and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
The handful of coins which Wei Wuxian stole from Lan Wangji soon became obsolete.
It was not such a problem for food. Game was aplenty at this time of the year, and soon enough Wei Wuxian had acquired a new bow to hunt with. When afternoon lingered over the mountains and the sun disappeared behind ensnowed summits, they both hunted together for their meal of the night, or the following day. The demonic arm Lan Wangji oft took out of its sealing pouch had no care for such things as roads or mountains; it pointed straightforwardly toward the rest of its body, forcing them to back away sometimes and take long, solitary detours through the wilderness. It was good to plan ahead for their meals.
There encountered very few villages. They saw only one bigger town, and chose not to stop in it for the night. Occasionally a farmer saw them pass before their house and offered them someplace warm to sleep in exchange for labor and company; more often than not, they took a closer look at Wei Wuxian and rescinded their offer.
Only once did they sleep inside someone else’s house. Wei Wuxian was silent as he declined to help with food and offered to fix a wall of the garden shed instead; the old man who had invited them in shrugged his shoulders without word and sent him there, calling for his grandchild in a soft voice.
As he worked next to the girl who smelled of sweet liquor, Wei Wuxian finally relaxed. He slept for once without waking.
Sleeping together with Lan Wangji, outside in the cool nights of spring, soon became a habit. If Wei Wuxian had expected the Lan sect heir to put up a front of outrage at the thought of such impropriety, he was relieved to find that none of it came true. Lan Wangji never said a word to him as they settled for the night. Perhaps, like Wei Wuxian, he considered that sharing a cave during heat made such worries worthless.
On they went through the countryside, village after village and mountain after mountain. In the vast green valleys neighboring Lanling’s territory, Wei Wuxian hunted rabbits for food. He cooked them over the fire and watched with something like humor as Lan Wangji refused them, sticking to rice and fruit and vegetable soups.
“If you had come to Yunmeng with me when we were young,” he told him in jest, “I would have made you eat meat.”
Lan Wangji’s face betrayed no hatred for the idea, though his voice was deep and even. “I would have recognized the trick.”
“You wouldn’t have,” Wei Wuxian laughed. “How lucky for you that I am a little wiser today. I know how terrible such a thing is—truly, there are days I look back and wish to slap myself across the face, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji watched him then with peaceful-looking eyes. He seemed to enjoy when such nostalgia struck Wei Wuxian; sometimes, he seemed to hate it too.
They didn’t speak often. Not like this, not answering each other. Lan Wangji was a man of very few words, and those words were hard-earned, thought through, before ever leaving his mouth. He looked almost delicate in his efforts to be placating and follow Wei Wuxian’s moods. Wei Wuxian himself could stand silence just fine after those years in Yiling—most of which he had spent inside the bloodpool cave in-between visits from Wen Ning and Wen Qing, barely hearing the sounds from the village outside settling for morning or night—but he found himself commenting on the people they met, on the landscapes they encountered. He spoke at length about a flower on the side of the path which he remembered Wen Qing using in her concoctions. He brightened at the sight of some birds, fat enough for a meal but too quick for his arrows. Those defeats, he took in good stride with Lan Wangji watching him.
Wei Wuxian realized after a week had passed that he looked forward to unclothing the haunted arm and seeing which way it pointed. He found that it was relief he felt upon knowing they were on the right track; he understood without saying so how Lan Wangji had saved him by offering to travel with him.
If he had been left to his own devices, dead-and-back and unknown to all, he had no idea what he would have done. He knew not where he should go.
The nights they spent in inns were perhaps the least enjoyable of the lot, he found. Though his back and behind were grateful for the relative softness of beds and pillows, and though waking up to warmth and a meal he didn’t have to prepare himself was a relief, the presence of others was a hindrance more often than not.
The omega girl in Dafan had been something of a rarity, he realized the first time an innkeeper referred to him as Lan Wangji’s omega.
“A room for you and yours?” she had asked, an alpha woman smelling of tilled earth, her brimstonescent husband standing not far behind and sending glares Wei Wuxian’s way.
“Two rooms,” Lan Wangji had replied.
Two rooms. The words echoed through the half-empty dining room as if carried by immense voice, and odd looks turned their way, inquisitive or even angry.
But Lan Wangji was a cultivator. His flowing robes seemed to repel dirt as they did dark energy, unlike Wei Wuxian’s which were stained every way by the long days of travel. His very presence, his apparent wealth, his status all carried power. The scorned innkeepers dared not refuse his money—they dared not defy him.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said as they sat at a far table and waited for food to be brought to them. “Will you tell me what has changed?”
Lan Wangji was silent. Wei Wuxian could tell that it was not out of a need to refuse, however.
“I learned that omega houses were outlawed ten years ago,” he continued. “But I don’t know why.”
Lan Wangji said, “Lianfang-Zun outlawed them.”
Jin Guangyao. Wei Wuxian had heard that name spoken in Jiang Cheng’s voice only days ago, he recalled. He remembered wondering about it then.
“I don’t believe Jin Guangshan allowed this easily,” Wei Wuxian declared with a shake of his head. “Not with how he opposed me for years. I’m assuming this Jin Guangyao is one of his children?”
“Jin Guangshan is dead. Lianfang-Zun has been the leader of Lanlingjin for ten years.”
“Dead?” he exclaimed. “How?”
