Zhiji. It would figure that the first person to stand before him and claim they were soulmates would be the leader of a valley of murderous ghosts. Who could know the soul of a murderer better than someone tainted by evil himself? Even if Zhou Zishu had a hard time seeing pure darkness when he stared into Wen Kexing’s eyes, there was no denying the man was built for violence the same way Zishu was.
Was it a good thing that the corruption of his soul was not a burden placed on someone blameless? He tried to imagine sharing the sort of connection he had with Kexing with someone as naïve and innocent as Qin Jiuxiao and recoiled from the image. He loved his shidi, cared about his wellbeing more than his own, but they were not equals. No one who needed the sort of constant protection that Jiuxiao did could ever stand on the same footing as Zishu, even if they were an unparalleled martial artist.
For all the frustration Zishu felt on a daily basis dealing with Kexing, he never felt as though he needed to protect him from the evil in the world. What small pieces of innocence Kexing occasionally presented were deliberate and careful caricatures of reality. Whether he played the part of childishness for Zhou Zishu’s benefit or his own was irrelevant, it wasn’t something that needed to be protected.
So why then did having this man admit that he knew even a small part of the sins staining Zishu’s hands feel like losing something innocent and precious? It was not as though Wen Kexing’s identity had ever really been much of a secret to Zishu, though the man had kept up his transparent ruse about returning to a non-existent job as a healer. It should have stood to reason that Kexing would have some knowledge of what he was walking into before approaching Four Seasons Manor.
The fact that it made sense did not make the feeling of nausea ease or the ephemeral fear that seemed to be clawing at his brain go away.
Every instinct in him was expecting to turn towards Kexing in time to catch a quickly shuttered expression. He kept pricking his ears for whispers cut off before his approaching steps drew too close. Wen Kexing had nothing in common with the members of Four Seasons Pavilion. He had, in fact, seemed largely dismissive of them for the time he had stayed among them, but Zhou Zishu had spent the approaching dusk haunted by the afterimage of a return to the detached life he had been living for years now.
Contrary to that expectation, Kexing had actually spent the hours they expended between leaving Nan He and the full cover of darkness trying wriggle into his personal space, catch his eye or attain even a few words of conversation. The normally sticky man refused to put more than a foot of distance between them, constantly clutching at sleeves and robe when Zishu made to lengthen that space and rambled inanely about everything from the wear of the road to the color of the sky.
“A-Xu, do you hear water? Nan He is a city on a lake, there must be a river that empties into it, right?” Kexing was saying. He had just switched his grip from a trailing sleeve to the back of Zishu’s outer robe after the assassin had shaken him off for the third time in the hour. “If we set up camp near the river, we can have fish for dinner. The sun only just set, if we choose a spot now, we can probably still find fish.”
The sky was bruise dark, but there was enough light left lingering on the horizon for a pair of skilled martial artists to catch themselves dinner. Zhou Zishu did not find himself particularly hungry. He continued walking without acknowledging Kexing’s suggestion, hardly even registering it as a suggestion.
“Wait, A-Xu!” Clearly expecting at least a pause, Kexing had stopped to consider the stand of trees slightly removed from the road and had lost hold of Zishu’s robes when he did not wait even a second. “Zhou Zishu! Enough!”
The frustration in Kexing’s voice wasn’t what caused Zishu to finally stop and turn to face him. He had sounded frustrated for about as long as he had been trying to get a response out of him. But that had been frustration mixed with demanding. A sort of wheedling tone that suggested he already knew he would get his way eventually and just had to act annoying for long enough and Zishu would just give in.
This time there was fear.
Wen Kexing was not a man who struck Zishu as the type to easily come to the point of being afraid. He was proud and stubborn and more than capable of destroying whatever threats might come for him. Fear was for those who could do nothing against their enemies.
What enemy was it now that was causing his voice to go sharp and high? Was Zishu keeping his silence for a few hours really so bad that Kexing was willing to act like this?
“You know. You know I don’t care that you’ve killed people.” The tremble in his voice seemed too genuine to be a ruse, but Zishu had a hard time imagining Kexing so desperate from simply silence. “I don’t know why you get like this. But it can’t be because of me. I’ve killed people too. I told you, we’re made from the same stuff. But you still went away like before.” He heaved in a rasping breath. It didn’t catch in his throat, but Zishu could almost feel the way it would have. He could see the way that long, pale column would work around the hitch of air and emotion before forcing it down and out.
