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Of Lions and Tigers and Werewolves

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In front of him, Wei Wuxian could just vaguely make out the form of something large and hulking picking up his best friend like a chew toy and flinging them several yards through the night air.

“Wen Ning!”

In the dark, something was moving towards him, fast, but Wei Wuxian could barely make out the trees less than five feet away from him, much less the dark shadow that was heading towards him at cheetah speed. It paid no mind to the preserve’s well-being as it crashed over trees and crunched through branches with terrifying ferocity. Wen Ning was quietly moaning from somewhere much too far away from him, and in the chaos that had broken out within the past five minutes, Wei Wuxian had lost sight of Lan Wangji. He couldn’t be sure if the guy was even still around.

Wei Wuxian had never paid much attention to death or the inherent fear of it in which many people carried. He had learned at a young age that everything had an expiration date: innocence, childhood dreams, kindness from strangers, his parents. But despite his indifference to death and what lay beyond, he had never actually thought that it would claim him. However arrogant it sounded, Wei Wuxian was still young enough to carry that unfounded shroud of confidence and self-surety that all youth wore like bulletproof vests. That naive certainty that of the hundreds of people affected by tragedy and misfortune every day surely it wouldn’t be him. He was too young — too invincible. Perhaps it was because of the depressing childhood he’d suffered, but some small part of him had decided that he was safe from any future torment and bad luck. Now, with his best friend’s moans growing weaker in his ears and some unknown beast stalking him in the late hours of the night, Wei Wuxian couldn’t feel anything but shame and fury at his own impudence. He should have known better.

When he had woken up that morning, he really hadn’t foreseen his day ending like this.

 

 

“I just don’t understand why you can’t leave him alone. He clearly doesn’t like you.”

Wei Wuxian sighed heavily as he suffered through yet another lecture from his frowning little brother. One would think that being the elder of the two would grant him some leeway, a tiny pinch of respect, but no. Jiang Cheng would always be there to cut him off at the knees and then kick him once he saw he was down.

“A-Cheng, can’t you spare some sympathy for your pitiful older brother? Lan er-gege is just too pretty and too amusing; how am I expected to keep from teasing him? You have no sense of humor.”

Jiang Cheng’s frown looked like it suddenly realized it wasn’t scornful enough and hurried to deepen with haste. It practically sprouted legs — evil, mean little legs. “You’re embarrassing,” he spat. “He’s going to kill you one of these days, and I’ll only be too happy to hold the camera when he does.”

Wei Wuxian winced, dropping his book bag in his locker carelessly before pulling out a random assortment of textbooks. He didn’t bother checking which ones — he wouldn’t be paying attention in class anyway. Afterward, he walked in the opposite direction from where a flustered Lan Wangji just went. “You’re so cruel, A-Cheng. Who raised you to be so cruel? It isn’t my fault Lan er-gege is always around! We share most of our classes, a free period, and lunch, and you expect me just to ignore him? We’re already so familiar, and yet he acts like he doesn’t even know me. It’s him who should be ashamed.”

If anything, Jiang Cheng's face contorted even more at these words. Wei Wuxian was worried about the unnatural shade of red and white it turned before Jiang Cheng seemingly decided to let the conversation go, shaking his head and untwisting his face. It was as if he could no longer be bothered with his idiot brother’s very sound, thank you, crackpot logic. “Whatever. Just don’t come crying to me when he decides he’s had enough of you.”

“I would never,” Wei Wuxian laughed. “That’s what jiejie is for!”

As shameless as it was, Wei Wuxian had become obsessed with Lan Wangji the very first time they met. Wei Wuxian was nine years old and freshly adopted when he’d entered fourth grade along with Jiang Cheng. After monitoring his progress for a couple of months, the teachers had decided he was far too ahead of his peers, and they pulled him out of class with Jiang Cheng to plop him in with the fifth graders instead. This was only a temporary solution. Unless Wei Wuxian officially skipped a grade in the following year, he would end up even further ahead of his classmates than he already was. In the end, however, the teachers decided that the risk was worth it. At the very least, this would allow him to get a headstart, and it allowed him to make friends with other students on his level.

