Nie Huaisang had not often indulged in imagining the future after his revenge had concluded; there were so many moving pieces, so many ways it could have changed and altered and failed. It would have been a fool’s errand to imagine only one path forward, and Nie Huaisang was no fool.
(So many people thought he was—Jin Guangyao was certainly one of them. But he is now rotting six feet underground, and there would be no sacrificial ritual for him. Nie Huaisang has made sure of that.)
The immediate aftermath of Guanyin Temple had been disappointingly mundane. Of course, not for the vast majority of the cultivation world—with Jin Guangyao disgraced and dead (finally, finally), the cultivation world was somewhat in an unmitigated cold war. Smaller sects have begun to withdraw to themselves, unwilling to respect or trust the bigger sects anymore. The Jin sect was close to complete ruin, its only saving grace the fierce defence of the Jiang Sect leader of its heir. Huangung-Jun’s reputation has remained untarnished, but the title of Chief Cultivator has remained less so, and it would take time for Lan Wangji to do the work that needed to be done to save it.
That is, if he wished to do so. Huaisang was quite sure this Chief Cultivator would be their last one.
However, Huaisang has grown used to a certain level of… tension, in his life. Now, with no next move to plan, with no caretaker turned brother turned brother killer to deceive, life has become somewhat boring. Huaisang has never wanted to lead a sect, and while he admits his talents for it are not as far fetched as some might assume, he simply would much rather not bother.
Some, however, were rather insistent on not giving him a choice.
“Sect Leader, Sect Leader!” a voice calls out from behind him, and Huaisang groans. He has sneaked away to town, quite intent on buying some new art supplies. The last few years have had him indulge very little in his hobby. He was not especially excited to get back to it—his imagination has been quite lackluster as of late—but it might as well be something to do.
He looks back, hoping it wasn’t who he thought it was, but unfortunately he is quite good at reading people, and there is only one person who would be quite this brazen to follow him.
Nie Hanbing is an up and coming disciple of the Nie Sect, a ferocious little tornado. Originally from one of the branch families, she managed to cultivate a particularly powerful golden core at an incredibly young age. More importantly, she has exhibited a particularly nasty temper from an even younger age, and an even nastier habit of following it up with some truly spectacular violence. She wasn’t a bad kid, but she was hot-headed and rude, and was on a fast-track to getting kicked out of the sect until Nie Huaisang intervened.
He had thought to use her, at first. She was the right age, and could easily be integrated with the Lan kids, or even Young Master Jin. It would be useful to have another eye on either sect, and surely she would be grateful to him, for giving her a purpose. Surely, she would bow in thanks, her eyes shining, excited for just the tiniest amount of praise. He could dole it out as a prize for work well done, withhold it as punishment.
Something had stayed his hand. There was something of Nie Mingjue in the slint of her eye, the set of her brow. His stance in the way she would punch, his gentleness in the way she would carry her younger siblings on her shoulders, still so small and yet so strong.
He gave her a sword and a brush and taught her to use neither. He would be a rotten teacher, anyway. Better to leave that to others.
(Years later, when he came across Mo Xuanyu, he didn’t allow himself to repeat this weakness. He couldn’t afford to.)
He thought that was going to be it—another student for the Nie Sect, another person he could wash his hands of—but she just kept doing… this.
“A-Bing,” he sighs, turning around to face her. “The whole point of me sneaking out is that people don’t go running after me yelling my name.”
She grins, quickly catching up to him now that he has stopped. She has been growing taller lately, but he can already tell she will never be particularly tall, only coming up to his shoulders now. What she didn’t have in length she certainly had in muscles though, as was apparent even through all the layers of robes she was wearing. He has heard that even older disciples were afraid to face her while sparring, more scared of her fists than her sword.
“Sect Leader!” She greets him cheerfully. “You shouldn’t sneak out at all on your own. What if some unsavory character were to ambush you in an alley? They could steal all of your… uhh… very precious fans. That would be such a tragedy.”
“It would be!” Huaisang agrees with her, and does her the courtesy of ignoring her eyeroll. “I will have you know that this particular fan was made out of wood specially imported from-“
“Somewhere very far away and exotic, I’m sure,” Nie Hanbing cuts him off. “It’s a good thing I am now here to protect it. And you, I suppose.”
Huaisang gives himself a second to wistfully think of a world where people actually afforded him any shred of respect. It’s a very nice second. “I am a cultivator,” he tells her, and then whacks her on the head with the fan. They both know she could have easily avoided it. “I hardly need a child to look after me.”
“Sect Leader, you’re the one who always talks about image and reputation,” she says. “It wouldn’t really be appropriate for you to fight some common thugs, right?”
“Unlike you, you mean,” he says, dryly.
“Yup!” she grins again. “I would fight a common thug for you anyday of the week, Sect Leader Nie.”
Huaisang groans, but nudges her forward as he starts walking again, accepting his fate. “Just so I can be prepared when someone inevitably comes to yell at me about it, what exactly are you skipping on to come bother me?”
Hanbing makes a face. “Calligraphy practice.”
He hums, spotting a stand with some beautiful jewelry but not stopping to examine it further. “An important skill, as I’m sure you know.”
“It is not,” she denies vehemently. “I don’t really need to know how to write pretty stuff. I just need to know how to write ‘Nie Hanbing, big monster, come help me kill it, insert place here’. The rest is all useless.”
Huaisang laughs as he spreads his fan to hide his face. “And what if your correspondence is being read, and you are trying to hide crucial information in, say, a piece of poetry?”
“I am rubbish at poetry anyway,” she mutters, kicking at some loose pebbles under their feet. “If that happens I’m just gonna beat up whoever is reading my letters.”
She really is so much like da-ge, Huaisang thinks, and is surprised by how little it hurts, now. How it aches instead, where before it would have burned. He could tell her that even Nie Mingjue had beautiful calligraphy. How he was the one who taught him how to hold a brush, and how years later Huaisang would find in his rooms the dusty manuals he had used to teach himself before he could teach his brother.
“Oh?” he says instead, because for too long he has learned to suppress the name of his brother on his lips, lest poison comes out instead. “Has little a-Bing found someone to write poetry to?”
She colors immediately, and Huaisang is absolutely delighted. He did not know about this. Clearly he is getting rusty, complacent. “A-Bing! Do I need to start arranging family negotiations? A dowry?”
“Augh, you’re so annoying!” she stomps away, but stops just a few moments later next to a stand, pointedly not looking at it. When he catches up with her, Huaisang can see its merchant with a particularly fine collection of painted fans, and he spreads his own, hiding a delighted smile behind it. She has been paying attention. Subtle, it was not, but—
Rewards are quite crucial to a child’s development, or so he had heard. “Ah, are those made from rosewood?” he gasps, the delight only half-feigned. “And those illustrations. My good sir, that is quite a beautiful craft! Might I inquire about the artist?”
The merchant seems to be a bit flustered about such a sudden attention from the Sect Leader, but he recovers admirably, and gives an impressive spiel about his son’s skills. Partially to give a-Bing a sense of false security, and partially because the fans were really of that high a quality, and perhaps, partially, because he has missed talking about art, he listens patiently to the entire thing. He even buys a particularly eye-catching one, waterfalls falling between snow-capped mountains. It reminds him of Cloud Recesses, and he only barely catches the thought of showing it to Wei Wuxian when they next meet. It is probably… not the type of relationship they could currently have.
From the corner of his eye, he sees a-Bing start to vibrate a little, a clear sign the girl was bored out of her mind and that it was only the tenuous memory of hours of lectures about etiquette and poise that stop her from doing something about it.
“Ah, kids,” the merchant sighes fondly, clearly noticing the same. “They really can’t appreciate good art these days.”
“Either she will learn, or she won’t,” Huaisang says, placing the fan he came with in his robes and opening the one he just bought, examining its weight in his hand. “That really isn’t up to me, I’m afraid.”
“Sec Leader Nie, with you as her teacher, there is no doubt about it!” the merchant hastens to reassure. “Such a good eye for art—even if she doesn’t have the skill herself, children grow by emulating others. There is no one better for her to imitate than Sect Leader Nie, of course!”
Huaisang smiles and thanks him, passes him a purse of gold and assures him he will be back to commission his son for a new folding screen for his private quarters. Inside his head, a river is rushing. Imitate? Him? What a horror.
“Finally!” Hangbing exhales as he re-joins her. “I thought that man was going to talk you into an early grave.”
“He was an excellent salesman,” Huaisang admonishes her, refraining from tapping her on the head with the fan only because it was so new. “His expertise was unmatched, except for perhaps that of his son.”
Hanbing bites her lip, clearly trying to hide a grin as she congratulates herself on a job well done, but before she could say anything (and perhaps ruin her own work), another voice calls from behind them. “Sec Leader, Sect Leader!” with a sense of familiarity, Huaisang lets out an audible groan before turning around. An unknown disciple was running towards them, so out of breath that Huaisang was sure he had run non-stop all the way from the Unclean Realm, and thus clearly signifying an urgent matter.
“Don’t shout so loud, shidi,” Hanbing scolds, and Huaisang is delighted by her hypocrisy. “What if you were alerting enemies to Sect Leader Nie’s presence here?”
“But, shijie,” the boy protests, panting heavily. “No enemy would dare attack the Sect Leader in his own home!”
“Always be vigilant!” she snaps.
Before this could escalate further, Huaisang interferes. “Report, please.”
“Right!” he straightens, finally remembering himself enough to bow. “Sect Leader, there is a group of Lan, Jin, and Ouyang disciples seeking an audience with you. It seems to be urgent.”
Huaisang raises an eyebrow. Gusu Lan had… not exactly kept their distance from the Unclean Realm, but certainly had not sought an audience with him either. And if this is the group he thinks it is, the Head Disciple of Gusu Lan should not have been anywhere near Qinghe.
As he motions to the boy and Hanbing to follow him as he walks back to the fortress, he winces slightly, remembering how loud this particular group can get. He can bid his nice and peaceful afternoon goodbye.
It still seems incomprehensible, that the Unclean Realm should have a master like me. The Unclean Realm cannot hide what it is. There is no disguising the sharp lines of its towers, the height of its wall. The Unclean Realm was built as a fortress, but its strength lies not in its defences, but in its silhouette—imposing and foreboding and impenetrable, a direct challenge to invaders marked against the blue of the skies. The essence of the thing more important than its materiality. Ha, maybe not so incomprehensible after all.
Even the name—for those outside its walls, it is a warning: this is not a place for the weak. This is not a place for the pure. Those inside of it live and breath violence, and blood has been spilt on those walls and etched itself to its foundations.
For those inside the walls, it is a reminder: you will not live long. You will not live happily. You will live by your sword and one day it will kill you, and you will be dirty and rotten from the inside out until there is nothing left. There was nothing left of you, da-ge.
It is a fortress meant to protect through intimidation, built by a sect that could not conceive of a threat that didn’t appear directly in front of it, weapons rising. You would have shouted at me, for this disrespect. Would have made me read our histories yet again, as if I have not done so over a hundred times at this point. ‘Our ancestors built all of this from nothing,’ you would lecture. ‘Look at our size, our strength. Our might, towering above us all.’
How pitiful it must have looked to Meng Yao. How laughable, how stupid. A building like this, and its biggest threat walked straight through its doors, invited by the man he would one day murder.
Would he have approved of the changes I have made? Traps in its tunnels, spies amongst the servants. A thousand eyes and ears placed strategically in every aspect of life here, because I have seen greater men than me felled by people they deemed inconsequential, and I will not make the same mistake. Would Meng Yao have seen it as an honour, or an insult? Had Jin Guangyao taken the exact same precautions in Koi Tower?
It should have horrified me to find so many similarities between myself and the man who has single-handedly taken away everything I have ever loved. It should have driven me to madness. It should have led me to scratch away every inch of my skin that was touched by him, carve away every lesson he ever taught me. Better I be a mangled corpse than a man who could be compared to his brother’s killer and still be found wanting.
But instead I find comfort in it, because- because—
Here was a man you had loved.
It is the group he thought it was.
“Sect Leader Nie,” Lan Sizhui bows to him. Behind him are the by now familiar faces of Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen, and slightly to the side stands the newly appointed Sect Leader Jin, looking distinctly uncomfortable in his robes. Huaisang has read enough books to fill a small library about the significance of certain cuts, the importance of specific fabrics. There have been wars fought and won over perceived slights and compliments paid in robes.
Jin Rulan is now wearing the newly sewn robes of a sect leader. Huaisang knows full well how those can itch.
“Sect Leader Jin, Young Master Lan,” he greets them. “This is an unexpected visit.”
“I apologise for not notifying you of our arrival,” Lan Sizhui bows his head demurely. “We had not known our trail would lead us to Qinghe.”
“Trail? You’re on a nighthunt?” Huaisang asks, knowing full well nothing else would bring this particular group to his door. The sect leader of a major clan, no matter how far it has fallen in recent months, would have no reason to try and carry favour with the head-shaker. And besides, there are ceremonies and rituals to be conducted, when one sect leader visits another. They would certainly not do so in one of the Unclean Fortress’ smaller audience chambers, hardly the big grandiose affair it would have been in the main hall.
No sect leader, no matter how new he was, would let another speak for him.
“Yes,” Lan Sizhui says. “It’s a trail we have been following from Lanling.”
Huaisang raises an eyebrow. “Lanling? And you have still been unable to catch it?”
The young sect leader bristles at the perceived insult. “It’s fast,” he bites out, in a tone that is all Jiang Cheng. “And sneaky. It seems to only come out of the water when no one is around, and will slither back in the second it senses us coming.”
“Its area of perception is very large,” Lan Sizhui agrees. “We have been unable to ascertain exactly how large, but at least 3 li.”
“You keep referring to an it. Have you been unable to discover its nature?”
All four of them exchange glances. “No,” Lan Sizhui says at last, hesitant. “Although…”
Huaisang sighs when he fails to continue and lowers the fan that he has been using to lightly fan himself until now. “Young Master Lan, what exactly are you chasing?”
At such a direct question from a sect leader, Lan Sizhui has no choice but answer. “A Waterborne Abyss.”
“Impossible,” Huaisang answers immediately. “Waterborn Abyss cannot move on their own, and they would certainly not hide from potential victims.”
“I thought Sect Leader Nie didn’t know anything,” Lan Jingyi whispers to Ouyang Zizhen from the back of the room, before he is elbowed by him and told to stay quiet. Truly, Nie Huaisang likes Lan Jingyi—Gusu Lan needs a lot more of him and a lot less of the likes of Lan Qiren if they ever hope to survive this age of turbulence. That doesn’t mean the boy shouldn’t learn a bit of decorum—honestly, talking like this about a sect leader right in front of him! He is lucky Huaisang is who he is.
