Warnings: mentions of abuse, self-harm, and suicide.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Mo village was a quaint little place not too far from Gusu. It stood in a valley lush with greenery and surrounded by forest and fields, right at the curve where mountain ranges sloped the gentlest. A river crossed through the houses and streets, which were joined together with a series of wooden bridges. Jingyi never stopped praising the sight from atop his sword as he and Lan Sizhui flew there; he ooh-ed and aah-ed at the flowering trees, at the merchants in colorful clothes loudly calling from their stalls and the shine of the sun overwater. Despite the coolness of the air this early in spring, he forgot to shiver. His sweet berryscent tickled Sizhui’s nose with every gust of wind.
“Calm down, please,” Lan Sizhui said as they dismounted their swords before the biggest house. Servants were emerging already, staring at them in a mix of wonder and apprehension; after all, seldom did cultivators come to such a peaceful place. “We’ll visit when we’re done warding the place.”
“I know, I know, we’re here to work,” Lan Jingyi replied, shaking a hand at him dismissively. “Look at those hens, Sizhui! They’re so much fatter than in Gusu.”
He was pointing at an enclosure not far where a pair of round birds pecked the soil for their daily feed. Sizhui couldn’t help but smile as Jingyi made to approach them. He caught the back of his white robes just in time: an old qianyuan woman smelling strongly of firewood had come to them, putting her hands together in salute. She must be the head servant of the household.
“Young masters, welcome,” she said enthusiastically. Her wrinkled face was goldened by sun and wind. “Please, follow me. There are refreshments waiting for you inside, and Madam Mo will not be long to join you.”
“Thank you very much,” Lan Sizhui said, bowing in tandem with Lan Jingyi.
The old woman marked a second of hesitation. Her nose twitched ever-so-slightly in that way the elders’ always did, and her eyes strayed a second too long over Jingyi’s profile. He was too busy staring at the fat hens to notice, but Sizhui cleared his throat and made sure to smile as pleasantly as he could once the woman looked his way.
She spoke some more as she led them inside, pointing this way and that around the house and mentioning with fright the recent sightings of fierce corpses, but her demeanor was noticeably colder.
They were served tea and wine in the widest room of the mansion. Neither of them touched the wine, but the tea was welcome after the crisp coolness of flight. Lan Sizhui warmed his hands around the porcelain cup for a while before taking his first sip. Lan Jingyi, still in the same state of excitement, seemed to take having to sit still as the worst kind of punishment.
“It smells so different here,” he said while they waited for their host, grinning from ear to ear. “Is it always so exciting to visit different regions?”
“I haven’t visited many, you know,” Sizhui replied against the rim of his cup.
“You went to Qinghenie’s archery competition last year, though.”
Sizhui shivered at the memory. Although sect leader Nie was a vain and easily-scared man, he lived in a very grim place. Qinghe had been dark and ominous the way only legends described: marshly, cloudy, ripe with cold ghosts and deadened towns. “You didn’t miss much,” he told Jingyi, immediately amending: “Ah, please don’t tell master Qiren I said that. I do want to participate next year in Yunmeng.”
Lan Jingyi snickered.
Speaking of Lan Qiren once more called to Sizhui’s mind the stern lecture that the old teacher had given them before they left. Though most of his words were told to Sizhui, no one doubted that Jingyi was their true recipient. It had taken hours for them to finally be able to leave.
His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of who he guessed to be Madam Mo. “Young masters,” she said with a wide smile, bowing neatly at the shoulders. Sizhui and Jingyi tried to scramble to their feet, but she waved them off and continued, “Please, do be seated. You’ve come a long way.”
“Not that long, Madam,” Lan Jingyi replied politely. “Gusu is only half a day away by flying.”
Madam Mo’s somewhat aged face was hidden behind a fan, but judging by the look she gave Jingyi, Lan Sizhui had no doubt that she was using her nose to confirm what her servant must have told her. “I suppose,” she simply said, before turning to Sizhui.
How disappointing. Lan Sizhui had hoped that in such a place at least, he would not have to witness those things. He threw Jingyi a quick look and found, as expected, that his friend’s smile had waned.
“Madam Mo,” he said quietly. “You called upon the Lan sect to help you with an invasion, is that right?”
“Yes, yes,” she replied, kneeling behind her own table as her servant poured her tea. “What a dreadful situation. My husband and I have barely slept this past week.”
In the next hour, she explained to them that a week ago, her husband had woken in the middle of night and taken a stroll through the gardens, only to find a wakened corpse slowly dragging its feet through his precious flowerbeds. Since then, not a night had gone by without them hearing or seeing another, and villagers had come every day to complain of such sightings and ask for cultivators to be called. Parents were too scared to allow their children outside even during the day, and wandering merchants had started avoiding the village in precaution.
“That’s odd,” Lan Sizhui murmured. “The corpses you describe seem weak. They shouldn’t be able to walk in broad daylight.”
