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Twenty-Four Hours in New Dixing

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Suppress the heart of evil, spread the virtue of the kind.

Like Shen Wei’s pendant rolling down the staircase, Zhao Yunlan’s words traverse the invisible barrier between life and death, one last miraculous gift, a balm. It’s a fitting end to their story. They’ve always been united in this purpose.

You chose this, Shen Wei reminds himself. You knew how it would end, the price you’d have to pay. He would give almost anything to turn back time—so very nearly anything. There are only three exceptions—the safety of the world, Zhao Yunlan and his SID, and his brother. These are the outliers. He can’t leave his brother.

Anyway, the choice is out of his hands. The tide of fate draws them inexorably upwards, until—

The stone staircase heaves and twitches, an animal plagued with fleas. The air rumbles, and energy billows through the barrier with such force that, beyond, the fabric of the world must be collapsing.

Didi looks around like a panicked child. “What’s that? What’s happening? Is Mt Dixing erupting?”

The sneering confidence he’d shown as Shen Wei’s sworn enemy has deserted him since he learned of his mistake.

“That’s more than a volcano.” Shen Wei fists his hands at his sides. He needs to go back and help, but there’s no way—it’s out of reach, Dixing and the Envoy lost to each other, finally and irrevocably. He says, to reassure himself as much as Didi, “Zhao Yunlan will find a way. There’s nothing we can do from here.”

“There’s something.” Didi, always contrary, stretches out his hand and strains against death. He digs through the barrier, and from nowhere, the Sky Pillar rushes towards them, misshapen, towering, implacable.

A trap? Are the Hallows planning to incarcerate them both this time, or is this Didi’s vengeful scheme? But Didi’s face contorts with fear, tears streak his cheeks, and he forces his arm through the pillar’s seething crack and retrieves—a small singed piece of cloth.

“I took this from the Lantern ten thousand years ago, in case you stole the Hallows away from me.” Didi frowns. “I’d almost forgotten.”

The wick. Just a tiny scrap to save the world, one last time. “We need to send it back.”

Didi holds it out. “You need to take it back.”

“I won’t go without you.” It’s a promise that echoes through millennia. I’ll never give you up.

Didi takes his hand, his eyes wet. “It was my resentment that caused all this. Let me fix it.”

“Didi.” Shen Wei’s determination is as heavy as metal armour and just as inflexible. “We’ll both go.”

“We can’t both go. I can’t face them.” Didi stands straight, releases Shen Wei’s hand and shoves him backwards down the staircase towards the barrier. “Make up for my mistakes.”

The last thing Shen Wei sees is his brother’s essence catch light, his soul-energy the fuel that propels Shen Wei into the mortal world.

He falls to the street from an indeterminable height, lands on his back, bloody and aching, the air knocked out of him. He’s in Dixing. He’s wearing his Haixing clothes. From somewhere nearby but out of sight, Zhao Yunlan whispers, “Cut the crap, just tell me if I can do it or not.”

Shen Wei’s hand is clenched tight as stone. His cramped muscles burn as he forces them open. But there, creased and bloodstained in his palm, is the wick.

Gratitude flares. Regret, too, and his eyes sting, but he won’t begrudge Didi his sacrifice to put things right.

He struggles to one knee. The wound in his chest is a starburst of pain, and he nearly falls, throws his hand out to steady himself against the wall of a building. Forces an inhalation. There’s no time to try and heal himself—he summons his glaive to help him upright and, stumbling, takes the wick to Zhao Yunlan.