Wu Xie died in his sleep.
Zhang Qiling, sitting at his bedside, one hand wrapped around Wu Xie’s fingers, noticed the exact moment when Wu Xie stopped breathing, when his heart stopped beating.
For the longest moment, he expected his own heart to follow. Wu Xie was gone: what was Zhang Qiling’s purpose in existing, now?
But no; his body kept working, the way it always did. (Wu Xie had insisted he was human; Zhang Qiling wasn’t quite so convinced himself.)
Wu Xie was so very still. So different to the way he’d been in his sleep even five minutes ago.
Pangzi, on Wu Xie’s other side, noticed moments later. His face broke. He shook Wu Xie by his arms, he called, “Tianzhen!”, and something in Zhang Qiling just—shattered, completely and irrevocably, at this confirmation of what he’d already known and yet still, unconsciously, hoped wasn’t true.
He kept his hand where it was, around Wu Xie’s own, and he didn’t move and didn’t say anything and he tried not to think—but here he still was, alive, and Wu Xie, dead, and Zhang Qiling couldn’t, he couldn’t—
His connection to the world, severed, and he was lost.
Wu Xie’s hand was so very cold in his.
He refused to let go.
As long as he didn’t let go, he could pretend nothing had changed since Wu Xie had taken his hand before falling asleep; he could pretend the touch continued, a moment suspended in time, a link to when Wu Xie had still been alive.
He stared at Wu Xie’s face, but Wu Xie wouldn’t open his eyes again.
“Xiaoge,” Pangzi said at some point. “Xiaoge, you have to . . .”
There was an idea at the back of Zhang Qiling’s mind: an unspeakable one, and yet something he couldn’t reject. Wu Xie’s death broke something inside him that would never be whole again, or else he wouldn’t let himself even think of it. Now that he had—
Zhang Qiling had the keys to the universe. All his obligations, all his duties: all for nothing, if he couldn’t even save Wu Xie.
“No,” he said out loud. “I’ll fix it.”
Pangzi’s hands settled on his arms. Pangzi caught his gaze and held it. “Xiaoge, he’s dead. He was sick for months. We knew—you can’t—we have to—”
Pangzi had no idea what he could or couldn’t do.
“Do you trust me?” Zhang Qiling asked.
The heartbreak on Pangzi’s face was evident. “Always,” he said after a moment. “But—there’s no fixing this, Xiaoge.”
But there was.
“Trust me now,” Zhang Qiling said, begged.
Pangzi’s fingers dug harder into Zhang Qiling’s arms. “He’s dead,” Pangzi repeated. “Whatever you’re thinking of doing—he wouldn’t want you to—”
“It’s Wu Xie.” Zhang Qiling willed Pangzi to understand. “I can fix it.”
Pangzi stared at him. “Xiaoge, I loved him too, but—right now I’m worried you snapped completely.”
“Trust me,” Zhang Qiling repeated. He was going to do it with Pangzi or without him, but—he didn’t want to fight his friend.
“Fuck it,” Pangzi said. “I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t let you try. But Tianzhen asked me to take care of you. Don’t make me break my word.”
Zhang Qiling nodded.
Pangzi let him go. “For Tianzhen.”
For Wu Xie.
Pangzi organised a refrigerated van that would keep Wu Xie’s body safe until their destination. They took turns driving, all the two thousand kilometres and a change, all the way to Erdao Baihe at the bottom of the Changbai Mountains.
“Wait here,” Zhang Qiling ordered when they arrived.
After the last three days, Pangzi was out of arguments.
Zhang Qiling put his backpack with only the minimum equipment necessary on his front, carried Wu Xie on his back, and started the long climb to Changbai Mountain.
The last time he’d made his way in this direction, Wu Xie had followed, too stubborn for his own good, loving Zhang Qiling when it would’ve been easier not to. Now, Wu Xie was limp on his back, a dead weight in an all too literal meaning, and Zhang Qiling couldn’t let himself think about it or the rest of the threads that connected him to his sanity, already frayed, would snap.
Wu Xie would be back soon. That was what counted here.