For some reason, Lan Wangji’s face tensed at his question. He shook his head wordlessly, the tips of his ears turning bright red. Wei Wuxian was not otherwise interested in the old alpha’s death, so he did not press on.
The last time he had seen Jin Guangshan in person was at the bottom of the Burial Mounds, with the man spitting vitriol to him, calling him thief and deranged. Wei Wuxian thought privately that the world was well-rid of him. The state of Mo Xuanyu’s life and body only made his vengefulness stronger.
“Jin Guangyao,” he said softly. “This Lianfang-Zun, I wonder the sort of person he is.”
“He is my brother’s sworn ally,” Lan Wangji replied. “As was the former Nie sect leader.”
Former… then Chifeng-Zun was dead, too.
Wei Wuxian was not so glad to hear that. Nie Mingjue had been straightforward, fair in his own way, though he had only trusted in Wei Wuxian’s abilities, never in his character. Wei Wuxian’s memories of that day in the Nightless City were steeped in mud, but he knew that Nie Mingjue had not been present among those who wished to kill him.
He supposed one could trust Lan Xichen to choose the right brothers-in-arm.
“I still can’t believe the sects allowed it,” he said, bracing one palm against his cup of wine and sending a quick prayer for Nie Mingjue’s soul. “Is this Jin Guangyao so powerful?”
“Some refused,” Lan Wangji said succinctly. “Those he could not convince, he brought war to.”
Wei Wuxian tried to picture what such an alpha could look like.
Lan Wangji must have read the curiosity on his face, for he went on, “Things had changed. There were not as many fights about it as you think.”
Wei Wuxian wondered what it said about him that his heart squeezed with resentment.
All along, then, any sect leader could have stepped up and put an end to it all. All it would have taken was a word from one of them to guarantee freedom to those whom Wei Wuxian had to keep safe at the price of his reputation and health. How many days had he spent guarding the entrance of the Burial Mounds after Jin Guangshan had left that time, keeping himself awake with Wen Qing’s drugs, making sure to bar entrance to those who would claim human lives as property?
“What about Lan Qiren,” Wei Wuxian said hollowly.
“My uncle,” Lan Wangji replied in something like kindness, “changed his mind long before Lianfang-Zun’s order was carried out.”
Wei Wuxian drank from the cup in his hand. The wine spread on his tongue almost as bitterly as the scent-masking paste.
That first night in an inn made them wary. They preferred the open night to civilization after that, keeping the path open before them as they followed the direction the arm gave them. They started using names for it so as not to make it struggle inside the pouch at Lan Wangji’s waist. The arm seemed to feel when they spoke of it as of a corpse, a haunt; it jarred the spell on the pouch, tried to escape their hold when they took it out to make sure they were going the right way.
Night after night, Lan Wangji played Tranquility on his namesake guqin. Night after night Wei Wuxian took the bamboo flute and accompanied him, making his song softer and kinder despite the bluntness of the instrument. He tried many times to carve it into a better, more tunelike shape. He missed the smooth, black length of Chenqing, and the notes it could produce which never failed their task.
Traces of livinghood became sparser as the second week came to an end. The arm was taking them somewhere dangerously close to the Unclean Realms where Qinghenie dwelled—where Nie Huaisang lived, Wei Wuxian supposed, if no alpha heir was found to sweep the succession from him. This would also be something to see, he wondered. A beta sect leader.
Three nights later, the arm stopped pointing anywhere specific. It squirmed and fought and rolled in on itself, panicked or angered, driven to madness with proximity. Lan Wangji forced it back inside the sealing pouch without playing at all.
“So the rest of our dear friend is somewhere around here,” Wei Wuxian said.
Lan Wangji gave a short hum in answer. He stopped at the entrance of the village they had reached, and Little Apple stopped by him without the need for orders.
It was a small thing, this village. A couple hundred inhabitants at most spread over less than forty houses, with an inn at its center which could host no more than ten guests if they chose to keep tight and squeezed together. Wei Wuxian was not surprised to find the same hatred in the eyes of those who looked at him there that he had known fifteen years ago. They welcomed Lan Wangji with wariness and watched Wei Wuxian with suspicion, as if scared that he would suddenly go feral and try to kill them all.
Those fears would not be so unfounded if only they knew who he was.
Still, money was money. The sight of Lan Wangji’s purse was enough to convince the innkeepers to give them two rooms for the following nights, and with great weariness, Wei Wuxian allowed sleep to find him without eating dinner.
He woke up with all the smells and sounds of dawn.
“Let me sleep, Mo Xuanyu,” he muttered with a twisted smile, rubbing his eyes against the too-bright light. “Of all the unfairness in your life, the greatest has to be that you woke so often before noon.”
He washed himself clean of the previous days’ dirt in the wide bucket set at the other side of the room. The nippy water finished waking him up, and he was wide awake by the time he made it out of the room and then out of the inn.
Lan Wangji was nowhere to be seen, but the smell of sandalwood clinged to the door next to his, indicating that he must still be inside. Wei Wuxian made his steps quieter so as not to warn him of his presence.
Down the stairs, a few guests were seated and talking over hot broth and warm liquor already. They watched Wei Wuxian walk toward the exit like hawks. Wei Wuxian tried not to pay attention to the aches that tension brought out of his back and shoulders. His hand stayed firmly clasped around the unnamed bamboo flute.