The first day Wei Wuxian sat in his new class, he hadn’t paid attention once. Tables had been pushed into clusters of four around the classroom, allowing students to sit with their established friends and help each other on assignments. Being new meant that Wei Wuxian didn’t have any established friends yet, and so the teacher had sat him down across from Lan Wangji, who, for some reason, hadn’t seemed to have any established friends either. It wasn’t long before Wei Wuxian understood why. Lan Wangji was far cooler and more collected than any other ten-year-old. He had a smooth jade face, pin-straight hair, and peaceful features that were always settled into placid politeness no matter what went on around him. His clothes were neat and tidy, and all of his school supplies were colored in the same soft blue. He talked very little, and sometimes, when the light hit him just right, Wei Wuxian would even swear that his eyes were gold. Everything about Lan Wangji screamed “poise” and “elegance” even from such a young age. From the first moment Wei Wuxian had laid eyes on him, Wei Wuxian knew that he wouldn’t ever be able to leave him alone.

As a result, Wei Wuxian spent months bothering him. He would tap his fingers along the corners of Lan Wangji’s desk during class, whispering questions that he already knew the answers to. During early-morning lineups, he would smile brightly at Lan Wangji in greeting, but end up teasing the other about their boring book bag and other school supplies when Lan Wangji failed to greet him back. During meal breaks and recess, Wei Wuxian would follow him around like a faithful duckling, foregoing playing with the others to instead prod around Lan Wangji’s seemingly endless patience. All too soon, Lan Wangji had graduated from elementary school. Wei Wuxian refused to skip a grade and leave Jiang Cheng behind, and so in the following year he spent countless days convincing himself that the sudden lack of Lan Wangji’s presence didn’t leave him feeling bereft and lonely. He had never quite gotten the hang of it.

Now, it was sophomore year of high school. Lan Wangji still refused to admit that the two of them were even acquaintances, much less friends. If Wei Wuxian were honest with himself, he would have to admit that it kind of hurt his feelings. But Wei Wuxian was nothing if not a professional at evading his own emotions, choosing instead to hurdle himself closer and closer to his own inevitable doom.

Jiang Cheng scowled at him again, just in case Wei Wuxian had somehow missed it the first twenty-nine times it was aimed at him since that morning, and the two of them approached their chosen lunch table where the rest of their friends were already waiting.

“A-Wuxian, Jiang Cheng, I see the two of you finally decided to grace us with your presence,” Nie Huaisang joked from where he sat nestled in between Jiang Yanli and an awkward-looking Wen Ning. “We were just talking about you.”

Wei Wuxian laughed. “Oh? And for what do we owe this honor?”

Wen Ning looked increasingly pained as Wei Wuxian laughed, and even Jiang Yanli had on her face of quiet exhaustion. She'd probably been trying to reason with Nie Huaisang about something before Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng interrupted, but clearly she failed at getting the gossipmonger to listen. Nie Huaisang, seemingly blind to the atmosphere around him, barreled on as if the words he was holding in would scorch his entire insides if he didn’t get them out as soon as possible.

“I’ve just heard news that Wang Lingjiao was rejected by Lan Wangji.”

Wei Wuxian jolted slightly at the words, slipping onto the bench and sitting down his books. Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes with a scoff and walked off, presumably to acquire sustenance. “Wang Lingjiao? But wasn’t she dating Wen Chao?”

Nie Hauisang leaned forward into Wei Wuxian’s space, voice tittering with excitement. “She still is. Apparently with Wen Chao out sick this week, Wang Lingjiao took it as an opportunity to make moves on another man. Everyone is saying that she’s after Lan Wangji’s reputation, especially after Wen Chao lost face in front of everyone a few weeks ago. Lan Wangji showing him up at lacrosse tryouts and stealing the position of captain right out of his grubby little hands really did a number on his public image. And if that wasn’t enough, word in the halls is that Lan Wangji is slated for early acceptance into an ivy league already. An ivy league, Wei Wuxian. As a junior.”

