Chapter 1: master of shadows
How it all begins.
“You have to help him,” Jiang Wanyin begs, his face blotchy with tears as the sullen form of Wei Wuxian slumps off of his shoulders and onto the ground before Lan Wangji’s feet. “If there’s anyone in the world who could find out how to reconstruct a stolen core… it would be you. Wouldn’t it, Hanguang-jun?”
He puts too much faith in this, Lan Wangji thinks. He puts too much faith in my abilities. Even I could not —
Wei Wuxian’s soulless eyes look up at him. He doesn’t even smile, much less crack one of his usual quips at seeing his childhood rival. This is wrong.
“I will see what I can do,” promises Lan Wangji, even though he knows it is impossible.
On the first night, Lan Wangji meditates for hours in his rooms, the slumbering form of Wei Wuxian on the bed beside him. The other man makes no noise, so uncharacteristic of him. It feels as if the universe has shifted out of balance, and Lan Wangji is scrambling to try and right it without knowing exactly how.
On the second night, he consults the remnants of the texts from the Library Pavilion, goes through scroll after scroll in a painstaking, desperate search for the thing that could save the man in the bed beside him. For the thing that would restore that spark to his eyes, the smile to his lips. Lan Wangji hadn’t even had the chance to kiss them, though he had desperately wanted to.
All the texts show him is how to transfer a golden core, not how to reconstruct it.
On the third night, that is exactly what he does. And in the morning, Wei Wuxian opens his eyes to Jiang Wanyin’s worried expression. “You really did it!” Jiang Wanyin gasps as Wei Wuxian summons Suibian without worries. “You are a miracle worker, Hanguang-jun. The Yunmeng Jiang sect is forever in your debt.”
Lan Wangji feels the cold, bitter void in his own chest at the loss of his core, but he inclines his head nonetheless. “It is the least I could do,” he replies.
“Lan Zhan, how could I ever thank you?” teases Wei Wuxian, sidling up closer. Lan Wangji flinches out of his touch, but mostly from habit if nothing else. Jiang Wanyin tugs Wei Wuxian away to test his new capabilities, leaving Lan Wangji to sit and meditate away the tempest in his heart once more.
He is easily captured by the Wens after that. “The great Hanguang-jun,” sneers Wen Chao, lifting Lan Wangji’s chin with the tip of his shoe. “Laid low, at last. How does it feel? To be as humble as the rest of us?”
Lan Wangji does not deign to respond. He still retains some of his pride, though his golden core may be gone.
“Won’t even raise Bichen to fight,” sneers Wen Chao. “You’re as good as dead.”
They throw him to the Burial Mounds. The last thing Lan Wangji sees is the smile on Wei Wuxian’s face, before the shadows take him.
The war drags on, and over the course of years whispers begin to fill the dark. A great master of the shadows has risen, with an army of the fiercest corpses at his disposal. This scourge could wipe out entire towns — and it did, though it seemed to limit itself to Wen strongholds, targeting only those who wore the robes of the great red sun.
“Any master of shadows who focuses on killing Wen-dogs is a friend of mine,” declares Jiang Cheng, when he hears the news.
“A little harsh, isn’t it?” asks Wei Wuxian, as he looks up from where he’d been playing Inquiry on a black dizi. Bichen lies on a table before him, cold and bright. Ever since Lan Wangji had been captured by the Wens, Wei Wuxian had been modifying Inquiry for the flute to try and ascertain his whereabouts. But every time he does it, the results are inconclusive.
“Nothing is too harsh for the dogs that killed my family,” sneers Jiang Cheng. “And your playing is atrocious. Maybe that’s why Lan Wangji’s spirit doesn’t want to talk to you.”
“Haha,” says Wei Wuxian drily, and lifts the flute to his lips again.
The war drags on, until the Wens discover the rebel base and lay siege to it, testing the mettle of even the newest Yunmeng Jiang soldiers. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng join the ranks of their forces, swords shining with the blood of their enemies. Zidian sings through the night, until at last they are surrounded by the Wens with nowhere else to escape.
Then the strum of a guqin reverberates through the air, striking fear into the hearts of all the Wens.
Silhouetted against the bright moon is a figure in black, black robes billowing behind him like undulating shadows. Slowly, the corpses of the soldiers that litter the garrison streets begin to rise again, lurching forward with newfound ferocity.
“The Master of Shadows,” whispers Jiang Cheng.
“The guqin,” breathes Wei Wuxian. “Could it be?”
All around them the carnage rises, the corpses clashing with the Wens until they have either died or fled in fear. Wen Chao himself is torn to pieces by his own former mistress. The figure descends from their rooftop perch, quiet footsteps graceful against blood-soaked streets.
He lifts his head, his eyes flashing between ruby and topaz, and Wei Wuxian’s heart stutters in recognition.
“Lan Wangji,” he asks, “what happened to you?”
Lan Wangji, master of shadows, looks at him with unmistakable sadness in his eyes. He says nothing.
“You… you stepped onto the path,” says Wei Wuxian, stepping closer. With another strum of the guqin, the corpses assemble around them, awaiting their master’s command. “How… why?”
Lan Wangji lowers his head, a single tear falling down his cheek. “For you,” he murmurs. “I would have done anything.”
“For me?” echoes Wei Wuxian. “All of this… all of those deaths were for me?”
Lan Wangji is silent.
“I mean… I mean I can’t say I don’t appreciate the gesture since you really did a lot to help us in this campaign, but… you said yourself the demonic path was all-consuming, uncontrollable, dangerous. What possessed yourself to do it?”
Lan Wangji’s eyes flash crimson. “If there is anyone in the world capable of mastering even the most forbidden paths, it is me.”
“Hanguang-jun, you are better than this,” pleads Wei Wuxian. “Come back to Yunmeng with me. I’ll take care of you.”
“No,” says Lan Wangji, almost an eerie echo of his childhood refusals.
“Lan Zhan,” begs Wei Wuxian. “Please.”
“Let him be,” says Jiang Cheng. “He isn’t of our sect anyway.”
“No, Lan Zhan, please — come back to Yunmeng with us!” Wei Wuxian darts forward, as if trying to catch smoke with his bare hands, but Jiang Cheng holds him back.
“This is an issue for the Gusu Lan Sect to discipline,“ he hisses. “We have no part in this.”
“Lan Zhan!” screams Wei Wuxian, the agony evident in his voice. It pierces Lan Wangji’s heart, but he steels himself nonetheless, turning away from the man who had brought so much light to his life.
And with Wei Wuxian’s pleas echoing in his ears, Lan Wangji quietly slips back into the cold, dark embrace of the shadows.
kyuu_kiru has also illustrated the end scene here. Give them some love; it's amazing!
Chapter 2: the hunt
A moment at Baifeng Mountain.
The hunt at Baifeng Mountain this year is remarkably well-attended, full of well-wishers and spectators cheering on the cultivators riding past on their horses. The air is perfumed with the scent of flowers, flung by maidens towards their favourite cultivators. Wei Wuxian catches a couple as he rides by the observation towers, blowing kisses upwards in return.
After catching a falling peony, Wei Wuxian turns around and spots a familiar figure lurking in the shadows. His fall from grace in the Gusu Lan sect has made Lan Wangji even more reticent, slinking into the darkness wherever possible. It makes Wei Wuxian’s heart break to see him so diminished.
“Lan Zhan, come ride with me,” he suggests, pulling his horse up besides Lan Wangji’s black stallion. They must make an ominous pair, Lan Wangji in red and black, he himself in the black and purple of the Yunmeng Jiang sect. Lan Wangji inclines his head.
“I should be with Gusu Lan,” he says, as Wei Wuxian leads them towards the Yunmeng Jiang column. “This is… unorthodox.”
“You’re walking unorthodoxy these days, I don’t see why riding with someone from another sect should bother you,” retorts Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji’s hands clench on his reins, but he says nothing else and merely follows suit.
They reach the head of the Yunmeng Jiang column, and Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow at Lan Wangji’s appearance. “He’s not riding with his sect?” he asks.
“Why bother?” wonders Wei Wuxian. “They’ll just put him in the back again. Cheer up, Lan Zhan!” And he holds out the peony he’d caught earlier. Lan Wangji takes it, contemplative, before tucking it into the folds of his robes.
They hear mocking laughter from the Lanling Jin column. “How far the great fall,” sneers Jin Zixun. “Hanguang-jun can’t even get his own flowers.”
It’s not true; Wei Wuxian had seen some flowers thrown towards Lan Wangji earlier in the ride. But Lan Wangji had taken no notice of them, as always. “Are you jealous of him?” he teases instead, fluttering his lashes in mock flirtation at Jin Zixun. “Jealous I pay Hanguang-jun more attention than you?”
“Why would I be jealous of that?” snorts Jin Zixun. “Anyone who craves attention from the likes of you is a fool.”
There’s the ominous twang of guqin strings. Jin Zixun pales, and slinks back towards his formation.
The hunt itself starts mildly enough, in spite of another dust-up between Wei Wuxian and Jin Zixun. It had ended with Wei Wuxian blindfolding himself and shooting an arrow clean into a target, and then declaring that he would spend the hunt blindfolded. Lan Wangji had remained by Wei Wuxian’s side as the Yunmeng Jiang formation rode into the trees.
“Better make sure I don’t trip,” jokes Wei Wuxian as he leaps off his horse once they’d entered the forest. All he gets in response is a quiet hum.
Lan Wangji is as quiet as his shadows as they pass through the eaves of the forest; sometimes Wei Wuxian has to strain his ears just to make sure the other cultivator is still walking beside him. They wander along, over hill and under dale, until at last Lan Wangji pulls gently at his sleeve, urging him to stop.
Wei Wuxian has the distinct sense they’re standing in a clearing somewhere, far from the bustle of the rest of the hunt. He feels behind him, fingers scrabbling into tree bark, and wonders, “why did we stop?”
Lan Wangji shushes him. And then, without warning, his guqin begins to play.
The haunting melody fills the air, wafting through the trees like a snare, an enchanting lure, a siren’s call. Wei Wuxian’s heart races as he listens to it, hearing the distant lurching noises of corpses as they uproot themselves and begin to move. When the last low groan fades, Wei Wuxian tries to raise his blindfold and see what just happened, but he then finds his wrist seized in a vice-like grasp.
And then he feels a pair of lips against his, warm and wanting, and melts immediately.
It must be Lan Wangji; there was no one else in the area. But this is more than repaying a kindness — this is heat, and desire, and ardour completely uncharacteristic and unbecoming of him. Wei Wuxian revels in it nonetheless, his arms coming up to wrap around Lan Wangji’s neck and bringing him in closer.
“Lan Zhan,” he breathes. “What —”
Lan Wangji kisses him harder. Wei Wuxian surrenders instantaneously, pressing himself hard against the tree bark as he draws Lan Wangji flush against him. He can feel the heat from Lan Wangji’s body, the hardness of his muscles, the urgency in his kisses. Lan Wangji plunders his mouth as if trying to steal the air from his lungs, and Wei Wuxian has never felt more alive.
Then he realises Lan Wangji’s hands are shaking. His entire body is shaking.
“Lan Zhan?” he whispers. Lan Wangji’s hands move away; the crisp autumn air gushing into the space between them hits Wei Wuxian like a blow to the gut. Quickly he reaches up and pulls off his blindfold, but the clearing is already completely empty, with only lingering shadows to suggest Lan Wangji had even been there.
Chapter 3: an afternoon in caiyi
Chapter by lily_winterwood
Wei Wuxian meets Lan Wangji in Caiyi.
Hello, smut! If you're planning to skip it, it starts roughly at: "Wei Wuxian had grown up with many different ideas of how his first time would’ve been like."
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Wei Wuxian looks up at the magnificent tea-house in Caiyi Town, apprehension curling in his gut as he looks back down on the scrap of paper that had been delivered to him by a raven this morning. Meet me, Lan Wangji had written in his careful script, followed by the location where he stands now.
Strange of Lan Wangji to pick a tea-house in Caiyi, but Wei Wuxian isn’t going to turn down the opportunity for a meal and the chance to see Lan Wangji again. Throughout the years it’d been him visiting Lan Wangji at the Cloud Recesses, where he’d been tucked into his rooms with no other visitors or anyone else wanting to check on him, but even the most homebody of cultivators might still go stir-crazy sometimes.
Lan Wangji never spoke much during those meetings. Wei Wuxian would usually do the talking for both of them, over tea and small games of weiqi. Lan Wangji would always soundly beat him for the first couple rounds, only to be defeated by Wei Wuxian in the last game. Wei Wuxian suspects those victories are usually Lan Wangji letting him win, but he says nothing about it.
He’s gotten a lot calmer in the years since he recovered his core. He’s not quite sure why.
He enters the tea-house, and is escorted upstairs to a private room. Lan Wangji is already waiting for him, tea set and weiqi laid out ready to go. Wei Wuxian smiles brightly, taking a seat across from him.
“So, Lan Zhan, maybe this time I’ll finally beat you.”
“Unlikely,” replies Lan Wangji, already pouring them both cups of tea. Wei Wuxian laughs at that, tapping the table in thanks as he receives his cup.
“No need to crush my hopes and dreams out the gate like this, Lan Zhan,” he teases, placing the first black piece onto the board. One corner of Lan Wangji’s lips twitch slightly upwards, before he places down a white one on his side.
The game is relatively quiet, companionable. Lan Wangji’s gaze is brooding, contemplative; Wei Wuxian could almost pretend that they were teenagers again, spending an afternoon in Caiyi playing weiqi together. Of course, when he was younger he would never have had any patience for the game, preferring instead to load his arms with sweets and Emperor’s Smile and drift his afternoon away in a boat down the town’s many canals. But the thought still persists.
(Maybe if he pretends hard enough, Lan Wangji would still be clad in white. Still a jade of the Gusu Lan sect, revered and respected by all. But pretenses have to drop at some point.)
“How have you been?” he asks. “It’s been a while since I last visited you. You never come to Yunmeng. I’d almost have thought you didn’t care about me.”
Lan Wangji’s fingers tremble slightly, but he says nothing, only places down another piece.
“How’s your… path been going for you? I’m worried about you, you know. Walking the one-plank bridge like this, without the support you’ve been used to all your life — it must be lonely.”
Even when he was considered unapproachable and pure, Hanguang-jun had never been truly lonely. He had his brother, his uncle, the entire sect holding him on a pedestal of lofty expectations. But now? Wei Wuxian surveys Lan Wangji as he places his piece, trying to capture a small cadre of white ones.
Lan Wangji in turn captures him quite quickly.
“Come to Yunmeng with me,” suggests Wei Wuxian, though he has some idea what the answer will be.
And sure enough: “No,” replies Lan Wangji, though his hands are still shaking with something barely suppressed.
“Why not? We can hunt pheasants, chase after pretty girls, drink wine — surely now that you’re the black sheep of your clan you won’t mind breaking some more rules?”
“Liquor is prohibited,” mumbles Lan Wangji, though Wei Wuxian suspects he’s still reciting Lan sect rules for the old familiarity of them. He’s already broken so many other ones.
“We don’t have to,” he says. “We could do the other things without the wine. Please, Lan Zhan? You look like you could use a break.”
“I am on break,” says Lan Wangji, capturing even more of his pieces.
“What are you like when you’re not on break? What do you even study now, now that you’re walking the demonic path?” Wei Wuxian examines his face closely, as if hoping he’d be able to detect any signs of what Lan Wangji might be up to in the flicker of his topaz eyes. “Do you look for new and exciting ways to raise the dead? I mean, it’s all the same in the end, right? A dead person comes back to life. Big whoop.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes flash ruby. His knuckles turn white against his teacup.
Wei Wuxian grins. “Come on, Lan Zhan. What have you been up to? You can tell me.”
Lan Wangji remains silent, though his fingers tremble as they place another piece. Wei Wuxian sighs, and captures some of his pieces.
“You know, I never thought it could be possible, given how it’s so forbidden to the rest of us, but I can’t believe you managed to make demonic cultivation boring. That’s got to be a new feat.”
At that, the weiqi board goes flying, along with the pieces themselves. They rain across the floor, scattering everywhere in all directions. Wei Wuxian barely has time to look up before Lan Wangji is upon him, his lips pressed tight against Wei Wuxian’s.
Now this is something Wei Wuxian understands a little better.
Lan Wangji had not kissed him again since the hunt at Baifeng Mountain, but since then Wei Wuxian had not thought of kissing anyone else but him. Desire clouds his mind, makes him throw the last vestiges of restraint out the window as he wraps his arms around Lan Wangji’s shoulders. In turn, Lan Wangji pins him hard against the ground, opening his mouth almost like a demand.
“Lan Zhan, when did you learn how to kiss like this?” Wei Wuxian wonders, when they break apart. “And at Baifeng Mountain, too — did you practice with someone?”
“No,” says Lan Wangji, chasing Wei Wuxian’s lips with soft, chaste pecks. “Only you.”
“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” says Wei Wuxian, pressing their foreheads together. “Same here. You stole my first kiss, Lan Zhan. Please return it.”
Lan Wangji exhales, his mouth twitching into a half-smile before he leans in and does just that. Wei Wuxian’s hands move through the folds of Lan Wangji’s black robes, tugging insistently at his belt. In turn, Lan Wangji makes short work of Wei Wuxian’s Yunmeng robes as well, fingers deftly undoing laces and ties until Wei Wuxian can shrug out of his clothes and place Lan Wangji’s hands on his already heated skin.
“Wei Ying,” chokes out Lan Wangji, his eyes unexpectedly shining with tears. Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow at him.
“What’s wrong, Lan Zhan?” he asks. “Don’t you want this?”
Lan Wangji swallows, nods. He wipes his eyes briefly with his sleeve, before shrugging out of his robes as well and bringing Wei Wuxian’s body close to his. Wei Wuxian gasps at the first spark of skin on skin, arching into Lan Wangji’s touch with a soft moan.
Wei Wuxian had grown up with many different ideas of how his first time would’ve been like. When he was younger, of course, it had always been with some beautiful girl whose name he’d never know, whose face keeps changing depending on the season. After Baifeng Mountain, though, it had invariably been Lan Wangji, but even then he’d have expected a bed at the very least. Not like this: amidst a sea of black-and-white weiqi tiles, with Lan Wangji’s guqin-calloused fingers working him open until he’s certain he could not go any further.
“Lan Zhan, please,” he begs. “Stop teasing me and just get to it already.”
Lan Wangji freezes, a shadow briefly flickering over his face. His eyes flash red — Wei Wuxian shivers — and then he’s thrusting forward, breaching Wei Wuxian in a dizzying mix of pleasure and pain.
He had always expected Lan Wangji to be gentle, too. Perhaps it came from the regal grace he exhibited even as Hanguang-jun, or maybe his alleged prudishness. But this is so much better than he could have ever imagined. Lan Wangji fucks him with a desperation Wei Wuxian can feel in every thrust, as if the world will end if he stops — and Wei Wuxian is certain, when Lan Wangji’s cock brushes against that spot his fingers kept teasing earlier, that it might if he does.
Soon, his remaining cogent thoughts fall by the wayside. The room fills with nothing more than the sound of skin against skin and Wei Wuxian’s breathless moans.
He’s not sure how long he lasts, or how long Lan Wangji lasts. It could have been minutes, or hours for all he knows. But when Lan Wangji does come, it is with a soft gasp of Wei Wuxian’s name, followed by a half-choked sob. Wei Wuxian, in turn, comes with his fingers fisted in Lan Wangji’s hair, fingers tangling in the faded Gusu Lan ribbon still tying his hair back.
Lan Wangji kisses his forehead before he goes to find a cloth to clean them both. Wei Wuxian lies for a moment longer on the makeshift bed of his own clothes, his heart still rabbiting furiously in his chest.
“Is this why you brought me here?” he teases, as Lan Wangji cleans his abdomen and thighs with remarkable gentleness. The other cultivator’s eyes narrow, but he says nothing more, only pops a soft peck onto Wei Wuxian’s shoulder before placing the first of his undergarments over it.
When they are both decently clothed again, Wei Wuxian laughs as he examines the mess the rest of the room has suffered. “We should probably pick up the tiles,” he laments. Lan Wangji hums, kneeling down to do just that.
The tea has long since gone cold, but Wei Wuxian’s heart is the warmest it’s felt in ages.
this specific instalment is dedicated to suspicious_popsicle for their breaking through series which straight-up murdered me in a back alley. go read it pls
Chapter 4: an evening in yiling
Chapter by lily_winterwood
Wei Wuxian and the Wen Remnants. Wen Qing wakes up.
Smut ahoy; it starts at “Lan Wangji kisses back, setting his guqin aside before cupping Wei Wuxian’s face and pressing him back onto the grassy ridge.” if you would like to skip it.
Wei Wuxian’s probably the only person in the world who could ever say this without irony, but: he loves visiting Yiling.
He doesn’t go as many times as he would have liked, especially given the political tensions that the Incident at Qiongqi Way had incited. Jiang Cheng, in particular, would throw his hands up in exasperation whenever Wei Wuxian expressed a desire to check up on Lan Wangji, reminding him in no uncertain terms that the senior disciple of the Yunmeng Jiang sect sneaking off to visit the man responsible for killing the camp guards at Qiongqi could potentially put their shijie’s impending nuptials in danger.
Wei Wuxian just changes his clothes and goes anyway. It’s not like Jiang Cheng can stop him.
He mostly goes at sundown, when Lan Wangji is more likely to be spotted out and about. Years of hiding in the shadows has now completely ruined Lan Wangji’s previous 5 to 9 sleeping schedule; he now lives as nocturnally as possible, moving with the shadows and the corpses he commands. For Wei Wuxian, though, arriving at sundown means plenty of dark cover for him to slip back to Lotus Pier in.
It also means the possibility of staying for dinner with the remnants of the Wen sect, particularly their delightful little boy, Wen Yuan.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t exactly remember when he first met A-Yuan, but he does know that the boy simply won’t let him go. It takes considerable amounts of bribing with sweets from the other family members just to get A-Yuan to let go of his leg at the end of the night. He’s threatened to take A-Yuan back to Lotus Pier with him on several occasions, but somehow that only gets the boy to cling harder, insisting he wants to see “Wuxian-shushu’s big palace”.
“It’s not my palace,” Wei Wuxian would tell him. “It’s my shidi’s. But you’re welcome to come and play, whenever you like!”
It’s an empty promise, and all the adults know it. Yiling is the land of the forgotten, of the abandoned. Wei Wuxian inviting a Wen remnant to Lotus Pier could have terrible political consequences, no matter how young or undeserving of the Qiongqi concentration camps they had been.
(If it were up to Wei Wuxian, he’d have stormed Koi Towers himself. The children of the Wen sect did not deserve to be locked in cages, no matter the sins of their elders.)
This sundown is no different. A-Yuan comes to greet him almost as soon as Suibian lands, in the midst of a tall grove of lantern-lit trees. Under Lan Wangji’s strict but fair rule, the Yiling settlement has actually blossomed into something approaching civilisation. The ground is difficult to till with all the resentful energy brewing below the surface, but somehow Lan Wangji has managed it.
Wei Wuxian isn’t that surprised. Lan Wangji had helped him reform his golden core, after all. Turning a hillside of graves into an actual habitable settlement would be child’s play in comparison.
“Wuxian-shushu! Wuxian-shushu! Did you bring any more sweets?” A-Yuan asks, looking up from where he’s now hugging Wei Wuxian’s midsection. Wei Wuxian ruffles his hair, gently prising himself from the little boy so he can head up the path towards the settlement itself.
“Glad to hear I’m just wanted for my presents,” he says, but he takes out a carefully-wrapped box anyway, handing it to A-Yuan. The boy unwraps it, his eyes lighting up at the little tufts of candy floss within.
“What is it?” he asks, looking up at Wei Wuxian.
“Dragon’s beard candy,” says Wei Wuxian. “The chefs at Lanling and my shijie are preparing the wedding feast menu and they made too much of this! So I thought I’d sneak you some. Have you never had it before?”
A-Yuan pops one into his mouth, and his eyes light up. “Wow! It disappears on my tongue, look!” And he sticks out his tongue at Wei Wuxian, who laughs.
“Don’t go eating all of them, A-Yuan,” he chides. “You need to save some for all the grown-ups, too. I bet some of them haven’t had it in a very long time, if ever.” Lan Wangji probably has never had it, given how bland the food at the Cloud Recesses had been. There probably was even a rule against food with very high sugar content, just like this candy.
Together, they follow the lanterns to the settlement itself. Every little house is plain but tidy, with lanterns hanging in the nearby trees and protection talismans on every door. People’s heads poke out of windows and doorways to greet them as they walk by; A-Yuan gives all of the older folks dabs of his new sugary treat.
“Ningning-shushu!” he calls, upon reaching the house closest to the path leading up to the cave at the top of the mountain where Lan Wangji resided. Wen Ning, who had been raking fallen leaves out of the path ahead, pauses to greet the little boy.
“A-Yuan, did Wuxian-shushu give you something new?” he asks. A-Yuan holds out the box of candy, and Wen Ning takes one with a hum of happiness. “It tastes delicious, A-Yuan, thank you!”
“Is Lan Zhan here?” asks Wei Wuxian. Wen Ning nods towards the mountain path, a slight shadow flitting over his handsome features.
Wei Wuxian remembers how the story goes. Wen Ning had just escaped the Qiongqi concentration camp when he ran into Lan Wangji, who had listened to his story and his desperate search for his sister Wen Qing and decided to help him find her. But the guards of the concentration camp had believed they killed no one, for those who bore the last name Wen did not count as people to them.
That, and there had been a terrible outbreak of typhus fever, so that not even those who were not sentenced to manual labour were spared the possibility of death. Wen Qing, as a medic on the front line, had been one of the first to die.
It really was no wonder that Lan Wangji might have gone overboard in freeing the prisoners of the camp. Even as Hanguang-jun, he had always gone where the chaos was, with the intention of helping others. It just so happens this time, the chaos happened to be a form of genocide. Lan Wangji was restoring justice, and even in the Gusu Lan sect justice sometimes could mean a life for a life.
But now Lan Wangji spent his days holed up in his cave, desperately trying to find a way to restore Wen Qing to some form of consciousness. Wei Wuxian had seen her lying motionless on a slab in the workshop corner of the cave, talismans placed over her qi points to calm her spirit. In both life and death, she was fierce.
“Here, A-Yuan, go with Ningning-shushu,” says Wei Wuxian, pushing the boy towards him. “I’m going to go visit Wangji-shushu.”
“Wanna come,” says A-Yuan.
“I don’t think that’s a great idea,” says Wei Wuxian, shoving him a little harder towards Wen Ning, who laughs sheepishly and takes A-Yuan by the hand.
“Yes, come on, you can come help me and Uncle Four and Granny prepare something to eat, okay? The crops this year are looking good, hopefully they’ll taste just as good…”
Sure enough, when Wei Wuxian arrives in the cavern, Lan Wangji is bent over the supine form of Wen Qing, whose preservation talismans are bright as ever as Lan Wangji tinkers away at her. “Not yet,” says Lan Wangji almost as soon as Wei Wuxian’s shadow falls over the opening of the cave.
“I haven’t even said anything,” says Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji’s hands still. “Wei Ying,” he breathes. Wei Wuxian smiles, sauntering into the cavern and pressing a kiss to the top of Lan Wangji’s head. The other cultivator’s eyes close briefly; when Wei Wuxian rests a hand on his shoulder, Lan Wangji presses it to his lips.
“Still ‘not yet’?” asks Wei Wuxian, massaging out the knots in Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
“Mm,” replies Lan Wangji, his attention returning to Wen Qing. “I am close, I think,” he says. With a strum of his guqin, Wen Qing’s eyes slowly flutter open.
