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Jiang Cheng was 6 years old when his father got him three puppies for his birthday. They immediately took to his heart as they surrounded him, eager for his attention. However, his first instinct was to look around cautiously, ready to gather the pups into his arms in case they decided to go towards —

His mind drew blank here and there was a strange feeling in his gut.

He looked down at the fluffy balls of fur around him and thought them wrong. Here, in Lotus Pier.

When he told his father to give them away, somewhere far away from — here, Jiang Fengmian did not raise an eyebrow. There was a strange understanding in his eyes, even though ultimately they didn’t understand. His mother’s reaction was only a scoff, but she didn’t protest.

 

Jiang Cheng was 9 years old when he officially started his cultivation training. What had only been occasional meditation became hard muscle work under his mother’s watchful gaze.

On a particularly hot day he suddenly turned around to look beside him, as if he were expecting something, a whined complaint maybe, but he only saw his fellow shidis, sweaty but working just as hard as any other day. This was no time to slack off. As he glanced up, he saw his mother sitting on a chair, Zidian in hand.

There was a faint furrow in Madam Yu’s brows as she watched her students carefully as if she was waiting for something to happen. Whatever it was, it didn’t happen.

Jiang Cheng only came to realize what he was doing when he had already walked into the courtyard, three skinned pheasants in his hands and proudly presented them to his sister. Jiang Yanli didn’t question as she swiftly prepared the food, her movements experienced despite never having done it before. Later, when he asked her who the third bowl was for, she didn’t have an answer, just as confused as he was. They shared a lost look.

In the end, they gave the soup to a random disciple that passed the kitchen and if it was slightly spicier than the other two bowls, the disciple didn’t dare protest.

 

Jiang Cheng was 11 years old when he got his sword. Sandu, he named it and marveled at the way it fits perfectly into his palm and the warm connection he felt to it. His father watched him with a warm proud smile until he asked him who the second sword in his hands was for. Jiang Fengmian looked down at it, his brows furrowing slightly.

"I don’t know," he said finally, an unexplainable sadness in his gentle eyes.

Jiang Cheng looked back at the sleek sword, black and golden and with a red tussle hanging from the hilt. He thought it looked beautiful and sad.

"What’s its name?" he asked as he traced the golden patterns on the scabbard with his finger, carefully.

There was a word imprinted on the scabbard, he noticed even as his eyes moved there on their own as if they knew. Which was impossible, because he had never seen this sword before.

Whatever, it said.

 

Jiang Cheng was 14 years old when he was named Head Disciple of YungmengJiang Sect. He was even allowed to drink one cup of wine at the celebrations. Even though he was surrounded by his cheerful shidis and his proud family, he felt like something was missing, the cup heavy in his hand.

He had been expecting an arm around his shoulder, warm and heavy and extremely annoying. His mood turned sour. He didn’t want to be Head Disciple either. That spot belonged to --

A disciple commented that maybe he should get himself a right hand as his mother had. As future Sect Leader, it would be beneficial if he had someone to share his load with. Despite agreeing, he couldn’t bring himself to ask for one.

 

Jiang Cheng was 16 years old when he went to the Cloud Recesses to study there for a year. His sister gave him a bag filled with his favorite snacks and saw him off at the pier. He didn’t ask her about the second bag he had seen her pack earlier.

When they arrived at Gusu, his first instinct was to turn to his shidis to reprimand them from causing any trouble during their stay. While his shidis agreed obediently, for some reason, he felt disappointed.

The first of the Twin Jades of GusuLan, Lan Xichen awaited them at the entrance to the Cloud Recesses and greeted them with bright smiles and kind words. He then had someone show them their quarters. Jiang Cheng had a room for himself since he was the Head Disciple. It was of moderate size, clean and relaxingly tranquil.

He didn’t like it. It was too quiet.

 

The lessons with Lan Quiren were only interesting in content. Despite having high respect for his teacher Jiang Cheng found himself only listening with one ear while he kept glancing to his right where one of his shidis sat. The purple in the corner of his eyes irritated him. For some reason, he felt that there should be only black and red beside him, which made no sense to him and only caused him to grow more restless with each passing day.

His room was too cold, the food too bland and nothing like his A-Jie’s and the many rules carved on the mountainside were exhausting.

To distract himself, he made friends with the other guest students, Nie Huaisang being one of them. He found the other quite useless in terms of cultivation but pleasant company nonetheless. He didn’t mind his quirky character.

Jiang Cheng tried not to think about the empty spot by their side as they joked and laughed.

 

One night he found himself unable to fall asleep as he tossed and turned in his bed. Jiang Cheng stood up eventually and went to the window to slide it open and breath in the chill night air. His eyes looked blankly into the distance.

He knew that he was being unreasonable. He had everything he could want, his parents didn’t argue as much as before, his sister was alive and healthy and everyone looked up at him with wonder. So why did it all feel like it was not enough? What was missing?

Usually on nights like this one, at Lotus Pier, he would step outside and take a walk to clear his head, maybe join his parents as they watched the stars together and drank tea. But there was a curfew here, and he didn’t really want to be punished, so he simply sat down at the window and closed his eyes.

He didn’t know how long he had sat there, and he was freezing but for some reason, he couldn’t bring himself to move.

He felt like crying.

 

Jiang Cheng thought he had seen a flash of black and red from the corner of his eye. That’s why he immediately dived down to save -- from the clutches of the Waterborne Abyss. His hands grabbed a white-clothed cultivator and for a moment, his heart lurched in his chest, thinking he had let the other one fall until he realized that there was no one else there.

 

Jiang Cheng met the Second Jade of Gusu in class. He was quiet and stiff, like an actual piece of jade, the perfect picture of perfection.

Jiang Cheng thought he wore the look of a man who had lost his wife. Such an expression looked strange on a face as young as his, but he supposed it was none of his concern.

One day he found him playing the guqin alone on a hill and got a strange feeling of déjà vu. He didn’t approach him, the feeling already familiar.

Lan Xichen often invited him to a cup of tea while they talked about various things. Jiang Cheng thought that the other might only want to strengthen his ties with YunmengJiang Sect since they were both future Sect Leaders but found that he didn’t mind it since the other was pleasant company. Today their conversation drifted to family and Jiang Cheng’s curiosity won over him.

"I hear Lan Wangji play the guqin on the same hill almost every day. It’s always the same few notes though. Is it some kind of ritual?" he asked the older Jade.

Lan Xichen’s movements slowed down as he lowered his cup from his mouth, a soft glint in his eyes that Jiang Cheng recognized as the love of an older sibling. His A-Jie often looked at him like that and sometimes he thought that the amount of love in her eyes seemed almost too much for just one person.

"It’s Inquiry," Lan Xichen answered. "For -- ... a lost spirit, I suppose ..."

He trailed off, looking a little lost. Jiang Cheng recognized the look as one he often saw in his parents' eyes, in his A-Jie’s eyes, in the eyes of a lot of people back at Lotus Pier. The look of someone who knew he had forgotten something he shouldn’t have. Jiang Cheng wondered why they all seemed to share the same sentiment.

"It’s hard to explain," the first Jade said finally. "We’re not sure about it but we suspect that someone cast the Ritual of Erasement."

The Ritual of Erasement allowed the caster to remove their entire existence from the memories of everyone who knew them. But in return, their soul would be trapped in the Abyss, unable to reincarnate or escape. That anyone would do such a thing to them self was unthinkable.

But it actually explained a lot, he realized.

It explained why Jiang Yanli always served a third bowl of Lotus Root Pork Rib Soup, why the friendly vendors at Lotus Pier always gave him two pastries instead of one, why they had that fourth unused table in their dining room, why Jiang Cheng would often find himself in front of the same unused room, why it felt like there should be someone next to him.

"But we don’t have proof for our theory. We can only trust our guts and the records our ancestors left us," Lan Xichen continued until he realized that Jiang Cheng had frozen in his place.

"Who?" the YunmengJiang Head Disciple whispered. "Do you know who? Who is it?"

The first Jade looked surprised at his reaction before understanding flashed across his face.

"No, we don’t have a name yet. But I’m guessing it’s someone you knew as well," he replied firmly.

To Jiang Cheng, it didn’t feel like he just knew that person. That person was a part of his family, a part of YunmengJiang Sect. He was sure of it.

"Do you have a way to contact them? Does Inquiry work?" he asked hurriedly.

Lan Xichen looked at him sympathetically.

"Unfortunately no, they won’t answer," he replied. "It’s not surprising. That person did not erase himself on a whim. They must not want any contact with this world they left behind anymore. It makes me wonder ... what they must have gone through."

Jiang Cheng felt a pit in his stomach.

Suicide.

This was akin to suicide, he thought. Was it their fault? Was it his? Had they really pushed this person they all clearly loved that far?

Did I do this to you, brother?

Jiang Cheng froze.

His brother.

It was his brother, he realized. He found it hard to wrap his mind around it. He had had a brother, someone he clearly loved, who had stood beside him and who had killed himself, leaving him not even a memory to mourn or a name to cry.

"Can you teach me Inquiry?" he asked the first Jade, who looked surprised at his sudden request.

"Of course. Whoever it is, they might answer you. I also would like to get behind this," Lan Xichen agreed. "Wangji as well. I believe he might have been close to this person. He’s been trying to contact them for a long time now."

Ever since he had learned Inquiry when he was 9 years old, in fact.

Chapter Text

Lan Zhan was only 5 years old when he told his mother about the strange feeling he had for as long as he could remember.

"Feels heavy," he said as she gently stroked his hair, "feels empty."

Those were the words of a child who felt too much and had too few words to describe it. His mother hummed thoughtfully and rearranged her arms around his little body.

"Maybe you just miss your soulmate," she replied.

"Sol... meit?" he repeated the unfamiliar word.

"Yes, soulmate. The other half of your soul, the one who is destined to hold your heart. You will meet them someday and you will know immediately that it’s them," she explained.

So, until then he had to endure this empty feeling? He didn’t know if he wanted that. But he did know one thing...

"Want to see," he admitted softly.

’I want to see you, —’

 

Lan Zhan was just 6 years old when his mother died. She left together with her gentle loving smiles and warm hugs that made him feel safe. Still, he found himself sitting outside her door, waiting for her to open it and welcome him in as she had always done.

He didn’t know what ’Mother is gone’ meant. When would she come back? Where had she gone to?

It wasn’t long before another small white figure stopped beside him.

"A-Zhan," his brother called out softly, but in the end, he didn’t know what to say.

When his younger brother didn’t respond and simply stared stubbornly ahead, he sighed sadly and embraced him from behind.

Together they sat there, and Lan Zhan felt that his brother’s hug was just as warm as their mother’s and made him feel just as safe.

"Mother isn’t coming back," his older brother whispered into his ear, and that was all it took for little Lan Zhan to turn around and bury himself in Lan Huan’s arms.

That was the first time he cried.

 

Lan Zhan was 9 years old when he visited his uncle’s lessons for the first time. He sat obediently in his seat and listened to Lan Qiren’s soothing voice, reciting the scriptures with him in his head.

Then, for a second, he thought he heard a quiet snicker from behind. But when he subtly turned around, he only saw his fellow shidis paying attention to class.

Deciding to let the matter drop, he turned back around, a strange feeling of disappointment in his heart. He found himself unable to concentrate after that, his chest heavy.

He began to sometimes play Inquiry after that. Despite asking countless spirits, he found no answer to his strange feelings. It wasn’t that the spirits didn’t know how to help him. No, they simply refused and got aggressive once he brought up the matter. Lan Wangji didn’t stop playing though.

Even though he didn’t know what he was looking for.

 

Lan Zhan was 11 years old when his uncle gave him his sword, and he named it Bichen. As he held the comforting weight in his hands, his mind flashed to another sword he was sure he’d never seen before, black and golden. And his heart clenched.

He wanted to see —

He couldn’t come up with a name, but he ached all the same for someone he didn’t know. It was his brother who noticed his distress despite Lan Zhan’s blank expression.

"Wangji," his brother called him by his newly-given courtesy name. "What’s wrong? Do you not like it?"

His brother looked at him with soft amber eyes, a face reflecting his own so much.

"Hurts," Lan Wangji said, because he didn’t know what else to say and because he knew that his brother could do nothing about it.

"What hurts? Are you injured somewhere? Did you cut yourself?" his brother immediately pressed, looking him up and down for any injuries.

He stepped closer to his younger brother, concerned.

A big warm hand landed on Lan Wangji’s shoulder and momentarily chased away the cold he felt inside.

"Wangji?" Lan Qiren also inquired, a frown on his face.

"Miss someone," Lan Zhan continued.

His uncle sighed softly.

"I’m sure your mother is proud of you, Wangji," he soothed his nephew.

Lan Xichen pursed his lips, watching his little brother intently. He could tell that it wasn’t their mother that Lan Wangji meant, but the confusion in his brother’s eyes confused him as well.

"Mn," Lan Zhan simply said.

 

Lan Wangji was 12 years old when travelers passing through Yiling discovered something unusual. There were red poppies blooming all around the bottom of the Burial Mounds in large numbers.

In fact, by the time that the news spread to Gusu and Lan Wangji was sent there to investigate it with his brother, an entire field of red was already there. The delicate flowers bloomed beautifully despite it being the wrong season, unbothered by the resentful energy surrounding the area.

"This is indeed unusual," Lan Xichen noted. "The soil here is not even remotely suitable for holding anything other than black bamboo. Let’s take some samples of both the earth and the flowers."

While a few disciples proceeded to collect the samples, Lan Wangji bent down towards a flower, gently plucking it out of its soil.

He stared at it as he straightened himself. As far as he could tell, the flower emitted no resentful energy, nor was it affected by it. However, he could still feel a faint trace of spiritual energy there, meaning that this didn’t grow naturally.

"The meaning of the flower varies," his brother said as he came to stand next to him. "More commonly, the red-flowered poppy means sleep, peace, or death. But it’s also the promise of resurrection after death, as I recall."

Lan Wangji’s hand trembled slightly.

’Is it true? Will you come back, —’ the thought flashed through his mind.

"Wangji?" his older brother inquired as he noticed the trembling in his hands.

"Mn," he simply replied, storing the flower away into his sleeve and calming himself.

"Wasn’t there another meaning?" one disciple asked and gained everyone’s attention. "My mother told me once that they could also mean ’to remember those who died’."

Lan Wangji was beginning to come to a frightening conclusion.

 

"This is indeed a bad omen," Lan Qiren noted as he stroked his beard and closed his eyes in thought after they reported to him their findings. "From the information you’ve gathered, this is not a natural phenomenon. We will have to look into the closed-off section of the library; maybe we have some records of former incidents like this one."

They did, in fact, have only one record which dated back to almost 60 years ago. And it hinted to a forbidden ritual, called the Ritual of Erasement.

"At the place the spell was cast bloomed red-flowered poppies, regardless of weather or soil," Lan Xichen read the report out loud. "They bloomed for an unclear amount of time before withering away one by one, leaving no trace that they had ever been there by the time the last flower vanished. The warning from the gods came too late. The flowers were a timer. The soul was lost."

That was all that their ancestors had written on the matter.

"That is all?" Lan Qiren wondered with a frown.

Usually, the former Lan Sect members would write more detailed reports on all matters.

"Maybe they found out nothing more?" Lan Xichen suggested. "Who would have guessed such a predicament?"

The answer was easy; no one. With the Ritual of Erasement, they wouldn’t have even noticed that something was amiss if it hadn’t been for certain unknown side effects. Such as how they knew that they had forgotten someone even though nothing else could prove the existence of this person.

It was truly the only way to die all at once in every way possible.

Once the ritual was complete, or, in other words, once the last flower vanished, that person’s soul would be erased as well, and no one would even know about it. Maybe they would all have to live with this ache of missing someone for the rest of their lives, or maybe even these feelings would vanish also.

It was truly a terrifying spell.

Lan Wangji felt dread in his heart.

’—, I was too late, wasn’t I? I should have never looked away.’

 

They decided to keep the matter in their sect for now. Since there was no concrete proof for all this, they would only annoy the other sects with their incomplete theory.

At least, Lan Zhan now knew exactly what to ask the spirits, and by now, he was too skilled for them to refuse to answer him should he assert his will. He didn’t like forcing them to answer, but now that he knew there was a timer running, he found himself desperate.

In the meantime, his brother spent his time carefully asking the other sects about this matter without drawing attention to them while their fellow Sect Members also did their own investigations.

But it was still a long time after before they would actually get any answers.

 

Lan Zhan was 16 years old when his sect accepted guest disciples from other sects for teaching, both to strengthen their ties and to further investigate the matter of Erasement. The usual calm and tranquility of the Cloud Recesses were disturbed by a large crowd of different clothed disciples as they made their way up the stairs.

Lan Wangji’s eyes moved to the purple of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect on their own, and he found himself inspecting their faces closely as if he were looking for someone specific.

His brows furrowed slightly when he didn’t find what he was looking for.

Lan Wangji was too smart to not realize what this meant. His fated person was a Yunmeng Jiang Sect disciple, probably around the same age as him. He excused himself from his brother, promising to tell him about it later once the disciples had all settled in.

 

"You noticed something, Wangji," his brother remarked once he sat down in front of him.

"Yes," Lan Wangji answered him. "Yunmeng Jiang."

"The one who cast the spell is a disciple from the Yunmeng Jiang Sect?" Lan Xichen clarified.

"Mn."

"I see," the first Jade hummed thoughtfully as he stroked his chin. Lan Wangji thought he looked just like Uncle at this moment. "I will try to see if they have also noticed something missing," Lan Xichen informed his younger brother.

"... Mn."

 

Lan Wangji met the Head Disciple of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect in his uncle’s classes. The other seemed to be proud and confident.

However, Lan Wangji noticed him spacing out a few times and sometimes frowning at the seat beside him. Jiang Wanyin often looked sad and lost when he thought that no one was watching.

Strangely, Lan Wangji felt that, for some reason, he didn’t like Jiang Wanyin.

 

One day he found himself in Caiyi Town on his way back to Cloud Recesses after a successful night hunt. On the streets, he caught a strangely familiar scent in the air. Upon following it, he came to stand in front of a liquor stall.

"Ah, young master, would you like a jar?" the young male vendor asked him cheerfully.

Lan Wangji wondered why he recognized the scent of the liquor when he had never come into contact with it before, the rules of his sect clearly forbidding alcohol.

"It’s Emperor’s Smile!"

He suddenly heard a bright voice in his mind say. His heart skipped a beat as he abruptly turned around, but there was no one who looked like they had tried to talk to him.

Still, the voice continued:

"I’ll give you a jar if you pretend you didn’t see me!"

Lan Wangji’s heart clenched.

’—, I would give anything to see you again.’

In the end, he bought three jars of Emperor’s Smile and hid them in his room.

Chapter Text

It was the next day that Jiang Cheng met up with Lan Xichen, Lan Wangji, and Lan Qiren in the Library Pavilion. Lan Xichen greeted him at the door while the other two were already waiting inside.

“I've already told my uncle what we talked about,” the First Jade informed him as they sat down.

“Yes. Given the information we've gathered along with what you told Xichen, we have come to the conclusion that our predicaments are the same,” Lan Qiren said, his eyes stern as he looked at the Yunmeng Jiang disciple. “The caster comes from Yunmeng and is your brother.”

Jiang Cheng nodded silently. Strangely, he didn't feel as intimidated as he thought he would have.

“I see,” the teacher said. “Your parents must be devastated, Young Master Jiang.”

“No, Xiansheng*. They… don't know. Just like me, they only notice that something is wrong but not exactly what. I haven't told them yet,” Jiang Cheng answered. “Who could have imagined something like this? To have a family member who cast a spell to erase himself from the world… It's unthinkable.”

Lan Qiren nodded in understanding, sympathy in his eyes. “It is, indeed, a grave matter. Which is why we must get to the bottom of this.”

Lan Wangji, on the other hand, kept quiet beside them the entire time and didn't look at Jiang Cheng even once, as if he couldn't even care to look at him. And this made a childish feeling of annoyance well up in Jiang Cheng.

“Do you have a plan? A way to… bring my brother back?” he asked Lan Qiren instead.

“Not yet. But we may have found some clues regarding the nature of the spell that was cast,” the Lan Elder said.

Lan Xichen took this as his cue to continue, “I'm sure you've already heard about the red poppies blooming around Burial Mounds in Yiling.”

Jiang Cheng affirmed with a nod. Of course, he knew about that. The news of the large field of flowers suddenly surrounding a mountain associated with death did spread far and wide very fast, and since Yunmeng was just beside Yiling anyway, Yunmeng Jiang Sect had gone there to investigate it first. Jiang Cheng himself had accompanied his father to Burial Mounds.

The sight of the red flowers had caused an uneasy feeling in his stomach, but the place itself had also made him inexplicably angry. At that time, he had worried that the resentful energy might have been affecting him, and as soon as he had told his father about it, the older man had immediately taken him back home, where his mother had made him meditate for the rest of the day.

Even right then, the mention of that place invoked in him a deep feeling of hatred.

Swallowing down his anger, he answered Lan Xichen, “Yes, I went there with my father to investigate it a few months ago. The flowers had not yet spread as far as they do now, and  we could sense traces of spiritual energy in them. But since they didn't seem to be of any danger to anyone, we didn't look into it further and only had some people keep an eye on them.”

“The flowers alone will not be much of an indication that something is wrong, of course,” Lan Xichen agreed. “Thankfully, we have a recorded report on the matter from a few centuries ago.”

Jiang Cheng's heart filled with hope. If they had already dealt with something like this before, maybe his brother could be saved still!

“Unfortunately, in that same report, our ancestors were unable to save the caster.” The hope vanished as Lan Qiren continued. “They have also left us little to no information. The flowers are, apparently, a timer. Once the last flower withers, the spell will be completed, and it will be over. Your brother will, irrevocably, be gone.”

Jiang Cheng's heart sank with a heavy weight on it.

'That… idiot brother!'

“How long do we have?” he asked hurriedly.

“The flowers are still blooming. Right now, they're only multiplying at a steady pace. Should that stop and they start withering, our disciples will inform us immediately,” Lan Xichen reassured him. “There's another line in the report: The warning from the gods came too late. This implies that the gods tried to help the caster.”

“However, we have no means to contact any immortals, nor do we know how to break the spell,” Lan Qiren continued. “Our only chance is to somehow contact the soul of your brother and ask him about it. If he managed to cast the spell, he should know enough about it.”

“Which is where you come into play, Jiang Wanyin.” Lan Xichen looked him in the eyes seriously. “Your brother won't answer us strangers, but he might answer one of his own family members. If we teach you Inquiry and you contact him, we might get the answers we need. Once you call him, hopefully you will be skilled enough then that he will have to answer you… even if he might not want to.”

Lan Wangji frowned slightly, both at the implications that they would have to use force on his fated person and at what his brother had just said about them being strangers.

' We're already so close, aren't we? '

' Why should other people care about it? '

These words echoed in his head.

“I will do my best,” Jiang Cheng vowed as he bowed low, his forehead almost touching the table. “Please teach me Inquiry.”

 

Jiang Cheng, subsequently, spent the following weeks learning how to play Inquiry on a simple bamboo flute, Lan Xichen a calm and patient teacher as he taught him. Soon, he was able to interrogate very weak spirits, but they were still able to refuse to answer him.

Even though Lan Xichen praised him for his seemingly natural gift for Inquiry, Jiang Cheng still felt frustrated about his slow progress. Especially since there was a timer running and should that time run out and his brother's soul become lost to him forever—

He didn't want to think about it.

“Your brother's soul is incredibly strong,” Lan Xichen said and tore him out of his thoughts. “To be able to resist Inquiry from even our elders… That takes either a powerful soul or a strong will. I hope that he will answer to you, his brother, at least. If he doesn't then I am unsure how to proceed.”

Jiang Cheng pressed his lips tightly together.

“He has to,” he muttered. “He has to give me another chance.”

Lan Xichen gave him a sympathetic look, and they carried on with their practice after that.

With each passing soul that he summoned, Jiang Cheng would find himself agreeing with Lan Xichen though. The flute in his hands strangely felt as familiar as the tunes he played.

Had he played Inquiry before? Was it also connected to his brother? It had to be.

Many habits he seemed to have must have come from being around his brother, like how he took the second sword his father had forged alongside him everywhere. Right then, Suibian was stored in his room covered by a cloth to keep dust from settling on it.

He knew that, technically, the sword was only deadweight to him.

Not too long after being forged, the sword had sealed itself, and even the blacksmith who had forged it had been unable to unsheathe it.

Jiang Cheng suddenly had an interesting thought, and he quickly looked up from the note sheet.

“First Young Master Lan,” he spoke up. “Would having a personal item of the soul you're trying to summon help?”

Lan Xichen looked surprised.

“It would,” he confirmed. “A personal item would actually help us find the right soul faster. The stronger the connection between the item and the owner, the more effective it would be. But the Ritual of Erasement also erases any physical traces of the caster. Unless, you have something like that, Jiang Wanyin ?”

He emphasized on Jiang Cheng's courtesy name to remind Jiang Cheng to not call him so formally.

“A sword,” Jiang Cheng answered sheepishly. “My father had another sword forged along with mine, but he didn't know whom it was meant for. It has to be my brother's!”

“I see! A cultivator has a naturally strong connection to his sword that goes beyond everything we know. Wangji can play Inquiry on it, and we might even talk to your brother today,” Lan Xichen added excitedly. “Please, Jiang Wanyin, if it is no trouble...”

Jiang Cheng nodded at him, just as filled with hope as the First Jade was.

While the Yunmeng Jiang Head Disciple went to retrieve the unused sword from his room, Lan Xichen quickly got his brother and filled him in on their plan.

When Jiang Cheng took Suibian into his hands, he could feel the spiritual energy resting inside, dormant.

'I will give this back to you, brother,' he vowed in his heart. 'When I see you again.'

With new resolution, he made his way back to the hill where he had been practicing Inquiry with Lan Xichen for the last few weeks after his own daily lessons.

The Twin Jades were already waiting for him when he arrived, their spiritual instruments in their hands.

Removing the cloth from Suibian, Jiang Cheng laid the sword down on the table they had formerly used for small refreshments and took a seat himself.

“So, this is your brother's sword,” Lan Xichen said as he admired the intricate golden design on the scabbard before he noticed something. “It's sealed?”

“It's been like this ever since it was forged,” Jiang Cheng answered.

“... I see” Lan Xichen mumbled. He turned to his brother who had been quietly staring at Suibian. “Wangji, shall we begin?”

Lan Wangji tore his gaze away from the sword, a deep sadness in his heart.

“Mn.”

The first notes he played on Wangji made the sword glow, the difference between the skills of the Second Jade and Jiang Cheng evident. Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng watched with rapt attention as different colored spirits** began to gather around them—

Until a single red one detached itself from the others and was gently pulled towards the black and golden sword by the notes Lan Wangji was playing.

“Is that...” Jiang Cheng breathed, his eyes glued on the little fragile-looking ball of light.

“I believe so. It has to be,” Lan Xichen whispered back so as to not disturb Lan Wangji, just as entranced as Jiang Cheng was.

Lan Wangji, meanwhile, felt his heart beat loudly in his chest. He forced his fingers to stay calm, an overwhelming wave of relief flooding his nerves.

'—... you answered'

However, before the soul could come into contact with the sword, a repelling pulse of energy was released from Suibian, scattering all of the souls into every direction, even the red one. Inquiry was disturbed, and the sword lost its former glow, returning to its former dormant state.

There was a moment of silence as the three of them tried to process what had just happened.

“What… what was that? What just happened?” Jiang Cheng muttered, confused, his eyes wide as his throat constricted.

“I… It appears that the sword… rejected the soul?” Lan Xichen replied slowly, his brows furrowing. “But that should not be possible. Even if it was not the right soul, the sword should not have been able to do such a thing.”

Lan Wangji kept quiet as always, his eyes fixed on Suibian as his hands clenched on top of his lap. If his stare had been directed at a human being, they might have just died on the spot.

Chapter Text

After that major fallback, Jiang Cheng felt even more depressed than before.

No matter how many times they tried to contact the soul through Suibian—and it was always the same red soul that appeared, which made him even more certain that it was his brother—the sword would repel the soul almost immediately.

Not even the Lan Elders, who had been their last hope, succeeded.

It didn't look good for them. If this kept going on, then their time might run out, and his brother would be lost to him forever.

Jiang Cheng continued practicing Inquiry even though he didn't believe he could do what not even the Lan could do.