Once outside, he felt the same thing which he had when they arrived: some kind of energy absorbed by the soil and plants around, different than the resentment he could wield but not so far out of his reach. He had not told Lan Wangji of it yet, and had no idea if the Lan sect heir had felt it too when they arrived. He wanted to examine it on his own.
Wei Wuxian boiled water from the river to take the moonless tea. He sat near the bed of it as he swallowed down the disgusting beverage, wishing not for the first time that something could be made to turn the taste of it sweeter and trying to narrow down the location of the odd energy.
It felt a little like the goddess in Dafan had, and yet not at all similar.
A few minutes later, he could pinpoint it as coming from the woods which seemed to spread over a mile behind the village. Wei Wuxian put out the fire at his feet and washed the cup in the river.
He was unhurried as he walked toward the edge of the forest. Most of the village’s inhabitants were now busy with their daily activities, some working the fields around and others mounting donkeys and horses to go wherever they needed to. Wei Wuxian had left Little Apple in the shed beside the inn. Judging by the animal’s tenacious will to stay with him, he did not worry that he would flee.
How odd. Wei Wuxian had never been very liked by animals before, nor had he ever liked them very much.
He stood for a long time by the first trees of the forest once he had reached them. He was completely alone now, too far away from the small houses for anyone to bother with him, but it did not explain the silence of the place. Like in Dafan mountain after the goddess’s first cry, it seemed all life had fled from the woods. Leaves fell into the wind without so much as a sound; he could hear no mice scurrying through the bushes, no deer or bears rustling the well-tread earth.
He brought the bamboo flute to his lips.
The music which he had used to calm Wen Ning in the mountain weeks ago came to him more easily this time. It filled him with quiet as he played, calling with kindness rather than urgency this time. He needn’t turn around and watch for a sign of Wen Ning approaching; the ground did not shake, not this time, and Wen Ning’s footsteps only rang with the softest rustle of chains.
Seeing him in daylight was different. Wei Wuxian doubted that many would have fled or cried out in fear at the sight of him, still and quiet like this, looking helplessly at his master.
The ache in his heart was familiar, too. “Wen Ning,” he called. “Have you been following us?”
There was no answer. Wen Ning did not seem to have regained the consciousness which Wei Wuxian so painstakingly gifted him in the past, though his eyes were less empty. He almost looked as if he wished to speak.
Wei Wuxian stepped closer. Wen Ning gave no sign of danger or disquiet when he was touched, not even when Wei Wuxian turned his frail wrists this way and that to examine the thick metal chains locked around them.
“Who did this to you?” he asked without expecting a reply.
The chains were heavy, locked in place by sturdy bracelets made of the same iron. If Wen Ning had been alive, his skin would have chafed under them until it bled. As it was, Wei Wuxian could still see sign of wear on it, as layer upon layer of epiderma had peeled away.
He sighed and dropped Wen Ning’s hands. “At least it looks like whatever spell was put on you is going away,” he told him. “I hope it is gone the next time I call you, my friend. I have so much to ask you—so much to tell you.”
The first would be, I’m sorry. But Wei Wuxian did not want those words to be spoken while Wen Ning was unable to hear them.
How he wished to speak with him. How he longed for the company of someone who had known him during those years in Yiling—of someone who would perhaps know what had become of the village there and its inhabitants.
“I wonder if you can feel it too?” Wei Wuxian asked out loud, taking a step closer in-between wide-trunked trees. “I haven’t felt something like this in a long time. It reminds me of the Stygian Tiger Seal.”
Not quite steeped in darkness but not quite wholesome either—that was the sort of energy that the Seal had suffused when not in use, the weight which Wei Wuxian had carried so long upon himself for fear of someone using his inattention to steal it.
Yes, the Stygian Tiger Seal should never have existed in this world. Wei Wuxian wondered with a shiver that he had ever created such a thing to be used, that he had ever been so foolish, so careless. So blind to the dangers of what he was doing.
These dangers seemed much less nebulous now.
He smelled sandalwood on the wind. “I will call for you again,” he told Wen Ning. “Go, and keep following us, but stay hidden. Don’t let anyone see you.”
He briefly touched the side of Wen Ning’s face. Mo Xuanyu was so much shorter than Wei Wuxian had been that the gesture made him feel like a child reaching helplessly for his parent.
With another trill of the flute, the Ghost General disappeared between the trees.
Wei Wuxian waited for Lan Wangji to join him patiently. It wasn’t a minute before white robes appeared at the turn of the road; Lan Wangji was dressed as regally as ever, white and spotless against the bright sunlight, his black hair flowing behind his back gently.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian greeted. “I apologize for not waiting for you.”
“No need,” Lan Wangji replied succinctly.
How odd to see him so accommodating, so free of the confrontation which had plagued their younger years. After what had happened at the inn in Dafan, Wei Wuxian expected to find Lan Wangji loath to address him.
He laughed to chase away his embarrassment. The memory still made him queasy. “Can you feel this energy?” he asked. At Lan Wangji’s nod, he added, “It seems to be coming from inside the woods. I wonder what we’ll find.”
“A haunted castle.”
“A haunted castle?”
“A villager said.”
Wei Wuxian stroked his chin. If these woods were haunted, then it was possible that the arm did come from here. But how had it traveled from here to Mo village on its own?
Unless someone had planted it there.
