The god Kunlun is as old as the mountain range that bears his name, if not older. Or so they say, the people of the villages scattered among those forested valleys. He was here before any people were, as eternal as the mountains—moreso, in truth. The mountains might change; a winter rockslide took down the hooked peak that once resembled a vulture, some years back.
But Kunlun remains Kunlun. The oldest villager in the highest village, Li Sai, on her ninetieth birthday, told stories to the children about how she had run and played with Kunlun when she was their age, and he looked just as he does now.
He's as old as the mountains, but he doesn't look old. Though his beard is as long as any village patriarch's, it's never grown a single white strand among the black. And if you dare look him in the eyes, they're clear and dancing dark, with no lines around them, except when he smiles. That's how you know he's a god.
That, and what he can do, when he chooses. Li Sai told the story of how when they were playing as children, her best friend fell into a mountain stream, swollen and swift from snow melt. The girl should have been lost, but Kunlun dove into the deadly waters and brought her out, and when she wasn't breathing, he gave her his own breath to awaken her.
The village children all believe this; they love playing with Kunlun, when he comes down from the mountains. He'll make up games, and share candy with them, sucking at honey boiled down to hard pebbles.
The older people are more wary of Kunlun's coming. It's never quite a safe thing, when a god walks among mortals. Whenever he arrives at a village, they hold a feast to welcome him, a feast the next day to see him off again.
Sometimes there will be seasons he doesn't appear to any of them—years even, that he'll stay up in the mountains, sleeping. Lately, though, he's been appearing more often than the full moon. The village elders are concerned, look to other omens trying to determine what it means.
When one bold matriarch decides to simply ask the god, he only smiles, shrugs his shoulders. "Just stopping by," he says. "It's been so long since anything has happened; why should anything happen now?"
But the next night, there is a new star in the sky—tiny and dim, too slow to be a shooting star, but it travels an arc across the black that is different from any other, even the morning star and evening star.
And a few nights following, when darkness falls, there is something is glowing dimly up on the highest mountain peak, radiating a strange colorless light under the new star.
The water in the mountain streams tastes strange—not bitter or sour, and it runs cold and clear as ever. But at night it too seems to faintly glimmer, if you cup it in your hands.
The very wilderness seems altered, the forest the villagers have known for generations becoming unfamiliar overnight. Plants flower out of season, and in the middle of the night crows can be heard cawing as if it's morning.
In the three villages highest and closest to the peak, people begin to fall ill. First the elderly, then the children. Then everyone.
Word spreads to the other settlements, so they know to stay away. They bring bundles of supplies—food, hides, treating herbs—and leave them on the paths outside the afflicted villages, not daring to venture further in.
And they pray for their brethren. And the god Kunlun hears their prayers, or else he would have come anyway. He walks into those plagued villages, carries to their people the bundles that no one is well enough to fetch themselves, unafraid.
He walks between the villages at night, so that he might serve all the day. He knows every path through the forest, of course, every tree that he's seen grow from seed to sapling to towering giant.
He ministers to the sick, prepares stews and teas. He tells stories to the children to ease their fevered dreams. He carries the dead out of their huts, builds pyres and lights them when no one else can, within the three days before their spirits are corrupted.
In the end, after the sickness passes, there are only a few taken from each village, mostly the oldest. The villagers thank the mercy of the gods—the mercy of their god. People from all across the mountain take three days to gather in the ceremonial meeting place, and celebrate for another three days, feasting and dancing.
The god Kunlun is not at his celebration, though; he's gone back up to the mountain. He doesn't come down again before the next full moon, or the one following.
The third full moon after the plague is when the first changes occur. When the first people, those who were sick and then seemed well, begin to be able to do what they could not before—what no one could do, even Kunlun himself. To make light without a fire, to bring rain or clear away storm clouds with the wave of a hand, to fly through the air without even a bird's wings.
The children have the strongest abilities, or perhaps they just take to them more readily, as if their new talents are merely part of growing up. It's frightening, what some of them can do. The girl who can summon insects, a cloud of stinging gnats when her parents scold her, wasps for the children who call her names. The boy who can ask any question, and you must answer him, as honestly as you can.
Not everyone who fell sick develops a strange power. The few who don't eventually leave their homes, go to the other villages bearing tales of what they've seen, the impossible, the uncanny, the grotesque.
The stories start as speculation, idle talk around the night's fires. They grow, as the days stretch long and then begin to shorten again. As those who come down from the three villages to visit and trade show how different they are now. The beans Ke Han grew are almost as long as a child's arm, larger than any pod should be. And Su Qi traded for a bushel of rice but then didn't load it into her basket; her daughter simply clapped and the bushel vanished, like it had never been there at all.
They could not do such things before. No person could do what they have done. So are they really people after all? Or are they only pretending to be, wearing the faces of those they used to know?
If not people, then what? Not gods—everyone has met the god Kunlun. He is unnatural, but not like this. Not frightening like this. He has his own face, not any other's.
Demons, then. Monstrous, unclean things, that clawed their way out of the underworld into the wilderness. This is why you don't venture too high up the mountains, too deep into the woods. They should have known better. It was pride, to build villages there. They should have known better. And now look at what they've awakened.
The new star still burns in the night sky, small and dull, in warning. Perhaps these demons fell from that star. And no one in the lower villages has seen the god Kunlun for a season or more.
The village elders convene a council in their meeting place—all but those from the three cursed villages, who must be dead by now, or worse. They talk and argue and lament, for four days and five nights.
Finally they decide. The strongest of all the villagers are called together, hunters and watchmen, farmers and goat-herders, mothers and fathers. They have among them no warriors or weapons crafted for battle; there was no need, when even bandits rarely brave the passes to reach these mountains.
But the villagers have homes to protect, and families. And they are frightened, the terror of the unknown, of the unknowable, and that's a madness that can stand in for courage.
They lay the ambush carefully, understanding the peril of what they face, the power and the malevolence. They surround the highest village, capture the strongest, the most dangerous—it's not so difficult, after all, not when their coming is so unexpected, not when the first who show themselves are greeted as friends, as if nothing had changed.
Once they've overcome the greatest threats, it's easy to corral the others, trapping all the seeming people within the village elder's hall. Those inside shout, call out in despairing confusion; some of the younger ones are wailing and crying, and they sound just like children would, that's how horrible these demons are.
But this is to save their own children. Still, when Ma Kou, the hunter who leads them, steps forth, his hand is shaking as he clutches the burning brand.
He is raising it to set the flames to the hall's wooden logs when there is a sharp cracking sound that makes all their ears ring. A voice, loud and commanding, shouts, "Stop!"
The god Kunlun has come.
The villagers part for him, lowering the hoes and axes that serve as their makeshift arms. A few whisper in relief, to have divinity on their side—and then fall silent as the god nears and they see his face.
Kunlun storms through their mob, his green robes stirred to the motion of wind. He bears his strange weapon, not a knife or sword or any blade, but metal containing that cracking thunder. In the light of the sun setting over the mountain, his face is terrible to behold, not smiling but with his brow dark with fury.
He tears the brand from Ma Kou's hand, heedlessly closing his own hand over the burning ash, to cast it to the ground and stomp it out. "What are you doing? Have you all lost your minds?"
Ma Kou leads them for a reason; while the others cower back, he pulls his spine straight and faces the god's wrath. "We're saving ourselves from these demons, before they can do worse!"
"Demons?" Kunlun cries. "These are your people—your friends, your family! For over a century I've watched you, all your villages, how you move back and forth, trading and growing—there's not a person in there who isn't related to at least one of you here, by blood or by other kinship! Ma Kou, the matriarch is your own second great-aunt, can't you hear her calling your name now?"
The hunter shakes his head. "That's not my aunt, Kunlun-jun—that's the demon using her voice, using her face. We wouldn't do this if we had any choice, but we must end this evil. Whatever broke open on that mountaintop—whether from the earth, or fallen from the sky—it must be stopped, before it can spread any further."
"Fallen from the sky," Kunlun repeats, and his eyes go distant. Those closest to him hear him mutter, just audibly, "No...but this isn't how it was said to go...was it? This seems..."
"Kunlun-jun," and Ma Kou doubles over in a bow, head almost to his knees, the deepest obsequience he can make to the divine. "We beg you, guard us against this evil. Deliver us from these demons, as you have saved us so many times before."
"Save you," Kunlun murmurs. He looks at Ma Kou, to those gathered beside him. Then he turns back to the elder's hall. Those within have gone quiet, hearing the god's voice, save for those few demons still making noises like children sobbing.
For a long moment, Kunlun is silent. At last he says, "All right. I can save you. But there will be a price."
This is the price the god Kunlun asks of them: that they leave the mountain, leave the villages they have built, the fields they have plowed. That every one of them walks away and never returns, nor their children, nor their children's children.
It is not so great a price, at that. There is too much evil here for it to be safe; the sacred mountains have become a profane wilderness. The crows that circle the peaks make strange calls now like words, and there are glowing eyes in the woods, larger than any wildcat's. Besides the demons, there are strangers who appear at night, travelers who join them by the fire and then disappear at dawn, with only the hiss of a snake. It's no longer a place for mortal men to dwell.
And in this wasteland, Kunlun locks away the demons. He puts them in the earth and seals it with his own body, with his own heart's blood.
So this, truly, is the price paid: the sacrifice of the god Kunlun, whom none of the living now will ever see again. It weighs heavily on all of the villagers, and wherever they go afterwards, whoever they meet, they speak of the coming of the demons and of their mountain god, of all he did for them—for all the world, that people might live in sunlight, without the shadow of evil over them.
Or so the story is told by those who left the mountains. There is another story told among those who did not.
Those people living in those three highest villages, the god Kunlun comes to them. Frees those who were captured and imprisoned, and brings them all together.
They look to him and tremble, even with all their newfound powers, for he is a god. But when Kunlun smiles at them, it's like he always smiles—wide and kind, if weary, deep in his dark eyes. He smiles at them, and leads them up the side of the tallest mountain.
Seasons ago, on this peak, they saw that dim glowing in the night, before the plague and all that followed. Here, now, there is a gouge in the mountainside, a smooth-edged chasm, like some great giant took an axe and cleaved the very rock open. It is not so wide a gorge, but it goes down, and down, and down. The sun is high, but its light doesn't reach the bottom. Even the little girl who now can count the feathers on an owl's wing at midnight cannot see where it ends.
"I wish I had another way to protect you," Kunlun says. "But the others are still afraid. And they will have soldiers, someday, armies...but you'll be safe, down there."
They stare at him, even knowing he's a god. "Down there...in the mountain?"
"Beneath it," Kunlun tells them. "Far, far beneath it—there's another land down there now. A whole land, all for you, as big as this whole mountain range. You'll be able to live like you do here. There's water and air. And light, even, like another star."
"Only a single star?"
"—Like the sun," Kunlun says, pointing at that shining light above them. "A new star, under the earth. Dixing," and he pronounces it softly, slowly, but with great meaning: a holy name.
"Dixing," the villagers repeat in wonder. "Is this your land? Is Dixing where you're from, Kunlun-jun?"
But Kunlun shakes his head. "No, I come from the...from somewhere else, even further away. But I've been down there—that's where I was gone, those past few months; I was exploring this place. It's a good land—it's made for you, I think. And you'll be safe there, protected from anybody who'd try to hurt you."
The villagers debate through sunset and sunrise and sunset again. Some arguments come to blows. But eventually they reach an agreement, and all of them, together as one people, go into the chasm.
Even with their abilities, the journey down is hard. It takes days, how many there's no way to tell, with the sun long lost to them. Their supplies wear thin, their water almost gone. The stone walls press close around them; their last torches are burned, and those who can make fire and other light can only hold back the darkness so long.
But eventually they see it, a glimmering in the dark—like the glowing up on the mountain, that gets brighter as they descend, until they reach the place Kunlun promised them. It's lush, filled with crystalline streams and the brilliant green of new growth, under the glowing light. Their land, Dixing.
The first thing they build, in this new world, is a cairn of stones. They dedicate this shrine to their god Kunlun, who led them to this paradise, and watches over them even now on the mountain far above, so that none may threaten them again.
Kunlun isn't really his name. He remembers that much. If not what his name actually is.
The fact of the matter is, human brains aren't designed to hold more than a century of memories at most. Even that many are enough that they start to slip away, get overwritten.
It's been more than a hundred years. A hundred times a hundred years, or nearly so, he thinks.
Once, he lived in a cave—once, that cave had marks scratched into the wall. At first, simply lines, one scored each night before he put his head down and went to sleep. After he'd made a thousand of those, he began to have other concerns.
He wrote on the wall, he remembers. Wrote dates, wrote names, as reminders to himself to think of their faces. He did, for years, for years and years, every day, or every week, or every year.
Then one day there was an earthquake and the cave collapsed, all his marks buried. It took days or more for him to dig himself out, and afterwards he tried to unearth the rest. But he hadn't learned then as much as he knows now, and he was alone.
He wandered the mountains for some long while before he found a new cave to settle in. And when finally he raised a sharp rock to scratch into the stone, he couldn't remember the shapes to make. They were still in his head, then—he would've been able to read them, if he saw them. But he couldn't bring them to mind clearly enough to draw them again.
Now, he doubts he would even recognize those shapes, if he saw them.
There is one name he remembers. He repeats it to himself sometimes, when he's struggling to fall asleep, when he's struggling to get up. Two syllables he carries with him always, everywhere—but he won't share them with anyone. They're not his name, he knows. But they're his, all the same.
The villagers, though, called him Kunlun, after the mountain—or maybe called the mountains that, after him? Or maybe they thought he and the mountains were one and the same.
They called him a god and he knew they were wrong, but he couldn't correct them, when he doesn't really know what he is.
