“What you’re asking for… I don’t think I can allow it.”
For many years, Jin Ling lived a life sewn with lies and omissions and betrayals, and he, quite honestly, had enough of it. He was an adult, already seventeen years of age, the most probable candidate to lead his Sect. It was about time he learned to search for the truth himself, right?
And that was how he came to this idea: performing Empathy on the Ghost General.
Now, he did his research, had taken chances to ask Wei Wuxian all he needed to know – and so much so that it wouldn’t surprise him if the man suspected him of something. He also tried it with the few lingering spirits he encountered on his night hunts. The risk still existed, of course, especially with a Fierce Corpse of the Ghost General’s caliber, but he was confident in his abilities.
The problem, though, lay in his performance’s subject, the infamous Ghost General himself.
“Young Master Wei would definitely object to it.”
“Which is why we won’t tell him,” Jin Ling tried to counter. It had been difficult enough to approach him with the idea as it was, considering the bitter history between them.
His words seemed like they did nothing to convince the other, so he asked, frustration lacing every word, “Are you really going to refuse me?” You owe this to me at the very least, was the underlying meaning he didn’t need to say aloud.
Guilt flashed in the Ghost General’s eyes, the same one that accompanied the looks he sent his way. It brought out his own sense of guilt to life. After all, Jin Ling didn’t like the idea of manipulating others’ sentiments to reach his goals. It reminded him too much of his late un—Jin Guangyao.
It was something said in the chaotic fall of that man, a scheme that involved his father, and no matter what he’d see, he wanted to know how it went.
He’d apologize later. He wasn’t too proud to do so these days.
“If it gets too much…” the Ghost General trailed off, reassignment evident in his features.
“I’ll pull back,” he assured. “Don’t sweat it, I know what I’m doing.”
The Ghost General didn’t seem like he believed him, probably because he sounded too much like Wei Wuxian at the moment.
Empathy, Jin Ling found, was nauseating. Despite his previous experiments, he still found it disorienting to be plunged into a world of memories.
“It’s so pretty!” Jin Ling heard himself say.
No, not himself, but the Ghost General, whose sights were directed at the contents of the sandalwood box he had in his grasp, a tassel pendent that hung a piece of white jade.
“The pretty little thing wasn’t cheap at all,” another voice spoke, and despite the unfamiliarity of the voice itself, something about the tone and manner of speech was hauntingly familiar. The owner of the voice, a tall man wearing black, continued, “Your sister’s money wasn’t enough for buying this after a new outfit. I don’t have a single coin left. I’ll just wait for the scolding when we get back.”
The Ghost General was quick to assure, “No, no. Young Master is buying a present for Maiden Jiang’s child. Sister won’t scold you.”
Hearing the name, Jin Ling’s attention was immediately grasped. He had a feeling now. This man accompanying the Ghost General…
It was strange, seeing the man wearing a different face after two years of knowing him wearing that of his uncle’s. He used to be taller, his features sharper. He also appeared not at the best state of health. His exhaustion, the concerning paleness of his skin. It was obvious he wasn’t living the comfortable life he had in the current times.
This was the original Wei Wuxian. This was the man known as the Yiling Patriarch.
So why did he feel nothing but a concerned shock upon seeing him?
Wei Wuxian theatrically narrowed his eyes, then, and perhaps that was why. “Mark your words. When she scolds me, remember to help me out a bit.”
Jin Ling was curious to know who this lady was, to gain Wei Wuxian’s apprehension of her wrath like that.
“Young Master Jin Ling would definitely like this gift a lot,” the Ghost General said, and it was stranger to hear those words coming from him, about him.
“It’s not like this is the present I’m giving him. It’s only a small accessory. Those things in the Treasure Pavilion—what do they have except for looks?”
A small accessory? But didn’t it cost him all his money?
Surprised, the Ghost General echoed his question, “Then Young Master, what gift did you prepare?”
“The will of the Heavens shall not be grasped by mortals,” was Wei Wuxian’s ridiculous reply. If he needed proof to confirm the man’s identity, this was it.
