Warnings: gore, murder, references to rape and childbirth, depression, suicide.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
For as long as he could remember, Wen Ning had lived hidden.
Be it behind the rocks of the training fields of Qishanwen, or the tall drums of war stood before the front gate of the Nightless City; be it by the potions his sister brewed in the secrecy of night or behind the loose sleeves of her robes; he had lived hidden.
Wen Qing never berated him for it. For many more things, she did—his shyness or lack of taste for cultivation, how easily he grew his affection for others. She had words and scoldings. Stand tall, Qionglin, she would say. Look me in the eyes when I speak. But for his hiding—for their hiding—she only ever said one thing.
“Good. You can never let anyone know.”
Those words never changed even if her tone did. Sometimes she said them in anger, sometimes while stroking his face and hair, but they were always the same. No one can ever know.
So Wen Qionglin had lived his life by those words, knowing that his sister had inherited them from their father, and that the melancholy in her eyes when she spoke them was only her mourning. He often wished he could remember the man she sometimes told him of when he was very small and needed her to tuck him into bed. If only to share some of her grief, he wished he remembered their father.
He could not, however. The man had died before he was tall enough to walk. So Wen Qing carried her burden alone, caring for her useless little brother and the sweet-smelling people who came to her in hiding with despair in their eyes, and Wen Qionglin tried to help her however else he could.
Only once did he betray this promise she extracted so often from him; and at the time, in that bedroom in Yunmeng, it had not felt like betrayal. With the brave Wei Wuxian sobbing before him in relief, as if a great burden had suddenly lifted from him—it had felt like necessity.
To Wen Qionglin, Wei Wuxian was a wonder like no other.
So quick and bright-eyed, so talented, so unbelievably true. Wei Wuxian had shown him nothing but kindness on the day they met, defending Wen Ning to the Wen sect and his own, even after Wen Ning failed to show himself worthy of it. It had felt only right to look for the young man’s room and make a space there for himself after the Lotus Pier fell, rather than let anyone else do so. When Wei Wuxian had shown up to take his sect-brother Jiang Wanyin back, fraught and panicked, Wen Ning did not hesitate for a second before sheltering him.
Wei Wuxian was like one of Wen Ning’s long-forgotten childhood dreams come alive. He was hope in the shape of a boy.
A kunze unhidden.
In the endless minutes of suffering before his body had died, Wen Ning thought of many things. As the rain poured over him and washed away the blood and shame, as his sight darkened and blurred and his mind mellowed and left, he recalled his sister’s smile. He thought of her voice and hands, of the kindness hidden under her tough skin. He thought, also, of Wei Wuxian.
And in spite of everything—the pain in his belly and the pain in his heart—those thoughts brought him peace. Those two people were heavy in his chest when he took his last breath, almost as if their hands were linked above his heart to comfort him.
He felt that same heaviness as he left the bloody Qiongqi Path behind, and an awkward smile on his lips as he ran as fast as he could to the Burial Mounds of Yiling. Night came and went again before he was able to reach them, and the red over his hands had turned brown and dry. He saw none of the landscapes unfolding around him. He heard none of the cries of fear that people gave at the sight of him when he crossed a town or village.
He thought of Wei Wuxian’s ashen face when the young master Jin had fallen between the both of them, of how still and deathly he had been even when Jiang Wanyin held him and cried, and his heart seemed to beat again.
The horse almost stumbled when he dismounted it at the foot of the hills. He let it go freely, not stopping to look back as he ran up the path and crossed the barriers. The village was still only at the cusp of waking; lit by the pink sun of dawn, cool and quiet and peaceful. Steam rose above the roof of the bathhouse on the river. Faint cries echoed out of the widest home, where the Jin clan consort had given birth only months ago. The entrance of the cave glowed through the thin morning mist.
This was a place where Wen Ning had never needed to hide.
He saw her as she was already approaching, carrying in her arms a batch of newly-dyed fabrics she meant to give to maiden Luo. Wen Qing smiled at the sight of him. She smiled so easily, now.
She said his name so tenderly.
He saw her mouth loosen as she noticed he was alone. She paled when she took in his appearance: the blood staining his clothes and hands and crusted underneath his nails.
“A-Ning!” she cried.
She ran to him. She grabbed him by the arms, shaking through the shoulders, her scent rendered acid by fear. Wen Ning drank in the sight of her, no matter that panic was distorting her face; he burned to memory the depth of her eyes, the tall arch of her brow, the ever-crooked line of her chin, which had always leaned to the right.
“What happened!?” she yelled, frightened by the touch of dried blood all over him; and Wen Ning smiled at the sound of her voice. “Where is Wei Wuxian!?” she asked in despair, and he could only try and remember the exact shade of brown that her irises were.
He took her hands in his. He stroked the back of them, although he could not feel her skin. He marveled that his were so much bigger than hers now, that his fingers were so wide compared to her thin ones.
He told her, “I killed Jin Zixuan.”
Only when he said those words did the truth of them seem to sink into him in full.
He had killed Jin Zixuan. He had murdered over a hundred of the man’s kin, he had savagely ended the life of Jin Zixun, borne by the fear and hatred that the sight of him up on that cliff elicited. He had met the man’s sneering gaze from under and forgotten everything else.
Wen Qing stared at him with wide-open eyes, and Wen Ning could almost taste the fear on her. As if it were her that his self was bonded to, and not just the remnants of Wei Wuxian’s despair before sect leader Jiang had knocked him out in his arms.
“Where is Wei Wuxian?” she asked again breezily.
Wen Ning smiled. He knew deeply how she felt, just as he knew that this was no trouble that Wei Wuxian could get them out of again.
Not this time.
“He is safe,” he replied. He let go of one of her hands to frame her face with his and push back the ill-tied hair that always brushed her temple and chin. “Sect leader Jiang Wanyin arrived before anyone else could. He took him with him.”
Jiang Wanyin had broken out of the skyline with a scream and a voice Wen Ning had never heard out of him before. He had shaken the shell-shocked Wei Wuxian as Wen Ning slowly regained the ability to feel, to think; he had wept and crushed Wei Wuxian to his front, calling his sect-brother’s name in vain, as Wei Wuxian failed to give him an answer.
Wen Ning felt that he could understand Jiang Wanyin’s reaction. Although guilt swelled through his unfelt body and made him want to topple and sway, he wanted nothing more than to hold his sister in his arms.
If Wei Wuxian had been here, he would have held him as well. No matter how much he respected and loved him, and feared to be a bother to the man who had saved him so many times. Oh, how he wished now to have given in to the shy desire he ever-felt around Wei Wuxian; to reach out with open arms and embrace him, if only once, if only to quiet this out-of-bodiness Wei Wuxian never knew Wen Ning could feel as well.
“We need to leave,” said Wen Qing in so white and thin a voice that it could barely be heard. “We have to… We can’t stay here, A-Ning, we have to retrieve Wei Wuxian and—”
“Sister,” Wen Ning cut her off gently.
He squeezed her shaking hands. He fancied that he could feel how cold her fingers had become at the tips of his own.
“Sister, they won’t let us go, not this time.”
“We’ll hide,” she said harshly in answer. Thunder shone out of her eyes, making her look again like the young and severe woman she had been while in Wen Ruohan’s employ. “They’ll never find us, I’ll protect you.”
“I will give myself up,” Wen Ning replied.
She shuddered and gasped. She tore her hands free to better grab at him, the pressure of her at his shoulders almost strong enough to be felt, and she yelled, “No! No, you won’t, I won’t let you—”
Wen Ning took her in his arms.
Wen Qing stilled against him as if he were hurting her, though he knew that he was not. He held her with the same precaution he held little Wen Yuan who so liked to take his hand or climb upon his back. He fit her head against the space of his left shoulder, where he knew blood had not stained him quite so badly as everywhere else. He stroked her hair and imagined that he could breathe; that the scent of her was not of the peppery disguise that her tonic granted her, but that sweet smell of persimmon he used to know.
Around them, the village awoke. People stepped out of their houses and smiled at each other. Another cry echoed out of the newborn lungs of the baby Wen Qing had delivered a few months ago. It was a bright day, a beautiful day, and sunlight bathed the mist and burgeoning trees with the promise of warmth. A stranger could not have walked here on this day and guessed that all who now shared this light had once lived in darkness.
This was the gift Wei Wuxian had given them.
Wen Qing trembled against him. He heard her breaths turn to hiccups and sobs, and knew that the cloth which covered his shoulder would be damp to the touch with her tears.
“A-Ning,” she cried.
“It is my fault, not his,” he said in answer. “Young master Wei tried to hold me back. I could not listen to him. I… I lost control.”
However little time was left for him to exist in this realm, he would spend it regretting this.
Her hand grabbed at the robes he wore so strongly that he heard fabric tear underneath her nails. “He’ll save you,” she rasped. “He won’t let you be harmed.”
“Sister,” Wen Ning said mournfully. “I think young master Wei has saved me enough.”
She knew it as well as he did. Wei Wuxian had saved him before the disciples of the Wen sect and saved him after Jin Zixun had killed him and saved him when he held his hand and said, “I’m here,” on the day Wen Ning opened his eyes for the first time again.
“I am already dead,” he told his sister.
Her grip on him tightened, and she denied fiercely, “No. You’re here, you’re okay.”
Wen Ning smiled.
Already others had come out of the wooden houses around, out of the steaming baths or from high up the river, returning from errands. They smiled and waved at the sight of him, and must think that the young master was here, too, and gone already to hide within his cave.
“I am happy for the time that I have spent with you and everyone else,” he said, minding not the shaking of Wen Qing’s head against him nor her would-be-bruising hold. She had not stopped sobbing. “I am happy that I got to live here, to help young master Wei. But I am dead, Sister. I have been dead for a long time.”
“I’ll tie you up and take you with me,” she replied with the same rage that she once used to deny him when he begged to write to Yunmeng and tell the young Wei Wuxian the truth of who he was—of who they were. When he wanted so badly to say to the boy with the unshaking smile, You’re not alone.
“I won’t let you.”
He grabbed her wrists which were locked around his waist. He pushed her away, so that she stumbled backward, her wet face staring at him in despair.
“They will try to kill him,” he cut her off. “You know they will. I will give myself up, tell them that it was all my fault.”
“To hell with Wei Wuxian!” she yelled. “It was his choice, he knew the risks, he can handle—”
But even as she tried to say it, her voice broke. Her face twisted in agony. Wen Ning framed it with both of his hands, wishing that he could feel the warm tears he wiped away with his thumbs.