It was freezing cold, but the weather was better than it’d been 13 years ago. Zhang Qiling didn’t let himself pause for rest. If he was a demon like he feared he was, if he could push his body to inhuman feats like he knew he could, then what for, if not for this, if not to bring Wu Xie to the one place that could save him?
He kept going, ignoring the burning pain in his muscles and the biting cold on his face, until he finally reached the Bronze Gate—and froze in place. He hadn’t seen the outside of it in 13 years, too; hadn’t looked back after coming out of it.
He was not supposed to make the journey back here this soon, or maybe not ever again. He was not supposed to open the Bronze Gate for his own purposes, out of a selfish need. He was supposed to guard it. But he knew the secrets to the world, and he knew about the Ultimate, and he would break all the rules, cross every line he’d ever set for himself, stomp on everything he’d ever believed in—all for Wu Xie.
He shook himself back into motion. He took the ghost seal out. Once the door started to open, he picked Wu Xie up, stepped forward—
ten years of darkness and solitude and nothingness and a secret bigger than the universe, ten years during which he forgot himself and remembered anew and forgot and remembered again, ten years that he only survived for Wu Xie—
He caught himself before he fully lost his balance and fell. He tried to control the small tremors running through his body.
It wouldn’t be the same as then, now. And even if it were—even if it were a hundred years—as long as Wu Xie was all right, it’d be worth it.
He walked in.
Zhang Qiling came out of the Bronze Gate, Wu Xie walking on steady legs next to him.
Wu Xie stopped him before they left the cave. He took a look back at the Gate, then turned to Zhang Qiling, took his face in his hands, and kissed him long and hard.
He was so very alive, strong, breathing fully and freely once more.
I missed you, Zhang Qiling thought. Don’t leave me again.
And Wu Xie, who could always understand him without words, said, “I’ll stay now.”
They made their way back to the village at the bottom of the mountain in a few days: wonderful days filled with Wu Xie’s continued presence near him.
Back in the village, Pangzi cried as he hugged Wu Xie tight.
(Later, Zhang Qiling would remember what seemed off—Wu Xie didn’t hug back.)
A miraculous recovery was what Wu Xie and Pangzi told everyone. They stayed in Wushanju for a few days, and Wu Xie welcomed and reassured his family, his friends, even more loyal business acquaintances. There were parties and celebrations, and Zhang Qiling stayed at the sidelines and watched Wu Xie wonderfully alive.
(They’d thrown out the bed where Wu Xie—they’d thrown out that bed, and at night Zhang Qiling lay awake on a new mattress next to Wu Xie, watching his chest rise and fall.)
And then, finally, they returned to Rain Village and their house and Zhang Qiling let himself believe that he’d managed to glue the broken pieces of his life back together.
The house awaited them unchanged, full of dust, but with working electricity and water.
(Why wouldn’t it be working? They’d only been gone for a few months, for all that it had felt like years.)
Pangzi and Zhang Qiling cleaned the house thoroughly. Wu Xie read his journals, those from the time that Zhang Qiling had missed from the look of them, deep in thought as he did so.
“Wu Xie,” Zhang Qiling said when Wu Xie stayed hunched over his journal instead of going to sleep for the third day in row. “Is there something you forgot?”
Wu Xie shook his head. “Everything’s very clear. Just—you never told me what’s behind the Gate.”
Zhang Qiling was, if anything, relieved by the question: he hadn’t been sure how much from beyond the Gate Wu Xie experienced, how much he remembered, and the less the better; the more human it meant he was.
“The Ultimate,” Zhang Qiling said, barely suppressing a shiver at the memory. The Ultimate had brought Wu Xie back, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t horrible; an eldritch creation older than the universe; too much for a human mind to comprehend and stay unchanged, Zhang Qiling knew all too well.
Wu Xie kept his eyes locked on Zhang Qiling’s face, as if demanding a further explanation, but Zhang Qiling remained silent.
After a while, Wu Xie closed the journal and followed Zhang Qiling to bed.
