It is late autumn. Wei Wuxian’s clothes smell like water in leaf matter because he has been sleeping with the salamanders every night for a week, bleeding carefully onto the forest floor. Now he is a dark shadow walking steadily in the twilight and there are leaves in his hair, fluttering around his shoulders. Even if his hands were capable of picking them out, he would not have bothered.
He has been riding a horse — riding with his legs, not the reins, which he just tied loosely to the saddle on the second day — but he leaves the mare tethered to a pine on the far edge of a barley field. Wei Wuxian thinks she does not need to see. Whatever happens on the other side of the barley, she does not need to see it.
On the other side of the field is a small temple, situated along a little wagon road. In it candles burn. The forest rises up along a yellow limestone cliff behind the temple, and atop it there are a few houses overrun with bittermelon vines. The nuns he was told run this temple must live there. It would be better if they were safe with Wei Wuxian’s mare across the field, but he cannot do much about that.
There are two people outside the temple, clearly not nuns. They do not pick out Wei Wuxian in the gloom as he wades through the high barley. Barley fields are not flooded like mature rice paddies but their roots are wet and sucking. Yet, though Wei Wuxian’s arms hang lax at his sides, his steps are sure. He grows closer to the two standing at attention outside the temple. Wei Wuxian is not concerned, though they hold what are distinctively cultivators’ jian sword scabbards and have recurve bows slung over their backs. They should see him; they should at least notch an arrow. But Wei Wuxian discovered a little trick last year: as a man who once spent thirteen years as nothing at all, in the eyes of the cosmos — who did not appear as a ghost or a soul or even a set of rotting bones — he can let the world forget him. He can become nothing for a little while.
He threw up the first time he did it. It was an accident as he tinkered with a maze array. See nothing , he’d thought, activating a simple little talisman. And the whole universe, the earth and the heavens and the ten thousand things: they all listened. A little Lan disciple came in and began straightening the room around him. He walked outside to breathe and a little bird flew into him. That broke it, and he threw up in the shrubbery, and went right to Lan Zhan.
Wei Wuxian’s jaw tightens. Shadows begin to dance around his shoulders like blooming black spots in a migraine sufferer’s vision, but he does not pause.
It is such a still night that Wei Wuxian, when he stops in front of the temple’s door, just between the two cultivators standing guard, can hear them breathing. He pays them little mind and shakes back his sleeves. Here where the candlelight spills out of the cracked-open front door, it is clear that while Wei Wuxian’s hair is half-down and carries the smell of gingko leaves, his sleeves are not loose or tucked into an archer’s bracers but tied back with a loop of twine around his arms and across his back, the way peasant mothers will tie back sleeves while they bring in the harvest.
From the elbow down his arms are bandaged. Wei Wuxian looks at his hands, nods to himself, and quickly unravels the bandage on first one arm, then the next. He wonders if he should wince; he is making sure to pull scabs away with the fabric.
He drops the bandages to the ground. Patiently he stands still and waits until he feels blood drip down to the point of one finger. He steps closer to one cultivator, the woman. He stops right in front of her and meets her eyes. She tries to focus on him, stumbles back a half-step that has her companion glancing at nothing. There, she almost sees him — and Wei Wuxian blows a puff of air in her face and whispers, “Don’t blink.”
She blinks; everyone blinks. Wei Wuxian strikes fast. Two fingers, two dots of blood marring her eyelids. He feels the ritual catch. The thrumming in his gut does not point towards her, though. It points to the cultivator beside her, and to two other points inside the temple.
Wei Wuxian turns to the man, who is about to ask the woman what is the matter. Wei Wuxian becomes real again because some part of him wants to see the man’s face when he realizes. Then Wei Wuxian puffs air again; then his hand strikes. The man goes docile. A little stray blood drips down to the corners of his eyes like painted cosmetics.
Wei Wuxian breathes for a moment, studies them to be sure the untested experiment is holding. The temple door seems to loom large in the corner of his eye. He is afraid of what he will find in there, even if it cannot be the worst thing. He would know already if it were the worst thing; he has built his own body into an alarm talisman for that. He would already know. He would already be screaming.
And he’s not, so Lan Wangji is somewhere in this world, alive. Probably, in this temple.
Wei Wuxian nudges open the temple door with his boot but does not yet cross the threshold. It is warm inside, and smells of beeswax. There are two men standing behind the altar at the center of the single room; they are what he could sense from outside. They’re curse-stained, like the male cultivator by the door.