The Ghost General let out a simple, “Oh.”
After a few moments of silence, Wei Wuxian asked in mild irritation, “Wen Ning, shouldn’t you keep on asking with utmost curiosity and persistence? How could you really stop asking after just an ‘Oh’? Don’t you want to know what the present is?”
The Ghost General stared at him for a while, and for the moment, Jin Ling related to him. Finally, he replied, and Jin Ling had the feeling he was humoring the other’s absurd need for attention, “I do! Young Master, what gift did you prepare?”
Taking a small wooden box from inside his sleeve, Wei Wuxian shook it in front of the Ghost General, smiling with utter glee. The Ghost General exclaimed upon taking the box and opening it, “What an impressive bell!”
Jin Ling had to agree. The craftsmanship bestowed on the bell’s pure silver, the power it held, one he could sense even through memories… it was more than impressive.
The Ghost General asked, “Young Master, is this what you’ve been making for the past month or so, when you were shutting yourself in the Cave on days upon end?”
Jin Ling snapped his sights back on Wei Wuxian at that, overwhelmed with surprise. An entire month? Just for him?
Incredibly pleased with himself, Wei Wuxian replied, “That’s right. As long as that nephew of mine carries this bell around, not a single creature whose level is just a bit too low can even think about getting close to him. You can’t touch it. It’ll probably leave you affected for some time as well if you do.”
It had been shocking, just like all this had been, to hear Wei Wuxian refer to him as a nephew. At the current time, he only referred to him by name alone. It was never with the closeness he referred to Lan Sizhui, or even Lan Jingyi. With him there was always this sense of caution he felt from the other.
But in this memory, it was everything opposite.
What changed? He’d ask, but he had a guess already.
The Ghost General nodded, “I can feel it.”
Wei Wuxian took the moment to add the tassel pendant to the silver bell, and together they made an incredibly pleasing sight. It was a thoughtful gift, with both effort and care spent on its every detail. Jin Ling almost reached out a hand to take it.
With slight apprehension, the Ghost General reminded, “Since you’ll be attending Young Master Jin Ling’s full month celebration, Young Master, you have to hold it back when you see Maiden Jiang’s husband. Don’t clash with him…”
Wei Wuxian waved his hand dismissively, “You can relax about this. I know what to do and not do. For the sake of Jin Zixuan having invited me, I won’t badmouth him for the entire year.”
That’s not even a good promise! Jin Ling protested, offended on the behalf of his father.
In embarrassment, the Ghost General scratched his head, “Last time, when Young Master Jin told people to present you with the invitation at the bottom of Burial Mound, I thought that it had to be a trap. And then it happened to be a misunderstanding. It really was unfair to him. I couldn’t tell before, but in reality, Young Master Jin is a nice person as well…”
And though his words were complimenting his father, Jin Ling couldn’t help but feel dread accumulating in his heart with every step they took in this deserted path.
Senses alert, Jin Ling realized that there was something wrong.
And Wei Wuxian, it seemed, realized it as well, “It really is a bit too quiet.” A moment of surveying his surroundings, and he whispered, alarm clear in his voice, “Let’s go!”
Just as he turned around, however, the Ghost General raised his hand to catch something: a fletched arrow that came right for the middle of Wei Wuxian’s chest.
Whoever arranged this, they aimed to kill, and Jin Ling was disgusted… because whoever arranged this, they used his full month celebration as a lure.
His disgust soared upon seeing his Sect’s colors, and the hundreds that surrounded Wei Wuxian. It was a full-planned trap…
Jin Ling watched as all the previous joy and satisfaction vanished from Wei Wuxian’s features, replaced by a defeated bitterness that haunted him. He watched as chaos broke out, and two resisted against hundreds. He watched as his gift slipped from Wei Wuxian’s hold, and that fucker who introduced himself as Jin Zixun along with many different accusations snatched it, taunted, “A present for A-Ling? You didn’t really think that you could attend A-Ling’s full-month celebration, did you?”
Jin Ling watched as the sentence made Wei Wuxian’s hands tremble slightly, and he rose to scream, “Shut the fuck up!” despite no one hearing him, despite this all being an old memory.
