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“Won’t you be lonely,” Lan Huan had asked over dinner the night before Lan Zhan had left for the airport, “in that big house all on your own?” 

The question had given Lan Zhan pause, for a moment - he’d wondered, first, at the asking of it at all. As if he hadn’t been living on his own for years, by then, without his brother or uncle for company. Then he’d mulled over what had prompted it; did he seem lonely, he wondered, or was it something that he’d done? 

In the end, all he’d said was, “I’ll be fine,” and his brother had nodded and they’d lapsed back into silence. 

 

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It is, in fairness, a very big plot of land, surrounded by an awful lot of nothing. The front drive is overgrown with wildflowers and berry brambles that Lan Zhan can’t identify, tangled up in the wrought iron fence and hosting a dozen types of butterflies flitting along the length of it. It’s certainly pretty, if a little isolated, and Lan Zhan feels comfortable enough to dismiss his brother’s concern out of hand at the sight of it. He hadn’t been lingering on it too much, really, but -- some. 

The gravel of the drive crunches underfoot when he gets out of his car to open up the gate, already anticipating the metallic scent of unfinished metal on his hands. It swings open without even a faint creak of protest; he wonders who oils the hinges with faintly abstracted amusement, the same way one wonders who lights all the torches in a horror movie. 

The drive up is long and easy. The gate swings shut in the rearview, either entirely silent or thoroughly drowned out by the joyously chirping birds that apparently make up the vast majority of the population of this area of the abandoned countryside. 

Lan Zhan had packed light; one suitcase for his clothes, one suitcase for his personal effects, and a bag for his laptop. He doesn’t need much to write, after all, and the house had come entirely furnished when he’d rented it on a whim that he only barely recalls. 

He parks the car under the awning to keep the rain off and internally commits to checking the level of gas later, before he actually needs to drive it. He’s been called over-practical all his life, but who can find fault with a bit of bloody-mindedness when the alternative is being trapped all alone in the vast countryside? 

The door, somewhat predictably, swings open quietly. The air inside the house, which Lan Zhan had expected to be musty or at least a little dusty, smells of the wildflowers outside and something difficult to identify - some sort of rich floral, something green and aquatic and hard to put his finger on. 

Maybe it smells like an expensive candle. Lan Zhan cannot claim that he’s an expert in scents when they don’t pertain to things that he’s obsessively researched, too late into the night, for novels. 

Blood, gore, death, yes. Fancy paper florals, less so. Florals only rarely have their place in murder mysteries. 

There’s a temptation to explore the entire house right away, but he resists; he does the responsible thing and takes all of his luggage inside first, to reduce the risk of his laptop frying in the late-spring heat wave, and then, after a moment of contemplation, takes himself to the kitchen to find a glass of water so he doesn’t die from dehydration, of all the silly things. 

The kitchen is an adventure to find, anyway, so it’s sort of like poking around in its own way. It’s all the way to the back of the house - probably originally a butler’s kitchen or something like it - and tucked neatly away behind two closed doors. 

The water tastes fine. If Lan Zhan had been writing this house into a novel, he’d have made it taste strange. Metallic, maybe, or muddy. But no - it tastes faintly mineral, like perhaps it’s from a well, but frankly nicer than most of the city water that he’s had in his life. 

The rest of the day passes in a quiet haze of peeking into what feels like endless bedrooms and drawing rooms and spare bathrooms. It’s unlikely he’ll use more than half the house - unlikely he’ll use even a sixth of it, if he’s being honest with himself. 

It had seemed perfect at the time - a short-term lease on a strange old house, tucked into the Chinese countryside so close to where his uncle had grown up that he could throw a stone and it would land there, so long as the stone also landed on a train and the train happened to be snaking its way up the mountain. 

Lan Zhan had contacted the owner of the listing on an impulse, in the midst of a long streak of sleepless nights of being unable to write and thus unable to rest because there is no resting without writing, without some semblance of productivity. It had felt - well, he’s not really one to harp on the idea of fate or anything akin to it, but it had felt as though the stars had aligned a little bit, in terms of inspirational places to go for those lacking inspiration. 

The house is old and beautiful and strange. Lan Zhan likes it quite a lot, for what it is, which is essentially an Air BnB for wayward authors. It gives the impression that he’s truly alone, that no one can come and bother him, which - with his brother and uncle a vast ocean away - is more or less true. 

Or, Lan Zhan thinks whimsically, opening the closed door of yet another formal sitting room, if he were writing this into a book, he’d probably say something like -- 

Far enough into the countryside that no one could hear you scream. 

And then his editor would cut it, because it’s a touch cliche, isn’t it, Lan Zhan, and probably those words could be better served elsewhere. Fair enough to that. The first draft is for self indulgence. 

There’s a baby grand in one of the drawing rooms - a beautiful one, maybe walnut or something like it. Lan Zhan doesn’t really play anymore, but he can imagine himself playing that one, and he’s almost tempted to try. The tuning is probably terrible - pianos like that are usually more showpieces than practical instruments - but… 

Well, maybe. There’s something deeply romantic about playing a baby grand piano beside a cracked window letting in air that smells of honeysuckle and has the density of a blanket, summer-warm and incredibly humid. 

Another time, regardless. He lets the door close gently behind him and moves on to the next. 

He can’t make dinner because he doesn’t have groceries, so he promptly shatters all illusion of being alone in a sea of grassland by ordering takeout. It’s delivered within an hour and the driver doesn’t even give him a funny look when he tips, as if they get silly Americans tipping all the time. 

“Big house,” the delivery man notes.

Lan Zhan, who hasn’t spoken all day, has to clear his throat twice before he can respond, “I’m just visiting.” 