Wei Wuxian thought back to last month during lacrosse tryouts. He had been there to re-try out for the team, confident that he would make the front line again just as he had the year before. He’d been surprised, however, to see Lan Wangji there as well. Everyone knew that while the Lans were unfairly good at everything, they tended to dominate the arts side of things while leaving sports untouched. Lan Xichen, Lan Wangji’s older brother, was a senior this year, and he had already been promised a place at Julliard starting next fall, along with a scholarship to boot. Knowing how inseparable the two brothers were, everyone had assumed that Lan Wangji would be following in his footsteps, therefore uncaring about any extracurriculars that didn’t involve academics or music. When Wei Wuxian arrived at the lacrosse fields to see Lan Wangji standing there in his crisp white athletic wear, his long hair twisted into a flawless bun that must’ve been heavier than a newborn baby perched atop his head, Wei Wuxian barely kept himself from tripping over his lacrosse stick. He did, however, trip over his self-restraint when he looked over and laughed outright at the betrayal and disgust painted all over Wen Chao’s face.

With the Lans firmly dominating Gusu Hills’s art program, after Wen Xu and Wen Chao’s transfer, the two brothers quickly took control of athletics. Wen Xu became captain of the basketball team almost on word of mouth alone, and while Wen Chao was still too young to be captain, he took control over the lacrosse team as if it was his birthright. Whenever Wen Chao scolded Wei Wuxian during practice or purposely stole everyone’s passes during games to swoop in at the very last moment and steal the winning point, Wei Wuxian struggled to swallow down his contempt. He and Wen Chao had gotten into several disputes over the past school year. If it wasn’t for Jiang Cheng scowling from the sidelines and cutting in to sometimes verbally, sometimes physically push Wei Wuxian away from Wen Chao, Wei Wuxian knew he would’ve gotten expelled for beating the annoying boy down to a pulp long ago.

Not only Wen Xu and Wen Chao, but over half of the Wen family was insufferable in every sense of the word. They were arrogant and controlling, overly sure of themselves and shameless because of it. They cared little for others’ well-being, and neither Wen Chao nor his older brother Wen Xu was exempt. Regardless, their presence at the school was still relatively new — both of them having transferred from Qishan High at the start of last year. No one really knew the reason for the transfer. Wen Ruohan, their father, was the Mayor of Qishan, an entire two counties away from Gusu Hills. He and several of his siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles held a monopoly over Qishan, in charge of everything from the Qishan Police Department to the principal of Qishan High. Why Mr. Ruohan would suddenly pull his only two sons from school in his own strictly controlled community to instead send them to live with their mother here in Gusu Hills made little sense. No one really knew much about Mrs. Wen, either. It was like she was a well-behaved ghost, unheard from and unseen. Whenever any essential school functions required a parent’s presence, it was always Mr. Ruohan who would seemingly abandon his duties in Qishan to come.

In fact, Wei Wuxian lamented, the only good Wens still alive were Granny Wen, Wen Yuan, Wen Ning, and Wen Qing, and even then, it seemed only Wei Wuxian truly thought so.

“But wait,” Wei Wuxian suddenly realized, switching his gears, “what does that have to do with me and A-Cheng?”

Wen Ning, still pained, avoided eye contact with him. His jiejie sighed.

“When doesn’t Lan Wangji concern you?” Nie Huaisang asked.

Wei Wuxian ignored the swooping feeling those words inspired in his stomach. “Lan Wangji doesn’t even like me. He refuses to look at me for longer than a minute. It doesn’t even matter how much I tease him anymore. No matter what I do he just gives me that same cold face of his and walks the other way. Sometimes I swear he can even sense me coming. Do you have any idea how hard its been to corner him lately? And it just keeps getting harder, too...”