“We won't need the sword anymore once you play,” Lan Xichen tried to cheer him up. “The shared blood between you and your brother should be enough to find his soul. We can do this.”

Jiang Cheng held onto those words, because he wouldn't give up until he had brought his brother back to Lotus Pier, where he belonged.

' Like I should have done before, ' the thought popped up in his mind and stunned him.

Before? When was 'before'? Had he lost his brother once already?

He had no answer, but he wrote his thoughts down anyway. It had become a habit for him to write down everything concerning his brother because he had to always remember and never forget that there was someone who needed him.

So far, he only knew that he associated a lot of pain, anger, and sadness with his brother. But everyone else at Lotus Pier seemed to miss him.

Jiang Cheng wondered why he seemed to be the only one who had negative feelings about his brother aside from just wanting him back. The only one who could give him any answers was the very same person he needed to find, but with each passing day, he felt like he only got farther away from him instead of closer.

It got to a point where even Nie Huaisang noticed his inner turmoil, which said a lot.

Deciding that trusting the other boy was not going to hurt, Jiang Cheng finally told him about the case after being relentlessly pestered about it.

“That… actually explains a lot,” Nie Huaisang muttered while slowly fanning himself. “Like… he's supposed to be here with us, right? I keep expecting you to make good jokes, which you never do.”

Jiang Cheng felt his right eye twitch.

“So you noticed,” he sneered. “You do have a brain, then.”

“Hey!” Nie Huaisang whined pathetically. “I'm very smart if I want to be!”

“Yeah, I'm sure your brother would disagree,” Jiang Cheng teased the younger man, who shuddered at the mention of his older brother.

The horrified look on Nie Huaisang's face was enough to send Jiang Cheng into a laughing fit, his sour mood slowly fading away.

While Jiang Cheng laughed, Nie Huaisang watched him with a satisfied gleam in his eyes.

He really couldn't stand seeing his friend as down as he had been these few days.

But, if he planned his next moves carefully, his friend would no longer be sad.

Jiang Cheng didn't notice the small smile the shorter man hid behind his fan.

“Ah, wait!” Nie Huaisang exclaimed suddenly. “Have you heard the latest news?”

Jiang Cheng raised an eyebrow. “What news?”

“You weren't paying attention to teacher Lan Qiren? He told us about it yesterday in class, remember?” Nie Huaisang explained.

Jiang Cheng really hadn't been paying attention to class lately.

His mind kept going back to when they had been so close to his brother. The image of the small red light hovering in front of him was burned into his mind. His brother had been so close, right there in front of him, close enough to touch.

And then the sword had rejected him. Jiang Cheng only hoped that his brother's soul did not get damaged by Suibian's force. He wasn't sure that he would not break the sword in half if that was the case.

' Just what did you do, you idiot brother? '

Was there really no other clue beside the red flowers at Burial Mounds? Nothing else he could do?

“Jiang-xiong, are you listening?” Nie Huaisang pouted and lightly hit his shoulder to get his attention.

“Ah, sorry. Yeah, yeah, I'm listening,” Jiang Cheng promised hurriedly.

“So, as I was saying,” Nie Huaisang gave Jiang Cheng a stern gaze which was almost laughable because of how non-intimidating it looked. “Xiansheng told us about the sudden appearance of a blood pool not far from here. Apparently, the Lan Elders don't know how to deal with it yet, since the cave where the blood pool is had not been there just a few months ago and no matter how many times they tried to remove the blood, it would just reappear. He advised us to be careful and not go near the cave which is approximately 46 kilometres to the south-east from the front gates of the Cloud Recesses.”

There was a moment of silence.

“And?” Jiang Cheng prompted.

“Jiang-xiong! What if it has something to do with your brother? Blood pools don't just appear out of nowhere.” Nie Huaisang explained excitedly.

Jiang Cheng's eyes widened slightly as a strange feeling filled him.

' A blood pool, huh? '

“Nie Huaisang, you might be onto something.” he muttered.

“Of course, I'm smart like that after all.” Nie Huaisang said satisfied.

“Right. Why can't you be like this in class then?”

“Hey, I'm trying!”

 

Jiang Cheng knew that his thoughts were probably far-fetched, but he couldn't take any chances.

If the cave with the blood pool had any relations to his brother, then he had to investigate it, no matter what.

At least that's what his gut was telling him.

That's why he found himself skipping dinner and heading towards the cave after classes.

It didn't take him long to find it and surprisingly the cave was actually pretty small, which made the blood pool in the middle of it look even larger than it already is.

The Jade Passage Token that was granted to every guest disciple during their stay allowed him to pass the barrier set up by Gusu Lan with no trouble at all.

Jiang Cheng felt a strange feeling of deja-vu as he walked around the large body of liquid while trying to somehow see what might be inside it.

But the blood was too thick and the cave too dark for him to see anything useful.

Examining the rest of the cave, he found nothing else either.

Jiang Cheng came back to stand in front of the blood pool, his hands on his hips as he furrowed his brows in thought.

Was there really nothing else to it? Surely it couldn't be. Blood pools didn't just randomly appear and it was even more unusual for one to appear near Gusu, where the Lan Sect lived.

Just what was he missing here?

He was close to giving up and leaving, when something suddenly hit the back of his head.

Jiang Cheng flinched and abruptly turned around, his hand already on Sandu as he scanned the area for any enemies.

But all he found was a thin old book lying in front of his feet. It had a dark brown cover and no title.

With one last suspicious glance to his surroundings, he bent down to pick up the book and dusted it off.

Upon opening the book, however, he found some interesting writings on old paper.

Someone had taken great care to write down countless methods about cultivation, most of them referring to using resentful energy.

“A demonic cultivation book?” Jiang Cheng muttered with a deep frown on his face.

He felt like the writing was strangely familiar even though he was sure that he'd never seen it before.

A nostalgic feeling filled him as he slowly browsed through the book with messy writing, chuckling at the little remarks scribbled on some sites and strangely funny drawings, that didn't fit in with the dark methods.

A few notes caught his eyes, which made him freeze in his place.

'how to make lotus root and pork rib soup, gotta ask Shijie next time I see her'

'why don't we have Emperor's Smile in Yunmeng??? so sad'

'wonder how Jiang Cheng is doing'

'cold'

The book trembled in his hands and almost fell off as his heart beat painfully in his chest.

Suddenly it made sense why he recognized the writing despite having never seen it before.

It was his brother's.

Jiang Cheng took a deep breath to calm himself and gripped the book painfully tight in his hands.

This time, he read through the book deliberately, making sure that he missed no other comments his brother might have left.

His heart ached as he found small notes in a few pages that hinted at his brother being away from home and all alone, feeling lonely.

But why hadn't he come back home if he had obviously wanted to?

Just what had happened?

Once again he vowed to himself that he would save his brother and bring him back home.

He had just turned the last page when the last method in the book made him halt in his movements.

It was called 'Empathy' and it involved having a ghost possess the user's body, which enabled the caster to see the ghost's memories.

It was a tricky method and fairly dangerous, but if he made it work…

He could find a soul that witnessed the former Ritual of Erasement and hopefully gather more clues about the nature of the spell.

He also already knew who to ask.

 

Since Lan Xichen was currently in his own classes, Jiang Cheng decided to wait outside the classroom for him.

He couldn't help the hope that burned bright inside him even though he had mostly been disappointed until now.

It didn't take long for the older disciples to leave the classroom after lesson.

When Lan Xichen came out, he immediately noticed Jiang Cheng and approached him.

“Wanyin, were you waiting for me?” the older man asked, pleasantly surprised.

“Yes, there's something I'd like to talk to you about, Lan Xichen,” Jiang Cheng replied and together they made their way to the Library Pavilion.

Their walk there was quiet with Jiang Cheng worrying his lips and Lan Xichen walking silently beside him.

Only once they had sat down in the Library Pavilion did Jiang Cheng talk.

“Before I start, can you promise to hear me out before you get angry?” Jiang Cheng asked.

Lan Xichen raised an eyebrow, “I promise not to get angry at you, Wanyin.”

The Yunmeng Jiang Head Disciple took a deep breath, “The report your ancestors wrote on the Ritual of Erasement… it has very little information, right?”

At Lan Xichen's affirmative nod, he continued, “Which is suspicious at the very least. I feel like if we knew what happened then, we might get closer to solving this case.”

And finding his brother , was left unsaid.

“Having information from a former similar case would be helpful, yes,” the first Jade agreed. “But we do not have any more reports on the matter, as do not most of the other Sects.”

He had investigated it after all but all he had managed to find had been a friend in the Qinghe Nie Sect Leader, Nie Mingjue, during his visits there.

“I understand,” Jiang Cheng didn't ask how Lan Xichen knew about the other sects if they had decided to keep this matter within the Gusu Lan Sect. He didn't want to accuse the other of anything.

“But what if we used… Empathy?”, Jiang Cheng asked instead.

The First Jade blinked at him for a moment, “Empathy?”

Jiang Cheng pulled the book from his sleeve and opened it on the last page before putting it down in front of Lan Xichen. He made sure to not accidentally show Lan Xichen the other pages filled with theories about demonic cultivation, figuring that the other would not react in a good way about those.

Lan Xichen studied the contents for a while, his expression unreadable for once.

“Wanyin, where did you find this?” he asked with a worried frown on his face once he was done.

“I… went to the cave with the blood pool that appeared recently. It literally fell on my head,” Jiang Cheng answered, feeling a little guilty.

Lan Xichen looked up in alarm.

“Wanyin, that was dangerous! We don't know anything yet about that blood pool, you could have gotten hurt,” the First Jade said.

“And my brother might fade out of existence,” Jiang Cheng replied, “I apologize, Lan Xichen. But this might be the only way to find out what happened during the former Ritual of Erasement. If I hadn't went there, I would have never found this.”

He knew that he was treading on thin ice here but this was too important to keep an eye on not breaking any rules.

Lan Xichen was silent for a few heartbeats. He sighed then, deciding to let the matter drop since there was no harm done anyway.

“Empathy on… my Ancestors?” he clarified slowly.

Jiang Cheng pressed his lips tightly together and nodded.

“Wanyin,” Lan Xichen began. “My uncle would never agree to this. You're asking us to disturb the long resting souls of our ancestors. It's against the rules...”

“I know and I don't like asking this of you, Lan Xichen. But it's the only way to get behind all this,” Jiang Cheng said.

“This method is dangerous,” Lan Xichen continued. “The Empathizer would be in great danger of being possessed by a ghost and of being injured in some way, should the spell go wrong.”

“I will be the Empathizer,” Jiang Cheng replied. “You will have nothing to fear and I'm certain that this method will work. My brother wrote this. I'm sure of it. I have trust in him. And do you really think any of your ancestors would try to possess anyone?”

Lan Xichen lowered his eyes, his brows furrowed over his gentle brown eyes while he thought.

Jiang Cheng held his breath while he waited for his answer.

Lan Xichen did not have to think long. If it was his own brother...

“We will have to convince uncle,” he said finally. “And we might also not get the answer we want from Empathy.”

Jiang Cheng breathed out in relief.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Don't thank me yet,” Lan Xichen replied, his smile as gentle as always. “We still have to go through my uncle. Hopefully he will hear us out.”

“I hope so too,” Jiang Cheng muttered. “Maybe, through Empathy, we might even be able to see the memories that were presumably deleted by the Ritual of Erasement.”

“Wanyin, that… that would be great! We could retrieve the memories of that person” Lan Xichen beamed excitedly.

“Maybe,” Jiang Cheng remarked.

There was no proof to his theory after all.

“But it is still worth a try. I will call my uncle. Hopefully he will agree,” the First Jade added and left to get his uncle before Jiang Cheng could reply.

 

Jiang Cheng found himself fidgeting slightly in his seat as he was reminded that the worst was still in front of him. Convincing Lan Qiren would not be easy. But he was not ready to give up yet. Even if the older male punished him, he would not give in.

Jiang Cheng made up his mind and clenched his jaw.

It didn't take long for Lan Xichen to return with Lan Qiren and Lan Wangji, which prompted Jiang Cheng to stand up and greet them.

“Young Master Jiang,” the teacher greeted him in return while Lan Xichen came to stand beside him. “You wished to speak to me?”

Lan Wangji still spared him no glance but the fact that he was here told him that he was at least ready to hear him out.

“Yes, Xiansheng. I may have an idea on how to get behind the Ritual of Erasement,” Jiang Cheng replied and steeled himself. “But I would first like to ask this teacher to hear me out.”

Lan Qiren raised an eyebrow at that, surprised, before he immediately frowned.

He could already guess that whatever idea Jiang Wanyin had come up with would go against several of their Sect's rules, judging by the worry he saw in his older nephew's eyes that resembled his mother's so much.

“Very well,” Lan Qiren promised. “What is the idea you had, Young Master Jiang?”

Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen shared another look.

“I was thinking… what if we used this method to find out what happened during the case that the Lan Ancestors were working on?” Jiang Cheng said and showed the teacher the page of his brother's notebook.

Lan Qiren's hand, which had been stroking his beard, froze as he read the contents.

Lan Wangji shifted slightly at his uncle's side, his eyes slightly widening at the idea and because he recognized the writing.

'Do not disturb ancient souls without their permission', 'Refrain from summoning your Seniors' and 'Keep your body clean of possession' were rules of their Sect that they'd be going against if they were to accept Jiang Wanyin's idea.

But doing so would also bring them a step closer to his soulmate.

Lan Wangji knew that he himself would accept immediately even if his uncle refused to contact their ancestor's souls. He would do anything to find him .

' — this time, I will protect you '

“This was written by my brother. I don't know where it came from, I just found it. But I think this might be a sign from the gods. I'm sure this method will work,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Jiang Wanyin,” his uncle spoke calmly after a stunned moment of silence. “Do you know what you are asking?”

“Uncle, I know that this goes against our rules, but please, reconsider,” Lan Xichen spoke up quickly. “We have little to no recollection of the former Ritual of Erasement and this might truly be our only chance to find out what happened so long ago.”

Jiang Cheng clenched his fists when Lan Qiren closed his eyes and sighed harshly.

When the Lan Elder reopened his eyes, they were filled with disappointment.

“We have our rules for a reason,” Lan Qiren said, his tone heavy. “This situation is indeed unusual and unfortunate but to go against our own Sect's foundations? It is immoral. I will not accept this as the other Elders will not. We will not speak of this anymore.”

When Lan Qiren turned around, Jiang Cheng felt panic well up inside him.

He shared an alarmed look with Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji frowned slightly at his uncle's back.

“Xiansheng, please,” Jiang Cheng pleaded. “I understand that I'm asking for too much but this concerns everyone! You knew my brother! Could you really live out the rest of your days in peace knowing that you let him die like this? What if this is the exact same reason why the Lan Ancestor's failed to rescue that other person?”

His tone got heavier at the end, and suddenly he didn't sound like a sixteen year old boy anymore.

Lan Qiren turned back around when he noticed this as well, a deeper frown on his face.

But before he could say anything, Jiang Cheng had already fallen to his knees before him.

“Wanyin!” Lan Xichen exclaimed shocked while Lan Wangji slowly turned to look at him for the first time.

“Xiansheng,” Jiang Cheng bit out, his forehead touching the ground. “I'm begging you.”

He couldn't let it end like this. Not again!

Especially not when he already felt so much closer to his brother after reading his silly and sometimes sad notes.

Jiang Cheng looked up in surprise when he heard a thud beside him and his eyes widened because Lan Xichen was also kneeling next to him, his posture as elegant as always.

“Uncle, please,” the First Jade said, “We pledged ourselves to aid every soul that needs our help. Surely our ancestors will understand! They might even approve of us solving this case! We could reveal the mystery of what happened all those years ago. I will personally take responsibility and supervise the spell!”

Lan Qiren sighed as he found himself in front of two kneeling teenagers.

“Uncle,” Lan Wangji finally spoke up. “It is our only chance.”

Simple, but effective, as always.

A slightly louder sigh came out of the teacher's mouth which surely would have been a undignified groan in someone else's.

“Fine… Fine,” Lan Qiren yielded eventually. “I find your arguments reasonable.”

Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen both looked up with relieved smiles.

“But you will still be punished for breaking the rules,” their faces fell again. “... After we get the other Young Master Jiang back.”

Jiang Cheng found himself not minding punishment if it meant that he could find his brother and bring him back home.

Chapter Text

The Elders' reaction was as expected. Many of them instantly rejected the idea since it went against many of their rules.

Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen tried their best to ease their anger, but surprisingly it was Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji's grand-uncle* who defused the situation and backed their plan.

To Lan Xichen, his grand-uncle's approval meant a lot since the other usually followed their Sect's rules with no doubt in his heart. The other Elders thought so too and didn't dare to protest anymore.

Since Jiang Cheng had already volunteered to enter Empathy, Lan Qiren offered to teach him as much as he could about ghost possession in the short time they had. They couldn't let him use such a technique without preparation, especially since the method was such a dangerous one.

The morning meeting was over swiftly.

While the other Lan family members all left the hall to take on their duties for the day, Lan Xichen approached his grand-uncle.

“Shugu**,” he greeted him with a respectful salute.

“Xichen,” his grand-uncle nodded at him.

“I wanted to thank you for your support,” Lan Xichen said warmly. “This will surely help us discover the truth about what happened in the former incident regarding the Ritual of Erasement and save the lost Young Master Jiang.”

An unreadable look entered his Elder's eyes, as his mouth tugged down slightly, “Yes, I hope so. I will pray for your success over this terrible spell.”

Lan Xichen felt like there was more to his grand-uncle's thoughts than he let on but the other didn't seem to want to talk about it, so he merely thanked him once more and bowed to him.

His grand-uncle took his leave with that, a slight limp in his steps from an old injury that had never quite healed.

Lan Xichen followed him shortly after and went to inform Jiang Cheng of the meeting's results.

 

The days until they would attempt Empathy were quiet.

Lan Qiren made sure to train Jiang Cheng properly during that time, being stricter with him than ever before because they could not afford to make any mistakes. Even though no one thought that a Lan Ancestor would forcefully possess anyone, they still had to be careful with such an unusual method.

So now, in addition to his Inquiry training, Jiang Cheng also had to meditate frequently in the Lan Sect's Cold Spring to clear his mind and sharpen his soul. Lan Qiren supervised his mental training personally and once he deemed Jiang Cheng ready a mere two months later, the highly anticipated day finally came***.

They would attempt Empathy in the Lan Sect's Ancestor's Crypt****, which is why Jiang Cheng had to be blindfolded the entire time he spent there. Only direct family members of the residing bodies there were usually allowed entry but since this was a special case, Jiang Cheng was temporarily allowed restricted access.

The reason for that was simple, being near the bodies of the ghosts that they wanted to summon would help them form a more stable connection and they could also cut it anytime in case something went wrong.

 

Upon arriving at the Lan Ancestor's Crypt, Jiang Cheng was led by Lan Xichen to sit on a bench while the Lan Elders spoke to their ancestors' ghosts to find the right one.

There wasn't much to do for Jiang Cheng until it was time for him to enter Empathy, so he was grateful for Lan Xichen keeping him company.

“We will immediately remove the ghost if something goes wrong,” the First Jade reassured him. “You don’t need to worry about spending too much time in there. According to your brother's notes, a lifetime of memories can be viewed in only a few hours, like in a dream. There's nothing that can go wrong as long as the ghost is not hostile. So everything will turn out fine, I'm sure.”

“I understand,” Jiang Cheng replied to his friend. “I trust my brother's method. And I also trust you, Lan Xichen.”

Who else could he trust if not the righteous, rule-abiding Gusu Lan Sect?

He didn't have blind trust, no, he wasn't that naive.

But the Lan Sect probably knew the most about communicating with spirits than any other Sect and the ghosts of the deceased Sect Members should not be resentful, since their very Sect's foundation based on the purity of mind and soul.

But the one he trusted the most here was probably the one who had supported him until now and continued to stand beside him as a true friend, Lan Xichen. Jiang Cheng was really grateful for the First Jade's friendship and his determination to help Jiang Cheng's brother.

Lan Xichen smiled at him, even though he couldn't see it, “I treasure your trust, Wanyin. I will not betray it, you have my word. I have faith that everything will work out and that your brother will come home.”

So did Jiang Cheng. The alternative didn't appeal to him in the slightest at all.

“Do you think we'll be able to see the memories that were deleted by the Ritual of Erasement too? Or are those memories truly lost forever?” Jiang Cheng asked quietly.

“I don't know,” Lan Xichen replied, “But I really hope you will see those memories.Our focus is, of course, your brother, but it would be nice if we could retrieve that other person's memory too.”

Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen talked a bit more until it was time to enter Empathy.

The Lan Elders had found a ghost who was ready to help.

Lan Xichen led Jiang Cheng to the stone slab on which he would be resting for the next few hours while he was possessed and then kept his distance to not get in the way.

Jiang Cheng couldn't see anything, but he felt a friendly presence hovering above him, which he knew came from a calm spirit.

“Young Master Jiang, it's a pleasure to meet you. Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Lan Yueqin, I volunteered to be the one to guide you through the past,” the spirit spoke, his tone gentle. “I would like to express my condolences towards your loss. Hopefully, we will be able to save your brother.”

Jiang Cheng swallowed, “Yes. Thank you.”

“I will make sure to not overwhelm you. Even though I'm a little taken back that a child is taking this risk,” the last words were not directed at Jiang Cheng anymore and spoken sternly.

Jiang Cheng could hear some of the Elders clear their throats.

“I insisted,” Jiang Cheng hurried to clarify. “The risk may be great, but my brother invented this method. I trust him.”

Lan Yueqin said in a good-natured voice, “The youth is getting braver with each generation, is it not? It is admirable that you wish to help your brother. You might even recover the memories of the one who used the Ritual of Erasement before him or even break the spell completely. I will try to hold my spirit as steady as I can to aid you. Now, let us not waste any more time.”

A Lan Elder put a piece of parchment under Jiang Cheng’s arm and a brush into his hand, with which he was supposed to note down the important parts of the deleted memories, should he truly see them.

This kind of dual thinking was what Lan Qiren had taught him in the past two months, so that he could take notes while his mind was preoccupied with seeing the Lan Ancestor's memories.

“Ready?” Lan Yueqin asked him.

Jiang Cheng took a deep breath and nodded.

“Good. Don't get startled now.”

The warmth in front of him slowly moved closer until it sank in through his skin and spread into his whole body. To Jiang Cheng, it felt like slowly falling asleep, his mind relaxing.

 

Then his eyes opened and bright sunlight greeted him.

He could hear birds chirping and the soothing sound of a soft breeze brushing against grass and leaves. A wide green meadow spread out before him and in the distance, he could see mountains and trees. Together with the bright blue and cloudless sky, it painted a beautiful scenery.

Jiang Cheng recognized this place as a field not far from Caiyi Town.

The next thing he noticed was that his height had decreased drastically. He was now half as tall as he had been before and realized that this must be a memory from Lan Yueqin's childhood and he was seeing everything from his eyes.

Lan Yueqin looked up when a feminine voice called his name excitedly and saw an older girl running towards him, a flower crown on her head.

The girl was very pretty with a lovely round face, big brown eyes, that reminded him of Lan Xichen, and long dark hair. She wore the typical Gusu Lan robes, the female version, with clouds sewed on them, identifying her as a family member.

As soon as the girl came to stand in front of him, she placed another flower crown on his head and smiled brightly at him.

“See? It fits perfectly! You look so adorable, A-Yu,” she giggled.

Lan Yueqin shyly touched the crown on his head as his face heated up.

“Li-Jie, yours is prettier,” he insisted because it was the truth. The red flowers really looked beautiful on her dark head, complimented by the few white ones she had woven inbetween.

The girl in front of him laughed in delight and pressed a kiss on his forehead as a thank you.

“Baoli, what are you going to do with the rest of the flowers you picked?” an older boy approached them, a bunch of flowers in his arms. He could not be older than Jiang Cheng was now and yet the Yunmeng Jiang Head Disciple thought he looked kind of familiar.

“We could make more flower crowns and give them to the junior disciples,” Lan Baoli suggested.

“Because the Elders would be so happy if we did that,” the newcomer replied dryly and straightened his own flower crown.

Lan Baoli rolled her eyes.

“If it was for the Elders, we would all be living in seclusion for the rest of our lives, never to even think about having a little fun. Besides, we're not breaking any rules by making flower crowns,” she argued.

“... 'Thou shall not harm natural flora',” Lan Yueqin said quietly.

Lan Baoli was quiet for a second as she felt her right eye twitching.

Then she threw her arms up in defeat and groaned.

Lan Yueqin and the other boy exchanged an amused look.

Lan Baoli's distaste for their Sect's many rules and their strict Elders was no secret. She had always been a free spirit, unable to follow the stream for too long, no matter how often she got punished for it.

Her perception of the rules was that they were not meant to control, but guide them, which, of course, the Elders didn't like to hear. However, since she was only a 14 year old girl and the Sect Leader's daughter there wasn't much they could do about her defiance, which Lan Baoli often took advantage of.

Lan Taochen finally sighed and put the flowers gently down onto the ground, ignoring Lan Baoli's protests and turned towards the younger boy.

“I will be joining father in the next discussion conference. Don't let Baoli pull you into trouble again while I'm away, Lan Yu,” he lectured.

He had not forgotten how often that happened.

“Yes, da-ge” young Lan Yueqin replied obediently, both of them not minding their sister's bickering in the background.

 

The scenery suddenly changed and then Jiang Cheng, or rather Lan Yueqin, was sitting in the meeting hall during a morning meeting.

His seat was placed to the left of an older male, while Lan Taochen sat to his right.

Jiang Cheng noted that their seats were slightly higher than the rest of the Gusu Lan Members, which indicated that they were the Sect Leader's family, with the older male being the Sect Leader during that time.

Almost every seat was filled, except for the one on Lan Yueqin's left and since Lan Baoli was nowhere to be seen, Jiang Cheng guessed that it must be hers.

“As all of you might have heard, this year, the Young Master of Qishan Wen will be taking lessons here for a year as a guest disciple,” the Sect Leader spoke up. “This may be a special occasion, since there hasn't been a Wen guest disciple here for decades now, but I will have to ask you to make no exceptions for the Young Master Wen. Keep in mind that he is a student like any other here-”

His speech was disturbed by the large doors suddenly opening and Lan Baoli rushing to her place beside Lan Yueqin.

“Sorry,” she mumbled to her father, who had raised an eyebrow at her, while Lan Taochen only sighed.

The Sect Leader gave his daughter a gentle smile and continued his speech, “The Young Master Wen, who will be studying here this year, is a student like any other. I'm sure that it is also in Sect Leader Wen's interest that he is disciplined properly, should he act out of place.”

Lan Yueqin saw his sister frown slightly from the corner of his eyes and prayed to the gods that she would not try to pick a fight with Young Master Wen.

He really should have known better.

Chapter Text

On the evening that the guest disciples arrived, Lan Yueqin had guard duty for the first time.

So far everything had been quiet and Lan Yueqin was glad that the guest disciples respected their curfew. He didn't really want to punish anyone, knowing that he'd just feel bad afterwards.

He only needed to make one last round before the next guard would take over and he could finally go to sleep.

Just as he was turning a corner he noticed a familiar shape sneaking around the wall of the Cloud Recesses. Lan Yueqin held back a sigh and was about to approach the figure when suddenly someone else jumped over the wall and landed next to the first person.

The smaller shadow jumped at that and seemed to hold back a scream. The two rule-breakers looked at each other in shock.

“What are you doing here?” the smaller one yelled in a whisper. “It's past curfew!”

“You don't say,” the other one hissed back, “Aren't you out past curfew too, Lan girl?”

The “Lan girl” was actually Lan Baoli and the other one was the Young Master Wen, Wen Hanhe.

Lan Yueqin held back another sigh at the two bickering. His sister's cheeks puffed up in offence.

“I have a name, you prick. And besides, I'm on guard duty,” she was, in fact, not on guard duty and most likely just sneaking out to go to town, “So, what's your excuse?”

Wen Hanhe smiled mockingly, “I'm on fun duty. Now excuse me, princess, there's a bed waiting for me in my room.”

The Young Master Wen moved to push past her and Lan Yueqin was about to stop him when Lan Baoli took a hold of Wen Hanhe's arm, frowning in annoyance, “Hey, don't be such a smartass. What, you think you can do just whatever you want? Show some respect to your elder.”