“Hi, hi there,” says Wei Wuxian into the still silence. In the candlelight it is clear that Wei Wuxian’s hands are running with blood. He can see the two men in the temple relax as they note that the blood is running from injuries to Wei Wuxian’s own arms — from fat slices in the soft, pale insides of his forearms, but mostly concentrated across the delicate bones of the hand and the very painful curve of the palm, as if he has grabbed a sword. He did. It was Lan Wangji’s, the first time. It was Wei Wuxian’s little silver dagger the next, and the next. Night after night: the hunt paused, the silver knife, and Wei Wuxian bleeding himself onto the forest floor.
These men are relieved to see him injured. This is their mistake. It is not their first mistake, nor their most important mistake, but they have made it: they think their guards were able to touch Wei Wuxian.
So it goes for them, then — because Mo Xuanyu, little darling Mo Xuanyu, is not the only person under heaven to know a few things about blood. About mutilation.
When the cultivators do not appear to run Wei Wuxian down like a pheasant in the underbrush, the two men in the temple begin to shift on their heels. They trade glances across the warm-burning incense, the yellow-bright candles. Wei Wuxian walks in. Blood drips to the wooden floor.
This temple is buddhist, not daoist, but it reminds Wei Wuxian a little of the Cloud Recesses meditation halls all the same. It is plain; its real decoration is in the elegant shape of the empty space the building holds, like the precious warmth of air between cupped palms. Wei Wuxian surveys what he can see of it and nods to the statue of guanyin in the corner niche. Wei Wuxian as he is today trusts a bodhisattva more than a buddha: a bodhisattva chooses to remain in the world. He looks at the guanyin, dancing in her niche and thinks: mercy. He thinks: justice.
The men flinch when Wei Wuxian walks in through the left side of the door, the one directly facing the altar behind which they are frozen like a tableau on a folding screen. No one but an ordained priest or monk or nun is supposed to pass in front of a candle-thick altar in a buddhist temple, but Wei Wuxian drips his way across the floorboards right in front of it. Wei Wuxian looks the bronze buddha statue in its face rather than looking at the men behind it. He bows a little, in apology, to the altar. The blood on his hands falls in an arc as he brings his sliced-open palms up in a salute.
Ah, this is not a place for violence. Not in this air that is shaped like the jingshi’s air, not here in front of the warm wax candles tended so carefully by the nuns who live in this place. Not on a cool and silent night in a little temple where a barley field meets the dark woods and golden monkeys are calling somewhere further in the trees. But these men have brought their violence here.
And now they have brought Wei Wuxian here, a dark shadow in their doorway.
“No greeting for me?” Wei Wuxian asks. Ah, he sounds like someone he used to be. He sounds like the boy who used to stand at Jiang Cheng’s shoulder and say, Oh, hello, do you remember Yunmeng? The sack of Lotus Pier? He has been a vicious thing longer than Lan Wangji likes to acknowledge.
Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian’s eyes dart to the shadows in the corners of the room, but he sees only the altar, the two men, the guanyin in the corner, the meditation mats.
“Perhaps you do not know my name? Any of my names?” Wei Wuxian laughs. Oh, hell, he was raised by Madam Yu the same as Jiang Cheng, the same as shijie. It’s right there in the laugh. “Or my titles? I do not know your names, nor your accomplishments, in order to greet you honored masters properly.”
These men are father and son, the younger quite middle-aged. They are not cultivators; they are salt merchants who are suffering, Wei Wuxian theorizes, from some odd and terrible hubris. The man and woman outside are cultivators, however, of the type one can hire on for a journey, or to kill another cultivator. Or drug and kidnap one, perhaps, if the cultivator in question were already weakened by a curse that had not quite been broken yet. Even a very powerful cultivator like Lan Wangji, if taken by surprise, taken when he was weak, taken when Wei Wuxian left their inn to buy their lunch.
There have been a lot of mistakes in this situation. Wei Wuxian had forgotten how much he hates making mistakes. He clenches his sliced-open fists and chokes back a reflexive scream until it’s just a gasp in his throat; blood drips to the floor.
“Our — our compliments to the young master,” says the father, who perhaps thinks that he can talk to gain time. What a nice coincidence. Wei Wuxian also needs them to talk to gain time. He also needs to see Lan Wangji. A lot of what is about to happen here depends on the state Lan Wangji is in. And — Wei Wuxian just needs to see him. The world is tilting in terrible ways. He needs to see him.
Wei Wuxian smiles. “You don’t know my titles after all! And here I have been told that I am infamous.”
The father says something. Wei Wuxian does not catch it.
“In fairness to you, I have only one title that is still up to date. It is dear to me, though,” Wei Wuxian adds helpfully.
