Jin Ling stared up at the ceiling. The ancient gold moldings of Carp Tower stared back at him. He grasped at the handle of his sword. He’d passed out with it again. Who could expect him not to? The stupid peacocks had been screaming again, and now there was a servant hovering outside his door, going on about how Lianfang-zun was worried about him. Jin Ling was late for yet another carefully arranged breakfast service. Sandu Shengshou had arrived at dawn, and surely Jin Ling wasn’t still feeling ill? At his age it was only proper for a young man to account for himself and while of course he would not be expected to attend, it might be good to put on a good face, after all one must always be very careful about presentation, and appearances of strength. You are feeling strong, aren’t you, Jin Ling? I heard you lost another fight. How unfortunate. What do you think led to that? Have you considered…
The servant’s voice had slowly morphed into Lianfang-zun’s and then, more bizarrely, Nie Minglin. He suspected if he looked at the door he’d find her there with her stupid notebook, marking down his every response.
Jin Ling groaned and dragged the blanket over his face, smothering himself in blue and gold, to hell with what it did to his hair.
Jin Ling stared up at the ceiling. The old polished wood of Lotus Pier hung over his head. He crawled out of bed, fighting his sheets as he struggled to shrug his way into the purple overobe of a disciple in training. He pinned his gold braid up as best he could. Uncle didn’t approve of it hanging in his face during drills. But by the time he’d stepped out across the dock, the water had turned black and the fish were all skeletons, and out in the courtyard he could hear the screams and the snap of a whip like thunder.
Ah, damn. Uncle had caught another one last night.
Jin Rulan stared up at the ceiling. The rabbit lantern dangled over his head. He smelled sandalwood. A stick of incense burned on the desk nearby. He was actually in the Yashi. Which was an odd place to be having a nap, among the half laid out reception service, but Lan Sizhui’s arms were warm and comfortable around his head. It was enough to shift more comfortably in the pillow of his crossed legs and not think about logistics just then.
Lan Sizhui toyed with the red ribbon that trailed over Jin Ruan’s shoulder, humming quietly. He had a good voice, Jin Rulan pressed his head harder against his chest, so he could feel it vibrate against his cheek. Most Lan knew how to carry a tune, but Lan Sizhui was especially gifted. It was a soft, yearning tune: that weird Lan love song Wei Wuxian could sometimes be caught whistling. If you asked him the name he always just laughed. He changed the answer every time.
“Someone’s going to see us,” muttered Jin Rulan, cracking open an eye.
“I don’t mind,” said Lan Sizhui, dreamily.
‘I mind,’ Jin Rulan was about to say, reaching for Lan Sizhui’s chin at the exact moment the doors to the Yashi banged open, and in poured an army of people he knew: Zewu-jun, Hanguang-jun, Wei Wuxian, Uncle, Lan Jingyi, Wen Ning, Nie Minglin, Lianfang-zun…
‘Nope,’ decided with great force, then and there. ‘Nope, nope, nope. I am absolutely done with this.’
Jin Rulan opened his eyes and stared up at the empty sky.
Fairy lay over him. She’d shifted out of her battle size, and into a more manageable quilt size. As his breath shifted from deep sleep to a ragged wakefulness, she stuck her muzzle against his neck. Normally he’d have just grumbled and shoved her off, but from the prickle in his wrist, he knew he was lending her spiritual energy.
Instead he buried his hand in her mane and jangled the bells on her collar. “S’alright, Fairy. I’m good now. Save some for yourself.”
With some reluctance, Fairy shifted to splay across his lap. Jin Rulan pushed himself onto his elbows. The rocking under him told him he was on a boat. The sound of men and women hauling nets told him they were alive. The sounds of a flute told him why. On the boat’s prow, a man in black stood with his back to him, playing the last few lingering notes. The water beneath them stopped sloshing, as if to listen.
It was that weird Lan love song. “Which song is that, anyway?”
The man lowered his black flute. The red tassel swung in time with the boat.
“It’s called ‘Wishing for a Nephew Who Doesn’t Bite Off More Than He Can Chew,’” he said, tapping Chenqing against his hip.
Futile as always. Bah. Jin Rulan eyed him cautiously, glancing between him and the dog. “You let Fairy stay?”
Looking back at him, the man blew his messy bangs out of his face and squatted down next to him.
“We’ve declared a truce.” He didn’t look at the dog as she began to pant, her tail thumping tiredly. He held his hands apart. “Long as she stays about, hm. This far away. Maybe a little farther. Out of biting distance anyway. I’ll manage. Bravely. Be honored, Jin Ling. Such horrors this uncle is willing to put up with, if it’s you!”
“This uncle,” muttered Jin Rulan, “Could’ve showed up a bit sooner.”
“And my adorable nephew has overslept.” Wei Wuxian reached into his pack and held out some lotus seeds. “I’d normally be bursting in pride to see you take one of my habits to heart but it is a little inconvenient right now.”
“Who’s habits are whose?” But Jin Rulan shoved a fistful of seeds into his mouth. Life seemed to pulse back into his limbs as he ate. “How long have I been out? And what are you doing fussing over me, anyway? We’re surrounded by demonic fish. Where are my people? How many are injured? How many are still fighting?”
“Oh, Chief Cultivator, excuse me for my impertinence!” laughed his uncle, with that sincere insincerity only driven home by how he squeezed his shoulder before he swept to his feet. Wei Wuxian managed the dip of the boat with all the confidence of one who had bounded up and down the docks of Lotus Pier since he was a child, propping his foot up on the starboard outwale. He spun his flute and pointed with it “Not to question your powers of observation, but you really should take a look for yourself.”
Jin Rulan slowly rose to his feet.