“But they are,” Madam Mo replied, fanning herself theatrically. “Dreadful, I told you. We haven’t seen a traveler in days.”
“What I don’t understand is why fierce corpses would gather here in the first place,” Lan Jingyi mused. “They tend to avoid humans unless a great source of resentful energy is nearby. Did anything happen recently—some sort of tragedy perhaps? Unexplained deaths?”
Madam Mo shook her head. When she answered, her words were addressed to Sizhui. “There has been nothing of the sort. We’re a quiet little town, not one of your great cities. Nothing unusual ever happens here.”
She spoke some more—about her fear, about how worried she was for her son and husband. She harshly commented that her good-for-nothing servants now refused to venture to the farthest fields to work. What few of those servants were present in the room lowered their heads, mouths twisted with resentment, and Lan Sizhui found his opinion of Madam Mo plummeting some more.
Do not judge what you do not know, he tried to tell himself. Hanguang-Jun’s voice was easy enough to recreate at the crook of his ear: Gauge a person not by their looks or status, but by their character.
In looks as in character, however, Madam Mo failed to make him feel more than very professional concern. The sideways glances she kept giving Lan Jingyi, even as she refused to speak directly to him, did not help.
Minutes later, the talk had turned to entirely different things. Madam Mo praised Lan Sizhui extensively, commenting on his looks and manners in a way that made the small of his back shiver. “My son could have become a cultivator, you know,” she cooed, still playing with her embroidered fan as if the weather warranted the use of it. “People from Lanling came… well, that was in the past, but he made a very good impression. Say, do you think you could take him with—”
Lan Sizhui had prepared his refusal before she was done voicing the question in full, but he needn’t have, for loud noises came to them from the other side of the mansion.
He and Jingyi turned their heads as one. Footsteps ran through the closed door leading to the frontyard before they opened in a bang, and a heavy-set young man stumbled his way in, his red face running with angry tears.
“Mother!” he yelled, throwing himself into Madam Mo’s thin arms. “Mother, that Mo Xuanyu is bullying me again!”
“A-Yuan,” Madam Mo hissed, pushing her son away briskly. “We have guests. Cultivators.”
The one named A-Yuan did not seem to mind. He threw Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi an ugly look before whining again, “Mother, he’s saying I stole his creepy cultivation things, the filthy little—”
“That’s right!” another voice came from the entrance. “Thief! Liar!”
The one who came in this time could not have looked more different from Madam Mo’s son. Though there was a faint trace of familiarity on his face, in the shape of his forehead and chin, he was taller and thinner than the first. He looked older by a few years as well.
More strikingly, his face was covered in garish makeup, making him look like a ghost spirit.
Lan Sizhui barely had time to see it; the man fell against the high step of the entrance, and only Lan Jingyi’s quick thinking allowed him to avoid crashing face-first to the floor. He had leaned over his table and grabbed his arm, making sure that the man’s fall would stop before he hurt himself.
The man muttered something that sounded surprisingly like, “short leg,s” before finding his breathing again. He ripped his arm out of Lan Jingyi’s hold rudely and stood, only giving his helper a brief glance before turning away.
Then he stopped and turned again, staring oddly at Jingyi.
“Mo Xuanyu,” Madam Mo spat, her voice filled with disgust.
The man, Mo Xuanyu, did not seem to hear her. He crouched right where he had fallen, leaning over the table until his face was only inches away from Lan Jingyi’s. Lan Sizhui could see his friend’s skin turn pink from the attention.
Hot fury spread within him. He made no effort to calm it as Lan Qiren and Lan Wangji often taught and instead touched the handle of his sword.
Then Mo Xuanyu opened his mouth and said, “You’re kunze,” in something like wonder.
Lan Jingyi blushed further at the crude words. “So are you,” he retorted, no doubt forgetting his own manners.
Lan Sizhui’s hand relaxed around his sword.
He could smell it now if he looked beyond Madam Mo’s tepid, watery smell, her son’s obvious qianyuan-scent and Jingyi’s own sweetness: a faint scent of honey had wafted far enough into the room to reach his nostrils.
Mo Xuanyu did not seem to know what to make of Lan Jingyi’s retort. For a second longer he stared at him, then he chuckled and, finally, rose to his feet again. He turned around to look at Madam Mo.
A-Yuan started, “How did you get out of the—”
“A-Yuan,” Madam Mo snapped, sudden panic streaking her face.
Mo Xuanyu laughed. “You think a poor little shack could hold me?” he asked. In spite of his earlier theatrics, his voice was as cold as ice. “This one,” he pointed at A-Yuan, “stole my things from me after beating me up. I demand he hand them back.”
“You’re a liar,” A-Yuan raged, his face reddening even further. The winemark at his temple looked ready to pop off of his skin. “As if I’d have any interest in your creepy little—”
“A shack?” Lan Sizhui asked loudly.
