The young man opens his eyes to a blurred world.
A dark gray blur of sky is just visible through his burning eyes, rain pattering down on his face. Blurred orange light gleams a little way off, with dark blurs on either side—buildings? Trees? Rocks?—and a dark human-shaped blur sitting beside the orange light.
The young man rolls onto his side, trying to blink away the blurriness, but it’s like rubbing his eyeballs with dirt.
Where is he?
More importantly, who is he?
He lies there in the—forest? Is he lying in a forest?—and struggles to remember something—anything.
He tries to move again, using his right arm to brace himself, and his whole body hurts but the pain in his right arm is agony, overwhelming him. The dark gray of the sky whirls around to merge with the fiery orange, and the shadowy blurs swallow him up.
It’s evening when he next opens his eyes, but he can’t tell how much time has passed.
He sits up. He's in a courtyard, hemmed by dilapidated buildings that are strangely familiar. Everything is gray or brown, the sky cloudy, the ground damp. Scattered around the courtyard are—
He scrambles back. The courtyard is studded with coffins. Lacquered black coffins, plain wooden coffins, engraved coffins, stone coffins—
“You’re awake,” says a voice.
The young man on the ground whirls around at the sudden voice, falling back on his palms. His right elbow gives away under his weight and he falls on his back with a cry.
A young male cultivator dressed in simple gray and black robes stands over him. He is tall but very slender, almost fragile, with a wide, expressive mouth and skin as clear and pale as an infant's. Gleaming in his hand is a sword with a white hilt as delicately-molded as the cultivator’s face.
“Who are you?” demands the young man when the cultivator just stands there with his sleeves and skirts flowing around him in the chill breeze that’s sprung up. The breeze smells of rain, and the young man is seized by a sudden insane fear that he’ll be left to die in the rain, as if he’s made of metal and can rust.
His hair, he suddenly notices, is wet. Has he been lying out here all this time?
“Who are you?” the cultivator asks in return. His voice is surprisingly deep coming from someone as thin and anemic-looking as he is. “Can you remember anything?”
“I’m—” The young man’s tries to sit up. “I—I don’t know.” It hurts to speak. He feels something on his chin. Blood. “How did I get here?”
“Now isn’t the time to discuss that,” says the cultivator. He smiles gently. Everything about him is gentle, from the graceful way he moves to the softness of his deep voice. He returns his sword to the sheath on his back and kneels before the young man, dabs at the blood dribbling from his tongue and dripping from his chin. “You may call me Xiao Xingchen.”
“What—what’s my name? How long has it been?”
“Just a few days.” Xiao Xingchen brushes his knuckles across the young man’s forehead as if testing him for fever, tracing it down his cheek and brushing away the fresh blood running from the corner of the young man’s mouth. “Let’s get you cleaned up and dressed, friend.”
The young man suddenly realizes he’s near-naked, dressed in scraps of damp, boody black-and-green rags and covered in mud and dirt. Xiao Xingchen helps him to his feet. He’s stronger than he looks, fingers unintentionally pressing hard on the young man’s tender right arm and sending stabs of agony down to his fingertips. Looping the young man’s arm around his neck, he carefully half-carries him around the run-down house the courtyard belongs to.
Above the front door hangs a sign half-faded with age and sun and rain:
The house has only one livable room, containing a rough-hewn table and benches, shelves, two open coffins, and a single bed. Xiao Xingchen seats him on a bench and bathes him with a damp cloth. The young man is too dazed to feel shame at being treated as a child, at having his limbs maneuvered like a big doll. He feels as if he should be taking some kind of offense, but he has no strength to summon the emotion.
He’s of average or slightly below-average size, he sees by glancing down at his limbs, but wiry—a man of action, whatever that action may be. The limbs themselves are covered in scars beneath the dirt (Tooth marks? he wonders. Was I attacked by wild dogs?) with a thick faded gash in his stomach being particularly noticeable and, bizarrely, a ragged pink line circling where his right arm connects to his shoulder, where his pain is worst. The little finger on his left hand is mottled with bruises and scars around the base and feels like metal spike has been rammed deep into his hand.
