and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Wei Wuxian had not experienced fever in years.
He couldn’t count those years he spent dead among them. What few fleeting impressions of afterline had lingered upon resuscitation were long gone, wiped from his mind like dust swept from wood. Those memories were not his to preserve now that he was back to life; that peace was the dead’s hard-earned reward, and who knew how far away he was now from earning it again.
If he earned it. The longer he spent in Mo Xuanyu’s body, the more he felt his frustration dissipate in favor of pity, but the envy… this, he couldn’t be rid of.
Heat caught up with him only two days out of Mo village. Wei Wuxian traveled on the back of the mean donkey he stole there, avoiding broader roads and any sign of towns or villages. He had no idea which way to go or even what to do, but he went. He had never been one to sit still and simmer; his one experience of building a home for himself had only made him feel more alienated and out of touch with his own body. It was on that same donkey’s back that he first felt pain force his body to bend and his throat to constrict over moans, and he only had the presence of mind to lead the creature as deep into the forest as he could before it fully overtook him. He found a cave at the edge of a deep-set river, somewhere wind and water should work to mask his scent, and climbed down against the rocks till he could finally collapse.
For years before he died, Wei Wuxian had refused heat. Much of his research in Yiling had been spent in the company of Wen Qing, trying to figure out how to grow the white flowers that moonless tea were made of on a soil so sullied with death. It was for the sake of many, he told her; Wen Qing looked at him in silence and acquiesced, though he knew—she knew, oh, she knew—why he cared so much.
The seeds never took to Yiling’s deadened earth. They had to compromise by growing them in the grotto that Wei Wuxian inhabited, in clay pots wide enough for grown men to sit in. Wei Wuxian had not experienced heat since Yunmeng had burned. He had promised himself, months after the end of the war, that he never would again.
More than the sharp pain that Mo Xuanyu’s body experienced, more, even, than the discomfort of sweat and slickness he had so loathed as a child in that empty shack in Yunmeng, Wei Wuxian was overwhelmed by fear.
For three days he didn’t sleep. He forced his body upright in the farthest corner of the damp cave, heedless of the river sometimes spilling in over smooth rock and licking at his cold feet. He kept watch over the entrance as the sun set and rose, clutching his stomach with one hand and a large stone with the other.
He wished he had a sword.
He lit no fire. He ate and drank nothing. Mo Xuanyu must have some sort of cultivation training, for his body was sturdy enough for two days of inedia. Wei Wuxian meditated during those as he shivered and shook, eyes never leaving the arc-like opening of the cave, ready to attack whoever dared to look in.
No one did.
Mo Xuanyu’s cycle was a short one. It was more intense than what Wei Wuxian remembered of his own—his had lingered in discomfort and silence for days, thick and drowsy, panic smoothing over his heart and limbs during the long hours of night—but when the third day died in pink light and cool wind, he stopped shivering. His hold relaxed on the black stone. He licked his parched lips amidst halted, hollow gasps, and crawled to the edge of the riverbed to finally quench his thirst.
He was surprised to find the stolen donkey grazing the grass above, completely unbothered. Wei Wuxian had not taken the time to tie it somewhere, not knowing how long he would be out of it and whether the creature would be able to feed itself, but it seemed this part of the forest was good enough. The animal barely reacted to seeing him climb back to ground level.
With somewhat weak hands, Wei Wuxian picked berries from low bushes to feed on. He had no bow on him to hunt for birds or deer. After he found moonless tea and some sort of scent-masking drug somewhere, acquiring one would be his first order of business.
He hated how shaken he was when he mounted the donkey again to go on his way, but he pushed through. He always did.
Keeping to wilder paths was enough to stay fed for the next few days. He found a house about a week after leaving Mo village, empty of its inhabitants though obviously not abandoned. He felt only minimal guilt upon breaking open the door and raiding part of their pantry. A few slices of dried meat to chew on, clean clothes, a kitchen knife. The worst of the three bows lined by the back door, and a handful of arrows. He hesitated when his nose picked up the faint trace of sweetscent; he found ink and paper on a table by the corner, and wrote a curt note of apology to whichever omega lived there.
The next day, he arrived at a bigger town right by the side of a tall mountain. The people of Dafan walked subduedly through the streets, murmuring to each other by the shadow of alleyways. Wei Wuxian had not meant to venture so close to them; but too many times did he cross paths with small-sect cultivators on his way through the forest, all of whom only gave him short glances of curiosity but not a word of scorn.
