Warnings: violence against children, Wei Wuxian’s general trauma, Xue Yang’s general trauma.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Wei Wuxian was not one to fear gaudy and abandoned places. The worst nests of resentful spirits and corpses he had seen through both his lives were oft not those that people pointed to: he had walked, once, through the bright and sunlit walls of a ruined brothel, where the century-old memory of a woman murdered men who failed to meet its standards. He had lived, once, on a ground poisoned with corpses. He had fed on vegetables grown out of necrosed earth.
No one would think this place so lively, he could recall one man saying on the rare occasion Wei Wuxian graced the communal dinner with his presence.
It had been a warm day of fall, and the sky was still lit with the last rays of sunlight.
The man had drunk and delighted in the mellow liquor which Wei Wuxian brewed in the darkness of the bloodpool cave. He had never tasted liquor before that day. They were celebrating the opening of the first barrel, months after Wei Wuxian had first crossed the path through the mountains in the company of the Wen refugees.
Such sweetness can be born out of a mass graveyard!
They had laughed around him, men and women gaunt with persecution, their hands shaking still from entrapment and abuse. Wei Wuxian had not known how to answer him. Wen Qing had sat beside him at the longest table and put a hand on his arm, as had become her habit since the day Lan Xichen had looked at him in horror. She had waited out the moment Wei Wuxian’s face would twist into a smile and feel a little less cold.
The old woman they all called ‘Grandmother’, though she was not related to any of them, had shushed the crowd then and pointed to the biggest of the shacks. He is sleeping, she had said, her aged face softened with wine and company.
Wei Wuxian had felt cold once more.
So Wei Wuxian was not squeamish or afraid as he followed the kunze Xue Yang through the misty ruins of Yi City. He had seen worse things in his life than the slow and heavy-legged corpses standing still on the broad village street. He had smelled more rancid smells going in and out of the Burial Mounds than he did now, as an old man with his head cut open watched him with empty eyes.
He was not afraid either of Xue Yang’s tale of woes; of the loss of his lover and the begging he did to have the man’s soul restored with the help of a cultivator. Xiao Xingchen was framed, he said. Xiao Xingchen was accused of the murders which the man called Song Lan had committed.
Wei Wuxian had thought Xue Yang to be lying when he handed him the sealing pouch through which he felt but a faint echo of spirituality. He knew him to be lying, now, as he walked through the dead city with familiar shivers on his skin.
Now, he thought as Xue Yang kicked open the door of a funeral home with the same strength he had kicked that old qianyuan woman, how to get out of this mess.
“Not far now, young master Mo,” Xue Yang said.
His voice was hollow with greed.
“I had to keep him cold, I had to preserve him. But I know you’ll be able to help.”
“You seem very sure of yourself,” Wei Wuxian replied. “I never said anything about being able to revive the dead.”
Xue Yang looked at him. Exhaustion had reddened his eyes and given his left eyelid a twitch. “I feel like I’ve waited so long to meet you,” he said, near-reverent. “Surely this is the work of fate.”
The closer he got to his goal, the less he seemed to care about keeping up appearances.
Wei Wuxian followed him anyway. The sealing pouch in his hand weighed even less than a feather, and it felt as though a breeze would be enough to vaporize the hint of a soul trapped within it. He barely dared to tighten his fingers around it.
He had come here with a purpose, after all. If Lan Wangji had been by his side then and taken the cursed arm out to point the way, Wei Wuxian had no doubt that the thing would have thrashed and struggled with proximity to its goal. Wei Wuxian may as well see what the liar Xue Yang wanted out of the Yiling Patriarch.
Plus, there was the issue of that very familiar aura.
Xue Yang stopped before the finest of the engraved coffins around the cold and unlit hall. This time he did not kick it open with his foot; instead, he put down the elegant white sword he carried and bent to push the lid open inch by inch, his tired face spasming with effort and grief.
Xiao Xingchen lay within the oakwood box. A glance was enough to tell that his body had been tended to and washed, and the ribbon around his eyes changed. Were it not for how still and bloodless his skin was, one could easily have thought he was merely sleeping.
Wei Wuxian spent a second simply watching the man and taking in his features. He had not known him in life and never would, but looking at the faint traces of laugh lines around his mouth, at the kind curve of his brow, he thought he might have liked to.
It was not often he met someone with such close relation to his mother.
“Well?” Xue Yang said to him.
Impatience was ridding him of pretense. Wei Wuxian heard in his voice the same desperation with which he himself had begged, once, asking, What should I do?
What should he do now?
“How did he die?” he asked.
Xue Yang hissed. “The murderer Song Lan killed him,” he replied, batting a hand through the air. “Never mind this—can you restore his spirit?”
“I never said I could.”
“I know you can. I can tell.”
Pity, Wei Wuxian thought, was the appropriate thing to feel, watching Xue Yang shake and sway on his feet, his gloved hand resting on the edge of the carved coffin.
He looked away. “First,” he said, “I’d like to know how long you’ve been in possession of the Stygian Tiger Seal.”
Xue Yang’s face stilled and paled. A second later he laughed, and the source of Wei Wuxian’s shivers—the source of the cold and dead aura weighing over Yi City—fell out of his sleeve.
The two halves of the Seal looked as smooth and whole as if Wei Wuxian had never destroyed them.
“That’s the Yiling Patriarch for you,” Xue Yang murmured, and the devotion in his eyes made Wei Wuxian’s skin crawl. “I knew I couldn’t fool you.”
“You weren’t hiding very well,” Wei Wuxian replied.
“Neither were you. I’ve spent so long studying you, learning you. Those idiots in Lanling in Yunmeng—” Xue Yang spat the words out as if they were poison, “—they never knew you. Not like I do. I could tell at a glance who you were, and the moment I heard that Jiang Yanli and her son had been sighted in Qinghe in the company of Lan Wangji and a kunze cultivator…”
He took a step forward. His crazed eyes caught the setting light of day and glowed redly.
“I always knew you’d come back,” Xue Yang whispered. “All those years. I saw that summoning array of yours in Lianfang-Zun’s hidden chamber, and I knew you had created it so you could come back one day.” He paused in thought and added, “Only, I never expected Mo Xuanyu of all people to do it. It seems I was mistaken about him.”
“Kunze cultivators are dime a dozen now,” Wei Wuxian said carefully.
Part of him wanted to step back, worried for the insanity lodged so deeply within Xue Yang’s eyes. Another refused to get away as long as he did not secure the Seal and destroy it again.
It should never have existed in the first place. This time, Wei Wuxian would make sure both halves were stripped of power and could never be made whole.
“What makes you think I am Wei Wuxian?”
Xue Yang laughed so loudly that nested birds took flight through the wooden beams of the hall’s ceiling.
“Who else could you be?” he near-yelled. “Which other kunze would risk being in Lan Wangji’s presence? I knew he couldn’t have killed you. I knew they were all lying.”
Wei Wuxian had no time at all to absorb this information and wonder at it; Xue Yang threw the Seal up and caught it again, and he said, “Now, back to our business. I want you to restore this man’s spirit, senior Wei. I’m not afraid to force you to, no matter how much I owe you.”
“I can’t,” Wei Wuxian replied.
Xue Yang’s smile waned. “Don’t lie to me now,” he said. “I have spent enough time in the company of your Ghost General to know the truth.”
Wen Ning, Wei Wuxian recalled then. He really should have thought to call Wen Ning before he got to the funeral home.
Instead of grabbing the bamboo flute, he lifted the pouch still held preciously within his hand. “There is barely any spirit left here,” he declared. “Regardless of how Xiao Xingchen truly died—he had no wish to remain behind in any way. His life energy had left him before he gave his last breath.”
“And Wen Ning did?!” Xue Yang roared. His hand once again found the white sword which must belong to Xiao Xingchen; he drew it out of its sheath, pointing the sharp end of it at Wei Wuxian. “What does Wen Ning have to cling to that Xiao Xingchen does not?”
