Warnings: sexual harassment.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
In the book given to them all by Wen Chao’s lackeys, Wei Wuxian found cause for amusement.
He read it as they trod through the mountains in search of spirits and ghosts. Wen Chao followed them sitting on a palanquin, his mistress by his side feeding him delicacies by hand. For each feral corpse they slew, Wen Chao claimed credit. Each ghost laid to rest was reported as his doing. Wei Wuxian knew how much this angered the other disciples—he heard it in Jiang Cheng’s furious whispers and saw it in Jin Zixuan’s perpetually tense face—but although he found it irritating, the book proved a great distraction.
The great members of the Wen sect had much to say in the past. Philosophy and poetry and cultivation advice, each more asinine than the next, crawled over the thin paper. Clan must come above everything else. Immortality is within grasp of all but those who seek it.
One who abuses their clan name to bully others deserves nothing but death.
This one in particular kept him laughing through the cold days of hunting.
He knew that Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli’s food supplies had been taken when they were shown to their encampments. He knew that outside of campfires, they had little to keep warm at night. He couldn’t do anything about the cold, but he could and did bring food over from what was left of the kunze house’s copious meals. Wen Yiqian was a picky eater, Wen Linfeng ate no meat, and although Wen Yueying had a voracious appetite, she was too small to finish all that she meant to.
Wei Wuxian wrapped rice, dried meat, and bread in cloth every morning when he left through the hole in the washing room. A-Ying was there with him each time, delighted by his rule-breaking, and he made sure to pat her head and promise to return by nightfall.
At least the disciples were allowed to write to their families. The servant in charge of carrying their letters only came by the campsites, so Wei Wuxian could not write, but he was certain that Jiang Cheng related to his mother all the wrongs done to them. Jiang Yanli must try to make light of her own plight. She had grown thinner and paler in the days since their arrival in Qishan; this, more than anything else, made Wei Wuxian want to strike Wen Chao’s smug face.
The other disciples avoided him. Lan Wangji kept oddly quiet among the Gusulan group, silent in the face of their unjust treatment, surrounded at all time by half a dozen white-clad youth. Sometimes Wei Wuxian felt eyes on him as he walked through mud and snow. When he turned around to look, he would only glimpse Jin Zixuan’s retreating back.
In a way, his situation was enviable compared to the others’. He had a house to keep him from the cold nightly wind. He had a hearth and a washing room, a soft couch to rest his weary back on once sleep came to claim him. The zhongyong guards who looked over the house hated to see him arrive each night and not know how he had left, but they couldn’t approach the house to check. Wen Ruohan would have their heads if he knew that they had come too close to the three kunze he kept so securely.
It wasn’t until a week had passed that Wei Wuxian realized he had completely forgotten about Yu Ziyuan’s parting gift.
He found the pouch as he was washing his clothes in the basin. At first he had no recollection of it at all; when he tugged on the string keeping it closed, a sharp smell hit him and made him cough uncontrollably.
“Wei Wuxian?” Wen Linfeng called from the bedroom.
He had left the door open. She must have heard him. Although her opinion of him still seemed caught between fear and fascination, she came inside to look. He waved one hand in her direction and wiped his nose with the other.
“Nothing, nothing,” he said. “It’s just this tea that my clan leader gave me before I left.”
He was only in his underclothes now. Anyone else would have turned their heads around or called his virtue into question, but not Wen Linfeng or the two children she looked after. Wei Wuxian had never known that to be possible before. Wen Linfeng entered the room and paid no mind at all to the damp stains over his torso from laundering; she simply took the pouch from him, and suddenly, her face paled.
“Your clan leader gave you this?” she asked harshly.
Wei Wuxian looked confusedly at her. “Yes,” he replied. “She told me to drink it every day. I forgot about it.”
But Wen Linfeng cut herself short before she could finish her words.
Now Wei Wuxian’s curiosity was piqued. He stood on his feet, bending to avoid knocking his head into the wooden ceiling of the tiny room, and stepped into the bedroom with her. “What’s wrong with it?” he inquired, trying to take the pouch back from her. “Shouldn’t I drink it?”
Is it poison? he didn’t ask. Though he knew how much Madam Yu despised him, he wanted to believe that she wouldn’t willingly put his life in danger.
Wen Linfeng’s hand would not let go of the tea no matter how he tried to tug at it. Her face revealed only horror and shame as she said, “You shouldn’t drink it.”
Yet she sounded guilty.
“What is it?” Wei Wuxian pressed.
Wen Linfeng bit her lip. For once, the improper act did not bring her into a frenzy and cause her to touch her mouth and make sure skin had not split. “I shouldn’t let you drink it,” she said. “It’s, it’s wrong. It’s wrong—”
Wei Wuxian realized that her breaths were coming in sharply and that she was swaying on her feet. He caught her before she could knock into the dresser and helped her sit on the bed. He didn’t try to take the pouch back this time.
She took a long time to calm down. Two bright red spots shone on her cheeks, fever-like, and her eyes were very shiny. For a while he thought that she would start crying; in the end she breathed in shakily, wrapped her arms around herself, and shook her head to chase off whatever was plaguing her.
“Fengfeng,” Wei Wuxian said once he was sure that she would not pass out. “Please tell me what it is.”