“I know quite many things, Lan Jingyi,” he says loudly, and delights in Lan Jingyi’s intense look of horror, “including how to properly whisper in a room full of people. It’s all about the vibration.” He lets there be a few more beats of silence since he finds that terror is a very effective lesson teacher, before he turns his gaze back to Lan Sizhui, who has a truly marvelous expression of painful exasperation at his friend. “Is it being chased?”
Lan Sizhui recollects himself and shakes his head. “We’ve been following it for days and haven’t seen anyone else. It first showed up in the northern part of Nansi Lake but there have been no unusual drownings there lately, or in any of the surrounding rivers. It’s almost like…” he trails off there, but Huaisang remembers very well the last time something like this happened, more than 16 years ago. He wasn’t there then, but he had listened with rapt attention to Wei Wuxian’s retelling of the story, all grand gestures and excited voices.
“Well, it’s certainly not Qishan Wen,” he says dryly, and immediately wishes he hadn’t. What a cruel thing to say in front of this boy specifically.
“Whatever it is, it’s in Qinghe Nie territory now,” Jin Rulan jumps in again, clearly impatient. “We have come to seek Sect Leader Nie’s permission to resume our nighthunt in your territory.” A passable attempt at diplomacy, but hardly any of the grandeur and pompousness that should have accompanied it. Huaisang makes a mental note to talk to Jiang Cheng about getting better tutors for his nephew, and then makes a second note to write to him about it instead. Better for his eardrums.
“Qinghe Nie doesn’t have any rivers or lakes big enough to accomodate a Waterborne Abyss,” says Huaisang, reclining back in his seat. “You must have lost your prey before our territory.”
“With all due respect,” replies Jin Rulan, with no due respect, “that’s impossible.”
“Hey!” Nie Hanbing snaps behind him. Huaisang has absolutely forgotten she was there—he can’t remember the last time she was this quiet. “Watch how you speak to our sect leader.” He will have to reward her for her form and silence later, and then immediately punish her for her brazenness.
“A-Bing,” he says with a mild voice. Hanbing immediately freezes in her tracks, a guilty look in her eyes. “Watch how you speak to a fellow sect leader.” There are other people in the room, after all. Not just Nie disciples, but attendants as well. Word will spread: the Nie Sect Leader has acknowledged the teenage Jin Sect Leader. Had referred to him as his fellow, his equal.
Nie Huaisang’s reputation wasn’t worth much, these days, but he could at least do this for a child who was caught in the crossroads of his revenge.
“Yes, Sect Leader. This disciple apologizes for her insolence,” she murmurs quietly, bowing to Jin Rulan. Huaisang brings up his fan to cover the lower half of his face as he notes her form. It is perfect, down to the last detail—the angle of her back, the placement of the fingers on her sword. Nie Hanbing is not a girl of perfection.
The memory of the afternoon reshapes itself in his mind. Hanbing’s real anxiety at the thought of him being on his own, disguised by her jokes and laughter. Her restlessness at the market, natural to her but somehow still more. Hanbing has been writing poetry to someone, and he hasn’t known.
Nie Hanbing has grown, and has learned to keep secrets. She has grown, and has learned to keep secrets from him. That simply wouldn’t do.
“Well!” he snaps his fan shut, the sound loud and startling in the silent room. “If Sect Leader Jin says so, then it surely must be impossible. Qinghe has a Waterborne Abyss on our hands! How exciting—I mean, terrible,” he corrects himself at the few horrified faces he sees amongst his disciples. “In fact, it’s so terrible that as the Qinghe Nie Sect Leader, I am morally obligated to join you on your hunt to make sure this beast is banished from my territory and will not cause anguish to my people.”
His announcement results, predictably, in a:
“Er, what?” from Jin Rulan. Not terribly eloquent, as expected from a child mostly raised by Jiang Cheng.
“Are you sure, Sect Leader Nie?” from Lan Sizhui. Hanguang-jun really taught him well.
“Oh god, we’re going to die,” from Lan Jingyi, and a whimper from Ouyang Zizhen.
It also results, less predictably, in—
“You can’t,” Hanbing blurts out, before clamping her mouth shut. The look in her eyes says she is perfectly aware she can’t salvage this, but that won’t mean she won’t try.
“Oh?” Huaisang raises an eyebrow. “I cannot?”
“I - I mean, this disciple means to say-” she scrambles, “surely our Sect Leader has more important things to do with his time. This disciple will be honoured to go in his stead.”
“More important than the safety of our people?” Huaisang mock gasps, only the twitch of his mouth betraying his hidden grin at the sight of her glare. “Nonsense! However, rest assured, I will certainly have you accompany me.”
Rudely enough, Nie Hanbing does not look particularly assured at that.
My advisors have recently started hinting to me that I should start taking a more active role in training our new disciples. In the two years since your death they have slowly been losing hope they could shape me into a semi-competent sect leader, and this looks like their last attempt to make me such.
Ha! Me, a teacher? Can you even imagine, da-ge? My old tutors must be rolling in their graves. Somewhere, Lan Qiren is inching ever closer to qi-deviation.
(Should I joke about qi-deviation in my letters to you, of all people? I suppose a dead man wouldn’t care much for a living man’s jokes. It is good that I’m burning those before another person could read them—only the gods left to offend then, and I suspect that by the time this is all done with I will have done much worse in their eyes than a few tasteless jokes.)
Worry not, I have managed to waylay them. A few excited monologues about all the art techniques I could teach those impressionable young minds and they have let me be, murmuring that perhaps the current curriculum was enough. It is painful how easy it is to twist them around themselves until they think your ideas were theirs all along. Fools, the lot of them, but useful ones, and still kind. They remember me as a child, and to them that is all I will always be.
I can almost hear your voice, scolding me. Not out of anger, but out of love. “Huaisang,” you would say. “You have so much to teach. Your mind is amazing - anyone would benefit from your tutelage. Our disciples will be stronger, faster, smarter for it. Qinghe Nie would truly be a force to be reckoned with, with you training our troops.”
It would have been so much easier, if you had no expectations of me, the way the rest of the world did. I could spend my days on art and the written word, visiting playhouses and perhaps trying my hand in writing a few plays of my own. I think I could have been good at it. The drama, the tension. Words that come to life in a way they never could just from a book or a poem. Besides, I seem to have a knack of playing people like puppets.
Ah, but I digress: teaching. I hate to disagree with a dead man, but da-ge, I don’t think I would be good at it all. A good teacher needs patience, but I think a great teacher needs to give to his students all that he is. Shouldn’t more cultivators be great teachers? Isn’t that in our name? What greater cultivation there is than that of plums and peaches blooming all over the world?
I wouldn’t make a great teacher the way I don’t make for a great cultivator. There are only dark parts of me left to give.
It is an odd thing, to be the only adult amidst a gaggle of teenagers.
Frankly, it is exhausting. They have certain…. expectations of him, especially the Gusu Lan juniors, and Huaisang has made it a life mission of his to never rise up to anyone’s expectations, but they just won’t let it go.
“Sect Leader Nie!” Lan Jingyi calls again, for what feels like the fifth time in the span of ten minutes. “What is the most exciting nighthunt you’ve ever been on?”
“Hmm,” he taps his closed fan on his chin as if in deep thoughts. “Oh! There was a fierce corpse, just off Yunping.”
Hanbing has to work hard to stifle a laugh. “Fierce corpses!” Lan Jingyi exclaims in excitement. “How many were there? Were they cursed to be particularly strong? Was someone controlling them?”
“Ah, no, you misunderstand,” Huaisang waves him off sheepishly. “A fierce corpse, just one. This old man had died and his family accidently buried him next to a particularly unlucky rock, which has been gathering resentment from all the ants it has crushed when it fell down from the mountain.”
“Old man?” Lan Jingyi blurts out.
“Ants?” Jin Rulan asks in disgust.
“Unlucky rock…” Ouyang Zizhen mumbles.
Hanbing loses the fight and bursts out in laughter. “Ha, the look on your faces!” she crows.
Jin Rulan colours immediately. “Shut up!” he snaps. “And you!” he whirls around to face Nie Huaisang. “Shouldn’t you be ashamed of such a… such a shameful story?!”
“Shameful?” Huaisang blinks at him. “Sect Leader Jin, why is it shameful?”
“You’re proud of having defeated one fierce corpse? A fierce corpse of an old man! Made by the resentment of ants!” Jin Rulan seems to be getting more agitated with each sentence. He is actually turning red in the face, how cute. Definitely got that from his uncle. “Isn’t this too much, even for the head-shaker?!”
“That one fierce corpse had been terrorizing the village for months,” Huaisang replies, not one bit bothered by his unfavourable title. It is one of his own creations, after all, and it will take time for the cultivation world to catch on to the lie. Years, if he plays his cards right. “Farmers had stopped working, children too afraid to play outside. The number of children being born before their time were ever rising, and so was the number of illnesses and deaths among the villagers. How could getting rid of that terror ever be considered shameful?”
To his credit, Jin Rulan does appear to take it to heart. “I guess I… didn’t think of it like that,” he admits, albeit grudgingly. Around him, the faces of the other three disciples appeared to be similarly in thought.
“Of course, it is less heroic than, say, slaying a beast,” Huaisang continues, carelessly flipping his fan around. “But tell me - if the beast bothered no one except the trees and the birds, is it still more honorable to slay it than this one miserable fierce corpse?”
Ah, oops - he might have been laying it a bit too thick there. Lan Sizhui is looking at him with a certain glint in his eyes, and even Lan Jingyi starts looking at him a bit more searchingly.
It is… harder than he had expected, to keep up the fool’s tongue in front of his own, far more wicked one. Ever since Jin Guangyao’s fall from grace, he keeps stumbling on syllables and words, sentences twisting in his mouth and revealing far more than he wants them to, almost drowning in accidental honesty. There is no danger in it, now—or rather, as much danger as there always is when a sect leader knows not how to disguise his words—but it is still disconcerting.
“As cultivators, our job is to stand with justice and eradicate evil,” Lan Sizhui says, his voice even. Although it sounds like he is reciting something he has heard many times before, he seems no less passionate for it.
“Yeah, yeah!” Lan Jingyi agrees enthusiastically. “Just like Hanguang-jun! Ah, Sect Leader Nie, you must have been so courageous when you saved that small village!”
Ouyang Zizhen nods with fervor, almost stars in his eyes. “It is true, evil can come from anywhere—and there can never be any shame in protecting the weak. In fact, doing acts of good without the incentive of fame and glory is far more honorable than slaying a thousand beasts!”
“Alright, alright, I get it,” oh dear, even Jin Rulan is starting to look at him with something approaching admiration. This simply won’t do—
And as always, Nie Hanbing proves herself to be a much more dedicated student to his teaching than even she realises. She bursts out laughing, her top-knot braids flipping backwards as she throws her head back in pure amusement.
“What’s so funny?” Jin Rulan snaps at her.
“There were no farmers who stopped working, no frightened children, no increased deaths or illnesses! In fact,” and here she has to stop to wheeze out another laugh, ”there was no village at all! The old man really was buried next to an unlucky stone, but it was in a seldom travelled part of the forest east of Qinghe, and the only reason the Sect Leader had to deal with the corpse was that he-” she stops, abruptly, perhaps realising that telling them exactly what Huaisang was doing there might not reflect well on either him or his sect.
He hides a smile. Ah, a-Bing! he thinks joyfully. Still so protective of my name, even though there is so little of it to protect.
“I was picking flowers,” he explains. It is cute of Hanbing, but unnecessary. He showed a little too much earlier, and now it was time to cover his tracks. “There were rumors of a unique breed of chrysanthemums growing in the area, and those would look quite lovely in my waiting room.”
“That’s—” Jin Rulan looks ready to explode, part shame from being had and part anger at his story, but he is stopped by Lan Sizhui, who at least has a smile on his face, clearly willing to laugh at himself. “I’m sure Sect Leader Nie has meant to teach us a lesson. It is still valuable, even if the story behind it is… not entirely true.”
Gusu Lan is certainly going to go far, if the rumors are true and he is slated to become their next sect leader.
Lan Jingyi pulls a face. “He could have just said it though, he didn’t need to lie,” he complains, over whatever compunctions he had earlier in the Unclean Realm to voice his disregard of Huaisang.
“You wouldn’t have listened if he just said it,” Hanbing snorts. “You would have just ignored him and started talking about…” she trails off, unable to come up with an exemple.
“Best way to suppress a shui gui, perhaps,” Lan Sizhui smiles at her, and she grins back, “Yeah, like that.”
“Who are you even, anyway?” Lan Jingyi asks her, his face still pulled into a frown.
Hanbing strightens, as if suddenly remembering she is representing her fellow Nie disciples in front of the visiting ones. “Nie Hanbing, first disciple of Qinghe Nie.”
“First disciple?” Lan Jingyi furrows his face. “How come you never came to any of the Lan lectures then?”
“Jingyi,” Lan Sizhui scolds him. “I’m sure Qinghe Nie has its reasons.”
And they had. Or rather, Nie Huaisang did. It had been too close to the culmination of a decade old plan, just a few months before Mo Xuanyu was to hold the ritual and Baxia was to be released again. And it isn’t that Huaisang wasn’t ready to make sacrifices—has, in fact, made them time and time again—but Hanbing had a habit of being unpredictable, and he couldn’t risk that.
(He tries not to think about being the kind of man that looks at a child and weighs their life against their usefulness. He usually fails.)
Hanbing had been upset, of course. She had thought it was a judgement of her skill and that she was found wanting. For months she had spent twice as much time as any other disciple in the training room, and Huaisang had even seen her frequent the library, her face tight with exhaustion.
“Qinghe Nie did,” Huaisang agrees, but does not elaborate. For once, Lan Jingyi does not inquire further, despite clearly wanting to. Perhaps there is hope for him after all.
“Whatever,” Jin Rulan mutters, kicking a stray rock. “It’s an okay lesson to learn, I guess.”
They continue walking in silence for a few minutes, Huaisang ignoring Hanbing and Lan Jingyi pulling increasingly bizarre faces at each other. Any minute now, and—
“Sect Leader Nie,” Ouyang Zizhen hesitantly says, “We… should have probably asked before, but where are we going?”
Jin Rulan abruptly whips his head around to look at him, and even Lan Jingyi stops fooling around with Hanbing. “Where are we going?”
“Great question!” Huaisang answers cheerfully. “I have no idea.”
They have been walking by then for about an hour in the forest east of Qinghe, and his answer is clearly not welcome.
“What?!” Jin Rulan explodes.
Huaisang blinks at him. “You have been following this thing for two weeks, have you not? Shouldn’t you take the lead?”
“But surely we have been following some sort of trail,” Lan Sizhui says as he grabs Jin Rulan by his wrist, stopping him from (presumably) attempting to strangle Huaisang. “We haven’t been wandering wildly, or we would have noticed.”
Oh, this kid is good.
“Wait, can you hear that?” Ouyang Zizhen interrupts.
“Is that water?”
Quickly, all six of them hurry through the woods, until finally they reach a clearing, and there—
“I thought you said Qinghe had no rivers,” Jin Rulan accuses him.
