The Wandering Fire

Shen Wei’s ten thousand years of watching Kunlun’s lives and, eventually, finding his own. Character Study, Drama, Angst (lots of angst), I-5

Character(s): Shen Wei, Zhao Yunlan

So, about the Changes arc. I loved the Guardian drama, but the backstory and cosmology of the novel appealed to me mightily. I mean, really; gods and demons, ten thousand years of angst, who could resist? And when I went to think about it, the two actually fit together reasonably well, if you tinker both ends a bit. So this arc is a fusion of the drama and novel.

A fusion isn’t quite like a crossover. Instead of, for example, Inu Yasha and company being dropped into the Cowboy Bebop world, a fusion means that Inu Yasha is Spike. So here we have a novel!Shen Wei who is, or becomes, drama!Shen Wei. Part of the fun is, of course, getting him from point A to point B, and the question this arc asks is: what might happen to make the novel backstory lead to the drama canon events? And what would happen next, especially to Zhao Yunlan?

To find out, forget the drama preamble, and read on.

When his love chose to release his final hold on the world, to make way for the new growth of mortal life and the spirits that life created, Shen Wei watched it happen. He watched, and did nothing to stop it, nothing to deny Kunlun’s choice. But at the end of that choice, he made one of his own. He caught Kunlun’s soul before it could unravel and brought it to Shen Nong.

He didn’t like the price Shen Nong demanded from him, before agreeing to give Kunlun’s soul to the cycle of reincarnation. To be guardian to the humans and the shadow of death to his own kind was a harsh task. He agreed to it, though, because one of those humans would be Kunlun.

And so Shen Wei watched most of Shen Nong’s being shift, flow the way the material existence of gods so easily flowed, into another form. That form was an immaterial shape of potential and life-brightness rather than physical being but it still spoke to him of a wheel, an endless turning. He watched that turning catch up two souls, Kunlun and Shen Nong, both now shorn of the weight of memory and power that would mark a god, and buried his face in his hands, shaking with relief and pain both.

It was done.

Kunlun would live, if not as himself and not as Shen Wei’s any more. He would move through the world as a human, terrifyingly fragile and brief, but he would live.

Live again and again, with no memory of Shen Wei.

The voraciousness at the core of Shen Wei’s nature raged over that, screamed at him to seek out something to break, some power to conquer and consume that might change what was. For the first time in many centuries, he was tempted to listen. Yet, at the same time, Kunlun’s parting gift, the part of Kunlun’s own nature that he’d poured into Shen Wei, soothed the rage a little, gentled it until Shen Wei could tell it was actually grief. Perhaps it was even what had moved Shen Nong to agree to their bargain, in the end.

Or perhaps it had just been the possibility of seeing all ghosts finally destroyed, if the seal between realms was ever broken again.

Shen Wei sighed and straightened. Whatever Shen Nong’s motive, he’d agreed. A bargain between gods, even if one of them was only half a god, impressed itself on the material of their very beings. Now the integrity of that seal was his to ensure. He would follow that imperative that was now half of his nature.

But first, he would follow the spark of Kunlun’s soul and see where he found life again.

For quite a while Shen Wei found no difficulty in fulfilling his bargain to contain his people while also keeping an eye on Kunlun’s soul. Considered frankly, few ghosts had any particular ability with planning ahead; most would seek the nearest source of power or life-warmth to attack and devour. If that source was another ghost, without the generative capability of a god or human or shape-changer, that would be cause for rage but not for plotting an escape from their realm. Shen Wei merely needed to keep a distant eye on the seal between realms, and visit now and then to check it in detail.

It wasn’t until Kunlun was reborn in Shu’s great inland city that Shen Wei realized he might need to do more than that. The city was far enough from the gateway and it’s ancient marker tree that even he had trouble seeing that far without time slipping forward or back in his sight. Still, it wasn’t too difficult to craft alarms to leave at the gate. That much use of his power drew down his ability to shield his nature and kept him further from humans than he’d have preferred, but if he was careful to conceal and contain himself he could still come close enough to listen to Kunlun’s current incarnation debate cosmology with his fellow priest-administrators.

“…really reasonable that none of the gods could have stopped a mere flood from causing such widespread devastation as the Second Chronicle speaks of? Even Beiling could handle a flood.”

“Beiling, the king who drowned and returned to life?” Kunlun asked dryly. “Who was selected by Duyu himself to watch over the people precisely because he proved to have power enough over water to handle a flood? It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Chronicle is true.”

Shen Wei wondered, sometimes, just how much or little Kunlun truly remembered of his past existence, to be so certain the legends were true. Shen Nong had said he would remember nothing, could remember nothing lest the weight of his soul be too great for the still-fragile inertia of reincarnation to hold. But Shen Wei still wondered, sometimes.

By the time Yu of Xia started his ambitious canal project, Shen Wei had stopped wondering if Kunlun remembered and started wondering if humans in general had somehow managed to imprint a universal urge to be prepared in the re-event of catastrophic flooding.

If so, he didn’t suppose he could blame them, but to Shen Wei the changing moods of the land’s rivers would always remind him of Kunlun. Their summer ferocity, that surge that swept over the land and altered it, reminded him just as intensely as the calmer, nurturing flow of autumn. He loved them both.

He wondered if it was irony that Kunlun was here, heaving shovel-fulls of dirt alongside the rest of his team of canal diggers, working to tame one of his own wild rivers. Yet he knew, watching Kunlun straighten and scrub a dirt-smeared hand across his forehead, laughing at some joke from one of his men, that Kunlun had liked the wildness in humans, too, and probably would have enjoyed watching the contest between the two, no matter which triumphed.

He wished he could do more than watch, himself. That he could be down there with them, with Kunlun. That he could lay his hands on those bare shoulders, lean against Kunlun, listen to what made him laugh. The ache of that wishing grew until he thought it might cut off his breath completely.