But there are no pupils. She growls, arm lashing out towards Lan Wangji, who neatly ducks it before strumming another note. Wen Qing’s attack wavers, especially as Lan Wangji’s fingers flit through the melody of “Rest” as if he had known it all his life. Which, given the Gusu Lan sect’s discipline, probably means he has.
With a frown, Lan Wangji returns to tinkering with her, tracing new symbols onto her with a paintbrush dipped in vivid crimson.
“Is that blood?” asks Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji’s lips thin into a line. “Of course. Forget I asked.”
“You do not have to remain here,” says Lan Wangji. “The people in the settlement would be glad to have you for dinner.”
“I’m not going down there without you,” protests Wei Wuxian. “Wen Ning might have my head for it otherwise.”
Lan Wangji hums in amusement, before waking Wen Qing again.
It takes a couple more instances of trial and error, but then suddenly on the next round of tweaking symbols and strumming the guqin, Wen Qing wakes with black pupils visible in her eyes. Wei Wuxian gasps, as she slowly gets up and walks around the cavern, almost as if running some sort of sanitation check.
“What’s under the cover there?” she asks.
“A blood pool,” says Lan Wangji. “Many of the fierce corpses that have not yet matured are within. I seal it primarily.”
“Good,” says Wen Qing. Her gaze then lands on Wei Wuxian, dangling all over Lan Wangji’s shoulders like the lover he should be. “You use prophylaxis, correct?”
Lan Wangji chokes on air. “Pardon?”
“Silk paper or lamb intestine coverings for sex,” says Wen Qing simply. “Though, I suppose, given the situation, contraception isn’t a primary concern.”
Lan Wangji finger twitches on the guqin, as if tempted to put her back under. Wei Wuxian cackles appreciatively.
“Yes, Lan Zhan, why have you not been conscientious about it? Are you trying to make me pregnant?”
Lan Zhan stares at him, unamused. Wei Wuxian giggles, before pulling him closer with a kiss to his forehead.
“I’m joking, Lan Zhan, I’m joking. We all know you’ve never touched anyone else. And neither have I, so we’re good.”
Wen Qing, meanwhile, is pacing her way through the cavern. “Where am I?” she asks after a moment. “The last thing I remember is the camp in Qiongqi, and all that lice, and the typhus…”
“You died,” says Wei Wuxian simply. “Lan Zhan brought you back. You were a bit of a low-level fierce corpse for a while, but Lan Zhan promised your brother he’d bring you back, and he’s done that now!”
Lan Wangji’s ears flush faintly pink. “Wei Ying,” he warns, but in a tone of fond exasperation.
Wen Qing, on the other hand, had seized on one word and one word only. “Brother,” she says. “Where is he? Where is Wen Ning?” Her agitation makes her pupils flicker slightly, so Lan Wangji strums a gentle chord to soothe her.
“He is down in the settlement,” he replies. “We are about to join them for dinner.”
“You probably won’t need to eat,” adds Wei Wuxian. “But I’m sure they’d love to see you.”
Wen Qing is out of the cave before they can say anything else. Chuckling, Wei Wuxian turns to Lan Wangji, who is now covering up his guqin and moving it to its proper table. The entire space looks both well lived-in and yet oddly presentable, the workstation full of neat stacks of notes, the bed neatly made with Bichen lying sheathed on a table nearby, alongside a darker-coloured sword.
Wei Wuxian steps closer to it. “There’s a lot of resentful energy in this,” he remarks.
Lan Wangji smacks his hand away. “Do not touch,” he warns. Wei Wuxian puts both hands up, and follows Lan Wangji out of the cave.
Upon hearing about the return of Wen Qing, the Wen remnants hastily prepare a feast. It’s a far cry from the sumptuous meals being planned by his shijie just across the river in preparation for her wedding next week, but the context surrounding the food is just as joyful, if not even moreso.
For one, this feast isn’t commemorating the fact that he’ll soon have Jin Zixuan as a brother-in-law. Shijie really could have done better, but who is he to judge, especially since the man he has chosen is none other than the Master of Shadows?
Wei Wuxian smiles through the meal, offers the Wen remnants and Lan Wangji the latest gossip from Yunmeng. He regales them with tales of his shijie’s wedding planning woes, talking in depth about the line of pretentious dressmakers determined to be commissioned to make Jiang Yanli’s trousseau; the cavalcade of wedding party members and guests to be approved of or rejected based on how important they are as allies of either Yunmeng or Lanling (and not something more substantial such as ‘whether or not they’ll get drunk and start hitting on everyone in sight’ or ‘whether or not they’ll try to derail reception speeches with political tirades about the Master of Shadows’); and the parade of flowers and gifts from Koi Towers to Lotus Pier, all apparently part of Jiang Yanli’s dowry as the sister of Sect Leader Jiang.
“I don’t know why he insisted on sending flower garlands,” Wei Wuxian concludes. “They’ll die eventually, they’re useless, and they’re in the most obnoxious colours. I don’t know how my shijie can put up with it.”
“We put up with a lot for love,” says Wen Ning, as his sister sits beside him at the table, cutting his food into small pieces for him as if out of force of habit.
“Yeah, but at this rate I’ll develop allergies to all of the flowers he sends, and when we go to Lanling and find Koi Towers dripping in them, I’ll probably sneeze all over them and ruin the wedding.” Wei Wuxian sighs, leaning against Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “I wish you could be there, Lan Zhan. What if I had you come in a disguise? We’ll call you Wei Zhan, and no one will be any wiser.”
Lan Wangji almost chokes on his food. “No,” he says.
“No, everyone will find out, or no, you don’t want to come?”
Lan Wangji shakes his head. Wei Wuxian laughs, and turns back to his own food. It’s not even remotely spicy at all, but if Lan Wangji’s diet requires his food to be tasteless, so be it.
We put up with a lot for love, indeed.
After dinner, Lan Wangji takes him back up to the cavern. Usually around this time they would kiss one another good night before Wei Wuxian mounted Suibian to return to Lotus Pier, but tonight he reckons he could stay a little longer, celebrate a little more. The Wen remnants had managed to bottle some wine made from fruits gathered on the mountain, and they’d given him a bottle of it to try. Lan Wangji, of course, declined the same.
“You’re such a natural leader,” Wei Wuxian says, as he sits at the cave mouth looking down the ridge at the red lanterns glowing through the trees. “I can’t believe you’ve made this place look like a proper place to live.”
“Not just me,” says Lan Wangji, coming to sit beside him with his guqin. “They all worked hard, too.”
“So modest.” Wei Wuxian reaches out, covers Lan Wangji’s hand with his. “Have you thought about setting up your own sect right here?”
Lan Wangji bows his head, and is silent for a long while. After a while, his fingers return to the guqin strings, and they begin to play.
The song is familiar; Wei Wuxian remembers Lan Wangji playing it for him once, humming an unknown tune to these chords in the depths of the Xuanwu’s cave. Now they fly out into the night sky, filling the stars with their sweet melody, and the entire mountain seems to sigh in relaxation at the sound.
Wei Wuxian has so much he wants to say. So many things he wants to tell Lan Wangji. But every time he looks at him, every time he stares into those unfathomable topaz eyes, he finds those words curling up just under his throat in reluctance to move any further. Lan Zhan, I —
Never want to be parted from you.
Don’t want anyone else in the world, aside from you.
They bubble up as thoughts, each and every one of them, but somehow the act of saying these things chokes his throat. The frustration of it nearly drives him to tears, causing him to wipe at his eyes. Lan Wangji’s playing pauses.
“Wei Ying?” he asks. The way his name runs across Lan Wangji’s tongue is too much for Wei Wuxian to bear.
He kisses Lan Wangji then, trying to push those thoughts he had felt across the connection of their lips. Lan Wangji kisses back, setting his guqin aside before cupping Wei Wuxian’s face and pressing him back onto the grassy ridge.
When they make love that night, it’s the first time Wei Wuxian feels painfully aware of that strange concept now determinedly lodged deep in his heart. Love — how long has he unconsciously, quietly loved Lan Wangji from afar? How long has he masked it all away in shows of bravado and teasing, like some naughty schoolboy who won’t stop pulling his crush’s hair? He’d even done such a thing himself, once upon a time in the Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji had not been amused then. He’s certainly more open to it now.
Lan Wangji moves within him, and it feels as if Wei Wuxian has been cracked open, his heart and core laid bare for Lan Wangji’s taking. He pulls Lan Wangji closer by his hair, arches his body to meet his thrusts. In turn Lan Wangji’s fingers play across his skin, as if he is the world’s finest guqin and Lan Wangji his sole master.
Wei Wuxian would like nothing more than to be played upon by Lan Wangji for the rest of his life. If only life outside of them could be so simple. As it is, all he can do is love Lan Wangji, wholly and desperately, and hope that their divergent paths could reconverge better someday.
Afterwards, there is nothing Wei Wuxian wants more in the world than to linger in the circle of Lan Wangji’s arms, and fall asleep to the rhythm of his heartbeat. But the night wanes, and with the sun comes the return of real life, cold and harsh and full of every political nightmare and scandal possible should someone find a hero of Yunmeng lying in the arms of the Master of Shadows.
“I hate to leave,” he tells Lan Wangji, as he puts his clothes back on. Lan Wangji only pulls his undergarments back on, and Wei Wuxian laments the disappearance of Lan Wangji’s muscular chest beneath the white cotton. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, I promise.”
“Promise,” agrees Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian takes his hand, presses kisses to each knuckle.
“There,” he says. “Just like you do. Now I have to come back to you.”
The next time he does, it is too late.
Chapter 5: after nightless city
Chapter by lily_winterwood
The death of Wei Wuxian.
Warning (of course) for Major Character Death, though temporary!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When the haze of battle and blood clears from Lan Wangji’s eyes, devastation greets him. Slowly, he opens his hand, allowing the Stygian Blade to tumble from his hands and onto the broken stones of the Nightless City plaza. The stench of blood rankles his nostrils — even after all these years, he has never quite gotten used to the smell of death.
The cultivators he had faced were all dead. Dead, dead — their bodies now no more than empty husks, ragdolls motionless at his feet. His own army waits amongst them, silent and obedient. But not always.
Not always. Not when they ferociously tore to pieces the rulers of the Wen Clan. Not when Wen Qing’s hands had torn out the throat of Uncle Qiren.
And not when he hears a weak voice cry “Lan Zhan!” from amid a mound of corpses, and he shifts the bodies aside to see Wei Wuxian lying there, a rose of dark crimson blooming across his abdomen.
For a brief, terrifying moment, Lan Wangji’s heart stops.
“Wei Ying,” he breathes, kneeling down besides Wei Wuxian on the battlefield. “You are hurt.”
“Just a scratch,” jokes Wei Wuxian, grinning up at him. “You really gotta fine-tune these corpses of yours, Lan Zhan! Some of them don’t like me very much!”
“I am sorry,” says Lan Wangji. “I lost control.”
Wei Wuxian coughs a little. Blood appears in his hands. “Nothing a little tinkering won’t fix! I know you need to control that resentful energy, but could we have found a different time or place to unleash such a dangerous blade? Now everyone’s going to think all of this was your fault.”
“But it was,” says Lan Wangji, inclining his head. Wei Wuxian scowls.
“The lot of them are driven by their own resentment,” he says. “That’s what happens when you automatically assume other people mean to do you harm. I’ve noticed that a long time ago, Lan Zhan. I wish you never had to.”
“You are hurt,” insists Lan Wangji, and with a gesture the Stygian Blade flies to his side. He steps on, Wei Wuxian cradled in his arm more fragile than a child, more precious than gold. Wei Wuxian loops his arms around him almost by habit, and coughs blood against Lan Wangji’s robes.
The settlement in Yiling is silent when Lan Wangji returns, the inhabitants having already been evacuated prior to Lan Wangji leaving for Nightless City. Only A-Yuan remains stubbornly behind, clinging to a tree just outside Lan Wangji’s cave. “Wangji-shushu!” he chirps. “What’s wrong with Wuxian-shushu?”
Lan Wangji gently sets Wei Wuxian down on his bed inside the cave. “He is hurt,” he replies, placing a hand out to stop A-Yuan from getting any closer. “What are you still doing here? I told you to leave with Ningning-shushu.”
“Didn’t wanna. Didn’t say goodbye.” A-Yuan pouts. “Wuxian-shushu will get better, right?”
Lan Wangji cannot bring himself to tell the truth. “He just needs to sleep, A-Yuan,” he replies. “And so do you.” Saying that, he presses down gently on a spot just behind the little boy’s ears, and catches him just as he falls unconscious into his arms.
Lan Wangji closes his eyes, touches his hands to the boy’s temple, and starts to hum. The shadows gather, settling soft and reassuring around the young boy’s head. When he wakes, it will be as if a veil of darkness has separated the memories of his past from the soon-to-be thoughts of his future.
And with the slumbering A-Yuan in his arms, Lan Wangji departs on his blade once again, but this time towards Yunmeng. He slips, quiet as thought, through the defenses surrounding Lotus Pier, and just like how Wei Wuxian himself had once been, gently deposits the slumbering A-Yuan on the doorstep of the palace.
When he returns to Yiling again, the preservation talismans he had left on Wei Wuxian’s body have burned through, and Lan Wangji immediately sets to work trying to heal his wounds.
But it is no use. He has no spiritual energy left to give. His own core, burning brightly inside Wei Wuxian, is fighting onto life with the last of its will. All Lan Wangji can do, in the end, is tuck his robes around the prone form of his lover, and stroke his face, and wish things had never turned this way.
“Lan Zhan?” breathes Wei Wuxian, his voice even weaker now than before.
“Wei Ying,” replies Lan Wangji, taking his hand. “I am doing the best I can.”
“We both know it’s too late,” says Wei Wuxian, smiling even at the brink of death. “But it’s okay, isn’t it? I have sighed after death for so long that now it just seems like a reunion with a lover.”
Lan Wangji’s heart stutters, splinters. “Wei Ying, I will never leave you,” he promises, kissing each knuckle. Wei Wuxian chuckles.
“I know,” he says, reaching out to run his fingers through Lan Wangji’s ribbon, the faded Gusu white and blue now muddled with blood and dirt. “I’ll see you soon.”
His eyes close after that, and his hands fall, cold and still, in Lan Wangji’s own.
Lan Wangji breaks the Stygian Blade after that, destroys it so utterly in his rage and grief that the entire settlement that he had so painstakingly grew from the bones of the mountain is levelled in five seconds flat.
It is not enough. And with the oncoming siege led by Lan Xichen, it will never be.
...I was so tempted to have Wei Wuxian say "tis merely a flesh wound" but dsgkasdf
Chapter 6: a-yuan
Chapter by lily_winterwood
How Jiang Cheng of all people ended up adopting a Wen.
Jiang Wanyin may be many things: tempestuous, mercurial, rash — but he’s not stupid. He knows exactly where Wei Ying goes when he disappears at sundown, and he knows exactly why. Especially when he returns with his hair and clothes in even more of a disarray than usual.
“You should come to Yiling with me sometime,” Wei Ying says after every lecture Jiang Wanyin subjects him to. “I’m sure you’d like it too, if you saw it. Can’t believe Hanguang-jun really made something so nice out of that desolate place. Or maybe I can; he is Hanguang-jun after all.”
“Stop talking nonsense,” hisses Jiang Wanyin, sending a wary glance towards the doorway. “You know what’s at stake here, Wei Ying. And yet you insisted on going? I should bar you from shijie’s wedding!”
Wei Ying’s expression crumples dramatically. “Oh please don’t do that, A-Cheng, don’t be so cruel,” he teases.
Jiang Wanyin shakes his head. “Shameless,” he mutters, and turns away.
“I wish Hanguang-jun could’ve come,” Wei Ying laments as the wedding barge makes its slow procession down the river, to the wild cheering of people on the banks. Everyone is lauding this as the wedding of the century — two great cultivation families, united in marriage. Mother would be pleased to hear her plans had come to fruition at last, Jiang Wanyin thinks, as Jiang Yanli waves to her well-wishers on the shore, resplendent in her robes incorporating an entwined lotus and peony.
“The barge stops near Yiling for the night,” he remarks casually. Wei Ying’s eyes light up.
“Then you have to come and visit the settlement! It’s really something, A-Cheng. I know you dislike the Wens, but —”
“Don’t care for the Wens at all,” agrees Jiang Wanyin. But avenging the deaths of his parents and people is entirely separate from locking an entire nation in a small village and working them to death. Condoning that would be a blot on his conscience that he could never erase.
Resentful energy isn’t just for the dead. And too much of it in the living can unleash unimaginable horrors. The Master of Shadows doesn’t need to make new monsters, when the best ones are already the so-called righteous trying to take him down.
Wei Ying tugs his hand. “Please come meet A-Yuan, at least,” he begs. Jiang Wanyin pinches the bridge of his nose.
“No one can see us,” he warns.
In the back of an inn not far from the settlement, Jiang Wanyin looks at the little boy clinging to Wen Qionglin’s legs, and his heart secretly crumples like paper.
After the fall of the Burial Mounds, after the funeral procession bearing Wei Ying’s body has finally deposited him in the family crypt, Jiang Wanyin kneels before the tomb and prays to his fallen ancestors for guidance.
Father, I know you would be displeased at hearing I could not protect A-Ying, he pleads. But please, give me a second chance.
A rustle from a nearby tree disrupts Jiang Wanyin’s prayer. He looks up, just in time to see a small figure vanish between the branches. Sandu flashes out immediately. “Hey!” he shouts. “Show yourself!”
A-Yuan’s frightened face peers out at him. Jiang Wanyin’s heart briefly stops.
“A-Yuan?” he breathes. “What are you — oh.”
Lan Wangji must have brought him here before the siege arrived. Anger boils in Jiang Wanyin’s gut just at the memory of the siege aftermath, but he shoves it back down before it can rise into his throat like bile.
“Come down here,” he snaps. The boy, chastened, slowly clambers down from the tree. Jiang Wanyin is deeply reminded of a younger Wei Ying, who had gone to sleep in a tree one night after Jiang Wanyin had kicked him out of his room. “What is your name?”
The boy shakes his head. Jiang Wanyin kneels to his level, watches the boy squirm as he tries to remember his name.
Lan Wangji must have done that, too, so the boy doesn’t reveal he’s a Wen. For his safety, probably.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says, holding out his hands. “You’re Jiang Yuan now. Come inside; you look like you haven’t eaten in days.”
Sizhui, he thinks, with a glance back to the crypt. Longing and remembrance for a brother who now dreams forever.
Jiang Yuan clings to his leg all the way back to the palace.
Chapter 7: the return
Wei Wuxian returns from the dead. Lan Wangji returns from seclusion.
“Wei Wuxian, one of the Twin Heroes of Yunmeng, is dead!”
“How? How could something like this happen?”
“It was tragic, but perhaps that’s what you get for sticking by someone so evil as the Master of Shadows, the fallen Hanguang-jun, Lan Wangji!”
“Did Lan Wangji kill him?”
“That’s what I heard! And then the coward disappeared into thin air, never to be seen or heard from again. Imagine the grief that must have struck Sect Leader Jiang, to see his shixiong dead in the Burial Mounds when they laid siege to it!”
“And to think… when the rest of the world had turned their backs on Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian was the only one who paid him any kindness. To see such love repaid with death… it’s too terrible to even think about!”
“Well, that’s why they have to keep Wei Wuxian’s tomb closely guarded in Yunmeng, in case Lan Wangji tried to break in and do something unspeakable to him. Everyone knows Wei Wuxian had always been the Master of Shadow’s greatest weakness, after all.”
“I hope the coward has died now, out there in the wild with no one to mourn him. But what do we know of the world of cultivators? Their politics are none of our concern.”
Wei Wuxian opens his eyes to the sound of screaming and the vibrant scrawl of blood across the floor of an unkempt hut.
I, Mo Xuanyu, call upon the spirit of Wei Wuxian to do my bidding.
His heart sinks at the sight of the scars on his new body, as well as the familiar handwriting on a torn page from a book next to the bloodied array: Lan Wangji’s careful script, splattered with blood like the rest of his reputation.
Let my body be house to his spirit, to restore justice to this crooked world, to right the sufferings that have plagued me, to draw out the great Master of Shadows from his seclusion.
He doesn’t remember much from before his death; everything comes to him in bursts of light and sensation. But even within these fragmented memories there are spots of clarity: Lan Wangji’s face, his hands, the feeling of his lips —
Lan Wangji had told him about this ritual before. In return for the new body, he must fulfill the wishes of the original bearer. But how?
“Mo Xuanyu, you ungrateful lout! How dare you lock your door to me!”
That might be it.
There are two young men gathered in the foyer of the Mo residence when Wei Wuxian arrives as a powdered and rouged mess riding on a donkey. One of them is in purple and black, while the other bears the golden crest of Sparks Amidst Snow.
“Young Masters Jin and Jiang, we are truly honoured to have you here with us today,” Madam Mo is saying, all deference and hospitality. “We understand that you are cultivators of great skill and integrity and can help us resolve our little situation.”
Jin and Jiang. Wei Wuxian peers closer at their faces. The Jiang boy is only distantly familiar, but the Jin one…
“Rulan,” he breathes. Jin Rulan’s head whips towards him, and his expression grows positively murderous.
“You!” he hisses. “Showing your face in here after what you did at Koi Towers!”
“Ah, Rulan,” says the other boy, “we have a job to do here.”
Wei Wuxian slinks away, soft and silent, and tries to figure out what’s happening.
The boys are summoning evil to be banished. It’s ironic, that for all the cultivation world’s hatred of Lan Wangji’s inventions, they would still readily incorporate it into their own techniques. He watches, from a distance, as the boys dutifully place the shadow flags, draw the boundaries for trap arrays to capture dark creatures. All techniques he had watched Lan Wangji create, painstakingly bent over his workspace in a cavern full of shadows.
“There have been an increased number of corpses in the area lately,” Madam Mo says as she leads the boys through the courtyard. Wei Wuxian follows just behind, careful to keep out of both hers and her son’s grasp.
“Something may be drawing them here. We will summon it with these flags and resolve it,” says the Jiang boy. Next to him, Jin Rulan nods. “Please stay out of the courtyards tonight.”
The boys are summoning evil, but the evil that they bring cannot be so easily contained.
Mo Xuanyu’s body barely has a golden core — probably why he had to resort to demonic paths — so Wei Wuxian can barely defend himself, let alone help these two juniors fight off a singularly vicious severed arm. For some reason, each life claimed by the arm erases a scar from his own.
Madam Mo is the last to die, the whites of her eyes startling in her desiccated body. She lurches forward, the unfamiliar left arm lashing out at the boys. They fight back, swords dancing through the darkness, spiritual energy enveloping the corpse arm in golden and purple light. It persists, though, breaking through their arrays and defenses, blocking the slashes of their swords. At one swipe, the Jiang boy is knocked over, barely avoiding the oncoming arm as he ducks and rolls.
“Sizhui!” screams Jin Rulan, and the arm briefly seizes up. Madam Mo collapses to the ground. The arm falls, harmless, onto the ground, tenatively creeping towards Jin Rulan as if fascinated.
Then the sound of guqin music fills the shadows, and Wei Wuxian’s heart leaps into his throat. The boys, too, pause momentarily in fear and wonder, as a pair of ruby eyes flash from under the eaves of the house. Slowly, the corpses in the courtyard rise to their feet. Sensing the other corpses, the arm immediately tries to escape, but the corpses are just as fast. They tackle it, wrestling it down until it can be placed into a qiankun bag.
Jin Rulan takes the bag, and the courtyard falls silent, the corpses collapsing back onto the grass, dead. The boys are peering into the shadows, eyes wide and mouths agape.
Wei Wuxian turns, too, half of a name hopeful on his tongue, but the man in the shadows with the ruby eyes vanishes almost as soon as he had came.
“Stop following us, you cut-sleeve lunatic,” Jin Rulan snaps for the umpteenth time as they enter the eaves of the forest surrounding Dafan mountain.
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes from his position astride Lil Apple. “How am I following you? You’re the ones walking behind me. Go walk in another direction if you’re so inclined.”
“This is the only path,” the Jiang boy — Jiang Sizhui, apparently — replies. He doesn’t view Wei Wuxian with as much suspicion, probably because whatever Mo Xuanyu did at Koi Towers had no effect on him.
“So then how am I following you two?” wonders Wei Wuxian. “We are simply travelling on the same path, but to different ends.”
The boys seem to agree with that, however sullenly. Jin Rulan sticks his nose in the air. Wei Wuxian chuckles.
“Like father, like son,” he remarks. Jin Rulan bristles, spots of colour appearing in his cheeks.
“How dare you mention my father!” he snaps, pulling out his sword — Jin Zixuan’s sword, Wei Wuxian recognises. “After what you did in Koi Towers, it’s a miracle I haven’t killed you where you stood!”
“Rulan, don’t you think that’s a bit much?” asks Jiang Sizhui.
“You’re taking his side? Even after he made advances towards your father?”
“Your father!” exclaims Wei Wuxian, slightly flabbergasted.
“Did you get the thousand holes curse in your brain?” demands Jin Rulan. “Not only did you disgrace yourself with your unwanted advances towards my uncle, Lianfang-zun, but you also had to drag Sect Leader Jiang into your depravity as well.”
Sect Leader Jiang has a child? is all Wei Wuxian gets from that. And what’s more, this boy is Sect Leader Jiang’s son?
“It was shameless, I will admit,” says Jiang Sizhui levelly, “but it doesn’t warrant death.” He pauses. “And what’s more, perhaps the opinions about cut-sleeves in Lanling may be tainted by Master Mo’s behaviour, but in Yunmeng it was never considered a moral failure.” He sighs. “After all, my father’s sworn brother, the great hero Wei Wuxian…”
Wei Wuxian’s hands clench tighter on Lil Apple’s bridle.
“You really think Wei Wuxian was like that?” asks Jin Rulan, his voice a half-whisper. “That he and the Master of Shadows…”
“How else could it be?” wonders Jiang Sizhui. “It’s been thirteen years since anyone ever spotted the Master of Shadows, but those eyes we saw at the Mo residence — that guqin — it has to be him.”
“But why here? And what would Wei Wuxian have to do with it? His body is in the crypt at Lotus Pier, isn’t it?”
Jiang Sizhui is about to respond, when Lil Apple suddenly trips into a spirit-binding net of bright silver rope. Wei Wuxian manages to escape just in time, but his steed is much less fortunate.
“Ugh!” a new voice resounds from the trees. Moments later, a boy in bright white and blue comes leaping out of the branches, staring with obvious annoyance up at the braying donkey. “This is the third time!”
“Jingyi!” exclaims Jiang Sizhui and Jin Rulan in unison. The boy startles, his expression lighting up when he sees the other two.
“Sizhui! Rulan! I thought you two were at the Mo Residence tonight?”
“We caught our prey!” exclaims Jiang Sizhui, excitement clear on his face. He waves the qiankun bag in front of Lan Jingyi. “Admittedly, we did have some help —”
“The Master of Shadows helped us,” adds Jin Rulan. “He had eyes like fire just like in the stories!”
“So the Master of Shadows caught the hand for you,” says Lan Jingyi, raising an eyebrow. “You didn’t really do it yourself.”
“We did most of the work!” protests Jiang Sizhui.
Lan Jingyi’s expression darkens. “What was the Master of Shadows even doing at the Mo Residence?” he demands. “Did you guys see where he went after?”