“We shall address the young master as such,” says the son, loudly, perhaps hoping their cultivator guards are alive to hear. They are. They cannot shout, though they are fighting the spell to whisper. Wei Wuxian can hear them, just barely — his hearing is not any better for demonic cultivation, not like a cultivator with a golden core. They are whispering: “It’s him— it’s him, he’s here! He’s inside— He’s inside!”
Yes, perhaps those two had noticed Wei Wuxian hunting them. Perhaps they felt him coming. Perhaps they knew enough to be afraid.
“You may address me as the husband of the second son of Lan,” says Wei Wuxian, smiling his terrible little post-war smile. He does not know what it looks like on Mo Xuanyu’s face.
There is a sudden silence. Breaths held. In the stillness, even the monkeys in the forest are silent. Wei Wuxian steps neatly around the altar. In the wake that Wei Wuxian’s body leaves in the air, the altar’s candle flames flicker green. Salt does that too, he thinks idly. Driftwood with salt in it will burn blue-green. All this, for salt. He is not even certain that the Lans ever use it, except in pickles.
Wei Wuxian clenches his hands again, feels again the gasping, pained cry strangled in his throat. Not screaming will make him hoarse; it has before. He is surprised at how little he wants to scream beyond the pain reflex. When Lan Wangji was first taken he had not panicked, because Lan Wangji is always alright. But Sizhui, along for their nighthunt, had been a little afraid. Sizhui had been right to be afraid, in the end, and Wei Wuxian’s confidence had lost them precious hours. Ah, it was all so foolish. Farcical. If it had been more threatening perhaps nothing would have gone wrong.
He clenches his fists again. The next ritual he intends to use requires damage. Fortunately he was already bleeding; now the scars on his hands will keep. They would have anyway, really. They have been open for a week on the road as he tracked these men in their flight north. He does not know if they are headed to Chang’an or Zhoujun or anywhere in this world. He does not care. They are salt merchants who deal with the Lan Sect, because of course the Lan’s southern salt monopoly is the basis of their great wealth. Possibly the Lan were high-handed with their partners in the north. Even if they weren’t, probably these people do not, on the whole, deserve to die.
Very few people deserve to die, Wei Wuxian thinks. He is a little dizzy with blood loss but his eyes cooperate to focus again on the guanyin statue in the wall niche. Guanyin is for compassion.
Very few people deserve to die. Perhaps no one does. At least he is aware of it. And he will remember it, the same way the scars will stick.
Wei Wuxian’s eyes seem to suddenly adjust to the gloom behind the altar. On the floor to the right of the back door is a body — is Lan Wangji.
Momentary panic spikes through Wei Wuxian. Some part of him is always sixteen and terrified and helpless, faced with Lan Wangji hurt. He sways, the air around him goes dappled, and the men flinch. Ah. Wei Wuxian is not sixteen anymore, and now the shadows dance for him. But no — Lan Wangji is alive. He is tied in thin rope and sprawled on the floor in the darker shadow, next to where the men have put down bedrolls on which they apparently planned to sleep watching over their prize. Lan Wangi’s body smells like an alive thing, one that is curse-infected and dying but alive all the same. It is a strange way to know, but Wei Wuxian is sure of it.
Lan Wangji is not conscious but his face looks tense; in the green light of the candles, Wei Wuxian can see that he is sweating a little even in the chill. He is bound in hard twine, but what is keeping him truly tied is the curse mark curling a bruise around one elegant wrist, tracing a swollen finger of itself along the line of his jaw. It is pulling the blood and qi from Lan Wangji, slowly but surely. That was all Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had learned about the strange curse Lan Wangji had picked up seemingly overnight on a routine night hunt. When the attack came, they knew the important things: that it took blood, and qi, and weakened. That it took a little more each day.
Wei Wuxian suspects that the salt merchants had meant to grab Sizhui, or another inner disciple — someone perhaps not as powerful as Lan Wangji who was definitely family, who would be useful as a hostage and for ransom.
Well, they got Lan Zhan instead. And now they get the most embarrassing part of Lan Zhan’s family, standing here in a temple and dripping blood in front of them.
Oh— Wei Wuxian is very angry. He had not noticed how angry. Up until now Wei Wuxian has just been doing what needs to be done. Has been staying calm, first in confidence, then for Sizhui, then for Lan Wangji who was out there somewhere, knowing that Wei Wuxian could be calm, and come find him.
This evening Wei Wuxian is very calm, the kind of calm that can kill a man slowly instead of fast. He knows it, recognizes it in himself. He does not feel any pride in this, simply recognizes the facts.
“Undo it,” Wei Wuxian tells them, just to see them flinch and open their mouths to try to explain his own work to him. Oh, this isn’t exactly his, but it’s of the Yiling Laozu’s ilk: a curse that can be cast with borrowed strength from a cultivator, no personal golden core necessary, and which cannot be removed. One which pulls the blood, apparently, but is meant to pull at the qi, to drink it up like a thief.
