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The Turtle Master

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There was a place of mourning in Lotus Pier. Far from the bustle of the cities of Yunmeng, far from the laughter of children and the voices of a hundred merchants, it rested quiet and eerie on a lake shore.

 

The water here was cool and the air lush with leaves and life. Soft sand cradled every step, and gentle sunlight kissed every patch of uncovered skin. It was a beautiful lake, but few people came here, most warded off by the bloody rumors of ghosts and monsters living in the gentle waters. Resentful energy boiled through the forest around it, guard and guardian to what rested here.

 

It was a quiet lake.

 

Jiang Yanli came every month, bearing sad smiles and gentle conversation. She talked to the water and told it of the gilded halls of Lanling, of how A-ling grew brighter and bolder with every day. She would sit on the soft sand and speak of life with tears in her eyes.

 

A-xian would have enjoyed hearing of this, she knew, and so this is what she spoke.

 

Jiang Cheng came once a year, every year. He brought a single lotus bloom for the unmarked grave of a child, hidden away in the shade of the lake shore. Then he stepped into soft sand and stared out at the massive lake and did not speak.

 

Wei Wuxian, damn his relentless soul, already knew everything Jiang Cheng could have said.

 

He stayed only until Lan Zhan arrived, waiting just long enough to see white robes and sad eyes before turning on his heel. He did not look back, even as the lonely notes of a zither strummed into the air, even as blue spirits collected like candlelight across the water.

 

Jiang Cheng did not look back, but he knew the man cried on that soft soil. Jiang Cheng had enough pain with a brother's grief carved in his skin; he didn't need to see the sadness of lost love too.

 

There was a place of mourning in Lotus Pier, and it was lonely with grief.

 

This was the middle of our tale. This was the breaking place. This was where three hearts bled for the greatest man they had ever known, from wounds that time cannot heal.

 

This was the breaking place, but this was not how it began.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

It had begun years ago, in a cave caught in the spiderwebs of past and future. It had begun with a gentle melody, played between two boys who had just grown into their swords and knew the touch of true battle for the first time.

 

It had not begun when they had tried to kill a god; it had begun when they succeeded, the bones of a wrathful turtle left to rot into dust and sludge on a calm lake.

 

It had begun with Lan Zhan and Wei Wuxian, as any great story did.

 

But this was not the beginning. No, Wei Wuxian walked lonely steps into a cave, and they echoed over rock and earth like desperation.

 

They were so much more than desperate.

 

Still air pressed across his face, chill with the hint of death and the scent of old blood. It was cold but he did not shiver against it, and it was foul but he only smiled. Wei Wuxian had smelled worse smells, and seen worse sights. A dead lake with only corpses held no fear from him.

 

The lake was dark as the cave around it, water shimmering against the resentful energy curling on his hand. The light was an eerie red, a match for the space itself. He had come here, once, and laughed and smiled and fought by Lan Zhan's side.

 

Now he came alone, with Jiang Cheng waiting above ground. He could still hear dull hints of music, trembling off harsh stone and over still water. That song had been beautiful, even if Lan Zhan had never given him its name. If the man would speak to him now, perhaps Wei Wuxian would ask.

 

Perhaps Wei Wuxian would smile, too, but it would be a sharp thing. There was too much loss in his heart and bone shards beneath his fingernails for Wei Wuxian to be anything less than sharp. But that melody didn't matter now, like so much else didn't matter. The cave air was chill, but he stripped down until he was bare and cold and angry.

 

Then he dived into a lake stained with corpse-blood like a silverfish moving through stems. His brother was waiting above, and Wei Wuxian was here for a weapon.

 

Red light guided him, through waters dark with the sludge of a god’s belly. It shone as the dying glimmers of sunset across another lake, where lotus blooms had floated peacefully on still water.

 

They did not float now, for fire had burned them all away.

 

It took him only a moment to find a sword made from dead dreams and ravenous energy. From the layer of silt and death it had fallen into, he pulled it free, watched it spiral out an anger like his own. It took him a moment longer to drag it to the surface, and with each heartbeat, he could feel it pulse in his hands.

 

This steel was alive with dead energy, and it sung to him so. Whispers of revenge lined his fingers, as whispers of death painted his skin.

 

Wei Wuxian had killed a thousand men for the death of his family. He would kill a thousand more to stop the Wen Clan.

 

The sword in his hands would help him. He took a breath into cold cave air and felt water lap at his ankles. It was gentle, but heavy with the sludge of old corpses.

 

He paid it no mind; the feeling was familiar, from long days in the Burial Mounds. What was a body but skin and bone and dead hopes? What was a body but a thing to be moved and used?

 

Wei Wuxian had grown tired of caring for bodies after he had broken so many bones beneath his heel.

 

The water clung to his ankles, as he stepped out of the lake of his youth. It clung and crept over his skin, dripping down callouses skin and across the scars won by long days barefoot.

 

Bodies felt so much, but Wei Wuxian only smiled with the rage of new vengeance.

 

Bodies felt so much, and the sword in his hands was so heavy. He lifted it into the air of a dead cave, watched it catch red light and consume it.

 

Its blade was long and blackened, what had once been divine steel tainted until it could devour the sun. The handle was made white and beautiful, flaked with bone shards and old regrets.

 

Wei Wuxian held the sword and felt it call to him, warm and pleasant in his hands. He had planned to melt it down and forge it into an amulet, but—

 

But it didn't like the thought, he could tell. It hummed in his hands like a living beast, resentful energy crawling across his nails and staining them black. It looked filthy and dark with the ink of rage.

 

Wei Wuxian smiled, a deeper rage swirling in his skin.

 

Suibian was of no use to him now; he may as well carry a new sword. He walked with a straight back and corpse water lingering on his skin, until sand greeted him and a brother stared him down.

 

Jiang Cheng looked regal as a Sect Leader should, with hunger crackling as lightning between them.

 

“Do you have it?” The man asked, with the curls of exhaustion painting a sharp face heavy.

 

Wei Wuxian stepped close enough to catch a strong body, if the man stumbled. He stepped close enough to see the sag of proud shoulders, but no closer.

 

He did not touch, because a Sect Leader stood alone.

 

“Did you doubt me, Jiang Cheng? I’m hurt, truly.”

 

Each word was crafted from a thousand teasing heartbeats between men raised as brothers, but each one echoed louder than the last. There was a sword heavy and hungry in his hand, and corpse water clinging across the bones of his ankles.

 

Wei Wuxian did not touch Jiang Cheng.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

The wood beneath his feet was steady before the quiet tide of water. It was steady before the steady beats of a grieving heart too, and it did not quake as he knelt and hoped for an angry forgiveness.

 

His robes were black and red, pressing down where only purples silk had a right to kneel. But Wei Wuxian had ever done the impossible, and for the chance at an apology, he would do the unthinkable here.

 

He knelt. Wood greeted him and held him, polished to perfection with old tears and fresh blood. In the morning sun, it gleamed like flames licked across its surface to consume it. Wei Wuxian wished it looked like starlight instead, wanted the hungry yellow-red light of dawn to fade to the bright cheer of noon. He had seen enough flames over Lotus Pier to never wish for them again.

 

Flames were not welcome here. Neither were the Wen, with their sun crest and foolish arrogance. He would crush them beneath his heel with a laugh, break their bones and let them rot into death as he almost had.

 

There was so much death at their hands, and it began here, in this gentle hall. Ancestors greeted him, here. So did the couple who had raised him, through thick and thin, through kind words and harsh hands.

 

Jiang Fengmian and Madam Yu had died the death of indignity, with bodies thrown to flame and spirits disrespected. Wen Chao had paid for that a thousand times over, in screams and pleading and blood.

 

It was a shame the man had died so quickly.

 

But it wasn’t enough. The rulers of Lotus Pier had taken Wei Wuxian in and given him a place to belong, picked him off the street and away from the barking sounds of hungry dogs. He owed them so much, for that. He owed Jiang Fengmian more for treating him like a son.

 

His robes brushed the wood, a sea of black cloth and the hints of grave dust clinging to his every motion. If he breathed, it would be a laughing smirk and a thousand knives carved from bone, but Wei Wuxian did not smirk.

 

He owed this place too much respect to hide.

 

"Madam Yu," he said, and felt his voice break. It shattered across polished wood and through the flaming sun, a sound cut from quiet cloth. She wouldn't want to hear from him, in a place meant for her children alone. She wouldn't want to hear his voice echoing across the family shrine like he belonged here.

 

Lightning would have raged like fire itself, if she had seen him kneeling.

 

But he needed to tell her that he'd kept the promise made on the desperate waters of a burning lake. There had been a breeze catching at his skin that night, and Zidian crackling across his wrists.

 

A promise forged between a dead woman and a boy she’d never considered a son. Now Wei Wuxian was a dead man walking, with no core turning in his chest but a knife-sharp smile on his lips. And though the war raged on and the Wen were strong, he would keep that promise.

 

No harm would come to Jiang Cheng at his hands, and no harm would reach him while Wei Wuxian drew breath. This he swore on the core he had given up, and the docks that were polished by Jiang blood. The fires chased across the floor and burned away the fog with his hope, turned the red light golden with the rise of the sun.

 

“I’m going to keep my promise,” Wei Wuxian said, as the world changed to the melody of his flute.

 

He did not speak longer, and did not kneel for more than a heartbeat. There was a hunger in his steps, but he moved light as a dancer through bustling piers.

 

War made Lotus Pier come alive, but Wei Wuxian wished for the time when laughter and flying kites filled the air before shouts and pounding feet.

 

He left to walk confident steps into the battles of the future, but he carried with him a promise from the past.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

Each night for the long months of preparation and skirmishes on the edges of invasion, Wei Wuxian dreamed. These were not the gentle dreams of laughter and peace, made from the swirl of peaceful water. These were not the fearful dreams of an orphan child either, filled with barking dogs and cold nights.

 

These were the dreams of revenge, and they tasted sweet.

 

The crackle of a whip and the screams of the dead whispered across his mind, until he rose and stared out at the rising sun with a trickster’s smile. The string of a kite caught his hands in dreams too, running over his fingers to cut raw skin into callouses. Those nights were better, and they did not stink of corpse dust and nightmares, of broken hopes and the clenched jaw of desperation.

 

Wei Wuxian did not dream of the Burial Mounds, but he remembered them. He walked their paths with every bright laugh, and heard the echo of corpse-bones cracking beneath his heels.

 

He stood by Jiang Cheng’s side, alive and breathing, but a piece of him still wandered between the crags paved with blood.

 

Wei Wuxian laughed, before those memories. But this was not all he dreamed of. With each night came the rustling of carved steel and hungry swords, the swirl of deep water and the memory of snapping jaws. Wei Wuxian lay awake until sunrise, thinking of the power of a blade.

 

Then he leapt up with a smile and a ready sword. Resentful energy swirled at his skin, oil staining water slick and black.

 

He did not wipe the stain away. Let it collect across his soul, let it mark him dark and tainted. Wei Wuxian would smile and laugh over the corpses of his enemies, feel their fingers break under his boots. The Wen would pay in blood and bones for the fire they had let loose on Lotus Pier.

 

The chiming of bloody bells still haunted Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian could see it in every step the man took, in the tiniest flinch before the echoing chime.

 

The Wen would pay, and Wei Wuxian would carve out the resentful energy in his bones to make it so.

 

But the dreams of steel did not stop.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

War raged on, without input or care for mortal lives. It raged through long days and desperate calls, through spilled blood and shattered lives.

 

War raged through the dreams too, until Wei Wuxian walked restless steps in the night to eyes he couldn’t remember, and a sword that stayed at his side.

 

Still, war raged on.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

Wind caught his skin and pulled his hair out behind him, a banner to a life short-lived and hard. It caught at his robes too, twisting through the long sleeves of a scholar and marking his death as a warrior.

 

Wei Wuxian only smirked before it, energy pounding over his skin and dancing into the air around him. It swirled up, tongues of flame licking ink stains across his robes.

 

The energy was hungry with resentment, and it flourished here.

 

There was a battlefield before him and a sword in his hand, but here he laughed loud and deadly.

 

The rage of a thousand corpses moved to his command; it was a good day to fight. It was a better day to dig into the graves of old dead and watch their skin flake with his laughing vengeance.

 

It was a good day.

 

But he stood vigil now, on the crest of a hill high above the middle of war. The wind caught him, pressed his robes back and his heart forward.

 

Wei Wuxian had no golden core to tremble before it now. There was no turning energy in his chest and no force to make a sword glow bright as the moon. All he could do was let darkness stain him black with power, and so he did.

 

He turned to Jiang Cheng with that knowledge, with the smile painting him deadly. He did not back down, not before the war raging on the horizon.

 

“Well, Jiang Cheng? Are we attacking or are we drinking?” The words were bright, teasing and dark with a playful hunger.

 

Wei Wuxian wanted revenge as much as the energy twirling around him wanted blood.

 

Rolled eyes and a hard glare were Jiang Cheng’s only response for a long moment. The battle before them caught and held angry eyes, and they focused in on each movement now. Swords clashed louder than the screams, as the battle raged on.

 

But Jiang Cheng had the mind for war, and with each breath the man grew better at the twists and turns of strategy.

 

Wei Wuxian watched the man he had teased and laughed beside grow hard and cruel, and he felt hard and cruel himself.

 

If only it hadn’t taken death and slaughter to discover this. if only they didn’t stand side by side and fury by fury with each waking breath.

 

If only the Wen had never stepped foot on Lotus Pier, the clan washed from existence like the stain they were.

 

Wei Wuxian hungered for revenge, and he had broken so few bones for that cause.

 

But he paused in that rage, for a heartbeat and a cold blink of the world.

 

That wasn’t right. For every Wen hand that was stained with Jiang blood, there was one that shone clean and innocent in the daylight.

 

For every Wen Chao, there was a Wen Ning. Wei Wuxian remembered a kind smile that had sheltered them, the prickling anger of Wen Qing but how soft her hands had been across fresh wounds.

 

He remembered kindness, and war tasted bitter.

 

But it still felt right, to be standing at Jiang Cheng’s side and sharing his brother’s anger. They were wolves defending a new home, with the blood of dead kin shed around them.

 

They were so hungry for revenge, and Wei Wuxian had never felt such a furious anger before. He had been light and happy, once, dancing over the roofs of Gusu like a spirit of the night. Wine had tasted sweet and lovely, and food was a pleasure on his tongue.

 

Now he did not eat but devour, and did not drink but drown.

 

Three months was a long time to live among the dead, and longer to feed his anger. The relentless growth of his spirit would not be broken, but he had been stained and painted a black darker than night in the Burial Mounds.

 

Then he had broken free and laughed out his revenge.

 

Jiang Cheng felt the same, he could tell. His brother’s eyes were just as hungry, a rage boiling in them to cover the hurt. The stood at the top of a hill that marked death and war, but they stood strong. Grief had forced them both down the same path, and they stood side by side as they slaughtered armies of Wen dogs.

 

But even as they cleared battlefields side by side, the war was lost on slow ground. Each battle ended with more dead and more ground watered the crimson of blood.

 

The crops that grew in these fields would be so rich, Wei Wuxian thought. Crops grown on corpse ground were always more plentiful. Bodies had thick blood and good iron, fed the roots of plants and made them flourish.

 

Wei Wuxian had eaten food from corpse-grounds before, and he had not wanted to again. But he would, if it was needed. He would do so much. Dignity did not matter, when he could laugh into the dark light of moon.

 

Corpse ash was a tame taste, before the revenge he craved.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

Two survivors stood together and spiraled into the long days of battle, feet sinking into the muck and mire of bloody ground.

 

They stood anyway, and fought on.

 

Armies dwindled, but Wei Wuxian propped them up with the corpses of Wen soldiers dancing to the tunes of his flute. Dead men walked beside living ones in every battle and won them victories. A hundred cultivators fall, with broken bones and torn skin? Wei Wuxian was that much stronger, a hundred souls dancing with resentment at his fingertips.

 

In each battle, they won through blood and broken bones. They stood victorious.

 

And yet they could not win the war.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

The wind caught his robes, spinning them in curves across his ankles. They danced to a silent tune, and with each step Wei Wuxian smiled wider. The dust of travel coated him, but he stepped louder.

 

Every step felt heavy, but he made them light. Every movement felt slow, but he made them quick.

 

Ever would he be unstoppable, and ever would he dance that melody.

 

Wei Wuxian walked through the camp and saw the victims of war, spread across healing cloth and with the smudged faces of battle. There was no glory here, and no clean lines of proud warriors.

 

This was a bitter rebellion, patched together from a hundred pieces of desperation and fury.

 

Wei Wuxian was one of them, a man walking the road of revenge. Every eye looked away as he walked, catching on the sword at his waist and going wide with fear.

 

These were his allies, but they looked at his face and saw a weapon. They rejoiced in that, in the strength of the fury at their side.

 

His flute brought corpses to dancing life, and that had kept them all from dying. But they feared him too, for the sword at his waist and the red gleam of his eyes.

 

Wei Wuxian didn’t care to fix it.

 

For now, he was a bow in the hand of Jiang Cheng. He was a weapon of revenge, and that did not make him frown but smile.

 

He would do so much, if it meant keeping his oath to Madam Yu.

 

So he walked through a camp and watched dust collect across the edge of his robes, cling to the black fabric and stain it dismal. He felt the air rush through his lungs, tight and angry.

 

He smiled anyway, and walked light steps.

 

A glimmer of white caught his eye, bright in the light of evening. It danced through the dust of the camp and walked unstained.

 

Wei Wuxian turned to greet it, and felt his smile go warmer and teasing.

 

Lan Zhan always looked so very bright. The man was spotless even here, striding forward with a grace that better belonged in the halls of Gusu.

 

Wei Wuxian watched him approach and smiled. The expression tasted so bitter across his tongue, sharp with all the emotions that had passed between them unsaid.

 

This was not the first time Lan Zhan had sought him out since the Burial Mounds. It was not the first time they had clashed under the sunlight. It would not be the last either, of that he was sure.

 

No piece of Lan Zhan’s peerless grace could let someone as corrupted as Wei Wuxian walk free. Not when a sword hung at his waist and leaked the blood of thousands, and not when Wei Wuxian had corpse dust gathering under his nails.

 

What would Lan Zhan have done in the burial mounds, he wondered. Would those white robes have walked out unstained?

 

Would the peerless jade be the same man, if he lived for long months among the dead?

 

“Lan Zhan, why the long face?” His voice was teasing but too sharp, made from the edge of bleached bones and polished on the glimmering principles of the Lan.

 

Wei Wuxian smiled as he spoke, and smiled as Lan Zhan stopped before him. Both were fake, and both pained him so.

 

“Come to take me away to Gusu? I’m afraid I can’t, but you can always check back in a few months. Maybe the war will have taken my mind by then, and I’ll actually want to be locked away with all those principles.”

 

Gold eyes narrowed at his words, but that face did not shift. It did not tremble or flush, and no emotion crossed perfect lips but dust. Lan Zhan looked like he had been carved from jade and placed by the heavens.

 

Wei Wuxian just wished the man didn’t always judge him.

 

“Wei Ying,” the man began, and it sounded tight with emotions he couldn’t place. Was it disgust, lurking in the cracks of Lan Zhan’s quiet voice? Was it righteousness, come to force Wei Wuxian into the elegant path of light?

 

Was it pity?

 

He clenched his jaw into a smile and did not ask. For all the fury raging through his bones, and the revenge dancing in his laughter, Wei Wuxian did not want to know.

 

“Ah, Lan Zhan, so slow to speak! And even slower to actually say anything! I am a busy man, you’ll have to speak faster.”

 

It was a brittle sentence for a brittle encounter. It echoed too harsh and too playful, over the peerless robes of Gusu.

 

In the light of evening, with a dusty camp of war surrounding them, it felt right.

 

Wei Wuxian smirked against the clench of his chest. He smirked at Lan Zhan too, let a hint of power bleed his eyes red.

 

The man already hated him; what was one more tease?

 

“The sword is dangerous, Wei Ying,” came the response at last, golden eyes fixed on the black iron at his waist. The sword seemed to devour the light, biting hungry shadows into the dusty air. It couldn’t touch Lan Zhan’s fine white robes, for they stood apart.

 

Wei Wuxian wanted to laugh to cover the bitter hurt cloaking his bones. He had always thought Lan Zhan smarter than this.

 

Of course, the blade was dangerous. It had been honed in the belly of an angry god, and broken its divine steel on bone and flesh. It was forged from the resentful energy of a thousand souls, and made strong by that power.

 

It was dangerous as any blade was dangerous, and Wei Wuxian wished Lan Zhan would understand that.

 

“Destroy it,” Lan Zhan said, and the edge of a strong voice dipped into quiet. “Please.”

 

It could not be desperation Wei Wuxian heard there, but oh how he wished it was.

 

He scoffed into the air, let his voice drop to match that silence. The camp around them had grown dusty with empty tents, since Lan Zhan had approached.

 

Cowards fled their arguments, as so often happened.

 

Wei Wuxian wished there were happier fights to run from. He wished they could return to a time in Gusu, when they fought over liquor and prissy rules.

 

He wished they weren’t in battle, and that revenge did not consume his spirit.

 

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” he began, letting his words tease and taunt. They felt so dark, sung across the dusty ground of war.

 

That was a good thing, for corpse energy lined his skin as close as a glove. He ignored how right the name felt across his tongue. He ignored how much he wanted it to be happy.

 

He wanted to be singing it as praise, annoying the man into frowning. He wanted to have the right to laugh it across green grass and gentle mountains.

 

He wanted that moment of peace they had once had, on the roofs of the Cloud Recesses.

 

But war did not make space for gentle laughter, and it did not make space for the happiness of youth.

 

“A sword is just a sword, even this one. And it’s so very pretty! How would I be able to get revenge without this sword? The war would suffer, without this strength.”

 

Without my strength, he did not say, but the words echoed between them like knocks on death’s door. He did not speak of the emptiness of his chest, and did not press a hand to his skin to feel for hollow bones.

 

Wei Wuxian was stronger than that.

 

Without this sword and the energy collected from the dead and damned, Wei Wuxian would be useless.

 

And there had never been a day in his life he would be content to live as a useless man. Wei Wuxian had broken his own bones and smiled through pain, for the chance to help his family. He would do it all again, if it made Jiang Cheng happy and let Shijie smile.

 

His genius was so very useful, to create machines of war.

 

“There are more important things than revenge, Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan’s voice sounded tight but he hardly heard it through his laugh.

 

“Wen Chao is dead,” Lan Zhan said, like that was the last of it, like that should have quenched Wei Wuxian’s thirst.

 

It had only made his determination stronger.

 

“More than revenge? Lan Zhan, as long as there is a Jiang blood on Wen blades, I cannot rest. Did you think I was weak enough to give up?”

 

The words cut his tongue as he spoke, sharp and brittle with laughter. They tasted of failure, and the fog of broken dreams.

 

Wei Wuxian had only ever wanted Lan Zhan to think him strong.

 

He only wanted Lan Zhan to see him.

 

“I have never thought you weak,” the man answered, and Wei Wuxian could only laugh.

 

He only wanted Lan Zhan to see him.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

They parted like that, after sharp words and sharper glares. There were no blows, not this time, and not in the dust of an empty camp.

 

Lan Zhan’s face had been calm, but gilded eyes had looked dark with frustration when Wei Wuxian left.

 

Wei Wuxian couldn’t hope for more than that.

 

He walked away with a straight back and a light step through the camp, but his heart felt heavy. Long steps took him through the camp, as white robes haunted his thoughts, and he could not stop them from leading him to Shijie’s tent.

 

There was an ache to every smile, but he grinned wider regardless.

 

War was cold and furious with his laughter, but Shijie walked gentle steps through the dust beside him.

 

She lived and smiled, and Wei Wuxian kept a promise. That was worth every cold look from Lan Zhan, and every piece of resentful energy licking across his skin.

 

It was worth revenge too.

 

He stepped beside her with a laugh, tucking the stained iron of his sword out of sight. The handle felt cool beneath his fingers, and it hung like the weight of a thousand lives from his waist.

 

But now it was out of sight, and the darkness would fade before Shijie’s smile.