“Don’t talk to him like that,” Hanbing snaps back.
For the first time in what feels like months, Huaisang’s bewilderment is not a mask. “It doesn’t,” he insists, “this shouldn’t be here.”
And yet, it was: a river, and not a small one at that. It was bubbling and rushing merrily along its path, absolutely not concerned with the impossibility of its existence.
“This is definitely a river,” Ouyang Zizhen finally says, after the silence stretched for a few moments as they all stared at the sight before them.
“I… don’t know,” Huaisang says, half-helplessly half-amusedly, this catch-phrase of his. “I really don’t know.”
“Should we follow its path?” Lan Sizhui asks.
Huaisang nods. “There is a small town up ahead,” he points, “just another hour walk that way. Or at least, it should be there, unless it has also been misplaced.” Another long hour walk with the cultivation world’s most precarious teenagers. Pure joy.
Lan Jingyi groans. “Why can’t we just fly on our swords, again?”
“Sect Leader Nie is scared of heights.”
The town Huaisang referred to could barely be called a town. In fact, it didn’t even have a proper name. It was a gathering of a few households, people who for one reason or another couldn’t live in Qinghe but wanted to stay close enough to its markets and merchants. The town was built surrounding a central square where the elderly and children would gather in the early hours of the evening to tell tales and play games. It was a quiet, mundane sort of life.
“Sect Leader Nie!” a farmer boy gasps as soon as their group stepped into the town proper, and he bows in haste. It is not a surprise to be recognised here, still so close to Qinghe that it is certainly plausible they would recognise his robes and braids, even if not his face. What is a surprise is the boy’s next sentence. “You finally came!”
“Oh?” Huaisang says. “You were waiting, then?”
“Of course!” he straightens. He looks relieved. “Madam Wang would be so happy to see you.”
They are directed to a shabby looking house near the centre of town. Despite its outward appearance, Huaisang quickly notes that it is significantly larger than all other houses around them, and that it is in far better condition. Madam Wang, it seems, would be the unofficial leader of this small community. The inside is much of the same: humble furniture, and not nearly enough room for all of them.
“Ah, I’ll just wait outside then!” Hanbing hurries to say, but Huaisang catches her upper arm before she can move. “No no,” he shakes his head, “That would be deeply inappropriate, for a sect leader to appear without any attendants from his own clan.”
Jin Rulan bristles at that. “It’s not!”
Huaisang waves him off. “You’re still young, you can make decisions this old man can’t bear with.”
“You’re not old!” Jingyi interjects, scandalised. “You’re Hanguang-Jun’s peer.”
“You can hardly compare me to His Excellency. That’s not fair at all!”
“Have some self-respect!” Jin Rulan demands.
“Absolutely not,” Huaisang grins, but before Jin Rulan can reply (or Hanbing can punch him, as she so clearly wants to do by the look on her face) the door opens, and an elderly woman steps in. Her back is bowed and her skin is tan, clear testimony to years of hard farming labour, but the laugh lines on her face point to a happy life. She stops before them and bows.
“Sect Leader Nie,” she says, her voice gravely and deeper than he expected. “You bring this one great honour.”
“Not at all,” he smiles at her. “We’re happy to be here.” He ignores Jin Rulan’s snort.
“Please, sit-” she starts to say, before noticing exactly how many people are in her house. “Ah, I’ll have the boy fetch some more chairs.”
“No need,” Huaisang reassures her as he takes a seat and motions her to sit next to him. “They’re young, they can stand.”
She laughs as she sits. “Sect Leader Nie is himself still a young man.”
“Told you,” Lan Jingyi hisses before he is elbowed by Ouyang Zizhen. Huaisang ignores them. “Ah, Madam Wang, then why do my bones keep aching when it rains?” he complains.
“Please, no need to call me Madam,” she leans forward and starts pouring him tea from the nearby tray. “And if the bones of such a young man are aching, I would say they are aching for adventure. There is time yet for them to ache of old age.“
“Auntie, then,” he grins at her and accepts her tea. “Auntie, I’m far beyond the age for adventures. Even when I was that age, I would have much rather stayed out of them all together.”
“But you didn’t,” she notes, keen-eyed.
Huaisang pulls a face. “Unfortunately,” he agrees. “It was such a dreadful time.”
“Sect Leader, didn’t you join Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian on their quest to find the Yin Iron?” Hanbing asks. Huaisang would almost suspect that was her trying to derail the conversation, if he didn’t know for a fact Hanbing was, in fact, a great admirer of Lan Wangji, and would often pester him for stories of their school days.
“You did? With Hanguang-Jun?” Jingyi snaps his head up so fast it almost looks painful. Next to him, Ouyang Zizhen looks eager for the story as well, and even Jin Rulan looks almost excited. It is only Lan Sizhui who is still looking at Madam Wang, perfectly serene.
“Aiya,” Huaisang winces, waving them off. “Don’t remind me of such a painful memory. Young Master Lan was such a cruel taskmaster! And honestly Wei-xiong wasn’t much better.” He turns back to his host. “Never mind all that—Auntie, the boy who welcomed us said you were waiting for us?”
“Yes, yes,” she says, and even though her face is perfectly serene Huaisang can tell she is laughing at him. “We sent the request out several weeks ago, but we couldn’t have imagined the sect leader himself would come to assist us.”
From the corner of his eye, Huaisang can see Hanbing freeze in place. “Of course,” he says warmly, not batting an eye, “I even brought several promising disciples—and even the Jin Sect Leader himself!”
Jin Rulan startles at being introduced as such, but to his credit quickly gets over it and inclines his head. “Lanling Jin is honored to help Qinghe Nie in this matter,” he says, a bit stiff but passable.
Madam Wang’s eyes go wide. “Sect Leader Jin!” She moves to stand up and offer him her seat but Huaisang catches her wrist and shakes his head. “Please, Auntie, we won’t trouble you much longer.”
“You’re no trouble at all,” she replies swiftly. “If you could solve this matter we would be forever in your debt.”
“What matter?” Ouyang Zizhen blurts out, before looking embarrassed. “Ah, sorry—“
“Sect Leader Nie didn’t explain?” she asks, confused.
“All part of the training!” Huaisang smiles at her encouragingly. “Disciples must conduct investigations and ascertain truth from rumour from fiction with dignity and respect.”
“Hey, wait a second, that’s a Lan rule—“
“—so you should be more than capable of it,” Huaisang smoothly interrupts Lan Jingyi. “Go on then.”
Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui exchange a look before the latter steps forward and bows to Madam Wang. “Madam Wang, could you please tell us more about the problems plaguing your village and your people?”
“Of course, Young Master. It all started a few weeks ago. Lie Wenjin—ah, he lives at the edge of town—he ran here in panic, yelling about a new river! Of course, we had thought him drunk, or mad, but he convinced us to accompany him to look, and, well—there it was! A new river!”
Lan Sizhui nods his head. “We followed it to town,” he confirms.
“That doesn’t seem all that troublesome though,” Lan Jingyi interjects, frowning. “Sure, it’s a little weird, but…”
Madam Wang hesitates, then. It’s subtle, and Huaisang wouldn’t have thought any of the kids caught it were it not for Lan Sizhui further prompting her. “Please Madam, we just want to help.”
He is good, this Lan Sizhui—not the way Huaisang was good at extracting information, by submission and subterfuge and projecting just the right kind of clueless helplessness, but the exact opposite: such an honest sincerity it was almost painful to look at. Truly, this was Hanguang-Jun’s kid.
“Night terrors,” she finally says, giving in. “Ever since the river appeared, horrible night terrors. Every night, every person. Even the babies have been crying more. I had not thought before that animals even have dreams but each night we hear their cries and bellows.”
“Are the dreams about anything specific?” Lan Sizhui asks, not phased in the least by her answer.
“Not dreams— just the one,” Madam Wang sighs, looking down at her tea. “Every night, the same one. I open my eyes, and I’m at an old, old ruin. Weather-worn stone pillars, most lying in pieces on the ground, some still barely standing. There are screams at a distance… constant, terrible screams. And water, everywhere, slowly rising even as you walk, even as you run. And no matter how much time passes, the ruins don’t end, until eventually the water covers your entire body, and you… well,” she coughs, shuddering slightly. “Please do not laugh at an old woman’s fears, but every person in the village would tell you the same story.”
Lan Sizhui crouches down and pours her more tea. “No Lan disciple would ever laugh at a person asking for help,” he says, gently. Really, what a good kid.
“Or a Jin disciple!” Jin Rulan hurries to add.
“An Ouyang disciple probably would, but not me!” Ouyang Zizhen is next.
Hanbing is still silent.
“Ah, Young Masters,” Madam Wang chuckles. “Truly, you bring honour to your sects.”
Huaisang chuckles, but he is still stuck on what Madam Wang had described. Drowning, huh?
Do you remember that summer day when I was twelve years of age? We were visiting Yunmeng for the month, you, me, and da-ge. I don’t remember exactly why—you probably gave me a long lecture about the importance of the visit, but I think I was only concerned with exactly how many new sweets I could try, and if they would have exotic art supplies for sale. Exotic! I suppose for a twelve year old as sheltered as I was, Lotus Pier seemed exotic indeed.
Da-ge had promised me months in advance he would teach me how to swim during our stay there. Qinghe has no lakes or rivers, after all, and so I have never learned. I don’t know how da-ge learnt—perhaps er-ge taught him during one of the nighthunts they spent together. Perhaps I can ask him. I probably won’t.
I was so excited for it. Terrified, too. I was so sure I would mess it up somehow, the way I always do with any physical activity, and drown. But it was a chance to spend time with da-ge, who by then has become so busy with sect matters, so I was determined to master it the way I never could anything else he taught me. I must have read every manual I got my hands on that even had the slightest mention of swimming!
Of course, da-ge has proved to be far too busy during the visit itself. Now, as sect leader myself, I am sympathetic. Then, as a lonely little brother, I was anything but. Not to sing my own praises, but I have quite the sense for drama, and I had employed it masterfully—teary eyed screaming, throwing objects. I’m sure you remember what a nightmarish child I had been. Or, I suppose, maybe you don’t. I’ll have to remind you.
The worst part was that they couldn’t even foist me on other children. The three Jiang children—ah, well, now I know it was the two Jiang children and one Wei Wuxian, although I didn’t know so at the time—had left on an excursion with their teachers, and it would have been unbefitting to my station to join the other Jiang disciples in their training.
Eventually, you had offered to teach me yourself. Da-ge was probably so relieved to get rid of me for a few hours! You took me to one of the more secluded lotus ponds, and for the next three hours patiently explained to me how to float, how to hold my breath properly, how to move through water. I didn’t know it then, that you had grown up in Yunmeng. You could have told me, you know. I would have been so dazzled, to learn something new about you, the closest thing I had to a friend. To have been trusted with more of you.
I don’t remember the specifics of that afternoon. Like a faded screen drawing, it is slightly blurry. I remember the harsh sunlight above us, slowly turning my skin red. I remember how cool the water was, how welcoming. The taste of the lotus seeds we covertly picked out, your voice scolding me “just this once, Huaisang,” even as you yourself was secreting some. I don’t really remember what you taught me, sorry.
I remember your hands on my body, guiding me as I floated. It would have been so easy to push me down, san-ge. I wonder if you had thought of doing it.
“You could have told us when we first came to you in the Unclean Realm, you know,” Jin Rulan wasted no time to start grouching once they were on their way again, sent by Madam Wang with instructions as to the trajectory of the river and a hefty amount of rations—which they have stoutly failed to refuse.
“Hmm? Told you what?”
“About those rivers suddenly appearing.”
“Oh,” Huaisang hummed. “I had no idea.” He continues walking before realising the four visiting cultivators have stopped. He turns around, one eyebrow raised. “Yes?”
“Wh- What do you mean you had no idea?” Jin Rulan demands. “Then what was that about training?”
“Was I wrong? Is it not part of a disciple’s training, learning to conduct investigations?”
“It is,” Lan Sizhui says, interjecting before Jin Rulan can interrupt. “This disciple simply wonders why would Sect Leader Nie not speak the truth.”
Ah, so he wouldn’t call him a liar to his face. Clever kid. “Oh? Did I not?”
“You didn’t!” Jin Rulan seems very close to simply throwing his hands up in the sky in exasperation.
“You didn’t…. not speak the truth, I guess,” Lan Jingyi grumbles. “You just implied it.”
“Excellent tool, implication. Very useful,” Huaisang nods sagely.
“Eh,” Huaisang waves Lan Jingyi off. “Too much work! Why should I strain myself asking questions when I have such strong young cultivators to do it for me?”
“So you had NO idea?!” Jin Rulan finally explodes. “You—the people of your land are suffering, your people are suffering, and what, you were too busy doing—going around fighting ants?! And now—you don’t even care!”
In a second, Hanbing is on him, one hand going to her sword, the other grabbing Jin Rulan’s robes in anger. “Do not speak to the Sect Leader like this!”
Jin Rulan’s eyes flash. “I will speak however I want,” he snarls back, grabbing her wrist and tearing her away from his robes. “He has done nothing but waste our time since we left the Unclean Realm! We didn’t need supervision in the first place, and now we have to worry about protecting him!”
“Like you could ever protect the Sect Leader!” she yells at him. “You’ve done nothing but whine and moan since we set out. The Waterborne Abyss could be dancing right in front of you and you wouldn’t even see it past your ego!”
“You—“ Jin Rulan roars and steps forward, one hand drawing out Suihua. The next moment both Ouyang Zizhen and Lan Sizhui surge forward to grab him, one on each side.
“Shouldn’t you say something?” Lan Jingyi hisses, suddenly appearing at Huaisang’s side.
Huaisang side-eyes him. “Why should I?” he shrugs. “They should figure it out themselves.” In the background, Jin Rulan and Hanbing were working themselves into a right state, as Lan Sizhui tries to talk them down.
Lan Jingyi throws him an incredulous look. “By fighting?” At Huaisang’s repeated shrug, he grins. “Ha, maybe I should defect to Nie Sect. Grandmaster never let me fistfight anyone.”
“Your Sect Leader is a disgrace!” Jin Rulan finally shouts, somehow managing to shrug away from Lan Sizhui and Ouyang Zizhen’s arms. “He does nothing with his time but talk about art and poetry and who knows what else, and no one takes Qinghe Nie seriously anymore! You’re a joke—“
With a wordless scream of rage, Hanbing, seemingly forgetting she has a sword, lunges at him, and they both tumble to the forest ground, rolling around and exchanging punches. Hanbing has good form, Huaisang notes, although her aim is leaving something to be desired—half her punches fail to connect. The young sect leader is altogether a surprise: Huaisang would not have expected him to have any experience with roughhousing, and yet he is clearly holding his own against Hanbing. Idly, Huaisang wonders how they would fare in a spar against each other. Perhaps something should be arranged for the next cultivators conference. It would do both of them good to prove themselves in front of the entire cultivation world.