As his unfocused eyes drift past his scars, thin lines of blood begin to drip from the fresher-looking of his scars, sealed as they seem to be. Xiao Xingchen gently mops the blood away, binding his wounds with strips of linen.
How could I have forgotten where I got these wounds? he thinks, but that’s as far as his thoughts go. It’s simply too exhausting to do more than sit there, pliant under Xiao Xingchen’s thin white hands, staring with drooping lids at the flickering candle on the table.
Xiao Xingchen helps the young man onto the bed, straightening his arms and legs as if setting a fresh corpse in a coffin.
He covers him with a black cloak and smoothes the straw-filled pillow. “Rest here while I prepare dinner, my friend,” he says, the first thing he’s said since the courtyard.
You know my name, the young man wants to say. You brought me here, you healed me; why? but instead he sinks back into unconsciousness.
It’s morning when he awakes, pale sunlight streaming through the gaping holes in the sagging ceiling and the torn paper covering the windows. Xiao Xingchen is already awake, setting two steaming bowls on the table.
He smiles when he sees the young man’s eyes open. His smile is soft, like everything else about him, showing no teeth, as if he thinks even the smallest flash of canine would be too threatening.
“I hope you like congee,” Xiao Xingchen says. “Do you need help, or—”
But the young man is already out of bed, tottering over the table. Lost memory or not, he’s sure he was never the kind of person to readily accept help. He sinks onto the bench opposite Xiao Xingchen and looks down into the watery porridge. His memories only go back a day or so, but he’s certain he’s never had less appetite even though he should be ravenous.
Xiao Xingchen raises his bowl to the young man in a kind of toast and begins to eat.
The young man hesitates before picking up his chopsticks. Suspicion, it seems, is part of his nature, but he tells himself that had the gray-clothed cultivator wanted to kill him, he had days to do so. Poison would be a waste of time.
He also had days to move you inside out of the rain, another voice whispers. His thoughts are sharper today, no longer clouded by pain and shock, though he still can’t remember further back than waking up in the rain several days before. And didn’t.
Xiao Xingchen smiles gently at him, as if overhearing his thoughts, and his smile is so pacific the young man is almost ashamed of himself.
Another emotion he’s unused to, he unconsciously knows, but there’s something about Xiao Xingchen that makes him instinctively trust him, instinctively want to get in his good graces despite any little whispers in his mind.
It’s this last instinct that spurs him to ask if he can help clean up after the meal, but Xiao Xingchen offers a laugh in response, as if he can’t believe the young man made the offer, and rinses the bowls and chopsticks himself.
The laugh tickles something in the young man’s mind, but the tickle fades before he can so much as try to scratch it.
“How did I get here?” he asks again after the meal. Xiao Xingchen is sitting on the stairs outside the Coffin House, polishing his sword. The pale yellow sunlight blinds the young man as he steps out of the dim house, and for a moment, as his vision is scorched, he sees a flash of gracefully swirling white robes—
“I brought you here,” says Xiao Xingchen calmly, scattering the vision.
“It seemed fitting.”
“Fitting how?” It still hurts to talk, but the young man has a rag ready to catch any dribbling blood from his oozing tongue. There’s a half-healed hole in his tongue, as if something had once been attached to it. “Why here, in this awful place?”
Xiao Xingchen looks up for the first time. “The happiest years of your life were spent in this awful place,” he says, very calmly.
“I don’t think I had any happy years.”
Xiao Xingchen’s eyebrow twitches slightly. “Your memory has returned?”
A flash of confusion. “No—no. I just got that impression.”
“Well, they were happy,” says Xiao Xingchen. “You had…fun.”
“Was it fun?” The words pop into the young man’s head, but he can’t pin them to a person or place. “Yes, of course it was fun!”
And then the words are gone altogether.
