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Crow's Child

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Lan SiZhui didn’t know where he was. All he knew was that he had been following behind the other disciples when a thick wisp of shadow slammed out of the brush beside him, wrapping itself around him before dropping him in a barren waste. The dirt beneath his feet immediately crumbled, tripping him as he was thrown out of the shadow’s reach. His hands shot out on instinct and he could feel something sharp scratch his hands.

So many thoughts flooded his mind before he could even consider checking the cuts. Where was he? Why was he here? What had taken him here? Why was everything so... dead?

In his state of confusion, he almost missed the crunching of footsteps approaching him.

“Are you lost, child? Or did you plan to run into this old beast?” A rough voice sounded from in front of him. Taking a sharp breath, Lan SiZhui slowly lifted his head to whoever had appeared. He almost wished he hadn’t.

The only way he could describe the being in front of him was… monstrous. He wanted to slap himself for that. HanGuang-Jun always taught him to look beyond appearances, but with his mind scattered as it is, he could only watch as the creature lowered it’s head to his level. The bright ruby’s peeking from behind the dark feathers ran a shiver down his spine, and the way the beak seemed to be permanently curved into a smile did not help his current fear. Pushing its head closer to his own, the creature stared deep into what Lan SiZhui was his soul. It’s head tilted at an unnatural degree.

“What is your name, child?” Well, this could go one of two ways. Either this creature is genuinely interested in a random disciples name, or it wanted his name for some other, nefarious reason. Lan SiZhui was stuck. HanGuang-Jun’s teachings would have him offer his name, but every bone in Lan SiZhui’s body was screaming against that. Giving into his father’s teachings, he took a deep breath of the stale air.

“This disciple is called Lan Yuan, courtesy SiZhui.” Sending a quick prayer, he waited for the creature's reply with bated breath. He watched as the creature’s eyes narrowed, it’s head pushing closer before he could just barely feel the brush of void-like feathers. A moment passed. Lan SiZhui dug his fingers further into the sharp dirt, wide eyes tracking the creatures every move. Before the dirt could do more damage, the creature chuffed, his bangs blowing off his sweaty forehead.

“I never expected a Lan to find their way here, much less a child,” The creature muttered. Lan SiZhui released his grip on the ground, wincing as some of the sharp points fell off his hands. Standing, he watched as the creature followed with its head, keeping the same distance no matter how much he stumbled back. He only stopped retreating when the rough bark of a tree blocked his path, leaving him cornered by the giant creature. As the creature drew closer, Lan SiZhui darted under it, reaching out in an attempt to grab his sword. Before he could get more than a few steps away, he was yanked back by the collar of his robes.

A yelp forces its way from his throat as the creature lifts him off the ground. It takes him a moment to realize that the ground is now a distant view, the harsh winds coming from the creature's wings taking them even higher. He could only hope that this creature stayed far away from the sharp points.

As they continued flying, Lan SiZhui noticed a dark cloud in the distance, and realized that that must be where the creature is taking him. Hopefully it wasn’t poisonous. Tensing as the cloud grew closer, he held his breath during the initial pass, closing his eyes as the temperature dropped significantly. After a moment, he finally released the breath and opened his eyes, noticing that the once barren waste was now a small, run down town. There were no signs of life as they descended towards the center.

The creature released Lan SiZhui a few feet off the ground, and it landed a few moments after him, keeping its wings from knocking the boy off his already unsteady feet. Lan SiZhui watched as the creature ambled over to the entrance of a cave. It ducked under the mouth of the cave, disappearing in the darkness inside.

Taking a moment to gather his bearings, Lan SiZhui straightened his back, making his way over to the opening. Entering the cave, the disciple felt the pressure grow stronger, his golden core pushing back against… whatever covered the inside of the cave. The force of it had him stumbling back, managing to grab the nearby rock to keep himself upright and conscious. A tapping noise started from deeper within, and before Lan SiZhui could think much of it, he felt something sharp grab the back of his robes. Once again, he found himself being carried by the creature.

The crow took him back to the center of the ruins, dropping him from its beak. It shoved its face into his, the same dark aura from the cave now radiating off of the crow.

“Do you have a death wish, child?! That cave is no place for a disciple, much less one from Gusu. I can almost guarantee that somewhere on that wall of rules is written ‘One is not permitted to enter mysterious caves after being taken by a demonic beast’. I swear-“

“You know of our rules?” Lan SiZhui interrupted before he could stop himself. He made a quick note to apologize later, but he found he was too curious to think much of it. The creature, in response, leaned away from him, as if realizing the slip up. It shook its head, clicking its beak a few times before standing to its full height.

