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Different Paths to the Same Route

Chapter Text

Da-ge,

 

If you are reading this, I'm either dead or dying. If so, so be it. I gambled. I've lost; entirely and completely. It's all right. I understand. I tried my best to make you see, to make you understand what sort of position I'm in, to make you understand what's out of my power. I've failed.

That said...

FUCK  YOU.

Fuck your insistence that the world is black and white.

Fuck your inability to see why I did the things I did. Why I had to, if we were going to defeat Wen Ruohan.

Fuck you for refusing to trust me, for being unable to believe the truth when I was finally able to speak it.

Fuck your belief that I... I, the unwanted, unloved and untrusted bastard son of my father... had any power over him.

Fuck your certainty that I had no right to seek more than the scraps tossed to a stray dog.

Fuck your expectation that I shouldn't value my life first, when my life is all I've ever had.

Fuck your judgment that everything I did, I did for myself alone.

Fuck your staining my mother for her circumstances instead of the ones who sold her to a brothel.

Fuck your blaming me for my birth, instead of my slut of a father for being unable to keep his dick out of whatever woman suits his fancy.

Fuck you for making it impossible to trust you. For constantly threatening my life, instead of trying to help me out of this Gods bedamned trap between my mother's desire and my father's.

And finally...

...FUCK YOU FOR KILLING ME. JUST BECAUSE I MADE IT EASY FOR YOU DIDN'T MEAN YOU HAD TO DO IT...

 

...sorry... I let my emotions get the better of me there. I've something of a headache right now, courtesy of a few dozen of Koi Tower's steps. ...almost certain I hit my head on every one....

 

I could just rewrite this damned thing but it doesn't matter anymore. The only way you'll see this letter is if I really do die. So, fine. I'll leave it. You value honesty, except where it doesn't suit your conceptions, after all. Besides, what are you going to do? Kill me?

All that said, there are things I should mention. Things you should know, if you're going to make it through the coming years.

First: Wei Wuxian -- That whole business escalated because my father wanted the Yiling Patriarch's power without the bother of the Yiling Patriarch. Anyone with eyes could see that man was as bad or worse than you when it came to doing what he thought was right. He didn't care how badly he was hurt, or what sort of trouble he got himself into, as long as he could protect what he thought needed protection. Who's to say he was wrong? (As an aside, I'm almost sure he'd lost his core somewhere along the line. It was difficult to tell, but why else would he never use his sword for anything more complicated than chopping wood?)

There's a way he could be returned to the world alive, though I don't know that he meant to use it. Frankly, I doubt anyone would, but you might want to keep an eye out, just in case. Someone might be willing to sacrifice their soul for the sake of revenge, after all. Desperation drives people to unthinkable measures, sometimes. Trust me. I know.

Second: Wen Ning -- Was not destroyed. Frankly, I'm not sure why. Xue Yang wanted to experiment, I think. (I'll get to him later.) I'm not sure where he's being kept. It was Nightless city, last I knew, but he may have been moved by now. To be honest, I'm not sure Wen Ning's really a danger. I met him briefly, just before the Yiling Patriarch attacked Nightless City. When not fighting he is as soft and biddable as he was when he was alive. He only fights for one person and Wei Wuxian is dead.

Not that I expect you to understand that. If you find him, I hope you make it quick. He was a kind child, when he was alive. He and his sister never deserved what we did to them. Neither did that little village. You want to claim the high ground, after murdering helpless peasants? Be my guest. I know what we did to them was wrong.

Third: Nightless City -- Was deliberately set up by my father. He didn't do anything until he was sure Wei Wuxian was on his way. All so he could force the Yiling Patriarch to hand over the Stygian Tiger Seal. I'm not sure, but I suspect he may have allowed Wei Wuxian's sister, Jiang Yanli, to reach the city for the same reason. Her death was what drove Wei Wuxian's willingness to use the seal again.

Fourth: Xue Yang -- Appropriate position for our young death-lover, yes? And you were always right about him, Da-ge. That man loves killing and manipulating more than a rabid fox. Some might blame his upbringing - if you could call it that - but I suspect he was never entirely right in the head.

You might ask why, given all that, I was willing to keep him alive. A better question would be to ask why my father wanted him alive. An even better question would be 'how was I supposed to kill him without being beaten to death by my father's men?' Best question of all, 'would you, could you, have protected me from the consequences, if I had?'

Truth to tell, if I could have rid us of him quietly, I would have. But he's slippery and cunning and I've been unable to find a chance to do so safely. Failure was not, is not, an option. If you fail, he will try to kill everything you love, destroy everything you cherish, just to get back at you for slighting him. And he has the tools to do it with, never doubt that. Be careful what you eat and drink around him. I'm almost certain he's drugged both my father and me.

Speaking of Xue Yang's interesting habit of destroying whole families, warn Song Lan and Xiao Xichen. I greatly fear they'll be targeted as soon as Xue Yang gets the chance. You're in danger too, but I know how hard it is to get into the Unclean Realm. Just don't let him get anywhere near Huaisang. Your little brother is still too naïve and trusting.

This section seems to have gone longer than I'd intended, but I think it's necessary. Final and most important thing, though, is that Xue Yang must die, but make sure you kill him before he sees you coming.

Fifth and last: Er-ge -- I beg you. Don't let him see this letter. He doesn't need to know the ugliness. He doesn't need to know what sort of person I am. What sort of person you are. And don't glare and sneer, Da-ge. I say again, if you're reading this, you've succeeded in doing what you promised to so often and proved how little my life ever mattered to you.

To you, I admit. I have far fewer morals, far fewer ethics than you and Er-ge. I never had any innocence, not when I was forced by my upbringing to constantly hide my feelings, forced by my upbringing to smile and smile and never let the tears fall. You see that as a flaw, as a sin. I see it as a necessity. One cannot wear one's heart on one's sleeve when you're surrounded by those who'd tear it apart. When you have no strength to protect it. And no one to stand at your side to help you.

I swear, though, I did try to make you understand. To make you see what you were asking when you showed up, furious that I still haven't done what you've demanded, furious that that little brat is still alive. I did try to reach the old friend and master I respected. The one who - I once thought - cared enough about me and my life to listen to what I had to say. I didn't find him. What was there only heard what he wanted to.

If I could have persuaded you to help me find a way out of this ugly mess, we could have moved on. If I survive what you did... I will be forced to obey my father and silence your objections to his plans forever. (I'm sorry, that was a roundabout way of saying father wants you dead and I was fucking trying to save your life.) As for the last possibility. Well, if you're reading this, you know what it is. I'm very afraid I'm dying here.

I leave it to you, Da-ge, to work out where you go from here. Even if I've survived whatever you've done to me, I'm too badly injured to be of any use to anyone, anymore. So be it.

I rolled the dice. I've lost.

Let it be.

#

He crumpled the paper for the tenth time in five minutes. Spread it out again. Glared at the text, rage burning in him, perilously close to a qi deviation. If it weren't for the chill air from the corner, and its source, he'd let himself go, let himself run rampant through the Unclean Realm. Quite likely he'd die of it.

Light brown eyes gazed back at him. A slight smile mocked him, as if daring him to seek respite in the killing rage. The same killing rage that - supposedly - killed their owner. "You aren't dead," he protested.

The smile broadened. Slender fingers removed that damned silly hat, revealing two gashes, one old, one new. The old one had been cared for, cleaned and carefully bandaged. The other... seeped blood.

"You stood up. You walked away."

A shrug. Lips moved. Silent words, yet comprehensible. He'd walked away, yes. And yet here he was. Haunting his killer like an obedient resentful ghost should.

"All this... they're lies...." He shook the paper. Crumpled and spread it again.

If he wanted to believe that there was hardly anything to be done about it. The dead man just hoped he wouldn't find himself regretting it, when Xue Yang came after him. The dead man only killed to a purpose and got no pleasure from it. Xue Yang's only real purpose was pleasure and his greatest pleasure was the entertainment he got from watching his victims squirm.

The urge to grab his uninvited guest by the throat and shake him grew too strong. He reached out. Put his hands through thin air. Thin and icy cold air. "Er-di," he muttered. "I'll get Er-di to help. He'll get rid of you."

A fine idea. Er-ge was a forgiving sort. He'd forgiven the dead man's sins, after all, numerous though they were. But did Da-ge want to tell him what he'd finally done? How his rage had driven him to kick his San-di down those steps? How he'd lost control of himself and killed blindly, without bothering to consider the consequences?

"You were asking to be kicked."