One time, perhaps, he knew what it was to feel truly hungry, truly thirsty. To need sleep—not just crave it, but to fall into it whether he willed it or not. But that was so long, long, long ago. Before he was cast back here.
Once he had a life that was different from this life—was different from any life lived now. Not that he actually remembers anything of what that life was like. But he knows he must have lived it, because there are things he knows that he shouldn't—that he couldn't have figured out on his own, so someone must have taught him, once. Like how the sun in the sky is a star that the world is orbiting around. And that disease is caused by germs—not that he suffers any illness himself, not anymore.
And then there are other things he knows that he's sure he's always known. That people are people—even if they can do things he can't, that no one could, until now.
Kunlun isn't sure he did right thing, but he didn't know what else he could do. How else to protect them. The mountainside seems quieter now, without the babble of human voices anywhere he walks, the ringing of children's laughter. He should be used to it, he thinks. It was only for a short while, really, that these villages were here, and before that it had only been him, wherever he went.
He sits by the chasm sometimes. Peers down into its fathomless depths and imagines the voices he might hear at the bottom of it, the new people of Dixing, building their lives below.
Dixing. He hadn't remembered the word until he said it. Now sometimes, alone on the mountain, he'll repeat it to himself, speak it aloud to the empty air.
He thinks about climbing down, seeing for himself what they've made of it, but he can't risk it, knowing how long it would take him. He needs to stand guard now, for when men come back to the mountain—because they will return, eventually, for fear, for greed, for power. People are people, after all.
For now, though, it's just him again. And a few others—the Yashou, they call themselves, those who have already mastered speech. They talk to him sometimes, but they can fly, can crawl, can float their seeds on the wind. They're new, these Yashou; they have little interest in old things.
So the seasons turn, the days going from short and dark to long and bright and then shrinking down to darkness again, like the flickering of firelight. Sometimes Kunlun eats; sometimes he sleeps. Mostly he watches the mountains. Watches the sky.
It takes him a while to realize that the new star in the sky is changing again. It shines a little more brightly now, moves a little faster in its strange arc past the more fixed stars. Getting closer, and he feels an unease, deep in his chest, watching that tiny point of light.
He should remember this. This is something he should know.
But he doesn't. Not until he wakes one morning to the end of the world.
First is a flash of blinding light, and then the crack of thunder—only louder than any storm, a boom to rattle the heart against the ribs, to set the teeth chattering. Then the earth shakes, the mountain heaving up like it's some huge beast waking.
The sky is glowing with colorless light. The crows are screaming, filling the air with black flapping wings, their cries a mix of bird and human. Under Kunlun's feet, the earth shakes again, casting him to the ground, arms curled around his head in instinctive yet needless protection.
There is a roaring, groaning rumble, and with the crack of breaking stone, the top of the mountain sheers off and comes crashing down. Kunlun's body is pelted with stones, some larger than his head; he's swept up in a wave of churning dirt made fluid by the quake.
When finally he awakens, his broken bones still knitting back together under his regrowing skin, he has to dig himself out, one handful of dirt after another. He finally breaks through to the surface to light, to heat—the forest is on fire, blazing under a sky grown dark.
It's not now night but day, but Kunlun doesn't realize that, not yet. The air is choked with sulfurous smoke and ash; it would sear his lungs, if he needed to breathe.
He stares up into the black clouds, straining his stinging eyes. But there is no mountain to see—where once was jutting stone now is a heap of broken boulders. And buried under that pile is the chasm that led down to Dixing.
But far, far down—too far, perhaps, to even feel this apocalypse. So he can hope.
Dazed, aching, Kunlun limps down the mountainside, through the valley's blazing forest, embers sparking with each footfall.
Eventually a storm comes, bringing rain that hisses into steam when it hits the smoldering trees. The drips that fall in his mouth taste bitter with ash, and the forest keeps burning around him as he walks.
The first time he meets other people, after, Kunlun falls to his knees weeping. He'd walked so far without seeing any trace of life, he thought he might be the only one left anywhere. These three ragged, huddled figures, wrapped in cloth as gray as the ash around them, are more beautiful to him than sunlight.
They club him over the head, and while he lies dazed they tear the charred remains of his robes off his body, cursing to find no food on him. All they find is the gun that he always carries with him, but not recognizing it as a weapon, they cast its weight aside, and leave him for dead with that his only marker.
The next people Kunlun meets, he is more cautious. When they answer his greeting by brandishing hunting knives, he backs away from their cooking fire, leaves them to chew shrunken skin off brittle rabbit bones.
Eventually he gathers enough unburned grass to make snares, captures a few scrawny ground squirrels. That tiny bounty is enough to earn him a place beside the next campfire he comes across. They don't ask his name, and don't ask him to join them on whatever journey they're making, to some distant possibility of hope.
But they allow him to listen as they talk—as they mutter to each other about Kunlun's reckoning.
"The god Kunlun," they explain, when he asks. "All this—he was only a mountain god, but he sinned against the heavens, and so they punished him. They struck down his mountain and so released the demons sealed there, to lay waste to all our lands."
So he hears from all the people he meets, all the people grieving and starving and terrified. So many who don't dare let any stranger near their little bands, for fear it's a demon coming. Not all of them attack; some throw themselves to the ground, begging for unneeded mercy, or simply turn from him and run.
It's partly because of what he is, Kunlun realizes—that even dressed in rags and skins, his cheeks aren't hollow and his limbs are strong. His health is unnatural now; his strength, though no more than any mortal man's, is frightening.
And they have reason to be afraid. He's shocked, the first time he finds evidence of murder—not tragic victims of hunger or disaster, but slaughtered, bodies broken, deliberately. Their arms are raised up, slashed with injuries—defensive wounds, he identifies, long-dormant knowledge rising in his mind. But not from any wild beasts; the cuts are too clean, and besides animals would have devoured them; they're as starved now.
No creature came near these corpses, though—even the flies have stayed away, though they're long stiff and cold. Days old at least. The bodies were stripped bare, then left to rot under the ash-choked sky, their eyes not closed. It's brutal, even for this now-brutal world.
Before he moves on, he builds a pyre for them, wishes peace on their nameless souls.
They're not the last homicides he finds. Yet still he's unprepared when he eventually witnesses an attack.
Those threatened are a larger band, a dozen people, and most of them fully grown. Their attackers number only three—yet those three have the dozen cowering, arms raised to shield themselves. Hunting knives whirl around them—only a few blades, but they spin through the air as if caught in a cyclone, without any human hand throwing them. Though one of the three has her hand raised, finger lazily describing a circle that the knives imitate, untouched.
One of the men standing beside her holds a sword; the other has his fists, flickering with sparking light as he holds them up, says, "I told you—give us what you have, and we'll let you live."
"But—but we have almost nothing," comes a cry from those circled by the knives.
The woman laughs, and the man with the glowing fists smiles. "Then give us the almost."
But Kunlun is closer now, can see more clearly the faces of the three. The men are unfamiliar, but the woman—she's older, of course, but her eyes, the shape of her mouth—and her gift... He strides forward, demanding, "What are you doing, Chu Ling?"
All heads snap around toward him. Kunlun wouldn't be afraid even if he could be hurt. To him it was barely yesterday that he played with Chu Ling and the other children, running around under the sunlight. That he saw her realize her new gift, giggling in delight as she pulled falling leaves to her with her invisible threads. "How could you do this—you can't hurt these people!"
The woman stares at him—then smiles, cruelly, flicks her finger. One of the knives stabs down out of the air, and one of the trapped people screams.
"We can hurt—we can kill," the man with the fists says. "We're demons, after all."
"No, you're not," Kunlun says. "You're from Dixing, aren't you? What are you doing here? Chu Ling, why—"
"Why does he keep calling you that?" hisses the man with the sword, and the woman snarls, waves her hand sharply.
Kunlun sees the glitter of the blade as it changes trajectory, steps aside out of its path. The thread of dark energy propelling it he can only glimpse out of the corner of his eye, but he brings his hand down, catches hold of it and yanks, to drive the knife down into the earth.
He sees the man with the sword start to move and acts without thinking, drawing from the tatters of his robes his firearm.
He's kept the gun all this long, long time. Has cleaned it and repaired it and done the rituals to keep it loaded. He knows it shouldn't have lasted this long, but somehow it has, perhaps simply because he has kept it close.
He's fired it before, used it to hunt. But he hasn't pointed it at another person, not in as long as he can remember.
Now, though, his thumb cocks the hammer without effort, and he extends his arms straight and steady, targets the man with the sword—aims at his chest, center mass. "Stop," he commands.
The man has never seen a gun—no one has, of course. But he falters at the certainty in Kunlun's voice.
Until the man with the fists growls, "Kill him—show this fool what a demon is."
The other man grins and lifts his sword—and lifts his sword, and lifts his sword, his arm becoming two, then those two becoming four, then eight, and each fist swinging an identical blade.
The trapped people wail in terror, and the three from Dixing are smiling, vicious and horrible, as the man with his eight swords advances.
"Stop, now," Kunlun begs, but the man won't.
The blades cannot kill Kunlun. But these twelve could die on them, after he falls.
He pulls the trigger. The crack of the gunshot makes everyone jerk, hearts startled to a skipped beat. But only the man with the swords falls, dropping to the ground, a single sword falling from his single hand.
The whirling knives pause in the air, then drop as well. Kunlun gestures at their would-be prey, no longer trapped. "Go," he tells them.
The twelve flee, stumbling over the hills without looking back. The two from Dixing don't try to stop them. They're staring at Kunlun, at his gun, still raised. Between them, the other man sprawls, his blood soaking into the gray earth.
"What are you doing here?" Kunlun demands. "Chu Ling, why—"
"How do you know that name?" the woman snaps. "That was my grandfather's mother, our clan founder—are you of Dixing?"
"No," Kunlun says. "But I know of it—why would you leave that land to come up to this forsaken place?"
"Forsaken!" and both the woman and the man laugh bitterly. "This world's burning—but that's still a kind of light. It's not Kunlun's hell," and they spit into the dirt at the name.
"Kunlun," Kunlun repeats.
"The god of the mountain," Chu Ling's great-granddaughter says. "Who tricked us, forced us underground—to live in a new land, he told us. A protected place, guarded—our prison, only we were too foolish to see. Too trusting. Even as the star in the earth began to dim and the crops each year were more sparse—but Kunlun wouldn't abandon us, they said, our grandmothers and grandfathers. So they believed—until that black day when the star went out, and we were all in utter darkness, so far beneath the earth. With the road we'd first come down closed off—but we finally found a new way to the land above, to come here and take what should have always been ours. Claim this land that the heavens have forsaken, as the demons we are."
"No," Kunlun says. "No, that's not what you are—"
"—And who are you?" Chu Ling's great-granddaughter demands. "Who are you, who knows my great-grandmother's name?" She lifts her hand, fingers stiff and pointed upwards, and the knives rise from the ground. "My grandfather, he told me the stories his mother told him, about the god Kunlun. About how he looked like a man, a man with a long beard—but a young man all the same. A man who wore green robes and carried with him strange devices. Who smiled at them and told them they would be safe—safe, until the black day, and how many of us died down there, before we could escape?"
Kunlun shakes his head blindly. "I didn't know."
The man clenches his fists, and they flare with the crackle of static. The knives are spinning in the air.
The twelve they'd captured before are out of sight. Hopefully far enough away, at least for now. Kunlun knows that to protect them, he should stop this threat. Knows that the rage of these Dixingren can't be assuaged.
She looks so much like Chu Ling. Maybe she had the same smile, when she was a girl.
He lowers the gun, lowers his head. "I'm sorry."
The knives whistle through the air as lightning flashes, and the last thing he sees is their savage, joyless grins.
When finally Kunlun has enough blood again to awaken, he's lying in the dust. They left him his clothes, left him his gun. Maybe they were interrupted, or maybe at the last they shied away from touching the supposedly divine.
He lies there as the murky sky overhead darkens and lightens and then grows dark again. In the lighter moments, the sun appears only as a dim orange globe; in the darker, the moon and stars don't show at all, just a featureless charcoal haze.
At last he gets up. At last he starts to walk again. When he reaches a hill, he climbs it, up and then down again. When he sees fires in the distance or figures on the horizon, he changes direction, goes another way.
Eventually he reaches a river, mud-choked, stinking of sulfur, almost as bad as the air did the first few weeks after. No one could drink from it. For a long time he stares at the sluggish surge of brown water. Then he turns to walk along it. He follows its winding course, upstream, every step a little higher, until he reaches mountains.
It's not the Kunlun mountain range, he doesn't think, but can't be sure. The cataclysm shattered stone, destroyed every landmark he knew. He passes through the remains of a village, but it's long abandoned, only a few singed posts remaining, the circle of stones from a central meeting fire. The forest surrounding is a maze of charred stumps. Without enough sunlight, few plants can grow back.
There's a lake in the mountains, brown and poisoned like the river flowing from it. Kunlun walks its shore every day. He pulls rotting things from it—fish, mats of leaves. He digs channels to drain the scum from the top, and shores up the banks with rocks.
In years maybe it will run clean again; maybe fish and frogs will swim in it again, and people drink from its river. Ten years, fifty, a hundred. Or maybe no more rain will fall on this mountain again, and it will all dry up and disappear.
Sometimes he sits and watches the water. If it's windy, ripples spread across the brown. If the air is still, then the water is, too. There's no life remaining in it to stir the surface.
He's sitting, watching, one evening when the sullen burned circle of the sun is dropping low, when he hears a rustle behind him, the snap of a broken twig. He turns his head toward the stark black fingers of the burned forest.