He all but felt the room freeze around him. At his table by the corner, Lan Jingyi paled with anger.
Madam Mo’s fan finally closed. She held it so tightly in her palm that all the skin of her hand turned bloodless, and when she advanced forward into the room, it was with a sickeningly sweet smile stretching her lips. “I forgot to introduce you, how rude of me,” she said. “This is Mo Xuanyu, my nephew. He lives in a house at the border of the estate, my late sister used to live with him…” She swallowed visibly before continuing, “As you can see, he isn’t very clear-headed…”
“I am very clear-headed,” Mo Xuanyu protested, words which would have born more power if his face was not painted in white and red. “So clear-headed, in fact, that I have reached enlightenment.”
Madam Mo looked as though she had just bitten into a lemon.
“Mo Ziyuan,” Mo Xuanyu declared with gravity. “If you do not hand back what you stole, I’ll take your arm in punishment.”
He made a chopping motion with his hand; his sleeve fell back by an inch and revealed a deep, bloody cut at the thinnest of his wrist, as well as old and new bruises running up his forearm.
Lan Sizhui felt sick.
Mo Ziyuan gave chase to Mo Xuanyu in the moment that followed, the both of them disappearing through the opposite door and the garden behind. Lan Sizhui felt more than he saw Jingyi rise to his own feet, his tea and snacks forgotten, he was in such a hurry to leave.
“Young masters,” Madam Mo said more obsequiously than before. She went as far as to kneel and bow before Lan Sizhui, who wanted nothing more than to be out of her sight. “I swear by the heavens, this is not what you think… Please do not let Mo Xuanyu’s insanity get in the way of your work, the Yiling Patriarch must have taken his soul when he was a child…”
She must see that her pleading had little effect on Sizhui, for she turned to Lan Jingyi next. Lan Sizhui saw her throat bob as she prepared to finally address him for the first time.
He decided to spare his friend the discomfort and spoke before she could. “We have many preparations to make before nightfall,” he said. “Please go back to your business, Madam Mo, and remember to warn your household not to come outside after the sun is set. Good day.”
Once he walked out of the doors, the sunlight and earthly smells of the village chased some of his anger away. He breathed deeply, and tried to remember all that Hanguang-Jun had taught him about mastering himself.
“You were ready to attack them in there, Sizhui,” Lan Jingyi said with a smile.
Lan Sizhui felt his cheeks warm. “I was not,” he replied calmly.
“Hah. You can lie to master Qiren, but you can’t lie to me.”
“We have work to do,” Sizhui said. Lan Jingyi laughed and followed him around the walls of the main house.
The rest of the afternoon was spent deciding on the right protection array and putting talismans in place. Jingyi sat by a rocky corner of the yard and painted lure after lure, giving them to Lan Sizhui so he could place them where they should be. His smile withered as daylight dimmed, and it was not hard to guess what he was thinking of.
“Are you all right?” Lan Sizhui asked him eventually.
“Yes,” Lan Jingyi replied. Then, a second later: “No. I don’t know.”
“Is it about that young master Mo?”
Jingyi nodded slowly. He bit his lips and asked, “When he said ‘shack’… do you think he meant a kunze house?”
That was the question Lan Sizhui had been asking himself as well.
“Kunze houses have been outlawed for years,” he replied, looking over the last lure that Jingyi had given him. “But…”
“But it doesn’t mean everyone’s stopped using them,” Jingyi finished for him. “Did you see those injuries?”
Lan Sizhui nodded somberly.
For a moment longer, neither of them spoke. Lan Sizhui took another stroll around the estate, making sure all the talismans and lures were in their right place before coming back near the coop where they had seen those hens hours ago. All the birds must have gone back inside the little wooden house, with night coming so close.
He smelled Jingyi before he saw him approach. The other boy stood next to him, the last unfinished lure in hand, and said, “Maybe Madam Mo was right and the Yiling Patriarch did take Mo Xuanyu’s soul.”
It tore a smile out of Lan Sizhui. “You know those are just stories for children,” he replied. “Hanguang-Jun doesn’t like them, he would scold you if he heard.”
“Children’s tales are much scarier when told by master Qiren,” Lan Jingyi said, waving his fingers eerily above his head. “I’d like to see even you sleep peacefully after hearing him tell you the Yiling Patriarch will come and kidnap you if you don’t obey the rules.”
“Yet you have broken so many rules, and not once has an army of corpses walked on the Cloud Recesses to claim you.”
Jingyi let out a wounded, betrayed sound, making as if to chase Sizhui away. Sizhui tried his best to avoid being touched and to keep his laughter confined. Even so far from home, acting boisterously made him nervous; he didn’t want to betray the trust that Lan Qiren had put in him by letting him accompany Jingyi on his very first mission out of Gusu.
“Is that a spirit lure flag?”
