and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Jin Ling let out a sharp, satisfied sound upon seeing his sword free at last. He walked quickly to Wei Wuxian’s side and crouched to retrieve it. The handle fit into his palm easily, habit and lineage guaranteeing that Suihua would obey him better than it would anyone else.
Even Wei Wuxian.
It was with his heart in his throat that Wei Wuxian looked at the boy’s face. His hand shook with the warmth of the sword’s spirituality, as if he were still holding it, unaware of the reason it was so keen to heed him. He was a fool. He should have realized sooner, he should never have touched that sword. He had no right to.
Jiang Cheng walked forward as well until he was by his nephew’s side. “Don’t let it get stolen again,” he barked at the boy. “What would your mother say?”
Jin Ling blushed. “Don’t tell her,” he muttered.
“Hah? Why shouldn’t I? She said to keep an eye on you.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to tell her everything!”
Wei Wuxian grabbed onto the bow strung across his shoulder for lack of a better thing to do. Its wood was poor and splintered. He squeezed it in his palm till the feel of the sword washed away.
He wanted to leave now, while the other two were busy arguing—mount the donkey and trot as far from Dafan as he could get the beast to go and never look back. But Jiang Cheng’s keen eyes moved from Jin Ling to settle on him the moment he made to step away, and Wei Wuxian could only stand to meet them for a second before looking aside.
“You,” Jiang Cheng said. “Tell me your name. What brings you here, and why did you steal my nephew’s sword? You’re not wearing any clan colors.”
“That’s just Mo Xuanyu,” Jin Ling replied before Wei Wuxian could even think of an answer. “I told you about him. Little Uncle threw him out of the tower months ago.”
Jiang Cheng stared harder at Wei Wuxian, squinting to better catch his features in the dark. Wei Wuxian resisted the urge to hunch in on himself. “He does look a little like Lianfang-Zun,” Jiang Cheng said with some reluctance.
Wei Wuxian had no idea who Lianfang-Zun was. All he wanted was for Jiang Cheng to stop looking at him.
Figuring that going on with the part of crazed omega reject was the better way of ensuring Jiang Cheng lost all interest in him, he said, “You shouldn’t stare like this, you know. People might get ideas.”
Jin Ling blushed to the roots of his hair. “M-Mo Xuanyu!” he stammered. “Do you not know who you’re talking to!?”
The boy spluttered and reddened again. It would have been amusing under any other circumstance, but as it were, Wei Wuxian felt no reason for laughter. At least his words seemed to have worked; Jiang Cheng had raised his eyebrows in surprise and looked away.
“Why did you bring me here?” he asked the flustered Jin Ling, losing all interest in Wei Wuxian. “Surely it wasn’t to introduce me to yet another uncle of yours.”
That word, spoken in Jiang Cheng’s voice, made Wei Wuxian want to bury himself in the ground.
“Like I’d want to show that stupid omega to anyone,” Jin Ling replied with a sneer. And then—”Ow! What was that for?“
He was rubbing his head and glaring at Jiang Cheng, who was now taking back the hand with which he had struck him. “I told you not to speak like that,” Jiang Cheng snapped. “What are those fools in Lanling teaching you? I’ll have words with sister.”
“Fine, fine, I get it!” Jin Ling stuck out his hand and pointed at the entrance of the cave, saying, “Mo Xuanyu said that noise earlier came from inside. Apparently it’s not a spirit or monster, but a goddess taking the villagers’ souls.”
Jiang Cheng advanced toward the entrance and stood for a second in front of it, feeling the air. Energy sprung out of his body in a much finer way than it had out of Jin Ling’s. Wei Wuxian grit his teeth and turned away, well intent on leaving this time.
Once more, Jiang Cheng’s voice stopped him. “Hold on,” he said in as cool a tone as he had when first walking into the clearing.
Wei Wuxian took a deep breath. “Yes?” he replied, looking back over his shoulder.
“How did you find that place?”
Jiang Cheng’s expression was dark. He must have felt what Wei Wuxian did without even the need for reaching earlier: the cold, earth-deep emanations of the statue inside, telling all who would lend an ear of its intention to cause harm.
“Luck, I suppose,” Wei Wuxian replied.
“He said he felt it,” Jin Ling interrupted, shaking his head. He still hadn’t put Suihua back in its scabbard, as if he had missed the sword too much to let go of it now. “He showed me how to feel it too—I never would’ve guessed something so evil was hiding in plain sight.”
“Did he,” Jiang Cheng murmured coolly. “Are you such a good cultivator then, Mo Xuanyu, to be able to sense resentful energy before anyone else?”
“Of course not,” Wei Wuxian said. “You heard Jin Ling. I was thrown out of the Tower.”
