Warnings: brief gore/medical, novel spoilers, off-screen rape.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Wei Wuxian had always known the Lotus Pier in shades of gold and green. He had always known the pink of sunrise over calm waters, the cool autumn air on his skin as he wetted his hands picking lotuses. As a child, it seemed to him that his life would unfold bathed in the same soft colors. He put flowers in his shijie’s hair and wrestled Jiang Cheng into the mud and watched as the sun burned over the horizon.
Smoke rose over the houses where he had grown. It was impossible to know how much of the darkness which loomed high above was due to it or due to clouds, how much of the fire had been smothered by rain and how much still licked at the walls of the mansion, of Madam Yu’s pavilion, of the training grounds where only hours ago he had picked up a bow.
How he wished he had a bow.
The Pier shone red everywhere they walked. They slithered in through the water ways, diving whenever something moved, wading slowly through mud and ash. Wei Wuxian’s back had gone entirely numb, his wounds forgotten in the face of his duty. At every little sound, he grabbed the other two’s collars and pulled. At every long shadow, he held them still and listened.
Jiang Yanli’s tears had grown silent. Jiang Cheng had stopped shedding any.
“Maybe they escaped,” he told his sister in a white, shapeless voice. “They must have escaped.”
“Yes,” Jiang Yanli said, and cried harder.
Now, they crouched by the entrance of the main hall, hidden behind a smoldering barrier, unable to flee from the truth. They watched Wang Lingjiao whimper in the arms of her master and Wen Chao pull a sword out of Jiang Fengmian’s still chest, jade and blood flecking the ground and glinting in the flamelight. Wei Wuxian’s fingers dug into the burning barrier. The pain stinging his palm was nothing next to the one in his heart.
In the end his golden core was melted, and he was stabbed by a nobody.
Madam Yu’s body lay not far from her husband’s. The gold ornaments had been ripped out of her hair; Wei Wuxian saw them shine above Wang Lingjiao’s head.
“Young master, we didn’t find Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng,” said a zhongyong standing by Wen Zhuliu’s side. “They must’ve fled before we arrived.”
“And took Zidian too, I bet,” Wen Chao answered with a sneer.
“We’re still counting the items, but it seems the treasury wasn’t touched by fire. Sect leader Wen will be very pleased.”
“What about the kunze house?” Wen Chao asked.
The beta woman bowed deeper. “Untouched as well,” she replied, “but it doesn’t look like anyone was living in it.”
“That Wei Ying was just walking around,” Wang Lingjiao simpered, cuddling closer to Wen Chao. “They let him free even here, how despicable.”
“Decadence,” Wen Chao declared. He dropped his hold on Wang Lingjiao and stepped away from Jiang Fengmian’s corpse, kicking away broken pieces of blackened wood. “No wonder their clan stopped birthing kunze decades ago. Yunmengjiang is finally reaping what it sowed. They should’ve known that they would be punished for their impudence.”
Next to Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng let out a broken moan.
“Find the children and kill them,” Wen Chao ordered his troops, satisfaction dripping from his voice. “When you find that kunze, bring him to me alive. I’ll kill him with his own sword.”
Wang Lingjiao laughed. Wen Chao turned his back to them. His white coat flew around him, carried off-ground by the hot air, baring at his hip the bronze pommel of Suibian.
Wei Wuxian barely remembered how they escaped again. He had known that coming back was a mistake—he had known what they would find, he had known that the sight would only break Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng more thoroughly—but he hadn’t had the heart to refuse them and to lie.
He felt no hunger and no pain as they ran into the mountains. His throat was dry from the smoke, parched and rough when he spoke, but he did not stop to drink. He felt the wounds in his back pull and open again. Cloth stuck to his skin with sweat, water, and blood.
“We need help,” he told the other two when they finally stopped. “Gusu is closest, we should seek shelter there.”
There was a stream singing behind the rocks where each of them took time to drink. Though the night was deep and cloudy, this path was as it had always been: mountains rose around them and shivered under the wind, cool and quiet and infinite.
Wei Wuxian felt that they should shake, and that the earth ought to open under his feet and the heart of the world to growl.
“Gusu is no more,” Jiang Yanli replied. “The Lan sect is already weakened, A-Xian.”
“Lan Zhan will—”
“What about Lan Zhan?” Jiang Cheng cut in.
They were the first words he had spoken in hours.
“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli said mournfully.
But Jiang Cheng did not look at her. “What about Lan Wangji?” he repeated, glaring at Wei Wuxian. “Didn’t you hear what they said? Are you in such a hurry to prove those Wen dogs right?”
“Who cares what they said?” Wei Wuxian retorted. “We need help and Gusulan is the closest sect. Lan Wangji is a just man, he will shelter you.”
“Oh, yes, Lan Wangji is the epitome of righteousness,” Jiang Cheng said with such cutting sarcasm that Wei Wuxian felt his heart ache. “You’d know all about that, Wei Wuxian. Father should’ve let you take his name before he saved you from that cave.”
Wei Wuxian’s blood turned to ice.
“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli said in shock. “What are you talking about?”
“Nothing,” Wei Wuxian replied before Jiang Cheng could. He felt once more as if he were watching himself speak from a distance; as if he were floating above, the scene he was in the middle of laid very far under his feet. “We should go—”
Jiang Cheng was not done speaking, however. “Ashamed, are you?” he said, rising from the rock upon which he had sat. His hurt was stark over his face, dug deeply into the lines of his mouth and eyes, as if ready to crack his skin apart. It dyed his words into a different sort of violence. “Whatever for? You’re the one who defended him—you’re the one who made a spectacle of yourself with him in Qishan. It’s because of your faith in Lan Wangji that our home is burning, isn’t it?”
Wei Wuxian’s mind ran emptily. The cold spread from his chest and toward his extremities, stiffening his limbs, floating lethargically through his heart.
Jiang Cheng’s stare tinted itself with disgust the longer Wei Wuxian stayed silent. He turned to his sister and said, “Wei Wuxian is in such a hurry to go to Gusu because that’s where his qianyuan is. He already spent a heat with him, after all. Who’s to say he’s not carrying a little Lan—”
Wei Wuxian’s hands had grabbed Jiang Cheng’s collar before he realized it, tugging him close in rage and sudden, painful fear; but Jiang Cheng was faster, his back unhurt and his rough arms become firm with anger, and he pushed Wei Wuxian to the ground with both hands wrapped around his throat. Wei Wuxian’s gasp of pain was choked right out of him.
“No!” Jiang Yanli yelled in anguish. “Stop it, both of you!”
