Walking back from where he had been told there were fierce corpses but had found none, Lan Wangji contemplated what to do next.
The immediate answer was simple: return to the village. Explain he had found nothing. Rent a room for the night, and head out again in the morning.
It was that coming morning that was troublesome.
He should go home. Xichen had given him leave to travel, to night hunt where he pleased, but it had been many weeks now since he'd last set foot in the Cloud Recesses, and most likely he should return and stay, at least for a few days, before heading out again. On many levels it was the most sensible option: there were probably things he could help with, at home. He hadn't seen his brother since he left. Today's false alarm had been the closest he'd come to a day of rest in many days, and if he continued on as he had he risked an inadequate performance, increasing the risk of injury. Therefore, he should return home, and rest, before going back.
He did not want to. He found himself still unwilling to face the sect that would so readily turn their backs on Wei Ying.
Wrapped up in these thoughts, Lan Wangji did not pay much attention to the man on the road in front of him until that man whistled loudly, as if calling a dog. There was no dog, but behind Lan Wangji there came a scuffling sound.
Before Lan Wangji had the chance to turn around, he was struck over the head with a heavy object. His ears rang from the blow. Had he been at full strength it would perhaps not have phased him, but he had expended much of his spiritual energy on the hunt, and so this was enough to make him stagger, which in turn gave his attacker time to get in another hit.
Lan Wangji's world turned dark.
When he awoke he was restrained, ankles tied together and arms fastened at his back with ropes as well as thin wire around his wrists. The ropes, perhaps, he would have been able to get out of using his natural strength alone, but pulling too hard would doubtless lead to the wire slicing through the skin. His spiritual energy had been sealed. Blinking to clear his vision, he found that a dark sack had been placed over his head.
The situation was alarming enough on its own without taking into account the remaining pounding in his head - whatever they had struck him with, they hadn't held back, and with no access to spiritual energy, he could not speed the healing of it up at all; he could only hope it was not a serious injury.
Breathing deeply, he attempted to center himself into meditation, beginning with a cataloguing of his body's sensations, so that he could then let them go.
Wooden floor underneath him, but not still but shaking and bumping at uneven intervals; a wagon, moving down an uneven road. His capturers must be cultivators, to have sealed his spiritual energy, but if he was being transported in this menial way, they were most likely individually weak.
Aside from the obvious headache, the ties around his wrists were too tight; they would ache, once released. He still had scattered bumps and bruises from the night hunt, although none were a matter of concern. He was thirsty. He was unsure how long he had been unconscious, but already his legs were beginning to shoot tiny sparks of pain up and down them from having been in a strange position for too long. Shifting to a more comfortable position, he leaned back against the wall of the wagon and exhaled, letting all of it go.
"Ah, I see our guest is awake!" Lan Wangji calmly opened his eyes to look at the man who had entered. It was the man on the road. He had a different look about him now, more relaxed, confident that their plan, whatever it was, had already as good as succeeded. The man stared at Lan Wangji, grinning. "Come now, don't be shy! How are you feeling?"
There was a certain type of person who relished in having power over others. Clearly, this man was one such person, waiting to see Lan Wangji panic at his own powerlessness.
Lan Wangji met his gaze unflinchingly, dispassionately staring through him. He made no reply. The man's eye twitched in aggravation.
"Ask us where we are taking you," he goaded. "Beg for your life, Lan Wangji."
"No need," he said coolly. It did not matter where he was being taken. His life, for now, was safe; had they wanted him dead, he would be. Whatever their plans were, he would find out when relevant, and act accordingly. For the moment, all he could do was bide his time and gather his strength.
His reply clearly enraged his captor.
"Gag him, then," he snapped to one of the other men, "If the great Hanguang-Jun thinks himself above speaking to ones such as us."
They did not hesitate to follow the order. Lan Wangji tried to clench his jaw shut, but one of them aimed a hard kick at his ribcage, and as he gasped minutely in pain, another took the opportunity to shove a foul-tasting gag between his teeth, tying it roughly behind his head. To be so weakened without access to his spiritual energy was disheartening; he quietly resolved to seal it himself for training purposes once back home. The strangers' hands brushed against his forehead ribbon and he grunted in protest, jerking his head away. The man who had first spoken immediately fell upon this perceived weakness.
"Vanity as well, Hanguang-Jun? Better let go of that right now, it will serve you poorly where you're going!"
Bound and gagged, Lan Wangji had no choice but to sit in disapproving silence as his forehead ribbon was removed and carelessly tossed into the same sack that presumably held Bichen and his other belongings. Anger would do him no favours here, but he nevertheless found it a difficult feeling to let go of. The times he removed his forehead ribbon were few and far between and these men did not have the right to touch it - somehow this violation, even when measured against everything else, was what had succeeded in making him feel powerless.
The men, none too gently, replaced the sack over his head. After a brief whispered discussion one of them took an extra precaution and bashed Lan Wangji's head against the wall behind him, for good measure.
Bright sparks flashed behind his eyelids. Pain flared out from the back of his head, loudly joining the rest of his pains.
Meditation proved beyond him, after that. Even staying conscious was too big of a challenge.
