Nie Zonghui had never seen Nie Mingjue turn as pale as he did on the day the sect elders told him the secrets of the sect. He was a little puzzled by it – it wasn’t as if those of their sect that wielded the saber didn’t informally know about the burden they bore, the trade they were making of life for power, and Nie Mingjue had borne his saber for longer than most.
Moreover, it wasn’t as if Nie Mingjue feared death, or even madness. He might be only fifteen, but he was already one of the most upright and righteous men that Nie Zonghui had ever had the honor to meet, let alone serve.
Certainly better than that (late and much-missed) scoundrel of a father of his that had given them all such headaches…
“Could you go back again about that part about calamites?” Nie Mingjue squeaked. His voice was still breaking, sometimes, and it was a little funny except when it really wasn’t. Their shorter lives meant early inheritances, but even Lao Nie had been at least in his mid-twenties by the time he took on the role of sect leader… “What exactly are we supposed to do with them?”
“Stop them,” Nie Tianyu said, a little puzzled in the same way Nie Zonghui was puzzled – that wasn’t the part they’d figured on Nie Mingjue getting stuck on at all.
Sure, the Nie sect leaders were doomed to not only to particularly dire qi deviations and inevitable death on account not only of their cultivation method, but to a duty from the heavens to stop the calamities that threatened the world; it was their fate, their inheritance, and even, it was said, that it was the trade they had struck, in order to save the rest of their sect from suffering the same fate they did. And, yes, the more exceptional the sect leader, the more talented, the greater the calamity they would face, which meant that Nie Mingjue’s calamity would be especially dire, but…why did he care about that? Nie Mingjue had never shied away from a challenge before.
Even if the challenge here was likely to be his younger brother, Nie Huaisang – a fox-child, with his mother’s eyes, and dangerous with it.
“Just stop them?” Nie Mingjue pressed, looking anxious.
Nie Mingjue exhaled sharply.
“Oh, good,” he said in evident relief. “That’s fine, then.”
There was a fair bit of staring.
He blinked back at them. “What?”
“…what were you concerned about, exactly?”
“Well, you know,” he said, and flushed red for some reason. “I mean, my father’s calamities were Mother and Second Mother, right? And Sect Leader Wen could be arguably counted in there as well. And well, if Huaisang’s mine, then…uh…”
He made an awkward sort of gesture.
“You do not need to deal with them in the same way your father did!” Nie Zonghui interjected hastily, making a face as he belatedly put two and two together. “You can deal with the calamity any way you like! Most of your ancestors dealt with their calamities by fighting, anyway, not by…uh…listen, your father was a very unique individual, and you don’t need to follow his lead in all things. And anyway, we don’t know that your fated calamity is Huaisang.”
“Oh, he definitely is,” Nie Mingjue said carelessly, and smiled broadly at all of them. “But don’t worry. I’m certainly not worried.”
“Oh, pork bun!”
Nie Mingjue obediently put down his book and turned towards the door to the classroom. “Greetings to Second Mother.”
His second mother put her hands on her cheeks and sighed in a big heaving way that somehow made both her chest and bulging belly more apparent. “Oh, you’re so savory, little dumpling,” she said. “Sweetest of sweet, snackiest of snacks…come on, come walk with me.”
Nie Mingjue did not protest that he was in the middle of class, learning all about diplomacy and ethics and other things that he would need to know when he eventually became sect leader, although there were limits to the sorts of things he could really learn at the age of seven. There was really no point in disagreeing with something Second Mother wanted – not only was she equal authority to the Sect Leader, given her position as Madame Nie, Nie Mingjue had also recently started noticing that lots of people started acting strange whenever she was around. His tutor, for instance, had turned bright red and had started stammering wildly even though she wasn’t even looking at him, much less talking to him, and Nie Mingjue was fairly sure that he would keep on doing that even once she’d left.
So there wasn’t any point in staying.
Instead, he hopped out of his seat, waved at his tutor, and trotted out to join Second Mother on her walk.
At this late stage of her pregnancy, it was more of a waddle than a walk on her part, something she immediately started complaining about, but Nie Mingjue knew her well enough to just listen and nod along while she talked and wait for her to eventually get to the point that she’d originally had in mind when she’d come looking for him. It might be nothing important, maybe just wanting his company or to get his thoughts on some brand-new snack the kitchen had wracked their brains to think of, or it might be something important – with Second Mother, you could never really be sure.
