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.
I don't speak Chinese, I haven't read the novel, and I have no idea what I'm doing. But I have a lot of feelings, so there's that.
Zhou Zishu had always taken some small measure of pride in how clean his kills were. It took skill to deliver death as painlessly as he did. Even after Jiuxiao broke ties with him and he began to doubt himself in earnest, he took solace in the fact that while innocents surely died on his blade they didn’t suffer under it.
While this particular kill needs to be bloodless, he could still make it a clean death. An arm caught tightly around the neck to cut off bloodflow and his target would be unconscious in a matter of seconds, dead in minutes. A poisoned Rain Needle aimed just right to drive through the eye and into the brain would be no more than an instant of sharp pain before the end. There are any number of ways he could accomplish it.
Instead he ghosts up behind the man as he adjusts his robes and snaps his neck just so, watching in razor-edged satisfaction as his victim crumples with wide, shocked eyes. The damage to his spine is enough paralyze his limbs and disrupt his breath, but it will take time for his heart to give out. A pointlessly drawn-out death.
It’s a start.
Hauling the now unresponsive body over his shoulder Zishu carries him off into the forest, all the way to the edge of a narrow ravine half-hidden in the undergrowth. Once they arrive he dumps the scorpion on the ground and sets about divesting him of his robes and gear. The man’s eyes roll wildly, head lolling as he vainly tries to bite at the hands peeling open his armor. Spirited for a foot soldier, but without the luck or strength to make it count. Zishu tips his head away with the same patient disinterest he might pluck a chicken for the pot.
The assassin finally expires at some point after Zishu has finished wrestling his limp body out of his uniform and moved on to studying the details of his tightly braided hairstyle, something he only notes when he finally reaches to remove the leather guan and is met with no futile attempt at biting. After checking it over one last time to ensure he hadn’t missed any subtle details, he shoved the naked corpse into the ravine for whatever scavengers might find it.
It was unlikely anyone would notice him missing given the level of interchangeability scorpion encouraged even within its ranks, and even if a search does end up being made their chances of finding the body while it’s still identifiable are vanishingly small. Evidence thus disposed of, Zishu begins stripping off his own robes with the same callous efficiency he’d turned on his victim.
Kexing had delighted in dressing him in billowing fabrics and pale colors. Gentle blues, misty grays, and delicate greens; soft things that invited tender, lingering touches. Shedding them for a dead mans stiff leather and close-cut black, he felt a flash of thin, bitter humor. All good disguises were built around a grain of truth, but this particular mask was honest to the point of irony.
The inside-joke of a self portrait wrought in living flesh.
Donning the scorpions uniform proves an eerily familiar experience. Lacing up the armguards with their hidden troves of needles and knives, arranging baiyi so that she could still be easily drawn in spite of the wide leather belt, stowing various containers of poison in cleverly designed inner pockets. The only thing missing is the bite of snow in the air.
Pulling Kexing’s hairpin from his topknot is the most jarring. His hair unravels the instant it slides free, falling loose over his shoulders with a sense of heavy finality. It’s a ridiculous notion, his course was irrevocably set long before this, and he can hardly wear the token openly during for what he’s about to do. Shaking the feeling briskly away, he tucks the memento into the fold of his inner robes, drawing purpose from the cool shape of it settling against his chest like an anchor.
He scrapes his hair back into the appropriately severe style favored by the scorpions, and completes the disguise with a careful application of powders to alter his features. He doesn’t have a human skin mask prepared, but truthfully he doubts even this much is really necessary.
Only a handful of their enemies had seen his face at all and with Kexing carefully diverting their attention away from him even from their first meeting, those who HAD seen him hadn’t taken enough note of him to notice even the rather stark difference in the faces he’d worn in Tai Hu and Yueyang.
He finished quickly and having already stowed the most vital components of his own hidden arsenal among the Scorpions gear, tossed what remained of his own belongings down the ravine after his victim.
He wouldn’t be needing any of it again.
Properly camouflaged, he returned to the camp as calmly as if he’d never fled it in the first place. The pair of guards set to watch the treeline sneer sleepily at him as he approaches, but otherwise don’t appear to note the long interval between his departure and return. That’s what makes latrines such useful ambush sites; suspicious behavior is often overlooked by default in the name of propriety and mutual discomfort in the face of undignified bodily functions.
It’s an oversight that costs them dearly. He turns in the same instant he passes between them, lashing as fast as a striking snake. The curved knives he took from the scorpion are whisper thin and wickedly sharp, deadly enough to kill with far less strength than he uses. He severs their spines with brutal efficiency and though one dies instantly, the other will linger a while yet.
He leaves them where they fall and continues on his way with only a fine spatter of blood hidden by the darkness of his sleeves to mark the encounter.
If he took more care with his methods, planted a bit of evidence with the bodies, he could redirect the whole conference against the target of his choice. It’s what Kexing had planned, turning their own sins back on them in a poetically bloody justice.
But Zishu isn’t interested in the thorough, cleansing destruction of a groundfire that leaves room for healthy growth in its ashes. He’s here for the raging crush of an avalanche; to do as much damage as he can before his body gives out.
The sects can come to whatever conclusion they want about the deaths left in his wake.
He winds between the shuttered buildings and dark tents, bloodlust clawing eagerly beneath his ribs. The camp is silent. Nearly everyone is sleeping off last nights self-indulgent feasting, and the handful of sentries left on watch are all stationed at the edges of the encampment in case of stray ghost attacks.
How many he could kill before they realized something was wrong?
Breathing out the wash of violent intent, he lets the temptation pass him by. There isn’t more than half a shichen left before sunrise and his plans will yield far more satisfaction than a handful of impulsive deaths in the dark.
A faintly savory scent wafting through the air leads him unerringly to the first of his goals; a dull glimmer of light just barely showing from the shuttered windows of a nearby teahouse, far too weak to indicate anyone awake inside.
Mt. Qingya may be lush with game and wild plants, but the sects are far too proud to stoop to foraging for their food. That being the case, a communal kitchen is necessary.
Likely it’s being supplied by the major sects, as much a display of wealth as it is a gesture of goodwill, and judging by who exactly has been trying to position himself as the natural leader of the sects… Zishu gently lifts the hanging shutter to look inside and as he suspected the teahouse kitchen is stocked full of sacks and baskets bearing the Tai Hu seal.
He slips over the windowsill and towards the long brick stove built along the back wall, where five enormous covered pots are outlined by the dim glow of banked embers. Lifting a lid reveals sluggishly bubbling congee, and a smile so serene it could easily be mistaken for gentle blooms across his face.
No one had bothered to retrieve the bodies of the assassins killed in the Bailu cliff ambush and while Kexing’s fan had left their uniforms all but useless to him, he had managed to harvest more than one poison kit.
As was common with adept poisoners the kits were mostly stocked with potent components that could be combined into a number of different mixtures, allowing for a certain versatility in the execution of a death.
There were, however, a few pre-prepared blends that they presumably used with some frequency, among them a near-excessive amount of qi-destablizing powder. Understandable given the goals of their most recent leader, and the only one of their common blends that he had any use for.
He couldn’t be sure how potent it was and it was unlikely to reach any of his primary targets, all of whom dined separately from the common mass of their disciples, but there was no outcome here that did not benefit him.
If the powder was strong it would damage meridians and cause qi deviations that might very well prove lethal to low and mid level disciples. If it was weak the effects would be less apparent, but still enough to leave victim with a weakened, erratic qi flow. Either result would throw the conference into chaos and leave the victims suspicious of everything around them, including each other.
It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to stir a heavy dose of the powder into each pot, wipe down the ladle, and replace the lids. Kexing will laugh himself sick when he tells him about this, that all it took for him to finally prove competent in the kitchen was to let him spice the food with poison.
Once he’s assured that there’s no sign of tampering, he tucks the newly emptied pouch away in his robes and slips back out the window, continuing on his path to the makeshift compound the Five Lakes has claimed.
There’s a sentry stationed there as well of course, one of the Yueyang disciples that Zhao Jing favors for his gruntwork, but now that the Scorpion is openly allied with the Five Lakes they’ve set their tents with the rest of the rats and the youth takes no note of him.
Zishu leaves him alive only because a dead Yueyang disciple would give the Five Lakes an easy way to twist the coming narrative to paint themselves as martyred heroes.
Here too his goal is the kitchen, the small one where Zhao Jing’s pretty maids prepare private meals for the Alliance leadership and their allies. It’s dark at this hour, with no simple breakfast of congee ready and waiting for an enterprising demon to season. That’s alright though, he has a different delicacy prepared for Kexing’s murderers.
For all that he’s begun affecting a more humble austerity since he ascended as leader of the alliance, Zhao Jing is still fond of his little luxuries. Easily overlooked things like the fine bowls neatly stacked on the sideboard in which the Alliance leaders are served their sumptuous evening meals; a perfect place to hide his gift.
Zishu pulls a pot from his robes and dips the corner of his robe into it, working the dampened cloth methodically over the inside of each bowl until they’re coated with a film so thin it’s nearly undetectable.
He spent all of yesterday morning brewing and distilling this mixture, thick and smooth as creamed butter. It took all his skill as a poisoner and no small amount of malice, but he’s confident that his newest silent killer is second only to the Three Autumn Nails in its horror. A potent blend of paralytics, opiates, and nepenthes, crafted with the sole purpose of turning its victims into prisoners of their own flesh.
A lick of this would leave the target trapped in a living death for three days, unable even to whimper or open their eyes. More would be enough to stop a strong mans heart and lungs. But like this? Just the barest taste laced delicately with their food before they retire to bed? That will leave them helplessly insensate until dawn.
Most of his targets will never even notice the effect. Zishu has no intention of letting any of them die easily after all.
Once he’s satisfied with his work he re-stacks the bowls and steals out the back of the Five Lakes compound, deliberately averting his eyes from the charred ruin of Kexing’s pyre as he passes. There’s not much time left before the sun rises, but he has one more objective to accomplish before the rest of the world begins to rouse.
Even a viper as crafty as Zhao Jing can’t afford to rub the sects faces in the reality of his pet ghosts if he wants to maintain his image as a righteous and benevolent leader of the Jianghu, but they’re also too useful for him not to be keeping them close-by. And if they’re close enough for Zhao Jing to make use of, they’re close enough for Zishu to goad them into drawing attention to themselves
The ghosts of Mt. Qingya are rightfully renowned for their ability to vanish without a trace, and there is no obvious trail left in the undergrowth for him to follow. False dawn is breaking by the time he spots a pair of small ghosts flanking a cave entrance, but judging by the settled way they’re holding themselves this is still the last night watch rather than the dawn shift, so if he’s fast he should still have time to strike without being discovered.
The guards go down quickly and quietly, a pair of knives sinking near-simultaneously into their throats. Zishu waits a moment both to let them finish choking on their own blood and to make sure that no one heard the bodies fall before going to retrieve the knives. He makes a point to carve the wounds wider and more jagged to obscure the exact nature of the weapon that killed them before moving on.
The ghosts have proven themselves fickle after all, so if he leaves signs that their new lords pet assassins have attacked them they may simply vanish back into the valley.
It wouldn’t do to let the traitor Devils escape his blade after they put so much effort into their parting gift to their Master.
He keeps to the shadows as he enters the cave, and as he hoped it turns out to be a system of rough halls and tunnels rather than a singular chamber. More defensible against group attacks, but more vulnerable to an assassin. With a throwing knife in one hand and his sword in the other, he stalked deeper into the tunnels.
While baiyi was distinctive enough to potentially give away his identity it would hardly matter if he killed every ghost he came across.
Unlike the righteous sects the ghosts don’t seem to group together unless they have to. He happens across them in twos and threes, hidden away in dark corners; asleep, cleaning weapons, focused on whatever breakfast they’d scraped together. A few see him coming soon enough to put up a bit of a struggle, but they never realize what he's there for until it's too late and none manage to wound him.
Some he kills by slicing opening their bellies, others by carving off limbs, a lucky few with a simple stab to the heart. And where he walks the stench of blood and death follows like a creeping mist.
He doesn’t even go out of his way to silence them, though more than half his blows do so just out of habit. The sheer violence of Ghost Valley’s power-jockeying was well known even to outsiders after all, and Wu Chang Gui is known to encourage such things among his men. A few scattered screams aren’t going to draw more than cursory attention unless the sentries raise an alarm.
He’s been prowling the tunnels for nearly the length of an incense stick, and is nearly ready to withdraw when he turns a corner into a side chamber and finds himself looking at Hei Wu Chang’s back. The ghost is bending over a fire, scythe set neatly against the wall beside him, utterly unaware of the killer looming behind him.
A breathlessly savage intent roars to life in Zishu’s chest, his hands trembling ever so slightly at the force of it. For a brief instant he’s back at Bailu cliff, a flare of theatrical black robes cutting off his view of a bloody-mouthed Kexing. He's not entirely certain how it happens but in the next instant he’s somehow crossed the space between them and he’s driving his dagger deep between the ghosts ribs.
Hei Wu Chang arches convulsively off the blade with a silent gasp, so Zishu sheathes baiyi and uses his newly freed hand to seize his shoulder, holding him in place as he slams the blade home in the other side of his back. Hei Wu Chang gives a thin wheeze, hands reaching back to scrabble at his wrist in blind panic as bloody froth bubbles at the corners of his lips. Zishu wrenches the dagger free with a fleshy squelch, jaw tight and icy rage still thrumming in his veins.
With both lungs punctured the ghost has no chance of survival; the first worthwhile offering he’s made in his Zhiji’s honor.
Fate seems to be smiling on him for his final hunt. Even if Wu Chang Gui had hesitated to respond over the deaths of a swathe of small ghosts, he won’t be able to ignore the disappearance of his right hand.
Taking Hei Wu Chang’s massive scythe in one hand and his ankle in the other, he drags the weakly struggling soon-to-be corpse out of the caves. It leaves a trail of course, but he’s already killed enough small ghosts that a few more blood smears should go unnoticed.
Once he’s out of the caves he takes to the treetops. Hei Wu Chang jerks as being suddenly yanked into the air by his ankle dislocates his hip but Zishu ignores him, leaping lightly from branch to branch as he circles around the perimeter of camp. He eventually spots an old tree with what looks like some sort of animal den hollowed out beneath its roots. By that time the ghost doesn’t seem lucid anymore, body dangling at an unnatural angle from the leg Zishu is carrying him by and chest stuttering shallowly as he struggles for breath.
Part of Zishu wants to watch the life fade from him, but if he intends to hunt through both the day and the night he needs to take every chance he gets to rest. Given that he only has a brief window of opportunity before peak morning activity will provide him an active hunting ground, he can’t spare the time.
Forcing himself to focus on the bigger picture, he shoves the dying ghost unceremoniously into the den entrance. He can almost hear Kexing's playful grumbling at his shoulder. A faded smile tugs ineffectually at his lips as he stashes the scythe high in the tree branches.
"That's one Lao-wen. I know it's not the best quality offering, but don't complain alright? Be patient, I'll definitely prepare the rest for you."
When he returns to camp the servants and novices are already going busily about the routine work of preparing for the day. They avert their eyes as he passes, shying away from him like a shoal of fish from a shark, and Zishu resists the urge to laugh. They’re more right to fear him than they know. Idly he wonders if anyone has found the sentries he killed yet.
Broad daylight would make the rooftops inhospitable to any observers wishing to remain unseen, so he tucks himself into the narrow alley between a stable and smithy instead. The entrance gives him a fair view of what passes for a central square, while the gloomy closeness of the walls hides him from passerby. Folding himself down into the shadows, he closes his eyes and settles in to a light meditation.
By the time he stirs back to full alertness the sun has risen over the rooftops and the breakfast lines are already stretching across the makeshift square. Disciples and masters from various sects jostle in the narrow dirt lanes with only a thin veneer of manners preventing them from breaking out in violence. Zishu watches it all with the patient hunger of an apex predator, evaluating the weak points in the herd even as they gorge themselves on poisoned congee.
Kexing once described the martial sects as starving dogs, and he wasn’t wrong. They are a prideful, territorial lot, quick to bare their fangs and easily goaded into a killing frenzy. Even now, when they are supposedly united under the banner of righteousness, there are sparks of tension everywhere he looks.
They are small things; raised voices as an argument breaks out over a trio of late arriving disciples presuming to join their sect-brothers further ahead in the breakfast lines rather than taking a place at the back, a sour-faced young master from Hua Shan complaining just a bit too loudly about common brawlers making too much noise in their carousing last night while a nearby cluster of Tie Zhang fighters bristle, a slight-framed senior in Qing Feng colors who watches a trio of scorpions pass with loathing in his eyes.
Minor incidents of no significance, but each one simmers with the promise of potential violence.
Zishu has spent most of his life dousing sparks such as these in blood and steel, has been navigating the murky savagery of far more complex politics than those of the Jianghu since he was sixteen years old. He will see these men eat each other alive before he is finished.
For now he focuses on the obvious fault-lines in their unity.
They might exult in Zhao Jing’s triumph over the Ghost Valley Chief, but they are still very clearly on edge when it comes to his less palatable tools. Feelings which Zhao Jing is clearly not only aware of, but playing upon with the delicacy of a skilled courtesan. While the ghosts under his influence have been hidden away from sight, the scorpions are on careful display. A pair of them patrol past the far edge of the square.
Much like Helian Yi assigning Tian Chuang operatives to stand guard in his receiving hall for certain meetings, the patrol is clearly more about information gathering edged with intimidation than actual peace keeping. A way to keep an eye on the less cooperative sects while subtly reminding them of the reasons why they should fall in line with the Five Lakes leadership.
Contemptuous amusement flowers in his chest at his enemies impotency as he watches the way the pair lingers ominously near larger groups before continuing on their way, trailed by hushed conversation and hostile eyes.
For all Zhao Jing’s ambitions, Scorpion is not a spy network. Fine assassins yes, inventive killers to be sure, but information work requires a different touch than even the most complex murder. Ironic that the more tightly Zhao Jing leashes them to his will, the less suited they become for it. As Peng Ju’s leadership is slowly showing in Tian Chuang, blind obedience chokes out the critical initiative that must thrive in a useful spy.
The way some of the disciples watch them pass presents the very opportunity he had been waiting for though. Zishu waits the length of time it takes an incense stick to burn after they’ve left before stepping out into the open and making his own slow circuit around the edge of the market.
On the surface of things there’s little to distinguish him from the pair that so recently passed through. He moves with the same steady purpose, lets the murmurs of dissatisfaction that linger in his wake pass without comment. But rather than the perfect, eerie flatness the scorpions cultivate, he allows his face to shift with the tiniest of micro expressions.
He restricts himself to only the tiniest of gestures; eyebrows lifted a tad mockingly as he meets a mid-ranked disciples grim gaze, eyes following an elder from a less supportive sect with the faintest trace of evaluation, lip quirking just a touch higher than it ought when he catches a tiny cluster of Qing Feng disciples glaring at him.
His targets are unlikely to even consciously register why they’re reading certain impressions from his otherwise blank face, but the effect is pronounced. Wounded pride and resentment flare to anger and open hostility in his wake. None of them act on it just yet of course, but he’s alone and heading out of camp. If there isn’t a group of hotheads on his trail by the time he’s beyond the treeline he’ll be very surprised.
Time to thin out the herd.
Chengling is running through the most basic of his sword forms for the one hundred and thirty-sixth time since sunrise in a futile attempt to burn off the awful mix of anxiety, guilt, and worry churning in his gut. He hasn’t seen Shifu at all since… Since he leapt off the cliff after Wen-shishu.
He knows that Shifu is alive. He does. Even if Ye-qianbei was somehow unable to catch him Wen-shishu would never have let Shifu get hurt. Chengling know that.
It doesn’t stop the nightmares.
They’re starting to blend together at this point, his father’s desperate eyes as he tells Chengling to run bleeding into Shifu’s as he sends him into the manor sanctuary into Wen-Shishu’s as he reveals that he’s the Ghost Valley chief.
Last night he woke up screaming when the Rain Needles left his hand to sink into Wen-shishu’s chest and instead of going over the cliff he just…collapsed, and Chengling KNEW right down to his bones that he’d killed him-
His grip on the hilt of his practice sword goes iron-hard and the sudden rigidity throws the whole form off, leaving him stumbling to a clumsy halt.
He wishes Ye-qianbei would have stayed long enough to tell him where Shifu had gone. Shifu wouldn’t just abandon him, but Chengling can’t stop thinking about the resigned acceptance in his eyes when he’d asked if Chengling believed him.
He’s sure that if he could just talk to Shifu things would get better. He always seemed to see the truth of things so clearly, no matter how complicated or confusing they were. Even at the cliff Shifu had said that Wen-shishu didn’t trick him, so. So that meant that he knew Wen-shishu was the Ghost Valley chief didn’t it?
Maybe that’s why he hasn’t seen Shifu. Zhao Jing has killed so many people already, he definitely won't leave Shifu alive if he thinks Wen-shishu shared his secrets with him. Normally Chengling wouldn't be too concerned about that, people have been trying and failing to kill Shifu since they met and he's pretty sure that the only people who can face him are Wen-shishu and Ye-qianbei. But while Shifu is strong, even he can’t win against the whole Jianghu.
Chengling’s gut twists again, and he throws himself back into his sword forms. He isn’t clever like Wen-shishu or wise like Shifu or capable like Xiang-jiejie or mature like Cao-dage. What little ability he's managed to scrape together in the past year has already run its course in modifying the Rain Needles. Now all he can do is focus on his training and wait.
He’s been at it long enough that the burning in his muscles has faded into a kind of white noise and his hair is plastered to his neck with sweat when he hears the commotion rising from the front of the house Dagu Shan has claimed.
Eager for any distraction from the writhing knot his gut has been stubbornly tying itself into for the past two days, he sets aside his practice sword and makes his way around to the little courtyard. There’s a handful of people there surrounding a white-faced messenger and Shen-bobo, and Chengling arrives just in time to catch the last of what’s being said.
“-think it’s something in the well. Several novices have already been killed, and more have suffered serious damage to their meridians. Monk Gu is advising all sects to throw out any water not drawn from the river in order to prevent further incidents.”
Shen-bobo nods uneasily, his response too low for Chengling to make out, and then the messenger is running off again and people are hurrying in various directions like a disturbed nest of ants. The sect leader is still staring off after the messenger, so Chengling joins him. The past year has taught him the value of information, and he’s not about to be left in the dark now when the few people he has left are already hanging in the balance.
“Shen-bobo? Did something happen?”
The older man startles and Chengling honestly isn’t sure if he should take this as a sign that his steps are improving or if Shen-bobo is just that much less observant than the people he’s used to now. He’s never even managed to surprise Xiang-jiejie before.
“Chengling. It nothing to worry about, just some corrupted well water. The Valley is full of such tricks. We’ll have to fetch new water for cooking and drinking though, so lunch will probably be late-”
Glancing down at him, Shen-bobo blinks in vague surprise. “Look at you, you’re soaked in sweat. What have you been up to?” Chengling shrugs a shoulder, mind already fixed on what the messenger said about people dying. He doesn’t think the ghosts would poison a well. Not that they’re not vicious enough for it but all the ghosts he’s encountered have been more straightforward than that.
Chengling has lived through a Ghost Valley night attack and it's nothing so peaceful as a poisoned well.
“I was training.”
Shen-bobo shakes his head and claps his shoulder. “It’s good that you’re taking your martial arts seriously, but it’s not good to overdo it. Take a break and go help your Xiaolian-jiejie, I’ll send someone to fetch you when it’s time to eat.”
Chengling watches him head off after the messenger with a sour aftertaste in his mouth. He probably should rest, but Shen-bobo doesn’t know that. Shifu would have known because he would have been watching over his forms and correcting them as he went. Wen-shishu would have known because he would have asked how long Chengling had been at it and checked his qi flow.
For one moment, he wants so desperately to be back in Siji Manor that it almost hurts. But Chengling isn’t the same helpless boy he was when the Liuli rhyme first came to Jiangnan, so he swallows back the sudden burn of tears and goes in search of the kitchen servants.
Wishing for things won’t make them happen, but if he pays attention maybe this time he’ll be able to protect his family.
It goes almost too smoothly. Zishu is used to hunting prey that dine with silver tipped chopsticks and sleep with guards outside their bedroom doors, but here even the vipers mixed among the rats are unwary. By the time he ghosts into Zhao Jing’s quarters the man is already deep in drugged sleep.
Zishu stands over the bed for a long moment, dark thoughts hissing in his ears as he stares down at the sprawled figure. It would be easy to kill him like this; a blade to the throat or a cushion pressed tight over his face and the deed would be done.
But vengeance is a creature less easily satisfied than justice.
Gently as a healer with a fevered patient, Zishu turns down the coverlet and folds open Zhao Jing’s thin sleeping robe to expose his chest. The spring night air is cool enough that he ought to shiver but caught in the grip of Zishu’s gift even involuntary twitches are beyond him.
Canvas thus prepared, Zishu pulls down the collar of his own robe and reaches for his collarbone.
Twisting the nail free is even more agonizing than driving it in had been. Sweat slicks his throat and temples, his heart thunders, his vision sparkles with white and black starbursts as his body screams its protest of this new torment.
Terrible as it is though, the pain is tempered by a roar of savage anticipation. The Three Autumn Nails are without question his cruelest creation. A fitting gift for the architect of Kexing’s suffering.
When he finally rips it out the fractured meridian left behind shudders, threatening to burst as a rush of newly released qi slams roughly through it. But Wu Xi knows his craft, and with the elixir he gave Zishu shoring his body up, it holds.
Gasping for breath and light-headed with pain, Zishu makes himself wait for his body to steady before he goes any further. He wants to be fully grounded in himself when he begins, wants to burn every detail into his brain so that he can recall it for Kexing with perfect clarity when they meet at Naihe bridge.
Once his vision clears and it no longer feels like his qi is trying to tear its way out of his flesh, he pulls his robe closed over the sluggishly bleeding hole in his chest and leans over Zhao Jing. He doesn’t bother to wipe the nail down before he begins. If anything, blood poisoning would add a poetic touch to the mans suffering that he feels Kexing would approve of.
He brings his hand down with the force and speed of a lightning strike, the nail plunging hungrily into Zhao Jing’s unmarred flesh. Even with the pain dulled by the poison holding him unconscious the mans chest jumps, lungs stuttering at the shock. Zishu's lip curls in vicious satisfaction, driving the nail inexorably deeper. He knows he’s reached the meridian when a thin, animal keen forces its way out of Zhao Jing’s throat. It’s far too low to reach beyond this room though, let alone summon anyone to help him.
Zishu goes slowly, steadily, remembering with a brutal thrill how painful the first nail was. How the shattering pain of it lingered for days and left him choking on his own blood at even the slightest provocation.
His body had become accustomed to the pain by the time he was ready to place the second nail, but Zhao Jing won’t have that. Zishu will space the nails out just enough that he has time to see his victory shatter into ruin before his senses desert him, and not one moment more. The pain will build and build until the foul wretch’s mind collapses in on itself under its weight.
When the head of the nail finally lays snug against the skin, sunk as deep as it can go, there are tears trailing sluggishly down the bastards temples and his eyes flicker wildly beneath his lids. He’s still too deeply under for the pain to fully wake him, at least with the drug blocking so much of it, but he’s clearly getting his first taste of the torment that will be inflicted on him.
Zishu pulls his sleeping robe closed with the same gentleness he’d opened it, turning his victim carefully on his side before pulling the coverlet back over him. He may yet vomit from the pain after all and this way he can lie peacefully in his own filth until morning without the escape of suffocation.
He leaves as silently as a shadow, not one guard or disciple catching so much as a hint of his presence. When he’s beyond the Five Lakes compound he stops in an alley, tipping his face up to the sky as he breathes through the aftershocks of agony wracking his body. It’s a fine, clear night, with the kind of moon he once would have stretched out on a roof to admire, but its light seems distant and unimportant now.
Between the unlocked qi crashing violently through his system and the music of Zhao Jing’s keening whimpers ringing in his ears he feels flush with strength and purpose. Shaking off the momentary reverie he stalks onward, the eye of an unseen storm.
Though he hadn’t been present for it, he’d overheard many disciples gossiping about Mu Siyuan and Huang He’s joint rally this afternoon. Apparently they had convinced half the sects that the Ghosts had caused their little qi problem by poisoning the well. He could almost thank Huang He really.
Without his clever tongue twisting Mu Siyuan’s grief-fueled vendetta against the Valley as a whole into a veiled insinuation that the only ghosts who could have done such a thing were those who already had access to the camp tonight would almost certainly prove far less effective.
And naturally the mere insinuation that there was blood in the water was enough for the whole slavering pack of them to turn speculative eyes on the Five Lakes Alliance. It was nothing more than grumbling for now, but that would change after tonight.
Of course a sect is a bigger target than he’d initially planned to tackle this early in the hunt, but needs must where vengeance drives.
He goes for Mu Siyuan first.
Duan Jian is a small enough sect that even with the nearly all their disciples in attendance they didn’t quite rank an actual building for their accommodations. It makes reaching their leader extraordinarily easy. A flick of the blade to open the rear wall of his tent and he’s in without so much as a whisper to give him away.
He severs the mans graying head from his shoulders in a single blow, the rush of blood that follows soaking robes and cot in a dark tide. He considers taking the head with him, but transporting it without being spotted would be annoying and the mere fact that someone has gone to the effort of beheading him ought to remind people of his son’s fate.
Just to ensure Mu Siyuan’s personal grudge over Zhao Jing’s alliance with the people who killed his son isn’t glossed over in the name of Duan Jian’s years as an ally of the Five Lakes, he beheads the two most senior elders of the sect as well before he leaves. If that doesn’t have them out for blood, nothing will.
The unopened jar of wine tucked beside the second elders cot is too ripe a windfall to pass up, so Zishu takes it and leaves the bodies to be found by whatever unlucky disciple comes to wake them in the morning.
The next step is more difficult. After the shock of the days deaths there are few carousers out celebrating, but that only makes things marginally easier. He’s figured out enough of the soul-winding box's mechanisms to be confident that he can set up a simpler version of Diao Is Gui’s infamous razor-web traps, but the trick is doing so quickly enough that no one has time to spot the glint of moonlight on wires before he’s ready.
It would be near impossible if his targets were quartered in tents but fortunately the beggar sect has claimed an old barn for their shelter, patchwork awnings stretching out from it in a truly squalid looking sprawl. Their dedication to this facade of poverty is what has let them fly under the radar of more powerful sects in spite of their size, but here it will prove their undoing.
He has to move more slowly than he would like, taking care not to cut himself on the wire, but eventually the snare takes shape. A tangle of sword-sharp threads are tightly wound between trees, bamboo, and fence posts, surrounding the barnyard on all sides. Zishu has even strung a few wires between the roof and nearby trees for when someone inevitably tries to jump out of the enclosure. Not many granted, the way they shine when backlit by the moon makes him too wary to try for a full net, but enough.
Satisfied that the trap is as deadly as he can make it, Zishu soaks a rag in his stolen wine, winds it around the neck of the jar, lights it with a fire stick, and hurls the incipient fireball onto the barn roof. He’s vanished into the brush by the time the jar hits, shattering the illusion of peace with the crash of of broken pottery and a wash of hungry flames.
Shouts of confusion, and then alarm rise from the rudely woken beggars. It won’t be long before more join them. Once the fire grows others will come to put it out, lest it spread to their own tents and supplies. Some will live to speculate about this tomorrow. Others will die, to fire or razor-wires or Zishu’s throwing knives.
Frantic shouts turn to screams as the first beggar hits the soul-winding web, and Zishu’s eyes flash predator-gold in the rising firelight as he melts into the shadows.
Look I have no idea if this chapter is any good anymore, I've been reworking it all week and I'm running on five hours of sleep at this point. But you're all lovely people who left me nice reviews and I don't want to make you wait so here it is.
I'm gonna go write meta notes about character commentary as seen in WenZhou's wardrobe because that's the level of overthinking I'm at now.
Over the course of a single day and night the Heroes Conference has gone from being comfortably well-in-hand to wildly unstable.
In point of fact, the situation is spiraling dangerously close to a state he might have to define as ‘explosively out of control’. He loathes it more than words can express.
If there’s one lesson he’s learned from his place in Yifu’s shadow, it’s that if you are cunning and clever enough, you can bend the world itself to your whims. Pull the fangs of the strongest warrior, cast the most respected ruler down to die in the street like a dog, turn a revered sage into a doddering fool scorned by the world. With a sufficiently quick mind and enough skill to carry out the vision it grants you, there is nothing that will not ultimately yield before you.
And Xie-er is cunning and clever. He has spent years proving it, slowly clawing his way to the top of Scorpion’s hierarchy, earning the name Yifu gave him when he plucked him out of a crowd of other war-slaves.
This plan is the culmination of his efforts, the pinnacle of his hard-won skill and power. He’s accounted for everything, bent every aspect of the situation to benefit him.
He has broken the power of Ghost Valley, the surviving factions bound to his will by poison and promises. The sects are primed to give Yifu everything he wants so that Xie-er can turn it all to dust in his hands. Even the feared Ghost Valley Master is dancing to Xie-ers tune and will soon deliver Yifu into his hands body and spirit.
And yet there is something amiss, some unknown variable wreaking havoc with his finely crafted plans, and to his frustration he cannot pin it down.
He hadn’t thought much of it at first.
There was no need to take any note of the first few reports from the patrols Yifu had told him to set among the less biddable sects about a handful of people falling ill. Somewhat more concerning when their numbers swiftly expanded from a mere handful to over fifty and deaths began to be reported, but when investigation pointed toward a poisoned well rather than disease he merely made a note to ensure that the Tai Fu servants were fetching their water from the river instead.
It was inconvenient, but not particularly alarming. After all, there were bound to be at least a few small ghosts left in the valley with enough spite in their bones to mount some kind of attack against the conference, and it wasn’t as if they could do any real damage with their superiors already at Xie-ers command. A scattering of dead among Yifus would-be subjects was no matter to him.
The enslaved Devils showing up to whine about being attacked was more vexing, but ultimately less concerning. While Yan Gui was intelligent and loyal enough that Xie-er was honestly considering keeping her, Wu Chang Gui and his men were more or less deadweight. Dangerous in a battle but too shortsighted to be of use outside of it, a judgment that was further backed by the fact that they were so rattled over a single over-enthusiastic raiding party.
Or well. Supposedly a raiding party. Wu Chang Gui had been very agitated about Hei Wu Chang’s disappearance after all, and Xie-er was well aware that Du Pusa was still holding a grudge for the brat comment.
Even with the growing tension in the camp he hadn’t really begun to worry until the soul-winding box resurfaced in last nights fiasco.
That particular trinket had disappeared months ago, and li away. Rationally speaking even if the soul-winding box was taken by whoever killed Chang She Gui, it shouldn’t have turned up again for years. It wasn’t as if it were a common or easily mastered weapon after all. And yet there is now a mass grave full of beggar sect disciples to prove it's found its way into the hands of a new wielder, and Xie-er is having to consider that perhaps these various unfortunate circumstances are less coincidence than they are coordination.
Whoever killed Chang She Gui was almost certainly responsible for the chaos of the false armor that had flooded Yueyang during Gao Chong’s failed attempt to rally the jianghu against Ghost Valley. When the armor ended up with Mo Huaiyang in the aftermath, Xie-er and Yifu had both assumed that whoever had been responsible had been killed by their own trap, but now it seemed that that wasn’t the case. Perhaps they had simply been playing a far longer game than he had expected.
Normally he’d send his men out to hunt down whatever pathetic fool had bumbled their way into becoming an obstacle on his path but Yifu was behaving oddly this morning, insisting that Xie-er post a triple guard on him at all times. He wouldn’t explain the suddenly increased security requirement, but then he so rarely deigned to explain himself. Fortunately Xie-er was accustomed to his Yifus mercurial nature and simply accepted the demand, pretending he didn’t see the stiff way Yifu held himself as he shuffled gingerly into his study. Pointing out his vulnerabilities now would only make him angry, and Xie-er would be able to take proper care of him without being opposed soon enough.
He didn’t have enough men to cover a triple guard for Yifu, the ‘aboveboard’ tasks that reminded the sects of their presence, and a search for a mysterious foe, but he did have Du Pusa. Given the gleeful relentlessness she devoted to any sufficiently interesting task he gave her, he fully expected her to return dragging a brutalized and likely half-naked corpse within the next few days.
Meticulously arranging the tea service to Yifu’s liking, he put the matter from his mind. He was well prepared, his plan was perfect, and once Du Pusa dealt with whoever was interfering, things would continue as they should.
Letting the old, blissful smile bloom across his face, he picked up the tray and padded off towards the study. There was so little time left before he would silence Yifu’s voice forever, best to bask in it while he still could.
Finding the yaoren is easier than locating the ghosts had been.
Like the ghosts they need to be kept out of sight if their masters want the sects to continue overlooking their presence, but unlike the ghosts there are a limited number of places that yaoren could conceivably be hidden. Whatever the details of the process that creates them might be, the result is a creature far more beast than man. Keeping them near enough to be useful without letting them prey on the Conference itself would require a pen.
The walled tanners yard set far enough from town to spare the residents its smell is an ideal location. The massive vats of stinking liquid neatly conceal the stench of their festering flesh and the gates are sturdy enough that only a single guard is required to ensure they remain contained.
Perched in the trees overlooking the inner yard, Zishu watches the shuffling mob below with narrowed eyes. The hides and leathers being worked on before the yard was commandeered are scattered in the dust alongside cracked open bones, half-gnawed and trampled beneath rotting feet. It seems the scorpions are having trouble keeping their pet atrocities fed. That ought to prove useful later.
He’s just turned his attention to the lone foot soldier standing by the gate when he hears muffled grunts and heavy, uneven footsteps in the distance. His eyes flicker briefly in the direction of the approaching noise, and he settles back into hiding with the liquid grace of a jaguar. While the prospect of the righteous sects stumbling across the yaoren enclosure is a delicious one, it’s like as not to be more scorpions. And since they are more likely to react to the discovery of a dead sentry with apathetic professionalism than the panicked milling the rest of the conference is prone to, he may as well wait for them to finish whatever business they came for before going about his own.
He doesn’t have to wait long before a tiny group emerges into the clearing below, led by none other than Du Pusa.
Zishu falls perfectly still, utterly focused. She’s not bothering with the drab cloak she wore at Bailu cliff, but the same arrogant smirk curls her blood red lips and his fingers twitch with the acute desire to carve a second smile across her throat. Blood roars in his ears and he can feel the same furious white-out that took him when he saw Hei Wu Chang threatening to overtake him.
He bites down on the murderous impulse when he spots the bound and gagged disciple in Tie Zhang black and bronze being dragged behind her by two blank-faced foot soldiers. Du Pusa won’t leave this clearing alive, but if she wants to give him further weapons to turn on her masters before she dies, he’s willing to briefly delay killing her.
Unaware of the death looming above her, Du Pusa grabs her battered prisoner by the collar and drags him up to the top of the wall with an effortless leap. Catching his chin in her free hand, she turns his face towards the shambling monstrosities milling sluggishly among the tanning vats.
“Aren’t they pitiful, little brother? The poor, stupid things don’t even remember what they used to be. All they do is claw and bite and howl. It would be such a waste if you turned out like that. This sister would be very disappointed if your pretty face rotted off.”
The Tie Zhang disciple is thrashing wildly against her grip, but Du Pusa would not be as highly ranked in Scorpion as she was if her only value was as a poison mistress. She holds him easily in place, the hand at his jaw sliding up to tear the gag free of his mouth. The man immediately begins shrieking, loose strands of gray-streaked hair swaying wildly with the force of his struggling.
“Y-you vile bitch, how dare you-! Do you think the jianghu will allow you to get away with such wicked deeds?!?”
Du Pusa laughs at his panicked defiance, trailing her fingers delicately along the side of his poison-burned face in a way that makes him flinch.
“Come now, there’s no need for that kind of talk. All you have to do is tell sister about your little visit to masters friends and this will all be over. We can go back and play together, won’t that be nice?”
The disciple leans awkwardly away from her, voice wavering as fear wars with false bravado. “How many times do you want me to repeat myself?! I don’t know what you’re talking about! None of us ever went near your damn ghosts!”
In the trees above, Zishu flexes his fingers against baiyi’s hilt with slow, feral relish. If Xie Wang is at the point of having probably suspects abducted from the conference for interrogation things must be progressing well. He’ll have to return to camp after this kill then. It wouldn’t do to miss the upcoming festivities.
Du Pusa was still focused on interrogating her wailing prisoner, but he was done observing. He could take out the sentry with a throwing knife, but the two who’d come with Du Pusa were nearly directly below him and the angle was far too awkward. That was no matter though. Siji manors divine strides were not renowned solely for their beauty after all.
Zishu drops between the two below him like a bolt of dark lightning, baiyi cleaving through the sides of their throats before his feet even touched the ground. Bright blood fountained as the two staggered away, hands clapping ineffectually at their gaping necks, but Zishu was already moving on to the next target.
The instant he landed he was twisting into a low, centered spin, slingshotting the downward momentum of his body around to send him flashing forward faster than the eye could follow. A third strike opens the throat of the sentry as he passes, and then he’s surging up toward his primary target.
He hasn’t unlocked enough of his qi to regain the near-supernatural speed he was once capable of, but he’s still fast enough that Du Pusa has only half turned towards him by the time he reaches her. Baiyi darts for the back of her neck like a silver snake and she goes suddenly limp as her spine is neatly bisected. He seizes her prisoner by the throat just in time to prevent the man from falling in with her as the former assassin topples gracelessly forward into the pen, crashing to earth amidst the yaoren lured over by the Tie Zhang disciples wailing.
Zishu watches with cold eyes as her bright-robed form vanishes beneath a frenzied tangle of starving horrors. He crushes the Tie Zhang disciples throat without looking away from the spectacle below, calmly erasing another face from his mental list.
Du Pusa would have died within minutes of hitting the ground, but he stands patient watch until what little he can see between feeding yaoren no longer resembles a human being and the cooling throat in his hand informs him that the interrogation victim has also expired. While overseeing the desecration of a body doesn’t carry the same satisfaction as killing them does Zishu has never been anything less than thorough when he sets his mind to something. Their enemies would not have spared Kexing’s body, so he will not spare theirs.
Once he is assured that her corpse is beyond saving, he turns and drops back down into the clearing outside the gate. If he wants to make full use of the days opportunities while remaining unremarkable, it would be best to assume the guise of someone not directly allied with the Five Lakes. Tie Zhang sect is not an ideal disguise given the difference between their clans martial arts, any actual members who give him more than a passing glance will know him for an imposter the moment they resister his less burly build. Given the chaos he expects to be walking into however, that’s a risk he’s willing to take.
He strips the deadman of his robes and signature saber before considering how to deal with the bodies. He briefly considers heaving the three extra over the wall for the yaoren, but he wants them hungry and feeding them any more might prove detrimental to the fledgling plans playing at the edge of his mind.
In the end he drags both the disciple and the two scorpions who brought him here through the woods to the Tannery’s offal disposal site; a deep pit dug in the center of a scraped bare clearing that can be set ablaze without risk of starting a forest fire. He dumps them in without much fanfare and then sets about changing his disguise.
The deadman was somewhat broader in the shoulders than Zishu, not to mention shorter in the arms and legs, but a bit of clever wrapping ensures the robes sit decently enough to pass casual inspection.
There’s not room for even half his hidden weapons and gear in these robes, so he contents himself with Rain Needles concealed up his sleeves, a single scorpion knife, and a tiny pot he’d emptied specifically for this little side errand. The rest of his gear he stashes in a nearby hollow tree alongside the carefully folded scorpion robes to return for later.
He doesn’t want to risk the security at the yaoren enclosure being increased, so he returns to the pen and takes the time to fish one out with a noose of thin, strong rope caught around it’s neck. He makes sure to let it drag and scramble against the wall as he does so to make it look as if the creature clawed it’s own way out, dodging a mindless swipe of it’s ragged nails as he shoves it over the far side of the wall.
It hits the ground with an awkward crack, before scrambling spider-like onto all fours. Likely it broke something in the fall but these things never seem to register pain the way they should. It growls and slavers up at him before it notices the dead sentry sprawled nearby.
He’s forgotten almost instantly as the creature lunges for the unguarded meat, and as Zishu hoped it goes for the throat first. He’s unsure wether it was drawn there by instinct or the open wound, but it serves his purpose well enough. Whoever finds the bodies at shift change should assume that one of the yaoren simply became frantic enough to claw its way over the wall and attack the lone guard.
Once he judges the corpse sufficiently mutilated to hide any sign of the actual killing blow, he sends his lone remaining throwing knife into the yaorens back and waits out its death throes. He can’t retrieve the knife if he wants to make this a believable mutual kill, but he can collect a far deadlier weapon before he goes.
Jumping down beside the bodies, he fills the little pot he kept with corrupted blood and pus from the yaoren’s hand and tucks it away in a fold of his belt before going on his way
It has been several hours since he’d last set foot in the conference encampment. He’d retreated into the mountain to rest just as false-dawn was beginning to break, after the beggar sects would-be rescuers had grown too numerous to be easily picked off, and then spent the latter half of the morning eliminating random search parties looking for ghosts.
Re-entering the camp now he huffed in cruel amusement at the chaos left in his wake. Any trace of the triumphant revelry that had buoyed them up previously was dead in the dust, disciples crowding together in distinct groups according to their alliances and muttering belligerently.
Many groups had clustered under eaves or over platters of cold bread, but more than a few were heading in the direction of the Eimei sects cluster of tents. The discontent etched into the faces of those seemed promising, so Zishu fixed a scowl on his own face and made his own way in the same direction.
He heard the shouting before he saw its source.
Yu Qiufeng stood at the front of a slowly growing crowd, face alight with self-righteous indignation.
“-just standby while our brothers die to base treachery? How can we be asked to turn aside from such a depraved and cowardly attack? Do we not have the duty to uphold justice for the disciples struck down without even the chance to face their killers?”
The man flung an arm demonstratively in the direction of the Eimei sects tents, and Zishu followed the gesture, eyes hooding slightly in understanding.
Most in the jianghu would describe Yu Qiufeng as a weak leader if they were being kind, or a coward if they were not. As such, even if he wished to step into a leadership position, few outside his own sect would lower themselves to follow him under normal circumstances. But he’d chosen his venue well.
There were no true healers among those gathered at the Heroes Conference, but apparently the nuns of Eimei had responded to the recent flood of deaths and injuries with their signature pretense of morally-superior benevolence.
They appeared to have cobbled together a makeshift infirmary from what might once have been a banquet tent, harried looking disciples coming and going in a steady trickle from the entrance. And more useful to Yu Qiufeng, the ground in front of the tent was lined with rows of white-draped bodies waiting to be taken away for burial.
It was a scene effectively calculated for maximum provocation.
Wether the assembled men and women felt grief, outrage, or simple stung pride in the face of those deaths was irrelevant. In the crucible of the growing mob atmosphere, all were transmuted into violent anger. It didn’t matter that the man whipping them into a frenzy was one they would ordinarily have sneered at behind his back, all that mattered was that he said the right words and gave them a target by the end of their little rally.