“No, he just vanished,” says Jiang Sizhui. “Mo Xuanyu here got the best look at him. Didn’t you?” he adds, looking at Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian gapes. “I — didn’t really see much,” he replies. “Can you free my donkey, Young Master Lan? I’m a tired man, and I need my Lil Apple —”
Lan Jingyi, clearly unamused, snaps his fingers. The net opens, and Lil Apple stumbles out, annoyed. “Waste of a good net,” mutters Lan Jingyi.
“I thought you didn’t use traps on night-hunts, as a rule,” says Jiang Sizhui.
“I was testing this one for Sect Leader Lan,” says Lan Jingyi. “It’s supposed to be able to trap extremely powerful dark creatures, even demonic cultivators, but all I’ve gotten are hapless travellers.” His scowl deepens. “And a donkey.”
“Demonic cultivators,” remarks Wei Wuxian. “You don’t mean to say the Gusu Lan sect has resorted to spinning traps for the Master of Shadows now?”
“How can we not?” yet another voice cuts in. A vision in Gusu white steps out from the trees, his beauty as cold as his voice. “He was once our flesh and blood. Hunting rabbits requires laying traps.”
Thirteen years has done much to harden Lan Xichen, it seems. His expression is almost as severe as Lan Wangji’s had been. The familiarity makes Wei Wuxian’s borrowed heart skip a beat.
“The other night, I was playing Inquiry,” says Lan Xichen, stepping towards Wei Wuxian with furrowed brows. “Imagine what I discovered, when I enquired after the spirit of the lost hero sleeping in Yunmeng.”
“I’m afraid I’m not that imaginative,” says Wei Wuxian drily. “Do tell.”
“For thirteen years, I had received the same answer. He was dead. But last night, I found out his spirit had migrated back to the living.”
“Wei Wuxian’s alive?” demands the three boys.
“Yes,” states Lan Xichen, his eyes narrowing as he walks around Wei Wuxian. “So, Master Mo, you’ll have to pardon my suspicion, but… given that the Master of Shadows has been sighted at the Mo Residence so soon after Wei Wuxian’s spirit returned to the living, I have no doubt that said restoration was his doing.”
Wei Wuxian bites down on the truth and swallows it back into his throat.
“I therefore have no choice but to insist you return to Gusu with me, Master Mo,” continues Lan Xichen. “For your own safety, if nothing else.”
Wei Wuxian is about to protest that, but Jiang Sizhui beats him to the punch.
“How could Master Mo be Wei Wuxian?” he demands. “Wei Wuxian was supposed to be a legendary swordsman and flautist, but Master Mo has demonstrated neither of those things tonight.”
“That can be easily amended,” says yet another voice, and everyone turns to see Jiang Cheng step out of the trees as well, his glare steely and Zidian crackling at his finger. “A-Yuan, A-Ling, where were the two of you? You were supposed to have reported to the inn hours ago!”
“We got distracted!” protests Jin Rulan.
“Distracted, my ass,” grumbles Jiang Cheng. “You were not the only one who received a sign last night of things to come, Zewu-jun. Wei Wuxian’s body has vanished from the crypt.”
“Then he really must be back,” says Lan Xichen. “And it’s only a matter of time before my brother finds him.”
Both pairs of eyes turn back towards Wei Wuxian, who promptly looks to and fro, screams, and runs up into the nearest tree. “I’m not him!” he yells, even as Jiang Sizhui and Lan Jingyi start trying to pull him back down. “Whoever this Wei Wuxian guy is, I swear I’m not him!”
“Really? Let’s see about that!” shouts Jiang Cheng, and suddenly Wei Wuxian’s back feels like it’s on fire. He tumbles out of the tree, landing hard on his back with a groan of pain.
“Zidian can only cast out possession cases,” Jiang Sizhui reminds his father. “Surely in demonic cultivation there are other ways to bring someone’s spirit back.”
“Indeed,” agrees Lan Xichen, his gaze hard. “And we can find out what it is.”
“You’re not planning to take a disciple of the Yunmeng Jiang sect back to Gusu, are you?” asks Jiang Cheng, his eyes narrowing at that. “If this man truly is Wei Wuxian, then he would fall under our protection. You have no right, Sect Leader Lan.”
Lan Xichen’s hand clenches into a fist, but he smiles nonetheless. “Sect Leader Jiang, anything that has to do with the successful capture and discipline of my brother is of concern to the Gusu Lan sect.”
“That may be so, but not when it concerns the spirits and bodies of those alleged to Yunmeng Jiang,” snaps Jiang Cheng. “I’m taking Master Mo back with me to Lotus Pier.”
“Oh, thank heavens,” remarks Wei Wuxian from the ground, looking between the two of them. “Apparently Sect Leader Jiang is precisely my type.”
“It appears Master Mo would like to feel Zidian again,” remarks Jiang Cheng drily, as Jiang Sizhui helps Wei Wuxian to his feet.
“I hope you mean Zidian as the ring on your finger, and nothing else,” retorts Wei Wuxian, grinning from ear to ear.
“You really do have a death wish,” says Jiang Cheng, his eyes narrowing. “Perhaps you are Wei Wuxian after all.”
Chapter 8: the flute
The Twin Heroes of Yunmeng reconnect.
Jiang Cheng had rented rooms at an inn at the base of Dafan Mountain for the juniors and himself. The addition of Wei Wuxian was not anticipated, leading to the hasty addition of a straw mat and a bedroll in Jiang Cheng’s room.
“Shame,” says Wei Wuxian as he spreads out the bedroll on the mat. “Would’ve liked to revisit the old days when we used to share a bed.”
“I don’t recall such a thing ever happening, Master Mo,” replies Jiang Cheng drily, as he drops the cloth bundle into Wei Wuxian’s lap. Wei Wuxian unrolls it, revealing a black dizi with a purple tassel on it. “Do you recognise this?”
“It’s a flute,” says Wei Wuxian, playing dumb.
Jiang Cheng looks like he’d like to smack him upside the head with it. “It’s Chenqing, you imbecile. The legendary flute of a hero of Yunmeng.”
“Okay,” says Wei Wuxian. “And you want me to…”
“You sure about this?”
Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow. “If this body isn’t currently playing host to the soul of Wei Wuxian, then perhaps I have made an error in judgement and should deliver you to the care of the Lans,” he replies. “And I’ve been told Lan Xichen’s temper these days hasn’t been quite like it used to be before his darling brother strayed onto the demonic path.”
Wei Wuxian gives the flute a couple experimental blows. “Yeah, what… what happened?” he wonders as he does so, relishing in Chenqing’s familiar weight. “How has the Gusu Lan sect allowed him to —” go absolutely berserk “— become so unlike his old self?”
“Thirteen years of failing to catch a shadow, I suppose,” says Jiang Cheng, shrugging. “It’s a waste of time. If Lan Wangji wanted to be found, they would have found him ages ago.”
“And they think Wei Wuxian is going to lure him out.”
A shadow crosses Jiang Cheng’s face. “They’ve tried a lot of things to lure him out. None have worked.”
But Wei Wuxian is different, lingers in the air, unspoken. There is nothing Lan Wangji would not do for him.
Even stepping onto the demonic path in the first place.
The melody plays like a half-recalled memory, flittering out of the colours and flashes still settling themselves in his mind. Wei Wuxian plays a song that he only dimly remembers, between the dim glow of a fire in the depths of a dripping cave and the lingering glimmer of starlight above the emerald canopy of ancient trees.
The notes had been played with such love and care, those same fingers then playing across his skin with the same dexterity and wonder. When he finishes, there’s only the brief flicker of tears in Jiang Cheng’s eyes before Wei Wuxian finds the air being punched out of him through a well-timed hit to his solar plexus.
“You fucking bastard!” Jiang Cheng screams. “Left for Yiling without even saying goodbye! Do you know how I felt that day, striding into the Master of Shadows’ lair just to see you lying dead on a slab? Do you?”
“Great to be back, was great while it lasted,” wheezes Wei Wuxian. “I think you broke my rib.”
“You’re lucky I didn’t break every bone in your worthless body!” hisses Jiang Cheng, and before Wei Wuxian knows it, his shidi has pulled him into an embrace, punching less effectively at his shoulders the entire time. If his clothes are soaked wet by the time they pull apart, Wei Wuxian’s not about to mention it.
“I’m back,” he says instead, extending his arms. “Ta-da.”
“Good,” says Jiang Cheng. “Maybe you’ll be able to shed some light on something that’s happened recently.”
Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow. “And what’s that?” he asks.
Jiang Cheng sighs. “If I tell you, promise you won’t say something stupid?”
“Depends,” replies Wei Wuxian. “How stupid is it?”
“Promise,” insists Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian shrugs, sighs, and nods.
Jiang Cheng leans in closer. “Jin Zixuan has gone missing.”
“Good riddance,” replies Wei Wuxian, which earns him a slap for his troubles.
“It’s been a couple of years since he vanished,” says Jiang Cheng, twisting Zidian’s ring around on his finger as he does so. “A-Li is already starting to fear the worst, but she hasn’t told Jin Ling about it just yet, saying that she has every reason to hope he will still be alive.”
“You doubt it, though,” Wei Wuxian points out.
“I doubt it,” agrees Jiang Cheng. “The rest of us have searched everywhere already. Maybe it’s time we turned it over to fresh eyes.”
Wei Wuxian nods. “Then fresh eyes it is,” he replies. “But can we take some time in Yunmeng? This body barely has a core, so it’s almost useless.”
Jiang Cheng nods, clapping him on the shoulder. “Take all the time you need.”
Chapter 9: book of the dead
How it began again.
The arm is acting up again. The sound of breaking objects can be heard across Lotus Pier, as the arm crashes and wrecks things with almost comical amounts of wrath. Several cultivators attempt to subdue it, but only manage to get it still for about forty seconds before they have to get out of its way, lest it attempt to tear out their left arm in order to substitute itself.
“It’s almost restless,” Wei Wuxian remarks. “Restless with resentment. It wants to be whole again, with the rest of its body parts.”
“A family reunion,” quips Jiang Cheng, crossing his arms. “I suppose that means once you’re ready, you’ll set out to hunt down the other parts?”
“Seems like that’s what it wants,” replies Wei Wuxian. “Can’t exactly say no to a corpse these days, you know.”
Over on the field, Jiang Sizhui and Jin Rulan have tackled the arm themselves, trying to force it back into the qiankun bag. Wei Wuxian steps forward, his flute in hand.
“I can calm it down,” he says, but the instant Jin Rulan touches the arm, it goes oddly still and docile. Wei Wuxian laughs. “Or not, I guess you’ve got it handled, Rulan.”
“Would you like… a hand?” teases Jiang Sizhui. Jin Rulan glares at him.
“The arm calms down near Jin Rulan,” remarks Jiang Cheng, tapping his chin. “Odd.”
A couple days earlier…
The array is drawn. Blood. Fire. A scrap of paper, from Lan Wangji’s book of the dead…
Mo Xuanyu looks down at his arms, streaked already with blood and revenge, and begins to chant.
Justice. Justice shall prevail.
I call forth… a vengeful hero!
“Any news?” asks Regent Jiang Yanli, fiddling nervously with her fingers. At the table beside her, Jin Guangyao pauses in sipping his wine, mulling through her words.
“Of my brother?” he asks. She nods, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “I’m afraid not. Every scout we can spare is on the lookout. There have been some issues at the border with Gusu, though. The Gusu Lan sect has become more insular in these recent years.” He pauses. “You don’t suppose they have something to hide?”
“Would they be the sort to hide my husband?” wonders Jiang Yanli.
“These days, it is difficult to know what a Lan is or is not capable of anymore,” replies Jin Guangyao, shaking his head. “Zewu-jun is entirely unlike himself now. You must have heard from your brother about his argument with him at the base of Dafan Mountain.”
Jiang Yanli nods, poking at her food. “Yes, the rumours of my shidi’s return have spread far and wide.”
“What do you think, Madam Jin?” wonders Jin Guangyao.
Jiang Yanli considers it. “I would like to throw a banquet in his honour,” she replies. “It is not every day that a loved one can defy death in such a way.”
“You are not worried that he may have been returned due to demonic interference?”
Jiang Yanli’s eyes narrow. “We cannot always predict when our loved ones will leave us,” she replies. “So when they return, no matter what, no matter how, we must cherish them.”
“I understand, Madam Jin.” says Jin Guangyao. “Shall I begin banquet preparations?”
A week earlier…
The xiao melody fills the air, discordant and chaotic. Lan Jingyi claps his hands to his ears, in a desperate attempt to let the cacophony fly over him instead.
“I hate it when Sect Leader Lan does his demonic inquiries,” a younger disciple whines. Lan Jingyi doesn’t even have it in him to reprimand him for talking badly about the sect leader behind his back, as the music truly is atrocious today. “It makes me unable to concentrate on meditation.”
“I just feel so… strange whenever I hear it,” agrees another disciple.
“Sect Leader Lan wishes to find his brother,” says Lan Jingyi, almost automatically at this point. “He is clearly doing everything in his power to track him. We must have faith.”
“We must have faith,” agrees the boys, and place their hands over their ears.
“Da-ge, you seem sad,” Nie Huaisang remarks as he approaches Nie Mingjue in the gardens of their residence. Sect Leader Nie usually has no use for flowers, but if it gives his good for nothing little brother something to do, then he’ll allow it, a little.
“What’s it to you?” he grumbles. “Every time I see you I feel sad, too.”
“Sure, but this is a different kind of sad,” says Nie Huaisang, covering part of his face with his fan. “You’re sad about him again, aren’t you? Second brother?”
“He is not himself,” replies Nie Mingjue. “It is as if he is suffering his own qi deviation.”
“What do you think is causing it?” wonders Nie Huaisang. Nie Mingjue’s eyes narrow, and his hands clench on his saber.
“I don’t know,” he replies. “But I have my suspicions.”
A couple days earlier…
Lan Wangji sees the sign glowing before him, on the texts he’s been painstakingly rewriting from memory. The summoning array has been used.
Who could it be? He picks a couple strings of his guqin, melodies moving swiftly through his ranks of undead. Everyone is accounted for. He broadens the search, and his stomach twists at the result.
His soul is no longer among the dead.
Lan Wangji has wanted to communicate with him for the longest time, but something placed on Wei Wuxian’s body had silenced his soul in the afterlife. Now, all of that has changed. Someone has done the thing he had both longed and feared to do — restore Wei Wuxian back to the living. Possibly just so he himself would follow, curious about the movements of his love.
He checks the location of the sigil. It appears to be at the edge of the Lanling Jin lands, near the residence of the Mo family.
Without a second thought, Lan Wangji melds into the shadows, and heads for the direction of Mo Village.
“If you do not write to me about your adventures, I will personally break your legs so you don’t get to have any more of them,” warns Jiang Cheng as he hands Jiang Sizhui a qiankun bag of supplies.
Next to them, Jin Rulan is pouting visibly as a couple guards lead his spiritual dog away. “But why can’t Fairy come with us?” he demands. “He’s perfectly trained, you know.”
“No reason,” says Wei Wuxian, his voice a little more high-pitched than usual.
“This is a great honour, Jingyi,” says Lan Xichen, only the slightest smile gracing his lips as he ruffles the junior’s head. “Night-hunting with one of the Twin Heroes of Yunmeng. You’ll learn quite a lot, I imagine.”
“You sure you’ll be all right by yourself, Xichen-gege?” asks Lan Jingyi.
Lan Xichen laughs, a little harshly. “Perfectly fine,” he says. “Please keep me updated on your progress.”
Wei Wuxian watches Lan Jingyi nod enthusiastically with a somewhat sinking feeling in his heart. Now, the boys all tie their qiankun bags to their belts, ready their swords and talismans, and line up facing him.
“Let’s go, Senior Wei!” they chirp, and Wei Wuxian leads the way towards the gate of Lotus Pier, heading towards the northeast where the arm being carried by Jin Rulan is currently pointing.
The boys file after, bright grins on their faces at the prospect of more adventure.
A couple years earlier…
“It isn’t fair,” whines Mo Xuanyu, wiping at his eyes with his sleeves. “I didn’t — I didn’t mean to do it, it was an accident, a slip of my tongue —”
“You remind me of someone I once knew,” says Jiang Yanli, sitting on the garden bench beside him. She looks up at the stars, beautiful in her role as worry-stricken wife. “My shidi, Wei Wuxian. He would frequently run his mouth, too, and it’d get him into all sorts of trouble.”
“Wei Wuxian!” breathes Mo Xuanyu, his eyes wide. “You mean… you really knew him? I remember he used to visit you, but I was too young for him to notice… What was he like?”
“He had such a strong sense of right and wrong,” says Jiang Yanli, smiling fondly. “If he knew someone was suffering, no matter how small, he would try to make things right. That’s why he trusted in the Master of Shadows for far longer than anyone else — Hanguang-jun was just the same, but with a different approach.”
“Was it true?” wonders Mo Xuanyu. “You know, that they…”
Jiang Yanli smiles. “I never asked,” she said. “But I know my shidi’s heart and core had always been Lan Wangji’s, even before their paths diverged. I don’t know if he ever knew that himself, though.”
Mo Xuanyu sniffles. “I think I’d like to know what he’d think of me, if he were to meet me,” he says. “Him and Hanguang-jun.”
“I do, too,” agrees Jiang Yanli. “He was taken too soon. Without him, the world just feels so much more unjust.”
“I wish there was some way to summon the Master of Shadows,” declares Mo Xuanyu. “He’d know how to bring Wei Wuxian back, and how to get my family to stop pestering me, and — and he’d make everything right again. I’m sure of it.”
Jiang Yanli sighs, closing her eyes, steeling herself. Quietly, she slips a folded paper from her sleeve and slides it across the bench towards him.
“What if I told you, Master Mo… that there was?”
The arm leads them northeast, towards Qinghe. Wei Wuxian is glad Jiang Cheng had entrusted Jiang Sizhui with the purse, because otherwise he’d have tried to spend all the money on food and curios along the way. It’s fascinating, to see how much has changed in the thirteen years since his death. Cities have sprung up from small towns, or been destroyed entirely by the ravages of time and war.
“I think somewhere not far from this place is the burial grounds of the Yueyang Chang Sect,” remarks Lan Jingyi. “Another cursed spot that Sect Leader Lan keeps a close eye on, because of its high concentration of resentful energy.”
“The entire sect?” asks Wei Wuxian. “What could have possibly done that?”
Lan Jingyi frowns. “You don’t know?” he asks.
“There are still gaps in my memory,” replies Wei Wuxian. “Give me a break.”
“The Stygian Blade,” says Jin Rulan, before Lan Jingyi can answer. “The Master of Shadows’ greatest weapon, besides the Angel of Death.”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. Whoever gave these names really had a flair for the dramatics; Lan Wangji had only ever called the Angel of Death by her name. Still, at the words ‘Stygian Blade’ he can’t help but feel a shudder roll through him, the memory of claws digging into his body causing him to stagger a little.
“Are you all right, Senior Wei?” wonders Jiang Sizhui.
“I’m fine!” lies Wei Wuxian, clutching his chest. “Just… a little emotional.”
“Of course you would be,” says Lan Jingyi coldly. “The Stygian Blade was what killed you, after all.”
“Not the blade itself,” protests Jiang Sizhui. “It was the corpses commanded by the blade. Why would Lan Wangji kill the one who —”
“Do you really believe him to still be above all of that?” demands Lan Jingyi. “He killed his own uncle as well! There is nothing he would not do, no depravity he could not commit!”
It breaks Wei Wuxian’s heart to hear a disciple of Lan Wangji’s own sect say such things about him. But still, with some effort, he bites his tongue, and looks ahead.
“We’re approaching Xinglu,” he says. “Let’s see if the arm wants us to — Rulan?”
The boys look between one another. “Jin Ling!” shouts Jiang Sizhui. “Jin Ling?”
“Did he run off?” demands Lan Jingyi. “He was just here!”
They look around them, trying to find footprints, disturbed leaves, anything that could indicate where Jin Rulan had vanished. The afternoon is now dimming into evening, and the arm surely must be getting restless even with Jin Rulan calming it down. To be left alone with it — who knows what terrible things could happen!
“Maybe he went into the forest,” says Jiang Sizhui.
“What if we get lost in the forest?” demands Lan Jingyi.
“Stay by me, then, and we won’t be,” says Wei Wuxian, and the boys do as they’re told. They step off the road together, just in time to intimidate a batch of low-level corpses lurking about between the trees.
“I don’t like this,” says Lan Jingyi, as they wander across the strewn cypress leaves of this dense Xinglu forest. “Jin Ling! Jin Ling, where the hell are you?”
Almost as if by answer, the sound of a guqin melody begins to play. Sweet and alluring, it seems to reach into Wei Wuxian and tug at his very core. “Where is that coming from?” he breathes.
“The Master of Shadows,” hisses Lan Jingyi. There’s a flash of bright metal as his sword flies out of its sheath.
“Calm down,” says Wei Wuxian. “Anyone can play a guqin.”
“Not in the way the Master plays it,” retorts Lan Jingyi. Wei Wuxian has to admit he has a point.
“We should follow it,” says Jiang Sizhui. “Even if it leads to the Master, maybe he has some idea of where Jin Ling is.”
They venture towards the music, then, but for some reason at every other turn it feels as if they are getting farther and farther away from it. That’s when Wei Wuxian realises something odd about the seemingly never-changing forest scenery about them. “We’re trapped in a maze array,” he says.
“I’m losing my mind,” complains Lan Jingyi.
“Of course you are,” says Wei Wuxian. “It’s a mid-level array; you might not be at a cultivation level high enough to see through it! I’m really not much better core-wise, but maybe…”
He takes out Chenqing, blows a couple notes. Almost as if in response, the guqin plays the notes back to him.
“Don’t wander off,” says Wei Wuxian, and lets the spirits he’s evoking with Chenqing lead the way.
Finally, the trees begin to change, and through the spaces between the mossy trunks, they can see the distant outline of a castle on a ridge. And just atop it, there stands a dark figure with long hair blowing in the night wind.
Lan Jingyi charges towards the figure before Wei Wuxian can stop him, but the dark figure turns, and vanishes almost as if into thin air.
Chapter 11: sworn brothers
Chapter by lily_winterwood
Three moments between three sworn brothers.
“Xiaodi,” says Lan Xichen, nodding as Jin Guangyao enters his chambers. “What brings you here today?”
“Am I not allowed to visit my dear brother for no reason?” wonders Jin Guangyao, as Lan Xichen watches him take his seat across from him with the wariness of stalked prey. “Of course, I had context. I brought Jingyi a birthday present.”
“I saw,” says Lan Xichen. “He thanks you for the calligraphy tools. They are exquisite.”
“The least I could do,” replies Jin Guangyao, stretching cat-like in his seat before pulling out a book from the folds of his robes. “I also brought something for you, too. Some old texts I found in the archives of Koi Towers. Thought they might be of interest to you, since…”
It’s an unspoken but practically carved rule to not mention the name of Lan Wangji in Lan Xichen’s presence. Sure enough, as he reads the title of the book, Lan Xichen’s eyes narrow considerably.
“What use do I have for this?” he wonders.
“Demonic inquiry,” says Jin Guangyao. “It helps you seek out concentrated amounts of demonic energy. You know, if you happen to be looking for that sort of thing.”
Lan Xichen hums, his lips thinning into a line. “Thank you,” he says after a moment. “I appreciate your kind present, xiaodi.”
“Xichen, it has been too long since your last visit,” says Nie Mingjue. “Pardon the mess; my good-for-nothing brother is rearranging the house again.”
“As long as he is occupied,” reasons Lan Xichen. “He is a good kid; he has the potential to form a core if he just focused.”
“He will not,” says Nie Mingjue, the eyeroll evident in his voice. “Perhaps Gusu Lan should take him back for remedial classes.”
Lan Xichen laughs at that. “It will come with time,” he says. “He has the potential, the drive, the passion for greatness. It just may not lie where the Nie Sect has traditionally prided itself.”
“He fishes and paints paper fans,” retorts Nie Mingjue, nearly tripping over a stool as they stride down the hallways. “But I did not invite you here to discuss my hopeless brother. You were not present at our last predetermined meeting with xiaodi. Is something the issue?”
Lan Xichen blinks, and then smiles, shaking his head. “I lost track of time on a hunt,” he replies.
Nie Mingjue raises an eyebrow. The Jade of Lan, losing track of time. Likely story. “Did you catch the quarry?”
A shadow passes over Lan Xichen’s face. “No,” he states flatly. “But I have every reason to believe it will eventually tire of this game, and I will capture it.”
Hunting is not always about skill — it is also about endurance and outlasting the prey. Nie Mingjue has some idea of what Lan Xichen may be talking about, but mentioning it may only sour his sworn brother’s mood. As it is, the scowl tugging at his lips is already quite unsettling. He sighs.
“I cannot believe I am the person to tell you this, Xichen, but too much resentful energy can result in a qi deviation.”
Lan Xichen’s eyes only narrow further. “It is not resentful energy that drives me, Mingjue-xiong,” he says calmly. “It is justice, cold and bright. For the crimes committed by my kin, I must seek justice.”
Nie Mingjue shakes his head. “The pursuit of justice can easily turn into festering resentment, when results are not swift,” he says. “Your head is too far in, Xichen, please. Consider this advice from someone who carries this same ailment in his blood: step back.”
Lan Xichen whirls around to face him, his hand flying to the hilt of his sword. “You dare tell me how I should best protect the interests of my sect?”
“No!” The anger boils deep inside Nie Mingjue, but for him it is old and familiar, and at this point he can calm it if necessary. Lan Xichen has never been so stymied before in his pursuit of what he thinks is right, and it is withering him from the inside. “I am telling you this for the sake of your qi, Xichen — for your health!”
Lan Xichen takes a couple steps back, smoothing his brows, unclenching his hands. The saber at Nie Mingjue’s side twitches nonetheless, as Lan Xichen’s cold anger simmers at them from just below the surface.
“I find suddenly that I have urgent matters to attend to in Gusu,” says Lan Xichen stiffly, heading back towards the door. “I shall show myself out, Sect Leader Nie. I wish you a very good day.”
“Xichen —” begins Nie Mingjue, but Lan Xichen has already turned away.
“Er-ge isn’t here, again,” remarks Jin Guangyao, shaking his head. “What a pity. I even had the cooks prepare foods from Gusu.”
“Pity,” agrees Nie Mingjue, idly tracing the shapes of painted dragons along the rim of his teacup. “Any news of your brother?”
“Brother this, brother that.” Jin Guangyao sighs, putting his head in his hands. “I am looking. Everyone is looking. We are leaving no stone unturned.”
“And yet you appear to have even less success than the Lans in looking for their Fallen Jade,” snips Nie Mingjue. Jin Guangyao bristles at that, but he makes no further comment.
“Perhaps we should find lighter avenues of discussion,” he suggests. “Madam Jin, for one, is planning a magnificent party for the return of her shidi. The Twin Heroes of Yunmeng are back again. Hooray.”
“You don’t seem very happy about it,” says Nie Mingjue, his eyes narrowing.
“I’m tired, Da-ge, give me a break,” sniffs Jin Guangyao. “Madam Jin, bless her heart, has sent me running to all corners of the earth trying to find the right spices for her shidi’s feast. I have personally inspected five thousand lotus pods for the cauldron of lotus and rib soup that she is preparing for him. My fingers will fall off at the sight of the next lotus, mark my words.”
“It is good to see her in good spirits again,” replies Nie Mingjue. “She has suffered so ever since Sect Leader Jin vanished.”
“We’re all praying for his safe return,” replies Jin Guangyao, but there’s something too casual in his words, something too calm in his expression. Nie Mingjue is not as astute as either of his brothers, but he can trust his gut when he needs to.
And right now, his gut is telling him there is something rotten in the state of Lanling.
