While buying food in town, Lan Sizhui overhears a rumor of a haunted village in the mountains.
"Everyone had a different story, more wild than the last," he tells Wen Ning when he meets up with him on the road. "I don't know if there's anything supernatural at work, but everyone agrees that they haven't heard from the village in weeks."
Wen Ning nods. "Ah, then there might be trouble." He doesn't add, And we should help, but he doesn't need to. Sizhui is long accustomed to hearing what isn't said.
Luckily, it's early enough in the morning that they can make the village well before nightfall. Sizhui weighs the Lan Sect's many rules against eating breakfast while balanced atop his sword. He opts to eat mid-flight. Hanguang-jun would say that the lives of innocents are more important. Besides, it's not as though he's talking to anyone during the meal.
When Sizhui lands near the village, he frowns. He doesn't sense any spiritual energy here, resentful or otherwise. There's something else, though, weighty as the rain clouds blowing in from the west.
He turns to Wen Ning, hidden in the bushes just off the road. "Something is happening here. I don't know if it's cultivator business, though. Let's hope there's someone who can answer our questions."
"A-All right." Wen Ning is still nervous about frightening people, but as long as people don't look too closely, few people connect the pale, soft-spoken man with the terrifying Ghost General. When they first set off on their journey, Sizhui reminded Wen Ning that he helped Wei Wuxian sell vegetables in the marketplace.
Sizhui walks into the village, Wen Ning at his side. The place is too quiet, he realizes. Chickens cluck in the distance and a breeze stirs the surrounding trees, but no one is out. No conversations drift over from the well; no children shout at play.
An elderly woman emerges from a house and drops her basket of laundry with a cry. "Oh!" Her eyes widen as she takes in Sizhui's apparel. "Young master, there's sickness here! Is it… is it the work of a demon?"
Sizhui opens his mouth to reply, but Wen Ning walks forward before he can say anything. Sizhui is so surprised that his mouth hangs open for a few more seconds before he remembers to close it. Wen Ning never approaches people first!
Wen Ning kneels before the woman, picking up her scattered laundry with gentle hands. "It's probably an ordinary illness," he says. "Will you allow us to examine the sick?"
The woman blinks away tears, obviously too exhausted and distressed to notice anything unusual about Wen Ning. "My son and my granddaughter are inside. Please, I would welcome anything you can do to help us." She bows her head. "We buried my husband and two others two days ago."
"We'll do everything we can," Sizhui says at once. If no one helps these people, many more will die. At least one of those people could harbor enough resentful energy to create problems in the future.
Besides, it's the right thing to do.
Wen Ning straightens up and hands the basket to the woman. Only Sizhui sees the deep breath Wen Ning takes, even though technically fierce corpses don't need to breathe. "If you could stay to answer questions about the disease, it would be helpful."
What follows is one of the stranger afternoons of Sizhui's life. Perhaps "strange" isn't the word for a cultivator who has seen ghosts and monsters, who travels with a fierce corpse. "Unusual" might be the better word. Wen Ning takes over information gathering with such quiet authority that it reminds Sizhui of Zewu-jun before he went into seclusion, before… everything that happened at the temple.
While Sizhui feeds spiritual energy into the two sick people, Wen Ning examines them while asking questions of the woman, Shao Li. The sick aren't able to keep food or even water down. There is no fever, but the dehydration has already killed one-third of this village and infected another third. Sizhui's hands tremble when he hears those numbers, but he does not lose focus. He and Wen Ning are here now. They can do something about this misery.
The story is the same in all the other houses struck by illness. Wen Ning always gives the same set of instructions, his voice soft but clear: "They must drink water, as much as possible. Rice as soon as they are able to keep down water. Wash their clothes and bedding in boiling water. Boil any water drawn from your well until A-Yuan purifies it. Find another water source if you can."
One of the villagers closes his eyes when Wen Ning mentions the well. "Our healer told us there was something wrong with the water, but she was one of the first to die. We just--it was easier to get the water quickly, with so many sick so fast. We will do as you say, doctor."
Doctor. Sizhui watches the flicker of sorrow on Wen Ning's face. A similar emotion kindles in his breast. He remembers a young woman in coarse clothing. Her hands, roughened from labor but always steady, whether with a needle or mortar and pestle. Her voice, sometimes sharp, more often warm when directed at him. Wen Qing, who A-Yuan called Gugu, the doctor who became the last leader of the Wen.
A flash of crimson robes, the last time he ever saw her.
He and Wen Ning built a cenotaph for their dead clan, their own dead village, but the ghosts linger still.
"I'll see to the well now," Sizhui blurts out. Outside is cooler, with the smell of rain to replace the smell of sickness. His heart squeezes, but there is still work to be done.
Purifying a contaminated water source is both more and less intensive than cleansing an area of resentful energy. There's nothing in the well that will try to fight off or corrupt Sizhui, but eliminating disease takes time. Sizhui has already spent plenty of spiritual energy ensuring that the sick villagers will live out the night, but he wants this disease gone now. He draws from deep within his golden core and pours his power into the well, pours and pours until every trace of disease withers and washes away.
