News travelled like wildfire among cultivation societies, and scandals like lightning. Within hours, every waking cultivator had learned of Wei Wuxian's astonishing return from the dead and Qin Su's purported suicide (no one was ruling out foul play) at the Lanling Jin sect discussion conference. By morning, five different versions of events were racing from lips to ears, growing in detail with each retelling: Qin Su had already been killed and turned into a fierce corpse by Wei Wuxian, who bid her to enact a suicide to trick Lianfang-zun; Wei Wuxian had plotted to assassinate Lianfang-zun and succeed as chief cultivator by possessing the physical body of one of Jin Guangshan's bastards; Wei Wuxian slayed twenty men to escape and was holding Hanguang-jun hostage. The version Lan Jingyi heard said that Hanguang-jun had defected willingly—looked his own brother Zewu-jun in the eye and raised his sword against him and the other sect leaders with his back against Wei Wuxian's.
That version, as potentially distressing as it was, sounded the most realistic to Lan Jingyi given his first-hand experiences with Hanguang-jun and (the cultivator formerly known as) Mo Xuanyu. "Except for the part where Jin Ling apparently stabbed Wei Wuxian. As if that young mistress could get a piece of Mo—Wei-qianbei!"
"I don't know," Lan Sizhui said, looking troubled. "Wei Wuxian was responsible for the death of his father and mother, but Mo-qianbei saved us so many times. I can't imagine how Jin Ling must feel. How horrible."
"I definitely think he feels horrible," Lan Jingyi agreed readily, "but do you really think he could land a blow on the Yiling Laozu? I bet Jin sect just added that to make themselves sound better about letting him escape."
Lan Sizhui sent him a quelling look.
"Jin Ling can't even beat you in a fight!" Lan Jingyi protested, but decided it was better to change the subject. Besides, remembering the way Jin Ling's wariness around Mo Xuanyu had slowly dissolved during their time in Yi Cheng was starting to make him feel bad himself. "If you're worried, why don't we pay him a visit?"
Lan Sizhui brightened. "That's a great idea, Jingyi." The junior disciples had all parted ways last month after the night in Tanzhou, and Lan Jingyi knew the argument with Jin Ling in the inn still weighed occasionally on Lan Sizhui's mind, even though the two had been quite friendly saying their goodbyes the morning after. Lan Jingyi felt a bit pleased by his own suggestion. It was an effective approach to resolve two concerns at once, although admittedly not without risk; depending on Jin Ling's temper, it could all merge into a greater catastrophe.
They departed early the next morning. Lan Qiren was loathe to let them go, but they had no pressing duties at home and with Zewu-jun and Hanguang-jun suddenly otherwise preoccupied, it made sense to send Gusu Lan delegates for the rest of the conference, which was still carrying on per Lianfang-zun's official proclamation. Lan Sizhui delivered a set of elegant and convincing reassurances, and they pointed their swords in the direction of Jinlin Tai.
No sooner had Yunshen Buzhichu disappeared behind them did Lan Sizhui turn to Lan Jingyi solemnly. "We need to decide how we feel about Wei Wuxian before we speak to Jin Ling."
Lan Jingyi scoffed, but his doubtful "Do we?" died on his lips when he thought of how Jin Ling's face went immediately white, then red, whenever his parents were brought up. It wasn't too long ago when details like that weren't even on his radar; despite looking as sweet as a peony, Jin Ling had a deserved reputation as a nasty piece of work and Lan Jingyi had given him a wide berth whenever they were in the same vicinity. Who could've dreamt that one day he would be weighing his loyalty to Jin Ling, Certified Golden Bitch, against his loyalty to the Scourge of the Cultivation World, mass-murderer Yiling Laozu.
At any rate, Lan Jingyi knew Lan Sizhui wasn't actually asking how he felt about Wei Wuxian. When he thought of it in factual terms, the historical reality made him uneasy. This was the unholy man they had been taught to damn and fear, the one whose injurious actions they were all still recovering from. Lan Jingyi's heart and intuition, however, rebelled against what he knew in his mind—and if a cultivator couldn't trust his instincts, how enlightened was he? Under Mo Xuanyu's name, Wei Wuxian had demonstrated tremendous integrity and morality.