Wei Wuxian’s fingers tightened at Jiang Cheng’s collar. “You don’t know anything,” he wheezed through the hold strangling him.
Jiang Cheng’s eyes glinted in despair. “Am I not right?” he roared at him. “Would we be here if you hadn’t made an enemy of Wen Chao, would my parents be—be—”
Jiang Yanli had thrown herself at her brother, trying to pull him off of Wei Wuxian, her face once more running with tears. Each of her sobs made Wei Wuxian feel a little more breathless.
Jiang Chang’s hands tightened again. Wei Wuxian’s sight was blurring. He felt tears spill over his cheeks and realized too late that they didn’t belong to him.
“Why couldn’t you just stay in your place?” Jiang Cheng cried. His hold loosened at last, yet Wei Wuxian didn’t cough, didn’t breathe, didn’t try to get away. “Why can’t you just accept who you are!?”
At last, Jiang Yanli managed to pull her brother sideways. Jiang Cheng fell onto the muddy ground with sobs shaking his shoulders; she held him tightly against her, her own face twisted in agony, begging him not to hurt Wei Wuxian. Please, she said over and over. Please, A-Cheng.
Jiang Cheng dug his fingers into the dirt and pleaded, child-like, “I want my mom and dad.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes burned. He pressed the heels of his palms against them and crushed his own tears away.
He, too, wished for his father.
“I’ll go to Lanling,” Jiang Yanli said a few hours later as they slithered deep into the mountain, away from the oft-walked paths and roads. “I’m sure Jin Zixuan will help us.”
“Shijie, that’s too far, you can’t…”
She raised a hand, silencing him. Zidian glowed on her finger more brightly than it should. “A-Xian,” she said, “I’ll be fine. I’m armed, and I know the way very well.”
“Let us come with you,” he begged.
Madam Yu’s words still rang through his head: Will you protect them, Wei Ying?
“I’ll be faster alone,” she replied. “I’m inconsequential. Wen Chao wants A-Cheng because he is the heir, and he wants you because he hates you. He won’t care if I escape. He’ll come after you two, so you have to stay together and protect each other.” She looked apologetic as she added, “Plus, even if we disguise our identities, traveling with a kunze will give us away immediately.”
“What are you two muttering about now?” came Jiang Cheng’s voice from where he had lagged behind them.
Wei Wuxian stared at Jiang Yanli. He too often forgot how much older she was than him and her brother, yet he could see it now in every line of her face. She had inherited all her looks from her father.
“Go to Gusu,” she told him. Her hand braced his elbow, squeezing tightly. “Ask Lan Wangji for protection. I’ll come back as soon as I can with help from the Jin sect.”
Wei Wuxian’s chest ached. “What Jiang Cheng said earlier—”
“It’s okay, A-Xian. It’s okay.”
He didn’t know what she meant by it, but her smile was warm. Her fingers lingered on his arm in affection and trust.
Wei Wuxian watched distantly as she explained her plan to Jiang Cheng. He refused at first, of course; he shook her arm and pleaded with her and held her tight against himself, unwilling to let her go. Unwilling to separate from the last of his family. Jiang Yanli brushed his hair out of his face and kissed his forehead.
She wasn’t crying anymore.
They split up at dawn. Jiang Yanli headed north and they headed westward, the silence heavy between them, their clothes stained with all sorts of grime and blood. Wei Wuxian thought tiredly that even if he could disguise their scents, their physical state would give them away.
It was the first day of spring. The sun that lit their way was warm; the flowers budding on each trea, on each green patch of damp grass, softly drank in the rain and dew.
Wei Wuxian had never before felt so wary around other people.
The first village they stopped at was one he had visited several times before. At no point of those previous visits had he ever felt cowed by his status or anyone else’s. He had walked proudly beside Jiang Cheng and Jiang Fengmian, on his way to a hunt or heading for another town. He had teased his shidi in the middle of the widest street, where everyone could see. He had laughed loudly.
Now his head hung low as they sneaked through the smaller passageways. He hid his face and hair, covered his training clothes with a stolen cloak, took the bell off of his waist and shoved it in his sleeves. He breathed shallowly.
He made a mistake when he stole money from an old zhongyong seated in front of an inn. The man caught his scent and went wide-eyed and loud, almost catching Wei Wuxian altogether. Only the presence of many other people prevented him from knowing to which cloaked figure the treacherous kunze-scent belonged.
“You’ll have to go get us food yourself,” Wei Wuxian told Jiang Cheng when he came back to the narrow alley where they hid.
“I’m not hungry,” Jiang Cheng replied.
Wei Wuxian grit his teeth. “You are hungry,” he retorted as calmly as he could. “Jiang Cheng, you don’t want to eat, but you need to. We don’t know when we’ll be able to stock up again, and inedia must be avoided unless we have no other choice.”
“What do you know—”
“I’ve lived in the streets before. I know what I’m talking about.” Wei Wuxian added, “Please.”
For a moment, he thought Jiang Cheng would not listen. Words from the previous night still rang through his ears hourly, anger and shame both coiling within him at Jiang Cheng’s accusations.
Who’s to say he’s not carrying a little Lan?
Wei Wuxian couldn’t stop hearing it, and each time seemed to make him feel sicker.
But Jiang Cheng relented. He pushed himself to his feet and roughly took the money that Wei Wuxian handed him, leaving the shadow of the alley after covering his head with his hood. Wei Wuxian sat against the wall and ignored the pain in his back.
There were posters even in this town bearing his face and the siblings’. There were written descriptions of their crimes and appearances, of their statuses, of their scents.
Honey, Wei Wuxian’s said.
He thought of Wen Chao breathing too close to him and calling him sweet. He thought of grabbing Suibian from the man’s hip and cutting off his head as he should have done months ago.
Jiang Cheng was taking much too long to come back. Wei Wuxian tried to keep calm at first, knowing how shocked his shidi was, how confused he would probably feel on his own. Perhaps there were many people queueing to buy food from the street vendors. But minutes turned into an hour, and soon the sun started setting over the town. Wei Wuxian’s heart was hurried when he rose to his feet and exited the alley, looking wildly around for a sign of Jiang Cheng.
He searched like this for an hour more. He avoided close contact with other people, but looks were still thrown his way as he ran around the little town. Night had fallen by the time he came back to the alley, hoping desperately to see Jiang Cheng waiting for him there, but he was not. He wasn’t anywhere. Wei Wuxian let go of prudence and approached the nearest vendor.
