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dark and glimmering

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Oh, sweet mother, tell me a tale: tell me of the death of the world, tell me of the light in its wake, tell me what will come down from the heavens, tell me of the creation of stars—

 

Birdsong trills on the air, and it sounds like love. The film is old, grainy, but it is enough for this: the white robes of a bygone era, the long black hair with its topknot, the silver pin so carefully placed, the pale tan of unblemished skin. The man is beautiful, and he is old in ways unfathomable, in ways that slip through even on film as old as this.

It’s a mid-spring afternoon, the sun bright, the skies blue. He is the single most captivating thing, stood under the plum blossom tree, reaching up. The branches tremble, and perhaps they should, perhaps they know that the fingers that caress them belong to a creature so old it bends the mind. He carries a sword as if he is worthy of it, as if something so archaic has a place in a world that knows guns and cannons and atomic bombs.

It is a privilege to look upon him. It is like this that people know the truth of his name: bearer of the light, light of stars.

He does glow, when one looks closely. It is a diffuse thing in the bright sunlight, and you have mere seconds more to see it. The fall of the blossom is slow, careful, and he catches it in his palms. Perhaps that is a smile on his face—it is a long disputed observation—but in the next second the vision turns brown, bubbling, then black, the tail ends of a film, burnt.

 

Immortals don’t, as a rule, look much different from any other human (if, indeed, they can still be classed among humans); they have much of the same shape: limbs, ten fingers, chest, a beating heart, head, a face to recognise. It’s hard to look at them directly; in the act of existing, they have become too much, too bright, too terribly unbearable to behold. 

Catching them on analog or digital devices is, while worthwhile for the few seconds it lasts, an often dangerous endeavour. Many a curious onlooker has suffered burns from their camera or phone fizzing out; if you’re quick enough, you can salvage the device by removing the overworked battery. This is how a lot of footage has come into existence: with a flash, with a malfunction. Archaeologists and anthropologists weep inconsolably.

Simple pictures don’t work; both the device and the record burn in their entirety. It has to be something moving, something that lasts for more than a second. It is trial and error, and often it hurts.

It seems fitting. To look upon something greater, one must sacrifice.

 

It is the light of dusk. The camera sways steadily, slow in its cadence. It follows the broad back of a man, his robes a light but vibrant blue, his hair long and silken. A pale ribbon peaks from behind those inky-black tresses.

Petals fall around him, the wind carrying them along. It pulls at the ribbon, at the hair, but they are perhaps as unflappable as the man they belong to.

In this light, everything seems magical, eerie. As the day wanes, the glow of the Lightbearer becomes more evident, and it is as if he is the lantern leading the way forward, the cobblestone path stretching on, unending. Fireflies dance between the dark trees ahead, like stars fallen to the floor of the earth, parting away for the brightest among them.

He turns, slowly. The bubble starts in the bottom right corner, overtaking everything.

 

Surviving records date the first sighting of an immortal to May 17, sometime in the Song dynasty. There are older tales, of course, rumblings in other places, but this is the only one that can be tied to an immortal who has been seen since, and thus can be assumed to be reasonably true:

I saw him seated by the lake, and on his lap the softest white rabbit. The creature, the rabbit, seemed wholly at ease, and that seemed strange to me, for it was held in the hands of one who called on death!

The first visual record of an immortal is a painting—many paintings in fact, varying in detail, the hand that drew them steady and clearly loving: every detail is given its due, every feature drawn as if caressed. The paintings are the easiest sight of an immortal to look at, and yet they are only to be beheld once every decade, and only for a handful of hours per day. The last time someone had left them up too long (three days, seven hours, and twenty-three minutes), the onlookers had gouged out their eyes, screaming that it burnt.

Nobody is certain how many paintings there are, exactly. Sometime in the 1800s, it was common to find such paintings (read: White colonists often stole them, thinking them pretty, benign artifacts), but no one could keep hold of the same batch for long. Often, the paintings were stolen back, and after the incident of the gouged out eyes, nobody has found any new ones.