How odd, he thought, to find her so short and small before him, to know that he could lift her with one hand with no effort at all. She had always been so immense in his memory; her voice unflinching, her hands precise and strong; someone to look up to and measure himself after, only to find himself lacking.
He could protect her, now.
“You don’t mean this,” he said, smiling again. “You love him like a brother, too.”
Wen Qing smiled to Wei Wuxian as she only ever smiled to Wen Ning, and Wei Wuxian craved her presence and her touch as he did no one else’s. Not even the sect-brother he had grown up with.
Wen Ning often surprised himself with the strength of his pride, thinking of how well his sister took care of Wei Wuxian, where the proud Jiang Wanyin with all of his reach and riches had completely failed to.
Wen Qing’s mouth shook over her sobs. Wetness streamed down her face and dripped out of her open lips. “I’ll come with you,” she choked.
“You can’t,” he replied. “You know you can’t.”
By now the kunze who had gathered around them, keeping some distance as though shocked by her tears, were not smiling anymore. They knew something was wrong. The sight of them like this—he their greatest weapon and she their greatest protector, holding each other for dear life—tempered the morning air with fright. Fear showed upon their faces as well a grim sort of determination. Too many of them knew they were living on borrowed time—too few had ever thought themselves free.
“You have to take care of them,” Wen Ning told Wen Qing, still stroking her damp face, still in as kind a voice as he could. “You have to run away with them, lead them somewhere safe, so they can all be there when young master Wei returns.”
Wen Qing sobbed and howled, “I won’t exchange one brother’s life for another’s!”
But Wen Ning was dead. He could speak and he could think, and he could move about as he wanted, but even now, the sunlight fell unfelt upon his bloodstained skin. The wind that carried her hair and his about stroked his face without touching him at all. Wen Ning brought his sister’s face close enough to press his lips to her forehead and hear the gasps in her breathing at the hollow of his neck. Her tense shoulders loosened against him, as he knew they would.
She had already mourned him. She told herself she had not, and she liked to believe that no grief could be seen when she looked at him, but he knew. He had known ever since he woke up in the cave.
Wen Qing knew that his continued living was not the same as hers or anyone else’s.
“Go now,” he said. “Tell them to prepare to run.”
It must feel to her like tearing out one of her limbs, and it did to him as well; but she obeyed. She heaved and cried and shook like a child in a frenzy, but her dear hands let go of his. She walked toward the group of frightened kunze who were waiting for her as if waiting for death to come.
Wen Ning spent his last hours in the village of the Burial Mounds at Wen Yuan’s bedside.
He washed the blood off of his skin and clothes in the river. He helped the old woman they all called Grandmother pack her things as lightly as she could. He told the people of his former sect what they needed to know, and acquiesced soberly when they offered to come with him.
“The young master may not like us,” Uncle Four said, “but we never forgot that he saved us too. He never gave us up. It’s the least we can do to repay him.”
After that, he said his goodbyes to Luo Fanghua; and Wen Ning watched from afar as the young woman, who so hated to be touched or spoken to, held him and cried.
He wished he could tell him and the others that Wei Wuxian had long stopped hating them, and that he saw them just the same as all the others living here. His to protect and his to save.
He entered the widest of the houses as the sun was setting. Much noise could be heard from outside: people running this way and that, gathering each other, gathering necessities. Footsteps echoed loudly against the walls of the bloodpool cave not far, where several kunze were retrieving the moonless flowers and seeds and brewing enough tea and tonics to hide all of them in plain sight. Wen Ning closed the door behind himself and crouched by Wen Yuan’s side.
The boy was asleep. He had caught a fever the day before, too quick and eager to leave behind the warm clothing of winter in order to run about freely. Grandmother said that he had spent the night shivering, and even now under two heavy blankets, his little forehead shone with sweat.
Wen Ning stroked it, knowing that his own hand was cold and would feel good to him. The child muttered in his sleep and turned in his direction, his bleary eyes blinking open tiredly.
He did not wake fully. His dry mouth formed a few more incoherent words before he stilled, and his eyes, which were so like Wei Wuxian’s, closed again. His brow eased under Wen Ning’s cool touch.
“We’re about to leave.”
Wen Ning turned his head toward the door.
His sister stood by it, having opened it silently so as not to startle him or the child. She wore her travel cloak and boots, had tied her hair more tightly, and was still holding a cup of the bitter moonless tea in hand. Her eyes were red, but she was not crying anymore.
Wen Ning nodded to her. He stroked Wen Yuan’s forehead once more and said, “He is young master Wei’s son, isn’t he.”
Wen Qing did not answer him, but he did not need her to.
Even if Wen Yuan had not looked so much like Wei Wuxian, Wen Ning would have known the truth of it in the bright fear he could feel every time the child so much as breathed in his master’s presence. Or in the foreign memories which sometimes broke through his mind when Wei Wuxian slept—a forest ground at the foot of a mountain, the feeling of a blade through the shoulder; hands bruising his bare back and fisted into his hair, as he was made to lie still and endure.
Wen Ning stood and allowed his sister to recover the feverish Wen Yuan. She held him tightly against her, still wrapped in the blankets of the bed. The boy moaned painfully. One of his little hands escaped the damp and warm nest of fabric to clutch at her collar.
“He will miss you,” Wen Qing said roughly.
Her eyes shone again. She blinked and walked out of the house.
Outside, the one hundred and twenty-seven free kunze of Yiling had gathered. All of them bore traces of fear on their faces and hands, gripping tightly to the pouches and bags they had stored their belongings in, yet their eyes brightened at the sight of Wen Qing. They looked to her with only the faintest of hopes, but it was hope nevertheless.
It was more than any of them had known before Wei Wuxian shone daylight upon them.
“Sister,” said Wen Ning, “thank you for everything.”
She was the one to kiss his forehead this time. “I love you,” she told him, and he nodded and closed his eyes, smiling.
Above them, the sky darkened with clouds. He could almost believe that the one drop of water which rolled down his brow and temple had come from rain.
To the kunze, Wen Ning bowed deeply. And though the gesture meant nothing at all coming from him, he pressed one hand to the space above his dead, still heart.
Wei Wuxian dreamed.
He dreamed of water: opaque and dust-clouded, flowing everywhere he could see, unending. He felt the current of it against his skin carrying him backwards. His limbs swayed and his mouth opened, and the water poured into him and filled the hollowness of him. Deep, sure water, like the bottom of a lake caught between two rivers, when the current fled out of one and toward the other only at the very depth. Invisible to the surface.
I’m drowning, he thought.
His empty lungs filled, his empty stomach burned. He was drowning. Out of sight and out of reach, with no one around anymore to hear him if he screamed.
Why fight it? he wondered.
Fleeting images flew through the ochre dust. He saw greens and golds amidst burned-black trees; houses, raised out of dead soil; people whose names he knew, people whose names he could not remember, who looked at him and smiled at him even when he could not answer. An improbable village of runaways built over a dead land.
“… cannot save his life now…”
“Sect leader, it is too late. There is nothing I, or anyone else, can do.”
“Don’t say this,” breathed out of despairing lungs in a voice Wei Wuxian knew. In a voice he had long known. “Please, there has to be a way.”
Candlelight in the stuffy air of a room, sweat over his bare skin. Shadows moved beyond the shadowed wall of his own eyes. Wei Wuxian felt a sharp pain through the middle, diluted as it was in the depth of the lake. He tasted blood on his tongue.
“There is no way,” and then silence.
The hand holding his tightened.
Wei Wuxian woke up to the sound of crying. Little gasps in-between the shuffling sound of cloth, little hiccups in a muffled voice. He heard the sound of his own heavy breathing catching on each inhale. He felt the fire in his belly grow sharper and deeper as his awareness came back.
Something moved; a hand, unbearably warm, holding something unbearably cold to his forehead, and Wei Wuxian opened his eyes and reeled back.
Another gasp broke the silence.
For a long time he did not see. Darkness shrouded the space he was laid in, although he could smell the burning oil of a lamp nearby, and doubted that whoever was near him would dare risk his presence in sheer night. He blinked and blinked till the flamelight broke through, stroking the edges of a room whose features he recognized.
It was not simply oil he smelled, but also sweetness. New-wine as slick over his tongue as if he had drunk it, and desert flowers, and berries.
The girl sitting by him was rubbing her eyes fiercely. She seemed not to mind that the wet cloth she was holding dripped all over her fine clothes, or even that her own hands would dislodge her tied hair and redden-up her face. She wore on her the purple of Yunmeng.
Wei Wuxian said, “You.”
His voice was only a whisper. His throat was dry, he realized, as if he had not drunk in days.
The girl gasped once more. Her hands lowered and her back tensed, and the red eyes Wei Wuxian saw through a haze on her were familiar as well.
“H-Hello,” she said. “I’m s-so happy to see you again.”
She tried to smile.
He knew her, he thought, as the words escaped him. His sluggish mind struggled within the cage of warmth and drowsiness he was trapped in, trying to put a name onto the face, trying to recall why he felt that it should be rounder and younger than it was now. He knew not how many seconds passed before he was able to.
“Fengfeng,” he said, breathless, too tired to even wince as the pain in his belly spiked.
Wen Linfeng’s eyes shone. No matter how much she tried to blink them away, her tears fell over her cheeks. “Yes,” he croaked. “It’s, it’s me.”
“Why are you…”
He had always hated to see her cry. Even in the Nightless City the first time as he teased her or tried to needle her for answers, he disliked the sight of her with sobs caught in her throat. Wei Wuxian could remember a time he had made her look like this out of his own forcefulness, and pain spread through his guts and throat as he thought that perhaps he had done it again. He tried to ask her again, Why are you crying? He tried to lift a hand from where it rested near his own head.
He could not.
The simple act of tilting his face over the pillow to look aside felt like dragging his own body ashore after days spent swimming. Wei Wuxian saw that what had held his arm back was not fatigue, as he had thought, but a rope tied solidly around his wrist.
His breath caught. Tugging his other arm yielded no more results, as did trying to lift a foot, except for the burn of braided hemp on skin.
“What,” he said.
But Wei Wuxian did not listen to her.
Struck with panic, he struggled. Wen Linfeng cried at the sight; he felt her hands on his shoulders, trying to push him back onto the bed, but he simply grunted. He shook the arms and legs until all of his tied skin ached in tandem with his belly. He raged and roared in a voice so weak it felt like a whimper, trying to no avail to free his limbs.