He couldn’t quite convince himself to add in an idiotic smile. He felt as if the charade would crumble with so much as a breeze—as though if Jiang Cheng were to become too inquisitive, too suspicious, Wei Wuxian would shatter into pieces.
He needed to leave.
Unfortunately, Jiang Cheng had different intentions. “Come with me,” he said, entering the mouth of the cave. “Both of you. If this is truly the work of a goddess, you might prove useful.”
Jin Ling threw Wei Wuxian an annoyed glance as he followed into his uncle’s steps. Wei Wuxian considered making a run for it, but a single glare from Jiang Cheng, even into the cave’s darkness, dissuaded him. He couldn’t outrun someone who flew as well as his former shidi.
The miasma inside the cave wasn’t any more pleasant the second time around. The journey to the wide room inside seemed shorter too, and too soon was Wei Wuxian exposed to the full blast of the statue’s creeping energy. He shuddered under his thin clothes.
Jiang Cheng told Jin Ling to stay back as he approached the statue. Sandu drew out of its sheath with nary a sound, its glow echoing onto the smooth cave walls, once more making Wei Wuxian’s chest ache. The last time he had seen that sword, it had been stained with blood.
Sandu’s blade tapped against various parts of the goddess statue. The rock did not move despite the disagreeable sound of metal on rock and the threat of such a fierce weapon, which confirmed Wei Wuxian’s earlier suspicions: the goddess did not yet have the means to leave its home.
“Mo Xuanyu,” Jiang Cheng said into the silence. Wei Wuxian looked at him from the corner of his eyes again, but the other man was staring at the statue in front of him, his face unreadable. “How do you figure we should go about stopping such a thing?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Wei Wuxian muttered.
“You don’t look well.”
He didn’t feel well. With a golden core in his chest where for so long only emptiness had been, the cold energy on Wei Wuxian’s skin almost burned.
“I fear this monster will steal my soul as well,” he replied evenly. “Like it did with those poor villagers. It’s enough to give anyone shivers.”
“Mmh.” Jiang Cheng, to Wei Wuxian’s surprise, sheathed Sandu again. “Stealing souls,” he said. “It sounds like a silly legend, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen that poor girl for myself when I arrived. It sounds too much like all those things they used to say about the Yiling Patriarch.”
Wei Wuxian could hardly breathe. He looked at Jin Ling standing back by the tunnel, whose face bore only the mildest disapproval as he stared up and down the statue. He threw a quick frown at his uncle when those last words left his mouth, but didn’t otherwise react.
“The Yiling Patriarch will kidnap you if you don’t behave,” Jiang Cheng went on softly. He was walking around the statue again; the path he took brought him closer to Wei Wuxian, the sound of his footsteps echoing loudly in the cave. “Those who go mad had their souls stolen by him. It’s foolish, isn’t it? There is no human capable of stealing someone else’s soul, no matter how deeply they research the dark arts.”
“So this is not the work of a human,” Wei Wuxian said.
He couldn’t feel the beat of his own heart. He couldn’t feel his skin, numb as it was because of the goddess’s spirit licking all over it. He absently rubbed a hand against his elbow, trying to find some warmth.
“Is that what you’re saying?”
“Who knows,” Jiang Cheng said. Wei Wuxian glanced at him in a panic, having not realized how close he had gotten; he looked away as soon as their eyes met. “Just because Wei Wuxian couldn’t figure out how to do it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. He liked to act smarter and better than everyone else, but even he was only human. Even he died in the end.”
“Uncle?” Jin Ling asked, looking at them in curiosity.
“Mo Xuanyu,” Jiang Cheng said, booming. He stood now in front of Wei Wuxian, tall and broad as he had never been before; and in a brief, glacial instant, Wei Wuxian’s mind was overcome with the ugliest, the basest of all fears, thickening in his limbs and making his mouth taste of grass and dirt. “How long have you been walking the demonic path?”
His outstretched hand moved as if to grip the front of Wei Wuxian’s clothes.
Before it could, the sound came to them all of someone stepping into the cave. They looked toward the tunnel and found a man dressed all in grey, holding a candle in his hand and blinking into the darkness. “What are you all doing here?” he asked in the same dialect that the villagers used. “You’re cultivators too, aren’t you? They’re all over the mountain.”
“It’s none of your business, old man,” Jin Ling replied, turning his nose away.
“Rude child,” the man grumbled.
He then walked toward the statue. Wei Wuxian watched him with increasing dread, but Jiang Cheng’s presence and words made him too late in understanding why.
