There was a ghost that haunted the decks of Lotus Pier, it was said. If you stepped across the wooden planks at night, walked along the endless docks and flying purple banners, he would appear.
He was always in darkest black, dressed as specter and shadow. In the emptiness where a face should be was a thick fog, features washed away and leaving behind only glimmering red eyes.
He looked ferocious as a ghoul, it was said.
Jin Ling thought he looked sad.
He stood on the curving corner of the pier, far from the bustling center of the complex. Here, past the midnight hour, the only things in sight were the peerless lilies and the clear stretch of water.
The ghost sat at the end of the wooden dock, and though his face was a blur his shoulders were hunched forward into weariness.
Before this night, Jin Ling had never sought out a ghost, not to hunt and not to see. He certainly hadn’t believed the rumors, listening with scorn to the whispers of the servants and murmurs of the disciples.
This was Lotus Pier, seat of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect and place of power throughout the land. Here the water was crisp and the cities flourished with trade, growing beneath the strength of the Jiang Clan.
Here, Jin Ling was the lonely nephew of the Sect Leader. His uncle would not have stood for a ghost in his own complex, not with the slight it represented on the clan’s honor.
So it couldn’t possibly exist, and the whispers were wrong beyond measure. And yet.
And yet, here Jin Ling stood, in the dark of night and on a lonely pier.
And the ghost sat before him, shadows creeping like fog from his face.
He took a step forward, feet moving slow and heart hardened. He would cleanse the ghost from this place and report it back to Uncle.
Then, maybe, he would be called failureno longer. He may not have slain the Xuanwu of Slaughter at fifteen or led the Sunshot Campaign against the ruthless Wen at sixteen. But here and now he could catch a malevolent spirit and make the land a brighter place.
Ten years old and lonely, that felt like enough.
The ghost watched his approach, watched him draw his father’s sword, watched him move shaking arms forward in a stabbing motion.
But the sword was far too heavy for him, and oh how his hands trembled before this creature, and down tumbled the sword.
A slender hand caught it, flickering and pale in the moonlight. It balanced the blade across a fingertip, lifting it gentle and slow back into its sheath.
It slid back inside with a low swish, metal ringing into place. The sound carried out, echoing over the gentle waters around them and out past the pier.
In the silence of night, it was louder than the roar of a tiger.
Jin Ling colored, shame crawling up his face. Not only had he failed to draw the sword properly— his father’s, it was his father’s, and he had taken it from the armory without permission for this— but he had almost dropped it.
Dropped it like it was a common sword, like it didn’t represent everything he had lost, like it didn’t bear his soul and life.
The ghost had saved his honor, and Jin Ling felt only shame.
By the Heavens, he had only needed to do one thing, only needed to slay one beast. He had to make his Uncle proud, had to live up to the legacy of his parents. He had to, but here he was, tears catching at his eyes and failing again.
He always failed.
“Why can’t you just go away? I just need to do one thing right, and I couldn’t even…” He took a breath, a hiccupping sob, felt his eyes burn and break into tears.
How could he lead a clan when he failed even at this?
His hands were shaking, sobs wracking his small body, but he couldn’t stop them, he couldn’t—
A hand fell on his shoulder, warm in the chill of night, strong and comforting over the stretch of his robes. It squeezed, ever-patient, heavy but so kind.
This was what he imagined a father’s hand would feel like.
Startled, Jin Ling looked up, tears clouding his eyes. All he could see was a black blur, shadows curling around him and spilling out into the night like ink on canvas.
Burning red eyes stared down at him, searing into his skin but—
The ghost was comforting him, shimmering robes of black spread around them as cloth to blot his tears.
In another moment, in the stark light of day and with his Uncle’s harsh eyes boring into his back, Jin Ling would have raised his sword and fought. His hands would have trembled on the blade, too weak to bear his family’s honor but too stubborn to let it fall.
He would have failed, that day.
But now, with a peerless moon overhead and the shadows surrounding him, with the first kind hand offered without bait or deeds done, with a ghost wearing such sad eyes, the lonely heart of Jin Ling cracked in two.
He threw himself into the body of the ghost, felt warm hands pull him close and sooth away his tears, fingers gentle on his cheeks.
There he stayed, for long minutes, until the harsh sobs had left his body and his eyes shut from exhaustion.
He woke the next morning in his own bed, the sun’s light streaming through the screen door before him.
There was a ghost in Lotus Pier, it was said, and now Jin Ling knew it to be true.
For two long years, Jin Ling traveled to and from Lotus Pier, arms growing strong enough to bear his father’s sword.
He grew thorns of sharp words, but they could never hide his soft heart. But, sitting on the edge of a lonely pier late at night, with a ghost beside him and playful shadows dancing in the air at his command, he didn’t need to hide his soft heart at all.
There danced a rabbit, here a goose. Watch the shadows play!
The ghost drew the creatures into the air with a long finger, a master calligrapher breathing life into shadow.