It was easy to imagine since it was a motion long made familiar in his own body.
“I don’t know what happened last time. I just heard that kid Jiuxiao complaining that his shixiong was locked up in his room all day. You were the same that day.” The words were pouring out faster now, as though Kexing was worried that if he didn’t get all the words out fast, Zishu would stop him, and the chance would be lost. “You can yell at me or say we’re not the same. I don’t care. But don’t do this. Don’t just leave and run off with just your body moving around without you.”
There were words to be said here. Things Zhou Zishu should offer up to explain himself. Make a joke about just wanting a few minutes of quiet, or not having anything to say in the flow of Kexing’s endless river of bullshit. He wanted to say something. The press of gentle reassurance as familiar as the hilt of a sword. Hadn’t he spent the last six years offering such empty platitudes to the disciples of his sect?
But, as he looked into desperate eyes now, he felt helplessly trapped. As though he was a mere passenger in his body, unable to change the course or even call out.
Something of this helplessness must have shown in his eyes, on his face, or else Kexing truly did know how to read his soul, because the tirade of pleas stopped as quickly as they began, dried up in the face of whatever Zishu was displaying currently.
Why was it like this? How was he so out of control of his own body? He believed that, if there was cause to fight, he could pull Baiyi out and do what needed to be done, but, in the face of peace. It was like steering a rudderless boat. The river took him where it willed, and he had no say in it.
Today, the river was named “Wen Kexing”.
The stream of conversation kept coming as they wandered off the road and into the trees. It continued while Kexing picked up bits of deadfall wood and piled it in Zishu’s arms. The words did not even dry up as the feared leader of Ghost Valley hiked up his skirts and muddied the hems of his trousers to catch them their dinner. Zishu followed along as though led on a string, contributing nothing to the one-sided flow, but not fleeing into the gathering dark either.
By the time they had a small fire crackling in front of them and two fish cleaned of guts and scales roasting away, the faint hints of light from the day had long perished. Kexing was still sitting entirely too close, but for once, it didn’t feel like an imposition. It felt like an anchor. A voice calmly repeating ‘I’m here, I’m here’ every time Zishu felt his mind wandering.
Their quiet fireside calm was shattered before Zishu was ever able to find out if the fish were any good or not by a sharp screech of fear followed by the hard crack of skin on skin. Zishu snapped to attention in the same instant as Kexing, both of them on their feet and racing towards the disturbance without any words needed.
Zhou Zishu would never label himself as a hero and he doubted Wen Kexing would either, but trouble this close to a famous sect, with them making more than a bit of spectacle of themselves leaving, would only spell trouble in the long run. It was better to deal with whatever idiot got themselves ambushed on a dark road out of town than to have half of Jianghu out for their blood over a simple mistake.
As soon as they made it to the location where the noise had originated, it became clear that this was more than a simple bandit attack. At first glance, Zishu fully believed they had stumbled onto the scene of an assassination.
Before them, slumped boneless on the dirt, was a small figure, clearly a child and not moving now. They were likely the one who had screamed, a vain hope that someone would arrive in time to stop the inevitable. Crouched over them with one small arm still clenched in a tight hold was who could only be the child’s attacker.
The assassin, if that was what they were, could not have been much more than a child themselves. Made genderless in dark robes and the deepening night, they were slight and too small to be a full adult. Zishu supposed they might be a small woman, but something about the wound-tight way they were holding themselves now that they had been discovered spoke loudly of inexperience and youth.
Zishu remembered holding his own body that way the first time he slid a knife into someone’s back and watched them crumble.
He wondered if this death had been an accident. A kidnapping gone wrong. The child laid out supine on the forest floor was dressed nicely, that much was easy to see even in the dark. Perhaps their child assassin had been hired to steal some rich little master and struck too hard when his biddable prey suddenly raised the alarm.
It was better not to make assumptions, Zishu reminded himself. This could very well be some sort of set up. He did not like the idea of wandering into a trap baited for bigger quarry.