“Stop,” he said, but the man was already kneeling by the pedestal with his eyes closed. His hand turned the end of the candle toward one of the lit flames around; Wei Wuxian took in a sharp breath and walked out of Jiang Cheng’s space and reach, repeating, “Stop!”
The wick of the candle took fire, lighting the man’s face from under in a soft orange glow.
Wei Wuxian felt the breath of the goddess around him, over his face and hands, at the hollow of his heart. He met its gaze when rock shifted around where its face should be, digging holes for eyes and a thin gash for a mouth.
It stepped off the stone pedestal with a great, thunder-like noise.
The man at its feet was now cowering in fear, his mouth wide open yet unable to scream. The statue took its time to look around and stare at each of them, and Wei Wuxian’s dread grew again as he felt himself be examined and found lacking—as the goddess’s eyes found Jin Ling and, at last, lingered.
“Get out!” Wei Wuxian shouted at him. “Get out, quick, don’t let her touch you!”
The boy didn’t move. His wide brown eyes stared at the statue in a mix of fear and hapless surprise, and Suihua rose in his grasp, the golden glare of its blade once more making him look like his father.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said.
He didn’t know if the man heard him, but it didn’t matter: Sandu flew over his head and pierced into the goddess’s breast, making stone crumble over the floor.
“Get out, Jin Ling!” Jiang Cheng howled from behind Wei Wuxian.
At last the boy seemed to break out of his trance. His knees shook for a second before he took off, mounting the flat of Suihua’s blade and flying out through the tunnel.
The goddess statue moved slowly. It put a hand over where the glowing sword was still stabbed into her, but not quickly enough to keep it from returning to its master’s hand. Jiang Cheng ran around Wei Wuxian and toward the statue, cutting as deeply into stone as he could, while the man from earlier wept and crawled his way toward the exit.
Wei Wuxian took hold of his stolen bow. There were only two arrows left in the quiver at his back; he took them both in one hand and set them against the string, inhaling deeply and calling far into himself for any energy at all.
It wasn’t hard. The entire cave was ripe with resentment, and power sprung to Wei Wuxian’s fingertips in under a second. The arrowheads glowed as red as melted iron.
When he released them, the bow broke in half.
At least their aim was true. They both flew above Jiang Cheng’s head and into the statue’s empty eyes, for it had turned in Wei Wuxian’s direction at his call as well, curious to know where that kinship came from. It made a sound almost like the deep growl of an earthquake at it pawed futilely at its face, melted metal dripping from its eyesockets like tears.
Jiang Cheng cut off one of the statue’s arms and, without another word, ran back to Wei Wuxian’s side. He grabbed his arm and ran up the length of the tunnel, almost carrying him, his face set to the darkest of scowls.
It wasn’t long before they reached the starlit clearing again. Jin Ling was waiting there with an anxious face; it brightened for a moment upon seeing them emerge unharmed, but then Jiang Cheng threw Wei Wuxian aside, and he once more seemed shocked into silence.
Wei Wuxian managed not to fall despite the violence of the gesture. He stumbled upright and threw Jiang Cheng something even close to a glare.
“I knew it,” Jiang Cheng declared in fury. “I felt that resentful energy you called in there.”
“What else was I supposed to do without any proper weapons?” Wei Wuxian snapped.
“You could have let me handle it—”
“It’s coming,” Jin Ling interrupted them both.
Indeed they could hear the sound of the statue’s loud footsteps from inside the tunnel. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng both stilled, looking at it. “We need to find a way of sealing it,” Jiang Cheng declared. “Jin Ling, you get away from here. It’s picked you as a target.”
“The man inside made a wish,” Wei Wuxian said. “That’s the price. A wish in exchange for a soul. Now that it can move, it’ll try to take it from you itself.”
Jin Ling paled. “But we were all there!” he exclaimed. “Why didn’t it simply take that old man’s soul, why me?”
Because your soul is unharmed, Wei Wuxian thought, glancing at Jiang Cheng and then away.
Jiang Cheng had once lost his golden core, his entire family, his own self in his search for revenge. Wei Wuxian himself was forcefully called to inhabit a body not his own. Of course Jin Ling would seem like a more appetizing prize to the goddess than either of them, or the old man inside who had never cultivated his spirit for a day in his life. Jin Ling was whole.
Wei Wuxian stripped a branch from the closest tree and once more suffused it with all the spirits he could gather. He threw it over the top of the cave’s entrance, and rock crumbled under the weight of the dead’s accumulated grief, blocking anyone from going in or out.
It would only slow the statue down for a minute, he knew.
Jiang Cheng bared his teeth at him. His stormscent grew stronger around them, heightened by the use of his powers and, it seemed, his very anger. “Stop using such techniques,” he barked at Wei Wuxian. “Didn’t you hear a word I said earlier? Not even the Yiling Patriarch survived the demonic path.”