“Of course,” he says, a rough smile on his face as he finishes his tea. Across the table, Jin Guangyao fiddles at his own cup with a bored expression. “I have no doubt he will come home soon.”
Jin Guangyao says nothing, only drinks his tea, and Nie Mingjue thinks to the sight of two unfamiliar legs buried amid the bodies of his ancestor’s saber halls, wondering.
Chapter 12: the reunion
In Yi City, the Master of Shadows reveals himself.
ETA: This ficlet was extended via two additional asks on 31st Jan.
It has been thirteen long years of waiting, of watching, of hoping. Lan Wangji had considered, at numerous times during the wait, to simply take matters into his own hands. But they had placed a perpetual watch around Wei Wuxian’s tomb, had fashioned all sorts of devices specifically to keep him away. Better to be dead, apparently, than to be granted the kind of life he had given to the Angel of Death, whose apparent destruction had been as much of a relief to the cultivation world as his own death might have been.
Like how he had once waited by a cabin door that would never open again, Lan Wangji had waited for Wei Wuxian. Hidden himself away from the senses of even his own brother, biding his time, hoping against hope. From afar he had watched Wei Wuxian dream inside that tomb, preservation talismans keeping him as youthful as the day they first met.
And now, as the fog of Yi City seeps out of the corners of each building and sinks into the marrow of their bones, Lan Wangji looks down at Wei Wuxian, who had stumbled headlong into his arms.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian breathes, his eyes wide. He’s in a new body, of course, and this one is shorter, with a weaker core than his, but the resemblance is almost uncanny. Lan Wangji had watched Wei Wuxian build up this body’s core, training with his old sword in Yunmeng and practicing on his flute. He had watched him set out on this hunt with the boys, in pursuit of these other body parts that could exhibit so much unbridled resentment.
And now Wei Wuxian is in his arms again, and Lan Wangji is, as ever, lost for words.
“Lan Zhan, look out!” Lan Wangji immediately ducks, as Wei Wuxian takes out the corpse that otherwise would have bitten into Lan Wangji’s back. Corpse powder explodes into the air, but both of them are careful not to inhale as they step back. “Can you not control them?”
“Stygian Blade,” says Lan Wangji shortly. Wei Wuxian frowns.
“I thought you destroyed it?”
“Apparently not well enough,” replies Lan Wangji. He spots a nearby house with some smoke coming out the chimney, indicating the presence of a kitchen. “Inside. Juniors too.”
“I’m the one with the sword,” says Wei Wuxian. “I can take them.”
Lan Wangji shakes his head, pointing inside the house. Wei Wuxian sighs, and calls for the boys. As the frightened juniors file through the doors, Lan Wangji turns to face the oncoming corpses, his guqin at the ready.
He only manages to play one chord, before Wei Wuxian pulls him into the house and slams the door shut. Lan Wangji suddenly finds himself standing in front of several juniors from various sects, all of them looking at him with a mixture of distrust and dislike.
“The Master of Shadows!” Lan Jingyi is the first to break the silence, darting forward with his sword in hand. “You must answer for the death of my great-uncle!”
“Jingyi,” groans Wei Wuxian. “Time and place.”
“How many of you inhaled the corpse powder?” Lan Wangji asks instead. Some of the boys hesitantly raise their hands. “I will make the antidote, then,” he says, moving off towards the kitchen. Wei Wuxian follows him, somewhat helplessly.
“Do you need my help?” he asks. Lan Wangji looks up from his scavenging of the cabinets, and for a moment has to slow the racing of his traitorous heart.
Though Wei Wuxian is covered in travelling dust, with tears and stains of all sorts on his Yunmeng Jiang robes, there’s something undeniably beautiful about him in the light streaming in through the paper windows of the kitchen. His eyes are still the colour of a stormy sky; his smile still as bright as the stars at night. He looks every bit like the pride of Yunmeng that he should be, and just like that those familiar feelings of shame and inadequacy flood back into Lan Wangji’s chest.
Does Wei Wuxian believe Lan Wangji killed him? Does he know what really happened that night? And, more importantly, does he remember what they had shared in the secret shadows of Yiling, in that little shop in Caiyi, in all those other places where Lan Wangji had collected every last scrap of his affection?
Does he want to remember?
“I seem to recall you being incapable of cooking anything without spices,” he replies instead. Wei Wuxian laughs sheepishly.
“It was a gesture,” he says, rubbing at his nape. “Worth a shot.”
Lan Wangji hums, already boiling the rice for the congee. “How much do you remember?”
“Of… of us?” asks Wei Wuxian, looking up at him through his lashes. He reaches out, taking the spoon from Lan Wangji’s hand. Their fingers brush against each other, soft and warm. “Not much. Just feelings and colours, mostly.”
“I believe they will return with time,” says Lan Wangji.
“Good,” says Wei Wuxian, his fingers now toying with the hem of Lan Wangji’s sleeve. “I want to remember you again.”
“You may not think so charitably after a while,” Lan Wangji warns. Wei Wuxian laughs.
“You really think so?” he asks. “Everyone I’ve talked to has said that you killed me, yet for some reason I’m convinced of the fact that hurting me would be more unbearable to you than the discipline whips of your sect.”
Lan Wangji twitches at the notion. Wei Wuxian smiles and winks at him, before reaching over to stir the congee.
“Silly Lan Zhan, you can’t let the rice sit like this. It might burn, if you’re not careful.”
Lan Wangji hums, and takes his spoon back. He lets his fingers linger against Wei Wuxian’s again, and tries to pretend he didn’t intend to.
“Remember the ghost girl that was here when we first arrived?” asks Jin Rulan, who had been peering out the window while Jiang Sizhui and Lan Jingyi are scarfing down Lan Wangji’s corpse powder antidote congee. Wei Wuxian looks up from his own bowl — he’s not sure if he’d inhaled anything when he killed that corpse, but just in case — and frowns.
“What about her?” he asks.
“She’s back. She’s at our door.” A knock of a cane against the wood. Lan Jingyi nearly jumps out of his seat in alarm. “Should I let her in?”
“What if she attacks us?” demands Lan Jingyi.
“If she wanted to attack us, she’d have done it at the gates of the city,” reasons Jiang Sizhui. Lan Wangji strums his guqin.
“Harmless,” he says after a moment. Lan Jingyi looks as if he’d like to protest that decision, but Jin Rulan is already opening the door. The girl wanders inside, her cane tapping idly against the floorboards of the house. For a moment, she hovers in the kitchen, uncertain, before moving closer to Lan Wangji’s guqin.
It strums. Lan Wangji hums as he interprets the music. He plays a couple notes in reply, before the girl taps her cane against the floor once more. Wei Wuxian looks between the two of them.
“What’d she say?” he asks.
“Help,” replies Lan Wangji, rising to his feet. “Stay here.”
“In the words of a great cultivator, no,” retorts Wei Wuxian, also leaping to his feet. “I’m not letting you wander this place alone. What if something happens to you? What if whoever’s behind the reforged Stygian Blade comes back to get you?”
“Xue Yang was supposed to be ‘behind’ the reforged Stygian Blade,” Jin Rulan remarks. “I told you about how he killed the Yueyang Chang sect, right? That was to test the new Stygian Blade.”
Wei Wuxian remembers the conversation they had at the Chang Clan burial site. Jin Rulan’s father and uncle’s last big fight had been about Xue Yang and whether or not he should be executed or imprisoned; Jin Zixuan had disappeared shortly after that, and Xue Yang had been imprisoned instead of killed, after which he promptly escaped from Lanling and vanished seemingly into thin air.
(Wei Wuxian’s gut tells him Jin Zixuan had not sailed off on a goodwill trip abroad, as Jiang Yanli had told her son, but he’s not about to puncture the kid’s bubble while they’re facing possible death from corpse poisoning.)
“Are you suggesting Xue Yang is here?” asks Jiang Sizhui.
“Finish your congee,” Wei Wuxian says, before Jin Rulan can say anything else. “We’re all going with Lan Zhan to whatever this girl needs us to help her with.”
When the fog and corpses clear, the ghost girl takes them to another house. When they step inside, the first thing they hear is the rattling of chains and the low, exasperated groans of a corpse.
The next thing they hear is the sound of a blade unsheathing, and without warning a man in dusty white robes comes flying out of nowhere, lunging blindly at them. Suibian immediately blocks him, but pretty soon the sound of clanging metal is all that can be heard as Wei Wuxian and the juniors fight back the man.
“Where?” Lan Wangji asks the girl, who begins to head for a staircase. Lan Wangji moves to follow, but the man seems to anticipate this and blocks his path immediately, blade shining cold against Lan Wangji’s throat.
“Go no further,” he hisses. Wei Wuxian has to admit it’s pretty impressive that a guy in a blindfold could do something like this.
The other boys, too, are more than impressed. “Xiao Xingchen!” exclaims Jiang Sizhui. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask the same of you,” replies Xiao Xingchen drily.
“We were told you or something in here needed help,” says Jin Rulan. “So where’s the thing that needs to be fixed?”
“How dare you,” snarls Xiao Xingchen. “He is not a thng. And if you intend to banish —”
“No one is banishing anything!” Wei Wuxian cuts in, and Xiao Xingchen turns in alarm, his blade flying to point at Wei Wuxian. “We don’t even know what you’re talking about!”
“The fierce corpse of Yi City,” replies Xiao Xingchen, his hands trembling on the hilt of his blade. “My dearest friend.”
The boys gasp again. Xiao Xingchen’s blade lowers slightly.
“Every other cultivator who has come here has wanted to capture him, probably for their own sick amusement.” His voice is more bitter than the winter winds. “He is not a trophy for a night-hunt. So if that is your intent, leave now before I make you.”
The blade flashes. A similar question flits through several minds: how did Xiao Xingchen get into such a state?
The girl flickers, and the guqin hums. “Xue Yang,” says Lan Wangji quietly. “Daozhang Xiao killed him to avenge the death of Daozhang Song.”
There’s a terrific crash at that moment. Xiao Xingchen’s head turns upwards.
“He’s broken free again.”
When they arrive upstairs, the first thing Lan Wangji notices is that Song Zichen’s corpse seems to be fighting against what seems to be thin air.
“What’s wrong with him?” demands Jin Rulan. Song Zichen freezes at that, and then there’s a thud as something drops soundly to the floor.
“The other hand,” says Lan Jingyi. Jin Rulan immediately goes to pick it up, placing it into a qiankun pouch. Song Zichen collapses at that, but his pupils remain white, feral. He hisses, before lunging towards the boys.
Lan Wangji immediately strums his guqin, even as the boys scatter across the room, their faces pale with fear. Wei Wuxian and Xiao Xingchen draw their swords to try and stop the corpse, but Song Zichen bats Xiao Xingchen away like a cat with a discarded toy. A crash resounds as Song Zichen throws Wei Wuxian into a cabinet, and for a brief moment Lan Wangi is brought back to that day at Nightless City.
“Wei Ying!” he shouts, strumming his guqin again. Song Zichen pauses, just before his hands go around Wei Wuxian’s throat. Jin Rulan screams, before flinging the arm he’d just stored away back out at the corpse.
Immediately Song Zichen drops Wei Wuxian like a sack of potatoes as he tries to fight off the hand once more. Jin Rulan reaches for another bag, pulling out the other hand as well and flinging it into the fray. It makes for an objectively amusing sight, at least according to the way Wei Wuxian seems to rock on the floor, as if trying to hold in his laughter.
When the arms have successfully held Song Zichen down, Lan Wangji goes to the corpse, feels around against his head for a couple minutes, and then pulls out two long, black nails. The feral corpse hisses, slowly sinking to the floor.
“That doesn’t look good,” says Jiang Sizhui. “Who put those in?”
Lan Wangji watches as Song Zichen blinks, black pupils finally returning to the whites of his eyes. “Xue Yang,” he says quietly.
“Why?” asks Jin Rulan.
“Control,” replies Lan Wangji. “The Stygian Blade is effective, but this also suppresses a fierce corpse’s consciousness. Daozhang Song can now return to himself, if he wants.”
“But if Xue Yang is dead, who else could want to do such a thing? Or use the Stygian Blade to control the corpses outside?” demands Lan Jingyi, still looking at Lan Wangji with suspicion etched on his brow.
Xiao Xingchen clears his throat, having picked himself up from where he’d been thrown. “There was someone else here earlier,” he says. A pause. “A man, I think.”
“Did you get a good look — right.” Jin Rulan sighs. “Sorry. Did you recognise his voice?”
“It did seem familiar,” says Xiao Xingchen, “but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
“A-Qing,” says Lan Wangji, as the ghost of the girl drifts closer. She nods, reaching forward to pluck at the guqin, playing out her story on the strings. Lan Wangji listens, as always. He’s been doing that a lot over the years.
Petulance. Comfort. Deceit. A-Qing speaks of all of them, the notes rushing together in her hurry to tell him the story of how she met Xiao Xingchen, of how they met Xue Yang without either of them realising it, of the years spent living with him, neither of them any wiser as to who he was and what he really did.
Of how Xue Yang had deceived Xiao Xingchen to take the life of the man currently kneeling at the feet of Xiao Xingchen, his head bowed. Shakily, Xiao Xingchen sinks down, too, his hands reaching for the cold face of his friend.
“It was not your fault,” says Song Zichen. “You could not have known.”
“I am not worthy of such forgiveness,” pleads Xiao Xingchen. “The people I had killed —”
“Were killed because Xue Yang deceived you,” says Song Zichen.
“The years I have spent locking you up, unable to find a way to restore you —”
“I was dangerous then,” says Song Zichen. “We are free, now, free to go where we will, help people who are in need.”
“But are we ever free?” wonders Xiao Xingchen.
Sometimes he wakes and thinks Xue Yang is coming back, A-Qing strums. Briefly, Lan Wangji can see the moments, too — Xiao Xingchen waking in the night, screaming for his sword, slashing blindly at enemies no longer here. The crimson stain of Xue Yang’s blood from Shuanghua driven straight into his chest still lingers on the floor.
This city of death is his cage, his penance. Like Lan Wangji’s own solitude, Xiao Xingchen has never been able to forgive himself for the crimes he’d committed.
The inquiry ends; A-Qing steps back from the guqin. Xiao Xingchen buries his face into the crook of Song Zichen’s collar, and is still.
It’s only after they’re putting Yi City behind them when Wei Wuxian mentions his memories again. “You know, about my memories,” he says, causing Lan Wangji to stop dead in his tracks. The other juniors don’t seem to notice, walking on ahead until they’re barely in earshot. “It’s all coming back in patches, you know. Our first meeting, our fights, our first kiss…”
“Our reunion?” asks Lan Wangji. “The first one, during the Sunshot Campaign?”
“Yeah,” says Wei Wuxian. “You walked away first, though. I wanted you to come to Yunmeng.”
“I did not want to make things worse for the Jiangs,” says Lan Wangji.
“I know,” says Wei Wuxian. He takes Lan Wangji’s hand, entwines their fingers. “A lot more considerate than I could have ever been, in your place.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t want to think about that. About Wei Wuxian being trapped in the Burial Mounds and forced to harness resentful energy to survive. Shakily, he raises Wei Wuxian’s hand to his lips, pressing a kiss to the knuckles.
“I have watched you all this time,” he murmurs, savouring the solid warmth of Wei Wuxian’s hands. “But only one word from you, and I will leave. I will not trouble you any further, and you can continue with your new life.”
Wei Wuxian considers it for a moment. “What word do I use to make you stay, then?” he asks.
Lan Wangji had been steeling himself for rejection for so long that he hadn’t even considered what would happen if Wei Wuxian said yes. Up ahead, the juniors turn from the forest path to a more developed road; at that crossroads, Lan Wangji stops.
“Please,” he says simply, reaching greedily to cup Wei Wuxian’s face.
“Yes,” breathes Wei Wuxian, and Lan Wangji closes the distance between them.
“Arms,” says Jiang Sizhui.
“Two,” says Jin Rulan.
“We’re just missing the head, right?” asks Lan Jingyi.
“That gravedigger that was trying to steal the other body parts might know where it is,” reasons Wei Wuxian. “But where the gravedigger is, well, that’s another question.”
“Coward,” mutters Jin Rulan. “Won’t show his face or his sword.” Still, his hands are gentle as he places the body parts back into their bags. Wei Wuxian shakes his head.
“Not showing their face or sword means they’re from a fairly well-known sect, and they know what they’re doing is wrong.” He looks over to where Lan Wangji is silently walking beside Lil Apple, neither of them even acknowledging the presence of the other. “Do we know anyone from a major sect who might be up to no good?”
“Oh, sure, plenty,” says Lan Jingyi, also looking over at Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian laughs.
“People besides Lan Zhan,” he amends. Lan Jingyi harrumphs.
They stop for the night at a well-lit inn on the road back to Yunmeng. The three juniors take up a room downstairs, while Wei Wuxian gets a room next to them. The innkeeper brings him his food alongside a small jar of wine, which Wei Wuxian immediately pours into a small ceramic cup.
He then hears a knocking at his window, and ventures to the frame to see Lan Wangji peering in from the back, topaz eyes inquisitive. Wei Wuxian grins as he lets him in; the evening has brightened considerably.
“Lan Zhan, I can’t believe you’d really try to sneak in my window like this,” he teases, as Lan Wangji dusts off his black and red robes. “So delinquent of you. I bet if your younger self at the Cloud Recesses saw you now he’d have a fit and expire on the spot.”
Lan Wangji snorts, but says nothing. Wei Wuxian pulls up another cushion at the table for him to sit, before pushing the cup of wine towards him. “Here. You deserve some, for a job well done in Yi City.”
Lan Wangji stares at the cup almost as if he doesn’t know what to do with it. Wei Wuxian laughs.
“It’s just a little wine,” he coaxes “You haven’t lived at the Cloud Recesses for almost fifteen years now, so don’t pull the ‘liquor is forbidden’ stuff with me. Try a little!”
“I…” begins Lan Wangji. His brows furrow slightly, before he finally reaches out and downs the cup in one go.
“Oh, wow, I didn’t mean drink it that fast,” protests Wei Wuxian, but Lan Wangji is already putting his head down in his arms, yawning. “And already tired, just from one little bit? Your tolerance is weaker than I thought.”
“Shh,” mutters Lan Wangji, closing his eyes. A small snore escapes him moments later. Wei Wuxian laughs so hard his stomach hurts.
“This is really something,” he says, reaching out to tuck a stray strand of Lan Wangji’s hair behind his flushed pink ears. “The great Hanguang-jun, laid low by drink. Who’d have thought you’d just immediately go to sleep?”
He finishes his dinner and the rest of the wine before getting ready for bed, but just as he about to shrug out of his outer robes, he feels a tug at his sleeve. When he turns, Lan Wangji is there, staring straight at him with slightly unfocused eyes.
“Lan Zhan!” exclaims Wei Wuxian, putting his robes back on. “Are you — your eyes look strange, Lan-er-gege. Is it the alcohol?”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji mumbles, taking Wei Wuxian’s hand and leaning his head on his shoulder. Wei Wuxian’s pathetic little heart skips a beat.
He had asked Lan Wangji to stay by his side, sealing the promise made at the crossroads with a kiss. Of course Lan Wangji would take the promise to heart; his word had always been his bond. Wei Wuxian’s not exactly sure why he’s so surprised.
“Silly Lan Zhan,” teases Wei Wuxian, as Lan Wangji presses soft, sloppy kisses against his shoulder. His touch feels like home, right in a way that Wei Wuxian can’t quite place. It’s as if the rest of the world is only bright and vibrant as long as Lan Wangji is there with him.
“Mm,” agrees Lan Wangji, one hand moving up to his hair. The old faded Gusu hair ribbon comes undone in one tug. To Wei Wuxian’s amusement and slight consternation, Lan Wangji starts to wrap both of his wrists with it, finally tying through the loops to form a set of cuffs with a lead. His fingers are a little too dexterous with it — the thought of him practicing this at all makes a shiver of heat trickle down Wei Wuxian’s spine.
Just as Lan Wangji steps back to admire his handiwork, the door to the room opens and Jiang Sizhui pokes his head in. “Senior Wei, I had a question about —” he begins, but cuts off at the sight before him: Wei Wuxian tied up with Lan Wangji’s ribbon, his robes falling off his shoulders to expose his undergarments; and Lan Wangji, looking more than a little smug.
“Sizhui!” squeaks Wei Wuxian.
“Pardon me,” says Jiang Sizhui immediately, stepping back out of the room. Wei Wuxian’s own cheeks are burning, but Lan Wangji still seems serenely unflappable.
“You’re not upset Sizhui caught us?” Wei Wuxian wonders, before he remembers that Lan Wangji is still somewhat drunk. “Oh, right. I should ask you about it in the morning.” He pauses, chuckles. “I imagine sober you is going to hate me for it, though.”
“Nn,” replies Lan Wangji, and tugs hims closer by his newly-created cuffs. He bumps their foreheads together, one hand falling to Wei Wuxian’s hips. Wei Wuxian shivers a little, as Lan Wangji’s fingers ghost just above his undergarments.
The last time Lan Wangji had done that — no, it doesn’t bear remembering, as everything in Yiling has its own bittersweet tinge to it. What matters is that they’re together again, in a little inn room with a tiny bed, and the way Lan Wangji ties his wrists to the bed rails is causing anticipation to curl tighter in Wei Wuxian’s gut.
“Lan Zhan?” he asks, as Lan Wangji’s fingers trace the bumps of his collarbone, “Maybe we should wait for you to sober up first. Not that I’m not enjoying this, but I want you to remember it, too.”
Lan Wangji’s hands freeze. “Mm,” he concedes, before removing his hands from their close proximity to Wei Wuxian’s skin. Wei Wuxian regrets it almost as soon as Lan Wangji’s hands leave, but he resolutely says nothing about it, only angles his lips for another kiss.
“Sober,” promises Lan Wangji, before leaning in to kiss him again. Just like always, his touch feels like coming home.
Chapter 14: lotus pier & the invitation
Chapter by lily_winterwood
Jiang Cheng meets Lan Wangji. Jiang Yanli's invitation sparks a plan.
If you're not here for the smut, it starts at: “So different and yet so familiar,” breathes Wei Wuxian, especially as Lan Wangji gathers him in his arms and deposits him unceremoniously onto the bed. “And hey, I thought I was the one doing the measuring.” so you can skip ahead.
The road back to Yunmeng is long and uneventful. Wei Wuxian had feared at first that extended travel in each other’s company would only raise tensions between Lan Wangji and Lan Jingyi, but somehow, by some miracle, they remain remarkably civil to one another. Of course, he knew he could rely on Hanguang-jun to keep his mouth shut, but Lan Jingyi has proven to be possibly the most un-Lan Lan he’d ever known, and therefore was quite unpredictable.
(He doesn’t want to think about the path Lan Xichen is traversing, and how much of that is evident in Lan Jingyi’s sullen glares towards Lan Wangji whenever he does catch them together.)
Still, within a couple of days they’re pulling up to the docks and lotus clusters of his childhood home. Lan Wangji pulls back a little at the sight of Lotus Pier, but at an encouranging gesture from Wei Wuxian he steps forward again, his face as resolute as ever.
Jiang Cheng, on the other hand, takes one look at Lan Wangji before lunging forward and punching him in the face.
“A-Cheng!” shrieks Wei Wuxian, launching himself in between his shidi and Lan Wangji. “What in heaven’s name has gotten into you?”
“You were dead!” Jiang Cheng hisses. “In Yiling, when I entered that cave, you were dead! What do you think I thought then?”
“It wasn’t his fault!” Wei Wuxian protests.
“Oh, I beg to differ,” Jiang Cheng intones drily. “After all, if it hadn’t for his Stygian Blade, there wouldn’t have been feral corpses tearing out your guts at Nightless City!”
“I — my guts were fine,” grumbles Wei Wuxian. “He destroyed the blade, A-Cheng. I’m back now. It’s all right.”
“Is it?” Jiang Cheng crosses his arms, glaring heavily at Lan Wangji. “What am I going to do now? If word gets back to Lan Xichen that the Master of Shadows is currently living at Lotus Pier —”
“If it gratifies Sect Leader Jiang to see my departure,” interrupts Lan Wangji, “then I will willingly leave.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” both Yunmeng brothers snap at the same time, but clearly for different reasons. Surprised, Wei Wuxian looks between Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji, before clapping Jiang Sizhui and Jin Rulan on the backs.
“Come on, boys, let’s go assemble these body parts,” he suggests. Lan Jingyi looks almost as if he’d like to protest, but then follows along anyway.
And then Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji are left alone to face one another.
“So,” says Jiang Cheng, the ring on his hand already crackling with purple energy. “I know what you did.”
Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow, as if asking Jiang Cheng to specify exactly what he did. Jiang Cheng glares at him for a long while, the fist holding Zidian clenching and unclenching.
And then he grits his teeth, shakes his head, and says, “A-Ying’s core.”
Lan Wangji exhales, but not quite from relief.
“After you gave him his core back, I couldn’t help but notice there were some changes in him,” continues Jiang Cheng. He gestures for Lan Wangji to follow him, their steps taking them to the pavilion out on the lake. The lotuses are in full flower, perfuming the air with their sweet scent. “He seemed calmer. His cultivation was more powerful than even before. I’ve never said anything to him about it, but…”
At the pavilion, he turns and looks Lan Wangji dead in the eyes.
“You can’t reconstruct a core. You can only transfer one from one body to another. So A-Ying’s core…”
Lan Wangji bows his head. Jiang Cheng sighs, looking down at his hands.
“Anyone who would sacrifice everything they had worked to attain for A-Ying would never willingly kill him, I know.” His voice is heavy, weighed with grief and anger. “So I never believed that about you. But why did you not bring him to me? He was a hero of Yunmeng. He could have been treated here.”
Lan Wangji almost looks contrite at that, as if in his calculations about the world’s reactions to him, he hadn’t considered the possibility that Jiang Cheng might not kill him on sight even if he’d delivered a mortally wounded Wei Wuxian to his door. Jiang Cheng seems to have come to that realisation, too, and he nods, curtly, one hand closing over Zidian’s flicker of energy.
“Do not ever do it again,” he warns.
Lan Wangji looks down at Jiang Cheng’s hands. “If I ever let Wei Ying come to harm again, it would be a pain I could not bear.” Death would be kinder than another lifetime without him, he doesn’t say, but Jiang Cheng seems to sense it nonetheless.
“That’s the spirit,” he says drily, clapping him on the shoulder. Lan Wangji is struck by how perfectly Wei Wuxian that movement feels. “He’s been dying for you to come to Yunmeng ever since we were all boys. We might as well show you around.”
Wei Wuxian knows that keeping Lan Wangji in Lotus Pier is dangerous. Word has already spread that the Master of Shadows is back; it would only be a matter of time before Lan Jingyi returns to Gusu and lets slip to Lan Xichen where his brother is hiding.
Of course, he’d assume Lan Xichen wouldn’t be so rash as to storm Lotus Pier with an army like he did the settlement at Yiling, but apparently these days the man has grown terribly unpredictable.
“I should not be here,” Lan Wangji protests. Wei Wuxian kisses the rest of his argument away.
“Just keep your head down,” he pleads. “Make it look as if you aren’t here. But please don’t leave.”
Stay close to me. Lan Wangji inhales, pressing a soft kiss to Wei Wuxian’s brows.
“But the juniors,” he mumbles.
“We’ll tell them you left,” says Wei Wuxian. “Stay in my room. I’ll bring you your meals.” Like a prison. Like a birdcage to trap something exotic and rare. His heart breaks at the thought, at the downcast sweep of Lan Wangji’s lashes as he considers his options.
“Very well,” Lan Wangji concedes. There is no concept of a cage when you are here with me.