Shen Wei watched Kunlun, a soldier this life, climb the shallow hill behind his current encampment and sprawl in the tall grass, leaning back on his hands to look up at the clear arch of the sky overhead. It was the time of evening that Kunlun had called the blue hour—after sunset but before full dark, when the sky was a sweep of shifting blue, trees and mountains stark black against it as the strongest stars began to shine.

Kunlun had always said this hour reminded him of Shen Wei himself. Dark, yes, but beautiful and changeable, all shapes knife-edged sharp but with the sky softening behind them for this brief time. Kunlun wouldn’t be thinking about that right now, though. Couldn’t remember it, because Shen Wei had chosen Kunlun’s life over his memory, over preserving those memories as all Kunlun would be. He didn’t regret doing it, but seeing Kunlun be so much himself, still, hurt like a blade slicing down Shen Wei’s heart, over and over and over.

Shen Wei drew concealment tighter around him and watched over the encampment as blue slid away into blackness.

It was a handful of rebirths after that that Shen Wei first lost track of Kunlun, who had died while Shen Wei was examining the seal between realms. That was when it came home to him just how widely humans had spread themselves. It was possible that the ghost who managed to thread past the seal and take up Shen Wei’s time tracking him down didn’t entirely deserve to bear the full weight of Shen Wei’s frustration, but if it served to deter others of his kind from trying his patience, Shen Wei would consider it a net gain.

It took him a ridiculously long time to remember that he carried a spark of Kunlun’s soul with him, considering that his fingers found that bead of golden warmth at least twice a day, for comfort. By the time he’d followed the whisper of connection all the way north into the mountains of Yan, he was determined to do whatever was necessary to keep his watch over the seal without leaving Kunlun. He’d followed Kunlun’s soul through another rebirth, this time in the capital of Luoyi (and hadn’t the capital been further west just a bit ago? couldn’t humans ever hold still?) before he finished the beacon that would connect his awareness to the sacred tree that marked the gateway between realms. It took significant power to keep up, more than his simple beacons had, but it wasn’t as though he needed his power for anything else, these days.

The first time Shen Wei heard the phrase ‘The Mandate of Heaven’ he was hard-pressed not to laugh out loud. He’d never observed any mandate to guide or restrain living creatures. Gods and ghosts and humans and beasts, they all sought their own way and then had to deal with the consequences, and the heavens said nothing about it that he’d ever heard.

“The true nature of the Mandate must be care,” Kunlun expounded enthusiastically, and probably a little drunkenly, to two of his fellow scholars. “It’s when care for the land and people fail that Heaven withdraws its approval, that’s demonstrated time and again!”

“No, no!” one of his at least as drunk companions complained, waving his cup. “Clearly the law is the true core of the Mandate! Care must follow the path of the law, otherwise it’s blind and you’ll have no balance at all.”

“Only,” Kunlun leaned back with a sidelong smirk at their third member, “if you let care be tainted by personal concerns.”

“Which is the only natural approach, and not a corruption at all,” the third man huffed.

Shen Wei leaned against the wall in his shadowed corner, arms crossed, smiling a little to himself. At least it was entertaining to listen to. Kunlun still had all of his gift for bringing the most unlikely of conversants together.

When the great states the humans had scraped back together proceeded to spend a solid couple centuries warring with each other, Shen Wei was entirely unsurprised. Neither was he surprised when the constant tide of wars sweeping back and forth, flaring all kinds of passions higher, tempted more of his kind to dare the gateway between realms. The spell he’d left to warn him of such tugged at his attention more and more over those years, and he was grateful that Kunlun’s soul seemed to have settled into mercantile pursuits for a while, with only occasional forays into politics. It was easier on Shen Wei’s nerves, that way.

Kunlun’s idea of useful politics was often a little… unconventional. If he didn’t have money on hand to use as a lever, he’d probably resort to direct action. Again.

Shen Wei wasn’t sure he was ready to watch over another life of dashing banditry, yet.

Shen Wei sat beside the bed (the deathbed), curled tight in on himself, head buried in his knees.

Two years.

One moment of carelessness, letting Kunlun, letting San, realize he was present, and he hadn’t been able to leave again. And for that weakness, San had died. He was human; he’d only been able to survive Shen Wei’s presence at his side, in his bed, for two brief years.

And, like a fool, he’d promised to await San’s, Kunlun’s, return. How could he keep that promise, when it would mean Kunlun’s death? Death because of him?

If only Shen Wei’s nature could be sealed away, the way his people were sealed. Half of his nature was a god’s nature, wasn’t it? Kunlun’s own nature, his last gift, taken in and made Shen Wei’s own. If only there was a way to lock away the half that was ghost. He would do it, in a heartbeat, if it would prevent this grief happening ever again, prevent Kunlun dying for Shen Wei’s weakness, the next time it overcame his better sense.

He knew he would never, could never, deny Kunlun, no matter what shape or name or life he wore. This would happen again, the next time their paths crossed, unless he stayed away entirely or…

His link to the gateway tugged at his attention, a flash of vision of the sacred tree Nuwa had planted to mark the gate, and Shen Wei uncoiled upright, eyes wide.

The tree.

None of the first gods lived as themselves, any longer, but the tree touched by Nuwa’s hand still lived and grew. It had its own spirit; Shen Wei had felt it, when he’d set his watch-guard spell. The tree had its own share of a god’s nature. And Shen Wei knew, from the working out of his bargain with Shen Nong, that deals made between gods branded themselves deep into the world. If the tree’s spirit consented to help, could they perhaps create a bargain that would seal Shen Wei’s ghost nature while he was in this realm? Could they, perhaps, even transmute Shen Wei’s power into something that would protect humans?