Sizhui's senses return gradually. He's still standing besides the well, hands gripping the slick stone sides. The gentle patter he hears is rain, just enough to spot the surface of his clothes. He inhales once--and blinks when a dumpling appears before him, held in a pale hand.
Wen Ning smiles. "Wash your hands first, A-Yuan."
Sizhui releases his hold on the well and shakes out his cramped hands. He considers arguing that his golden core will protect him from the sickness gripping the village, but something in Wen Ning's manner brooks no argument. It reminds him of Wen Qing. How could he have forgotten her? Part of her will always stand at Wen Ning's side.
Under Wen Ning's watchful eye, Sizhui removes a little cake of soap from their travel supplies, then draws now-clean water from the well. Once he's properly clean, he takes the dumpling. It's no longer hot, but tastes wonderful after expending so much energy.
"Will everyone recover?" Sizhui asks once he's done.
Wen Ning nods. "With A-Yuan's help, their bodies are strong enough to fight off the illness. I showed them some simple herbal treatments for digestive ailments. I told them what signs to look for, too, if this ever happens again."
"Like Gugu would," Sizhui says around the lump in his throat.
Wen Ning blinks a few times, the way he does when a living person would cry. "Ah. I was wondering when A-Yuan would remember."
"She took care of me in the Burial Mounds." Sizhui refills his water container for something to do with his hands. "I got sick, once. She gave me medicine." And a home, and food, and love, he doesn't say. He's not crying, either, but the raindrops sliding down his face are as warm as tears.
"A-jie was the greatest doctor in the world," Wen Ning says. "She taught me everything."
We only save people, we never kill them, says the ghost in Sizhui's memories.
They stay in the village overnight. Wen Ning explains to Sizhui that this disease, cholera, is not easily transmissible from human to human. It's safe to stay here, as long as they take the proper precautions. Sizhui falls asleep as soon as he lies down.
The next day, Sizhui wakes up far later than he usually does, but his spiritual energy is restored. Wen Ning has been up for hours already, an extra pair of hands to prepare congee for the sick, now the recovering. Whatever fear the villagers might have held for the Ghost General is gone. They see only the doctor who helped them. If they think it strange that the doctor doesn't need to eat or sleep, they keep it to themselves.
Shao Li thrusts a bowl into Sizhui's hands. Grief still shadows her face, but it no longer hollows her from within. "Eat! Eat!"
As Sizhui eats breakfast, he considers the small evils of the world: disease, and poverty, and ignorance. This here is what Hanguang-jun wants the cultivation world to see, Sizhui realizes. These villagers, some of them beginning to smile again, others grieving the lives that were lost before a doctor appeared. All of them sharing everything they have, determined, despite everything, to live.
Ordinary people are more vulnerable to the small evils than cultivators, but they are still people. They do not deserve to suffer. Would there be so many resentful spirits in this world if the cultivators shared more of their knowledge with the world? Sizhui's spiritual energy purified one well, but Wen Ning's teachings will help these villagers as long as there is someone to remember them.
Before they leave, Sizhui and Wen Ning visit their patients. As Wen Ning predicted, all of them are well on their way to recovery. Sizhui feeds them a trace of his spiritual energy anyway. The villagers try to pay them, and they refuse. Wen Ning asks the cleverest villager, a round-faced young woman, to recite the herbal remedies he shared. She does so without a single error.
Wen Ning smiles. "That is payment enough."
Sizhui walks in silence with Wen Ning for a time. He doesn't take out his sword to fly, and Wen Ning doesn't ask why, or where they're headed next. A barely-there rain doesn't so much fall as mist, cool against his skin.
There are things Sizhui wants to ask Wen Ning about the Wen doctors. About Wen Qing, who raised A-Yuan for a year of stolen time. But there are things that Sizhui wants to tell Wen Ning, too. He lets his thoughts fall into the rhythm of his feet against the dew-damp ground. If he thinks long and deeply enough, usually the words will arrange themselves.
"Wen-shushu," he says at last.
"The library at Cloud Recesses," Sizhui says. "I wonder if its medical texts need to be updated."
Wen Ning's steady stride stutters. "Would… would a fierce corpse be permitted to add to the library?"
Sizhui turns to face Wen Ning. The haunted feeling burns away like so much fog. This idea is right, and it lights him up from within. "Knowledge is precious, especially when it helps people. I would be honored to learn all that you know."
Wen Ning cannot blush, but his lowered eyes convey the impression. "I would like that very much."
On impulse, Sizhui throws his arms around Wen Ning. "When we travel, Wen-shushu can share what he knows about medicine."
A smile lights on Wen Ning's face, delicate as a bird on a branch. "A-jie would be proud," he whispers. His words convey another figure in red, her dark eyes bright.
The Wen clan has its cenotaph, but the memorial for Wen Qing--perhaps that will live between the covers of a book, and in the sick people treated with her knowledge. As long as her teachings exist, she will not be forgotten.
Lan Sizhui, Lan Yuan, Wen Yuan, releases his hold on Wen Ning. He wipes his eyes on his sleeve, and he can't stop smiling. "Well. If we hurry, we can reach Cloud Recesses before the week is out."