Zishu launched himself from roof to roof with reckless abandon, eyes flicking between buildings and tents as he went. He was beyond even token attempts at stealth or negotiation now, near-vibrating with the sheer strain of his desperation.
The whole Heroes Conference was glutting itself on its own self-importance in the wake of the defeat of the Ghost Valley Chief, every last one of them celebrating their ‘righteous triumph’. Everywhere Zishu went they were retelling the glorious tale of Zhao Jing’s ambush, and every one of the bastards finished the story differently.
Some are still high on greed and bloodlust, eagerly forming search parties to scour the river beneath Bailu cliff in the hopes of looting Lao-wen’s body. Some are saying that Five Lakes has already found it, calling for it to be displayed in the streets like stolen banner.
The Five Lakes themselves are evasive on the matter though, and that gives him hope.
Lao-wen is a survivor. Zishu doesn’t believe for an instant he’d let himself die from something as pointless as a fall. Not with his enemies still alive and well. The man has too much spite in him to ever accept such an ending.
But even Lao-wen has his limits. He must have been badly injured between the Rain Needles and the fall from the cliff and it’s entirely possible that the Five Lakes Alliance has captured him. If they have, they’ll be keeping him alive. Zishu knows how men like Zhao Jing think, and more importantly he knows his Zhiji. Five Lakes can pontificate on the righteousness of cleansing Ghost Valley all they want, but it’s an open secret what they’re really here for. What they’re all here for.
They won’t kill Lao-wen before he gives them the key, and while he might cheerfully use the Liuli Armor itself as bait, Lao-wen would never surrender the item the jianghu killed his parents over.
It’s all the chance he needs.
It doesn’t matter how badly Lao-wen is injured, it doesn’t matter if he can’t fight anymore. Even so near midnight, Zishu is still vicious and swift enough to fight their way out of this mountain alone if he has to. As long as he can find Lao-wen he can get them out.
The alarm is already going up, Yueyang guards shouting for back-up as he flashes past overhead, but they’re too late. He’s already spotted the isolated courtyard tucked away behind the main buildings claimed by the Tai Hu sect. It’s the only place he’s seen that’s both isolated enough to be used as a clandestine prison and close enough to be kept secure.
Zhao Jing must not have thought anyone would realize Lao-wen was alive though, because when he drops into the courtyard there’s only one guard present. A woman dressed in rough mourning white tending a funerary fire, likely a pretense to keep any wandering outsiders from questioning her presence. She startles when he lands, twisting around to leap to her feet and Zishu stills. Yan Gui.
He scornfully tells himself he shouldn’t be surprised. It was ghosts that kept him from Lao-wen’s side at Bailu cliff as well, and if the sects don’t have the integrity to hold Zhao Jing to account for allying with Scorpion and their Yaoren army why draw the line at recruiting the very folk they supposedly came here to vanquish?
If anything this makes things easier for him. Yan Gui is just one more ghost turning her back on the Valley Master in a bid for survival or power with no real ties of loyalty to the Five Lakes. If Lao-wen isn’t here she’ll be easier to wring information from than a disciple might be.
“Where is Wen Kexing.”
The sharpness of his tone makes it clear it’s a demand rather than a question. He doesn't really expect her to answer, but she's a ghost not a spy or a courtier. Her body language will give her away if Lao-wen is nearby. Sure enough Yan Gui tenses, her wary eyes flickering briefly towards the woodshed behind her. It as good as shouts the answer and just like that Zishu’s focus shifts.
Without waiting for a response he moved toward the doors. Lao-wen will be beyond them, trying to hide his hurts behind a laughing smile and making jokes about what a lazy young master Zishu is to be so late in rescuing him. Zishu will yell at him for his recklessness, and then they’ll leave together. They’ll go back to Beiyuan’s manor, Wu Xi will heal Lao-wen’s injuries, and Zishu won’t ever let him out of his sight again. Clearly the lunatic can’t be trusted with his own well-being.