They stopped fooling around and looked up.
Mo Xuanyu was sitting atop the tall wall surrounding the estate. He had washed his face of the makeup, though some white powder remained at his hairline, and was watching them intently.
Without anything to hide him, it was even easier to place him as kunze. His features were very fine, much finer than Madam Mo’s, and he was shorter than her as well. Almost delicate in appearance. His honey-like scent sweetened every breath that Sizhui took. “May I see?” he asked Lan Jingyi, gesturing to the half-finished flag he was still holding.
Jingyi’s fingers tightened on the cloth. “This isn’t a toy,” he replied.
Mo Xuanyu laughed and said, “I know.”
He jumped down from the wall with surprising agility and dusting his sleeves quickly. His clothes were so worn and filthy that the gesture did nothing but smear dirt even further, but he hardly seemed to care. He walked toward Lan Jingyi and took the flag from him, holding his hand high above his head to let it unfold in front of him in full.
“Hey,” Jingyi started, but Sizhui raised a hand to silence him.
“Young master Mo,” he said softly. “Sunset will be here soon. It would be better if you went inside with the rest of your family, so you aren’t in danger while we chase away the corpses.”
Mo Xuanyu barely gave him a glance. “You’re from Gusulan, right?” he asked Lan Jingyi. “What’s your name?”
“Lan Jingyi,” came the wary answer.
“Lan Jingyi,” Mo Xuanyu repeated. “So you’re not just from the sect. You’re part of the clan as well.”
It was difficult to tell what sort of expression he was wearing, but Sizhui did not think it was a disapproving one.
“How long have you been a cultivator?”
“What is it to you?” Jingyi retorted, obviously unsettled.
“Nothing,” Mo Xuanyu said. “Simple curiosity.”
It took a moment, but Jingyi finally answered, “I’ve been training since I was a child. Sizhui too.”
Another dismissive glance was thrown Sizhui’s way, as if Mo Xuanyu could not be bothered to look at him for more than a second. Sizhui wondered what it said about him that disappointment immediately made itself known to him; after all, usually, Jingyi would be the one ignored like this. He had no room to complain.
“A Lan clan kunze cultivator, huh…” Mo Xuanyu murmured. He once more looked over the unfinished flag before giving it back. “Make your strokes thinner, Lan Jingyi,” he declared. “The surer the hand, the more powerful the flag.”
But before he could finish, Mo Xuanyu had leaped to the top of the wall and let himself fall behind it, disappearing from their view.
“What a rude man,” Lan Jingyi seethed. “Sizhui, did you see the way he ordered me around? Who’s the cultivator here?”
“I’m sure he meant it nicely,” Sizhui replied. “Remember, he said that Mo Ziyuan stole cultivation things from him. He must have some training as well. Plus, master Qiren always says your strokes are too thick.”
Lan Jingyi groaned in annoyance, but when his last flag was finished, the bottom part of it bore much thinner ink strokes.
The Lan boy was a marvel.
Wei Wuxian had only meant to join the main house of the estate to try and look for clues as to what exactly Mo Xuanyu wished from him. It had taken a while to clean the self-inflicted cuts on his forearms—two on each side—and even now, they seeped blood languidly. He knew they would not heal until he fulfilled his promise.
If only he knew what promise that was.
He had not expected anything more than to cause some turmoil for Mo Ziyuan when he ran after him. Though Mo Xuanyu was obviously kunze, it seemed his dear younger cousin held some fear of him. It was just his luck, Wei Wuxian thought with irony, that out of everyone who could have summoned him back from the dead, it had to be a kunze beat and bloodied by his family.
People raised strange looks his way as he ran through the small village, though Wei Wuxian gathered that it had more to do with his garish appearance than anything else. The shack he had woken into looked very like the one he had once spent his fevers in, but it had been unlocked and unguarded until Mo Ziyuan stole the key and left.
Wei Wuxian had joined the Mo family house with fanfare, burst into the important-looking meeting that Madam Mo seemed to be holding there, and felt a little as he had in those fleeting memories of his youth. It wasn’t a bad feeling, he found, though the humor of it was faint and distant, dulled by other remembrances.
Then he had met the kunze boy and forgotten all about the curse.
How intriguing. How utterly fascinating. Not only his temper, so different from the mild-voiced boy he followed around, so awkward compared to every Lan cultivator Wei Wuxian had met in his time; not only the fact that he was obviously trained and free to go around, only gathering mild looks of disapproval on his way. The boy acted in a carefree way such that Wei Wuxian had never known. He seemed to bear none of the heavy defiance that Wei Wuxian recalled from those few years of his youth, before everything collapsed around him, and he looked…
He looked unburdened.
