There was someone in the treasure room.
The half second warning wasn’t enough time to react before a shadow detached from the corner and pinned his arms to his sides, pressing the fine edge of a very sharp knife to his throat.
“Don’t move,” it said. “And don’t try to shout, either, or I’ll drench this whole room in your blood and dump your dismembered corpse somewhere public and conspicuous alongside Chifeng-zun’s head.”
Ah. Jin Guangyao held very still and said, voice level, “what a needlessly elaborate threat.” He wasn’t dead yet. That was either a good sign, or a very bad one.
The shadow let out a bark of a laugh, short and harsh and strange. Jin Guangyao’s hackles rose. “Thought it was better to err on the side of too much, considering.”
“We didn’t exactly part on good terms, remember?”
“Mm.” Something was strange, off. He couldn’t put his finger on it yet; perhaps that was the distracting influence of the steel against his skin. “As you haven’t killed me, I presume there is something you want?”
Another laugh, this one more of a giggle but there was an edge to it that he identified, cautiously, as ‘mad.’ At least the knife stayed steady. “You could say that.”
“Mm,” Jin Guangyao said again. “Well. I can’t do very much like this, can I?”
The arm released him, but only to grab his shoulder and spin him around. Jin Guangyao did not try to fight it, let it happen, and kept his face perfectly calm; he could see his own reflection in the intruder’s nearly black eyes. His fingers twitched toward the guqin string tucked away in his robes, but he stilled them.
“Don’t fuck with me, Lianfang-zun,” the intruder said, voice taking on a harsher edge.
Jin Guangyao did not smile. He didn’t need to pretend at one, and trying would just irritate him. “I don’t intend to.” Not at the moment, anyway. Though he would very much like to know how he’d gotten in here without being noticed. Hopefully without being noticed.
Jin Guangyao should have asked someone to bring him his head. It made a terrible kind of sense that he would find a way to survive.
“Good,” he said, and let go, finally, giving Jin Guangyao a shove back. He didn’t let himself stumble, catching himself on his back foot and straightening his robes.
“Xue Yang,” he said pleasantly. “I didn’t expect to see you again.”
His smile was toothy and savage as ever, but again there was that hint of something off about it - not off in the usual way, the way that was just Xue Yang. “Wouldn’t think you did,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’m not taking it personally.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Jin Guangyao said, straight-faced.
“It was either gonna be you or me eventually,” Xue Yang said. “You just got there first.” He moved forward into the room, giving Jin Guangyao a better look at him.
It was immediately apparent that wherever he’d been, it hadn’t been kind to him. He was thinner, a pared down version of the man he’d been when Jin Guangyao had seen him last. There were hollows around his eyes like he hadn’t slept in days, and a bright, feverish gleam in the eyes themselves. If Jin Guangyao hadn’t felt the warmth of his living body, he might almost have thought him a fierce ghost.
He kept his reaction carefully off his face.
“Are you going to tell me what you’re looking for here, or am I meant to guess?” he asked mildly.
Xue Yang paced around the table, in a slow circuit around the room. Jin Guangyao didn’t turn to follow him, even if his neck prickled with him out of his sight. He was not going to be intimidated, and as with any animal, nothing caught Xue Yang’s attention like the scent of weakness.
Not that Xue Yang was that. Such as a mistake others made, and it made them think he was stupid.
“I can still help you,” he said abruptly.
Jin Guangyao clasped his hands behind his back. “Ah,” he said. “So you’re looking for employment?”
Xue Yang laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, guess I am. I’m bored. I need something to do, and at least working for you was interesting. Betting you still haven’t managed to make a working fierce corpse without me, either.”
“I’m not convinced you are able,” Jin Guangyao said. The words were almost right - Xue Yang did get bored, and Jin Guangyao had been good at keeping him entertained, mostly because the only way of controlling Xue Yang was keeping his erratic energies more or less focused in the direction you wanted them to go.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Xue Yang said. He circled back around in front of Jin Guangyao and hopped up to sit on the table where he’d beheaded Nie Mingjue, legs swinging, and he was smiling now but there was still something strange about it. Something had - slipped, Jin Guangyao thought. Fallen out of alignment. That was...concerning.
