Warnings: gore, murder, abuse.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
The call for his name came like just another whisper over rocks and water.
Lan Wangji did not turn yet to face his brother. He had missed him in the months since he had left the Cloud Recesses, and yearned greatly to meet with him and speak with him, but he was in the middle of another conversation. One that required far more than simply the focus to open his mouth and breathe.
The blue-white spirits before him swayed upon a breeze he could not feel at all. The air was hot and dry even at night, now, and especially this close to the Nightless City. The sun shone until the very late hours of day, burning the skin of the men and women who slept beneath tents downriver. Lan Wangji brushed with his fingertips the tired strings of his guqin, asking again and again the same questions, facing over and over the same answers.
Is the man called Wei Ying among you?
Do you know where he is?
On a rare strip of grass hidden in the shadow of a pine tree, the Yunmengjiang spiritual bell glinted.
Wangji pocketed it after the breath had come back to him. He stayed for a moment longer seated under the tree, his boots and clothes covered in the pale dust that rose with every step taken around here. He waited till the fear in him had abated, mellowed by the knowledge that no, Wei Wuxian was not dead. Not for another day.
“Brother,” Lan Wangji said at last. His heart beat slowly and hotly through him, carrying in the stuffy air of the dry mountains around. Only the proximity to the river and Lan Xichen’s frosty scent made it so his throat was not parched for water.
Lan Xichen smiled at him kindly when Wangji looked up. Sensing, perhaps, that Wangji was in no state to move just yet, he sat by his side in the dust and dirt and stained his own clan robes.
Lan Wangji had no words to describe the gratitude he felt; no words to explain why he felt once more six and not nearly-twenty, his brother holding him and telling him that although mother was gone, he would always be there.
“I have missed you,” Lan Xichen told him, echoing the ache in Wangji’s chest. He rested a hand next to Wangji’s over the strings of the guqin. “I had to look for a while to find you.”
“I needed quiet,” Lan Wangji replied.
Lan Xichen nodded. He must understand, if he had walked through the rows of tents down the side of the mountain, and heard the cries of the wounded and the drunken yells of the unharmed.
“You played Inquiry,” he said softly.
Lan Wangji’s hands tensed and then relaxed.
“Who are you hoping to find?”
“Your health,” Lan Wangji said.
It came awkwardly and tensely, and Lan Xichen must have immediately recognized the diversion for what it was, but he smiled. “I am fine,” he told Lan Wangji. “As you know from my letters. I met with sect leader Nie when I reached the mountain, and he explained to me his plans for the next few days.”
“In the Nightless City…”
“You are curious as well, and I understand, but I will have to keep this secret a while longer.” Lan Xichen never was happy to keep secrets from Lan Wangji; he smiled at him with sorrow in his eyes, even as he said, “I hope you will forgive me. The life of that person is at stake.”
Lan Wangji looked away. “There is nothing to forgive.”
Around them, the few bare-branched trees shivered in unseen wind. Little nightly creatures crept and crawled out of their hiding holes, heedless of the war being waged over their land. A spider ran up the length of Lan Xichen’s leg; he picked it up with the tip of a finger and set it atop a grey rock.
“I came with Jiang Wanyin of Yunmeng,” he said.
Lan Wangji did not answer.
“He told me that young master Wei has been missing. It seems young master Jin Zixuan, too, is looking for him wherever he can.”
“He is alive,” Wangji said.
Lan Xichen’s eyes were bright, so much brighter than Wangji’s ever were. “Wangji,” he said once more. “I do not doubt your ability to question the dead. I simply wonder if you are not exhausting yourself.”
“I have to…”
Lan Wangji could not finish this reply with any word he knew, but it mattered very little. Xichen had never needed his words to understand him.
“If he is not dead now, after months, then it is unlikely to change within a few hours,” he asserted. “Young master Wei is strong. You know this.”
Wangji nodded quickly. He knew Wei Wuxian’s strength well—he had seen him equal him in combat, seen him best his brother in archery, seen him hold the handle of a cursed sword through the leathery jaw of a monster. And if not those occurrences of physical prowess, then others; his cleverness and his talent for art and words, his bravery in the face of hostility. His unwavering smiles.
Still, a cold panic shook his heart every time he remembered that clearing in Yiling. The dented bell of Yunmengjiang, the cut bark of a tree. Dry blood on the petals of a little blue flower.
He had to find Wei Wuxian. He must find him by any means necessary.
Lan Xichen stood up once more and offered to help Lan Wangji to his feet. Wangji refused; he wrapped his guqin in grey cloth and pushed himself up on his own, blinking quickly so that his eyes would be rid of grey spots. Together they trekked down the dusty path that led to the wide encampment, silent but for the sound of their footsteps, the silver hanging from Lan Wangji’s belt chiming every second.
They found the encampment very much awake despite the late hour. More of the men were drinking in the qianyuan barracks, joined by several zhongyong who had no care for boundaries. Lan Wangji saw his brother frown at the lack of order. He wondered how long it had been since he himself cared about such a thing as status.
The sicksweet smell of honey laid over the stench of a beast’s dead body— “Don’t look at me.”
“Lan Wangji,” said Jiang Wanyin as soon as Wangji reached the biggest of all the tents, where Nie Mingjue and his half-brother slept and held councils of war.
He looked less gaunt now than the last time Lan Wangji had seen him—emaciated, limping through the hills of Yiling, attacking him blindly in rage, so weak that he could barely hold his sword. Lan Wangji had thought then that Jiang Wanyin looked almost like one of the younger disciples of his clan, that his haphazard spiritual energy resembled that of teenage boys and girls learning to handle the sword. He had regained muscle and weight since then; his wide and solemn face once more full and suntanned, his shoulders high, his hand atop a borrowed sword.
His fingers twitched and refused to settle, sometimes stroking the iron pommel, sometimes fitting quite awkwardly around it. Lan Wangji understood. He missed Bichen as well.
Jiang Wanyin stepped toward him, his face eager and not hostile, and he said: “Have you found him—”
“Xichen,” interrupted Nie Mingjue’s loud voice. “There you are at last.”
The Nie sect leader rose from his chair in a full set of armor, bloody and sweaty still from the labor of the day. Next to him, his brother Huaisang cowered, his fine clothes untouched but for a line of dust at their hem.
Lan Wangji made way for Nie Mingjue and his brother to join, stepping away so that the sound of their conversation would not be so loud to his ears. He eyed Nie Huaisang for a moment longer, wondering vaguely at the boy’s honor and courage, to sit away from the battlefield each day—wondering vaguely that he did not think much of it at all.
Even the sect rules engraved into the mountainside seemed so far away to him now.
“Lan Wangji,” Jiang Wanyin said again. This time, he stood directly before Wangji, the intent obvious on his face even if Lan Wangji had not had his name called. “Did you find him? Did you find Wei Wuxian?”
“No,” Lan Wangji replied tiredly.
Just as the drowsy spirits said, day after day, no matter the hour or place: No.
“He is not dead,” he told Jiang Wanyin, seeing the man’s face fall.
Jiang Wanyin shook himself at his words. His severe brow furrowed again. Lan Wangji noticed, at last, how much older he seemed now than when they were both classmates. “Then where is he? I have searched through so many towns between Yiling and Qinghe…”
Lan Wangji shook his head and whispered, “I do not know.”
