes back, tell her what you need," he commands Shikako, and sweeps from the room.

Qin Wanyue must be the girl who'd been in the room when Shikako woke up. She doesn't reappear immediately after Luo Binghe and the other woman have left, so Shikako picks at the food Luo Binghe brought and then sinks back into her bed, intent on catching what sleep she can.

The girl who must be Qin Wanyue wakes Shikako up when she enters, and doesn't seem convinced by Shikako's assurances that it's fine. "You were terribly injured," Qin Wanyue says, her voice wobbling a little as she watches Shikako drag herself into a sitting position and stretch her arms over her head. "I was given instructions — you aren't to move so much — if your wound reopens—"

"Oh," Shikako says, lowering her arms sheepishly. Apparently the medic hadn't stuck around very long. "It's okay," she tells the girl, "it's healed."

With Qin Wanyue's help Shikako manages to strip the now-useless bandages off of her abdomen, revealing the new, whole skin below. There's nothing wrong with her physically, and the Gelel stone isn't even inhibiting her chakra usage this time. But she's still tired, so tired she could lay back down and go right back to sleep.

"But...they said you didn't have even a hint of how..." Qing Wanyue reaches a hand out, as if to brush her hands across Shikako's stomach and check its condition.

Shikako catches her hand at the wrist, holding it maybe a little tighter than she strictly needs to. "I don't think you need to touch me," she says very, very pleasantly. It's important to clearly state boundaries, because Shikako doesn't want to accidentally stab anyone.

"Sorry," Qin Wanyue says quietly, retracting her hand. She disposes of the used bandages and then returns to the room to find out what, exactly, Shikako needs to produce what Luo Binghe wants.

It's a simple list: low quality paper and ink to take notes on and use as scrap, high quality paper and ink for prototypes and the finished product. Qin Wanyue delivers all that and a writing desk suitable for using in bed. The ink is tragically the kind Shikako is going to have to grind and mix herself, which just seems like a lot of work. Worse is actually having to use a brush for notetaking instead of something sensible, like a pen, but Shikako can do it. They spent an entire year having to write everything with a brush in their kunoichi classes.

Shikako has to determine if cultivators can use seals first. She divides one of the pieces of good paper into several smaller sections, sized to be easy to hold. Then she cuts her thumb with chakra-sharpened teeth and bleeds into the well of the ink stone and makes a half-dozen simple LED seals that should light up if any substantial amount of energy is put into them. Grinding the ink is the worst part, but at least it doesn't take that much.

These people seem trusting and probably unfamiliar with sabotage, considering they haven't even set a guard on her room, so when Qin Wanyue comes back with dinner Shikako hands the LEDs over and asks her to circulate them around Huan Hua Palace and see if anyone can put power — qi — into them to produce light.

"If they get hot, you should probably stop whatever you're doing," Shikako advises when Qin Wanyue takes them.

"No one will set the paper on fire accidentally with qi," Qin Wanyue says, a little condescendingly, like Shikako is worrying about something silly. "Elemental manipulation requires focus."

Shikako shrugs. "I just thought I'd mention it," she says vaguely. The seals probably won't explode.

There are a series of loud noises that might be explosions early the next morning and the definite smell of some part of Huan Hua Palace burning. The sect's disciples scurry through the halls and across courtyards like panicked deer, and at first Shikako thinks maybe someone's been careless with her seals — but it soon becomes clear that it's actually a fight of some kind.

It's hard to get an exact picture of what's going on without having ever seen these people do much more than walk across a room, especially with the way cultivators blend into the natural energy so much more than chakra users, but there's definitely an intruder. Cultivators like Qin Wanyue feel almost like the Fire Temple monks, who'd trained so closely with the natural energy around their temple that their chakra became almost indistinguishable from the dragon vein under the temple. Even Luo Binghe, who Shikako gathers has been at Huan Hua Palace for some time but trained elsewhere, blurs at the edges, like he's unsuccessfully trying to sink into the local natural energy. The only people who really stick out are people like the scantily-clad woman who'd called Luo Binghe away the day before, who Shikako thinks might be from some kind of alternate school of cultivation. The intruder who Shikako can sense darting between Huan Hua palace's buildings and swooping around in the air doesn't stick out quite as much as that woman, but he still obviously doesn't belong.

But really, the important part is that none of the cosmetic and/or structural damage being done to Luo Binghe's extremely fancy sect compound are Shikako's fault. In fact, it turns out that the seals are, in fact, completely inert to cultivators. Qin Wanyue returns them with breakfast and reports that they'd just seemed like paper with odd calligraphy, rather than any kind of artifact.