After a brief silence, her lips parted. “I do not know exactly what is in it,” she replied. “But I once saw someone else use it. I would recognize this smell anywhere.”
Her hands tightened into her sides, the pouch still clutched between her elegant fingers.
“There were others living here before,” she continued. “They left to carry out their duty once a qianyuan bought them. I know about the way out of the house—” she shot Wei Wuxian a scathing glare, “—because the last one to leave, he was the one who cut it out of the wall one day. It was after sect leader Wen took him to negotiations. He came back and cut a hole into the wall with a knife and left, and we didn’t see him till morning came. He had covered himself in dirt and other horrible things to disguise himself.”
“What happened to him?” Wei Wuxian asked gently.
Wen Linfeng shook her head again. “Nothing,” she replied. “He was married a week later. But when he came back that night, he had that tea with him as well. He drank it every day, although it smelled and tasted terribly.” She shuddered.
Wei Wuxian felt that he already knew what she was about to say.
“He called it moonless tea. He said—he said his mother had told him about it when he was very little—before sect leader Wen took him from her.” Wen Linfeng took in another shuddering breath. “It stops fevers,” she told him brusquely. “It’s wrong.”
She kept ranting after that, but Wei Wuxian did not hear her.
For the past two years, he had thought that there would be no remedy to the loneliness and hollowness of heat. He had done his best to shoulder through the fevered days and to forget them as soon as they were over, so that fear would not keep him dreading the next. He had believed that this was how his whole life would go: loneliness, and the fear of it, and the days in-between trying not to remember.
And all this time, there had been a way out? All this time Yu Ziyuan could have given it to him, she who never hated him more than when he felt the first inklings of his fever and came to inform her of it, she who insisted he be kept under lock and key during those shameful days?
“Give me that tea, Fengfeng,” Wei Wuxian said blankly.
“I won’t,” she shook her head.
“Fenfeng,” he repeated through gritted teeth. “This isn’t yours to keep. Whatever you’ve been taught, this is—”
“No!” she screamed. “It’s wrong, it’s wrong, I won’t let you!”
She tried to climb backward over the bed, to put distance between them, but Wei Wuxian grabbed her arm and held her back, saying, “You don’t even know! You don’t know what it’s like, you’re still immature, soon enough you’re going to wish you had something to—”
Wei Wuxian stopped talking.
Wen Yiqian stood in the frame of the door leading to the main room. In his hand he held one of the dolls he liked to make out of wide strips of colored cloth, and it was raised to his face as if he were afraid of showing himself to them.
Wei Wuxian had come to realize that Wen Yiqian was a very timid boy. He used words only when he couldn’t avoid them, and his playing with A-Ying mainly consisted in letting her lead him around and listening to her incessant babbling. That he felt the need to interrupt them verbally was telling enough.
But the true blow, the true shame Wei Wuxian experienced then, came from the sight of A-Ying standing behind the boy and looking at Wei Wuxian in fear.
He released his hold on Wen Linfeng’s arm. Red marks spread on her skin in the shape of his fingers.
“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling gutted. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gotten angry.”
No one answered him.
He swallowed back the guilt, the heat in his face that felt like his very skull was thick with smoke, and said, “Please, Fengfeng.”
She gave a quiet sob and let the purple pouch fall onto the bed sheets. Wei Wuxian grabbed it without another word and left for the main room.
None of them addressed a word to him that night. He boiled water over the fire and prepared the moonless tea alone, drinking it scalding to minimize its awful taste. He couldn’t feel any effect on his body at all no matter how long he tossed and turned over the couch in the darkness. His mind ran around with thoughts of how to procure the tea for himself once he got back to Yunmeng—how had Yu Ziyuan gotten hold of it in the first place? Who knew to make it, since when, and why? Wei Wuxian had never heard of any way to prevent fevers before. He wondered if she had given it to him only because she wanted to spare the Wen sect more of his shameful presence; but then, it made no sense at all. Yu Ziyuan hated the Wens more than anyone he knew. If anything she would wish them to have to deal with Wei Wuxian’s fevers in her stead.
The candles burned out slowly. Wei Wuxian had gotten used to their heavy smell and did not choke so much on them now. Perhaps the reason all kunze bore such sweet scents came from them, he thought in his drowsy insomnia.
Perhaps they were trapped in this as much as in anything else.
In the thick blackness of that locked house, and no matter that three children he had grown to care about slumbered only a room away, Wei Wuxian felt alone.
“Lan Zhan doesn’t look good,” he told Nie Huaisang almost a week later, as they searched for a haunted cave hidden in the forest around Qishan’s Nightless City.
The thought had plagued him since he had come. The Lan Wangji he remembered from his short time in Gusu, the Lan Wangji who had saved him from Wen Chao’s arrow during the archery competition, would never let anyone order him as the Wen princeling did.
Wen Chao still followed them around, seated on soft cushions and with Wang Lingjiao clinging to his side. She kept giggling at their fruitless efforts and dirty appearances, her fine shoes not even specked by mud while they were all knee-deep in it.
Nie Huaisang put a hand over his mouth; this must be the best he could do to appear demure in the absence of his precious fans, Wei Wuxian thought idly. “Haven’t you heard?” he said. “The Cloud Recesses are no more.”
