The bell over the shop door jangles.
Wei Ying looks up from the paper-man waltzing dizzily on the counter.
“Huaisang, I’m working, so happiness is strictly prohibited. My boss can’t exploit my joy for profit.”
Nie Huaisang laughs, shaking out his umbrella behind him as he steps inside. He’s wearing yoga pants and a fluttery pale pink silk bathrobe. His hair is in a huge glossy bun and his mouth is jewel red.
“Wei-xiong. It’s been a while.”
“Yeah, it has.”
“This place is still…” Huaisang glances around at the faded talismans pasted in delirious collage on the walls.
Wei Ying spends his days in a shop steeped in ghost energy, greeting anyone who ventures in, living or dead. He’s used to it—how the floorboards creak when no one steps on them, how the radio whines to life with mouthless voices, the ghosts who sit around the TV in mismatched armchairs to watch Black Cat Detective reruns from a dust-smeared VHS player. Li Tong sees no problem with owning a haunted shop, selling experimental or forbidden cultivation goods, and hiring a kid who draws the unquiet dead like flocking birds. But Wei Ying is aware that it’s pretty weird.
“Yeah.” Huaisang’s reflection flits over the bronze mirror on the wall. He stops to peer at a ceramic frog.
“We don’t even have to try, and we’re the creepiest place for ten blocks every way. Except maybe that Instagram cafe on Essex where they sprinkle everything with adaptogens or whatever. That place isn’t haunted haunted, but it has the nastiest energy.”
“Good! We had a run on ghost-traps, so now I’m making them out of these.” He taps the nearest empty can, skinned of its label. “I never want to look at another peach in syrup.”
“I never imagined you in customer service.”
Wei Ying grins. “Oh, I don’t work the counter. I ‘aggravate customers’, apparently. I’m usually in the back tinkering, but my boss is out tonight. Ghoul at a house on West 10th.”
“How come you’re not there?” Huaisang says. “Aren’t you the expert?”
“I’m being forced to sit this one out.” He tugs down his hoodie sleeve to hide his bandaged wrist. Pain darts into the base of his thumb. “There were complications with the last job. She’s too cautious.”
“Angry ghost. He was pretty attached to the space he was occupying, definitely didn’t want to be evicted! It was fine, I handled it.”
Huaisang raises his eyebrows. “But…?”
Wei Ying shrugs. “It really wasn’t a big deal. Just some bruises and a hole in the wall. Anyway! Enough shop talk, tell me where we’re going.”
“It’s a Halloween party. It’s a party, Halloween is the excuse. One of Mianmian’s friends.”
“Is Mianmian’s friend gay? By coincidence. Unrelatedly.”
Huaisang melts onto the counter. “Wei-xiong, my heart is clear, sparkling glass.”
Wei Ying snorts. “Huaisang, your heart is a dirty rear car window with your Grindr profile picture taped on it.” Sometimes, he has to remind himself that Huaisang is a sect leader.
“We’ve been messaging.” There’s something sweet and hesitant in Huaisang’s smile. “Mianmian said he was tall.”
“Oh! I retract all criticism.”
“Wei Ying—you’re being mean to me, in my time of need.” Huaisang nudges his finger against the jade buyao on the counter. There’s a curse wound around the ornament, a nasty one which makes you feel like you’re being watched when you wear it. Wei Ying collects curses. It’s a hobby. “So, are you coming?”
“Uh,” Wei Ying glances at the clock, “well, technically I’m still on shift. But we’ve already had the rush of people who think summoning ghosts is like dialing another timezone. She won’t care if I close early.”
“Ding ding, right answer. Okay. Costume?”
“Huaisang, I’m going as the purest distillation of myself. What could be more terrifying?”
Wei Ying’s nod to the season is a long-sleeved skeleton t-shirt. Full ribcage, notched spinal column, too-long arm bones which fall past his wrists. There’s a leeringly blank ghost mask in the backroom which covers two-thirds of his face.
Huaisang smiles and pats his shoulder. “Sit down, I’ll fix you up. You want scary, right?”
“There’s no fixing me up. This,” Wei Ying points to himself, “is a terminally condemned building.”
“Oh, Wei-xiong. Just wait.”
As Huaisang spreads out his palettes, Wei Ying hops up onto the counter. “What are you meant to be, anyway?”
Huaisang grins, not nicely. “Me? I murdered my real-estate mogul husband for all his money and made it look like a golfing accident.”
“Wow, okay. Specific.”
“Right? He totally deserved it, the scumbag. Alright, stop fidgeting.”
Nie Huaisang’s hands are gentle but firm as he tilts Wei Ying’s chin and begins to stroke a pencil across his eyelids. “Wei Ying, these eye-circles—”
“Ah, it’s just thin skin. How was Qinghe?”
“Ugh. Formal thing. Discussion conference for our branch sects. Jin Guangyao wants to build these local offices to monitor spirit activity, but all the sect leaders are refusing.”
Huaisang used to call Jin Guangyao—Meng Yao—his third brother. Wei Ying wonders what changed, then lets it slide away like a palmful of sand. Huaisang could be describing yesterday's weather or the lives of people who lived long ago. It’s not Wei Ying’s world anymore, if it ever was.
“Da-ge would’ve known how to deal with it,” Huaisang is saying. “But I… ugh. I don’t know. Everything’s so tense right now.”
“Well, you probably won’t even remember it soon, right?”
Huaisang smiles around his sigh. “That’s the plan.”
Finally he lays down his tools and offers up Wei Ying’s reflection in a little round mirror. He’s outlined and smudged Wei Ying’s eyes black, like sockets of a skull. Painted his nose into a ridge of bone, sharpened his cheekbones with shadows, made his lips a matte black seam. The rest of Wei Ying’s face is pale as death.
Wei Ying takes down his ponytail, shaking out his hair over his shoulders. He grins at his reflection, showing teeth. “Perfect.”
In the back room, Wei Ying stuffs protective talismans into his hoodie sleeve, paper crinkling against the inside of his elbow. He meets his own eyes in the window. Dark and glassy, like crow eyes. I’m a dead man, he thinks. It’s almost funny. The ghost who makes the fax machine rattle—ashy taste of cigarettes—gives him a thumbs up.
Back in the shop, Huaisang is in front of a crooked shelf, head ducked down. “Why do you have light sticks?”
“You pair them to your phone. The red light shows if there’s resentful energy nearby. It also does blue light and purple light, and… maybe some other colors? I forget.”
“What are those for?”
“Nothing? They’re just cool.” Wei Ying gestures across the shop. The lure flags, rough paper talismans, knitted spirit-nets, protective phone charms, mirror-traps, and all the rest. “A lot of these things look like junk, but they all work. I wouldn’t let her sell garbage.”
“How much of it is your stuff?”
“Pretty much all of it. I have a lot of ideas.” Wei Ying turns out the lights, but leaves the TV. The paper-man lies unmoving on the counter. “Okay! I’m ready, let’s go.”
Wei Ying locks up, and they step out into the alley. The air smells metallic. Nom Wah is busy, warm and lightbulb-yellow inside, but the other shop fronts are steel-lidded eyes. On Pell Street, the wind sways awnings and flags, and the tall lit-up signs in Chinese swim together like glass beads in a kaleidoscope. Gutters are ponds, full of floating cigarette butts and paper. The rain has driven people inside, and they pass bright restaurants packed full of bodies, windows fogged and streaming moisture. Smokers huddle under cover and shout to each other across the street. Car tires slice through the puddles, lifting water in low tidal waves.
Chinatown dwindles, giving way to smoggy red brick, fleets of Citibikes, and eccentric trees. The sidewalks are wet yellow shallows, ankle-deep with leaves. It’s crowded everywhere tonight, people in costumes becoming weird apparitions against the ordinary faces of buildings. The ghosts are only a shimmer, iridescent outlines, but there are so many, drifting through the slashing rain and steam billowing from street vents.
As the street widens out, it fills up with scaffolding and billboards. Past the 2nd Avenue subway, they’re buzzed into a red-brick building. It's old—the brass plaque over the entrance says it was a school, built in 1886. It’s also haunted, like half the buildings in New York are haunted, which Wei Ying discovers when he nearly steps through a ghost with a sweet old face like oak-tree bark, smiling at something he can’t see.
Climbing up to the third floor, Wei Ying can hear tangled voices through the blue door. Bass throbs into his shoes. Inside the apartment, people are arranged on the furniture, some costumed, some not. Faces Wei Ying doesn’t know, bunched like flowers. A skeleton sits propped in an armchair, and cotton cobwebs waft from the ceiling. The ironic shrugs of a Halloween party thrown by ghost-hunters. Behind the people, Wei Ying has an impression of warm wood and exposed brick walls and gym equipment. It’s huge. Must cost a fortune in rent.
“Hey,” says Mianmian. She’s in gauzy black, her crown a dark gleam in her hair. Her skirt looks made of real feathers. She saw Qi Bingxue dance in Grand Swan Lake at the Lincoln Center and messaged Wei Ying in all caps after. “Happy birthday! You look—”
“I was thinking Casper the Friendly Ghost.”
“So cruel. On my birthday!” Wei Ying pouts at her, full lower lip. “Hey, Mianmian…”
She thumps his shoulder. “You said you didn’t want a party! You said, and I quote, ‘why would I celebrate one more year on this grim march to the end’.”
“Ah, that’s an overly literal interpretation of what I said. You—”
“Come help me,” she says, drowning Wei Ying out. “Lei Sheng had his kitchen refitted, I can’t find anything.”
Wei Ying trails after her, sock-skating on the shiny wood floor. “Who’s that?”
“You’re in his apartment. He teaches zhuanqi meditation at the school. I don’t know why I’m telling you, you’ll forget in five minutes.”
“Hey! My memory isn’t that bad.”
“I had to introduce my sister to you three times. It absolutely is.”
The kitchen smells of citrus, spikes of scent. A huge plate of fruit stands on the counter: dalmatian slices of dragon fruit, crisp watermelon wedges, clementine segments like open fans. Bottles and juice cartons jostle for space on the marble island. People are chatting and reaching around each other for drinks.
Mianmian snaps leaves off a pale, sagging mint plant, and garnishes three tall glasses. She slides one over to him. “Before you get into the tequila with xiao Sang. I wanted mojitos, so...”
“Thanks.” The lime wedge and mint leaves bob like lily pads. Wei Ying feels the sour-sweet in his jaw. It’s tart going down, and makes his empty stomach ache. “Uh, is everybody here a…”
“Yeah. But xiao Sang is the only sect disciple, everybody else is unaffiliated.”
Most of the local cultivators aren’t part of any sect or clan. A lot of them are rogue cultivators; but there are tiny schools and shops and community centers where they share practices—some traditional, some not. Wei Ying is known for being unorthodox, but so is the guy who’s a little too into spirit-grass. Yiling Laozu Wei Wuxian is dead. As far as anybody knows, he died five years ago in a Jin cell.
“Are you worried?”
Wei Ying shakes his head. “It’s fine. Just—more raids lately.”
“I heard,” she says, low. “Nobody’s going to recognize you through all that, though, unless you’ve got secret Yiling Laozu merchandise you’ve been dying to break out.”
“Shit. I’ll put the branded t-shirts back in my closet.”
“Probably for the best.”
“Are you okay?” he says. She’s carefully peeling a fat mauve grape, the curling skin like thin paper. “You’re...”
“Oh, yeah.” She laughs. “My mom always used to, it’s a habit.” She takes a knife and begins slicing them into halves. “How’re you doing?”
Wei Ying was waiting for this. He ignored her messages for two months, then resurfaced with a pathetic sorry this is late! sounds great and five heart emojis. Those weeks are a dark, bleak smear, the end of summer sour and distended like overripe fruit.
“Good,” he says, and she frowns a little. “Good! Busy, you know?” That seems emphatic enough. She tips her head; Wei Ying can’t read it. “Always plenty of undead who need to shriek and bang doors at 2am.”
“So annoying, and yet relatable.”