The boats were moored in the river, all present and accounted for. He could hear the sound of fighting in the distance, but no screams or cries of pain. The water beneath them wasn’t completely calm. Every now and again something trashed or writhed, but the boats stayed untroubled. With the waters no longer choked black by resentment, Jin Rulan could see why: from each side of the river, the roots of the trees had extended outwards, forming a series of interlocking cords. These interlocking chords had further woven themselves into nets, each now entirely coiled around the mass of flopping, twisting fish corpses. Each time one of those flapping half-rotted bodies tried to squirm free, the resentment bleeding from their bodies inspired the branches to pull a little tighter, closing the net further.
Wei Wuxian watched him take this in. He’d crossed his arms, unaccountably smug.
Jin Rulan almost wished he could just let all this go without taking his obvious bait, but it was so weird he had to ask. “What’s all this?”
“Glad you asked,” said Wei Wuxian, beaming like a man a third his age. “Thorn snare. Heh. Well. More like a root snare in this case. Same idea, though. Xue Yang’s resentment has killed a lot of people. And vegetation. Seems only fair everyone should get a little of their own back, hm?”
“Uncle Wei, that is super interesting but I … couldn’t care less about how it works’ Jin Rulan resisted the urge to draw his sword and poke at the netted corpses. Besides keeping them trapped, it looked as though most of the resentment in the water had seeped into the tangled roots, filling them with seething energy but leaving the water mostly clear. “But it does work right? Are my men alive? Did you get all of them?”
“Ah, how unfair! And your uncle was doing his best to show off how cool he can be. But to answer your question -- yes. Yes. And as to that last point.” Wei Wuxian ticked down his fingers. “He should be able to tell you better.”
Wei Wuxian tilted his head towards the river bank. A figure in white marched proudly out of the blackened woods. Jin Rulan straightened a little hopefully -- but no, it was Hanguang-jun, not Lan Sizhui. One arm folded behind his back, sharp profile stark as he approached the water, he lofted from the bank to the boat in one effortless leap. To most anyone in such a dire situation, the appearance of the second most highly ranked disciple of the Lan sect was by no means a disappointment, but somehow Jin Rulan still let out a breath and sank back down sullenly onto one of the benches. He draped one arm over Fairy and stared moodily at the prow, where Hanguang-jun landed, so light on his feet the boat barely stirred under his weight.
Wei Wuxian brightened, at least. He shoved off the side, more or less throwing himself at his husband. “Lan Zhan! There you are! What took you so long? Leaving me to care for the children on my own! Is that any way to treat your wife?”
Hanguang-jun intercepted Wei Wuxian with a firm hand on Wei Wuxian’s chest. For a moment, he stared at him, narrowing his eyes. The hand traveled to his chin and he pulled him near, not quite letting their mouths touch. His eyes flicked over his face searchingly.
“The music stopped,” he murmured. “I could do naught but come.”
Wei Wuxian gestured grandly at the nets. “Good fishing today. We should eat well.”
One of Hanguang-jun’s arms came up around Wei Wuxian’s waist, a stark flash of white on Wei Wuxian’s dark overobe.
“You’ve devoured enough of those dark things.” With a dancer’s grace, Hanguang-jun pulled Wei Wuxian close, letting their foreheads touch before he whirled him down to sit in the far bench, hands firmly keeping him from springing back up again. “Backlash will ruin you, if left alone.”
“Yes, yes, and I’ll suffer the anger of a thousand pissy fish. Perhaps I’ll grow fins. I’d be a pretty fetching water goblin. Lan Zhan, don’t fuss. I’ll be fine.”
Hanguang-jun knelt, summoning Wangji with the flick of his wrist that Lan Sizhui echoed so perfectly Jin Rulan had to look away. “Allow me to be the judge of that.”
“So fussy.” Wei Wuxian put his leg up on the bench and stayed there, submitting to the ministrations of the healing song even as he muttered something under his breath about ‘fingers’ and ‘better uses.’
Jin Rulan lowered his head. “Every time,” he muttered. Fairy whined in agreement. “Eh, honeymooners, mind giving me an update before you two go off and get lost in each other’s eyes again or something? Those are my people out there.”
“And your men are yet alive,” answered Hanguang-jun, “Now hush.”
“Be nice,” chided Wei Wuxian, now stretched out on the bench. He cracked an eye open. “Ouyang Sect Leader insisted on escorting us. He brought reinforcements.”
Jin Rulan sat up. “Zizhen’s here?”
Ouyang Zizhen had inherited the Ouyang Sect two years ago following his father’s most exasperated retirement. He’d been the first of the Sect Leaders to arrive at the Selection Conclave to put in a vote for Jin Rulan as Chief Cultivator. ‘Put in a vote’ included marching upon the Unclean Realm with each of his disciples wearing peonies and red ribbons, declaring his Sect’s undying support for Jin Rulan’s bid for the position, and recommending very strongly and loudly that all friends of his sect do the same. Jin Rulan had not asked him to do this -- in fact, he hadn’t wanted anyone to campaign for him at all -- but Ouyang Zizhen never lacked for a cause to throw himself behind. Passionately.
“What? Can’t hear him from here?” Wei Wuxian tilted his head backwards to peer over the edge of the outwale. “He’s been giving very rousing speeches about the promises of boyhood. Says you’re practically sworn brothers. Are you?”
“No?” Jin Rulan blinked. “I mean, I said I’d help him out sometimes, if I could--”
“Damn,” said Wei Wuxian. “That’s practically married. You should let his wife know. She’ll want to know she’s sharing.”
“Wei Ying,” said Hanguang-jun, a little sharply. He stilled the strings. He didn’t exactly deign to look at Jin Rulan so much as incline his head in his general direction. “The wounded rest behind the line. The rest move on the pool. The barrier yet holds strong. It has yet to fall.”
Jin Rulan bit his lip. He had to ask, as much as it shamed him. “Sizhui and Wen Ning?”
Hanguang-jun banished Wangji with a particularly emphatic sweep. Something seemed to twist behind his eyes, though his face remained controlled. “Behind the falls. They’ve not emerged.”
Jin Rulan’s fist tightened. “Then what are we still doing here?”