“Maybe he was just weak,” Wei Wuxian replied.
He didn’t expect to find himself with a sword at his throat.
For a second he only looked at Sandu’s gleaming blade. There was no power running through it now, but it was as sharp as ever, honed and grown with Jiang Cheng’s own strength.
“Watch your words, Mo Xuanyu,” Jiang Cheng said coldly. “Demonic cultivation is forbidden for a reason. If I should take your head now, no one would think of punishing me for it. Your omega status won’t protect you.”
“It never has,” Wei Wuxian replied.
Jiang Cheng’s expression darkened into sorrow for the briefest second.
Wei Wuxian raised his hands in surrender. He stepped away from Sandu’s ever-sharp end. “I’ll let you cultivators deal with the goddess, then,” he said. “I had no desire to get involved in the first place.”
Jiang Cheng’s arm lowered. “You do that,” he replied. “Take Jin Ling with you, we don’t have much time.”
Jin Ling protested immediately. “I don’t need him to—”
“You’ll obey me,” Jiang Cheng growled, “or I will tell your mother about how you slipped up today.”
The boy groaned, swearing under his breath but walking away. Wei Wuxian followed after him with one last glance in Jiang Cheng’s direction.
They crossed paths with no one for the next several minutes. The night was deep around them, still cold with the liberated statue’s influence, still devoid of animal life. The donkey that Wei Wuxian had left by the cave’s entrance was gone, no doubt frightened away by the noise and rumble. Wei Wuxian walked behind Jin Ling and thought idly of how much he missed his bow already—weak and stolen as it was.
“Where did you learn to cultivate like this?” Jin Ling asked all of a sudden. He looked over his shoulder at Wei Wuxian, frowning. “My uncles destroyed all of the Yiling Patriarch’s research when he died.”
Did they, now. Wei Wuxian thought mournfully of the years of hard work he had apparently spent in vain. “The Yiling Patriarch wasn’t the only cultivator to be curious, I suppose,” he replied.
“I don’t like that. What he did… it’s evil. You shouldn’t try to imitate him, it’ll kill you.”
Wei Wuxian wondered which of his misdeeds he was referring to: his father’s death, the massacre in Qishan, or everything else. Everything he refused to regret no matter what scorn people chose to show him.
“He killed my father,” the boy said harshly, answering the unvoiced question. “That man. Wei Ying.”
Please, let me help you. I can help you.
“I’m sorry to hear it,” Wei Wuxian replied, closing his eyes briefly.
“Mother and Uncle don’t speak about it. They say I shouldn’t believe what everyone says, but—” his young voice rose with frustration. “How am I supposed to believe anything else?” he asked no one. “Everyone says he did it. Everyone. I wish they’d just tell me what happened. Mother once said Wei Ying had no reason to kill him, that my father would have never harmed him, that he was—”
“Jin Ling,” Wei Wuxian cut in, “I think we should wait here.”
He should never have approached Jin Ling, never have talked to him or put his hand on Suihua or decided to teach him a lesson. Even if he had not been Jin Ling—even if he had simply been a junior disciple of Lanlingjin like any other—Wei Wuxian should not have addressed a word to him.
He was no good with children. He never was and never would be.
The boy looked around with surprise. They had reached another break into the forest, not a clearing as such but a space within the trees, with thick roots sprouting from the ground and moss crawling over the damp ground. “Right,” he replied, sitting onto one of the roots. “Uncle will deal with that goddess statue in no time, you’ll see.”
Wei Wuxian smiled emptily in answer.
They waited like this for a few minutes. No sound reached them but for the wind between tree leaves, their own quiet breathing, Jin Ling’s occasional fidgeting. Wei Wuxian stared at the mossy ground and tried not to think of the past. Of what Jiang Yanli could have told her son about the past during those thirteen years.
They both raised their heads at the unmistakable growl of the goddess statue, coming in from the east. Jin Ling jumped to his feet with his hand gripping his sword; Wei Wuxian followed suit a little more calmly, feeling for the air around them both.
The thick, vile energy had diminished minutes ago. Now it had come back even stronger.
“Looks like your uncle failed,” Wei Wuxian said.
“That’s impossible,” Jin Ling replied quietly. “Uncle is great with sealing. He’s dealt with all sorts of divine beasts before.”
“This is not a divine beast.”
Shouts came their way. From below they heard the familiar sound of swords flying through the air as cultivators hurried to the source of the noise. Wei Wuxian saw Jin Ling prepare to hurry after them and had to grab one of his arms, loath as he was to have to touch him.
“Let me go!”