“Stop!” Wen Linfeng cried, her tears running anew over her handsome face. She looked terrified and guilty; her fingers shook badly over him. “Stop, you’ll hurt yourself!”
“Free me,” he spat at her.
“I c—I can’t, sect leader Jiang said—he told me to watch over y-you, he said you couldn’t go—”
Wei Wuxian remembered, suddenly. It must have been Jiang Cheng whose arms he felt in that dry countryside outside of Lanling—the scent and strength of him who lifted him in the air and away, after Wei Wuxian had done the unthinkable. After he had killed Jin Zixuan.
His throat burned. It seemed to him now that each inhale carried not the winescent of Wen Linfeng crying by the bed of his childhood, but the bitter smell of trees, flowing to Wei Wuxian as Jin Zixuan died on the ground.
He coughed, then; he tasted iron on his tongue, felt warm liquid drip from his lips, as the pain in his belly turned into fire again. A sob escaped Wen Linfeng at the sight. She tried to wipe the red from his chin shakily.
Wei Wuxian jerked his head aside to avoid her. “Where is he?” he rasped, fighting against the urge to retch. “Jiang Cheng—Where is he now?”
“You need to rest,” Wen Linfeng moaned.
“Tell me where he is!” he roared, attempting once again to free his hands and feet.
All it did was make Wen Linfeng wear again the face that she had the only other time he had yelled at her. What was left of her composure shattered. She dropped the wet towel she was holding, now stained with the blood from his lips, and which he understood hazily she must have used to quiet his fever.
And he was, he realized. Fevered. Not in the shameful, the awful way, which he had avoided ever since that day of snow. But the sweat along his skin, the choking warmth of each breath, were close enough to make his heartbeat sway. Wei Wuxian forgot to feel guilty for Wen Linfeng’s fright and tears—he tugged on the restraints again.
Warm blood flowed around his wrists where his skin had opened.
“Stop,” Wen Linfeng begged loudly, almost wailing. She tried once more to hold him down. “Please, please stop!”
But Wen Linfeng was a frail girl, even grown and matured as she was now, almost four years after he had last seen her. Her arms were thin, her skin unblemished, her bones as brittle as a bird’s. She was not like the kunze of Yiling, whose hands now bore calluses and whose skin the sun had tanned.
She was still in so many ways the little girl from the lone house. She had no hope of overpowering Wei Wuxian now, even as weak as he was.
“Tell me where he is,” Wei Wuxian said again. He struck her off of him with his elbow, and felt only the shadow of shame for the way she cried out in pain.
If he could, he would have kicked her away. If he had a sword with him, he would have threatened her with it. The darkness around him bore the ghosts of those people in Yiling; the sounds around them shaped themselves with their cries, as Wei Wuxian had heard them in so many nightmares.
He could not stay here. He would lose them all if he stayed here.
Wen Linfeng held her aching wrist in her hand, weeping, shuddering. “He’s gone,” she said. “He—He said there was a gathering in the Nightless City. About—About you. He said you weren’t allowed to leave, that I had to keep watch on you!”
Wei Wuxian stilled.
The Nightless City, he thought in breathless fear. The old Qishanwen stronghold now ruined by the war. It must be empty now, its streets deserted by those who were not captured, who were too smart to brag about their affiliations. And Qishan was so close to Yiling—close enough for Wen Chao to have found him all those years ago and then thrown him down into the Burial Mounds, and made the way back on sword in one day.
“Stop,” Wen Linfeng cried again when he pulled on the ropes. “You’re sick, you can’t go, the doctor said—”
She cut her own words off with a harsh inhale.
Wei Wuxian looked at her. He saw even through the dark veil in his eyes the way she paled, the way she shuddered.
“What doctor?” he asked lowly.
Wen Linfeng flinched. “No one,” she let out, terrified.
“Wen Linfeng,” Wei Wuxian gritted out. His teeth clenched till the ache spread to his cranium and all of his head felt hollow. The nausea still simmered in him, along with the sharp and excruciating pain in his stomach. Iron-taste had not left his mouth. “What doctor?” he spat out.
“I wasn’t supposed to say anything,” she whimpered.
She folded in on herself atop the chair. Her shaking had now spread to her thin shoulders, which jerked up and down in time with all her gasps. She looked about to drop to her knees on the floor.
“I wasn’t supposed to hear, I wasn’t, if sect leader Jiang learns I—”
“Tell me what you know,” Wei Wuxian cut her off.
She looked at him, and the fear he saw on her face was enough to shame him this time. Never before had he rendered her to such honest terror of him.
But as she looked ready to stay silent again, Wei Wuxian chased away those feelings. He stood to lose too much—he had perhaps, he thought in earth-shattering grief, already lost it all—to coddle her now.
Wei Wuxian tugged on the rope. Blood dripped down the bedsheets, dripped down his forearms, and Wen Linfeng cried out.
“I’ll tell you! Stop, stop!”
Her screeches hurt his head and his heart. He saw her cries turn into outright sobs, so loud that her words were nearly unintelligible.
“S-Sect leader Jiang had you examined by a doctor,” she wailed, both of her trembling hands pressed against her wet face. “You—You were vomiting blood, you wouldn’t wake up, so he—”
Wei Wuxian barely understood the weeping that followed. Wen Linfeng fell on her knees to the wooden floor, ravaged by sobs, hiccuping too loudly to let out any more words; and all he thought of was the fact that he had been disrobed in his sleep and bared for Jiang Cheng to see.
Sickness rushed up his blood-filled throat. Light flickered out of his sight. The whole of him distended and then shrunk, as he felt each scar and mark on his body burn like melted iron. He felt about to burst out of his very skin.
Wen Linfeng quieted enough to be able to speak again. “You’re sick,” she said, half-moan and half-whisper. “The doctor said there were h-holes in your stomach, that he c-couldn’t—” she had to stop to breathe; she went on, trembling, “he c-couldn’t find your core to heal you. Sect leader Jiang was cr—”
“Enough,” Wei Wuxian said.
He did not need to hear more.
Wen Linfeng wiped her eyes with her sleeves futilely. “You’re sick,” she repeated. Another shudder bent her back. “You can’t, you can’t leave. You have to rest to g-get better.”
Wei Wuxian almost laughed, seeing her stand to her feet again and pick up the wet cloth she meant to combat his fever with.
I’m dying, he thought as Wen Linfeng plunged it into a basin of cold water by her feet. And the girl must know, and Jiang Cheng knew as well—
Jiang Cheng knew.
“Fengfeng,” he called weakly.
She bowed the head jerkily. Her hands dropped the wet cloth, which fell into the water and spread droplets over the hem of her purple robes.
How beautifully she wore those colors. How they suited her, so much better than the white and red of Qishanwen ever did. Red was Wen Qing’s color, Wei Wuxian’s color; red for the blood on his hands for killing Jin Zixuan, for the blood seeped out of him in a cold inn in the snow, for the toxic light with which each of his creations glowed. He was never meant to wear those robes like she did.
He was dying. He must have been dying all along.
“Release me,” he told her.
There was an echo in his head like the soft sounds of a lakeshore, a coldness in his limbs in spite of the fever. As if his skull were empty now and allowing in the wind.
Linfeng shook her head harshly. “I can’t,” she said.
“You have to. You know you do.”
She bit her lip. Because her body was still ashiver, her jaw shook, and the sharp end of her front teeth drew blood out accidentally.
“I’ll free myself if I have to,” he said. “Even if I have to tear off my own skin, break both my legs. I will.”
You can’t stop me went unsaid: they both knew it.
Wen Linfeng sobbed and tried to beg, but Wei Wuxian simply struggled until the rope loosened and his wrists became numb to the burn. And so she begged him to stop, and when he ignored her, she ran out of the room. She came back with a knife.
Wei Wuxian recognized it faintly as one of Jiang Yanli’s daggers, but the thought alone of his shijie crushed him, so he swept the memory away. He watched in silence as Wen Linfeng’s weak hands struggled to cut the ropes. He took the knife from her as soon as his left hand was free, heedless of the whimper she gave at the sight of his burned-open wrist, and cut himself free the rest of the way on his own.
He stood from the blood-stained bed. The room swayed around him, the weight of him ached in his back and his middle, but he stood. He could walk. He threw the knife aside, picked up the torn robe folded over the backrest of the chair. Dressed himself succinctly. Chenqing was found on the desk across the room; the Stygian Tiger Seal, untouched, was in the sleeves of his clothes.
“Please don’t go,” Wen Linfeng whispered when he was done.
It seemed that her fatigue at last had caught up with her. She kneeled above the ground in a state of misery, her haggard face blinking tiredly at him, her mouth open silently. She looked too exhausted for sobs.
“If you go, you’ll…”
But it seemed she could not bear to say it. Her mouth closed. Her eyes leaked, light catching onto the tears and turning them to shivering gems.
“Everyone dies,” Wei Wuxian told her.
She bowed and bowed until her face touched the floor, and only the shaking in her back betrayed her crying anymore, so quiet was she. Bred and raised to hide herself from the entire world.
All around them the walls bore traces of his childhood: drawings made by clumsy hands, scrolls and books he used to read through in boredom. Wei Wuxian could suddenly see himself, in startling clarity, sitting by the hardwood desk or playing on the ground. He saw the shade of the child he had been bump into one in the shape of Jiang Cheng, tug him up by the hand, run around with him. His ears picked up an echo in the voices of Madam Yu and Jiang Fengmian. His nose filled with the smell of lotus soup.
He turned his back to them.
He almost tripped on Wen Yiqian and Wen Yueying’s bodies as he walked out of the door. They were asleep on the ground, both of them covered in blankets. In his surprise, he hesitated; and Wen Yueying stirred, her mouth moving in her slumber and she readied herself to wake.
He ran across the length of the rebuilt halls he had once called a home, all of them deserted in the absence of their sect leader. He sped without stopping by the room where Jiang Fengmian and Madam Yu’s remains lay, counting the second in his head, his guts heavy with the knowledge that each of them lost was too pricey a cost to bear.
He found a mare in the stables in good enough shape to ride, and mounted her with no preparations. She whinnied under the harsh stroke of her reins, she huffed as his boots kicked into her side; she galloped out of the Lotus Pier and through the wet Yunmeng countryside.