Their kiss lingers sweetly in Wei Wuxian’s mouth even long after he leaves Lan Wangji in his room. He instructs the cooks to send up something simple, and the servants to draw a bath, before heading to the main hall for dinner.
“Where’s the Master of Shadows?” Lan Jingyi asks when Wei Wuxian enters, sure enough. Wei Wuxian shakes his head as he takes his seat at his familiar place just below Jiang Cheng’s.
“He had to leave,” he says. “Some sort of business he wouldn’t tell me.”
“Nothing good, I expect,” mutters Lan Jingyi, as Jiang Cheng begins the meal. Wei Wuxian picks at his food, more preoccupied with thoughts of Lan Wangji cooped up in his room instead.
“I received news this morning from shijie,” says Jiang Cheng suddenly, hands pausing on his chopsticks. “She is hosting a feast at Koi Towers in your honour.”
“Mine?” echoes Wei Wuxian. Jiang Cheng nods. “That’s so lovely. I did miss her cooking while I was dead.”
There’s a half-snort, half-choke from Lan Jingyi at that. He quickly tries to cover it up with a cough, his cheeks flushing bright red.
Jiang Cheng huffs in amusement. “She intends to serve all your favourite foods, so you better show up,” he warns. Wei Wuxian shakes his head, putting a hand to his heart.
“A-Cheng, you wound me. As if I would miss shijie’s cooking for the world! I just want to know… am I allowed to bring a guest?”
Jiang Cheng sees through the question in an instant. “They would recognise him,” he says.
“It’s been thirteen years. He could do something different with his hair and they wouldn’t know him from a mite on Pangu’s body.”
“Suit yourself,” replies Jiang Cheng. “I think it would be too much of a risk, myself.”
Wei Wuxian sighs. “But he hasn’t seen his family in years, A-Cheng. I mean, if it were me in his place, and I hadn’t seen you in years, I would probably do anything just for a glimpse of you. Just to see how you were doing.”
“You are also much more rash than he is,” replies Jiang Cheng. “But in any case, I’m not responsible for any trouble you two get into. Take him as your guest if you wish. But take care.”
“Of course!” Wei Wuxian claps his hands, before looking over at Lan Jingyi. “Jingyi, when do you intend to return to Gusu?”
“Uh.” Lan Jingyi’s chopsticks falter. “I don’t think I had a set date in mind…”
“Perfect.” Wei Wuxian’s grin is shark-like. “You can keep Sizhui busy here at Lotus Pier, then! We do still have to finish assembling that body, after all.”
Lan Jingyi looks as if he’d like to protest, but then realises that to do so would be giving away his status as Lan Xichen’s spy. With a sigh, he nods, setting down his chopsticks and inclining his head.
“It would be my honour,” he replies. Beaming, Wei Wuxian returns to his meal.
“You have changed, brother,” remarks Jiang Cheng quietly to him later, after the juniors have left for their rooms for the night. Wei Wuxian is itching to return to his room, but Jiang Cheng has poured him a cup of tea, and he can’t refuse that.
“Have I?” he wonders, looking towards the shadows gathering at the side entrance of the main hall. “I wonder why.”
“It’s an interesting development,” says Jiang Cheng neutrally. “You always had a talent for disregarding the rules, but this is… almost calculated. To what end will this serve?”
Wei Wuxian thinks about Lan Xichen’s anger, mirrored perfectly in Lan Jingyi’s suspicious glares. “It’ll be amusing,” he lies, and finishes his tea.
Despite being quite happy to catch up on the latest news with his shidi over tea and snacks, Wei Wuxian still finds himself counting down the minutes until he can make his excuses to return to his room. Jiang Cheng seems to suspect his ulterior motives for doing so, but makes no comment on it as Wei Wuxian bids him goodnight.
The halls of Lotus Pier are quiet, like the calm before a storm. Sure enough, even in the horizon the gathering clouds are ominously grey. Wei Wuxian rushes across bridges and walkways, through corridors and hallways, until he finally reaches his rooms.
“Lan Zhaaaan,” he greets, his voice an excited whisper as he slides the door open. “How was your meal?”
“Mm,” replies Lan Wangji, not even opening his eyes from where he is meditating in the corner of the room, just beside Wei Wuxian’s bed. Wei Wuxian kneels down beside him, tucking a strand of his hair behind his ear before running his fingers through the faded Gusu Lan ribbon.
“I’m glad,” he says, pressing soft kisses to Lan Wangji’s hair. “I had them keep it simple for you, since I don’t remember if you eat spicy foods… we never had the chance to visit the Hunan restaurant in Caiyi, you know…”
Lan Wangji opens his eyes, releases his hands. Wei Wuxian takes it as a sign to entwine their fingers, bringing Lan Wangji’s knuckles to his lips.
“Do you miss your brother, Lan Zhan?”
Lan Wangji says nothing for a long moment, his suddenly unsteady breathing the only indication of his turmoil. Wei Wuxian continues on, heart hammering in his chest.
“I’m just mentioning this because my shijie’s holding a feast in Lanling in my honour, in a couple days… and I wanted to know if you wanted to come with me.”
“My brother,” says Lan Wangji quietly, “will be there too?”
“All the sects were invited,” says Wei Wuxian. “It’s a celebration. I just thought… maybe you could get a sense of what your brother is like now, and see if… if there’s anything we could do to fix things between the two of you.” Brothers so close should never be torn asunder, he thinks. He wouldn’t know what to do if he’d lost Jiang Cheng to his anger like Lan Wangji had lost Lan Xichen.
Lan Wangji, too, looks sorely tempted. “It would be unsafe,” he says.
“That’s what Jiang Cheng said, too,” says Wei Wuxian. “But what if you were in disguise? We redo your hair, dress you in Yunmeng colours, call you Jiang Zhan for the night. No one would be any wiser.”
“Xichen has the eyes of a hawk,” says Lan Wangji. “He would not be fooled.”
“But even if he knew, what could he say?” wonders Wei Wuxian. “If I, the guest of honour, insisted you were Jiang Zhan, he’d lose face by accusing my companion of being the so-called Master of Shadows. My shijie doesn’t take kindly to people mistreating her family, after all.”
Lan Wangji exhales, closes his eyes. “You will not be persuaded otherwise,” he notes. “I will accompany you, then.”
“Fantastic!” Wei Wuxian gathers him in his arms, pressing kisses all over his face. “I’ll have to measure you for some Yunmeng robes, of course, but I think…” his hands playfully tug at Lan Wangji’s robes, “I could hazard a good guess right now.”
Lan Wangji snorts. “Impudent,” he remarks, before Wei Wuxian finds himself being pressed against the floor of his bedroom, Lan Wangji kissing a hungry line down his neck to the collar of his robes. Impatiently, his lover undoes the clasps and ties of Wei Wuxian’s clothes, hands skillfully ghosting along the planes of his body.
“So different and yet so familiar,” breathes Wei Wuxian, especially as Lan Wangji gathers him in his arms and deposits him unceremoniously onto the bed. “And hey, I thought I was the one doing the measuring.”
Lan Wangji responds by promptly removing his own clothes. Wei Wuxian exhales, arousal stirring at the flash of red in his lover’s eyes.
“Come here,” he beckons, spreading his legs, and Lan Wangji follows eagerly, his body a familiar intrusion that Wei Wuxian had missed. They fit together as perfectly as always, bodies moving in a familiar rhythm as they rediscover Wei Wuxian’s body together.
“You are more ticklish here now,” remarks Lan Wangji, skimming his hands along Wei Wuxian’s sides. Wei Wuxian screams with laughter, the sound quickly morphing into a moan as Lan Wangji sucks a mark into his neck. “And more sensitive here than before.”
“This body is younger,” protests Wei Wuxian. “Has barely known anything besides its own touch, I bet. Everything is new to it.”
“I will take care,” promises Lan Wangji, and thrusts in harder.
“How is that — ” Wei Wuxian splutters, but Lan Wangji shuts him up with a kiss, and he willingly follows, arching his hips to meet Lan Wangji’s thrusts until they are both careening over the edge, the rest of the world falling away beneath them.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t want to think about anything outside the circle of Lan Wangji’s arms, doesn’t want to contemplate every danger associated with sneaking the reviled Master of Shadows into a banquet at Koi Towers. Things have always been straightforward with him — if something is broken, it must be fixed. If someone is hurt, justice must be sought. But Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen’s relationship grows more complex with each passing year, and now the knot tangling the strings of their lives together may be so complicated that the only way to free them would be to cut the knot entirely.
“Wei Ying,” murmurs Lan Wangji, pressed close beside him. Wei Wuxian turns, cuddling in closer to smell the fresh sandalwood clinging to his lover’s collar.
“Mm?” he ventures.
Lan Wangji kisses him, a slow reaffirmation. You will get us through this, he says, in the soft brush of his lips against the corner of Wei Wuxian’s mouth. I trust you.
Chapter 15: a dish best served cold
Chapter by lily_winterwood
Jin Rulan receives a revelation.
“Mama, when will Baba be coming back?” A-Ling asks, eyes bright with worry as he wraps his arms around his mother’s midsection.
Jiang Yanli tucks her son’s hair behind one ear, her smile sad and soft. “Baba is working very hard, darling. He will come home when his work is done.”
The body parts are docile as Jin Rulan lays them out in the empty chamber, in the middle of an array designed to trap the corpse once it is re-combined. Next to him, Lan Wangji holds a needle and thread, his expression even more grave than usual.
“Okay,” says Jin Rulan, stepping back. Lan Wangji replaces him in the array, carefully stitching up each of the appendages to the torso.
“Is there anything we could do to help?” wonders Jiang Sizhui, from where he’s holding a talisman at the ready in case things turn sour. But so far, Jin Rulan’s presence seems to be all the calming the body parts need.
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “This thread is unique,” he says, elongating it with a little more of his energy as he speaks.
“Do you do this often?” wonders Lan Jingyi, frowning.
“Once,” says Lan Wangji. He had not found Wen Qing’s body whole, after all. The victims of the Qiongqi Pass had not been respected in life; the odds of them being respected in death were even less. It had been excruciating for Wen Ning to watch, so Lan Wangji had set up his cave in Yiling to hide his work from him.
“The Angel of Death,” remarks Jiang Sizhui.
“Her name was Wen Qing,” snaps Wei Wuxian. “Before she died, she was a doctor. She had a little brother she would move heaven and earth for.”
“She’s in Gusu,” Lan Jingyi remarks. The room falls silent enough to hear Lan Wangji’s needle drop.
“She’s not dead?” Wei Wuxian breathes.
Lan Jingyi bites his lip, caught between contrition and embarrassment. “Sect Leader Lan keeps her in the previous Madam Lan’s rooms,” he says. “The rest of us are not allowed to see her, but everyone knows…” he trails off, clapping a hand to his mouth. “I shouldn’t have told you that,” he mumbles.
Lan Wangji’s hands are shaking when he resumes, so Wei Wuxian enters the array to help him out. “That doesn’t sound good,” he remarks. “I didn’t even know there’d been a previous Madam Lan. I just thought you and your brother sprung fully formed out of a book or something.”
Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow at him; Wei Wuxian laughs and jostles him by the shoulder.
“I’m kidding!” he insists. “Well, a little. I mean, you never told me anything about your mother.”
Lan Wangji sends a sidelong glance to Lan Jingyi. “It is not something I speak of often,” he replies, as Wei Wuxian finishes stitching on the last limb. The body lies inert in the middle of the array, its handsome form belied by its deathly pallor.
“Does he look familiar at all?” wonders Wei Wuxian, tilting his head to the side. “Is there a man in the world out there who’s currently missing and… who would be calm and friendly around Jin Rulan…”
All eyes in the chamber turn towards Jin Rulan, whose face has also gone deathly pale at the implication. Slowly, the young cultivator steps back towards the array, as the corpse slowly raises itself into a sitting position, arms outstretched.
“Baba?” Jin Rulan chokes out in horror, before collapsing into a dead swoon on the ground at the feet of his father’s reconstructed corpse.
“Where did Baba go?” wonders A-Ling, as Jiang Yanli leads him down the hall to his bedroom, where the nanny and the maids have already set everything up just the way they like it. All his little stuffed monsters, all the little presents Wuxian-jiujiu had given him over the years of his short but precious life. A-Ling climbs into bed, lets his Mama tuck him in.
“Baba went very far away,” she tells him, kissing his brows. “Even Mama doesn’t know where he went. He sailed away on a ship, westward to new lands.”
“How is he?” asks Jiang Sizhui, pacing outside of Jin Rulan’s room. Wei Wuxian sighs, patting the boy’s shoulder.
“He’s still in shock,” he says. “Not every day you end up solving your father’s disappearance only to find he’d been dismembered the entire time.” He pauses. “That, and we still don’t have Jin Zixuan’s head.”
“Yeah, I’d probably faint too if I saw my dad’s headless corpse walk towards me,” mutters Jiang Sizhui. Wei Wuxian silently prays that that won’t ever be the case.
“Let’s think about the facts of the case,” he says, gesturing for Jiang Sizhui to join him as they walk away from Jin Rulan’s rooms. Lan Wangji joins them as they head out to the pavilion on the lake, sidling out of nowhere as if he’d just formed from the shadows. “Jin Zixuan disappeared years ago, when Jin Rulan was still young. Who do we know could have wanted to make him disappear?”
“He was probably one of the more popular members of the family,” says Jiang Sizhui. “I always got that impression anyway, when Father took me to Lanling.”
“But even the most popular members have enemies,” says Wei Wuxian. “It kinda comes with the territory of popularity, anyway. And he was the heir to the sect leader, so…”
“Are you suggesting who I think you might be suggesting?” wonders Jiang Sizhui.
Wei Wuxian frowns. “Who do you think I’m suggesting?”
“Jin Zixun,” says Jiang Sizhui. Next to him, Lan Wangji makes a negative noise.
“Lan Zhan doesn’t seem to think it’s Jin Zixun,” says Wei Wuxian. “I don’t blame him; Jin Zixun can’t even organise his way out of a paper bag, let alone organise something as cold-blooded as the murder and dismemberment of a family member.”
Jiang Sizhui considers it. “But then that just leaves us with…” he trails off, shaking his head. “No way.”
“Well, when you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains — however improbable — must be the truth,” Wei Wuxian points out.
“Maybe there’s another one of Jin Guangshan’s illegitimate children,” says Jiang Sizhui. “Surely there must be — I can’t imagine how Jin Ling would feel if —”
“There’s only one way to know for certain,” says Wei Wuxian, patting him on the shoulder. “We have to go to Lanling.”
“I want to go with Baba next time,” says A-Ling. At the door, Jiang Yanli smiles.
“When you’re older,” she promises, “you will have plenty of your own adventures.”
“Okay!” chirps A-Ling, before pulling the covers up to his chin. Jiang Yanli’s smile fades the instant she steps away from the door.
She knows the room where the secrets are kept. She sneaks into it, quieter than a mouse, and pulls a page from a book splattered with blood. Hanguang-jun’s neat handwriting peers up at her as she peruses the instructions, hope hammering wildly in her heart.
She has to get to the bottom of this.
Justice must be served.
“The preparations are almost done, my lady,” Jin Guangyao tells Jiang Yanli. “The guests will be arriving in a couple of days. When should I be expecting your brothers?”
“Tomorrow,” she says, looking out across the golden koi ponds with a lotus seedpod in her hand. Her fingers peel out the seeds almost by habit now, the little green nubbins falling back into the water with soft splashes for the fish to devour. “A-Ling will be coming with them.”
“I shall prepare his room, then,” says Jin Guangyao, bowing. “I suggest we also serve them refreshments when they arrive.”
“You can plan what you like,” replies Jiang Yanli, waving a dismissive hand. Jin Guangyao’s smile tightens, but he withdraws graciously and quietly nonetheless. Jiang Yanli turns back towards the reflection of the moon rippling on the pond, letting the night wind whip at her hair.
Soon, justice will be served. And just like revenge, it is a dish best served cold.
Chapter 16: the banquet
Chapter by lily_winterwood
Two brothers encounter one another again in Lanling.
“Lanling! I haven’t been here in a while!” declares Wei Wuxian as their boat pulls up to the dock leading up to Koi Towers. Next to him, Lan Wangji sits stiffly in his purple Yunmeng Jiang robes, his long hair pulled into a severe half-bun.
“You haven’t been to most places in a while,” Jiang Cheng remarks, as the juniors jump out of the boat to help moor it to the dock. They all pile out after them, just in time to be greeted by Jiang Yanli standing on the banks underneath a gilded canopy. Her hair is crafted into the latest fashionable style in Lanling, and her robes are a delicate mix of Yunmeng purple and Lanling gold. She is every bit the immaculate Regent Sect Leader, a vision of untouchability.
Wei Wuxian rushes into her embrace easily. “Shijie!” he shouts, spinning her around in delighted circles. “It’s been forever! I missed you!”
“Did you really?” Jiang Yanli remarks, a little drily. “You were dead, remember.”
“I could miss you while dead, too,” Wei Wuxian retorts, pouting. Quickly remembering his manners, he lets her go and kneels before her. Next to him, Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes before bowing to his sister.
“Jie, good to see you again,” he says. Jiang Yanli nods, before gesturing for them to follow her back to the palace. The servants scramble to maintain the canopy above her head as she walks.
Jin Rulan joins her by her side, still looking pale from his ordeal in Yunmeng. “Did you find anything out about the body parts, A-Ling?” Jiang Yanli asks.
Jin Rulan startles, looking back at Wei Wuxian with wide eyes. Jiang Cheng shakes his head, making a throat-slicing gesture. Jin Rulan pales further.
“N-nothing,” he manages. “We’re, uh, working on it.”
“Poor soul,” says Jiang Yanli. “His family must be so worried.”
“His?” asks Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Yanli shrugs. “I hesitate to consider the possibility of it being otherwise,” she replies.
Wei Wuxian has to admit, she has a point. Women being found in pieces tend to lead to much more hysteria among the people.
They mount the steps leading up to Koi Towers, where Jin Guangyao, his shijie’s brother-in-law and right hand man, greets them with a broad smile. “Refreshments are ready in the foyer,” he says, bowing to them. “Welcome back to Lanling, Sect Leader Jiang, Senior Wei. It is an honour to see the reunited Twin Heroes of Yunmeng here again.”
“The honour is ours,” says Jiang Cheng, as servants hand them all cups of tea and carry out platters of snacks. The juniors pile their plates with nuts and seeds before running off to Jin Rulan’s room. Wei Wuxian watches them go, before he notices that the hall had gone a little silent.
Turning back, he sees that Jin Guangyao is staring incredulously at Lan Wangji, as if trying to parse out who he might be in that database of faces he keeps in his head. “This is Jiang Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says immediately, slinging an arm around Lan Wangji’s shoulders. “He’s my guest.”
“Your guest,” echoes Jin Guangyao. “I had no idea there was such a Yunmeng disciple as Jiang Zhan.”
“He’s pretty new,” replies Wei Wuxian, clapping Lan Wangji on the back. “But he has so much potential. We brought him here so he could experience some new cultures.”
Jin Guangyao hums thoughtfully, but makes no more comment on it as he helps the servants refill the teacups.
The other guests begin to pour in later on as the day progresses. Wei Wuxian keeps an eye out for a familiar glimpse of white headbands and whiter robes, but the delegation from Gusu seem to be absent entirely.
“Do you think they’ll come?” he asks Jiang Cheng, who shrugs as well.
“Pretty sure Sect Leader Lan accepted the invitation, but who knows.” Jiang Cheng cranes his head, peering through the crowd. “Maybe Jingyi managed to get a message to him.”
“I kept an eye on him and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t sent any word to Gusu,” says Wei Wuxian. “And even if he had, wouldn’t that encourage Lan Xichen to show up?”
“We thought punctuality was a Lan trait, and yet here we are,” replies Jiang Cheng, folding his hands behind his back as he smiles and nods at some passing maidens. Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes, before turning back to where Lan Wangji is standing slightly off to the side, looking extremely awkward in his purple robes.
“Think I did a good job?” Wei Wuxian wonders, gesturing to Lan Wangji’s ensemble. Jiang Cheng snorts.
“Could’ve been worse,” he replies. “At least he looks somewhat like a disciple.”
“Ye of little faith,” sighs Wei Wuxian. “Does shijie know about our little ruse?”
“You didn’t tell her?” wonders Jiang Cheng.
“I thought —” begins Wei Wuxian, but then cuts off immediately at Jiang Cheng’s unamused eyebrow. “Right. Well. I better mention something, then.”
He starts walking away, searching through the crowd for his shijie. However, because he isn’t watching his step, he immediately bumps into someone.
“Oh heavens, please excuse —” the apology withers on his lips when he sees white robes, embroidered in Gusu Lan cloud blue. He looks up, and the steely gaze of Lan Xichen bears down on him in reply. “Sect Leader Lan,” he remarks.
“Wei Wuxian,” replies Lan Xichen, his smile a dagger all on its own. “We meet again.”
“I thought you’d never show,” admits Wei Wuxian, rubbing the nape of his neck. “The road wasn’t too weary for you, I hope? You look tired.”
“Thank you, but it was uneventful,” replies Lan Xichen sunnily. “My congratulations for returning from the dead, by the way. A remarkable feat.”
Wei Wuxian bows. “The idea was someone else’s,” he replies.
“And to have the body of someone not too dissimilar from your own,” continues Lan Xichen, thoughtfully. “Almost serendipitous, I would imagine.”
“Perhaps,” replies Wei Wuxian. “But again, the idea was someone else’s.”
“I can imagine.” Lan Xichen’s voice turns flat. “I am under the impression my brother is in attendance tonight.”
So Jingyi did mention something. Wei Wuxian has half a mind to make the boy copy some lines upside-down, Gusu-style.
“Have you had any success in finding him?” asks Wei Wuxian, even as a familiar hand comes to tug at his sleeve.
“Senior Wei,” mumbles Lan Wangji, playing to the script Wei Wuxian had jotted down for him, “I find I am in need of some assistance —”
“Wangji.” Lan Xichen’s eyes harden immediately. Wei Wuxian looks at him in mock alarm.
“Wangji? Who are you calling Wangji?” he demands, even as Lan Wangji startles at the sight of Lan Xichen’s scowl. “This is Jiang Zhan, my new disciple.”
“Wei Wuxian, I cannot believe you’d think I would forget how my brother looks,” snaps Lan Xichen. “Even after all these years, he still has not quite remembered how to portray anything besides bored disdain on his that pretty face of his.”
“He’s not the only person who forgets that,” Wei Wuxian insists. “Plenty of people forget to smile whilst in public. It doesn’t make all of them your brother.”
“Perhaps not, but your friend does bear a remarkable resemblance,” retorts Lan Xichen. Wei Wuxian is distinctly aware of Lan Wangji’s hands shaking against his arm. “You have allowed your feelings for my brother to cloud you from the wrongs he has committed. Eyes so blinded cannot mete justice.”
“Justice should not serve only the agenda of the powerful,” retorts Wei Wuxian.
“How can you be so sympathetic to the man who murdered you?” demands Lan Xichen, his brows furrowing. Wei Wuxian opens his mouth to reply, but is stalled by a firm grasp against his wrist.
“My apologies,” says Lan Wangji coolly, “but I must borrow Senior Wei for this urgent matter. Please excuse us, Sect Leader Lan.”
“Wangji,” hisses Lan Xichen. “When will your madness end? When will you return to Gusu?”
Lan Wangji looks him dead in the eye. “I do not understand to whom you are referring,” he says coldly, before spinning on his heels and dragging Wei Wuxian out of the room.
Once in the hallway, Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, but Lan Wangji immediately holds up a finger to silence him.
“I am returning to our room,” he says. “I find I cannot… continue this further.”
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian mumbles, hanging his head. “I had thought —”
“Not all wounds can be healed so quickly,” replies Lan Wangji, before taking Wei Wuxian’s hand and kissing it. “You know where to find me.”
Wei Wuxian watches him vanish into the shadows with a lump heavy in his throat.
Lan Wangji first hears the arguments from the shadows.
Jin Guangyao’s wife, Madam Qin, clutches a letter in her hands, thumps her fists against her husband’s chest in anger and frustration. Lan Wangji had only ever heard of their marital bliss, marred only once by the tragic death of their only son in his infancy.
The shadows envelop Madam Qin, cradling her in its arms. She is a familiar friend to death and despair. After all, she had unwittingly married a man who deals in it.
“A-Ying,” Jiang Yanli’s voice is half-breathless when she pulls him aside. “Have you seen Lianfang-zun anywhere?”
Wei Wuxian glances through the room, before spotting the man in question deep in conversation with Lan Xichen, even touching briefly at his shoulder. “Yeah, he’s with Sect Leader Lan,” he says.
Jiang Yanli hums. “Good,” she says, before pulling him out of the room once more.
“Shijie?” Wei Wuxian asks, as she pushes him into an alcove tucked behind a silk tapestry, looking warily about her. What could have possessed her to become so wary of her surroundings? “Is — is everything alright?”
“My husband,” says Jiang Yanli, wobbling her lips as she turns back to him, “has been missing for far too long, A-Ying. I suspect the worst may have befallen him.”
Wei Wuxian feels as if someone suddenly plunging a sword into his gut from the other side of the curtain would’ve been a kinder fate. The headless corpse of Jin Zixuan, sitting in a room in Lotus Pier, flickers guiltily though his mind. “What do you wish for me to do?” he asks.
“Find out what’s happened to him,” pleads Jiang Yanli. “Find him, shidi. For me, please.”
Wei Wuxian’s mouth works uselessly; all he can do is open his arms for a hug, and let her run into it, sobbing against his shoulders.
He doesn’t have the heart to tell her the truth yet.
In the shadows, a bronze mirror transforms into a doorway. Jin Guangyao strides through it with ease. Lan Wangji slips in after, the shadows easily concealing him within the chamber beyond.
Madam Qin is sitting mute upon a chaise in this room, her gaze trance-like with shock. Jin Guangyao slips the letter from her nerveless fingers, throwing it casually into one of the braziers burning bright against the wall. He goes through the various torture devices lying in the room, through the reams of antiques and powerful cultivation artefacts.
Bichen’s familiar white glare catches Lan Wangji’s eye. His hands twitch for it, but he catches himself at the last minute. He’s not supposed to be in here, after all. Not with Madam Qin around, and certainly not with Jin Guangyao still in the room.
“Think about what you wish to do, my love,” says Jin Guangyao, his words flung like daggers at his wife. She quivers with hatred and betrayal, turning her face from him as he sweeps from the room. Lan Wangji moves with the shadows, his interest piqued by the elegantly-lacquered cabinet sitting in the corner.
He sends forth a tendril of shadow to creep through the cracks of the cabinet door, and is startled at what he finds within.
Sect Leader Nie takes Wei Wuxian aside almost as soon as he re-enters the banquet hall. “I saw you talking to Sect Leader Lan,” says Nie Mingjue, refusing to beat around the bush as always. “Did he seem different at all to you?”
Wei Wuxian purses his lips, looks over at where Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao are still conversing. “Define different,” he says.
“My last conversation with him was not…” Nie Mingjue sighs, rubbing at his temples. “We had a fight. He has not shown up to any meetings between us sworn brothers since.” He pauses. “It was his idea to add Lianfang-zun to our brotherhood; he thought that perhaps it would help better our relationship by having to work together, but —”
“You think I could do something about it?” asks Wei Wuxian, frowning.
“No,” says Nie Mingjue. “He has been avoiding me. And as his sworn brother I have a duty to worry for his health.”
“His health,” echoes Wei Wuxian.
Nie Mingjue nods. “I fear he may suffer qi deviation if he continues down this path. This… pursuit of his brother… is only harming him, as it should have never been in his nature to be so ruthless.”