Judging by the current size and sound of the crowd milling restlessly around Yu Qiufeng he still had time before things came to a boil, so he circled around the edge of the crowd towards the infirmary tent. There were enough disciples coming and going that as long as he walked like he had a reason to be there no one would question his presence.
Inside the tent was thick with the bitter-sharp tang of blood and medicine, moans filling the air as the handful of nuns tending the injured and dying made their way between cots and bedrolls. A few disciples were propped up by older sect-brothers pouring qi into them, lingering casualties of yesterdays poisoning too strong to die quickly but too weak to survive without someone else keeping them stable until the powder worked its way out of their system. More beds were filled with survivors of last nights attack though, missing limbs and digits from the wires, burns from the fires.
No one from the Five Lakes alliance of course, but that was to be expected. Even if their leaders hadn’t spent the night drugged unconscious, they would hardly have wasted their efforts on rescuing the beggar sect after their recent conflicts.
Ignoring his victims, Zishu wound his way between beds toward the curtained off back portion of the tent where they were likely storing what few medical supplies they had on hand. As he’d expected the handful of attendants present were so focused on their struggle to keep their charges alive they didn’t even notice him slipping behind the curtain.
He nearly snorted when the first thing he saw was a sturdy wooden table set with a tray containing knives, a saw, an empty basin, and towels. Ambitious of them to prepare for amputations as though they had any real chance of keeping anyone that badly injured alive with their limited medical capabilities.
Turning away from the ludicrous sight, he focused on the crates of bandages and medicines stacked in the far corner. The sects had clearly not anticipated much opposition to their glorious route of Ghost Valley once the Ten Devils had begun defecting and the Chanming Sword Immortal had joined their ‘virtuous’ quest.
Stupid of them. The only reason their ambush hadn’t turned into more of a slaughter was their blind luck in dragging Chengling along. Even in a life or death situation, Kexing had always done his best to shield their little disciple from the sharper, bloodier truths of his nature.
The thought bit and burned like warm water on chilled-blue flesh.
Chengling had a right to his anger. The boy was young, but old enough to make the choices that would shape the man he was becoming for better or worse, and that remained true no matter how gutted the choices in question left Zishu.
It had been true for Kexing when he vowed to avenge his parents murder, it had been true for Zishu when he chose to take his sect-brothers to the capital, it had been true for Han Ying when he knelt for Zishu and bound himself irrevocably to Tian Chuang, and it was true for Chengling.
That didn’t mean Zishu had to accept Zhao Jing and his lackeys turning the boy into a weapon to destroy his soft-hearted fool of a Zhiji.
Burying the wash of anguish beneath a fresh wave of murderous intent, Zishu set about rummaging through the nearest crate of medicines.
He didn’t contaminate everything of course. That would be obvious enough even for the dull-witted folk of the jianghu to notice. He merely chose a handful of recently opened coagulant aids and numbing creams to taint with a few drops of the yaoren pus he’d collected. Things that would be applied directly to open wounds.
Unlike the destabilizing powder he’d added to yesterdays breakfast, this wouldn’t be an instant death for anyone. But infections and complications killed just as surely as a blade, and the yaoren corruption had the benefit of manifesting fairly quickly. Quickly enough to flare the bonfire he was building around that arrogant brats feet like a splash of alcohol on a campfire.
Becoming the youngest known leader of the oldest assassination organization in the country was an impressive feat, and given a few more years of experience Xie Wang would likely have grown to be as dangerous as Zishu himself.
He was not there yet however, and now never would be.
Replacing the last pot of ointment in the crate, Zishu slipped back out into the main area of the tent. Leaving so soon after entering would be suspicious, so he knelt by the side of an unconscious man whose arms were a mess of flesh charred raw and bloody all the way up to his biceps. His chest rose and fell so shallowly that Zishu judged he wouldn’t last much beyond sunset at the latest. Unlikely to wake and give away his unfamiliarity with his current ‘visitor’ then.
A younger nun stopped by at one point to debride the dying mans burns, speaking to Zishu in the same coaxing tone of voice one might turn on a wounded animal. “It may sound cruel, but this is a mercy in its way. The burns are deep enough that he won’t feel the pain of them when he wakes, and that will make traveling back to your sect easier on him.”
Zishu nearly laughed aloud at the irony of her words, though he kept his black amusement locked firmly behind the unwavering grimness of his expression. He himself was proof she was correct after all.
A mortal wound was nowhere near as agonizing as one you had to live with.
He kept his silent false-vigil at the burned mans bedside until the rumble of the crowd outside rose to the sort of fevered pitch that promised imminent action. The nun who had attempted to console him shot him a brief, pitying expression as he rose to stalk from the infirmary, unaware of the vicious anticipation bubbling dangerously beneath his careful scowl.
As he had expected, the crowd had swollen to a full-fledged mob in the time he had spent in the infirmary. Their numbers had grown enough that he could no longer see Yu Qiufeng from his place at the edge of the gathering, or even hear him clearly over the shouts of the horde of angry martial artists, and the air was thick with the promise of bloodshed.
Already the crowd was beginning to move, spilling out of the square and into the causeway leading towards the winehouse, one of the few establishments in the little town that hadn’t been fully taken over by the sects. Zishu joined the flood, though he took pains to remain on the outskirts of the throng.
He knew better than to let himself be drawn too deeply into the crush of bodies and rage. It wouldn’t do to forget that while a wise man might predict the forming of a mob, only a fool would presume to believe he could fully predict its movements after that point. Best to ensure he could react quickly to any unforeseen course of action.
Fortunately though, the bait he left last night had served its purpose well.
The mob bore down on the winehouse with the inescapable force of a landslide, various wide-eyed disciples and hard-faced masters dodging out of their way as they went. When they reached the building the leading edge of the crowd boiled through the door while the rest spread out to surround the entrance.
A loud crash rang out from inside, closely followed by yelling and then the sounds of a fight breaking out. The mob all but boiled in place, their shouted demands blending together in a near indistinguishable cacophony.
“Drag the bastards out!”
“-what happens when they try their evil tricks on-!”
“-send a message to the rest of the-!”
“-kill every last-!”
“-can’t save you now!”
Zishu wrapped a hand around the saber hilt protruding over his shoulder, as much to center himself in the moment as to maintain the image of an overly aggressive Tie Zhang fighter spoiling for a fight. It wouldn’t do to lose his head before the entertainment was even properly presented to the guests.
It doesn’t take long before a disheveled Wu Chang Gui and Kai Xin Gui are dragged into the street, still struggling furiously as they’re presented to Yu Qiufeng by a mixed gang of minor sect disciples. Wu Chang Gui had lost his tall hat at some point during the skirmish, one arm dangling at an unnatural angle and green-painted lips curled back in a deranged looking snarl. Kai Xin Gui was cackling as wildly as ever, lunging against the hands holding him in place as he spat gruesome threats, eyes wide open and rolling in spite of the open gash in his temple painting one half of his face in dripping red.
They snarled at the surrounding mob like cornered beasts. The mob howled back its mindless demand for blood.
Zishu reveled in the moment. Let these faithless ghosts suffer the same fate they abandoned Kexing to, every horrifying, dehumanizing, futile moment of it.
Wu Chang Gui is already hissing at Yu Qiufeng, though he projects his voice strongly enough to be heard by most of the crowd present.
“Yu-daxia is so bold, attacking his allies as soon as he’s finished making use of them. Is this the so-called honor of the jianghu?”
It’s not a bad strategy, trying to fracture the mob atmosphere with the appearance of calm while subtly reminding their leader that the ghosts are nominally allied with factions that Yu Qiufeng’s much weaker sect can’t afford to offend.
Unfortunately for Wu Chang Gui, he’s spent too long in the valley to remember the key difference between ghosts and humans.
A ghost strives always for survival. They balance on the knifes edge between life and death from the moment they enter the valley, and as such are used to swallowing even the bitterest draught if that’s what it takes to maximize their chances of living to see the next dawn.
Humans are not so practical. For them death is often a distant specter rather than a looming reality, and so they have the freedom to act beyond the strict parameters of survival at all costs. A human will risk or even throw away their life for any number of things; principle, pride, reputation, or loyalty.
A mob of ghosts might have been turned by Wu Chang Gui’s words, choking down any anger or humiliation they felt rather than risk displeasing a greater threat. Humans who don’t even consider themselves beholden to that threat only grows more incensed at the suggestion that they are anything less than righteous.
Yu Qiufeng sneers at Wu Chang Gui, before turning to gesture expansively at the horde milling restlessly around them.
“You see? Even now they refuse to admit their crimes. Our younger brothers and sisters lie dead and dying in the dust of Mt. Qingya while their killers hide behind false alliances and question our honor. Can we allow this to continue?!”
The mob roars its answer, over a hundred voices screaming a disjointed demand for their deaths. Yu Qiufeng smirks as he turns back to the two Devils. Zishu can’t hear whatever he says over the thunder of the mob pressing hungrily in around the small group, but a quick step up into the bed of a nearby cart gives him a clear view of the ghosts being forced roughly to their knees.
They’re both thrashing wildly now, twisting and jerking like madmen. Kai Xin Gui barely seems to notice when he dislocates his own shoulder in the struggle, while Wu Chang Gui shrieks murderously at everyone close enough to hear him.
Yu Qiufeng draws his sword and steps forward, lifting one hand in a call for silence. The man doesn’t have the gravitas to actually get it, but the mob quiets just enough for his shout to be heard over the jeering.
“Today we uphold justice for our fallen sect brothers and all those who suffered an unjust death at the hands of Ghost Valley, as is the duty of every sect in the jianghu!”
The man stepped forward, raising his sword. Wu Chang Gui’s wildly flickering eyes met Zishu’s over the heads of the crowd and for a moment it almost seemed as if time slowed down. Shocked recognition, horror, anger, and fear played across the ghosts bruised face like blood oozing from a gut wound. Ah, so he did remember him then. Good. Zishu’s lips curled up in hollow mockery of a compassionate smile. Wu Chang Gui's mouth opened to shout.
And the sword came down.
The blade jarred awkwardly against the spine, and the self-appointed executioner had to pull back for a second blow, but then the deed was done. Cheers rose as Wu Chang Gui’s head thudded into the dust, the convulsively twitching body slumping half over it as the hands holding it in place pull away.
Kai Xin Gui followed in minutes, shrieking recklessly at the mob right up to the moment Yu Qiufengs sword cleaved his head from his neck.
A thrill of grim pleasure sings through Zishu’s veins like the clash of blades as he steps down from the cart bed.
Four offerings made. Six yet to come.
The mob is still rumbling threateningly as it churns around the bodies. Two deaths are never enough to calm a mob. He’s tempted to slip away and let the horde turn on whatever target is unfortunate enough to catch their attention next, but given Wu Chang Gui’s reminder about his alliances the most likely candidates for their next target are the Five Lakes sects. And as much as Zishu would take joy in their destruction, he can’t risk turning a weapon as dangerous as a mob on them while Chengling is still being sheltered in their compound.
There are other ways to slake their lust for violence though. They’ve already proven themselves perfectly amenable to desecrating the dead after all. All they need is for someone to put the idea in their heads.
He’s just drawing breath to shout a demand for the bodies to be dragged through the streets when a hush begins to fall over the crowd.
Zishu stills in surprise and then understanding as he turns to see none other than Monk Gu walking calmly into the square, rosary bead clicking rhythmically between his fingers. The expression of benevolent tranquility he wears is almost comical when contrasted with the sudden wash of fearful silence that spreads from him like ripples in a pond.
“Good afternoon sect leader Yu. May I ask what brings such a large crowd together at such an hour?”
Yu Qiufeng steps forward, and even without being able to see his face Zishu can tell from the stiffness of his posture that he’s less than thrilled with the looming dispersal of his mob.
“I apologize if we disturbed you, Monk Gu, but I am sure you will agree it was necessary to uphold justice. Even if we could have accepted the Five Lakes assurances that Wu Chang Gui and his ghosts were not responsible for poisoning the well, it cannot be doubted that they were responsible for the attack last night. The beggar sect delegation was all but wiped out. How many more would die if we did not act?”
The crowd choruses agreement behind him, though it remains a nervous murmur rather than the raucous bellowing of a few minutes prior. Zishu keeps his jaw locked against the derisive hiss rising in his throat.
The sects never change. Full of heroic courage right up until they find themselves facing a stronger opponent.
Monk Gu affects a mournful sigh, eyes briefly passing over the headless bodies turning the dust in front of the winehouse to thin mud.
“I cannot say that I do not understand your actions. As much as I admire Zhao-mungzhou’s benevolence in being willing to grant even such fallen creatures as these an opportunity for redemption, I fear that such wicked beings may only ever have intended to prey on his generous spirit.”
Though the words are affirming, the tone in which they are delivered is distinctly deescalatory. It’s not quite pacifying the whole of the crowd, but enough of them are being shamed out of their frenzy to begin bleeding away the thrall of madness that transmutes a crowd into a mob.
Zishu observes it all with irritation. While a mob posed a certain level of danger, this was something far more deadly to his plans. Monk Gu was a powerful master, one generally considered to be in the same league as the Chanming sword immortal himself. If he had decided to play peacemaker between the various sects, turning the conference in on itself would be far more difficult.
Between that and the surge of fury icing over his veins at the way the monk framed Zhao Jing as some sort of bastion of magnanimous nobility, how could he allow the fool to keep breathing?
With a subtle flick of his wrist, four rain needles sank deep into the Monk’s eyes. The man dropped instantly, dead before he even had a chance to scream.
An instant of stunned silence, and then the crowd erupted into chaos. Men previously united in their desire to kill the ghosts turned on each other like starving beasts, bewilderment swiftly shifting to wild accusations.
As the mob devolved into the chaotic free-for-all of a riot, Zishu vanished down an alley leaving three cooling bodies and anarchy in his wake.
A body collapsed into a boneless heap at Zishu’s feet and he stepped over it with barely a glance, holding his breath as he tipped the last of his nepenthes extract into the lantern oil. This was the last of the sentries in the western half of the camp and by now the extract he’d added to ever lantern and torch in his wake would have cast a thick, hallucinogenic miasma over the camp. The set-up could hardly be improved further with the limited supplies he had on hand.
Content that the stage was set as well as it could be, he slipped out of camp and leapt into the trees, moving at a faster pace than he had been able to manage since he’d taken the seventh nail.
Getting past Zhao Jing’s heightened guard hadn’t been nearly as difficult as the man probably would have preferred, given that his ‘guards’ would hardly have been surprised to see yet another of their number prowling in the vicinity of their charges chamber.
If anything leaving had been more difficult. Removing two nails at once had completely blacked out his vision for a good three minutes, and he’d briefly been concerned that removing them might have the unexpected effect of sealing his senses permanently. Luckily his vision had eventually returned, but there were certainly signs that his body was on its way to failing him.
While he still felt that same rush of unleashed strength from the first night, there was a certain hollowness to it. He could feel the way his heart pounded just a touch too quickly, the shallowness of the breaths he had to struggle not to gasp for. Looming in the shadow of his newly recovered ability was the specter of what was to come, his body desperately trying to warn him that it could not hold out for long, that it would give out sooner rather than later.
That was alright though. It was worth it, if only to see the way Zhao Jing cried and choked and keened as he drove the second and third nails home. The mans lips had been nearly as red as his tear-swollen eyes, still stained from the copious amounts of chili oil he’d doused his food in in a desperate attempt to taste something of his extravagant, tasteless evening meal.
Zishu hopes he loses his sense of touch next. It would make him more vulnerable to injury, but more importantly there was a creeping horror in being unable to feel it when another person touched you, a horrific sensation of inhumanity that you could never quite put out of your mind. He’d hate for Zhao Jing to miss out on such a unique experience.
He was broken out of his thoughts when the yaoren pen came into view. The body from earlier in the day had been removed and they must have bought the idea that it was a bizarre fluke on the part of a particularly desperate yaoren because the sentry currently standing guard didn’t have even one partner keeping watch with him.
Zishu killed him in an instant, kicking his body roughly out of the way and pulling a bell from his belt as he approached the gate. He could hear the yaoren beyond, groaning and scratching at the inner walls of the courtyard, restless with hunger or worse.
Heaving away the thick wooden beam holding the gates in place, he kicked them open and began ringing the bell. It was something of a gamble, these yaoren might not have been trained to respond to a bell the way the others he’d met had been but-
The yaoren boiled out of the gate, surging towards him with the same singleminded hunger as Long Xiao's and Chang She Gui's, and Zishu turned to race for camp still ringing it furiously. Vindication bubbled bright and zealous in his chest as he raced through the night, light as a flower petal in a hurricane and swift as a blown glass javelin hurtling from the sky, with death racing at his heels.
If the gathered heroes found ghosts no match for their prowess, why not let them face the risen dead?
He dropped the bell as soon as he hit the camp, leaping straight up into the branches the trees crowding against the edge of the clearing where Bailu town had been built. The yaoren raced by below, already so agitated that it was as if they hadn't even noticed the bells absence. Absently he wondered if they would have kept following him even if he'd lost the bell in the woods. Not far from his perch the yaoren were already tearing through tents and smashing down doors with the mindless, unfeeling destruction that made them so formidable. As disciples roused with slurred shouts of panicked confusion, he settled in for a brief rest while the show played out beneath him.
Really, its almost a shame that Xie Wang will never get the chance to grow into a proper opponent. But folk with greater potential have thrown it away for less honest reasons, so at least the boy will have that to comfort him when he returns to the underworld to be reborn.
This chapter is so long, I have to cut it here before it starts getting absurd.
Also you are all wonderful, kind people and I love your faces.
May your day be full of only good things, like Wenzhou and cookies and Chengling hugs.
Arhat watches the Yueyang disciples methodically putting down the handful of yaoren she and her men had managed to recover from last nights fiasco with deep resentment.
Even with experience and preparation, wrangling the yaoren was risky. Doing so at a moments notice when they were well fed and at peak strength? That was straying into the realm of foolishness and death-seeking. But she had done it anyway because now that they had stepped out of the shadows the yaoren were a more valuable asset for Scorpion than any single assassin, however skilled she might be.
Not that it ended up mattering. She’d risked her life to secure Scorpion the army it needed to survive and thrive in this new environment, and that empty-headed fool Xie Wang had handed it over to his peacock of a father for destruction without a second thought.
They might have more Yaoren kept in other locations, but what good would that do them like this? Even ten thousand armies wouldn’t be enough to win them respect when their so-called ‘master’ was so eager to lap at Zhao Jing’s boots.
She’d never understand what Du Pusa saw in that brat.
The Mistress would never have lowered them to this. If she judged that placating the sects was truly unavoidable she might have given Arhat over as the commander in charge of the yaoren, but she would have framed it as an indulgence rather than a submission, and she never would have surrendered even a shred of their power.
Of course if the Mistress were still leading them they wouldn’t have gotten tangled up in this farce in the first place. Scorpion would have remained a looming specter that was feared by all who dared whisper its name, rather than falling to nothing more than another muzzled dog on Zhao Jing’s leash.
There was a sudden crash from the room below her as the shrill bellowing reverberating through the tiles beneath her feet rose to a fevered pitch, and she leapt for the next roof, lip curling with disgust.
She’d witnessed similar scenes often enough to know what to expect. Zhao Jing would bray on and on for ages, by turns scolding and belittling the leader of the most fearsome organization in the south as if he were nothing more than a particularly stupid slave. If Xie Wang had even a shred of respect for himself or Scorpion he’d have gutted the man long ago, but no. He would bow his head and take the abuse, or worse scramble to placate the arrogant old goat with whimpering apologies.
She supposed she should just be glad he didn’t generally let himself be hit in public. The memory of that audacious slap at Qing Feng sect still galled her like nothing else, and that her illustrious ‘master’ hadn’t so much as protested…the shame nearly devoured her whole whenever she recalled it.
Fuming, she sprang across the rooftops without bothering to conceal her presence. She could feel the hostile eyes following her as she went and viciously hoped someone was fool enough to challenge her. An opportunity to carve her grievances into a victims bones sounded like an excellent way to take the worst of the edge off of her frustration.
Unfortunately the sheep seemed entirely preoccupied with the task of collecting and piecing together their gnawed-on dead for burial, because for all their furious bleating none actually approached her. And since Xie Wang had given strict orders about how precisely the members of Scorpion were allowed to interact with the righteous sects during the Conference, she couldn’t even take maters into her own hands.
Biting back an irritated scream, she dropped from the roofs and stalked off in the direction of the river. There were always servants coming and going for river water since the well had been tainted, and even Xie Wang couldn’t object to her dragging one of those off for a bit of stress relief.
The path to the river was a well traveled one, and only likely to get more so before the Heroes Conference was finally brought to a close. A time which couldn’t come quickly enough in her opinion; at least once the conference was finished Xie Wang might go back to debasing himself, and by extension all of Scorpion, in private rather than as a display for the whole world to goggle at. Assuming of course that they weren’t shackled to further lofty plans in the aftermath.
When Du Pusa was sent to seduce that oaf from Tian Chuang, she’d hoped that they’d be making a bid to regain control of the North once this whole nonsense with the Liulija was finally finished. Given that she’d seen the lout leaving Zhao Jing’s private meeting hall a handful of nights before however, that last shred of optimism had withered to bitterness. Apparently even in this they were ultimately going to be serving the old bastard.
Perhaps it was time she started thinking about putting Xie Wang out of Scorpions misery. If she wanted to make any kind of serious attempt at it she’d have to do away with Du Pusa first, which would be both tricky and a regrettable loss for the organization. Still, they couldn’t continue on this way if Scorpion was to be saved, and Du Pusa was unwaveringly loyal to Xie Wang.
Arhat has never had that problem. She has always been loyal to Scorpion itself before any of its individual members. Regrettable as the loss of their skills might be, Du Pusa and Xie Wang were acceptable losses.
Arhat was broken out of her increasingly sour musings by the approach of an unassuming figure in the short, drab robes of the Tai Hu sects male disciple-servants. A burst of spiteful triumph flared to life in her chest, lips pulling back in a sneer. What better target to vent her fury on than one of Zhao Jing’s leeches?
Side-stepping directly into the mans path, she reaches out to seize him by the collar.
“You don’t even bother to greet me? Have you no respect-!”
She cuts off abruptly as the ‘servant’ slides easily out of reach of her grab, vaguely familiar eyes flashing up to lock with her own. He looks different, his face structure altered to something softer and rougher, less distinctive, but the infuriating sensation of being sized up and found wanting is unmistakable.
It’s the same dying man who killed Jiang Lao Guai, who not only stole the Jing Hu heir from under their noses but then had the audacity to attack her at Gao Chong’s failed conference.
For an instant she just stares, stunned by the unexpected encounter. Then those judgmental eyes narrow slightly and he whips around to bolt away through the undergrowth, the sudden movement shattering her moment of frozen bewilderment like a body crashing through a paper screen. With a hiss of pure outrage she lunges after him, and the chase is on.
In the aftermath of their first fight with the man Xie Wang had claimed him to be the founder of Tian Chuang. At the time she’d been somewhat skeptical of the claim, but the bastard is certainly proving himself slippery enough to be responsible for those shifty upstarts. He somehow manages to gain enough ground on her that she loses sight of him, so she has to stick to fighting her way through the thick undergrowth just so she can follow his trail.
He’s not good enough to lose her though and she stays hot on his heels, anticipation burning feverishly in her gut. Killing him won’t solve any of the problems currently facing Scorpion but it will avenge old slights, which is honestly more than she hoped this day might bring her. As the Mistress once told her, even if you can’t win a fight you can always ensure your enemy loses.
Maybe she can even make this into a double strike. The Jing Hu heir had seemed fond of him, perhaps she could arrange to have his head delivered to the boys bedchamber. Xie Wang would hardly complain about her terrorizing someone he saw as competition for his precious fathers attention.
She catches a glimpse of dark cloth up ahead and redoubles her speed-
Something pulls tight around her throat and she’s wrenched up into the trees with just shy of enough force to break her neck. Choking, she kicks and scrabbles at the thin rope cutting off her air for one shocked instant before mindless instinct gives way to training. She snatches at the long knives sheathed at the small of her back, only for her arms to fall limp as fingers stab ruthlessly into her back and shoulders to lock her acupoints.
Now panic begins to set in and she thrashes, chest already starting to ache with desperation. She hasn’t been chasing the bastard long, only for about half an incense sticks worth of time, but running is still running and she needs air-!
Her quarry circles around to crouch in the branches in front of her. He looks even less like a threat missing the dark overrobe of his stolen uniform, but his eyes are chillingly calm as he watches her struggle. Arhat bares her teeth wildly at him in something like a dare but he just crouches there, silently watching her.
She tries to lift her arms again but she can’t so much as twitch her fingertips. Du Pusa can curl her body up far enough to twine her legs around anything over her head, Arhat has seen her do it when she’s silk dancing, and desperately she attempts the same. But while Arhats core is strong enough for the maneuver, she lacks Du Pusa’s flexibility and she can’t quite fold far enough to hook her knees around the rope, not to mention the further strain her attempts put on her neck.
Her lungs are on fire now, darkness swallowing her vision as she tries again and again to get enough of a grip on the rope to ease the pressure off her throat, and always those cold, judgmental eyes watch her. She’ll make him suffer for this as soon as she gets free.
As soon as-
Zishu tied off the last line to secure the tent and stepped deferentially back as an older Yin Zhua disciple shoved past him to hustle two blank-eyed juniors inside. Offering a deferential bow, he silently padded off to help the mixed cluster of Tai Hu, Yueyang, and Dagu disciples feeding the final armfuls of last nights more innocuous debris into the dying bonfire.
Between the fact that dealing with Arhat caused him to miss the chance to join one of the crews at their lunch, the hours of hard physical labor, and the three gaping holes in his chest throbbing sickeningly as their scabs cracked and bled sluggishly, he’d been left dizzy and nauseous. A less than ideal state for what he had planned tonight, but doable with the fresh rush of vigor that further unlocking his qi would provide.
The fresh blood soaking into his stolen disguise might have been an issue, but thankfully there was enough of the stuff already splashed across shattered wood and savaged canvas that even if someone noticed the stains against the dark cloth of the Tai Hu uniform they were unlikely to assume it was his own. Especially given how many more of their own injured they now had to worry about.
Last night’s attack had proved more successful than he had dared hope. Between the hallucinogens in the air, the hungry yaoren, and half-awake swordsmen frightened enough to cut down anything that moved, the death toll had been enormous. The sects had given up entirely on trying to dig graves and resigned themselves to laying the victims to rest on mass pyres. The attendants of the fires trickled back with empty expressions and an eerie film of pale ash clinging to hair and skin, dulling their distinctive robes to a uniform grey.
The Eimei Sects makeshift infirmary might have survived the night with so many awake to tend the poisoning, burn, and mutilation victims, but the mornings fresh influx of wounded had all but swamped them. He’d been tasked along with several true disciples to deliver medicine and bandages to them early in the day and had been coldly satisfied to see a number of the survivors already showing significant signs of yaoren corruption; red and black lines spreading from their wounds and a cloudy glaze creeping over their eyes.
They wouldn’t become true yaoren without someone taking further steps to complete the process, but the corruption would be enough to leave them blinded at best and with their bodies rotting around them at worst. Fitting for folk who prided themselves on honor while retaining only a decayed, shambling husk of it.
He tossed a final armful of splintered wood into the flames, pretending not to hear the curses being spat at his back. Zhao Jing had clearly hoped that sending the Alliances disciples out to provide aid and relief in the attacks aftermath might be enough to deflect the bad feeling of the survivors away from the Five Lakes itself, but the jianghu loved its grudges too much for such a tactic to have any real hope. Even the execution of the yaoren hadn’t managed to ease the animosity of the other sects.
No, if Zhao Jing wanted to clear his name of this guilt he would have to make a truly radical gesture and the sooner the better. Zhou Zishu was looking forward to watching him struggle.
With the intact tents scrubbed free of blood and re-pitched, and the bonfire eating away at the last of the debris, the Tai Hu senior disciple in charge of this particular work crew handed out new instructions with the frazzled edge typical of a man required to work in a hostile environment. Zishu accepted his clipped orders to request the quarter master supply the work crews with any available gloves, and slipped away with the deferential expediency expected of Tai Hu’s lower-ranked disciple-servants.
In the aftermath of the spreading yaoren infections the sects have assumed the corruption to be rather more tenacious than it is in truth, a paranoia that he didn’t foresee but which certainly works in his favor.
The frazzled quartermaster is furious at the request of course, insulting everything from Zishu’s parentage to his basic intelligence. His frustration is understandable given that he would have had no reason to provision this little expedition with gloves, and also incredibly satisfying. Zishu endures the verbal abuse with the a ducked head and understanding murmurs until the man orders him sharply back to his work crew to convey a rather emphatic refusal.
Zishu is half considering killing the man just for the extra chaos that would ensue as inexperienced disciples were forced to fill a critical organizational role that they were in no way prepared for when a flash of bamboo green robes caught his eye. Attention instantly diverted, he dipped into yet another bow and slipped out the storeroom door. He was just in time to see none other than Mo Huaiyang vanishing into the Tai Hu sects building.
The now-familiar consuming hunger flared to life in his gut, and Zishu prowled after his oblivious target.
Given the fact that he’d come alone, it was easy enough to guess where the man had gone. A discrete meeting might be conducted in any number of hidden nooks or isolated rooms in Sanbai manor, but even the grandest of Bailu villages building were much more limited in scope, and Zishu was already aware of which room Zhao Jing had commandeered as a private study.
Even earlier this morning eavesdropping on the pair would have been more difficult, but with Zhao Jing’s scorpion guard dismissed in an attempt to minimize the damage their current disgrace might do to his reputation it was a simple matter of slipping around the far side of the building to linger under the study window.
“-issue has become even graver than it already was. It is no longer simply my own sect demanding explanations. I am not a fickle man, but I cannot justify a continued alliance that would see Qing Jing disgraced and reviled by the whole of the jianghu!”
Zhao Jing’s reply was pitifully distraught, as if the topic pained him.
“Have I not already promised to see to this myself? Sect Leader Mo, what more would you ask of me?”
Mo Huaiyang snorted, apparently unmoved by Zhao Jing’s distress.
“We no longer have the time for me to indulge your dithering. The sects were already on edge over the matter of the ghosts, and after last night their patience is most decidedly at an end. If swift action is not taken to denounce these unorthodox allies of yours, it will be difficult for the Five Lakes Alliance to maintain its place as one of the great powers of the jianghu.
I am not Gao Chong, I will not be the man who leads his sect into ruin and ignominy for children’s tales of brotherhood. If you do not attend to this matter, I will sever our alliance and withdraw from the conference altogether.”
Zishu’s lips curled into the shadow of a smirk, huffing out a silent, breathless laugh. Poor Weining was such a noble, sincere child. How disappointed would he be to hear his master speaking so coldly of his dead brother? To hear him callously bartering lives and alliances for reputation and influence?
Zishu would shortly be ensuring it was a dilemma the boy would never have to face.
“I understand. I will see to the matter tonight-”
Mo Huaiyang cut his ‘ally’ off sharply, apparently truly out of patience with the mans empty promises.
“It is no longer enough to simply execute him. Do you truly think the sects will accept your word that justice has been done? Did they accept it when they were assured that your subjugated ghosts were not responsible for poisoning their water? If you do not want to find yourself facing a second mob, you must deal with it publicly. If you do not give the sects a chance to slake their vengeance they will make one themselves.”
There was a long, heavy silence before Zhao Jing spoke again. When he did there was a distance to his voice that could have been grief, but Zishu judged more likely to be carefully controlled resentment. Men like Zhao Jing did not appreciate even the appearance of being chastised or directed.
“…thank you for your advice, Sect Leader Mo. I will call for an assembly of the sects within a shichen.”
Mo Huaiyang scoffed, but Zishu had already heard enough. Schooling his expression back to unremarkable placidity, he slipped away from beneath the window and quickly left the five lakes compound. Given that Mo Huaiyang clearly had no desire to be seen visiting Zhao Jing in the aftermath of the yaoren attack, he was unlikely to leave by the front gate. There was however, a small side alley that circled around past the now-deserted well on it’s way into the village proper.
Settling himself within a bamboo thicket just out of sight of Tai Hu’s temporary housing, he waited. It took nearly two incense sticks worth of time, but eventually Mo Huaiyang came into view. He was walking with the calm, purposeful gait of a man with nothing to hide, with none of the furtive glances or skittishness that characterized folk unused to clandestine comings and goings.
A spark of cruel amusement flashed briefly through Zishu’s veins. Mo Huaiyang might be a canny old fox, but he’d outsmarted himself this time.
He waited until the older man had passed his hiding place, before slipping out of the shadowed thicket and lunging for the mans back. As he’d half expected, Mo Huaiyang whirled to meet him, barely getting his sword up in time to block Zishu’s blow. He might have many failings as both a man and a leader, but a lack of dedication to his clans martial arts was not among them.
Grey eyes narrowed, well worn wrinkles folding deeper into an obviously familiar frown as a sharp gaze flicked derisively over Zishu’s uniform and the tellingly pristine blade of his stolen straight sword.
“Zhao Jing’s pet assassins have made him foolish indeed if he thinks a boy armed with a handful of tricks is enough to let him benefit from my trust without following through on our agreement. I will be sure to send him your head along with the announcement of Qing Jing’s withdrawal from this farce of a Heroes Conference!”
Zishu merely widened his eyes, letting startled dread color his expression as he disengaged, leaping back to fall into a mimicry of a defensive Tai Hu stance. It was loose and imperfect, but that was all the better for this particular fight. Mo Huaiyang was already overconfident in his assessment of Zishu as an inexperienced disciple. There was no reason to be overly wary of a disciple who was more servant than warrior, particularly one inexperienced enough that even their basic stances turned sloppy in actual combat.
As he’d expected Mo Huaiyang sneered at his retreat, sliding into the distinctive opening stance of his most favored form. This was the form that had won Mo Huaiyang his renown as one of the most skilled swordsmen of the jianghu, the elegance and overwhelming strength it was renowned for perfected over years of dedicated cultivation.
His movements were deceptively slow and gentle as he danced towards Zishu in a pretty, circling lunge.
But Mo Huaiyang had earned his fame in a jianghu that had forgotten the unparalleled grace and speed of Siji Manor, a jianghu that had never seen the pure lethality that Zishu himself had honed that grace into. The old fool might as well have been trying to smother a fire with a sheet of dry rice paper.
In half a breath, Zishu flipped the sword in his hand so it was held hilt first and shifted from a clumsy Tai Hu stance into something so smooth it was all but liquid.
A twist of qi redirected to boost his speed, no time to dwell on the flash of fever-hot agony from his straining meridians, and he was flowing past his prey in a stream of elusive shadow. Afterimages of his own face flickered briefly in his peripheral vision before fading away like curling wisps of steam, and behind him Mo Huaiyang hit the ground with a heavy thud.
Straightening from his finishing stance, Zishu sheathed his stolen sword and lifted a hand to wipe at the shallow cut his opponent had managed to slice across the top of his shoulder. The pain was negligible but given the underlying weakness his failing meridians were already plaguing his body with, he couldn’t afford the additional complication of even minor blood loss.
He’d struck the Qing Jing leader hard enough that he should remain unconscious for some time unless forcibly woken, so he took a few moments to staunch the bleeding and wrap the wound as best he could. He didn’t have any bandages on hand, so he cut some makeshift from the hem of Mo Huaiyang’s robe. The bloodstained cut in the shoulder of his stolen robes was too clean to be from anything less than a sword, but fortunately there were now enough disciples from each sect sporting minor wounds that it shouldn’t draw too much attention to him.
Satisfied that the injury was unlikely to cause further complications, he resettled his robes over the makeshift bandages and pulled the same thin robe he’d used to strangle Arhat from where he’d tucked it through his belt. It had been originally given to him to help with lifting heavy debris at one of the sites where the rampaging yaoren had managed to either partially or entirely collapse smaller structures, and as had quickly become the order of the day no one had noticed when he’d kept it afterward instead of returning it to the work crews overseer.
It was much longer than it needed to be for such a task, likely packed against the need to scale the valley cliffs, but he only used one end to bind Mo Huaiyang’s ankles, mutilating the mans own robe for strips of cloth to further secure him once that was done. He was careful and thorough about it, folding the mans arms together behind his back and binding them thrice over at elbow, mid fore-arm, and wrist, along with a forth strip to bind his knees together so he couldn’t try to pull an ankle free of the rope.
He was nearly finished, just in the process of cutting a few strips to gag him with when the heavily embroidered pouch slipped free of his mangled robe with a muffled clink of glass. Zishu paused. Surely fate would not be so accommodating but…
Tugging the pouch open, he peered inside and found himself looking at the familiar clouded curves of the Liulija. So this was why Zhao Jing was bending so easily to Mo Huaiyangs demands. He could almost hear Kexing’s hysterical laughter ringing in his ears.
He already knew how to use the Liulija to best please his Zhiji, didn’t he?
Tucking the pouch calmly into his inner robe opposite the familiar shape of Kexing’s hairpin, he continued with his work. It was the work of a moment to gag his victim and haul him over a shoulder, the extra coils of rope looped over his bent arm as he calmly continued along the path.
It might be broad daylight but between the gag, the isolated location, the still lingering chaos of last nights chaos, and the assembly Zhao Jing would very shortly be calling, he had no concerns about being seen.
It really was wonderful to have his qi at his fingertips once more, even if it was not yet the full force of his strength. Even after a morning of heavy labor and murder to aggravate the underlying weaknesses of his body he still made it to the well before he began to feel the strain of carrying a somewhat stocky grown man on his shoulder.
As he began slowly lowering Mo Huaiyang headfirst down the shaft, he wistfully wondered what it would have been like to have carried Kexing. His Zhiji had certainly taken gleeful advantage of any opportunity to sweep Zishu off his feet, and he couldn’t help daydreaming about what his face would have looked like if Zishu had ever turned the tables on him. Perhaps after they were reunited and Zishu had assured him that his vengeance had been thoroughly attended to he would carry him over Naihe bridge and into their next life. What better way to meet whatever their next incarnations might hold than with his Zhiji in his arms?
He was broken out of his bittersweet reverie by distant frenzied splashing. It would seem his victim had finally reached the water. Refocusing on the task at hand, Zishu lowered him perhaps another foot, enough to be certain that the mans upper chest and shoulders would also be submerged, before tying the rope off around one of the sturdy winch posts bracketing the low stone lip.
Down below the splashing continued.
It would take him a while to drown like this. He was hanging just low enough that if used his core strength to double in on himself he’d lift far enough out of the water to breathe, but doing so around the water-soaked gag would be difficult, and once his core strength finally gave out that would be that. A fate cruel enough that Zishu might have preferred to inflict it on the traitor Devils, Xie Wang, or possibly even Zhao Jing, if he hadn’t already had plans for them. But given the apathetic satisfaction Mo Huaiyang had watched Kexing with on Bailu Cliff, and the fact that Gu Xiang and Cao Weining had been driven to flee the sect that should have been their home, Zishu was content that it was a fitting enough fate for the old fox.
He’d prefer to stay and listen until the splashing finally fell silent, to see this death through as he had with the rest of the ambush party, but he wanted to observe Zhao Jing’s assembly to deal with the Scorpion more. Mo Huaiyang was already doomed after all, but the Scorpion was useful enough that if Zishu didn’t oversee the proceedings to ensure matters were dealt with Zhao Jing might yet find a way to slither out of whatever he’d promised his so-called ally.
After a few minutes to listen to the desperate, echoing splashes from below and ensure that the rope was unlikely to slip its knot, Zishu turned to walk back into camp.
He’d been anticipating a few odd glances at entering from the direction of the unfairly abandoned well but as it turned out people were more preoccupied with Zhao Jing’s assembly.
Apparently he’d decided to make good on his word with all possible speed, and the last angrily muttering stragglers were making their way to the stage that had been constructed for the purpose of the contests that would undoubtedly be considered necessary in order to choose who precisely would stand as leader when the sects finally attacked the valley proper.
Zishu trailed in their wake, carefully keeping his head down to avoid drawing the malcontents attention. While none of them posed a serious threat to him he hardly wanted to distract anyone from the entertainment Zhao Jing was so generously providing.
The stage had been built at the base of the cliffs beyond the last trailing groves of the forest that Bailu village half-sheltered in, which gave plenty of room for the full strength of the sects to assemble and also made them easy to spot from a distance.
The sect leaders in attendance were seated on the raised platforms arrayed around the main stage, while the disciples milled mutinously before them. They didn’t seem to have called for any formal order among their disciples, a subtle but distinct snub of Zhao Jing that would have been unthinkable even a few days before, and as such the disciples had formed only loose groupings that blurred at the edges as various friends intermingled. The only group that stood distinctly separate was the stiff-backed cluster of Five Lakes disciples, who were noticeably less bedraggled than their mutinous counter-parts.
Suppressing his presence as much as he could, Zishu slipped around the edge of the crowd to fall in place at the back of the Tai Hu contingent, straightening into the respectful formality of full attention as if he’d never been elsewhere.
While it was likely expected that not all of the surviving disciples would present, it was more ominous to see that some of the leaders were absent, notably the Abbess of the Emei Sect and Xie Wang were nowhere to be seen. Zishu idly noted that Chengling was also absent, which was likely for the best. While he wasn’t sure what the exact agreement between Mo Huaiyang and Zhao Jing had been, he doubted it was anything the boy should be witnessing.
They waited in the increasingly tense susurrus of resentful muttering for another incense sticks worth of time before Zhao Jing apparently decided he could wait no longer.
He shuffled onto the main stage with an expression full of haggard remorse, moving slowly and stiffly as if he were afflicted with some terrible burden. The nails likely made it impossible for him to hold himself with the new languorous satisfaction that had characterized his posture after his rise to leader of the Alliance, but he seemed to be leaning into the resulting physical restrictions for the moment.
The expressions of the Five Lakes leaders he left behind varied from grim to mutinous, but the rest of the sect leaders present watched him with the careful ambivalence of men and women waiting to see which way the cat would jump.
“Brothers of the jianghu, I have called you here today to confess that I…I have failed you.”
A surprised stillness fell over the crowd at the choked words and Zishu resisted the urge to roll his eyes. How many times would these fools fall for the act of a righteous man piteously throwing himself on the mercy of the sects?
“I allowed myself to be swayed by my affection for the child of my heart, and in doing so I have failed not only my own sect, but all of the sects. I chose to turn away from the counsel of my friends and brothers when they warned me against placing my trust in those who follow the unorthodox path, and as a result I gave these wicked creatures the opening they needed to attack us.”
Zhao Jing’s voice wavered and trailed off, eyes shining with tears, and slowly the murmuring of the crowd began to lose the worst of its edge. There was still anger there but it was blunted in the face of Zhao Jing’s self-recrimination. The leaders seemed more inclined to reserve judgment but the disciples were ever-ready to pity a powerful man who had lowered himself to grovel before them, provided the person in question had nothing worth stealing.
“Even in the face of Wu Chang Gui’s treachery, I wished to show leniency for my foster-sons sake. I told myself that he was young, that he could not hope to see through the deceptions of creatures as wicked as the Devils of Ghost Valley.
But in the face of last nights attack I-
I must face the truth. Righteousness must come even before family affection. This is the duty shared by all the righteous sects, and to turn aside from it would shame the noble legacy I have been privileged to carry as the leader of the Five Lakes Alliance.”
The words must have been a cue because as he finished speaking four Yueyang disciples dragged a white-lipped Xie Wang onto the stage. His hands had been bound in front of him and he was disheveled as if he had struggled on the way, but at the moment he was still and silent. Dark, unfathomable eyes watched Zhao Jing from a blank white face.
Zhao Jing didn’t so much as glance at his foster-son, addressing the suddenly intent mass of disciples as the assassin was forced to his knees beside him, his robes cut open to the waist and torn from his shoulders to bare his back.
“Today I offer you my humble apologies for my error in failing to teach my son correctly, and I come before you to correct that mistake.”
One of the Yueyang disciples handed over a discipline whip with a respectful bow and the bastard closed his eyes briefly, as if pained by the words he was about to speak. To his credit Xie Wang merely stared expressionlessly out over the heads of the crowd so eager for his blood.
It was a terrible thing when the man you built yourself into a monster on behalf of turned on you. Zishu might have been moved to sympathy if he couldn’t still clearly hear Xie Wang’s voice dispassionately ordering the hunt for Kexing’s body.
“I cannot kill my own child, but righteousness demands that justice be upheld for those of our brothers who died because of his foul methods. Therefore I will deliver with my own hand one lash for each of those killed by yaoren.”
There was a rumble of mixed astonishment and anticipation, and Zishu forcefully swallowed back the bark of contemptuous laughter threatening to burst from his throat. Even if he’s only counting the disciples who died in the initial attack rather than those who died of their wounds or complications afterward, that’s well over sixty lashes.
While there was technically a slim possibility that a particularly strong practitioner with constant skilled medical attention might survive such a beating, recovery would take at least a year and the extensive scarring would leave the recipients martial arts all but destroyed by the resulting loss of strength and flexibility.
All that wailing and posturing about his affection for Xie Wang, but in the end he’s just giving him a slower death so that his reluctance will leave him looking clean and righteous in the aftermath of an execution bloody enough to regain the support of the sects.
The man is as skilled at the pretense of virtue as the corrupt priests of capital.
Zhao Jing turns toward Xie Wang and the whip comes down with an earsplitting crack. Xie Wang doesn’t so much as flinch, chin tipping up in silent defiance as the first welt blooms across narrow shoulders. Zishu can’t see him well from his place at the back of the crowd, but he can still read enough heartbroken venom in the set of the young leaders jaw to see how this will go.
That one will rip his throat open swallowing his screams rather than cry out in front of his enemies.
He’ll die of this, but he’ll die with his dignity intact.
It’s more than his ‘father’ will be able to claim.
The whip comes down again and Zishu shifts to settle more comfortably into his square-shouldered stance. They’ll be here for a while yet.
Though the whip rises and falls steadily to the beat of the amassed disciples cries for retribution, the heaviness of each blow is haphazard at best. It seems Zhao Jing truly did lose his sense of touch to last nights nails, because he’s obviously struggling to correctly gauge how much force he’s putting behind each blow. Some are barely enough to raise welts, while others lay the flesh open almost to the bone.
In the end the result isn’t so different from a steadier beating. Blood spatters across the polished wood of the stage as grisly slashes overlap, pale skin is gradually supplanted by raw, ruined flesh, and still Xie Wang refuses to scream or look away from the horizon.
Throughout it all Zishu watches unflinchingly. It’s a cruel death, possibly even as cruel as the poison Helian Yi once gifted Beiyuan, but what little warmth and mercy remains in his soul is reserved for the bare handful of people he holds precious. He has none to spare for their enemies.