It didn’t really matter, though. She was his Second Mother and it was Nie Mingjue’s duty to be a good and filial son to her, so he always listened carefully and seriously to everything she said regardless.
“Every time you say that, my heart gets all drippy and disgusting,” Second Mother told him when he told her that, as solemn as he could be to make sure she knew he wasn’t teasing her. “I hate it.”
Her smile suggested she did not actually hate it.
“Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about this,” she continued, putting a hand on her belly. “After all, you’re going to be the one who has to deal with him one day.”
“I’ll be a good big brother to him,” Nie Mingjue reassured her. “I’ll love him and care for him no matter what.”
“…cute, adorable, amazing, splendid child, but also not what I was talking about.” She patted his head. “You’re a Nie. Do you know what that means?”
Nie Mingjue wrinkled his nose. “I’m going to guess you don’t mean what the elders say it means?”
“Certainly not for your age group they don’t, meatbun. You Nie main sect, you’re not just a bunch of sword-slaves –”
“…yes, cabbage roll, I know, that’s still not the point I’m trying to make, and also I meant that as an insult. Anyway. Listen to Second Mother carefully now.”
Nie Mingjue nodded.
“Your sect’s cultivation comes from more than just a big old butcher’s knife that did a lot of chopping once upon a time. You’ve got dragon’s blood in you, burning hot and bright and fierce, and it drives you to slaughter just as it drives you to rage, and part of what you do to pay that blood-debt back to the heavens is facing up against calamities.”
“Cala – what’s that?”
“Mm, let’s say it more simply: you fight bad things.”
Nie Mingjue nodded, back on firmer ground. Defeat evil, no matter where it is – the sect motto.
“Now, what happens if you take something powerful that fights evil things, and you mix it in with one of those powerful evil things, and something ends up coming together out of that. Whatever it is, it’ll be really powerful, right? And someone’s going to have to deal with that bad thing. Does that make sense?”
Nie Mingjue thought about it.
“I think so,” he said. “Only…”
“Only Second Mother’s not evil, so little brother’s not going to be evil, so no one’s going to have to deal with him.” Nie Mingjue looked up at her. “That’s what you were getting at, right?”
“I want to eat you up so badly I don’t even have words for the magnitude of my desire,” Second Mother informed him. “You make my teeth rot sometimes, honey-nut. My point is, you need to be the one to take care of little brother, should it come to that. He’s got everything he needs to be a calamity, if he wants, and if you love the world, you’re going to need to face up to being the one to deal with him.”
Nie Mingjue nodded.
“We understand each other, then?”
“Uh-huh. I’ll be a good big brother and I’ll love him and care for him no matter what.”
Second Mother put her hand to her forehead.
“I don’t even know why I bother,” she remarked into the air. “It’s not like I care if the human race is preserved. If only I didn’t know that it would make you feel bad, my little fishcake...ugh, never mind. Now I’ve gone and gotten myself hungry again. The ravenous beast in my belly wants more…”
“I can get you some snacks from the kitchen!”
“You do that.” She sighed, then laughed. “We can talk about this later, I suppose. Maybe I’ll get your father to talk to you about the details – it’s his family’s burden, after all.”
She never did get the chance to talk to him about it later, and neither did Nie Mingjue’s father.
But it was all right.
Nie Mingjue figured it out anyway.
“So I heard something interesting,” Nie Huaisang said.
Nie Mingjue, who was enjoying his very brief visit to the peaceful remnants of the Cloud Recesses to the fullest by having a midday nap and who had no intention of interrupting such a lovely thing for whatever new gossip his brother had uncovered, grunted.
“About our family,” Nie Huaisang added. “Our legacy – our cultivation path –”
Nie Mingjue was currently engaged in a multi-part conspiracy designed to keep Nie Huaisang from finding out about the sacrifice the Nie sect, and in particular their main line Nie clan, made when they picked up their sabers, about the inevitable and horrible qi deviations that eventually slayed their kin, and had been engaged in such conspiracy for several years. Despite having his focus immediately drawn in by Nie Huaisang’s words, he was not so easily shaken.
“What about it?” he asked, not opening his eyes. “Some sudden inspiration to start training?”
A fan lightly whacked him in the arm.
“No, da-ge, ugh. Someone was saying something about…calamities?”
Nie Mingjue grunted again, and mentally made a note to have a talk with some people. “All right, so?”
