At the top of the steps to the Cloud Recesses, Lan Jingyi threw a fit.
“What do you mean Zewu-jun said I can’t go? I have a score to settle!”
“You have a score to settle with Xue Yang,” said Jin Rulan. He did not look terribly impressed.
Lan Sizhui frowned. “You do?”
Lan Jingyi glared. “He gave me corpse poisoning. Remember?!”
Jin Rulan rolled his eyes and went back to allocating supplies among the disciples gathered in the clearing. Zewu-jun had been as generous as he could be: they had fresh food, medical supplies, and four Lan disciples, in addition to Lan Sizhui, who would serve as senior. Lan Jingyi had made a point of escorting Lan Sizhui down to the clearing where Jin Rulan’s general forces picked themselves up from a much needed recoup. Now, in the shadow of the mountain face and its rules, Lan Jingyi tantrumed in direct defiance to a good chunk of them.
“Don’t ‘ah’ me! It was my first time! And I had to eat Senior Wei’s awful congee. It was terrible. It was one of the worst memories of my life. And he did all that awful stuff to Song Lan, Xiao Xingchen, and A-Qing, too. He deserves a thousand hells for that.”
“So yes,” said Lan Jingyi, fierce. “I -- no -- we should take him down together.”
Lan Sizhui smiled in that gentle, tried and true way he did when his dear cousin got particularly bellicose. He did not mention that score had most certainly been settled with Xue Yang’s death, over 16 years ago. “I understand your feelings, Jingyi. But I also understand Zewu-jun’s decision. We can’t send all prospective heirs of the Sect out on one mission. You are the next in line.”
Lan Jingyi’s foot nearly skipped a step.
“Next in…” He glared. “Since when?!”
A thousand centuries old Lan family trees went scrolling through their heads collectively. Lan Sizhui took a measured breath, like the recitations his father drilled him in when he was young. “Since I'm Hanguang-jun's only son and I'm definitely not going to be the next Sect Leader and Zewu-jun doesn't have any children and…”
“...” said Lan Jingyi, emphatically.
Jin Rulan glanced back over. “Please tell me this isn’t news to you.”
“...” continued Lan Jingyi.
The Chief Cultivator, who knew the lines of succession in the Jin sect as a matter of self-defense, almost dropped a bag of rice. “And isn’t Lan Qiren your grandfather?”
“FUCK,” said Lan Jingyi, throwing up his hands.
“What is wrong with your sect?!” hissed Jin Rulan. He handed the bag to Fairy who, with amazing obedience, carried it to the front of the war party to be portioned out accordingly. “You know what, nevermind -- eh -- Ziyi. Count those flares.”
“He does know this,” said Lan Sizhui. He tugged on Lan Jingyi’s sleeve, a little urgently. “Jingyi. You do. You’ve known this for years.”
Lan Jingji slumped against Lan Sizhui’s arm. “There’s knowing and knowing,” he groaned, burying his face without shame against Lan Sizhui’s shoulder. “I just assumed Zewu-jun was going to achieve immortality and run the sect forever.”
“Few things are truly forever,” murmured Lan Sizhui.
“Still,” muttered Lan Jingyi. But he must’ve come around to the idea, because when Jin Rulan scoffed at him, he looked up, swept his arms behind his back in the stiffest approximation of Hanguang-jun he could affect, and fixed the leader of the Jin Sect with a particularly lofty expression. “In which case, as future sect leader, I demand he treat you with proper respect on your journey. Since you will be my second in command. Like Hanguang-jun is for Zewu-jun.”
Lan Sizhui was caught between gentle laughter and a growing exasperation. “Jin Ling treats me fine.”
“He could treat you finer. He should. You are a prize and he should know it. Everyone should know it.”
Now, Lan Jingyi’s volume caused Lan Sizhui to flush, very slightly. “Jingyi--” he said, sharply. It was that sharpness that finally broke Jin Rulan from his illusion of apathy towards Lan Jingyi’s antics. He turned with a visible twitch in his jaw. With one hand on his hip, he moved up a step or two, ready to shoulder between them if need be.
“So rabbits can bark,” he huffed. The dappled light of the setting sun flashed notably over Suihua’s hilt, and the minimal gold ornamentation, braided in his hair. He could look like a proper Prince of Lanling, when he wanted to. “Since when does Lan Jingyi have the authority to scold anyone?”
“Since I’ll be your equal some day, Sect Leader.”
