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Because I could not stop for death

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He awoke to a rush of sensation that was overwhelming in its sheer physicality. The smooth slide of his ribcage under skin as he breathed in and then out, the prickling of rough cloth caught between his back and the floor, the deep throbbing ache where someone had kicked him in the stomach.

Nie Huaisang had never thought of himself as a particularly physical person, not like his brother and the rest of his clan, but the feeling of being present in a body once more, the visceral pleasure of existing as a living person was a rush of euphoria unlike anything he’d ever felt. All the more ironic, when one considered how little he’d wanted to be alive again.

It was easy enough to figure out what had happened. Nie Huaisang always had been a fair bit smarter than he wanted to be, and it wasn’t as though poor Mo Xuanyu had done much to cover his tracks. Huaisang had to do that for him. It wouldn’t do for anyone to find demonic cultivation arrays written in blood in his vicinity. That was the kind of thing that drew attention, and Nie Huaisang had learned his lesson about drawing attention.

It never ended well.

Still Mo Xuanyu had dragged him back to life kicking and screaming for a reason and he knew better than to hope it was the kind of reason that could be dealt with subtly. The Yiling Patriarch was known for many things, subtlety was not one of them. Whatever Nie Huaisang’s natural inclinations might have been there was just no real way to make an undead army subtle. And so it followed that there were only so many reasons a man might summon the soul of someone famous for his undead armies, and none of them were exactly peaceful wishes. Vengeance, Huaisang assumed was probably the motive at work here, based on the array’s demand for the vengeful spirit of the Yiling Patriarch to take his body in trade for revenge on Mo Xuanyu’s enemies.

Vengeful spirit, Huaisang couldn’t resist a spark of amusement at that one. The kid had him dead to rights on that one he supposed, although really if he had become a vengeful spirit then it happened long before he died. He couldn’t remember much, but he rather thought he’d been fairly quiet as a dead man. Certainly he’d been a model of good behaviour compared to all the trouble he’d caused when he was living.

And now he was living again, which seemed to indicate that someone wanted trouble. Mo Xuanyu of course, but summoning the Yiling Patriarch for a domestic dispute did seem a bit like overkill, Huaisang sensed another hand at work in Mo Xuanyu’s choice. He wondered a bit about the combination of power, and brilliance, and desperation that could have engineered something like this. Wondered what it was exactly they hoped he could do for them. Curiosity had always been one of his besetting sins.

Not that it mattered much. If Mo Xuanyu didn’t get the revenge he wanted then Huaisang would be in no state to be causing any sort of trouble for anyone, no matter who wanted it.

It would be so very easy. All he had to do was do nothing at all, and it would be like none of this ever happened. He’d be gone again, more permanently this time, and whoever had planned for all this would just have to make other plans. He’d spent pretty much the whole of the first part of his life doing nothing after all. It should come naturally.

But it didn’t really. That was the thing with doing things, being a man of action, once you started it was very hard to stop, people started expecting things from you, and worse, you started expecting things from yourself. Laziness was a hell of a thing to get out of the habit of, but there it was. Things were happening, and the part of Huaisang that had forgotten how not to meddle just couldn’t leave well enough alone.

Besides, between Mo Xuanyu and whoever his mysterious sponsor was, bloody vengeance was clearly going around, and Huaisang wasn’t above seizing the opportunity to get a little of his own. He had plenty to be vengeful about after all. Looked like Mo Xuanyu’s delightful relatives were about to get what was coming to them.

Apparently the mastermind behind this all wasn’t willing to leave things up to chance and the Yiling Patriarch’s goodwill. Huaisang was mildly impressed. Setting a ghost arm on the Mo family as both a way to clear Mo Xuanyu’s demand, and to incite Nie Huaisang’s curiosity, was the kind of ruthless move the Yiling Patriarch himself might have made. Clearly his mysterious benefactor was a fan. It would be flattering if it weren’t so irritating. It wasn’t like he’d ever wanted to be caught in the middle of one of his own plans or anything similar.

But there he was in the middle of things, and now there was a whole gaggle of little Lan and Jiang disciples about to get caught in the crossfire, and Huaisang wasn’t quite morally bankrupt enough to leave them to fend for themselves. Even if Mo Xuanyu’s hut was woefully devoid of decent brushes and ink.

He had to resort to his own blood in the end, sharp ragged lines with Mo Xuanyu’s tattered brush on the back of one of the abandoned spirit attraction flags. It was almost painful, how far below his usual standards the resulting piece was. One thing he’d always prided himself on, no matter how shocking, how heretical, how horrifying the subjects of his paintings had become, the paintings themselves had always been beautiful, the sickening contrast between the content and the form almost an artform in itself.

No longer, there was only so much that could be done with such poor materials and there was no time, but it got the job done. It didn’t matter really, except in all the ways it did, except in all the ways it felt like he was losing one of the few things he’d been able to hold on to from before, one of the last things he was still good at because he loved it, not because he was broken.

It didn’t matter, this was what he had now, and it would have to be enough. Rough lines etched out in blood, half symbolic, half far too true to life, sketched out Huaisang’s intent, lent shape and form to the resentful energy flowing through him, and woke the corpses of the Mo family with a vision of Huaisang’s intent burning in their minds to guide them.

Whatever had been unleashed on the Mo family was no small monster. For a thing so fragmented to stand up against corpses given life by the Yiling Patriarch, no matter how shoddy the work, it was impressive to say the least. In truth Huaisang wasn’t sure what would have happened if the little Jiang disciples hadn’t managed to send up flares and summon Wei Xiong. Probably he would have won, but it might have got messy. Better that Wei Xiong took over and sealed the arm away before things could get out of hand. Huaisang wondered if Wei Wuxian’s presence was a factor that his mysterious benefactor had planned for, or he was just a useful coincidence. Either way, it was good to see him again, and not just because he’d kept things with the arm from getting out of hand.

Wei Wuxian always did have a knack for producing his own kind of mess though. Usually from being altogether too smart for his own good. Nie Huaisang could sympathise, but that didn’t make it any less alarming when he started asking questions that Huaisang didn’t want to have to answer.

Discretion being the better part of valour, Huaisang decided to disappear off into the night while Wei Xiong was busy fussing over the little disciples. He just hoped Wei xiong didn’t find the painting he’d left behind. After all, Wei Wuxian was probably one of the few people still living who could identify his drawing style on sight, even when it was far from his usual standard.