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.)
Chenqing's poem is by Qu Yuan, a courtier, exile, and poet during the Warring States period. Zuiguo means, roughly, "crime," because WWX naming skills at work.
Cui Shaoxue is a legitimate name, but it's also a rough homophone of "mourning robes"-"peony"-"cave," which is how WWX came up with it so quickly.
(Please note that while I enjoy research, I do not actually speak Chinese, so take all of it with a grain of salt.)
He makes it back to the clearing to find a note.
Lei Baofeng had been in a hurry to see the back of him; it looks like the juniors were, too. The note is politer than the god had been, at least, expressing in careful Lan terms that the boys have gone off to report to their head disciple about what they found. A-Jue, in slightly worse handwriting, had wished "Master Cui" good fortune; none of the other boys had signed.
It's a pity; if the Jin clan are still using generational names, he might have been able to get a sense of the year.
Lei Baofeng had been less than helpful in that regard. He'd come down only to extract a promise from Wei Wuxian that he'd get back in touch with his head priest as soon as possible, and, once he'd gotten it, had no longer deigned to talk with him.
He has other sources of answers.
Wei Wuxian folds the note, twirls Zuiguo between his fingers, and heads off.
The village presumably containing his high priest is to the East; that's all the reason he needs to head West. A promise is one thing, but reconnaissance comes first. Any high priest who's gone and devoted himself to the worship of the Yiling Patriarch is ill-informed at best and a serious problem at worst.
He's a monster. The scourge of the cultivation world. Anyone who saw him as something else is long dead - that's as true whether he's been dead a century or a day.
He'll meet up with his high priest when he has his feet back under him, a sense for what had been making those juniors so paranoid, and, at the very least, knows what year it is.
He walks until dawn, and then into the day. It doesn't tire him, and the hunger gnawing at his belly feels like habit more than anything. By noon, he sees his first travellers, two men in an oxcart who completely ignore his waving hand.
I'm a god, you know! he considers shouting after them, and then laughs so hard he nearly collapses. When he finally blinks his eyes open, two old women with baskets are staring at him.
"...Young master?" asks one.
The other has her walking stick raised threateningly - fair. He can't remember the last time he laughed without sounding like a madman.
"My apologies, granny." He brings his hands together, and flashes his most charming smile - he hasn't forgotten that one, at least. "I've been lost in the woods for some time - I'm just relieved to see safety again."
Walking-stick granny looks him up and down. "I don't trust him, Huan-er."
"You don't trust anyone, A-Shi." Friendly-granny pokes at his cheek. "How long since you've eaten, young man?"
"I thought so." She opens her smaller basket with deft, thin fingers, producing a somewhat smushed bun with the air of a conjurer.
"You're not giving him my lunch," says Walking-stick, but both women watch him eat with the same air of satisfaction.
His new friends are out to gather mushrooms; Young Master Cui can reach places they can't and is more than happy to help. He's introduced to a few more villagers as they reach the cave; mostly women, and one young man, who looks a little annoyed to see Wei Wuxian flirting information out of LIng-er or A-Rong, but deeply amused when he turns his attentions back towards the grannies.
It's been thirteen years.
It's only been thirteen years.
A middle-aged woman puts her hand to his forehead. "There's no sense fainting, young man. How long were you in the woods, then?"
"Six months," he manages, the distant horror unfeigned, and even the boy gives a groan of sympathy.
"They say there's ghosts in the woods," A-Rong informs him.
"There's ghosts everywhere." Walking-stick - Granny Ning, rather - clucks her tongue. "Ghosts in the water, ghosts in the hills -"
"Ghosts who've insulted your cooking."
"Master Mu says that there's cities in the South where they worship ghosts."
Ling-er and A-Rong turn their attention back to the boy at this, and he swells with pride. "Crimson - Crimson Rain, that's what he's called. King of the ghosts."
Granny Ning swats at him. "There's names you don't say out loud, boy."
"What," he says, "like Lonely - sorry, sorry!" He dodges another swat.
Wei Wuxian decides to step in. "Not the strangest thing I've ever heard of." He lets the boy dart behind him, and gives Grannies Ning and Ai his most charming smile. "They say there's folks out there worshipping the Yiling Patriarch!"
The middle aged woman, whose name he still hasn't caught, hisses in a breath, as does the boy behind him. LIng-er only tilts her head, confused.
"Is he a ghost, too?"
The woman spits. "A demon, more like."
But they don't know much about him. They don't know much about Wen Ruohan, either, or Chifeng-zun, or even Hanguang-jun. He wishes he could tell how much of this is a warning sign and how much just secular life in a small village, but his time as a village beggar is a distant, shadowy memory, an empty stomach and snapping jaws at his heels.
"I'd best be getting back," says Granny Ai eventually. "You're welcome to stay with us, young man - sleep in a proper bed again."
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. "I was a traveller even before the woods. This cave's good enough for me."
There's water, if he still needs it, and his undamagable outer robe atop a pile of leaves ought to be genuinely comfortable. He isn't sure if he needs sleep, but he's very sure he wants some.
"Travel safely -" and he stumbles back as Granny Ning slaps a talisman to his forehead. It flutters to the ground.
Ancient, no spiritual force behind it, and - he squints - originally drawn up to cleanse a well.
She looks satisfied, though, and he bends over to return it to her.
"Don't worry your head about the Yiling Patriarch - I'm coming, Huan-er, don't give me that look!" She shakes her head. "Been dead for years, and he ain't the one up on that mountain."
He opens his mouth - what mountain? - but she's already gone.
He doesn't get much sleep. The bed is comfortable enough, but his flashes of sleep all take him back to the Siege, things he saw and things he didn't. Corpse hands, clawing at him; Jiang Cheng's face; A-Yuan, alone, frightened, dead -
He wonders if he has the courage to go back there. To look for the bodies.
Stares down at his hands, and knows he doesn't.
The tears spill out of him, boiling, before he can stop them. He presses his fists to his eyes, curls around himself.
Something nudges at his leg.
He flinches, flings himself back against the wall, scrabbling for Zuiguo -
The rabbit cocks its head.
It's near-identical to the one in the forest, less a ghost than a glimmer of mist.
A smile pulls at his cheeks. "You were supposed to move on, not follow me home."
It nuzzles against his leg in a way no live rabbit ever would. Animals hadn't much liked him even before the Burial Mounds. A memory sparks, holding a pair of rabbits by the ears, tossing them at an unimpressed face. Back when he'd only been annoying, and not despised.