The breath of hope finally unlocked Shen Wei’s bleak, frozen despair, melted it back into grief, and he turned to bury the tears that stormed through him in the bed he and San had shared, fingers fisting tight in the blankets. “I will wait for you,” he promised again, hoarse, when they’d finally eased. “But it can’t be here.” He pushed himself up to his feet, scrubbing his palms over his face, and took a deep breath.

He would try.

It took nearly thirty years. The life of trees was slow, and the kind of working Shen Wei asked for was not a small matter. It built gradually between them, not a bargain spoken once and bound in that moment, but a repeating cycle, year on year, that circled between them again and again. Again and again, Shen Wei agreed and offered; again and again, the tree accepted his power, drank it and changed it, like sunlight into sap. And as the last year drew down into the darkness of winter, Shen Wei felt the bargain crystalize between them, gain matter and reality in the world. The shape of it flickered, now a wood tile, now a pressed sheet, now stamped metal. Finally, as it dropped into Shen Wei’s outstretched hands, it settled into a scroll of wood slats. Marked on the outside, as though burned there, was a single word.


Shen Wei smiled faintly, resting his hand on the tree. “Thank you.”

The leaves above him rustled without any breeze.

Their bargain hadn’t taken all of his power as a ghost. He was, after all, his people’s ruler—the strongest among them. But about half was sealed away and siphoned off, now, he thought. It should allow the other half of his nature to dominate, in this realm at least, and to restrain the relentless void of a ghost’s nature from consuming whatever lives of humans or shape-changers he came close to. If the human in question was the holder of the bargain’s physical token, then the thing would be certain. In time, this bargain might even affect all ghosts, through him. Shen Wei straightened and lifted a hand to lay his fingertips against his pendant, listening for the whisper of Kunlun’s new life.

He arrived just in time for the wedding.

Shen Wei kept himself wrapped deep in concealment as he watched Kunlun and his bride depart from the banquet, watched the wistfulness in Kunlun’s eyes as he glanced around, as if looking for someone absent. He watched Kunlun pat his bride’s hand, and smile kindly, if distantly, and then Shen Wei went to find the nearest bottle of plum liquor and drink himself unconscious.

When the pain in his heart had died down enough that he could face consciousness for more than an hour at a time, again, he asked among the Crow tribe to see if any of the Cat tribe had survived. Not entirely to his surprise, the Crows told him Da Qing himself was still alive; at another time, he might have been amused by their apparent glee that the dark Envoy had some business with the cat. He laid the Guardian scroll in Da Qing’s hands, told him where Kunlun was starting married life, and retreated to the gateway between realms.

For years, the quiet presence of the sacred tree was the only company his freshly torn heart could endure.

It was whispers of the brutality of a budding empire that drew Shen Wei away from the peaceful company of the sacred tree again, and out into the world to follow the faint voice of his pendant until he found Kunlun’s soul again.

Not to stay. Not to get close enough to be caught again; that would still be dangerous, regardless of the locks he’d put on his own power, and he wasn’t quite fool enough to court that kind of pain twice. But if Kunlun was in danger, in this sudden festival of military conquest and consolidation, there were still things Shen Wei could do.

Somehow, he wasn’t surprised to find Kunlun among the ranks of the new scholar-officials, still speaking on the nature of benevolence, if more quietly this life.

For all that Kunlun favored peace, he’d always had a talent for finding trouble. Just look at Shen Wei, himself.

The next time Shen Wei visited his own realm, he was honestly surprised by what he found.

“Bureaucracy? Really?” he asked, as he was shown through an already growing library of laws and precedents. Admittedly, some of those laws were his own dictates, as he saw paging through a volume or two.

“We may be creatures of chaos, but exactly for that reason we always seek form. It’s one of the things we take, when we consume human life, is it not?” The one who was now calling himself only Regent paced beside him and cocked a sharp eye up at him. “And even through we are sealed away from the human realm, we are not separate. Every time one of your people looks up, we see the light of the Lamp. It was created to comfort and guide, for all that it’s also a prison to us.”

“And every time someone sneaks past it,” Shen Wei added, dryly, “they bring back a new piece of human form to imitate.” The Regent spread his hands, noncommittally, and Shen Wei stifled a sigh. He’d known he was sacrificing some control, when he chose to guard the seal largely from the other side, but someone had to be in the human realm to do so and he certainly didn’t trust anyone else with that.

“Very well. But what’s this about choosing a Lord?”

“Never one that could supersede you, of course.” The Regent bowed deeply, and Shen We suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. Clearly, the Regent had absorbed some human court manners, and likely the notion of politicking that went with them. “But laws need a final judge, do they not?” He led the way back out into the high ceilinged central hall, and gestured to the broad, elaborately carved throne at one end. “And, as you see…”

The throne had a feel of embedded power that Shen Wei recognized from the token of his bargain with the sacred tree, though on a smaller scale. He skimmed his fingers close to the seat, testing the feel of it, and jerked back. “This is—!”

“What is necessary to preserve impartiality,” the Regent finished, quite evenly. “Is that not ideal? The one who wishes to take this throne will serve the needs of our realm.”

Would be bound to serve, every bit of will and desire bound to the execution of those growing volumes of laws, until death. “I think you’ve learned a little too much from humans, lately,” Shen Wei said, low and sharp.

The Regent looked back at him, calm. “Would anything less hold one of our kind to such a task?”

Shen Wei’s mouth tightened. He knew the nature of ghosts; it was still half of his own nature, after all. His people were rapacious and violent, even in their hunger for some stabilizing, ordering force to form around. Those who were even capable of desiring peace were still rare, even after thousands of years of the Lamp’s slow influence.

It was the reason he had never yet destroyed the Regent.

“Very well,” he said, at last. “But be sure that those who seek this Lordship know the terms of it before they choose.”