There’s an pregnant moment, as if there’s a lot more for Xiao Xingchen to say if he wants. The young man waits, and then, when it becomes apparent the cultivator has said all he means to say, sits down beside him. Closer than a stranger should sit, he realizes after he sits, but it’s too late to move without making things awkward. Instead he casually leans back on his left arm and drags his right arm through his loose black hair. The movement sends a stab of pain from his shoulder straight down into his scarred gut, and he gives a muffled grunt and tries to straighten his arm but can’t.
“Here,” says Xiao Xingchen. He sets down his sword and gently straightens the young man’s locked right arm. “Let me help you.”
“I don’t need your help—”
“Hush.” He seats himself on one of the steps behind the young man and, still with his exquisite gentleness, combs the young man’s thick black hair with his fingers.
Another flash of memory, but it’s extinguished as quickly as the last one.
Carefully, Xiao Xingchen fixes the young man’s hair into an intricate bundle atop the young man’s head, with two long tendrils framing his face and majority flowing down his back like a curtain of the finest black silk.
“There,” he says. “Now you look more like yourself.”
“If you would only give me my name—”
“Too much all at once will only do permanent harm,” chides Xiao Xingchen. Something in his voice makes the young man thinks he’s trying to convince himself as much as the young man. “We can’t risk shocking your system, my friend.”
The young man ducks his head with feigned submission. I’m perceptive, at least, he thinks, tucking away this new hint as to who is. Smart enough not to push an issue when it’s not to my advantage.
What his advantage is, he isn’t sure. But he can wait. Patience, he instinctively knows, is one of his virtues.
Perhaps your only virtue, comes one of the whispers in his ear.
Lies! yells another voice in his ear. Lies! Lies! Lie!
He’s not sure whom the voice is addressing, and he’s busy trying to figure it out when Xiao Xingchen relents.
“This might jog your memory,” sighs the cultivator, rising. He helps the young man up and leads him to the well. Set beside it is a bucket of water. “This is why I brought you back, after all."
Xiao Xingchen blinks, then relaxes into a soft smile. "Brought you here, I mean."
The young man examines his pale reflection in the bucket. He’s good-looking, he’s not surprised to see, though in a completely different way from the delicate beauty of the Xiao Xingchen. He looks younger than he actually is, he somehow knows, almost baby-faced, but the face is that of a stranger.
Xiao Xingchen is watching him closely. The young man shakes his head.
“We have time,” says Xiao Xingchen, smiling again, as if wanting to ensure that the young man doesn’t blame himself for the failure of his memory. He lays his hand on the young man’s bad arm. “Come. Let me help you.”
They sit on the porch steps the rest of the day. Xiao Xingchen finishes polishing his sword, produces reeds out of seeming nowhere, and weaves a basket. The young man sits beside him on the steps, listening as the town comes to life around them.
He could have sworn they were alone up till now, but he must have been mistaken. The Coffin House has been long abandoned, that much is obvious, but the front courtyard is still used to craft coffins for the town and surrounding villages, the finished products being stored in the courtyard behind the house. Idly, he watches the workmen at work in the courtyard, watches as the townspeople pass by the gates of the front courtyard. The young man calls out a greeting to one of the workmen who pass near him, but is ignored, and talking hurts too much to try again. The streets are bustling, the town having come back to life since—
Since what? Why is he surprised to see the town having risen from its—
From its what? Ashes? No, the buildings are too old to have been recently been rebuilt. From its—its dust—? No, that makes no sense, but his mind is suddenly filled with billowing brown dust—
He closes his eyes, focusing on that thought, straining to dive after that flickering thought, but it’s gone like an eel disappearing into the mud.
Xiao Xingchen lays his hand on his wrist. “Are you hungry, my friend?”
The young man opens his eyes. “Not at all.”
Xiao Xingchen smiles. “You must keep up your strength if your wounds are to heal.”
The young man had almost resolved to let Xiao Xingchen explain things in his own time, still oddly reluctant to irritate the mysterious cultivator, but he can’t help but blurt, “But how did I get those wounds?”