“Yeah,” Nie Huaisang drew out, stopping Wei Wuxian mid-whine. He sounded genuinely confused. “But when has that ever stopped you?”

Wei Wuxian was kept from responding for the second time when his jiejie suddenly spoke up. “A-Xian, what Nie Huaisang here is taking a while to mention is that after Wang Lingjiao lost face in front of everyone earlier, she was overheard ranting to a friend about getting revenge. According to her friend, Wang Lingjiao knows something about Lan Wangji that nobody else does. She plans on visiting the Lans today after school to expose him.”

For the second time in not enough minutes, Wei Wuxian jolted. “What do you mean? What could she possibly have on Lan er-gege?”

“Nobody knows,” Nie Huaisang answered. “That’s all I’ve managed to get from the rumor mill, which means that’s all anyone knows other than Wang Lingjiao herself. That’s why we were talking about you. If there’s anyone stubborn and nosy enough to find out whatever Lan Wangji is hiding, or stop Wang Lingjiao from getting close enough to the Lans to hurt him, it’s you.”

His jiejie was quiet again, that softly exhausted look on her face suddenly making sense. It also explained Wen Ning’s discomfort. While Wen Ning was only a cousin to Wen Chao and Wen Xu, he still felt an incredible amount of responsibility for their actions. People’s hatred of the Wens was without nuance. Whether it was Wen Chao or Wen Ning who threw around their arrogance in the halls, spilling their judgment out in choking waves that swamped the whole school… well, that was irrelevant. In their eyes, a Wen was a Wen, and no Wens were good. Wang Lingjiao might not have been a Wen in blood, but she still carried their energy and attitude in spades.

That was why Wei Wuxian really couldn’t imagine her hitting on Lan Wangji. Wang Lingjiao had to have known that Lan Wangji wouldn’t want her. Lan Wangji was the epitome of everything good and moral and beautiful in this world, and Wang Lingjiao was conniving, untrue, and underhanded. Whatever she was up to, Wei Wuxian knew it wasn’t good.

Lost in thought, Wei Wuxian almost didn’t notice when Jiang Cheng returned with two lunch trays, one in each hand.

At that very same moment, Wen Ning spoke. “We know that you’ll probably want to investigate further, A-Xian. I-I can help.”

Wen Ning’s voice was soft and hesitant, nearly tilting up at the end in the whisper of a question. Apparently, he thought such a choice was unwise, but it was likely he knew Wei Wuxian was bound to get involved no matter what, and he didn’t want Wei Wuxian going by himself.

Jiang Cheng’s scoff was deafening. He sat the second lunch tray down in front of Wei Wuxian. “What’s this? What trouble are you trying to drag my dumbass brother into this time?”

“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli’s voice was quiet, rebuking.

Wen Ning winced, seeming to close in on himself in the face of Jiang Cheng’s scorn. Calling on something deep within him, he managed to find the courage to answer anyway. “It’s n-not like that, Jiang Cheng. W-Wang Lingjiao is planning on hurting Lan Wangji… A-Xian is definitely not going to l-leave it alone. You and Jiang Yanli won’t be around this evening, so I was just o-offering to go with him instead.”

It was true that both his jiejie and Jiang Cheng weren't going to be around that night. Last week, Mrs. Yu mentioned hosting a family dinner and inviting a bunch of family acquaintances and some extended Jiangs. Wei Wuxian, already foreseeing how horribly that would end for him, had insisted that he couldn’t possibly attend, claiming that he had detention that same evening. Mr. Jiang had given him such a disappointed look that Wei Wuxian had felt it burning a hole in the side of his head, but more importantly, Mrs. Yu had eaten it up without question. Whenever a lie involved Wei Wuxian being less than perfect she always ate it up, no matter how convenient or flimsy it was. Wei Wuxian had been planning on spending the whole evening fucking around town before sneaking back home long after the dinner was over.

