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Cradle

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The first thing Wei WuXian was aware of was pain. He groaned, trying to get his head to work through pained fog to figure out what was happening. Suddenly, he felt small hands on his arm.

“Xian-Ge-Ge! Are you awake? Xian-Ge-Ge!”

A-Yuan?

Wei WuXian opened his eyes and tried to blink the blurriness out of them so he could see A-Yuan’s pudgy baby face. Wei WuXian blinked again. It looked like A-Yuan had been crying? But he looked happy now? What had upset him this time?

“Ah!” Wei WuXian hissed in pain. He’d tried to sit up and talk to A-Yuan at the same time and so wasn’t able to hold back the pained cry. Pain slashed up and down his back and even seemed to linger deep within his chest. Immediately A-Yuan’s eyes began to water; looking five seconds away from bawling and sending Wei WuXian into a mild panic. Wei WuXian hated seeing people cry.

Well, that answered that question. The next one was: what happened?

A-Yuan brightened again, “Aunt! Ge-Ge’s awake.”

“You’ve said that before, A-Yuan,” the voice of the ever-reliable Wen Qing came from beyond Wei WuXian’s vision range. Something was wrong here too. Wen Qing sounded tired and barely able to keep her normal harsh tone out of her voice like she normally did with her youngest relative.

Wei WuXian tried to shift around to find her. A harsh intake was heard before a thud of something falling and a hand holding him down. Wen Qing’s weary, wide-eyed face entered Wei WuXian’s field of vision.

“Stay down,” Wen Qing commanded, “You’ve taken three arrows to the back and they weren’t in easy places to remove especially after A-Ning jostled you so much to get to me on time. A-Yuan go fetch some water for him to drink.”

The teary face nodded and Wei WuXian could feel him crawling over him, gently at that, to obey his aunt. That was when Wei WuXian registered that he was in his bed in the demon-slaughtering cave. A bed that was much comfier than he remembered. But Wei WuXian was focused on what Wen Qing had told him.

Arrow wounds?

He stared blankly at Wen Qing’s face for a moment as she checked his pulse. Suddenly he remembered everything that happened and he nearly lurched upright.

“Jin ZiXuan! Is he…?”

Wen Qing gave a ‘hmph’ before seating herself on the edge of his bed, which was more like a rocky ledge. She couldn’t seem to resist checking up on him, examining his eyes, forehead and hands. Wei WuXian just let her do it. He was familiar with ways of worried fussing, although with his Shijie they usually focused on feeding him and Jiang Cheng.

“He’s completely unharmed and so is that wretch, Jin ZiXun. A-Ning was able to communicate a little once you were more stable,” Wen Qing said checking him for a fever.

Wei WuXian let out a breath that seemed to feel deeper coming from his sore chest. The last thing he remembered was Wen Ning jerking away from giving Jin ZiXuan a killing blow.

A killing blow. Had Wei WuXian really lost control of himself enough to nearly make his Shijie a widow so soon?

“You’ve been unconscious for a little over a week now.”

“What?”

Wen Qing nodded grimly, “We’re in an even more tumultuous situation than when we first came here. A-Ning has been repelling raids from the LanlingJin Sect and other smaller sects under their protection.”

Wei WuXian wondered how many of those had once been under the QishanWen Sect’s protection judging by the bitter look on her pretty features.

“Does A-Yuan know?”

“No,” Wen Qing shook her head, a ghost of a smile on her lips, “He’s been in here keeping a watch over you.”

She hesitated for a moment then added in a lower voice, “He was afraid you weren’t going to wake up and someone would bury you deep in the ground so no-one could see you and everyone would forget you. His words,” she added at Wei WuXian’s confused expression.

Wei WuXian’s expression underwent a myriad of expressions in response to that.

“Nightmares?” he guesses.

“He sleeps easier with you. As long as he doesn’t interfere with your healing it seemed fine to let him stay here. I’ve taught him how to check for your breathing and pulse. It helps when he wakes up from a nightmare. It’s been useful for keeping him out from underfoot and knowing about the raids as well. Everyone we can spare has been making bows and arrows,” Wen Qing added. She seemed to want to catch him up on everything that has happened while he was lingering in unconsciousness.

“How are they getting fletching?”

“One of the women has been sneaking into Yiling and trading for things. Thankfully butchers and cooks do not care so much for the feathers they pluck from their meat.”

Wei WuXian stared at Wen Qing in surprise. Since coming to the Burial Mounds the Wen Remnants have been almost insular. They were skittish and frightened; banding together in comfort. Once the barrier of walking corpses had been put into place they had relaxed somewhat; taking this space as a place where they could rebuild their lives. As Wei WuXian intended it to be. They’d certainly been skittish of him but, Wei WuXian thought, that is completely understandable. The Yiling Patriarch has been their living nightmare for so long and after the LanlingJin Sect’s treatment they had no reason to expect that he would not want anything for them but bloody death.

“Someone left?” Then a thought occurred to Wei WuXian, “How did they get back in past the corpses?”