She was, after all, a year older than him. Lan Yueqin resisted the urge to hit his forehead with his hand because what was his sister even saying ?

Wen Hanhe also seemed to share that thought because he only raised an eyebrow at her, before suddenly grinning.

Before Lan Baoli, or Lan Yueqin, could react, the male had suddenly grabbed her arm, twisted it and pressed her against the wall. Lan Yueqin flinched at the sudden movement, thinking Wen Hanhe was going to hit his sister until the other male leaned closer to Lan Baoli's shocked face.

He couldn't really see it clearly in the dim light, but Lan Yueqin thought his sister might be blushing.

Wen Hanhe's smirk grew wider and he said in a low voice, “Oh princess, if you really want my attention that badly, you gotta be more docile. I don't like dogs that bark.”

Lan Yueqin froze in awkwardness. Was this… flirting? Should he interfere? There was no protocol for this kind of situation!

Lan Baoli stared at the Wen in shock and from the expression on her face, Lan Yueqin could tell that she was about to explode .

To Jiang Cheng's amazement, she actually pushed the bigger male away so hard that he flew several meters away from her into the ground, landing on his butt and leaving a small crater behind with a dumbstruck expression on his face.

“Who're you calling a dog, you stupid ass-”

Okay, no. Lan Yueqin loudly cleared his throat before his sister could potentially start a war between Gusu Lan and Qishan Wen. This was clearly not flirting, he noted.

Both rule-breakers abruptly turned to him, their faces screaming “busted!”.

In the end, Lan Baoli had to kneel in the Ancestral Hall for a whole day and Wen Hanhe had to copy the two thousand sect rules 50 times.

 

Lan Yueqin was on his way to the Ancestral Hall with a tray of food in his hands when his brother stopped him.

“Lan Yu, I want you to keep an eye on Baoli and the Young Master Wen,“ Lan Taochen said gravely. “I don't like the way he looks at her and knowing Baoli, she's going to keep picking fights with him because she thinks he is a spoiled brat. I’m busy with the Sect right now, so it's up to you to make sure they don't do anything inappropriate, alright?“

Jiang Cheng understood immediately what Lan Taochen was implying but, being only 11 years old, Lan Yueqin didn't know what his brother meant by “inappropriate“. Seeing his younger brother’s confused look, Lan Taochen sighed fondly.

“Just make sure they don't break any rules,“ he said and ruffled Lan Yueqin’s hair.

“... okay,“ Lan Yueqin replied obediently and straightened his forehead ribbon with one hand while he held the tray with his other.

Satisfied, Lan Taochen took his leave with that and Lan Yueqin continued his way to his sister, slightly confused.

 

The scenery changed once again and this time Lan Yueqin was on his way to his morning classes when he noticed two familiar figures standing beneath the shade of a tall tree in the courtyard. He stopped walking abruptly when he realized that it was his sister and Wen Hanhe. His brother's words came to his mind and he decided to watch the pair and step in if anything happened.

“I really wanted to apologize,“ Wen Hanhe was just saying when Lan Yueqin moved closer. “I got drunker than I had intended to that night and acted inappropriately. I promise it won't happen again. I ask for your forgiveness, Young Maiden Lan.“

Lan Baoli raised an unimpressed eyebrow at him as he bowed before her, clearly not buying it.

“If that's all,“ she hummed indifferently and promptly turned around to leave.

Wen Hanhe seemed startled at that and quickly moved in front of her to stop her.

“Please wait,“ he exclaimed. “I'm serious. I acted out of line and was punished accordingly. I really want to ask for your forgiveness.“

Lan Baoli didn't answer as she searched his eyes for sincerity and he looked back steadily.

“Alright, fine, I forgive you,“ she relented eventually and looked away like a petulant child. “And I said some mean things as well, so I guess I should apologize too.“

Wen Hanhe smiled relieved, “I forgive you too. I guess we both acted immaturely. I hope we can be friends from now on.“

Lan Baoli pursed her lips playfully, “Perhaps. We'll see.“

While the two continued conversing, Lan Yueqin smiled, happy that his sister had made up with the Young Master Wen. Maybe his brother had merely overreacted in his protectiveness. Wen Hanhe didn't seem so bad after all.

 

The remanence of the guest disciples' stay at the Cloud Recesses, Lan Baoli and Wen Hanhe could always be seen together. The two were always doing something together, be it sitting at the pond and talking or breaking rules. Lan Yueqin noticed that his sister seemed to be happier with each passing day spent with Wen Hanhe and they didn't actually break that many rules anymore, which was, obviously, approved of by the Elders.

Some even suggested to have the two engaged. While Lan Yueqin felt happy for his sister, Lan Taochen seemed to be the exact opposite.

He frowned whenever he saw Lan Baoli and Wen Hanhe together, but his duties as the Sect Heir prevented him from approaching the two. Lan Yueqin tried to convince his brother that he was overreacting and that the two weren't doing anything bad, but his brother was strangely stubborn at the matter.

He didn't like Wen Hanhe for some reason and he wasn't changing his mind. But, unfortunately for him, Lan Baoli and Wen Hanhe kept contact even after the guest disciples had finished their year at the Cloud Recesses and left. Letters flew between the two of them and Lan Baoli even began to attend the Discussion Conferences to meet the Young Master Wen. In return, Wen Hanhe's presents were beginning to fill up her room completely.

On one night, Lan Baoli confessed to Lan Yueqin to have fallen in love with Wen Hanhe.

Two years later, Wen Hanhe convinced his sister to get married.

The Lan Elders rejoiced, both because of the connection they would now have to the powerful Wen Sect and because they were finally getting rid of the biggest troublemaker their Sect had ever raised.

Lan Yueqin's father, the Sect Leader, had been rather unwilling to give his blessing, but in the face of the Wen Sect Leader insisting on the marriage, there was not much he could do. He even pleaded with Lan Baoli to overthink the matter because she was too young anyway.

But Lan Baoli was completely lovestruck at this point and rejected any advice her father and older brother tried to give her. Lan Yueqin could only stand by and watch them argue with growing concern because he was too young to understand everything with his mere 13 years.

The arguments turned heated with each passing word and soon Lan Baoli got fed up with it.

“You'll all be happy that the troublemaker is finally gone anyway!” she yelled and left, ignoring their father's call of her name.

 

A slight mist filled Jiang Cheng's vision and he noticed that Lan Yueqin now stood at the Cold Spring of the Cloud Recesses. Lan Taochen was currently meditating on a big rock, his expression closed off.

“Da-ge,” Lan Yueqin spoke. “You still don't want to see her? She's leaving today, you know.”

The older male kept quiet but his brows furrowed for a brief second.

Their sister had been speaking of nothing else these past few days. She would be moving to Qishan today to get married to Wen Hanhe in a week and to spent the rest of her life there. Lan Taochen had been in a bad mood ever since that argument and their father had buried himself in his work.

Lan Baoli however didn't seem to care at all about her family's disappointment, all that was on her mind was Wen Hanhe.

“I have nothing to say to her,” Lan Taochen replied curtly. “If she wants to say goodbye, then she can come here herself. Now, I would like to meditate in peace.”

“Da-ge,” Lan Yueqin began slowly. “Wen-gongzi is really nice to her. I think he truly loves her. He'll make her happy, I'm sure.”

Lan Taochen sneered, “He is poison to her and she doesn't even notice!”

Lan Yueqin had to admit that Wen Hanhe often liked to challenge people, confident in his strength, never backing down from a fight. It didn't help that the Wen Sect clearly thought itself at the top of the food chain. If it were for them, then all the Sects would already be under the flag of the sun.

“Everything will be fine. You know Li-Jie. She will be able to rein him in,” Lan Yueqin tried to reason with his brother.

“Lan Yu,” Lan Taochen cut him off sharply. “You know nothing of the things the Wen Sect has done. They're not good people. And Wen Hanhe? He's the worst of them. I can see it clearly in his eyes. Enough. I will not argue with you further. Leave now.”

The younger Lan flinched under his older brother's angry tone. Lan Taochen had never gotten angry at him, not once. Being his brother's cause of anger was unfamiliar and unsettling for Lan Yueqin, so he quickly took his leave to not anger him further.

 

The scene changed and this time, Lan Yueqin was standing at the top of the stairs leading to the Cloud Recesses, saying goodbye to his sister.

“Da-ge is currently meditating at the Cold Spring,” Lan Yueqin said, “He couldn't come.”

Lan Baoli rolled her eyes but he clearly saw her jaw tightening, “What, he's still going to give me the cold shoulder? Hm, fine with me.”

Lan Yueqin smiled appeasingly, “He's just sad to see you go. You know how he is. Underneath his stoic mask, he really cares a lot. Give him some time.”

Lan Baoli smiled at him fondly, “A-Yu, you're already so mature. Don't grow up too fast now, okay?”

Her smile waned slightly, “I won't be around to make sure the Elders don't bury you in work anymore, but take care of yourself, okay? I'll see you at the wedding.”

With that, they said their final goodbyes, since it was time for her to take off. The Gusu Lan Senior Disciples would accompany Lan Baoli to the border of Qishan, where she would be escorted further by the Qishan Wen Sect Members.

Lan Yueqin waved after her until he couldn't see their silhouettes anymore. He sniffled quietly and bit back his tears, since his sister wouldn't be at home anymore. But he had to be strong for her. He had promised it, after all.

Just when he was about to turn around, a strange foreboding feeling overcame Lan Yueqin and he turned back to the horizon towards where his sister had gone off to. He couldn't help but feel like something bad was going to happen.

The feeling unsettled him, but he brushed it off as simply being sad at his sister's departure and returned to his daily duties.

 

The next day, an emergency meeting was announced suddenly and as all the Sect Members filled the meeting hall, an injured Lan Cultivator retold the story of how Lan Baoli's carriage had been suddenly attacked by rogue mercenaries, while he was being treated by their Sect's healer.

A feeling of dread filled Lan Yueqin and he shared a panicked look with Lan Taochen, when they found out that almost everyone had been killed and Lan Baoli had been kidnapped.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng gasped when he was forcefully pulled out of Empathy, a sharp pain blooming in his stomach. Disoriented, his vision focused on a familiar figure leaning over him. For a second neither of them moved as Jiang Cheng realized slowly what was happening.

Lan Xichen had stabbed him, right through the stomach.

Jiang Cheng opened his mouth to say something but all that came out at first was a burst of blood.

“Lan Xichen?" he croaked out, black spots dancing at the edges of his vision.

Lan Xichen's face was blank as he pulled Shuoyue out of Jiang Cheng's stomach, making the other tense as the pain intensified.

“Sorry, Wanyin,” Lan Xichen said in a low voice, a cold glint in his eyes. “But I can't let anyone uncover the truth. Not even you. You shouldn't have pushed your luck, Jiang Cheng.”

His voice changed towards the end of his speech and Lan Xichen's face suddenly melted off like heated wax, revealing a different face underneath. One, that Jiang Cheng recognized instantly. He stared into silver-grey eyes as his memories returned all at once.

“Wei… Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng whispered in shock, cut off by a cough that shook his entire body and made more blood burst out of his mouth.

“Hello, brother,” Wei Wuxian said uncaringly, his eyes slowly turning a bright red. “And goodbye.”

Wei Wuxian turned around with that, heading towards the exit.

When he left Jiang Cheng's field of vision, the latter tried to push himself up in a panicked frenzy, calling out: “Wait-.. *cough*... Wei-Wu-... ugh, WEI WUXIAN!”

He fell from the stone slab he'd been resting on and hit the cold unforgiving ground below. As he lifted his head despite the maddening pain, he saw the corpses of the Lan Cultivators lying around him. Jiang Cheng froze, his mind unable to process the situation.

“You don't appreciate this world?” Wei Wuxian muttered in a dark voice, stopping in front of the door that led to the outside. “Fine. Then I'll just destroy it.”

The door was torn open by a burst of resentful energy. Jiang Cheng watched helplessly as his brother stepped outside, his goal to destroy the world.

As his vision finally blackened out, the last thing he heard was:

“Mission failed. Game over, baby.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Cut!”

The voice rang out through the mostly empty set. The five people who had been alone until then all flinched and turned towards the entry. There stood The Author, her hands on her hips as she looked at them with a disapproving frown on her face. But what really shocked the five was the tall man standing behind her, in purple robes and with lightning crackling around his form.

Jin Ling, who had been in charge of the lights, quickly crouched behind the control panel with a quiet: “Crap!”

He then tried to sneak away before his uncle could fry him.

“Lan Jingyi,” The Author addressed the teen that sat in the producer's stool and who had tried to hide behind the chair. “What are you all doing here? You're not supposed to be here yet.”

“Uhm… we were just… testing the set? To see if there were any problems before we continue the story?” Lan Jingyi tried.

When The Author gave him a disbelieving look, he looked at Lan Sizhui for help, who had been holding the microphones.

“Everything's working well,” Lan Sizhui smiled nervously, sweating.

“See? All's working fine,” Lan Jingyi added brightly. “Isn't that right, Jin Ling?”

Jin Ling, who had just been trying to sneak away, froze in his place as he felt a familiar burning gaze settle on him. He silently cursed Lan Jingyi, sent the latter the best glare he could muster and cautiously turned towards his uncle.

“Jin Ling!” the older Jiang Cheng barked, making the youth flinch even though he had been expecting it. “What the hell are you doing here? Wasting your time playing instead of training? Do I need to remind you that you didn't even manage to catch one fierce corpse during the last night-hunt?”

Jin Ling stiffened at the reminder of his failure and refrained from pouting with great dignity.

“No, uncle,” he muttered petulantly.

Older Jiang Cheng scowled, “Then get down here, before I break your legs!”

As The Author watched in silent pity, the Jin Sect Heir trotted down the stairs leading to the control panel like a scolded child, which he technically was.

“Alright, boys, you've had enough fun now. We need to start filming soon, so make sure to clear the set, okay?” she told the other two, who nodded dejectedly.

And they had just been getting to the good part too! Lan Jingyi had planned an entire manuscript describing in great detail how Wei Wuxian slaughtered every single person in the world and then destroyed it with a single burst of resentful energy. It would have been an award-winning scene, for sure!

As the three teens were led out by a gloomy Older Jiang Cheng, The Author sighed fondly at the energy the youth always had and turned back to the set just to see Younger Jiang Cheng still lying motionless on the ground.

“Younger Jiang Cheng? It's already over, you know,” she called out to him.

Younger Jiang Cheng didn't move at first, but then he lifted his head slightly, looking confused.

“But wasn't Wei Wuxian supposed to come back and resurrect me as a corpse?” he asked.

“...”

“No,” The Author said after a second of silence. “We're moving onto the real part now.”

“Hm, fine,” Younger Jiang Cheng muttered and stood up.

His entire front was drenched in fake blood and The Author resisted the urge to laugh loudly at that as Younger Jiang Cheng walked past her, head held high. She followed him shortly after, turning off the lights before she shut the door behind her.



There was a moment of silence. Then a quiet sigh echoed through the empty hall.

“They forgot me again, didn't they?” someone muttered helplessly.

“No,” a deep voice sounded from behind him, startling him.

“What the- Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian yelped.

“Mn.”

“Sheesh, how long have you been here?” Wei Wuxian asked, trying to calm his heartbeat.

“.. Did not,” came the reply.

“Hm, did not what?” Wei Wuxian prompted.

“...Did not forget,” Lan Wangji said, stepping closer.  “Never.”

“Ah.. huh, well… okay, that's cool…,” Wei Wuxian muttered, as he was feeling a little warmer than usual.

Must be hot in here due to there not being any windows, he figured. Then he remembered something.

“Hey, Lan Zhan!”

“Hm?”

“Happy April Fools Day!”

“Mn.”

Chapter Text

Both Gusu Lan and Qishan Wen sent out search troops to find Lan Baoli. They turned every stone around, searched every cave and possible hideout but there was no sight of the mercenaries anywhere.

Lan Yueqin himself was too young to participate in the search and so he could only stay back at the Cloud Recesses while both his father and brother were looking for his sister. Lan Yueqin felt frustrated and he was worried, wanting to look for his sister and hoping that she was alright.

He kept pacing around the halls, unable to concentrate on his assignments as dread gnawed at his mind. Jiang Cheng felt all his emotions through empathy and he imagined that he would probably feel the same if his sister was in danger. But right now, Lan Yueqin's feelings reflected Jiang Cheng's own regarding his missing brother.

Lan Yueqin had just been passing the Library Pavillon when he heard a muffled noise through the closed door. He was confused. Most of their Sect's Cultivators were out to find Lan Baoli and he had seen most of his fellow Junior Disciples in the dining hall earlier. Therefore there shouldn't be anyone in the Library Pavilion right now.

Since the Pavilion had been assigned to his care, Lan Yueqin decided to see if the person inside needed any help.

Lan Yueqin opened the door and stepped inside the room. At first glance, he didn't see anyone and the Library looked empty. Then someone leaned over the corner of a bookshelf, looking surprised.

“Ah, it's you, Shidi,” that person said with a friendly smile. It was one of Lan Yueqin's older apprentice brothers.

“Shixiong,” Lan Yueqin greeted him with a polite bow. “Can I help you somehow?”

His Shixiong held up a guide on musical frequencies, “I was just looking for this. I will be studying it in my room if that's alright?”

“Of course,” Lan Yueqin nodded. “Just make sure to bring it back by the end of the week.”

Then he noticed the cover of the book, “But, Shixiong, isn't that the beginner guide? Wouldn't you like the advanced one?”

His Shixiong froze for a second and then laughed. “I'm starting over. I'll get the advanced one after reading this one.”

“Oh, I see,” Lan Yueqin blinked. Something was off, but he couldn't say what.

“Anyways, I'll be going then,” his Shixiong said and walked past Lan Yueqin. “You should study too instead of wandering around, Shidi.”

“Yeah…,” Lan Yueqin mumbled in response.

Once his Shixiong had left, he moved towards the bookshelf his Shixiong had been looking at, hoping it would give him some answers to the strange suspicion he felt. His eyes fell to the sealed gate that leads to the Forbidden Archives at the end of the said bookshelf. But when he inspected the seal, it was untouched and as powerful as always.

He still couldn't shake off the feeling that something was wrong and was about to check the Forbidden Archives for any missing scriptures when he heard hurried footsteps coming towards the Pavilion.

“Second Young Master Lan,” a younger disciple called out to him. “They found her!”

 

When Lan Yueqin arrived at the cave, there were already several Cultivators from Gusu Lan and Qishan Wen there. A mountain of mercenary corpses was already burning and their entire hideout was being cleared.

Lan Yueqin hurried to the tent that his sister should be in. Upon arrival, he noticed that his father, his brother and Wen Hanhe were already inside. Wen Hanhe had just been reaching out to Lan Baoli when she flinched away from him.

“A-Li?” Wen Hanhe called out, shocked at her reaction.

Lan Baoli was pale and shaking, her eyes wide and full of tears. She looked terrified.

“Sorry, I… sorry,” she whispered, taking his hand in hers. “I'm… a little shaken.”

Lan Taochen frowned heavily, “Baoli, did they hurt you?”

Lan Baoli froze for a second and her eyes widened slightly, mortification flashing through them. Lan Yueqin was the only one who saw it since her head was lowered and he was small enough to still see her face.

“No,” Lan Baoli spoke with great difficulty. “No, they just scared me.”

Lan Yueqin had a really bad feeling in his stomach.

“Li-Jie…,” he mumbled worriedly.

Lan Baoli's eyes flashed to him as if she had just now noticed him.

“A-Yu,” Lan Baoli called out to him, tears filling her eyes once more.

Before he knew it, Lan Yueqin had already crossed the distance between them and thrown himself into her waiting arms. He hugged her tightly and she hugged him back just as tightly.  Over their heads, their father and brother exchanged a concerned glance.

If… those mercenaries had touched Lan Baoli and she wasn't telling them…

“A-Li,” Sect Leader Lan said. “The physician should take a look at you to make sure that there are no injuries-”

“No!” Lan Baoli interrupted him hastily and her arms tightened around Lan Yueqin. “I mean… I'm fine. They didn't… touch me. Just threatened. That's all.”

Her father looked unconvinced, “A-Li, we need to be sure. It won't take long.”

Lan Baoli clenched her jaw, “I'm fine. There's no need for a physician.”

She turned to Wen Hanhe who had been watching the exchange silently, “A-He, let's go to Qishan now, please.”

Wen Hanhe nodded at her, his facial expression gentle, “Of course, A-Li.”

“Sect Leader Lan, you don't need to worry,” he said to her father. “I will take care of her.”

Lan Yueqin saw Lan Taochen bite back a scowl.

“I… thank you, Young Master Wen,” their father spoke, but his eyes were dark with worry.

Lan Yueqin didn't really want to let his sister go after all that but she insisted on leaving and so they parted ways.

 

The next time he saw her was in Qishan during the wedding a few weeks after.

He thought she looked really pretty in the red robes and so happy. At least after the ceremony.

All through the reception, she had been fiddling with the hem of her sleeves quite often and although he couldn't see her face through the veil, he was sure that she was biting her lips as well. It was a behavior unusual for a soon-to-be-wed bride but no one besides those who knew her noticed.

However, that seemed to pass as the celebrations continued and soon Lan Baoli was more relaxed, finally enjoying her wedding.

Lan Yueqin was worried about his sister, but she didn't seem to want to talk about it. He could only hope that she would talk to her husband about it and that Wen Hanhe would be able to help her.

 

After the wedding, Lan Yueqin didn't hear much from his sister. Sure, she occasionally sent him a letter but she kept them short and it also took her a while to answer his letters.

Lan Yueqin really missed her a lot but he couldn't really visit her. He was still only 14 years old and not even allowed to go on night hunts alone. He also knew that Lan Baoli didn't want to come back to the Cloud Recesses.

She didn't like the rules and didn't get along with most of the people here. She also probably felt bad about the fight she'd had with their father and brother. Their father often asked Lan Yueqin about Lan Baoli since Lan Yueqin was the only one she sent letters to.

Lan Yueqin wished that his family would just make up and get along like before. He didn't like that there were this tension and sadness around the people he loved. He wished that everything would return to the way it was before, but it didn't seem like that would happen.

At least that was until he got a letter a year after the incident in which Lan Baoli excitedly announced that she was pregnant. With a smile on his face, Lan Yueqin read his sister writing about possible names she'd thought of and how she wanted to decorate her baby's room. He was happy that his sister was well and that he would get a nephew or a niece soon.

When he told his father and brother about it, they had mixed reactions. His father smiled gently but there was the same sadness in his eyes that had been there ever since Lan Baoli had gotten married to Wen Hanhe. Lan Taochen was only silent for a bit before he left the room without a word.

Lan Yueqin had hoped for a happier reaction. Just what was the problem? Why was no one telling him anything?

 

He only saw Lan Baoli again at the archery competition two months later. She was standing with the Wen Sect but as soon as she saw Lan Yueqin she immediately came over and he met her halfway, laughing as she enveloped him in a big hug.

“Aww, A-Yu, look at you,” she gushed at him. “You've grown so big! And so handsome! I bet all the girls swoon at the sight of you~”

Lan Yueqin blushed at that, “Li-Jie...”

Lan Baoli laughed.

Lan Yueqin was glad. She really looked happy and was practically shining brightly like the sun. He also noticed her belly that had gone slightly bigger, enough to notice it.

Lan Baoli saw him staring at her stomach in awe and giggled, “Would you like to touch? The baby hasn't really started to kick yet, though.”

Hesitantly he laid his palm flat against the rounded stomach and waited with bated breath. However, there was no movement underneath his hand, he noted with disappointment. Lan Baoli ruffled his hair.

“Don't worry, he's ignoring all of us,” she said grinning.

“He?” Lan Yueqin inquired.

Lan Baoli blushed in embarrassment, “Ah, the gender is still unknown. But I feel like it's going to be a boy...”

Lan Yueqin looked back at her belly. His nephew is in there, he thought.

 

The archery competition had been going well, with Gusu Lan in the lead. Lan Yueqin was proud of his Sect.

Until something went horribly wrong. The fierce corpses seemed to steadily increase in number but no one really noticed until they began to run amok. It all escalated quickly as the civilians tried to bring themselves to safety and the Cultivators tried to subdue the corpses.

In the midst of the panic, Lan Yueqin looked for his sister to make sure that she was safe.

Instead, he found her just in time to see a fierce corpse lunging at her and his father jump in between them at the last moment. Time seemed to slow down as their father's sword destroyed the corpse and then fell onto the ground, just like their father.

For a second Lan Yueqin stood there frozen as his sister fell down to her knees next to their father, trying to stop the blood from flowing out of his wounds but failing. Because the corpse had ripped his entire torso open.

Lan Yueqin bolted forward towards his father and promptly began transferring spiritual energy to him, but his father waved him away.

“Stop, A-Yu,” he rasped, his hand coming up to gently cup Lan Yueqin's smaller one. It was cold, Lan Yueqin noted. What he didn't notice were the tears that were running down his own face.

“Father,” Lan Baoli choked. “You.. why... -”

She seemed in shock, just like Lan Yueqin.

“A-Li,” their father said. “You're still… my little girl.”

Lan Baoli sobbed.

“I- didn't want you to… marry him because…,” a harsh cough interrupted him and blood flowed from his mouth. His time was running out. “Be careful… of him...”

Both Lan Yueqin and Lan Baoli watched in shock as their father's eyes glazed over and he breathed his last breath.

 

It was only hours later that they finally got rid of the corpses. The atmosphere was solemn. Many had died, others were injured. Since the Wen Sect had organized the competition this year, everyone looked at them in blame but the Wen Sect Leader brushed it off as an accident. Because of the Sect's strength and size, no one could really say anything to them.

That was when Lan Yueqin finally understood why both his father and brother had been so wary of the Wen Sect and Wen Hanhe.

The Lan Elders blamed Lan Baoli for their Sect Leader's death openly in front of everyone, even though she was grieving as well. Wen Hanhe didn't even try to defuse the situation as he only led his wife away. It was Lan Taochen as the Sect Heir who ordered everyone to drop the matter and leave as well.

Lan Yueqin was scared of his own brother for the first time. Lan Taochen had been calm despite everything, but his eyes were burning coals. The darkness in them made Lan Yueqin shiver in fright, even though it wasn't directed at him.

 

Lan Baoli didn't attend their father's funeral. It wasn't that surprising to Lan Yueqin. He was sure that she was blaming herself for it and the Elders wouldn't want her there anyway.

But Lan Yueqin didn't blame her. Their father had done what any father would have done to save his child. He would have done the same for Lan Yueqin and he would have done the same for Lan Taochen. The question was why Lan Baoli had been alone in the first place. As her husband, Wen Hanhe's first priority should have been to protect her but he had been nowhere near her when the attack started.

It was the Elders who unnecessarily tried to point the fingers at Lan Baoli since they couldn't point them at the Wen Sect. Lan Yueqin felt so disappointed at their short-sightedness, but his brother's strange mood hadn't subsided and so he was very careful in how he talked about the matter.

He could only wonder if Lan Taochen blamed Lan Baoli.

Chapter Text

After their father's death, Lan Yueqin only heard from Lan Baoli again after his nephew's birth. He had kept sending her letters to show her that he didn't blame her for what had happened, but she had replied to none of them.

Lan Baoli finally wrote him months after, informing him of his nephew's birth and, surprisingly, inviting him to the Nightless City so that he could meet him.

When Lan Yueqin asked his brother, who was the new Sect Leader, for permission, the other agreed quite easily but refused to join him, giving him a little wrapped package instead. He didn't elaborate what was inside and only told him to give it to Lan Baoli when he saw her.

After Lan Taochen had seen him off with two of his Senior Apprentice Brothers, who would be accompanying him, Lan Yueqin visited his sister in Qishan for the first time.

 

Upon arrival, he was escorted to the main hall but had to wait quite a long time before someone came to lead him to Lan Baoli. On his way there, people gave him and his Senior Apprentice Brothers strangely hostile looks, as if they thought that they had no place there. Lan Yueqin couldn't help but feel uncomfortable and he briefly wondered if his sister also faced the same hostility while she was here. But surely that could not be. She was the Sect Heir's wife after all.

Lan Yueqin's Senior Apprentice brothers were brought to their assigned rooms, while Lan Yueqin asked a servant to lead him to his sister.

The servant brought him to a different building that was separated from the palace. There were still quite a few guards there, but no more servants or other people, meaning that the area was probably restricted.

After a long time of walking, they finally stopped before a big door on which the servant knocked.