 

“Making soup again?” Wei Wuxian couldn’t help the sharpness of his voice, the way his anger bled through.

 

There was a careful pot of stew simmering before under kind eyes, but Wei Wuxian knew who it was for.

 

The haughty asshole Jin Zixuan did not deserve Shijie’s soup, let alone her hand in marriage. Wei Wuxian wanted to lash the man a thousand times and laugh, for how he dared disrespect her.

 

Unbeaten beauty may not shine from her face, but there was no kinder soul in a thousand years.

 

Shijie was so strong, in war and peace, in smiles and in tears she rarely shed.

 

She didn’t deserve the damned peacock of a man.

 

“He doesn’t deserve your soup, Shijie. Bet he can’t even taste it through his pride,” he said, and a petulant edge crept into his voice alongside the strength and fury.

 

Standing before purple robes and a gentle laugh, Wei Wuxian always felt so young. But Shijie just smiled at him, a twinkle in her eyes, and held a smooth bowl up.

 

Steam crept into the air before him, pressing gentle fingers across his face and teasing at his nose.

 

It smelled like home, made from lotus root and pork ribs.

 

“I have already made that bowl, A-xian. This one is for you,” Shijie said, and her voice was gentle to his sharp one. “You need to eat more, you’ve gotten thin.”

 

Wei Wuxian took it with a smile like sun, feeling warmth bleed into his skin. His chest may be cold, but Shijie’s kindness was enough to heat any doomed soul.

 

It was spicy enough too, made to suit his tastes. He took a sip and felt hunger rise up in his stomach to match the flavor blooming on his tongue.

 

Food tasted twice as good in the wake of the burial mounds, when it wasn’t stained by blood and ash and dust. It filled the echoing hunger in his bones, washed away the emptiness.

 

Food always tasted good, but Shijie’s always tasted so much warmer.

 

He felt fed and strong, even surrounded by the bustle of war.

 

For a blissful moment he was no war beast but a younger brother, cared for and coddled.

 

What he wouldn’t give to have that again.

 

Maybe after the war, he thought, as he sat beside the woman that had tied his hair and smiled at his antics.

 

Maybe after the war was won, Wei Wuxian could be a human again.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

The camp was quiet, as he walked to sleep. It was quiet as he slept too, and grew more still with every heartbeat.

 

Every soul was preparing for the next battle, and Wei Wuxian did not blame them.

 

Wen Xu was a powerful opponent, and their numbers were so small before the armies of the Wen.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

There was a sword in his hand, and the weight was comforting. There was a sword in his hand, and the weight was draining. He took a step forward, watched his feet sink into pale ground. The sand consumed him, as the sword consumed him, as the burial mounds had consumed him.

 

He had been eaten alive before, and felt no fear now.

 

But he did not want this.

 

There was a sword in his hand, and he had claimed it. Its weight was heavy as the last blink of dying eyes, but it was so easy to lift. It hungered, and it obeyed him.

 

Did it consume him now? Why did it linger in his hand, when he was sleeping?

 

Why was he sleeping?

 

Dreamlike, he turned, felt his body shift and fade through the ground. The sand was etching its way into his skin now, but he had no skin to welcome it.

 

He was only sleeping, and his soul was bare of skin and forged from fury.

 

So Wei Wuxian turned.

 

Eyes as big as a house greeted him, come to shape the face of the world. They were not mad with fury, did not glimmer with the hunger of a beast or the red of rage. They were a calm blue, pale and kind as the sky. They were merciless too, as only something inhuman could be.

 

He stared into a single slitted pupil and felt the gaze bore into him, felt it cut through his skin.

 

But he did not skin, not here, not when the sand had washed it away.

 

Here, he was soul-bare to the eyes of a god.

 

He opened his mouth to speak but no words tore free. He opened his lips to taunt, but they did not part. He wanted to laugh out a challenge, but no sound echoed through the mirage.

 

The Xuanwu stared at him and he had no words of defense. Let it see his vigor, then, his drive for justice. Let it see all of his relentless soul. He smiled, and barred his teeth up and up and up—

 

And those eyes did not blink.

 

(Note: this image is fan art by Absolem on Twitter and not related to the bang art, link here)

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

Three survivors lingered on, standing in the camp of war and watching the aftermath of lost battles. They watched comrades fall, and stumbled themselves.

 

But Jiang Yanli did not crumble but care, and Jiang Cheng did not kneel but rage, and Wei Wuxian did not fall but laugh.

 

Three survivors watched the tide of war turn against them, in the slow movement of blood across the mud of battlefields.

 

They stood strong, as they stood together and held together an army.

 

But they could not win the war.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

There was a glimmer in the sun of death, and it was made from the shining edge of a sword. There was a glimmer, and it looked hungry as a beast, but Wei Wuxian did now bow to it.

 

He stepped back, let the blade cut the air at his side, let it devour nothing. He would give it no blood on this day, not when the war hadn’t been won.

 

Not when Wei Wuxian still had people to protect and revenge to claim. He blocked another sword with the spinning fury of a corpse, let the teeth of his puppet crunch on divine steel.

 

Bodies moved jerkily, when they danced to the tone of his flute and the power singing through his fingers. They moved like wood fit into human skin, too stiff for comfort and too brittle to bend or smile.

 

Corpses moved like things, under Wei Wuxian’s power.

 

The light of death glimmered for a moment and a heartbeat, as the sword shook. Then it cracked, made weak by the power thrumming through his hands and the corpse at his control.

 

He watched the Wen soldier fall, under hungry jaws. He did not turn away, and did not lift the sword hanging heavy at his waist.

 

He did not move, as his enemy died.

 

The sword cracked and clattered to the ground, and there was a yell from behind him. The battlefield wasn’t quiet, not when screams rang out and golden energy danced over packed earth.

 

But there was calm around Wei Wuxian, for there were corpses standing a brittle vigil before him.

 

Jiang Cheng’s voice broke the silence, loud and bright with the concern of a general. It echoed with a deeper concern too, bought from the price of their survival.

 

Two boys had escaped from the fire of Lotus Pier once. Now they stood as men on a battlefield.

 

But Wei Wuxian only smirked into the dust of rough battle, felt the turns of an aging heart.

 

His corpses were the rafts he lashed together to save this war, and he did not flinch from them.

 

“Wei Wuxian! Charging out like that, are you a fool?” Jiang Cheng’s voice was bright with worry, but sharp eyes ran across Wei Wuxian and found no wounds.

 

He was far too guarded for open cuts.

 

“Ah, Jiang Cheng, nothing to worry about. No Wen dog is going to lay a scratch on me.”

 

He stretched out his arms as he spoke, and the corpses around him shifted and quaked like trees in the wind.

 

They moved, with him. They danced to his tune, and the flute that hung from lazy fingers.

 

Wei Wuxian felt like a weapon, on this battlefield. He was glad to be one, for three lonely survivors.

 

“Don’t take stupid risks,” came the response, sharp as the crackle of fine lightning and finer fury. Jiang Cheng stepped to him in quick heartbeats, but Wei Wuxian only smiled.

 

He laughed too, and it echoed through the empty place of his ribs.

 

This battle would be won, soon. But the cost had been high, paid in the bones of allies and the information leaked out from this.

 

The Wen would know their position now, and the position of the main camp.

 

It would cost the Sunshot Campaign too much. It would cost Wei Wuxian too, but that price was small to pay before victory and revenge.

 

He walked the paths of darkness now, but he would grin and wave to Jiang Cheng from the bramble and shadow. He would guard his leader’s steps and devour the beasts in the night, teeth hungry and smile wide.

 

Wei Wuxian would give his all, to save two survivors.

 

But this battle had cost too much.

 

That thought lingered with him, through the melody of Chenqing and the creaking movements of fresh corpses. It lingered with him, through the retreat to camp and the dust of beaten earth.

 

It lingered until it festered, and Wei Wuxian cut it out with quick action.

 

It was then, caught in the light of sunset and the stink of fresh blood, that Wei Wuxian made a decision.

 

They needed more weapons, to win this war. They needed an advantage Wei Wuxian had dreamed of for long nights and with a daring smile.

 

They needed a god, and he would fetch them one.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

It took a day, to hatch a plan. It took less time to laugh and smile and annoy Jiang Cheng into listening. Over the dust and packed earth of a dreary camp, the Sect Leader of a dead clan stared him down, electricity crackling across young hands.

 

“Are you mad, Wei Wuxian? You won’t survive that.”

 

The words were rough and furious, coiled tight like string wound through the wood of an elegant zither.

 

But Jiang Cheng did not look elegant but furious, and not calm but snarling.

 

The man looked afraid, for the request Wei Wuxian had just spoken. He looked pale too, and calloused hands clenched on the handle of his sword.

 

Wei Wuxian only smiled, bright and ruthless as the blade at his waist was dark.

 

He had nothing to fear, and death could reach quick claws for him if it wished.

 

He would not let it take him until two survivors were safe.

 

“I might be mad, Jiang Cheng, but I am right as always. This is the best option, and so very grand.”

 

He stopped, took a breath that shook his lungs and made the skin holding him steady shake. There was no wood holding him together, and he did not take brittle steps.

 

But he felt deadly as a corpse.

 

“Besides, you know what we should be saying. Attempt the impossible.” The words echoed between them like truth and pain, like old memories and the chime of silver bells.

 

They struck Jiang Cheng and made the man snarl, but Wei Wuxian did not look away.

 

This had to be said.

 

“What’s more impossible than resurrecting a god?”

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

“Can you get me into the Nightless City?"

 

Those were the first words he spoke to Zewu-jun, with a laughing voice and cold eyes. Those were the first words, proud and disrespectful in the mountain air of Gusu.

 

Those were the first words, but Wei Wuxian had seen Lan Zhan along the path, and brushed past him. Those were the first words, but Wei Wuxian wanted them to be the second.

 

Can you get me into the Nightless City, he asked, with a smile and a hungry sword strapped to his waist.

 

The clear paths of Gusu did not care for his black robes, and he did not care for the rules staring at him from polished stone.

 

Lan Zhan had asked him to return so many times, to this city. Now Wei Wuxian walked deadly steps back, but he smiled and stepped with the ink stain of resentful energy covering his skin.

 

He didn’t want to be trapped for his fury and skill. He didn’t want to walk the broad roads of the Clouds Recesses but dance across the rooftops. He didn’t want the glares of a beautiful face, and the golden eyes that did not fight beside him but judged him.

 

Wei Wuxian wanted youth back, but dreams had no place in war.

 

Can you get me into the Nightless City, he asked, and watched Lan Xichen’s eyes go thoughtful and surprised.

 

That was the heart of the question, the heart of this mad idea. Blue eyes bleeding red haunted Wei Wuxian’s dreams, playing through every night until he knew the snapping jaws of a god better than he knew the touch of sun.

 

There had been no light, in the depths of the Burial Mounds. There had been no warmth either, but cold fingers grew used to the press of stone and the crunch of bone.

 

Wei Wuxian knew many things better than sunlight, as he stood on the brambled path of darkness.

 

What were the eyes of a god to that?

 

This was risky to ask, and a risk the Sunshot Campaign could barely afford. A thousand archers held bows pointed at the sun, but wood burned in flame.

 

This could disrupt the careful balance of their information, and destroy an arrow made of iron and polished bone.

 

But it was a risk they had to take too, for each battle left them with lives lost and corpses raised. There was a sword in his hand and eyes in his dreams, and Wei Wuxian couldn't help but try.

 

Lan Xichen looked at him with watchful eyes and a cautious face, the glimmers of a bright mind hid behind a kind and honest smile.

 

"How vital is this, Young Master Wei?" The question sounded heavy, but it floated through the clear air of Gusu like the lightest touch of fog.

 

It rung like fog-covered bells, sounded like the strums of a gentle zither.

 

Lan Xichen played a flute too, to match Wei Wuxian’s. But the peerless Second Jade only played uncorrupted, and Wei Wuxian’s energy was roiling and black.

 

Energy is energy, Lan Zhan. Let go of your stigma.

 

He smiled, bright and vicious in the sunlight. Did it glimmer like knives or corpse bones, he wondered, and laughed a little louder.

 

“I can win the war, if you make it happen. Won’t even take any work, Zewu-jun!”

 

The words rung out as stones skipping over still water. Wei Wuxian smiled as they sunk deep into the conversation, and smiled wider as Lan Xichen stared him down.

 

At last, after a long moment, the man spoke.

 

“Tell me more, Young Master Wei, and I will see if I can.”

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

A man of dark swords and bright smiles left the Cloud Recesses the next day, armed with a date and a time. He walked proud steps on the broad path, but his steps shook it for his weight.

 

Lan Wangji stood on the path as Wei Ying walked away, caught the relentless stare and stared back. He did not flinch from the power swirling in fierce eyes, from the laughter Wei Wuxian never dampened. He didn’t flinch from the smirk, wide and bright as the sun, but his heart beat a hundred fluttering moments for it.

 

He never wanted to flinch from Wei Ying, but this was not the boy he had—

 

Lan Wangji clenched his fist, felt the callouses on hands and the cuts of a warrior’s life. There were still scars across his fingers, the thin white lines marking where strings had cut his hands in a dark cave. He could feel them, when he reached for his sword.

 

He wondered if Wei Ying remembered that night as clearly as he did.

 

But this was not the boy Lan Wangji had sat beside, in dust and dirt and the fear of an angry beast.

 

This was a man who walked in the sun and laughed at its light, for his smile was brighter. This was the man who aimed a bow at the sky, and shot to kill.

 

This was Wei Ying, and all Lan Wangji wanted to do was stop the fall.

 

“Wei Ying,” he began, as the man walked lazy steps out of broad gates. There was a pause, caught on a mountain wind and the tension between men who had once been enemies, and once friends.

 

What were they now?

 

“Don’t ask me to come back to Gusu, Lan Zhan. I’m already here, and I won’t stay. Your brother already approved this one too. Nothing you can do, even if you wanted to.”

 

And then Wei Ying left, in the slow steps of dark energy and silence.

 

The path shook with his strength, broad and paved with fragile stone. Lan Wangji shook too.

 

He shook until Wei Ying was gone.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

The letter arrived on a warm day, in a place where the sun never set. It was a plain thing, written on the cheap paper of poverty and made cheaper by the sloppy handwriting.

 

It looked like a letter from an old friend, drunk enough to let brush strokes slide and wave. It looked like it had been written by a man who had never mastered the arts, and did not know the careful touch of ink on paper.

 

It did not look like Lan Xichen had written it, but Meng Yao knew that to be so.

 

He looked down at the cheap letter resting on his fingers, and wondered at its contents. It felt unimportant, but it was vital. It arrived with no fanfare, but Meng Yao did not believe the cold lies of appearances.

 

Something was changing, and this was its herald. He read it again, etching the words across the turns of his mind.

 

 

 

 

 

My friend, there will be a man coming to your door soon. I hope you will let him in, and care for him. He has a flute and a sword, and you might know of him.

 

He will need as much help as he can get.

 

The paper felt cheap beneath his fingers, and it burned in a flash of candlelight and the touch of flame. All that was left of the heralding message was ash and the words burned into his mind.

 

A good thing then, that Meng Yao had always known the sharpest mind.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

Two survivors stood in a camp made from the dust and packed earth of war, and the rustle of iron and the clanking of tents surrounded them. They stood, in purple robes and dusty shoes, in clenched fingers and worried stares, in crackling lightning and gentle concern.

 

Two survivors stood and watched the third walk away. They did not stop him, and did not turn away as black robes faded into the horizon.

 

They watched, as he left them for the second time.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

Meng Yao had seen many smiles, through his life. He had seen fake ones painted on in rouge and pain, painted to cover twists of disgust. He had seen lecherous ones that made his blood boil and his jaw ache. He had seen Lan Xichen's gentle smile, as it glimmered in the lewd lights of a brothel.

 

He had not trusted that smile, for so long. He had thought it held lies, like every other smile that washed across his life.

 

But his mind was sharp, and Lan Xichen was kind. That proved true time and time again, until Meng Yao had built an understanding of Lan Xichen like a jade carving.

 

The man was good, to the core and beyond. He was gentle and strong too, and Meng Yao had never met someone he trusted to trust him.

 

So when Lan Xichen smiled, he knew it was true. He knew Nie Mingjue’s was honest too, though he had never seen it. He had learned the character of the general over long days at war, and would understand Nie Mingjue’s.

 

Then he had seen Nie Mingjue's glower and known the resignation of failure. The man had seen him, had seen what Meng Yao could do and the difference he could make. Nie Mingjue had taken him and treated him as capable, as worth more than his bastard blood.

 

The man had been kind, in the gruff way of a rough man. Then Nie Mingjue had seen too much, in a bloody forest beneath a thousand leaves.

 

The man never smiled for Meng Yao, and now never would.

 

Meng Yao himself had smiled every day of his short life, a thousand lies to each truth. His smiles were better than any others, made kind and polite or gentle and understanding or brutal and hungry. They were whatever he needed them to be, and forged the cast of so many masks.

 

Meng Yao thought he had seen every smile, but Wei Wuxian's grin was like nothing he had seen before.

 

It was wild and unrestrained, bright as the moon and yet stained with dark energy. It was vicious as a bare blade, but light as the wind. The light seemed to dance away from that smile, and the dark laugh that followed it.

 

It was a smile that whispered of secrets, and screamed of charisma. It was a smile Meng Yao had never seen before, wrapped in the black robes of Wei Wuxian.

 

The man stood at the gate of the Nightless City with a dark sword at his waist and a laugh on his lips, looking like no hungry servant but vicious warrior.

 

Meng Yao could only smile back, polite mask bleeding a little too sharp. He pulled Wei Wuxian through the gate with quick fingers and the skill of a man used to walking unseen.

 

"You must be the spy," the man said, with the smile like starlight and flashing blades. He looked very bloodthirsty, Meng Yao thought.

 

He looked sad too, the emotion lingering in the corner of bright eyes.

 

Sadness was something Meng Yao felt deeply, in the moments when he remembered a tiny red pearl. It was not as resonant as the calculating rage, as the bruises of a thousand steps.

 

There was a beast that lingered under his skin, and it was born from sadness but bathed in cold fury.

 

“I’m afraid you are mistaken, good traveler. I’m no spy, and would never disrespect the Sect Leader so.” His words were sharp as daggers, the tone of a torturer, the voice of a madman.

 

It was a skin that was easy to slip into, under the sun of the Nightless City.

 

But Wei Wuxian just smiled wider, laughter dancing through the air.

 

“Of course of course, my mistake! But if you are here, you might as well take me around. I want a tour of the city, I’ve only been here once before.”

 

There was a pause, caught in the still air between two smiles. It tasted like the tilting edge of a blade, slowly cutting blood into a wound.

 

It tasted like the future lingered between them, and Meng Yao wanted to own it. He narrowed his eyes, let the sharp rage of Wen Ruohan’s second in command shine like divine steel.

 

Then he washed it away into a polite smile and a sketchy bow. It was lies, made into the mask he always used.

 

“And where would the young master wish to go?” He asked, and watched Wei Wuxian’s eyes narrow in return.

 

A dark sword glimmered, and bright teeth shone, but Wei Wuxian did not look away. The man did not look afraid, and did not look tricked.

 

What a dangerous man.

 

“I’d like to see a turtle, I think.”

 

The words echoed as dropping bodies, and Meng Yao’s smile did not tremble before them. The fate of the war and his own life could be ruined in an instant, if Wei Wuxian took a wrong step in this city.

 

Meng Yao was prepared to kill for that, prepared to strike down that smile he had never seen before.

 

But Lan Xichen had asked him to help, and the strokes of a cheap brush had looked so very deep. Meng Yao didn't know why Wei Wuxian needed to be in the Nightless City, but he knew it was important.

 

It was important to Lan Xichen.

 

“Then a turtle you will see.”

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

It began with a crash like thunder and lightning come to strike the earth. It began with the sound of breaking stone and furious screams, the crumbling rage of falling walls and terrified men.

 

It began with everything Wen Ruohan disliked hearing.

 

It began with a fool, come to walk loud steps into his home. Deep in the Palace of Sun and Flames, Wen Ruohan threw back his head and laughed. The sound echoed through gilded halls, across fine jade and over the ever-burning torches of his city.

 

There was another crash, louder than the first and twice as close. Screams fled from that sound, bright and pitiful as the sunset.

 

It was the sound of a fight, come to challenge him. It was the sound of rebels making it through his gate and into his home.

 

It was the sound of war, and now, long into this battle he knew he could win, Wen Ruohan laughed.

 

The Sunshot Rebellion could break their teeth on his walls, bite down the gates and chew the white stone of his city, if they wanted. They could rage, in his city, against his people, at his door.

 

It did not matter.

 

Here he stood, in the depths of his study, with power thrumming beneath his skin and decades of skill at his fingertips. Here he stood, the greatest cultivator of his generation.

 

They would not make it a step farther than he allowed. They would die, and spill their blood on his knives and for his pleasure.

 

This small act of rebellion did not matter, but oh was it entertaining. The slow death of a fool was pleasant, to watch. It was better when they came and placed themselves in his jaw like willing prey.

 

The rebellion was so very weak. There was another crash, louder this time, echoing like a wall had been torn to dust. It shook the regal walls of his room, made a drop of ink spill on careful papers.

 

That wasn’t to be borne.

 

He stood, robes splaying around him like he was their sun and they his flames. And that was as they should, for this city revolved around his furious light.

 

He took slow steps out of his fine hall, past jade and crimson lacquered walls. The light shifted as he stepped, heralding his every motion until he reached the open sky.

 

The sun shone bright overhead, as it should. But the sight that greeted his eyes did not please him. His knives would be hungry tonight, for his displeasure.

 

There was a mound of rubble where there should have been a wall, knocked loose and turned to dust. It spilled into the white stone of the city, and people spilled out before it in fear and screams.

 

Wen Ruohan stood, and felt the beginnings of anger root in his chest. He had not thought the rebellion had firepower of this scale, but it was no matter; they would die at his hands, as would all the others.

 

The sun never set on his city, and he would not let a few pathetic upstarts change that, not for a thousand years or a hundred screams.

 

He took a step forward, slow and methodical, patient as he had learned to be over the long years. The world was his to take, and every breath was by his permission.

 

There was no need to rush.

 

A hole crumbled its place in the wall, gaping and broad. Corpses littered the ground around it, the fine starbursts of the Wen sun drowned in the red of blood and the brown of uncaring dust.

 

Something had torn through the clean marble like it was paper before a sword, and left dead men in its wake.

 

Wen Ruohan would like to know what had crumbled his walls. He would like them beneath his knives and at his mercy.

 

He stepped across the ground, picking his way over corpses with little care for their dignity. A hand crunched beneath his heel, the crackling of bones loud in the strange echoing silence after screams.

 

He would have that corpse ground to dust and made his toy, if it dared leak blood onto his robes.

 

When had the screams stopped, he wondered. Had all the throats that voiced them gone quiet and dead, or were they merely escaped?

 

He did not know, and did not care. There was a hole in his wall, and he stared at it with the cold eyes of hunger.

 

His knives would feast, for this.

 

The edges of the stone were cut strangely, as if by force and not a blade. He touched long fingers to the edge, felt powder collect on the edge of his nails.

 

True force had been used here. He would take that force, and use it in return.

 

He would own it.

 

Ba-dum.

 

A sound echoed out, resonating through his strong bones and down the lines of his arms. His robes were shaking like a wind had blown through them, like the breath of a god was brushing across the fine silk and leaving it hot and light.

 

Ba-dum.

 

He turned, the full scope of his skill dancing at his fingertips. He was the best of his generation, the best of a thousand years.

 

There was a threat at his back, and he would destroy it with hand and sword. No one walked into his palace without punishment, and he would not be happier than to deliver it.

 

His knives were thirsty, today.

 

Ba-dum.

 

The first thing he saw was a snapping jaw, coated in stone-dust and the red stain of old blood.

 

The second was eyes more crimson than his own.

 

The third was a throat, opening to swallow him whole.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

The war ended quickly, after the death of Wen Ruohan. It ended faster still with the corpse of the Xuanwu opening dead jaws to snap off the roof of the Palace of Sun and Flames.

 

The war ended quickly with Wei Wuxian’s laughter, echoing over the Nightless City. The sound rang across rooftops and under the light of a thousand torches, and it rang with sharp mirth.