Hanguang-jun turned. It seemed he may have had something to say, but a hand closed over his arm from behind. Wei Wuxian leaned comfortably against him. It might’ve seemed flirtatious, even indecent, but his grin faltered, and there was a tired cast in his eyes as he rested his head on his husband’s shoulder.
“Fishing,” he said, with a dark little laugh.
Jin Rulan had heard enough. Clattering to his feet, he unsheathed Suihua and leapt from the boat. Fairy bounded quickly after him, a blur of fur. Wei Wuxian practically jumped into Hanguang-jun’s arms.
The defensive formations held. Most of the cultivators had cycled out who maintained the rear arrays. The wounded were safely evacuated. The poison had been mostly cleared and the bodies of the defeated undead burned or exorcised. Jin Rulan followed the lingering noise of battle, taking quick stock from the adjutants who rushed to meet him on the way.
Moving past the main line without a thought for the hurried shouts of, ‘Chief Cultivator! A moment!’ He found Ouyang Zizhen and his disciples little further up the bank, out in the thick brush of the river’s spur, his spear deep in the body of an undead boar.
A strike from Suihua beheaded it. A second strike shattered the skeletal rooster as it attempted to crow for more aid.
Ouyang Zizhen’s face shifted from determined to excited as Jin Rulan sheathed his sword.
“Chief Cultivator!” He dislodged his spear and gave a gesture, a number of Jiang and Ouyang sect members joined them “You needn’t worry. We have it handled here.”
The sounds of battle were thicker up ahead: the thrash and scream of undead wild beasts, and the hum of a blade as the dead trees shook. “What about the spill pool?”
“Ah, that….” Ouyang Zizhen scratched his nose. “That is a different issue.”
“A different issue.” Jin Rulan bristled despite himself. “But Hanguang-jun talked like it was practically secured. Who’s still fighting up ahead? Advance to back them up!”
“Say the word and my sect will gladly follow you to hell.” Ouyang Zizhens’ eyes flashed with his typical flair for romance. “But we were told not to interfere.”
“Who? Who said that?” Jin Rulan raised his arm to signal the rest of his men.
Hanguang-jun landed in front of him with an effortless whirl of sleeves, one arm extended outwards to block him.
He didn’t have to confirm it with words. That icy look was all Jin Rulan needed. “Ugh. Should have known.” He shut his eyes and waited for the sound of footsteps behind him. That careless step that could only be Wei Wuxian.
“Jin Ling, you left too soon.” Wei Wuxian had the courtesy to at least throw an errant talisman to shatter an undead goose as it attempted to fly at them from the underbrush. He closed his hand over Jin Rulan’s shoulder before he could attempt to advance past the positively stony Hanguang-jun. “You didn’t let me finish. How dare you make your uncle run!”
Up ahead something massive crashed into the water past the tree line. The water that rained down in the dead grass around them sizzled as it hit. Hanguang-jun summoned Wangji. A chord sent the rest of the spatter splashing in the opposite direction.
Out of sight, something hissed with a fury that no living throat could ever produce.
“Fishing,” said Jin Rulan flatly.
“For snake demons. Big ones,” admitted Wei Wuxian. His grip got harder as Jin Rulan tried to move forward again. There was no getting out of this particular lecture. “Looks like Xue Yang’s theatrics has gone and called up a whole nest of them. The poison in the water’s what’s been feeding them. Get anywhere near it while it’s still twisting around like that and not even my congee will be enough to save you.”
Jin Rulan crossed his arms and began to tap his foot in irritation. “You said it was secure.”
Hanguang-jun’s cool tones cut in like a sword. “It will be.”
The hiss was cut off suddenly by a sharp rushing sound.
“Who’s in there fighting those things?!”
The thrashing hit a different pitch. The trees ahead shook. Branches cracked. A thick, fetid wind tickled the dead grass. Even the bones they’d put down seemed to groan in misery from it.
“Wei Ying,” said Hanguang-jun, suddenly.
Wei Wuxian understood what he didn’t say. “I’ll be fine.” Nevertheless, his husband came to his side, pressing a hand to the small of his back as though he might turn to ash if he didn’t. Wei Wuxian smirked, shook out his hair, and lifted his flute. “Hand feed me before you play for me again, Lan Zhan. I want the full service.”
“You’re in public,” said Jin Rulan, mortified.
“How uninhibited,” said Ouyang Zizhen, starstruck.
The Yiling Patriarch began to play. It was a rousing song, filled with more power than the cleansing song he’d played by the river. The rotted winds abated almost instantly. Resentment rose from the dead plants and from beyond, running like black water towards the river, where the roots twisted and locked together to receive it. A flash of silvery light resounded from a break in the trees. Then nothing.
Wei Wuxian closed his eyes and slowly let his flute drop to his side. He laughed, raggedly. When he leaned his hip against Hanguang-jun’s, it wasn’t just to be flirtatious.
“Whew,” he said, “That thing had a lot stored up. Well. Should be breathable now.”
“We advance,” declared Jin Rulan, but he only made it a step before his uncle caught him by the sleeve. “What? What now?!”
Wei Wuxian pointed with his chin. “Look.”
A man separated himself from the blackness of the broken tree line, straight-backed as he sheathed his sword. His skin was grey. His robes were black. Jin Rulan’s heart clenched, caught somewhere between alarm and relief: the whole range of feelings that went through him whenever he greeted Wen Ning, no matter how many years passed.
But the man was much too tall, and across his back he carried two swords: one white, and one black.
“Oh,” said Jin Rulan.
His uncle laughed. “Sorry we were late. But this was worth the slight detour, I think.”
“You could have said something sooner.”
“Could have,” said Wei Wuxian. “If my cute nephew hadn’t needed some spoiling.”