“Sure I saw him,” the woman told him, “he got dragged away by a couple cultivators in white clothes.”
She continued talking, but he didn’t listen. Not even when her face suddenly turned suspicious and she inhaled loudly, rudely, exclaiming, “You’re that kunze!”
Wen Chao’s orders indicated that Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli could be killed on sight. If his lackeys had not done so, then they must have carried him back to the Lotus Pier. That was the only hope Wei Wuxian could hold on to.
He ran as he had never ran before. He grabbed the training sword at his hip and poured as much energy as he could within it—until his very core seemed to sag with exhaustion, until new aches rose through his body and heat choked him that felt too much and too familiar—until, at last, the sword rose.
Wei Wuxian jumped upon it.
Even when flying, he was slow. He pushed and pushed himself over the mountains they had painstakingly crossed on foot, mindless of the cold numbing his face and hands, guiding himself with starlight. It took hours for him to reach the Pier; he landed around the manor, behind a mansion he used to climb as a child, falling immediately to the ground and unable to breathe.
Pushing himself to his feet again felt like the greatest effort he had ever spent on something. Greater even than holding on to the cursed sword inside the Xuanwu’s throat and waiting for Lan Wangji to finish cutting off its head. He stumbled and walked and ran his way around, hiding when Wen cultivators crossed his path.
“… delivered himself to us just like this,” one sneered as she walked past the wall behind which he had crouched. “How far has Yunmengjiang fallen!”
Wei Wuxian could not, would not, cry.
He took to the Jiang house by water again. He crawled through spaces once meant for playing, breathing in the smoke still rising softly over what had been his home, looking everywhere for a hint of stormscent. He found it near the dorms where his dead shidi used to sleep. He knocked out the zhongyong guarding one of the rooms before the man could cry out in alarm and broke open the door.
Jiang Cheng lay over one of the small beds. He was still as a statue. Wei Wuxian’s fingers shook when he placed them over his open mouth, looking for air. He almost sobbed when he found it.
Already, people were gathering outside. He knew his own scent must have been noticed among the guards, and no sooner had he put Jiang Cheng over his back and opened the window that someone barged into the room and yelled, “Wei Wuxian is here!”
He climbed above the roofs, running as fast as he could, exhaustion weighing on him more heavily than even Jiang Cheng’s slack body did. He barely avoided the arrows shot at them from the ground. He felt his very heart stop when cultivators rose to his level on their swords and started their own chase.
He tripped near the row of houses where his bedroom was located. This part of the Pier had not burned as thoroughly as the main mansion did: walls still stood tall, barely blackened by smoke. Wei Wuxian lost his footing there and felt gravity leave him as he swayed over the edge of the roof. He only had the presence of mind to switch so that his back hit the ground instead of Jiang Cheng’s head.
The pain on his still-healing wounds knocked the air out of his lungs.
“Shit,” he spat as he rose again. “Jiang Cheng, please, wake up.”
But no amount of shaking him and slapping his face took him out of his slumber. If Wei Wuxian had not felt his breaths on his fingers or how warm his skin was, he would have thought him to be dead.
He lifted Jiang Cheng once more, a pained moan escaping his lips. He walked toward the door of his bedroom, hoping that no one had seen which way he fell. He stuck his back to the wall when voices rang from the entrance of the courtyard, obviously headed toward him.
And then someone grabbed him and tugged him inside the room.
Wei Wuxian fell harshly to the floor, Jiang Cheng sliding out of his hold much the same. He was blind to anything but fear when he unsheathed the training sword—its blade blunted by the spiritual energy he had forced onto it earlier—and stuck it to the throat of the smoke-smelling man who had captured him.
“I’ll kill you if you make a sound, Wen dog,” he whispered with all the hatred his heart could hold. “Don’t think I’ll hesitate for a second.”
The young man lifted both hands in surrender. He was shaking and looking at Wei Wuxian in an odd mix of relief and fear. “I’m—”
The blade dug into the man’s neck. Skin bent around its tip. Had it been sharp enough, he would be bleeding already.
Yet the young man did not stop. He breathed in and spoke again in a softer voice: “Young master Wei, I’m not going to hurt you.”
“What did you say, dog?” Wei Wuxian replied.
“Don’t you remember me?” the young man asked. His hands came forward as if in offering, bare and unharmed but for the calluses born out of archery. “The competition…”
Wei Wuxian stared at those hands without understanding. He breathed again the scent of smoking wood, pleasant if a bit strong, and the memory came to him of an earnest smile in sunlit, rocky mountains.
“You’re… Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian said.
Wen Ning nodded slowly. His smile looked the same as it had on that faraway day: nervous and sorrowful.
Wei Wuxian dropped his sword and fell to his knees.
“Young master Wei!” Wen Ning said worriedly, crouching by his side.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian breathed out. He crawled toward the fallen form of his shidi, grabbing his wrist so he could feel his pulse and reassure himself of Jiang Cheng’s continued living. “What, what happened to him?”
“I’m not sure,” Wen Ning replied. “I heard he was captured earlier, but I don’t know what they did…”
Wei Wuxian rose again. Wen Ning immediately helped him lift Jiang Cheng onto the bed, making sure that his head was comfortably laid on the pillow and tugging the cover over his body for warmth. The familiarity of the room ached in him the same way that the Wen branding iron did when it touched his chest; he looked unseeingly at the childish drawings pinned above the bed, at the closet and drawers still full of his clothing. Not much had changed, and yet he could not believe that he had slept here only two nights prior and not known any grief.
Wen Ning fidgeted with the sash around his middle. “I’m, I’m not staying long,” he stammered, mistaking Wei Wuxian’s apathy for anger. “It just smelled nicer here than…” He blushed and shut his mouth. “I’ll go prepare a tonic for young master Jiang to drink.”
“Please,” Wei Wuxian said emptily.
Wen Ning nodded and left.
It occurred to Wei Wuxian that the other may be lying to him. That perhaps the next person to enter the room would be another Wen lackey, armed to the teeth, or even Wen Chao himself.
He was so tired. This place—this room—made him feel for the first time just how little rest he had taken since Zidian had bitten into his back. Every shift of his shoulders pulled at the scabbing lashes. Every intake of air made him feel a certain emptiness where usually his energy shone.
He pulled the cover away from Jiang Cheng and checked him over for wounds. He found one painful cut from a discipline whip on his belly, as well as a few bruises around his ribs from being kicked around, but he looked otherwise unharmed. There was no bump or blood over his skull, no broken bone that Wei Wuxian could see.
Yet he would not wake up.