Wen Ning had a sister, a clan. He had the hope which Wei Wuxian had instilled in him and which had led to his death—the courage to stand up and protect others, the selflessness to do so. Right until the moment his injuries had killed him, Wen Ning had not despaired.
And Wen Ning had anger and vengefulness simmering in him, no matter how kind, how gentle of a person he was.
If Xiao Xingchen was Xue Yang’s lover, if he was truly a man Baoshan Sanren had deemed worthy of her teachings, then it stood to reason that he felt no such attachment to life.
“Do your grieving, Xue Yang,” Wei Wuxian said lowly. “There is no way to raise this man from the dead again.”
Xue Yang’s hand shook around the handle of the white sword.
He dropped it to the ground as he brought the two pieces of the Seal together, and Wei Wuxian’s fingers grabbed the bamboo flute at the same time he felt the cold, resentful energy on his skin.
Lan Sizhui could not look any of the children around him in the eye.
It was his fault, he knew, that they were trapped here. It was because of him that they had to huddle together in the derelict shed of a village house, frightened and trapped, while the girl-spirit walked around them and shot her hateful words at them.
And most of all—most terrifying and terrible of all—it was his fault that Jingyi looked so pale on the ground, coughing and wheezing, the Ouyang boy in no better state next to him.
The other junior cultivators they had met with on the way, a group from Lanling headed by Jin Ling, had told him to get lost. But it was Lan Jingyi’s first night-hunt after his coming-of-age ceremony; he had been so eager to go out after all the fuss and embarrassment of his first fever, eager to prove himself after a few of their clan’s elders had let slip that he would be better left within the Cloud Recesses from now on…
Sizhui had not had the heart to refuse him despite the overwhelming competition. Even after they had set foot in the abandoned city, he had thought, naïvely, that he could handle it all. It had taken the falling of Ouyang Zizhen and his peers, and then of Jingyi himself, for Sizhui to realize how mistaken he had been.
Now Lan Jingyi and three other juniors from different sects were suffocating on the floor of a ruined shack, and the milk-eyed fierce spirit of a girl yelled at them, over and over, to get out.
She screamed again right then. Lan Sizhui jumped as Jin Ling did, and heard the sect heir mutter about his dog Fairy and how quickly he could have dealt with this on his own, but he could not take those hateful words to heart. He knew fear just as well as any of them.
Lan Sizhui crouched on the floor next to Jingyi. “How do you feel?” he asked, frightened.
Lan Jingyi shook his head instead of answering with words. The painful rasps from deep in this throat and lungs seemed to have taken his voice.
Sizhui took his wrist in hand despite the shocked breath Jin Ling took in at the sight—there were better things to think of now than propriety. “Your pulse is steady for now,” he told him, hoping to lend some strength to him. “Focus on your breathing, like master Qiren taught us.”
“Easy to say,” Jingyi rasped out.
Lan Sizhui gave him a shaky smile.
But Jingyi did try, at least. He calmed his pained and nervous breathing and closed his eyes, his fingers crossing as they always did when he struggled through meditation. Next to him, Ouyang Zizhen tried to breathe in tandem.
“What’s wrong with him?” Jin Ling asked when Lan Sizhui stood again.
His voice was as muffled as the last three times he had asked the question. “I don’t know,” Lan Sizhui replied, with enough anger this time to shut him up.
Jin Ling bared his teeth at him and went back to looking at Jingyi in worry.
“Get out of here!” the ghost screamed from outside the shed. “Get out, get out, get out!”
There came a roar of a voice, like the howl of a monster in the distance; she shut up abruptly.
So did they all. All of a sudden, the murmur of two girls’ voices in the back halted as they waited out that awful and lung-tearing howl. Lan Sizhui risked a glance in the interstice between two of the planks making up the walls of the shed: he saw only the girl-spirit’s back running away from them.
“What was that?” Ouyang Zizhen asked fearfully. The group had been entirely silent for over a minute now, fear and anticipation locking all of their tongues. “Oh, what was that, are we going to—”
The door of the shed opened violently.
Lan Sizhui did not think at all as he drew his sword and stepped over Jingyi’s body to put himself between the intruder and him. He saw as through a trance Jin Ling acting the same, Suihua’s golden pommel shaking in his grasp, and together they leveled their blades to the man in black robes who now stood in the entrance.
Until Sizhui recognized him.
“Young master Mo?” he asked, bewildered.
His sword lowered. Jin Ling’s did so as well a moment later, as he too came to his senses.
It was Mo Xuanyu. He looked more distraught now than Lan Sizhui had last seen him in that inn in Dafan, and the clothes he was wearing were dirtier as well, but he would recognize that sharp-eyed face anywhere. Mo Xuanyu said nothing to them, only turned his back to close the shed’s door behind himself and rest his back on it.
He held his bamboo flute in one hand. The other bore a slightly-bleeding gash, as did his sweaty forehead. Sizhui inhaled quickly in relief and smelled faint traces of honey in the air.
“What are you doing here?” Jin Ling asked, outraged once more.
“I could ask you the same question,” Mo Xuanyu replied curtly. His eyes went over Jin Ling’s body, his brow loosening slightly when he found no visible injuries on him. “Weren’t you with your…”
He fell silent before ending his words. He shook his head once, twice, and looked once again at Jin Ling, his mouth open in askance.
Behind Sizhui, Lan Jingyi let out a series of dry and painful coughs.
Mo Xuanyu reacted before even Sizhui could. He suddenly saw the bodies laid onto the dirt floor and stepped to them quickly, pushing Sizhui out of the way as if he did not exist at all. If others were surprised to see him lay a hand on a qianyuan with so little care, Sizhui was not. He had already been pushed aside by Mo Xuanyu thoughtlessly in Mo village.
But now was no time to be thinking of such things. Mo Xuanyu crouched beside Lan Jingyi, his hand grabbing Jingyi’s to measure his pulse as he used the other to tug open Jingyi’s bloodshot eyes, to squeeze his jaw till his tongue came out.
It was stained purple.
“Foolish child,” Lan Sizhui heard Mo Xuanyu mumble through his stupor. Lan Jingyi seemed too surprised and tired to protest for once. The man then ordered Ouyang Zizhen to show his tongue as well, and then the three other boys who had fallen sick upon entering the city. “What are they teaching you in those classes?” he asked loudly as he rose. “Haven’t you ever heard of corpse-poisoning?”
“Corpse-poisoning?” a frightened qianyuan girl exclaimed from the back of the group. Lan Sizhui could see her holding tightly to the arm of the boy next to her, who wore the same dark blue uniform of the Ouyang sect. “Isn’t that incurable?”
Sizhui felt his heart drop like a stone.
No, he thought in a panic, looking again at Jingyi on the floor who was now as pale as a sheet, no, no, that’s impossible—
“It’s not,” Mo Xuanyu replied snappishly. “Not in the early stages at least.”
Ouyang Zizhen let out a curt sob of relief. Next to Lan Sizhui, Jin Ling’s hold on Suihua loosened with an audible crack of his knuckles.
“I need a kitchen,” Mo Xuanyu muttered then. Sizhui was too dazed to even feel surprised by those words. “Does anyone still live here?”
“That old harpy does,” Jin Ling answered. “She wouldn’t open her house for us, so we had to take shelter in her shed…”
Before he could finish, Mo Xuanyu walked to the only other door of the shed and opened it to access the house. He vanished with a flutter of his black robes.
“What!” Jin Ling exclaimed angrily. “He asks all those questions and then he leaves us here!?”
Sizhui heard none of his words after this, so busy was he staring at Jingyi on the floor and feeling his own heart beat slowly, excruciatingly.
He had almost killed Lan Jingyi.
“Who was this, um,” the qianyuan girl from before said. She seemed to hesitate between calling Mo Xuanyu ‘man’ or ‘kunze’.
“Mo Xuanyu,” came Jingyi’s weak reply.
Lan Sizhui crouched beside him again. He held his wrist, though there was no need to check on his pulse now.
“It’s just my stupid uncle,” he heard Jin Ling’s voice say over the hazy buzzing in his ears. “What does he know about corpse-poisoning? He was so shameless and mad that Little Uncle threw him out of the Tower before he even learned to hold a sword.”