Wei Wuxian’s ‘cute nephew’ shook off his hand and approached the Fierce Corpse. Song Zichen had been dead for many years now, but he still carried himself with the grace and poise of a Taoist of great renown, despite continuing to maintain no affiliation with any of the Great Sects. If it weren’t for the pale cast of his skin and the black cracks peeking out through his collar, it would be hard to guess the man was not strictly alive. His clothes remained in perfect condition. The tools on his back were well cared for, and the spiritual energy of his presence was unmistakable. The spirit bag hung from his hip. He showed no expression as Jin Rulan approached, eyeing his Jin gold robes, and the blazing gold peony.
Jin Rulan bowed. “Song Zichen,” he said, and behind him, he could hear Wei Wuxian hum in approval and no doubt amusement at this show of manners. Screw him anyway. He wasn’t raised by wolves! Just two very different uncles. “Thanks for involving yourself. We appreciate your help.”
He kicked up a stick off the ground at his feet. He was just about to offer it to him by way of communication, remembering all too well the condition Song Zichen had been in when last they met, when the rogue cultivator replied, in a scratchy, slow voice: “Your senior tells us you are now Chief Cultivator.”
“Er,” said Jin Rulan, surprised. “Yes?”
“Do you follow the example of Lianfang-zun?”
Jin Rulan stood a little straighter. There were few these days who dared to ask such a bald question so openly, let alone an undead rogue cultivator who should have, by all counts, been completely mute. “Does it look like I’m doing that?” He gestured to the surrounding cultivators. “We’re here to clean up these kinds of messes, not make them. Didn’t Wei Wuxian fill you in on the way?”
Another long, evaluating stare. “Then you have grown into an interesting young man.”
“And you sure seem to have a lot to say!” Then, more carefully. “That’s new.”
Wei Wuxian began to laugh. “Ah, yes, funny that. Didn’t you know, Fierce Corpses can repair a lot of different kinds of damage as long as--”
Jin Rulan shot him a glare. “I heard that already. I don’t need the step by step!”
“Eh? Who beat me to it?”
Jin Rulan looked away. “... Sizhui.” All too aware of the searing stare of Hanguang-jun on his back, he inhaled as he turned back to Song Zichen. “And speaking of -- Song Zichen. Forgive us if we’re a little off balanced. But we need to know the condition of the spill pool. Two of my people are behind that barrier.”
“Your people,” murmured Hanguang-jun, in a cutting tone, “are mine as well.”
“Lan Zhan,” said Wei Wuxian, quickly.
Jin Rulan grit his teeth, but continued as though he hadn’t heard that aside. “And I take it you know who’s responsible.”
“We do,” said Song Zichen, his voice went a few degrees cooler.
“Then can I count on you?”
“You may count on our aid. Not our affiliation. Your people…” A thick pause. Whatever express method Song Zichen had used to repair his tongue, it hadn’t been perfect. There remained a reverb in his voice. His throat bobbed in what in life would’ve been a swallow. “Your sect has not always been forthright with us.”
Ah. Politics. Somehow even death hadn’t taken away Song Zichen’s dream of a wandering cultivator, with no particular ties to a great sect. It might’ve been charming -- and Jin Rulan could practically hear Ouyang Zizhen well up at the romance of it all. “I get it,” said Jin Rulan. “Well. Let me make it official as I can. As Sect Leader, I renounce my predecessors judgment in the matter. Help us get Lan Sizhui back without hurting him, and I’ll leave the matter of Xue Yang to you. It should’ve been that way from the start. ...and I promised a friend, I’d give you your due. If you want it.”
He could practically hear Wei Wuxian nod in approval. Even Hanguang-jun shifted slightly. Jin Rulan squared his shoulders a little more. Fine. Let them be surprised. He had more important things to deal with right now.
“I accept responsibility for him,” said Song Zichen, in a slightly different pitch, and his flat eyes took on a sadder, softer expression. Jin Rulan paused. Something was off about it. He couldn’t quite tell what. But he didn’t have time to waste asking about it, because Song Zichen’s gaze fell on Wei Wuxian next. “Young Master Wei. Regarding that barrier--”
And then from beyond the ragged treeline, they heard a loud crash.
Lan Sizhui didn’t so much as wake up as he did come back to himself.
He’d reviewed the blueprints documenting the inside of the tomb. They’d been thorough and annotated, in Nie Minglin’s elegant handwriting. ‘Torture tools were stored here. Strong likelihood of resentful energy.’ And ‘doors cleansed regularly, low likelihood here.’
She had not, it seemed, seen fit to mention the dining room.
It’d once been one of the containment rooms. Lan Sizhui could still see the empty slabs propped against the wall, chains trailing off of them. Wards hung off of the walls. Their robes broken, the shadows of the useless binding talisman’s flickered in the light of the frail little candles on the table in front of him. Lan Sizhui was seated in front of a makeshift dinner spread. The furniture was old, but well used. It showed signs of scratches. The food was cold, but fresh. The rice was still sticky, but the tea no longer steamed, and the soup had begun to congeal.
He must have taken it from the village. “So you don’t just want him like that.”
His voice was hoarse, but usable. He felt no resistance getting the words out. The second consciousness in his mind was still there, its awareness barely brushing his -- but in a distracted, cursory way. Whatever the presence inside him truly wanted, it wasn’t to chat -- not just then anyway.
The answer came from across from him. His dinner companion had been draped across the chair opposite. “A-Yuan.”
Wen Ning smiled weakly. Lan Sizhui quickly lunged across the table to take his grey hand.
“Oh, good. He didn’t suppress you.”
“I wouldn’t be able to obey him if he did.”
Lan Sizhui winced. “That’s right.” Xue Yang had never been able to control Wen Ning through his demonic cultivation, even when rendered unconscious under the pins. The Fierce Corpse needed to have the awareness to know something would happen to Lan Sizhui if he disobeyed. “...I’m sorry. I should’ve known he’d think to use you. I’ve made a real mess for you, haven’t I?”
