Nie Mingjue had no idea what the hell was happening.
One minute he had been pacing up and down the shore of the underground lake, waiting for Meng Yao to come out, figuring he would be filthy and disgusting but otherwise unharmed. He was just going into the belly of a dead monster and picking up a rock. What could be dangerous about that? Then the next minute Meng Yao had clawed his way out of the monster’s throat, his entire body cloaked in shadows that writhed and twisted around him, and he was screaming, screaming, screaming.
“Fucking hell,” Nie Mingjue swore, as Meng Yao tumbled into the lake. Several of the men grabbed him and dragged him to shore, only for him to lurch upwards and attack them. “Get back!” Nie Mingjue shouted, deflecting Meng Yao’s blow with Baxia. He realized belatedly that Meng Yao was holding a sword. Where had he gotten a sword? “Defend yourselves but do not attack!” he added, seeing that two of the men looked somewhat twitchy.
“Binding talismans,” one of the senior disciples shouted, and all of the men hastily began to draw them. The spells wrapped around Meng Yao’s body and he thrashed and fought, howling. His body went stiff and rigid, and his eyes were rolled all the way into the back of his head.
“What’s happening?” Nie Mingjue demanded of Xue Yang.
Unconcerned, Xue Yang said, “Looks like the yin iron is controlling him.”
“But how would that happen?” Nie Mingjue demanded through gritted teeth. “Nobody else has had that happen - ”
“The center piece was a lot stronger than the others, or at least that’s what the legends said,” Xue Yang said, and laughed when he saw Nie Mingjue’s furious look. “What? I figured, Meng Yao being the adviser to such a badass, he must have a pretty strong golden core. Doesn’t he?”
Nie Mingjue’s jaw tightened. Of course Meng Yao had worked hard on building up his golden core, and he had been improving rapidly. But he had started so far behind everyone else, his golden core was really still equivalent to that of a child’s.
“Well, shit, it’s not my fault if he doesn’t,” Xue Yang said. “Don’t look at me.”
“What do we do?” Nie Mingjue asked, hating that he had to ask this brat for instruction. He was momentarily distracted as Meng Yao - though it wasn’t really Meng Yao - broke out of the binding spell and attacked. It took them several attempts to subdue him again, and two of his men were injured.
“I dunno,” Xue Yang said in reply, when Nie Mingjue asked again. “Try some cleansing spells, I guess? I mean, it’s just resentful energy. Can I have my piece back now? I held up my end of the bargain.”
Nie Mingjue came within inches of throwing Baxia at the delinquent and ending his life right there in the cave. But he managed to restrain himself. As frustrated and unhappy as he was, this really was not Xue Yang’s fault. Meng Yao had struck a bargain with him in good faith, and it would have been dishonorable of Nie Mingjue to break it even if Meng Yao himself had probably never intended to uphold it.
That being said, he also knew he couldn’t keep it. He could not in good conscience give this man the ability to wreak havoc with yin iron. “No,” he said, and Xue Yang gave a wordless protest. “You used that piece of yin iron to kill an entire family of innocent people. Meng Yao might have told you that you could have it back, but I’m quite sure he never actually planned to give it to you. Take your life and be grateful I’m letting you leave with that much.”
“I’ll come back for it,” Xue Yang said. The pouting teenager was gone, and in its place was the man who had killed over a dozen people in a brutal, vicious way. In front of Nie Mingjue stood an utter void of conscience, an absolute ability to carry out the worst sort of atrocities without a shred of remorse. “I’ll never leave you alone until I get it back. It belongs to me. I’ll raze your entire sect to the ground. What I did to the Chang clan will seem like an afternoon picnic. So kill me, if you dare. Not that killing me will get rid of me, either. I’ll come back as a vicious ghost and haunt you. Your sect will never stop looking over their shoulder for me if you break this deal.”
“So be it,” Nie Mingjue said. “But we are not the Yueyang Chang. We will not fall so easily to you. Now get out.”
Xue Yang made a rude gesture in his direction, turned around, and vanished up the cliff.