There's movement, too close and in too much shadows for him to make out all the details—just the massive, hairless, misshapen bulk of the thing and the gleam of fangs hurtling toward his throat. It slams him into the mud at the lake's edge, clawed talons tearing at his chest, and even if he could free an arm to grab the gun, its Dixing bullets probably wouldn't penetrate this monster's hide. He closes his eyes, hopes it won't last long.
Hears an unexpected shout and opens them again, as something crashes into the creature's side and knocks it off him. The monster snarls, twists around to snap at this new threat.
Which is a slight figure, not a quarter of the size of the beast, with a polearm longer than it is tall, stuck between the monster's ribs. The beast howls, and the figure yells back and charges forward, within the range of those slashing talons, to drive the blade deeper in.
Kunlun stares. Then, as the creature thrashes, bares its fangs and lunges for its new target, he draws his revolver, aims and shoots through its rolling, red-rimmed eye.
The beast drops into the mud with a splash, dead. Kunlun sprawls next to it, struggling for breath. His torn chest aches, but dully, and his limbs are throbbing; his body has never forgotten how to make adrenaline, even if flight or fight is more habit than survival for him.
Kunlun turns his head. His clearing senses reveal his erstwhile rescuer—a lanky youth, black-haired, black-eyed, clothed in stained black that makes his slight build even thinner. He's got one hand around his polearm, thrust deep into the monster's gut, the other pressed to his own side, but he's staring at Kunlun. "Are you all right?" he asks with serious courtesy.
Then, before Kunlun can answer, the boy's eyes roll back and he too collapses into the mud.
The boy, when Kunlun picks him up, is nothing but skin and bones. He lies limply, but he's breathing yet. Kunlun carries him away from the lake and the stinking carcass of the monster, lays him on the bed of dead grasses he sometimes sleeps on. He lights a fire, as he rarely bothers, but he needs the light now and the kid is shivering, even unconscious.
In the firelight, the boy's features are gaunt and delicate. Kunlun had taken him for an adolescent but he might be younger than that, or maybe not; it's hard to tell, when he's half-starved.
The kid rouses somewhat when Kunlun touches his chest, groans and mumbles in confusion. "It's okay," Kunlun tells him. His voice is rusty after so long not talking, but he tries to pitch it low. "You're hurt, but it's going to be okay."
Maybe his tone is calming after all, or maybe the kid is in shock; he just lies quietly, anyway, as Kunlun examines him. The beast's claws slashed him across the chest; the wounds are deep enough to be bleeding freely, soaking into his black robes.
Kunlun has been practicing with distilling water, an experiment to pass time more than out of any need. He goes and gets what he's collected in a bucket made of a burned-out log, uses it to clean the boy's wounds and packs grasses and dead moss over them. He gets the kid to drink a little of the clear water, cupping it in his palm and ladling it into his mouth.
The boy is still trembling even after Kunlun piles most of the remaining wood he's collected onto the fire. Kunlun pulls his scrawny body into his arms, carefully, when the kid whimpers in pain, and shelters him from the night's chill as best he can.
"You shouldn't have done that," he mutters into the boy's black hair. "You didn't need to—no one needs to save me."
Later in the night, as the boy keeps breathing—as his shivers diminish and his skinny body relaxes a little, Kunlun whispers into the darkness, "Please," as he counts every breath drawn into those narrow lungs, every second crawling past.
Come daybreak, the boy is still alive, somehow. He awakens when the orange sunlight touches his face, coming to with a gasp, fingers scrabbling in the dirt as he tries to sit up.
"Hey, stop, don't move," Kunlun tells him, holding him down with a hand on one skinny shoulder. "You're still pretty torn up. Here, drink," and he offers a handful of water.
The boy manages to lift his head enough to sip, then squints up at him blearily. "What—what are you doing?"
Kunlun has lived far too long to worry about tempting fate. "Trying to save your life."
"Oh." The boy blinks at him, frowning. "Why?"
"Because you're hurt."
"Yes?" the kid agrees, still frowning.
There is something distantly familiar about that furrow between his dark brows. Enough for Kunlun to wonder if he might have once known this boy's ancestors. "And you were hurt trying to save my life," he says.
"Yes?" the boy says again. His dark eyes search Kunlun's tattered robes. "But you're not injured. So you could have run away from here. Another beast could come."
"I can protect us both, if one does," Kunlun tells him, and shows his gun as a reminder.
The kid looks at the firearm, then at Kunlun's face. Finally he says, "I don't understand." He goes to get up again, manages to make it sitting, panting for breath and with sweat broken out on his brow.
"Where do you think you're going?" Kunlun asks him. "You need to rest, to heal."
"I'm hungry," the boy says plainly. "I'll be too weak later to find food. Do you know where my pudao is?"
"Still stuck in the beast, I think," Kunlun says, staring at the kid in dismay—water, he'd thought of, but not food. "Down by the lake."
But the boy's expression clears. "Good—if the carcass is still there, that will be several meals."
"You can't eat one of those unclean things," Kunlun protests, thinking of the creature's stench and the irregular asymmetry of its body. Since the cataclysm there have been beasts like this, nameless monsters, not like any animals that lived before.
The boy just blinks at him, though. "I have before," he says. "Many times. The meat is better cooked over fire, but it can be swallowed raw. This one was large; there will be plenty. We can share it."
"Is that what you were doing?" Kunlun asks. "Hunting that monster for food?"
"No," the boy says. "It was too large for me to safely attack."
"Then why did you?"
"Because it was attacking you. And I didn't know you had that weapon to defend yourself." The kid goes to gather his shaky legs under him.
Kunlun stops him from standing. "No, you stay here and rest. I'll go get your polearm, and the monster meat for you, too."
Back on the beach, he wrestles the pudao out of the bulk of the beast's carcass, and awkwardly uses the polearm's blade to hack off one lumpy haunch, having no knife for the task. He brings it back to the boy, whose face brightens to see it, like the village children used to cheer when Kunlun gave them honey candy.
Kunlun is poking the ashes to get the fire burning again when the kid snaps his fingers and the piled wood bursts into bright flames. Kunlun sits back on his heels, raising his eyebrows—and higher still when the boy takes the pudao in his hand, and then it's not a polearm anymore but a short-handled knife.
"You're from Dixing," Kunlun says.
"Yes," the boy says. "Are you?"
He isn't sure what response he's expecting—childish anger or fear, or a more adult contempt or hatred. But the boy just nods in passing acknowledgment, focused on holding onto his newly shortened blade in his trembling hand to carve the meat.
The meat stinks as it roasts on the fire, like it's already gone rancid, but the boy doesn't wrinkle his nose at it. His first couple bites are wide with ravenous hunger, but then he becomes aware of Kunlun watching him, and covers his mouth with his hand as he gulps down his next mouthfuls. Slicing off a hunk of the burnt flesh, he wordlessly offers it to Kunlun.
Kunlun declines as politely as he can. "You need it more." Then, when the boy continues to hold it out, "And I'm not hungry now—I'll have some later. There's lots more where that came from."
This satisfies the kid, enough that he finishes most of his meal, then lies back down on the grass. While he sleeps, Kunlun takes the knife and goes back down to the lakeshore. He butchers the carcass, clumsily; it's been a long time since he's bothered to take any measures to feed himself. But he'll need the meat for his guest.
Though when the boy wakes up again, he's not hungry. He manages to sit up enough to take a drink from the water bucket beside him—Kunlun has a fire blazing to distill more now—but sets aside the grilled meat Kunlun offers him.
They sit beside each other for a while in silence, looking out over the mountaintop with its seared tree stumps, the brown lake. The air is still, thick clouds dimming the sunlight, though they hold no rain. It should be no different than his usual days, but somehow now Kunlun finds himself aware of the quiet, aware of the slow change of light as the sun moves deeper behind the clouds.
It's startling when the boy speaks. "I didn't think anyone would be up so high," he says.
"There isn't anyone but me up here, that I've seen," Kunlun says.
"I hoped..." The boy's fists clench at his sides. "I thought, if I climbed high enough, that I might see further. I thought that was how it worked, on the surface."
"It used to be so," Kunlun tells him. "There's too much ash and haze in the air now. Sometimes it's a little clearer than this, though."
"Oh," the boy says, and falls silent again.
Eventually Kunlun asks, "What did you hope to see? From up here."
"Another place," the boy says. "A different land. One without such beasts or demons, where more grows than dies. I thought...I dreamed that's what Haixing was like. But it was only stories."
"It used to be more," Kunlun says. And then, driven by some strange impulse to honesty, adds, "And it will be again, one day. In the future, all the forests will grow back, the trees, the animals. The people too."
"And what of the demons?" the boys says.
"There are no demons," Kunlun says.
"There are," the boy replies, his conviction more of weariness than fervor. "We came from Dixing, up from under the earth, and the world burned around us."
"No," Kunlun says, shaking his head. "The world was already burning. The Dixingren aren't demons, or monsters; you're people, like any people, for all your powers."
The boy looks down. "The Dixingren are filthy," he says. "Using power only to kill and eat and kill again. No better than that monster we slayed. Better to never have been born, than to be this."
"People can do monstrous things," Kunlun says. "Such terrible times can make people act in terrible ways. But they can choose to act with kindness, too. With courage, with generosity. The Dixingren same as anyone."
"Can they?" the boy says dully.
"You tried to help me," Kunlun says. "To save me from that beast, not even knowing if I were Haixingren or Dixingren."
For a long while the boy is quiet. Finally he says, "I'm tired. I want to sleep."
"Pleasant dreams," Kunlun tells him, the ancient courtesy falling easily from his lips, for all he doesn't know when last he said it.
The boy looks startled by it, though, as if he's never been told it before. He blinks, then nods, says, "Thank you," as he lies down.
Kunlun should check on the water distillation, but he sits by the boy for a little longer. He thinks the way his breathing has slowed means he's fallen asleep, but then the boy says, "I'm glad. That I could help you."
"I am too," Kunlun tells him, and leaves him to sleep.
Kunlun spends the night going between the boiling water, watching the steam slowly condense into distilled purity, and the monster meat he's sliced up and spread by the flames to smoke.
At this rate he's eventually going to have to venture further around the mountain to collect more wood. There's plenty of charcoal for now, but sooner or later it will run out. Or maybe they can just go to another mountain. When the boy is better—youth heals quickly; he'll be able to walk again soon, surely. Beside, they'll need to find more to eat. Maybe a few of the little brown-green stalks that grow near the lake water are edible?
Though come morning, when the boy wakes, he still doesn't want to eat. He sits up to drink but lies down again afterwards. For all that the daylight shows color in his sallow cheeks that wasn't there before, his breaths are rasping in his throat. Kunlun finally thinks to touch his forehead and finds his skin hot to the touch.
"You're ill," he says.
"Yes," the boy says. He coughs, rolls onto his side to retch a little bile into the dirt.
"The meat—was it poison after all?"
"Not from its meat," the boy says. "The claws."
Kunlun unwraps the boy's wounds to find them swollen and oozing, scarlet branching across his chest, climbing up to his neck, his arms.
"I fell sick before, to a scratch," the boy says. "But it wasn't this deep."
"I can't clean these," Kunlun says, "there's not enough clear water left."
"Bring me water," the boy says. "From the lake."
Kunlun doesn't understand but he goes as quickly as he can, fills one of his wooden buckets from the putrid lake and brings it back. Moving slowly, the boy lowers both hands into the murk—Kunlun would stop him, but it's probably too late now to worry about what toxins might be in there—and then the boy lifts his hands and shows Kunlun the clear water cupped in his palms, as the muck and silt drip through his fingers.
"See?" he says. "I can return what you gave me, at least."
He transfers enough handfuls to fill half the bucket—Kunlun stops him then, as he's shaking. Makes him lie down and bathes his chest, using most of the clean water. He leaves the wounds open to the air to drain. The boy whimpers a little under his ministrations, faint wheezing gasps, but doesn't cry out, though Kunlun knows how much it must hurt—pain is not something he's spared himself.
After, the boy drinks the remaining water without spitting any up, goes back to sleep. But he's restless throughout the night, and the next day he feels hotter still, though his face is gray, in contrast to the angry red spread further across his chest.
For all the fever, he shivers in the breeze, and Kunlun holds him, folds his hands over those thin arms to try to warm him. "You're going to be okay," Kunlun tells him. "You'll get better—" but the boy shakes his head.
"No," he says, "but it's all right."
"It isn't," Kunlun says. He'd forgotten what it feels like to be this angry, the coldness in his chest, the prickly itching of his skin, as if it's stretched too tight over his bones.
The boy is staring up at Kunlun's face. He looks confused, as he reaches up a trembling hand, brushes his fingers against Kunlun's cheek. They come away wet, saltwater clinging to his fingertips. "Why?" the boy says. "I don't understand."
"I don't want you to die," Kunlun says. "Not now, not here; not for this."
"I'm Dixingren," the boy says. "I shouldn't have been born at all."
"I'm glad you were," Kunlun tells him, and the boy gazes up at him with glassy black eyes, a god's tears on his fingertips.
"My blade," he says, "you can have it. I don't have anything else. Though if you bring me more water—"
"You don't need to—I don't need it," Kunlun says. He distilled a little more; it will be enough for the boy, if he wants to drink again.
The boy frowns but accepts this, says instead, "If you would want the knife to be the pudao instead, or a sword, I could change it?"
"That's all right," Kunlun tells him. The boy is shifting restlessly, and Kunlun gathers him closer, rubs his back, trying to soothe. "So what is your power?" he asks, keeping his voice calm. "I thought all Dixingren only had one, but you can transform your weapon, draw clear water, spark a fire...?"
"I have only one, too," the boy says. His voice is thready, fading. "My ability is—"
Kunlun realizes it then, says it with him. "—Learning."
