Xie Lian had been wandering for a good long while now (seven hundred years? Eight hundred? It was a blur) when he felt something. It was a ripple of power, faint and twisted and it made Xie Lian wince as it passed through the air. The trees nearby seemed to sag forlornly and the dead grass near his feet revived only to shrivel up and blacken once more.
How strange. The fallen god turned his head, trying to feel where the energy came from, when he saw a hill in the distance that seemed to be covered in people. Judging by their outfits, they were cultivators, and they seemed to be cheering. Xie Lian couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they must have just defeated a very powerful demon.
Xie Lian turned and began to head the opposite direction. Having no spiritual power, he had no business with cultivators anymore. However, before he could get far, something small and green floated into his line of sight. Squinting, Xie Lian realized it was a spirit flame. It must have been there a while, judging by how easily it seemed to move about. Odd that it hadn’t passed on yet.
“Why are you still here?” Xie Lian asked a small ghost flame. It was green with a purple tint, flickering in and out of existence, yet its core was oddly bright. The flame bobbed up and down slightly.
“There are people I care about greatly, and I want them to stay safe,” the ghost flame said, and Xie Lian felt distantly that he’d heard those words before somewhere.
“Will you be able to protect them like that?” Xie Lian asked, wondering why he felt like that was the wrong response. The flame paused, and began to flicker. Xie Lian was briefly worried that it would disperse altogether, but after a few moments Xie Lian saw the faint outline of a young woman. She was beautiful, with long black hair that was braided and she wore elegant, purple clothing.
“My brother has been murdered,” she said, voice so soft that Xie Lian nearly mistook it for the rustling leaves.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Xie Lian offered because what else was there to say? “Perhaps you’ll see him before you pass on?”
The woman shook her head. “His soul has been torn apart. He won’t be able to manifest… he may not even be able to reincarnate.” Her eyes hardened and for a moment she looked almost solid, and Xie Lian was vaguely reminded of lightning in a clear sky. “They killed my brother.”
“Who?” Xie Lian asked, because despite all these centuries he still hadn’t learnt his lesson on trying to help those in need.
“The cultivators,” she said, slowly raising her arm and pointing towards the hill where the celebrating people were. “They thought he was a demon.”
Xie Lian didn’t bother asking if the cultivators were correct. Regardless of the answer, this woman was convinced otherwise, and he had no intentions of arguing with the dead. “Is anybody else in your family still alive?” he asked because the woman was becoming dangerously substantial now and Xie Lian feared at any moment she would become a resentful spirit and destroy the cultivators herself.
That seemed to catch her off guard enough to flicker back into transparency. “...My son, my other brother…” she trailed off. “...My son has lost both his parents now. And my other brother is the one who killed A-Xian, though he didn’t want to.”
...Well this was complicated. “It’s probably best if you move on,” Xie Lian said uncomfortably. “There’s not much you can do now.”
At that, the woman looked at the ground, her eyes nearly on the verge of tears. “I know,” she said softly. “I’ve never been able to do much.”
...Oh. Oh. Xie Lian realized where he went wrong and immediately felt his heart clench in pain and regret. This woman likely just watched her brother kill the only other family they had left, and could do nothing.
Xie Lian knew the feeling all too well. After a brief internal conflict, Xie Lian sighed and held out his hand. “Alright, come with me,” he said. The woman immediately looked up and blinked at him in confusion.
“You’re not useless, you never were,” Xie Lian said with a conviction he didn’t know he still had. “I’ll bring you to your family. I’ll help you get stronger.” What was he saying? Xie Lian didn’t know how to help a ghost. He didn’t know how to help anybody .
Yet when the woman’s eyes lit up, and she immediately rushed forward to clasp his hand with a liveliness the dead shouldn’t be able to possess, Xie Lian felt like he made the right choice.
“Thank you,” she said reverently and Xie Lian instinctively pulled his hand away with an awkward smile.
“Ah, don’t thank me,” he said, turning his head away. “I can’t actually do much, I’m only willing to try.”
“And that is enough,” the woman assured him, which made Xie Lian feel strangely warm. She smiled, happier than she’d been their entire conversation. “I’m Jiang Yanli.”
Xie Lian dipped his head in response. “And I’m Xie Lian. Now, shall we get going?”
A few days later and Xie Lian was wandering with Jiang Yanli’s spirit safely contained in a small lantern. “It should help you contain your essence,” Xie Lian explained when he first showed her the somewhat decrepit lantern he’d picked up. “I... can’t promise I won’t break it though.” He’d never fully explained why his luck was so terrible, but he’d made that clear early in their travels.
Jiang Yanli seemed comfortable enough though. It was easier when she didn’t have to constantly hold herself together. Xie Lian wished he could give her some more spiritual power, but considering he had none of his own… well.
Surprisingly enough, few people questioned the glowing green light at his side. Instead, the problem came from an entirely different angle. As he wandered closer to what he hoped was Lotus Pier, he sensed an active array and Jiang Yanli let out a small hiss of pain. Quickly, Xie Lian backed up and Jiang Yanli settled down again.
“Is everything alright?” he murmured, opening up the lantern. Jiang Yanli floated out and manifested. She looked fine, but her form was flickering a bit more than usual.
“That’s a protective array,” she said with a wince. “It keeps out ghosts and demons.”
Oh. That would be a problem, wouldn’t it? Xie Lian squinted, poking at the array lightly. It seemed pretty strong, but it wasn’t designed to keep him out. “I could probably get through,” he mused. “Maybe pass on a message?”
Jiang Yanli frowned. “Nobody will recognize you, and they will be on guard. And if nobody else can see me, then they’ll have no reason to believe you.” That was true enough, coupled with Xie Lian’s bad luck and he’d probably end up getting chased out or mistaken as a demon. Xie Lian sighed, lamenting the few days of wasted travel.
“Well, if we might be able to break this array with a bit more power,” Xie Lian mused. He subconsciously started fiddling with Ruoye who was starting to twitch with excitement. He glanced at his wrist. “Ruoye here could probably do it.”
Jiang Yanli eyed the bandage with trepidation then shook her head. “It won’t be of much use. Besides, we’re not even sure other people can see me. I might be too weak to be perceived by others…” She looked downcast, before seeming to realize something. “How can you see me?”
Xie Lian opened his mouth, then closed it again, unsure of how to respond. The short answer was that he didn’t actually know, the longer answer would be that it probably had something to do with him being a fallen god. But that was a rabbit hole he wasn’t particularly comfortable with going down just a few days into making an acquaintance. “I’m unique,” he said eventually, with a weak smile. “I’ve always been in tune with spirits and the like. I’ve been able to see ghost fires since I was young.”
Not a lie, for a given definition of “young”. Besides, many people were able to see spirits, they just weren’t able to communicate or recognize them as anything beyond a strange looking firefly. Jiang Yanli scrutinized him, but seemed willing to drop the topic in the meantime.
“I should be able to manifest more if I’m stronger,” she said, mostly to herself. “Perhaps that is what I should do next.”
Xie Lian shifted his weight uncomfortably. “I’m not sure how a ghost cultivates,” he confessed. “I imagine it has something to do with energy absorption.”
Jiang Yanli frowned. “I… don’t know how to do that. But I will become stronger. There’s a way.” She had so much conviction, Xie Lian couldn’t help but believe her, and he dipped his head in respect.
“Then we’ll find it,” he assured her.
A few weeks of travelling later and Xie Lian did in fact hear of a way. “The Ghost City can make anybody be anything,” a few rumors said, “as long as you’re willing to pay the price.”
That didn’t sound particularly pleasant but the moment Jiang Yanli heard it she seemed set on going there. “I’m already dead, there isn’t much more to lose,” she reasoned.
“You could lose your chance at reincarnating,” Xie Lian pointed out. Jiang Yanli hesitated at that, but still seemed determined.
“I’ll never really know regardless,” she maintained stubbornly. “I’m here, in this life, with a chance to help my family. I’m not going to pass that up.” She cared deeply for her brother, it seemed. After a bit of probing, Xie Lian also learned that she had a son, though she rarely talked about him for some reason. Likely because she couldn’t be sure if he had survived, given that both of his parents were apparently dead.
So, Xie Lian found himself heading towards Ghost City, glowing lantern in tow. He wasn’t really sure what direction it was, but knowing his luck whatever direction he picked it’d be the wrong one anyways so he resigned himself to a long, long journey.
Ah well. If he was being perfectly honest, the companionship was actually rather nice. And it wasn’t like he was doing much before Jiang Yanli came around. A couple years of this wouldn’t hurt.
Jiang Yanli was silent in her lantern as Xie Lian seemed content with sleeping in the forest for the fifth time that week when she finally had enough.
“Why don’t you sleep in an inn?” she asked politely. Xie Lian paused, glancing at the lantern and smiling self-deprecatingly.
“Ah, I don’t really have any money,” he said. “It’s hard to make a living. Much easier to sleep outside for free.”
Jiang Yanli winced. Having been born into a nice family and marrying into a richer one, she’d never had to think about those sorts of things before, not even during the war. “But still,” she pressed, “you could get sick. It’s probably going to rain tonight. Or you might get bitten by something.”
Xie Lian smiled. “I don’t get sick,” he said with a strange amount of confidence. “And I’m immune to almost every poisonous and venomous creature in this forest.”
“And how would you know that?”
Xie Lian hesitated, seeming briefly conflicted, before sighing. “I’ve lived a very, very long time,” he said eventually. “I’ve experienced just about every hardship there is. This is nothing new.”
“...How so?” Jiang Yanli asked, concerned, as Xie Lian looked a bit guilty.
“I… I used to be a god,” Xie Lian confessed. “I’m not anymore. Or, well, I guess if ‘Scrap Immortal’ counts as a god then I am still one. I’ve been cast out of the Heavenly Court twice, so I don’t have any spiritual power but I’m still immortal and… quite immune to many things.”
“But not suffering,” Jiang Yanli said softly. Xie Lian froze, before sighing and all of the sudden, Jiang Yanli could see the weight of all his years of experience weighing upon him.
“...No. No I’m not,” he said, looking away. Jiang Yanli knew that there was still quite a lot he wasn’t telling her, but it wasn’t the time to pry. Jiang Yanli lamented, not for the first time, that there was nothing she could really do to make her travelling partner feel better. Except, perhaps…
“You don’t have to talk about it,” Jiang Yanli said hesitantly, “but if you want to, I’m here. I’ll listen to whatever you wish to say.”
Xie Lian seemed surprised at that, and it made her heart break. “...Really?” he asked, sounding painfully hopeful.
“Of course,” Jiang Yanli said, willing herself to burn just a bit brighter. “We’re friends.”
“I… yes. Yes we are,” Xie Lian said, voice full of complicated emotions. He clutched the lantern just a bit closer, and Jiang Yanli pressed herself closer, hoping that he could feel her warmth, if she still had any left to give.
She may not be strong, but perhaps she could make him feel safe.
A couple days later, Jiang Yanli spoke up again. “Who were you before you were a god?”
Xie Lian paused. “Excuse me?”
“Who were you before you ascended?” Jiang Yanli repeated. “A normal cultivator? A prestigious scholar?”
Ah. It was a rather reasonable question to ask, though it likely caused more pain to him than Jiang Yanli realized. Still, nobody had listened to him in quite a while, and… well, it wasn’t like his past was much of a secret. “I was a prince,” he said with a small, sad smile.
Jiang Yanli made a small sound of surprise, her fire shifting around in the lantern. “Of what?”
“Xian Le,” he said, reflecting on the memories. “My kingdom has long since fallen though. It collapsed in a civil war… that was how I first fell, actually.”
Jiang Yanli was silent for a few moments. “What was your kingdom like?”
Xie Lian startled. Of all the questions… he hadn’t entirely been expecting that. He sighed, deciding to sit down for this. “Xian Le was… wonderful, to say the least,” he said, looking at the sky. “The streets were bustling with laughing people, every day. The language was like reeds waving on a riverbank. There were also these fruits that were round and colored like a sunrise.” He sighed. “Those fruits went extinct a few centuries ago.”
He was being strangely poetic and nostalgic, but Jiang Yanli didn’t comment on it. “It sounds like a beautiful place,” she said quietly.
“It was,” he said quietly. “The people were wonderful as well. When I ascended, they were so happy… they built hundreds of temples almost overnight.”
“You must have been a good prince then.”
Xie Lian froze as voices flooded into his head. “Your Highness! You promised you’d save us!” “Why do you do nothing?” “What a god of misfortune… we’ve all been lied to!”
“Xie Lian?” Jiang Yanli’s quiet voice cut through the rest of them. Xie Lian blinked a few times.
“I… sorry,” he said, looking at the ground. “I may have been a good prince to start with, but I failed them in the end. The vast majority of my people died cursing my name and for good reason. I was powerless when they needed me most. I was their ‘Flower Crowned Martial God’ and I couldn’t even win a war for them, or save the innocents.” Memories of the human face disease flashed through his mind, as well as screaming… some of which was his own.
“But you tried, didn’t you?” Xie Lian looked at the lantern in confusion.
“Of course,” he said with conviction, before sagging again. “But sometimes your best isn’t enough.”
“It may not have been enough to fix the situation,” Jiang Yanli conceded. “But it should be enough to absolve you of your guilt.” She was still just a small flame, but Xie Lian could imagine her adopting a stern expression. “Don’t blame yourself for situations you couldn’t overcome. We all fall in our own ways. It’s a matter of getting back up again. No need to dwell further on past mistakes.”
Xie Lian looked at her, a ghost flame unwilling to move on and reincarnate because of the past. A soul that had been beaten and broken, all because she couldn’t do anything to protect the ones she loved the most. From anybody else, her advice felt generic. Yet from her of all people, Xie Lian felt it to be absolutely sincere. Perhaps they were some of the only people in the world who could relate to each other on such a level.
“I haven’t thought about it much,” Xie Lian said, which was true. He’d mostly pushed any darker memories out of his mind for the last few centuries. It was the only real way to stay sane. “But… there’s nobody left to honor my country’s memory. There hasn’t been for quite some time. So wouldn’t it be a great dishonor if I forgot about them?”
“Moving on isn’t the same as forgetting,” Jiang Yanli said firmly. “Remember the good times. Remember the lives they led, not the moment that they were lost.” Her soul burned brighter with every word. “Remember the reeds on the riverbank, and their laughter. Let the spirit of your kingdom live on in you.” The flame bobbed up and down, and Xie Lian felt a bit of warmth bloom in his chest. “After all, aren’t you their prince?”
Xie Lian thought about his people. His friends. His family. As Ruoye quietly unraveled and tickled his chin, he looked up and smiled. “Perhaps I am.”
When they finally arrived in the Ghost City, the first place they saw was the Gambling Den. Or, at least, that was what Xie Lian thought it said. The handwriting on the signs was so abhorrent he couldn’t be entirely sure.
“Is this the place?” Jiang Yanli asked softly. Xie Lian eyed the huge crowds of ghosts and humans alike pushing their way inside.
“Most likely.” He glanced at the lantern on his side. “You’re sure about this?”
“I wish you would stop questioning my resolve, Xie Lian,” Jiang Yanli said in her sweet yet somewhat frightening voice. She then pushed the lantern open herself and floated out, once more materializing into a nearly solid form. Throughout their travels Xie Lian noticed she had been getting stronger, but hadn’t realized by how much. She then strode inside, and Xie Lian hurried after her.
The place was incredibly crowded, and Xie Lian was briefly worried that he would lose Jiang Yanli in the crowd so he grabbed her hand as they weaved through. Finally, they came to the center of the room where there were the most people, all crowded around a simple table with some dice. Nearby there was a large veiled curtain, but Xie Lian didn’t pay it much mind.
“Who’s next? Who’s next?” the host hollered, waving around a cup of dice.
