The morning light was the blue of a drowned corpse.
The wind whistled plaintively through the gap in the clay tiles.They’d done their best to patch it, but in the worst of weather there was nothing to be done for it. The cold tickled your ears regardless.
Lan Sizhui slept through it. He may have lived most of his life protected from the mountain’s cold by Lan elegance, but his first three years had been spent in abject poverty. With effort, he could recall warm soup and laughter and the sound of a flute among the creaking trees, but for a long time his only early memories were of that corpse grey. So he thought little of a gap in the roof, or the hiss of the wind.
But as his eyes opened, the thought that nagged him was: Ugh, that’ll keep him up.
Of course, he meant Jin Ling. Jin Ling was restless even in the calmest times, which certainly wasn’t the present circumstance. Jingyi often teased the Jin sect leader for his fussiness on night hunts, teased him about his picky eating, about the need to sleep in Lanling silks (as though Gusu silk wasn’t just as fine), but Lan Sizhui had always known Jin Ling’s unease was born more of mind than body. When one cared a great deal about a great many things, there was a lot to lose sleep over. It’d taken Jin Ling years to learn to rest properly on a night hunt, and even then -- well, a Lan understood how habit was its own discipline, sometimes.
The cottage was empty. The wards swayed like chimes off the cross beams. The murk of pre-dawn resolved itself into simple shapes. What little furniture had survived had been pulled against the wall, to allow for more empty bed mats. A few bodies lay strewn across them -- living bodies. Lan Yan was one of them. No surprise. She must’ve spent a better part of the night administering antidotes, sharing spiritual energy, saving who they could. She’d joined the Lan sect later in life than Lan Sizhui. Before that, she’d lived simply if a little warily. She slept with her back against the wall and her face turned towards the door.
Hm. Smart girl.
Most of the disciples who were awake had settled in to secure the borders of their new encampment, setting walls and wards. But someone must’ve convinced the Chief Cultivator to take some rest, because Lan Sizhui found him slumped by a burnt down firepit in the shadow of the cottage: elbow on knee, face buried in his palm. The white sword lay next to his knee. Lan Sizhui knelt beside him, and laid his hand over the sheath.
His thumb teased at the ornamentation: graceful, familiar, spotless, wealthy as hell . He leaned over his leg, brushing it with his. The man beside him stirred, lips moving slowly. He pressed nearer, feeling what little warmth there was in his body flow into his own. That body tilted towards him instinctively, craving the stolen heat. In return he reached up to rest his fingertips along his jaw. Elegant lines of hair, loose from its bindings, covered the waking man’s eyes.
Not that it mattered all that much.
“Silly,” he whispered, “Why did you sleep outside again?”
“You weren’t scared of waking me, were you?”
“So careful with me. You needn’t bother.” Press nearer, a hand on the knee. It shouldn’t have been so easy to slip into the arms of a man so renowned for his cool and his caution. There was a thrill in the accomplishment. Every time. Testingly, he pressed his face into that space between jaw and neck, nosing at the pulse there. “I don’t lose any sleep over you, you know.”
He slid his hand down the front of the robe. The pouch is just where he expects it, tied to his waist. He fishes out one of the candies there, and pulls away just enough to pop in his mouth.
It melts pleasantly on his tongue. “You’re so sweet. Let me return the favor, hm?”
And in that muzzly place between sleeping and waking, it’s so easy to open his mouth against his pulse, that beautiful soft bit of flesh that thrums at the attention. It’s so easy to drag his lips up to follow his jaw. So easy to make the other body do what he wants, he didn’t even have to whistle to do it. For now, it was much more fun to take a hot breath against his lower lip, to watch him shiver in response.
Whisper, “I can be sweet for you, too.”
Observe the knitting brow. The mild confusion. So easily confused, when the world was nothing but grey.
Oh, but it’s impossible to miss that tiny little nod. It’s impossible not to steal that kiss, searing and open-mouthed with the sweet of the honey candy between them. He passes the candy to him with his tongue. The shared heat banishes the morning’s corpse stiffness. And it’s easy, it’s so fucking easy. It’s not something he ever got over. How easily the other man not only yielded to him, but gave back tenfold. He felt the hand drape across his waist, palm pressed hard against the small of his back and he almost giggled in the sheer need in it. He swung his leg over his knee, straddling him like a girl at a winehouse.