That's a complication when it comes to providing Luo Binghe what he's been promised, but it's not unexpected and Shikako might even be able to turn it to her advantage.

When Luo Binghe stops by to inquire about her progress, Shikako holds a fresh LED seal out to him and asks him to put qi into it for her.

"Of course," Luo Binghe says, and takes the seal without question.

This close to Luo Binghe as he tries to activate the seal and able to focus on nothing but the seal and what Luo Binghe is doing to it, Shikako can feel the natural-ish energy that they call qi circulating in his body, seeping into the paper, and working its way into the materials...but it's like it just doesn't catch on the chakra ink. The qi brushes against the ink, mingles with it and the paper, but Luo Binghe might as well be mixing water and oil.

Of course...there's probably one thing the Huan Huan Palace disciples hadn't tried. When Luo Binghe tries to give the seal back, Shikako doesn't take it. Instead, she says, "What about your other kind of qi?"

Luo Binghe's hand tenses, crinkling the seal a little. "My other kind of qi," he repeats.

"Maybe you call it something else." Shikako shrugs. "The power you have that Qin Wanyue doesn't. Try that."

Luo Binghe slowly retracts the seal and tries that other power, without clarifying what it is or isn't called, which is annoying but not strictly relevant to Shikako's current goals and therefore not worth pursuing. The other kind of qi doesn't interact with the seal, either, so this time when Luo Binghe tries to hand the LED seal back Shikako takes it.

"What is the array meant to do?" Luo Binghe asks, because Shikako hadn't bothered to explain before asking him to try and use the seal.

She had assumed, when he took the seal without looking for clarification or assurances or some less important test dummy, that Luo Binghe had simply already heard from Qin Wanyue or one of the other disciples that the LEDs are inert. But that's not, apparently, the case. Luo Binghe either hadn't known Shikako gave out seals among his people, seals that could have done anything, or he knew but for some reason didn't care to ask after details.

That's certainly something to ponder if or when Shikako needs to get things done without Luo Binghe finding out.

For now, Shikako pushes a sliver of chakra into the LED so that it lights up with light so bright and clear that she can't look directly at it.

Then she stops and lets the light fade — she has plenty of chakra, but putting sustained effort into things is too hard. She's only been able to work on this project in fifteen to twenty minute chunks of time, constantly interrupted by the overwhelming need for another nap or the constantly-lurking impulse to stare blankly at the nearest wall and do her best to think of nothing. And sometimes — sometimes, when sleeping and not thinking both fail her — she can't help but think about Aoba, and the light fading from his eyes, and the taste of blood in her mouth, and...

...and she's kind of glad for this project.

"The energy I use is different from the energy you use," Shikako says, tucking the LED away with the others on her lap desk. "A child with a few years' training could light that array, but your power...I think it can't even tell the array is there. Incompatible hardware."

Luo Binghe frowns at her a little. Right, they probably don't have even the most basic technology here, not even secretly like in Konoha.

"You can't use my arrays," Shikako clarifies.

"I see. Perhaps, if you explain the base concepts to Huan Hua Palace's master array craftsmen—"

Hastily, before Luo Binghe can try and suck her into teaching another sealing class, Shikako says, "That won't be necessary. I can adjust the array for your needs. Probably."

Luo Binghe nods and stands. "I have much to do. I will return when you've completed the array."

Shikako takes her time adapting the body scroll for Luo Binghe. It's tricky enough to make seals that work for civilians back home, but cultivators don't even have the weak, innate chakra that Shikako would usually expect, and if Shikako isn't careful with how she sets up the release trigger then the corpse inside the scroll could end up released by any number of things because the release trigger lacks the easy failsafe of requiring chakra to activate.

Plus, taking her time with testing allows Shikako time to recover and time to snoop. When her head is too foggy for work and her body is too restless for sleep, Shikako traverses Huan Hua Palace from top to bottom, investigating every nook and cranny. She finds a meeting hall so well-appointed it's only just shy of tacky, an acid-based prison that seems like it should belong to a cartoon supervillain, and more gossip than even ninja would be able to generate.

There's no way (or reason) to ascertain the truthfulness of most of the gossip, including the lurid and increasingly graphic descriptions of the supposed tragic romance between Luo Binghe and his late teacher, Shen Qingqiu. That's...firmly none of Shikako's business, and probably overblown, anyway. Some of the gossip is useful, though, like the revelation that Qin Wanyue was being literal when she called Luo Binghe's scantily-clad lieutenant a demon.