“A-Ning brings her back inside when she’s ready,” Wen Qing said, “and, apparently, those corpses are only commanded to attack when approached from the other side.”

“Yes,” Wei WuXian said, “I told them that.”

Back in the beginning, he’d told them bluntly exactly what he could and could not offer to these frightened refugees. He included what the protections consisted of and made it clear that if they wanted to leave, they could do so. He wasn’t there to keep them prisoner. But if they left they were on their own. Surprisingly, no-one left.

“Luo Yaling has been very brave and very useful,” Wen Qing tells him quietly, “She’s traded for fletching and medicine. She’s also been able to tell us what’s been going on outside the mountain. She even witnessed cultivators leaving in a huff after a failed raid.”

A part of Wei WuXian desperately wants to ask of news from the outside; wants, desperately, to know of Shijie and Jiang Cheng. How had they reacted to this event? He never got to see Jin Ling… Jin ZiXuan had Jin Ling’s gift. Would he give it to his son? But he deliberately puts such thoughts out of his mind. It’s enough, for now, to know that he did not kill Jin ZiXuan and that there are enemies trying to get through his protections.

Then he blinked, picking up the first bits he’d missed while focussing on the second part. He’d thought all the people here had ‘Wen’ as a family name. But then, it’s not as if he could remember everyone’s name. But he thinks he’ll try to remember this one. She must have been terrified to go outside the protections on her own, especially now.

“’Luo’ Yaling? And do we need medicine that badly? I thought you’d made enough.”

“Luo is her maiden name,” Wen Qing informs him primly and then gives him pointed but weary look. When she next speaks her voice is low, “The wounds became infected.”

Oh. Wei WuXian sucked in a pained breath and nodded in thanks. Most cultivators couldn’t get infections. Their circulating spirit energy reduced that risk to practically non-existent.

“You’ve,” Wen Qing starts but hesitates, thinking over what to say. Wei WuXian immediately felt trepidation. Wen Qing was many things that contrasted with hesitant: blunt, harsh, unyielding, brutally honest, ruthlessly efficient, fierce - the list could go on.

“You’ve suffered from infection before,” Wen Qing said more firmly. For a moment Wei WuXian was confused. Had he been gotten an infection from the Wen brand in the cave of the Xuanwu? But then he remembered.

“It was before I came to YunmengJiang,” he told her quietly. She eyed him shrewdly then gestured to his right shoulder. Wei WuXian glanced down automatically. He was dressed in sleeping clothes and there were bandages underneath. He wondered if he should be bothered about Wen Qing seeing his nakedness, but she was so clinical about it that there was no point in teasing her. Besides she’d been forced to see his naked torso before in a time when Wei WuXian did not have the mind to tease anyone.

“After my parents died, I ran out of food and money quickly. One more penniless, dirty child on the street wasn’t noticed by anybody. Either you survived or you didn’t and, back then, I wasn’t willing to lay down and die. There were plenty of kids and animals like dogs who did the same. I got into multiple fights with them and managed to walk away, win or lose. But this one dog was larger and meaner than most. Have,” Wei WuXian stumbled a bit here. He’d never told anyone this. Uncle Jiang knew the basics and told his family. “Have you ever seen a dog with a rabbit? Or favoured toy? They just…”

Wei WuXian couldn’t continue and instead made a motion as if shaking something side to side.

“Been afraid of dogs ever since,” Wei WuXian tried to pass it off, “I knew something was wrong with the bite. But I was just so focused on finding food. I don’t even remember it, but I must’ve holed myself up somewhere. When I was able to walk without getting dizzy, I just went straight back to finding food. Uncle Jiang found me not long after.”

At least, Wei WuXian thinks it wasn’t that long. According to the doctor who’d examined him he’d still had some lingering infection alongside malnutrition and other small problems that the wealthy never had a problem with.

“I can understand why some people fear you so much,” Wen Qing informs him. Wei WuXian blinks.

“Demonic Cultivation? Mountain-load of resentful energy? Army of corpses?” Wei WuXian pointed out. He’d thought the reason people feared was fairly obvious. OK, maybe not the resentful energy thing. People don’t seem to consciously notice that, but the rest…

“Because it’s ridiculously hard to kill you,” Wen Qing said.

“Arrows. Infection,” Wei WuXian waved at his ridiculously sore body. He remembered a time when he healed faster than this.

“You’re still alive. To get even that far, they had 300 men, 200 of which were archers, all armed with swords against a man whose only weapons against other men were a useless flute and my brother. And this was after they had to find and dig out every single corpse they’d buried in Qiongqi Path and who knows how far around it.”

“That does seem a bit excessive,” Wei WuXian admitted. He hadn’t thought they’d want him dead so badly.

“A bit,” Wen Qing snorted inelegantly, “and yet, here you are. Alive and about to make a full recovery.”

“’About to make a full recovery’ still leaves me feeling very sore.”

“I seem to remember something about ‘injured and trapped in a cave with the XuanWu’,” Wen Qing was musing aloud now, clearly ignoring him.