The delivery man nods, in the polite and abstract way that people do when they don’t really care about what you’re telling them. 

Lan Zhan thinks, as he sits down with his food, that if he were writing a novel with that delivery man, he would have provided some information -- nothing as obvious as a story about the house, or its prior inhabitants, but maybe something vague and foreboding. 

Or no - that would be too obvious. Maybe he’d have kept it the same, to lull the reader into a false sense of complacency. 

 

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He goes to bed early that night, tired from the flight and the drive, and he doesn’t dream. 

 

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The next day Lan Zhan decides that he needs to get groceries, because ordering food is too easy a habit to fall into because it is ultimately so much more enjoyable than cooking. It’s a good opportunity to check the gas gauge - normal - and perhaps top it off while he’s in town. 

It’s not a terribly long drive, and it’s made pleasant by the chirping of the birds and the sunlight that touches all of the long grasses along the sides of the road. There are no stop lights, which means that it’s both a fast and enjoyable ride, and Lan Zhan barely has time to contemplate the number of places one could theoretically hide a corpse along the side of the road before he’s arrived. 

The grocery store is normal. People smile at him, say hello in English, and then smile more widely when he responds in Mandarin. He picks up enough food for a week - he can’t imagine going much longer without at least some human contact - and picks up some youtiao at the local bakery because he can’t resist the urge. 

A man smiles a gap-toothed smile at him and waves a butterfly made of a reed. A child flies a kite that soars and swoops over the rooftops, bright painted flashes in warm sunlight. 

Lan Zhan ends up topping off the gas tank, just in case. He knows he’s being overcautious and in a way it amuses him, like he’s play-acting at doomsday prepping. 

The drive home is just as pleasant and very slightly faster, because Lan Zhan is very cognisant of the milk that’s in the back seat of the rented car. There’s a drone of insects the entire time, filling in the gaps of the birdsong in something a little like manufactured white noise. It’s loud enough to nearly drown out the car’s engine, which is nice in a way - something about nature prevailing over industrialization, in some small way. 

He gets the groceries inside and immediately starts making lunch, not because he’s hungry but because he really wants an excuse to eat the youtiao that he’d purchased. Lan Zhan is just principled enough to force himself to eat a real meal before he eats sweets, and every day he regrets it. 

He watches the water boil in the wok that he’d found in one of the cabinets, listening to the faint burbling of the water and the barest hiss of the gas stove before he blinks curiously to himself. He hadn’t realized, before, how incredibly soundproof the house seemed to be; no birds, no insects, no sighing wind from outside. Just his own breathing, his own heartbeat - 

And lunch, of course. No need to get overdramatic. 

It likely had to do with the way the house was designed - something about the acoustics, the way the walls were angled to keep the noise from disturbing the occupants. Certainly something worth writing about, in any case; already, Lan Zhan can justify the price of the rental with inspiration earned. There’s more of a weight to no one being able to hear you scream when the house is designed specifically to prevent it. 

He takes his bowl of noodles to his laptop to jot that down, before he forgets it. It wouldn’t fit into his active work in progress, not without a fair amount of tweaking, but he’s certain there’s something there. 

-- Something his editor will probably make him cut out. Still, he thinks. Worth it for the world-building. 

 

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Lan Zhan opens his eyes to darkness. Normally this is fine, because he’s the sort of person who tends to wake up very early and usually gets up before the sun has properly risen. In this case, everything smells of silt and decay, which doesn’t seem fine at all and points strongly towards something being very wrong. 

When he sits up, he can see the barest flicker of light ahead of him, low and dim and sputtering. It immediately brings to mind the horror movies with inexplicably lit candles, which makes him smile in spite of the situation. Whatever the situation might be. 

He draws himself up slowly, wary of bumping his head into something, but he doesn’t seem to be in any sort of room. It’s too dark to see, but he can feel the faint whisper of wind against his skin - a cave, maybe, or a very still forest. Even if he strains his ears, it’s entirely silent. 

Given that he’s something of an expert on genre fiction, he heads towards the light, because the light nearly always points the direction of answers. It turns out that it is an inexplicable little candle, which is undeniably funny. The circle of ground that it lights up is hard-packed earth, which doesn’t really answer the question of the location beyond just ‘outdoors, somewhere’. 

There’s another candle in the distance, and probably another candle after that. It looks like they slope upward, guiding up a hill, and Lan Zhan is curious enough - or perhaps foolhardy enough - to follow where they lead, one after the other. 

It’s a longer trail than he anticipates, considering the candles never waver from a straight course. He’s led up and down and up again, and then across something wooden that echoes his footsteps back at him. There are more candles on that part, as if the mysterious entity who’d placed them was worried about someone slipping off of something so narrow, and then the spacing broadens again and the hike returns to mystery. 

He ends up at the entrance of a cave with two candles flanking the entrance of what seems like a wide-open mouth and a dark throat. Lan Zhan doesn’t have any particular sense of foreboding - curiosity, certainly, but - 

He should be scared. He should be. He looks back the way he’d come and can’t see anything but blackness, all of the candles having been extinguished at some point after his passage. 

He should be scared. He walks into the cave instead. 

 

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Lan Zhan wakes up to watery dawn light and thinks, Alright, maybe a touch cliche, which is the sort of uncharitable thought he generally keeps between himself and his first and second drafts. The house smells floral again, like it has all three days that he’s been in residency, and nothing at all like death or silt. 

Maybe he’s too inspired, Lan Zhan thinks with grim amusement, and swings himself out of bed to wash off the strangeness of the dream. The shower helps, even though he has an odd and likely entirely self-induced sense of paranoia. 

