A dead man dreams.
At first it is only distant whispers, distant sobs. Voices he cannot put names to, the quiet, echoing notes of an unrecognizable song.
Bring me vengeance.
But what good is a dead man for that? He's a memory, a shadow, less than a ghost.
Leave me in peace, he tells the vengeance seeker, and does not realize until long after just what he has said.
The dead man is nameless, and fading. But the spark of his soul -
The dead man was a live man, once. Loved and hated and whole.
He pushes the spark of it away, and then the voices come again.
Vengeance, says one, and then another, and Answers.
Bring a better harvest this year. That's a new one. How's the scourge of the cultivation world meant to help with that?
Let the babe come safely, may Qiang-er think I'm handsome, heal my leg quickly and please please don't let it fester.
The smell of incense. The taste of spice in his mouth.
Keep us in peace. Keep the mists away.
You're the only one who can stop him, Wei Wuxian.
The dead man has a name.
The dead man wakes.
He wakes falling.
Wei Wuxian. That's his name. Wei Ying. The Yiling Patriarch. A-Xian -
That's a village below him, approaching at speed, and somehow a much safer thought. The intial surge of panic fades - this feels more like flying than falling. Like he's descending towards exactly where he means to be.
He squints down at "exactly where he means to be," the brightest light amidst a tangle of buildings, all of them with glowing windows against the night. Even at his height, he can tell the roof is slightly lopsided. There's a cluster of figures around it, barely visible in their black robes.
Wei Wuxian nods in approval before he's yanked viciously sideways.
This feels much less like flying. This feels like Madam Yu's hand on his ear, tugging him to kneel in front of the ancestors. He barely manages to take in the forest he's flying over before he hits the ground in a tangle of robes.
Nice robes. New robes.
He's going to add that to the list of mysteries, including his lack of any visible wounds and the fact that, oh yes, he's alive.
Wei Wuxian scans over the foggy trees around him, and then starts patting down his new body.
It feels much like his old one - his old one before the Burial Mounds, the starvation, as though he still has Suibian at his side and Jiang Cheng at his back.
As though he still has his golden core, which - he doesn't think so? There's energy coursing through him, he can feel it, but it's more like resentment, uncentralized and in constant motion. It's part of him, though, in the way the resentment had only been during the worst of it, first before he'd had the Seal and then, at the end, when he'd completely given up, Chenqing at his lips, fighting only to die -
Bamboo taps against his hip.
Wei Wuxian raises the dizi. It's not Chenqing, though it's the same black bamboo and has a similar aura of power. The shape of the holes, though, are wrong beneath his fingers, and the ends have silver inlays, of all things. The pendant is a black stone he's never seen in his life, smooth as jade and glowing slightly with starlight.
His robes feel expensive, too. He pats up at his hair, and feels a surge of relief that it, at least, is the messy ponytail he remembers.
Though that might have been the falling, or at least the bit where he'd crashed through the trees before hitting the ground.
There are ways of bringing someone back from the dead.
He's invented at least two of them, so they're the first he rules out. No array, no unpleasant stiffness, and though his body's not the one he died with, it's still recognizably his own.
There are ways he could, hypothetically, do this - he'd been working on a way to bring things forward and back through time, on any number of improvements to Wen Ning, on turning a ghost fire to a proper ghost and then, maybe, to a more solid form - but none of them that had ever gotten to practical testing.
Someone, then, has improved upon his notes. Several someones, taking that crowd in black into account. And someone else has interrupted their work and dumped him into the middle of the woods.
He twirls the dizi that isn't Chenqing. There's a trail ahead of him, leading off into the mist.
Wei Wuxian strides forwards in his stiff new boots, whistling.
It takes him an embarrassingly long time to spot the maze array. He passes the same dead tree half a dozen times, the same lonely gravestone at least twice. He sets markers in the mist, twigs stuck in the ground, trying to pace out the extent of the maze before trying to break it.
Nothing's chasing him, and somehow that unnerves him most of all. It's almost a relief when he rounds a stack of boulders for the third time and sees the ghost.
Not that it's much of a ghost.
"Hey, little guy," he says, leaning down. He plucks a leaf of grass, and offers it to the rabbit, which wrinkles its incorporeal nose.
It's a pretty little thing, for a ghost. No bleeding wounds, no extra eyes - just a rabbit, silvery and insubstantial as the mist around it. It pricks up its ears as he moves closer, but doesn't try to run.
He wonders if it knows it's dead. That happens more often with people - coming back home from the grave, trying to lift a plow with too-stiff arms and wondering why their relatives keep running screaming away.
"You ought to move on," he tells it, flicking its nose with the blade of grass. "What a handsome rabbit you were - I bet you'll make an ox in the next life, maybe even a tiger! Go around and eat all the foxes."