“If the Yiling Laozu kills us,” says the son, “The curse will solidify and can no longer be undone!”
Wei Wuxian knows that.
“It cannot kill a cultivator, young master. We are not murderers,” says the father, placating.
On the floor, hair spread out to one side like he was dragged along the ground, Lan Wangji is bleeding a little, from the mouth. Wei Wuxian has been bleeding for days, bleeding the loss from the curse right back into Lan Zhan. It is a ritual he has only seen once before, when Wen Qing was desperate years and a lifetime ago. One cannot generate blood from nothing, she had said, piercing her arm at the elbow. Not any more than one can generate qi from nothing, nor birth the heavens and the earth and the ten thousand things. But one can give, she had said. Then she had narrowed her eyes and said cautiously, looking at all the blood, It is not so different from the cultivation you do.
Wei Wuxian glances again at the statue of guanyin, whose purview is compassion. Wei Wuxian is grateful to the terrible compassion of Wen Qing now, here behind an altar on the road north out of Gusu. He has been bleeding himself into Lan Wangji’s depleted veins for a week. Wei Wuxian was terribly lucky; Lan Wangji had let him set up the spell before they were separated, when they first realized what the curse was doing. It was supposed to just last until they got back to the Cloud Recesses. Wei Wuxian is lucky that it held despite so much distance, lucky that he knew how to tie himself and Lan Zhan.
“Correctly done, your ritual probably would not kill a cultivator,” Wei Wuxian allows. His voice is very cold, very academic. He sounds like Wen Qing, as well he should. He cut his teeth in the finer depths of demonic cultivation first at his shijie’s kitchen table after the war, then at Wen Qing’s elbow. He feels like a creation of the dead women he has known — Madam Yu, shijie, Wen Qing, all of their aborted scorn, their recalled injuries, the way even shijie’s eyes could sometimes look like two dry river stones.
Lan Wangji, there on the floor, once had a mother who was kept locked away. Perhaps her qi was bound with a curse like this one; perhaps Lan Wangji has been used before now as a different sort of hostage. Wei Wuxian will try to do right by her. Wei Wuxian would have wanted her as a mother-in-law even if she were as formidable as Madam Yu.
“Hey!” the older merchant bellows suddenly, “Hey, both of you, get in here!”
They have had enough speaking to him. Wei Wuxian raises his brows.
“Please don’t,” he says simply. “You’re correct that I cannot kill you without further solidifying the curse. Nor can I kill the cultivator whose power you borrowed to cast it. There is no need to drag others in.”
They ignore him; the son shouts, too, and makes for the temple’s rear door.
Wei Wuxian does not bother to whistle. It is such a quiet, still night out there. It just calls for a little hum.
Wei Wuxian hums, sweet in his throat. The two cultivators do not move as swiftly as corpses; they have golden cores and they are fighting the painted-eyes ritual. That’s nice to know. It is a terrible ritual. Wei Wuxian could walk them up the limestone cliff behind this temple and walk them right off of it again, probably.
The cultivators under his control do get to the rear door fast, however. Temples like these always have a front door and a back door to fit all the little rituals of monastic life, all the rules about who goes in and out of each one. Wei Wuxian hopes the nuns are asleep, and their students too, if they have them. Wei Wuxian hopes that nothing significant will be unbalanced here, if a dead man remade crosses the altar, and if three of the souls that passed inside the threshold tonight do not leave it again.
The elder salt merchant shoves his son, who turns and pounds on the door again. The door is held on the other side by Wei Wuxian’s controlled cultivators, but they’re not gentle about it. Well, the nuns are not going to sleep through that.
Wei Wuxian whips an arm up. The younger salt merchant stops pounding the door and ducks to avoid Wei Wuxian, but blinks when Wei Wuxian does not even step towards him to try to make a blow land. Instead, an arc of blood spatters across the merchant’s face, his chest, as Wei Wuxian swiftly presses two fingertips against his eyelids. Before either can react, Wei Wuxian whirls and flicks two pinpricks of blood on the eyelids of the older man, too.
Binding cultivation is one of the oldest magics. It predates pretty much everything. It’s old like oracle bones and the sense at the back of your neck that, even on this still evening, something terrible is happening down where the field meets the trees.
The cultivators outside are quiet. Wei Ying calls to them, through the door: “Yell up to anyone on the clifftop that we are doing an exorcism, and they shouldn’t come down.”
The male cultivator shouts: “Honored nuns! We are doing an exorcism, do not enter this place!”