But then someone shouted, “Stop!” and was heard.
Wearing white, a man leapt down the valley to stand between Wei Wuxian and Jin Zixun, who exclaimed in shock, “Zixuan? Why are you here?!”
Zixuan? Jin Zixuan?
Seeing him for the first time outside of portraits and fragmented recollections of relatives, Jin Ling finally believed the common word of how much his features resembled those of his father’s, even down to that twist of rage.
“Why do you think I’m here?!”
“Where’s A-Yao?” Jin Zixun only asked.
“I stopped him at Koi Tower. If not for how I exposed him after I saw that he looked strange, you two are just going to continue with this? Why didn’t you tell me at all that you were cursed with Hundred Holes and instead came to do this without saying anything?!” Jin Ling found that he couldn’t keep observing the memory unfold, had felt himself trying to move toward his father, beg him to leave and run with the dawning horror that this wasn’t a trap meant for just Wei Wuxian.
But of course, no one listened. Couldn’t.
As the situation spiraled further down, Jin Ling saw his gift shatter, and along with it shattered the last of Wei Wuxian’s restraint.
It was the first time he saw the man like this – annoyed, somber, shameless, and downright bizarre, Jin Ling was all familiar with it and more. But never once did he see him like this, more like a raging storm than a man, and it was terrifying.
(… and it was because of his gift… or maybe, the denial of a simple thing like visiting his Shijie’s son…)
His father spoke, trying his hardest to be the voice of reason, “Tell Wen Ning to stop first. Don’t let him continue his rampage and make the situation worse than it already is.”
Wei Wuxian asked in return, voice coarse, “Why don’t you make them stop first?”
Relentless shouts and roars came from all around them. His father let out his frustration as he spoke, “Why are you still so stubborn at such a time? When everyone calms down, you can follow me back to Koi Tower to explain things and answer some questions. With everything clear, if you aren’t the one who did it, of course you’ll be fine!”
Wei Wuxian didn’t relent. “Tell him to stop? As soon as I tell Wen Ning to stop right now, the arrows would fly straight at my heart and I wouldn’t even die a whole corpse! And you think I could explain things at Koi Tower?”
“They would not!” his father argued.
Wei Wuxian laughed, and it held none of the humor Jin Ling had been used to hear ever since they met. It was hallow, despaired, “They would not? How can you ensure it? Jin Zixuan, I have a question: when you invited me at first, did you really not know about their plan to kill me?!”
No! Jin Ling rushed to answer. Of course his father wouldn’t!
He wouldn’t… he heard many tales of his father’s honorable nature. He wouldn’t be the sort of man to stab in the back.
(“And why are you so sure?” the question formed in his thoughts before he could suppress it, followed by another, “Why, when you trusted Jin Guangyao before?”)
His father looked aghast at the mere thought, and it relieved Jin Ling more than what he liked to admit, “Are… are you mad?!”
Voice so cold it caused Jin Ling to shiver in dread, Wei Wuxian warned, “Jin Zixuan, move away right now. I won’t touch you, but you’re not going to provoke me either.”
Father, please, run… just run! Jin Ling begged again, his heart beating a storm, but instead of backing away, his father lunged forward, trying to reach Wei Wuxian, hold him down. “Why can’t you just back off for once?! A-Li is still…“
There was noise, heavy, strange, and too damn near!
His father’s pause of surprise, the Ghost General’s expressionless, bloodied face, Wei Wuxian’s blank stare that was soon replaced by horrified denial.
His father managed to hold on to finish saying with his dying breath, “… is still waiting for you to go to Koi Tower and attend A-Ling’s full-month celebration…”
When Jin Ling opened his eyes, his sights met a starry night sky. He felt the physical presence of his body, the close warmth of campfire, and the soft soil under the mat he was lying on.
He was out of Empathy’s hold.
Still dazed, it took Jin Ling too long to realize that he wasn’t alone. A close distance away, he heard the Ghost General conversing with Wei Wuxian – with Mo Xuanyu’s voice, a further confirmation that he was in his own time.