“It’s what Master Wei would have done,” whispered Wen Ning. Lan Sizhui knew it was true. But he’d forgotten how often Senior Wei’s plans forgot two key factors: his own wellbeing as he marched into hell, and the army of people who loved him enough to go with him. “I’m glad I’m here with you, at least.”
“Brother Ning.” Lan Sizhui squeezed his hand. It wasn’t cut or injured, at least. But it was hard for him to recall how long he’d been sitting there, and what else had been done with his body while his own mind had wandered the halls of Xue Yang’s scattered memories and emotions. “I didn’t do anything to you, did I? Like with, um.” He could still remember the taste of the honey candies in his lips, the hot press of Jin Ling’s lips against his own. Except it hadn’t been Jin Ling’s he’d been looking for just then. It’d been Xing Xiaochen. Daozhang. Daozhang. You’re late for dinner. I got your favorites. Little Blind can come too, if she doesn’t bitch about the sugar--
The foreign memory faded. It was still Wen Ning in front of him.
“He, um. Did my hair.” Wen Ning shook his head. Most of the blood and dirt from the battle had been washed clean. It was freshly conditioned, and pinned out of his eyes expertly. “You told me I’d done it crooked. And, um. Touched my mouth a little. And tried to feed me, some. He…didn’t seem to care I couldn’t eat it.”
Lan Sizhui’s cheeks burned. “He’s very lonely, isn’t he?”
Wen Ning bit his lip. “Yes.”
“Do we have any idea where he might be keeping his body?” A ghost’s ashes were their greatest weakness.
“I didn’t have to look,” said Wen Ning. He nodded at the wall. Lan Sizhui followed his gaze.
Most of the slabs were empty, dust freshly disturbed. Their iron chains, vibrating with the weak imitation of a Stygian Amulet, hung empty. The occupants had been repurposed for the shambling guards patrolling the halls of the tomb. But one corpse remained at the far end of the room. Lan Sizhui pushed himself to his feet. He lit a light talisman to get a better look. Good. Both his arms worked, and he could still use his own cultivation, even as he could feel the sluggish ache of corruption in his meridians.
Wen Ning knocked the stool over, stumbling after him. He touched his shoulder. “Careful.”
“I-- I will try to be.”
The body was surprisingly well-preserved. Through Su Minshan’s efforts, possibly, but most likely through the lingering resentment that made the light talisman flutter even several meters away. He hung at an odd angle. Iron pins had been driven through all his qi points, but as Su Minshan had failed to retrieve his right arm, only his left wrist could be nailed down, leaving him sinking on one side. The skin was grey and cracked, shot through with black lines. The hair was brittle but hadn’t crumbled to dust. His youthful, handsome face had gone sallow and emaciated, but even in death, his bruised lips seemed to form a mocking smile.
Blackened resentment practically bled from his mouth and his empty, glassy eyes. Before Lan Sizhui could barely summon the thought of laying a hand on his corpse, of burning it here and now, while he had the chance, his right hand suddenly went slack. His left hand redrew his sword and pressed it to his neck.
“I’m the delinquent here,” he whispered, to himself.
Then the conscious dispersed, sending him flying backwards into Wen Ning’s arms.
“Of course, he’d protect it,” muttered Lan Sizhui. Of course. Of course. Wen Ning held him near, making a distressed sound. Lan Sizhui leaned against his chest, and for a second he couldn’t actually tell if Wen Ning’s robes were the black silk he’d gifted him, or a scratchy white. But the recollection dispersed, along with the laughter in his throat. “Ah. But it’s hard for him. He doesn’t have a Stygian Tiger Seal. He has to use his own consciousness, to control all those poisoned bodies. He can’t concentrate on everything at once. So if I -- if I-- the barrier-- I may be able to -- that at least --”
He reached up and took Wen Ning’s face in his hands. His hair had come a little unbound when he’d rushed after him. He reached up with shaking hands to comb it aside, pretending for a moment that he was blind-folded.
“A corpse past the gate is a corpse past the gate,” whispered Lan Sizhui. “Brother Ning, may I borrow another strand of hair?”
The barrier shattered with a force that could be felt by every cultivator within four li, a terrible rush of power not unlike skeletal fingers running up the back of the neck. The more exhausted cultivators collapsed, hands clutching their noses, which now rushed with blood.
“Lan Yan,” snapped Jin Rulan. She was the nearest disciple with medical experience on hand. She rushed to tend to the collapsed. It was only after her white blur vanished into his periphery he realized he’d just pulled rank over Hanguang-jun. He charged forward before he could think too hard about that, grabbing at Fairy’s collar so that she could bound with him to the water’s edge.
“The rest, with me!”
Song Zichen had done thorough work. The bones of the undead serpents lay shattered and strewn across the bank. Wei Wuxian had done even more thorough work -- the water was clear as Jin Rulan leapt from stone to stone.
The ropes hung crooked over the stone cavern. The water flowed inhibited. The barrier had shattered, as though ripped open from an inside force far too powerful to be contained.
The Wen corpses waited. Jin Rulan drew Suihua and prepared to meet them head on.
Ouyang Zizhen assumed temporary command of the Jiang and Jin disciples, keeping the bulk of the corpses busy in the cave entrance. Fairy, mercifully, stayed behind. The tomb’s interior stretched out ahead of them. Multiple entrances. Multiple paths. Multiple rooms for storage and experimentation. It was one of the many defenses in the place, both to prevent enemies of the Jin from accessing it easily, and to prevent the ghoulish contents from escaping it. Guided by the consciousness of Xue Yang, the dead Wen could navigate the tunnels by instinct. Xue Yang had been intimately familiar with these passages.
It’d been one of his playgrounds after all. Lined up like puppets all his favorite toys had come, too. Another line of corpses in the Wen colors. At the sight of them, waiting so obediently, Wei Wuxian swallowed hard.
Song Zichen showed no such hesitation. “I will free them of this nightmare,” he declared, before throwing himself bodily into the mass of them, drawing the black sword on his back, leaving the white one untouched.
