Nie MingJue opens his eyes.
There’s an unfamiliar ceiling above him, hard ground underneath his back, and his body feels wrong. The last thing he remembers is his little brother bleeding and shouting his name, and Jin GuangYao watching it all with fake tears on his face.
Rage fills his chest and that is familiar, at least.
Nie MingJue sits up. He’s in a nondescript room - blank walls, few items, windows covered with faded scrolls. It offers no explanation, and he knows he suffered a qi deviation and should be dead.
Obviously, he’s not. However, the hands he’s looking at are not his (too few calluses), plus there’s a generous quantity of blood on them. Now, that’s nothing Nie MingJue is not used to, which is also why he did initially miss the writings on the floor. They’ve been smudged - likely by his body - but it’s definitely some sort of ritual array. Nothing he’s ever seen before, plus blood’s not exactly a medium upstanding cultivators like to use.
Wei WuXian died, didn’t he?
Nie MingJue exhales and stands up. The body he finds himself in is tall - maybe not as tall as he used to be, but a decent height. Plus, while there’s some pudge around the stomach, there’s potential. Low cultivation level, which is annoying, but well. He can work with it.
Thus, before Nie MingJue begins his quest of figuring out what the fuck happened, he works out.
Luckily, Hui FeiYu did leave a letter. It’s not exactly coherent, but the date lets Nie MingJue know it’s been more than ten years since his death. Also, he’s been offered a body because Hui FeiYu had come to the conclusion he’s not cut out for life as a cultivator, had issues with corrupt money lenders, and a broken heart to top it all off.
Nie MingJue settles the requirements of his body’s predecessor. Then he spends a few weeks working as a rogue cultivator, helping locals settle minor issues. It’s not challenging work, and his old self would have laughed at it. But it’s a nice way of getting this body in shape, and it earns him some money.
He contemplates traveling to Qinghe. But while he’s never been one for hesitation, he can recognize it might be awkward. Could he reclaim his old life though ten years already passed? Would anyone even believe him? (How is his home, how is his brother?)
“The Lanling Jin sect used to watch over this area,” an elderly lady who pays Nie MingJue handsomely for disposing of an evil spirit that had taken a liking to her home. “But alas, even back under Jin GuangShan they never cared much for our town. Why should they, when other towns yield more crops and offer handsomer rewards?”
Nie MingJue nods in silence. It’s a quiet night, mild in a way mountainous Qinghe never is.
“Jin GuangYao cared even less, though who would expect the chief cultivator care for the trouble of the little people anyway?” she continues, staring into the night and misses Nie MingJue nearly shatter the teacup in abrupt rage.
Jin GuangYao. Chief cultivator?
That shameless dog, when Nie MingJue finds him he will -
“Ah, but I have heard people say good things about that young child of the late Jin ZiXuan. Supposedly he’s been going to the small towns himself, and it has been centuries since any Jin last did this.”
Jin ZiXuan’s son? He, yeah, he did have a son. Jin… Jin Ling. Nie MingJue isn’t certain he actually remembers him; to him all toddlers look the same. But he recalls the grievous incidents that took his parents’ lives. Jin ZiXuan, Jiang YanLi, Wei WuXian. They’re all dead. He’s not sentimental, but even if it’s just hearsay - if that child thrives after everything, it’s not that bad.
The lady catches his expression and sighs. “Heavens only know if he will ascend to become sect leader one day. I hear he has talent, yet the sect is in chaos these days… but I won’t bore you with rumors of things you must know more about, cultivator.”
As morning dawns Nie MingJue finds himself looking northwest. Wondering what happened while he was dead.
And he finds he’s somewhat curious.
A while later Nie MingJue learns that a discussion conference has been called. A group of traveling cultivators has stopped at the local inn for the night and their merry chatter drifts to him one table away.
“What do you think the discussion conference is for?”
“No idea. It’s been a while, though. I thought these happened regularly.”
They used to, Nie MingJue thinks. Yearly, even after the sunshot campaign. He wonders what happened to put them on hold.
“Eh, don’t we still lack a chief cultivator?” somebody else says. “It’s probably to address that.”
Several heads nod in agreement.
“What happened to the last one?” Nie MingJue asks, interrupting the conversation. He’s too tense to consider his rudeness; can’t hold himself back. The elderly lady had said Jin GuangYao had been chief cultivator, but she had spoken of him in the past. Has he, despite all his scheming, finally met his end?
One of the men clears his throat. “He, he… he suffered an accident, you see. In Yuping.”
“An accident?” Nie MingJue’s voice sharpens. There’s never been anything accidental happening around Jin GuangYao after all.
The man pales, and a woman in plain robes leans forward. “That’s the official version. Can’t let all the shit he’s done become public, you see. Wouldn’t reflect very well on some honorable other folks.” Her grin is toothy, and Nie MingJue likes it.
“So what did he do?” somebody else from her travel companions demands. “Everybody whispers he did terrible stuff, but they never say what exactly.”