“Don’t argue while I’m dying, please,” said Ouyang Zizhen.
Mo Xuanyu came back into the shed a few minutes later. He had drawn back the sleeves of his robes and washed and bandaged the cut on his hand, though there was no erasing the deep scars Lan Sizhui saw at the inside of his wrists.
“I need help to prepare the remedy,” he declared calmly. “Any volunteers?”
Silence answered him. Those who did not know him looked at him in distrust, especially the girl who would not let go of her sect brother’s arm. Lan Sizhui found enough of his bearings to rise and answer, “I’ll help.”
“Me too,” Jin Ling said immediately, walking over the boys on the floor and almost stepping on Ouyang Zizhen’s hand.
They followed Mo Xuanyu through the decrepit house. It would be hard to believe anyone lived here if Sizhui had not glimpsed the old and mean woman who had refused them entry; everywhere he could see was covered in dust and fallen leaves, the pots above the few tables and cabinets showing nothing but dead plants and cobwebs. The kitchen was in no better shape: the oven was cold as ice when Sizhui touched it, the wood inside wet and rotted.
“Jin Ling,” Mo Xuanyu said, “go fetch us some dry wood. Keep your nose and mouth covered.”
“I don’t want to go outside with that spirit hanging around!” Jin Ling replied, one hand crossed over his chest in defiance.
“Do you want to help me or not?”
The boy hesitated. Lan Sizhui thought of Lan Jingyi so pale and cold on the floor, his breathing dry and hurried, and turned to him. He was not above begging, or offering to go out himself.
But Mo Xuanyu smiled, then, or something near to that. It did not erase the coldness in his eyes which Sizhui had noticed since the very first time they met, but it made him look as if he should be smiling more. As if, once upon a time, he had smiled more.
“There’s bushes in the yard outside,” he told Jin Ling. “You won’t need to go far. Take another of those kids with you if you’re scared.”
“I’m not scared,” Jin Ling said predictably. He turned his back to them and walked out, muttering about Suihua not being meant for cutting wood.
Then it was only Lan Sizhui and Mo Xuanyu inside the tiny kitchen.
“What should I do?” he asked. His voice had never sounded so weak before.
Mo Xuanyu did not immediately answer. He turned his back to Sizhui after a brief and fleeting glance his way, opening cupboards and drawers and then a wooden pot full of rice. He plunged his hand into it and brought it to his face, examining the grains under what little daylight filtered there.
It was almost nighttime. Birds would be long gone even if Yi City had such things as living beasts roaming around. When Sizhui took in a breath, tight within his lungs and cold inside his mouth, he smelled nothing but rot and honey.
He knew not why the smell comforted him then.
“Wash this rice,” Mo Xuanyu told him after letting the grains fall again. “The water is clean at least.”
Sizhui obeyed wordlessly.
Jin Ling came back with wood after a few minutes and hung behind them awkwardly. Mo Xuanyu had aligned a few bowls full of meager spices while he was gone, and now he tended to the fire in the oven and took the washed rice that Sizhui handed him, never letting their hands touch.
“Are you making… congee?” Sizhui asked after a few minutes.
“Congee?” Jin Ling repeated immediately, rushing to see what Mo Xuanyu had been doing.
They both stared at the white-and-red mixture that Mo Xuanyu was cooking over the fire.
“How’s congee going to help Lan Jingyi?” Jin Ling said, and anger had made his voice loud and cutting; he looked a second away from grabbing Mo Xuanyu by the front of his robes in despair. “Were you lying when you said you could cure him!?”
“Calm down,” Mo Xuanyu snapped.
Sizhui saw him take in a deep breath, eyes closed, before opening them again.
“It’s an old remedy,” he went on more calmly. His hand never ceased moving the congee overfire; it was odd to see him cook like this, almost as odd as the first time he had walked in on Hanguang-Jun preparing his own meals in that little house up the mountain. “Spices to expel the poison and decongestion the airways.”
He did not speak again until a few minutes later, and then only to tell them to distribute the food to those who had been sick.
Jingyi almost choked after the first spoonful.
“Hot!” he cried out, waving a hand over his face, his mouth open so that his purple tongue would find fresh air.
The other sick boys were not faring much better, except Ouyang Zizhen who only reddened brightly as he gulfed down the rice.
“I can’t eat this,” Jingyi said with tears in his bloodshot eyes.
“You better eat it all, Lan Jingyi,” Jin Ling threatened him. “After all the trouble I went through to fuel the fire for you.”
“I’d like to see you eat something so spicy, Jin Ling,” Lan Jingyi spat in anger.
Jin Ling took the bowl from Ouyang Zizhen and shoved a spoonful of congee into his mouth.
To his credit, he did not splutter and cry as Jingyi had. His entire face turned red, however, and sweat started shining at his forehead around the red dot marking him as part of the Jin clan. “It’s not hot,” he said weakly.
It would have been funny in any other circumstance; as it was, Lan Sizhui could only find relief at the sight of Lan Jingyi pushing past the burn to eat more, so that he would not lose face to Jin Ling.
He left them to it and walked back to the kitchen. Mo Xuanyu was still there, leaning against the counter of the stove and watching the leftover congee still simmering there. His head was turned to the empty cabinets he had rummaged through earlier, his eyes unseeing. He seemed deep in thought.
“Will he truly be okay?” Lan Sizhui asked him.
Mo Xuanyu did not jump at the sound of his voice. He stared Sizhui’s way vaguely, blinking twice to clear his mind. “You’re…” His words faltered.
Sizhui told himself not to mind that Mo Xuanyu had forgotten his name again. “Lan Sizhui,” he replied. “Will Jingyi truly be all right, young master Mo?”
“He should be,” Mo Xuanyu replied.
He seemed to cut out of his own stupor then. He leaned away from the side of the oven, opening it once to twirl the red embers within and spread the heat more evenly. Lan Sizhui shivered; he had not realized how cold he was until then.
“Thank you,” he said.
He held back from bowing as the man looked at him again, remembering how he had reacted the last time. Still, he brought his hands before himself to salute properly, bending the neck no farther than the shoulders.
Bowing this way had always felt odd to him, much odder than bending the back as Jingyi had been taught by Lan Qiren. Here and then, with Mo Xuanyu’s cold eyes on him and the smell of death wafting through the twilight air, it felt more than odd. It felt wrong.
“Thank you for saving him,” Sizhui went on. “If he had died, I…”
He could not finish this thought. The words hurt enough within the confines of his throat and mind; it seemed unspeakable, unthinkable.
“He’s mature now,” Mo Xuanyu said all of a sudden.
Sizhui lifted his head in surprise.
Mo Xuanyu was looking directly at him. “I smelled it as soon as I came in,” he said. “He doesn’t use any medicine to hide himself, does he.”
“We celebrated his coming of age only a few days ago,” Sizhui replied, confused. “And no, Jingyi does not like those drugs. He says the taste of them is terrible.”
“I can’t blame him for that.”
Mo Xuanyu must use them, Sizhui thought, recalling their meeting in Dafan. Although the honeyscent of him was heavy in Mo village, it had been gone entirely as he walked into that inn and slept in the room next to his and Hanguang-Jun’s.
Even now, honey was but a faint and sugary suggestion in the rotten air of the house. Barely enough to be recognizable, had Sizhui not known beforehand what Mo Xuanyu smelled like.
“It’s a foolish decision,” Mo Xuanyu said, cutting Sizhui’s thoughts short, “but I’m less worried about that than I am about those who circle around him.”
Lan Sizhui reeled back. “I wouldn’t let anyone—”
“I’m talking about you.”
Sizhui’s mouth shut, his teeth hitting together loudly. There were no words at all, no reply that he could think of, as Mo Xuan approached him. His black eyes were ever-so-hostile.
“I haven’t seen that boy anywhere without you within a few feet of him,” Mo Xuanyu said lowly. “Without you looking at him, limiting him.”
“Do not interrupt me, Lan Sizhui.”