“I’m Chief Cultivator,” said Jin Rulan, flatly. “So piss off.”
“Why did I vote for you!” grumbled Lan Jingyi, dropping his arms back to his side. There wasn’t a lot of fighting that.
With a gentle, "Nevermind him, really,” Lan Sizhui tugged him away. There was really no fighting that. Jin Rulan went back to reviewing his men. Glancing back at him, Lan Jingyi skipped up one of the steps and lowered his voice at last:
“But, Sizhui, are you really okay with this?”
“Okay with what?” asked Lan Sizhui, pointedly.
Lan Jingyi sighed, and squeezed his arm. “You know what I mean. I can come anyway if you need back-up. Zewu-jun will understand--”
“Do you have everything you need, Sect Leader Jin?” asked Zewu-jun, his warm but formal tones cutting through the growing agitation in the clearing. He didn’t even have to lift Leibing to do it.
The three men looked up. Zewu-jun stood ten steps above them, wearing his formal overobe. His shadow Nie Minglin trailed behind him. Standing a step behind him she still only just cleared his shoulder. The Lan disciples bowed first, followed by the scattering of Jiang and Jin disciples bustling to pack and gear up. Jin Rulan, gripping his fist tightly, bowed most graciously of all.
“This’ll do,” he said, stiff but firm. It was hard to say which of his list of illustrious and infamous uncles he did proud by the gesture, but it certainly must have been one of them then. In more formal tones, he added: “Thank you, Zewu-jun.”
“Jingyi?” asked Zewu-jun. For all his expression remained serene, the slight lilt in his voice had the snap of a command. All of the Lan disciples present exchanged quiet looks over their still clasped hands. It had been a long time since many of them had personally seen Zewu-jun pass the sentries to see a group of cultivators off, and only Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui were old enough to remember when he carried this firmness with more regularity.
Sighing, Lan Jingyi gave Lan Sizhui one last squeeze, and shuffled over to his Sect Leader’s side. He found himself standing beside Nie Minglin, who offered him a bright but stiff smile. Lan Jingyi stared straight ahead. Delicately, Nie Minglin hopped down the few steps separating them, and handed a wrapped packet to the waiting Jin Rulan.
“What’s this?” he asked, dubiously. Any sort of envelope from Nie Minglin was like receiving a cask full of spiders, filled with a great great web of unsourced information and many stinging little bites.
“Construction surveys from the tomb interior,” she said. “Annotated. You will need them.”
Jin Rulan shuddered. Any Sect Leader who had attended a conference or ceremony run by the previous Sect Leader Nie Huaisang in the past seven years had a healthy wariness of any time his young niece offered anything involving ‘annotations.’ She was infamously thorough. “And you just had those records here in the Cloud Recesses? Chewang’s my territory.”
“The Cloud Recesses holds a wealth of information,” said Nie Minglin, enigmatically.
“That’s… ominous,” said Jin Rulan. But he took the package and shoved it into his satchel. His arm caught. He looked over. Nie Minglin’s fingers were curled over his vambrace.
“One more thing.” She didn’t quite look at him. She pressed a bag full of honey candies into his hand. If it were anyone else, one might assume she was a shy little junior, confessing something to her crush. But this was Nie Minglin, Zewu-jun’s assistant and the bane of Nie Huaisang’s tenure as Chief Cultivator. “You’ll need these.”
“Uh,” said Jin Rulan.
“I’m told Xue Yang is a most formidable spirit,” said Nie Minglin. “Please take care.”
Then, before he could formulate any kind of meaningful response, she ducked back and returned to her place at Zewu-jun’s side, quite mindful not to trip on the steps.
“I have sent word to my brother and his husband,” assured Zewu-jun, who had long made a career of politely ignoring awkward moments like this.
The waiting disciples didn’t ignore it. They muttered amongst themselves. Wasn’t that Nie Minglin? Didn’t she hate most men? Well, the Chief Cultivator is still unmarried….
“It’s nice to be fussed over sometimes,” murmured Lan Sizhui, as Jin Rulan tromped past him.
“That girl is a menace,” gritted Jin Rulan between. “Fairy, to me.”
Fairy had delivered the requisitions and done her tasks, but her master’s agitation had brought the Spirit Dog back to the steps. She lingered, her ears pricked forward, her tail low and cautious. She gazed up at the Lan Sect Leader and his assistant. The assistant gazed back, with a face as equally blank and unreadable. The dog gave a few tentative sniffs. She gave a low, confused whine.