The lady shrugs. “About everything terrible under the sun if hearsay is to be believed. Killed his child, his wife, his brother… So of course, he’d have to be taken down.”
“Wasn’t it that the other sects also had no idea until the end? I heard it was mostly a one-person effort,” says somebody at the back. Nie MingJue looks at them thoughtfully, but it’s not a face he knows.
The lady lifts her hands. “I wouldn’t know.”
Meanwhile, Nie MingJue wonders. Jin GuangYao had been so clever; had he truly failed in concealing his actions from the other sects at some point? Or had an unnamed individual managed to outsmart the slippery turncoat? Neither seems particularly realistic from what he remembers, yet it has been ten years.
“Didn’t Wei WuXian have a hand in it all anyway?” somebody else asks.
Nie MingJue nearly spits out his drink. “Wei WuXian?”
Somebody claps his back. “Man, where have you been? He’s been back for a while now.”
Nie MingJue glares at the man. Still. What the fuck. Wei WuXian, back? And they’re talking about him as if he’s not evil incarnate anymore. What on earth happened after he died?
“I was in seclusion,” he offers, because it’s the one credible explanation he can think of.
“It was quite the uproar. At first he tried to hide it, but then it came out and caused a scandal. And they did try for a second siege of the Burial Mound, but it went very differently - I think that was when the things about the Jin sect head came out, too.”
“How do you even know these things?”
“My brother’s wife was visiting Yiling at that time, so she heard.”
Not the most reliable source, Nie MingJue judges. But if there’s a new Wei WuXian impersonator, he must be competent.
Or, Wei WuXian, like him, was brought back. It’s not exactly as unthinkable as it should be. In any case, Nie MingJue feels it’s a situation he needs to take a closer look at.
Having decided to go to the discussion conference, he finds a minor sect which allows him to tag along as long as he causes them no trouble. Rather, after a few days he can tell they’d honestly like to recruit him as he continues dispatching any ghoul or yao or other creature they come across with ease.
They continue to travel northwest. As the weather grows cooler and the scenery familiar, Nie MingJue realizes that apparently the discussion conference will be held in Qinghe. Which, well. Whoever’s running the sect now must be at least vaguely competent.
It’s a thought he’s not yet (dared to) touch on. HuaiSang must have succeeded him as sect head, no matter how unsuited to position he’s always been. He’s not yet dared to ask his companions about his sect or his brother - a part of him hopes he’s doing well, yet Nie MingJue has always been a realist. If there’s been new campaigns, new bloodshed - HuaiSang was never suited to those.
Perhaps he’s found somebody to help him.
The last night before heading to the Nie sect’s compound, the little group stays in what used to be a tiny settlement three hours from Qinghe. Now it’s a thriving village, the haggard farmers of Nie MingJue’s memory replaced by rosy-cheeked men and women in fur-lined clothing. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen so much cattle around, and all houses spot fresh paint, and even the menu at the local guesthouse offers a number of items that don’t even grow this far north.
Not bad, Nie MingJue thinks, really not bad.
“Heh, you can’t really afford the guesthouses in Qinghe anymore,” he overhears somebody complain.
“What did you expect? They’ve got guests from the imperial household stopping by with their entourage all the time. Of course that’s only for immortals to afford now.”
Imperial household? Well, that is a change. Before, they’d always laughed that the soft-skinned people from Chang’an would never dare to brave the harsh climate up here. And while Nie MingJue had never liked politics (and the imperial court is likely worse than the cultivators), he can’t deny the place is thriving.
“So, wanna make a bet?” one of his travel companions asks. “Who’s going to be next chief cultivator.”
“Heh, who do you think it will be?”
“My money’s on somebody from the Jin family. They’ve always been at the top.”
“Yeah, but they’re in disarray. Plus, seeing this - I think the current Nie sect leader might make it.”
Some people nod in agreement. Nie MingJue stiffens in surprise.
“Though why isn’t he chief cultivator, yet? The mantle was up for the taking the moment the old one died, no?”
“Why would it go to the Nie sect then?”
“Oh, didn’t you hear?” The speaker lowers their voice, a spark in their eyes. “Apparently the Nie sect leader was the one who exposed Jin GuangYao. Which is why nobody’s dared to take the mantle yet, too.”
Nie sect leader? Nie MingJue blinks. Who is running his sect nowadays?
Well, that moniker sounds more like his brother.
“Well, it’s probably all hearsay for a reason. I doubt they’re going to elect somebody like him.”
“How about the Lan clan? I mean, they’re about the only sect who haven’t had their reputation tarnished.”
“ZeWu-Jun is still in seclusion, last I heard. I don’t know about Lan Qiren, though.”
“He’s certainly experienced. If he was a bit older, the Jiang sect head might have good chances.”
“But he’s quite temperamental.”
“Well, how about Wei WuXian?” It’s clearly meant as a joke, but Nie MingJue can see admiration coloring the eyes of some of the people around him.