The ones that remain, the ones they have been so graciously left with, are kept in a vault. They are safe, and the Lightbearer beautiful.

The first (surviving) footage of an immortal is from 1897. The film itself is also kept in a vault, but new technologies have allowed for a digital copy to circulate on the curious, hungry web of the internet. The film is merely ten seconds long and has no sound.

It depicts a sunny day, or perhaps this immortal clad in black is the sun. His face is turned away, and it gives the impression of something private as he gazes at the landscape. He turns, perhaps called upon, perhaps merely because he wanted to, and so begins his slow smile, lips moving to say—

“Lan Zhan”—

—something, and you can’t hear, but perhaps that is for the best. His smile blazes like a tiny sun, and the film begins to bubble, distorting his face, the scene, burning it away. The smile lingers in memory.

This, the records will tell you, is the Destroyer.

 

The tape creaks as it first comes to life. This is inevitable when things are so old, so worn with time. It’s not very long—fifteen seconds, which when it comes to its subject, is an infinity.

It’s indistinct at first, perhaps a humming. It grows louder, and perhaps it is a moan, monotone and drawn out. It could be an animal, but whatever it is, it’s at least not in pain. It does not seem, the longer you listen, the more times you listen, to be in anything at all, merely noise. It could be a machine, too, it could be anything, except that it’s meant to be an audio recording of a song, a melody composed with great care and hummed lovingly.

Some say it sounds like a ghost trying to speak to them. Some say they hear patterns, like a message from the Gods. It crackles horribly at the end. The label, penned in black ink, says that this had been recorded in 1917.

 

Little of fact is known of immortals. The most important, the one that your parents press upon your heart, is this: they help, sometimes.

Scholars may debate the existence of this or that immortal, may dispute and disparage the very nature of immortality, calling it a hoax, an elaborate ruse, a prank, but even the dissenters agree to at least this: if there is such a thing as a creature that death cannot touch, then their time on earth is spent helping.

Wandering Light is seen most often—sometimes called little, not in disparagement but with love, the kind that is paternal and warm. Sometimes Gentle Ghost is with him, more undying than everlasting, but he is a skittish thing, if one is careless. They come to the sick, the ailing, the dying. They offer relief, and speak in soft tones.

The Destroyer is seen almost as often, and he seems to be everywhere at once, all the places where justice is lacking, all the places where things have gone awry, all the places where the poor, the weak, the marginalised cry out in fear and pain—all the places filled with darkness. It is hard to pin him down; he always dances away too quickly to be given more than a simple thanks, always brings light with him, making the world a brighter place—a darker place, when he leaves, but this is rarely said in reproach. After all, it is the Lightbearer who follows in his footsteps, hidden in his brilliance.

(After all, wherever the light goes, it finds the darkness already there).

There are other immortals in the world, equally as, or more elusive: the Queen of Sheba (her very existence disputed), Saint Jude, patron saint of the lost causes, a Scythian and her companions, Saint George the great military martyr, and so on. Then there are those, like the Queen of Sheba, whose true names, the things carefully crafted and given at birth, have long been forgotten. Lost to time, perhaps, or deliberately forgotten. There is only this: Furious Lightning, terribly prickly but ultimately soft, shouting at you for getting your hand injured trying to take a furtive picture of his profile, Wandering Light, serene and picturesque as he offers a balm to soothe the burn, Gentle Ghost, with his deep black eyes and almost shy approach, hands cold enough to themselves be a balm—

—Lightbearer, as rare a sight as he is beautiful, solemn and perhaps eternally silent, as if having taken a vow—

—and the Destroyer, beautiful and terrible, carrying death on his lips. 

Everyone fears the Destroyer—it’s in the name: destruction, ruination, an apocalypse. Destroyer of the world. It is hard not to be afraid when such an imperishable, immovable fact of nature stares down at you, face calm and understanding, a smile playing at those pink lips, and—

The wise ones, the wise ones know to fear the Lightbearer instead: he who follows the Destroyer, he who moves unseen in light. 