Wei Wuxian followed the two Lan disciples from a distance as they built their protective array around the Mo family estate. They both looked serious and experienced, the older one perhaps more so, although Wei Wuxian found him a lot less interesting to look at. They bantered as they worked, speaking softly of this and that, speculating about Mo Xuanyu. He wouldn’t have cared what they said, except—
“Kunze houses have been outlawed for years,” the older boy declared, and Wei Wuxian stilled, gutted by shock.
How long had he been dead? What had happened in that time?
He couldn’t help but listen more closely to their conversation. He was surprised to hear his own title be mentioned—he would have thought the whole world to have forgotten his existence in the span of months. Never had he imagined he would one day become the subject of children’s tales.
At least not this way, he thought somewhat grimly. Kidnapping children, truly? He may have robbed a few clans of their members, but he had never held anyone prisoner. They were all free to go; that had been the entire point.
It was with more ease than he expected that he inserted himself into the boys’ conversation. Lan Jingyi, as he learned the boy’s name was, answered him with a sort of defiance and irritation that Wei Wuxian found wonderful. His scent marked him as immature, which could perhaps explain his carefree attitude, but Wei Wuxian had a feeling that there was more underneath it. Things he was not privy to—things shifted and changed from his time as a living man. Lan Jingyi wore the same forehead ribbon that Wei Wuxian remembered seeing on Lan Wangji.
Lan Qiren must be dead and rolling in his grave, he thought in sharp satisfaction.
As would he, if he were still dead and privy to the knowledge that after all the criticism thrown his way when he lived in Yiling, the cultivation world still chose to use the tools he had created then. Wei Wuxian eyed the spirit lure flags dancing in the evening breeze and smiled twistedly.
“Mo Xuanyu,” came an angry voice.
Wei Wuxian met Mo Ziyuan’s eyes levelly.
The boy could not be more than a year older than the two junior cultivators currently warding his house, but the winestain on his forehead and the deep creases of anger on his face made his skin look dry and worn-out. His scent, a typical smoky qianyuan marker, made irritation clench up Wei Wuxian’s jaw.
He hated such scents the most.
“Are you here to apologize?” he asked the boy, giving him the briefest of glances.
“I won’t apologize to you!” Mo Ziyuan yelled back predictably. His finger shook as he pointed to Wei Wuxian, his whole body heaving with fury. All things which Wei Wuxian found detestably familiar. “As soon as those cultivators leave, I’ll lock you up, just you wait!”
“I am waiting,” Wei Wuxian said, pushing himself off the wall he was leaning against. “In fact, I may die of old age waiting.”
He had no interest in Mo Ziyuan whatsoever outside of knowing the boy probably had something to do with Mo Xuanyu’s wish. The bruises on this body were plenty, old and young, some yellowed with age and some still red and fresh. He could feel in the aches running through him that the beating he had been subjected to upon waking up was only one of several in the last few days.
If Mo Xuanyu’s wish was for him to murder the qianyuan who had so tormented him, Wei Wuxian would find it hard to berate him for it. He could take care of it during the night as the Lan disciples worked, and make his way out of the village with no one the wiser.
He had almost stepped entirely past Mo Ziyuan when the boy grabbed his arm and asked, “Why do you smell different?”
“Release me,” Wei Wuxian ordered icily.
To his credit, Mo Ziyuan did mark a second of hesitation. His hold relaxed enough for Wei Wuxian to shake out of it.
He tripped the boy for good measure, making sure his forehead hit the brick path below, before walking away to the sound of his outraged cries.
The words stayed at the corner of his thoughts, however, while he waited for night to fall. Wei Wuxian had once held long conversations about scents and spiritually with Wen Qing, so he shouldn’t be surprised that Mo Xuanyu’s natural scent had died with him and made way for Wei Wuxian’s. Still, it was a bother, if only because people seemed to be noticing it again.
It had been a long time since anyone had. He had spent the last years of his life smelling of nothing at all—a fact which had perturbed a great many people at the time.
Wei Wuxian walked through the village as night fell around him. By now shops were closing, and the only noise came out of the small inn at the far end of the road, right where the river forked in two different directions. Wei Wuxian crouched by the water and cleaned the wounds on his arms once again, frowning as he saw that blood had congealed against his grey sleeves.
He really needed to do something about that. Though he had no wish to be alive again, he did not fancy having his soul suffer for eternity either.
Damn Mo Xuanyu, he thought with little heat and too much sympathy. Couldn’t you summon an actual resentful spirit to do your bidding?
The small wooden house with its broken furniture showed itself to him again, as well as the faint trace of despair that Mo Xuanyu’s soul had left in the afterimage of itself. Wei Wuxian had all but tasted the pain that the young man had lived in, and which had pushed him to such lengths for vengeance.
There once was a time when Wei Wuxian may have summoned a Yiling Patriarch for himself, if he could.
Starlight pierced the heavens. Noise faded slowly from within the little inn, as its tenants and guests joined their quarters for sleep. A tired guard at the end of the village yawned loudly into her hand, readying herself for hours of fruitless watch.