 

The war ended with the death of one fear and the beginning of a new one, with a turtle the size of a palace standing before an army. Wen Ruohan’s blood glimmered on its snapping beak, but his bones were long since devoured.

 

Standing high above on a shell made of the nails of a god, Wei Wuxian looked down and laughed.

 

The army shivered, before that laugh.

 

“You all should surrender, before he gets hungry again. I bet he’d like more delicate Wen flesh, after all.”

 

The words were said with a lilting grace, teasing and so very mild. They echoed with the anger of a thousand resentful souls, and at their words the Xuanwu shifted and turned a mountainous head.

 

It looked like death made beastly and painful.

 

The army dropped weapons in a clang that was heard the world round. Wei Wuxian smiled into the sun and watched it fall.

 

He earned his place as a hero, that day. He became a bloody weapon, too.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

Wei Wuxian leapt from the back of the Xuanwu, and felt the ground quake around him.

 

The spy with the chameleon’s smile met him on the ground, face wary but hands steady. The Wen robes on small shoulders were stained and bloody, but the man only looked an eerie calm.

 

Wei Wuxian slide from the back of a god with a laugh like thunder.

 

“Well, that’s one problem taken care of. The strength of the Wen Clan is only as strong as their figurehead, huh?”

 

His words were lazy, but they swam with the deep anger of revenge. He remembered the burning of docks over water, and the slaughter of a thousand friends. He remembered blood dripping into water to stain it crimson, mixing like smoke into clean air.

 

The strength of the Wen had failed today, but it had not failed always. Today, Wei Wuxian claimed this victory in the name of the lost.

 

An undead spirit stood behind him and lent him its strength, just as a sword hung at his waist and screamed bloodlust.

 

If only, he thought, smiling a vicious smile into the eyes of the spy. If only, he thought, remembering how the flames had danced over Lotus Pier.

 

If only he had been stronger then, too.

 

“I think, Wei Wuxian, that you are the change and not them.”

 

The words were quiet and polite, but they sounded like the moment before a strike. The spy shook his head, and sharp eyes looked wary as a viper before a bird of prey.

 

Those eyes had looked polite, at the beginning. Then they had looked angry, with the hunger of a torturer.

 

Now they looked thoughtful and wary.

 

That face could shift emotions so quickly. Had Wei Wuxian not seen it himself, and had not known the spy’s talent, he would have thought the spy a straightforward man.

 

That would have been a mistake, and Wei Wuxian laughed through the energy trembling up his hands from the shell of the Xuanwu.

 

It would have been a mistake, but it didn’t matter. This man had the dedication to the cause and the clever hands to let Wei Wuxian in the gate, and that had won them Wen Ruohan’s death. It had won them the war, and he wouldn’t forget it.

 

Wei Wuxian liked him.

 

“I can’t help my skill, I’m afraid.” He smirked as he spoke, and watched an amused smile answer him.

 

It looked more honest than the last, and far less polite. There was an edge of fury, of thirst and love of war lingering in that smile.

 

Wei Wuxian felt just as bloodthirsty, with victory lining his robes. There was the heaving breath of the undead behind him, and so much energy pulsing across his skin.

 

He wanted to laugh, and so he did.

 

“What a victory,” he said, and looked up at the sky. No clouds but endless sun broke over the horizon. It was beautiful, and it would never be stained by Wen Ruohan again.

 

No flames would touch Lotus Pier ever again.

 

“It is certainly faster than Zewu-jun expected.”

 

The spy looked too at ease, before a weapon of death. A curious hand reached forward, and long nails scraped the shell of the Xuanwu.

 

Black energy swirled, at the touch, hungry for mortal skin.

 

Wei Wuxian let it happen, and held the beast still with a thought. There was a cacophonous shift, as an undead head swung around to stare down the spy.

 

The man shifted uneasily, with the touch of fear catching on dark eyes.

 

But he didn’t look only afraid. He looked intrigued too, and that was all the more interesting. Wei Wuxian smiled and patted a careless hand on the shell, felt its cold energy leak into his skin.

 

The creature did not respond but to stare him down, eyes wide and inhuman. They shone red and furious, but he remembered their blue sheen from his dream.

 

Wei Wuxian felt no fear, though any mortal should have.

 

For the long weeks of war he had seen those eyes glimmering into his dreams and summoning him. He had borne the weight of that stare and laughed a bright laugh before it.

 

This creature could devour him in one snap of its mighty jaw, in a single thought of its terrible mind.

 

But he had never feared death, and that was why it wanted him.

 

He leaned back and laughed, pressing a steady hand to the shell. Then he gripped the edge of a broad pattern and let resentful energy carry him high up the back of a god.

 

The sky felt so bright here, and the clouds close. Would the fog of Gusu come to greet him? Would golden eyes narrow as they scolded him?

 

What would Lan Zhan say, before the corpse of the beast they had slaughtered?

 

With the smile of victory on his face, he couldn’t care. His revenge was complete, and he could never be happier.

 

Jiang Cheng could rest at last, with the murderers of their family brought low.

 

Wei Wuxian could rest too, if only for a moment.

 

He looked down the long slope of a dappled shell and smiled at the spy on the ground. Then he sent resentful energy spiraling down to tug the man up until he stood beside Wei Wuxian on the top of the world.

 

The man looked afraid and exhilarated, then. The view from the back of a beast of war was truly incredible, the entire city spread out before them in surrender.

 

It held the spy’s thoughts too, he could tell. Sharp eyes looked brilliant and hungry, when they were bare with fear.

 

This was a man Wei Wuxian thought could be his friend.

 

He laughed again, victory making him buoyant on the back of a dead beast. The sky greeted him and held him, and he could only be happy.

 

It was such a vicious happiness, but it was a vicious day.

 

A hundred men had died beneath the weight and snapping jaws of the beast below his feet. A thousand more would kneel, when they won this city.

 

What a day for laughter.

 

“Well, spy? We have a city to conquer.” His words were light and teasing, but they held a terrible darkness.

 

The spy only looked on with polite eyes.

 

“Meng Yao,” the man said, with a hint of a bemused smile. But the glittering eyes in Wen robes were bright with success. “My name is Meng Yao, young master. And I think you’ve already conquered the city.”

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

It took two days for the Sunshot Campaign to make it to the city gates in all their splendor. The armies arrived on gleaming swords and with a thousand confused frowns, led by a fleet of skilled cultivators in colorful robes.

 

They arrived ready for battle, but came to a city long since conquered.

 

Standing on the back of the Xuanwu of Slaughter, Wei Ying laughed.

 

Staring up at him, Lan Wangji could only feel a creeping loss. Wei Ying’s eyes were so red, a glimmering crimson that show across the sky. It was a light to seed dread into enemy bones and stop a sword in midair.

 

It stopped Lan Wangji’s heart for a terrible moment too. Beneath the warmth of a noonday sun, it burned into his white robes and left him helpless.

 

Those eyes smiled down at him, and he knew he had failed.

 

The master of such a monster could not return to Gusu. No beast would ever be allowed in the Cloud Recesses, not when it had blood coating its snapping jaw like a fine patina.

 

Lan Wangji could not bring Wei Ying back for healing, but maybe he could stay for it. He would play his zither a thousand times if it meant the resentful energy swirling through the sky calmed.

 

He would give so much to save Wei Ying. He would give so much to help the man see that the path Wei Ying walked was stained by blood and not genius.

 

Lan Wangji would give his everything, and only recently had he understood why.

 

Would those red eyes allow it?

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

Nie Mingjue walked through flaming stone with a warrior’s fury, and watched the wreckage of the Nightless City crumble around him.

 

There was a restless anger boiling across his skin, made from a revenge he hadn’t been able to take himself. Calloused hands clenched across Baxia’s handle, and the sword stirred in return.

 

They had wanted to break the man that shattered his father’s sword. They had wanted to destroy the Wen, for the pain of long years of rage.

 

Nie Mingjue had wanted to take Wen Ruohan’s head himself. He had wanted this victory to be by his saber, for this righteous cause.

 

But it had come at the clever fingers of Wei Wuxian, and he didn’t know what to make of that.

 

The success was just, made under a bright sun. The skill undeniable, with resentful energy shaking white stone and the foundations of a city.

 

But Nie Mingjue craved this battle, and it had been taken by dark power and bright laughter.

 

He did not know what to think, for all that the war was over. He knew what fury boiled in his skin, unsatisfied and hungry for fresh battle and challenge.

 

But Wen Ruohan lay dead in the belly of a beast, and the war was over. Nie Mingjue’s revenge would never be complete, but at least the tyrant had died a pathetic death.

 

He stepped onward, feet proud and shoulders held by a warrior’s confidence. The city shook before him, as did the countless Wen prisoners bound and kneeling on crumbled stone.

 

The Wen remnants would be treated with justice and righteousness, under the light of a bright sun.

 

But they were not who Nie Mingjue walked for, now.

 

He had seen the snake, Meng Yao, too, a man he had long thought dead and gone. Only the speed of Lan Xichen’s sword had stopped him from claiming that pathetic life.

 

Only quick words had stopped him from ending it again, after all of Meng Yao’s treachery. He stepped through the gaping hole in two walls, and scoffed at the dust that clung to him.

 

He stepped forward, and thought only of Meng Yao and justice.

 

A spy, the man had become a spy. It was a fitting role for a man who told so many lies. Nie Mingjue wanted to stab the man for it, wanted to break the spy into pieces for treachery.

 

He wanted to rage, for the betrayal. Nie Mingjue had felt such pride in Meng Yao, once. He had felt more than that too, and kissed the lips that lied now.

 

He had given his respect to this man. Now he had only fury and judgement.

 

But Meng Yao didn’t approach him, eyes wary in the city of the dead sun. No, the man stepped quick steps behind Wei Wuxian, the motions casual and polite.

 

Lying eyes did not look towards him, and treacherous lips did not

 

After the first time, when Xichen had held him back and demanded Nie Mingjue stand down, he would not draw his sword again.

 

But he wanted to.

 

They kept each other company, and Nie Mingjue watched as Wei Wuxian laughed and Meng Yao smiled.

 

He watched, and wondered what the snake was planning now.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

A year passed like the coming of a storm: quick, brutal, and yet so very tedious. The cultivation world settled into recovery with the pained gasps of victims of war, each moment costing more tears than the last.

 

The Qishan Wen Sect had broken but not bent, before the might of the Sunshot Rebellion and its pet monster. The armies of men could only kill, but snapping jaws could destroy.

 

Before the strength of the Xuanwu, the Wen had knelt. The survivors lingered on, too many to be crushed, and too many innocent of slaughter. They were still a force, boiling and burning against the arrows of rebellion.

 

Only Wei Wuxian kept them in line, with bright laughter and the weapon of a thousand years.

 

Only he could decide their fate, and decide he did.

 

With all his smiling malice, he spoke loud words before the unending sun.

 

Live, and live well!

 

Before that man’s smirk and the gleaming jaw of a god, the cultivation world had no choice but to kneel and obey.

 

So the Wen lived, bent into poverty and shunned but governed by a woman with warm eyes and a firm jaw. So the war ended, broken by the clever fingers of Meng Yao and the clever mind of Wei Wuxian. So the world settled into a new rhythm, power lost and found, but peace treasured.

 

Wei Wuxian rode a god of slaughter across the countryside and waved from its bloody back.

 

He is out of control, came the whispers, spreading from Lanling and into the corners of every city.  They echoed out across teacups and into trembling hands, fear making mouths shake and words quiet.

 

He let the Wen live, came the angry grumbles of warriors. The words slide down the length of hungry blades left dry. They were cold in winter, and furious in summer. They rung like the beginnings of war, and the slow turnings of fate.

 

He saved us, came the happy cries, but these voices were so quiet in the face of fear. They sounded even quieter as a long year wore on.

 

There was a monster in Lotus Pier, it was said, and its jaws went unbound.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

The first month passed quickly, with the winds of summer fading into the beginnings of autumn. Wei Wuxian walked slow steps at Jiang Cheng’s side, and knew only rough smiles and rougher edges.

 

He felt like he had been pieced together by death and bones, but it still clung to his skin. What had returned from the Burial Mounds had been a man of rage, and he had hungered for revenge.

 

What returned from the Nightless City was a sated beast, and Wei Wuxian didn’t quite know how to fit into the calm after war.

 

But he tried. In rude words and spiteful laughter, he tried. Before the gentle smiles of Shijie and the glares of Jiang Cheng, he laughed light and kind.

 

He tried to settle into peace, beside two survivors.

 

But the politics of peace grated on his nerves, across the still waters of a vast lake. The world demanded answers of the Turtle Master, and warriors demanded Jiang Cheng command him.

 

Jiang Cheng never did. For all his snarls and snapping rage, all the bright lightning and sharp command, Jiang Cheng asked Wei Wuxian only one thing.

 

Control it, the man said, and kept the letters and requests at bay.

 

Control it, Wei Wuxian, the man said, and so Wei Wuxian did, laughing and walking polished wood with a dead sword in his fingers. For the first time in long years, Wei Wuxian sat on the docks of Lotus Pier and stared out at calm water.

 

There was no blood here, and no fire touching the new buildings. There was no war, in this place.

 

It felt peaceful.

 

With the first month came a letter, written on the rough paper of poverty and in an unfamiliar hand. The strokes of the brush were careful, and the words more so.

 

It was an interesting letter.

 

 

 

 

 

Wei Wuxian,

I don’t know if you expected to hear from me, but I wanted to wish you well. The view from the back of the Xuanwu was incredible.

 

Meng Yao

 

 

Wei Wuxian read it with a laugh, bright as the dawn. He had recognized himself in the spy’s eyes, had recognized a man he could understand.

 

Two sons of servants, and each with clever eyes. Meng Yao had more ambition than Wei Wuxian ever had, but they had the same hunger.

 

They had killed too, but Wei Wuxian wasn’t sure how much Meng Yao had enjoyed revenge. The spy’s eyes had glimmered with hunger, in the brief honest moment on the top of a beast’s shell.

 

Had the man ever had revenge? Had he tasted the end of an old battle?

 

It tasted like the ash of the Burial Mounds, and Wei Wuxian was only now learning that flavor was bitter.

 

Truly, they were destined to be friends.

 

Wei Wuxian looked down at the letter, and felt the cheap paper again. He did not receive a letter on clean scrolls and fine calligraphy. He did not smell the fog of Gusu in ink and brushstrokes, and that was for the better.

 

Wei Wuxian had no reason to return to the principles of the Lan Clan, and no reason to wait on a letter.

 

He had less reason to see Lan Zhan.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

He sent a letter back, with teasing words and laughter written into every stroke of his lazy brush. It held honesty too, made from the harsh edges of a man still caught in war.

 

He thought Meng Yao would understand that. He thought Meng Yao’s polite smile hid much more. He did not think of other letters he could write.

 

He did not think of Lan Zhan.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wei Wuxian,

May the winds meet you well and the waters be filled with fish. I hope this letter finds you well, and in good spirits. Pass my regards as a Jin Clan member to Sect Leader Jiang.

 

Your friend, Jin Guangyao

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why, old friend, what a fine name you bear now. Good luck on all that gold and the damn ceremony— I would rather be at war than stand in that court, but I think you’ll be fine. No need to send your regards to Jiang Cheng, I’m sure you’ll see him soon.

 

Wei Wuxian

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

Months cost nothing, before the foundations of a slow peace. Wei Wuxian walked beside Shijie, and watched her smile and breath happy breaths into the winter air of Yunmeng.

 

He watched her pine after that fool Jin Zixuan too, with a kind heart and hands that made such delicious soup.

 

He watched the man ask for her company, under the sharp gaze of Madam Jin. He watched, and felt fury crackle up his spine in an echo of war.

 

Wei Wuxian did not care for Jin Zixuan. He cared less for the pride of a foolish man, and the stupidity of a hundred cultivators. He could lift a flute to his lips and destroy a thousand enemies, and they could do nothing.

 

He was the Turtle Master, and snapping jaws closed at his command.

 

But he cared for Shijie more than he hated Jin Zixuan, and she had smiled at him and spoken quiet words.

 

She wanted Jin Zixuan to stand at her side, and so Wei Wuxian lowered his flute on the longest night hunt of his life.

 

He watched, as Shijie took Jin Zixuan’s hand, and did nothing.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

Warm lips pressed against his, and the muscles of his body were too weak to resist, without a core spinning in his chest. His heart was too shocked to resist too, fluttering like the petals of lotus blossoms in the wind.

 

He was kissed, for the first time in the long years of his short life. He only wished it had been someone else.

 

He only wished it tasted like mountain clouds.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

Months passed, and the peace built under his skin like age lining his bones. Noises of unrest echoed outside of polished piers and through the air after war, but they did not touch Lotus Pier.

 

Here, crackling lightning kept the peace and a beast kept the fear. The Xuanwu swam through the currents of a lonely lake, a moment’s journey from Lotus Pier. With each day its jaws snapped louder, and with each moment it grew more feared.

 

The cultivation world shivered at its footsteps, as it shook at Wei Wuxian’s smile. He was a threat now, but he just wanted to laugh at that.

 

He had always been a threat, from the first dancing step he’d taken out of the Burial Mounds. For anyone who hurt his family, who pressed an iron to an innocent woman’s face, Wei Wuxian had always been dangerous.

 

They meant nothing to him. The threats and affronted cultivators were less than ash, before his laughter. The sects could burn to the ground for all he cared, with Yunmeng standing strong and beautiful on still waters.

 

Three survivors walked the docks of their home, and young wood greeted their footsteps. Before that, Wei Wuxian didn’t care what the world thought.

 

He did not care about the tones of a firm voice, did not care for the gentle echoes of music in a dead cave.

 

But sometimes, on the darkest nights, when he had sat beside the Xuanwu too long and the skies shone with stars, Wei Wuxian let himself remember.

 

He missed the Cloud Recesses and their stuffy rules, on those nights. He missed the clear skies and low mists of dawn, and the breaking light of sun across a mountain horizon. He missed fighting with Lan Zhan on the rooftops, and all the quiet laughing moments of youth.

 

It had been so easy to smile, once. Now Wei Wuxian smiled, but each expression was cut from the bones of the Burial Mounds, and each one pierced the air like death and thunder.

 

Now he smiled for enemies more than friends, and they shuddered before him.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

 

 

 

My friend, I’ve heard you are keeping your beast nearby. The Lanling Jin Sect is very admiring of the Xuanwu, and of its destructive power. I’ve heard there was an avalanche in a nearby canyon— it would perhaps be wise to avoid the Jin lands for a few days, until the road has been cleared.

 

Jin Guangyao.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d have to be able to leave this damn lake to go to Lanling! It would be such a journey, and the Xuanwu would get hungry the whole way. No need to worry.

 

Say hi to Sect Leader Nie for me, won’t you? I’m sure you need excuses to speak to him, considering he wants to gut you, and you have other plans.

 

Wei Wuxian

 

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

The day dawned bright and vicious, with red sun rising over the horizon. Wind caught every fold of his robes and streamed them out as a black banner in the dawn, casting shadows farther than possible.

 

Wei Wuxian smiled, as he walked down unused paths. The trees rustled around him, songs singing into ears that had listened to the laughter of children on newly built piers. They rung with Jiang Cheng’s words too, the angry planning of a man made a leader too young.

 

But that wasn’t his worry now. Now, there were no worries but laughter, and no fury but the cold rage of a warrior.

 

Now Wei Wuxian walked back to the Xuanwu, and knew two survivors lived on.

 

But this is the beginning, and no beginning lasts forever.

 

It began with the wind, bearing a fresh scent to Wei Wuxian’s face. It was dark and metallic, made from new blood and broken bones. It smelled like death and pain, washed through clear water.

 

It was a smell Wei Wuxian knew better than his own heartbeat.

 

The smell caught him in stillness, for a moment and a long breath. Then he leapt forward, let resentful energy lace his every step and catch on the tails of his sleeves.

 

It carried him forward, over unused paths and through forest that should not have smelled like blood.

 

It carried him to a lonely lake, where a turtle slept with snapping jaws and red eyes.

 

It carried him to a tragedy.

 

An army of poverty stood on the lake shore, a hundred strong and bound in iron chains. Their clothes were worn and torn, their shoulders bowed under heavy burdens. With each heartbeat they shrunk back, and with each heartbeat there was crunch of bone and breaking bodies.

 

Blood dripped on golden sands, and the bound Wen looked vulnerable. They looked scared too, eyes wide and shoulders shaking.

 

He took a step forward, and felt the sand shift below his feet.

 

It felt like it was too late.

 

“Let him go, please let him go!” The words rung over clear waters and echoed through Wei Wuxian’s skin, driving fury down his spine as fire.

 

The words were new, but the voice was familiar. He had heard it snapping out quick and efficient commands, had heard it while Wen Qing cut into his chest and carved out his golden core with steady fingers.

 

He had heard it when she saved Jiang Cheng, all those years ago.

 

He had never heard it sound so desperate, before. But Wen Ning had never stood before the snapping jaws of a hungry beast before, had never stared wide eyes into the Xuanwu’s bloody mouth.

 

Wen Ning had never been about to die, before.

 

“What do you think you are doing?”

 

He spoke with a quiet tone, but it shattered the screams and pleas like boulders through ice. It stilled the scene before him, and even the water held its currents for breathless heartbeats.

 

There was silence, for a moment.

 

The Xuanwu’s eyes snapped to him, mindless and hungry. Blood covered its jaw, dripping down like the slow slide of death and honey.

 

It was a sight Wei Wuxian had celebrated, once. Blood had dripped from that jaw as he stood on the Xuanwu’s back and watched it devour Wen Ruohan, in all his tyrannical glory.

 

Blood had dripped, and Wei Wuxian had laughed into the endless sun.

 

Now he watched the tattered pieces of an innocent man vanish between clattering jaws, and knew regret.

 

Now he watched ten soldiers hold a hundred innocent people hostage, before the Xuanwu.

 

There was blood staining the sands, and fresh cuts along the arms of a dozen Wen. It was blood to bait the beast into biting, and fresh offerings for a god that needed no food.

 

Wei Wuxian took a step forward, and felt the sands shift below him.

 

The soldiers had come to feed the Xuanwu human meat. Had they come to frame him for slaughter? Did they want an easy way to destroy two enemies?

 

Wei Wuxian didn’t know, but the rage curling through his veins was unstoppable.

 

He looked at Wen Ning’s frightened eyes and knew nothing could fix this. He saw Wen Qing’s fear and knew only fury.

 

Those two had saved Jiang Cheng’s life, once upon a dark night. They had protected them, in the cold winds of Lotus Pier, had sheltered them and cared for them.

 

They had given two survivors hope, and did not deserve death by snapping jaws.

 

Wei Wuxian took a step forward, and felt a smile like fire burn across his face.

 

“Maybe it’s fate, to find Jin soldiers standing right before my beast. I didn’t expect the Lanling Jin Sect to be so generous. He’s been hungry recently, and here you are, standing as free food.”

 

It was a guess, made from the hints in a dozen letters Jin Guangyao had sent him over the months.

 

It was a guess, but ten soldiers flinched back, and Wei Wuxian knew he had spoken truth.

 

The Jin clan would pay for this, in blood and fury.

 

A curl of dark energy danced from his fingertips, pulling the remnants of a beaten clan towards him like driftwood on the waves. They moved from blood and sand, and the rough fabric of their robes caught on the ground and flicked water into the air.

 

When had they grown poor? When had the strong woman he’d left fallen down? When had the world turned its cold fangs on these innocents?

 

Wei Wuxian had looked away across still water, and in his distraction the Wen had been reduced to this.

 

That would not stand.

 

He smiled, as the Xuanwu opened a hungry jaw. The shattered fragment of a god was so hungry, with the corruption staining its shell. It wanted to devour a thousand bodies, in a thousand pieces and over a thousand years. It had been driven to endless hunger, and the Jin had used that.

 

Now Wei Wuxian would use it too. He smiled wider, as the blood of innocents dripped down the curve of godly jaws.

 

The smile felt brittle and painful, in the light of a red dawn. It felt like the war that had faded into his skin was made anew.

