*Warning: Explicit descriptions of violence. Please proceed at your own risk.*
It was clear that he had learned nothing.
Had he known, he would've come prepared. Had he known, he would've come with his sword on his hip, polished and shiny like the weapon it was supposed to be—had ceased to be. Had he known, he would not have shrieked as loud, would not have fallen so quickly to the ground when they struck his stomach, his chin smacking against those smooth, red floors with the sound of cracking bone. Had he known, he would not have simply watched as his parents' voices broke and splattered onto the wall, swelling and receding in one sickening breath.
"He was spoiled in Baxian Peak," they said as they rubbed their dirtied boots over his cheek. He was spoiled with small smiles and comfort and beautiful things. And now, he was beautiful just like it. Like those green ghylls, those fragrant pines, and those sweet rains. How soft, the stickiness of his pale skin and the lashes framing his frightened eyes. How lovely, the overflowing tears sullying his rounded jawline and the jut of his wobbling lip. He truly was beautiful.
And utterly pitiful.
They intended to have fun tonight. His parents' bodies were already piled in the corner, more flesh than human. If they hadn't threatened him, if they hadn't waved their sharp daggers in front of his little nose and said they'd slit his eyes if he dared looked away, he would not have watched as their souls melted out of his parents' mouths and seeped onto the floor. His naivety would've stayed intact for a few moments more.
And when they were done with them, the bandits smiled at him with boiling syrup dripping from their teeth.
"Did you listen?" They asked, the roofs of their mouths glinting at him like a puddle of blood. "Did you hear about that deal they tried to make?" He pretended that he couldn't hear them as he shook under their grip, eyes blown open and unable to close.
Suddenly, those grimy fingers trickled near the name of the boy's neck, and he gasped as the back of his robes were torn, exposing the naked skin to the densely red oxygen, that dirty air. He quivered and wondered if he would die right there, not from injury but from shame, but his thoughts were firmly staunched when something sharp pricked into the soft epidermis.
His bloody fingers made caves on the floor as he screamed. The bandits could only laugh, great delight dripping out of the corners of their yellowed mouths. "You should've studied numbers better. Couldn't count 'til thirty even if you tried." they sneered. His skin was nothing but a stone stele for etching into, nothing but a tablet to record the results of the day's hunt. The boy thrashed, clear liquid leaking out of his teeth. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to shake too much with his sobs in fear that the agony would be prolonged. And soon enough, he ceased to move and flattened his stomach to the crimson tile, mouth stuck open. It only made the job easier.
(They had missed something though. From that very first moment, when the boy shattered onto the ground, they had taken too much time playing with flesh instead of paying attention to that sliding body and sticky hands, which shakily crawled and pulled off the emergency fireworks with a great sound. They hadn't noticed, too caught in their delirium to feel the reverberation, and instead took to dragging the boy back to where he had been at first, laughing as they slapped the back of his useless legs with the flats of their scarlet swords. Something akin to glee in their eyes, their ears were smothered by the euphoric blanket of depravity.
They too, were human after all.)
In that final moment, as the bandits stood over their handiwork with great pride, the air grew thicker with static. Thunder suddenly boomed through that hall, and they were only able to grin a last time at each other before they were no more, severed by a bolt of lightning.
(The bandits had heard those rumbling footsteps too late. This was the one thing that saved him. The boy had been crying out feebly: "Shizun... Shizun... Shizun..." and that was a curse. Chances of survival were at an absolute none when the Baiye-Jun found them, brought in by his disciple's pathetic whines.)
The boy laid there as the rescuers rushed in like the water after a terrible drought, relieving for those alive but taunting for those who weren't. At first, the cultivators thought he was dead as well, until a single shadowed figure rushed from the center of the fray and took that thin body up into his arms.
"He's alive. He's alive," the man cried in a voice no one had ever heard from him before. He tore off a strip of his own silk sleeve and bound it tightly around the other's bloodied shoulders. He hugged the boy to his own chest in a defining moment no one would remember and along the way back, he kept whispering to himself like a madman: "Not this one. Not this one."
Needless to say, the boy survived. He still breathed, though everyone found it difficult to look at the scars left upon his back, much less trace them with liquor and redress them, address them. He might never stand up straight in pride again, but he would live, yes. At least he would live.
But despite all this, no one was sure of anything. That at any given moment, something could go wrong. But wasn't that the case for every patient? Just a missed beat, and they could be erased from the world.
"This boy, he was sullied by the blood that beat his family home," they said. A rotting odor soon filled his body, one of expired goat's milk and soiled water. He no longer slept with a serene smile on his lips. Instead, he writhed and thrashed, jaw slack or grinding like the sound of a knife against a whetstone. His hair was no longer straight like the hanging vines, and instead, it was bunched and smelly like a bird's dirtied nest.
Though he would live, none was sure if he would ever wake up. "This boy," they whispered, "he was spoiled in both of the ways the word could imply." He was spoiled, and it was clear there was nothing else that could be said or done.
All they could do was wait.
The boy finally reached the peak.