“I am,” Jiang Yanli called, voice carrying easily over the other clamors somehow. Immediately everybody fell silent and turned to face her.
“Really?” the host asked, making a face. “You’re just a little ghost fire. What could you possibly want, and what could you possibly bet?”
“I want to get stronger,” Jiang Yanli said, standing taller, the lightning-like aura permeating the room. Before the host could respond, however, a voice behind the veiled curtain suddenly spoke.
Immediately everybody burst out murmuring. The person behind the veil must be important. Jiang Yanli didn’t look the least bit intimidated, however.
“There are people I care deeply about, and I wish to protect them,” she said. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
There was absolute silence for a few moments, before the voice spoke up again. “...And the person who came with you? Why is he here?”
Xie Lian froze as everybody now focused on him. “Ah, I’m here to support my friend,” he said quickly. “I’m not here to make any bets.”
“Really?” the voice asked, somewhat amused. “You would come here, to such a dangerous place, only to serve others?”
Was the voice talking to Jiang Yanli or Xie Lian? It wasn’t particularly clear. Xie Lian glanced at Jiang Yanli, who seemed as calm as ever. “I’m the one who came here willing to play,” she said firmly. “Please leave my friend alone.”
The voice fell silent. “Your friend will come of no harm here,” they said, sounding strangely serious. Jiang Yanli furrowed her brow at the tone, but gave a small bow in thanks nonetheless.
The host now looked nervous, unsure as to what they should do next. “Er, alright then Miss… what would you like to wager?”
At this, Jiang Yanli hesitated. As a ghost fire, she had nothing to give in reality except her own life. However, Xie Lian saw the determination in her eyes and knew that she was willing to give that up as well. Quickly, he searched for an alternative.
“This lantern,” he said quickly before Jiang Yanli could speak. All eyes turned to him again. Many demons made a face when they saw the decrepit old thing.
“That’s it?” the host asked incredulously. Xie Lian shrunk slightly in embarrassment. “‘Getting stronger’ is a pretty big wish. You need to bet more than that.”
“It will do,” the voice from the veil called out abruptly, making everybody freeze again. “If they bet as a pair.”
The host blinked. “Hua Chengzhu..?”
The voice (apparently dubbed Hua Chengzhu) chuckled. “Let them both play, with one wager and one wish. If they lose, they lose. But if they win, then both are rewarded.”
For a few moments, the den was entirely silent. Even Xie Lian and Jiang Yanli were entirely stunned. Was this not blatant favoritism? If they both bet and lost then they only lose a lantern, and if they both win then they both get stronger? How would that even work?
“I accept those terms,” Jiang Yanli said after recovering. “I thank Hua Chengzhu for this generosity.”
The voice made a soft hmm but didn’t say more. Nervously, the host looked at the veil one last time before settling his eyes on Xie Lian.
“Well, if you’re playing too then step on over here,” he said, still sounding unsure. “And place your… wager over here.”
In comparison to the splendor of the surroundings, the lantern really was sad and decrepit. But it was the only possession Xie Lian had at this point, and only for Jiang Yanli’s sake. If they lost it, transportation could be a bit more difficult but judging by the young woman’s strength it was no longer a necessity.
“Now we roll the dice. Highest number wins,” the host said simply. He rolled the cup, and when he lifted it a six and a four were facing up. Some of the crowd murmured thoughtfully. He then was about to hand the cup to Jiang Yanli, but hesitated, eyes darting between the two. “Er, sorry, but which one of you should…?”
“She can do it,” Xie Lian said quickly. “It’s her wish anyways.” Not to mention his luck was so atrociously bad he’d undoubtedly get snake eyes. Jiang Yanli reached for the cup, but her hand passed through it. She frowned, focusing slightly, then reached and picked it up successfully the second time. Slowly she rolled it, then when she lifted the cup two sixes were facing up. The crowd’s murmuring got louder.
“Congratulations,” Hua Chengzhu said, sounding pleased.
“Thank you,” Jiang Yanli said, bowing her head slightly. “Now, I would like what I bargained for.”
Hua Chengzhu was silent. Then, the veil slowly opened and the crowd gasped. Inside was a handsome young man with long black hair and an eye patch. He was dressed in all red, adored with a variety of silver jewelry. He got up and walked towards the two as the crowd began to move away cautiously. He nodded at Jiang Yanli and gave Xie Lian a warm smile. “Come with me,” he said in a tone that made it impossible for either of them to say no. He then strode towards the exit as the nearby ghosts all but fled, and the two began to follow him.
The walk was mostly silent, with Jiang Yanli and Xie Lian keeping a small distance between them and Hua Chengzhu. As nice as he was being, one could never be too careful. The man himself kept glancing behind to make sure they kept up, often smirking slightly before turning back around. Eventually, they reached a splendid manor that was far, far larger than anything Xie Lian had seen in years.
“This is Paradise Manor,” Hua Chengzhu said with a sweeping gesture when they reached the entrance. “I live here.”
Xie Lian found himself in awe, though he didn’t miss the way Jiang Yanli looked at the opulent display with an oddly distant expression. Luckily, Hua Chengzhu either didn’t notice or didn’t care, and continued on to lead them inside. Naturally it was no less impressive within the house than outside it, with a front hall that may have been larger than Xie Lian’s old palace. Hua Chengzhu led them to a side room (which was still incredibly large) with a table near the end. He settled himself down and gestured for the two to do the same.
“Ghost flame, what is your name?” Hua Chengzhu asked, turning to Jiang Yanli.
“Jiang Yanli,” she answered. Hua Chengzhu nodded thoughtfully. He glanced over at Xie Lian.
“And you are Xie Lian, the Flower Crowned Martial God?” he asked in an inquiring tone which suggested he had no real doubt at all. Xie Lian was taken back.
“I… yes,” Xie Lian said after some hesitation. “But I’m not a Heavenly Official right now.”
“That’s probably for the better,” Hua Chengzhu mused. “They’re all idiots up there anyways.”
That was… an interesting perspective. But considering this man very likely ran Ghost City, it wasn’t the most surprising opinion.
“Hua Chengzhu,” Jiang Yanli began respectfully, “I ask that you fulfill my wish.”
“Ah, of course,” Hua Chengzhu said with a smile. “It’s a simple matter of sharing some spiritual power. It won’t be permanent, however, unless…”
Jiang Yanli frowned. “Unless what?”
“Unless you find a way to form some more power on your own,” Hua Chengzhu explained simply. “Ghosts can cultivate as well, after all. It’s harder for somebody who was once a cultivator, since you went through all those calming rituals, but it is still possible. And if you truly wish to get stronger quickly, there’s always Mount Tong’lu, which is due to open soon.”
Xie Lian frowned. He hadn’t heard of the mountain before, which was unusual considering how long he’d been around. “What’s that?”
“It’s a place where ghosts fight each other to become more powerful. In the heart of the mountain there is something called the Kiln. If the ghost successfully breaks through that, they will have officially reached the ‘Devastation’ level of power,” Hua Chengzhu explained. “So far, only three Devastations have ever existed. We make up three of the four ‘Great Calamities’ as well.”
“Only three?” Xie Lian asked, looking rather surprised. Jiang Yanli looked thoughtful.
“I’ve heard of this,” she mused. “The only three are White No-Face—” Xie Lian poorly hid a flinch, but luckily Jiang Yanli only gave him a concerned glance before continuing “—Black Water Sinking Ships, and…” she paused, scrutinizing the man before them. “...Crimson Rain Sought Flower.”
Hua Chengzhu smirked. “Anyways, I can assure you that while Mount Tong’lu would definitely make you stronger if you succeed, you are almost certainly going to die. Even the fourth Calamity, Qi Rong wouldn’t stand a chance.”
Xie Lian flinched briefly at the name, but luckily neither person seemed to notice. Or at least if they did, they didn’t acknowledge it.
“So in this mountain… you kill people,” Jiang Yanli said, not looking terribly pleased.
“You don’t kill people, you kill ghosts. And a very specific type of ghost at that.” Hua Chengzhu smirked. “The vast majority will be cold-blooded murderers, and the rest will be various types of scum. Ghosts with any amount of goodwill tend to avoid the mountain, since they have no real motivation for gaining strength to that extent. Anybody you kill there would completely deserve it. Besides, if you don’t kill them, either a new malicious Devastation ghost will show up, causing lots of problems, or some of the ghosts will escape back into the outside world, also causing lots of problems. It’s a real mess either way.”
“You want me to eliminate your competition early,” Jiang Yanli observed.
Hua Chengzhu shrugged. “It’d be a bonus. I don’t need your help. It would honestly be faster without you, since I wouldn’t have anybody to slow me down.”
“The ghosts die either way,” Jiang Yanli said, a slight questioning lilt in her voice. Hua Chengzhu nodded in confirmation.
“Either you kill them to get stronger, or I do. Either way, those who deserve to die do, and one of us is the better for it,” he said with a grin full of teeth. Xie Lian didn’t find him very menacing though. If anything, he found this a bit strange. It was almost as if he was encouraging Jiang Yanli to go to this mountain instead of him. Why would the ghost king so easily squander away this chance at getting stronger? Was it truly not worth the effort, or was this somehow a trap?
At the thought of a Calamity gaining even more power, Jiang Yanli narrowed her eyes. “I suppose going through the mountain is my only option then.”
Hua Chengzhu seemed pleased. “Perhaps. But again, you don’t stand a chance right now.”
“You could always help me progress through,” Jiang Yanli said smoothly. Hua Chengzhu raised an eyebrow.
“Excuse me?” he asked, sounding almost surprised.
“My wish is to get stronger. By promising to fulfill my wish, you are agreeing to help me. Therefore, you will help me get through the mountain.”
That was actually quite smart. After all, Hua Chengzhu already seemed quite favorable to them, so Jiang Yanli was testing how far that favor went. Perhaps if she pushed enough, they’d get some indication as to why he was being so kind as well.
“I can’t fight your battles for you, you know,” Hua Chengzhu observed. Jiang Yanli smiled.
“I’m not asking you to, I only ask for some aid. After all, I’m sure you’re quite familiar with the place.”
Hua Chengzhu gave her a long stare, before grinning. “I like you,” he said, eye twinkling with mirth. “I agree to your terms.” He stood up, moving towards the door and gesturing the other two to follow. “Mount Tong’lu won’t open for a few more years though by my estimation, so in the meantime we should train.”
“Wait,” Jiang Yanli said, frowning. “What about Xie Lian? You said you’d help him too.”
Hua Chengzhu laughed. “Don’t worry, this is part of his gift too.” He then beckoned them into a separate room. The two walked in and gasped. It was an incredibly huge armory, filled with various weapons but particularly swords.
“It’s beautiful,” Xie Lian said, eyes sparkling.
“It’s yours,” Hua Chengzhu replied easily. Xie Lian paused, looking at him incredulously. The armory had to be worth a fortune, there was no way even an incredibly wealthy person would just give it away, particularly to somebody they just met. Hua Chengzhu merely shrugged with an easy smile.
“I’ll take care of them for you until you want to use them,” he said simply. “You can stay here if you like as well. Jiang Yanli doesn’t stand a chance in Mount Tong’lu right now, so we’ll need to work on that anyways.”
“You’re too kind,” Jiang Yanli said, eyes narrowing slightly in suspicion. “May I ask why?”
Hua Chengzhu glanced at Xie Lian, then looked over at her. “I have my reasons,” he said vaguely. “Don’t worry, I do mean you both well.”
Jiang Yanli still looked a bit suspicious, but accepted the answer for now. She then looked around at the swords. She then strode over and picked one up, turning to Hua Chengzhu with a smile. “Well, if I must train, then how about we start now?”
Hua Chengzhu blinked, then smiled. “I don’t see why not.”
A couple weeks after their arrival, Xie Lian felt himself settling into a routine. At first he’d been nervous, living in such a large mansion after so long, but the servants had been nothing but kind. In fact, when they heard his name, they became even more excited and started giving him an excessive number of gifts. Before he could get too flustered, however, Jiang Yanli would always step in with a gracious smile, accept their gifts, and shoo them away gently so everybody could get some rest.
There were a lot of servants, apparently. Although there did seem to be a head servant or secretary or some sorts. A masked fellow who didn’t say much but was introduced as Yin Yu, and seemed perpetually just a bit tired. Xie Lian didn’t see much of him honestly, but he seemed very nice.
But by now, most of the excitement had settled and Xie Lian was actually getting used to all the extravagance, oddly enough. True, he’d grown up in such an environment, but it’d been a good 800 years since then. Times changed.
Of course, that didn’t mean he actually had all that much to do. Jiang Yanli spent quite a bit of time training, with or without Hua Cheng (he insisted that the title would get too annoying and they ought to drop it). Xie Lian was provided with just about whatever he wanted when he asked, but it’d been so long since he’d been given opportunities that he was at a loss.
“You can always train with me,” Jiang Yanli had offered. Xie Lian considered that, but Jiang Yanli was currently a bit too far behind in her cultivation. She was still working on fully materializing, and fallen god or no, Xie Lian was quite a bit stronger at the moment. He didn’t want to risk injuring her.
To his surprise, the relief of his boredom came from Hua Cheng. Xie Lian was practicing his calligraphy when the door opened and the ghost king walked in, decked out in red with silver jewelry.
“Gege, I heard you’ve been bored lately,” he said, voice pitched in a slightly whiny manner.
“Oh, not at all,” Xie Lian lied quickly, not wanting to be a bother. “Everything’s perfectly fine. Better than fine, actually. This is far nicer than I’m used to.” He was also a little confused about the ‘gege’ part but chose not to question it.
Hua Cheng looked strangely upset at that. “Well, if you have nothing to do, would you like to come hang out with me for a bit?”
Xie Lian blinked. “Really?” He figured that as a Ghost King, Hua Cheng would be quite the busy person. Certainly too busy to keep company with a fallen, technically unemployed and luckless god… though come to think of it, his luck had actually been alright lately. He only spilled soup on his lap three times in the last two weeks.
Hua Cheng smiled. “Of course. Anything for gege.”
There it was again. “Gege?” He didn’t think they were that familiar.
For a moment, Hua Cheng looked a bit nervous. “Do you mind?”
“Oh of course not,” Xie Lian said quickly. “I was just a bit surprised. Is there anything you want me to call you in return?”
Hua Cheng grinned. “Well, I’m the third son in my family, so you can call me San Lang.”
Xie Lian had a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t a nickname anybody else used, but he smiled nonetheless. “Alright then. San Lang, shall we get going?”
San Lang beamed brighter than Xie Lian had ever seen him.
Jiang Cheng was starting to think that he was imagining things. Maybe it was out of grief, for having lost two siblings in such a short amount of time. Or perhaps it was out of stress, for having to shoulder the burden of raising an entire sect back up from the ground. Either way, he was now hallucinating it seems.
After all, butterflies weren’t silver, nor did they glow. And they certainly didn’t populate Lotus Pier until very recently. Jiang Cheng swore he sensed one of the creatures following him more than once.
“Are you seeing these?” Jiang Cheng demanded to a disciple when a butterfly landed on his shoulder.
“Seeing what?” the disciple asked, puzzled. “Sect Leader Jiang, are you alright?”
No. No he definitely wasn’t. He ended up storming back to his room, the butterfly still insistently on his shoulder. When he sat down, it fluttered off, doing a quick circle. With a sigh, Jiang Cheng held out a hand and it rested on his finger.
“You’re sentient, aren’t you,” Jiang Cheng said, glaring at the insect. “You’re probably some weird projection by a cultivator. Are you trying to spy on me or something?”
The butterfly didn’t answer, and only flapped its wings slowly. Jiang Cheng sighed. “Now I’m talking to a butterfly. I feel stupid.”
Abruptly, Jiang Cheng could hear the faintest sounds of laughter. One was of a man, but the other… there was no mistaking it. It was the light chuckling of his sister.