Yan Gui stiffened at his approach, flinging out her arm as if to bar his way, and Zishu was struck by a flare of brutal anger. Since leaving Tian Chuang he's tried to avoid unnecessary kills for the attention they bring, but that doesn't mean he'll shy from killing an enemy.
Yan Gui overlaps in his minds eye with the three Devils driving him persistently back from where Kexing faced an immortal alone, and suddenly one more ghost standing in his way is one ghost too many. Drawing baiyi with one hand he drives a vicious palm strike into her gut with the other, throwing her violently backwards. She wheezes for air, crashing heavily into the shed doors as she struggles to keep her feet and the old wood gives way easily beneath her weight. The doors slam open with a bang, and Zishu’s heart shudders to a halt.
Lao-wen is right there, just inside the entrance.
He isn’t smiling.
He doesn't startle at the crash or turn to call for Zishu.
He's lying quietly on a wooden table, covered in a rough white cloth.
Zishu has never seen him so still.
Still. So, so still.
His chest wasn’t moving.
He wasn’t breathing.
It was as if he’d been dropped into a frozen lake, the whole world suddenly weightless and dark and shattering around him incomprehensibly. Zishu couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. All he could do was stare at Kexing’s death-white face, baiyi slowly sinking to hang limply at his side as his strength deserted him.
He wanted to howl. To scream at his Zhiji to open his eyes, to look at him, to come back come back come BACK-
When he opened his mouth he found he couldn’t force out even a whisper. His lungs felt too weak to draw breath, his throat as useless as broken zither strings.
He was distantly aware of a cluster of Yueyang disciples spilling into the barnyard at his back, shouting for help, drawing their swords, but what did they matter in the face of his Lao-wen’s bloodless lips and slack features? What did anything matter.
Zishu staggered forward a helpless, hopeless step.
He hadn’t even made it to the threshold when he heard Gu Xiang cry out somewhere nearby, her voice heavy as an iron collar closing around his throat.
Kexing would never forgive him if he abandoned that little ghost maiden to the mercy of his murderers, but… Unbidden the memory of those foul rats in the inn railing about parading Kexing’s body through the streets flashed through his mind like a poisoned blade sliding home between his ribs. He wouldn’t, couldn’t, leave his Lao-wen’s body to be desecrated in the name of the Jianghu’s ‘justice’!
Torn between two duties his eyes dropped to the funerary fire Yan Gui had been tending, unassuming and terrible. A solution.
Somewhere deep inside him a tiny, tortured voice was wailing in desolation. He didn’t want to do this, he didn’t want to leave him here, he wouldn’t even get the chance to say goodbye-
Sparing Kexing this final mockery was more important than what he wanted.
The blow was an awkward one, so clumsily struck that baiyi threatened to reverberate out of his hand, but it was enough. The fire bowl flew true, spilling its burning joss paper as it went and setting the dry woodshed ablaze.
Near instantly a wall of flames roared to life around Lao-wen’s body, their warm light lending his ashy skin a cruel illusion of life even as they surged to consume him. For a moment Zishu lingered, despair rooting him in place as he watched the fire climb higher. Watched it catch at green robes and lift tendrils of dark hair almost gently in the eddies of its heat.
Then he ripped his eyes away and threw himself over the courtyard wall, leaving the rats scrambling to try to put out the rising inferno.
He’s out of the compound almost before he knows it, the world streaming strangely past him like water over a stone, and he pauses at the treeline to look back. The undimmed glow of the makeshift pyre rising above the roofs is a bitter comfort, and he keeps running.
Perhaps if they’d treated Kexing’s body with even a shred of decency, laid him in a temple or a shrine instead of a barnyard, they would have had a chance at salvaging their prize.
A bitter iron tang rose in his throat at being made to feel gratitude for their disrespect and he staggered, slamming shoulder first into a nearby tree.
Clutching desperately at its trunk, he bent double to retch up blood and bile as he struggled to blink away the darkness encroaching on the edges of his vision.
His Lao-wen was dead.