“The beast didn’t attack unless we went near it. I had a small pouch of herbs, but I did have to share with Lan Zhan. Honestly, if it weren’t for Jiang Cheng’s stubborn tenacity, well, Lan Zhan would’ve survived, I think. Although he may have been slightly traumatised by being trapped with my corpse until help arrived.”

“That’s not funny,” Wen Qing said flatly. Wei WuXian gave a momentary look of contrition. “Then there’s your survival in this place let alone combined with Demonic Cultivation itself. I seem to remember rumours about Wen Chao stabbing you as well.”

“Yeah, before he threw me in here,” Wei WuXian confirmed, “I didn’t think telling him about how I’d become a malevolent ghost after he killed me would frighten him that much. I was already at his non-existent mercy.”

Wen Qing looked like she was about to respond to that. But then A-Yuan came inside, holding a bowl with every bit of concentration to ensure it wouldn’t spill. Wei WuXian almost cooed at how cute he was. Wen Qing helped him sit up and drink. A-Yuan took the first opportunity to crawl back onto the bed and stared wide-eyed at him.

“Were you worried about me?” Wei WuXian teased him lightly.

Tears filled his eyes and the child nodded. Wei WuXian’s smile softened.

“I’ll be alright,” Wei WuXian said. Teasing the child about his death would be crossing a line and Wei WuXian wasn’t comfortable presenting an immortal front to the child either. Not after Qiongqi Path’s ambush. “Your aunt has rarely come across something she can’t heal.”

“Shut your mouth, Wei WuXian,” Wen Qing says, not bothering to turn around to face him, fiddling with bottles and containers of medicine instead. Wei WuXian laughed and then coughed when laughing made his chest hurt. Had an arrow hit his lungs?

“I see you’ve made yourself quite the nest here,” Wei WuXian teased the boy, wanting to move on to something a bit lighter. It was true. Between where Wei WuXian has been lying and the wall is a pile of blankets and small toys, mostly the grass butterflies A-Yuan is so enamoured with. In fact – “Did you get paint on my bed?”

There were bits of paint on the stone in speckled amongst the blankets and bedding nearby the child’s nest. Wei WuXian almost wants to laugh again but didn’t. Not only would it probably be painful but the image of A-Yuan shakily painting his grass butterflies while waiting for someone to wake up, not moving from their side, was a sad one. A-Yuan was still a child with all the poor motor control a toddler has, but he was a child who’d learned very early on not to waste anything. He was a good child. When everyone around him always told him ‘be careful’ or ‘don’t waste that’, of course he absorbed it and listened.

“No!” A-Yuan denies loudly. He looks guiltily at the paint specks and tries to surreptitiously (Read: very obviously) move the blankets to cover the evidence. Wei WuXian does his best not to laugh. Holding in his laughter seems to be eliminating the pain from his wounds but only by replacing it with the pain from holding in laughter. His ribs feel like they will burst.

He lets out a chuckle anyway and snatches one of the painted grass butterflies. It’s the most sloppily painted one, likely the culprit who caused the paint spill in the first place. He reaches up to place it on his head but drops it with a hiss when pain hit. A-Yuan blinked up at him with wide eyes then looked at his dropped butterfly. Carefully, the child picked up the butterfly and leaned up to place it on Wei WuXian’s head with all the solemnity of someone placing a crown on a new monarch’s head.

“Thank you,” Wei WuXian told him gravely.

“Sometimes I wonder just which of you is older,” Wen Qing told him.

“Shijie said I was only one year old because I was too young to be three!” Wei WuXian told her cheerfully. He grinned wildly at the myriad of emotions crossing Wen Qing’s face clearly trying to decide whether or not Wei WuXian was telling the truth. A-Yuan let out a giggle.

Finally deciding that, yes, Jiang Yanli most likely had said that about the man in front of her, Wen Qing could only mutter: “One day, I have to meet this woman.”

“And then Jiang Cheng came in, told me to get off the floor and to go get Shijie’s cooking,” Wei WuXian reminisced. This had been his last day at Lotus Pier. “Only, when I went to the kitchen, I’d realised he’d already eaten all the meat. So, I walked back in and he told me it was my own fault!”

Wei WuXian gave a wounded look to A-Yuan who was giggling at the story. His expression was clearly speaking of how wronged he had been.

“Truly, your…” realising what he’d been about to say, Wei WuXian switched tracks rapidly and hoped no-one would notice, “My shidi can be quite cruel sometimes. Nothing tastes better than Shijie’s Lotus and Pork Soup!”

Wei WuXian had been about to refer to Jiang Cheng as A-Yuan’s uncle. But this was wrong on two levels. Wei WuXian was not A-Yuan’s parent and he was not Jiang Cheng’s brother. Wei WuXian had not had a slip like that in years regarding Jiang Cheng. This was also the first time he’s had a slip up regarding A-Yuan - barring the half-wishful jokes he’d made towards Lan Zhan that time.

“Truly, Jiang YanLi must be a saint or some incarnation of the Goddess of Mercy,” Wen Qing deadpanned.