“C’mon, let me. Please?” He hummed into his lips, begging although he never actually had to. He just liked the way it made the man’s hands go tight against his hips. Liked how urgent it made him.
He was spilled onto his back. A hand closed over his wrist, pinning him.
He felt the grin ache at the corner of his lips. “Daozhang,” he laughed, delighted.
“Sizhui,” said Jin Ling. He’d spit out the candy awhile ago.
Lan Sizhui stared up at him.
“Oh.” The heat was gone.
“Appeasements not an option.”
“I didn’t think it was.”
“Then why did you do this?”
Lan Sizhui stared quietly into the smouldering fire. They’d had time to pull their clothes straight. Jin Rulan had drawn the containment array with Suihua. The cut on his forearm had already knit shut.
Lan Sizhui sat obediently in the center. Wen Ning’s hands rested on his shoulders. It didn’t hurt. Wen Ning could never take an action that could ever cause him any sort of harm, but the ghost of firmness hovered in those stiff fingers.
" First, liberate; second, suppress; third, eliminate ,” recited Lan Sizhui.
Jin Rulan bristled. Beside him, Fairy backed her ears. “I know that.”
With the patience of a model student, Lan Sizhui continued to recite the old case study, the story of the executioner, in perfect diction, his beautiful cadence a soft shadow of Hanguang-jun: “The initial approach is to utilise the gratitude of his relatives and grant his dying wish, set free what he could not let go of. If it fails, suppress it. ”
“I know that.”
Lan Sizhui took a measured breath. On his lap, his hands curled into fists. Wen Nings hands tightened over his shoulder. Not enough to hurt. It was more like a squeeze of reassurance. Lan Sizhui’s intention was clear: If he could still recite, he could still think. If he could still think, his mind was still his own. He remembered Lan Qiren’s lectures well. He remembered reciting them back to Hanguang-jun even more sharply. Hadn’t he told Jin Rulan once, how much he’d loved showing him his power of recollection? “ If the crimes were extremely wrongful, and its energy of resentment does not dissipate, exterminate it completely. The cultivation world should precisely keep to this order of measures. No errors should be allowed."
Jin Rulan’s fist came down hard across Nie Minglin’s map.
“No errors?” Jin Rulan put his hand across Fairy’s back to keep from flipping the entire war table over. “How exactly is getting possessed by a raving psychopath not an error? How is that not, like, the biggest error there is?!”
Wen Ning put his arms more firmly around Lan Sizhui’s shoulders, as though to shield him from Jin Rulan’s shaking glare.
“It’s manageable,” said Lan Sizhui, stiffly.
Jin Rulan held out the candies. Lan Sizhui’s hands twitched, reaching for it. Jin Rulan pulled it away last minute, observing the brief flash of annoyance in the Lan disciple’s dark eyes.
“Manageable?” Jin Rulan bared his teeth in place of his shaking spirit dog. He could see the sweat standing out on Lan Sizhui’s brow. He could still feel the stickiness from the candy -- which he’d spat out, thanks -- on his lips. “Is that what the Yiling Patriarch said before he took Qiongqi Path?”
“Jin Rulan,” whispered Wen Ning, in a wounded voice.
Jin Rulan brought his hand over his eyes, glaring into his palm as he waited for his breath to level out. He waited until he’d stopped shaking, before he settled his hand back on the map.
“I’m sorry. That was beneath me,” he said, his harshness faltering, but Lan Sizhui just watched him with that deep, impenetrable stare: one of the many gifts from his own still living father. Wen Ning just dropped his head against Sizhui’s shoulder. He had no breath to catch. It was the only reassurance he could take.
Jin Rulan forced himself to continue: “But, A-Yuan --” He cut himself off. “Lan Sizhui. Why? You’re not a demonic cultivator. This isn’t your way. You’re a Lan. You’re one of the most Lan Lans to ever Lan--”
“Not by birth.” Lan Sizhui’s pale hand brushed the back of Wen Ning’s arm, squeezing it gently in return. There was none of Xue Yang’s particular possessiveness in the gesture, though Jin Rulan couldn’t help but watch for it. Just care. Just an aching amount of care and concern, and Wen Ning held him a little tighter.
Jin Rulan had to look away. There were very few people who’d ever held him like that and one of them was presently looking through his very soul.
“Fine. You’re still one of the best cultivators I know,” he said. “And one of the bravest. And compassionate. And the smartest . So why did you do something this risky and stupid?!”