It tilts its head, as though it understands, but only inches closer. Wei Wuxian flops down beside it, raising Not Chenqing to his lips.
He knows orders. Rise, and rest. He doesn't know the gentle thing that comes from the dizi instead, soft notes playing on as the fog rises and the ghost rabbit fades away.
His second ghost is human. Barely the wisp of a soul, an old man out gathering firewood who'd never made it back home. He speaks, in a way a ghost that weak and faded shouldn't be able to do, and as Not Chenqing's melody sings him to rest, he hums along until the last of him left is his fading voice.
Wei Wuxian rubs his fingers along the dizi's silverwork. It's far lighter than it should be, and there's not even a hairline crack between the inlay and the wood. Someone's gone to a lot of trouble on his behalf.
Yuan chen qing yi bai xing xi, de zui guo zhi bu yi... He'd thought himself clever, picking out just the right poem for Chenqing - that, or he'd been making up for Suibian. I wished to set forth my thoughts and explain my actions, the old poet had written, I little dreamed that this would be held a crime.
"You're Zuiguo, now," Wei Wuxian informs the dizi. Everything he'd ever done had been held a crime. That wasn't likely to change now that he'd risen from the grave. He might as well lean into it.
Let them fear me, he remembers, a ragged desperate boy, eyes red as embers and shadows rising in his wake.
He reaches the edge of the array. Reaching into his robes out of habit, he's shocked to come away with talisman paper.
Whoever did this was prepared, I'll give them that much.
No ink, but he's well-practiced in that. He bites down on the pad of one finger, and scratches in a sigil. His blood shines on the paper, drying slowly but at least not dripping, and as he makes the last slash the talisman glows with light.
Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes. He's good. He's not that good.
But this is a marker, not an escape attempt, and the glow won't hurt. He's found two ghosts already; there may be more, and he's not going to leave the job half-finished.
He takes a moment to get his bearings, and then heads for the center of the array.
There's one more ghost, a ball of fire with the mere suggestion of a lost child. Wei Wuxian learns, despite that, that her name was A-Yi, that she has been here for longer than she can remember, and that she thinks the gem on Zuiguo is beautiful. He plays only a short melody before she fades away as well.
Now that he has a bit of power underneath his feet, and his beacon guiding him, he makes it to the center with only a few false tries. A cultivator couldn't have made this, not a maze this powerful. Something ancient, or part of the forest itself.
If only he knew which forest it was.
He moves lightly, cautiously, only to hear the sound of voices.
"--still your fault!"
"My fault! Who barged in uninvited, then? Who -"
A third voice. "A-Jue's not doing any better."
"Did you give him the water?"
"He won't take it anymore! He says he's too hungry - it's my fault, it's all my fault, if I'd listened to da-shixiong -"
"- Or if Sizhui had actually bothered to show up -"
"You shut your mouth!"
Wei Wuxian decides that's his cue. He clambers up onto the next boulder to discover a cave below him. Peering down, he sees a gaggle of junior disciples, most of them in too-familiar white robes and the last in equally uninspiring yellow.
He wonders which of their parents killed his people, Granny, A-Yuan.
He wonders which of their parents he killed.
"Young Masters!" he sings out. "I suspect you're lost."
Three swords are drawn immediately, one of them familiar in a way best forgotten.
"There's a maze array," he says, holding his hands out in what he hopes is an innocent gesture.
"We noticed," says one of the boys in white. Wei Wuxian likes him immediately.
"My name is..." and he scarcely needs to pause - "Cui Shaoxue, wandering cultivator. Maze arrays are something of a fascination of mine, and I believe I know how to clear this one - but first, perhaps I could help the young masters up?"
They squint at him.
Two manage it on swords, including the sour-faced Jin boy. An attempt to carry "A-Jue" up between them ended badly, though thankfully only a foot or so from the ground. Wei Wuxian uses his outer robe as an impromptu rope for the third, and goes down to retrieve the last, unconscious, Lan disciple himself. He scrambles back up easily. laying the boy gently down. The juniors all gather around him, one trying once more to dribble water between his lips.
Wei Wuxian is somewhat distracted by his outer robe. He'd assumed he'd be giving it up for dead, but instead it held everyone's weight without ripping, and untwists into the same unwrinkled state as before.
What is this made of?
It's the juniors who need his attention now, though. He refastens the mysterious robe, makes sure Zuiguo is securely hidden, and kneels beside the unconscious Lan disciple. One of the boy's seniors - the loud mouthed one - is feeding spiritual energy into his meridians, but one look at his red, sweaty face tells Wei Wuxian that whatever good he's doing, he's doing more harm to himself.