“Again, I don’t know if I’m the one to ask about fixing this,” says Wei Wuxian, remembering the argument he’d had with Lan Xichen himself, and the anger and sadness in Lan Wangji’s eyes. “I tried, briefly, but… at this point nothing would satisfy him besides having his brother return to Gusu to face punishment. Which I suspect is going to be death.”
“He would kill his own brother?” murmurs Nie Mingjue, his expression stricken. Even he, who frequently professes a disliking for everything Nie Huaisang ever does, would never even dream of murdering him in cold blood like that.
“That, or imprison him.” Thoughts of Wen Qing, trapped in the Cloud Recesses, comes to mind. A tiger locked in a cage. A phoenix with clipped wings.
Nie Mingjue lowers his head. “If he kills his brother, he kills himself,” he says.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t know what to say to that.
Madam Qin’s eyes are closed, her breathing laboured with whatever pain she must be feeling. Lan Wangji bids her rest more peacefully, shadows enveloping her in a gentle blanket before he tiptoes to the cabinet and opens it.
Amid the books and scrolls — collections of his own writings, music scores from far-off places, the deed to a temple in Yunmeng — sits a box. Willing his hands to remain steady, Lan Wangji removes the box from the shelf, and opens it.
The head of Jin Zixuan peers balefully up at him. Lan Wangji places careful fingers against his temples, and closes his eyes.
“Master Xue’s work is crucial. I cannot have you execute him.” Jin Guangyao’s voice rings through the chamber where Jin Zixuan is working. Jin Zixuan looks up, frowning at his brother.
“Why is reconstructing the Stygian Blade crucial, brother?” he demands. “It is a demonic artefact. All it knows is death and destruction. We must not allow it to continue.”
“If we do not possess the ability to command this, who’s to say some other clan will have less scruples about it?” demands Jin Guangyao. “We have to unlock the blade’s secrets, before our enemies do.”
“What enemies?” Jin Zixuan’s eyes narrow. “Lanling is the strongest and richest of the clans. We are allied with Yunmeng through marriage. We have sworn brotherhoods with Qinghe and Gusu. No one can raise a hand to us. We do not need demonic weapons.”
“You saw yourself the carnage at the end of the war against the Wens,” says Jin Guangyao. “The ability of the Master of Shadows — ”
“The Master of Shadows is not nearly as bloodthirsty as his brother makes him to be,” snaps Jin Zixuan. “As long as he lives, the darkness can be tamed. As long as Master Xue lives, the darkness remains unpredictable.”
“I will not allow you to kill him.”
Jin Zixuan rises to his feet, staring imperiously down at his brother. “With what authority can you give such command over the meting of such justice, brother?” he snaps. “It is I who convinced father to accept you. It is I who gave you your position, your titles, the respect people were not willing to pay you before. If it had not been for me, you would still be a backstabbing whoreson trying to lie and cheat your way to power!”
“How dare you,” hisses Jin Guangyao, his congenial expression vanishing in an instant. And then, before Jin Zixuan realises it, there’s the soft click of metal, the flash of a blade —
— and everything bursts into shadow and pain.
Lan Wangji reels back, eyes flying open just in time to feel the press of a familiar blade against his neck, just above his pulse point.
“Hanguang-jun, I suspected you would be here,” says Jin Guangyao’s voice, like poisoned honey flowing into his ear. “Drop the box.”
Lan Wangji complies.
“Good.” Jin Guangyao hums thoughtfully. “I had high hopes for Master Xue’s work, but he only managed to complete part of the blade before he got stabbed by that pesky Daozhang Xiao. But why would I settle for a disciple when I have the master here, in my rooms?”
Lan Wangji glares sidelong at him, his jaw clenched. Jin Guangyao chuckles.
“What do I have to offer to convince you to continue the work?” he wonders. “Perhaps you could be motivated if the life of your beloved was on the line?”
“You would not dare,” growls Lan Wangji.
“Would I? That stupid Jiang Yanli hasn’t put the dots together yet about her own husband. You think her brother going missing will matter to her?”
Lan Wangji concentrates his will on the shining sword in the corner. At a command, Bichen flies from its scabbard faster than thought, spiritual energy knocking Jin Guangyao and Hensheng back a couple steps. The two swords clash in a loud clatter of sparks. Jin Guangyao’s eyes widen.
“I had only suspected, earlier,” he says. “But since Bichen locked itself after I retrieved it from the Burial Mounds after the siege, it could not be wielded by any other.” He smiles widely. “So it truly is you, Master of Shadows.”
Lan Wangji only glares harder, even as his stomach sinks at how easily he’d stepped into Jin Guangyao’s trap.
Suddenly, there’s the echo of footsteps from outside. Moments later, people are pouring into the room, swords at the ready.
“We heard sounds of fighting!” exclaims Wei Wuxian, and then promptly snaps his mouth shut at the sight of Lan Wangji standing there with Bichen in his hands.
“I thought so,” adds Lan Xichen, nodding towards the sword. “Lianfang-zun, didn’t you mention the sword locked itself after the Master of Shadows vanished?”
“I did,” agrees Jin Guangyao. “And what’s more, I caught him trying to put this into my cabinet.”
He holds up the box, with Jin Zixuan’s head in it. Gasps go around the room.
“Is that — ” breathes a woman’s voice. Jiang Yanli pushes forward through the crowd, her eyes wide. “Zixuan! Oh heavens… what happened?”
“It seems fairly evident, does it not?” wonders Jin Guangyao. “In his travels, your husband met his untimely end at the hands of none other than our own Hanguang-jun, Master of Shadows. He then cut his body into pieces, scattering them across the land. How else could he have known where to direct Wei Wuxian and his juniors?”
What was the word of a disgraced cultivator worth, against that of an advisor and brother-in-law to the Regent of Lanling? Jin Guangyao’s trap had come down far too neatly. How easily the frame shifts.
Jiang Yanli takes the box, tears shining in her eyes. “Oh, my poor darling,” she whispers. Next to her, Jin Rulan looks between the box and Lan Wangji, his eyes narrowing.
“Shijie,” begins Wei Wuxian, “you can’t possibly — ”
“A-Ying, did you know about this?” asks Jiang Yanli, heartbreak evident in her voice.
“We had assembled the other parts,” Jin Rulan chips in before Wei Wuxian can respond. “We’d suspected it was Baba, but we… we weren’t sure…”
“Why would Hanguang-jun lead us to the body parts of a man he killed?” demands Jiang Sizhui suddenly. All eyes turn towards him, white-faced with fury and clenching his fists. “Lianfang-zun’s story doesn’t make sense.”
A gasp ripples through the room.
“Why indeed,” remarks Jin Guangyao, looking sidelong at Lan Wangji. “Only the mind of someone truly twisted by the demonic path would show off in such a way, wouldn’t you think? Leading everyone else along their search for the truth, gloating at how easily they’re led astray…” he sighs. “I just think it’s a pity he chose to do that to Wei Wuxian, of all people. A Hero of Yunmeng, who trusted him before all others… see how he protests now.”
He’s trying to drive a wedge between us, Lan Wangji realises, as Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen with disbelief.
“I don’t believe you,” he growls. For a heart-stopping moment, Lan Wangji isn’t quite sure who he’s directing that towards.
“The truth is here,” replies Jin Guangyao. “Make of it what you — ”
“The truth,” a new voice rasps. Eyes turn towards the couch, where Madam Qin had suddenly sat up, smiling placidly all around the room. Shakily, she rises to her feet, crossing the room towards the cabinet where she retrieves a dagger — the dagger of Wen Ruohan, already gleaming blood-red in anticipation.
There’s a sickening spurt. A spray of blood. Madam Qin sinks to the ground, a crimson gash still freshly gushing blood at her snow-white throat. Everyone gasps again; Jin Guangyao sinks to his feet by his wife, tears immediately springing to his eyes.
“Look what you’ve done, Hanguang-jun,” he breathes.
“How could he have done that?” demands Jiang Sizhui. “We all saw him; he did nothing to compel her to act like that!”
“How do you know what he can or cannot do?” wonders Jin Guangyao.
“This is madness,” adds Lan Xichen. “A stain on the name of Lan, brother. You must return to Gusu to answer for this.”
“He does not.”
Eyes turn back to Jiang Yanli, still cradling the box with her husband’s head in it like a newborn child. Her face is resolute, her eyes shining like tempered steel. Even Lan Wangji feels a small shiver down his spine at the sight.
“I have not yet seen any compelling evidence that suggests this box was placed here by Hanguang-jun,” continues Jiang Yanli. “In fact, my dear brother-in-law, might I wonder why you feel the need to protest so much about this situation? Surely your own conscience is perfectly clean and does not need any further justification.”
A long, terrible silence. Jin Guangyao’s jaw clenches.
“Are you questioning me, madam?” he asks sweetly.
“No,” says Jiang Yanli. “I am simply making an observation. We have not yet heard Hanguang-jun’s side of the story, as you are so intent to sell us yours.”
“What is there to hear?” demands Lan Xichen. “This madness has gone on for long enough. He has not answered to any of his crimes.”
“He is your brother, Sect Leader Lan,” remarks Jiang Yanli, turning towards him. “Would you truly do this to him?”
“I lost my brother years ago,” retorts Lan Xichen.
Jiang Yanli considers it for a moment. “Then you and Lianfang-zun truly are sworn brothers,” she says, before sweeping from the room. At the doorway, she adds, “Someone please send some servants to take care of Madam Qin,” before vanishing.
For a moment, the room is deathly quiet. The gleam of swords in the firelight flash and flicker across Lan Wangji’s field of vision. People seem caught between the two stories, debating whether or not to attack.
Then Lan Xichen steps forward, and Lan Wangji immediately raises Bichen to his face, stepping in front of Wei Wuxian. “No,” he says.
“Brother,” insists Lan Xichen, stepping closer. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian back up, towards an open window in the room. “Return to Gusu.”
“I will not be treated the way Father treated Mother,” replies Lan Wangji. And before Lan Xichen can react, both he and Wei Wuxian leap out of the window, landing on their swords and flying off into the night.
Chapter 18: the cloud recesses
Chapter by lily_winterwood
Lan Xichen tries to find his brother.
The day Wei Wuxian woke up with a supposedly new golden core, Lan Xichen had known something was wrong. His brother had seemed even more subdued after that, almost like a blank slate. Lan Xichen has also read the treatises by Wen Qing on the subject. He can connect the dots himself.
Lan Xichen lost his brother that day, and he’s been trying to find him ever since.
The flight from Koi Towers is almost panicked. Lan Wangji seems unsteady on Bichen, as if the shadows around him are having a reaction to the blade’s pure light and consequently barely keeping him aloft.
“Lan Zhan, are you sure you can keep doing this?” asks Wei Wuxian, extending a hand. Lan Wangji’s eyes flash defiant red, and he continues forward, his teeth gritted and expression resolute.
Wei Wuxian retracts his hand. Lan Wangji’s resentful energy tends to manifest like this — in a strong wave of determination to prove the world wrong. Bichen wavers below his feet, but the Master of Shadows presses on regardless, uncaring of the dangers associated with flying a sword he doesn’t have full spiritual control over.
But how could that be? Doesn’t he still have a core?
Wei Wuxian can’t help but ponder it even as they finally land on the cobbled streets of a small, familiar town. Up ahead, a tea-house stands, and Wei Wuxian is reminded of an afternoon amid the weiqi tiles as he looks up at the well-lit facade.
Lan Wangji sweeps through the door without hesitation. The innkeeper quickly directs him to their usual room. It’s almost as if he’d never vanished.
“Lan Zhan, you have to explain this to me at some point,” Wei Wuxian protests. “I’m very clever, I know I can handle whatever you throw at me, but I still need some clues in order to solve what’s going on.”
Lan Wangji throws himself down onto the floor in the lotus position. “What do you wish to know,” he states flatly, his eyes still vermilion. Wei Wuxian hates how hard his voice sounds.
“Bichen. You were able to unlock it and wield it, even fly on it. But you didn’t use Bichen at all before… you know.” Before my death.
“The Stygian Blade allowed me to fly,” replies Lan Wangji. An object of resentful energy. Of course. Like calls upon like, in a way.
“But you still couldn’t control it when you wielded it,” says Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “I had not fully mastered it,” he agrees, and the crimson seeps out of his gaze, until all that’s left is familiar, warm topaz.
“How is Bichen, then?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“I cannot sustain it,” replies Lan Wangji, hanging his head. “I lack… some things.”
Lan Wangji says nothing. Wei Wuxian reaches forward, touching his hand.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t have one anymore,” he says. “I’m still here, aren’t I?”
Lan Wangji nods. “Mm.”
“You told him about the Angel of Death, correct?” Lan Xichen asks Lan Jingyi, as they return to the banquet hall. The mood of the people assembled is sombre, subdued: the death of Madam Qin lingers first and foremost in people’s minds.
They watch the stretcher float past in the arms of four teary-eyed servants. A lifeless arm dangles from a ghostly shroud. Lan Jingyi nods, eyes riveted on the arm’s golden bangles.
Lan Xichen smiles. “Then all we have to do is wait,” he replies, patting Lan Jingyi on the shoulder. “You did well.”
Lan Jingyi inclines his head and smiles, though inside him a storm is brewing.
They find a familiar face in the tea house the morning after. Wen Ning, who had led the evacuation of the settlement prior to the siege of the Burial Mounds, places a jade token on the table before them. “I — I need to rescue my sister,” he says without preamble. “I heard she was being kept somewhere in the Cloud Recesses, and I know you two can help me.” His face is nervous, but determined. Wei Wuxian pats his hand, holds the token to the light.
“Access to some parts of the Cloud Recesses may still be forbidden with that,” Lan Wangji points out. ‘Some parts’ would definitely include the rooms where Wen Qing is being kept. Wei Wuxian tosses the token and catches it with a grin.
“We’ll be careful,” he says. “Have you perhaps tried summoning her?”
Lan Wangji nods, strumming thoughtfully at his guqin. In the distance, the leaves sway, as if tossed by a whispering spirit. “The ropes that bind her are meant to trap high-level demonic creatures, even dark deities and spirits. They will only answer to the one who wove them.”
“Jingyi,” says Wei Wuxian, snapping his fingers. “He was testing nets for your brother on Dafan Mountain!”
“We shall have to see if they can be cut down by a higher-level blade,” replies Lan Wangji. Almost as if in agreement, Bichen twinkles at his side. It’s as if they had never been parted to begin with.
“My deepest apologies for the abrupt end to these festivities,” Jin Guangyao tells Lan Xichen, as the entourage from Gusu prepares to depart for the Cloud Recesses.
“It was no trouble,” says Lan Xichen smoothly. “I only regret not being able to celebrate your brother-in-law’s return for as long as he deserves.”
“Some other time, then,” says Jin Guangyao, sweeping into a low bow. “Have the inquiries been of much help?”
A murmur rises amongst the other cultivators, but at a glance from Lan Jingyi they subside, shamefaced. Lan Xichen’s smile widens.
“He came here, did he not?” he wonders. “He cannot keep running like this. All prodigal sons must eventually return home.”
“I wish you all the best,” replies Jin Guangyao. Lan Xichen nods, and leads the delegation away.
It’s been years since Wei Wuxian last set foot in the Cloud Recesses, and it seems that in the time since, the number of rules has increased exponentially.
The halls are as silent as he remembers, but emptier than usual — many of the disciples must be away in Lanling for the feast. Guilt cuts through Wei Wuxian at that, since that feast had been held in his honour. Still, he steels himself and tiptoes on after Lan Wangji’s shadowy footsteps.
“I’ve never been here before,” Wen Ning murmurs, as they walk down another deserted corridor. Wei Wuxian distantly remembers Lan Wangji’s bedroom being here, somewhere. Sure enough, Lan Wangji stops before one of the doorways, staring at the entrance for a long moment before quietly pushing the door aside and entering the room.
At first glance, it appears that the room had been preserved, as if Lan Xichen had hoped his brother would return. But then on closer inspection, Wei Wuxian notices the papers scattered on a low table, the faint smudges of numerous arrays traced into the floor.
“Musical scores,” he remarks, looking through the papers. He frowns as he reads the title. “Demonic Inquiry?”
Lan Wangji’s brows furrow harder. He swipes the sheets away from Wei Wuxian, tucking it into his robes. After a final look-around, he sweeps out of the room without a backwards glance.
Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning have to jog to keep up with him. “Where are we going now?” Wei Wuxian asks, as they pass through more corridors, into parts of the Cloud Recesses even he had never visited before.
“My mother’s cabin,” says Lan Wangji tersely, just as he stops in front of a small wooden house, guarded by two white-clad cultivators. Their eyes widen in recognition, but before they can draw their weapons, Lan Wangji has already swiped Bichen at them and slammed them back into the cabin walls, knocking them unconscious.
Wei Wuxian pilfers the keys from the guards’ belts and unlocks the door.
“Sect Leader?” one of the disciples asks, halfway back to the Cloud Recesses. “There’s been an unauthorised entry into the cabin.”
Lan Xichen says nothing, only speeds up Shuoyue. Lan Jingyi follows swiftly behind, already fearing the worst.
Sure enough, when they return to the Cloud Recesses they are just in time to see four shadowy figures slip out of the cabin. The guards posted out front have been silenced, tied up with the silvery ropes that had previously bound the Angel of Death. Lan Xichen steps off his sword, Shuoyue flying into his hand immediately. “Wangji!” he shouts, towards the last of the dark figures slipping into the night.
“Brother,” replies Lan Wangji, and Bichen meets Shuoyue’s glare.
“It’s a miracle Bichen still bows to your will,” sneers Lan Xichen. “After all that you have done to stain it, it still recognises you as its master.” His gaze slips towards the retreating form of Wei Wuxian as well. “Jingyi, don’t let the others get away.”
Lan Jingyi takes off after the others. Wei Wuxian immediately shoves one of the figures towards the other. “Wen Qing, take him and run,” he hisses. “Don’t stop, no matter what.”
“We can help you!” protests the young man he’d pushed.
“No,” insists Wei Wuxian, shaking his head. “Lan Zhan can’t afford Wen Qing going feral again. Get out of here.”
The two of them — fierce corpse and human – look at one another, before the Angel of Death clasps the young man tight in his arms and takes off. Lan Jingyi makes to hop onto his sword, but Wei Wuxian points Suibian at him.
“I don’t want to do this,” he warns.
“Neither do I,” adds Lan Xichen, Shuoyue still deadlocked with Bichen. “But neither of us have a choice in the matter, do we?”
“You have choices,” insists Wei Wuxian. “All these paths ahead of you, Zewu-jun, and you stepped onto the narrow bridge of revenge. How does that make you any different from Hanguang-jun?”
“One of us didn’t create a monster that killed our uncle,” spits Lan Xichen.
“Even the best of humans can slip up and harm others,” Wei Wuxian points out. “If that’s your definition of a monster, then… aren’t we all?”
Lan Xichen suddenly feels the ground wobble, feels his vision split with the anger and resentment festering deep within him. There’s his brother, blade at the ready — but then there he is again — and again —
Where is he? Why is he everywhere?
“Wangji! Is this another one of your tricks?!” bellows Lan Xichen, slashing blindly at the infinite reiterations of his brother. “Or is this from Master Wei?”
The only thing he hears is laughter, mocking and cold, echoing from his brother’s throat in an unnatural pitch and timbre. “Wangji!” Lan Xichen stabs forward, Shuoyue cutting through air no matter where he thrusts. “I told you — I told you all those years ago that boy would be your ruin! Now look at you!”
Wangji — brother — Zhanzhan — come home, come home already!
“Da-ge, when is Mama coming back?” Six-year-old Lan Zhan asks him, tugging at his sleeve. Lan Xichen looks down at him, falls deeper into those innocent honey eyes.
“Mama is gone now, Zhanzhan,” he says.
“But Mama will come back, won’t she?” Lan Zhan sucks at his thumb, a little uncertain habit Uncle is still trying to beat out of him. “I want to wait for Mama to come back.”
Lan Xichen could never break his didi’s heart like that. “Okay,” he concedes. “Let’s go wait for Mama.”
The cabin is quiet, the scent of their mother already fading with her death. Lan Zhan sits down in the antechamber, quiet and small, patiently waiting.
“Brother, I have a predicament,” says Lan Zhan, years later on a sunny afternoon, his long hair peppered with scattered scraps of paper.
“What is it?” asks Lan Xichen, plucking one of the papers from his shoulder. Lan Zhan sighs, sinking down under the shade of the tree, looking down at the valley where the other boys are playing.
“Wei Wuxian from Yunmeng,” he says, “is the most impertinent, callous, rambunctious, disrespectful —”
Lan Xichen chuckles, holding up a hand. “I understand, brother,” he says. “It is interesting, is it not, to experience feelings you had not felt before?”
Lan Zhan takes a deep, calming breath. “I cannot stand him,” he says after a moment. “I do not understand why I am so angered by his very presence.”
“He is antithetical to everything you have worked for,” replies Lan Xichen, “and yet, to seek true knowledge, you must understand those who are at complete odds with yourself. Such is the union of thesis and antithesis.”
“En,” agrees Lan Wangji, though his expression seems pained. Yet to anyone else except Lan Xichen, nothing on his face would have changed at all.
“Why are you reading about core transference?” asks Lan Xichen a couple years after that, as the candles burn low around Lan Wangji’s desk in the Library Pavilion. “It is well past curfew.”
“I have to save him,” says Lan Wangji. “I have to give him his core back.”
“That is impossible,” says Lan Xichen, rubbing at his eyes. “Brother, it’s late. If Uncle catches you — ”
Lan Wangji closes the book with a snap. “The motto of the Yunmeng Jiang family is to dare to attempt the impossible,” he states. “I must keep trying.”
And that had been the last time Lan Xichen ever spoke to his brother.
“Wangji — ” gasps Lan Xichen, stumbling to his knees, his sword dropping onto the grass. The echoes of his brother’s face fade from around him, leaving only the one just a couple feet away, Bichen shining bright against his dark robes.
Slowly, Lan Wangji begins to back away, hesitant. Lan Xichen’s anger returns at a boil.
“Jingyi, what did I tell you?” he demands. Startled, Lan Jingyi lunges forward, but Wei Wuxian throws himself into his path, taking the blow once again. Lan Wangji’s eyes widen; he catches Wei Wuxian easily in his arms, before trying to leap onto Bichen to escape.
It doesn’t work. He’s not spiritually strong enough.
Sensing an opportunity, Lan Xichen reaches to grab him. But Lan Wangji’s eyes suddenly flash red, resentful shadows swirling around him in a frenzied whirl.
And then, in the blink of an eye, he vanishes, with drops of blood the only thing that suggest he’d even been there in the first place.
...So can LWJ fly without a core or not? I feel like his mode of demonic cultivation is very similar to his previous cultivation style, just... with more of a darker, shadowy tint to it (hence why WWX suggested that he'd managed to make demonic cultivation boring, since he... basically just imported what he knew instead of cultivating outside the box like canon WWX had done). So yes, he can fly, and doesn't necessarily need a sword for it. Bichen, while loyal to him, is still much better wielded if he had a core, so he can't use it as well as he used to.
I'm not sure if I explained it well enough in the ficlets themselves, so... that's my thoughts on that.
Chapter 19: the burial mounds
Chapter by lily_winterwood
The storm arrives.
For once, Lan Wangji doesn’t know where exactly he’s going as the shadows envelop him, fly him away. The two swords he’s carrying tremble at his side, and Wei Wuxian is unconscious in his arms.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian’s voice is weak. Too weak for the panicked beating of Lan Wangji’s heart. Not again. Not again not again not again —
“Wei Ying,” he replies, looking down. Wei Wuxian smiles.
“I’m here,” he says, reaching up to touch Lan Wangji’s cheek.
“Nn,” agrees Lan Wangji, pressing his lips to Wei Wuxian’s wrist, savouring the warmth of him. It may not be there later.
The shadows deposit him on solid ground, and when it clears, he realises he’s standing before a familiar cave, the jagged and blackened ruins of a settlement yawning against the mountainside below. Memories rise inside him, as he remembers pressing Wei Wuxian down on the grass that once grew on this ridge, as he remembers the soft glow of red lanterns in the trees that are no longer there.
“He’s hurt.” Wen Qing’s voice cuts through his reverie. She’d also made it here, with Wen Ning at her side looking windswept. “I can fix him. Give him here.”
Lan Wangji complies. Wei Wuxian makes a token protesting noise, but Wen Qing takes him inside the cave and deposits him on the same stone slab he’d been found on the last time he was here.
“Ooh, definitely been here before,” Wei Wuxian remarks, looking around the cave. “Still smells like blood, too.”
Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow at Wen Qing, who is now untying Wei Wuxian’s robes so she can better assess his stab wound.
“Wen Ning,” she says, and her brother springs to attention. “I need medicinal herbs.”
Wen Ning listens to his sister, nodding frantically all the while, before ducking out of the cave once more.
Lan Wangji sits himself down at where he’d once had his workstation. “Do you require further assistance?” he asks.
“No,” says Wen Qing.
“Then I shall meditate here,” replies Lan Wangji. “Tell me if you need help.”
Wen Qing lets him rest instead.
The next time Lan Wangji resurfaces from his meditation, he notices that the cave is a little more crowded than before.
“How are you feeling, Senior Wei?” Jiang Sizhui is asking, as Wei Wuxian sits up on the slab, stretching and yawning.
“Much better!” he exclaims, before wincing. Wen Qing rolls her eyes. “Okay, maybe a little sore,” he concedes. “But I’m not bleeding from the stomach again, and that’s what counts.” He pauses. “When did you two get here?”
“Wen Ning found us,” says Jiang Sizhui. “Jingyi contacted us, said he’d stabbed you and felt really bad about it. He’s sorry, you know.”
“Sure.” Wei Wuxian laughs, ruffling Jiang Sizhui’s hair. “He probably wouldn’t be apologising if he’d stabbed the person he meant to stab.”
Lan Wangji tries to pretend he hadn’t been listening in by remaining in his meditative pose.
“How is Lan Xichen, though?” wonders Wei Wuxian suddenly. “He seemed pretty mad about us managing to escape his clutches at the Cloud Recesses. Did Jingyi mention anything about that?”
“He mentioned something about a siege,” says another voice. Jin Rulan steps into the cave, scowling deeply. “The other sects are rallying as we speak. They’ll be here before we know it.”
“Even Yunmeng?” wonders Wei Wuxian.
“Even Yunmeng,” agrees Jiang Sizhui. “But I think for most of these it’s all just alliances being called upon. I don’t think my father cares about capturing Hanguang-jun or whatever Sect Leader Lan intends to do.”
“Small comforts.” Wei Wuxian sighs, leaning back on his slab with a groan. “How… how are you feeling, Jin Ling?”
Jin Rulan’s scowl intensifies even more, if possible. “I would’ve expected lying by omission to be something only Uncle likes to do, and yet here we are,” he growls.
“Is it to do with your mother?” wonders Wei Wuxian, reaching out to pat his shoulder. Sure enough, Jin Rulan makes a scathing noise in the back of his throat at the mention of his mother.
“She told me for years she thought Father was travelling,” he says. “Years. I believed her. I thought Father was off in new lands and was going to come back once his work was done. But he’s not coming back — at least, not in the way he should have.”
“How much do you think she knew?” Wei Wuxian folds his hands across the hastily-cut cloth bandages tied around his abdomen. Jin Rulan shrugs, taking a seat on the slab beside him.
“Why would she do that?” he wonders, his voice a half-sob.
A shadow passes over Wei Wuxian’s face. “Because she didn’t want to break your heart,” he says. “She was trying to protect you.”