“Jin Zixuan searched through the Lanling region as well, to no avail. Though,” Jiang Cheng’s teeth clenched visibly as he spat, “perhaps he wasn’t as enthusiastic about the job as sister made him out to be.”
Lan Wangji doubted that Jiang Yanli had to spend much effort convincing Jin Zixuan to look for Wei Wuxian. He did not say as much to Jiang Wanyin, however, who must have never noticed the way the Jin heir looked at his sect-brother.
“You’ll need to keep inquiring the dead,” Jiang Wanyin said as they walked side by side out of the night-blue tent. “We need to know that he’s…”
Lan Wangji nodded without a word. He looked at the disorderly qianyuan and zhongyong celebrating the day’s victory in front of Nie Mingjue’s quarters. He looked at the shadows between the still tents of the wounded. Nie Huaisang was headed there now, a wide bowl of steaming water held in his hands, perhaps to pretend to help as he could not on the field.
Wei Wuxian would have never shied away from it all. Not the fighting, not the wounded.
Shoot the sun, the inebriated ones sang now as he walked with Jiang Wanyin. Shoot the sun, eclipse it whole.
“They’ll be too tired to fight if they go on,” Jiang Wanyin muttered in simmering rage, all of his nervous energy focused on the loudest of the groups. “Do they not realize?”
The grief was so fresh and tangible on him, still.
Lan Wangji made no move to separate from him. For all that Jiang Wanyin had attacked him the last time they met, and for all his promises of revenge the time before that—as they both watched Jiang Fengmian carry a fevered Wei Wuxian away—he exuded no hostility now. He seemed to have regained most of the mastery he had over his own spirit when he studied in Gusu. There was no sign now of the awkward, almost childlike way he had directed it unto Wangji in Yiling.
Night had fallen quick and severe over the dusty mountains, and warmth had gone with it. Lan Wangji felt goosebumps prick the skin of his arms and neck when the air moved about him. Jiang Wanyin tightened the travel cloak he wore around himself, his eyes wild and grieved, his steps only adamant in order to mask his fear. The smell of landslides followed behind him.
No, Lan Wangji did not separate from him. He felt close to understanding why Jiang Wanyin, who had lost more than anyone else here to the Qishanwen sect, would not want to be alone now. Not even to avoid the company of a man he distrusted.
For weeks after that night, Lan Wangji heard no whisper and no echo of Wei Wuxian’s whereabouts.
He had no time to search either. The days he did not spend trying fiercely to make the Wen sect troops fall back, he spent instead caring for the wounded alongside his brother. Every night as sunlight washed away, he sat within walking distance of the encampments they built and called upon the dead. Their answers never changed.
Jiang Wanyin sat by his side and fidgeted, his somber face fraught with fear.
They met with the troops from Lanling at the border of Qishan. It took three weeks to make Wen Ruohan’s forces fall this far back, and three days more to secure enough of a space to sleep without fear of being annihilated. Jin Zixuan flew in one day followed by hundreds of gold-clad youths, looking as tired as Lan Wangji felt, his own borrowed sword stained brown at the pommel.
Jiang Yanli came with him. She and her brother held each other as soon as she dismounted; her shoulders shook within his arms, and her smile was watery. Exhausted. She looked as if worry were eating her alive.
Jin Zixuan took Lan Wangji aside that night as he prepared to walk to the nearest stream. He had wiped the dust from his face and changed into cleaner clothes, and Lan Wangji thought, looking at him, that he was very different now from the arrogant child who had once perturbed the silence of the Cloud Recesses with his provoking. With his provoking Wei Wuxian.
“Jiang Wanyin told me what you were doing to find him,” he said without preamble.
There was a little pink scar above his left temple. Lan Wangji looked at it instead of meeting his eyes. “Wei Ying is not among the dead,” he replied.
“How can you be sure? How can they know him?”
Lan Wangji took the silver bell out of its perpetual spot within his belt. “His sect’s bell,” he said, “is enough of an identifier.”
Jiang Wanyin had not tried to take the bell from him when Lan Wangji had shown it to him in Yiling, nor any time after that while he watched his Inquiries, but Jin Zixuan knew no such restraint. He plucked it from Lan Wangji’s hand—tugged it out of his hold, when Wangji’s fingers tightened around it—and brought it up so that moonlight shone upon it.
It was not anything special, only a dime-a-dozen bell carved with lotus flowers, the very same as the one hanging from Jiang Wanyin and his sister’s hips. The enchantment on it was only meant to keep one’s spirit calm. Jin Zixuan stroked it with his thumb as if it were a gemstone, however. He held it close to his face.
Lan Wangji realized what it was he was looking for when he saw his nostrils shiver slightly.
His neck heated, his hands tensed, his heart beat at the roof of his mouth. He knew why watching Jin Zixuan chase for a scent like this made him feel as if his blood were boiling; for a second, the haze of the past few months vanished and left him tangibly, physically here, the way it had when he had first set foot into the kunze house up the mountain and seen the little girl’s dead body.
Wei Wuxian had asked not to be seen in the cave of the Xuanwu of Slaughter. And Wangji knew that if it were at all possible, he would have asked not to be known in any way at all, not to be breathed in or heard. Wangji would have done it, too, would have stopped breathing entirely if that was what it took to appease the terror in Wei Wuxian’s voice.
He grabbed the bell from Jin Zixuan’s hand forcefully. The nail of one of his fingers left behind a very faint scratch on the man’s skin, and Lan Wangji did not look at it, did not look at him, as he pocketed it again.
“I will play Inquiry again,” he said, ignoring the breath of surprise which Jin Zixuan directed at him.
“I’ll come with—”
“I need to be alone for it. Excuse me.”
Lying was forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, but they were very far from Gusu.
Jiang Wanyin did not join him that night, no doubt to find the time to speak with Jiang Yanli of all that had happened. Lan Wangji trekked up the mountain until his robes were covered in dust to the knees. He sat upon the dirt and unwound the cloth wrapped around his guqin.
The dead were not more forthcoming that night than any previous. The white-blue spirits were fewer to answer his call as well, either for how shaken Wangji felt, or because they had grown tired of his questions.
They replied, No.
Every and each day until three months had gone by since Wei Wuxian vanished.
Every day was not a victory. They were four sects against one, but Qishanwen had not built its power on ashes; the number of smaller sects it had annexed was consequent, and the troops it could gather even more so. Some days, they were forced to recede like the tide. Others, they crossed through land and mountains, chasing away the specters of white-and-red robes, of scarlet sun motifs.
Wen Ruohan and his sons never showed themselves directly. Lan Wangji had heard that Wen Xu was injured during a skirmish against Jin Zixuan and fled the battlefield, no doubt to return by his father’s side. Wen Chao commandeered the army laid around the region in groups of a few dozen cultivators. His exact whereabouts were unknown.
Three months after Wei Wuxian had vanished, Lan Wangji followed a group of soldiers led by Jiang Wanyin away from the direct road to the Nightless City. The idea had come from Jiang Wanyin himself, who had expressed in no few words just how dearly he wished to be the one to end Wen Chao. As he had somehow managed to build a group of three hundred people into somewhat fighting shape, despite his sect grounds having burned, he had garnered a lot of respect from the elders advising Nie Mingjue. Nie Mingjue had allowed it.