“Did you forget that this thing is looking for you?” Wei Wuxian snapped. “Do you want to lose your soul so badly?”
“I can’t just stay here and do nothing!” Jin Ling retorted in a shout, shaking the arm that Wei Wuxian was holding. “I’m a cultivator too!”
“You’re only a disciple.”
“I’m a sect heir. If people learn that I ran away from danger, I’ll be even more ridiculed than you!”
He managed to free himself, but not quickly enough; Wei Wuxian grabbed the back of his neck in a vice-like grip and dug his thumb and middle finger into the soft skin right under his jaw.
Jin Ling fell to the ground, unconscious, and would have hit his head to the side of a tree if Wei Wuxian hadn’t caught him.
He laid him down between the thick roots of a very old oak, where he would be somewhat concealed from the eye. He took the outer robe off of his own shoulder to put it on top of him and hide the bright white-and-gold peony embroidered on his chest. He looked at Suihua gleaming softly in the shadow.
His hand hesitated. In the end, he took Jin Ling’s golden bow and arrows instead.
Wei Wuxian ran after the tendrils of resentful energy as he set the quiver to his back. The night was much colder now that he was rid of a layer of clothing, but he worked himself into enough of a sweat to parry the temperature. A short while later he stumbled upon about a dozen cultivators from various sects and half as many dead bodies, the statue standing in their midst and looking more human by the minute. Its eyes which Wei Wuxian had shot were not empty anymore, but full and moving, the detail of iris and pupil visible even in the distance. Wei Wuxian set another two arrows to the golden bow and took aim.
These sank into the statue’s side as if were made of butter. The goddess, however, hardly seemed to notice it.
“What did you do with Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian muttered, looking around and finding no trace of his former shidi.
If only Jiang Yanli had been here instead. Wei Wuxian wanted to see her even less than he did her brother, but Zidian would have come in handy to deal with such a creature.
He shot another few arrows at the goddess, none of which managed to stop it for more than a handful of seconds. Its many hands grabbed a couple more of the cultivators surrounding it and crushed their skulls. Blood and ground bones spilled from its fingers sickeningly
Wei Wuxian’s eyes rested on the tall bamboos rising in-between the tree trunks. He made a decision.
Carving a flute out of unpolished wood was not easy, especially with no time to infuse it with power of any kind or decorate it with talismans. He stuffed one end of the bamboo piece with cloth and dug holes into its length with the sharp head of an arrow, looking all the while at the struggling cultivators around. Many more had arrived. It made no difference at all to the goddess massacring them.
It doesn’t matter what I summon, he thought, setting the flute under his lips, as long as it is resentful enough.
The sound that the flute made was unpleasant and harsh. The holes were uneven, some too misplaced for any kind of harmony to be possible, but Wei Wuxian played and called upon the dead of the forest, and he felt them answer.
The ground shook under his feet. The goddess statue stumbled. Men and women looked around for the source of the noise, and from inside the circle they formed, a deathly silhouette sprung from the earth with a grim rattle of chains.
Brown hair and grey skin and hands clawed like an animal’s. The silhouette of him was as familiar as if it had only been days since they last walked together, talked together. Wei Wuxian’s blood turned to ice.
“It’s the Ghost General,” one woman said with horror in her voice. “It’s Wen Ning!”
Shouts rose from the crowd as all chose whether to fight or flee.
Wen Ning stood still in the middle of chaos. His eyes were turned to the ground, staring expressionlessly, his whole body unmoving. Even when the goddess statue grabbed his head in her wide fist, he didn’t flinch.
Wei Wuxian realized that he would not move without further orders; he quickly brought the flute back to his chin and played.
They landed on Dafan Mountain to the clamor of voices, the sharp feeling of something wrong filling the nightly air. It was different than the cold miasma escaping from the sealing pouch in which the demonic arm was kept, and which Hanguang-Jun kept tightly tied to his waist; this seemed older, somehow. Deeper.
“Do you feel this?” Lan Jingyi asked, rubbing his own arms. They had yet to replace the outer robes which they had sacrificed a week ago.
“I do,” Lan Sizhui replied, staring at Lan Wangji. “Hanguang-Jun—”
The sound of flight reached them before he could finish speaking. Jiang Cheng emerged from atop the trees and landed beside them, bleeding from his shoulder.
“Sect leader Jiang!” Jingyi exclaimed.
Jiang Cheng only shot him a brief glance. “Lan Wangji,” he spat. “Trouble does summon you. Or is it the other way around?”
“Jiang Wanyin,” Hanguang-Jun replied quietly.
“Yes, yes.” Jiang Cheng waved his uninjured arm into the air dismissively. “I’ll lower myself to asking you for assistance. We have something of a situation—sealing didn’t work, and neither will fighting the thing physically, I wager. Will you help? If I don’t bring my nephew back alive, my sister will have my head.”