Lan Wangji was seated on a rock now. One of his hands rested on his right thigh a little too firmly.
Wei Wuxian almost stumbled and exclaimed, “What?”
“They tried to keep the affair quiet, but my brother is a former classmate of Lan Xichen’s,” Nie Huaisang whispered to him. “Wen Xu led an attack on the Cloud Recesses and burned everything down. I heard Wen Ruohan explained the whole thing as ‘an opportunity for Gusulan to start anew’.”
“This is such—”
But there were no words filthy enough that Wei Wuxian could come up with to express his outrage. As much as he had hated his time in Gusu, as much as Lan Qiren’s disapproving voice followed him around even now, commenting here and there in the back of his head over every inappropriate thing he did, he never wished to see the place destroyed. It had been so peaceful. So beautiful.
“Was Lan Zhan hurt?” he asked worriedly.
Nie Huaisang nodded. “He tried to stop them from burning down the library all by himself,” he said. “Wen Xu broke his leg in punishment.”
“When was it?”
“A month ago.”
A broken leg—no matter how clean the break was—would not have time to mend fully in so little time. They had been in Qishan for two weeks now, and Wei Wuxian held no illusion that Lan Wangji had allowed himself to heal before coming, not with the Cloud Recesses in need of rebuilding. He had probably offered his help everywhere he could instead of resting.
“He shouldn’t be walking at all, let alone hunting,” he muttered. Then, more loudly: “Jiang Cheng!”
“What?” came Jiang Cheng’s annoyed voice.
He had been struggling through the muddy path a few feet behind them, cursing now and then when he slipped. Wei Wuxian walked toward him and said, “Go offer Lan Zhan some help.”
Jiang Cheng looked at him as if he had grown a second head. “What?” he repeated.
“His leg is hurt,” Wei Wuxian explained. “Go help him walk.”
“What does it matter to me if his leg is hurt?” Jiang Cheng asked, irritated.
“Wouldn’t you want some help walking if your leg was hurt?”
“Go offer him your help if you’re so worried, Wei Wuxian!”
Wei Wuxian considered it for a moment before replying, “All right, then.”
Jiang Cheng choked on whatever reply he intended to give—he had obviously only told him off in jest, not expecting that Wei Wuxian would agree, but Wei Wuxian could see no reason not to.
Or rather, he knew every reason not to, but the situation they were all in was already such a mess that he didn’t think a bit of impropriety would matter in the long run.
He made his way toward the sitting Lan Wangji slowly, so as to avoid slipping through the water-slick rocks and dead leaves. A strong stream ran through these parts of the forest and dampened everything around. The soil was moist with it, which explained why so many maple trees grew here when the rest of the Qishan cracked over in dryness. Such a place was too dangerous for someone with a leg on the mend to walk around.
He attracted a few looks as he went, as always whenever he ventured away from Jiang Cheng or Jiang Yanli, but the other disciples were more or less used to him now. They had all met the Jiang sect’s unruly kunze Wei Wuxian at one point or another; even this much novelty must grow old after a while.
Wei Wuxian pushed past the closed ranks of Gusu’s disciples until he reached Lan Wangji’s side. “Lan Zhan,” he said, turning his back to him and bending slightly forward. He looked at the other over his shoulder. “Climb on my back,” he grinned, “you shouldn’t be walking on an injured leg.”
All the cultivators within hearing distance immediately reddened and scoffed, scandalized. A few feet down the muddy path, Jin Zixuan turned on his heels to stare, his face almost comically shocked.
Lan Wangji’s ears turned bright red. “Wei Ying,” he hissed.
“Someone needs to help you,” Wei Wuxian called loudly. He was aiming to make one of the others grow common sense and offer; instead, all he received was a tangible breeze of contempt. “You know it, so why won’t you accept it?”
“Of course he won’t accept it!” Jin Zixuan exclaimed, having run the short distance between them to yell directly at Wei Wuxian. “Even you can’t be so blind, Wei Wuxian!”
“I don’t remember asking for your opinion—”
“Enough,” said Lan Wangji.
He rose from the rock with only a brief show of tension at the mouth and walked away. His sect juniors flocked after him like ducklings, shooting anxious glances toward Wei Wuxian as they went. They were laced with disgust.
Good, Wei Wuxian thought, suddenly furious. I have no interest in your high opinion.
Although he expected Lan Wangji to be mad, he only hoped to have one of the man’s shidi realize that he needed help and offer it at last. He didn’t think that his actions would be considered so very disgraceful—he never truly meant to carry Lan Wangji.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jin Zixuan seethed. He hadn’t left, and his face was red with anger. “You can’t do things like this.”
Wei Wuxian had little interest in arguing with another arrogant little heir. Wen Chao was bad enough all on his own. “I wasn’t really going to touch him,” he replied coldly.
This seemed to surprise Jin Zixuan. He stared at him for a second before an oddly pleased expression washed over his face. “Of course not,” he said then. His voice had regained that touch of self-satisfaction which Wei Wuxian so disliked. “I see you learned your lesson from that time in Gusu. Once can be forgotten, but enough times and others will think of you as nothing more than a—”
He stopped himself, pale-faced, but the harm was already done.
Wei Wuxian’s voice felt very distant from himself. “A what?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Jin Zixuan replied immediately. “Nothing, I… My temper got the better of me.”