There’s a touch of sadness if Xiao Xingchen’s fine black eyes. He hesitates long enough that the young man thinks he’s not going to answer, going to tell him the cultivator’s silence is for his own good, but then Xiao Xingchen speaks.
“Fighting a friend,” he says.
“Fighting a friend?”
There’s more than a touch of sadness in Xiao Xingchen’s eyes now, something the cultivator seems to realize and resent, by the swift change of expression that follows.
“I suppose you can call him that,” he says sardonically, getting to his feet. The bitterness suits him, somehow, but the young man is oddly certain that it never suited him in the past. “You're playing with your hair again.”
The young man lowers his hand from where he was playing with the long tendrils framing his face, opens his mouth to ask another question, but Xiao Xingchen has risen. “The past is the past,” says the cultivator. “Come. Let's go find our supper.”
The young man does his best to keep up with Xiao Xingchen, who seems to take it for granted that his wounds wouldn’t affect his ability to walk. He drags himself along after Xiao Xingchen, who seems to float almost ethereally through the streets, and—did this happen once before?—it feels familiar—
“Potatoes!” calls a vendor, startling him out of his thoughts. “Radishes! Turnips!”
Neither of them have money, as it turns out. Holding a finger to his lips, Xiao Xingchen sweeps a dozen potatoes and radishes off the table and into his basket, gliding off down the street before anyone notices.
The young man hurries after him. He has an idea, though he’s not sure where it comes from, that this is out of character for Xiao Xingchen, and feels an inexplicable sense of bone-deep glee at the thought that he is the catalyst for this. Xiao Xingchen, it’s obvious, would have been satisfied living on watery congee.
Supper that night, and breakfast and dinner for the next few days, consists of boiled potatoes floating in unsalted congee, along with thin shaves of radish. The young man makes himself very witty on the topic of the plain food, but that’s more to amuse Xiao Xingchen than anything else. He sleeps poorly, woken by pain and the tormented little sounds Xiao Xingchen makes in his sleep, but he's getting stronger.
“Still no memory?” Xiao Xingchen asks on the fourth afternoon since the young man has woken. They’re returning from the market, basket full of vegetables.
“Nothing,” the young man lies. Somehow he can’t bring himself to mention the flashes of memory. He’d almost prefer not to have them at all. Something tells him he could use a fresh slate, while another voice, the unhinged voice that’s been growing in strength, hisses, He knows who I am! He knows what happened to me, he must have a sinister reason for not telling me! and fills his mind with thoughts of the gray-clothed cultivator being pierced by a dozen blades, of having his eyes ripped from his sockets—maybe then he’d speak! Maybe then he’d tell him the truth—
Gaping eye sockets. Why did his mind go there?
He lies in bed that night and stares up at the sagging ceiling, turning it all over in his mind. It’s not that the savagery of the image has shocked him. The gruesome pictures feel welcome, if anything. Comfortable. As if his mind is settling into familiar grooves. But there is something about the missing eyes in particular—
Xiao Xingchen is outside, fetching water from the well to clean the young man’s wounds, when it begins to rain. It patters musically down on the thatched roof, gusting in through the gaps and soaking the straw of the two coffin-beds.
It doesn’t even occur to the young man to push Xiao Xingchen’s coffin bed out of the way. After all, his bed is dry.
Xiao Xingchen says nothing when he returns, just smiles as he bathes the young man’s bleeding scars as they listen to the wind whistle through the gaps in the Coffin House.
The young man doesn’t quite know what to make of Xiao Xingchen’s smile. For absolutely no reason, tonight it stirs him with a vague unease. If anything, the young man has gone out of his way to make him smile these past few days. So far the majority of his new life has been spent sitting on the steps of Coffin House, watching the villagers go by, or strolling through the town, all the while talking more than his fair share. He’s grown accustomed to the nail-like pain in his tongue and dribbling blood, and has amused himself by keeping up a steady stream of commentary.