He had never been very good at resisting curiosity.
The Lan boys’ words already seemed so far away from him. After days of traveling alone, it was easy to think himself back to his own time and be wary of any stranger who could stumble upon him—easy to forget what he had learned and disbelieved in Mo village, what he had seen in the person of Lan Jingyi.
But it was true. All of it was true.
Not just the relative peace he was left in, despite painting to all who looked the picture of a lone omega traveling unchaperoned. Not even the sight of several omega working at stalls or simply walking through the streets. But cultivators were gathered all around for a night hunt of some kind, small clan banners held high as they muttered among themselves, and though Wei Wuxian didn’t catch scent of another of his kind among them, they hardly noticed him as well. Some threw dark looks his way, but that was all.
He sold some of the game he had caught the day before to pay for a proper meal and bath at the nearest inn. Once more, the tenants only seemed mildly displeased to have to serve him; they even fetched a young omega girl to show him to a different part of the establishment, where a bathroom stood smothered in the sweet scent of others. Wei Wuxian washed the sweat and blood off of his skin and wondered, apprehension heavy in his chest, what could have possibly happened to make the world change so.
He opened the door of the room too harshly; the girl from earlier who stood on the other side let out a breath of surprise and clutched the fabric of her apron tightly.
“Sorry,” he said blankly.
She shook her head. “No, young master, I’m sorry. I should have made my presence known.”
He stared at her for a long while.
She was obviously omega, though her scent was so mild as to be almost forgotten. Cooler than it was sweet—closer to beta than her true status. He couldn’t even point out what it was she smelled like with any exactitude.
“Um,” she started again, visibly bothered by his scrutiny. “I have, um, medicine. If you wish.”
Wei Wuxian stayed silent for another second before answering, “What sort of medicine?”
“You know,” she blushed. “That—that sort of medicine. You, um, your scent is… I fear—well. It’s not proper like this.”
He had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.
She seemed to understand it well enough. She touched his arm timidly—taking her hand back when he shook it off without thinking—and asked, “Were you… were you raised in a house?”
“You mean in an omega house,” he said.
Her face turned even redder. With surprise, he understood that it was due to anger more than embarrassment. “Please follow me,” she urged him in a low voice.
He agreed easily enough. It wasn’t as though he had anything better to do.
The girl took him to another room neighboring the one where he bathed, ushering him inside with more deference than he felt was deserved and quickly lighting candles all around. It was a cold little place, clean to a fault and covered with shelves upon shelves of flasks and vials full of dried leaves and viscous, mud-like medicine.
“This is moonless tea,” she told him uselessly—he would recognize the smell and appearance of all of these drugs in pure darkness. After all, he had prepared them himself often enough. “And this is to mask your scent.”
“How do you have all this?” he couldn’t help but ask.
There was misguided pity in her eyes when she answered. “Sometimes we get people like you who were still raised in houses. Lots of families disobey the law, young master—it’s unfair,” she added in sudden rage, “but I can help you mask your scent. Out here it is considered more polite to be… discreet.”
Discretion had never been one of Wei Wuxian’s strengths, but in this case, he supposed that it suited his goals.
The girl was obviously acting under the belief that he had spent his life in isolation and recently run away. He felt no need to dissuade her of the idea; instead he played the part to his best, asking questions here and there and trying his best not to show how world-shattering her answers were.
Ten years. For ten years now, she said, the greater cultivation sects had abolished omega houses and dealt harsh punishment onto those who were found to follow tradition.
He took the medicine from her without bothering to ask. He doubted she would know. But his mind ran amok with guesses all more unbelievable than the next as he drank the familiar tea and spread bitter paste over his tongue. It wasn’t the kind that Wen Qing and Wen Ning had used to outright cheat their status, but rather something else, something that turned the smell of him as watery and faint as the girl’s own.
Wei Wuxian had never used scent masking in his first life. It would have been useless to him even if the whole world hadn’t known who and what he was; after all, after losing his core, he had smelled of nothing at all.
He still hadn’t grown used the brightness and weight of Mo Xuanyu’s undamaged spirituality. He feared the thought of ever using it—this untrained, untouched thing in his chest, small and shining and unbearably warm. Resentful energy was so much more familiar, so much easier to trust and reach for. He needn’t spend years training from scratch again for it.