Scientifically speaking, Lan Zhan knows that it’s impossible to actually know when someone is watching you. The human body doesn’t have a sixth sense for it, the same way that it’s impossible to know when people are talking about you, but confirmation bias suggests that when you feel an odd prickle between your shoulders and you turn to see your elderly neighbor peering between your hedges, you must have some sense for it. 

Lan Zhan knows, logically, that the itching between his shoulder blades is nothing more than paranoia from a strange dream and is in no way indicative of anything more sinister than that. 

And yet. He cannot shake the feeling that he is being watched. 

He finds himself glancing over his shoulder more often than he’d like to admit throughout his daily routine, looking for eyes that aren’t there to explain the faint crawling feeling up the back of his neck. He’s wrong every time, of course, because the science doesn’t work, but it persists all throughout Lan Zhan sitting at one of the writing desks with his laptop, all through a lunch eaten standing up in the kitchen and a cup of tea taken while strolling around the slightly overgrown garden. 

It’s gone by dinner, but Lan Zhan doesn’t actually notice when it stops so much as he realizes that it has been absent for some time. He resists the urge to call his brother, because do bedbugs make you feel like someone is watching you is a pretty cold open. 

 

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Something wakes Lan Zhan up even before his circadian rhythm, has him opening his eyes to the sensation that perhaps something is not quite right. It’s not exactly that he feels like he’s being watched again so much as he feels like -- 

No, he knows that nothing is in the room with him. There is no draft, which means the window and door are both closed, and while his heartbeat is loud in his ears there’s nothing that suggests it’s covering up the sound of someone else breathing. 

He listens harder, because people have been wrong before. Not, he supposes, that he would be able to do much in the case that someone were standing over him, holding their breath, waiting for him to go back to sleep. He would be fucked regardless in a situation like that. 

There - again. Something high and faint. The house settling? A floorboard squeaking (had any of the floorboards squeaked when he’d toured the house before)? 

No. Something melodic. Like a radio played so far from the edge of hearing range that it’s not quite audible, but very nearly. 

Maybe that’s it. A radio signal caught on a breeze, the crooning of some golden oldy eddying through the grassland and brushing against the window panes like a mourning dove. 

Lan Zhan cracks an eye open, just in case. There’s no one standing over him watching him sleep, so the radio explanation seems the most likely. Staying in bed, in spite of that, seems safer and significantly more pleasant than going hunting around trying to figure out a mystery with a perfectly reasonable explanation. 

It’s only in the morning, while he’s watching the birds flit about outside his kitchen window with nothing but the sound of the kettle cooling to keep him company, that he remembers just how soundproof the house is. 

 

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He goes shopping again, both because he’s running low on essentials like vegetables and because he needs to hear another human voice. The town is still normal, and still friendly, and there’s still an excellent sale on root vegetables going on. Lan Zhan buys a book by a local author to read in the garden, because he hadn’t brought any books from his own collection (does everyone not expect to be at their busiest and most productive while making vacation plans?) but needs an excuse to sit outside and listen to birdsong for a while. 

It can be easy to be wrapped up in his own world when he’s writing a novel, even when he’s in the early stages. He’s coming to realize that’s even more true when the house he’s staying in is designed specifically to be inspirational, big and wrought-iron and mysterious. He is a logical sort of person, but even logical people, when faced with multiple strange occurrences, will begin to have ideas. 

Particularly when that particular logical person has ideas for a living. He thinks he can excuse himself this once. 

After he gets home and puts away the groceries, he sits along the low garden wall and thumbs through the novel he’d picked up, which is an unmemorable romance that he’s decided he’s going to enjoy immensely. 

The sunlight is warm and inviting and the breeze idly flicks the ends of Lan Zhan’s braid against his spine. The birdsong is so loud it’s almost distracting, which is absolutely perfect; in the light of day, like this, he can feel even more foolish about being over-concerned about absolutely nothing more than a weird feeling. 

He gets a handful of pages into his book before he gets the prickling feeling of observation again, like pinpricks down the nape of his neck and inside his ribs. It’s a sense of foreboding that’s probably magnified by the paranoia, which - 

Well, he’s used it as a literary device in the past, is all. He ignores it through sheer force of will and convincing himself that if he doesn’t pay attention to it, it will go away. Predictably, that goes poorly. His brain is convinced that something is watching him from the window, just behind the curtains. 

The feeling doesn’t go away, even after Lan Zhan has hit chapter six and the sun is beginning to sink low enough to brush against the tops of the nearby hills. 

It’s only after it escalates even further, like a full body creeping sensation, that Lan Zhan finally drags his eyes up and looks around for whatever is watching him, because he knows that something is watching him this time. No amount of science can explain that away. 

He’s right (science’s postulation be damned). It’s a field rabbit, which twitches its nose at him judgmentally when he looks at it in return. Probably Lan Zhan is making some sort of face that’s worth judging him for. 

The rabbit hops into the bushes after it feels that Lan Zhan has looked at it long enough, which seems a little unfair considering it’s apparently been staring at Lan Zhan for three straight hours. He narrows his eyes at it as it goes, but he’s too much of an adult to go on his hands and knees and demand a rabbit explain itself to him. 

The rest of the book is fine. A little predictable, but not unpleasantly so. Lan Zhan would never admit it, given his genre of choice, but he loves a happy ending. 

 

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He dreams of white cloth and red stains and a flute song that sounds like a scream by the end of it, shrill and wailing. 

He dreams of drought. He dreams of branches like clawing hands. He dreams of a grim march of tiny animals that can’t survive infertile soil and tiny weeds that die before they get their roots. 