At his side, Lan Jingyi is shouting encouragement at both of them, unconcerned with who is winning as long as he is getting a good show. From the other side of the brawling duo, Lan Sizhui catches his eye with a pleading look, and Huaisang decides to grant mercy.
His sharp whistle cuts through the forest air. It is an ear splitting sound, and the shock of it seems enough to temporarily stun both Hanbing and Jin Rulan, leaving them sprawled against each other on the ground.
“Sect Leader Nie!” Lan Jingyi is beaming. “How do you know to whistle like this? Can you teach me?”
“A skill gained from many, many hours of avoiding any kind of sword training while hiding away with my birds,” Huaisang explains patiently. “I could probably teach you, but if you practice it at the Cloud Recesses and get punished you better not snitch on me to the Grandmaster.”
“Snitching is against rule number three thousand six hundred and fifty nine,” Lan Jingyi says solemnly and salutes him.
Huaisang squints at him in suspicion. He certainly doesn’t remember any such rule, but he has failed his lectures twice over. “Is it?”
Lan Jingyi just smiles at him beatifically.
“Sect Leader!” Hanbing recovers her senses and she glares at him up from the ground where she is half-crushed by, and half-crushing, Jin Rulan. “He can’t get away with disrespecting you like that!”
“A-Bing,” he scolds gently. “I certainly didn’t feel disrespected.” It would take a lot more than a teenage boy disparaging him to make him feel that way. Almost laughable, that it might have.
“But he said—“ she protests, rolling away from the other teen and sitting up on her knees.
And here’s the problem with loyalty: it makes one a fool. It’s a lesson Huaisang has learnt, over and over again. The loyalty his brother had to his sworn brothers killed him, the loyalty Lan Wangji had to Wei Wuxian almost drove him mad. The loyalty Wei Wuxian had to every miserable soul that ever crossed his path certainly had.
“I know what he said.” Huaisang sighs and crouches down to get to eye-level with her. “And I’m telling you: disrespect has never been something I’ve been concerned with. No one can disrespect me if I don’t allow it, right? And besides, were his words not true? My people were suffering, and I knew nothing and did nothing.”
And here’s the other problem with loyalty: it is so very easy to use it.
“That’s not true!” she immediately protests, snapping her head up from where she was staring at the ground in shame. Her eyes are very wide. “That wasn’t your fault—“
“No no, Nie Hanbing,” he shakes his head. “It is my responsibility as a sect leader, which I neglected.” Just one more push—
“I hid the letters!” she blurts out. “It wasn’t your fault, you couldn’t have known, because I hid the letters.”
“Traitor—“ Jin Rulan, who has by now made his way to his feet, hisses. Huaisang lifts up a hand to stop him as he advances, not even looking at him. His eyes are trained on Hanbing.
“And why,” he says mildly, “would you do such a thing, first disciple?”
Huaisang has seen Nie Hanbing cry before. Those were often tears of frustration, borne from many hours of trying and failing at a particular technique or skill. Other times they were tears of anger, when she wanted to scream and shout but was stopped by propriety. Hanbing loved freely, he knew, and with everything she had. She was an open, honest girl, and lies and deception never came naturally to her.
She was not crying now, but there were hints of that frustration and anger and love in her eyes. “This disciple will explain.”
And over the next few minutes, she does: the letters have started arriving to the Unclean Realm about two weeks prior. Hanbing, as first disciple, was in charge of sorting through the various correspondence they received requesting aid, and assessing the urgency of the requests. After reading the first letter, she has deemed them of lower priority, since there didn’t seem to be a danger to life. But after receiving more and more accounts, from all parts of Qinghe, she has reconsidered.
“Wouldn’t you then approach your sect leader?” Lan Sizhui asks her, without any reproach in his voice. He surely knew better than most the heavy responsibility placed on the shoulders of a first disciple.
Despite the lack of censor in his voice, Hanbing still flushes. “I was… planning on heading out and investigating it on my own,” she admits. Although she is embarrassed, her voice is still strong, and she doesn’t look meek. Huaisang is so very proud of her: first for lying, and then for accepting the consequences headon.
“I know that some of what… Sect Leader Jin said is true,” and she takes very careful care to not spit out his name. “That the other sects look down at Qinghe Nie, think we have lost our honour. And they are wrong,” quick glare at Jin Rulan, “but I know that’s what they all say. So I thought that…” she trails off.
“That if you solved it on your own, as the Nie First Disciple, it will prove them wrong?” Huaisang guesses. She nods. She looks as though a great weight has been lifted off her shoulders.
“Ah, a-Bing,” he sighs, but leans forward to ruffle her hair the exact way that she hates. “You should have just told me.”
“Yes, Sect Leader,” she bows before him, and he lets her because he knows she needs it. “This disciple is sorry. I will submit to whatever punishment you see necessary.”
Huaisang claps his hands once before standing up again, stretching. “Perhaps a few more calligraphy lessons, then? To make up for the ones you have missed yesterday, of course.”
She pulls a face but quickly smooths it over to bow again. “As the Sect Leader wishes.” Huaisang smiles at her indulgently.
“That’s it?” Jin Rulan chimes in. “She disrespected your authority as a sect leader, and you’re just going to let her get away with it?”
“Aw, c’mon Jin Ling.” Lan Jingyi has circled around them and is now standing next to the disgruntled sect leader. “All’s well that ends well, right? If we were in the Cloud Recesses Grandmaster would have had both of you copying the rules for weeks.”
Huaisang shudders in horror. “Me as well, I would imagine.” He reaches out a hand and helps Hanbing up. “We’re all very lucky the Cloud Recesses are far, far away from here. Anyway, now that we’re all on the same page—Hanbing, care to tell us why you brought us to this particular village?”
“I thought we were walking aimlessly?” Ouyang Zizhen asks.
Hanbing smiles, a bit ruefully. “My apologies, Young Master Ouyang. Sect Leader is right. I was… nudging us here, earlier.”
“Thank you, Maiden Nie, for guiding us,” Lan Sizhui cuts off whatever unpleasant thing Jin Rulan was about to say, smiling at her. She smiles back. Maybe there was still hope for this group.
“This village was the first one to have reported the sudden river,” she explains. “So I thought it would be a good place to start.”
“What now, though?” Lan Jingyi asks.
Huaisang knows what they should do now, as would any respectable cultivator, but he really doesn’t want to—
“Set up camp,” Lan Sizhui says.
Huaisang groans. “Do we have to?” he whines.
“We should experience the nightmares for ourselves, to see if there is anything the village folk might have missed,” Lan Sizhui says apologetically. “Don’t worry Sect Leader Nie, we will set up the tents.”
“At least one of you has respect for his elders,” Huaisang nods approvingly. He looks around him. “Let’s try and find a spot with softer ground. My back really isn’t what it used to be!”
As promised, the juniors set up the camp without needing Huaisang’s help. The four visiting disciples seem quite adept at working around each other in silence, but Huaisang notes approvingly that both Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi are attempting to incorporate Hanbing into their ritual. Ouyang Zizhen looks a bit wary of her, while Jin Rulan makes sure to be on the opposite side of the clearing they have chosen from where she is at all times, but that is to be expected.
Perhaps after this is over it will be time for Nie disciples to once again join nighthunts with other sects. It would do them good to be reminded of the power a Nie Sect member holds.
The rest of the evening passes quietly. Despite his best efforts, Huaisang can’t curtail both Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen’s enthusiasm, and he finds himself forced to share tales of himself, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng’s misadventures from their school years. The teens seem quite vexed that Hanguang-Jun shows up in those tales only to punish their misdeeds.
“That doesn’t sound like Hanguang-Jun,” Lan Jingyi sniffs in disdain at some point.
“Jiujiu would never dishonour himself like this,” Jin Rulan agrees. “Is this another stupid lie meant to teach us a lesson?”
Huaisang laughs. “I assure you, Young Master Lan, Sect Leader Jin—both Jiang Cheng and our esteemed Hanguang-Jun were really different when we were younger!”
“Senior Wei really hasn’t changed though, has he?” Lan Sizhui asks, something wistful about his tone. The light from the campfire is reflecting in his eyes, and Huaisang feels humble, sometimes, remembering what this child has gone through. On his worst days, he should strive to remember this: he gave one child his father back.
“He really hasn’t,” Huaisang laughs. It’s a lie, of course, but it’s a nice one.
All four juniors share a tent, despite Jin Rulan being perfectly within his right as a sect leader to demand one to himself. He is very cute about it, claiming he has forgotten his own back in Carp Tower. Hanbing, however, insists she is quite alright to sleep outside—“unlike certain people”—and that it wouldn’t be proper for her sect leader to have to share his tent. Jin Rulan does them all the courtesy of pretending he doesn’t hear her.
Huaisang excuses himself to his private tent a short time before Hai hour. He always carries some art supplies in his qiankun bag, and it’s a luxury to have some time for himself. At the Unclean Realm there is always one problem or another to tend to. Here, at least, he can count on those juniors to be somewhat self-sufficient.
But before he can really settle in (he was thinking of perhaps trying to draw Maiden Wen from his memory, and gift it—anonymously, of course— to Lan Sizhui) when he hears Jin Rulan outside his tent, asking for permission to enter. He sighs, resigning himself to what would no doubt be a very awkward conversation, and invites him in.
Huaisang hasn’t known either of Jin Rulan’s parents well. Jin Zixuan was an arrogant child who thought himself above the idea of friends, and Jiang Yanli was zealously guarded by her brothers. He won’t do him the discourtesy of comparing him to either. He simply watches as he clambers inside the tent and takes a seat in front of him.
The kid looks uncomfortable in the silence, so Huaisang decides to take pity. “How can I help you, Sect Leader Jin?”
Jin Rulan takes a breath and then bows deeply. “This one asks for the forgiveness of Sect Leader Nie.”
Huaisang’s eyes go wide in surprise. “Oh, there is no need for all that Sect Leader Jin!” He leans forward and raises the young man’s head from the ground. “Whatever are you apologising for?”
“The things I have said earlier were… uncouth,” Jin Rulan says, his face twisted in discomfort. “They were unbecoming of a Sect Leader, and were deeply disrespectful to a leader of an allied sect. I have reflected badly upon my Sect.” His discomfort stems not from his unwillingness to apologise, Huaisang realises, but rather from self-directed anger.
Ah, those kids really are too much.
Instead of either accepting or rejecting Jin Rulan’s apology, Huaisang grabs one of his many Qiankun bags and takes out his art supplies. “Tell me, Jin Rulan—I hope it’s alright for us to drop the titles—do you know how to paint?”
Jin Rulan stares at him for a second. Huaisang stares patiently back. “Um, no one really calls me by my courtesy name…” he finally says, settling into a more comfortable sitting position now that it seems likely this will take longer than he anticipated.
“That’s a shame, it’s a lovely courtesy name.”
“Wei Wuxian gave it to me— Never mind. I don’t really know how to paint,” he quickly changes the subject. “My tutors never taught me.”
Huaisang hums in consideration as he takes out a blank fan, setting it up on the small folding table between them. “I’ve made it a mandatory part of training since I took over as sect leader,” he tells him. He reaches into the bag again and draws out several ink pots, carefully placing them around the fan.
“Why? It’s not important for cultivation.”
“Is everything that is important in life must be important for cultivation?”
“I guess not,” Jin Rulan allows, frowning as he considers the table between them. Almost unconsciously, Huaisang’s hands prepare the brushes, smoothes out the fan. He has done it so many times before. “But what if a disciple isn’t any good at it? What, do you kick them out?”
“Don’t tell her I told you,” Huaisang whispers conspiratory, “but Hanbing is absolutely awful at it. No artistic sense at all. She had once insulted three visiting dignitaries by presenting them with what she thought was a very beautiful view of Qinghe’s mountains, but what anyone else with eyes might see as Chief Yao’s lovingly rendered buttocks.”
Jin Rulan might be a sect leader, but he is also still a child. He lets out an ugly snigger, although he quickly raises one hand to cover it. “No!”
Huaisang laughs as well. “It’s true!” He dips one of his brushes in the ink and starts to lightly trail it over the fan. He still hasn’t quite decided what to decorate it with. None of the views they’ve seen over the day’s walk were particularly inspiring. It’s alright though. Sometimes it’s fine to just let his hands take him where they will.
Jin Rulan is silent for a while after he finishes laughing. He clearly has something he wants to say, but he is a teen after all, and a proud one at that. Huaisang takes the time to consider him the way he couldn’t while they were walking. His eyes are shadowed, his back is stiff. If Huaisang isn’t mistaken, he lost some weight since he last saw him in Guanyin Temple. It doesn’t take a genius to know why—any one suddenly thrust with the mantle of a sect leader would be under enormous amounts of stress, never mind one so young.
It doesn’t take a genius, but Huaisang is one. He knows that’s not all there is to it.
“She… respects you,” Jin Rulan finally says after fidgeting through the last of his reservation.
“Hanbing? Have you not seen how she berated me for not helping to set up tents?”
“That’s not—“ Jin Rulan shakes his head, frowning. “That’s different. She tried to punch a sect leader in your honour.”
Huaisang only barely resists the urge to comment that Hanbing has definitely more than tried—Jin Rulan has the beginning of what looks like a spectacular black eye on his face. “She’s a good disciple.”
“It’s more than that!” Jin Rulan exclaims in frustration. “It’s—the way she looks at you, the way she speaks of you, she respects you. Not only her—the auntie in the village, the attendants in the Unclean Realm. They all respect you.”
Now it is Huaisang’s turn to frown. “I am their sect leader,” he points out, still unsure what the teen was getting to. “They are supposed to show me respect. To be honest, it’s a bit embarrassing.” Absentmindedly, he realises he has slowly been drawing the shape of a river in black ink. Ha. Fitting, if a bit on the nose.
“I’ve seen what people look like, when they respect someone out of duty, or even out of fear. It never reaches their eyes.”
Nie Huaisang freezes for the briefest of moments. “Jin Guangyao?”
If Huaisang’s pause is telling, Jin Rulan’s flinch is an entire story. “No, people really respected shushu- I mean, Jin Guangyao. It wasn’t… fake, when they looked at him, even if now they all pretend like it was.”
Despite himself, Huaisang snorts. People really never change, do they? They have done with Jin Guangyao as they have done with Wei Wuxian before him. The cultivation world takes and takes and takes until there is nothing left but rot and bone, and then they discard it with disgust, claiming they’ve known it was there all along.
“It’s me,” Jin Rulan continues, quieter. He is glaring at the tent floor. “They all… they look at me with so much pity, because I’m an orphan and a fool. They think I’m going to be some tool for the elders so they can do whatever they want with the sect. And I don’t want to let them!” he hurriedly says, snapping his eyes to look back at Huaisang with fervor. “The Jin Sect… I know it’s bad. I know it’s rotten, and corrupt, and twisted.”