Of course, there was also Hanguang-jun. Lan Sizhui would believe Lan Qiren a demon before he believed anything ill of Hanguang-jun, and honestly, same for Lan Jingyi.
The real question was how they reconciled that to Jin Ling, whose entire life had been defined by the devastation Wei Wuxian left in his wake.
Bad news greeted them upon arrival at Jinlin Tai. Jin Ling had shut himself in his chambers and was refusing to see anyone, no exceptions. Lan Sizhui was crestfallen, but Nie Huaisang, who had hurried out to receive them in Lianfang-zun's absence, just kept shaking his head. Worse, to Lan Jingyi's dismay, the story about Jin Ling stabbing Wei Wuxian was actually true.
"Please, could you tell him it's us?" Lan Sizhui repeated. "I'm sure if young master Jin knew we had come…"
Nie Huaisang sighed. "I would if I could, but I really lose my composure around the Lanling Jin guards! There's no way I could get through to pass a message… I get so nervous, I don't know how San-ge trains them..."
Gongs tolled from the main hall and he perked up. "They've started serving lunch! Come and eat, you'll need energy for all the long dull meetings this afternoon. Maybe Jin Ling will be in a better mood when you're done."
After that, Nie Huaisang quickly excused himself. Lan Sizhui watched his retreating back with a small frown. Lan Jingyi could tell he was trying to keep the composure taught by their sect, but his hands were unconsciously balled at his sides. Lan Jingyi took one of them in his own and rapped Lan Sizhui's knuckles smartly.
"Come on then."
Lan Sizhui startled, uncurling his fist in Lan Jingyi's palm. "What?"
"They must have someone delivering Jin Ling's lunch. Why is he being guarded anyway? That makes no sense."
Lan Sizhui's frown deepened. "For protection?" He didn't sound like he believed it.
"The only person Jin Ling needs protection from is himself," Lan Jingyi said. He meant it dismissively—even the most virulent pitchfork mobbers couldn't think that the Yiling Laozu would return immediately the day after just to attack Jin Ling—but Lan Sizhui's eyes widened, and the vague anxiety that had clouded both their minds since yesterday condensed like a storm.
Outdoing himself, Lan Sizhui led them straight through the sprawling inner palace to Jin Ling's rooms, somehow remembering the way despite having been there only once before years ago on a perfunctory tour of the grounds with Zewu-jun.
"You have the memory of a vengeful monkey." Lan Jingyi praised him. Lan Sizhui ignored him and ducked into a side corridor, though the corner of his mouth turned up.
"I think this might take us out around the back and avoid the guards. Maybe we can get Jin Ling's attention through a window."
A few months ago, sneaking around the Jin clan's bedchambers would have ranked within Lan Jingyi's top three most thrilling ventures. Now it probably wouldn't break the top ten, but his heart still banged in his chest. He was less afraid of being caught by guards than he was of Jin Ling turning them in with his nose in the air (first humiliation) and being sent home to face Lan Qiren's handstands (second humiliation). He would feel a lot better as soon as they saw for themselves that Jin Ling was okay. Maybe if they were quick enough they could even catch the tail end of lunch.
They emerged onto a narrow yard wedged between a small grove and the palace. Around the corner of the palace wall was a shuttered window, and beyond that, not a body in sight.
"Where are the guards?" Lan Jingyi said.
"I don't know, but we should still be careful." Lan Sizhui said. "Maybe they've been called away."
Lan Jingyi peered into the distance apprehensively. "You think something happened?"
Lan Sizhui had already scurried forward and knocked on the window sill. "Young master Jin! Young master Jin! It's Lan Sizhui!"
Lan Jingyi hastened to join him. "Jin Ling, open up! We came all this way to see you!"
The seconds ticked by with no response, so Lan Jingyi dropped the stage whisper. There was no one around, anyway. "Hey, young mistress! Anyone home?"