It was as if a fire had been put out within Sizhui’s chest, and as if smoke had replaced his capacity for speech.
You can’t protect him, the Jiang sect leader had told him in Dafan.
He had not been able to sleep without hearing those words, and the fear of Jingyi being hurt for Sizhui’s own weakness had haunted him through their travels. He heard them now, staring into Mo Xuanyu’s eyes, the oppressive air of the city making the man look so much taller.
“You and your clan think yourselves so high, so benevolent for letting that boy roam free, don’t you,” Mo Xuanyu said. “When a word from any of his elders would suffice to have him be locked up again.”
There is no kunze house in the Cloud Recesses, Sizhui thought, frightened.
There used to be, Jiang Wanyin’s voice replied.
“You think he belongs to—”
“No,” Lan Sizhui cut in.
Mo Xuanyu’s eyebrows lifted in surprise; Sizhui pushed past the shame within him, past the fear and confusion which had lingered in his belly since he had come back home after the hunt in Dafan and looked at Lan Qiren, at his sect leader, and not had the courage to ask them if Jiang Wanyin had told the truth.
If only Hanguang-Jun had been there. Sizhui was never afraid to ask him anything.
“No,” he said again, emboldened by the thought of his mentor’s teachings. “I would never hurt him. Jingyi doesn’t belong to anyone but himself.”
Mo Xuanyu scoffed, “Of course you—”
“No! I would never. He’s,” his words faltered, knocked together and apart, but Sizhui clenched his teeth and swallowed. “He’s like a brother to me,” he insisted. “I’ve known him since he was so little, I can still remember when he took his first steps.”
In those days at the Recesses which followed the fuzzy and mud-like images of his past, he remembered holding the baby Lan Jingyi when he could do nothing but cry and ask to be fed or changed. He had crawled with him on the grass next to the koi pond. He had held his hands as he wobbled on shaky.
He had seen Lan Jingyi speak and run and grow, seen him join his side in Lan Qiren’s classes and smile as widely as any of them, seen him win his first praising words from the man on the day he first held a bow and arrow. He had been the one to help him train until he was the best archer of Gusulan, second only to their sect leader.
It was Lan Sizhui whom Jingyi had run to weeks ago, frightened by the first aches of fever. Lan Sizhui had been the one to bring him to Lan Xichen, telling him not to worry, that nothing would change now.
“He’s my brother,” Sizhui said, blinking back tears. “I would never hurt him.”
He looked Mo Xuanyu in the eyes again, ready to yell at him, to argue until his point was made, but Mo Xuanyo was the one who seemed reduced to silence, now. The face he was making then was unlike anything Sizhui had seen of him yet.
Then a high-pitched scream came from outside, and the both of them turned as one to look at the open window.
It was the voice of the girl-spirit. Sizhui chased the conversation from his mind and ran back to the shed, Mo Xuanyu hot on his heels.
“She’s back!” Jingyi was yelling now.
He already looked better than he did a few minutes ago: his face was red from the spicy congee, but the stuttering of his breathing was gone, and his voice had regained strength. Sizhui ran to his side, almost running into Jin Ling outright, as Mo Xuanyu pushed away one of the Jin sect boys who was taking fearful looks through an opening in the wall.
“She’s been following and cursing us,” Jin Ling told the man, “she hasn’t stopped screaming at us to get out.”
She did so again in that high and terrifying voice: Get out! Get out of here!
“Are you sure she’s a spirit?” Mo Xuanyu asked.
“What else could she be?”
“Why don’t you take a look at her, then.”
Jin Ling froze under the stares of all nine of them. The shed had quieted so much that any intake of air felt like enough to make the wet wood creak and tremble; the boy grabbed Suihua’s pommel again and glared at all of them in turn.
“I’m not scared,” he declared.
“Good,” Mo Xuanyu replied evenly. “Then come and look.”
Jin Ling looked at his feet, then at Lan Jingyi on the floor, and walked toward Mo Xuanyu.
Mo Xuanyu stepped aside agreeably once the Jin heir was level with him. He gestured to the hole in the wall good-naturedly, his half-smile unfaltering even under the furious glare Jin Ling gave him.
Jin Ling looked through the hole. A second later, he jumped back in fright.
Most of the girls and boys around jumped with him, so taken were they with the mystery of the ghost who had not stopped circling them. Mo Xuanyu stepped away from the wall he was leaning against and asked, “Scared?”
“Not,” Jin Ling muttered, obviously lying.
“It’s because it’s scary that you should look. Come now, tell me what you saw.”
“A spirit,” Jin Ling muttered at him resentfully. “A girl. Skinny. Her clothes are all bloody.”
“Not bad, but not enough.”
Watching Jin Ling be so offended was almost amusing, but Sizhui was too shaken still from his earlier conversation to smile at it. Mo Xuanyu was looking at him now as he asked, “Anyone else want to try?”
It must be a test, Sizhui thought.
Mo Xuanyu did not look so accusatory now, but his eyes on Sizhui still felt heavy. Judgmental. Asking him to look at the ghost outside must be his way of testing Sizhui’s claims.
So Sizhui squeezed Jingyi’s shoulder and rose, walking to the man’s side. He did not meet his eyes, though he felt them on him, and with them the weight of expectation.
He cares about Jingyi, he told himself.
If Mo Xuanyu did not care about Lan Jingyi, then he would not have confronted Sizhui so. The thought was all it took to make Sizhui bend the neck and look through the coin-sized hole that weather had worn out of the rough wooden wall.
He saw nothing at first except for the remains of the city: dusty and greyed, wild with grass and moss crawling over the paths and rocks. The night was now full above all of their heads, and moonlight did not shine well through the mist and the clouded sky. Lan Sizhui did not see the girl-spirit until she moved against the backdrop of black and grey. His heart seized with fright at the sight of her—skinny and bloody and looking at him with those white eyes—but he did not pull back.
He made himself look at her. He saw the blood which Jin Ling had mentioned staining her sand-colored robes, though he could see no wounds on her. She was standing only a few yards away, her milky eyes fixed onto his through the small hole, and Sizhui saw her draw back her shoulders as she opened her mouth to yell.
She was shaking as she said it, over and over again, unrelenting. He thought for the first time since glimpsing her earlier that she could not be older than Jingyi was. He heard the gasps between her screams, the despair with which she screamed them.
“She’s alive,” Sizhui said, disbelieving.
It could not be; they had seen nothing but corpses within Yi City, nothing but walking cadavers and the half-dead old woman whose house they were occupying, and this girl looked dead. Her face was pale enough to seem bloodless, her eyes devoid of life.
And yet, Mo Xuanyu did not correct him when he pulled away from the wall. He nodded once in assent, his arms crossed over his chest and his mouth shaped in the usual flat line.
“Alive?” Ouyang Zizhen exclaimed.
He was on his feet almost immediately, though he stumbled weakly, and made his way to the hole in the wall. He stuck his entire face against it when he looked, so that his nose was crushed against wood and making his own gasps audible.
“She’s breathing!” he said. “Lan Jingyi, come look.”
Jingyi was only too eager to follow.
Fear made way for relief, then confusion. The boys and girls in the shed started murmuring again, and their hands loosened around the pommels of their swords. Sizhui saw Jingyi squeeze against Zizhen to look as well, heard him say, “She’s pretty.”
Jin Ling huffed disgustedly.
“Her eyes are quite wide and lovely,” Ouyang Zizhen told Mo Xuanyu. “The shape of her face as well.”
“We have a romantic,” Mo Xuanyu replied in very dry humor. “Now that we’ve established that the girl is alive, I suggest we invite her in.”
Tension immediately spread through the room.
“Invite her in?” Jin Ling said, always eager to backtalk. “She’s been harassing us for hours.”
“She must have something to say.”
“Yes, get out, we heard it the first five hundred times!”
But Mo Xuanyu was not listening. He was already walking past the furious Jin Ling, walking by the alpha girl who had not stopped throwing him distrustful glances, and grabbing the door of the shed with both hands.
The girl was standing behind it when it opened.