“Fairy!” Jin Rulan called again.
The dog snuffed, shook her head, before turning in a great ripple of luxurious fur, pressing her mighty flank against her master’s legs as they departed.
As their backs vanished around the curve of the mountain pass, Lan Jingyi could no longer contain himself:
“You do it for the bright moon and gentle breeze!” he cried, in a great passion. “You do it for the distant snow and cold frost! And A-Qing! And also, maybe an extra one for me!”
His voice echoed imperiously off of the rock face of the great Lan wall of rules. One might have the distinct impression he’d been hoping for the chance to make such a dramatic farewell for many years. The distant golden form of the retreating Jin Rulan lifted one exasperated fist in acknowledgement as they faded from view.
“Spirited,” remarked Lan Xichen, eyeing him fondly. He nodded in gentle dismissal.
“Zewu-jun,” said Lan Jingyi, with great dignity. He bowed, crossed his arms behind his back, and strutted back up the stairs.
Lan Xichen and Nie Minglin waited a moment longer.
“I should go with them,” she said, unbidden.
“It’s my mess isn’t it?”
“That is objectively true,” said Lan Xichen, mildly. “I’m just surprised to hear you volunteer. Do you want to go with them?”
“Of course not!” said Nie Minglin, without hesitation. “Why would I want to go anywhere near that man again?”
Lan Xichen looked away from the road and down at her. Realizing what she’d just said, Nie Minglin lowered her head and added, in a thicker voice: “But I hate to think of that child managing it. He’s hardly qualified.”
“That ‘child’ is the newly elected Chief Cultivator and twice your age, Miss Lin,” Lan Xichen reminded her. “But I appreciate your honesty. May I indulge in some of my own?”
“When has Zewu-jun been anything but?” breathed Nie Minglin, despite herself.
“You are at present a young junior cultivator of mid-level talent and poor aptitude for your sect’s saber techniques,” said Lan Xichen. “While your base understanding of many interdisciplinary techniques is, hm, beyond your years, I doubt this body of yours yet has the aptitude to make full use of your natural versatility.”
“And from the curse’s behavior in the Mingshi, this spirit would specifically target you on the field. And I believe that confronting it would be a bit above your level at this time.”
Lan Xichen gave her one of those soft, sympathetic smiles that hit her like the thrust of a knife. “So, no, Nie Minglin, it would not do anyone any good to send you with the others, except perhaps if you are feeling especially self-punishing. Is that a fair assessment?”
“More than fair. I will recommit to my studies, Zewu-jun.”
“I hope that you do.”
Nie Minglin bit the inside of her cheek. “There may be… similar locations that the previous Chief Cultivators may have missed during their tenures.”
“...” Lan Xichen was a very patient man.
“None so troublesome as this,” she said, quickly. “They were smaller, and the wards should have remained untouched. But it might be best to check on them before they become a headache like this. I may be able to map them out for you, if you think that would be useful in the future.”
“It would be.” The sect leader took a deep, measured breath as he considered this information.
Then he held his hand out to her, palm up. Nie Minglin blinked at it.
“Walk back with me, Miss Lin?”
And with a wry smile, Nie Minglin let him lead her back up the steps to the Cloud Recesses proper, as the sun hung low over the dappled mountain path.
Jin Rulan’s party had just cleared the last set of the mountain’s wards when a dark figure shivered out from the forest. A Fierce Corpse, long-limbed and seething with a fierce energy. Its lank hair covered its face, thorns caught in its dark robes. All of the Jiang and some of the Jin disciples reached for their swords, but the sect leader held out an arm.
“Hold,” he commanded, pressing his mouth into a fine line. “It’s fine. Lan Sizhui?”
Lan Sizhui had already stepped past him, an urgent whirl of white robes. He was already helping the Corpse pluck at its clothes by the time it occurred to the assembled who’d never been near the Cloud Recesses just who this might be. “Senior Wen! Are you all right? You didn’t fall into any of the spirit traps, did you?”
“Only one,” mumbled the infamous Ghost General. He held up one white wrist. Several long, crossed lacerations had bit into his wrist. The flesh there was knotted, still in the process of knitting back together. He’d clearly found some meat to repair himself before moving to join them, but the injury still looked ugly. “A thorn snare. Didn’t think Master Wei had finished it…”
“He hasn’t,” admitted Lan Sizhui, sheepishly. “But he’s been field testing it. The juniors must have gone a bit out of bounds. I should have warned you. Please forgive this one’s carelessness, won’t you?”