“It does not matter,” Lan SiZhui would say otherwise. “Those rules and those sects mean nothing to me now.”

“Were you once a Lan disciple?” Lan SiZhui pressed. The creature seemed to be the talkative type, but after knowing Lan JingYi for so long, Lan SiZhui has learned that not everyone is like Hanguang-Jun.

The creature seemed to recoil at the question. It’s eyes narrowed into thin slits as it’s feathers ruffled, stepping back towards the cave.

“Me, be a part of the sect that, above all others, despises my existence? No. That was only a silly dream…” The creature mumbled, just loud enough that Lan SiZhui could hear. The disciple was once again left in the middle of this run down town. He had no idea where he was, and no clue as to what this creature wanted with him.

Brushing off his now stained robes, he readjusted his headband and took a look at his surroundings.

Nearest him was a small, overgrown plot of soil, with that looked to be dried lotus seeds strewn about. Whatever roots had tried to sprout from these seeds obviously did not last long. There was also a larger section that looked like it had been in the middle of being plowed, before whatever happened here… happened.

Lan SiZhui moved away from the ruined farmland, moving closer to the surrounding huts. Most had collapsed in on themselves, but there was one resting on a small incline that still seemed livable. He stepped inside the dusty building, coughing as the humid air filled his lungs. Covering the lower half of his face with his sleeve, he continued deeper. Something seemed oddly familiar about this place.

The boy stepped into a side room, finding a small bed fit neatly in the middle with ruined toys surrounding it. Lan SiZhui found himself filled with sorrow as he thought of what this child’s last moments were like. He sent up a quick prayer for the child’s soul, hoping that they were far away from any danger, whether it be in the afterlife or somewhere on this plane.

A warm feeling replaced his sorrow, but it was quickly turned cold as a low grunting came from outside the house, just outside the window by his head. Turning slowly, Lan SiZhui found himself staring into the dark eyes of another beast, the decaying wooden bars covering the window the only thing keeping him separated from it. The beast tilted its head, revealing the beginnings of large antlers sprouting from above it’s ears.

Just as the previous one did, this creature's eyes narrowed as it took in the human, it’s ears flat against the side of it’s head.

After a moment, the creature’s ears perked up, it’s eyes going as wide as they could. Lan SiZhui could hear the brush of some fur from behind the beast, sounding almost like a dog’s tail. It stepped away from the window, nodding its head towards the houses’ entrance, before returning it’s gaze to the disciple.

Schooling his features, Lan SiZhui took shaking steps out of the room, keeping his distance from the wall to avoid any surprises. He arrived at the main area of the building, spotting the antlers of the beast as it waited by where Lan SiZhui was dropped off by the other creature. The two locked eyes as the disciple slowly stepped through the threshold.

He froze once again at the top of the incline leading to the beast. The beast tilted its head upon noticing his stop, taking a slow step toward the teen. Standing his ground, he looked for any signs of aggression, but found none. It took no time at all for the two to be face to face, the deer-like beast leaning down just enough to look Lan SiZhui in the eyes.

They stood like that for a moment, the only noise coming from Lan SiZhui’s shaky breath and the creature's steady huffing.

Feeling confident that the other would not attack, Lan SiZhui raised his hand to the creature's snout, resting it on the coarse fur just above the nose. A heavy breath blew his hair, and in a moment of childish glee, a small laugh forced itself out of his throat. The creature huffed another breath in response, pushing its nose against the disciples hand. The thumping sound reached Lan SiZhui’s ears again. This time, however, he could see the tuft of fur that made up the creatures tail shift side to side.

Lan SiZhui moved his hand across the fur, taking in the way the dark brown, almost black, color shifts as he pushed it aside.

Stuck in their own moment, both failed to notice the crow emerge from the cave. A loud caw snaps them out of it. Lan SiZhui and the creature tense, backing away from each other and looking towards the crow.

“I see you two have gotten acquainted,” the crow noted as it strode over to the pair. “However, I doubt you will see each other for much longer.” The deer stomped one of its feet, grunting and earning a glare from the other beast.

“We can’t keep him. Who knows what the clans will do if they figure out where he ended up.” Once again, the crows words were met with the deers nonverbal disagreement. Lan SiZhui found himself stuck between the two as they switched to a fully silent argument.

Eventually, after the beasts seemed to reach some sort of stalemate in their ‘conversation’, Lan SiZhui was hauled up by the crow, too quick for the disciple or the deer to react, and found himself once again hanging in the air by the scruff of his clothes. His breath stopped at the sudden gain in height. The pounding of his heart could just barely block out the rush of wind as they pushed past the dark cloud, and soon they were approaching the ground.