Wei Wuxian grabbed Jiang Cheng’s hand and squeezed it as tightly as he could. His own fingers felt terribly cold.
Wen Ning came back a few minutes later with a steaming bowl in his hands. He set it next to Wei Wuxian nervously, eyeing him sideways. “Young master Wei,” he said, “you look hurt too.”
“I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian replied.
“Please, I can help. Let me help you like you helped me.”
Wei Wuxian chuckled bitterly. “Like I helped you?” he said, vaguely recalling a group of young cultivators bullying Wen Ning in Qishan—recalling Wen Chao’s arrival and the first words he ever exchanged with the man.
Would he be here now if he had bowed to Wen Chao back then?
Would the Lotus Pier have burned?
Why can’t you just accept who you are?
His hand left Jiang Cheng’s slowly. “What you’re doing now far exceeds what I did then,” he said. “You have no obligation to help me.”
“I do,” Wen Ning replied. He smiled as he said it with a different air about him, looking as if he understood something that even Wei Wuxian failed to. “I really do. You see, I—”
The door opened.
Wei Wuxian did not think as he jumped to his feet and unsheathed his sword. The woman who walked in held pride in her every step, painting her as qianyuan even if her arrival had not brought with it a strong, peppery scent. She stilled at the sight of Wei Wuxian pointing the blade at her, the door slamming close behind her by the strength of the wind outside.
“What did you do,” she then barked at Wen Ning.
He seemed to cower before her. Wei Wuxian made sure to stay between her and Jiang Cheng as she walked along the side of the room, wondering idly if he would have to protect Wen Ning as well.
“Everyone’s looking for you, Wei Ying,” the woman said to him.
Wei Wuxian clenched the handle of the sword till he felt splinters dig into his palm. “They won’t find me if you stay quiet,” he replied.
“Sister,” Wen Ning said in a small voice.
The woman sighed, irritated.
Wei Wuxian could see now the resemblance between her and Wen Ning. They had the same nose, the same round eyes making them look younger. On Wen Ning, they seemed to make him perpetually sad and gentle. On her, they simply looked piercing.
Wen Qing, he thought, eyeing the white jade pendant at her waist in the shape of a twisted snake.
He had only ever heard of her before.
“Qionglin, what did you do?” Wen Qing repeated.
Wen Ning’s back straightened. “I couldn’t let him be caught,” he replied with surprising determination. “Sister, I couldn’t. I know you couldn’t either.”
Something pained flew over her face.
“You need to leave,” she told Wei Wuxian in an even voice. “We’ll all be dead if you get caught here, Wei Ying.”
“It’s his business if he wants to parade around like he does!” Wen Qing interrupted loudly.
In the silence that followed, only the wind could be heard.
“It’s his business if he doesn’t hide,” she said to her brother. Wen Ning’s face paled. “Do not destroy everything we’ve built just for him. Do you understand? I won’t let you, even if I have to tie you up and carry you on my back till we die.”
“What are you talking about?” Wei Wuxian asked.
His arm ached from holding the sword. The depleted core in his chest seemed to sigh in agony with every breath he took.
“It’s none of your business,” Wen Qing said curtly. “Now leave. The search for you has gone to the other side of the Pier, you should be able to make it out.”
Wei Wuxian’s free arm came to rest on Jiang Cheng laid behind him. “He won’t wake up,” he said.
“There’s nothing I can do about that.”
“You’re Wen Qing.” Wei Wuxian’s sword lowered. “You’re the most famous physician in the Wen sect,” he continued, uncaring that his words turned to begging. “Please—please, heal him. I’ll do anything.”
“I won’t heal him,” she repeated, baring her teeth. “Just take him and go!”
“I don’t have any money to offer you,” he said.
Wei Wuxian felt as if he had done nothing but kneel through his whole life. Kneeling for meditation and kneeling in Lan Qiren’s class—kneeling in front of Wen Yueying, kneeling under Zidian’s blows, kneeling as Wang Lingjiao branded his skin forever.
Kneeling in a boat and watching as Madam Yu went to her death.
He kneeled once more with both palms facing the ceiling. The sword slid from his grip and fell to the ground with a clatter of metal. “I have nothing to give you,” he said, despair evident in his voice, mindless of Wen Qing’s widening eyes. “I know you owe me nothing, but please,” he begged. “Please heal him. I promise to go, I promise to never speak of your help to anyone. I promise to help you in any way I can for as long as I live, I will give you my life to do with as you wish. Please.”
“Sister,” Wen Ning said urgently.
Wen Qing seemed even angrier than before. “Get up,” she spat at Wei Wuxian. “Do you bow for so little? Is this truly the Wei Wuxian that my brother can’t stop praising?”
“Would you not beg for your brother?” he asked her.
He saw the answer in her eyes just as she saw that she need not give it.
“Would you kneel for just any qianyuan around you, then?” she asked slowly.
“No,” Wei Wuxian answered. “But for this one, I would kneel a thousand times over.”
She looked at him in silence. Wind slapped at the windows, some cracks letting air filter in and making the curtains flutter. A door slammed loudly in the tempest. The oil lamp on the desk shook ever-so-slightly, its dancing wick making light flicker over the walls.
“There is no qianyuan in the world worth kneeling for,” Wen Qing said. “Get up. I’ll see what I can do.”
He did so shakingly, confused over her words, but his relief was too strong to wonder about them. He watched with gratitude as Wen Qing approached the bed and took Jiang Cheng’s wrist in her hand.
She examined him for a few minutes more, much more expertly than Wei Wuxian had. She took a jar from the bag tied to her belt and opened it; a strong, garlic-like smell filled the room as she applied the cream inside to the whip mark over Jiang Cheng’s belly.
“He should wake up in a few hours,” she declared once she was done. “I need to check on the state of his core, but I can’t do that while he’s unconscious.”
Wei Wuxian had to hold his weight against the wall so as not to fall from relief. “Thank you,” he said.
Wen Qing glared at him. “Wen Chao left this morning,” she told him. “He’ll be back in five days. In his absence, I am to watch over the Yunmeng Supervisory Office, so if you stay quiet, you should be fine. But you and Jiang Cheng need to be gone when Wen Chao returns.”
Wei Wuxian nodded.
“Sister, thank you,” Wen Ning said, smiling.
The glance she gave him was much kinder, though her voice remained harsh. “Give Jiang Cheng that tonic you prepared—I looked it over, it’s not bad. Leave some for Wei Ying as well.”
With those words, she left.
“You should sit down,” Wen Ning told Wei Wuxian. “You look very pale, young master Wei.”