Nie Mingjue took a deep breath and turned to study Meng Yao. The binding talismans had managed to subdue him physically, but he was still writhing in their grip, his mind entirely subsumed by the yin iron. “Meng Yao,” he said, loudly, firmly. This was met with no response. He tried several times, but still, nothing. Meng Yao was beyond hearing him in his current condition. If he had any ability to fight back at all, it wasn’t enough for him to break free.
“Can we try to get it away from him?” one of the men asked, sounding dubious.
“Maybe.” Nie Mingjue doubted it, but he stepped forward and wrapped his hands around the hilt of the sword just underneath Meng Yao’s. Instantly, he was assaulted by waves of resentful energy, screaming ghosts filled with vicious anger. He shuddered and fought against it, prying at Meng Yao’s hands. But they seemed to be welded to the metal somehow, and he could not get them free even after trying with all his strength.
He shook his head and took a few steps back. Even a minute exposed to that much resentful energy, and he was pale and shaking. It was no wonder Meng Yao hadn’t been able to prevent being subsumed by it. Only an extremely strong cultivator would be able to control this.
“Night is falling outside,” he finally said. “We’ll stay here for the night. There will be beasts roving the mountain, and we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. I will work on trying to cleanse Meng Yao and free him from the yin iron. If any of you have any suggestions, I am open to hear them.”
Nobody had any. Or at least, nobody was willing to say the obvious one out loud - that they kill Meng Yao and let Nie Mingjue take the yin iron from his body. They managed to get him lying down on the shore and secure him with ropes so they wouldn’t have to continue to hold the binding talismans.
Nie Mingjue wished fervently that Lan Xichen was there. This was far more his sort of thing. Oh, the Nie sect had their cleansing rituals and spells, for angry ghosts or monsters who left traces of resentful energy behind. But it wasn’t really their specialty.
Still, there wasn’t much wishing would accomplish, so Nie Mingjue got to work, channeling his own spiritual power into an effort to banish the resentful energy. Minutes trickled by as he tried, his eyes closed, sweat beading on his forehead. The cave became very quiet. Meng Yao stopped moving around so much, stopped trying to escape, but his eyes were still rolled up, his body still rigid. Nie Mingjue poured his energy into the spells he used trying to break the curse.
“Zongzhu?” a voice said, and he opened one eye. “We’ve made some food. You should eat.”
Nie Mingjue nodded. He wasn’t sure how much time had gone by while he had been focusing. He took the bowl from his disciple and studied Meng Yao as he ate. Physically, there didn’t seem to have been any change. The shadows were still swirling around him. It was like everything he had done had just bounced off of them.
He cursed himself for not having prevented this. Meng Yao never should have been the one who went to get the yin iron. He had grown so used to depending on Meng Yao, to respecting him, to treating him like a fully-fledged cultivator, that he had forgotten that he wasn’t. Not only that, but Meng Yao and resentful energy were a terrible mix. Despite how much more relaxed and comfortable he was, he still held bitter resentment in his heart over how his father had treated him. Nie Mingjue didn’t blame him for that. His father had been viciously cruel. Why would Meng Yao not resent him? But it was clear that he had been completely unprepared and overwhelmed by the effects of the yin iron.
“Meng Yao,” he said quietly, ignoring the dark energy moving around him, reaching out and squeezing his hand. “I’ll fix this. I promise you. Just try to hold on.”
He finished his meal and went back to trying to cleanse Meng Yao of the resentful energy.
It was nearly dawn when Meng Yao’s fingers twitched and he moaned quietly. Nie Mingjue knelt beside him. All the men were asleep except one who was keeping watch at the bottom of the cliff, so he felt safe smoothing Meng Yao’s hair, caressing his face. “Meng Yao? Can you hear me?”
The shadows that had surrounded him were gone, although there were still black lines on his skin, on his hands and his neck. His eyes fluttered open and they looked normal again, a little fuzzy. “Wha . . .”
Nie Mingjue tried to take the sword out of his hands. It still wouldn’t budge, and Meng Yao seemed to hang onto it tighter when he tried to move it. “Meng Yao,” he said, in a firm, commanding tone. “Look at me.”