Unmistakeable satisfaction flashed over the Regent’s face as he bowed again. “As you command, my Lord Envoy.”

Staying near, but not too near, to Kunlun’s incarnations was even more frustrating than watching over him from hiding close by had been, which Shen Wei hadn’t previously thought was possible. To distract himself, he started listening to the local scholars and priests again. It passed the time, and watching the concept of family be re-worked to support imperial rule honestly amused him.

Really, it was no wonder his people mirrored humans so closely whenever there was contact between them. Humans had their own share of the world’s darker elements, and sometimes the generative properties of their souls only went to fuel that.

It was on one of his visits to the Imperial University that Shen Wei first heard another amusing trend in philosophy.

“Of course the legends aren’t literal.” The mid-rank scholar he’d been listening in on gave his student a withering look. “The gods named in our legends represent universal principles. Their tales are a moral guide to be unraveled, not some kind of engineering map of creation.”

Shen Wei couldn’t help but wonder, wryly, just what kind of moral guide he was supposed to be, then.

After the long peace of the empire, the bloodshed that followed came as a shock, even to Shen Wei. Kunlun lost three lives in the span of little more than half a century, and frantic worry drew Shen Wei to follow his soul more closely again.

The farmer in the central plains died.

The soldier in the east died.

The small town scholar’s son in the north died, and that time Shen Wei couldn’t stand it any longer, tried to intervene, but he could only hold off so many unless he wanted to break his oaths, shatter his promises to Kunlun and the tree both, draw all of his power back into himself and give himself up to the side of his nature that could call down the death of a whole battlefield.

He did consider it.

In the end his memory of Kunlun, and his word, held. Barely. He took them both back to the sacred tree and left the humans to their own devices. He didn’t think he could do anything else without breaking.

Even the whisper of Kunlun’s soul fire in his pendant was faint and sad.

The humans were building a city around the sacred tree.

A city.

Over the gateway to the underworld.

Shen Wei wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or to despair.

Actually, from the things he overheard among the architects and engineers, he suspected the humans were building everywhere. It seemed the centuries of strife he’d been trying not to think too hard on had finally eased, given way again to an empire of trade and construction. And also foolishness, but perhaps he should take human forgetfulness as a compliment of sorts. He had kept his part of the bargain well enough that they didn’t know, any more, to fear this place.

At least, he reflected, ducking out of the tent where they kept the maps, it looked as though they planned an open space around the sacred tree. Nevertheless, he was going to have to stay in this region far more constantly than he had before. With the warmth of human lives so temptingly close to the seal, more ghosts would attempt to find their way past it.

Shen Wei drew concealment closer around him as a party of cheerfully drunk workers passed in the darkness. Perhaps it was for the best. If it kept him away from Kunlun’s human lives… perhaps it was for the best.

Perhaps Shen Wei had never truly been meant to be anything but a threat of death in the shadows.

Shen Wei watched from a corner of study belonging to the senior Dragon City physician, nearly vibrating with conflicting impulses.

He should have known. He should have known this would happen. He hadn’t gotten to Wan Jun in time, and this was the result. Two senior physicians and their apprentices, all clustered around a table with a dead ghost on it, exclaiming over the results of their examination.

“The temperature hasn’t changed at all, in death!” The older physician sounded nearly rapturous with the medical puzzle before him. “We absolutely must examine the thyroid.”

“And the structure of the eyes! Did you see how they changed color?” His younger colleague was nearly bouncing with excitement. Shen Wei rubbed his forehead and wondered whether it would really be that great a breach of his bargain if he killed them both himself.

The casual disrespect for the body of one of his own was… all right, not actually surprising. Kunlun had spent a few lives as a physician and, whatever the era, outside the presence of friends or family of the deceased, physicians with bodies in front of them tended to be either excited over something interesting to study or else furious over what they saw as a personal failure. So should he try to discourage or enable this? Would a medical study of his people arm humans better to be of at least a little assistance capturing trespassers, or would it tempt them to foolish trespass themselves?

“Do you think he might have been taking medicinal compounds to achieve this?” the youngest of the apprentices asked, looking up from the scroll where he was keeping notes.

Shen Wei stifled a snort of amusement. Perhaps he’d wait and see whether any of their conclusions even approached the truth, before deciding what to do about it.

Shen Wei stood at the back of the Yashou tribes’ meeting and listened to their increasingly heated debate.

“We need some kind of help with this. There are too many of them for us alone!” the normally composed Snake Elder insisted.

The Crow Elder folded his arms, unconvinced. “Help from the humans would only be more trouble in the long run. You wouldn’t even have suggested it if you hadn’t taken a human lover, Fu You.”

The Flower Elder waved her hands between them, looking exasperated. “Please leave off about that, already. Just because she refused you, xiao-Ding…”

“My relationship with a human only means that I am more aware of their resources than you are,” Fu You said, tight and controlled. “Lay down your pride and think! If we oppose a dozen Dixingren alone, we’ll lose some of our people. If we invite help from those who have it to give, we have a far better chance of all surviving this.”

“I don’t disagree, but the way they’ve found into our world is in Yashou territory.” The Flower Elder wrapped her arms around herself, as if chilled. “If this keeps happening, we will take the brunt of whatever damage is done each time. Humans can’t help us with that.”

Fu You folded her hands on the table between them. “There is one who deals with such things, is there not? Your own people have seen him, Zhu Mei.”

“Their Black-cloaked Envoy,” the Flower Elder murmured, frowning. “True enough, but how could we contact him?”

Despite his own intense annoyance with the current problem, Shen Wei smiled at the perfect cue and relaxed the concealment he’d kept folded around himself to let the chill of his presence curl outward. “There is no need; I am here.”

The Crow Elder shot to his feet, and even Zhu Mei stiffed, though she rose with the slow care of someone feeling her age in her bones. Fu You, on the other hand, didn’t even start. “I thought you might be, Honorable Envoy.”

