Jin Guangyao had most of his visitors led to the main receiving room where he greeted them from three steps above the crowd. It was important to maintain authority. But Lan Xichen was his friend, his closest friend. When he was told his friend had arrived, Jin Guangyao walked to the main gates to meet him, pausing for only a moment to wonder when Huan had, in his thoughts, become Xichen. It didn’t matter. Even with all the other changes, in this he had not changed. He still considered Lan Xichen his friend.
Lan Xichen stared at his eyes for a long moment. His smile dropped to a frown. Jin Guangyao did not show his hurt but gestured gracefully. “Would you care to join me for tea by the lotus pond?” Lan Xicen smiled in acceptance but Jin Guangyao could still see the concern in his friend’s eyes.
Jin Guangyao had known Jin Ling would be at the edge of the lotus pool. The child refused to play anywhere else and his attendants, of course, understood. Lan Xichen’s eyes narrowed in thought as he stared at the purple-clad disciples, and Jin Guangyao rushed to explain. “After Jin Ling’s … illness, Jiang Chang insisted he have attendants from Yunmeng. Who am I to argue? He is the boy’s closest living relative.”
Lan Xichen nodded his understanding but continued to look thoughtful for the rest of the day. Jin Guangyao could tell he wouldn’t let this go. His heart sank as his mind reached the inevitable conclusion. He didn’t want to kill his friend, but family came first.
The title, Suffers a Sea Change, is from Shakespeare's The Tempest.
For once the news preceded gossip. A water demon in Biling Lake had killed all the cultivators sent against it, including Zewu-jun. Jin Guangyao did not have to fake his grief. He truly mourned his friend and yet, as he held his nephew close, pointing out what the Jin disciples had assumed were eels in the lotus pond, he could not regret his decision. He might mourn Lan Xichen for the rest of his life, but Jin Guangyao rejoiced that his nephew was safe.
The chapter title, He is Dead, is from W. H. Auden's Funeral Blues.
Chapter 3: Seclusion
When he’d first learned to meditate, he’d been taught to ignore the external. The rapping at his door was not stopping. It did not make sense. The Elders had ordered him into seclusion. No one would dare disobey.
Wei Wuxian would disobey. He opened his eyes. It could not be. Wei Wuxian was dead.
The knocking continued, harder now. “Hanguang-Jun. Hanguang-Jun.”
It was not Wei Wuxian.
“Hanguang-Jun.” The voice sounded agitated. It clearly violate rule one-thousand four-hundred and twenty-three: Do not give in to emotions. Wei Wuxian would have laughed at him for stating the rule. He rose, opened the door, and stared. This disciple had survived the fall of Gusu. Nothing minor could upset him to this extent.
“Hanguang-Jun. The Elders have summoned you.”
He nodded and followed.
The Elders were not calm. Even when they’d ordered his seclusion, they’d appeared calm. What could have happened to cause such distress?
His uncle rose to his feet. Lan Wangji had never seen him cry. “Your brother is dead.”
The world flashed, broke in two, and for a moment it seemed as if a chasm had opened below him, but when he looked down the floor remained solid.
He bowed before the Elders. When he rose, he spoke only two words. “Tell me.”
Ever since Jin Zixuan had built the lotus pool for Jiang Yanli, Jin Guangyao had felt an affinity for the flower filled waters. He’d always served tea at a nearby pavilion. Now he sat his visitors overlooking a set of formal gardens. He didn’t trust outsiders near his nephew.
As Jin Guangyao leaned forward to lift the teapot from the table, he could feel the five minor Sect Leaders staring at his eyes. He smiled graciously. Even though their opinions didn’t matter, he felt unnerved by such close scrutiny.
He had just started pouring when a force, something unseen, struck him hard in the chest. The teapot shattered against the table. He fell forward, barely catching himself on trembling arms. Something sharp cut into his hand. A shard from the teapot? Before he could pull himself up, screams came from the lotus pond. Jin Ling!