Meng Yao looked at him. His eyes weren’t normal, Nie Mingjue thought. He had those little dark lines in the corners, the same as on his face, his neck, his hands. The yin iron was still very much inside him; it had just decided that thrashing and wailing wasn’t getting it anywhere. He felt cold, watching Meng Yao watch him, a clinical sort of assessment.
“Give Meng Yao back to me,” he said.
“What do we get out of it?” Meng Yao asked, and that word, ‘we’, made Nie Mingjue shudder. He was talking to the ghosts, to the dead whose resentful energy had slowly been absorbed by that cursed piece of metal over years and centuries.
“What do you want?” he asked.
Meng Yao stared out into space. “To be whole again.”
Nie Mingjue thought about this for several long moments. He took out the spirit pouch that held the piece of yin iron they had gotten from Xue Yang, and Meng Yao’s gaze immediately zeroed in on it. “You want the other pieces.”
“Give it to me,” Meng Yao hissed, struggling against the ropes that had him tied. Those drifts of shadow were starting to come off of him. “It’s part of me, give it to me!”
The idea of all the pieces of yin iron because put back together again was horrifying. Beyond unthinkable. Xue Chonghai had used the full amulet to commit atrocity after atrocity. Their ancestors had sacrificed enormously to break it into pieces and try to seal it away. Reconstructing it couldn’t be allowed. It should be split into far more than five pieces. A dozen, a hundred, a thousand. It should be diluted across the entire world, to stop this from ever happening again. But then how could he get Meng Yao back?
For some reason, he thought back to his days at Cloud Recesses, lazy lessons under puffy white clouds with the kindest, gentlest man he knew. What would Lan Xichen say, if he were here? How would he react to Meng Yao being drowned in resentful energy? How would he try to save him?
Maybe he would have an idea. If they got into Nightless City, they could get to Lan Xichen. If anyone could find a way to save Meng Yao from this darkness, it would be him.
“If I untie you,” he said, “will you agree not to attack me? You know that the body you’re currently possessing is no match for me. I don’t want to kill him, but I will, if you force me to. I’m heading into Nightless City to find my friend. That’s where the other pieces of yin iron are. Behave, and come with me quietly so we don’t get caught by the enemy, and maybe we can find them. I won’t make you any promises, but I don’t expect you to release my friend if we don’t give you what you want. Is that fair?”
Meng Yao said nothing. His head moved down, then up, in a nod that looked more like a marionette than a human.
Nie Mingjue let out a breath. He cut the ropes around Meng Yao’s body and said, “Let’s go.”
~ ~ ~ ~
After some consideration, Nie Mingjue decided that he would go the rest of the way with just Meng Yao, such as he was. Two of his disciples were injured, and there was no way he would make it into Nightless City with even a small party undetected. He put the most senior disciple in charge and told him to get the others back to Qinghe.
The next morning, he set out just after dawn. It was eerie walking with Meng Yao, entirely silent, drifts of shadow still occasionally coming off of him. His guilt over having let Meng Yao touch the yin iron grew with each moment. He should have known better. He prayed that Lan Xichen would be able to somehow fix this.
He didn’t know what Meng Yao was capable of while in this state, and that made him anxious. In order to get into the city, they would need to climb up a rocky cliff and then over the wall, and they would need to do it quickly and quietly. It would have been difficult for Meng Yao under normal circumstances, although given how dire things were, Nie Mingjue had faith that he would be able to do it. But this . . . thing, this thing that looked like Meng Yao but wasn’t . . .
Should he offer to carry it? He could, he thought, even if it would make things more difficult for him. Or should he simply ask it whether or not it could make the climb on its own? It seemed to be able to communicate, as terrifying as that was. What was the yin iron? Was he talking to a hundred lost souls at once? Did they have a leader of their own, a spokesperson? Were they a hive mind? Or were they not souls at all, but something else, something other?
He shook his head. His mind was wandering to things that truly weren’t important, at least not now.