“That’s what I keep saying!” Wei WuXian said, “But the only person that ever seemed to get it was Jiang Cheng. Though I suppose Jin ZiXuan had better have realised by now since he married her. Actually, the two of you tasted Shijie’s soup from that time. Remember? Wen Ning brought some back.”

Wen Qing eyebrows flew up. “So, that’s where that was from. It was very good.”

“I remember! I remember!” A-Yuan was almost bouncing in excitement, “It was the best thing I’ve ever tasted!”

Wen Qing gave Wei WuXian a shrewd look, “You’re one of those overprotective siblings, aren’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

Wen Qing didn’t answer. Wei WuXian exchanged confused looks with A-Yuan. The conversation appeared to be closed. Instead, Wen Qing fussed over her medicine, threatened him about even thinking of leaving his bed and left. Wei WuXian was still exhausted from recovering, so even though he’d only woken up not long ago he quickly fell asleep, A-Yuan curled into his side in a one-armed embrace.

Wei WuXian woke to Wen Qing covering some bandages in thick medicinal paste. A-Yuan still a warm solid presence under his arm. It was night-time. Wen Qing told him that his bandages had to be changed and had enlisted Uncle Fourth to help.

They were thankfully able to manoeuvre around the sleeping toddler. Wei WuXian couldn’t help but notice the newly carved bow over the man’s shoulder. Uncle Fourth smiled wanly and promised him some alcohol when he could walk without falling over which Wei WuXian naturally took offence to. He was given food by a concerned woman, who also had a bow on her back and a quiver around her hips. Finally, he was left alone with the sleeping A-Yuan and contemplative Wen Qing.

After finishing the food, Wei WuXian looked down at the sleeping, trusting toddler. The warmth and weight of the child made Wei WuXian’s heart clench in pained affection. Children should not be made to live in fear or tragedy. A-Yuan was the youngest child among the Wen sect remnants. The next eldest was ten to eleven years older than him. There were only a handful of teenagers and young adults combined. After, there was another age gap with the rest being older than Uncle Fourth at forty-five. Most were medics or cultivators who had little talent or preferred working with objects that made cultivating so much easier such as pre-made talismans or special protective clothing. They were the non-combatants of the Wen Sect and the ones who tried to remove themselves from Wen Ruohan’s ambitions as much as they could.

None of them deserved any of this.

But having A-Yuan here with Wei WuXian made him feel affection, fondness and a strange subtle fear born of how fragile A-Yuan sometimes seemed in moments like this.

“We need to get LanlingJin to leave us alone somehow,” Wei WuXian said suddenly to Wen Qing. He has often spoken and confided in Wen Qing and trusted her and her brother as he trusted few others.

“No-one’s gotten passed the defences yet,” Wen Qing said. Her voice was low, so she didn’t wake her nephew. “Tomorrow, if you can stay awake, we’ll gather everyone and discuss what we’re going to do next. It’s our lives too. You shouldn’t have to shoulder all such burdens alone. We’ll help. None of us are really fighters, but we’ll help in whatever way we can.”

“Don’t be silly,” Wei WuXian said, “It’s my fault we’re in this situation now. If I’d been able to diffuse those ridiculous accusations by Jin ZiXun…”

“No,” Wen Qing interrupts harshly, glaring at him through the lamplight, “This is not on you. They believe you must be either dying or dead by now and their first reaction is to try and invade us. You’re our main protector. If you were to die, we’d be easy pickings, and everyone knows it. And, from what you’ve said, it’s not just our lives they’re after, is it?”

Wei WuXian nodded grudgingly, “Perhaps we should make an escape route just in case. All of you can split up and live peacefully.”

“We won’t be together,” Wen Qing said quietly, “I know that’s selfish but…”

Wei WuXian wasn’t sure if it was. It was certainly understandable. It hadn’t taken him long to notice that the Wen Sect Remnants, even little A-Yuan, all knew each other. As in, they could all stop each other and inquire after little minutiae of their lives. Wen Qing had told him at the beginning that none of them were willing to leave each other if they didn’t have to. They were a tight-knit community that all knew how everyone related to everyone else. Wen Mao had always valued his family more than anything else. From what Wei WuXian could tell, everyone believed that Wen RuoHan had twisted these values for his own ambition.

If YunmengJiang valued ‘attempting the impossible’ and GusuLan ‘righteousness’ than QishanWen had ‘family’.

In short, none of the Wen Remnants would be as happy if they had to, not only hide who they were, but also separate from each other – the only family they had left. It humbled Wei WuXian to see them value each other so much. They were always willing to help out where they could. From what he had heard there was talk of building a great communal hall so they could all have dinner together whenever they wanted.

“I understand. Wishing for no separation from your loved ones,” Wei WuXian said quietly. He gently placed his hand on A-Yuan’s soft hair, feeling him breathe, “It’s always better to stay with the people you care about and who care about you. Happier.”

Not for the first time, he thought about his Shijie in Koi Tower and Jiang Cheng now all alone at Lotus Pier. He hoped they were happy, even without him.