All of them jumped again—she looked so frightening, with her bloodless eyes and face, with her rough robes bloodstained so—but Mo Xuanyu showed no sign of surprise. “Good evening, miss,” he told her. “You had something you wanted to tell us?”
The girl only glared at him.
She took three steps into the shed. Almost as one, everyone around Lan Sizhui stepped back in fear. It only seemed to make her more frustrated and angry; her blood-red teeth showed between her lips when she gritted them, and her fists balled by her sides and shook violently.
“You have to leave,” she said.
Her voice was a lot deeper when she was not screaming, but it remained rough and breezy, as if she were fighting herself for the words to come out. Her lips grew red and wet with blood under Sizhui’s very eyes. Droplets fell onto the front of her robes, widening the stain already there, and she said: “You have to go. He’ll kill y—”
She stopped and put both hands to her lips, her eyes tightly closed in pain. Red seeped in-between her fingers and rolled slowly down her sleeves.
“A muting curse,” Mo Xuanyu murmured. “You have been fighting it all along?”
The girl could not speak anymore. She nodded her head.
“This can’t be true,” Jingyi said to Mo Xuanyu. He looked shocked and unsettled. “I’ve never seen anyone bleed from a muting curse.”
“That is because your clan has taught you not to struggle against them, as they go away after a few minutes anyway,” Mo Xuanyu answered. “But this is not as simple as the Lan clan’s infamous discipline spell.”
He turned his back to them entirely. Lan Sizhui could not see the face he was making now, though he imagined it to be less severe.
“What is your name?” Mo Xuanyu asked her.
The girl took her hands away. Her lips looked painted with blood, and some of it had smudged around her cheeks and chin. “A-Qing,” she replied weakly.
“A-Qing,” Mo Xuanyu repeated. “You’ve been very brave, haven’t you, trying to protect them all this while.”
A-Qing’s eyes filled with tears.
She did not look like a fierce spirit anymore. Not even with the fresh blood over her clothes or the odd whiteness of her eyes, or when she shook again as if possessed, her legs weakening under her. She only looked exhausted.
She opened her bleeding mouth again and whispered, “Get out.”
“We will,” Mo Xuanyu said. He extended a hand toward her.
She took it immediately, mindless of her own state or status, despite the charred wood scent which marked her as qianyuan.
“I can’t undo the curse on you,” Mo Xuanyu told her. His hand seemed so very big around hers; his thumb was stroking the back of it in time with her shudders, as if trying to soothe a frightened animal. “But I know a way that we can talk without it hurting you. It might be uncomfortable for you, it might bring back painful memories, but it won’t hurt you. I promise.”
A-Qing cried and nodded her head, looking a second away from crumbling.
Mo Xuanyu lifted his other hand; with the tip of a glowing finger, he touched her forehead.
Wei Wuxian had no idea how long he spent in A-Qing’s memories.
It was a painful place to be. Her life had been difficult from the moment she was born with white eyes, and she had struggled through theft and lying and through various streets in various towns. Not once had she known true happiness until the monk Xiao Xingchen had shown up in her life and protected her.
Those years were sweet, bathed in a different glow. There was no room for objectivity within the confines of one’s mind, but Wei Wuxian thought that even without the distorted perception of happiness which the girl assigned to that period of company and conversation, he would have found it kind. Warm. Xiao Xingchen spoke to her as no one had before, held her as no one had before. His companionship, Wei Wuxian felt, was the one thing she prized above everything else.
His anger and her own were as one when he saw what he had to.
Waking up from Empathy was no easy task. Wei Wuxian pulled himself out of it with the sound of Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi’s voices, and with the feeling of the girl’s tears falling onto their linked hands. He made sure to make the transition between memory and present gentle, so as not to shock her. He squeezed her hand so that she would know he was fine and not feel the need to ask.
The curse on her was quite painful.
“Be quiet,” Wei Wuxian said, interrupting the calls for his name that kept echoing between the Lan boys and Jin Ling and—yes, he saw after opening his eyes, the tall boy who wore the Ouyang uniform and had been sick earlier.
He let go of A-Qing’s hand. She sat on the floor right where she had stood, silent and rid of all strength.
“Get her some of the congee,” Wei Wuxian ordered Lan Sizhui. “She hasn’t eaten all day.”
The qianyuan boy was quick to react if nothing else, he thought ruefully, seeing him run to the kitchen. There was no time now to reflect on their earlier conversation and how the boy’s answer had ached in all-new ways.
Wei Wuxian ignored the questions that the other children immediately threw at him. He let them speak over one another as he thought of his meeting with Xue Yang earlier and what he had seen within A-Qing’s mind.
So the fierce corpse that Xue Yang had called earlier, which had managed to cut Wei Wuxian before Wen Ning could reach him, was Song Lan. Wei Wuxian had felt no sympathy for the man when he had shown up in the girl’s memory: he was too looming and broad, too familiar in a way, and Wei Wuxian had not yet stooped so low as to mourn a qianyuan killed by kunze hands.
Xiao Xingchen’s fate was another matter entirely.
A fool, he thought, A-Qing’s grief still hot on his breath.
A fool to know his enemy and yet decide to help him; a fool to touch him as he had in those instances A-Qing had spied on them, to make Xue Yang’s violent eyes sweeten with obsession.
He could not hear Wen Ning or Song Lan’s battle now how he tried to listen. The silence in Yi City was like a thick substance, and the two corpses had taken their fight far from the funeral home at the end of the village and deep into the forest behind, on Wei Wuxian’s order. Xue Yang had vanished when Wei Wuxian had managed to escape.
It was only luck that had made him stumble upon the group of frightened children. He had only meant to take shelter in that shed himself as he thought of a way to escape.
This would be much easier if he had waited for Lan Wangji’s return before following a murderer out of curiosity.
Wei Wuxian smiled, thinking of Lan Wangji. The man must have come back to the inn by now and realized that he was missing.
I’m sorry, Lan Zhan.
Lan Sizhui had come back and kneeled beside the girl near the door. The boy took the time to hand over a bowl of the congee and make sure she could hold it on her own; A-Qing slapped his hands away when he tried to help her eat it. Once again, Lan Sizhui showed no sign of outrage or even negative sentiment. He was quite unlike any—
No, Wei Wuxian thought at himself. He had better things to think about now than his threatening words earlier. He did not need to linger on a qianyuan boy’s fright, or on his claims which were so familiar.
He’s my brother.
He looked at A-Qing as she ate and felt his lips curl and smile when she reddened from the heat of the meal.
“None of you saw anyone else when you came here, did you?” he asked the group of children behind him.
Or rather, he asked Lan Jingyi; he had no interest in anyone else here except Jin Ling, and looking at Jin Ling brought its own load of pain.
Lan Jingyi shook his head. Much of his strength was back from the meal, now that the poison was leaving him, and he looked as excited as the last time Wei Wuxian had met him. “We saw that old woman in the house,” he said. “And, um, that girl, but no one else.”
“When did you battle fierce corpses?”
“Right when we arrived in the city, senior Mo,” said the Ouyang boy. Wei Wuxian looked at him briefly; he looked younger than Lan Sizhui, but his body was taller and broader already than those of his peers’, and he seemed to have a way with words. Wei Wuxian thought that the faint zhongyong-scent of grass floating through the room belonged to him. “Three of them attacked us at the entrance of the city, but they were slow and in such an advanced state of decomposition… We didn’t think to be careful of poisoning.”
Wei Wuxian nodded. “Corpse-poisoning is rare,” he told them, “so I’m not surprised. Think of covering your airways the next time. And if one of you gets sick again, spicy food should clear the poison out in the first few hours.”
There came a murmur of thanks, a few eager-to-learn looks, over the group. Even the qianyuan girl who kept clinging to her friend gave him something like a smile. Wei Wuxian ignored her.
“How do you know all this?” Jin Ling asked him, suspicious.
“I do read books,” Wei Wuxian replied.
The boy only frowned harder. The red dot on his forehead moved with it. “You were always hanging to Little Uncle’s sleeve like a desperate—”
The roof opened above them.