“You should say what you think in full, Jin Zixuan,” Wei Wuxian said frostily. “Otherwise others will think of you as nothing more than a gutless little coward.”
There was more he wanted to say, more insult he wanted to give for what he thought Jin Zixuan had almost called him, but he recalled too freshly what had happened the last time he lost track of his emotions. Wen Linfeng’s forearm still bore faint bruises. He kept his mouth shut.
Thankfully, Jin Zixuan did the same. He bowed to him stiffly, his hand briefly touching his chest, before walking away.
“Are you done making a spectacle out of yourself?” Jiang Cheng asked Wei Wuxian once he joined him and Nie Huaisang again.
“Shut up,” Wei Wuxian replied without much heart.
Jiang Yanli was still with her zhongyong friend. She seemed not to have noticed anything happening. Others around kept looking at Wei Wuxian furtively, their faces red or twisted with embarrassment, and Wei Wuxian felt a little like he had when Yu Jinzhu had walked him through the Lotus Pier to lock him up for his first fever.
This is obscene.
There was no canopy over their heads. What little snow had fallen over Qishan was long melted into mud, and it shone under the cold winter sunlight through the bare branches of the trees. Wei Wuxian followed the footsteps they had all left behind until he reached the place where Wen Chao and Wang Lingjiao sat, eating fruit and flower-shaped cakes. Wen Zhuliu stood guard, as somber as ever, the threat of his very presence making all swords futile. Wang Lingjiao cooed and rubbed against Wen Chao’s side like a contented feline.
Wen Chao opened his mouth to accept the slice of apple she leveled with his face; the whole time, his eyes never left Wei Wuxian’s.
They found no hidden cave that day. Wei Wuxian came back to the kunze house covered in mud and freezing to the bone. The two zhongyong women standing by the surrounding fence avoided looking at him as they unlocked the door.
It was late, and Wen Chao had not let them rest while they searched around the woods. Only the coming of night had him convinced to go back to camp. The sun was long gone, and Wei Wuxian had no hope to dine with company, but at least he knew there would be food. The Wen kunze may not be talking to him anymore, but they would not let him starve.
Indeed he found rice and soup and fresh fruit over the dinner table, and he hurriedly put the first two over the fire to heat while he cleaned himself up. All three children were fast asleep on the bed; he made sure not to let the house crack under his steps as he crossed the bedroom on his way to the washroom and back.
He ate quickly. He tried not to think of Lan Wangji’s rejection or of Jin Zixuan’s words. Yet when those fled from his mind, he found Wen Chao’s arrogant staring instead, creeping goosebumps up his back and making his stomach twist.
He had no appetite past a few bites of rice and a mouthful of the broth, but he pushed himself into finishing anyway. He put water to boil over the fire and placed some of the moonless tea inside a clean porcelain cup.
“You’re still drinking it,” came Wen Linfeng’s voice.
Wei Wuxian stopped in the middle of pouring the water into the cup. He heard her approach and take a seat away from him and decided not to look at her. “Why wouldn’t I?” he replied, finishing his task. The water turned brown almost immediately upon touching the dried and smelly herbs. “Why shouldn’t I avoid a fever when I’m kept away from home? I don’t see why this is such a problem, Fengfeng.”
“It’s unnatural,” she muttered.
She must think it was his way of annoying her—Why? Why? Why? Every time they talked Wei Wuxian asked it to her, and every time she fumbled and looked lost and made his heart ache with sympathy.
She was so young.
“We enter fever to conceive,” she told him shakily. He heard her gasp as he took his first sip of the disgusting tea, but she went on bravely. “We can’t conceive outside of them. If you stop them, then how will you have children?”
He knew that a tutor came to the house once a day to teach her all those things. An older kunze from the Wen clan, wedded to Wen Xu when he was still young, who taught each child to write and read and prepare themselves for what life would bring them. Wei Wuxian thought he would have long gone mad if he were in Wen Linfeng’s stead. He thought he might have become trapped inside of his own head as well as between those four walls, just like she was.
“Do you want to have children one day?” he asked her, turning around to face her at last.
She was wrapped in a soft cape of the best quality, her feet socked to protect her from the cold, seated on a chair by the desk with her back ramrod-straight.
“He slouches, see?” Jin Zixun had said.
Now Wei Wuxian knew the kind of posture he should have if he meant to be owned.
“I do,” Wen Linfeng replied with an air of defiance. “Of course I do.”
“Then I hope you do have children one day,” Wei Wuxian said, “and I wish you all the best. I hope that your fevers are kinder to you than they are to me. I truly do.”
There was something tangibly, achingly fragile to her expression as she took in his words.
“But—” and he took another long sip of the tea to mark his words, “—you and I are different people. I don’t want to marry anyone. I don’t want to have children. I’m a cultivator, and being incapacitated is a risk, so if I can avoid my fevers, then I will. I hope one day you can understand that.”
“I don’t understand,” she replied instantly.
He was not surprised at all.
“How can you be so—so different?” She seemed utterly lost. She asked again, “What can be so good out there that you would expose yourself to shame and scandal and refuse the protection that your clan could offer you?”
“Do you feel protected?”