 

The camera sweeps over the park, a beautiful lake splayed out gently. In the distance, people walk across bridges, admiring the lake, the ponds, the pagodas. In the distance, a dizi plays a loving song. It is a beautiful, serene, place. The news correspondent smiles at the camera and says, “Today, the government has opened the Humble Administrator’s Garden up to the public—”

Something catches the camera’s attention: tall, dressed in white, one arm rested behind his back. The correspondent gasps, soft and surprised, urging the cameraman to follow him as he scurries forward as if trying to catch up. The Lightbearer hasn’t appeared in public since 1907.

He turns. The gentian tucked behind his ear is an intense shade of almost purpling blue. It looks like it belongs there.

“Hanguang-Jun,” the correspondent breathes into the microphone. The immortal stares, impassive, unmoving, as if waiting. He must be aware how the people stare at him, unable to look directly, unable to look away. He bears it with the expected poise, silver crown glinting in the sunlight. The dizi seems nearer.

He is, in the few seconds the camera can capture him, both impossibly young and improbably old. His stillness is as the pond he stands before: calm, poised, crystalline. Some old records, the ones that are almost too faded and brittle to touch, refer to him as Second Jade of Lan. If he had once been a Lan, it is no surprise that he would come to Suzhou, to Gusu District.

For a moment, his lips move. The sound is like static, and the entire world trembles. The news correspondent stands there, blinking in surprise; he had not expected to be spoken to so easily, the words of someone so unfading as much a precious gift as a terrible curse.

The correspondent chances it anyway, “This one is curious how Hanguang-Jun finds the humble garden?”

There is a pause, the film already starting to burn at the edges.

The Lightbearer’s lips are moving, but the sound that comes out is distorted, something long and drawn out, toneless. It is hard to listen to, full of ghost things and terrible knowledge, of knowing and living, living, living too long, and the world shakes, trembles with—

 

There is a song that follows the Lightbearer, if you listen closely.

It is a tender, swelling thing, something that thrums and trills, something so soft it feels like a trick. Scholars have debated this, too: the Lightbearer is such a rare sight to see on his own, always accompanying the Destroyer like a trick of the light, always what sweeps in after destruction to cleanse—people can make up stories to suit their own needs, embellishing a legend that few alive have seen in the flesh. The buzzing of the audio could be taken for song, it could be a radio in the background, it could be—

Some have tried to isolate the sound, the song, but find that it becomes too garbled when focused on, as if it is something soft and private they impinge upon. Perhaps it is.

Sound and immortals are tricky things both. No one has successfully recorded such a being speaking, though scholars at least concede that they can: their lips move, sound comes out. Whether it is comprehensible to mortal ears is a matter unto itself; many have tried, certainly, but the audio recordings are no better than white noise and static.

To approach an immortal is, of course, to invite peril. They will allow it with a smile, with words one later only recalls were kind (though, perhaps kind is stretching it where it concerns the Furious Lightning). Perhaps what one learns in those brief interactions is knowledge, perhaps one hears a language. The mind cannot bear it, and so it dissipates like water, like steam—intangible, leaving behind only the certainty that it had once been there.

This has led many to madness, in pursuit of knowledge perhaps profound: what does it take, to defy death itself, to gaze into eternity and welcome it in?

Some, when they don’t try at all, remember fragments. It feels like a dream. It does not bear remembering too much, too long. It is best approached sideways, like most immortals, like easily startled deer.

So: there is a song that follows the Lightbearer, if you listen closely.

 

The start is as slow as it is distorted, the record and record player dated to 1957. At first it is only scratching, then a high pitch that makes canines go wild in their distress. It is a nothing sound, a grating, a test of endurance as the engraved disc goes through its laborious rotations, until:

It is a song. Here is something as sharp as it is loving. Here is a love transliterated to the notes of a dizi, of the guqin that joins it. Here is a love played in duet, poured into the very essence of the song, wearing a hole into the thin fabric of reality. Here is a love, you know, as the record player toils through it, that has endured. Here is a love that has seen tribulation, death, the whip, the endless cold of waiting, the warm sun of a return.