Shen Wei was impressed, which didn’t happen often. “Indeed. Trespassers in your world are my care, and I have failed to contain this incursion.”

“Whatever your power, there is only the one of you.” Fu You sat straight, watching him with dark, level eyes. “If we can hold off these trespassers, as you call them, can you close this breach they have made within our territory?”

“I can. It was why I came tonight.” He withdrew the branch he’d spent weeks separating from the sacred tree without killing the wood, and held it out on his palm. “Once I have done so, I would entrust the key that will lock that door to the Yashou, if the Elders can agree to keep it.”

A quick exchange of glances, including one blistering glare from Zhu Mei, and all three of them nodded, though reluctantly in the case of the Crow Elder. “Fu You will speak and act for all the tribes, in this,” Zhu Mei said, firmly.

“Then when the passage is locked, I will entrust this to her.” Shen Wei hesitated. There were actually fewer than ten trespassers, by his estimate, but they included at least three of the strongest among his kind, short of himself. “I have no wish to interfere in the Yashou’s governance decisions, but I strongly suggest you do find allies in this. I expect sealing the passage to take at least a full turn of the moon, and those who broke in include several who are very dangerous.”

Fu You lifted her chin and didn’t even glance at her fellow Elders. “We will find what strength and allies we need.” The Crow Elder’s mouth was a tight line, but he bent his head and didn’t gainsay her.

Shen Wei really was quite impressed.

The bigger Dragon City got, the more sympathy Shen Wei had with Kunlun’s old solitary tendencies. He hadn’t viscerally understood why Kunlun preferred to seclude himself, back then, though he certainly hadn’t protested the opportunity to have the one who’d given his existence meaning all to himself. Now he thought he understood a little better.

Humans got into everything.

Shen Wei was finding it harder and harder to conceal his presence, or to keep even his restrained power from affecting the people of the city. There had been two cases he knew of, and probably more he didn’t, of people sickening simply because his proximity had drained their life before he’d realized that the young idiots had chosen the grove his home was in—on the edge of the Snake tribe’s local territory, no less—as a trysting spot! He’d considered spreading rumors that the grove was haunted, only to find there already were such rumors and that it hadn’t stopped anyone. He couldn’t abandon the city without missing those people, and even beasts, of his realm that managed to sneak around the seal, but something clearly had to be done.

If humans were sane creatures, he reflected rather darkly as he stalked through the back streets of the city, he might simply cease to conceal his presence and rely on the harsh chill of it to hold them at a distance. Other creatures had at least that much sense, as the sudden silence of the city’s dogs at his passing demonstrated. It might even work on the majority of humans.

“Hey! Who’s there?” a man’s voice called from the door of one of the wine houses as he passed.

Unfortunately for Shen Wei, his bargain encompassed all of them, including those who were too bold for their own health. He slipped down a darker alley, trusting his robes to blend with the shadows there. He was too annoyed to bother with more.

A yank on those robes jerked him to a halt.


Shen Wei rounded on the fool who dared to lay hands on him, power flaring outward, dark and furious.

The man who had followed him cowered back with a panicked yelp, eyes wide and staring in the darkness, and Shen Wei stopped and hauled his power back in, closing his eyes for a breath. He hated his own people’s fear of him, even when it was what let him rule them, let him keep his word. He wasn’t any more fond of humans’ fear, no matter how short his temper this evening.

“Go,” he told the man, low. He didn’t have to say it twice; the man scrambled back toward the faint torchlight of the road without a word. Shen Wei sighed and turned to walk on, slower now.

The city wasn’t going anywhere, and he could hardly rely on humans suddenly becoming sensible. He needed a way to move among humans without harming them. An innocuous disguise that would pass without notice, without challenges that might stir his temper. That, and some way to keep his power turned inward, limit it in ways even his bargain with the sacred tree didn’t. This would all be much easier if more of his nature were Kunlun’s, were fluid to his will and intent, the way the gods’ forms were.

Shen Wei paused in mid-stride, struck by that thought. Easier, yes, but wasn’t that half his nature already, by Kunlun’s gift? Could he re-shape that part of him, fold it around the ghost half of his nature? He smiled and touched his pendant, letting himself really listen to the whisper of Kunlun’s soul-fire for the first time in centuries. Kunlun, who had liked humans because of their troublesome nature, not in spite of it.

It was worth an attempt.

A little trial and error, and another forty years spent in concealment waiting for the inconveniently observant councilman Lei Min to die, demonstrated that Shen Wei could spend most of his time in his human form. Dragon City had enough trade passing through that an allegedly itinerant scholar or artisan choosing to settle down there wasn’t unusual. As long as he didn’t choose the same profession or the same district to live in two generations in a row, no one remarked, and he’d certainly seen enough trades, shadowing Kunlun’s lives, that he had a considerable store of knowledge to choose his own lives from.

What he hadn’t expected was how comfortable it was.

The cool quiet of his current workroom soothed both his human and his deeper senses, and it was easy to lose himself in the scent of medicinal ingredients and the rhythm of preparing them. One final pass with the pestle wheel, and the sound told him the licorice root was ready to measure out. It didn’t take any long, drawn-out planning or violent action or make his heart catch in his throat over a risk to one he loved. It was simple. Straightforward. Easy. The weight of the Guardian token’s binding even felt lighter, in this form, with his power folded underneath as it was.

A polite tap on the doorframe made him look up with a faint smile. Sure enough, it was young Li, the eldest apprentice in Dragon City’s tiny branch school of medicine. “Mr. Shen? Dr. Huang asks—”

“Yes, yes.” He waved toward the shelf by the door, where a paper parcel waited. “I prepared it earlier this morning.” The open relief on her face made him chuckle. Huang was the most irascible, as well as the most senior, physician of the school, and Li was an earnest young woman who often took his snapping and barking to heart. She snatched up the parcel, bobbed a grateful bow to him, and hurried out.