She stared at him in outrage. “Of course I do!” she exclaimed. “No one is allowed to hurt us! We are guaranteed love and family!”
Wei Wuxian thought of the old kunze in Yunmeng who had lived in the house before him and never been wedded. He remembered how hushed his death had been, how his lack of a match was considered shameful to bring up, and how he had only heard of it by spying on the cooks while waiting for an opportunity to lift food from the shelves.
He remembered asking Jiang Cheng about it, and Jiang Cheng saying, indifferent, “He was too ugly to marry.”
Wei Wuxian had not thought of it for years after that. Now it was all he could think of whenever the fever came and he ached on the floor of the shack: an old man forever cut from the world, loneliness digging into him like a blade, his voice and character withering till wind could dust them off of him. Wei Wuxian would have preferred death to such a fate.
“You look scared to me,” he told Wen Linfeng.
The girl broke into sobs.
He didn’t know how he came to sit on the couch with her crying over his lap. All he knew was the strength of her arms holding him as closely as she could, the way she hiccuped when she said, You smell like outside, is it really what it smells like, the way he smiled and patted her unruly hair as he told her of his life.
I’ve swum so often in the waters around Yunmeng, I could find my way there even on a moonless night, he said, and she snorted and called him a liar.
I can fly, he told her, and she looked at him with wide, wet eyes.
She told him of how afraid she was of being separated from A-Qian and A-Ying as she had been separated from the kunze man she had lived with before, and who had been like a brother to her. She talked of her fear that the qianyuan she married would be unkind or indifferent to her, that they would prefer their other spouses to her and take her children away. She told him, I hope I don’t give birth to a kunze, and Wei Wuxian felt a little like crying too.
She asked with a red face what fevers were truly like.
“It’s a pain,” he replied, poking her forehead until she batted his hand away. “You get sore all over and you feel sick. I get awful headaches and I’m always too hot.”
Wen Linfeng’s face grew even more distressed. Wei Wuxian had no words to comfort her with, so he simply ruffled her hair again.
She fell asleep in his lap not too long later. Wei Wuxian shifted without waking her until his back was settled more comfortably against the couch, and resigned himself to spending the night like this. He dozed off till sleep claimed him as well.
Movement woke him some time later. A-Ying’s sweet flowery scent filled his nose as the little girl cuddled by his side, and the smell of fresh fruit followed as Wen Yiqian settled at his feet. Wei Wuxian smiled, wrapped an arm around A-Ying, and waited for morning surrounded by warmth.
Wen Chao was not happy with them.
For four days now they had looked for the rumored haunted cave without finding it, stepping through freezing mud, wetting their hands on slick rocks and cold, mossy trees. They followed along the mountainside farther than ever before; the Nightless City was so far behind now that returning there before nightfall was a fool’s dream.
“We’ll camp here if you don’t find it!” Wen Chao bellowed at them from where he stood. He had given up on looking at them from afar and decided to join the search, or at least to join it so he could insult them from up close. It seemed he had grown tired of Wang Lingjiao’s presence as well. The woman was alone on the comfortable seats that servants carried her around in, wrapped to the neck in furs, pouting visibly. Wen Zhuliu remained by her side.
The river had gone down the flank of the mountain and could not be heard now. The thick maple trees had turned to drier vegetation, pines and other coniferous plants which scratched their skin when they ventured too close.
Wei Wuxian gave Jiang Yanli some leftover goods he had saved from the previous night’s dinner. “I bet you anything there is no haunted cave,” he grumbled. “Wen Chao is just doing this for fun.”
“I heard it is an old Qishanwen legend,” she replied, shaking her head. “A monster that many Wen cultivators failed to slay. But no one has sought it out for centuries, so no one knows where it is, exactly.”
“He expects us to fight a monster without any weapons? Does he want us to die?”
Jiang Yanli did not answer. Her face looked ever-so-thin, and paler too, with dark circles under her eyes. Wei Wuxian could see how stiff and sore she was in each of her movements.
None of them except him were in better shape, really.
Wen Chao’s voice came from behind them, startling the both of them: “Do you think you have time to be lazing around?”
“Of course not,” Jiang Yanli said immediately, bowing and stepping on Wei Wuxian’s foot. He closed his mouth on the sharp retort he was prepared to give. “Forgive us, young master Wen, we were only thinking of where else to look.”
Wen Chao sneered at her. “Then get going,” he ordered. “You’re at least halfway smart for a zhongyong; go help those idiots over there, Jiang Yanli.”
He pointed toward a group of exhausted Nie disciples, among them Nie Huaisang, who stood under a tall pine tree and seemed to be fighting off sleep. Jiang Yanli gave Wei Wuxian a brief smile before obeying.
Wei Wuxian turned his back to Wen Chao and left as well, kicking branches and dead leaves out of his way, keeping an eye out for so-called legendary monsters. It didn’t take him long to realize that he was being followed; Wen Chao’s charred-wood scent hadn’t left his nostrils.
“Do you want something?” he asked dryly, looking over his shoulder.
Wen Chao, for once as dirty as they all were, only smirked in answer. “I’m just making sure you don’t stray too far, Wei Wuxian,” he replied.
Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes and decided to ignore him.
Unfortunately, Wen Chao had no intention of letting him.