One corpse hung back. At the sight of him, Wei Wuxian stuck out his arm, pushing Jin Ling back by his chest.
“Master Wei,” said Wen Ning, waiting at the first fork in the hall. He hunched almost bashfully, but in the light of the flame talismans, his shadow stretched long across the stone floors. A new set of shackles dangled from his wrists. The chains dragged along the floor.
Wei Wuxian skidded to a halt. “Wen Ning,” he said, and for a moment his eyes ached as he saw the way the shackles had rubbed Wen Ning’s wrists raw. “Ah, damn. He chained you up again. Don’t suppose you could just us through?”
Wen Ning shivered, sadly. “I’m sorry, Master Wei,” he said, staring at his feet. “He will know if I go too easy on you.”
Wei Wuxian held out his hands. Lan Wangji hissed in alarm. “Wei Ying. What do you think you’re--”
“He wants the same thing as before, doesn’t he?” asked Wei Wuxian. “You could just take me to him. I’ll negotiate. I’m good at that.”
“You are not,” snapped Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian shot him a wounded look as Wen Ning shook his head. “No. It’s not the same this time. There’s only one person he really wants. Wei Wuxian might be of some help with that. But, er, Hanguang-jun….”
The pulse of a particularly grievance seemed to vibrate through the walls, making the talismans flutter. The light wobbled. The shadows at their feet danced and twisted.
Wen Ning winced, his hair shaking in the sudden sweet wind. “I think he’s still mad about his arm.”
“And I’m not leaving Lan Zhan to do this alone.” Wei Wuxian sighed as he tapped his foot. “Ugh. How impossible. Guess it was too much to ask a ghost like Xue Yang to listen to reason straight up. You’re a really devoted senior, you know that, right?”
Lan Wangji cut to the heart of the matter. “And how is he?”
Who ‘he’ was immediately obvious. Wen Ning raised his head in relief, even as he extended his arm and began to swung the chain. It scraped across the floor. “Unharmed, for now. Xue Yang won’t harm him if he’s still of use to him as a host. But if I don’t do my very best….”
He raised his arms meaningfully.
Lan Wangji assumed a similar fighting stance. “So if this is how it must be…”
Wei Wuxian sputtered as he stepped between them, arms out. “That’s still Wen Ning.”
“No matter. I will fight to subdue.” He nodded in the Fierce Corpse’s direction. He summoned Wangji, his fingers poised over the strings. “That is truly what you want.”
Wen Ning nodded as he wound his chained arm back. Wei Wuxian dropped his arm and sank back on his heels. Out of the corner of his eye, he shot Jin Ling an exhausted look.
“What we do for love,” he said, with a rueful grin. More seriously, he added. “...go on ahead. Rescue that bad little boy of ours.”
Jin Ling snapped out of himself. “But--”
“Wen Ning would hate himself if he had to hurt you any more than he already has.”
Jin Ling pale and stricken. But he nodded. What a good, dutiful person he’d turned out to be. He gripped his sword and charged past the line of corpses. When Wen Ning moved to block his path, Wei Wuxian moved first, blocking his hand with his flute.
“Thank you,” said Wen Ning, smiling weakly. “I would appreciate it if Hanguang-jun would allow Master Wei to play. I don’t really want to be awake for this any longer than I have to be.”
Jin Rulan left the sounds of battle and music behind him. The strum of Wangji, and the piercing notes of Chenqing.
Among the pages of maps, Nie Minglin had offered him notes on the best passages to take to the inner chambers of the tomb. The ones with the least switchbacks, lowest possibility for ambush, best width to swing a sword. She’d taken it all into account. He knew which trap wards to spring before he advanced. He knew which pieces of tile to avoid on the floor.
How she’d had the time to dig out all that research among the Cloud Recesses records, he had no idea. Nie Huaisang’s niece was nothing if not thorough.
Still, nothing could have prepared him to find Lan Sizhui waiting for him in the inner chamber, elbow deep in the chest of one of the broken Wen corpses. It’d dragged itself back half-shattered. It lay half draped over the stone slab. Lan Sizhui bent over it, humming to himself.
“I thought I was A-Yuan to you,” pouted Lan Sizhui, in a voice that was his but also wasn’t. He pulled his good arm out with a sickening squelch. The body of a pig lay at his feet, partly eviscerated. Lan Sizhui stepped over it, not caring for how the ends of his beautiful Lan robes were streaked in blood. “But I guess the others are pretty close, huh? Should’ve known you’d never want them to know. So Brother Ning let you by.”
He held up his bloodied hand. “How sloppy. I’ll have to lose one of these fingers after all. Too bad. It was kind of fun, having the full set.”
Jin Rulan’s whip wrapped around his wrist before it could close over his sword, jerking him away from the stone slab. The corpse on the table screamed to life and rushed him, forcing him to let the whip go slack. It’d been ripped in half and hadn’t finished repairing itself. Jin Rulan was able to dispatch it with a sweep of Suihua, but he barely had time to raise it again to stop Lan Sizhui’s sword from cutting into him.
“You don’t mind playing rough with this body, huh?” asked Xue Yang, leering. It was an obscene expression on Lan Sizhui’s gentler features. “I mean, I guess he can take it! Need to blow off steam? Need your special someone? I know being Chief Cultivator’s kind of stressful. You all like having your Lans to pant over in secret. He thought I didn’t know. But I did. Their incense smells real expensive.”
Among the many awful things he needed to know about his dead uncle, his sex life was pretty far on the bottom of them. What he did know was already enough of a nightmare. Ugh, Xue Yang really was just complete trash.
Jin Rulan kicked him back into the slab. “Tell that to someone who cares. It’s been 16 years! I’ve heard worse!”
He punctuated that by twirling his sword backwards and attempting to jam the pommel against him. It didn’t work. Xue Yang just dropped, forcing him back to avoid a sword slash at his legs. When they locked swords again, Xue Yang had leapt onto the slab, allowing him to smirk down at him.