Tossed none too gently onto the ground, Lan SiZhui caught himself against a tree. The creature flew up to rest on a branch, although the distance didn’t lessen the threatening aura it produced.

“This is as far as I can take you, kid.” It lifted its head to look past the disciple, “That shiny border just down there will take you out of the Burial Mounds, and, if nothing else today goes wrong, won’t let you come back in. Just stick to the path you’re on now, and you should make it to the nearest town.” The crow ruffled its feathers, picking a few debris out of its wings. Spreading out its wings, the creature took off from the dead tree without another word.

Lan SiZhui turned to face the barrier. Somehow, he doubted that this would be as easy as the crow claimed.

Chapter Text

As he suspected, leaving was not as easy as he was told.

The barrier hadn’t let him through.

In fact, the barrier had instead thrown him back into a nearby tree. He currently laid slumped against said tree, his back and shoulders aching from the impact. Taking back the breath slam had stolen from him, Lan SiZhui tried to sit up, but a sharp pain in his ribs forced him to lay still.

Grunting past the pain, Lan SiZhui tried directing some qi towards the damage, but found that the flow had been blocked by something. Prodding at the blockage, the disciple flinched at the backlash of… whatever that was. Groaning in frustration, Lan SiZhui thought of what to do next. The crow was, by now, surely back at the ruined town, and Lan SiZhui had no idea where the other beast was.

Resting against the decaying tree, Lan SiZhui examined the dark, shimmering barrier that denied him exit. It seemed the rumored barrier of the Burial Mounds worked both ways. No one can get in, and any who do can’t leave.

As he rummaged through his memories of rumors of the Burial Mounds, Lan SiZhui came to a realization. Those beasts… surely they can’t be…

There was no other explanation. There were too many rumors of the feared Beasts of the Mounds. Those two creatures, they had to be the feared Yiling Patriarch, Wei WuXian, and his vicious Ghost General, Wen Ning. But… they didn’t seem anything like the stories and rumors claim. Neither caused him any harm, and although the Yiling Patriarch could have handled the disciple with more care, he didn’t seem to wish any true pain on the teen. The fear that filled his heart dispersed a second later as he tried to connect the two creatures to the rumors surrounding them, failing greatly.

The Ghost General’s true character really threw him for a loop. Every rumor has mentioned how the Ghost General had no compassion, and was simply a puppet for the Yiling Patriarch. The deer showed none of those traits. Instead, he seemed much more compassionate than most people Lan SiZhui has met, and the Yiling Patriarch didn’t seem to have any real power over the General during their interactions. In fact, the Ghost General seemed to have no issues arguing against who almost the entire world considers to have complete control over him.

Another odd thing was their forms. Everyone seemed to agree, albeit reluctantly, that Wei WuXian was one of the most handsome cultivators of his time, but Lan SiZhui found it hard to believe that a crow beast would even be considered for the ranking. He wondered what happened to change the two into the creatures they are now, and if it had anything to do with the barrier preventing him from leaving.

A twig breaking snapped him out of his thoughts, and looking up he saw the deer sneaking around near the barrier, gazing out at the surrounding area. He looked like he was looking for something, and in the process of standing to alert the deer to his presence, Lan SiZhui forgot about his current state. His hiss of pain seemed to work just fine in the end.

Finally noticing the disciple, the deer trotted over to him. As it approached, Lan SiZhui could hear a low, questioning whine come from the beast. He patted his ribs to show where the damage was, and let out another grunt when the pain increased.

“Ah, it appears the barrier is not as easy to get through as I was led to believe.” He groaned. A distressed whine sounded from the deer- from Wen Ning. Lan SiZhui reached a hand up, wincing as the movement shifted his ribs, and rested it on Wen Nings snout. He gives the deer a shaky smile.

“I’ll be fine. Honestly, the only thing truly bothering me is whatever the barrier seemed to push into me. That seems to be what’s keeping me from dealing with the pain.” He frowned down at the offending ribs. His attention was brought back to Wen Ning by the deer flinching back from his hand, and sharp whine rushing out. The disciple sat still as Wen Ning moved his side next to him, lightly nudging his arm onto his back.

Taking the hint, Lan SiZhui forced his way through the pain and sat hunched on the deer's back. He took deep breaths to hold off any approaching nausea from the move. Wen Ning began a hurried pace back to where they came, and Lan SiZhui could feel how he tried to keep his movements steady to prevent jostling the injured disciple.

