The Golden Prince arrived at the Cloud Recesses with about twenty Jin and ten Jiang disciples behind him, requesting an audience with the sect leader.
Jin Rulan did not move with as much flash as previous leaders of the Jin sect. Even since he had been elected Chief Cultivator, he had kept to a martial presentation more in keeping with his mother’s Jiang roots: practical ornamentation, fancy swordbelt, well warded vambraces. The men and women marching behind him were all top-notch and battle ready, armed with swords and an array of top-notch spiritual tools. His spiritual dog kept pace beside him, a dog that was now the size of a small pony in keeping with his own level of cultivation. While his reputation in the cultivation world was one of a peacekeeper -- he’d ended more than a few sect wars before they started -- it actually took some work to convince the sentries he’d come in peace.
“Fine, my men can stay here if you’re that bothered by it,” he said, with the high chin and the glare that was just as much Jin as it was Jiang. “We brought our own provisions. I’m not here to ask for rabbit food. I’ll even leave Fairy, if that will convince you. But I need to see Zewu-jun. I have a request, and I think he should like to be informed. If I wanted to just march in, I would. I have a jade token. I’m trying to be polite, you know.”
The sentries murmured to each other suspiciously, but ultimately they let him pass.
“Your people stopped me at the gate,” accused Jin Ling, by way of a greeting, as he swung into the Yashi. “What do they think I am? An invading army?”
“We have had a few of those in recent history,” said Lan Xichen, who arrived with unfailing speed. His years of seclusion had left him more thin and frail than the Zewu-jun of the past, but he had recovered some of his color in recent months, and had never lost his unfailing poise. “Forgive us for our caution, Chief Cultivator.”
The gentle but pointed reminder of his new title caused Jin Rulan to scowl, just a bit. “Oh, right. That. You can relax. I’m not here under that capacity.”
His eyes trailed hopefully to the back door of the yashi. Two people had entered behind Lan Xichen. Jin Rulan saw them and frowned. One of these people he wanted to see: Lan Sizhui, the sect leader’s nephew. The second was Nie Minglin, Zewu-jun’s assistant.
The first he hoped to speak to in private after this audience. The second was just generally obnoxious. Nie Minglin took aggressive notes about everything.
She beamed up at him just then, from her too-close position at Lan Xichen’s right arm. Jin Rulan had to pretend he didn’t see that. There were rumors about this particular dynamic -- the way there would always be rumors about a beautiful young disciple who suddenly attached herself to a sect leader with such ease. Anyone who really knew Lan Xichen personally knew how ridiculous such rumors had to be. He’d kept himself apart from such worldly things for nearly two decades. Deep penance, it was said. Deeper mourning, it was whispered. Sure, he’d shown a bit more pep in the last year or so -- he’d even attended the confirmation vote and ceremony in person-- but that hardly meant--
“The position of Chief Cultivator is not so easily set aside,” said Nie Minglin, beaming over her ledger. “My uncle most certainly knows.”
Her uncle was Nie Huaisang, who was just, very happily, finishing up a near 20 year stint as Chief Cultivator.
“He seems to be managing fine at it!” Jin Rulan had not enjoyed being named Nie Huaisang’s successor. What’s worse: he’d won in a landslide vote. Evidently, his reformation of the Jin clan had been considered excellent qualifications.
“Please,” said Lan Xichen, “You are not unwelcome. But it is curious that you have come in such urgent circumstances.”
“That’s because it is urgent,” said Jin Rulan. “I need to borrow my uncle.”
A strange quiet filled the room. Nie Minglin’s fingers went a bit tight on her brush.
“The one who lives here,” continued Jin Rulan. “The obnoxious one. Is he in? No offense, Sizhui. Good morning, by the way.”
He added that last bit of hurried courtesy as an afterthought.
“Good morning, Chief Cultivator,” said Sizhui. Jin Rulan bristled. He hated hearing the title applied to him, especially from Sizhui, but how could he object? At least there was the smallest hint of mischief in the younger Lan disciple’s eyes as he continued: “It’s fine. I’m sure Senior Wei would take that remark with pride. He’s out on a night hunt, I’m afraid.”
“With Hanguang-jun?” Sizhui nodded, a little wryly. Jin Rulan let out a deep sigh. He could’ve brought Fairy in after all. “Ugh! Typical. How many honeymoons do those two need? When did they leave? How far out are they?”
Lan Sizhui glanced up at his uncle. Zewu-jun, his expression carefully blank, inclined his head slightly. Lan Sizhui took that as permission.