As he expected Xie Wang doesn’t cry out even once in the end and any smaller involuntary noises lost beneath the jeering of the furious onlookers, but the bloodloss begins to weaken his iron-spined stance at some point after bits of flayed skin and flesh begin to fly. Eventually he slumps dangerously forward and has to brace himself on his bound hands to keep from collapsing face-first onto the stage.
Zhao Jing makes a show of hesitating but continues when the roar of the crowd only intensifies at the pause.
By the time the beating finally ends the sun has begun its descent towards the western horizon and Xie Wang has fallen into the unresponsive semi-consciousness of one who is clinging to the shreds of awareness through pure force of will rather than physical capability.
The same Tai Hu disciples who dragged him onto the stage have to carry him off in the aftermath, and Zhao Jing turns back to the sated masses with a doleful expression and the hem of his robe liberally splashed with blood. A stray piece of bloody skin clinging damply to his cheek somewhat ruins the affectation of grieving remorse but unable to feel it as he is, the man remains oblivious to the flaw in his performance.
“I hope that the assembled sects can agree that justice has been served in this matter, and beg that you will grant my undeserving child mercy in light of his youth.”
He finishes with a deep bow and Zishu is struck with a contemptuous urge to applaud the sheer brazenness of the whole charade as the other sect leaders finally stand to express their admiration of Zhao Jings willingness to ‘place righteousness above family’.
Truly, what a spectacular farce.
He might not have stopped breathing yet, but that boy is dead all the same. And yet everyone present for this show has managed to twist events to paint themselves as not only virtuous, but merciful. After all, as long as he doesn't stop breathing until after he's out of sight why should they care to notice his death?
Kexing was right in the end; the only difference between monsters like them and the rest of the Jianghu is that they have the decency to acknowledge the atrocities they commit for what they are.
The gathering finally begins to disperse and Zishu allows himself to be jostled back into camp by the flow of the crowd.
Three more to go.
He’ll be with his Lao-wen soon.
An unforeseen benefit of Zhao Jing sending so many disciples out to curry favor with the other sects through hard labor is how easy it makes it to be assigned to serve the Alliance leaders their dinner. Even a smaller dinner such as this, intended only for the innermost circle of Zhao Jing’s sycophants, is still luxurious enough to require a team of servants working together to prepare and serve.
Given how short staffed they are in the wake of the days recovery efforts, all Zishu has to do is linger a bit too long in the hall between the quartermasters storeroom and the kitchen before he’s recruited for service by a harried looking disciple.
The man doesn’t even blink at his injury, merely telling him to stick to the kitchen and the corridor outside the hall proper lest his sooty, blood-crusted robe put the masters off their food. Zishu lets the man wave him distractedly into the kitchen, where the maids set him to hauling wine jars and grain sacks, butchering a pair of pheasants and other such simple tasks.
Zhao Jing must know he’s being drugged at night after waking twice with nails in his chest, but apparently he doesn’t suspect his food. Or if he does he’s too paranoid to share his suspicions with anyone.
Zishu had expected the camp to be rife with rumors about the mans affliction by now, for every last one of his people to be hyper vigilant against further incidents, but he hasn’t heard so much as a whisper and the servants prepare the meal with the bleary eyed distraction of unsuspecting exhaustion. Even the maids are hollow-eyed and inattentive after a long day of fetching and tending at the direction of the infirmary nuns.
Zishu had, of course, already prepared the bowls with his new blend the night before, but more vigilant staff might have had a chance of noticing the long draught of too-blue liquid he adds to the second jar of wine he hauls in to fill the delicately carved pitchers carefully placed on the lacquered trays.
By the time full dark falls the meal is prepared, and more than one of the bustling servants has a growling stomach. The handful of maids and hall attendants who will be waiting on their masters during the meal itself won’t be permitted to eat until after the sect leaders have finished of course, but the rest of them are allowed to scarf down a far simpler supper of steamed fish and vegetables in shifts to ensure there are always people available to ferry new dishes and fresh pitchers of wine to the hall, or wash the empty platters and jugs that are returned.
Zishu is allowed to eat with the first wave due to his injury and the unpleasant scullery work he’d been tasked with to keep his filthy robes away from the actual food. It’s almost a shame to miss the actual moment his latest attack strikes home, but he takes advantage of the opportunity to fill his belly, bolting down food as quickly as possible. He’s steadily reaching the limits of what his body can endure, and he can’t afford to have it give out on him before the hunt is finished. When he’s scraped his plate clean, he’s sent to scrub dishes with one of the other less presentable disciples, but he keeps an eye on the flow of food and wine leaving the kitchen.
The jar of contaminated wine goes out almost halfway through the meal, and Zishu’s eyes hood with anticipation as sets aside yet another newly washed cup and waits for havoc to break loose. When the screaming starts he runs to the hall with the other bewildered attendants, eager to see just who has fallen prey to this particular trap.
By the time they arrive there are several bodies writhing on the floor. Sadly Zhao Jing is not among them, but Zishu is gratified to see both the Haisha gang leader and the chief of the shipping gangs with their chins and chests soaked in red. Zhao Jings most devoted cronies among the lesser members of the Alliance and the only two of them to accompany him at Bailu Cliff.
The liquid he took from the unnaturally bright pond in Ghost Valleys echoingly empty grand hall has done its work well.
His victims are gagging out desperate wet gasps, eyes rolling frantically as they choke on the corroded flesh of their own throats. The Ghost Valley pond isn’t acidic enough to burn entirely through their throats and kill, but it’s more than enough to eat at the soft lining of their vulnerable innards and permanently ruin their voices.
The hall attendants are already frantically rolling the afflicted men on their sides and bellies to prevent them from drowning in their own blood, and those lucky enough not to have drunk the tainted wine are all trying to shout over each other at once, filling the hall with an indecipherable cacophony of alarm. Some are hiding fear behind outrage, some are accusing the Scorpion operatives of retaliating on behalf of their dying leader, some are demanding that medical attention be fetched from the Eimei sects infirmary, and Zishu can just make out Zhao Jing sharply ordering that whoever was responsible for serving the wine be brought out immediately.
Satisfied that his purpose has been accomplished, Zishu quietly slips away from the stunned crowd, sliding out an open window and quietly making his way to the chicken coop he’d stored his scorpion gear under. Shedding the Tai Hu robes reopens the scabs they’re half-crusted to, and Zishu takes a moment to ensure that Kexing’s pin hasn’t been sullied by the resulting blood. The narrower end is a bit smeared, so he takes the time to wipe it down with the cleaner edge of the discarded robe before tucking back into place over his heart.
In the dark, practical gear of an assassin it’s easy to crouch in the shadows of a roof eve and observe the Tai Hu sects building unseen. It remains a hive of activity until the moon is high in the sky, and Zishu is perfectly positioned to see it all. His latest victims being raced out in the direction of the infirmary, the straggling return of shell-shocked witnesses, Shen Shen storming up the path in a flurry of blustering demands, and the resulting excoriation of two white-faced maids and a disciple who are publicly handed off to infuriated members of the Haisha gang. He’s not close enough to hear what their fate will be, but it’s unlikely to be anything kind.
It seems to take an age for the night to calm and by the time things finally fall still, his legs have gone numb from crouching for so long, but eventually his patience pays off. He’s tempted to go directly for Zhao Jing, as he has the past two nights, but given the way his body had reacted to the removal of two nails at once it’s possible that three at once might result in a less transitory state of weakness.
Zishu wouldn’t mind that so much, if it seems his body is truly at its limit he can always transfer the final nail over early. It wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying as his current plan, he’d much rather reserve the seventh nail for when Zhao Jing is awake and knows exactly what is happening to him and why, but he could settle for an imperfect conclusion to their vengeance as long as it WAS concluded.
That does mean he needs to deal with the final members of the ambush party first though. Just in case. So after a long look at the shadowed rice-paper of Zhao Jings window he drops from the roof and makes his way to the neat assembly of tents the Haisha, Transport, and Logging gangs have set up around the smaller house their leaders have taken over. There are guards of course. Vigilant ones even, given last nights events. Zishu melts into the shifting patterns of shadow cast by the drifting clouds and in minutes their bodies thump almost softly to the ground.
This close he can detect the faint scent of Drunken Dream wafting from the tiny house, just as he’d expected. By now the sects have nearly used up what meager stores of medicine they had brought and likely have nothing to spare for less immediately life threatening injuries, not to mention that the lack of available space in the infirmary necessitates turning away anyone who already has the luxury of an actual roof over their head. The scorpions stock of Drunken Dream is far stronger than the sleep aid he’d originally designed it to be, but it’s likely still the best the gang leaders could have reasonably hoped for in these conditions.
Confident that between their drugged food and the incense his principal targets are well secured, Zishu draws baiyi and prowls toward the nearest tent. Now that Zhao Jing has firmly alienated his most dangerous allies, it’s time to put a little more fear into that craven heart of his.
The gang members are more used to hard labor than the average disciple, but it has been a demanding few days and even after the adrenaline and excitement of the evening meal, they are too exhausted to stir when he slips into their tents.
The kills are easy. A pillow or folded outer robe pressed tight over nose and mouth as Baiyi slips between their ribs to pierce their hearts. Only a handful manage more than a muffled cry before the life leaves their shocked eyes.
No one wakes as he goes about his grisly work, the ever-thickening scent of blood trailing at his heels as he goes, but with the sentries already cold at their posts there’s no one but Zishu to notice. When he finally steps back out of the last tent the only living souls present in the whole silent stretch of tents are the men sleeping in that little house.
Idly Zishu wonders if whatever unfortunate disciple ends up finding the bodies tomorrow will also be held responsible for disposing of them, given that there won’t be any survivors of their own clans left alive to tend the dead.
That thought gives him a moments pause and he briefly contemplates leaving their leaders alive, with nothing to show for their journey to Mt. Qingya but ruined voices, the bodies of their finest warriors, and the shattered remnants of the respect and influence the Five Lakes once commanded. Knowing just how sharply it aches to outlive the brothers you are responsible for leading, Zishu very nearly wavers at the prospect.
Ultimately though he cannot abide the thought of leaving them breathing.
The door to the hut creaks when he opens it, but despite the tightly furled expressions of pain two of them wear they are all too deeply under the sway of the incense to wake. Sheathing baiyi, he draws one of the last scorpion knives he’s managed to keep hold of before stealing to their bedsides.
The man who wasn’t present at the cliff has a marginally cleaner death than his compatriots. Zishu rolls him over and slides the blade home in the soft spot at the base of his skull, his body giving a single convulsive jerk before collapsing into the stillness of death.
The other two he’s rougher with, slamming the vicious little blade through their ruined throats and into their spines. The Water Transport leader must have enough of his new drug in his system to keep him under, and despite his bodies instinctive sluggish struggles he dies without waking.
The Haisha leader is a different matter. His breath stinks of blood and bile, and whatever dose he’d managed to consume must have been largely expunged by whatever vomiting he’d done between the dinner and now. Zishu takes some conciliatory satisfaction in contemplating how painful it must have been to vomit with a throat scraped bloody, and buries the knife up to its hilt in the flesh just below his final victims adams apple.
Sure enough this one wakes, but even if his trachea weren’t already severed he never would have been able to scream loud enough for his voice to reach a living ally. He snatches wildly at Zishu’s wrist, fingernails scrabbling ineffectually at the heavy leather bracers as Zishu rips the knife free. The wound it leaves behind is grisly even in the dark, bloody froth bubbling in the gash and oozing stickily down the sides of his neck.
It’s a painful wound to be certain, but Zishu is impatient to reach Zhao Jing and so it’s not a lingering death. Within minutes the Haisha leaders bewildered eyes have gone corpse-glassy.
Altogether, wiping out the entire delegation of all three gangs takes him just under a shichen, and unlike his previous mass attacks this one has no easy enemy to blame for the deaths. He almost leaves the curved knife behind to implicate the Scorpion and further stoke the animosity between the southern assassins and the jianghu, but the yaoren attack and Xie Wang’s public execution have already thoroughly burned that bridge.
Better to leave the sects stewing in the fear of the unknown.
Now all he needs to do is check on Mo Huaiyangs corpse and find a nicely public place to display the mans Liulija, and then he can make his visit to Zhao Jing. The guards will be Yueyang or Tai Hu now, so he’ll need to kill them as well. Perhaps he’ll leave one alive to tell Zhao Jing exactly which sect paid its respects in the night. It’s not as if anyone would believe the scorpions denying responsibility for such a thing after todays little display.
He absently cuts the smoldering tips from three of the incense sticks, tucking them neatly into his belt. Zhao Jing should be as helpless as ever when he finally reaches him, but between the presence of Drunken Dream and the testimony from whatever lucky fool he leaves as a witness Zhao Jing won’t hesitate to have what remains of the scorpion delegation wiped out. Wether he’ll do it openly or simply by using them up as canon fodder is anyones guess, but it will happen.
It’s only fitting really, that the weapons they had the audacity to steal from him are at least partially responsible for their downfall here.
Mind already racing to the next step of the hunt, Zishu turns away from the gently smoking brazier and heads for the door.
Shen Shen seethes uneasily as he makes his way back from the Tai Hu sects temporary housing. He almost hadn’t answered his traitorous brothers summons, sure that their plans had been discovered and now that the Scorpion leader had been dealt with the man had decided to turn on him as he had on Gao-dage and the others.
He’d gone in the end at Xiaolian’s urging. She was a gentle girl, but there’d been a touch of her father in the straightness of her shoulders when she’d urged him not to waver.
‘If he suspects you, make him doubt his suspicion. You’ve always been honest and forthright uncle, if you act as you always have he won’t ever guess you know the truth of his nature.’
An easier thing to say than do. It made his stomach turn to look into the eyes of the man responsible for Dage’s death and pretend concern for his health and safety. He’d managed though, as he already had so many times over the course of the Heroes Conference. He’d walked into the vipers lair, helped sniff out the servants responsible for acquiring and preparing the wine and whatever vicious poison it had been laced with, and seen them handed over to the victims sects for justice.
He’d even tried to check Zhao Jing for injuries, though the man had pulled away from him when he’d reached for his wrist and snapped at him not to fuss when they had actual injured to attend to. It was the sort of self-sacrificial statement that had once made him so exasperatedly fond of his noble but foolish Er-ge. Now it simply made him angry.
Letting himself be pulled into the study for a long discussion about who might ultimately be behind the attack and why was more difficult. Despite himself he’d been pulled into the familiar flow of conversation, by turns scolding and cajoling his overwhelmed brother into spilling his fears and worries.
He hadn’t even noticed what was happening until he’d found himself almost earnestly promising to help him find whoever was behind the attack.
It had always been hard to hold onto his anger in the face of Er-ge’s wide, worried eyes, and the realization that the expression hadn’t lost all its ability to soothe his temper was a bitter pill to swallow.
By the time he finally left the night was half gone and he was heartsick with a sour combination of anger, grief, and self-recrimination. Perhaps it was a mercy Zhao Jing had kept him so late; Xiaolian and Kuan-er would certainly be asleep by now, and Shen Shen didn’t know if he could have faced them so soon after catching himself falling into old, companionable habits with the man responsible for Dage’s violent murder.
An unexpected flicker of movement caught his eye and he looked up just in time to see none other than one of the scorpion spies slipping out the door of the cottage a few of the gang leaders had taken over. The flare of good, clean anger untainted by heartbreak or shame felt cleansing and Shen Shen welcomed it, drawing his sword without hesitation and raising his voice sharply.
“You scorpions were fairly warned that the sects had banned you from leaving your own encampment without an escort. Explain yourself, assassin!*
For a moment the bastard falls still, the darkness of his clothing almost blurring him into the shadows of the doorway. Then he turns and Shen Shen feels his breath catch in his chest, the point of his sword wavering in confusion.
The younger man doesn’t so much as dip his head, calmly holding Shen Shen’s gaze.
Confusion wells in Shen Shen’s chest as the point of his sword slowly drops.
“What are you doing here? Why are you dressed like that?”
Zhou-xiong tilts his head almost judgmentally, and it’s then that Shen Shen notices the sharp scent of iron lingering in the air. A faint sense of unease breaks through his confusion as his eyes flick between the strangely still man and the door he’d just closed.
“I didn’t know you were acquainted with the men of Five Lakes…”
An oddly sharp smile spreads across Zhou-xiong’s face, as if Shen Shen has just told a joke in particularly poor taste.
“Mm. Our connection is a recent one, but profound. I’m sure a man as sophisticated as Shen-daxia knows that the depth of any relationship is determined less by the length of time than the feelings of those involved, yes?”
The unease in his gut grows and sharpens, fingers tightening around the hilt of his sword. He realizes quite suddenly that he can’t see any guards posted. That’s not right, between the Ghosts attack on the beggars sect and the yaoren rampage all the sects have night watches scheduled, particularly those without the protection of solid walls.
It takes him a minute to spot the bodies sprawled in the shadows of the eves, but as soon as he does that shivering unease rockets to full-blown alarm.
“What have you done? Did you kill these men!”
The question bursts out of him, heavy with shock and disbelief. Zhou-xiong’s smile doesn’t waver, his stance as relaxed as if they were discussing the quality of the local blacksmith or some other vaguely interesting minutiae of life.
“Not just these.”
Shen Shen’s eyes dart to the door once again, the silence of it suddenly ominous. There’s a part of him that can’t quite comprehend the implication. He doesn’t know Zhou-xiong well, but Chengling speaks of him with the same fierce admiration that Kuan-er still holds for Dage.
He doesn’t want to believe his nephew was deceived twice over of the character of his guardians, but looking at this man now he cannot find even a trace of the gruff gentleness or wisdom the boy is always attributing to his Shifu.
“You-! What sort of base depravity is this?! What sort of man creeps in to murder others in the night?!”
The brute looks briefly amused at his outburst, apparently undisturbed by his anger.
“Shen-daxia already said it himself, didn’t he? Did you not call me an assassin? What did you suppose an assassin would do when visiting his enemies by night?”
The outrage in his chest feels too large for his body to contain, pressing hard against his ribs and forcing his spine straight as an arrow. He vaguely notices his sword is once more leveled at the murderers throat.
“What enemies! You told me yourself that you had no association with the Five Lakes, and yet you come murdering our brothers in their beds!”
The smile drops from his face, and Shen Shen feels suddenly caught under the weight of the mans full attention. There’s no obvious change to his posture or stance, but a sudden sense of threat fills the air as he holds Shen Shen’s gaze.
“Indeed, I had no connection to the Five Lakes. I would have happily left the lot of you to squabble over illusory power for the rest of my life. And then you hunted my Zhiji down like a dog in the street.”
He’s suddenly prowling forward, and Shen Shen notices for the first time that there’s a certain hollowness in that dark gaze that wasn’t present when he confronted him over Wen Kexing’s birth name. It’s cold and unnatural and leaves Shen Shen backing up uncertainly despite the fact that the younger man has yet to draw a weapon.
“You are correct, I murdered your precious alliance brothers. But come, you can’t really be this surprised.
Or have you not noticed yet? Think hard Shen-daxia, and tell me.
How many of the rabble you brought to corner your brother's child still live?”
It takes him a moment to catch the implication but when he does he freezes, shocked eyes locked with empty ones.
“That…no. No, that’s impossible. One man couldn’t have been responsible for all this.”
The smile that answers him sends icy shivers crawling down his neck and back.
“One man most certainly can. Provided he is not a coward who turns his face from the murder of those he claims to care for.”
Shen Shen flinched at the unsubtle barb, sword shivering with the trembling of his hand. There was a certain numb fog clinging to his mind, slowing his thoughts until thinking felt like struggling to wade through knee deep water.
The beast laughed, stalking ever closer and still not bothering to draw a weapon despite the wavering sword still leveled at his chest.
“Oh no, Shen-daxia. Take it from me, the mad are never so frightening as the sane.”
Shen Shen feels his heel nudge against the raised ridge of an exposed root and his eyes flicker over his shoulder to assess if he still has even enough terrain for the inevitable duel.
It’s only an instant of inattention, but it costs him dearly.
In the next moment his sword is spinning out of his hands and the assassin is barely a breath away from him. Instinctively he reels back, arms coming up in a block, but then something slams his sword hand up and back against the tree whose root he had initially stumbled over.
For a moment it’s nothing more than pressure, but then pressure gives way to a wave of icy-hot pain, fingers spasming as he stares dumbly up at the knife hilt pressed snugly into his open palm.
His gaze is torn from the hot, wet blood ribboning down his wrist and forearm from where he's been pinned like a mounted butterfly as a calloused hand grabs his jaw and wrenches his head around to face the demon looming in front of him.
Any hint of human emotion seems drained from the expression, and it makes an eerie contrast to the almost cordial tone he’s addressed with.
“You were standing on that cliff too, Shen-daxia. But I’m not going to kill you. Do you know why?”
Shen Shen stares back at him, dread and defiance and terror holding him silent, but apparently his answer isn’t actually required.
“Because unlike you, I am not in the habit of abandoning my responsibilities. Chengling is my student. If he has chosen to forsake Siji Manor and return to the Five Lakes I will respect that choice.
So. Unworthy of it as you are, I will let you live.
In return you are going to take my disciple and leave this fucking mountain.
You are going to take him back to your sect, and give him everything he needs to grow strong and independent.
You are, for once, going to do right by someone regardless of what they can do for you or how you feel about it.
Because if you don’t, I will come and find you, and you will die so agonizingly that your own mother would not be able to identify the corpse you leave behind.
Do you understand me you cowardly, spoiled little wretch?”
Shen Shen’s mouth works soundlessly for a moment as he struggles to comprehend the situation. Glacial eyes narrow and a hand reaches up to grind the knife deeper, sawing it from side to side to slice the wound wider as a fresh wave of blood cascades down his arm. Biting back the urge to scream, Shen Shen nods frantically and the demon offers him a ghastly mimicry of a smile.
“I’m glad we understand each other. Sleep well, Shen-daxia. You have a long journey ahead of you in the morning.”
Apparently unconcerned with being seen, he turns away and walks calmly off past the grave-silent tents of the gangs down the dirt path that will lead him past and the Dagu campground. Shen Shen watches him go with a sort of numb horror.
Zhen-xiong had been a man whose gentle nature was matched only by Gu-jie's ferocious kindness. Qin-xiong had been respected by all of jianghu for his nobility and righteousness.
How was he ever going to face their memorial tablets with the knowledge of the monstrous demons their precious children had warped into weighing on his heart?
And why, of all of their cohort, was it only his useless cowardly self who was left to bear witness to the wreckage of their once-dazzling legacies?
I recognize that this chapter is even longer but it practically wrote itself ok? Please do not hold me to this standard, I have no control over this runaway plot-bunny.
Also! I've been seeing a lot of you wondering when Kexing will be making a for-actual appearance in the fic. That'll be next chapter I think, so I hope that's reassuring?
I don't know if that's reassuring.
Thanks again for the lovely comments, they keep me motivated.
Chengling flatly refuses to join Gao Xiaolian and Deng Kuan in the well-cushioned carriage prepared for the three of them.
Shen-bobo throws up his hands and storms off, already impatient with him after their early morning shouting match.
Xiaolian tries to gently coax him into compliance, softly assuring him that the grieving sect leader is only trying to take care of them and reminding him that they shouldn’t make things harder on him than they already are.
Deng Kuan points out that they don’t have any extra horses for him to ride and bluntly says he won’t be able to keep up on foot. Chengling thinks of the weeks spent on the road to Longyuan Pavilion, always trailing behind Shifu’s horse in an exhaustingly endless repetition of the Divine Strides, and sharply replies that he’ll be fine.
In the end he’s allowed to walk beside one of the carts of wounded disciples bringing up the rear, though the concession is made with a distinct overtone of ‘on your own head be it’. Between the looks of exasperation from Shen-bobo and pitying concern from Xiaolian it’s clear they think he’s throwing some kind of childish tantrum in the aftermath of his lost argument over their departure. It stings, but he keeps his eyes straight ahead and pretends he doesn’t notice.
Chengling isn’t the naive, sheltered child Shen-bobo and Xiaolian think he is.
He’s spent a year on the run, with only a hole in his side and a target on his back to show for his family’s centuries long alliances. He’s been chased, harassed, scorned, mocked, manipulated, and even tortured. Through it all Shifu has protected and advised him sincerely, cared about his well-being without any ulterior motives, and even taken him as a disciple when doing so would gain him nothing but enemies.
Chengling’s trust in him isn’t blind.
He knows Shifu is a dangerous man. He’s known that from the moment he saw him carve a path through the ghosts blocking the Jing Hu dock. He’s seen it over and over in Shifu’s actions, how he never hesitated to kill the people who attack them, how nonchalant he was in the face of Wen-shishu’s not infrequent bouts of viciousness. He even warned Chengling himself before he would accept him as a disciple.
And maybe Chengling didn’t fully understand that warning, or just how dangerous Shifu could be. Yes, he does feel sick when he thinks about whole sects getting wiped out overnight and people dying because their own qi turned on them and hungry yaoren in the night.
But being dangerous is not the same thing as being evil or cruel and until the Heroes Conference was called on Wen-shishu, Shifu only ever tried to extricate the three of them from the jianghu’s power struggles.
Shen-bobo refuses to understand that though. He’s made up his mind that Shifu and Wen-shishu are monsters and won’t hear anything to the contrary. By the time the rest of them woke up this morning he’d already had the disciples preparing for the return to Dagu mountain, ready to discard the plan to expose Zhao Jing and abandon Chengling’s family to their fates.
Chengling had argued of course, had pleaded and shouted and even dragged Gao-bobo’s vengeance into the fight to change his mind. It was an unpleasant surprise when Shen-bobo snapped back that the only vengeance to be found in Mt. Qingya would be pyrrhic, that victories of blood and ash were the realm of wicked ghosts rather than righteous sects.
He hadn’t realized just how fruitless his increasingly livid arguments were until he’d seen Xiaolian slipping past to load the little chest with his own haphazard collection of mechanist tools onto the back one of the supply carts. He might’ve been holding Shen-bobo in a deadlock, but the rest of the sect had gone on with preparations around them and sudden realization had struck him like an unexpected blow to the gut.
It didn’t matter what he wanted. It didn’t matter what he said or did. It didn’t matter that he was right.
No one was going to listen to him. They’d come for a prize and now that the price of it had risen beyond what they were willing to pay they would leave without looking back.
When he takes his place with the disciples escorting the final wagon of wounded he’s stiff-backed with anger, furiously ignoring everyone around him and all but spoiling for a fight. It’s just as well the Dagu disciples are set on quietly shunning him, their expressions faintly scornful as they form up far enough away to make it clear that he’s unwelcome.
Seething with bitter frustration, Chengling wonders if it was like this with Rong-qianbei. If this gradual recognition that you can’t persuade the people around you to see sense is why A-die had always gotten such a hard-jawed scowl whenever the other Five Lakes leaders were brought up.
He’d thought he’d understood how his father must have felt when he’d had to listen to all those men jeering at Wen-shishu on Bailu cliff, but this is worse. He’d expected their enemies to be cruel and greedy, to use Wen-shishu’s ‘death’ to snatch the armory key.
The dawning awareness that Shen-bobo was using them as well, that his fondness for Chengling and lingering regret over Wen-Shishu’s parents didn’t mean he wasn’t willing to take advantage of them for his own revenge is a bitter pill to swallow.
Shen-bobo rides back to check on him twice after they get underway, once after Zhao Jing pointedly doesn’t show up to see them off, then again when they pass the brutally slaughtered bodies of one of the lost patrols after about half a shichen on the road. Both times Chengling refuses to acknowledge him, and eventually he’s left alone to sulk in peace.
He still waits another half-shichen for everyone to settle into the numb boredom of travel before he dares to try anything.
Given their current circumstances Shifu had mostly focused on training his strength and combat skills, with a few hands-on lessons in the Longyuan principles behind devices like the Rain Needles or the manor defense mechanisms on more restful days. He’d only ever touched on the clans legendary disguise arts once.
It had been midway into their stay at Siji Manor. They’d been kept inside by a heavy, cold rain, and Chengling had spent the afternoon kneeling by Shifu’s side as he sorted and inventoried a cleverly carved cabinet of various powders, paints, and other more esoteric materials.
He hadn’t actually explained what any of them were or how they were used. Instead he’d spent the time quietly expounding on the importance fooling the mind as well as the eye, and how the tricks of perception could be turned to ones benefit.
‘Never forget Chengling that however finely crafted a mask may be, it is still only a tool. It is only as useful as the skill of the one who wields it.
One of the greatest abilities humans have is pattern recognition. We notice when something or someone isn’t what it ought to be, even when we don’t consciously realize what flaw we have spotted. If you wish to pass unnoticed the first step is not the face you wear, but how you carry yourself.
Do you walk with the pride of a noble? The rolling steps of a boatman? Do you duck and creep like a thief expecting to be caught, or stride like a guardsman? If you can learn to match your movements the expectations of your observers, their attention will slide past you like water over a stone.
That is true stealth; Not to be unseen, but to present yourself in such a way that even when you are seen the onlooker remains unaware of you. ’
One afternoon of theory isn’t really enough to prepare him for this, but it’s all he has. He’s horribly aware of just how underprepared he is to escape the watch of an entire sect, unable to stop dwelling on the memory of his failed attempt to sneak out of Yueyang sect before the first Heroes Conference. But he smothers his apprehension as best he can with anger-fueled determination.
In the absolute worst case scenario he can just make a run for it. If he cuts through the woods they won’t be able to come after him with the horses and he’s confident that on foot his Divine Strides are good enough to evade any Dagu sect member short of Shen-bobo, who’ll likely remain with the carriage to keep an eye on Xiaolian.
Gathering up his courage and clinging to the memory of Shifu’s steady voice blending with the rain, he purposefully begins letting his steps lag. Slowly he widens the distance between himself and the quietly chatting groups of Dagu disciples, who’ve relaxed from deliberately not acknowledging his presence to absentmindedly ignoring him, until he’s trailing a good few yards behind the cart. Walking normally is harder than he thought it would be. He instinctively wants to curl in on himself, the straightness of his spine and shoulders feeling bizarrely attention-grabbing.
At any minute he expects someone to call him out on the slowly increasing distance between him and the rest of the train, for one of the other disciples or maybe even one of the more lucid wounded to point out what he’s doing. But despite his racing heartbeat and dry mouth, no one so much as glances at him. He trails along like that for some time, teetering between the harried urge to slip away before someone notices what he’s up to and certainty that the minute he tries to move away from the column someone will spot the unusual movement.
Salvation comes in the form of a spot where the road bends westward around a particularly thick grove. Watching the forward half of the column disappear around the far side of the trees, Chengling realizes that this is probably his best chance of slipping away without being caught.
It becomes an active struggle not to hold his breath or hunch his shoulders as the end of the column trails towards the bend. He has to remind himself more than once of Shifu’s words about people noticing when you act like you have something you have something to hide, and even then he keeps having to force his chin up out of a furtive tuck.
It’s somehow even more nerve-wracking than dodging assassins with Xiang-jiejie had been and he firmly promises himself that when this is all over he’ll ask Shifu for further instruction on how to disappear like he and Wen-shishu always seem to be doing.
He waits until the second to last cart has half vanished around the bend before he moves. He doubts himself almost the instant he does it, suddenly sure that he’s moved too soon and the last few groups of disciples must see him awkwardly side-stepping into the trees, but he makes himself follow through and drops into the thick undergrowth in a breathless rush.
For a long, long minute he crouches there, tense as a crossbow string at full draw and convinced that at any moment disciples will come crashing into the trees after him. He’s poised to leap up and run at the first sign of pursuit but it never comes. No shout goes up, no one follows after him, no one even seems to notice his absence. It likely won’t last, but as long as they don’t notice he’s gone before midday meal…
The rumble of cartwheels and low chatter of disciples slowly begins to fade but he can still see the blue-grey of Dagu robes through the trees so he keeps low, crawling through the brush to prevent the burnt-coral of his robe from giving him away.
Even after he’s put enough distance between himself and the road to feel safe enough to get back to his feet the proximity of Ghost Valley and the fear of Shen-bobo suddenly noticing his absence and turning back to search for him keeps him on edge, tensing at every odd sound and flicker of movement. Thrice he hears someone moving nearby and throws himself flat. Once whoever it is comes close enough that he has to roll under a nearby patch of goji bushes to hide.
By the time he finally makes it to the waypoint where he’d spotted a Ping’an Inn on their way to the Conference it’s already past noon and he’s covered in scratches, sweat, and dirt. The sight of the broad, clean building with its familiar sign fills him with a rush of mingled relief and dread.
Shifu has to be here. He can’t think of any other place in Qingya that he could stay safely after openly opposing the sects to protect Wen-shishu.
Chengling doesn’t know what he’s going to say. Worse, he doesn’t know what Shifu’s going to say. Because Shifu didn’t know about the plan, if half the things Shen-bobo said are true he STILL doesn’t know about the plan and-
He feels his mouth tremble in spite of himself and swallows hard.
He doesn’t know how to face a Shifu who’s angry or disappointed in him, but Chengling has already made his choice between ancestral alliances and family. He affirmed his loyalties when he decided to forgive Wen-shishu for not saving his birth sect, and he won’t go back on that now.
Didn’t Shishu teach him that persistence is the most important thing when facing Shifu? So he’ll be persistent. He’ll tell Shifu everything, he’ll apologize, and even if Shifu’s angry with him or tries to send him away, he won’t leave. As long as he stays with Shifu they’ll all make it out of this. He knows they will. They always do.
This particular trading post is a fair distance from the Conference encampment but there are still a handful of senior disciples finishing up a leisurely midday meal at the tables outside the inn, so Chengling forces himself to make for the entrance at a walk instead of the run he wants to break into. He tenses when a few of them shoot him odd looks but no one immediately leaps up to accuse him of being the runaway Zhang heir so he keeps his head down until he’s through the door and out of sight.
Once inside he scans the restaurant floor desperately, but he doesn’t spot Shifu’s familiar figure at any of the tables. The disappointment of it sits sharp and heavy in his gut, but he reminds himself that if Shifu spent the night… If he was up as late as Shen-bobo claimed, he likely didn’t make it back to the inn until near or even after dawn. Which means he’s probably still sleeping upstairs and Chengling needs to find his room.
The only attendant he can see is already talking to a restless group of cloaked customers near the narrow stair leading to the second floor but he’s too agitated to politely wait for him to finish. Chengling hurries over and calls out to the man with a haphazard bow. “Excuse me sir, but by chance do you have a guest who-”
He startles at the familiar voice, eyes skipping past the attendant half-turned towards him to land on Xiang-jiejie’s familiar face, half-hidden beneath the brim of a drab hood. He’d heard her calling for him after the celebratory banquet but he thought she’d left the valley when she couldn’t find him.
A spark of relief flashes through her eyes before vanishing behind a cresting wave of irritation. Faster than he can dodge she punches him hard in the arm, voice sharply scolding. “You brazen little fool! Who told you to start picking up Master’s bad habits! Keeping secrets like this from me, I ought to lock you in a box until you learn manners!”
The figure at her side intervenes and even knowing that those two wouldn’t leave each other he’s still surprised to recognize Cao-dage, hands raised soothingly as he turns gentle eyes on his irate betrothed. “I’m sure young master Zhang and Wen-xiong had good reasons, A-xiang! Why don’t we hear him out, ah?”
Chengling barely registers the words, feeling almost light-headed with relief as he focuses on the older girl. “Xiang-jiejie, where’s Shifu?!” She seems startled by the intensity of his demand, brow furrowing defensively. “Ah? He’s your master, if you don’t know where he is how should I?”
The sudden relief evaporates as quickly as it came, abruptly replaced by a fresh rush of dread. “Isn’t- Isn’t he here?”
Gu Xiang tosses her head irritably, though the motion looks oddly subdued without the snap and click of long beaded braids to emphasize it. “He was supposed to be, but according to this fool he apparently ran off the same day he arrived and hasn’t been seen since.”
She must notice something in his face because her frown suddenly turns worried, and her tone goes frantic the way it does whenever he’s managed to alarm her by crying. “Eh eh eh! What’s with that face?!”
The building tightness in his chest is momentarily disrupted as a slender hand settles gently on his shoulder. Feeling somewhat dazed, he looks up to find Prince Qi watching him from the shadow of his own cloak. “I think perhaps this is a conversation best had behind closed doors. Come, we’ll use one of the private rooms.”
Chengling nods dumbly, letting himself be herded up the stairs and into the familiar impersonal quiet of an inn room. Cao-dage and and Xiang-jiejie are both fussing in their own way, but he’s finding it hard to pay attention.
What’s he supposed to do if Shifu isn’t here? Where else could he have gone? How is Chengling supposed to find him? There’s a steadily growing uneasiness looming in the back of his mind at the absence, remarkably similar to what he felt watching Shifu walk out of his room at Sanbai Manor; a sudden sense that he’s being left behind, that he’s missed some final chance to get up and follow before it’s too late.
Safely beyond the reach of prying eyes and ears, Prince Qi and Da Wu shed their cloaks to settle at a low table, looking regal and out of place against the slightly worn edges that less wealthy inns always seem to sport. Chengling folds himself down opposite them more out of habit than anything else, Xiang-jiejie and Cao-dage sitting on either side of him like a particularly odd pair of guardian lions.
“Now. Wu Xi has explained how this plan of Master Wen’s was meant to go, and we received a message from Immortal Ye that the initial plan had been completed and he’d left Zishu here to wait for our arrival. Judging by the state of you and Zishu’s apparent disappearance, things have gone wrong since then. What, exactly, has been happening here? Slowly child, rushing will do no-one any good.”
Chengling works his jaw silently for a minute, unsure where to start. Without the focus of an immediate goal keeping him grounded he’s starting to feel overwhelmed again. So much has happened that he can’t quite pin down a turning point in all of it, dozens of terrible events and revelations bleeding indistinguishably together into one long smear of confusion and dread.
“It’s… Shifu showed up at the ambush and jumped over the cliff after Wen-shishu and Ye-qianbei went after them but when he came back he said he couldn’t find Shifu’s body. I thought he meant that Wen-shishu took him into hiding with him, but then everyone started dying and now the whole Conference is falling apart and I think the Scorpion King was executed and Shen-bobo withdrew from the Conference this morning and he said that Shifu is the one killing everyone-!”
The words pour out of him in a thundering torrent, running together in a frantic rush, and he doesn’t even realize how fast his breathing has become until Prince Qi cuts off his babble with a raised hand. The older man’s brow is furrowed, and he takes a minute to work through the outburst before speaking.
“You said Shen-daxia claimed that Zishu was responsible for deaths among the Conference attendees. I take it there have been many?”
Chengling nodded miserably, pressing white-knuckled fists tightly against his legs as he resisted the urge to fidget. “Yes. Nearly half the men who came have already died, and I heard some of the disciples saying that last night an entire sect was wiped out, all of them found dead in their beds by the morning watch. Dagu sect left the mountain this morning, so I was coming to find Shifu but…”
Prince Qi looked grim. Even Da Wu’s usually stoic expression was lined with worry.
“And this began recently? Immortal Ye couldn’t have sent that message later than a week ago.”
Chengling dropped his eyes to his lap. He hadn’t told Shen-bobo about his suspicions of course, why would he when his would-be guardian was already so set on finding fault with Shifu based on what he already believed, but…
“I don’t know if Shen-bobo was right about Shifu being responsible for everything, but if he really is hunting down the sects…the first big wave of deaths happened three days ago. Everyone said it was the ghosts, but I’ve never heard of ghosts using poison.”
There was a heavy silence for a moment before Gu Xiang broke it, her words sharply dismissive. “Aiyo, why are you all looking so gloomy about this? They’re our enemies after all, so what if they die? If Zhou-ge really doesn’t know about this stupid plan of masters then he’s doing what he should! I’ll even buy him some of that nasty wine of his for it!”
Chengling and Cao Weining both flinched instinctively from the unapologetic ferocity of her words, but the Prince answered with unexpected composure.
“Normally I would concede the point little miss, but the circumstances in this case concern me.
Zishu has always been prodigiously skilled, but to do so much damage in such a short time given the condition his body was already in when he left to follow Master Wen… I do not think it bodes well.”
Da Wu nodded grimly. “Putting aside the limitations imposed by the Three Autumn nails, he has not yet fully healed from Helian Yi’s hospitality. He shouldn’t be engaging in any strenuous activity at all, much less anything of this scale. If he continues, his body will eventually be unable to endure the strain.”
Chengling’s head jerked up to stare at the two grave men sitting across from him, alarm spiking with painfully sudden sharpness. He was vaguely aware that Shifu had been inured after surrendering to Tian Chuang, Wen-shishu had mentioned that he wouldn’t be at the Valley during the plan because he needed to rest. But…but he’d seemed fine when he stood with Wen-shishu at the cliff-!
Cao-dage started to his feet as if he meant to leave immediately. “Then young master Zhang is right! We must find Zhou-xiong immediately, for his sake as well as for those misled by Zhao Jing and his cronies!”
Prince Qi shook his head, expression twisted with something Chengling couldn’t quite understand. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple young master. Assuming that we could find him, and I assure you that that would be a feat in and of itself, I am not sure we could persuade him to stop. If anything attempting it might cause him to escalate.
Right now he is only bent on avenging a murder. However if we tell him that Master Wen lives, it won’t change the fact that the martial sects made a sincere attempt on his life. The threat remains, and Zishu has never been a man to suffer threats idly.”
Cao-dage all but gaped at the prince, apparently unable to comprehend the words. “But…but such a thing isn’t possible! One man cannot face the entire jianghu alone!”
Da Wu was the one to answer this time, his tone uneasy. “I suspect no one but Helian Yi is privy to Zishu’s full abilities in matters such as these but wether he can accomplish such a goal or not, attempting it in his current condition will certainly kill him.”
Cao-dage’s shoulders drew back, posture straightening with the sort of sincere, upright determination to see justice done that Chengling didn’t think he’d ever seen in anyone else. “Then we must convince him. Zhou-xiong is a good man, I am sure we can reason with him.”
Prince Qi sighed, somehow sounding even older than Ye-qianbei in his darker moods.
“All well and good to say young master, but I have known Zishu for many, many years. In all that time I have never seen anyone change his mind once he has decided on a course of action, from the most beloved of his brothers to the Imperial Prince he swore his life to. We cannot hope to just-”
Surprised silence fell as four pairs of eyes leapt to Chengling. He held Prince Qi’s gaze unwaveringly, his chest suddenly afire with resolve.
“Wen-shishu can change his mind.”
Prince Qi softened slightly, delicate features gone wistful and sympathetic. “Young master Zhang-” Chengling tipped his chin up and set his jaw, furiously certain of himself. “He can. If it weren’t for Wen-shishu, Shifu never would have gone back to the Manor, or taken me as a disciple, or even accepted treatment for his injuries.
If we find Wen-Shishu he’ll bring Shifu back.”
Prince Qi and Da Wu exchanged one of those speaking looks that Wen-shishu and Shifu were always using, but Xiang-jiejie was already dragging Chengling to his feet. “Ah, you’ve finally learned to use your head! Not even Sick Dude can resist masters pestering!”
Da Wu eyed the pair of them with concern. “Do either of you even know where to find Master Wen? He only told me that the Scorpion King would send him word when the time was right to strike against their enemies, and I do not believe that is a man we should approach carelessly.”
Xiang-jiejie scoffed dismissively, towing Chengling eagerly towards the door. “And why should I need an outsiders help? This is Mt. Qingya, and he is my Master. If anyone can find him faster than me then my name will not be Gu Xiang!”
“-never inflicted this sort of inedible slop on those idiots of yours!”
Weining perked up at the faint exclamation just barely audible at the half-obscured opening of the latest crevice A-xiang had led them to. He didn’t recognize the person speaking but surely-
A second, far more familiar voice carried down the tunnel, it’s laconic tone lighting up A-xiangs face like a shangyuan lantern.
“Ah? Should I not feed my wife and child better than a bitter leech like you? Old Monster, you really have no sense of shame. You’re already so old but always demanding I feed you, and now you even complain about good fresh meat? If you don’t like it then don’t eat!”
Before the scolding words were even half-spoken A-xiang and Xiao-Zhang were already squeezing through the narrow tunnel entrance and bolting off into the shadows. Yelping in surprise, Weining hurried to follow them after them, bending almost in half to duck through the low entrance. Thankfully the tunnel widened out considerably beyond the initial opening and he was able to straighten to run after the others.
“You evil brat, even dogs get better scraps than this! You didn’t even salt it!”
Wen-xiong sounded blatantly derisive now, and up ahead Weining could just make out the shadowed outline of A-xiang and Xiao-Zhang against a faint glow cast on the rough wall at a bend in the passageway. “Do you need any more salt? I think you already have three lifetimes supply clogging your blood!”
The argument abruptly cut off as A-xiang disappeared around the bend in the tunnel with a cry with their youngest companion hot on her heels. “Master!”
A last burst of speed, and Weining was around the bend as well. The occupants must have heard them coming because they were both on their feet facing the tunnel though Wen-xiong now had his arms full of Xiao-Zhang, who had apparently bypassed greetings entirely to throw himself directly at his Shishu. Fierce as ever, A-xiang had taken advantage of his arms being full to pound her fist rapid-fire against his shoulder, eyes shining with tears even as she scolds him.
“You absolute idiot Master! It’s fine if you want to deceive others but how could you lie to me like this?! I really thought you were dead! Haven’t I always followed you in everything?! Am I not more reliable than Liu Qianqiao?! How could you rely on others but leave me to think you died, ah!”
The taller man blinks at her, apparently taken aback by the unexpected assault. “A-xiang? What are you doing here?” His eyes flick briefly down to Xiao-Zhang before leaping back to A-xiang, his expression darkening with the beginnings of something dangerous and sharp-edged.
“Has something happened to A-xu?”
There’s a vague stir of movement behind Weining and he hastily steps out of the way to allow Prince Qi and Da Wu to finally emerge from the tunnel, face flushing with embarrassment at having just run off and left the two men to trail after them. “If you mean to ask if there is an issue Master Wen, the answer is yes. Accurately speaking, however, it is less that something has happened to Zishu and more that Zishu has happened to everything else.”
Wen-xiong glanced up, apparently only just now registering the additional three members of their little search party, but it was the man in white who stepped forward with a frown. “What are you lot blathering on about? What’s that little idiot gone and done now?”
Prince Qi opened his mouth, but was interrupted as Xiao-Zhang suddenly shoved himself back to stare intently up at Wen-Xiong.
“Wen-shishu, you have to help us find Shifu!”
Wen-xiong was starting to look a little overwhelmed, hands tightening slightly on Xiao-Zhang’s shoulders as his gaze darted between him, A-xiang, and Prince Qi. “What do you mean find him? Why isn’t he with you? What’s going on?”
Prince Qi folded his arms neatly behind him, scholar-precise posture a sharp contrast to the lazy elegance he’d held himself with in his manor. “I’m afraid Zishu took your apparent ‘death’ rather poorly. We’re unsure exactly where he is or what he’s doing, but as near as we can tell he’s spent the last five days or so making a fair attempt at massacring his way through the entirety of the Heroes Conference.”
Weining flinched at the bald statement, instinctively reaching for his sword. He didn’t know the details of exactly what had happened since Zhou-xiong had sent them away that night, and frankly he was dreading finding out.