"Ahahah, see, Lan Zhan? Dead rabbits like me, live rabbits like you. Fair is fair."
The ghost wrinkles its nose at him.
He awakens, after a foggy, dreamless sleep, alone in the cave. He blinks his eyes against the sun, gives another futile glance around for the rabbit, and stands.
There's a reason he chose this cave over Granny Ning's hospitality, and it's not the familiarity.
It's the privacy.
If he's going to find his high priest - if he ends up needing to kill his high priest - he needs to get a handle on being a god.
What he can do. What he can't.
So far, as he twists and goes through half-forgotten sword forms, branch in hand, it doesn't feel much different from having a golden core. That was always supposed to be the point, wasn't it? Ascending to immortality?
He's just gone about it a little differently than Baoshan Sanren.
He steps forward with the branch again, leaps higher than he ever has, lands awkwardly but without the snap of pain in his ankles. He feels full, alive, in a way he hasn't since the Burial Mounds.
FInally, with the branch a splintered twig and every bush around the cave destroyed, Wei Wuxian heads down to the stream, shedding his robes as he goes. He's barechested by the time he reaches the water, closing his eyes and falling in with a splash.
I wonder how long I can hold my breath now.
And then he sees the boots.
The boots are attached to a man, a man who has apparently being standing here this entire time watching Wei Wuxian belly flop into a stream. For a brief, horrible moment, he thinks it might be another god.
White robes - but rougher, less Lan and more mourning robes in truth, and, thank the gods, no forehead ribbon. There is a sword at his side - likely still a cultivator, then. His face is bandaged, covering his eyes completely, and Wei Wuxian realizes with guilty relief that the traveller is blind.
"Oh - my apologies, daozhang. I didn't mean to splash you!"
The man tilts his head. There's something in the line of his visible cheek that's almost familiar, but every time he nearly places it, it shies away. Wei Wuxian chances another look down, but the traveller's sword is black-hilted and completely unfamiliar.
And there is... an aura about him, no denying it. Resentful, but subdued, not like any ghost Wei Wuxian's ever faced, too much life on his skin - and in the red blush of his ears- to be a fierce corpse.
Well, well, well. He may have just found himself a demonic cultivator.
"No matter," says the cultivator in question. He steps back out of the stream, and Wei Wuxian follows.
"I'm Cui Shaoxue-" he winces, thankful again that his new friend is blind "-a wandering cultivator. A pleasure to meet another, Master..."
The cultivator stiffens. "...Leng.. . Leng Luo -"
"Ah, don't worry, daozhang. A man needs his secrets." He places his hand, gently, on the cultivator's arm. "I can get a fire going up at my cave, dry the both of us off." He even has food, one of the grannies having hidden a basket behind a rock.
The cultivator bows. "Mn."
His hands are gloved. He keeps one tight on Wei Wuxian's arm as they ascend the hill.
"SIt here - " and he helps his guest down "-and I'll start the fire."
The gloved hand lingers in the air, unseen, as Wei Wuxian turns away.
He gets a fire going with a snap of qi, though it ruins the first log and he has to scrabble to pull more wood atop it before the fire dies completely.
Fire. That's something to experiement with, but not with a blind guest ten feet away. So far, it's all been powers he has - or had - but stronger. He ought to hunt down some ghosts, but he'll wait until daozhang leaves.
The buns are cold, and then they're slightly burnt. Wei Wuxian pops one into his mouth anyway, and then offers the best one to his guest.
"They're good," he reassures him, swallowing the last burnt fragments. "Pork, I think."
The cultivator observes it as skeptically as a blind man can, but Wei Wuxian grins with he finally bites into it.
"You look like you could use feeding up - and now listen to me, I sound like your grandmother."
The cultivator swallows the last of his bun. He does not answer.
"How long have you been travelling, anyway? The nighthunting - I've heard it's good around here, although I confess I don't know where exactly 'here' is - Nie territory, maybe? Jin?"
The cultivator's hand snaps towards his sword. Wei Wuxian steps back, and watches as the gloved hands clench into fists instead.
"Things have changed," says the cultivator. "The Sects... no longer protect the common people." He bows his head. "If ever they did."
"Oh, I don't know." He's treading into dangerous waters. Why not dive right in? "They took down the Yiling Patriarch, didn't they?"
"Injustice upon injustice." His nameless daozhang takes in a breath. "They are hunted, now. You -" He falls silent. "...Be careful, Master... Cui."
Wei Wuxian gives him a tilted grin. "As it happens, I was a bit too young for the Siege. Surely even the Yiling Patriarch isn't so vile - or so desperate - a ghost to come hunting me down here."
Finally, the cultivator raises his head. Once again, there is something in the line of his jaw Wei Wuxian knows he recognizes. Something that sends a thin trail of fear down his back. "There are safer places."
Finally, a good source of information. Something's hunting cultivators, something none too picky. It's just that there's a little voice, one he can't silence, telling him that very something is sitting in front of him, gaze too locked on his to be truly blind, swatched in white, wreathed in resentful energy...
Munching on another burnt bun.
The cultivator, or whatever he is, dabs at his mouth with the side of his sleeve. "Come with me, Master Cui. My sect has a sanctum. Nothing will find you there."
Wei Wuxian picks up one of the buns beyond saving, and tosses it a few times in the air. "I'm pretty settled here, daozhang."
"Mn." He stands, the tattered edges of his robes fluttering around him.
Wei Wuxian grabs reflexively for Zuiguo.
The cultivator stares at him - holds his gaze, blind or not. "...I will never hurt you."
It has the air of an oath.
Wei Wuxian shoves Zuiguo back into his sash. Crosses his arms. "I wouldn't say no to more visits." He takes a step forwards, another, arms wide and as nonthreatening as he can make them. This man might be a monster. He might just be a lost rogue cultivator, in over his head, promising to protect a god.
Whatever he is, Wei Wuxian rather likes him.
HIs nameless daozhang comes back twice once more, helping him clean out the cave one day, the villagers forage the next. Each night, he sits with Wei Wuxian, and each night, as they talk, his heart grows heavier.
Chifeng-zun is dead. Jin Guangshan, too, and half a dozen smaller sect leaders. He can't quite find the courage to ask after Jiang Cheng, but one night, after a bottle of Granny NIng's wine, he manages another question.
A long silence, both of them sitting there, still as corpses.
"Dead," says his visitor. "By his own clan."
They speak no more, and his guest is gone in the morning.