“I’m sorry for not being able to pull him out of it sooner…”
“No, no… I should’ve caught him on it earlier.”
Jin Ling stayed silent, listening to them some more. So the Ghost General was the one who forced him out of the spell.
Somehow, Wei Wuxian sensed his wakefulness, turning to ask, “For how long are you going to pretend to be asleep?”
Jin Ling sat up, finding it pointless to keep on the act, and saw the Ghost General quickly excusing himself, not once making the mistake of looking at him in the eye, leaving him and Wei Wuxian alone.
“Mind telling me what got you to pull off this stupid stunt?” the other asked harshly, scolding but undeniably worried. “You could’ve lost your soul…!”
“And you care?” Jin Ling countered, and then continued without waiting for an answer – simply because he didn’t care to hear it, or maybe… a fear for what it would be. He didn’t want it, he didn’t want guilt alone to be a reason for this worry. “I wanted to see the truth for myself.”
“You could’ve asked.”
“Would you answer?” His uncle told him on one occasion that despite his tendency for chatter, getting a secret from Wei Wuxian was pointless. Might as well dig through a tomb than try with him.
“I’d rather answer whatever you wanted to know than risk losing you…” was Wei Wuxian’s immediate answer, and it caused him conflict. Ever since he met Wei Wuxian, every ‘truth’ Jin Ling lived in twisted beyond recognition, especially those concerning the man himself.
But before he could even utter a single question, Wei Wuxian snapped up in alarm, rushing to shield him, features twisting in pain, ordering him through gritted teeth, “Get away and stay on guard, there might be more of them!”
Jin Ling was too focused on the fact that an arrow pierced through Wei Wuxian’s chest, an arrow meant for him, to really listen, “You’re… you’re injured!”
“Not the time to worry about me, you need to get out of here now!” the other dismissed, arranging a number of talismans for temporary protection as if his movements weren’t shaky with agony, as if he wasn’t bleeding to death.
Jin Ling wasn’t one to run away from a fight or an assassination attempt, but he had to get this idiot to safety at once.
It was his fault.
The older he got, the closer he got to take reign of his Sect, the more the attempts on his life increased. Between Jin Guangshan and Jin Guangyao, there were far too many sins to forgive, and of course, with the delay of choosing a new Sect Leader, new voices spoke out in greed for the position and LanLingJin’s wealth and power. Staying at Koi Tower at the current time was an absolute nightmare.
But he had to stay, his uncle would be too suspicious if he took unofficial residence at Lotus Pier – knowing him, his uncle would definitely welcome it, but Jin Ling didn’t want to burden him with his Sect’s troubles when Jin Guangyao already did enough damage. He didn’t want him to be caught in the crossfire. He didn’t want anyone to. So he kept his distance, had made one excuse after another about his growing responsibilities.
Too caught in the throes of finally obtaining some answers, however, he forgot that he was a target and made arrangements to go on a night hunt along with the Lan juniors, just like the old times, pulling the Ghost General to the side and proceeding with his plan, and therefore, pulling the Ghost General away from his usual position, from noticing any suspicious individuals approaching their range.
His stunt had caused too much of a distraction to notice his attackers, had caused Wei Wuxian to take his place.
Back in the Cloud Recesses, Jin Ling refused to leave Wei Wuxian’s bedside until the man woke up. He refused to listen to the Healer’s many assurances that he was alright, that despite the injury being too close for comfort to his heart, he survived. He refused to sleep, too choked up by guilt and anger to even think of a moment to rest.
“Who told you to protect me?” he’d furiously ask the slumbering man, oblivious to his turmoil.
Footsteps stopped near him, and he looked up to see Hanguang-Jun standing by his side. He didn’t look away from Wei Wuxian as he spoke, “The assassin has been dealt with.”
Jin Ling had the feeling that he was the one who dealt with the matter himself. “Good,” he managed to say.