But why Mo village, Wei Wuxian thought as they walked into the woods, such a small place, without any political strongholds or greater sects in its vicinity? Gusu was too far—if the mastermind has wished to harm the Lan clan, they should have set the demonic corpse in Caiyi Town or even at the entrance of the Cloud Recesses.
“Will your clan be fine without you, Lan Zhan?” he asked in the deep silence.
Lan Zhan stared at him with some confusion on his face.
“Without you,” Wei Wuxian pressed. “Won’t they be in trouble without their sect leader?”
“My brother is there,” Lan Wangji replied.
Wei Wuxian batted the air with one hand at the mention of Lan Xichen. “I am talking about you, Lan Zhan, not your brother.”
“My brother is our sect leader.”
Wei Wuxian paused in his steps.
What little sounds the forest emitted around them muffled even further. Lan Wangji paused as well next to him, his face devoid of any inflexion of frustration or shame.
“But you,” Wei Wuxian stuttered.
Lan Wangji stayed silent.
Try as he might, Wei Wuxian could not form a coherent thought. He stared at Lan Wangji until he was certain that the other should start prickling, should turn away in annoyance as he once would have done, but Lan Wangji did not. He said nothing. He bore Wei Wuxian’s rudeness as one would just punishment.
“You are the Jade of Lan,” Wei Wuxian said at last. He tried to keep his voice even, but shock, he thought, must be painting his words inquisitive. “You are—you were always your uncle’s favorite. The greatest talent your clan has ever known. Your brother is a beta.”
He had made direct mention of status on purpose, but not even this breach of propriety broke Lan Wangji’s composure. “My brother is a fair leader,” Lan Wangji simply replied.
“You think me so gullible.”
“I would not lie to you.”
“You were a better marksman and cultivator than your brother before you reached maturity,” Wei Wuxian said, grabbing onto anger so as not to linger on what those words evoked in him. “I can see no reason why you would be replaced in the heirline.”
Lan Wangji’s answer was long in coming. Eventually, he admitted: “I made a mistake.”
Wei Wuxian remembered, then, the angry words which had come out of Jiang Cheng’s mouth in Dafan. You make a grave mistake if you still think us equals.
“You fell from grace,” he recited. “Jiang Cheng said that.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said. “But that was not the mistake I made.”
Wei Wuxian almost asked him what he meant before thinking better of it.
There must be a reason Lan Wangji was not forthcoming with his answers. Shame perhaps, or perhaps this was a clan secret, not something he should be telling outsiders. Judging by the faces that those two Lan juniors had made and the title they used on him—Hanguang-Jun—they must not have known about it either.
Of course Jiang Cheng had seen no need for such propriety, Wei Wuxian thought dryly. And he should know better than to pry as well.
“Well,” he said. “I suppose this is one problem we do not need to think about.”
“Had I been sect leader,” Lan Wangji started.
He paused. Wei Wuxian watched him frown at the ground and shift back and forth on his feet almost imperceptibly.
“Had I been sect leader,” Lan Wangji said. “I would have made you the same offer.”
He met Wei Wuxian’s eyes after that, blinking his long and dark lashes slowly, before turning away.
They walked for hours without finding anything. The woods here spread over flatter land than in Dafan, and they were sparser too, less lush and tricky to navigate. The trees stood wide apart, their trunks thick and solid, their canopy spread thinly. Golden sunlight filtered in through the leaves and shifted onto the dry ground. These were woods that animals should be running through, Wei Wuxian thought, woods made for hunting and meditating, and yet there was no sign of life, human or otherwise. Only the two of them and that strange shiver of energy.
Lan Wangji was the one who figured it out. He pointed wordlessly to an oddly-shaped root in the ground which they had noticed already near midday; it looked somewhat like the back of a turtle, shelled and domed over the ground, as if ready to let the head and feet of the animal out.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian muttered. “We are going in circles.”
“Not lost,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Wuxian nodded. “I would have noticed if we took a turn we already knew. This is the work of a barrier.”
The sun would set soon. They decided to head back toward the village for the night.
The streets seemed strangely subdued when they made their way to the inn. Whatever few villagers still roamed the streets did so quietly, hunched in on themselves or conversing in low voices. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji received more looks, if possible, than the night before.
They found the reason for what waiting for them inside the inn.
Nie Huaisang had not changed overly much in the years since Wei Wuxian had seen him. Even draped in softer silks than Wei Wuxian had ever seen Nie Mingjue wear, he still looked like the classmate he had met in Gusu during their understudies, down to the embroidered fan he hid his face behind and the very faint snowy scent clinging to him. At the sight of Lan Wangji stepping over the threshold, Nie Huaisang rose from the table where he had been served tea and bowed at the shoulders.
“Hanguang-Jun,” he said with urgency. “Oh, I couldn’t believe when I learned of you being here—if I may be so bold as to ask for a favor…”
His words died when he met eyes with Wei Wuxian.
Or rather, Wei Wuxian thought as he watched him try to inhale very subtly, as he looked for confirmation of what Mo Xuanyu’s appearance inferred.
“So it is true,” Nie Huaisang said. “I never thought… Well, I suppose it is only normal—Xichen-ge never said anything of you finding a, a—”
“He is not mine,” Lan Wangji said.
His tone could almost be called frosty. What little irritation Wei Wuxian had mustered at the now-familiar misunderstanding vanished under dry humor.