To the surprise of most of the Jin and Jiang disciples and absolutely none of the Lan, Wen Ning thrust one pale hand out to grip Lan Sizhui’s forearm like a dear friend. Despite the corpse-glassiness of his eyes, and his grey pallor, there was a great warmth in his face nonetheless.
“You’re never careless, A-Yuan,” said Wen Ning. “But mm. There is trouble, isn’t there?”
Jin Rulan gave a theatrical sigh and stamped his foot. “If you want to come just come, Ghost General. Don’t mince around. We don’t have time.”
“Ah, Jin Rulan.” Wen Ning brightened, and swung his lanky, ragged arms around into a gracious bow. Pieces of thorny vines were still dangling from his clothes. “Thank you! I will do my best by you, I swear it!”
“Just don’t freak out my people,” said Jin Rulan. “Some of them haven’t been night-hunting with you before.”
It was well into night by the time they arrived at the scattered base of operations, a hastily fortified camp, built around an old fishing dock. A powerful set of talismans flapped in the wind as they arrived. Even Wen Ning, who having his wits was resistant to most forms of evil repelling spells, hesitated at the boundary.
“It’s all right, Senior Wen,” said Lan Sizhui, gently. “I’m sure we can make allowances for you.”
“No,” whispered Wen Ning, shuffling in place. “It’s not just that. Definitely not. There are eyes on us. Many of them. You feel it too, don’t you?”
There was no denying it. Ever since river had come into sight, and they’d all felt the power of the wards, they’d all felt the crawling sensation at the back of their necks: like the prickle of gathering clouds, like the lonely howl of a storms first gust of wind, but far less clean.
“Don’t weaken the wards with my presence,” said Wen Ning. “Let me scout ahead.”
“Be mindful, Senior Ning.”
“You are kind to worry about me, A-Yuan.” Wen Ning smiled even as the carrion birds screamed in the distance. “But they will not think anything of me if I am quiet. Without my voice, I am all the same to them, after all.”
He slipped away into the darkness.
“He’ll be fine,” said Jin Rulan, watching out of the corner of his eye. “He’s not the Ghost General for nothing.”
“I know,” said Lan Sizhui, but his eyes lingered a little longer after Wen Ning. Jin Rulan shifted, moving as though to touch his shoulder -- but remembering all the eyes on him, he laid the hand on the wards in front of him instead, bidding them to allow them entrance.
And what an entrance it was. No sooner had the Golden Prince and his reinforcements swept in than he was overtaken by adjutants, all ready with updates on the situation in the last few hours.
“Wards are holding for now, but the Fierce Corpses have been bashing about them for the last few hours.”
“Chief Cultivator! We’ve collected all the poisoned civilians. We’ve been cooking non-stop like you suggest.”
“...signs of recovery in the survivors. But the movement of the corpses behind the barrier has been--”
“Jiang reinforcements arrived like you said they would. We have also received disciples from the Ouyang, Qin, and Nie Sects--”
Jin Rulan paused at that one. “Huh. So the watchtower sentries actually showed up.”
No one actually called it the watchtowers anymore. One of the first things Headshaker had done in his tenure as Chief Cultivator was to change the name of all of them. It proved easier than tearing them down. Nevertheless, Jin Rulan, who had grown up steeped in the politics of building them in the first place, had never gotten out of that habit. He caught himself. “From the Cultivation Retreat. Glad they didn’t fuck off on us. How many of them we got?”
Enough to keep the situation stable. For now, anyway.
“How many were poisoned?” murmured Lan Sizhui, keeping to Jin Rulan’s side as they surveyed the camp. Villagers were laid out carefully behind the barricades, swathed in blankets to promote sweating while disciples fed them bowls of congee. Lan Sizhui nodded at Lan Yan, who quickly took the other Lan disciples to begin distributing the more effective antidotes among the worse cases.