Gardens and hallways blurred past as he ran for the pond. Jiang disciples, visibly shaking, stood in a protective circle around Jin Ling, their swords raised against an unseen threat. Jin Guangyao grabbed his nephew and held the wailing boy to him. As if it were echoing the boy, Jin Guangyao could feel his own heart crying out with loss. He felt as if his mother had just died. He felt as if Nie Mingjue had just now kicked him out of the Unclean Realm. He didn’t know what had happened but felt his world would never be the same. He saw the water in the lotus pond churning but whether in warning or agreement or something else, he did not know. Feeling a wetness at his cheeks, he brought a hand to his face and realized he was crying.
As a group of men ran into the courtyard, the Jiang disciples turned their swords to the more obvious enemy. Jin Guangyao had forgotten the Sect Leaders. “What happened?” one shouted. “Do you need our help?”
“You,” Jin Guangyao screamed. “What have you done?”
They stood slightly taller and puffed out chests as if looking larger could save them. A few looked shocked, others indignant. “Done? What do you mean? We are highly respected …”
Jin Guangyao shouted for his guards. “Take them away. Throw them in the dungeons.”
His unwelcome guests shouted, even drew their swords, but the Jin guards were effective. They removed the lesser disruption, but Jin Guangyao couldn’t set them against the greater one, this ache in his heart, this thing that had set his nephew screaming in panic, this horror that had terrified even the Jiang disciples.
He stood there, failing to comfort himself, trying to comfort his nephew, for what seemed like an eternity, but it was probably no more than half a shi before Jiang Cheng and a handful of disciples flew in and landed by the lotus pond.
Jin Guangyao could not smile. He could not be gracious. He could only cry out in his terror, “What is this?”
Jiang Cheng paused to see that Jin Ling was safe. The boy, as if sensing help had arrived, stopped crying but still fussed in Jin Guangyao’s arms. Jiang Cheng nodded as if satisfied and replied. “The Little Disciple I sent to Biling Lake has been murdered. If they’ve worked out how to kill even a lesser servant of the Elder Gods, then they know who sent it. Grab what you need. We must retreat to Lotus Pier.”
Jin Guangyao hugged his nephew closer. “I have Jin Ling. What more would I need?”
Jiang Cheng’s lips rose into a smile for a moment, but it was a sad smile. “Hand him to me. I apologize, but your cultivation is weak and time of the essence. One of the disciples will carry you on his sword.”
As they flew off, Jin Guangyao, glancing down, saw that his visitors’ disciples were fighting the Jin guards. He turned his head away. It didn’t matter. He only regretted that he hadn’t made Lanling safe for his nephew.
I apologize for the delay in posting. My car was rear-ended on Saturday. It took a lot out of me.
Shi – traditional Chinese unit of time, about 2 hours.
As the Sect Leaders waited for Lan Wangji to arrive, gossip ran rampant. Not “Zewu-jun is dead”, for everyone knew that already, but there were dozens of variants on how he’d died, how many cultivators had died with him, whether he’d sacrificed himself to save his disciples, what the creature had been, and whether or not it had attacked the Lan stronghold. And then there was the attack on the Sect Leaders at Lanling. The number of disciples who’d died either freeing or trying to free their Sect Leader had grown in each retelling. Rumor claimed that Jin Guangyao had fled with his nephew to Lotus Pier or that Jin Ling remained at Langling but Jin Guangyao had hidden himself in the Burial Mounds or even in the Nightless City.
Knowing they’d ignore him and therefore speak more openly if he looked silly enough, Nie Huaisang fluttered his fan and acted as if he hadn’t a care in the world. He wasn’t sure why he bothered. None of them knew anything. To be fair, he didn’t either, but the situation had to be bad if the Lan Sect had asked his brother to host and had invited all the minor Sects. Only the Jin and Jiang Sects were not represented.
