Meng Yao slept in Nie Mingjue’s bed that night, and as soon as he saw Nie Huaisang the next day, Nie Huaisang laughed so hard he dropped his fan. “Finally, finally,” he said. “I told you! Didn’t I tell you?”
“You did, Nie-gongzi,” Meng Yao said, because he really wasn’t in a mood where he could get upset about anything. He felt like he was walking on air, although in reality he was walking with a slight limp. Then he realized that this was what Nie Huaisang was laughing at, and he flushed red. “My leg was wounded!”
Nie Huaisang practically howled with laughter. “Sure it was!”
Meng Yao couldn’t get annoyed despite his best efforts, but the mood sobered quickly when Nie Mingjue came out of the Sword Hall and asked Nie Huaisang, “Have you finished packing for your trip?”
“Ah,” Nie Huaisang said. “Finished? No . . .”
Nie Mingjue sighed. “Have you started?”
“Define ‘start’,” Nie Huaisang said, then added, “and ‘packing’.”
Nie Mingjue didn’t. “Meng Yao, go pack two weeks of things for Huaisang for his trip to Nightless City. I have to sit down with Nie Zonghui and talk to him about the yin iron.”
Meng Yao nodded and ushered Nie Huaisang back towards the living quarters. Nie Huaisang moaned and complained and basically made packing impossible, objecting to everything Meng Yao packed for him and everything Meng Yao didn’t pack for him. Meng Yao did his best to ignore him, because he knew that none of his objections were valid and he just didn’t want to go.
“Two weeks is such a long time,” Nie Huaisang said, dramatically waving his fan. “I’ve never been away from home for so long!”
Meng Yao stared at him. “You were literally just at Cloud Recesses for six months.”
“That doesn’t count,” Nie Huaisang said. “You were there with me.”
“Nie-zongzhu has picked out half a dozen disciples to go with you,” Meng Yao said. “You’ll be fine.”
Nie Huaisang swung his legs back and forth. “Still calling him Nie-zongzhu?”
Meng Yao nodded. “Out here, he’s Nie-zongzhu. In his rooms, he’s Nie Mingjue. We agreed on this.”
“Ah, I suppose that makes sense.” Nie Huaisang sighed and seemed to fall into a melancholy state of disposition. Meng Yao used that as an opportunity to finish packing his things, although he took pity on him and added some of his books and art supplies.
An hour later, they were standing at the front gate of The Unclean Realm. “Keep him safe,” Nie Mingjue said to the disciples, and they saluted and bowed. “Huaisang, just keep your head down. Don’t make trouble.”
“Unless you have to,” Meng Yao added. Nie Mingjue gave him a look, and he shrugged. He wasn’t going to take it back.
“Unless you have to,” Nie Mingjue agreed after a moment, and then Nie Huaisang and the others were gone. He stared after him for a long minute, brooding, until he turned to Meng Yao and said, “Nie Zonghui should only need two or three days to obtain what we need in Yueyang and get back. Until then, we need to keep up heavy scouting patrols and fix the damage that Wen Chao did yesterday.”
Meng Yao bowed and said, “Understood. I’ll get started.”
~ ~ ~ ~
For four days, everything was glorious.
It wasn’t perfect. There were men in the guard who were angry about Fen Hong’s removal. Several of them even left out of protest. But it didn’t seem to bother Nie Mingjue, so Meng Yao resolved not to let it bother him. Those who were left seemed to have finally gotten the idea that they should keep their rude words to themselves. When Nie Zonghui returned with the piece of yin iron carefully sealed into a spirit pouch, things got better. Very few people in the Nie sect knew what was in the pouch, but Nie Mingjue made it clear that it was vital to defeating the Wen sect, and that Meng Yao was responsible for getting its location from Xue Yang.