Wen Qing seemed to inhale shakily but when Wei WuXian looked at her, she was staring at the opposing wall.

“What makes them want to attack us?” Wen Qing abruptly said, “We should make a list. What are the arguments going to be against us and you?”

Wei WuXian debated for a moment on whether he should let her change the subject or not. He acquiesced and said, “They’re afraid. Jin GuangShan intends for LanlingJin to take QishanWen’s place at the ‘top of the cultivation world’. But during the Sunshot Campaign, he was the only current Sect Leader who did not rise to prominence. Jiang Cheng revived YunmengJiang after QishanWen tried to destroy it and lead multiple campaigns while recruiting at the same time. Nie MingJue killed Wen Xu. Lan XiChen, Lan Zhan and Jin ZiXuan all lead multiple campaigns and quite a bit is owed to Lan XiChen’s strategies. The most prominent people apart from the Sect Leaders or their heirs are myself and Jin GuangYao who killed Wen RuoHan. Everyone knows how Jin GuangShan treated Jin GuangYao when he was still Meng Yao. Plus, Lan XiChen and Nie MingJue became sworn brothers with him but he’s the only one who isn’t a Sect Leader or even inheriting the position. To have his own position rise, Jin GuangShan has been using Jin GuangYao’s connections and accomplishments, his wealth and the fact that, as a Sect, his came out of the Sunshot Campaign with the least damage.”

“Because he waited until the last possible minute to commit. So, what you’re saying is that Jin GuangShan wants to rule everyone else but isn’t doing it as obviously as Wen RuoHan,” Wen Qing said. Anger was barely leashed in her voice. She’d been focussed on her family’s survival and therefore wasn’t up to date about the current politics. Wei WuXian wasn’t either, but he was in a better state than Wen Qing.

“Yes,” Wei WuXian nods, “Thanks to Jin GuangYao, he has influence over GusuLan and QingheNie which leaves…”

“YunmengJiang.”

“Who had me as their Sect Leader’s right-hand,” Wei WuXian sighed, “Jiang Cheng is too independent to make any kind of relationship purely out of political reasons. Even shijie’s marriage: if shijie didn’t want it, it wouldn’t happen. End of story.”

“But wouldn’t Jin GuangShan be satisfied with the marriage? Jiang WanYin’s nephew would be heir to LanlingJin earning ties to YunmengJiang. Regardless of how it would be in practice, it is an alliance. An alliance of blood even.”

“One that was never certain,” Wei WuXian said, “Which is amusing when you realise how he must have kicked himself for dissolving the betrothal between Jin ZiXuan and shijie before the Sunshot campaign when YunmengJiang would have been so far down the list to gain a political marriage. Compared to now when YunmengJiang was the only major sect not fully allied to LanlingJin.”

“That’s all good for the Great Sect’s politics but what does that have to do with us?” Wen Qing asked.

Wei WuXian considered. He felt he hadn’t fully explained the realities of how much – or how little – shijie’s marriage affected the alliance between YunmengJiang and LanlingJin. But he let it go.

“I’ll start with QishanWen,” Wei WuXian decided, “He thinks you want to build up your Sect again. To, one day, try and become the fifth Great Sect again. The best way to stop that, is to stop you. To wipe out every part of QishanWen, all of Wen Mao’s blood, so there’s no way to recover. Plus, don’t underestimate spite and the joy of having power over those who once had power over you. Especially, since no-one would stop them. The Sunshot Campaign and its damages are still too recent. There is no-one in the world more reviled than a Wen. Except, perhaps, me.”

“But we don’t have any power!” Wen Qing said, “We were never threats! Everyone here is a non-combatant! Medics and support or those who are too old or who’d barely started cultivating!”

“It’s the name,” Wei WuXian said, “I know it’s ridiculous, but some people don’t care about reality as long as they get what they want and, what Jin GuangShan wants, is power.”

“The name,” Wen Qing muttered, seeming to think on something, “Alright, but what about now?”

“Now, you have the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation leading and protecting you,” Wei WuXian said sardonically, “They think we’ll combine and create a new Sect filled with Demonic Cultivators to terrorise the world with our army of corpses and rule with fear the way the QishanWen Sect failed to do the first time.”

“That’s so stupid!” Wen Qing blurted out. Wei WuXian laughed, a tad hysterically.

“It’s not a new fear, exactly,” Wei WuXian said, “That’s why Jin GuangShan wanted YunmengJiang brought to heel so badly before all this happened. It’s just his luck that shijie’s marriage happened after I left so he could no longer try to grasp me.”

“Grasp you?”

“Poor choice of words, maybe,” Wei WuXian sighed, “Jin GuangShan was putting pressure on YunmengJiang since he’d begun accumulating power after the Campaign ended. They were lustful of the power of Demonic Cultivation but didn’t want to sully themselves trying to use such a path. Though, I think some Jin members asked me to teach them Demonic Cultivation in disguise. That’s also why they want the Stygian Tiger Seal. It can be used by anyone without backlash and it’s almost too powerful. They were afraid I’d teach YunmengJiang how to become a Demonic Cultivator.”