“Come in,” his sister's voice sounded from the inside and Lan Yueqin felt his anxiety melt away.

The door was opened and he was greeted by the sight of Lan Baoli sitting at a table in the middle of the room, a small bundle in her arms. She was wearing the colors of the Qishan Wen Sect, white and red, with a golden hairpiece holding a part of her hair up in a knot at the top of her head.

“A-Yu,” Lan Baoli greeted him, smiling as soon as she saw him. “Come in, come in. Meet your nephew.”

Lan Yueqin smiled back at her and moved closer to her, sitting next to her as she adjusted her grip on the bundle so that he could see too. And there was his nephew, small and chubby. His eyes were open, and Lan Yueqin noted that he had his father's eyes, and staring at Lan Yueqin. Lan Yueqin could feel his insides melting at the sight of the baby in his sister's arms.

“Hello there,” he spoke softly to not frighten the baby.

Lan Baoli smiled happily, “He likes you. Or else he would have started crying by now.”

Lan Yueqin's own smile widened, “I like him too. He kinda looks like you, Li-Jie.”

It was true. Despite having his father's eyes, his nephew's face came undoubtedly from his sister.

“What's his name?” Lan Yueqin asked curiously.

“We named him Wen Chin,” Lan Baoli answered. “That's also one of the reasons why I wanted you to come here… Would you do us the honors of selecting a courtesy name for him?”

Lan Yueqin's eyes widened, “You want me to select a courtesy name for him?”

“Well, A-He said he'd leave it up to me, but I can't think of a good one,” Lan Baoli admitted sheepishly. “You were always better at naming things than me anyway.”

Lan Yueqin couldn't help but feel touched that his sister wanted him to name her child, “Then… I'll think of something. How about… Wen Ruohan?”

“Wen Ruohan,” his sister repeated slowly and looked at her baby. “You know what? I like it.”

She smiled fondly at the sleepy look her baby gave her, “Do you like it too, A-Chin?”

A quiet gurgle was her answer and both Lan Yueqin and Lan Baoli laughed at that.

“Oh, Li-Jie, I almost forgot,” Lan Yueqin quickly pulled out the package Lan Taochen had given him and presented it to Lan Baoli. “It's from brother.”

Lan Baoli hesitated in opening the package until Lan Yueqin coaxed her into it. The package almost fell from her hands when she saw what was inside. For a second she stared at it in disbelief and Lan Yueqin smiled brightly when he saw what his brother had sent.

“A-Yu, this is...” Lan Baoli whispered, her hands trembling.

“I assume it is for Wen Chin,” Lan Yueqin said. ”He can wear it when he's older.”

Lan Baoli sniffed quietly and reached out to carefully take the folded white Gusu Lan forehead ribbon out of the box.

“Thanks,” she whispered hoarsely and Lan Yueqin smiled gently in response.

Turns out his brother didn't blame her for what had happened. He should have known this, Lan Yueqin supposed. His brother never relented to the will of the elders and always made the choices that he thought were right.

Lan Baoli stored the ribbon away in a safe place for the time being and they spent some time catching up and talking about various things until Wen Chin fell asleep.

Lan Yueqin was happy that his sister didn't shut him out and welcomed him warmly. He had been afraid that she would not want to talk to him after everything, but she still seemed to love him. He was glad.

But he couldn't help but notice that she seemed quite tired and worn out. She was smiling and laughing but sometimes she'd just fall quiet and look at Wen Chin with a sad look on her face. Maybe she was still mourning their father, maybe she was even still blaming herself for his death. But whenever Lan Yueqin tried to talk to her about it, she'd just deflect the conversation.

During his entire stay, he did not see Wen Hanhe even once and his sister always stayed alone in her room. She rarely left it, only occasionally when Lan Yueqin prompted her to take a walk with him. Lan Yueqin wondered if everything was alright, but like always his sister didn't want to talk about that either.

He was beginning to feel utterly useless when it came to his sister.

And soon his visit of a week was over and it was time to go back home. He didn't really want to leave his sister, especially if she was always by herself like this. Lan Baoli saw him off at the gates with little Wen Chin and waved after him until he was out of sight.

 

Upon his return at the Cloud Recesses, he was welcomed by Lan Taochen who appeared to not be interested in his visit to Qishan but listened attentively as he told him about Lan Baoli, Wen Chin and everything else. Lan Taochen frowned when he told him about the strange atmosphere there but only sighed in the end.

 

Time seemed to pass in a strange manner as Jiang Cheng relived Lan Yueqin's memories. One moment he was in one place and then he was in a different one. The time that passed between these memories was stored away in his mind but he did not actually see all the days Lan Yueqin spent in the Cloud Recesses. Empathy seemed to only show him the important parts but the connection of Jiang Cheng's and Lan Yueqin's souls enabled him to feel as if the life he was seeing was his own.

That's how the following months passed, in which Lan Yueqin strangely received always two letters at a time from his sister. In the first letters, his sister told him stories about Wen Chin and sounded relatively happy. In the second letters, she told him less happy things.

Lan Baoli told him that Wen Hanhe had not looked at her even once after she had given birth, treating her coldly and indifferently. Instead of caring for her as he had promised on their wedding day, he got himself a second wife, who didn't seem to like Lan Baoli at all, but got all of Wen Hanhe's affections anyway. The second wife, Wang Changchang, often took her place in banquets and such, treating Lan Baoli like she was a lowly servant while Wen Hanhe allowed her to.

Through the disbelief and anger rushing through Lan Yueqin, he didn't realize that he was crumpling the letter in his hands until he came back to himself and wasted no time in rushing to his older brother to show it to him. With balled fists and a clenched jaw, Lan Yueqin watched as Lan Taochen read the letter silently, his expression unreadable.

When he finished, Lan Taochen put the letter down carefully on his writing table, taking a deep breath and closing his eyes.

“Dage,” Lan Yueqin said with barely restrained anger. “We need to do something. He can't treat her like this!”

Lan Taochen opened his eyes and there was burning hot fury in them, making the dark brown look almost black. Without a word, he stood up abruptly from his seat and stormed out of the room, his sword in hand.

Lan Yueqin followed him, confusion clear on his face.

“Dage, where are you going?” he asked.

“To get Baoli,” Lan Taochen gritted out, his steps never faltering.

“I'm coming with you!” Lan Yueqin declared immediately, heart set on rescuing his sister from that place.

“No,” Lan Taochen came to an abrupt halt, turning to Lan Yueqin with a frown on his face. “You'll only be in the way. Be reasonable and wait here for us. This won't take long.”

His brother allowed no protest and so Lan Yueqin was left behind once more, only able to watch his brother's back.

Lan Yueqin spent the time by rearranging Lan Baoli's old room, making sure that everything was like how she'd want it when she returned and substituting for his brother while he was away.

But his brother returned without Lan Baoli and instead with a broken leg and a gaping hole in his stomach. He was immediately rushed to the infirmary where the physicians operated on him for days. His brother's condition came as a great shock to Lan Yueqin, who felt as if he would break from the weight of the events that had occurred ever since Wen Hanhe stepped foot into the Cloud Recesses.

One of the Senior Cultivators who had accompanied his brother retold how they had gone to Qishan and requested an audience with the Wen Sect Leader. Lan Taochen had demanded Lan Baoli and Wen Hanhe to be divorced, arguing that the Wen Sect Heir had gotten himself a second wife anyway and seemed to have no further interest in his first wife. But the Wen Sect Leader reacted badly to his choice of words and tone and promptly had them “punished for their disrespect”. Wen Hanhe himself had openly denied any accusations and claimed that Lan Taochen had always disapproved of him and only wanted to destroy his marriage.

This all had resulted in Wen Hanhe and Lan Taochen dueling in the Nightless City, with Lan Taochen being on the losing side. After the battle, the Wen physicians had refused to heal Lan Taochen and so his fellow Lan Sect Members had rushed him back to the Cloud Recesses for treatment, disregarding many rules about properness.

But no one could really punish them, given the situation. Even the Elders had frowned at the whole situation and the audacity of the Wen Sect. But there was nothing they could do about it. The Wen Sect was by far the biggest and richest Sect of the Great Five Sects, their power and influence was not something the Lan Sect could take on by themselves. But to start a war between the Sects? That was out of the question. No one knew how many civilians would get hurt or how many would die and no one was ready to find out.

When the Lan physicians finally came out of the infirmary a total of 5 days later, fully exhausted, they came with grave news. Lan Taochen had survived but it would take him a while to recover from his wounds and he would never be able to use his right leg like before again. That didn't stop Lan Taochen from trying to get back up the moment he woke up, full of rage.

Lan Yueqin, who had been anxiously waiting at his brother's bedside for the past two weeks, felt something in him snap as he pushed Lan Taochen back into the bed with surprising strength, his eyes brimming with tears, “Stop! It's enough! No matter what you do, it will bring nothing!”

Lan Taochen's face twisted between anger and shock, but he was unable to fight back in his weakened state.

“Lan Yu,” he gritted out heatedly. “I'm not leaving her there with that monster.”

“That's not what I'm asking,” Lan Yueqin sobbed, his hands clenching on his brother's shoulders as he tried to stop himself from crying. “Just… don't rush in like that again. It won't work. Let's figure this out together. I don't-... I can't lose you to them like father!”

Lan Taochen clenched his jaw as his little brother shut his eyes tightly to keep the tears in, but they flowed out regardlessly. Letting out a harsh breath, he reached out with his uninjured hand to grasp the back of Lan Yueqin's head and press it against his chest as he let him cry in his arms.

Lan Yueqin wondered if his sister was crying right now too.

 

As soon as Lan Taochen had recovered from his injuries, they had begun to try to convince the Wen Sect Leader to let Lan Baoli return home, but it was fruitless. The Wens didn't even reply to their letters nor did they listen to them during the Discussion Conferences. Since they didn't want to start a war or provoke the Wen Sect, there was not much they could do but both Lan Taochen and Lan Yueqin were not ready to give up their sister.

Lan Yueqin also received no more letters from Lan Baoli and his own were probably burned the second they reached Qishan. A strong feeling of dread had placed itself in the pit of his stomach as the situation grew worse with every second that Lan Baoli had to stay in that hellhole.

His father and brother had been right. The Wens were monsters, ready to destroy everyone just to get what they wanted. Maybe they even found their desperate attempts at negotiations amusing, secretly laughing at them.

Lan Yueqin felt so helpless. Up until now, he had always been the one who got left behind and had to wait back at home while the adults took care of problems. And even now, there was nothing he could do.

That's how the next six years passed, with the Lan Sect trying its best to get Lan Baoli back and the Wen Sect rejecting every offer.

 

Then one day felt strange.

Lan Yueqin woke up feeling lost and disoriented. For a second he laid there in his bed staring at the ceiling and not thinking.

Something was missing from his mind. He felt it. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not name it.

With a sigh, the 14-year-old sat up and stretched, preparing to get up when something hit his pants. When he looked down, there was a dark spot above his knee, which gradually became two, then three and more until he realized that he was crying. Hot tears ran over his face as he sat there confused.

Did he have a nightmare he could not remember?

With an uneasy feeling, Lan Yueqin brushed off his tears and prepared himself for the day. Like every day, he first went to his brother's room to help him get dressed and washed since he was still recovering from his recent injuries. This time when he saw his brother sitting up on his bed, frowning at his hands that were in his lap with confusion clear in his eyes, his tears fell once more and before he knew it, he had already begun crying again.

His brother quickly waved him over to embrace him tightly in an effort to comfort him, but they both felt it. Something was wrong.

 

A few days later, there were reports of countless red flowers suddenly appearing around the east wing of the Wen Sect's palace in the Nightless City. Surprisingly the Lan Sect was allowed to investigate the matter, but they were unable to find out the cause of the sudden appearance of the flowers. All they managed to find was a few scattered reports on similar unresolved cases and little hints that seemed to show up at random places.

They came to the conclusion that the Ritual of Erasement had been cast at the Wen Sect's palace but the investigations took too long and with Lan Taochen being confined to bed, their time ran out before they knew it. The flowers began to wither one day and soon there were no more left.

The person who had cast the spell was lost forever.

 

Jiang Cheng woke up after that, back at the Lan Ancestor's Crypt. For a second he felt disoriented and confused at the darkness that greeted him until his memories came back.

His eyes were still blindfolded and there was a tense silence around him. Cautiously he sat up on the stone platform and swallowed. His throat was dry and he cleared it awkwardly, the sound echoing in the large hall.

“Here,” Lan Xichen's quiet voice sounded from beside him and a cup was lifted to Jiang Cheng's lips.

Jiang Cheng gratefully drank the water, just now realizing how thirsty he had been.

“Thanks,” he muttered after he was done.

There was no answer from Lan Xichen as the silence returned once more.

Jiang Cheng frowned, “Xichen? Is something wrong? Did something happen?”

Lan Xichen sighed. It sounded defeated.

“It's… complicated,” the first Jade said after a while. “Wanyin… you can take off the blindfold now. I don't think it matters anymore.”

No one stopped him when Jiang Cheng slowly began to remove the blindfold, blinking a few times to relieve his aching eyes. The first thing he saw was an older Lan Cultivator sitting in front of him on the stone platform, completely frozen in his place. He recognized the face immediately, even though it was older. It was undoubtedly Lan Yueqin. Or at least his ghost.

The next thing he noticed was that everyone around him seemed just as shaken as Lan Yueqin, the Elders all standing around the platform in utter silence with pale faces. Lan Xichen looked just as shaken, his eyes glued to the floor.

For a second Jiang Cheng felt confused at their reaction, his mind only slowly returning from the trance-like state it had been in due to Empathy. Then he realized what was wrong as everything clicked in place.

Oh.

Oh.

Oh no.

The one who had cast the Ritual of Erasement back then was Lan Baoli.

Chapter Text

It was Jiang Cheng who couldn't bear the silence anymore.

“Have the memories returned? Of… Lan Baoli?” he asked carefully. “She was the one who cast the ritual, right?”

It was the only explanation that came to his mind. From what he had seen and felt through his connection with Lan Yueqin, he concluded that the spell must have been cast by Lan Baoli after her older brother fought so relentlessly for her for years. Maybe she thought she could keep him from any further harm, thinking that with her gone, he'd stop opposing the Wen Sect and getting himself beaten each time.

How she had gotten a hold of this kind of spell was a whole different matter.

“My sister,” Lan Yueqin suddenly spoke up from beside Jiang Cheng, gaining his attention. “It was my sister. I had a sister-”

The Lan Ancestor seemed to be frozen in shock, unmoving as he stared into space with a haunted look in his eyes. There was no need for Empathy for Jiang Cheng to know exactly what the other felt. He still felt the same dread to this day. And he was sure that until he got his brother back, he'd continue to feel like this.

Lan Yueqin's spirit suddenly curled forward, his hands clenched into fists on the stone platform that Jiang Cheng had been resting on just a few moments ago. His eyes were open wide and his entire body shook.

Such a reaction on a spirit was such an unusual and heart-clenching sight, that everyone present sympathized with him.

To everyone's shock, crystal clear droplets began to fall from the curve of Lan Yueqin's chin, splattering on the platform below him. No one knew how to comfort the spirit in the face of such a tragedy.

A heavy sigh was heard then and one of the Lan Elders stepped forward, approaching Lan Yueqin. He was walking with a limp and favoring his right leg, Jiang Cheng noticed through his own misty eyes.

“Lan Yu,” the Elder spoke and Lan Yueqin looked up through his tears. “It's okay.”

“It's not,” Lan Yueqin choked out. “We should have tried more, we should have fought more-”

His voice broke, but he forced himself to speak, “Li-Jie was right, the rules restrict us too much. They don't help us at all in these kinds of situations. Instead of always following the rules, we should have just been more forceful. If we- if we had, then- Li-Jie would still be-”

Without another word, the Lan Elder reached out and pulled Lan Yueqin's almost incorporeal body into an embrace. Only now did Jiang Cheng realize who the Elder was.

“You know I'm right,” the Elder spoke calmly, the look in his eyes belonging to a person who had seen too much of the world. “There was no way for us to take her back. She was only suffering there. She made the same decision that father made back then. Protecting the ones she loved, so that they would not come to harm. Baoli… didn't make a sacrifice. Protecting your family is never a sacrifice. You respected father's decision back then, now you must also learn to respect hers.”

For a second Lan Yueqin didn't move and Jiang Cheng wondered if he finally agreed. But then the spirit pushed the Elder away with a furious look on his face and the temperature dropped abruptly. Jiang Cheng noted that a few Elders, although they were still distraught, instantly tensed and prepared to subdue the ghost.

“How can you say that?” Lan Yueqin cried. “This is not like what father did! She's gone forever- she- she was never here in the first place! Her entire existence was erased, don't you understand?!”

“A-Yu,” the Elder interrupted Lan Yueqin, his tone firm. “She was here.”

The spirit froze. Bewilderment flickered on his face as he was torn between anger and confusion.

“Lan Baoli was here. She was born here, she took her first steps here, she ran around these halls, she broke almost every rule on our wall, she snuck out to town every night and got caught each time, she threw temper tantrums, she laughed and she cried,” with every word that the Lan Elder spoke, Lan Yueqin's anger seemed to fade as he listened attentively. “Lan Baoli might be gone now, but she lived a life here. She was happy and she was sad. But she lived that life. I don't believe that all that can be erased just like that. Don't misdirect your anger. There is nothing you nor I could have done. I had enough time to come to that conclusion.”

Jiang Cheng frowned in confusion. What did that mean? Didn't the Lan Elder remember Lan Baoli only now just like everyone else?

“Brother?” Lan Yueqin also inquired, having caught on that and much calmer now.

“... I remembered after your death,” the Lan Elder, or rather Lan Taochen, admitted, his eyes dark. “The memories of Lan Baoli returned one day after I buried you. I was just like you back then. I got just as angry... But a long time has passed since then. I realized that everything that happened could not have been prevented by any of us. Our story is over, A-Yu. The ending we got was not a fair one, but it is the one we got. The only thing we can do now is honor our memories and help the next generation so that the same things don't happen to them.”

Lan Yueqin stared into his brother's eyes for a long time, dried tear streaks on his face. Something passed between the two brothers that only they understood.

“I understand,” Lan Yueqin whispered then. “I'll leave it to you then.”

He then turned to Jiang Cheng, “I wish that all the odds are on your side, Young Master Jiang, so that you may save your brother before it's too late. The ending that Lan Baoli got doesn't have to be his. Good luck.”

Swallowing down the lump in his throat, Jiang Cheng nodded in thanks and bowed to the Lan Ancestor.

Lan Yueqin's soul departed with that.

 

Lan Qiren directed everyone to leave the family crypt after that since everyone was still standing there in shock.

When Jiang Cheng stepped outside, the sun was just setting and it felt like he had been in the crypt for ages. Lan Xichen walked beside him silently, lost in his own thoughts. Jiang Cheng couldn't bear the downcast look on his face.

“Xichen,” he called out to get his friend's attention. “Are you okay?”

Lan Xichen finally looked at him, “Yes, I… I still can't believe it. That such a thing happened in my own family. I guess I've been too ignorant. Why would we be an exception?”

A bitter expression crossed the First Jade's face, which looked terribly wrong.

“It's not ignorance,” Jiang Cheng argued, feeling a little put off because if there was anything that Lan Xichen was then it was not ignorant. “No one could imagine such a thing or even think of something like this. I thought we'd already established that. If that goes for me then it also goes for you, so stop beating yourself up over something you had no control over.”

Lan Xichen tried a smile, but failed halfway through and sighed instead, “I know… you're right. I guess I need some time to clear my thoughts. It's all a mess right now.”

He looked at the retreating sun, “We still need to find out how Lan Baoli-... my grandaunt got a hold of the Ritual of Erasement. If someone told her or if she read somewhere about it… We'll need to start investigating again. And this time, our focus lies on the Qishan Wen Sect.”

Jiang Cheng felt uneasy about the implications those words had, “The Wen Sect? But… you know how they are. Everyone knows. If they don't want to admit something, they won't. Getting something out of them will be hard.”

“I know,” Lan Xichen said and now there was determination in his eyes. “But they have already gone too far ever since then. This time, we won't hold back. We will find out the truth, surely. And we will save your brother.”

Jiang Cheng thought about it for a bit and looked at stars that were slowly appearing in the sky, “You know what, I think you're right. Things are going to be different this time.”

 

That night Jiang Cheng attempted Inquiry by himself in his room. He wasn't sure if he was really ready for it, so he had to use Suibian as an anchor despite knowing that the sword was all but cooperative.

He took a deep breath and brought the flute to his lips, the tunes of Inquiry coming to him naturally. It didn't take long for the souls to appear and they swirled around him as if curious. Like before, a single soul detached itself from the others, slowly floating towards the black and golden sword.

As expected, Suibian let out the same repulsive energy and Jiang Cheng felt his heart sink once more until Sandu suddenly let out a pulse of energy as well. He watched in astonishment as the two energies collided and Suibian's was easily overpowered by Sandu's. Jiang Cheng's sword's energy settled on Suibian as if it was restraining the other sword, preventing it from sending Jiang Cheng's brother's soul away again.

The situation was strange. The swords seemed to be acting on their own accord, but Jiang Cheng couldn't figure out how. They would have to investigate this later, he thought, but right now he had other priorities.

His brother.

The red soul settled down on Suibian slowly, carefully. It was obviously fragile, and now that he got a closer look, Jiang Cheng can tell that it had a few cracks as well. His throat constricted but he forced himself to speak because this was his only chance.

“Brother,” he breathed hoarsely and the soul's crimson glow dimmed for a second. “Why? Why did you go this far? What made you think that erasing your existence would be better?”

The soul didn't answer, but it didn't leave either, so Jiang Cheng counted that as a win.

He knew that right now, he only had questions but he hoped that his brother would help him understand. Would let him help.

“Are you not going to say anything?” Jiang Cheng continued, swallowing down the mix of emotions he felt as he rambled. “Is this really okay with you? You'll disappear- forever! I won't remember you. I'll only grieve after someone I don't know. Because I still feel it. You're important to me. Even if… even if I'm also feeling so angry at you, and I don't know why, but something must have happened between us- you're still my brother! I know that I never stopped considering you my brother. So please, just… come back, let us figure this out together. Please.”

His chest was heaving with irregular breaths as his heart clenched in pain. He could already feel the tears forming in his eyes. Unfamiliar, yet familiar emotions crashing over him like a giant wave.

He wanted his brother back, but at the same time, he cursed him. He wanted to forgive him, but at the same time, anger had settled deep in his stomach. He wanted him to pay for all he had done, but he had never wanted him to leave.

His brother stayed quiet, but his light had dimmed down. Jiang Cheng didn't remember his face, but he imagined him sitting across from him. The expression on his face just as broken as his own, because he knew. He knew that his brother hurt too, just as much as him. Their pain was connected, never severed. Their connection was damaged, but not broken.

They could fix this. Jiang Cheng wanted to fix this.

He wanted his brother back.

When the soul of his brother left without a word, Jiang Cheng didn't stop him. Like always, he could only watch that retreating back.

But this time, he would follow. He would call, he would scream, he would take hold.

Because this was far from over.

Chapter Text

True to his words, Jiang Cheng did not let himself be discouraged by his brother's unwillingness to talk to him and continued summoning his soul almost every day. He talked to him about everything that came to his mind and updated him about their parents and sister. He shared childhood stories with him. Those, that he had wanted his brother to be a part of ever since he had learned about him.

But that's okay. They could just make new ones, he decided, should his original memories not return.

His brother's crimson soul appeared every time he called and sat on Suibian, silently listening to Jiang Cheng for as long as he talked. Sometimes he stayed until Jiang Cheng fell asleep, whenever he summoned him before his usual bedtime. Other times he just abruptly left in the middle of the conversation, as if he couldn't bear to listen to him anymore.

But he always returned the next time, so Jiang Cheng counted that as a win.

The fragile state of the soul made Jiang Cheng wonder if his brother was simply too exhausted to talk back or if he just didn't want to. But he wasn't about to take his time with his brother for granted and avoided that topic, as to not set him off.

The person he was talking to was his brother, but Jiang Cheng knew nothing about him. He didn't know his temper, what he liked and disliked, what he thought of certain topics or how he would react if Jiang Cheng just as much tried to implore more about him.

It was like talking to a stranger that was once your best friend. You had distinctive memories of your time together but they're buried deep in your memory and now you don't even know how to talk to them.

Sometimes though, when he got so engrossed in talking, he also noticed how easy it was to tell his brother about himself. It felt like it was all he'd ever wanted. To be able to tell his brother about everything and have him listen.

He wondered how long ago it must have been for him when he last talked to his brother, face to face. Had they fought? Had they departed in peace? The uncertainty bothered Jiang Cheng to no ends. But he had to accept this for now.

Hopefully, soon they would have a real talk.

 

While Jiang Cheng spent his time with training both his mental and physical abilities, the Lan Sect began investigating the Wen Sect. In secret, of course. They didn't want to accidentally provoke Wen Ruohan. Lan Xichen just couldn't agree with that.

“Wen Ruohan is Elder Lan Baoli's son, isn't he?” he argued. “Surely he would not let this injustice towards his own mother sit?”

Lan Taochen shook his head, “He was raised by Wen Hanhe and that concubine of his. Anything he might have gotten from Baoli was most probably erased. Or else he would have never followed in his father's footsteps, Xichen.”

A Lan Elder scoffed lightly, “With all due respect, Lan Taochen, but be reminded that your sister fell for Wen Hanhe's manipulations. I doubt there was anything good in her, after all.”

Lan Taochen didn't reply, but Lan Qiren got angry in his uncle's stead, “Elder, need I remind you that talking ill about the dead is forbidden? In addition to that, talking behind someone's back and making assumptions about someone you've never met yourself. Surely Elder didn't mean to go against three of our own rules?”

The Lan Elder could say no more without losing face and could only silently fume in the back. He belonged to the small group of Elders who did not feel any sympathy for Lan Baoli and simply saw in her as a black mark in their Sect's otherwise clean history.

Lan Qiren himself could not agree with that and only felt pity in his heart for his aunt's predicament. Thankfully most of the Elders were also feeling the same way and also jumped up to defend Lan Taochen. Even though Lan Taochen had given his position of Sect Leader to his most trusted friend (who had been Lan Qiren and Qingheng-Jun's father) shortly after Lan Yueqin's death due to an illness caused by a sudden qi deviation, they still admired him and had followed him ever since he had taken charge of the Sect.

“Qiren, this situation is most likely too big for us,” a female Elder spoke, her eyes showing worry. “Perhaps we should call the Sect Leader in this case?”

Some Elders shifted in unease and Lan Xichen quickly looked at his younger brother in worry. Lan Wangji, who had been sitting quietly on Lan Qiren's other side gave no visible reaction to the mention of their father but Lan Xichen clearly saw the way his golden eyes lightened up in curiosity. He must clearly want to finally properly meet his father and maybe see him take charge of his Sect for once.

But Lan Qiren quickly waved the proposal off, “No need to disturb the Sect Leader's seclusion. We will deal with this on our own.”

“Then what do you suggest we do? Break into the Nightless City and try to find any documents about the Ritual of Erasement before the Wen Sect finds out?” another Lan Elder asked, frowning. “Surely you must have a plan if you will not ask our Sect Leader, Lan Qiren.”

Lan Xichen saw his uncle take a subtle deep breath and tried to think of a plan himself, wanting to help ease the burden. But no matter how many scenarios he thought off, none of them ended well because the Wen Sect was nothing if not uncooperative.

Just when Lan Qiren was about to talk, the door to the meeting hall was thrown open and a frantic junior disciple rushed in, his face pale and eyes wide in fear.

“Wen-,” he choked out and everyone was instantly on alert. “The Wen Sect Leader is here!”

Every Lan family member in the room froze.

“What do you mean “he's here”?” a Lan Elder demanded in shock.

“Wen Ruohan is at the gates, demanding entrance and an audience with the Sect Leader,” the junior disciple rushed out in panic.

If they had been less reputable, the Lan Elders surely would have cursed out loud at that.

“Why now? Did he find something out?” Lan Xichen asked in confusion, eyebrows furrowed.

“We will find out,” Lan Qiren gritted out, his expression grim. “Xichen, Wangji, both of you have to gather all the junior disciples and the guest disciples. Bring them to the west wing and have them stay there until the Wens are gone. Make sure none of them stay behind, alright?”

The two Jades of Lan nodded obediently at the order and Lan Qiren felt a swell of pride before he was reminded of the gravity of the situation.