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By the time they reached the decrepit town, the sun had taken its last light past the horizon, increasing the already prominent shadows covering the land.
Wen Ning let out a long, echoing groan, shaking the disciple from his unsteady rest.

An answering caw sounded from above them, and the weakened disciple turned his head up just in time to watch as the crow, now known to him as Wei WuXian, landed in front of them. His feathers ruffled when he noticed what Wen Ning had on his back, but before he could make any attempt to argue, the deer stepped forward, forcing Lan SiZhui closer to Wei WuXian.

A pause filled the air as Wei WuXian examined the teenager. When a minute had passed, the crow let out a sudden cry, and brought his head closer.

"What happened?! There’s no way this kid can have this much resentful energy in him and still be conscious!" Lan SiZhui winced at the loud noises coming from beside him, but he did his best to prop himself up on Wen Ning’s back. Taking a few breaths, Lan SiZhui began to explain the event leading him back up the mounds.

...” Wei WuXian stares at him as he listens, the crow features preventing any hints as to how the story affects him. Just as the silence crossed over to extremely uncomfortable, Wei WuXian released what seemed to be a crow’s equivalent of a sigh.

Sometimes I really wish your sister was still here…” He mumbled, drawing a low whine from Wen Ning. Shaking his head, Wei WuXian stepped back.

Let's just… get the kid somewhere he can rest.” He was answered by a huff from Wen Ning. “... that’s true. I’m sure you can find somewhere, A-Ning. For now though, I have to try and figure what exactly happened between the border and the kid.” And with that, Wei WuXian flew through the dark smoke covering the entrance of his cave.

Wen Ning continued the trek further into the ruins, approaching what Lan SiZhui recognized as the house where he first met the deer. As they reached the front door, a problem revealed itself. There was no way that Wen Ning would be able to help Lan SiZhui inside. The first part of this issue was his antlers, the many branching points preventing him from even attempting to pass the doorway. The second was even if he could squeeze those through, there’s no way the house wouldn’t collapse as the beastly body put further strain on the already rotted supports.

Sensing the frustration building in the deer, Lan SiZhui glanced around from his tense position at the other buildings. Finding a smaller house with a large hole in the side, Lan SiZhui nudged Wen Ning.

“There’s a-'' He takes a sharp breath before continuing. “-building over there, with a hole that-” Another pause. “-that looks large enough for you to fit.” He finished, steeling himself against the waves of pain. Wen Ning made his way over to the damaged building, stepping halfway through the hole to get Lan SiZhui closer to the, although broken, still sleepable straw bed.

Lan SiZhui slid off Wen Ning’s back, stumbling over debris towards the mattress. As he lowered himself onto it, he cleared as much dust and bits of the house as he could before collapsing. Wen Ning lowered his head and gave a light huff and nudge to the disciples forehead. In response, Lan SiZhui lifted his hand to give a short stroke to the deer's head, a small smile making its way onto his face.

“Thank you… for helping me.” He mumbled, letting the exhaustion from the day take over.

Chapter Text

Lan SiZhui slowly woke to the sound of deep snores, and the faint smell of rot. His body ached everytime he moved, but he pushed past it to check his surroundings.

The source of the snoring turned out to be one of the demonic beasts he met the previous day, Wen Ning. The deer covers the entrance to the house, his giant body keeping the inside a slightly warmer temperature than the breeze flowing in from outside. Lan SiZhui stumbled up to his feet, leaning on the creaking wall for support. He shuffled over to the opening, stepping around the large body in his way.

The stale air flooded his lungs once again as he stepped into the clouded light. Looking around, Lan SiZhui found it difficult to decipher what time of day it was, with the resentful clouds covering the vast majority of the sky. His internal clock was thrown off as well, the events of yesterday throwing him off in a way he never thought he’d have to worry about.

As he tried to walk without any support from the walls of the house, he found himself stumbling towards the ground, catching himself centimeters from hitting the ground face first.

The rustle of feathers drew his attention to the side. He found the approaching shadow of a large bird, and quickly remembered his other companion. The arrival of Wei WuXian seemed to alert Wen Ning, and both creatures approached the kneeling disciple.

Wen Ning wedged his snout under Lan SiZhui, careful of his antlers, and helped him stand. Finding his footing, he brought his hands up into as respectful of a bow as he could manage with his healing injuries, leaning more of his side onto Wen Ning in the process.

“This one appreciates the help Master Wei and Master Wen gave yesterday, and apologizes for any difficulties this one’s arrival has brought.” There was silence as Lan SiZhui took deep breaths. When Wen Ning shifted slightly after a few moments, drawing the disciple to look up from his lowered state. Both creatures were watching him with tilted heads. He avoided meeting their eyes under the pressure of the increasingly tense silence.