It was almost too perfect. Wei Wuxian already had a reason for not being at home, and Jiang Cheng would be too busy trying to suck up to his mother to be able to bodily prevent Wei Wuxian from doing anything dumb or reckless. From the horrible look on his brother’s face, he wasn’t the only one who realized this.

“You listen to me, Wen Ning,” Jiang Cheng threatened. “If you let anything happen to this idiot, it’ll be your legs that’ll pay the price.”

Wei Wuxian was so distracted by the affection flooding through him at Jiang Cheng’s concern that he missed the full-body shiver that quaked Wen Ning’s body.

“Aaah, A-Cheeeng, you’re so cute!!” Wei Wuxian turned his body, flinging out his arms as if he was going to throw them around his brother. At Jiang Cheng’s glare, he redirected and hugged his own arms instead. “You’re worried about your big brother. How cute, how cute, how cute!!”

“Shut up! Who would worry about you, idiot?”

“Ah, don’t be shy!! I knew you cared about me! You’re so adorable, A-Cheng!”

“Go die! Don’t you even think about touching me!”

“Yes, yes, I get it, A-Cheng. No hugs, no displays of affection, and no acts of devotion. You really are so cruel!” Settling back down, Wei Wuxian unhugged his arms and really looked at his brother. Jiang Cheng’s face was pinched, his ever-present scowl heavy on his face. But somewhere, hidden in between all of the hatred and petrol, was the same soft exasperation his jiejie always wore when worrying about him. Wei Wuxian’s expression softened. “Really, Jiang Cheng. Don’t worry about me. I promise to be careful. And I’ll even have Wen Ning there watching my back!”

At the reminder, Jiang Cheng turned his glare back to Wen Ning, the hidden softness in his face giving away to leave only hard, angry edges in their place. Wen Ning gulped.

“A-Xian,” his jiejie distracted, “what exactly are you planning to do?”

Wei Wuxian paused to consider his options. He really didn’t know what Wang Lingjiao had on Lan Wangji, and there was no way Lan Wangji would take him seriously if he tried to warn him ahead of time. That only left one choice: “I’m going to follow her after school.”

 

 

Following Wang Lingjiao proved to be a testament to Wei Wuxian’s dedication to Lan Wangji. The girl was truly insufferable.

Since getting out of school, Wang Lingjiao reapplied her makeup several times, swanned around Wen Chao for a while, and then proceeded to sit outside of Carmilla’s, the local pizza and burger joint, telling tales and simpering at her friends until the sun hung low in the sky. The clouds had long since faded from crystal white to desaturated pink and purple. Wei Wuxian was close to writing off her threats as a bluff and telling Wen Ning to head on home without him when suddenly Wang Lingjiao gathered up her things and bid her friends goodbye.

Wen Ning glanced over at him, face full of trepidation, and Wei Wuxian put a finger to his lips before following Wang Lingjiao back to the parking lot where she left her car. Wen Ning followed at his heels. Slipping back behind the wheel of his beat-up blood-red jeep, Wei Wuxian waited until Wen Ning was safely buckled in to pull out onto the road behind Wang Lingjiao. Not wanting to be too obvious, he stayed a few cars behind her, aiming to avoid her attention.

“A-Xian, are you s-sure about this?”

Wei Wuxian didn’t risk taking his eyes off Wang Lingjiao’s car, speaking without looking over at his friend. “Calm down, Wen Ning. We’ve already come this far, so what’s the harm? Either she heads home now and, at worst, we wasted an evening getting eaten by mosquitoes, or she turns onto the road leading into the preserve, and we can stop her before she hurts Lan Wangji. Either way, everything will have been worth it.”

Wen Ning didn’t say anything else, but Wei Wuxian could still feel his doubt palpable in the car’s stale air. He cracked open a window. “Really, Wen Ning. Trust me.”

