Ling Qi was learning so quickly. It was a proud thing, Zeqing thought, for a teacher to see a student excel. She had taken so very easily to the Frozen Soul Serenade, the art which she had shaped from the very core of what she was.
It lit warmth in her heart every time that girl mastered a lesson. Every time she completed an exercise. Warmth that existed in contradiction to her nature, existing where there should have only been emptiness and cold.
“Momma, did I do good today?”
Zeqing pulled the portion of attention she had placed in her avatar from the retreating back of the human girl descending the mountain, and focused on her daughter. Hanyi stood beside her, toying with the hem of her gown. Pale blue eyes looked up to her for approval.
Ice crystalized in the shadows of her sleeve, and transparent crystalline fingers came to rest on her daughter’s head. A twist of qi reshaped her facsimile of a face into a soft smile. “You’ve done well, Hanyi.”
Her daughter smiled, leaning into her touch, and this too brought her that wonderful, addictive warmth. Her daughter's smile was a precious thing.
Those twin warmths burned painfully in her breast. Yet she craved it, more than anything else in this world.
Zeqing withdrew the majority of self from her avatar. Her world expanded from a little chasm with a pool of frozen darkness at its heart, and the being that called herself Zeqing beheld the whole of her domain, from the lowest stones on which snow fell, to the high peak that pierced the clouds. A part of her remained there in that phantasm, beside her daughter. Another part observed the human girl descending the mountain. Still others trailed in the cold winds that circled the peak, observing the beasts and spirits of her realm.
The painful warmth remained.
She was damaged, Zeqing knew, and had been for a very long time. Since the day that she had let that man into her home, all of those uncounted years ago.
But things were changing so quickly now. What had once been an ancient scar bled freely once again. Ever since that chatty moon avatar had come, near half a century ago. Poking, prodding, intruding. Annoyance gave way to interest as they talked, turning her attention from the lonely peak and it’s occasional intruders.
Zeqing still felt some bewilderment, remembering how she had convinced her to release the spark of life that she had held within herself since the day of betrayal. How she had been convinced to tear open her own wound.
It would make her less lonely if her daughter was born, Xin had said.
She had been right, Zeqing could acknowledge. But it was so difficult. Even as she observed Hanyi, skipping along a cliffside ahead of her avatar, Zeqing felt the stirring of her Truth, stirred by the warmth in her core.
She wanted to devour her.
Separated from Zeqing, the piece of self she had invested in the child called out, urging her to return to wholeness. To cease risking the loss inherent in allowing her daughter to exist.
And it was only growing worse. Now there was a second. She recalled the first time she had met Ling Qi a human child who bore a sliver of Winter in her core, born from cold memory. She had offered tutelage on a whim, convinced, as Xin had said, to ‘try something new’.
She had learned the pride of a teacher. Then that foolish child had all but offered herself up, unheeding of the danger. She could have taken her, that day on the mountaintop, her storms keeping back the girl’s pursuer. No pact with the Sect would have stopped her from claiming a disciple who had so foolishly put themselves in her power.
She could have consumed her, and had another daughter in truth. Could have fulfilled her wish for a [Mother] who could protect her. Could have ensured that she would never be alone again, [Hers] for all time.
At least until even that much separation became overwhelming.
Hanyi too was changing. Every day she lived, she became less [Zeqing’s child] and more [Herself]. She was learning now, growing beyond the framework Zeqing had born her into. Zeqing herself was accelerating it with her lessons.
She needed to keep what was hers.
She wanted her daughter to be happy.
She wanted her student to prosper.
Zeqing, [The Songstress of Endings] shuddered, and the wind screamed in fury, tearing at the mountain peak with all of a blizzard's fury. Below, on the mountain, a girl paused and looked up, shading her eyes as the wind pulled at the hem of her gowns. On a high cliffside, a confused child turned back to her Mother, who had stopped dead, frozen and still.
The wound in her Way that had been born when a man had convinced her to conceive life, widened just a little further.
She was a Mother, who wanted to protect and love her daughter.
She was a teacher, and took joy in her student’s success.
She was a fragment of Endings. Left behind in the retreat of southern glaciers, before ever human eyes had beheld the peaks. Her nature was the cold emptiness left behind in the absence of all else.
She should resent Xin, she knew. To ease her loneliness was a contradiction in terms. However…
Zeqing’s attention collapsed inward.
“Are you alright Momma?” Hanyi asked, concern on her childish face.
“I am well enough my daughter,” Zeqing said softly. “Let us return home. I tire.”
“Okay!” Hanyi said brightly. “Do you think you can read me more of the book Auntie Xin brought?”
“That is acceptable,” Zeqing said, dipping her head. She reached out, and hanyi took her crystalline hand.
“Will you do the voices too?” Hanyi asked as they soared into the sky, borne on the wind and the snow.
“I do not see why not,” Zeqing said softly. It took so little to bring happiness to a child.
The warmth burned. The darkness hungered.
How long, Zeqing wondered, could want outstrip need?