Through trial and error, Shikako also learns exactly how easy it is to sneak around — very easy — and eventually carefully investigates Huan Hua Pavilion, where Shen Qingqiu's body is kept as close to alive as Luo Binge can manage. The first few times she makes sure to go look around when Luo Binghe is busy elsewhere, but eventually she miscalculates and enters the pavilion without double-checking that Luo Binghe is still absent from Huan Hua Palace.

She finds him kneeling by the bed. Clinging to the ceiling above him, she can see the way his hands hold Shen Qingqiu's gently, pushing his qi through Shen Qingqiu's body.

"When you wake up, I hope you'll forgive me," he murmurs to the corpse.

He bows his head over Shen Qingqiu's hands, and then he might start to weep, but Shikako's not sure — she's fled the pavilion by then, unable to stomach the grief thick in the air.

None of the seal prototypes explode so suddenly that the Huan Hua Palace disciples tasked with helping Shikako test her seal lose anything more than a bit of pride. The tests do pretty much destroy what was once a pristine, tranquil training yard that was probably meant for quiet, contemplative kata practice, but Luo Binghe hadn't even wanted her to try and fix it. "The sect has disciples for that," he'd said.

She could have informed him that it'd take about three minutes for her to smooth out the ground, but Shikako didn't actually want to fix it. She was just asking if she should, to be polite.

After what she'd seen in the Huan Hua Pavilion, she'd picked up the pace on development enough to finalize the design just over a week later. It had proven too complex to make a body scroll that a cultivator would be able to use from start to finish, and frankly probably a waste of Shikako's time. Better instead to make a scroll that a chakra user like Shikako can use to seal a body away but that any cultivator can safely disrupt.

Shikako will continue to be valuable so long as she's the only one who can put Shen Qingqiu's corpse back in the body scroll should someone unseal it and doing it this way saves her time and effort. The best of both worlds.

The first test Luo Binghe wants is on a freshly slaughtered pig, thoughtfully provided by the kitchen staff. Shikako lays the seal down on top of the pig and seals it as easily as she'd seal a human corpse. Then she hands the seal over to Luo Binghe. He carries it around for a week and then she shows him how to take the pig out of the seal.

"Just as promised," Luo Binghe notes after he's looked over the pig for signs of decay and damage. "You've done well."

There are more tests, of course — the preservation of Shen Qingqiu's body seems to be the only thing Luo Binghe applies any level of caution to — but Shikako has apparently done well enough to earn a few steps towards going home. Luo Binghe summons her to one of Huan Hua Palace's lesser halls to meet the cultivator who had led the summoning ritual that had dragged her out of godspace and into this world.

"Have you met him?" she asks Qin Wanyue as she politely pretends to follow the other girl towards the meeting as if she hasn't already snuck through every inch of Huan Hua Palace.

"A few times." Qin Wanyue worries her bottom lip between her teeth. "He's a monk from some obscure religious sect...he was here looking for converts when he heard of our lord's need..."

"Huh," Shikako says, because there's not much else to be said about such useless information. She leaves Qin Wanyure behind when she reaches the meeting hall, secretly glad Qin Wanyue won't be attending because Shikako's already seen more than enough of her helpless sighing over Luo Binghe.

Luo Binghe and the monk are deep in discussion of something, but they both look up when she enters.

"Ah, this is our visitor, of course," Luo Binghe says, smiling as he looks up at her. "Shikako—"

But Shikako has stopped listening.

She's looking at the monk.

His features are utterly unfamiliar, with a face like that he could be anyone, but there's something about him...her skin itches as she approaches him. Her breath catches in her throat when she watches his lips form the words to greet her. He bows politely, apparently unphased by whatever external expression Shikako is making, and a bronze talisman slips out from where it had been tucked inside his collar and dangles there under him, catching the light just so.

Shikako's hand closes around the hilt of the Sword of the Thunder God. She brings it down quickly and turns the blade on at the last second.

The monk's head and body tumble to the ground separately and the head is already laughing when it lands. "Bitch," the severed head spits. "You think that's good enough? Jashin-sama told me all about you!"

The monk's hands twitch towards the monk's head.

Shikako moves forward, ready for further dismemberment.

A hand on her shoulder stops her — Luo Binghe — and then another catches her wrist. "Sleep," he says, and despite her half-baked plans to break free and burn Huan Hua Palace to the ground if that's what's necessary, she does. Lights out.