Suddenly, a loud, raspy cawing echoed through the air, startling both Lan SiZhui and Wen Ning.Wei WuXian shook his head as he finished with the noise, which Lan SiZhui figured to be laughter, and his eyes softened as he looked back at the disciple.

“You know who we are, and yet you’re still a polite kid. I suppose that makes our current situation more bearable.” Lan SiZhui was almost hesitant to ask what was on his mind.

“What’s our current situation?” His question was joined by an inquisitive noise from Wen Ning. The crow paused as he looked between Lan SiZhui and Wen Ning, an uncertain look taking over his eyes as he settled them back on Lan SiZhui.

“Well… kid, it seems like you’ve been infected with the same curse we have, although to a lesser degree. I doubt you’ll be turning into a beast like us, but you’re going to be stuck here until the Burial Mounds either decides to let us go, or we can get a way to make it.”

The next few moments were filled with a tense silence, interrupted only by Wen Ning stomping his front leg and flicking his ears rapidly. Once he fully processed what was said, Lan SiZhui felt like the ground had been tugged from beneath him. Despite the urge to collapse, both from the shock and his still throbbing injuries, he composed himself with a deep breath, focusing on keeping himself present. There would be no use freaking out when ways out of this were still available.

Looking back at Wei WuXian, he found that the crow had moved closer, his head tilted and leaning in as if trying to get a better look at his face. When he noticed Lan SiZhui straightening out, Wei WuXian stepped back, giving the teenager room to breathe. The disciple took a second to gather his thoughts before speaking again.

“Have you found any way out of here yet? Or a place to start looking?” He asked. His question was answered before Wei WuXian spoke, the awkward set of his wings and adjusting of his stance clear enough.

“We would’ve been far away from here a long time ago if that was the case. Thirteen years and we’ve made no progress on our escape.” Lan SiZhui nodded, expecting this response. His eyes unfocused as he found himself lost in his thoughts.

The two beasts shared a strained look over Lan SiZhui’s head. Wen Ning broke the silence with a light huff, blowing Lan SiZhui’s bangs back to get his attention. The disciple snapped back to reality with wide eyes, glancing between the two creatures.

Wen Ning, upon gaining Lan SiZhui’s attention, nudges his forehead with his snout, drawing a light laugh out of the teen. Lan SiZhui brought his hands up to playfully push the deer away. Wen Ning snorted, shaking his head and straightening out as Lan SiZhui goes back to leaning on his shoulder.

Looking back at Wei WuXian, Lan SiZhui noticed a tinder gleam in his eyes as he watched the duo interact. When their eyes met, the crow tilted his head, his eyes narrowing as he examined the Lan disciple, before shaking his head and stepping back. He took a breath and looked around, eyes widening as they landed on something.

Lan SiZhui was about to follow his gaze, but was distracted when his stomach announced it’s presence. Wei WuXian snapped his gaze back towards Lan SiZhui at the noise. He chuckled when he noticed the teens face and ears slowly growing more pink.

“I was going to ask if you are hungry, but I guess I had no need.” He gestured his head towards where he was looking before. Lan SiZhui followed and saw a small, weaved basket sitting near what looks to be a turned over garden. Approaching the basket with Wen Ning, Lan SiZhui found that it contained roughly a week's worth of rice, enough to get his stomach rumbling again.

“We have a few more with various amounts of grain in them, but if we’re planning on getting you out of here without starving, we’re going to need to ration them out. Just be glad the two of us don’t need to eat this, or there wouldn’t be anything for you to ration.” Lan SiZhui nodded, looking around at the surrounding area. He could spot a few of the other baskets from where he was. Going over how he would approach this new dilemma, he turned back to Wei WuXian.

“You don’t need to eat?” The crow shook his head.

“Ah ah, I never said that. I said we don’t need to eat this,” he motioned with a wing at the basket. “We live mainly off of the endless resentful energy in this place, although I have caught A-Ning here grazing the dead grass like a- well, not normal deer, but as one would expect a demonic deer to.” Wen Ning stomped, a grunt verbally confirming his protest.

“What? It’s true! Last night I caught you out by the old entrance gate snacking away on the weeds and dehydrated plants, and don’t think I haven’t caught your mournful looks at the fresh grass outside the barrier! I swear, when we get out of here, we’ll need to keep you on a tight leash, lest the entire world experience a shortage of greenery.” Lan SiZhui caught the roll of his eyes as Wei WuXian finished his accusations, and watched as the insulted Wen Ning butt his head against the crows head, mindful of both his antlers and the disciple relying on him. He was met with an offended squawk from Wei WuXian, and the two continued to exchange noises, words, and physical arguments.