During the day, it was all work. They strengthened the guard and fortified The Unclean Realm, and sent soldiers and cultivators out to the various parts of Qinghe to stand guard over the smaller sects. The Wen soldiers weren’t invading, not yet, but Nie Mingjue clearly felt it wouldn’t be long. He said that once they were fully prepared, they would ask Xue Yang to bring them to the last piece of yin iron, and Meng Yao was trying to prepare for that journey as well, deep into the heart of Qishan. But at night, at night it was just him and Nie Mingjue.
Then, four days after Nie Huaisang’s departure, one of the disciples from the Gusu Lan collapsed at the gates, bloody, bedraggled, and exhausted. It wasn’t anyone Meng Yao knew, but he had clearly pushed very hard to get there. It was several hours before he was able to regain consciousness. He told the story of the attack in between sips of water. How Wen Xu had ordered the buildings burned, how they had taken refuge in Cold Pond Cave, how the Wen disciples had started killing everyone left on the outside until one gave up the secret of how to get in. How Lan Wangji had come out and surrendered so the disciples inside would be spared and been captured for ‘indoctrination’.
How Lan Xichen had escaped with the most precious knowledge of the Lan sect.
How they had tried to find him, days later, only find his outer robe, bloodied and torn like he had tried to use it as bandages, two of his spirit pouches, and a piece of jade that must have come free from his jinbu. Nothing else.
“He might be hiding somewhere,” Nie Mingjue said, in a tone that was clearly meant to convince himself more than it was meant to convince others.
“He wouldn’t have left the spirit pouches behind,” the disciple said, and Meng Yao was forced to agree. “We think he must have been captured. Lan-xiansheng asked me . . . sent me here to beg for your aid. The Gusu Lan have been scattered to the four winds. There is nothing we can do. But his nephews . . .”
Nie Mingjue nodded. “Meng Yao,” he said, and Meng Yao jumped to attention. “Go get Xue Yang. We’re going into Qishan anyway for the last piece of yin iron. Once we have it, we’ll go find Xichen, along with Wangji, Huaisang, and any other hostages they have.”
That seemed like a very optimistic plan to Meng Yao, but he was far too worried about Lan Xichen to object. He nodded and bowed. “Everything is prepared for the journey. I will fetch Xue Yang and meet you at the gates.”
“Fuckin’ finally,” was what Xue Yang said when Meng Yao showed up at his cell. “How the hell long does it take you to go to Yueyang and back? It’s only a day’s journey in each direction.”
“Believe it or not, Xue Yang, you are not my highest priority.” Meng Yao unlocked the cell and made sure that Xue Yang’s hands were secured in front of him before fastening a rope to the shackles and tugging him forward.
“Are you going to march me out of here in broad daylight?” Xue Yang asked, seeming more curious than concerned. “Won’t people notice?”
“It doesn’t matter if anyone notices,” Meng Yao said. Xue Yang glanced around as they headed down the alley towards the front gate. There, half a dozen disciples had gathered, several of them laden down with packs. Meng Yao felt like it was too few, but he knew that Nie Mingjue had been right when he had said a small force would be all they could get into Qishan unnoticed. Six was probably too many as it was, he said, but they could assess the situation as they went along.
“What’s happening?” Xue Yang asked, seeing Nie Mingjue standing at the head of the group, exchanging a few quick words with Nie Zonghui, who would be in charge in his absence. “You said you were going to break me out.”
“Technically, I don’t think I ever said that,” Meng Yao said. “You came to the conclusion on your own after seeing how Fen Hong treated me that I might want to stab my sect leader in the back, but I never said that. I only said I wanted the location of the yin iron. Now we have one, so as promised, you’re being released. You’ll lead us to the second, and then we’ll give you your own piece back in exchange.”
Xue Yang laughed. “What if I don’t want to go with all these soldiers?”
“Then we’ll keep the piece from Yueyang, Nie-zongzhu will execute you, and we’ll search Qishan for the last piece ourselves.”
Xue Yang’s eyes gleamed. “You drive a hard bargain, Meng Yao. All right, I accept. Just don’t blame me if you get more than you bargained for.”
