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Murder machines

Chapter Text

Jingyi getting hurt was not the plan. The plan didn’t involve anyone getting hurt. The plan barely ever involves anyone getting hurt, as Wei Wuxian must constantly remind people. And when it is necessary for someone to be hurt, Wei Wuxian knows that he, personally, is a much better candidate than nearly anyone else who might be present. The consequences will fall to him, regardless, so using himself for these things is simply that much more practical.

While the juniors’ horrified, collective gaze is still drawn to the scene of the injury, Wei Wuxian is working out a way to get this situation handled. He is one of three beings who continue moving while the tide of battle briefly churns to a halt; the first deer, himself, and Harrow.

The first deer is indifferent to the shock the second deer has caused, and is held in check, barely, by its indecision of where to charge next. Soaked in resentful energy, it stomps restlessly in place, moving as though each of its limbs has come unhinged. It’s quite possibly growing even bigger than its already monstrous size; much too large to be natural, in case the darkness shimmering off it in waves isn’t enough of a tell.

Harrow slips in from the sidelines and stations herself at her cultivation partner’s vulnerable back. She’s needed there; Gideon is gaping at Jingyi, sword forgotten and slipping from her fingers, the gap in her guard wide enough to offer herself up as the next target. Harrow, for her part, fills the opening neatly and flings a double handful of white in the first deer’s direction. Wei Wuxian, as he sprints for Jingyi, feels more than sees the beginning of her skeleton-summoning trick, a blossom and a shudder of resentful energy. Dozens of deaths. Dozens of children’s deaths, is his sour reminder to himself about the origins of that power.

But his new and forming plan means that Wei Wuxian needs to focus on the second deer. Shoving his flute back into his belt - there will be bruises on his hip later, but nothing to be done about that - he sketches a talisman one-handed in the air as he moves. As fast as he can throw, it lands on the second deer, to bind it in place before it can regain its senses, toss its massive head, and throw Jingyi off its antlers. He draws another, and a third, calculating how many more will be needed, whether the reservoir of his power will be enough to hold the thing still.

The suspended moment into which he ran is collapsing back into the rhythm of battle, and the juniors are again drawing breath by now. There is a panting, scattered, collective shout. The syllables of Jingyi’s name, confused “what”s and wordless gasps layer together into a cloud of noise. Jin Ling and Gideon Nav in particular seem to have found their voices in a harmonizing “Fuck!” that spills over into other assorted cursing. A very small part of Wei Wuxian's mind speculates on the possible origins of some particularly Yunmeng expressions in Jin Ling's vocabulary.

Over the ruckus, a grinding, inelegant chord sounds from Sizhui’s qin, another immobilization that strikes at the second deer. It’s ugly to listen to, but stokes a sharp flash of pride and confidence in Wei Wuxian, for the spell itself and for Sizhui’s quick action. Between his talismans and Sizhui’s note, the deer is frozen irresistibly in place, which should give them a few moments.

Wei Wuxian refocuses on Jingyi to assess the damage. Jingyi still stands, but only because of the antler points through his torso. His eyes are rolling back, mouth rimmed with blood. It looks serious, but if Wei Wuxian knows his stab wounds (he does, by now), it’s likely not deadly. No Lan elders will need to send Wei Wuxian back to the grave for getting one of his juniors killed, not today, not so long as they can get Jingyi home.

No time to rest, yet. Wei Wuxian whips his head around, counting juniors and swords, judging distance. Gideon is closest, so Wei Wuxian plants a sharp shove in the small of her back, propelling her closer to Jingyi, and directing, “Keep him on his feet, would you?”

In the same breath, he shouts, “Jin Ling!” Once he catches Jin Ling’s eye and gives him a once-over - uninjured, thank everything - Wei Wuxian aims a grin at him. “Have them circle and defend us. Like you practiced, yeah?” 

Jin Ling opens his mouth, as through for an argument, then registers the encouragement, swallows his words, nods. He dashes off, calling the rest of the juniors into formation.

A piece snaps together in Wei Wuxian’s mind, problem meeting solution like key meets lock, one more step clear in the sequence of getting everyone safely home. He spins again, shouts again. “Harrowhark!”

“Yes?” Her voice is close, casual, pitched low. Her gaze, under the black gauze veil, is directed at the other half of the fight, watching skeletons grapple the first deer, thrashing and braying, to the forest floor.

“That antler is made of bone .” He pauses for breath, and to let his thoughts catch up with his mouth. “Just pulling it out would make things worse, but can you alter it? Detach them? Make it easier to move him?”

