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It was nighttime. Bright moon, thin clouds, no stars. Jiang Cheng should already be sleeping, but instead he was traipsing through the forest that skirted the edges of Yunmeng. Wheel tracks from horse-drawn carts crisscrossed the soft, damp soil. It wasn’t a dense forest, but the dark shadows of the canopy above, overlapping one another and dancing wildly to occasional breezes, felt suffocating all the same. He seemed to have plunged into a sea of unseen monstrosities. And yet he felt neither anxious nor tense; his body was calm and at peace. His mind was blank. His eyes looked forward as he made his way deeper. Nocturnal creatures squirreled past his ankles, whispering, murmuring in a language no human can comprehend. Sandu was absent beside him. 

Jiang Cheng wore simple robes unbefitting of a sect leader. Were he in a better mindset, he would have realized the inappropriate state of his clothing. His robes were lilac in color, plain, thin, and pale, enhancing his haggard appearance. His hair was undone but not messy; it had been hastily tied into a bun before he left Lotus Pier. Zidian was glowing restlessly on his hand, even though there was no immediate harm he could notice. He didn’t know why exactly he had brought Zidian when Sandu was still leaning on the desk of his office back in Lotus Pier. He should’ve left this ring behind too, but it hadn’t wanted to leave, and he had been in a rush for his journey. 

On his desk there was a letter. It was completed but he hadn’t signed his name at the end, so it felt incomplete. He wrote a lot of things on it, but he couldn’t recall what. It had mattered greatly, back then, that he put down his thoughts on paper; now, he didn’t know why he had done so. It was pointless, since no one would let Jin Ling read it, young as the boy was, and the people who would read it wouldn’t be able to do anything either. 

There was a strict hierarchy in his sect — they knew what to do in the event of him going missing. They no longer needed him to survive, to thrive. 

He didn’t want to do this so close to Lotus Pier. He didn’t want to taint the water of the lotus lake. So he went further and chose a stagnant river that ran through the forest at Yunmeng’s borders. He walked like a hypnotized man to his death — yes, his death. He had chosen it, today. Tonight. The night he had lost everything, the night he finally lost his will to live. He had hung on, for the sake of his sect, for the sake of his nephew, but now, there was no need. Jin Ling would grow up well in Lanling; he was his mother’s son, after all, and he carried with him the same kindness she had possessed. 

Jiang Cheng had nothing that tied him to this world. He wanted to see his family again. He wanted to see everyone he loved again. 

Then, he came upon the river. Its water was pitch black, reflecting neither the moon nor his image. Jiang Cheng took off his boots and waded his way in a little. He paused. The purple ring on his hand was crackling with energy; it zapped him and seemed to wish to transform. He didn’t know why. Perhaps it didn’t want its user to die like this. But he finally figured out why he had brought it with him: comfort. Zidian was the last gift from his mother. It protected him during the Sunshot Campaign and beyond. It was his ultimate defense — with Zidian, he could never fail, could never be defeated. But Zidian couldn’t protect him from this. He took it off with his thumb and index finger, and he placed it on the bank next to his boots. Then he turned back and continued on. 

The desire to drown himself intensified — so much so that he staggered and almost fell. In a brief moment of clarity, he wondered why he was so eager to kill himself, why he felt so detached and empty despite the turbulent nature of his psyche. He knew himself well, and this — this was unusual. Nothing felt right.

On the water’s surface, he saw a silhouette flicker by. It looked like his sister, and he scrambled forward, calling out for her. But she didn’t listen, and she kept floating away, going somewhere he couldn’t reach. 

Come to me, a voice said. It snuffed out the sudden burst of suspicion and excitement. He felt at peace. His mind was blank. He thought the voice sounded like his sister. The water came up to his waist, his chest, then his chin — and he kept on walking, eyes forward, watching nothing at all. 

I feel your pain. Aren’t you tired of it? 

Yes, he was. He was tired of many things. He was tired of living. 

A hand pulled him down, and his head submerged underwater. His body panicked and started struggling; bubbles formed furiously around him as he yelped and breathed out, limbs wrestling with some invisible force that grounded him to the river bed and kept him there. All around him the water was black — but this time, he saw a pair of dimly red eyes staring back. And then, a grin. 

Thunder rumbled in the sky, even though it was far too early for the first summer storm to arrive. Zidian’s bright glimmer faded until it, too, was swallowed by darkness.

Jiang Cheng never surfaced.