Here is a love that swells, that fills the hollow rib cage with something that burns, burns. Here is a love that can fill the void and spill out, dripping red and gold and all the things that it had borne.

Here is a song that doesn’t have an end, because every gramophone that tries to capture it falls apart, melting.

 

Not all interactions with immortals are peaceful. The Lightbearer has a sword, and has proven through the centuries that he can and will use it, if he so wills it. (Nobody has seen him draw the sword, the movement is too quick for human comprehension, but a sword pressed to your throat is as undeniable as it is potentially lethal).

Wandering Light, too, has a sword. He has never had cause to use it as far as living record is aware, and perhaps that is a good thing. He walks like someone who knows how to wield it, his gait similar to that of the Lightbearer, and that is enough to inspire restraint. Sometimes, his smile is sharper than the blade he carries on his hip.

The Destroyer has no such weapon. He has a flute.

Those familiar enough with instruments may recognise it as a dizi, black as ink, with a red tassel dangling delicately from one end. At first it is innocuous, often seen tucked into the Destroyer’s belt. It is a beautiful instrument, and the most deadly of weapons.

Numerous recordings, those that inspire fear and mutterings of dark things, of sacrilege and necromantic arts, show the Destroyer shrouded in a terrible black smoke that writhes against his clothes, against his skin. Few who have seen it firsthand dare to speak of it, and when they do, the tone is one of fear, of respect, and (if one has done vile deeds) disdain.

One memorable short film, lasting seven seconds, shows the Destroyer on a battlefield. Corpses lay splayed across it as far as the eye can see, and as the camera pans, shaking violently, the bodies begin to twitch.

They rise. They walk. Their movements are fluid for all that rigor mortis should have set in. Their eyes are milky white. The film burns.

It is true: the Destroyer is to be feared. Those with power know how to, even if the downtrodden can do nothing but love him, the image of him, the sun in his smile. It is the same in every story, in every song, in every century.

 

The form is elegant, even if blurred for a moment before the camera finds its focus: the profile of a solemn, statuesque face, eyes cast down, hair carefully falling across the strong shoulders. A candle flickers gently.

The soft breeze rustles the flowers perched in their vase, pushes like a lover’s touch at the few strands of hair framing that pretty face. Even in this tender light, the silver cloud of the forehead ribbon gleams like a prized jewel, and it is only right that it adorns this face, this man.

Sound filters in, a thrumming, deliberate thing that could be a string instrument through the distortion of its notes. It could even be beautiful, if listened to closely for the things deft fingers carefully pluck. It is the dying sounds of a song never forgotten, a song that knows no true limits.

The music ends, the last thrum reverberating. The Lightbearer turns slightly, golden eyes looking sideways as he says—

—“Wei Ying”—

something, mouth shaping out the words, but there’s no sound to this, either. There is a lilt to his lips, the corner visible to the camera lifted ever so slightly. It is unbearably intimate.

The bubble rises like a sore on his cheek, and this film too, ends with flame.

 

“New footage of immortals has surfaced today, found among a private collection—”

The entire station watches the screen, enraptured, as the anchorwoman describes the treasure trove. Such is the way of things when immortals are involved; you cannot look away, even if it costs you your life (your eyes, first). They show people hauling away boxes. They show an academic with bright grey eyes explaining what they are retrieving, that it will be kept safe. He’s excited, excitable, charming. Finally, they show the footage.

The film is old, grainy, but it is enough for this: the white robes of a bygone era, the long black hair with its topknot, the silver pin so carefully placed, the pale tan of unblemished skin. The man is beautiful, and he is old in ways unfathomable, in ways that slip through even on film as old as this.

A plum blossom falls slowly, meandering, and he catches it in the palm of his hands. He could be smiling.

This is not new, some grumble. Their impatience is rewarded anyway:

A beautiful day, a meadow of white, but it is not snowing. The rabbits hop along unperturbed, serene in their little haven. Someone walks into view, clad in white, and the crowd murmurs the name: Wandering Light. He carries a basket, but it’s hard to tell what’s in it, because the film is old and grainy, like most. It doesn’t matter, because as he reaches for something, smiling at the rabbits, the film bubbles where it once burnt.