Wei Wuxian focuses inwards, pulling on the golden core that isn't. On whatever strange energy fills him, until his fingers hold a thin stream of healing qi. He presses them, cautiously, to the boy's forehead, hearing a sword drawn behind him but pressing on.
Young. Too young for a courtesy name, too young for a full golden core. Hungry. He wouldn't have been able to practice inedia.
The boy rears up, sending Wei Wuxian falling backwards in shock. A-Jue's eyes are bright, and he bounces to his feet.
"Thank you, Master Cui!" He bows.
Wei Wuxian chances a glance backwards, where the other boys stand, gobsmacked. "My teacher was gifted in the healing arts. I am fortunate to have absorbed even a silver of her wisdom."
When in doubt, blather. Own it. The mysterious hero, here to save the day and vanish - back up his mountain, perhaps, with Baoshan Sanren and the other immortals.
My teacher -
He sees her face, set. As she takes her brother's hand, as she walks to certain death, to buy them - what? Another spare few weeks of life? She must have known it. She can't truly have believed that he would find a way to save them.
He was never a healer. Not even when he'd had a golden core.
And yet now A-Jue tromps along at the head of the party, the others tired and careworn in his wake.
Wei Wuxian looks at his hands. Shakes his head.
And continues forward.
He finds the guide-talisman again easily enough, though they lose A-Jue twice and the Jin boy once along the way. The whispering - such rude little Lans! - grows louder each time he reunites them, and none of them offer their names.
Suspicion. Suspicion is good. Never trust a strange man who finds you in the center of a maze array - he'd be surprised if that wasn't up on the wall of rules. But his generation didn't learn that kind of caution until the Sunshot campaign.
What's happened while he's been gone?
How long has he been gone?
They might all be dead - Jiang Cheng, Jin Guanshan, Lan Wangji. Shijie's son. The Jin boy could be her great-great-grandson for all he knows - there is something of Madam Yu about his chin, and something of the Peacock in his scowl.
He might truly get a fresh start, the Yiling Patriarch only a story to frighten children.
He doesn't know why the thought sends a weight down into his chest. He shouldn't miss the people who saw him dead. He'd broken those ties long ago.
And A-Yuan -
He can't think about that. He can't think about any of it. It's a relief when they finally reach the edge of the maze.
The glow hasn't faded - it's brightened. Light streaks off from the talisman, illuminating the barrier and darting off into the trees. If he was still flying, he could probably see the entire shape of the array.
He risks a jump while the juniors stare at the talisman, but thuds firmly back onto the ground.
The boys scatter at his word, and Wei Wuxian steps forward, feeding energy into the array, trying to feel it out. If I can -
The barrier explodes.
Wei Wuxian blinks the spots out of his eyes, noise fading back into the forest around him, the night birds and crickets he hadn't even realized were gone.
"And that, young masters," he says, clapping his hands together to keep them from shaking, "is how you solve a maze array."
They stare at him. Or, rather, A-Jue stares at him, while the other two Lans try to get the Jin boy back on his feet. Their hair looks as bad as his did after he landed, and one of them has a crooked forehead ribbon he knows better than to try and straighten.
"Stay there," he tells them. "I'll see if I can find you some water."
It's a transparent excuse, but there's the sound of moving water over the next hill, and the time it takes him to reach the stream gives him time to think.
The array shouldn't have done that. Enough energy and a cultivator can brute force a maze array, sure, but that thing hadn't just been a maze array. The last place he'd felt that kind of innate power had been the Burial Mounds.
So. He's alive. He has a very nice dizi, exceptionally nice robes, enough power to break a mountain in half - and no idea who has done this to him or why they possibly thought it was a good idea.
He kneels by the creek, filling A-Jue's waterskin with shaking hands.
Wei Wuxian whirls, falls, splashes, and makes his way back to his feet to see a man in gold-trimmed armor, scowling at him.
"You are the Yiling Patriarch? Wei Wuxian?"
Wei Wuxian slips his hand inside his robe for Zuiguo. "And you are?"
Not human, that much is obvious. He should have heard that armor clanking from miles away.
The creature sniffs. "Lei Baofeng, of the court of General Bo. Normally my master would not concern himself in the affairs of a minor local god such as yourself, but your high priest apparently knows where to push. Now, if you -"
"I'm sorry," says Wei Wuxian. "I'm a minor local what?"
(There is a dead man in the mountains.
A corpse in mourning robes, a ghost with bleeding fingers. A power beyond measure, with too-pale eyes and red blood dripping down his throat. The gods themselves do not challenge the mists of his sanctum.
The dead man plays on, and at every note, the fog grows thicker, seems to come alive.
A small, silver shape wriggles out from it, hopping towards him until the dead man reaches out one bloody hand and smooths it across its ears.
There is stillness, for a moment.
And then the sound of a dead heart, beginning to beat.)