It turned out that Wang Lingjiao wasn’t just full of hot air because not ten minutes later she missed the turn that led back towards her home and instead turned onto the dark, overgrown road that led towards the Lan estate.

The road leading towards the Lan estate was treacherous. On each side, wild trees and unkempt bushes scratched out towards the cars that drove by, as if they were determined to scare off any unwanted intruders. Underneath, the road melted from tire-friendly asphalt to crunchy gravel, before transitioning into uneven dirt. The dark was oppressive. Foliage from above stole any lingering light from the sky and cast the road in deep, unforgiving shadows. Even the Lans seemed to prefer walking in and out of the preserve using the more welcoming hiking trails rather than taking their car deep into the woods. Wang Lingjiao couldn’t have looked more suspicious if she tried.

Wei Wuxian parked his jeep at the edge of the preserve’s entrance. “We’ll have to follow on foot from here. If she hasn’t already realized she’s being followed, she’ll definitely know if we take the jeep in after her.”

Wen Ning, who was staring into the depths of the woods in front of them, took a second to find his voice. “A-Xian, I have a bad feeling about this.”

It was rare that Wen Ning spoke without a stutter. The gravity in his tone gave Wei Wuxian pause. “If you’re scared then stay here Wen Ning. But I can’t let anything happen to Lan er-gege.”

Without another word, Wen Ning unbuckled his seatbelt and got out of the car.

The passage was just as treacherous on foot. Before long, Wang Lingjiao’s car was swallowed up by the dark and the trees, leaving nothing for them to follow except for the winding gravel and dirt road underneath their feet. Wen Ning was silent beside him; his presence barely felt and nearly forgettable. Neither of them spoke.

After walking for what felt like hours but must have only been minutes, Wei Wuxian heard leaves and branches cracking as someone approached them in the dark. Wei Wuxian stopped, grabbing Wen Ning’s arm to pull him close. After studying the pattern of the footfalls, he decided that they were distinctly human. “Who’s there?”

Out of the darkness stepped no one other than Lan Wangji himself.

The three of them stared at each other for an awkward moment before Lan Wangji demanded, “Leave.”

Wei Wuxian knew that Lan Wangji didn’t like him, but he felt that this was a little unfair. “How rude! Don’t you know the reason why we’re here?”

Lan Wangji said nothing, so Wei Wuxian continued. “Nie Huaisang told us about what happened between you and Wang Lingjiao earlier. After you rejected her, Wang Lingjiao told people that she knows about your secret. She’s here right now, planning on getting revenge.”

Lan Wangji’s face remained nearly unphased. Wei Wuxian only knew that the news unsettled him because of years spent studying Lan Wangji's tells and facial features. When Wei Wuxian mentioned a secret, a nearly unnoticeable line had appeared between Lan Wangji’s perfect eyebrows.

All the same, Lan Wangji didn’t rescind his demand. Rather, he expanded on it. “It is not safe for you here. You two must leave immediately.”

“What are you worrying about in a time like this?” It was clear that Wang Lingjiao was right — Lan Wangji was clearly hiding something. And yet, instead of worrying about himself, here he was scolding Wei Wuxian and telling him to leave. “Shouldn’t you be tracking down Wang Lingjiao right now? She’s traveling by car, so she’s probably even reached your house by now. Aren’t you concerned?”

Listening to him speak, Lan Wangji started to lose his icy composure. The line between his eyebrows gradually became more visible, and his hands curled into tight fists by his sides. “... Ridiculous. Your father is the sheriff. Why aren’t you more aware of the rules?”

Confused, Wei Wuxian turned to Wen Ning. Wen Ning answered, his voice barely above a whisper, “Animal attacks.”

Oh. Thinking back, Wei Wuxian could indeed recall an instance from that morning where Mr. Jiang had mentioned something along those lines.