Wei Wuxian made his way back toward the Mo estate slowly. The perspective of seeing Lan Jingyi again put a spring to his steps and washed away some of the worries in him. How delightful, he thought for the hundredth time, to meet such a person in a place such as this.
His mood lasted until he reached the front gate and felt resentful energy crawl over his skin coldly.
He stilled. Around him the house was silent as a tomb; he heard nothing alive, human or animal, scurrying around. The familiar energy skittered over his arms and seemed to stop at the cuts which Mo Xuanyu had made, as if recognizing them as kin. Wei Wuxian curled his fingers around it, thinking idly of grabbing it and making use of it.
Instead, he followed it to his source, passing by the open gate of the mansion without entering it. The trail of energy became fainter as the minutes trickled by, and Wei Wuxian thought with some disappointment that he would soon lose it. Such things were so fickle. But then his foot hit something surprisingly soft in the darkness, and when he looked down, he found a corpse.
A haunted corpse, no less. Emaciated and grey-skinned, completely sucked out of its spirit. He kneeled by it in curiosity, turning it on its back and recognizing Mo Ziyuan without much surprise. He hadn’t thought the boy would heed the Lan cultivators’ advice and actually stay out of harm’s way.
He shook the sleeves off his forearms. One of the four cuts had vanished.
Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi were eating some of the warm soup prepared for them by the Mo house servants when the scream came.
They jumped to their feet immediately, letting the bowls fall out of their hands. Jingyi’s broke upon contact with the floor, spilling liquid over the hem of his robes. Neither of them took the time to care as they rushed toward the back gardens, exchanging worried looks.
They found a servant there howling with all of his lungs’ capacity and pointing to something on the other side of the wall. It seemed to have crumbled overtime, letting enough room for two people to pass through shoulder-to-shoulder. Sizhui slowed as he approached it, murmuring to Jingyi to take care of the frightened servant as he looked over the corpse behind.
It was very obviously killed by non-human means. Its skin was dry and emaciated, as if the victim had aged all at once before their last breath left them. He was about to ask what happened when his eyes met Mo Xuanyu’s.
The man was crouching outside the wall, on the other side of the corpse, looking oddly calm. “Your array wasn’t much use,” he told Lan Sizhui quietly. “Too bad. It was rather well-made.”
Before Sizhui could answer, another cry came from behind.
It was with a faint sense of nausea that he finally recognized Mo Ziyuan in the prone and skinny body laid in front of him. “Madam Mo,” he said, rising up with a grim face.
She ignored him in favor of throwing herself at her son, openly sobbing. She looked nothing at all like the proud woman who had welcomed them hours ago.
The next minute was miserable. Madam Mo sobbed and howled as she held her son’s corpse to her breast, as if trying to make him fuse with her and to breathe life back into him. Despite his opinion of the woman, Lan Sizhui found that pity was too weak a word to describe what he felt at the sight of such obvious grief.
“You,” Madam Mo said when she saw Mo Xuanyu a moment later. “You, it was you, you killed him!”
“I did not,” Mo Xuanyu replied calmly. “His stupidity killed him.”
Sizhui heard Jingyi suck in a shocked breath behind him. He felt somewhat surprised by such lack of compassion himself; Mo Ziyuan was Mo Xuanyu’s cousin. Did he truly not feel a thing, to say such horrible things minutes after the boy had died?
But then he saw the imprint of sleeplessness under Mo Xuanyu’s eyes, the blue bruise on his cheekbone, the dirt and grime all over him. He remembered the bleeding wrist and marbling of hematomas running up the man’s forearm.
“You took his arm!” Madam Mo shouted, her voice so loud that it rang through Lan Sizhui’s head like a migraine. “You said you’d hurt him, how could you, he was just a boy—”
She tried to attack him like a wild animal, her long painted nails extended like claws. Mo Xuanyu jumped to his feet with the same elegance of movement he had shown hours earlier, avoiding her attack and letting her fall pitifully to the grass. “A boy?” he said with honest surprise. “How old was he, seventeen? Eighteen? He was hardly a boy. He heard those two cultivators tell us all to stay inside, and he chose to brave danger like a fool. His death is no one’s fault but his.”
Madam Mo screamed. Her words mixed together into an unintelligible string of sorrow, loud enough to make lights shine out of the village. People must be coming out of their homes to see what all the noise was about.
“We need to bring them all back inside,” Lan Jingyi said worriedly.
Lan Sizhui nodded. “Madam Mo, young master Mo, you shouldn’t stay here,” he declared. “It’s dangerous.”
“I’m not leaving my son!” Madam Mo screeched.
Mo Xuanyu at least had enough presence of mind to heed their words. He stepped over Mo Ziyuan’s corpse and back into the garden, his face thoughtful. He didn’t return Lan Sizhui’s gaze at all.
