Chapter 1: A Bloody Good Beginning
Nie Mingjue keeps his eyes open wide as the smoke barrels towards him. He does not look away from this avalanching death, that is sure sweep downhill and bury his allies in a hell of Wen Ruohan's making. Perhaps his assassination attempt was nothing more than a beckoning for a quicker end. He keeps his eyes open as the smoke pierces through his pupils and at last, he sees nothing. He stops breathing instinctively, because surely, the effort of drawing in air is wasted if he is to die within seconds. He doesn't breathe for what seems like several minutes before the darkness in front of his eyes retreats, leaving behind a gauzy film muting his sight. Through the translucent, grey Resentment, he sees the empty Wen throne.
He's too thrown to notice the other oddities. In time, he will see that the floor of the room resembles magma more than ever. He will smell that sulphur and iron saturate the air, when before, all he had tasted was the sickly sweet of the Yin Iron. He will notice last of all that the shards of the Yin Iron are long gone. So is Meng Yao.
Lan Wangji strums a broad strike and lights his way across the battlefield. In this seeming massacre, as the puppets eat away at their forces, he is one of the few capable of biting back with the inherent cold nature of Bichen against the Resentment burning hot in the reanimated corpses. He decapitates a puppet whose forehead ribbon has slipped around its neck and watches it flutter away with the wind, only to have its flight broken by the electrocuted, trembling corpse of a woman.
"We will lose," Jiang Cheng barks as he burns the corpse that jumps at him from behind to a crisp. "But I'm not going to die before my whip has had its fill." Zidian seems to crackle in affirmation.
Lan Wangji nods, a miniscule movement downwards, before he flies up and up, and plays a Chord that shakes the very Earth.
He alights— the righteous glare is long-diminished, but the ground shakes and shakes, until it breaks and blooms with the darkest slate of upside down roots. These limbs of the Earth crackle as they grow and flint into fire when they frisson past each other in a rush to seek nourishment. They find it in the hearts of the poisoned corpses. The needle-like caps inject and the hairs of the dark wood grow red and plump, almost seeming soft to the touch.
It ends like this. Every cultivator breathes a sigh of relief as the Nightless City battle concludes. Every cultivator holds their breath as the roots stay mobile, as if seeking sustenance. The fruit of this upset forest is beneath their feet, unknown still.
They leave the mystery for another day as they ascend into the clouds, hopefully out of reach of the, now christened, Forest of Dead Blood.
Wei Wuxian enters Lan Wangji's tent and leans his back against the bed.
"Lan Gonzi," he whispers and lets his head rest on the mattress.
"Lan Wangji," he murmurs, and turns his face towards the Second Jade.
"Lan Zhan!" He calls out loudly this time, and before the name fully leaves his lips, a blade is pressed against his throat. He swallows, a gulp and a laugh.
"Is this any way to treat your long-lost friend Lan er gege? Hmm?" He asks as he tips his head back to purposely scrape his skin against Bichen. He likes the cold against his parched throat.
"Wei Ying is dead. Who are you?" There is a slight tremble in Lan Wangji's voice as he says the word "dead".
"I'm not. I'm here. See!" He moves to sit up and the blade slices through his throat. Lan Wangji withdraws, but it is too late. Hot blood hits him across the face and soaks his forehead ribbon.
Have I killed him? Is it really Wei Ying? Did I just hurt Wei Ying after he found his way back to me.
"Lan er gongzi is truly peerless. Ah, Lan Zhan! You're too good! So serious. There is even blood and this kind of injury in your dreams. Such a stickler for logic and realism even in your dreams!"
Lan Wangji blinks as a drop of blood runs down into his eye and opens his eyes to the fading laughter of Wei Wuxian still echoing in his ears as his slumber breaks. He feels wetness on his face, but he knows it is not blood.
Deep in the Burial Mounds, Wei Wuxian rubs at his throat, lips downturned in a sad pout.
"Does Lan Zhan really hate me this much?"
High up, in a peak impossible to ascend for mortals, Baoshan Sanren puts down her scrying crystal and facepalms.
Chapter 2: The Nightless Dream
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His hands didn't shake a whit, but he walked faster.
He did not grimace, but he ate less.
Meng Yao was fully capable of playing the ruthless torturer, the unscrupulous strategist, in part, because he was the aforementioned.
He was incapable of forgetting though, as he spooned soup into his mouth — soup, red, salty, now spilling down his robes, which were already stained crimson with the color of the Wen sect, and darker still, like cinnabar, in some spots with the proof of his loyalty to Wen Ruohan — that had his spoon been silver instead of wood, had it been bequeathed by blood instead of bought with its faux consanguine offering, had it been a single vermilion dot on his forehead instead of uncountable splatters on his person, he wouldn't need to ever find out that he was fully capable of playing the ruthless torturer, the unscrupulous strategist.
The knowledge of his true character did not smart, because he saw himself as clay — shaped by the unwanted touches, the falls off the unrelenting pottery wheel, the heat of expectations and anger. He was clay, and he acquiesced to being contorted into strange, freakish forms by hands of fate and wit. He broke sweat to draw water from the well that wanted to draw him in, swallow him, and spit him out, reduced from his mother's dream of a respectable young master to a frog.
To keep himself unparched and moldable, to keep alive the dreams of his dead mother that starved for medicine, for love, for respect, he allowed himself sin, hoping that he'd earn a place in the world that he couldn't be pushed off from.
Meng Yao walked away from the wails of the dungeon, walked past the groaning undead soldiers. He walked into his empty room with its condemning silence that shamed him for carving his disproportionate portion of peace out of a dwindling, mangled stock, in a world of starving hopefuls.
The crackling and glowing of the molten earth beneath pierced through his shut eyes, even as he lay down to rest. He balanced his breathing and waited to lose himself to sleep.