Wei Wuxian sits, his back to a tree, fishing. His nameless daozhang hasn't been by in a week, but the rains settled in soon after he left. The cave leaks far more than caves ought, in his opinion, and since his godly robes dry almost instantly and his hair was a lost cause from the start, Wei Wuxian has given up.
Let the rain soak into his bones. There'll still be just enough dry space left to roast this fish.
Even the grannies haven't been by to see him. The closest he's had to company was another rabbit ghost, and this one faded almost instantly when he tried to rub its ears.
As for the nightmares, he's decided to give up on sleep. Mortals can sleep. Confused minor local gods can stay up all night to catch fish.
He carries his prize back up to the cave, whistling a tune between his teeth. There's still a few spices left in Granny Ning's basket, if not nearly enough.
There's also someone standing in the mouth of the cave.
"Daozhang!' Wei Wuxian calls out, before he can stop himself. "You're just in time for fish!" He jogs the rest of the way up -
And then stops dead.
A man in sopping black robes stands just inside his cave, hood down, scowling, trying to wring out his sleeve. He doesn't bother to straighten up as Wei Wuxian approaches, just fixes him with a glare.
"Oh, great Yiling Patriach," says Nie Huaisang. "We need to talk."
Thank you so much for all your comments and encouragement! Next chapter should see WWX getting some answers - including just who he's been hanging out with.
Okay! This is the chapter where the Major Character Death/Dark Lan Wangji tags really come into play, complicated by Assumed Character Death But Actually That Was A Lie and Major Character Death But He Immediately Comes Back As A Ghost. There's also some general horror and unpleasantness, so I've included a more detailed/spoiler-filled trigger warning in the bottom note.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Wei Wuxian flings his outer robe over one of the drier rocks, and gestures for Nie Huaisang to sit down.
"You wanted to talk," he says, as his guest gingerly does so. "Talk."
He got a pretty good sense for what this is the second he spotted the black robe. What he doesn't have is any sense of why. Nie Huaisang was never a particularly gifted cultivator, but he'd always been clever. He'd never been the one caught cheating.
Nie Huaisang unsnaps a mostly-dry black fan, and flutters it nervously. "...I understand you must be confused -"
"Why are you worshipping me?"
"Not so confused, then."
Wei Wuxian glares at him. "We were friends when we were teenagers, fine, great. I didn't know we were this close. What is going on, Huaisang? Why am I a god? Leaving aside the how, no one in their right mind would possibly -"
"You'd be surprised how desperate people can get."
The still air of the Burial Mounds rises around him. "Would I?"
Nie Huaisang taps his fan against his face. "Maybe not." He visibly swallows. "You needed demonic cultivation to stop Wen Ruohan. I needed you."
Wei Wuxian drums his fingers on Zuiguo. "And so you what, prayed really hard?"
Nie Huaisang perks up at that. "I got lost nighthunting, actually. I took shelter in a cave that the locals had turned into a temple - worshipping a rock formation in a shape of a goddess. Turned out they'd turned it into one... and not a very happy one. I managed to make it back to the village, met up with the men I'd come with, had Nie Chuishan bludgeon it into submission..."
"And if villagers could do it, why not you?"
A beaming smile. "Exactly! Well... not alone. If you'd made it to Mo Village like you were supposed to -"
"You convinced an entire village to worship the Yiling Patriarch?"
Nie Huaisang raises a finger. "I convinced an old friend. And what do you know? He went from unwanted bastard to the head of the village, all through your generous patronage!"
And I'm sure your generous patronage had nothing to do with it. He flexes his fingers. This is all very nice, but it isn't taking them to the real question. "You said you needed me. Why?"
Nie Huaisang's smile is shakier this time. "A dead man to fight a ghost."
"There were cheaper ways to ressurect me. I've invented them. You can't tell me you needed a god just to disperse some -"
"Lonely Notes from Bloodied Fingers."
The smile fades entirely. There are shadows around Nie Huaisang's eyes, and Wei Wuxian is thrust back to the Sunshot Campaign, orphans fighting an unwinnable war.
"The Ghost King," says Nie Huaisang, quietly. "Lan Wangji."
It is a quiet death.
The sword slices, quick. He does not feel it.
He would not feel the thousand cuts of lingchi, not with the pain in his back, not with the raw agony that clenches around his heart.
He speaks no words. No confession of his sins, no arguments for mercy.
The Sect Leader's will.
And Lan Wangji knows his brother, knows that if he spoke to him, looked him in the eyes, Lan Xichen would pardon him.
His brother is not here, but he is Hanguang-Jun, still, and even the most stone-faced of the elders would stay their hand. Would let them speak, one last time.
They will whisper that it was pride that killed him.
But there is a body, a body they will not let him see, a child for whom his brother had no mercy. Killed for his Wen blood and the taint of Wei Wuxian.
He does not wish to see his brother.
And so he bows his head, and dies.
They will whisper that the corpse dissolved into mist. They will whisper that the head spoke one word, "justice," gasped through bloody lips. They will whisper of the curse he threw upon Zewu-Jun, the life slowly leaching away from a man who never speaks his brother's name.
The only truth in the whispers is this: there is a dead man, and he does not go to rest.
A ghost flame lingers around the back mountains, seeking the vanished soul of a child. The party of cultivators sent to banish it do not need to play a note - it wavers away at the sight of them, and is not seen again.
The shadow of a man walks long and empty roads, calling out the only name he remembers. Sometimes ghostly fingers make strange shapes in the fog, a melody rising over empty fields, endless and unanswered.
There is a wail, at the Burial Mounds, one soul among a thousand, a flicker of white that passes beneath the wards unnoticed, curling around itself in an empty cave, fingers clawing at the bloody ground.
Wei Ying was here. It knows that, if it knows nothing else. It knows that, and it cannot stay.
The empty places. The huts, half-fallen, doors rattling in the wind. There was a child here, once, and a laughing man in black.
What he seeks has long vanished.
Night has fallen, when the dead man returns to the town. His feet hit the road, footsteps almost solid. He could be taken, at a distance, for a living thing.
Rich-gege, says a-Yuan, but a-Yuan is gone. His soul was too small a thing to linger. But Wei Ying - he must remain.
He takes another step, past the place where dead men once sold radishes. An old woman, hurrying homewards, bumps his side, and before he can apologize, she's gone, cane clacking against the road, her voice a panicked, fading hum of chanted sutras.
He closes his too-pale eyes, and avoids the next passer-by. Kneels, instead, where Wei Ying once knelt. As the song rises, the wind stills, lights guttering out.