Rainclouds gathered over his head. Wei Wuxian did not stop as they broke open on him, mindless of the cold, uncaring of the fatigue. He did not stop as daylight peaked over the mountaintops, as farmers came out of their homes and cried out at the sight of him.
His stomach burned with every stroke that the horse’s hooves gave to the limp ground. Blood spilled out of his lips every time he breathed. He forgot what the taste of anything else was like.
Let me not be too late, he prayed.
All the gods he had ever known had left and abandoned him long ago; still, he prayed.
Please, let me save them at least. Please do not make them pay for my mistakes.
The day was high when he reached the gates of Lanling. Clouds still hovered low overhead, and every house and shop on the way was draped in mourning white. The summer leaves and flowers on the trees had bent the head, heavy with wet, lifeless with sorrow. Wei Wuxian saw people gathered at a temple nearby, saw paper money be burned and its ashes swept by the wind.
He slowed his gait before the great doors of the Tower. The stairs he had been made to climb by foot, twice now, twisted around the mountain flank; a nacre ribbon against tired grey rock. Smoothed and sculpted by the ages.
The gathering there was noisy. “Those Wen bastards,” one man shouted, waving his thick hand high above his own head, showing to all around what hung from the arch of the gate. “They had it coming!”
Other such words flew out of angry, triumphant mouths. Sticks and swords were shaken into the heavy air. “They’ll catch the Yiling Patriarch, those who went to Qishan!”
Wei Wuxian sat atop his exhausted horse and looked at the bodies hanging under the tall, white gate.
“He used to make me laugh,” Wen Qing had said over a year ago.
They were walking around the village in the dying light of day. It was a day or early spring, a day before the siege, when Wei Wuxian sometimes took time to rest in the Burial Mounds. He walked with her then with no unease, for Grandmother was gone and Wen Yuan asleep. It was only the two of them bathed in the last embers of the sun.
“He was a friend of my father’s. I remember he once lifted A-Ning by the foot and pretended to drop him. I couldn’t stop worrying, even though I knew he was safe. He did all sorts of tricks to amuse us.”
“You, laughing,” Wei Wuxian told her. “I find that hard to believe.”
“Coming from you, this is barely an insult.”
It had made him smile. It had made her smile, too.
Next to the bathhouse far ahead, Uncle Four had waved at them, seated as he was in a chair he had just built. He had near him a bottle of the liquor Wei Wuxian brewed, and which he liked the most out of them all.
Uncle Four’s eyes were open now, but they did not see Wei Wuxian. They did not see anything.
“Young master,” said an excitable man as he noticed Wei Wuxian looking at the swaying corpses of the Wen survivors.
He smelled of smoke and wine. His inebriated face smiled widely to see Wei Wuxian’s attention on him, and he held a jar over to him in invitation.
“For our loss,” he slurred. “And for the death of those bastards, and of the Yiling Patriarch.”
As he was too drunk to walk properly, he tripped over a rock, and the liquor jar broke over the ground and spilled every way. The man muttered an apology, laughing. He patted Wei Wuxian’s thigh above the saddle of the nervous horse, after he managed to break his fall by holding onto it.
He had a sword at his hip, talisman paper in his belt, a gold-colored uniform. A cultivator of Lanlingjin, too weak or unknown to have been invited to the council. Left to watch over the grounds of the city whilst Jin Guangshan waged war.
His sword was of mediocre making and too-heavy weight. It looked uncared for.
Wei Wuxian took it anyway, and killed its owner with it.
The Nightless City of Qishan had been rid of its drums of war.
The city stood still as a ghost over the dry mountains: empty and ruined, devoid of life for years now since the Jin clan had taken it by Meng Yao’s artful schemes. Only a few halls of the great palace above at most still counted hearths lit with fires, for the watchmen sent here to guard the place. It seemed to all like a futile effort—the Wen clan was all but vanished now, Wen Ruohan and Wen Xu beheaded, Wen Chao skinned and blinded and left to rot in a forest. The very last members of it now hanged at the gates of Golden Carp Tower.
But Jin Guangshan liked his spoils. He was not one to allow for a piece of gold or weaponry to go unretrieved. He would take the halls of Qishanwen he had so often bowed in, simpering at the feet of their owners, and make of them a proof that he should now sit above all.
He sat in the very same place Wen Ruohan had occupied during the archery competition so long ago. His bastard Meng Yao was by his side; his son Jin Zixuan, his nephew Jin Zixun, both gone from the spot at his right.
“This can go on no longer,” he howled to the assembly.
Cheers rose in answer to his voice.
Whatever grief he felt for the death of his heir was hidden. His face bore only the anger Lan Wangji had known, a long time ago, when Wei Wuxian had walked into the golden halls of the man’s home and taken his guests hostage. The murder of the Wen sect remnants who had given themselves up yesterday had made him into a creature of self-satisfaction, of arrogance.
Perhaps this was what grief was to him. Another excuse for selfishness.
“That thief kunze,” Jin Guangshan exulted, “murdered my son. He has stolen from us all, terrified us all with his Ghost General—but now, look!”
He gestured to Meng Yao by his side; Meng Yao opened the lid of a wooden box he was holding and upended its content over the dusty ground.
Ashes fell out. The wind swept them away before they could reach the soil, staining the light robes Meng Yao wore, flying over all their heads. So dark were the clouds above that they soon turned invisible.
“The Ghost General has been burned!” Jin Guangshan exclaimed.
Lan Wangji found himself numb to the cries of triumph echoing around him.
They came to him distorted, muffled, as if between him and the rest of them stood a wall of solid rock. As if a lake or river nearby were rippling, softening their voices. He breathed and smelled only the scorched earth around and the cool scent of his brother by his side, just as silent as he.
“Wen Ning is gone!” cried Jin Guangshan. “The fierce corpse has been burned to ashes, the madman’s weapon is no more!”
Lan Wangji had met Wen Ning in that village in Lanling. He had seen the corpse bow to him, heard him speak softly and shyly, watched him hold the hand of a little boy with as much care as if he were his own. He had not looked like a weapon then.
“As we speak now, my men are marching upon Yiling! As we speak now, they are retrieving all that Wei Wuxian stole, retrieving the Stygian Tiger Seal the thief used his wicked tricks with!”
Lan Xichen inhaled sharply; and even through his stupor, even through the languid emptiness that had taken Wangji since he had heard news of Jin Zixuan’s murder, he found that shock still had a way to him.
They were not the only ones. All around them people lowered the swords they had raised in fury. They looked at one another in surprise. They hesitated.
Jin Guangshan did lot let this linger for long. “I know what you must be telling yourselves,” he said. “But many of you saw the madman when I laid siege on him—you recall how little he hesitated to kill us all!”
Wangji took a step forward. He would have taken more, if a hand had not grabbed his arm tightly as soon as he had moved, and if his brother had not looked so frightened when Wangji stared at him.
“Please,” Lan Xichen whispered thinly.
Never had Wangji seen him look so tense.
“The Yiling Patriarch killed my brother!” a voice exclaimed, fierce with excitement.
“Wei Wuxian came into our home and terrorized us!”
“Your kunze will not be touched, this I promise you,” Jin Guangshan said, placating. “My men shall retrieve them unharmed, and select those who are still fit to be married and given back to you. But Wei Wuxian cannot be allowed to live.”
Lan Wangji tore his arm out of Xichen’s grasp, avoided Xichen’s other hand trying to take hold of him again—”Leave me,” he said to his brother, in as snappish a voice as he had ever used with him or anyone.
He stared at Lan Xichen, disbelieving. The lungs within his chest were tight, suddenly. His throat burned.
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen pleaded. “Wangji—you cannot save him, not now.”
“What are you saying?” Lan Wangji asked.
His voice was nothing but air. He stared at his brother—his brother, the one who had raised him, the one who used to come fetch him from the empty halls of their mother’s house after her passing.
One of two people he trusted beyond trust.
“They’ll kill you,” Lan Xichen said.
“They’ll kill him,” Lan Wangji replied.
Their voices were so quiet, so soft, amidst the sea of enraged cultivators. The ground under them shook with the strength of the crowd’s pacing.
Lan Xichen closed his eyes. His brow furrowed with misery. Wangji realized, with his heart in his throat, that his brother was close to crying.
“Believe me,” Lan Xichen said, choked; “please, believe me when I say that I know how much of an injustice this is. I know this more than you realize.”
His grip on Wangji’s arm tightened. He was shaking.
“But they will kill you first if you defend him. I cannot allow that.”
He said it with the same absolute tone of voice that he used to say, “You musn’t come here anymore, Wangji.”
“Then,” Lan Wangji said, “you understand why I cannot allow them to do this either.”
“It would be the both of you against thousands—”
“He is defending himself alone,” Lan Wangji cut off.
His voice had raised.
“He has always been defending himself alone.” As Xichen’s face became more miserable still, and each of Wangji’s words seemed to be hurting him more, Wangji went on: “Brother, you cannot ignore that his cause is just. You know what these people will do to the ones in Yiling.”
To this day, Lan Wangji’s nose stung from the smell of smoke at the highest of a mountain, and his eyes burned with the sight of a little girl laid on the floor, her body singed, seeping blood well past her death.
And there were others now, among the assembly, who were hesitating, although for all the wrong reasons. “You cannot kill a kunze,” one old man said near a group of small-sect cultivators. “It is prohibited.”
“What proof do we have that Wei Wuxian is a kunze?” retorted Jin Guangshan.
“You called him such yourself, sect leader Jin.”
“He has fooled us all. You are simply too blind to see it. Perhaps it was a kunze Jiang Fengmian found and raised, but Wei Wuxian has twisted his soul beyond measure and has become something else.”
Murmurs spread over the thousands. Some seemed deep in thought; some nodded in approval, ready to believe any justification. Lan Xichen’s hold on Lan Wangji did not lessen, and Lan Wangji could only watch them all, nauseated.
“I would rather take them all from you,” Wei Wuxian had told them all, “before I allow a single one of you to touch them again.”
“Kunze he may have been, once,” Jin Guangshan said, “but the Yiling Patriarch of today deserves nothing but death for his crimes. My people will retrieve those he stole, and when they find Wei Wuxian—”
Lan Wangji pushed his brother away, grabbed the handle of Bichen; but a new voice rose over the lot of them, asking, “What about Wei Wuxian?”
Jiang Wanyin of Yunmeng descended from the sky in front of Jin Guangshan. Immediately, the guards on either side of the man were alert, their own swords lifted as Jiang Wanyin dismounted Sandu and stood, both of his feet firmly on ground. Behind him, the slow, exhausted figure of Jiang Yanli showed.