“Too many. The Watchtower --” Jin Rulan rolled his eyes, patting Fairy’s side idly as he gestured orders at the nearest disciples streaming past him to take up their posts. “I mean, the Cultivation Retreat got the reports of the change in the river first. Blackened water. Nets rotting too fast. Shrine icons breaking. I sent some people to follow up and bam. Corruption was everywhere. We stopped it before it got all the way down into the main river but. We evacuated the fishing village -- you’re seeing the survivors now -- but Chen Merchant Post a little further up got completely fucked. Half of the population’s probably dead now. And walking around anyway. It’s not like he has a Stygian Tiger Seal anymore, right? But why are these things acting so coordinated anyway?! God damn it to hell. Wei Wuxian could get here any time now.”
Lan Sizhui placed a hand on the small of his back, feeling the tension there. Jin Rulan jolted, once. He let it stay there for a second before he turned away. Lan Sizhui pulled back with a sigh, tucking his hands back into his sleeve.
“Do we have boats?” he asked, instead.
“Riverboats from Yunmeng, yeah,” Jin Rulan rubbed his head. “Don’t know how much good they’ll do us.”
He led Lan Sizhui to the docks, where eight boats rocked against the docks. They had protective talismans hanging from their posts. Up river, light talismans marked the array points -- one of which had been painted on a rock sticking out from the middle of the river. In the occasional lull of the sounds of the camp, both of them could hear sound bodies thrashing in the water. Like dozens or so men or women, tromping in the mud.
Bashing themselves against the barriers, without a care of who they trampled along the way. With that many fierce corpses swaying in the shallows, getting one boat through would be a challenge, much less eight.
Jin Rulan stared grimly ahead. The hand on Fairy’s flank went a little tighter. She leaned her shoulder against him, and rippled her fur comfortingly. He allowed that point of contact, at least.
“Before you ask: I told Uncle Jiang not to come,” he admitted. “He wanted to. But -- agh. It’s a pain. You know there are still people out there who think I only lead the Jin sect because of his help? Can’t let them think the same about me as Chief Cultivator.”
“Wouldn’t it be the other way around at this point?”
“You’re the Golden Prince, aren’t you?”
“That’s just -- for politics-- Eh!”
“The one who revitalized the Jin. The one who has kept the Cultivation World from falling back into civil war. The one who bravely led some of the most impressive night hunts of recent years personally -- with or without some help from his friends. He shows no favoritism. He shows no interest in furthering personal ambitions. He refuses even beneficial marriage alliances. He has even so graciously avoided the greatest office -- until now, when he has inevitably been voted in.” Each line of praise made Jin Rulan twitch even harder, until finally he stormed away from the docks, Lan Sizhui strolled after him.
The worst part about it was that, in the last few years, much of what Lan Sizhui said was true. Even if at the time it’d felt more like damage control. Endless, annoying, exhausting damage control.
“Since when are you my propaganda piece,” growled Jin Rulan. “I won’t hear that from you.”
“You won’t. But I’d think the Yunmeng Jiang risk relying too much on you,” said Lan Sizhui. “Not the other way around. It was good of you to allow your uncle to save some face.”
“That’s not -- bah.” Still, the corner of Jin Rulan’s mouth softened. “I can fight some battles on my own, can’t I?”
“You can. But I’d prefer to fight them with you.”
He tried to press forward, but he felt a tug on the back of his golden overrobe. Lan Sizhui, with his fingers curled over the white embroidered peony. He came up in a whisper of cloth. The pull was firm -- Lan Sizhui had never been a slouch when it came to the highly regimented training demanded by his sect -- but he didn’t need to pull hard to get Jin Rulan to turn to face him. Or to bend to meet the hand that rested on his cheek, cool and careful.
“Jin Ling,” murmured Lan Sizhui, “You’re not without your own merits.”
“Careful,” muttered Jin Rulan. The camp wasn’t exactly quiet. Sure, there was every kind of distraction whirling around just then, but --
Lan Sizhui quirked an eyebrow. “Shall you order me to stop bothering you?”
“Just -- augh.” But Jin Rulan grabbed a kiss from him. A brusque, firm one that was a bit more teeth than it necessarily should’ve been. He would’ve liked to have made a better go of it -- but he heard the scrape of boots from around the fishing shacks, and he just had time to straighten as an avalanche of adjutants came pounding down the road to meet them. “Chief Cultivator!”
Jin Rulan fixed them with glare that could have knocked through the wards on its own.
“What is it?”
“The Ghost General is waiting out at the border! He, um, says he has intel….”
Lan Sizhui trailed behind him at a now-safe distance, arms folded behind his back, a beautiful echo of all the cool distance that would have done Hanguang-jun proud.