He dreams of a smiling mouth and little hands and a tiny voice that says baba? 

He wakes up with wet cheeks and shaky breath and he knows what he’s feeling but he can’t put a name to why. 

 

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Lan Zhan reads inside the next day, hiding away from the sun and the birds and the gentle breeze. He can’t stop thinking about little hands - he doesn’t have any small siblings, no little cousins, no real experience with babies to speak of. He likes them well enough, but never enough to dream of them in a way that makes an ache twist beneath his ribs. 

He thinks, at first, that it’s the strange feeling of loss that makes him - well, hallucinate is such a strong word, isn’t it, but what can it be if not an auditory hallucination when he hears a child’s giggle and the patter of feet outside the drawing room that Lan Zhan has tucked himself into? 

He sits up too fast, because he knows he’d locked the door. He knows there is no local child playing a prank; it’s too far for a child to have come, and too quiet for one to have entered without Lan Zhan noticing first. 

Silence. The couch protests faintly when Lan Zhan leans forward, towards the door, his ear tilted like that will help him catch - 

Laughter. The sound of a child playing a game all alone, a thump-thump of someone small jumping. Wet feet on hard ground. Why doesn’t it sound like a wooden floor? 

Lan Zhan drops the book when he stands and doesn’t pay attention to the way the pages ruffle. He doesn’t know where he’s going but he’s already moving down the hallway, brain catching up to his legs only when he’s half down the length of it and realizes what he’s doing. 

What does he think he’s doing? Does he think he’s going to chase an auditory hallucination down and shake it to demand answers? How does one make requests of a figment of one’s imagination? 

He hears the laughter again, though, towards the front of the house, and he turns to find it without even thinking about it. 

There’s a name on the tip of his tongue but he doesn’t know what it is, just knows the taste of it - like it’s an old name, familiar in his mouth. Whose? Who - 

He’s being ridiculous. Lan Zhan forces himself to stop, to brace himself against a doorway and to think critically, rather than emotionally. There are facts, he knows, and there are feelings, and he can list the facts and he can reason through them and he can marshal himself. 

First - there is no child. He would have seen a child enter and run past him. There is no child. 

Second - he does not have a history of hallucinating anything. While that doesn’t rule anything out, it does reduce the likelihood of some things, unless he thinks that the house has actually driven him insane. 

Third - no one has ever presented existence of a haunting that Lan Zhan has personally found conclusive --

A giggle behind him, close enough to raise the hairs on the back of his neck. Something - not a child, because children are not invisible - bumps past his legs with pattering footsteps. 

Lan Zhan stares down the hallway after the footsteps as they fade. There’s a cold sense of unreality that trickles down from the crowd of his head, until his fingers are numb with disbelief. 

The laughter ends at the front door and goes hauntingly quiet, as if whatever was making the sound has - he doesn’t know. Not gone outside, certainly. 

What is there to do but return to the sitting room and pick the book up off the floor, to straighten out its pages and make internal apologies for the mess. 

He thinks about the ghost the same way someone might peek at a stranger out of the corner of their eye, using their peripheral vision to keep from being too obvious. He feels like if he confronts the reality of it - what feels like reality, anyway, but doesn’t everyone feel sane in the moment? - he’ll lose his ever-loving mind. 

A soft laugh bounces around the house, different from the child, and Lan Zhan heads outside to call his brother. 

 

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It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s no service so far into the countryside, but it does, somehow. Lan Zhan couldn’t have thought of a more contrived plot device himself. 

 

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He finds himself at the piano that he’d found the first day, drumming his fingertips on the fallboard with some idea in his mind at distracting himself. If he were writing this - if he were writing this, he thinks, this would be the part where the hero would attempt to leave the house and be unable to. Regardless of their prior preparation, they would be trapped in their location, and it would be there that the rest of the story progresses with increasing pace. 

Lan Zhan hasn’t tried the car, actually; maybe he doesn’t want to know what he’ll find out if he tries. It would probably be fine. Reality doesn’t work like a novel, even if reality is acting rather strangely for the moment. He knows there’s gas in the car, and a spare gas tank if he needs it. 

And yet. The human mind is fickle, and it does not want to be proved right in the worst-possible situation. 

He lifts the fallboard and lays his fingers on the keys, naturally finding his way to the home keys. Years of lessons must be good for something.

He should leave. He should get in the car. 

He picks out the tune of Jingle Bells instead, seasonally inappropriate as it is, and then when it turns out the piano’s tuning isn’t too terrible, starts Für Elise, gaining confidence with every note. 

It’s not as distracting as maybe he’d hoped. He slows to picking out a few notes at a time, one-finger scales, and tries his best not to jump at shadows as they move. He knows he is being watched. He wishes he could put a name to the eyes he feels on the back of his neck. 

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising when the piano bench shifts, just faintly, under his weight. Maybe it shouldn’t be a shock when several keys depress at once on the far side of the piano, as if a small someone has just overbalanced and caught themselves at the last moment. 

Lan Zhan stares at the empty space beside himself and taps out a short, plunky melody. E-D-C-D-E-E-E. It echoes, after a moment. E- E - E - E. Stuttering. A child playing a note for the first time.

C - C - C - 

What is he supposed to do with that, he wonders, and waits for the piano to have gone silent for several minutes before he puts the lid down for fear of setting it down on tiny fingers. 

 

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His phone is dead and won’t wake up, even when he plugs it into the wall. It seems a little overdone to Lan Zhan, not that anyone is asking his opinion on the matter. Dinner is an exceedingly quiet affair, no matter how hard Lan Zhan strains to hear the patter of feet or the ghost (ha) of a child’s laughter. 