Even as he calls out, Wei Wuxian is storming past the two salt merchants — who can resist Wei Wuxian only enough to mouth, near silently, “Undo this, undo this curse” — and falling to his knees by Lan Zhan’s head. The floor thumps like a drum as Wei Wuxian’s shins hit it hard. Lan Wangji’s hair is bedraggled but Wei Wuxian’s hands are shredded things, not good enough to pick leaves out of his own hair, definitely not good enough to comb softly through Lan Wangji’s. He puts his bloody palms on Lan Wangji’s chest and leans over him, ignoring the whispers inside, the whispers outside — “Undo it, undo it” and “It’s him, he is inside, he is inside” — and leans down and kisses Lan Wangji’s mouth.
“I’m here,” he says. Lan Wangji does not wake. Wei Wuxian kisses his cold, bitter mouth again. “I’m here, I love you, I need you. I’ll fix this.”
He drops his control on the throats of the salt merchants. He remains kneeling by Lan Wangji, watching his face. His breathing seems feeble. His pulse is — not good, not good, from what little Wei Wuxian can discern with bloody fingertips.
“There is no need for this!” thunders the older salt merchant. “The curse merely weakens, and it wears off on its own after a time!”
“Actually,” says Wei Wuxian, shoving to his feet, cold inside again. Lan Zhan is not waking up easily. Lan Zhan’s big heart is a tired and fluttering thing.“You fucked up the curse. Congratulations on your invention. Instead of a backlash, which is what you would have gotten, oh, ninety-eight out of a hundred times, you managed to adapt it. It is killing him, or trying to.”
Wei Wuxian has felt it. For a week, since he tied himself to his body’s memory of Lan Wangji’s blood, his spit, every — every part of him that has been in Wei Wuxian’s body, he has felt it. Through the connection he has felt two things: the direction he needs to ride, and Lan Wangji’s body trying to die.
Lan Wangji is not conscious now, but he is so strong that he must have been for much of this time. He is suffering from blood loss and qi depletion; the blood loss alone without a cultivator’s qi control will result in fainting, in confusion, paranoia. It can persist for days as an odd ache and aimless, devouring fear. People who don’t live with this sort of thing do not realize how strange it can get, over a long period of time. How terrible it can be to die slowly.
Wei Wuxian is furious-feral. He is sorry, to the guanyin in the corner, about the kind of compassion he is about to hand out.
“You cannot kill us!” the younger man reminds him, again, like Wei Wuxian does not know. These men have tied themselves to Lan Wangji in a curse and Wei Wuxian can feel it in Lan Wangji, because Wei Wuxian has tied his blood to Lan Wangji’s blood, through Wen Qing’s teachings half-recalled. There is so fucking much that is truncated, half-recalled. There is so often in Wei Wuxian’s life a rupture of memory. Things lost to careless cruelty. Doubtless he is using this blood ritual wrong; doubtless Wen Qing would have more to say, would have done it differently, were she alive this year when she would have been thirty-eight. Will he now be given credit for her work, half-finished? These things dog him: Jiang Cheng probably does not know, still, the full ability of zidian. Shijie left skeins of spun silk of a particular golden color, but no one can figure out what dye she used, or what she fed her silkworms to get it. It is wrapped up, unused, in Jin Ling’s treasure-boxes. Wei Wuxian could learn to weave a hundred robes from it and never have what shijie intended.
Wei Wuxian is suffering blood loss too, though he has the benefit of being un-cursed, and eating and drinking as heavily as he could on the road, trying to bolster himself to flow into Lan Wangji. But he still feels it, the tilting of the world, the fuzziness. Ghost month is long gone, but it feels like that: the gates of his mind open.
“Our purpose has always been to negotiate, young master,” says the father, stepping to the front, spreading his hands, shaking his head. Probably he has faced down a few situations like this before. Kidnappings, intimidations gone wrong. “Not this way, of course. This is terribly undignified for all of us, and this one apologizes. We mean to negotiate, and you may of course be included in this. I assure you, the curse is reversible. Things need not be violent.”
“I assure you it is not reversible,” Wei Wuxian snaps right back. Yes, this all seems like the way things go: casual cruelty, bumbling destruction of good sweet things. There is rope biting into Lan Zhan’s gagged mouth, chafing his tongue, maybe. Wei Wuxian kissed it when he kissed Lan Zhan. They gagged Lan Zhan, who struggles to speak some days; Lan Zhan who has a wicked sense of humor, who lately, when he does speak, says whatever he wants. Wei Wuxian loves that, loves that.
Wei Wuxian needs him.
“We’re more than willing to talk,” says the older man.
The shadows flicker.
“Honored cultivators outside, come in,” says Wei Wuxian. The back door opens. The man and woman come in. Wei Wuxian peers closely at both of them. He needs to be very sure of what comes next.