Jin Rulan nocked the arrow and lined up the shot. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wen Ning do the same.
“Now,” hissed the Chief Cultivator. The arrows flew, the cloth wrapped around the shafts unfurled as the points buried themselves in the thatch roof of the cottages, flapping as the hoards of crows scattered from the rooftops. The Fierce Corpses occupying the town paused in their advance, swaying uncertainly.
Jin Rulan reached for another arrow. Neither he nor Wen Ning missed. Jin Rulan hated to admit it, but he found himself glancing at the Ghost General for clues on the angle he should be taking -- Wen Ning was a genius when it came to calculating a shot, even long-dead with fingers that often fought the stiffness of rigor mortis.
Using the arrows to plant the spirit attraction flags had been Lan Sizhui’s idea.
At last, a line was planted in the roofs of the houses that ran along the village’s irrigation ditch. The pull was enough. One by one, the prowling fierce corpses turned their milky eyes behind them, lumbering towards the overflowing, muddied ditch. Their boots sank in, dirty water seeping in around them almost to their waists.
“Now!” snapped Jin Rulan, louder this time. In a whirl of white, Lan Sizhui shot past them, the clear notes of his guqin overpowering the groans of the dead. The rest of the Jiang and Jin retainers charged in next, closing on the disoriented, distracted force of the undead.
From a strategic standpoint, the retaking of the Chen Fishing Hamlet could be considered a success.
If you ignored the fact that every enemy they fought was also a victim, anyway. No one really could pretend that wasn’t the case. Two of the Fierce Corpses were still moving when they were done. Lan Sizhui stopped over the most ferocious, struggling under a Jiang disciple’s spear. She’d been an older woman, her once neatly tied hair now hung half in her face. A dark smear of dried blood caked her cheek, long gone stale. As she caught sight of the white hem of his Lan robes, she began to thrash. Her arms were solid from years of hauling fishing nets. The nails on her left hand were broken and blackened from clawing at the ground.
“Just her left hand, though,” observed Lan Sizhui. “Odd. Brother Ning--” He could call him that, just then. Jin Rulan and the other disciples were checking the houses for any corpses they might have missed. “--can you restrain her for me? Don’t hurt her more.”
It was doubtful she could really feel it anymore, but he wanted to be safe. Obligingly Wen Ning pinned her to the ground, one of his hands holding her by the back of her head. These fierce corpses were hastily made from the bodies of non-cultivators; none of them were nearly his level. She spat and twisted, but a knee at the center of her back kept her down while Lan Sizhui felt around her matted hair for the pin.
She went slack the moment it was removed. Her head tilted upwards, once, her eyes bulging askance.
“You can go now, if you’d like,” said Lan Sizhui, softly.
The woman’s lips formed the faint shape of a stuttered, ‘Thank you’ before the body gave one last heave and then turned completely to ashes under Wen Ning’s hand.
Together, they swept the ashes into one of the spirit pouches. When that was done, Lan Sizhui held the pin up. He lit a light talisman to get a better look.
“How many do you think he had?” asked Lan Sizhui.
“I don’t know,” admitted Wen Ning. “I only, mm. My memories of when he kept me aren’t the best. He stopped coming after awhile. But he had them in ...erm, different widths. He had to keep using larger ones. To keep me from fighting him too much while he did, er, other things.”
He gripped one of his arms in the echo of a memory. A fierce corpse of a certain quality could recover from extensive damage, so long as the spirit and cultivation level of the deceased remained strong. But it didn’t mean the damage had never happened at all.
“That sounds awful for you,” said Lan Sizhui. “How long?”
“I still don’t know. Years, I think? Master Wei might know more now.” Seeing his cousin’s concern, Wen Ning smiled shakily. “Oh, A-Yuan. Please don’t be too sad for me. It was a painful time for a lot of people, but I’m all right now, aren’t I?”
Lan Sizhui bit down the wave of feeling that came over him at that. As a Fierce Corpse, ‘all right’ could only go so far. But Lan Sizhui never dared question the happiness that Wen Ning seemed to have found in their time together -- or why he’d never felt the need to move on, like the woman just had. It seemed insulting to question his resolve.
“A needle with a gauge like this,” said Lan Sizhui, instead, turning the pin carefully in his hand. “Would he try to use it on you again?”
“It wouldn’t work,” said Wen Ning, with a surprising amount of pride. “Besides, he would need more than that if he wanted to control me. Wanted to try, I mean. And even so, it really wouldn’t work! Not in a thousand years! Unless, maybe, it were Master Wei. But he’d never. He always, always asked if he could.”