Wei Ying -
"You little bitch, c'mon!"
Pale eyes open.
"Look, if you don't have the money, we can cooperate - she bit me! A'Tong, look at this, she -"
"All fucking demons here, what did I tell you -"
The girl's eyes widen. She was shaking already, but a new fear rises, tight in her gut, as fog fills the alleyway.
The dead man steps forward.
LanlingJin, says a distant part of him, the part that was Hanguang-Jun. The rest sees three men in gold, a girl in ripped clothes on the ground between them.
Protect the common people.
The elders, the rules, a-Yuan. Jin Guangshan, Wen Ruohan, running together. Wei Ying, bright and beautiful and dead -
It was a lie. Justice. Self-sacrifice. Cultivating perfection.
The men in gold begin to choke, mist filling their lungs. One half draws his sword before a cold hand shatters his wrist.
And then the bodies fall, leaving only the girl, curled up and shaking. Her eyes are wide and dark. "Pa- Patriarch?" she rasps, and there is something like hope in her face.
The dead man shakes his head, and fades away.
The mountain calls.
It has called for centuries, for the best, for the strongest, until ghosts and demons have torn themselves to pieces and left only the victor alive.
There is no Wei Ying. There is no justice. There is no reason not to heed the call.
The dead man fights. He was the best and the brightest, once, the pride of his generation and the hope of his clan.
Liberate. Suppress. Eliminate.
He takes the spear from the side of a great, shaggy beast, and watches it fade. He prays with a murderer, until all that is left is a whisper. He reunites two sisters, lost on opposite sides of a long-forgotten war.
The mountain watches him. As he kills, and as he heals.
Deeper, it calls him. Deeper.
And he follows.
He has fought with his hands, until blood has stained even his incorporeal robes. In the caverns, he finds a sword, dark and shattered, more a memory of a blade than otherwise. Huiran, he names it, dust and ashes burn once more, and in giving it a name, almost remembers his own.
Wei Ying. That name he knows, that name he claws into every bare wall, the empty cliffs of the moving mountains and the spaces between the murals where some ghost long gone painted what it, too, could not bear to forget.
Lan Zhan, says Wei Ying, in the empty cavern, the cauldron, the forge of kings and devastations. His smile is sunlight, a-Yuan is peaceful in his arms, and the dead man knows he is not real. Takes the gift he offers, all the same, takes one selfish taste of his lips before pressing Huiran's blade against the cauldron's wall.
The mountain opens.
A king is born.
The fog is thick again this morning.
It surrounds Koi Tower, climbing up the walls, drowning the gardens in gray. The servants are hushed, and young men cling to their swords, talking in whispers on the practice yard.
The music will not leave.
It has followed Jin Guangshan for weeks now, gentle notes on the edge of his mind. He had complained to Madam Liang, and then to Master Wu, that none of their girls knew how to be quiet in the mornings.
Qi deviation, Die-er had said, as though she knew anything. Had told him not to return, and she was the kind who'd cover up a girl's death, let alone a few snapped qin strings.
Useless. They're all useless.
He draws another talisman, fingers heavy with the half-remembered strokes. His disciples are no help these days, whining and coughing, whispering behind his back. Someone in the tower's behind this, he knows it.
Both his grandsons have been sent away. He hadn't even hurt a-Ling, barely scared him, but that wretched Jiang boy had appeared all the same to drag him back down the river. A-Song is... where? With his grandfather? Maybe his useless bastard of a father, at the Cloud Recesses enough that he ought to tie on a forehead ribbon.
His other useless bastard had a qin, but he's smashed that now. The boy had only stared at him, huge dark eyes like his mother's. He doesn't have the spine to be behind this, nor the power.
He trips over a robe on the way to the door, pulling himself back up with a curse. Where are the maids?
He'd nearly managed to drown out the music, last night, with a smiling girl beneath him. BUt it had come, crawling into his ears, down his spine, and he'd opened his eyes to see his hands around her throat.
She'd wrenched herself away the second he came back to himself, eyes wide as a rabbit's. He'd followed her into the hall, apologies on his lips, anything to bring her back, only to find her cowered behind the fortress that was his daughter in law.
"This is enough," Qin Su had said. "You'll speak to the doctors." Chin firm, head high. Nowhere near as pretty as her mother.
The doctors. As though he can trust them.
He slaps the talisman onto the doorframe, hand going back to his swordhilt. It's a poor match for his sleeping robes, but he can't be without it now. Whatever's stalking him's coming closer.
The fog rises, cold around his bare feet. What fool left the window open? He slams the shutters, grinding his teeth.
When he turns, he sees the man.
White robes, black hair, thin fingers strumming at the fog. His eyes are pale and cold. Pale and cold and empty and familiar.
Jin Guangshan tries to draw his sword. But the fog rises as the music does, cold and clammy, pinning his arms to his body and forcing its way down his throat.
The world darkens.
And the song goes on.
Jin. Nie. Jiang. Lan.
Nie Mingjue was dead before the mountain opened, but there are still men with bloody sabres who can gasp their last to his tune.
The leaders of the small sects fall, one by one, each man who'd stormed the Burial Mounds.
The survivors nestle around each other, pulling back to their holdfasts. The Nie heir and the Jin heir surround themselves with talismans and guards, and he lets them keep their little lives for now.
Nie Huaisang wasn't at the Siege, says a voice in the back of the dead man's mind. It sounds like Wei Ying, urging him to a mercy he no longer knows.
He chases it, chases every whisper of Wei Ying's soul. Yiling, Yunmeng, a cavern still steeped in resentment and memories. He ventures beneath the earth, across the borderlands, to all the gathering places of lost souls. Gambles with a king in crimson to find that even a winning hand has no answers.
(The king in crimson is not known for his kindness. But he weighs the dice, and twists his lips, to find another who love has brought out of the mountain).
He finds Wei Ying's sword beneath Koi Tower, and leaves jin Guangyao less an arm and gifted with a warning. He finds Wei Ying's flute at Lotus Pier, and leaves Jiang Wanyin a broken man he does not deign to kill.
("This is not yours," he hisses, but as he tries to pull it close, the golden light shivers and fades into nothing.)
They whisper his name, now. They know his face.
And sometimes he is still kind, to lost children, to old memories, to the few bold ghosts who gather at the foot of his sanctum. But each year, there is less and less of the man who was Lan Wangji. There is only a ghost, high in the mountains, playing desperate songs to a soul that does not hear.