“Who are you, really?” says the older man. “The Lan sent you.”
“I told you my new title,” Wei Wuxian says, distantly. He walks in a circle around the male cultivator, who is still whispering it’s him, it’s him, he’s inside . “You called me by my old one from Yiling, a moment ago. I think you know.”
Wei Wuxian turns to the male cultivator. “You, stand by the men who hired you.” To the female, he says, “You didn’t cast this curse. The three of them did. Stand over there.” She goes to stand in the opposite corner from Lan Wangji. It grates to turn his back on Lan Wangji, but he has to in order to do this part. More blood falls from his sliced palms as he works. Much of it is still going to Lan Wangji, fading before it reaches his fingertips, but enough spills over. All he needs is enough.
He turns his back on everyone to face the back of the altar, and with a neat sweep of his foot, he smears the blood he has worked so hard to spill onto this temple floor into a neat semi-circle. A half-month moon, like what hangs outside in the still air. He turns back, the curve of blood behind his heels. Lan Wangji makes a little sound. Maybe he’s coming to? But no, when Wei Wuxian looks he is not awake, just twitching horribly against his bonds.
Their connection through Wen Qing’s spell flickers.
Cold focus. It comes easily. When something is truly important his brain snaps into alignment like iron to a magnet. He wants to untie Lan Wangji but he cannot go over there yet, not for this second blood ritual. This one will not be a binding. This will be something else entirely.
“You,” Wei Wuxian says to the older salt merchant. “Unlike myself, you are undoubtedly old enough to recall the reign of the empress Wu Zetian.”
The son looks quizzically at his father, who nods, eyes on Wei Wuxian. He looks as if he thinks he is gambling. Wei Wuxian looks at Lan Wangji instead, checks that he is still breathing. These people gambled once, when they chose a cultivator in Lan white upon whom to cast their curse. Any Lan, and Wei Wuxian would have come for them. He married into this family, no matter how they feel about it.
But they chose Lan Zhan. That’s the beginning and end of it.
“Do you recall, then, the written characters introduced in her reign?” Wei Wuxian asks. He no longer gasps at all when he clenches his wrecked palms. His body has stopped bleeding quite so much. It is trying to go into shock, perhaps to keep him from bleeding more. He clenches again and the blood drips. “They are not used anymore, but you can find them, if you look in the right texts. A new character for the moon. A new character for earth. A new character for sun — which is nearly my favorite, I have to say. You can see the three-legged crow in the sun and everything. Do you recall the empress’ character for ‘star’?”
“I do not,” says the old man. He smiles disarmingly. He still thinks they are negotiating.
Wei Wuxian also smiles. He is iron filings forming a point. He is a man remade. He is someone’s husband.
“In some very old books ‘star’ is sometimes written as three circles or three boxes — mouth radicals —- stacked in a little pyramid.” He looks at the men in front of him, counts one, two, three. “But the empress did something different. She made it so you could write ‘star’ as a single empty circle. Do you know what else an empty circle means?”
“Come to your point,” says the younger man.
Wei Wuxian obligingly endeavors to bleed faster. His head spins.
“People — well, mathematical philosophers — started using it to mean ‘nothing’. To mean ‘empty’. Not like an empty room, not even like a debt. At debt is a number. This is a number that means ‘nothing’. That is what I am going to do to you this evening,” he says.
“Nothing isn’t a number, and if it was you can’t ‘do’ a number to anyone” says the son, who has apparently had an education. Not an education quite like Wei Wuxian had. Not like sneaking into the treasure rooms with his shijie and Jiang Cheng to read the strange sutras from south of the Tufan Empire, which multiply nothing by nothing, which talk about how the world spins and how there are different types of infinity. Not like being nothing for thirteen years.
“Fine,” says Wei Wuxian. “Think of how the world was made, then. You honored educated ones know the story. The great one — the number one, a big singularity — birthed water and then that singularity and water birthed heaven and earth and shen and ming — if you have interpretations for what exactly was meant by shen and ming let me know now, because they’re contested and you do not have much more time to make your input heard — and all the rest, right down to the ten thousand things. But no zero; no nothing. That’s not the work of the heavens or the earth.”
He takes a breath. He lets himself look one more time at Lan Wangji, in case this goes wrong. In case it is the last time. Then he focuses on the three men in front of him, who each have his blood dripping like dainty tears down their faces. “But it is my work. I will not kill you, though you will die. I will unmake you. You will become nothing. The curse you cast will become nothing, which is the only way for my husband to live. Emptiness. Three mouths. The space between stars.”
Wei Wuxian is not smiling anymore. He drags his foot in another arc across the floor. Now he is in a full circle of his own blood.