“The senior disciples are to remain vigilant and out of the way of the Wen Cultivators,” Lan Qiren continued. “I will have to ask the Elders to receive Wen Ruohan with me.”

When everyone had been assigned a duty, Lan Qiren had someone let the Wen Sect Leader in and escort him to the meeting hall. He tried to keep his mind calm since he had to be unsuspicious in case the Wen Sect Leader was not here on good terms.

When Wen Ruohan entered the room, everyone immediately noticed his presence. His spiritual energy alone was remarkable, but the way he held himself could only instill fear or respect in anyone who saw him. Usually, he walked with the stride of someone who knew exactly where to go and what would await him there.

However, somehow Lan Qiren thought that there was something different about him but it was hard to place a name on it.

Nonetheless, he stood up to greet the Sect Leader respectfully, “Sect Leader Wen, what a surprise to have you grace us with your visit today. We assume that there is an important matter to be discussed as the cause of the suddenness?”

Shockingly, the usually cold Wen Ruohan returned the greeting, “Lan Qiren. Yes, there is indeed a serious matter that needs to be discussed. With your Sect Leader, that is.”

Lan Qiren forced himself to remain undisturbed, “I will have to apologize, Sect Leader Wen. Qingheng-Jun is currently in seclusion and cannot be disturbed. If it is possible, I will assist Sect Leader Wen with whatever the matter is.”

“This matter concerns your Sect as well, Lan Qiren. I will speak with the Sect Leader and no one else. Have him come here or I will have to force him out,” Wen Ruohan replied.

When Lan Qiren clenched his jaw and tried to come up with a way to change the Wen's mind, Wen Ruohan suddenly closed his eyes and let out a harsh breath.

“No, I… I apologize,” he gritted out and everyone present froze once more. “I have come here in peace and I wish not to cause any trouble. I am… humbly requesting a meeting with the Sect Leader Lan.”

When Lan Qiren only looked at him in shock, he sighed harshly.

“Please,” he forced out, visibly disgruntled.

It looked like he had a headache, as his hand came up to the bridge of his nose.

“Sect Leader Wen,” a Lan Elder spoke carefully. “Could it be that you… remember?”

Wen Ruohan's gaze flicked to her for a second and then fixed on the floor in front of him.

“Yes, I do,” he replied, brows still furrowed. “And that is why I need to speak to the Sect Leader Lan.”

Lan Qiren finally gathered himself, “Sect Leader Wen, that will not be necessary. Qingheng-Jun knows nothing of this matter. It was us who investigated this matter and… triggered the memories of Lan Baoli.”

Wen Ruohan's eyes widened a little bit, “Lan Baoli? That is-... was her name? So she really was a Lan.”

“You were not sure?” Lan Qiren asked.

Wen Ruohan reached into his sleeve and pulled something out. Lan Qiren's eyes widened as he realized what it was.

“I've always had this in a hidden spot in my room. I did not place it there but I could also never remove it,” it was one of the Lan Sect's forehead ribbons. The white silk had the Sect's cloud patterns sewn into them, indicating that it belonged to a family member as well.

“I assumed it had something to do with… the woman I suddenly remembered who took care of me when I was younger,” Wen Ruohan continued. “So I came here to investigate.”

“It is yours,” Lan Taochen said then and grabbed Wen Ruohan's attention. “It was given to your mother after your birth as a present for you.”

“How do you know?” the Wen Sect Leader asked.

“I was the one who sent it to your mother back then,” Lan Taochen answered. “To my sister.”

Wen Ruohan looked like he wanted to say something but in the end, he simply looked at the ribbon in his hand with a complicated expression on his face.

“What happened to her?” he wanted to know, his voice low.

Lan Qiren watched him carefully. Right now, he could not determine the Wen Sect Leader's mood or thoughts. Whatever he remembered of his mother, did Wen Ruohan suddenly feel love for her?

“It was the Ritual of Erasement,” Lan Taochen answered in Lan Qiren's stead. “The caster's whole existence is erased from the world and the memories of everyone who knew them. Your mother cast this spell when you were six and erased herself.”

“If that is the case, then how am I still alive?” Wen Ruohan asked.

But no one had an answer to that. It was truly a mystery. How could Wen Ruohan be alive if his mother's entire existence had been seemingly erased from history?

“We do not know,” Lan Qiren admitted. “We are still trying to get behind this.”

Wen Ruohan's jaw tightened, “Why did she do it?... Was it because of my father?”

So even a six-year-old child had noticed that there was something wrong with his mother and father. If things had really been as severe for Lan Baoli as everyone thought, then it really was no surprise.

“Your father used her,” Lan Taochen spoke tiredly. “He manipulated her, made her turn her back on her family only to throw her away the second she became useless to him. What your mother suffered broke her. She held on all those years for you because she loved you, but in the end, it became too much for her.”

Wen Ruohan didn't reply to that. No one could imagine what went on in the Wen Sect Leader's head. To have your life turned upside down so suddenly must be truly shocking.

“There is no way to save her now?” Wen Ruohan inquired, his voice even.

“Sadly, it is too late now,” Lan Qiren replied as Lan Taochen closed his eyes.

“I see,” Wen Ruohan closed his eyes for a moment as well. “I hope that you will stick to your rules and not make this scandal public. Excuse me.”

He turned around with that and was about to leave again when something else came to his mind.

“Lan Qiren, if I may ask,” he began. “What made you pick this case back up after all this time?”

Lan Qiren shared a look with his fellow Lan Elders.

“We are currently experiencing a similar case,” he replied slowly. “We were hoping to get some answers through Lan Baoli's case.”

Wen Ruohan frowned and turned back around, “Who is this about?”

“It is… the First Young Master of Yunmeng Jiang,” Lan Qiren said. “We are suspecting that he cast the same spell as Lan Baoli.”

“'First Young Master'?” Wen Ruohan repeated bemused and it seemed like he had just realized something. “Jiang Fengmian had a second son beside Jiang Wanyin?”

“Yes, but he erased himself,” Lan Qiren answered.

“Lan Qiren, I think you might have something wrong,” the Wen Sect leader said, much to the confusion of everyone. “Jiang Fengmian did have an adopted son but he never named him the 'First Young Master'.”

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji's fingers were trembling slightly as they ghosted over the strings of his guqin. There was a heavy stone that sat in his heart. Fear and anxiety clashed together like two unrelenting waves in his mind.

He had to put his hands back down, least he broke his own instrument.

The Second Jade could not understand, comprehend the cause of these feelings. He had never felt this way before and now it hit him like a ton of bricks. Added to the pain in his heart was a phantom pain on his back and it distinctly felt like he was being hit by something heavy repeatedly.

Overwhelmed by the onslaught of emotions, he abruptly stood up and paced around the Jingshi, trying to take deep breaths to calm himself.

The pain didn't last long and soon he was sitting back in front of his guqin. His room had never felt so stuffy to him before, in fact, it had always been his safe haven whenever his emotions got too strong for him to bear when his brother was not there to comfort him.

But he wasn't about to back down now.

His golden eyes moved to the black and golden sword laying on the table in front of him and he traced the intricate designs on the scabbard with gentle fingers. Something like fondness and longing filled his heart and he closed his eyes for a moment to steady himself.

When he opened them again, they were filled with resolution.

Carefully, his hands began to move the strings of his guqin, playing a melody that was as familiar to him as breathing. Soon, the Jingshi was filled with the souls of the deceased, lured in by the soft tones of Wangji, calmed by the gentle carefulness with which Lan Wangji treated them.

Focusing on the sword that laid in front of him, Lan Wangji called out to the one he was looking for, hoping, pleading, for an answer.

Soon, Suibian began to glow and, connected to the sword, the soul of its master appeared once more. With his heart on his sleeve, Lan Wangji's blue whips of spiritual energy gently curled around the small crimson ball of light, lovingly, protectively. He helped the fragile soul settle itself on the sword before retracting his energy, reluctantly.

Lan Wangji spent a moment looking at the soul, to calm himself, to clear his mind from breaking under the weight of his emotions. He had to clear his throat.

“Hello,” his voice came out in a soft whisper, afraid to startle the other.

He was not good with words but he tried anyway.

“I… I do not know what relationship we had before,” there was a moment of silence. “But I can feel that… we were close.”

The soul in front of him made a strange motion as if it had flinched.

“We… were not?” Lan Wangji hurried to correct himself, unclear how to take the reaction.

At first, it looked like the soul was not going to reply. But then, the strings of Wangji moved as if on their own and Lan Wangji’s heart almost stopped beating right then and there.

“Not close,” were the two words that resonated within the Jingshi. “Said yourself.”

Lan Wangji’s breath hitched. His heart ached.

He had pushed him away like that?

He could imagine himself doing that, actually. If his feelings for this person were as deep as he thought, then he would most likely be terrified of them. Pushing away from the one who had caused these feelings might have been the only solution the other Lan Wangji saw back then. But this Lan Wangji knew better.

“I am sorry,” he said. “Whatever… crude things I’ve said to you in the past, none of them was true.”

None of them mattered now when those words had been the cause of losing his beloved. None of the fear he might have felt back then mattered now.

“I wish to help you,” Lan Wangji admitted softly. “Let me help you, please.”

“Save it,” the soul replied almost immediately. “I do not want your help. Help someone who deserves it.”

Before Lan Wangji could retort, the soul vanished in thin air, leaving him alone with the sadness in his heart. Panicking, Lan Wangji reached out to the retreating soul, his mouth open to cry a name, but no actual sound left his lips because, in the end, he didn’t know what name to call.

In the end, he just sat there in his empty room, his hands clenched into fists on top of his lap. There was an unusual expression of misery on his face, resignation settling deep inside him.

Again, he could not say what he had wanted to. How was it that in the face of the one person he wanted to talk to, he could not?

Words mean nothing, he realized. Actions would have to do.

He had memorized the energy of the soul, its patterns and characteristics. Hopefully, next time he would be able to call the same soul without Suibian. Lan Wangji’s eyes moved back to the black and golden sword, that had surprisingly not reacted in the same way as before.

Soon, Jiang Wanyin would come out of Empathy and then they would hopefully know more. For now, Lan Wangji had to return the sword to the Yunmeng Jiang Disciple’s room without anyone noticing.

 

When Jiang Wanyin came out of Empathy, he came with grave news. The person who had cast the Ritual of Erasement all those years ago had been Lan Wangji’s own grandaunt. The memories of those who knew her once returned and almost every Elder expressed deep regret for how they had treated Lan Baoli before.

Lan Wangji paid her his respects with incense and prayers, even though they wouldn’t reach her anymore. He couldn’t help but feel sadness for her too, despite not having known her personally.

No one should have to fall so deep into the pit of despair, to want to kill, no, erase themselves completely from the world and the memories of the ones they loved.

 

That day, he found his brother sitting on one of the stones in the Cold Springs, meditating in his full clothing. He wouldn’t have found it worrying if it was not such a rare occurrence. His brother usually preferred meditating in the Gardens during the day. But now it was almost dark and the curfew would start in half an hour.

Lan Wangji came to stand in front of the pond, but before he could say anything, his brother had already opened his eyes. Lan Xichen regarded his younger brother with an unreadable expression on his face. Not even Lan Wangji knew what was going on in his brother’s mind at that moment.

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen began to speak. His tone was heavy with some unknown emotion.

“A-Zhan,” he continued and Lan Wangji saw his hands clench and unclench. His brother clearly felt some turmoil in his heart but Lan Wangji was unsure how to help him.

“It’s tragic, isn’t it?” Lan Xichen spoke. “What happened to Grandaunt. Something like that...”

He broke off and then he was looking at Lan Wangji again with the same unreadable look. Lan Wangji blinked as his brother stood up abruptly and crossed the pond to put his arms around him. Engulfed in the warm embrace of his brother, Lan Wangji did not resist and simply let it be, even though the hold was a little too tight.

He could feel his brother take deep breaths to calm himself. Then the older Jade pulled back slightly and his hands came up to gently cup his younger brother’s face.

“A-Zhan,” Lan Xichen said quietly. “No matter what happens, I’m here for you. I will always be here for you.”

Lan Wangji now knew what it was that he saw in his brother’s eyes. It was something he’d never seen in those brown eyes that resembled their mother’s so much before.

Fear.

His own hands came up to touch his brother’s, an unusual shyness in his golden eyes.

“Mn,” he replied, knowing that his brother understood everything he wanted to say.

 

When Wen Ruohan came to Gusu, no one was prepared. Tasked with getting the junior and guest disciples out of the way of the Wen Cultivators, Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen hurried to gather all of them in the west wing.

The disciples were all confused at first but after hearing that the Qishan Wen Sect was here, they didn’t make any fuss and let themselves be led to their hiding place. Clearly, even the younger cultivators knew not to cross the sun.

When they had made sure that no one was left behind, the two Jades of Lan decided to wait with the other disciples as well, not wanting to stay in the way of the Elders.

Lan Xichen was about to prompt his brother to sit with him on one of the benches outside of the building when he noticed Nie Huaisang standing apart from the other disciples, staring in the direction of the main building with worry on his face.

“Huaisang,” he called out to the younger male, who jumped at the sound of his voice. “Is something wrong?”

Nie Huaisang looked at him nervously, “Uhm, Brother Xichen. It’s nothing, really.”

Lan Xichen gave the other a soothing look, “Huaisang, what’s wrong?”

Nie Huaisang seemed to battle with himself as he fidgeted on the spot, “Well… you see, it’s Jiang-xiong...”

Lan Xichen instantly became alert, “What happened?”

“Please don’t be mad at him,” Nie Huasiang exclaimed, talking fast. “He went to listen in on the Elders and Sect Leader Wen because he thinks they might talk about his brother!”

Lan Xichen’s blood froze.

“If he gets caught-” he couldn’t finish that sentence.

The gods knew what Wen Ruohan would do to Jiang Cheng if he caught him eavesdropping.

“We need to get him back here before he gets himself into trouble,” Lan Xichen stressed.

“Uhm, we?” Nie Huaisang squeaked, hiding behind his fan.

“Wangji and me,” the First Jade reassured him. “Come, Wangji.”

He hurriedly began to move towards the main building but stopped short when he noticed that his younger brother was not behind him. He turned back around with a frown to see his brother only reluctantly following behind him.

Lan Xichen had noticed that his brother seemed to not like Jiang Wanyin, but he could not imagine why. And right now was not the time to talk about it either.

 

They arrived outside of the meeting hall while avoiding the Wen Cultivators that ran about as if they owned the place but couldn’t immediately find Jiang Cheng. Thankfully they soon found him hiding in a bush next to a window to the meeting hall.

The two Jades of Lan sneakily hurried to the Yungmeng Jiang Disciple without getting detected. Although their Sect was renowned for their righteous path, they did teach some stealth for worst case scenarios.

“Wanyin,” Lan Xichen whisper shouted when they were close enough only to be shushed by the other.

“They’re talking about Lan Baoli,” Jiang Cheng informed them, his attention fully on the voices coming from the window. “Apparently, Wen Ruohan came to ask about her. He seems pretty… docile right now.”

Lan Xichen shared a glance with his younger brother, whose face was as unreadable to anyone else as always.

“Wanyin, eavesdropping is against the rules,” he pointed out but came to stand closer to the window anyway.

Jiang Cheng only raised an unimpressed eyebrow at him.

“We should be present at this meeting anyway,” he argued back. “This concerns us as much as the Elders.”

It was Jiang Cheng’s own brother whose life was in danger right now, after all.

Lan Xichen turned to his brother for support but found him not paying any attention to the two of them at all. Instead, Lan Wangji was listening in on the conversation inside as well.

Lan Xichen sighed defeated.

Jiang Cheng tensed when the conversation switched to his brother. His hands balling into fists, he listened as the Elders talked.

But then Wen Ruohan said something that made his blood run cold.

“Jiang Fengmian did have an adopted son but he never named him the 'First Young Master',” was what the Wen Sect Leader said.

“What does this mean?” Lan Qiren demanded to know.

“As far as I remember, Jiang Fengmian adopted the child of his two best friends, Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren after they died during a night hunt,” the other clarified. “But he never officially named him a Young Master of the Jiang family. Obviously, his wife would have never allowed such a thing. However, he did grow up as siblings with the two children of the Jiang family.”

Jiang Cheng could feel Lan Xichen's eyes on him as he stood there frozen.

Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren.

He could barely remember that when he was six years old just a few weeks after he had sent his puppies away, his father had suddenly gotten some bad news from a messenger and had been absent for the next few days after. When he returned, he had seemed different, his usual gentle smile tinged with sadness.

When Jiang Cheng had asked his father what was wrong, the other had told him that he'd just lost some precious friends and that he wouldn't see them again because they had left for a faraway place. He could still remember himself saying that if his friends had gone away then his father could just simply bring them back. His father had laughed at that, but it wasn't his usual laughs.

That must have been the time when those two died.

The parents of his brother. No, could he even call him his brother anymore? They weren't related by blood. But Wen Ruohan had said that they grew up as siblings. So that still counted for something, right? They didn't need blood. Their bond went much deeper than that. Jiang Cheng could feel it.

Ignoring Lan Xichen who tried to stop him, Jiang Cheng rushed out of his hiding spot and sprinted towards the meeting hall's entrance where two Wen Cultivators were guarding the door.

He dodged out of their way when they tried to stop him and barged into the room, immediately drawing everyone's attention to him.

Overrun by his strong emotions, Jiang Cheng was panting harshly and his eyes glinted like flashes of lightning on a stormy night, reflecting a soul that had carried heavy burdens too big for the shoulders that harbored it.

“My brother,” he gritted out. “Tell me all about him.”

Chapter Text

“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Qiren called out, gritting his teeth. “Were you eavesdropping?”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng seethed back. “I have a right to. This is about my brother.”

Even while what he said was true, right now Lan Qiren's nerves were already strained by Wen Ruohan's surprise visit and he was close to seeing red.

“Jiang Wanyin,” he repeated slowly in order to not lose his temper. “I appreciate your eagerness to help but this case is not Yunmeng Jiang's case, it is Gusu Lan's. You would do well to remember this the next time you decide to interrupt us during our investigations.”

Jiang Cheng could only clench his hands into fists in response. Lan Qiren was right after all. He had acted impulsively the second they had started to talk about his brother. Right now, he had to depend on the Gusu Lan Sect to get him back, not the other way around. It gave him a bitter feeling in his stomach.

Wen Ruohan, who had been silently watching the exchange, suddenly chuckled lowly, “Well, well. Who do we have here? The Young Master of Junmeng Jiang himself. I have heard so much of you already. It's a shame we didn't get to meet before.”

There was something dark in the Wen Sect Leader's eyes that made the hairs on Jiang Cheng's neck stand up and caused alarm bells to ring in his mind, giving him a sense of danger. However, before he could answer, he was suddenly flanked by two white figures who stood next to him like unmovable rocks.

“Greetings, Sect Leader Wen,” Lan Xichen smiled politely. “Please excuse the commotion we caused.”

He bowed to him in apology, hoping to divert Wen Ruohan's attention from Jiang Cheng to himself. But Wen Ruohan only hummed lowly in response, his eyes never straying from Jiang Cheng's as he gave a sign to the Wen Cultivator who had been guarding the door to the meeting hall.

With a deep bow, the Cultivator closed the door once more and tense silence returned to the room.

“So, Jiang Wanyin,” Wen Ruohan was the first to speak. “You have questions about your brother?”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng replied, a little put off by the Wen Sect Leader’s behavior.

“Then I will answer them if I can,” Wen Ruohan said, his lips curling into a smile that was neither friendly nor malevolent.

Jiang Cheng shared a look with Lan Xichen. The First Jade was looking at him with concern in his eyes and a plea for caution. On Jiang Cheng’s other side, Lan Wangji was watching him from the corner of his eyes, his expression unreadable.

“My brother,” Jiang Cheng began. “Did you- did you know him? What was he like?”

Wen Ruohan gave a thoughtful hum, “I’m afraid, I did not get to know him personally, but I believe many called him a prodigy. He was very skilled in his cultivation and therefore the Head Disciple of Yunmeng Jiang.”

Jiang Cheng’s eyes widened with the revelation. So that was it. The reason why he had never felt happy to be the Head Disciple of Yunmeng Jiang Sect was that that spot belonged to his brother. But that also meant...

“So he was supposed to become the next Sect Leader?” Jiang Cheng asked, uncertain.

“No, as I said before, he was never named the First Young Master of Yunmeng,” Wen Ruohan answered. “The Yunmeng Jiang Sect Heir has always been you, Jiang Wanyin.”

“I see,” Jiang Cheng muttered absentmindedly.

“Your brother was also very popular with the female population, I believe,” Wen Ruohan added. “Ranked fourth on the list of best-looking young men in the cultivation world.”

Lan Wangji’s hands clenched into fists beneath the sleeves of his robe, his brows furrowing so slightly that no one would have really noticed it. Lan Xichen, however, was very skilled in reading his brother’s emotions and had to suppress a laugh at the smell of vinegar that came from him, given the situation they were currently in.

“So he was well loved,” Jiang Cheng concluded slowly, wanting to make sense of everything, to understand his brother. “Then why did he do this? Why did it seem like he was all alone in his notes?”

“Hmm, that I am not sure of,” The Wen Sect Leader replied, but something in his eyes said the opposite. “Surely a skillful young cultivator who was praised as a hero would not have to isolate himself from the world.”

“A hero?” Lan Xichen echoed thoughtfully. “On what grounds?”

Wen Ruohan’s smile momentarily widened, “Oh, I believe, he defeated a great evil and saved the world from its clutches. The Xuanwu of Slaughter was the legendary beast’s name, I recall.”

“The Xuanwu of Slaughter?” One of the Lan Elder’s tuned in, astonished.

“The resentful version of the Xuanwu, a being that came to be as it consumed countless humans,” Wen Ruohan clarified. “The Young Master Wei fought against it alongside… the Second Young Master Lan when they were only seventeen years old, I believe. They killed it together after a long arduous fight. Truly, what an accomplishment at such a young age.”

All eyes moved to the Second Jade in wonder. There was pride in both Lan Qiren’s and Lan Xichen’s eyes. Lan Wangji himself was unsure how to react to this. Learning that he had done something like this in another life was quite strange to him, but he didn’t feel like the information was wrong. At least not fully.

“That is about everything I can recall of him. I can really not imagine what could have caused your brother to fall into that pit of despair, Jiang Wanyin,” Wen Ruohan turned back to the Yunmeng Jiang Disciple. “I guess this is one of the mysteries we will need to solve.”

“We?” Lan Qiren repeated surprised.

Finally, Wen Ruohan turned his attention back to Lan Qiren.

“Yes, I have decided,” he announced. “I will help you personally with this case.”

Only years of practicing self-control stopped the Lan from openly gaping at that. Jiang Cheng was not as subtle in his shock as his eyes widened.

The Lan Elders shared troubled looks, looking at Lan Qiren to handle the situation.

Lan Qiren cleared his throat lightly, “Sect Leader Wen, that… is appreciated. But we ourselves do not know where to begin with our search for more information about the Ritual of Erasement. We would not wish to trouble you.”

Wen Ruohan smirked, “There's no need to worry. I will not be troubled. Besides, the former Ritual was cast at Qishan, was it not? You would need my assistance to investigate there to the full extent.”

No one could argue with that but the thought of working with the Wen Sect Leader made everyone feel uneasy.

“Very well. Let's not waste any time, shall we?” Sect Leader Wen continued without waiting for a response. “I believe it would be best if you chose a group of your best disciples to accompany me to the Nightless City. I will do my best there to help them as much as I can in their investigations.”

“No!” A Lan Elder blurted out and Wen Ruohan's gaze immediately fixed on him. “I mean… since we are currently hosting guest disciples, our own have a lot to do. We cannot currently deploy any disciples, I'm afraid.”

The Elder who had spoken out was one of the cultivators who had followed Lan Taochen back then on their fight to get Lan Baoli back from the hands of Wen Hanhe. Remembering the terror they had encountered in the Nightless City, he didn't want any of his disciples anywhere near that place.

Wen Ruohan only reacted after a second of silence with an amused smile, “I assure you, Elder, nothing will happen to your disciples during their stay. You have my word.”

“We… will need to discuss this further, if Sect Leader Wen understands,” Lan Qiren cleared his throat.

“Of course, but I wouldn’t take too long if I were you,” Wen Ruohan agreed. “Who knows how much time we’ve left.”

 

Jiang Cheng’s punishment for eavesdropping was to kneel in the Ancestral Hall of the Lan Sect for three hours. Lan Qiren was a little more lenient towards him than his own nephews. Because Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen both had to copy 3 entire scriptures while doing a handstand.

His legs hurt after only an hour of kneeling, but Jiang Cheng used the time to reflect on everything he had learned about his brother only today and what he already knew.

His father had adopted his brother after his parents had died and he must have been living with them ever since then. Jiang Cheng could imagine himself growing up with him, becoming siblings maybe not in blood but in heart.

There were 7 things he was sure of.

First, his brother was afraid of dogs. That must have been the reason why Jiang Cheng didn’t want any dogs near Lotus Pier. Because he wanted to protect him… because he had promised that he would.

Anytime I see a dog, I’ll chase it away for you!

Second, his brother liked to goof around and break rules. That was clear from the way Jiang Cheng felt like he had to always keep an eye out for him.

Third, he was sure that his brother loved their sister’s lotus pork rib soup, just like him. Their sister should have made it for them countless times, from the way that it came naturally to her to prepare three bowls.

Fourth, his brother had a weird naming sense. Who called their sword Suibian?

Fifth, his brother was undoubtedly a prodigy, as Wen Ruohan had said. He must have been a very promising Cultivator, Jiang Cheng thought. He even became Head Disciple, even though Jiang Cheng was the Sect Heir. Had they argued about that? He felt like they had.

Sixth, he had been very close to his brother. He knew it because he felt it. It was hard to explain, even to himself. But he felt such a strong bond with this person he didn’t even really know (at least not yet), felt like he would always stand beside him, no matter what. Jiang Cheng knew that, with his brother by his side, he would be ready to take on the world.

Seventh, he was angry at his brother. So, so angry. Because his brother had done something, something that made him feel so miserable that he had decided to erase his entire existence from the world instead of coming to him for help. But maybe Jiang Cheng had pushed him away, made him feel like he couldn’t.

Because of that, Jiang Cheng was also angry at himself.

Jiang Cheng sighed heavily as his hands came to massage his temples, feeling a slight headache coming up.

He still needed to tell his parents and sister about this. He wasn’t anticipating their reactions. His sister would cry, he knew. His father would be devastated because the son of his two best friends had killed himself. How his mother would react… he didn’t know. Maybe she wouldn’t care since it wasn’t her own son anyway. Maybe she would.

Covering his face with his hands, Jiang Cheng bent forward, feeling a heavy weight on his shoulders and his heart.

Suddenly he felt the presence of someone else behind him and he straightened himself back up abruptly. But just as he was about to turn around, he felt something cold being pressed against his neck and he froze.

“I will need you to hold still, Jiang Wanyin,” an unfamiliar (but somehow not quite) voice spoke from behind him. “Can’t have you alert the whole place. Of course, if you’d rather not hear what I’m about to say, then go ahead. You’ll only have to say goodbye to your brother.”

Jiang Cheng sucked in a sharp breath, “What do you know about my brother?”

“More than you ever will,” the other replied coldly. “First I need you to answer me. Do you want to save him?”

Jiang Cheng’s brows furrowed, “What kind of stupid question is that? Of course, I do!”

The person behind him didn’t reply for a bit, “Of course you do. Now, at least. We’ll see how that holds up in the future. Now listen closely to what I am about to say. I will not repeat myself.”

Jiang Cheng swallowed dryly and clenched his fists atop his lap.

“You need to go to Qishan,” the stranger said. “You need to join the investigations and reveal the truth of the Ritual of Erasement. Your brother’s case shall be the one to finally shine a light on this matter. That is if you can save him. Once you’re in Qishan, I will give you the next clue. If you fail, then prepare yourself for the outcome. Don’t blame me. And don’t tell anyone about me or I will not help you.”

“Wait, hold on-” Jiang Cheng began to say, but the pressure on his neck disappeared just as suddenly as it had appeared and when he turned around, there was no one there in the hall with him.

Without thinking of his punishment, Jiang Cheng sprung up and rushed outside, frantically looking around but the stranger was already gone.

“Damn it,” Jiang Cheng swore and bit his lip.