When Lan Wangji asked Lan Xichen if he could follow, he was allowed as well.
They could not fly over the wooded lands at the border of Yiling; it would be too easy for a scout to see them, and anyway Jiang Wanyin’s sword Sandu was gone just like Bichen was. They rode on horses for days nonetheless, camping beneath trees and drinking out of icy rivers. They followed the traces of a group thought to be led by Wen Chao until they reached the ruins of a fortress.
“We’ll set up camp here for a while,” Jiang Wanyin declared.
His weary soldiers acquiesced, barely standing on their feet. They were set to work immediately on fetching water and hunting for food.
Lan Wangji climbed to the top of a watchtower and played Inquiry.
In the days that followed, strange things occurred everywhere they went.
They tracked down several small encampments of Wen sect cultivators, according to the locations given to them by Lan Xichen’s mysterious spy in the Nightless City. But those encampments were empty. The abandoned houses in the villages creaked and groaned when they opened the doors, the talismans stuck to their walls stained with blood and devoid of spiritual energy. On the Wen army’s camping sites proper, they found no living souls, even when food and other necessities had been left behind. The men rejoiced in finding such provisions that they would not have to hunt for later, as well as arrows and bows and medicine. They spoke of good omens from the gods, of fate turning around itself.
After the sixth day, living corpses started showing up on the roads.
They were not the corpses which Lan Wangji had learned to pacify in his uncle Qiren’s classes. Neither were they the fierce corpses of legend, those who sometimes attacked places that tragedy had struck. No, they were most like living people whose soul had been stolen: they stood silent and still by the side of roads and forest paths, their empty eyes staring fixedly at the ground. Some of them were stained with fresh blood.
Jiang Wanyin ordered them to be purified and buried, but the men did not look so hopeful now. Several nearly refused after another day had gone and no less than twenty bodies were found on the way. They drew talismans with their eyes closed in fear, dug graves in a hurry, ran away from the burial sites with prayers on their lips.
Still, not a single living Wen sect soldier had appeared.
Jiang Wanyin grew restless. He spent his evenings in the abandoned fortress pouring over maps in silence, his wide back bowed upon broken tables and chairs, and let the most apt of his recruits teach the others the arts of war. Lan Wangji did not offer to help them. He climbed to the watchtower alone, asking the dead the same question, receiving the same answer. Jiang Wanyin did not ask him anymore what they had to say.
They reached a wider town on the seventh day, and found its streets littered with dead bodies wearing the uniform of Qishanwen.
“What happened here?” Jiang Wanyin asked, struck dumb with surprise as he dismounted his horse.
But there was no answer to give him. The soldiers around him wore the same surprise and worry on their faces, watching the wide street before them, the corpses laid onto the muddy ground. Torn Qishanwen flags were floating in the morning breeze.
Lan Wangji stepped down from his grey horse. The animal huffed, drawing back, tugging on the reins now held by a young man wearing Yunmeng’s purple robes. Fear permeated the air so tangibly that Wangji felt as if he could smell it too.
He approached the nearest dead body slowly. It belonged to a woman who had fallen face-first to the ground and who, outside of bloody trails under her broken fingernails, showed no outward sign of injury. When Wangji pulled her to her back, he saw that blood had also poured out of her eyes and ears.
“What is this,” breathed Jiang Wanyin, who had joined his side.
All the corpses they found in the empty city were the same. Some had bled out of their eyes, others from their mouths or noses. None showed a single other injury, except from broken fingernails and scratches acquired in defense.
On one such body, Lan Wangji picked up the same talisman they had all seen in previous towns and enemy camps: a thin piece of yellow paper wearing spirit-repulsion signs, stained in blood all over.
No, he thought, examining it more closely. They were not stained; they were written in blood.
The discovery left him colder and number than the rain did as they journeyed back to their stronghold.
He did not think anyone else had picked up on the altered talismans. He did not think they would be so worried about a hundred dead Wen soldiers if they had. Writing talismans in blood like this was an old and outlawed practice, something master Qiren would have considered heretic. Wangji could remember him now, speaking of long-gone ancestors who had lost their souls to forbidden arts: such practices harm the body and soul, harm the temperament more. They bring malice with them.
That night, Lan Wangji did not climb up the watchtower. He stepped behind Jiang Wanyin into the study he occupied to sleep in and closed the door behind them.
“Second master Lan,” Jiang Wanyin said coldly. “Did you have something to ask me?”
Lan Wangji looked at him in the trembling candlelight.
Whatever measure of confidence he had regained since his family was murdered was gone once more. Jiang Wanyin had lost weight in the last weeks of trekking; his thin face was shadowed, bruised with lack of rest. His high-cheeked face had once been the source of a few murmurs of admiration, Wangji knew, yet now he looked again as if his skin were ready to split open on his bones.
He was not as emaciated or lost as he had been in Yiling, but he was not far from it either. His control over his spiritual energy seemed to have lessened as well: oftentimes his hand shook over the iron pommel of his sword, but this was not Sandu. This could not help him master it.
Lan Wangji took the talisman out of his sleeve. It felt cold and grimy against his fingers, though he knew this to be the fruit of his imagination. “These were strung in each of the encampments we found,” he told Jiang Wanyin.
“What do spirit-repelling talismans have to…”
But Jiang Wanyin halted his words, and Wangji knew that he was noticing the odd design on the paper. He took it from him silently.
A moment of silence passed as he examined the talisman. His face grew paler than before, nearly bloodless in the shifting light of the fire.
“What is this?” he murmured at last. He turned the talisman over and over. “What am I looking at?”
“I do not know,” Wangji replied.
“You have an idea, or you wouldn’t have shown it to me.”
Wangji tensed. Jiang Wanyin had no accusation on his voice as he said those words, but they were true. Wangji was not used to being understood by someone who was not his brother so easily.
By someone who was not his brother or Wei Wuxian.
“The writings,” he said slowly, “were drawn with blood. I have not tested it, but I believe this talisman is made to attract spirits, not repel them.”
“But why would anyone…”
He did not finish his sentence this time either. Lan Wangji saw light glint in his dark eyes as his face turned to one of understanding.
“This is what has been killing the Wen sect before we could even arrive,” he said. His hand tightened around the stained talisman until the paper creased loudly. “Someone has been helping us all along.”
Lan Wangji frowned.
“Helping,” he repeated.
“Of course,” Jiang Wanyin scoffed. The look he gave to Wangji then showed him so sure of himself, so enthused by the possibility of a new ally this far into the war, when the fighting stagnated and exhausted everyone.
“Those practices are evil. They seek to hurt and curse, not cultivate. Whoever is doing this is not someone we should associate with.”
“We can’t be difficult,” Jiang Wanyin replied, “not when Wen Ruohan is still hundreds strong within his mountain peak, and our men have gone without proper rest for over two months. If someone is willing to help us kill those dogs—whether it be by blood sacrifice or demonic cultivation, I’ll accept them. I’ll welcome them with open arms.”
The glee on his face was tinged with grief, with vicious hatred. There was nothing Lan Wangji could say to make him see reason.
He thought of the little silver bell ever-hidden in his belt sash, of how he had reacted when Jin Zixuan had taken it and made to look on it for a trace of honeyscent. How could he claim a moral high ground now?