Or rather, the roof of the shed was torn off of its walls with inhuman strength. Wei Wuxian had only the presence of mind to grab Jin Ling and push him out of the way of the falling wood beams, and to check that Lan Sizhui and A-Qing on his other side were not injured either. He found the boy intact, although surprised, but then it was A-Qing he saw grab at the door of the shed and run outside in fear, her weeping eyes stuck to the figure which now stood by Wei Wuxian’s side.
Song Lan’s corpse had jumped in through the torn-open roof. He landed by Wei Wuxian’s side without any sound, black-veined and empty-eyed, his black sword in one hand and the other wrapped around Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. His hold was painless but inescapable, and Wei Wuxian could do nothing as his back was pushed to the dead man’s front and the sword placed against his throat.
“There you are,” came Xue Yang’s singing voice. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
He was the one who jumped into the shed next. The oversweet scent of him was still so cloying, almost like taste on Wei Wuxian’s tongue. It did not matter that Lan Jingyi had come to maturity; the fresh berryscent that clung to him was gone in a second, erased by the heavy smell of flowers.
Wei Wuxian wondered if he had smelled so strongly too when he was the one ravaged by guilt.
Song Lan’s hands tightened on him. The front of his body pushed against Wei Wuxian’s back as he marched him toward Xue Yang.
It did not matter that he was long dead, that he smelled of nothing except decay—Wei Wuxian had seen and heard him through A-Qing’s memories, had smelled the firesmoke on him as he did on the girl, and it seemed to him that those were different hands, that this was a different body, pushing him onto the grass until he tasted dirt in his mouth.
He did not realize that his movements had stopped, that his eyes had closed, until his nose once again stung from the smell of guihua flowers. Xue Yang was standing before him and putting the white sword to his neck, pushing Song Lan’s hands away so he could hold Wei Wuxian in place instead.
“I’ll take it from here,” he told the corpse in vicious hatred. “You go take care of the Ghost General now, mongrel.”
Song Lan had no consciousness or will to reply with. He simply obeyed his master’s orders and left. Although a sword held by Xue Yang was just as much of a threat against Mo Xuanyu’s frail neck, the hand on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder was almost bracing.
“What did you do with Wen Ning?” Wei Wuxian asked.
It was better than to focus on why, exactly, the touch of a murderer felt more comforting than that of a dead man’s.
“Wen Ning?” Jin Ling’s voice echoed behind them.
Wei Wuxian had forgotten all about the group of children inside the shed.
“Oh, we have quite the public here,” Xue Yang said, turning Wei Wuxian around with him to face the nine young disciples looking at them with wide eyes. “And from so many sects, too! I haven’t seen cultivators from Gusu in many years.”
“I know you,” Jin Ling said then, pointing at him with a finger. “You’re that Xue Yang that Little Uncle locked up! I thought you were dead.”
Xue Yang bowed deeply, theatrically, forcing Wei Wuxian down with him. Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes.
“A pleasure to see you again, young master Jin Ling,” Xue Yang said. His voice dripped with sarcasm. “You’ve grown a lot these past few years. Does dear Madam Jin still wet her bed at night in fear of me?”
Jin Ling turned as red as he did when he ate the congee; he opened his mouth to reply, but Wei Wuxian spoke over him.
“Jin Ling, you take them outside now,” he said.
“Young master Mo,” Lan Sizhui said, his bright eyes wide open with concern. “What about you?”
“Yes, what about you, Mo Xuanyu,” Xue Yang echoed mockingly. His hand patted Wei Wuxian’s shoulder in mimicry of friendliness. “Are all these children with you? I thought you hated children.”
Wei Wuxian ignored him in spite of the bright, bright worry which those words lit in him.
“Lan Sizhui,” he called through clenched teeth.
The boy’s body straightened, attentive. Wei Wuxian shoved away his dislike in order to ask what he must.
“You take those kids outside. Cover your mouths and noses and get out of this city.”
“Do as I say,” he cut off scaldingly. “Don’t make me regret counting on you.”
Those words did the trick, as Wei Wuxian thought they might. Lan Sizhui nodded in determination and grabbed onto Lan Jingyi’s arm, guiding the seven other youths outside the shed with him. Many threw glances at Xue Yang in fear, some even in disgust. Xue Yang simply watched them go, humming a little melody, his fingers digging deeply into Wei Wuxian’s shoulder.
At least the white sword had not been sharpened in a while. Its blunt edge rested over Wei Wuxian’s neck and risked nothing more than to bruise him unless Xue Yang chose to swing it with the strength of his back.
He had another sword on him, however: a short blade hung from his hip, the pommel of which sang with spiritual energy as it knocked into Wei Wuxian’s back.
“This is Xiao Xingchen’s sword,” he told Xue Yang once all the children were gone.
Lan Sizhui had been the last to disappear from the frame of the door in spite of Wei Wuxian’s orders. Wei Wuxian could still feel the hopelessness of his gaze before the wooden panel had closed between them.
“Yes,” Xue Yang said amiably. “I find it rather agreeable to me.”
“I couldn’t see that well through the girl’s memory. Did you kill him with it or with your own?”
Xue Yang was silent, now.
“There’s nothing I can do for you, Xue Yang,” Wei Wuxian said softly. “Xiao Xingchen died with no regrets or hopes. His soul is long gone to where you can’t reach him.”
“There are ways,” Xue Yang replied.
“None that he would approve of or find happiness with. If you tried to bring him back the way that Mo Xuanyu brought me back, that man would simply kill himself again. You know this.”
If the monk Xiao Xingchen, Baoshan Sanren’s disciple, A-Qing’s unfailing protector, was forced against his will to occupy the body of another… He was not like Wei Wuxian, for whom selfishness may as well be a second layer of skin. He was not like Xue Yang.
Xiao Xingchen had never had to feel that his life was half-lived. He had never been jailed, never been locked up as Xue Yang must have before the Jin sect leader abolished kunze houses.
“Did you spend a long time there?” Wei Wuxian asked.
He knew his voice was sorrowful; he knew, as well, that Xue Yang would understand his meaning.
The hand on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder tightened even more. The blade at his throat dug a little deeper into his skin. “Eighteen years,” Xue Yang replied.
Then he was a man already when the great sects elected to set him free. His whole childhood gone without feeling the sun on his skin, his teenage years behind him without the freedom to wade into water, a sibling’s hand in his.
“I always wondered,” Xue Yang said.
His words faltered. Wei Wuxian waited him out.
“We are not that far from Yiling. I know that you went far and wide, I know that you went all the way to Qishan to open the houses there. Why…”
It seemed it was Jiang Cheng’s voice he was hearing from far back in the past: You can’t free them all, Wei Wuxian.
“I knew your name even when I did not know anything,” Xue Yang said, his voice only a thin edge of anger. “I worshipped you, once I learned what you truly did. When I was living in Golden Carp Tower, when Jin Guangyao allowed me access to your writings and inventions, I thought I understood you. And Chang Cian—” his grip became painful, even the stub of his pinky finger bruising, “—had not the strength to stop the Yiling Patriarch even with his whole house behind him. So why did you never come for us?”
“I stopped after Jin Guangshan threatened me,” Wei Wuxian replied.
“You spat in his face.”
“I did.” That memory was as fond to him now as it had been then, seeing Jin Guangshan’s eyes widen with fury and his red cheeks catch light under a layer of saliva. “But the Burial Mounds already counted so many of us. I couldn’t risk their safety, not with the Jin clan and all its associates laying siege.”
Xue Yang took in his words, breathing hard against the side of Wei Wuxian’s neck. The smell of him was near nauseating, the way that people’s sometimes were in that village in the mountains, when grief awoke in them and made them unable to sleep.
Those days, Wen Qing had worked herself to the bone, preparing medicine until her own hands bled. Still she would lay them on Wei Wuxian’s arm when the stillness struck him; still she would assist him into the long hours of night, until he had a voice again to tell her to rest.
Wei Wuxian closed his eyes. In the end, he had been unable to protect her as well.