“Jiejie?” he whispered, looking at the butterfly. “Are you a messenger or something?”
The butterfly flapped its wings a few more times, and Jiang Cheng thought he heard something like an argument.
“...Not strong enough....Just wait…”
Abruptly, the butterfly lifted off and the voices went away. Before Jiang Cheng could reach for it again, the silver insect disappeared into thin air. Jiang Cheng looked at the empty space despairingly for a moment, before giving up and leaning back with a sigh.
He really was going insane.
After just about a month, Jiang Yanli had been making remarkable progress. Under Hua Cheng’s tutelage, she felt her cultivation reach heights it never had when she was alive. For the first time in her (after)life, she felt strong, and it was wonderful.
“Soon enough we might even be able to spar,” Xie Lian said excitedly, no doubt thinking about all the swords in the armory. Jiang Yanli laughed.
“I don’t think I’m quite at the level of a martial god yet,” she said warmly. “Maybe someday.”
Xie Lian sighed. “You certainly are improving quickly, but Mount Tong’lu sounds very dangerous. Are you sure you’ll be strong enough by the time it opens?”
To be perfectly honest, Jiang Yanli wasn’t sure. She had no real way of knowing if she could become the fourth ever ghost to break out of the Kiln until she tried, and if she failed then… well. That wasn’t really an option.
“I’ll be fine,” she said with a thin smile. No need to make him worry. Though judging by Xie Lian’s expression, she wasn’t very convincing.
“Maybe I can come with you to Mount Tong’lu,” he mused. “I know San Lang is going with you, but perhaps I can as well just in case?”
There was that nickname again. Jiang Yanli had noticed over time that Hua Cheng and Xie Lian had gotten quite close. It was interesting, and actually pretty adorable. She wasn’t sure how much time they were spending together, but it made Xie Lian smile more, and that was good enough for her.
“Er, hello?” he said nervously which interrupted Jiang Yanli’s thoughts. She blinked a few times and recalled their current conversation.
“Ah, you shouldn’t,” she said kindly. “You’re a god, not a ghost, so your aura will be different anyways. Plus, if I have two people helping me then I’ll hardly be doing anything myself, will I? You’ll just try punching anybody who gets too close and then I’ll have nobody left to fight.”
Xie Lian turned a bit red, but didn’t deny it.
Sparks flew as Jiang Yanli and San Lang crossed swords again. Their spars had gotten more intense lately. It was obvious that San Lang was still holding back, but the fact that Jiang Yanli could hold her own this well at all was still incredible.
After a few more minutes, San Lang disarmed Jiang Yanli with a burst of strength and held E-Ming at her throat. “Yield,” he said simply.
Jiang Yanli put her hands up without much fuss. “I’ll win one of these someday,” she said without much heat. “Perhaps if you go a bit easier on me. You’re already holding back, after all.”
San Lang shrugged easily. “Perhaps.” He then pulled out a cloth, cleaning up E-Ming who was now purring with happiness. It had taken Xie Lian embarrassingly long to notice that the sword was actually sentient, if he was being completely honest. But now that he did, it was nearly impossible to miss whenever E-Ming emoted.
San Lang seemed to notice that Xie Lian was staring, and smiled. “Do you want to see him up close?” As a sword lover, Xie Lian absolutely did, but he was a bit too embarrassed to say it.
“He does,” Jiang Yanli called from across the room where she was cleaning and placing down her sword. She hadn’t found one that she particularly bonded to yet, so she was currently testing out each one from the armory, which, given its size, would take a while. “He can meet Ruoye as well.”
San Lang moved closer, raising an eyebrow. “Ruoye?” As if responding to its name, Ruoye started uncurling itself and waving around in the air excitedly. San Lang eyed the bandage.
“I didn’t realize it had cultivated,” he mused, petting Ruoye lightly who vibrated in delight. E-Ming whined at the lack of attention, but San Lang gave it an unsympathetic slap.
“San Lang, be nice,” Xie Lian chided automatically, reaching down to pet the sword. San Lang huffed, rolling his eye.
“E-Ming is too spoiled, honestly.” Xie Lian wasn’t entirely sure how one went about spoiling a sword but he rather doubted that was true. Besides, if E-Ming was spoiled, what was Ruoye?
The two spiritual weapons, once they noticed each other, seemed a bit hesitant. E-Ming briefly seemed suspicious at something else intruding in its territory, but Ruoye was eager and unassuming enough that E-Ming’s eye quickly relaxed and the two weapons started to play with each other.
“How did you make E-Ming, anyways?” Xie Lian asked out of curiosity. “It’s truly a marvelous sword, after all. It must have taken a lot of power.”
San Lang hesitated. “I… don’t think you want to hear the story, gege,” he said with a strained smile. “It’s not a very pretty one.”
“I don’t think any of us have particularly pretty stories,” Jiang Yanli said as she walked over. “If you don’t want to tell us that’s fine, but it’s not like anybody here is faint of heart at this point.”
That was true enough. After a bit of internal conflict, San Lang sighed. He then tapped his eye patch. “I was with a group of humans in Mount Tong’lu. We were all trapped and about to die. So, out of desperation, I forged a weapon using my right eye. That was E-Ming.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. “...That makes sense,” Jiang Yanli said eventually. “I’m glad you didn’t use the humans instead.”
“It crossed my mind,” San Lang admitted, “but something stopped me. A… reminder of somebody I looked up to quite a lot.”
Xie Lian tilted his head. “Somebody you looked up to?”
San Lang gave him an odd look, then smiled. “It’s not terribly important.”
When Xie Lian woke up the next morning, he noticed a necklace next to his bed. Upon closer examination, there was a crystal clear ring hanging from it. This definitely wasn’t here the night before, which was a bit concerning to be honest. Still, if it was cursed he’d almost definitely been through worse, so he picked it up and put it around his neck. Nothing happened, so he counted that as a win.
Then, there was a knock on his door. “Come in!” he called. The door opened, and Jiang Yanli and San Lang walked through. San Lang was holding a tray and looked quite proud of himself.
“Breakfast, gege,” he said. Xie Lian beamed in response.
“Thank you very much!” He dipped his head, making the necklace around his neck shift slightly. San Lang noticed it, and smiled.
“I see you noticed my gift,” he said. Xie Lian blinked at him.
“Oh, this is from you? It’s quite beautiful,” Xie Lian said, holding the ring in his hands gently. Something told him it was quite precious. He entirely missed Jiang Yanli’s sharp intake of breath when she saw it.
“It’s nothing, really,” San Lang said flippantly. “Just take care of it, alright?”
“Of course,” Xie Lian said sincerely. Behind the ghost king, Jiang Yanli looked a bit thrown, which was a bit odd. San Lang didn’t pay her any mind though, instead putting down the tray and settling in.
Ah well. Considerations for another day.
As Hua Cheng and Jiang Yanli headed towards the room where they usually sparred, Jiang Yanli looked deep in thought. Judging by her reaction, she likely realized what the crystal ring actually was. What she was going to do about it, though, was a bit unclear.
“...Hua Cheng,” she said eventually. “Those were your ashes, weren’t they?”
“Yes they were,” Hua Cheng confirmed easily because there wasn’t much point in lying. Besides, this area of the manor was deliberately empty so they’d have privacy. There was no threat of being overheard.
“It’s a custom to give one’s ashes to their loved one,” Jiang Yanli stated. “That someone you looked up to a long time ago… was it by any chance Xie Lian?”
She was sharper than Hua Cheng had given her credit for. Hua Cheng sighed. “Perhaps.”
Jiang Yanli sighed. “It’s clear that you care deeply about him, and have a history that I’m not aware of.” She turned and looked up at him, eyes narrowed and very nearly sparking. “I know that I’m nowhere near your strength now, but know that if you hurt him, I will hurt you.”
“I have no doubt of that,” Hua Cheng agreed. “And truly, if I do hurt His Highness, you have my full blessing to unleash your wrath upon me.”
“It’s good to see we’re on the same page,” she said serenely. “Now, when are you going to tell Xie Lian your feelings?”
Hua Cheng choked. “Excuse me?” Jiang Yanli had flipped from protective sibling to conspiring matchmaker awfully quick.
“Judging by how you act around him, you’ve been pining for years, if not decades, if not centuries,” she said with a raised eyebrow. “You’ve even given him your ashes. You should make your feelings clear.”
Ten thousand statues was pretty darn clear, but Hua Cheng wasn’t going to tell anybody about that. Instead he sighed. “I’ll tell him when I’m ready.” Which was probably never.
Jiang Yanli saw right through him, but didn’t say anything. Instead, she just let out a light chuckle as they walked through the halls.
Xie Lian and Jiang Yanli were eating dinner together that night. They often ate with San Lang as well, but this time he had some business he had to take care of so it was just the two of them. That was alright, since Jiang Yanli was lovely company, though at the moment she was being oddly silent.
“...Xie Lian,” she said. “What do you think of Hua Cheng?’
That was a rather strange question to ask at this point. After all, they’d been living with him for… a while now. If Jiang Yanli had any doubts about his character, she likely would have brought them up before now. “He’s a wonderful person,” Xie Lian said confidently. “Quite kind and sweet.”
Jiang Yanli gave a hmm of acknowledgement. “But what do you think of him as? A friend? A brother?”
Xie Lian hesitated. He hadn’t really thought about that before. “I… I’m not sure. Somebody I care a lot about, I suppose.”
That answer seemed to satisfy Jiang Yanli. “So very close friends, then. Or perhaps even like lovers?”
Xie Lian immediately turned scarlet. “Wh...what are you implying?”
“He loves you, you know,” Jiang Yanli said, looking him in the eye. “And I imagine you feel the same way.”
This conversation was not going where Xie Lian had expected it to go at all . Floundering, he wasn’t sure what to say. “I— what even makes you say that?”
Jiang Yanli looked very pointedly at the ring necklace Xie Lian was currently wearing. “Do you know what that is?”
To be honest, Xie Lian did have his suspicions. He’d been chatting with Yin Yu a bit more lately, and while the man didn’t seem to be a ghost he was certainly very knowledgeable. As Xie Lian had asked about their customs, Yin Yu vaguely mentioned something about ashes. But… that was a custom reserved for very close partners only. No matter how he looked at it, there was no way that San Lang would give his ashes to Xie Lian so soon after they met. Still, Jiang Yanli was expecting an answer.
“I figured it was something important to him,” Xie Lian said vaguely. Jiang Yanli frowned.
“They’re his ashes. That’s more than ‘slightly important’,” she said in a lightly scolding tone. “You know what those mean.”
He did. “But it’s impossible,” he insisted. “San Lang wouldn’t—” love somebody like me.
“He does,” Jiang Yanli said firmly, eyes softening as if she knew what Xie Lian was thinking. “He cares quite deeply for you. I’m not sure when it started, but.. I imagine he’s felt this way for a while. The least you could do is tell him how you feel in return.”
At the thought of that, Xie Lian turned scarlet. “I— I don’t know if I could do that.”
Jiang Yanli sighed. “Truly, it’s not that difficult. Just catch him after our next spar. No point in pining when the feelings are reciprocated.”
Xie Lian’s blush was quite firmly in place and showed no signs of leaving. “You’re quite sure?”
“I spend quite a bit of time with both of you, separately and together on a daily basis,” Jiang Yanli said dryly. “I’m sure.” Then, she put her hand on Xie Lian’s. “You both deserve to know, and to be happy together.”
A few months ago Xie Lian might have pulled his hand away, or doubted that comment. But now, he felt a warmth in his heart that he didn’t know he’d been missing. “Thank you.”
Jiang Yanli beamed. “Anytime.”
After Jiang Yanli had made Xie Lian realize his feelings, Xie Lian had a plan in place. The next day, after Jiang Yanli was done training, Xie Lian would ask San Lang if they could talk alone and then he’d confess. Beyond that he didn’t have much of a plan but this seemed good enough.
But the very next morning when Jiang Yanli and San Lang walked into his bedroom with breakfast as per usual all rational thought flew out the window and Xie Lian blurted out, “Marry me.”
San Lang dropped the breakfast tray and Jiang Yanli caught it with surprising ease, almost as if she’d been expecting this. She then looked at Xie Lian with an amused expression, then walked out of the room, closing the door lightly behind her. Now it was just Xie Lian and San Lang, the latter being completely frozen and turning red.
Perhaps his previous plan would have been wiser. Alas.
“Er, maybe not marriage just yet,” Xie Lian said, backpedaling quickly. “But—”
“Yes,” San Lang said abruptly, interrupting him. Xie Lian blinked at him. “Yes,” he repeated, a bit louder. “I’ll marry you.”
Now it was Xie Lian’s turn to be flustered. “Oh, um, well, that’s great!” San Lang looked impossibly happy at that, and Xie Lian also felt quite warm. Then, the ridiculousness of the situation caught up to him.
“Are you quite sure?” he asked worriedly. “We’ve only known each other for less than a year.”
San Lang looked at him, then burst out laughing.
“Are you sure about that?” he said with a faint smile. Xie Lian gave him a blank stare.
“Er...” Yes? He didn’t recall meeting a ghost king anytime before this. Unless...
San Lang looked faintly amused, then his expression sobering somewhat. He got down on one knee, bowing down. When he lifted his head, his hair was pulled into a ponytail and there was a terrifyingly familiar mask on his face, which disappeared as quickly as it came. Xie Lian startled, feeling a centuries-old memory slowly rise to the surface.
“Wu Ming?” he whispered. San Lang nodded, smiling.
“We’ve known each other for a very, very long time, gege,” he said warmly.
“I… I can’t believe I didn’t realize it before,” Xie Lian said, feeling quite foolish. “When did we first meet?”
San Lang’s eye sparkled. “When you were seventeen, when I was a child.”
Xie Lian’s eyes widened. “The child! That was you?” Oh, he felt very foolish now. “We really have known each other quite a while, haven’t we?” Xie Lian recalled everything he’d seen the child go through, and everywhere that the persistent little ghost flame had followed him to. “So you’ve seen me…”
“I’ve seen your entire life,” San Lang confirmed, eye crinkling gently. “I’ve seen your worst, your best, and everything in between. I love you in your entirety, and always will.” He bowed once more. “I shall always be your most devoted believer.”
Xie Lian suddenly felt himself overcome with emotion, and threw himself at San Lang, embracing him tightly. After a few seconds of surprise, San Lang hugged him right back.
San Lang had waited eight-hundred years for him. Xie Lian didn’t want to make him wait another second.
Outside the room, a few servants cheered quietly. Money was exchanged, and wedding plans were drawn up. They only dispersed when Jiang Yanli reappeared and shooed them all away. After all, this was a special moment. It wouldn’t do to interrupt them.
For all the grandeur that San Lang possessed, the wedding was going to be a quiet one.
“We’ll throw the ghosts a party afterwards,” San Lang said dismissively when Xie Lian pointed out that just about all of Ghost City wanted to be in attendance. “This wedding is something between us, not everybody else.”
“Well, at the very least Jiang Yanli should bear witness,” Xie Lian pestered. “She got us together, after all. And maybe Yin Yu, because he’s nice.”
San Lang huffed. “Well, if gege insists.”
Jiang Yanli was delighted with the honor of being the wedding’s one and only witness, and also had probably been expecting it, judging by how she immediately assured them that she and Yin Yu were going to plan everything.
Judging by Yin Yu’s expression he wasn’t entirely informed of this beforehand but he was also completely determined to see this through.
“What’s there to plan?” Xie Lian asked with a frown. “There will only be three people in attendance.”
Jiang Yanli looked at him with a tilted head. “You’re also planning a celebration afterwards, though. Do you not plan on organizing that at all?”
Ah. She did have a point there. Seeing that he understood, Jiang Yanli nodded. “Now, when will the wedding take place?”