As though reading his mind and making up his own to do the opposite of what wisdom he found there, Wen Kexing was already striding into the open, calling out cheerfully as though greeting a friend and not some would-be killer in the dark.
“Greetings, young master! It looks as though your friend there has hurt himself.” Kexing sang out pleasantly. Zishu only restrained himself from yanking him back through years of experience in working with sudden obstacles and problems. “I happen to be a healer, perhaps I could take a look?”
A healer, my ass. You’re going to be a cadaver when I get my hands on you. Zishu thought viciously, even as he followed a pace behind. The small figure in black had shifted to place himself in between them and the fallen child, either to hide the extent of the damage or to protect his investment from being poached.
“Back off. We don’t need any help.” Blatantly untrue. The kid may not need a couple of helpful heroes trying to whisk away his prize, but he could certainly use backup of some sort.
Wen Kexing seemed to share Zishu’s incredulity. “We’re not going to hurt you, but your friend seems in a bad way.” He was using the sort of cajoling tone someone might use to lure a wary dog closer. It made Zishu shiver. “If you’d just just allow me to look him over-“
“No! Come any closer and you’ll get hurt too.” The vicious child hissed. It was obvious he was trying to appear in control of the situation but had not made plans for what to do when confronted with two people who could potentially overwhelm him. Who had sent someone so green out to kidnap a child of a rich sect? Did they want him to get caught? It was nothing short of a miracle he had even gotten this far.
Still, a threat was a threat. Zhou Zishu moved faster than the eye could follow, flowing through the Swift Moving Steps to come to rest with Baiyi pressed against a narrow, supple throat.
He would give the child this, he did not flinch at the steel against his artery. It spoke of more experience than Zishu expected, and he mentally increased the danger he represented by a few notches. He was still much too young to be any kind of threat to Zishu or Kexing, but it was better to overestimate an opponent than underestimate and be caught off-guard.
Wen Kexing was showing none of that appropriate caution, already kneeling beside the prone figure of the young child and grasping one narrow wrist to investigate the situation. The child kidnapper before them looked livid at the intrusion, but he could do nothing with cold steel pressed to his vitals.
“What reward were you hoping for in kidnapping this one?” Zishu asked. He didn’t expect an honest response, but lies could be as telling as truths. What information was purposefully not included had been enough for Zishu to parse out plots against his prince in the past.
“I didn’t kidnap him! This is my friend, he just fainted suddenly.” The teen spat out. He made a move as though to jerk either away from Zhou Zishu looming over him or towards Wen Kexing who had finished his examination and was carefully drawing the small child away from his kidnapper. “Let him go! He’s coming with me!”
Zishu pressed Baiyi more firmly into his throat, drawing a thin line of blood that caused the child to freeze once more.
“I have little interest in killing children, but I will no hesitate if you move again.” Zishu warned, his tone cold and removed. He had stabbed Baiyi through younger targets with less motive. Killing this one would be unfortunate, but hardly the worst thing he had done. “Why are you so insistent on him going with you? You’re clearly in no condition to care for him if you’ve already been unable to keep him from fainting.”
“Shut up! You know nothing! He has to come with me!” Has to. An interesting choice of words. So there was someone more powerful ordering the little soldier around. That made sense, though it left many more questions behind. Some of them may be answered with the identity of the young child currently being lifted and carried away by Kexing. He had not stirred throughout the entire argument.
It would worry Zishu more if Kexing had made any move to suggest serious damage. Since the other man seemed calm and unconcerned, Zishu maintained his focus on the more immediate problem.
They were already going to have to deal with one unconscious child, it would not be convenient to carry around another comatose ward, especially one that might wake spitting venom. They also couldn’t just let him go. He would surely carry word of their appearance and location to whoever was controlling him and that would create more problems than Zishu was prepared to deal with.
The decision of whether to carry around an active threat, let the threat go and potentially create more problems, or simply kill it and accept the additional karmic reckoning was taken out of his hands as a sudden movement in the trees to his left drew his attention. A small knife, cruelly curved and expertly thrown, was inches from Kexing’s shoulder as the man twisted to protect his young burden.
Zishu swiftly knocked the knife off course, his Swift Moving Steps carrying him to easily intercept the projectile.