The dead man had been asking to be trusted. Asking to be valued. Asking for help that never came because Da-ge simply wouldn't listen. Because Da-ge had decided everything the dead man said were lies. But that was old business and hardly important now. The point was, how would Er-ge feel about this? After all, the dead man had never lifted so much as a finger against his Da-ge. Not yet, anyway.

"You admit you would have...." He pointed at the letter.

Of course he would have, if he'd survived that fall. Lacking support, lacking help, he would have been left with no choice. He didn't want Er-ge involved in this mess. Wanted Er-ge as far from Xue Yang's spite as possible. Da-ge was the only one who might have helped, and he was more interested in berating the dead man for his past sins and his birth.... More interested in killing his own sworn brother, rather than helping him.

Once more rage rose. Once more a need to damage the one causing his fury swirled through him. He struck out, saber breaking a nearby shelf and sending its contents flying. He'd kill him. As many times as necessary. He. Would. Kill. Him.

#

He hadn't wanted to die. Actually, didn't quite remember dying. But it was obvious he had. Equally obvious who'd killed him. He wouldn't be haunting his Da-ge otherwise.

It hadn't been too painful. He'd expected anything Da-ge did to him to be brutal, to involve a great deal more damage. Expected to be beaten, to be cut to pieces. Falling down those steps had saved him that much, even if he'd still died of it. A dim memory of his skull cracking against pavement told him how. He'd seen men walk away from such injuries, only to die an hour or so later.

No need to question why Da-ge didn't seem to know. Why he didn't believe. Su She had done what he'd promised. Taken the dead man's body away from Koi Tower and hidden it away. Hopefully somewhere far from Xue Yang. He'd known his death by Nie Mingjue's hands would only give his father a weapon to hold against Da-ge. Angry though he was at his so-called sworn brother's willingness to end his life, at the lack of trust, at the failure to value him, he would not let his slut father use his death that way.

This was for the best. Him disappearing, seeming to have run away. He'd given that letter to Su She, demanded the man deliver it to Nie Mingjue if he died of his injuries. He hadn't expected to be there for the reading. Hadn't expected to find himself haunting the man. He didn't believe in the afterlife, didn't believe there was anything past death. Yet here he was, dragged to his sworn brother's side by some unknown force. Guilt? It certainly wasn't grief.

Da-ge, of course, would deny any such thing. Da-ge was absolutely denying such things. Da-ge loathed admitting when he was wrong, even when he was obviously so. He'd turned all the blame for the things he'd done in the war onto his youngest sworn brother, as if that would cleanse him of the blood he'd spilled. As if he were without sin, simply because he was always right.

Watching his sworn brother waver, closer and closer to qi deviation, he knew he could push the man straight over the edge with barely a nudge. The resentful energy of Nie Mingjue's saber, combined with his mix of rage and growing self-hatred, was clearly visible to him. Being dead made it easy to spot such things. Made it easy to see the tipping points and know how to use them.

He considered the man fighting both himself and the world. Made up his mind. It'd probably tie him to the world longer. So be it. He didn't care about his father anymore. Didn't care about most of his clan, for that matter. But there were those he wanted kept safe and this man was his only hope of doing so.

Possession wasn't a thing he understood yet and he doubted he could properly overwhelm Nie Mingjue's mind. Even this close to qi deviation, the sect leader was too strong-willed for that. But that didn't mean he couldn't be steadied. The connection formed by their oath helped him, weak though the thing had been. He pressed his will through his sworn brother's spirit, focused on balance, focused on calming the rage.

"Get... off... me...."

He couldn't talk. Not so his brother could hear him. But he could express himself and did. Da-ge was not going to fall. Da-ge was going to survive as long as necessary. Because Da-ge was now the only one who could do what had to be done. Da-ge was the only one who could protect those who needed protection.

Because as long as Xue Yang had his claws in Jin Guangshan's head, no one was safe.

#

Er-Ge,

 

If you get this letter, I'm dead. I think you know who to blame for it, too. I tried, I really did try, but there just wasn't any way to change how he felt about me. I've asked my only allies to keep my death quiet, but I know you wouldn't let them without my begging you to.

 

Please. Don't bring it down on his head. If he's killed me it was probably the qi madness driving him. Forgive him. Forgive me for not being able to fight him. Let it go.

 

Goodbye

#

He raced through the halls of the Unclean Realm, stared at but not blocked. He was their sect leader's Er-di, after all. Welcome, always welcome, especially in these days when Nie Mingjue's temper was slowly but surely getting worse.

Paper crumpled in his hand, torn and stained with tears and blood. San-di's blood. The writing was both familiar and subtly wrong, but then it would be. Su She had said he'd had a concussion, after all. Said he'd written the letter in the last few hours before he'd succumbed. Before he'd... died.

He was and wasn't angry. Most of his rage was directed at himself. How could he not have seen what was building between his brothers. How could he not have intervened sooner. He should have done something. Why hadn't he? And now Jin Guangyao was dead and Nie Mingjue was his killer.

Head swimming, mind blurred with grief, heart aching, he had to confront their Da-ge. It was time and past to do something about Nie Mingjue's destructive urges. Time and past to make him understand the harm he was doing, to himself and to everyone else. He owed it to Jin Guangyao to end this madness before it claimed another life.

Da-ge's office was wrecked. Broken furniture. Shelves down, books scattered. And there, in the middle, kneeling, hands on his head, shaking like a child in a temper, Da-ge himself. He glared at the figure and for the first time in his life, practically screamed, "HOW COULD YOU DO IT?"

The man didn't move. Just knelt there, struggling with something, as if trying to pull hands away from his temples. His fingers gripped tight on nothingness, his face twisted in a grimace as he growled, "I. Said. Get. Off. Me."

Under any other circumstance, he'd have reacted with concern, would have tried to help. But he felt so much rage, so much pain. All he could do was draw his sword and aim it at his sworn brother. "YOU KILLED HIM!"

"GO AWAY!"

They howled at each other, he only able to keep from striking because his sworn brother was still his sworn brother. That and Da-ge wasn't trying to defend himself. Even in the throes of unbearable loss and anger, he couldn't attack a helpless foe, much less a sworn brother lost in an obvious qi deviation.

Something caught hold of the tip of his sword. A chill rushed up and along the blade. A voice that wasn't a voice tried to whisper in his ear. Begging. Calming. Soothing. Familiar and yet so distant. No words. Just thoughts, but those were familiar too.

He should hold off. He shouldn't be here. Something was wrong with both of them. Something had twisted their thoughts and set them on the path to self-destruction. They should listen. They should calm their selves. And they should let go of their rage because there were more important things to worry about.

Struggling against the voice, still wanting to kill... wait... kill? To kill his brother? His beloved friend? How could he even think such a thing? He fought back the unfamiliar anger, dropping the letter in his hand and staring blankly at the space between him and his brother. A faint, faint, desperately faint image floated there.

"Brother? A-Yao? But... you're...."

Yes, he was dead. Er-ge wasn't supposed to know. Obviously someone told him who shouldn't have. But he should never mind that. Instead he should help Da-ge. There was only so much a dead man could do to soothe a Nie in qi deviation. He should help, before he lost another brother to this mess.

Calmer now, he knelt in front of his brother. Set his hands against the man's temples. Sent calming energy into the man's thoughts. At the same time, cold, almost unbearably cold, fingers lay across his own, adding a strange chill energy to the mix and slowly, painfully slowly, soothing Nie Mingjue's qi.

Until, at last, their Da-ge's eyes cleared and he stared, eyes full of tears, at Lan Xichen.

Chapter Text

Really, Su She knew he shouldn't have done what he'd done. But he shouldn't have cursed Jin Zixun, that bastard, either. Shouldn't have lost his sword in the waters of Caiyi Lake. Shouldn't have walked out on Gusulan. So many regrets. So many stupid mistakes.

But Jin Guangyao had been the only person who'd believed in him aside from his followers. The only person who actually trusted in him. The only one who was sure he could - if he tried - create something new and special with Moling Su. How could he let that oversized self-absorbed monster of a man get away with half-killing his own sworn brother.

Su She paced past the bed again, gazing at what lay there. He should be dead by now. He never moved, never so much as twitched. Only the faintest breath moved through his lips. At least he looked better now Su She had cleaned him up. The blood in his hair, the tears of pain smeared across his face; all wiped away.

He looked almost like he'd wake any moment. As if he'd sit up. Smile that sweet smile. Thank Su She for all his hard work. And just appreciate his friend for being a friend.

"Master Guangyao," Su She whispered. "I'm sorry. You told me not to seek revenge. Told me not to curse those two. But they killed you. Together, they killed you. How could I ever forgive that?"