And the question of getting over the wall was entirely moot. As soon as they reached the bottom of the cliff, the resentful energy swirled around Meng Yao’s body and lifted him into the air. He was at the top of the wall before Nie Mingjue had made it even halfway up. When he reached the top, he climbed onto it in time to see the same mass of energy squeezing the life out of two look-outs from the Wen sect.
It was disconcerting to say the least, but at least it got a couple Wen uniforms for them to wear. The thing possessing Meng Yao seemed baffled by the concept of changing into one, but did so when Nie Mingjue insisted. Of course, it was too big, and the one Nie Mingjue struggled into was too small. He hoped that nobody would get close enough to notice.
Meng Yao followed behind him as they journeyed into the outskirts of the city. Nie Mingjue could see the palace, rising above all the other buildings. He wondered if that was where Lan Xichen was. But they would need more than just a few stolen uniforms to be able to get inside, let alone find Lan Xichen and get him free.
Night had fallen. Nie Mingjue saw a few guards walking through one of the alleys, two of them looking somewhat drunk already. “ – believe that little brat,” one of them was saying. “Just up and fainted in the middle of their lessons. We had to carry him back to his guest house. I thought the Nie sect was supposed to be tough!”
Meng Yao stepped forward. Nie Mingjue grabbed him and yanked him back before the soldiers could see him.
“Those guest houses are all the way on the south side of the city!” the second guard said, laughing. “You really had to carry him the whole way?”
“The whole damn way! Prissy little bitch.”
The group passed them by, and Nie Mingjue tugged Meng Yao’s sleeve. If he couldn’t find Lan Xichen to start, he could at least find his brother. They would need to get the rest of the hostages out, too. He headed for the south side of the city. Finding the guest houses was easy enough, because they were the only ones in the area that had guards on them. But which one would Nie Huaisang be in?
He heard the soft chirping of birds.
“For Heaven’s sake, Huaisang,” he murmured, smiling despite himself. “Even here? Now? How did you even - ”
With Meng Yao in tow, he went around to the back of the guest house. There were no guards there, so he found a window and tapped on it quietly. When there was no response, he tapped harder. Then he sighed. It was late. Nie Huaisang had probably been asleep for a while, and -
“Da-ge!” Nie Huaisang appeared in the window and quickly slid it open. “How - why - what - ”
Nie Mingjue quickly climbed inside, and pulled his brother into a tight hug. Nie Huaisang clutched at him for a moment before letting go, seeing Meng Yao, and moving towards him. Nie Mingjue grabbed him by the wrist. “Don’t touch him,” he said, suddenly seized with fear that the yin iron would take his brother, too. “He’s been contaminated by the yin iron.”
“He’s been what?” Nie Huaisang hissed, studying Meng Yao more carefully. “Why are you here? Did something happen? What’s going - ”
Nie Mingjue sighed quietly but began to explain how their mission to get the yin iron had gone so terribly, terribly wrong. They needed to find Lan Xichen, he said, and then hopefully Lan Xichen would know how to help Meng Yao.
Nie Huaisang listened with a faint frown on his face. “You’re lucky you got out when you did,” he said. “After I fainted - well, pretended to faint, haha, those lessons were so boring, you don’t even know - Wen Chao took all the others out on a night hunt. I heard some of the guards talking about it. They were going to Muxi Mountain because of a disturbance there.”
“Yeah, it was pretty fucking disturbing,” Nie Mingjue muttered. “Glad we didn’t cross paths with them on the way back. We must have just missed them.”
“Yeah.” Nie Huaisang anxiously studied Meng Yao, clearly distressed by the way he had sat in silence during the entire explanation, staring into the distance with a blank expression. “He really can’t hear us at all, can he . . . is he . . . is he in pain?”
Nie Mingjue opened his mouth to say no, realized that the answer was probably yes, and looked away. “We have to find Xichen.”
“Well, I don’t know where he is,” Nie Huaisang said, “but I think I might know where to find someone who can help. Wei-xiong was taken to the dungeons a few days ago - he made a big fuss, you know how he is - and he’d clearly been injured, but it seemed like his wounds had been tended and he smelled like medicine. Wen Qing and her brother are here somewhere, and they’re not evil, they’re just . . . . they’re just on the wrong side. I know Zewu-Jun was so kind to them while they were in Cloud Recesses even though he knew damn well they were there for the yin iron . . . so maybe they’d be willing to help.”