Others heed his call.
The fog rises. Ancient things, finding their bonds weakened, follow behind it. Abysses in rivers, mazes in forests, creatures long-chained beneath mountains. They rise, and the great sects do nothing, as the dead man watches in scorn.
Even the Lan, the ones who taught him of justice, the only clan his vengeance has yet to touch, cower in their mountains.
And then he hears the song.
("You --" and his uncle slaps him, full across the face. "What have you done?"
Lan Xichen shakes his head, useless, desperate. "I didn't," he whispers, tears running down his face. "Uncle, I -"
He cannot speak. He pushes his way past the servants, the elders. There is a body in white, but he cannot look at it. He will not.
He runs. Falls. Stumbles up a hill, to a half-barred door. As his uncle pushes it open, he falls to his knees.
A woman stares up at him, defiant, a stranger's sword shaking in her hand. In her other arm is a child, face wet and red with fever and tears. "Please," she says. "Sect Leader."
The child looks at him, eyes wide and dark. "...Rich-gege?"
The nurse shakes her head.
Lan Xichen pulls his nephew to his chest, and sobs.)
Lan Wangji is executed, believing that a-Yuan/Sizhui has been killed (he hasn't, I promise he's fine) and that it's on his brother's orders (this is left more ambiguous.) There's an implied sexual assault that he stops during his first kill as a vengeful ghost. He also kills Jin Guangshan, by choking him to death on fog after driving him mad, and accompanying warnings for general Jin Guangshan related creepiness and misogyny. No other named characters are killed onscreen, though there are allusions to attacks that left Jin Guangyao and Jiang Cheng Not In Great Shape.
Note for some gore in this one!
Wei Wuxian stares at his hands.
Lan Wangji - Hanguang-jun. He can't think of a more unlikely ghost king, save maybe Shijie. Too noble, too perfect, too scornful of that single-plank bridge.
What could have driven him to this?
(Dead, his daozhang had said - and he thinks he knows his name, now. Dead, by his own clan.)
"What happened to him?" he asks, an unexpected desperation coloring his voice.
Nie Huaisang lowers his head, rubbing his sleeve between his fingers. "He was too close to the Yiling Patriarch."
Wei Wuxian's eyes flash. "If that's close, I don't want to see far. They killed him for - for visiting me once?" The fire flares back to life as he speaks. "Zewu-jun?"
And he remembers Jiang Cheng, red with fury, Zidian sparking in his hands. Jiang Cheng would have killed him, but then again Wei Wuxian would have deserved it.
Nie Huaisang shakes his head frantically. "I - I don't know! I really don't know! I don't think he wanted to - some people say he wasn't even there, that the clan elders made up a story and sent him and Lan Qiren away... I wasn't there, Da-ge was getting worse every day, I don't..." He takes in a deep breath.
Wei Wuxian waits.
"He named his son Sizhui, you know." To recollect and long for. "I've always thought that has to mean something."
Regret. But Wei Wuxian knows all about regret. He would have taken that blow, a thousand times - but Shijie still took it for him, and Shijie's still dead.
"He's been killing the sect leaders," says Wei Wuxian, and Nie Huaisang nods.
Jin. Yao. Su. Zhang. Sect Leader Mei had taken poison when she first saw the fog beginning to rise. Sect Leader Gu had turned to demonic cultivation, and wiped out half his clan before the ghost had even darkened his door.
"And your brother?" Wei Wuxian asks, quietly. He's not sure what to do with the answer.
Nie Huaisang shakes his head again. "No. He's not the one who killed Da-ge." His eyes bore into Wei Wuxian's for a moment, black as pitch. "I'd hardly have brought back you if he was."
They make their way back down the trail into the village.
Nie Huaisang, it turns out, has been staying with the grannies, at least overnight. Granny Ai pinches his cheek, and Granny Ning turns on Wei Wuxian.
"I see your young friend finally got you to see sense!"
Wei Wuxian bows. "...I'd thought he'd given me up for dead long ago."
"Six months in that forest, I'm not surprised." She clicks her tongue. "But he brought two horses, did your young master." A rough pat to his shoulder. "This old woman thinks you have better friends than you know."
There's not much he can give that but an awkward smile.
They mount up. "You gave me a flute, and not a sword?" Wei Wuxian asks, once they're safely out of town.
"Maybe if you'd ever used it..." Nie Huaisang leans back in his saddle, giving his horse's hindquarters a pat. "I couldn't change it! The Yiling Patriarch had his ghost flute, everyone knows that. No one cares that Wei-xiong had a sword with a stupid name."
"...I think your cult is going to be a little disappointed when they see me." His horse keeps snagging bits of high-grown grass as it walks, ignoring any pressure he puts on the reins. At least in the cave he could have claimed to be the immortal hermit kind of god.
Nie Huaisang shakes his head. "Just leave that to me."
He ought to ask more questions. Call up some ghosts, practice his godly powers. At least call Nie Huaisang's attention to the little foggy rabbit that follows them all through the second day.
But he doesn't.
They talk about literature, about old poetry, about whether Nie Huaisang's black fan is drenched beyond repair. Wei Wuxian complains about his horse, and Nie Huaisang complains about the inns.
The inns are nearly empty. The roads, too. On the third day, they pass a burnt out thing that might have once been a watchtower, and for the first time on their journey Wei Wuxian pulls out Zuiguo, and plays a charred spirit to rest.
For the rest of the day, even Nie Huaisang is silent. Wei Wuxian stares at his hands, the dark leather reins, and wonders how he's supposed to fix all this.
It's a relief, when they finally reach Mo Village.
A crowd of people swarm out to greet them, some in black silk, but even the ragged children with black scarves or red hairties.
A young man, his face strangely familiar, comes to the front of the crowd, and bows to the ground. "Patriarch," he says, in a low quiet voice. "We are not worthy."
And now everyone's kneeling, like a crowd before the Emperor. Nervous laughter bubbles up in Wei Wuxian's throat, but he stifles it. These people - horribly, horribly led astray as they are - believe in him. And minor local god he may be, but he's the minor local god of this place, this foggy little village he's never seen before in his life. He can't give them much. But he can give them respect.
"Rise," he says, trying to call Madam Yu to his voice. "I believe we have... much to discuss."
His temple is surprisingly nice.
He was expecting bones, maybe bloodstains, at least a nice terrifying statue. Nie Huaisang had the Yiling Patriarch to work with, after all, not Wei Wuxian. But aside from the elegant ink painting of a wild-haired man with a flute, this could be anyone's temple. Incense of varying degrees of quality, a well-worn altar, a few coins and a still-warm meat bun left as offerings.