At the sight of them, Lan Wangji slowed.
If Jin Guangshan had only taken three days to move on from his son’s death, it seemed Jiang Wanyin wore his own grief like cloth. His face was pale, his countenance broken. Dark shadows lined his piercing eyes as if he had not slept in weeks. Lan Wangji could not remember seeing him look this way since the Sunshot Campaign, when he had still been raw with the massacre of his sect and the disappearance of his sect-brother.
“You were not invited here,” Jin Guangshan spat to Jiang Wanyin.
Jiang Wanying did not heed him. Neither did he look at the people holding their swords to him. “What about Wei Wuxian?” he asked again, and if his voice broke over the name, he did not stop for it. “I think I should be told what you intend to do once you find him, Jin Guangshan.”
“Sect leader Jin,” Jiang Yanli called by his side.
She too looked grieved. She wore the white of mourning, her body still weak from childbirth. She was swaying where she stood, attached to her brother’s arm.
“Please, let Yunmengjiang retrieve Wei Wuxian,” she begged. “I know—I know how much you hurt, I also—”
A sob broke apart her words.
“Please let us handle this. I beg of you.”
Jin Guangshan sneered. He ignored her entirely. “Take this fool out of my sight,” he ordered his guards, pointing to Jiang Wanyin.
Sharp noises echoed through the air; a blinding light caused many to twist the head and close their eyes; and as Jiang Wanyin drew his hand back, Lan Wangji saw that he was wearing his sister’s Zidian on his hand.
The guards had all fallen to the ground. Several of them were unconscious or bleeding, burned in the places where the lightning-whip had touched them. Jin Guangshan rose in his seat, frightened, and Meng Yao nearby him touched the inside of his own wrist.
“Wei Wuxian is a member of my sect,” Jiang Wanyin raged at them. He had pushed his sister away so as not to harm her, and she now stood at the very edge of the mountainside, looking at him in aching worry. “I did not think you were so above me in rank, sect leader Jin, that you could decide to punish me and mine on your own!”
“You and your foolish father are the reason my son is dead,” Jin Guangshan replied in fury, “why should anyone ask for your opinion now!?”
“You will let me handle this!”
“I’ve given you too many chances, boy, to handle this stray of yours! If I want his head, who are you to stop me? Weren’t you the one who tried to kill him once?”
Those nearest to Jiang Wanyin drew back in fear. Dislike of him had lessened since his sister had married Jin Zixuan, as people were eager to rally in their hatred of Wei Wuxian. But now, all who were there at the siege remembered: Jiang Wanyin had speared a kunze on his sword.
“Seize him,” Jin Guangshan ordered.
“Seize him!” he screamed. “What are you waiting for!? He would allow the Yiling Patriarch to live—he would see your heirs murdered, your property taken, like his father before him!”
At those words, several stepped forth. Although Jiang Wanyin was strong, although he now had the weapon that Purple Spider Yu Ziyuan had crafted and made famous, it was obvious that Zidian did not obey him as well as it did his sister. The whip was thin and weak, and using it left him short-breathed. His sword could only parry so many blows before another tore into the side of his arm or leg and he was forced to kneel. Lan Wangji walked in his direction with Bichen in his hand; none between the both of them stopped him, too busy taking hold of Jiang Wanyin and keeping him on the ground in spite of his struggles, thinking that Lan Wangji must be headed there to help them. He heard his own name called in the voice of his brother. He did not look back.
The first man touched by Bichen fell with hardly a cry. The second had enough time to open his eyes wide, to show surprise before his bleeding thigh forced him down. One by one, Lan Wangji cut those holding Jiang Wanyin in place, not looking at the man himself, who stared at him in open shock. He helped him up once they were side by side; he found the crowd around them hesitant, confused, unwilling to attack.
“Wangji,” Meng Yao said, breathless.
Lan Wangji did not look at him either.
“So you too would betray your own kind,” Jin Guangshan roared. “How many more of you would rather beg at the feet of a kunze like scum!? Show yourselves!”
But the crowd was frightened now and did not dare answer. All had come for the clamor of victory, for unity and strength; none knew what to do with a sect leader and a sect heir, standing tall in defiance.
“See the evils that the Yilling Patriarch has done to us,” Jin Guangshan said, stretching a hand out toward Lan Wangjin and Jiang Wanyin; “See how he has corrupted our best to do his bidding, and who knows where he will stop if he is not taken down? Before long we could find ourselves ruled by his kind, forced to beg for scraps of dignity, our entire society shattered—”
Lan Wangji thought at first that his eyes must be playing tricks on him. He had thought so often of Wei Wuxian in the past few days, after all. He had dreamed of him every night since he had last seen him in Yiling, smiling exhaustedly, confronting the very man he stood by now.
There was someone atop a horse in the middle of the crowd. Someone who trotted forth through the sea of people and parted the waves of them with his presence alone. He made his way through them all, shock and fear widening the path for him. He had reached the very first rows before Jin Guangshan’s words of hatred finally stopped; the sect leader swallowed his own tongue in stupor.
Lan Wangji heard Jiang Wanyin moan, “No.”
He knew not if Wei Wuxian heard as well. He knew not, even, if he was dreaming at all. A spell-like silence had taken over the Nightless City. Wei Wuxian dismounted the horse he had come on, and the exhausted mare fell to her side over the burned ground. Wei Wuxian did not look at her. He wiped sweat and blood off of his forehead with one blood-and-sweat-soaked hand. With the other, he shook the rough sword he held, dripping red onto the soil.
Jiang Wanyin was the first of them to speak. He took a haggard step forward, then another, his fist shaking around Sandu’s handle.
“You can’t be here,” he breathed to Wei Wuxian. “Go—Go back to Yunmeng.”
Wei Wuxian did not even look at him.
“Where are they?” he asked Jin Guangshan simply.
From faraway, Jiang Yanli’s voice came as well—”A-Xian!”
“You dare come here,” Jin Guangshan said, wide-eyed.
“I’ve no time for chatter,” Wei Wuxian replied.
One could have believed him simply annoyed. Were he not covered in blood from head to toe, were his mount not shaking overground and looking half-dead, he could have looked as if he had simply walked the way here.
Wei Wuxian exhaled loudly. His open eyes glowed red in the dark, clouded daylight. “Where are they,” he said again.
“Take him now,” Jin Guangshan said to his men. “Take the Stygian Tiger Seal—”
Laughter interrupted him.
Out of Wei Wuxian’s torn sleeves, the two halves of the Seal fell. The gore-covered sword escaped his grasp and fell to the dry ground with a loud clang. He laughed, his fingers wound around the cold metal, the shape of him shrouded in darkness.
At his hip, the tassel hanging from Chenqing gave a chime.
“This is what you want?” he asked Jin Guangshan.
He held up the broken Seal.
“All of you, standing here, planning my death,” he said, almost a whisper. “You sit in your great halls and bargain our lives, our dignity, with so little care.”
“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli called in a sob, and only then did Lan Wangji notice that she stood right next to him.
Wei Wuxian closed his eyes at the call. He opened them again quickly.
“I would no more hand this Seal over to you than I would give my executioner a rope, Jin Guangshan,” he said. “Your hands stink with the blood of the people you have terrorized, trapped and tortured. All of you!” he yelled.
He looked over the crowd with his eyes afire, blood-drenched, blood-thirsty. Lan Wangji felt that a hand had closed around his heart and tried to pull it out.
“You have thousands of years of debt to repay to those you have harmed,” he howled; Lan Wangji saw in a fright that some of the blood on him was coming from his mouth, that even now his teeth were stained red. But although Wei Wuxian was rough-voiced, although he looked so burdened with fatigue that his legs buckled when he stepped forward, he did not quiet down. “You have spoiled and wasted the lives of countless thousands, you have taken and taken and not once questioned why, or what gave you the right!
“Well, you had no right. None. Not any of you, not for thousands of years. And if you want this Seal, Jin Guangshan,” Wei Wuxian spat, “you will have to come and kill me for it yourself. But before I grant you the pleasure of my death, I will ask again: where are they?”
“You’re mad,” Jin Guangshan said, and the glint in his eyes could not have been taken for anything but terror. “You will pay for my son’s life, you ill-bred bitch.”
“Your son,” Wei Wuxian replied.
For a fleeting second, hardly even so much, his eyes shifted. They came to rest on the woman by Wangji’s side who had not stopped weeping since he had appeared before her. Even now her shaking mouth formed the syllables of his name, of the affectionate way she used to call it, Lan Wangji remembered, when they were all children. “A-Xian.”
“Yes, I killed your son,” Wei Wuxian said. Next to Wangji, Jiang Yanli fell to her knees. “Just like I will kill you all if you do not hand back to me the people you have wronged all your lives. I would rather see the whole world on its knees like that worthless, faithless Jin Zixuan, than let you have them.”
He pieced the Seal back into a whole; and a great, hopeless veil of darkness enveloped the mountains.
Lan Wangji could not have counted just how many corpses Wei Wuxian woke up with the Seal then. They seemed to come out of the ground everywhere—remnants of people sacrificed by the Wen sect, remnants of people lost to the battles which had led to Wen Ruohan’s death. Dead bodies sprung out of the soil, out of the trees. They swarmed the assembly of cultivators, heedless of their screams. They devoured and killed without mercy.
And in the middle of it all, Wei Wuxian stood by sheer strength of will. Shaking, bleeding, advancing step by step toward the throne once occupied by Wen Ruohan, and where Jin Gangshan now sat over them all.
Lan Wangji ran, but Jiang Wanyin ran faster. He was the one who reached Wei Wuxian’s side while Wangji’s way was blocked by a group of fierce corpses. He slew them with no hesitation. Bichen swept into the air and came out only tainted by dirt; these corpses were bloodless, after all, their mouths giving only hollow growls and grunts out of their empty lungs.
He was swayed. He struggled. Each step he tried to take toward Wei Wuxian forced him to back away to avoid another attack. Around him cultivators fell in gargles and screams; the smells of dirt, of qianyuan and zhongyong, drowned by the smell of blood. In the distance, he saw Jiang Wanyin try to hold Wei Wuxian back from Jin Guangshan; Meng Yao, on the other side, was ushering his father onto his own sword, ordering him to fly away.
“Come back with me,” he heard Jiang Wanyin plead as he approached close enough.