“Like a five-day journey with you running your mouth the whole time?” Meng Yao said. “The thought had occurred to me. But we can’t let you go until we have the last piece – or more accurately, you won’t let us go, because you still want your own piece back, so we may as well use you as a guide. Something tells me that you might know a back way into Qishan. Am I right?”
“Yes, you are,” Xue Yang said, laughing again. “You don’t want to enjoy Wen Ruohan’s hospitality?”
Nie Mingjue walked over at this, and rather than responding to Xue Yang’s words, said, “Give us an approximate destination. That way I can tell my men who are staying behind where we’re going, in case we don’t make it back.”
“Such faith in yourselves!” Xue Yang smirked, but didn’t argue. “Muxi Mountain.”
Nie Mingjue nodded and spoke with Nie Zonghui for a few minutes before they headed out.
“You’re all so serious,” Xue Yang said, after they had walked in silence for a total of three minutes. “Marching like you’re going to a funeral. Lighten up! We’re only sneaking onto the land of one of the most powerful cultivators to ever live, who’s armed with two or three pieces of metal steeped in centuries of resentful energy, who’s probably already holding a bunch of people hostage over a volcano. Why so glum?”
Meng Yao looked at Nie Mingjue and said, “I can’t believe neither of us ever thought to have the Lan sect teach us their silencing spell.”
“I tried,” Nie Mingjue said. “Xichen wouldn’t. Private technique, you know.”
Meng Yao sighed and resigned himself to a long five days.
~ ~ ~ ~
The journey was exactly as long as Meng Yao had feared it would be. Although Xue Yang would sometimes fall silent for a few hours - scheming, no doubt - he talked more often than not. He was an outrageous flirt and unfortunately observant, catching on to the men’s worries and conflicts and using them to cause trouble. If gagged, he would sit down in the dirt and refuse to walk on his own, and nobody wanted to expend the energy to drag or carry him.
Meng Yao, meanwhile, was preoccupied with his fear for Lan Xichen. He could understand why Wen Ruohan had taken hostages from the other sects, but why capture an actual sect leader? Why not just kill him? What if they had just killed him? What if he and Nie Mingjue were walking into a trap? But then, his rational side said, why would the reason for that be? Wen Ruohan had no way of knowing how close Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen were, nor did he have any idea that they had already been planning a trip into Qishan.
“Whatever it is, you’re thinking about it too much,” Xue Yang said, studying Meng Yao’s brooding expression. He laughed when Meng Yao gave him an annoyed look. “Come on, what. Tell your new friend Xue Yang. I’m a good listener.”
“Why do I doubt that?” Meng Yao asked, but found himself curious about what Xue Yang would think. He, at least, knew Wen Ruohan better than any of the rest of them did. He wasn’t about to tell him that they intended to go rescue Lan Xichen afterwards, but he might have an idea of why he had been taken. “All right, Xue Yang, I am working on a puzzle. The head of the Lan sect has been captured, and I am trying to work out why Wen Ruohan would do that instead of just having him killed.”
“Ah, well, there’s your first mistake,” Xue Yang said comfortably. “You’re assuming Wen Ruohan was the one who made the decision, but I’m sure he wasn’t. All Wen Ruohan cares about is the yin iron. He’s so busy trying to master it that he doesn’t pay attention to anything else. It’s powerful stuff, you know, takes a lot of focus and concentration. Most of the day-to-day stuff is being run by Wen Xu and Wen Chao. Like this nonsense of demanding the young masters be sent for indoctrination - all Wen Chao’s idea. It’s the sort of showing off he likes to do.”
Meng Yao thought that over and decided he probably agreed. “Then why would Wen Xu take him captive instead of killing him?”
“Oh, because he’s a sadist,” Xue Yang said, and laughed when Meng Yao’s back stiffened, his shoulders tightening. “You didn’t like that answer, hm? But it’s the truth, I swear! Wen Xu will never kill if he can capture. He’s probably torturing your precious Lan-zongzhu as we speak.”
Nie Mingjue glanced over at this, his face troubled, but didn’t intervene.