The pause can’t be more than a few seconds, but in the pulsing rush of battle, it seems like Harrow is silent, thinking, for a long time. Now past the sudden burst of inspiration, Wei Wuxian is struck by a sobering thought. What if this is farther than her cooperation extends? We are her enemy. She may refuse.

“I can do it,” she answers.

Wei Wuxian nods once. “We’ll hold him steady.” 

The juniors are disciplined enough that there aren’t shouts of exuberance as the first deer is dispatched, but Wei Wuxian can hear the relief in their voices when it’s done. Their smaller formation - Gideon, Harrow, Wei Wuxian - draws close to Jingyi and the bound deer. Wei Wuxian circles behind Jingyi’s shoulder, flanking the beast, near enough to be reflected in the pool of its eye as they align themselves. A few paces away, Sizhui is tensed to strike his qin again for another application of the binding if it’s needed.

Gideon, sword discarded and faintly shaking, grips Jingyi’s shoulders from the front. Harrow worms between her arms and grasps the antlers. Her dark-gloved hands slip a little, in Jingyi’s blood.

A flick of Harrow’s wrists, and the antlers sheer away from the deer’s skull at their roots. Wei Wuxian pushes the deer’s unblinking head out of the way with his shoulder, filling the space with his own body, providing counterweight to Gideon’s steadying of Jingyi from the front.

Slowly and then faster, like a dune being sculpted away by a stiff wind, the antlers burn into a smoky haze at their tips and roots. Harrow flattens her palms against the dwindling points, pressing closer and closer against Jingyi’s chest as the seconds pass. The reduction makes the angle less awkward, lets Wei Wuxian support Jingyi by elbow and waist, and then to take the whole of his weight as Jingyi falls backward into him.

Jingyi’s body is lax and heavy in Wei Wuxian’s arms, and the flow of his qi is faint but stabilizing. The antlers are completely dissolved. The white of Jingyi’s uniform is soaked through, but the bleeding remains minor for a stab of this kind, much less than if the antlers were ripped directly out. There are a wealth of hands to hold him, now; with the first deer defeated, only two of the other students guard facing outward with their swords, and the rest - Sizhui and Jin Ling included - are crowding close, anxious to help.

Wei Wuxian lets them, helping to shift Jingyi’s deadweight into two pairs of waiting arms. 

Once unburdened, he raises his flute again, reorients himself at the remaining deer. Now-shorn, it is blowing faintly through wide nostrils, struggling against the bonds they’ve placed it under. With a melody, Wei Wuxian begins to call away the corruption from it, sinking some into himself, sending a greater quantity to disperse harmlessly.

As he takes the resentful energy from the deer, its form dwindles, though whether the change in size is from a physical loss or a trick of the eye is hard to tell. The inky blackness runs from its coat like old filth cleansed in a storm. In the end, he lets it bound away, bright-eyed, nimble, harmless.

Harrow is standing, flexing her fingers, staring at them. Staring at him.

One last thing. Wei Wuxian retrieves the alarm talisman from his shirt, sets it aflame with a snap. Back home, its pair has also burst alight. Back home, someone knows that they need assistance, and that someone will come, quickly. He spins on one heel to face his juniors, in their protective huddle around Jingyi. Bracingly, he says, “Someone is going to get a fire started while we wait. And it’s not going to be me!”

Jin Ling asks, “Is he going to be alright?”

“Everyone should get stabbed once when you’re young and healthy; it’s good practice.” Wei Wuxian pairs this with a smile, and manages to make it sound carefree. “He’ll be fine.”

Jin Ling looks, at best, 50 percent convinced. Wei Wuxian continues, “But we’ve still got a problem on our hands. We have to find whatever corrupted those two deer before anything else can get that bad.”

“We can help find it,” says Gideon.

Her necromancer gives her a look, cold and silent and suppressive, an entire argument balled up into a glance. 

“We’re going to help,” Gideon repeats.

“I do not-”

“Harrow,” Gideon says, darkly. “If you meant anything you’ve said to me, you’ll stop being an utter ass about this and make the right call. No more casualties. We're going to help.” She folds her arms. Absurdly, it looks as though she might cry.

Harrow blinks first. She blows out a breath, and explains, “The source… is likely to be our ship. It’s close, and somewhat charged, necromanticly. If this is a recent phenomenon, we can assume it's connected.”

“Can you take me there?” Wei Wuxian asks.

