“You have to help him,” Jiang Wanyin begs, his face blotchy with tears as the sullen form of Wei Wuxian slumps off of his shoulders and onto the ground before Lan Wangji’s feet. “If there’s anyone in the world who could find out how to reconstruct a stolen core… it would be you. Wouldn’t it, Hanguang-jun?”
He puts too much faith in this, Lan Wangji thinks. He puts too much faith in my abilities. Even I could not —
Wei Wuxian’s soulless eyes look up at him. He doesn’t even smile, much less crack one of his usual quips at seeing his childhood rival. This is wrong.
“I will see what I can do,” promises Lan Wangji, even though he knows it is impossible.
On the first night, Lan Wangji meditates for hours in his rooms, the slumbering form of Wei Wuxian on the bed beside him. The other man makes no noise, so uncharacteristic of him. It feels as if the universe has shifted out of balance, and Lan Wangji is scrambling to try and right it without knowing exactly how.
On the second night, he consults the remnants of the texts from the Library Pavilion, goes through scroll after scroll in a painstaking, desperate search for the thing that could save the man in the bed beside him. For the thing that would restore that spark to his eyes, the smile to his lips. Lan Wangji hadn’t even had the chance to kiss them, though he had desperately wanted to.
All the texts show him is how to transfer a golden core, not how to reconstruct it.
On the third night, that is exactly what he does. And in the morning, Wei Wuxian opens his eyes to Jiang Wanyin’s worried expression. “You really did it!” Jiang Wanyin gasps as Wei Wuxian summons Suibian without worries. “You are a miracle worker, Hanguang-jun. The Yunmeng Jiang sect is forever in your debt.”
Lan Wangji feels the cold, bitter void in his own chest at the loss of his core, but he inclines his head nonetheless. “It is the least I could do,” he replies.
“Lan Zhan, how could I ever thank you?” teases Wei Wuxian, sidling up closer. Lan Wangji flinches out of his touch, but mostly from habit if nothing else. Jiang Wanyin tugs Wei Wuxian away to test his new capabilities, leaving Lan Wangji to sit and meditate away the tempest in his heart once more.
He is easily captured by the Wens after that. “The great Hanguang-jun,” sneers Wen Chao, lifting Lan Wangji’s chin with the tip of his shoe. “Laid low, at last. How does it feel? To be as humble as the rest of us?”
Lan Wangji does not deign to respond. He still retains some of his pride, though his golden core may be gone.
“Won’t even raise Bichen to fight,” sneers Wen Chao. “You’re as good as dead.”
They throw him to the Burial Mounds. The last thing Lan Wangji sees is the smile on Wei Wuxian’s face, before the shadows take him.
The war drags on, and over the course of years whispers begin to fill the dark. A great master of the shadows has risen, with an army of the fiercest corpses at his disposal. This scourge could wipe out entire towns — and it did, though it seemed to limit itself to Wen strongholds, targeting only those who wore the robes of the great red sun.
“Any master of shadows who focuses on killing Wen-dogs is a friend of mine,” declares Jiang Cheng, when he hears the news.
“A little harsh, isn’t it?” asks Wei Wuxian, as he looks up from where he’d been playing Inquiry on a black dizi. Bichen lies on a table before him, cold and bright. Ever since Lan Wangji had been captured by the Wens, Wei Wuxian had been modifying Inquiry for the flute to try and ascertain his whereabouts. But every time he does it, the results are inconclusive.
“Nothing is too harsh for the dogs that killed my family,” sneers Jiang Cheng. “And your playing is atrocious. Maybe that’s why Lan Wangji’s spirit doesn’t want to talk to you.”
“Haha,” says Wei Wuxian drily, and lifts the flute to his lips again.
The war drags on, until the Wens discover the rebel base and lay siege to it, testing the mettle of even the newest Yunmeng Jiang soldiers. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng join the ranks of their forces, swords shining with the blood of their enemies. Zidian sings through the night, until at last they are surrounded by the Wens with nowhere else to escape.
Then the strum of a guqin reverberates through the air, striking fear into the hearts of all the Wens.
Silhouetted against the bright moon is a figure in black, black robes billowing behind him like undulating shadows. Slowly, the corpses of the soldiers that litter the garrison streets begin to rise again, lurching forward with newfound ferocity.
“The Master of Shadows,” whispers Jiang Cheng.
“The guqin,” breathes Wei Wuxian. “Could it be?”
All around them the carnage rises, the corpses clashing with the Wens until they have either died or fled in fear. Wen Chao himself is torn to pieces by his own former mistress. The figure descends from their rooftop perch, quiet footsteps graceful against blood-soaked streets.
He lifts his head, his eyes flashing between ruby and topaz, and Wei Wuxian’s heart stutters in recognition.
“Lan Wangji,” he asks, “what happened to you?”
Lan Wangji, master of shadows, looks at him with unmistakable sadness in his eyes. He says nothing.
“You… you stepped onto the path,” says Wei Wuxian, stepping closer. With another strum of the guqin, the corpses assemble around them, awaiting their master’s command. “How… why?”
Lan Wangji lowers his head, a single tear falling down his cheek. “For you,” he murmurs. “I would have done anything.”
“For me?” echoes Wei Wuxian. “All of this… all of those deaths were for me?”
Lan Wangji is silent.
“I mean… I mean I can’t say I don’t appreciate the gesture since you really did a lot to help us in this campaign, but… you said yourself the demonic path was all-consuming, uncontrollable, dangerous. What possessed yourself to do it?”
Lan Wangji’s eyes flash crimson. “If there is anyone in the world capable of mastering even the most forbidden paths, it is me.”
“Hanguang-jun, you are better than this,” pleads Wei Wuxian. “Come back to Yunmeng with me. I’ll take care of you.”
“No,” says Lan Wangji, almost an eerie echo of his childhood refusals.
“Lan Zhan,” begs Wei Wuxian. “Please.”
“Let him be,” says Jiang Cheng. “He isn’t of our sect anyway.”
“No, Lan Zhan, please — come back to Yunmeng with us!” Wei Wuxian darts forward, as if trying to catch smoke with his bare hands, but Jiang Cheng holds him back.
“This is an issue for the Gusu Lan Sect to discipline,“ he hisses. “We have no part in this.”
“Lan Zhan!” screams Wei Wuxian, the agony evident in his voice. It pierces Lan Wangji’s heart, but he steels himself nonetheless, turning away from the man who had brought so much light to his life.
And with Wei Wuxian’s pleas echoing in his ears, Lan Wangji quietly slips back into the cold, dark embrace of the shadows.