"Yes." The boy blinks dizzily. "How did you know?"
"I once knew someone who had that gift," Kunlun says. "...I think I did," though he cannot recall who it was, among all the villagers. But the gift itself—he remembers the feeling of discovering it, the satisfaction of questions answered.
Then he sits up straight as a wild hope flashes like lightning, coursing down his spine. "Learning—if that's what you can do, could you learn healing? Learn how to heal yourself?"
The boy frowns weakly. "If...if I were shown it, perhaps...but I would need to see someone using such a power."
That's all Kunlun needs to hear. "Then watch close," he says, and picks up the boy's knife, slices it across his bare arm, deep, parting the flesh so blood wells up.
Then he concentrates. It's only rarely that he bothers to direct the energies in him to heal; usually he lets his body manage it, as it's of so little difference to him, whether it takes a minute or a day or a year to recover. But he wills it now, and the power responds, a wisp of misty energy drawing closed the flesh and knitting it up, so that when he wipes away the blood, the skin underneath is unscarred.
The boy stares at this—not in wonder, but intense focus, brows drawn together. "Do you see?" Kunlun asks, breathless. "Is that enough for you to learn it, or—"
"I—I think," the boy says, and his eyes flutter closed—fear stabs through Kunlun, but then he sees the power seeping from the boy's skin, like steam rising from just-doused embers. It gathers over the red-veined infection, and that angry color starts to fade, even as he watches.
Kunlun sags back onto his rear, covers his face with his hands. "Thank you," he whispers. "Thank you."
It takes hours for the boy's injuries to heal, and he sweats and moans with the pain of it; after, he falls into a deep sleep. Kunlun just sits and watches him slumber for a long time. The wounds still run pink and jagged across his thin chest, but they're fully closed, with no more blood or pus. His forehead is cool to the touch when Kunlun rests his hand on it.
And come morning when he awakens, his eyes are clear and bright. He bounds to his feet, stretches his skinny limbs up to the sky in the aimless celebration of a child. Kunlun can't help but grin to see it. "Feeling better?"
The boy spins around toward him. "Yes—thank you," he says, and doubles over in a deep bow.
"Come on, get up, get up," Kunlun tells him. "You healed yourself."
"With your gift," the boy replies.
"Well, in that case, you can make it up to me by never using it again."
"Oh..." The boy blinks. "If you don't wish me to, then I won't."
"I meant," Kunlun says, shaking his head, "for you to not do anything again that would call for you to use it. If you do have to—then use it, please. I'd be honored."
"Then I will so honor you," the boy says, so solemnly polite that Kunlun can't help but laugh out loud.
The boy starts at the sound and stares at him, at Kunlun's smiling face—not smiling back, but transfixed.
Kunlun asks him what else he can do, what other powers he's learned. As it turns out, he's amassed a few other gifts from his fellow Dixingren, though most of them are minor tricks, like the single fire-lighting spark. He also can see in darkness, and change the course of breezes—that last, Kunlun wonders if it might strengthen with practice. If he could move clouds, shift air currents—he might one day be able to summon a storm.
Kunlun is fascinated by all he hears, not least to realize the breadth of what the Dixingren became over those past years. The boy isn't so interested in talking of his people, though; he avoids mentioning from whom he learned most of the powers he has.
The closest he comes to explaining his disregard is when one day he asks Kunlun how long he has been on this mountain. "Were you here when the sky fell?"
"No," Kunlun says. "I came later."
The boy is squatting on the lakeshore, lifting water from the lake, to dump the clear water into a bucket between his knees. Now that he's healed, the process is tedious for him but takes little effort. With a limitless source of fresh water they have some hopes of trying to grow seeds, farther in the woods where the ground is cleaner.
The boy puts the bucket aside now, looks up at Kunlun, who's braiding rope from dried grass. "Then," and his pale face is drawn, intent, "then in your travels before, did you ever meet another boy—a boy with my face?"
Kunlun pauses, thinking. In some lights, the boy's face looks familiar to him still, though he's not recalled from where. When his brow is wrinkled like now, that noble, serious affect—but it's when he looks more mature, not less, that it most strikes him. Kunlun shakes his head. "No, no other kids who look like you."
The boy's expression falls; he says nothing.
"Who were you hoping I saw?" Kunlun asks him gently. A face like his..."Your brother?"
"My little brother—my twin," the boy says. "I lost him...a long time ago."
He's so young, this boy—his 'long time' would scarcely be the span between one breath and another, to Kunlun. "I'm sorry," Kunlun says.
"There was a man," the boy says quietly. "A demon...and I was too small then, I didn't know yet how to fight. And my brother, he had no power...so he was nothing to that man. But he was everything to me. If I'd been stronger, strong enough to protect him..." He falls silent, draws a few more handfuls of purified water, while Kunlun searches in himself for something to say, some comfort he might offer.
Before he can find such a thing, the boy says, more softly still, as if he's afraid of what might hear him, "I thought he must be long dead, that he couldn't survive in this place. But—but there are people like you in the world, too. So perhaps..."
"Perhaps," Kunlun says—only that small agreement, but still, the boy's face lightens, as close to a smile as Kunlun has seen from him.
That night is stiller than usual, not a breeze stirring the air. The little fire they make pops and crackles only occasionally to break the silence. Watching over the boy's sleep, Kunlun dozes himself, letting his head droop as he shuts his heavy eyes.
—And then he is not by the fire, but somewhere—somewhere else; he is still sitting, but not on a stump on a scorched mountainside. Instead he's sitting on a bench on a street, and the sky overhead, between the building rooftops, is brilliant blue. The sun is warm on his face, and there is another warmth along his side, a head resting heavy and trusting against his shoulder. But they've sat here long enough; they should be going home now, and he's smiling as he turns his head toward the sleeper, opens his mouth to say his name—
—and Kunlun jerks awake with a gasp, lurching forward on his hands and knees.
Across the fire, the boy comes awake and rolls to his feet in an instant, looking about them. "What? What is it?"
Kunlun shakes his head, struggling for breath around the unexpected weight on his chest. "I—I wasn't here, I was—somewhere—another—"
The boy settles back. "Oh, you were dreaming."
Kunlun stares at him. "No," he says. His own voice sounds wrong to his ears, hoarse, grating. "No, I don't dream. Not for—I'm not...I don't."
"Sometimes I wish I didn't," the boy says.
Kunlun makes himself breath evenly, in and out. "Do you have nightmares?" he finally asks.
"Sometimes." The boy shrugs. "Those aren't as bad. The worst dreams are when I realize what they are, and know I'll have to wake up anyway, however hard I wish for them to be real."
That isn't the last dream Kunlun has. It's as if something has broken inside him; more often than not now, if he falls asleep, his mind flies elsewhere. Sometimes he's on the mountain again, buried as it quakes and burns; sometimes he's in the villages, a century before that, playing with children in the sun.
But in most of his dreams, he's somewhere else entirely. In a place that doesn't exist—not yet; a city that won't be built for thousands of years. With people who won't be born for even longer.
In his dreams, he knows their faces, knows their names; he's never surprised to see any of them. When he wakes up, he isn't able to remember any of those details, no matter how hard he tries to hold onto them; all that lasts past waking is the memory of that familiarity, the certainty that once he knew these things so well that he never feared forgetting them.
Kunlun sleeps more now, to dream more, so that maybe something will last—that he'll find some way to preserve what he knows when dreaming, imprint it so deeply that it is with him still when he awakens.
Or maybe that's just the reason he tells himself. He's more tired these days, it seems; it's harder to wake up, easier to fall asleep than once it was for him. He used to go long weeks without sleeping at all, but now most nights he drifts off, whether or not he means to.
Meanwhile the boy, now that he's healed, is filled with the boundless energy of youth. He doesn't romp and caper like most kids would; he doesn't really smile, and laughs not at all, always grave and austere as some noble lord. But if Kunlun asks him to fetch something, he runs, stretching his lanky legs to their longest stride. When the days are clearer he climbs to the peak of the mountain to see all he can, and down again before night falls.
He's restless, Kunlun realizes, and growing moreso. Kunlun wonders if it might be concern for food—even with only the boy's careful appetite, the meat of the beast only lasts so long, and then he's limited to the few plants managing to grow and occasional scrawny game. But then one day he crosses over the mountain and comes back with a deer slung round his shoulders—a skinny beast, with patchy fur and one malformed tusk, but still heavy enough to curve his slender back.
He cuts the meat into slices to smoke it to jerky, and stretches the hide with pegs to dry it. Kunlun helps him prepare it. As they work, the boy says, "On the other side of the mountain, I saw smoke in the distance."
"A lightning fire?" Kunlun asks. There have been thunderstorms, if no rain. He's not overly concerned; this close to the lake, it's damper, and anyway there's little left to burn.
The boy shakes his head. "Only one column of smoke—a campfire, I think."
Kunlun looks at their own fire, his eyes tracing the smoke rising into the sky. "Maybe we should put out ours until they've passed, then." It's been growing warmer, whatever season it is; he thinks it shouldn't be too cold for the boy.
But the boy says, "Or we could go to them. Bring this meat. They might need it—hunting is hard, around here."
"You could," Kunlun says slowly.
"We could," the boy says.
"And if they don't need help hunting?" Kunlun asks. "If they're looking instead for prey to kill?"
"Then we can stop them," the boy says, so simply. "You have your gun, and I have my pudao."
The air is warm, but Kunlun feels cold. "Or we could stay here on the mountain."
"We could," the boy says, shrugging, and goes to get more water to cure the deerskin.
That night, they don't light a fire. Kunlun doesn't sleep but stares out into the dark land spread out beneath the mountain. He sees no glimmer of firelight, however, nor the night after that.
The next night after that is humid, a sticky heat that lasts even as the final sunlight fades. His eyes feel gritty and his wits slow, and still Kunlun sees no hint of any people in the darkness below. Finally he lies down, goes to sleep next to the boy.
He dreams this night too, strange dreams of shapes and tools, of formless power circumscribed in rigid device. He dreams of an awl that pierces his chest, deep, though no blood flows out; of a brush that paints over his wound so that it's invisible, though he can feel the hole when he touches it, gaping between his ribs, can feel his heart beat hot and wet against his fingers.
He dreams he's lying under clean blankets on a soft bed, and there is someone sitting beside him, touching his cheek, saying, "Here, I'm here—can you hear me, Yunlan? It's almost time to get up..."
When Kunlun awakens, it's to light on his face. Behind the haze, the orange sun has passed its zenith and is sinking again.
The boy is not sitting at their camp. He's not down by the lakeshore, either, nor at the patch of tilled dirt where the seeds they planted have yet to sprout.
Kunlun calls for him, his voice echoing across the still mountainside. No other answer comes.
The buckets of clean water sit untouched. The curing hide is still stretched on the ground. Most of the jerky is still there, too; he only took a few pieces, left the rest. His blade is gone, though.
Maybe he's hunting again. Kunlun waits for him that day, that night. Until the next day, when the sun has climbed again to its height, and still the mountainside is silent, no footsteps crackling through the scorched twigs.
Kunlun gathers up the cured deerskin. With a sharp rock he tears off two strips he can wrap around his feet. The rest he bundles around the smoked meat, ties with the rope he's braided from the grasses. He makes sure the gun is tucked away under the rags of his clothes.
There's nothing else he has to take with him, as he walks down from the mountain.
He hikes for two days—or maybe three, or four—before he sees smoke in the distance. It's twilight by the time he arrives, and the people huddled in tents around the fire shy back from him, even when he offers the deer jerky. But they don't attack him, and cautiously take the food from his extended hand.
He asks if any of them have seen a boy. Most of them glower at him, keeping their distance, but finally one woman asks, "What's his name?"
Kunlun stares at her. At last he shakes his head, wordless.
The woman frowns. "How old is he, this boy?"
Kunlun only shakes his head again.
The woman sighs, then stands up and moves around the fire to sit in the wide space left beside him. Nearer, he can see her eyes are bright in her leathery face. Her shoulders are stooped, but her hair is gray only with dust, not age. She puts a hand on his arm, asks him, "What is he like, this boy of yours?"
"This tall," Kunlun says, raising his hand above the ground. "With long black hair and clear black eyes, dressed in black rags. He carries a blade—a pudao, usually. If he had food or water, he would offer to share it with you. If you were in trouble, he would fight for you, and ask for nothing after."
The woman looks at him a long moment, and then she smiles. "I think I know of whom you speak."
"You've seen him?" Kunlun says, grasping her hand. "Where—lately? Is he well, is he—"
But the woman shakes her dust-gray head. "I've never seen his like myself, but I know the stories. There are such things in the wilderness, spirits now awakened."
"He's not a demon," Kunlun says.
The woman's face pales in the firelight; she makes a warding sign. "No, not the demons! These are not evil things. Nor like the gods who used to walk among us—the heavens have forsaken our land, but we're not entirely alone. I spoke to a woman once, who told me of a band of people traveling together for safety. When I asked her how she knew, she turned into a crow and took flight in front of me. So I followed the bird and found these people I journey with now," and she gestured at the camp around her. "This boy, this ghost, perhaps he was leading you here to us."
"He's not a ghost," Kunlun says, smiling a little at the thought. "You wouldn't mistake him for anything so ghastly—he's too alive, too beautiful to be such a thing."
"They say that the greater the spirit, the more beautiful it appears," the woman says. "Perhaps he was a little ghost king—and you must be someone important indeed, for such a spirit to come to you. Stay with us—we could use more able-bodied people. We have food, water. And there's safety in numbers when the demons come."
But at daybreak, Kunlun leaves their camp, sets out again alone. He crosses the land, searching. There are other camps. There are even villages again, he finds, clusters of huts in the scarred wilderness, those few places with enough water, enough rain, for plants to grow—stunted and yellow-leaved, but rooted deep in the blackened earth.