It was true. The pins only suppressed the will of a corpse. They didn’t actually issue the commands themselves. To control one fierce corpse required the skills of a demonic cultivator, wielding a medium for control like a flute or sometimes chimes. To control the fifteen or so they’d suppressed in the fishing hamlet -- that would require a spiritual tool of a higher level.
“The remade Stygian Tiger Seal was destroyed,” murmured Lan Sizhui. “Jin Guangyao--”
“My uncle lied a lot,” came a bitter voice. “Why not about that, too?”
Lan Sizhui turned. Jin Rulan stood behind him with a grim expression. Hanging limply over his arms was a wheezing young boy -- 14 or 15 at the oldest, thin and grey-skinned, covered in cuts that no longer bled.
“Got an antidote?” he asked, laying him down.
The boy was pretty far gone, but Lan Sizhui reached for his medical pouch while Jin Rulan laid him out. With some coaxing, he convinced him to take pills -- both for the corpse poisoning and the pain, but his pulse was weak and his head tilted listlessly from side to side. He didn’t have much more color than the corpses who attacked them. Wen Ning went to fetch some fresh water to heat, if any could be found.
“Found him in the north cottage,” explained Jin Rulan. “Only one.”
“...you managed to evacuate so many,” offered Lan Sizhui.
“Don’t,” said Jin Rulan. “I don’t want to count lives like that.”
“I just want to say,” said Lan Sizhui. “You’re doing the very best you can.”
“Mm,” said Jin Rulan.
The boy shuddered. Something was wrong. He began to mutter under his breath, twitching and twisting. Lan Sizhui moved to hit one of his pressure points -- and noticed for the first time, he had dirt under his nails on just one hand.
His left hand.
Fairy let out a long, warning howl.
“Hey….hey….,” whispered the boy. “Master...Jin...”
His eyes flew open. Under his filthy bangs, Lan Sizhui made out a glint of red.
“Rich….brother,” gasped the boy. He spat out a cloud of ashes. Fairy let out a deep-throated growl. “Mind buying me lunch?”
He threw himself at Jin Rulan at the same time Fairy threw herself at him.
Lan Sizhui was closer, and his reflexes slightly better. He managed to grab the boy’s arm and twist it behind him before he could get far, but the boy dislocated his shoulder in the process of jerking back around to go for him instead. Fairy grabbed a mouthful of the boy’s tunic in her teeth and dragged at him. Lan Sizhui plunged a talisman against his chest. The power in it hit the boy like a shock, causing his entire body to spasm like a toy on a string. Fairy let him go. The tip of Jin Rulan’s sword rested next to the boy’s neck.
The bright red eyes fixed on Lan Sizhui. The face pulled into a distorted smile, revealing blackened, broken teeth.
“White…” he muttered, black curse energy began to wisp from his mouth, his eyes, his nostrils. He fell onto his knees, before tipping face forward into the dirt. He lay still. Fairy began to circle, growling. She kicked dirt at him.
“A trap,” began Jin Rulan.
Lan Sizhui summoned his guqin.
Far from subdued: The boy went from limp to raging in an instant, his body shooting forward with the speed of a striking snake. He didn’t care for how the talisman sizzled against him as he did any more than he cared about the edge of the guqin crashing against his chest. His pale hands wrapped around Lan Sizhui’s face. He shoved himself forward, pressing his cracked lips against Lan Sizhui’s jaw, in the vicious parody of a kiss.
“Ah, Daozhang…” sang the youth, in a breathless voice, as Lan Sizhui plucked a deft, repelling chord, and the boy fell backwards -- stiff limbed and now truly dead. The evil energy wafted off of his body like smoke from an old firecracker. A few more notes, and it twisted and dissipated.
The air smelled sickeningly sweet, drawing out the last note -- Lan Sizhui touched the crawling energy against his cheek. It was sticky, like spun sugar. He met Jin Rulan’s eyes over the body of the unfortunate survivor -- who’d been no survivor at all.
They found the needle hidden in the roof of his mouth.
“It’s the same energy in the mark on your arm. It’s not the Stygian Tiger Seal that’s controlling them,” said Lan Sizhui, calm, even as he began, grimly, to press a talisman into his own wrist, hard enough to burn. “They’ve all been possessed.”