“Because now I know Xue Yang’s body is interred in the fourth passage behind the second waterfall,” said Lan Sizhui. He released Wen Ning, gesturing instead with one extended finger, towards the general corresponding point on the map. “It is guarded by twenty-three fierce corpses. Former military grade cultivators.” Then, in an even more tight and distant voice: “Qishan Wen Sect.”
“Ah,” said Wen Ning.
“I know,” said Lan Sizhui, as a soft aside. “I’m sorry, Brother Ning.”
Jin Rulan swore viciously. “Twenty-three cultivator-grade corpses?! But -- my uncle -- Lianfang-jun --- fuck. The notes Nie Minglin gave us said those bodies shouldn’t be usable. They should be in pieces.”
“A Fierce Corpse can repair most damage,” said Lan Sizhui -- and was there a bit of smugness in his lips there, a bit of a personal pride in the anatomy of an animated corpse. That definitely wasn’t him. “Provided they can find the flesh to supplement it.”
Wen Ning had the grace to look a little ashamed of this bit of information. “It, um, doesn’t always have to be human.”
“Augh,” said Jin Rulan.
The glint of pride faded from Lan Sizhui’s lips. “There’s more.” His words grew slower, as though struggling against a silence spell. “In front of the entrance. There’s a….barrier. Five points. I can show you the design, I think. I know it--”
“ He knows it, you mean,” said Jin Rulan. “No. You’re not going under again. We’ll dispel it ourselves.”
“But I can--”
“No.” Jin Rulan rolled up the map and shoved it into his belt. “It’s enough to go on. You’re going to stay here until Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-jun get here and exorcise the shit out of this bastard -- or I get back after burning the hell out of his corpse.”
Lan Sizhui’s blank stare broke. “Jin Ling!”
Jin Rulan refused to look at him. “No.”
“Song Zichen faced him without Xiao Xingchen.”
“We’re not Song Zichen and Xiao Xingchen.”
“I…” Lan Sizhui’s hands fell onto his lap. He looked at them.
Jin Rulan finally relented. “I’m not going alone anyway.” He snapped his fingers. The array dampened. Lan Sizhui blinked. He moved to go get up -- but Wen Ning swept to his feet faster. The Fierce Corpse stepped out of the array fast enough for Jin Rulan to close it again before Lan Sizhui could follow.
“B-brother Ning?” stammered Lan Sizhui.
“I’m sorry, A-Yuan.” Wen Ning’s bottom lip shook a little, but he moved to stand beside Jin Rulan. “I don’t want Xue Yang to hurt you. And I don’t want you to have to fight… those men. Let me go in your stead. Please?”
“I…” Lan Sizhui slowly turned to his seated position, crossing his legs and resting his hands on his knees, in a meditative pose. He shut his eyes. His face smoothed out. “I understand your concern. Please don’t feel guilty for it. I don’t blame you.”
“A-Yuan.” Wen Ning couldn’t cry anymore, but oh, was he trying. “We’ll be back soon.”
“....thanks,” said Jin Rulan. “Both of you.”
But as he turned to walk away, Lan Sizhui’s voice followed him in a deadly whisper, throatier than normal:
“Putting me in a cage again, huh?”
Jin Rulan ignored it. “He can’t hurt himself in that array,” he said, as much for his own reassurance as for Wen Ning’s. “Go tell the others to get in the formation we discussed. I’ll brief them before we head out.”
“You like me like this best, don’t you?” called Lan Sizhui’s voice. “Pretty and obedient and behind closed doors.”
“And set off some signals to let Wei Wuxian know where we are,” continued Jin Rulan. “For whenever he wants to get his ass in gear.”
“Daozhang never hid me away.”
“Only because you lied to him. I don’t want to hear about your weird thing with Xiao Xingchen,” snapped Jin Rulan. He was tired of letting him talk shit.
“Oh, ha. You thought that was my grievance?”
Jin Rulan left him in the array.
Jin Rulan loosed three arrows at once. The whirling talisman exploded mid-air. Streaks of flame rained down in ribbons around them. The sparks caught in the treetops above them, spreading with an unnatural hunger.
Wen corpses didn’t fear fire.
Wen Ning swung his arm around upwards, and with a quick crack broke one of the trees and levelled five others, cutting off the flame’s path -- but the smoke marked their location. The swarm of corpses ahead began to shuffle and moan.
Well. Better them than the boats.