And then there are the demons, who everyone still fears—who come boiling up out of the wastelands and strike like lightning, unpredictable, unstoppable.
At first Kunlun just runs or hides if he sees any trace of their coming. But then one day on an icy tundra, he comes across four of them—four men chasing a child running barefoot across the snow, wailing in terror. One of the attackers pursues from the air, flying on the wind itself, swooping down. Another stamps his foot and the ground shakes as if he were a giant, knocks the child sprawling.
They're not much more than boys themselves, youths laughing gaily at their sport as they lift their boots over the child huddled on the ground—as if they're truly demons after all, and Kunlun pulls his gun, aims through the red haze over his vision and fires. The shot goes cleanly through the shoulder of the flying youth; he hollers, plummets to the icy ground.
"Get out of here," Kunlun shouts at their shocked, staring faces. "Leave!" and he brandishes the revolver.
The Dixingren bolt, scattered like frightened birds, and Kunlun goes to where the child fell.
There isn't any person curled up on the snow, though—just a scruffy little cat, with black fur almost as dark as the boy's hair had been. The kitten purrs in soft distress as Kunlun carefully picks up that tiny body and tucks it under the rags of his robes, against his heart beating in his chest.
With water and meat and warmth, the kitten recovers quickly. He eats little enough that it's no great difficulty to feed him—though it seems like he scarfs down another handful more of meat with every day that passes.
He doesn't have a name—"At least I don't think I do," he says, when Kunlun asks. "No one's bothered to give me one. Why, what's yours?"
"...Kunlun," Kunlun finally says, because he has no other to give. The kitten doesn't react to it, though; he's too young to have heard any stories of the mountain god. If the Yashou ever told any such stories.
Kunlun ends up calling him Daqing, after another cat he thinks he might have had once.
It's different, traveling with Daqing. Not only because Kunlun now has to worry about finding water, finding food. The kitten sleeps a lot, resting in Kunlun's robes or on his shoulders, but he also likes to play, crawling up his legs, batting as his heels as he walks. He likes to talk, too, chattering about what he sees on the horizon, about what meals he's looking forward to. At first Kunlun just lets him prattle, but then he starts to answer, to tease him back. He picks a stalk of grass, dangles it for the kitten to chase as they walk.
Kunlun still dreams, almost every night. Sometimes now in his dreams, Daqing is there—though he's bigger, rounder than the scrawny kitten.
He flops down with his head on Kunlun's stomach, and Kunlun nudges him into a more comfortable spot, goes back to reading the casefile. There's a delicious smell in the air; dinner's almost on. "Is it ready yet?" Daqing yowls, and a voice calls back, "Almost," and Kunlun wants to get up, go to that voice, to see for himself what he's making—but Daqing's head is too heavy, and when he tries to push him off, goes to get up, he finds himself sitting up from the ground, with the kitten sprawled in the dirt beside him and mewing crankily at being disturbed.
To ensure Daqing is fed, Kunlun more often heads for villages and stays longer than he would otherwise, even if no one in them has seen the boy he still seeks. They're at one settlement for three days when Dixingren attack.
Kunlun would flee, escape this fight—except he can't find Daqing; the kitten panicked and hid, when the boulder dropped from the sky upon the village's central meeting fire. Children are crying, but the adults are armed with axes and torches and stones. They march out to defend their homes, even as outmatched they are by their attackers.
So Kunlun stands with them, with his gun. The warning he shouts does no good, but after the third of their number drops, the Dixingren retreat.
The villagers would throw him a feast, like they used to give the god Kunlun once upon a time, but Kunlun leaves before the celebration can begin, as soon as Daqing creeps out of hiding. The cat whines piteously about the food he's being denied, but Kunlun couldn't eat now, his stomach a hard knot in his gut.
The next village they come to is reluctant as usual to give Kunlun a place, and he's brought nothing to trade. He's turning to leave when Daqing cries out, "But you can't send him away, the hero of barren lands, he who drove the demons from the village on the south riverbank!"
"Who said that?" the villagers demand, as Kunlun tries to silence the little loudmouth. But the damn cat squirms free, jumps down and into his human shape, as he only rarely bothers assuming—it's easier to fill a cat's stomach.
He's nearly as cute a kid as he is a kitten, and the villagers are already looking upon them more kindly as Daqing expounds, "Rather than turn him away, you should be laying out a banquet to invite him here, that he might safeguard you from the demons. Welcome the wielder of metal and thunder, the great Kunlun!"
Gasps arise. "Kunlun? Like the old god?"
"God?" Daqing scoffs. "He's neither god nor old—this is General Kunlun, the warrior of renown! Surely you've heard his tale..."
Surely they have not; but that a strange wanderer had saved that other village has spread this far already, and knowing that, the villagers are as eager to hear more as Daqing is to craft the story. The only feast they can offer is meager, and Kunlun eats as little as he can while still being courteous. Daqing meanwhile stuffs his human cheeks with glee as he babbles.
Afterwards they spend the night on mats of reeds in the village head's own hut. Kunlun stares up at the ceiling, wondering when last he was under a manmade roof, other than in his dreams. The other villages they've stayed at, the best they were ever given was a heap of hay between huts. It's a strange sensation, to not see the sky.
"Now this is the treatment we deserve," Daqing says contentedly, curling up in a feline ball against Kunlun's side.
"And you only had to tell a few dozen lies to get it."
"It wasn't really lies," protests Daqing. "The most important parts are true—you could save them, if demons came now."
"Also I was born of the tryst of a barbarian king and a wild warrior woman under a full moon. And once stole a phoenix's feathers, and can fly through the air on a cloud."
"I wouldn't have had to tell such stories anyway, if you looked more like a warrior and less like a wild beast," Daqing sniffs.
"There's a difference?" Kunlun says. But the next morning he goes to the village's well, draws up a bucket and looks down at his reflection in the still water.
The beard is as long as ever, and the tattered shreds of his clothes he knows too well. But the tangle of hair hanging in grimy hanks around his face, the dirt smeared over his face—it's not what these villagers look like, not now.
He borrows a knife. It's easier to deal with the hair by hacking it off, to unnaturally short, and he takes the beard with it, leaves only close whiskers on his chin and lip. Then he washes with the well-water, scrubbing his skin nearly raw. It feels good to rinse away the grit and filth.
Though afterwards, the face reflected in the water is a stranger to him—a strangely familiar one. Like the feeling in his dreams, reaching for something solid to remember, only for everything to slip like melting ice through his mind's grasp.
The villagers are happy to clothe their new hero. Not the green robes he once preferred, the color that the mountains used to be, but the jerkin and furs of a warrior.
Daqing purrs with pride to see him, butts his head approvingly against Kunlun's arm. Though that night as he kneads Kunlun's stomach through the clean linen tunic, he asks, "So, are you?"
"Am I what?"
"Are you a god?" Daqing says. "I asked the villagers about him today. The god Kunlun, who brought down the mountain and blocked out the sun and released the demons on the world."
"...What would you do, if I were?"
"Nothing." Daqing yawns, curling his pink tongue around his small white fangs, turns a final circle and lowers his head onto his paws. "You're my owner, and a cat's a cat, whether it's owned by a man or a demon or a god."
"I'm not a god," Kunlun says.
"All right," Daqing says. He shuts his green eyes. Then asks, "And the boy you're looking for—is he a god?"
"...No," Kunlun says. "And he's not a demon, nor a ghost either."
"But he's real."
"Yes," Kunlun says. "He's real."
That night he dreams of the boy—of seeing him across water. Not the choking, putrid lake, but a stream running crystal clear. He's seated on a jutting stone, his face turned into the sunlight, his skin like alabaster against the ebony of his hair. He's beautiful, inhuman. His hands are bloody until he puts them into the flowing water, and it washes everything away.
Daqing's scrawny ribs fill out; he grows from a half-sized kitten into a sleek young cat, from an apple-cheeked child to a gawky teenager. Kunlun is given a pair of little bells from a grateful mother; he ties them around Daqing's neck, and the cat jangles them proudly with every step. Daqing carries a knife with him when he doesn't have claws, and he follows Kunlun everywhere, even when he goes to defend against the Dixingren.
The lands are changing, too. Now, when the winter frost recedes, green plants start growing—only weeds and grasses, mostly, but here and there bushes or bamboo. The villages are larger, their fields broader.
In some of the villages, there are people who are especially lucky with what they grow. Who can encourage a seed to sprout sooner than it should, or dig a hole deep enough to draw groundwater simply by pointing a finger. No one questions such gifts, not when they're so needed. And Kunlun is careful not to call more attention to them.
Though when he tells the villagers what he knows about the Dixingren, teaching them to defend themselves once he departs—about how they're not demons but mortal men, for all they can do; about how those powers are limited, one to a person, and with weaknesses—he always tells them too that Dixingren can be kind, that their powers can heal as much as harm.
But even as the villages grow stronger, the Dixingren who dwell in the wilderness are stronger now than they were as well, and never show mercy or any other kindness. Some have no fear at all, not of Kunlun's gun or any warning he gives, not of swords or spears. They'll keep charging as they die, their eyes wild, senseless; they're more feared than ever.
And as that terror grows, so do the stories the villagers tell themselves to face it. Daqing hears the tales first, from the village children he always goes to beg treats and head-scratches from. That the great General Kunlun is not the only legend spreading across the land, not the only protector they celebrate.
Unlike Kunlun, the Ghost Slayer never enters any village, never sits down at any feast. He doesn't need to eat or drink, they say; he's not a living warrior but a wandering spirit, safeguarding those who dare journey to better lands.
There are a dozen stories about him, when first Daqing relates them to Kunlun; in a few seasons there are a hundred. The Ghost Slayer's blade can take down any demon; simply his stare can freeze an army in their tracks. He parted a river with his blade, so that ambushed travelers might escape across it; he raised a forest with a wave of his hand, to make shelter for those lost in the desert.
Daqing bristles at these accounts, would make up still grander deeds for his General to have achieved, if Kunlun didn't stop him.
For all the tales, there are few who have actually seen the Ghost Slayer in the flesh—or in the spirit, anyway. The couple they meet doesn't want to talk about it—the demons they'd escaped had been terrifying, but the Ghost Slayer was moreso: an apparition clothed in roiling dark energy, the air chilled around those black robes. They'd fled from it, even as the demons had.
Kunlun and Daqing are crossing the steppes when they meet a little caravan, nomads heading south as the weather cools. They join the band, toiling across the sea of yellow grass.
On the fifth day of their journey, the Dixingren come. Kunlun tells the travelers, "Run." Then he stands forth against the oncoming demons.
By now they should recognize General Kunlun's furs, the silver pieces braided in his hair—but they come anyway, howling with that senseless, reckless aggression even after Kunlun draws his revolver.
One of them has the power of speed, or else movement. Kunlun only gets off one clean shot before they're upon them—and then past them, charging instead for their chosen prey.
Who are surrounded already—this wasn't as wild an attack as it seemed; the caravan was driven right into the ambush, and Kunlun curses, shouting for Daqing as he sprints, even knowing he's too late, that this was all his mistake, though he won't be the one who pays—
Except the sky overhead is blackening, a stormfront coming in—a freezing front, though the weather was mild before and the sky only hazy. At the crack of thunder directly overhead, Daqing slows, staring upwards as he mutters, "Do you think—"
Lightning flashes again, and the Ghost Slayer appears in the midst of the travelers, just as the Dixingren reach them. He's hooded, cloaked in black and shrouded in concealing darkness, as all the stories say.
The blade in his gloved hands is a pudao—that, they haven't said. He spins it around with the expertise of one who has carried the polearm so often for so long that it is an extension of his true arm.
As the travelers flee, he cuts down three of the attacking Dixingren, and Daqing's knife takes the fourth.
The last is the fast one; he dodges the Ghost Slayer's attacks, ducks under the blade and comes up with his own dagger, aiming for the churning darkness behind that heavy hood.
If the stories are true, then the Ghost Slayer could stop him with the snap of his fingers—but Kunlun doesn't wait to see that proof; he takes aim and fires, his bullet faster than the Dixing man for all his powers.
They stand there in the bloody grass, Kunlun and Daqing both panting, the Ghost Slayer silent, but the black hood is turned in their direction.
Kunlun lowers his gun, tucks it away. The Ghost Slayer opens his hand, and his pudao vanishes.
The polearm, the storm—Kunlun can't let himself even consider the possibility, or else he won't be able to help believe it. He says only, "Thank you. If you hadn't come, then those people..."
The Ghost Slayer's hood jerks, as if he startled under it—then the mist gathered around him dissolves away, leaving him standing in simple black robes. Beneath the hood, his face is masked, carved black against pale skin. "So it is you," he says, his voice low but soft, not the menacing intonation one might expect from such a figure.
"Yes," Daqing says, firming his shaky voice as he steps forward to stand shoulder to shoulder with Kunlun, "it's him—General Kunlun, hero of the—"
"Kunlun?" the Ghost Slayer repeats.
"Yes," Kunlun says. "So they've called me. But you—I never asked your name."
"He's a spirit," Daqing hisses beside him, "what name would he even remember?"
But the Ghost Slayer tilts his head slightly to the side, as if in thought. "No, you didn't," he says. "But you—you were always Kunlun?"
"Since long before I was titled a general," Kunlun says. "Since before the star fell—since before I showed your people the way to Dixing."
"I always wondered," the Ghost Slayer says, so softly. "For all these years, I've wondered."
Kunlun takes a step forward. "And you," he says. "You've learned other powers."
"And mastered more," the Ghost Slayer says. "You were right, about the storm."
"You can save more people now."