The next time Lan Wangji came back to awareness it was because the wagon had stopped and he was being pulled to his feet and pushed out of it. His legs folded beneath him as he hit the ground, landing in a painful pile. The world swayed as if he were still in the wagon, head pulsing. He was unfamiliar with the specifics of head injuries, but it seemed a bad sign.
He did not know what direction they had travelled in or for how long; he had no idea where they were, and as such the future held only mysteries. Nevertheless they had reached their intended destination, and as he was out of the wagon, this would most likely be his best chance at making an escape.
… blindly picking a direction and equally blindly making a run for it was not an appealing prospect. He was dizzy, drained and disoriented. He would be far too easy a target.
Waiting again, then. Waiting to see where they were ultimately going to bring him.
One man stood at either side of him, holding his arms, half helping him stay on his feet and half pulling him forward. They had neglected to remove the sack over his head, or, more likely, decided it was for the best that it stayed on. Lan Wangji stumbled along best as he could, preserving whatever amount of dignity remained to him.
They had not been travelling by foot for long when a wave of trepidation swelled over Lan Wangji. Something was wrong. They had crossed some border Lan Wangji could not see, and the air itself shivered with something - resentful energy, so strong it had no clear source but spread steadily across the area.
This is a bad place. Despite his earlier conviction to wait and see, Lan Wangji instinctively dug his heels in and tried to yank free of their grasp, to no effect. He did not want to know where they were taking him. He did not want to be in a place so malevolent while he himself was so powerless. He-
His rising dread was interrupted by a voice that had been ingrained in his memory since he was fifteen.
"What is your purpose here?"
Wei Ying. Lan Wangji abruptly stopped resisting, his body heavy with relief.
"Ha!" scoffed the one on his left smugly, voice low to only be heard by his companion and their prisoner. "Even the grand Hanguang-Jun knows that before the Yiling Laozou, struggling is useless!"
If he could spare the strength he might've shaken his head. As it was, he did not care to correct their misconceptions. He was in no danger here. These men had brought him to Wei Ying. That was alright. Even if Wei Ying was angry, even if Wei Ying hated him, he would not be harmed.
"Yiling Laozu!" the leader saluted. "I am Qin Guowei! We are all cultivators, here to pay tribute to the great master of Demonic Cultivation!"
"Tribute? Be honest with me, esteemed cultivators. What do you want?"
"We ask for the Yiling Laouzu's protection and teaching. As proof of our goodwill, we have brought you a gift."
"You hardly look in need of my protection," Wei Ying said. He sounded, more than anything, bored. "And if you wish to learn demonic cultivation, look elsewhere, or better yet, give up entirely! I will not teach you."
"Yiling Laozu," the man persisted, "At least inspect our gift before you turn us away."
"The burial mounds have need of nothing except being left alone. And besides-"
The men holding Lan Wangji up pulled him forward, bringing him to the front of the crowd. Wei Ying fell into a stunned silence.
"You brought me a Lan clan disciple?" he exclaimed after a few moments, bewildered. "How stupid are you?!"
"He is powerless - his spiritual energy has been bound. He is no danger, even to us lowly cultivators. He will be no match to the great Yiling Laozu!"
"It doesn't matter how dangerous he is right now, the Lan will be furious! Oh, do you not even have the sense to fear what will happen to you once Hanguang-Jun finds out? Aiya, the intelligence of cultivators truly has been overstated…"
The leader laughed. "Hanguang-Jun will do nothing!" he boasted. "Hanguang-Jun has done nothing this entire time!"
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji tried to say, but the gag muffled it beyond recognition. Even so the man at his left took offense, and struck him across the face to silence him. Resentful energy spiked - a brief flash of intent in the energy surrounding them. When Wei Ying spoke again his voice was unnaturally, dangerously calm.
"Tell me, Qin Guowei… Where do you find this confidence? How can you be so certain Hanguang-Jun will not kill you all?"
How Qin Guowei did not realize how precarious his current position was, Lan Wangji did not understand. Whatever miniscule hint of fear there was in his voice was entirely overshadowed by pride as he spoke. "Wang Chanming! Show the Yiling Laozu our tribute!"
The man on Lan Wangji's left grabbed hold of the cloth covering his face and unceremoniously yanked it off. Lan Wangji opened his eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of Wei Ying, but was forced to squeeze them shut again almost immediately, wincing as the light made his headache pulse in warning. He'd seen nothing but a silhouette, dark against the sky, which to his sun-deprived eyes seemed unbearably light despite the Burial Mound's perpetual overhanging clouds.
This time the increase in resentful energy was so strong even these less disciplined cultivators must have been able to feel it. Uneasy murmurs broke out among the men around Lan Wangji. Even with his eyes closed, Lan Wangji could tell how it swirled around them, centered at the point where Wei Ying stood.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying said. It was not a pleasant tone of voice to hear one's name in, but Lan Wangji had long since given up pretending to himself that he did not relish every time his name passed Wei Ying's lips. "Can you look at me?"
Hastening to do what they thought would please the Yiling Laozu, one of the men grabbed Lan Wangji's hair and roughly yanked his head up. Lan Wangji forced his eyes open again, trying to focus his gaze past the pain, but the view remained blurry and painful.