Lan Wangji had not commented upon the situation thus far, but even he had to find offense in others suggesting that he was traveling with an unmated omega with this purpose in mind. Especially one who had made such improper advances upon him.
His stomach squirmed in remembrance.
“Yes,” Nie Huaisang let out faintly. “Well, if—if I may ask you for something. Is there a room we can borrow to speak privately?” he asked the unkind tenant across the room.
With very bad grace, the man led them to a small parlor at the other end of the inn. The walls there were moist with rain, the wood eaten throughout. Wei Wuxian laid his fingers over a corner and thought he could break their structure apart with a shove of the shoulder.
“Lan Wangji,” Nie Huaisang said nervously once they were alone. His gaze kept flickering toward Wei Wuxian, as if he expected him to excuse himself and leave any second. Wei Wuxian sat down in front of him and sent him an even smile. “Ah, I’m sure you have an idea of why I am here.”
“It is about the barrier in the woods, isn’t it?” Wei Wuxian asked.
Nie Huaisang did not hesitate long to answer. “Yes,” he admitted. “I was about to write Xichen-ge for advice, since he knows about it already… It is somewhat of an embarrassment.”
“A clan affair,” Lan Wangji said.
“Indeed. I need to ask you… both of you, to be discreet.”
Lan Wangji nodded silently. Wei Wuxian tapped his fingers atop the wooden table, eyeing the surprisingly firm grip Nie Huaisang had over his delicate fan.
“You have heard, I suppose, of the castle in the woods,” Nie Huaisang said.
“Heard of, yes,” Wei Wuxian replied. “But we were not able to approach it.”
“In ordinary circumstances, I would order you to leave it at that. This place is sacred for Qinghenie—not somewhere anyone but the sect leader should know of,” he pressed, almost imperious. “But now, not even I can access it.”
Wei Wuxian frowned. “What sort of place is it?”
“A burial site. Somewhere reserved for the leaders of the clan.”
Wei Wuxian stopped running his fingers against the table.
Nie Huaisang suffered their stare with only the lightest of blushes. “You know of my clan’s saber techniques,” he told Lan Wangji. “You know where they came from.”
“Yes. Yes, butchery.”
The Nie sect was famous for two things.
One was the harsh environment in which they dwelled—harsher, some said, than Qishanwen’s desert city. The Unclean Realms were said to stand in the midst of endless marshlands, where travelers got caught in mud or bit by poisonous snakes if they strayed too far from broad roads. Wei Wuxian had never seen them in person. Looking at Nie Mingjue all those years ago, he had thought he could understand how such a man could grow out of fighting a constant battle against water and earth, but Nie Huaisang’s delicate manners and frail character always made him believe that such stories were made up. After all, how could someone who grew under such conditions be scared of Lan Qiren?
The second and perhaps better-known thing was Qinghenie’s saber techniques. Wei Wuxian had seen it in use when he and Nie Mingjue fought side by side one eventful day of the Sunshot Campaign. He had glimpsed Nie Huaisang’s own saber when the Wen sect had forcefully gathered them all to indoctrinate and stolen their weapons.
It had been taken, like Suibian, by Wen Chao.
His fingers felt cold. He rubbed them against his mouth both to warm them up and chase the taste of dirt from his tongue, understanding a second too late that Nie Huaisang had started speaking again.
“… ancestor’s sabers are great weapons, great weapons indeed,” he was saying almost fearfully, “but their power comes at a cost. It is no secret now that most of my clan’s leaders fall victim to qi deviation from handling them for too long.”
Wei Wuxian wondered if such a thing had happened to Nie Mingjue. If the famous Chifeng-Zun had, like his ancestors, fallen victim to the gluttonous appetite of his weapon of choice. Nie Huaisang did not offer any further information on the topic.
“Those weapons cannot be destroyed,” Nie Huaisang said. “You have to understand that what I am telling you is a secret of the utmost value—if others knew, many would try to come and steal those weapons.” He took in a shaky breath. “They cannot be destroyed or sealed in the common way,” he went on. “For centuries we have ‘buried’ them like we do our leaders. This burial site is the haunted castle you heard about.”
“I suppose you do not simply mean that the sabers are left underground,” Wei Wuxian said.
Nie Huaisang shook his head. “Indeed, young master…?”
“Young master Mo. Indeed, they are not buried. These weapons are as alive as fierce spirits, and once forged and used by masters with enough strength, they cannot be sated. They need to keep feeding.”
Wei Wuxian had an idea what sort of food Nie Huaisang was speaking of.
“Please do not think that we treat this tradition lightly or murder innocents for the sake of it,” Nie Huaisang urged, confirming his thoughts. “The corpses we bury we there belong to criminals who would have been hanged or beheaded anyway. It is better for everyone to let the sabers feed on their resentful energy than to let them come alive and attack the living. The barrier keeps people from wandering inside the burial grounds.”
“And now,” Wei Wuxian said, “you cannot get in either.”
Nie Huaisang nodded, pathetically desperate.
So this was the kind of sect leader Nie Huaisang had become, Wei Wuxian thought, watching him bargain one-sidedly for Lan Wangji’s help. Helpless to fix his own clan’s problems, hanging as always onto someone else’s robes and begging for help. He had been like this as a student with Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian had no doubt that he was like this with Lan Xichen, whom he still addressed as an older brother.
He was never made for the role, after all; he was weak of character even if he had not been born beta, and any way his older brother should have stayed alive much longer. Nie Huaisang should never have worn the mantle of sect leader. It was a shame Nie Mingjue had not left behind a more worthy heir.