Since Nie Mingjue’s best idea had been to explore the palace grounds on his own and hope that nobody noticed a) his ill-fitting uniform, b) his extremely recognizable face, or c) the resentful energy incarnate following him around like a shadow, he agreed. “All right. But where do we find them?”
Nie Huaisang tapped his fan to his mouth, then said, “I bet if I managed to hurt myself, they would bring her.”
Nie Mingjue frowned reflexively and said, “Not badly.”
That made Nie Huaisang roll his eyes. “I wasn’t going to fall down the steps and break my neck. I thought maybe burning myself on a pot off the fire would do nicely, if that meets with your approval.”
“Oh. Yes, that would probably work. I suppose,” Nie Mingjue said begrudgingly.
Nie Huaisang just rolled his eyes again, but then he seemed to remember that Nie Mingjue had had a very long few days and said, “I won’t be able to do it until morning, so get some rest. You too, Meng Yao,” he added, looking worriedly at Meng Yao’s body. “I mean, your body is still human and needs to be treated like it, so . . .”
Meng Yao gave another marionette-like nod, then closed his eyes without lying down.
“Well, that’s . . . incredibly disconcerting,” Nie Mingjue mumbled. But he let his brother pester him into getting a few hours of sleep.
~ ~ ~ ~
All in all, Lan Wangji thought he had handled things very well up to a certain point.
For six months, he had put up with everything Wei Wuxian had thrown at him. For six months, he had kept his cool during every provocation, every obnoxious remark, every beautiful smile, every teasing comment, every blasphemous idea. For six months, he had managed to prevent anyone from knowing anything about the fact that he even had feelings, let alone what they were.
Then after they had finally separated, after over a week of journeying together and Lan Wangji trying not to give him longing looks over the fire every night, wishing they could travel and fight evil with each other for the rest of their lives, he had managed to walk away. Only to have the worst week of his life.
He hadn’t been in time, and that hurt even now, more than his leg, which still ached and throbbed with every step. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the white robed bodies of the disciples strewn on the ground like so much trash. Every time he closed his eyes, he could feel his uncle gripping his wrist as he pulled away to leave Cold Pond Cave. Every time he closed his eyes, he could hear Wen Xu’s laughter as he pressed Lan Wangji to continue walking on his broken leg.
See his brother, limp and bloodied and beaten nearly to be unrecognizable even to him, tossed into a wagon like a sack of grain to be brought with them to Nightless City.
Lan Xichen hadn’t surrendered to protect others. Lan Xichen had fought until he couldn’t fight anymore. And all the way to Qishan, whenever Lan Wangji had tried to tend to him, he had been punished, and all the way to Qishan, Wen Xu had taunted him with talk of what he was going to do to Lan Xichen once they were in Nightless City.
“Let me carry you,” Wei Wuxian said, and how Lan Wangji ached to let him. Everything hurt. He wanted to sit down in the dirt and cry. He wanted his uncle, his brother. He wanted his mother, in a way he had not been desperate for her presence in years. But he couldn’t, because he knew the instant he stopped moving, the instant he let someone, anyone, show kindness to him, he would break down completely. And that could not be allowed. Not here. Not now.
Not that this stopped Wei Wuxian from being kind, even after Lan Wangji’s abrupt, borderline rude rejection of his offer. He somehow finagled Wen Qing into making Wen Chao let them stop for a break, and even brought him some water so he didn’t have to walk all the way to the edge. He drank thirstily despite himself.
He had gathered that nobody here knew of Lan Xichen’s capture, although Wen Chao had certainly bragged about how easily they had conquered Cloud Recesses and burned it to the ground. Lan Wangji hadn’t said anything to anyone, because the idea of talking about it hurt too much.
But he had held himself together. He hadn’t betrayed a sign of weakness. He hadn’t let anyone see him flinch.
Then Wen Chao pushed Wei Wuxian off a cliff.