Mianmian teaches at the cultivation school on Hester and Bowery. Wei Ying saw her once with her gaggle of students on a night-hunt, their bright voices chiming out near Marble Cemetery.
“New kids are great,” she says. “Thirteen and fourteen, mixed ability. We’re using your ghost taxonomy.”
“That’s funny. I keep meaning to update that.”
“But when people hear about me, all they ever want is gossip about that guy.” She mimes vomiting.
“Gross.” Everything about Jin Guangshan is gross. “And how’s Liqiu-jie?”
She shakes strands of hair out of her face and sips her drink. “Oh my God, are you going to give me shit about that too?”
Wei Ying grins. “It’s a collective effort, I’m just today’s representative.”
“Oh, okay.” He makes a performance of glancing toward the living room. “Maybe I should ask her?”
“Wei Ying!” She smacks his shoulder. “Don’t you dare!”
He ducks behind the island, throwing up his empty hand. “Mianmian ah! Mercy!”
“Get back up here,” she says, but she’s smiling. “Anyway, I’m glad you’re okay. Xiao Sang was getting ready to go break down your door. Except, uhm, we don’t know where you live.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he says, and empties his glass. “Aiya, so dramatic.”
“I just…” She shakes her head. “You know, after what they did to you before, I…”
Thought they’d come back to finish him off.
“Yeah.” Wei Ying's voice cracks across it, brittle as eggshell. “But fuck them, right?”
“Right,” she says, fierce. “Fuck them. Hey, take this fruit plate.”
Wei Ying is so uselessly grateful for her. For her steady, searching kindness. He wishes he knew how to trust it, but—well. He murdered her best friend. At any time he’d deserve much, much less.
As they walk into the living room, she shifts a glass to the crook of her arm and reaches out to squeeze his hand.
They do shots of syrupy mixto tequila between salt and lime, because Huaisang insists, and then Huaisang hands him a vodka cranberry. People are dancing. Somebody smashes a glass and cheers go up.
Soon, Wei Ying is curled on a squeaky couch with his knees bent so that his feet don’t touch a total stranger, and his oyster-pink vodka is almost gone. Solo cups crowd the table beside his head and the floor, all stamped with his mouth’s black seal. Wei Ying kicks one over when he swings his feet around, swears, then remembers it’s empty. Nie Huaisang is sitting on the floor, holding a glass like it’s a flower-pot.
“Huaisang, are you drinking wine?”
“It’s good wine.”
“Strong argument. Counter-argument, this is a Halloween party, and watching you drink nice wine is making me question a lot of things. Including our friendship, that you’d cast judgment on me impl—implicitly like this.”
Huaisang smiles. “It’s also your birthday. Do you want some?”
“Ugh! I hate birthdays.”
“Well, it’s nearly over. See, look—” Huaisang points at the clock on the wall, the hands poised at one minute to midnight. “Seven, six, five, four—”
“That clock is definitely fast, it’s not even eleven, why are you—”
“Three, two, one—happy unbirthday!”
“Huaisang, if you sing, I’ll dunk you in a puddle.”
Huaisang props his face in his hands, elbows splayed on the table glass. “It’s been so long, Wei-xiong! You never replied when I unsubtly tried to set you up with one of my friends, I can’t believe my matchmaking efforts are being squandered.”
“I’ve been busy,” Wei Ying says. “Sombody’s got to invent talismanic teleportation this century. Hey, how’s the painting? Did the guy who DM’d you about becoming your ‘patron of eros’ follow through?”
“Ugh, no, such a disappointment. All that stuff about opening my budding flower, and nothing.” Huaisang’s eyes are bright. “Hey, I’ve got a tiny exhibition of the gongbi pieces coming up next month. It’s on West Broadway, you should come!”
“Will there be…”
“Oh.” Huaisang pats his open mouth with his hand, all apology. “I invited two of the branch sect leaders and, uh, Jia—”
Wei Ying feels his smile thin. “Well, they won’t even know I’m there, right? I can be your art installation non-entity. Champagne flutes waltzing through the air, something something, invisible superstructure which acts upon and through… ah, you know.”
“There’ll be ordinary people there, too. Non-cultivators.”
“I’ll think about it.” He won’t.
Huaisang came to New York three years ago. Rented a place in Brooklyn, started selling gestural, erotic ink paintings out of galleries. It was never a secret he’d rather be an artist than a cultivator. All the same, Wei Ying didn’t expect him to see him sidling down Mott Street carrying a heavy bronze lampshade, thousands of miles from the place they last met. He couldn’t have known Wei Ying was alive and hiding here. Wei Ying wonders if, somehow, he did.
Nobody else came, so Huaisang kept his secret.
A year later, Huaisang’s brother Mingjue died of qi-deviation. It was sudden. Soon after, Huaisang became sect leader, a thing he never expected to be. He can only leave so much to his disciples, so he goes to China for the discussion conferences, the weddings, the thirteen-course banquets. It’s Huaisang who shows Wei Ying snaps of his nephew, Jin Ling, small and aggravated at five. Huaisang brings him fragments of news from Lotus Pier. Huaisang tumbles in and out of that world, trying to be a whole person of two halves. He leaves the sect leader behind at the airport.
There’s a stained silence. Staring at his fingernails, Wei Ying says, “How is he?”
“Oh,” Huaisang says. “Doing okay, last I heard. He’s really busy, and we, uh, don’t see each other all that much, so.” The corner of his mouth tips up, sorrow-tugged. “But things reach me from time to time.”
Jiang Cheng works too hard. He always has. And now he’s leader of a sect that was nearly ruined in the war. He’s probably worked sixteen-hour days for the last five years. Raising the unburnt timbers of Lotus Pier on his shoulders. Training his new disciples. Being jiujiu to his only living family.
“I’m sure he misses you,” Huaisang offers.
Wei Ying laughs. It’s funny that five words can cut in so far, for being so untrue. “I imagine he’s trying hard to forget I existed. Maybe he already has.”
He thinks about Jiang Cheng kneeling alone in the ancestral shrine for Qingming festival. He thinks about Jiang Cheng leading Jin Ling by the hand through the heart of Lotus Pier, and hopes that Jiang Cheng kept Shijie’s room as it was: sun-flooded, full of framed photos and big watercolor paintings, all her shelves of fiction and cookbooks. He thinks about how if his own pavilion hadn’t burned when the Wen came, Jiang Cheng would have burned it. Go and die, the last words Jiang Cheng said to him.
“Ah, nothing to be done about it, right?” His stomach is ethanol and acid, bubbling. “Hey—I’m twenty-six, Huaisang. How did that happen?”
“Wei Ying, are you—“
“I’m fine! I’m fine. C’mon, let’s go, the night’s still young—unlike me, I’m already over the hill. I’m hungry, do you want to get food? Let’s get food.”
“Uh-huh.” Wei Ying’s body has been winding up, a coil of waspish energy, even if he’s not entirely inside it. “It’s imperative that we go right now. And you’re paying.”
“Okay, okay, whatever you want.”
The rain needles at his face as they step outside. Wei Ying pulls on his hoodie and tugs the hood over his head. He steps around a ghost in a pin-striped suit dawdling at the curb.
Every place has its own ghosts. New York has a thousand ways to tell you it doesn’t care, but its ghosts care so much. They care about their favorite spots in the park, shared soup dumplings in a humid kitchen, football games, delayed J trains, text messages sent in anger, songs that sound like longing, people they loved and hated and lost. They go through their private motions on subways and bridges, in kitchens and bodegas and nail salons and the middle of the street. They’re the traces of life that death remembers, rehearsed quietly—except when they’re not quiet. Except when they’re very, very angry. Wei Ying has never been able to ignore them—their quiet remembering, or their rage. But he’s learned to live with them, more or less.
“Hey, do you have cash?” he asks Huaisang. “I could really go for Lan Zhou dumplings—or McDonald's, why do McNuggets taste better on nights when it's raining?”
Wei Ying dodges crowds of living people and spirits, dragging Huaisang along by a silk sleeve. Veering to cross the street, he bumps into somebody stood at the bus stop under a powder-blue umbrella.
When he looks back, there's no one there. Straight away, he knows: that's a sect disciple. Just standing on the sidewalk, waiting for a bus. They can't see each other.
Wei Ying lets out a thin laugh and stumbles on, around the corner.
This street is darker, the sky wet ink. The buildings seem to lean in, like steepled fingers. Rain streaks into the stark orange beam of a streetlight, and damp air is thorny in Wei Ying’s nose and throat. Somebody’s gripping his wrists tight enough to twist his skin between their fingers, dragging his hands behind his back, and he’s fighting, he’s fighting—
He’s not there. Not then. He’s standing on a street corner with Huaisang, and it’s an ordinary Halloween in New York, and his life’s already over.
“Actually—“ Vocal crackle, like broken radio signal. Wei Ying swallows, and smiles. “Let’s, uh, let’s just walk for a while, okay?”
“Oh,” says Huaisang. “Sure.” That’s the great thing about Huaisang: the total lack of judgment. Huaisang doesn’t care that he’s a car crash in human skin.
Wei Ying rarely remembers things from that time. His memory is the gravepit where things go to die, and that’s fine, that’s for the best. But every so often something claws and gasps its way back out. He almost asks who it was, the disciple, but Huaisang didn’t notice. And anyway, what would be the point?
Cold scrapes at his face. His sneakers are damp at the toes. They walk along East Houston, past the playground ringed by stooping trees and storefronts with sprayed black tags like electrocardiograms, ducking between umbrellas carried by shiny raincoats and people in costumes, shouting and laughing. Cars streak past as light, a constant thunder.
Huaisang’s talking about mulberry fiber and his latest painting, inspired by city grids.
“—know, I feel like it’s been done? Ugh, sometimes I want to set fire to everything I’ve ever painted.”
Wei Ying forces himself to pay attention. “This place looks different to everyone,” he says. To him, it looks like refuge. And also like the place that’s going to eat him alive.
“Yeah,” says Huaisang. “That’s tr—“
“Here.” Stepping between garbage bags like shiny wet boulders, he tugs Huaisang down the next street and into a bubble tea place announced by blue neon.
Above the framed menu pictures, a wooden sign says ‘COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS’. A ghost lingers near the back wall, faded against the candy-stripe wallpaper. She has wistful eyes and a dress with a giddy flower print. Wei Ying gives her a smile which must look tired on his face. Only a few nights a year are as restless as this, but he feels unhinged every time. The nowhere feeling of hollow electric lighting on vinyl floors. Eyes that aren’t eyes.
“I’ll get it,” Huaisang says. It’s only fair, he’s loaded. “Usual?”
“Sweet as they can make it.” Huaisang dubs it ‘horrific’, then spends ten minutes taking photos of his taro slush as the cup sweats onto the table. They share takoyaki, Wei Ying’s side piled with beni shoga.
“Hey,” says Huaisang. “Um—I have a favor to ask.”
Wei Ying flicks a boba pearl along his back teeth and chews. “While this straw is in my mouth, I’m maximally receptive to any and all requests.”
“Uh, so.” Huaisang fidgets with a loose strand of hair, winding it around his knuckle. “It’s about da-ge.”
“I told you about, um. How he died.”
Not long after it happened, Huaisang asked him to come over. Wei Ying got the F train down to Prospect Park, and the Huaisang who opened the door was pale-lipped, his mascara wept onto his cheeks like water-feathered brushstrokes. He wrung his hands restlessly as he described how Mingjue died—rage and bloodfoam, unrecognizable. The day before, he bought me pineapple buns on his way home from the gym. I don’t understand. I don’t understand. They got drunk on boxed wine, and Wei Ying put him to bed. What am I supposed to do? Huaisang murmured, as Wei Ying turned out his bedside lamp. What do I do? The next day Huaisang went back to Qinghe, unable to ignore his responsibilities any longer.
“I keep thinking about it,” Huaisang says, “and, and, it doesn’t… it just doesn’t make sense.”
“But isn’t that how it goes in your family?” Disciples and their sword-magic and their ancestral burdens. Sometimes Wei Ying is almost glad to be an exile.
“Would you—” Huaisang hesitates. “You know our cultivation isn’t… normal.”