Still, Wei Wuxian had never disliked Nie Huaisang. He still remembered the day the boy had watched him spar with Jiang Cheng in the Cloud Recesses and shyly offered to be his opponent for a turn.
No one else back then had wanted to speak with him, let alone risk the shame of harming or touching him. No one except Nie Mingjue’s cowardly brother and Lan Wangji himself, who had never sought combat with Wei Wuxian, only suffered his insistence to disrupt peace and retaliated.
“We will help, sect leader Nie,” he declared.
Nie Huaisang looked at him incredulously. To Wei Wuxian’s surprise, he did not seek Lan Wangji’s approval and simply replied, “Thank you!”
It was not long afterward that Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian stood outside the inn, watching Nie Huaisang climb onto the greenish blade of his saber and elevate into the nightly air. Soon the glare of his weapon was lost amidst stars and moonlight, and he vanished entirely.
“He couldn’t even stay to make sure we finished the job,” Wei Wuxian commented airily. “Oh well, Huaisang was never very brave.”
“You do not disapprove.”
“I don’t. I’ve always liked Nie Huaisang. Call it sentimentality, if you wish, but I do want to help him. And our dear friend must want us to go to these graves anyway.”
Lan Wangji did not reply with words. Instead he nodded his head in understanding and stepped into the inn again, Bichen shining softly at his hip under the pale moonlight.
Wei Wuxian was struck that night with the thought that Lan Wangji had never offered to have them travel by sword. Surely following the arm’s directions would be easier when one could fly over mountains and ravines or cut through dense forest, and they could have in two weeks assembled the body instead of simply reached a piece which might not make it whole, but Lan Wangji had never offered. The thought did not even seem to have crossed his mind.
It could be that his propriety would suffer from such close contact. Wei Wuxian himself knew not how he would have reacted to it; the cold from earlier had not vanished from his hands and instead crawled up the length of his elbows and arms till it reached his shoulders, till it rested at his throat. For the first time in many years, the face which haunted his dreams was not skinned and eyeless, but whole. Haughty and arrogant and smelling of firesmoke.
He slept fitfully. Dawn came upon him with the chill of sweat on skin and the knots left behind by nightmares. His stomach rolled emptily through threats of nausea. His mouth tasted of dirt and dew-wet grass.
Lan Wangji and himself walked back into the forest after a bout of breakfast which Wei Wuxian barely touched. The heightened energy in the air seemed to make the day colder, as if this were fall and not spring, and humidity from the river clinged to Wei Wuxian’s clothes, making them stick to his skin like sweat. During the first hours of day he tried his best to cut through the barrier, playing with Lan Wangji to push it away, to make it traversable. None of their spells worked. Soon, Wei Wuxian was shivering, his teeth clacking with the cold.
Lan Wangji frowned at him as they took a break, midday brightening overhead. “We should go back,” he said.
“This is too frustrating,” Wei Wuxian answered. “I will figure it out.”
But then he could not think at all, for the loud sound of a dog barking reached them.
Wei Wuxian could have felt shame over his own reaction, he supposed, if he had not been too busy hiding behind Lan Wangji’s back and chasing away memories of being run after and bitten by mutts for scraps of food. Lan Wangji himself seemed not to mind that Wei Wuxian stood behind him just shy of actual touch. His scent mixed with the sound of childhood memories, with the endless cold through Wei Wuxian’s body, with the very taste of the air around, weighed down by water and sunlight.
It was a childish reaction to a very inconsequential fear, something Wei Wuxian ought to have been rid of as cleanly as he had been rid of regret the moment he first fell into Yiling, coreless and abandoned. He watched Jin Ling call for his beast with his heart in his throat and shook Mo Xuanyu’s body with all the strength of that painful, unmarred golden core, until he was certain that no fear showed upon his face. He clenched his hands into fists so that they would stop trembling.
“Mo Xuanyu!” Jin Ling exclaimed at the sight of them, his dog now grabbed by the collar and panting excitedly by his feet. “What are you doing here?”
I could ask you the same thing, Wei Wuxian thought.
He had no time to voice it before someone else called, “Did you find him, A-Ling?”
Another figure emerged from the wide gaps between the trees.
Short and slender and barely different than the last time Wei Wuxian had seen her; though she was not grieved now, though her face and robes were free of the blood which had drenched the starved soil of Qishan’s Nightless City; her hair bearing the same twin breads that Jiang Cheng had taken to wearing after Jiang Fengmian died.
Jin Ling was almost taller than her. The hand she put on his shoulder was bare but for Zidian glinting on her index finger.
“Of course I found him,” Jin Ling mumbled.
Jiang Yanli smiled at him. She pinched his cheek; he spluttered and reddened and threw Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji panicked, embarrassed looks. “Hanguang-Jun,” she called after freeing her son. She bowed and added, cold as ice, “My brother told me he had the displeasure of meeting you recently. I did not think our paths would cross.”
Lan Wangji nodded stiffly towards her.
Wei Wuxian wanted to steel himself for her attention, but the second she looked at him, he knew any effort he could spend would be fruitless.
“Mo Xuanyu,” she said. “It is good to see you well.”
A-Xian, he heard as an echo, a memory moving before his eyes of lotuses and hot summers, of her arm knocking against his as they walked side by side.