“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji shouted, and in his mind’s eye he could see Wei Wuxian’s broken, bloodied body at the bottom of the cliff, just as he saw his brother’s.
It was too much, all at once, too much rage and pain and fear and grief. If he’d had his sword he would have cut Wen Chao’s throat where he stood, but he didn’t, so instead he tackled him towards the cliff, and they both plummeted over the edge. From somewhere far away above him, he heard gasps of shock, but none of it mattered as he and Wen Chao rolled down the rocky cliff together.
Once at the bottom, Wen Chao was groaning in pain, but Lan Wangji had stopped noticing his own. He grabbed Wei Wuxian by the elbow and helped him up, patting him down for injuries despite his better judgment. Wei Wuxian looked confused, as if he was truly surprised that Lan Wangji had come down after him, that Lan Wangji had even cared to do so. The look on his face practically killed Lan Wangji, who wanted to grab him and shake him and shout his feelings from a mountaintop. Instead, he managed a shaky, “Wei Ying, I - ”
Wen Chao lurched upright, drawing his sword. Wei Wuxian ducked the first blow and then used his binding talisman to grab Wen Chao by the wrist and spin him around. His sword was flung out wide and Lan Wangji leapt on his arm, wrestling the sword free from his grip. But the motion was too much for his weak leg, which had doubtlessly been further injured in the fall down the cliffside, and he stumbled forward. He tossed the sword, and Wei Wuxian caught it effortlessly, turning and pressing the tip against Wen Chao’s throat. “Could you not see,” Wei Wuxian shouted, “that we were having a moment?!”
The other disciples, having taken a moment to throw ropes down the side of the cliff, were now arriving. Jiang Cheng took one look at Wei Wuxian holding a sword to Wen Chao’s throat and looked like he was going to have apoplexy.
“Wei Wuxian,” Wen Qing said sharply, “what are you doing?”
“I’m - ” Wei Wuxian began.
“Holy fuck,” somebody blurted out, and all of them half-turned to see the body of an enormous monster in the lake. The head and most of the neck were on the shore, and there was blood absolutely everywhere.
Wen Chao began to screech. “Wen Zhuliu! Wen Zhuliu, save me!”
“It’s already dead, you absolute dumbfuck,” Wei Wuxian said. But he took a moment to take advantage of everyone’s distraction, getting a better grip on Wen Chao and backing up slightly so his back was pressed against Lan Wangji’s as the soldiers started to surround them. Wen Zhuliu took a step forward, and Wei Wuxian pressed the sword into Wen Chao’s neck, drawing a bead of blood.
“Wen Zhuliu, do something!” Wang Lingjiao shouted, but Wen Zhuliu was just watching, assessing. He knew any sudden moves he made would end with Wen Chao’s throat sliced wide open, even if he was able to suppress the uprising afterwards and kill Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. “Fine, then, I will!” Wang Lingjiao said, and lifted her branding iron, swinging it directly at Luo Qingyang.
Jin Zixuan grabbed the iron on the downstroke, using it to twist Wang Lingjiao’s arm behind her back, and all hell broke loose.
Even unarmed, the disciples from the great sects were a step above the Wen soldiers. It took only a minute for most of them to arm themselves. Wei Wuxian slowly backed up until he was at the water’s edge, dragging Wen Chao with him, and then jumped suddenly, taking him out to the shell of the turtle so nobody would be able to get behind him. That freed Lan Wangji up to fight, and he did so, viciously and immediately. He didn’t bother with a sword, using his guqin strings to drag the soldiers and fling them into the water.
“Wei - ” somebody suddenly shouted, before the voice was cut off, and Lan Wangji heard Wei Wuxian cry out. His head whipped around to see Wen Zhuliu with his hand around Jiang Cheng’s throat, suspending him in the air as he kicked and struggled.
Around them, the fight trailed off. Most of the Wen soldiers were down, but it didn’t matter, as long as Wen Zhuliu still stood. Wang Lingjiao was unmoving in a pool of blood. Wen Qing had sensibly retreated back towards the cliff.