“Tomorrow,” San Lang answered immediately. Jiang Yanli looked surprised, while Yin Yu looked painfully resigned.
“Tomorrow it is,” she said cheerily. “If that’s the case, then shoo, I have a lot of work to do.” She then kicked both of them out of the room as politely as possible, and they were left to their own devices.
“It seems we have the day off, gege,” San Lang said. “Is there anything you want to do?”
Xie Lian considered that, then he smiled. “Actually, there is one thing.”
“You know you can’t technically kick somebody out of their own house,” Yin Yu said to Jiang Yanli.
“It’s not his house, just this room,” she said smoothly. “Besides, I’m sure those two will be thrilled to have some time alone.”
Ah yes, alone time. Like Hua Cheng hadn’t spent every waking moment with Xie Lian, delegating as many things as possible to Yin Yu for the past few months. Jiang Yanli seemed to read his mind and her eyes softened in sympathy.
“I’ll talk to Hua Cheng, you seem overworked.”
“It’s fine,” Yin Yu said reflexively. He genuinely enjoyed having this much to do, even if it was a bit exhausting at times. Jiang Yanli didn’t seem quite as convinced.
“He wants the wedding planned for tomorrow, he clearly doesn’t understand what ‘reasonable’ means,” she grumbled. “I suppose the only saving grace is that there will only be us in attendance, so it doesn’t have to be too extravagant. But the party afterwards…”
“There’s plenty of food in the market, we can probably source it from there,” Yin Yu said thoughtfully.
“Fair enough,” Jiang Yanli acknowledged. “Though we should also have some separate, nicer dishes for the grooms. Most of the market food is…”
“Strange,” Yin Yu finished, and Jiang Yanli chuckled.
“Indeed. I’m not sure how pleased Xie Lian would be at eating… well, whatever they serve there.”
“There’s also the matter of robes,” Yin Yu mused. “Hua Cheng has quite a few, but I’m not sure any are suitable for this wedding.”
“We can make improvements to whatever he has. It’ll be a bit of a rushed job if we have to make something from scratch.” Jiang Yanli then frowned. “We’ll need their measurements though. Maybe kicking them out was a bit too hasty.”
Yin Yu glanced at the door. “Well, we can always use the dice.” The whole “roll to meet Hua Cheng whenever you wanted” didn’t work very well for anybody who wasn’t Xie Lian, but as the effective secretary of Ghost City it sometimes worked for him.
Jiang Yanli chuckled. “No need, I’m pretty sure I know where they are.”
Xie Lian hadn’t sparred with such a strong opponent in years, and it felt amazing. At first, both of them were somewhat hesitant. Xie Lian knew that San Lang was strong, but still didn’t want to hurt him. San Lang likely felt the same. But after a few awkward blows, they came to an understanding that this spar would be a disappointment if they both held back to this extent.
So they didn’t. And an hour later, the training grounds were a complete mess, with sword slashes on the walls, collapsed pieces of furniture (those shouldn’t have been in the vicinity anyways), and a small fire burning in the corner for some reason or another.
Xie Lian had San Lang at sword point, the latter flat on his back with his arms raised.
It was the most romantic thing in the world.
“If you two are done, the servants need your measurements,” Jiang Yanli called from the doorway, making both of them jolt. She looked amused. “You might need to wash up first though.”
“There should already be red robes somewhere in the manor, are measurements really necessary?” San Lang griped. Jiang Yanli raised a delicate eyebrow. Behind her, Yin Yu coughed in what sounded suspiciously like laughter.
“Are you saying you plan to get married in some robes that have been dusting away in the back of your closet for who knows how long?” she asked sweetly.
San Lang looked like he wanted to object to that but wisely kept his mouth shut. Behind Jiang Yanli, ghostly servants poked out their heads, looking very excited but also a bit nervous at the same time. With a sigh, San Lang beckoned them forward and Xie Lian was immediately swamped. After a whirlwind of activity, the servants and Jiang Yanli left as quickly as they came, and Xie Lian was alone with San Lang again.
“What was that?” he asked faintly. San Lang shrugged.
“I suppose we’ll find out tomorrow.”
As promised, everything was perfectly arranged the next day. The robes were beautiful, and apparently barely made on time judging by how exhausted Jiang Yanli looked. They did their bows as she and Yin Yu beamed proudly off to the side. Then, everything was a blur from there.
There was a party. Ghosts were cheering. It was loud and festive, with lots of alcohol. Xie Lian felt himself laugh more than he had in years. Then at night, San Lang guided him to their room and they slept side-by-side in their bed and it was beautiful.
For the last eight-hundred years, Xie Lian had lived with the resolve to make it through each day, one at a time. Now, he found himself finally able to wish for, not resign himself to all the time in the world.
Xie Lian and Hua Cheng were having a newlywed phase together, so Jiang Yanli had a lot of time to herself lately. She still trained, though not as hard. Quite a few servants offered to spar with her, though only Yin Yu stood a chance, and he was too busy most of the time.
So Jiang Yanli took a few walks instead. Paradise Manor and the surrounding grounds were incredibly large, and she honestly hadn’t explored most of the place yet. There hadn’t been much need.
So now she was wandering in the garden area when she came upon a pond. There were a few of these already, but this one specifically had a few lotus pods in it. Immediately, she felt hit by a wave of nostalgia.
She remembered eating lotus seeds with her brothers, and cooking them soup. She remembered A-Xian’s carefree attitude which had always gotten on their mother’s nerves.
“Jiang Yanli?” a quiet voice broke her out of her thoughts. Jiang Yanli turned and saw Xie Lian and Hua Cheng, looking at her with mild concern.
“You were staring at the pond. Is something wrong?”
“No, everything’s alright,” Jiang Yanli said quickly. She didn’t want to interrupt their time together, it wouldn’t do if they were worried about her.
Naturally, neither person was remotely convinced. “What were you thinking about?” Hua Cheng pressed. Jiang Yanli opened her mouth to come up with another excuse, but saw that neither of them were going to let this matter drop. She sighed.
“I was thinking about my family,” she admitted, looking at the pond. “I… I don’t think I’ve really talked about them before.”
The other two were silent, so Jiang Yanli continued. “I grew up with a mother, a father, and two younger brothers. A-Xian is— was the older of the two, though he didn’t actually come live with us until later.”
Almost subconsciously, she picked up a nearby fallen branch, and held it like a flute. “Our family… didn’t get along. My father and mother had issues, for both were constantly competing in strength and respect. They were too busy fighting each other to raise us, so I was often left to care for my younger siblings. And when they were around, my father largely ignored my youngest brother while my mother only scolded them both.”
Xie Lian was looking at the ground, likely because he recalled how this story ended. He had met Jiang Yanli right after the siege at the Burial Mounds, after all.
“My brothers were forced to compete with each other. A-Cheng never really got over that competitive self, even… even when our home was burned to the ground, and A-Xian was nearly killed.”
The branch snapped in Jiang Yanli’s hands. “A-Xian… practiced demonic cultivation. It helped us win a war. But then the people turned against him and… he lost control. A-Cheng ended up killing him.”
She looked up at Xie Lian and Hua Cheng. “That’s also how I died.”
After a few moments of silence, Xie Lian moved forward and embraced Jiang Yanli. “I’m sorry you had to go through all that,” he said quietly. “I’m sure your family is either resting peacefully or thriving right now.”
“Last I heard of my butterflies, Jiang Wanyin has essentially rebuilt the Yunmeng Jiang Sect up to its former glory,” Hua Cheng supplied. “Though I’ve had to be a bit more careful lately. He’s been getting suspicious. Apparently glowing insects aren’t commonplace there.”
Despite herself, Jiang Yanli laughed lightly. “No, no they aren’t.” Then, she brightened up. “May I talk to him?”
Hua Cheng shook his head, looking solemn. “Not yet. Besides, you need to focus. Don’t get your brother’s hopes up before you go through Mount Tong’lu.”
Jiang Yanli sobered. “I understand.” She silently resolved to train more later that day.
“Do you want to eat dinner?” Xie Lian asked.
“Oh, I don’t want to impose on you two,” Jiang Yanli said quickly. They likely came to this garden to have some time alone, and found her by accident. She’d already diverted their time, and didn’t want to take up any more.
“Nonsense,” Xie Lian said. “We haven’t eaten dinner together in days.”
Jiang Yanli paused, then smiled. “Well, if you insist.”
She had lost much of her family, that was an undeniable fact.
But perhaps she had found some more.
Some time later…
“Mount Tong’lu will open soon,” San Lang said with a grimace. “I can tell.”
Jiang Yanli winced. “Is that what that feeling is?”
Xie Lian had no idea what they were talking about, but San Lang nodded in affirmation. “The opening of Mount Tong’lu has a rather… severe effect on ghosts,” he explained. “You won’t be affected, gege, but everybody else in the city will be.”
That was… unfortunate. “Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked worriedly. San Lang shook his head.
“This is just how things are,” he said with a reassuring smile. “It’ll only be for a night or two. But just to be safe, you probably shouldn’t leave your room for the next couple of days. I’m not sure when exactly the mountain will open, but when it does, there might be a fair bit of chaos.”
“I can handle myself,” Xie Lian protested.
“But nobody will be in their right minds, and you’d feel guilty if you beat up a bunch of ghosts for something they couldn’t control,” Jiang Yanli pointed out.
That was true. Xie Lian sighed. “Does that mean I’ll be sleeping alone the next couple days?” He’d gotten rather used to San Lang by his side. His husband looked appropriately guilty.
“It’s for your own safety,” he insisted.
“Oh alright,” Xie Lian acquiesced. “But stay safe yourselves, alright?”
His husband and friend both nodded. “We’ll do our best,” Jiang Yanli promised.
So Xie Lian found himself sitting in a room that felt far too large for him, filled with things but devoid of people. It was a bit dull, but not terrible. Still a vast improvement to the last eight hundred years.
Then, he heard the door knock. That was a bit surprising, since the whole point of this was so that Xie Lian wouldn’t be bothered by ghosts. Still, he opened the door. Yin Yu was standing there.
“I’ve been told to keep you company,” Yin Yu said simply. Xie Lian blinked.
“Ah, thank you,” he said awkwardly, letting him in. “Are you not affected by Mount Tong’lu?”
Yin Yu shook his head. “That only affects ghosts.”
Xie Lian blinked. That, at least, confirmed Xie Lian's suspicions that Yin Yu wasn't a ghost. In fact, his aura almost felt like…
“Are you by any chance a god?” he asked before he could stop himself. Yin Yu paused, giving him a strange expression.
“...Perhaps,” he said simply. “That’s not terribly important though. Is there anything you want to do?”
Honestly, Xie Lian was going to read or possibly practice calligraphy until this was all over. But with Yin Yu there, it would feel awkward to do one-person activities. “We could… get to know each other?” It was a bit lame, but Xie Lian honestly didn’t know that much about Yin Yu, even though they’d technically been living under the same roof for a couple years now.
Yin Yu thought about that, and sighed. “Why not.”
So, they talked. Xie Lian learned that Yin Yu was from the West, and that he did most of the work in Ghost City. Meanwhile, Xie Lian talked vaguely about his past, and was surprised to hear that Yin Yu actually hadn’t really heard of him.
“It’s mentioned on occasion, but your kingdom fell nearly seven or eight hundred years ago,” Yin Yu explained. “There aren’t many people who still talk about it, not even in the Heavens.”
Xie Lian blinked. “So you used to reside in the Heavenly Court.”
Yin Yu froze up, then looked out the window. “The sun is setting,” he said, avoiding the question entirely. “It’ll start soon.”
Before Xie Lian could ask what that meant, he felt a surge of ghostly aura and heard screaming outside. He looked out the window in a panic, and saw ghosts keeling over on the streets.
“That’s what Mount Tong’lu does to them,” Yin Yu said grimly.
“Is that happening to Jiang Yanli and San Lang as well?” he asked, fretting.
“Most likely,” Yin Yu admitted. “But they’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?” Xie Lian pressed. Yin Yu had been here longer than Xie Lian, but still . What if something went wrong? Could neither of them really do anything about this?
“I’m sure,” Yin Yu confirmed. “This happens every hundred years. They’ll both be fine by the end of the night.”
Xie Lian was still anxious, and he began moving towards the door, but Yin Yu blocked him.
“I’ve been told to keep you in this room, Your Highness,” he said, sounding tired. “Please, just wait it out.”
It’s for your own safety. But who was the one who needed protection at this moment? Xie Lian felt conflicted. He had agreed to stay in this room but…
After a few minutes of standing in place, Xie Lian conceded and backed away from the door. Yin Yu relaxed somewhat. He then walked towards the bed and lay down, staring at the ceiling. He heard a shuffling sound, and it seemed to be Yin Yu lying down on the mat beside him.
“Hua Cheng said he’d be fine, Your Highness. He wouldn’t lie to you,” Yin Yu said quietly. “Lady Jiang will be perfectly safe as well. Trust them.”
Xie Lian sighed. That seemed to be the only thing he could do.
Xie Lian didn’t remember falling asleep, but he woke up abruptly to the sound of the door opening quietly. He shot up, and he saw San Lang smiling at him tiredly, and Jiang Yanli close behind. Yin Yu was nowhere to be found, so he must have already left.
“Thanks for waiting, gege,” he said. Xie Lian immediately rushed over and glomped him. San Lang staggered backwards slightly, but returned the embrace with a chuckle.
“That’s not an experience I want to repeat again,” Jiang Yanli said, pressing her hand to her temple. “But I imagine the worst has yet to come?”
That made everybody sober up. Xie Lian lowered himself to the ground, and San Lang’s expression turned somber. “Indeed,” he said, looking out in the distance. “Mount Tong’lu is open, which means we need to get going soon.”
“Already?” Xie Lian asked with a frown. “How long will that take?”
“Ten or twelve years,” San Lang said grimly. “The journey through Mount Tong’lu is a difficult one. I can protect Jiang Yanli to some extent, but if she does not complete this journey through her own merit she won’t stand a chance in the Kiln.”
Jiang Yanli looked down. “Well, I’d best prepare then.” Her eyes sharpened. “I won’t let these last few years be for nothing.”
San Lang nodded. “We’ll leave tomorrow. You won’t need to pack much. Half the ghosts will come with nothing at all. You’d better get some rest.”
Xie Lian sighed. Everything was happening far too quickly. “What should I do when you two are gone?”
“You’ll be fine,” Jiang Yanli said with confidence. Then, her eyes turned mischievous. “Perhaps you could work on your cooking.”
“Gege is an amazing cook,” San Lang said immediately. Jiang Yanli giggled.
“Xie Lian is amazing in a lot of ways, but cooking is not one of them,” she said kindly. “Maybe by the time we come back you’ll be able to make soup.”
Xie Lian couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Perhaps.”
The day flew by far too quickly, and the next thing he knew Xie Lian was sending off his friend and husband in the early morning.
“You’ll be alright?” Xie Lian fretted because Jiang Yanli had been his first friend in years and she was literally about to enter a ghost slaughterhouse. She’d made leaps and bounds in strength since their first meeting, but still.
“Don’t worry so much,” she said warmly, “I’ll be fine.”
“Gege isn’t worried about me?” San Lang asked, pouting slightly. Xie Lian huffed.
“San Lang will be fine, he’s too strong not to be,” Xie Lian pointed out. “Besides, you’ve already done this once before. This will be Jiang Yanli’s first— and hopefully last— time.”
“I don’t intend on doing this again if that’s your concern,” Jiang Yanli assured him. “I’m quite confident that one go will be enough.”
“You’re absolutely sure about this?” San Lang checked, turning to the younger ghost. “You’re certainly strong, but it’s absolute chaos there. I’ll do my best but I can’t make any promises.”
“Now you’re the one fretting,” Jiang Yanli teased lightly. “Honestly, I’m not as delicate as you think.”