“But you didn’t,” Wen Qing said. Not a question but prompting an answer.

“No,” Wei WuXian admitted, “I’m too distrustful. I didn’t help Jiang Cheng recruit. I don’t know those people. Resentful energy is too easy to misuse and the consequences too severe if they’re reckless with it. I helped with training and I taught them tricks, but I never once taught someone to use resentful energy the way I can. Jiang Cheng agreed with me and never asked me to teach this path. He said it was my decision. Although he did advise that I should consider an apprentice.”

“Wise of him.”

“But LanlingJin continued to pressure. Before the competition at Phoenix Mountain, I’d have random LanlingJin members like Jin GuangYao try and flatter me over to their side,” they’d even sent women to flirt with him for that purpose which had made Wei WuXian extremely uncomfortable for all that he’d laughed it off, “but the worst part was that they’d create absurd rumours out of nowhere about me betraying or disrespecting Jiang Cheng.”

“They don’t know you that well, do they?” Wen Qing said dryly. The second thing Wen Qing had known about Wei WuXian was his loyalty to Jiang Cheng. The first had been his kindness to Wen Ning.

“No, Jiang Cheng and most of the people who knew us, knew better. Unfortunately, after Lotus Pier’s destruction, there were less people who really knew us from before the Campaign, so those numbers were few. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that most people began thinking that I was only waiting for a sinister chance betray Jiang Cheng, marry shijie – which is disturbing - take over YunmengJiang and then conquer the world with an army of demonic cultivators and their armies of corpses. Ugh, I’m nauseas now.”

“From the lying?”

“From people sick enough to think shijie and I would marry. It’s just – no. Just, just no.”

“She is your sister, so it has that incestuous feeling even if you’re not related.”

Wei WuXian paused, “You’re the first person to say that outside of shijie and Jiang Cheng.”

“That it’s incestuous?”

“That she’s my sister,” there was a kind of vulnerable tone in his voice that Wei WuXian didn’t like. He cleared his throat and looked at A-Yuan instead. He could feel Wen Qing’s eyes on him.

“And Jiang Wanyin is your brother,” Wen Qing said. There was a moment of silence while Wei WuXian tried to get water out of his eyes. After a moment Wen Qing began speaking again.

“I still don’t understand why that’s a problem. From what I’ve seen you’ve always managed to straddle the line of treating Jiang Wanyin as both younger brother and respecting him as Sect Leader. That should be obvious enough with time,” then Wen Qing seems to realise, “Except I didn’t give you any.”

“LanlingJin didn’t give me any,” Wei WuXian corrects, “A larger part of me than I’d care to admit kinda wishes I’d killed Jin ZiXun when he kept blustering and delaying me at Koi Tower. But I was trying, to use your term, to straddle the line between the power they knew I had and harmless, so I’d appear as a non-threat. Which means not killing people. Even so, I’d been trying for ages at that point and the rumours still hadn’t died down. QiongQi Path was a snarl in everybody’s plans. No-one expected that I’d care about the inhumane way your people were treated and few were aware that I had friends amongst you.”

“Do you think that they were trying to drive a wedge between you and Jiang Wanyin?” Wen Qing said thoughtfully. Wei WuXian blinked and poked that thought.

“That’s… Huh. More than possible; it’s distinctly likely,” Wei WuXian admitted. He thought over it some more, “Jin GuangYao is wily and desperate for approval. He’s also easily well-liked and appears as a genuinely honest person despite his considerable success as a spy. He’s also easily over-looked in comparison to the rest of the more arrogant members of LanlingJin. Jin GuangShan isn’t capable of this kind of thing no matter how much he might wish, and Jin ZiXuan would never bother with such a thing. In fact, I don’t think Jin ZiXuan has the same lofty ambitions as his father. He wants to be the best, and wants his Sect to be the best, but he wants that acknowledged in a genuine competitive way, not a domineering way. The point is,” Wei WuXian tried to get himself back on track, “Jin GuangYao would have thought rumours would be a good idea to break ties between me and Jiang Cheng especially if he heard the kinds of rumours that were prevalent about me from before the Sunshot Campaign.”

“I heard those rumours,” Wen Qing retorted, “and, no doubt, he would have been right there after the fight and been so sympathetic to get you on his side.”

“Sounds like you have experience,” Wei WuXian observed.

“Sometimes I wonder how Wen RuoHan didn’t kill him with how paranoid that damn tyrant was,” Wen Qing grumbled.

Silence prevailed for a while. Wen Qing was clearly taking in all the information.

“So,” Wen Qing said, breaking the silence, “Let me see if I’ve got this straight: we’re a threat because of an irrational fear of retaliation. You’re a threat because you’ve got a power none of them can combat and now, you’re not even under anyone’s control. LanlingJin wants all the power including what you have, like that damn seal you’ve bitched about. But they’re too prideful to try and recruit you now because you’ve essentially bloodied their face by walking off with half the prisoners of war they were keeping. And, now you’ve even survived their best assassination attempt.”