“We might send word,” said Lan Sizhui. “If it’s urgent. What do you need him for?”
“What else?” grumbled Jin Rulan. At this point he gave up standing still and, ignoring Lan Xichen’s generous offer of a seat, began to pace back and forth across the yashi, so very like his Jiang uncle it was almost unsettling. “Some absolute bullshit, is what it is. We found some tomb out behind a waterfall near Chewang. It’s been spewing resentful energy into the river. A whole district caught corpse poisoning before we found where it was coming from. We’ve got it warded, but we need to find the source. The real source. I’m assembling a team for it. Uncle’s lent me some muscle, but the other Great Sects are being prissy about manpower. Also, valley’s now seething with a whole small army’s worth of fierce corpses. They’re guarding something. Don’t know what, but a demonic cultivator could be really useful around, hm, now? Before, you know, all that resentful energy overflows and gets into the districts proper. Chewang’s pretty big, by the way.”
The Lan’s met this with a long, awkward silence. Nie Minglin slowly hid her face behind her notepad and walked out of the room.
“Oh,” said Lan Sizhui.
“So. Yeah,” said Jin Rulan, who had, in the span of one rant, gone from seeming impatient and irrational to surprisingly measured, all things considered. “Some back-up would be nice.”
Zewu-jun left to make arrangements. Jin Rulan stormed out back towards the gate. Several young initiates and Lan Sizhui trailing after him.
“Jin Ling!” called Lan Sizhui, with a familiarity that might have turned heads in the Koi Tower, most of the Cloud Recesses staff had come to expect. “You heard Zewu-jun. You’re welcome to stay--”
“I’m not staying here while my men camp out on the mountain,” said Jin Rulan, with the frankness that had earned him many friends and many enemies in the same stroke.
“At least -- stay for dinner?”
“Rabbit food. No thanks.”
“I meant from the kitchen, not the back mountain.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Lan Sizhui touched his arm.
Jin Rulan froze, staring straight ahead. He did a good job of glaring at nothing. His bottom lip only shook a little.
With clear intention, Lan Sizhui pressed a little more firmly into the gold cloth. He could feel the seam of the bandages beneath. Jin Rulan drew a sharp breath.
“The cold spring, maybe?” asked Lan Sizhui. Jin Rulan shook his head, face grey. “My room, then. You weren’t planning to lead the siege with a curse mark, were you?”
“Why would I do something stupid like that?” Jin Rulan let Lan Sizhui steer him through the courtyard towards his private quarters.
Around them, the Cloud Recesses bustled with life. They were preparing for the next discussion conference, and construction was just finishing up on an expansion of the Library Pavillion. The flow of contractors and junior disciples didn’t quite match the frantic energy of the docks of Lotus Pier, or even the aggressive formality of Koi Tower in full ceremony, but it was more energy than Jin Rulan had come to expect from the place.
In the safe interior of Lan Sizhui’s study, he remembered his protests: “You needn’t fuss. I was going to get it checked out. It’s not even at my elbow. I just wanted to make sure we were well on our way first. It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to start.”
“Hmph. Now you’re beginning to sound like Lan Jingyi.”
Lan Sizhui’s eyes flickered with a mischief that reminded those who knew him he was, technically, as much the son of the Yiling Patriarch as he was Hanguang-jun. He sat the new Chief Cultivator down on the nearest stool and shoved his sleeve up past his elbow, inspecting the wards on the bandage. “I could call him in here to help, if you’d like.”
“Don’t you dare!”
He held out his arm with unquestioning trust. Despite the dark energy that writhed through the bandages, Lan Sizhui managed a fond smile as he, very carefully, unwound the wards and the bandages that kept the injury in check.
The burns across the skin were light. Painful, no doubt, but nothing crippling. It would have been nothing to rub some salve into them, or offer some spiritual energy to encourage the flesh to heal -- but a more potent wave of resentful energy writhed around Jin Rulan’s wrist, preventing prolonged contact. Lan Sizhui was too professional to whistle like the Yiling Patriarch might have at the way it crawled in circles over the newly confirmed Chief Cultivator’s skin, but his lips pursed, very slightly. “You contained it well,” he said. “But it’s strong. Whatever threw this must hold a powerful grudge. Was this from the tomb?”
“I think so,” said Jin Rulan. “Got it when we were setting up the wards on the river. One of the corpses snatched at me. Sloppy of me, but I managed to suppress it in the end. The rest, though… feh.”