Lan Wangji entered alone. He had brought no disciples with him. The gossip dropped down to silence which, in itself, spoke greatly to the sense of unease. Lan Wangji wasted no time. “It was all we could do to kill the creature. We lost two cultivators and five more may never regain their sanity.” Nie Huaisang wasn’t sure Lan Wangji looked all that stable himself. The slight wildness to his eyes, the twitching of his fingers, the tightness of his lips all spoke of a tremendous strain. The signs were subtle though. Nie Huasiang could only read them because he’d seen a bit below the man’s exterior when he’d studied at Gusu, and that only because Wei Wuxian wouldn’t leave Lan Wangji alone. Still, Nie Huaisang could see things others would miss. Lan Wangji looked like he was hanging on by a thread.
Before Lan Wangji could continue, Nie Mingjue rose to his feet. “Nie Huaisang. Out!”
He could not insult his brother before so many Sect Leaders. Nie Huaisang bowed a shade too long. “Sect Leader Nie.” He knew that no one, not even his brother, would recognize the formal title as a sign of anger, but was too unsettled to let that bother him. He had his own ways of gathering information.
“Make sure our guests’ disciples are comfortable,” his brother added. Perhaps Nie Mingjue had noticed his anger, but he hadn’t relented. He hadn’t allowed Nie Huaisang to stay.
The gathering only broke after hours of debate. No one, not even servants, had been allowed into the Great Hall. Nie Huaisang waited a short while to give the Sect Leaders a chance to settle before he hunted down his prey in the guest quarters.
He bowed before Sect Leader Yao. “My brother has assigned me to look after your comfort.”
“Oh! Fine. Fine.” The man looked pleased at being singled out. Hadn’t he noticed that Nie Huaisang had been told to look after all the guests?
Well, if it flattered the man, it’d just make him more amenable to sharing information. Nie Huaisang fluttered his fan. “May I confide in you, Sect Leader Yao?”
The man looked a bit concerned but propriety wouldn’t allow him to do anything but agree to such a direct question.
“I know I’m just a weak cultivator, but I can’t help being afraid. Lan Wangji looked so ill. I’m sure something terrible happened. How can I feel safe after seeing that?”
“Ah, it seems your brother was right to send you away.” The man actually wiggled a finger at him. “Not to worry. The Lan Sect destroyed the one creature and, if there are more, the might of all the Sects will be more than enough.”
The man spoke with confidence. Was he trying to reassure Nie Huaisang or deceiving himself? “But all those things Lan Wangji said, they sounded absolutely dreadful. Disciples going insane? What could cause such a thing?”
“Oh, you know. Youths, they tend to get overexcited. They exaggerate. There was talk of ancient scrolls and unholy demons. What? Does he think the creatures we fight aren’t unholy?”
Sect Leader Yao had just said that Hanguang-Jun had exaggerated the danger. That answered one question. He hadn’t been trying to sooth Nie Huaisang. The man was so terrified that he couldn’t let himself see the truth.
“He even spoke of bringing Wei Wuxian back,” Sect Leader Yao continued. “As if we’d need or even want the help of a demonic cultivator.”
“Back? But Wei Wuxian’s dead.”
Sect Leader Yao leaned in and whispered. “The Lans found a ritual, very dark. It requires someone to offer up their own body as host to the malevolent ghost. I know it’s impossible to believe, but Lan Wangji offered himself as host.” He sat up and spoke casually. “We convinced him it was a bad idea.”
Nie Huaisang felt his heart sinking. Did the man honestly believe that Lan Wangji, who had stood up to his own Elders, had been won over by mere words?
“We don’t need the Yiling Patriarch to take on two renegade Sects.”
“Two Sects?” Nie Huaisang asked as if it wasn’t obvious that both the Jin and Jiang Sects were missing.
“Didn’t I mention? Those ancient scrolls referred to creatures similar to the one they encountered in Biling Lake, creatures associated with rivers or water. Evidence pointed to the Jiang Sect.”