Jin Ling watched them with delight, long past the age where he had any right to toys. Stories played out before them, echoing into the air and making him smile and laugh. The ghost never spoke, but Jin Ling learned to read the twisting shadows of his face, the narrowing of his eyes.
If the ghost had a mouth, Jin Ling imagined he would be always smiling.
At the end of a joyful hour, the ghost would stand and pull him up, strong arms supporting his weary body.
On the nights when he was sore with training, exhausted from a thousand sword strokes, Jin Ling would fall asleep then and there, let his head crash into comforting arms.
Each time, he awoke in his bed.
But when he had energy in his bones they would walk to the edge of the main complex, and the ghost would raise a single pale hand in goodbye.
Who are you?Jin Ling wanted to ask, each and every time.
And each and every time he swallowed those words down and held only silence. Here he was a coward, here on this lonely pier was where he could be. The moments of his life passed him by and called him failure, but here he could be child.
Here, he wasn’t lonely.
So he held his peace and left the pier with a smile.
Jin Ling took quick steps through the grass, sword at his waist and trees singing with the wind overhead. He was light on the ground, fear and readiness curling across his bones.
The forests around Lotus Pier were dense with life, moss hanging on every branch and streams curling between every other tree. Star-dust flowers littered the ground, snow-white blossoms small and delicate in the shadowed light.
It was beautiful, but beauty was not why Jin Ling was here. He was here for prey.
Faster and faster he moved, dashing over fallen branches and into the thick of the forest. The walls closed in around him, great trees trapping him in, but he would not show fear.
He had to prove himself, had to show Uncle he wasn’t a failure. The man had raised his voice again, harsh and unyielding, A-ling have discipline for heaven’s sake, you are twelve. The words had carved their way into Jin Ling’s heart and made him heavy, a terrible sadness curving into his chest. He had failed again and again, but he wouldn’t now. This forest would be his until he had taken down a resentful corpse and laid its spirit to rest.
And then, through the underbrush, there—
A shambling form, skin dry with the pallor of death and eyes unseeing. A restless corpse, here to meet his sword.
Jin Ling pushed down the fear, the shaking of his fingers. He had to.
The steel of his sword sang as he unsheathed it, flicking into the air before him and held fast. Its tip did not shift, steady as a rock in his hand.
He had learned to bear the weight of his legacy.
With a push of spiritual energy, he leapt up, landing behind the corpse with a punch of noise. His sword flickered forward to cut flesh, slicing the corpse in two. The monster fell to the ground, torso sliding free of a shorn waist to collapse on the ground in a pile of white bone and reddish-brown gore.
There was so much blood.
Jin Ling felt his hands begin to shake, muscles trembling and the stink of blood creeping into his nose. The thing was dead, slain by divine steel, but all he could see was the red stains across the grass.
He had never seen so much blood before.
A rustling made him turn, but he was too late, arms still caught in shock, stomach still roiling. The corpse behind him— when had that come, why hadn’t he seen it, how could he have not seen it?— lunged, mouth open in hunger.
Its teeth flashed white in the light of the forest, and Jin Ling saw only death.
Would he die here, alone and foolish? Would he make his uncle call him failure yet again?
Shaking hands pulled at his sword, but the steel moved too slow, he moved too slow. There was nothing he could do.
He braced himself for pain.
But it never came. A torrent of shadows roared to life before him, majestic and dark as a moonless night. They caught on the branches overhead, swirling around the green grass as ink and leaving it only black.
The ghost of Lotus Pier stood before him, gleaming light shining from red eyes and bathing the forest in crimson. A long hand curled around the neck of the restless corpse with the bone-white teeth and held it still, powerful and unstoppable. In the silence, the corpse screamed, struggling, but its motions grew weaker and weaker.
In turn, the shadows grew darker and darker, curling around the corpse to absorb all the hostile energy streaming from it.
After a breath, ten heartbeats and four terrible screams, the corpse dissolved to mist and blew away, caught on the wind.
Trembling, Jin Ling sunk to his knees, fine robes soaking up the blood below him and stained red with victory and red with shame.
The ghost that painted stories into the air, the ghost that kept him company on lonely nights, the ghost that messed up his hair and hugged him tight through his tears—
It was deadly.
He shook on the ground, fingers clasped around his blade.
Like a whirlwind of shadow, the ghost turned towards him. For the first time in four years, Jin Ling could see its face, shadows coalescing into handsome features and pale skin.
Malicious energy was trembling off the ghost, but it had never looked more human.
It took a step towards him, long hand extended. Reactive and trembling, he lifted the edge of his sword, held the divine steel in the air.
Oh how it shook.
“Don’t-don’t come any closer!”
The hand stopped, and an expression like betrayal crossed the ghost’s face, flickering over peerless skin.
He looked hurt.
Jin Ling shook and shook and shook some more, sword dipping like it was tied down. That hand had brushed his tears away and given him praise and helped him stand tall.
He couldn’t bring his blade up again, couldn’t point divine steel at the heart of the shadows. He couldn’t.
“A-ling.” The name echoed around him, deep and resonant, twirling from the shadows to paint its way into the air.