It seemed to him that he could hear the sound of Lan Wangji’s voice belittling him all those years ago: The dark path damages the heart and spirit, Wei Ying.
He snorted faintly. The Lan sect heir had too often tried to meddle with his business in those years. He was glad to have escaped Mo village before having to face him—he doubted the man’s opinion of him had grown any warmer after what had transpired in Nightless City.
His heart ached. Wei Wuxian chased the memory quickly.
Fewer looks were thrown his way when he left the inn a while later. What little money he had gathered from hunting was gone again, but he still had the stolen bow, and now enough reserves of medicine to last him for a while. Darkness crept over the sky as nighttime approached, and the streets were now almost full to bursting with cultivators. Some even held evil-targeting compasses like the ones he had once created.
The hypocrisy grated at him. It made him want to slap the devices out of their hands and break them before their eyes until they felt a third of the frustration that he did.
Wei Wuxian mounted the donkey again and headed for the mountain. He saw many more people that way, all obviously gathered to hunt for a big enough prize. The girl at the inn had mentioned to him the stories of people losing their souls since a landslide not long ago had unearthed tombs on the softer mountain grounds. He had no interest in any of it.
Or at least he did not, until he saw the silhouette of a man sitting on a wide root and looking emptily at the dirt road. He held a lamp in his hands, the glow of which shone only over his rich clothes. Not anywhere on the vegetation around or the ground under his feet.
The back of his skull was blown open.
“Hello,” the ghost said to him.
“Good evening,” Wei Wuxian answered, tugging on the donkey’s reins to slow its pace. “Crowded tonight, isn’t it?”
The ghost ignored his question. He looked at his bare fingers, rubbing them with his thumbs, and said, “I need my rings. I need to find my rings.”
This one would be easy enough to exorcize and send back to the realm of the dead, Wei Wuxian thought, as long as one found the riches which must have been stolen from his tomb. He found himself hoping that someone would.
Ghost lights and spirit lures hung from many trees around. The forest was thick enough to mask most of the stars overhead, but still everything around glowed oddly. Wei Wuxian could see just fine in the darkness, as if night hadn’t fallen at all. The soul-stealing monster they were all hunting must truly be worth a lot.
He didn’t know where to go.
The thought simmered at the back of his mind as he slowly rode along the mountainside. He was alive, he was free of Mo Xuanyu’s wishes, he was in the possession of a brand new body only a handful of years older than his had been when he died. Now what, he kept wondering. What did he do with it? Did he go somewhere no one knew him and settle down until his days were over once more? Did he forget his name and past and simply wait?
He had never learned any way to live that wasn’t linked with cultivation, but he could not come back to it. Yearn as he did to return to Yunmeng and fall asleep in the bed which had cradled his childhood, this dream was an impossible one. The perspective alone crushed his heart with misery.
He was thinking such thoughts when his path once more crossed that of a group of cultivators. They were three with compasses in hand, muttering among themselves, heedless of his coming. “Useless thing,” the oldest of them said, shaking his compass. “The old ways are the only viable ones.”
“This is the Yiling Patriarch’s invention you are talking about,” his companion replied. “When have they ever failed us?”
“Because it is the Yiling Patriarch’s invention, we should never have started using it in the first place.”
And so on and on they argued. Wei Wuxian watched them from atop the donkey’s back, curious and flatly amused at once. That was thrice now that he heard of himself spoken about in such a way. Maybe he had been foolish in thinking that the world would soon forget about his existence.
The group dragged along the dirt path noisily. Wei Wuxian followed them from a distance. A minute later one of them cried out, and a bright flash of yellow light shrouded them all, forcing Wei Wuxian to put a hand over his eyes.
When he took it off, the cultivators were hanging from a tree branch, trapped inside a golden net.
“Help!” the youngest, a woman, cried out. She and her companions struggled, only managing to ensconce themselves further into net’s powerful grip. She saw Wei Wuxian in the distance. “Help!” she called to him.
“This is a deity-binding net,” he replied loudly to her. And indeed it was: the rich glow of the strings spoke of minutious knotting, helped by wielding spiritual energy directly through the strands. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any magical tools on me. You’re on your own.” He kicked the side of the donkey to hurry it along. “The mountain is crawling with cultivators, I’m sure someone will find you soon,” he added.
“You can’t leave us behind! Young master, come back—”
The sound of hurried footsteps reached him then. The donkey’s ear lifted to greet it, and Wei Wuxian dismounted quickly, hiding beneath the largest tree he could find.