“I wouldn’t say it was their best,” Wei WuXian reasoned, “It was led by Jin ZiXun.”

“As for allies, we have none because no-one wants to associate with Wen-dogs and they tar you with the same brush,” Wen Qing continued, ignoring him, “The only one that might consider allying themselves to you is Jiang Wanyin since I expect the rumours are now sympathetic to him and not degrading like they were but you’re officially on the outs. Now, I doubt they fear retaliation from him for their murder attempt on you. They will fear retaliation from you… which might actually be why they keep trying to attack us. Finish you off while you’re injured.”

“I feel like a hunted fox,” Wei Wuxian mused, “to be honest, I don’t know how Jiang Cheng will react because who knows what he will be told. He can’t get upset at something he doesn’t know about.”

“All of Yiling knows,” Wen Qing said, “Luo Yaling has not been shy in telling anyone who asks what happened. From what she says, you’ve made quite the impression. All of Yiling is fond of their Patriarch. Even that vendor you accused of selling poisonous potatoes. Now, they’re all outraged on your behalf. They’ve refused to help the raiding cultivators, including upping their prices on things and even laughed that time Luo Yaling saw A-Ning throw somebody off the mountain. Rumours will have spread and Yunmeng isn’t far.”

Wei WuXIan felt taken aback at that. They had been offended on his behalf? He felt quite touched.

“Even so,” Wei WuXian said after clearing his throat, “Jiang Cheng knows better to trust rumours. He’ll try to ascertain the truth which means coming here or going to visit shijie. All things considering, he’ll go to shijie first.”

“How will she have reacted to all this?”

Wei WuXian cringed, “She’ll be upset. Either Jin ZiXuan told her what happened or she’ll have heard the news somehow. Jin ZiXuan or Madam Jin would be the only ones who’d tell her the truth because of her ‘unreasoning affection’ for me. Jin ZiXun outright said it would be fine to kill me because they didn’t have to tell ‘Sister-in-law’ the truth. Said so, straight to Jin ZiXuan’s face; right in front of me.”

“I’m starting to think you should have killed him,” Wen Qing said in disgust.

“Which makes me wonder what they would have told her when they started celebrating my death or giving a toast to my end. Because you know they would have done that,” Wei WuXian continued chest now hurting from the tangled up ball of grief and vengeful anger.

“They probably already did,” Wen Qing said, “enough of that, then. What about Jin ZiXuan?”

Wei WuXian paused and thought about that. He didn’t know Jin ZiXuan well and his opinions kept changing. It didn’t help that anyone who thought less than well of Jiang Yanli was instantly disliked. But Jiang Cheng had the same reaction and he’d allowed the man to marry their beloved sister. Even if shijie liked Jin ZiXuan, Jiang Cheng still wouldn’t allow the marriage if he felt Jin ZiXuan didn’t like her back. He thought about the other man’s arrogance and the way he’d stood steadfast between Mian-mian and the Wen Sect. He thought about the way he used to treat shijie and how he treated her on Phoenix Mountain. He thought about what he remembered Jin ZiXuan saying in QiongQi Path now that his head was clear from the ringing alarm of THREAT! THREAT! THREAT! and the quieter, simmering fury of how dare he? at the sight of Jin ZiXun with his unworthy hands on Jin Ling’s gift.

“I don’t think he really knew about the ambush,” Wei WuXian said slowly, poking at his unreliable memory, “Jin ZiXun said that ambushing me was the whole reason to invite me in the first place. But I think Jin ZiXuan was trying to diffuse the situation.”

“It was three hundred against two,” Wen Qing said flatly, “There’s not many ways you can ‘diffuse the situation’ when one side is trying to keep themselves alive and the other side’s express purpose for being there is killing the first side.”

“I didn’t say he was doing well at it,” Wei WuXian said, “But he tried. Which is… If he really didn’t know about the ambush and his invitation was a legitimately sincere one then I hold no grudge against him. I doubt we’ll ever get along but we can be… cordial. I think.”

“Overprotective sibling,” Wen Qing accused.

“He made shijie cry! In public! You can’t expect me to forget something like that even if he is now making her happy.”

Wen Qing gave a little huff which Wei WuXian thought was like laughter and he felt a little pleased at that. There was silence as Wen Qing clearly thought over everything.

“Can I ask a question?”

“You don’t need to ask that; just ask.”

“It’s an opening line to prepare you for a potentially awkward question! Not actually asking permission!” Wen Qing snapped at him before calming, “Will you ever teach someone Demonic Cultivation? Even Jiang Wanyin advised getting an apprentice.”

“Mostly the same objections as before,” Wei WuXian admitted, “Although, when I was still a young, immature disciple,” he ignored Wen Qing’s snort, “and I was studying at GusuLan under Lan Qiren, I introduced the idea of utilising resentful energy instead of traditional methods.”

“How did he react to that?” Wen Qing asked realising that Wei WuXian has always been this shameless to ask something so, at the time, unthinkable to the most rigid clan’s most rigid member.