Xiao Xingchen has been receptive, his mobile lips twitching appreciatively at the young man’s observations. Each twitch has sent a spurt of pleasure through the young man.
Well, I am witty, the young man thinks as Xiao Xingchen finishes tightening the last bandage. But out of the jumbled impressions of the man he used to be, he’s somehow aware that he’s not used to giving people joy, at least to those who aren’t tall thin young men with expressive lips and exquisitely delicate features that could have been carved from jade.
Xiao Xingchen tosses the bucket of bloody water out the front door and stands there, framed in the white curtain of pouring rain. The young man climbs back into bed, huddled under Xiao Xingchen’s cloak.
He normally falls asleep quickly, worn out by his daily blood loss, but tonight something keeps him awake. From under half-closed eyelids he watches Xiao Xingchen, watches the damp breeze ruffle his smooth black hair and rustle his gray robes around him like seaweed gently moving in the ocean current. Xiao Xingchen closes his eyes, lifting his face to the rain, filling his lungs with the wet chilly air, then closes the door and goes to his coffin bed. He reaches inside, feels the dampness of the straw, says something the young man can’t hear.
Hesitating, Xiao Xingchen turns and approaches the bed.
“My friend?” he whispers. “If it’s all right with you—”
The young man doesn’t speak, but he rolls over slightly. Xiao Xingchen removes his only slightly damp outer robes and drapes them over the bed for warmth before crawling in beside the young man.
The cultivator’s body gives off more heat than one would expect from someone so anemic-looking, but this is one more thing the young man somehow already knew. He lies very still as Xiao Xingchen settles in beside him, not sure if he should pretend to be asleep or not. He wonders if Xiao Xingchen is going to have another nightmare tonight, if it will wake him, if he'll be expected to do anything about it. Somehow he knows he wouldn't know how to comfort someone.
They lie like that for a long time before Xiao Xingchen speaks again.
“Today, at the market,” he says. “That boy.”
The young man doesn’t respond. There had been a young boy in the marketplace that day, no more than six or seven, selling homemade toys made from twisted reeds and sticks. A wagon had driven by, splashing him and his wares with muddy water and ruining them.
“When he began to cry that his parents would beat him,” continues Xiao Xingchen, his voice little more than a murmur, “and I gave him our fruits and vegetables for him to give them instead of money…I had resolved the matter. Why did you then…”
“Did I what?” asks the young man, genuinely puzzled.
“Why did you then find the wagon driver and beat him so hard he lost three teeth?”
“Made more sense than for us to go without our supper,” says the young man, though in all honestly he’s yet to feel any hunger since he opened his eyes in the Coffin House courtyard. “We did nothing wrong. Why should we suffer for the crimes of another?”
Xiao Xingchen turns so that he’s looking at the young man. “He deserved it?” he says. “He didn’t splash the boy on purpose.”
“He should have been the one to pay, not you. He made us go without our dinner—”
“We stole more food.”
“He didn’t know that!” says the young man impatiently. Xiao Xingchen, as intelligent as he is, can be willfully obtuse. “That man robbed us of our dinner!”
Xiao Xingchen turns so that he’s no longer looking at the young man, instead watching the rain drip down into his coffin bed. “Is that the only reason? Avenging our lost supper?”
“Had the boy’s tears nothing to do with it?”
It dawns on the young man that Xiao Xingchen, for whatever reason, wants him to say yes.
All right, then. For all the young man knows, he’s telling the truth when he shrugs, “He left the child to be beaten; he deserved a beating in turn.” He has a faint memory of a fist and a boot and whip somewhere in his past, though he himself can’t say whether that affected his behavior today.
Xiao Xingchen smiles slightly, not a happy smile, which is somehow concerning, and is silent. The young man wishes the cultivator hadn’t brought the incident up. Had Xiao Xingchen not been there, the wagon driver would have lost a lot more than a few teeth. But Xiao Xingchen had meddled in things that didn’t concern him, dragging him away from the scene, and he resents it. For reasons he still doesn’t understand, he doesn’t like resenting the cultivator.