The first time Zhang Qiling let himself really fall asleep again, deep enough to dream, he woke up crying. Tears streamed down his face, and he fought to calm himself down, pressed his wrist against his mouth to silence his sobs and tried to stop shaking.
Next to him, Wu Xie lay awake, alive, nothing like Zhang Qiling’s dream at all; the most beautiful view Zhang Qiling had ever glimpsed.
He didn’t touch Zhang Qiling.
“What’s the issue? You brought me back.”
Zhang Qiling knew it, but the memory of seeing Wu Xie stop breathing, just like that, one moment there and then gone, was too hard to shake. He allowed himself a moment of weakness and reached to check Wu Xie’s pulsepoint, reassure himself by the strong and steady beat of his heart.
Wu Xie’s eyes seemed so dark in the night.
“Xiaoge,” Wu Xie asked one evening, tracing his fingers over the tattoo slowly disappearing from Zhang Qiling’s skin as he caught his breath, “What is the Ultimate?”
Zhang Qiling closed his eyes. Wu Xie had to know he couldn’t answer, but his curiosity made sense. After all, the Ultimate was why he was still alive—no, not still. Alive again.
Wu Xie’s touch changed into a scratch as he ran his fingernails down Zhang Qiling’s chest. “Xiaoge.”
Zhang Qiling turned on his side and kissed Wu Xie’s questions away.
It was supposed to be an easy outing, proposed by Wu Xie, which was how they found themselves running away from a corridor absolutely covered with shibie, to the point that the floor and walls looked like they were moving.
“Xiaoge,” Wu Xie said, his voice cold and calculating, “use your blood.”
Zhang Qiling unsheathed his sword before he let himself think about Wu Xie ordering him to do that. Pangzi grabbed him by his arm, halting his movement.
“What the actual fuck, Tianzhen?” He rounded up on Wu Xie. “Did you hit yourself on the head?!”
Wu Xie looked at him, distant like an alien galaxy. “With his blood, we can just walk through here. Without it, we’ll have to double back and find a new way through. It might take us hours, if an alternative even exists.”
“And we’re not in any rush, are we? Or in need of anything inside this tomb? We’re here for fun. Xiaoge isn’t a walking bug repellent—Tianzhen, what’s up with you?”
Zhang Qiling shrugged off Pangzi’s hand and cut through his palm. “He’s right.”
(Over a decade ago, Wu Xie grabbed his wrist in an insects-infected forest and stopped him from shedding more blood.
But they all changed with time.
And Zhang Qiling had always been and would always be willing to bleed for Wu Xie.)
Pangzi’s eyes were full of horror.
The days after were tense. Zhang Qiling could hear Pangzi and Wu Xie arguing more than once and always steered himself right in the opposite direction.
Wu Xie had been right. They’d gone through the shibie-infested corridor in under half an hour. They’d made it out safely. It had made sense to use all of their resources.
Zhang Qiling only wanted them to live peacefully again.
Living peacefully had to wait because not a week after that, Xie Yuchen asked Wu Xie to lead a team investigating old ruins in the south of Fujian. You were sick two months ago, can’t he give you a break, Pangzi complained loudly, but it wasn’t as if Wu Xie was going to refuse Xie Yuchen.
And Wu Xie was physically perfectly all right. Zhang Qiling knew the real reason behind Pangzi’s protests, but he kept quiet as always. He trusted Wu Xie.
A team of well-trained, disciplined, and loyal (or at least well-paid) people awaited them at the ruins. Discovered by accident after an earthquake, they weren’t that old—Ming Dynasty, at a glance—but Xie Yuchen wanted to know what was inside and couldn’t get away from business meetings, so in they went in his stead.
Everything would’ve been all right—it had been a residential building, most likely, so it lacked the traps omnipresent in the tombs—if one of the team didn’t have bad luck to rival Wu Xie’s. Li Shuling had stepped on a wrong stone, activating the first trap Zhang Qiling had seen in the place.
The floor opened under her.
Zhang Qiling had thrown himself forward, reaching for Wu Xie, because Wu Xie was standing right next to Li Shuling, and Zhang Qiling knew he was going to try and catch her and fall down himself—
But Wu Xie stood perfectly still. He knew what was happening—he was looking in the right direction—and he didn’t even move.