He did not play Inquiry that night. He sat in a corner of the wide hall where qianyuan men and women in Yunmeng colors slept. None of them drank and sang, now, to shoot down and eclipse the sun whole.
He slept fitfully, the dead left unasked for once, his fingers still grimy with the touch of that cursed talisman.
They found Wei Wuxian the following night.
A messenger came on swordback, exhausted and hungry, from a subset of Jin clan affiliates roaming the other end of those mountains. He told Jiang Wanyin in-between mouthfuls of roasted bird that Wen Chao had been found; that he and his group of cultivators had been made to flee by the Jin clan affiliates, that they had last been seen only a few miles east of where Jiang Wanyin was holding fort.
“Only about thirty of them, all of them injured and terrified. We saw living corpses standing by the roads—”
Lan Wangji looked at him then, the coldness in his chest spreading once more, but Jiang Wanyin was faster and louder than he could ever be. He questioned the messenger about the state of Wen Chao’s horses and men, about the weapons they had. He had no interest in the grey-skinned corpses they had all seen for days, standing emptily between trees, circled around by frightened animals.
It was not a half-hour later that all of them left the fortress except for a group of a dozen people. Jiang Wanyin rode fast with his back to the setting sun, barely leaving enough time for his soldiers to follow. Lan Wangji knew that if he could have flown there on his own, he would have.
They arrived with the night in one of the villages they had already explored. It was not empty now, however; dozens of corpses lay over the upturned ground and bled out of every orifice.
“Where is he,” Jiang Wanyin muttered, walking between bodies, kicking open doors and ransacking empty houses. His voice grew louder, full of rage, every time he was unsuccessful in his search. “Where is he!?” he bellowed. “Where is Wen Chao!?”
“Sect leader Jiang,” a woman called after a while. “One of them is still alive!”
Jiang Wanyin ran to her without thought, pushing aside a boy not much younger than he was so that he could reach her faster. Lan Wangji followed, and caught the boy’s elbow with his hand so that he would not fall.
“Thank you,” the boy said to him helplessly.
Lan Wangji dropped his hand and did not look at him. He would not find the smile he wanted to see on his face.
The only Wen sect man still breathing in the village must be tall and gnarly when he stood to his full height, perhaps even intimidating. His traits were fierce and battle-honed. He was no such thing now, however: he sat curled up on the floor, bleeding from his ears and mouth, and terror had made his skin white and thin as paper.
“Demon,” he croaked in a broken voice, balancing back and forth on his behind. “Demon, oh, demon, demon, demon…”
“Where is your leader?” Jiang Wanyin barked at him, grabbing him by the collar of his cream-colored robes. Blood had leaked onto the sun shape embroidered there and made the design drool. “Where is Wen Chao?”
“I’m going to die,” the man moaned.
His eyes were wild. He was staring at Jiang Wanyin as if he couldn’t see him at all, and all of his body shook.
“The demon came and killed everyone, he’ll kill me too!”
“Sir,” a weary man said, joining them in a hurry. Jiang Wanyin stared at him with madness in his eyes; the he went on haltingly, “Sir, we found tracks leading into the forest. Two people fled no more than an hour ago.”
Jiang Wanyin dropped the Wen sect man, who went back to his crazed muttering. “Lan Wangji,” he said blankly. “Fly with me.”
Lan Wangji had no desire to touch Jiang Wanyin now, but he unsheathed his own sword all the same.
They flew into the cold night hair, Lan Wangji on his sword and securing Jiang Wanyin’s shaking hold on the training sword he held. He stumbled many times over the lackluster blade, which was absent the bright glare that Lan Wangji remembered seeing on Sandu, when they hunted water ghouls together in Caiyi Town. Jiang Wanyin only tightened his hold on Lan Wangji. He stubbornly refused to fall.
They followed the near-invisible footsteps deep into the forest. They touched ground when those tracks disappeared at the edge of a small clearing, where a thin stream ran between moss-covered rocks and licked at the grass and dirt. There was blood near a dip in the stone. Someone must have sat there recently.
Then a cry came from within the woods, and a dark silhouette jumped at Lan Wangji.
He would have recognized him even in complete darkness; even if Jiang Wanyin had not said, “Wen Zhuliu,” with so much hatred in his voice that the air seemed to freeze around him.
Wen Zhuliu did not seem to care that he had been recognized. He took his bronze sword in hand and attacked Lan Wangji, and if his eyes seemed wide and afraid, if his countenance was shaky from whatever it was he had seen earlier, his attacks were no less fierce.
He heard Jiang Wanyin scream Wen Chao’s name. He saw from the corner of his eyes that another figure stood in the shadow of trees, one much less brilliant at swordplay than Wen Zhuliu was. But Wen Chao looked healthy despite the terror writ on his ashen face, and he held his own against Jiang Wanyin, who was tired from the war, drained by grief and worry.
Lan Wangji evaded the hit that Wen Zhuliu would have marked upon his shoulder with his gold-lit hand. He remembered the sight of him attacking a young man in Qishan—the sight of Wei Wuxian rushing to the victim and saying his golden core was gone.
“Core-Melting Hand,” he whispered.
“Let my master go,” Wen Zhuliu replied, “and I will not use it on you.”
But he was distracted, too. Lan Wangji saw him look in stupor at Jiang Wanyin, who attacked his master with so much rage and heartbreak; he saw in his body the wish to flee to his master’s side, the panic which only the realization of having made a grave mistake could bring.
Lan Wangji stepped within touching distance of him when his footwork faltered, and stabbed him through the shoulder with one decisive thrust of his sword.
“Master,” Wen Zhuliu gasped as he fell to the floor.
For good measure, Lan Wangji stepped on his leg and broke it.
Wen Chao’s face was bloodless in the moonlight. Jiang Wanyin had cornered him against the bark of a wide tree, and the man looked at him as if he were seeing a ghost. “You,” Wen Chao was panting, blood spilling out of cuts on his cheek, on his shoulders and arms. “You, it’s impossible—”
“I’ll kill you,” Jiang Wanyin roared; “I’ll kill you for what you did to my family.”
And he raised the training sword high, the blood on it gleaming sharply.
Lan Wangji was almost too late to prevent it. He thrusted his sword in the direction of their fight, infusing it with power so that the blade could fly alone and intercept the fatal strike which Jiang Wanyin was to deliver. It was an old sword from his clan, a blade which had once belonged to his ancestor Lan Yi, and which agreed to him almost like his own would. Metal struck metal in a high and pristine sound and made the air around them shake.
Wen Chao and Jiang Wanyin looked at him in unison, both of their faces rendered white by the light of Lan Yi’s sword. Wen Chao looked half-dead with fear already. Jiang Wanyin, however, was lively with hatred.
“Lan Wangji,” he growled.
He sounded like a wounded animal. Like a wild wolf or bear, bleeding and feral, ready to attack impartially.
“We need him alive for questioning,” Lan Wangji said calmly.
He did not feel calm at all.
Still, he did not relent. He approached with slow steps, his sword still blocking the unnamed blade that Jiang Wanyin held like an executor’s axe. He watched reason inch its way over the Jiang sect leader’s face until his eyes blinked quickly.
“Questioning,” he said haltingly.
He seemed to have suddenly learned how to breathe again. His arm lowered, his mouth opened; his shoulders rose under the limp line of a uniform worn for too long.