“And that’s your specialty.”
“Abnormal cultivation, my entire wheelhouse.”
“It happened so fast—I don’t know if it was the saber-spirit or, or something else. But I need to know, I have to, I can’t—”
One of the women behind the counter leans around to catch Wei Ying’s eye and says, “We’re closing.”
The place has emptied out. The Roman numeral clock tilted on a shelf says nine thirty-five. “I thought you closed at ten-thirty.”
“It’s ten-thirty now.”
“Your clock’s wrong.”
“You have phones.”
“Okay, okay.” Wei Ying gulps down the last of their takoyaki and they slope out into the night. The cold and traffic noise are a sudden drenching.
“Would you... come to Qinghe?” Huaisang says, as they start to walk. “Examine him?”
There’s the punchline. Wei Ying looks behind them to make sure they’re not being followed.
“Huaisang,” he says. “I shouldn’t even be able to speak to you. So examining your brother’s body with demonic cultivation is absolutely, definitely in the category of ‘things Wei Wuxian is forbidden to do’.”
“I know it’s a risk,” Huaisang says. “I know—”
“As far as they know, I don’t cultivate—ever. That’s the only reason the Jin haven’t sent disciples to hunt me like a jiangshi.”
Huaisang is silent as they go around the corner. Wei Ying sees the basketball courts behind the crumpled wire fence, white lines marking the shadows like dressmaker’s chalk. He has a memory of early summer years ago, the light a sunset blush. Shouts, and the buoyant thunk-thunk of the ball. Sitting on a wall with Huaisang, drinking bubble tea and eating Cheerios from the box.
He sighs. “Let me think about it, okay? I want to help. If it was only about me, I’d do it. But it would put other people at risk, too.”
“Nie-zongzhu.” Wei Ying lets his voice turn sharp. “Ask me no questions and I won’t have to lie to you.” Huaisang is still a sect leader. Jin Guangyao’s little brother. Some things he can’t know.
“Okay.” For a moment Huaisang’s eyes glint, like the shine down a switch-knife. “That’s fair.” Wei Ying thinks nobody else ever sees it, how Huaisang’s face is the fine, overwrought fan he flutters in front of the sharper, stranger person underneath. He loses nothing by showing himself to Wei Ying. After all, who could Wei Ying tell?
So he tucks it away with the other things he knows about Huaisang, and says, “Wasn’t his sworn brother a Lan? Wouldn’t he have noticed something odd?”
“Er-ge... he doesn’t understand this stuff. Not like you.”
Wei Ying’s smile tastes bitter. “Yeah, that’s... why they cast me out. That, and I killed a lot of people. In case you forgot.”
Huaisang’s shoulders square. He says, “I didn’t forget.”
Every day of Wei Ying’s life is this highwire walk: pay the bills, guard his little broken family, occupy his empty body that was thrown away, try to sleep through the night, and watch for signs that it’s all about to be torn down.
A breeze lifts, flickering the loose strands of his hair across his face. He hears Wen Qing: no unnecessary risks, Wei Wuxian.
“Wei Ying... are you okay?” The wind files the edges off Huaisang’s voice.
“What? Of course. I’m fine.”
“You didn’t reply to any of my messages. Not for ages. I thought you were…”
“I’ve been busy. You know, taking extra shifts, going toe-to-toe with rowdy ghouls.” Which is true. Wei Ying doesn’t remember the rest. Long stretches of drinking, and the sour, shallow sleep that comes after. He started sleepwalking again. He used to do that in the Burial Mounds. He’d sit at his worktable and paint ward-seal talismans on the grainy wood with no paper or ink, deep asleep.
Huaisang chews his cheek. “Listen, if you need—“
“It’s fine, I’m fine. If I need money I’ll sell a kidney, that’s why we have two. Besides, you’re going to need it for all those beautiful robes. It’s Jiang Cheng’s birthday next week.”
Huaisang can usually be baited into talking about a new robe he had commissioned, but he’s solemn as he twists his boba straw. “Do you miss it?”
“Miss what? I hated those robe fittings, they took forever. And I always came out feeling like a pin-cushion, they w—”
“Not that." Huaisang's empty cup clangs into a trash can. "I worry about you.”
“Why? I’m fine. I’m fine, I’m fucking spectacular.”
“I gave you the number for that therapist, did you ever do anything with it?”
“Huaisang, I’m not going to see your therapist, I’m pretty sure there’s a conflict of interest there. Have you talked to her about me? If so—”
“She’s not my therapist. She’s a therapist that my therapist recommended.”
Wei Ying’s breath stumbles. He hopes Huaisang hears a laugh. “First of all, feelings only happen to other people. And second, I don’t need to talk about them with a stranger who bills by the hour. What could I even say? If I wanted to spend fifty minutes dancing around the truth I’d ask Mianmian whether she’s dating Liqiu. That’s free.”
He doesn’t want to think about sects and disciples and the time before. Why talk about it? Why shovel it back up? Let buried things be buried.
“Don’t you ever want—” Huaisang says, and then stops.
“They did terrible things to you. Don’t you ever want to repay them?”
Wei Ying’s nails scrape the sides of the cup as his hand tightens. “No. Things happened, I can’t make them have un-happened. So we’re all better off with this arrangement.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Too bad. I can’t change it. The seal on me is watertight.”
“What if it wasn’t?”
“But it is.”
Huaisang shakes his head slowly, and that’s the worst, that’s the thing which turns Wei Ying’s stomach over in a queasy roil of anger. “Wei Ying, how long are you going to do this?”
There’s nothing like that look. Somebody riffling through your whole life like it’s a pack of cards and they’re finding only twos and threes. What a shame, what a waste. He stares back into Huaisang’s eyes, all that pity, and for a moment Huaisang is every cultivator who’d look at him like he’s filth—except they can’t see him at all, except he’s invisible, he’s nowhere and nothing to them.
Huaisang hates confrontation. He backs down, but his last line is a sly razor-slice between the ribs. “I just don’t like seeing you unhappy.”
Something frayed in Wei Ying snaps. “Then don’t look.”
He can’t stay here. He’s sick, shame coiling up hot and tight in his chest, the same filament that’s glowing, incandescent, in his face. He tosses his cup into the trash, and then he’s walking away—no direction, just distance.
The streaking traffic lanes and clotted voices fade out against the jostling, knifing disorder in Wei Ying’s head. How long are you going to do this? How long? How long?
One block, two blocks, five. It’s a blur, tipsy-sour. Hostile lights clash in his eyes, faces accuse. His phone buzzes against his thigh. He crashes into someone and nearly falls head over feet.
Finally, his anger has leaked out through his soles. Cold, woozy, Wei Ying ducks under an awning.
Nie Huaisang 22:49
sry my bad my bad
Nie Huaisang 22:50
come back to the party ok
no talking just drinking promise!!!
His thumb hovers over the keyboard. How long are you going to do this? The thought of going back to that apartment and dredging up another smile to wear is like pushing against concrete. He locks his screen.
When he looks up, there’s a ghost staring at him. A boy with pale clothes and hunched shoulders. His face looks like Wei Ying’s face, framed by shorter black hair in a jagged chop.
“Hi,” Wei Ying says. “Do I—who are you?”
The ghost-boy shakes his head and walks away. Disappears down a sidealley.
A shiver runs over Wei Ying’s skin, like a breath in the hairs of his arm. He follows.
The alley snakes through to the next street, lined with sagging wet cardboard boxes and steel doors tagged with bubble-writing. The puddles look black and fathoms deep, like you could fall through them into elsewhere. A lightbulb on a wall buzzes, sputtering on and off.
“Great place to get jumped by ghosts,” he mutters. The feral ghost swarms in the subway always think he’s a house standing empty. Wei Ying walks faster, nearly tripping over a crumpled soda can.
At the end there’s a drop ladder, running up to the fire escape for an apartment building. The boy’s shoes ring dully on the iron as he climbs.
Not a ghost, then.
The boy’s pulling himself onto the fire escape. Wei Ying starts to climb. This is weird—he knows it’s weird, chasing somebody while cosplaying a ghoul. But he has a bad feeling, his sense for the imminent and terrible sharpened with experience.
At the top, the boy looks down at him. He has the emptiest eyes Wei Ying has ever seen, and Wei Ying has to look at his own reflection. Flat glass, no shine. “Go away!”
“Wait—” Wei Ying clambers onto the roof and jogs forward, insides taut. The tiles slope down, and they’re dark and rain-slick. His sneakers slip a little. Wei Ying grabs the chimney to steady himself, soot grainy against his hand.
The boy turns back. “I told you to go aw—”
He’s holding a knife. There’s an array spray-painted on the tiles in white, and it’s tugging at Wei Ying’s blood. Oh, fuck.
“Sorry! I’m very persistent.”
“Well, because I think you might not be okay. Something to do with how we’re standing on a roof and you have a knife and a demonic array.”
Wei Ying has met dozens of demonic cultivators. Their magic is bullshit and posturing, mostly, but now and then he gets a real one. Usually bad news, like Zhao Yi. This is an array for a big energetic exchange. The kind that wants blood.
His heart flutters at the top of his throat, a caught moth. He takes a few steps forward. “So… I want to help. I can help, okay? I can.”
The boy shakes his head. “Go, just go!”
Wei Ying knows that look; this kid is serious.
He bites his finger and draws a talisman in the air. It hangs there, luminous like blue neon; then spins itself into a strand of energy. Like a thrown rope, it loops itself around the boy’s torso, pinning his arms to his sides. Shitty but effective. Wei Ying lashes the strand around the chimney and ties a double knot.
The boy struggles. He’s almost glowing with rage, his mouth shaped like a snarl.
“Hey, fuck you! Whoever the fuck you are, I don’t need your fucking help—”
“Okay,” Wei Ying says to himself. “Okay.” Vitriol is fine. He can’t—won’t—watch somebody destroy themselves with the cultivation he invented. “Sorry, kid! Your bad luck for running into me. I’m a meddler.”
As he steps forward to take the knife, his soles slip on the tiles again. He’s still a little drunk, and he’s tired—three hours of thin sleep, four hours of staring into his phone or the fridge or blank paper or vacant space, ten hours on shift, time gutted of all meaning except that it’s always wrong, he’s always wrong, lagging behind or going too fast, he’s tired; and he overbalances. “Oh, fuck—“
“Hey!” The boy shouts, straining against the wire, but it doesn’t matter.
Wei Ying lurches over the edge in a swoop of cold air. And then he’s falling, and falling, and falling—
The bell over the shop door jangles.
Like a glitch; like stairs in the dark, his toes feeling for a step that isn’t there. He’s not where he expected to be. “Huh.”
In the doorway, Nie Huaisang is shuffling his umbrella. His cavernous silk sleeves sweep along his arms.
Wei Ying blinks. “Huaisang, I’m banning all mentions of the anniversary of my birth. I’m an ageless being, and you’ll address me as such or not at all.”
“Okay, ageless one,” says Huaisang. “Are you coming to get shitfaced?”
“Thought you’d never ask.”
Hair untied, Wei Ying sits on the counter to let Huaisang paint his face. As he closes up the shop he sees himself in the backroom window, backlit by the naked bulb. Pale and uncanny, his own doppelganger. On the way out he nearly trips over a box of peach-wood pieces for carving. Loose wires jut out of the corridor wall. He’ll get around to sorting and repairing it all someday.
They walk a few blocks. Wei Ying has never seen the apartment, but he knows its front door will be mottled like blueberry skin. Inside, the wash of furniture and faces looks arranged.
“Hey.” Mianmian appears. Odile, Grand Swan Lake. When she tilts her head, her eyelids have a hard, dark glitter. “Happy birthday! You look—
“I was thinking Casper the Friendly Ghost.”
Wei Ying knew she was going to say that. The exact rhythm and intonation. Like he’s watched it before, the tenth loop of a Douyin.
Mianmian frowns. He’s staring at her. “Wei Ying?”
“Sorry,” he says. “Just a… nevermind.”