He saw a young boy emerge from the bushes. He wore the golden-and-white peony of Lanlingjin, and on his pale forehead, the red dot reserved for members of the clan.
“Hah?” he let out in a still-youthful voice. “You’re not spirits!”
“Of course we’re not,” the old cultivator in the net replied cuttingly. “Let us down now, boy.”
But the boy in question looked highly disappointed. Wei Wuxian saw his hand relax its grip on the handle of the golden sword at his hip; he turned away from the trapped group and replied, “No way. I don’t have time to lose with small fry like you. Just stay put until the hunt’s over.”
The boy left without even answering.
It was easy enough to follow him. The Jin clan had always enjoyed its vibrant, rich clothing, so easy to discern among the more practical clothes worn by any other sect. Only Gusulan had ever come close in terms of flashiness—and their clothes remained practical despite their mournful coloring, meant for moving in as much as meditation or philosophy. Lanlingjin only ever cared about wealth.
It didn’t surprise Wei Wuxian that this boy was the one to have set up such a pricey trap. No Jin clan cultivator enjoyed fair competition.
He watched the boy check up on a few more of those nets, which he had apparently set all over the mountain before the hunt even began. It made him laugh mockingly in the shadows of the trees; such a show of extravagance suited the clan much too well. Some things, it seemed, had not changed.
He quietly bit into one of the apples he had bought in town, pushing away the curious donkey’s head when it tried to steal some for itself. The Jin boy was hard at work securing his nets, grunting with the effort of climbing trees or cutting up bothersome bushes. The bow strung around his back was painted with gold leaf. The sword, when he took it out, looked almost too long for him. It glowed familiarly.
Wei Wuxian’s foot broke a twig in the silence—the boy jumped on his heels and shot an arrow his way, shouting, “Who’s there?”
He avoided the blow easily enough; the boy had aimed in his general direction rather than directly at him, and the arrow pierced into the bark of an old pine tree harmlessly. However, Wei Wuxian stumbled out of his hiding spot, coughing around his mouthful of apple.
“Is that how you greet everyone you meet?” he asked a little breezily.
He expected the boy to reply in anger. Instead, his young face darkened with disgust as he said, “Oh, it’s you.”
Wei Wuxian observed him curiously. “Have we met?”
“What do you mean, have we met?” the boy snarled. “I wish I never had to meet you again. What are you even doing here? Do you think winning the hunt will place you back in the clan’s favor? You’re even more shameless than I thought, Mo Xuanyu.”
This was too much animosity for them to be simple acquaintances.
Madam Mo had mentioned Lanling before she died. Wei Wuxian remember it in sudden clarity; she had said that Mo Xuanyu had come back from Lanling, had implied that he had done so in shame, even. And Mo Xuanyu’s body knew inedia. It knew enough to procure the summoning ritual Wei Wuxian himself had created in Yiling and execute it flawlessly—a ritual which Lanlingjin could reasonably have taken as war gains once Wei Wuxian died in the Burial Mounds, considering the sect’s standing after Qishanwen had fallen.
A no-name omega boy from a village far from any of the bigger clans, accepted as a disciple of Lanling. It could only make sense under one light. Hadn’t Jin Guangshan made a point in the last months of Wei Wuxian’s life to gather as many of his bastard children as he could?
Wei Wuxian felt nauseous again for entirely different reasons.
The boy in front of him looked even more impatient than before. “What’s with you?” he spat. “Don’t think Little Uncle will ever look at you again, even if you do win tonight.”
Little Uncle? Wei Wuxian wondered. “I’m simply taking a stroll,” he replied. “I don’t care about any uncle of yours.”
For some reason, the boy’s face grew crimson with outrage. “How dare you!” he shouted. “After everything you did to him, you filthy omega—”
“Watch your tongue,” Wei Wuxian cut off in a snap of irritation. “I’ve had enough of you, I believe. Have fun cheating your way into this hunt.”
He had barely turned his back when he heard the all-too familiar sound of metal slicing the air.
Wei Wuxian sidestepped the boy’s sword easily enough. The boy was still red in the face and sputtering with outrage; he swung again and again, lacking elegance and technique in his anger. Wei Wuxian danced around the tip of the blade with something like satisfaction, until the boy stumbled forward and he could kick him in the backside.