"When I can," the Ghost Slayer says. "And only because of what you gave me."
Kunlun is standing before him now. Near enough for him to see the dark eyes behind the mask, the fan of his thick lashes as the Ghost Slayer lowers his gaze, as he bows his hooded head. "My benefactor," he says, "the god Kunlun—someday I will repay you—"
"You can," Kunlun says, "right now—let me see your face, under your mask?"
Behind him Daqing gives an aghast meow, but the Ghost Slayer doesn't move, but for a twitch of his shoulders under his robe.
Then he says, "As my benefactor wishes," and lifts his face to Kunlun, gazes at him steadily, waiting.
Kunlun reaches out, pushes back the hood off his braided black hair, then unhooks the mask and lifts it off.
He looks into the Ghost Slayer's face, and—he knows that face, the dark depths of his eyes, the furrow between those exquisite brows—he knows it twice. Because of course it's the boy's face, matured, grown from ascetic grace to unsurpassed beauty—but it's also a face he's seen already, seen in his dreams a hundred times, a thousand. He's never been able to remember any features—but he recognizes it now by how his breath catches, as it does every time in his dreams.
He takes the Ghost Slayer's face in his hands, tilts his head to press a kiss to his forehead. And the Ghost Slayer's black-robed arms wrap around him, strong and close and welcome.
"So when did you awaken?" the Ghost Slayer asks him.
They accompany the caravan for the rest of their journey, and the Ghost Slayer willingly walks with them—in the rear, far enough from the travelers that they only occasionally glance back over their shoulders at his forbidding darkness. And less so when Daqing is distracting them with tales of General Kunlun's exploits.
He doesn't speak when walking. But come nightfall when they've set up camp, Kunlun leaves Daqing napping by the fire to go sit with the Ghost Slayer in the shadows, looking out over the expansive darkness of the steppes. And this is the first question he asks.
"Awaken?" Kunlun asks.
"You fell asleep," the Ghost Slayer says quietly. "On the mountain, you fell asleep one night, and I could not wake you—for a day and a night I sat with you, and you breathed but did not move, and wouldn't open your eyes. I feared you'd fallen ill, but you had no fever—so I thought, perhaps if I could find you something good to eat or drink, that you might awaken for that. So I left to look, and deep in a canyon I found a flower with a wonderful sweet scent. But when I returned to the mountain you were gone. And I thought I had been gone for too long; I thought that if another beast had come, while you slept..."
"I woke up," Kunlun says slowly, "and you were gone—I thought it was the same day." He remembers the sun in the sky, the cold ashes of the fire. He'd had no thirst, no gnawing hunger pains, to tell him how much time had passed. "I thought you'd left the mountain."
He cannot see the Ghost Slayer's face in the dark, under the hood and mask—but his voice, though calm, carries clear and true as a blade. "No—I would not have left you."
Kunlun has no answer to that. But then Daqing's voice comes from the shadows. "He looked for you." The cat pads over to sit on Kunlun's boots, swishing his tail as he looks up at the figure all in black. "You're him—you were the boy he's been trying to find, for all these years."
The Ghost Slayer is still; even the darkness around him seems frozen. "You looked for me?"
"Everywhere we've gone, everyone we've met—as long as I've been with him, he's been searching."
"Why?" the Ghost Slayer asks.
"Because I didn't know where you'd gone," Kunlun says. "What could've happened to you, if you were in trouble, if you might've needed me. Because I thought you were right after all, that we should've done more than hide on that mountaintop, and I should have gone with you." He takes a breath, lets it go. "Because I would not have left you, either."
When they reach the end of the steppes, they leave the caravan. "Where will you go from here?" Kunlun asks the Ghost Slayer.
"Where you go," the Ghost Slayer says, and so he does.
At first he won't join them in the villages; while Kunlun and Daqing are welcomed before cooking fires and given space in their huts to sleep, the Ghost Slayer stays in the darkness. But Kunlun knows too well how he's no spirit—remembers how he used to eat, crunching bones and gristle between his teeth; the handfuls of clear water he would draw himself to drink.
Daqing soon loses any fear of the Ghost Slayer; he's wary for a longer time, but walking together he becomes more comfortable. So that sometimes when they're alone on hot days and the Ghost Slayer puts back his black hood, the cat will curl up in that makeshift pouch, as comfortably as he rests on Kunlun's shoulders.
It's Daqing who, the next village they come to, demands a place by the fire for the great General Kunlun and his pair of attendants as well. With the Ghost Slayer's roiling darkness contained and his cloak folded away, he's no more than a slender figure wrapped in black. He wears his carved mask still, but that's of little note; the villagers assume he's scarred or otherwise marked, as so many of them are. They say little to him, and he says less back; but he sits at Kunlun's right hand and eats the food given to him.
"But what should we call you?" Daqing muses later, when they're in the wilderness between villages again, with no one to hear them. "It could be awkward, to ask for his honor the Ghost Slayer to pass a bowl of berries."
"I was called Wei before," the Ghost Slayer says, indifferent. "Because I came down from the mountains."
"Wéi," Kunlun repeats, frowning; the syllable grates on him for some reason. "That's a little too simple; better to add a few strokes, and make it Wēi..."
He pauses after he says it, struck.
All this time, everything that's befallen him—but there's still a name that lingers in Kunlun's mind, that he keeps always beside his heart. That he's not spoken aloud for years, or centuries, or more.
But when he pronounces it now, it rolls off his tongue like he's said it every day—not a weighted dragging thing, but light as air, lifting his spirit, as lofty as the mountain they once lived together upon. "Shen Wei," he says.
"Shen Wei," the Ghost Slayer repeats, so carefully. "I like it," and he smiles at Kunlun, and Kunlun feels a pulse of warmth shoot up his spine at the incomparable sweetness of it. That the Ghost Slayer—that Shen Wei—is beautiful, is a matter of course he's come to accept, and he accepts too that Shen Wei doesn't realize it. He wears the mask not to hide his beauty but to hide the feelings his face might betray—he'll show no weakness to strangers, even if they don't know who or what he is.
But there is a selfishness in Kunlun that is glad he wears it, except in these moments they're alone together—glad that others do not get to see this face. This rare and precious smile.
Later that night when Daqing has gone off a little ways, hunting vermin to fill his bottomless stomach, Shen Wei moves closer to Kunlun, sitting before their campfire.
"Sleep," Kunlun tells him. "I'll watch, tonight."
But Shen Wei sits beside him, thigh to thigh. "All you've given me," he says.
"Not much," Kunlun says, shrugging. "There's nothing much I have to give."
"Your power of healing, that I could live," Shen Wei says. "The mountainside, and these travels now, that I could have a place to be. And now my name—I would thank you for these gifts, Kunlun, if I had any way to."
"I tell you," Kunlun says, "none of that is anything worth thanks for. The healing power you learned with your own talent; the mountain, or this wilderness we're in now, anyone could be there. And a name—that's just what anyone has, and anyway we're the ones who will be speaking it, not you. No—no, in all this world, there's only one thing I have that might be worth anything. If you'd want it."
"I want it," Shen Wei says, and Kunlun leans forward and kisses him, a gentle touch of his mouth to Shen Wei's.
"Then take it," he says against those lips, "my heart," as if he hadn't already lost it, however long ago.
But Shen Wei kisses him back—embraces him before the fire, bringing their bodies together, and murmurs in his ear with soft and strident need, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Even now, Kunlun continues to dream whenever he chances to sleep, and never remembers clearly what he sees. Though sleeping in Shen Wei's arms, the dreams feel different, closer somehow—Kunlun rouses with names on the tip of his tongue, people and places he only knows when sleeping, floating before his mind's eye. He sees Shen Wei, looking different and yet the same, speaking to him urgently, and he swears promises to him to remember—yet as vivid as those moments are in his dreams, they're just as quick to fade, like impressions in damp sand, his waking like waves washing them away.
He tries to keep hold of them, to carve them more firmly into his waking awareness. Will lie still, his eyes shut but straining to see into the darkness past his lids, until Shen Wei realizes the change in his breathing, asks, "Kunlun?" as he kisses him fully awake.
One day they come to a village surrounded by blackened fields, the air still stinking of ash and smoke. The demons didn't attack the people; they burned their crops instead, right before the paltry harvest.
The people huddled in their scorched homes are making weapons of their tools, sharpening scythes, tying spearheads to their hoes. When Kunlun and the others arrive, they bow before him, kneel on the charred earth. "We have no feast to welcome you now, but please help us, General Kunlun," the village head begs for her people. "Lead us to victory, so we might feed our children."
The demons are gone, vanished into the wilderness. But two days' walk away is a village not yet attacked, celebrating their own harvest.
"We asked them for what they could spare; they said there was nothing," the village head says. "But they have stores—what choice do we have, but to take what we need? Help us, Lord General, else we'll starve."
In the end, Kunlun refuses, offers instead to take them to a valley he once travelled through, that they might rebuild. But with winter closing in, the villagers decide instead to stay—whether to attack their neighbors or to survive the coming season by hunting and luck, they do not know.
"It wouldn't have been so difficult a fight," Daqing points out, as they trek into the wilderness seeking signs of the Dixingren. "Once that other village saw us, with your gun and the Ghost Slayer's shadows—they'd probably have surrendered without even picking up a blade."
"Not if those stores were all they had to eat themselves," Shen Wei says. "Then what choice would they have had but to defend it, even against us? It wouldn't have been a just fight. The sin is the demons' that attacked them; they must be the ones to pay."
"What's justice, to an empty belly?" Daqing says. "We can hunt down the demons that did this, you can cut every one of them down with your pudao, but it still wouldn't feed these people now, would it?"
Darkness is rising around Shen Wei like wings unfurling; the chill in the air is more than the coming frosts. Though his voice is quiet when he speaks. "So do we not bother to fight? Allow evil to rampage unchecked while we take up arms against innocents, so you might enjoy the feast afterwards?"
"Of course not," Kunlun says wearily. "But Daqing's not wrong, either."
Shen Wei growls, "I know you at least are no coward, Kunlun, but—"
"Xiao Wei," Kunlun says, and the air unfreezes so abruptly a draft blows across his cheeks. With Shen Wei's eyes fixed on him, he goes on, "We'll find these Dixingren, stop them from attacking more villages like this. But those people we've left behind..." He shakes his head, and they continue their hunt in silence.
They find the Dixingren responsible. It's a harder fight than expected—the Dixingren number only a few more than their three, but they're strong, with wild powers and imbued with that madness that seems to be spreading among their people, that keeps them fighting even through mortal injury, makes them refuse surrender.
None of their three escape the battle unscathed—fortunately Daqing is the least injured, though it's a close thing. Drawing attacks so that Kunlun might more easily aim, he ends up trapped, surrounded. One of the Dixingren pins him by the hand, is about to drive a finger like a spear through his eye when the Ghost Slayer sweeps in like an avenging spirit. He cuts down the Dixingren even as that lance stabs forth—then the Ghost Slayer too falls, his mists of power melting away around him.
Kunlun takes out the last of their foes, and then it's a long, awful moment that he drags himself over to Shen Wei and finds him unconscious. The blow caught him across the neck; he's bleeding freely, unable to heal himself.
Kunlun presses his hands over the wound as Daqing limps over, mewing anxiously. He desperately licks Shen Wei's cheek with a sandpaper tongue, until the Ghost Slayer's eyelids finally blink open and he calls up a healing rush of dark energy.
Kunlun wraps Daqing's scratched paw. But Shen Wei is the one who carries the cat as they walk away, and that night by the campfire pets him in long careful strokes, until Daqing dozes off purring.
Later, when the fire has burned down to embers and Kunlun and Shen Wei have curled into one another's arms to replace its heat with their own, Shen Wei murmurs, "So what can we do, Kunlun? If there's not enough food in this world to feed all who are hungry, if the demons' wrath and power only strengthens with each season?"
"I don't know."
"If only we had never escaped Dixing," Shen Wei says. "If we could force every demon back down there, bury us all in darkness..."
"Then the water would still be poisoned, the land still barren," Kunlun says. "And I would be alone—would you leave me, Xiao Wei?"
He says it teasingly, but Shen Wei's face sets with the weight of stone. "Never," he says, "by my choice.—But you would have Daqing still, anyway."
"Yes, always Daqing," Kunlun says, and then pulls Shen Wei to him to remind him of all those things he doesn't share with Daqing, that Shen Wei couldn't have in Dixing's endless dark.
When Kunlun falls asleep this night, his head pillowed on Shen Wei's shoulder and Shen Wei's fingers still loosely knotted in his hair, he dreams of cities full of people. Of green forests and terraced rice paddies drowning in clear water.
Then the dream changes and he's in darkness. The air he breathes is thick and musty in his lungs, and his heart is beating hard with dread. He holds a sword, the hilt cold and heavy in his hand.
Shen Wei is before him, chained to stone, looking up at him—his eyes shielded behind glass lenses, his face drawn and sickly pallid in the shadows. He's shouting, but the movement of his mouth doesn't match the sound of his voice, "Kunlun, Kunlun, open your eyes—"
Kunlun wakes. It's early morning; the rocky land around them is wreathed in mist, faintly white in the growing light. Shen Wei's hand is on his shoulder, shaking him; Kunlun catches his wrist to still him.
"You were crying out," Shen Wei says. "In your sleep—calling my name."
"I was dreaming," Kunlun says, wiping his hand across his mouth. His heart is still pounding. Across the remains of the fire Daqing is watching them. "You were—we were—in Dixing..." but even as he says it, it slips away as always. He clenches his fists in a futile effort to hold onto those fleeting images.
"So are these only nightmares?" Daqing asks. He's crouched low, his tail lashing against the ground. "Or visions?"