“The look on your face as you beat him,” says Xiao Xingchen after so long the young man had assumed he’d fallen asleep. “That smile…”
The young man grins with as much wicked charm as he can muster. Lost, perhaps, in the near darkness, but grinning is almost a reflex, a habit, same as his hair-twirling and Xiao Xingchen’s basket-weaving. “Can I not smile anymore?”
“Forget it.” It’s impossible to tell if he’s pleased with the way conversation has ended, or if the young man has made a blunder. “Forget I mentioned it…”
It takes another week before the young man realizes that Xiao Xingchen doesn’t want him to regain his memories.
It hits him as he sits on the stairs one morning, letting Xiao Xingchen fix his hair as usual, watching the workmen labor and wondering if he should make another attempt at striking up a conversation with them or if it would be unwise to draw attention to their squatting in the Coffin House.
“Why don’t you go on night-hunts?” he asks Xiao Xingchen out of nowhere.
Xiao Xingchen fastens the young man’s hair into the last intricate braid. “I can’t leave you alone in your condition.”
“I can come with you. I’ll stay quiet; I’ll carry the sword for you…”
And, those words triggering something, he sits up and turns around at the very sudden clear memory of gazing at Xiao Xingchen in a time long past—a false memory, it must be; why would Xiao Xingchen blindfold himself?—but it’s something—
He’d turned too quickly for Xiao Xingchen to alter his expression. It’s one of anger mixed with grief, and the cultivator swiftly rises and gazes down at him with an uncharacteristic sharpness.
“Fine,” he says, as if to change the subject, stop the young man from tugging on that thread of memory. “We’ll go tonight.”
The young man takes their kitchen knife with him that night, their only other weapon aside for Xiao Xingchen’s beautiful white sword.
He jokes about it as they walk through the silent moonlit woods, jokes about using his knife to fix dinner for any demons they might meet, but though he knows he should feel ridiculous he instead feels completely unafraid. It’s not only that he trusts Xiao Xingchen’s skill; it’s as if, deep down, he knows he can take down a monster with just a vegetable knife.
But he’s promised Xiao Xingchen he won’t step in, and he doesn’t. He watches with fascination as Xiao Xingchen’s swift silver blade dismembers a demon-snake, severing the head with one graceful yet powerful stroke, as if trying to spare the beast pain.
Not how I would have done it, but neat.
Xiao Xingchen glances at him with an unreadable expression as he flicks the blood from his sword.
“Well?” he says shortly. “Any memories?”
The young man shakes his head, noticing a slight relaxing of tension in Xiao Xingchen’s shoulders that the cultivator fails to hide.
They spend the next day fixing the roof, and the rain, accepting their challenge, returns at sunset. After letting Xiao Xingchen clean and bind his wounds, the young man retreats to bed, sitting up wrapped in the cloak. Xiao Xingchen sits shivering at the table as he brushes his ornamental horsehair whisk. Black hair, with a long handle of reddish wood.
It’s the first time the young man has seen it, but he instinctively knows it doesn’t belong to the cultivator.
“Do you ride?” he asks casually, twisting his hair around a finger.
Xiao Xingchen stops his ministrations for the barest fraction of a second.
“There are no horses where I come from,” he says.
The young man holds his twirled hair in front of his face, studiously avoiding looking directly at the cultivator. This is the first hint of his own past offered by Xiao Xingchen. He’s curious, despite himself, and hopeful that it might lead to knowledge of his own past.
“No horses?” he says with a skeptical laugh, trying to goad Xiao Xingchen into revealing more. “Mules, then?”
“No animals of any kind,” says Xiao Xingchen. “Only birds.”
He steals a quick glance at the cultivator. “Only birds? Like in the realm of the immortals?”
A faint look of alarm crosses Xiao Xingchen’s face. “Of course not,” he says. “I merely meant…”
“A whisk for birds?” the young man laughs when it becomes apparent Xiao Xingchen isn’t going to say more. “I’d like to see that demon-bird!”