He turned to Wen Chao and asked, “Where is Wei Wuxian?”
Wen Chao had looked between the two of them in half-hearted hope since Wangji had saved his life. At those words, fear washed over him bodily, making him cringe against the tree and look around wildly.
“He’s dead,” he muttered quickly—like the man earlier who had whispered about demons. “He’s dead, he’s dead.”
“What do you mean he’s dead?” Jiang Wanyin bellowed once more, and this time both of his hands came to grasp the man’s collar so that he could shout in his face. The training sword fell to the ground, abandoned.
Lan Wangji stilled a few feet away from them. The heart within his chest seemed to have stilled, too.
“He’s dead!” Wen Chao screamed in rage and in horror. Lan Wangji heard it through mist and fog, through a body of stillwater, through the awful coldness in his chest. “I threw that bitch into the Burial Mounds of Yiling—there’s nothing left of him! No body and no soul, nothing! Wei Wuxian is dead, and he cannot come back!”
He sagged against the tree, breathless, and repeated in a murmur: “He can’t come back. He can’t be back…”
Jiang Wanyin’s hands let go of Wen Chao’s collar weakly. They fell to rest by his sides like puppet limbs cut from their strings.
Wind flew between the leaves above them. It knocked against wood and bamboo, breathing out flute-like sounds in the eerie silence. Jiang Wanyin stood lifelessly in front of the man who had taken everything from him. He laughed.
His shoulders trembled with joyless gasps and moans, and this laughter dripped over the soil like tears.
Footsteps echoed behind them. It seemed to Lan Wangji that looking for their source was as difficult a task as lifting a boulder bare-handed. He felt nothing at the sight of another of the living corpses they had seen for days now, grey and unseeing, walking slowly toward them.
But Wen Chao reacted. His face grew even paler, his fingers digging into the rough bark of the tree behind his back. Bloodsmell reached Lan Wangji’s nostrils, as he understood that Wen Chao was splitting his own nails on it.
“Jiaojiao,” he murmured in such a thin voice that it felt like another wisp of wind.
Another wisp of wind. Another note of an unseen flute.
The living corpse walked toward them leisurely. At first Lan Wangji could not make out its face and body, but then it stepped out of the cover of trees, and he saw that it belonged to a woman. He recognized her as Wang Lingjiao, who had ridden a palanquin with Wen Chao while they trekked through the forests around Qishan’s Nightless City in search of the Xuanwu of Slaughter.
Wen Chao screamed. He fell on his behind and crawled away from the sight of her, his face white as a sheet, his bloody hands shaking before his mouth as he cried, “Go away! Oh, go away, Jiaojiao, stop following me!”
“Master!” Wen Zhuliu called from his end of the clearing, crawling as his master did in spite of his broken leg. “Master, run, please!”
“Wei Wuxian!” Wen Chao screamed.
The name shot through Lan Wangji’s body like an arrow. He saw Jiang Wanyin jump and notice the corpse at last, his tear-streaked face shining under ghostlight.
“I was wrong!” Wen Chao sobbed into the open air. He shifted from backside to knees over the soil, staining his robes with mud, putting his face to the ground as if he were trying to eat the very grass. He trembled and begged like this, kowtowing, his high voice breaking over his words: “I was wrong! I was wrong! I’m sorry! Wei Wuxian, Wei Ying, oh, spare me, please—”
“I don’t think I will.”
Jiang Wanyin breathed in loudly, his body swaying on his feet. He turned around, looking desperately for the one who had spoken those words, finding him as Lan Wangji did standing by a thin and high pinetree.
He almost looked ghostly himself. His face had thinned over the months, his once-sunkissed skin turned pale by shadow, by the spirit-light which Wang Lingjiao’s raised corpse diffused. If not for the movement of his throat as he breathed, Lan Wangji could have believed him to be just another dead body.
Wei Wuxian stepped into the clearing. He held a black flute in one hand, with a rough-made tassel hanging from it in the shape of a lotus flower.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Wanyin said, choked by relief.
Wei Wuxian smiled at him.
It was not, either, the smile that Lan Wangji had so longed to see.
When Wen Chao first saw him emerge between the houses of the village, he had looked half-dead already.
It was as Wei Wuxian wanted. He had aimed for this the very moment he had managed to walk out of the haunted hills of Yiling, the souls there trying so desperately to latch onto him and keep him behind, keep him trapped. He would not have managed to leave without the weeks it took to make and cultivate Chenqing. Without chopping black bamboo with his bare hands, without the sunless days and nights spent carving it with rocks and jewels stolen from open graves.
He had raised ghosts and corpses everywhere Wen Chao went as soon as he had found him. He had walked behind his steps like a shadow, had hung from houses and trees the spirit-attracting talismans he drew with the blood of birds and squirrels, had made it so every second of Wen Chao’s days and night were filled with nightmares. He had terrorized him like this slowly. He had killed the men standing in protection of him with fright alone, one by one, until it was just him and Wen Zhuliu running alone in night-lit woods.
He had not felt satisfaction when Wen Chao saw him in the village. Not when his anger had turned to fear, not when he had first called his name in begging, throwing his men between himself and Wei Wuxian in defense. Wen Chao had once begged Wei Wuxian, after all; he had pleaded for his life in the tortoise’s cave, and then gone on months later to call his name in arrogance again, his wet lips touching Wei Wuxian’s ear.
“Wei Wuxian!” Wen Chao begged and begged, prostrated on the floor of a forest not unlike the one where they had last met. Not unlike the way Wei Wuxian had prostrated, though his kneeling had been forced and not offered. “I was wrong! I was wrong! I’m sorry! Wei Wuxian, Wei Ying, oh, spare me, please!”
But there was no satisfaction to be found in the sight. There was nothing at all except for the burning hatred in Wei Wuxian, honed and weaponized by those months spent amidst vengeful spirits. The shame of that day still clung to him like a second layer of skin; the feeling of wet grass in his fisted hands, the taste of dirt against his lips.
“I don’t think I will,” he replied.
He had never even thought of sparing Wen Chao.
There were others in the clearing, other people and other smells. Wen Zhuliu crawling with a broken leg and blood spilling out of a wound in his shoulder. Wang Lingjiao, whose corpse had terrified her master so wonderfully. Sandalwood on the white silhouette of a man.
The aftermath of a landslide.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng said, his face as wet with tears as it had been when his parents had died.
Wei Wuxian hesitated at the sight of him.
He realized, slowly and foggily, that he had not thought of his shidi in a long time. Jiang Cheng and his shijie had been far from his mind as he struggled to stay alive, to heal his wounds, to find a way out of the maze of dead hills.
“Jiang Cheng,” he said.
His own voice felt foreign to him. He felt the muscles of his face attempt a smile reflexively—had he not smiled, always, when in the company of his shidi? How could the act of it now feel so odd and awkward that his mouth pulled painfully, that the emptiness in his chest where Wen Qing’s stitches had pulled for weeks seemed to be seeping blood again?
He looked over Jiang Cheng as the man approached him, searching for injuries or signs of illness. He found none but for the emaciated quality of his face and the trembling in his limbs, which must be because he had fought Wen Chao.
Yes, he thought. Jiang Cheng had fought Wen Chao. That was what he saw when he traced Wen Chao’s footsteps to this clearing: Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu and two other blurry silhouettes, caught in the throes of combat.