“I’m fine,” he replied tiredly.
Wen Ning looked like he wanted to say something else, but his mouth stayed shut. Wei Wuxian sat by the head of the bed and watched him pour liquid into Jiang Cheng’s slack mouth slowly, massaging his throat to make him swallow. There was about a third of the tonic left in the bowl when he handed it to Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian drank it without flinching at the bitter taste of plants.
“So you’re Wen Qing’s brother,” he said once he was done. “I never would have guessed.”
Wen Ning smiled awkwardly. “Hardly anyone does.”
“I never would’ve guessed she was zhongyong either. The way everyone talks about her, I figured she was qianyuan. Her scent is pretty strong too.”
It had remained behind her, pepper tickling his nose and fooling him into an almost-sneeze. Her being qianyuan would make little sense in light of their conversation, however, despite how surprised he was that Wen Chao would entrust his newest conquest to a zhongyong. Perhaps Wen Chao was capable of appreciating competence over status from time to time.
Wen Ning took the empty bowl from his hands and replied, “My sister and I are both kunze.”
Wei Wuxian stared at him.
“It’s what I was trying to say earlier,” Wen Ning went on, a faint dusting of pink coloring his face. “The reason I feel like I should help you. You and I, and my sister, we’re the same.”
“You’re not serious,” Wei Wuxian let out.
But Wen Ning shook his head and said, “I am telling the truth.”
Wen Ning smelled faintly of smoke. In the aftertaste of the fire that had ravaged the Lotus Pier, his scent seemed enhanced, different for its touch of humanity, for its presence. Wei Wuxian remembered noticing how strong such a scent was for a zhongyong when they had met years ago and Wen Ning had bowed to him with his shoulders.
He tried to look for deceit in Wen Ning’s eye, but sincerity in the flesh seemed to look back at him. He tried to imagine any qianyuan or zhongyong pretending to be kunze, and found his own mind rejecting the mere thought as inconceivable.
“How?” he asked roughly.
He found himself taking hold of Wen Ning’s hand without any forethought. He held it in the same way Wen Yueying had held his, months ago, desperate for a kind touch. Parched for trust and company.
Wen Ning’s voice came quiet and empathetic. “There are drugs,” he replied. “We use them to change our scents.”
“Like moonless tea?” Wei Wuxian said.
“You know about moonless tea?” Wen Ning said enthusiastically. “Yes, like that. There are more. My sister knows them all from our father.”
Wei Wuxian couldn’t let go of Wen Ning’s hand. He felt, all of a sudden, much younger than he truly was.
Wen Ning’s face once more softened with understanding. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I met you,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that there was a kunze cultivator somewhere who wasn’t hiding who they were. You are incredible, young master Wei.”
“I never knew how,” Wei Wuxian replied. “I never knew—”
His throat tightened and ached. He covered his face with his free hand, trying and failing to crush his tears before they fell.
Wen Ning crouched by his side and took his shoulder in his hand.
“There’s more of us out there,” Wen Ning told him, not once looking down on him for the sobs now shaking him. “You’re not alone.”
Wei Wuxian had never needed something as much as he did those words.
They talked more after he had calmed down, though Wei Wuxian felt that he didn’t need to. Wen Ning answered a few more of his questions: he told Wei Wuxian about his and Wen Qing’s kunze father, who had also been a physician when Wen Ruohan’s qianyuan father ruled the Wen sect. He spoke of the man’s early death with well-consumed grief. He said that he had met other people who came to his sister for teas and potions to mask their status and live freely. Nervously, he explained that he didn’t need the moonless tea himself, for his fevers were few and far-between and only caused some mild headaches.
He never berated Wei Wuxian for his ignorance.
Wen Qing came back to check on Jiang Cheng a few hours later. Wen Ning had left by then to sleep somewhere else, saying that now that Wei Wuxian was here, he didn’t want to take his room. Wei Wuxian dozed on and off for a while in the silence, the oil lamp burning slowly, his sword never far from his hand. Jiang Cheng didn’t stir at all.
He blinked sleep out of his eyes as she walked into the room. In her hands, she held a small clay jar full of a different cream than the one she had used earlier. When she saw him, she said, “This is for you. Take off your clothes.”
He obeyed without thinking. A sharp hiss escaped him when he tried to pull cloth away from his back; as he had thought, it had stuck to the wounds.
“You’re useless,” Wen Qing said, but she crouched behind him and slowly peeled the training clothes away from his skin.
He tried to keep his voice down despite the burn of reopening cuts.
“Qionglin told me he saw some blood on your back,” she commented. “You’ve had quite a whipping.”
“Madam Yu wasn’t very pleased with me,” Wei Wuxian muttered.
There was a short silence. “I take it back,” Wen Qing replied. “If this is the work of Purple Spider’s Zidian, you’re lucky to still have skin.”
The cream stung when it touched his inflamed back, but Wei Wuxian did not complain. If anything, its cooling effect immediately seemed to soothe the prior burn. He hadn’t realized how much pain he was in until it started dulling.
“A-Ning told you about us,” Wen Qing murmured while she worked.
Wei Wuxian nodded.
“He’s foolish. Since meeting you he hasn’t stopped talking of visiting Yunmeng or sending you a letter. He seems to believe you can’t handle your life on your own.”
“I’m glad that he told me,” Wei Wuxian said. “I wouldn’t let you touch me if I didn’t know.”
Her hand pressed more harshly against what he felt to be the bigger cut. He winced. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking every kunze you meet is your friend, Wei Ying,” she said. “Many will resent you just as much as any qianyuan does, whether or not they live hidden.”
“I know that.”
“I don’t think you do.”
She bandaged his back in quick, assured moves, glancing with distaste at the sun-shaped scar on his torso. It was still very white and tender to the touch, though it had stopped leaking weeks ago.
“Wen Ning said that your father taught you,” Wei Wuxian said once she was done. Wen Qing stoppered the cream jar without a word, waiting for him to finish speaking. “Your other parent…?”
“He died before father gave birth to A-Ning, but he knew, of course,” she answered.
“I thought the odds of having so many kunze in one family were almost non-existent.”
Wen Qing didn’t immediately answer. She switched the oil in the lamp and took Jiang Cheng’s pulse for a moment, apparently satisfied with whatever it told her. Wei Wuxian relaxed a little.
“It’s not impossible,” she said at last. “Especially outside of bigger cultivation clans, who care so much about monetizing their offspring that they forget to care for them. There are hardly any kunze cultivators, since they know what they risk if they are caught, but more of us lead normal lives as merchants or craftsmen.”
