The past winter in Cloud Recesses had been cold and long. Now, however, sunlight streamed through the branches of their bamboo forest, illuminating the backhills where the rabbit colony thrived. Seated among them, a young cultivator, recently released from seclusion, was meditating. He’d spent a significant amount of time centering his qi and strengthening his core while confined in the jingshi, as well, but found there was a great deal of comfort in surrounding himself with nature.
One of the black rabbits clambered over his leg, tumbling gracelessly into his lap where it soon made itself comfortable, as it pawed fussily at his robes before nestling down to sleep.
Lan Wangji stroked its dark fur, his eyes closed and features still as a blanket of fog gently rolled over the hill.
Anyone who passed by at that time might have spotted him there and mistaken him for a statue carved from the finest jade, lost to the forest and forgotten by time. Luckily, visitors were rare, with the exception of A-Yuan, who only ever came to see the rabbits when Lan Xichen or Lan Wangji were available to take him.
This was why, no matter how immersed Lan Wangji was in his meditation, he did not miss the sound of light footsteps approaching. Breathing deeply, he shifted his hand to rest on Bichen’s hilt, and waited.
“Psst. Wangji-xiong,” came a not unfamiliar whisper from safely beyond striking distance. Lan Wangji relaxed. This was a nuisance, yes, but not a threat. “Psst. Lan Wangji.”
Curiosity getting the better of him, Lan Wangji peered over his shoulder to see Nie Huaisang waving and gesturing frantically from behind a tree that did nothing to conceal him. There were leaves poking out of his hair.
How had he managed to sneak past the senior disciples stationed at the gate? Later, Lan Wangji would have to ask the pair if anything strange had happened during their shift, like a loud noise with no origin or a rustling in the foliage that had drawn them from their posts.
Instead of mentioning that, he asked, “Why are you here?”
And where was his entourage? Was Sect Leader Nie visiting, as well?
Lan Wangji looked around as though expecting Nie Mingjue to coalesce from the mist.
“It’s just me,” Huaisang admitted a tad sheepishly. “Da-ge doesn’t know I’m here.” This only served to further alarm Lan Wangji. He gently cradled the small black rabbit in his lap and laid it on the ground, watching it sniff at the foliage for a moment before turning his full attention back to Huaisang with an expression that made him duck behind the trunk of the bamboo tree.
Somehow, Huaisang had managed to travel from Qinghe to Cloud Recesses without informing his brother or bringing any of his senior disciples for protection. Everyone knew his core had developed late - what would he have done if he’d fallen from his saber during the journey?
“Wangji, please,” Huaisang said with genuine desperation, as though he’d read his mind, “I need your help.”
There were four magic words that could convince Lan Wangji to do almost anything, and even though Nie Huaisang had abused them on many occasions to convince him to buy pastries from Caiyi town or to allow Huaisang the excuse of entertaining guests so that his older brother didn’t get upset when Huaisang skipped saber training, they were still undoubtedly effective.
For the first time since he’d spotted Huaisang among the trees, he glanced down at the instrument held tightly in his hand. It was a hastily carved wooden piccolo. Wangji looked up at him with a question in his eyes, implicitly giving him permission to explain himself. Sagging with relief, Nie Huaisang informed him that his brother’s temperament and health had been deteriorating at an increasing rate.
He rolled up his sleeves to reveal a trail of healing burn scars marking his skin.
“Da-ge’s threatened to burn my fans before, but I never expected him to actually…” Huaisang trailed off with tears in his eyes, before visibly regaining his composure with a sad smile. “I don’t blame him. If that were all, maybe I’d forgive him and let it go.” His breath hitched. Lan Wangji waited patiently for him to continue. In the brief lull, a white rabbit with scarlet eyes crept close to Nie Huaisang’s feet and began to sniff his robes. Chuckling, Huaisang knelt to scratch between its ears. As he continued to pet its soft coat, he said, “Da-ge took me on a night hunt. Before we left, he embarrassed and insulted me in front of our disciples. San-ge,” he paused, brow furrowing, “taught me how to play the Song of Clarity. It should have helped calm his temper, but every time I played it, Da-ge’s temper only grew worse.” He took a deep breath, meeting Lan Wangji’s eyes with a steady, thoughtful gaze. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Was there a chance that Huaisang had performed the Song of Clarity incorrectly? Lan Xichen had taught Jin Guangyao how to play personally, as any mistakes could heighten qi instability and disquiet in the mind, which was why offering to teach Huaisang had not only been reckless, but against the rules of their sect.
Lan Wangji rose to his feet. “Show me what you've learned.”