"Jingyi!" Lan Sizhui said, but within moments they heard footsteps and both scrambled back to avoid getting hit in the face as the window unlocked and swung open.
"I thought I heard something."
Jin Ling, arms crossed and chin raised, robes pristine and not a hair out of place. His eyes weren't even red or puffy like he had been crying, Lan Jingyi noted with dissatisfaction. Jin Ling eyed them coolly, as if he hadn't the faintest idea why they might be skulking around outside his bedroom window unannounced, nor did he particularly care.
"We… we wanted to see how you were doing," Lan Sizhui said, then collected himself and bowed. "Sorry to create a disturbance, young master Jin."
"Don't bother, I've already learned that Lan etiquette is a sham." Jin Ling said. "Coming all this way to gawk? You've wasted your time. I'm perfectly well!"
As usual, the eye-roll onset time was nearly instantaneous whenever Jin Ling opened his mouth. Lan Jingyi gallantly held himself back for Lan Sizhui's sake.
"That's good news," Lan Sizhui said. "We were worried after we heard about what happened."
"Quick to believe rumours as always, even with the facts right in front of you," Jin Ling said. "Why don't you keep your concern to yourself and leave me alone?"
Lan Jingyi furrowed his brow. "Hey."
"Young master Jin, we came to see you because we don't believe the rumours."
"Really, Lan Sizhui, you have the gall to make me suffer your presence today?"
"Hold on—" Lan Jingyi tried.
"We want to listen to you—"
"Your ears work as badly as your brain! You Lans are so obstinate, your Hanguang-jun sure raised you well!"
"Quit it!" Lan Jingyi made to slam the window closed, making Jin Ling yelp, then wrenched it open again at the last second. Jin Ling had jerked backwards, hands clapped over a nose that had almost been viciously pinched, but even with half his face covered his scowl was scathing.
"Jin Ling, what are you talking about?" Lan Jingyi demanded. "Why are you wearing your sword inside your bedroom? Chief Nie said you were being guarded, but there's no one out here. Did something else happen?"
Jin Ling's outrage wavered like a punctured hot air balloon. "You don't know?"
Lan Jingyi exchanged a look with Lan Sizhui. "Know what?"
"We heard Lan Wangji is hiding Wei Wuxian in Yunshen Buzhichu. My Xiao Shushu is going to lead a search party. They're leaving any moment." Jin Ling squeezed the hilt of his sword. "I'm going with them."
Lan Sizhui looked as dismayed as Lan Jingyi felt. "But we just came from there. We didn't see any sign of Hanguang-jun, or…"
Jin Ling, caught between ire and consternation, always chose the more familiar emotion. "Eyes, ears, do any of your damn senses work?" He spat and turned on his heel towards the door.
Jin Ling was barred from joining the search party. There wasn't even going to be a party, per se, Lianfang-zun explained. The guards and senior disciples would wait at a distance, while Lianfang-zun himself met with Zewu-jun to discuss and agree on a civilized approach. After all, the Lanling Jin sect did not intend to enact force against the Gusu Lan sect, regardless of any harbouring of criminals, and Lianfang-zun would not tolerate any misunderstandings.
Jin Ling was not to be involved.
"Xiao Shushu." Jin Ling's voice came out in a sharp whine.
Lianfang-zun inclined his head, looking as gentle as ever, but it made Lan Jingyi wish he were anywhere but here, witnessing in real time the way Jin Ling's protests died in his throat.
"A-Ling, it is important that I have your help to maintain order." Lianfang-zun turned to give instructions to a disciple at his side. Jin Ling lifted his chin and pulled back his shoulders, trying not to appear reproached, but suddenly his long-cloaked misery became apparent to Lan Jingyi, visible in the stony set of his jaw and the perpetual pinch between his brows.
To ensure the sects stayed alert, Lianfang-zun directed the junior disciples to conduct a standard patrol of the main lookout towers in Lanling and Qinghe and appointed Jin Ling at their head. Some remaining senior disciples were assigned the riskier regions near Gusu and Yiling.