Gusu Hills was generally known for being peaceful and boring, hardly even requiring its police station. But lately, people had been going missing. The missing victims didn’t seem to follow any patterns, either. Some were well-known, some were social outcasts; some were young, some were old; some were men, some were women. Whatever was causing the disappearances, it didn’t seem to be following any rules. For weeks now, all of the deputies at Gusu Hills Police Station had been working around the clock to try and find a lead, but it seemed like they hadn’t gotten any closer than when they first started. To make matters worse, not long after the disappearances started, the recorded number of animal attacks began increasing.

Animal attacks were not a new occurrence in Gusu Hills. The preserve stretched several hundreds of miles, and only a small portion of it was open to the public for hiking and camping. Every once and a while, someone would stray too close to the unprotected areas and end up paying the price by catching the eyes of a hungry cougar or protective mother bear. However, in recent weeks, what went from being maybe two or three animal attacks a year suddenly increased to two or three animal attacks in just that month alone. And if that wasn’t bad enough, all of the test results kept coming back with ambiguous results. No one could figure out just what animal was causing the attacks.

That morning the Mayor of Gusu Hills, Lan Qiren himself, put out a new mandate declaring that until further notice, no one was to go in or out of the preserve any earlier than daybreak nor any later than dusk.

Less than a day later, and Wei Wuxian had already broken the rule.

Smiling sheepishly, Wei Wuxian forced out a couple of awkward laughs. “Ah… I see.”

Had Jiang Cheng been there his scowl would’ve reached new heights of fierce. As it was, Lan Wangji barely squinted his eyes, the air around him becoming even colder. “Ridiculous.”

Before anyone else could say anything, a terrifying growl came from deep within the trees.

One moment Lan Wangji was several feet away and staring at him with barely repressed irritation, and in the next Wei Wuxian was pushed backward, Lan Wangji’s voice wavering with more emotion than Wei Wuxian had ever heard from him before, “Go! Get lost!!”

Stumbling, Wei Wuxian turned to see where Wen Ning had gone, but by the time he located his friend and looked back over his shoulder towards where Lan Wangji was supposed to be, Lan Wangji was gone.

Not having time to worry about it, Wei Wuxian turned back around and ran towards Wen Ning. “Come on, let’s go!”

The two of them ripped through the woods, running back the way they just came. They were only about ten minutes from the treeline. As long as they found their way back to the jeep then everything would be fine. Wei Wuxian would give Wen Ning the keys, and then he would turn back and find where Lan Wangji had gone.

Blood pulsed loudly in Wei Wuxian’s ears, making it difficult for him to listen for Wen Ning’s breaths. Whenever Wen Ning would stumble, Wei Wuxian would reach out a hand to prevent his fall, tugging him back upright and urging the two of them to move faster and faster. Behind them, something large seemed to be knocking over entire trees in its haste to follow them. Just when Wei Wuxian thought they would be caught, something else came from the side and knocked into the beast behind them. The two animals went down in a cacophony of ferocious snarls and blood-curdling roars. Wei Wuxian had never heard of any animals that sounded like that.

Heart nearly beating out of his chest, Wei Wuxian stretched towards Wen Ning. His friend had stumbled again, falling to the ground when the two beasts were knocked back into the dark behind them. Around them, the darkness was unnatural. It had only been 9:30 P.M. when they left the jeep at the edge of the preserve, but suddenly it seemed almost as if it was midnight. The only thing Wei Wuxian could make out clearly between the edges of the trees was the fat, peaceful face of the moon.

Between one blink and the next, Wen Ning’s arm was ripped from Wei Wuxian’s grip.

His friend disappeared into the darkness, pained moans ricocheting back and forth between the trees and torturing Wei Wuxian’s eardrums. For a moment, it was as if everything in the universe narrowed down to that one moment. Wei Wuxian was going to die. If he somehow made it out of this alive, Jiang Cheng would certainly kill him.

Before Wei Wuxian could spare a moment to his poor jiejie, something crashed down upon his head and everything went black.