“And people were saying Jin Guangyao had taken Jin Ling to Lotus Pier.”
“Yes, there was some nonsense about tainted blood or bloodlines or something like that. It was one of the reasons Lan Wangji thought it’d be safe to bring back Wei Wuxian. As an adopted child, he wasn’t of the Jiang bloodline.”
Oh no, the fool! Nie Huaisang fled the room. He grabbed the first Nie disciple he could find. “Where is my brother?”
“He’s in the gardens.” As Nie Huaisang ran off, the disciple called out, “He’s not to be disturbed.”
Nie Huaisang called back. “Find Lan Wangji. I need to know if he’s still in the Unclean Realm. Immediately!”
Nie Huaisang found his brother staring out at the mountains. “Lan Wangji is planning to bring back Wei Wuxian.”
Nie Mingjue merely looked at him as if he should have expected his little brother to interfere. “Who told you?”
“We have to stop him.”
“Nie Huaisang … brother … Hanguang-Jun is a sensible man. He won’t go through with it.”
“Lan Wangji fought against his own Elders. You think a few words will stop him?” Ah, that got his attention. “If Lan Wangji succeeds, Wei Wuxian won’t stand with us.”
The disciple ran up. “Sect Leader, we can’t find Lan Wangji. A servant saw him flying off shortly after the meeting broke up.”
Time seemed to slow. Nie Mingjue turned and asked, “What were you saying about Wei Wuxian?”
“You think he won’t stand against these creatures because he doesn’t have Jiang blood, but he’s their first disciple. They wouldn’t have given him that position if he weren’t one of them. Do you think they trust outsiders?”
As he brother ran back to the keep, bellowing for his disciples, Nie Huaisang couldn’t help but think that they were all very much too late.
Title from The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats
Jiang Cheng had apologized when asking Jin Guangyao to help with the siege preparations. “I realize it’s below what we should expect of you given your rank, but my first disciple knows Lotus Pier, what we need, and what resources we have at hand.”
“You should know that I am happy to help in any way I can.”
There had been much to do and the work had kept him up well into the night, but Jin Guangyao felt a fierce joy to be of such assistance. He hadn’t had such a strong sense of belonging, of family, since the death of his mother.
The first suggestion that things were about to change was towards the end of the day when Lotus Pier started rocking beneath his feet. While he’d spent little time on boats, Jin Guangyao knew, without being told, that large waves were raising the floating wood of the pier. Following the crowd, he ran to the docks.
He couldn’t tell what was causing the waves but far upstream a lone figure could be seen flying in. Jin Guangyao couldn’t see enough details to make out who it was, but the white robes, flaring like a beacon in the sunset, gave the identity away. “Lan Wangi?” He couldn’t have come alone. Were they already under attack?
Someone slapped a friendly pat against his arm. Jiang Cheng had found him in the crowd and was, unexpectedly, grinning. “It’s my brother.”
“Wei Wuxian?” Jin Guangyao didn’t say “but he’s dead.” Those they worshipped were gods after all. But why would he be wearing mourning colors? Was it a sign he’d returned from the dead?
When the man set down on the docks, Jin Guangyao couldn’t repress a gasp. It was Lan Wangji but not how anyone had ever seen him. His ever-present headband was gone, his hair tied up in a messy knot, his posture relaxed, and his face more animate than Lan Wangji’s had ever been. The body might once have belonged to Lan Wangji but the spirit inhabiting it was Wei Wuxian.
A giant tortoise rose from the lake, sending the docks rocking more furiously. The water splashing at his feet felt like a blessing. “Is that Túshā Xuánwǔ?”
Wei Wuxian released his brother from a hug. He gave Jin Guangyao a nod, accepting his place in their family. “Actually, she’s the great-granddaughter of the Tortoise of Slaughter.”