It was a surprise big enough that Zhang Qiling barely managed to stop himself before he would’ve collided with Wu Xie, his movement designed to catch him rendered useless.
Still shocked, he looked down, hoping that maybe the trap wasn’t lethal, maybe all he needed to do was to throw down some rope; jump down himself and prop Li Shuling up—but the gap under the floor was filled with sharp spikes; she was dead the moment she fell onto them.
If Zhang Qiling had known—if he had reached for her, he would’ve caught her in time. But he’d operated on the assumption—on the years-long knowledge that Wu Xie would try and save anyone and everyone he could. He would’ve tried to save enemies, much less one of the people under his command.
Zhang Qiling stared at him for a long moment without understanding. Even Pangzi seemed struck speechless.
Wu Xie walked away.
(He’d died mere five weeks ago: of course he’d act different. Of course he might become paralysed at the thought of throwing himself head-first into danger.
It made sense. It had to make sense.)
Another nightmare: an older one. In Zhang Qiling’s dream, it was Wu Xie who went behind the Bronze Gate for a decade, and it was no longer Wu Xie who walked out.
The Ultimate wasn’t meant to be witnessed by humans.
He sat up, breathing hard, fear wrapped around his heart in tight chains. Next to him, Wu Xie’s eyes were open.
“I’m here,” Wu Xie said, and pushed Zhang Qiling back down, ran his hands down his chest.
“Right here,” Wu Xie repeated, and Zhang Qiling’s body started answering to his touch..
Wu Xie wasn’t gentle, for which Zhang Qiling was grateful; he wasn’t sure he could take gentleness now. Wu Xie fucked him fast, rough enough to prove beyond any doubt that they both of them were alive and there, in the real world. He bit on Zhang Qiling’s collarbone hard enough to draw blood, and Zhang Qiling arched underneath him.
When Wu Xie kissed him later, Zhang Qiling could still taste his own blood on his lips.
Wu Xie was gone when Zhang Qiling woke up in the morning.
Panic had Zhang Qiling out of the bed and at the door naked before he realised that there was any number of reasons for it, starting with Wu Xie woke up first and went to eat breakfast. Zhang Qiling paused long enough to put on pyjama bottoms and made a beeline for the kitchen.
Pangzi was there. Wu Xie wasn’t.
Zhang Qiling blanched.
Wu Xie wasn’t there, Wu Xie was gone, Zhang Qiling would never see him again and Wu Xie was gone gone gone—
“Xiaoge. Xiaoge, hey.”
Zhang Qiling realised he was currently in the process of having his ribs crushed by Pangzi’s embrace.
“Tianzhen’s fine. He said he wanted to grab something from the city, but didn’t want to wake you.”
Zhang Qiling let out a shaky breath. He relaxed into Pangzi’s touch and leant his head against his shoulder.
Of course. Wu Xie just went on a drive. It made perfect sense. So much more sense than Zhang Qiling hallucinating the past few weeks to deal with his grief.
Pangzi ran his hand up and down Zhang Qiling’s neck, like he didn’t care Zhang Qiling’s tears were soaking his shirt.
Wu Xie was back. He’d been back for weeks now. Why did Zhang Qiling overreact like that?
He pushed at Pangzi, but Pangzi only released him to sit him down on a chair near the kitchen table. “I told him to wait for you, but you know how he gets. Feeling better, Xiaoge? I’ll make you food.” He passed Zhang Qiling a tissue.
Zhang Qiling shook his head. He wasn’t hungry. He’d been—terrified, for a moment. Scared in a way he hadn’t been since Wu Xie’s phone call, Xiaoge, I’m sick.
But everything was well now.
“Tough luck, Xiaoge, food is good for you.” Pangzi opened a fridge. “But speaking of Tianzhen. Is he all right?”
As far as Zhang Qiling could tell, yes. “He doesn’t remember the Ultimate,” Zhang Qiling said, knowing that Pangzi was likely worried about that. “He’s . . . normal.”