“I am sorry,” says Wei Wuxian, crouching down in the plain circle of blood and raising his hands. “You do not deserve this.”
The air shifts. Something that is not supposed to bend is curled. It turns out that nothingness is a soft thing. Soft like a still night in autumn that has been turned gently, terribly, inside out. Then it jolts hard to the side — vertigo bad enough that Wei Wuxian thinks for a grim moment that he will be the one facing a backlash tonight, but it turns in on itself, twists in a way even Wei Wuxian’s vertigo has never previously managed.
The salt merchants and the male cultivator distort strangely. Terribly. They just look surprised, though. It looks like they are being crushed between two folds of the world, wrinkling where it was not supposed to wrinkle, but their faces are not in pain. The fold in the air squeezes them and squeezes them. The shape of the air inside the temple warps; Wei Wuxian gasps and some instinct has him trying to scream. He feels a terrible pressure and then pain lances down his jaw like lightning before thunder, just before his right eardrum bursts. He flinches; his eyes shut instinctively, an animal protecting its vulnerable parts.
They are gone — gone when he blinked, because humans always blink. Three people are unmade, unobserved. Wei Wuxian coughs in horrible little wheezes, his lungs emptier than living lungs normally get. Even as he tries to breathe, Wei Wuxian scrambles his way forward across the floor, hands and knees, panic in his throat, searching in the dizzy low light for Lan Wangji.
This terrified instinct is probably what saves them; his knees smear the blood circle and break the empress’ star. The lingering inside-out thrumming goes away and the air snaps back, throwing him briefly to the floor. Even as he scrambles for Lan Wangji, even as he pulls his own little dagger to try with mutilated hands to cut the ropes, he thinks of Mo Xuanyu.
Souls need not be destroyed the way that Wei Wuxian just did it. There are many ways. But Wei Wuxian’s soul first writhed in this body on a floor writ out in arrays of blood. Was what he just saw — what he just did — how it felt for Mo Xuanyu? The terrible pressure in the air, its shape no longer its own, pressing even the air inside of Wei Wuxian’s lungs? Or did it feel like the soft turning inside-out of a boat slowly capsizing in warm water?
Truly Wei Wuxian does not think it was either one. Truly Wei Wuxian thinks that he will never know, the same way Mo Xuanyu never got to know what was coming for him until it happened. Another thing to live with. Another terrible silence. Mo Xuanyu, who knew about blood, and mutilation, but did not ever know that the ritual was supposed to use his own words. Mo Xuanyu, who was never supposed to be mute.
Wei Wuxian has the rope off of Lan Zhan’s mouth now; he lifts it out so carefully where it bit in. Lan Wangji gasps and Wei Wuxian gasps with him in relief.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, kissing his face but not his mouth so that Lan Wangji can breathe, and breathe, and breathe. “Lan Zhan, hey, wake up for me, wake up so I know you’re okay.”
Lan Wangji blinks. Wei Wuxian shudders and has to put his face down on Lan Wangji’s chest. When he looks up Lan Wangji blinks again, then stares up at Wei Wuxian with very wide eyes and does not speak.
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says. His steady, bloody hands come up to cup Lan Wangji’s face, his too-cool jaw. It will be alright. Nothing is pulling out Lan Zhan’s blood anymore, or his qi. It will take time to recover, but that is alright. “Ah, sweetheart,” he says, with shadows throbbing in the air around his shoulders, “I’ve been looking for you.”
He leaves his blood like a mark of love on Lan Wangji’s skin.
Wei Wuxian’s fingertips are mostly intact even if his palms are slashed to hell. His range of motion and grip is terrible, but he does manage to work the rope off Lan Wangji’s wrists. Once free, Lan Wangji’s hands are immediately on Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji’s mouth moves, too.
Wei Wuxian gestures to his ears. Perhaps they are bleeding; he is not sure. “Blew out one of my eardrums,” he says, trying to hit the right volume. Fuck, that really hurts.
Lan Wangji’s face goes very intent and he touches each of Wei Wuxian’s ears very gently. His gaze finds the frozen female cultivator, the only soul who survived Wei Wuxian, standing in the corner. His eyes go cold.
“No, no, Lan Zhan,” says Wei Wuxian. “She didn’t hurt my ear, it was the uh, the ritual. My cultivation. They’re gone, the ones who cursed you. Dead too, but also — gone. Very gone.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes slide back to Wei Wuxian. He nods. Something occurs to Wei Wuxian. “Did she hurt you ?” he asks. Lan Wangji shakes his head, very dismissive. That’s fair. Wei Wuxian does not want to think about these people ever again. He’ll have to, because he killed three of them and he has to remember when he does that, but. He pets Lan Wangji a little, thoughtlessly, smearing more blood. When Lan Wangji tries to sit up he stumbles and his eyes roll back a little.