“I knew you were shameless,” he said loudly, “but to make such advances on Lan Wangji as well as Jin Zixuan…”
“What are you talking about?” Wei Wuxian snapped.
“Have you forgotten already?” Wen Chao laughed, and the sound of his voice was as disagreeable to Wei Wuxian’s ears as ever. “Who knows what would’ve happened if I hadn’t caught you and Jin Zixuan during the competition? You should be thanking me for salvaging what little virtue you have left.”
“I thank you for making it so easy to win back then,” Wei Wuxian replied. “You and the rest of your clan’s incompetent archers.”
Wen Chao’s smile vanished. It was Wei Wuxian’s turn to smile.
“Watch your words,” Wen Chao said darkly.
He tried to advance as threateningly as he could, but his foot slipped onto a muddy strip of earth, and he slid forward, struggling to catch himself on the rough bark of a tree. Wei Wuxian laughed.
“You dare laugh at me, Wei Ying,” Wen Chao growled. “One day you’ll—”
“I’ll what?” Wei Wuxian chuckled, leaning against a tall rock and eyeing the wide mud stain at the hem of Wen Chao’s rich garments. “Choke and die at the sight of you?”
Wen Chao spluttered and raged for a few aimless moments. Wei Wuxian watched him struggle upright once more and felt nothing but cruel amusement. If any qianyuan deserved to be rid of pride, it was this one.
But Wen Chao seemed to regain his bearings soon enough. He continued on his way till he stood before Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian frowned, pushing off of the rock to stand as tall as he could. Wen Chao stared at him with the same disgust he always did.
“You’re an ugly one,” he declared at last.
Wei Wuxian shrugged. He was too used to such insults to let them affect him anymore. Yet Wen Chao advanced further, and only Wei Wuxian’s perpetual need to stay tall in the face of adversity kept him from taking a step back.
“Really ugly,” Wen Chao said again. “But you don’t smell bad at all.”
He closed his eyes and inhaled noisily.
Wei Wuxian suddenly felt that Wen Chao was standing much too close. He found himself looking away from him, anywhere but at him, and through his chest something spread that felt close to seasickness. His lungs stilled breathlessly.
“So sweet,” Wen Chao said almost softly. Wei Wuxian kept looking far to his own side; though he willed his legs to move—to walk, to run, to kick—they did not. Wen Chao chuckled, close enough now that the air from his mouth brushed the side of Wei Wuxian’s face, and— “I wonder how sweet you smell during heat,” he sighed.
The sickness rushed up Wei Wuxian’s throat. He raised a leg at last and kicked Wen Chao away.
His foot hit the middle of the man’s stomach; Wen Chao fell backward at once and hit the trunk of a tree. Whichever insults spilled from his mouth then, Wei Wuxian heard none of—he simply walked away as fast as he could. Cold air was not enough to chase from his throat the imprint of nausea. He thought he could drink as much wine as there was in the world and not be rid of it. He walked and ran, almost falling to his death twice on the slippery ground, until enough distance stood behind him and Wen Chao that he felt he had fled a whole country over.
The first people he met were the Gusulan group. Wei Wuxian stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of them, unaware of just how hurried his breathing was, and almost jumped when Lan Wangji called, “Wei Ying?”
“Lan Zhan,” he replied thoughtlessly.
His eyesight was a little hazy. He felt as he did in the late days of fever, when hunger gnawed at him and made the world turn round his head. Wei Wuxian forced some air through his stiff lungs and looked the Lan heir in the eye.
“I got lost,” he said in as steady a voice as he could. “Did you find the cave at all?”
Lan Wangji shook his head. He was frowning at Wei Wuxian, though his look was not one of anger.
Wei Wuxian wanted to say something else—to apologize perhaps for how their last interaction had gone—when his ears picked up the sound of someone running and panting, and his whole chest seized once more with the need to hurl. He turned on his heels and broke a branch out of the nearest tree, mindless of the cuts that the needle-like leaves dug in his palm, holding it in front of him as he would Suibian.
The person who emerged from the path was a girl from the Nie sect. She panted over her knees after she stopped before them, and then rasped out, “We found it! Quick, quick, Wen Zhuliu wants us all there.”
In the commotion that followed, Wei Wuxian found time to calm himself down. He walked behind the Gusu disciples and took care to regulate his breathing. Soon the sharp taste of acid receded from his mouth. He still wanted to wash it out with liquor, but at least he did not think he would be sick.
Lan Wangji walked by his side the whole time. Wei Wuxian would not have noticed if the man had not taken hold of the stick he was still gripping tightly and said, “Your hand.”
Wei Wuxian dropped the stick and looked at his palm. It was still bleeding slightly. “It’s nothing,” he replied.
Lan Wangji frowned at him and said nothing more.
The Nie disciple led them to a small clearing right at the crook of the mountain. Jin Zixuan and his shidi were busy pulling out the thick plants hiding a hole in the ground from view, and Wen Chao was there too, ordering them to be quicker.
He seemed to have completely forgotten about Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian’s hand flew briefly over his hip, wishing his sword to be there. When Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli joined him, he made himself smile at them, willing away the memory of the man’s breath on his face.
Jin Zixuan finished clearing out the hole. One by one, the disciples from each sect climbed down into it, calling when they touched ground for others to follow. Wei Wuxian followed Jiang Cheng into the darkness when his turn came, and told himself that the eyes he felt on him were the fruit of his own imagination.