Xie Lian abruptly remembered just the other day when Jiang Yanli was sparring with him and accidentally kicked him through a wall. She had truly gotten frighteningly strong.
“Well then, we’d best get going,” San Lang said, adjusting E-Ming on his side and giving Xie Lian a small peck on the cheek. He pulled out some dice and rolled them, causing a door to open up. “Shall we?”
Jiang Yanli smiled and nodded. She waved goodbye to Xie Lian, and stepped through the doorway. San Lang followed suit, and then they were gone.
“You know, when you said ‘I only need some backup’ I didn’t think you meant ‘stand around and be arm candy while I slaughter everything in our path,’” Hua Cheng mused as he watched Jiang Yanli wreak havoc on the local demons. “I thought you weren’t a fan of mass destruction?”
“I’m not,” Jiang Yanli said as she wiped some blood off of her blade. “But I fought in a war when I was alive, and I am my mother’s daughter.”
Ah, right. After Jiang Yanli had somewhat vaguely mentioned her past, Hua Cheng had done a bit more digging. Her mother was the Violet Spider, and the war she fought in was something called the Sunshot Campaign. “Weren’t you on medical and strategy?” Hua Cheng asked. Jiang Yanli opened her mouth to respond, then whipped around and stabbed a demon that was sneaking up on her from behind. She turned around again, a few flecks of blood on her face.
“You don’t survive the war without some battle experience,” she said simply. “Besides, as you said before, the ones I’m killing here are all ghosts who are perfectly content killing anything in their path, and have likely caused quite a bit of pain for people. I don’t feel too remorseful ending their lives here.”
Ah, that was the calculating strategist part of her that didn’t shine too often. It took Hua Cheng a while to see it, but she truly had a spirit of lightning and water. Seemingly calm, yet unstoppable and when she struck, your fate was all but sealed.
“Well, hopefully we can wrap this up quickly,” Hua Cheng said, feeling rather pleased. He missed gege already and it had only been a couple days. Ten years seemed like forever.
Jiang Yanli chuckled, undoubtedly knowing what he was thinking about. “Xie Lian will manage perfectly fine without us for a little bit,” she said as she started walking deeper into the caves. “After all, he wandered around for centuries. Compared to that, ten or so years will be nothing.”
Hua Cheng sighed. “He’s waited long enough,” he said quietly. Jiang Yanli paused in her step.
“This isn’t the same though,” she said gently. “He knows we’re coming back, and he’s got all of Ghost City wrapped around his finger. He’ll probably be running the place by the time we get back.”
Hua Cheng barked in laughter. “Yin Yu wouldn’t relinquish his position to anybody else.”
Yin Yu couldn’t decide if he was having the best or worst time ever. On one hand, his boss was gone for a solid decade or so and was temporarily replaced by his very kind, maybe overly kind husband who kept giving him time off for some reason.
On the other hand, his boss’ husband had the actual worst luck ever and Yin Yu was terrified that if he let him do half as much work as he insisted on doing, Ghost City would be in flames by the end of the month.
So he smiled, and assured Xie Lian that he could handle everything. He’d basically been doing that even with Hua Cheng around anyways, so there wasn’t much difference.
“Ah, sir, a fight has broken out in the Gambling Den,” a lower servant informed him frantically. Yin Yu groaned, resigning himself to having to deal with petty squabbles, but Xie Lian appeared out of nowhere and beat him to it.
“I’ll handle it,” he said with all the confidence of a martial god. Before Yin Yu could protest, he was already leaving.
About ten minutes later, Yin Yu poked his head outside to see a fair number of ghosts being tossed out windows. There was already a small pile on the street. Xie Lian then walked out, looking as serene as ever without a hair out of place.
“Please don’t cause a ruckus in my husband’s workplace,” he said sweetly. Then he noticed Yin Yu staring, and strode over with a smile.
“It was a pretty messy fight, but nobody there was particularly powerful, so it was easy to break up,” Xie Lian said, glancing behind at the unconscious ghosts. “I imagine they won’t be causing trouble again any time soon.”
Maybe Xie Lian could handle some stuff after all.
Jiang Yanli glanced at her sword, which was now thrumming with power. Absorbing other spirits was truly an incredible way of quickly gaining power. It was quite a bit more aggressive than she was used to, but, well, desperate times called for desperate measures. Her mother would be proud.
Jiang Yanli sighed. Then she immediately tensed up again when she sensed something sneaking up from behind. Judging by Hua Cheng’s shoulders rising ever so slightly, he noticed it too. She whipped around, ready to draw her sword. Sure enough, there was a ghost just a few paces down. With a snarl, it leapt at her. Jiang Yanli was ready to slice it in half, but before she could she felt a tingle in the back of her spine and out of a clear sky, lightning struck down and incinerated the creature immediately.
“...Did you do that?” Jiang Yanli asked, staring as the creature, now reduced to black ash, was carried off by the wind. To her side, Hua Cheng looked equally befuddled.
“That certainly wasn’t my doing.” He looked at her, eye looking a bit excited. “That lightning was purple. I think that was you.”
“I— really?” Jiang Yanli didn’t have lightning powers last she checked. Hua Cheng smirked, seeming strangely certain.
“You did something, whether it was on purpose or not. Did you feel anything right before the lightning struck?”
Jiang Yanli frowned, considering that. She turned and looked at a spot farther down the path. Concentrating on it, she tried to recall that feeling of electricity racing through her veins.
BOOM! Another bolt struck the spot she was just looking at with frightening accuracy. It was smaller than the last, and Jiang Yanli felt a bit drained. She stumbled slightly before Hua Cheng steadied her with his hand.
“Nicely done,” he approved. “I really feel bad for anybody who crosses us now.” He then continued walking forward, slowly pushing her along. “Come on now, we’ve got a while to go.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t often have time to go night hunting anymore, with a sect to build up and a nephew to help raise, but sometimes he would receive invitations from other sects as a sort of community building exercise and he saw no real reason to say no.
Though he had to admit, when he received an invitation from the Lan sect for a group night hunt, he really thought he’d be working with Lan Xichen, and not his icy younger brother.
Suffice to say things weren’t very fun. To make matters worse, there wasn’t a demon in sight, so Jiang Cheng didn’t even have anything to vent his frustration on.
“What’s the point of a night hunt when there’s nothing to hunt?” he grumbled, kicking at a tree root. Lan Wangji looked at him with a flat expression.
“Mount Tong’lu,” he said flatly. Jiang Cheng turned and stared at him.
“Mount… You mean the ghost mountain place? That’s nowhere near here. How does that have anything to do with this?”
“There are reports that it opened several months ago,” Lan Wangji said and Jiang Cheng felt his blood run cold. He didn’t remember much from the mountain, but he knew it could produce some of the most frightening ghosts to ever exist.
“I guess every demon for miles wants their chance to shine,” he grumbled. “I suppose it’s easier for them to slaughter each other. Saves us some time and effort.”
Lan Wangji made no response. Jiang Cheng resigned himself to a long, long night.
They were reportedly closer to the Kiln when things took a turn for the slightly worse. Jiang Yanli didn’t enjoy being upset at people, but she couldn’t help but feel a flash of irritation towards Hua Cheng at the moment.
“Was it quite necessary to antagonize that group of ghosts over there?” she asked, frowning at him as they ran up the snow-covered mountain. “I thought you were supposed to be helping.”
“I am helping,” Hua Cheng insisted. “The more ghosts you absorb, the stronger you become, the better chance you have at surviving the Kiln. It was a very calculated decision.”
“And yet somehow we find ourselves making a strategic retreat,” Jiang Yanli said lightly, “because your very calculated decision didn’t seem to factor in how many of them there were.”
Hua Cheng shrugged. “The more the merrier. It’s not like I’m the one fighting anyways.”
Oh, how infuriating he was sometimes. Jiang Yanli sighed, glancing behind once more to see that the ghosts were lagging behind somewhat. Jiang Yanli was reportedly much faster than average, which was serving to her advantage at this moment. Still, it was a solid forty to one and most of those ghosts had absorbed quite a few others already. Running was only going to buy so much time. With an internal sigh, she stopped in her tracks and whipped around. She stared down the gang, and after a bit more concentration a lightning bolt struck down, incinerating a decent number of them. The remaining ones shrieked in surprise, but the deaths of their comrades only seemed to anger them further. Now they were gaining even more.
“Shall we start running again?” Hua Cheng asked, infuriatingly calm. He was in no danger, Jiang Yanli was sure. She wasn’t either, really, given his promise of protection, but that didn’t mean she was keen on getting beaten up either. After a bit of debating, Jiang Yanli drew her sword and took a deep breath.
“Best of luck,” Hua Cheng called, backing up slightly with a smirk. Jiang Yanli chose to ignore him, in favor of concentrating on her weapon. She closed her eyes and breathed, trying to calm herself despite knowing the ghosts were only moments away. Her abilities had been growing lately, and she felt herself growing into her natural elements more and more. First it was lightning, and now…
Well. What was snow except frozen water? Jiang Yanli’s eyes snapped open, and when she raised her sword in the air, it was as if the mountain itself moved with her. With an ominous rumble, the ghosts suddenly found an avalanche heading straight towards them. Many turned and fled, but there was little one could do with the snow at their feet bit hard at their heels. Within seconds, all the surrounding ghosts were dead, and Jiang Yanli felt their powers flow into her.
Hua Cheng appeared next to Jiang Yanli, eyeing the now practically overturned mountain with an appraising eye. “That must have taken a lot of energy.”
Jiang Yanli was pretty close to passing out, so that was true enough. Before she could make a comment, however, she heard yet another ominous rumble. They whipped around and saw yet another avalanche heading straight towards them. Having just used all her powers to create one, Jiang Yanli was in no condition to stop this. Luckily, Hua Cheng reacted quickly. He grabbed her, and bolted.
For a while, her vision was filled with white and she could only feel herself being carried somewhere as the sound of butterflies could be heard in the distance, likely making a path for them. Then, she felt them slow down, and she heard Hua Cheng land on solid stone. As her eyes adjusted, she realized they were in a cave.
“We’ll be safe here,” Hua Cheng said softly. “Rest for now.”
Too tired to do anything else, Jiang Yanli obliged.
It was Lan Yuan’s birthday and his father had promised something very special.
His father would answer one question, no matter what it was.
It had been very difficult to extract this promise from him, but Lan Yuan had finally managed it. “It’s a rule to constantly seek knowledge,” he had pressed.
“There is also a rule which forbids whining and coercion,” his father had retorted. But immediately after, he had softened up somewhat. “One question. Only one.”
It was the night of Lan Yuan’s birthday, and he had his one question ready. He looked his father in the eye, and said, “Who were my first parents?”
He didn’t say real. Parents he didn’t remember weren’t his real parents. That was Father’s place to take. But he knew he must’ve had first parents at some point. And no matter how much his father loved him, he couldn’t help but wonder.
His father froze stiff at that question. That meant he knew. “You knew my first parents,” Lan Yuan pressed, leaning forward with wide eyes. It was forbidden to pressure somebody to talk, but Lan Yuan had been wondering about this for years . Father wouldn’t tell anybody.
“I… I do not know who your biological parents were,” his father said eventually, looking away. “I never met them.”
Lan Yuan blinked, confused. Then why did his father react so strongly? He was about to ask this, but then he remembered he only got one question. So instead, he sat, and hoped that his father would elaborate.
“I met… the man who helped raise you, to some extent, for a year or so,” Father admitted. “He was… a good person.”
Lan Yuan felt the faintest echoes of lost memories in his mind. Laughter, the feeling of dirt in his feet, and an affectionate voice calling him A-Yuan . “Can you tell me more about him?”
His father shook his head. “Not tonight.” Sensing Lan Yuan’s disappointment, he added, “Perhaps later.”
That was the best Lan Yuan was going to get. He already waited years for just a hint of his past. He could wait a few more.
When Jiang Yanli woke up again, she noticed that they were still in a cave, but a slightly different area. It seemed well hollowed out, almost like a room. She was even lying on a bed. Near her, Hua Cheng was polishing E-Ming. Noticing that she was conscious, he waved.
“You haven’t been asleep for too long,” he said. “Though you should probably take it easy. Let yourself grow into your powers, instead of allowing them to overtake you.” He glanced at the ceiling. “And maybe next time, don’t start an avalanche you can’t stop.”
Jiang Yanli got up, wincing at how sore her entire body felt. “Thank you for saving me.”
Hua Cheng shrugged. “We have a deal. Besides, you’re entertaining to be around. It’d be a shame if you dissipated, especially since you’ve gotten this far already.”
Jiang Yanli brightened up. “Are we close to the Kiln?”
Hua Cheng nodded. “We are, though I can’t recommend that you enter just yet. It should only be a couple more years though until you’re ready.”
A couple years. That sounded like a long time but considering how long ago they had started this journey, that felt incredibly close. Jiang Yanli felt excitement rise up inside of her.
Soon. Soon she would have the power to protect her family.
“If we’re so close then we should get going now,” Jiang Yanli said, moving to get up, then wincing in pain.
“You might want to wait a bit,” Hua Cheng said dryly. “You’re drained.”
“I’ll be fine,” she said dismissively. She then stood up, wobbling briefly before stabilizing. Hua Cheng looked at her with a light frown.
“You’ll be fighting for your life out there. It’s safer if you rest up first.”
That was a bit strange. For most of this trip, Hua Cheng seemed quite eager to get through as fast as possible. Yet here, he seemed content for them to take a break. Was he honestly worried about Jiang Yanli’s health, or was there something else?
“Don’t worry about me,” she said firmly. “Let’s go.” Before Hua Cheng could protest further, she turned and headed out the cave. After a few steps, she heard the Ghost King get up and trail behind.
So now they were wandering through the cave complex, with Jiang Yanli leading the way. She strongly suspected that Hua Cheng knew exactly where they were and could get them out much faster, but she didn’t want to rely on him too much. This was her journey, after all.
They turned a corner and suddenly the path widened into an enormous cavern. Within that cavern there seemed to be hundreds, if not thousands of statues, all covered with veils. Jiang Yanli’s eyes widened as she stepped forward.
“What is this place?” she asked in awe.
“It’s not important,” Hua Cheng said, sounding a bit strange. “We should keep going.”
That was immediately suspicious. Hua Cheng was content to not interfere unless need be, but now he definitely wanted them to leave this area. But why? Jiang Yanli moved forward to lift the veil of one of the statues, but to her surprise Hua Cheng suddenly grabbed her wrist.
“You shouldn’t do that,” he said tersely. “You don’t know why these are covered. It could be cursed.”
Jiang Yanli severely doubted that. Especially given that Hua Cheng seemed… genuinely nervous. He definitely knew what this place actually was, and just wasn’t telling her. “You know something about these statues, don’t you,” she said, narrowing her eyes as she lowered her hand.
“So what if I do?” Hua Cheng retorted, crossing his arms. “That doesn’t change the fact that you shouldn’t look at them.”
It must be something personal. There was no other way he’d be this defensive about it. Jiang Yanli appraised the statue once more. The face was covered, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t inspect the rest. It was incredibly well done, to be honest. The clothes were refined, and almost disturbingly detailed. Without even seeing the face, she knew that this had to be the face of a…
...A prince. Jiang Yanli’s eyes widened as everything started to fall into place.
“These… these statues are of Xie Lian, aren’t they,” Jiang Yanli said, looking around numbly. In the corner of her eye, Hua Cheng stiffened. “Every last one.”
Hua Cheng didn’t answer, but they both knew she was right. Almost instinctively, Jiang Yanli felt herself backing away slightly. Hua Cheng was looking resolutely at the ground, but his hand was creeping towards E-Ming before he seemed to catch himself and drop it. “What are you going to do about it?” he asked, sounding almost threatening. For the first time in a while, Jiang Yanli actually felt a bit afraid of him.
