Jiang Cheng was 6 years old when his father got him three puppies for his birthday. They immediately took to his heart as they surrounded him, eager for his attention. However, his first instinct was to look around cautiously, ready to gather the pups into his arms in case they decided to go towards —
His mind drew blank here and there was a strange feeling in his gut.
He looked down at the fluffy balls of fur around him and thought them wrong. Here, in Lotus Pier.
When he told his father to give them away, somewhere far away from — here, Jiang Fengmian did not raise an eyebrow. There was a strange understanding in his eyes, even though ultimately they didn’t understand. His mother’s reaction was only a scoff, but she didn’t protest.
Jiang Cheng was 9 years old when he officially started his cultivation training. What had only been occasional meditation became hard muscle work under his mother’s watchful gaze.
On a particularly hot day he suddenly turned around to look beside him, as if he were expecting something, a whined complaint maybe, but he only saw his fellow shidis, sweaty but working just as hard as any other day. This was no time to slack off. As he glanced up, he saw his mother sitting on a chair, Zidian in hand.
There was a faint furrow in Madam Yu’s brows as she watched her students carefully as if she was waiting for something to happen. Whatever it was, it didn’t happen.
Jiang Cheng only came to realize what he was doing when he had already walked into the courtyard, three skinned pheasants in his hands and proudly presented them to his sister. Jiang Yanli didn’t question as she swiftly prepared the food, her movements experienced despite never having done it before. Later, when he asked her who the third bowl was for, she didn’t have an answer, just as confused as he was. They shared a lost look.
In the end, they gave the soup to a random disciple that passed the kitchen and if it was slightly spicier than the other two bowls, the disciple didn’t dare protest.
Jiang Cheng was 11 years old when he got his sword. Sandu, he named it and marveled at the way it fits perfectly into his palm and the warm connection he felt to it. His father watched him with a warm proud smile until he asked him who the second sword in his hands was for. Jiang Fengmian looked down at it, his brows furrowing slightly.
"I don’t know," he said finally, an unexplainable sadness in his gentle eyes.
Jiang Cheng looked back at the sleek sword, black and golden and with a red tussle hanging from the hilt. He thought it looked beautiful and sad.
"What’s its name?" he asked as he traced the golden patterns on the scabbard with his finger, carefully.
There was a word imprinted on the scabbard, he noticed even as his eyes moved there on their own as if they knew. Which was impossible, because he had never seen this sword before.
Whatever, it said.
Jiang Cheng was 14 years old when he was named Head Disciple of YungmengJiang Sect. He was even allowed to drink one cup of wine at the celebrations. Even though he was surrounded by his cheerful shidis and his proud family, he felt like something was missing, the cup heavy in his hand.
He had been expecting an arm around his shoulder, warm and heavy and extremely annoying. His mood turned sour. He didn’t want to be Head Disciple either. That spot belonged to --
A disciple commented that maybe he should get himself a right hand as his mother had. As future Sect Leader, it would be beneficial if he had someone to share his load with. Despite agreeing, he couldn’t bring himself to ask for one.
Jiang Cheng was 16 years old when he went to the Cloud Recesses to study there for a year. His sister gave him a bag filled with his favorite snacks and saw him off at the pier. He didn’t ask her about the second bag he had seen her pack earlier.
When they arrived at Gusu, his first instinct was to turn to his shidis to reprimand them from causing any trouble during their stay. While his shidis agreed obediently, for some reason, he felt disappointed.
The first of the Twin Jades of GusuLan, Lan Xichen awaited them at the entrance to the Cloud Recesses and greeted them with bright smiles and kind words. He then had someone show them their quarters. Jiang Cheng had a room for himself since he was the Head Disciple. It was of moderate size, clean and relaxingly tranquil.
He didn’t like it. It was too quiet.
The lessons with Lan Quiren were only interesting in content. Despite having high respect for his teacher Jiang Cheng found himself only listening with one ear while he kept glancing to his right where one of his shidis sat. The purple in the corner of his eyes irritated him. For some reason, he felt that there should be only black and red beside him, which made no sense to him and only caused him to grow more restless with each passing day.
His room was too cold, the food too bland and nothing like his A-Jie’s and the many rules carved on the mountainside were exhausting.
To distract himself, he made friends with the other guest students, Nie Huaisang being one of them. He found the other quite useless in terms of cultivation but pleasant company nonetheless. He didn’t mind his quirky character.
Jiang Cheng tried not to think about the empty spot by their side as they joked and laughed.
One night he found himself unable to fall asleep as he tossed and turned in his bed. Jiang Cheng stood up eventually and went to the window to slide it open and breath in the chill night air. His eyes looked blankly into the distance.