“Meaning?” he said.
“I’ve done it.” Xue Yang’s smile widened. Jin Guangyao kept himself from showing any surprise even as he thought, well, that could be a problem.
“Oh?” he said, still carefully neutral.
“Yeah,” Xue Yang said. “I have a fierce corpse under my control. A cultivator. Pretty powerful, too.”
“And when did you manage this feat?”
“About a half a year ago,” Xue Yang said. “But I was doing my own thing for a while.”
And before that? Jin Guangyao thought. What were you doing for the three years before that? And why are you telling me this now? But he wasn’t about to ask, not directly. “I see,” he said. “I take it that this is your attempt to convince me that I should take you back. Am I meant to believe this claim of yours without evidence?”
Xue Yang’s grin had something feverish to it. “No,” he said. “I can show him to you. Only, you should know that he won’t answer to you. Not without me.”
Ah, Jin Guangyao thought. There it was. “Mm,” he said. “That is a bit of a catch. Should I ask if this accomplishment of yours is replicable?”
“You mean, can I do it again?” Xue Yang shrugged. “Probably.”
“Such that I could control it?”
“Probably,” Xue Yang said. “But if I do that you’ll just try to have me killed again, so I won’t. The fierce corpse comes with me or not at all.”
Jin Guangyao considered him. “And if I decide that the trouble you would cause me is not worth a fierce corpse that is not even under my direct control?”
“Then I kill you,” Xue Yang said cheerfully.
“Hm,” Jin Guangyao said. He examined Xue Yang’s face, his body language, his eyes. After a long few moments he turned, slowly, and walked over to his desk to sit down behind it. “No,” he said. “You won’t.”
Xue Yang’s smile held. “You think I can’t?” he said. “You’re fast, Lianfang-zun, but I’m faster, and your guards couldn’t make it in here before you hit the floor dead.”
“Perhaps,” Jin Guangyao said. He folded his hands in front of himself, carefully still. “But that isn’t what I meant. You won’t kill me because you need something from me. Very badly, I think.”
Xue Yang’s legs stopped swinging and he went, just for a moment, quite still. “Yeah,” he said. “Okay. Maybe. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be happy to kill you if you turn me down.”
“I don’t think so,” Jin Guangyao said. His heart was beating very quickly, but he was fairly certain of himself. “You don’t look well, Chengmei.”
The smile slipped off, finally. “Thanks for that,” he said. “Living isn’t so easy without Jin Sect resources to draw on. I’d think you’d know that, a-Yao.”
He ignored the jab; he’d ignored much worse. “You aren’t here because you’re bored,” he said calmly. “You are here, taking the risk of approaching me, because you are desperate.”
Xue Yang moved, then, fast. The knife was gone and Jiangzai in his hand, swinging for Jin Guangyao’s neck, and it was the hardest thing he’d done in some time not to move, to hold still and hold his gaze, and not flinch.
The blade stopped, as he’d known it would, just a sliver of air away from skin. Xue Yang’s eyes were wide, and wild. He looked like a man at the end of his rope, a breath away from unraveling.
Then he laughed, feverishly, and swung Jiangzai away from his neck and back, across his shoulders. “All right, all right,” he said. “You got me. There is something else I want.”
Jin Guangyao adopted an expression of polite interest. His heart was still hammering against his ribs.
“Yiling Laozu’s notes,” Xue Yang said. “I want access to everything you have. Everything. I know you were keeping some stuff back before. And I want materials, too, beyond just what you decide I need for your business. I have - research of my own to do.”
“Research,” Jin Guangyao said. “For what?” Xue Yang shrugged.
“Nothing that’s going to cause you any trouble.”
“Mm. Perhaps I should be the judge of that?”