Dead and gone and Zishu had set fire to the body with his own hands, left him to burn to ash in a dirty little woodshed surrounded by enemies with no hope of even a grave to shelter him.
His knees threatened to buckle as his qi all but inverted in on itself. Dimly he wished the nails hadn’t locked away so much of it, that there was still enough for the violence of the qi deviation to put him out of his misery.
He couldn’t think about this now.
Any of this.
He…he needed to find Gu Xiang, make sure she got away safely.
Shoving himself up again, he dragged a sleeve roughly across his mouth and forced his body back under his control. There would be time to crumble later. For now, there was duty.
He wasn’t sure how long he spent searching, but he eventually found her fleeing hand in hand with her betrothed along an animal track deeper in the forest. Both of their faces were pale with shock and they flinched when he stepped out of the trees. It only took a heartbeat or two for Gu Xiang to recognize him though and when she did she ran to him immediately, eyes wide with dread. “Zhou Xu! Where is he? Where is my master?”
Zishu stared down into her pleading face, and it was like hearing Jiuxiao’s lover speak of Siji Manor as the poison spread through her body, like staring into Elder Bi’s hard eyes as he spit his refusal to serve Prince Jin even a day longer.
He’d once thought the nails would free him from this, but here he is again. Standing in front of someone he was meant to protect with only suffering and death to offer them.
Whatever Gu Xiang reads in the stillness of his face is apparently damning enough even without words. Her expression twists with denial, eyes welling with fresh tears and voice quavering. “You…you saved him didn’t you?”
He can only stare back at her, mouth working silently. Useless as ever when it matters. In the next moment she flings herself at him, hysterically beating at his chest. “No, no, no! You- Didn’t you promise me?! Bastard, didn’t you say you’d save him no matter what? Where is he then? Where is my master!!”
Zishu turns his face away from her grief and drops his eyes. His arms hang limp at his sides and he doesn’t know if he can't bring himself to push her away or if he just doesn't want to. She’s right after all. He’s failed again, just as he always fails when it’s most important. Wen Kexing is gone from the world, and for this there can be no defense.
It doesn’t go on long before Weining pulls her away, tucking her comfortingly into his side as he stares at Zishu in bewilderment. “Zhou-xiong I…I don’t understand! What happened?”
Both of them are staring at him like he holds all the answers. Like they’re caught between belief that he can still fix things and the dread that he won’t, fear and dying hope mixing together in the most potent of poisons. It’s a familiar expression, one he last saw in the eyes of his final three surviving brothers as they begged on their knees for him to spare a good man’s life.
Now as then, all he can offer in return is to make the inevitable betrayal as quick and painless as possible.
It takes more strength than anything he has ever done before, more even than it had taken to dig Jiuxiao’s grave, but he manages to choke out a few words. “I couldn’t retrieve his body. I set a fire to…” His throat locks around the words and he stops, the forest bleeding together in front of him like a fresh ink painting left in the rain.
Gu Xiang screams at him, her voice breaking over ragged sobs. “Liar!! You’re lying to me, Master wouldn’t die!! I’ll find him myself if I have to-!” She yanks free of Weinings arms, turning as if to run back to the jianghu encampment only to crumple abruptly into unconsciousness as her body frantically tries to protect itself from the agony of her mind. Zishu watches Weining catch her with a brief spark of jealousy. His own body has never been so wise, turning on him right alongside his heart and mind.
He's grateful for the unlooked for blessing though. A-xiang took so much after his Lao-wen with her fierce heart and fire-bright passion. She never would have left if she were conscious, and she has to leave. They both do. These last precious few have to be protected.
Weining’s eyes are frightened and uncertain as he looks up from A-xiang’s tear-streaked face, clearly out of his depth. He’s a good kid but he’s also very sheltered, not even a first disciple. He’s never been responsible for anyone but himself before and it shows.
That’s alright, Zishu can guide him a few steps further. He’s used to driving himself forward through physical and emotional pain. He could hold on a bit longer.