“To the river,” shouted Jin Rulan, shoving his bow back over his shoulder. “Now!” He led the advance force down into the marsh, where their sloshing held the attention of the undead unit. Lan Yan played an invocation -- Jin Rulan couldn’t help but notice it sounded suspiciously like a popular love song.
Jin Rulan had heard stories about the Sunshot Campaign. The distant ones, like the burning of the Cloud Recesses, and the defeat of Wen Xu at the hands of Nie Mingjue. The more personal ones: the sack of Lotus Pier, the final siege on the Nightless City, both told to him by men who’d really been there. There was nothing more convenient to the world than a sole enemy. The cultivation world loved to gossip about the wicked schemes of Jin Guangyao, the heretical resourcefulness of the Yiling Patriarch and his army of corpses, but once upon a time, the enemy of choice had been the Qishan Wen and their blazing sun.
Jin Rulan had only ever met two members of the Wen Sect. One was the man who’d killed his father. The other -- well, neither of them had been what he expected. It was hard to see a convenient enemy in someone you’d spoken to. Someone you’d had dinner with. Someone who stumbled when figuring out if you wanted to be called by your courtesy name or your personal one.
But, sweeping his sword low to drag up a wall of water against a fresh barrage of flames -- an old Yunmeng child’s game-- proved terribly handy just then. Jin Rulan had to admit, these talismans were kind of a huge pain in the ass.
Their attention drawn, Lan Yan followed instruction, leading the other Lan disciples to switch to a song of vigor. The piece was played at such a suspiciously high tempo Jin Rulan wondered if Lan Jingyi hadn’t been behind its composition, or at least the adoption of it into Lan combat canon.
Overall, it was a mad, stupid dash. But it drew attention off the boats, and it gained them a crucial bit of territory in the advance. Jin Rulan shot a couple of arrows at the feet of the shambling corpses ahead, a few delayed explosive talismans stuck to the shafts detonated as they connected, wreaking confusion if not habit. He called over his shoulder to two of the Jiang disciples bringing up behind him. “Guo. Li. Draw up the next boundary.”
A moment later he felt the shiver of power behind him. Good. They’d reclaimed just a bit more of the river.
Bolstered, the rest of them pressed forward. After the spur in the river bank, the chokepoint opened up ahead, to the rise in the hill, and the cascade ahead -- the third of the three spills, the first encountered if approached from Chen Town, where they’d set out. Just like the map had said. Just like Lan Sizhui had warned, Jin Rulan also saw the subtle way the spray of the waterfall warped as it fell. The flow slanted too soon as it met an invisible obstacle. A sloppy tell. This kind of crude, temporary barrier that wouldn’t last more than a week, would’ve required a life-threatening amount of blood to maintain, risked terrible backlash, and would’ve given any basic tutor in array theory an absolute conniption. An undead demonic cultivator didn’t have to worry about any of these things. Especially when they had a plum supply of bodies that weren’t theirs to begin with.
Thinking they had an advantage, the Fierce Corpses closed in on them in two columns, their Wen colors ragged and faded over their broken bodies. They weren’t clean corpses. A Fierce Corpse in its very best condition, was, well, Wen Ning. But these ones had clearly been pieced together from whatever was leftover in the tomb. Their limbs were uneven, some of their faces entirely distorted, but the hatred that burned in what remained of their eyesockets were unmistakable. The Jin gold, especially, was a waving lure all on its own. Whether it was Xue Yang’s grudge, or the grudge of those Wen soldiers, it didn’t really matter on that point.
Fairy grew to the size of a horse. She threw her head back and gave a long, baying call. Wen Ning threw himself on the advance with a valiant recklessness. Jin Rulan traded his bow for the whip at his hip. He cracked one corpse across the face before Wen Ning slammed it into the stones piled up at the base of the falls. Another corpse caught the end of the whip as he sent it lashing at its feels. That suited Jin Rulan fine. He brought his foot down on the taut line and pulled the corpse into two of its fellows. It caused enough confusion for Wen Ning to behead one of them and kick his boot through the chest of the other.
The numbers weren’t ideal. The rest of the Wen corpses had enough remaining intelligence to pull back up the cascade, to keep the advantage of height and their seemingly endless supply of flame spells. But that was fine. The boats would be in range soon enough, and from there they could pull back and really unleash hell--
A shiver ran through the assembled corpses. Some of the less broken ones dropped to what remained of their knees. The ones who had been disabled twisted and squirmed into a seated position. Someone leapt over the heads of the battling cultivators -- a graceful white figure landed among the assembled corpses. Not one of them raised a hand against him. Several of them lifted what counted for their arms in a parody of a bow.