He let himself be led out of the house by Xue Yang. Not even the cool night air could rid Yi City of its odor of death, and this must be the reason he was so maudlin, he thought. This must be why thoughts of that village, of Wen Qing, flew around in his mind with every step he took. He did not miss anyone from his former life in the way he missed her.
“You’ll bring him back,” Xue Yang was muttering again, his brief bout of sanity gone just like dust on the wind. “You’ll bring him back.”
When they reached the front steps of the funeral home, he dropped Wei Wuxian with a cry.
Wei Wuxian was quick to make use of his sudden freedom and step away from Xue Yang. He found him bent in half and holding his head, blood dribbling in-between his fingers, fragments of what must have been a clay pot laid on the ground around him.
“A-Qing,” Xue Yang moaned, and never before had he said a name with such hatred.
The girl A-Qing stood above the little promontory that the home was built on. She had another clay pot in hand, which she threw at Xue Yang too. Her bloody face ran with tears.
Wei Wuxian had seen the moment Xue Yang had cursed her to be silent or suffer; he had seen through her the memories of roaming around the empty streets of Yi City, yelling at cultivators and common folk to get out, get out, get out.
There is a bad man here. He will kill you. Get out, run for your life.
“Why do you get in my way?” Xue Yang roared at her. His head still bled from the first hit, but he had managed to avoid the second pot easily. “Do you wish to join him so badly, girl? I can cut your tongue if you want, cut your eyes so you’re blind for real, you little liar.”
A-Qing’s bloody mouth opened. “You’re the liar,” she croaked at him, defying the spell in spite of just how much it hurt her.
Xue Yang was not holding Xiao Xingchen’s sword when he ran to her, but his own; and the edge of that blade was not blunted by neglect at all.
It would not have mattered anyway. No blade, blunted or not, could measure up to Bichen.
Lan Wangji dropped in from the sky as the girl cowered and fell. He was as silent as a shadow and as bright as sunlight, catching the edge of Xue Yang’s rust-colored blade with his own, an expanse of white against the black and grey of the city. Wei Wuxian breathed in for the first time in hours, sandalwood caught in his mouth and lungs and soothing the ache in his heart.
Xue Yang must have been a great swordsman, once. Even with grief having thinned his body and made his hands unsure, he held his own against Lan Wangji in a way Wei Wuxian had seldom seen. Not during his stay in the Cloud Recesses, and not during the Sunshot Campaign when he fought by the man’s side.
But Xue Yang faltered. His steps shook. His shoulder bent under one more parry, and Lan Wangji disarmed him completely by cutting off his whole hand.
He had already turned his back to his opponent by the time Xue Yang fell to the ground and cried in pain, holding the stump of his wrist with his right hand and shaking through his whole body. Wei Wuxian hurried up the steps of the funeral home to reach A-Qing’s side. The girl had fallen unconscious.
“Don’t kill him,” he told Lan Wangji, who was looking at him.
A-Qing had hit her head when she fell. Wei Wuxian laid her on her side to check the swollen gash through her dirty hair, but although it bled liberally in that way head wounds tended to, he felt nothing more than a bump under his fingers. She looked sickly, but he had not felt a fever on her during Empathy. He felt none now as he briefly touched her forehead again.
Another silhouette emerged from behind the funeral home; Wen Ning was back, looking none the worse for wear, dragging behind himself the dead body of Song Lan. It was not moving anymore.
Wei Wuxian rose to his feet again.
Xue Yang had stopped whimpering, though his face was bloodless, his gaze heavy and confused with the pain. Wei Wuxian saw Lan Wangji try and kneel by him to bandage his wound; he saw the fear which lit up Xue Yang’s face and made him push the qianyuan away bodily.
That fear was familiar. That fear was something Wei Wuxian could feel in his own throat, in his own heart.
“I’ll do it, Lan Zhan,” he said.
Lan Wangji looked at him in silence before offering him the cloth he was holding.
Xue Yang did not push Wei Wuxian away. He allowed him to sit on the ground and make a garrote out of the belt he was wearing so as to block the bleeding. He let Wei Wuxian wind the cloth around his cut-off wrist and tie it up tightly with nothing more than a hitch in his breaths. The white cloth pinkened immediately.
“The Seal,” Wei Wuxian murmured once he was certain that Xue Yang would not die of blood loss.
Xue Yang laughed weakly. “I fixed it for you,” he said. “Everything… I fixed it for you, Wei Wuxian. For when you would come back.”
“I know,” Wei Wuxian said.
Xue Yang’s right hand grabbed Wei Wuxian’s sleeve and left blood stains on the fabric. They shone red-on-black in the faint light of the moon. “So you have to help me,” Xue Yang murmured, fevered and lost. “I fixed it for you, so you have to help me, too.”
“I can’t bring Xiao Xingchen back.”
Wei Wuxian did not think Xue Yang had noticed the tears running down his own face. “Take it,” he was saying, grabbing from the pouch at his waist the two halves of the Stygian Tiger Seal. He pushed them into Wei Wuxian’s hand, shaking, closing Wei Wuxian’s own fingers around them so that he may be sure that he was holding them. “Take it, take it, I fixed it, so please, help m—”
An arrow stabbed into the ground right where their hands were linked; only Lan Wangji’s speed when he pulled the both of them apart prevented either of them from being hurt.
In his surprise, Wei Wuxian dropped one half of the Seal.
Another shadow had emerged on the steps up the funeral home. A silhouette in black devoid of any scent, wearing the same ghost mask that had appeared before them in Qinghe’s funeral site. They were quick on their feet, quick to avoid Bichen’s glare and throw themselves to the ground in order to pick up the half-Seal.
Wei Wuxian had no time at all to stop them. The silhouette made as if to lunge at him next and steal the other half from his hand; Lan Wangji was quicker this time, stepping in-between them with his sword held high, his face a mask of its own, showing nothing but steel.
The masked person burned a talisman and vanished.
Silence reigned over them for another second; then Xue Yang screamed and howled, his lone hand digging into the soil as he shook over the ground.
“No!” he yelled. It was the same despair he had used as he spoke to A-Qing, the same hopelessness in his voice multiplied a thousandfold. “Come back, give it back—”
“Xue Yang,” Wei Wuxian said.
It was his robes that Xue Yang was gripping now, forcing him to the ground again so that their eyes could meet, and Wei Wuxian saw nothing in the man’s other than terror. “I’ll make you another one,” Xue Yang begged, “even if it takes me another five years. I’ll make you another one, I’ll make a hundred, so you have to—”
The sound of his name finally seemed to get through him. He loosened his hold on Wei Wuxian’s robes and let his dirty hand fall to the cold path.
“It doesn’t matter if I have the Stygian Tiger Seal,” Wei Wuxian said. “Xiao Xingchen is gone. There is nothing you, or I, can do to bring him back to life.”
“But you could,” Xue Yang cried. “You’re the only one who could.”
If Wei Wuxian had met Xue Yang during those years of his youth, before the Lotus Pier had burned, perhaps he would have tried. He would have researched a way or given in to Xue Yang’s demand and made some poor soul call Xiao Xingchen back from the dead to condemn him to living.
He was not that child anymore, however. He knew better now than to attempt the impossible.
Wei Wuxian put a hand over Xue Yang’s shoulder. The man looked at him with his mouth open, with tear tracks leaving pale lines into the filth staining his face. He looked like a child; he looked like Wen Yueying did when Wei Wuxian lived with her, and she had exhausted herself crying for sweets that Wen Linfeng refused her.
“What do I do?” Xue Yang asked him.
Wei Wuxian had no doubt, then, that he would obey anything.
He looked at A-Qing lying prone a few feet from them. Lan Wangji was by her side and checking on her, making sure, no doubt, that she had not been hurt when the masked man attacked them. She looked unharmed aside from the blood on her lips and the lump at the back of her head.
“You move on,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Never,” Xue Yang replied instantly. And then again, as if to make sure the whole world would hear him: “Never.”
Wei Wuxian turned his eyes away. “Then simmer in misery until the day you die. You won’t find what you’re looking for even if you gain immortality.”