Stunned, Nie Huaisang stared at him for a moment, then quickly nodded, rushing to play as though worried his friend would change his mind. Lan Wangji walked beside him as they made their way to the stone path, his hands clasped behind his back as Huaisang placed the piccolo to his lips and played the beginning verses of Cleansing with a startling confidence.
How long had it taken him to learn this? How often had he practiced?
Even as he thought this, an underlying malevolence threaded through the song like a poison. The first discordant note could have been attributed to a simple mistake, but as Huaisang continued to play, the pattern became more familiar. Lan Wangji had caught glimpses of the chaos script during his research at a time when finding anything to halt or slow the corruption of a mind due to demonic cultivation had been his highest priority. The chaos script was intended to accelerate destabilization in the core, to upset the mind with horrific visions and encourage madness.
He did not notice when Xichen called out to them from further up the path, as he was struggling to speak past the taste of blood in his mouth, to move when his limbs were weighted down, to hear when the sound of swords clashing drowned out birdsong and his own screams resounded in his ears.
Upon seeing Wangji stumble on a step, barely catching himself in time, Lan Xichen quickly moved to join them and snatched the piccolo away from Huaisang.
Once the music stopped, the fog that had clouded Lan Wangji’s thoughts cleared. Even so, he was breathing harshly, barely healed pain suddenly fresh in his mind.
Lan Xichen looked ashen as he demanded from Nie Huaisang, “Who taught you that song?”
There was only one person who could have taught Nie Mingjue’s younger brother the corrupted Song of Clarity, yet when Huaisang confirmed it with an oddly detached tone, Lan Xichen appeared as if he were going to be ill. Even so, he did his best to maintain a calm and comforting demeanor throughout the remainder of the conversation.
Sometimes, Lan Wangji wished his brother wouldn’t try so hard.
“I suppose I will have to have a talk with him. That is very advanced cultivation music,” he sounded almost chiding, as though it was Huaisang who should have known better than to attempt the Song of Clarity when his core was underdeveloped.
Lan Wangji watched as Nie Huaisang assured his brother that he would not be so reckless in the future with growing concern. He wore his smile like a mask, but no paper fan in existence would be enough to hide the fury lurking in his eyes.
“I’m sure it was a mistake,” Huaisang said. “I can be so clumsy. Please don’t inform San-ge. I’d be so embarrassed if he knew!” When Lan Xichen heard that, he seemed inclined to believe Huaisang. Perhaps he had simply misremembered Cleansing. Except that he hadn’t been present for the subtle and purposeful inclusion of the distorted notes.
There was nothing accidental about it.
Torn between warning his elder brother and finding out more about whatever it was Huaisang was planning, whatever trouble he was getting into, Lan Wangji kept his silence, restricting himself to bowing in thanks to Lan Xichen for his intervention and then bidding him goodbye when he withdrew after handing Nie Huaisang his piccolo back on the condition that he would not attempt musical cultivation without supervision.
Once he was out of earshot, Huaisang turned to him, “Come with me to the Unclean Realm. Your seclusion has already ended. There’s nothing keeping you here.” Sensing Lan Wangji’s hesitance, he scowled. “I played Cleansing exactly as San-ge taught to me, and nearly died because of it. Now, if I’m right, then my brother is being driven to madness and violence. What would you do if it were Xichen-ge in his place?”
“Huaisang.” Lan Wangji set his jaw. “You do not need to manipulate me.”
Nie Huaisang watched him in silence, equally stubborn, then slumped, allowing his shoulders to fall. “Of course, Hanguang-jun. My apologies.”
Without sharing his intentions, Lan Wangji returned to Cloud Recesses, ignoring Huaisang even as he struggled to keep up with his pace. He informed Xichen that he would be spending time with Nie-er-gongzi in the Unclean Realm, a declaration which worried and delighted his brother in equal measure. It had been some time since Lan Wangji had left Cloud Recesses, and even longer since he’d spent a significant amount of time with someone his own age.
A-Yuan would be cared for by one of the outer families while he was gone. Most likely, he would stay with young A-Yi’s mother, since A-Yuan was quite fond of the rambunctious child and his mother was always happy enough to care for A-Yuan when Lan Wangji was otherwise engaged.
“Can you ride your saber back to Qinghe?” Lan Wangji asked, and only then was Nie Huaisang sure he was going to help him.
Bumping his shoulder, Nie Huaisang replied, “Can you do it while carrying me?”
Lan Wangji frowned. Despite his joking tone, Huaisang truly did appear exhausted, even more so after using what little spiritual energy he’d had to spare after his flight to perform musical cultivation.
“If you allow me to rest,” he conceded to Nie Huaisang’s surprise.
Recovering quickly, Huaisang slapped him on the back and crowed, “That’s the spirit!”
And while Lan Wangji did not complain vocally about the gesture, Nie Huaisang knew better than to try it again within one lifetime.