Perhaps next time someone asked the city’s new apothecary to take an apprentice, he’d consider it.

Shen Wei sat in a quiet corner of his favorite tea house, staring down at the cup between his fingers, and thought fast.

The thing he’d been half waiting for, for centuries, had finally happened. One of his people had talked just a little too much, before Shen Wei had caught her, to humans who’d survived the experience. The volume of medical records and case encounters that resided in the city’s Records office had been growing bit by small bit over the years, but never with any conclusions that would present a threat to either ghosts or humans. Now that had changed. A report had been added suggesting that his people lived underground, probably underneath Dragon City itself, which was close enough to the truth to get untold numbers of humans in trouble.

Archeology, he decided. He’d need to be a scholar of archeology for his next ‘life’. It was starting to be popular, and therefore well-funded, thanks to the imperial court’s recent fad for relics of ancient kingdoms. As an archeologist, he could ‘discover’ a treaty stipulating separation of his people from humans. With official documentation, especially one with the imprimatur of one of the ancient kingdoms so beloved of the current government, it shouldn’t be too hard to steer local law enforcement around to keep people from getting too curious for their own good. Especially if he appeared in his own person, to confirm the alleged treaty. Ma Gui, of the Dragon City guards, had already made a bit of a hobby of investigating rumors of Shen Wei’s people; he’d make a suitable local contact.

Shen Wei took a slow breath, and a sip of his tea, finally settling back on his bench. That should work. He might need to intimidate a few physicians to keep from being interrogated about the source of his people’s abilities, but it should work.

Perhaps, he thought with another slow sip, he’d better wear a mask when he appeared.

A bare generation later, he heard the name Dixing for the first time and had to laugh, if a bit harshly. It suited well enough, given his people were created from the darkest elements of the earth. Dixingren.

So be it.

Shen Wei sat with his back against the sacred tree, arms braced over his knees, and let his head hang down.

That way he didn’t need to look at the smoke rising from the city.

He’d forgotten how much this hurt. In the long years since he’d made himself turn away from Kunlun’s side, since he’d confined himself to the whisper of Kunlun’s soul-fire under his fingers and the knowledge that his love would always live again, he’d let himself forget how much it hurt to lose human companions to violence and upheaval rather than simple age. Dragon City wasn’t one of the great urban centers, wasn’t home to any branch of the imperial court or regional governors. The last two ruling clans had brought only peace to the city Shen Wei watched over. The greatest threats had been a scant handful of ghosts who found their way past the seal.

He’d let himself forget that humans had their own share of his people’s nature within them, had violence and destruction in their core, as well.

A shift in the wind brought the smell of smoke to him again, by turns harsh with the household goods that burned in the wreckage of buildings and queasily rich with the scent of bodies that burned there as well. Shen Wei’s hands flinched into fists, and his next breath shook in his lungs. He didn’t look up.

There was nothing he could do. All his bargains were to guard humans from ghosts, not from other humans. To guard humans from ghosts, including himself. To keep his bargains, he must do nothing.

He hoped, bitterly, that Shen Nong appreciated this result of the bargain he’d demanded.

Shen Wei listened to the whispers through his open outer screens and smiled as he painted the last tree in the landscape commission he’d been working on this week. He didn’t usually think of himself as an artist, but the fashion lately was stylized enough for a steady hand and good eye to stand in for inspiration. There was enough demand to make a viable career, even in the still-small rebuilt city, especially since his favorite occupation of scholarship was not in demand. Rather the reverse, lately.

And the city’s children loved to watch him.

He laid aside his brushes, chuckling under his breath at the faint scramble behind him as today’s audience hid behind the azaleas that edged his veranda. He made his way out to the pump and carefully kept his back to the little sounds of interest as he washed his brushes and palette.

This ‘life’ might be one where he took an apprentice. He usually didn’t. Anyone that close was the most likely to notice his odd absences, and the times he forgot to let his human form age. But if he wanted to encourage stability, in the city, and reduce the temptation for his people to dare the seal… well, he could do worse than help one of the little ones watching him on their way to a livelihood. For all his power, sometimes the only things he could change were small ones.

Sometimes he wondered if this was the real reason the first gods had chosen to leave the world.

Shen Wei’s visits to his own realm had been more frequent, of late. The more he tried to make small places of peace, in his human form and lives, the more he found himself trying to do the same among his own people. Trying to support the few—still so few, but slowly growing in number—who had found little pieces of love, or beauty, or care within them. The girl who lived in the neighborhood nearest the wastelands, who played flute in her open window, music that seemed to calm the passers-by. The archivist he always made a moment to speak with, when he was in the Palace, who mentioned sidelong which cases might need or deserve a touch of the Envoy’s intervention. The tea house run by the couple who had never strayed from each other’s sides, for centuries, that he left off his formal robes to visit. They were the ones who had taken bits of light, whether from humans or from the distant comfort of the Lamp itself, and nurtured rather than merely devouring them. They were the ones who gave him some faint hope he wouldn’t have to spend all of eternity being the threat of a bared blade to his own kind.

Sometimes, though, he had to admit that his people’s tendency to adopt every passing trend from humans took him a bit aback.

“Are you saying our own people think the seal is a matter of treaty, now?” he asked, staring at the Regent where they’d stopped short in one of the Palace’s halls. “Do they not remember their own lives and beginnings?”

“The greatness of your power blinds you, my Lord Envoy.” The man gestured them on down the hall with an obsequious bow at odds with the sharpness of his glance. “You forget that many of our kind, especially those of lesser power, spend most of their capacity for order on keeping their physical forms; they have none to spare for things such as long memory. Many have already taken on that new human name for us—Dixingren, isn’t it?” He sniffed, waving his fingers as if to brush away something inconsequential. “If they think themselves some kind of mortal creature, well it will be true enough should they dare the seal between realms won’t it?”