Another beautiful day. It seems to be a cliff of some sort, and this time it is a digital recording—one of the first, if the quality is anything to go by. A tall figure stands ahead, back turned to the camera. He is still recognisable: long, swaying hair, red ribbon, black clothes. The image fizzes, as it often does when an immortal tries to speak over a digital recording. There is no sound, but the Destroyer turns, smile resplendent, and a tall figure dressed in bright white steps into the frame. The Destroyer flings himself into the Lightbearer’s arms.

An excited murmur passes over the crowd.

“Those boys,” says an old woman, “have always been terribly dramatic.”

She is difficult to look at, beautiful in a harsh way. Her kindness is something that has fought to be here, in the set of her lips. She hasn’t looked up once from her needlework—it seems incongruous to see such a woman pick away at something so delicate, when her entire body sings of blood and the battlefield. Perhaps this, too, is a kindness hard-won.

She smiles like the crack of a whip, like a knife that glints in the moonlight. She is perhaps fifty, but her eyes are older. It is hard to look at her.

 

At first it is dark. Dawn light breaks through enough to see a shape, slumbering. His face is peaceful, and the Destroyer looks impossibly young, improbably pretty, lips pouted. He hugs a pillow, face squished against it. The silky, wavy tresses fall over his shoulder. His nose twitches.

There is something of love here, of tenderness. It is watching, basking in the fact of having this, of living in this moment. The man on the bed breathes, deep and unhurried, the worries of the world outside not touching him in this moment. Here is love, and here is a long-deserved rest.

A hand caresses his cheek, thumb pressing against his bottom lip, just where a little mole sits, kissable. The image fizzes out, blackening.

 

They say that the Destroyer bore the Lightbearer a son: the little light of stars, a child so loved and cherished that it stayed the hand that would beckon the end of the world. So long as there’s a light, so long as there is good in the world, the Destroyer could not bear to bring the end, would not bear to see his child and spouse harmed, can only gather the evils close to his chest and carry them with him, a shroud of black smoke—

No, no, you’re telling it wrong: the Lightbearer bore the Destroyer a son, the Little Light, and—

Across the room, suffering for centuries, Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes.

 

Someone has always lived in this house. On the surface, this is not an unsettling fact: it is a well-loved house, well-cared for on the outside as well as on the inside. A wall of ivy grows on a crisscrossed trellis decorating half of a wall at the front of the house and this, too, is well-tended.

Most of the neighbourhood is old, has lived here long enough to see the trellis go up and the ivy grow, bloom, wither, and grow again. Most are old enough to remember when the door had been a pale blue with matching curtains. The door is now red and the curtains a pretty shade of grey.

There used to be gentians, one old lady will say, petulant. It is an old, faded memory. Another lady will laugh and respond, maybe there will be gentians again. They were there when her mother was a little girl, after all.

No one alive has ever seen the residents. They are simply happy to know that the house is lived in. It is a quiet house, most days, sometimes filled with the sound of guqin, sometimes a dizi, often both. The back garden has a hutch, and several generations of rabbits have made a home there, hopping along and nibbling at the grass especially grown for them.

“Neighbour across the street is watching our house, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says from his seat in the bay window. The wards will keep her from seeing him luxuriate in the sun with a cup of tea in his hands, but he can see her peeking from behind her lace curtains.

“Mn,” says Lan Wangji.

“I know, I know, she’s new.” Wei Wuxian laughs, happy and carefree. The house across from them had sold only two months ago, and the new couple had moved in roughly a week to the day, by Wei Wuxian’s estimate. There’ll be a housewarming at the end of next week; Lan Wangji has already brought in the invitation. They’ll go, of course; half an hour should be enough. It won’t leave a lasting impression.