White light made Wei Wuxian blink as a sword flew before his eyes. The cold and viscous energy fled from his hands and to Chenqing, but it was only the man in white, sheathing his weapon and turning to face him as well.
“Wei Ying,” the man said.
Wei Wuxian’s mind had to wade through marshly water to remember his name.
“Where have you been?” Jiang Cheng asked him, standing before him and putting a hand over his shoulder. He squeezed it shakily, blinking over and over, as if he thought that Wei Wuxian whould disappear between one fall of his eyelids and the next. “I… Sister has been worried sick for you.”
“I was… tracking Wen Chao,” Wei Wuxian replied hesitantly.
He felt stretched two different ways. Pulled and pulled till his body thinned over the distance.
In front of him was Jiang Cheng, whom he remembered suddenly as if amnesia had only just lifted. Jiang Cheng who had lost his family and his golden core because of him, who looked at him now with wide and helpless eyes. To whom Wei Wuxian owed a debt that could never be repaid.
Behind Jiang Cheng, Wen Chao cowered and sobbed against the forest ground.
Wei Wuxian stepped away from his shidi. He walked the few steps separating him from Wen Chao’s wretched figure. Wang Lingjiao’s corpse had kneeled next to him, looking silently at Wen Zhuliu, who could approach no longer.
“Wei Wuxian,” Wen Chao cried. He showed his dirt-stained face to him and grabbed the hem of his robes in pleading.
Rage such that Wei Wuxian had never felt before turned his blood hot and boiling. He stepped on the man’s wrist with all of his weight until the bones there snapped loudly.
He could barely hear the scream that Wen Chao let out through the pumping of his own heart. Not even this—not even the pitiful sight of Wen Chao crawling and squirming at his feet seemed to appease him.
“I’m sorry!” Wen Chao sobbed over and over again. He couldn’t retrieve his hand from under Wei Wuxian’s foot; after a moment, he stopped struggling, realizing perhaps that it hurt more if he moved. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
“Shut up,” Wei Wuxian snapped at him.
Wen Chao whined like a starving dog foraging trash for rotten food.
“You think we’ll spare you now?” said Jiang Cheng, who stood again by Wei Wuxian’s side.
The helplessness on his face was gone. Instead he smiled cruelly, arrogantly even, his eyes looking between Wei Wuxian and the man on the floor in deep pride.
“You think we’ll spare you now, after what you did to my father? To my mother and to my clan?”
“I should have never attacked Yunmeng,” Wen Chao weeped. “I will pay anything, oh, spare my life.”
“There are no riches in the world that could pay for what you took, dog.”
Jiang Cheng had a weapon in hand now—one of the training swords he and Wei Wuxian had used after Suibian and Sandu were stolen. He could not pour power into it as he did Sandu, but the blade seemed to brighten all the same.
“Wei Wuxian,” Wen Chao howled, crazed and desperate, once more grabbing with his hand the hem of Wei Wuxian’s clothes. A ghastly and desperate smile stretched his bruised mouth as he begged, “Wei Wuxian, oh, Wei Wuxian, I should never have touched you, I should never—”
Wei Wuxian kicked him in the face; Wen Chao bit so harshly on his tongue that blood spilled over his teeth and lips, and cried out in pain once more.
He would have done more. He would have kept kicking, kept breaking his bones, so that Wen Chao would stop speaking and making any sound. He would have broken the man piece by piece until he found satisfaction, if not for Lan Wangji’s voice calling, “Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian met his eyes. Lan Wangji fell silent again, pale-faced and stricken.
“Second master Lan,” Jiang Cheng said evenly. Wei Wuxian left him to it and approached Wen Chao, who stared at him as if staring death itself in the face. “This is my clan’s business from now on. You have no stake in this. Please go back to the fort and inform the rest of my men.”
“I will not,” Lan Wangji replied.
If he said anything after this, Wei Wuxian did not hear it.
He played on Chenqing one of the melodies he had composed in the dead lands of Yiling. Wang Lingjiao obeyed his orders quietly, her long nails digging into the face of her master and peeling away his skin and his eyes.
Wen Zhuliu screamed until he too was forced quiet, his life rightfully taken by Jiang Cheng’s sword. Wen Chao had no voice at all to scream with after that, and no eyes or skin either with which to show his horror. White bone glistened into the open air where his cheeks had once been; white teeth pinkened with blood within his mouth, after his lips had been torn away for good.
Wen Chao’s charred scent filled the clearing around them as if a bonfire had been lit. It vanished when he died, but Wei Wuxian still smelled it. He still tasted it.
The restlessness within him did not grow quiet.
It was long after silence had wrapped itself over the clearing that Wei Wuxian’s mouth opened and said, “Let’s go.” The words felt foreign and distant, and the first step he took away from the disfigured corpse of Wen Chao seemed to be dictated not by his body, but by something else. Something other.
As they walked together toward the village where Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji had left their horses, Jiang Cheng oddly silent by his side, Wei Wuxian noticed a house ensconced between rock and trees. Neither Jiang Cheng nor Lan Wangji seemed to see it, the both of them walking ahead with sure steps, moonlight shining over them between the branches overhead.
But Wei Wuxian stopped. He watched from afar the heavy entrance door, the windows curtained and barred. The house was dug deeply into the ground and the hard rock of a short bluff overhead. A wooden fence surrounded it, and a thick padlock hung from its only door.
He took within his empty lungs the smells of the nightly air: the moist ground under his feet, the warm scent of pine cones cooked by the sunlight hours. In the middle of it all, he caught a fragrance unlike the others. Something tenuous and stifled, something as fresh and sweet as new-wine.
“Wei Wuxian?” Jiang Cheng called after him.
Wei Wuxian did not acknowledge him. He walked toward the small house. He broke open the padlock and kicked in the gate of the narrow garden. He knew not what he was thinking when he reached the front of the house and banged his fist against the wall, when he listened for any sound within. When he heard what could have been the wind in-between the beams of the roof, but could also be the breath leaving one person’s frightened lungs.
He shoved his shoulder against the heavy door, trying to no avail to make it budge. “What are you doing?” Jiang Cheng yelled at him, running until they were side by side and he could grab him by the arm.
Wei Wuxian shoved him away. “Help me open this,” he said.
He did not know what Jiang Cheng saw on his face then, if he saw anything. Panic perhaps, for that was what Wei Wuxian’s entire body felt like, what his heart told him to feel, looking at this heavy door. Looking at the red color of it which so reminded him of a time long gone in the Nightless City. Something in him urged him to shove his whole body against that expense of red wood and break it open in fury.
It was not Jiang Cheng who first made a move then, but Lan Wangji. He took his white sword out of its sheath and slashed the air with it; a great beam of light dug into the oakwood door, dislocating it from its hinges, bending its panel forth.
Wei Wuxian pushed against the marred wood until, finally, it opened before him.
There was no light inside. No candles or fires, no interstices in the walls to let in pieces of sky. The windows had been curtained and barred outside, and they were curtained and barred inside as well. A layer of dust had flown with Wei Wuxian’s entrance. It tickled his nostrils and made him want to sneeze.
There was a man at the other end of the room, his back stuck to the wall, his hands holding before him a piece of fine wood as if it were a sword.
“This is,” Jiang Cheng said in shock, but Wei Wuxian did not listen.