"Can I..." He points at the bun.
Nie Huaisang rolls his eyes. "Who do you think it was left for? The Heavenly Emperor?"
Right. He's the god here, mad as it all is, not a street urchin robbing a temple.
The bun is spicy, too. Wei Wuxian grins, and tries to recover his equilibrium. He still can't quite look at the altar painting, and the crowd outside doesn't bear thinking about.
"We are honored you have returned," says the man from outside, and Wei Wuxian jumps.
"Ah, yes," he says, and pulls Zuiguo from his belt, fiddling it between his fingers. "...Thank you."
"This is Mo Xuanyu," says Nie Huaisang, sweeping in to the rescue. "The old friend I told you about."
Wei Wuxian looks him up and down. The omnipresent black robes, a nervous smile, gray eyes that could pass for his in a darkened room. There's something familiar about the line of his jaw, too, but he can't put a name to it.
"An honor." Wei Wuxian gives a small salute, which turns out to be a mistake, as Mo Xuanyu flops to the ground in a full-blown kowtow.
"It's all right, it's all right..." Nie Huaisang pulls him back to his feet, and gives him a few awkward back pats. "Wei-xiong knows why he's here."
"Of - of - of course, Patriarch." All the same, Mo Xuanyu flaps his hands together in another quick salute before moving half behind Nie Huaisang.
Wei Wuxian can't really blame him.
"Now, then!" says Nie Huaisang brightly, snapping out his fan. "To business!"
Mo Xuanyu's gray eyes tremble. "You - you saw him?"
Nie Huaisang says nothing, pressing his open fan against his face. His eyes are wide and bright with an emotion Wei Wuxian can't quite place.
Wei Wuxian gives another shrug. "I mean, I can't think of who else it could be." And he recognizes, now, what he didn't before. The shape of Lan Wangji's cheekbones, the set of his shoulders, trapped in time. He ought to have been past thirty by now, with some perfect Lan wife and a gaggle of children in tiny forehead ribbons, all as straight-backed and scowling as himself.
Wei Wuxian had robbed him of that.
His own family had robbed him of that.
"Wei Wuxian!" Nie Huaisang's fan comes down hard on his shoulder. Wei Wuxian turns on him, scowling, but Nie Huaisang only smacks him again. "Settle down! You'll scare off half the village if you can't get those eyes under control, and then where will we be, where will I be..." He trails off.
Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath. "...They killed him, Sect Leader Nie. They killed him, and now you want me -"
"No, no, no! I mean, I..." The fan flutters. "There's actually something else we should talk about. Yes, we need to deal with the ghost king, but - but there's more than one way to do that, and, um, look. Wei-xiong. I need to ask you a favor."
"Oh, no." And for a second he's back at the Cloud Recesses, wide eyes and spring books, Da-ge's going to kill me if I can't pass this time, Wei-xiong! You're my only hope!
Mo Xuanyu's gone even stiffer than before, fists clenched in the fabric of his robes. "It's... it's about his brother. And... mine."
"Or, in other words," says Nie Huaisang, his eyes like flint, "Da-ge. And Lianfang-zun."
Wei Wuxian tilts his head. "...Jin Guangyao? What's he got to do with anything?" He gives Mo Xuanyu another once over. From unwanted bastard to head of the village.
"He killed Da-ge." THe fan snaps in Nie Huaisang's hands, but for once, he pays it no mind. "I'd hoped Lonely Notes would kill him, but he's been toying with his food too long. Long enough for dear San-ge to come up with a... contingency plan."
Wei Wuxian shudders. Maybe he'll have to kill Lan Wangji - maybe even he won't be able to find a way around it - but Jin Guangyao has no right. He was at the Burial Mounds. For all Wei Wuxian knows, his could have been the sword that killed Granny, Fourth Uncle, A-Yuan.
"For the record," adds Nie Huaisang, sounding for a moment much more like himself. "I came up with it first."
"He's raising another god, then." Wei Wuxian leans back, tries to call back the nonchalance that had kept all his secrets before. "I didn't realize it was that easy."
Mo Xuanyu shakes his head for far too long, fingers clenched in his sleeves. "It's not. We... You were..."
Nie Huaisang lays a hand on his shoulder, stilling him. "Unfortunately, Lianfang-zun has quite a few resources to burn. There was no... presence, in the temple, last I saw it, but I'm afraid it's a bit nicer than yours. Half the city in and out, genuine monks..."
Mo Xuanyu raises a slightly shaking finger. "I told you that I could've -"
"You're the village headman and a cultivator besides. That's worth more than a few vows and a shaved head." Nie Huaisang gives his shoulder a shake. "Besides, the monks aren't the problem -"
"What is the problem?" So much for nonchalance. Wei Wuxian leans forward again, tapping his fingers against Zuiguo. "Who is he trying to raise?"
Nie Huaisang treats him to a shaky smile. "When I first saw the statue - well, when Nie Shumei did - I thought it was himself. But I've gotten a better look, now. It's his mother."
They set out tomorrow. Tonight, there's a feast, but Wei Wuxian put in only a token appearance, a short song on Zuiguo, before putting on a melodramatic show with the candle flames and then escaping back here.
He can't look at the villagers. Their shining faces, their red hairties, their hope. Every old woman is Granny Wen, every child A-Yuan.
The last people to put their hopes in him ended up dead. The Wen remnants, Shijie, even Lan Wangji.
He'll be the ruin of this place. He knows it. Nie Huaisang should have known it.
There's nothing he can -
Something small and cold nudges against his leg.
Wei Wuxian picks the rabbit up, this time, ignoring its protests. It feels like winter fog on the water, giving way to a core of snow, and settles down in his lap after only a token attempt at escape.
He strokes the soft moonlight of its ears.
"I don't know what to do."
Lan Wangji is a monster. A ghost king. A killer. But it's the sects that have abandoned the commoners to all the creatures lurking in the dark. Killing him - even beyond what he once was, to Wei Wuxian and to the world, pure and unbending and somehow still kind - doesn't feel like a victory.
"We took down Wen Ruohan," he tells the rabbit, "and two monsters rose up. They took down me, and got a ghost king out of it. It just keeps going - and who dies next?" The townsfolk, the little girl in black who'd given him a gap-toothed smile at the feast, Mo Xuanyu's shaking hands and palpable hope, the troop of junior cultivators he'd rescued from the maze array...