Nie Huaisang heaved a great big sigh and settled down next to him with a grumble – sure enough, as soon as he inferred from Nie Mingjue’s reaction that there was nothing to get up in arms and worried about, he relaxed and started to deal with the issue more practically.
“Why didn’t you say something,” he grumbled. “Maybe I could’ve helped.”
Nie Mingjue cracked open an eye. A moment later, feeling like that wasn’t effusive enough, he opened both eyes and turned around to give Nie Huaisang a look with his entire face and body involved.
Nie Huaisang noticed. Which was good, it meant his self-preservation instincts weren’t completely gone. “…uh, da-ge…”
“No, no,” Nie Mingjue said, lips twitching even though he tried desperately to keep a deadpan expression firmly in place. “Please, go ahead. Tell me how young master I don’t want to train the saber, training is boring Huaisang intends to help me defeat a calamity.”
“Perhaps you’ll utilize your skill at appraising paintings and only getting cheated once every three times? Or your admitted excellence at caricatures so satirical that we’ve only nearly gotten into five minor border disputes as a result of them…no? Maybe it’s your ability to fail any exam, no matter how kind or harsh the grading scheme, which in all honesty is rather impressive. Or perhaps it’s your discerning taste in erotic portraiture…”
Nie Huaisang was starting to giggle.
“No, I know! It’s your skill at sunning yourself on rocks, isn’t it? That’s the key. The real secret. The critical turning point that underlies all of our future successes –”
Nie Huaisang smacked him with his shoulder. Pity for him that Nie Mingjue was as immovable as the mountain, and just as relentless.
“I mean, it makes sense,” he remarked. “They say those surnamed Nie are descended from dragons, and Second Mother had a reputation for being a fox – if you take a big fat lizard and a big fat fox and you put them in a sunbeam, then surely –”
“Da-ge!” Nie Huaisang shrieked. “A dragon is not a big fat lizard! And she wasn’t fat!”
“What do you know? You were in her belly at the time, eating everything in sight,” Nie Mingjue said dismissively, voice lofty. “You have no insight into these things. Yes, I think that’s it, that’s the one, it’s all the sunlight and dozing and lounging that you do. Thank you for your contribution, Huaisang.”
Nie Huaisang groaned and dropped his head onto Nie Mingjue’s lap. “Da-ge’s so mean to me,” he complained. “And none of those things will actually help in any way, not really.”
Nie Mingjue pet Nie Huaisang’s head idly, enjoying the warmth of his brother’s hair between his fingers, much finer than his own. “No? I think they help a great deal. Even if I would like you to at least have the basic saber moves down so that you could defend yourself and, you know, maybe not let down our ancestors quite so much.”
“Fat lot of good a couple of saber moves will do against Wen Ruohan.”
Nie Mingjue arched his eyebrows. Ah, he thought to himself. I see.
“Huaisang,” he said. “Wen Ruohan isn’t my fated calamity.”
Nie Huaisang popped his head up with a frown. “What? He’s not?”
Nie Mingjue shook his head.
He didn’t need to say any more than that – Nie Huaisang was truly terrible at taking tests, but he was still dreadfully clever; only a moment or two passed before his brow unwrinkled itself. “He’s a-die’s, isn’t he? He’s the calamity that our father never got the chance to defeat.”
“That’s right. That’s why it’s my duty to defeat him in our father’s name, so that our father can enter the cycle of reincarnation without any regrets.”
“That’s also why it’s so hard, isn’t it?” Nie Huaisang asked, propping his chin on his palm. “Because you’re not the right one to beat him, so your skillset isn’t really designed for this challenge.”
“Not any more than any other Nie would be, I suppose. Martial skills and strength help no matter what the challenge.”
“…is that a hint to go train more often?”
“Well, if you want to take it as one…”
“Ah, but da-ge!” Nie Huaisang grinned. “Didn’t you say that I’m already helping? Maybe if I’m less accomplished, the calamity I have to face will be less threatening…”
“Maybe,” Nie Mingjue said, and pulled Nie Huaisang up into his arms as he lay back down, holding his little brother in a hug the way he used to when he was small. “Or maybe you’ll have to deal with some calamity that I leave behind, if that calamity kills me before I defeat it. I’m not meant for a long life, Huaisang.”
