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The worst of it, naturally, was Nie Mingjue himself.

Now, Meng Yao didn’t mean to understate the issue: the whole thing was pretty damn bad. It was only that out of a whole lot of bad, Nie Mingjue was the worst.

But really, it was all bad.

See, Meng Yao? He was good at things. Or rather, he usually was good at things, very good, and by that he meant that when he set out to do something, he usually accomplished it, one way or the other. Except ever since he’d arrived at the Nie sect –

No, that wasn’t right. The thing was, Meng Yao had arrived at the Nie sect just fine. He’d made it and been accepted on the basis of his willingness to put in the hard work to learn cultivation during wartime, he had maneuvered the situation such that he could contribute to the war in a way that would catch notice in a way his martial skills couldn’t, he had even managed to snag a position of influence the way he’d intended…perhaps slightly faster than intended, but knowing how to take advantage of opportunities was also a skill. At any rate, that had all worked just right and according to plan.

He just couldn’t get out.

Every single thing he did just seemed to go – wrong. Backwards. Sideways.

And always in a way that seemed to accrue to the benefit of the Nie sect, one way or another, instead of serving as the subtle signals of support for his father back in Jinlin Tower that he intended them to be.

He saved some disciples from small sects subsidiary to the Jin?

Their sect leaders were so grateful that they swore loyalty to the Nie instead.

He used his position as Nie Mingjue’s aide to put more Nie sect forces on the border that the Jin were having trouble shoring up?

The Wen sect picked that place as their next target, and the Nie were universally applauded for their foresight in figuring out where the enemy next intended to go.

He ‘accidentally’ mentioned some useful tidbits about where and how to win an easy victory where one of the young masters of the Jin sect could overhear and take for themselves?

The moron in question ended up screwing the opportunity so badly that Nie Mingjue had had to go running in personally to save him, and it had turned into yet another tale to shore up the great and mighty reputation of Chifeng-zun.

Even his attempt to redirect Nie Mingjue’s fiery temper away from the Jin sect during a particularly fierce clash turned out to have been the only thing that kept the Nie sect from being entrapped into rashly agreeing to something the Jin sect wanted!

Meng Yao had intended to use his position in the Nie sect to build up a reputation capable of getting his father’s attention and interest, using it as a stepping-stone in order to win his rightful place in the Jin sect. And, well…

Well, he certainly had a reputation, all right. A reputation for overwhelming loyalty to the Nie sect!

And yet the worst of it, the very worst of it, was Nie Mingjue.

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate everything you’re doing,” the other man said gingerly, clearly aware that all of his adroitness in physical combat didn’t make one iota of different for how much of a lumbering beast he was when emotions were in play. “I really do. Your talent and enthusiasm are incredible assets to us, and you have proven yourself time and time again. There’s just no need – that is, if it’s not convenient for you, I don’t want to you to feel like you have to exert yourself so much on our behalf. Especially given that it’s your father on the other side…”

Meng Yao felt as though his sore spot were being prodded directly. He gritted his teeth.

“You were the one who gave me a chance, when he didn’t,” he said, and it sounded believable even to him. “Why shouldn’t I exert myself fully on your behalf?”

“No reason at all,” Nie Mingjue said hastily. “Ah, really, Meng Yao, don’t mind me. It’s only that I had thought…assumed…that is, it occurred to me that you might want to one day return to the Jin sect.”

He did.

“And it’s just…well…”

The way everyone interpreted his actions would make that more difficult. Yes. Meng Yao was aware.

“But naturally if that is not your wish, we will certainly not cast you out. You’re welcome to stay here as long as you like.”

At this rate, it was looking like Meng Yao wouldn’t have much of a choice. Even if he went to the Jin sect now, who would believe he was there whole-heartedly? After everything he’d ‘gone out of his way’ to do, wouldn’t they just suspect him of being a spy for the Nie sect?

“Thank you for your kindness, sect leader,” he said, hating everything. “I’ll take what you said under consideration.”