He knelt beside the bed, gazing at the beautiful face of the man who'd saved him from his own self-destructive path. The man who'd protected him from the consequences of his sin. The man who Su She had been slowly but inexorably falling in love with.

It'd never occurred to Su She that he could feel this way. But gratitude had become respect had become love. Jin Guangyao's amazing ability to take the injuries the world threw at him and somehow let it all drip away, seemingly unaffected. His smile was mostly a mask, but when he really, truly, smiled? It was beautiful. He was beautiful. Kind. Gentle. Respectful. And appreciative.

The thought that he'd never hear Jin Guangyao's soft voice murmuring approval, congratulating him on the latest development of his sect's skills, was heartbreaking. Was impossible to bear. Was not to be accepted.

He studied that pale face. Studied the thing in his hands. It was made to control resentful energy. Jin Guangyao surely resented dying. Surely resented dying in such a way. Surely resented dying by his sworn brother's hand, or foot, rather. If he could be called back to this body perhaps, just perhaps, he could become like that undead of Wei Wuxian's? Would he forgive Su She if it worked? Or would he tear Su She apart for having made him another monster?

Su She clutched what remained of the Stygian Tiger Seal in his hands. If he could have trusted Xue Yang with it, he'd have asked the annoying little necromancer to try. But Jin Guangyao had warned him to be careful around Xue Yang, to never believe a thing the youngster said. And as far as he could tell, Master Guangyao had been right.

If he failed, if he survived failing, he'd have to reconsider. He'd have to call Xue Yang in. For now, however, he focused his attention on Jin Guangyao's body. "Come back. I beg you. Come back. You can kill me if you want, but please. Come back."

Because a world without Jin Guangyao was one Su She had no wish to live in.

#

Things were getting out of hand. He nudged the paper Er-ge had been carrying, testing what his ghostly body could do. Not much, but he didn't need much. He didn't need to move it to sense what it contained. The words weren't important, but the presence of talisman symbols within its surface were. Someone had set a terrible trap in this thing. One that would push its reader into an unreasoning state of mind.

He touched-not-touched the letter Da-ge had been reading. Found the same symbols. Knew he'd been betrayed. Oh Su She. Why? But, really, he didn't need to ask. Likely Xue Yang had gotten to his friend the same way he'd gotten to Jin Guangshan and so many others. The same way the murderous little brat had almost gotten to himself.

His brothers were too busy reconciling to notice him, so he settled down to wait. Or, rather, settled up. This being a ghost situation was new to him. He didn't know what he could and couldn't do. Floating was definitely possible. He sat on thin air, trying to decide how he felt.

It didn't hurt at least. That would have bothered him, if he'd been left with the pain of dying. He'd dim memories of just how much his head had ached in those last hours. Just as well he'd forgotten most of it. There were a lot of things he was forgetting, too. So many holes in his memories. He... couldn't remember his mother's face.... Could barely remember the brothel. Not that that was important. The place wasn't worth remembering.

He shifted his position. Hung upside down over the letter he'd written to Da-ge. Ah, yes. That part he mustn't forget. Xue Yang. Must not forget that bastard brat. Must not forget just how dangerous he was. Just what he could do. Why had he ever let that boy anywhere near himself or his father?

A thought flickered. Jin Guangshan's voice, ordering, '...our own demonic cultivator... find one....' And his own voice, the good and filial son, obeying his father's wishes because it was his father. 'Yes sir....'

Why'd I choose that one, though? he wondered and was startled when his brothers suddenly looked up. They'd been busy comforting each other. What'd drawn their attention. Did you hear me?

They were staring at him, eyes wide, fear warring with another, indecipherable emotion. Inevitably, it was Er-ge who spoke and Da-ge who reacted. The one whispered, "Brother? You... you're really... here?" The other shoved Er-ge behind him, saber raised as if it had any power over his haunter.

He floated closer. Gazed straight into Da-ge's eyes. Are you afraid of me? Guilty? Sorry? Even remotely sorry?

The man's qi twisted. Damnit, even without Su She's 'help', Nie Mingjue was a mess. He put a hand out, touched his sworn brother's temple before he could pull back. Set the man's thoughts straight because they weren't going to get anywhere if Da-ge kept losing his temper.

Nie Mingjue blinked. Stared. "You...."

Later. Never mind that question. We... have to think. Have to plan. He had to think and plan. All while his mind, what was left of it, fought around lost memories and feelings. He faltered.

All he knew. All he was absolutely certain of, was that there was something he had to do... something they had to do... if what they loved were to be saved.

#

They stared silently. He felt the best he'd felt in months, his qi strangely calm. It wouldn't take much to push it over again, but right that moment he could think and think clearly. And what he was thinking was almost impossible to bear. It was, after all, every Nie's secret fear. The day when their tempers were pushed to the point of homicidal violence and they killed someone close to them.

As calmly as he could, he said, "Er-di, can you put him to rest?"

Amusement suffused the face of their dead brother. Amusement that didn't look at all pleasant on bruised, drawn and exhausted features. He'd been in pain when he'd died. And, if he was telling the truth, it was Nie Mingjue's fault. Jin Guangyao's voice was just audible, a faint light whisper. Never mind me resting. We have to stop... have to... Gods... I can't think properly like this.

Their brother kept wavering in and out. Instinctively, Nie Mingjue reached out. Grabbed for an ethereal hand. Felt something catch between his fingers. Cold. So incredibly cold. And it seemed to draw on him, on his life force. "What happened to you?" he demanded.

Isn't it obvious you did? The image of their San-di settled. Became clearer. He was wearing his usual fine bright gold robes, but they were damaged, dusty, bloodied. A streak of blood seeped from beneath that foolish cap of his. He was obviously injured, obviously weak. Yet he seemed to brighten up, as if something had bolstered him. Nie Mingjue's touch?

A little annoyed, even now, at being blamed for something he hadn't done... or had he? Nie Mingjue glared. "I didn't kill you."

You kicked me down those stairs. That's about the last thing I remember clearly. A bright grin. It's all right. I'll forgive you if you listen now. It's not like you can hurt me anymore, after all.

Anger tried to flare, only to be cooled by the same thing that'd cooled his rage before. San-di, somehow drawing him back from the edge despite himself. Damn him. "I did not kill you."

Fine. Hitting my head when you kicked me down the steps killed me.

"You got up."

I died later. I... think I remember... a headache. Wouldn't go away. So dizzy.

Lan Xichen's face was getting paler and paler and Nie Mingjue knew he couldn't hide from this truth anymore. It wasn't impossible. He hadn't seen his sworn brother since that day. He hadn't shown up for their usual guqin session. Hadn't even sent a message saying he'd be late. Only that... that letter.

Turning, looking around, Nie Mingjue spotted the thing. Reached towards it. Only to be stopped by chill fingers pulling his back with surprising strength. Don't touch it again. Either of you. Su She... betrayed me.... It'll just make things go wrong again.

Even without touching the letter he knew what it said. Knew every last scream of pain, every last effort to get his attention and make him listen. "What do you want?"

I... I think I remember now. Xue Yang. Xue Yang must die....

#

From the look on his Da-Ge's face, A-Yao's statement was almost enough to send him into a rage right then and there. Lan Xichen interrupted. "You didn't want to kill him before," he pointed out, reaching out to touch the spirit's outstretched hand.

Father didn't. An image formed in Lan Xichen's mind. One he thought Nie Mingjue shared. Empathy, showing them both what Jin Guangyao had experienced. Standing in an ornate study, facing Jin Guangshan, the older man looking coldly furious. 'That young man's far more useful to me than you are, boy. I'll kill you if you interfere.' 'He's doing something to us, Father. Can't you....' An ink-stone, flying through the air, striking him in the forehead. Then Lan Xichen returned to his own mind and his own body.

How was I to stop my father from doing what he wanted? Could I ask Huaisang to stop you from demanding Xue Yang's head?

Da-Ge flinched at the question. Flinched and admitted, "No." He tried to rally himself, clearly knowing how shaky the ground on which he stood really was. "At the very least you shouldn't have brought him in."

He's good at hiding his true Self. Better than me and that's saying so very much. Jin Guangyao's lips quirked in an exhausted smile. There weren't many options. Most demonic cultivators are practically suicidal, destroying themselves with their own resentful energy. He seemed like the only one with a chance of managing it the way Wei Wuxian used to.

Wei Wuxian was not a name Lan Xichen wanted to hear. His little brother had paid such a high price for befriending that man. Such a high price for loving him. He shook the dark thoughts away, focused on the current situation. "We understand. But you... you can't stay... not like this."