He eats in silence, washes his dishes numbly, and goes to bed early. 

 

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The cave, when Lan Zhan wakes up in it, isn’t dark this time. There are candles on nearly every surface, their warm light flickering off hundreds of paper tags painted with rust-red ink. The air smells like smoke and burning fat - cheap candles, then, maybe of tallow or whale fat rather than bee’s wax. 

There’s a man sitting on the steps leading up to a murky pool, his skeleton-pale fingers steepled in front of his mouth. He’s staring at Lan Zhan like he’s asked a question that Lan Zhan is avoiding, which - given that Lan Zhan has no real idea of how he got here, is entirely possible. 

“So,” the man says in a voice that creaks from either smoke inhalation (there really are a lot of candles) or disuse, “here you are.” 

“Here I am,” Lan Zhan agrees, though he thinks that the entire sentence is relative. Where is ‘here’? Who is ’I’, in this specific circumstance? Is Lan Zhan, the murder mystery novelist, standing in a serial killer’s den in all actuality? 

Unlikely. 

The man shifts on the stone steps, his black robes like a shallow pool reflecting a moonless sky. He looks at Lan Zhan with an odd sort of acceptance. He doesn’t look surprised, somehow, but neither does he look excited. 

“Lan Wangji,” the syllables sit heavy on the man’s tongue, as if they’re marbles in his mouth. That, Lan Zhan thinks, is not my name, but perhaps it is; how sure can he be? Hadn’t he just been debating whether he was here at all? 

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says awkwardly, unsure of whether he’s claiming another man’s name or if he’s being named anew. 

“No,” the man says, gentle correction, and Lan Zhan blinks. He hadn’t thought so to begin with, but now that the name is being taken back, he feels a touch offended. “You’re not him. You’re so young.” 

Lan Zhan is really not that young. “Then why did you call me by that name?” He feels that it’s prudent to ask. 

“You look like how he looked,” the man looks sad and tired and cold, all at once. Lan Zhan is struck suddenly with the sensation that he is looking at someone who has lost more than Lan Zhan has ever had. “But he wouldn’t look like you anymore, would he. Not anymore - no. You’re too young.” 

Lan Zhan takes a step forward, towards the dark stone pedestal. His soaked-through robe leaves a pool of water where he’d been standing. It’s almost too warm in the little cave, but something about the man feels cold. Like ash in Lan Zhan’s mouth. 

“If I’m not him,” Lan Zhan says, “why do I keep dreaming of this place?” 

Do two dreams count as a streak? Or perhaps there have been more, forgotten to the cobwebbed recesses of a mind well-used to compartmentalization. When had he first dreamed of this place? Why does he know where the man sleeps? 

The man looks at him. “I don’t know,” he says after a moment. “Maybe I want you badly enough to imagine you.” 

Nobody has ever wanted Lan Zhan so badly to imagine him anywhere, as far as he’s aware. He is not the sort of person to inspire that degree of longing. His book tours don’t even always sell out, though that is, in fairness, because he is terrible at them. 

“You don’t know me,” Lan Zhan says, because if he is not the man that this man had named, then it stands to reason. 

“No,” the man says thoughtfully, but he doesn’t really sound like he’s agreeing. “Why don’t you sit a while, then, and tell me who you think you are, little Lan?” 

Lan Zhan opens his mouth to reply - thinks better of it, thinks no, that’s wrong, and shakes his head instead. 

The man tilts his head like a bird. Maybe he can tell that Lan Zhan’s conflicted. Maybe he just likes moving like that, like a vaguely haunted scarecrow. 

“Come with me, then,” the man says, and he doesn’t wait for Lan Zhan to reply before they’re simply -- somewhere else. They haven’t walked anywhere, but suddenly Lan Zhan is standing at the edge of a shore of lotuses, looking out on a vast lake with the sun tinting the surface of the water bright and bloody. 

The man stands hip-deep, sleeves rolled up to bare fish-belly forearms and his robes tied up around his waist. He turns to face Lan Zhan, limned with the setting sunlight, and folds his arms across his narrow chest. 

There’s something odd about how the water shifts, how it becomes more and more as Lan Zhan continues existing in the dream. The longer he concentrates on the lotuses, the more defined their edges become, going from smudgy maybe-petals to something soft and plush and real. 

“I think my house is haunted,” Lan Zhan tells the man, and the man laughs humorlessly and shakes his head. 

“It’s not your house,” he says, which is true but Lan Zhan doesn’t really think it’s fair to distinguish between ownership and renting in this specific circumstance. “All of this land belongs to me.” 

Lan Zhan looks around dubiously. They’re on a pier, now, and he can hear the faint creak of old wood as it weathers the gentle lake surf. 

“Does it?” he asks, trying not to sound as suspicious as he feels. 

The man barks a laugh. “You doubt me? Who else would want it, little Lan?” 

Lan Zhan doesn’t know how to respond to that; it looks fine enough to him. A low wooden palace sketches itself into place behind the man’s shoulders, sending the lotuses sloshing with its wake. 

“It’s a nice lake,” Lan Zhan says diplomatically, and the man twists to look. His face, the bare flash of it that Lan Zhan can see before the man has turned entirely away, goes stricken. 

Suddenly there is no lake. There are no gentle waves, there are no creaking dock boards. The man is still knee-deep but now he is half-buried in mud, surrounded by barely-sprouting things and the gleam of bones. 

“You’re right,” the man says, in a way that seems as though it’s largely to himself. “This is mine.” 

He raises his hands to eye-level as if he’s seeing them for the first time, spider-thin. Mud slides down his forearms, oozing and dark. 

“Lan Wangji,” the man says, “No - Lan Zhan, little Lan. You shouldn’t be here.” 