He hit the ground with a sharp cry. Wei Wuxian snapped a leaf out of the nearest tree and suffused it with energy, calling upon the remnants of dead bodies that the forest surely hid. They answered his appeal within seconds, and soon enough the leaf which he had thrown in the boy’s direction became haunted with the weight of several spirits. The boy choked for a moment, now unable to rise.
“What are you doing, Mo Xuanyu?” he asked, watching Wei Wuxian with wide eyes. “This, this sort of technique—”
“You attacked me,” Wei Wuxian replied lazily. “I should be allowed to defend myself, don’t you think? I was unarmed.”
He approached the boy, who now lay belly-first against the dirt. With a kick, he brought up the sword that had been dropped during the very short exchange.
“Don’t touch that!”
Wei Wuxian ignored the pleading voice. It was a nice sword in more ways than one—not simply richly decorated and taken care of, but well-balanced, finely forged. He felt a thrum of spiritual energy on it which spoke more of its smith’s qualities than of the boy at his feet’s.
“Very nice,” he muttered. He shook it till his hand rested fully around the handle, stabilizing his hold and letting him appreciate how light the weapon was, almost as light as Suibian once was. “I’ll be keeping this,” he told the boy.
“Don’t you dare,” the child replied, visibly panicked. “Don’t, don’t you dare, that’s my sword, give it back—”
“See you around, young master Jin,” Wei Wuxian declared as he turned his back.
Fear seemed to enhance the faint river-like scent on him. It surprised Wei Wuxian long enough to make him glance over his shoulder one last time; the boy—a beta, against what he had expected—now looked much, much younger. Tears even shone in his eyes. It was almost enough to tempt Wei Wuxian into giving back the weapon.
Well, it wasn’t as if he intended to keep it forever. Let the child stew a bit and learn a lesson in humility.
He left the small clearing in the direction of the first net. The donkey was where Wei Wuxian had left it, grazing dumbly, entirely unbothered by the noise and light around. Wei Wuxian grabbed its reins in one hand with a chuckle and led it back to where he had first dismounted.
The group was still hanging from the golden net. At the sight of him their staring turned to glares, at least until Wei Wuxian sent the sword flying and cut them free.
They fell to the ground all over each other, yelping in surprise.
He caught the sword as it flew back to him. He hadn’t put any specific energy into it, but somehow, the weapon had obeyed him. Wei Wuxian ignored the grumbling thanks that the three cultivators addressed him in favor of frowning at the handle and blade. The more he looked and the more familiar it seemed, though he could not place where he could have possibly seen it before. He lifted it so that the ghost lights could shine better upon it, trying to jog his own memories.
“There’s more nets,” he told the three cultivators. “Be careful where you step.”
The oldest man huffed. His alpha-scent tickled Wei Wuxian’s nose disagreeably. “We didn’t need your help,” he said. “You better get lost before that monster shows up.”
“Father,” the woman scolded.
The man walked away with a purpose. The younger man by his side—a brother perhaps, for their faces looked faintly similar—ran after him quickly. Only the woman stayed a moment longer to bow at the shoulder in thanks, shooting Wei Wuxian a quick smile.
Now that this was done, Wei Wuxian should go back to the boy’s side. The spirits trapped in the leaf should only hold him down for another few minutes.
He found him as he had left him: flat down on the dirt and swearing under his breath. This lack of manners was familiar as well, Wei Wuxian thought as he crouched next to him, though the only person he could think of with such foul temper was not, in fact, someone he wanted to think of.
Those memories of Yunmeng were better left buried.
“Did you have time to meditate on your flaws?” he asked the boy, planting the sword’s blade into the ground and leaning his weight on its handle.
As expected, the sight of such mishandling made the boy’s eyes widen with rage. “Let me go,” he snapped.
“No can do, young master. I’d like an apology.”
“You?” The boy laughed in a shaky and joyless way. “I’d never apologize to you.”
Too bad, Wei Wuxian thought.
He hadn’t expected mores to have shifted quite so thoroughly anyway. If even freed omega had to mask themselves to be considered worth talking to, then the world was not so different after all.
He snapped his fingers, dissipating the hold that the spirits had on the boy’s body. He immediately jumped to his feet, trying to grab for the sword in Wei Wuxian’s hand with no success. “Give it back!” he shouted.
“It’s just a sword,” Wei Wuxian replied, smiling. “I’m sure the Jin sect smiths can forge you many more. Just give it to me if you don’t want to apologize.”