It’s not fair how the slightest downturn of his lips can still make Lan Wangji’s heart crack like that. At this rate, it’ll be a miracle that he still has one.
Even now, all Lan Wangji wants is for his Wei Ying to be happy. But sometimes ‘happiness’ and ‘standing beside the Master of Shadows’ don’t go hand in hand.
It takes some more rest and spiritual energy, but eventually Wei Wuxian’s wounds recover well enough for him to leave the slab entirely. Lan Wangji has moved outside of the cave now, looking down at the ruins of the settlement he had worked so hard to build.
“What a shame, Lan Zhan,” says Wei Wuxian, coming to sit down beside him, gesturing out to the valley. “All that work, destroyed.”
“Stygian Blade,” says Lan Wangji, looking down at his hands. The settlement had been destroyed long before the siege arrived. “It was necessary.” It had destroyed you, Wei Ying. I could not let it live.
Wei Wuxian leans his head on his shoulder, and Lan Wangji is reminded again of his last night in Yiling, before the storm, before the siege, before his death. He buries his nose in Wei Wuxian’s hair, revelling in the softness, the strange-yet-familiar scent of him.
“Lan Zhan,” murmurs Wei Wuxian. “You said something back in Lanling about your father and your mother… and then your mother’s cabin in the Cloud Recesses… what does it mean? What did your father do?”
Even amid the wreckage of the Yiling settlement, there are still little pinpricks of life. Tiny buds of green poking through blackened earth, golden fireflies that drift out of the broken trees. They gather and dance now, like little golden cores. Wei Wuxian holds out a hand, and one lands on his palm.
“He fell in love with her, but she was unwilling,” says Lan Wangji, watching as the little bug wanders across Wei Wuxian’s palm, light flickering erratically on and off. He’s reminded of the dancing lanterns that used to hang in the settlement, lighting the way home. “She killed a teacher of his in an attempt to remain free.”
And he took her back to the Cloud Recesses, married her anyway, and smothered her like a firefly in a jar.
Beside him, Wei Wuxian shivers despite the night still being warm. “And you think if your brother does not kill you, he will lock you up instead like your father did to your mother?”
“I do not think,” says Lan Wangi. “I know.” The memory of Wen Qing bound in silver ropes in that little cabin covered in gentians, the memory of her grateful hug when he’d managed to free her — she had wasted too many years as bait in the Cloud Recesses, all because of him. Because his brother thinks that killing or imprisoning him will bring his core back, somehow.
This has to end, one way or another.
And it does, when Wen Ning comes running back up the hill, half out of breath with Jiang Sizhui hot on his heels. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian both spring to their feet in alarm. “Sect Leader Lan is coming!” Wen Ning gasps. “An entire army is coming to lay siege, Hanguang-jun, you have to get out of here.”
“No,” says Lan Wangji, glaring levelly at them. You must leave, all of you. Please stop putting your lives on the line for me. “You go.”
Wei Wuxian grabs his hand. “We’re not going anywhere,” he snaps, and Lan Wangji’s heart breaks all over again.
The storm arrives, the fireflies flicker out, the swords flash bright in anticipation. The army descends, weapons at the ready, fire talismans in hand. Wei Wuxian can tell from a glance that if it comes down to it, they’re woefully outnumbered. Lan Wangji could call up corpses to aid them, but if it comes down to fighting, the rest of them may not survive the night.
“Brother,” Lan Xichen says, stepping out of the assembled column of cultivators. “It’s not too late. Come back to Gusu. Repent for what you’ve done.”
“He’s done nothing wrong,” Wei Wuxian insists. Lan Xichen silences him with nary a glance.
“I know you’re still good, deep down,” begs Lan Xichen, extending his hand. “Deep down there’s a part of you that feels guilty at what you’ve done, at all the lives you’ve taken along this path. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can start again.”
Don’t listen to him. Don’t clip your wings, Lan Zhan!
The first time Lan Xichen saw the Master of Shadows, he mourned.
Gusu robes now rendered black, topaz eyes rendered into rubies. Lan Wangji’s anger now lashes from him in blades, builds up inside him like mountains of resentment and spite. They said this path was forbidden? Lan Wangji would master it anyway, as perfectly as he had mastered all other things in life.
The elders shunned him. Lan Qiren shook his head, and said he was disappointed at how far his star pupil had fell.
Lan Xichen knew there was only one way in which Lan Wangji could’ve ended up like this. And so he pled, and insisted, and defended his brother until he could no more.
“Zhanzhan is still good, Uncle, please. There is still a good heart in him, he would never use this demonic cultivation for evil. You know this.”
“Wangji knew not to step onto the path, yet he did so anyway. Xichen, your brother is no more.”
Lan Wangji looks down at his brother’s hand, distrust clear in the furrow of his brow. Still, there’s clearly a part of him tempted to take it. Tempted to give in, to surrender. Wei Wuxian protests against the silencing, tearing at his lips to try and speak again.
He takes Lan Wangji’s hands in his own, shaking his head. Tears are pooling in Lan Wangji’s eyes.
He’s so tired, Wei Wuxian realises. So tired of running, of seeing the people he loves lay down their lives for him over and over again. The Wens. The juniors. Wei Wuxian himself. Tired of hiding in the shadows, of living a life for which he’d never been destined.
It should’ve been the other way around. Hanguang-jun had always been a bright, shining example, a man of honour and purity and virtue. Even now Wei Wuxian still remembers him best in white, Bichen bright by his side.
“I’m begging you, Zhanzhan, don’t do this.”
Lan Wangji turns away. The clench of his jaw says it all. There are children dying. Families suffering. How could he not come to their defense?
Even before he became the Master of Shadows, he had always been drawn to chaos. He could never stand aside while other people were hurting.
Even now, he is still an ocean of compassion deep below his darkened surface. Even now, he wants to do what’s right.
Too bad that this time the right thing is also the wrong thing, politically.
Lan Wangji takes his hands, kisses his knuckles. His decision is clear, no matter how much he hates it. He steps forward —
The earth rumbles. The low moan of corpses can be heard through the trees. Lan Xichen’s face grows hard, hateful; he steps back, drawing his sword.
“Trickery, brother? I should have expected this.”
“I don’t think Hanguang-jun summoned those,” Jiang Sizhui begins, as Lan Wangji whips out his guqin and fires off a chord, trying to stop the corpses from emerging. But they keep coming, and all Lan Wangji can do is knock them back.
“He can’t control those?” hisses Jin Rulan. “Then that must mean —”
“The Stygian Blade,” states Lan Wangji.
Someone else is controlling these corpses!
“Wangji, how can you not understand the implications of this?” demands Lan Xichen. Lan Wangji is standing at the cavern mouth in Yiling with his hands behind his back, his gaze defiant and ruby. “You killed, or allowed the prisoners to kill, Lanling guards and inspectors who were simply doing their jobs.”
Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow. A job that entails eliminating an entire nation of people? Lan Xichen sighs.
“I know, it is not the most moral stance, brother, but it is one that we must maintain. Or do you forget what the Wens had done to us, as well? The burning of the Cloud Recesses, your home?”
“Those remnants are not the same as the ones who burned the Cloud Recesses,” snaps Lan Wangji, his chin defiant. “I stand by my decision.”
“Then I cannot protect you from your punishment, brother,” says Lan Xichen, as Lan Qiren steps forward, silvery ropes in hand. “We must return you to Gusu to face judgement for what you’ve done.”
He does not see the settlement that Lan Wangji had painstakingly crafted with his hands, does not see the crops he had tilled from the reluctant soil, the lanterns the people have hung in the trees. He does not see Wen Qing, freshly revived, standing in the shadows trying to gauge if he’s speaking to friend or foe.
Lan Qiren tries to capture Lan Wangji, and pays dearly for it instead.
The corpses swell, and the cultivators fighting them inexplicably lose their abilities. Wei Wuxian regains his voice, and the first thing he does is pull out the sheet music that Lan Wangji had taken from his rooms at the Cloud Recesses.
“I studied the music of Gusu Lan when I was searching for you the first time,” he says to Lan Wangji as the cultivators gather in the cavern, waiting for their powers to return. “These notes aren’t correct.”
“Demonic Inquiry,” replies Lan Wangji, pointing to the title.
“Of course it would be different, but this discordant?” Wei Wuxian plays a couple bars on Chenqing, and immediately the Gusu Lan disciples flinch together as one, clapping their hands to their ears. “There’s something wrong.”
“It seeks out resentful energy, inquires after it,” snaps Lan Xichen.
“I don’t think so,” says Wei Wuxian. “There’s elements of ‘Rest’ in here, but twisted. Who gave you this music, Sect Leader Lan?”
Lan Xichen snaps his mouth shut. Wei Wuxian sighs, shaking his head.
“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “This music is inviting resentful energy into you. That’s why you suffered a qi deviation at the Cloud Recesses. This music has done that to you.”
“A qi deviation —” hisses Lan Xichen, but at that moment there’s a loud crash, as Wen Qing comes stumbling back into the cave, fighting back the corpses coming swift and sure into the cave. The other cultivators unsteadily reach for their swords, despite knowing they won’t be of much use. Some of them ready bows instead.
And then there’s another crash, followed by clangs of steel and feral roars. Wen Qing ventures out towards the entrance again, before rushing back in with a stunned expression.
“Daozhang Xiao and Song are here,” she reports. “And — and —”
“Baba!” shouts Jin Rulan, his bow clattering to the ground as another figure enters the cave.
“A-Ling!” shouts Jin Zixuan, his eyes flickering between black and white. “Stay back!”
“How did he —” begins Wei Wuxian, but cuts off when he realises that Lan Wangji, who should have been standing beside him, is not there at all.
“Brother, you know why I’m here,” says Lan Xichen amid the wreckage of the settlement, amid the ashes of Lan Wangji’s work, amid the shards of the Stygian Blade.
Lan Wangji strums his guqin, and the corpses rally. A couple of them look a little too recently deceased, though —
“What have you done,” he grinds out, glaring at Lan Xichen.
“Me?” echoes Lan Xichen, as the corpses of the Wen Sect remnants who had not managed to escape the oncoming siege gather around Lan Wangji. “That was not me.”
“But the people who killed them were led by you,” states Lan Wangji, his eyes like flint, like fire. “As you hold me accountable for Uncle’s death, so will I hold you accountable for theirs.”
Lan Xichen’s expression darkens. “You really would defend them against your own brother?”
“You were right, brother,” replies Lan Wangji, putting his guqin back. “The day I gave my core away, I gave us away, too.”
The shadows creep around him, the energies from the corpses flowing out to obscure him in a pillar of night. And right in front of Lan Xichen’s eyes, the Master of Shadows vanishes completely.
“Wangji!” screams Lan Xichen, reaching for shadows, reaching for smoke. “Wangji, come back!”
Lan Wangji stands at the cavern mouth amid the corpses, facing down his own creations once more. With a determined call to the resentful energy that still lingers in his grasp, he begins to play.
It is arduous. As he tries to wrest the Stygian Blade’s corpses out from under its control, Wen Qing, Jin Zixuan, and Song Zichen are doing all they can to keep them from attacking him directly. Xiao Xingchen is also helping, but after a while he has to be escorted into the cavern by A-Qing, to prevent him from hurting himself.
But still, he plays on, until his fingers are bleeding and his guqin strings are close to breaking.
And then, just as they do, the corpses stumble and fall, like so many puppets with their strings cut. Lan Wangji whistles, and they move to his command, lying down still on the cold, blackened mountainside.
He’s done it. He won control over from the Stygian Blade. But the darkness engulfs him, too, and the guqin falls from his bloodied fingers, cracking against the stony floor.
The last thing he hears is Wei Wuxian screaming his name, and then he knows no more.
So, technically the entire subplot of Su She being a goddamn snake is also in this AU, but that... kinda plays out the same way it does in canon so I didn't feel like putting it in where it'd mess with my pacing. But rest assured, they did have that entire conversation too!
My only regret about not including it is not getting to write WWX telling SS "Hanguang-jun might be a fallen jade, but he'll always be ten times the cultivator you'll ever be." So there's that.
Chapter 20: a lady with a box
Chapter by lily_winterwood
Jiang Yanli takes her husband's life into her own hands.
In a quiet inn just out of Lanling, Song Zichen and Xiao Xingchen encounter a lady of remarkable beauty and sadness, clutching a box to her chest.
“Madam, you look like you need assistance,” says Song Zichen, the words still difficult to push out of his throat even at the best of times. She looks at him through her veil, saying nothing. “I know Daozhang Xiao has not been on the best of terms with the Lanling Jin Sect, but perhaps we could help you as individuals.”
The woman hums thoughtfully, examining his pallid complexion, his darkened clothes. “You are…”
“Yes,” says Song Zichen, bowing his head. “I was killed, once.”
“How is it?” she asks. “Is death preferable to what you have right now?”
“I feel fine,” he replies, looking over at Xiao Xingchen who is sipping pensively at his tea. “There are times when I lose control, but…” He shakes his head. “It is not nearly as dreadful as you might imagine, Madam.”
“Then perhaps,” she says, looking down at her box, “you could help me after all.”
The body lies inert in an array in a back chamber in Lotus Pier, preservation talismans on every part of its body. Sect Leader Jiang leads the woman into the room, his expression irritated the entire way.
“Sister, I must leave,” he says, looking as if he’d rather do anything else. “Sect Leader Lan has rallied the others. I have to make sure A-Ying and A-Yuan don’t get caught in the crossfire, again.”
“Bring them home safe,” says Madam Jin — for who else could this be but the Regent of Lanling? — finally lowering her veil at last. She places the box at the head of the body, taking a deep breath. Finally, she unlatches the box, placing the head of Sect Leader Jin atop the body.
“This other thread was created by a great demonic cultivator,” says Song Zichen, frowning as he examines Sect Leader Jin’s shoulder. “I don’t think we can replicate that.”
“No matter,” says Madam Jin. “We’ll do what we can.” And she takes a thread of her own spiritual energy, and begins to stitch her husband’s head back onto his body.
The two of them and A-Qing stand by while she works, though A-Qing bores of it after a moment and goes wandering through the halls, her cane tapping idly against the floor. Madam Jin continues to stitch, her hands gentle and her eyes determined. In the distance, the sounds of cultivators taking off can be heard.
“Where are they going?” wonders Song Zichen, as Xiao Xingchen finds a spot on the ground to sit and wait. “Why is Gusu Lan rallying the other sects?”
Madam Jin’s laugh is a little harsh. “Things have changed, Daozhang Song,” she says, her voice bitter. “Brothers turn on brothers, the peaceful rally for blood, the innocent die at the hands of the guilty… it’s unimaginable.”
“Where are they planning to go?” wonders Xiao Xingchen.
“Yiling, I imagine,” says Madam Jin. “Where the Master of Shadows once lived, and may still hide.” With a flourish, she ties off the string and cuts it, before sitting back with a soft sigh, tracing the cheek of her husband’s corpse.
“He should not have died,” says Xiao Xingchen, his own hand searching for Song Zichen’s. Madam Jin sniffles, putting her head in her hands.
“He should’ve seen his son grow up,” she says in between her sobs. “Should’ve been there for him.”
“Who did it?” wonders Xiao Xingchen, though something in his expression suggests he might have his suspicions.
Madam Jin shakes her head. “Only the most vile of traitors,” she replies, her voice poisonous with hatred. “One that would smile and flatter you whilst plotting your downfall. One who never forgets anything, not even the smallest of slights.”
A shadow passes over Xiao Xingchen’s face, and Song Zichen has to place a comforting hand on his shoulder.
There’s a sudden tremor in the ground. Sect Leader Jin’s eyes suddenly fly open, his pupils white with rage. He knocks Madam Jin back with an arm, causing her to yelp in surprise.
“Madam!” shouts Song Zichen, immediately drawing his sword. But Sect Leader Jin falters, having already recognised his wife’s voice. Slowly, black begins to seep into his pupils and he lowers his arm, mouth working furiously to try and grind out some semblance of words.
Madam Jin looks up, tears running down her cheeks. “Zixuan?”
“D…arling.” The words are gravel in his mouth. Song Zichen remembers the feeling well. “I… am here.”
“Zixuan,” sobs Madam Jin, flying into her husband’s arms. He looks winded, though there’s no wind in his lungs to knock away. Slowly, his arms come around, gently cradling her.
“I… I cannot stay. There is a call.”
Song Zichen had felt it too. A pull towards Yiling. The ground tremors again. “We must go,” he agrees, helping Xiao Xingchen back to his feet.
“Is there a battle?” asks Xiao Xingchen, his hands already on the hilt of Shuanghua. Song Zichen has half a mind to ask him to stay behind — his friend has seen too much death, and dealt it too many times whilst being tricked by Xue Yang. But the set jaw and the determined grip tells him that’s a battle he’ll end up losing.
Xiao Xingchen has woken screaming in the night too many times to count, but he still carries on. Still tries to help, to restore integrity to his name. Who is Song Zichen to stop him from doing that?
“My love,” breathes Madam Jin to her husband, pressing her forehead against his, “please be safe.”
“I no longer fear death,” he replies simply, taking her hand and kissing her knuckles. “And I will requite mine, if you wish.”
“I would love nothing more,” she replies. “Take your revenge upon the man who slaughtered you, my love. He tore you away from me, from our son.” With a smile, she tucks back his hair, using her remaining string to tie it in some resemblance of his old hairstyle. “Come back to me.”
“Meet me in Yunping,” he replies, kissing her once before clambering to his feet. Madam Jin hands him a cloth parcel, containing his clothes and weapons, before stepping out of the room.
Song Zichen and Xiao Xingchen also rise. “We’ll meet you outside,” Song Zichen says.
Sect Leader Jin nods, and begins to pull on his robes.
After the siege that almost was, after the remnants of the Stygian Blade’s corpses have been dispatched, the cultivators of different sects all begin slowly making their way across the river to Yunmeng. In their haste, all they can cobble together is a small fleet of fishing boats. The unconscious Master of Shadows and Wei Wuxian share one alongside the juniors and the fierce corpses.
“Mama’s going to be so excited to see you,” says Jin Rulan, sitting beside his father. Sect Leader Jin sends a glance towards Song Zichen, who hides a smile in the sleeve of his robe.
“Is he going to wake?” Wei Wuxian asks the Angel of Death, who is feeling the Master of Shadows’ forehead with a frown.
“Eventually,” she says. “I’m not quite sure, though. He’s been through a lot lately.”
Wei Wuxian snorts. “Understatement of the century,” he mutters. The Angel of Death quirks an unamused eyebrow in a way so reminiscent of her Master that it makes him choke and duck his head in embarrassment.
“Song Lan,” says Xiao Xingchen suddenly from beside him. Song Zichen raises an eyebrow, turning back towards his friend. The breeze flutters stray strands of Xiao Xingchen’s bandages; the moonlight makes his pale face almost silver. Truly the bright moon and gentle breeze, Song Zichen thinks wildly. If his heart was still working, it would’ve skipped a beat.
“Yes?” he ventures. Xiao Xingchen takes his arm, leans his head against his shoulder.
“It has been a long time since I last felt at peace,” he says. “And yet right now… that is all I can feel.”
Song Zichen smiles at that, and presses his lips to his friend’s hair.
Yup! There's now an end number for these ficlets. It's almost done!! coughs blood
Chapter 21: the golden core
Chapter by lily_winterwood
Wei Wuxian finally realises something.
The palace at Lotus Pier bustles into activity the instant Wei Wuxian returns with Lan Wangji borne on a stretcher beside him. The servants deposit him in his rooms, and Wen Qing quickly takes over from there once more, kicking him out promptly after.
Like a restless spirit, Wei Wuxian spends the next several days anxiously pacing besides the door to his rooms. Servants will occasionally enter with water, but even they cannot say anything as they exit. It’s an agony worse than death, in Wei Wuxian’s opinion, and nothing else he can do will take his mind off of it.
The only thing that could make it worse, of course, happens on the third day. Lan Xichen frequently passes through this corridor on the way to the guest rooms, but this time he stops, looks at the door, opens his mouth.
“How… how is he doing?”
Wei Wuxian stops his pacing to stare at Lan Xichen as if he’d grown a second head. “Fine,” he snaps after a moment, biting his tongue all the while.
Lan Xichen looks distinctly uncomfortable at that reply, folding his hands behind his back. “She’s not letting you in to see him?”
“She has a name,” snaps Wei Wuxian. “It’s Wen Qing.”
“I am aware,” says Lan Xichen flatly. “She wrote a treatise on core transference. The treatise, actually, as she had once been the only one to have done it successfully before.” He pauses. “Once, because my brother became the second.”
Wei Wuxian’s heart runs cold. “What?” he asks.
Lan Xichen’s expression grows pained. “Has he never told you?” he wonders. “You’re the one who made him this way.”
“What are you talking about?”
Lan Xichen’s expression is serene, but his voice is colder than the North Wind. “My brother had never made a mistake before in his life before he met you, Master Wei.”
Wei Wuxian’s heart almost stops. Lan Xichen bows his head.
“I suppose it is fitting, then, that his love for you is the most perfect mistake he’s ever made,” he says, and sweeps away down the corridor before Wei Wuxian can find the words to reply.
Lan Wangji opens his eyes a couple days after. By that time, Wei Wuxian has paced the corridor so hard he’s almost worn his footsteps into the floor. He’s barely eaten, barely slept, and on the day Wen Qing tells him he can visit Lan Wangji, he has to run down to the bathhouses to clean himself before he can visit Lan Wangji’s bedside.
“Lan Zhan!” he shouts almost as soon as he’s in the room, much to Wen Qing’s annoyance. Lan Wangji is pale against the purple brocade, his smooth dark hair in a disarray. Wei Wuxian has never seen anything more perfect. “Lan Zhan, you’re okay, thank heavens —”
“Wei Ying,” murmurs Lan Wangji, extending a hand. Wei Wuxian takes it, presses kisses to tips of his fingers, along his wrist.
“I was so worried, I couldn’t eat or sleep at all, I had to know you were okay. This is the best day of my life, Lan Zhan, I don’t know what I’d do if you’d —”
Lan Wangji shuts him up by grabbing him by the nape of his neck and crushing their lips together. Wei Wuxian melts into the kiss, his hands grabbing fistfuls of Lan Wangji’s undershirt. There’s a rustle from elsewhere in the room, as Wen Qing finds something else to look at, but Wei Wuxian couldn’t give less of a damn even if he tried.
“I said I would never leave you,” says Lan Wangji when they break apart, his cheeks the palest hint of pink, his lips flushed ruddy red. “I mean it.”
“And I said please, for you to stay,” replies Wei Wuxian. “I meant that, too.”
All those years, all those words. They bubble in his throat, push against his lips. Wei Wuxian kisses these quiet promises into Lan Wangji’s skin, all over his face, all along his hands. I love you, I need you, I never want to be parted from you.
“Your brother said something to me the other day,” he says after a moment, and Lan Wangji blinks, pushing him back in alarm. “Yeah, he was here then, but I’m not sure where he’s gone now. Probably back to Gusu? Anyway, he told me — he told me I made you this way. Do you know what that means?”
Lan Wangji’s brows knit. Wei Wuxian waits for a moment, before something hits him.
“Was this how it felt, when I lost my core?”
Lan Wangji seems to shrink back into the pillows, pursing his lips as if that would seal the last secrets he has left to spill. Wei Wuxian, however, is nothing if not determined, and takes his hands thoughtfully, running his own along the lines and whorls of Lan Wangji’s fingertips.
“Lan Zhan, where is your core?”
With his eyes shining, Lan Wangji extricates his trembling fingers and presses them against Wei Wuxian’s chest. The admission catches him, knocks his breath away.
“Me? You gave your core to — but I — oh heavens, Lan Zhan, you should have told me. I could’ve taken better care of it, if I’d known…”
“I did,” says Lan Wangji gravely, tracing a circle against Wei Wuxian’s chest. “For you, I would have done anything.”
He’d been saying it all this time. Wei Wuxian feels his legs wobble; he sinks down onto the bed besides Lan Wangji, no longer sure if the world truly exists as it does beneath his shaky feet.
“I’m so sorry, Lan Zhan,” he says. “I should have known better.”
“There is no need for sorry,” murmurs Lan Wangji, the faintest hint of a smile tugging at his lips. “Not between you and me.”
“Then I’m sorry for not ever telling you this,” replies Wei Wuxian, looking down at his hands. “For not realising it sooner. I love you, Lan Zhan, more than my heart, or hands, or core could possibly bear. Through all these years, I have loved you without even knowing it, and I have hurt you all this time for not ever telling you so.”
Lan Wangji looks as if he’d like to say something, but Wei Wuxian holds up a hand, trying to continue. He knows if he gets cut off now, none of this will ever be said again.
“I want to wake to you every morning, and fall asleep in your arms each night. I want to make love to you every day, for as long as our days together will last. I would live in your heart, die in your lap, and be buried in your eyes. Lan Zhan, please don’t ever stop loving me, because if you did, I don’t know what I would do anymore.”
“I have no intention of stopping,” replies Lan Wangji, reaching up to cup his cheek. “I love you, Wei Ying, more than my heart or hands could possibly bear.”
Wei Wuxian’s heart is lighter than air, as Lan Wangji’s reverent fingers trace along his jaw.
“I want to wake to you every morning, and fall asleep in your arms each night. I want to make love to you every day, for as long as our days together will last. I would live in your heart, die in your lap, and be buried in your eyes.”
His hands now take a lock of Wei Wuxian’s hair, pressing it to his lips.
“And if you were ever to stop loving me, I would not know what to do. Wei Ying, I have given you my core… you have already the rest of me.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t need telling twice. He kisses Lan Wangji again, and again, and would’ve continued to do it forever had Wen Qing not cleared her throat pointedly and threatened to remove him bodily from the room.
“Please stop overexciting my patient,” she insists, and so Wei Wuxian has to sit back in a chair at Lan Wangji’s bedside, holding his hand.
He has no intention of letting go.
"I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thine eyes." — William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
WWX might have straight up said he wants to fuck LWJ every day like three times in the same paragraph, good job (￣▽￣) b
Chapter 22: guanyin temple
Chapter by lily_winterwood
A confrontation at Guanyin Temple.
When the high of Lan Wangji’s return fades a little, they turn their minds forward to other matters.
“Have you heard from shijie?” asks Jiang Cheng one morning. Wei Wuxian looks up from his breakfast, brows furrowed.
“She’s not in Lanling?” he asks.
“She came to Yunmeng with the box,” says Jiang Cheng. “Considering Jin Zixuan showed up at Yiling, she must have been successful in reattaching his head. Where is she now?”
“Maybe Jin Zixuan will know,” considers Wei Wuxian, tucking back into his food.
“He doesn’t,” says Jiang Cheng. “He’s been sending search parties for her, too.”
Wei Wuxian purses his lips. “I’ll ask around,” he suggests, before he returns to smearing bean curd on his mantou.
Turns out, his shijie’s not the only person missing. Lan Xichen has also been reported not back in Gusu just yet, either. Wei Wuxian doesn’t really want to know where he is, but at the end of the day he’s still Lan Wangji’s brother, and Lan Wangji is as concerned as he is.
“He might have gone to confront whoever gave him the music,” he says, in between bites of congee. Wei Wuxian considers it, shrugging.
“The question is: is that the same person that my shijie is convinced murdered her husband?”
Lan Wangji hums. “When you have eliminated the impossible,” he begins, and Wei Wuxian laughs.
“Yes, I suppose,” he concedes. “Where would he go, then?”
“There was a deed,” says Lan Wangji, frowning. “Guanyin Temple, in Yunping.”