“It’s a terrible idea, though,” Meng Yao said, shaking his head. “Zewu-Jun is so strong and powerful . . . surely it would be better to kill him if you ever got the chance . . .”
Xue Yang laughed harder. “That’s your second mistake, Meng Yao. You think like a tactician, like a strategist. You think like the genius that you are. Nobody in Qishan has even half your brains. You’ve gotta think like an arrogant, stupid son of a bitch. Take me, for example.”
“Must I?” Meng Yao murmured.
Eyes gleaming, Xue Yang said, “Apparently.”
Meng Yao sighed.
Xue Yang continued, “I never had any loyalty to Wen Ruohan, and I never made any bones about it. If he or any of his advisers had half a brain cell, they would have insisted I give them some sort of collateral before letting me go to Yueyang. I didn’t need the yin iron to do what I did there; it just made it more fun. And now Wen Ruohan has lost that piece to his enemies, all because he never bothered to pay any attention to what I was really after.”
“And what was that?” Meng Yao asked, despite his better judgment.
“A good time,” Xue Yang said, and laughed again.
“You’re disgusting,” one of the other disciples said, and the others were giving him dirty looks.
That made Xue Yang laugh harder. “You think so? I find you the disgusting ones. Men so impressed with themselves, with their ideas of justice and honor, as if the real world cares about such things at all. Men who have never faced a day of real hardship in their lives but still judge me for the man the world made me into. Put your backs to the wall and you’d all abandon your morals just as quickly as I abandoned mine. That’s why I like you, Meng Yao,” he continued. “Because you don’t have any such pretenses.”
“You can stop reminding everyone that you like me in a bid to convince them that I’m not trustworthy,” Meng Yao said. “I’m loyal to Nie-zongzhu and that will not change.”
“Sure it won’t,” Xue Yang said. Meng Yao didn’t respond to that at all, because if Xue Yang hadn’t noticed the affection between himself and Nie Mingjue, he certainly wasn’t about to draw his attention to it.
That, in all honesty, had been the hardest part of the journey. Both he and Nie Mingjue were in agreement that, although the men might be ready to learn of their relationship, there was no guarantee, and while on a dangerous, isolated mission was not the time to find that out. Meng Yao had been the one to bring it up, and Nie Mingjue had been reluctant, but had agreed. Nie Mingjue wanted to think that it would be safe to display their affection publicly, but he was smart enough to know that it might not be. That if even one of the men had a problem with it, it could cause the sort of strife that could destroy their chances at getting in and out of Qishan, let alone accomplishing their goals while they were there.
So for now, they continued to act exactly as they had been before. Meng Yao was his trusted adviser, something the men were used to if not entirely thrilled with. They kept their relationship professional, and Meng Yao was especially careful to make sure his tone and manner of speech were just as formal as they had been before.
It wasn’t as difficult during the day, but at night, he ached for Nie Mingjue’s touch. He had only just been introduced to it, and was craving it more and more as each day went by. His worry about Lan Xichen only intensified the problem. He wished he could crawl into Nie Mingjue’s bed even if only for comfort, for reassurance. But he couldn’t. They both knew it and accepted it, but it was weighing on Meng Yao more heavily as the journey went by.
They crossed into Qishan on the fourth day. Fortunately, Muxi Mountain was near the outskirts, a full day’s journey away from Nightless City. Xue Yang took them on a back road that only had one small outpost of guards, who Nie Mingjue and his men easily took care of before they could send up a signal flare. It was as easy as they could have possibly hoped for.
“All right,” Nie Mingjue said, as they stood on the shores of the river next to Muxi Mountain. “Where to now?”
“There’s a cave entrance around here somewhere,” Xue Yang said, “but it can be devilishly difficult to find. I stumbled upon it by accident - not sure of exactly where it was.”