“You do that,” Nie Mingjue said, in what was probably meant to be an encouraging tone of voice. “You know, I’ve been speaking with Xichen recently. He suggested that you might enjoy travelling between the sects as a courier, like him, so as to more effectively see all your options before making a final decision as to which sect you would like to settle down in. We’d miss you here, of course, but if that was something you might think interesting…”

Meng Yao made some agreeable noises. Lan Xichen was a bit of a busybody, if an exceptionally handsome, accomplished and powerful one, but if his interference got Meng Yao out of this endless spiral of acts building on acts making his future path into the Jin sect more difficult, he’d take it.

He set out the next day, a letter of recommendation in his pocket from Nie Mingjue – just in case, the sect leader had said. If he wanted. No one would be offended if he made that sort of choice, picking another sect to go to and claim as his home, even if their preference would naturally be for him to return and swear into the Nie sect as a full disciple rather than a mere guest disciple.

“I just don’t want you to feel trapped,” that dreadful earnest man had said, giving him a far-too-hearty slap on the back in what was undoubtedly a sincere effort at companionship. “If you understand. I want you here by your own free will, your own voluntarily given word, or not at all. All right?

If Meng Yao had been anyone else, he would have been delighted by such an offer. But he was himself, and he had other plans, and he wasn’t. This whole mess wasn’t in his plans at all!

A letter of recommendation from Nie Mingjue, no matter how earnestly worded, wouldn’t help him get in good with the Jin sect now. Jin Guangshan was paranoid by nature, and suspicious in particular of those unrecognized children who shared his bloodline; with Meng Yao’s list of ‘accomplishments’ behind him, he would definitely assume that he was up to something.

No, the Jin sect was beyond his capabilities right now.

Right now, his only priority was to figure out what in the world was wrong with him. How had all his plans gone so wrong? Why was it always to the Nie sect’s benefit?

…was there something they weren’t telling him?

No, that seemed impossible.

Meng Yao carried letters for two months, helping the Sunshot Campaign progress chi by sorry chi. His reputation for undying loyalty to the Nie sect did not improve but rather continued to grow, getting to the point that he wasn’t even approached by Jin sect agents with a bribe the way just about every other Nie sect scout was, frustratingly enough. The one time he approached one of them with an offer to sell information, he’d had to do so in disguise, and then of course it’d turned out that the information was stale and Nie Mingjue had changed up the whole plan so it was all completely useless.

Meng Yao had almost predicted that that would happen.

In fact, he had started becoming convinced that there was, in fact, something more to this whole disaster than he had initially thought. It wasn’t just his own plans that kept messing up – it was everything he did, no matter of his own volition or otherwise.

When he carried letters that contained information helpful to the Nie, he practically flew to his destination, clear roads in his wake and fine weather to accompany him, helpful strangers and no ambushes whatsoever, but carrying letters that were unhelpful or would only burden them meant he would be met with rains and mud and misery, inns with no rooms left and holes that appeared in his clothing just in time for a cold wind to get in through. There was one letter that landed him with so many disasters that he’d ended up burning it in a fit of pique, and later on it turned out that the source in question had turned his coat and started feeding them wrong information; his failure to deliver the letter had been the only thing keeping them from making the wrong move in a fairly critical battle. Meng Yao had been the one to later uncover that betrayal, in fact, since he’d gone looking for a reason for all that ridiculously bad luck, so now that was part of his merits, too.

(And of course the turncoat had been someone who belonged to one of the Jin sect’s subsidiary sects.)

Now, Meng Yao was a cultivator, and cultivators didn’t flinch that the unnatural – look at that Wei Wuxian fellow, who was raising corpses left and right – but this whole business was quite frankly starting to give him the creeps.

No more, he decided one day, not long after the turncoat incident. He was somewhere in the south, a desert clime, the weather hot yet without enough water to call it balmy as his home had been; with his help, the local sects had just repelled a major incursion by the Wen sect and send them fleeing back up north into the jaws of Nie Mingjue’s relentless army at Hejian. No more of this. Even if I have to start from the bottom, so be it! I’m going to the Jin sect tomorrow.

He set out in the morning, heading east towards Langya, where his father’s forces were stationed.

The roads were closed.

“Closed?” he echoed, blinking at the cultivator stationed at the next outpost. “We can fly on our swords. How can the road be closed?”