"Don't touch him," Wei Ying said sharply. Lan Wangji's captors promptly let go. Unprepared and weakened, Lan Wangji inelegantly slumped to the ground. Nausea roiled in his gut at the unexpected movement, and the wires around his wrists cut into the skin. The gathering resentful energy did not ease up.
"Whatever you wish done to him will be done, Yiling Laozu," Qin Guowei began again, but Wei Ying cut him off.
"Where's his forehead ribbon?" he asked, cold and distant.
"All his belongings are right here." There's a thud of something hitting the ground. Lan Wangji did not have the strength to do more than twitch at the careless treatment.
Footsteps approached. Everyone who had been standing nearby shrank back. A moment later a gentle hand cupped his chin, tilting his head upwards. Wei Ying. Lan Wangji blinked his eyes open once more. Wei Ying. Close enough now for Lan Wangji to see him properly, even as the world swayed. Close enough to see a terrible look in those eyes, hard as flint. This was the Yiling Laozu that was feared by the entire cultivation world.
Wei Ying's other hand came up to touch Lan Wangji's forehead, brushing over bruises left by the initial blows. Continuing to the back of his head, he found the hair matted together with dried blood. Far too gently for the look on his face, Wei Ying laid Lan Wangji's head back on the ground. Lan Wangji stubbornly kept his neck craned upwards, chasing every glimpse.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying said, still in that awful detached voice. "Close your eyes."
Not waiting to see if his order would be followed, Wei Ying stood back up, turning his back to Lan Wangji and his attention once more to his captors. "You were right. Hanguang-Jun's wrath won't befall you. Whatever he might wish to do to you, you will be safe from it. Because I will kill you first."
Before the words had had time to sink in, Wei Ying's dizi was at his lips, the first notes of a haunting melody creeping out. In only moments the first screams began. The pleading followed soon after.
Had Wei Ying always held this much anger inside him? The resentful energy only grew thicker, its weight in the air bordering on oppressive.
It did not touch Lan Wangji.
Amidst the sounds of bones being crushed and flesh torn apart, Lan Wangji closed his eyes and waited for Wei Ying to be done.
After an instant and an eternity the sounds died off, the dizi emitting one last tremulous trill before falling silent as well. Lan Wangji did not open his eyes. It seemed an excessive effort to make, now that they were closed.
Wei Ying's hands were on his face, trying to untie the gag while muttering apologies. Lan Wangji could open his eyes for that, with Wei Ying's help propping himself up to more of a sitting position. He could do anything for Wei Ying. He could-
The gag came off.
"Wei Ying." Speaking felt like pulling gravel through his dry throat.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying replied at once, "I'm here."
His thoughts were so scattered, but there was something he was supposed to say, something he was supposed to do.
"Demonic cultivation," Lan Wangji managed. Wei Ying at once tensed, withdrawing his hands from Lan Wangji's face. With a subconscious noise of protest, Lan Wangji pitched forward, pursuing him.
"I had very little choice, Hanguang-Jun," Wei Ying said frostily, and Lan Wangji's heart beat too fast to feel good. "This cultivator did not intend to cause offence in saving Hanguang-Jun's life. Perhaps next time Hanguang-Jun would rather allow the enemy to have their way-"
"No. Wei Ying." No, no, he was getting it all wrong again. Wei Ying had to know-- Lan Wangji had to find the words to tell him--- "Injured."
"Huh?" Some of the icy anger in Wei Ying's voice melted into concern. "Ah, Lan Zhan, you’re hurt, what did they-"
"No. Wei Ying. Injured?"
After a short silence, Wei Ying, with a strange tone in his voice, replied. "Lan Zhan… were you worried about me?"
"Mn." Good. Wei Ying understood.
"Ahaha, Lan Zhan…!" Lan Wangji frowned. Wei Ying was laughing, but he did not sound happy. He sounded lost. "There is no need to worry! I am fine."
Good. That was good. It was okay, then. He could rest now. Eyes drifting shut once more, he leaned against Wei Ying, who promptly panicked, but in that way where he pretends he's not even though he's talking even faster than he normally does.
"Ah-! Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, don't do that, you'd better stay awake, okay? If you don't I'll have to carry you! It'd be way too embarrassing for you, Lan Zhan!"
His arms were untied. He wasn’t sure when that had happened. Moving them hurt - his fingers especially were causing trouble, the restraints having been too tight for too long. He tried to clench his hand into a fist and found he couldn’t. Wei Ying made an upset noise and grabbed his hands, rubbing circles into them to get the blood flowing again.
“Just think what people will say, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying was saying. “The great Hanguang-Jun being lugged around by-”
"I do not mind."
"Wei Ying can carry me. I do not mind."
"…okay, then," Wei Ying said, sounding so strangely lost again, but this time Lan Wangji minded less, because Wei Ying was putting his arm under Lan Wangji's, getting them both to their feet. "On my back, then, Lan Zhan? But you have to stay awake so you can hold on to me!"
"Mn," Lan Wangji agreed. He'd hold on as long as Wei Ying would let him.