Nie Mingjue nodded and directed his men to split up and begin to search. For several hours, they beat the bushes of Muxi Mountain, but found nothing. Nie Mingjue became more suspicious as time went on, giving Xue Yang skeptical looks. But if there really was no cave, if this was all some sort of elaborate ploy, Meng Yao didn’t see what the purpose of it was. Xue Yang wasn’t trying to get away, even as he made no effort to help them search, and it would have been fairly easy for him to escape at this point. With all the men split up and searching, and only one person at a time keeping watch on him, he could have run. But he wasn’t, so Meng Yao had to assume that he had told the truth when he said he wanted his own piece of yin iron back. Either it really had sentimental value to him as a family heirloom, or he was simply accustomed to using it and didn’t want to go without, even if he could find the fifth piece himself.
As the day passed by, Meng Yao started to get nervous. He didn’t think they wanted to be out here at night. Muxi Mountain was known for spiritual disturbances and bad feng shui. Even if they could defend themselves, with which Nie Mingjue along they surely could, it might draw attention. “Xue Yang,” he said, “when you say you just stumbled upon the entrance, what were you doing at the time? Were you even looking for it?”
“Oh, no,” Xue Yang said, laughing. “I was just messing around, trying to find a place to camp that might be out of sight. I didn’t want Wen Ruohan knowing I was poking around back here.”
Meng Yao sighed. “But what exactly were you doing? When you say you were ‘messing around’, what does that mean?”
“I was using magic to look for openings in the mountain,” Xue Yang said. “I’m not good at that sort of spell, though. It’s not like I went to cultivator school,” he added, laughing.
Meng Yao was torn between feeling sympathy for Xue Yang, who lacked the fundamentals just as he had, and annoyed because he was only just now mentioning that magic was needed to find the entrance that they had all been sweating and climbing for four hours now trying to find. He shook his head and turned away, drawing a few symbols in the air.
“What talisman is that?” Nie Mingjue asked curiously. “I’ve never seen it.”
“Ah, it’s one of Wei-gongzi’s,” Meng Yao said. “He taught it to me at Cloud Recesses. It’s supposed to lift any veils that have been cast in an area.”
They watched as the talisman swirled around the mountain, the view in front of them rippling here and there as it encountered different energies. Then, some clouds began to clear, and a dark spot was seen against the paler rocks and flora. Nie Mingjue clapped him on the shoulder. “Nice work, Meng Yao.” He gestured to Xue Yang and said, “Get him up and let’s get moving.”
“Hang on,” Meng Yao said, countermanding him without thinking. Then he bowed and said, “Ah, my apologies, Nie-zongzhu. But may I ask, first . . .” He turned to Xue Yang. “What’s inside that cave? No more forgetting to mention things.”
Xue Yang smirked. “You’ll go in even if I tell you, won’t you?”
“Yes. So there’s no reason not to tell us.”
“There’s a monster,” Xue Yang said, and several of the men stiffened. “Some sort of turtle-snake thing. I don’t know what it is. Again, my classical education wasn’t. But the yin iron is inside of it.”
“Inside?” Nie Mingjue asked. “How do you even know that?”
“Oh, because it ate me,” Xue Yang said peaceably. “Gross, huh? I jabbed it enough times with Jiangzai that it horked me back up, though.”
“Charming,” Meng Yao said dryly. “Anything else we should know?”
Xue Yang shrugged. “I’m sure I’ll think of something.”
“I’m sure you will,” Meng Yao muttered, and they began making their way up the mountain.
Half an hour later, they were in the cave, and fifteen minutes after that, they had descended the cliff inside and were standing at the edge of the pool. Other than a large rock in the center, there was nothing noteworthy about it. Only it wasn’t a rock, Meng Yao realized. It was the back of a turtle shell, the monster that Xue Yang had talked about.
“Is it . . . sleeping?” one of the men asked doubtfully.
“Are you asking me?” Xue Yang said, and shrugged. “How should I know?”
One of the others picked up a rock and threw it into the lake. This had no effect, and Xue Yang laughed.
“We need the scent of blood to wake it up,” Nie Mingjue said, pulling out a knife. “We won’t be able to get through the hard outer shell.”