"I'm not wasting my time on this stupid patrol," Jin Chan declared once the seniors had gone. The junior disciples had gathered outside Jinlin Tai's main gates, Jin Ling with Fairy in tow. "We know where the Yiling Laozu is and it's not in our damn backyard. They just want us out of the way." He sneered at Jin Ling like Jin Ling was personally to blame for not getting them invited on a Wei Wuxian capture mission.
It was obvious that Lianfang-zun had assigned Jin Ling a meaningless task, but somehow Jin sect disciples had a knack for making you want to disagree with them. Lan Jingyi wondered if it was inherited or something taught in their etiquette curriculum (Lianfang-zun himself was exceedingly diplomatic after all, and he had been raised outside the sect). He stepped forward to flank Jin Ling and dutifully readied a retort to this other Jin brat; one had to honour one's loyalties, however grudgingly earned.
Jin Ling spoke first.
"Suit yourself! Lianfang-zun will certainly be interested to hear you think his orders are a waste of time."
"Sure, run to your uncle," said Jin Chan, but he looked uneasy.
Lan Sizhui interjected, trying to head off an argument. "Better to be thorough than to assume what we don't know. There's no harm in doing the patrol."
Jin Chan pretended to notice them for the first time. "Young masters Lan. No harm for those in no hurry to catch a murderer, I suppose. Or those not interested in turning one in. You two are quite thick-skinned to show up here today—perhaps you also wouldn't mind answering some questions for us?"
Suihua unsheathed with a ringing scrape. "Shut the hell up," said Jin Ling, echoed by Fairy's growl. "Don't you dare speak to my guests that way."
"Oh jeez. Forget it, we have a hundred towers to check. The sooner we start the sooner we'll be done in Lanling." Lan Jingyi aimed a hearty slap at Jin Ling's sword arm, knocking him out of attack stance. "Lead the way, young mis—master Jin!"
"I'm not wasting my time on this stupid patrol," said Jin Ling two hours later. "I'm going to find the Yiling Laozu and finish what I started."
Lan Jingyi glanced along the forest trail to see if any of the other disciples were listening and Lan Sizhui grabbed Jin Ling's sleeve as though he could act as a human anchor and prevent Jin Ling from boarding his sword. They had barely made a chip in the long list of towers Lianfang-zun had given them and, Lan Jingyi confirmed with a quick check of the sun's position, had somehow drifted off course and were now veering in the direction of Yunmeng.
"Young master Jin," Lan Sizhui said urgently. "You can't."
"Stop," Jin Ling said, shaking him off. "I can too!"
Like an angry cat, he batted away a low hanging branch for good measure and stomped forward, taking no notice of how the branch swung right back and almost scratched out Lan Jingyi's eyeballs.
"Young mistress, what exactly are you going to finish?" Lan Jingyi demanded, internally thanking his ancestors for his lightning reflexes. "Are you going to fly to Yunshen Buzhichu, break in without a jade token, defeat Hanguang-jun, and kill the Yiling Laozu, all by yourself?"
"Jingyi," Lan Sizhui said.
"No, I'm dying to know." Lan Jingyi called after Jin Ling's back. "What's the plan, young mistress Jin? You'll have to face Zewu-jun if you go after his brother, not to mention our old teacher and all the other Lan disciples."
Jin Ling spun around with a glower and Lan Sizhui took advantage of his distraction to catch up and firmly grab his sleeve again.
Lan Jingyi knew he should stop but his mouth kept moving, the words bubbling over. Part jest, part pent-up annoyance, and part genuine curiosity because he was no stranger to strong impulses but sometimes Jin Ling jumped head-first like he had a death wish. "Your Xiao Shushu might still be there when you arrive—do you think he'd stop you or help you? Where's Chief Jiang right now? Close enough to hear about it and fly over?"
"Lan Jingyi," Jin Ling said. His face had drained of colour but for two bright blotches blooming on his cheeks. "You think this is funny?"
"Jingyi," Lan Sizhui said, except this time in a tone of absolute unpitying resignation.