“Jiang-xiong?” a voice sounded from behind him and Jiang Cheng turned around to see that it was Nie Huaisang, who was watching him worriedly. “Are you okay? Did you get punished hard?”

“Nie Huaisang, did you just see someone suspicious around here?” Jiang Cheng asked him instead of answering.

“Someone suspicious?” Nie Huaisang repeated. “You mean besides you? No, not really.”

Jiang Cheng took a moment to take that in before he hit the other upside down the head.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m sure,” Nie Huaisang whined while he rubbed the spot he had been hit on. “Why?”

“... It’s nothing,” Jiang Cheng sighed. “Besides, how do you know I got punished?”

Nie Huaisang blinked innocently, “Well, since Wen Ruohan didn’t kill you, Xiansheng must have punished you instead… and it spread around like wildfire among the guest disciples that the two Jades of Lan and you had been caught eavesdropping on the Elders and were punished for it.”

Jiang Cheng again took a minute to take that in. Then he hit Nie Huaisang once again and went back into the Ancestral Hall, with Nie Huaisang whining pathetically behind him.

Chapter Text

The second Wen Ruohan had finally left the Cloud Recesses, the Elders wasted no time to all gather in the meeting hall once more. Already the mood was tense.

“We will not send our disciples to that- that place,” one of the Elders said with dark eyes. “This is just a trap.”

“Do not assume anything without proof,” another Elder admonished him grumpily. “We are not the same as all those years ago. This time we will be prepared.”

“Even if we send our disciples there,” a female Elder spoke up, a frown on her wrinkly face. ”Who says they will discover anything of worth? Surely if there was anything there about the Ritual, it would have been discovered already.”

“With no one actively looking for it? I doubt that,” someone else replied. “Besides, remember that the gods are on our side. Without a doubt, they will support us in our journey to save the First Young-, the adoptive son of Jiang Fengmian.”

While the Elders were discussing their current predicament, Lan Qiren found himself lost in his thoughts while he listened with one ear.

The child of Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren… to have such a fate befall him...

Lan Qiren sighed softly, his brows slightly furrowing.

His relationship with Cangse Sanren had not been a close one. Cangse Sanren had liked annoying him to no ends, even going so far to shave off his beard once, claiming that he looked better without one. How someone as loud as she had ended up with someone as quiet and polite as Wei Changze was beyond his comprehension. But he had seen that the two of them were happy and he guessed that that was all that mattered.

And Changse Sanren had been an exceptional Cultivator herself and he had begrudgingly respected her for that to some point.

To think that her child would do such a thing to himself…

If he was even a little like his mother, he must have been pushed too far at that point to want to erase himself from history.

He must have been a troublemaker. A rule breaker. Someone as loud as his mother and just as ridiculous. Someone who went against the very rules of Lan Qiren’s Sect.

Also a child , his mind traitorously whispered.

But would he endanger his own disciples for this boy he did not even know?

“Lan Qiren, what do you say?” an Elder asked him.

All eyes moved to him, expectant.

Lan Qiren stroked his beard and lifted his eyes to meet theirs.

“We save him.”

 

Once his punishment was over, Lan Xichen made his way to his younger brother, needing to talk to him about everything that had happened.

When he arrived at the Library Pavillon, he knocked first to announce himself and entered the room. Lan Wangji was already sitting inside, copying scriptures at his table. When he saw his brother enter, he stood up to bow to him which made Lan Xichen raise an unimpressed eyebrow at him. Lan Wangji returned the look with his own blank one despite knowing that his brother was chastising him for the formality.

“Wangji, did you finish your assignment?” Lan Xichen asked instead of dwelling on the matter as he took a seat across from his brother.

Lan Wangji gave an affirmative hum in response, returning back to his copying the scriptures.

Lan Xichen sat there for a while, watching his brother with a complicated look on his face.

“About this whole matter with Young Master Wei,” he began. “What do you think?”

“Save him,” came the reply without hesitation.

Lan Xichen’s mouth tightened, “So you want us to send the disciples to Qishan in order to investigate?”

“I will go,” Lan Wangji answered without looking up.

The older Jade went quiet.

“Wangji,” he began slowly. “You will not.”

The brush stopped moving on top of the parchment paper. His eyes slowly rose to meet his brothers, a silent message passing between them. Lan Xichen’s brows furrowed.

“Why would you go this far for a stranger?” he asked.

“Not a stranger,” Lan Wangji said and Lan Xichen recognized anger in his eyes despite his blank face as the younger one gripped the brush in his hands tightly. “We are close.”

There was also guilt in his eyes, Lan Xichen noticed, the anger was not directed at him.

Lan Xichen sighed and looked down at the ink that had stained the parchment and ruined his younger brother’s hard work.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I know how important this is to you. How important he is to you. I am simply an annoying big brother who smothers his little brother too much.”

Lan Wangji set down his brush and discarded the soiled paper.

“Not annoying,” he said. “Brother means well.”

He hesitated a little, words still not coming easily to him. Absentmindedly, his hands reached into his long sleeves, his fingers gently caressing the flower he held hidden.

“He’s all alone,” he spoke quietly. “I want to be beside him.”

Lan Xichen could see it clearly in his eyes, in his entire essence.

His brother had already made up his mind. There was no turning back, no hesitating. He was not going to lose him.

But just like his brother wanted to save Young Master Wei, Lan Xichen wanted to protect his younger brother. In the end, should he have to choose between the two of them…

Who would he choose?

 

That night, sleep did not come easily to Jiang Cheng.

He tossed and turned on his bed, unable to shut off his mind even once. He was concerned about going to Qishan. Would his parents even allow him to? Could he convince Lan Qiren to not tell his parents about it at all? What would await him there? What if it all was a trap and he was walking straight into it?

With a deep sigh, Jiang Cheng closed his eyes and hoped he would fall asleep soon.

 

Jiang Cheng was back at Lotus Pier, he realized. Everything was just as he remembered, all the people, all the different kinds of smells and the sunshine. Everything was much bigger than him though, he noticed next. He was a child again.

His feet brought him to a big tree not far from the Jiang Manor. He didn’t know what, but something made him stand still in front of the tree, looking up at its branches with a strange feeling in his stomach.

His mouth moved on its own, forming a word, maybe a name, but no sound left his throat.

Suddenly, there was a presence behind him and the sound of a dog barking reached his ears. Someone was holding on to his robe with small trembling hands and he could hear quiet whimpers beside his ear.

Without a second thought, Jiang Cheng turned towards the dog with a dark glare on his chubby face.

Met with such hostility, the small dog could only run away with a whimper, disappearing behind a corner.

Jiang Cheng crossed his arms with a huff.

“Hey,” he called out to the other child, who was still clutching his robe. “You can let go now, it’s gone.”

A quiet sniffle came from behind him and the chubby hands grabbed his robe tighter.

For some reason, Jiang Cheng’s throat restricted and his eyesight blurred. His nose was suddenly stuffy and he had to forcefully hold the tears back.

“Hey,” his voice cracked. “You can stop crying now.”

A forehead pressed on to the small of his back.

Jiang Cheng, ” a broken voice whispered and Jiang Cheng’s breath hitched. “ Jiang Cheng.

Two small arms wrapped around his waist, the figure behind him now fully embracing him. The back of Jiang Cheng’s robe grew wet. Jiang Cheng’s eyes were wide and his tears took that chance to flow freely from them.

I’m sorry.

 

Jiang Cheng woke up with a start, sitting up so fast that dizziness washed over him instantly. Breathing heavily, he was unable to stop the tears that fell from his eyes on to the bed sheets.

His hands came up to clutch into his hair and his mouth set into a thin line.

Damnit.

Chapter Text

The Gusu Lan Elders decided to disguise their trip to Qishan as a simple expedition in order to not raise any suspicion. They still wanted to investigate this matter without the interference of the other Sects.

Other than that, there was not much they talked about during the morning meeting. The mood was still somber and tense, everyone’s nerves were on edge. None of them trusted the Qishan Wen Sect and everyone was worried about their involvement in this matter.

However, if they wanted to solve this case successfully, they needed the Wen Sect’s help. Which raised a lot of questions in Lan Xichen who was now actively taking part in the discussions.

“Uncle, why don’t we just ask the other Sect’s for help?” he wanted to know after the meeting had ended. “I’m sure it would be easier to solve this case if we had more support.”

“Or, it could backfire at us and we might find ourselves ridiculed by the cultivation world,” Lan Qiren replied. “This is not something we can just prove, Xichen. The other Sects will either not believe us or cause more trouble than we already have. With Qishan Wen’s… support, we at least will have enough manpower to continue this investigation. Do not worry, we will figure something out.”

Lan Qiren stood up and was about to leave the room when he remembered something else.

“Besides, once Jiang Wanyin tells his parents about this, I am sure we will have the support of Yunmeng Jiang as well,” he added before he left.

Lan Xichen looked at the ground thoughtfully.

Gusu Lan, Qishan Wen, and Yunmeng Jiang would be working together to save the Young Master Wei. Although Qishan Wen’s true intentions were still questionable. If they were planning something, and that was most likely, then this could really backfire on both the Lans and the Jiangs.

If Wen Ruohan remembered more than he let on and he knew exactly who the Young Master Wei was… his plan could be to either prevent them from saving him, or he was planning to bring him back because he knew something that they didn’t. Because Young Master Wei might not necessarily be a good person and his presence would mean chaos…

But then Lan Xichen remembered how his brother felt about the Young Master Wei. If Young Master Wei was someone who could make even Lan Wangji fall in love with him, and his senses were telling him that his brother was in love with him, then he could not be a bad person. Maybe someone whose fate was drowned in misery, but not a bad person.

Lan Xichen sighed heavily.

This matter turned out to be more complicated than he thought.

 

After Lan Qiren had left the meeting hall, he had immediately gone to the Library Pavilion and into the forbidden archives. He pulled out all of their documents on the Qishan Wen Sect that they had, memorizing the blueprints of the Nightless City, looking for possible escape routes in case something went wrong, which was likely to happen.

He spent the entire morning there, having someone else substitute for him in his lessons for the time being. When he left the Library Pavilion, the sun was already high in the sky.

He made his way to the classrooms, deciding to take over the afternoon lessons in order to take his mind off of things for a while.

He had not arrived at the classrooms yet when he saw Jiang Wanyin approach him. The younger male bowed to him respectfully in greeting.

“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Qiren greeted him back. “Is there something you needed?”

“Yes, Xiansheng,” Jiang Wanyin replied, his eyes glinting with determination as he bent at the waist, bowing to Lan Qiren once more. “Please allow me to go to Qishan.”

Lan Qiren’s mouth twitched humorlessly. He had already been expecting this.

“Will your mother agree?” he asked.

Jiang Wanyin froze for a moment, “She will not need to know. Officially, it is only an expedition.”

“You wish us to lie to her?” Lan Qiren raised an eyebrow.

“No,” Jiang Wanyin exclaimed. “Just… I will tell her myself. After we go to Qishan.”

Lan Qiren sighed, “Jiang Wanyin if anything happened to you while in Qishan we will have no excuse. We can’t be sure that you will be safe there, do you understand?”

“I do,” Jiang Wanyin replied. “I know how dangerous this is. But I need to be there. My parents will understand once they know.”

Lan Qiren looked at the Jiang Sect Heir for a moment, assessing his determination.

“Very well,” he said then. “We will inform your parents about taking part in the expedition. If they consent, then you may go.”

Jiang Wanyin sighed in relief.

“However, should they not consent, then you will stay here.”

“I understand,” Jiang Wanyin replied. “Thank you, Xiansheng.”

He bowed once more and left with that. Lan Qiren watched his retreating back and sighed.

These young people...

Then he turned around to look at his younger nephew. Lan Wangji bowed to him in greeting.

Lan Qiren looked tired, “Let me guess, Wangji. You wish to go to Qishan as well?”

 

The next days were spent preparing for the expedition. Everyone’s nerves were on edge. Even the guest disciples who knew nothing of what was going on could feel the tension in the air. It was as if they were going to war.

And that was exactly how Jiang Cheng felt. Up until now, he had always kept his distance from the Qishan Wen Sect. It wasn’t that he was afraid of them, but he just couldn’t help being cautious of them. Even as a child, he had noticed how everyone seemed to think negatively of the Wen Sect and his brief encounters with them had shown how arrogant they were as well.

There was also something inside him that told him to not trust any Wen, under no circumstance. It was as if his entire being was tense whenever the Wens were mentioned and just the thought of going to Qishan made him feel sick.

But he had to do this if he liked it or not. He had a stupid brother to save, after all.

 

His parents agreed, which was a miracle. Lan Qiren must have written a rather convincing letter for them to allow such a thing. Everyone was cautious when it came to the Wen Sect, but Jiang Fengmian and Madame Yu must be trusting the Lan Sect to keep their son safe.

 

When the day came that they would finally leave the Cloud Recesses and travel to Qishan, Jiang Cheng couldn’t stay still. Judging on the faces of the Senior disciples who would be accompanying them to the Nightless City, he wasn’t the only one. The only one who seemed to be calm was the Second Young Master Lan, of course.

Jiang Cheng couldn’t help but feel as though the other had something against him. Lan Wangji refused to look at him, he barely regarded Jiang Cheng’s presence and overall seemed to pretend that he didn’t exist most of the time. It wasn’t that Jiang Cheng felt hurt or that he cared in particular, but he couldn’t but wonder what he’d done to meet such hostility.

Maybe it was just the stark difference between Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen that tipped him off.

The older Jade had come to see them off. Despite the worry on his face, he gave everyone encouraging words and smiles. Jiang Cheng felt better as he received his friends comforting words.

“Just be careful,” Lan Xichen said, looking at Jiang Cheng with worry in his eyes. “Try not to tip Wen Ruohan off or offend anyone.”

“I feel like you just said this specifically to me,” Jiang Cheng replied dryly. “When have I ever tipped anyone off?”

Lan Xichen smiled amicably, “Of course not, Wanyin. I just worry, that is all.”

Yeah, I know , Jiang Cheng thought. He could see that the other male’s hands were slightly clenched and how he tried to stop himself from frowning too much. He felt like he needed to comfort the other, not the other way round.

“It will be okay,” Jiang Cheng said. “We will be careful. We know what to do if anything happens.”

The other Cultivators nodded in agreement, their faces just as serious as his. They had planned everything, from their arrival to the Nightless City to their departure, however that may happen.

“Wangji, you be careful. Don’t do anything rash,” Lan Xichen said to his little brother and then added as an afterthought, “You will not be much of a help to Young Master Wei if you get injured or… killed.” 

He hoped that that would be enough to ensure that his brother would come back whole. 

The disciples began to take their leaves with that, ready for the journey to the Nightless City when someone else yelled for them to stop. Jiang Cheng turned around to see Nie Huaisang running towards them with a letter in his hands.

The Nie came to a halt in front of them, out of breath. He held the letter up triumphantly.

“Xichen-ge,” he exclaimed. “My brother agreed to let me go to Qishan!”

Lan Xichen raised an eyebrow and them immediately frowned as he took the letter and read it. 

“Huaisang,” the First Jade said. “This… is indeed your brother’s handwriting.”

Lan Xichen was bewildered. Why would Nie Mingjue agree for his brother to go the heart of the Wen Sect that he despised so much? Wen Ruohan had killed their father mercilessly. Nie Mingjue might come off as brutal to most but Lan Xichen knew that he would do anything to protect his little brother from the Wen. So for him to accept this came as a big surprise.

“... Huaisang, maybe you want to rethink this,” Lan Xichen said. “You don’t need to go to Qishan.”

Nie Huaisang shook his head, “It’s fine, Xichen-ge. I want to go. I want to help save Young Master Wei.”

Of course, Jiang Cheng had told Lan Xichen that Nie Huaisang knew of his brother but that still didn’t explain Nie Huaisang’s sudden bravery when he usually chose the cowardly route.

“Nie Huaisang, are you sure about this?” Jiang Cheng said. “This might get dirty.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Nie Huaisang replied. “I’m ready. I already packed and everything.”

Lan Xichen shared a glance with Jiang Cheng. Neither of them wanted the younger Nie to go to Qishan, but since Nie Mingjue had agreed the situation might not be as bad as they thought.

“Fine,” Lan Xichen sighed. “Just... be careful.”

Nie Huaisang smiled brightly, “Of course! You don’t need to worry, Xichen-ge!”

And thus, they made their way to the lion’s den.

 

They actually arrived at Qishan without any difficulties a week after, only a few walking corpses here and there. Their trip was uneventful other than that and everyone was a lot more relaxed than before. However, that didn’t mean that they let down their guard. They weren’t about to give the Wen Sect any openings.

A servant welcomed them at the gates to the Nightless City. Behind the walls, the city stood proud and tall with the Wen Sect’s flags hung up on every building as if the people were worshipping them. While that caused some discomfort within Jiang Cheng, the inside of the city actually looked like any other.

The streets were busting with life. There were stalls where different wares were sold and a lot of wealthy looking people were browsing through them. It was as if the whole city was rich.

But Jiang Cheng knew better. He knew that would he look closer, into the shadows of the alleys and in less populated areas, there would definitely be hungry people. The Nightless City for all its stories was a city like any other. It was ruled by the strongest.

And the strongest was…

The servant brought them to Wen Manor. It was gigantic, resembling the palace of an emperor instead of the building of a Sect. Their luggage was taken to their quarters and they were brought to the Great Hall where they would be meeting the Wen Sect Leader.

When Wen Ruohan appeared they bowed to him respectfully and remained standing as the Sect Leader sat down on a throne-like seat, looking down at them as if they were mere peasants.

“Young Master Jiang, Second Young Master Lan, and Young Master Nie,” Wen Ruohan nodded at them. “I welcome you to the Nightless City. Let us hope that this… expedition goes well.”

There was something off about him, Jiang Cheng noticed. The Wen Sect Leader was smiling his usual chilling smile, but there was a something in his eyes that Jiang Cheng could not identify. It wasn’t malevolent but it wasn’t good either. He looked tired .

“Sect Leader Wen,” Jiang Cheng replied respectfully since neither Lan Wangji nor Nie Huaisang wanted to say anything. “Thank you for receiving us. We hope as well that everything goes well.”

Wen Ruohan hummed nonchalantly, “Very well. Do you wish to begin your expedition now or would you prefer to rest for today? You have a long way behind you.”

Jiang Cheng had to make a double take. He shared a bewildered look with Nie Huaisang. Wen Ruohan was letting them decide what to do? He had expected the Sect Leader to take complete control of what they were doing and how they were doing it. But to actually give them such freedom?

Jiang Cheng took a quick look at the others. Most of them were tired, he noticed. They had walked the last two days without any real breaks to get here faster and were actually ahead of schedule. There had been no point of flying on their swords since they wanted to save up as much spiritual energy as possible in case of an emergency.

“Sect Leader Wen is gracious,” Jiang Cheng spoke. “We would prefer to rest for today. The journey has been long and we are indeed in need of rest.”

Wen Ruohan hummed again. Could he act any less interested?

“Very well, you may rest for today,” Wen Ruohan replied. “I will assign someone to you tomorrow after breakfast to be your guide as you move along the Manor.”

Jiang Cheng dipped his head, “Thank you, Sect Leader Wen.”

“No need to thank me,” Wen Ruohan said, a smirk curling at the corners of his mouth. “No need at all.”

Well, that wasn’t ominous at all.

Chapter Text

After bidding the Wen Sect Leader their farewell, the group was escorted to their rooms. Their group of 16 people was divided into 4 people in one room each. Jiang Cheng, Lan Wangji and Nie Huaisang shared a room with one of the senior disciples. Jiang Cheng couldn’t say if he was glad to be sharing a room with Nie Huaisang or dismayed because he was also sharing a room with Lan Wangji.

Thankfully the Second Jade was not the type to raise a ruckus and despite his obvious displeasure (his eyebrows actually knitted a little bit), he kept quiet in silent acceptance. 

Apparently, the Wen Sect did not come together for meals as the Lan Sect did. Only the main family came together to eat in the dining hall while the rest had to spend their meals in their assigned buildings. The Wen Manor was huge enough to hold at least 50 people in one building and every building had its own dining hall.

Jiang Cheng’s group was staying at the guest building and since they were the only current guests, the dining hall was quite empty beside them. The Lans didn’t talk during meals and neither Jiang Cheng nor Nie Huaisang wanted to be the ones to break the silence, having gotten used to it by now.

Thus, they ate their meals quietly and everyone retreated to their rooms after, since it was already getting dark and the Lans would be sleeping in about 2 hours anyway. After having cleaned themselves, Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang sat down on some cushions together.

“It’s nothing like I imagined it to be,” Nie Huaisang whispered behind his fan, looking around suspiciously. “I thought it would be… darker.”

Jiang Cheng raised an unimpressed eyebrow, “What are you whispering around for? We already searched the area. There’s no surveillance.”

“Exactly,” Nie Huaisang said, still whispering. “Isn’t that suspicious? Why would Wen Ruohan give us this much freedom?”

“I don’t know,” Jiang Cheng replied. “Maybe he’s trying to make us lower our guards. Maybe he suddenly had a change of hearts now that he remembers his mother.”

Nie Huaisang pursed his lips, unconvinced, “Right. And next, he is going to send gifts to every Sect and begin smiling nicely.”

Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes at him, “That was sarcasm, genius. Besides… from what I saw in Lan Yueqin’s memories, Lan Baoli was really the type of person who could make even Wen Ruohan change his ways. She’s his mother anyways. Maybe some of her goodness rubbed off on him.”

“Well, let’s hope it did. Or else we’re not making it out of here alive,” Nie Huaisang shuddered.

“Why did you come anyway, if you’re so scared?” Jiang Cheng asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I… I just wanted to be of help,” Nie Huaisang answered, hesitant. “I know, I’m a good-for-nothing, but I still want to help Wei-xiong. What happened to him was… really unfortunate.”

“Yeah…,” Jiang Cheng lowered his eyes, looking at the table with a frown on his face.

“Ah, but don’t worry, Jiang-xiong,” Nie Huaisang hurried to add. “We will save him, for sure!”

“Of course we will,” Jiang Cheng scowled but it wasn’t directed at the other. “And then I’ll show him what he gets when he tries something this stupid.”

Nie Huaisang couldn’t help the smile tugging at his lips. For all his promises of violence, Jiang Cheng really was only worried for his brother. He often reminded Nie Huaisang of his own brother, who was like that too.

The instant that his brother crossed his mind, Nie Huaisang winced. Hopefully, his da-ge wouldn’t be too angry once he finds out what he did… What was he talking about, of course, his brother would kill him.

It’s for a good cause, da-ge, a good cause!

He should probably already begin planning his own funeral.

 

Jiang Cheng, Nie Huaisang and Lan Wangji spent the rest of the time before it was bedtime with going over the blueprint of the West Wing of Wen Manor, the place where Lan Baoli had stayed. A servant had brought it earlier and stayed to answer any questions they might have, on orders of Wen Ruohan.

“This one’s name is Meng Yao, young masters,” the servant bowed deeply to them. “I will be assisting you during your stay here. Please, ask me any questions you might have.”

The cultivators nodded at Meng Yao in greeting.

“This is her room,” Jiang Cheng said, pointing at the spot on the map. “I think we should search it first to look for any clues.”

“But Lan Baoli cast the spell almost 60 years ago,” Nie Huaisang pointed out. “Would the Wen Sect not have cleared the Wing by now?”

“The West Wing is a forbidden area,” Meng Yao answered politely. “The late Sect Leader had ordered for the building to not be disturbed long ago.”

Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang shared a glance.

It was obvious that there must be something there, then. Of course, they couldn’t talk freely due to the presence of the servant but they both thought the same.

“Then we should search everything there without disturbing Lan Baoli’s personal stuff, should they still be there,” Nie Huaisang said.

What he meant by “everything” was that they should also search the floorboards and wall panels, maybe even the ceiling panels. Just in case.

“There is a large garden outside of Lan Baoli’s room,” Jiang Cheng pointed out. “Let’s search that too.”

Which meant that they would have to dig around.

“Will… the Sect Leader Wen lent us any helpers?” Nie Huaisang asked.

In reality, he was trying to find out if Wen Ruohan would have someone keep an eye on them.

“The Sect Leader said to not disturb the Young Master’s expedition in any way,” the servant answered. “But should the need for helpers arise, please do not hesitate to ask.”

Again, Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang shared a glance. 

“I see,” Jiang Cheng replied.

“We should also take a look at any nearby rooms,” Nie Huaisang added. “Just in case.”

“Right,” Jiang Cheng said, his eyes on the map.

He couldn’t really determine which spots were the best to hide what they suspected to be books about the Ritual of Erasement, or other forms of documents. 

“There,” Lan Wangji suddenly spoke up after having kept quiet the whole time while studying the map intently. 

He was pointing at the spot where the building met the wall that separated it from the forest surrounding the Nightless City. There was a small gap between the building and the wall, just enough for maybe one person to barely fit through.

“What is the point of such a construction?” Nie Huaisang asked surprised.

Meng Yao seemed bewildered, “Ah… it was a sudden request from the late Madame Wen just a few months before the former Sect Leader Wen passed away. She requested for the wall to be built there like that. A few weeks after construction Sect Leader Wen ordered for the Wing to be closed off.”

And, because it was the Wen Sect and such an insignificant matter, no one batted an eyelash at that. Which made it the perfect hiding spot.

Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang nodded at each other.

 

That night, Jiang Cheng found himself back in Lotus Pier.

He stood at the pier before the giant lake filled with lotus blossoms and watched the sunlight dance over the small waves on the water. It was a breathtaking, familiar sight that made him feel slightly homesick.

In contrast to the last time, he didn’t feel as anxious. There was something calming, soothing in that scenery. So he remained standing there in silence.

A presence appeared at some point behind him. The person stood back to back with him, looking at the market place filled with people without faces. This was a dream, after all.

“You’re working with the Wen Sect?” the shadow behind Jiang Cheng asked.

His voice was quiet and calm, unlike before when it had been stricken with grief and anguish. It stirred something in Jiang Cheng but he swallowed down his tears.

“Only temporarily,” he answered. “We need to find out what happened with Lan Baoli.”

A hum was his answer.

“You know her? Did you meet her… wherever you are?” Jiang Cheng asked hesitantly.

“Not particularly,” came the reply.

There was silence after that.

“How did you know? About the Wen Sect? About… what’s going on outside,” Jiang Cheng continued to ask.

“A very obnoxious bird told me,” the shadow said. “One who apparently thinks that I care.”

Jiang Cheng swallowed, “You don’t?”

A heartbeat passed.

Then, “Not particularly.”

Jiang Cheng didn’t know what more to say.

“How far will you go?” the shadow asked.

“As far as I have to until I reach you,” Jiang Cheng replied without hesitation. “So I can break your legs and drag you back home.”

A choked off laugh sounded from behind him. A tear rolled over Jiang Cheng’s face.

The dream ended with that.

 

Jiang Cheng couldn’t bring himself to socialize the next morning despite Nie Huaisang’s numerous attempts at starting a conversation. He was tired of crying, tired of all of this mess. He just wanted everything to be over already, for his brother to be back, safe and sound at Lotus Pier with their family.

They spent breakfast in silence. The Lans didn’t talk during meals anyway and Jiang Cheng was in no mood to entertain Nie Huaisang who kept sneaking worried glances at him.

Afterward, Meng Yao came to escort them to the West Wing. Once they stood in front of the gate that leads to the courtyard, Meng Yao unlocked the gate for them and left after making sure that he was no longer needed.

“Everyone knows what to do,” Jiang Cheng said. “Team 1 searches the front area of the building, team 2 the inside of the building, team 3 the courtyard and them 4 the back area of the building. Take everything that you think might be useful with you and return back to the gate after you’re done.”

The group echoed a chorus of “Got it” and proceeded to do as planned. Jiang Cheng, Nie Huaisang and Lan Wangji were in a group with another disciple and in charge of searching the back area where the gap between the building and the wall was.

They each had one shovel in case they needed to dig anything out as they searched the area. Jiang Cheng made sure to keep his eyes on the ground as he searched for possible hiding places marked by an uneven distribution of dirt.

So far he couldn’t find anything. Just as he was about to return to Nie Huaisang to ask him if he had found anything something hit the back of his head. He turned around abruptly, a hand gripping Sandu that hung on his waist.

But there was nothing behind him, nothing he could sense at least. When he looked down to see what had hit him there was a small round stone laying at his feet. From the shape and the color it didn’t look like it belonged here.