“Is Jin Ling here, sect leader Jiang?” Lan Jingyi asked with a deep bow.
“He is. Find him for me, will you? I don’t trust that Mo Xuanyu as far as I can throw him.”
“You know young master Mo, sect leader?” Lan Sizhui let out before he could help it.
For a week now, he had not managed to stop thinking of the odd omega with the cuts and bruises who had helped them seal the piece of haunted corpse.
Jingyi had already all but forgotten about the encounter, except for the parts which tended to remind him of things he didn’t like to consider. But he had grown tired of hearing Sizhui talk about Mo Xuanyu; and, though Hanguang-Jun had been informed of the man’s involvement, Mo Xuanyu had vanished from Mo village before they could introduce him. Lan Sizhui didn’t want to bother his senior with idle curiosity.
To hear Mo Xuanyu’s name spoken in such a place—and from the mouth of the Yunmengjiang sect leader—was a surprise.
Jiang Cheng replied without looking at him. “He’s a cultivator of the dark path,” he said to Lan Wangji with distaste on his voice. “He protected Jin Ling, so I let him go, but I’d much rather he be in the hands of Gusulan, if you don’t mind.”
Hanguang-Jun nodded once. “Jingyi,” he called.
“Yes,” Jingyi replied at once. “I’ll look for Jin Ling and send a signal when I find him, sect leader Jiang.”
Jiang Cheng nodded at him, which made Lan Jingyi blush with pride. Lan Sizhui hid his smile behind his hand and watched him fly into the forest.
The Jiang sect leader explained the situation as they walked toward the source of the cold, frightening wind. “… a goddess worshipped by the villagers,” he was saying. “She started taking their souls in exchange for granting their wishes. My best sealing talisman only lasted five minutes before she broke free. There was a landslide a while ago that disturbed a burying site on the mountain—she must have gathered all the resentment that came from it.”
Hanguang-Jun nodded. His pace hurried.
They came to a circle of dead and wounded cultivators, all gathered onto a path of obvious destruction. Entire trees had fallen in the wake of the goddess. Her footsteps had dug deeply into the earth, crushing some of her own kills as if to make sure not even their corpses could rise.
“Sizhui,” Hanguang-Jun said, “the wounded.”
But Sizhui was not even close to the first of those moaning on the ground when his arm was seized, and the panicked man, who smelled of dead leaves and cool autumn mornings, cried out: “Never mind us, catch the Ghost General!”
Silence thickened between them all, suffocating.
“What did you say?” Jiang Cheng asked softly.
He walked toward where Sizhui had crouched. His scarred hand had come to rest above the pommel of his sword, and the white-hot glare with which he stared the wounded man down could have made lions cower.
The man shook but did not relent. “I saw him,” he said. “I was there in Nightless City, I’d recognize him anywhere—it was Wen Ning. I swear by the heavens.”
“The Ghost General is dead,” Jiang Cheng spat. “Dead and burned to ashes years ago. What the devil are you saying now?”
“He summoned him—that man in black, he played the flute and summoned him. I saw it, we all saw it.” The beta man looked around for others who had witnessed the scene he described, looking for support of any kind; they nodded, faint and distant, shock making them look as soulless as the statue’s victims. “Can’t you hear it?”
They could. Almost as if the man’s words had opened a door somewhere beyond their senses, the screeching sound of a flute reached them, darker and more terrible somehow than anything thus far.
Jiang Cheng unsheathed his sword slowly. His face looked as stormy as his scent was. Sandu shone in the dark, turning the wet ground blue and phantom-like. “Whoever did this,” he said. “They’re not coming out of these woods alive.”
“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji called.
“Are you going to stop me? Are you going to oppose me again, Lan Wangji?”
Hanguang-Jun didn’t reply. He looked more deeply upset than Lan Sizhui had ever seen him. Sizhui listened to the awful notes of the flutes in the distance and felt his back crawl with shivers—and yet, the sound of it made his heart ache in an odd way, as if he ought to remember something he could not.
The music stopped abruptly. They all stilled in their movement, Sizhui in the middle of checking if any of the bodies around still had a beating heart, Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng paralyzed face-to-face.
When it came again, the melody was vastly different. Much softer and warmer, although terribly out of tune.
Hanguang-Jun sucked in a breath so loud that it echoed around them. Lan Sizhui startled, looking at him and finding his face pale, stricken with what looked like grief and hope at once. Before he had time to open his mouth and speak, Bichen’s glare blinded them all, and Hanguang-Jun took off above the forest canopy.