“He’d be something. But, I don’t think he’s actually interested in the position.”
“Right,” somebody else chimes. “Wasn’t he a cut-sleeve now?”
“Is that a reason for disqualification?” Nie MingJue asks. He knows people have their misgivings, but he himself has never cared much for whom people bedded.
“No, but, eh, he’s … well, you probably missed it, but he’s got a, eh, cultivation partner. And now they’re, well, busy.” The exaggerated waggling of eyebrows isn’t exactly necessary for Nie MingJue to understand.
Somebody else, however, sits up. “Right. Lan WangJi, no?”
Not quite as much a surprise as it should be. He does remember Lan WangJi defending a delirious Wei WuXian with desperate fervor.
But really, what on earth have people been up to after he died?
Qinghe now looks wealthy enough to rival Lanling, Nie MingJue observes as they make their way to his old home. It makes coming back easier - the streets look different from what he recalls, the people dress differently. Oh, the city is doing exceptionally well, no doubt about it. But it isn’t home, and perhaps that will make leaving easier once his curiosity has been satisfied.
Yet when his sect’s stronghold comes into view, little has changed. Clinging to a mountain face, the facades have remained the same, only now they shine with fresh colors. A few new buildings dot the lower mountain side, and several large tents have been set up to handle the influx of visitors. Cultivators flying in on their swords, others arriving on food, by horse or wagon. There’s disciples and servants dressed in his sect’s colors everywhere.
And they look well.
An invisible weight rolls off his shoulders.
The official welcoming dinner provides Nie MingJue with a chance to subtly search for familiar faces. Seated in the sixth row, he’s well hidden from the attention. He spots a few distant aunts and cousins seated at the wall behind the seat kept empty for the Nie sect leader. His brother is not among them, and Nie MingJue forces himself not to think on it - so far, he has successfully quenched that worry.
Jiang Cheng is easy to recognize. He hasn’t aged, but some of the grief has gone from his eyes and the new look suits him better. The face of the person clad in black and red next to him is unfamiliar, though the colors and playful grin give him away. Wei WuXian. If that’s an impersonator, he’s truly excellent.
Next to him - a bit closer than appropriate, to be quite honest, is Lan WangJi, expression tranquil as always. Nie MingJue wonders about his brother and what drove him into seclusion. He would have liked to see XiChen. Lan QiRen next to Lan WangJi keeps pronouncedly not glaring at the couple next to him.
Right, cultivation partners, Nie MingJue remembers, and can’t help a grin. They do look well, for all that Lan WangJi’s face seems made from stone, and Wei WuXian has been known to laugh while bleeding out. It wasn’t - Nie MingJue wasn’t close when he died - but that was not a nice death. Maybe because of his own family’s propensity to qi deviations, he’s never hated Wei WuXian as much as the others did for choosing demonic cultivation as his path.
He hopes whatever path Wei WuXian chose this time, it will at least lead to a better ending.
There are many new colors and faces he doesn’t recognize among the group. The familiar bright yellow (he knows he ought to call it gold, but eh) of Lanling Jin stands out, though he only dimly recalls the man heading the group. Judging from the prominent position, the teenager next to him must be Jin Ling.
The conversation quietens as the door at the far end of the hall opens. Nie MingJue can’t help but lift his head in curiosity. There’s not much ceremony accompanying the sect leader’s entrance, which he approves of.
The current Nie head is shorter than he expected. Rather slight, and the simple clothes he donned keep Nie MingJue from recognizing the familiar face a moment longer. But it’s HuaiSang, and Nie MingJue’s heart - which had not quivered when faced with Wen Ruohan - leaps.
His little brother. And he’s looking well.
He’s not grown, either in height or width, still slender to the point of appearing fragile. There’s a sabre strapped to his side, and he moves toward his seat with some confidence. Nie MingJue can’t help but stare as the other sect leaders bow their heads in greeting, though Wei WuXian - naturally - lifts his cup in a toast instead.
Just what on earth happened since he died?
“Honored sect leaders and dear guests, fellow cultivators from near and far, welcome.” The smile on HuaiSang’s face looks gentle, but Nie MingJue thinks is pasted on. Well, even if apparently he’s now a well-respected sect leader (how?) and hosting the discussion conference, he’s still HuaiSang. He hasn’t changed that much.
“Tonight, I have the pleasure of…” Nie MingJue stops hearing the words of a visibly practiced speech, awash in the familiar cadence. He’d not known he missed this, never realized how just his little brother’s voice calms his blood. How long has it been? Even before he died, they’d yelled at each other. And often, he’d been busy with sect affair, had not had time to listen to HuaiSang ramble over unimportant things.
It was wrong. Nie MingJue can admit this easily now. And looking at how Qinghe thrives, perhaps his younger brother’s ramblings had never been quite so unimportant as he’d deemed them.
Surreptitiously, he raises a hand to wipe at his eyes.