Like Pangzi, not like Zhang Qiling.
(A voice at the back of Zhang Qiling’s head asked, Then what was the point, if Wu Xie’s still human? What was the point, if he was still going to die in twenty, thirty, forty years?
Zhang Qiling had no answers.)
“You saw him in those ruins. And before—he shouldn’t have asked you for blood,” Pangzi said, and oh, they were back to that argument, apparently. He started to angrily chop down spring onions. “And don’t tell me you don’t mind. I know you’d do anything for him, but—Xiaoge, I’m worried.”
Wu Xie didn’t talk about remembering his own death, but it was . . . A lot to deal with. If that meant he acted more cruel than usual—well, he just needed time. Zhang Qiling wasn’t going to let it bother him.
“He’s Wu Xie,” he said. “It’s not been long.”
Pangzi nodded. “Well, we shouldn’t go to any more tombs for a while, is all I’m saying. Let him rest at home. Get used to being healthy again.”
Zhang Qiling could agree with that.
(Wu Xie only returned in the evening, but he’d texted earlier, so Zhang Qiling forced himself to wait and not walk the fifty kilometres to the nearest town on foot.)
Two days later, Zhang Qiling’s phone started ringing during lunch. Not many people had this number, and the two most likely to call him were currently sitting right next to him.
It was Zhang Haike, and Zhang Qiling had a feeling he knew what the call would be about.
He walked to the garden to take it without Wu Xie or Pangzi throwing friendly insults at Zhang Haike, and was proven right.
Wu Xie watched him pack.
Bringing dead Zhang Family members home was his duty. He hadn’t really known Zhang Qianli, but it changed nothing. He would take him on his last road to the Zhang Family Mansion.
“I’ll go with you.”
“Did you bring me back just to abandon me here?” Wu Xie asked.
Zhang Qiling looked at him, shocked. This—
Is Tianzhen all right, Pangzi had asked.
Zhang Qiling’s left hand itched where he’d cut himself in the tomb.
Zhang Qianli had been found in Fuzhou, because he hadn’t died during a tomb raid, the way it was normal for Zhang Family members. Zhang Qianli, however, had been murdered. His sister had found him and had alerted Zhang Haike, who had alerted Zhang Qiling, who had told him to send all the other Zhang Family members away.
One death didn’t mean anyone was targeting them, but it wouldn’t hurt to remain careful.
Zhang Qiling wasn’t there to take the body to the Zhang Family Mansion. A legal transportation to Guangxi would be arranged, and he would only take over in Banai. He was there to find any hints about the murder.
Zhang Qianli had been found in a small room of a flat he was renting while staying in Fuzhou. Zhang Qiling found the address easily, let himself in, and took a close look at the body. No marks and no wounds, so he suspected some kind of poison—a fast acting one. Zhang Qianli would’ve been trained in recognising toxins and would’ve likely carried antidotes when he travelled.
Zhang Qiling heard steps coming in the direction of the flat and reached for his sword. Then the steps came close enough for him to recognise their rhythm and he relaxed marginally.
“You didn’t tell me you came here to investigate a murder,” Wu Xie accused when he walked inside.
Zhang Qiling scowled. If he’d mentioned it, Wu Xie and Pangzi would have worried, as evidenced: Wu Xie must’ve called Zhang Haike—and Zhang Qiling should really tell him to stop giving Wu Xie information that could land him in danger—and came here immediately after, to catch up with him so soon.
Wu Xie remained silent, his eyes trained on Zhang Qiling’s body.
“Anyway, you’re a tomb raider, not a detective,” Wu Xie continued, undeterred. “What do you hope to achieve here?” Wu Xie frowned. “You’re not here as a bait, are you?”
Zhang Qiling shrugged. If the murderer came here to check on his handiwork, so much the better.
“How did he die, anyway?” Wu Xie asked.
Zhang Qiling didn’t know.
“Right,” Wu Xie said. “You wouldn’t be able to run lab tests on your own. It doesn’t really matter anymore. A miscalculation, I guess.” He chuckled. “Tiger keelback venom.”