He helps Mianmian in the kitchen. Answers her questions, teases her about Liqiu. Follows her to the living room. Huaisang is pouring tequila.
Shots and half a bottle of vodka later, he’s drooped against the cushions. Conversation ping-pongs around him, and it’s like foreign language, just sound and tone. Huaisang sits on the floor cross-legged, cupping a wine-glass in both hands.
“Huaisang, are you drinking wine?”
“It’s good wine.”
“Okay, but—“ Wei Ying trips over it again. They’ve done this before. But they haven’t. “Ah, doesn’t matter. I’m too tired to form sentences.” He hauls himself upright as Huaisang settles between him and somebody’s feet.
“Hey,” Huaisang says. “Do you remember the first time we got drunk together? I didn’t even realize how drunk you were until you started mumbling you’d forgotten how to work your phone.”
The Lan cultivation lectures. Wei Ying’s memory is tattered, but he remembers smuggling round-bellied baijiu jars and his phone into their dormitory at Cloud Recesses. Jiang Cheng and Huaisang on his bed, robes like wilting lilies, as he tried to take a selfie of all their flushed, laughing faces. He doesn’t remember how the night ended.
“You were so unkind to me,” he complains. “My brain was melting and you just kept laughing.”
He elbows Huaisang, who snorts and drapes an arm around his neck. Huaisang is like this with everybody, but sometimes he looks at Wei Ying a certain way. They messed around once, at a lunar new year party on somebody’s crisp white bed. The kissing was nice, except that he’d been observing himself kissing Huaisang rather than feeling it with his body like a normal person, and when Huaisang tucked a hand under his t-shirt, right over the ruler line of his core scar, he shook in his skin like he’d been electrocuted and then laughed it off and said he needed another drink.
“Worth it even for the punishment,” Huaisang says. Wei Ying doesn’t remember that; but why would he?
Mianmian’s friend comes toward the couch. He’s wearing a dark blue t-shirt and he has nice arms.
“Hi,” Huaisang says, his voice long like it gets when he’s tipsy.
Wei Ying drifts. Huaisang is telling Mianmian’s friend about the worst hookup he ever had, the one with the guy who wanted to play Scrabble so that he could spell out something dirty on the board, some kind of labored linguistic foreplay, but he kept getting only consonants out of the bag.
Huaisang steals somebody’s joint, and Wei Ying gets a couple of hits on it. Then Wei Ying is lying facedown, and Huaisang is doing something nice to his hair, and it's gently abrading all the folds out of his brain like a rock tumbler. His brain feels smooth and polished. The music thumps through his belly, a second heartbeat. He’s drunk enough that he can almost forget the yawning dead place where his core isn’t.
Wei Ying rolls onto his back. Huaisang has braided his hair into a loose plait, and it’s tucked soft under his neck. He hacked it all off after—after. But it grew back. It’s so long now. He tips his head until all he can see is white ceiling.
“I’m hungry,” he says.
Huaisang points vaguely. “Fridge is over there.”
“Don’t eat my raspberries,” Mianmian’s friend says.
Liqiu and Mianmian are curled together on the other couch, legs criss-crossed. Liqiu says something, her face nudged against Mianmian’s neck, and Mianmian laughs. She looks up at Wei Ying as he passes, and her smile isn’t for him, but it’s sweet—like an incidental sunbeam swaying through a window. It spills into him, golden, and he smiles too.
In the kitchen Wei Ying opens the fridge, closes it. He claims a half-full bottle of vodka from the table. He treads another circuit of the living room. He goes up the stairs. There’s a clash happening in his body, between the vigilance which says he can’t stay still, and the gloating buzzy numbness which says he should lie down on the beige carpet.
He’s in a bedroom. A face appears in the doorway, then a body. It’s Mianmian’s friend, also a cultivator.
“You’re Wei Ying, right?”
“Yeah,” he says. “And you’re…”
“Lei Sheng,” the boy says. “You work at that place on Doyers Street.”
“Uh-huh,” Wei Ying says, slowly. “Employee of the month, every month. I’m the only one who works there, so. Limited competition.”
“I’ve never met a demonic cultivator before.”
“There are a lot of them, believe me.”
“Yeah, but you’re…”
“Whoever you think I am,” Wei Ying says, loud enough to drown out the next thing, “I’m definitely not.”
He walks out. He steers unseeing into the bathroom, and fumbles the latch lock, bottle clamped between his arm and hip.
Muzzy light comes through the frosted glass window. Wei Ying gets into the bath, one of those old claw-foot tubs, and lies down. His spine grinds like a handful of marbles against the porcelain. He rests the bottle on his stomach.
He doesn’t use the other name, the one Jiang-shushu and Yu-furen gave him. He put away that person five years ago; tore him out, let him go. He’s Wei Ying, with a life too small to notice. Except, apparently, it has been.
Fuck. He takes another deep swig of vodka and clambers out of the tub. Can’t stay here.
Wei Ying slips out unnoticed. As he goes down the steps to the street, rain hissing softly around him, he sees a dog—big dog, lumbering up the sidewalk. And maybe it can smell fear at twenty feet, because it yanks right to the end of its leash and lunges toward him, growling and barking.
He’s a thin blade of terror. He’s the thing pinned and held by it. Sound is muted yet huge in his ears. Wei Ying surges down the sidewalk.
The bus stop is ahead, a lonely box of cold light. Beside it is a blue umbrella—one of those beautiful oil-paper parasols, old-fashioned. Somebody in white.
It’s the last thing Wei Ying sees, before the yawning brightness of headlights.
The bell over the shop door jangles.
“Hi,” Wei Ying says weakly. His bones feel wrong.
Huaisang sidles toward the counter. “What’s the matter?”
“I feel like I’ve… done this already.”
“This, all of this. You, just now, and—”
“Like déjà vu?” Huaisang clicks his tongue. “Probably just tired. You look like you haven’t slept in fifty thousand years.”
Wei Ying is tired. It’s always this swampy, cotton-wool fugue, the feeling of being roughly assembled from misfitting parts, a jigsaw-person. He’s been sleep-starved and ghost-sick enough to hallucinate before, though it wasn’t like this.
“You still up to the party?” Huaisang’s attention is turning into scrutiny. Wei Ying gathers himself up, assembles a broad grin.
“Of course! The only redeeming quality of this holiday is alcohol I don’t pay for.” Wei Ying pulls the ghost-mask over his face.
Streets go by. People treading on the upside-down world rain creates.
The apartment is a ringing cave of noise, too familiar. Mianmian’s glittering eyes, the red-brick walls, torn limp mint and swimming lime, the boy with the blue t-shirt. Wei Ying drinks a lot, feeling a half-step outside himself. His conversation with Huaisang keeps faltering. He’s distracted. The echoes are like a hall of mirrors Wei Ying is stumbling through.
Huaisang goes in search of food. Wei Ying hears him in the kitchen with Mianmian’s friend, their laughter leaping and echoing. Wei Ying is wrestling a screwtop open, hot hand slipping on the neck, when Mianmian nudges him with her foot.
“Hey. You okay?”
“Uh-huh. Yep! I’m fine.”
Wei Ying gives up on the bottle. A lot of words have flowed up his throat, and he should crush them back down. He says, “Mianmian.”
“I’m gonna to say something, and I...” The room’s tipping and swaying, hurricane-wild. “Just, just listen, okay? Just—”
She folds out of Liqiu’s arms. “I’m listening.”
“Uh. I think I’ve done all this before. This party. More than once—a couple of times, actually.” He’s hearing his head voice, skull-damped, lagging behind his mouth.
“But the first time, I fell—off a roof. I fell. I think I…” There’s a wild quiver of a laugh caught in Wei Ying’s throat like a soreness. “I think I died. I think I’m dead.”
“I know, okay, I know this sounds really—”
“You’re joking,” she says, eyes lightening.
“I’m not. It’s definitely something I would joke about, but—it’s not a joke.”
“So… the fact that you’re all in one piece means you probably didn’t fall off a roof. Unless you’re mincemeat under here.” She tugs at his hoodie sleeve. “Doesn’t feel like mincemeat.”
“I know,” Wei Ying says. “I know. But I’m also ninety-nine percent sure that it did happen, and I don’t know how that can be true—”
“Is he okay?” Liqiu leans forward out of her slump.
Mianmian presses the back of her hand to his forehead. “I think he’s taken something, he’s having a bad time—”
“I’m fine! I’m fine, I’m fine…” He’s laughing. “Sorry to have worried you—you’re right, it’s nothing, I’m—”
“I have to go.“
Wei Ying heaves himself up, leaning on the couch arm, and staggers away. Blood whirls in his head. Dead man. Funny, funny.
Outside, he stares at the sullen, light-stained street without seeing it. Pulls off his mask.
Mianmian is right. It’s impossible. He’s tired. Maybe asleep, maybe tripping, maybe out of his mind. Wei Ying starts for home, stepping out between parked cars to cross the street.
The streets are full, thick with ghosts. People ignore them, their eyes passing right over. They get used to explaining the strangeness away. Wei Ying wonders what that’s like, not to see the unquiet dead on every street corner. Idling in parks, whispering in movie theaters after the lights go down, shouting unheard at people who are no longer there. Wei Ying can’t remember the time before, when it was quiet.
The stairs to Wei Ying’s apartment are full of onion fumes and plate-clatter. Garbage ripens in the hall. Wei Ying hears a shout from the open door of number eight.
“Hi. Everything okay?” Mrs Tan is hanging clothes on a washing line strung from the window and glaring upward. They struggle to understand each other, but with hand gestures Wei Ying gets the gist: she’s pissed off at the family upstairs playing the radio too loud. Wei Ying scrawls noise-dampening talismans on scrap paper and pastes them to her ceiling and she pats his cheek and tells him to eat more, probably.
There are ghosts on their landing, like always: Second Uncle and Fourth Uncle, playing xiangqi. The soft clack of stones echoes between the walls.
Fourth Uncle winks. Second Uncle is engrossed, hands clasped in front of his nose. It always ends in arguments, Second Uncle cursing while Fourth Uncle howls with laughter, thumping his own chest.
The apartment is dark, except for the dirty orange stain of streetlight through the blinds and a pensive lamp in the kitchenette. Wei Ying shuts the door and slips off his shoes.
At the kitchen table, Wen Ning looks up from his tablet. “Wei Ying, hello. Did you have a good evening?”
He’s wearing a scarf and fingerless gloves. Wen Ning gets cold a lot: his circulation is thready and slow and sometimes it’s like his body forgets it’s alive. There isn’t a WebMD for people who used to be corpses and still are a bit.
“Uhm. Weird evening. Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Nearly finished with this chapter.”
Traipsing into his tiny bedroom, Wei Ying drops his keys into the bowl as he checks his phone.
“That’s great," he calls. "I’ll test you when you’re done!”
Eighteen text messages from Unknown that are just character soup, because when ghosts get into electronics they can only flash the circuitry. One message from Huaisang.
Nie Huaisang 22:23
Wei Ying taps out a quick reply. In the wall, a pipe clunks and hisses.
Wei Ying 22:47
sorry to bail need sleeeeep 😴
The low, red glow from the corner near his bed is like old firelight. Wei Ying pasted up a few talismans for some peace from the non-corporeal, but it’s not enough. The city is so restless tonight.
“A-Ning, Halloween is terrible.” He raises his voice enough to carry. “How can one place have this much spiritual traffic? I’m going to sail into the middle of the ocean and live out my days in peace until fish eat me from the toes up.”
“It is quite busy.”
“Yeah, must be extra annoying for you, ah?”
“I don’t mind.” Wen Ning appears in the doorway, smiling his gentle, round-cheeked smile. “Are you hungry?”
“Hey, it’s okay.” Wei Ying ushers him along, back toward the kitchen table. “A-Ying is a big boy who can make his own food.” To demonstrate, Wei Ying opens the cupboard and rips a cup noodle out of its packaging. “Go back to what you were doing.”
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
“I’m great, I’m good. I’m just going to eat this and go to bed.”
Nie Huaisang 22:51
got u got u
Wei Ying 22:54
Wei Ying boils water and pours it over the dry block of noodles, then scrapes out the laoganma jar on top.