Even one-armed, his strength was insane. Lan Sizhui’d really been holding out in their practice duels.
“You don’t care about me, A-Ling?” he cried, his big eyes welling with tears.
Jin Rulan headbutted him. With his head still ringing, he seized him by his wrist and dragged him down with him. They rolled together across the floor, landing near -- of all things -- a fully set kitchen table. Jin Rulan on top.
“He’s better than this,” growled Jin Rulan, as he wrestled the thrashing man down. “I know he is.”
“Who’s better than anyone,” laughed Xue Yang. “We’re all the same when we get down and dirty. You know, Daozhang let me suck his--”
“Lan Yuan,” hissed Jin Rulan. He pinned Xue Yang down under his arm, elbow against his neck as he fumbled for the tools strapped to his belt. He found his silver bell on the third grab, pulling it free. “Come out already. Stop letting this freak talk shit.”
The clear tones of the bell bounced easily off the stone walls. Lan Sizhui went slack under him, lying alarmingly still, before he began to cough.
“Ah, Jin Ling…” he gasped, in the more light, airier voice that made Jin Rulan’s chest ache with relief to hear it. “What did I…”
Jin Rulan eased his arm off his neck, and pulled Lan Sizhui into a sitting position, leaning him against the table.
“Talismans,” whispered Lan Sizhui. “Before he comes back.”
“Right.” Looping the ribbon of the bell around his middle finger, Jin Rulan bit his index finger and started drawing the array. Lan Sizhui remained pinned under his legs, rubbing at his bruised forehead before peering up through his fingers.
He saw the blood there and blanched. “Ah, Jin Ling, did I--”
“Not mine,” said Jin Rulan, quickly.
“But not mine either,” whispered Lan Sizhui, tilting his head backwards as he exhaled. His hair fell in his face. There were dark circles under his eyes. “If you’re here, then the barrier came down, at least. The rest. Are they here?”
“Yes. Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian are fighting down the hall.” Lan Sizhui tried to sit forward. Jin Rulan paused in marking up the array to press him back down. “They’ll be here soon enough.”
Lan Sizhui’s eyes got as big as a junior who’d been caught drinking in the back mountain. “But they’re-- oh, they must be so-- and you -- I’m sorry, Jin Ling. Those things I said to you--”
“Nothing. It was Xue Yang.”
But Lan Sizhui’s eyes were already bright with tears.
“It’s not like I didn’t understand,” he burst out, shaking over. He moved to wipe his hand -- realized he only had his robes, and settled for scraping it across the floor instead. “I knew what being with you would mean. It’s not like I didn’t know--It’s not like I expected anything in the first place--”
“Sizhui--” That seemed to make the shaking worse. “Lan Yuan.”
“--with who I really am, how could you ever?”
“Lan Yuan!” Jin Rulan grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him against him, shoving his head under his chin. “It wasn’t that. It really wasn’t that.”
Lan Sizhui coughed on his sobs. “I know.” His lips moved weakly against Jin Rulan’s collar. “But you had to worry enough...about the Jin...and all those alliances….I’d have made a pretty bad bride, ha, all things considered…”
“It wasn’t about that either.” Jin Rulan clutched at him a bit more fiercely. “Look. Stop talking. The others’ll be here any minute. We’ll get this asshole out of you. We’ll get back to the Cloud Recesses. And then--”
“But it would’ve been nice.”
Jin Rulan froze. Heat flared in his side, followed by a spreading, crackling bloom of pain. He rocked backwards, his gaze dropping between them. Lan Sizhui’s bloodstained hand was curled around the handle of a kitchen knife, now buried in Jin Rulan’s side.
“Oh,” said Jin Rulan, he tried to bring his hand down, tried to activate the array, but it was much too late. “Oh, you motherfucker--”
“Boy, you’re easy.” Lan Sizhui’s face split into a delighted grin. Xue Yang pulled the knife out with a laugh and kicked him over. Jin Rulan struggled to pull himself up, but a white boot stomped down on his middle, keeping him there. He grabbed Jin Rulan by the hair and slammed his head into the stone, dizzying him. “You’re not as sharp as your uncle, are you? You're easier to rile up, I’ll give you that. Aah, but it would have probably made him a little mad if I’d messed around with you a bit. Hm. What should I do? Pull your tongue out before I make you into one of my corpses or after? Hey, what do you think?”
But as Xue Yang reached for his face, the doors to the inner chamber slammed open and Jin Rulan heard a number of feet come pounding into the room. There was a whole lot of shouting. Jin Rulan squeezed his eyes shut to concentrate and rolled, using the momentary distraction to twist free, despite the throbbing heat in his side. He jammed his fingers into an accupoint, and the blood stopped. Forced himself to breathe, and the ringing faded. He groped around for Suihua, his whip, anything, really--
Arms came around him, pulling him close. He fought back on principle. But someone hummed in his hair.
“Ah, Jin Ling, sorry you had to continue the tradition...”
Uncle Wei. The music had stopped down the hall. Jin Rulan felt himself go slack.
“Senior Wei!” caroled Xue Yang, his voice doubling up again. Now he moved like Lan Sizhui’s body could barely contain him, his red eyes practically blazing. “Nice of you to show up -- finally -- but I don’t really need you just now.”
“Good,” said Wei Wuxian, tucking Jin Rulan into one arm as he pulled up a protection talisman and slapped it on the ground in front of him. “Because I didn’t come here for you.”
Xue Yang feigned offense. “No? Hah. What a deadbeat. You gentry, always talking big, but you’re just as trash as anyone else--”
A deeper voice out of sight said:
“Who is gentry?”
Xue Yang’s smile fell. He froze, eyes wide. Then he began to shake all over. He took a deep, borrowed breath in his borrowed body, before he stepped back and out of the way of Fuxue’s first expert thrust.