“And they all know to find you for drugs?” he asked, surprised.
Wen Qing snorted. “Of course not. I’m not the only person in the world who knows how to make these potions. But hearsay works for those who can’t make them by themselves, and it’s not as if they know I am kunze either. I’m risking enough just by doing business with them.”
“Then why do you do it?”
It was the one question Wei Wuxian truly wanted to ask: why would someone as careful and ruthless as Wen Qing, who was ready to throw Wei Wuxian out wounded for the sake of protecting herself, risk being discovered like this? It couldn’t be for money.
Wen Qing looked distant when she replied, “I don’t want my life to be spent waiting for a qianyuan to rape a child into me, Wei Ying. If someone comes to me wanting to escape that fate, I will help them no matter the cost.”
He thought of Wen Linfeng, so young and so afraid in her fine, silken clothes. He thought of the burned main house only a few steps away where once a man had come to bargain for ownership of him. He saw, in the shadows of the room, the faceless silhouette of an old man, waiting for death in a little wooden shack.
Jiang Cheng woke up at dawn the next morning.
Wei Wuxian thought he had stopped feeling hurt by his shidi’s animosity and blame. He knew his own responsibility in the fall of Yunmengjiang, as much as he wanted to shake and roar and cry that he had no idea at the time what his actions would bring. But Jiang Cheng’s sharp accusations of having sided with the enemy ached in him—he couldn’t help but feel guilty for the comfort he had experienced here, for letting Wen Ning hold his hand and tell him You’re not alone, when Jiang Cheng lay lifeless right next to him, his sister gone and his parents dead.
Then Jiang Cheng shoved him away weakly and asked, “Did you feel my spiritual energy?” and Wei Wuxian discovered for himself the depthlessness of grief.
It seemed that his whole body ached as he watched Jiang Cheng fall on the bed with a needle in his forehead, Wen Qing snapping at them to be silent lest they attract attention. He felt as though his world was shattering again, and the recovered strength in his own chest was betrayal of the worst kind.
He had promised Yu Ziyuan to protect her children. Less than a day later, her son and heir had lost his golden core.
This kind of despair felt to him like fever. He spent hours sitting by Jiang Cheng’s bed and watching his own hands glow with power, wishing that he could share that strength. Let Jiang Cheng take half, take all of Wei Wuxian’s spiritual energy; let it be reparation enough for Wei Wuxian’s mistake and how badly he had failed as a disciple of the Jiang sect.
Shame consumed him for a whole day before he found the strength to move. In his mind an idea had brewed, born out of the rumors he had heard about Wen Qing when he was still young, when he still thought his life would be spent with his feet underwater and his head turned to the sun.
He waited for Wen Qing on his knees. He asked her for help once again.
“You’re out of your mind,” she replied, wide-eyed and so much closer to terror than he had ever seen. “You have no idea what you’re asking.”
“I know you wrote about it,” Wei Wuxian said evenly. “It’s possible.”
“In theory! Do you think I’ve ever tried to do this before, you fool?”
“He can’t live like this!” Wei Wuxian shouted.
It was almost night, and no one but the two siblings seemed to ever come around here unless they needed Wen Qing’s help. He risked raising his voice because he had no choice; because what he wanted to do was the right thing to do, the only thing to do.
“He is the heir of the Jiang sect,” Wei Wuxian said, nails digging into his own thighs. “I swore that I’d protect him. I swore that I’d follow him, that I’d help him. He can’t take revenge without power. He can’t be the person he was raised to be without a golden core, it will kill him.”
“Jiang Cheng will learn to live with it,” Wen Qing said. “You and I both know it’s possible to live outside of what people expect from us.”
But Wei Wuxian shook his head, eyes fixed to the ground, kneeling still in front of her.
There was no point in trying to make Jiang Cheng live like this. Even if Jiang Yanli found them again and the Jin sect extended its protection—and how Wei Wuxian dreaded meeting her and admitting to her how badly he had failed her last remaining family—Jiang Cheng would not accept it. He would rather die than live out his existence so soullessly. He would end his own life.
Of this, Wei Wuxian was certain.
“Please,” he told Wen Qing. He put a hand over his heart the way Jin Zixuan had all those years ago, hoping despite how useless the gesture was coming from him that she would understand. “Please. He’s my brother.”
In all but blood, in all but lineage: Jiang Cheng was Wei Wuxian’s brother.
He was his family.
That night, Wei Wuxian lay in his childhood bed for the very last time. It had taken hours for Wen Qing to figure out how to apply her year-old theory to practice; he had spent them trying out different anesthetics and sleepily feeling her jolt his core this way and that with her own energy, shaking her head, trying every few minutes to dissuade him again. Wen Ning watched all of it happen with frightened eyes. He never said a word.
“I can’t use any anesthetic or numbing agent on you during the transfer,” Wen Qing told him once all of her trying turned fruitless. “You need to be conscious, or the core will not take form. Do you understand what that means? Do you understand how much pain you’ll be in?”
“I understand,” Wei Wuxian said.
“You may die, Wei Ying. You may die tonight if I do something wrong, or even if I do everything right.”
“That’s fine,” and it was fine, he thought, calmer now than he had been in days. “Just make sure to finish the transfer even if I do.”
“Young master Wei,” Wen Ning whispered helplessly.
Wen Qing turned away, clasping her two hands together, and ordered her brother to tie Wei Wuxian to the bed as securely as he could.
So did Wei Wuxian lie in the bed that Jiang Fengmian had once laid him in after taking him from the streets of Yiling. His arms and legs tied with rope to all corners, his torso secured to the sheets. He saw the fear and anger with which Wen Qing gathered what she needed and thought he understood why she did what she did, why she spoke as she did.
She must have sacrificed so much and worked so hard to maintain her own freedom, to become such a renown cultivator. She must ache at the very thought of him sacrificing his own struggles for anyone.
What she didn’t understand was that Wei Wuxian did not think of it as sacrifice, but as duty.
Wen Qing finished setting wide recipients full of boiled water by her feet. She lined up the scalpels and other tools she had cleaned and prepared beforehand. She looked at Wei Wuxian and asked, “Are you ready?”
“I am,” he answered with no doubt in his heart.
The worst thing wasn’t the pain, he found through the long hours that followed. The sun rose and set and rose again before she was done, and Wei Wuxian screamed and whimpered and expressed the physical pain in many more creative ways, soon losing sight of why he was here in favor of wishing it was all over. It was terrible. It was torture. Many times he felt himself slip toward unconsciousness with relief, only to be woken up by Wen Ning and thrown back into hell.