Nie Huaisang 22:56
o m g this guy is so hot n also into me
but i can tell he’s gonna be so oo o loud
Wei Ying 22:59
rip huaisang’s ears
Nie Huaisang 22.59
pray for me!!!!
Wei Ying 23.00
go go go
When it’s ready, Wei Ying carries his dinner to the couch, which creaks like an unoiled door hinge. He reaches for his crinkled paperback of Roadside Picnic and tucks his cold feet between the seat cushions.
As Wei Ying is settling, a small shape comes through the wall.
Of all the ghosts who come to visit, A-Yuan is the one who makes Wei Ying want to curl up around the hollow pit inside him and just not be. A-Yuan was four years old when the attack happened. So now he’s four forever: big eyes, sticking-up hair, striped t-shirt and red shorts. A bruise on his knee where he knocked it against a table leg.
Bending his paperback spine-up, Wei Ying leans over his knees. “Hi! How was your day?”
Wei Ying has found that the best approach with ghosts is to talk to them like they’re normal people, experiencing time and space in the normal way. They live a lot in their memories and move through a spiritual topography Wei Ying only sees when he’s channeling deeply, but they can speak and understand fine. They just—get stuck sometimes.
A-Yuan is really stuck. More than any child-ghost Wei Ying has met, which might have something to do with how it happened. He’s stuck in the evening before everything went to hell. All of them were sitting around the dinner table, and something smoky and wistful was playing from Wei Ying’s phone, and A-Yuan was perched between Wei Ying and Granny, eating egg rolls with greasy fingers. It’s a happy memory, at least. He’s a happy kid and he knows he’s loved.
“You look funny, Xian-gege.”
“Was going for scary, but I’ll take it. Hey, A-Yuan, what’s this bone called?” Wei Ying tugs the neck of his hoodie down his shoulder and jabs at the chalky shape along his upper arm.
“It’s your ‘humerus’. Broke mine after I fell off my sword when I was thirteen.”
“Humerus. Can I try some?” Limited enthusiasm for bones. A-Yuan is considering his dinner.
“It’ll make your mouth explode,” Wei Ying says, but he digs up a big helping of noodles and sauce and wafts it in front of A-Yuan’s wide-open mouth until it passes right through.
A-Yuan tilts his head. “It tastes like red,” he says precisely. He has a whole range of food descriptors that are colors and some that are sounds. Wei Ying can’t tell if it’s a ghost thing or an A-Yuan thing.
“Tastes like red,” he says. “You’re right. Better or worse than the dan dan noodles you tried last week?”
“But better than the xian cai A-Ning got you to try yesterday?” Five years ago, yesterday. They’ve had this conversation a lot of times before. A-Yuan doesn’t remember. He never does.
“That was bad.” A-Yuan makes a face.
“Ah, that’s only because you didn’t try xian cai the way my shij—”
Wei Ying has to stop, his throat dry and cold around a stone of grief. A-Yuan says, “Gege?”
“It’s nothing.” Cheerful face. “Hey, do you want to read for a while?”
The book is about a brave hen who goes on adventures. A-Yuan points at the pictures and adds his own story about another hen who's a doctor. Wei Ying looks up when there's another presence, smiling a sweet wrinkly smile at them.
“Hey, here’s Popo. Hi, Popo.”
“A-Ying. You look so tired.” Granny always says that. Wei Ying has spent the last five years looking like shit.
“Oh, these are just my natural eye-circles,” he says.
“You must sleep, A-Ying.”
“Uh-huh, that’s the plan. Bye, A-Yuan! Be good.”
A-Yuan waves as he’s led away by the hand through a solid wall. “Bye, Xian-gege!” He won’t remember this tomorrow.
When they’re gone, Wei Ying smears at his face with the heels of his hands and his breath shakes like rough vibrato. He doesn’t cry in front of A-Yuan, that’s the rule, because it’s selfish, because A-Yuan doesn’t know that he’s dead, four-year-olds aren’t supposed to grasp that, and he doesn’t need to see grown-ups lose their shit for reasons he doesn’t understand. Most nights Wei Ying can hold it together, but sometimes it crushes his insides like thin paper in a fist, how unfair it is.
Wei Ying gulps down the rest of his cold noodles, the sloppy ones coiled in red shiny oil at the bottom of the cup. Then he curls up against the arm and adds amplifying strokes to a talisman design in his Notes app. Sadness is sloshing between his ribs.
“A-Ning, are there any of those miniatures left?” Uncle Four liberates them from hotel minibars.
“Oh. I think so.” Wen Ning would like to say ‘no’. Nobody but Wei Ying likes his drinking. “Are you alright, you sound—”
“I‘m fine.” He’s too tired to get up, though. Can’t even lift his head.
Wei Ying closes his eyes. His chest hurts, dull pulses like the tide tugging a boat against its mooring rope. It pulls and pulls. It breaks.
Somebody says, Wei Ying? But Wei Ying isn’t here, he’s in a million pieces which glitter like fish scales. He’s too tired to gather them up.
The bell over the shop door jangles.
Wei Ying gasps, his heart falling over its feet. He bangs his hand on the counter.
Watching Nie Huaisang approach has the feel of a dream he can’t stop. His vision swings like choppy river water.
Wei Ying is breathing from the top of his chest, sharp little sips. “Huaisang, what's happening, where—“
Huaisang’s mouth makes an ‘oh’ shape, eyes wide. “Wei Ying?”
“No,” he breathes. It’s the same, it’s this again. “Not again, why is this—“
“Hey.” Huaisang has his hands up, palms out. It’s meant to be soothing, but it makes Wei Ying feel like something wild baring its teeth. “Are you okay? What did you take?”
“I didn’t. I haven’t taken anything. This isn’t—in my head, this is—” He hauls Huaisang in by the silk lapels. Breathes the dizzy sweet sting of his perfume. “Is this you? Are you doing this? Did someone—spike my drink, or—”
“Spike your—what?” Huaisang pulls against his grip. “We haven’t even started drinking yet! Well, I had three glasses of wine with dinner, but that doesn’t count. Did you start early?”
“Not this time, the first time—”
It’s a loop. Wei Ying isn’t imagining it. This is the same night, over and over.
He makes his hands let go of Huaisang, and turns away.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay.”
He’s dead, and this is the afterlife. He’s losing it, and this is in his head. He’s been cursed, and this is impossible magic. One of those things Wei Ying knows about.
Patting Huaisang’s shoulder, he says, “Sorry! I, uh. You know how retail makes me crazy.”
“Yeah,” says Huaisang, hesitantly. “You—yeah. Do you... still want to go?”
Wei Ying has a theory. He tests theories all the time, although it’s usually whether putting another huo radical in the fourth quadrant of an array will make it combust like a firework, or whether he can last through a shift on espresso and wasabi peas after thirty hours awake.
“You know what? I’m not in the mood, let’s go somewhere else, okay?”
And Huaisang, because he’s the kind of friend Wei Ying doesn’t deserve, says, “Wei Ying,” and then, “Ugh, okay.”
“Let’s go to the river. Where’s that urban beach you showed me? Is that near here?”
It is, but it’s choked with people, so they walk along the waterfront. Manhattan Bridge is ahead, industrial in outline and strung with light, shining thin yellow talismans onto the water. A train rumbles like stage thunder.
Wei Ying can feel something slinking around in the river. Maybe a water demon, like the one Wei Ying hunted near Corlears Hook last month. Wei Ying gives it a soft warning whistle. He’s a fuckup in a hoodie that hasn’t been washed for days, but he’s also a necromancer on his own turf with thousands of ghosts who'd come to his call. Things in this city usually know to mind him.
It's just a sliver of memory, something about the way the light wriggles on the black river. It makes him think of summer lakes, and the humid night-time smell of water and lotuses. Jiang-shushu's warnings about swimming alone after dark. Then the vertigo of the sheer distance between there and here, and everything that’s gone.
“Hey,” says Huaisang. They’re standing at the railings, looking out toward the tall, rain-misted monuments across the river. “Um—I have a favor to ask.”
Wei Ying rises on tiptoes and leans against the cold rail, letting it take his weight. The water is hypnotic. It almost distracts Wei Ying from the slow, strangling feeling of a conversation he's had before. “You want me to go to Qinghe.”
“How do you know th—”
Wei Ying taps his nose. “The dead, Huaisang, they tell me things. They whisper to me in the n—“
“Ugh, don’t be a dick,” Huaisang says, and pushes him.
It isn’t a hard shove, but under Wei Ying the railing creaks—and bends like a swan’s neck, like metal fired molten. Wei Ying grabs for a stable part, misses, and overbalances.
His head cracks against a post, and the water crashes into him. The cold takes everything else.
Wei Ying coughs up a lungful of water and wipes his mouth on his sleeve. His dry sleeve. He was at the pier. He was at the pier, and he—
Maybe it's Huaisang.
Wei Ying runs. His soles scuff on the tiles of the back corridor. It feels like he’s still in the water, the current winging around his body like ribbons. Swaying, giddy, Wei Ying throws out a hand to catch himself on the wall.
Just as his palm grazes it, Wei Ying remembers the broken wall plaster, the split and ragged wiring twisting out. He hears a muffled pah! and the lights get very bright.
Electricity is whole-body white noise.
“Oh, come on! Fuck—” His hand is smoking. It’s not resentful energy. There’s a burnt, acrid smell, which is Wei Ying.
“Hey! Wei Ying!”
Halfway down the backstairs, Wei Ying treads on his sneaker laces and loses his footing.
The fall is so fast, and yet so, so slow.
Wei Ying slams his hands down on the counter. “Fuck!”
“Um,” says Huaisang. “What's wrong?”
The backstairs established as his nemesis, Wei Ying clings to the wall going down, fingers clawed into the gritty pits between bricks, one cautious step at a time. It takes him ten minutes to get down a single flight, but he manages it.
Mott Street is a jumbled panorama of light, red and gold in nostalgia shades. Rain turns to champagne foam as it runs into the drains. Headlights swing around the corner. Wei Ying starts off the other way.
Wei Ying’s foot tips into vacant space, and he barely has time to think, oh fuck, and then, this is hilarious, before he falls down an open sewer.
“Fuck!” Wei Ying touches his neck, the ladder of his vertebrae, unbroken. “Okay, give up on the stairs.”
It’s time magic. Has to be.
Wei Ying reaches for the ghost energy that’s the hissing marrow of the bones of this place, like tugging blankets over his head, and snaps his fingers. Huaisang freezes.
It’s so much harder than usual, like trying to swim upriver, all Wei Ying’s strength against the ferocious shoving of time. Wei Ying’s ears fill with a rising drone of voices.
Wei Wuxian—Wei Wuxian, Wei Wuxian—
Wei Ying slaloms out into the dark night air and starts up toward the main street. Shadows hang from the fire escapes like cage bars. The alley desaturates, and Wei Ying doubles over in front of painted shutters. Blood is drumming at the surface of his skin. The voices crawl over him.
He doesn’t end the spell. It frays and snaps like twine.
“Wei Ying!” Huaisang leans out of the shop, waving an arm. “How did you—”
“I gotta go.” A warm slug of blood slides down Wei Ying’s upper lip. “Sorry, I—” He dabs his nose with his sleeve and starts to walk.
Demonic cultivation laughs at gravity, solid walls, meteorology, flesh-decay and the natural end of life, but time is something else. Back in Yiling, Wei Ying tried to ripen loquats faster, and the results were never the same twice. Ripe and gold as autumn ginkgo leaves, or slumping fruit pulp, or black and pastel mold, or pale ash. Stopping time for a half-minute is a prank, it’s a curio, something ordinary cultivation can’t do. Anything more is like trying to stop the ocean tide coming in.
It’s never been this hard, though. That little thing.
Nie Huaisang 21:04
u get that was weird right
Wei Ying walks and walks, and then falls over dizzy climbing the stairs to his apartment, knees full of water. As he’s slumped against the handrail, ponytail pouring around his face, Uncle Four says, “Wei-gongzi, are you alright?”