“Song Lan. So you fixed your tongue. Get any better at swearing?”
Song Zichen pulled back, held out the flat of his blade, and said, with a completely straight face, and at least four octaves higher:
“Oh, go fuck a dog, you ass-licking piece of shit ingrate.”
“...” said Jin Rulan.
“...” Wei Wuxian looked mildly impressed.
Xue Yang blinked. “L….little Blind?!”
He dodged Song Zichen’s next strike, but only barely, spinning out of control and slamming into the table. Food and cutlery scattered everywhere. Xue Yang made a noise like an injured cat as he rolled back to his feet, Lan Sizhui’s hair now half knocked out of its ponytail.
“Song Lan…” He seethed. “Little Blind… the fuck are you doing here -- why you-- you’re not the one I--”
He charged, wildly. Song Zichen only had to mildly slide one foot behind the other to move out of his way. His arm shot out as he did, catching Xue Yang in his borrowed shoulder and sending him crashing to the floor.
Concerned for Lan Sizhui’s body, Jin Rulan struggled weakly to get up -- but Wei Wuxian held him firmly. “Shh. Wait for it. Just wait for it.”
He sheathed his sword like it was barely of use to him. Xue Yang followed the movement, his eyes fixing on the rise of the second sword on Song Zichen’s back: the white hilt, like fresh snow. Shuanghua.
“Give it back,” cried Xue Yang, his own voice overpowering Lan Sizhui’s, and cracking as he staggered to his feet. “That sword-- why do you have it -- give it back--”
Song Zichen’s hand paused on Fuxue’s hilt. Then, lowering it, he reached with his other hand to grasp Shuanghua instead. Xue Yang shook with rage as he drew it and held the engraved blade out, the point aimed directly at his chest.
“Then come for it,” he said: now in a third, different voice. A softer, more melancholy tone, his eyes filled with a deep sorrow and an even deeper regret. “If it means that much to you.”
“Ah,” said Xue Yang.
“Yes?” asked Xiao Xingchen, waiting.
Xue Yang swayed on his feet. For a moment, his eyes darted around the room. To Wei Wuxian. To Jin Rulan. To Song Zichen -- no A-Qing -- no, Xiao Xingchen. To Shuanghua, still raised. Then with a thin, reedy laugh that didn’t match the wild-eyed expression at all, he clutched his head, fell to his knees, and then to his side, and lay still. The resentment poured out of him in a dark pool.
Jin Rulan had just enough time to think, muzzily, ‘Seriously, that’s it?’ Before the screaming started on the other side of the room. Screaming and clanking. A corpse hanging from the wall, which Jin Rulan had missed the first time he’d come charging in, shook to life with a piercing wail.
It only had one arm, but it ripped it free from the chains holding it as though it were a gauze veil. It had dozens of nails holding it in place, lodged in its qi points, but these began to pop free, little fountains of blackened resentment spurting out of the holes left behind. The body landed gracelessly on the ground, like a sack of grain, before rolling to its feet. As it swayed and straightened, its head lulled to one side. The ratty, dried hair fell limply out of its face. Even shot through with black marks, even grey and cracked in death, even with 16 years between now and the brief time Jin Rulan ever encountered this man, he didn’t need to guess whose body this belonged to.
“Daozhang….” He husked in a gravely voice. “You … woke up….”
Xiao Xingchen, wearing Song Zichen’s body, nodded once. His sword didn’t waver.
Xue Yang took an unsteady step forward, unaccustomed to his missing arm. “Daozhang. You came back….for me?”
“I am here now,” said Xiao Xingchen, in a measured voice.
“Ha…” Ashes fell from Xue Yang’s mouth as he laughed. “Hahaha…about fucking time...”
Running his knuckles over his dry lips, he threw himself forward.
He didn’t make it all the way. His legs gave out short of ever even reaching Xiao Xingchen’s blade. He dropped onto his knees, his one arm scrabbling forward -- not, as Jin Rulan would’ve guessed, to try and claw at his opponent, but instead he clutched at his robes. He dragged himself forward on his stomach. He wrapped his arm around his upper thigh, and buried his ruined face against Song Zichen -- no, right now, Xiao Xingchen’s-- legs.
“You let your dinner get cold,” he rasped, half muffled by cloth. “I made soup and everything…. aah….I even made it with those fat bitter roots you like….I don’t know why you don’t like meat… but the old man gave me a great discount. Isn’t it good you’ve got me to do the shopping for you…? One of us knows how to haggle…”
Xiao Xingchen’s lips moved, slightly. He lowered his sword.
“I’ll even let Little Blind have some,” continued Xue Yang, dreamily, “If she shuts up for once.”
Slowly, Xiao Xingchen sheathed his sword. He sank to his knees. Xue Yang pressed himself further into his lap, butting his head against his stomach. His back began to heave.
Xue Yang's voice was cracked and broken by tearless sobs. “The one with the roots was your favorite, right?”
“Yes.” Xiao Xingchen’s hand rested on his head, stroking the dusty strands. “I always liked how you made it.”
“You’ll eat with me tonight right?"
“That would be nice.”
“Good,” sighed Xue Yang, his head listing. “Good. It should just be us, anyway. It’s better like that anyway. Don’t take so long next time, all right? I missed you…”
“Rest. I will set the table,” promised Xiao Xingchen.
“Good. You’d better. Be there when I wake up, okay? If you let me sleep in, I’ll never cook for you again--”
Xiao Xingchen picked up Xue Yang’s face and held it close to his own, letting their foreheads brush.
“Cook for me however many times you’d like.”
The sobs subsided. With a final, relaxed sigh, the body draped over his lap crumbled to ash. Xiao Xingchen stared blankly down at the white, chalky streaks across his lap, his hand brushing through them as though searching for something.
Then, with a matter-of-factedness that seemed at odds with his unearthly bearing, he stood, walked to the table, and began to set the cups and bowls back in place.