Lan SiZhui laughed, leaning further into the deer and allowing himself this one moment to feel calm.

Chapter Text

The return of the last junior night hunting group was a time Lan WangJi felt would never leave his mind. The sight of Lan JingYi, his son's best friend, entering his home with a distressed look on his face as he struggled to speak, was burned into his memories. He can remember how that energy transferred to him when his brother arrived, saying what Lan JingYi could not.

His son… His A-Yuan… Wei Ying’s A-Yuan… He couldn’t believe his ears when he learned how Lan SiZhui just… disappeared during the last hunt. He struggled to understand how one day, he was bidding his son good luck on a night hunt, and the next he was receiving news no parent wants to hear. He couldn’t let A-Yuan… He couldn’t lose him until he reunited his son with Wei Ying.

Now was not the time to go back to that moment, however. Lan WangJi could not let himself fall deeper into grief when he was supervising the remaining disciples on his search.

He was approaching their current hunt, a supposed resentful spirit causing havoc at a manor, after seeing the distress signal light up the sky. He could only hope that Lan JingYi and the other more experienced disciples were keeping each other out of harm's way. Lan WangJi would not be able to handle another disciple of his going missing or getting injured.

As he entered the main area of the manor, he could feel the energy radiating off of the spirit the juniors were fighting, a strong force that would make any inexperienced cultivator stumble. However, a different thread of resentful energy weaved it’s way into the mess, somehow both softer and yet more dangerous than the one in front of him. Lan WangJi saved that information in his head for after he dealt with the current threat.

Lan WangJi observed for a moment as the juniors dodged the possessed woman’s twisted arm. He spotted Lan JingYi leading the offensive charge, and for a moment Lan WangJi could picture Lan SiZhui beside his friend. Lan JingYi was one who shared in Lan WangJi’s despair over the missing disciple. Lan WangJi knew that it was particularly hard for the teen, having been with Lan SiZhui the night he disappeared. He wished he could offer Lan JingYi some comfort, or ease his mind in any way, although he knew that he could never be the support he needed. He simply didn’t have the experience to do so. Hopefully his son returned before his friend could break further.

The image was shattered when a particularly vicious attack threw the disciples across the yard. He readied his guqin, giving one sharp note to stop the next attack. As he descended in front of the juniors, Lan WangJi felt the previously subtle resentful energy grow, combined with the energy radiating from his current opponent. The shift threw him off, delaying him in his next steps.

Shaking his head and clearing it from any distractions, he strummed a quick set of notes to fully stop their attacker.

“Hanguang-Jun!” He heard the disciples behind him shout, JingYi’s voice sounding closest. Glancing to the side, Lan WangJi found the junior standing just behind him, sword ready to help if need be. Lan WangJi’s tense mind calmed at the image.

Turning back towards the now motionless corpse, Lan WangJi reached down to pick up the sword laying off to the side. Taking the spirit out of the sword was no challenge for the Second Jade of Lan, and Lan JingYi approached, holding out an empty spirit pouch. Lan WangJi nodded his thanks as he secured the spirit inside. Noticing the still strong resentful energy, he sent the juniors back to their rooms so he could investigate.

Wandering through the leftover carnage of the manor, Lan WangJi followed the trail of energy to a small shed behind the main area. The pressure of resentful energy grew, and was quickly joined by the iron stench of blood.

A wooden bar blocked the door from opening, although Lan WangJi could spot the many weak spots chipped into it. Sliding the wood free, Lan WangJi slowly pushed the doors open.

The energy in the room was suffocating, and Lan WangJi struggled to see past it. Unable to find his way through the mess, he stepped back into the open air, some of the resentful energy following him out.

Retrieving his guqin, he strummed a similar set of notes to what he played before, although with more energy pushed in. The cloud of resentment dispersed as slowly as a dense cloud would. Soon, Lan WangJi cleared just enough to see inside the room, and as soon as he locked onto the floor, he dismissed his guqin and rushed inside.

A figure dressed in black, tattered robes lay motionless on the floor. For a moment, Lan WangJi let himself hope. Let himself hope that maybe his soulmate wasn’t stuck in a living hell. Wasn’t some cursed beast trapped for others to gawk at.

Stopping a meter from the person, Lan WangJi examined the surrounding mess. The most jarring image was the large, red markings covering the floor and surrounding the figure. Lan WangJi tried to decipher the writings, although the hurried strokes and pools of blood prevented him from seeing a majority of them.