“Fine!” he calls. “I’m fine, wow, these never get any easier!”
He heaves himself through the apartment door.
“Wei Ying, are you—”
Time to talk to some ghosts. The door to the fire escape is finicky and Wei Ying’s hands are tired and stupid, but he gets it open.
A chill greets him there, the air fresh with rain. Their building is a prewar walkup, and the outside staircases groan like arthritic bones. Wei Ying weaves between his herb pots as he hauls himself up by the wet iron railings to the roof.
A huge, gleaming view of the streets and rooftops unrolls in every direction, spiky with graffiti. The sky is swollen yellow-gray, old bruising. Wei Ying sits on the railing, and windows crowd all around him, bright slices of other lives. Below, a siren rises and falls. Cars flicker past, tail-lights red and yellow, like schools of koi in a pond. The strangeness of a city, things tangled and separate.
Wei Ying whistles a few notes, and waits.
Some ghosts are just a velveteen shimmer, oil swirling in a drain. But there are the clear, familiar ones, too. A slinking cat-spirit who likes to curl up near the roof vents. A see-through old lady watering her flower boxes with a cracked plastic watering can. A faded man in overalls drinking beer on a rickety chair on the fire escape. Wei Ying hasn’t helped them to move on yet, but he will. It’s a matter of working out what they want.
As Wei Ying sits there, their voices flicker and break in the breeze. It's like white surf on riverbank stones, or hot late-summer night insects. It’s nice. It’s the loneliest fucking thing in the world. He’s cold and tired and lonely, and it’s his birthday.
“Loud tonight, huh?” he says, and a girl with a ponytail and high-waisted jeans gives him a deadpan stare. Sometimes Wei Ying gets sensory detail, and she comes with a burble of finger-picked guitar. “Like a giant concert, and everybody thinks they're the act.”
“You’re so not the act,” she says.
“Hey, you’re talking to me, right?” She makes a disgusted noise.
Dozens of ghosts are drifting this way. They like attention—that’s one thing Wei Ying has in common with the transient ghost population of New York. They like somebody who sees them and listens.
“Hi,” Wei Ying says. There’s a crowd now. “Ah, so. Any other demonic cultivators I should know about? Like—big stuff? Really big, impossible, reality-breaking stuff?”
Like people, ghosts mostly don’t know when they’re being used. But they feel a certain way if they’ve been tapped for spellwork—stale and watery, a little frail. These ghosts are vibrant. Their voices jump and clatter, rain on a tin roof.
“You’d tell me, right, if you were hanging out with other demonic cultivators? You’d let me down gently?”
There’s something weird about their energy, Wei Ying thinks. It’s like hovering his finger over a hot stovetop, the anticipation of burning in all the cells of his skin. Inconclusive.
Wei Ying has never seen a curse like this, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Demonic cultivation was impossible until it wasn’t, until a kid on a mountain of corpses was desperate enough to invent it.
After a while the ghosts drift away, flotsam and jetsam in the night air. Wei Ying’s eyelids sink. He fights it. Tiredness makes him heavy, and then it makes him dizzy.
From all that distance below the ground moves, and Wei Ying moves, like he’s being spilled, limbs gone liquid. He tries to catch himself on the railing but it isn’t where he thought it was, and the slick, creaking iron slips against his palms.
Wei Ying tips forward into empty air. Fear grips him, a rollercoaster swoop, followed by a ferocious gut-kick when he realizes that nothing’s going to stop this. Then he’s falling, and—
Whiplash punches the breath out of him. His body is shocky, juddering with every wave, the blood-crash of adrenaline. Wei Ying looks down at his hands on the counter, their stupid trembling.
Black umbrella. Flourish of silk bathrobe. Huaisang’s red, red mouth.
If this is a curse, it’s wound tight. “Okay. Okay.” Wei Ying lets his head sink until his forehead touches the cold, scarred wood. “Aaaaahhhhhh.”
No time to rest. “Sorry!”
This time, Wei Ying shoulders Nie Huaisang aside and makes a break for it. The fucking bell jangles again.
Outside, the rain is coming down. Wei Ying’s scalp prickles with cold as his hair gets wet. He starts to walk.
Nie Huaisang 21:02
what the fuckkk
Li Tong is out of talisman paper. Wei Ying moves from one streetlamp to the next, each bulb a droplet of sodium-vapor light, like a breadcrumb trail. The asphalt shines.
Wei Ying 21:12
i need supplies
at the shop?
Lao Yang 21:16
Yang Zaihan is an alchemist. He runs his shop out of a bodega basement, trading in spell materials. He used to lead a small sect in Runan, until the Qishan Wen killed all his disciples and he fled. He doesn’t talk about it and Wei Ying doesn’t ask, but it reeks of shame. They have that in common.
Wei Ying 21:29
urgent thing came up
Nie Huaisang 21:30
Wei Ying steps into the bodega, through a blast of hot recycled air. It’s a small place, with a low ceiling and a stringent smell of cilantro and mop-liquid. They have a black cat who sleeps between the jalapeño baskets. Wei Ying always notices the ranks of pink sugar-dusted conchas, ridged like seashells.
“Hi, Josefine,” he calls, and she stops stacking canned beans to nod at him.
“Hey, Wei Ying.”
“Is he in?”
“Yep. Head down.”
Wei Ying steps around the pallet of cans she’s shelving and ducks through the beaded curtain. It’s a steep staircase down. Wei Ying takes it slow.
“Lao Yang? It’s me, your favorite!”
Yang Zaihan is sitting in his usual chair, feet up on the table. He isn't in his pale gray hanfu; he's wearing an old jean jacket. He rustles down his newspaper and takes in Wei Ying.
"Haven't heard from you in a while."
During his first winter here alone, the heating broke in Wei Ying's apartment. The landlord ignored his texts. Then, after two weeks of sleeping in every layer he owned, Wei Ying got sick. Hot, sweat-clammy, then cold, upside-down feeling. Everything had eyes and was displeased with him. Wei Ying walked to the shop to buy paper for warming talismans, and woke up on the carpet. Holding his wrist, Yang Zaihan said, "Where's your core, kid?" and he mumbled, "Gave it away," and Yang Zaihan said, "Shit." They had an argument Wei Ying doesn't remember after he said that yes, he was really fine and no, he didn't know when he'd last eaten, and no, there was nobody to call. Wei Ying spent the next three days delirious in a sleeping-bag and blankets by the stove, getting shaken awake to swallow bitter alchemical mixtures, Tylenol, and congee. Yang Zaihan knew who and what he was, and didn't care. He never mentioned the crying or the nightmares.
The delicate, peaty smell reminds Wei Ying of afternoons when he was half-recovered, penciling funny faces on old newspaper, his fingers black and tacky from the print. There's a steel kettle on the stove. Shelves bow under string-tied white packages and boxes and jars. One wall is entirely wooden drawers, pasted with red labels.
“Laobanniang keeps me busy.” Wei Ying shuts the door, lifting it off the faded rug and wedging it into the jamb with his foot.
“Not that busy. I heard you took some big marks down on your own.”
“One or two.”
Yang Zaihan rumbles with laughter. “Zhao Yi hunted that ghost for ten days, and you dealt with it in one night.”
“Zhao Yi needs another profession. Even a ghost in a resentful frenzy knows to stay the fuck away from him.”
“You’re not wrong. Alright, what's so urgent?”
“I need your best paper and red ink,” Wei Ying says. “Uh, thirty talisman papers? And a large ink-stick.”
“What have you got for me?”
“Aiya, do I get nothing on credit? Employee discount?”
“You know how it is,” Yang Zaihan says, and Wei Ying does. Lanling Jin sends disciples to raid shops and warehouses they suspect of trading in black-market cultivation goods. Dealers have to skimp and scramble to survive. Wei Ying has bought from most dealers in the city. Yang Zaihan’s stuff is good. “And you’re freelance, at best.”
“Screw over your gig-work necromancer, I get it.” Wei Ying slumps into the other chair, damp jeans clammy against his thighs. “What do you want? A couple of alarm talismans?”
“Four alarms and four for breaking locks—as I assume you’ll be using my paper and ink.”
“Hey, my genius is worth more than your paper and ink.”
Yang Zaihan snorts. “Four and four, genius.”
“Okay, okay. Who wants these, anyway?”
“I don’t ask.”
“Sure, fine.” There are over two hundred talisman designs on Wei Ying’s phone that he’s never taught to anyone else. Some he’ll do for barter. Some he’ll never give away. You can't control how the things you make are used, but Wei Ying hopes—he hopes.
Yang Zaihan glances at his own phone, which is lit up with a notification banner. “Are you working tonight? There's talk about a demon, a ghost, something that sounds like a goblin but might be a feral cat…”
The local network of rogue cultivators track spiritual activity. They request Wei Ying for the weird cases, the difficult ones. Wei Ying always said yes. Then two months ago the days began to lose shape, bleached gray like eclipse-light, and Yang Zaihan stopped asking.
“Because of this urgent thing.”
“I’ll be around tomorrow,” Wei Ying says. “If tomorrow ever happens.”
“Oh.” Wei Ying shakes his head. “Nevermind.”
Yang Zaihan goes into a drawer and brings him strips of yellow rice paper and a brush and ink. “I’m making tea, you want some?”
“Okay.” Wei Ying is already mapping the shape of the talisman in his head, the path for the energy, like carving bamboo for irrigation pipes.
Yang Zaihan says, “Hey, kid.”
"Ah?" Wei Ying jolts out of his concentration. In front of him there’s the usual pu'er tea in a chipped blue china cup, and four steaming baozi in a tupperware box, a little dry and puckered from the microwave. "Oh—thank you."
“Eat up,” says Yang Zaihan. “You’re getting scrawny again.”
“It’s been a lean month, I’ve got bills to pay.”
Wei Ying digs into the baozi while he contemplates lock-breaking talismans. Twenty minutes later he lays down his brush and blows across the ink to set it faster.
“Done,” he says. Yang Zaihan folds down the newspaper again and leans over. “Here.” Wei Ying offers up the little stack of yellow papers. “Four and four.”
Yang Zaihan tucks them into his jacket pocket. In return, he brings Wei Ying a thicker stack of blank papers and a lightweight brick trussed up in cloth. “Paper, ink. You want a bag?”
“Thanks.” Wei Ying watches him tuck them into a brown paper bag, and accepts it from him. “This ink better be higher grade than the stuff you gave me last time.” Wei Ying tied himself in knots explaining the burns on his hands to Wen Qing.
“No one else complained.”
“Your other buyers use it for weak stuff. I need to know it’s good, I don’t want to find out when my summoning array explodes in my face.”
“Okay.” Wei Ying fiddles with the bag's jagged edge. “Hey, uh—you still have it, right? You haven’t sold it?”
This gets him a funny look. “I’m not a fool. If I sold that thing—to anyone—I’d have Lanling Jin breaking down my door next hour.”
“You and me both,” Wei Ying mutters. “Thanks... for keeping it.”
Yang Zaihan folds his arms. “So you don’t want it back?”
“No.” Yes. “It’s fine, I don’t… I don’t need it.”
“Hm,” Yang Zaihan says, but that’s all.
“En. Go on, get lost.”
By the time Wei Ying reaches his apartment, he has almost the full array sketched in his head. Wen Ning looks up from his tablet.
“Wei Ying, hello. Did you—”
“A-Ning, have we done this already tonight? Me walking in the door, you saying hi, have we—”
“No? You’ve been gone all evening.”
Which evening? Wei Ying feels dizzy. “God, I think I’m…”
“Ah, nothing.” No point. “A-Ning, I’m going to do some evil sorcery on the roof. If you feel anything, don’t freak out, okay?”
Wen Ning nods and smiles. “I’ll try not to be alarmed.”
Wei Ying is the first and best demonic cultivator in the world. If there’s a solution, he’ll find it.