That's up to you. I can't stop you from exorcising me, brother. Of all the people in the world, you're the one I want to hurt least. Light brown eyes met his; clear and painfully honest. I don't want to go, but I can't stop you. I won't fight you.

Da-Ge sniffed. "Why is he the only one you ever even try to bend for?"

He's the only one who ever trusted me.

"I trusted you when you were my aide."

And turned on me the moment I did something you thought was wrong.

"You WERE wrong." Almost, almost, Nie Mingjue's qi flared, only to calm when A-Yao's spirit touched his temple and did something to steady him. "What the hell?"

You think letting your emotions have free rein keeps you from losing control of your qi, brother? It doesn't look that way from my side. Self-indulgent.

Another flare of annoyance, quickly steadied. Qinghe Nie Sect's teachings encouraged its adherents to just let their emotions out, to rage at whatever made them angry and never worry about the consequences. Lan Xichen had both envied the freedom and wondered if they took it too far.

Still, they didn't have time for this. "Brothers, let me try to send him on. A-Yao, I promise. I'll do everything in my power to make sure Xue Yang doesn't hurt anyone anymore."

An aching look of sadness suffused those bruised features. Do what you have to, then, Er-ge.

He drew out his flute and began to play.

#

The song ought to have soothed. Ought to have silenced the last dregs of resentment in him. In a way it did, but at the same time something held him back, twisted him around so he was both part of the world and hanging over a precipice with nothing waiting at the bottom. He flailed. Struggled to grab hold of whatever he could. Looked for whatever solid ground he could find.

And found it in the two souls he cared most for in the world. Strange to realize even now, after all his Da-Ge's bullying, all his betrayals of the bond that they ought to have had, he still loved him. Even stranger to know Da-Ge couldn't let go. He cried out. Please. Please it hurts.

At the same time he felt his Da-Ge's mind shaken by the aggressive energies that made him who and what he was. The same aggressive energies that had been slowly destroying him. A shout of rage escaped Da-Ge's lips, followed by the sound of something breaking as the man was, once again, on his feet and destroying things.

Er-Ge's music stopped, "Brother?"

Released, ties to the world tested but not destroyed, he floated to Da-Ge's side. Grasped the man's face in his hands. Pressed his forehead, such as it was, against his brother's. Please. Wake up. Don't do this. You'll die if you keep this up. Why? Why the hell did the Nie think this sort of thing was a positive? Losing your temper for everything? Letting your emotions rule you? Pouring your bile on those around you until all they could do was fight back? STOP IT THIS MINUTE!

At the same time he poured his spirit into his brother's. Felt his other brother join him. Their minds catching hold of each of other, clinging tight for safety. First brother's anger. Second brother's sorrow. Third brother's fear. They had to deal with it. Had to recognize it. Had to rule it, before it ruled them.

They broke apart a moment later, the living ones panting for air. The dead one just floating and wondering how a ghost could have a headache, anyway. Do.. do you... want to try again?

A slight, weak, laugh. "No, A-Yao. I don't have the strength." Lan Xichen managed to get himself to his feet. Pulled their much bigger brother upright. "We should rest. Work out what to do when we're not in a state. I shouldn't have even tried right now."

"Bed," Da-ge said gruffly.

"I agree."

Wait.

"What is it now?" A slight waver of irritation, but not the fury from before. "Too tired for your games."

Not games. The letters. Su She put spells in them to make you both go mad. Burn them. Don't let anyone else get hold of them.

Lan Xichen glanced at the floor, where the two sigil infected letters lay. "He's right." He helped Nie Mingjue sit. Got a candle and set the letters alight, making sure they were thoroughly destroyed. "Now we rest," he said firmly. "All of us."

I'm not sure I can, he admitted. But for you, brother, I'll try.

Chapter Text

His dreams were a confused mess. Pale robes, gold eyes gazing at him mournfully. Our mother cannot come to us. It's against the rules. The rules. Always the rules. His brother, silent, sad. Waiting, always waiting. Until he could wait no more. Until he could obey no more. Until the love he felt for that man overwhelmed everything else and sent him over the edge. And his sworn brothers, always at odds, always hurting each other. Until at last the one fell to the other's hands. Unbearable, but must be borne.

But that wasn't his life. Those weren't his memories. Nor were the others. Pressure on all sides. From those who thought him trash. From the only one to whom he mattered. The constant, constant, constant effort to please. To find a place in the world where he could be. The desperate efforts to fit in properly. The need to fulfill Her desire for him, the need to obey because that was what he was supposed to do. A voice, saying, "I don't care who you have to kill to do it. You want anything from me, you'll kill Wen Ruohan."

Nie Mingjue woke briefly from that. Stared at the transparent figure curled up in the corner, like a small and frightened child. Wanted to ask, 'why didn't you say? why didn't you tell me your father ordered it?' He knew the answer. The poor damned fool couldn't have said anything then because he was being watched. Because one mistake would have gotten them both killed. And afterwards, any attempt to explain would have been just an excuse.

Too tired to discuss what he'd seen, he returned to sleep and ugly, sickening, dreams. Only to wake to his brother Huaisang pounding on his door.

"BROTHER BROTHER BROTHER BROTHER!"

It was far too early for this. Oh, he usually got up at this hour, but Huaisang never did and he certainly never hammered on his ge-ge's door like a bull ox in a fit. "STOP THAT!" he bellowed back, mildly annoyed.

"Brother?" Relief suffused Huaisang's voice. "Your study... you have to come...."

His study? Oh, yes, that was right. He'd wrecked it last night, fighting his qi deviation. He crawled out of bed, half-aware his living companion had left the bed. Er-di sat quietly in the corner, blissfully ignoring the fuss in favor of performing his morning meditations. He'd been like that during the war, too, able to find some semblance of balance in the worst of conditions.

Going to the door, Nie Mingjue pulled it open to glare at his baby brother. "Since when is panic the right answer to anything?"

"Brother, I'm sorry, but it was such a mess. And something was burned and it looked like you'd cut up the furniture and...."

"I know. I won't say everything is fine but there's no need for alarm."

"But... what happened? You never called for help, but it's obvious it was big and...."

He set his hands on Huaisang's shoulders. "Stop. Calm yourself. I promise I'm safe. Don't make a fuss and bother Lan Er-di.

Huaisang peered past him. Blinked. "Oh. Oh, I didn't know he was here. I'm sorry, brother. Do you want me to fetch breakfast for you? I can...."

Laughing despite himself, Nie Mingjue shook his head. "No. Don't. Let him finish what he's doing. Tell the kitchens he's here so they know to make extra. We may be late for breakfast but... is something wrong?"

The last was because Huaisang had a startled expression. "I thought I saw... but... that's impossible?"

"What's impossible?"

"Someone in the corner." Huaisang pointed to the far corner, close to the ceiling. "I thought it looked like San-ge, but... he'd have to be floating."

Likely he had been, but how had Huaisang noticed? Nie Mingjue pretended to shrug it off. "You imagined it, I'm sure." He hated lying to his brother but there was no way to tell him what'd happened without creating more confusion and panic. "Run along, now. Go do what I told you. And don't forget to go practice your saber."

The last was said with the full knowledge that his brother wouldn't obey. He'd been getting less and less compliant on that subject, a fact that'd been making Nie Mingjue angrier and angrier. A light chill touch rebalanced him, though, San-di once again proving his use in a way Nie Mingjue wasn't at all sure he appreciated, no matter how helpful it was.

With the door closed, he turned to look at his unwanted ghostly guest. "I'd rather you didn't keep touching me," he grumbled, not wanting to admit anything. Ignoring his San-di's downcast air, he continued, "We all have to talk. Once Er-di is ready, we'll go somewhere private."

#

Lan Xichen's meditations did little to relieve him. He'd had such strange and confused dreams and he'd hoped to wake to find everything from the night before to be just a strange strange nightmare. The silent ghostly figure curled up in the corner, ignoring the world around him, made it obvious it hadn't been.

At least Da-ge looked better than he'd been in months now. Calmer, less likely to lose control of his temper. But at the same time, he seemed so grim. So deeply unhappy. A-Yao didn't look any better. He might not need sleep, but Lan Xichen thought his night had been just as restless and dream haunted as Lan Xichen's.

"We need to talk. Privately."

"Yes." Lan Xichen settled his robes and followed Nie Mingjue outside to a quiet place in the forest surrounding the Qinghe Nie's main complex. In the shadows of the pines, their San-di was just barely visible, still that strange mix of elegant and tattered. His gold-embroidered robes flashed briefly, only to disappear in the sunlight. His thin face, usually carefully schooled to show only a pleasing smile to the world, had a sad expression. The bruises only made things worse.