“It belonged to a friend,” says Xiao Xingchen in a low voice, as if to himself. “As do these robes, as do my…”
“Those gray robes don’t suit you,” says the young man. He associates Xiao Xingchen with white, for some reason, but doesn’t want to risk saying it out loud. He’s learned to hide these hints of resurfaced memory, amusing as it is to ruffle Xiao Xingchen’s half-admirable, half-maddening placidity.
Pain wrinkles Xiao Xingchen’s wide smooth forehead anyway. “I wear them to honor him,” he says, so quietly the young man has to strain to hear. “He spent his life gathering the spiritual cognition of—of someone close to me; his last act was to sacrifice himself in order—in order to…”
“Make up for something long past,” says Xiao Xingchen. “Something that was not his fault. My sacrifice was made willingly.”
“The past is the past,” says the young man, echoing what Xiao Xingchen has told him many times over the past weeks. He grins slightly to show just how much he doesn’t care about his own lost past.
“I don’t know that will ever be true.”
The young man feels a gust of anger at this lost friend. He isn’t sure if he’s jealous, or if he’s angry on Xiao Xingchen’s behalf, or just plain irritated to have their placid domesticity ruined by this faceless and completely inconsequential person.
“Well, we can make it true,” he says. “Damn everyone else!”
A hint of red rises in Xiao Xingchen’s eyes, as if blood is rimming his eyes, and with a shudder he steps out into the rain.
A chill creeps over the young man.
Blood. Blood tears.
Only ghosts or those touched by the supernatural cry in blood.
A rush of rage so pure and potent he could have ripped Xiao Xingchen’s scalp off he been within reach overwhelms him. He’s been lying to you all along! Is he a demon?? You ought to go out after him, beat the truth out of him—
He makes it no more than three steps before collapsing under a sudden burst of agony. He curses, a sizzling tangle of filth that feels at home on his tongue, fingers scrabbling on the floorboards. He used to have a higher pain tolerance, he knows it—
He finds himself laughing for no reason as he drags himself towards the door, but the pain in his right arm is so overpowering, and the pain in his left hand is so numbing when he tries to compensate by shifting his weight, that he passes out right there on the damp dirty floor.
A vague sensation of being lifted, of something brushing his forehead. A pale floating face, illuminated in the rain-filtered moonlight coming in through the window. A warm body beside his. A soft murmur: Stop trying to remember, I beg you…
I will, I swear, he says, not fully understanding what he’s promising in his haze, the agony washing away everything but the present moment. He rolls into the warmth, sleeping, for the first time since waking surrounded by coffins, without nightmares shredding his sleep.
Something has changed the next morning; he can feel it.
As always, Xiao Xingchen is up before him, preparing breakfast. He smiles when he sees the young man’s eyes open.
“I thought we might leave this place,” he says before he young man can open his mouth and demand an explanation of what manner of demonic beast Xiao Xingchen is. “Start fresh somewhere else.”
The young man seats himself at the table.
“Well?” asks Xiao Xingchen. There’s a hint of something in his voice that the young man can’t quite pin down. “Are you better this morning? We can wait until you’re recovered a bit more…”
“I’m fine,” the young man hears himself saying. It’s not what he wants to say, but it’s what comes out. “We’ll need some time to prepare.”
A subtle shift in Xiao Xingchen’s posture, a gentle smile. He’s pleased.
Suddenly the young man decides not to ask him about his bloody tears.
The words bring a strange comfort.
They’re leaving this place, never to come back. Leaving to start fresh, to stop whatever game they’re playing—who’s the one playing the game, the young man isn’t sure, but he abruptly wants nothing more than to stop whatever it is, and simply start over. Start new.
“We’ll go to the neighboring town this afternoon,” Xiao Xingchen tells him. “They have the better market to buy supplies. We can leave here for good first thing tomorrow.”
The young man gives a small nod.