Xue Yang held both his arms out in front of him, and laughed again when Nie Mingjue gave him a look. “What? You were obviously going to choose me anyway. You won’t go slicing into any of your own men. It’s fine. I’ve got plenty of scars; I don’t mind one more.”
Nie Mingjue shook his head, but the knife flashed out, making a sizable gash in Xue Yang’s upper arm. Nie Mingjue caught some of the blood in his hand and flung it out into the water. The surface rippled a few moments later. “Meng Yao, take Xue Yang and get back, bandage his arm up,” Nie Mingjue said, and Meng Yao nodded, retreating back towards the cliff.
The monster’s head broke through the surface of the water, its teeth gleaming in the light of their torches. It was huge and fearsome, but it was no match for Nie Mingjue and Baxia. The other Nie disciples kept its attention with their arrows and torches, and after several tries, Nie Mingjue cleaved its neck in two with one stroke.
“Hot,” Xue Yang said, in an approving tone.
Meng Yao ignored him, heading back towards the water’s edge. “Let’s roll it over,” he said, thinking they could cut through the soft underbelly of the creature to get into its stomach. This quickly proved to be impossible, however. The monster had collapsed in the center of the lake, and the water was too deep for the men to get a firm foothold so they could use all their strength to turn it over.
“Can one of us go through the neck?” one of the men asked, sounding doubtful. “Or . . . the back end?”
“Gross,” Xue Yang said, as if somebody had asked for his opinion. “I’ll go in through the neck.”
“Nobody asked you to go anywhere,” Nie Mingjue said. He was already taking off his outer robe.
“Ah, Nie-zongzhu, you won’t fit,” Meng Yao said, looking at the opening that the removal of the creature’s head had created. “You’re far too broad-shouldered.”
“Too tall, too,” Xue Yang said. “The inside of its belly isn’t big. That’s why I offered.”
“I’ll have to go,” Meng Yao said, even though he could hardly think of anything he would less rather do. But they certainly weren’t sending Xue Yang, and he was the only other person there who would be able to fit. Nie Mingjue grimaced but didn’t argue. Meng Yao took off his belt and his outer robe, then tied a cloth over his face to protect his nose and mouth and tucked his hair inside his hanfu.
He reminded himself as he approached the hole in the neck that once they had the yin iron, they could go get Lan Xichen. They would rescue him from Wen Ruohan and take him back to Qinghe, tend to his injuries, and he would be able to have both Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue. The wish he had made on a lantern was going to come true, and the only thing between him and that conclusion was this incredibly disgusting task.
And it was disgusting. Even through his filter, the smell alone was enough to make him wretch. He had to breathe shallowly, and tried to ignore his surroundings as much as possible. The walls of the creature’s stomach were vividly, impossibly red. All around him were bodies in various states of digestion and decomposition. His feet were squashing through things he didn’t even want to contemplate.
In the center of the monster’s stomach, embedded deep in its gut, was a sword.
It was a matte black metal, quite different from any other sword he had ever seen. As he stepped closer, he could hear the whisperings of dark, resentful energy coming from it. When Xue Yang had said this piece pinned down the center, he had meant it quite literally. The sword had probably kept the monster sealed in this place, and corrupted the spiritual energy of the entire surrounding area. He would have to be careful with it.
But as soon as he touched it, the faint sound of resentful energy because howling, screaming ghosts in his ears, in his mind. He staggered, his hands clutching harder at the hilt of the sword as the resentful energy seized him, invaded him, burrowed inside him.
Filthy son of a whore
I hope you know that your mother is burning in hell
Remember your place
Is it really appropriate for him to be here?
I understand why our father did not want you in the sect
Was that really appropriate? Given his indecent background?
Remember your place
Finally ending your shameful existence
go die in the gutter where you belong
What is he even doing here?
forced to learn alongside someone of low birth
Bastard son of a whore
Ending your shameful existence
Remember your place
Remember your place
Remember your place
Distantly, Meng Yao could hear himself screaming.
It was the last thing he knew for a long time.
~ ~ ~ ~