“The corpse -- was it conscious?”
Jin Rulan glared at his crossed ankles. “I didn’t think to say ‘hello.’”
“There’s intent in it,” said Lan Sizhui, quietly. “Stronger than your standard Fierce Corpse.”
“I said it was some bullshit, didn’t I?” Jin Rulan rolled his eyes, despite himself. “Should I show myself to the Mingshi, instead? Do you want to call some juniors in for a lesson? Show them what happens when Sect Leaders get careless?”
But Lan Sizhui gently laid his hand on his shoulders and sat him back down.
“It’s fine,” he said, eyes warm. One of his hands traveled, butterfly-soft, to trace the side of Jin Rulan’s jaw. It was a phantom of a touch, but the Jin Sect Leader leaned towards it without thinking. “Let me do this for you. You’ve suffered enough indignities, I think.”
Lan Sizhui unpacked a spirit pouch and summoned his guqin across his lap. He plucked his way through an evocation. Jin Rulan’s eyes drifted shut. At first, his skin seized and clammed up at each note, but slowly his body and the curse infecting it eased. Each measure drew the noxious energy out from around his wrist, where it turned in ribbons between them, like wisps of incense, before the last lingering notes coaxed it into the bag.
Lan Sizhui nodded. Jin Rulan’s hand snapped out, drawing the bag shut.
“Hah!” he said, he had just the amount of energy to grin like a wolf -- before the strength left him and he pitched forward. Lan Sizhui banished his instrument to reach out and catch him.
Next thing Jin Rulan knew, he was lying on his back staring up at the ceiling. Lan Sizhui had hung up a set of paper lanterns off the beams. One of them had a rabbit on it. It turned gently in the cross breeze.
Outside the light had changed. Jin Rulan smelled soup. His arm had been rebandaged. It didn’t hurt at all. When he craned his head to locate it, he realized his pillow was warm and very much alive. He was resting with his head in Lan Sizhui’s lap.
“...the staff will talk,” he muttered.
Lan Sizhui leaned down and kissed him, upside down. Jin Rulan was too tired to do much but tilt his head up into it, but he enjoyed it a good long while. Lan Sizhui’s hair tickled his cheeks as he pulled away.
“Senior Wei gives them more to talk about,” he whispered, in a voice like a welcome night breeze.
“I don’t want to compete with my uncle for something like that.” Jin Rulan couldn’t help but shut his eyes again and rest against him just a little longer. “I hope you didn’t let me sleep all day.”
“No, just a incense stick or two,” promised Lan Sizhui.
“A few, maybe,” admitted Lan Sizhui, without a trace of regret. When Jin Rulan tried to sit up, he rested a hand on his chest and pushed him down with surprising strength. “But you needed it. And Zewu-jun needed it, too, to prepare everything before we depart.”
“Before we depart?”
“I’m coming with you, after all,” said Lan Sizhui. “We’ll be meeting up with Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun, won’t we? It will be all of us together again. It’s been much too long.”
When Lan Xichen returned to his offices, he found Nie Minglin waiting, a set of ledgers laid out across the Zitan wood table. Her brush hurried over a sheet, running lines.
“You wasted no time,” he said, kneeling across from her.
Nie Minglin’s eyes flicked up, briefly. Her brush slowed. “I thought you would need them, Zewu-jun,” she said. She nodded to the nearest stack. “We received a 23% raise in donations this year from the districts this year. Our larder is currently in surplus. We are able to provide a basic set of rations for at least three units. The personal medicinal stock from our own lands has been favorable. We would be able to send along at least 40 medical kits on short notice. Our personal fighting force is low, owing to the fact it is between terms and many of our senior disciples are in private cultivation, your brother and uncle included. We have no guest disciples in residence at this time. … besides myself, that is.”
Lan Xichen looked as though he was about to say something. Nie Minglin cleared her throat and moved on.
“But there are at least four junior disciples we might recommend to attend with Lan Sizhui. I’m afraid our supply of spiritual tools is similarly low. We have enough to cover our own force, but equipping a full expeditionary unit will be difficult. And with the Yiling Patriarch not in residence, I am afraid we are overdue for a restock.”
“He usually leads the workshops in crafting them,” said Lan Xichen. “I should have considered that earlier. My review of our training schedule has been… shamefully overdue.”
His brother and uncle had managed it for the past ten years. They’d wanted as little to trouble him as possible. A darkness passed over his face. Nie Minglin watched him for a moment, pressing the end of her brush against her bottom lip.