His thin robes clung to his body, moist but only from external water vapor, which originated from a nearby waterfall and hung in the air like a thick curtain. He did not sweat easily in the first place, but he thought to himself that he was not perspiring now as much as he would have before. Now, he was a stronger man, overlaid with sturdier skin, and that simple thing alone filled him with a sense of pride.
If he had climbed this mountain a few months ago, he no doubt would have collapsed by now. He had trained tirelessly, for his lungs not to heave and for his legs to not wobble. The wind stroked his face and tousled softly, making sounds like rushing water. At this moment, he was standing at the highest point in the world.
Below, the soft cliff drop made the ground look tantalizingly near, like steps in stairs in the way you could hop down with two legs together and land with two legs together too. He was strangely enthralled by it. Who knew something like this would be the gateway towards hades, the portal to purgatory, where your body wouldn't simply break if it hit the bottom, it would shatter.
Teacher suddenly prodded him at the small of his back with a bamboo rod, and although the boy was trained, he had not yet learned to keep his surprised squeaks to himself. With wide eyes, he whirled to the wrinkled face of the elder, which made the other huff. The older man gestured at the abyss with the stick, eyes flicking expectantly at the looming drop.
"Well, aren't you going?" He did not need to state the task in full because it would only whet the boy's unacknowledged fear further. The boy swallowed, adam's apple swelling like an uneasy tide as the euphoria gradually phased out of him.
"Teacher..." he said uncertainly, "I won't die, will I?"
Teacher always felt like scoffing with this pupil. "Didn't you say so yourself," he said dryly, "That you needed to breach the first entrance to hell in order to feel what it really was like to be strong?"
"I said I needed to be lucid for it," the boy corrected. His were rubbing against each other like flint and stone, roughly and erratically, and it looked as if he was making a visible effort to not hug himself. Teacher, observing his agitation, ignored the talking back just this once.
"Lucid or not, you're going to jump anyways. And you're not going to die," the older man said firmly. The boy glanced at the edge and then looked away just as quick, oscillating from one position to the next. Oh how he wished he had never asked to take up this challenge in the first place. Oh how he wished everything could go back to normal.
But then again, what was normal anyways?
"Teacher," the boy said, trying to mold his voice into something more solid, "I'll—I'll meet you later."
"If you don't go now, I will push you," Teacher replied, tone rough in order to disguise the well meaning behind his spiny words. The boy nodded, taking a deep breath. Vapor flooded into his mouth, and he tasted it slowly, running his tongue slowly over the textured roof of his mouth, his smooth teeth.
The drop looked much gentler than it really was. He tried to surround in that mirage as he raised his arm over his head. Just this once, he thought, he'd let himself believe a falsity.
Thighs together, he bent himself at the knee and pushed himself upwards like an arrow, piercing through the highest clouds.
There was a version of “Liu Junjie” that walked into his parents’ home that night and never came out.
Strange, how the first example he had ever followed was from the people that had ruined his life. And how in that way, he had made murder a habit somehow.
The new "him" had tried to live on like after that, so viciously cleaved from his own body. He washed his own back and tended to his own wounds and tried to pretend like everything was alright. But of course it wasn’t. He was just an umbrella bound to break, a roof bound to cave in. Every step forward rendered the previous step weak and feeble. He was stuck in two locations, the hell of the past and the constant breaking of the present.
He decided, that there was no way that he could live with this collection of pathetic yesterdays. In his dreams, he saw himself as he was when he was still desperately fragile, pressing his palms into his ears and succumbing to the prickling phosphenes as the doctors bandaged his back again. He couldn’t look into their eyes. He couldn’t look at his own eyes. That night, he could no longer bear it, and he killed it with his own hands, that puny flower. And then, he finally felt relief.
So from then on, every night, he would take the sword upon that illusion and sever it just the same. Another memory limp in his hands, another “Liu Junjie” blown away by the wind. It was just easier to live this way.
After all, wasn’t all of life spent on making things easier for oneself?
He remained nameless every night, as he stood over the cadaver of the person he was yesterday. He closed his eyes and imagined the loss of control, how the chest would start rising and falling before the breath was ready to be taken. It would flood out of the body like a waterfall, coat the bottom of his shoes and sink into the bandaged silk. It would suspend itself above his head and rain down clearly, odorlessly. And he would feel no dirtiness from the crime, only the feeling of purification that he had managed to cling onto for so long.
This process was mental but far from hypothetical. For his small, pathetic existence, this was the one constant. Forget the shames of yesterday. Focus on the triumphs of today. Wasn’t that what that man had told him once? Was it even him? Why couldn’t he remember anymore, the sound of that voice or the density of the other’s flesh when pressed upon gently... The soft curl of lip that he was convinced was revealed only to him or the pretty scintillation that person had produced when he was utterly immersed in his art, no, not in his sword’s silver but in his solemn yet focused gleam of his eye. Why did he want to forget that? Why did he want to discard the part of himself that held such a sweet reassurance? Why did he—
He thrusted the sword inside of the body’s heart, twisting until it went limp. His breathing was shallow yet agonizing. The corpse had its mouth open wide, as if to ask another terrible question.