Jiang Cheng frowned in confusion, getting a weird sense of deja-vu. This reminded him of when he had entered the cave with the blood pool where he had found his brother’s journal. Just as he was about to bend down, the stone began to move forward on its own, rolling to just in front of the wall.

Jiang Cheng stood at his spot for a second, unsure if he should follow the stone. Then he sighed and moved forward, coming to stand beside where the stone had rolled to. With a roll of his eyes, he began to dig the spot with his shovel.

“Elegant,” he mumbled to himself.

“Shh,” a voice hushed him. “I’m not here!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jiang Cheng sighed.

He had to dig for a while before he hit something solid which made him halt in his movements for a heartbeat. Then he jolted and bent down to brush the last of the dirt aside with his hands. A small dirty box was revealed.

When Jiang Cheng pulled the box out of the dirt and opened it, all that was inside it was a scroll that was surprisingly still in good shape.

With trembling hands he took the scroll and unrolled it, revealing a scripture with an array drawn underneath.

His eyes widened, his brows furrowing.

He couldn’t read it.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng opened his eyes and smelled herbs and oils.

There was a throbbing in his head and a sharp pain behind his eyes that made his face scrunch up. He lifted his strangely heavy arm to put a hand on his face. His forehead was burning as if he had a bad fever.

“Don’t move yet,” an unfamiliar voice said monotonously. “The headache and fever should recline shortly.” 

When Jiang Cheng turned his head he could make out a red silhouette moving around the room he was in. His sight was blurry, he realized.

“What happened?” he asked with a hoarse voice.

“You collapsed,” the woman replied helpfully.

Collapsed? , Jiang Cheng thought. He thought back to what had happened before he collapsed. He had found a scroll buried in the dirt but when he had unrolled it, he was unable to read it, the symbols unfamiliar to him. Next, he woke up here.

“Where are the others?” he asked the woman.

“Two are here, the rest is waiting outside,” came the answer. “They collapsed when they tried to read the scroll, just like you.”

Jiang Cheng tried to sit up, only for the woman, a doctor he assumed, to push him back down.

“How long was I out?” he grunted as he glared at her.

His sight was slowly returning.

“A few hours, the others woke up before you,” the doctor said and finally turned to him, regarding him with an unimpressed look on her face. “Don’t try to stand up until I tell you to or you can treat yourself. You can see your friends once your fever breaks.”

The look she sent him could rival his sister’s whenever she lectured him for getting hurt. He decided that the best course of action would be to head her words so he closed his eyes and tried to get some rest.

He would find out what the scroll was about once he felt better.

 

Jiang Cheng spent the next hours with drifting in and out of sleep. The headache had thankfully disappeared quickly, but the pain behind his eyes and the fever were stubborn, refusing to leave for another few hours.

By the time that he finally felt better, it was already dark outside. Despite that, the others had thankfully waited for him back at their assigned building.

Nie Huaisang was the first one to see him, jumping up to greet him, “Jiang-xiong, you’re awake! You had us all worried. How do you feel?”

Jiang Cheng nodded at the other in acknowledgment, “Better, thanks. Now, would anyone tell me what happened?”

“Jiang-xiong, you don’t remember?” Nie Huaisang wondered. “You found the buried scroll and opened it. There was a bright light and then you collapsed.”

“Could have been a safety mechanism,” one of the Lan disciples added. “Some kind of seal to keep people from reading it. It was infused with spiritual energy. But the seal broke when you opened it, though not before affecting two others.”

Jiang Cheng frowned as he took a seat at the table, “So, someone doesn’t want anyone to read it then. But if this is the scroll that contains the guide to the Ritual of Erasement, then Lan Baoli must have been able to read it somehow. You said the seal broke?”

“Yes, but...” Nie Huaisang hesitated. “Let me show you.”

He reached for the dirty box that had been sat on the table and opened it, revealing the scroll inside. 

“Hm, I’m surprised that Sect Leader Wen didn’t confiscate it,” Jiang Cheng muttered.

“Well, Sect Leader Wen showed little interest in the scroll,” Nie Huaisang told him. “This might be the reason.”

He unrolled the scroll with that, showing it to him. Jiang Cheng’s eyes widened. The scroll was blank, not a splotch of ink on the parchment.

“That’s impossible,” Jiang Cheng exclaimed. “There were symbols on there when I opened it, I know it. I couldn’t read it, but it sure wasn’t blank. Is this the same scroll?”

“I can assure you it’s the same scroll,” Nie Huaisang hurried to say. “Whatever symbols were on it before, they have disappeared now.”

“Not disappeared,” Lan Wangji interjected. “Concealed when the seal broke.”

“Such a secured scroll,” one of the Lan disciples commented. “Someone really doesn’t want us to read what’s on it.”

“Well, even if we did somehow break the concealment spell, we won’t be able to read it,” another disciple said. “Jiang-xiong himself said that he didn’t recognize the symbols.”

“But we could find matching symbols somewhere else and translate it,” an older disciple replied. “Let’s just focus on the seal for now.”

“I have an idea!” Nie Huaisang exclaimed. “What if we’re not meant to break the spell, but accommodate it?”

He got confused looks in return, “Accommodate it? How do you accommodate a spell?”

“Well, you know, in some mystery novels the protagonist finds a concealed scroll and has to find out what’s written on it using all kinds of things,” Nie Huaisang clarifies. “For example, holding the scroll over a fire. The heat makes the ink appear magically. Or holding it up to the sun, smearing flour over the scroll, these kinds of things!”

“... Nie Huaisang, you read too many books,” Jiang Cheng decides. “And none of them are the books you should be reading if you don’t want your brother to kill you for lazing off the whole year. But… it just might work.”

Everyone seemed to be reluctant to do the ridiculous things Nie Huaisang had listed but it wasn’t like they had any other choice. Since it was already dark, they couldn’t try holding the scroll up to the sun, so they settled for a small flame and brought some flour from the kitchens. 

Afterward, they all met up in the communal area where they set the box, the candle and the sack of flour on one of the tables.

“Okay, who wants to do it?” Jiang Cheng asked into the room.

“Uhh, me?” a young disciple offered, raising his hand hesitantly. 

He moved to pick up the scroll and unrolled it a few inches above the flame to make sure that he did not accidentally burn the paper. Everyone watched the scroll in silent anticipation of what might be revealed but even after moving the scroll closer to the flame, the parchment remained blank.

“Well, okay, that didn’t work,” Nie Huaisang commented as everyone looked at him for answers. “Why don’t we try the flour?”

“This better be good,” Jiang Cheng grumbled before moving the candle away and unceremoniously dumping a handful of flour over the scroll. “... Of course it’s not.”

No matter what else they tried, the scroll remained blank, not even bothered by their pitiful attempts.

Nie Huaisang also looked down at the dirtied scroll, “Well, it was worth a shot? I guess it is a spiritual seal meant to be broken by something of the same kind.”

“Thanks for the revelation,” someone commented dryly.

“But what are we supposed to do now?” someone else asked.

No one knew what to answer.

“Inquiry,” Lan Wangji spoke up and everyone looked at him. “Contact Madame Wen’s soul.”

Nie Huaisang perked up, “Of course! Madame Wen’s role in all of this is the most suspicious one. If anyone knows what this scroll is, then it must be her.”

“She did build the wall right next to where we found the scroll,” a senior disciple added.

“It might be worth a shot,” Jiang Cheng agreed. “But making Wen Ruohan agree to it will be hard.”

 

“Very well.”

“...Huh?” Jiang Cheng replied very intelligently.

“You may contact Madame Wen through Inquiry,” Wen Ruohan clarified from where he sat on his throne.

Meng Yao stood beside him and handed him a few documents that the Wen Sect Leader signed without having looked at Jiang Cheng’s group ever since they entered. Jiang Cheng shared a disbelieving glance with Nie Huaisang.

“Sect Leader Wen, are you certain that you’re giving us permission to summon the late Madame Wen’s soul and interrogate her?” Jiang Cheng clarified.

“I’m certain that I didn’t stutter, Young Master Jiang,” Wen Ruohan replied, waving Meng Yao away. “Whatever you might need to do to clear this case, do it. And don’t waste my time with these pointless audiences.”

He gestured for the conversation to be over but everyone was so stunned that they didn’t immediately move which resulted in them being escorted out by the guards. Outside of the hall they shared confused glances.

“I thought it’d be harder.” a senior disciple commented. “Is no one else finding this behavior suspicious?”

“Of course it is,” another disciple replied. “But we’re in no position to look a gift horse in the mouth. If I understand this correctly, we might be running on borrowed time. We should move quickly if we don’t want to fail.”

Jiang Cheng breathed in deeply, “He’s right. We need to move now and deal with everything else later when we have successfully rescued my brother.”

“Young masters?” a calm voice joined in the conversation.

It turned out to be Meng Yao who had followed them out. 

“Sect Leader has requested for me to assist you in setting up for Inquiry,” Meng Yao said. “Anything you might need, I shall provide.”

“Something personal, belonging to Madame Wen,” Lan Wangji replied. “With sentimental value.”

“Ah, of course, Lan er-gongzi,” Meng Yao bowed to him. “I shall bring it to the Summoning Hall. Ah, the Summoning Hall is where we usually contact the souls of the deceased. Wen Ning shall bring you there.”

Wen Ning turned out to be a quiet boy around their age, who had formerly hidden in the shadows as if he was afraid- or possibly shy. As Meng Yao gestured for him to move closer, he reluctantly stepped into the light, fiddling with the hem of his sleeves.

“Uh, Wen Ning greets the young masters,” he bowed stiffly, his eyes nervously flickering between the Lan disciples. “Sect Leader asked me to… bring you to the Summoning Hall. Um, please follow me.”

He bowed stiffly once more and began to lead them away from the Great Hall.

Jiang Cheng couldn’t understand why they had assigned Wen Ning to them. He didn’t look like a servant, more like a disciple, so it didn’t make sense for him to escort them. But he couldn't understand what was going on in Wen Ruohan's head anyway.

“So, there are Wens like this, huh,” Jiang Cheng whispered to Nie Huaisang.

Nie Huaisang had a complicated look on his face as he stared at Wen Ning’s back, “Yep...”

Jiang Cheng noticed this, “What’s with you?”

“Nothing,” Nie Huaisang hurried to say. “I think we should hurry up, right?”

Jiang Cheng looked at him in confusion but decided to let him be. 

The sooner they finished their business here, the sooner they could return to Gusu.

 

It didn’t take long for them to arrive at the Summoning Hall. Wen Ning unlocked the doors for them and lit up the hall with quite a few candles. 

The Summoning Hall turned out to be a massive hall that had several arrays set up on the walls but other than that was empty. A raised platform had been built in the middle of the room, with a seat and a table made out of the same stone as the room.

“Please wait here for Meng Yao to come,” Wen Ning said, voice small. “I… I will go now.”

The shy Wen turned around with that and quickly fled the room.

“Well, I guess we should prepare everything for Inquiry then,” Nie Huaisang tried to raise the mood with a smile.

Lan Wangji went up to the platform without answering and removed his Guqin from his back. He placed the instrument on the stone table and took a seat on the stone chair. Five senior disciples drew a magical array on the ground in front of the table and sat down at each focal point. The other senior disciples gathered around the array, ready to step in in case something went wrong.

There wasn’t much that Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang could do since Inquiry was more the Lan’s forte, so they opted to stay out of everyone’s way.

It didn’t take long for Meng Yao to return carrying a box in his arms.

“I have asked a former personal maid of the late Madame Wen about any items that might have been of importance to Madame Wen,” the servant informed them and opened the box. ”This hairpin was gifted to her by the late Sect Leader Wen on their wedding day and she had worn it on multiple occasions.”

“This should work,” Jiang Cheng replied and took the hairpin from the box. “Thank you.”

Meng Yao bowed, “If there’s anything else you need, do not hesitate to ask.”

He took his leave with that and Jiang Cheng moved to place the hairpin in the middle of the drawn array. He then returned to his spot behind Lan Wangji, where Nie Huaisang was already standing.

“Okay, let’s do this,” NIe Huaisang breathed out.

Lan Wangji placed his hands on the strings of the zither and plucked the first notes of Inquiry. It didn’t take long for a swarm of brightly colored orbs to surround them, swirling around the glowing array in the middle of the room. One, in particular, a light green one, settled itself down on the hairpin.

“That might be Madame Wen,” Nie Huaisang commented. “Let’s ask to make sure.”

Lan Wangji already pulled the strings, asking the soul if it was Madame Wen.

One note echoed back in the big hall. A confirmation.

Jiang Cheng breathed out. They were getting closer to the truth.

Lan Wangji continued the interrogation with the questions they had agreed upon before.

“Do you know Lan Baoli?” - “Yes.”

“So even the dead remember now,” Nie Huaisang concluded.

Jiang Cheng thought about this.

“That might not be necessarily the case,” he said. “Lan Wangji, ask her if she ever forgot Lan Baoli in the first place.”

Lan Wangji didn’t look at him but he played the question anyway. A different note resounded.

“No.”

Many faces scrunched up in confusion.

“Does that mean that the Ritual of Erasement did not affect Madame Wen?” a Lan disciple wondered.

“How can that be? Everyone was affected,” another disciple argued.

“But it would make sense, wouldn’t it? It would explain her actions after Lan Baoli cast the ritual,” an older disciple said. “Since she buried and hid the scroll she must have known what is written on it. Maybe she can even read it.”

Nie Huaisang pulled out the scroll from his sleeves and held it towards Madame Wen’s soul.

“Madame Wen, do you recognize this?” he asked. 

Lan Wangji relayed the question and got a single note once more.

“Yes.”

“Do you know what’s written on it?”

“Yes.”

Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang shared glances. 

They might just be getting some answers today.

“How do you read it?”

Two notes echoed back, then a few more. Lan Wangji’s hands stilled on the strings. The Lan disciples all looked dumbfounded.

“What did she say?” Jiang Cheng asked.

“... ‘Unlock’,” Lan Wangji answered.

“‘Unlock’?” Jiang Cheng echoed back.

“Write ‘Unlock’ on the scroll,” the Second Jade clarified.

“Write, like with ink?” Nie Huaisang asked confused. “That’s it?”

They had tried everything, using every ridiculous method that had come to their minds and the answer was as simple as writing ‘Unlock’ on the scroll? Someone really had a weird sense of humor.

“Isn’t that too… easy? For such a scroll?” a senior disciple asked.

“Is it?” Lan Wangji replied, effectively silencing him.

It really wasn’t easy. They didn’t think of it, after all.

“Okay, then we have that cleared,” Jiang Cheng massaged his forehead. “Ask her if she gave the scroll to Lan Baoli.”

Lan Wangji once again relayed the question and got a confirmation in return.

“Where did she get it though?” Nie Huaisang wondered.

This time, the answer was longer. With each passing note, the Lan disciples looked more and more disturbed.

“What did she say?” Nie Huaisang wanted to know.

“She said… that she got it from her mother, who…,” the Lan disciple stuttered. “Who was a disciple of Baoshan Sanren. But she got thrown out by her master, though not before taking a few scrolls with her. One of them was this scroll about the Ritual of Erasement.” 

“Baoshan Sanren?” Jiang Cheng echoed. “The immortal?”

“What was Madame Wen’s mother’s name? I’m sure we would have heard of her,” a senior disciple asked.

Three notes echoed in the hall, “Wang Changli.”

The disciples exchanged frowns, “Never heard of her.”

“Ask if she knows how to break the spell,” Jiang Cheng pressed.

No.”

“Does that mean we need to find this Wang Changli?” a disciple asked.

“We’d have more luck finding Baoshan Sanren,” Jiang Cheng replied, his hands clenching into fists. 

“You’re right, Young Master Jiang,” a voice echoed from behind them.

All heads turned towards the door to the Summoning Hall. There stood the Wen Sect Leader himself, leaning on the door frame. No one knew how long he had been there but everyone felt shivers run down their spines.

“Would Sect Leader Wen like to elaborate what he means?” a brave disciple asked.

“It’s exactly as I said,” Wen Ruohan replied. “Baoshan Sanren is currently on a night hunt at Dafan Mountain.”

Everyone was stupefied.

“No one could determine Baoshan Sanren’s whereabouts until now,” a disciple exclaimed. “Sect Leader Wen, how did you find that out?”

“I have my means,” Wen Ruohan deflected. “Now, I think you’re journey leads you to Dafan Mountain next? That is if you want to solve this case.”

Jiang Cheng frowned and wanted to reply but Lan Wangji was faster, “We’ll go.”

The senior disciples exchanged uncertain glances. They had wanted to return to the Cloud Recesses as soon as their business finished here but it seemed like that would have to be postponed.

“I will write to Elder Lan,” the oldest senior disciple offered. “And inform him of our next destination.”

“Then it’s settled,” Jiang Cheng breathed out heavily. “We’re going to Dafan Mountain.”

Chapter Text

Their next destination clear, all that remained for the Lan Expedition group to do was to read the scroll that Jiang Cheng had found. Since they also had to wait for Lan Qiren’s permission to journey to Dafan Mountain, they had a few days to spare anyway.

Wen Ruohan left them alone for that and he seemed fairly uninterested in the scroll’s contents. The Wen Sect Leader’s suspicious behavior had everyone in a constant state of confusion and wariness.

“Okay, who’s going to write?” Nie Huaisang fanned himself slowly, his face partially hidden behind his fan.

The Lan disciples exchanged uneasy glances. None of them wanted to write on the scroll, in fear of ruining it.

“Well-” Jiang Cheng was cut off by Lan Wangji reaching for the brush and unrolling the scroll. 

The Second Jade seemed to have no more patience as he elegantly drew the characters for “Unlock” as the ink sept into the parchment. For a second it seemed like nothing was going to happen. But then, to their astonishment, the ink began to break apart and move across the scroll in dark swirls before settling down as chinese characters.

Jiang Cheng recognized the writing with the array drawn underneath from what he had seen before he fell unconscious. Only that back then it had been sort of hard to make out the characters, as his eyes had grown blurry the longer he stared at it. But now he could clearly make out every word written on the paper. 

Jiang Cheng breathed out heavily.

He watched with bated breath as the Second Jade skimmed over the scroll with an unreadable expression on his face.

“Well, what does it say?” Jiang Cheng prompted impatiently.

Lan Wangji finished reading before wordlessly handing the scroll over to the Yunmeng Jiang Heir. Jiang Cheng’s heartbeat sped up a little as he read and then slowed down. The text appeared to be notes of previous Ritual of Erasements instead of a manual and the contents were unsettling to say the least.

The ink had weird kinds of markings, as if some of the notes were only added afterwards.

 

The Ritual of Time Replacement (?)

The Ritual has minimal effects on me - Related to my status as an Immortal?

An array drawn with blood that disappears once the Ritual is done- non removable until then. Location is usually at the place where the ritual was casted, just like the flowers.

Thesis: Array activates Ritual.

Most of the drawings are unclear, was only able to translate “time”, “soul” and “cut”. 

Thesis: The soul of the caster removed (cut) from time - New timeline created? But where do the memory fragments come from?

All RItuals have different outcomes and results.

Thesis: Caster decides what happens in the new timeline.

Found traces of spiritual energy in the flowers (all identical).

Thesis: Spiritual energy of the caster? - Needs to be a cultivator, but former cases showed that common people may use the spell as well - “Soul” energy of the caster.

Poppies begin to wilt at an uncertain time - The time at which the spell was cast in the original timeline? What happens to the soul of the caster?

Thesis: Caster’s soul dissolves, returning to the soil. Probably unable to reincarnate - Did not find the same soul again afterwards.

Entrance to the “Abyss” appears at the same time that the flowers begin to wilt. In some cases, the entrance was already there before but inactive. - Relation unknown, location seemingly random. 

Able to enter the Abyss during this time and retrieve the caster. Only succeeded 12 out of 689 times. Caster does not always want to come back. 

Observation shows high readings of time fissures around the places the caster visited in the original timeline.

Thesis: Caster is cut out of every moment in time that they took a part in, all the time. Future, past, present. Not a new timeline, a modified one. - Time fissures cause memory leaks?

Question: Who is doing that? - Got a visit from Lord Time Master, was forbidden from any further investigation. Question cleared.

 

When Jiang Cheng finished reading, his head already hurt with the amount of information he had just received.

“Jiang-xiong, what does it say?” a Lan disciple asked the unmoving Yunmeng Jiang Disciple. 

Jiang Cheng opened his mouth but he didn’t know what to say and closed it again. One piece of information kept on repeating in his head, filling every thought he had. 

“Caster’s soul dissolves , returning to the soil- unable to reincarnate

His grip on the parchment tightened, as his head spun.  

You. Idiot.

Just what are you doing? What were you thinking?

He vowed to strangle his brother the next time he saw him in a dream- no, the next time he saw him in this world.

JIang Cheng took a deep breath and held on to that resolution. 

“The scroll says that the Ritual does not erase a person from history, but rather removes this person from every moment in time of this person’s life, past, future and present,” he explained calmly while the Lan Disciples held on to his every word. “This array is used to cast the spell.”

He showed everyone the array underneath the writing.

“The flowers, the red poppies, have…” Jiang Cheng swallowed. “The energy in them is not spiritual energy as we first thought, but rather… the caster’s soul energy. When they begin to wilt, it is most probably that the caster is dying during that time.”

He felt so numb all of a sudden, “When the Ritual is done, the caster’s soul dissolves and is unable to reincarnate, disappearing forever. When the flowers begin to wilt, the entrance to the Abyss opens somewhere. During that time we are able to enter and rescue the caster.”

HIs stomach dropped when he said the next lines, “Baoshan Sanren only succeeded in 12 out of 689 times.”

Everyone’s faces fell.

“Oh, Jiang-xiong, don’t worry!” Nie Huaisang said resolutely. “We’ll save Young Master Wei, definitely!”

Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth, “Yeah.”

“Is there anything else on the scroll?” a Senior Lan Disciple asked solemnly.

Jiang Cheng skimmed the text once more. He halted on the last paragraph. The wheels in his head began to turn. His grip on the paper relaxed.

“No, that’s it,” he answered, tucking the scroll away.

Lan Wangji gave him a sideways glance but made no comment. Jiang Cheng wondered if he too knew what he knew. And if he too had been visited by… that person. It made him wonder what connection the Second Jade might have to his brother.

“So, are we still looking for Baoshan Sanren?” one of the younger Lan Disciples asked.

“Yes, there might still be things that are not written here,” the oldest Lan Disciple answered. “But we should also begin to look for the entrance to the Abyss before it opens.”

“I think I might know where it is,” Nie Huaisang replied, folding out his fan. “You all remember that strange blood pool that appeared a few months ago near the Cloud Recesses? Isn’t that the most suspicious place? A blood pool doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. It’s got to be there.”

“Second Master Nie is right,” a Lan Disciple said, impressed. “It’s the best lead we have.”

“Jiang-xiong, that’s also where you found your brother’s notes, right?” Nie Huaisang said to Jiang Cheng, hiding his face behind his fan.

Jiang Cheng looked at Nie Huaisang for a long moment, silently. 

Then he replied, “Yes, that is right. We will check out the location once more when we get back to Gusu. But first, let’s pay a visit to Baoshan Sanren.”

 

That night Jiang Cheng was visited by the mysterious stranger once again. 

He had just been about to go to sleep when he felt a shudder wreck through his whole body and he heard a ringing in his ear. Jiang Cheng took in a sharp breath and instinctively covered his ears while looking around for any danger in bewilderment.

Strangely, the others in the room seemed to not have noticed anything as they kept on sleeping peacefully.

“Show yourself,” Jiang Cheng demanded, gritting his teeth. 

“Keep your voice down. We don’t want to alert someone,” a familiar voice answered him calmly. “You’ve done well so far. There isn’t much left for you to do anymore. You almost made it.”

Jiang Cheng didn’t answer, his jaw clenching.

“You and your brother are both very stubborn, aren’t you?” the stranger continued.

Jiang Cheng finally turned towards the other at that and saw him lean on the sill of the opened window. It was the first time that he got a good look on the mysterious figure. His heart stopped beating for a second.

“What,” Jiang Cheng whispered in shock, before anger took its place. “How dare you?!”

The stranger with his father’s face chuckled softly.

“What, you don’t like it? I chose it especially to make you feel more comfortable,” he replied lazily. “Hm, well. I guess you would prefer to see this one instead?”

Jiang Cheng’s world slowed down as the stranger’s face morphed into something else, someone else. It was not a face he had seen before, he was sure. But as he stared at sharp features, clear silver eyes and long black hair he was startled to find something warm slide down his face. 

When he raised a hand to his cheek, he saw it wet with his tears.

Even as he tried to wipe his tears away, they kept coming and his nose began to run, turning him into a complete mess. Scared and confused, Jiang Cheng clutched his chest as pain wracked through him. 

The stranger’s expression turned soft, “Poor child. I guess this face does cause more damage, after all. If he could see you now, would he chose not to do it?”

Jiang Cheng tried to breathe through the tears in vain.

The stranger watched him for a moment and there was something like pity in his eyes, “I’ll try to keep talking to him. Maybe he’ll see reason soon.”

The stranger disappeared with that, leaving behind a weeping boy. Whatever spell the stranger had casted faded away and so he tried to stifle his cries as to not wake his roommates.

The pain did not go away for a long time.

Chapter Text

Lan Qiren’s permission arrived only a day later and the Lan Expedition group wasted no time in packing up and preparing for the journey to Dafan Mountain. Wen Ruohan made sure to have some proviant prepared for them, which was a big surprise coming from him but everyone was already kind of used to the Wen Sect Leader’s weird behaviour.

And thus, the journey to Dafan Mountain began.

 

The journey to Dafan Mountain was quick and quiet. They met a few fierce corpses on their way, but those were quick to be dealt with.

The group arrived at Dafan Mountain about 4 days later.

There was a village at the bottom of the mountain, where they rested for a few hours. During their stay they discovered that something strange had been going on at the mountain for a while.

Apparently, the people who had ventured out there returned with their souls missing but otherwise perfectly unharmed. 

“This must be the night hunt that Baoshan Sanren is on,” Nie Huaisang deducted. “I don’t think an Immortal would want to deal with a few corpses but a case of missing souls instead.”

“Let’s hope she hasn’t left yet then,” Jiang Cheng replied, looking up at the giant mountain shaped like a buddha towering over them.

“What is Baoshan Sanren doing here though?” a young Lan Disciple asked. “I heard that she never leaves her mountain.”

“Gossiping in forbidden,” an older Disciple replied sternly. “We shall ask her ourselves.”

 

At Dafan Mountain, they found a big cave with a tall statue of a dancing goddess inside. Incense sticks had been lit up on the altar of the goddess as an offering.

“Is this the right place?” Jiang Cheng wondered, frowning. “Did we come too late?”

Baoshan Sanren was nowhere to be seen and they had not encountered any difficulties on their way up the mountain side. Had the night hunt already ended?

“She couldn’t have left yet, right?” a Lan Disciple added. “We won’t ever find her again if she did.”

“Maybe Wen Ruohan had wrong information?” another asked.

The disciples’ musings were interrupted by a “Quiet.”

Everyone looked to the Second Jade who was studying the statue of the dancing goddess with a slight frown on his face.

“What’s wrong, Second Master Lan?” Nie Huaisang inquired, nervously looking around for any danger.

Lan Wangji retrieved the guqin from his back wordlessly and began to play a few chords which echoed in the giant cave. For a second, nothing seemed to happen. But then the ground began to shake and debris fell from the ceiling.

Everyone watched in alarm as the statue began to move as if it was alive. The goddesses’ former smile turned malicious as she stepped down from the stone pedestal she had been built on.

“Everyone, prepare for a fight!” Jiang Cheng yelled, drawing Sandu from its sheath.

The Lan disciples all drew their swords as well and gathered in a fighting formation.

“But I didn’t bring my sword!” Nie Huaisang exclaimed as he hid behind a stone boulder, holding his fan out in front of him like a shield.

“Then stay there, don’t draw her attention!” Jiang Cheng ordered.

They didn’t have much time to talk after that as the statue began to attack them. Giant hands tried to reach for their bodies in order to break them and the Cultivators tried to fend them off with their swords. It didn’t take too long for them to realize that their swords did little to none damage to the powerful goddess at all.

Only the sound of Lan Wangji’s guqin kept the statue distracted enough for them to expertly evade her. 

However, this couldn’t go on forever and soon everyone was pretty much out of breath while the statue only had a few cracks and dents.