“Did Prince Qi and Da Wu come with you?”
The boy shakes his head, drawing his unconscious betrothed closer to his chest. “A-xiang couldn’t wait. We came ahead.”
He still feels sick and stupid with grief, but he’s an old hand at shadow games and the options array themselves in his mind with the neat familiarity of long experience. Looking off into the distance, he makes sure his voice is firmly authoritative. Weining cannot doubt his instructions on this, cannot hesitate, not if he's going to get Gu Xiang safely away from here.
“Good. You need to leave Qingya tonight, meet them on the road. Take A-xiang and my eighteen disciples, and go back to Nanjiang with Prince Qi. You’ll be safe there and the Prince will look after you.”
If that fierce land could safely guard Prince Jin’s most coveted treasure, a handful of capable youngsters could be assured of safety from even the cruelest of the jianghu’s conspiracies. He felt a sharp pang of regret for the future that might have been; for the boys he would not return to, so proud to be sworn into the manor at long last.
But ultimately he’d chosen to live for Lao-wen.
Lao-wen was gone.
Zishu turned and vanished into the night.
Half-slumped on a rock overlooking the cliff edge, Zishu tipped his head back and drained wine down his open throat like he was trying to drown himself in it. When the jar finally ran dry he tossed it roughly aside, reaching for another even as his body gasped desperately for air.
The ground around his makeshift seat was littered with the shards of the jars he’d already emptied, but the blissful numbness he’d hoped for refused to come to him.
He was losing time, the world smearing indistinctly around him as his mind slipped erratically from one moment to the next, but he couldn’t tell if it was the alcohol or whatever broke inside him alongside those cursed woodshed doors.
Maybe it was just whatever was left of his soul trying to claw its way free of his flesh and follow Lao-wen into death.
Zishu had come here hoping to feel closer to him, but the gouged stone only reminded him that his Zhiji had gone somewhere beyond his reach.
Those last moments played over and over in his mind; the intensity of Lao-wen's eyes staring desperately into his own, the crowd sneering judgmentally down at them even as they cowered from their strength, Chengling lunging past with the weapon that Zishu gave him, the hateful swirl of white robes wrenching him away as his Lao-wen plummeted into the mist.
Zishu had lived a hard, bloody life, but he’d never hated anyone before.
He’d felt betrayal and anger when the Jianghu turned on Siji Manor in the wake of his masters death. He’d had people he held in contempt like Shen Shen and Peng Ju. He’d even felt killing rage on occasion, as he did with Long Xiao and later Prince Jin. But he’d never thought of himself as passionate enough for hatred.
Oh how he hated now.
He hates every last one of the foul, vile, worthless vermin crawling this mountain with all the fury of the worst winter storms.
He loathes the ghosts who betrayed their master, the righteous sects who came flocking to the promise of power like scavengers to carrion, and the immortal that led them here in equal measure. That even one of them should live while Kexing did not seared the tattered remnants of his soul like hot salted oil poured over flayed flesh.
The sharp crack of the wine jar threatening to shatter in his hand breaks the wave of consuming rage, leaving him to sink back into his grief. His mind slips again as he stares listlessly into the mists swirling enticingly beyond the cliff edge.
A part of him wants to chase that wordless promise and step out into them, but even if he does Lao-wen won't be there. He knows very well he's already missed his chance to follow him beyond that curtain and die together as they promised. Even knowing that though he doesn't dare venture any closer to the temptation of the edge.
He once told Chengling that as long you held what you wanted to say in your heart, the dead would hear. But the things in his heart are so heavy, they burst out of him like a spring-flood river over a dam.
“Did you really think I didn’t know, Lao-wen?
Did you think I couldn’t see the grudge burning in your eyes?
I always knew what you wanted.
To peel back their pretty skin of honor and brotherhood to expose all the depravity, the rot festering underneath. To drag them all to hell with you. Wasn’t that it?!”