Shen Wei’s mouth tightened. “Yes. It will.” He still held to that. And for a ghost, death meant utter destruction.

The Regent nodded, perfectly agreeable and without a hint of mercy in his cold eyes. “Then all is well. And if the Palace archives keep a copy of this ‘treaty’, then it’s one more thing to give them pause before they attempt it.”

“I suppose so,” Shen Wei acknowledged, low, and paced on through the halls in silence.

The city’s university had been re-built in the new style, and was finally large enough again for Shen Wei to return to his favorite occupation of scholarship without creating many ripples. And just in time, it seemed; the newest school of thought, with its focus on explicit evidence, offered hours of entertainment.

“Obviously, Xu Min’s emphasis on the process of learning aligns him with the School of the Heart…”

“But surely you noted,” Shen Wei dropped into Feng Gang’s pause for breath, “that in his second chapter he refers repeatedly to essential principles.” The pause got longer, and he smiled at Feng with an inviting tilt of his head.

“Well,” the old blowhard drew himself up, and Shen Wei’s smile got a touch wider, “perhaps, but if you read closely, young man, I believe you will observe that Xu frames his concept of principles as static ideals rather than creations of dynamic tension.”

“Clearly you have studied him closely.” Shen Wei waited for Feng to settle back and start to look smug, and then added casually, “You do not feel, then, that Xu’s concept of principles runs counter to the mind as the source of reason?”

A little whisper of interest ran through the room and Feng immediately puffed up again. Shen Wei leaned back and folded his hands, looking just as politely interested as possible.

Hours of entertainment.

The next time Shen Wei circled back around to a medical career, he found the profession had made another of its periodic leaps in knowledge while he was away. There had even been a scholar who’d written on the possible physiological roots of his people’s powers, as observed over the centuries in Dragon City, though this was stored right next to several more volumes of disdainful dismissal of the ‘legendary’ Dixing race. Shen Wei indulged in a quiet laugh over those, as he browsed the additions to the university library.

The new study that truly startled him, though, was the one that held his people must have come to this world from another one entirely. Which, given the separation of realms, wasn’t actually all that far off except for the alleged means of transportation.

Which was a spaceship.

Shen Wei had no idea what expression was on his face as he stared at the text in his hands, but it caused a passing student to glance at the title and then laugh.

“Oh, you found Zhang Tao! He’s actually getting more of a following, you know; his archeological studies are first rate.” The boy waved at the open book. “Even that would be decent circumstantial evidence, at least, if the species he was talking about were actually real.”

“Indeed.” Shen Wei shook his head, and set the book aside. “I was actually looking for Professor Sun’s text on cell biology.”

The boy instantly looked sympathetic, which amused him; students were the same whatever the era. “Two shelves over. Good luck; Professor Sun is a real stickler for details and evidence!”

Having spent several ‘lives’ leading scholarly disputants in circles based entirely on available evidence, Shen Wei just smiled. “I’ll be sure to study carefully for him, then.”

At first, he thought the rumors of change and unrest were simply another tiresome round of the humans outgrowing another ruling clan (or party as they were calling it now), and he merely kept an eye out for sudden changes in news or fashion that might follow.

When the news that came was of yet more widespread war, and whispers of weapons that might break the very heavens again, he started to prepare a close to his current ‘life’. If whispers were even close to truth, the seal between realms might be at risk again. He remembered the chaos and upheaval, the last time the seal broke—the seas upending into land, the air and earth twisting to change places as the fabric of the world itself strained and tore. If it happened again… well, he would keep his bargain and his duty, even if it meant the death of his whole people and most likely of himself too.

But if it happened, he would seek out Kunlun, before he went.

This time, though, it wasn’t the fabric of the world that tore. It was the fabric of human lives and minds.

The waves of madness that swept the land shocked him the way no war or simple destruction before them had, shocked him with the way rage and fear twisted together, fired by the generative power of human souls to a reaping edge even his own people’s nature could hardly match. He abandoned any thought of keeping a human life or form and clung to the gateway, to the anchoring presence of the sacred tree, fighting for years at a time to damp the resonance of fear and hunger and desperation that consumed the land.

Let his people taste that, and no threat of his would stop them from besieging the seal.

When the taste of madness finally ebbed from the very air, and Shen Wei dared to leave the gate again, he found Dragon City still there. Many of its people looked very like he felt, though—like people who had lived through catastrophe, dazed and uncertain whether the ground under their feet was reliable. A quiet visit to the municipal library revealed an alarming breadth of destruction behind the neat shelves and now far fewer cases. Even if it had been some time since he’d bothered to read them, it was still a shock to see that the history texts had largely disappeared, replaced by slim new volumes purporting a history he barely recognized. The ‘treaty’ was among the missing documents, and Shen Wei was surprised at his own sense of loss, considering he’d forged the thing himself, centuries ago.

He’d meant to start thinking about a suitable new ‘life’, but that night he pulled concealment around his true form and retreated to the sacred tree. That presence, at least, was still constant. That night it felt as though the tree leaned into him as much as he did against it, and he reached up to pat the trunk. The madness of the recent years couldn’t have been much easier on something of the tree’s nature than it had been on him.

The slow, vibrant life of the tree nudged at his thoughts, a gentle press that felt like his own sorrow, threaded with a sip of bright comfort. The feeling slowly shaped itself into an image—the scroll he’d held in his hands, long ago, the token of the bargain between them. Shen Wei smiled faintly.

“Yes,” he answered, voice soft in the darkness. “We are still here. Our bargain still holds.”