The next issue was the source of the blood. Whoever this damaged soul was lost a lot of blood in the process of this ritual. Lan WangJi drew his qiankun bag from his sleeve, producing a roll of bandage. He’d have to be quick to prevent the already deadly puddle of blood from growing even more fatal, making a note to clean the wounds when he has left the manor.

Pushing back the hole-ridden sleeve, Lan WangJi examined the person’s bloodied arm. He was glad to be desensitized to most gore. If he wasn’t, the sight of the mangled arm would drive him away from helping in favor of returning his last meal to the world.

Noting the amount of wounds and severity of each, Lan WangJi took care to make the bandage tight enough to stop the heavy flow. By the time he finished, the bandages had already begun to bleed through, although it gave him enough time to get this person better help.

Lan WangJi examined the shabby clothing barely covering the person's shivering form. His brows furrowed as he noticed a piece of scrap paper stuck under their side. He pulled it free and glanced over the scrawl occupying the page. The illegible font didn’t give Lan WangJi many clues to the author, but the small doodle resting in the bottom left sucked the breath from his lungs. It looked like a rushed sketch of… him. Forcing his eyes away to a similarly drawn image on the other side of the page, he found a small child smiling back.

There’s only one person Lan WangJi could think of with the courage to draw his image, and the child could only be the one he’s los-… the one he’s raised. His brain shuffles through this new information, and he’s wondering just how this person came about this page. Looking around, he notices similar notes scattered around, seemingly thrown about in what looks like a fit of rage. He couldn’t imagine the one before him causing all of this damage.

Speaking of damage, Lan WangJi turns towards the bloody array surrounding the two of them. It’s obvious that the array has some dark origin, although the notes littered around him suggest it must come from Wei Ying’s mind, sometime during his stay in the Burial Mounds. Although he didn’t know much about the meaning or purpose of the array, Lan WangJi had to admit that no matter what, the rough characters and broken red lines would not allow for any success. Perhaps that explained the hurried scratch marks further destroying the shaky lines. A realization spreading into drowsy anger.

A particularly rough shudder from the person brought him back to the biggest issue at hand. Stuffing the note in his sleeve, he grabs a few more closest to him before slipping his arms under the unconscious man.

Standing, Lan WangJi takes one more quick glance around the shed. Finding only broken furniture, the now meaningless array, and shredded, bloodied clothing scattered around the place, Lan WangJi takes the first step back into fresh air.

Chapter Text

“A-Yuan… my sweet A-Yuan…” A voice whispered. “We’re going to play one more game, okay?” A child whined weakly, drawing quick shushing from the voice. “I know, I know, it’s not play time yet. Just this once, though, okay? Humor your old man.”

The invisible space he was in seemed to shrink, although he could make out the sight of black and red peaking through the void.

“We’re going to play a little waiting game, okay? Your gege is going to find some more players, and he’ll be right back so we can get started. Just wait here, and don’t listen to anyone other than gege, alright? That’s the most important rule. Don’t leave for anyone except me.” His hair was ruffled before a roar echoed in the distance. He still couldn’t fully process the scene, and he could feel his eyes growing heavy as the air grew almost unbearably hot. Distress filled his body as the only color he could see, red, was swallowed by the surrounding darkness.

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Lan SiZhui woke with a start, the dream- or, considering the fact he was overcome with sweat and breathing past a block in his throat, the nightmare- already fading from his memory. The only thing he could keep a strong grip on was the bright red color that seemed to represent whoever was speaking. A name sat on the tip of his tongue, although when he tried to shout it, it followed the rest of his dream away.

He instinctively reached out for Wen Ning’s fur, as he had the few other times a nightmare forced him awake during these past two weeks. However, this time, the space near him was empty, although still warm. The vacancy shocked his still tired brain like a splash of cold water.

Standing from his makeshift bed, Lan SiZhui stumbled towards the door, tugging on his outer robes to fight off the night chill. The Burial Mounds looked more like it’s namesake at night, with the fog impairing his sight even more than in the day. Each house looked like it could hold any number of beasts inside, and a shiver ran up his spine at the thought.

He turns to go back to sleep, although a house across the Mounds catches his eyes. The want for sleep disappears as an odd tugging sensation lures him closer. He recognizes the house as the first one he entered upon arriving. The same one where he first met Wen Ning, and the least destroyed home in the area.

Remembering the odd familiarity of the houses’ interior, Lan SiZhui ventured forward. As he entered through the rotting doorway, he felt the tugging grow stronger, and followed it to the children’s bedroom he found earlier. He stepped over fallen beams into the small room, his mind drawing him deeper with each step closer.