Jin Ling’s eyes went wide with shock and wider with awe, and for a moment he forgot the blood staining his golden robes.
“You can talk?”
For a moment, there was silence, born on a hummingbird’s wings and the tension floating between them.
Jin Ling colored, face growing crimson with his outburst, but the ghost-who-was-a-man just threw back his head and laughed.
The sound echoed out like the chiming of bells, deep and lustrous with mirth.
“I can. How kind of you to notice!” A smile burst over his face and Jin Ling found himself smiling back, the familiar crinkle of red eyes sparking a happiness in his cheeks.
He had never seen that smile before, but he had seen it a thousand times in those eyes and the curve of shadows.
“What, did you imagine a voice for me? Am I not gruff enough?” The ghost drew together his brows, puffed out his chest. In a deeper voice he spoke, the words playfully menacing, “Oh, the big bad ghost, come to steal your children.”
It was a ridiculous look on a creature made of shadow, and Jin Ling couldn’t help the laugh that tore out of him.
The ghost’s face broke into a smile, dazzling as the sun and inviting joy in return. “See? Wouldn’t have suited my fine features.”
“But you were.” Jin Ling stopped, took a breath. His knees were stained red with blood and he didn’t know what stood before him. There was a corpse at his feet and another behind the man who was not a man. This was not normal. “Aren’t you a ghost?”
Shadow surged around them as shadows crossed the ghost’s face. A terrible sadness crept over his eyes, and suddenly Jin Ling regretted the question and his haste.
Always, always a failure.
“No and yes. I lived. I died. Do I live now?” A shadowed head shook, the ghost pensive. “No. But I am not quite dead either.”
Frustration built in his chest, driving him to his feet, driving him to demanding words. “That doesn’t make any sense!”
His lonely heart had befriended a ghost, knowing it was a thing eternal and unreal. He hadn’t expected the man to come to life, to talk.
A scowl broke across the man’s face, relentless as a storm. “You’ll have to suffer through without understanding. I cannot explain it more.”
He stepped forward, trembling, his hands were trembling. “But you have to know more!”
“Stop.” The word was short and ruthless, echoing with a general’s command. Jin Ling felt shame crawl across his neck, make his fists clench.
His swordtip was on the ground and he had proven himself failure yet again.
“How can I?” How could he stop, when his only friend was a ghost? How could he stop when the kindest hand he had ever known had sucked resentful energy out of the air like it was plucking lotus seeds from their shell?
How could he stop?
The harsh lines of the ghosts’ face gentled, moving to sympathy. He took a step forward, and when Jin Ling didn’t shy away he placed gentle hands on his shoulders and sunk to his knees.
The red couldn’t stain the shadow robes he wore, and he looked so much more than human.
“I’m still here, A-ling.”
“But what if you won’t be?” The words ripped from his chest before he could stop their shame, their anger. Tears were building at his eyes again, but he was far too old to cry.
The man broke into a smile that made him feel peace. One hand lifted off Jin Ling to pull the divine sword from the ground. “I have no right to touch this, A-ling. But I swear on your father’s sword and the debt I owe him that I will not leave you.”
His eyes were serious as the dawn, as the red staining Jin Ling’s fine robes. “I will be here for as long as you need me.”
Jin Ling wanted to question, wanted to ask for his oath and his reasons.
What ghost owed a dead man a debt of blood?
But he did none of these things. Desperate fingers clenched at his side, and oh how the tears burned his eyes.
In a voice quiet and vulnerable, barely above a whisper and just as fragile, Jin Ling spoke. “You swear?”
A smile, as ever, was his answer. “I swear.”
The ghost kept his promise.
For three long years, Jin Ling returned to the lonely stretch of the pier at night and met a man made of shadows.
But it wasn’t lonely anymore, not with five years friendship and the laughter that broke the air into happiness. The water would ebb and sway around their conversation, across the smiles they shared. For the first time, he felt confidence grow in his bones, make his back straight and gaze firm.
He had a friend here, a friend who understood him. No, the man was more than a friend.
He was a mentor, brilliant as the moon for all his shadow.
Jiang Cheng had never raised his voice in praise, and Jin Ling had no father to teach him the sword, no mother to sooth his bruises. But the ghost with the sad eyes and bright laughter was a master swordsman, patient and guiding Jin Ling to excellence.
After long hours of practice, with sweat dripping down his face and exhaustion pulling at his arms, Jin Ling would raise his sword again.
The ghost would smile, pride clear on his face. “Good job!”
And that was all Jin Ling had ever needed to hear.
For three years they carried on like this, Jin Ling learning by leaps and bounds at the hand of a careful teacher.
Each time, he asked the ghost for his name, and each time the man smiled like a thousand tragedies lined his bones.
“I can’t tell you,” he would say, voice tight with a tension Jin Ling couldn’t understand.
Laoshi, Jin Ling called him, the title slipping from his lips without his control. Stubborn and relentless, he did not back it down, staring at his only friend with as much steel as he could muster.
But his teacher only laughed, delight bright in red eyes.