But Wei Wuxian looked mindless entirely. “Where are they!?” he asked the fleeing Jin Guangshan. He tore himself away from his sect-brother, he tried to run toward the dais— “Tell me where they are, give them back!”
A cultivator fell into Lan Wangji’s path. She was holding the stump of her own leg, torn out by the soulless strength of a corpse. She screamed and wailed, blood gushing out of her fingers. She was a cultivator of Yunmengjiang.
Lan Wangji hesitated. As Jiang Wanyin was holding onto Wei Wuxian’s arm again and by the look of it, desperately trying to bargain with him, Lan Wangji kneeled and helped the woman make a garrote around her thigh.
Then he heard, “A-Xian, please!”
Jiang Yanli was running across the battlefield. Somehow, none of the corpses attacked her. Lan Wangji realized that she and her brother were the only ones not followed around by their army.
Jin Guangshan fled on his sword, and Wei Wuxian let out a scream of such grief and such hatred, Wangji felt it like a blade tearing his skin.
Wei Wuxian escaped Jiang Wanyin. He fell into the squirming mass of fighters and disappeared within their ranks. The chilling sound of Chenqing’s music echoed over the field, then, and the corpses seemed to still as one; as one, they turned to the cultivators in gold.
Lan Wangji had not heard the sound of the dizi since he had been the one to breathe love into it, once, in a gold-shadowed forest of Lanling.
It was with that memory on the heart that he looked through the throes of wounded and dead for the source of it. The hem of his white robes became brown with blood and dirt, but he did not care. A sword nicked into the side of his arm as he pushed himself cluelessly into the path of a tall man’s battle, but he did not feel pain. Minute after minute, second after second dropped out of existence as he searched, mindless of ache and exhaustion, his very soul borne upon a single wish.
This wish, this desire, had defined him since he was fifteen years old. Since he had first met the grey eyes of a lively boy above the roof of his home. Since Wei Wuxian had looked at him and not seen a cold, lifeless youth; but someone worth sparring with with all of his blinding talent, and someone worth smiling to.
There was never a question in Lan Wangji’s mind of whose side he would take when the time came for the whole world to rally against Wei Wuxian.
He found him in the midst of a clearing of sorts. Dead bodies littered the ground around in something of a circle. As Lan Wangji watched, panting, the freshly-murdered rose again. They became part of Wei Wuxian’s army. And Wei Wuxian shook on his own legs in the middle of it all, holding Chenqing to his mouth to play, the Stygian Tiger Seal floating menacingly near him.
When he saw Lan Wangji, he stilled. The dizi lowered from under his lips. His wax-white face twisted.
“Lan Zhan,” he said.
Lan Zhan, he said, and Lan Wangji’s heart swelled again as it had the very first time.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji replied.
But before he could step forth, light stung into his eyes. A barrier of corpses nearby fell, and Jiang Wanying emerged, blood-stained, an arrow stuck in his shoulder.
“Wei Wuxian!” he yelled, breathless, desperate. “Stop! You can’t go on, your body can’t take it!”
Wangji felt a sharp pain in his middle.
He blinked slowly. A corpse beside him had snuck up on him, the dead body of a cultivator from the Ouyang sect; its sword was inching into him, causing him to bite his tongue and sway. He struggled to raise Bichen again and cut off the dead man’s head. For a minute or two this battle absorbed him, for he could not reach Wei Wuxian’s side if he died, too; then Bichen plunged into the cadaver’s neck at last and severed it from its body.
The music ceased. It felt to Lan Wangji that the battle ceased, too, as he looked over his shoulder and to the place Wei Wuxian had stood.
He was not standing there anymore.
Instead he was on the ground, Lan Wangji saw, his chest hollowed by fear. Pushed down by a shape in white who had suddenly knocked into him sideways. Jiang Wanyin to the side was struggling with three fierce corpses on his own, Sandu in one hand and Zidian in the other; still he found the time to look and scream, “No!”
Jiang Yanli fell onto Wei Wuxian’s body. There was a deep gash in her back bleeding from nape to hip. The corpse who had given it to her lifted its sword again, ready to strike; but Jiang Wanyin ran to her, earning himself another cut into the side, and parried the blow with Sandu.
He made quick work of the corpse after that, before kneeling where Wei Wuxian kneeled, holding his sister in his arms.
“I thought you could control them,” he screamed to the sect-brother before him whose face was slack with shock; “You said you could control them!”
“I,” said Wei Wuxian blankly.
“Sister,” Jiang Wanyin moaned. He cradled Jiang Yanli closer, keeping his hands away from the wound in her back. “Oh, Sister, please—”
Lan Wangji tried to join them. Although the music had stopped, the Seal was still active. The now-guideless corpses started attacking each other, attacking all in their way. What few of Lanlingjin had survived the targeted assault now ran, tripping over their kin and their own feet. Exhaustion bit into Wangji’s body with the strength of a thousand divine beasts, but he walked on. He worked his way through the masses of creatures now devouring all who stood by them.
He cried out when he saw the arrows fly into Wei Wuxian’s side.
Wei Wuxian swayed, fell; he did not rise this time. The Stygian Tiger Seal floating above him split and crashed onto the ground. And Wangji ran to him as if running out of fire, with a fear in his chest that felt more crushing than heat.
He kneeled by Wei Wuxian’s still body wordlessly. He felt tears burn in his eyes when he saw that the three arrows were not deep in his chest, and that only their tips had plunged into Wei Wuxian’s side, their shafts moving with every shattered breath he took. He tugged them out one by one, pained by the grunts that the unconscious Wei Wuxian gave. Then he picked up the two halves of the Seal on the floor and picked up Wei Wuxian.
He heard Jiang Wanyin call his name, but he did not listen. He did not turn away.
He flew over Bichen with Wei Wuxian in his arms, and glimpsed from far away the white silhouette of Lan Xichen, calming the corpses with Liebing.
For a long time, he flew. The sky darkened over him, wet with soon-to-come rain. The heavy air was all the weight that he could feel on his body, for Wei Wuxian in his arms was not heavy at all. He could feel the man’s ribs if he rubbed his fingers over his side. All the way to Yiling, Lan Wangji flew, Wei Wuxian breathing raspily against him; and only when he felt over his skin the layers of protection left by the years recognize the one he held, did the unconscious Wei Wuxian stir.
They landed in the middle of a village Lan Wangji had never visited before, but whose existence had been like a needle through his ribs for years. He saw no one around; no light and no chatter, not even a shadow of life. Slowly, he put down the gasping Wei Wuxian.
It seemed to him that Wei Wuxian took a century to wake. First his fingers moved, then his eyelids. He coughed against the damp grass, which flecked with drops of blood. Slowly, ever-so-slowly, Wei Wuxian’s hand came to rest over his middle, and he opened his eyes.
“Shijie,” he said.
His voice was nearly extinct.
He sat up all of a sudden. Lan Wangji tried to help him as he had in that forest—to check his chest and throat for air; to help him sit so that he would not hurt himself—but Wei Wuxian, suddenly taken by strength, pushed him away.
He grabbed the two halves of the Seal and, under Lan Wangji’s unblinking eyes, squeezed them in his bleeding hands.
At first nothing happened. But Wei Wuxian’s face grew red with effort and his chest started heaving, and at last a crack appeared through each piece of metal. They broke apart with the sound of lightning striking earth, the same sound as Zidian. One of them turned into fine dust and flew into the strong wind. The other fell onto the grass, devoid of the glow which had lit it before.
Then Wei Wuxian fell forward, both of his hands planted onto the ground, and vomited blood out.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji let out in fear, coming by the other’s side.
His hands found Wei Wuxian’s trembling shoulders. For a single moment he was allowed this touch as Wei Wuxian coughed and retched and slick blood painted over the soil. But soon enough Wei Wuxian grew tired of it, of him, and pushed him away again.
“Where are they,” he croaked out.
He was pushing himself upright, Lan Wangji realized. In spite of the fatigue, in spite of whichever injury was now burning him from within, Wei Wuxian stood. He held his stomach with one hand. With the other, he kept himself upright against the wall of a house.
“There’s no one,” he said.
His confusion could almost pass for childish awe.
“Wen Qing,” he called weakly, taking one step after another; “Wen Qing—”
He fell. Lan Wangji rushed to him, tried to help him; but Wei Wuxian pushed him away with hands as weak as a child, and said, “Leave me!”
“Wen Qing,” he called again as he pushed upright, as he pushed forth; and again and again he said it, after each house door he opened, only to find the space beyond dark and empty. “Luo Fanghua! Grandmother! Wen Qing!”
“There’s no one,” Wei Wuxian said, and although he did not cry, his voice bore more grief than Lan Wangji had seen before. Again and again he fell and stood up; again and again he paused to cough out blood and pushed Lan Wangji’s hands away—”Where are they? Where are they!?”
“I do not know,” Lan Wangji whispered.
Yet the whole village around them was as void as the Nightless City had been, and the only sound around except for their voices and steps was that of the river.
They were too late. Jin Guangshan’s men had come.
Wei Wuxian leaned against a rocky wall giving into the opening of a cave. He fell to his knees in the dirt and vomited again.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji called in fright.
“Leave me,” Wei Wuxian choked out, pushing weakly at him. “Leave, you—”
“I will not,” said Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian sobbed once. He brought both of his hands up and crushed his face under them. “Can’t you see this is useless,” he said. “Can’t you see that I’ve lost everything I ever…”
His words vanished. His blackened nails dug into the skin of his face as a despair deeper and more terrible than tears took him. He suddenly looked defeated, Lan Wangji thought, when never before had he conceded failure. Not in their youth, not whilst they fought for their lives in the Xuanwu’s cave. Not either when Jin Guangshan had first threatened him.
Lan Wangji opened his mouth painfully. “They may still be alive,” he said.
But Wei Wuxian lashed out as if his very body were uncontrollable; he pushed Lan Wangji into the dirt, tearing gashes out of his face with his own hands, and screamed: “LEAVE ME!”
I can’t, Lan Wangji thought as Wei Wuxian stared at him in hatred and grief. I could never.
“Why are you here!?” Wei Wuxian asked.
Lan Wangji did not answer.
“What do you think bringing me here will do? Did you think you could play music for me again,” he added, and the mocking in his voice felt to Wangji like the wound in his side. “After I killed all those people, after I killed my—”
He choked. Tears fell out of his eyes at last.
“She was not dead,” Lan Wangji breathed.