The rabbit nuzzles up against him, fog curling up his legs.
Wei Wuxian stares off into the night.
They leave before dawn, and head out into the dark in silence.
Wei Wuxian has a black horse, this time, with red tassels hanging from its bridle. Mo Xuanyu had whispered that he'd named it Suibian, but by the end of the first li, Wei Wuxian has silently redubbed him General Wu. He shows no interest in the grass, but pushes ahead of the rest of the party despite Wei Wuxian's hands on his reins and the fact that it's Nie Huaisang who knows where they're actually going.
The morning dawns foggy, clammy and cold against his skin. They press on, stopping only once to water the horses, sleeping the next night in two makeshift tents, Mo Xuanyu cramming himself in Nie Huaisang's rather than risk disrespecting his god.
He doesn't sleep that night, wide awake waiting for rabbits that do not come.
They reach Yunping City late on the second day, skirting the edges of Jiang territory, Wei Wuxian's heart in his mouth.
He still does not ask about his brother.
It's not his business, anymore, what's become of the Jiang sect. He's failed them enough. Coming back as a god and robbing them of justice...
Jiang Cheng's a survivor. A dangerous fighter, and he'd been getting... better at politics. He's been a sect leader for coming up on two decades now. He probably has a family, a pack of scowling children and a pile of dogs with stupid names.
If he was dead, Nie Huaisang - even this new Nie Huaisang - would have mentioned it.
"Cui-xiong! Are you going to stare at that lotus pond all day?"
Wei Wuxian tears his eyes away from the water. "But I'm hungry!"
With an exaggerated roll of his eyes, he nudges General Wu back to join the rest of the party.
They make base at an inn, and Nie Huaisang lays out the plan. Lianfang-zun shouldn't be in town - he has a sect to run, and a dispute with his father-in-law that for some reason sets Nie Huaisang to smirking. The monks aren't to be trifled with, but Nie Huaisang and Mo Xuanyu are at least technically cultivators and Wei Wuxian is a god.
Gods, he's pretty sure, can change shape, wearing new faces to walk amongst the mortals unobserved. After three shichen of staring a mirror, Wei Wuxian can turn his eyes from gray to silver to red and back again, which is nice enough as it goes but hardly likely to make him less recognizable.
Mo Xuanyu, therefore, takes the lead on reconnaissance. He was barely a Jin, and has quite some skill with makeup, though they didn't bring the clothes to disguise him as a woman.
"Next time!" he pipes up with a grin. "Oh, I can also do a pretty scary demon, or a hanged ghost..."
It's the most comfortable he's looked around Wei Wuxian yet.
Wei Wuxian gives him a comforting shove to the shoulder, the way he's seen Nie Huaisang do, and returns to cutting out his paperman. Normally he's got an hour inside it, but he's a god now - he's pretty sure he can stretch it out into two. Maybe even into more than one paperman...
But that's an experiment for another day. He draws out the few lines of the ritual, and then tucks his paper body under Mo Xuanyu's outer collar.
"How was it?"
Wei Wuxian brings a hand to his forehead. Coming back into this body feels worse than it had in a mortal one, a queasy rush of power. "Well," he says, after a moment, "you were right."
"Oh?" Nie Huaisang flutters his fan.
"It's a better temple than mine."
Clean walls, an elegant courtyard, paintings and offerings - and that was saying nothing of the statue, massive and beautiful. He can see why Nie Huaisang thought it was Jin Guangyao himself at first. The face is so lifelike he half expected it to open its eyes and ask what a minor local god like himself was doing there.
Townsfolk had streamed in and out, from beggar children to an old woman in silks supported by an army of serving maids.
Wei Wuxian had heard their prayers, even the silent ones, whispers on the edges of his soul.
He hadn't been the only one listening.
"If there wasn't a presence there before," he says, narrowing his eyes at Nie Huaisang, "there is now."
Mo Xuanyu sits up straighter. Nie Huaisang only gives a brief nod, eyes sharp behind his fan.
There's something else, too, something wrong, that creeps at the edges of his brain and defies any attempt to put into words. He knows nothing of Jin Guangyao's mother save that she was a prostitute; it wouldn't surprise him if she died in anger.
But it doesn't...
He shakes his head. "The quicker the better. As you said." He runs his fingers along Zuiguo. He has no worshippers here, but he can still feel the resentment, the old ghosts, the ancient graves. Where there is death, he will always have power.
Wei Wuxian's eyes flicker red. "We strike tonight."
Ghosts follow him into the temple, starved beggars and murdered wives, even the monk who'd been guarding the side door, Mo Xuanyu's dagger still in his side.
The rest flee before them, down into the sanctum, charred bodies pulling themselves from the floor, pursuing them into the darkness.
Wei Wuxian follows, the darkness singing around him. It's the Sunshot campaign again, it's his last desperation - so easy to lose himself in the music and the power, stronger now than ever.
"Run," he hisses at the last of the monks, laughing as a corpse snatches a sandal with still-burning hands. Now, for the first time, he feels like a god - power all around him, the Burial Mounds made flesh.
"Pa- Yiling Patriarch! My lord! Sir!"
He turns his gaze to his high priest, hands white knuckled around a borrowed sword, knees knocking together.
To Mo Xuanyu, he reminds himself, pulling back on the reins. The shadows calm, but he knows his eyes are still red, a thin trail of darkness still coiling around Zuiguo like smoke.
Mo Xuanyu swallows. "Do - do we follow them?"
"That depends," says Nie Huaisang, and his voice isn't shaking. He looks at Wei Wuxian, face unaccountably pleased and disturbingly close to smug. "The presence - is it in her tomb? Or her statue?"
Her statue. And that's when it hits him, a hammer to the throat.
"There's something here," he says. "And there shouldn't be."
Nie Huaisang's eyes narrow, grip suddenly tight around his fan. Mo Xuanyu steps towards him, hand half-outstretched. Wei Wuxian looks them both over, and forges on.
"Think about it." He twirls Zuiguo. "A flute. A flute, and not a sword. You worked with the legend you had - that's the only way you could raise a god this fast. The Yiling Patriarch already existed, the villain in the songs, the warning to children to be home before dusk. Old ladies in a village I'd never seen already knew me for a demon. But this, here...
"A woman whose name is nearly forgotten. Who died years ago, who ought to be close to reincarnation by now. And look that this statue - not the face. The robes. The plaque. Lianfang-zun may have half the worshippers in this city, but their prayers are going to Guanyin.