He takes a breath, but he doesn’t look away from Huaisang. “I grew up being so… proud of it. Proud of what my father has left me. I believed everything my tutors told me, about how we were the reason the Sunshot campaign was won, how we helped subjugate the Wens, eliminate the Yilling Patriarch.” He snorts, “fucking bullshit, all of it. We were the real villains all along. But I’m not going to let it end like this. This isn’t what the Jin Sect is going to be remembered for.”
And he might be Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli’s son, he might be Jiang Cheng’s nephew, but in that second he is all Wei Wuxian, justified anger and fierce protectiveness and the ego to believe that he himself is all that’s needed to change the world.
“Why are you speaking to me about it? Surely your uncle would be a better person to talk to. He’s one of the youngest and most accomplished sect leaders in the cultivation world’s history. Surely he would be a better place to seek advice than with the headshaker.”
It’s subtle, but Huaisang can tell Jin Rulan is blushing. “Jiujiu… he wouldn’t understand. He became sect leader in the middle of the war, and everyone respected him because he was such an amazing fighter, and he killed so many of the Wens. I don’t…” he trails off, but Huaisang can understand better than most what it’s like to constantly be compared to a figure larger than life and always fall short.
He stalls for time to think of what to say by licking his brush clean of the ink, ignoring Jin Rulan’s disgusted snort. He considers his progress. Yes, perhaps a thinner brush for the banks, covered with loose stones. “I’m not sure what you are expecting me to tell you, Jin Rulan. You yourself said it—I’m hardly considered to be respectable by most of the cultivation world.”
“That’s on purpose, right?” he asks, and then scowls when Huaisang throws him a startled look. “I’m not an idiot, Sect Leader Nie. I was… distracted, earlier, but you knew Nie Hanbing was hiding something from the start, right? That’s why you let her lead us when we first left the Unclean Realm, and why you pushed us to question that old woman. You were waiting for her to break and confess.”
One would think Nie Huaisang, of all people, would know not to underestimate people. “Jin—“
“Augh, just call me Jin Ling if you’re going to try lying to me,” he said, crossing his arms. “Don’t forget I was there too, that night at the temple.”
And how could Huaisang forget? He nearly got a heart attack, hearing the kid was there when Su She threw him through the temple’s door. Huaisang was honest enough with himself to know that most of his fear back then stemmed from worrying his plans would be derailed by an unplanned presence, although he had certainly not wished for the boy to be hurt.
“Jin Ling,” he is cut off again, and Huaisang sighs. “Jin Ling then. You should probably use your courtesy name more, if you are looking to gain people’s respect.”
“Whatever, I don’t need your respect,” Jin Ling mutters, which, rude, but Huaisang would let it slide.
“I still don’t know what you think you could get from me. The circumstances of our leadership are very different.”
“Are they?” Jin Ling asks him.
Huaisang shrugs. “You have always known that one day you will be Sect Leader. I’ve never thought that day would ever come.” He has been so convinced of his brother’s immortality, once upon a time.
“Maybe,” Jin Ling allows, grudgingly. “But still. You’ve also—“ he stops, swallows. “He also lied to you, right? Like—Like he lied to me.”
Huaisang sucks in a sharp breath, almost involuntarily. “What do you mean?”
Jin Ling winces like a child who got caught doing something they knew they shouldn’t have been doing. “I’ve... heard that before he came to the Jin Sect he was a Nie Sect attendant for a while. Your attendant.” Eavesdropping is an excellent skill for a sect leader to have, Huaisang has always thought so. He wishes it was one Jin Ling didn’t possess.
The Nie Huaisang of the past ten years would have used this opportunity to heap praise upon his brother’s sworn brother, to claim that anything good attributed to his actions was the result of his san-ge’s advice. The Nie Huaisang of two months ago would have sidestepped the issue, twisted the conversation around until Jin Ling couldn’t even remember he had brought up Jin Guangyao in the first place.
The Nie Huaisang of now: the Nie Huaisang who now needs to decide how much of himself he will show to the world from now on, the Nie Huaisang who still has his sect’s love and admiration despite every dirt road he had drugged them through, the Nie Huaisang who is sitting in front of the boy who’s entire world was ruined at his hands—
He tells the truth.
“His name was Meng Yao then.” He adds some trees along the riverbank, gives it a better composition, a better depth. The brush swirls around. “He took care of me while my brother was busy, which was quite often, as you might imagine.”
“You trusted him.”
A pause, and then the brush continues in its trajectory. “I suppose. I don’t think that’s quite how I understood the world, back then. If you think me foolish now, you would have really hated the me of back then! I wasn’t very concerned with trust, or respect, or honour.”
Another brush stroke. Slightly too curved, but it doesn’t matter. Huaisang could make an allowance for the new shape. “He was my friend.”
“He was my uncle.”
“Yes,” Huaisang agrees. A new bend in the river, also slightly curved to allow for his previous misstep. He is adjusting, always always adjusting.
“And he lied to me!” it’s not a yell, but close enough. “He tried to kill me! And I just—I just trusted him, like a fucking idiot! He killed my mom and dad, and I thought he loved me.” Jin Ling swallows, and Huaisang hopes he isn’t going to cry. He is no good with other people’s crying.
“And now,” Jin Ling continues, ignoring him. “Everyone looks at me with that fucking look, like I’m the biggest, most pitiful idiot in the cultivation world, and every time I want to punch them but I can’t, because I’m a sect leader now and I can’t just punch random idiots, and goddamit, Wei Wuxian was right, I really should have punched more people when I could.”
Huaisang—Huaisang really doesn’t want to have this conversation. It makes something inside of him twist, writhe in some unnamed kind of pain. He thinks again about drowning.
“So give them something else to look at,” he snaps, and it’s only through sheer force of will that his hand holds steady, that his brush doesn’t make a cutting motion across his canvas. Jin Ling is staring at him in shock, his mouth slightly agape. It’s probably the first time he has ever heard Huaisang raise his voice.
Huh. It might be the first time he has raised his voice in years. How bizarre.
Huaisang takes a deep breath. It used to happen to him sometimes, right after his brother’s death. He was still clumsy with his feelings back then, still too used to being the spoilt second master instead of the man he needed to become for his brother’s revenge. It was dangerous, but easily excused—grief does make a man into a fool. He can’t afford that anymore.
Why not? a voice inside him asks. Who is left to be afraid of? It sounds like the voice of a boy over ten years dead, a boy who still believed his big brother would protect him from every monster under the open wide sky. Huaisang knows better now. He wrestles control of his voice, his hands, his mind.
He looks at Jin Ling, and Jin Ling looks back at him, and Huaisang doesn’t know what to tell him. Doesn’t know what to tell a boy that has been hurt just like him, but who doesn’t have the purpose he had. Doesn’t know how to talk to someone who isn’t already dead.
The river on the fan is… messy. He hadn’t planned correctly for its route, and the details don’t meld together the way that they should. The proportions are weird, and the trees almost cover the water completely in some areas. It is, quite honestly, embarrassing.
“Pick up a brush, Jin Ling,” he finally says, putting on a smile and a voice, letting the undertow take him. “Let’s see if we can’t make an artist of you yet.”
That night, Nie Huaisang dreams. There are ruins all around him, tall cavernous buildings that have seemingly been built to inspire terror. There is a familiarity to the place, in the way that all nightmares are familiar; tranquility in fear. In the distance, screams.
He walks and he walks and he walks and there is no end to it, and then he notices he’s standing in water, which has always been there but also has only just appeared. And he walks and he walks and the water rises up. He calls for his brother he calls for Meng Yao he calls for Lan Xichen he calls for Wei Wuxian he calls for Jin Guangyao and no one answers. He calls for Nie Huaisang. No one answers, and then everything answers all at once, and the noise is catastrophic. He is so, so lost. He smells lotuses and imagines he can feel the sun, like that day in Lotus pier so long ago.
The water is at his knees the water is at his breast the water is at his head.
Nie Huaisang drowns.
He is quite cranky the next morning. His sleep was awful, just that horrible nightmare over and over again, and despite sleeping the entire night he felt like he had just laid down. Somewhen during the night, it had started raining, and Huaisang just knew he was going to end the day with his robes muddy and his hair in tangles.
“Augh, disgusting,” Jin Ling echoes his thoughts as he steps out of the tent. Hanbing, busy getting dry food out of her qiankun bag, rolls her eyes. “What, can’t handle a little rain?” She is absolutely drenched from head to toe, and Huaisang winces a little remembering she had slept outside.
Jin Ling scowls at her, but with one look at Huaisang restrains himself, and simply turns back to help the two Lan disciples take down their tent.
“So… is no one going to mention the really scary dream?” Ouyang Zizhen asks.
“It fucking sucked,” Jin Ling mutters.
“We all saw the same thing, right? Creepy ruins, never-ending water, ending in drowning?”
“I hate swimming,” Hanbing declares, moving around their little camp and distributing rations. “What’s the point? You just get wet.”
“It felt like resentful energy,” Sizhui says as he accepts the rations from Hanbing. “It definitely felt the same as the Waterborne Abyss.”
“So it should be connected?” Ouyang Zizhen asks. “I never heard of a Waterborne Abyss giving people nightmares…”
“This is so creepy,” Lan Jingyi mutters. Next to him, Jin Ling nods in agreement.
Huaisang mostly ignores them, eating his disgusting rations as he gets lost in his thoughts. His bed would feel so comfortable right about now, he thinks mournfully. Not to mention it would be dry and warm. And he could have warm congee instead of those dry rations, and if he played his cards right he could probably have just spent the day in his room alone, in quiet… Maybe he would have visited his birds, it’s been awhile since he have seem them, and if he remembered correctly a few were about to lay eggs—
“Sect Leader Nie?”
“Hmm?” he looks up from where he was staring unseeing at the ground, to see five pairs of eyes trained on him. “Wh-what?”
“Did you think of a plan?” Ouyang Zizhen asks. “You were frowning so heavily.”
“I was thinking of my bed,” Huaisang answers truthfully. At Jin Ling’s noise of disgust, he adds: “Do we really need a plan?”
“Now you just sound like Wei-qianbei,” Lan Jingyi says.
He makes a face. “That would be too much work,” he says, and gets up. “But speaking of Wei-xiong, I don’t suppose one of you has one of his nifty compasses of evil, do you?”
Ouyang Zizhen lights up. “I do!” he says excitedly. He ramages around in his packs until he finds it. “What do you—oh! Whatever was influencing our dreams would have left a trail.”
“Oh,” Lan Sizhui blinks, “that’s simple.” He then smiles. “Really not Wei-qianbei’s style.” Hanbing looks smug at their appreciation.
The six of them make quick work of packing up the camp. Or rather, the five teens do, while Huaisang fans himself under a tree, and complains about the heat. It looks like Jin Ling almost snaps at him a few times, but each time manages to bite it back.
Once that’s done, they indeed start following the compass held by Ouyang Zizhen. Unsurprisingly, it continues to lead them down the river, although it is helpful once that river branches off a few times. The forest is quiet, but they don’t speak as they have the day before. The dream has left them all unsettled to a certain degree, and the tension is high. Huaisang contemplates trying to break it a few times—it would do them no good to be this stressed if and when a fight actually starts—but fatigue dogs his steps, and he remains quiet.
When it is close to nightfall—and Huaisang certainly deserves some sort of acknowledgement for walking all day without once complaining—Ouyang Zizhen makes a startled noise.
“What is it?” Jin Ling asks.
“The compass…” he says, and shows them. The needle, which has been pointing reliably straight all day, is now spinning around in frantic circles.
“That’s… not a good sign,” Lan Sizhui frowns.
Jin Ling huffs. “It probably just broke,” he declares, “another one of Wei Wuxian’s lousy inventions. Let’s just go—” he has been walking ahead of them, and has just crossed some bushes that obscured their sight when he stops. A moment later, he leaps back and ducks behind a tree, just as a jet of water almost strikes him. “Shit!”
Quickly, they all take cover behind the nearby trees. When Huaisang twists around to take a look, he sees yet another impossible body of water, this time a lake. Unlike the river they have been following all day, however, this lake is anything but calm. Jettisons of water and muddy earth are twisting around the surface of the water, forming the vague shapes of tentacles that are slashing furiously through the air.
“The Waterborne Abyss!” Lan Jingyi exclaims.
“I thought you said it kept hiding?!” Hanbing demands. She gestures at the thing. “It looks pretty active to me!”
“It never did that before,” Lan Sizhui answers her. He frowns. “I wonder…” he takes out his guqin and sends a pulse of energy towards the monster. It strikes one of the tentacles, which then explodes into a spray of water. An uncanny, piercing scream rises up from the depth of the lake, and a tentacle closer to the shore shoots out at the tree Lan Sizhui is hiding behind. He manages to duck out in time, and before the tentacle can try again, a talisman comes shooting at it, causing it to explode as well.
“Senior Wei!” Lan Sizhui calls in surprise.
“Sizhui?” Wei Wuxian's surprised face pops out from behind the tree. “What are you doing here? I was getting all ready to save a bunch of civilians in distress!”
“We’re assisting Sect Leader Nie on a nighthunt,” Sizhui explains. One could almost imagine they were simply having polite conversation, and not currently cowering away from water tentacles behind some trees.
“Nie-xiong is here?!”
“Aw, Wei-xiong, why do you sound so surprised?” Huaisang complains. “Actually, before you answer that, can you please get rid of whatever this thing is? Thank you!”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you willingly accompanying a nighthunt,” Wei Wuxian answers, ignoring both Huaisang’s (very!) polite request and the water tentacle which almost tore down the tree he hides behind. He frowns. “Jin Ling, did you bully Sect Leader Nie into this?”
“What—No!” Jin Ling yells in denial, Suihua slashing through another tentacle before the teen retreats behind the tree.
“If anyone has been doing the bullying, it’s Sect Leader Nie,” Lan Jingyi mutters next to him. Huaisang elbows him in return. In front of them, the water of the lake they had found starts bubbling, like a pot reaching an unexpected boil, and more tentacles burst out towards the trees.
“Wei-xiong, the Waterborne Abyss please—“
“It’s not a Waterborne Abyss,” Wei Wuxian calls out cheerfully, cutting him off.
“Wei Wuxian, are you blind?” Jin Ling shouts. “This thing is so full of resentful energy it looks like it’s going to explode, and it’s in the water! What else can it be?! Are you the one who agitated it? It was never this aggressive while we were following it before!”
“I don’t know what it is!” Wei Wuxian answers. “Exciting, isn’t it? It didn’t like my survey talismans, I think that’s what made it mad.”
Just then, a tentacle of water manages to slash across the tree Huaisang and Lan Jingyi are hiding behind, spraying them with a shower of wood chips and branches. In an instant, Huaisang realises what’s about to happen. The tree will fall, trapping the two of them under it. With all of his strength, he pushes at Lan Jingyi and manages to help him roll across the clearing, but his own momentum is not enough, and he doesn’t manage to get himself clear in time. There is a reason, after all, that he doesn’t tend to join nighthunts, and it isn’t simply that he is lazy. Well. Not just that.