“It’s not just a sword! That’s my father’s—”
A frisson of cold, wily energy ran over Wei Wuxian’s skin.
He tuned out the boy’s angry words. Wind slithered through the forest canopy and made leaves rustle softly, not fully hiding the faraway sounds of cultivators roaming the woods in search of the soul-stealing monster. Wei Wuxian tried to listen more closely to those steps, hurried or slow, coming from all around them.
He couldn’t hear any animals, he realized. No birds, no insects, no rodents running between low bushes with their catches of the evening.
“Be quiet,” he told the boy.
He thought for a second that he would not obey; but the boy took a look at his face and seemed to realize something was wrong, for he fell silent, looking around and putting a hand over the arc of his bow.
It was then that they heard it: a deep, low moan echoing through the mountain, as if rocks had cracked open and let out the very breath of the world.
The boy by his side had gone very still. He wasn’t as tall as the two Lan disciples Wei Wuxian had met the week previous, but he looked even smaller now, painfully child-like. “What was that?” he whispered.
“Probably the target of tonight’s hunt,” Wei Wuxian replied.
He thought for a long second.
His hold shifted on the handle of the sword. He let the blade drag backwards to make it easier to move without a sheath of any kind and said, “Come on, then. Let’s see what all the fuss is about.”
To his credit, the boy followed with a determined look in his eyes.
Wei Wuxian could blame his curiosity for many things. This was one of them. Since hearing of the soulless victims who had come down from the mountain out of the omega girl’s mouth, he had harbored doubts about the nature of the creature they were all dealing with. Spirits did not deal in souls like this, and neither did any monster he knew of. Fierce corpses, obviously, only dealt physical damage as well.
The fact that his own evil-targeting compasses seemed to be lost in proximity with this target was a big clue. The ghost he had seen on his way was another. No, this was not any spirit or monster—this was something different. Something rarer.
“How do you know where to go?” the boy whispered at one point of their trek through the woods.
His earlier worry had dissipated the longer they walked. Now he glanced periodically at the sword still held in Wei Wuxian’s hand, no doubt looking for an opportunity to steal it back. Wei Wuxian shook his head in answer, smiling to himself at the thought of the boy trying to jump him, but still focused on the threads of cold energy he felt over his skin. They were thin but immutable; like physical tendrils extending from one place to the next, only swayed slightly by wind.
With his free hand, he touched one of them. The tip of his finger turned as cold as ice. He trailed it along the length of the string-like energy, almost feeling it in more than spirit. He thought he could have grabbed it with his whole hand and tugged at it, if he tried.
The trail led them to the wide opening of a cave. At the sight of it, the boy’s shoulders relaxed. “I’ve already looked here,” he told Wei Wuxian angrily. “There nothing in it, just a stupid goddess statue.”
“What goddess?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“How should I know? Apparently the statue naturally looked human, so they started worshipping it ages ago. Making wishes at it and such.”
“Mmh,” Wei Wuxian said.
The cave positively reeked with unsettled energy. It was a wonder anyone could walk past it and not feel their bones turn to ice.
He felt very little like actually walking inside. “Did you come here alone?” he asked the boy, leaning back against the side of the cave and once more planting the sword into the ground. “Or do you have someone you can call?”
“I don’t need anyone’s help,” the boy replied, flustered.
“You do with this,” Wei Wuxian replied. “Can’t you feel it?”
Not much exposure to demonic cultivation, then. Which obviously made sense considering how loudly the Jin sect had disapproved of Wei Wuxian’s practices—of Wei Wuxian himself—but which was of no help when such a beacon of darkness loomed, invisible to all the cultivators currently looking for it. “Close your eyes,” Wei Wuxian said.
“What?” the boy exclaimed.
“Just do as I say. I’ll give you your sword back if you’re good.”
The boy flushed angrily. With another muttered insult, he obeyed, his eyelids twitching slightly and his hands tense by his side. “No what?” he barked.
“Calm down. Try to feel the wind on your skin, try to hear every noise around. Breathe deeply.”
To his surprise, the boy relaxed very quickly. Wei Wuxian felt his energy reach outward in search of sensation, of information to feed him; he watched him jump when a branch cracked in the wind, shiver when leaves fell into a gust of air.
He had talent. Innate, raw talent, obviously not trained the way it ought to be.