Wen-xiong’s voice turned sharp, but his eyes were wide in his rapidly paling face. “What? But A-xu- He’s meant to be resting!” Xiao-Zhang was winding himself up into stiff-backed anxiety again, babbling half-coherent explanations so fast that the words were barely comprehensible even with Da Wu and Prince Qi occasionally interjecting, but Weining wasn’t listening even though he probably should be.
Cao Weining may have left Qing Feng behind to keep A-xiang safe, but its teachings were as much a part of him as his blood or breath, ‘do not abide evil’ all but carved into his bones.
The problem he was finding was that evil and good were not always as straightforward as he’d been taught. Zhou-xiong was a good man. Weining had never known him to be anything other than thoughtful and sincere, warm in his care for those around him. Yet by all the accounts they’d heard since Prince Qi had led them back to Mt. Qingya his recent actions were at best wholly malicious.
Weining knew what his sect would say he should do, he could practically hear Shifu’s stern lectures on not allowing oneself to be blinded by evil lest it corrupt ones own heart. Weining should condemn him, should comfort A-Xiang and Xiao-Zhang while encouraging them to steel themselves to see justice done. And yet he could not forget the desolation in Zhou-xiong’s eyes when he’d choked out confirmation of Wen-xiong’s death, the dreadfully gentle finality with which he’d sent them away. Was it really justice to turn his sword on a man in such a state? True Zhou-xiong had apparently killed many people since then,
possibly even some of his own sect, but hadn’t he begun that path because he believed they’d killed his Zhiji? Did he also believe he was acting in the name of justice?
Shifu would say that Wen-xiong himself was evil, perhaps even the greatest evil as the Chief of Ghost Valley. That in allowing such a man to corrupt his heart Zhou-xiong had proven how vital it was not to let affection sway one from ones duty. But watching Wen-xiong’s face twist with worry even as Xiao-Zhang clung desperately to his arms Weining found even that condemnation did not ring as true as it should.
Would an evil man’s first reaction to the deaths of his enemies be concern for their killer? Would an evil man not have left A-Xiang and Xiao-Zhang to struggle alone through the world rather than treating them as his own family?
Weining’s eyes slid to A-xiang, fierce and beautiful and unwavering in the face of the uncertain ground they’d found themselves on. He didn’t have her certainty, he couldn’t turn his blade unflinchingly against both good and evil in the name of defending the people he cared about. But for her he was willing to make any sacrifice necessary to find a path where justice and affection could exist in harmony.
Setting his jaw, he joined the little group hurriedly adjusting and remaking plans in the firelight. Justice could always be brought to the living after all. Those who died unjustly were forever beyond help.
Kexing gaped at the bloody brawl raging through what remained of the Heroes Conference with a mix of disbelief and dread churning in his gut.
It’s almost as if he’s found himself eight months in the past watching Gao Chong’s conference collapsing in on itself all over again. Only this time it’s his turn to feel the horror of the looming consequences, and A-xu isn’t even in arms reach for him to drag to safety.
Everywhere he looked men and women were ripping at each other like starving beasts, masks of civility ripped away to reveal the base savagery poorly concealed beneath. Corpses were trampled underfoot, the ground churned to bloody mud as survivors screamed threats and accusations at each other. He thinks he might have even seen a glint of deceptively serene blue snatched from a dead mans hand in the midst of one heaving knot of bodies.
It's not as if he hadn't expected the Heroes Conference to be struggling. Even what little he'd managed to glean from Chengling's jumbled account and the Prince's second-hand information from the local innkeeper pointed to an impressively high death count, but this...this was beyond his expectations.
He’d known that it was going to be bad from the moment A-xu had appeared at Bailu Cliff. He'd been primarily concerned with the grief his 'death' would inflict on his Zhiji, but he knew that part of that grief was going to be expressed violently, and that if it came to that there was a chance of things going at least somewhat awry.
His A-xu was an absolutely breathtaking creature after all, every bit as deadly as he was beautiful.
But A-xu had always made it so clear that he thought Kexing acted too recklessly, so he’d thought even in the worst case scenario A-xu would exact the price of Kexing's death with the sort of careful precision attack that took time to prepare. Time that should have allowed Kexing the window he needed to sweep in and give them the clean start that A-xu and Chengling deserved.
When Yan Gui had failed to appear with the agreed upon summonsl from Xie Wang within the first few days they were in hiding he’d half expected that A-xu’s steadfast sense of responsibility had led him to storm the Five Lakes camp and carry Chengling off to the safety of the newly reformed Siji sect.
Such a thing would certainly have delayed any call from the Five Lakes to elect a leader of the sects, and with nineteen disciples already half trained in Tian Chuang to back him there would be nothing stopping A-xu from spiriting their boy forever beyond the reach of Zhao Jing’s schemes. He’d hoped he hadn’t of course, he’d much rather make his triumphant return to his Zhiji arms immediately after he finished dealing with the jianghu, but he’d be happy to hunt him down again if it came to that. It wasn’t as if he didn’t enjoy chasing A-xu after all.
But it seems that somewhere in all his plans he's made a
He circles the chaos of the battlefield, bounding across rooftops and killing anyone foolish enough to distract him from his furious search with for the flash of a familiar sword or the smooth ripple of divine strides cutting through the turmoil. But no matter how frantically he searches there's no sign of A-xu.
Which should be a good thing! Even before he'd spent who knows how many days single-handedly orchestrating the implosion of a Heroes Conference attended by every major sect in the jianghu he’d been in no fit state to be throwing himself into the bloody madness of a full-scale battle.
Still Kexing found himself growing more and more uneasy the longer he went without spotting his Zhiji. In all the time since he’d met Zhou Zishu the man had never shown any particular concern for his own well being, nor had he ever failed to see a course of action through to its bitter, bloody ending.
That being the case, he could only assume that this battle wasn’t his main goal. So what was?
That was when Kexing realized that A-xu was not the only person conspicuously absent from the battleground. Though what remained of the Five Lakes alliance was out in full force, apparently pitting themselves against just about everyone else present, Zhao Jing was nowhere to be seen.
It hits him like a blow to the face; painful and disorienting.
A-xu is avenging him.
He knew that of course. It's the only reasonable conclusion, and Prince Qi told him so to his face. But he hadn't really internalized the idea of it, that his A-xu might react every bit as violently to Kexing's death as Kexing would to his.
He and A-xu are not in anyway identical but they understand each other, they accept each other, and part of that comes from the fact that for all their differences they have just as many similarities. The paths they walk wind always in oddly harmonious parallels, even if they never perfectly align.
So then. If Kexing had watched A-xu killed in front of him, managed to carve out a bloody vengeance on the perpetrators, and finally had the mastermind in his grasp what would he-
In an instant Kexing veers away from the edges of the cutthroat brawl, and makes for Bailu cliff.
It's the calls for help and shouted threats that ultimately lead him to them, but he's not surprised to find the scenery growing more and more familiar as he approaches. A-xu has dragged the snake to almost the exact spot where Kexing took his dive over the cliff and into the river below.
His steps quicken eagerly as the shouting grows louder. This isn't quite the vengeance he had planned for, but then neither had his deal with Xie Wang. This way he'll have the pleasure of A-xu's company for the event, and perhaps the chance to share in a bit of cathartic murder will be enough to blunt some of the anger A-xu is sure to turn on him once he realizes that Kexing is not, in fact, dead.
Or at the very least keep him from actively stabbing Kexing when he inevitably gives in to the desire to throw him over his shoulder and cart him back into the relative security of Ghost Valley to be fussed over by their little patchwork family.
Kexing stumbles to an abrupt halt as he rounds the edge of the overhang, fantasy abruptly broken as he comes face to face with a scene that could have been taken directly from one of his nightmares. Despite the fact that it was his snarling and screaming that led Kexing to them, Zhao Jing’s bound figure barely registers as an afterthought when he finally sets eyes on his beloved.
A-xu is reclining almost indolently against the pitted stone of the overhang, fine dark eyes as intent on Zhao Jing’s writhing as a cat in the breath before it pounces, and yet there’s nothing of the peace Kexing had seen on his face when they both went over this cliff together.
The neatness A-xu always takes care to present himself with has vanished, unfamiliar black robes gaping open at the collar and hair entirely unravelled, the hairpin Kexing gifted him in silent promise clasped absently in his sword hand as if he lacks either the will or the strength to make use of it.
Worse, he's clearly driven his body to the very brink of collapse. Pale gold skin has faded to death white, made all the starker by the bruised shadows lining his eyes. Thin lips are chapped and pale with prolonged thirst, his chest shudders with shallow, uneven breaths, and there’s a certain laxness to the way he slumps against the stone holding him up, as if it’s less a matter of choice than necessity.
But what transfixes Kexing is the nail bobbing above one upturned palm.
It’s a ghastly, abhorrent thing. Nearly six cun long, sharp and dark as obsidian, slick with red-black gore, and all but radiating malice. Blood drips from it sluggishly as it slowly turns in the uneven currents of energy holding it suspended, but A-xu doesn’t even seem to notice the trickles of red dribbling over his palm and wrist.
“You know, I'm somehow not surprised you turned up for this one. You never could pass up an interesting show.”
His voice is oddly soft, almost sweet. His eyes never leave Zhao Jing, but its clear who he’s speaking to. Kexing feels shaky, his mouth gone dry with sheer terror as a horrifying suspicion prickles at the far edges of his mind. “A-xu, I…”
A-xu cuts him off with a chuckle that morphs into a wet cough halfway through, a few faint flecks of red speckling his bloodless lips. His tone doesn't sharpen or harden at all, as warm and affectionate as if they were still basking together in the Yueyang sun.
“Yes, yes, don't pout. I won’t make you wait any longer than this. Just give me a minute more to get my legs back under me, hm?”
The implication that A-xu can’t even stand is what finally breaks the paralysis holding him in place. Kexing staggers across the empty stretch of water and stone between them, dropping to his knees and reaching out-
And freezes in shock when A-xu recoils so violently he almost falls over, the nail unexpectedly dropping to the ground between them as the qi field suddenly disperses, the hand that had been holding it steady jerking up defensively between them. A-xu still won’t look at him, and his voice has gone tight.
“Please… Please don’t touch me.
Just. You want to see him die, don’t you? I’ll have my strength back in a minute just-”
The broken pleading nearly shatters what little remains of Kexing’s heart.
He can’t bear it, can’t bear that his wonderful, amazing, beautiful, ruthless, capable, peerless A-xu has been reduced to such a state. With his heart in his throat, he shoves the weakly upraised arm out of his way and almost violently wrenches the gaping collar of A-xu's robes wide enough to slide from his shoulders.
Seven raw, empty pits mar the smooth flesh of a chest slicked with sweat, and blood. Most are crusted brown and yellow with old blood and discharge, but the seventh, nestled just beneath the delicate curve of his diaphragm, is still weeping fresh rivulets of hot red.
Torn open recently enough that if Kexing had been just a little faster he might have stopped him.
Too late again.
There’s a ringing in Kexing’s ears and his own voice sounds echoingly distant, the world warping strangely around him until A-xu is the only solid thing left in existence. He's been accused of lunacy for almost as long as he can remember, sometimes in jest but far more often in terrified sincerity. Yet for the first time in his life, he thinks he might really be standing on the brink of true madness.
“What have you done. Zhou Zishu, what have you done?!”
There's no answer.
Instead trembling, calloused fingers brush across his cheek, as tentative as the touch of a butterflies wing. The touch lingers for a moment before a slender hand cups the side of his face with tender reverence that drags Kexing’s gaze away from the death sentence carved mercilessly into muscle and bone.
A-xu is finally looking at him now, eyes wide and wondering, tears streaming silently down his face as his thumb strokes oh-so-softly over the skin beneath Kexing’s eye. At this distance Kexing can finally see just how blown his pupils are, the rich melting brown of his eyes almost entirely swallowed by bottomless black.
I must really be dying this time, I couldn’t touch Jiuxiao’s ghost.
Did you come to bring me away?”
Kexing feels the blood drain from his face so fast it leaves his head spinning, hand flashing up to seize hold of A-xu’s wrist. The violent hiss that bursts from his lips carries all the mad desperation of the Ghost Valley Chief, a command so vicious it seems the world itself must bend to his will.
“You’re not dying! I won’t allow you to die!”
A-xu only smiles in the face of his madness, delirious and adoring and utterly unyielding as he tips clumsily forward to hide his face against the curve of Kexing’s throat, sighing soft and warm against the fragile skin.
“Mm. I know you don’t want me to.
I understand. But I’m sorry, I love you.”
It's as if speaking the words aloud used up the last ounces of strength left in him. A-xu goes entirely pliant, the fingers cradling Kexing's cheek relaxing into a loose curl as his body folds limp and silent into Kexing’s arms.
Something deep inside Kexing SCREAMS as his hand clamps down on A-xu’s wrist with bruising strength, free arm surging up across that too-thin back to hold him protectively close.
The flutter of A-xu’s heartbeat against his fingers is weak and thready, while the turbulent crash of his unleashed qi feels like it might crush even healthy meridians, but both pulses are still there. His beloved is not dead yet.
It has to be enough.
Clever viper that he is, Zhao Jing has fallen entirely silent. Kexing might have forgotten about him entirely if a lifetime spent hyperaware of every threat in the vicinity hadn’t made such an oversight all but impossible. Kexing might have agreed to leave him alive for Xie Wang, but that was before. Allowing him to live when he had targeted Kexing was one thing. Doing so when he is all but guaranteed to target his Zhiji is entirely another.
It takes a bit of careful arrangement, but eventually he rises to his feet with the final nail in one hand and A-xu cradled gently in his arms. It’s far too easy, and Kexing distantly makes a note to prepare some richer dishes to help get him back up to a proper weight.
He’d imagined how he’d take his vengeance on Zhao Jing many times over the past few days. In almost every one of those fantasies he’d pictured taking his time, breaking him down slowly so that he had time to experience at least a fraction of the despair he inflicted on Kexing’s parents.
But as it turns out he doesn’t have time to linger over it. Getting A-xu back to the safety of the valley fortifications and Da Wu’s care is more important.
It’s a simple matter to kick Zhao Jing over onto his back and pin him in place with a foot on his shoulder. Throwing the nail with enough force to drive it in far enough to pierce the meridian is a little trickier, but Kexing mastered the art of controlling the flight of thrown objects with his qi long ago. A thread of qi and a flick of the wrist is enough to sink the nail up to its head in his flesh, and the deed is done.
Zhao Jing shrieks in agony, eyes going wide and blind as he convulses, but Kexing is already turning away from him.
He takes care to ensure that A-xu's head is tipped securely against Kexing's shoulder so that he doesn't strain his neck, checking to ensure that his arms are folded safe and secure between their bodies. A twist of something truly agonizing threatens to crush his heart when he realizes that even unconscious A-xu is still clinging to the jade hairpin he can't possibly know the value of. Clinging to the shreds of his sanity through pure force of will, Kexing throws himself into a dead sprint for the Valley gates.
He will snatch his A-xu back from the jaws of death, or he will chase him down its throat. There are no other options.
I know a lot of people were really looking forward to Zishu taking a strip off Kexing for the whole 'I'm dead' stunt but I've been planning this delirious pushed-himself-beyond-to-the-literal-edge-of-death-and-thinks-he's-talking-to-a-ghost encounter for ages so...
I swear, I SWEAR there's fluff coming. Really.
Minor ghosts hit their knees in droves as Kexing flies through the Valley, scattering out of his path like birds from a fox. He blows past all of them without so much as a glance, consumed by the need to reach help as fast as his considerable strength can take him.
After months of slowly wasting away A-xu’s weight is barely noticeable in his arms but heat radiates off of him like a bonfire in midwinter, the full force of his unleashed qi threatening to burn through the body grown too frail to contain it. The scorch of it presses menacingly against his chest and drives Kexing on faster than either mortal men or ghosts could ever hope to manage.
He doesn’t even slow when the Yama hall finally comes into view, launching himself into a flying kick that cracks the surface of the heavy stone doors and sends him crashing into the hall at speed rather than break stride to let the scrambling minions standing guard outside haul them open.
He hits the ground running, the echoes of the resounding boom chasing fruitlessly at his heels as he sprints down the hall and leaps up the ledge, making a beeline for the modest manor set back behind the eerie white trees and drums lining the edge of the overhang. A pair of Xisang Gui’s girls are just wrestling the residence gate open, alerted to his approach by the crash of the hall doors but he’s no more willing to wait for them than he was any of the other ghosts.
Kexing races past them, twisting sideways to eel through the narrow gap of the barely open gates and roaring for A-xiang and Da Wu the instant he crosses the threshold, hyperaware of the whisper-thin breaths washing over his throat.
Prince Qi and Da Wu must have been lingering just inside the manor because they emerge from the entrance with the children trailing after them in a tangle of gangly limbs and anxious tension just as he reaches the far edge of the courtyard. The alarmed barrage of questions and exclamations that rises at his approach rushes over him in a blur of meaningless noise, his eyes locked desperately on the solemn shaman at the front of the group.
Da Wu’s expression hardens when he sees A-xu lolling against Kexing’s chest and he doesn’t bother with words, darting forward viper-quick to snatch hold of a limp wrist. The rest of them fall silent at the intensity of the movement, five pairs of eyes fixed on the slight-framed man as his brow furrows, lips pressing so tightly together that the color leeches out of them.
Kexing can’t seem to find his voice, caught precariously between desperation and despair as he watches Da Wu’s face grow ever grimmer. Prince Qi is the one who ultimately breaks the poisonous silence.
The shaman shakes his head minutely, still intent on A-xu.
“It’s bad. Very bad.”
Kexing’s throat closes at the bleak words and he clutches A-xu’s too-still frame impossibly closer. His thoughts move like chilled honey, too slow and thick, unable to properly grasp more than the edges of the yawning nothingness threatening to swallow him whole.
He can’t be too late. Not this time. A-xu is strong, he’s still breathing, they’re standing in front of the Great Shaman of Nanjiang himself. How can that not be enough to save him?
He’s not sure if it’s mercy or cruelty that the man doesn’t elaborate further.
Half-turning to the little group hovering anxiously at his back, Da Wu begins barking instructions at the youngsters. “Gu-guniang, we need a room where we won’t be disturbed, preferably one with either a bed or a long table. Zhang-gongzi, Cao-gongzi, bring a pot of the strongest and bitterest tea you can get your hands on.”
The boys are gone almost before the last words leave Da Wu’s mouth, and A-Xiang is already whirling to lead them into the manor. “Un, this way!”
Kexing follows her in a fog of anxious fear, Da Wu keeping pace at his side and Prince Qi drifting silently in their wake. The shorter man speaks to him in a low, worried voice. “Wen-gongzi. I will do everything I can but his chances-”
Kexing cut him off with his heart in his throat, unwilling to hear the end of his warning.
“What can I do?”
Da Wu’s gaze rests heavily against his skin, the silence stretching between them as they follow A-Xiang deeper into the manor. Distantly he realizes she’s leading them to the Master’s wing, the most secure set of rooms in all of Ghost Valley. It’s the best choice available and yet Kexing can’t help the dismay seeping through his veins.
A-xu was meant to face this trial when he was hale and whole, in a room steeped in warm sunlight and supplied with everything Da Wu needed to make the procedure as safe as possible. He shouldn’t have to suffer through the frenzied, haphazard butchery of battlefield medicine while hidden away in this ominous den of ghosts.
Da Wu snaps him out of his thoughts with a tightly controlled exhale.
“Originally I had planned to splint his meridians and strengthen them sufficiently that when the nails were removed only minor intervention would be required to shore them up enough to endure his qi and heal naturally.
That is no longer an option. I will have to reconstruct his meridians forcibly. During that process his meridians will be exceptionally fragile and vulnerable to irreparable damage.
I need someone to regulate his qi for him while I work and you’re the best choice we have as he’s already accustomed enough to allowing you to manipulate his qi that he may not fight you as hard as he would someone else.
But if you don’t feel you can do it you need to tell me now. Once we begin your concentration cannot waver for even a moment; if you slip and too much qi re-enters his channels while I am in the process of reconstructing them the sudden stress could shatter them beyond repair.”
Da Wu hesitates, and then continues with a faintly sympathetic edge to his voice.
“You will also have to help hold him down. This will be…painful.”
Kexing couldn’t help but flinch at that, shrinking from the idea of being a party to A-xu’s pain for any reason.
Kexing has dwelt in this building for years, been the deadliest thing within it for even longer, and yet the corridors suddenly seem to loom above him, walls closing in with the same mocking promise of suffering that they held when the Old Valley Master used to summon him as a child.
He allows himself only a brief moment to quail in panicked denial before he forces himself to shove the revulsion back into the dark corners of his mind. He could hate himself later, when A-xu still lived for him to beg forgiveness from.
“Can’t. Can’t we give him something for the pain? Xisang Gui may still have some Drunken Dream-”
Da Wu shakes his head, regretful but firm.
“Even if we had something strong enough to keep him under, there’s no telling how his body might react to it. With exhaustion, blood loss, and prior injuries already weakening him even a mild dose could too easily prove fatal.”
Kexing swallowed hard against the irrational desire to crack his chest open and tuck A-xu away into the dark, protected place hearts were meant to stay rather than wandering out into the world in all their terrible, vulnerable glory.
And then there is no more time to talk about the horrors to come because his clever girl is ushering them into her own room, deep enough in the Master’s wing to be well-secured but hardly the first place an enemy would think to look if they wished to take advantage of the recent chaos to attack him.
Kexing lays A-xu on the bed as gently as he can, trying not to dwell on Da Wu’s last words. His mouth goes dry as he sees for the first time that A-xu has worsened since leaving the cliff, raised veins squirming unnaturally beneath his skin as his qi thrashes and writhes in it’s channels, and he doesn’t know what to do. He’s spent so much of his life clawing his way to strength, determined never to be helpless again, and yet even now he finds himself powerless to protect the person most precious to him.
Da Wu directs him and an unusually silent A-xiang to unlace the thick leather bracers from A-xu’s arms while he sets about peeling his robes open to get a look at his chest, all three of them working as quickly as they can without letting too-frantic speed tangle their fingers.
They’ve got A-xu stripped to the waist when the boys come crashing in with arms full of teapot and cups and a small mountain of clean cloths. Chenling skids to a stop, round eyes locked on the frightful wounds gouged into his masters chest. “Shifu…”
The shaman looks up sharply at the stunned whisper, eyes flicking from the frozen youngster to the gravely watchful prince standing by the door. “Cao-gongzi, please bring those cloths here. Everyone else out.” Prince Qi dips his head silently and ushers their protesting charges from the room with soothing murmurs and reassurances that Kexing can’t spare the focus for.
Xiao-cao all but stumbles to the bedside, setting down the pile of cloth in easy arms reach and hovering anxiously. “Sir? What should I-?” Da Wu barely glances at him as he arranges A-xu’s arms above his head and delivers his instructions.
“Take his arms and hold them down as best you can. Lay on them if you have to. No, don’t be delicate about it, get a good firm grip. He’ll only toss you across the room if you’re not properly braced.
Wen-gongzi, you too. Keep his torso as flat as you can manage, and if you have any reason to think your control of his qi is going to waver tell me immediately.”
Kexing nods, throat still too thick to speak as he pins A-xu’s shoulder and hip in place.
His skin crawls at holding his beloved splayed out and vulnerable like this in front of others; It doesn’t matter that they’re friends, it doesn’t matter that they’re only trying to help, it doesn’t even matter that he needs them if he wants A-xu to live. Every instinct screams at him to hide A-xu away somewhere safe, where no one but Kexing can reach him and thus no one can hurt him.
With difficulty he forces himself to focus on threading his own qi deceptively gently into the raging deluge of A-xu’s.
Da Wu prods Xiao-cao’s too-gentle hold into something more solid and jams the edge of a discarded leather bracer as far between A-xu’s teeth as he can get it. Kexing has to bite back a reflexive snarl at the affront. He’s not a healer like his parents, but he’s seen enough of the old Valley Masters victims bite through their tongues in a session and drown in blood to know it’s for the best that A-xu has something sturdy between his teeth for this.
But for all Kexing's practicality he has never been a reasonable man, and the knowledge doesn’t quell the helpless simmer of anger at the indignity of it.
When he deems them as prepared as they can be Da Wu catches his eye, hands coming to settle above one of the twin pits gaping beneath the elegant line of A-xu’s collarbone. “Ready?”
Kexing can’t bring himself to verbally assent to this but he nods tightly.
Da Wu takes a deep breath and focuses on his hands, expression as forbiddingly resolute as a general facing down an army with nothing but a fistful of men and a banner.
Kexing doesn’t allow himself time to think about it, using the qi he’s laced with A-xu’s like a net to draw the whole force of it back into himself. It’s hard, like wading against the current while thigh deep in a river or trying to breathe without coughing in the midst of chokingly thick smoke. A-xu’s energy fights him every step of the way, thrashing and roiling against his hold like an angry dragon and even his healthy meridians are left straining uncomfortably against the violence of it.
But it’s not enough to just draw it out and hold it restrained in his own body.
He has to keep the connection between them open and let just enough qi circulate between them to prevent A-xu’s channels from collapsing in on themselves. It’s delicate work, the sort of thing that makes even his pinpoint control of his fan look as ham-handedly brutish as as a drunken dock worker playing at scholarly airs, but he manages.
And he can see that it’s helping A-xu, the perverse throb of his veins slowing and fading into complacency as he drains the savagely thrashing qi from his over-burdened system.
Naturally, the brief illusion of peace is broken when Da Wu sets to work on his own task.
It’s obvious the instant he begins because A-xu jerks and convulses under Kexing’s hands, eyes slitting open with a choked gasp and back bowing up at a painfully sharp angle as every muscle in him pulls tight.
It’s so violent that even braced he struggles to force him back flat against the bed, and Xiao-cao yelps as he’s briefly lifted off his feet and has to wrestle A-xu’s straining arms back down.
A-xu fights them, fights so hard that he tears open a handful of his wounds, including one of the half scarred over gashes left by the hooks those imperial bastards had driven through him.
Xiao-cao makes a noise of distressed concern as streams of blood well up from freshly torn scar tissue and cracked scabs. “Zhou-xiong, don’t-!”
Da Wu cuts off the boy’s frantic plea, his own voice sharp and distracted. “Quiet. I need to concentrate, and Zishu isn’t awake enough for anything you say to help.”
The shaman is obviously right.
A-xu’s empty gaze roves blindly over them without once focusing on anything and for all that he’s trying to fight them his struggling is clumsy and uncoordinated; there’s not a trace of his usual savage efficiency or wicked grace to be found in any of his movements.
He’s not lucid, not even really conscious, it’s just the intensity of the pain forcing his body back to the razor-thin border of oblivion and a lifetimes worth of instinct driving him to defend himself.
Kexing watches his tortured writhing with burning eyes and refuses to blink. It feels like someone is scraping him hollow with a dull knife, like he’s breathing molten lead instead of air. His fingers are white-knuckled where they hold the great love of his life pinned like a dying butterfly.
He can’t decide which is the greater horror, that A-xu might be so far gone that he can’t even recognize him anymore, or that he can but isn’t aware enough to understand what’s happening beyond that Kexing is holding him down while people hurt him.
Either way, he knows he’ll have shaking nightmares about this for the rest of his life, however long or short it may be.
He measures the passage of time not by the shifting of light or the ache in his arms, but by the slow spiral of A-xu’s faltering endurance. He never stops fighting them, that iron will that Kexing loves and fears in equal measure evident even without a clear mind to steer it, but his body can only withstand so much before flesh begins to fail him.
Sweat beads on his skin like water as his stubborn struggling weakens to spasmodic bouts of thrashing interspersed with longer periods of quiescence marked by labored panting. A fine tremor takes root in him and grows ever more pronounced, limbs trembling uncontrollably with agony even when he’s too exhausted to keep struggling against the hands restraining him.
The first enervated keen that forces it’s way past his locked jaw and the makeshift bit in his teeth flays strips from Kexing’s heart, but the ragged screams that eventually follow make him feel like he’s being eaten alive from the inside out, and the hoarse gasping chokes that come when his voice finally gives out threaten to splinter his mind.
His surroundings lose any sense of meaning or significance as the ordeal drags ever on. Occasionally someone tips a cup of something foully bitter down his throat, jolting him briefly from the haze that melts each cruel moment into something endless, but he couldn’t say who or why.
For him, the world narrows down to just the two of them. He thinks this might be hell. Not the boiling pots or flaying that the scriptures warn of but just this; A-xu writhing in anguish and Kexing perpetuating his torment.
But he can’t stop. If he stops, if he flinches, if he relents for even an instant A-xu will slip forever beyond his reach. He’ll never again see the sardonic lift of ink-dark brows or the flash of quicksilver mischief in fine eyes, never hear that cherished voice call his name. It will all be gone forever, the most precious gift the heavens were fool enough to entrust to him fled irrevocably across that dreaded bridge.
So he tightens his hold on both energy and flesh. And he endures.
Ye Baiyi storms through the empty corridors of Changqing’s old home, unsure if he’s more furious with the stupid, merciless boy or himself but determined to finally knock some sense into the vicious little fool's head either way.
In hindsight he has to admit that he allowed the sentimentality of old age to color his perception of little Qin’s disciple. He’d like to think it was the memory of little Qin’s cheerful loyalty that did it, but he knows himself too well to really believe it.
He’d seen the uncomfortably clear mirror of himself as a young man in that Wen brat and automatically painted his partner’s unfailingly polite seriousness with the shades of Changqing’s gentle-hearted idealism. It wasn’t difficult to do between the half-grown boy trailing at his heels and the seeming naiveté with which he’d defended even the Ghost Valley Chief.
An easy misstep, but as the fields of dead beyond the Valley gates can attest, a costly one.
The manor is still and silent around him, it’s corridors empty of the red-clad ghosts he’d shoved his way through to get here, but he knows this is where the brats will be. There’s not a trace to be found of either of them in the killing ground beyond the Valley gates, and Wen never would have left off the search if he hadn’t found his wayward Zhiji.
Sure enough, he turns a final corner and has to catch the end of a whip as it strikes savagely for his eyes.
The girl-child who’d come to find them that afternoon is on the other end of it, her jaw set and face hard with the sort of venomous resolution that no child should carry as she stands firmly between him and the two boys slumped against the wall behind her. He narrows his eyes back at her, jerking the whip out of her hands and tossing it to the side, irately ignoring the way her hands flash instantly to the knives sheathed at her side.
“You’re a hundred years to early be pointing that thing at me, little girl.”
She tips her chin up and bares her teeth, eyes flashing with eerily familiar gall, but before she can snap at him the smallest of the idiots scrambles up from where he’d been sitting against the wall and grabs for her sleeve. “Xiang-jiejie, it’s alright.”
Ye Baiyi feels the first twinge of uneasiness when he sees how red and wet the child’s eyes are, rounded cheeks streaked with dried tear tracks. His eyes flick assessingly over the three children clustered in the hall. Beyond the fact that he’s been crying the little one has the look of a child caught in the throes of a nightmare, while the girl is holding herself with the sort of brittle tension that comes with a long, anxious watch, and her little fiancé is worse off than both of them, curled up in exhausted sleep by the baseboard with a green-tinged face and sleeves smeared with blood.
All three of them look as if the last several hours have drained days worth of energy out of them.
Ye Baiyi’s eyes dart back to the most familiar of the trio, uncomfortably reminded that the last time he’d seen the boy cry had been back at the Longyuan Cabinet after his idiot parents had fallen down the canyon.
“Shazi, where are they?”
The children glance at each other but don’t answer him, and he really does not appreciate the growing sense of foreboding threatening to supplant his extremely justified outrage.
He narrows his eyes and is just drawing himself up to scold them into submission when the current Da Wu’s husband sweeps around the corner with a gently steaming teapot in his hands, the acrid stench of whatever over-steeped swill it’s filled with nearly as sharp as the glint in it’s bearers peach blossom eyes.
“Immortal Ye, is something the matter?”
Ye Baiyi flips a sleeve impatiently at the man, in no mood for the twisting uselessness of social niceties that these lowland folk all seem so enamored with.
“Don’t be coy, I know they’re here. Even if I hadn’t just spent half a day searching for the fool, every ghost between here and the gates is gossiping about the Master’s return.”
The white-clad youth dips his head, the very picture of humble deference even as he continues to deflect. “Ah, forgive me Immortal Ye, I have been remiss in expressing my gratitude. I’m afraid this tea is too poor in quality to offer as thanks for your efforts, however if you’ll come with me I’m sure I can prepare something-”
The man spins his little misdirection with the skill of the finest silk weavers, passing the teapot to the girl so dismissively that in any other circumstances he wouldn’t think anything of it.
But just because Ye Baiyi has never had the patience for cunning word games doesn’t mean he’s blind, and he doesn’t miss either the attempt to shepherd him away or the girls twitch towards one of the nearby doors once the pot is in her hands.
Obstinately refusing to be distracted further he strides forward, pushing firmly past the livid girl and throwing the door open with a reprimand already on his lips.
The admonition dies unspoken as he freezes just inside the doorway, taken utterly off guard by the scene that meets his eyes.
Little Qin’s disciple is sprawled out on a bed, grey and shivering and streaked with blood. The current Da Wu and the Wen brat are both bent over him, all but swaying on their feet with exhaustion as energy twists and roils around them like water in a pot. The air in the room is thick with the tang of blood and fear-sweat, and he can all but feel death looming in the shadowed corners that the soft glow of the lantern can’t quite reach.
The children are clamoring at him to leave in furious, straining whispers, as if they’ve been warned not to raise their voices and the shaman's sharp-eyed spouse is already at his side, obviously intent on ushering him back out into the corridor.
“Immortal Ye, please. Disturbing them right now would be-”
Ye Baiyi shrugs him off sharply, struggling to keep his calm in the face of this newest madness. “What is this?”
Dark eyes flash, soft voice pointedly dropping a register further as if to illustrate the need for quiet, catching his arm as if planning to drag him from the room himself. “Zishu is in a very precarious condition. I’m afraid I must ask you to withdraw at once.”
Ye Baiyi hissed and effortlessly yanked his arm from the youths hold, marching straight for the bed.
It’s an even more gruesome sight up close.
Little Qin’s disciple looks more like a torture victim than a patient, sluggish trickles of tarry black poison and dark red blood welling from mangled flesh as his throat works in a silent scream, while his would-be healers are red-eyed and breathing as hard as men in the midst of a full-fledged battle. The sheer weight of energy twisting between the three of them proves that whatever they’re attempting isn’t sustainable.
If they don’t stop now, one or more of them is going to die from the strain.
Horrified at the sheer recklessness of it all, he lashes out and grabs hold of the southerner’s shoulder.
“Da Wu, have you lost your mind? Can’t you see that the whole lot of you are already at your limits?”
The shaman's deceptively amiable husband swoops up beside him, futilely trying to pry his fingers off his spouse, but Da Wu barely twitches. His voice is distant and distracted, like a student delivering a rote answer memorized from a text while their mind drifts to other concerns.
“Can’t stop yet. There are still three more to go.”
A feral, animalistic growl rips out of Wen Kexing, and the energy around him surges as he seems to redouble his efforts at whatever task he’s been set. Ye Baiyi curses under his breath as he glances back down, finally registering the exact nature of the wounds in the stupid boy’s chest.
Of course it’s those damn nails. What was it Liexiang used to say when Xuan-er was still small enough to tuck comfortably under an arm, something about children always running after danger while your attention was elsewhere?
He can’t truly condemn them for their brashness in the face of this level of suicidal stupidity, but the fact remains that both they and the man they’re trying to save are rushing headlong into dangerous territory.
Even if Zhou Zishu’s heart doesn’t give out from the strain of the procedure, one of the two of them is bound to drive themselves into a qi deviation trying to see it through and they’re swiftly approaching the point of no return where they’ll have to choose whose life to gamble with.
Fortunately, Ye Baiyi has not been bound by mortal limitations since long before any of these striplings were born. He’s already had to watch so many bright little brats leave for Naihe bridge over the years, he won’t watch anymore run ahead of him if he can help it.
“Don’t be a fool. Go rest, and don’t come back until you can see straight. I’ll hold him.”
It takes a moment for his words to register but when they finally do, bloodshot eyes flash up to him for the first time since he burst through the door. Da Wu still doesn’t stop, but there’s a trace of weary hope kindling in his face. “You’re sure? His meridians can’t handle more than a trickle of qi-”
Ye Baiyi gives him a firm nod, hands already settling on bare shoulders tacky with blood, sweat, and poison. It’s hardly the best position for manipulating his energy, but given the current state of the boy he doubts that sitting up is going to be possible at any point in the near future.
“I have him.”
Da Wu lets out a long, shuddering breath and finally withdraws, all but collapsing back into the waiting arms of his distressed husband. Zhou Zishu collapses instantly into unconsciousness, eyes sliding heavily shut as his head lolls limply to one side. Even then the fine shiver wracking his body doesn’t stop, but Ye Baiyi can feel his racing heart beginning to slow from it’s dangerously frantic pounding to something more sustainable.
Wen Kexing doesn’t stop though. Ye Baiyi’s significantly vaster energy is right there waiting to take the burden from him, but he doesn’t release his hold on Zhou Zishu’s boiling qi. Ye Baiyi scowls worriedly at him, kicking at his ankle to draw his attention.
“You evil brat, didn’t you hear me? Let it go!”
All it gets him is a savage snarl, Wen Kexing's lips peeling back from his teeth while his eyes stay fixed on Zishu’s gaunt face. Ye Baiyi’s feels his expression pull tight with apprehension. Da Wu may have pushed himself to his limit, but Wen Kexing has clearly passed it if he’s already this feral. There'll be no getting through to him like this.
Unable to shift his hands from Zhou Zishu’s shoulders if he’s going to catch hold of his energy when it slips Wen Kexing’s hold, he turns to the girl doing her best to loom threateningly in the doorway.
“Oi, little demon. Knock him out.”
Apparently she takes it as a threat, somehow managing to draw herself up even straighter as she moves to put herself between them with her whole being radiating pure outrage at the command. “You old monster, if you dare lift a hand to my Master I’ll cut it off myself!”
Little Qin’s increasingly distressed grand-disciple flings himself at the girl, struggling to hold her back. “Xiang-jiejie don’t! Ye-qianbe is-”
The girl drags him forward a good few steps, and for all she calls him Master it’s clear exactly who raised this little hellion. He addresses her with the same caustic bluntness he’d use to get through to her lunatic of a guardian.
“Do you want him to die? Because he will if he doesn’t stop now.”
That brings her up short. Her eyes cut sharply between him and Wen Kexing’s hunched back but she doesn’t move, still obviously distrustful of him. He scoffs in annoyance at the hesitation. He could always ask the boy or even Da Wu’s husband to do the deed, but the girl is obviously more skilled in martial arts than either of them and thus far less likely to accidentally do more harm than good.
But the brat will be better off mildly concussed than lost to a qi deviation with their only healer too dead on his feet to intervene, so he’s already shifting his attention to the boy when he nudges the girls arm. Her attention flicks back to the smaller child, who holds her gaze without so much as a flinch.
“Xiang-jiejie, when Shifu wasn’t there to stop Shishu from pushing himself too far with Han-xiong… I think Ye-qianbei is right. Shishu will hurt himself if we don’t do something.”
The girl’s jaw tightens, clearly unhappy with the situation. But after a moment she nods tightly, shooting him a look full of suspicious animosity. “Old monster, if you do anything to hurt either Master or Zhou-ge I’ll make you regret it.”
He snorts, almost charmed at the impertinence. “Brazen little thing, aren’t you?”
She holds his gaze with an intentional, focused hostility that would put men three times her age to shame. “No. I’m the Heartless Amethyst Fiend, and immortal is not the same thing as unkillable.”
He makes a show of rolling his eyes, but uneasily wonders if he's making a mistake in not wiping out the Valley before he passes if they produce children this eerily brutal.
Dwelling on the many failings and atrocities of Ghost Valley will have to wait for later though, because the girl finally strides forward and strikes Wen Kexing in the acupoint at base of his neck with the sort of careful precision that speaks of practice rather than experience.
Wen manages a choked sound of despairing protest even as he folds in on himself, succumbing to oblivion so quickly that the girl has to scramble to catch his head as he hits the floor. The boy is at her side in an instant, both of them hovering worriedly over the pale-faced ghost Chief, but Ye Baiyi can't afford to pay them any further attention.
His focus is entirely taken up in catching and wrestling the idiot boys seething qi into submission. It’s not too difficult to manage with the sheer vastness of his accumulated strength but leaving enough qi in his channels to sustain him is a trickier matter. No matter how grudgingly fond he’s grown of these idiots he’s not close enough to the boy to maintain an open connection between them for any length of time.
Instead he feeds him the very thinnest strand of his own qi that he can manage. Normally he wouldn’t dare introduce the alien chill of Liuhegong into an ordinary persons system, but this is an emergency and he vaguely remembers the first of the Nanjiang shamans he’d ever met slowing a man’s race for the underworld by laying him on a bed of snow while he stitched him back together.
‘You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead.’ He had said.
Settling in for a long night, Ye Baiyi grimly hopes he was right.
Kexing comes to in a rush of soul-crushing panic, shooting up out of bed with a shout as his hands clutch instinctively for someone who isn’t there. “A-xu!”
His cry dies unheard against walls painted in the heady gold of afternoon sunlight and he’s bizarrely certain it shouldn’t be this bright.
He stares uncomprehendingly around at the familiar furnishings of his bedchamber feeling bizarrely dislocated from his surroundings. Putting aside the fact that he’d never expected to wake in this room again after he left it for the final time last spring, the last thing he remembers he was…
Sick dread pools in belly and chokes his lungs as he realizes he can’t clearly remember what happened after he began drawing out A-xu’s qi.
He can easily recall finding A-xu at the cliff, rushing him back to the Valley, and Da Wu’s stern bark directing all of them to action. The sense memory of A-xu thrashing and screaming under his hands is burnt into him like a brand. But beyond that his memories are strangely disconnected, a skewed rush of impressions stripped of context, and he can’t recall how it all ended. He has no impression of Da Wu declaring the deed done, or of releasing A-xu’s energy back into his channels.
But they must have succeeded, mustn’t they? Surely he would remember if-
He would remember. He would know.
A fresh wave of fear sends him surging up from his bed, stumbling as his vision blurs and greys, his body rebelling furiously against the sudden movement. His limbs feel weak and clumsy, his channels aching as sharply as they did after he woke to find A-xu missing and Siji Manor a smoking ruin, but he doesn’t even wait long enough for his legs to steady under him before he’s lurching for the door.
He reels out into the corridor, heart pounding like a wardrum and mind devoid of any coherent thought outside of finding his Zhiji. He faintly remembers that they’d brought him to A-xiang’s room, so he heads there first.
If A-xu isn’t still there A-xiang will be, and she’ll take him to him.
It doesn’t take him more than a few minutes to reach his destination, and he shoves through the door with the too-forceful clumsiness of a drunk.
Chengling is slumped forward across the low table in the corner, head pillowed on his arms as he sleeps, but Kexing only has eyes for the man laying quietly on the bed.
He looks peaceful. His face is relaxed with sleep, limbs laid out straight at his sides rather than twisting in anguish, and his wounds have been hidden away beneath robes and coverlet. And he knows A-xiang wouldn't leave Chengling alone in the room with a corpse but...
Kexing draws in a shuddering breath, staggering over to collapse heavily on the side of the bed and reaching for him with frantic, terrified yearning.
He lays one shaking hand on the long, graceful line of his throat, the other finding a wrist as his eyes sweep hungrily over A-xu’s sleeping face. He doesn’t look as strong or healthy as he had when Kexing left him at Prince Qi’s manor, but his skin has regained a bit of healthy color, his chest is rising and falling with deep even breaths, and his heart is beating steadily rather than fluttering like a caged bird.
And when Kexing feeds a thread of qi as fine as spider-silk through his system, he finds his meridians mercifully, gloriously whole. Scarred and swollen and tender yes, clearly still delicate and vulnerable to strain, but ultimately sound.
The relief slams into him with the force of an avalanche, and he heaves for air like a drowning man being dragged above the water. His hands slide up to clutch at A-xu’s shoulder and tangle in his hair as he curls heavily over him, pressing their foreheads together with all the gentle reverence of a man prostrating himself at an alter.
Silent tears of desperate exultation fall on A-xu’s cheeks and eyelids like gentle rain and Kexing closes his eyes against them, shoulders heaving in grateful sobs.
His A-xu is going to live.
I swear to all the powers that be, I INTENDED for this chapter to be where the fluff comes in, but the transition after the last bit that's actually here felt too jarring. I spent like three days trying to make it flow nicely together before I gave up and decided to cut it here.
However! I've already got part of the next one written and this one really was the belly of the whale. I PROMISE that from here on out we're shifting into 80-90% fluff with only a bit of temporary angst sprinkled in to cut the overpowering sugar.
Even after he feels steady enough to sit up Kexing can’t quite bring himself to stop touching A-xu. One hand he keeps on the side of his throat where he can feel the reassuringly steady thunder of his pulse, but the other he cards softly through the hair framing that lovely face.
It’s been let down for comfort, both the jade hairpin and leather guan set aside on the table where Chengling sleeps, but he frowns when he feels the tacky roughness of dried sweat and blood caked into the tresses. When he looks closer he can see traces of rust brown lingering at A-xu’s hairline, the corner of his jaw, the crevices of his throat, even disappearing beneath the collar of his too-dark robes.
Someone had wiped away the worst of the blood and filth but damp towels were no substitute for a proper bath. A-xu would undoubtedly want to wash when he woke, so Kexing reluctantly stood and strode from the room.
The handmaidens from the bureau of the unfaithful were the only ghosts allowed in the Chiefs residence since he rose to power, and there were always a few of them lingering about to tend to his needs. They were skittish enough that he usually let A-xiang talk to them, but A-xu’s comfort came before that of Xisang Gui’s girls.
As he’d expected he found a woman wrapped in the familiar red and white of the bureau padding down one of the side halls leading towards the servants courtyard with a basket of purple and blue robes on her hip. She jumped the moment she caught sight of him, face paling as she fell to her knees and bowed deeply over her washing.
“Greetings to Guzhu!”
Kexing fell into his carefully cultivated image of unpredictable Valley Master almost without thought, hands folded behind his back and head tipped with the same cold consideration sported by birds of prey.
“Prepare the bath and keep it warm until I order otherwise.”
The handmaid drops her head a fraction lower, too wise to question the command. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t made stranger demands in his time as chief. “Yes, Guzhu.”
He’s already anxious to return to A-xu’s side but he makes himself linger and watch her for a moment, just long enough to make her nervous, before he whirls on his heel to go back the way he came. He hasn’t remained the longest reigning master of the Valley simply by holding the Ten Devils themselves in fear after all, and he’s hardly about to let that power slip from his grasp with A-xu and Chengling sleeping so trustingly in the heart of his conquered kingdom.