He falls on the forest ground, still a bit startled by how fast the fight has started. Somehow, he is also startled by his initiative to push Lan Jingyi out of harm’s way. That’s really not like him. He likes Lan Jingyi well enough, finds him amusing and thinks he could be a fresh breath of air for the stiff Gusu Lan, but...
It is when he is contemplating his new-found altruism that a water tentacle grabs at his leg, and—
Pulls him right into the lake.
It’s been five years since you’ve died. It’s strange, to think that you’ve been dead now for longer than I have known you. Stranger yet, that I hadn’t thought of you much those past five years. That makes me quite a terrible friend. I would apologise, but I don’t think you can hear apologies wherever you are.
Wei-xiong, my brother just died. My brother just died, and I’ve suddenly found myself with no one to talk about it but a dead man. It’s really embarrassing, honestly. I would have once prided myself on my people skills, but now suddenly I’m—
My brother didn’t die. Why did I tell you my brother died? Let me try again. Wei-xiong, my brother was just murdered. My brother was just murdered, and the man comforting me is his murderer, and I can’t talk about it with anyone but a dead man. So will you listen to me, Wei-xiong, despite me being a bad friend? I know you will not hold it against me. You’ve always been more than willing to shoulder my burdens, though they used to be quite a bit lighter in Cloud Recesses.
I think I know what I need to do now. Not the exact details, of course—I still need so much more information, so many more secrets to hold close to my chest. I used to think secrets are like trinkets. Pretty and nice to have, but ultimately useless. I can’t hold a grudge against who I used to be, but I think I’m quite jealous of him. How nice it would be to again be a man who has no use of secrets.
Was Jin Guangyao ever such a man? Somehow, I can’t imagine he was. Probably er-ge thinks so, but then again er-ge thinks so many things that are wrong, wrong, wrong. So comforted by his rules and traditions that he can’t conceive of being led astray, that he would trust his own worldview above all else. And still my brother trusted him more than he did me—
Enough. I will not talk ill of my brother. You had once joked that I must be scared of him, the mighty Chifeng-Zun, but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. I loved my brother, Wei-xiong. Loved him as one does a brother and a sister and a father and a mother, an extension of my own perception of self. Who am I, if not the younger brother of Nie Mingjue? Nothing. No one.
Ah. I’m becoming quite maudlin. It is very late, I think. Hard to tell, I’m quite drunk. You always were right, you know. There really is nothing quite like the Emperor's smile.
I’m going to burn this letter now, with some paper money. Hope you can make use of it, wherever your soul is.
He is coughing.
He becomes aware of that before he even realises he’s awake, the act so violent he rolls over to try to retch whatever it is he’s coughing out on the floor. It’s water, he dimly realises, but most of him is still preoccupied with trying not to pass out again.
“Nie-xiong, Nie-xiong, breathe,” a voice calls out worriedly and there are hands on his back, petting him forcibly and moving him slightly, laying his head on soft fabric. Huaisang coughs a few more times, dribbling water on the floor, leaving him gasping for air. “You’re alright, just let it all out. Don’t fight it.”
Huaisang doesn’t know how long he lets the voice of Wei Wuxian guide him through learning how to breathe again, but eventually his body masters it. He feels weak and unmoored, like any second now he might begin coughing again.
“First time almost drowning, huh?” Wei Wuxian’s voice is sympathetic. “Still so useless in water.”
“Wei-xiong,” Huaisang manages to croak out. “Please shut up.” Wei Wuxian laughs.
They sit together quietly for a few more moments, Huaisang still catching his breath. When he finally feels stable enough he opens his eyes, and sees his head is indeed on Wei Wuxian’s lap. Still feeling too weak to attempt moving, he asks instead, “What happened?”
“One of the tentacles finally managed to dislodge the tree you were hiding behind. Somehow you managed to push Jingyi away, but the forest floor was too muddy and you had slipped. It grabbed you, dragging you to the lake, and I had jumped in after you.”
“Ah, my hero,” Huaisang sighs.
“Hardly, hardly! After all, wasn’t it Sect Leader Nie who had first saved Lan Jingyi from this fate? Nie-xiong, I never knew you to be so self-sacrificial!”
Huaisang snorts, which turns into a laugh. “Wei-xiong! Don’t go spreading such awful rumors around, people might start believing I’m actually virtuous.”
“Don’t worry,” Wei Wuxian pets his hair in faux-comfort. “No one will willingly listen to the Yilling Patriarch, your reputation as a no-good man is safe.” He sighs. “Think you can get up now?”
“Noooo,” Huaisang moans and crawls even tighter into himself. “Don’t make me Wei-xiong, I would like to not see the awful place we ended up in for a little bit longer.”
“How do you know it’s an awful place?”
“Wei-xiong, whenever I go anywhere with you it’s always an awful place,” Huaisang huffs.
Wei Wuxian laughs. “Fair enough! Can you then instead tell me what you were doing with Sizhui and the rest?”
“Exactly as Lan Sizhui said—they came to Qinghe chasing a Waterborne Abyss. Naturally, as the sect leader, I felt it appropriate to join them,” Huaisang explains in a grave voice.
“Nie-xiong, there is no way you would willingly join a nighthunt,” Wei Wuxian insists. “Is there something wrong? Is someone scheming something again, and you’re out to expose them? That would actually explain a lot.”
Augh, if only, Huaisang thinks, a bit embarrassed to admit he is simply here because of his habit of snooping, before he realises. “Wait, it would? What would it explain?”
“Hmm…” Wei Wuxian lightly drums his fingers on the stone floor in front of Huaisang. It is strangely hypnotic. “Earlier, when I had said this thing wasn’t a Waterborne Abyss, that wasn’t entirely true.”
“Yes, clearly it was a Waterborne Abyss,” Huaisang agrees.
“Yes and no! It is true that like a Waterborne Abyss, it was fueled by resentful energy, and like a Waterborne Abyss, it requires human substances, but when have you ever seen a Waterborne Abyss that can reach so far inland? And has tentacles?”
“Wei-xiong, I have never before today seen a Waterborne Abyss,” Huaisang answers truthfully. A dull headache started throbbing in the back of his head.
“You haven’t—? Oh right, you didn’t come with us to Biling Lake. Then trust me, that’s not a normal thing for a Waterborne Abyss to do.”
“Augh, why does this have to happen in Qinghe,” Huaisang complains. “Everything weird always happens in Qinghe.”
He can almost feel Wei Wuxian shrug. “If it helps, I’ve tracked it down from Yunmeng. And I assume the kids came from Gusu?”
Wei Wuxian laughs. “Aw, a-Ling really is making friends!”
He’s been trying to make friends with me, for some reason, Huaisang almost tells him, but doesn’t. It doesn’t matter anyway, Huaisang isn’t interested in having any similar conversations with Jin Ling anytime soon. It was too… unsettling.
Instead, he asks, “So if it isn’t a Waterborne Abyss, what is it?”
Wei Wuxian starts to absentmindedly pet his hair again. It’s nice, and strangely familiar. They would spend afternoons like this, decades ago in Cloud Recesses—Wei Wuxian prattling on and on about something, usually Lan Wangji, while Huaisang pretended to listen, head in his friend’s lap. Jiang Cheng had once found them like that and threw a fit, yelling about shamelessness and indignity and other Jiang Cheng things, but that didn’t really stop them.
Huh. Huaisang hadn’t realised he had missed this.
“Well, like I said, it isn’t not a Waterborne Abyss. Rather, it is a particularly strong one, that has been fed enough resentful energies to have evolved beyond a regular Waterborne Abyss. The resentful energy permeates everything around it.”
“So the dreams? And the sudden lakes and rivers where there definitely shouldn’t be lakes and rivers?”
Wei Wuxian scratches behind his ear as if in approval. Huaisang fights the instinct to curl even tighter very hard. “Yes the dreams, no to the new cartographical nightmare. I think the dreams are its way of luring people in.”
Huaisang snorts. “Not very inviting.”
“It’s a new monster, still figuring itself out,” Wei Wuxian says. “Give it a few more years, it will do better.”
“No thanks,” Huaisang answers. “So what about the new lakes and rivers?”
“Hmm… that’s a bit more difficult.” The fingers in his hair pause for a second and Huaisang buts at them like a particularly spoiled cat until Wei Wuxian resumes. “Say, Nie-xiong—do you think this has been done on purpose?”
“What, someone manipulating resentful energies this way? Shouldn’t you be the expert on that?” Realising that might have been a bit rude, he pats Wei Wuxian’s thigh. “Ah, no offense Wei-xiong.”
Wei Wuxian tugs at his ear playfully. “Right, I am the expert! And so I say—no, this is not a devious plan. It just feels like one, right? Considering who you are and where you have found yourself. Almost too perfect to be a coincidence.”
Huaisang stills, staring at the fabric of Wei Wuxian’s robes, fixated. “Wei-xiong. If I raise my head, will I be very upset?”
“Probably.” Wei Wuxian pats him one last time and then his head retreats. “Better get it over with.”
Huaisang take a deep breath, and then another one. He thinks of whining for a bit more, but discards that idea—Wei Wuxian won’t be fooled, and Huaisang would have nothing to gain, so it’s better to save his breath. He raises his head.
He has not been to this place in over a decade, but it would be impossible to forget. A stone cavern, enormous in its size, completely sealed off from the world. They are currently sitting on the steps leading up to a raised platform, and behind him, he is sure, are the skeletons and last remains of all of his ancestors, staying guard of Qinghe Nie’s last secret. Lit lanterns line the steps, providing a meagre source of light, and on the floor in front of him Huaisang can see the array that him and his brother had once—had once—
“No no no no no no no, we can’t be here, we can’t—this should have been sealed, we were hours away, how —” Huaisang hears himself mumbling but the sound is muffled, as if coming from far away. Absently, he realises he is shaking, a full-bodied thing, so violent it felt like it couldn’t be a non-conscious action. And that’s—that’s wrong, it has to be wrong, because the last time Huaisang has been so out of control of his own body has been years ago, an entire lifetime ago. So he must be choosing to react like this, he must be, but what is there to gain from this? What favour, what result is he to want from Wei Wuxian seeing him like this?
“Nie-xiong, Nie-xiong, breathe,” it’s such an exact repeat of his tone only a few moments ago and he wants to snap at Wei Wuxian that he is trying, thank you very much, but that his body has seemingly forgotten how to do so. That in an instant he has been transported to another time, same place but different people, his brother instead of Wei Wuxian and the man Huaisang used to be. He abruptly realises he has been lying on Wei Wuxian’s lap in the exact same spot he has once laid on his brother’s, and the deja vu makes him want to laugh, or maybe scream, or maybe both, until he drowns it all out.
“Huaisang, a-Sang, breathe,” and maybe it’s the shock of a name he has last heard coming from the mouth of Jin Guangyao that breaks him out of it, because he starts coughing, and then the coughing almost turns embarrassingly into sobs, and it’s only the sudden return of a decade’s worth of self-control that allows Huaisang to wrestle it under control.
Wei Wuxian is rubbing his back again. Huaisang has unlearned shame a long time ago, perhaps never had it in the first place, but he feels uncomfortable now in a way he wasn’t earlier when he was struggling to breathe with water in his lungs. Grief fills them now and he wants to shy away from Wei Wuxian’s too knowing eyes, but knows it is far too late for that.
“You know where we are,” he finally manages to say. His voice doesn’t sound like his own.
“The Nie Sect Ancestral Hall, right?” Wei Wuxian says quietly. “The architecture is the same.”
Huaisang, do you know this place is named—
“Suoxian Pavilion,” he says, his brother’s words in his mouth. “All masters of the Nie family would imprison themselves here before they lost control.”
Wei Wuxian simply says: “Ah. That explains it.”
“Does it?” Huaisang laughs, and he’s working very hard on not making it hysterical. “Please explain to me, Wei-xiong, how we made it hundreds of li away from where we were, into a cave that should be sealed under the best protections our sect can offer.” He needs to get ahold of himself, needs to not be… this, emotionally compromised in all the worst, most dangerous ways.
“It was pretty easy to get into the last time—Ah,” Wei Wuxian stops himself, raising an eyebrow. “Of course, I forgot Sect Master Nie had made it easy for us. Never mind that then.” He waves his hand in dismissal. His other hand, Huaisang notices, is still on his back. “But the resentment here, can’t you feel it?”
“You know I’m not good at the cultivation arts.” There’s barely enough energy in it to convince a junior sect member, nevermind Wei Wuxian. First, his voice: soft but regulated, trembling but only over the unimportant parts, unremarkable where it matters.
“Sure,” and yet Wei Wuxian allows it, which is more embarrassing than had he outright refuted it. “Well, trust me, there’s enough here to create a whole new burial mound. There’s no wonder it was enough to poison all the surrounding underground waterways, which then carried it to mix with lesser pockets of resentful energies in other lakes and water reservoirs. That’s how the not-Waterborne Abyss was formed. My guess is that they were then drawn back to the source, but was too big to travel through those same underground tunnels—and so they had to create their own.”
“It’s supposed to be suppressed,” he says, staring at the floor. Better the boring grey stone than looking at anything around him. “That’s the whole point. The sabres are sealed and—you know,” he suddenly stops. “I’m not actually supposed to tell you any of this.” Next, his hands. Fidgeting in fear and weakness, yes, but not shivering out of his control. Always, always, show just enough to count.
Wei Wuxian’s hand stops for a moment, and Huaisang nearly sighs at the warmth it emanates on his back. He hasn’t noticed until now but his clothes are still sopping wet, and it’s a welcome source of heat in the frigidness of the cave. “With all due respect to the Nie Sect’s secrets, I can’t help us if I don’t know anything about what I’m dealing with, Nie-xiong.”
Huaisang sighs. “Ah, I guess I’ve disgraced my ancestors enough by now that once more can’t hurt.” He raises himself from where he has been leaning on Wei Wuxian and arranges himself to sit in front of him, making sure to position himself so that he can’t see the skeletons of his ancestors in the back of the cavern. He coughs, once, still settling his heart from his previous episode. Finally, his mind: he burrows his way into the quiet sphere at the back of it, detaching himself from the turmoil and heartache. It is the same place he went to every time he cried on Jin Guangyao’s shoulder, every time he smiled at Lan Xichen. He has not made use of it since the temple, but here it still was, welcoming him back with open arms.
In a quiet voice that trembled just enough to show vulnerability, but not enough to show weakness, he explains it all: the cultivation method of the Nie Sect is known to Wei Wuxian, of course, but the ways the precious sect leaders have chosen to deal with it is not. It was the sixth head of the Nie Sect that has decided to build those so-called stone-castles, to seal their sabres and their spirits in with a number of corpses, to allow the spirits to practice their resentment to their full content, without disturbing the living. That since then every sect leader’s sabre has been sealed in the tomb—
(his heart clenches when he thinks of Baxia. It couldn’t have been helped, of course, but still—no. He can’t allow himself to think of it now.)