 

The crunch of bone was satisfying. The screams of Jin soldiers more so, as they broke one by one.

 

Wen Qing’s frantic demands were less so.

 

“Stop it, Wei Wuxian! Are you a fool, you can’t do this!”

 

The words echoed across red water, over sands stained with Wen blood and across Wei Wuxian’s skin. They echoed, and the Jin screamed.

 

Rage boiled through his blood, a torrent like the press of a hurricane. He turned to her with fury and anger, with righteousness. He turned to her with the war that had never left him, and the peace that had never settled into his skin.

 

He turned to her as a beast, and her eyes were scared.

 

“They killed your family, Wen Qing. Didn’t think you’d object to me evening out the death tally a little.”

 

The words scraped free of his throat, light and dancing, dark and hungry. He felt like a broken man, a used weapon.

 

He felt vengeful.

 

But Wen Qing only took a shaking step forward, and spoke strong words through scared eyes.

 

“The Jin will kill us all if you continue, Wei Wuxian. Stop!”

 

Stop, she said, and it echoed out bloody water and across Wei Wuxian’s skin.

 

Stop, she said, and Wei Wuxian wanted to rage. The Jin had come to his home, had raised hands against people he cared for. They had stained the water before him red, and the golden sands brown and dark.

 

Stop, she said, when all he wanted to do was destroy.

 

“Please,” came the request, in a small voice made shy by a quiet life. Wen Ning’s shoulders were straight, casting small shadows in the glimmering sun. But shy eyes were afraid, darting away from Wei Wuxian’s face and across the water.

 

He stopped.

 

Was he a creature to be feared now too? What had he done, he wondered, and felt the edges of his smile crack and fade.

 

Hands steady on a blackened flute, he summoned a surge of resentful energy to push the Xuanwu into still waters. It went slowly, angry with his commands and hungry with the touch of fresh blood.

 

But Wei Wuxian laughed and pressed harder, tasting failure between his teeth.

 

Wen Ning had looked afraid. The man who had risked a life of victorious comfort to help Wei Wuxian, who had saved Jiang Cheng: he had looked afraid.

 

Wei Wuxian couldn’t let that stand, and so he summoned whirlwinds of command, and looked red eyes in the face.

 

He pressed the Xuanwu into the peaceful lake, until only still waters and the foam of blood spoke of what had happened.

 

He stopped, before all the soldiers lay dead.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

Four deaths marked this day, in the red of the sun and the gold of polished metal. It began the rolling stone that would break the peace, just as it chained Wei Wuxian down and made him angry.

 

The Wen walked free, under the protection of the Nie. The Jin soldiers were punished, in hard words that meant nothing, and the empty threats of an approving commander. The Jiang Sect used strength and fury to press advantage, but the whispers of dangerous weapons did not fade.

 

The madman of the war was back, said the rumors, and he came with a beast that couldn’t be controlled. Jiang Yanli heard these rumors and spoke the proud words of reason, in stories of Wei Wuxian’s control and his strength. She spoke the quiet words of a cultivator, and some rumors quieted at her touch.

 

Jiang Cheng heard the rumors and spoke the angry words of a Sect Leader, but they were laced with the fear of a brother.

 

He spoke of control, and trusted they were not lies.

 

Wei Wuxian stood on a lake shore and bound himself to the Xuanwu in blood and clever inventions.

 

He stood on the shore, never to leave again.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

A gentle sun broke across the horizon, bleeding colors across the sky and into the still surface of the lake. With each heartbeat of the dawn, the world shifted to greet it, hungry for morning warmth.

 

Lotus blooms turned to face it, petals trembling for the touch of light. Birds chirped as it stirred their wings, brushing feathers in golden sun. The lake itself seemed to shift too, as if a great beast dwelled under its waters and searched for gentle light.

 

That sun touched Wei Wuxian too, and he smiled before its gleam. It was a day to walk the banks of this lonely lake and stand on its shores as a silent vigil. It was a day to step heavy and dark over the feeling of victory.

 

It was a day to take a long walk with an old friend.

 

“My father is getting nervous about your Xuanwu,” said the man who had once been Meng Yao. Golden robes shone on his shoulders, glimmering bright as a new dawn in the sunlight.

 

Wei Wuxian watched them shift and remembered robes red with flame. He watched them and remembered the first time they met, a long year ago and past so many memories. They had stood like this in the Nightless City, two warriors side by side for the same cause.

 

This man had been a spy, then. Clever eyes had gleamed with a torturer’s cruelty, and clever fingers had led him to the shell of a great beast.

 

Meng Yao had been a spy, but the man had helped stop the war. He had not been fearless but calculatingly brave, and Wei Wuxian had appreciated that so. He had smiled, when the man took steps onto the shell of the Xuanwu.

 

He smiled now, and laughed into the morning air. The fog of Yunmeng was burning off beneath the sun, but it still clung to the corner of a hundred lotus petals, and hid under their shadows.

 

It did not hide in the still water, for beasts lingered there.

 

“Ah, but what does he have to be nervous about Jin Guangyao? If I wanted him dead he would be.”

 

The words rang out across the fog and broke it more, until only the sun and four graves remained.

 

Wei Wuxian felt the sand below him shift, and did not care.

 

There was a quiet laugh, polite in the silence. Had another heard it, it would have sounded a touch amused and perfectly pleasant.

 

Wei Wuxian had spent long enough by Meng Yao’s side to know there was more beneath the surface of that laugh. He only wished the man would speak more honestly between them.

 

Jin Guangyao had to know that Wei Wuxian understood him, when they stood on this beach with the gentle sun warming their skin. Perhaps someday he could tease the man to truth.

 

Perhaps someday the liar’s smile would fall, and clever eyes would glint with friendship.

 

Perhaps. But now Jin Guangyao just laughed, and golden robes shifted with him.

 

“I believe that is the problem, Wei Wuxian. You present quite the threat.”

 

It was said quietly and with such care that he could only turn on the sands of this lake. Glittering golden beaches answered him, beautiful in the light of dawn. They looked so peerless, with no blood staining them brown and filthy.

 

Wei Wuxian loved these beaches as he loved all of Lotus Pier. Every day he walked alongside this lonely lake and let his steps be light and cheery. Every moment he smiled into the sun and knew peace.

 

Every moment, he was in a trap of his own making. He knew the curse of standing vigil, for a monster he had made. He knew the taste of death and the breaking sound of bone.

 

He knew what he was, when he walked idle steps beside the lake he guarded and warded. The waters did not shift at that, but he knew that they could.

 

He knew that the Xuanwu did not sleep.

 

But the gentle words did not explain why Jin Guangyao had come, on a shift sword from Lanling. Only Jiang Cheng and Shijie visited him here, on the banks of this peaceful lake.

 

Even Lan Zhan had stayed away, the clouds of Gusu lingering far from the fog of Yunmeng. Wei Wuxian did not mourn that, though he did miss the opportunity to tease Lan Zhan.

 

He missed that, as he walked the banks of a silent lake.

 

But the warning rang loud and clear from Jin Guangyao’s polite smile, and Wei Wuxian wanted to know its words.

 

Was there a threat he did not know of? Were the sects turning against him? Wei Wuxian had heard no rumors, but he was alone and isolated on this lake.

 

The only news he bore was brought on the lips of friends come to speak with him, and they would not tell him bad tales. They spoke of peace and recovery from war, of the marriage of Shijie and the restoration of Lotus Pier, of the defenses he had built around the Xuanwu and the sunshine on golden sand.

 

His friends would not speak of dark things. But no, he thought, turning to catch a polite smile. Most of them would not.

 

But Jin Guangyao had always understood him so well.

 

“Why did you come to my beach? It couldn’t just have been for my fine face,” Wei Wuxian said, and each word laughed its way into the air between them.

 

Jin Guangyao’s smile did not falter, and neither did the glint of polite danger.

 

Wei Wuxian thought his friend would look the same in a decade or more, standing on the throne Jin Guangyao clearly craved.

 

“No, I am afraid not. I fear an attack.” The man said, voice quiet and serious. Wei Wuxian looked at the glimmer in the spy’s eyes and heard what went unsaid.

 

There will be an attack, hinted the curve of Jin Guangyao’s mouth, sly and polite as a politician’s.

 

It will be soon, whispered the shifting of golden robes, as Jin Guangyao stood on sand most feared to step near.

 

Wei Wuxian looked at his old friend and laughed. For the long years of his life, he had walked with a heart that did not fear. Adventure called him forward and challenge made him smirk, but never had he backed down.

 

Wei Wuxian had been a man made for the brightest path, and his steps had been unstoppable. Now he carved his own path with a sword bathed in corpse-blood, standing on the back of a dead god.

 

Now Wei Wuxian was alone, but ever had he been relentless.

 

The echo of his laughter spread across the still lake surface like the light of that gentle sun, and in its wake the water trembled. A wave crested on a day with no wind, and then another and another.

 

The water writhed as though it lived, and perhaps it did. A god slept there, after all. Who knows what mind the water had grown?

 

The first thing to emerge was an eye, glimmering through the water red as blood. It was big as a human body, made of every nightmare that a child could dream of. In the gleaming light of morning, it looked so very vicious.

 

The jaw came next, and a cresting head, moving higher into the air until the Xuanwu had emerged from the depths of the lake. It stood tall and proud, staring down at the two humans on its lake shore.

 

Wei Wuxian stared up at glowing red eyes and smiled, as the Xuanwu shifted before him. A thousand droplets of water hit golden sand to turn it brown, but he did not look away.

 

Red eyes shone, and Wei Wuxian laughed.

 

The beast had not visited his dreams in long nights. He had slept so soundly, without eyes to burn into his skin and make him smile out a challenge. No mountains shook his dreams with their steps, and no blue washed him in the thoughts of a god. The Xuanwu was as weary as it was hungry, and it slept when he did.

 

He smiled again, wider than before. He understood his creation as it understood him, standing on gilded sand.

 

What a strange life was this?

 

“Has it… grown?”

 

Jin Guangyao had stood atop the shell of this beast, but that voice sounded scared.

 

Wei Wuxian laughed again, felt the air catch his lungs and press him into the bright light of the sun. There was a trembling power echoing across the ripples of clear water, but its touch on his skin was gentle.

 

It rocked the fine sand like the wind had come anew.

 

“You would grow too, fed on the corpses of the Wen. He’s eaten well,” he said, and watched red eyes glimmer blue for a heartbeat.

 

Then they shone a merciless crimson again, and Wei Wuxian felt hunger swirl across still water.

 

The fury of the Xuanwu still craved a feast, and Wei Wuxian had given it the taste for Jin blood.

 

But it would not touch his friend, not while Wei Wuxian laughed on gilded sand. He turned, motions dancing and quick, to step before Jin Guangyao. The hot breath of death burned into his back, but he did glance back at still water.

 

The Xuanwu would not touch him, when a sword hung at his waist and the same energy pounded through their veins.

 

Jin Guangyao smiled at that, and it was a cold and dangerous look, for all the fear lingering in cold eyes.

 

They had always understood each other.

 

“My friend,” the man began for the last time. The words echoed between them, kept from the Xuanwu’s shell and the ripples of still water.

 

They were quiet.

 

“Be careful. Your Xuanwu makes you a threat, and I can only tell you the whispers,” the man said, golden robes shifting in the shadow Wei Wuxian cast.

 

“It is your battle to fight, and I cannot help you in this one.”

 

And that was the warning that echoed over skin and black robes, over turtle shell and bright water.

 

Wei Wuxian smiled into the sun and felt it catch on his skin, bright and furious. It wanted to burn him, as another sun once had.

 

He had not bowed to that light, and he wouldn’t bow to this one.

 

“Don’t be so shy, Jin Guangyao! We both know you can do much more than tell me whispers.”

 

He grinned as he spoke, and watched darkness flash across that polite smile, a cunning expression for a terrible heartbeat. Then it smoothed out, and Jin Guangyao’s eyes went sad and weary.

 

It was the look of understanding between dangerous men, but Wei Wuxian didn’t let his friend speak.

 

He wouldn’t drag Jin Guangyao into this, if it wasn’t a battle the man wanted to fight. The warning was enough, just as the water that rippled behind him was enough.

 

Wei Wuxian had won one war. What was another?

 

“But it doesn’t matter. Let them try, my friend. I’d like to see them walk to my doorstep,” he laughed out, thinking of how enemies could walk across his sands.

 

And how they would walk no farther.

 

Wei Wuxian was not called a genius for nothing, and a thousand brilliant designs lurked at his fingertips. He could build a future from bones and ash, invent a cultivation path from corpse dust.

 

He was the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, and he could end a war with a single laugh.

 

The Jin would not be able to walk loud steps across his sand, because he had built against it. A hundred arrays cut into the earth around this lake, sunk deep into the silt and muck beneath the water. They glowed with power, and glowed warmer with threat.

 

No cultivator could approach without his approval, not if they wanted to live a long immortal life.

 

He almost wanted to see what happened to those that tried.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

The sands shook as JIn Guangyao left, moving and shifting beneath the weight of a spy. They shook over the long days that followed too, and the tension that built across still water.

 

They shook, as Wei Wuxian walked the shore alone. They would not shake for long.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

Water rippled under the fog of Yunmeng, moved by laughter and the bright words of a brighter man. It rippled across golden sands too, lapping gently at the shore.

 

Lan Wangji wished the water would be still.

 

The moon had long since left him, falling from his robes to be replaced by harsh sunlight and quick laughter. It burned him, as he stood in the noonday sun.

 

But it was nothing to the fire of Wei Ying’s smile.

 

Lan Wangji stood on a lake shore, and watched the water tremble and shake. He stared into its depths, and knew monsters swam beneath.

 

But the man that stood before him was no monster but a man, and no demon but a kind soul.

 

Lan Wangji knew this as deeply as breathing, as deeply as the rules and principles of Gusu. He knew, even though Wei Ying had not shown it in so long. Even though bones had broken on the golden sand beneath them and rumors swirled like blood in the water.

 

He knew Wei Ying was kind.

 

The beach was clean now, but news had it stained in the death of hundreds. How much of that was true, Lan Wangji wondered, as he stood on golden sands.

 

How much had Wei Ying used the mind of war in the time of peace? Would he let Lan Wangji soothe warm hands over his skin, and wash away the blood?

 

Would he let Lan Wangji remain here, in the sunlight, though it burned him?

 

Lan Wangji would do anything, if it kept Wei Ying safe. He would take rough punishment a thousand times, lashes for each death that stained golden sands and the fabric of peace.

 

Lan Wangji would do it all, if only Wei Ying would smile without pain.

 

But golden sand shifted below his feet, and there was no blood touching it, and no mercy in Wei Wuxian’s smile.

 

They stood as enemies, where Lan Wangji had only ever wanted to be lovers.

 

“Lan Zhan, can’t even speak to me? You came all this way just to stare? I know I’m handsome, but that’s a little much Lan Zhan.”

 

The words were teasing and light, weaving through the air like laughter. They danced, over still water and golden sands.

 

Lan Wangji wished they didn’t sting so dearly.

 

“Wei Ying,” he said, and felt the name catch in his throat. It tasted like the last drop of liquor that he had never tasted, and the touch of spicy food coated with the grime of war.

 

It tasted like stardust, come to burn him into love.

 

Lan Wangji couldn’t mind.

 

“Wei Ying, the energy is staining you.”

 

It was truth, but it lingered quiet and bitter on his tongue. It tasted like cold water and dead things, but it did not sting but corrode.

 

It lingered, and with each heartbeat, it stained his thoughts darker.

 

It stained Wei Ying’s expression into darkness too, for a quiet moment that lasted a lifetime.

 

“Come back to Gusu,” Lan Wangji said, before the man could speak, before silence caught his tongue and trapped it.

 

Come back to Gusu, he said, and hoped Wei Ying would understand.

 

But bright eyes only narrowed, and the smile that shook him grew brittle. Wei Ying took a step back, and turned to linger on the shore.

 

He turned, and it tore those eyes from Lan Wangji.

 

“You never change, Lan Zhan! Always thinking you know best, always judging the path I walk. You can’t know my path, or why I walk it.”

 

The words dropped, low and dancing with something like fury, and something Lan Wangji couldn’t understand.

 

“You should leave, Lan Wangji. Before I walk further down this path, and you try to stop me.”

 

You should leave, Wei Ying said, with a bright laugh that tasted bitter, and the sunshine burning across a pale face.

 

Wei Ying had always misunderstood him, through every word Lan Wangji tried to speak.

 

Even though Wei Ying smiled like death made fury, and walked away from Lan Wangji and had for years. Even though they fought side by side, even though they had argued on rooftops.

 

Even then, when Lan Zhan spoke, Wei Ying misunderstood.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

Wei Wuxian did not watch Lan Zhan walk away. He did not see sand shift and shake beneath elegant steps, did not see white robes glimmer in the sun, did not see Lan Zhan’s disapproving face.

 

He did not watch, but he listened, and each heartbeat stung more. Laughter rung hollow, in the space of those footsteps.

 

The lake was still.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

The weeks passed in quiet and loneliness, in laughter and bored invention. Wei Wuxian lingered beside a still lake and spent his days crafting a future in the strokes of his brush and the careless brush of his fingers in sand. He created a compass to find resentful energy, a flag that attracted it, a pouch that held it. He turned each day to creating, and create he did.

 

He did not leave, but each day he wondered at the world. The barriers he built were strong, the defenses unstoppable.

 

One more stroke of his brush, one more defense. Just one more, and he could walk away.

 

But he wouldn’t. The Xuanwu had proved dangerous, to every soul that walked this shore. Perhaps for a night he could walk away, or a breathless day. Perhaps he could visit the cloudy mountains of Gusu, and sip the fine wine and mock Lan Zhan.

 

Perhaps, if he had not driven the man away, he would not be alone.

 

But those were the thoughts of a fool, and didn’t belong in the laughter of the Turtle Master. Here Wei Wuxian stood, and here he would stay with a smile. For Shijie and Jiang Cheng, for the docks of Yunmeng and the Wen, he could not leave.

 

And they walked steps into his shining sand, and came with smiles and scolding.

 

“That beast looks like he’s trouble, Wei Wuxian” Jiang Cheng said, voice was dark and wary as only a brother’s could be. The man was tense lightning and purple robes, standing on shifting sands and commanding them to be still.

 

If Jiang Cheng was an shade angrier, Wei Wuxian imagined the sand would be sparked to glass below his feet.

 

That thought made him smile, wide as the curve of the moon. There was exhaustion clinging to his bones and dragging him to sleep, but Wei Wuxian just laughed it away. It had been three long weeks since Jin Guangyao brought him a warning, and with each day he smiled and laughed and watched a little more closely. It had been two long weeks since Lan Zhan had walked beside him, steps elegant and voice

 

It had been a long war, and this period of peace was proving only more exhausting.

 

He was kept beside the Xuanwu, kept as master to the greatest weapon known to the cultivation world. He was chained here, as guard and guardian.

 

Wei Wuxian did not mind, not when he protected his family. But he wished, when he laughed and walked from a lonely home, that he wasn’t bound here.

 

“The Xuanwu is only trouble for our enemies, Jiang Cheng. He hasn’t eaten a person in over a year!” He grinned as he spoke, and remembered the grisly bones of war.

 

He remembered watching Wen Ruohan break on the jaws of a resentful god. Would that snap have hurt, he wondered? Would it have broken the man’s spine and sent shocks through slivers of bone?

 

Or had Wen Ruohan died the instant a cold beak closed on immortal skin?

 

Wei Wuxian smiled and pressed the memories away. There was sand shifting beneath Jiang Cheng’s feet, but it was not made of glass.

 

His brother was not here for war.

 

“Are you coming on the night hunt?” Jiang Cheng spoke the question over still water, and it was not casual but heavy.

 

Wei Wuxian had not been out with his brother in over two months, not since the last time he had left the great beast to sleep in still water.

 

The Nightless City had fallen to his triumph, but the cost had been so very painful. Lotus Pier was still his home and would always be, but this deserted corner of the lake was where he had lived.

 

He didn’t know what would happen if he left, didn’t know the price. He could control corpses with a thought and a single mournful melody, but the Xuanwu took all of him.

 

The Xuanwu took the sword that had burrowed into its chest, took endless control and careful laughter.

 

It took everything.

 

“Oh? Do you miss me, Jiang Cheng? You should just admit it, better than dragging me off with an excuse.”

 

His words were light, but the echoed out and felt heavy. He felt heavy, with each moment a reminder of the trap on him.

 

“Shijie is missing you, moron,” Jiang Cheng said, and Wei Wuxian heard we miss you, in the space between words. It was a quiet sound, sharp with lightning and the rage of a proud man.

 

Wei Wuxian smiled before it, and felt it cut across his skin and into his bones. It had been so very long since he’d left this place. Small trips took him out into the piers, and teasing steps walked him down the banks of quiet lakes.

 

Pork rib soup was left for him every morning, and Jiang Cheng greeted him with a snarl and spiky anger every afternoon.

 

But he had not moved from this dock in so long.

 

He turned to the Xuanwu, watched its eyes fall heavy with sleep. It hadn’t stirred in a day or so, drifting deeper and deeper into sleep. It hadn’t even stirred when he had laid careful defenses around the lake, wards to keep cultivators out and dead creatures in. Soon it would dip beneath the water again, falling prey to its own age.

 

When a thousand years passed in the blink of massive red eyes, long days had no meaning.

 

It would not wake for now.

 

“You could just admit to missing me, Jiang Cheng,” he said, and let his words grow teasing. They caught on the wind and made it light, dusting sand away and making the air clean.

 

They sounded like the rush of water, but Jiang Cheng only scoffed them away. Pride lined the shoulders of a Sect Leader, and Jiang Cheng wore command like the finest silk of robes.

 

“Who would miss you,” the man snarled, and turned to walk away. His steps were slow, purposeful as the lash of Zidian over clear water. They were slow enough for Wei Wuxian to catch up in three long heartbeats.

 

He couldn’t suppress the laugh now, not when a lake sat behind him and the calm of peace lay before him.

 

What would Shijie’s smile look like, out of the light of a calm lake? Wei Wuxian wanted to know. He wanted to tease Jin Zixuan too, poke and prod at the man’s fragile pride.

 

Wei Wuxian wanted to laugh beside his family, as he walked beside Jiang Cheng now. Together they walked to Lotus Pier, side by side. Laughter and snarling filled their silences, and Wei Wuxian had never felt such a bubbling happiness.

 

He would get to see Shijie again soon. They would go out hunting in the darkness, and he could stand beside Jiang Cheng and watch a silver sword glimmer.

 

It would be a good day.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

The sound of drink and food was loud, on the polished docks of Lotus Pier. It was louder when three survivors sat at a table, and ate their fill. The echo of voices filled the air, long into the night and resonant with happiness.

 

They were louder, when Shijie and Jiang Cheng sat beside him.

 

“You cannot sit and guard that monster forever, Wei Wuxian,” came the sharp words from his side. Jiang Cheng spoke into a cup, too quiet to be heard but too cutting to be missed.

 

Wei Wuxian felt the danger and smiled against it.

 

They had fought side by side in war, and sat side by side in peace.

 

“You worry too much, Jiang Cheng. When has this power gotten out of my control? I could drink three jugs of emperor’s smile and dance on the Xuanwu’s back naked, and be fine.”

 

The words slipped from his lips as smile and truth, and he looked at Jiang Cheng while he spoke.

 

But sharp eyes met his and did not look down, as a storm broke between them.

 

“You are lying, Wei Wuxian. If you have control then why do you stay there?”

 

Jiang Cheng looked so angry, and a sharp voice broke across the comforting echo of food. Suddenly, the drink on his tongue tasted bitter from ash and not from wine.

 

Wei Wuxian laughed, and it broke on his tongue and danced between them. It danced in the dying sun, and he tasted its flavor like lost wine.

 

It was bitter.

 

“Just because I can control it doesn’t mean I can leave it be. What if another cultivator walked to the Xuanwu and tried to control it? They would die, but I’m sure they’d take out a good chunk of Yunmeng when they did. It’s a weapon of war, Jiang Cheng. Don’t you remember?”

 

There was a flinch at that, sparking across a tight jaw and angry glare.