Nie Mingjue's private place was a grotto amid the rocks. It was shady, dappled with sunlight, and smelled and sounded pleasantly quiet. A waterfall spilled down amid the rocks, flowing past a stone bench. "My mother used to bring me here to meditate," he told them. "I don't come here often anymore."

For the first time since Lan Xichen had woken, A-Yao spoke, It would be healthier for you if you did. His 'voice' was getting clearer, the longer they were together.

"Don't snipe at me this early in the morning."

Not sniping. Stating the truth. A-Yao floated into the water. Came back out. There's a cave back there. Did you know?

"I do." Nie Mingjue sat down on the bench. Patted the seat for Lan Xichen. "Brothers, we have to figure out what to do." At least he accepted they were still brothers, though his grim expression was worrisome.

A-Yao's response was a soft sigh, half-hidden by the noise of the falling water. I don't like the idea of being set to rest if it's going to hurt like it did last night. But if you have to try again, that's fine.

Lan Xichen remembered the strange tugging sensation he'd felt, trying to send their San-di on his way. Remembered, too, Nie Mingjue's reaction. It hadn't been a coincidence, he was certain. "Da-ge, I don't think it's a good idea. Not until we understand better. Until we know why he's here at all."

"Isn't it obvious?" Nie Mingjue watched the figure fluttering around the grotto, examining everything, drawn from one side to the other like a golden butterfly. "I... killed him." The admission obviously hurt, but he'd stopped denying it. "He's haunting me."

That was absolutely part of it. But this wasn't at all like the hauntings Lan Xichen had learned to deal with. Jin Guangyao's ghost was clearly unhappy with Nie Mingjue for killing him, but his purpose didn't seem to be the usual. He didn't want revenge, or if he did, it wasn't his main desire. Moreover, "I feel like there's a bond between us, between all three of us. One pulling us all down when I tried to send him on."

A tight look on Da-Ge's face told Lan Xichen what the man didn't want to admit. He spoke grudgingly. "I know. I felt it too." He glared at the figure floating above them now. "Do you think you could stop that and pay attention?"

I... I'll try. San-di drifted down, using flecks of dust in the sunlight to help him manifest. It's hard to focus sometimes. I think I need to be touching you and you said.... He sounded strangely childlike, a lost wraith losing his thoughts to the wind.

"I know what I said. Never mind. It's fine. Touch me, then." Nie Mingjue waited until the ghost managed to settle in front of them. Let him set his ethereal hand on his. "Better?"

Better.

"Good. We have to decide what to do. About you. About that murdering brat you dug up."

#

Thinking was easier, but still shaky. None the less, Jin Guangyao tried. What I want doesn't matter. It's up to you two.

Er-ge's expression was fraught, making him hate himself more than ever for letting his gentle brother become involved in this. He absolutely hadn't meant Lan Xichen to be. Or had he? He didn't remember writing that second letter. But what if, in his final hours, he'd been lost to anger and a desire for revenge? It was possible, realizing he was dying, that he'd lashed out and tried to take his brothers with him. He hoped not, but he knew how desperate he'd been.

"If we can't send you on, what are you going to do?"

What does a ghost do, but haunt? Jin Guangyao attempted a smile.

Thoughtfully, eyes gentle because that was how he was, Lan Xichen murmured, "You keep steadying Da-ge," he said and got a dark look from Nie Mingjue in return. "He does."

"I was hoping to ignore that." Nie Mingjue grumbled. "I don't like owing him."

That was obvious. Nie Mingjue's feelings towards him were better than they'd been before, but he still saw his youngest sworn brother as fundamentally flawed. His distrust hurt, though it was easy to understand. Even understanding what Jin Guangyao had done had been towards necessary ends, the man still couldn't bend enough to acknowledge that truth.

Before he could express that feeling, Er-ge interrupted. "Sending him on doesn't seem possible without doing ourselves harm. At least let him help you, brother." Lan Xichen set a hand on Nie Mingjue's. "Please. I don't want to lose you, too."

A sigh. "We all saw each others' memories last night, don't try to tell me otherwise. Did you notice what he meant to do if he'd survived me? Am I supposed to trust him, knowing what he intended?"

I would have killed you. Yes. He made the admission readily, not just because of their dreams but because he'd stated as much in his letter. But, brother, I've no reason to do so now. My father can't make me do anything anymore. Everything I was working towards is now pointless. I have no future.

It was a painful truth, made worse by knowing he'd had no future even if he pleased his father. Even if, by some stroke of fortune, he'd found his way to becoming Sect Leader, he would have been constantly looking over his shoulder, constantly watching for the knife in someone else's hand.

Mournfully, Er-ge whispered, "I should have worked harder to reconcile you."

"We should never have sworn brotherhood."

Nie Mingjue's flat statement made Lan Xichen straighten, about to protest. Except Jin Guangyao bowed his head in agreement. As long as you couldn't forgive what I did in the past, as long as you couldn't accept my reasons, you were never going to accept the things I had to do to earn my place with my father.

"Your father is scum for asking those things of you."

And that made it safe for me to defy him? He'd beat me to death if I tried. Jin Guangyao waved off the protests. They couldn't waste time on the past. They had to decide what to do. His brothers did, that was. He'd no power here. Never mind. This isn't getting us anywhere. Da-ge, I need you healthy and well. Without you and Er-ge, I can't think clearly. I need to think clearly. Because there's still Xue Yang to deal with. Not to mention Su She, because you two wouldn't have nearly killed each other if he hadn't set a curse in those letters.

"I trust you. I have always trusted you. It isn't easy to keep trusting you, knowing what you planned."

He met Lan Xichen's eyes, filled with a world of regret. Yes. I was wrong. I was desperate. And stupid. If he'd survived, if he'd followed through on Xue Yang's suggestions, he'd have been betraying both brothers. It'd be only a matter of time before the truth was discovered. Only a matter of time before Er-ge understood what he'd done and how. An ugly unbearable truth, but true nonetheless.

"But I will trust you, even so, even knowing what you were headed towards. The rest is up to you, Da-ge. Because it's you he's going to be assisting." Lan Xichen's reassurances were warming, but not unexpected. It was part of who he was. Part of why Jin Guangyao had been able to tell him what little he dared of his days under Wen Ruohan's rule. Because he, at least, understood and accepted how hard it'd been. How sickening.

Though there was a world of doubt in his eyes, Nie Mingjue said, "This is the first time in months that I've felt so calm, felt so clear-headed. I want to deny you. I want to throw you out to the Abyss. And yet, I owe you. I don't want to, but I owe you for saving me from last night's qi deviation. And I owe you for saving my life, not just from Wen Ruohan but from that spy."

The spy was the one who'd been watching Jin Guangyao the day he'd killed his superior officer. The one he'd had to impress with his desire to join the Wens. The one who would have killed Nie Mingjue if Jin Guangyao hadn't made it look like he'd done so first. He couldn't have told his old commander the truth at the time and certainly couldn't have convinced him of it later. Not when Nie Mingjue had made up his mind already.

As for saving him from Wen Ruohan at the expense of his men? Jin Guangyao had tried so hard to make Da-ge see his reasoning. To make him understand that it'd been Nie Mingjue's life that'd mattered most that day. That his own men would have gladly sacrificed themselves to keep him safe. That it would have broken Jin Guangyao to actually kill him. The only reason he'd never said so was because he knew he wouldn't be believed.

So what will we do, brothers? I've faith you could banish me without harming yourselves if you work at it. I won't fight it if you do. But I think you need me as much as I need you. Remembering the way Er-ge's attempt to send him on had hurt, all he could do was hope.

Slowly, clearly aware that his decision was the one that mattered most because he was the one being haunted, Nie Mingjue said. "For now, until we've dealt with that bastard Xue Yang, I will accept your continued presence." He eyed Jin Guangyao with a hard expression. "I reserve the right to change my mind."

There wasn't much more Jin Guangyao could hope for. Not really.

#

Once they'd made up their minds to accept the situation, they had to work out the rules. Not just the rules of what Nie Mingjue would and would not put up with from his ghostly companion. The rules of what that companion was capable of and how that could be turned to their advantage. Nie Mingjue might have preferred to focus on more direct battle tactics, but they were up against a twisted monster, skilled at manipulation. They were going to need their own twisted monster to combat him.

I think I resent being considered a monster, Jin Guangyao grumbled. My questionable morals have never driven me to murder whole clans simply because one member hurt me.