“I think that depends on what kind of history you actually have with Xie Lian,” she said carefully. Thousands of carved statues was… well, incredibly creepy if she was being honest. However, she’d also seen how Hua Cheng acted around Xie Lian, and it was nothing if not sincere and caring.
But this obsession started somehow, and clearly continued for quite some time. Jiang Yanli needed answers.
Hua Cheng sighed, then glanced towards the other end of the cavern. He then started walking, gesturing for Jiang Yanli to follow. She did, and they came upon a large wall covered in spider… no, butterfly silk. With an easy wave of his hand, butterflies appeared and within moments the silk was gone. Without it, a mural stood in all of its glory. Jiang Yanli saw a crowd of faceless people, a prince in resplendent colors, and a tiny figure in red falling from the sky.
“He saved me when I was a child,” Hua Cheng said quietly. “He kept saving me, again and again after that. I followed him into battle, through life and death. I’ve died for him twice, and I will do so a thousand more times.”
“...I believe you,” Jiang Yanli said, feeling a bit overwhelmed. “I just needed to make sure.”
Hua Cheng dipped his head. “Of course.”
After admiring the mural for a few more moments, Jiang Yanli turned and headed towards the cavern exit. “This really is all quite beautiful,” she commented. “Though maybe you should talk to Xie Lian about this before he sees them.”
“He won’t,” Hua Cheng said quickly. “He doesn’t have to know.”
Jiang Yanli raised an unimpressed eyebrow and just looked at him. Eventually, Hua Cheng caved. “Someday,” he relented. “Someday I’ll tell him.”
She let out a small hmm of acknowledgement. “I’ll hold you to it.”
Jin Ling wasn’t very old, but he knew a lot of things. He knew that he had a lot of uncles, but no parents. He knew that he was the heir to a great sect, but that nobody really respected him. He knew that his uncle loved dogs, but refused to keep any in Lotus Pier.
He knew that sometimes, his uncle would take out a flute and just stare at it, before cleaning it and putting it away.
Jin Ling wasn’t very old, and he wasn’t very nice, but he wasn’t stupid . He knew that when his uncle saw people using demonic cultivation, he turned red and angry, not because he thought those people were evil but because he knew what that cultivation could do .
Jin Ling knew too. He knew ever since he was six years old and asked his uncle how his father died. He knew the legacy of the Yiling Laozu.
He knew that deep down, his uncle never blamed the Yiling Laozu for everything. He could tell, by the way he would rant and rant about how terrible Wei Wuxian was, even growing up. There would be a spark of longing and fondness in his eyes, and so, so much pain.
Sometimes, Jin Ling wondered how his uncle looked when he talked about him. Did his uncle have that same spark of fondness, or did he look pained, as Jin Ling was the living reminder of everybody his uncle lost?
Jin Ling wasn’t very old, but he was there. He was the last family his uncle had left. And he would be the best nephew he could be.
Finally, after years, the two ghosts finally found themselves right outside the Kiln. “There’s nothing more I can do for you at this point,” Hua Cheng said solemnly. “You’ll have to enter alone, and escape… or you’ll be trapped in there forever. This is your last chance to change your mind.”
Jiang Yanli huffed. “I didn’t come this far for nothing. I’m ready.”
Hua Cheng looked at her, then nodded. “I hope to see you in a couple years then.” He pulled a wry smile. “Don’t die.”
Right before she entered, Jiang Yanli couldn’t help but laugh. “It’s a bit late for that, don’t you think?” Right afterwards, the Kiln closed, separating the two. Jiang Yanli took a deep breath, then sighed.
Now the true test began.
It had been some time since Jiang Yanli and San Lang had left for Mount Tong’lu. It had been years, but how many Xie Lian wasn’t entirely sure. Was it a decade, as San Lang had estimated, or more? Being eight-hundred years old made you relatively poor at keeping track of time. Xie Lian was getting a bit worried, but the servants seemed quite lax.
“Don’t worry about them. Hua Chengzhu would never allow Lady Jiang to come to any harm!” they said confidently. That was true, except it wasn’t like San Lang could help her in the Kiln. He had said as much to Yin Yu, who just rolled his eyes and said that Xie Lian was worrying too much. That was very likely true. So, with nothing else to do, he could only wait.
He was rather good at that by now. At least this time there was plenty to entertain himself with. Paradise Manor sported a koi pond and a garden which he was having fun tending to. Or, perhaps koi pond wasn’t the right term. He wasn’t entirely sure what kind of fish were in there, but he knew they were very large, very beautiful, and had razor sharp teeth.
They also liked his cooking, and he wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or an insult to his skills.
So Xie Lian had gotten into the habit of tending to that area every now and then. However, as he was doing so, he noticed something a bit strange. All of the sudden, there were lotus blossoms blooming on the lake. It was early morning, and not even the correct season. He didn’t even remember lotus flowers being there before.
Then he turned around at the garden which decorated the front of the manor, and noticed more blooming flowers. Some he recognized, the vast majority he did not. They were sprouting everywhere, going from sprout to bud to bloom within seconds and quickly overtaking most of the local vegetation. It was alarming, but strangely beautiful.
Then, he heard a rumbling overheard. He looked up, and suddenly a bolt of lightning struck down right in front of him, though it was surprisingly quiet. Once his vision readjusted, he saw Jiang Yanli and Hua Cheng standing tall and proud. He chuckled.
Jiang Yanli smiled warmly. Behind her, San Lang was beaming. “I did say you didn’t have to worry,” she hummed, spiritual power now coming off of her in waves. She took a few steps, and more flowers bloomed at her feet.
“That’s new,” Xie Lian observed, looking at the ground. “You really put my gardening skills to shame, don’t you?”
Jiang Yanli laughed, and as she did the water in the koi pond rippled and a few droplets seemed to bounce up and down as the lotus flowers swayed. “It’s new for me too,” she admitted. “I didn’t know I could do that until, well, just now.”
“I must say, the avalanche powers are far more interesting,” San Lang said lightly. Xie Lian raised an eyebrow.
“A fortunate discovery made in a somewhat tense situation,” Jiang Yanli said smoothly. “Or perhaps it was unfortunate. But we’re fine, as you can see.” As she moved forward, the tips of her hair crackled with lightning, giving San Lang a small shock.
“You’ve got a lot of energy to spare right now it seems,” he observed. “Perhaps we ought to do a bit of a test run?”
Jiang Yanli looked at him with a frown. “I just spent years fighting, and you want to do more sparring?” As her eyes narrowed, Xie Lian could feel static electricity make his hair rise, which was really only proving San Lang’s point.
San Lang raised his hands in surrender. “Not a spar,” he said quickly. “Just… practice.”
A few poorly given directions later and Jiang Yanli managed to draw a Distance Shortening Array that brought them to the East Sea. That, if nothing else, seemed to take some of her energy. Xie Lian looked a bit concerned, but she waved him off. She then looked out at the sea, seeming a bit confused. “But… how is this a good place to practice my abilities?”
“Well, nobody really goes in this area because it’s so close to the domain of Black Water Sinking Ships, so you’re pretty much safe from hurting other people accidentally,” Hua Cheng said cheerfully. His companions turned to face him sharply.
“This is the domain of one of the Calamities?” Xie Lian asked. “Isn’t it rude to intrude just for training?”
“It’ll be fine, we’re only near the domain,” Hua Cheng said confidently. “He owes me a lot of money. So what can he really do? It’s not like we’re attacking him anyways.”
Jiang Yanli still looked a bit hesitant, but accepted that easily enough. “So… what should I try?”
“Anything you want,” Hua Cheng said. Jiang Yanli seemed to think about it for a while, then looked at the sea again. After a few moments, the waves rose drastically and Xie Lian became abruptly afraid that they would be swept away by a tsunami. However, as the wave moved towards them, Jiang Yanli raised a hand, and a nine-petaled lotus was imprinted upon the water, making it freeze in place, and then collapse backwards into the sea.
“...That works,” Hua Cheng said, impressed. Jiang Yanli looked quite tired, leaning a bit on Xie Lian.
“That was a bit too much,” she said wearily. “We probably got his attention with that one.”
“Indeed you did,” a voice said dryly from behind them. The three turned around quickly and saw a rather unimpressed looking water demon in gold-trimmed black robes. “Care to explain what you’re doing here?”
“It’s not like we’re anywhere near your lair, I don’t see the problem,” Hua Cheng sniped. “If anything, this is Shi Wudu’s territory.” He Xuan huffed, about to retort, before his eyes drifted over to Jiang Yanli.
“...You’re the one who started messing with the sea,” he said, phrased as a statement not a question. Jiang Yanli nodded, looking at him without fear despite her obvious exhaustion. He Xuan appraised her for a few moments.
“...Did you just break out of the Kiln?” he inquired. After a brief moment of hesitation, Jiang Yanli nodded.
“That makes you the fourth Devastation then,” He Xuan mused. “How interesting. Perhaps you’ll take Qi Rong’s spot as the fourth Calamity.”
“I have no intention of fighting you, if that’s your concern,” Jiang Yanli said calmly.
“You wouldn’t win anyways,” He Xuan said flippantly, which made Jiang Yanli’s eyes flash dangerously and it gave the water demon pause. Internally, Hua Cheng cackled.
“Anyways, you dabble in flowers?” He raised an eyebrow at Jiang Yanli’s lotus-themed getup and the plants blooming brightly even on the beach. Jiang Yanli narrowed her eyes at him, and suddenly the clouds above rumbled. Then, a rainstorm concentrated literally just around He Xuan came out of nowhere, thoroughly soaking him. There was even a tiny lightning bolt which gave him a minor shock, before the storm went away as quickly as it came. He Xuan stared at her incredulously while Jiang Yanli smiled innocently.
“I also dabble in thunderstorms,” she said sweetly. He Xuan blinked a few more times, before sighing and snapping, immediately making himself dry.
“Well, if we have similar enough powers then I expect you to stay far, far away from my domain in the future, alright?” he said, crossing his arms. Jiang Yanli tilted her head.
“If you insist, Black Water Sinking Ships,” she said cheerily. “But you don’t mind if we stay here for just a bit longer right now, do you?” While it was phrased like a question, everybody in the vicinity knew that there was no real way to say no to that. He Xuan sighed in defeat.
“Fine, but if you’re going to train here then you ought to do it properly,” he said grumpily. He then strode forward and tapped Jiang Yanli’s back lightly, imbuing her with spiritual power if her surprised expression and sudden literal glow were anything to go by. “You’re being wasteful. Probably because you’ve been taught by Crimson Rain Sought Flower over there who has far too much power and doesn’t ever think about conserving it.”
“It’s not like I need to,” Hua Cheng said cheekily but he knew that He Xuan wasn’t wrong. The demon rolled his eyes.
“Anyways. You’ve got good control, so you should take advantage of it. For example, with the rain…”
Hua Cheng started to tune He Xuan out as he got more technical. It was all good information, surely, but not particularly relevant to Hua Cheng himself. Jiang Yanli was listening raptly, and Xie Lian was as well even though he seemed rather confused. It was rather specialized advice. And frankly, it was advice that Hua Cheng didn’t expect He Xuan to give to somebody he’d just met.
Truly, everybody warmed up to Jiang Yanli moments within meeting her. Perhaps that was her most frightening power of all.
It started small. Around Lotus Pier Jiang Cheng started to notice flowers of all different varieties growing out of the most random places. He saw some growing in the corners of buildings, in patches of grass, even some in the courtyard. A particular extreme instance was when he walked into his room and found a small cluster of flowers poking their way stubbornly through the floor. They all had a strange energy to them, but nothing felt particularly malicious. Quite the opposite, actually. Jiang Cheng felt… safer when he saw those flowers, somehow. So when townspeople asked, he shrugged and told them to leave the plants alone. It wasn’t like they were hurting anybody.
Then people started running up to him in a panic around the city because all the lotus flowers were blooming.
“It’s a bit early but what’s the problem?” Jiang Cheng asked, honestly mystified.
“You don’t understand!” a townsperson cried, “they’re growing to incredible proportions! It’s like they’re being cultivated or something!”
Jiang Cheng blinked. That was weird. He went to check it out, and sure enough every lotus flower in the area was somehow in full bloom, petals covering the entire surface of the lake.
“Maybe it’s a benevolent prank from one of my disciples,” Jiang Cheng offered, though he knew that almost definitely wasn’t the case. He didn’t know how to pull something like this off, making it incredibly unlikely that his juniors did. “Is anything actually wrong with the plants?”
“It doesn’t look like it,” the townsperson said, still looking a bit worried. “You don’t feel anything strange?”
Jiang Cheng poked at one of the flowers, examining it. It had that same strange energy, and same comforting aura.
“It looks fine to me,” he said flippantly as the townsperson looked at him incredulously.
“...Alright,” the townsperson said dubiously. “Thank you for your help.”
Jiang Cheng nodded and walked off, figuring that was the end of it.
“Jiujiu, have you been gardening or something?” Jin Ling asked, staring at the grounds of Lotus Pier, which were somehow now thoroughly covered in various types of flowers. Jiang Cheng couldn’t even name most of them.
“Do you really think I would have the patience for all this?” he asked tiredly.
“It’s just… they’re so organized,” Jin Ling said. That was true enough. The flowers were arranged perfectly, and there were even walkways and clearings. It really did look like it was something Jiang Cheng or some random disciples had worked on painstakingly.
“They appeared overnight,” he replied, and that sounded like a lie even though he knew it was true. “Anyways, they’re not hurting anybody so I’ve just let them be for now. Don’t worry about it.”
Jin Ling was definitely worrying about it, but he didn’t say anything more. Instead, he pulled a treat out of his robes and fed it to Fairy. “Can we go night hunting then?”
“Why not,” Jiang Cheng said tiredly, as if that wasn’t his plan all along. Activity had decreased for a couple years when Mount Tong’lu first opened, but it rose again and now Jiang Cheng was eternally busy.
As the two were tramping around the forest, Jin Ling was adorably alert. Jiang Cheng was half tempted to tell him there was no reason to be on guard to this extent, especially since they barely strayed from the pier, but it wouldn’t hurt for him to have a bit of extra caution.
They passed by a river and Jin Ling paused, looking at the water with a puzzled expression. “What’s wrong?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“I… I think those are lotus flowers floating down the stream,” he said, confused. Jiang Cheng leaned over, and indeed there was a small parade of lotus flowers flowing gently down. “Jiujiu, do you have a flower demon haunting you or something?”
“If I do, they seem to be more mischievous than anything,” Jiang Cheng muttered half to himself. “Let’s just leave it for now.”
Before they could continue, however, there was an ominous growling behind them. Jiang Cheng turned sharply, but before he could so much as draw Zidian, there was a rumbling overhead. Within seconds, a bolt of lightning struck down at whatever demon was about to sneak up on them. There was a horrible screech and the smell of burnt flesh, then the thing collapsed.
Both cultivators were speechless as they stared at the charred husk which seemed to be turning to ash before their very eyes. “I didn’t even see you take out Zidian,” Jin Ling said weakly.
“I didn’t,” Jiang Cheng said, rubbing the ring on his finger. “That wasn’t me.”
Jin Ling processed that for a moment. “That wasn’t a coincidence, was it.”
“It probably wasn’t,” Jiang Cheng agreed.
“Are we going to worry about it?”
“No we are not.”
Strange occurrences didn’t stop happening, Jiang Cheng just stopped caring about them for a bit. After all, either the things were entirely harmless, or actively helpful. A few disciples reported being helped in a night hunt by conveniently timed lightning (which was apparently tinted purple), and for a couple who got lost, glowing flowers lit their way back to Lotus Pier. One particularly frightening report though was from a townsperson, who said they were attacked by a water ghoul which got immediately swallowed up by a nearby lotus flower.
Jiang Cheng reevaluated the harmlessness of those flowers, but chose not to worry about it.