“Threw a book at me,” Wei WuXian said cheerfully, “However he did bring up two good points in rebutting me. The first was how I’d stop the resentful energy from backlashing onto me.”

“Which you figured out,” Wen Qing observed.

“For the most part, yes. It still has its dangers but I do know my limits. The second one was that the cultivation world would never forgive me if I did figure it out.”

Silence.

“But,” Wen Qing said slowly, “You did figure it out. It’s out there now. You’re proof that this is possible and now others seek the same power. You have imitators. Even if you die, all that will still be out there. It can’t be reversed or undone.”

“Not just imitators,” Wei WuXian said bitterly, “If I ever find that lowlife that thought of living corpses…”

Wen Qing grimaced. It had been a short trip for Wen Qing to examine one to see if it could be reversed and she hadn’t made a definitive answer.

“All the more reason to take on students,” Wen Qing said, “The cultivation world polices itself. Demonic Cultivators should also police themselves. But you’re the only one. And you can’t do everything.”

Wei WuXian stares at her, “What are you really asking, Wen Qing?”

“You can say no. I just want you to consider the idea.”

Wei WuXian gestured at her to continue.

“What if we did become a Sect?”

“You want to restore QishanWen?”

“No,” Wen Qing regulated her breathing so she didn’t appear to be anxious. Thankfully, Wei WuXian didn’t seem to be taking the question too badly. Yet.

“No,” Wen Qing repeated, “QishanWen is gone. We’ll never get rid of the stain from Wen RuoHan and his sons and everyone else. Pretty much everyone here is ashamed to be a Wen now.”

Wen Qing wondered if she should tell Wei WuXian why the shame had become so much deeper now than it ever been before the Burial Mounds became home. No, Wen Qing didn’t have that kind of honesty. Not now, at least.

Swallowing, she continued, “Everyone here has a trade for cultivation purposes. Tailors, seamstresses, paper talismans, sword-makers, ritual ink, medics – we are the backbone of the cultivators who go out and fight. Except for a handful, everyone’s skills are worthless now and before, we were the suppliers of an army that went out and – hurt people.”

“It’s not worthless,” Wei WuXian said frowning, “We’ve gone out and sold several of the things everyone’s made. You’ve helped me sell the Demon Wind Compass. I wouldn’t have even known where to begin to get a good price on that. I know several people are making more to sell as well.”

“Yes,” Wen Qing acknowledged, “But we want to be helpful. To you. And even to the world out there. The regular one where normal innocent people untouched by all this need protection from things they can’t fight against. We are still cultivators after all.”

Wei WuXian listened, understanding.

“We don’t want the QishanWen Sect,” Wen Qing said, “and you – we’ve seen you teach A-Yuan his numbers and letters and you said you taught at Lotus Pier before coming here. You enjoy it. You’re good at it. Teaching Demonic Cultivation probably has its risks but…”

Wen Qing trailed off in frustration. She wasn’t sure how to put everything into an argument. It was a new feeling for her. She didn’t like it.

“If I have disciples I can trust not to abuse my teachings, they can help police those who use resentful energy for more malicious things. And, knowing that there is a Sect that specialises in such things there will be less people who consider themselves geniuses and dabble in something they don’t understand, injuring or destroying themselves,” Wei WuXian said quietly.

“Yes!” Wen Qing said, grateful Wei WuXian was making her argument for her, “Also, won’t the other sects be hesitant about attacking us if we were a proper sect instead of a band of refugees? We don’t even need to be a sect immediately. You wanted to be careful with your students, right? You can take time to decide on disciples. Not even everyone would need to be a Demonic Cultivator. I wouldn’t mind passing on my medical skills and like I said, we all have skills useful for cultivation as well. We’d like to use them for… YilingWei.”

Wei WuXian stared at her, pale.

“YilingWei,” he said before putting his head in his hands, “Wen Qing, I’m the son of a servant. The highest position and responsibility I’d ever wanted was as Jiang Cheng’s right-hand! I never had any other ambition. All this, just, happened. And, now, you’re asking me to be a Sect Leader?”

“You wouldn’t do badly at it,” Wen Qing said, “QingheNie’s ancestor was a butcher and YunmengJiang’s was a rogue cultivator before he gained so many students. Besides, aren’t you also the son of CangSe SanRen? A famous rogue cultivator.”

“You know it doesn’t work like that,” Wei WuXian said to her, “I’ve seen what Jiang Cheng does as Sect Leader and, yes, I’ve helped with some of it but I don’t think I can do what he does with YunmengJiang.”

“Like I said,” Wen Qing said, “Think about it. You could even ally with Jiang Wanyin. Nie MingJue and Lan XiChen are also sworn brothers. If you feel that you’ll have difficulty than you can always ask Jiang Wanyin for help, Sect Leader to Sect Leader. As equals. Just, think about it.”

Standing, she extinguished all the lanterns except one which she picked up. As she turned to leave she said one last thing:

“Sleep. You still need to heal.”