“I’ve informed Jiang Wanyin of the incident. He’ll be arriving soon.” Oh, Jin Ling could already imagine the lectures awaiting him. Seeing his grimace, Hanguang-Jun said in that flat way of his that betrayed nothing of what he thought, “Assassination attempts shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
“I could’ve handled it,” he tried.
“Not alone,” the other countered in a tone that left no room for further discussion.
So… Jin Ling let it go, returning his sights to Wei Wuxian, thinking of how wrong it was to have him be so quiet.
“Rest,” Hanguang-Jun ordered.
“After he wakes up to explain himself…” Jin Ling replied. Hanguang-Jun must’ve been bothered by his rudeness now, would probably kick him out of the room at any moment.
But much to his surprise, the other didn’t say anything, had merely sat down by his side in silence.
“I’m sorry,” Jin Ling found himself saying, cutting the heavy silence between them. After all, this wasn’t the first time Wei Wuxian was rendered to his current state because of him.
The answer startled him. “You’ll forgive me? Just like that?” Shouldn’t he hold some resentment at the very least?
“Nothing to forgive. It wasn’t your fault.”
“But--!” Jin Ling rose to object, but found that he couldn’t form the proper words all of a sudden. So he asked instead, “Why did he do it? Is it guilt…?”
“As long as that nephew of mine carries this bell around, not a single creature whose level is just a bit too low can even think about getting close to him.”
Could that be it really? Not just guilt…?
Jin Ling didn’t know how much time had passed between them in silence before he broke it again, “My mother… was it really him who..?”
Hanguang-Jun’s answer was immediate and sincere, “No.”
“Then how? Who?”
“Another cultivator, he aimed to stab Wei Ying without him realizing. I was too far away to stop him, but your mother wasn’t.”
Jin Ling’s eyes widened, “You mean she…?” He couldn’t even finish the question, seeing the nod Hanguang-Jun gave in confirmation, but he had to make sure, he had to know. “You aren’t lying for his sake, are you?”
It was a ridiculous, offensive accusation for one such as Hanguang-Jun, but the man simply answered him, “No, I’m not. Her death… it broke him.”
Jin Ling didn’t need Empathy to know that the other recalled a terrible memory in his mind’s eye, and he realized with sudden clarity: what caused that bloodbath that accompanied the mention of the Yiling Patriarch.
(He remembered an occasion where he tried to apologize for the wound he inflicted in mindless vengeance, only to have Wei Wuxian stop him, merely saying, “I understand.”)
And then he realized again, this time with a sense of rising fury:
His mother’s sacrifice, it had been in vain. They gathered to kill him, kill the man his mother forgave, the man she put his life above hers.
(“Who told you to protect me?”)
Did Wei Wuxian ever ask his mother’s spirit that?
It had been late in the afternoon when Wei Wuxian finally woke up.
Jin Ling had many things to ask and demand of him, but with a voice hoarse from many hours of unconsciousness, Wei Wuxian asked, “Is Jin Ling alright?”
“I’m here and I’m fine!” he snapped, overwhelmed with relief and embarrassment, so much that he couldn’t find it in himself to stick around. Wei Wuxian was fine, his purpose here was done with.
But then, “Jin Rulan!” echoed loud and clear throughout the Cloud Recesses like a natural phenomenon.
“Shit,” Jin Ling muttered under his breath.
“I wouldn’t want to be in your place,” Wei Wuxian, the bastard, said, too amused for one that survived a near-death experience barely a day before.
“Do you really think he’d let you go after knowing what you did?” Jin Ling countered smugly. At least he wouldn’t go down alone.
“Oh…” Wei Wuxian let out, realizing the incoming calamity about to befall them. “Shit.”
Hanguang-Jun merely sighed, as if their crisis was a minor inconvenience. “I’ll deal with him.”
It took a few weeks to negotiate a plan against new assassination attempts. Needless to say, both his uncle and Wei Wuxian took upon themselves to lead the efforts, finally another common ground they comfortably settled on along a rare, precious others.
After saying his farewells, Jin Ling paused in front of Wei Wuxian, hesitant, and that made the man ask curiously, “What’s wrong?”
“That bell you made me, can you make me another one?”