Gradually the image hovering at the edge of his thoughts changed, flattened into a heavy sheet of pressed paper, characters stark and black, seals in red marching along the bottom. Shen Wei blinked at the words, in his mind’s eye. They were the same words he’d composed for the ‘treaty’. A feeling of offering and comfort curled through his perception, like a new leaf unfolding, and he laughed out loud for the first time in what might be decades.

“That would certainly be a lot harder to burn than mere paper, wouldn’t it? If I find who holds it now, can we change it?”

The image of the treaty strengthened sharply in his mind, wrapped around with a hint of smugness like incense lingering on the paper.

“You’ve done it already?” he asked, softly, astonished that the ancient life he’d bargained with so long ago would reach out with such immediate kindness to him.

Leaves rustled over his head, and he reached out carefully with the side of his nature that protected, touching the tree’s own life with his gratitude. This one thing would not be lost. It was a small thing, but it helped.

Remembering what else had helped, the last time the city had been razed, he looked thoughtfully toward the quarter where the university still stood. Perhaps, when he went forth again in his human form, he would return there—not simply as a scholar, this time, but as a teacher. Perhaps, that way, he could make a small place of peace for the young ones, again.

First, though, he should visit his own realm, and try to calm whatever echos of the humans’ madness had leaked through.

Shen Wei stared up at a dark sky, dark and flat as a stone ceiling, heart cold within him.

The light of the Lamp, the whisper of Kunlun’s presence and the brilliance of his sacrifice, was gone.

“The disruption was immense,” the Regent complained, at his shoulder. “I’m too old to deal with this nonsense.” He backed a step as Shen Wei’s furious gaze fell on him, holding up his hands. “It affected all of us, my Lord Envoy, is all I mean to say. Many lost what form and memory they’d managed to hold and fell on each other again, like our first days of existence, consuming each other to regain power and shape. You will see many new faces, and almost all have had to start over, to absorb thought and history from the echoes of the human realm that seep down to us here.

Shen Wei stilled, cold turning sharp in his chest. “And my brother?”

“The Pillar held.” The Regent fidgeted as Shen Wei stared at him, flat and demanding. “With, perhaps, some mild wear. His voice should not reach beyond the wastes, though.”

Shen Wei took a slow breath for calm. “I see.” Lower, hating it but unable to see any other way to keep his bargains, he added, “Do whatever is necessary to keep what peace and stability we may. I will seek the Lamp. And the other Holy Tools, in case they can show the way to it. If you know who, of our people, might manage to live among humans for a time without breaking, tell me now.”

That would not, he was grimly certain, be an easy charge. But he didn’t see that he had a great deal of choice. The longer his realm remained dark, the worse things would get.

The Ministry’s new Special Investigations Division was more dangerous and prone to snap judgements than the tiny Office of Dixing Affairs Shen Wei had encouraged into existence long ago, but at least they were just as dedicated to containing the occasional trespasser. With a little extra emphasis on the non-interference clauses of the ‘treaty’, he could work with that. He was less certain about the Institute, also Ministry sponsored, that his erstwhile mentor Professor Zhou kept trying to convince him to join, but if that was going to cause problems, well he’d deal with them when they happened.

Between the current dead-end of the search for the Lamp and the constant, low-level unrest of his people under their dark sky, he had plenty of problems already.

Today, though, he would set all that aside for a few hours. Today was his first day of teaching a class of his own in this life, and he was already smiling when he opened the door to his classroom.

“Good afternoon, Professor!” his students chorused, most of them already answering his smile, and he let himself relax in the simple brightness of their interest. He laid his notes out on his lectern and glanced around the room, nodding approval for all the pens already poised.

“Good afternoon. Today we’ll be discussing a brief history of the biological sciences…”


Shen Wei stood with his hands and forehead pressed against the sacred tree, uncaring of the roughness of bark against his skin. He held nothing in his mind but his need and his hope. Need for a weapon, a trap strong enough to hold his twin brother, whose power had always matched his. Hope for aid, for permission, for blessing.

The rustle of the tree’s leaves was sharp and unsettled.

“I know,” he whispered, eyes closed against the pain of that knowing. “I know this will probably mean my death. My dissolution. But Ye Zun’s madness will kill me just as surely, injured as I am now, me and everything I love.”

He had been a fool to think that he could use one of the Holy Tools as a human might. Had he let himself forget, in the years of living human-like lives that he had no generative core to his being, that it wouldn’t be merely years of life he gave up? The Dial had done exactly as they’d asked, broken off part of his being to heal Yunlan, and unless Shen Wei wished to shatter all his oaths and bargains in one blow and find a living being whose energies he could consume, he was now at a serious disadvantage.

If he could use his remaining being to conceal a power inimical to ghosts, though…

Grief shook him harshly, grief he’d felt ever since he made this decision. It took him a moment to realize it wasn’t just his own, this time.

“Forgive me.” He reached out to the tree with as much of the divine side of his being as he could, unbalanced as he was by what the Dial had reft away. “I’m abandoning our charge, our bargain, and yet I have the selfishness to beg the gift of its power.”

The image of their bargain’s physical token settled into his mind, soft as a leaf falling, and Shen Wei’s breath caught short at the ease of that permission. “Thank you,” he whispered, voice choked tight.

Slowly, as the night wore on, he matched his remaining power with the tree’s, just as they had to create the bargain, and together they drew the token of it back. Like an endless breath in, like winding gleaming thread back into a spool, they drew the token back and fed it into Shen Wei’s being until he felt the pressure of that bright power running through every vein, pushing against the part of his nature that was ghost. Pushing so hard he finally called his sword to him and nicked his wrist to release some of the pressure twined so tightly with his blood.

Comfort brushed over his heart—comfort and trust, and he closed his eyes, leaning against the tree.

He could only hope he had earned enough of Zhao Yunlan’s trust, as well, to see this through to the end.