It did not come.
Truly, Nightless City did justice to its name.
In Nightless City, it was never a new day. The sky was always smoky and in grotesque parody of the starlit night sky that gazed down at the roofs outside Wen territory, that promised daybreak if one only had patience, the ground of Nightless City was fissured and glimmering.
If you reached out to touch the cavities in the soil brimming with starburst shine, you'd lose a finger. This begged the question —Wa s it truly any worse a consequence than that to be anticipated when reaching for the stars in the Heavens?
Meng Yao believed that a leap to the skies and the inevitable fall from the height of the clouds your dreams rested on, would hurt much more than a finger lost. You could cultivate the remaining nine to compensate for the loss, make them so adept that they bore verisimilitude to your childish reckoning of appendages forged in starlight.
The orange glow of the fiery ground kept burning his stray thoughts until he ran out of kindling.
"Should have drawn the curtains," he thought, and took one deep breath to bookend his failed meditation, as he prepared to get up.
He let the breath out.
The volcano underneath him, rising out of the Earth's core and in through the windows of his room, as light and crackling noise, its presence scorching the souls of the beings in Nightless City, seducing their hearts to drum to the tune of its incandescence — this powerful volcano, whose inferno was a source of constant blackening — as he let his last breath of rest out, was suddenly dark and quiet.
He let the breath out and it was extinguished like a candle with a weak flame catching its death from an involuntary sigh.
He opened his eyes to darkness and a feather-light weight over the top half of his face. The weight caressed its way upwards and light streamed in, pink and pearly, sieved through embroidered lace that he hadn't seen or felt in years. Then, the hand and the lacy sleeve trailed its way to the scar on his forehead.
Silky fingers that he knew were capable of cutting precision and great strength, traced the permanent mark on his skin.
Rouged lips descended and the mark was now covered by the love of a lifetime.
"Baobei. I never ended my suffering because I had a dream for you. Now you suffer still, because I had a dream for you. You learnt too well from your mother, but isn't this a little counterproductive," she spoke with amusement, her voice insouciant.
He didn't try to talk, for fear of jolting himself out of this sweet dream.
"I know you may doubt me. My A'Yao is a cultivator now. Perhaps he thinks I am a crafted vision meant to lure him into a trap. But I will still ask. Will you follow me?"
He wanted to tell her that his doubts did not matter. He would crush theory and praxis to lengthen the life of this mirage.
Still not daring to even change the pattern of his breathing, much less uttering a word, allowing this dream to hide, in its saccharine fog, his bleak reality, he made the righteous decision of a filial child.
When the hands of his mother took both of his in their own and tugged, he stayed still. That it was all but a dream was a fast solidifying theory, as his body floated on black fog, or was it something else?
A thorn pricked his neck and the fog coalesced into frenetic, black brambles. They grew around him and over him until it was dark again.
Finally, Meng Yao slept.
He woke with his head in his mother's lap and his body submerged in a Pool of Blood.
Some hours prior
Wei Wuxian was bent over the rim of the Blood Pool, his head dunked into its unfathomable, murky depths. If someone alive were to see him, they may have taken him for a mad person. If they had caught a glimpse of his clean, alluring features, they may have been tempted to bend over right beside him. However, the only eyes privy to this delectable and comical sight belonged to intangible souls of the dead.
"How did this idiot manage to shackle us to his will?" Xiao Yanran asked herself and her fellow dead, definitely not for the first time.
Wen Wu, the oldest in form and youngest in years post-death, said, "Maybe it was the pitiful pouting?"
Xiao Yanran conceded that he was quite the sorry sight when she first saw him. Broken, was the word her mind consciousness had supplied when she saw bone sticking clean out of his ankle. Stubborn, she thought when she spied him crawling to forage in a mass burial grounds. Untamed, she realised as he drew in the very poison that had rushed to enter his broken body and collided with an unbreakable mind when it tried to claim. Master, she had answered, when he called with a tune of deliverance in death.
"The immortal granny haunting our dead behinds and coddling her little Yingying certainly helped." Wen Wu said this fondly, remembering her first encounter with the astral projection of Baoshan Sanren. Wherever her spectre turned, the Burial Mounds cowered. When she spoke, the indentured spirits of the young master were left with a ringing in their incorporeal ears, that induced sights of a synesthetic golden light, just in one's peripheral vision, so bright that it seemed to superimpose the Burial Mounds with another place with different character.
"Couldn't we just have kidnapped him? Aiyah, laolao. This is too dramatic!" Wei Wuxian whined, wriggling his behind, to the pleasure of his ghostly troupe.
His face rose out of the Silver Pool in his grandmother's meditation hall. His hair was dripping red and pink swirled around him in the waters.
One of these days, Baoshan Sanren would teach me how to not get his hair wet while using the Pools. It was really quite simple, but watching the boy make a fool of himself was a balm to her bored mind.
He needed to learn to ask the right questions anyway, she reasoned.
"Would you say pretending to be your own dead self that has escaped from hell and chasing some useless, clown, clan heir across the land, playing him spooky lullabies on the daily, instead of making a clean kill the first chance you get, and also making his bimbo eat him, is also a tad dramatic?"
"When did I do that, granny? Do I look stupid to you? I wouldn't play with my food like that! Not that I want to chow down Wen Chao. Eww. But I would be discreet. I'd probably wear a mask, so Lan Zhan wouldn't recognise me and hate me even more!"
Baoshan Sanren remembered the description of Wei Wuxian's pursuit in the novel and the interpretation in the drama. Once again, she pinched herself to hopefully find that she had never choked on a soup dumpling while crying over CQL MVs and found herself transmigrated into the body of the most underutilized OP in danmei history, but alas, all she had to show for it was a sore wrist that had healed before she could complete her thought.