"What if your father asked it of you?" To all three's surprise, it was Lan Xichen who asked the question, not Nie Minjue.

A ghost could, apparently, flush with embarrassment. I don't know. He hasn't asked it... yet. It's you he wanted gone, Da-ge. Looking a little sick, he added, It was headed that way, though. I'd been pretending it wasn't, but... I know better.

All this rehashing their old issues wasn't going to get them where they needed to be. "Instead of worrying about what you were doing in life, or what you would have done if you'd survived, let's decide what we're doing now. How far can you go away from me before you start losing focus?"

Jin Guangyao tested it, drifting backwards slowly, then drifting sideways to go look at a sparkly bit of rock that lay in the water. Well, that answered that question. Not far. "You're not going to be much use as a spy. Get back here."

It took San-di a minute to obey. When he did return it was to say, Sorry. It's hard to think, the further I get away from you. I forget who I am. Why I'm here. I don't have to touch you, but it seems I have to stay close.

"If nothing else you can help Da-ge keep his qi balanced." At Nie Mingjue's grumpy expression, Lan Xichen smiled beatifically. "You know you need help, brother. You were getting worse and worse, even with our help."

It was a truth Nie Mingjue didn't like admitting, anymore than he liked admitting what he'd done to Jin Guangyao. Still, "I am. I was. And I suppose I'm grateful to be kept from it. But do you have any idea how you're doing it?"

Jin Guangyao examined him thoughtfully. I see your qi. I see how it shifts and flows through you. Through everyone, really. And my own qi can press yours back into place.

"Ghosts have qi?"

That's the only way I can describe it. Yin energy, of course, which may be why it can affect a flaring volcano like yourself, brother.

Flaring volcano. He scoffed, though he was mildly amused at the description. "All right. Next question. Did my brother see you, earlier?"

He might have? I'm not really sure. He is a cultivationist after all. And for all he doesn't practice, I think he's powerful enough.

That truly made Nie Mingjue scoff. "It's obvious I see you because you're haunting me. No doubt brother Xichen's efforts to help me last night made him more sensitive. But if someone as weak as my brother can see you, you're going to have to work to stay hidden.

I've some thoughts on that. May I try something?

Nie Mingjue wasn't at all sure he liked experimenting, but he also didn't want to risk accidents. "Go ahead."

Jin Guangyao inclined his head and floated forward, diving downwards into Nie Mingjue's shadow. His voice, a great deal more audible than before, sounded in Nie Mingjue's ear. "Does this make you uncomfortable?"

This? This what? And how was the ghost's voice so real? "What are you doing?"

"Riding your shadow, brother. Er-ge, can you see me at all?"

"No. Though your shadow looks a little odd, Da-ge. Thicker."

"And you, Da-ge, do you feel my presence?"

There was a faint weight on him, but nothing Nie Mingjue couldn't handle. Jin Guangyao had been a lightweight in life. Dead, he was practically nothing but a feather on the wind. "I know you're there. It doesn't interfere with me." He paused. "Try other shadows?"

"En."

Something shifted. A brief flash of gold flickered into view. Disappeared into another shadow, only to hurriedly pop back out and rejoin them. I was forgetting myself again. Translucent features looked stressed and a little scared. You... could be rid of me that way if you wanted.

They'd already discussed that. Nie Mingjue refused to do so again. "Can you enter Er-ge's shadow?"

A pause as Jin Guangyao gave him a worried look. Obviously he wanted reassurance and Nie Mingjue was in no mood to give it. Seeing that, their ghostly brother dove into Lan Xichen's shadow obediently.

This is better. I can still think clearly.

"It's working. I hear him better like you did, too."

Nie Mingjue could hear him, but distantly, as if he were whispering on the other side of the room. "Walk away from me. See if he retains his focus with you."

Their brother did, indeed, remain aware and focused in Er-di's shadow. They'd have to find out if the trick worked with anyone or was limited to the two of them. But they'd other things to test first, before going back to the sect halls.

Because the one thing Nie Mingjue didn't want was for anyone else to know about this.

#

Where the hell was the little bastard?

Jin Guangshan stalked through the ruined halls of Xue Yang's hideout. He shouldn't have to be here. Shouldn't have to deal with the murderous little brat at all. He'd given that job to the little bastard, after all. Let murderous little brats deal with murderous little brats. Jin Guangshan had better and far more interesting things to do with his time.

The brat had given him no choice. He wanted to show off his toys and demanded an audience. Since the little bastard wasn't around, that someone was Lanling Jin's sect master, only because the last thing Jin Guangshan wanted was for anyone to know about Xue Yang's work.

To be honest, that work was getting impressive. He'd been greeted at the entrance by silent undead guards. Guards who led him calmly and quietly into the courtyard where Xue Yang waited to greet him. There was even wine, though the stuff tasted a little off. Likely it'd gone sour, out here in the heat of the western desert. Tianshan Fortress had been ironically named, there being neither heaven nor mountain anywhere near.

On the other hand Tianshan was remote and safe from prying eyes. A well chosen hiding place and yet another demonstration of the little bastard's cleverness. No one had come near the abandoned fortress in centuries. He'd even gotten that upstart Su She to build a transportation array, so one didn't have to cross the sands on foot or camel to get there.

Convenient though the array was, it took days to reset, meaning Jin Guangshan would be stuck at Tianshan Fortress for several days. Oh well, at least it'd keep him away from his shrew of a wife. Anything keeping him away from Madam Jin was a good thing in his estimation.

"Welcome, Master Jin. I trust you had a safe trip?"

Jin Guangshan eyed the pert young man. The little brat always had a slight smug smirk, one that said the world was his toy. Well, he was young, yet. He'd learn soon enough that children like him were the ones used, not the user. "Safe enough." He pretended to be genial, sipping the cup of wine he'd been given. "I think I approve of your servants. No chance of them talking about what they'd seen."

"Oh, they wouldn't have talked about it when they were alive. I already cut their tongues out." Xue Yang made a snipping gesture with his fingers. "You know, I've no idea where people get the idea it's a fatal injury. I've never had anyone die of it."

Jin Guangshan shrugged off a slight chill. He didn't care about commoners, after all. And if Xue Yang liked removing tongues and blinding victims, who was he to judge? "I understood you wanted to show me something?"

"I did, Master Jin. Some of my work, of course. But I thought someone from the clan should be present when I deal with the Tingshanhe."

Oh, them. Or, rather, that one fool boy who'd been shouting about how Lanling Jin was becoming the next Qishan Wen. Jin Guangshan had ordered his men to capture He Su and his family and show them just how foolish it was to interfere with Lanling Jin's ambitions. The little bastard had objected, but a good solid beating had silenced him. As usual, he seldom argued against anything his father did for long.

"They're here?"

"Oh, not yet. There were too many for the array, or so I understand. They'll be arriving in a little while. I've a lovely room set aside for you to wait, though. I even have a few young ladies who are more than willing to entertain you."

Jin Guangshan liked that idea. He followed Xue Yang through the elegant and beautifully decorated halls of the fortress and happily settled down to wait, surrounded by his favorite type of women. The silent ones who knew how to serve without argument or desire for their own pleasure.

Now if he could just figure out where that faint rotten odor was coming from.

Chapter Text

It was highly amusing, watching Jin Guangshan pleasure himself on his hostesses. Bits and pieces kept falling off, scattering around the bedding. The best part was the sect leader's complete ignorance. Thanks to the special, ah, medicine Xue Yang had included in the man's wine, he thought he was in the finest of places, with the most beautiful of women.

The situation was so convenient. Tianshan Fortress was too far from the cultivationists sects to notice. It didn't have nearly the resentful energy he needed for some of his work, but that actually helped in some ways. It let him keep his tools focused on their jobs; instead of wandering off every time a random cultivationist came around looking for trouble.

At some point Xue Yang would have to find a way to store all that resentful energy. It should be possible. The great master, Wei Wuxian, had thought it possible. Had thought the Burial Mounds might have had that function once, centuries ago. Too bad the Burial Mounds were so well watched. Xue Yang would have adored being able to use his hero's own laboratory for himself.

Ah, well. Sooner or later, once Xue Yang had gotten around the roadblocks still preventing him from having his way, he'd be in charge of everything and could pick and choose where to work. At least he didn't have to worry about that stick-in-the-mud, Jin Guangyao anymore. Su She's recent letter, received just that morning through the transportation portal, told him that much.

It told him, too, that he finally had a chance to make use of Jin Guangshan. The little bastard had always stood between Xue Yang and Lanling Jin's leader. Now, with his 'benefactor' dead or close to dead, it'd be so easy to get control over the man's father.