Lan Zhan feels impossibly like he has heard those words before. 

“You need to go,” the man says, and when he reaches for Lan Zhan his fingers are becoming increasingly translucent, like he’s fading. “You need to go, it’s not safe for you.” 

“Safe from what?” Lan Zhan asks, suddenly feeling just as frantic as the man is acting. He realizes that he’s sinking into the mud, so slowly he hadn’t noticed before. He’s nearly to his ankles . “What do you mean, it’s not safe?” 

“Go, little Lan” the man says, “these talismans will keep you safe, but you need to go before you cannot, as I cannot.” 

Go where, Lan Zhan can’t ask, because his hands are full of paper talismans that he didn’t have before and the man has pushed him backwards off the stairs that they’ve returned to and Lan Zhan is falling and falling and - 

 

 

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It is dark and it is cold and there is mud between Lan Zhan’s fingers when he opens his eyes to blackness. Clinging silt wraps around him like a choking blanket and he thinks, for a moment, that he’s dying, that he’s drowning. He clutches - reaches - he needs air, he needs - 

A paper crumples in his hand and ignites in a flash of warm orange light, like the last gasp of a candle flame, and suddenly Lan Zhan can breathe and blink and spit icy mud off of his tongue. 

It smells like rotting flowers, so thick and sweet and putrid that it sticks in the back of Lan Zhan’s throat like the mud might have, sits heavy in his lungs and makes him feel dizzy and sick. 

This can’t be real, he thinks, but it feels real and his mind is not so willing to be convinced of the irrationality of mud and clutching roots. 

The mud sloshes. Lan Zhan stands very, very still, and it sloshes again. A little wave breaks against his thigh. 

There is something in the mud with him, and it is moving closer.  

Lan Zhan wants to leave. There is no amount of rationality that can force down the panic that he feels greying his vision. 

He tries to take a step but the mud sucks and grabs at his knees like it’s something with a will and a presence and it wants him, it wants, and Lan Zhan doesn’t know how he knows but he knows that he cannot be caught here. 

He doesn’t know where ‘here’ is. The dark is suffocating now, the feeling of being watched overwhelming. He’s written about being hunted but he’s never had the freezing terror that’s creeping up the back of his throat like a sickness. 

He staggers upright and stretches an arm out for balance, fingers brushing - stone, or brick, something solid. He is inside, in the pitch darkness, and something is coming. 

His foot hits something. Another dirt wall? Lan Zhan abruptly has images of being in a small dirt room, getting steadily smaller and smaller until he’s pressed in on all sides with no air and no light and the heavy reek of putrefying flower petals. 

No. A step up. And then another, and another. He climbs, half expecting the stairs to crumble away beneath him and leave him to fall and fall and fall. Another step. He hears the scrape of something behind him, on the stairs somewhere below. He climbs, catching himself with his hands when he stumbles and the mud clings and abruptly he runs out of stairs, hitting the wall at the top with the flats of his palms and feeling like a caught animal, because something is behind him. 

The wall gives way. Lan Zhan falls -  

Into his kitchen, with the late afternoon sunlight spilling in and pooling against white stone tile. He staggers forward two steps, not expecting empty air where it feels like oppressive dark should be. The window is cracked just a hair, enough to let in the faint scent of some floral aquatic that Lan Zhan can suddenly place. 

Somehow, the smell of lotus sends a cold shiver down his spine. 

 

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Lan Zhan stands in the shower in all of his clothes, watching silt swirl down the drain and feeling his sense of unreality going with it, as if washing off the evidence is enough to wash off the experience of what had happened. 

He draws his shirt over his head and unplaits his hair to let the hot water beat the memory of freezing mud out of his skin, as if that’s enough to make him feel normal again. It’s hard to rationalize the irrational - Lan Zhan thinks that perhaps he’s been uncharitable to horror movie protagonists in the past, because keeping a cool head isn’t so easy as it seems when one’s sitting safely at home. 

There is an explanation, he knows. There must be. He had walked the house when he’d arrived, but perhaps he’d missed a door, or come up against it locked and hadn’t thought to pry it open. He’ll find it again and in the light of day, with a clear head, it won’t be so choking, so terrifying, so inexplicable. He’ll find it and everything will make sense again.  

 

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The door doesn’t exist. Of course it doesn’t. Why is he surprised? There is no basement door beside the kitchen, there isn’t a secret root cellar, there are no surprise side doors that lead into a sludge pit. There’s nothing but a scatter of paper and a slick of mud, drying grey around the edges. 

He feels, all at once, incredibly silly. Here he is, sleepwalking and hallucinating and rationalizing himself into not even checking the car. What is he doing? Is he an adult or isn’t he? Three of his novels have been adapted to movies that have been called among the most frightening of all time. If he’s not familiar with horror tropes, who is? 

He doesn’t even bother to pack his bag. He turns on his heel and heads straight for the front of the house, where the front windows let in the fading sunset. 

There’s a hesitation, for just a moment, before he undoes the lock and opens the door. Something primal in him that says wait - don’t. But he ignores it, and he turns the knob. The door swings open without a creak. The cobble path is as inviting out as it was in, and he can see the rented car to the right where he left it. 

Lan Zhan stares out the door like there’s something staring back, feeling as if there’s a bubble between him and the outside that can be popped if only he steps through. The moment feels infinitely fragile. 

He puts a foot on the pathway and steps through the doorway into the sunshine that - 

That spills into the small study through an open window, sunbeams playing across the keys of a baby grand piano. The window lets in the smell of something like lotus and ancient wood on the breeze. Lan Zhan feels a swoop of vertigo, the twisting sensation of thinking there’s one more stair and teetering at the top of a staircase. 