Though the cave’s only entry had been shut by vegetation, it was wide and deep, and air circulated easily through. It didn’t stop the stench of rot from reaching them and making most hold their sleeves to their faces. A young boy from the Ouyang clan, the youngest of them all, retched into a dark corner.
Firelight swept over the walls as they made their way as deep into the cave as they could. There was a heaviness to the place that felt to Wei Wuxian as if someone were pushing down on his shoulders and trying to make him kneel; a somber and age-old sense of danger that made the wariest of them quiet.
For hours they searched every nook and crevice of the place. A pond licked at the rocky shores in the deepest part of the hole, its water deceptively clear, a round rock emerging from the middle of it. The light from their torches flickered off of it in shades of blue and green. Mouldy maple leaves danced over the pond’s surface and left in their wake the gentlest of ripples.
“Anything yet?” Wen Chao spat.
They were all beyond exhausted. Even Wei Wuxian, who slept at night with soft pillows and a warm hearth, felt tired to the bone. Jin Zixuan stepped forth out of the group they all made and said, “You expect us to hunt for something without telling us what it is and without arming us. Shouldn’t you at least explain what we’re looking for, Wen Chao?”
Wen Chao clicked his tongue in disdain. “You don’t get it, do you,” he said darkly. “I give the orders. You carry them out like the good dogs you are. Unless you want a taste of my Core-Melting Hand’s power, you will obey.”
Jin Zixuan looked a second away from attacking, and next to Wei Wuxian, Jiang Yanli tensed anxiously. But Wen Zhuliu’s hand glowed red, the sound of his power whipping through the air like lightning, and at last the Jin sect heir stepped down.
Wen Chao did not pay the matter any more attention. “It must be in the water,” he said, kicking a rock into the pound. It sank without making a noise. “You,” he told his fellow Wen cultivators, “bleed one of them to bring it out.”
“You can’t do this!”
Many voices rang at once, echoing off the smooth walls in a fracas of sound, as all the disciples around grew angry. Jiang Chang kept an arm around his sister and the other at Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, but his face spoke of the same fury.
“Silence!” Wen Chao roared. In the agitation, all clans had tightened ranks, and those who had come to Qishan unaccompanied now stood awkwardly apart. He pointed to a frightened-looking girl who had found herself alone and said, “Bleed her out!”
Wei Wuxian tensed. Jiang Cheng’s hold on him hardened. The girl looked around wildly as the Wen cultivators approached, crying for help here and there. She was ignored by all.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Don’t,” Jiang Cheng replied.
The girl took refuge behind Lan Wangji and Jin Zixuan, who had stepped away from their respective groups.
“Move,” said one of the Wen sect, threatening them with his sword.
“Is this treason?” Wen Chao bellowed. He had come down from the high rock where he had stood, Wang Lingjiao by his side wielding one of the Wen branding irons Wei Wuxian had often heard about. It seemed the woman was more than just an exuberant mistress. “Do you rebel against me?” Wen Chao yelled. “Not one of you is worthy of your clan names, all of you rotten and worthless, abusing your standings—”
“You’re right,” Wei Wuxian said.
He had enough.
Wen Chao turned to look at him. Any remnant of sickness Wei Wuxian felt from their earlier encounter was gone, now, under the weight of his outrage; he smiled as nastily as he could and said, “Those who abuse their clan names deserve nothing but death.”
Wen Chao became so pale that his skin seemed to turn blue. “What?” he said.
“Did you not hear me?” Wei Wuxian shook off Jiang Cheng’s hold on him and stepped closer. Some cruel malice was raging inside of him; for a second he delighted himself with visions of Wen Chao burning, of him being cut piece by piece until nothing remained. “Those who abuse their clan names deserve nothing but death,” he repeated. “More than death—they should be beheaded and reviled as the worst scum to all future generations.”
“Wei Ying,” Wen Chao seethed, his grip on his ruby-red sword so tight that it shook around it, “enough of your attitude. Scum? Reviling? You should be the one to be reviled, you worthless broodmare.”
“Do you know who first said those words?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“I don’t care who did!” Wen Chao was almost foaming at the mouth now. “I’ll kill them like I’ll kill every single one of you!”
Wei Wuxian laughed.
It was neither warm nor happy. He laughed as he had never laughed before, cold throughout the body, hatred coiled within him like a rope. Though he had no tools on him to use, he felt energy at the tips of his fingers, almost painful to the touch. It was as though the air of the cave was gorged with it; as though he only had to extend his hand and grab it within his palm.
“It was the founder of your clan, Wen Mao,” he told Wen Chao. “Jiang Cheng, remind me what the punishment is for badmouthing the past leaders of the Wen sect?”
He looked at Wen Chao’s ashen face, at the near-drooling state of him as he simmered in rage.
“Oh, right,” he said. “That punishment is death.”
Just as he had in the rocky maze of the archery tournament, Wen Chao rushed at him with his sword. Unlike that time in the mountains, Wei Wuxian was prepared.
Wen Chao was as poor a swordsman as he was an archer. He must have been taught his clan’s techniques and style, and he knew how to grab and swing a sword, but rage blinded him. He was slow and heavy. A lifetime of claiming the accomplishments of others had rendered him weak.