He half expects A-xu to have woken while he was gone, but the room has remained unchanged during his brief absence. A-xu hasn’t so much as shifted in his sleep and Chengling is still sprawled awkwardly over the corner table. Taking care to move quietly as he settles at A-xu’s side and reclaims his hand, he makes a mental note to make concerned noises about the boys situational awareness in his master’s general vicinity over the next few days. Whatever hellish training results will hardly be pleasant for Chengling, but if they’re going to be staying in the Valley for any length of time he really can’t afford to be so unguarded.
And the fact that any energy or focus A-xu poured into their little disciple’s training would be diverted from the anger he would undoubtedly turn on Kexing once he woke wouldn’t hurt either.
He sat there for nearly a shichen, content to let the bright gold of the noon sunlight slowly deepen into the richer tones of late afternoon as he cradled A-xu’s hand in his lap and reveled in the smooth beat of the qi pulsing against the thin skin of his wrist.
He should probably be taking this time to think of how exactly he’ll explain himself to A-xu when he wakes up, but he’s too distracted by the novel sense of privilege entailed in being able to sit vigil over A-xu’s well deserved rest. It feels like a rare and precious thing to be able to see a man who is always so ruthless with himself so unguarded when even barely plucked from the torture chambers of Tian Chuang he had stubbornly climbed out of his carriage rather than leave Kexing to face his would-be-murderers alone.
Kexing lets himself drift in the peace of finally having his Zhiji safe. With the nails removed and his meridians stabilized anything that might want to harm him would have to go through Kexing first and the knowledge of it brings him a sense of serenity he can’t recall ever having experienced in his life. Right here and now, at this exact moment, all his deepest wishes have been fulfilled and left him satiated right down to the marrow of his bones.
He couldn’t say for sure how much time passed in that fashion before the door slides open. He tenses at the unexpected entrance, fingers curling into killing claws as his eyes flash up from A-xu’s face, but it’s only Da Wu staring back at him in surprise from the doorway.
The solemn man’s braids and robes are as neat as ever, but even now Kexing can see the weary lines pulling at the corners of his mouth and the shadows lingering under his eyes. Gently setting A-xu’s hand down atop the coverlet he rises from the bed and folds himself into the deepest bow he’s ever given to anyone other than Qin Huaizhang or A-xu.
“Da Wu. I owe you a debt greater than anything I could ever hope to repay.”
The shaman closes the door silently behind him. “There is no need to lower your head like this. Zishu is an old friend, and if you owe me a debt then I owed him the same.” Kexing doesn’t rise from his bow determined to make himself clear.
“Even so I am not a man who forgets his debts; whether it is cruelty or kindness, I will definitely pay it back ten fold. If you should ever have need of it, all of Ghost Valley will answer your call.”
Da Wu looks at him for a moment, and then inclines his his head. “I’ll accept your sincerity for now, though you may yet wish to withdraw it. Have you spoken with anyone since you woke?”
Kexing straightens with a confused frown as the healer approaches the bed.
“No. Chengling was already asleep when I arrived.”
There’s a brief silence between them as Da Wu leans over to take A-xu’s pulse. After a moment, Da Wu sighs and draws back, gesturing towards the low table Chengling is slumped over.
“Come sit with me Wen-gongzi, there are some things that you should know.”
Despite his reluctance to move farther than arms reach from A-xu, he follows Da Wu to the table. He does take care to choose a seat that will let him keep his sleeping Zhiji firmly in his line of sight, folding himself down beside Chenling. The poor boy doesn’t stir even then, merely snuffling and turning his face sleepily away from the unexpected presence at his side.
Da Wu settles opposite him with the tentatively careful movements of a man taking care not to jostle aching bones. Given that Kexing knows him to be a gifted martial artist the cautiousness he moves with sparks some concern, but Da Wu speaks up before he can question it.
“How much do you remember of what happened Wen-gongzi?”
Kexing blinked at him, taken aback by the unexpected question.
“I brought A-xu back here, and you asked me to regulate his qi so that you could repair his meridians. We worked through the afternoon and into the night, though I admit my memory becomes a bit less clear near the end.”
Da Wu’s jaw tightens slightly at his words. “Unsurprising considering the circumstances. I owe you an apology Wen-gongzi. In my rush to save Zishu I put you at risk; the strain on your system so soon after your last qi deviation proved greater than I had anticipated. We are all very fortunate that Immortal Ye arrived when he did.”
Kexing stared at him in confusion. The old monster? What did he have to do with anything?
“You shouldn’t speak so poorly of yourself, Da Wu. As long as A-xu is well, any risk you might ask of me is worth it. And am I not well enough now? I even woke before you, surely that is proof enough that whatever gambles might have been made in this matter were well placed.”
Da Wu holds his gaze steadily, apparently unmoved by Kexing’s attempt to dismiss his concern.
“Wen-gongzi, how long do you think you have been asleep?”
Kexing draws back, instantly uneasy. No one ever asked questions like that unless the answer was something unexpected. Turning his attention inward, he took quick stock of the state of his body. His meridians and channels still felt strained and achy, his limbs a bit stiff, and now that he’s paying attention there’s a lingering thirst drying out his throat.
Clearly he’d been out longer than the handful of hours he’d first assumed. “A day?”
Da Wu shakes his head slightly. “Just over a week now.”
Kexing stares at him in shock. He’d half expected to be wrong of course, but a week was more than even his most exorbitant guess. “I don’t understand. If it’s been so many days why do you still look so weary?”
Da Wu folds his hands together as deliberately as a buddha.
“There have been some unexpected complications since the initial reconstruction of Zishu’s meridians. The poison from the nails lingered unexpectedly and I had to reopen the punctures to drain the remnants of it, not to mention the contamination he’d picked up from running about doing who-knows-what with open wounds.”
Kexing’s gaze slipped over Da Wu’s shoulder, drawn to A-xu like a lodestone as he struggled to tamp down the fresh bloom of anxiety threatening to overtake his previous bliss.
Da Wu cuts him off before he can work himself up into a true panic.
“No, I don’t believe he’s in immediate danger anymore. If he continues to improve at his current rate I expect he’ll make a full recovery inside of a year.”
An explosive sigh burst from his chest and he settled heavily back on his heels. Then he notices the apprehensive expression lingering on Da Wu’s face. “What is it?” A thought strikes him and he flinches guiltily. “Is he that angry with me?”
The southerner draws a deep breath at the question, shoulders shifting slightly at the question.
“He has not had the chance to be angry with you. He is sleeping very deeply, and I find it concerning that he has shown no signs of waking since his merdians were repaired.
Much of healing lies in the mind, Wen-gongzi. A man who has sustained a mortal injury but retains a strong will to live may yet survive with a skilled healers aid, while one who seeks death may slip away from even a lesser wound.
I can heal the body, but if Zishu himself does not wish to live…”
Kexing’s jaw worked soundlessly, eyes flickering rapidly between the solemn-faced shaman and the man lying in the bed beyond him. That couldn’t be right. A-xu was fine now, Kexing had felt the strength of his qi himself! But this was the Great Shaman of Nanjiang, a healer that even the Divine Hand couple would have regarded with respect and Kexing was no master of the medical arts.
“What are you saying?”
Da Wu was mercifully swift when he finally delivered the blow, making it blunt and quick.
“He has not woken. As things stand, I cannot promise that he ever will wake.”
A-xu might never wake?
He might stay like this forever, never straying from Kexing’s side but always beyond his reach? Emotions crash and roar through him like maelstrom, too fast and furious to be identified. He feels light-headed with the raw force of them, as dazed as a pheasant clubbed over the head.
For a long moment he just kneels there, frozen and silent in the wake of this latest unexpected blow. His gaze was drawn irrevocably back to the man on the bed, as if he could find some explanation for all of this if only he stared hard enough.
Even with his face relaxed in sleep it was so easy to picture him hunched drawn and white in the aftermath of torture, standing fierce and unyielding against the united force of the Jianghu dogs, sprawled weak and bloody in the thin mud and water of Bailu cliff.
Always so stubborn, so heedless of his own mortality in the face of his convictions.
Something intangible crystalizes into decision in his chest and Kexing’s jaw tightens, his shoulders pulling back. There’s a still certainty growing in the core of him, as fragile and untouchable as the calm found in the eye of a storm.
A-xu is alive. That’s the most important thing, everything else will follow from that.
“That doesn’t matter. If A-xu needs to rest, he can. I’ll take care of him.”
He could feel Da Wu’s eyes on him from across the table, heavy with doubtful concern. “Wen-gongzi-”His throat feels painfully dry and he isn’t sure he can bear to hear any comforting words or well-meaning warnings at the moment, so he cuts the man off as politely as he can manage. “Is there- Is there anything else?”
The shaman sighs heavily, but stands at the implied request to end the conversation. “Not for the moment. I’m afraid his recovery has become more a matter of waiting than anything else.” Kexing nods, eyes still locked on A-xu and distantly grateful that the healer didn't say chance.
There's another pregnant silence eventually followed by the faint rustle of heavy robes and somewhere off to the side the door slides closed with a quiet click of wood on wood, but he doesn’t so much as glance over.
It takes him a few minutes to move, rising from the table like a man in a dream and making his way to the bed with slow, heavy steps. He settles back at A-xu’s side gingerly, as if moving too fast might cause the sleeping man to dissolve away like morning mist in the sun.
Reaching out Kexing brushes his knuckles up over the curve of a pale cheek, not quite daring to use a firmer touch as his fingers crest the rise of his cheekbone and drift tenderly down along the sharp jawline.
'I never should have left you alone.'
Lost for words, he pulls the fancifully embroidered coverlet more snugly up over the steady rise and fall of A-xu’s chest. Focusing on the thin reassurance of that movement, Kexing concentrates on matching the rise of his own chest to A-xu's and breathes through the silence.
The first thing Chengling notices is the sharp stab of pain in his gut from where he’s been hunched at too awkward an angle for too long. Even his cheek feels bruised where it’s flattened against the smooth wood of the tabletop. He shoves himself upright with a sleepy mumble, scrubbing blearily at his eyes as he rises. Somehow he feels even more tired than he did before he put his head down for a brief rest.
He automatically looks over to check for any hint that Shifu might be closer to waking and nearly falls over when he sees a familiar broad-shouldered figure sitting on the side of the bed. “Wen-shishu?!”
Wen-shishu twitches and turns to chide him lightly. “Are you finally awake? What were you doing sleeping like that when your Shifu has already taught you how to meditate perfectly well?”
He looks more worn out than Chengling has ever seen him, disheveled and dressed in thin sleeping robes rather than his usual vibrant silks, but his half-smile is the same warmly reassuring sight it has been since he showed up in that inn on the road to Yueyang.
Scrambling clumsily to his feet, Chengling lurches across the room. His first instinct is to throw himself at Shishu for a hug, but Shishu still looks tired so he hovers anxiously by the bed instead. “Shishu you’re awake! When did you wake up? Does Xiang-jiejie know? Do you need anything? I can get you some water-!”
A hand lands firmly on the top of his head, pressing down for a brief moment before ruffling furiously until he squawks. Wen-shishu laughs at him, some of the teasing coming back into his voice. “Stop that you silly child, why are you fussing so much? If your soft-hearted Shifu sees you like this he’ll definitely panic and scold you for crying too easily.”
Chengling grits his teeth and blinks back the burning in his eyes. “Shishu, Shifu he-” Wen-shishu clicks his tongue chidingly at him before he can say anything else. “Don’t make such faces, your Shifu will be fine. Don’t you know by now that he’s the type to sleep as little as possible for five days and oversleep for one? He just has a bit more rest to make up for than usual.”
Chengling nodded furiously, a bit of the dread that had been sitting in his chest like a rock slowly dissolving under the familiarity of Wen-shishu’s confidence and good humored scolding. “Yes Shishu.” Wen-shishu rolled his eyes and reached up to flick Chengling gently on the forehead. “Such a serious child, you’re starting to pick up your Shifu’s bad habits. And you still haven’t answered my question. What were you doing using the table as a pillow, hm?”
A flush of embarrassment hits him and he ducks his head, shuffling his feet slightly. "I...I was waiting for Shifu. I didn't want him to wake up alone."
Wen-shishu looks surprised and Chengling hunches his shoulders, forcing himself not to mumble despite the mortification of actually admitting all of this. "I always feel better if Shifu's there when I wake up after a bad night, so I thought..." He can't quite make himself finish the sentence. Said out loud it sounds patently ridiculous. Shifu is braver and stronger than almost anyone Chengling has ever met, naturally he wouldn't be upset by the things that Chengling struggles with.
Except that's not right, Shifu worries about him and Wen-shishu all the time, how could he not be upset if he woke up alone after all this?
He's startled out of his thoughts by an unexpected pinch at his cheek, looking up to find Wen-shishu watching him fondly. "Ah really, the heavens were looking out for you when they dropped you on A-xu weren't they? Who else would be able to teach you how to keep that soft heart of yours safe, hm?" Chengling relaxes, a cheeky retort leaping from his mouth before he can think too deeply about it. "But aren't you and Xiang-jiejie also very soft-hearted Shishu?"
Wen-shishu's eyebrows bounce up towards his hairline, and he takes on a mock-affronted tone. " You sit in the middle of the Ghost Valley itself and accuse it's master of being soft-hearted? Ai, your ancestors are weeping for your failed education!" Chengling opens his mouth to answer and is taken aback when he's stopped by a jaw-cracking yawn forcing its way out of his throat. Wen-shishu shakes his head at him and makes a shooing motion.
"That's what happens when you sleep in strange places, you wake up just as tired as you went to sleep. Go fetch some broth for your Shifu, and then it's dinner and a proper bed for you." Chengling goes to object again, but Wen-shishu lifts a hand to halt him, his tone shifting to something firmer. "No, consider this an order from your Shishu. How am I supposed to face your Shifu when he wakes up if his disciple has turned into a little hungry ghost?"
Chengling droops, biting his lip and glancing uncertainly at Shifu. He doesn't seem any closer to waking now than he was this morning, but then neither had Shishu. "Will you come get me if he wakes up?" Wen-shishu smiles at him, looking faintly amused. "No. But I promise you can come and visit him again in the morning."
He wants to argue, but he knows a final decision when he hears one. Shishu may be softer on him than Shifu, but he won't let him run wild either. Deflating he nods mournfully and resigns himself to giving up his watch for the night.
At least Shishu will be there to look after Shifu though. And if Shishu is awake, surely Shifu won't sleep for too much longer. Things will be fine now, he just knows it.
A-xiang swallows another bite of pork and leans wearily against Cao-dage’s shoulder, enjoying the brief press of his cheek against the crown of her head before he sets about adding more food to her bowl, moving carefully so as not to dislodge her.
With Master still unconscious and Luo-yi not yet fully recovered from whatever drug the Scorpions fed her, A-xiang has had to step up as the interim authority in the Valley.
She’s been Master’s right hand since she was twelve summers old but between Wu Chang Gui’s position as head of the Ten Devils and Luo-yi’s seniority she’s never been called on to discipline or lead more than a handful of small ghosts before. This is the first time she’s had to hold the entire force of Ghost Valley in check herself and the weight of it sits more heavily on her shoulders than the stiff, dark silk of her Fiend robes.
Cao-dage and Chengling both think she should ask the old monster for help, but they don’t know the Valley like she does. Calling on an outsider wouldn’t just shatter her own power, it might even damage Master’s. And she’s managing! It’s strange and difficult, but the ghosts don’t fear her purely for having Master’s favor. Growing up in his shadow gave her the best vantage to learn from him after all, and she carved out her own power from the ghosts fear years ago.
And if she fears every evening that this will be the day she comes back to find Cao-dage shying away from her in the aftermath of watching her stand at the foot of Master’s throne and reign over her fellow ghosts, it’s a price she’s willing to pay to keep everyone in check while Master recovers from his recklessness.
It does make her wish for the strangely restful quiet of their days at Qing Feng before the scorpions came and Fan-shishu knew her for a ghost though.
She’s just debating wether her hunger or her sleepiness is more pressing when the door to their shared room slides open and Chengling slips in. She frowns up at him, surprised. The past week has been an exercise in prying him away from Zhou-ge’s side periodically to make sure he eats and sleeps, a feat which usually requires Zhou-ge’s pretty prince friend to lend them his silver tongue.
Cao-dage has of course been indulging him by bringing him food after they finish their own meal, and even now he doesn’t comment on the change in behavior. Sweet-natured as ever, he welcomes the younger boy with a smile. “Zhang-gongzi, are you hungry? There’s plenty of food, and the cha sui is still warm.”
Chengling smiles fuzzily back, slipping into the seat across from them and reaching for the stack of bowls Cao-dage always sets out for the infrequent occasions when one of the other three waking manor residents decides to join them for a meal. “Mm. Shishu said I should eat before I go to b-”
A-xiang is on her feet so fast she barely registers standing, eyes riveted on the startled boy across from her. “Master is awake?”
Guilt dawns on Chengling’s earnest face and he nods so fast he must make himself dizzy. “He was sitting with Shifu when I woke up-” She doesn’t even wait for him to finish, all but clambering over the table to get to the door. Cao-dage stands behind her and she stops to point decisively back at his chair. “No, you stay here. Eat, make sure Chengling doesn’t fall asleep and drown in the soup.” Without lingering to hear his worried protests, she slams out into the hall and dashes for her old room.
Her heart beats a savage tattoo in her throat the entire way. Honestly, it’s just like her fool of a Master to sleep through her every vigil at his bedside and wait to wake up until she was away. Sometimes she thinks that’s the real secret to how he’s managed to keep such a firm grip on the Valley all these years, pure inborn instinct for the exact most inconvenient thing for the people around him.
She skids to a halt outside the door to the bedroom and hammers out the standard rhythm they’d set years ago to signal it was her on the doorframe before bursting impatiently into the room. “Master!”
He turns to look at her from where he’s sitting on the bed next to Zhou-ge and her heart twists at the state of him. He’s unusually disheveled, still wearing the sleeping robes she’d dressed him in last night, and though his expression is calm his eyes are wild with distress. There’s a tray of gently steaming food on the table in the corner, a bowl of broth in his hands, and when he calls out to her his voice sounds more lost than she’s heard it since that horrible night when Luo-yi’s brothel in Yueyang was raided.
“A-xiang, he won’t eat.”
She blinks at him, and then looks down at Zhou-ge, quietly still as ever with a thin trickle of broth glistening at the corner of his mouth. The two of them look uncharacteristically pitiful, and as much as she still wants to scold the fool she can’t bring herself to do it while he looks so helpless. Deflating with a sigh, she closes the door much more gently behind her and briskly moves to take the bowl and spoon away from him, setting them on the bedside table for the moment.
“Obviously he won’t eat like that, he’s not awake. Here, like this.”
A-xiang’s master has been fighting the Meng Po soup for as long as she can remember, and she has been tending to him in the aftermath for nearly as long. She knows how to care for someone unresponsive. Tugging at her masters haphazardly thrown on robes imperiously, She moves him up near the head of the bed where he can easily reach the broth and she can lift Zhou-ge’s upper body into his lap. Once that’s done she arranges them so that Master is holding him at an incline with his head tipped back across his arm.
“Swallowing is mostly instinctive, the trick is keeping the broth from spilling and going slowly enough that he doesn’t choke. Here, use this so you can put part of it into his mouth and keep his head tipped back while you pour.”
Kneeling at Master’s side, she fishes a smaller spoon from a pouch that she keeps tucked in her belt for emergencies and hands it over.
Master eyes it with a combination of hope and suspicion, but dips it readily enough into the broth. He’s still a little too tentative in nudging Zhou-ge’s mouth open, but the constant stream of soft pleas, apologies, and encouragements he murmurs to the sleeping man makes her reluctant to say anything to him about it. She’s seen Master through all kinds of moods and madnesses, but this one feels bizarrely fragile.
Once Master finally gets the soup into him, she reaches out and strokes his throat firmly. Truthfully this trick isn’t usually necessary, but she knows how Master gets and the more he can actively do for Zhou-ge the better he’ll feel.
“This will help encourage him to swallow too, just make sure you only press on the downstroke.”
Master watches intently and brightens with relief when Zhou-ge swallows the small mouthful of soup, eagerly reaching to scoop up more.
“Our A-xiang is so clever!”
His voice is so relieved it makes her hurt for him, so naturally she shrugs a dismissive shoulder. “If I cannot do this much after so long taking care of you what use am I?”
Master kicks her knee gently, though he doesn’t look away from Zhou-ge’s face. “Whose maid are you badmouthing? Of course our A-xiang is capable.”
She can’t help the reflexive straightening of her shoulders at the praise. Master might say it like he’s teasing, but he never speaks insincerely to people he cares about.
Shaking the moment of pleased pride away she furrows her brows at him, bracing her elbow on the bed as she leans up. “Hmph. You only say such nice things when you have something you want, don’t think I’ll be fooled by your pretty words Master!”
Masters hand pauses momentarily as he reaches for more broth, and his eyes flash up to her. She holds his gaze without flinching, and eventually he sighs. “Are you still holding a grudge over my telling Yan Gui instead of you?” A-xiang scowls up at him, obstinate and angry. “And why shouldn’t I hold a grudge?! It’s fine if you want to run off to lie and cheat people, but I’m your maid! Can you really not trust me?”
Master looks exasperated at that. “A-xiang you’re being silly, if I didn’t trust you I never would have asked you to look after A-xu. Yan Gui knew because she was working for Xie Wang, not because I chose to tell her.” She narrows her eyes at him, jaw set stubbornly.
“Alright, alright, I understand. Master is too clever for this silly maid to understand. So clever that playing at being dead isn’t enough, he has to nearly kill himself for real and ends up flat on his back for a whole week . Truly this foolish girl is in awe of such cunning!”
He doesn’t even have the decency to look apologetic for this one, merely focusing more intently on where he’s coaxing Zhou-ge to swallow the latest mouthful of broth. “You’ve been spending too much time with that boy of yours, you’ve already learned to fret and scold like a young mother.”
She can tell from the distracted tone of his voice that this particular argument isn’t going to go anywhere. She’d expected as much, Master has always been cavalier with his own safety, but she’d hoped that Zhou-ge’s sobering influence might have been enough to make him listen to her this time. It’s alright if he’s being stubborn though, she has Cao-dage and Chengling to help her keep an eye on him now and even Master won’t be able to slip three watchers with Zhou-ge to take care of.
Scoffing, she sits back and props her chin on her hand as she watches him feed Zhou-ge with all the patience of a bodhisattva. “Really, the both of you are so much trouble. Always making convoluted plans and throwing yourselves into danger, is your life really that boring?”
Master slows slightly, though he doesn’t look up from Zhou-ge this time. “What have you heard, A-xiang?”
She hesitates, frowning aggrievedly. She’s not the best at catching rumors for Master, but she’s never had as much trouble as she has since coming back to the mess Zhou-ge had made of Mt. Qingya. Reluctant to admit just how little she’s managed to find out, she stalls. “Since you’ve been asleep, you mean?”
The look master fixes her with is mildly reprimanding and she ducks her head penitently. “It’s not my fault, Master! Zhou-ge sent Cao-dage and I away right after he found you, and Chengling-!”
Master cuts her off with a confused question. “Found me?” A-xiang nods vigorously, gesturing widely with one hand. “Mm! When Cao-dage and I came looking for you Zhou-ge was already here. He said he’d set your body on fire.”
Master winces at that, then pauses as if something has occurred to him. “Zhou-ge?”
A-xiang scowls at him to make it clear that she hasn’t forgiven him for that particular stunt before curtly explaining. “We thought you were dead Master. We thought you were dead, and he killed the men who killed you.”
Master softens a bit around the edges, the same way he did the first time she cut a ghosts throat for calling him a lunatic, and gestures for her to go on. She tosses her head grumpily at him and goes back to explaining just how little she has to report.
“Well I told you, he sent us away. We didn’t get back to the Valley with Da Wu until the day we came to find you, Chengling spent all that time with that useless idiot Shen Shen, and the small ghosts were all holed up in the Valley preparing to be attacked. I’ve heard some of the rumors of course, and there’s definitely a lot of dead people, but I don’t know what really happened. Luo-yi and Qianqiao-jie might know a little more about it but they haven’t left the bureau in almost two weeks.”
Master sets the little spoon down in the empty bowl with a definitive click, sighing as he looks down at Zhou-ge’s serene face. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Only a truly peerless beauty could cause so much pandemonium and yet have no one step forward to condemn them for it.” A-xiang wrinkles her nose at the fond tone. “The both of you are just as bad as each other.” Master burst out laughing at her expression, eyes crinkling up into half-moons of genuine mirth. “Ah meimei, don’t make such a face! If you can’t stand even this much flirting even I’ll have to feel sorry for that fiancé of yours!”
A-xiang felt her face flush hot as Master scooped Zhou-ge carefully into his arms and stood from the bed with a warm smile. “It’s getting late A-xiang, go back to your Cao-dage. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Scrambling to her feet, she called after him in confusion as he elbowed the door open. “Eh? Where are you going with Zhou-ge though?”
Master flashed a wicked grin over his shoulder at her. “To bed of course. We can hardly keep stealing yours can we? You can’t just share with that boy of yours. He hasn’t married you yet, after all.”
She was still spluttering at the sheer hypocrisy of that statement when Master vanished into the dimly lit hallway, leaving her alone in the room with a cold tray of food and an empty bed.
His hands itch with the need to be doing something, to physically secure A-xu’s well being. There are no enemies for him to fight here, no further help he can fetch to assuage the danger of the three autumn nails, but at least he can assure that A-xu rests comfortably. Feeding him helped but the anxious urge lingers, fed by the reminder of the last time he carried his Zhiji in his arms.
A sense memory of his race to the valley briefly shudders through him, and he struggles to shove it to the back of his mind. A-xu was only warm to the touch rather than unnaturally hot, and his breathing was reassuringly deep. There was no need for nightmares here.
Though he told A-xiang he was taking A-xu to bed, he makes his way to the bath first. A-xu will rest better if he’s clean.
It’s nothing so fancy as what was available to them at Siji manor, a large standing tub of wood and bronze rather than an inlaid stone pool and there are no trays of dried herbs or flower petals to add, but it’s been prepared with gently steaming water, bath beans, cloths, and a basin of rice water just as he’d ordered earlier that afternoon. He slides the door closed with his heel and looks down at the man in his arms. You’d never know him for a master assassin like this, with his head tipped sweetly against Kexing’s collarbone and his hair spilling loose across his shoulders.
“A-xu. If you don’t wake up and hit me I’m going to do something very shameless.”
Even after half a day of sitting vigil over him and A-xu’s lack of reaction to either to being fed or picked up, he still expects the words to stir him awake; A-xu has always been such a light sleeper, rising to wakefulness at even the hint of an unexpected footfall. But there is no shift to his breathing, no twitch of fluttering eyelids, no hint of irritable grimace pulling at the corners of his mouth. Kexing’s throat closes, and he clicks his tongue in a weak imitation of his usual teasing.
“Ai, so lazy. Well I’ve warned you, don’t complain later alright?”
There’s no soft place to lay A-xu down here, so Kexing sits against the wall and holds him in his lap to peel him out of the rough-woven scorpion robes, taking note of the stains on the bandages wrapping his chest and shoulders. They don’t seem to be in immediate need of changing at least, though the sheer extent of them makes him grit his teeth anxiously.
After he gets A-xu undressed he hestitates, then sets to shedding his own robes as well. While he’s confident he could hold A-xu above water even from outside the tub, doing so while he’s wet with soap and water would require enough strength to risk leaving bruises and that is unacceptable.
When they’re both stripped bare he carries A-xu into the bath, lowering them both slowly into the water until they’re both submerged almost to the shoulders with A-xu folded tenderly against his chest. He keeps one arm wrapped protectively around A-xu’s shoulders, the other tipping his head back so he can scoop handfuls of water over his hair without wetting his face.
Even now, there’s not so much as a shift of expression to show that his beloved is aware of what is happening around him.
Kexing had already finger-combed a good bit of the dried blood out of A-xu’s hair before Chengling woke, but it still takes a while for the water he pours over A-xu’s hair to run clear. Once it finally does he smiles helplessly down at him, smoothing a hand affectionately over the water-sleeked fall of his hair.
“You know A-xu, this isn’t exactly how I imagined my first time seducing you out of your clothes. I had such plans! Wine, poetry, a bit of sparring under a beautiful moon.”
He turns his attention to washing off the traces of blood and sweat lingering on A-xu’s face and throat, taking care not to let the water run over his closed eyes. Long fingers rub away the sticky remnants of broth at the corners of his mouth with the sort of care usually reserved for masterworks of blown glass.
“I meant for it to be perfect, a night so splendid and passionate that even Meng Po’s soup wouldn’t be able to make you forget me. Really, this wife of mine is too willful, always dodging my efforts to romance him.”
Once he’s rinsed off the worst of the filth clinging to golden skin and raven hair he lifts himself to perch on the edge of the tub, A-xu held close against him as he delicately pushes the rich black tendrils of his hair back over his shoulders. Arranging it all in a waist-length river down his back Kexing pours the rice water slowly over it, working from the crown of his head to the ends and being careful to soak it evenly before he reaches for the bath beans.
Those are harder, turning A-xu’s body slick against him, but Kexing just holds him closer and continues about his work. He takes care to clean the sleeping man thoroughly, even down to the delicate skin between his fingers and toes. He only stops when he is sure that there is no clinging film left to bring A-xu any discomfort in his sleep.
A quick dip into the bathwater to rinse rice water and soap from his skin, and then he hooks his free arm once more beneath A-xu’s knees and steps out of the bath.
Bathing an unresponsive partner takes more time than Kexing had first anticipated. A-xu’s fingers have begun to prune after their long sojourn in the water, but the lingering scents of blood and pain have been washed from his skin and Kexing considers that a fair exchange. His hair and bandages both stream water, so Kexing waits a moment for the worst of it to drain off before reaching for the cloths waiting for them on a nearby shelf. The bandages make it impossible to fully dry him of course, but Qingya springs are warm enough that a little dampness won’t put A-xu in danger of falling sick.
Kexing frowns disdainfully at the puddle of stained dark robe that A-xu had been wearing before and wraps him instead in his own outer robe. It’s slightly too large on him and threatens to turn translucent where trickles of water soak into the thin, pale cloth, but it’s soft and clean against his skin. If any of the small ghosts are bold enough to wander into the Masters Wing at this late hour and happen see him like this before Kexing can find something more suitable he can always take their eyes for the insolence.
When they’re both decent enough, Kexing steps to the long narrow window that allows steam to escape from the bath before it can rot the wooden walls. The handmaid he spoke to earlier will undoubtedly be just outside tending to the fires that keep the bath warm. “Enough. You may return to your duties now.”
A soft voice murmurs assent from just beyond the wall but Kexing doesn’t bother trying to make out her exact response, eager for the privacy of his own chambers.
He sweeps down the hall from the bath feeling marginally steadier in his own skin. The specific actions he’s undertaking might be unfamiliar but the indulgence of being able to personally tend to the needs of those he cares for is a familiar comfort. Maybe he can’t heal A-xu’s meridians like Da Wu or wake him from his slumber like his parents might have been able to, but he can see to it that he’s warm and fed and comfortable. And if there’s anything A-xu needs that he doesn’t know how to provide, A-xiang can teach him.
Once he reaches his chambers he settles A-xu gently in his own bed. It’s much larger than A-xiang’s, enough that it nearly dwarf the lithe figure laid atop it. Between that and the way the oversized robe gapes at the collar and slips open to bare a strong leg all the way to the thigh, A-xu looks unusually delicate.
A-xu has always been slightly smaller than Kexing, built along long elegant lines that lent themselves beautifully to the grace of his qinggong, but he’s never felt delicate before. The closest Kexing has ever seen him come to it was the heart-rending ethereality of him when he’d leapt off Bailu cliff, drifting down through the mists like a celestial maiden casting aside her feather cloak to abandon heaven.
A-xu’s hair is still too damp to comb through, but he sits and patiently sets to detangling it with his fingers. It slips smoothly over his hands, lustrous and gleaming in the soft lantern light. The lines of a poem come to him, a familiar secret stolen from dry pages and cherished for the life it breathed into the too-often bloody memory of his parents.
He thinks of his parents more often these days, particularly of his father. Often it’s a bitter thing, flashes of painfully sharp understanding for his inability to protect his mother, or the despair that must have driven him to bite his own tongue when she died. But this is a gentler, sweeter insight, ringing through him like the clear note of xiao.
Lifting a lock of hair to his lips, he breathes the altered words devoutly.
“My lover glides an ivory comb through his hair, heavy and black as calligraphers ink. He sits at the foot of the bed. I watch, and listen for the music of comb against hair.”
He stays like that for almost an incense sticks worth of time, content to admire the shining fall of Axu’s hair, the sharp lines of his features softened in repose. Eventually he gets up to snuff out the lanterns, returning to the bed when the room is illuminated only by what little silver moonlight spills through the open side of the hall and across the cavern floor to reach the deceptively unremarkable little manor.
Sliding into bed beside him he wraps A-xu up in his arms so that they’re lying chest to chest, Kexing lying between A-xu and the door with his head tucked protectively beneath his chin. Closing his eyes he murmurs gently to his unresponsive Zhiji.
“I meant what I said A-xu. It’s okay if you want to sleep in a bit this time, I’ll be right here when you’re ready to wake up. I’ll take care of everything, I’ll even look after those troublesome children of yours if it comes down to that. You can rest as long as you need to.
But in exchange you have to take responsibility for this wretch of a husband, alright? Weren’t you the one who said you wouldn’t make me wait anymore?”
Letting out a shuddering breath he buries his face in the damp spill of his beloved’s hair and whispers the last words; a secret, a prayer, a vow, and a plea all in one.
“You have to come back to me, A-xu.”
Hi, this week I bring you a surprise coma because it's the only thing I could think of that might reasonably knock Zhou I-laugh-in-face-of-literal-torture Zishu off his feet enough to allow for some nice, fluffy caretaking scenes. Also it makes a nice slipper to smack Kexing over the head with.
The poem is actually very recent, but it is Chinese and sweet and pretty and ancient Chinese poetry often has a LOT of layers meaning that can be very easily butchered, so I'm gonna stick to something marginally more in my wheelhouse. If anyone's curious here's the link to the whole thing: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48803/early-in-the-morning
Also, did you guys know that the Chinese fans have been going the fuck off on Bilibili? Holy shit, they're going off. One of them made a fanvid of Wen Kexing rescuing Zhou Zishu from Tian Chuang and it is lovely.
I love it, and I also love you guys, so here have the thing. Follow the rabbit hole. It's both confusing and amazing.
Kexing quickly becomes accustomed to the practicalities of caring for A-xu; regular meals of clear broth as nutritious and flavorful as possible spooned carefully down his throat, a bath every five days, and a daily routine of stretching and flexing recommended by Da Wu to ensure he retains as much physical strength and mobility as possible.
It's time-consuming and sometimes disheartening, but Kexing has set himself far worse tasks than this in the name of the people he loves.
He makes the occasional appearance as Valley Master to keep the ghosts from getting any ideas but for the most part he leaves things in the Valley to Gu Xiang’s management, preferring to spend his days at A-xu’s side.
They’ve settled firmly into the uneasy routine of it for nearly a full week when Ye Baiyi finally reappears. Kexing’s carried A-xu out to bask in the warmth of the afternoon sun as he often does, the two of them nestled chest to back at the base of one of the eerie white trees surrounding the manor as he fills the silence with idle chatter about how the children are adapting to life in the Valley when the immortal finds them.
He looks strikingly at home among the trees, their proud white trunks an uncanny echo of his straight back and customary robes. Kexing has heard from Da Wu and the others that it was Ye Baiyi’s interference and inhuman endurance that ultimately allowed both him and A-xu to survive the reconstruction of A-xu’s meridians, but he’s still surprised to see him again. He’d thought for certain the hidebound swordsman would have left the Valley in the dust long before now.
He eyes the immortal challengingly, rubbing a hand absently up and down A-xu’s upper arm. “Do you need something you old ghoul?”
Ye Baiyi snorts and drops unceremoniously to the ground nearby, pointedly making himself comfortable. “I see you still haven’t managed to learn any manners.” He snorts at the familiar grousing, tipping his chin up in challenge. “If you want someone to fawn over your crusty bones go back to the righteous sects. I’m sure they’ll be happy to indulge you.” The immortal flipped a sleeve dismissively at him. “I’ll go when it suits me, brat. Perhaps when the loquat season ends.”
Kexing rolls his eyes. “A-xu do you hear this old glutton? All his thinking happens in his stomach!”
A frown spreads across the old mans face like a thundercloud, grave eyes dropping to the sleeping figure reclined against Kexing’s chest. “He still hasn’t woken?”
Kexing turns his face away, staring absently out over the sprawling vista of the Valley laid out beyond the open side of the Hall. The hand that had been stroking A-xu’s arm curls around him instead, coming to rest lightly over the vulnerable place where the strong curve of his ribs gives way to the softness of his belly.
“A-xu is very tired. He’ll wake when he’s ready.”
The old man mutters something deprecating about idiot children, but it’s under his breath and half-hearted at best. After another moment of uncomfortable silence he asks “Have you tried giving him qi?” Kexing twitches violently at the suggestion, throat going instantly dry at the mere thought of introducing more qi into A-xu’s overburdened system.
“Old monster, have you finally gone senile?! His meridians nearly collapsed under the weight of his own-”
Ye Baiyi cuts him off firmly.
“That was nearly a fortnight ago, before Da Wu’s intervention. He’s had plenty of time to recover since then.”
Kexing snaps his mouth shut, unable to refute the logic of the statement despite the panic clawing desperately at his throat.
Growing up in Ghost Valley had long since taught him to hold his silence through even the most violent of nightmares, but the one time he’d tried maintaining a properly respectful distance from A-xu’s side during the night he’d woken drenched in a cold-sweat from a dream-memory of feeding just enough qi into A-xu’s channels to keep him alive while he screamed his throat bloody.
Even now he couldn’t help but shrink from the thought of trying to manipulate A-xu's qi again, so rather than continue to argue he simply changed the subject.
“Have you been in the Valley all this time? I thought you had opinions about ghosts mingling with humans?”
The immortal shoots him a judgmental look, but otherwise lets the change in topic pass without challenge. He turns away with an exaggeratedly arrogant snort, producing a jar of wine from one flowing sleeve and downing half of it in a single open-throated gulp that even A-xu would be impressed by. “Hah! And what gave you the idea that I was human, brat?”
Kexing bares his teeth at the old goat and falls easily into the familiar pattern of sniping back and forth. Given the lack of deaths reported in the last few days he’s not entirely surprised to find that the he's apparently been staying at the bureau of the unfaithful. Xi Sang Gui's girls are probably the only ghosts in the whole Valley that he might hesitate to cut down, and Yan Gui is definitely the only lieutenant who could possibly have the patience to keep anyone from trying to kill the sharp-tongued immortal in pure defense of their sanity.
They exchange barbs for a while before his temporary conversation partner wanders off in search of Xiao-cao. Or more accurately, in search of the steamed fish Kexing mentioned Xiao-cao was trying his hand at for tonights dinner.
It’s only several minutes after Ye Baiyi has disappeared from view and silence has returned to the grove that he dares make the attempt.
A-xu is too limp to be propped into the most ideal position for circulating qi between them, but sliding the hand resting on his diaphragm up to spread purposefully over his heart is nearly as good. He deliberately refuses to think that about Han-xiongdi’s cold weight in his arms the last time he was desperate enough to try this, feeding qi between them as delicately as he is capable of.
He’s tensed to yank away at the first sign of discomfort, half-expecting A-xu to jolt into agonized writhing at the intrusion, but the sleeping man doesn’t so much as twitch. Kexing’s qi slides smoothly through his system, soaking into healing channels and inflamed tissue without so much as a hitch of rejection. If anything A-xu’s qi seems to welcome his presence, twining with his energy like an affectionate cat and tugging him further into a vaguely reciprocal loop by pure force of habit.
Relief crashes over Kexing, swiftly followed by a choking lump of disappointment. A-xu’s body accepts his qi easily, but he still doesn’t stir.
Emboldened by the minor success he locks his jaw and closes his eyes, thickening the qi he’s feeding into A-xu’s system from a trickle to a stream as he sinks deeper into a focus that might as well be meditation.
Like this he’s intimately aware of A-xu and all the strain his poor body is desperately trying to recover from. Everywhere he looks there seems to be some new wound or bruise, some new evidence of past or present abuse beyond what an ordinary man would be able to endure, and he desperately wants to lend strength and comfort to each injury he discovers.
But there will be time to see to these hurts later, and Kexing misses being able to look into his A-xu’s eyes. So he slides past the myriad of slowly recovering injuries and weaknesses to spread further through A-xu’s body. As he goes he sinks deeper into the state of intent focus he’s managed to reach, furiously searching for any hint of whatever it is that keeps A-xu from waking.
He couldn’t say how or when it happens exactly but at some point he becomes aware of being surrounded by a veritable sea of flowers in every shade of pink; peach, cherry, crabapple, the blossoms seem to go on endlessly beneath a brilliantly blue sky. He can’t see them, but he knows they’re there. Were he less deep in the odd trance-state he’s managed to induce in himself he’d find it confusing, but like a man drifting between dreams and wakefulness he merely accepts the knowledge as it flows over him.
The flowers are beautiful, but they can’t compare to the scene half concealed beneath the froth of their petals. A-xu is sitting beneath a bower of branches heavy with delicate blossoms, resplendent in robins egg blue robes and playfully arguing with a young man that he somehow knows instantly as Qin Jiuxiao. Kexing is there too, and despite A-xu’s preoccupation with his lost brother his hand never stops stroking softly over the curve of Kexing’s back, silently indulging his Zhiji’s cheerfully irreverent sprawl across his lap. It’s a beautiful moment, a singularly golden morning, and Kexing could easily lose himself in the peace of it.
Except…A-xu might have a lapful of Kexing, but Kexing certainly doesn’t have strong fingers petting soothingly along his spine. The dissonance of it is jarring. He tries to call out, but he can’t seem to make himself speak, his throat working vainly in spite of all his attempts to force out his voice. He tries harder, suddenly uncertain if he even has a throat to work, or a back for A-xu to pet.
He feels disoriented, lost, unmoored as a spirit wrenched from dying flesh and cast onto the yellow spring road. Frightened, he tries again to call for A-xu. He’s fairly sure now that he and the familiar figure draped territorially over the lovely assassin are not the same, and he’s suddenly aching for A-xu to turn and look at him. He strains again to catch A-xu's attention, desperately trying to call for him in spite of his apparent lack of physical form.
It almost seems to work this time. It happens slightly after his attempt, as if he’s somehow out of sync with the world around him, and the voice that emerges into the lovely sea of flowering trees is stretched as eerily thin and faint as that of a fading ghost, but it’s there.
Calloused fingers hesitate over teal silk, dark brows creasing in faint confusion, and Kexing wants to call for him again but the strange awareness he has of the scene is already shredding away. He can name every element present, can visualize the bounty of flowers framing the trio of happy figures lounging beneath the trees, but the bone-deep *knowledge* of the scene’s existence around him is gone. He tries to cling to the shreds of it, but that image of A-xu wavering over not-Kexing has gone frozen and empty; it’s a clear memory, but nothing more. There’s no life to it. Bitter frustration wells in his throat-
And Kexing opens his eyes with a gasp. He’s still leaning against the crimson-leaved tree deep in the Valley Master’s territory, an insensate A-xu held against his chest and the last dying rays of the evening sun already slipping away.
His breath shudders in his chest and he feels just a touch feral as he stares wide-eyed down at at his beloved. He couldn’t explain what just happened if asked, but he knows what he experienced. Somehow he managed to almost reach A-xu, to brush the edges of his mind, he’s certain of it right down to his bones.
Distantly, reverberating over the weeks and months separating him from the moment, he hears his own words echoing back to him almost mockingly.
‘The world is dangerous and men are evil. What is it that drives you to wake? Why not linger in the sweetness of the dream?’
His eyes flicker desperately over the man laying quietly against him, and his heart rabbits forlornly in his chest. His arms tighten around A-xu and he lifts one hand to cup his jaw, turning his sleeping face insistently towards his own.
“Of all the things to take my advice on, you would choose this?! I know you don’t share my taste for literature, but A-xu don't you think this is taking things too literally?”
The words tear from his throat roughly, the weak attempt at humor failing to conceal how lost he feels. His vision blurs with tears and he shuts his eyes against them. Even without leaving the relative safety of his own territory, Ghost Valley is not a place where one can afford to shed tears under the open sky. Leaning in a little, he presses his lips to A-xu’s forehead like a benediction.
“If you’ll only wake up, I promise I won’t let you regret it. Do you hear me A-xu? I’ll give you days so sweet that even the brightest visions Drunken Dream can conjure will feel bitter in comparison.
So there’s no need to cling to those dreams of yours, alright?
There’s no need to keep dreaming now. Please.”
The two of them stay like that, motionless and unmoving, until the last weak rays of evening sun slip away and leave them lost among the shadows.
Two weeks after Ye Baiyi wanders by, Da Wu and Prince Qi leave to return to Nanjiang. Neither seems eager to do so, but Da Wu has responsibilities to his people and as far as Kexing can tell he would sooner cut off both his hands than leave Prince Qi alone in the central plains. The Prince is the one to actually apologize for their having to leave, but silent Da Wu spends the three days leading up to their departure carefully writing up decoction recipes and long term care instructions for A-xu.
Part of Kexing doesn't want them to go, but he understands. At this point there’s not much either of them can do beyond what they already have, and given the sorrowful concern they watch him with he knows they don’t hold out much hope for A-xu waking up. They might feel differently if he were to share his intermittent experiences in skirting the edges of A-xu’s dream world, but those experiences feel so fragile that he can’t bring himself to speak of them. Half the time he feels like he finally is going truly mad and the encounters are nothing more than the fantasies of his fractured mind.
Perhaps if he’d ever managed to do more than make A-xu hesitate or glance up in confusion he might have said something in spite of that fear, but as it is he can’t bring himself to speak of it. If he truly is going mad, if this is the only way he'll ever see A-xu awake and moving again...he couldn't bear to have that taken from him in the name of stabilizing his mind.
So he can’t truthfully blame them for making their way back south, particularly not given the help they’d already given so freely. It’s as much gratitude as it is his duties as Master that convince him to leave A-xu temporarily in A-xiang’s care to see the two of them to the Valley Gates.
“You must write to me if you notice any significant changes in Zishu’s condition in the future. Even if I cannot return quickly, I may still be able to advise you by letter.”
Kexing nods, understanding more clearly than ever A-xu’s fondness for the solemn foreigner. For all his gravely quiet nature, Da Wu is forthright in his regard and resolute in his loyalty. If he considers someone a friend, he won’t hesitate to extend a hand. Would that there were more such men in the world.
“I will. And you must remember what I said. If you find yourself in need of help, don't hesitate to send word.”