He was alone when he stepped into the house. Neither Lan Wangji nor Jiang Cheng followed him. He watched his feet leave traces onto the dusty floor. He saw one half of a fruit already eaten through with rot over the only table of the room, and knew with deep, bone-deep certainty, that no one had come here in days to freshen up the pantry.
“W-Who,” the man at the end of the room said.
Terror could have worn his face in the picture books of children. He slid against the wall, opposite to the way Wei Wuxian advanced, shaking from hunger and despair. He must be older than Wei Wuxian by at least ten years, and yet he seemed almost like a child.
“I won’t hurt you,” Wei Wuxian said.
He remembered Wen Ning crouched before him as he sat on the floor of his old bedroom; his smile and gentle voice, his words which had warmed Wei Wuxian’s heart at a time he had thought it to be set to ice and forever hopeless.
He spread his hands palm-up before himself so that the man would see he was unarmed. He crouched when the man fell sitting to the ground, so that at no point he would be looking down on him.
He said, “I’m like you. I won’t harm you.”
And for the first time in months, he felt the cutting edges of emptiness within him smoothen.
They gave Wei Wuxian and the kunze man one of the many rooms of the fort to occupy for the night. Wei Wuxian did not leave Zhu Yuansu’s side for a moment after coaxing him out of the house; and it had taken the better part of an hour to do just this, to explain to him that the villagers were gone, to convince him that Wei Wuxian was not lying.
Jiang Cheng had watched silently as all of this unfolded. Lan Wangji had only spoken once, after the third time Zhu Yuansu refused to believe Wei Wuxian’s claim of being kunze.
“He is,” Lan Wangji had declared.
He had been half-turned away from them, his pale eyes gleaming with moonlight. His tone had left no room for uncertainty; his status made such a lie inconceivable.
And somehow, that was all it took. Zhu Yuansu had followed after them, frightened out of his mind after who knew how many days spent in darkness and silence, with no food on his table and no way to call for help. He was so weak after those days of fasting that Wei Wuxian had to help him walk every step.
“You don’t smell of anything,” Zhu Yuansu told him then, his face laid upon Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. He was dizzy with starvation and disbelief.
Wei Wuxian had not known how to answer him.
Zhu Yuansu was asleep, now. He had holed himself into the room as soon as they were both led to it. All of Jiang Cheng’s troops—men and women in purple robes whom Wei Wuxian had never seen before, whom he felt would never be worth the lotuses sewn at their backs—had watched them walk through the fort in shock. If not for Jiang Cheng standing by their side, Wei Wuxian had no doubt that some would have turned hostile.
He was not afraid of it, but Zhu Yuansu was. Zhu Yuansu had begged him to be taken somewhere more secluded, saying that he should never survive the shame of being seen by so many.
So Wei Wuxian had hidden him and fed him warm soup and dried meat, and had not lingered on the ache that his words burned into him. He had not closed the door either, after seeing how scared Zhu Yuansu was of being locked and left to die again.
He sat against another wall of the candlelit study, leaving the straw bedding to Zhu Yuansu, and resolved to spend the night making sure that no soul crossed the threshold of the room.
No soul did, but in the small hours of dawn, Lan Wangji appeared behind the door frame.
Wei Wuxian took a long time to notice his presence. He had fallen into a meditative state, the way he did in the Burial Mounds when the spirits’ anger threatened to drive him mad. The scent of sandalwood brought him out of it slowly.
He blinked tiredly and looked at the open door.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said. He stood straight and regal in his white uniform, the unfamiliar white sword at his waist, a bow strung over his shoulder.
Wei Wuxian shushed him with a hand over his own lips; he nodded in the direction of Zhu Yuansu, who had wrapped himself so completely into the blankets they were given that not a hair on his head could be seen.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian replied once he was certain that the man’s sleep had not been disturbed. He made his voice as quiet as it could possibly be. “My apologies for not greeting you earlier. Things were…”
But he did not know how to describe it. The memory of Wen Chao’s dying screams, of his skinless and eyeless face as he begged and begged for his life, seemed so far away. It felt to Wei Wuxian that part of him was here in this dark little room, watching over a stranger who felt to him like kin, and that another had never left that clearing at all. That some of himself would forever remain by Wen Chao’s skinned corpse, looking down on him emptily.
Lan Wangji said nothing to berate him for his rudeness. He took out of his sleeve a yellow piece of paper and infused it with enough energy to fly to Wei Wuxian; Wei Wuxian snatched it from the air with two fingers. He needed not examine it.
“Were you the one who drew it?” Lan Wangji asked him plainly.
Wei Wuxian replied, “Yes, I was. I drew many of them.”
He crumpled the paper in his hand with no remorse. It had played its part already.
“And those corpses,” Lan Wangji said, “they were also your doing.”
Lan Wangji’s forehead creased as if he were pained by the news.
Wei Wuxian watched him distantly. Lan Wangji too had suffered the harsh stroke of war: there were marks upon his face that Wei Wuxian had never seen before, and his sect uniform had gone grey in places rather than pristine white. The sheath of his sword bore several specks of old blood.
Wei Wuxian had never minded Lan Wangji’s presence before; now, however, he could not help but thumb Chenqing’s shaft nervously.
“It is heretic,” Lan Wangji said at last.
Wei Wuxian chuckled hollowly. “Lan Zhan, we are not in Gusu. There is no master here to expel me from class if I misbehave.”
“Not misbehavior. Only…”
But Wei Wuxian grew tired, watching this man struggle with his words. He stood up from the hard ground, wincing when his numb behind ached with the movement. He had sat there all night, watching over the open door, chasing away with a glare the few who dared to peek in. He had soothed Zhu Yuansu with soft murmurs each time the man awoke in a panic, not recalling where he was.
“Does it matter?” Wei Wuxian asked. Lan Wangji met his eyes surely, as he had always done since they were both children, except for the few times Wei Wuxian had embarrassed him deeply.
By the wet edge of a cold spring. Trapped in the rancid cave of a monster.
“Does it matter how I do things, as long as we win this war?”
“The demonic path is not without price,” Lan Wangji replied, ever-serious. “For as long as people have tried to walk it, there has been no exception.”
“Then I simply will have to make one.”
Lan Wangji’s frown grew deeper. His hand tensed by his side, above the silver pommel of the sword, which he could so easily unsheathe and brandish at Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian tightened his own grip on Chenqing accordingly.
Seeing this, Lan Wangji’s face relaxed. He drew his hand away from his sword; he took a step backward.
“Wei Ying,” he said in a kinder voice. “The people who attempted to walk this path, none of them survived it. The heretic arts hurt your body and your temperament.”
“Why should you care,” Wei Wuxian replied coldly, “about my temperament?”
“You will fall into qi deviation sooner or later.”
Wei Wuxian laughed.
It was neither kind nor joyful. This laughter was not brought forth by any sort of amusement. He could almost believe himself back in Gusu; Lan Qiren eyeing him with contempt and Lan Wangji lecturing him for breaking the rules. But Lan Wangji had done then what no other would have when he raised a sword to Wei Wuxian’s throat, and at the time, Wei Wuxian had been exhilarated. He had been grateful.
He was not the same as he had been then, however, and Lan Wangji did not understand him now as well as he did then. He could not know that Wei Wuxian had no core to deviate from anymore.