Lan Jingyi had crouched by Madam Mo. She howled again when he gently touched her arm, spitting out, “Don’t touch me, you filthy kunze!”
Lan Sizhui’s concern immediately tinted itself with rage; he saw Jingyi’s face fall a little, his own anger held at bay only by a lifetime of education.
A shadow brushed past Lan Sizhui’s elbow; he recognized Mo Xuanyu only as the man’s foot connected with Madam Mo and sent her rolling away.
“Young master Mo!” he exclaimed, breathless with shock.
Mo Xuanyu didn’t even look at him. This time the disgust on his face was unmistakable, and he snapped at Madam Mo’s shivering form, “Is that any way to speak to the people trying to save your life?”
“Mo Xuanyu,” Madam Mo heaved. Her hair had fallen in disarray during her fall, and she sounded winded with pain. “I should’ve killed you when you came back from Lanling, you worthless maggot, I should’ve left you for dead like your wench of a mother—”
“Sizhui,” Jingyi whispered.
Lan Sizhui turned to him. He was pointing at the corpse with his finger; looking down, Sizhui saw what had caught his attention.
“Madam Mo,” he said loudly, “we know what killed your son.”
Her haggard face turned toward him slowly.
He didn’t know what she caught out of his explanation about the spirit lure caught in the lapels of Mo Ziyuan’s clothes. Mo Xuanyu at last seemed to understand well enough, even if he remained uncaring.
It was with great effort that Sizhui convinced her to come back to the mansion. The noise had brought the master of the house out, and he was a sickly man, Sizhui thought while eyeing him, skinny and pale as he hung from the arm of his wife. He collapsed halfway through.
So did a servant walking in front of them, vile energy suddenly pouring out of him and turning his skin to paper.
Too soon, they were forced to draw their swords. The servant, A-Tong, attacked them with a fierceness seldom seen before, his powerful arm swinging at them, his fingernails turned into claws as sharp as blades. They tore into Lan Sizhui’s shoulder when he lost his footing, dragging blood to the fabric of his clothes, before running to Sizhui.
He didn’t know for how long he fought. His heart beat wildly in his chest as he tried to protect Jingyi—Jingyi wasn’t as apt with swords as he was with bows, but the speed and strength of the creature attacking them made shooting arrows impossible. Jingyi held as strong as he could next to Sizhui, swinging his sword valiantly, but soon the ghost overpowered them.
Lan Sizhui was too far to do anything as A-Tong’s haunted body approached Lan Jingyi. He felt his friend’s name catch in his throat with despair, and then his breath as well, as something hit him in the back and projected him forward.
He landed against Jingyi’s front. A-Tong’s hand made contact with his back, and light exploded around them, warmth running over his skin as a different energy chased off the miasma.
“The uniform,” he realized out loud. “Jingyi, the array in our clothes—”
“I got it,” Jingyi said.
In tandem they took off their cloaks and put them over A-Tong’s struggling body. For a second the spell blinded them, forcing Lan Sizhui to put an arm over his eyes so as not to lose complete sight, until at last all noise vanished. Panting, he blinked tears away and looked.
A-Tong lay under the two white robes, still and breathless. His skin was grey in color, stretched over his skull so that each dip and curve of bone could be seen. The left sleeve of his upper clothing was empty.
“Young master Mo,” Lan Jingyi said with a wide smile. “How did you know that it would work?”
Sizhui realized that Mo Xuanyu was standing where he himself had been only a moment ago. “Mmh?” the man replied. “I didn’t. I just thought you looked like you needed your friend’s help.”
“What! You just threw Sizhui into danger—”
“Thank you,” Lan Sizhui interrupted. Mo Xuanyu glanced at him; Sizhui hit his fist to his palm and bowed as deeply as he could. “Thank you for saving his life,” he added, closing his eyes with relief.
If anything happened to Jingyi, he would never forgive himself.
Silence greeted his words. Lan Sizhui straightened up slowly, surprised to find Mo Xuanyu frowning at him.
“Why do you bow like this?” the man asked in an odd voice.
Sizhui felt himself flush. “Er,” he replied, “I’m sorry if I offended you, young master Mo. This is just a habit, I wasn’t thinking.”
If anything, Mo Xuanyu looked even angrier.
“You’re not kunze,” he said in a murmur, dislike laced in his voice. “Why would you bow like one?”
Jingyi’s hand touched Sizhui’s shoulder warmly. He replied in his stead: “Sizhui’s like this with everyone, young master Mo. Our seniors renounced trying to teach otherwise long ago, he keeps forgetting. He’s just a weird qianyuan.”
“Jingyi,” Sizhui protested, face burning.
Lan Jingyi laughed. Mo Xuanyu kept staring at Lan Sizhui for a second longer, his delicate face pinched with anger, before turning his back to them. He said no other word. With the powerful energy gone from the garden, his scent came stronger, honey thick on the nightwind even as he walked away. It left Sizhui feeling strangely bereft and strangely young.