But the pain was not the worst. The worst was not even when, twelve hours through, Wen Qing’s bloody hands emerged from his torso holding a small, golden sphere, and started cutting off the veins tying it to his body.
No, the worst was loss.
It was a kind of hollowness that Wei Wuxian could not have described for all the riches in the world. He felt separated from something more precious and vital than he had ever suspected, something cherished, something he selfishly wanted to keep for himself forever. The worst was the loss and grief that his soul experienced, deeper than any physical pain and so much harder to heal.
He slept for a whole day after they were done. When he woke up, his eyes flew to Jiang Cheng still resting atop the table. Wen Qing was sitting by his side and looking at her own hands blankly.
Wei Wuxian’s stomach dropped. “What’s wrong?” he asked. Her head jerked in his direction. “Did it not work, is he—”
“It worked,” she interrupted, her face once more free of anything but irritation. “He’s fine. The core is healthy and working.”
The relief he felt at her words was oddly muffled. Even looking at the color and peace that Jiang Cheng’s face had regained, Wei Wuxian felt very little joy.
Wen Qing cleared her throat. “I’ll do what you asked me to do once you two leave, but that’s all,” she said. “This is the last thing I do for you, Wei Ying.”
He nodded his head in thanks.
“Come eat,” Wei Wuxian told Jiang Cheng. “I won’t tell you about Baoshan Sanren unless you eat.”
It was easy to play him, easy to deceive him. Jiang Cheng already looked so much healthier now, with four uninterrupted days of sleep and a brand new golden core. He ate with enthusiasm, questioning Wei Wuxian about his mother and Baoshan Sanren and how long the trip to Yiling would take.
Wei Wuxian lied to him with surprising ease.
In a way, things felt much easier now. Wei Wuxian still knew of his sins and faults, but they didn’t ache as they used to. He found simple satisfaction in knowing Jiang Cheng to soon be out of harm’s way. His mind ran slowly through idea after idea of how to take care of Wen Zhuliu and make sure Jiang Cheng’s core was never again at risk.
They walked to Yiling slowly. Wei Wuxian’s body felt sore and overheated, but this too was distant, almost as an echo. Wen Qing had warned him that he may develop a fever from the shock of surgery. He found it nothing to be alarmed about.
During the day, he guided Jiang Cheng in silence. During the night, he met with Wen Ning and Wen Qing and put final touches to the charade. When the day came to abandon Jiang Cheng at the foot of a deserted mountain, he was ready.
“Remember,” he told Jiang Cheng, tying white cloth over his eyes. “You mustn’t take this off under any pretext. There are no beasts on this mountain, but you mustn’t look, even if you fall. When someone asks you who you are—”
“I must say I am Cangse Sanren’s son, yes, I know,” Jiang Cheng cut him off, impatience rolling off of him in waves. Wei Wuxian would have laughed at him, once; now he felt no desire to. “I’m ready.”
“I’ll wait for you at the village we saw on our way. Come find me when your golden core is restored.”
Jiang Cheng started walking up the mountain. Wei Wuxian looked around his shidi’s feet out of habit, searching for rocks or roots he could possibly stumble on. Wen Ning was in charge of chasing beasts away, but one couldn’t be too prudent. If only Wen Qing had allowed him to climb as well; she seemed worried that his body wasn’t in good enough condition to, but Wei Wuxian disagreed.
Suddenly, Jiang Cheng stopped. He turned around. Wei Wuxian straightened his back and frowned, wondering what danger was holding him this time, but all Jiang Cheng did was open his mouth and ask, “You’ll really be waiting for me?”
Surprise rendered Wei Wuxian silent.
“Yes,” he replied at last. “Of course I will be.”
“And Baoshan Sanren can truly restore my core?”
“I promise she can.”
Jiang Cheng seemed to have one more thing to say. His face was tense under the white cloth, his knuckles pale around the stick he was using to walk. “Thank you,” he declared. “When I’m back, I’ll…” he struggled. “We’ll talk then, Wei Wuxian. I shouldn’t have called you a traitor.”
Emotion flickered through the gaping hole in Wei Wuxian’s chest. “Go get your core back and then we can join shijie,” he replied.
Jiang Cheng smiled and once more started ascending. He didn’t turn around again till he was out of sight.
Wei Wuxian sat on a thick root with a sigh and thought, Now there is nothing more I can do.
He expected to feel relieved. He expected to feel panicked.
He felt nothing at all.
There were still several hours to go before he needed to be back to the inn. Wen Qing had given him money for it, and then slipped a vial of mud-like substance into his sleeve, avoiding his eyes. “In case you need to mask your scent fully,” she had said.
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian had replied. “I should take it now.”
Wen Qing had shaken her head. “No need. Your scent is… well, it’s a lot weaker now. I can’t feel it at all.”
He hadn’t fully believed her till the innkeeper had smiled and accepted his money without a hint of suspicion.
Wei Wuxian waited idly for a few hours. He glanced at the path that Jiang Cheng had taken and which so far led up the side of the mountain. He wondered how Wen Ning was faring, watching over Jiang Cheng’s ascension while making sure not to be seen or heard. Wei Wuxian hoped Jiang Cheng took his advice to heart about the blindfold, at least when he reached Wen Qing at the summit. The whole plan would fail if he caught a glimpse of her.
The forest grew louder as night approached. Small animals scurried between the branches overhead, birds and squirrels, owls perhaps. Wei Wuxian saw a deer run through faraway bushes. He listened to the cracks and shuffling sounds of nature around him.
It was the reason he noticed when one noise came more loudly than the rest.
He jumped to his feet despite the pain tugging at the stitched wound in his torso. His hand found the handle of his blunt sword, and for a second he regretted not taking the time to sharpen it before he left Yunmeng. He had no other weapon on him.
It seemed the noise he had heard, suspiciously close to a footstep, was only the fruit of his imagination. After a while of waiting he relaxed his stance, the tip of his sword falling to graze the ground.
Then he turned his head sideways and saw Wen Zhuliu jump toward him hands-first.
Wei Wuxian sidestepped it with a cry, but he wasn’t quick enough to escape the second blow. Wen Zhuliu’s palm struck him flatly on the chest, making the surgery wound throb in answer and pushing Wei Wuxian backwards. Pain tore into his right shoulder. Wei Wuxian shouted, looking down, glimpsing with horror the end of a blood-stained sword.