Zhang Qiling’s breath caught in his lungs. Wu Xie looked calm and composed and not at all like he’d just guessed something he had no right to guess at all. Something that Zhang Qiling couldn’t even confirm himself, and yet he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it was true.
(Guessed, as if.
Zhang Qiling knew all the answers already, and desperately wanted to believe he was wrong.)
“Why?” he whispered, hoping he was having a nightmare and would wake up soon, because Wu Xie—Wu Xie wouldn’t have . . .
Wu Xie shrugged. “You wouldn’t tell me about the Ultimate. I couldn’t very well go there without you knowing, and anyway, I prefer to be well-prepared before heading into the unknown. Zhang Family Mansion holds all your family’s records, doesn’t it?”
Zhang Qiling felt the words as a physical slap.
“I didn’t realise you’d want to investigate,” Wu Xie continued. “It would’ve been so much easier if you’d just gone to Banai immediately.”
“Why?” Zhang Qiling repeated, as if Wu Xie could give him an answer that would help him make sense of it all.
“Look around you,” Wu Xie said. “The world is a shitshow. Don’t you think it needs someone to fix it?”
Zhang Qiling stepped back. His thoughts were stuck in a loop: Wu Xie wouldn’t have. He wouldn’t have.
“I took down the Wang Family. I think I can deal with this, too, don’t you?” Wu Xie continued. “Zhang Family is in possession of the secrets I need. The keys to control the world.” He gestured at Zhang Qiling. “Or do you know all of them?”
And what if I do, Zhang Qiling thought. What would Wu Xie do then?
“Who are you?” Zhang Qiling asked, feeling removed from his body. Just who had he brought back from inside the Bronze Gate?
What had he unleashed upon the world?
Wu Xie pouted. “You once called me your only connection to the world. Did that mean nothing?”
Zhang Qiling staggered back. Wu Xie was his connection to the world, yes. Had been.
This, the man in front of him . . . He wanted to say it wasn’t Wu Xie.
But it was. The intellect, the curiosity, that was all Wu Xie.
Wu Xie without a moral core, Wu Xie without his emotions, Wu Xie without feelings; Wu Xie without a heart.
The Ultimate changed people. Zhang Qiling knew it did; had known there would be a price. He had hoped—had believed that he would be the one to pay it, when the time came. He had expected and accepted that he’d have to return behind the Gate, this time forever. He hadn’t realised the time had come and passed already; hadn’t realised what the Ultimate took from Wu Xie in return for his life.
If the person in front of Zhang Qiling could even be called alive.
Zhang Qiling felt sick. He’d broken all the rules because he had been unable to deal with a world without Wu Xie. He’d been blind to all the warning signs, because he’d believed he got his Wu Xie back, and that had been worth everything. He’d been selfish and stupid both, to ever think the Bronze Gate would give him something instead of only taking, taking, taking.
There was only one way forward now. Zhang Qiling knew what he had to do, and was quite certain that he couldn’t do it.
Where’s Pangzi, he wanted to ask and dreaded the answer.
“So?” Wu Xie asked. “You’re not human yourself, you should understand. Won’t you tell me now?”
Zhang Qiling gripped his sword hilt tight. A demon would be able to use it, end it before more people paid the price for his weakness. Before the whole world paid the price.
Wu Xie was smiling.
Zhang Qiling drew his sword.
Wu Xie scoffed. “Let’s not pretend like you can kill me, Xiaoge.”
Zhang Qiling could have never hurt Wu Xie, but Wu Xie had died. Wu Xie would’ve hated the creature in his skin now.
It still cost Zhang Qiling almost everything to take a swing, cut through Wu Xie’s neck right over the scar he’d kissed so many times.
This was the second time he saw Wu Xie die. That it wasn’t really Wu Xie now changed very little. He still had no answer to the question of a life without Wu Xie.
(One answer; the one he should’ve taken the first time round, that he would’ve taken if he hadn’t been a coward, that would’ve spared human lives and heartbreak.
A way out.
Driving his blade, wet with Wu Xie’s blood, through his own chest, was the easiest thing Zhang Qiling had ever done.)