He climbs up to the roof with his paper bag and supplies scrounged from the kitchen and a bucket of water. Wei Ying slices his finger on his pocket knife and draws a concealing talisman, the slip of yellow rice paper cupped in his cold hand. When he has twenty of them, he cuts a hole in each and threads them onto a long piece of string. Then he stashes them in the paper bag, so they can’t get them wet. He once tried laminating talismans, but it dampened the energetic pathways. Too much spitting and smoking.
Wei Ying unwraps the ink-cake. He can smell the charred lampblack, the tang of the fish-skin glue. The best stuff is made by a workshop in Shexian affiliated with the Gusu Lan. The Lan control the supply, but a few years ago somebody started selling it on the black market at twice the price. Even in the flat beam of Wei Ying’s torch the color is so rich, it's like a hallucination of red. Funny to think of stuffy Lan disciples guarding warehouses full of it.
A scrappy talisman on rough paper should take care of any dust or fumes. Wei Ying cuts the brick into pieces and begins to grind it on his inkstone. Ink is usually ground with water; Wei Ying uses water and his own blood, which he keeps in jars in the fridge. Wen Qing disapproves, but cultivator blood is potent and makes a thicker ink. Good for surfaces.
Wei Ying used to hate grinding ink. Eleven o'clock became an eternal hour in a sticky-hot room with Jiang Cheng and Jiang Cheng's calligraphy tutor. Thunder rolling down the granite sky. The late plum rain. Now it's almost meditative, ink-stick circling and circling on clay.
Wei Ying pushes up his damp sleeves and kneels down on the wet ground. A drying talisman lifts the moisture from the roof, like peeling away a navy skin. Wei Ying dips his goat-hair brush and begins to paint.
The array takes a long time. Wei Ying gets the command characters wrong and has to scrub them off. A curse-breaking array needs as much power as he can give it, so Wei Ying refines the design as he goes, using what he knows about this curse. It’s a time-trap, which shouldn’t even be possible. It has one target. It hinges on death.
Unfurling the bundle of talismans and string, Wei Ying gives each talisman a flick of energy. They glow as they float away from his hands, rising like red sky lanterns, and Wei Ying pushes them outward to make a perimeter around the array. If anybody looks up, they’ll see an empty rooftop.
As Wei Ying paints the last stroke, the array illuminates, seething red. The impurities from the concrete burn off, smelling like singed hair. The array starts to pull—on the air, on the stone, on the thronging ghosts, on him. Black wisps of energy rise all around in a crown of fumes. Wei Ying breathes in and out, steadying breaths.
The energy gets higher and higher. It coils into Wei Ying, seething down his meridians, and he has to press his palm to an anchor talisman to keep the energy from swarming him inside. Ghosts are so hungry, even the mildest ones, and they’ll take whatever they can get. Sometimes Wei Ying has to be a bad vessel.
The spell peaks, the energy thick and close as fog. Wei Ying waits, and waits, but he doesn’t feel anything. He looks down at his hands and arms. Resentful energy is smoking off his skin, but it’s thin vapor, spell residue.
“Fuck!” Savagely, Wei Ying tips over the whole bucket of water onto the array. It dies hissing like a fire doused.
Okay, so Wei Ying can’t break it yet. But curses leave a fingerprint, like a maker’s seal mark on porcelain. There must be a trace somewhere of who did this to him.
Wei Ying tries three more configurations. He goes through all his ink, and has to lean against the brick wall while his vision bruises and shrinks, ghosts screaming in his ears. Nothing.
It’s not a curse.
Sitting on the wet fire escape steps, Wei Ying empties tiny bottles of whiskey until he can’t feel the cold, or much of anything.
“Come on,” he mumbles to nobody, and then, because it doesn’t matter if he’s heard, “Come on! If you’re gonna kill me—”
“Wei Ying?” A soft voice feathers up like mist from below. Wen Ning is leaning out of the window. “What are you doing?”
Wei Ying laughs, which feels like rattling shards of glass in his mouth, and raises the bottle in a toast. “Taunting death! An important part of every birthday.” Wei Ying empties it. His hand is shaking. “Fuck.”
“Are you alright?”
“A-Ning, is your sister around?”
“Jie’s working tonight. She’s with Mrs Nazimova. Said she’d be late.”
Wei Ying goes down the fire escape, clutching the rail the whole way. He makes it to Mrs Nazimova’s apartment, and raps on the door. His breath fogs from his mouth.
The door opens, and there’s Wen Qing. Her hair’s in a little bun, wisps falling in front of her ears. Her red blouse is a brilliant ink-daub of color.
She steps out. “Wei Wuxian, what are you doing here?”
“Qing-jie, I…” He’s shaking, probably from channeling so hard into the array. It feels like he’s going to rattle himself to shrapnel. “I…”
He sinks onto Mrs Nazimova's folding chair, where she once sat to tell Wei Ying about her domovoy, her household god. His thoughts are jangling and shivery, collapsed chords. Wen Qing's mouth flattens and she crouches in front of him, hands laced together on her knees.
Wen Ning and Wen Qing are the only ones who see his bad days. When Wei Ying can’t get out of bed, Wen Ning brings him tea and tomato eggs, and asks him very nicely if he'd take a shower, please. When he comes home after a difficult exorcism—a dead family gone so wrong—and can’t say a word, Wen Qing takes care of A-Yuan and keeps the other ghosts away and maybe plays her pipa to help him sleep. Sometimes there are needles. They sit up with Wei Ying through insomnia and nightmares and manic jags of night-time spellwork. There are little drawings left on his bedside (‘Wei Ying, please drink water!’). Medicinal tinctures for too much yin energy in the bathroom cabinet. Their two smiling faces at the end of the day when everything seems cruel and pointless. Wei Ying owes them more than he can ever repay.
Confronted by Wen Qing's brisk, knowing eyes, it dies on Wei Ying’s tongue. “Ah, it’s nothing, I’m fine—”
“Sure, you look fine.”
Wei Ying looks down, avoiding her. One of Mrs Nazimova’s plants is dead, gray dried-out stems keeled over. Without thinking, Wei Ying feeds it a little pulse of energy. Wake up, wake up. A pallid stalk rises out of its very deep bow, twitching up to touch Wei Ying’s fingertip.
“Wei Wuxian, stop reanimating parsley and talk.”
“Alright,” Wei Ying says. “Okay. Um. I think I’m… there’s something really wrong with me.“
“What is it?”
I’m dying. I’m dead. Wei Ying laughs. It’s not a good laugh, and she can hear that.
“How much have you had to drink?”
“Nothing, this time. I think, I don’t—”
“I’ve done this night a lot of times,” Wei Ying says. “It’s pretty fascinating, actually, except that it’s happening to me and it keeps happening and I don’t know how to make it stop.”
She frowns. “You’re not making sense.”
Her hand hovers by Wei Ying’s wrist, feeling his meridians. Stuck, stagnant.
“No, I know, it sounds—crazy, and it’s entirely possible this is just in my head, but I—”
“Wei Ying,” she says, a neat scissor-cut. “Slow down.”
“Yeah, sorry, I—”
“Come upstairs.” She stands up. “You need sleep. Have you eaten?”
“I had baozi at lao-Yang’s place.”
She wrinkles her nose. “And probably only that, for ten hours. What did he want?”
“I needed supplies. Boss is out ghost-hunting.”
She steps down into Mrs Nazimova’s apartment. Wei Ying can hear the lilt of her voice, not the words. After a minute she climbs back out onto the fire escape, shutting the door behind her.
“Is Mrs Nazimova okay?”
“She’s frail and lonely. Go on, idiot, up you go.”
“Yeah. Qing-jie ah, I don’t—”
The stairs are more slippery than Wei Ying thought, rain turning to a film of ice. As he swerves around a plant pot, his shoe skids on the iron with a cartoon squeak, and Wei Ying spills over the rail—
“No! Fuck—” Solid ground under his feet. Not vacant air, his body in freefall.
Wei Ying breathes down the nausea pushing up his throat, and clenches his unstable hands. “I’m getting out of this. I’m getting out of this night.”
Is it a spatial jump, or a leap through time? No wounds, but Wei Ying remembers the dying. Wen Qing could—
He doesn’t even make it home. Wei Ying hears a grinding screech, and there’s a fucking scaffold pole, falling—
A girl dressed as Sailor Neptune elbows him heedlessly into traffic. Wei Ying has time to look into the taxi driver’s eyes and feel bad.
A motorcycle skid-screams onto the sidewalk. It’s fast. Nearly painless.
How do you solve a curse that isn’t a curse?
This time, Wei Ying doesn’t try to get back to Wen Qing. He just walks, as far as he can.
Two hours later he falls down a staircase in a park and lies there in the wet, slimy leaves. There’s broken glass under him, in him.
If this is the afterlife, he’s screwed.
Outside a bar he just keels over, pain punching at his sternum until Wei Ying thinks it’ll crack, and laughs when someone asks if he needs an ambulance. The sidewalk is gritty-wet under his cheek.
There’s no getting out. No escape.
He blinks. Touches his cheek—clean, dry. It's unreal.
Wei Ying sinks down, putting his back against the counter. “Please, Huaisang. Just—go away.”
There’s a long silence. Wei Ying listens to the distant drone and brake-wince of traffic.
The bell rings out again. With a groan, the door drifts shut.
Wei Ying rubs his palms over his knees in the grainy denim, and watches his own belly rise and sink with breath. His mouth is dry. He doesn’t feel dead, but he must be.
He closes his eyes, and that’s all there is.
The bell over the shop door jangles.
Wei Ying tears the paper-man on the counter into shreds and looks at Nie Huaisang.
“This is really messed up.”
“Everything. Fuck.” Wei Ying can hear his voice rising, helium-giddy. “Never mind, it doesn’t—doesn’t matter. I need a drink, let’s go.”
It doesn’t matter. None of it does.
Then he’s standing in the red-brick apartment, unsure how he got here.
“Wei Ying?” Huaisang is looking at him strangely. “What do you want?”
“Anything but beer,” he says. “The strong stuff! I’m gonna drink like this party’s for me.”
Mianmian folds her arms, eyes crow-sharp. “You said you didn’t want one.”
“I did say that.”
“So I was actually supposed to understand that you did? Even though you went out of your way to emphasize that you really, really didn’t?”
“Mianmiaaan,” he whines, “don’t be mean to me, you can’t, it’s my birthday…”
“Wei Ying. You’re being shitty. You can’t ghost us for two months, then show up and complain we’re not mind-readers. We thought you were—”
Dead, maybe, or halfway there, beat up in a cell in Goldscale Tower. Wei Ying’s stomach is a peach writhing with worms.
Mianmian shakes her head. “It’s good to see you.”
Wei Ying bites his lip, hard enough to feel the split, the glassy sting, as Mianmian walks away to join Liqiu on the couch.
Huaisang just says, “Let’s drink.”
So Wei Ying drinks, and drinks, and drinks. It’s a good time to celebrate, if he'll be turning twenty-six forever. Wei Ying roams between gaggles of people, dancing, forgetting names, laughing at jokes that aren’t funny, so far outside himself that he might be six full feet below his own shoes.
As Wei Ying is drifting toward the kitchen, feeling abstract and too hot, he bumps into a body.
“Woah,” says the boy, steadying him by the shoulder. He’s okay-looking. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Wei Ying says. “Hey.”
He can do this. Wei Ying offers up his surest smile. “Yeah! Although, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for my chili vodka cocktails. I'm unappreciated in my own time.”
They dance together, the boy’s hands heavy on his hips. When Wei Ying laughs, the boy is looking at his mouth, his bitten lip.
Wei Ying says, “Do you want to...”
He isn’t even horny. He just wants to be touched, with intention. Wei Ying feels like he might slip out of his body, his skin as thin as dead leaves. Any waiting ghost would slide into him so easily, a hand into a tired, scarred glove.
When the bedroom door is closed behind them, the boy comes close. His thumb draws Wei Ying’s cheekbone, fingers tucking against his jaw. “God, you’re gorgeous.”
Wei Ying nearly laughs. He’s pale and bruise-eyed like a ghoul even when his face is unpainted. “Thanks.”
“Can I…” The boy’s eyes dip. That look makes Wei Ying’s lips hum.