— and their bodies would come down here, to the bottom level, to rot and die and rot again, making sure their deviation can’t harm others. Wei Wuxian stays quiet as he explains, although Huaisang can see his twitches whenever he might have otherwise opened his mouth to interrupt. It’s an open circle coming close, in a way. Once upon a time it was Huaisang who was told the truth in this place, and now it is him who is telling it. Seems he is not allergic to doing so after all.
“No offense, Nie-xiong,” Wei Wuxian finally says, after Huaisang exhausts himself talking about such awful things. “This sounds a lot like demonic cultivation.”
Huaisang snorts, somewhat pleased. “Well, no one ever said the cultivation sects aren’t a massive bunch of hypocrites.”
Wei Wuxian barks out a laugh. It sounds wrong, reverberating around them. “I think quite a few people said so, actually. Might even be a Gusu Lan rule.”
“Augh, Wei-xiong,” Huaisang groans out. “I’m already going to die here, please don’t talk to me about those awful people and their awful rules.” He was, wasn’t he? Going to die here. Only missed the mark by about ten years.
“Going to die? Who said anything about going to die?”
“I did!” Huaisang exclaims, throwing Wei Wuxian an annoyed frown. “Remember? Blah blah, my ancestors came here to die? Why would they make a way out?”
“Then how did you get out?”
“What?” Huaisang asks, thrown.
“You clearly recognised this place when you first saw it,” Wei Wuxian pointed out, and Huaisang allowed himself to flinch at the reminder. “Not as something you’ve heard of before—your eyes catalogued the room as something familiar. And yet you’re alive, before me.”
‘Am I?’ Huaisang doesn’t bite his tongue on nearly asking it. He whines instead. “Wei-xiong, I really don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Wei Wuxian gives him a look. “What’s the point of this?” He sounds tired, and it only now registers that like Huaisang, he is still soaked through, and lightly shivering. It makes sense—Mo Xuanyu’s body was hardly built for this type of circumstances, much like Huaisang’s.
“The point of this room? I told you—“
“The point of this act,” Wei Wuxian cuts him off, his eyes shrewd. “Is this fun for you? I do understand the appeal of acting like an idiot. Hell, I practically had an entire routine myself. But I also know that it definitely gets old at some point. Has it gotten old for you yet, my friend?”
Maybe it’s the cold. Maybe it’s the shivers that settled deep inside his bones, rattling him about. Maybe it’s because he is surrounded by ghosts, some that he knows and others that he doesn’t, all of whom would be absolutely disgusted by his tenure as Sect Leader. Maybe it’s because he is talking to a dead man wearing the face of a different one. Huaisang tells the truth. “Honestly, about seven years ago, give or take.”
Wei Wuxian lets out a surprised laugh. Huaisang isn’t sure if he wasn’t expecting this specific answer, or was just not expecting any answer at all. “Fuck, Nie-xiong. I really don’t know how you did it.”
Huaisang shrugs. “Not really as impressive as what you’ve done out of spite, Yilling Laozu.” It isn’t meant to be a biting remark—Huaisang has no censor for Wei Wuxian’s actions in defense of the Wens, was himself disgusted by Jin Guangshan and the whole lot of them. He remembers feeling a certain kind of admiration mixed with horror at what Wei Wuxian was turning himself into for the sake of righteousness, remembers thinking ‘ah, that would never be me, what a relief!’
“Eh, I was only ever the Yilling Laozu for like… what, a year?” Wei Wuxian waves him off, affecting an air of nonchalance. “And I felt like I was going insane for a solid chunk of it too. Wen Qing used to—“ he pauses, swallowing down his grief for a second. It might have been almost two decades since Wen Qing’s execution, but for Wei Wuxian it really was just the other year. A dead man out of time. “Ah, she used to have to sedate me with those awful needles of hers, just so I could get some sleep. And I was only ever really lying to myself, back then, not the entire cultivation world.”
“No needles for me, I’m afraid,” Huaisang replies dryly, then shudders. “Not that I would want them—I’m quite terrified of needles, you know.” He thinks for a moment, then admits. “It would have been nice to have dreamless, uninterrupted sleep.”
They sit there in silence for a while, Huaisang still turned away from the bodies of his ancestors. He is still shivering and as a stray piece of hair falls into his face, he realises his hair is absolutely filthy. “Augh, why did it have to be a Waterborne Abyss anyway,” he complains as he reaches upwards to take off his head piece, which he places on the floor next to him. Next, he begins to undo his braids, trying to comb through his hair. Complaining is good. Even, familiar ground. “Couldn’t it have been something less messy?”
“Not a Waterborne Abyss,” Wei Wuxian corrects him as he reaches for him, turning him around. “Come here, I’ll do it.”
Huaisang acquiesces, but also asks: “Do you even know the Nie braiding style?”
“Nope!” Wei Wuxian replies cheerfully, his fingers making quick work of unbraiding his hair. “You’re going to get a Gusu Lan makeover.”
Huaisang brightens, sitting up straight. “Oh? You’ve been studying Gusu Lan hairstyles, have you?” Of course, he has known since they were about fifteen that Wei Wuxian was absolutely obsessed with the Second Young Master of Gusu Lan. It had been funny then, to needle him while he had still been totally oblivious: to comment on Lan Wangji’s beauty and righteousness and virtue and see Wei Wuxian expound on it, usually sending Jiang Cheng into a fit of anger and confused jealousy. Ah, the games he used to play!
To his credit, Wei Wuxian’s fingers in his hair don’t even pause for a moment at his comment. “I spent a month there before our last cultivation conference. Had a lot of free time on my hands. Did you know they have a whole section in their library about the meanings of different hairstyles? As if there weren’t at least ten different rules against vanity!”
Huaisang hums in bored agreement, somewhat lulled by the repetitive motions of Wei Wuxian’s fingers brushing his hair. Wei Wuxian continues. “Anyway, since I’ve got you here and I am currently serving as your loyal attendant, would you allow me a question that I have been brooding over for awhile, Sect Leader Nie?” At Huaisang’s agreeable shrug, he continues. "Did you expect me to thank you?"
"Thank me?" Nie Huaisang asks, surprised. "Whatever for?"
“I’m sure I don’t need to explain.”
Huaisang thinks for a moment about continuing his charade but—ah, well. There was no need anymore, was there? The monster under the bed has been slain. Only the victorious monsters remained. “Surely you know I didn’t do it for you, Wei-xiong. I remember fondly our days in Cloud Recesses, but that is far too much to go to for the sake of a childhood friend.”
“But not for the sake of a sibling.”
Huaisang remembers a brush, a sword, and an oath. “Would you have done any different?” he asks, truly curious. He remembers Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian in Cloud Recesses, and he has seen the aftermath of first Wei Wuxian’s self exile to the Burial Mounds, and then the battle at Nightless City. More recently, he saw the face of the Jiang Sect Leader in Guanyin Temple, has heard of Wei Wuxian’s sacrifice more than a decade ago. Had it been Jiang Cheng killed by Wei Wuxian’s hand at Jin Guangayo’s manipulations, what would have Wei Wuxian done?
His old friend tugs gently at a particularly stubborn knot. “Have I not?”
Abruptly, Huaisang realises. “I didn’t know,” he answers softly.
“I figured,” he can almost hear Wei Wuxian shrug. “There was no way you could have. Everything else—yes, I understand how you have unraveled his plots. But that… I was the only one with all the puzzle pieces, and I died before I could share.”
“I could lie to you,” Huaisang says. “Tell you that I have known through some mysterious means. That I have known that Jin Guangyao was responsible for Jin Zixuan’s death, and later on Jiang Yanli’s. That bringing you back was as much for me as it was for you, a chance for you to have your revenge the way I would have mine.”
“You could, yes,” Wei Wuxian agrees easily, a sense of sardonic humor in his tone. “Why haven’t you?”
“Ah, Wei-xiong,” Huaisang sighs theatrically, turning back to look at his friend. Wei Wuxian is looking at him searchingly, the half-smile on his face at contrast with their conversation topic. “I told you I got tired of my routine about seven years ago. Would you believe that I am tired of lying altogether?”
It is meant as a joke, another deflection. He has become so good at those over this last decade. An easy smile here, a placating tone there. He has truly perfected this craft. Or perhaps it was that no one who knew him well enough to tell has remained by his side, but, well—
Better to think it was his skills.
Wei Wuxian hums, still looking at him, his head slightly cocked to the side. “Yes, I think so,” he finally says, and something in Huaisang aches at being known, even for such a short moment. “I think you’ve been doing it for a very long time, and I think… I don’t think you’re quite that good at it.”
“Excuse me?” Despite himself, Huaisang finds himself rather taken aback, and he frowns at Wei Wuxian. “Who here schemed for over ten years to bring down the most powerful man in the cultivation world?”
“Ayio, I didn’t mean to offend,” Wei Wuxian laughs, waving his hand in dismissal and pushing Huaisang to turn back around, resuming his work. His hair, now tangle free, starts being pulled and tugged at by his fingers. “You’ve done a good job. A great job, actually! Even now, only me and Lan Zhan really know of your involvement—although I’m sure Jiang Cheng and… Lan Xichen can make some educated guesses.”
Wei Wuxian has good eyes - the countless shooting competitions he won all throughout their childhood are proof of that. It is too much to hope that Huaisang can hide his flinch at the name of the man he had used to kill Jin Guangyao. So instead he exaggerates it - turns his head, hides his face, keeps his body tense.
It was a trick he had learnt from watching Jin Guangyao when he was younger. When Huaisang was still the spoiled second son of the Nie Sect, and Jin Guangyao was Meng Yao. To Huaisang, who had no peers around him and a brother who was always busy, Meng Yao was a brother and a friend and a mother and a first crush, all twisted together and even back then, Huaisang was watching him, always watching him.
He would do this… thing, when something went wrong. When the food wasn’t ready on time, or a vase got broken, or Huaisang got into some trouble on his watch. Instead of trying to hide it away, or offer excuses, he would instantly offer himself up and profess his guilt and his shame. He would flutter his eyelashes and let his eyes fill with tears and his hands would quiver just so as he brought them together for a bow. And every time whoever it is that was yelling at him would bluster and scowl, but now instead of seeing someone worthy of anger they saw someone worthy of derision and pity.
So Huaisang offers up his guilt and shame—he flutters his eyelashes and lets his eyes fill with tears and makes his hands quiver just so, and he does not think of Lan Xichen. He gives himself a calculated moment to get himself under control, to steady his breathing and blink back tears. Wei Wuxian might not be able to see them from behind him, but it was always good to give a performance your all. It made it so much more convincing that way. Once he had judged he had given himself enough time, he asks. “So. Why do you think lying doesn’t suit me?”
“Do you know why Jin Guangyao was so good at what he did?” Wei Wuxian asks. “It’s because lying was etched into him. If Jin Guangyao was a house, lying wasn’t just a tool that was used for building it, but the entire foundation. He didn’t let it get to him because it just couldn’t. There was nothing else it could get to.” Before Huaisang could object—he was hardly the one needed to be lectured about who Jin Guangyao was or wasn’t—Wei Wuxian continues. “You aren’t the same. It got to you. Got you so twisted inside and out that you can’t tell which way is up. I can only recognise about 50% of your bullshit, but I can still see that.” His head gets tugged this and that way, Wei Wuxian expertly weaving ties into his hair and around his headpiece. “You lie and you lie and every time the you that isn’t lying just gets buried a little bit deeper. Do you know what happens when you get to the bed rock, when you can’t go any deeper?”
“I’m sure Wei-xiong can enlighten me,” Huaisang bites out, rattled by all of this.
Wei Wuxian detangles his fingers from Huaisang’s hair, finally done, and he can hear shuffling behind him. A moment later, Wei Wuxian leans his forehead against the back of his head, sighing into his hair. “Ah, Nie-xiong, you die. You die, and there is no one there who can remember who you really were, before all that lying.”
Huaisang stares straight ahead, not daring to blink, barely breathing. Is it true, he wonders. All this time, did he—
“Do you want to die?” Wei Wuxian asks him, and Huaisang thinks in surprise, oh, I do. Yes, all this time. Wei Wuxian sighs into his hair again, as if confirming it. “Ah, Nie-xiong…”
For over ten years he has been lying and scheming, and—yes, burying himself, deep deep down where Jin Guangyao couldn’t get to him, where his brother’s ghost couldn’t find him. Was he even aware of it, at any point? Did he once think that surely, once this is over, he could let it go and he would once again be who he was before? When did he stop thinking so? When did he forget?
“Why do you even care?” Huaisang asks, desperate for answers to all the questions he didn’t know how to ask. “I already said that none of this was done for you. You don’t owe me your…” kindness, he almost says, but it isn’t really kind, is it? To come to Huaisang and dismantle him piece by piece, the careful work of years undone in an instant, as easily as he undid his braids.
Wei Wuxian huffs out a laugh, Huaisang can feel the warmth on the back of his neck. “You know me. I love lost causes.” A beat, and then another, and he straightens up. Huaisang refuses to allow himself to miss their previous point of contact. Absently he notes that in the last hour or so he has been touched more than he has in the preceding five years. “I’m only joking, joking. You’re hardly a lost cause. Look at you, you even made friends with the kiddies!”
“Being an unwilling babysitter hardly counts as being friends,” Huaisang snorts out, but it feels… very far away. He feels unmoored, from this place and time, from this entire conversation. Yeah, it isn’t really kindness at all.
“Nah, I think they’ve adopted you.” Wei Wuxian makes a few more adjustments in his hair, and then pets him lightly. “I’ve finished, by the way. Take a look.”
“With what mirror,” Huaisang mutters, and reaches upwards to gently feel the braids. The style is simple, his hair parted half way down the middle, the headpiece knotted into a small half-up ponytail. It feels symmetrical, if a bit messy from the lack of a comb. “I guess it’s fine,” he compliments begrudgingly. “But never mind that—I’m washing my hands of those kids, you hear me? They have way too much energy and stamina. And no appreciation for art! Did you know Jin Ling can’t even paint? What do they teach him in the Jin Sect?” It’s a last ditch attempt to distract Wei Wuxian from the subject at hand—namely, the fact that Huaisang has apparently wanted to be dead for over ten years and didn’t even have the courtesy to let himself know—and by the sudden grin Wei Wuxian gifts him with as he leans over Huaisang’s shoulder to look at him, it doesn’t work.
“Jin Ling now, is it?”
“He insisted on talking to me,” Huaisang deflects weakly. “I don’t know why! I’ll have you know I worked hard on being very useless for the entire day.”
Wei Wuxian laughs as he now leans his chin on Huaisang’s shoulder. It’s bony and uncomfortable, but Huaisang doesn’t shrug him off. “See, I told you you’re a bad liar if even Jin Ling can spot your bullshit.”