As for the little bastard? Well if he was truly dead, Xue Yang would simply turn him into another tool. If Su She's description was true, though? This might be an excellent opportunity to turn Jin Guangyao into another type of puppet. And with both Jin Guangshan and Jin Guangyao under his control, Xue Yang would have all the power in the world to do as he pleased.

He'd have to wait, of course. He'd promised Jin Guangshan to deal with He Su and his family. Tingshanhe didn't matter to Xue Yang at all, but they were being gathered and brought here. He'd be a terrible host if he didn't entertain them properly.

Besides, it'd take a while for Su She to get the little bastard's body to the agreed meeting place. No point in hanging around waiting in Nightless City for them when he could be doing something more useful here in Tianshan.

Useful and a great deal more amusing.

#

They tested Jin Guangyao's new state as thoroughly as they could before heading back for breakfast. As far as Lan Xichen could tell, their sworn brother's ghost was entirely dependent on the two of them. He couldn't use an animal's shadow to hide in. He couldn't wander away. He'd practically no memory without them. He'd come when he was called, though, so even if he drifted off, he could be pulled back.

One unexpected advantage became obvious when they tested how far apart Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen could be from each other. They'd intended to see if they could call San-di back and forth between the two of them. As it turned out, that wasn't necessary. Somehow he was haunting them both at the same time, no matter how far away from each other they were.

It's the strangest thing. I can feel and hear both of you. Can sense your surroundings. But I'm still one being. Jin Guangyao's 'voice' in their heads sounded bemused. I think we can use this.

Lan Xichen wasn't well-versed in the study of what ghosts could and couldn't do, but he did remember reading that spirits existed in a shadowy place outside physical reality. Lacking their own physical existence, they could be wherever their thoughts took them. He couldn't be sure, but the link between the three of them must create anchor points his spirit could take advantage of.

"Is it our oath?"

Face a thousand accusing fingers? Be torn limb from limb? Jin Guangyao's tone was calm, but the quiet reminder of Nie Mingjue's insistence on that wording of their oath stung. No. That wouldn't tie us together like this. Not said. Not even implied, was that their oath ought to be Nie Mingjue's ruin.

"Then what?" Nie Mingjue asked, surprisingly calm given how defensive their San-di's accusations made him. "I'm realizing how wrong I was to agree to any sort of oath with you, feeling as I did. But you're not haunting us out of a desire for revenge. So why - aside from wanting us to do something about that little brat you dug up - are you here?"

It occurred to Lan Xichen that their oath might not be holding their San-di there, but his lingering needs probably were. Those dreams had revealed far more of Jin Guangyao's true self than the man probably wanted. Lonely, desperate, constantly afraid, struggling to find his place when everything around him kept shoving him back into the pit; it was no wonder he and Nie Mingjue had never seen eye to eye.

I'm not sure. If I figure it out, I'll tell you. A slight smile. Set on bruised and exhausted features it was particularly difficult to look at. It's probably me being selfish again.

"Hmmph. Tell me something I don't know."

All right, I will: Your brother is this close to breaking your skull with something heavy. At both Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue's stares, San-di spread his hands. I told you, just because he doesn't train doesn't mean he isn't talented. That boy's one step short of a qi deviation himself.

#

Da-ge's expression was stunned and lost. If Jin Guangyao had tried to warn him of Nie Huaisang's state of mind before he'd died, the man wouldn't have listened to a word he said. He'd closed his ears to his San-di's attempts to connect long before they'd even sworn brotherhood, after all.

Now Nie Mingjue couldn't deny it and to Jin Guangyao's surprise, he didn't try. "Can you help him?"

That was an interesting question. I'm not sure. I might have to reveal myself to him. Do you want me to do that?

"No. Not yet."

Not said but implied, 'maybe never'. Nie Mingjue had accepted his presence, had even conceded the part he'd played in pushing his San-di back into the morass. He still didn't trust Jin Guangyao entirely and rightly so. Jin Guangyao was well aware of his faults in their ruined relationship. It was going to take time and a willingness to bend on both sides before they could consider trusting each other.

Then I suggest you start considering ways to ease his mind. Not burning his fans might be a start.

By this time his sworn brothers were just entering the main hall of the Unclean Realm. Disciples bowed as they passed, thoughts focused on their work. They were mostly blurs to Jin Guangyao, impressions of people. He'd been focused on other matters the night before, so he'd not really noticed how different his perceptions really were.

Aside from his sworn brothers, everything seemed a step off from reality. Of course, the truth was it was he who'd stepped sideways. He remembered what he'd read from the books Lan Xichen had rescued, back when Cloud Recesses had burned. Ghosts existed out-of-sync with reality.

These two had become his anchor points and he was desperately grateful for them, though he dared not say so. Lan Xichen would be embarrassed and Nie Mingjue disbelieving. Better to just deal with things as they came. Once you've eaten, we should discuss what to do about Xue Yang. He didn't like giving that little brat a chance to establish himself.

"Why don't you use the time to tell us what you know about him?" Nie Mingjue suggested. "We can eat in my meeting room, so no one will hear me wanting to break your skull again."

Was that a joke? Jin Guangyao looked sideways at his sworn brother. Couldn't tell. Except there was an odd look on Da-ge's face suggesting it'd been intended as such. Cautiously, not wanting to set Nie Mingjue off again, Jin Guangyao murmured, No need for that. You got it right the last time.

That made Lan Xichen flinch but not Nie Mingjue. "You do know I never meant to kill you?"

I know it now. I didn't then. How could I, when you threatened my life for every little offense? To Nie Mingjue the threats had simply been a way of making his meaning clear. To Jin Guangyao, desperate for support and love, they'd been constant proof of how little he was valued.

"A good point. A fair point. One I ought to have understood before actually killing you." Nie Mingjue sighed. Called a disciple over and ordered their breakfast be sent to the meeting room. "We can talk about that more, later. Once we've dealt with the far more pressing problem of that monster you helped create."

Though he wanted to argue that he hadn't created Xue Yang so much as helped give him the means to spread his evil further, Jin Guangyao had to admit the distinction hardly mattered.

Not when that rotten brat was out there ready to hurt everything he actually cared about.

#

So far he's created a limited number of ferocious corpses. According to his letters, he thinks he can increase the power if we could give him more of Wei Wuxian's notes.

"What about the drugs?"

I don't know enough to answer that. I'm fairly sure he's used them on me. On my father. But the specifics? I never found an alchemist who could identify them.

Xue Yang's unpleasant habit of dosing his 'friends' with unidentified medicines had been unexpected. Jin Guangyao had mentioned the possibility in his letter but Nie Mingjue had been badly unbalanced by the realization that he'd finally killed someone accidentally to think about it until now. "I'd have thought you'd be more careful."

I thought I was. A rueful shrug from the ghost floating above the table looking longingly at their morning congee. Much as I hate to admit it, he outsmarted me. Not sure how he got them into father, though.

"Are you certain he did?" Lan Xichen asked thoughtfully. "I know you don't want to believe Jin Guangshan capable of the sort of cruelties he seems to have been headed towards but it isn't impossible."

There'd been a time, after all, when everyone had thought Wen Ruohan was just a somewhat over-bearing sect master whose desire to be leader of the cultivation world was no greater than anyone else's. Nie Mingjue dimly remembered his father almost respecting the man, a long long time ago. He certainly wouldn't have trusted him with his saber, otherwise, and look what that brought him. Saber ruined, father self-destructed, and Nie Mingjue forced to take over far too young.

I think he and I are both capable of the kind of cold-blooded thinking needed to achieve difficult goals. A wry smile crossed the ghost's face. The cold-blooded, unethical, sneaky sort of thinking, that is. What I'm not sure is whether father would be quite so bloodthirsty about it without undue influence.

Their shared dreams had shown some of what Jin Guangyao meant. Jin Guangshan was not yet in a position of complete power, but he'd manipulate his enemies into destroying themselves and their families by inciting them to attack innocent people. At which point he'd sorrowfully have to defend himself and his clan.

That alone was bad enough. But those dreams showed Nie Mingjue that Jin Guangshan planned to hand Tingshanhe clan off to Xue Yang for his tests. Jin Guangyao had protested, not out of personal ethics but because he'd knew how Nie Mingjue would feel about it. All it'd bought him was a beating that'd left him hardly able to move for days. Between potential bodily harm from someone who might - after all - never find out and certain injury if he disobeyed, Jin Guangyao had finally chosen safety.

Besides, you were already threatening my life over Xue Yang. Something was going to break somewhere, anyway. Apparently my skull was that somewhere.