“There’s a terrible storm,” the cultivator – Nie-affiliated, of course – said. “Hailstones the size of your fist. Trust me, if there was any way you could make it through, I’d let you go and on your own head be the consequences, but not even Hanguang-jun could make it through something like this.”

Meng Yao nodded, still feeling blank inside with surprise.

“Why don’t you try a different direction?” the cultivator suggested kindly. “You can always turn east later.”

The way north – north, towards Hejian and Qinghe and Nie Mingjue – had, perhaps unsurprisingly, no problems at all.

Meng Yao tried several times more to turn east, each one without any success. The reasons varied, each of them understandable and reasonable when standing alone and wholly ridiculous when grouped together, and yet there was clearly no attempt at artifice, no possibility of conspiracy. No one was lying to him, everything they said was true – it was only that the universe itself was conspiring to ensure he wouldn’t get to Langya.

And anyway, even if he did, if his luck was this bad just getting there, then wouldn’t everything he tried to do once he was there just blow up in his face?

Well, whatever. There were other places that he could go. Even if the heavens had for whatever reason decreed that he couldn’t join the Jin sect directly, that didn’t mean he couldn’t find a way to win merit. There was always the Wen sect to the west, which was always recruiting; if he could win a position there and serve as a spy, he could win merit for himself, and that merit would accrue to any sect that he later joined. If he managed to be the one to kill Wen Ruohan, his father would take him in just to steal those merits for the Jin sect, and add to their glory by using his. And surely, if he were winning merit just for himself, it might appear that it would ultimately be for the Nie sect’s benefit, at least at first…

To the Wen sect, then.

Only…

It seemed the heavens knew what he was thinking.

The way to the west was as dire and gloomy as the way to the east was impassable; it was as if fate itself was telling him that this path was not the right one, that he was making a mistake, that it would bring him only doom in the end.

Meng Yao was determined, not insane: upon realizing that he was up against something far stronger than himself, something that could detect not only his actions but his intentions, he at once changed his direction and headed straight back towards the Nie sect – back towards Hejian, back towards the Nie sect, back towards Nie Mingjue.

Predictably, the moment he changed his destination, the sun came out, the clouds cleared…even the flowers seemed to be blooming more brightly.

Meng Yao glanced at the cheery flowers that he had not noticed earlier, despite his near-perfect memory, and shivered before hurrying on his way.

If nothing else, he reassured himself, Nie Mingjue would surely have some answer to his highly unusual predicament. After all, what were cultivators good for if not for dealing with the strange and unusual?

“The sect leader has returned to the Unclean Realm,” the commander tells him when Meng Yao arrived at the front line at Hejian, sneering and turning away in disdain. Before he left the tent, he tossed some words over his shoulder, resentful sneer twisting his face: “He left word that you could join him there, if you happen to be in the area.”

Meng Yao was pretty sure whatever bad luck beast lurked in his shadow was appeased by him being back amidst the Nie sect, such that he didn’t need to worry about tripping over misfortune any longer, but there were, he thought as he glanced at the arrogant Nie sect commander who thoroughly despised him, other things that one might need to worry about.

So he went to the Unclean Realm.

As he went, he wondered what it was that was so important that it drew Nie Mingjue away from his battlefield. There was no one who hated the Wen sect more, no one more committed to the Sunshot Campaign’s success – no one more dutiful or concerned for his sect disciples’ well-being. Nie Mingjue would never risk their lives for some selfish reason…though admittedly, now that Meng Yao thought about it, he couldn’t recall having seen the marks of any recent battle nearby. It was as if the Wen sect had temporarily put a pause there, and instead chose to focus their efforts in other places while waiting for Nie Mingjue to return.

That was surely impossible.

Wasn’t it?

When Meng Yao approached the Unclean Realm, he was temporarily concerned that he would encounter something strange there – some seemingly delicate mysterious lady hidden in the unseasonal fog with a smile that stretched too widely and nails that were sharp enough to pierce skin, a vicious undying beast seething with resentment and roaring with rage, a legion of fierce corpses like one of Wei Wuxian’s armies – but there was nothing like that.  

There wasn’t anything unusual at all.