Jiang Cheng had been slammed into the ground by the giant statue and the impact left him dazed. He distinctly heard the others call out to him but he barely had time to react as the goddesses fist came down on him with an alarming speed.

Jiang Cheng would not be able to dodge that in time.

Just when he braced himself for the impact, a flash of gold swept over his head and hit the statue right in the middle of its forehead. The force of the collision pushed the statue backwards until it hit the cave wall with a loud bang leaving a crater in the rock. The goddesses’ head exploded into tiny shards of rock and it finally stopped moving.

The sound of the guqin faded.

The golden sword that had hit the statue hovered in the air for a second before returning back to its wielder. Everyone turned their heads to see who had just finished the opponent they had been fighting for a while now with just one hit.

At the entrance of the cave stood a lone figure wearing white robes that were fluttering in the wind. The figure’s face was obscured by the veil of a weimao but it was unmistakably a female. 

“Are you people blind?” was the first thing she said. “Can’t you read? The sign outside clearly says “Do not enter”, doesn’t it?”

There was a moment of confused silence.

“But… there was no sign?” Nie Huaisang replied hesitantly.

The woman paused.

“... Aish, I forgot to put it there again,” she sighed. “Alright then, forget what I said. Move along now.”

When the woman sheathed her sword and turned around to leave, Jiang Cheng jumped up abruptly.

“Please wait,” he called out. “You’re Baoshan Sanren, right?”

It was the only plausible answer as to how there was someone so powerful.

The woman halted in her steps and turned her head to look at him. Having gotten her attention, Jiang Cheng took out the scroll from his sleeves and held it out to her.

“This scroll is yours, isn’t it?” he asked. “It’s about a spell to erase someone’s existence.”

“Yes, I am aware,” Baoshan Sanren replied sceptical. “So what? You already have the scroll, what else do you want from me?”

“Elder Baoshan, you knew the scroll was stolen by your former disciple?” one of the Senior Lan Disciples asked.

“Yes, of course,” Baoshan Sanren answered. “That unruly child always had such grabby fingers, ever since she was small. Well, it’s not like I have any use for the scroll anyway.”

“We need your help,” Jiang Cheng blurted out and bowed down low to her. “Elder Baoshan, my brother casted the Ritual of Time Replacement. I don’t know how to break the spell and save him. So please, help me.”

Baoshan Sanren was quiet for a bit. 

“I know,” she said. “I remember him. Or at least what I heard of him during that other timeline. I only ever met him once when he was an infant, you know? And now, what did he do? I swear that child is just as irritating as his mother was.” 

She became annoyed, “Aish, could people please stop messing with time? Do you know how uncomfortable it feels to have time move from its place around you? Gods, I hate this spell.”

“Will you help me?” Jiang Cheng pressed desperately.

“No,” Baoshan Sanren answered deadpanned and Jiang Cheng’s stomach sank. “There is no way I can help you, sadly. I’ve been forbidden from any further involvement in the matter…. However, there is one thing I can tell you.”

Jiang Cheng perked up in hope at that.

“Don’t think you can stop the spell,” Baoshan Sanren said, causing confused mutters between the disciples. “Be quiet, children! So, you cannot actually stop the spell yourselves. All you can do is to enter the Abyss when the entrance opens, find A-Ying and convince him to cancel the spell. Only the caster can stop the Ritual, but he must be willing to do so. Once you manage to do that, that stupid god will clean up the timeline, so that there are no more time fissures left.”

Jiang Cheng soaked in that information greedily but Nie Huaisang tensed beside him.

 “What about… the people that died in the original timeline?” the Second Young Master Nie asked. “Will they be dead again? And the memories of the original timeline, will they come back?”

“Well, that’s a bit of a tricky question,” Baoshan Sanren answered. “I’m sure you have noticed differences between the Ritual that A-Ying cast and the Ritual that Lan Baoli cast. That is because there are several types of notes on the Ritual. You see, the original manual has been long lost and since then the interpretations of the Ritual have differed from each other.”

“The scroll that Lan Baoli was given by the stupid daughter of my stupid disciple, was only put together by the observations I made during my lifetime,” she explained. “The scroll that A-Ying found was one that I had not seen before. I have already confiscated it and no, I’m not giving it to you. Once you’re done with this case, I will retrieve my notes as well.”

No one could really argue with her about that. It was better if there no more notes about this type of Ritual in the world.

“The scroll that A-Ying found has one more piece of information in it that I didn’t know about before,” Baoshan Sanren continued. “Apparently, in rare cases, the caster of the spell gets one wish that will be granted. In A-Ying’s case, the wish would appear to be one that brought back the people who had died in the original timeline. I can’t actually tell if the wish will be revoked when the spell is canceled, I’m sorry.”

Nie Huaisang’s hands tightened into fists. Jiang Cheng gave his friend a concerned gaze but was quickly waved off as Nie Huaisang hid his face behind his fan once more 

“You’ve been to the Abyss a lot of times before, right?” Jiang Cheng redirected his attention to Baoshan Sanren. “What can you tell us about it?”

“Nothing much,” the Immortal answered. “Its appearance changes with each time, as well as the trials.”

“What trials?” a Senior Lan Disciple asked confused.

“Ah yes, I didn’t write that part down in that scroll,” Baoshan Sanren sighed. “The Abyss doesn’t let you get to the caster just like that, you know? It’s like … you need to show that you’re worthy and that you’re serious. You will face a few trials to test the strength of your will. But of course after all that, you will still need to convince A-Ying to cancel the spell. You can also not take your time. The timer is still running even in the Abyss, you know.”

She paused, looking at Sandu that was hanging on Jiang Cheng’s belt, “You may or may not get some assistance. But it depends on you, really.”

Jiang Cheng clenched his hands into fists. 

Why was this gods-damned spell so complicated? Why couldn’t he just get his brother back?

Regarding his brother ...

“You’ve said A-Ying several times now,” Jiang Cheng noted, uncertain. “Is that… is that his name?”

Baoshan Sanren turned to him and Jiang Cheng wondered what everyone saw in his face to regard him with such pity, “Yes, Wei Ying, Wei Wuxian is his name.”

Wei Ying , Jiang Cheng repeated in his mind several times. Wei Wuxian.

Finally, he had a name he could call.

“And that is all I can tell you,” Baoshan Sanren said. “I’m sorry, that I’m not able to help you more. But I think you can succeed. Just… don’t give up.”

It seemed like she had more to say, but in the end she chose not to. Everyone bowed to the Immortal in respect and gratitude as she turned around and left.

Now, all that was left to do was to make sure that the people in the village had all gotten their souls back and then return back to the Cloud Recesses.

For now, they had gotten all the answers that they needed.

Chapter Text

It only took them a week to arrive at the Cloud Recesses.

Having flown for the last few hours, everyone was tired and exhausted, ready to hit the covers for the next week. Jiang Cheng even more so since he’d had to carry Nie Huaisang on his sword, the other being completely incompetent when it came to flying. Or anything related to the sword, really.

The group had sent a message by bird ahead a few hours ago to inform Lan Qiren of their arrival. The teacher was already awaiting them at the gates and Jiang Cheng couldn’t help but feel relieved to be back, the last few weeks having been more than nerve-wracking.

Jiang Cheng bowed to his teacher in greeting, receiving a stern nod in return.

“Welcome back, students. I hope your journey has been fruitful,” Lan Qiren said, stroking his beard.

“Yes, Xiansheng,” the leader of the group, the oldest Lan Disciple answered, saluting. “I will bring you the report shortly.”

Lan Qiren nodded in reply, “Good. But it looks like all of you are exhausted. Take a rest first, everything else can be discussed once you have recovered your strength.”

The group thanked their teacher before excusing themselves.

“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Qiren called out. “I will have to trouble you for a bit longer.”

Jiang Cheng halted in his movements, turning back to his teacher, “Of course, Xiansheng?”

Lan Qiren sighed, “Your father has sent word that he will be visiting the Cloud Recesses soon.”

Jiang Cheng’s eyes widened, “My father? But why?”

“It seems your parents have gotten worried,” Lan Qiren said. “I can assume it is because of the delay on your expedition when you went to Dafan Mountain.”

Jiang Cheng bit his lip, already feeling dread pool in his stomach.

“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Qiren said. “Maybe it is time you told your parents about this matter. Do not keep them in the dark for long.”

The Jiang Heir exhaled heavily, closing his eyes with a frown on his face.

“I know,” he replied weakly. “You’re right, Xiansheng. I just don’t know how to tell them about this.”

“I can imagine,” Lan Qiren said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “But it will only get harder the more you delay this. They deserve to know the truth. But … this matter is yours personally, so I will leave it to you if you tell them or not.”

“Yes, thank you, Xiansheng,” Jiang Cheng sighed. “Please excuse me.”

Lan Qiren nodded and Jiang Cheng made his way to his room after that. His mind was already spiralling with thoughts of how to tell his parents about this matter and weariness had settled deep in his bones.

He fell asleep the second his body hit the bed.

 

The day started like any other.

Jiang Cheng woke up at nine in the morning and got dressed before making his way to the dining hall to have breakfast with his family. On his way there, he passed a room in the Jiang manor that had been empty for ages. Somehow they couldn’t find any use for it and giving it to someone else did not seem right.

Like every day, Jiang Cheng stopped in front of the room, his eyes locked on the door. He couldn’t help it. Every time he walked past this door, he expected it to slide open and someone to walk out of it but that never happened since the room itself was unoccupied.

He could never bring himself to open it or step inside.

With a sigh, Jiang Cheng tore his gaze from the locked door and continued his way to the dining hall.

His sister was already there, helping the servants prepare the tables. When he came in, Jiang Yanli smiled at him, immediately making him feel better.

“A-Cheng, good morning,” she greeted him sweetly. “Come sit down, breakfast is almost ready.”

“Good morning,” Jiang Cheng mumbled back before sitting down at his usual spot.

His sister had already peeled him some lotus roots in a bowl, on which he began to nibble absentmindedly. Like always, the bowl was filled with too many lotus roots and he could never finish all of them.

It didn’t take long for the tables to be ready and it was around that time that Jiang Fengmian and Madam Yu finally stepped into the hall as well. Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli both stood up to greet their parents. Once everyone was seated, they began to eat as well.

Their meals were initially filled with a calm atmosphere. Here and there Jiang Fengmian would inquire about his son’s progress in cultivation or his daughter’s wellbeing while Madam Yu would pass some remarks. Everything was usually peaceful and quiet except for their parent’s inevitable arguments.

A small comment here would cause a dispute over there, with Jiang Yanli often having to mediate between the two of them. Jiang Cheng would ask himself why his parents never seemed to get along or why they had married in the first place when that was the case. But he had long concluded that his parents were simply like that and that there was no use in worrying over something that he had no control over.

As his sister had told him one day, it was their parent’s problem to solve and not theirs. He just had to keep in mind that despite their disagreements, their parents still respected each other and that was the most important thing.

But he just couldn’t help wish that things were different.

Jiang Cheng listlessly picked on his rice, trying not to listen to his parents' bickering.

“Aiy, they never stop, do they?”

The Jiang heir’s elbow slipped off the table, his head whipping to his right and his eyes widened. But the space beside him was empty and he couldn’t discern the source of the voice. When he turned to look at his family, he saw them already looking at the same spot he had just looked at with confusion written all over their faces.

“A-Cheng, did you just say something?” Jiang Yanli asked uncertainly.

Jiang Cheng opened his mouth to decline but his voice was stuck in his throat and so he could only shake his head.

The Jiangs shared lost looks, all troubled by the strange occurrence.

It was Madam Yu who broke the silence with a frown on her face, “It must have been the wind. Jiang Cheng, I expect you at the training yard in a few minutes, finish your meal quickly.”

She took her leave with that leaving no room for arguments.

Jiang Fengmian cleared his throat but the smile on his face was weak, “Well, your mother is right. Continue your meals A-Cheng, A-Li.”

Jiang Yanli sat back down at her table but her gaze was downcast and she couldn’t bring herself to eat anymore, picking at her food. Jiang Cheng was no different, having lost all appetite all of a sudden.

The two siblings shared a look over their tables, with heavy feelings in their stomachs.

 

Jiang Cheng opened his eyes slowly to a dark ceiling.

He laid there in his bed for a while, not moving a muscle. Eventually, his hands came up to press against his eyes as he exhaled heavily. Now wide awake, despite it still being night outside, he shuffled out of bed and towards a drawer on the other side of the room.

He opened the cupboard without a sound and pulled out the small cloth inside before sitting down on the ground and slowly unfolding the cloth to reveal a small journal. It was his brother’s journal, the one he had found in the cave with the blood pool.

He spent a few minutes staring at the leather cover of the book, lithe fingers stroking over it carefully before he flipped the book open.

Jiang Cheng froze in his place. Suddenly he could hear his heartbeat loud and pounding in his ears and his hands began to shake. A heartbeat passed before his mind finally realized that the journal was blank.

The Jiang Heir began to rapidly turn the pages, looking for any of his brother’s writing but every page was wiped clean as if it had never been there in the first page. Eventually, his hands shook too much and the journal fell to the ground with a thud that resounded in Jiang Cheng’s ears beside the blood rushing through them.

“No,” he whispered in horror, feeling like he was about to lose his mind.

Without a second thought, Jiang Cheng sprang to his feet and rushed towards the sword stand that contained Sandu and his brother’s Suibian. When he saw that his brother’s sword was still there, Jiang Cheng’s breath left him in a rush, shaky hands reaching up to tug the sword into his arms.

He clutched onto it like a lifeline, his heart rate only slowly calming down.

Jiang Cheng’s mind flashed back to that night at the Nightless City when the stranger had appeared wearing first his father’s and then an unfamiliar face. His dreams since then had been haunted by those silver eyes. He woke up at night, heart beating furiously and tears streaming down his face.

Still, he could not recall a single other feature of that face, no matter how hard he tried.

Jiang Cheng mentally slapped his face, his limbs too heavy to do it physically. What was he doing, panicking over something like this when he should have expected it? The timer was still running, it had never stopped. Just because things seemed to go well for a while, it didn’t mean that his brother wasn’t still in danger.

Get a grip, Jiang Cheng!

Every trace of Wei Wuxian was slowly vanishing from the world and should the ritual be completed then nothing would remain of him. How could anyone be okay with that?

How can you, Wei Wuxian?

 

Jiang Cheng spent the next few days on the edge of his seat, constantly paranoid that his brother’s sword might vanish whenever he looked away from it for too long. He couldn’t help himself but take Suibian along with him to class, unable to let go of it anymore.

If anyone noticed, they didn’t comment on it.

He played Inquiry every night, just to make sure that his brother was still there. Sometimes Wei Wuxian appeared, sometimes he did not. Sometimes his light would be dimmed, sometimes he would shine brightly.

Jiang Cheng’s fingers itched to reach out and touch that fragile orb, his brother , but he knew that he could not. 

It was agonizing, having his brother so close yet so far.

 

It was only three days later that Jiang Fengmian arrived at the Cloud Recesses. He came alone, only his two oldest students by his side. Jiang Cheng tried to brush off the disappointment at his sister not being there. Madam Yu must have made her stay at Lotus Pier or else Jiang Yanli surely would have accompanied her father to see her brother.

Jiang Cheng greeted his father alongside Lan Qiren and the Twin Jades of Gusu, as was customary.

When he first saw his father, he was overcome by the urge to run into his arms and just hide there. Even if only a few months had gone by since he had last seen Jiang Fengmian, to Jiang Cheng, it felt like much more. 

Jiang Fengmian was smiling amicably, the way that he always did. He properly looked his son over before placing a warm hand on his shoulder and greeting Lan Qiren.

“Thank you for having us on such short notice, Second Master Lan*,” the Yunmeng Jiang Sect Leader said.

“It is no trouble,” Lan Qiren replied politely. “I am sure Sect Leader Jiang has his reasons. Perhaps we would like to have this conversation inside over a cup of tea?”

“Of course,” Jiang Fengmian agreed. 

For a second, Jiang Cheng was unsure if he should follow but that was quickly cleared when his father gently nudged him along, keeping the hand on his shoulder the entire way to the Pavillion where they sat down. Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji had excused themselves since they were not needed there and they had other duties to take care of.

Initially, Jiang Cheng had been close to crying like a little child when he first saw his father but the warm hand on his shoulder was comforting him in a way that made him feel as if everything was going to be okay. 

It didn’t alleviate his nervousness over having to tell him about Wei Wuxian though.

Once they all had been seated and the tea had been served, Jiang Fengmian directed an expectant gaze at Lan Qiren.

“Sect Leader Jiang, have you ever heard of the Ritual of Erasement, or the Ritual of Time Replacement?” Lan Qiren asked calmy.

Jiang Fengmian hesitated for a moment. Jiang Cheng could see the confusion in his father’s eyes and bit his bottom lip.

“I don’t believe I have,” the Sect Leader Jiang answered slowly.

Lan Qiren nodded understandingly, “Then I will have to ask Sect Leader Jiang to read this please.”

Jiang Cheng tensed when Lan Qiren pulled a familiar scroll out of his sleeves and placed it down in front of his father. It was Baoshan Sanren’s report on the Ritual of Time Replacement.

With bated breath, the Jiang Sect Heir watched as his father unrolled the scroll and read the contents. 

… soul dissolves… unable to reincarnate…

Jiang Fengmian was still while he read the scroll. For once, there was no pleasant smile on his face. Jiang Cheng had never been good at reading his father but at that moment it was sheer impossible for him. He couldn’t tell at all what his father was thinking or feeling.

When Jiang Fengmian finished reading, there was a knit in his brows as he lowered the scroll. He met Lan Qiren’s brown eyes steadily with his lavender ones.

“I would not like to presume that such a Ritual is currently being used,” the Jiang Sect Leader said. “What is the meaning of this, Lan Qiren?”

Jiang Cheng averted his gaze, unable to look his father into his eyes anymore, overwhelmed by his own emotions. Of course, his father was too smart to not know what this all was about.

“I believe Sect Leader Jiang already knows,” Lan Qiren replied. “This Ritual has been cast indeed.”

Jiang Fengmian’s mouth pressed into a thin line. There was an urgency in his eyes now, a frustration, a desperation that’s been building up for several years now. Unconsciously, he already knew.

“By whom?” he asked because he needed to know.

He felt like he needed to know .

Lan Qiren looked at Jiang Cheng expectantly. It was not his place to deliver this information, after all.

Jiang Cheng found his throat cloaked up. He could not bring out a word, especially when his father looked at him too, a question in his matching eyes. Jiang Cheng’s hands cramped into his robes.

“It’s Wei Ying ,” he blurted out desperately. “Father, it’s Wei Ying .”

Now , he really felt like he was going to cry.

Jiang Fengmian froze up, “ Wei … Ying? Wei ? I don’t … understand.”

“His name is Wei Wuxian, Wei Ying,” Lan Qiren continued when he saw that Jiang Cheng himself was unable to, directing Jiang Fengmian’s attention back to himself. “He is the son of Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren. I assume that you were supposed to take him in after his parents died. We do not know the circumstances of the other timeline yet, but something drove him to cast this Ritual, thus erasing his existence from our world.”

Jiang Fengmian looked pale and like he was about to faint. 

“This is … this is impossible,” he whispered.

Jiang Cheng finally looked back up at the sound of his father’s distress, alarmed by the lack of colour on his face.

“Father? Are you okay?” he asked worriedly.

Lan Qiren was also frowning.

Jiang Fengmian opened his mouth to reply, to assure his child that he was fine but no sound came over his lips. He took a deep breath to calm himself and took a sip of his tea to open up his throat that had suddenly closed itself.

“Maybe it’s not that impossible,” he finally said quietly, looking somewhere far away.

“Sect Leader Jiang, is there something you know?” Lan Qiren asked.

Jiang Fengmian closed his eyes, “Wei Wuxian … the courtesy name I chose. Wei Ying … the name Changze chose ...”

Jiang Cheng’s eyes widened.

“… Wei Ying, the child that Sanren lost before it was born.”

Chapter Text

Lan Qiren frowned.

Jiang Cheng was speechless.

Jiang Fengmian rubbed his forehead and sighed, “This ritual ... the caster is removed from every moment of his life?”

“That is what Baoshan Sanren assumes,” Lan Qiren replied, stroking his beard as he watched the Jiang Sect Leader.

“Then … that makes sense,” Jiang Fengmian muttered to himself.

“Would Sect Leader care to elaborate?” Lan Qiren inquired.

Jiang Fengmian sighed heavily and pulled himself back together.

“Yes,” the Jiang Sect Leader said, voice firm again. “16 years ago, Changse Sanren got pregnant. During her pregnancy, I asked her to stay in Lotus Pier.”

They all had been so happy. Wei Changze probably more than any of them. You would often find him fussing over his wife during that time. Changse Sanren had been excited, her entire face beaming in happiness. Even Madam Yu’s bad temper had been less than ever before and afterwards, ever again.

Jiang Fengmian remembered it all too clearly. That happy time.

“Everything was going well at first,” he continued. “Sanren was well into her fifth month of pregnancy, her belly already showing a little, when it all went downhill. I remember her waking up one day, complaining about having a bad feeling in her stomach. She wanted the physician to take another look at the baby.”

Jiang Fengmian closed his eyes in pain.

“When the physician did … he found nothing,” he said. “There was no baby there anymore. Only a few weeks ago had been the last check-up, when we were told that the baby was strong and healthy. And then suddenly, Sanren’s belly was empty, as if she had never been pregnant in the first place.”

Lan Qiren and Jiang Cheng were both filled with consternation. To have such a thing happen … how painful it must have been.

And painful it had been. For the first time, Jiang Fengmian had seen his best friend be genuinely angry. Wei Changze had demanded more check-ups, refusing to believe that his baby had just disappeared from his mother’s womb. 

Changse Sanren had been deathly silent. Her skin had been incredibly pale. She had gone in shock. No one knew what to do. The physician had said that Changse Sanren must have miscarried after the last check up but that was impossible. If this had been a simple miscarriage then the baby should not have just vanished. 

His friends never recovered from that shock. Or rather, they had never gotten the chance.

Several weeks later, the Wei couple had left Lotus Pier despite his protests. A few months later, Jiang Fengmian had gotten their death notice. 

Lan Qiren had not heard of the Wei couple’s pregnancy. At that time, he had been too occupied with the Lan Sect after his brother went into seclusion. He had not been able to keep up with any of his old classmates. 

Truth was, he had never quite been friends with Changse Sanren. She had liked to annoy him a lot, often playing pranks on him. He had found her so very annoying but he had never hated her. She had been a bright spirit, always cheerful and he knew she had a good heart. 

To hear that she had gone through something like that ... She certainly had not deserved that.

“The ritual must have removed the baby from Sanren after it was developed well enough,” Lan Qiren theorized, lowering his head. “Such a thing ...”

“When we save ... A-Ying,” Jiang Fengmian began. “What will happen with this timeline? Will it return to how it was before?”

“We are unsure,” Lan Qiren replied. “Baoshan Sanren has not given us any information on that part. We can only assume.”

“I understand,” Jiang Fengmian muttered.

He turned to his son to find him with a complicated look on his face.

“Was this the reason you went to the Nightless City?” he asked him.

Jiang Cheng broke out of his thoughts, he looked up at his father with wide eyes. 

“Yes, it was,” he answered his father. “Someone from there had cast the ritual before, so we went there to find any clues. That’s where we got the scroll from.”

“I see,” Jiang Fengmian said. He turned back to Lan Qiren, “Gusu Lan is investigating this matter? Will you be able to save A-Ying?” 

“We will,” Jiang Cheng said before Lan Qiren could answer. “We will save him.”

Jiang Fengmian looked his son into the eyes and saw the determination in them. A strong feeling erupted in his chest. He placed a firm hand on his son’s shoulder and smiled.

“Yes, we will,” he agreed. “Lan Qiren, Gusu Lan has Yunmeng Jiang’s full support. Whatever is needed, do not hesitate to ask.”

Lan Qiren repressed a sigh. And here they had been worried that no one would believe them.

“Then let us all work to save the Young Master Wei,” he said. “Please allow me to share our current situation with you, Sect Leader Jiang.”

 

Jiang Cheng was sent away for that since there was no need for him to be there anymore. Not that he’d contribute much but at least he felt better now that he had seen his father. He would have never imagined himself being so desperate for the safety his parents gave him. 

He wasn’t a child anymore, after all.

But, the situation was at fault, he guessed. He could allow himself a moment of weakness.

He remembered that he still had to tell his sister about this. That’s what gave him anxiety, knowing that she would be devastated. If it was for him, he would just not tell her anything until he got his idiot brother back.

However, she was not a child and she deserved to know. He could not keep this from her.

 

Jiang Cheng was on his way to his room when he came across a large group of Senior Lan Disciples readying themselves for heading out. This piqued his interest and he asked them where they were going.

“We have been assigned to guard the blood pool in the cave nearby and report back if anything happens to it,” a Senior Disciple answered him.

Jiang Cheng took a deep breath. 

Right. The entrance to the Abyss. At least, that’s what they thought. Although, since the suggestion had come from Nie Huaisang, Jiang Cheng supposed that it should be true.

“Sect Leader Wen is sending some people over too,” another Disciple said.

He didn’t say anything more since the rules forbade gossiping but they all thought the same. The Wens probably wanted to make themselves big again. No doubt they’d start commanding everyone around once they arrived.

Jiang Cheng only hoped that they wouldn’t get in the way of him saving his brother. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if they tried.

 

Jiang Cheng finally arrived at his room. He immediately sealed the room and retrieved the flute Lan Xichen had given him a while again. His hands were shaking but he forced himself to be still and began to play Inquiry.

The first notes filled the room with an echo and soon countless spirits began gathering around him, brushing against his fingers and settling on his shoulders, weightless. But Jiang Cheng paid them no mind, only focused on the familiar spirit of his brother that settled down in front of him on its usual place.

Once Inquiry was stable, Jiang Cheng removed the flute from his lips for a moment to take a deep breath. His hands were still shaking.

But not from fear, nor nervousness.

No. Jiang Cheng was furious .

“Were you thinking about your parents when you did this?” Jiang Cheng asked lowly, knowing that Wei Wuxian could hear him very well.

His spirit was not like the others who were not aware of where or in what state they actually were. Wei Wuxian was very much aware and conscious to a level of almost being a ghost.

“Making them lose their baby, lose you ,” he continued. “Do you know what you did to them, how you hurt them?”

However, he did not react in any way to Jiang Cheng’s words, as if he didn’t care. It pissed Jiang Cheng off to no ends.

“You didn’t think, right?” he began to rant. “You didn’t think about them, you didn’t think about us . You only thought about yourself and how to ease your pain, you didn’t even think about what you might make us go through. Why are you always like this? Why do you always do this?”

He was filled with fear, with anger, with love and with hate. He was filled to the brim and it was slowly boiling over.

“How am I supposed to tell A-Jie about this?” he asked and watched as the spirit flinched heavily. “How am I supposed to go back to Lotus Pier and tell her who it is that she has been missing all this time? Who it is that she always thinks about, worries about without even knowing them? She doesn’t deserve this!”

The crimson orb’s light was dimmed and it was trembling faintly. Jiang Cheng’s eyes filled with tears of frustration because he had no right to make him feel this guilty.

“I’ll drag you back to her and have you apologize to her,” he gritted out. “I’ll have you begging for her forgiveness and promise to never do something as stupid like this again. You’re not getting away this easily, Wei Wuxian!”

The spirit of his brother grew terribly still. It was such a drastic change in behaviour that it struck Jiang Cheng mute instantly.

Broken notes from the flute echoed in the room, as if unintentionally.

How do you … know my name? ” Jiang Cheng could make out from the mixed up notes. “ How can you be this close already?

Jiang Cheng’s stomach sank.

Was Wei Wuxian … actually scared that Jiang Cheng might manage to save him? Should Jiang Cheng not have revealed that he knew his name?

Did he make a mistake?

Jiang Cheng wanted to do something to calm his brother down, realizing that he might have gone too far this time, but before he could do anything, Wei Wuxian’s soul vanished, taking with him the other souls and disrupting Inquiry. 

However, Inquiry had not be disrupted by Wei Wuxian but rather from the second sword that Jiang Cheng was wearing on his belt. Even Sandu had been unable to stop Suibian from interrupting Inquiry this time.

His mind unable to process the situation, Jiang Cheng clutched the black and golden sword, his heart pounding in his ears.

What had he done?