Wu Xi dips his head in response and walks off to see to the horses, his silent bodyguard trailing behind him. Prince Qi stays at Kexing’s side for a moment more, watching him with something like understanding. “We’ll send Bi Qingming and the others to you when we pass through Jiangnan. With their lord indisposed, their loyalty will go to you as the most senior disciple of the manor and Zishu's second.” He suppresses the urge flinch uneasily at the prospect and murmurs an acknowledgment.
For all that he has led three thousand ghosts for the vast majority of his adult life, he has never been responsible for more than one or two people whose wellbeing he actually gave a damn about. It’s a daunting prospect to suddenly be responsible for nineteen additional lives, but for A-xu he’s willing to shoulder it.
Maybe the prince can sense the direction of his thoughts because his eyes turn uncomfortably assessing, as if he’s peering into the very core of Kexing’s soul.
“If you’ll forgive my asking Wen-gongzi, have you given any thought to the future? We cannot know how much longer Zhou-zhongzhu may sleep for, and you are not a man unburdened by duty. I have no doubt Xiao-Zhang and the other disciples will help you, but looking after one whose fate is so uncertain, who needs so much care…it is no easy thing to bear.”
Kexing bridles at the question, taken aback at having such doubts voiced so bluntly to his face. “It doesn’t matter how difficult it is. It’s A-xu. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to take care of him.”
Sharp eyes all but bore into him, unmoved by the certainty of his reply. “And if he never wakes?”
He stamps down on the flare of temper threatening to boil up in his throat. This is one of the men who had saved A-xu’s life. Whatever he might say now, Kexing owed him too much to turn on him with violence.
“Then I will take care of him until we are both white-haired, and laugh at his laziness all the way over Naihe bridge!”
The strained joke at the end can’t quite bleed away the edge from the words, the tone caustic enough to strip lacquer from wood. It’s bad enough that even through his simmering anger he’s surprised the prince doesn’t flinch away from him. The willowy man looks at him penetratingly for a long moment, and then a ruefully pleased smile spreads slowly across his face.
Moving with all the grace and gravitas of a true imperial prince, he dips into a formal bow. “Then I entrust Zishu to you from now on, Wen-gongzi. May fate be kind to the two of you in the future.”
The words feel almost ceremonial and Kexing gapes at him, anger snuffed out by the sheer weight of his surprise.
Prince Qi doesn’t give him time to recover. He sweeps away to join his husband, who lifts him easily onto the back of his mount before swinging up into his own saddle. Da Wu lifts a hand in farewell as the small ghosts manning the watch towers turn the winch, hauling the gates open just enough for the three horsemen to pass comfortably through the gap. “May we meet again in kinder days, Wen-gongzi.”
He barely manages to return the salute before they’re gone.
That night he repeats the incident to A-xu as he massages his calves, encouraging them to tense and stretch by folding them up against his thighs or flexing his feet to points.
“-and I’m pretty sure that means Prince Qi has given us his blessing! Though I admit, I’m a little annoyed that you somehow managed to get A-xiang’s approval first.”
Concluding his tale almost triumphantly, he shifts A-xu’s legs gently out of his lap and moves to take his customary place behind him. “Of course you’ve spent more time with A-xiang than I have with Prince Qi, so I’ve magnanimously decided to consider it a tie between us. Am I not a model of fairness and generosity? In the future you must learn from me, and return my care! After you wake I shall lounge in our bed and never stir so much as a finger-length without A-xu at my side. You will have to bathe me with your own hands and feed me from your own bowl for at least a season to repay me!”
Nuzzling affectionately against the side of A-xu's throat, he chuckles softly.
“You really should think carefully about whether or not you wish to keep sleeping A-xu. I’ll have you know I’m keeping a diligent tally of your debt; if you don’t wake up soon I’m afraid you’ll have no choice but to keep me until both our hair turns as white as the clouds!”
Opening himself up to the familiar connection between them, he sends his qi flowing through channels now almost as familiar as his own.
The cool breeze flowing over the river cuts blessedly through the oppressive summer heat, carrying with it the verdant sweetness of lotus flowers from the dense thickets of wide green leaves and pale blossoms lining the shallows of the riverbanks.
A-xu is lounging on the lowest deck of the boat with wine in hand and robes gathered up to bare the lean legs tossed with careless grace over the edge of the deck, feet trailing luxuriantly in the dark water. It’s a new moon but his face is tipped towards the sky all the same, admiring the vast expanse of the stars that glitter even more brightly in Chang’e’s absence.
He’s brazen and stunning and Kexing is almost overcome by a rush of glee at having finally enticed him into joining him on his boat. Enraptured, he instinctively tries to go to his lover's side, but he can’t make himself draw any closer. Confusion bubbles up in him as he struggles to move nearer, but nothing changes. The former assassin doesn’t even seem to notice his presence, idly swirling one foot back and forth through the river current as he takes another swallow of wine.
Distressed, Kexing tries to call out to him.
‘A-xu! A-xu I can’t…something’s…A-xu, look at me. Look at me. Turn around and look at me!’
The last three words waver ghoulishly through the night air and A-xu visibly shivers, glancing over his shoulder in consternation. And it feels like he should be looking at Kexing but his eyes don’t focus on him at all, flickering uneasily past him as A-xu scans the deck.
“What…is someone there? Jiuxiao is that you?”
Kexing tries to catch his attention again, determined to make himself heard.
‘A-xu! A-xu, it’s me!’
Zishu’s hand slowly lowers, wine gourd clunking against the wooden deck and water sloshing against his ankles as he twists around for a better look. “Lao-wen? Lao-wen, where are you?”
Before Kexing can answer the door to the lower cabin slides open and an imposter wearing his body emerges with a laughing smile and a long-since broken jade xiao in his hand. “Mm? I’m right here! Why is A-xu calling for me so sweetly?” The confusion eases off of A-xu’s face and he turns away from Kexing to face the thing wearing his skin. “Who is calling sweetly! Has the river water soaked into your brain and turned you foolish?”
Kexing watches them banter, shocked into remembrance.
That’s right. This isn’t real. It’s only the illusory world keeping A-xu from waking up.
With that realization chilling him through, he struggles to make himself heard again but it’s no good. Even when he can make his words reach far enough to resound through the bars of the dream-cage his double is quick to distract A-xu.
For the first time the sight of his own face inspires him to thoughts of violence. His double flops down so close beside A-xu that the two of them are pressed together from thigh to shoulder, shooting him a wickedly suggestive look as he lifts the xiao to his lips, and Kexing burns with the desire to crush his throat. How dare this thing wear his face and use it to steal his place at A-xu’s side!
He gathers a swell of rage-fueled strength to call out again, but the dream is already slipping through his fingers like fine sand.
As true sleep overtakes his awareness, he leaves one last tormented, bitten-off cry ringing through the sweet summer night.
Kexing takes care to thoroughly dampen A-xu’s bandages to ensure they don’t pull at any scabs before he sets to unwrapping them. Even with over a month of practice it’s still a bit awkward; he has to lean A-xu’s chest against his shoulder so he can reach around his back to unwind them smoothly. At this angle he has clear view of the twin welts striping over his shoulder blades from Helian Yi’s meathooks, which always leaves him feeling a little more venomous than usual.
Once he’s removed the last of the bandages, he lays A-xu back on their bed and evaluates the various gouges and cuts decorating his torso. Given the strain his qi system has been under since leaving Tian Chuang they’re not healing as fast as they normally would for a martial arts master of his level, but they are healing. Even the wounds left by the nails haven’t left spots of blood on the bandages in days.
Humming in satisfaction, Kexing turns to the array of bowls set out on the bedside table and picks up a clean cloth, dunking it in the basin of gently steaming water and firmly wringing out the excess liquid so that it doesn't drip.
“You’re healing up so nicely A-xu. See, I told you that boiling yam leaves in with the beef bones for your soup would do you good. Aren’t you fortunate to have someone so skilled to cook for you?”
As he talks he wipes down A-xu’s chest and shoulders, carefully keeping the cloth pulled taught in his grasp so the weave of the fabric doesn’t catch on any raw edges or furrows.
Then once he’s ensured that each injury is clean he lays the cloth over the edge of the basin and reaches into the bowl of green-flecked clear ointment beside it. Scooping up a healthy amount, he sets to delicately spreading a thin layer over each wound. Too much will leave a lingering dampness beneath his bandages and as much as Kexing appreciates the shared dreams of A-xu stretched out beside rivers or lakes in soaked robes trying to sun himself dry, he imagines the actual sensation that causes them is less than pleasant for his love.
“The children are out today. That silly disciple of yours is bound and determined to have suitable accommodation prepared for his new sect siblings by the time they arrive, so A-xiang’s taken him and Xiao-cao out to explore the valley.
Which isn’t to say she hasn’t already decided where those children of yours are going to end up. If she doesn’t bully them into taking over Ji Se Gui’s old haunting grounds I’ll swallow an entire bowl of those vilely over-spiced noodles you like so much.”
A-xu’s belly flinches away from his touch when his fingers graze over the final and most vulnerable of the gouges left by the Three Autumn Nails. He instantly gentles his touch until it’s light as a butterfly’s wing, though he responds to the flinch as if it were merely an objection to the location.
“Oh I know, it’s not an acceptable long term solution. Even if it’s in name only it wouldn’t do for Siji Manor to be confined to Ghost Valley. Grave dirt only grows funerary flowers after all. But Ji Se Gui's old grounds are a bit close to the Bureau and it'll settle A-xiang's nerves to know that whoever is settled there isn't a threat to the girls.
As for something more permanent...the ridge surrounding us is still mostly uninhabited. Once you wake up, what do you say we find a nice spot a bit higher up the mountains for you to rebuild? That way the manor would be separate enough from the Valley to be clearly distinct without having to go too far. The ground there is even fertile enough that with some careful planting you can still have year-round flowers!
I know it won’t be the same as the old manor but at the very least it would make it harder for outsiders to attack the sect; they’d have to go through the Valley to even reach the gates. And of course you’d be close to me!”
With the last of the salve applied Kexing sits back to wipe the excess from his fingers, which is when he feels the minute shift in the air. Murderous fury flushes through his veins and his hand flashes up to catches the long knife between two fingers, its point quivering inches from his throat. In almost the same instant he flips it over and flings it back at attacker surging through the open window. A surge of qi backing the throw ensures that it sinks effortlessly through the meat and bone of the minor ghosts upper left chest, piercing all the way through the meridian located there to pin him to the wall like a bug on a card.
The whole movement takes barely half a heartbeat, passing so fast that the ghost doesn’t register at first what has happened to him. He looks almost surprised by the agonized scream that wrenches from his throat.
The commotion brings a pair of handmaids crashing in from the hall, each with a sharpened hair pin clutched tightly in hand. Without pausing to think about it, Kexing throws out an arm so that his wide sleeve obscures their view of A-xu in his state of undress, but the women’s eyes are fixed on the ghost nailed to the wall and sheeting blood all over the floor.
Kexing follows their gaze, eyeing the way the knife placement reflects one of the very wounds he’d just been dressing. Absently he reflects that perhaps tending to A-xu’s injuries has a greater subconscious effect on him than he thought. Sighing theatrically, he casts a rueful look at his sleeping Zhiji.
“You see what you’ve done to me, Zhou-shouling? You’re turning this poor philanthropist to violence! However will you make it up to me, hmm?”
His playful one-sided banter is interrupted by the wet sobs of the ghost nailed to the wall. “Mercy…Guzhu mercy. Spare my life, I…I'll tell you any-” He shuts up the instant Kexing turns a wrathful stare on him, white showing all the way around the empty black of his irises. “Hold your tongue, wretch. Can’t you see I’m talking to my A-xu?”
The ghost quails under his eyes and obediently holds his silence.
Kexing shifts his gaze to the two handmaids, who sink to their knees without hesitation. “Send for Zi Sha, and have the highest ranking survivors from each department summoned for an audience.”
The women murmur their acknowledgment of the orders and retreat even more swiftly than they had come, not sparing the injured ghost so much as a second look before they slide the bedroom door firmly shut.
Once they’re gone Kexing drops the arm that had been concealing A-xu and reaches beneath the edge of the mattress for one of the many blades he keeps stashed around the room in case of just such assassination attempts as this. Of course they wouldn’t be much help if this fool had even a tenth of his A-xu’s skill, but then who could ever hope to match his beloved for sheer ruthless lethality?
Impatient to return to more engaging pursuits, he slides the knife free and flicks it across the room. This particularly blade is an extra of A-xiangs and much shorter than the one the would-be chief had carried, but with a slightly stronger burst of qi behind it it impales his right shoulder almost as neatly as the left. The ghost screams again at the blow, but after that he has the courtesy to hold himself to whimpers and shuddering sobs.
Satisfied that the threat is neutralized for the moment, Kexing refocuses on his sleeping partner. The salve needs a few more minutes to dry down to tackiness before he re-bandages the injuries, so he turns his attention to the latest bitter decoction taken from Da Wu’s veritable manual of recipes and instructions. This is the one Kexing brews for him the most often, meant soothe any inflammation of his meridians or channels, and it is unavoidably bitter.
Even feeding the medicine almost directly down his throat with one of A-xiang’s clever little spoons can’t completely spare him from the foul taste, and Kexing croons soothingly at him when he instinctively coughs against it. “Sh, shhh, I know. But you need it, ah? Come now, won’t you be good and drink it for your Lao-wen?”
He takes his time with it, patiently ensuring that A-xu swallows every last drop before he sets the bowl aside. Ignoring the ghost mewling and blubbering in the background he dips a finger into the last tiny pot and lifts out a generous dollop of honey, nudging A-xu’s mouth open again with a knuckle and softly spreading the thick golden sweetness over his tongue to sooth away the astringent bite of the medicine.
“There we are, Xingan. See, that wasn’t so bad.”
Sure enough the faint crease between A-xu’s brows smoothes away, and Kexing can’t help but smile fondly at him. “Ai, so ridiculous. You’ll drink chili oil as if it’s water but the first hint of something bitter and you turn up your nose like a little cat? What am I to do with you.”
He keeps chattering happily away to A-xu as he carefully re-wraps his chest and shoulders in clean linen bandages and is just folding his robes closed over his chest when A-xiang bursts into the room in a snarling whirl of dark silk, Xiao-cao and Chenling anxiously dogging her heels.
“Master! Luo-yi’s girls said you’d been attacked?” Her eyes flash instantly to the shuddering corpse-to-be pinned to the wall, and she bares her teeth wildly. “Do you want me to dispose of him?”
Kexing is amused to see Chenling’s normally soft eyes flash with agreement as he does his best to loom at the ghost. Their little disciple can’t bring himself to kill a chicken for the pot, but apparently he’s more than game to try his hand at banishing ghosts.
In spite of the half-smile tugging at his mouth he shakes his head, rising from the bed once A-xu is tucked comfortably beneath the coverlet. He’d planned to take him out for some sun and conversation after changing his bandages, but he has a precedent to establish. He’s sure A-xu won’t begrudge him one afternoon of basking for a matter as important as this one.
“No, I’ll deal with it. You three stay with A-xu while I attend to the matter, understand?”
All three nod vigorously and Xiao-cao folds his hands together in a salute, ever proper and formal. “Of course Wen-xiong. We won’t allow any harm to come to Zhou-xiong in your absence.” Kexing offers the boy a thin smile. “I know you won’t.”
And almost as importantly he knows A-xiang will keep the boys safely inside the manor no matter what they hear. He won’t conceal what’s about to happen from them if they ask of course, but Chengling at least is still a bit too tender-hearted to bear first-hand witness to the lord of Ghost Valley disciplining his wayward subordinates.
He’d already donned a set of robes in the dangerous crimson of the Valley Master this morning, half suspecting that one of the few ambitious ghosts left in the Valley might try something between A-xiang’s little excursion with the boys and his own sporadic appearances over the course of the last month, so all he really has to do is ensure the children are properly settled into their vigil before he rips the knives free of his mewling victim and drags him from the manor by his throat.
The ghost scrabbles at his wrist in panic, choking and kicking his feet futilely as they go, but the holes Kexing put in his shoulders leave his arms half-paralyzed and his grip slips weakly off without leaving so much as a bruise. Blood smears across the hall floors as Kexing hauls him along, but that’s a problem for the handmaids tasked with tending to manor upkeep.
He drags his victim all the way to the brink of the ledge that overlooks the rest of the hall and hurls him down in front of the terrified ghosts waiting on their knees. More than one of them flinches at the wet crunch of the would-be assassin's leg when he hits the ground and the breathless scream that follows.
Kexing surveys them with wide burning eyes and an eerily blank face. Xi Sang Gui, Yan Gui, and Shi Shi Gui are here of course, but beyond them only a few of those present have managed to earn a name and none of them were particularly highly ranked. Certainly they know enough to be afraid of him, but that may not be enough. There’s no way to know if among these there might be one whose ambition is sufficient to lead them into stupidity, as it did with todays would-be killer.
No matter though. If the lesson he taught them when he skinned the old Master alive has lost its teeth, he’ll reinforce the point.
When he speaks into into the ringing silence his tone is flat, empty almost to the point of being disinterested. “I see you’ve all been enjoying yourselves lately, slacking off and not even bothering to keep your departments in line. The Valley is so overrun with vermin there are even mice trying to creep into my territory. How…amusing.”
Cold sweat beads visibly at the temples of several newcomers, and one half-opens her mouth as if to speak. He ignores them all, leaping down from the ledge to prowl towards the half-circle of frozen ghosts.
Despite his half-broken body the cretin sprawled between them scrabbles to drag himself into something approximating obeisance, mask all but pressing into the bloodied dirt as he babbles. “This lowly one apologizes to Guzhu, he was only doing as he was told, he would never dare go against Guzhu-!”
Kexing flicks his fan open with a loud snap, and the ghost dissolves into sniveling silence. He laughs into the following silence in precisely the manner that won him the frightful moniker of Lunatic, bright and mad and threatening enough that even the most hardened of ghosts would shiver at the sound.
“You wouldn’t dare? What interesting jests you make, my friend! You found your way into my own bedchamber, even dared to lay eyes on my unclothed lover, and yet you claim you don’t dare to go against me? How delightfully absurd!”
His laughter rises a pitch, eyes crinkling into mirthful half moons, and every ghost short of Xi Sang Gui cowers into the dirt. The would-be assassin is hyperventilating at his feet, and Kexing nudges his head with the toe of his boot.
“Why are you quailing like this? Up, up! You’re a ghost of the Valley, not a dog!”
The ghost’s trembling grows worse but he manages to crawl to his feet, balancing all of his weight on his good leg.
Kexing catches the point of his mask on the edge of his fan, pushing it up and up until slides entirely free of his head, dragging his headdress with it. The man who stares back at him is grey-faced with either pain or terror and well fed enough that he’s clearly proved himself useful to someone. Likely a lower ranked captain generally trusted with leading small squads suddenly catapulted to significance by the yawning power gap left in the wake of Wu Chang Gui’s idiocy.
Kexing offers him an almost conspiratorial smirk.
“Come now, don't look at me with such fearful eyes! A dog that turns on it’s master must be put down of course, but as I said you are a ghost. Is it not our nature as ghosts to follow our desires without regard for right or wrong? My A-xu is a peerless beauty after all, I'm hardly surprised at the lengths one might go to to see him in such a state.”
The ghost sways in place, clearly near sick with fear. Black humor glitters in Kexing’s face and voice like shards of broken glass as he steps in and taps his fan almost gently against the ghost’s chest. “You have only done what a ghost should do. And as the Master of Ghosts, I should reward you fittingly, yes? So…”
Fast as lightning and merciless as the crushing depths of the sea, he lashes out and tears the eyes from the ghosts face with the crooked fingers of his empty hand. The ghost recoils with a mindless shriek, hands clawing at his own face even as his bad leg collapses out from under him.
The wailing mingles jarringly with Kexing’s crow of laughter as he flicks clumps of red-black gore from his fingers, advancing on the squirming figure with relish.
“In recognition of your merits, I'll take your eyes. It would be too pitiful for you to keep them knowing that you’ll never see anything so magnificent again. This way you can preserve the moment perfectly in your memory without a lifetime of inferior sights to muddle it!
Oh. And there is one more small matter.
It may be only a ghosts nature to chase what it desires, but in doing so you were terribly disrespectful to my A-xu. I’m afraid I can’t let that go unpunished.”
He doubts the worm thrashing in the dirt is really listening to him anymore given the pitch of his shrieking but that’s not an issue. He’s only the instrument of this particular lesson, not it’s recipient. The Valley Master turns to Yan Gui with all the serenity of a buddha, one of the few ghosts on hand who isn’t so out of her mind with fear that she’s incapable of processing orders.
“Fetch me a cauterizing iron and a barrel. And a basket while you’re at it. It wouldn’t do to misplace any of the joints.”
“-really was worried for a moment that the thigh stumps might prove too large to cauterize, but it all worked out in the end. It didn't have quite your elegance of execution I'm afraid, but such things are often wasted on ghosts.
I did give all the bits of his limbs to Shi Shi Gui which I thought was a nice touch. It certainly made an impression on the rest of them! And the rest of him I had hauled off to display at the gate. I know it’s not ideal, but it was the only place I could think of where the rest of them could easily confirm his fate without the risk of Chengling and Xiao-cao stumbling across him.
Of course there’s the issue of the rest of the disciples seeing him whenever they arrive, but even if he manages to survive that long as a human stick I imagine former Tian Chuang trainees are made of sterner stuff than the ducklings.”
He makes a final pass through A-xu’s hair as he concludes the recounting of the days events, reveling in the silken weight of it in his hands before he sets the comb aside and lifts him gently up against his chest for their nightly qi transfer. “So with that taken care of the ghosts shouldn’t get any more ideas about me going soft, and be too frightened to try anything with you. Won’t you praise your clever husband?”
He pauses hopefully, but of course no response is forthcoming. He tips his temple against hair black as leopard flower seeds with an exaggerated pout. “Always so cruel to me! That’s alright though, I understand that my dearest A-xu is a shy flower.”
Pressing a palm firmly over A-xu’s heart, he draws up his qi and sinks deep into the now-familiar trance. As always, he takes careful stock of the A-xu’s physical recovery first. The wounds are all healing reasonably well, but he feels a bit anxious about the persistence of the less apparent maladies. The general sense of weakness brought on by a combination of malnutrition, poison, and the sleepless week of near-inhuman exertion A-xu had subjected himself to in the name of vengeance lingers and there’s only so much even the most nutritious of broth can do to combat it.
Stubbornly pushing his unease at the shadow of A-xu's continuing vulnerability aside, Kexing spreads his energy further through his qi system, reaching for that distant push-pull tug of connection that lets him transgress on the edges of his Zhiji’s dreams.
Deeper and deeper he goes, until-
The kitchen is full of mouth-watering aromas. Steam rises gently from a pair of bubbling pot on the stove and freshly sliced noodles are laid out on the counter to be boiled. The scent of roasting meat drifts in from the courtyard where someone has spitted an entire boar flank, a bowl of flavorful red sauce waiting by the fire to drizzle over the cooking meat. A veritable feast has been prepared for the evening meal and warm golden light glows from every window and doorway as dusk falls softly over Siji Manor. In the distance he can hear the murmur of carefree voices and the shuffle of robes, but for all the signs of meal preparation the kitchen is empty.
The door slides open and A-xu drifts in with a teasing smile, looking strangely young with his hair pulled back in a practical horsetail that bares his slender neck deliciously.
“Lao-wen, how much longer until we eat?”
The question goes unanswered, and the smile on A-xu’s lips wavers into uncertainty. “Lao-wen?”
This has been happening more and more often.
In his first forays into dream sharing he would be entirely subsumed in the moment, only jolted into awareness by the disconnect between himself and the false vision of him forever lounging in his place at A-xu’s side. But recently it has taken the not-Kexing longer and longer to appear in each scene. Last time Kexing had almost managed to properly catch A-xu’s attention before his double had reappeared to steal him away again. So maybe THIS time-!
Making himself heard takes an enormous amount of effort, like straining to lift a water slicked boulder twice his own body weight, but he can do it if he pushes hard enough. The wraith-like echo of his voice resounds through the kitchen, strange and out of place in this warm moment of domesticity. But A-xu hears him, glancing around in bewilderment.
“Lao-wen? Lao-wen where are you hiding?”
‘A-xu! A-xu, I’m here!’
The manor lord turns like he expects Kexing to spring miraculously from behind a broom or bowl, frowning as if disoriented. “I…I can’t see you. Where are you?” Kexing has the bizarre experience of feeling both fit to burst with hope and being frustratingly incorporeal.
‘You need to wake up. Please A-xu, you need to wake up now.’
A-xu shakes his head uneasily, his eyes glassy and distant. The warmth of the kitchen ripples and blurs around him.
“I don’t… I’m already aw-”
Kexing feels his connection to the dream beginning to thin dangerously and snaps at the beautiful fool in a moment of desperation.
‘Zhou Zishu! Wake-’
His eyes snap open mid-sentence, staring at the familiar surroundings of their bedroom without actually registering them. Sick with hope he wrenches his gaze down to stare intently at A-xu, desperately searching for any change. A twitch, a shift of expression, a flutter of movement behind closed eyelids. Anything that might signal he was at least beginning to stir from the depths of his unnatural sleep.
But long moments pass and no sign comes. The body cradled against his chest remains as stubbornly limp and silent as it has for the past month. Eventually Kexing releases a shuddering breath, a few stray tears trickling from the corners of his eyes before he manages to swallow them back.
“Alright A-xu. That’s alright. We’ll try again tomorrow.”
The familiar promise lingers heavily in the air as he slides them both beneath the coverlet, arranging them so that they’re lying face to face in each others arms. Usually he prefers to tuck A-xu into the curve of his body, close enough that he can feel the shift of his back against his chest when he breathes and fall asleep with the reassuring tattoo of A-xu’s heartbeat under his hand, but tonight he wants to see his face.
He calls to mind the warm smile he knows A-xu had been wearing when he first came into the kitchen, consciously trying to synthesize an actual visual for it from all the times he’s seen A-xu smile before. It’s frustratingly difficult but he manages eventually, lifting a hand to trace his fingers reverently over the curve of A-xu’s lips.
He’ll see that smile again one day.
He has to believe that.
He wakes in the dim blue hours between the fourth and fifth night watches with calloused fingers circling his throat and heartbreakingly familiar red-rimmed eyes burning down on him from above.
“Wen Kexing, you fucking bastard!”
I'm not sure it's clear how the dream mechanic works here, so just in case! The idea was that Kexing and Zishu are so used to sharing qi at this point that even unconscious Zishu was circulating some of his back to Kexing in an extremely rudimentary sort of dual cultivation (yes, I know that's meant to be about exchanging energy through sex but if they can do it by holding hands in the drama I'm calling this good).
Now with Kexing being in a sort of deep meditation/altered state of awareness and spreading his energy all through Zishu's body to look for injuries/irregularities, when his qi eventually reached Zishu's head it hit him with a sort of echo of the unusual activity there. Namely, Zishu's coma dreams. And since they had that open connection between them and Kexing's energy IS present in Zishu's system, he was able to sort of project a bit into Zishu's dream to interact with him.
He's not really present or anything anymore than he can literally see or experience what's happening in Zishu's head. They're just both sort of aware of each other in that weird way you KNOW things in dreams without any evidence or anything. Kexing is more aware of Zishu because he's actively in Zishu's system and reaching out, while Zishu is barely registering Kexing trying to reach him because Kexing is only sort of present and that's really not how qi exchanges are meant to work.
I felt that actually going into detail on anything that might top skinning someone alive for fear factor would be a touch gorier than I really wanted to write. Long story short...
Kexing, on the matter of his currently incredibly exploitable weakness: So yeah that guy in my room is my spouse, and on a very much related note who would like a refresher course on exactly how bat-fracked insane and terrifying I am? Trick question, the course is actually a mandatory pop quiz! Gird your loins worms!
(If anyone is actually curious about the gruesome details:
Kexing essentially dismembered all four of the guy's limbs, starting at the tips of his fingers and toes and systematically slicing through every single joint to dice his arms and legs up into bitty-bits. And then ordered what was left of him stuffed in a barrel still alive to be displayed publicly until such time as he dies of shock, bloodless, starvation, or dehydration.
Much blood, much screaming, very I-am-scarier-than-death-and-don't-you-forget-it.)
His heart is hammering so hard he can actively feel it flinging itself against his ribs and even the burning dryness of his eyes isn't enough to make him blink as he stares greedily up at the vengeful fury straddling him.
A-xu was beautiful even in his endless sleep, but awake and flush with gloriously savage life he's breathtakingly magnificent. The mere sight of him is enough to make Kexing feel drunk, as if he might shatter into a hundred thousand pieces under the weight of that longed for gaze.
“A-xu. My A-xu.”
Caught in the tempestuous splendor of his eyes Kexing reaches worshipfully for his face, only to freeze when his beloved jerks his head back and bares his teeth warningly. There's something heavy pooling in his chest, his hand hovering yearningly in the space between them as he struggles to make sense of the situation.
There’s something simultaneously dangerous and brittle in his beloved's face, like the thin singing ice that forms over northern lakes in the early days of winter.
“What is this?”
His brow furrows in confusion and Zishu’s fingers flex against his throat like a kneading cat, as if he wants to tighten them in warning or punishment but can’t make himself actually follow through on the impulse.
Heedless of the implicit threat and eager to soothe his agitation, Kexing wraps his hands loosely around A-xu’s wrists, his thumbs soothing gently back and forth over the thin skin. The comforting gesture only seems to upset A-xu further though. He curls down over Kexing until their faces are barely a handspan apart, thighs tightening on his sides as if to pin him in place.
“You died. I saw your body. I BURNED your body.”
Kexing flinches at the raw accusation, a wash of sour guilt prompting him to tip his chin back in apologetic surrender. “I’m sorry.”
A-xu hisses viciously at the apology, a fine tremor taking hold of his limbs. “You’re sorry? Sorry that you lied to me? Sorry that you decided to gamble with your life AGAIN after swearing not to? Sorry that you made me live through your death and desecration? Or are you just sorry that you got caught?”
He’s thought about this conversation many times in the long weeks since A-xu first appeared at Bailu cliff. He’s rehearsed his reasoning, plotted out responses to dozens of possible reactions, braced himself for the inevitable anger; he’d thought that he was ready. Yet now that the moment has come all his carefully prepared words and good intentions fly from his head like startled birds.
He’s never seen A-xu so ragged, so eager to lash out at the world with his sharp edges, and it leaves him knocked off balance.
“I- All of it, just-
A-xu, please, let me explain!”
Despite the unabated anger still blazing in every line of his face A-xu’s tone goes painfully flat and detached, colder than Kexing has heard him since Sanbai Manor.
“By all means then, enlighten this lowly simpleton.”
A shiver of dread races down Kexing’s spine at the distance in his voice, and he swallows just to feel the barely-there pressure of the fingers circling his throat. While the gesture is inherently violent, the touch itself is achingly gentle and the softness of it grounds him. A-xu is angry and hurt but he’s still here. He’s not leaving, he hasn’t turned away from him. Kexing isn’t too late to fix this.
“I couldn’t bring you out of Hedong alone, and the only ghosts I could reach in time where the ones following Wu Chang Gui and Kai Xin Gui. So I made a deal with Xie Wang.
We agreed that I would lure Zhao Jing into complacency by appearing to die, after which we would use the Conference as a stage to expose him and destroy his power base. Once he was ruined Xie Wang would be free to claim him for whatever private vengeance he had planned, and with the Valley Master ‘dead’ I would come back to you without the shadow of the Valley always dogging our heels.
I didn’t intend for you to-
You weren’t supposed to hear about it until after everything was finished.”
Zishu’s freezing gaze lays him open like a surgeons scalpel as the confession spills haltingly from his lips and he wonders if this is what it was like to find oneself in Tian Chuang’s dungeons. With a stare like that to strip secrets from their victims it’s no wonder that Helian Yi was able to turn his empty title as crown prince into true power.
“How selfless of you. Clearly you told Chengling about this scheme of yours. Who else knew?”
Kexing hesitates, but he doubts Zishu is willing to indulge any obfuscations right now.
“Ye Baiyi, Yan Gui, Shen Shen, and Da Wu.”
Zishu’s fingers twitch against his throat at the admission, his eyes closing as if he’s struggling to control some visceral reaction. He's trembling faintly, and Kexing should probably allow him the moment to compose himself if he wants to get out of this without any injuries of his own but he can’t help the spike of anxiety at seeing A-xu’s eyes shut. He convulsively tightens his hold on A-xu’s wrists with a wordless noise of protest, and isn’t sure whether he’s more grateful or afraid when fathomless eyes open again.
“And? What justification could you possibly offer for leaving me in the dark when you told that sniveling fool Shen Shen?”
Zishu is usually a ruthlessly practical man, but they both know he isn’t interested in the tactical reasoning behind including the Dagu sect leader in the plan.
Kexing drops his eyes from Zishu’s face to the flash of bandages visible through the loose collar of his robe. After so long tending them he can picture each wound with distressing clarity, from the superficial welts left by barbed whips to the raw gouges where metal hooks had gored clear through the flesh.
“They took you from me, A-xu. I was right there, under the same roof, and they took you and tortured you and you were already dying before they carved you open.
You needed time to heal, and I needed you to be safe. I couldn’t risk it. I couldn’t risk you.”
Zishu’s hold on his throat shifts and a thumb presses up into the soft underside of his jaw, forcing his face back up until he meets Zishu’s unimpressed gaze again.
“So rather than trust me to know my own limits, you walked into this mad plan with no one to watch your back but a boy with barely a year of training and two men who actively wanted you dead.”
It’s a brutal recrimination, the broken edges of the words bleeding resentment and bitter hurt, but no matter how it tears at Kexing he can’t deny it. There is very little he would not trust A-xu with, but his own well-being is at the top of that short list; his beloved is far too used to treating himself as either sword or shield in service of his goals.
Unable to bear the pain underlying A-xu’s cold ire, he makes an attempt at appeasement.
“I had the ghosts. Xie Wang may have gotten his claws into three of the Devils, but they barely brought a handful of their departments with them when we left Qingya. The overwhelming majority of the Valley still answered to me.”
A-xu’s eyes narrow caustically. “Yes, I’m sure they would have done you so much good if your ‘allies’ had turned on you. Tell me, how many lieutenants did Xie Wang have haunting your steps? Two? Four? You cannot expect me to believe he allowed you to return to the center of your power without some assurance of your continued cooperation in place.”
Kexing briefly recalls the scorpions lining the walls of the throne room, the sight of Xie Wang slouched deliberately atop the Yanluo throne while Devils both traitorous and loyal trailed placidly at Kexing’s heels. At the time he’d been more blackly amused at the tone-deaf attempt to undercut his power than anything else, the ghosts far too accustomed to his mercurial nature to attribute his lack of reaction to the disrespect as anything more than a bizarre whim, but he wasn’t blind to the implied threat of their presence or to the careful way they kept him encircled.
Something must show on his face because Zishu clearly finds affirmation of his suspicions in his brief hesitation. His expression darkens dangerously.
“Did they have any reason to see that you lived to the end of this plan of yours? Even if your death dropped Zhao Jing’s guard enough to expose him before the sects, what did they need from you beyond that? Did it never occur to you in all your scheming that they might simply allow you to die in truth.”
It had, but he’d been confident that the danger of trying to kill him and failing would at least temporarily deter any such plans. It was a risk, certainly, but hardly the worst he had ever taken. He squeezes his beloved's wrists again, doing his best to make his voice reassuringly steady.
“I wouldn’t have done that to you A-xu. I was being careful.”
Something violent and volatile flares in the assassin’s eyes and the faint tremor running through his limbs strengthens until his steady hands are the only part of him not visibly shivering.
“Careful. You put your life in the hands of men with no reason to care if you lived beyond the point of serving their goals!”
Kexing frowns, distracted by the trembling wracking the tense form above him.
“I had it under control.”
He knows the instant he says it that it’s a mistake, but it’s too late to take it back. The thin veneer of false calm in A-xu’s voice cracks open like rotten ice, plunging them both into the heart of his bone-chilling fury.
What if Wu Chang Gui had suborned the Valley in your absence? What if Xie Wang had slipped you whatever poison he used to gain a hold on the Devils? What if it was a double-trap meant to lure you out for Zhao Jing to kill? What if Chengling made a mistake in that hare-brained attempt to alter the rain needles, or aimed at just the wrong place, or even failed to reach you before someone else got lucky and put a blade through your gut?”
He’s actually shaking now, nearly swaying in place, and Kexing’s alarmed to realize it’s not a product of emotion but physical fatigue.
Instantly diverted from the confrontation he automatically begins to sit up, hands sliding up from A-xu’s wrists to brace his biceps supportively. “Wait, you need to lie d-”
For the first time Zishu puts actual pressure on his throat, slamming him roughly back down onto the bed.
“Well?! Did you give so much as a single thought to the consequences of your recklessness?! Did you have even one escape route in place?!”
He’s angrier than Kexing has ever seen him before, his whole body taught with the threat of violence, but Kexing is too distracted to listen. His eyes flicker anxiously between A-xu's pale face and the dark stain slowly welling through the thin white robe above his collarbone.
That’s at least one wound torn open, not to mention the way his body is threatening to collapse at any moment and Kexing feels sick with anxiety.
The assassin steamrolls over him, his face fever-bright and unyielding. “Answer me damn you!”
Kexing snaps at him, worry blending with rising anger of his own.
“I’m not arguing with you about this until you lay down! Look at you, you can barely sit up!”
Kexing is all but holding him upright now and they’re both shouting at each other, furious and terrified.
Zishu cuts him off apparently driven beyond what little care he has for the shortcomings of mortal flesh.
“Fuck my injuries!”
A furious, animalistic growl rips out of Kexing and he throws them both over in a roll.
It shouldn’t work given the leverage of their relative positions, but his Zhiji’s body has already exhausted itself staying upright so long and doesn’t have the strength to fight him.
A-xu hits the bed beneath him with a huff and now their positions are reversed; Kexing kneeling between A-xu’s legs and pinning his shoulders to the bed while the hands at his throat shift from the threat of a stranglehold to protectively cradling the pulse points at the sides of his throat, both of them still glaring at each other in black fury.
“Zhou Zishu! You speak so bitterly of my recklessness, but aren’t you the one who’s most careless with himself? Didn’t you throw your life away again the minute I turned my back?!”
A-xu snarls up at him in derisive challenge, undaunted by the enraged rebuke.
“Don’t tell me you don’t understand revenge Guigu Guzhu. I didn’t throw my life away, I traded it for something of greater value.”
The words hit Kexing like a knife to the gut, punching past his ribs to rip open his soft underbelly. His vision grays and his lungs seize under the unexpected blow; for a long moment he forgets how to breathe entirely.
He’d known before of course, how could he not know what Zishu had intended after witnessing the ruinous tribute to his own plans in Yueyang. He’d even known that he couldn’t have intended to survive his retribution given that he’d ripped out the Three Autumn Nails to accomplish it.
But there was an immeasurable difference between knowing such a thing intellectually and hearing his A-xu speak so carelessly of throwing himself away on a deadman’s pyre like nothing more than cheap joss paper.
His grip on A-xu’s shoulders goes bruisingly tight. He wants to shake him, to hold him, to bite him, to wrap him up in blankets and hide him somewhere safe and secret. His shout comes out hoarse and cracked, bordering on deranged.
“How could you do something so STUPID?! Don’t you know your life is worth more to me than any vengeance!”
Eyes blazing like the fires of the sun, A-xu seizes the collar of his robe in a white knuckled grip and with a burst of frenzied strength drags himself up from the bed to roar in Kexing’s face.
“THEN YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE DIED!!”
The howl is loaded with a depth of grief and loss that knocks them both silent. It leaves them paralyzed, staring at each other from so close together that they’re gasping for the same air.
The fire in A-xu’s eyes has finally drained away, smothered to cold ash by a devastation vast enough to swallow them both whole, and when he speaks his voice is a shattered sword driving in for one final kill before the end.
“I chose to live for you, you bastard.
I lived for you and you left me.”
Kexing shudders under the crushing weight of the words, lost and aching. He doesn’t know what to say to even begin staunching this particular wound.
“I- I never wanted to hurt you.”
He flinches at the caustic bark of humorless laughter that explodes from the injured mans lips like a burst of blood.
Wen Kexing, you destroyed me.”
He sucks in a sharp, terrified breath. “A-xu…”
He trails off, tongue-tied and stupid in the face of such raw anguish.
The wavering brightness in his eyes spills over into silent tears and A-xu finally lets go of him, collapsing heavily back onto the bed. His hands fall to either side of his head in limp surrender and he turns his face deliberately away from Kexing, empty eyed and defeated as a listless murmur slips from his lips.
“I really can’t stand the sight of you right now.”
A thin whimper forces it's way out of Kexing at the rejection, but his bedmate doesn’t even twitch at the sound.
Hesitantly, unsure of his welcome, he buries his face against the side of A-xu’s throat. There’s no reaction to his sudden closeness, but he’s willing to take not being actively pushed away as acceptance.
Carefully easing himself down to lie half beside him so that his weight isn’t crushing his injuried Zhiji, he interlaces the fingers of one hand with A-xu’s and winds the other arm around his waist to haul him closer, hooking a leg between his thighs and pressing them together until their bodies are intertwined from from fingertip to ankle.
He has to swallow twice before he recovers his voice enough for a shaky, pleading whisper to emerge.
“Then don’t look at me. Just let me stay like this. I'll wait for you forever if you want A-xu, just let me stay with you.”
No answer comes and Kexing falls silent in turn, holding on as tightly as he can and praying he hasn’t destroyed one of the few good things that’s ever happened to him.
It aches to curl around A-xu like this, knowing he’s awake but as unresponsive and distant as if he’s still sleeping. It’s painful, but if this is the punishment A-xu chooses to inflict on him, then Kexing will accept it. He’ll lay here, still and quiet at A-xu’s side until his bones collapse to dust and the world forgets that he ever existed.
He couldn’t say how long they lie like that but eventually A-xu shifts.
Slowly, still trembling slightly in the wake of his overexertion earlier, he turns to hook his chin over the top of Kexing’s head. His free arm sides up around Kexing's shoulders, futilely trying to gather him in closer as A-xu clings to him like a drowning man to a piece of driftwood. Kexing wants to cry with relief, but he holds himself still and silent.
Neither of them speaks or sleeps, time sliding over them like sand through an hourglass, the hush of it burying them both like lost ruins in the desert as the last stretch of the night slowly passes them by.
When morning eventually comes and Lao-wen moves to lever himself out of bed, Zishu can’t help the spike of irrational panic that turns his grip on him white-knuckled. Lao-wen stills for an instant then squeezes their interlaced fingers in return, murmuring softly against the side of his face.
“I’m just going to clean us up a bit. I won’t leave you A-xu.”
He almost lashes out at that, the fool has proved twice over that he very much would leave him given the right incentive, but he doesn’t want to fight when he still feels torn open and scraped hollow from their earlier confrontation. So he simply drags in a shuddering breath and lets go.
Lao-wen hovers over him and searches his face for a moment, then presses a soft kiss to his forehead before he rises to go about his tasks.
Zishu’s first instinct is to follow him but his body refuses to cooperate, his core trembling and giving way before he even manages to fully sit up. Instead he has to settle for merely turning his head to watch as Lao-wen moves about the room.
He dresses himself in familiar dark teal silk that emphasizes his broad shoulders before digging into a nearby chest and coming back to the bed with a different set of robes folded over one arm. Zishu recognizes these too by the misty bamboo green of the dachang and the bold red of the belt, though it’s been long months since he saw Lao-wen don anything so pale.
He’s bracing himself for another attempt at forcing himself upright when Lao-wen slides an arm beneath his shoulders and easily lifts him from the bed, helping him into the soft white of the zhiju with a casual expertise that startles Zishu.
He ought to protest being dressed like a small child, but despite the quarrel still hanging between them like smoke in the aftermath of a fire he can’t help reveling in Lao-wen’s touch, leaning into every brush of his fingers like a starving man. Lao-wen notices of course and lets his hands linger longer than is really necessary as he works.
Neither of them mentions it.
The robes are slightly over-sized for Zishu; the sleeves fall to the very tips of his fingers, the collar slips open just a touch too far to be truly decent, and Lao-wen has to wrap the belt twice around his waist before he can tie it properly.
More than the size though, it feels strange to be dressed in soft bright things again. After Lao-wen…after all of it, he’d been sure he’d walk the yellow spring road with his nature worn openly in the bloodstained robes of his station.
He’s pulled from his distraction by Lao-wen smoothing the dachang over his shoulders, frowning at the way the fabric swallows his lither frame. “I know these are a bit too big but it’ll be at least another week before the things I asked Xi Sang Gui’s girls to put together for you are ready, and the clothes I found you in-” Lao-wen cuts himself off with a scowl of distaste. “Where are your robes? I had the children check the Ping’an Inn but they insisted you didn’t leave anything with them.”
Zishu watches him silently for a moment before he answers, his voice still hoarse after last night’s shouting match. “Down a ravine somewhere. Probably covered in rotting flesh or worse by now.”
It’s a blunt reminder of the unresolved tensions still hanging between them, but rather than rise to the challenge Lao-wen deflates. He drops his eyes from Zishu’s face, anxiously fidgeting with the soft linen folds of his borrowed sleeve and trying to cover his distress with a pale imitation of his usual audacious flirting. “…I suppose I will simply have to suffer through the temptation of seeing A-xu wrapped in my clothes every day.”
The part of Zishu that’s still heartbroken and betrayed and hurting wants to snap at him, to say something cruel and shred the thin attempt at normalcy like so much wet paper, to force the bastard to face the consequences of his little stunt.
But a larger part of him can’t stand to see his bright, shameless Lao-wen so quiet and uncertain. Sighing out a silent breath, he calls himself ten kinds of weak-willed fool and turns away from the man all but hovering at his side.
“Help me with my hair Lao-wen.”
Kexing all but leaps to follow his command, gently shifting him far enough forward that he can easily slide behind him. It makes Zishu a little uneasy to have him out of his line of sight, but the strong hands carefully gathering his hair back over his shoulders and brushing along his neck and back as he works settle him enough to keep from doing anything embarrassing like reaching out for him or demanding he come back.
Sitting up unsupported while his hair is combed out and arranged is more tiring than he’ll ever admit, and near the end he’s focusing so intently on holding himself steady that he’s almost startled when Lao-wen finally speaks, his tone too casual to be sincere. “Would you mind handing me the hair piece A-xu?”
Zishu glances at the bedside table out of the corner of his eye and stills.
This man really is too conniving.
Waiting on the bedside table are two hairpieces, one a simple silver guan and the other the precious jade hairpin.
Though the implied question is unspoken it’s about as subtle as a knife to the eye, ‘do you still love me?’ and ‘can you forgive me?’ and ‘please don’t leave me’ rumbling in the air between them like the roll of distant thunder.
Zishu lets the silence stretch between them, making it clear that he knows exactly what his infuriating, anxious fool of a Zhiji is up to. There's only one answer he could ever give, but that doesn't mean he's happy about giving it so quickly.