There wasn’t even an absence of anything to make it unusual. There were still the usual set of farmers and merchants, talking and going about their days; there was noise and bustle and all the things in the world that screamed normal – it was as if the only thing that was odd was Meng Yao himself, but that couldn’t be.

“Welcome,” the guard at the gate of the Unclean Realm, a tall and deep-voiced woman, said to him when he arrived. “You’ve come just in time.”

“Just in time?” Meng Yao asked, not really paying attention – he was still looking over his shoulder as if he could try to look at the completely normal town not far away, as if he could feel someone following him. “For what?”

“The sect leader is paying respects to his ancestors, along with the rest of the inner sect.”

Meng Yao wanted to curse – of course it would be something like that. Perfect Nie Mingjue, always the filial son; naturally he would come away from the battlefield meant to protect the living in order to honor the dead.

“Then it’s not for me,” he said, a little impatiently. What a waste of time it had been to come here; who knew how long they’d be busy praying? “I’m not surnamed Nie.”

“That isn’t,” the guard said mildly, “the criteria.”

Meng Yao stopped.

He turned to look at the guard: a woman, as he’d noticed earlier, tall and husky, with thick arms that looked as though they could rip you in two with barely any effort, and – and this was the key point, such a key point that he couldn’t believe he’d missed it earlier – no saber.

The woman smiled at him.

He took a step back on instinct. It wasn’t a nice smile, wasn’t meant to be a nice smile, and he was increasingly unsure that this woman or woman-like creature was even capable of something that was anything less than fierce and vicious.

“Who are you?” he asked.

Her heavy head swung slowly from side to side like a pendulum.

Meng Yao realized he could not see the features on her face clearly. They were obscured as if through a fog, like the ghost he had been afraid of earlier, only there was no fog in the way between them – it was his eyes themselves that would not focus, as if she were some ghostly shade or terrifying beast that he could not bear to bring himself to gaze upon directly.

“Are you the reason everything – the reason for everything happening as it has?” he asked, and wondered if asking what she was would be rude. “For why I’m trapped?”

“You trapped yourself,” she said. “You owe a debt. How can you leave before it is paid?”

A debt? How could he, who only just recently joined, owe the Nie sect a debt? How could the universe itself twist itself like fried dough, summoning the rain and the wind, and all for the Nie sect’s benefit?

“You asked the heavens themselves to witness your oath. Do you not remember?”

Meng Yao took a step back.

“I swore no oath to the Nie sect,” he protested, mind scrambling back through everything he did. Joining the Nie sect had been easy in this time of chaos and war, each sect desperately recruiting anyone with the potential for cultivation, and they had not demanded anything so serious. Even his promotion had been instigated by Nie Mingjue, and he himself, keeping his eventual goal in mind, had made no promises… “I didn’t!”

She smiled at him again.

She was taller now, Meng Yao suddenly thought. Or was it that he hadn’t noticed it before? Yet how could he not have noticed – surely no mortal woman could be so tall or so fearsome, with brow veiled with the wild haze of war and hem dipped with ever-refreshing blood?

“Remember,” she said, and it was a command, as irresistible as any that Nie Mingjue had shouted in a battlefield, that mighty voice somehow always able to pierce through the clamor. “Remember.”

Meng Yao remembered.

He had not sworn any oath to the Nie sect, that much was true.

But in another life – a life he had not yet lived – had he not sworn one to Nie Mingjue himself?

Had he not sworn to be true to his sworn brothers, then and in the future, and to be condemned by both heavens and man alike should he betray that truth? Had he not bowed before heavens and earth? Had he not petitioned that they bear witness to his oath, and serve to enforce it?

He had.

He just hadn’t thought it meant anything.

Just politics, he’d thought back then, disdainful as he was of all things that had failed to help him as much as he wanted them to. He had justified his betrayal to himself in a hundred ways and more, in that scant decade of peace he had won for himself before it had all come crashing down – every time he’d woken from nightmares, he had lied to himself that Nie Mingjue had betrayed him first by failing to support him; he had told himself that his actions were justified or justifiable, that they were understandable, that he could be forgiven for doing what he had done.

He had not been forgiven.