It was the truth. Jiang Yanli was alive still when they had left, and Jiang Wanyin by her side had poured his own spirituality into her to hasten her healing.
But Wei Wuxian laughed, empty of mirth—empty, it seemed, of everything that he had ever been. “After I’ve killed her husband,” he cried, “she may as well be. Jin Guangshan will see her hanged like he saw Uncle Four, like he saw everyone else.”
“Jiang Wanyin will not allow it.”
Wei Wuxian bit his lip. He wiped his face again with shaking hands, sagging against the wall of the cave’s entrance. Cool air slithered out of the opening. The first raindrops fell onto them, wetting Lan Wangji’s temple and brow, rolling between his eyes like tears.
Soon, they were drenched. The grass around them bowed under the weight of the storm. Lan Wangji worried for the cough he could hear building up Wei Wuxian’s uneven breathing again; his chin was stained with fresh blood.
“You should take cover,” he could not help but say.
“What does it matter,” Wei Wuxian replied.
Each time he looked around the village, his face twisted with pain. His too-thin neck pulsed with his hurried heartbeats. The skin there was so transparent, Lan Wangji fancied that he could count each vein, each bone, so sick had the fight made the man before him.
“You should just kill me and be done with it, Lan Zhan.”
“No,” Lan Wangji said immediately.
“‘No’,” Wei Wuxian mimicked. His voice broke over his words. “You always were like this. Always opposing me for the littlest thing. I’ve long believed that I would die at Bichen’s end, you know. I would prefer it to the fate Jin Guangshan has reserved me.”
Lan Wangji’s throat was knotted. He took Bichen out of its sheath slowly and kneeled; and he laid the sword over the ground between them, leaving the white blade of it to catch raindrops and gleam.
Wei Wuxian looked at it emptily.
“I will not,” Lan Wangji said.
He could not. For as long as he lived, he would never be able to.
“Why?” Wei Wuxian asked.
Lan Wangji lowered the eyes. He stayed silent.
It was the wrong thing to do. Wei Wuxian groaned in frustration, swallowed still by his own misery. He advanced toward Lan Wangji and grabbed the collar of his robes with as much strength as he still had.
“Look at me,” he spat in Wangji’s face; and Lan Wangji obeyed wordlessly. He looked into those grey eyes, saw the circles under them, the crusted blood at Wei Wuxian’s temples. “Why?” Wei Wuxian asked again harshly. “Why do you hope to gain from helping me, Lan Zhan? What glory could possibly await the heir of Gusulan, to side with the traitor kunze of Yiling?”
“Not glory,” Lan Wangji managed.
“There is always a price!” Wei Wuxian yelled.
His fingers trembled under Lan Wangji’s chin. His whole body shook as if the wind and rain were enough to try and lift him from the ground. Now his long hair was slick with wet and sticking to his deathly-pale face like a curtain, and the thinness of him was tangible.
“You think me some fool, don’t you,” Wei Wuxian rasped. “Do you think I have never dealt with people like you before, do you think me naïve enough to believe in selflessness? After what I’ve seen all my life?”
“No price,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Wuxian was too weak to truly choke the words from him. They came out breezy anyway.
Wei Wuxian laughed at him. He sounded like he was sobbing. “Whatever you want from me, I can’t give it to you now,” he said. His knees buckled; he stayed upright by holding his own weight over Lan Wangji’s shoulders. “Just look at this place. Everything I ever had is gone, and I will be dead soon.”
“I never wanted—”
“Then tell me what you want!”
Wei Wuxian was breathing into his very face. He seemed not to care at all for their proximity, so mad was he with loss. He shook aside the soaked hair sticking to his nose and lips.
“What do you want,” he said again.
Lone and trembling against the rest of the world, and asking for so little. His eyes wrought in shadows and his body bent over with pain, standing here in the place he had built and lost, with only a stranger near him to see him be defeated at last.
It was truly so little, Lan Wangji thought. Only a word, only one truth. Such an insignificant secret to keep in the face of everything. Those were the thoughts in his mind as he made the greatest mistake of his life. And for thirteen years after that day, he would remember this: Wei Wuxian’s eyes, Wei Wuxian’s voice, begging him for the truth.
Wei Wuxian as he was in the seconds before.
Lan Wangji looked into Wei Wuxian’s eyes. Rain poured into his open mouth and poured into his open eyes. He dared not say a word, dared not breathe either then; and simply pressed a hand over his beating, aching chest.
For a second the world stilled. The rain slowed and lessened. Then: “No,” said Wei Wuxian, as he released his hold on Lan Wangji’s collar.
Lan Wangji felt not the lack of his touch. He grabbed onto his own robes, over the heart he had kept hidden all those years. He watched Wei Wuxian step away from him with a lost look to his eyes.
“Not you,” Wei Wuxian begged.
For the very first time, and for the very last as well: he begged to Lan Wangji.
His arm raised as if to hide his face again; but he lowered it, and turned aside; and then let out a scream which painted his lips red with blood, and yelled again: “Not you!”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji let out.
Wei Wuxian flinched. Wei Wuxian looked at the ground, looked at the sky. He shoved his hands into his hair as if to tear it away from his scalp, his body wrung with energy, his movements haphazard with fear.
Suddenly, he looked at Lan Wangji again. He picked up Bichen laid over the ground between them and pressed the edge of it to Lan Wangji’s neck. As the blade shook over Lan Wangji’s skin and the breath vanished from his lungs, Wei Wuxian asked: “Do you want this?”
His voice, rendered rough by the cough and the blood, seemed to rock off the glistening entrance of the cave. It echoed behind him endlessly.
“I,” Lan Wangji tried, frightened.
“Do you want this?” Wei Wuxian asked again.
His free hand came to grab at his own collar; with a broad tug he loosened it, and the outer robes he wore fell over his shoulders. It opened over his chest.
He wore nothing under it. And although the downpour washed away the blood from the arrowhead wounds, it could not simply rinse from him the scars. Lan Wangji saw them: a patch of yellow skin through the shoulder, as if someone had stabbed him; a vertical cut through the sternum like a line drawn with a ruler; thin skin over visible ribs, an old burn wound in the shape of the sun, a hundred little white lines over a concave belly.
There were bruises under them all. Black stains growing as if Wei Wuxian were bleeding out under the skin. They spread and spread under Lan Wangji’s eyes like the darkness had spread over the Nightless City hours ago.
“Have your fill, Lan Wangji!” Wei Wuxian howled at him. “Do you want to pick up where Wen Chao left off? Do you want to rape another child into me? Is this what you want? Then come! Come and take it!”
No, Lan Wangji thought, but his mouth was sewn shut and his body turned to stone. The slick rain had penetrated his skin, had iced over muscles and bones. He could not move a finger.
Wei Wuxian threw Bichen back on the ground. He fell to his knees before Lan Wangji and grabbed him by the collar again. “I should’ve known,” he said in something like humor and something like hatred at once.
The belt holding his robes closed around his hips had loosened. Lan Wangji could only look down at it in frozen silence and count the white marks of skin around Wei Wuxian’s belly, some tinted red at their short ends, as if his epiderm had once stretched until it split.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian laughed. Wei Wuxian cried. “Let me tell you how I feel, Lan Zhan. You’ll be the first to know.”
Lan Wangji said nothing. He moved only when Wei Wuxian pulled him forward; breathed only when Wei Wuxian breathed; and stayed still and quiet as Wei Wuxian spoke.
“I feel like a gutted fish,” Wei Wuxian told him. Each of his words tore out of his bleeding mouth and washed over Wangji’s face. “Thrown back into the river before I was completely dead. I feel like I bit into the bait like a fool, and the one who pulled me out tore out my tongue and my entrails and then discarded me. And it doesn’t matter,” he added harshly, “how deep the calm is and how quiet the waters flow. I’ve forgotten how to swim.”
His forehead came to rest over Lan Wangji’s shoulder. His hands grabbed helplessly at Lan Wangji’s robes.
“I was dead when I first fell into Yiling,” he sobbed. “I have been dead for years. I am empty, hollow, just a bag of skin stretched over nothing. I was emptied out when that monster was born.” A breath, taken near the crook of Lan Wangji’s neck, as cold as ghostlight on the skin. “This is how I feel.”
With this he pushed Lan Wangji away once again, and Lan Wangji did nothing to halt his fall. He let his side hit the mud, let his hands burrow in it.
Wei Wuxian nearly did not stand again. He fell over the first time he tried, the black stains under his skin spreading and making him cough out blood. For a moment he lay breathless, looking away from Lan Wangji. He took hold of Bichen once more, using it to push himself up, although the blade sank into the first layer of earth as if it were liquid. His other hand pressed into his belly where the black bruises kept growing.
Wei Wuxian coughed and bled. He wiped the mud off Bichen’s blade onto his open clothes, then held the tip of it above Lan Wangji’s neck again. His face was as pale as a ghost’s. His skin glistened under the dark grey clouds.
“Just kill me,” he said.
Lan Wangji parted his lips as if parting stone: “No.”
Wei Wuxian’s hold on Bichen faltered. He caught it before it fell: the blade turned town and inward this time, pointing to his own legs. His hand closed around it the wrong way.
“Fine,” he sighed.
He looked toward the sky. For a time he stayed still, letting the rain wash over his face and bare shoulders and fall in rivulets over his chest. His eyes must be closed, though Lan Wangji could not see them from under. The severe line of his lips softened.
For the first time since their childhood, Wei Wuxian looked peaceful.
“I suppose it would be cruel to ask you to do it,” he said. And somehow the tone of his voice had become light and teasing, as if he were once more the child drinking liquor over a wall in defiance. He looked down at Lan Wangji and smiled, saying: “I’m sorry.”
His eyes gleamed. He shook Bichen in his hand until his hold on its pommel grew secure.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji called in alarm.
He pushed himself off the ground, pushed himself across the distance between them, Wei Wuxian’s name dripping out of his mouth incessantly.
Wei Wuxian lifted the white sword, the blade of it turned to himself; and stabbed its end upward under the sharp curve of his ribs.
When Jiang Cheng separated from Jiang Yanli, it was with a promise, asked from her trembling lips as she was taken to be healed: You must bring him back.
She was the only sound he heard above the confused space of the Nightless City. Hundreds of cultivators littered the burned ground with their bodies, all of them dead in terror, some of them mangled beyond recognition. What few of them still lived now rose, trembling, their legs akin to those of foals only learning to walk. Although the attacks had stopped after Wei Wuxian lost consciousness, and Lan Xichen calmed the harrowed corpses with the sound of his xiao, too many still dared not move.