The hands in his hair tremble slightly, barely enough to feel, and Zishu cracks. Wordlessly he reaches over to deliberately pick up the hairpin, silently holding it back over his shoulder.
Lao-wen sucks in a shuddering breath and shaking fingers take the familiar jade from him with a watery chuckle. “My A-xu is so good to me.”
Zishu tightens his jaw, staring unseeingly across the room.
“I’m still angry at you.
You can’t do this again, Lao-wen. I’ll never forgive you if you do.”
‘I won’t survive it if you do.’
Both of them pretend that they don’t hear the unspoken truth lingering in the shadow of the lie. There’s a familiar smooth tug on his scalp as the hairpin slides into place.
“Mm. I will never deceive you about matters regarding my life and death again. I promise shixiong.”
They’re both fully dressed and Zishu is leaning heavily against the bedframe while Lao-wen folds away the coverlet when a knock comes at the door. “Shishu? I brought breakfast!”
Zishu’s head snaps around at the familiar voice, adrenaline jolting through his veins.
He hasn’t seen his little disciple since Bailu cliff, had made what peace he could with his last sight of the boy being the moment he struck Lao-wen down, and hearing him outside the door now… Somehow it’s an even greater shock than waking up to a living Lao-wen sleeping at his side had been.
With Lao-wen things had been comparatively simple; a moment of bliss slowly giving way to confusion, then realization that was swiftly followed by a nauseating mix of rage, pain, and exultation.
Things with Chengling aren’t nearly so clear.
He can barely begin to identify the writhing knot of conflicting emotions lodged beneath his lungs, but there’s a definitely a broad streak of shame to it. Whatever else he feels about Chengling’s part in this whole mess he doesn’t want the boy’s first sight of him in the aftermath of everything to be like this, too weak to even sit up or dress himself.
With his heart pounding in his ears, he struggles fruitlessly to shove himself upright. He can’t quite manage to hold himself in place, still exhausted from sitting up while his hair was tended to, and he’s on the brink of snapping at the boy to leave when Lao-wen settles beside him. A steady hand takes his shoulder and tugs Zishu in to rest against his side, as if this is nothing more than another in a long list of occasions where they’ve settled against each other for simple companionship.
He waits a moment to see if Zishu will push him away, but Zishu only shoots him a brief warning look. He’ll permit the familiarity for the moment, but he wants it clear that Lao-wen shouldn’t mistake that for forgiveness. Lao-wen squeezes his shoulder once in acknowledgment and then calls out.
“Come in shazi, there’s someone who wants to see you.”
There’s a brief stunned silence from the other side of the door followed by a hazardous sounding ceramic clatter and an eager cry of “Shifu?!”
The door is thrown open with enough enthusiasm that it rebounds off the far side of the frame and very nearly slams closed again on Chengling’s heels as he tumbles into the room, the tray precariously balanced between his offhand and hip threatening to dump its load of steaming bowls across the floor as his sudden scrambling jostles it.
His eyes are wide and soft as ever, and Zishu had been quietly worried that seeing him again might reveal that the bond between them had been soured by either or both of their actions. That it might be like seeing the grim disappointment in Bi-shu’s face that last day in the dungeons, or worse like looking at Helian Yi and feeling only bitter cynicism where loyalty and concern used to be.
It’s such a relief to be wrong.
Careful not to move away from the support of Lao-wen’s shoulder, he beckons the boy forward. “Well? Come here and let me look at you.”
Chengling’s across the room in an instant, the tray thrown so haphazardly onto the bedside table that Zishu instinctively flinches forward to steady it. Lao-wen’s hand tightens on his shoulder to stop him before he can sway too far forward and betray himself by falling over, but it turns out he needn’t have bothered. A ball of gangly limbs and frantic teenage energy cannons into his chest, knocking him firmly back against Lao-wen’s side.
The impact sets off a dull starburst of pain and tenderness through the entirety of his chest, but it’s worth it to have both of his fools close enough to feel the health and strength thrumming through them.
Lao-wen hisses in alarm of course, fighting to keep the three of them upright and smacking the boy over the head. “Gently, GENTLY! Your Shifu is still healing.”
Chengling freezes and recoils at the admonishment, but Zishu only rolls his eyes and curls an arm reassuringly around his thin shoulders to draw him back in as he chides his fretting Zhiji.
“Don’t fuss Lao-wen, you’ll teach him bad habits.”
The boy comes easily enough, though he’s careful to keep away from Zishu’s chest and only presses his face against his shoulder this time. “Shifu, I’m sorry! I should have looked for you sooner but I thought you were with Shishu and when I did look I couldn’t find you and then you didn’t wake up after Da Wu’s surgery and I was so worried-!”
Zishu frowns in consternation at the boy tearful babbling. He knows he must have lost quite a few days just from the bewildering absence of the excruciatingly fast-paced decay eating away at his meridians, but surely this reaction is a bit excessive.
“Chengling, enough. The master is responsible for the disciple, not the other way around. What will your Shen-bobo think I’m teaching you if you carry on like this over a few injuries?”
Chengling rears back from him, and though his eyes are red and wet there’s a surprising amount of steel in his scowl. “I don’t care what he thinks! Disciples are supposed to be filial to their masters!”
Zishu blinks in surprise at the resentment radiating hotly off his disciple. It’s not as if the boy hasn’t expressed bitterness towards his uncles before but this is something heavier; the difference between justified teenage frustration and the kind of lingering grudge you carry into adulthood.
For half a breath he can glimpse the shape of the man Chengling might one day grow to be, brave and true of heart with the resolute, unforgiving edge of a survivors experience to keep him alive when his turn comes to carry the baiyi blade.
The moment breaks as Lao-wen reaches over to fondly pinch the puppy fat of a soft cheek. “Mm, well said. A-xu, you’ve raised such a loyal disciple!” Chengling flushes under the teasing praise and ducks his head, vigorously rubbing at his cheek. “But it’s true, outsiders should stay out it.”
Zishu sighs and ruffles the boys hair exasperatedly, gently reprimanding him when he looks up to meet his eyes. “Be respectful of your uncle, xiaoshazi. If nothing else he was willing to help you and your Shishu when he could easily have turned you away.”
It’s probably a mark of how accustomed to his ways Chengling has become that the boy only looks more mulish at the reminder. His shidi and shimei had never paid much attention to his scolding outside of training either.
He’s internally debating whether or not a good relationship with Shen Shen is beneficial enough for the boy’s future to push the issue when Lao-wen cuts in. “Alright, I think that’s a matter best discussed another day. Chengling, you still have your morning training don’t you? Your Shifu will still be here when you finish.”
The teenager immediately opens his mouth to object, but stills under Zishu’s sharp look. “Your Shishu is right, you’re a hundred years too early to be slacking off on your training. Be off with you, and don’t let me catch you back here before you’ve run through every form without mistakes at least twice.” Chengling deflates at the instructions, making doleful calf eyes at him and fidgeting nervously with his robe. “And- And Shifu will still be awake when I come back?”
Zishu’s earlier sense of disquiet returns at yet another reference to him being awake, but he nods firmly. “I will.”
Chengling searches his face, glances over at Lao-wen as if seeking reassurance, and shuffles reluctantly to his feet. “I’ll be back soon then…” Zishu eyes him sternly. “Take the time to do it properly Chengling. Strength takes dedication and patience to build, rushing will only leave you with bad habits and a weak foundation.” The boy nods hurriedly at the warning. “Yes, Shifu!”
Zishu watches him scamper out the door, steps light and back straight, and wonders fondly if his silly disciple has any idea how much he’s grown from that helpless child Zishu first met in Jiangnan. Idly, he considers if it might be time to make a start on the sixth generation’s painting.
It hadn’t felt right to do so when he was sure he’d die before he passed on more than the initial steps of the most basic of their clan’s arts, but if Da Wu truly has managed to somehow save his meridians…
Once the door is safely closed and Chengling’s not-yet silent steps have faded away, Zishu finally allows himself to crumple against Lao-wen’s side. The taller man catches him at once, easing him softly back against the bedframe.
“So stubborn, A-xu. You’re lucky that boy of ours is still so trusting.”
He snorts, eyes following Lao-wen intently as he goes about wiping away the broth and congee that had slopped over the sides of the bowls during Chengling’s careless rush to the bed. “Not so trusting as he used to be apparently. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”
Lao-wen returns to his side with the smallest of the three bowls and that endearing look of predatory cunning barely concealed beneath a sweet smile that always leaves Zishu caving to his whims. “A-xu, I’m hurt! Would I turn our little disciple against a man as upright as Shen-zhongzhu?” Zishu fixes him with a blank stare, and Lao-wen returns it with a gleeful chortle. “Truly I had nothing to do with it, this is all on the mans own head. I’ll even tell you about it if you’ll drink your medicine obediently.”
Zishu takes the bowl, wrinkling his nose in distaste at the repulsive odor wafting off the murky liquid. “I’m not a child, I don’t need to be cajoled into such things.” Lao-wen hums placatingly and nudges the bowl with a finger. “Of course not, A-xu.”
Rolling his eyes at the taller mans expectant look and hopeful smile, he empties the bowl in a single draft.
He nearly chokes on it. The stuff somehow tastes even worse than it smells, his body immediately and violently trying to reject the vile brew, but Zishu mastered his gag reflex years ago and he manages to force it down.
When he lowers the bowl Lao-wen is already holding a tiny spoon of honey to his lips and he startles, the tips of his ears reddening at the intimacy of the gesture as he looks hurriedly away.
“I told you, I’m not a child.”
The spoon presses with gentle insistence against his lower lip and his ears flush even hotter. “And so? Doesn’t my A-xu deserve whatever sweetness I can offer him?”
For a moment Zishu just sits there, flustered and hyperaware of the soft press of ceramic against seam of his lips. He’d like to be stubborn about this but he can feel Lao-wen’s pleading eyes on him and he’s always been weak for that look, even in the early days when he still distrusted the man.
Keeping his eyes firmly on the breakfast tray he stiffly opens his mouth to accept the spoon.
Lao-wen makes a soft, happy noise as he slips the spoon into his mouth and despite his mortification Zishu can feel a warmth even sweeter than the honey spreading through his chest.
Lao-wen doesn’t move to pull the spoon away until Zishu has sucked it perfectly clean of the sticky sweetness, and Zishu is horrified to feel his cheeks beginning to heat under the sheer softness in his gaze.
Eager for a distraction to break the moment he clears his throat pointedly. “Shen Shen.”
His Zhiji accedes to the implied request easily enough, reaching over to swap the empty medicine bowl for one of still warm food as he answers.
“Well mind you I don’t have all the details, but apparently the idiot up and decided that following through with the Conference was too risky. He packed up his disciples and headed back to his Sect barely a few hours before the glazed armor somehow got loose in the camp.”
Zishu cocks his head in confusion, pausing with a spoonful of congee halfway to his lips. “And that upset Chengling? Why… He didn’t get close to any of the dead disciples did he? Or one of the wounded?”
The last question comes on the heels of an unexpected bloom of dread, but Lao-wen is quick to shake his head. “No, nothing like that. Apparently he objected rather strongly to Shen Shen’s decision to pull out. Strongly enough to escape his minders and go looking for you as it turns out. Eat A-xu, there’s barely enough meat on your bones to hold a kite together.”
Relief replaces the sudden swell of dread, and he shoots the other man a half-heartedly grumpy look, making a show of taking a bite. And jerks abruptly in shock.
Lao-wen surges towards him, hands hovering anxiously just above his elbows as he searches Zishu’s face with wide eyes. “What is it? Did you burn yourself? Do you need me to fetch you some water?”
Zishu can’t muster the concentration to answer him, still stunned from the unexpected explosion of flavor and texture. It’s just common congee topped with a generous sprinkle of coriander, nothing special, and yet the taste of it… It lingers on his tongue, creamy and spiced and almost overwhelming in its richness.
He’d realized he was dangerously close to losing his sense of taste entirely, but had it really been this much? Surely food hadn't always tasted like this?
Lao-wen calls his name again and he snaps out of it with a jolt. “I’m fine Lao-wen. What were you saying?” Strong brows furrow suspiciously at the attempt to redirect his attention and large hands come to rest lightly on his forearms.
He feels another brief flare of irritation at the reproachful tone, but it dies just as quickly when he sees the undercurrent of anxiety in Lao-wen’s expression.
Somewhere in the underworld Jiuxiao is laughing himself sick at Zishu’s pathetic inability to stay properly angry with this beautiful bastard.
“Lao-wen. Honestly, it’s nothing. I was just surprised by the taste, that’s all.”
His Zhiji looks briefly confused, then alarmed, eyes flashing down suspiciously to the bowl. “Does it taste off? A-xiang usually prepares my meals herself but she’s been so busy lately and Xiao-cao isn't used to the ghosts yet, if one of them got something past him-!”
Before Zishu can stop him he takes the spoon from his fingers and scoops up a healthy bite to pop into his own mouth, eyes narrowed intently as he puzzles over the food. Zishu shoots him a look that’s equal parts terrified affection, and disbelieving irritation as he promptly steals back the spoon. They still haven't even resolved their argument from the last time the idiot threw himself headfirst into danger and he's already-!
“I told you to stop fussing! It’s not poison, I’m just not used to being able to taste so much anymore.”
Lao-wen freezes in surprise and then his face goes utterly stricken, lips parting softly and ink-dark brows lifting in distress as he stares soulfully at Zishu. The look makes his fingers itch to pull the man into a protective hug, but he's determined not to indulge this. If he does Lao-wen will never stop fluttering and they'll both end up heartsick and exhausted.
Pointing the spoon warningly at Lao-wen’s face, he stubbornly refuses to let them get side-tracked by some overwrought discussion of his previous degeneration into weakness. “Don’t. And stop changing the subject. Shen Shen. Chengling.”
Lao-wen watches him with a steady focus that makes it clear he won’t forget that particular admission anytime soon, but eventually he withdraws his hands and nods back toward the bowl. “As you wish, A-xu. But if you stop eating, I stop talking.”
Zishu rolls his eyes heavily at the pointed prodding and takes another bite. He nearly shudders under the shock of it’s flavor and his stomach shifts uneasily at the heavy thickness of it sliding down his throat, but he swallows regardless. Lao-wen relaxes as he does and settles back a bit, picking up the bowl of broth for himself.
“Where was I? Oh yes! Chengling took offense to Shen Shen deciding to withdraw from Qingya. The two of them fought about it, rather loudly and publicly from what he’s let slip. In the end Shen Shen took his people back to his sect and Chengling ran off on his own rather than follow him obediently. Shen Shen’s sent a few disciples back to search the mountain for him a few times since, but none have ever approached the Valley and Chengling refuses to go out and speak to them.”
Zishu looks up sharply at that little revelation. “Disciples? He hasn’t come looking for Chengling himself?” Lao-wen cocks his head, brows lifting slightly in question. “No, did you really expect him to? You know how the sects are, it’s all token efforts and lip service to justify the power-grab of the day.”
Zishu's gaze goes unfocused as he recalls the oath he’d wrung from a wary Shen Shen in the aftermath of dealing with Zhao Jings dogs. “He swore to me he’d get Chengling out of Qingya and keep him safe. He had no business leaving without him.”
The abandonment galls him, not least because if things had gone according to plan it would have left Chengling in a position far too close to Lao-wen's for comfort. He's not exactly feeling up for another hunt just now, but perhaps he'll have to pay a visit to Dagu Sect when he recovers.
Lao-wen’s mouth goes tight at the vague reminder that Zishu hadn’t planned on being around to get Chengling out himself, and the atmosphere between them thickens once more with unresolved arguments.
Abruptly distracted from his nebulously murderous thoughts, Zishu drops his eyes to his too-large bowl of congee. While he regrets the pain his actions have caused his Zhiji it’s not in Zishu to apologize for the choices he made when he thought Lao-wen was lost to him, anymore than it was in him to trade away his martial arts for a few more years of half-life.
Clearing his throat, he does his best to shove past the weight of all the things they’re not saying and bring them back to safer ground. “You said the Dagu disciples hadn’t approached the Valley. Is that where we are now?”
The moment passes and Lao-wen nods, sweeping a hand out in a grand gesture. “Forgive me A-xu, what a poor host I am! Welcome to ‘the heart of Ghost Valley, the Diyu Palace, where dwells The Valley Master in depraved luxury and wickedness’! Or so the teahouse singers like to claim.”
Zishu’s lips twitch up into a small smile at the return of Lao-wen’s usual mischievous dramatics. “And is Wen-dashanren going to tell me that the singers are mistaken?”
Lao-wen grins and sets aside his bowl, bracing one hand on the other side of Zishu's hip and leaning on it so that he can turn towards him without shifting further away. Like this Zisu's thighs are bracketed by Lao-wen's side and arm and he’s not quite boxing Zishu in but he's far closer than anyone could consider proper.
“Obviously they are! I’ll have you know that the Manor has never once been given any sort of title by either the ghosts or the Master, much less anything so grand as ‘The Diyu Palace’.”
He can’t help the burst of laughter that escapes him at the playful scorn of the words. “So you don’t object to the allegations of wickedness and depravity?”
Lao-wen tips his chin down to look up at him from beneath his lashes, the seductive heat in dark eyes leaving him suddenly breathless.
“Well I have carried off the Jianghu’s greatest beauty and imprisoned him in my bedchamber without so much as a dudou to protect his virtue, so perhaps the depraved luxury isn’t too far off.”
Zishu gapes back at him, flustered near out of his wits. Lao-wen’s eyes flicker meaningfully down to his parted lips and Zishu abruptly turns his face away as a ferocious heat spreads across his cheeks.
He's had sex before, both for and outside of missions. He's even taken lovers, though he'd fallen out of the habit of looking for more than a quick tumble after his first few years in the capital. But whether it was courtesans or lovers or even the occasional honeypot target, he's never been wanted quite like this before.
The weight of Lao-wen's ardent gaze alone is an almost tangible pressure against his skin, enough to make him shiver and blush like the pure-hearted maidens that only seem to exist in proverbs and poetry.
The back of Lao-wen's fingers brush over his flushed cheek and Zishu sucks in a shuddering breath as the heated moment turns suddenly soft. There's a tender sort of yearning to the gesture that's mirrored in his own foolish heart. He feels desperate and dizzy as it hits him that Lao-wen is right here, he's alive, and Zishu is alive, and maybe they're actually going to be able to stay that way together.
Suddenly overwhelmed, he catches Lao-wen's fingers and turns his hand until he can nuzzle into his palm, eyes sliding shut as he struggles to ride out the wild rush of emotions threatening to swamp him. Lao-wen whispers his name worshipfully, leaning in to rest his brow against Zishu's and for the moment, they are content to quietly breath in each others presence.
Though he knows it's only to be expected in the wake of such a long convalescence - and he still can't quite believe that he's apparently been sleeping for over a month - he can't help the burst of shamed frustration he feels that Kexing has to carry him out to enjoy the warmth of the sun on his skin. Zishu is not a man accustomed to feeling helpless or reliant on others, and he suspects that if it were anyone but Lao-wen helping him he wouldn't have been able to stop himself from snapping at them out of sheer humiliation.
Embarrassing as the experience is though, he's somewhat mollified by how Lao-wen doesn't even bother to ask before hiding his sword and a brace of knives in the folds of his robes before carrying him out of the manor and into the odd grove surrounding it.
And he can admit to himself that he enjoys being wrapped up in the warmth of his arms, held close enough to his chest to be constantly aware of the reassuringly steady thunder of his heart.
Lao-wen settles them among the roots of one of the larger trees with a familiarity that Zishu recognizes from the ease with which he'd dressed him earlier. He wonders how many times Lao-wen has brought him here over the past weeks, how that brilliantly quick mind of his could bear the boredom of a totally unresponsive companion. He almost wants to chide the man for subjecting himself to such a pointless ordeal, but there's a greater part of him that's overwhelmed with pathetic gratitude that Lao-wen hadn't abandoned him.
He would have understood if he had, would have forgiven him without a second thought, but...
It warms something in him that he hadn't even known had grown cold, to know that even when it was reasonable and understandable Kexing had not left him behind.
Kexing keeps up a stream of cheerful conversation as they bask, chattering away about the more amusing antics the youngsters have gotten into recently and the latest letter from Beiyuan. Apparently Wu Xi's own student was 'fascinated' by their tales of Ghost Valley and Beiyuan was already planning to bring the boy for a visit at some point in the future.
Zishu didn't think Lao-wen realized, but he was familiar enough with his old friend to recognize the gleeful hints that the boy had either decided to run off and join one of the factions his guardians had encountered during their trip or developed a crush on one of the people they'd met. While he had a few suspicions about that, he decided to hold his peace for the moment. Lao-wen was already fussing enough over Xiao-cao and A-xiang's impending marriage, no need to send him into fits over the prospect of a puppy-love that might not even exist.
Despite the fact that he's only been awake for a handful of hours, Zishu is struggling to keep his eyes open when a maid approaches them with the modest spread of finger foods Lao-wen had called for and he feels his Zhiji's attentions shift.
He's still chattering away just as cheerfully, he doesn't do more than glance at the maid, but Zishu can feel the loss of his full attention like a hand slipping out of his.
Suddenly alert, he turns his attention to the maid, though he keeps his eyes half-lidded and hums with the same sleepy acknowledgments he's been giving Lao-wen for the last half-shichen.
She's quite pretty, but other than that he doesn't see anything to set her apart from the other women slipping discreetly through the halls of Kexing's manor. She wears the same red and white clothing, her hair is pulled back in the same modest style, she carries herself with the same discreet subservience.
But Kexing is watching her, and so Zishu does too.
Ultimately he doesn't think Lao-wen actually catches it when it happens, but Zishu does. There's something too still, too careful in the precision with which she sets the wine jug at Lao-wen's elbow. He recognizes what he's seeing in an instant, and despite Lao-wen's soothing warmth at his back his blood cools instantly to the familiar icy-sharpness of killing intent.
His body may be plagued by a pervasive exhaustion that leaves him largely helpless, but the beast in his soul is more awake than it has been since Jiuxiao's death, and in this instant it's less that he's resting against Kexing and more that Kexing is tucked safely away behind him.
This woman intends to poison his Lao-wen.
Zishu will kill her and eat her raw.
His core throbs with a bone-deep ache as he lifts himself away from Kexing's chest and leans over to take the jug, but his hands are steady and his movements are smooth enough that only Lao-wen would notice the stiffness that still clings to him.
Instantly there's a hand on his side, ready to support him at a moment's notice.
"A-xu? You could have just asked me to hand you the wine if you were so thirsty!"
The tone is exaggeratedly petulant, as if he's protesting the loss of closeness, but Zishu can hear the thread of concern hidden underneath it. The rush of affection that follows only sharpens the bloodthirst chilling his thoughts to calculated calm.
"Would I even get any then? Don't think I've forgotten that you left that girl of yours to steal all my liqueur while you ran off with a fresh-faced pretty boy behind my back."
He doesn't even glance back at the theatrical protests of Lao-wen's unending faithfulness, that he could never have eyes for anyone but Zishu. He knows all that, and his Zhiji's dramatics have a bizarre tendency to draw the complete and terrified attention of any ghost in the vicinity so the woman doesn't notice when Zishu discretely sniffs the mouth of the jug.
The scent that greets him is almost painfully sharp, complex, and distinctly familiar; the fruity sweetness of cassia wine with just the thinnest tang hiding underneath. For a minute he's stunned, but then a rush of cruel mirth bleeds into the rage filling his blood and he has to bite back a burst of laughter.
Whoever this woman is, she should have stuck to the straightforward violence of a ghost.
Snake venom of all things. This is incompetence on a level he's yet to see.
Of course, it does give him an opportunity that competence would have denied him. This is Ghost Valley after all, and he has no intention of playing the helpless beauty to Lao-wen's dashing hero. Best to start establishing himself early.
"-A-xu! Are you even listening to me?"
He hums idly swirling the wine as he locks eyes with the maid. "Are you a child? Stop pouting Xiao-wen, you're making me tired."
Lao-wen makes an offended noise in his throat, hand tightening on Zishu's side as he tugs him firmly back against his chest until their bodies are pressed flush against each other again. "A child am I? Shall I show you how much of a man I am?"
The words are so blatantly lewd Zishu would hit him for them if he couldn't all but feel the jealousy radiating off the man.
A wave of amused exasperation rolls over him, sweeter by far than the cruel mirth inspired by the 'maid'. Really, his Zhiji is such a fool. He knows perfectly well why he's turned his focus to the woman and still he's sulking over the loss of his attention.
Still holding the maids gaze, Zishu absently pats Lao-wen's thigh with his free hand and settles heavily against his love's broad chest. "Yes, yes, our Xiao-wen is growing up so well." Lao-wen rumbles unhappily at the indulgent tone but Zishu ignores it, fixing the maid with a charming smile that makes her pale, eyes flickering nervously between him and the vinegar spirit behind him. "This smells quite good, did you choose it yourself?"
She ducks into a low bow, stuttering out humble demurrals, and falls silent when Zishu throws his head back and drains the entire jug in one long draught. He smacks his lips appreciatively as he swallows the last of it down, his smile just a touch too sharp and bright. "Thank you for the wine, pretty miss. It's been quite some time since I had anything so fine."
She bows even lower, her face pale, and Kexing's hand tightens on his side despite the lightness of his tone. "So cruel, A-xu. You didn't even leave a drop for me."
Zishu's smile warms and he plucks a lychee from a nearby bowl, swiftly peeling off the tough skin and turning to press the succulent fruit placatingly to unsmiling lips as he meets dangerously widened eyes fondly.
"Since when did my Lao-wen like spicy things, hm? Have some fruit instead, the sweetness will suit you better."
Lao-wen doesn't look away from him as he accepts the fruit, lips closing gently over the tips of Zishu's fingers as he delicately sucks the juicy white flesh from the seed.
The 'maid' mutters her apologies and makes her escape, scurrying off through the trees as they stare at each other.
Once she's gone Lao-wen relaxes slightly, the too-wide stare receding though the worry underneath remains. He presses a soft kiss to his fingers once only the pit is left and Zishu pulls back, carelessly tossing the pit away as he settles into Lao-wen's embrace.
"Are you alright? You didn't strain yourself did you? You didn't have to scare her off you know, I could have killed her even like this."
Zishu huffs in exasperation at the fluttering, content to curl further into Lao-wen's warmth. "I know that you idiot. I was making a point. You do know who she was, don't you?"
Lao-wen hums affirmingly as he combs a hand through his hair and Zishu melts further into the touch, blissfully content as a well fed cat on a lap. "Good. I'm going to kill her later."
There's a dark, vicious part of Zishu that thrums with delighted warmth when Lao-wen doesn't even ask why. "Publicly?" He thinks about it for a minute, and then nods. Kexing had told him that the smoke from the Conference funeral fires could be seen for a solid week after he lost consciousness on Bailu cliff, so it shouldn't be too difficult to establish himself among the Valley residents as a force to be feared, but best to drive it home early. Distant smoke is never so frightening as blood on your skin after all.
"Mm. And you should be careful to stick to Xiao-cao or A-xiang's food from now on. The wine was poisoned."
Kexing freezes, not even breathing as his hands go tight and hard on Zishu's hip and hair. "What." He hums, feeling lax and sleepy again now that the threat is dealt with. Lao-wen pulls urgently on his hair, dragging his head back to search his face frantically and Zishu abruptly feels guilty about his phrasing when he sees how white Lao-wen's face has gone. "What do you mean poisoned?! Are you alright? You need to throw up, I'll get-"
Zishu reaches up and grabs hold of Lao-wen's face, keeping his voice steady and reassuring.
"Lao-wen. Calm down. She laced the wine with snake venom; toxins like that are dangerous on open wounds or in the blood, but relatively harmless if swallowed.
It was the most ridiculously incompetent attempt at assassination I have ever had the dubious pleasure of witnessing, and the worst it will likely do is give me a mild case of indigestion. I'm fine."
Lao-wen searches his face for a long moment, then leans into his touch with an explosive sigh. "I know I said I wanted to be with you until our hair turns white, but I had rather hoped I had a few more years of youthful good looks to win you over with. Could you please stop scaring me like this before my hair goes entirely white?"
Zishu strokes a thumb soothingly over the thin skin beneath his eye. "So dramatic. If she were competent I wouldn't have let her live long enough to carry tales."
He finds himself abruptly dragged back in, arms curling tight around his shoulders and waist as Lao-wen buries his face in Zishu's hair. "I don't care if she's incompetent. She poisoned the wine and let you drink it. If you don't kill her inside a week, I will."
Zishu snorts, content to lean into his Zhiji's embrace. "Don't you dare. The ghosts are already frightened of you, and I'm not interested in being decorative." Lao-wen's laugh is a bit strained and breathy, but genuine. "But my A-xu is so beautiful, you would be so good at-"
Zishu doesn't even bother to open his eyes when he punches him in the arm, and Lao-wen's laughter devolves into something more relaxed and open.
There are still discussions to be had, confessions and apologies to make, and presumably wreckage to account for.
But they're together, and for Zishu that is enough.
So I may have fallen down a research rabbit hole on hanfu for the sake of not overusing 'robe' (btw, there's a Tumblr for that and it's giving me Ideas) and I've done my best to figure out terms that are at least generally correct for the clothing here. There is however one exception.
As far as I can tell a dudou is a) a woman's undergarment, and b) probably from the wrong general era of history to use here. But! They're very pretty, and I think Zishu's waist would look pretty in them ok? They look like those silky handkerchief halter-tops you see sometimes and I love them.
On a more story related note, do you know what my absolute favorite thing about Zhou Zishu is? It's that he's a total pushover for anyone he seriously cares about. The man is a master assassin who lies like he breathes, but the best he can do when facing doe-eyed Chengling is '...there were bandits? Right bandits. Very scary. Uh. But also don't worry, your Uncle-dad killed them all.
He faces down both the entire Jianghu and Ye Baiyi and essentially tells both actual morals and the entire structure of society 'fuck off, you can't tell me what to do' but Kexing scolds him seriously once and he goes all docile and contrite and meek (have you SEEN the way he ducks his head and flicks those big sad eyes up at Kexing in the armory????)
Most importantly to this chapter, the man is INCAPABLE of staying seriously angry or irritated with Wen Kexing.
And he knows this because anytime he wants to hold out he either refuses to look at him, or hides from him. Arguments about whether or not Kexing's revenge is good for him? Vanish into town (and possibly get dangerously drunk). Argue about the nails? Run away from the inn. Kexing literally lets him think he's dead? Sit as far away from him as he can physically manage at the celebratory dinner and make eye contact only with the wine.
This is literally his go-to strategy when he's upset with Kexing, and for good reason because if the two of them are around each other for longer than five minutes he INSTANTLY MELTS AND FORGIVES EVERYTHING. It doesn't even take that long. Remember that scene at Gao Chong's heroes conference where Zishu says they should go their separate ways while running off to save Chengling? And then Kexing comes after him and Zishu melts the instant Kexing locks eyes with him like '...don't look at me with the eyes, I can't handle the eyes, aaaaahhh fine nvm I forgive everything, let's run away and get married'
Or again, that dinner? Where he forgives Kexing for the death stunt within thirty seconds of having to actually look him the eyes and talk to him?
I love Zishu, and he is WEAK for his Lao-wen.
Zishu retches over the bucket, Lao-wen carefully holding his hair back as his body stubbornly insists on purging even the last foul dregs of bile left in his stomach.
The sheer pettiness of it leaves him as frustrated as he is miserable. He is the master of his body, he’s been walking off everything from hangovers to near-mortal wounds for years, and yet a month on nothing but broth and even a bowl of too-thick soup can bring him down.
When he finally stops heaving Lao-wen pulls him back from the bucket, tenderly wiping his mouth with a damp cloth and smoothing back the sweat-damp bangs clinging to his temples. When he speaks his voice is so low and soft that even as close as they are Zishu can barely make out the words.
“Is it a bad day?”
He shakes his head at the question, the worst of the nausea slowly passing now that his gut has emptied itself. “No, just the pork I think.” Even with his eyes closed against the shaky aftermath of the vomiting he can feel some of the tension unwinding from Lao-wen’s bones.
Overburdening his still-temperamental stomach with something too heavy is frustrating, but relatively easy to address after all.
The bad days are not so kind.
Bad days aren’t a simple matter of his stomach rejecting solid foods; they’re the times when the ghost of the nails haunts him and everything becomes too much for a body used to straining to register even the most extreme sensations.
Every bright color and ray of light sears his eyes, every whisper of sound slams through his ears to his brain like a miner’s pickaxe, every whisper of spring wind scrapes across his skin like a dull knife, and even the scent of the most delicate tea is overpowering enough to leave him gagging.
On the bad days merely existing in his own body becomes a torment and the only relief to be found is in allowing his mind to flee the prison of his flesh until the storm passes. Those are the days when Lao-wen bars all entrance to the Masters wing, shutters the windows, lays Zishu in a nest of unbearably soft blankets, and keeps a silent watch over him until the worst has passed and he can finally bear to creep back into himself.
Thankfully Wu Xi’s latest letter said that such occurrences should become rarer as time passes and his body relearns the full strength of his senses, but Lao-wen is ever wary of them.
Doing his best to shake off the aftermath of his bout of sickness, Zishu shoves himself to his feet. He sways a bit and before he even has time to stagger Lao-wen is at his side, catching him by the arms and steadying him easily. Relaxing into the touch, Zishu allows the taller man to help him back toward the low table by the window.
His touch is firmer and his voice louder now that he’s assured its a simple case of nausea, but the attentive fretting is undiminished. “Getting it out of your system will have helped. Wait a minute and I’ll fetch some ginger tea to settle your stomach.”
Zishu grimaces at the prospect, but doesn’t bother protesting as he’s settled onto the thick cushion waiting for him. He’s been fed enough ginger tea in the past two weeks to be thoroughly sick of it, but he can’t deny how helpful it’s been in the arduous process of learning what his body will and won’t accept in the way of food.
While Lao-wen goes to fetch the kettle warming on the brazier, Zishu picks up one of the handful of reports still spread out over the table and returns to his reading. Lao-wen’s spy network outside the valley doesn’t have anywhere near Tian Chuang’s reach, but they’re respectably wide spread and they have their fingers on the pulse of Jianghu.
He’s barely made more than a start when a steaming cup is set next to his hand and a familiar warmth settles against his back, arms winding gently around his waist as a chin hooks over his shoulder to peer down at the report.
“A-xu works too hard. Why bother with all this when the sects are already scattered?”
Zishu doesn’t look up from the scroll even as he tips his head to rest his temple against his Zhiji’s. “Guzhu thinks like a general. An enemy beaten merely means another rising to take their place; keeping an eye on the chaos now gives us a chance to prevent anyone from stirring up more trouble. And even after the Jianghu eventually regains its equilibrium, knowing how the eventual victors clawed their way to the top will be valuable for keeping them in check.”
Lao-wen grumbles petulantly as he digs his chin sharply into Zishu’s shoulder. “They’ve already failed to breach the valley twice at full strength, who could be troublesome now when my A-xu has already culled the worst of the dogs?”
Zishu rolled his eyes, setting aside the finished report in favor of the tea. The sharpness of the liquid washes soothingly down his throat and cuts easily through the lingering foulness left in the wake of his nausea.
“Don’t play the lunatic with me Lao-wen. You know very well the easiest rallying call for anyone looking to gain support among the sects is another attack on Ghost Valley.”
Kexing snorts as Zishu exchanges his teacup for another scroll, and for all his whining Zishu knows he’s reading the report over his shoulder with perfect diligence.
“And who would be suicidally stupid enough to answer such a call? Two of their precious Hero Conferences have collapsed in on themselves now, and thanks to my lovely A-xu the last one was an even greater disaster than the battle over Rong Xuan’s deathsite. Maybe in another twenty years such a banner might raise a new army, but certainly not before then.”
Zishu elbows him reprimandingly and can’t muster more than the barest annoyance when Kexing doesn’t bother to so much as flinch.
“Just because they can’t raise an army doesn’t mean they can’t target the Valley in other ways. Part of the reason the sects were so easily roused twice against the Valley was the lingering resentment over the first battle at Qingya. Better to keep their bitterness directed at each other this time.”
Lao-wen sighs mournfully at his chiding but obediently falls silent, apparently content to snuggle against Zishu’s back and silently read through the reports with him.
The morning slips quietly by them, the only disruptions coming when Lao-wen insists on refilling his teacup or murmuring extra comments on this or that operative that help flesh out their report. He's vaguely amused at how many of them seem to be like A-xiang, lost souls that Lao-wen smuggled out of the Valley on the pretext of making better use of them. He'll have to bring it up the next time his sweet Zhiji starts making silly comments about his supposed soft-heartedness.
By the time he’s made it through all but the last report the clear morning sun has shifted to the richer tones of early noon and his tongue is so thick with the spicy sweetness of honey and ginger he half-expects his lips to leave sticky golden smears on the rim of his cup. He reaches for the final scroll and Lao-wen explodes with a theatrical groan.
“A-xu, I’m so bored. Can’t we take a break from all this dreary reading? I’ll even bring you some wine if we stop for lunch now.”
Zishu huffs a near-silent laugh, eyes crinkling up into amused half-moons at the transparent attempt at manipulation.
“After we finish this last report. Information rots faster than fresh fruit, best to attend to it quickly.”
Lao-wen grumbles incoherently under his breath, shamelessly hiding his face in Zishu’s shoulder. It can’t be a comfortable angle for his neck given the differences in their height but he seems determined to stay there, hiding in the folds of Zishu's robes like a recalcitrant child. Helpless fondness flowers in his chest and he bites back a smile, tapping the scroll gently against the crown of his sulking Zhiji’s head.
“If you’re so bored go and find Chengling or A-xiang. Between the wedding and preparing a place for the rest of the disciples I’m sure both of them could use your help.”
Lao-wen’s arms tighten around his waist and he lifts his face, turning to pout exaggeratedly at him. Their faces are so close that Zishu can feel warm breath washing over his jaw, and his heart skips a beat at the sudden proximity.
“Are you trying to get rid of me? So cruel! It’s true what they say, affection really does wane after marriage.”
Zishu rolls his eyes and hopes Lao-wen hasn’t noticed the slight flush rising in his ears. “Who married a nuisance like you?”
The teasing pout darkens to something slow and heated, intimate to the point of being raw. Lao-wen’s voice drops to the barest murmur and Zishu can’t look away from the intensity of his eyes. “Is niangzi planning to be rid of this nuisance then? Will you sell me to a brothel after all?”
Zishu feels his ears heat further, the flush threatening to spread to his cheeks.
Without thinking, as easily as if he’s done it a thousand times before, he leans in to close the distance between them and kisses the beautiful fool.
It’s tender beyond anything Zishu believed himself capable of, a delicate press of lips so warm and sweet that he dazedly wonders if his heart has been hoarding away all the gentleness in him for this exact moment. He feels like if he just lingers long enough he could pour all the love and care and affection roiling in his chest into Lao-wen until it glows through the man’s skin like a lantern.
He's imagined this moment a hundred times, pictured heated kisses in the dark of night or soft teasing ones under the warmth of the morning sun, and somehow it's still more than he ever dreamed it would be. Part of him wants to just stay like this forever but he can feel how still and frozen Lao-wen is against him, so with a soft sigh he starts to pull away.
In an instant there’s a hand buried in his hair, dragging him back in as Lao-wen’s mouth crashes hungrily into his.
Zishu draws in a sharp, surprised breath at the ferocity of the kiss and the opportunistic bastard doesn’t even hesitate to lick into his mouth, deepening it to something desperate and borderline filthy. An involuntary sound that’s somewhere between a pleased moan and a scolding grumble escapes Zishu as he surges up to kiss back with equal fervor, his hands scrabbling blindly for something to hold on to. The best he can get is one hand reached awkwardly back to clutch at the shoulder of Lao-wen’s robes while the other clings desperately to the arm still wrapped around his waist like an iron bar, and distantly he can’t help but think it’s unfair that Lao-wen gets to curl his whole body around him like this when Zishu can barely manage to get his hands on him at all. The thought slips away quickly enough, all his attention stolen by Kexing's determination to kiss him senseless.
It goes on and on, every time one of them pulls back for air the other chases after them and they crash back together like they’d never parted in the first place, like they don’t know how to part. Lao-wen’s fingers are wound so tightly in Zishu’s hair that his scalp aches from the pull and his own grip must be cutting off the circulation to Lao-wen’s fingers but neither of them let up. He isn’t sure they even can. Perhaps they’ve somehow transmuted themselves into one of natures endless cycles, like the turning of the seasons or the crashing of the tide against the shore, destined to repeat eternally until they crumble to dust.
The moment only breaks when a deferential tap comes at the door, and a soft voice calls out from the corridor beyond. “The bureau has brought the tribute Guzhu requested.”
Lao-wen breaks away from him with a harsh gasp and even though Zishu can’t bring himself to open his eyes yet he can feel the killing intent all but radiating off the other man. Feeling slightly overwhelmed and struggling to catch his breath, he tips his head to hide his face against the curve of Kexing’s throat where the clean scent of him is strong and thick.
The hand in his hair slips down to cradle the soft spot at the base of his skull and Zishu all but melts against him. A hand there could kill so easily, and yet from Lao-wen the gesture feels as soothing as being tucked away beneath the warmth of Shifu’s cloak as a small boy.
The command is sharp with the threat of violence and normally Zishu would never allow anyone to see him so relaxed, but this time he doesn’t bother to so much as open his eyes. Lao-wen is here, he can let him handle things just this once.
The door slides open and someone pads into the room, their steps servant soft rather than killer quiet.
“Set it on the table and go.”
Lao-wen’s voice is edged with the dangerous command he only uses in his role as Guzhu and Zishu can’t help a quiet hum of appreciation at the soft rumble of it against his cheek. A thumb strokes gently over the nape of his neck in response, though Zishu knows his eyes must still be fixed unwaveringly on the handmaid as she murmurs a deferential acknowledgment and moves briefly to the table. Zishu can hear her brush a scroll out of the way, but other than that there’s no sound to indicate whatever tribute she brought being offered.
She’s gone almost as swiftly as she came, and only then does Lao-wen relax against him.
It takes nearly half an incense sticks worth of time before Zishu feels steady enough to emerge from the refuge of Kexing’s throat, the hand at the back of his neck sliding down to rest gently between his shoulder blades as he straightens. “What did they send you this time?”
He’s quietly pleased that Lao-wen’s voice is still a bit rough, his eyes still a touch more intent than is warranted by their light conversation as he nods distractedly at the neatly folded pile of vibrant blue silk on the table.
“This one’s yours actually. As captivating as you are in my clothes, I did say I’d commissioned some proper robes for you.”
Zishu blinks in surprise, eyeing the rich brilliance of the cloth.
He honestly hadn’t given much to the matter of his robes. He’s worn everything from the heavy, stifling layers of the court to the coarse rags of beggars; the slightly too large folds of Kexing’s bright robes were no particular hardship to endure in comparison. Still, he knows better than most the power ones appearance has when it comes to influencing and controlling perceptions.
While wandering through the Valley in the loose comfort of Kexing’s robes may yet prove useful later, his first impression on the ghosts calls for rather more drama.
Tapping absently at Lao-wen’s arm, he shifts his weight in preparation to stand. “Let me up, I want to try them on.”
Lao-wen makes a plaintive little whine at the request, but reluctantly lets him go. Zishu shoots him a tiny smile and then rises from his spot between Lao-wen’s legs, carefully stepping over one raised knee as he rounds the table toward the neatly folded clothing.
He’s steady enough to dress himself now but the time spent totally dependent on Lao-wen has long since killed any sense of shame or body shyness that might have existed between them, and he doesn’t bother to duck behind the folding screen in the corner or even withdraw to the far side of the room before he begins shedding layers, unbothered by the weight of Kexing's eyes on him as he does so.
He’s down to the sheer white cotton of his zhongyi and reaching for the shining silk of the new robes when Lao-wen stops him with a hand laid on his wrist. Zishu looks up to meet his eyes and blinks in surprise at the hopeful softness in his face. “Let me?”
Zishu has spent weeks all but clawing of his own skin with the desire to shake off his shameful reliance on his poor overburdened Zhiji and being able to dress himself still feels like a luxury, but he’s struck by the sincere want he finds in those dark eyes. After a moment he tips his head in resigned acceptance and his heart instantly eases at the way Lao-wen’s face brightens with an eager smile.
The moment Lao-wen lifts the inner robe Zishu sees why he’s so intent on this.
It’s a beautiful garment, the light silk dyed the deeply vibrant blue of ocean waves unmuddied by the debris of the shore and cut in the sort of simple flowing style Zishu prefers.
Against that backdrop the brilliance of the thicket of Spider Lillies proudly embroidered around the hems in Kexing’s signature vivid red burns like a signal fire on a moonless night. The message is simultaneously so poignant and so blatantly possessive that it almost makes a joke of the restrained dignity of the bamboo stalks embroidered across the shoulders of the outer robe in a far quieter silver blue.
It will certainly work wonders for affirming the particular flavor of rumors that he knows have been building among the ghosts since the last stray remnants of Wu Chang Gui’s surviving subordinates trickled back into the Valley but it’s still audacious enough that the only thing stopping Zishu from punching Lao-wen in the shoulder is the sincere happiness shining in his eyes as he ties the belt securely around Zishu’s waist and draws the outer robe reverently over his shoulders.
He breathes the word like a man drunk and Zishu smacks his wrists away with a roll of his eyes, determinedly ignoring the way his heart quickens with embarrassed pleasure at the compliment. “Never mind lovely, is it impressive?”
Lao-wen’s blissful smile curls into a bolder grin, the soft adoration easily tucked away beneath the mirthful delight dancing in his eyes.
“Naturally, my A-xu could never be anything less than magnificent!”
This time Zishu does hit him, though his lips are twitching with answering laughter as he does. “Shameless flirt, can you even make good on all these pretty words of yours? Didn’t Guzhu promise his blushing bride a public venue to introduce himself?”
Lao-wen throws his head back and savagely jubilant laughter fills the room.
Yuan Gui shuffles slightly in place and bitterly curses Wu Chang Gui in his heart.
He’d been so close to escaping this wretched place, years of carefully proving himself useful to the only Devil allowed contact with the outside world finally paying off when Guzhu had taken the remaining nine Devils to the human world to hunt Diao Si Gui.
It should have been simple once they were beyond the Valley gates; all it would have taken was an unguarded moment, perhaps during an attack on a sect where a minor captain could vanish without the loss being questioned, and he would have been free of the cursed Valley and its ghosts.
And then Wu Chang Gui had to be clever and align them with the Five Lakes. Before he ever got the chance to act the brochure of ghosts was dispersed throughout the Jianghu, every single named ghost to have set foot beyond the valley gates listed alongside their portrait, and just like that any hope of escape was snatched away.
For that alone he’d happily have put a knife in the goddamn fool’s back himself, but then he went and got himself and the rest of the officers killed until Yuan Gui was the only remaining named ghost in the whole department.