Was it because he was beta? Jin Guangshan had always so prioritized his bloodline despite his many affairs; even when he had searched for his children all over the country, Wei Wuxian remembered hearing of him dismissing most beta. If this boy was one of his sons, perhaps he had been sidelined in favor of whomever was the new heir. But then, it didn’t explain how such a boy could have the money to buy and waste so many deity-binding nets, or why he carried such beautifully-crafted weapons. Wei Wuxian stroked the handle of the sword once more. It truly felt almost as agreeable to him as Suibian did all those years ago.
He was deep in thought when the boy started to shiver. “Why is it so cold?” he asked, eyes still tightly shut.
“This is what you’re supposed to feel,” Wei Wuxian replied. “Keep looking. Focus on the cold.”
It wasn’t a minute before the boy’s eyes opened and he stepped back in fear.
Wei Wuxian pushed his body off of the rock. “Now,” he told the boy, “do you understand why it would be foolish to try and handle this on your own?”
“What is it?” the boy asked, chest heaving ever-so-slightly under its embroidered tunic. “What—what monster is this?”
“I don’t think it’s a monster at all,” Wei Wuxian replied. “I think this soul-stealing business is the work of the goddess you mentioned.”
“The statue? But—”
Wei Wuxian could imagine what arguments he was coming up with, now. It was a rare thing for worshipped icons to turn into actual spiritual beings, capable of granting wishes or causing harm. Yet it was the only explanation as to why the compasses would not work, and the only story that could fit the sight of that old ghost, wandering the forest in search of his stolen jewels.
“I never learned how to seal a god,” the boy said worriedly.
“No need to panic,” Wei Wuxian replied. “I don’t think it’s strong enough yet to leave the cave on its own. Most likely, the people who lost their souls came here to pray, and the goddess took their souls in exchange for granting their wishes. They all came down from the mountain like this—she didn’t come to them.”
The boy sighed in relief.
“But,” Wei Wuxian added, “I don’t think she’s far from being able to move. One more wish should do it.”
“We can’t let anyone get in here, then,” the boy said.
“Exactly. Now let me ask you again: did you come here with someone you can ask for help? A master from your sect, perhaps? Someone with the tools and experience needed for such an exorcism.”
The boy blushed a bright red. The line of his lips thinned.
Wei Wuxian idly tapped the blade of the sword against rock. The sound that his knocking produced echoed darkly inside the wide mouth of the cave.
“Stop that!” the boy said with another shiver. “Fine, all right, I came with my Uncle. Happy now?”
“Is he strong?” Wei Wuxian asked.
The boy looked at him as if he had grown a second head. “Of course he’s strong,” he replied. “Mo Xuanyu, you’re so different. It’s like you’ve lost your reason. Did you hit your head and lose all your memories?”
“Something like that,” Wei Wuxian muttered.
The boy huffed, irritated yet still, somehow, arrogant. “I’ll go get him, then,” he said. “You stay here and don’t take my sword anywhere!”
Then he vanished into the dark of the forest.
Wei Wuxian walked slowly to the middle of the cave’s entrance. The ground in it sloped gently into the darkness, and that darkness was not total: into the depth of the grotto, he could glimpse flecks of soft orange light. Candles must still be lit from the last time someone had come to pray.
“Right, then,” Wei Wuxian said.
He held the weirdly-obedient sword forward and stepped into the cave.
He didn’t have to walk long. Barely two minutes later did he emerge into a wide cavity dug deep into rock, where candles burned out softly and the smell of incense itched in his throat. Light flickered off the smooth walls and around the tall statue at the center of the room.
It did look oddly like a human being. Set on a rough stone pedestal, it extended its many limbs in some semblance of elegance. Naturally-carved pieces such a this could never achieve true likeness, but this one came closer than most: the proportions of head, shoulders and limbs were pleasing to the eye. With candlelight drawing shadows out of every ridge, the statue almost seemed to have a face.
Wei Wuxian could hear it breathe. In and out and again, deep and slow like the lungs of a giant beast. He walked around it twice, looking for hints of human tampering and finding none at all. If he had, it would have been the product of demonic cultivation. Easy enough for him to decipher and put a stop to as long as he could find a powerful enough tool.
But there was no sign at all of foul play. The statue had simply gained sentience over centuries of worshipping, and the landslide and releasing of ghosts days prior had probably allowed for that accumulated energy to finally come alive.