But Jiang Cheng was not afraid. He gave Zidian back to Yanli, slipping it onto her finger, holding her hand tightly. “I will,” he promised her. “Just rest, sister.”
She smiled weakly at him. Her hand was cold within his own.
Jiang Cheng mounted Sandu and flew far into the sky, taking the direction of Yiling where Lan Wangji must have gone.
When he was halfway there, the clouds ruptured. Cold rain soaked through his clothes and made him slip over the blade, but he held tight. He drew strength out of the core in him which he had lost, once; and which Wei Wuxian had given back.
How foolish, how stupid he had been, to believe his words then. How could Wei Wuxian have remembered the place where Cangse Sanren had trained? How could the dwelling of the sage Baoshan Sanren have been so conveniently close to Yunmeng? Jiang Cheng had been blinded by hatred and blinded by rancor, and he had not thought then to question it. He should have remembered to question it later.
The rain slapped at his face and bare hands, spread cold within his belly, and all he could think of was Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian over the bed of his childhood, looking like a dead man, bleeding from under the skin. Wei Wuxian standing still and unresponsive before the corpse of Jin Zixuan, even as Jiang Cheng held him and cried.
“He is going to die,” the physician had said.
He had disrobed Wei Wuxian and looked at him in dislike as so many others did; he had taken his pulse, examined his heart and ribs, and declared him hollow. Coreless. His punctured stomach bleeding him out internally.
Jiang Cheng had waited until he was gone to hold Wei Wuxian’s hand. He had waited until the darkness shrouded them both, and the only sound he heard was Wei Wuxian’s pained breathing, to finally break down and weep.
He reached the Burial Mounds of Yiling at the end of the downpour.
The barriers he had felt and broken that day so long ago were all but gone. He felt only a sliver of spirituality, like the last unbroken line of a shredded talisman, as he flew past their limit. Soon the kunze village, the only spot of green grass and leaf-full trees around, came within sight.
He jumped down the last feet of height before he was fully landed. He kept Sandu in hand and looked around himself, finding the places between the houses empty, the doors open and beating in the wind.
His stomach tensed. Worry ate at his heart.
“Wei Wuxian!” he called.
He repeated the name as he walked round the empty village. They were gone, all of them, he found: the sweet-faced and the ugly, the Wen sect people working wood, even Wen Qing with her sharp qianyuan-scent who had greeted him once. “Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng yelled, running between houses. And after a while: “Lan Wangji!”
He saw it, then: a spot of white over the muddy ground, far off in the distance beyond where the small houses lay. A brown-stained uniform at the mouth of what looked to be a cave, kneeling upright and still.
Jiang Cheng ran. He heard himself repeat Lan Wangji’s name heedlessly, his heart beating bruises against his ribcage.
Then he was near enough to see the legs extended by Lan Wangji’s prone figure.
He walked closer, close enough that at last he saw above Lan Wangji’s bowed back.
Sandu dropped into the mud with only the softest thud.
“No,” Jiang Cheng panted; “No!”
He grabbed Lan Wangji by the collar, knowing not if he wished to pull him up or push him away. Lan Wangji allowed him, more deeply silent than Jiang Cheng had ever known him, his face slack; his hands resting around the length of Bichen’s blade not stabbed into Wei Wuxian’s middle.
“No,” Jiang Cheng said again, falling into the mud; “No,” he repeated, putting his hands around Wei Wuxian’s face and neck, looking for a pulse.
There was none. The skin under his palms was cold and lifeless, iced over by the rain quicker than even death could bring.
Rage such as he had not known since the Lotus Pier burned shook him.
“I’ll kill you!” he screamed to Lan Wangji.
In his heart of hearts, he knew he should have wondered at Lan Wangji’s lack of response. Lan Wangji had never been mellow or weak, and never been one to take things lying down either, yet now he let Jiang Cheng grab him by the neck and strangle him, his open eyes staring back at him, unblinking.
But Jiang Cheng did not think. Jiang Cheng felt only the loss of another part of him, the loss of family, reviving all the wounds he had buried after the war.
“Die,” he sobbed as he squeezed Lan Wangji’s neck blue. “You murderer, you—”
He did not think to take Sandu and cut Lan Wangji’s heart or head out. The need to have this man’s life squeezed out of his bare hands rolled within him, stronger than any reason he could have.
This was Lan Wangji’s luck, he supposed: the fact that Jiang Cheng was too far gone to think clearly. Otherwise he would have died that day.
They were found like this only moments later—the both of them in the mud by Wei Wuxian’s corpse, Jiang Cheng sobbing and howling in grief as he choked out Lan Wangji’s life. Lan Xichen was the one who pulled him off of the man, who tried to reason him, but Jiang Cheng heard no words. He saw no one.
“I’ll kill you,” he swore to Lan Wangji as he was dragged away; as people exclaimed in joy or fear over the Yiling Patriarch’s dead body; as Lan Wangji himself was held upright by his brother, who looked to be the one suffering loss.
“One day, your life will end by Sandu’s blade.”
After this day, Lan Wangji disappeared for years. Long enough that Jiang Cheng could convince himself not to simply attack him at first sight and earn Gusulan’s enmity. But he never forgot this promise and never forgot his words; and he could never, not in a million years, forget the sight of Wei Wuxian in the mud with the white sword through his belly.
Days after his world ended once more, Jiang Cheng sat by Jiang Yanli’s bed. He had finished putting the newborn Jin Ling to sleep; the boy had cried until his voice broke every night since the death of his father, and Jiang Yanli was in no state to hold him for more than a few minutes at a time.
Sunlight had come back over the Tower. It faded now in rays of red and gold, and Jiang Yanli lay in the bed she had shared with her husband, her upper body wrapped to preserve the long cut healing along her back.
It was a hot day. As they were alone together, she had done away with outerwear, and simply opened the silk robe she wore under Lanlingjin’s uniform.
“A-Cheng,” she said to him quietly.
Jiang Cheng did not answer. He held her hand.
“Is it wrong of me to be angry at him?”
She had her face turned away from him. He knew that if he looked, he would find tears there again, as there had been ever since Jin Zixuan had died.
“I miss him so much,” Jiang Yanli hiccuped, shaking, “I feel like my heart will never be whole again. But I hate him too. I want to know why he did it, I want to know—”
Cries echoed through the room, cutting her words short.
“Oh, Ling’er,” she sighed.
“I’ll go,” Jiang Cheng managed to say, but Jiang Yanli replied, “No. I can handle it this time.”
So Jiang Cheng helped her to her feet slowly. He walked her to the little corner of the room where Jin Ling’s crib lay, and picked up the crying child wordlessly to put him into her arms.
At least like this, she looked happy, he thought. Carrying her son around the room and blinking her own eyes free of tears, Jiang Yanli managed to smile. She murmured to the babe until he quieted. She rocked him in her arms despite her healing wound until she was certain that he was fast asleep.
In the last rays of sunlight, with her open silk robes showing the space of her belly not wound tight and secure, Jiang Cheng saw marks on her skin. Little lines of white and red around her hips and below her bellybutton.
The same marks he had seen on Wei Wuxian’s body.
A memory of his childhood crawled its way up to him: himself in the wide bath of his mother’s home, still so little that she could hold him up and bathe with him, and her hands around his pressing them to her bare middle.
“You gave me those,” she had said, when he asked what they were. “When I bore you in me.”
Dozens of little lines in the shape of birds’ claws.
For the crime of killing a kunze, Lan Wangji was sentenced to thirty-three lashes of the discipline whip. For the crime of defending a traitor, he was stripped of his title of heir.
This punishment was not given immediately, for in the night that followed the massacre, Lan Wangji vanished. Those who were supposed to watch him were too busy celebrating their victory and continued living; Lan Wangji somehow broke into the chest where his sword Bichen was kept and flew away.
For the week that followed, Lan Xichen did not sleep.
Terrible things kept him awake. He imagined his brother hanging from a tree or dead of starvation. He tried to picture for himself the immensity of the loss that Wangji must be feeling, having loved Wei Wuxian for so long, and wondered how he could have brought himself to kill him at all. But Wangji came back to Gusu after nightfall one day, his face as void as it had been when Xichen sat by him in the Burial Mounds. He was holding a child in his arms.
He said nothing at all, either during the lecture their uncle gave him or during the lashing. Silence only answered the questions about the child’s origins, and it seemed to Xichen that each next stroke of the whip came down fiercer for it. Lan Yuan, as Wangji had named him when he handed him to Xichen, was badly feverish as well, and could tell them no more.
Lan Xichen did not understand just who Lan Yuan was until the day the child’s fever abated, and he opened his grey eyes and smiled at him.
After the whipping, Wangji slept for days. How cruel, Lan Xichen thought. How heartless, how unfair. Jin Guangshan had spoken overtly of murdering Wei Wuxian, had convinced half of them all that there should be an exception to laws and mores, yet Wangji was whipped for it all.
Yet Wei Wuxian had given birth in that cold inn, alone, and all the outrage in the world came only out of Xichen’s heart.
He wiped the sweat from his brother’s face in the days after the punishment. Sitting near him in the jingshi, listening to Wangji’s pained inhales, he changed the greasy bandages over his mangled back and pressed cold clothes against his brow to ease away the fever.
“Wangji,” he murmured in sorrow.
Again and again he called, wondering what he could possibly say once Wangji woke up. Could he say anything at all? Could he even ask what had happened in the Burial Mounds, to make his brother kill the man he loved?
Lan Xichen called Wangji’s name endlessly until the day Wangji opened his eyes and called back.
“Yes,” replied Xichen immediately.
He held Wangji’s lax hand which dragged over the floor. Wangji was laid onto his front on the bed, his head bent awkwardly to stare at him.
“Brother,” Wangji said, his voice higher and younger, as if he were still the child that Xichen had to find, hidden in their mother’s house. “I—”
He shuddered. The raw skin of his back shifted, and he grunted in pain.
“I made a mistake,” he said.
Wetness dripped out of the cloth tied around his forehead. It dripped also out of his eyes, which were staring at nothing that Xichen could see.
For the first time in over a decade, Wangji cried in front of him.
“I made a mistake,” he exhaled in a sob, tears wetting his red eyes and spilling onto the bedsheets.
“I did something terrible.”