Lan Sizhui lowered the leaf from his lips.
“Hm,” he said, giving his hair an uncharacteristic toss. The eyes that bore down on the rest of the cultivators were a deep, flicking red. His right arm hung at his side, limp and useless. “You’re not as boring as I thought you’d be. You’re no Wei Wuxian, but as starters go -- heh. You kids learned a thing or two, huh?”
Jin Rulan bared his teeth. “How the hell--?!”
“Hey, Discount Chief Cultivator. Don’t worry. Your array wouldn’t shame your uncle.” He led the leaf go and reached down the collar of his robe. Xue Yang held up a slither of long, brittle black hair. “Brother Ning just left a bit of a medium behind. A corpse past your gate’s still a corpse past your gate. Didn’t even have to figure out how to make this body bleed under the conditions you set. Isn’t Brother Ning just the best ?”
He hummed, minutely. A spark of flames ran down into the strand of hair. It dissolved into a crumble of ash. A Wen technique.
“Turns out, this body’s got a lot of neat little secrets.” And with Lan Sizhui’s gentle face, Xue Yang’s eyes danced. “But you know that already, don’t you? … when it suits you, anyway.”
Wen Ning exploded from a pile of seething corpses. “A-Yuan!” he cried. He stumbled forward, knee deep in marsh with pieces of his former sect members still clutching at his robes. Lan Sizhui raised his eyebrow, drew his sword and held it against his own throat.
Wen Ning froze. Jin Rulan raised a fist. The creak of drawn arrows eased.
“Wen Ning,” sing-songed Xue Yang. “Join your people”
Wen Ning made a soft, miserable whine somewhere in the back of his throat. He hunched, shuddered, and then, sparing only the briefest of grief-stricken over his shoulder, leapt to land beside the waiting Lan Sizhui, now surrounded by the rest of the Wen fierce corpses. Xue Yang whistled, and the ones who had arms lifted them in the gruesome parody of a bow. Xue Yang nodded, approvingly, letting the point of the sword shift just slightly, teasing the edge dangerously close to his borrowed throat.
Wen Ning squeezed his eyes shut and dropped down. Xue Yang laughed.
“You finally do what I say,” he said, with relish. “Good, good. What a good grocery run this has been. Two prize cabbages for Wei Wuxian. And Lan Wangji, to boot. When are they putting in an appearance, anyway?”
Jin Rulan was already trying to gauge the distance he’d need to get his whip around Lan Sizhui’s ankle. Xue Yang noticed, rolling his eyes.
“Bah, nevermind. They’ll show up eventually. C’mon, Ghost General. You’re my toy now. I’ll even let you have your sect brothers back. How’s that sound?”
With another few notes of a whistled invocation, the Wen corpses began to withdraw, the barrier in front of the waterfall wavering to allow them passage.
Jin Rulan saw Lan Sizhui’s eyes flicker black again, meeting his across the spill pool. He saw Lan Sizhui’s lips mouth: ‘Now.’
But when Jin Rulan forced himself forward, something shot out of the marsh and clenched around his leg. He looked down. A snake. Or at least what had once been one. It was rotted and skeletal, but it still managed to open its shattered jaws and hiss.
Beneath all their feet, the water began to churn.
Lan Sizhui’s eyes were red again. Xue Yang laughed and licked the sword. He made Wen Ning take his arm as they hopped cleanly backwards through the barrier.
“Don’t worry,” he called. “I wasn’t going to leave you lonely or anything. That’s what you do, isn’t it?”
The charred trees began to rustle. Slashing the undead snake down the middle, Jin Rulan called a quick regrouping. The cultivators fell back to the bank, back to back, but in the distance, from the boats he began to hear the sound of arrows firing wildly around them.
Xue Yang’s voice echoed off the rocks, in Lan Sizhui’s stolen timbre: “Did you know that humans aren’t the only one who can get corpse poisoning?”
He didn’t need to spell it out. Out of the water, the white and grey bodies drifted to the surface, gaping and spasming. Out of the trees, ragged birds came pelting out of the crooked black branches, half of them dropping into the underbrush, but charging forward nonetheless, grass blackening under them.
“Everything dies, you know.”