Xue Yang’s hand once more grabbed his sleeve. “Do not pity me,” he ordered. “Not you.”
“You are pitiful. It’s only natural.”
“I did not pity you when I learned about that child, Wei Wuxian.”
The blood in Wei Wuxian’s veins turned to ice.
There was a new light in Xue Yang’s eye, a new edge of cruelty. But he seemed satisfied to have Wei Wuxian look at him again, and he did not utter another word on the topic.
“Undo the curse on A-Qing,” Wei Wuxian said when he found his voice again. It felt to him as though an hour had passed in that heavy and cold silence. “She’s been hurt enough.”
“How that girl manages to charm every man she meets…”
“Just do it, Xue Yang.”
Xue Yang’s face was still slack with despair, still marked and bruised by the strength of his grief. Still, he lifted his only hand, shaking, and split the air twice with his fingers until the snapping sound of cursebreak echoed.
Behind them, A-Qing let out a sigh. She was still asleep, Lan Wangji kneeling next to her.
“You’ll be the one to curse her when she talks your ears off,” Xue Yang muttered with no heat.
He did not move from his spot on the ground when Wei Wuxian stood up. The weight of the half-Seal in his hand was familiar and painful; Wei Wuxian put it into the belt looped around his waist and tried to ignore the slithering and murmuring of a thousand souls.
“You wanted to know what to do with your life,” he said.
Xue Yang looked up at him, empty-eyed.
“You can’t have Xiao Xingchen back,” Wei Wuxian told him. Even through that much stupor and weakness, Xue Yang’s face found the strength to tense with misery at the sound of the man’s name. “But there are things he left behind. Things you could take care of to honor his memory.”
“Nothing,” Xue Yang replied, “is worth as much as he is.”
“He did not think that way. Not about you, and not about her.”
Wei Wuxian had never met Xiao Xingchen who was his sect-uncle. He had never met the monk Xiao Xingchen who roamed the lands with Song Lan in charity. He had only glimpsed him through the memories of a teenage girl, leaving candy on her bedsheets to wake up to, kissing Xue Yang by a dying fire as she spied in envy. He knew, however, that Xiao Xingchen had not once thought himself more important than the little girl in his care or the bitter enemy he picked up from the side of a road and fell in love with.
“You look after her,” Wei Wuxian told the shattered man at his feet whose sorry fate had been fabricated by his own hands. “You do not hurt her again. You make sure she survives and finds safety, and perhaps Xiao Xingchen will forgive you in another life.”
For a second, Xue Yang said nothing. Then he chuckled and laughed, and his laughter sounded like sobs.
You’re one to talk, Wei Wuxian, he must be thinking. This is some order, coming from you.
But his laughing and crying were too loud for words, and so Wei Wuxian had only the voices in his head to tell him to feel shame.
Silence settled over the dead city. No wind rose to wash the air of its putridity, and no pine creaked from the forest near them where Wen Ning had fought. He was still standing there at their periphery, Song Lan’s corpse by his feet, his unblinking eyes fixed onto his master. It did not look as though he had fully awoken yet from whatever spell had undone Wei Wuxian’s work.
Only Lan Wangji moved within all that silence; only Lan Wangji stood by Wei Wuxian’s side and touched his bleeding hand.
Wen Ning buried Song Lan in the ill-tended garden behind the funeral home. He buried Xiao Xingchen, too, once Xue Yang showed no sign of stopping him from taking his body. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian stayed until A-Qing woke up and told her that the curse had been lifted from her. They showed her to the place where her mentor was laid to rest. She did not cry when she bowed above his freshly-dug grave. She left for a few minutes and then came back with wild flowers in hand; she spread them over the wet dirt so that life would grow there, and she fled from them all with one last glare Xue Yang’s way.
Xue Yang did not move until she had gone away. He rose when her footsteps stopped echoing and vanished into the dark trees that bordered the garden, holding the stump of his wrist to his chest, Xieo Xingchen’s white sword clutched into his one remaining hand.
“How did you find us?” Wei Wuxian asked Lan Wangji once they had gone back to the inn.
The rest of the night felt like a dream. The tomb where the spirit of the saber rested, telling them the name of the corpse which they had carried all this way. Wei Wuxian could hardly even wonder at it.
How odd, to think that only hours ago he had eaten dinner and been talked at by a rueful qianyuan woman. To think that he had shared wine with Xue Yang and not known, or felt, all that he did now.
Shame was dug into him like a knife. It pulled at his belly like the aches of fever, like Lan Wangji’s overwhelming presence had in the Xuanwu cave, when he had kneeled on his injured leg and faced a wall for days.
Wei Wuxian was seated at the small tea table in the room Lan Wangji had bought for the night. Lan Wangji himself had made tea and set it before him. He answered as he took place on the table’s other side: “I met Sizhui at the entrance of Yi City. He told me what happened.”
“Had you been looking for me for a long time already?”
Lan Wangji did not answer, but Wei Wuxian saw the way that his mouth tensed, the way that his tired eyes moved.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “For worrying you.”
“You are free to go as you wish.”
Wei Wuxian laughed dryly. He took his cup of tea in hand, too exhausted to even fetch the scent-masking paste from the pouch at his waist, though he should. Only hours ago, he had called Lan Jingyi foolish for not using it.
It seemed his hypocrisy knew no boundaries tonight.
“Lan Sizhui is quite the young cultivator,” he muttered, looking at the green tea in the white cup, the dregs of which floated every way the water rolled. “Smart and responsible. I’m sure you must approve of him greatly.”
He could not hide the bitterness in his voice. Lan Wangji said nothing.
No. He would not think of Lan Sizhui’s declaration, not now. “Although, I find I enjoy Lan Jingyi’s company more,” Wei Wuxian went on.
“He is like you.”
“Obviously,” Wei Wuxian chuckled.
But Lan Wangji shook his head. “No,” he said, oddly serious. “He is like you in spirit.”
Bright and funny Lan Jingyi, with his archer’s calluses, with his sweet berryscent. Lan Jingyi who could plaster his body to his zhongyong friend’s to peer at ghosts through a hole in the wall, who could walk without shame after his maturity had come, who could touch Lan Sizhui and be touched by him with no fear.
If Lan Wangji thought Wei Wuxian was ever as bright as this boy, then he held him in too much esteem. Then he was blinded and foolish and needed to be told the truth.
“There was,” Wei Wuxian breathed.
His throat locked up. Words caged within his mouth felt like sharp little blades, and Wei Wuxian thought he would taste blood soon, feel his tongue cut and his lips bleed like A-Qing’s had under the muting curse.
“There was a child,” he forced out. The cup shook within his hold, spilling tea over the tabletop, and were it not for Lan Wangji’s fingers taking hold of his wrist, Wei Wuxian would have dropped it.
He struggled to exhale. He bent the head over the table, shaking through the body, and said at last: “There was a child in Yiling.”
Lan Wangji’s hand wrapped around his and held it tightly.
Wei Wuxian wept as he had not even when Jiang Yanli held him and cried with him. It felt like waves spilling overshore, like a river flooding the land around from the rain and causing landslides. Each hiccuping breath he forced in was followed by more tears, wetting his face, wetting his clothes. He rubbed the sleeve of his free hand so many times over his eyes that it grew drenched, and salt dried over his lips to the point of cutting pain. He shook with the strength of his sobs. His hand became clammy within Lan Wangji’s grasp, slippery. Lan Wangji never let go.
And shame, shame swelled through him like a saturated lake, rendering his blood to water, to tears. Shame and anger such that he had not felt since Wen Qing had torn the golden core out of him.
“Don’t look at me, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian begged in-between two heaving sobs.
In the Xuanwu’s cave, on the mountain path where Jiang Cheng had stabbed him, amidst the golden rocks where Jin Zixuan had died, Wei Wuxian’s name on his lips… Wei Wuxian could think of nothing worse than to be seen. Than to be watched and known.
“I won’t,” Lan Wangji replied.
His fingers stroked Wei Wuxian’s, wetted themselves with the tea spilled over them. They felt to Wei Wuxian like the only source of warmth in the world.