Wei Wuxian sidestepped the attempted stab aimed at his stomach; the bell at his waist rang as it hit Wen Chao’s blade, and Wen Chao himself gasped upon feeling Wei Wuxian’s hand grab his wrist.
He kneed at Wen Chao’s forearm harshly. His sword fell from his fingers, and Wei Wuxian picked it up, putting it at its owner’s throat.
“Everyone stop!” Wei Wuxian yelled.
In the time of their exchange, the cave had filled with the sounds of battle. Already he could see that a few Wen cultivators had been disarmed—Lan Wangji, Jiang Yanli, and Jin Zixuan all had swords in their hands—and Wen Zhuliu was in a rage, hitting people left and right, though thankfully not with his core-melting technique.
When Wen Zhuliu saw that his master had a sword at his throat, he fell deathly still. Everyone seemed to follow suit, their eyes wide at the sight of Wei Wuxian holding Wen Chao hostage. Wang Lingjiao was crimson with fury, the branding iron in her hand glowing orange against the glistening wall, and Jiang Yanli had one hand over her mouth.
Lan Wangji stared at Wei Wuxian fixedly.
“I’ll kill you,” Wen Chao hissed in an even higher voice than usual. Wei Wuxian focused on him once more, dragging him toward a high rock and making him climb it with him. “I’ll have you crawl at my feet, Wei Wuxian, mark my words.”
“Aren’t you tired of always saying the same thing?” he replied through his teeth.
Wen Chao was taller than Wei Wuxian, heavier and broader, and it was difficult to keep him in place without actually killing him. The close contact meant that Wen Chao’s scent burned in his nose and made him feel sick, and Wen Chao seemed to notice how hesitant his hold was, for he struggled even harder. Wei Wuxian stopped listening to the words coming out of the man’s mouth so he could hold him in place instead. He smelled blood when the heavy sword in his hands cut into Wen Chao’s neck.
“Stop,” Wen Chao begged, screeching.
Wei Wuxian opened his mouth to reply, Then let them all go.
Then the cave shook all around them. It was as though an earthquake had struck, and Wei Wuxian wondered for a panicked second whether the roof would collapse atop them all and bury them in the belly of the mountain. His hold on Wen Chao slipped. The foot he put back to avoid falling from the rock slid on its slippery surface, and he heard Jiang Cheng’s voice cry, “Wei Wuxian!”
Forgetting all about Wen Chao, Wei Wuxian turned around to catch himself, and was met with the sight of a giant yellow eye.
The beast roared. Its immense jaw snapped onto thin air, the sound so loud it ached through Wei Wuxian’s head, and then it swung its head sideways and made him fly high above the pond in which it sat.
Wei Wuxian bit his tongue under the blow. Blood filled his mouth and dripped down his chin as wind slapped at his every side. He crashed into the other side of the cave, his head hitting hard against stone, pain blinding him instantly.
He must have passed out for a few moments. He came to, perched atop a rocky arc, spitting blood out, dizzy and sluggish. Wen Chao’s sword almost slithered out of his grasp before he managed to tighten it. With his free hand, he patted the crown of his head; stinging pain made him stop, and his fingers came back slick with blood.
Only then did he look down.
The battle raged again, even more confused than before. The giant monster—a tortoise of some kind, with a gem-like shell covering its wide back—grabbed and swallowed whichever fool came close enough to water, indiscriminate in its choice of food. The sound that their bodies made as its teeth tore flesh and bone apart was revolting.
Wei Wuxian saw Wen Chao face off against Jiang Cheng, who must have stolen a sword as well. He saw Lan Wangji and Jin Zixuan trying their best to keep their unarmed juniors out of harm’s way, Lan Wangji limping slightly, Jin Zixuan’s face stained with blood.
He saw Jiang Yanli alone in front of Wen Zhuliu.
“Shijie,” he mumbled.
Climbing down would take too long. Wei Wuxian had no hope of being able to fly Wen Chao’s sword either—the very touch of it seemed to want him gone, seemed to want back to its master’s side, and he shuddered to think of trying to feed it his spiritual energy. In the end he had no choice but to drop directly into the water.
The cold bit him to the bone. He coughed and spat as he emerged from the surface, swimming as fast as he could to the shore, hoping against hope that the monster would be too distracted to see him.
He almost cried when his hands touched stone. It seemed so long ago now that he had grabbed a branch and cut his palm with it, but now it stang as he hoisted himself out of the pond and then used the sword to push himself to his feet. Jiang Yanli was still alive, still holding off Qishanwen’s Core-Melting Hand, but Wei Wuxian’s smile halted even as it grew.
Wang Lingjiao was heading toward her. In her hand she held the branding iron, its sun-shaped extremity glowing a bright orange.
Wei Wuxian discarded the too-heavy sword and ran as fast as he could toward his shijie. He pushed every confused disciple out of his way, calling her name over and over, though there was too much noise now for her to hear. He knocked into Wen Zhuliu’s back. He pulled Jiang Yanli aside so harshly that she fell, too, the unmistakable sound of a breaking bone ringing even through the chaos.
As the iron touched his chest, the only thing Wei Wuxian could see was Wang Lingjiao’s surprised face.