Wei Wuxian walked out of the cave with much on his mind. On his way he crossed paths with a couple more cultivators; he addressed them a sheepish smile and said, “Nothing there, I’m afraid,” trying to look as helpless as possible.
Mo Xuanyu’s fine-featured face could occasionally come in handy. The two women thanked him for the tip and walked out alongside him. Once they all reached the opening, they went their separate way, and Wei Wuxian sat once again by the side, trailing fingers over the length of the sword.
He could definitely understand why the child was so attached to it. He would personally prefer it look less garishly expensive, but it was agreeable to the hand. It pulled at Mo Xuanyu’s core almost gently.
It took at least another hour for the boy to return. In that time Wei Wuxian fended off some more curious cultivators and ate two of the apples he had bought, spitting their seeds out for birds to feed on the next day. The donkey had followed him for some reason, and now stood some steps away, munching on the cores he had thrown.
The boy emerged out of a different set of bushes than the one he had traversed. His eyes lit up at the sight of Wei Wuxian, and he said, “There you are.”
“Did you think I’d leave?” Wei Wuxian asked, twirling the sword in his hand.
“Stop playing with it!” the boy snapped. He glared at Wei Wuxian for another second before calling over his shoulder: “Uncle, over here. That’s the cave I told you about.”
Wei Wuxian pushed himself upright, dusting his stolen clothes as he did, glad for the excuse not to be so still anymore. He threw another look in direction of the cave while the boy’s uncle’s footsteps approached. He could still see the orange glow at the far end of the tunnel, which was good; it would help them when they went back with the intent to seal this time—
He smelled earth and rain, powerful enough to make him waver on his feet, sharp and electric. Like a landslide, a lightning strike. Like the aftermath of a storm.
“Well,” the newcomer said. The anger in it was so achingly familiar that Wei Wuxian felt it like a spike between his ribs; like an arrow in-between the shoulder blades. “Before we start, I’m going to have to ask you to hand back that sword.”
Wei Wuxian turned his head.
Jiang Cheng was so much taller now than he used to be. It could simply be that Mo Xuanyu stood much shorter than Wei Wuxian ever had, he thought in horrified humor, but there was no mistaking the way the years had eroded his once-shidi’s face. Gone was the softness which he had so abhorred during their teenage years; gone were the slouched back or anxious bursts of movement which Jiang Cheng had insisted Yu Ziyuan teach him how to master.
He stood in the same regalia that Wei Wuxian had last seen him wear. He stood in his clan colors, the twin braids over his ears knotted tightly at the back of his head, Sandu hanging from his waist.
He was the splitting image of his father.
Wei Wuxian forgot to breathe. He forgot all about the vile energy that had frozen his veins with the goddess’s proximity. He clutched the sword in his hand and met Jiang Cheng’s disconcerned eyes and thought, Don’t look at me.
Don’t look at me, he thought, over and over despite the hollowness of his heart and Jiang Cheng’s angry words, angry movements, angry concern. Days and weeks of arguing until swords had to be drawn, until Wei Wuxian finally earned the right not to answer Jiang Cheng’s questions, until Jiang Cheng looked in horror at him with Wei Wuxian’s blood on his face. Don’t look at me.
But Jiang Cheng was not angry or concerned now. He stepped closer to Wei Wuxian, who made no move of his own. “Did you hear me?” he asked.
“Uncle,” the boy said.
“Not now, Jin Ling. We’ll talk when you learn not to let amateurs get the drop on you like this.”
“Jin Ling,” Wei Wuxian said blankly.
The boy turned his way with a frown and replied, “What?”
But it wasn’t him Wei Wuxian was seeing anymore.
He was seeing the pass near Lanling where he had once walked with Wen Ning by his side. He was smelling scorched ground and blood, he was hearing the cries of cultivators falling to the monster he had created and failed for once to control.
He was seeing Jin Zixuan in front of him with dirt and blood on his face; his extended hand and lax fingers, the desperate sincerity in his voice as he begged, “Please, let me help you.”
The golden sword in his grip as he bowed for one last time with a hand over his heart.
Wei Wuxian’s fingers opened as if burned. The sword clattered to the ground in a fracas of sound, echoing in the cave behind him and making the boy—Jin Ling—jump in surprise, his familiar features frowning in a way Wei Wuxian had seen, a very long time ago, on the face of a young boy his age, in a rocky maze in Qishan.