“Madam Jin,” Wei Wuxian replied.
For the first time since waking up in that shed after Mo Xuanyu’s sacrifice, he bowed.
She was still staring at him when he straightened his back. The dog, which has yelped affectionately at her when she appeared, now emitted another bark of excitement. Wei Wuxian did not think he managed to conceal his shiver as much as he wanted to.
Jiang Yanli’s fingers curled around the animal’s collar. “A-Ling heard of odd sightings in the area,” she said. “Is this the reason for your presence, Hanguang-Jun?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji replied.
“I see. Then we shall leave you to it.”
“They arrived first, A-Ling,” Jiang Yanli reprimanded. Her eyes had not left Wei Wuxian. “I doubt master Lan will share his findings with us, and I know better than to compete against such a talented cultivator.”
Wei Wuxian looked at Lan Wangji. To his surprise, Lan Wangji looked back and said, “I won’t share.”
Jiang Yanli nodded as if she had expected it. She whistled at the dog to order it to follow and turned around, Zidian catching light on her hand like a gem. “Come now,” she called to her son. “We’ll sleep in the village.”
“It’s not fair!”
“If your uncle heard you speak like this, he would scold you, you know. Do not think I won’t just because Lianfang-Zun likes to spoil you rotten.”
Jin Ling moaned and grumbled loudly enough to awaken all the dead in those woods. He followed her with dragging feet, the peony sewn at the back of his uniform flickering under lights and shadows.
Only when they were gone did Wei Wuxian relax. Only then did he allow himself a short, empty laugh, rubbing a clammy hand over his face.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said.
“I’m fine.” The words ached as they pushed past his lips, but they were not a lie. Not fully. “I was surprised, that’s all. I never thought we would meet so many acquaintances in one day.”
He smiled for good measure, letting his hand drop again. Lan Wangji said nothing more.
He stayed closer to his side as they searched through the afternoon again. His knee brushed Wei Wuxian’s when they sat to play against the barrier, the pace of his music unhurried and yet a little shakier than before. When the sky darkened with the promise of night and they decided to head back, he walked right by Wei Wuxian’s side.
The arrival of more strangers had done nothing to quiet the villagers. Once again they suffered looks and even the odd comment or two, little as they cared about those. Not even the weight of Lan Wangji’s purse could stop the innkeeper from glaring at them this time.
It made sense, Wei Wuxian supposed. He had hesitated upon entering the inn, wary of seeing Jiang Yanli again—wary of hearing Jin Ling’s voice—but they must have both gone up to their rooms already. In the small dining room, he and Lan Wangji were the only guests.
Wei Wuxian was not surprised to find sleep evading him for endless hours.
He did not linger on the memories and thoughts trying to plague his mind. There had been no time to in the short few days before he died, and he had no desire to allow Mo Xuanyu’s core to sharpen them to clarity and make him relive them as he had stupidly let happen when meeting Jin Ling.
Those who had died then could not be brought back, not even by his hand. Not even if they had wanted to.
He felt morning approach before he saw it. He rose from the bed, still-dressed and entirely sleepless, crouching by the water tub to wash his face and hands. He was of half a mind, he found, to call Wen Ning again. To call him and walk with him to the barrier in the woods and have his only friend—his only weapon—once more fight his battles for him.
The latter was out of the question. Checking on Wen Ning’s condition, however, was not a bad idea. Wei Wuxian closed the door to his room silently and made his way down the stairs of the inn. No one was around any more this early before sunrise. He boiled water for moonless tea and drank it as scalding as he could.
Outside, the air was colder. The weight of the haunted sabers’ spirits seemed to want to push the soil down till it crumbled underfoot, seemed to want them all to fall into an abyss and break apart, buried and forgotten as they were. Wei Wuxian wound his cloak more tightly around himself and walked into the shed by the side of the inn. The door of it opened with a small, creaking noise, and inside he saw Little Apple’s head rise alertly.
“Hello,” he called to the donkey, chuckling.
Little Apple was a quiet animal. Wei Wuxian had not heard him bray or seen him panic since he had stolen him in Mo village. He acted for all intents and purposes as if Wei Wuxian had always been his master. Now he bowed his head to let Wei Wuxian pat it and scratch between his long ears.
“I’ll be making some noise in a moment,” he said. “Don’t be scared of my guest, now.”
The donkey looked at him with deep and soulful eyes.
Before Wei Wuxian could grab the bamboo flute from his waist and put it to his lips, loud barking echoed through the village.
He froze. It must be Jin Ling’s dog, he thought in a panic, for he had not seen or heard any other dogs here and the sound of it was similar to earlier during the day. Uselessly, he looked around to defend himself, stumbling on a pile of wood and making it crash loudly against the ground.
Immediately, the barking came closer to the shed. Wei Wuxian realized with horror that he had not closed the door behind himself. No sooner had he noticed that the dog itself barged in, running toward him and barking loudly.
“No no no,” he cried out, backing away as quickly as he could and making more things fall in the penumbra, “go away, back off—”
The dog bit at the hem of his pants and pulled, making Wei Wuxian trip and his heart leap up his chest. That same chest became heavier with the dog’s front paws; Wei Wuxian smelled its breath in his face, felt the cold tip of its nose brush his chin and heard its barking as if they were drums inside his ears—piercing, deafening, pouding like a headache.