“Release Wen Chao,” Wen Zhuliu said, his voice impassive, “or I’ll crush this one’s core.”
Wei Wuxian’s breath was coming light and rapid. “Release Jiang Cheng,” he countered, “or I’ll cut Wen Chao’s throat.”
“I can live with that,” Wen Zhuliu said, straight-faced. “Can you?”
Wei Wuxian swallowed hard. Lan Wangji could see his throat work. He jumped back to the shore, although he kept his sword at Wen Chao’s throat. “We’ll exchange,” he said. “All right? Don’t - don’t hurt my brother.”
Wen Zhuliu watched him for a moment, gauging his sincerity. “Walk forward.”
Wei Wuxian nodded and took a few shuffling steps. His gaze darted to the side.
Lan Wangji flung his arm out. Two guqin strings wrapped around Wen Zhuliu’s wrist, hauling it to the side, dragging Jiang Cheng with it. The strings cut so deeply that blood began to flow down Wen Zhuliu’s arm, but his grip didn’t loosen, and his hand began to glow. But less than a second later, Lan Wangji’s guqin strings cut even deeper, deep enough that Wen Zhuliu let go and Jiang Cheng dropped to the ground.
“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian shouted. His hand tightened on Wen Chao’s shoulder, and Wen Chao elbowed him hard in the gut and began to pull away. This turned out to be a terrible move on Wen Chao’s part, because Wei Wuxian acted purely instinctively, dragging the sword back across his throat. Blood went everywhere, and Wen Chao’s body dropped to the ground.
Lan Wangji pulled Wen Zhuliu back another step, but seeing what had happened to Wen Chao, Wen Zhuliu grabbed the guqin strings with his other hand and pulled hard, throwing Lan Wangji across the cave and into the lake.
By the time he surfaced, gasping for breath, Wei Wuxian was cradling Jiang Cheng in his arms, trying to see if he was hurt. He was still holding Wen Chao’s sword in one hand, but was barely looking up as Wen Zhuliu stood over them. The other cultivators had ringed him in, but he didn’t look concerned, and none of them wanted to get too close.
Wen Zhuliu lifted his sword.
Three needles flew out of the darkness and lodged in his shoulder.
His arm seemed to instantly go numb, the sword falling out of his limp hand. Wei Wuxian lunged upwards desperately, thrusting Wen Chao’s sword into Wen Zhuliu’s chest. He staggered backwards and fell. The other disciples rushed forward with their own weapons; nobody was about to risk him surviving and getting back up.
“Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said, and he coughed up a mouthful of blood and wheezed something. “What?”
“You . . . you suck,” Jiang Cheng said.
Wei Wuxian laughed near hysterically.
Wen Qing walked over, as prim as ever, and knelt at Jiang Cheng’s side. She pressed her fingers into his wrist and said after a moment, “I estimate you’ve lost about twenty percent of your spiritual power. But your golden core is intact, and you should be able to rebuild what was lost with time.”
“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng said. “Wen-guniang . . . thank you.”
Wei Wuxian nodded and echoed him.
Wen Qing sighed and looked at Wen Zhuliu’s body. “I couldn’t . . . once you killed Wen Chao, any chance I had of escaping punishment for this disaster was gone,” she said. “Better for nobody to be left to witness what happened. But,” she added, “since I saved your lives, you two must come back to Nightless City with me to help me get my brother.”
Wei Wuxian nodded. “Of course.”
“Let’s seal the bodies inside the cave,” Jin Zixuan suggested, and everyone was in agreement.
Lan Wangji walked over to Wei Wuxian and helped him up. “I will go to Nightless City with you,” he said.
Wei Wuxian smiled, but shook his head. “No, Lan Zhan, you should head home. You - ”
“My brother,” Lan Wangji said, and his voice wavered despite his best efforts. “They took him to Nightless City. He. He was badly injured. They would not allow me to tend to him.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes went slightly wide as he realized that Lan Wangji had been holding this in all this time. He reached out and squeezed his hands, and said, “Then let’s go get him.”
Lan Wangji nodded, leaned against Wei Wuxian, and passed out.
~ ~ ~ ~