After breakfast Xiao Xingchen heads out to see what he can find in Yi City before they head for the other town, forbidding the young man from accompanying him this time. The young man busies himself in searching the house for anything they can take with them. He knows the house like the back of his hand by this time, but it’s something to do. The bowls and chopsticks, of course, and the canteens…
He lays his selections on the table and pokes around the back of the room, bored without Xiao Xingchen. Under a rotting carpet of woven straw, he finds a handle.
He knows he shouldn’t pull it.
The voices in his head are unanimous on that point, even the one that had once dwelled placidly on gaping eye sockets.
You’re leaving tomorrow. Let it lie. Go boil the water for tonight’s supper; a surprise for Xiao Xingchen…
He pulls the trapdoor open.
Turn around! clamor the voices, like branches clattering against a shuttered window during a storm. You’re leaving tomorrow…tomorrow…
He grabs a candle and drops down into the darkness.
The cellar is larger than expected. Mostly beams holding up the floor of the house, but there are shelves there too, long-rotted provisions and stores and broken coffin-making tools.
In the center of the space is a large array taking up most of the floor. Red paint covered in what looks like fifty years of dust and grime and rodent droppings.
Carpeting the array, caked with their own thick layer of grime, are dozens and dozens of little jars.
He picks one up.
Put it down! shriek the voices. Put it down, there’s still time, you can still leave…
He pulls the stopper.
No! yells the voices. We told you not to!
He stands there, frozen, every nerve in his body on fire, until the door upstairs groans open.
“I’m back,” Xiao Xingchen calls. “Where are you?”
The creak of floorboards, coming to stop near the open trapdoor. Xiao Xingchen drops down through the gap, a smile on his face.
“There you are,” he says. “I brought you a surprise at the market. I was going to wait, but—” He extends his hand.
In his curved palm are two small paper-wrapped sweet.
The last fluttering shreds of memory weave themselves together, and the young man falls to his knees. His mouth opens and closes, but no sound comes out.
“Are your wounds bothering you again?” asks Xiao Xingchen in concern, crouching before the young man. “Do you think you’ll be able to travel? I don’t feel right stealing medicine, but we can always…”
He trails off as he sees the little jars. His eyes fall on the open one in the young man’s hand, and he drops the paper-wrapped sweets in his suddenly-trembling hand as he reads the name painted on the side in red paint:
Time stops. The young man remains kneeling before the cultivator, unmoving, staring at the jar in his hand, at the sweets scattered on the filthy floor.
"...You swore you wouldn't try to remember," says Xiao Xingchen.
A single tear trickles down his cheek. It spatters at his feet, a crimson spot in the dirt.
The cultivator’s hand comes down, solid and white in the gloom, and rests on the young man’s neck, deceptively strong fingers brushing a nerve.
“Welcome back, Xue Yang,” he says, and presses down hard.
Xue Yang wakes tied to the bed upstairs.
He lies very still, opening his eyes only just enough to take in his surroundings.
Scattered around the bed are the dozens of jars, each containing the tongue of one of his victims during the time he lived with Xiao Xingchen and A-Qing, kept fresh by the protective array in the cellar.
Xiao Xingchen stands beside the bed, clothed in white. From his belt hangs A-Qing’s jar, washed clean of all dust and grime.
On his face is a look Xue Yang wants to believe is sorrow.
Xue Yang opens his eyes fully, and Xiao Xingchen straightens up, features smooth again. There’s new look in fine black eyes, an unsettling look that wavers between being far too intense and far too blank at the same time.
“Now what?” asks Xue Yang, straining against the ropes. His arm blazes with agony, but barely notices. He grins, his old psychotic grin, the one that showed the world just how much he didn’t care.
Xiao Xingchen smiles down at Xue Yang, his usual soft smile of gentle amusement. He takes the bound young man’s left hand in one of his, a knife gleaming in the other, and extends Xue Yang’s bruised pinky.
“And now, my friend,” he says; “I have a little fun of my own.”