Harrow looks back to Gideon, who sets her jaw and responds, “You know what I think, boss. With your permission, I’ll be staying here to make sure no one else gets stabbed by evil deer.”

When Harrow turns away from Gideon, she gives off the distinct impression of someone tightly suppressing some reaction. For a moment, Wei Wuxian can see his brother's fury and exasperation in the set of her shoulders, but only until he blinks that impression, too, away.

 

It takes Harrow and Wei Wuxian less than an hour's walk to find the ship. It is impossible to miss, once they’ve gotten close. It isn’t just the height of the thing, tall enough to tower over any of the more extravagant buildings in Caiyi, or the exterior’s intricate bone plating, though both of those are plenty distinctive. The aura of pure, resentful malice leaking out of the thing is something the magnitude of which Wei Wuxian hasn’t felt for years.

Before they begin the seal, Harrow waves Wei Wuxian back, pulls open a hatch, and climbs up into the edifice. She spends a few moments inside while he lingers, and returns before he can start accumulating either suspicion or worry. Whatever she found inside, she remains as unreadable as ever.

It takes several long minutes for them to pace a circle around it, tromping through the crushed bushes and over several half-felled trees. Thankfully, the array that Wei Wuxian improvises doesn’t need much blood, and Harrow offers one pale ungloved hand for pricking to contribute her own.

When they’ve finished, and are resting (even Harrow having dropped her play at dignity to sit in a huff on the ground) Wei Wuxian says, “Remind me to take you to Yiling sometime, you'll fit right in.”

“I don’t think there will be a ‘sometime’.”

“There is if you want it.” He lets her absorb that, twirling the flute in his fingers for something to do. “Your mission was to kill me; fine. You're not the only one who's tried. And it's failed. You're not trying again, you're smarter than that. You could stay for a while."

"And you won't drive us off."

"Not if you want to learn. Or to teach! I would be very, very interested to hear about the bones."

"Necromancy doesn't seem to be in general approval around here. I doubt the welcome would be extensive," she says dryly.

He sighs, and pulls a face. "Give it a few days, at least. Hang around until the rest of the sect leaders get here to talk this over. Let me introduce you; you're of a rank with them, and you should meet them before you go back to your emperor's court."

He leaves unsaid, that this is an emperor who seemed to be very little bothered by the deaths of his subordinates. An emperor who still wants Wei Wuxian's life, and who might loom as a conquering threat all too soon.

Finally, Harrow says, "A transmission came, since we departed here two nights ago. I have a letter from the King Undying." And while he is still processing that, she continues. "I would like your advice on its contents."

 

That night, in the jingshi, it is just the two of them, himself and Lan Zhan. Late, because by the time he and Harrow had walked back, the day was almost gone. Jingyi had been up and talking by their return, almost spry by that point, given the speed at which he had been flown back and cared for.

"You don't think this is a terrible idea? That we'll regret it if they stay? A political disaster?"

"No," Lan Zhan answers. "Not if you're certain. Are you certain?"

"Maybe? I wasn't then, when she asked me, but later, when we finally made it back, and came to visit Jingyi in the infirmary-" 

"With the bunnies."

"Yeah, someone had brought two or three of the bunnies in for the company." It was commonplace, when juniors or the even younger students were sick or injured; he hadn't thought much of it at the time. "The two of them have put on such a show since they got here - so serious and so cold. I'd almost believed it. But when we walked in, Gideon had one of the bunnies and was cradling it to her chest - as though she’d never once held another living thing." 

Wei Wuxian has been pacing back and forth through their rooms, thinking aloud, unable to sit still. Lan Zhan has followed him from room to room, listening, as the sun set and the lamps were lit. Now, he comes beside where Wei Wuxian stands at the railing outside, offering a hand, palm-up, for Wei Wuxian to take.

"Harrow walked over and just - you should have seen her face when she felt its fur." Wei Wuxian takes the offered hand. He laces his fingers in Lan Zhan's, gaze still abstracted. "I look at her, at both of them, and all I can see is - us, younger. Myself, you, Jiang Cheng." He pauses, finding the words. "Facing something bigger than ourselves. No one to guide us. No rest unless we fought for it. No softness."

"Needing justice."

"Ha! Yes. In a way." Wei Wuxian can't help but smile at that. "You're always cutting right to the heart of it." He lets himself lean into Lan Zhan's warmth, drawing in a long breath of the familiar scent. Better to be here, at the end of a long day, than anywhere else. "If we can give them what we needed then, that would be worth a lot of terrible ideas, wouldn't it?"

"It will; we can."