“Yeah. Yes. Okay.”
And it is okay, just okay, when the boy kisses him, and pushes his tongue into his mouth, and tilts up Wei Ying’s face with both hands. It’s okay, it’s fine, it’s better than nothing. Wei Ying is alive and somebody wants him, even if it’s just for now.
And, oh, he’s tired and the room is seasick motion and Wei Ying has a fistful of shirt to tether himself steady while the boy takes off his hoodie, rolls it down Wei Ying’s arms and throws it away somewhere, and begins to mouth at his neck. Wei Ying wonders if it’s necrophilia if the other person doesn’t know you’re a corpse, and laughs to himself.
They’re on the bed. There’s chipped paint on the ceiling. The boy slips his fingers under Wei Ying’s t-shirt, stroking up the small of his back, and Wei Ying remembers why he doesn’t let anyone see under his clothes. Ordinary people have surgical scars, sure. But they don’t have brands. They don’t have marks from torture.
He flinches a little when fingers graze the scar behind the roundness of his hip, made with a blade, and then flinches a lot as they drag around to his belly. Core scar. Wei Ying hates it being touched, hates it, even though it’s white dead tissue, no feeling in it at all.
Wei Ying looks at this face, brand-new but too familiar, and he imagines his lips are still painted black and have left a smear across that mouth, like a finger swept through wet ink. Ruin.
“Sorry,” he’s saying, but he’s laughing. “Sorry.“
Wei Ying tips off the bed, staggers up, and leaves. Locks the bathroom door. Washes his hands and doesn't recognize his own eyes.
Then he’s in the starkly bright kitchen, staring at bottles of spirits and their stained glass shadows. He’s drunker now, which is better and worse. When Wei Ying’s drunk, really drunk, it’s like that silty suspension just before he falls asleep. Wading into the shallows. His brain stops fidgeting. Things don’t make sense, but Wei Ying accepts it, the loops and whorls of unlogic. Everything’s very funny and sad, and he alone knows this.
Reaching for a white bottle which might be rum, Wei Ying knocks his hip against the marble island and curses. The stacked cups beside him tip and clatter onto the floor.
“Wei Ying, I think you’ve had enough.”
“Ah, it’s fine, it’s fine—” Wei Ying reaches for the rum. Faster, Huaisang slides it out of reach. “Huaisang, don’t cut me off, that’s not what friends do…”
“My plans for this evening don’t include carrying you like a sack of potatoes or a midnight trip to the ER, okay?”
Wei Ying laughs. “We definitely won’t get that far.”
“Ah, doesn’t matter.”
The boy who led Wei Ying upstairs wanders past the kitchen. Huaisang nudges him. “Did you have fun? How was it?”
Wei Ying can’t say, I ran away. He can’t say, my entire body is a fucking warzone, and apparently the only thing worse than not being touched is being touched. He can’t say, I’m like every ghost in this city, hungry for what I can't have.
“Oh—ha ha. Well, you know I don’t have any shame, but I think he’d be embarrassed if I said too much, you know?”
Huaisang laughs. “Of course, of course.”
Wei Ying looks down. A self-sick feeling twists inside him.
Being upright is too hard, so Wei Ying crumples onto a bar stool. He folds his arms on the table and sinks his spinning head down into their cradle.
Time hiccups, and Wei Ying remembers.
“That guy knows who I am,” he says.
“Mianmian’s friend. Knows my name.”
“And if he knows, the Jin probably know, so. Not great.”
It fell out of Wei Ying’s brain, twenty-some deaths ago. They’re going to find Wen Ning, all because Wei Ying couldn’t resist showing off, tinkering in Li Tong’s backroom. They’re going to find Wen Qing, who escaped, and all the Wen ghosts. Uncle Two, Uncle Four. Granny. A-Yuan.
Maybe that’s what this is. A Jin trap, a net made of time, to hold Wei Ying until they can take him away. Or maybe Wei Ying is just really, really dead.
Huaisang winces. “It’s probably fine, though. Right? I don’t think they’ll—”
“You don’t think? What am I supposed to do with that? You’re so cosy with them, but you don’t know if they’re about to raze everything to the ground?”
Huaisang’s eyes go dull. “Sorry, I.” He tilts his chin down, shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
Wei Ying bites his tongue, guilty, but it’s already leapt from his mouth. He lets his head sink again. He’s queasy, that swollen-throated feeling, and his temples thud.
“Wei Ying…” A glass is set in front of him. “Drink some water, okay?”
“Yeah.” Wei Ying raises himself and sips a few mouthfuls. It’s cold, and Wei Ying’s teeth ache in their roots. “Hey, Huaisang. Huaisang.”
“I think I’m being punished.”
Wei Ying wheezes a little laugh. “For what! How many convicted necromancers do you know, Huaisang? Have you been cheating on me with other necromancers who’ve been cast out by all the sects? Am I just a number to you?”
“Wei Ying,” Huaisang hisses. “Not so loud—”
“It’s fine, no one’s going to believe…”
He needs more booze. Wei Ying jerks to his feet and lunges for the white bottle. His sneaker skids, and Wei Ying sees the dish-towel on the floor—who the fuck has silk dish-towels?—as he falls.
The crack goes right through his skull. Wei Ying’s tooth cuts the edge of his tongue.
“Wei Ying! Oh, fuck, fuck—”
He’s lying down. Around him it’s muted, a dreary blur which stirs like soup. Is there blood? Wei Ying doesn’t know.
He hurt Mianmian and Huaisang this time. Do the loops keep going? Are those the last conversations they ever have, before Wei Ying dies on a kitchen floor?
Wei Ying’s eyes are ringing. His jaw. There’s a slow, slow vibration through his body, like a deep chthonic hum. His legs have gone away. His mouth is open but the shapes of words are gone. Huaisang is screaming, maybe.
“What happened, is he—”
“Wei Ying! Wei Ying, don’t—”
The bell over the shop door jangles.
Wei Ying can’t look at Huaisang. He just leaves, shambling his way down the stairs, and out the back door. His face is wet. He smears at it with his sleeve.
That last one was worse, somehow, than the others. Huaisang’s terrified face.
It’s raining. Huddling into himself, Wei Ying starts to walk. He crosses streets in a daze.
After a while, he looks at his phone. 21:49, says his lock screen. Wei Ying is standing in front of a laundry, dark except for a neon sign, with high-rise towers leaning over him from all sides.
Nie Huaisang 21:02
There’s a figure ahead. Just standing there, watching him. A boy in pale clothes. The not-ghost. Wei Ying goes toward him.
“Hey!” he calls, “hey, are you okay?”
The boy laughs, thin heaves of his chest. His eyes are drunken and glassy.
“What’s your name?”
Mo. Mo family, branch clan of Lanling Jin. Of course. Of course. Rage grabs Wei Ying by the neck.
“You—what are you doing here? What have you done to me—”
Every ghost around Wei Ying bristles like an electric current. Their voices get louder. The boy stands his ground. “I need you.”
Wei Ying’s body is a nest of live wires. Resentful energy rises from him like exhaust smog. “Did the Jin tell you to do this?”
Mo Xuanyu’s eyes are wide. “No!”
“Undo it! Now!”
“I can’t! It’s done. I need you.”
“For what? Why do you—”
He’s gone, like a mote in the eye blinked away. Frantic, Wei Ying stares at the rain-gauzy street ahead and behind—gone.
“Where are you? Come back!”
Resentment seethes in Wei Ying’s meridians, pouring into the empty place where his core used to be. His skull is full of screaming.
Wei Ying, calm down, somebody tells him. His heart is going so fast, and then it slumps, like a flame guttering in a draft. Wei Ying folds down onto the curb, arms hugged around his knees, cheek against his damp jeans. He’s so tired. He’s so tired.
There’s a bus, suddenly. Bright light, faces in a row. There’s something appealing about it—motion, escape—and as the doors close Wei Ying staggers up and raps hard on the glass.
The bus driver gives him a filthy look. Wei Ying almost doesn’t care. The doors hiss open again. Wei Ying struggles with his wallet, swipes his card.
The bus inhales and rumbles into motion. It’s full of ghosts, of course. Wei Ying tries to ignore them.
“Okay,” he murmurs. He grabs the rail with two hands. “This is okay.”
He’s talking to himself out loud, which should be a bad sign, but it doesn’t matter. Maybe if Wei Ying rides this bus to the last stop, he’ll have lasted long enough to get free. Probably not.
Next loop. He’ll solve it next loop, when he doesn’t feel like he’s been scraped hollow.
Wei Ying looks up. Standing halfway back there’s a boy, and his face is impossible. He’s wearing white, his body made of crisp, beautiful lines. Light squirms, liquid, in his long black hair, which is pinned half-up. He looks so serious.
Wei Ying starts toward him. Then the bus turns a corner, pulling Wei Ying’s injured wrist, and Wei Ying loses grip on the rail and stumbles straight into the boy—who doesn’t stagger at all, but repels Wei Ying with a sharp look.
The boy crosses to the other side of the aisle, putting distance between them. There’s a card on a coiled lanyard tucked under his thumb on the pile of books he’s carrying. Wei Ying leans close enough to read the larger text.
“Lan Wangji,” he reads. “That’s you?”
The boy frowns. “Yes.” His voice is soft.
Wei Ying raises his hand in a stupid little wave. “Hi! I’m Wei Ying.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t blink. He seems disconcerted—or angry? It’s hard to tell.
Wei Ying reaches for something, anything. He wants this person to keep looking, because otherwise he might disappear. Even if Lan Wangji is looking at him like he’s lost his mind, which probably Wei Ying has.
“You just finished work? School?”
A long pause.
“Study,” Lan Wangji says. "At the library."
“What do you study?”
Something about that thrums in Wei Ying’s memory, and then it’s gone. “That’s cool, that’s really—okay, I would definitely ask you a million questions about that, on any other night. I’m just, uh, I’m kinda out of it tonight. And every tonight, I guess. I don’t usually get this bus, the driver who works on weeknights hates me because I—” Had a breakdown on the back seats.
It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Wei Ying will be back in the shop soon.
“Oh, and also because somebody died on here—had a stroke, he’s right over there—and now he’s just a nuisance who breathes down people’s necks, even though he’s not corporeal enough to manage even the lightest spiritual breath-vape. So sometimes I tell him to get lost, which seems antisocial if you can’t see who I’m talking to.”
“You can see his ghost?” The faintest creases appear beneath Lan Wangji’s eyes.
“Yeah. Yeah, I can see them all, they’re everywhere. Impossible to escape, actually!”
Wei Ying starts laughing and then he can’t stop. It feels like being sick. “Sorry, sorry, I’m just having—god, the worst night, and it’s apparently never-ending, so I’m not in a great place right now.”
Lan Wangji stares at him.
Then the bus swerves. The wheels are skidding but there’s a strange lack of friction—rain turning to ice—and Wei Ying realizes what’s about to happen.
“Shit,” he breathes.
They’re going so fast, the lights streaking by like comets. Even after two dozen deaths, Wei Ying’s body fizzes with fight-or-flight, get out, get out, get out. He knows there’s no getting out.
The impossible boy is still looking at him. Wei Ying smiles and breathes out shakily, feeling insane. Only moments left.
“You’re not going to remember this,” he says. “But it was nice to meet you, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji blinks. The change in his eyes might be shock. “How do you know that name?”
“I didn’t give it to you.”
It just came out. Lan Zhan. “Oh. Uh. That’s weird, isn’t it?” They’ve never met. Why is a stranger’s birth name in his mouth?
They’re careening toward a tower block, and there’s nothing to break the momentum. Around them people are screaming, clutching at rails, trying to get the windows and doors open. It’s funny, Wei Ying thinks. Imagine believing you have a chance.
Lan Wangji—Lan Zhan—hasn’t moved, except to glance out the window at the city streaming by too fast.
“Lan Zhan, you’re not—“
“No,” Lan Zhan says, and he’s so calm, holding the rail and his blue paper parasol. “This happens all the time.”
All the time— “Wait. You too?”
Then it hits.