Jin Guangyao had heard that Wei Wuxian had defeated the beast alone while Jiang Cheng had gotten the wounded out of the cave. He could now see the reason for their deception. Neither son of Lotus Pier could allow an Elder to be killed.
Jiang Cheng bowed as he handed over Chenqing. Wei Wuxian twirled it in his fingers before bringing it to his lips. Tentacles, attached to some amorphous thing that could not be seen, rose from the lake. Winged fish, their mouths filled with far too many teeth, darted around the writhing tentacles. Things with dozens of eyes flew overhead on bat wings. Slug-like creatures with long metallic spines slunk out of the swamp. Creatures and what had once possibly people dragged themselves out of the river. Their eye sockets were dark hollows as if they’d given up their eyeballs to the bat-winged creatures. Their hair rippled on the wind as if floating across the surface of a lake. What could be seen of their skin below the river weeds and muck was corpse-pale, greenish-gray. And Jiang Yanli was among them. Jin Guangyao glanced to Jiang Cheng to see tears in his eyes but a smile full of joy. Jiang Yanli’s answering grin, a dark green slash from ear to ear, faded as she turned to their war leader. She carried no weapon. None of them carried weapons for they were the weapons. Once Jin Guangyao would have called them monstrous, but as he watched them rise for battle, he welcomed them. They felt like family.
The title if from Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky.
The steward and his upper staff along with the remaining Jin disciples greeted them at the gate, bowing low in the dusty ground. They had been faithful to Jin Ling. Jin Guangyao knew they’d been faithful, but they weren’t blood. “Remain here.” As they cowered in the dust, Jiang servants set up camp a few hundred feet away. Wei Wuxian, while obviously himself, still eerily looked too much like Lan Wangi even dressed in the black and red he’d come to favor. As he played his flute, harmless little tunes, the remnants of the Jin Sect cowered in the dust. They stayed like that until nightfall.
As sunlight faded from the horizon, the tentacled nightmare, unseen but not unheard, started to sing. Those of the Jiang bloodline were, of course, unaffected but even the strongest Jin cultivators couldn’t help but cover their ears as they writhed in agony under the power of that eldritch discord. Holding their hands over their ears didn’t help them. Blood poured from their eyes and ears and mouths until they fell, stiff and cold against the dust. The little sharp-teethed ones ate well that night.
The eldritch tune grew louder and eerier. Muck, the decay of a thousand generations, boiled up from below the ground, supplanting the manmade palace with swamps and fetid ponds. Strange fungi grew well in that new soil.
The next morning only the lotus pool, expanded into a series of small ponds, remained. Servants were sent to dump what was left of the fresh kills, which wouldn’t be edible for weeks, into the swamps. Jiang Cheng sent to Yunmeng for architects and craftsmen, and then stayed until the new palace had been built. Nothing of what Lanling had been could be seen in Heian Zhaoze. Buildings careened at impossible angles. There were corridors that changed, corridors that shifted when no one was looking, corridors where a man could be lost forever. Colors not meant for human eyes spun in and out of existence. No one not of Jiang blood ever entered willingly and those forced inside quickly lost their sanity.
In the evening, Jin Guangyao joined Jin Ling by the lotus ponds. Tentacles rose from the surface of the water to swat over bones for the boy to try his baby teeth against. Wei Wuxian, calling on an uncle’s privilege to show up unannounced, took to the roof to play his flute. The notes echoed eerily across the waters from which Jiang Yanli rose. Jin Ling tottered to her eagerly. Dripping water weeds and leaving mucky tracks in her wake, she grabbed him up, swinging him into the air as he giggled in delight. His pale skin glowed against her pale corpse-green. When she finally settled down to let her young son suckle, she grinned over at Jin Guangyao. Her green grin, stretching from ear to ear, dripped ichor as if someone has slashed her face to create that smile.
Jin Guangyao smiled back in contentment. The world was finally safe for his nephew.
Another title from Shakespeare's The Tempest. I've always loved the phrase "something rich and strange".