"He couldn't make a god like this. Not if he had a century."
Nie Huaisang drops his fan.
It's Mo Xuanyu who speaks. "But you - you said you felt a presence."
"I do. And that's what worrying me most." There's something beneath them, massive and powerful, whispers on the edges of the darkness. He takes a few steps forward, towards the statue, and hears a small, choked sound behind him.
Blood drips, slowly, from Mo Xuanyu's throat. His face is a rictus of terror, his shaking hands clutching at his throat.
"Put down that saber, a-Sang," says a too-familiar voice. "You've run a clever game, but we both know you've never been a swordsman."
Jin Guangyao. Jin Guangyao, and a horde of monks, some more injured than others.
Nie Huaisang manages a smirk, even as his saber clatters to the ground.
"Really, Lianfang-zun? You think the threat in here is me?"
The silver thread between Jin Guangyao and Mo Xuanyu falls limp, bitten in half. A ghostly child grins up at them with a single, sharpened tooth.
Wei Wuxian blows out another note on Zuiguo, and more of the burned corpses rise, forming in ranks around him like proper soldiers. He meets Jin Guangyao with the same smile he'd turned on Wen armies.
Jin Guangyao bows. "My thanks, Yiling Patriarch." He brushes a long-armed shadow away from his robe as though it's no more than a bug. "Your notes were quite inspiring!"
The ground beneath them rumbles.
Zuiguo plays on, faster and faster, but no more corpses come. The burning ghosts sink back into the ground, and the townsfolk follow, until all that is left of his army is a single dead monk and the darkness coiling around him.
The floor cracks open.
An arm reaches up - an arm of corpses, burnt flesh fused together, mouths still screaming.
The air is thick with ancient resentment, the smell of the Burial Mounds in the back of his throat.
Your notes were quite inspiring. Your notes -
He twists into another song, softer, lower, meant to calm Wen Ning. Pouring every inch of his godly power into it, only to see another arm emerge, the bulk of a headless, shapeless body.
Where the neck might be, a single skeleton glows with light.
And then he knows what Jin Guangyao has done.
"And you think this will work?"
He grins up at Wen Qing, flourishes his pen. "Attempt the impossible."
"I trust him," says Wen Ning, quietly, though since he's let Wei Wuxian tie him to a boulder, that probably goes without saying.
"Look, don't you want another radish field? A good radish field?"
Wen Qing crosses her arms.
"Look, if I channel the resentment here through me... Well, we've tried that. You complained." She doesn't smile. He forges on. "More importantly, it comes back. I have to chase it away with Chenqing constantly. But if you channel like through like..."
"I can control it," says Wen Ning.
"If the array works." Wen Qing turns on her heel. "Hurt him, and I'll slit your throat in the night."
"Oh, come on!" He adds another line to the array. "We both know you wouldn't wait that long."
Like through like.
A dead god through a corpse.
Zuiguo blows out a final long, low note. Wei Wuxian stares out at Jin Guangyao. "It didn't work, you know! You used your own mother, and for nothing -"
"I've made my mother a goddess."
A corpse-hand reaches for Jin Guangyao, and, to Wei Wuxian's horror, he meets it gently with his own. "A far greater one, Yiling Patriarch, than you could ever hope to be."
Low laughter rises in the back of Wei Wuxian's mind. Little god, say a thousand voices. Little god and his little fools.
"Your mother is dead!"
"Patriarch!" Mo Xuanyu's voice rings out, high with terror, and Wei Wuxian's mouth is back on Zuiguo immediately. His last corpse flings itself between Nie Huaisang and a burning tendril, clawing at it even as the monk robes catch fire and its hands burn away to ash.
Nie Huaisang is white-faced, clutching a seared, twisted leg. Mo Xuanyu, beside him, is murmuring prayers that twist over themselves between Wei Wuxian's ears and his soul.
He moves back in front of them, shadows around him dancing to Zuiguo's tune. Black spears impale the mass of corpses in front of him, a few of them, white-eyed, trying to struggle free and dance once more.
He dodges the first arm, leaping and spinning, the song still playing even as he flies.
He does not dodge the second.
Pain lances down his back, with a snap that would have killed a mortal and still sends Zuiguo rolling away from his shaking hands.
No, no, no -
Failed Jiang. Failed cultivator. Failed Patriarch.
Jin Guangyao laughs, somewhere above the din, soft and polite as the host at a feast.
Laughs, and then chokes.
The pressure lifts from Wei Wuxian's back, long enough for him to crawl forward with another lash of pain. He scrabbles for Zuiguo, the floor cold beneath his hands.
And the fog rising.
There are white boots, suddenly, in front of his face. A cool, jade-white hand reaches down to pull him to his feet.
"You are alive," says Lan Wangji. A rabbit twitches its ears in the fog at his feet.
He slams Lan Wangji backwards, their hands still joined, as another corpse arm slams down.
Golden eyes narrow. "Elder. Rest." The fog rises further, choking the room.
Rest. Wei Wuxian tugs his hand away, and raises Zuiguo back to his mouth.
Lan Wangji is still for a moment, and then he too begins to play, strumming at the fog like a guqin, half-remembered Lan melodies swirling around them.
The beast in the pit recoils.
Corpses split from it, falling back into the depths, but a single, golden eye opens beneath the skeleton of Jin Guangyao's mother, her spine cracking, legs falling away.
Fires erupt beneath their feet.
"Little ghost. Little god." A sound that isn't quite laughter, high and shrieking. "Burn."
The flames take human form, tearing at his sleeves, slicing through the fog.
The melody changes.
A song he knows, and doesn't know, his fingers dancing of their own accord. Lan Wangji joins in, the duet flowing together.
Light, and darkness, and somehow, even in the midst of all this battle, peace.
Power swells within him.
The flames hiss away into nothing, the fog growing thicker and thicker, more corpses falling back into the darkness.
He takes a step forward, Lan Wangji beside him, until, with one last, long note, the golden eye closes, and the corpse-god slips back beneath the earth.
The music hangs in the air.
I can't kill him, Wei Wuxian realizes, fear a sharp pain between his ribs. I can't.
Not the man who'd saved him, not the boy who'd scowled at him, not the devastation still trying to do justice in his name.
Pale and beautiful in the mists, eyes closed.
I'm sorry, Nie Huaisang.
Wei Wuxian reaches out, eyes still wide. Hand shaking. "Lan Zhan -"
The ghost whirls, face, for a moment, a mask of horror.
Whirls, and vanishes into the mist.