How does one describe the sensation of being someplace that they were never going? How can it be rationalized to step through one door and exit a completely different one? His mind keeps glancing over it, as if it’s so strange and impossible to contemplate that he simply cannot. 

He thinks of other things instead, and stares at the piano, which sits silent and sunlit. He wonders how the tuning is perfect, if it’s been sitting alone and uncovered in the sun and warmth for so long. He wonders at the perfect timing of the house’s availability. He thinks of the serendipity required to dream of a man with no name whose face he knows-but-does-not. 

A plunk comes from the piano, whose fallboard has been opened since Lan Zhan last noticed. What else is there to do but go and take his place on the right, to play the harmony to the clumsy, childish melody? 

Another pair of hands joins, playing deep, dark chords that harmonize with Lan Zhan’s higher melodies, with little fingers in the middle picking out tinkling notes that sometimes clash and sometimes fall perfectly into place. 

Something in Lan Zhan’s chest aches like loss. What does he miss, he wonders? Who? Why, when he closes his eyes, can he see a man with thin fingers and high cheekbones and pale, furious eyes, staring at him from beyond a boundary that he cannot cross? 

 

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The man is there again, when Lan Zhan finally slips off to sleep, sitting on his obsidian throne with his robes spilling around him like blood on water. He has his cheek tipped into his hand and he watches Lan Zhan approach with something that tries to be haughtiness and ends up nearing apprehension. 

“You’re here again,” the man calls before Lan Zhan can get too close, but Lan Zhan’s not in the mood, particularly, for banter. He wants answers, he wants an explanation for the hole he feels in his chest every time he thinks about the man and the boy he knows is his son, somehow, even though he doesn’t know either of their names. 

“I know you,” Lan Zhan says, halfway to pleading. He just wants to understand. “I know who you are. Tell me your name.” 

“You don’t,” the man says. “I am not the man you knew. I have no name.” 

“Who are you, then,” Lan Zhan takes a step closer. “Everyone has a name.”  

The man tips his head in slow motion. His hair spills across his other shoulder, across the open drape of his robes and the pale slice of his chest. He’s beautiful, Lan Zhan thinks, and then wonders at his own priorities. 

“I am the restless dead,” the man says, “I am the barren land, the death rattle of Yiling. I am the drought and the sickness and the dread that claws at you when you are only just awake enough to feel it. I am a hundred battles and a thousand dying screams. I am victory and despair.” 

“No,” Lan Zhan says, all at once very sure, though he doesn’t know how he knows, “Wei Ying.” 

The man leans back as if he’s been struck. His hands tremble when he sets them against the stone armrests of the throne.   

“That’s not my name,” he says, but he sounds unconvinced. 

“It is,” Lan Zhan says. “I know you. I have always known you. Wei Ying.”  

“That’s not -” Wei Ying says, and doubles over, clutching his head. “I’m not. I’m not. ” 

The throne is gone, the cave is gone. They stand in the middle of a clearing surrounded by the charred shells of what were once homes, the scattered bones of what were once people. Lan Zhan knows this place the way he knows his own palms, the way he knows himself. 

He remembers coming here to beg Wei Ying to come home, wherever home might be, and he remembers loving him and losing him and loving him anew. 

He remembers their son. He remembers their life. 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, “Wei Ying, come home with me.” 

A thousand Wei Ying blur together, a smiling boy and a too-thin, too-angry man and a boy with a new face but the same soul that Lan Zhan has always loved, that Lan Wangji has always known. 

Wei Ying looks up at him from the barren ground, eyes rimmed with red, and says, “Why didn’t you ever stay?” 

It hurts like a twisted blade. “There is nothing here for you,” Lan Zhan says, “there was never anything here.” 

The ghost of thirty people’s laughter shivers through the dead trees, carried on the breeze like ashes. Wei Ying looks around wildly for people who have long since gone, long since been avenged, and he turns furious, betrayed eyes on Lan Zhan when there is no one left to save. 

“Don’t leave me,” he says, barely above a whisper, “don’t leave me again, Lan Wangji. Why don’t you stay here? Wouldn’t we be happy? You can help here.” 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, pained, “There’s nothing left to help. This isn’t real.” 

Wei Ying yells, then, into the ground, futile and hoarse and agonized. There’s nothing that Lan Zhan can do but watch as the shadows grow longer in the blink of an eye, as the light bleeds red and hungry. 

“I won’t let you leave if I can’t,” Wei Ying says, finally, when he’s run out of breath and his voice has gone raspy with effort. And there’s something - inhuman in him, in his voice, in his eyes. It’s Wei Ying talking but somehow Lan Zhan knows that it’s not Wei Ying speaking, not when there is something so much more ancient behind his words. “Not again, Lan Wangji. Not like this.” 

A shadow rises up behind Wei Ying, growing taller and taller until it blocks out the blood-red sky, until Lan Zhan can’t see anything but the hungry shadow and the skeletal, reaching trees. It moves towards him with greedy, clutching fingers and even as Lan Zhan stumbles back it advances, swarming and skipping over the ground like the tide rushing in after a dam has broken. 

Lan Zhan doesn’t have the breath to call for Wei Ying again, not when he’s half-sliding down a mountain that is so much more ominous without candles to light the way. He stumbles over roots and the shadows that lap at his heels are impossibly cold, sending shocky numbness up his legs and through his ribs. 

“Lan Zhan,” a voice whispers in his ear, barely audible over the thrum of his heart and his gasping for air. “Lan Zhan, I promised to keep you safe. I will take you home. Don’t forget me, Lan Zhan.” 