“I’ll pull the lesson plans this month,” she offered, at last.
“Ah, but one thing at a time.” That shook him out of it. “Thank you, Miss Lin. Is there anything else I should know?”
She placed her hand over the sheet of paper in front of her, turned it, and pushed it across the table for him to see: A carefully sketched map of a river valley, the ink still drying. On it were distance markers, a symbol for a waterfall, three entrances, and several markers denoting ward placements.
Lan Xichen’s eyebrows went up.
“If they’re coming from the waterfall it means the north and northeast arrays have failed,” she said. She re-dipped her brush and dotted it across the page. “There is a high chance of fierce corpses emerging or amassing here. Here. And here. There is a back entrance if you approach it from the southwest, but an old dirt barricade has been built there, and the security talismans may still be active. They were based on the Nie entombment practices. I would not take them lightly.”
It was a lot of information in a very short amount of time. Lan Xichen eyed her thoughtfully.
“Those wards were supposed to last at least another decade,” said Nie Minglin, bitterly. “Minshan was sloppy.”
Lan Xichen, who very much recalled the man in question, was much too graceful to agree with her assessment outright.
Instead, he tilted his head to one side and said, without the slightest hesitation or surprise: “I thought you’d used up your store of Fierce Corpses in the Second Siege in Yiling.”
It was Nie Minglin who hesitated. A few drops of ink beaded on the end of the brush, spattering on the upper edge of the map. She laid it aside quickly. “I did,” she said, taking measured breath. Her voice didn’t shake. “What could be used at any rate. This was an earlier facility. It was created under my father -- under Jin Guangshan’s direction. We brought remnants of the Wen armed forces there for what we called examination and conditioning of new cultivation techniques -- after their deaths, of course. I can give you the specifics, if you’d like.”
“Do I need them?” asked Lan Xichen.
“In this case? ...it’s unlikely.”
“Perhaps later, then. Continue.”
“Thank you.” She meant it. “I won’t deny this place was one of the facilities where we stored countless fierce corpses -- no, not countless, twenty-three … and three quarters. But we’d cleared it out years before the siege. It was too… obvious. And that project ended with the death of Jin Guangshan, besides. The place remained sealed for ten years. Until--”
She hesitated. Lan Xichen waited, intently. He didn’t give her the mercy of a prompt this time.
“--we needed to store another body,” she said, quietly. “Just one.”
Now Lan Xichen spoke. “Whose body?”
Nie Minglin closed her eyes and told him.
Lan Sizhui brought the captured curse to the Mingshi for examination. Lan Xichen and Lan Jingyi joined him.
“Sect Leader Jin?” asked Lan Xichen, as Lan Sizhui set the spirit bag down on the array.
“Resting in my rooms,” said Lan Sizhui. “With medicine, he should be fit to travel by evening. I don’t know that he can be persuaded to linger longer.”
“Surprised you convinced him of that much,” said Lan Jingyi. “He looked ready to take off as soon as he arrived. Ready to be the hero as always.”
“He was,” said Lan Sizhui, “But he listened to reason.”
“Miracle worker. Good thing the young mistress has his soft spots, doesn’t he? Convince him to be more honest about it.” Lan Jingyi thought he was being quiet. Given the Mingshi had been built for spiritual evocation, the walls had excellent acoustics. His words carried uncomfortably as a matter of natural law.
“A-hem,” said Nie Minglin, from behind Lan Xichen.
Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui both assumed their positions at the edge of the array. Nie Minglin stepped back.
“Oh, Miss Nie,” said Lan Sizhui, summoning his guqin with the graceful, yet economical flourish that must have been drilled into him since age 6. “Would you like to join us? It should be good practice for you.”
Nie Minglin froze. She was, for a rare moment, completely startled and tongue-tied. “...ah, no. My musical skills are -- erm -- best not, Young Master. Two seniors and Zewu-jun -- I fear I would only hold back your resonance.”
Lan Xichen eyed her, but said nothing. She took a careful spot out of the range of the array. The Sect Leader raised his flute. In truth, it had been a very long time since he had presided over such an investigation himself -- but Lan Qiren’s was getting on in years and Hanguang-jun was night-hunting with his husband. Lan Xichen had found some cause to emerge from seclusion more often of late. It was a miracle in of itself, according to the whispers of the younger disciples, who had only ever known him as an elegant, composed, but intermittent figure, focused on solitary cultivation and escaping the complications that had once laid him so low.