"You think I'm joking around?" Jin Ling said. "I stabbed him once with my sword and I'd do it again. I don't care if you want to protect Wei Wuxian or if you think he's your friend. I don't fucking care if that makes you my enemy!"
Fairy whined next to him, more unhappy than threatening.
Lan Jingyi sucked in a breath, but words had finally deserted him. His face felt hot.
"We're not your enemy," Lan Sizhui said quietly.
"Are you my friend?" Jin Ling retorted. His cheeks became even redder if possible, but he pressed on. "Why did you even come?"
"Are you asking us to choose?" Lan Jingyi said, as nicely as he could. Fearing that wasn't enough, he quickly added, "Of course you're our friend. That's why we're here. But do you want us to choose?"
Jin Ling stilled, then stooped so his hair fell over his face and buried both hands in Fairy's ruff like he was fixing Fairy's collar. Lan Sizhui wasn't giving Lan Jingyi any alarmed looks, which was usually a good assurance that he hadn't unintentionally said something tactless, but Lan Jingyi regretted his question anyway. Of course it was preferable if someone took your side without asking you if you wanted them to. He hadn't meant to sound like they were ready to retract their friendship based on Jin Ling's answer. He simply wanted to know what Jin Ling hoped for from them; if there was a possibility that Jin Ling might decide this meant they couldn't stay friends.
"I'm not asking you anything. Do what you want," Jin Ling said.
On the other hand, maybe for Jin Ling it was kinder not to be given a choice.
"After everything we've been through, you are our friend, no matter what." Lan Jingyi said carefully. "Even if you don't want to be."
Jin Ling fussed harder with the dog collar. Fairy was beginning to look quite pitiful. Jin Ling's face remained thoroughly flushed, though the colour mellowed to resemble embarrassment. Slowly, Lan Jingyi released a breath he didn't realize he was holding. The cool afternoon breeze stirred around them again.
"Who would, you're so annoying," Jin Ling eventually told the top of Fairy's head.
"Especially if you don't want to be, then!"
"Jin Ling, as for Wei-qianbei…" Lan Sizhui ventured. "I know it's impossible for us to understand how you feel. But we all went through a lot with him too."
Jin Ling glanced up the trail. They had fallen a fair distance behind the other junior disciples. "There's nothing wrong with my memory, Lan Sizhui," he said. The rage had collapsed from his voice, as quick to go as it was to come. "You don't need to remind me."
"I'm annoying and Sizhui is a nag," Lan Jingyi said. "Better get used to it."
The corner of Jin Ling's mouth pinched and he touched his bangs, half-covering his face. "Unfortunately, I already am."
Lan Jingyi laughed. He was trying to think of a funny dig he could make at Lan Sizhui's expense when suddenly his head sloshed like a jostled fish bowl, and his vision went black.
He awoke feeling cold. Rough, flat edges of rock pressed into his thighs. He was upright, and his arms bound behind him. They were numb at the moment, but sure to start aching once sensation returned. The air smelled damp and his head felt tender. Lan Jingyi opened his eyes to the darkness of a cave.
"Sizhui? Sizhui! Jin Ling!"
"Here." Lan Sizhui's voice came from behind him. "Jingyi, are you okay?"
"I think so, aside being tied up. You? Where's the young mistress?"
"Right here." Jin Ling growled.
"Young master Jin and I are tied together. Otherwise we're unharmed, but they took all our swords."
Lan Jingyi tried to turn his head and got a mouthful of long hair. His shoulder dug into another slack body. "Aw shit," he said. "Don't tell me."
"You're tied to Jin Chan." Jin Ling confirmed grimly. "I think he's still knocked out."
Lan Jingyi tested his ropes, wiggling each limb. His muscles felt weaker than they should and his stomach ached hollowly. They really should have eaten lunch before seeking out Jin Ling. "How long have we been here?"
"At least a day, maybe more, judging by the state of my qi," Lan Sizhui said. "Whoever ambushed us must have used a spell. It seems to be wearing off now."
"Which one of you woke up first?" Lan Jingyi asked, feeling slightly competitive. Lan Sizhui affirmed it was him and Lan Jingyi grunted in satisfaction. That was Lan sect resilience for you.