If he knew, he would not be standing there. If he had any idea what depths Wei Wuxian had sunk to through no one’s fault but his own, he would not look at him at all.
“You’ve always disliked me, Lan Wangji,” Wei Wuxian said mournfully.
He saw Lan Wangji’s beautiful face shutter; he felt something like regret himself, as he turned between them a page he knew could never be turned back.
Zhu Yuansu shifted above the straw in his corner of the room. Wei Wuxian glanced at him quickly, only to make sure that he had only moved in his sleep and not woken up at the sound of their voices.
“You have avenged your clan,” Lan Wangji said then. “With Wen Chao dead, there is no need for you to continue with these practices.”
“Don’t speak to me of Wen Chao,” Wei Wuxian snapped.
Anger shone again at the pit of his belly and made his fingers twitch. He wished, suddenly, that he had carried with him the corpse of that wretched man, so that he could cut it down again and again.
“He’s dead,” he said. He felt a shiver at his own words, as if he could not fully believe them yet—as if he ought to be waking again on the cold ground of the Burial Mounds, all of his body aching, his mouth choking on grass. “There’s nothing left to say about him.”
He added viciously, “There’s nothing left of him in this world.”
“Very well,” Lan Wangji replied.
Footsteps echoed along the stony hallway, and soon Jiang Cheng appeared with a tray in his hands. He paused at the edge of the door, looking between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian with a frown.
“Lan Wangji,” he said with a hint of hostility. “What are you doing here?”
“Lan Zhan and I were just catching up, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian replied before the other could. He felt Lan Wangji’s eyes on him as he smiled at his shidi. “Keep your voice down, though. He’s still asleep.”
He saw Jiang Cheng hesitate at the foot of the door, looking in the direction of Zhu Yuansu’s sleeping form. Wei Wuxian took the tray from his hands and set it atop the wooden desk shoved into another corner of the room. There was enough food for two on it. Light foods, broth and plain rice and tea, so as not to upset Zhu Yuansu’s belly after so long spent starving. Wei Wuxian looked at the sleeping man for a moment longer, searching on his half-covered face a trace of wakefulness, but he looked to be slumbering deeply. The blue bruises under his eyes had lightened somewhat.
When he turned back around, Lan Wangji was nodding to Jiang Cheng in parting. His eyes found Wei Wuxian’s immediately after that; the nod Wei Wuxian was given was a lot hastier.
Then he left, taking with him the scent of sandalwood and incense, leaving behind only Zhu Yuansu’s sweetness and Jiang Cheng’s storm-likeness.
“Have you eaten yet?” Wei Wuxian asked his shidi.
Jiang Cheng answered only after a long second. He was staring at the man behind Wei Wuxian who had shoved himself so completely against the wall, it looked as though he wished to become part of it.
“What will you do with him?” Jiang Cheng said.
Wei Wuxian’s thin grasp on his own smile failed him again.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Keep him with me for now.”
“His family will—”
“His family fled and left him behind to starve.”
He could see Jiang Cheng tense under the grey light of morning. He could understand, in a way, the shock that this must be to him; but his feelings on the matter were too steeped in anger to express sympathy.
Zhu Yuansu had only told his name to Wei Wuxian long after they had arrived at the fort, and then again, he had shaken. As he spoke, he had looked to be carrying such a heavy burden of guilt, like a man caught red-handed murdering someone else.
“I need to go back,” he had told Wei Wuxian several times while failing to fall asleep. “I need to go back before they learn that I came out…”
His voice had been so thin and broken from thirst, Wei Wuxian had trouble making out any of his words. He had to play as many of Gusu’s soul-soothing songs as he could remember seeing in the Library Pavillion in order to lead him to sleep.
“I don’t know what I should do with him next,” Wei Wuxian said, “but I will not let him die out of respect for his family.”
He feared for a second that Jiang Cheng would push the topic or refuse, but Jiang Cheng nodded. “All right,” he agreed. “Then I’ll make sure the others stop trying to gawk at him.”
The relief that washed through Wei Wuxian then almost made him dizzy.
Silence spread thickly over the stone-walled room. The lone window high up under the ceiling lit up with the first rays of the sun, and some measure of warmth crawled in as summer started settling outside. The day was still so young that this light broke almost horizontally through the study, falling just short of touching Jiang Cheng’s hair, glinting with specks of dust.
It had been spring when Wei Wuxian fell into the Burial Mounds. The time since then seemed like nothing at all, barely more than a breath; yet Wei Wuxian felt as aged as if he had spent years there among the cadavers. That it was summer and not fall, or winter, was to him more surprising than anything else.
“Where have you been?” Jiang Cheng asked him softly.
Wei Wuxian stroked the length of Chenqing and wondered how to answer.
How to tell Jiang Cheng of the place where he had been forced to live? The shadows and ghosts and spirits, the vengeful energy which had murdered the very soil and made growing things impossible. The rats and birds he hunted for food. The poisoned water he drank past the point of sickness. How to face him now and tell him, I know you needed me, but I couldn’t be there for you, once again?
“I looked everywhere for you. I looked all over Yiling, I looked in Qinghe, in Qishan.” Jiang Cheng turned to face him, and he was standing tall rather than slouched, the top of his hair gleaming in the window’s. It painted a golden crown over his black hair. “I looked everywhere,” he repeated, wide-eyed and helpless.
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian replied. “I couldn’t come back before now.”
“I thought you were—”
His voice died with a tell-tale shake.
Wei Wuxian made to grab his shoulder in reassurance, his own throat too knotted and painful for words, but Jiang Cheng pushed away his hand. He crossed the last step separating them and crushed Wei Wuxian against his front.
It did not matter then that Wei Wuxian’s breath was knocked out of him, or that his own body swayed with the fatigue of the previous night, with the terrible exhaustion of watching Wen Chao die and of carrying Zhu Yuansu. Jiang Cheng’s arms closed around him with desperate strength. He was only slightly shorter than Wei Wuxian, but he buried his face into Wei Wuxian’s shoulder as if he were so much smaller and younger.
He trembled and held him, and he said, “I thought I lost you too.”
His tears dampened Wei Wuxian’s collar.
Wei Wuxian brought his own arms up. He put them at Jiang Cheng’s nape and back, hesitant to soothe him or push him away, wondering whether to be sincere or prideful.
But Jiang Cheng had never hugged him before. They had knocked shoulders and pulled each other up by the hand, they had shoved at each other, they had wrestled and sparred, but never touched like this. Never had Jiang Cheng given to him what Jiang Yanli could afford to: the physical kind of affection, the embrace of a brother, denied by the distance between their statuses.
Wei Wuxian grabbed the fabric of Jiang Cheng’s robes until his fingers ached and gave him back his embrace with twice as much strength. “You won’t,” he replied. “You won’t lose me, I promise.”
“You said I’d be Yunmeng’s hero, so don’t you dare die before it happens, Wei Wuxian.”
Wei Wuxian laughed wetly against his temple. Every time he breathed, the smell of storm and earth filled his nose.
In the corner of the room, Zhu Yuansu mumbled and moved. The light rays from the window were now low enough to sting Wei Wuxian’s eyes and force them to close. Jiang Cheng’s tears abated slowly, his hold becoming lax around Wei Wuxian.
He only pulled away once his breathing had quieted.