 

They both remembered the devastation the Xuanwu left in its wake. They both enjoyed it, watching the Wen crumble and die on the broad jaw of a snapping god. Wei Wuxian would always smile at the memory of Wen Ruohan’s bones crunching beneath his feet, if it was one year from now or a thousand.

 

But he did not smile at the chaos left behind in war, and the innocent lives offered to the Xuanwu’s jaws.

 

Wei Wuxian did not smile when the Wen died on golden sand.

 

He would have killed a thousand soldiers, had they hurt Wen Qing and Wen Ning. He had arrived just in time, a moment and a breath before the people who had cut into his chest died.

 

He had been just in time, but in another life he could have been too late.

 

He did not leave the Xuanwu alone without protections, now. Arrays coated the sand and guarded against the soldiers and golden cores of a thousand people, and they guarded well. Even with the blood coating his hands and the rage come to Yunmeng’s doorstep, he did not regret what he had done.

 

He would guard the Xuanwu and the Wen, for the short years of his mortal life.

 

“I remember, Wei Wuxian. I remember recent deaths too, if you haven’t forgotten them.”

 

The words echoed sharp and painful, and Wei Wuxian felt his smile slip and fracture. He did not rage.

 

“You must think me senile, to forget something that happened so recently. A shame, even my own brother in arms can’t seem to trust I’d remember a few short weeks ago.”

 

There was a pause, after he spoke, lingering over the sounds of celebration. It was heavy with tension, and heavier with the beasts and burdens of war.

 

Wei Wuxian felt it sting, and did not run.

 

“I trust you, Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng said at last, the words slow and sharp. “I trust you but I don’t trust the Jin, or the rest. We have to deal with the creature, and soon.”

 

The words echoed loud between them, but they held a hope and trust Wei Wuxian could only treasure. He smiled into the setting sun and tasted the lingering drops of wine.

 

They didn’t taste like ash.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

It had been a good day, spent between two survivors. It had been a good day, spent on polished wood that was too new, and drinking wine that was old.

 

It had been a good day.

 

But with each good day came a dark dawn, and Wei Wuxian had been the victim of fate enough to know its fickle rage.

 

He saw it again, as he stood on a beach and stared down at brown sand. It looked filthy, in the light of morning. It looked dark too.

 

It looked like the color of the Burial Mounds, and Wei Wuxian saw it and thought of long months among corpses. He had seen sand stained just like this, long years ago. He had stood on Lotus Pier and watched the corpses pilled like slaughtered pigs, until purple robes were brown with blood and the broken parts of a thousand bodies. He had slaughtered people himself, and let their blood leak across golden sand.

 

Now he stared at down and saw a familiar stain. It was a muddy brown, dyed ugly by death.

 

Someone had died on this spot, during the night when he had left to sit beside his family.

 

Someone had died, and Wei Wuxian could only know how.

 

His arrays were unbroken, glimmering a hungry black on fine sand. No soldiers had made it to the Xuanwu, and no golden cores had turned over still waters.

 

The lines were unbroken, but there was blood on the shore. Wei Wuxian stepped out and felt his heart clench with the beginnings of dread, the dark places of his soul twisting and turning like feral beasts.

 

Who had he killed, this night? Who had died for his happiness and a bowl of Shijie’s soup?

 

It took moments to find out, and each one cost him more than the last. Wei Wuxian stood on the sand and held no laughter but dread, and no smiles but broken happiness.

 

It was Jiang Cheng that brought answers at last, walking lightning steps that held no gentle thunder. The man sounded lost, with the rage of a Sect Leader.

 

He looked worse, but Wei Wuxian had no smile to light the day and tease Jiang Cheng into annoyance.

 

He had nothing but dread.

 

“I checked,” Jiang Cheng said, voice tight and face furious. He took quick steps over the docks, and stood beside Wei Wuxian to watch blood dry on golden sand. The waters were still, without a ripple to be seen.

 

But below the surface lurked a beast Wei Wuxian had controlled, once. Did he control it now?

 

Jiang Cheng snarled, and the sound was loud in the silence of a red dawn. It looked like his jaw would break, with how tightly it was clenched. The skin was pale with strain, and eyes that had smiled the night before looked dark and stormy now.

 

Wei Wuxian wished he would break instead. He had brought this on himself, with his carelessness and his stupidity. This death, this blood; it was his mistake.

 

What had it cost him, this time?

 

“A child went missing last night. He was paid to walk these paths.”

 

The words were damning and quiet, as they echoed across the still water as the moments before a heart broke.

 

Wei Wuxian’s heart shattered, but it didn’t matter. He had patched it together a thousand times, laughed and smiled and moved on from tragedy. He had won bloody revenge too.

 

But he had never killed a child before.

 

“Get his bones, Wei Wuxian. I will find the family, and the person who paid for this.”

 

That was the command his brother left him with, as purple robes swirled out of sight. Jiang Cheng walked with the angry steps of command, toward the problems that faced them.

 

The sect leader left to fix Wei Wuxian’s mistakes, and smooth the rumors into silence.

 

The sect leader left to solve this, but Wei Wuxians stood and knew there was no escape.

 

There was only one way to atone for this failure, the second failure, the endless failure.

 

Wei Wuxian would cut into the Xuanwu for the bones, but he would replace them with another payment.

 

He called a tide of resentful energy to trembling fingers, in the dawning sun. It swirled to life around him, a wave of power blacker than ink and twice as staining.

 

Out across the water it snaked, coiling black scales over still water until it had covered the whole of the lake.

 

He summoned the Xuanwu then, and as red eyes broke the surface of the water he stared them down.

 

They glimmered like gems, catching and reflecting the light to shimmer all the brighter. They looked like spilled blood too, but they did not stain the sand brown.

 

That had been Wei Wuxian, by his folly.

 

He let the black energy coil around the snapping jaws of a dead god. Slowly, like every breathing space was pried from the grave, that beak opened.

 

Black energy curled inside, and when it came out Wei Wuxian did not look away. Bones shone white, marked clean and terrible by the gut of a god. Bones glimmered, in the sunlight of his mistakes.

 

Wei Wuxian did not look away.

 

He settled the body on clean sand, gentle with regret. The bones shone bright against golden sand, snow splattered on the lakeshore.

 

They were so small.

 

A breath tore from his throat, and it sounded hard and crushed. Jiang Cheng had gone, in a swirl of purple robes, but what would he return to?

 

What would they do now? What could they possibly do? There was no recovering from this without lies and deceit.

 

The world already thought him a monster, with no control over a greater beast. He was a weapon of war, and always had been. Now he had been shown as a bloody one, with controllable rage. The Jiang Clan could not recover from this, not without paying dearly.

 

But they shouldn’t be the ones to pay. Wei Wuxian had killed a child, by his arrogance.

 

He deserved any punishment for this.

 

He looked to the waters, and met eyes red with a corrupted hunger. He looked to the waters, and watched them ripple with the Xuanwu’s silence.

 

He would do what it took.

 

Quick leaps took him into the lake, and he felt a thousand currents catch his robes and move them away. Would they catch on him too, wash the cold stain from his skin?

 

Would they erase him?

 

“Just you and me now, damn turtle.” He spoke in quiet words, but they were laced with the anger of a man still at war. His heart had hardened so much, in the long years of vengeance. He didn’t regret it, not when it had won them victory and revenge.

 

But with the bones laying on the shore behind him, maybe he should have. There was a monolithic motion in response, as a jaw clacked into motion.

 

Wei Wuxian laughed and felt the sound rip at his throat. It echoed over still water that was stained red with his mistakes. Would it spill out of the water, his blood? Would Jiang Cheng see it, when he came back to an empty lake?

 

Wei Wuxian didn’t know. Man and beast stood in clear water, but he had never felt more broken. They were alone in this lake, tainted by resentful energy and his shattered hopes.

 

He couldn’t leave Xuanwu alone, not now. A life had been lost for this, for his folly. For his foolish hope and a wish for a normal life. He did not deserve that, had never deserved that.

 

Now, with a child’s blood staining his hands, he deserved it even less.

 

“If only I hadn’t made you,” he said, staring into the dead eyes of an angry god.

 

The water ripples around them and he couldn’t look away, couldn’t help but laugh and cry into the sunshine.

 

He was alone in this lonely lake, with a turtle the size of a mountain. He was alone, and he would never leave this place again.

 

“Ah, you know I can’t destroy you though. You only...”

 

His voice broke off, echoing over the lake and into its depths. There was nothing around, no village to hear his words and no fish to swim away from the beast in the water. His voice echoed over the still air begging for a background melody.

 

But there were no birds here left to sing. The Xuanwu of Slaughter had long since scared everyone away, and it was all his fault.

 

“You only did what I asked, huh? You are what I made you. I was never good at stopping when I should have.”

 

He laughed again, and it was a bitter and dark thing.

 

Hope had long since flown away on the wings of his friends, with the family he had driven away and the blood he had spilled.

 

Hope was such a fragile thing.

 

The turtle shifted forward, pressing that deadly jaw into his palm. He almost toppled over with the motion, weight shifted back by the mass of death and strength. A snapping beak touched his skin, wider than the whole of him.

 

That jaw had swallowed a child, not so long ago. Now it begged for a master’s touch, and Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but grant it.

 

His hands shook so.

 

Water sloshed forward and draped his robes with a thousand bitter and deadly regrets.

 

“I wish…” the words trailed off, and he looked to the sky to watch it tremble. It must be raining, to make his cheeks feel wet on this sunny day.

 

It must be raining, to make his shoulders shake too.

 

“I wish I had never touched that sword,” he said, and beneath his palm a massive beast stilled. Eyes the size of his head lidded shut for a heartbeat, reptilian and merciless.

 

This beast had killed a child, and it was all his fault.

 

He wished he hadn’t lost his core, too, but he could never regret that choice.

 

“I wish I hadn’t brought back something I can’t control,” he said, and watched the beast shift like a mountain before an avalanche.

 

Gods how he wished things were different. If all had cost was himself, that would have been a price he could pay.

 

But his resentful energy had pulled the life from a child, and he was the height of failure.

 

“I wish.”

 

And that was all he could say, in the end. It was a prayer and a curse in one breath, a gentle regret and a furious conviction.

 

At least Shijie and Jiang Cheng were safe. At least the Wen Clan was broken and defeated, but Wen Ning and Wen Qing walked free. At least Lan Zhan was walking graceful steps in Gusu, among buildings that were not burnt.

 

At least he had done some good, before the end.

 

With that final breath, the air broke and shattered. Like a devourer of worlds, Xuanwu opened that gaping maw, let the stench of corpse-breath and broken hopes eat the air. The smell brushed his face, the memory of a thousand deaths catching on his skin.

 

Wei Wuxian smiled, and it was a terrible thing. This was a fitting fate. This was a fate that would spare Jiang Cheng a choice more painful than any other.

 

This was a fate that he deserved.

 

“As good an end as any, I suppose. Do your worst, Xuanwu, I have killed you once. I’ll consume you from the inside, this time.”

 

The words were empty and hollow as a flute, but he spoke them with a fondness he couldn’t help. He had made this monster, and now it would be his end. He would be its end too, with the sword at his side and the power ready at his fingertips. It would cost him everything, but it would be over.

 

That it would destroy them both was fitting, as nothing else was.

 

So underneath a cold sun, with water swirling gentle and cautious before the lake currents, the Xuanwu of Slaughter opened its jaws.

 

And the Turtle Master was devoured.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

Chapter Text

He blinked awake, and felt sand kiss his lips. He blinked awake, and was cold.

 

He blinked awake, and was alive.

 

There was a strange weight across his hand, small but heavy as gold. It was cold as a corpse left in snow, but it did not rot him. As he lay and felt sun warm his skin, that weight grew warm too. He was tired, he realized, from the ache in his feet to the clench in his lungs, to the warmth turning in his chest.

 

He jolted up, coughing sand into the air and watching it fall like rain around him.

 

There was a turtle on his hand, sitting small and sleeping with blue eyes wide.

 

There was a turtle in his hand, and he was alive.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

Wind rushed like broken bones across the halls of Gusu, threading through fine buildings and brushing across the skin of a thousand disciples. It made them shiver, brought low by the touch of a melancholy breeze. It made them clutch their swords close to their hips, and walk quieter steps in the chill.

 

The wind came from the highest mountains, and there it was forged in the packed snow of winter and the old corpses of war.

 

It was a lonely wind, but Lan Zhan did not pause before it. He was not a lonely man, with a brother at his side and a sword in his hand. He walked the paths of the world, traveling where the chaos rose. He helped the common man, face carved from still jade but hands kind.

 

There was no loneliness in his bones, but there was sadness in his soul.

 

The wind brought a chiming tune, and it danced across the strings of his zither mournful as a dirge. He let it play, fingers still and wind strumming in his place. It was a fitting sound for today, with the morning painting the chill of winter in the air and a weak sun warming his skin.

 

Any other day, Lan Zhan would be up and stepping free of the jingshi, letting the day welcome him to training and teaching. Any other day, Lan Zhan would be on the road, walking the path of a cultivator as he thought was right. There was chaos in every corner, and he walked graceful steps to set it to order.

 

Any other day, Lan Zhan would be standing proud.

 

But not this day.

 

On this day, Lan Zhan allowed himself a moment’s weakness. He sat before the three jugs and let the wind brush across his fingers. It was always cold this time of year, and with the hard winter, the kiss of mountain air was especially potent.

 

But there was a fire beneath his skin that had not gone out since it was set, decades ago in the aftermath of bright laughter.

 

The Lan lost their hearts to love, it was said. But Lan Zhan knew this to be false. Love did not own the Lan but fill them, and he was filled with a longing turned to peaceful love.

 

It hurt, for the lack of hope. He did not care. He would live as he always had, with principles carved into his soul and a wild heart beating in his chest.

 

He would live with love.

 

So he sat, and felt the slow passage of thirteen years ice across his hands. He felt old, as the mountain air touched him.

 

He felt worn too, but he let the wind wear him down.

 

It would not win.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

Wind touched on white stone, and made it shine with a warmth like the sun.

 

That warmth was a lie, as so much about Koi Tower was a lie. But Jin Guangyao had walked these paths for many years, and he knew how to pull the mask of truth over his teeth.

 

He knew how to lie, with Koi Tower.

 

The tower around him bustled with life, noise echoing across a thousand broad steps and through the gilt of a hundred courtyards. He smiled, and it was a quiet thing. It was honest too, for as much honesty as he let cross his lips. Lies were better told with foundations of truth, afterall, and Jin Guangyao had always been the best of liars.

 

But today was a day for no lies but truth.

 

It was a day of cold wind and old memories, and it was loud with their silence. Thirteen years ago, on this bright day of winter, a great man died. The Turtle Master had vanished, in the wake of tragedy, and all knew of the weapon that had vanished with him.

 

The Xuanwu of slaughter had disappeared into the mists of time, and even Jin Guangyao didn’t know how.

 

But he knew the why so well. He knew the why like it was carved into his bones, each beat of the chisel struck harder than the last.

 

He had killed, when he had learned the why.

 

But it had been too late for Wei Wuxian.

 

So many celebrated, when the Turtle Master died. Koi Tower had thrown a party, under the hands of the Sect Leader, and wine had flowed on white stone.

 

Koi Tower did not throw a party now. No, the halls were quiet with mourning, as the new Sect Leader walked the halls to quiet footsteps.

 

Jin Guangyao moved over gilded stone and mourned the loss of the first man that had truly understood him, and nothing tasted more bitter. He smiled anyway, and the lies of his home greeted his every step.

 

Thirteen years ago, on this day, he had lost a friend, and he still mourned that.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

A cool wind broke across the dead leaves of winter, brushed over bark and grass, through bamboo and into the depths of shade. It caught on his robes, cold with lake air and the touch of old snow.

 

It caught on Jin Ling’s skin too, but he did not shiver but glare into the breeze. The forest around him greeted him like an old friend, trees creaking over the sound of midnight air.

 

Jin Ling didn’t care for it. He didn’t care for friends, didn’t need the kind touch of people his age.

 

He walked along old paths and didn’t think about where his feet took him, mind racing on moodier roads.

 

Uncle had scolded him again, louder than before. The hard voice had echoed across the waters of Lotus Pier and out beyond the horizon, lighting quick and just as painful.

 

The power and disappointment of a sect leader, channeled into piercing words.

 

Jin Ling hated them. His mother never spoke like that, not in all the years of his childhood. She only had kind words and kinder smiles, the warm press of fingers in his hair. Mother only had gentle laughter, and Jin Ling had sheltered in it.

 

His father scolded him, in proud words and his gilded glory. But the words were always gentle, and they always came with the touch of a hand on his shoulder, with a quiet rebuttal and an awkward care.

 

Only Jiang Cheng gave him the hard stares of disappointment. Only Jiang Cheng looked at Jin Ling like he was lesser, like he was lacking.

 

Only Jiang Cheng seemed to look through him and see the shadow of a man who was greater than Jin Ling had ever been.

 

Jin Ling hated it.

 

He stepped faster, feet moving on angry paths through the darkness. This was far past the time he had ever walked these woods before, far past when any man should walk alone in the abandoned edges of this forest.

 

But he was a cultivator, with a sharp sword hanging at his waist. He had the skill to defend himself and the best teachers in the world.

 

And he was so angry. Why should he care if the paths he walked were dangerous? Maybe if he could defeat a resentful corpse his uncle would stop looking past him. It was no Xuanwu of slaughter and no Wen Clan, but maybe it would earn him the honor of praise.

 

Maybe.

 

He kept walking, into the night and into the shadows of the forest. No one came here, not with the legends that surrounded the trees and not with the cloud of resentful energy that leached from the ground.

 

Do not go near the lake, his uncle had said, with crackling lightning and steady hands.

 

Do not walk there yet, A-Ling, his mother had said, with gentle hands cradling his face.

 

But how could Jin Ling prove himself worthy of the family he had been born into, if he did not walk the dangerous paths?

 

So he walked on, and long minutes etched into his skin. The forest was quiet, with no chirping birds and no shifting of fallen leaves.

 

There was no life in these woods for a day’s travel, and it showed in the silence.

 

Jin Ling felt the hairs across his neck shift, the gold of his robes shifting with it.

 

There was something here, and it rustled towards him like the clatter of broken bones.

 

Shaking through the undergrowth, a shambling corpse appeared. It was no human, and did not hold the rage of a man.

 

It was a deer, with horns piercing into the sky and resentful energy leaking out of dead eyes. Resentful energy came from the rage of life, and no deer could hold the rage of a man.

 

This creature shouldn’t exist.

 

But Jin Ling raised his sword anyway, hands steady and fear slim. This may be a strange sighting, but that was all the better; at last, he could erase that expression from his uncle’s face.

 

At last, he could see pride.

 

He raised the edge of a divine blade, but didn’t have the chance to strike. Deadly as a knife, a surge of light cut across his face, blinding him.

 

It flickered brightly for a heartbeat, long enough for Jin Ling to catch a glimpse of a shining leaf and a current of golden power flowing in the cold wind. It cut sharp paths through the air, a torrent unlike anything Jin Ling had ever seen.

 

As if the sun had come to sear through trees and darkness, the energy shimmered and danced. It looked like fire was made into a plaything for the long fingers that drifted above his shoulder.

 

It looked strong, and Jin Ling wanted that strength.

 

The deer fell to ash and dust, in a flash as quick as a heartbeat. Jin Ling’s hopes fell with it, all his careful plans of greatness.

 

Jiang Cheng would give him no pride now, and Jin Ling didn’t want to cope with that again. He would need to find a new beast to conquer, a new corpse to fight.

 

He would need so much more.

 

Heart pounding, he turned with sword up and spirits low to face the man behind him.

 

What he saw made him stop, the edge of his blade dipping down for a weak heartbeat.

 

Jin Ling had expected a great warrior, with armor and sword fit for a cultivator centuries old. He expected a distinguished face, to match the sheen of golden power that had spiraled through the air like it was playing a game.

 

He expected someone like the famed Hanguang-jun of Gusu, with glimmering white robes and peerless skill. Only someone so strong should be able to turn a corpse to dust and steal his hope away.

 

Only someone strong should be able to move so quickly.

 

But the man before him was not peerless. Dirt covered long hair, dying it to a shade of rough brown. Dirt covered the curves of a pale face too, and the tattered scraps of robes hanging off broad shoulders. The man looked like a beggar, walking the paths of a lonely forest to die.

 

Bright eyes, black as night but cheerful as day, were the only things that stood out.

 

Jin Ling was staring at a poor man who had killed his corpse easy as breathing.

 

What the hell?

 

At his look, the man grinned wide and toothy. The expression made dirt flake to the ground, falling from a jaunty smile to dust into the wind.

 

The man didn’t look any cleaner.

 

“Out so late without a guard? You look like a young master but you walk loud as a fool.”

 

The words were laughed out, bright as the moon that hung above them. But this man was no moon but a sun, burning corpses to ash. Jin Ling bristled, offense making his shoulders raise into the chill breeze.

 

He was the heir of the Lanling Jin Sect, raised by the greatest cultivators alive. Servants moved at his whim, and dogs answered his whistling call.

 

He was the pride of his clan, and he would not be called a fool.

 

The pride of all but Jiang Cheng, whispered the stirrings of memories beneath his anger. He ignored it, raising his blade higher in the night air.

 

The woods whistled around him, as if to draw laughing circles around a beggar and a lord. Jin Ling liked that even less.

 

“Hold your damn tongue. Do you know who you’re speaking to?” The words should have made the man pause; they would have made anyone pause, and more so a poor man. Jin Ling’s robes alone should warn against rude words, and the sheen of his blade should stop them altogether.

 

Cultivators were not to be ignored or offended, went the wisdom of the commoner. And in this case, the commoners were right.

 

But the man just laughed, mocking as a bird in the silence of night.

 

“Oh? Is it some great man? You look like a child to me, and one wandering places he shouldn’t. Really, your mother should have taught you better manners talking to a stranger.”

 

The man spoke light and teasing, but they made Jin Ling’s shoulders rise into the sky.

 

How dare this man insult his mother’s teaching? How dare this stranger speak poorly of the kindest hands Jin Ling had ever known?

 

How dare?

 

He was moving before he could think, before he knew his own hands. The sword in his fingers struck forward, quick as lightning and bright in the moonlight.

 

But it hit nothing. The beggar shifted away, motions dancing across the cold ground and dead leaves of winter.

 

The man didn’t even look angry.

 

“So quick to strike, when I’ve done nothing to you. You really do need manners!”

 

The words echoed bright and vicious into the silence, and dirt flaked from the man’s face as he spoke.

 

Jin Ling struck again, and missed again. The taste of humiliation built across his tongue and made him flush.

 

How dare this man avoid him?

 

“My mother is the pride of the Jiang Clan, and you will not speak of her with such disrespect,” he snapped out, and for once the words had the power of lightning behind them.

 

Pride made him sharp, but love made him deadly, for all his failure.

 

There was a silence then, caught on the echo of his words. Jin Ling stared the man down and watched bright eyes go wide, but through dirt and filth he could see no expressions.

 

A leaf drifted from long hair to settle on the ground between them, and the man grinned wider.

 

“Damn. You’re the child of Jiang Yanli, then? I can’t possibly let you die now, can I?”

 

The words were said with a sharp smile and glinting eyes, but it looked soft. Somehow, the dirt seemed to flake away, when the man spoke his mother’s name.

 

Jin Ling looked, and felt a shiver run down his spine. It was made of the darkness of night and the paths of an unfamiliar wood, and all the warnings his mother had whispered into his ears.

 

Don’t go into the woods, she had said, and Jin Ling had not listened.

 

“Why would I die?” He asked, anger bubbling in his veins. A sword glimmered in his hand bright as water in the moonlight and twice as deadly. He was strong with training, even as his pride twitched and prickled.

 

He would prove himself to his uncle, if it took everything.

 

The beggar just looked into the depths of a thousand shadows, filthy skin dark and stained with dirt. There was something bright about him, even cast in the ink of night.

 

He looked familiar, like the hints of sunrise after a long night. He looked dangerous too, with cheerful teeth glimmering in a forbidden forest.

 

“You walked into this forest without even pausing at all this resentful energy? Damn foolish, you know. You never know what lingers in the shadows.”