After all, he had other things to think about. It was the anniversary of his sister’s death.
Her ashes were supposed to be in Koi Tower since she’d married into the Jin sect, but Jiang Cheng had raised such a huge fuss that she’d been placed in the ancestral halls with the rest of the family. She still had a shrine in both places though so people could honor her memory.
Unlike Wei Wuxian, an ugly voice reminded him. Jiang Cheng pushed the thought away. This was a day for remembering Jiang Yanli, not him.
It was a day he and Jin Ling knew well. They met each other outside that morning, then went to the ancestral hall. They knelt in front of a painting in her memory. In that painting, she was standing side-by-side with Jin Zixuan.
Jiang Cheng was never the biggest fan of that man, but he wasn’t so cold as to leave him out of the painting.
He and Jin Ling sat there for a while, not speaking. This was what they did every year. Mourn for who they lost. Remember, and never forget.
“That’s a beautiful painting,” a jarringly familiar voice said from behind them. “But isn’t there somebody missing?”
Jiang Cheng whipped around and couldn’t believe his eyes. Jiang Yanli was standing there, wearing resplendent purple robes, with a lotus pin in her hair. There was a silver bell hanging from her waist, though it wasn’t the same one as before.
“Where’s A-Xian’s shrine?” she asked, looking around. “Don’t tell me you don’t have one.”
Jiang Cheng was dreaming. That must have been it. Jiang Yanli hadn’t aged a day, even though it had been a decade. “You died,” he said weakly. “You can’t be real.”
Jiang Yanli looked at him sadly, and every detail of her face was perfect. “I’m real, A-Cheng. Just not… technically alive.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jin Ling cried, jumping up on his feet. “My mother died not long after I was born. Who are you?”
Jiang Yanli looked at Jin Ling and she seemed close to tears. “Jin Ling,” she said softly. “You’ve grown up so much.”
Jin Ling looked incredibly torn. “Answer me! Who are you?”
Jiang Yanli sighed. “I’m Jiang Yanli, your mother.” Around her, flowers were growing out of the ground. “I’m also the fourth survivor of Mount Tong’lu.”
Jin Ling looked confused, but Jiang Cheng stilled. “You’re a Devastation-class ghost,” he said, voice cracking slightly. Jiang Yanli nodded in affirmation.
“I didn’t have the strength to protect you all in life,” she said quietly. “I hope I can amend that in death.”
In that moment, Jiang Cheng lost all doubt that this was an imposter. Forgoing all sense of composure, he ran over and hugged Jiang Yanli fiercely. After a few seconds of hesitation, Jin Ling joined.
Maybe their family wasn’t whole anymore, but it wasn’t empty. For the first time in years, Jiang Cheng felt something in his heart click together just a bit better than before.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” Xie Lian asked as he and San Lang appeared at a pier after using the Distance Shortening Array. San Lang looked around.
“Well, she said she lived at a place called Lotus Pier, and this does seem to be a lake full of lotuses, so I would say yes,” he said dryly. “Also, I did some snooping beforehand. She lives that way.” He then pointed at the large looking complex that was surrounded by a large gate.
Xie Lian tilted his head. “Do you think we could just walk right inside?”
“Most likely,” San Lang mused. “I mean, what’s stopping us?”
“Nothing, technically,” a man dressed in purple said as he walked up. “But it’d be easier if you had an escort.”
Xie Lian looked the man over, and noted that he bore an interesting resemblance to Jiang Yanli. “Are you Jiang Wanyin, the Sect Leader of Yunmeng Jiang by any chance?”
The man nodded. He seemed to have a perpetual scowl. “I take it you’re Xie Lian and…” He glanced towards San Lang. “Hua Cheng?”
They both nodded. Jiang Wanyin bowed his head in respect. “It’s an honor to meet a god and a Calamity.”
“I’m not a god,” Xie Lian said quickly. “”I lost that title a long time ago.”
“Not according to jiejie,” Jiang Wanyin retorted. Before Xie Lian could open his mouth again, Jiang Wanyin spun around and started heading towards the large building. “Come on, I’ll bring you to her.”
As they walked, Jiang Wanyin vaguely gestured to a few things along the way. Mostly nice looking merchant areas and some pretty flowers. There were a lot of flowers, and Xie Lian was willing to bet that Jiang Yanli was the cause of that, intentional or not.
“Oh, and you might hear rumors that a ghost is haunting Lotus Pier,” Jiang Wanyin added as an afterthought. “We’ve been keeping quiet about jiejie’s return, but the flowers and severe decrease in demonic activity was a bit of a tell.”
Xie Lian tilted his head. “Do the townspeople know who it is?”
Jiang Wanyin shook his head. “They think the ghost is… somebody else. I guess nobody thought jiejie would be resentful enough to stick around.” He chuckled slightly. “I guess they didn’t know that not all ghosts are resentful.”
“To be fair, that’s not common knowledge,” San Lang said mildly. They then passed through the gates of Lotus Pier, and Xie Lian took a moment to admire everything. It really was a beautiful place.
“Ah, Xie Lian! Hua Cheng!” Xie Lian turned and saw Jiang Yanli running over excitedly, a young kid following close behind. “You made it!”
Xie Lian smiled. “Of course. We wanted to visit you, after all.”
“I wanted to meet your brother in person,” San Lang added. Then he turned to Jiang Wanyin and huffed. “You kept attacking my butterflies. Those weren’t going to hurt you.”
Jiang Wanyin blinked, then sputtered. “Those butterflies were yours? I knew they were suspicious!”
Jiang Yanli laughed. “He was just checking up on you for my sake, A-Cheng.” Then she turned to the child, and gently pushed him forwards. “Anyways, this is my son, Jin Ling. Jin Ling, these are your uncles, Xie Lian and Hua Cheng.”
Jin Ling muttered out a “Nice to meet you” before immediately bolting. Jiang Yanli sighed.
“He’s still a bit shy. I don’t think he’s used to meeting ghosts or gods yet.”
Xie Lian blinked. “We’re his uncles?”
“He’s already got like twelve, what’s two more,” Jiang Wanyin said flippantly. “I heard you two helped protect jiejie when I couldn’t, so for that you’re already effectively family.”
That made Xie Lian feel strangely warm, and even San Lang seemed rather pleased at that.
“Well, since you’re here, would you like a tour?” Jiang Yanli said, clapping her hands together with a smile. “You’re welcome to stay for dinner as well.”
Xie Lian perked up significantly at the thought of eating Jiang Yanli’s cooking again. Truly, he couldn’t hold a candle to her in this respect. “That’d be wonderful.”
Lan Wangji had heard an interesting rumor. A rumor that a ghost now haunted Lotus Pier.
“Could it be Wei Wuxian?” some cultivators whispered in fear. But on, that was quickly shot down. Not much was known about the ghost, but it seemed to be benevolent. It couldn’t possibly be the Yiling Laozu.
“Imagine that! A benevolent haunting!” some cried. “Who could it possibly be?”
Lan Wangji suspected he knew. A ghost that caused storms yet also left behind flowers and blooming lotuses? One that protected the Jiang sect but otherwise remained hidden?
It could be no one else but Jiang Yanli. Wei Wuxian’s sister.
He’d had very minimal interactions with her to be honest, but Wei Wuxian had talked about her so much Lan Wangji felt that he knew the young woman personally.
“She’s just the best in pretty much every possible way,” he’d say when Lan Wangji visited him occasionally at the Burial Mounds. “A lot of people don’t respect her because she has a medical condition that doesn’t allow her to cultivate very well, but who cares? Being strong doesn’t make you a likable person.”
That was true enough, though it certainly earned respect. And if Lan Wangji’s suspicions proved accurate, then it seemed that Jiang Yanli made great progress in her cultivation after death. And eventually, his curiosity took over and he decided to pay a visit.
But as he prepared to leave, something occurred to him. Perhaps this was also an opportunity. He stepped out and surveyed the grounds, intent on finding somebody. When he noticed them, he strode over purposefully.
Lan Sizhui turned in surprise. “Fa— Hanguang-jun?” He immediately bowed in respect, as did the disciples near him.
“Come with me,” Lan Wangji said simply. Once they had walked a bit farther without any prying ears, Lan Wangji turned around again.
“Do you want to go to Lotus Pier?”
Lan Sizhui blinked, clearly confused. “Lotus Pier? Isn’t that the home of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect?”
Lan Wangji nodded. “There’s a rumor of a ghost. I believe it is Jiang Yanli.”
“Sect Leader Jiang’s sister?” Lan Sizhui asked, surprised. “I thought the history lessons said she was killed in the Nightless City, at the fault of the Yiling Laozu.”
Lan Wangji forced himself not to twitch. “That’s what I want to investigate. Do you want to come?”
“Of course,” Lan Sizhui said earnestly. Then, he looked a bit confused. “But… why not anybody else? And if it’s truly a ghost, can’t the Jiangs take care of it?”
Perhaps Lan Wangji should have explained his motivations more clearly. “I don’t wish to fight,” he said carefully. “I’m hoping we could talk to her.”
“Oh, I see.” Lan Sizhui clearly didn’t understand why Lan Wangji wanted to talk to a long-dead cultivator from a different sect, but was too polite to comment on it. “When are we going?”
"Now," Lan Wangji said, already mounting Bichen.
Jiang Cheng was looking forward to a relaxing day in Lotus Pier. Things were finally settling in after his sister’s return, and with her happily taking up some of the duties of sect leader (“unofficially of course”, she insisted), he had more time to himself, which was doing wonders for his mood.
Then a junior ran up to him saying Hanguang-jun was at the entrance and requesting a meeting with him and his mood immediately dropped.
“Any chance you can say I’m not here?” Jiang Cheng asked tiredly.
The junior shrugged helplessly. “He seems pretty insistent. Also, there’s a junior disciple with him that he says you should meet.”
Jiang Cheng blinked. He had literally no reason to meet a Lan kid, but if Lan Wangji already showed up at his door… “Alright,” he said resignedly. “Thanks for letting me know.” The junior nodded and rushed off. Jiang Cheng then turned and started heading towards the front gate, intent on taking as much time as possible without crossing the boundary of being outright rude.
As he approached, he saw them. Lan Wangji was standing, and beside him there was a disciple that was mimicking the elder Lan almost perfectly. It was strangely adorable, in a creepy sort of way.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Wangji said with a respectful bow that the junior disciple beside him also mirrored. “This is Lan Sizhui.”
“It’s… nice to meet you,” Jiang Cheng said, looking him over. “Is there a reason for your visit?”
“We heard rumors of a ghost,” Lan Wangji said simply. “Is it perhaps… Jiang Yanli?”
Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes slightly. All the rumors which spoke of a ghost largely pointed to Wei Wuxian. To have actually guessed Jiang Yanli’s identity… Lan Wangji must have given the matter a decent amount of consideration.
“So what if it is?” Jiang Cheng said, arms crossed, making sure Zidian was in clear view.
“We would like to talk to her, if possible,” Lan Wangji said. He glanced towards the junior disciple briefly. “I… I believe she would like to meet Lan Sizhui.”
Jiang Cheng blinked, and interestingly enough the Lan kid looked equally confused. “And why is that?”
Lan Wangji looked towards the kid, and a sort of understanding passed between them. Lan Sizhui took a few paces back, out of earshot, and Lan Wangji stepped forward.
“That’s Lan Yuan, previously named Wen Yuan,” he said softly so that only Jiang Cheng could hear. “He has no idea of his heritage as of now. I was hoping Jiang Yanli could help me inform him.”
Jiang Cheng stiffened. “Are you telling me that kid is Wei Wuxian’s?” he whispered urgently. Lan Wangji nodded.
He could already feel a headache coming on. He sighed, then said loud enough for the Lan kid to hear, “Alright then. I’ll bring you to her.”
Lan Wangji beckoned his junior over, and Jiang Cheng turned and headed towards the gardens. They didn’t exist, but when Jiang Yanli made everything burst into bloom, they figured it would be a shame if all the flora went to waste. Besides, tending to a garden gave her something to do.
As they approached, Jiang Cheng felt a slight crackle of static in the air, and the hairs on his head rose ever so slightly. Judging by the way the Lans behind him tensed, they noticed it too. In the corner of his eye, Jiang Cheng noticed a lone lotus flower in a small pond. He gave it a small wave.
The crackle in the air briefly intensified, then faded. Abruptly, a voice spoke up from behind the Lans. “Hanguang-jun? Is that you?”
Lan Wangji and Lan Sizhui whipped around and Jiang Cheng took a moment to enjoy their evident surprise. Jiang Yanli’s minor teleportation truly was a bit frightening the first few times. Lan Wangji recovered quickly enough though. He gave Jiang Yanli a deep bow of respect.
“Jiang Yanli. It is good to see you again.”
Jiang Yanli dipped her head in response. “Of course. It’s been years, after all.” Her eyes flitted to Lan Sizhui, and she frowned. “You have a… familiar aura.”
Lan Sizhui blinked. “I… I beg your pardon?”
Admittedly, Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure what she meant either. Ever since she’d become a ghost, she was weirdly in tune to a lot of things that Jiang Cheng wasn’t. He’d long stopped worrying about it. But if she sensed something from Lan Sizhui… was it possibly a remnant of his time at the Burial Mounds?
Lan Wangji likely guessed the same thing, as he looked tense. “Lan Sizhui is why I came to see you today,” he said calmly. “I… can explain why he may feel familiar.”
Jiang Yanli gave him an odd expression. “Alright,” she said eventually. “Let’s go inside.” She then turned and strode towards the complex, with the Lans following.
Jiang Cheng sighed, then walked away. He did not want to be part of that conversation.
So much for a restful day.
Lan Sizhui, to be perfectly honest, was terribly confused. First, his father came up to him abruptly and asked if he wanted to go to Lotus Pier of all places, and had clear intentions to leave right then. He wasn’t even sure the Sect Leader was notified.
Once they arrived, his father was strangely vague, and had a quiet conversation with Jiang Wanyin that he didn’t want Lan Sizhui to hear. Then when they did meet Jiang Yanli, it was clear that somehow or another, she knew him.
But he didn’t know her.
Lan Wangji was aware of this too, judging by the way he talked. His expression wasn’t one of surprise, but of hesitance and awareness. He had been expecting the conversation to go the way it did.
So as Lan Sizhui sat down with his father and was served tea by a ghost, he couldn’t help but feel that everybody in the room was aware of something that he wasn’t.
And that was mildly frustrating.
When Jiang Yanli finally sat down, she sighed, then looked at Lan Sizhui. “You have an aura very slightly tinted with resentful energy,” she said simply. “Almost like… you absorbed it before.”
Lan Sizhui stilled. “I… What?” He looked at Lan Wangji, who again didn’t seem surprised, only resigned.
“Lan Sizhui’s also known as Lan Yuan. Known to some as A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji said. Jiang Yanli stilled, staring at Lan Sizhui incredulously.
“So that means you’re…”
“I’m what?” Lan Sizhui asked a bit despairingly. “What are you talking about?”
Jiang Yanli fixed her gaze on Lan Wangji. “You haven’t told him,” she said, anger tinting her voice. The tips of her hair crackled slightly with electricity. Lan Wangji took a sip of tea before responding.
“I was hoping I could do so with your help,” he admitted, not meeting her gaze. “It is… a difficult subject to speak about.”
Immediately Jiang Yanli calmed down, but that did nothing to enlighten Lan Sizhui on the situation. His father wouldn’t meet his gaze, so he turned to Jiang Yanli instead, hoping for answers. She looked back, then sighed.
“Lan Sizhui, we have in fact met before,” she said quietly. “But you were very, very young and I doubt you remember it.” The tea rose out of her cup and twisted itself, forming a symbol that resembled the sun. “When we met, you were called Wen Yuan, and you lived in a place called the Burial Mounds.”