It left the teenaged kidnapper free to make his own escape, fleeing for the dark edge of the tree line as another knife flew towards Kexing, forcing Zishu to remain guarding his back as the child escaped. No more knives came flying after the second, and Zishu expected the assailant had also disappeared.
“I expect that will not be the last we hear from that one.” Kexing said. He looked unconcerned about the potential trouble their escapee represented, more focused on adjusting the small child in his arms to a more comfortable position. “Who do you suppose this young man is to already have such dangerous enemies?”
“They’re more likely his father’s enemies, though what they wanted and how they expected to get it with the child will be easier to gauge once we know who he is.” Zishu pointed out. Kexing shrugged, he more than likely had already guessed that a child this young was not the main target of the attack. “Will he wake soon? It would be better to know this information now, so we can decide how to proceed.”
He was unconvinced returning the child to his original location was the best idea. One teenaged ruffian had already been enough to remove him from his home. With the failure of the first attack, the second would likely be more forceful. Besides, Zishu was not sure keeping the child alive was a priority.
Of course, he also didn’t want to deal with the burden of a child of barely seven or eight as he stalked the Ghost Valley Master to Qingya mountain. Keeping up with Wen Kexing’s childlike exuberance was more than enough already.
“He’s unconscious from a blow to the temple. It wouldn’t be enough to keep an adult under for more than minute or two, so he will likely wake up soon.” Kexing was already carrying the child off, headed back towards the small camp they had set up. It seemed like hours since Zishu had been lost in a daze and Kexing had been worriedly dragging him through the motions of life.
He could still feel that strange removal lingering. It was tempting to fall into that cold removal, to just carry on the motions without engaging with the emotions. Looking back, the last year or two had been spotted with the same mental lethargy. As more and more of his sect was annihilated and he lost more and more faith in Helian Yi’s grand vision, it had often come over him, more frequently as time went on.
Would there be a point in time when he only felt that cold removal. What would he be then? A creature of base instincts following the orders of a man he no longer had faith in? That was the end result of his choices, wasn’t it. To become nothing but a sword in the hands of more powerful men.
He shook the thoughts off. There were more immediate concerns to deal with. If his fate was to become some cold, unfeeling thing, he would first see his sect liberated and finish out the mission with Wen Kexing.
Said man was laying the child they had rescued down beside the small fire they had set up. In the firelight, it became more obvious that this was the child of a wealthy family. His kidnapper had been too determined to keep him, even at the threat of his life, for this abduction to be about money. There must be a larger plot regarding this one.
As though realizing he was under scrutiny, the young man began to stir. He woke like a pampered child, first wrinkling his nose before groaning lowly and turning to curve away from the light of the fire.
“Nnn, just a little longer, close the curtains, please. It’s too early.” The high whine of a child. Kexing was smirking, chuckling quietly at the boy’s antics. Zishu found it in himself to keep his face blank, even as he was tempted to snort in amusement as well. So much for his vague concern about trauma and irrational fear.
“I fear there are no curtains to close here. You may as well get up, young master.” Kexing managed through his giggles. He was crouched a respectful distance from the child, attempting to appear as unthreatening as a strange man in a dark forest could. Zishu had never been good at making himself appear small and harmless, so he maintained his distance on the other side of the fire to allow Kexing to interact with their rescue.
“What? Wait, where am I?” The child finally fully roused, jolting upright with surprising speed. “Where’s that man? Did he knock me out just to dump me here? Who are you? Did you kill him? Are you working with him?”
“We’re not working with anyone, young master. We just happened to be in the area and intercepted your abductor.” Kexing replied soothingly. He didn’t address the majority of the flurry of questions, but the statement of reassurance seemed to be enough for the young child to relax slightly. “Why don’t we have introductions before we get into why you were taken, hm? I’m Wen Kexing and this is my…my friend Zhou Zishu.”
Zishu noticed the pause before the statement of friend. He knew what Kexing would rather call him, but he appreciated the decision to not just announce it to a random child.
“I am Zhang Chengling, of the Mirror Lake Sect.” The boy announced, bowing slightly from his position on the ground. He seemed unaware of the icy stillness that had descended at his announcement.
Great, Zhou Zishu thought, right after we get out of an altercation with one Zhang child, we immediately grab another. There’s no way this could end badly.