 

The words were heavy with meaning, but they didn’t sound like a threat. Jin Ling bristled anyway, pride stinging across his shoulders.

 

He shivered too, with a hint of fear he didn’t want to have.

 

“What do you know,” he snapped, and felt the forest tighten around him. But one laugh from the beggar washed away the tension, and as the man stepped closer the power seeping from the ground faded into mist.

 

The forest that had been stained by resentful energy for as long as Jin Ling could remember was being swept clean.

 

How?

 

“I know a lot! I know where to find good water, and the best tasting wine, and how to clean a turtle’s shell.”

 

The man paused, and the forest seemed to hold the breeze like breath around them.

 

“I know half the most important things, and can figure out the rest as we go. Now come on, it's time to get you out of this forest before it eats you.”

 

And that was all the beggar said, though the man never stopped talking.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

It took them a day to make it back to the edge of the forest. The resentful energy in the ground seemed to fade with each step, washing away under four feet and a shine of gilded energy.

 

The beggar glowed with light, through dirt and muck. Jin Ling wanted to glow like that, power curling out of his skin.

 

He wanted to be strong, to match the family he walked from and the proud backs he chased.

 

He wanted so much.

 

No monsters attacked on their return path, and no corpse deer stumbled through dead leaves. They were alone, walking through a dark forest with only bright laughter for company. The time passed quickly when the beggar kept talking.

 

Somehow, Jin Ling even bothered to listen, though the man’s hands were crusted with dirt, and his long hair was matted and filthy.

 

The edge of the forest greeted them quickly after a long day, and the sun rose as the trees faded away.

 

Jin Ling stood there, for a moment, and watched the beggar smile into morning light. The expression looked wistful for a quiet heartbeat, gentle as the dawn.

 

Then it washed into dirt and grime, with a smile and a mocking bow.

 

Then the man left, and took the sun with him.

 

Jin Ling lingered, as the dawn washed across his back. He lingered, and wondered a thousand irritated thoughts.

 

He hadn’t needed to tell the man the path out of the forest. The beggar had known, better than Jin Ling did, better than anyone living did. The forest was forbidden and cursed to emptiness, and yet the man walked its paths like the dirt had carved callouses into bare feet.

 

What did that mean?

 

Jin Ling didn’t know. He didn’t care to, as he walked petulant steps through lake shores and bustling markets of home. The docks of Lotus Pier welcomed him, and he stepped across them with the hurt pride of a failure. The resentful energy of a dead deer clung to his skin, and this sun couldn’t wash it away.

 

Jin Ling stepped across polished wood, and knew he had run away.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

The next day, he walked to the forest edge again, and the morning light greeted his skin like an old friend. It glimmered off golden robes, off the delicate handle of his sword. It glimmered, but Jin Ling didn’t feel warm.

 

He had run away, let a beggar show him the path out of danger. He had let the resentful energy in the ground speed his steps, and the laughter make him safe.

 

He wouldn’t run this time.

 

But he didn’t walk into the forest yet. Jin Ling took steps around the edge, felt the darkness wash out of bare tree branches and silent woods.

 

He gripped his sword tight, and the winter sun seemed to shine more brightly.

 

Something dark slept in that forest. Something that had flooded even the animals with rage, and killed everything that lived there.

 

Everything but one.

 

“Come back so soon? Come on, I just got you out of here.” The beggar’s voice was loud and bright, and it made Jin Ling flush with shame in the morning sun. He shifted, shock making his shoulders bristle and fingers go white.

 

He hated it, as he hated the cool disdain of crackling lightning. For all his life, he had only ever wanted to earn respect.

 

With golden robes hanging across his shoulders, he had only wanted to make his family proud.

 

“It’s not like I’m here for you,” Jin Ling snapped, and felt the lies wash like ash across his tongue. The winter sun was cold, and the trees creaked before him in a cold wind. Resentful energy crawled like poison from the ground, up bare trees and through a dead forest.

 

But the beggar only smiled, dirt flaking away from a bright face.

 

The expression looked too much like pride for Jin Ling to stand.

 

“Why are you living out here?” He demanded, words sharp and irritation sharper. It felt like his shoulders rose with each word, fine gold silk rustling in a cold winter breeze.

 

He felt lost, but he wouldn’t run. He wouldn’t.

 

“And why haven’t you cleaned your face?”

 

A laugh answered him, rusty and bright with disuse. It echoed into the dead forest, and the resentful poison seemed to bow before it.

 

It sounded so warm.

 

“Haven’t had time, clearly. I have people to meet, you know? And important things to do! I didn’t have time to pretty up so I wouldn’t offend you, young mistress.”

 

The words were teasing and light, in the silence of a forest with no birds. But Jin Ling could only splutter before them.

 

How dare this man insult him! This beggar in torn robes, with dirt crusting across long hair, dared to insult the heir to the Jin Clan?

 

This man with a smile that was as sunny as his mother’s, this man with a walk that danced across dark paths and washed them golden.

 

This man wasn’t allowed that. No one was allowed that except his mother, and her voice was always kind and never teasing.

 

Jin Ling felt like the world had shifted beneath his feet, and the pride on his shoulders was uneven.

 

“Why you! How dare you speak to me like that, you know who my uncle is? I’ll—“

 

The beggar only turned and walked away, hair swaying in the wind and tangled beyond hope. The words trailed off into the weak sun, as the man laughed. Frustration boiled across Jin Ling, a tide he couldn’t stop.

 

He had never felt so ignored before. He had never felt teased, not when the world knelt around him and gilded robes hung on his shoulders.

 

Not when he bore the pride of two great clans.

 

Two steps had the man vanishing into shadows of the forest, tattered robes catching the wind and fluttering.

 

Jin Ling had no choice. He had sworn he wouldn’t run away again, not from this forest, and not from this man.

 

He followed, with his sword glimmering in the sun and his jaw clenched.

 

He did not regret it.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

Winter washed to a warm spring like that, Jin Ling walking offended steps beside the man with the bright laugh. With each visit to the resentful forest, Jin Ling learned a little more, and understood less.

 

On the third visit, the man brushed out his hair, and it reached long and thick to the ground. That length spoke of age, and a noble family that treasured honor. It spoke of a skilled warrior, to have a strong golden core and hair to the ground.

 

It did not speak of a beggar.

 

But the man only laughed away his questions, teasing words the only response Jin Ling received. There were no answers, not in this forest and not from this man.

 

There were only walks through the dead trees, each step laced with gilded energy that washed away the weak sun.

 

Jin Ling wanted that strength.

 

On the fourth visit, they walked slow steps to the edge of a lake with golden shores. The water was still and beautiful, and under the late light of winter it gleamed like summer.

 

It was a place he had never seen before, not in all his winters spent on the docks of Lotus Pier. The lake was broad enough to boat across, clear enough to swim through. No fish lurked in the water, and no flowers bloomed on its edge.

 

It was beautiful, but Jin Ling didn’t know it.

 

He walked across the sands and felt them shift beneath his feet. They were warm, even in the cold of winter, radiating a heat that seemed to come from the earth itself.

 

This ground did not feel stained, not as the forest around it did.

 

Jin Ling didn't know why, but the beggar seemed to step lighter here, as if the sand lifted him up and let him dance.

 

Jin Ling wanted to walk with that confidence. He wanted to have a laugh that sounded unapologetic, authority that shone through dirt and tattered clothes.

 

He wanted to be a man his uncle would respect.

 

What would it take, to earn that right?

 

On the fifth visit, the man leapt into the lake and swam like a fish, quick and graceful. Each movement had the ease of a born swimmer, and each kick moved the man deeper.

 

It was the same swimming skill Jin Ling had, one earned on the docks of Lotus Pier over long years. It was a skill he hadn’t seen in any other cultivation clan, and he wondered at it.

 

This man was a beggar, poor and filthy.  No cultivator walked light steps while covered in muck, and no clan allowed a man to wander like this.

 

The beggar should have been no one, but Jin Ling had seen golden energy flare brighter than the sun, and a laugh sound brighter than that.

 

Who was he?

 

The lake washed the dirt clean for a heartbeat, tattered robes washed clean and soaked through. But the man fell into golden sand and collected it across his skin in a heartbeat.

 

The face that smiled up at Jin Ling was unfamiliar, as the lake was unfamiliar, as the laugh was unfamiliar.

 

But something told him he should know this man. He  scowled, storm clouds boiling in his veins like lightning across the sky. He had been saved by this man, from the furies of the forest. He had been guided through the dead woods and kept safe.

 

Jin Ling was owed no answers, but he demanded them anyway, gilded robes shining on his shoulders.

 

Two clans haunted him, and he would make them proud.

 

“Why were you hiding your face?”

 

The words were loud, over the silence of a dead forest. They were loud over still water too, and the gleam of golden sands.

 

The man only laughed. Bright teeth flashed in the light, and Jin Ling saw a smile he had grown used to. It made his spine straighten, made him stand tall.

 

He wanted to earn that smile.

 

“So desperate for answers! I’m afraid my fine face was none of your business, young mistress.”

 

And that was all the man said, as they stood in the depths of a forest no one had walked in for time beyond memory.

 

Jin Ling didn’t ask again.

 

On the sixth visit, the man met him with a turtle riding on strong shoulders. It was a small thing, barely large enough to fill a palm. It moved slow as dripping honey, like the world paused on its every breath. But its shell glimmered in the light of a new spring, and it held fast to the man’s tattered robes.

 

Jin Ling blinked, and blue eyes stared back at him. They seemed to stare into him, through his bones and core. Then they closed, a hairsbreadth at a time and with all the patience in the world.

 

He blinked, and wondered.

 

“What is that? Why do you have a turtle?”

 

Jin Ling was a proud son, and a prouder heir. He walked beside the leaders of two sects, and called them family. Every breath was his to command, and every man in two sects answered his call.

 

But now he only sounded confused.

 

He was standing in a dead forest, beside a beggar that wore a turtle like robes.

 

Nothing in the gilded halls of Koi Tower or the polished docks of Lotus Pier had prepared him for this. Who the hell was this man?

 

The man laughed, loud enough to shake the dead forest.

 

“This is no turtle, young master! This is an old friend of mine, and it likes the view,” the beggar said, letting his hand rest on the turtle’s shell. The golden energy that always shone from pale skin seemed to grow brighter, until the sun overhead was dim and calloused fingers were bright.

 

Jin Ling wanted to strangle him.

 

“Are you trying to make me look a fool? That is clearly a turtle!” He paused, words bristling across his throat. “And what do you mean it likes the view?

 

Laughter followed his question, echoing between trees and over cold ground. It brushed away the cobwebs of resentful energy, but Jin Ling didn’t relax at its sound.

 

He didn’t.

 

“Oh, I think you’d be surprised how much sense I’m making!” The beggar said, and said no more.

 

Jin Ling really was going to strangle him, if he ever got answers. If he could ever walk with the same confidence, laugh with the same ease. If only he could make his uncle proud.

 

Jin Ling would wear a turtle too, if only he could walk as lightly.

 

When he left the forest that day, the shadows on the ground around him were lighter than before, and the hints of new leaves shone green and bright on the branches above. He paused, on the path back.

 

There was a mouse, rustling the bushes beside him. It was quiet and small, and it shook the sparse grass like wind across water.

 

But it was alive.

 

On the seventh visit, Jin Ling asked the question that had boiled on his tongue for weeks, in the light of winter and spring.

 

“What are you even running from?” The words were a sharp demand, bright in the deep colors of frost. Jin Ling shifted as he spoke, felt the ground rustle with his movements as leaves before a storm.

 

The man with an unimportant name lay across the ground of crinkling leaves and laughed into the air, bright as the dawning sun. The turtle clambered over him, small body moving the slow steps of patience over worn robes. Bright scales glittered in the sun, red and green in patterns that matched the leaves of autumn.

 

Jin Ling looked at torn robes and asked a sharp question, but the man only smiled like the winter sun.

 

“Wouldn’t you like to know, Jin Ling? Curiosity can be the death of you, you know, but it’s a damn fun way to go.”

 

There was a hint of deep waters and long days spent breathless, in those words. The echoed like the sand beneath a lake, as if they pulled themselves free of cold currents and drowning tides.

 

They sounded knowing.

 

But Jin Ling spoke with curiosity that wouldn’t sting. He knew it, because he knew this man wouldn’t let it burn him.

 

He trusted in the stranger who had laughed beside him. He had seen the lingering stares the man let glimmer on the horizon, had watched a laugh echo hollow and a smile echo with regret.

 

Beneath shabby clothes and the roughly brushed hair was a grieving warrior. In the laugh that was bright as sun, Jin Ling heard a hollow echo like the smiles he earned from his uncle on the quietest nights, in the halls of Koi Tower. In the quick fingers and snappy attacks, Jin Ling saw the sharp reflexes Sect Leader Nie bore with pride.

 

In the whole of the stranger, Jin Ling felt sorrow. It reminded him of the look in his uncle’s lightning eyes, of the cold of sunset when lotus blooms cast long shadows. Jiang Cheng looked sad on those nights, staring out over still water with the clenched jaw of fury.

 

Jin Ling wanted to earn this man’s approval too.

 

He huffed, loud and offended in the silence between them. It echoed like the puffing wings of a bird, but Jin Ling didn’t feel like singing a song.

 

He wanted to know.

 

“Can’t you just tell me? I’ve been visiting this forest for weeks! You are so—”

 

He couldn’t finish the sentence, trailing off into the stubborn silence of annoyance. It felt like a thousand sunbeams pricked his shoulders into rising, and he felt worse with each one.

 

He wanted the man’s approval, but he wanted answers too. What if that dancing smile turned to a frown? Jin Ling had stood before enough frowns in his life to never wish for another.

 

He had stood before enough frowns to want to earn a smile, too.

 

On the tenth visit, a bird chirped in the silence. It was loud over the sound of his footsteps, but quiet under the press of laughter. The call echoed through new leaves, shaking their delicate green and casting shadows on the ground.

 

A bird chirped in a dead forest, and Jin Ling knew it was not dead, but living.

 

The resentful energy that had crawled up bark and into roots was fading, washed away before light brighter than a sun.

 

Jin Ling knew what shone like that.

 

The beggar was healing this place of resentful energy, but he didn't know how. He wanted to; he wanted to know what power could fix a cursed forest, what power could earn him great deeds and pride.

 

Jin Ling wanted to know how he could help too.

 

His fingers clenched around a gilded pommel, as he stepped from the forest. Lotus Pier welcomed him back, but his steps were slow and his motions distracted.

 

He didn’t know how to grow strong, but there was someone he could ask to find out. His uncle always had answers, whether they were sharp and angry or quick with lightning.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

“Uncle,” Jin Ling began, and his voice felt small and quiet. There was a lingering weakness in his shoulders, clinging to the gold of his robes.

 

He felt so hesitant, and his voice reflected that. So he made it angry instead, channeled the petulance of long days of failure into his tone.

 

It was still polite, still desperate. So much of Jin Ling was desperate for this man’s approval, and would be for years yet.

 

Mother, father, and uncles— these are the people he wanted to please, for the long years of his short life. Their glory was what he reached for, their victories the thing of his dreams.

 

For all the kind hands across his shoulders and the warm fingers in his hair, he hadn’t achieved it yet.

 

He hadn’t made Sect Leader Jiang proud.

 

“Uncle, why is the forest to the north forbidden?” He asked, and watched the words force a storm on his uncle’s face. The man’s entire body went still, cold as ice collecting on lotus petals. The rustle of disciples and servants around them fell quiet too, a pause that was a moment too long.

 

They knew. Everyone knew, except Jin Ling.

 

Tension crawled up his spine, and he couldn’t let it free. There was something lurking in the depths of his uncle’s proud eyes that was more than rage.

 

Jin Ling wanted to know what it was. He had to know, if he wanted to earn approval.

 

“Nothing happened. It's unimportant. Don’t ask again.” Each word was shorter than the last, each sentence harsher. His uncle seemed to grow colder with each, until the world around them was frost and the air icy as a winter breeze.

 

He was being dismissed, being ignored. The servants around them knew, the whole of Lotus Pier knew, and yet—

 

And yet, Jin Ling wasn’t enough.

 

“But it's stained by resentful energy,” he began, arguments rising in his throat. There were a thousand, lingering across his tongue and ready to fight.

 

He may be hurt, but he hadn’t backed down from a challenge yet. Jin Ling wouldn’t, if given a chance.

 

Even if it was his uncle. Even if it was the one he wanted to make proud, above all others.

 

His will died quickly, beneath the furious glare of a sect leader.

 

“Have you gone there? Have you, A-ling?”

 

With each word, his uncle’s voice rose, until the man was shouting and lightning crackled across the wintery air.

 

It was supposed to be spring. The forest had felt like spring, when Jin Ling had walked through healing trees. The air there was warm with life, and a light stronger than the sun.

 

The air over Lotus Pier burned.

 

Now his uncle looked deadly, purple sparks surrounding purple robes and lighting them brighter than the sun. His uncle looked worried too, and the hands that raised to grip Jin Ling’s shoulders were white with tension.

 

Jin Ling felt an petulant anger boil across his skin, hot and prickly. He had failed again.

 

Why could he please everyone but his uncle?

 

“A-ling,” the man began, voice tight and hands tighter. “Do not go to the forest. It will kill you, without mercy. It has killed children before. ”

 

It has killed children before rang through his head, loud and echoingly sharp. The hands on his shoulders seared into him, strong as divine steel and a shade before bruising.

 

His uncle’s eyes looked so painful.

 

“But—“ he began, thinking of the calm that followed the beggar’s steps, of the golden energy that glowed from filthy skin.

 

He thought of the man that had walked him through the forest and laughed beside him, of the birds that had begun to chirp in the trees.

 

Jin Ling thought of this, and knew the forest had been kind to him.

 

“But nothing, A-Ling. Do not go there, or I will whip your skin myself. Do not.”

 

Jin Ling’s couldn’t help but wonder what put the fear in his uncle’s voice. He couldn’t help but resent the order, snapped out with no explanation and crackling lightning.

 

The rest of Lotus Pier knew why the forest was forbidden— Jin Ling would know too, with or without his uncle’s permission.

 

He had always been good about following orders, but a bright laugh made him want to break every rule.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

Jin Ling returned to the lake a few days later, jaw clenched in the first breeze of spring. The forest greeted him gladly, as did the fresh leaves and the chirping birds. Mice skittered across his path, and the air seemed light and cheery.

 

This place was alive again, under the light steps of the beggar. It was alive under the burning sun of a bright laugh, and the gilded energy that shone from every step.

 

The forest was alive, but its master wasn’t here. The beggar didn’t greet him at the trees, and didn’t greet him as he walked petulant steps over warm ground.

 

The beggar didn’t greet him, as Jin Ling walked lonely and furious across a living forest. He did not resent that, and did not feel the sting of fresh hurt.

 

He didn’t.

 

It was at the lake that Jin Ling found him, a lingering breeze catching golden robes and making them thin with chill.

 

The beggar stood on clean sand, and the dawn rose with him.

 

Jin Ling stepped forward, the wind around him angry. It was hurt too, from the fear in his uncle’s eyes and the fingers that had pressed into his robes.

 

A night had passed, but Jin Ling still didn’t know why this forest was forbidden. A night had passed, and Jin Ling was still a failure.

 

“Ah, young master. I’m leaving this forest for a while. I have things to do, people to bother. Take care of your family, hmm?”

 

The words came before Jin Ling could speak, and they echoed light and lilting over the still water. The beggar always sounded so bright, as if laughter burst from the cracks of his teeth and mischief spun from his fingers.

 

Jin Ling wanted to have that smile, and that confidence. He wanted to walk beside this man for longer, wanted to learn how to be strong and unstoppable.

 

He wanted to make the beggar proud, too.

 

But the words made his spine straighten, and a frown crawl across his face. He had come for answers, and instead was left behind.

 

Again, something angry in him whispered, and it made his words sharp and demanding.

 

“You are going to finish dealing with the resentful energy, aren’t you?”

 

Jin Ling wasn’t stupid, no matter what his uncle thought. He had seen the signs, walked the stained paths and the cleaned ones that washed them away.

 

He knew the beggar was cleansing this forest, one dark stone and path at a time. He knew the resentful energy stretched from the shining lakes of Lotus Pier to the mountains of Gusu, a slender stain on the honor of both clans.

 

It was one that could earn Jin Ling honor.

 

“How long will it take?” He demanded, in quick words and quicker temper. His heart was beating fast in his chest, a butterfly trapped in a bone cage.

 

A warrior’s heart wouldn’t beat with fear. His uncle’s heart wouldn’t shake, even though this could take him from his family. His uncle’s fingers would crackle with lightning, and his steps would be quick.

 

The man his mother told him stories about wouldn’t have hesitated to reach a strong hand forward either, and walk beside a changing world. Jin Ling wanted that, wanted the will to shape the world.

 

He wanted the pride of Yunmeng to trace his steps, and the honor of two clans to follow him.

 

Here, he could earn it.

 

The beggar only smiled, teeth bright in the sun. “A few weeks, at most. Don’t worry little princess, I’ll be back soon enough.”

 

A few weeks, the man said, and golden sand shifted beneath their feet. A few weeks, the man said, to heal a forest with golden energy.

 

Jin Ling wouldn’t be punished, if it was only a few weeks.

 

“I’m coming with you,” he said, words slipping out before he could stop them. They echoed brighter than a smile, across still water.

 

They felt stronger than anything Jin Ling had said before.

 

“I am going to help.”

 

The beggar stared at him for a long and windswept heartbeat. There was a glimmer catching in sharp eyes, and it glowed out past tattered robes and clever grins.

 

The man looked solemn, for the first time in long months.

 

“You would follow me if I tried to stop you, huh? You are a fool, kid. Go home to Shi— your mother. She doesn’t deserve a missing child.”

 

The words were quiet, quick and smart. They made sense, drove a sword into Jin Ling’s spiny heart. In all his life, he had never disappointed his mother.

 

But he had to make his family proud.

 

“I am coming, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I have to make them proud.”

 

To that, the man said nothing.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

It took him two days to pack for a journey. It took him less than that, to walk into the depths of a forest and shout for a beggar.

 

And so a journey of long days began, caught in the laughter of a man that the world thought dead, and the glare of a boy who held too much pride.

 

It was the beginning of a bond that would last a lifetime. It was the foundations of a friendship that would span centuries, and it started in the depths of a living forest.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

The docks of Lotus Pier echoed with the steps of two survivors, and each motion was hollow. The docks shivered beneath them, polished wood quaking at the sound of worry and thunder.

 

There was an emptiness where a child should have been, and in the echoing hollow was only fear. Lightning crackled in the wake of Jiang Cheng’s every step, bright and brutal as a sword to the gut. He walked like a man haunted by a brother’s ghost, and a nephew’s questions.

 

He walked like a man who felt the weight of lives on his shoulders.

 

Jiang Yanli walked like a woman cored out. Her steps did not crackle but wept, and her fingers were not calloused but shaking. She was a mother, a sister, a survivor— she had tasted war and knew its pain. She knew the cost of loss, and had the strength to stand before it.

 

But Jin Ling had been missing for four days, vanished from the docks of Lotus Pier like mist in the sun.

 

Two survivors walked the docks, and knew only fear. The last thing the child had asked was about the forest, and the lake that hid inside dark leaves.

 

Still currents lingered in that lake, deep and deadly.

 

“We have to swim the water,” Jiang Cheng said at last, voice not loud but painful. The man was a proud sect leader, the survivor of a long war and longer grief.

 

He sounded grim. It was the voice of a man who knew what they would find, and the horrors that lingered in still water.

 

It was the sound of a brother digging for a grave, and Jiang Yanli knew it well.

 

There had once been three survivors, after all.

 

They found no body in the still waters. There were no old bones, and no fresh ones to sink into the lake bed.

 

They found no turtle, and that was all the more mysterious.

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

There was a letter sitting on the desk of an important man, light as the touch of a feather through wind. It looked gentle, white and clean on polished wood. A wandering soul would think it held bright thoughts or important news, cast as it was in the light of morning sun.

 

What whispered over the desk of the second son, would sing the rumors. What light news danced to the gentle fingers of Jin Guangyao, warrior in war but advisor in peace?