So here he stands alongside the handful of other surviving officers, not only still trapped in the Valley but now with authority’s perilous target painted on his back. For the moment the other departments are focused on undermining Xi Sang Gui and Shi Shi Gui, but that still leaves his own department to worry about. Not to mention the nightmarish prospect of his new proximity to Guzhu himself.
Yuan Gui’s mind rings with the terrible laughter and inhuman screams that resulted from the last summons, and he frantically forces the gory memory away. Guzhu will be arriving at any minute and hei doesn’t dare shake in front of him, not after how many times he’d seen the madman’s attention drawn by Kai Xin Gui’s desperate attempts to stifle his uncontrollable laughter.
He’s yanked abruptly out of his panic when one of those damned Handmaids from the Bureau of the Unfaithful announces Guzhu’s arrival and he freezes, frantically wishing for the safe anonymity of his old mask as he drops into a low bow and choruses a shaky welcome alongside the other officers.
The hem of a blood-bright silk robe sweeps past the edge of his vision, as eerily silent as a true Ghost, and Yuan Gui desperately struggles not to shiver.
Many of the Valley residents have speculated that Guzhu is not a man at all, but an actual restless ghost who wandered into the Valley after his death, and while Yuan Gui tells himself he doesn’t believe it, it’s hard to hold onto that skepticism in Guzhu’s actual presence. There’s something…death-touched about the man. Something unnatural. The Ten Devils were all master martial artists in their own right, cruel and terrible enough to be hunted to the very gates of Ghost Valley, yet none of them ever carried the same aura of uncanny bloodthirsty power that Guzhu wears like a second skin.
At least he sounds disinterested in their presence today. Yuan Gui has stood guard in the Yama Hall often enough to know that the safest place to be in the Valley is beneath Guzhu’s notice. He straightens along with the other officers and abruptly freezes in place.
Guzhu is stretched out on the Yanluo throne with his usual casual irreverence, indolently deadly as a well fed tiger with an expression of bored indifference. He’s propped one leg up on the seat of the throne and draped hedonistically across his lap using that leg as a backrest is a creature out of Yuan Gui’s nightmares.
He had only seen it twice, but horror had burned that ominous face irrevocably into his memory.
Xi Sang Gui steps forward, unfazed as ever in the face of Guzhu's madness as she begins her report on the current state of the Valley, but Yuan Gui isn't listening. The memory of what Guzhu had done to the last ghost he thought had looked too presumptuously on his 'lover' flashes through him and he reflexively tears his eyes away, fear-sweat beading at his temples as his mind races frantically.
He’d heard the rumors that Guzhu had brought a consort back to the Valley, but he’d dismissed them without a second thought, had silently mocked the wild tales being ascribed to the ‘bride’ in question. Only a fool would believe that Ghost Valley’s Guzhu was capable of a desire as harmless and human as taking a bride. Perhaps he’d dragged back a bedwarmer to amuse himself with, but had Bai Wu Chang still been alive to organize betting pools Yan Gui would have wagered a solid month of Hall duty on the playtoy in question being hung from the walls in bloody ruin inside a week.
He had never imagined that the bride in question was the creature that had stalked the dark nights beyond the Valley gate.
It might look like a man, but Yuan Gui had known it was something unnatural from the moment he first spotted it carrying Hei Wu Chang off into the trees like a leopard with a side of meat. At the time he’d thanked the heavens that the creature hadn’t noticed his presence, and only grown more grateful when the piles of dead left in it’s wake had to be dragged out of the caves.
Little had he known that the nightmare was only beginning.
The Demon’s handiwork had been everywhere in the days that followed, the whole mountain cursed with plagues, monsters, illusions, and deaths beyond counting. He hadn’t realized the creature was the one behind it all at first, not until he’d seized a chance to make a run back to the Valley under the cover of night and been driven almost to madness by the sight of the creature leading an army of dead men in a nightmarish rampage against the sleeping Jianghu camp.
Seeing the creature now, lounging across Ghuzhu’s lap with the madman’s eyes glittering dangerously and his hand resting on it’s thigh in a grotesque parody of possessive affection, a sudden shock of icy realization crashes over him like a wave.
He’d heard the righteous sects celebrating Guzhu’s death in the brief window before the Demon had come and they’d turned without warning on Wu Chang Gui and Kai Xin Gui, but he’d assumed it had been empty boasting when Guzhu returned to the Valley without so much as a bruise to show for their efforts.
But…he frantically scrambles to recall the rumors he had previously dismissed.
Didn’t they say that the Liulija had been a pretense? That Guzhu had led them out for the purpose of courting his chosen bride? What if those rumors were true? What if he’d SUCCEEDED? Would death have any hold on a man with a Demon consort to bind him to the mortal realm?
This time he can’t prevent the shudder of bone chilling terror that races down his spine.
Eight of the Ten Devils are dead. A dead man sits breathing on the Yanluo throne with a creature that commands monsters and weaves vicious spells in his lap. And Yuan Gui is trapped in the Valley with them.
He’s still gibbering mentally when Xi Sang Gui concludes her report on the state of the Valley. The creature watches them with a cold, crocodilian stare, and for some reason the laconic disinterest in it’s voice makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
“You’ve certainly trained them well Lao-wen.”
Guzhu doesn’t even bother to dismiss Xi Sang Gui, his eyes bright with a nauseating blend of fascination and lunacy as his full attention is drawn instantly to the monster on his lap. “How strange. A-xu is praising me but his lovely face seems dissatisfied. Has something vexed you?”
The sharp, blood-hungry edge of his amusement leaves Yuan Gui reflexively cowering. A Guzhu who spoke with such genial amusement was a Guzhu at his most unpredictable, and therefore his most dangerous. But the Demon merely tips its head, void-dark eyes narrow and intent on the uncertain ranks of ghosts still trying to decide what to make of it.
“I don’t like the way that one looks at you.”
Yuan Gui isn’t entirely sure which of them it’s looking at but like all the others freezes in place as Guzhu leans his head closer to the demons, the false smile dissolving into a raptor’s killing curiosity as he follows the Demon’s gaze.
“Mm? And how does she look at me?”
There’s an almost guileless quality to his cruelty, like a small child kicking over anthills for the sheer novelty of watching tiny creatures scramble. The Demon is not so relaxed, the vicious cold of it's attention never wavering from it's unfortunate target.
The newly promoted officers flinch as Guzhu bursts out in a nightmarishly gleeful cackle. “Does she? Well, are we not one in these matters? If these unruly ghosts of mine displease you then feel free to discipline them as you wish.”
The blood drains from Yuan Gui's face as the Demon hums and rises languidly to its feet. He barely has an instant to register the fear rising to choke him before the creature’s physical form splinters like a broken mirror, bleeding away to a rush of misty echoes that flow across the hall like death’s own shadow.
It’s only years of obediently following Wu Chang Gui’s lead that has him following Xi San Gui and Shi Shi Gui to their knees rather than freezing up or throwing himself back like most of the junior officers. His heart is pounding so fast he feels dizzy, and he can’t seem to take a proper breath.
The Demon doesn’t even glance at the rest of them, standing toe to toe with E Gui with two fingers resting gently against her forehead. His expression is as coolly disinterested as it was listening to Xi Sang Gui’s report and he hasn't so much as struck her but E Gui is rigid under his touch, her wide eyes locked with his. As Yuan Gui watches, blood begins seeping from her ears and nose.
The Demon narrows its eyes in faint distaste and pushes slightly against her forehead. E-gui stumbles back, body seizing soundlessly as she staggers, then collapses. The surrounding ghosts recoil from her, eyes wide and confused.
Guzhu sweeps down from the throne, stepping up beside his monstrous consort and curling an avaricious arm around it’s waist as he watches the unfortunate ghost's death throes with a truly insane smile. “My A-xu is so ruthless.”
His voice is delighted and taunting, utterly unconcerned that the creature he’s crooning at just killed a ghost with nothing more than a finger laid lightly on unguarded skin. The Demon doesn’t spare him so much as a glance, and Guzhu all but crows with smug satisfaction.
Yuan Gui quails in the dust and prays not to draw their attention.
Later that night, after the quivering ghosts have been dismissed to spread what they’d seen through the Valley and dinner has been eaten alongside the enthusiastically chattering children, the two of them finally retire to their room.
Kexing is going through the motions of preparing for sleep, almost painfully aware of A-xu sitting on their bed to comb through his hair in nothing but his zhongyi. He's quietly torn between the desire to merely sit and watch A-xu's elegant hands slide rhythmically through the thick tresses of his hair and the desire to take the comb and bury his own hands in the shining length. He knows that A-xu is still reveling in the newly regained ability to attend to such tasks himself though, so he deliberately turns back to his own ablutions.
As he finishes weaving his hair into the loose sleeping plait he prefers to keep it from tangling during the night he notices a faint shadow around his mouth in the rippling bronze mirror. He frowns and runs a hand over his chin, vaguely annoyed to feel the stiff bristle of hairs trying to make an appearance.
Kexing has never liked the prickle of facial hair or the way it changes the shape of his face, so he sets about preparing the thick soap and sharp blade he uses to deal with such things. As he does his shoulders begin to tense.
He's never actually done this in the Valley without A-xiang standing watch in the corner, the risk of putting a blade to his own throat too high to accept without a deterrent of some kind in place in case of attacks. With A-xu sharing his chambers her presence is no longer necessary, but it still leaves a knot of tension in his gut to go through the preparations without the little chatterbox's bored complaints ringing in his ears.
He startles slightly when a hand lands on his shoulder, eyes flying up to meet A-xu’s quiet gaze. “Let me.”
Kexing blinks at him, but relinquishes blade and basin without protest. A-xu sets them aside on the table and guides him patiently back into the chair.
Kexing folds easily under the pressure at his shoulders and abruptly loses his breath when A-xu follows him down, swinging one leg over him to kneel straddling his thighs. His hands automatically fly to A-xu’s hips, head tipping back to stare wide-eyed up at the man hovering above him.
A-xu doesn't seem to notice his breathless attention, utterly focused on coating his his jaw and throat in thick soap before reaching for the blade. Perversely, Kexing relaxes at the sight of the shining steel. A-xu would never hurt him, would never allow him to be hurt if he could prevent it. If A-xu is this close to him and armed he's confident that not even Ye Baiyi himself could harm him.
The razor edge of the blade kisses his throat, and Kexing feels safer than he has in years.
The quiet warmth of the spring night thickens to something almost sacred around them as Kexing stares yearningly up at A-xu’s face as the assassin turns all the intensity of focus he usually reserves for dealing death to sliding a blade harmlessly over the soft, vulnerable flesh of Kexing’s throat. The moment stretches between them and the question is wrenched out of Kexing before he even knows he’s going to ask.
“Why did you do it?”
It’s a mark of how much care A-xu is pouring into the task that he doesn’t startle or cut Kexing at the sudden outburst. Instead he just glances down, eyes darkening from consternation to remote understanding at whatever he finds in Kexing’s eyes. He turns his gaze back to his task but answers with the same even calm he’d called this afternoons ghost disrespectful, serene and soft as an executioners blade being drawn from its sheath.
“They killed you. Did you really think I’d let them walk away after that?”
Kexing shrugs one shoulder, feeling lulled almost to the brink of sleep by the steady strokes of A-xu’s blade and the warm weight of him pressing down on his thighs. “I thought you’d spirit Chengling off to plan some terribly cunning and brutal punishment against Zhao Jing and maybe Xie Wang, not set fire to the entire Conference. Didn’t you disapprove of my actions in Yueyang?”
A-xu snorts and his eyes go half-lidded in such a way that Kexing knows if he weren’t so focused on his self-appointed task he’d have rolled his eyes.
“You have ears but you never bother to listen properly. I didn’t disapprove of your actions, I disapproved of your lack of caution.
Flooding the city with false armor is fine, doing so in a manner that can be tracked back to you is not. Turning the sects on each other is fine, doing so when there are people caught in the middle whose deaths tear wounds in your heart is not. Destroy anyone you wish, so long as you have enough control to keep the blade from turning back on yourself.”
Kexing’s throat tightens at the ferocious protectiveness that can’t quite hide behind the sharply scolding tone. He’s already fallen apart over that argument so many times, he can put off doing so again until after he gets his answers. “A-xu is avoiding my question.”
They both fall silent for a time, Kexing’s unspoken queries hanging in the air between them. A-xu spent so long advising him to think twice before striking, to consider showing mercy to those whose principle sins were weakness or incompetence. It’s not that Kexing truly thinks A-xu is some sort of benevolent bodihsattva committed to saving even the most undeserving, but he’s usually so careful about who he allows himself to kill. A care that seems to have gone completely missing from the moment Kexing threw himself over the cliff edge.
Eventually A-xu speaks, rinsing thick soap and fine hair from the blade as he shifts his attention from neck and jaw to chin and cheeks. “The situation was different. There were years of secrets and unspoken history separating you from your enemies, whereas mine were right before my eyes. I witnessed their crimes and the result of them myself. Joke all you like Lao-wen, but I’ve never been a man to let my enemies live.”
Kexing swallows hard, hands flexing on A-xu's hips with the desire to pull him closer. "Prince Jin still lives."
He throws it out more as a distraction than a denial, a bid to buy himself some time to wrestle down the swell of emotion rising at the admission that A-xu would so casually name the whole of the Jianghu his enemies for nothing more than killing Kexing.
A-xu's eyes narrow slightly though his calm doesn't otherwise waver. When he speaks there's a weight to his words that Kexing has only heard when he pronounces a final judgment, unwavering as the moment he accepted Chengling as his disciple or declared Ye Baiyi unworthy of spilling Kexing's blood.
"Helian Yi lives because my brothers gave their lives to put him on the throne, to spare the people a crueler fate under his brothers. I will not permit him to dishonor that sacrifice, be it by falling into tyranny or by dying before securing peace and prosperity for the people of Jin. When the time comes and a proper heir is ready to succeed him, I will see to it that he repays Han Ying's death with his own. Until then he will serve his duty faithfully, as the disciples of Siji Manor did before him."
Kexing curls his fingers tightly into the folds of A-xu's thin zhongyi, feeling warm and safe and cared for in a way he hasn't since he was a small boy in the Healer Valley. "You won't regret it? You wanted peace, to leave behind the troubles of the world to bask in the sun and quietly enjoy good wine. Even if no one knows you orchestrated all of this, the Jianghu knows your name now. You've irrevocably linked yourself to Ghost Valley."
A-xu snorts as if he's said something foolish. "Sha gua. There are many things I regret, but you will never be one of them."
A shudder runs through him and he tips his head further back, eyes sliding closed as he lets the glide of steel over flesh ground him in place of the embrace he can't pull his beloved into.
"I love you. A-xu, I love you. Please, don't ever risk your life like that again. I couldn't bear the loss of you, it would drive me truly mad."
The smooth rhythm of the blade pauses and a calloused palm cups his soap-streaked cheek as carefully as if he might shatter beneath too rough a touch. "I told you before, didn't I? So long as you want me I won't allow even death to take me from your side."
It's not an agreement to keep himself safe. Kexing can clearly hear the underlying promise, and it terrifies and reassures him in equal measure. Life and literature are both full of lovers making grand promises to live and die together but no one ever speaks of the overwhelming weight of such a promise made and kept; the knowledge that the person you hold dearest would hold to both sides of that oath without hesitation.
"I will always want you. I want you like a drowning man wants air."
The confession chokes out of him, adoring and apologetic and defenseless. Even with his eyes closed he can feel A-xu's smile warming his skin like sunlight.
"You know I-"
Silence falls over them, broken only by the rasp of blade on soap-slicked skin, and Kexing loses himself in the excruciating bliss of mutual acceptance.
Oh my god, the last chapter got so many comments and just...thank you? Thank you! You guys really made my whole week, it was delightful seeing all of you react!
Couple quick extras that didn't really fit into the flow of the story!
The Spider Lillies; Couple things here. They're flowers for Siji Manor, but they also have some interesting symbolism to them. On the one hand they represent final partings/death which is probably what the ghosts will read into them, but in some older buddhist texts they're referenced as being a flower that guides souls through the cycle of rebirth after they die which I thought fit nicely with Kexing's 'you are my guiding light' sentiments.
Yuan Gui and E Gui; Yuan Gui, as I'm sure you can tell, is a superstitious cowardly little bastard who is terrified of literally everything. Think of him a bit like H.P. Lovecraft. His name is actually meant mockingly as he often whines about how his presence in the valley is a mistake and he doesn't deserve it, and Yuan Gui are supposed to be people who died unjust deaths and are trapped roaming the earth trying to get the living to help redress their grievances.
E Gui is the highest ranked officer left from Ji Se Gui's department and the ghost who tried to poison Kexing in the last chapter in an attempt to frame Xi Sang Gui/the bureau and knock them out of power. Very ambitious and now that Zishu's satisfied she's spread enough rumors, very dead.
And yes, most of the ghosts are now convinced that Kexing wooed and married an actual demon, as in one of the ones who supposedly serve to torment the wicked in Diyu. Zishu has decided to lean into this because it will let him be terrifying AND snuggle with Kexing as much as he wants. Win-win.
Behold, a sample of the current gossip making the rounds of the Valley;
‘I heard Guzhu found him enslaving a child after roasting their family alive and was so enamored with his cruelty he swore to make him his bride on the spot.’
‘That’s the real reason he opened the valley and turned on the sects you know, to lure the demon out to feast on the bloodshed and steal him away while his guard was down.’
‘You WISH it was a stolen bride. He courted it! That's why the only Devils that came back were Xi Sang Gui and Shi Shi Gui. Guzhu tore out the hearts of the other eight and offered them as a betrothal gift.’
‘He's right, that's why the Jianghu sects all died. The demon slaughtered them as a wedding gift’
‘No, you’ve got it all wrong. The sects killed Guzhu on his way back to prepare a bridal procession and the demon massacred them in a rage and used their souls to resurrect Guzhu. I heard it from Wu Chang Gui's department survivors myself!’
'That's why Guzhu was in such a hurry when he came back. They made their bows over the corpses and came back to the Valley for the bridal night.'
‘E Gui said he drank a whole pitcher of poisoned wine without so much as a flush. Called it a fine vintage.’
'You know he killed her right? For looking at Guzhu.'
'I talked to one of the guards who saw it happen, and she said he can turn to mist and kill with a touch.'
Even with Prince Qi’s assurances that Wen-shishu knows to expect them, he can’t help the way his hand drifts to the hilt of his sword as they walk into the shadow the menacing gates. He and his brothers aren’t weak, but Ghost Valley has held the entire world at bay for decades and there are only nineteen of them.
He wishes Han-dage was the one leading them instead of him. Han-dage had trained under Zhou-zhongzhu for years, had served in Tian Chuang for longer still, and was far and away the strongest of their number. Qingming had never had either his deadly efficiency with a blade or his unshakable resolution, and he felt the lack of both as keenly as a missing limb. With Han-dage at their head not one of them would have hesitated to walk into the infamous Ghost Valley. With only Qingming and his lack of experience to lead them though, he can’t imagine his brothers don’t have doubts. He certainly does.
At least their lack of valuables ought to make them a less tempting target than they might otherwise have been, none of them having had time to bring more than their swords and a change of clothes when they’d made their admittedly risky rescue plan.
He’s just wondering how to go about hailing the guards when the gates shudder and begin to groan open. It’s eerie enough to send shivers up his spine, but he only lets himself hesitate for a moment before he squares his shoulders and leads the column forward. They were men of the Siji Sect now, they wouldn’t falter in the face of a few ghost stories and rusty hinges.
The tension escalates when he spots the squad of ghosts waiting for them just inside the gates, blades bared and masked faces eerily unreadable. He’s just tightening his grip on his sword when a half-forgotten voice calls out to him.
In an instant the ghosts break formation, half their number loping off towards what he assumes are unseen guard towers while the rest part like foot traffic before a nobles palanquin. Qingming struggles not to gape at the figure revealed as they part, tension draining out of his shoulders like liquid from a burst waterskin.
Prince Qi had told him that Zhou-zhongzhu had been gravely injured in the struggle between Ghost Valley and the Jianghu, had warned him that there was every possibility the fifth generation master would never have the chance to truly lead them. It hadn’t changed Qingming’s mind about coming of course, but he’d spent more than one sleepless night on the road wondering what would ultimately become of their tattered sect.
Unlike the rest of his brothers he’d seen what the Three Autumn Nails did to even the strongest of men; his great uncle fading quietly away in the night a mere three months after taking them and he’d dreaded facing their effects again.
Yet despite the lingering death he’d been braced to confront, Zhou-zhongzhu is waiting to greet them on his own two feet. He’s a bit paler than he was when he left Prince Qi’s manor, and the soft white robes he’s wearing look too loose for good health, but his back is straight and his expression holds the same fierce calm it always has.
He’d never been as close to Zhou-zhongzhu as Han-dage, but he’d still grown up in the older mans shadow. He remembers how his visits seemed to steady great uncle Bi during their early days in the capital, how even the things that made the other adults tense and worry never seemed to shake him, how he always seemed to leave Qingming with a tidbit of advice on whatever his current difficulty with his studies was.
When he was a child it seemed like the man could hold up the sky itself if it came to that, and now something of that boyhood awe reasserts itself.
Nearly bursting with vindication, he quickens his steps and leads his brothers to bow respectfully to their miraculously living sect leader. “These disciples greet Shifu!”
There’s a quiet hum of acknowledgement in response to the greeting, and Qingming thinks that Zhou-zhongzhu’s voice sounds a touch warmer when he accepts their greeting. “Stand, you’ve all had a long journey.”
An unexpected chuckle draws his attention to the man standing almost pressed against their sect leader’s side. “A-xu’s disciples are so well-mannered! If only the rest of the Jianghu could have learned from them I’m sure the past year would have been much less messy.”
Qingming isn’t sure exactly who Wen-shishu is aiming to threaten with the ominously cheerful observation, but given the exasperated affection Zhou-zhongzhu elbows him with he’s content that it’s not any of them.
Their new uncle is as dangerous as ever, eyes burning with cold light and rich red robes an almost overwhelming contrast to Zhou-zhongzhu’s plain white, but there’s no hidden bite in his voice when he addresses them.
“Welcome to Ghost Valley. I’m afraid my ghosts aren’t nearly so courteous as they really should be, so if they give you any trouble don’t feel too bad about sending them on to hell hm? One or two ghosts will be far easier to replace than the chunk I’ll lose if one of you dies and A-xu gets miffed.”
Qingming disguises his surprise with a dip of his head and an obedient murmur of acknowledgment. He knew Wen-shishu must care about Zhou-zhongzhu a great deal, why else would he have chosen to risk making an enemy of Prince Jin by rescuing Zhongzhu, but it hadn’t occurred to him that it went as far as the Master of Ghost Valley being willing to share his power the way he was fairly certain was being implied.
He doesn’t have time to dwell on the surprising realization though, because Zhou-zhongzhu is already turning to lead them deeper into the valley. Wen-shishu turns with him, a hand coming to rest supportively on his back as they walk. “Chengling will show you where you’ll be staying for the time being later. For now come rest and tell us what you’ve heard on the road.”
Qingming knocks lightly on the door, a tray with gently steaming fish and vegetables balanced in one hand. Normally Wen-shishu or Zhang-shixiong are responsible for making sure shifu eats, but as they’re both busy this afternoon and Gu-guniang is occupied marshaling the ghosts in preparation for her upcoming wedding, the task has been entrusted to him for the day.
Wen-shishu had warned him that Zhou-zhongzhu is impatient with his own limitations following Da Wu’s miraculous feat of removing the Three Autumn Nails, and had a habit of pushing himself to extremes in his personal training in his determination to regain his strength. He’d assured Qingming so many times that he shouldn’t hesitate to scold him if he pushed too far, that he could use Wen-shishu’s name to make him rest if necessary, that he’d half expected to find the sect leader working through his sword forms and on the brink of collapse.
Instead he’s surprised to find Zhou-zhongzhu kneeling quietly by the windowside table, an enormous scroll alongside a handful of paint pots spread out in front of him and a brush in one hand. Inwardly relieved to be spared the dilemma of choosing between possible disrespect and neglect of his lords health, he goes to kneel at the mans side. Even only partially unrolled the scroll still takes up nearly the entire surface of the table, so he settles the tray across his knees for the moment. “I’ve brought lunch Zhongzhu.”
He gets a distracted hum in response, the older man’s attention still fixed on the scroll. “A moment please.”
Qingming dips his head in silent obedience, glancing curiously at the scroll as he does. It’s the start of a painting of some kind of tree, it’s broad gnarled trunk and twisting branches already taking shape despite only a handful of flowers yet gracing it’s boughs. The painting is obviously unfinished and yet it still strikes him as odd. Despite their small number the handful of flowers present are oddly scattered along the branches and already fairly detailed, the darker flush of pink at their centers fading to a far softer shade throughout the broad curved petals marking them as apricot blossoms.
“What do you think?”
He startles slightly at the query, flushing slightly with embarrassment as his eyes bounce back up to Zhou-zhongzhu. The older man is watching him now, brush apparently set aside for the moment, and he ducks his head awkwardly. For some reason he feels like he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t have.
“Zhongzhu is a very skilled artist.”
Serious eyes curve up in a slight smile and Qingming vaguely recognizes the teasing glint from the early days after he first came into great uncle Bi’s care, before the sect members began dying in earnest and the survivors turned grave and bitter.
“There’s no need to flatter me Qingming. I was never the most gifted painter, but I’m still a man of the Siji Sect. At least I can guarantee that the finished piece won’t offend the eyes.”
Qingming blinks in surprise, wrong footed by the implication. “Is painting a common skill for Siji disciples?”
Zhongzhu looks taken aback for a moment before his smile turns rueful, fingers idly tracing the cloth edge of the scroll. “Ah, I suppose by the time you came into Bi-shu’s care we no longer had as much time for such pursuits did we? Yes, painting was a skill all the disciples were required to cultivate to some extent, though it was never as vital as our martial arts.”
A rush of desperate curiosity fills him and he resists the urge to fidget like a child eyeing a plate of sweets. They all know bits about life in the sect from lost fathers, uncles, and teachers, but it’s fragmented and rudimentary knowledge. After a certain point in time speaking of Siji Manor seemed to become too painful for most of it’s disciples to bear, and after their loss Qingming and his brothers were left trying to piece together an image of the life they might have had if the imperial family's strife hadn’t devoured their sect whole.
Han-dage had known the most, his time serving at Zhongzhu’s side in Tian Chuang granting him greater insight than a handful of boys clinging to half forgotten facts dropped by war-worn relatives, but this is more than even that. This is their lord freely offering information about a hitherto unknown facet of life in the sect.
“Why painting? Was it because Qin-zhongzhu was a great artist?”
Zhou-zhongzhu turns his attention back to the brush, diligently cleaning it’s bristles as his voice takes on a scholarly inflection. “Shifu was very gifted, but no. Originally the disciples were required to take up painting to train their hands and eyes for disguise work. Creating or altering a face takes different skills than painting, but the basic principles are similar enough for practice in one to benefit the other to a certain extent. It wasn't until the time of the second generation that the practice became more than that.
The nature of the clans skills is such that we are always acquiring new knowledge. Even when we don’t seek them, secrets flow into our hands like rivers into the sea. The second generation’s Lady realized that to openly record such knowledge would be to invite disaster when the eyes of outsiders inevitably turned covetous, so she created a cipher for hiding information in otherwise innocuous paintings.
Over the course of the years that cipher eventually evolved into a language of secrets, allowing our sect members to hide messages, warnings, and even technique manuals in plain sight, readable only to our brothers and sisters. By the time I joined the sect as a boy, learning to paint was as much a matter of literacy as artistry.”
Qingming watches the older man's calm face with wide, eager eyes. For the first time he really feels like a student, like Zhongzhu truly has accepted him into the sect and intends to teach him as he does Zhang-shixiong.
“What is Zhongzhu painting now? It’s very large.”
Zhou-zhongzhu huffs what might be a laugh, setting the brush aside and turning his attention back to the painting. “Yes, it's a bit ambitious isn’t it? A hope for the future I suppose. This will be both the simplest and the most important painting I add to the sects library; the commemorative painting for the sixth generation; for you, your brothers, Chengling, and any students who come after you.”
He leans in closer for a better look, fascinated. “A commemorative painting?” Zhongzhu makes a quiet sound of affirmation, apparently unbothered by his borderline gawking. “One of the core traditions of our sect. I doubt you remember it, Bi-shu only brought you to my home in the capital once, but I had a copy of Qin-shifu’s painting for the fifth generation hanging in my study.”
He thinks he does remember it actually, though he hadn’t known the significance at the time. He has a very clear memory of being confused by a particularly large painting on the wall behind the desk because it was only a single tree, yet the branches had both red and white flowers. He wants to ask about it now, what unspoken knowledge was hidden in the dual colored petals that so puzzled him as a child, but Zhongzhu is already moving on.
“The generational paintings of our clan are a record of our history; they hold everything from the noteworthy accomplishments of certain disciples to new arts developed by the sect leader of the time to messages for the coming generations. Each one is a masterwork painted by the lord or lady’s own hand, added to throughout their lives and ultimately continued in the work of their successor.
I’ve only begun this one recently so it’s still quite barren, but it will grow with the sect.”
Qingming’s eyes trace reverently over the empty branches, lingering on each delicate bloom with new wonder. The oddly scattered placement seems exciting and mysterious now rather than bizarre and haphazard. He can’t wait to begin his own studies, to read what hidden messages Zhou-zhongzhu has already inscribed in the deceptively simple image.
The daydream is broken as he notices something off, a dissonance that leaves him furrowing his brows. “Zhongzhu-” A scolding noise cuts him off and Qingming flushes slightly with embarrassed pleasure. “Shifu. There are twenty one flowers here. Did you add one for Wen-shishu?”
Zhou-zhongzhu’s voice turns chiding at the question. “Were you daydreaming through the answers to your questions? Of course not. This is the sixth generation's painting, your Wen-shishu’s flower is with the rest of your seniors in the fifth generation painting; a bud on the third branch near the trunk.”
Qingming frowns in confusion. “Then who-?”
Zhou-zhongzhu lifts the painting carefully, turning to set it aside and make room for the cooling tray of lunch still resting in Qingming’s lap. “That one is for your Han-shixiong.”
Qingming is grateful Zhongzhu is turned away because the words hit him like an unexpected blow to the gut.
Even before Zhou-zhongzhu had left the capital it had been Han-dage who looked after them on his behalf. Han-dage was the one who saw to it that they were comfortably settled, who helped them arrange funerals and left offerings in front of well-loved tablets at their sides. Han-dage was the one who ensured they didn’t fall behind on their training and fretted over their futures. Han-dage was the one who spent wistful nights with Qingming mourning the lives Prince Jin’s ambitions stole from them and daydreaming about what might have been in a kinder world.
Qingming had guessed that Zhou-zhongzhu must have returned some measure of Han-dage’s loyalty, if he hadn’t Wen-shishu would never have invoked his name when presenting the rest of them to him as members of the sect, but-.
It’s a painfully bitter-sweet vindication that Zhongzhu has acknowledged him openly as a disciple, and yet Han-dage isn’t here to see it anymore. Struggling to master the sudden thickness in his throat, Qingming focuses on setting the tray of food quietly in the empty space left by the painting.
“Shifu. When the painting is ready, would you show me which flower is Han-da…Han-shixiong’s?”
There’s a moment of silence, and then a hand rests briefly on the crown of his head. “Of course, Qingming.”
Kexing checks over the lacquered trays of dowry gifts with the sort of manic energy that makes even the calmer ghosts twitchy. For once it’s not intentional, he just can’t quite contain the bubbling mix of excitement and nerves filling him with an overabundance of energy. The wedding ceremony will begin as soon as the sun touches the horizon and Kexing is nearly beside himself with determination to make sure everything is perfect.
A-xu, bless his steadfast soul, merely follows him patiently from task to task, offering reassurances whenever Kexing demands his opinion on this or that detail of the preparations despite both of them knowing Kexing has no neither the time nor intention to actually change anything at this point.
Xi Sang Gui has marshaled her girls to the task of arranging the ceremony with all the gusto and experience of a seasoned general, shamelessly abusing her new position as the head of the Ten Devils to bully hordes of minor ghosts into attending to the grunt work of hanging, fetching, carrying, and painting in accordance with her many precise instructions.
The air is thick with the scents of spices and flowers, both the wedding feast and the nervous groom are being guarded by A-xu’s delightfully earnest new disciples, and grim grey stone has been draped in red and gold until even Ghost Valley feels bright and festive.
He stil can’t quite believe A-xiang is actually getting married. She’s going to be a wife, maybe even a mother someday. Tiny little nieces and nephews with A-xiang’s sharp tongue and penchant for trouble! He can practically hear the heavens shivering in horror at the very thought and it makes him want to burst into gleeful laughter.
He thought he’d feel more reluctant about it all, but the delighted glow in A-xiang’s eyes as the Bureau handmaidens fussed over her hair and robes left him all but bubbling over with excitement on her behalf. His girl is happy. She’s so happy, she’s going to keep being happy, and that’s all he ever wanted and hadn’t dared to hope for for her future.
A quick glance at the swiftly sinking sun tells him the hour is all but upon them, and he whirls anxiously to A-xu. “You’re sure the boys won’t be too hard on her? I know Chengling doesn’t want Xiao-cao to feel undervalued but-!”
A-xu cuts him off with a hand pressed firmly over his mouth, eyes dancing in amusement.
“Hush. In the wildly unlikely event that one of them manages to set a task that A-xiang can't breeze through you know as well as I do that she’ll just carry the boy off anyway. Everything is going to be fine, Lao-wen.”
Kexing grumbles against A-xu’s palm but lets himself be silenced, enjoying the calloused warmth against his lips. His hands had always been unusually cool when he’d carried the Nails and even after more than a month the little ways A-xu’s body is recovering still leave him feeling giddy with triumph.
The last hurried preparations have stilled, the ghosts falling into formation around the perimeter of the throne room, when Yan Gui takes the opportunity of his brief stillness to approach them with a bow. “The bride and groom will arrive soon, if Guzhu and Guzhu-furen would please take your places on the throne.”
Kexing freezes in stunned astonishment and A-xu sucks in a startled breath, turning sharply towards her. “What did you call me?” He sounds so indignantly bewildered that Kexing can’t help breaking into giggles, eyes crinkling up into jubilant half-moons.
Sliding in closer he wraps an arm around Zishu’s waist to tug him back flush against his chest, and despite his best efforts he can’t even begin to cover the sheer delight in his voice with affected hurt as he hooks his chin affectionately over his shoulder. “Did she say something wrong? Does my A-xu not want to be married to me after all?”
Their face are close enough that he can feel the heat of A-xu’s flush against his skin as he grumbles. “Why am I the wife?”
Mischief flares to life in Kexing’s heart and he grins brightly, nuzzling gently against A-xu’s burning cheek. “Because you’re the most beautiful, naturally! And also because A-xu is the one who gave me children!” Zishu actually splutters at that, struggling to dig a punishing elbow into Kexing’s ribs despite the awkward angle. “Wen Kexing you-!”
The murmur of voices outside the door grows in pitch and Kexing cheerfully takes the opportunity to pull A-xu up to the wide throne with him. “Later my dearest niangzi! We have a useless son-in-law to welcome!”
They’ve barely managed to settle into a facade of respectability on the throne when the doors are thrown open. A-xiang is in front, all but glowing in her rich green robes as she leads Xiao-cao into the throne room by the hand. The boy’s face is bright red, but his smile is besotted enough to satisfy even Kexing as the rest of the procession trails in after the young couple.
Chengling follows the pair most closely, carrying a sword in case of incidents like the rest of his new brothers but beaming with genuine delight as he trails after the older teens. The other nine Siji disciples present are at his back, smiling good-naturedly despite their otherwise formal bearing, and the procession is rounded out by handmaidens and minor ghosts piping cheerful tunes on hand-whittled flutes.
There’s a brief interlude of jostling as energetic handmaidens close the doors behind the procession and A-xu’s disciples array themselves between them and the rest of the room, clearly taking their charge to prevent anything as inauspicious as an attack seriously. Chengling all but vibrates in place as Xi Sang Gui regally gestures the couple forward to stand in front of the throne. He can’t see her face, but given the way A-xiang is beaming at her he knows the older woman is undoubtedly smiling at them.
Luo-yi isn’t a woman overly given to sentimentality, but she has a soft spot for earnest lovers in general and A-xiang in particular.
A hush falls over the assembled crowd as the couple takes their places. Xi Sang Gui lets the moment stretch just slightly to ensure she has everyone’s complete attention before she begins.
“First, bow to heaven and earth.”
The couple turn and sink to their knees, bowing in unison towards the closed doors of the hall. When they rise and turn back Kexing can see Xiao-cao is trembling, fingers twitching anxiously to the side as if he wants to take A-xiang’s hand in his. The bride herself looks nothing less than radiantly confident.
“Second, bow to Guzhu and Furen.”
The couple drop into a second bow towards the throne and Kexing grins with all his teeth, filled to bursting with almost feral triumph. He has a wild thought that this moment might be his greatest victory over the Valley that devoured him whole and spat him out as a twisted mockery of humanity. That he took one of it’s lost souls and raised her back into the light with his own two hands.
A-xu's knee nudges indulgently against his and he presses back giddily.
“Third, bow to each other.”
The two of them turn to face each other and it’s fascinating to see the effect it has on them both. Xiao-cao’s shaking hands steady almost immediately, as if all he needed was to see A-xiang’s face. Meanwhile A-xiang’s confidence softens slightly, the faintest hint of pink tinting her ears as she looks back at Xiao-cao like she can’t quite believe he’s real.
As they rise from their final bow the minor ghosts break into a delighted cheer, caught up in the flush of festive excitement and the confidence that Kexing's open delight with the proceedings means they're safe enough for the moment. They’re quickly joined by the Siji disciples enthusiastic congratulations and Kexing rises from the throne with a loud clap.
“Alright, enough of this formality! To the feast!”
The crowd begins to funnel out the doors towards the hall where the rest of the Siji disciples are standing guard over the positively decadent spread of dishes they'd managed to prepare for the occasion. As they go A-xu leans into his side, apparently still feeling a touch vindictive after all the ‘Guzhu-furen’ business. Kexing foresees more than a bit of petty vengeance in his future when he inevitably continues failing to correct the ghosts who address him as such.
“The feast, hm? Don’t you mean the bridal chamber?”
Kexing whirls to press a chiding finger to A-xu’s lips, simultaneously horrified by the reminder and thrilled by the spark of smug mischief in Zishu’s eyes. “If you start on bridal chambers, I’ll start asking Chengling when he’s going to find a nice girl to give us grandchildren!”
Zishu’s eyes wrinkle at the corners as he practically collapses into hysterical chortles at the suggestion. Admittedly it’s not the reaction he was expecting, but it’s so adorable Kexing can’t do anything but watch him with a silly, smitten grin.
“Not until I’m there to see his face you won’t!”
Kexing breaks out into laughter of his own picturing the boys horrified face and wraps a hand around A-xu’s forearm, dragging him eagerly down the dias towards the doors. There’s good food and good wine and a bright future waiting for them. It wouldn’t do to keep any of it waiting.
Zishu sips at his wine and surveys the room, a bone-deep contentment that almost feels like peace welling up in his chest.
A-xiang and Xiao-cao have finally retired from the feast, both red faced at the gentle teasing they received on their way out. Chengling has been pulled into the huddle of his fellow disciples, all of them apparently so deeply immersed in whatever they’re discussing that Qingming at least has failed to notice one of his brothers furtively transferring his own bitter melon into Qingming’s bowl. Xi Sang Gui, Yan Gui, and Shi Shi Gui are sitting in a far corner, the two Devils apparently locked in a drinking contest while Yan Gui patiently keeps them both supplied with wine and pork. A handful of minor ghosts Kexing considered to be as close to loyal as any resident of Ghost Valley ever got were apparently locked in a heated discussion involving many expansive hand gestures and at least one mask pinned to the table with a knife.
All in all it's a charmingly festive scene.
A breath of warm air rushes across his ear as Kexing leans into his side, voice a bare murmur. “I want to show you something. Come with me?”
Zishu blinks in surprise at the unexpected request, but sets his cup down amicably enough. With his belly full, his blood wine-warmed, and the moon high in the sky he’s beginning to feel the edges of his ever present lethargy creeping up on him again, but he can fall asleep stargazing on Lao-wen’s shoulder just as easily as he can tucked beneath the coverlet of their bed.
Kexing’s smile goes soft at the edges and he intertwines their fingers with the ease of habit, pulling Zishu up and out into the night with remarkable ease given how hyper-attentive the ghosts usually are to their presence.
He expects Lao-wen to lead him out to one of the handful of little cliffside ledges and nooks they usually use for sunbathing for a little moon-viewing, but instead he’s led off through the twisting ravines and bamboo-shaded paths he's only rarely ventured through given the frustratingly slow return of his stamina. The ground beneath them slopes up, gently at first but then gradually steeper and steeper, and Zishu is willing to follow wherever Lao-wen decides to lead him but after a long hectic day of wedding preparations and festivities he’s so tired. It's not long before his eyes begin to droop and his legs begin to tremble but he keeps moving forward, determined not to disappoint Lao-wen when he's so blissfully happy.
It's not long after he's steeled himself against the growing heaviness of his limbs that Lao-wen suddenly drops his hand and scoops him easily into his arms. In an instant Zishu is fully alert again, smacking indignantly at the man’s shoulder. He doesn’t have enough leverage like this to put any real force behind it, but it’s the principle of the thing.
“What are you doing you lunatic? Put me down!”
Kexing continues heading further up the rising incline of the path without so much as a pause in his stride, cheerfully unrepentant.
“But I don’t want to! A-xu looks so pretty and graceful in silk, can’t you indulge your husband just this once?”
Zishu hisses at him in annoyance, perfectly well aware that that’s not why the fool is embarrassing him this time, but as there’s no one around and he is tired he decides to allow it for the moment. As soon as he’s up to it though he’s going to spend an entire day carrying the bastard everywhere and never let his feet touch the ground once, ghosts be damned. See how he likes it.
With Kexing carrying him their speed picks up considerably, and before he knows it they’re rising out of the valley. There are plenty of ways to enter or leave the Valley beyond the heavily guarded gate if one is willing to brave the mountains surrounding it, but Qingya ridge is so vast and wild that doing so is an unwise risk for even the most wilderness-savvy of fighters. Still, he wouldn’t be surprised if his wily Zhiji had some sort of hideaway prepared up the mountain slopes. It seems like just the sort of borderline mad recklessness that the fool likes to indulge in when left to his own devices.
They keep going for almost half a shichen and he’s just beginning to wonder how far off this latest bolthole of Kexing’s is when they come to a wide stretch of rolling meadow bordering a steep cliffside overlooking the whole breadth of the valley, a nest of blankets laid out just beyond the treeline alongside two pots of wine and a basket of fruit.
It’s a beautiful spot for trysting.
The sky above them glitters with more stars than Zishu has ever seen before, ground is thick with long grass and wildflowers, a snow-melt clear brook chattering soothingly nearby, and almost exactly in the center of the mostly empty mountainside is the beginning stages of a modest manor. The ground has been cleared, the foundations laid, and Zishu can see stacks of lumber and stone placed neatly along the outline of what looks to be the main building. It’s not even half-done yet, but it’s already clear what he’s looking at.
Lao-wen shifts uncertainly at his long silence, and when he speaks he sounds bizarrely nervous. “I know it’s not- I’m sure you’d rather rebuild on the old grounds but I thought-”
Zishu cuts him off, eyes still fixed on the bare foundations of the newly begun complex. Already he can see that the design loosely mirrors the old layout, a deceptively indefensible array of interconnected airy rooms backed with hidden corridors and stairwells surrounding sprawling courtyards.
“You’re rebuilding Siji Manor.”
Kexing seems tense, and his fingers are flexing nervously against Zishu’s shoulder and thigh.
“…yes? Of course it doesn’t have to be Siji Manor, it could just be a secondary fallback position if you prefer, but I thought you. That you might like to stay? With me, I mean.”
Zishu can't believe what he's hearing. He feels like he’ll explode if he doesn’t do something right now. “Put me down.”
This time Lao-wen doesn’t bother to tease or joke with him. He sets him on his feet in an instant, hands fluttering deferentially around his elbows as Zishu turns to face him. “If you don’t want-”
He stops abruptly as Zishu takes his face in his hands and yanks him in so they’re sharing breath. Kexing’s hands land tentatively on his waist, deceptively soft eyes wide and startled as he stares back at him. “You’re rebuilding Siji Manor. For me.”
Lao-wen mumbles his answer, apparently dumbstruck by the intensity of the response. “I was hoping it would be for us. If you’d let me stay.”
Zishu holds his gaze and all but growls at him, something slow and warm brighter than the sun bubbling dangerously in his gut.
“What ‘if I let you stay’. Didn’t you ask me where you would go if I left? If this xianggong of mine doesn’t stop talking nonsense, I’ll find something better for his mouth to do.”
Kexing swallows hard, eyes going dark and half lidded as his hands tighten convulsively on Zishu’s waist. “What did A-xu have in mind?”
Zishu snarls and surges up to kiss him hard and possessive, bearing the idiot back toward the nest of blankets with hungry intent.
They'll have to return to the Valley in the morning. There's the tea ceremony to complete for A-xiang and Xiao-cao, and it will be months before the Manor is ready for inhabitants. Even then there will still be issues to address, things like how Kexing will maintain his hold on the ghosts from a distance, how they’ll retrieve the secret library hidden in the inner sanctum on the old manor grounds, and any number of other things.
For tonight though, Zishu has a beautiful moon, good wine, a silly lover, and the rest of his life to enjoy. The rest can wait.
And DONE! This one fought me so hard you guys, I may have to end up rewriting bits of it eventually. Though tbf, I'm not sure how much of that was because of how stuck I got trying to figure out how in the hell a traditional Chinese wedding works and how much was because my brain decided the upcoming finish was a good reason to generate all the new plot-bunnies to distract me with. Hope it satisfies though!
Thank you for all the lovely comments, they really kept me motivated to finish this out! I know there's people who filter by comments to try and find more popular fics, so I try not to respond to comments unless there's a direct question for me, but believe me I adored every single one. You guys are great.
btw, if you have likewise fallen down the confusing maze of 'traditional weddings', yes. I did reverse the gender thing so that Gu Xiang was winning the right to carry off Weining to join her family. Because he is a sweet boy and he deserves to be supported and appreciated.
And yes, the Siji boys (including Chengling) did stand in for his friends and family up to and including solemnly crying when he 'left' after A-xiang completed their challenges, and when they all know each other better will insist until the day they die that this means Xiao-Cao is their 'baby sister' and Xiang-jie is the presumptuous brother-in-law who stole him from them.
Oh! And someone asked what the ghosts made of Chengling in the whole the grand scheme of the demon bride rumors so...
Kexing: A-xu is obviously my wife because he gave me 20 sons! (referencing Chengling and the other disciples)
Ghosts: ...wait wait shit are they like...summons? Black magic paper men? Clay figures brought to life with an infusion of souls??? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN??????? CAN IT MAKE MORE?????????