“Lan Wangji!” Jiang Cheng shouted, halfway mounting his sword himself.
“Wait!” Lan Sizhui called. “Wait, sect leader Jiang, I need help with the wounded—”
In that instant, light flowered above them in the shape of Gusulan’s cloud. It grew over the trees more strongly than moonlight, washing the space around them of color.
“This must be Jingyi,” Lan Sizhui breathed. “He found Jin Ling.”
Jiang Cheng cursed loudly. For a moment he hesitated, looking between the direction Lan Wangji had taken and the signal suspended westward. In the end his face settled into tense resignation, and he turned his back to where the music came from.
“You’ll have to care for the wounded on your own, boy,” he declared.
“I might not be able to save them on my own—”
“You’re Lan Wangji’s favorite disciple, are you not?”
Lan Sizhui fell silent. Almost as if he regretted his words, Jiang Cheng paused on his sword and looked properly at him for the first time. In the white light of the signal, even Sandu’s glow looked pale and weakened. Lan Sizhui held the man’s gaze with as much determination as he could.
Jiang Cheng’s eyes thinned, his brow furrowed in thought. “You…” he said. His face turned into a mix of confusion and, to Sizhui’s surprise, longing.
In the end, he left without another word.
Jin Ling woke up to the loud sound of a clan signal being fired into the air. His mouth was dry and his nape painful, and for a moment he wondered where he was, if perhaps the wet and soft earth he was laid on was his bed in Golden Carp Tower—if his mother would come to his room soon and drag him out of bed.
“Wha’ happened?” he muttered.
His memories quickly aligned into place. Mo Xuanyu’s oddly confident behavior when every time Jin Ling had met him before, he had been nothing but a cowering thing, mediocre in his studies and hanging from Little Uncle’s every word; his uncle in the cave accusing that same Mo Xuanyu of demonic cultivation, of all things—
He felt lighter, he realized. A quick grab by his hip revealed that Suihua was still there but that his bow was long gone.
Then Jin Ling breathed in and smelled a very familiar berry-like sweetness.
“Lan Jingyi!?” he cried out, sitting up too quickly. The world swam in shades of white and grey behind his eyelids before he managed to see again. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same question,” Lan Jingyi replied dryly. “You’re welcome, by the way. If I hadn’t found you, who knows what would have happened.”
Jin Ling felt his face burn. He tried to meet the usual mocking eyes of the Lan disciple, but the sight of him alone was enough, as always, to make him feel very small and embarrassed. He had to look away before answering, “Nothing would have happened with my uncle around.”
“He’s the one who told me to find you, you know.”
Damn you, uncle, Jin Ling thought. Why must you treat me like this?
“What happened to the statue?” he asked once he was rather sure that his voice would not shake. “Did they seal it?”
“Hanguang-Jun is after it now, so of course it will all be fine.”
Jin Ling scowled. “You didn’t tell me what you were doing here,” he accused. “I thought you weren’t allowed to leave the Cloud Recesses.”
Lan Jingyi stuck his nose up proudly. “I was given permission,” he said. “Sizhui’s been traveling with me. There was an incident a week ago near Gusu, a fierce corpse like you’ve never seen before.”
“I’ve seen many more fierce corpses than you,” Jin Ling retorted.
“Not one like that.”
Lan Jingyi stood on his feet, brushing dirt from his white uniform; under the glowing Gusu beacon, he looked to be made of silver, his face even finer for the lack of color on it.
Jin Ling stood as well, flustered. It was then that he noticed the black cloth laid over his body. “Oh,” he said, catching it before it fell. “Damn Mo Xuanyu must’ve knocked me out. How dare he?”
“We met Mo Xuanyu last week,” Lan Jingyi said, peering curiously at him. “He is an odd one, isn’t he? How do you know him?”
“He’s Little Uncle’s brother,” Jin Ling replied. “But he was thrown out of Lanling ages ago.”
“Really? I never would’ve guessed he was part of your clan.”
“He’s just a stupid omega.” Already Jin Ling’s embarrassment was turning to anger; he balled the cloth in his fist and shook it in front of his face, barely noticing the faint honey-smell clinging to it. “He stole my bow!”
Lan Jingyi rolled his eyes at him. “You’ll never get any omega to look at you if you keep talking like that, you know,” he said.
Jin Ling choked on his reply. “I don’t want any omega to look at me,” he lied, struggling to even let the words out. His face was burning anew, and he knew with aching shame that he must be bright red. “I, you—just go away, Lan Jingyi! I’ll take it from here!”
“What are you going on about now, Jin Ling?”
Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi startled at the new voice.