His eyesight whitened in sheer, irrational fear. He stopped breathing altogether.
Then the dog’s weight was pulled off of him. He heard through the dizzying rush of his own blood the sound of a voice scolding it, was even aware enough to place its familiarity, but his shaking was such that he could not find footing enough to rise. When he managed to gasp in enough breaths to chase the fog from his mind, a great, acute ache had spread through his entire torso.
Jiang Yanli stood at the entrance of the shed, dressed in warmer clothes than she had worn during the day and holding the mutt back by the collar around its neck. She struggled with it for a moment longer—the beast truly looked mad, barking and drooling and shaking every way—before she managed to throw it outside the shed and close the door behind it firmly.
She sighed, wiping her trembling hands. Wei Wuxian pressed a fist over his chest in hope of containing his panic.
For a long time, neither of them spoke. They breathed and breathed until at last the dog outside quieted.
Then Jiang Yanli asked, “Are you well?”
Wei Wuxian nodded. Realizing how dark the shed had become after she closed the door, and that she probably could not see him, he said: “Yes.”
“Good, that’s… that’s good.”
It was a different kind of dread he felt upon hearing her move his way.
Her steps did not drag. She had always been more elegant than either he or Jiang Cheng cared to be—Jiang Cheng because he had no obligation to, Wei Wuxian because he did—and so her feet were light upon the dirt floor, almost inaudible. Her clothes brushed against the enclosure where Little Apple was kept.
She stopped when her boots brushed the tips of his own. Even in the darkness, her gaze weighed on him as heavily as a mountain.
“You’re not Mo Xuanyu,” she said.
Wei Wuxian could not look at her. Not her face, not the rest of her body either, as he found his eyes avoiding the length of purple robes covering her legs and falling to the floor instead.
“I met Mo Xuanyu,” Jiang Yanli went on. Her voice was shaking. “Madam Jin often called for his company before he… before he left Golden Carp Tower.”
“I hope she is well,” Wei Wuxian answered.
Jiang Yanli laughed. It sounded hollow. “I had my doubts when A-Cheng brought A-Ling back to Lanling and told me what happened,” she went on. “I don’t think he realized. He was so angry at letting a demonic cultivator go, and he had never heard of Mo Xuanyu, but I did. I knew—what he said—Mo Xuanyu could not have done that.”
Wei Wuxian thought of the bloody array in which he had woken. He thought, not for the first time, that despair could push anyone into doing anything.
“You didn’t do anything to convince him otherwise either, did you.”
“Madam Jin,” Wei Wuxian said, “I think you are mistaken.”
“Don’t call me that.” Her voice moaned over the words, pleading. “You never called me that, even after I married Zixuan.”
She hadn’t wanted him to.
She kneeled slowly by his side, one of her legs pressed to his own. “I had doubts,” she said, putting a hand at his shoulder. “It’s why I insisted on accompanying A-Ling here, after I heard that Lan Wangji had been sighted, even though I knew it was a fool’s dream. But now, I am certain.”
Her hand squeezed Wei Wuxian’s shoulder and then pressed closer to his neck, sliding behind him entirely to tangle in his hair. It was warm and soft as he remembered, despite the calluses that swordwielding had raised across her palm.
“I think,” she said shakily, “that I should be apologizing to Lan Wangji on my knees.”
She crushed his body against her and buried her face in his neck, wetting it with her tears and her deep, shaking inhales. “You smell like before,” she cried. “It is you, it is you, oh, A-Xian.”
Wei Wuxian could count the number of times he had been hugged since his parents’ death on the fingers of one hand. Most of those had been from Jiang Yanli; once had been Jiang Cheng; the last and only time he had been hugged by someone not family, it was in Qishanwen’s omega house, with Wen Yueying’s small arms locked so tightly around his hips that he had feared she would break them.
None of those embraces came close to making him feel how this one did.
“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli cried again and again into his neck, shaking so violently that he thought she would fall and make him follow her down. She weeped even harder when he wrapped his arms around her too—when he squeezed her against his front until there was not an inch of room between them anywhere, until he felt every breath she took as if they were his own.
The dog outside barked loudly again, making him tense in a spasm. Jiang Yanli hiccuped softly and patted his hair, saying, “It’s okay, I’m here, I’m here—”
He was nine years old again in the circle of her arms, fallen from the very tree he had climbed, deathly afraid of displeasing the people who had taken in him and fed and clothed him.
“Shijie,” he said, unsurprised to find his own eyes wet. He crushed the tears against the top of her hair.
There were so many things he wanted to say to her, needed to say to her. There was nothing he deserved less than to be held in her arms after he brought her nothing but ruin, nothing but grief, in his carelessness and arrogance. He had harmed her, he thought, feeling with his fingers the deep scar atop her right shoulder which climbed up the side of her neck under the cover of her hair. He had abandoned her, abandoned Jiang Cheng and his own clan. He had stolen her only dream from her and then crushed it down to dust—he had orphaned her son and made her a widow.
He should be asking her for mercy. He should be offering her his head. He should be bowing as Jin Zixuan had before his last breath left him.
Instead he held her and said nothing at all, allowing her to hold and touch him as he never allowed anyone, breathing in her river-like scent, crushing her sobs against him. Darkness lightened around them with the coming of dawn and they sat, pressed together, into the dirt and dust, amidst broken straw and heavy animal scents.
There was nowhere else Wei Wuxian wanted to be.