"It makes no difference either way, if I can't remember a damned thing in them."
"But you can sometimes, can't you?" Shen Wei says. "You told me once of the future, how the world would grow back—not a hope, but a promise, of what you knew was to come."
"That much, I remember," Kunlun says. "But not how it might happen." Anger burns in his chest. He should, he should know this. As he should have known that star would fall, those years ago. There's so much he's forgotten—and how much of it might have had some use; how much might he have been able to do, if only he'd had the strength to remember?
Shen Wei sets his hand over Kunlun's fist, long fingers clasping firmly. "I don't believe these dreams are of such import—you would remember them, if they were. But nothing I've ever heard you say in them has any clear meaning."
Kunlun frowns at him. "I've talked in my sleep before?"
Shen Wei nods. "I've listened to you—now, and long before? Though little of it makes sense. You'll say my name, and Daqing's—and others, too, that I don't know. Wang Zheng? Xiao Guo?"
Kunlun frowns, shakes his head. "No names I know. What else?"
"Dragon City," Shen Wei says after a moment. "And sometimes, a strange title for me—Shen Jiaoshu?"
"Jiaoshou," Kunlun corrects without thought. "Professor—it's like a teacher. Anything more?"
"Lord Something-something, wasn't it once," Daqing says.
"Oh, yes." Shen Wei pauses to think, brow lowered in concentration. At last he says slowly, "The Lord of the Zhenhun token, Zhao Yunlan."
Kunlun feels as if lightning has struck him from the clear sky. "What?" he breathes, staring into Shen Wei's face.
"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei repeats to him, frowning, as Daqing asks, "Guardian—of what? What token is that?"
Kunlun doesn't hear him. Those syllables in Shen Wei's calm and certain voice are a key that turns a lock in the deepest part of his mind. A door he shut himself—so carefully closed, that it wouldn't hurt him, wouldn't drive him mad with the longing of it—but it opens now, and he falls through it.
He falls to the ground, only distantly aware of voices shouting, calling a name that isn't his, swept away in the flood of memories.
He's in Lin Jing's lab—he has his gun drawn, on the man who looks like Shen Wei, but isn't him. Ye Zun attacks—not striking out but drawing in, pulling everything Zhao Yunlan is from him. Not a power he's ever seen from Shen Wei, and it's agony like nothing he's ever felt.
He hears the voices of the spirits, Wang Zheng and Sang Zan, crying out to him, but they're across the lab, too far away to intercede in this split second.
Instead there is the rising, dissonant hum of the Hallows—not just the sundial but inkbrush and awl as well, rising into the air, glowing—and there's a fourth tone, too, singing close by.
If Ye Zun gets them, if they fall into his hands, already activated—then this world Zhao Yunlan is pledged to protect, then everything Shen Wei has struggled and sacrificed for—it can't be over. It can't.
Even as Ye Zun yanks at him, Zhao Yunlan reaches out—grabs at the tolling chords of the Hallows ringing in his head, and pulls them to him. Not to use them, but to save them—he doesn't want their power; he just wants it safe. Out of Ye Zun's hands, as far as he can get it.
And the Hallows answer—they come to him, all four of them. They enter him—pour into him all the power they hold, until his mortal seams are burst open and remade into a new shape, a body that can hold their power, safeguard it for as long as needed.
Such is the force of those energies that they tear open a hole across space and time—the escape he begged for, a wormhole leading as far from Ye Zun as they can take him.
The last thing Zhao Yunlan sees, as he's drawn up into that whirling vortex, is Shen Wei charging into the lab, his eyes wide with fear and dread, his lips shaping Zhao Yunlan's name—for the last time, and then everything vanishes.
And then Zhao Yunlan falls onto a mountainside, and there is no one—not Ye Zun, not Shen Wei; no one to threaten the Hallows' power burning within him, no one to speak with him or say his name; no one, no one, no one, however long or far he walks.
He opens his eyes now to two faces staring at him, wide-eyed with worry—Shen Wei and Daqing, both so young—they always were young to him, by ten thousand years; but now he remembers too when they were both older than him. It's like double vision, makes him dizzy, so that he sways when he stands up, and both of them grab his arms, saying together, "Kunlun?"
Kunlun—yes, he's Kunlun; he's been Kunlun for how many centuries now, and nameless for millennia before that.
But he was Zhao Yunlan first, once upon a time. And now he understands.
"I know where we have to go," he says. "What we have to find."
The journey is long and dangerous. Kunlun doesn't bother to tell either Shen Wei or Daqing that they don't need to come with him; he's not sure it's true, and knows it would be futile anyway.
They go deep into the wilderness, deeper than they've traveled before, through lands still barren and laid to waste. Some Yashou tribes have made their homes here, and a few lone Dixingren, where Haixingren don't bother them—not the self-styled demons, but people eking out a living where they won't soon be disturbed. It's a rough existence in these places that are still poisoned by the fallen star—the meteor, Kunlun can name it now. Unless it wasn't that after all.
But strangely, as they get closer to the mountain range, the land starts to become greener again—the mountains themselves are forested, saplings still small and slender but thick with vibrant foliage, reaching up to the still-clouded sky.
Shen Wei and Daqing both stare at this phenomenon, touch the bark, the green leaves. They've neither of them seen such color. Kunlun tells them, "This is how it all looked, once." Though really he's not sure if this might not be even lusher than the forests before.
He remembers what Dixing looked like when he first saw it, the first person to lay eyes on it. Even the quality of the strained sunlight here reminds him of that impossible star, so deep underground.
The mountains look different than what he knew, irrevocably altered by the cataclysm, and now changed again by the forestation. But he leads them up the slopes. He never knew for sure where the meteor struck, but it was somewhere high on the peaks.
They've climbed one mountain and are descending into the green valley below when Shen Wei comes to a sudden stop. On Kunlun's shoulder, Daqing growls, ears swiveling. "What?" Kunlun asks, and then they're surrounded by an army.
Shen Wei summons his pudao to his hand, the Ghost Slayer's darkness rising around him. Kunlun draws his gun as Daqing leaps down from his shoulder and draws his knife.
But there's something strange about the warriors around them. A couple are Dixingren for sure, by the glowing of one's eyes, the writhing hair of the other. But the black feathers adorning the robes of two others mark them of the Crow tribe, and three are wound round with flowers, greenery. And a few others wield swords.
"Kunlun," Daqing hisses, confused, "those are Yashou—with Dixingren? And Haixingren? Together?"
"Kunlun?" says one of the sword-wielders, lowering his weapon to stare, wide-eyed. "The General Kunlun, as we were told?—Then you're the Lord Ghost Slayer, and the Lord Daqing?"
"I am," Daqing says proudly. "So who are you?"
"We're the Alliance of the Fallen Sky," the warrior says, "and we've been waiting for you."
The warriors lead them to a cave in the mountainside—perhaps one of the caves Kunlun once dwelled in; he thinks the rough-hewn entryway at least might have been his, by the worn age of the chipped stone. There they meet the leaders of this unlikely alliance—Ma Gui and Fu You, a Haixingren and a Yashou.
That's not nearly as unexpected, though, as their greetings. To Shen Wei and Daqing, they bow politely and welcome them. But to Kunlun they say, "It's good to see you now," as if to an old ally.
Kunlun studies their faces but finds no familiar features, neither from his long memories here nor from his future life. "I'm afraid you're mistaken," he says.
The pair look at each other, then motion him closer, speak low so his companions can't overhear. "No," Ma Gui says, "we know you, Zhao Yunlan."
Kunlun stares at them. "It's you," he says. "So you're the ones who made them."
"We saw them in our dreams," Fu You says. "Both of us did, years ago—we came separately to this place to find where the star had fallen, and the moment we met, we knew. The brush, the awl..."
"The sundial, the lantern," Ma Gui picks up. "But we couldn't make them by ourselves, so we brought others—and then more came, as they realized what we could achieve."
"The meteor nearly destroyed our world," Fu You says, "but with the Hallows made from it, we could restore it—as we've restored the land here."
"And you could restore Dixing, too," Kunlun says. He sees Shen Wei turn toward him, eyes widening behind his mask; beckons him to his side. "The Hallows are artifacts, crafted from the meteor—they can use that power, allow us to guide it so it does more than destroy. For Haixing and for Dixing both."
Ma Gui and Fu You both nod seriously.
Kunlun cannot fault their intent; if ever he could read people, they're both sincere. And yet—"So why haven't you? They work, if the greenery around here is any indication—why haven't you gone global, and dug out Dixing?"
The two leaders look at each other. "Because the Hallows were stolen from us," Ma Gui says at last. "Shortly after we first used them, they were captured."
"By the Dixingren," Shen Wei says. "That's how they've become so powerful."
"Only a small faction of them," Ma Gui says with a sigh. "They rebelled against our alliance—because the Hallows have special impact on their powers, and because of their origin, they claimed that the Hallows belonged to them, that the artifacts were part of their world, not ours. And so they took them."
"But they're not using them to rebuild Dixing, or anywhere else," Kunlun says.
"Only to get stronger," Shen Wei says, low and dark. His hands are clenched to fists and blackness swirls icily around him.
Kunlun ignores that chill to put an arm over his shoulders, a reminder of the warmth in him, the light. "And that's why you need us—to get them back."
"We've lost many trying," Ma Gui says wearily. "But our numbers are small, and the Dixingren have become powerful—the one who leads them now, Ye Zun, is strong, stronger than any, with the Hallows. Perhaps even stronger than you, Lord Ghost Slayer."
"But then," Fu You says, "we had another vision—so that we knew you would be coming, General Kunlun, and the Ghost Slayer."
"And now we're here," Kunlun says. "We'll do it—we'll get your Hallows back."
Shen Wei and Daqing both voice their agreement as well. Though afterwards, in the stone chambers they're given, the cat complains, "Typical leaders—fobbing off their work onto someone else."
Shen Wei is quiet, even for him. "Xiao Wei," Kunlun says, "you're troubled. This Dixingren leader, Ye Zun, do you know him?"
"No," Shen Wei says, shaking his head. "I've never heard his name."
"I have," Kunlun says. "Though I don't know what he looks like." Not his real face, anyway, though he remembers too well what Ye Zun's smile looks like on Shen Wei's face. "Nor the full extent of his abilities—but I know he's powerful, and dangerous."
"But we must defeat him, all the same," Shen Wei says. "These Hallows—even if they are meant for the Dixingren to wield, they're to restore our land. Not to turn us from demon beasts into even greater monsters."
Daqing bumps his elbow with his furred shoulder, purring. "You're not monsters," he says. "Look at the Dixingren here, still helping out."
"By their choice," Kunlun adds. "Though they could have followed Ye Zun when he took the Hallows."
Shen Wei looks down at his hands, folded tight around one another. Finally he says, "Kunlun, these Hallows—we came here to find them."
"Yes," Kunlun says. "Or anyway, I hoped they'd be around, somehow."
"So you wanted them to heal our worlds? That was the vision you received?"
"In part," Kunlun says.
"And the other part?"
"It's my duty to protect them," Kunlun says slowly. "Ma Gui is the Guardian of the Hallows, and all they represent—and I am too, in a way." There is an ache in his chest, a dull throbbing; he rubs his rib cage, the place over his heart.
"Then we'll guard them with you," Daqing says assuredly, and Shen Wei nods, though his brow is still knitted, furrows Kunlun can't kiss away, for all his efforts.
As long as it took them to journey to the mountains, it takes them longer still to find Ye Zun. For all he rules the Dixingren who follow him like a king, he has no throne; instead he's always on the move, looking for new minions to sway to his cause.
There's more to it than just the lure of power. When they capture Dixingren to question them on their ruler's whereabouts, they soon find that many don't just refuse to answer, but can't. Some of them won't talk, except to repeat praise of Ye Zun and the glory of Dixing—rote chants, with their eyes glazed.
Shen Wei's face goes paler even than its usual alabaster white, his lips pressed to gray, when he realizes it. He puts his hand over the eyes of their captive, whispers him to a restful sleep. It's the gentlest Kunlun has ever seen him be with one of his own people. "His mind is broken," he tells them afterwards.
"And you can't unbreak it?" Daqing asks.
Shen Wei shakes his head. "I've never learned this power—but that's the source of Ye Zun's strength. If all who follow him have so been shattered..."
"Maybe not all," Kunlun says, "but many."
"A terrible power," Shen Wei says, shuddering. "And strengthened by the Hallows—he's a monster I'll gladly slay."
Kunlun nods, says, "But be careful, when we face him."
"My mind won't fall to such a trick," Shen Wei says. "Nor yours, even with the Hallows strengthening him."
"Maybe not, but even so—Ye Zun could have more up his sleeve. At the least, he can basically use the powers of everyone he controls—if it's not quite like your own gift, it's close to," Kunlun says, thinking of what he'd seen Ye Zun accomplish before. Changing his face wasn't mind control but something else. And the way he'd drawn in Kunlun's—Zhao Yunlan's—very life essence—maybe he had used a minion for that, as he had to invade the dreams of Zhao Yunlan's team?
Kunlun becomes more uneasy, the closer they get to their quarry. Some of it, he knows the reasons for. The rest—he has millennia's worth of honed instincts, all warning him now. But they have to do this; they have to get the Hallows back.
At last they get a solid lead on a large band of rebel Dixingren—and one among them with silvered hair, dressed in white and masked in gold, who glows with a moving, living light, the opposite of how the Ghost Slayer wraps himself in darkness.
They send word to the alliance. Then must wait, watching from a hillside. They can build no fire that might be seen; Shen Wei's shadows conceal them, but only so far.
Instead they huddle together in the chilly night, Daqing curled up warm and snug in Kunlun's lap and Shen Wei wrapping his black robes over all of them, his arms around Kunlun's waist and his chin resting on Kunlun's shoulder.