It was only Jin Ling’s uncle, however. He landed beside them looking mostly unharmed, though some dried blood made his left sleeve stick to his skin. He seemed to be favoring this side slightly as he walked.
“Where’s Mo Xuanyu?” Jiang Cheng asked in a sharper tone than before.
“Who knows,” Jin Ling spat out.
His uncle looked at him for a long second. “He stole your weapons again, I see,” he said.
Jin Lin thought blood may never leave his face again.
“Something else came up,” Jiang Cheng started. For some reason, he hesitated before continuing: “But it doesn’t matter. Lan Wangji went to take care of it, so it should be settled now.”
“Are you hurt anywhere, sect leader Jiang?” Lan Jingyi asked.
Jiang Cheng huffed. “Not enough that I’d need to have you take care of it,” he replied. “But I do wonder about one thing—Lan Jingyi, was it?”
“Your friend. The one who was with you earlier.” He paused for another second, his frown digging deep lines into his forehead. Jin Ling squinted at him; darkness was once more crawling through the woods, now that Gusu’s signal was vanishing from the sky. “What’s his name?” Jiang Cheng asked at last.
“You’re talking about Sizhui,” Lan Jingyi said. “His birth name is Lan Yuan. He is my senior disciple.”
“And he is part of the Lan clan?”
Jin Ling saw Lan Jingyi blink in surprise at the question. “Yes,” he replied. “Although he is an orphan, and I do not know who his parents were. Why do you ask, sect leader?”
“No reason,” Jiang Cheng replied. “Just… well, it doesn’t matter.”
From the look of him, it mattered very much.
Jin Ling had little interest in Lan Sizhui, however. A long time ago he had opposed the older boy in every way he could, but Sizhui’s lack of response to his provoking soon tired him out.
In any case, it did not seem as if Lan Sizhui had any interest in what Jin Ling sought.
It was with those thoughts in mind that he mounted his sword. Jiang Cheng talked at them for a moment longer, but Jin Ling had long stopped listening. Instead he watched Lan Jingyi rise on his own silvery sword, his black hair swept by the night wind and his robes floating about him like a halo, with a smile on his thin lips that made Jin Ling’s chest very warm.
It was a song lost to time and grief. A broken piece of music composed in the darkness, composed with four hands and two voices, honey sweetening the death stench of a fallen beast.
Lan Wangji had never played it before then. He had never played it after, either.
He need not use his senses to scout the mountain for the goddess’s rueful spirit; it was the notes he followed, the harsh sound of the flute that guided Bichen eastward along the gentle slope. He need not search for noise, or scent, or voice.
Only that song.
There was someone standing by the defeated body of the statue. A familiar silhouette with heavy chains on its wrists and no life to its silver eyes—Wen Ning, the Ghost General, who should have burned in Lanling more than thirteen years ago.
And there was someone else with a flute as his lips; someone playing that song which only Lan Wangji and a dead man knew.
He landed silently behind him. There was nothing at all familiar to the back of that man. Not in stature or shape, and he was shorter too, his hair thinner and his hands more delicate as he blew into the roughly-carved bamboo. Lan Wangji smelled nothing as he approached him. The voice he heard was all wrong, calling as if to quiet a frightened animal: “Wen Ning. Oh, Wen Ning, what happened to you?”
Then Lan Wangji was standing behind him, and the voice said nothing at all.
He parried the blow as gently as he could when it came. The man had turned swiftly around on his feet to hit him, the touch of him only so quick as to move back and away, to put distance between them again. Lan Wangji did not try to shorten it. He watched the man’s face under the dying glow of Gusulan’s signal, finding it wrong again, younger and finer than it ought to be, and yet—
“You summoned him,” he told the man.
The other’s hesitation before replying was obvious. But though the voice was wrong and the mouth which voiced it different, the tone was the very same: “What will you do about it?”
Defiance. Defensiveness. A need to prove one’s self-sufficiency and worth that ran so deep as to be unbreakable, no matter how many tried to break it.
They had broken it once, or so Lan Wangji had thought. Or so he had mourned. Kneeling under the blows of the discipline whip, kneeling in that dark cave and being told to leave, he had regretted and grieved and never since stopped.
Is this what you want, Lan Wangji? Come on, then. Come take it.
I never did, Lan Wangji thought, then and now. How he wished he had the strength to say it when it mattered. I never wanted this.
“I’ll send him away,” Wei Wuxian said, still as starkly suspicious, still so evidently himself despite his changed face and body. “So don’t touch him.”
“I won’t,” Lan Wangji replied.
He need not approach further to seek a trace of honeyscent, to make sure for himself that this was not simply an impostor, not simply the demonic cultivator which Jiang Wanyin had mentioned.
“I won’t do anything you do not wish me to.”