The first thing she notices, with some relief, is that Qin Wanyue isn't the one sitting by her bedside. The second thing she notices is that this time they've actually set a guard. The third thing she notices is that that guard is Luo Binghe.

Shikako would say that that's overkill, but on reflection...if it were anyone else, Shikako would have sprung out of bed ready and willing to go around or through her guard in order to go find the monk.

"Is he dead?" she asks Luo Binghe when she opens her eyes. She doesn't bother to sit up. She feels impossibly heavy, but also tightly-strung, like she might be able to snap from the pressure.

"No," Luo Binghe says.

"You need to kill him." She keeps her voice carefully steady. Not emotionless, she's not capable of that right now, but far away from hysterical even though that's how she feels. "If you haven't figured out how, yet, then I can help—"

"He's finally proven he actually does know something about raising the dead and keeping them risen." Luo Binghe is draped in his chair like a bored, lazy predator. His eyes focus on her, watching her for movements, and the delicate, complex seal on his forehead has reappeared.

"He'll kill everyone," Shikako tells him.

Luo Binghe sighs. "I only care about Shizun."

Shikako shoves herself up, literally unable to take this laying down. "He," Shikako repeats carefully, "will kill everyone. That's what his god does. That's what it's for. No exceptions. Even if he raises Shen Qingqiu for you..."

"I could kill a god," Luo Binghe says contemplatively, "for Shizun."

"It isn't the kind of thing you kill." Shikako takes a ragged breath. "I saw it, Luo Binghe, and it's not a thing that can die. It's too...big."

Words fail her, fall clumsily from her tongue because she's so full of emotion it would be easier to try and tear Luo Binghe's face off right now than it is to reason with him. How can she explain looking into the endless depths of Jashin, the way it had wrapped around and around, the way every horrible depth was truthfully just one thin layer over the next deeper and even more horrible layer?

"You know what they did to me," she says, quiet and desperate and knowing that it won't be enough.

"Do I?" asks Luo Binghe. "I never pressed, and you never said. The enemies that you wouldn't even speak of..." He trails off leadingly.

Shikako hates him for a moment, just a moment, for making her relieve it, but she pushes the feeling aside. Haltingly, Shikako tells him: "I was on a mission with my—" She has to think hard for the right term, because she's only recently started to pick apart the automatic translation her brain had learned to do on the trip over. "—my elder martial brother. And it...seemed like the animals were sleeping, but then the kids..."

She stops talking.

Luo Binghe waits.

"A whole village wasn't enough," Shikako settles on, slowly folding to rest her arms on her knees and then her head on her hands because she's dizzy, the edges of her vision blurring out of focus. "Nothing ever would have been. I couldn't leave him behind, and we couldn't escape, and they — they made me drink—"

She can't say it. She can still, even now, feel the blood on her tongue, and she can't go a day without carefully navigating around thinking about it, but if she says it then she'll have to look right at it and she can't. She can't. This isn't the time or the place. It might never, ever be the time or the place.

At some point, Luo Binghe has left his chair. He's knelt down in front of her and carefully, carefully, like she's a fragile animal he doesn't know how to pet, he rests his hand on the top of her head. He gives it three gentle pats.

"This one understands," Luo Binghe says, his voice soft like he had been that day she'd caught him talking to his teacher's corpse in the Huan Hua Pavilion. "I shouldn't have doubted you. You've only helped me, and you don't even care about...of course it wasn't just prejudice."

Shikako looks up at him, and he smooths his hand across her hair one last time before removing his hand.

"I'll kill him for you," Luo Binghe promises her. "And the religious order he came from, too. But..." Luo Binghe's brow furrows. "...he probably knows the easiest way to get you home without getting you even more lost."

"I don't care," Shikako says, even though she's almost tempted to potentially damn this whole reality just to go back to her own. The fact is — "We couldn't trust anything he told us, anyway. It's better to look for an alternative."

Assuming there is one. If there isn't... at least whatever happens it won't involve Jashin, which from now on is Shikako's minimum standard for all life choices.

"If we can't find a way to send you back, you can always stay with me," Luo Binghe says.

People will die if she doesn't go home. People might be dying right now, depending on how time works. But if she can't go home — if that life is lost to her — "Maybe," Shikako says, "but I won't stop looking."

Luo Binghe's hand settles on her head again, one more gentle pat, because he's maybe never heard of hugs or possibly is aware Shikako might accidentally try to stab anyone who gets that close right now.

"I know," he says to her, and Shikako supposes Luo Binghe of all people would understand.