Lan Zhan doesn’t know where the talismans come from, but he knows that when he stretches an arm out he has them in his hands and they tear open the dream in front of him, shredding it like paper. Lan Zhan tumbles through and the talismans ignite in flickering orange light that shimmers into a glowing net. The shadow slams into the glowing threads, snapping and snarling with a hundred mouths and screaming with a thousand voices. 

DO NOT LEAVE US, the shadow of the Burial Mounds calls and clutches for him with hands that can’t make it past the talisman’s net. WE NEED YOU. 

Lan Zhan closes his eyes. The last talisman burns. The Burial Mounds scream. 

 

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Lan Zhan opens his eyes and he knows what he needs to do. He moves in a daze, thinking of all the things he’s lost and left behind and the life he’s promised, now, to remember. He thinks of what’s left for him now. 

He finds the book of matches in the kitchen, tucked into the back corner of a drawer. There are only six left. His hands shake when he lifts it free but he has already made up his mind and no amount of physiological pressure response will convince him to change it. 

“You don’t need to stay here any longer,” Lan Zhan says to the walls, to the house, to the land the house was built on, “the war is over, and you are free.” 

He fumbles the first match but lights the second. The house, well-built as it is, shouldn’t go up like a tinderbox, but as soon as Lan Zhan drops the match it catches with a dull thump and spreads with a hunger that he knows can’t be natural. 

The front door turns him back to the piano room, like it had before. He’s not surprised, somehow, and he doesn’t regret what he’s done even when he feels the heat of the flame on his face. 

There’s something cleansing in fire, he thinks, watching the flames lick up the walls of the house that won’t let any of them leave. 

He doesn’t regret it, he thinks, because he’s done what Wei Ying had asked. He’d stayed. 

 

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Lan Zhan opens his eyes. He can hear wind faintly outside his parked car, a soft hush of ruffled leaves and cooler summer evening air. 

He wonders if he’s dead. He wonders if this is the hallucination of a mind slowly boiling inside a skull, if the most pleasant thing his body can conjure in this moment is not being on fire. Some part of him, the part not panicking, bemoans his lack of imagination. 

He waits for several minutes in the car, as the shade begins to creep further and further over the hood as the sun begins to sink. 

It occurs to Lan Zhan that he’s waiting to die, which seems a little grim. He takes his phone out to check the time and is surprised to see that he has a cell signal and a fully charged battery. 

His brother picks up on the second ring, surprise evident in his voice. “Didi? Did you need something? I thought you would be sleeping off jet lag for at least another day.” 

Lan Zhan doesn’t think he hides how startled his silence is particularly well, because Lan Huan says, more urgently, “A-Zhan?” 

“I’m here,” Lan Zhan says, and then checks his phone’s calendar to confirm what he already knows. 

It hasn’t been any time at all. His flight had landed early that morning, and he had spent the morning and afternoon-- driving? Hallucinating? 

“Ge, I need to let you go,” he says numbly, “I’m driving.” 

“Oh,” Lan Huan says, sounding surprised. “Call me when you get there safe.” 

Lan Zhan agrees without really hearing himself, thoughts tumbling over each other like a babbling stream. Had any of it been real? How could he know? 

It had felt real. It - everything had felt so real. He can still feel the cold of the mud. 

It’s only later, when he’s checked into a small hotel and taken off his coat that he finds the book of matches in his pocket - eight missing, two left. 

 

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Lan Zhan likes his readers but he doesn’t always like book signings, largely because people take his photo without asking and giggle when he talks. 

He recognizes that they’re an important part of his brand - he trades off slightly uncomfortable social time for the privilege of being able to set his own hours, of doing what he really loves for a vast majority of the time. 

It’s the sort of trade-off that enables him to rent out houses in the woods that maybe-probably don’t really exist, to have life changing experiences that may or may not have been entirely in his head. It’s not likely that he’d had a hallucination that lasted nearly a week but was over in the blink of an eye, but how much of what had happened was likely

After the house - the dreams, the memories, after everything - he finds that he has more patience for it (he’s had worse, after all, hasn’t he?) but is even less sure on what he should be doing. He keeps getting a strange sense that he should be drinking or serving tea in a specific way, like he’s dishonoring his uncle by not offering. 

Ridiculous, obviously. And yet the feeling persists. 

“Chin up,” Nie Huaisang says, because Nie Huaisang is the sort of publicist that says chin up and smile with your teeth, no, not that many teeth. “I’ve got a really good feeling about this one. 

Nie Huaisang has a good feeling about every one. Lan Zhan is starting to think he doesn’t actually feel strongly about any of them and he’s just saying things for the sake of saying them. 

The bookstore is crowded when they arrive, which puts Lan Zhan on edge, for all that he’s loath to admit it. There’s a dull roar that gets a little louder when he enters and then hushes down to something a touch more manageable. 

He really doesn’t need to do much for these. There’s a brief preparation period in the back, and then he reads a passage of his latest book, and then it’s time for pictures and signatures and smiling with teeth (but not too many). Compared to the incomparably dull sect meetings, the book signings are nearly a break. 

Lan Zhan falls into the rhythm of signing books and murmuring hello s and time passes in an easy thrum until - 

Something. Maybe it’s a feeling, the sort of thing that Nie Huaisang would label a really good one, I promise. Maybe it’s just fate that makes Lan Zhan glance up and meet the eyes of a child propped up on the hip of a young man with a bright smile and long eyelashes. 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, the words shocked out of him, and the young man’s smile grows. 

“Lan Zhan,” he says, and sets a copy of Lan Zhan’s latest novel on the table between them. “I missed you. Come home with me.”