Nie Huaisang burrowed into his side. “Don’t say that,” he mumbled, voice small. “I know, you keep saying that I need to be prepared – but I don’t want to be prepared. I don’t want to lose you at all.”
“Training or not training isn’t going to change what happens to me,” Nie Mingjue said helplessly. “All it will determine is how ready you are to deal with whatever happens next. I just want you to be ready, that’s all. I want it to be easier for you.”
Nie Huaisang grunted.
It was, Nie Mingjue reflected, an exceptionally irritating response to get. Maybe he should take that to heart and do it less often himself…except that would only encourage Nie Huaisang further.
He had long ago figured out that with a calamity like Nie Huaisang, whose strength was in his clever mind and twisted schemes and ruthless heart, there was only way to fight it, and that was by doing what Nie Mingjue had tried to give him all along: a heart full of love and care, attention and support to do as he wished, to live as carefree and light-heartedly as possible, and perhaps a little brotherly nagging to keep him on the straight and narrow path.
Or, well, as close to it as possible, anyway. Nie Huaisang could have been terrifying: as temperamental as a dragon and as cunning as fox, as powerful and prideful as both, with the ambition and malice of humanity unchecked by the demands of the resentful saber spirit…
But Nie Huaisang wasn’t resentful, or malicious, or even ambitious.
He was happy.
Nie Mingjue would keep his word to his paternal ancestors and his Second Mother both: he would defeat this would-be calamity, and he would also love and care for his brother until the end of his days.
As for any other calamity he might have to face…
Well, that was a problem for later.
“I’m sorry, what?” Wei Wuxian asked, startled. “I don’t think I heard you right.”
“You did,” Nie Huaisang said pleasantly, and nodded politely at an equally started-looking Lan Wangji. “You both did. I want you to bring my brother back, the way you brought Wen Ning back.”
“Lan Zhan already said that the coffin at the Guanyin Temple was filled with a tremendous amount of resentful energy,” Wei Wuxian pointed out. “In a hundred years –”
“I’m not waiting a hundred years,” Nie Huaisang said. “I will if I must, but I don’t want to – it’s been three years since his proper funeral, the formal mourning period is over. We can move away from mourning and onto practicalities.”
“I would have thought that you would want him to reincarnate,” Lan Wangji said, settling down next to Wei Wuxian’s side.
“His soul was ripped into pieces, remember? It won’t be that easy for him. No, I want to open the coffin, banish the ghosts we don’t need, and reawaken him as a conscious fierce corpse. The rest after that, I’ll handle from there.”
Wei Wuxian coughed. “Not that I don’t understand the urge,” he said, trying to be delicate. “But it’s really not – I mean – just because you miss him –”
“It’s not just anything,” Nie Huaisang scolded him. “This is important, Wei-xiong. You can think of it as saving the world, if you like; I’m doing my duty as a Nie.”
Wei Wuxian blinked, not sure how the various parts of that sentence together, but Lan Wangji looked thoughtful as if he’d understood something.
“Lianfang-zun,” he said. “Was he your calamity?”
Wei Wuxian frowned. “Calamity?”
“It is said that each of the Nie main clan is fated to encounter a calamity in their lifetime,” Lan Wangji said. “They may defeat it, or not, leaving it to their heir – if they fail, the consequences are terrible. Not only for them, but for everyone. The entire world.”
“Wen Ruohan was my father’s calamity,” Nie Huaisang explained. “My brother, as my father’s heir, spent years trying to fix the problem that my father could have prevented from happening, if he hadn’t been murdered.”
“…wasn’t he murdered by Wen Ruohan?”
“He was,” Nie Huaisang nodded. “But in fairness to my father, he’d already stopped two other calamities as well – asking for three from any one man was really just a bit much. A testament to his talent, I suppose.”
Wei Wuxian wondered what the other calamities the former Nie Sect Leader had been able to defeat were like, if Wen Ruohan, murderous torturing tyrant and empire-builder that he was, was the third on the list. He thought it might be a bit rude to ask.
“And no, actually,” Nie Huaisang said. “To answer your question, san-ge was da-ge’s calamity as well. So like my brother before me, I had to clean up the mess left behind, and lots of people suffered in the process.”
Wei Wuxian supposed he could see the logic there. Jin Guangyao had wreaked havoc for over a decade, unchecked, until Nie Huaisang had resurrected Wei Wuxian to fight back against him.