His reputation had been ruined, his achievements torn down, and he had been condemned by all the people, with Nie Huaisang standing at their head and pointing the finger at him, the first to denounce him, and there had been Nie Mingjue’s own undying anger there to seal his fate once and for all – that once-great man reconstituted once again, defying all odds, a raging beast that would not die no matter how he tried. In that frenzied time before his death, he had in fact thought more than once of that damnable oath he had sworn so long before, about how it seemed that all those threatened penalties had finally come true in the end…

All those penalties, but one.

After all, had he not sworn to face the anger not only of the people, but of the heavens, too?

“You will do better this time,” the goddess said, for that was what she must be. Meng Yao fell on his knees before her, pressing his forehead to the ground to avoid looking directly at her – his eyes had started to burn, as if he had tried to stare down the sun in the sky. It was the effect Wen Ruohan had tried so hard to achieve, and yet all of his overweening force was nothing in comparison with the real thing. “Everything you took for yourself, you will pay back. Everything you lost, you will earn once more, and hand over with your own two hands. You will pay your debt.”

Another terrible smile.

He wasn’t even looking at her, but he could feel it blazing above his head, burning into his mind.

“This time, you will not break faith.”

Meng Yao covered his head, terrified, abruptly convinced that it was all a lie and that he was about to be utterly destroyed, his soul torn to pieces and damned to never again enter the cycle of reincarnation.

He wasn’t.

A heartbeat. Then another, and another – he looked up.

There was no one there.

He was alone.

No woman, no ghost, no beast, no goddess – just him, him alone, kowtowing in sincerely meant apology towards the gate of the Unclean Realm.

“Meng Yao?”

Meng Yao nearly fell over sideways in his hurry to scramble to his feet and get away, only to realize that he recognized that voice.

“…Huai- ah, Nie-er-gongzi?” he asked as Nie Huaisang blinked owlishly at him. He’d nearly slipped up and called him by name, the way he had in that future that wasn’t. “I thought you were at the Cloud Recesses…?”

“I came back for a little bit. Family thing, you know how it is,” Nie Huaisang said carelessly. “But enough about me! What about you, what are you doing here? I thought da-ge said that you were off acting as a courier, down in the south..?”

“I came back,” Meng Yao said, and stuck his shaking hands behind his back. “I’ve reached a decision, you see. I want to join the Nie sect as a real disciple.”

Nie Huaisang blinked again. “Really?” he asked. “Are you sure? If you do that, you’d have to foreswear any alliance you have to the Jin sect once and for all. Da-ge said…”

“I know what your da-ge thinks,” Meng Yao said. Because he could see what I really wanted, from the very start. He was always the hardest to fool. “But it’s fine. I think…”

He trailed off, looking for words to say what he meant.

It wasn’t just the goddess’ implicit threat, the warning of the heavens themselves. With everything he remembered, everything he had done in his last life, the life he’d not-lived and yet recalled with perfect clarity…it was painfully clear now that the Jin sect would only ever be a dead end for him. He’d reached the pinnacle of power, arrayed himself in glory, acted humble and did all the right things, said all the right words, play-acted at righteousness and made everyone believe him, and in the end it had still brought him nothing.

In the end, Nie Huaisang had torn away all his illusions.

“I think this is where I’m meant to be,” he said, and for the first time maybe even really believed it. “I want to stay.”

“I’m so glad!” Nie Huaisang exclaimed, clapping his hands together. “Oh, da-ge will be so happy…come with me, I’ll lead you to him. You picked a good time for it, we’re all here – once da-ge is done worshipping his ancestors on the back mountain, he’ll come back to the sect and we can induct you in right away. And then we’ll be family for real, you and me and him…ah, Meng Yao, won’t that be wonderful?”

Meng Yao rolled the word ‘family’ inside his mouth, letting it sit on his tongue and savoring the taste like a sip of fine wine. Even to the end of his days at Lanling Jin, not one of his blood-related cousins had ever offered him that so-simple word that the Nie sect handed out as if it were nothing.

“Yes,” he said, and noted to his bemusement how Nie Huaisang’s look of satisfaction made him look, for just a moment, like a grinning fox. “Yes, I think it will be.”