The person behind him pulled the sword back harshly; Wei Wuxian fell to his knees, agony blinding him for a moment, unable to do anything as a hand gripped his hair and Wen Chao’s voice exploded in laughter.
His back ran with shivers. Blood slickened the inside of his lips.
“Wei Ying,” Wen Chao crooned, bending so that his smug face appeared within Wei Wuxian’s line of sight. His fingers tightened in Wei Wuxian’s hair, ripping entire strands away and forcing his head upwards. “There you are at last, little kunze. I so wanted to see you again. Did you enjoy watching the Lotus Pier burn?”
Wei Wuxian stared at Wen Zhuliu, finding the sight of him a tad less sickening than that of Wen Chao. Wen Zhuliu stared back with a frown, the hand with which he had struck him twitching oddly by his side.
Wen Chao jerked Wei Wuxian’s head around until their eyes met once more. “Did you abandon that poor, coreless qianyuan?” he asked.
Wei Wuxian smiled.
Immediately, Wen Chao’s own smirk fell. It was with anger in his voice that he went on, “You won’t be smiling long. Wen Zhuliu will melt your core, and then I will kill you, Wei Ying.”
“That’s fine,” Wei Wuxian replied.
Blood dribbled down his chin warmly. He licked his lips.
Wen Chao grit his teeth and asked, “Do you recognize this sword?”
Wei Wuxian had recognized it the second he saw its tip running with his own blood. Still, seeing Suibian’s handle be held between Wen Chao’s wiry fingers made hot fury simmer in him.
“This is your sword, Wei Ying,” Wen Chao said, tapping the flat of the blade against Wei Wuxian’s neck. “I’m going to kill you with your own sword. I’ll keep it as replacement for the one you stole from me.”
“Kill me, then,” Wei Wuxian answered, “It doesn’t matter.”
He found that he could still experience delight. Although his heart had felt detached from him ever since his golden core had vanished into Jiang Cheng’s body, this sort of cruel amusement, of vow of revenge, could still elicit joy out of him.
“It doesn’t matter what you do to me,” Wei Wuxian spat at Wen Chao, grinning at the man’s dumbstruck face. “Torture me, kill me, do whatever you want with me. I’ll come back to haunt you, and I will be the fiercest of ghosts. You will never know peace again, Wen Chao.”
“You little bitch,” Wen Chao seethed, brandishing Suibian high over his head.
Then he cried out in pain. His fingers untangled from Wei Wuxian’s hair as he grabbed his own wrist, and Suibian fell from his grasp, leaving behind a burned-red hand. The handle of the sword seemed to be smoking slightly.
“Master,” Wen Zhuliu exclaimed.
“It’s nothing!” Wen Chao shouted. “Leave us!”
“Leave, dog, before I make you!”
Wen Zhuliu’s mouth closed tightly. He bowed at the shoulders and walked away, disappearing slowly through the thick foliage.
Wei Wuxian stared at Suibian. Its handle had stopped smoking, and he put all of his strength into reaching it, though the movement made his chest throb and his shoulder weep blood all over his clothes. He was almost touching it when Wen Chao’s foot planted itself on his wrist.
He grunted in pain. Wen Chao glared at him more fiercely than ever before. “What the hell did you do to that sword?” he asked, still nursing his burned hand.
“Have you never heard of such things before?” Wei Wuxian retorted. “It’s obvious that Suibian found you unworthy of wielding it.”
“Unworthy,” Wen Chao repeated. “Unworthy?”
He lifted his foot from Wei Wuxian’s wrist and kicked him in the ribs.
Wei Wuxian immediately rolled to his side, coughing blood onto the grass. He had all but felt bone break under the strength of the blow, and now another ache was added to the remnants of surgery, the branding mark on his skin, and the hole in his shoulder. He moaned pitifully. He tasted dirt on his lips, and the grass seemed to latch onto his teeth and pull his face to the ground.
Wen Chao fell to his knees beside him and, grabbing him by the arm, forced him to arch his back to lessen the strain of his hold.
“Unworthy,” he said again as he kneeled astride Wei Wuxian’s thighs. “I’ll show you who’s unworthy, Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian wanted to laugh. He wanted to repeat to Wen Chao what he had said before—that no matter what torture was brought to him, no matter which horrible way was chosen to kill him, he could handle it. He had survived two nights and one day of surgery, wide awake in the ruins of his own home, with next to him the brother he had failed more than anyone in the world. He wasn’t afraid of anything, he thought. Not anymore, not ever again.
But Wen Chao’s hand grabbed him by the neck. He leaned over Wei Wuxian’s back with all of his weight, the scent of him suffocating, and said: “I’ll show you your place.”
His lips brushed wetly against Wei Wuxian’s ear. His fist tugged at the belt circling Wei Wuxian’s waist.
I don’t want my life to be spent waiting for a qianyuan to rape me.
Wei Wuxian found that fear, like devotion, had no limit that a human could reach.
The Yiling Burial Mounds spread under their feet like the painting of a nightmare. Wei Wuxian heard little of Wen Chao’s spiel as the man explained to him just how his flesh and soul would be torn apart, never to return again. He took in the smells of rot and decay, the burned aspect of the valley and hills, as if a great fire had once ravaged everything. No plant grew as far as the eye could see. It was as though the grassy path that they had walked up to the edge of the cliff-like hill was the only touch of color around.
Wen Chao grabbed Wei Wuxian by the hair and balanced him at the edge of the precipice. He forced Wei Wuxian to turn around and face him again, to Wei Wuxian’s dismay. He never wanted to see this man’s face again.
Behind Wen Chao, Wen Zhuliu watched silently.
“You’ll never haunt anything or anyone,” Wen Chao declared, tangibly satisfied.
It was that satisfaction. That smugness. That air of superiority as he rose from Wei Wuxian’s naked body hours ago, the memory of him as heavy, it seemed, as the real thing.
Wei Wuxian used the last of his strength to spit in Wen Chao’s face. The saliva that sprayed over the man’s cheek was pink.
Wen Chao groaned with disgust, wiping himself with a sleeve. “You really are such a blight on your kind, Wei Ying,” he said. “Not even worth the price that someone would’ve paid for you. What happened to that lovely scent of yours?”
“Fuck off,” Wei Wuxian replied.
He tore himself out of Wen Chao’s grip and jumped into the abyss, unwilling to give the man the joy of throwing him.
Down, down, down he fell, till all he saw of Wen Chao was a white spot against the sky. Till all he felt was the wind in his hair washing away every other touch. Till his eyes closed and consciousness faded away from him at last, taking away all the pain, all the terror, all the shame.