“One could argue that Wei-xiong is one of my own calamities,” Nie Huaisang said thoughtfully. “And that because I failed to do something back in his first lifetime, he ended up murdering so many people…well, either way, I’ve fixed him up all good now, haven’t I? No more massacres for him!”
Wei Wuxian would protest that he hadn’t been fixed up, except it occurred to him that the presence of Lan Sizhui and the other Lan sect juniors at Mo Village just at the time of his resurrection, drawing Lan Wangji’s attention to him so quickly, had in fact been the precipitating factor in leading him to his current contented state. So he supposed one could make an argument that Nie Huaisang had, in fact, fixed things, if by fixing things one meant making it so that he wouldn’t make any more trouble.
“Maybe,” he said, and Nie Huaisang nodded, looking pleased. “But then why do you need your brother back now, since Jin Guangyao has been defeated? By your brother, no less?”
“Because my brother’s work isn’t done,” Nie Huaisang said. “San-ge was his second calamity, and the first one’s still a threat. He needs to come back and finish the work he started.”
“…who’s the first calamity?” Wei Wuxian asked, puzzled.
Nie Huaisang smiled. “Me, of course.”
Wei Wuxian felt his eyebrows raise up and couldn’t help but smile a little. “You?” he asked, and glanced over at Lan Wangji to share in the humor.
Except Lan Wangji wasn’t smiling.
He was looking very solemn. “Is that a threat?” he asked.
Nie Huaisang shrugged carelessly. “Oh, you know how it is,” he said. “I’ve never wanted to destroy the world. It sounds like so much work! You have no idea how much I complained when I first heard that I was fated to be a world-destroying calamity like my mother before me…no one ever said there’d be a test. I hate tests! I’m only good at basking in the sun, and at failing any exam I’m given.”
Despite that, he seemed perfectly in earnest, and Lan Wangji, at least, seemed to be taking him completely seriously. Wei Wuxian didn’t quite believe that Nie Huaisang had it in him to be a world-destroying calamity – even after everything that happened at the Guanyin Temple, even after all his conclusions about Nie Huaisang’s role in all of that, he still just couldn’t see it – but on the other hand, he had learned by now to trust Lan Wangji’s judgment. If Lan Wangji was worried…
“I mean, I can try?” he said, and watched as Lan Wangji’s shoulders relaxed slightly as Nie Huaisang beamed. “I can’t make any promises. I don’t know what will rise up from that coffin, in the end, and I certainly don’t know what can be done with either him or Wen Ning later. But I can try, if it means so much to you.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” Nie Huaisang said, looking very cheerful. “Like I said, I can handle everything else…and my brother will be able to help with the Wen Ning problem as well, once he rises. You’ll see.”
“You’re supposed to face a calamity, Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue said. “Not make your own.”
Nie Huaisang grinned, fox-faced and satisfied, and refused to release his brother from his embrace.
“I’m innovating,” he said primly. “Didn’t you say that all Nie sect leaders add a little of themselves into our family traditions? This is mine.”
“What, exactly, is your innovation?” Nie Mingjue asked, sounding skeptical. “Raising corpse kings?”
Personally, Nie Huaisang thought that Nie Mingjue had returned as a minor god of the unavenged dead, just as he’d been a little bit of a god of righteous vengeance while alive, but he wasn’t about to start quibbling too much. It had been so funny to see Wei Wuxian’s expression when all the resentful spirits in the area had started bowing as Nie Mingjue had risen up from the coffin, wreathed in ghost flame…!
(That was definitely going to be useful in the future.)
“Creating a perfect loop,” he said, answering his brother’s question. “I’m your calamity, and you’re mine. I stop you and you stop me – it all makes perfect sense, building one on top of the other.”
“That’s ridiculous,” his brother said, but Nie Huaisang felt the lips press against his brow in silent approval nonetheless. “Do you intend to ditch me with the duties of Sect Leader, is that it?”
“We’ll split them,” Nie Huaisang assured him. He hadn’t worked so hard to simply see his brother crushed beneath the weight of duty once more – anyway, just because he hated working hard didn’t meant he didn’t expect to see a proper return when he actually exerted himself and did it. “It’ll be fun, da-ge. We’ll take the Nie sect back up to the top, you and me, and we’ll save everyone we need to in the process. We’ll bring justice and righteousness back into the world, with our Nie sect at the forefront.”
And no one, he thought gleefully, is going to be able to stop us.