“Ahhh, Lan Zhan, no,” Wei Wuxian chides to cover everything else he is feeling. It will take some time for all of this to thaw inside of him. He gets his feet under himself and slides his bloodied hands under Lan Wangji and lifts him. He has to borrow a little resentful energy to do it, in this body, but that’s fine — he has been wearing his rage like a wedding veil, and resentful energy has followed him through the dark woods as jackals follow a tiger.
“Come on, Lan Zhan,” he murmurs to Lan Wangji. “We are going home.”
Lan Wangji nods against his shoulder, a tired man. Wei Wuxian’s tired man.
Wei Wuxian steps around the altar again. He looks once more at the guanyin in the corner. The female cultivator is like a statue herself in the gloom. She is not trying to whisper anymore.
Wei Wuxian pauses a few steps out of the threshold and lets the blood-eyes curse drop from the female cultivator. Then he keeps walking, Lan Wangji cradled in his arms. She was the only one here not bound by the curse. It was probably just luck. It was probably meaningless, that her companion was the one who helped the salt merchants cast the curse onto Lan Wangji and not her. But there — let her keep her luck. Wei Wuxian is done with this place.
She awakens, he assumes, within the temple smeared with Wei Wuxian’s blood, having just watched the universe itself open up and swallow three souls at the will of a man for whom the candles burned blue-green, who knows something of nothing. She is a cultivator, but a cultivator is no fearless god — and even if they were, the gods themselves must scream, sometimes. She screams now, and stumbles out of the temple. It wakes the monkeys in the trees, and they howl too. There is a shout from up the cliff face — presumably the nuns are done with watching and waiting. Wei Wuxian does not look back. He wades again across the barley, the black skirts of his robes billowing across the tops of the barley stalks like they are floating around him in a stream. In his arms he holds Lan Wangji, whose breath rasps but who is patiently allowing himself to be brought home.
Wei Wuxian is deaf in one bleeding ear, and the moon above them is half-full. These imperfect things are comforting; they are shapes and numbers that are not nothing. Not that nothing is some evil — it’s not. But he has seen enough of it tonight. He wants to feel instead the mud under the barley sucking at his shoes.
Wei Wuxian’s horse is still waiting for them just inside the dark wood, a little spooked by the screaming but she is at least very used to the smell of blood. Barely ten strides from the horse Wei Wuxian’s knees give out. He falls to the ground, holding Lan Wangji with hands that are torn open and which spasm as he tries to cling tighter.
Wei Wuxian gasps out, “Ah, Zhan-er—” and then it is just gasping.
Lan Wangji’s hand comes up to cup his cheek. “Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. His voice is low and steady even as his hand bumps clumsily against Wei Wuxian’s cheekbone. He is tilting his head towards the ear that can hear. Wei Wuxian loves him. “You are alright. I am alright. Let’s go home.”
Wei Wuxian nods and straightens up and breathes in a deep breath, then another two when the first is too rough to count. He smells the forest floor. He smells Lan Wangji, alive. He reaches out and crushes Lan Wangji back to his chest.
They don’t speak. Lan Wangji, face buried in Wei Wuxian’s chest, does not try to move, or to ask Wei Wuxian to take his bloody hands out Lan Wangji’s hair. For a long time they sit together on the ground, with the Siguai constellation rising in the southwest. Here is the earth, here are the heavens, here are the ten thousand things.
When they ride into the midst of Caiyi’s market day two days later, it is Lan Wangji holding the reins. Wei Wuxian is slumped against his chest somewhere between asleep and passed out, and their horse is beleaguered and ready to charge up the mountain if it means being rid of them. But it is necessarily slow going through the market. Passersby know them here; they catch sight of Lan Wangji and recognize Hanguang-jun and the sword that he is not yet replenished enough to fly with at his waist, but it is Wei Wuxian’s name that they call out in the street, more often than not.
Lan Wangji holds Wei Wuxian tighter, but keeps their pace slow as the crowds throng around them. People see Wei Wuxian’s hands thick with stitched-up wounds; they salute him and salute Lan Wangji and it is good to see. Wei Wuxian, greeted by name: Wei Wuxian, who slipped through the cracks of the world twice but is not an empty circle. Who could be nothing, but chooses instead to have scarred hands that Lan Wangji stitched closed himself with a borrowed bone needle and strands of his own hair.
Wei Wuxian stirs sleepily and Lan Wangji takes it as a sign. He lets the mare choose her footing. She, unbothered, strikes out for home.