"I don't know how we got here," Lan Sizhui continued, "but I think… we're in Luanzang Gang."
"What?" Lan Jingyi said. "How is that possible? Who—" He caught himself, not wanting to finish the question.
"Idiot, he just said we don't know," Jin Ling said. "But can't you feel it? The massive amount of resentful energy..."
Lan Jingyi shook off the last bit of unnatural sluggishness and was seized by a coughing fit, suddenly aware of the energy Jin Ling described. With his mind left unguarded by its usual spiritual defenses, it felt like waking up on the edge of a bottomless yawning pit whose edges stretched beyond the horizon; like a dizzying miasma trying to crawl into his ears and mouth. He automatically focused on circulating his weakened qi as a protective measure.
"I can't explain why this place is so familiar, but we must be in Luanzang Gang," Lan Sizhui murmured, almost to himself.
"What the fuck." Jin Chan, right by Lan Jingyi's ear, sounding strangled and groggy.
"Here we go." Lan Jingyi sighed. "Hey, you okay?"
"Fucking—Yiling Laozu. He attacked us."
Lan Jingyi's heart hopped into his throat, where it beat like nervous insect wings. He fought back a reflexive urge to look at Jin Ling. "There's no time for your nonsense."
"Idiot, we saw them coming"—presumably 'unimaginative' and 'rude' were also valued traits in Lanling Jin sect—"Those corpse puppets had us surrounded in seconds, we didn't stand a chance. Wei Wuxian's the only person capable of controlling a horde like that!"
Wei Wuxian wasn't the only person, Lan Jingyi thought. Just a person who had done it before. The most likely suspect, or simply the usual one. He and Lan Sizhui didn't really know Wei Wuxian either, but Lan Jingyi summoned his memories of Wei-qianbei in Yi Cheng: his steady cheer and diligent ministrations when the disciples had been poisoned, his red-rimmed eyes after Empathy. Despite their current predicament, Lan Jingyi felt surer than ever that he wasn't wrong about Wei Wuxian. Unable to resist, he stole a glance at Jin Ling.
Jin Ling only looked annoyed. "You couldn't have yelled and given the rest of us a warning? What's the use of seeing them coming then?"
"Fuck off! You couldn't have aimed for his neck when you stabbed him?"
"We shouldn't be fighting each other," Lan Sizhui said.
"It's obvious what the Yiling Laozu wants!" Jin Chan yelled over him. "He's going to kill us and use us against our families! Obviously you stupid orphans wouldn't understand—"
"Holy shit," Lan Jingyi barely had the chance to utter before Jin Ling lunged with his entire head and shoulders, teeth snapping. Lan Sizhui followed suit with surprising aggression, and they instantly devolved into shoving and squabbling, egged on by the alarmed shouts of the other trapped disciples. Lan Jingyi's last thought before joining the fray was that he would've much preferred to die in battle, rather than like this, starving and trapped between two raging assholes.
An exasperated voice cut through the ruckus. "Hey. Look over here."
Lan Jingyi froze, scarcely daring to believe his ears. Obeying the voice, he was struck with such relief his eyes actually welled with tears.
Thank heavens Lan Sizhui sounded equally as overcome with emotion. Jin Ling made no sound, but Lan Jingyi saw the fleeting gladness that crossed his face before it was schooled away, and almost cried again.
"What're you so happy about? They're on the same side!" Jin Chan shouted.
Lan Jingyi elbowed him with all his remaining strength, but his heart sang in agreement (truly, there was a first for everything). They were on the same side! Jin Ling was too stubborn to admit it yet, but with him and Lan Sizhui and Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian together, there wasn't an enemy in the world who stood a chance. He couldn't begin to guess what next awaited them, but even though it couldn't be anything good, his body thrummed with excitement like he was going on his first night hunts again, surrounded by comrades. Lan Jingyi marvelled as Wen Ning approached them, aches and pains and petty gripes forgotten.
Who ever thought that hope could take the form of a fierce corpse, swinging a sword!