The toys scattered around the room caught his eye again. He bent down to pick up the closest one- a scorched wooden sword. The sword reminded him of one of the first toys his father bought for him after his seclusion had finally ended. It had been a quiet day, with Lan SiZhui watching his father still struggle to get out of bed. Despite the pain, he took Lan SiZhui down to Caiyi Town and purchased as many sweets and toys as he could. Among the toys Lan SiZhui carried by the end of the day, he swung around a dull wooden sword, and held two paper animals. He forced his father to carry the paper bunny, seeing how it lit up his flat look.

Smiling at the memory, Lan SiZhui clutched the sword close to his chest, disregarding the way the ash stained his already ruined robes. Looking around, he sifted through bits of fabric, wood, and straw making up other toys in various states of ruin. Only the sword and half of a paper butterfly seemed to survive the worst of the fires. Lan SiZhui collected the butterfly, and stood to move further into the room.

He noticed some remnants of paper pinned to what’s left of the wall, the edges burned and clinging by a thread. Avoiding the worst of the damage, Lan SiZhui reached out to the most notable piece. Examining the contents on it, he could make out a child's drawing, a large stick figure holding the hand of a smaller one. He could barely make out more than the basic idea of the drawing, although along one of the edges, Lan SiZhui noticed the smaller figure's other arm reaching up for something. A peak of charcoal shines through the burnt paper, although he can’t make out more than a few lines. He assumes a third figure was drawn onto the page. As he tries to see if anything else on the paper survived, his head begins to tense, a migraine pushing its way to the surface.

The picture fell from his hands as the migraine took hold. He found his way over to the dusty bed in the center of the room, laying down with the two toys still pressed tightly to his chest with one hand, the other pushing against his head in a vain attempt to ward off the headache.

In his fight, he felt the previous need to sleep come back, an escape from the sudden pain in his head. Relaxing as much as he could, Lan SiZhui clutched the toys in his hand as tightly as a sleeping boy could.

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Wei WuXian couldn’t believe it.

In the time it took to do his nightly hunting with Wen Ning, clearing the Burial Mounds of the excessive amount of resentful energy it held, they managed to lose the kid.

Usually, losing a kid wouldn’t be an issue for the beast. However, this wasn’t a usual circumstance, and Wei WuXian couldn’t lose his one hold on his memories of La- of the outside world.

Wen Ning seemed to be taking it even worse, although Wei WuXian couldn’t figure out why. He knew his friend had already grown attached to the kid, but this was a bit much. It wasn’t like he was related to him or anything. The deer was frantically upturning the little shed the kid had taken residence in, as well as Wen Ning on most nights they weren’t hunting.

It was obvious the kid wasn’t there, although Wei WuXian couldn’t think of anywhere else the kid could be.

Wen Ning suddenly perked up, his ears twitching as he looked out towards the courtyard. Before he could question his friend, Wen Ning trotted past him, approaching his old house he shared with his sister and… and his cousin.

Wen Ning moved to a window on the side of the house. When Wei WuXian approached cautiously, he heard the deer exhale softly, his dark eyes brightening at whatever he saw inside. Trying to peek over his head, Wei WuXian could only make out the burned window frame, and the shadows cast inside by the moon. He shook his wings to try and urge his friend over.

“Are you going to let me see, or am I just supposed to search for that kid by myself, huh?!” He exclaimed. He was quickly met by a vicious side glare, but was finally granted access to look inside.

It took him a moment to recognize what captured Wen Ning’s attention, although once he caught sight of it it was hard to ignore. The bright white robes of the Lan disciple were hard to miss amongst the dust and ash of the room's interior. A flash of a memory shot through his mind, throwing him back to a time where, although things weren’t easy, he had a larger family than he could have ever dreamed of. The room changed to how it was years before, and the figure on the bed was one he wished didn’t live only in his memories.

He was tossed back to the present by a particularly cold chill, and it was obvious the kid could feel it through the holes in the wall and window.

Turning to go back to the shed, he found Wen Ning had beat him to it, holding the worn blanket the kid has been using during his stay. Taking it from his friend, Wei WuXian made his way towards the entrance of the house. Although it was a tight squeeze, he managed to get far enough in to toss the blanket on the sleeping form on the bed.

He almost missed the two toys gripped tightly in the kids hands, although he noticed them as they caught on the blankets woolen fabric. He chuckled at the childish sight, and was determined to use this as new teasing material. It was obvious just how easy it was to tease the young disciple. Perhaps it was a shared clan trait.