 

What lover did the man have, what plans at status higher than belonged to the son of a whore?

 

Those questions would swirl, and the answers would be wrong, as so many opinions drifting around Jin Guangyao were wrong.

 

This letter held not rumor but certainty, and not happiness but ill news. It was the kind of news that often crossed Jin Guangyao’s desk, delicate information spread to the spymaster of two sects.

 

It was the kind of news he wanted to rip to shreds and use to his advantage.

 

He lifted the letter with clever fingers and steady palms, felt the smooth touch of expensive paper meet his hands. Sect Leader Jiang did not spare expense, not in paper and not in wine.

 

That was as it should be. The man was a leader of a great clan, bright and powerful as the sun that burned into the white stone of Koi Tower.

 

But this was not a letter from a commander, but from an uncle. Each brush stroke spoke of fury and worry, and each character painted a picture of hopeless rage.

 

It was a feeling Jin Guangyao understood well, because it trembled beneath his skin too, though sharper and far more calculating.

 

He had never been a man for sentiment. His world was made from cold practicality, and the slow burn of old love. He treasured a few friendships, and built a few precious statues.

 

Jin Guangyao was not one for sentiment, but this letter was still cause for concern.

 

Jin Ling was missing. The heir to his sect, raised in spoiled luxury and trained into a warrior, was missing.

 

A forest hunt gone wrong, perhaps, or the revenge of discontents?

 

It didn’t matter. Jin Guangyao would turn polite smiles and shadowed friends to fix this problem, with every piece of calculating rage in his skin. He was a beast walking among men, but he had carved a place in his bones for Jin Ling.

 

He stood from a gilded desk that he had earned, and walked through rooms of gold and white stone. Koi Tower greeted his every step with an echoing grace, murals and long halls bright with victory and joy.

 

It had been years since a war had ripped the world to pieces, and this place showed no scars.

 

The Sect Leader had been told, and Jin Guangyao imagined his brother was angry beyond words. But his brother was also soft, a kind man with a warrior’s soul. Jin Zixuan would send out search parties and call for aid.

 

Jin Guangyao had the heart of a beast and the skills of a spy, and he would smile into the shadows and call on the underworld to find him a child.

 

Wei Wuxian would not have wanted the boy to vanish, and Jin Guangyao would respect the wishes of the one man who had truly understood him.

 

He smiled, a politician’s grace dancing on his lips. He walked careful steps, and greeted all who saw him with a gentle nod.

 

The mask painted over his robes and eyes was so very thick.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

It began, as it always did, on a lake shore. Gentle water lapped at his ankles, lingering on the skin of his feet and clinging like fine sand. It felt warm with spring and sunlight, bathed in the light of late afternoon. It felt cold from the lingering traces of resentful energy that swirled in the muck and mire far below.

 

It was a lake like no other, heavy with old memories and older spirits. It was a beautiful place, peaceful and quiet as a lonely sunrise.

 

Wei Wuxian remembered this place.

 

He stood on a sandy shore and smiled, watching the ghosts of memories splash in the water. They were such young ghosts, flying low on strong swords. They were ghosts that hadn’t seen war, and Wei Wuxian knew they had been happy. He knew they were fools too, too proud and too brilliant for their own good.

 

A decade ago, he would have missed them. Now he only laughed, light and unstoppable.

 

He was free.

 

There was a breathless happiness bubbling up in his skin, brewed by long weeks spent wandering the woods with A-ling at his side. His core swelled in his chest, the golden energy of a god making him strong. His soul made him relentless, and it was that spirit that brought him to this lake shore today.

 

The sun glimmered with spring warmth, high above. A-ling took impatient breaths by his side, golden robes glittering in the light. The Xuanwu held a silent vigil on his shoulder, feet cutting into the rags of his robes as tiny daggers.

 

The world held its breath, and Wei Wuxian was ready.

 

“Why are we here?”

 

The question was sharp and annoyed, echoing in the gentle air and across still waters. It was the voice of a child. A-ling had grown in the sun of winter and into the light of spring, but the boy still didn’t understand.

 

That was fine. There would be time to learn later, when the world had pressed cruel fingers into A-ling’s scowl and made it bitter. There would be time to grow a shell that shone like the one resting on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder.

 

There was always time, he had discovered. He was glad for it.

 

Now A-ling’s voice echoed with the petulance of a child, and was so much lighter for it. It was so much calmer than it had been, forged by the adventuring of weeks and the friendship of months.

 

Wei Wuxian laughed out an answer, feet splashing at the water’s edge. War was long gone, on this lake.

 

War had only touched this lake once, under the clear skies of Gusu.

 

“We are here for the fight, of course! And maybe a drink of Emperor’s Smile when we are done.”

 

The sun melted across his face, bright as the long dawn after battle. He let it warm him, as he stood in shallow water. The beast that dwelled in its depths stirred, the movement of his toes enough to summon it. It was an angry thing, made from the drowned bodies of a thousand lives.

 

It was familiar.

 

The Xuanwu shifted across his shoulder, and he could feel every twitch and snap of tiny jaws. It was as ready as he was, with bloodlust coating his skin and war still lingering under torn robes.

 

It had always understood him, and that was more true now than ever before.

 

“What, are you trying to kill a lake?” The tone was demanding, quick and petty. But A-ling’s eyes were sharp as they scanned the water, and calloused hands gripped a sword handle tight.

 

Wei Wuxian felt a surge of pride wash across his skin. It came from the depths of a dead forest, and rested lightly on every gentle leaf of spring and summer.

 

It was an uncle’s pride.

 

The water-born abyss answered for him, stirring murderous threads through the water. A whirlpool formed, in the center of a still lake. It swirled with the furies of countless dead, made strong by years of resentment and drowning rage.

 

Wei Wuxian only smiled. He had been wanting to kill this creature for two decades, and now he finally had the chance.

 

He leapt into the water like it would catch his heart, diving deep into the maws of the abyss.

 

It felt good.

 

Black threads greeted him like a hungry beast, swirling through currents and dead fish to grip his wrists.

 

He laughed.

 

The abyss thought him easy prey, a man come wandering into its hungry jaws. It had been starved for so long, sitting in the mountains and guarded by the Lan Clan. No stray travelers had been allowed into its depths, and no food wandered through its waters.

 

The abyss was alone with its ravenous hunger, and it had longed for bones to sink into the muck and soil.

 

In a way, Wei Wuxian understood that. It was how the Xuanwu had felt, trapped in a lonely cave and driven mad by resentful energy. It was how he had felt, in each dream spent by the side of a creature made from a god’s blood.

 

But understanding wouldn’t spare the abyss.

 

He smiled, and the water shivered around him. He laughed, and it trembled. He whistled, and at his side the Xuanwu swum anew.

 

There was a god on his shoulder, and it did not care for resentful energy.

 

It took three heartbeats for the Xuanwu to begin growing. First it was the size of his palm, and black threads curled around its shell. Then it was the size of his body, and the trembling currents of the lake shook at each shift.

 

Then it was the size of the lake itself, jaws opening in a roar to shake the heavens.

 

Black threads of power snapped, before that roar, like spiderwebs cut by the shaking voices of a thousand screams. They clung to the edge of a broad shell as it rose from the water.

 

They were weak, before the Xuanwu’s strength.

 

Wei Wuxian laughed, as the abyss screamed. He laughed again, as he swam to catch the edge of a broad shell. Up and up it carried him, the rush of a god’s growth making the water part and break.

 

The Xuanwu was strong and healthy on this summer’s day, and it wore the size of a mountain like a second nature.

 

He laughed until his chest felt light and the sun greeted his skin and the kiss of air across his face dried the water.

 

He laughed while the abyss swirled a familiar whirlpool below, black threads shrieking in fear. He laughed over the frantic shouts of A-ling on the shore, and over the murmurs of the village nearby.

 

The Xuanwu opened a snapping jaw to swallow the abyss, and Wei Wuxian laughed.

 

He felt free.

 

When still water settled across the lake and resentful energy evaporated like steam, the shell beneath his feet shrunk and faded.

 

By the time the Xuanwu reached the shore it was the size of a dog, and Wei Wuxian leapt free to land on sand and shifting ground. It moved out of the water after him, smaller with each step until it could fit in a single palm.

 

Blue eyes glimmered like stars, in the light of the sun. They were familiar as his own smile, after decades of dreams.

 

Wei Wuxian only laughed, as the sand shifted beneath his feet. It was a good day to be alive.

 

On the shore before him, A-ling looked pale with shock, wide eyes fixed on the turtle crawling its way up Wei Wuxian’s robes. The boy’s hand shook, where it held a fine sword steady.

 

“That is the Xuanwu of Slaughter,” said a sharp voice, like a revelation. Wei Wuxian looked at shaking fingers and watched them grow white knuckled.

 

The boy understood now. Was that good?

 

“That’s the Xuanwu of Slaughter, that’s— who are you?”

 

Wei Wuxian opened his mouth to respond, words lingering on his tongue like fine liquor. They were truthful, made of the trust earned by long months and the leaves of a healing forest.

 

Those words were his name.

 

But white robes on the horizon stole the words away, as dust on the wind. They turned into pained smiles and nervous laughter instead, into the edge of vicious warning he didn’t want to have. Wei Wuxian shifted on the sands, but did not step away.

 

Lan Zhan had already seen him. There was no point in running from golden eyes, not when the man would follow him regardless.

 

Lan Zhan had always been unstoppable.

 

And Wei Wuxian had known this would happen. The Xuanwu had grown large and unmistakable, as he had known it would. It could be seen far away, from beyond the mist on the lake and from the clear halls of the Cloud Recesses.

 

The shining shell was a call, and it echoed loud in the spring sun. It was a gesture of good will and a declaration, wrapped into one snapping bite.

 

I am here, it said, in the bold laugh of a dead man.

 

I am alive, it said, in the voice of old memories.

 

I am strong, it grinned, in a smirk he felt dancing across his lips.

 

Wei Wuxian would always have a smile for Lan Zhan.

 

There was a breathless pause, as the man stepped before him. White robes swirled, in the light of a bright sun.

 

But Wei Wuxian could only see golden eyes, and only watch the peerless cut of Lan Zhan’s face. The man was still as beautiful, even a decade later.

 

Time hadn’t washed this away.

 

“What, are you speechless, Lan Zhan? Is that any way to great an old friend?” The words danced out of him, light and mocking as the fresh breeze of spring.

 

Had they been friends? Wei Wuxian didn’t know. He had wanted to be, for the long years of peace and the short months of war.

 

Wei Wuxian had laughed and teased and wanted this man to see him. He never had.

 

“You died,” Lan Zhan said, and the words were so quiet.

 

They stung sharp enough to make Wei Wuxian laugh, sharp enough to make him remember war. A decade in the belly of a god wasn’t enough, to wash away this.

 

Nothing would be enough.

 

“Ah, death is such a serious word! I didn’t really die, and didn’t really live.”

 

It was a lie, and they both knew it. Neither mentioned it, as they stood on the banks of a peaceful spring lake.

 

“I am glad you returned,” Lan Zhan said at last, golden eyes coring him out and lingering on the energy spinning from his skin.

 

Wei Wuxian thought the man looked regal, in white robes and fine silver. He thought Lan Zhan looked stuffy too, weighed down by the principles of Gusu.

 

A shame. Wei Wuxian had loved getting under this man’s skin, driving the perfect face to frustration. He alone had been able to win a frown from Lan Zhan.

 

He missed that.

 

“Lan Zhan, don’t you remember this place? How could I not come back to handle the abyss? Who else could have done it?”

 

He grinned as he spoke, bright and daring in the spring sun. The Xuanwu’s scales gleamed on his shoulder, and the water settled into stillness before him.

 

Wei Wuxian had waited so long to return to Gusu.

 

“I remember,” Lan Zhan said, and spoke nothing else. With wind brushing across his skin like a silent kiss, that gaze felt more damning than any other.

 

Wei Wuxian smiled, and it felt real.

 

They walked together, two men grown and a prickly boy. Wei Wuxian laughed into the bright light of sun, over A-ling’s furious questions and Lan Zhan’s silence. With each step he felt lighter, and with each breath he felt happy.

 

Long weeks walking by Jin Ling’s side had shown him what he missed, in the years standing beside a hungry beast. They had shown him how to laugh again too, with the sound echoing loud and real into the silence of conversation.

 

Jin Ling had shown Wei Wuxian so much, even as the boy had grown strong himself.

 

What would Lan Zhan show him, in this new and brilliant world?

 

They walked together, and the Cloud Recesses greeted them like an old friend. Wei Wuxian had spilled wine across these fine walls before— would the stain still be there?

 

Would the rules be the same, or would they have changed with the years? Lan Zhan hadn’t changed, not even in the days of peace.

 

Maybe the rules would be the same too.

 

Wei Wuxian stepped forward, through fine gates and in the rustling of torn robes and white silk. Tiny feet pricked into his skin, but he did not shift his gaze from Lan Zhan. The Xuanwu moved across his robes, but Wei Wuxian was not moved by it.

 

He knew the stone beneath his feet, as he knew the taste of high mountain air. He knew this place, and it tasted like ghosts over water.

 

“Well, Lan Zhan, you got your wish.”

 

A questioning stare answered him, full of mystery and warm eyes. Wei Wuxian only smiled wider, a little too sharp and a little too happy.

 

“I’ve returned to Gusu with you, at last. Take good care of me, alright Lan Zhan?”

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

On the first day, Wei Wuxian walked the roads of Gusu and thought they were too broad. He laughed through it anyway, stepping light feet through quiet halls. Every path was lined with polished stone, placed by careful fingers and burnished by the wind.

 

The road felt too wide and too bright, the sun too warm. It had been a long time since Wei Wuxian walked in a city, and longer still since he’d liked it.

 

But he only laughed, clear and unstoppable in the mountain air. He lounged on the roof at night and broke ten rules with each breath, and each one was worth it.

 

Gusu had always been so strict.

 

Lan Zhan settled beside him and said nothing, quiet company for Wei Wuxian’s chatter. It was peaceful, for all Wei Wuxian could handle peace.

 

He had been a man of war for so long, but the sun was bright and the roof tiles below his back were smooth.

 

“What, can’t leave me alone for even a moment Lan Zhan? Afraid I’ll ruin your fine rules and fine roof?”

 

His voice was teasing and light, made brighter by the golden turns of his core. This felt like a moment from a memory long gone, and a time he never thought he’d get again.

 

It felt like a dream, but Wei Wuxian had slept long enough to know this was real.

 

For a long moment, Lan Zhan did not speak. There was the silence of nightfall, lingering between them with broken rules and burning torches. It sounded loud, echoing out across mountains and the first hint of clouds.

 

It sounded like peace, and Wei Wuxian wanted to leap into it and laugh as he fell.

 

He wanted to be caught, at the bottom.

 

“There is a room prepared for you,” Lan Zhan said at last, and it sounded quiet with an invitation. It sounded like courtesy, given from a man who walked the bright path to the monster that forged the narrow one.

 

Wei Wuxian did not know what to make of it, and so he smiled, sly and bright.

 

“A room? What if I want to annoy you instead, Lan Zhan? What if I want to sleep on the roofs and wake all the compound with my snoring?”

 

He leaned back, and the world tilted with him, clouds billowing across the sky. Only the moon lit the night now, but it seemed very dim.

 

Lan Zhan’s skin was probably brighter than the moon, and better sculpted too. A shame the man never smiled!

 

There was a pause, and it echoed between them on the wings of cloudy mountains. Wei Wuxian felt cold seep into his skin, pressing in from the pristine roof.

 

It couldn’t chill him, for gold turned in his chest again.

 

“You may sleep in my rooms, if you wish,” came the response, and the wind brushed across Wei Wuxian’s skin to make his heart stop.

 

There was a monster curled up against his chest, sleeping and small as a skipping stone. There was another beneath his skin, where he had given too much of himself to war.

 

Lan Zhan was a fool, if he wanted that in his rooms.

 

“Oh? You sure you want that, Lan Zhan? I move in my sleep you know, and besides you’d have to welcome the Xuanwu too. Don’t think you want that in your fine quarters, no?”

 

The words were light as a breeze, but heavy with meaning. There was a golden core turning in his chest, but Wei Wuxian did not feel free in this moment.

 

Hope was the heaviest weight of all.

 

Lan Zhan just stood like jade and stone, and did not look away.

 

“You are welcome, Wei Ying,” the man said.

 

And so it was. And so it was too much. Wei Wuxian had laughed his way from a sleeping grave, and laughed his way through a new life.

 

He would laugh his way out of pain too, but it was too much to bear. This moment, was too much.

 

A smile grew across his face, burned bright by the moon and sharp by the turtle shell pressing against his chest.

 

It was not sharp enough, but in this new life he didn’t care to make it cruel.

 

“Not tonight, Lan Zhan. Tonight I want to scuff your fine roofs and sleep under the stars.”

 

Lies tasted good, when he spoke them with a smile. They tasted like ghosts over still water, and the laughter of youth. They tasted like Emperor’s Smile, and Wei Wuxian knew their flavor well.

 

But Lan Zhan only nodded, quiet as a mountain’s vigil. He did not report the rule breaking, though Wei Wuxian’s feet scrapped the ceiling tiles and dirt collected on white stone.

 

Lan Zhan only looked on, gold eyes glimmering and jade face set and unknowable.

 

Wei Wuxian laughed, and teased more.

 

On the second day, Wei Wuxian danced across the fine paths of the Cloud Recesses and broke the sunlight. Fog shook at his steps, and light gleamed on the shell of the Xuanwu.

 

It perched on his shoulder that day, and no one questioned it.

 

It had been a great beast, made from darkness and hunger. Now it was cleansed and small, shell glimmering gold in the sun.

 

What dead god was this, when it drew living breath?

 

Wei Wuxian knew. He had dreamt with the Xuanwu for a decade, and he knew its thoughts as if they were his own.

 

He knew what it wanted, and he knew how to give it peace.

 

But that was for later. Now, Wei Wuxian wondered how many rules he could break in a day. He wondered how much war lingered beneath his skin, after months spent washing it away.

 

He walked, and he wondered. A-ling followed in his footsteps, shoulders proud and guard up. The boy would learn to loosen up soon enough, Wei Wuxian knew.

 

But that was also for later. He was given a new robe, without tatters and marks. He was given strange looks too, as he walked the halls of Gusu and his skin glowed golden. Whispers followed his steps, and Wei Wuxian knew his existence couldn’t be kept a secret, not with a turtle on his shoulder and A-ling at his side.

 

Jiang Cheng and Shijie would come soon, brought by whispers and letters.

 

But he only laughed as he pulled the silk across his shoulders. In the cloudy robes of Gusu, he felt like a disciple again.

 

How purple would Jiang Cheng’s face go, at the sight?

 

On the second night, Wei Wuxian lay back across the roofs and grinned into the moon, watching fog and clouds crack the sky.

 

The world slept around him, on this night, years deep into peace.

 

But one Lan member did not. Lan Zhan settled beside him, robes white as snow and face peerless as the dawn.

 

The man did not speak, and did not move. It was well past nine, and Wei Wuxian could feel rules break with every breath.

 

What was Lan Zhan doing here?

 

“Isn’t it past your bedtime, Lan Zhan? The sun’s set and the liquor is out!” He laughed, and the sound echoed as fire and lightning across the mountain peaks.

 

It was loud, but it was honest, and that made all the difference. He had laughed like this, in the weeks of wandering with Jin Ling.

 

He had laughed like this decades ago, when he lounged across this roof and teased a young disciple to fury and fighting.

 

This laugh was a luxury, and in peace he would give it freely.

 

“Or it would be,” he added, “if the Cloud Recesses allowed liquor. You and your rules, Lan Zhan! It’s impossible to have any fun.”

 

He looked into the perfect face, carved from the perfect jade, and wanted to laugh again. The world only made the best of faces for Lan Zhan.

 

“It is late,” Lan Zhan said, and the words rang out in the depth of night.

 

Against the echoes of Wei Wuxian’s laugh, they sounded quiet.

 

For a long moment, the man said nothing more, and curiosity crawled across Wei Wuxian’s skin. Would Lan Zhan not speak? Would the man not chastise him for all the rules he had broken?

 

Where was the principled warrior Wei Wuxian remembered, and when had this enigma taken his place?

 

“That’s it Lan Zhan? It’s past sleep but you are awake, we stand on the roof but you don’t kick me down? You’ve softened while I slept, huh!”

 

Wei Wuxian remembered that last fight, on the shores of his prison. He remembered speaking harsh words, and hearing footsteps fade away in the sand.

 

He had wanted to return to Gusu, then. He had wanted to laugh beside Lan Zhan, in the sunlight of peace.

 

Wei Wuxian remembered.

 

“You slept for a long time,” Lan Zhan began, as white robes glimmered in the delicate strands of moonlight. The man looked lovely as a cloud, and just as untouchable.

 

Wei Wuxian wanted to tug the end of a fine silk ribbon, and bring the clouds to the ground.

 

“But I have only grown, and not changed,” Lan Zhan said, on the roof of a mountain home.

 

The words were simple, and they held a simple meaning. Time had passed, since they had stood together against the Wen. Time had passed since Lan Zhan came to his lake shore and asked him a question.

 

It made sense, that the world had grown, and Lan Zhan with it.

 

But the words lingered on Wei Wuxian’s skin for far longer than the moonlight. They lingered, powerful as the sun on still water.

 

Wei Wuxian wanted to understand them.

 

On the third day, he laughed Jin Ling into speaking to the other disciples. The boy had clung to him since they arrived, hovering at his side and glaring with the cold air of a proud man.

 

He looked so much like his father, standing tall and too straight. He looked like Jiang Cheng too, with prickly shoulders and an angry frown. Wei Wuxian wanted to laugh and shove him over, wanted to watch the cold melt from A-Ling’s face and a pout bloom.

 

He wanted A-Ling to be happy, now that they had returned to the land of quiet nobility and careful cultivation. Wei Wuxian wanted Jin Ling to speak to his parents again, with the cleansed forest stretching between Gusu and Yunmeng.

 

Wei Wuxian wanted to speak to them too, to see Shijie smile and feel Jiang Cheng’s scorn.

 

It had been months since he crawled from still water, but he felt borne anew only yesterday.

 

Was he ready to meet them? Did it matter?

 

Wei Wuxian didn’t know.

 

“Well A-Ling? Don’t just stand there, you’ll grow old waiting for something to happen.” He pressed the boy forward, felt young heels dig into the tended ground.

 

He pressed harder, until the grass tore and Jin Ling yelped and stumbled forward.

 

Every Lan disciple turned as one, white robes shifting with the motions of a hundred bodies. A-Ling looked petrified, but sharp anger boiled over it quick enough.

 

Wei Wuxian only laughed, bright and loud.

 

“Didn’t you want someone your level to train against? Here are the disciples of a great clan, go learn! Take care of him for me little ones, or I’ll tell the great Hanguang-jun you all were mean!”

 

They all paled at that, each disciple going as white as the robes they wore.

 

They would be careful, Wei Wuxian thought with a smile that boiled through his skin.

 

He turned and leapt away, golden core flipping in his chest and powering every breath. He felt strong. He felt like a cultivator again, as he ducked into shadows far from sight.

 

He wondered what Lan Zhan thought of the gilded energy that leaked from his skin, too bright to stop even in the moonlight.

 

He wondered if Lan Zhan knew he was strong again.

 

On the third night, Lan Zhan leapt to Wei Wuxian’s roof and held out a jar. It was a round thing, made to be held and poured, made to be savored and tasted. It glimmered in the moonlight, shining a burnished black.

 

Wei Wuxian laughed, and it was bright with loud surprise. He would recognize the jar of Emperor’s Smile anywhere, in any lifetime.

 

It shone with the ghosts on water, and he wondered at it.

 

“Breaking your own rules, Lan Zhan? I’m shocked! What are you going to do next, run across your fine stone paths barefoot?”

 

There was a quiet clatter, as the man settled beside him. White robes spread out like the petals of a flower, bright and beautiful in the moonlight.

 

Lan Zhan was always so beautiful.

 

“If it was necessary,” the man answered, and handed Wei Wuxian the jar. He took it, let his fingers linger on the marks of Lan Zhan’s warmth.

 

He took it, and felt strange.