He knew that he was being unreasonable. He had everything he could want, his parents didn’t argue as much as before, his sister was alive and healthy and everyone looked up at him with wonder. So why did it all feel like it was not enough? What was missing?
Usually on nights like this one, at Lotus Pier, he would step outside and take a walk to clear his head, maybe join his parents as they watched the stars together and drank tea. But there was a curfew here, and he didn’t really want to be punished, so he simply sat down at the window and closed his eyes.
He didn’t know how long he had sat there, and he was freezing but for some reason, he couldn’t bring himself to move.
He felt like crying.
Jiang Cheng thought he had seen a flash of black and red from the corner of his eye. That’s why he immediately dived down to save -- from the clutches of the Waterborne Abyss. His hands grabbed a white-clothed cultivator and for a moment, his heart lurched in his chest, thinking he had let the other one fall until he realized that there was no one else there.
Jiang Cheng met the Second Jade of Gusu in class. He was quiet and stiff, like an actual piece of jade, the perfect picture of perfection.
Jiang Cheng thought he wore the look of a man who had lost his wife. Such an expression looked strange on a face as young as his, but he supposed it was none of his concern.
One day he found him playing the guqin alone on a hill and got a strange feeling of déjà vu. He didn’t approach him, the feeling already familiar.
Lan Xichen often invited him to a cup of tea while they talked about various things. Jiang Cheng thought that the other might only want to strengthen his ties with YunmengJiang Sect since they were both future Sect Leaders but found that he didn’t mind it since the other was pleasant company. Today their conversation drifted to family and Jiang Cheng’s curiosity won over him.
"I hear Lan Wangji play the guqin on the same hill almost every day. It’s always the same few notes though. Is it some kind of ritual?" he asked the older Jade.
Lan Xichen’s movements slowed down as he lowered his cup from his mouth, a soft glint in his eyes that Jiang Cheng recognized as the love of an older sibling. His A-Jie often looked at him like that and sometimes he thought that the amount of love in her eyes seemed almost too much for just one person.
"It’s Inquiry," Lan Xichen answered. "For -- ... a lost spirit, I suppose ..."
He trailed off, looking a little lost. Jiang Cheng recognized the look as one he often saw in his parents' eyes, in his A-Jie’s eyes, in the eyes of a lot of people back at Lotus Pier. The look of someone who knew he had forgotten something he shouldn’t have. Jiang Cheng wondered why they all seemed to share the same sentiment.
"It’s hard to explain," the first Jade said finally. "We’re not sure about it but we suspect that someone cast the Ritual of Erasement."
The Ritual of Erasement allowed the caster to remove their entire existence from the memories of everyone who knew them. But in return, their soul would be trapped in the Abyss, unable to reincarnate or escape. That anyone would do such a thing to them self was unthinkable.
But it actually explained a lot, he realized.
It explained why Jiang Yanli always served a third bowl of Lotus Root Pork Rib Soup, why the friendly vendors at Lotus Pier always gave him two pastries instead of one, why they had that fourth unused table in their dining room, why Jiang Cheng would often find himself in front of the same unused room, why it felt like there should be someone next to him.
"But we don’t have proof for our theory. We can only trust our guts and the records our ancestors left us," Lan Xichen continued until he realized that Jiang Cheng had frozen in his place.
"Who?" the YunmengJiang Head Disciple whispered. "Do you know who? Who is it?"
The first Jade looked surprised at his reaction before understanding flashed across his face.
"No, we don’t have a name yet. But I’m guessing it’s someone you knew as well," he replied firmly.
To Jiang Cheng, it didn’t feel like he just knew that person. That person was a part of his family, a part of YunmengJiang Sect. He was sure of it.
"Do you have a way to contact them? Does Inquiry work?" he asked hurriedly.
Lan Xichen looked at him sympathetically.
"Unfortunately no, they won’t answer," he replied. "It’s not surprising. That person did not erase himself on a whim. They must not want any contact with this world they left behind anymore. It makes me wonder ... what they must have gone through."
Jiang Cheng felt a pit in his stomach.
This was akin to suicide, he thought. Was it their fault? Was it his? Had they really pushed this person they all clearly loved that far?
Did I do this to you, brother?
Jiang Cheng froze.
It was his brother, he realized. He found it hard to wrap his mind around it. He had had a brother, someone he clearly loved, who had stood beside him and who had killed himself, leaving him not even a memory to mourn or a name to cry.
"Can you teach me Inquiry?" he asked the first Jade, who looked surprised at his sudden request.
"Of course. Whoever it is, they might answer you. I also would like to get behind this," Lan Xichen agreed. "Wangji as well. I believe he might have been close to this person. He’s been trying to contact them for a long time now."
Ever since he had learned Inquiry when he was 9 years old, in fact.