“That’s also in Yunmeng,” says Wei Wuxian, clapping his hands. “Let’s go pay this temple a visit, shall we?
Paying that visit is easier said than done, it seems, as the grounds are crawling with well-armed monks. Lan Wangji pulls them into the shadows to try and avoid detection, slipping them through the ranks of the guards into the heart of the temple where there stands a large statue of a goddess who looks shockingly familiar in a way Wei Wuxian can’t quite place.
There come the sounds of struggle. “… Utterly despicable!” a woman’s voice hisses. “Unhand me. You wait until we get back to Koi Towers — I am your Regent!”
“Shijie — ” breathes Wei Wuxian, but Lan Wangji puts a hand over his mouth. Wei Wuxian’s fingers clench against Lan Wangji’s arm from where they stand in the shadows of the room.
“More light,” says the voice of Jin Guangyao. Lan Wangji is swift in response, slipping behind the statue as the monks bring in more candles. “Madam, I must say I am amazed that even in this part of the world our paths still cross. How did you come to know about my mother’s temple?”
“The resemblance is uncanny,” says Jiang Yanli coldly. More struggling, but this time it’s suddenly cut short.
“I wouldn’t protest too much, my lady,” says Jin Guangyao. “These threads may not seem like much, but the wrong move from you… and they will slice your skin. Would you like a demonstration?”
Wei Wuxian can hear hatred in his shijie’s silence. The monks lead her footsteps towards the statue.
“There, there.” Jin Guangyao sighs. “It’ll be all over, sooner or later. You might even join your husband, if the Master of Shadows takes pity on you.”
“You disgust me,” spits Jiang Yanli. “Not because of the status of your birth. I would be the last person in the world to judge that, considering my brother — but because of the way you have treated your family and loved ones.”
“Family and loved ones?” scoffs Jin Guangyao. “Typical of a woman to value those above all. You are fortunate your parents saw value in you, to pawn you off to ours in a game of political chess. As for me, my father kicked me down the steps of Lanling Koi Towers the instant he saw me!”
“That still does not justify the other murders you have committed,” snaps Jiang Yanli. “Your wife loved you beyond reason. Your son was murdered in his crib.”
“Do you know, my lady, the true extent of my connection with A-Su?” wonders Jin Guangyao bitterly. “Did you know that her mother… and my father…”
A pause. “And yet you still married her,” breathes Jiang Yanli, disgusted.
“I had no choice.”
“You were desperate for approval from a man who never respected you. That’s entirely different from having choices, A-Yao.” Jiang Yanli’s voice is weary. “But even then, what about my husband? A-Xuan treated you like his true brother. Gave you titles and power you clearly do not deserve. Trusted you to do what was right for us and our people. And like a wild dog, you still tore him to pieces.”
A mournful silence pervades the room, broken only by Jin Guangyao’s slow pacing in front of the statue. “My lady, do you know the last thing your brother said to me… was to remind me that everything in my life I owed to him… and that without his support, I would be nothing more than a ‘backstabbing whoreson’?”
“That’s your justification for proving him right?” wonders Jiang Yanli.
“No,” admits Jin Guangyao. “I regret what I did that night. I have regretted it, all these years.”
“Liar,” mutters Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji puts a finger to his lips, but it’s too late.
“Someone else is here,” says Jin Guangyao. “Search the room.”
“No need,” says a new voice, and Lan Xichen steps into the temple, his hands up in a placating gesture as the monks train their weapons on him. “Xiaodi, I was told you were visiting your mother.”
“You could have waited in Lanling for me,” says Jin Guangyao, his eyes narrowed. “What brings you here instead, er-ge?”
“I came to return this,” says Lan Xichen, pulling out the demonic inquiry sheet music. “It has fulfilled its purpose. I no longer require it.”
Wei Wuxian stifles a gasp into Lan Wangji’s hand.
“It was a gift,” says Jin Guangyao. “I trust it has served you well?”
“Better than expected,” another voice cuts in, as Nie Mingjue also arrives in the temple, his saber drawn and expression thunderous. “The music you have given him has done nothing but invite resentful energy into him. It’s caused him to suffer qi deviations!”
“How would you know that was the music’s fault?” wonders Jin Guangyao. “After all, resentful energy is so unpredictable. Even if you only meant to enquire after it, it could still linger afterwards.”
“It was still you who gave him the score,” snaps Nie Mingjue. The ferocity in his stance is enough to cow several of the monks, who take some uncertain steps back towards Jin Guangyao.
“Are all of you useless?” demands Jin Guangyao. “Go stop anyone else from coming in!”
The monks bow and run off immediately. Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue barely spare them a passing glance.
“What about me, Master Jin?” asks Su She’s voice from beside Jiang Yanli. Wei Wuxian grits his teeth, remembering their last encounter at the Burial Mounds. Lan Wangji steadies him, putting a finger to his lips once more.
“Guard her,” snaps Jin Guangyao. There’s a hiss as Hensheng slips from around his arm. “I must have a word with my brothers.”
He doesn’t get far, though, before the melody of a qin begins to play. Wei Wuxian slams his hands over his ears at the discordant notes; Lan Wangji, too, looks pained as he holds Wei Wuxian back.
With the qin comes the thundering noise of a heartbeat, pulsing like a rapid-fire drum. Heavy, laboured breathing echoes through the room. And then, with a roar, Lan Xichen draws his sword.
“Brother!” he screams, lunging towards Jin Guangyao, who leaps out of the way. Blindly, Lan Xichen swipes and slashes through the air, spiritual energy toppling several of the candles in the room. Jiang Yanli screams, when his blade comes dangerously close to her face but only cuts a part of her veil. Wei Wuxian wants to leap into the fray, to stop Lan Xichen’s madness, but he is still being held in the shadows by Lan Wangji.
The melody continues to reverberate, as Lan Xichen’s sword finally meets Nie Mingjue’s saber. The two begin to fight, though Nie Mingjue’s platitudes to try and calm his sworn brother back down seem to fall on deaf ears.
“Lan Zhan,” whispers Wei Wuxian. “Stop the melody.”
“En,” agrees Lan Wangji, and reaches for his own guqin, only to find air where it should be.
Fuck, Wei Wuxian thinks. Lan Zhan broke his guqin when he won control over the Stygian Blade corpses back at the Burial Mounds!
“You think you can wield Bichen?” he asks. Lan Wangji’s brows furrow, but he nods. “Stop Master Su. He must be the one playing.”
Wei Wuxian takes out Chenqing. “I learnt from the best,” he says, and begins to play ‘Rest’.
At first, his own playing is weak, quavering from infrequent practice. But the memories are still there — evenings spent learning the tune in Yiling to help Lan Wangji dream better, mornings spent calming Jiang Cheng down whenever his temper flares. Wei Wuxian pours his love into the music, hoping that it will overpower the discordant notes driving Lan Xichen insane.
There is still good in you, too. This is not who you are.
Lan Xichen catches Jin Guangyao again, but when he attacks, Jin Guangyao side-steps him easily, and with a sickening crunch, Shuoyue is driven into Nie Mingjue’s chest instead.
A flash of darkness, and the strings that Su She had been playing — strings just breaths from Jiang Yanli’s face — snap mid-chord. He himself is knocked back to the ground, eyes going cross-eyed as Lan Wangji presses Bichen close to his nose.
“Go ahead,” sneers Su She. “Kill me.”
“No,” says Lan Wangji, and breaks his legs instead. Su She’s screams catch Jin Guangyao’s attention, whose expression contorts into a mask of fury as he sees Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji on the scene.
“One job!” he snaps, Hensheng flashing as it comes to meet Bichen. “You had one job, Su She!”
Wei Wuxian continues to play, but years of resentment and anger cannot be tamed with just one song. Lan Xichen’s eyes flash as he pulls the sword from Nie Mingjue’s chest, and makes to slash his head off —
“No!” screams yet another voice, as Lan Jingyi’s sword comes to meet his sect leader’s. “Hanguang-jun, catch!”
A parcel flies through the air, landing in Lan Wangji’s arms. It’s his guqin, repaired painstakingly by the juniors, adorned with pure new strings woven by Lan Jingyi himself. Lan Wangji plays, and the melody flows strong and sure, rendering almost everyone in the room into limp relaxation.
The guqin and the dizi’s songs meld together, until the madness ebbs from Lan Xichen’s eyes and his sword clatters to the ground as he stares in horror at the blood blossoming from his sworn brother’s chest.
“Da-ge!” he breathes, making to rush to his side, but is blocked by Hensheng’s cruel gleam.
“He deserves this,” spits Jin Guangyao. “He’s hated me all this time, ever since the Sunshot campaign.”
Lan Xichen’s gaze is only sorrowful. “Your hatred has ruined me, xiaodi,” he says, and pushes him out of the way. “I betrayed one brother. I will not betray another.”
Saying that, he presses his hands to Nie Mingjue’s chest, giving him his spiritual energy, trying to heal his wounds. Jin Guangyao’s jaw clenches. Hensheng rears up, flying towards Lan Xichen’s back —
“Lan Huan!” shouts Lan Wangji.
Shocked, Lan Xichen looks back just in time, and rolls out of the way of the sword that now stabs into nothing but the temple ground. Jin Guangyao pulls the blade back out, but before he could attack again, the temple suddenly begins to shake.
Then Jin Zixuan bursts into the room, eyes white with feral anger.
There are already arrows sticking out of him like a porcupine, suggesting he’d already fought his way through the monks outside. His Sparks Amidst Snow regalia is stained with blood that clearly isn’t his own. With a roar, he lunges for Jin Guangyao, seizing him by the collar.
He’d never been this strong in life before. Being a fierce corpse has made him truly fearless. Despite Jin Guangyao’s best efforts, he can’t escape the corpse’s grasp, and tries instead to whistle, to wheedle, to do anything to try and calm his brother down.
Jin Zixuan, unrelenting, pulls an arm back as if he would plunge it into his brother’s chest and tear out his traitorous heart. But just as he’s about to do so, there’s the sound of barking and rushed footsteps.
“Baba!” shouts Jin Rulan’s voice.
“Jin Ling!” screams Lan Jingyi, from where he’d been helping Lan Xichen give spiritual energy to Nie Mingjue’s still form. “Jin Ling, no —”
Wei Wuxian screams, too, as Jin Rulan’s spiritual dog comes rushing into the temple. Chenqing clatters to the ground as he leaps into Lan Wangji’s arms, fear and adrenaline coursing through him at the sight of the husky. Seeing that, Jin Rulan whistles an order to his dog, causing Fairy to retreat.
“Baba,” says Jin Rulan, turning back to face his father. “I told you not to run away.”
The feral corpse of Jin Zixuan pauses, white pupils fading into black. He loosens his grip on Jin Guangyao, which is all the other man needs to kick him down.
“A-Ling, get out of the way!” screams Jiang Yanli, as Jin Ling dives out of the way of his father and uncle, moving to free her from her ropes. Wei Wuxian, too, squirms out of Lan Wangji’s arms, rushing to his shijie’s side.
“Has he hurt you?” he asks her, checking her over for any injuries.
“Nothing that won’t heal,” she replies, rubbing at her chafed wrists.
Su She makes a token protest, but Lan Wangji merely puts a foot over his neck.
Meanwhile, Jin Guangyao has managed to wrestle down Jin Zixuan, pinning him down and pulling out a banishment talisman from his robes. “Let’s see you come back from this,” he snarls, but before he can slam it onto Jin Zixuan’s head, there’s a sickening slice and a thud.
Nie Mingjue, using the very last bits of his energy, has sliced Jin Guangyao’s arm off. Blood spurts everywhere, as Jin Guangyao stumbles back in wide-eyed shock —
— onto the sword of Lan Xichen.
Lan Xichen’s eyes go wide. He pulls Shuoyue out in horror, as Jin Guangyao collapses into his arms. His Gusu robes are now more red than blue, more dark than white — a bloodied similarity to Lan Wangji’s own robes.
“Brother,” gasps Jin Guangyao, clutching onto him with his remaining arm, his fingers feeble, his breaths laboured in pain. “How could you…”
“I — ” Lan Xichen’s face shines with tears. “I thought —”
“What did you think?” wonders Jin Guangyao, looking away from him, around the room. Jin Zixuan has recovered, rushing to his wife and son. Lan Wangji still has his foot on Su She’s neck. Lan Jingyi is tending to Nie Mingjue, who has fallen unconscious. “Out of everyone in the world, you were… the only one who saw me with respect. I only ever wanted to help you.”
“I’m sorry,” sobs Lan Xichen. Wei Wuxian wants to slap some sense into him. How could he, even after being faced with proof that Jin Guangyao had done nothing but use his desire for justice to evil ends, apologise like this to him?
Jin Guangyao says nothing more, though. His hand falls slack against Lan Xichen’s arm, his head lolls back. Lan Wangji lowers his gaze, stepping away from Su She’s whimpering, pained form and venturing closer to his brother, Bichen sheathing at his side.
Lan Xichen looks up at him, tears running down his cheeks. “Lan Zhan,” he says, his voice wavering, “I’m sorry.”
Not pictured: the entire thing where everyone finds out all the other shit JGY did via letters and witness testimony. It played out much the same as canon, lol.
It will take more than a single apology to heal this wound, Wei Wuxian knows, as Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji stare at one another across the table at the inn in Yunping. They must look like a strange bunch: the Sect Leaders of Jin and Lan, covered in blood and bruises, accompanied by the Master of Shadows, some juniors, the Regent of Lanling, and Wei Wuxian.
Jin Guangyao and Su She have been taken by a crew of guards. Wei Wuxian’s pretty sure with both legs broken, Su She can’t get very far.
“How is Sect Leader Nie?” he asks Wen Qing, who emerges from Nie Mingjue’s room in search of more hot water.
“Weak,” she says. “But he will live, thankfully.”
“I’m sure his brother will appreciate that,” says Lan Xichen. He looks down at the whorls of wood in the table. “Zhanzhan, will you consider my offer?”
Lan Wangji flinches at the childhood nickname. “I am considering it,” he says, tracing his thumb over the rim of his teacup.
“It is the best I can offer, if you return to Gusu,” says Lan Xichen. “You’ve broken the confidence of many of the sect’s elders; it’ll take all I can to lower your punishment from execution to the discipline whip. But I know your feelings on…”
The cabin. Wei Wuxian can see it clearly: Lan Wangji imprisoned among the violet gentians, wasting away in silence and shadows.
“And I don’t wish to place you there, either. Not anymore. You will have your old rooms, your old routines. You can even bring Master Wei with you.”
But you cannot leave, once you have set foot inside. Not until enough years have passed that those elders will no longer think you a threat to the world.
Lan Wangji’s eyes are tired. The ruby only flickers briefly this time, as he nods.
“I appreciate your offer, brother,” he says. “I will sleep on it tonight.”
“Don’t take it,” says Wei Wuxian the instant they’re back in their rooms. He perches onto the windowsill, grinning widely. “I have another plan instead.”
“My brother is expecting us in the morning,” says Lan Wangji, already reaching up to unfasten his dark robes. “I plan to return to Gusu. You are free to come with me, but I understand if — ”
“Come on,” says Wei Wuxian, one leg already over the sill. He unsheathes Suibian, winking at him. “Let’s get out of here.”
Lan Wangji blinks at him incredulously. Wei Wuxian sighs, crosses back over, and grabs his hand.
“Come on,” he insists, and Lan Wangji puts one leg onto the sill, suddenly hesitant.
“Where are we going?” he asks.
“Home,” says Wei Wuxian, and guides him onto Suibian.
Lotus Pier is lit like a beacon down along the river. It takes all of Wei Wuxian’s energy to steer them so they land gently before the ancestral hall, the sombre black palace towering above them as they slip inside to where the stone tablets lay.
Wei Wuxian himself had been interred in the depths of this hall, once upon a time. The spot where he should have been is empty now; he wanders past it to find a hassock and some incense to burn.
Lan Wangji follows his lead, burning three incense sticks as he kneels beside him. They prostrate themselves twice before two of the tablets — before the names of Jiang Fengmian and Madam Yu — and place the incense into the tripod together.
“There,” says Wei Wuxian. “Before Heaven and Earth, before Mother and Father.”
Lan Wangji goes still beside him. Wei Wuxian smiles, taking his hand.
“And once more to one another, at another time, and you’ll be a part of my family, too.”
“Wei Ying,” breathes Lan Wangji, realisation dawning on his face. “You — ”
Wei Wuxian nods. They prostrate themselves before the Jiang couple once more before rising to their feet.
“I mean it, when I said I wanted to wake to you each day,” he says, as they step out of the ancestral hall and the family crypt. The light of the moon shines silver across Lan Wangji’s handsome features, burnishes his jet-black hair until it shines. Briefly, Wei Wuxian has to remember how to breathe, as he reaches up and tucks a stray strand of his hair behind his ear. “Let’s throw all of this away. Let’s run away together, and just be ourselves. No more Masters and Heroes, no more excitement beyond the odd night-hunt.”
Lan Wangji’s hand trembles in his at the prospect. “Just us,” he agrees. “Wei Ying… and Lan Zhan.”
“Just Lan Zhan and Wei Ying,” promises Wei Wuxian, pulling him closer. “Two fools in love forever and ever.”
Lan Wangji smiles, widely and fully, and it’s like the clouds pulling back before the bright full moon. Wei Wuxian can’t help but gaze in wonder at that for a moment, before swooping in to kiss those smiling lips.
Two fools in love. That’s how this all started, and that’s how it’ll end too.
He can’t think of anything he’d like more.
Chapter 24: harvest and rebirth
Chapter by lily_winterwood
...guys, I like surprise epilogues...
Smut ahoy again! This one starts at "Lan Wangji’s hands sneak into his trousers, and there’s very little room for cogent thought after that."
Several months later…
“Lan Zhaaaan, look at what I’ve caught!”
The cheerful voice breaks Lan Wangji from his careful examination of the herbs in his garden. Setting down the basket full of freshly-plucked plants, Lan Wangji rises to his feet just as his husband comes into the yard with a brace of pheasants slung over his shoulder.
“A nice catch, right?” asks Wei Wuxian, grinning from ear to ear. “We’re going to have a proper feast for our guests tonight!”
Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow. “Yunmeng pheasants sit there and wait for you to hit them,” he remarks drily, causing Wei Wuxian to pout at him.
“That’s not fair, Lan Zhan, I’ll have you know I worked very hard for these!”
Lan Wangji’s lips quirk upwards. “Of course,” he says, and returns to his herbs. “Go pluck the pheasants. I will bring the vegetables.”
Wei Wuxian’s pout deepens. “What’s the point of a husband if he doesn’t congratulate you on your work?” he complains.
Lan Wangji chuckles at that. “You did well,” he concedes, going over to kiss his cheek. “Now go pluck them.”
Wei Wuxian skips happily into their farmhouse.
The cultivation world had been rocked by scandal, months ago, when news of Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian’s escape from the inn at Yunping and subsequent elopement finally got out. It was said Lan Xichen had nearly slipped into a qi deviation upon discovering their empty room, but thankfully his young disciple Lan Jingyi had calmed him down with several rounds of ‘Rest’.
The Yunmeng Jiang sect had closed ranks after that on where to find the happy couple, but if any wandering cultivators happened to stumble across a pair of handsome dark-haired men dressed in ordinary clothes but bearing bright swords wandering through the Yunmeng town they’d stopped in, they knew better than to tell the rest of the world about it. The fearsome protectiveness of Sect Leader Jiang had taught a couple wayward folks to keep their mouths firmly shut.
As far as Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji were concerned, though, all that mattered now was their little farmhouse not far from Lotus Pier. The land had been bought cheaply, as it had once been part of an ancient battlefield and now nothing would grow in the supposedly-cursed soil. Lan Wangji had immediately set to work, perfecting the techniques he’d used at Yiling.
After all, with death and decomposition there comes the release of nutrients into the soil. Mastery of resentful energy can also mean channelling it back to benefit new life. Through trial and error, and careful experimentation, he’d raised a bountiful crop, and Wei Wuxian had taken one look at their harvest and promptly invited his family over for dinner.
The feast is laid out just in time for the guests: magnificent roasted pheasants, a tureen of suan cai yu, platters of vegetables prepared in every way possible. There’s even a boar, which Lan Wangji and Wen Ning had hunted down several days before, and had been smoking in preparation for this feast ever since.
“I can’t believe my shidi could come up with a feast like this,” teases Jiang Yanli when she sees the spread. Wei Wuxian laughs sheepishly, rubbing at his neck.
“It wasn’t me,” he admits. “Lan Zhan did a lot of the cooking, and Wen Ning and Wen Qing helped him.”
“What were you doing, then?” wonders Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian laughs, and pulls out with a flourish several familiar red-topped jugs.
“Got some Emperor’s Smile from Gusu!” he replies. “Just a reminder of the good ol’ days. Lan Zhan isn’t allowed to have any, by the way. You don’t want to see him drunk.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” says Jiang Cheng, as Jiang Sizhui flushes bright red at the memory.
The feast is long and merry, spread outside in the bright light of the Mid-Autumn moon. Jin Zixuan cannot eat, but he spends his time cutting the meat into small pieces for his wife. The juniors, gathered at their own table, get into some lighthearted argument about the best types of mooncake filling.
“It’s definitely the lotus paste,” Jiang Sizhui is saying, as Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji come over to their table. “Back me up, Senior Wei — lotus paste is the best mooncake filling, right? Because Jingyi here thinks it’s mung bean.”
“It’s definitely lotus paste,” says Wei Wuxian. Lan Jingyi splutters in response.
“You said to bring mung bean,” he protests, gesturing to the bundle sitting at the end of their table, waiting to be served.
“I said to bring all types,” retorts Wei Wuxian. “And I definitely mentioned bringing Lan Zhan’s favourite, which is —”
“Pork,” finishes Lan Jingyi. “And flaky on the outside. It’s the traditional style in Gusu.”
“Heathens,” mutters Jin Rulan, earning him a glare from Lan Jingyi for his troubles.
Wei Wuxian waits until after said mooncakes have been served and devoured before he takes Lan Jingyi aside. “How is the sect leader?” he asks quietly, looking over at where Lan Wangji is playing some tunes on his guqin to entertain the others. The breeze stirs around them with the movements of lonely spirits, coming by to visit the Master of Shadows for Mid-Autumn. Lan Jingyi shivers, but turns back towards Wei Wuxian.
“He’s still in isolation,” he says. “He took the discipline whip for his brother and himself. It will take a while for the wounds to recover.”
Atonement, for the hurt he caused. Sacrifice, for the love of his brother. Wei Wuxian swallows.
“So that means if Lan Zhan goes home…”
“He can come and go as he pleases,” says Lan Jingyi. “I wouldn’t go right now, of course, but…”
“Of course not, it’s too soon.” Wei Wuxian pats his shoulder. “When Xichen-gege gets better, we’ll go visit him.”
Lan Jingyi smiles. “I’m sure he’d like that very much.”
Finally, though, the night grows old and the guests grow tired. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji see them off, waving as their lanterns disappear down the road back to Lotus Pier.
“Well, I’m never doing that again,” declares Wei Wuxian as they close the door of the farmhouse for the night. “From now on, we’re just going to other people’s feasts. This was exhausting!”
Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow. Wei Wuxian sighs.
“Yeah, I suppose we should probably consider what we want to do for New Year’s,” he replies, before putting his arm around his husband’s shoulders. “I’ll try my best to learn how to wrap dumplings Gusu-style, but I can’t guarantee they’ll be edible.”
Lan Wangji’s lips quirk up at that, and before Wei Wuxian realises it, he’s being kissed within an inch of his life. Lan Wangji’s hands slip below his clothes, palming hungrily against his skin. With a soft moan, Wei Wuxian opens his mouth to let his husband in, pulling their bodies flush against one another.
“Wei Ying,” breathes Lan Wangji when they break for air. Wei Wuxian’s never going to get used to the reverence in his husband’s voice whenever he says his name. “Take me to bed.”
“Me?” echoes Wei Wuxian, slightly breathless at the suggestion. “And… you?” It’s usually the other way around, which is precisely the way he likes it. Lan Wangji’s stamina, strength, and care all make him an immaculate lover, and the prospect of returning the favour is more than a little daunting.
Lan Wangji presses their foreheads together, looks deep into his eyes. I trust you, he says, in the squeeze of his hands against Wei Wuxian’s. Take care of me.
Slowly, reverently, Wei Wuxian begins to lead him to their bedroom. Lan Wangji sits down on the bed at the slightest push, his gaze patient and kind as Wei Wuxian fumbles with his clothes, his cheeks burning all the while.
“I’m sorry,” he manages after a moment, pressing a kiss to Lan Wangji’s brow. “I’m just — I’m so nervous.”
“Mm,” replies Lan Wangji, kissing him again. Wei Wuxian sits down on the bed after having discarded his shirt. Lan Wangji’s hands sneak into his trousers, and there’s very little room for cogent thought after that.
Wei Wuxian soon finds himself on his back, but this time instead of prepping him with fingers slicked in oil, Lan Wangji’s fingers are darting into himself, his breath coming in small gasps as he prepares himself for his husband. Wei Wuxian reaches down to stroke them both, admiring the thin sheen of sweat along Lan Wangji’s brow.
“You’re so beautiful,” he whispers, “touching yourself like this for me, opening up for me. I can’t wait to feel you, Lan Zhan. To be inside you.”
“En,” manages Lan Wangji, his cheeks flushed bright as he reaches down to line himself up. Wei Wuxian’s eyes grow wide as Lan Wangji slowly sinks down onto him, engulfing him in slick, tight heat.
“Fuck,” groans Wei Wuxian, as his hands fall to Lan Wangji’s hips, steadying him and letting him adjust. “This is amazing. You’re amazing. I — I can tell why you like this so much.”
Lan Wangji’s flush seeps down his neck, across his collar. Wei Wuxian laughs.
“My darling pervert, no wonder you took my promise of everyday to heart.”
“Every day is every day,” replies Lan Wangji, in between soft pants of pleasure as he starts to move. “Wei Ying, please —”
Wei Wuxian knows what to do. He flips them around, pressing Lan Wangji down onto the bed so he can thrust into him, burying himself deep before starting to move again. Lan Wangji’s head tilts back, the line of his throat golden in the harvest moonlight; his cries are wordless but full of devotion and love.
Wei Wuxian kisses a line down his throat, along every single inch of exposed skin he can reach. He memorises the topography of his husband over and over, worships him with fingers and lips. And when Lan Wangji’s fingers seek out his own, he holds their hands together, before pinning Lan Wangji’s wrists above his head and thrusting in faster.
Lan Wangji cries his name when he comes, his arms wresting free of Wei Wuxian’s grasp to come wrap around his shoulders and keep him close. Wei Wuxian follows after just a couple more thrusts, spilling into his husband with soft, needy kisses down the line of his jaw.
It’s after they’ve cleaned up and tucked themselves in, when Lan Wangji brings it up again. “Someday,” he murmurs, “we’ll see Gusu again.”
“And your brother,” agrees Wei Wuxian, entwining their fingers. He presses kisses to Lan Wangji’s knuckles.
“He took the whip for me,” Lan Wangji murmurs, hanging his head. “I did not deserve that. I should have gone.”
“And be locked up after?” wonders Wei Wuxian. “There are so many other ways to make it up to your brother now, without sacrificing your own freedom.” He reaches out, tucking stray strands of Lan Wangji’s hair behind his ear. “I’ll help you think of something.”
“En,” agrees Lan Wangji, leaning in to kiss him. “I love you, Wei Ying.”
“I love you, Lan Zhan,” says Wei Wuxian, the words now as easy as breathing. And as his husband pulls him in close to fall asleep, he wraps his arms around him, too, and feels nothing but happiness.