“I don’t know about that, Wei-xiong,” Huaisang murmurs, remembering their weird conversation in his tent. “He is surprisingly… aware.” From the corner of his eyes, Huaisang can see Wei Wuxian’s smile turning wistful, grief catching at its edges. “His approach could use some work, however,” he rushes to add, before Wei Wuxian could turn uncomfortably maudlin. “And his people skills, for that matter. I’ll have you know he got into a fistfight with my first disciple.”
“That girl that was accompanying you?” Wei Wuxian whistles. “So that’s where Jin Ling got that black eye. Good arm on her. You know, I told him he should punch more people while he still can, it’s good he is listening to his da-jiujiu.”
Huisang laughs so hard he almost dislocates Wei Wuxian from his shoulder. “Please, Wei-xiong, I’ll pay money to have you say that where Jiang-xiong can hear.”
“No thank you,” Wei Wuxian says. “I quite enjoy being alive. Speaking of— “
“Nope,” Huaisang quickly stops him. “We’re done with that. One existential realisation at a time, thank you.”
“I’m just saying,” Wei Wuxian pushes on. “You could do worse than take an active role in shaping the next generation— “
Huaisang feels a bit like laughing and crying hysterically. “Wei-xiong, the last time we met you threatened to come for me if I dared to meddle again in things, and now you want me to poach Cloud Recesses’ best and brightest?!”
“Don’t flatter yourself. None of them would ever leave Lan Zhan voluntarily,” Wei Wuxian says proudly, confident in his… lover’s? boyfriend’s? crush-turned-friend-turned-enemy-turned-lover’s? reputation amongst the youngsters. “They could do worse than you as an ally in their court.”
Ah, so that’s what it’s about. "You’re trying to make sure I won’t interfere with Jin Ling’s political standing,” Huaisang says, semi-accusatory. “You really don’t have to worry about it. Shall I quote for you once more? ‘We can never get tired of those scenes— “
“Earth and sky, woods and fields, and so on,” Wei Wuxian interrupts. “I remember. Nie-xiong, you misunderstand. It’s true that before, I wanted to make sure you won’t make any trouble for Lan Zhan. Things were very chaotic, and it was difficult for me to fully ascertain what the rest of your plan was.”
“I didn’t have one,” Huaisang says. Now he is the one to lean backwards against Wei Wuxian, staring at the ceiling, the back of his head on Wei Wuixan’s shoulder. “Guanyin Temple.. that was it, for me.”
“Yeah, I get that now.” It isn’t said apologetically, but is more of an… understanding, of sorts. “It’s weird, isn’t it? To realise you’ve lived for longer than you planned for.” Huaisang never planned for his death, not the way Wei Wuxian had, but perhaps there was something to it. Huaisang never planned for staying alive while his brother was dead, after all.
Wei Wuxian continues on, headless of the direction of Huaisang’s thoughts. “What I’m trying to say is: the kids could use someone with your insight and... subtlety. Jin Ling especially, as you’ve noted,” he finishes wryly.
Huaisang thinks for a moment, still staring upwards without really looking at the ceiling. Isn’t this exactly what he has been trying to avoid with Hanbing, all this time? This type of responsibility? Not responsibility, he suddenly realises with a flash of mortifying self-awareness. Connection. Closeness. Looking at someone and being looked at in return. “There are only dark parts of me left to give, huh,” he murmurs quietly, remembering burnt words written to a dead brother.
He can feel Wei Wuxian exhale softly next to his cheek. “Sometimes,” his friend murmurs, “the dark parts are what others need to receive to be able to move forward.” He pauses for a moment, as if contemplating his next few words. “And sometimes… sometimes we need to give those parts to make room for other things to grow.”
Huaisang thinks of Hanbing, who has known him for years, known of his reputation for longer, and is still desperate for his attention and approval. He thinks of how she reminds him of Nie Mingjue, and how that can be painful, but soothing as well. Thinks of the way she looked standing in the market a few days ago, her clumsy attempt to cheer him up, her even knowing how to try to cheer him up.
He thinks of Jin Ling, who doesn’t know him at all, and still chose to seek his counsel. Thinks of a kid who was recently betrayed by a man who was supposed to care for him, and still came to Huaisang for advice and support. He thinks of Lan Sizhui, and how good he is with people, and how he could still be better. He thinks of Lan Jingyi, who is the least Lan-like Lan Huaisang has ever seen, and how good it would be if he could retain that. He thinks of Ouyang Zizhen, who one day will grow to replace his incompetent father and how someone should make sure he doesn’t inherit any of his habits.
He thinks of how, despite his grumblings and complainings, he has been having fun the last few days, how he has managed to smile without something to gain and laugh without something to hide. Something could grow there, he realises. In the empty space where revenge and hate once drowned the land, new fertile ground is peaking under the water.
“Ah, just in time,” he hears Wei Wuxian mutters behind him. Abruptly, two arms come under his armpits and he is hoisted to his feet, letting out a yell of surprise. “Do think about it some more will you, Nie-xiong? Hopefully in a much more comfortable setting.” Before Huaisang can turn around and ask what exactly he’s talking about, he’s interrupted by several shouts.
“Sect Leader Nie!”
“I noticed the Eight-Diagram form while you were sleeping, by the way,” Wei Wuxian says, stretching as he comes to stand next to Huaisang. “That’s how you got out the last time, right? You could have just said. I know it wouldn’t have worked for us because I lack a golden core, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be opened from the other side just as well. Sizhui has a tracking talisman for me—Lan Zhan’s idea,” he finishes wryly.
“You knew from the beginning?!” Huaisang almost shrieks. He is tempted to hit Wei Wuxian with his fan. “You could have said!”
“Ah, but then we wouldn’t have had this lovely conversation.” With one last grin, he turns to the side of the cavern where the shouting came from. “Over here! You’ll need to hit the matching Eight-Diagram form on your side.” A moment and a flash of light later, the side door to the cavern swings open, and from the other side Hanbing comes rushing in, the rest of the juniors hot on her heels. She looks flushed and worried, covered in soot nearly from head to toe, and Huaisang is sure there’s a story there. But she smiles when she sees him, and her smile doesn’t look like his own, or Nie Mingjue, or anyone else’s—just Nie Hanbing’s.
“Sect Leader Nie!” she exclaims in relief. “You’re alive!”
From where he’s surrounded by several relieved teens, Wei Wuxian sends him a small smile. Huaisang allows himself one last look at the place where he once thought he would die alongside his brother. “Yes, so it seems. So it seems.”
Sometimes I’m so jealous of you that I end up shaking, the ground rolling under me. You got your revenge in a manner of minutes, of seconds—one final act and you’re done, satisfied with it. I’ve lived with this poison for ten years, and it has ruined anything good that I once might have been.
I had asked you once, if there were things you regret. You had told me that in order to have regrets a person must consider himself a person, and you were only barely that. ‘I’m a ghost,’ you laughed meanly, ‘a ghost sent to torment Jin Guangshan.’ If you were already a ghost then, what does that make you now? What does that make me?
I don’t know how to do any of this, anymore. Jin Guangyao is dead, his legacy in ruins. All now know who he really was, the horrors he has committed. The cultivation world wants nothing to do with him, so why am I the one who keeps seeing him everywhere? The robes he has commissioned for me, the birds he had helped me name, the few pieces of art I had forced myself to complete so that I could show him that everything was fine, fine, I was just fine. I wake up every day and I’m surrounded by dead monsters, and I go to bed and I dream of dead men, and I write letters addressed to dead ghosts.
Aiya, I’m turning quite maudlin in my old age. Embarrassing, embarrassing! Like I have any right to come complain to you, of all people. Isn’t your face the one that haunts me most? It’s the only one that still actually exists in reality, after all, even if its wearer is no longer the ghost I had known.
I know that the array would not have let any piece of you stay intact. Oblivion—I wonder if you are happy with this ending.
Of course, that is not the end of it. Over the next several hours, as they slowly make their trek out of the lower levels of the tombs, Hanbing and Sizhui do their best to catch the two of them up on everything that transpired while Huaisang was going through several life crises in a row. Soon after Huaisang and Wei Wuxian were dragged into the water, the kids (mostly Hanbing, Jin Ling admits begrudgingly) managed to subdue the remaining tentacles. Using the tracking talisman Sizhui had on him, they flew on their swords towards the tombs. Jin Ling, having obviously remembered the place he almost died at, explained the significance of it, at which point Hanbing flew into desperate rage, and pretty much knocked down every trap standing in their way.
(Huaisang doesn’t miss Jin Ling’s intimidated and impressed look. He makes a note to have Hanbing on hand the next time he visits Koi Tower. Jin Ling could use some punching lessons).
On their way back to the Unclean Realm, Wei Wuxian on Lan Sizhui's sword, Wei Wuxian explains the rest of it: how the not-Waterborne Abyss were drawn to this location, and created the waterway they needed to get to it. He refrains from explaining exactly why this place had so much resentful energy, although Huaisang knows the kids would be suspicious, and he already expects to be harshly interrogated by Hanbing when next they're alone.
Perhaps that wouldn't be so bad. Perhaps she should know.
He waves them off once they get to the Unclean Realm, citing exhaustion. They would reconvene later—this time they will do so properly, in Blades' Hall. The room is always going through constant renovations, the back wall’s carvings always changing and evolving. It is not the room his brother once ruled Qinghe Nie fron. He would host them as a sect leader should, and would formally ask for Gusu Lan's assistance in properly cleansing the Stone Castles. He is done with hiding away the Nie Sect's shame. He is done with living on the back of bones. His ancestors could curse him as much as they want, but he stands by what he told his brother, all those years ago. It is a shameful tradition.
But that would come later. For now, he doesn't immediately go to his room. He finds himself walking the familiar route to the Nie ancestors' hall. How many times have he walked those corridors, he wonders. First for his mother, then his father, then his brother. Again and again, for his brother. He remembers coming here after figuring out Jin Guangyao's treachery, remembers being so furious he almost slammed Nie Mingjue's stone tablet to the floor, so angry his brother hasn't confided in him. He remembers coming here with Lan Xichen and almost slamming the stone tablet at him, hurling all the things he wanted to say, accusations of disloyalty and betrayal, of broken filial obligations.
And then later: coming here when he forgot the exact cadence of his brother's gruff voice, when the last bird his brother had gifted him had died, when Huaisang had surpassed the age of his brother when he died. And every time, he had locked something else in, another element that could hinder his plans, that could expose him to his enemies. Another weakness, forgotten and discarded.
Now, he sits in front of his brother's stone tablet. He reaches with his hand and traces the characters of his name. He imagines that with every swipe of his fingers, he's rediscovering a part of himself he has left to rot. It's not quite that simple, he knows. It will take months, years maybe, and he is still not quite sure he has it in him, that it is something he wants to accomplish. He is tired, unbearably exhausted. He thought it would all be over with Jin Guangyao's death, but the years stretch in front of him, unyielding and empty, and for a moment he misses the pavilion, its solitude and quiet. He was horrified to wake up there, traumatised and scared, but it allowed him to be open with Wei Wuxian in a way he doesn't think he could have managed in any other place.
"I wrote you a letter, once," he says, staring without seeing at the stone tablet. "Da-ge, did you get it? I burnt it of course, but i hoped that maybe it reached you, like paper money." He shakes his head. "I didn't want you to read it," he corrects himself. "It was embarrassing, and I didn't want you to worry. Or maybe I did? Maybe I missed your worrying. Augh, what am I even saying." He sags forward, placing his forehead against the cool stone, a mimicry of the way Wei Wuxian had leaned against him earlier. "I don't regret it," he whispers. "I can't. I can't regret any of it, or else I'll crumble to dust. I wouldn't have minded that before, but Wei-xiong... he changed things. He always does."
If he closes his eyes, he can almost imagine it's his brother's lap he is leaning against, that they are both back in that horrible cave. Forcibly, he tears himself away from the memory. He could lose himself in it, has lost himself in it in the past, and he hadn't just undergone the most humiliating and eye-opening conversation of his life to simply fall back into old habits.
"I wrote you many letters," he tries again. "So maybe you don't remember this specific one. About me being a teacher? I was scornful of the idea back then, if you remember. You must laugh at me now, being told once more I should take up teaching. And by Wei Wuxian, no less! The man didn't meet a teacher he hadn't pissed off at some point or another."
There's a breeze coming in from the open door behind him. Huaisang shivers. He is still slightly damp, and is desperate to get out of his clothes and into a warm bath, but he is more desperate to say what he needs to say, before that weird calm that washed over him in the tomb fades. He knows that when that happens he would find himself back in the closed, forgotten place he created for himself. That he would have to claw himself out of there, the way he had once clawed himself in to get away from his grief. Easier then, to say what needs to be said now.
"I told you about Nie Hanbing before, haven't I?" he says. "You really would have liked her, da-ge. She reminds me so much of you, although much less secure in herself and her abilities. She's clumsy like you though. Bad with her calligraphy though, unlike you." He swallows. Closes his eyes. "She cares for me like you. All gruff concern and embarrassed emotions. It's... sweet. But it hurts, too." He thinks of Wei Wuxian's voice saying we need to give those parts away, thinks of the water receding. "I think I've been hiding away from this pain for a long time."
He allows himself a moment, then another, before opening his eyes and straightening up, still facing his brother's stone tablet. "It would be good, I think," he says haltingly. "To maybe... take a more proactive role in her studies. Qinghe Nie is entering a new era in its history. She would fit well, as a heir." He hadn't thought of it before, but now that he said it, he felt it to be true. Qinghe Nie is done with the lies and secrecy, both the ancient ones of his ancestors and the newer ones of his own making. Nie Hanbing, who struggles to lie, would be more than fit to take the mantle. It would be... a process, to get the elders to see that, but hopefully they would be too preoccupied with the horror of Huaisang changing their entire system of mourning and death bureaucracy to pay much attention.
"As for the other juniors..." he shrugs, but then smiles wryly. "We will see, I guess. They are sooooo exhausting, da-ge! And if I fiddle with them, I’ll have to deal with Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-Jun and, worse of all, Jiang Cheng, who is loud at the best of time but unbearably so when his nephew is concerned. I don’t think I could handle that, I really don’t!”
He lets out a laugh, and if it turns into a sob halfway through, he's sure his brother won't begrudge him for it. "I'll... I'll try, though," he says, blinking away tears. "Probably not as much as with Hanbing but- there are things I can help with. Qinghe Nie is weakened now, and they could- No," he cuts himself off, shaking his head. "Ahh, da-ge, what am I saying? That's not the point at all. No. I'll help because... I think it will be fun." He remembers needling them in the forest, and how he laughed while dodging their reactions. "It's been a while since I had fun."
He heaves out a sigh as he stands up, bowing in front of the stone tablet. "I really thought I could rest now, but I guess I have a lot more work than I thought I would! Da-ge, you can't ever call me lazy again, okay? It takes a lot to be alive!"
Huaisang turns around, and leaves his ghosts behind. The water is finally reaching low tide.