Xue Yang looked at him for several long moments, stiller than he usually was. Then he reached into the front of his robe and pulled out a pouch, setting it on the table between them. Jin Guangyao did not reach for it - he was, generally, disinclined to touch most things that Xue Yang tried to give him. He thought he recognized some of the writing on it, but not all of it.
“And this is?”
“It’s the remains of a spiritual consciousness,” Xue Yang said. “I want to put it back together.”
Jin Guangyao smiled faintly. “I am going to need a little more information than that.”
That wild, mad light flared in Xue Yang’s eyes again, then vanished. He smiled, almost sweet. “Just someone who died before I was done with them,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter. When I figure it out, they won’t cause you any problems, I promise.”
“Chengmei,” Jin Guangyao said gently. “You know I am not a fool. I am sure you won’t take it personally when I tell you that I do not feel inclined to take you at your word.”
Xue Yang hummed. “I’m offering you a lot here, Lianfang-zun, and I’m not asking for much.”
“Nor am I,” Jin Guangyao said. “Give me a name, or the answer is no.”
Something cracked in Xue Yang’s expression, briefly, and Jin Guangyao’s hand went to Hensheng’s hilt at his waist before he realized that it wasn’t rage but something else. He sheathed Jiangzai, abruptly, and almost flung himself down, leaning forward over the desk.
“I’m telling you,” he said. “I’ll work for you. Anything you want, anyone you want killed, I’ll do it. I’ll make you a fierce corpse of your own and use mine on your behalf. I just need-”
He stopped. Fury and then misery and then, yes, desperation all moved across his face and one of those expressions was familiar, but the others - not so much. Three and a half years, Jin Guangyao thought, and something had torn open in his half-tamed wolf. Someone had damaged him.
“A name,” Jin Guangyao said. “Tell me. Whose spiritual consciousness are you trying to restore?”
Xue Yang sat back. He reached for the pouch on the table and took it back, pulling it close to his chest like it was something precious, but his voice was flat when he said, “Xiao Xingchen-daozhang. I wasn’t done playing with him.”
The words were right, again, but Jin Guangyao looked at the way Xue Yang was holding the broken remnants of the spiritual consciousness of his enemy in his hands, cradled gently between them, and thought, I see.
Xue Yang had always been a creature ruled by the simple dictates of his desires. Desires which had been predictable in some ways, and terrifyingly unpredictable in others, and the trouble with using him had always been that what he wanted could change like the wind, and there was no real leash Jin Guangyao had to hold him. No leverage, no real control.
He looked at that pouch and thought, there is my leverage.
“Thank you,” he said, because he could be gracious.
“Whatever,” Xue Yang said. “What’s your answer?”
He didn’t necessarily need Xue Yang, not now. But getting rid of him would probably be a larger problem. He might not kill Jin Guangyao - no, he wouldn’t. But he could still make things difficult for him. And he could be useful, potentially; the more so now that there was something he wanted enough to beg for it.
“Very well,” Jin Guangyao said. “I suppose you might be able to still help me.”
Xue Yang’s eyes widened. Brightened, like a fire kindling in black depths. “And you’ll help me?” he said, quick and urgent.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Jin Guangyao said.
Xue Yang smiled at him, then; widely, blindingly, and he tucked the pouch away in his robes. “Yes,” he said, as though he’d won a victory instead of handing him a weapon. He should have known that. That he didn’t… “All right. I’m ready when you are, Lianfang-zun. And I know more now. I can do more. Like the Skull-Piercing Nails, I perfected those-”
Jin Guangyao stayed where he was sitting as Xue Yang stood and started pacing back and forth, talking rapidly, too quickly, humming with a manic and barely contained energy on the verge of explosion. His voice was breathless and too cheerful and his eyes, when Jin Guangyao saw them, were feverishly bright.
It occurred to him that it was possible that while he might have a leash, he’d just put it on a firework with a lit fuse.
Well. He’d just have to make sure he wasn’t there when it went off.