All of the sudden, Lan Sizhui felt his blood run cold. Very faintly, memories long repressed hummed in the back of his mind.
“You were raised by the Wen remnants. They were innocents who survived the war and were rejected by the rest of the cultivation world. You had an aunt, named Wen Qing, an uncle, named…” she trailed off, looking thoughtful, then continued. “...He was named Wen Ning, and you had… a sort of father figure. His name was Wei Wuxian.”
Lan Sizhui knew that name. Who in the cultivation world didn’t? But more than the name and the stories, he remembered a voice. Somebody laughing, somebody who he cared about. Somebody who buried him in radishes and let him play with wooden butterflies.
“He was my brother, and he was your father,” Jiang Yanli finished, looking at him with sad eyes.
It was coming back. Everything that had happened in the Burial Mounds. His life of pain, but also of happiness.
He remembered the siege. Wei Wuxian had hidden him in a tree hollow. Lan Wangji had found him.
He turned to Lan Wangji, feeling nearly overcome with emotions. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Lan Wangji looked away. “I raised you as a Lan, your original family doesn’t change that,” he said quietly. “I didn’t want you to live with your past until you were ready to accept it.”
That… made sense, but Lan Sizhui still felt hurt. He remembered, long ago, asking his father about his first parents. Lan Wangji had mentioned a father originally… that must have been Wei Wuxian. But he was so vague, Lan Sizhui never figured it out.
“It’s a lot to take in at once,” Jiang Yanli said quietly. “You can go outside and take a walk. Or talk to my son, Jin Ling. He’s somewhere there too.” She turned, looking at Lan Wangji with a complicated expression. “I would like to discuss something with Hanguang-jun.”
Lan Sizhui saw a benevolent bailing out when he saw one, and gave his thanks before hurrying outside. So distracted with his thoughts, he didn’t even realize where he was going until he bumped straight into somebody.
“Ack! Watch where you’re going!” a voice yelped. Lan Sizhui stuttered his apologies, then paused. The person he ran into was a bit shorter than him, dressed in the golden robes of the Jin Sect.
This must have been Jin Ling, heir to the Jin Sect and son of Jiang Yanli. Jin Ling scrutinized him in turn, but showed no recognition.
“Aren’t those Gusu Lan robes? What are you doing here?” he asked, puzzled. Then, his eyes lit up. “Oh, are you with Hanguang-jun? Jiujiu mentioned he was here with a junior disciple. Why are you wandering without him?”
“Ah, your mother wanted to talk to him,” Lan Sizhui said awkwardly. “She told me I could take a walk around the grounds.”
Jin Ling considered that. “That sounds about right. But you’re going to get completely lost on your own.” Seeming to make up his mind, Jin Ling grinned. “I’ll just have to show you around.”
Lan Sizhui had a feeling that he didn’t actually have a say in this. “Ah, thank you?”
“No problem,” Jin Ling said. Then he grabbed Lan Sizhui’s arm and all but dragged him off. “There’s a lot of cool things here, and you need to see all of them.”
Yep, he definitely didn’t have a say in this. But strangely enough, Lan Sizhui didn’t mind.
Once Lan Sizhui was out of the room, Jiang Yanli looked at Lan Wangji with a serious expression. “How did you come to be A-Yuan’s guardian?” she asked.
“I found him a tree hollow after the siege,” Lan Wangji said, looking away. “He had a high fever, and lost all of his memories then. It seems that he’s recalled them now.”
Jiang Yanli frowned. “I was at the siege as well. I didn’t see you there.” She was? Lan Wangji supposed that she must have had a spell as a wandering spirit, and had been present as a ghost flame at the time. Amidst all the fierce corpses, she would have been easily missed.
“I… came afterwards.” He’d come too late, too late to save anybody except the unconscious toddler in the hollow.
Jiang Yanli considered that, then nodded. “Thank you for bringing him. I’m glad to see that some of A-Xian’s legacy remains.”
Lan Wangji dipped his head in acknowledgement, but was unsure how to proceed from there. Jiang Yanli noticed his discomfort, and sighed.
“You’re worried, aren’t you,” she observed. “You think I’m going to take A-Yuan from you.”
Lan Wangji felt himself go cold, but he kept his face blank and refused to speak, instead choosing to look at the ground. He didn’t trust himself at this moment.
“I’m not going to. Lan Sizhui’s been a Lan for as long as he can remember and that shouldn’t change,” Jiang Yanli assured him, and Lan Wangji let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “Besides, A-Xian was my brother, but that doesn’t mean I’m the only one who cared about him.” Lan Wangji raised his head and saw Jiang Yanli looking at him with sad, understanding eyes. “You loved him, didn’t you.”
Lan Wangji didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t wrong, but she didn’t know the full extent of it either. She wasn’t there when Lan Wangji brought Wei Wuxian back to the Burial Mounds, fighting his own family to do so. She wasn’t there when Lan Wangji fell harder and harder every time he saw the ridiculous man with the ever present smile.
But she was there when he wasn’t. She grew up with him. Comforted him. Became one of the most important people in his life and was able to show that she cared, right to her last breath. And now she still remained, unable to rest in peace out of love and a desire for their family to remain together.
“We all did,” Lan Wangji said, looking away to hide his watering eyes. At the edge of his vision, he saw Jiang Yanli bow her head.
“We all did,” she echoed softly.
A couple years later…
Wei Wuxian had returned to the world of the living for all of what felt like two days and already he got his donkey stuck in a trap and he found himself fighting with a literal child.
Good times. Except he may have gone a bit far with the parents comment, he had to admit.
The kid opened his mouth, then closed it again. “My mother told me not to fight with idiots because it’s not worth the effort,” he said imperiously. Wei Wuxian blinked, somewhat dumbfounded, because that was actually really good advice.
“Who’s your mother?” he asked, scrutinizing the kid more carefully. He did seem strangely familiar looking…
“I am,” a voice said from behind him that made Wei Wuxian stop breathing. He was frozen in place, not daring to turn around in case he imagined it.
“A-Xian,” the voice said gently, “It’s me.”
Wei Wuxian could no longer resist it, and he whipped around to see his shijie , standing tall and proud and alive even though the last memory he had of her was her dying in his arms.
“Shijie?” he breathed, not able to believe it. Jiang Yanli laughed.
“It’s a long story,” she said warmly. She then glanced at the kid, and adopted the perfect expression of a scolding mother. “Also, A-Ling, what else did I tell you about foolish people?”
“That you shouldn’t call them stupid to their face because if they really aren’t smart then they won’t understand it, and if they are smart then you’ve just offended them for no good reason,” the kid (Jin Ling! His nephew!!) muttered, looking a bit ashamed.
“Wait which category do I fall into?”
“The latter,” Jiang Yanli said at the same time another familiar voice said, “The former, definitely”. Everyone then turned to see Jiang Cheng stepping through the trees, looking rather irritated. “How did you come back from the dead? Did you possess this body?” Zidian crackled menacingly in his hand, and Wei Wuxian winced and backed away.
“He didn’t possess it,” Jiang Yanli said, smoothly placing herself between her brothers in the blink of an eye. “I can sense that the original owner— Mo Xuanyu, I believe— gave up his spirit willingly.”
Jiang Cheng’s nose wrinkled. “Really? For him?”
“Ouch,” Wei Wuxian muttered. “I thought you cared. You’re not even batting an eye!”
“Jiejie beat you on the coming-back-to-life thing by like, years. At this point nothing phases me,” Jiang Cheng said frankly. Wei Wuxian looked at his shijie incredulously, who only smiled innocently.
“I had help,” she said. Seeing Wei Wuxian’s confusion, she elaborated a bit. “A god and another Calamity.”
That didn’t clear up anything. And judging by shijie’s amused expression, she was well aware of this. “We have a lot to catch up on,” she said, moving towards him. “But first…”
Gently, Jiang Yanli wrapped her arms around Wei Wuxian and embraced him. Despite being a ghost, Jiang Yanli still felt warm, and he felt himself relaxing in her arms. “I missed you,” she said softly.
“I did too,” Wei Wuxian nearly whispered. “I’m sorry I got you killed.”
“That wasn’t your fault,” she said dismissively when they broke apart. “That was a reckless cultivator whose actions you had no control over.” She looked at him sternly, and lightning seemed to dance in the tips of her hair. “I don’t want to hear another word about it, alright?”
Wei Wuxian swallowed. “Yes, shijie.”
Jiang Yanli smiled. “Good to hear.” She then turned and began to make a gesture before pausing. She looked towards the trees, then chuckled.
“Hanguang-jun, it’s been a while,” she said warmly. “Are those your disciples behind you?”
There was silence, then a faint rustling of leaves. Wei Wuxian watched as Lan Wangji stepped out from under the undergrowth, pristine and elegant as ever, or perhaps even more so. Behind him, a small gaggle of juniors followed hesitantly. One in particular stepped forward to stand next to Lan Wangji and bowed to Jiang Yanli.
“It’s a pleasure to see you again,” he said pleasantly, and Wei Wuxian felt his jaw drop. Jiang Yanli’s eyes filled with warmth.
“It’s good to see you too, A-Yuan,” she said and Wei Wuxian felt his heart stutter.
“A-Yuan?” he said weakly, staring at the Lan disciple. “As in…”
“Wen Yuan,” the disciple finished, looking at Wei Wuxian with hopeful but slightly nervous eyes. “I… it’s been a while, Xian-gege.”
“I… it’s really you?” Wei Wuxian asked, unable to believe his good fortune. He had no real way of knowing if A-Yuan had ever survived the siege, and here he was now, alive and well, apparently on good terms with his old crush and his sister? And probably friends with Jin Ling too? How even?
“It is,”A-Yuan confirmed with a smile. “You know, uncle always thought you would come back.”
“Uncle?” Wei Wuxian asked before it suddenly hit him. “Wait, Wen Ning is alive too?” Or, well, as alive as he was when Wei Wuxian last saw him.
“Admittedly it took us a bit to figure that out as well,” Jiang Yanli admitted. “He was being held captive at Koi Tower. Jin Ling and I broke him out. He’s at Lotus Pier right now, actually. He needs to lay low for a bit.”
“You’re really out of the loop, aren’t you,” one of the Lan disciples behind A-Yuan mused. A-Yuan turned and frowned at the disciple, who seemed utterly unrepentant.
“Well I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian said because he clearly wasn’t above picking fights with children. “Being dead for like, a lot of years does that to you.”
“I’m not so sure, A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli said teasingly. “I was quite well informed of current events even when I was dead.”
Wei Wuxian looked at her. “How even?”
“My Calamity friend has quite a few connections,” she said lightly. “And nowadays, I’m still dead yet I find it rather easy to stay informed.”
Wei Wuxian looked at his sister, the Devastation (the fourth ever to exist, apparently), his brother, the sect leader, and his nephew and son, thriving disciples, and felt himself despair a bit. “Wait, am I suddenly the least impressive one in the family?”
“Possibly,” Jiang Cheng said in an entirely unsympathetic tone of voice. “Jin Ling and Lan Sizhui are both heirs to their own sects. Jin Ling is practically the leader already. You, on the other hand, are a bit of a nobody right now. Though you made it into a decent number of history books.”
Wei Wuxian blinked, still trying to process the first part. “I’m sorry, did you just say that Jin Ling, my precious baby nephew is a Sect Leader?”
“I haven’t been a baby in years, not my fault you missed me growing up,” Jin Ling said with a deadpan. “Also, I’m not an official leader. We’re doing a slow takeover.”
“Missing your entire childhood is exactly the reason you’re still a baby in my heart,” Wei Wuxian said dismissively. “And seriously, what happened to Jin Guangshang? Or like, the other Jin fellow?”
“Jin Guangshang died a while ago, only to be replaced by Jin Guangyao, who… well…” Jiang Cheng looked to the side. “Well, we’re in the process of quietly overthrowing him because he is mildly insane.”
“We have it on good authority that he killed Nie Mingjue, and also his own child,” Jiang Yanli supplied. “But since we can’t provide substantial proof without a lot of breaking and entering, we’re going to give him a slow, painful, political death.”
Wei Wuxian blinked once. Then twice. “Wow. You guys really are having all sorts of fun without me, didn’t you?”
“We also defeated a demonic cultivator a while back,” Jiang Yanli added. “Apparently he was trying to restore the Stygian Tiger Seal, and was almost definitely working with Jin Guangyao. We put a stop to that rather easily.”
“Mom incinerated the Stygian Tiger Seal with lightning,” Jin Ling piped up helpfully. “It was so cool.”
Wei Wuxian blinked, absorbing that. “Destroying half the Stygian Tiger Seal got me killed, how did you pull that off?”
“I’m very, very powerful,” Jiang Yanli said simply. “Now, here probably isn’t the best place for a reunion. Shall we head home?” She glanced at Lan Wangji. “Hanguang-jun and his disciples are invited as well, of course.”
Embarrassingly enough, that gave Wei Wuxian pause. The last couple years his home had been the Burial Mounds, and he was technically kicked out of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect, so... “Er, where?”
“Lotus Pier, obviously,” Jiang Cheng said gruffly. “Where else would your home be?”
Wei Wuxian looked at him, blinking rapidly as he felt his eyes tearing up. He looked at the scene before him, with his entire family happy and healthy in one place, and actually wanting him to be a part of their group again.
“Of course,” he said with a watery smile. “Silly me.”
There are many legends told by word of mouth. Mortals spread tales of gods and ghosts alike, regardless of accuracy. They told tales of virtue, hate, jealousy, and tragedy. But most of all, they told tales of love.
There was a story, started in a town that rested next to a lake of lotuses. It was a tale of a young woman and how she lost everything to a terrible war, and eventually she lost her very own life.
For days and weeks and months she wandered, alone and lost. She lost her husband, her brother, and her will. She drifted, unable to rest but equally unable to wake.
But then, she came upon a fallen god. The god had long since wandered the mortal realm, and welcomed a partner. He too, had lost a kingdom, long long ago.
The old god was content to wander, but the young woman wanted strength. And so, they began the journey.
In the first week, he bought a lantern. The lantern glowed green, and helped light their way.
In the second week, they went to every temple they could find, and prayed. There was no answer.
In the third week, abandoned by humans and gods alike, the two turned to the ghosts. The trees and wind whispered, and they decided to listen.
They were told of Crimson Rain Sought Flower, a Calamity who resided in a fearsome realm of ghosts. He held great power, but demanded a great price. The two decided to take their chances.
They traveled and traveled, traversing the hills of the dead and skirting around the black waters of the deep. Finally, they came upon a brilliant city of light and fire. There, the great Calamity resided.
They entered the city, and were told to play a game. The game was one of chance. The young woman bet her life, for her resolve was so strong she knew she had no chance of losing.
And that was true, for she won.
The Calamity took them in as promised. The old god found satisfaction with his home there, and decided to stay. The young woman, meanwhile, wanted more.
She trained for two years, not resting day nor night. Then, her chance came.
The great Mount Tong’lu opened, and she braved it. For ten long years she battled through it, destroying all those who came in her path. Then she entered the Kiln, and broke out in a storm of lightning and flower petals.
The Heavens trembled at her name, and feared what devastation she would rain upon the land. They waited forty days and forty nights, but nothing happened. The gods could not believe that a ghost so unwilling to rest would be so silent.
But this was not a ghost forged of hatred. This was a ghost forged from compassion and love. And long ago, she left her home behind to gather strength. Now, she intended to return.
In the first week, flowers bloomed, filling the grounds and the lake which she called home.
In the second week, lightning roared, destroying any other demons or ghosts that dared to attack her people.
In the third week, she appeared, rejoicing with the family she had once lost. The rivers and lakes sang in greeting, and she vowed to protect her home for as long as she could walk on its grounds.
To this day, she still remains.
That is the story of Jiang Yanli. The fourth Calamity, who attempted and achieved the impossible.