That fleeting loneliness left as vile power once more rose over the estate. Lan Sizhui tensed, his hand on his sword. “Do you feel that?” he asked Lan Jingyi.
Jingyi nodded wordlessly.
From the other side of the garden, Madam Mo rose, her skin greyed out and her hair thinning to dust.
The demonic arm attached to Madam Mo’s body was unlike anything Wei Wuxian had seen before.
The energy it exuded was stronger than any fierce spirit or ghost. Thicker and viler than a ghoul’s, even more potent than a god’s. The fact that it had managed to attach to two different bodies and control them enough to fight—to fight well, for neither of the Lan boys was weak—was impressive in and of itself, but four murders in a row for what wasn’t even a complete corpse was unheard of.
Being near it felt like being near the Stygian Tiger Seal. Wei Wuxian’s skin had not stopped shivering since first feeling it over his body.
He almost ran away when one of the two boys launched a signal in the air to call for help. He had no desire to meet any familiar face and risk discovery, even if the cover of lunatic kunze should be enough for most to look the other way. But seeing Lan Jingyi struggle so bravely against the creature held him back; the perspective of this boy being slain was not one he was willing to consider.
Kneeling by Mo Ziyuan’s forgotten body felt only natural. Wei Wuxian grabbed him by the collar, bringing his wrinkled ear close, and whispered: “Wake up, now.”
The corpse gurgled and groaned.
His order carried over to A-Tong and the Mo family head as well, to his surprise. The three woken corpses rose to their feet and gathered around him, their empty eyes staring somewhere near his chin, elbow, or hip.
He hadn’t used such powers in what must be years, yet it felt like yesterday. Resentful energy ran under his skin and dampened the painful glow of Mo Xuanyu’s core in his chest, allowing him to breathe easy for the first time since coming back to life. Wei Wuxian let out a curt, joyless laugh.
“See that arm attached to your mother?” he murmured to Mo Ziyuan’s dead body. “The three of you go shred it now. Don’t touch the boys in white.”
They ran with all the strength of newly-awakened soldiers.
Even so, they struggled. Lan Jingyi and his qianyuan companion marked a moment of surprise at the arrival of the three bodies, but seeing as they immediately threw themselves at Madam Mo and not either of them, both seemed to take it in stride and go back to the fight. Wei Wuxian stayed under the roof of the gallery that ran around the garden, watching. He met the qianyuan boy’s eyes once and put up what he hoped to be a sufficiently worried expression.
Being in the presence of such a battle without any means to stop it was more grating than he would have imagined. If he had Chenqing with him, this would be over in seconds; Wei Wuxian had never met a corpse who did not end up obeying him before, no matter how shaky his control became overtime. His body was healthy now, if a little bruised up. All the cuts on his arms had healed. The contract took Wei Wuxian’s invention of the spirit lures as proof that he was responsible for the Mo family’s deaths.
Were he armed now, even such a demonic being would not resist him.
He had nothing, however. Mo Xuanyu’s cultivation tools had all been stolen by Mo Ziyuan before he even had time to see them, and he had no idea where the boy may have hidden them before being killed. He could do nothing but watch as the corpses he controlled were being torn to shreds and the two Lan disciples started slowing with fatigue.
He tore leaves out of a nearby pine before he could help it. In that moment, the thought of being recognized evaded him—he couldn’t let Lan Jingyi die, not after glimpsing so much hope within him without realizing for himself the full scope of changes that the past years had brought.
The night was dark around them, cloudy with the strength of the miasma emerging from the cursed arm. The shivers over Wei Wuxian’s skin hurt almost more than the core in his chest did, and it was with near-trembling hands that he poured as much power as he could into the leaves without outright shredding them, hoping for anything to be called who could save the two boys before him.
A sharp note cut through the scene, stilling Madam Mo in her steps and chasing all the clouds away. Moonlight poured over the garden. Warmth made Wei Wuxian’s gooseflesh smoothen.
“Hanguang-Jun!” the Lan boys called in evident relief.
Another note of the guqin rang. The arm fell from Madam Mo’s shoulder and shriveled onto the ground.
Wei Wuxian looked up.
The man who stood above the roof of the house glowed almost like a spirit himself. His white robes swayed into the wind that the guqin’s sound created, finer and more pristine than Wei Wuxian remembered. He thought he would have recognized him even if the night had remained dark and the garden swallowed up in smoke.
Lan Wangji flew down from the roof without a word, accepting his juniors’ greetings with a simple nod of the head. He gave the qianyuan boy a sealing pouch to put the arm in and spoke, lowly, to Lan Jingyi.
Wei Wuxian sighed and let the torn leaves fall from his hands. With as light a step as he could manage, he slithered out of the garden and through the opening in the outer wall.
The smell of sandalwood followed him, carried by the night air.