But the neighbour across the street, Hua Yuwen, is a curious little creature. Wei Wuxian does not begrudge her this; it is only human, after all. He himself had been curious as a child, as a teen, as an adult. As an immortal, he has quenched only the half of it, with the other half expanding ever further. He always has new questions to ask, after all.

Content for now, he stretches, movements somewhat akin to a cat—elegant, deliberate, indolent. He hears the little sigh from his husband and huffs out a laugh; it’s not his fault that Lan Wangji has decided to work from home today, at his own peril. Wei Wuxian had even said so.

He has no high ground to speak from, of course. Wei Wuxian’s academic endeavours spill over to his private life in an uncoordinated mess, held together with effort and a lot of little pats from his very patient, very loving husband. If he keeps some of the materials for his own private collection, well…

(Some of it should never have left that collection, anyway).

Hua Yawen finally gives up. He toasts to her with the last dregs of his tea, grinning at no one in particular. It’s best that she does not look upon him too closely when he sits in direct sunlight; Lan Wangji thinks him beautiful, yes, but it’s the kind of beautiful like fire is beautiful: pretty to look at, dangerous in the interaction.

It could be lonely. It could be miserable and isolating, but they have learnt to share it in small doses. When you burn as brightly as a star, as the millions of stars that comprise the universe, it is best to show but a reflection, an echo, a fragment. It is less lonely that way, less damaging. When you swallow the sun to fill the void within, it is best to share it in increments.

“Lan Zhaaan,” Wei Wuxian complains.

A huff, amused. After their centuries together, even this is easy: the silences, the quiet communication, the requests folded only in their names. The dull scrape of the chair is response enough, the thud of footsteps an assurance, and Lan Wangji comes to join him among the cushions of the window, finding his place between Wei Wuxian’s legs, back to chest.

He glows even in the sunlight. Wei Wuxian puts his cup down and slides a hand down his husband’s arm, relishing in the firmness of it, in how tonight those arms will wrap around him and keep him secure. He finds the nimble fingers he likes to suck on, that will spread inside him and find the right spot. All those things are for later, so instead he fits his own fingers in the spaces between Lan Wangji’s and marvels (again and again and again) at how well they fit together.

They can sit like this for hours. Wei Wuxian can picture it in his mind’s eye, and perhaps he will paint it, perhaps he will trace those lines and, once finished, hang it in some empty space on a wall. He doesn’t often hang the pictures he paints, but this one may deserve it.

“Sizhui will be by later,” Lan Wangji says quietly. His eyes have wandered out to the garden, where later in the afternoon they will plant the gentians again. It is time.

Wei Wuxian hums. “Will he stay for dinner?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

Their Wandering Light, come home again. The newly found footage must have made him nostalgic; it often does, whenever something surfaces. Their A-Yuan doesn’t like to stay away for long most of the time; the longest they’ve gone without seeing each other is three years. Inconsequential, in a life as long and eternal as theirs, but they still mark the passage of years.

“I’ll prepare the room for him,” Wei Wuxian says idly. They always have a room for A-Yuan, no matter where they are.

He doesn’t move just yet. There is something sacred in basking in the light with his husband, something that keeps him spellbound—the steady weight of Lan Zhan, their closeness, the scent of sandalwood that grounds him. He will always have that, will always be assured of it, and sometimes Wei Wuxian likes to let himself drown, to be completely and utterly subsumed.

Here is a love that will catch him.

 

The trees seem to reach towards them, growing bent and crooked. If there is to be sound, it must be the woods groaning for the light and warmth as the two of them walk down the path, shoulder to shoulder.

Even in black and white it is a lush place, the forest blurring ahead. The one in white, Light of Stars, has his fist curled behind him, his straight back exuding a dignified manner that inspires awe. The other is more relaxed, his shape almost only a silhouette, an abyss in the body of a man. They are beautiful.

The Destroyer twirls his flute twice, fingers adept at the trick, hand closing over the shape before he tucks it back into his belt. The welt burns in the middle, where their shoulders touch.

 

—sweet mother, won’t you sing to me of that which will tear open the skies, that which will cleanse the world of its evils and injustices, he who loves the light of stars?