Long after Daqing's purrs have faded into sleep, Kunlun and Shen Wei sit awake and alert. "What will happen, when we get the Hallows?" Shen Wei asks him. "What will you do?"
"I don't know," Kunlun says. Under the sheltering robes he rubs his chest. The closer they draw to the Hallows, the more it burns. "But whatever happens, it will be what was meant to. Everything—it was a long, long way for me to get here. And now that I am—I don't know if I ever believed in fate, not really. But this isn't fate, I don't think. This is just...sometimes, no matter how many choices you have, when you actually get there, there's really only one you can make."
"I don't understand," Shen Wei says, and he sounds like that black-eyed boy on the shore of that rotting lake.
"You will, I think," Kunlun says. "Xiao Wei, whatever does happen—whatever may happen to me—"
"—No," Shen Wei says, his arms tightening around Kunlun. "No, nothing will happen to you—I won't allow it; I'll do anything. These Hallows, I'll destroy them myself; I'll tear down the sky again and bring waste and ruin to the world, before I let anything take you from me."
Kunlun laughs softly. "No," he says, "you won't. That's not who you are, not who you'll ever be." He turns his head, enough to kiss Shen Wei's cheek. "But know this, Shen Wei. Whatever happens—we will meet again someday. I swear it to you."
Shen Wei says nothing but just holds him tighter. He presses his face into Kunlun's shoulder, and Kunlun feels a warm wetness dampen his tunic, saltwater against his skin, though Shen Wei makes no sound.
It should be a great battle—in the ancient histories Kunlun now remembers reading, this was an epic war, another cataclysm to rock the worlds.
In truth, the alliance forces that come to attack are only a small troop. But then, the Dixingren don't number that many—they don't need to, with their powers. They easily have the upper hand—and then Kunlun and the Ghost Slayer join the battle. Between the two of them they fell most of the rebels in a matter of minutes—
But Ye Zun screams, and the fallen stand up again, those who have any life left in them. Kunlun and Daqing target those, while Shen Wei goes for his enemy, his gleaming counterpart, all that is most corrupt, all that Shen Wei hates most in the Dixingren.
So that when he stops his attack, drops his pudao and staggers back, Kunlun is terrified—it's not possible that Shen Wei could take a mortal blow, not here, not ten thousand years before—
—And then he sees Ye Zun, the golden mask split by Shen Wei's blade, fallen from his face, and the features beneath it—
—A boy with my face, Shen Wei had said.
Kunlun should have known—in ten thousand years, he should have figured this out.
He shouts a warning that goes unheard, that cannot be heard, as Ye Zun opens his arms, and Shen Wei falls into his embrace. The air is humming, filled with sound that isn't heard by the ears but resonates through every fiber of one's being. The Hallows are awake, are singing, and Ye Zun is gathering their power to strike his brother down.
Kunlun's chest aches, his whole body throbbing. It's more agonizing than walking through a blazing forest, and he screams from it—
—Screams, and does not let go; instead he pulls, like Ye Zun once tried to pull from him.
And the Hallows come to him, as they did before, flying from the chest where Ye Zun had locked them away—like magnets, their bright new energy drawn to the ancient power that's been a part of Kunlun for ten millennia.
In all those years, Kunlun's never felt its like—has never felt anything like the terrible song of these two energies, twenty thousand years out of tune, now harmonizing in him. With only a nod of his head, the armies both are paused, frozen in timelessness. He severs the hold Ye Zun has on the minds of his followers with a wave of his hand, and in another motion Ye Zun is caught, trapped in unbreakable chains of power. It would be no great thing, not an effort at all, to tighten those chains, to crush his radiance between them—
But then he sees Shen Wei's face, the tears staining his cheeks as he stares at his brother, and no—no.
This isn't mercy, Kunlun knows. But it's the closest this power will allow him. He casts Ye Zun down—down, and down, into the earth, hurtling through dirt and stone and magma. All the way to Dixing, unlit, but undamaged. There he binds Ye Zun, his body and his mind alike, into a sleep almost deeper than death, past dreams, past time, that he might harm no one again.
(Unless—until—he awakens—but Shen Wei will be there—)
Then Kunlun turns that energy outwards—spreads it across the world. Into the waters, so that the impurities sink into the river and lake beds and they run clear; into the sky, so that the choking ash falls as dust and lets the sun shine through; into the ground, so that those poisons break up and are remade into fertile soil.
It feels like washing his body, like scrubbing his skin raw and clean. It will take time yet for this cleansing to show—but faster than it should, much faster now, and he smiles to imagine it, the crops that will grow green and abundant, the lake on the mountain reflecting a pure blue sky.
He comes back to himself to find he's sitting on the ground, with Shen Wei beside him holding him up, and Daqing clutching his arm, crying his name.
Kunlun reaches out, calls the lantern to his hand. It's burning, the wick behind the glass glowing like a candle flame. He can feel his pulse beating in time with its flickering. He hands the lantern to Shen Wei. "Here," he says. "It will light Dixing again, for all of your people."
"No," Shen Wei says, shaking his head. "No, please. I lost you already, for so long, and now—I will stay with you; wherever you're to go now, I can go with you—I want to go—"
"Xiao Wei," Kunlun says, cupping his face, stroking his cheek. "You can't—I can't..."
But that's a lie, he realizes, with all the power he has now. "Shen Wei," he says, "oh, Xiao Wei, you'll have to wait some; that, I can't change. But—if you trust me, if you let me—"
"I trust you," Shen Wei says, clear-eyed, unflinching, even staring into the shining face of a god.
"Then sleep," Kunlun tells him, and kisses him, so tenderly, as he pours his power into Shen Wei—not all of it, but a good measure, wrapping around each cell, blanketing the Ghost Slayer's own dark energy with its soothing warmth.
Shen Wei does not resist, does not try to pull away; he slowly goes heavy in Kunlun's arms, his body becoming limp and still—it would seem he was not breathing, if you didn't take hours or days or more to watch and wait.
Daqing cries out in fear, scrambles back wide-eyed. "What—what have you done—"
"It's all right," Kunlun says. "He'll be fine, until he awakens." He leans over again to press a kiss to Shen Wei's forehead, whispers to him, "Pleasant dreams, Xiao Wei." Though Shen Wei shouldn't dream at all.
Then he puts him into the ground, almost as deep as Ye Zun is buried—the two brothers, sleeping together.
Finally he turns to Daqing, who is watching him wildly—if he were in cat form now, his tail would be bristling. Kunlun smiles at him through his exhaustion. "You'll have to bring the Hallows back to Ma Gui and Fu You. And they can give them to Dixing, where they belong. It will be a paradise again, now."
"You," Daqing says, "you are—"
"It makes no difference to a cat, does it, whether his owner's a demon or a god," Kunlun says. He reaches out a shaky hand, gives Daqing a scratch behind his round human ear, and taps one finger on the bells around his neck. Siphons a little power into him as he does—enough that the cat will be safe, to guard the Hallows on their journey back, and afterwards.
Maybe more power than he means to give; it's becoming harder to hold onto, the notes ringing inside of him becoming discordant. His body lasted through so much, but this—the Hallows were designed to contain this power, with their fantastic metal; living cells, skin and bones, not so much.
Daqing is blinking at him, dazed, and Kunlun suddenly fears that he might have wreaked harm instead of help—but there's nothing he can do, not now. His limbs are growing heavy, his vision blurring. There's a weight on his chest, heavy as a mountain fallen on him, crushing the breath from his lungs.
The warriors, alliance and rebels both, are released from that frozen moment; they're shouting in confusion. The Hallows are scattered on the ground around Kunlun; their song is fading, or maybe he just can't hear it anymore.
They've drawn their share of power back from him—it will be enough to maintain Dixing for now, and they'll collect so much more in the next ten thousand years. Enough to pour into him, when he asks for it. After that—now, ten thousand years later, and ten thousand years before...
He's done all he's had to; he doesn't need to do anything more. Kunlun closes his eyes, breathes out as he lets his body collapse back to the earth he's cleansed.
—Then opens them again as he hears a shout—a voice he would know anywhere, at any time, crying out, "Zhao Yunlan!"
Above him, spinning in the sky, is a vortex, a hole ripped through the universe—though the Hallows of this time have quieted, and there shouldn't be enough power left in his own body to open such a door—
But it's pulling him, drawing him up into the sky, even as the warriors below point and shout with wonder, as the god Kunlun ascends into the heavens and vanishes, never to be seen again by any mortal eyes.
And Zhao Yunlan is standing in a void of stars and dark-hued light. He's wearing jeans and a jacket, his hair cut short, his beard shaved close enough to itch. His skin smells of soap. "I..." he says, and his voice comes out cracked and strange—his throat is sore. His body is sore, a bone-deep fatigue such as he can't remember feeling, not quite like this, not for so, so long.
He turns himself in the void—and Shen Wei is there, staring at him. "Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei says, trembling, and Zhao Yunlan once might have been able to smile at him, might have been able to chuckle at the overwhelming wonder of this.
But now—now he surges forward, across the boundless distance of this nonexisting place. And Shen Wei catches him, holds him tight—presses Zhao Yunlan's head against his shoulder, while his other hand clutches the back of Zhao Yunlan's jacket. "I didn't know," Shen Wei is saying in deep shuddering breaths, "I didn't know how long—that when first we met, it had already been, for you—"
"You," Zhao Yunlan gasps, "you were here—you saw—?"
"I watched," Shen Wei says, "from here, I watched."
Zhao Yunlan makes fists of his hands, bunching the canvas of Shen Wei's coat. "For all that time, for all those centuries, alone—"
"—It's different here," Shen Wei says, breathing it against his skin, desperate to reassure. "It's not the same, the way time passes in a wormhole, and I—and I had to. I had to be here, to be able to reach out and pull you back in when the time came, only I didn't know for sure when that would be. I never imagined it could be this long—I didn't know—"
"I thought—I thought the wormhole was gone," Zhao Yunlan says. "That the Hallows would have to make it again, but they didn't have enough power for that—"
"No, those newly crafted ones didn't," Shen Wei says. "The energy to do this, to cross so many eons—even with the Hallows and all their power, there's only one in a billion chance that such a wormhole could be made at all. But once opened, it exists until it doesn't. And as I was inside it, it couldn't close."
"—You followed me," Zhao Yunlan realizes. "You followed me into it..."
Shen Wei nods against his shoulder. "I had to; it was the only way to ensure you could return. And if you did not...if you did not, then I..."
Zhao Yunlan feels the dampness through his shirt where Shen Wei's face is pressed to his shoulder. He's shaking himself with what's filling his throat. When finally he manages to speak, he says, "But, Shen Wei, the Hallows—I took the power from them, and then I released it back here, so back in the future—in our time—"
Shen Wei coughs, says, "Yes, that power's gone," as steadily as he can manage, when he still has his face buried in Zhao Yunlan's shirt. "Though you didn't drain them completely dry. You couldn't; there couldn't be enough room to hold that power, even in you. And over time the energies will replenish themselves, as they did before; perhaps someday they'll be able to light Dixing again. For now—Haixing has resources enough for all of us, and it's better for all that Ye Zun doesn't have the power of the Hallows to use. Without that advantage, we may be strong enough to defeat him, even without..."
He trails off, in a way that Zhao Yunlan knows he'll have to bring up with him later. For now he says, "But how will we even get back, without the Hallows there to open the wormhole?"
"They're not needed," Shen Wei says. "When I collapse the wormhole, we'll be evicted from it, in the same time and place we entered—or nearly so; a day or two later, at the most."
"A—a day or two. So I was gone...a day or two." Zhao Yunlan thinks he should laugh, or maybe sob again, but what he really feels, overwhelmingly, is relief.
He knows there will be so much to do, when they leave this not-a-place—but he knows they can do it; he's the god-general Kunlun, and when he's with the Ghost Slayer, what's beyond them?
And afterwards—after everything's taken care of, Zhao Yunlan is going to curl up in bed with Shen Wei and sleep for at least a week.
Well—and he wraps his arm more snugly around Shen Wei's waist—maybe not sleep for all of it.
But before all that, he nudges his temple against Shen Wei's. "So, before this wormhole collapses, can we see? From here, the next ten thousand years..."
"Yes, we can watch," Shen Wei says. "As much as you want to—as long as we choose. What do you want to see?"
"I want to know what happens next, to Daqing, and the Hallows." Keeping his arms looped around Shen Wei's waist, he leans back enough to look into his dark eyes. "And to you—what happened? Did it work—did you sleep?"
"I slept," Shen Wei says. "Under the earth, I slept, until the Hallows awakened me."
Zhao Yunlan exhales. "Good."
"I would have waited," Shen Wei says. "Ten thousand years, or a hundred thousand—I would have waited for you."
"I know," Zhao Yunlan says. "I know you would have, but I didn't want you to."
"Because you wanted to spare me, what you yourself endured," Shen Wei whispers.
Zhao Yunlan shakes his head. "Because," he says, "I know what endures, and what does not—and I couldn't bear to become no more than a name in your head. The only reason I survived it at all, to have you look at me and not know me, was because of all I'd forgotten, then. Once I remembered—"
"I," Shen Wei says, so softly, "I should have been glad, to see you forget—that you eventually were released from the pain of what you'd lost—and if you'd never met me, you could have continued to live happily, never knowing that I existed at all... I should have been content, but somehow I could not be."
"No," Zhao Yunlan says, fiercely, "no, you shouldn't have been," and he kisses Shen Wei, in this void of twinkling dark starlight—and Shen Wei kisses him back, hard and deep and achingly perfect, a kiss that neither of them will forget, not in all the ten thousand years that lie before them.