No... Those times could never be returned to. He had thrown it all away. Not that either... It wasn’t him that threw away everything, it was him that was thrown away. By expectation or rule or whatever it was. Back then, he had treated himself like a delicate floret and had been treated that way by others accordingly. He had no faith in himself to endure, so he had been loved and spoiled and whittled into a dull knife without edge, content to stay weak and coddled forever. And even to the people he mourned every day afterwards, he was only a copper coin wedged between the stones on the ground. Worth only a candy piece at the cheapest stall.
And the blood, oozing down the staircase and through the crack in the door... It was all simply a consequence.
But, he blamed that person. He could understand him at moments of clarity, but here, sobbing over a body that used to belong to a version of him that was happier, he felt nothing but hate and loathing and utter despair at what he had left him as.
“Teacher, why would you choose to age?”
The moon blew dust off of itself as the chilly night stirred itself like a pot of cold soup. Those two sat side by side with a tray of tea between them, chessboard long abandoned. The younger was never too good at the game anyways, never too good at thinking dishonestly.
The boy finally asked the question after a few years of being under his tutelage. By now, his chest was curved and firm, his arms filling the sleeves of his shirt. He no longer struggled to gain muscle, though his figure was slim enough to obscure that fact. He was very different from the child he had met before, though he was still a boy.
“It’s the natural order of things. People are supposed to age,” he replied, taking a long sip from the cup. The boy’s tea was untouched, as he had never favored bitter things.
“But cultivators aren’t,” the boy retorted, “Aren’t you a cultivator, Teacher?”
″You are a cultivator,” Teacher said pointedly, “I am just an old man with nothing else to do.”
“But—” the boy bit his lip. He had to stop himself from being indelicate with his words. “But you teach me to cultivate. I see you practicing cultivation on your own when you do not need to teach me. And I—I do not even know how old you are.”
Teacher barked out a laugh that sounded like a dog’s cry. He held his stomach and laughed alone, not because it was particularly funny but just, the nerve of this boy!
“For once, you’re right. I have been cultivating since before you were even conceived!”
The disciple nodded; he had already expected that to be true, though he pouted a little at the first comment. Teacher slowly calmed down, stifling his guffaws with curve of his stomach.
“So, you ask me why your elders, why I, and why all other cultivators would choose to grow old when we could die while looking youthful as you? That is partially untrue, as aging comes naturally even to us, but why we would speed up the process?”
“Is it to gain more respect, Teacher? Are older people afforded more benevolence?” The boy cut in with his own hypothesis. Teacher wondered how long he had been pondering this question, useless as it was.
“That is partially true, sure. Though if you’re guessing that from your own experience, let’s just say that not all youths are as respectful to the elderly as you try to be,” Teacher drawled, though he soon cleared his breath with another swallow of the fine tea.
“Then—?” The boy pushed.
“Humans age naturally. Cultivators can go a century without growing a single white hair. But it’s not like we’re that different. That much should be obvious. Even to regular people, it doesn’t occur to them about how cultivators might be dissimilar to their expectations. Yet, as you one day reach a point in your training, you’ll realize it—”
That little by little, you are losing your humanity.
There is living and dying. There is death and rebirth. There is smiling with red lips blooming in both directions, and there is collecting your lover’s grey hair as they can only weakly lay in bed. There is forging your own sword with metal fallen from the sky, and there is splitting a body into two with your own two hands as the crowd can only tremble in fear. There is bearing a child and raising her to be just and brave and true, and there is draping white over your own shoulders as she closes her eyes for the final time.
There is being worshiped as a hero, and there is being shunned as the villain. There is the trust that surrounds and coats like armor, and there is hatred that sinks in and weakens. There is having enough power to save a city and enough power to destroy it.
“Normalcy... Is something is far gone,” Teacher murmured. “In this path that I’ve chosen to go down, I’ve already walked too far, haven’t I? The only thing I can do now is play chess and drink tea with someone as good as a son...”
“Teacher? I can’t hear you. What did you say?” the boy said confusedly. Teacher suddenly turned to him, shimmering eyes hidden by the wrinkles that he had dug into his own face.
“It’s good if you can’t understand me yet,” he said. “It’s good if you are still young, no different than other boys your age other than the sword you hold.”
“Then there mustn’t be anything different from you and an ordinary old man either!” The boy argued. Teacher laughed.
“Then I’m glad you think of me that way.” He leaned forward and ruffled the boy’s straight black hair with his fingers, only stopping when the boy squeaked and batted his hands away.
How naive, He thought inside, though he kept it to himself as to not inflame his disciple’s temper. He reached over to pour himself another cup of the cold tea before the other hurriedly did it for him, always trying to prove himself.
You could say that the old Teacher was already dead. You could say that he was supposed to be dead already. You could say that he should have stayed young forever instead of choosing to decay like this.
Still, on a night like this, where he could at least prick the edges of someone else’s warmth and massage the valley of folds on the back of his hand and roll the fallen strands of white hair in between his fingers, he could pretend like he was just another simple old man.
Just another person, caught in the unrelenting breeze of time.