His voice cracks and breaks over the words, his throat torn open on the things he hasn’t said. His eyes burn with enough tears to blur the world into nothing but blotches of wavering color. It's almost nice.
Half-blind like this he can pretend that the blur of mist-obscured greenery beyond the edge is the billow of a familiar bright robe only just out of reach.
“I thought you were an utter fool, did you know that? How could revenge be worth your life?
I used to get so angry with you sometimes, always chasing so thoughtlessly after your own destruction.
I thought that if I just stayed by your side I could change your mind step by step. Pull you back from the pyre, convince you it wasn’t worth it.
Ah, it was so easy to say back then.
Now that I’m the one standing in your place, am I not the same?”
Hollow laughter withers on his lips and his eyes slowly fall to the final wine jar clutched in his hand, absently tracing the spiderweb of white under his fingers where he’d accidentally crushed the glaze.
Like Rong Xuan before him, this forgotten battlefield on the mountain of the damned was the closest thing Kexing would ever have to a grave. Zishu should pour out a drink for his spirit, but doing so feels like an empty gesture.
When had his Lao-wen ever been tempted by cheap alcohol? From the first moment they’d met Wen Kexing had been set on vengeance.
A man like that, how could he rest peacefully with anything less than an offering of blood?
It’s a thought that sings through him like the steel of baiyi’s blade, shining with all the merciless clarity of the purest truth.
When he took the nails Zishu chose to trade a long future as a living sword for three years as a free man. It wasn’t a hard choice at the time, and even later he couldn’t truly bring himself to regret it. If he hadn't made it after all he'd still be living a hollow life on Prince Jin's leash rather than traveling at Lao-wen's side. Perhaps it's not too strange then, that it was so easy now to trade those hard-won years for one last hunt as a demon.
Path chosen, he closes his eyes and turns inward, the wine jar slipping from his hand to shatter on the rock below.
He’d unmade himself once before, in service to his cousin’s ambitions and his sects survival. That had taken years, each day making the painstaking choice to snuff out one more piece of the boy his Shifu had raised until there was nothing left of him but a blood-soaked blade.
But that was when he was young and reluctant to let go of being Siji Manor’s honorable first disciple. This time he has no reason to cling to the wanderer, and he already knows the path to the cruel truth hiding at the core of him. It’s so much faster now; the difference between climbing down a mountain and leaping from its summit.
The salvation that Beiyuan and Wu Xi had offered him goes first. He’s accepted his death twice already, it’s not so hard to open his arms to it a third time.
The joy of watching Chengling’s earnest bumbling give way to the first glimpses of strength, the hope of years spent basking in the sunlight by his Zhiji’s side, those are harder. Such bright, beautiful dreams hurt to let go of.
But his heart is already in its death throes, it doesn’t have the strength to resist as he shuts it away in the dark.
He locks away everything warm until all that is left is the rage, the malice, and these are what he focuses on.
It's not difficult.
Imperial or not he is blood of the dragon, and his fury has always been a cold, implacable thing once roused. He lets it swallow him, building on itself like the snows of the north, layering himself in it like an armor of thick, razor-edged ice until he can't feel the grief beneath the biting chill of his wrath.
As the shadow-master of Prince Jin's court he was merciless, but also dispassionate. He killed every target with the same impersonal ruthlessness, causing no suffering beyond what was necessary for each mission. The sheer weight of the hatred settling into his bones replaces that detachment with terrible focus. He calls the faces of Zhao Jing's ambush party to mind and feels something that he can only describe as hunger roll through his veins like an avalanche.
When he opens his eyes the grief-riddled slouch has been replaced by the controlled straightness of Prince Jin’s most prized weapon. This time he looks into the mists at the cliff edge with a promise in his eyes instead of longing, and his voice has turned hard as stone.
“Wait for me a little longer, Zhiji. Just a little longer and I will come to you bearing the finest funeral offering Ghost Valley has ever seen, I swear it.”
Rising from his vigil, Zhou-shouling turns toward the conference encampment with killing cold in his eyes and a screaming void in his chest.