 

“You really have changed, Lan Zhan. I know you said it was growth, but we fought on this roof over a jar of liquor, or have you already forgotten? Now you give it to me! What a rebel you are, Lan Zhan.”

 

There was silence, for a long and lingering moment. A breeze swept between them, shook the silk of their robes and swayed across the tassels hanging from a fine jar.

 

Wei Wuxian wanted to reach over so there was no space between, wanted to feel the warmth of Lan Zhan and tease him.

 

The wind was too cold on his gilded skin, and he didn’t care for it.

 

After a moment, Lan Zhan spoke, quiet and serene.

 

“What is important is the the spirit of rules, and not the letter,” echoed words that shouldn’t have come from a disciple of Gusu, spoken on the roof of a building they were not to walk atop of, with wine they were not to drink spilling between them.

 

And that was all he said.

 

When Lan Zhan stepped from the roof and into the compound, hours later and with an empty jar dangling from calloused fingers, Wei Wuxian watched.

 

He watched the man walk away, watched white robes shimmer in the darkness. He watched, and he wondered.

 

Maybe he would take Lan Zhan up on that offer after all.

 

On the fourth day, Lan Zhan walked calm steps beside Wei Wuxian’s dancing ones. The wind caught their robes and twirled them out into the air, a mountain breeze deadly and cold across his skin.

 

Wei Wuxian only laughed, before its teeth. There was a golden warmth curling through every piece of his body, powered from the heart of a god.

 

The cold bit at his skin and broke its teeth, weak before his smile.

 

So many things were weak before him now, in this fresh world with no darkness curling under his nails.

 

Wei Wuxian didn’t care. The world could bend a knee and he would laugh it away, steps light and uncaring.

 

Ruling was dull and boring; let him sit in the light of day and scrawl across papers. Let him invent, let him create, let him take long naps in the afternoon sun and feel warm hands in his hair.

 

Let him rest, after a long sleep.

 

But what was rest, to the arrows of family?

 

The first shot came with quiet steps, graceful and heavy with responsibility. The second came with the Sect Leader, walking down the path to greet them.

 

Lan Xichen had a kind smile, bright and so much wider than any Lan Zhan showed.

 

What would Lan Zhan’s smile look like, Wei Wuxian wondered, as he greeted a powerful man.

 

“I see you have returned,” the man said, like Wei Wuxian hadn’t been dancing through the Cloud Recesses with loud laughter and louder steps. He had made no effort to hide his skin or smile, and he wouldn’t bother.

 

He had slept for so long, and walked narrow paths for longer. But it was time for Jin Ling to return to his family.

 

And time for Wei Wuxian to return to his, something deep in his heart whispered, breaking and cruel.

 

He ignored it.

 

After all he had caused and all the strain the clan had suffered, under his dancing steps, under the monster he had tamed and the chaos he had made—maybe he wouldn’t return.

 

The Cloud Recesses were nice, when he could break a hundred rules beside Lan Zhan.

 

“I don’t know what you mean, Sect Leader! I’m new here,” Wei Wuxian said, and felt the smallest turtle crawl slow steps over his shoulder.

 

Lan Xichen’s eyes went wide and terrible, for a gentle moment. Then he smiled again, but this time, it looked sad.

 

“I have sent a few letters, to soothe the worries of the other sects. The Jin heir has been found, and is safe.”

 

Wei Wuxian froze, steps catching and body still for a heartbeat. Beside him, Lan Zhan shifted in a flurry of white robes and peerless grace.

 

He had known this was coming.

 

“You didn’t happen to send a letter to Lotus Pier, did you?” He asked, voice light and gilded energy leaking from the tips of his fingers.

 

He felt too bright, in the sun of Gusu.

 

A slow and graceful nod answered him, and with it came dread. Two survivors would know of the third now.

 

They would come quickly.

 

Wei Wuxian would have to face them, and their pain. He had seen enough of that to fill a lifetime and beyond. He had died, for the pain he’d given Jiang Cheng.

 

He missed them so much. Every step beside Jin Ling reminded him of the fury of Jiang Cheng, of the warmth of Shijie.

 

He had kept Shijie’s son safe, instead of facing how he had abandoned the polished docks of Lotus Pier.

 

He had died, instead of learning true control.

 

What kind of brother did that make him?

 

“I sent a letter to Sect Leader Jiang, as of this morning,” the Sect Leader continued, in quiet words and gentle grace. The eyes that stared at him were kind, for all their strength.

 

Wei Wuxian wished they hadn’t seen him. He wished he could dance away on the roofs of the Cloud Recesses, and drink sweet drops of Emperor’s Smile until his strength returned with his smile.

 

He wanted to step in the light of peace, and feel human.

 

“You couldn’t have waited a few days, Sect Leader? Jiang Cheng’s temper is so bad, he’s going to storm the Cloud Recesses and take out half of your fine rules.”

 

The words were light, and they floated idle and teasing in the air. They were true, and they lingered on Wei Wuxian’s tongue with a hint of his smile.

 

The flavor of nostalgia was bright as lightning, and spread like poison. He laughed around its taste, the song of a man who didn’t fear anything but loss.

 

War burned out so much from a man, but Wei Wuxian had never lost love. It had made him quick and vicious, and each strike more brutal than any other’s.

 

There was nothing like love to forge a monster, and Wei Wuxian had always loved too much.

 

It had won them the war. It had cost him his freedom, and he had clipped his wings with a smile.

 

It had killed a child, and that, he could never forgive himself.

 

But maybe it would be easier, with two survivors standing beside him.

 

“I am sorry, Wei Wuxian. But I can only delay duty so long, when they worry over the young heir.”

 

Wei Wuxian waved away the words, lazy and respectful.

 

“I understand,” he said into the light of white walls and careful rules.

 

I understand, he thought, when he leapt onto a clean roof and marked it with dirt.

 

He kept thinking, as he stared into the sky and watched the sun set across tall mountains.

 

White glimmered in his sight as the light faded, and a breeze caught on his skin, warm with summer.

 

Lan Zhan always made him feel so warm.

 

“Lan Zhan, come to ask me to join you again? You know what I’ll say.” Wei Wuxian spoke without thought, without mind. His body was heavy with old memories and old regrets, but it was easy to speak here.

 

He had hurt Lan Zhan too, hadn’t he? They had fought for years, as golden eyes judged him for the monster he had become.

 

But it had always been so easy to speak to Lan Zhan.

 

“I will still offer, Wei Ying,” the man said, a constant of six days and endless patience. It sounded like the man had stood beside him for years, for decades, since the echoes in a deadly cave.

 

It sounded peaceful, and Wei Wuxian wanted to sink into it and lose the pallor of war.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

A letter rested on his desk, and it bore light words with heavy meaning. The paper was fine and thick, ink staining it in neat characters. It was a lovely thing, written by a hand Jin Guangyao knew as well as his own.

 

Its words hurt.

 

 

A-yao,

I hope this message finds you well. I am pleased to report Jin Ling has been found at last, and in the company of someone you would never expect. I think you and Sect Leader Jiang should come to the Cloud Recesses at once.

 

There is a turtle in our home now, and it seems to smile.

 

Your brother,

Lan Xichen

 

Jin Guangyao felt a roiling disquiet beneath his skin, sharp and bitter as the taste of failure. It felt like hope too, and he didn’t care for it. He had covered his hands in blood, for the death of his old friend. He had killed a man, with pride and vicious hunger.

 

The secret hummed beneath his skin, and it hummed for Wei Wuxian. But if anyone could see his lies, it was that man.

 

Jin Guangyao wanted him to be alive, with the fury of a man who walked through life with a mask and smile.

 

He wanted to talk to Wei Wuxian again, and be understood.

 

Quick motions summoned a servant, a bird called to the fox’s den. Jin Guangyao smiled, polite and quiet.

 

“Prepare for a journey, and send a message to Sect Leader Jin. I will be gone for some time.”

 

It was time to walk the clouded paths to an old friend, if this letter didn’t lie.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

A thousand steps lay before him, and each was paved with rules. A thousand steps lay before him, and each was one too many.

 

Jiang Cheng wants to break them for existing. He stepped forward, and felt the rock beneath him shift. It was smooth and polished, cut into the mountain and made beautiful.

 

It was so very Lan that he wanted to snarl. He wanted to snap his whip out too, lift his sword and fly up a thousand steps like they were water flowing around his ankles.

 

He didn’t want to reach the top, and have the cold reality of life break him again.

 

It had been more than a decade, but Jiang Cheng still remembered a bright and sunny day when water was dyed red.

 

He remembered leaving, with rage coiling up his spine and fear crackling across his skin. Wei Wuxian was a danger and in danger, and Jiang Cheng had done nothing to stop it. Plans had swirled beneath his skin, contingency after contingency, all to protect his brother.

 

But it was useless.

 

He couldn’t even protect a child; how could he protect Wei Wuxian?

 

He remembered leaving, on that day. But he didn’t remember walking angry steps back to a lonely lake.

 

He didn’t remember finding no body and no turtle, no blood and no brother.

 

He didn’t remember finding the grave of a child.

 

Jiang Cheng didn’t remember, but if he did, walking up the stairs of Gusu would feel the same as that day.

 

He walked anyway, step after step, fury after fury. He walked, when he should have flown. He stepped slowly, when he should have run.

 

Jiang Cheng walked towards hope, and he wasn’t sure if he could survive it breaking.

 

The walls of Gusu greeted him in austerity and cold beauty, and he walked through the gates without a glance towards the guards.

 

No one tried to stop him, and all the clouds of the Lan clan dissolved before his lightning fury.

 

Sect Leader Lan had sent a letter, but Jiang Cheng walked for a brother.

 

Laughter was the first thing that greeted him, bright and dancing through the air like chiming bells. It was the sound of hope, made light as air.

 

Jiang Cheng couldn’t breathe, through fury and fear.

 

Quiet was the second thing that greeted him, as a man stepped into view. White robes lingered on strong shoulders, and a turtle’s shell glimmered on fine silk. Long hair gleamed in the sun, but it was not as bright as the golden glow leaking from a warm smile.

 

Jiang Cheng would know that damned smile anywhere.

 

There was a pause then, and the white walls held their breath. Wei Wuxian was laughing, bright and viciously happy in the mountain light.

 

Jiang Cheng couldn’t help but think of the last time he had seen that smile, of the last night when three survivors had celebrated together.

 

Every heartbeat of that night was engraved into his skin, and he snarled with each memory. Each heartbeat echoed through his bones once a year, as he stepped onto gold sands and mourned.

 

Now he didn't have to mourn, and there were no old memories but fresh life.

 

“Wei Wuxian,” he said, and felt the words crack and break out of his throat. He wanted them to be sharp, wanted them to cut.

 

They sounded lost instead, and he hated that.

 

That smile faded for a heartbeat, as the man saw him. It glimmered with guilt, with sadness, with something Jiang Cheng never wanted named.

 

Then it flared up like a sun, bright and teasing.

 

“Jiang Cheng! You look so dignified, when did you get stuffy? Is Lotus Pier doing well? How is Shijie?”

 

Each question came faster than the last, and with each Wei Wuxian stepped closer. Jiang Cheng wanted to grab the front of fine robes and haul his brother close, wanted to drive a fist into that bright smile and knock sense into Wei Wuxian.

 

He wanted this moment to last a lifetime, and that laugh to echo for centuries. He wanted, dearly, for this to be real.

 

“Shut up you fool,” he snarled, and watched Wei Wuxian’s mouth snap closed. The sound was loud as the echo of a turtle’s jaw, closing on bone. It was lighter, and so much kinder.

 

“I can’t believe you were alive this whole time,” he managed at last, through a growl and the tight vice of his throat.

 

Lightning was crackling across his knuckles, but it was so gentle.

 

It had been a long 13 years, standing with his sister in Lotus Pier. It had been a long 13 years, to miss another survivor.

 

A brother’s eyes still glimmered, bright and knowing in the mountain light.

 

“Oh Jiang Cheng, you missed me didn’t you?”

 

Jiang Cheng was going to kill him.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

The fog of Lotus Pier lingered in Gusu for a few days, as Jiang Cheng stalked the paths and snarled the clouds away. Each moment was carved from crackling lightning and impatience, and with each breath the man commanded discipline and strength.

 

But there was no weight pulling down proud shoulders, and with each day Jiang Cheng’s eyes grew warmer.

 

Wei Wuxian only laughed, as Lan disciples learned to walk with light steps and caution. He laughed more when Jiang Cheng took irritated steps up onto the roof beside him, drinking the fine wine of Gusu and breaking a hundred rules.

 

He laughed, when Lan Zhan’s robes glimmered and shone under the moonlight, close enough to guard and protect.

 

It really had been too long, Wei Wuxian thought, as Emperor’s Smile lingered on his tongue.

 

It had been so long since he had laughed beside his brother.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

Old friend,

 

I will journey to see you again soon. When the others have come and gone, and when you’ve had your fill of Gusu and it’s rules, I will bring you gifts from Koi Tower in apology.

 

I have to say, the cultivation world has been dull, without you. I have missed you, old friend. Sect Leader Jiang mourned you too, almost as much as Hanguang-Jun. Your sister is well, and I’ve heard you met young Jin Ling.

 

Your friend,

Jin Guangyao

 

 

It’s been too long!

 

I heard your father died, a decade or so ago. Interesting timing! But I can't say I’m sorry to see him go, what with the deep purse and his habit of paying children to walk on sand. Thank you for tying his purse strings.

 

Your old friend,

Wei Wuxian

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

Weeks passed, and the world turned and grew around him. Wei Wuxian’s life shifted with each day, the pieces of old friendships snapping into place and breaking away.

 

Jin Guangyao wrote, in polite words and careful hand. Shijie walked into the white stone of Gusu, and the light seemed to walk beside her.

 

They asked him to return. They offered him a home again, in the docks of Lotus Pier, in the shining halls of Koi Tower, in the bright sun of the cultivation world. Shijie had looked kind, standing beside him and asking him to help raise a son.

 

Wei Wuxian wanted it. He wanted to walk on the polished wood and call it home again, as he had not since before the war began. He wanted to laugh beside his family, and watch Jin Ling grow tall and confident.

 

But he didn’t want to leave. There was war lurking in his veins, and with each day spent standing calm and quiet in the Cloud Recesses, it washed away.

 

With each day, the man of war became one of peace. His family deserved only peace, after the long fight for survival.

 

“You’ll have to go without me for now, Shijie. I haven’t broken all the rules yet, how can I leave Gusu?” He said, and meant, wait for me.

 

The smile fell from her face slowly, but bright eyes were kind. She had always been the best of them, through the brutal days of war and the warm years of peace. When the world was rough with death, Shijie had been gentle with love.

 

She understood him, even now.

 

“Oh A-xian,” she began, and each word cut into his skin and through the fresh core turning in his chest. “You don’t need to break them all. There will be a place for you in Koi Tower, when you are ready.”

 

There will be a place for you, she said, words echoing out across the Cloud Recesses as fog on a rainy day.

 

There will be a place for you, she said, and Wei Wuxian heard there will be a family.

 

He liked that sound.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

They left the next day, Jin Ling following his mother through the gates and down a thousand elegant steps. Jiang Cheng left too, in a crackle of lightning and slow motions. He didn’t look back, through a frown and proud shoulders.

 

He didn’t look back, but it didn’t matter. There was a long future stretching out before three survivors, and they could laugh together again.

 

All it needed was time.

 

Wei Wuxian didn’t watch them go. He walked the white paths of Gusu, feet aimless and steps heavy. He smiled, and it was painful in the sun of late spring.

 

He had stayed, as his family left. What did that make him? What beast was he, that he couldn’t walk beside them yet?

 

Why did his heart linger here, in the careful stone of Gusu?

 

“Wei Ying.”

 

The name sounded proud and young, when spoken by Lan Zhan. It sounded bright as a sun, like the laughter that had once echoed over the roof of the Cloud Recesses.

 

It sounded like Lan Zhan believed Wei Ying could do anything. Wei Wuxian could never resist that sound.

 

He turned from the mountains to meet bright eyes, watched them glimmer in the sun. He felt like a man at war, a weapon not fit for walking beside a child.

 

He felt like so much more than that, in the beginnings of healing.

 

“Lan Zhan, are you just standing there in the sun so women will swoon as they walk by? Have some thought for all the people who see you! Your face is too fine to be so careless, you know.”

 

For a long moment, there was no response. The man didn’t flush or glare, and no silencing spell came for Wei Wuxian’s lips.

 

Then Lan Zhan reached out a hand, calloused fingers steady as stone in mountain air.

 

Wei Wuxian wanted to take it. He wanted to feel warm skin on his palm, and tease it to blushing. He wanted the war between them to be washed away, and the war on his skin to vanish with torn robes.

 

He wanted to see ghosts across a lake, and know they were real.

 

“They love you, Wei Ying. They will wait for you,” the man said, and the words sounded heavy with knowledge.

 

Wei Wuxian smiled, and it felt brighter.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

Weeks passed like that, Wei Wuxian laughing across the fine walls of Gusu and staining them with wine and bright smiles. He broke every rule he could find, one a day every day.

 

The Cloud Recesses had never sounded so bright, as they did when Wei Wuxian walked their halls. Lan Qiren had never grown quite so many white hairs.

 

Lan Zhan had never walked so lightly.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

The sun was glinting high above, settling across the mountains and into the silk of night. The light shone across the white walls, over tiled roofs and the thousand principles of Gusu.

 

It was a beautiful light, for a beautiful day. But Wei Wuxian had no eyes for the sky, and no grin for the sunset. He sat on the roof, feet folded beneath him and wind brushing across living skin.

 

He sat, and looked down at Lan Zhan. The man was standing on the ground below, a cloud caught lingering over white stone.

 

Wei Wuxian knew him well. This was the man who had walked by his side and stood guard beneath his roof for long weeks. The clouds of Gusu had greeted them each morning, and Wei Wuxian had watched them catch the sun and gleam.

 

He had stood on a roof, and laughed louder than was permitted. He had lingered in a place he had never wanted to return to, beside a man he had thought wanted to chain him.

 

He stood in Gusu, where he had always wanted to go. Where he had never wanted to return.

 

He looked at Lan Zhan, and wondered.

 

There was something curling in his heart, small and burning. The wounds of war were still fresh, and still water swam under his skin to haunt him.

 

He still remembered the grave he had dug, out in the sands of Yunmeng. The sand beneath his hands had been damp, under the red dawn. It had felt too cold, and each grain had rubbed his skin raw. He had not flinched, when sand dug beneath his nails.

 

He had not flinched when the Xuanwu swallowed him whole, snapping jaw wide as his failure.

 

It was too soon.

 

But maybe that feeling would grow, he thought, as he looked down at Lan Zhan. Maybe it could bloom from the lingering feelings of war that Wei Wuxian had buried. Maybe there was the beginnings of deep trust, growing in the turns of his golden core.

 

Maybe this was the start.

 

He smiled into the air, bright and happy with the new moon.

 

“Hey Lan Zhan,” he called down, and the words echoed loud in the quiet of the Cloud Recesses. They broke a principle with each echo, shattered rules and bent the white walls into chaos. Mist swirled around them, scattering into the night and darkness.

 

Lan Zhan did nothing to stop them.

 

“Mhm?” The man responded, taking a step closer. Elegant robes glittered, but golden eyes glittered more.

 

Wei Wuxian didn’t look away.

 

“If I jumped from the roof, would you catch me, Lan Zhan?” He asked, each word quieter than the last. “I wouldn’t want to jump unless you’d catch me.”

 

“Yes.”

 

The word was loud in the silence of the Cloud Recesses, but it didn't break the rules. It was as refined as Lan Zhan, as the summer wind catching at white robes and making them dance.

 

The word was tame, but Lan Zhan was not.

 

“Even though it's against the rules?” He asked again, bubbling warmth burning his chest. He felt like he would float away in laughter, when he leapt down. He felt like the world was steady as still water, but so much warmer.

 

He felt the hints of a future where he wasn’t trapped on golden sand but welcomed by golden eyes.

 

He felt hope.

 

“I will catch you, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan answered, calloused fingers reaching up. “I will always catch you.”

 

And so he did.

 

 

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

“This should be your home, I think. Nice water for you to swim through, isolated enough you can sleep in peace. The beach isn’t great but it's not like you want to stretch out in the sand!”

 

The words echoed out of a human chest, through bone hollow and weak beneath its jaws. It had shattered so many ribs, and felt the sweet trickle of blood feed the resentful energy boiling in its shell.

 

But there was no darkness curling on its snapping jaws now, and no death marking its elegant shell.

 

The Xuanwu could snap a thousand humans under its strength, but it would not break this human.

 

Not when bright eyes and a brighter laugh bounced across its gilded shell.

 

Not when it had swallowed this man, and fed him the core of a god.

 

The Xuanwu crawled across gold sand, the world shifting under each lumbering step. It let itself grow with each motion, until the trees gleamed beneath its eyes and the sun shied from its shell.

 

The Xuanwu was a god, and it took steps uncorrupted now.

 

Water washed over its shell slowly, and the lake that was small and mortal became endless and divine.

 

It walked slow. It sunk into the lake like a rock sinking into still water, quiet but bubbling. It sunk through currents like it had sunk into the dreams of a man, once a short heartbeat ago.

 

It had been many days and many years, but time mattered so little when the Xuanwu felt a cold energy pound through its shell. For centuries, time had washed by in waves of blood and crunching bones.

 

For centuries, the Xuanwu had not wasted the slow turns of its shell on mortal time.

 

But dreams sucked it in, as the mind of a man had drawn it to the depths of darkness and out the other side.

 

The mortal’s soul shone so brightly, in the inky-black of a trapping cave. It shone brighter, standing in the sun and forcing power and dead life into the Xuanwu’s shell.

 

It shone brightest of all in the depths of the Xuanwu’s belly, as gold washed into the hollow place of a mortal chest.

 

But mortal time had passed now, and dreams did not matter in the sunlight of a peaceful lake. So the Xuanwu sunk beneath a lake, never to be seen again.

 

It did not look back at the mortal standing on the shore with the heart of a god.

 

━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━

 

 

There was a place of mourning in Lotus Pier. It was far from the bustle of the cities of Yunmeng, far from the laughter of children and the voices of a hundred merchants, far from the rumble of a lively city held safe by a strong sect.

 

It was far from everything, for it sat on the shore of the coldest lake, and passed unknown. It was a beautiful lake, but few people came here. Few knew it existed, tucked into the mountains and hidden by the rumbling growth of a forest. The leaves were dense, and the branches thick with spring growth.

 

Only one man could walk through those brambles and emerge on golden sand, and for him the lake was familiar.

 

For him, the lake had been home. It had been a prison too, before the long years he slept in peace.

 

The only traps that could hold Wei Wuxian were made by his own hands, and lined in his laughter. This was fitting, for a man of war and genius.

 

But the steps he walked now were made from peace, light and healing. Golden sand did not keep him, as the water did not drown him.

 

Wei Wuxian slept in the halls of Gusu now, and did not think of still water.

 

He still visited only once a year, every year. He waved lazy hands to the lake, and watched its surface bubble and twist with life.

 

A god lived there, beneath clear water that shone too bright. Its shell glimmered deep in the silt and soil of the lakebed, and it did not stir.

 

It slept, even for him.

 

The sand shifted beneath his feet as he walked, past the still water and away from the sleeping beast. He walked silently, feet light. He walked slow but quick, meandering but purposeful.

 

He walked to a grave, and each step had meaning.

 

He knelt, over bones. He bowed for his sins and mistakes, for the night of peace for a man of war. The wind of a sacred place touched his robes, but it could not crack through his skin. Golden energy swirled around him, a gift from a turtle made of god’s bones.

 

Here, and here alone, he did not smile. He did not laugh, in this moment. He did not grin into the sunlight.

 

For the death that marked the breaking place, Wei Wuxian stared at unmarked stone and apologized, the words bright and truthful in the air.

 

There was a place of mourning in Lotus Pier, and it was not lonely but peaceful.

 

This was the end of our tale. This was long after the breaking place, in a time when golden energy and joined hands had woven fate together.

 

This was where the Turtle Master lay down his mantle with a sigh, and Wei Wuxian walked away with a laugh.