The notes of the evocation flowed through the hall. It would have been magnificent under any circumstance -- Lan seniors were all masters of their arts, but the thrum of power behind it added a different quality, one which caused Nie Minglin’s fingers to tingle as she listened. She knew better than to close her eyes. Left loosened, the spirit bag shifted. Lit by the spiritual power amassing in the array, the dark energy began to seep out.
It was not a full spirit. A curse mark could only at best harbor the shadow of an evil intent -- but the strength of the malice was unmistakable as it formed and twisted into a nasty miasma, hovering just above the bag in a cloud shaped like a curled fist. That Jin Rulan had made the trip to the Cloud Recesses with such an evil gnawing at his arm and little more than a particularly foul mood was suddenly an impressive feat.
The curse stayed in place, writhing against itself, before a jet of it shot out, aiming for Lan Jingyi’s head. Unflinchingly, the Lan’s moved with ruthless grace into the higher octaves of the song. The curse succeeded only in snapping itself against the edge of the array. A flash of blue light filled the room. The smokey entity doubled back, agitated, before surging forward again. This time it changed targets, aiming with a renewed rage for Lan Xichen. It slammed into the borders of the array well before it could reach him. Another flash of blue light filled the room, casting their shadows in sharp contrast to their replesent whites and blues. Lan Xichen continued to play with unfailing calm.
Nie Minglin, standing in the Sect Leader’s shadow, looked up. Even behind the protection of the array, and the Lan’s music, and Lan Xichen himself, she could feel the icy stab of the intent behind that curse. It was possible it had truly targeted Lan Xichen. It was possible, even, that it mistook him for someone else. But somehow, she doubted both of those things. She reached into the front of her robes.
Unable to seize a warm body, the curse roiled and rolled over itself, desperate to reform against the dispersion of the array. Two notable scents filled the room. The first was the stench of burial soil, of rot barely hidden by incense. The second, which overpowered the first, was a sickening sweetness. Sugary, cloying, suffocating.
Nie Minglin stepped up to the edge of the array, beside Lan Xichen. The energy drifted after her, confirming her theory. It began to twist and writhe, banging itself against the barrier with an increasing fervor.
Her lip curled.
“So it is you,” she murmured, softly, lower than the music around her. “How nice of you to pay me a visit. I would say I missed our little talks, but you are as foul and ill-mannered as ever. I tried so hard to teach you better. But you were, truly, an awful student.”
That got a reaction. Snap. Snap. Snap. Curse rammed itself against the barrier with a fury. The Lan increased their tempo. Now, the miasma began to twist and disperse, like a kite fighting a fierce wind.
“Maybe I don’t have the right to say it,” hissed Nie Minglin, her voice dangerously low. She pulled her hand out of her robe. “But how dare you touch a hair on that boy’s head.”
Where one might have expected a knife, she held a honey candy, freshly unwrapped. She flicked it into the array. The curse wrapped around it, keened, and then shattered into a thousand swirling pieces.
The light of the array throbbed out.
“But of course you’d try,” she said, softly, feeling the evil energy fade along with the final, extended notes of Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi’s guqin. “You didn’t have the grace to stay dead the first time I ordered it.”
A hand closed over hers. Lan Xichen. The sound of his flute had faded ages ago.
“Ah, Zewu-jun. Did I say that outloud?” she whispered, tonelessly, because she already knew she had. “I forgot myself.”
“I don’t believe you’ve ever forgotten a thing in your life,” he murmured, lowly. “But can you confirm it?”
He released her. Across from them, Lan Jingyi stared at the array. The spirit pouch lay deflated and empty. The charred remains of the candy sizzled next to it.
“That smell,” sputtered Lan Jingyi, his previous poise and grace replaced by sheer disgust. He covered his face in a remembered nausea. “Like a pig died in a candy store. I haven’t smelled that since -- since-- ugh.”
“Yi City,” finished Lan Sizhui, softly. Half in his own recollection, but also half to stop Lan Jingyi from dissolving into swears. “No wonder it attached itself to Jin Ling so fiercely. He was there, too. Maybe it recognized him. Zewu-jun, the intent behind this curse, I think I know it. It comes from a demonic cultivator.”
“Well, fuck,” said Lan Jingyi, emphatically.
It said a lot that Lan Sizhui could only give a pained smile in agreement with that assessment.
“Who do you think this ill will belongs to?” asked Lan Xichen, with the soft patience of one who already knew the answer. Had already heard in, in fact, a few hours ago in his office, when Nie Minglin and offered him the identity of the one body left behind the waterfall in Chewang.