Before the man had died, Nie Mingjue would have been disgusted with him. Now, having shared those dreams with him, he felt a bit more sympathy. Jin Guangyao had needed support and help to get himself out of the trap he'd walked into and all Nie Mingjue had done was bully him further. It was no wonder the man hadn't been willing to trust him. He'd known he'd be the first to suffer if - or rather when - his sworn brother found out what was going on.

Shaking himself, realizing he was getting distracted, Nie Mingjue said, "The Tingshanhe sect. Is there a way we can save them and He Su before your father's men give them to Xue Yang?"

Possibly? We'll have to find out where they're being held. The real trick will be keeping anyone from finding out what you've done. Before Nie Mingjue could get annoyed, Jin Guangyao raised a hand. Not saying don't. Just that you don't have the support yet to go up against father directly. You need to be subtle.

Subtle wasn't Nie Mingjue's strong point at all and they all knew it. For that matter, it wasn't really Lan Xichen's. "You need to be subtle," he corrected. "Make a plan for me and given it doesn't go too far, I'll do what has to be done."

Because it was high time they started working together. Before Jin Guangshan recreated the Wen clan or, worse, Xue Yang recreated the worst of Wei Wuxian's mistakes.

Chapter Text

The plan took most of the morning to decide on. It also left Lan Xichen aching inside. Why did Jin Guangyao have to die for Nie Mingjue to actually listen to his ideas with respect? Why did he have to die in order to actually acknowledge he'd needed help?

And why couldn't Lan Xichen have found a way to bring those two to a better understanding of each other without wanting to hurt the other? What could he have done differently and when? He hated to admit it, but persuading his sworn brothers to that oath only made things worse. Only created expectations from both sides that neither could achieve without the other bending.

I didn't want you involved in this.

Sunlight gleamed bright overhead as Lan Xichen flew towards Moling Su Sect. Its brilliance made his ghostly companion difficult to see, but every so often he caught sight of Jin Guangyao's peony symbol, glittering in a passing cloud. Every so often he saw that injured face.

"If you'd told me what was happening, I would have helped you."

Meekly, Jin Guangyao admitted, I didn't want you to know. I was afraid you'd turn on me too, if you understood everything.

Jin Guangyao had told him the things he'd had to do when he'd spied on Wen Ruohan, providing desperately needed inside information at a deadly price. Lan Xichen didn't blame him for those sins. He would certainly have died a horrible death if the Wens had realized he was a spy. His only question had been, 'Did you enjoy it?'

The answer at the time had been 'no'. Nie Mingjue had never believed it, convinced Jin Guangyao was the lowest of the low. Their shared dreams showed how wrong their sworn brother was. Every kill had sickened San-di. Had left him shaken with self-doubt. Only instinctive self-preservation and desperately focusing on the goal of ridding the world of Wen Ruohan had kept him moving.

"I understood how badly you wanted to earn your place with your father. I understand how torn you were between your oaths to him and your oath to us. I would have encouraged you to end your relationship with him, once he started dabbling in demonic cultivation, but I don't fault you for trying to be a good son to him and your mother."

That last was where the worst of Jin Guangyao's troubles lay. He adored his deceased mother. He wanted to earn the thing she wanted most for him. How could she have known, after all, what a twisted trap he'd wind up in, simply because she wanted him to succeed.

It doesn't matter now.

"It does matter. Your father was wrong. Horribly wrong, to use you the way he did. Just as you were wrong to let him use you." They wouldn't bother discussing the effect of the drugs Xue Yang used on them. Those might have encouraged the uglier side of both men's personality but he didn't think they were to blame for what Jin Guangshan wanted and what Jin Guangyao did to serve him. Just for how they did it.

By now Moling Su Sect was coming into view. A single long building with an exercise field out back, it - like so much of the sect's decorations - looked like a poorly envisioned imitation of Gusulan. No surprise, of course. Su She had created the sect in imitation of his old sect, because of his failure at Cloud Recesses.

"How's Nie Mingjue doing?"

Da-ge is performing a lovely imitation of a bull ox looking for his rival. I'd be hiding under my bed right now if I were alive. Nie Mingjue's job was to set Lanling Jin sect running around wildly, to distract Jin Guangshan and - most importantly - to collect what he could of Jin Guangyao's papers. By this time someone ought to have reported on the disposition of He Su and the Tingshanhe clan.

Meanwhile, Lan Xichen's first purpose was to recover Jin Guangyao's body from Su She. It still wasn't clear whether the curses Su She had put on those letters had been the man's own idea, Jin Guangyao's or Xue Yang's. If the latter, the probability that Xue Yang would use Jin Guangyao's remains for his own twisted experiments approached near perfect certainty.

The guards at the door weren't at all happy to see the Sect Master of their rival school. Moling Su had been created by Su She to spit in the face of the sect he'd failed, years ago. Lan Xichen hadn't been Sect Master at the time but he knew the young man had left Gusulan due to his frustration with its rules and requirements. To say nothing of his unwillingness to admit mistakes.

"I don't wish to fight," he told the guards. "But your Sect Master brought me a letter just yesterday and what was in it was quite disturbing. I'd like to discuss its contents, if Master Su is willing."

It took a few minutes before an unfamiliar young woman identifying herself as Master Su Lang came to the gate. "Greet you, Sect Master Lan, but Master Su isn't here." There was honesty in her eyes and her worried frown suggested his absence bothered her.

"Do you have any idea where he might be?" A shadowy motion flickered at the edge of his vision and he realized San-di had entered the young woman's shadow. She shivered suddenly. "Are you all right?"

"A chill, Master Lan, that's all." She rubbed her arms to warm herself. "To answer your question, I've no idea where Sect Master Su is. He left us a week ago and hasn't been back since."

A week ago was just after Nie Mingjue had kicked Jin Guangyao down the stairs at Koi Tower. There was surely a  connection. Lan Xichen would've spoken to Jin Guangyao, but the ghost clung to Master Su Lang's shadow.

Though not at all sure he liked leaving Jin Guangyao behind, Lan Xichen couldn't find a good reason to stay. "Please ask him to contact me when he returns, then. And thank you for your time, Master Su."

She bowed, thanking him in turn, leaving him no choice but to leave. He just hoped Jin Guangyao would find his way back and wouldn't need rescue.

Give me an hour. No, two hours. Then call me if I don't come back.

#

"Where is that boy?"

Nie Mingjue paused to stare at the tall slim woman who'd stalked up to him from another hall. Shouldn't Madam Jin be telling him to get out? Shouldn't she be demanding he stop acting like Koi Tower was his home? "What?" He tried to sound angrier than he was.

"That so-called sworn brother of yours. The one you're covering for by pretending to chase him down here."

Her assumption made him blink. "I wouldn't cover for him."

Well, you're not telling her I'm dead, so I suppose you are.

Ignoring the ghostly presence accompanying him, Nie Mingjue glared at the woman with a hard expression, daring her to argue. He failed to impress her, which he supposed was due to her well-deserved reputation for a temper worse than his. All she said was, "If you do know where he is, tell him that if he doesn't fetch his father home immediately, there'll be more of what he got last week waiting for him."

From the dreams they'd shared, what Jing Guangyao had gotten last week had been a beating. Nothing permanently damaging, but painful even so. Nie Mingjue fought the urge to argue with her, to tell her stop abusing her step-son. It wouldn't do any good.

Not to mention it's a bit pointless given I'm dead. Just agree with her and get to my office. If she's expecting me to fetch father then we have time to search. He's the only other person allowed inside.

Nie Mingjue did so, using haughty pride and disdain to cover the lie. "When I see him next I will give him the message."

"See you do." Having nothing more to say, Madam Jin turned and swept away, a grudge given human form.

Once his path was clear, Nie Mingjue went to Jin Guangyao's study and locked the door with the key his ghostly companion pointed out. My father's men were to send word when they had Tingshanhe sect rounded up and imprisoned. If they've done their job correctly - and they usually do - the report should be in a message box hanging on the wall.

The message box was a flat metal case with a heavy lock. There was a thin opening at the top that would allow people to put their reports in without actually opening it. Nie Mingjue was going to have to hide the thing in his robes and break it open elsewhere. The only key was on Jin Guangyao's currently missing body.

"How's Second Brother doing?" Nie Mingjue asked as he worked the box into the hiding place Lan Xichen had helped him devise.

Well enough. He's gotten one of the sect's masters to talk to him... oh, wait. No luck. Su She is apparently missing.

Was there any way to be sure? It'd be nice if Jin Guangyao's state allowed him to travel further. A ghost could walk right through Moling Su Sect with barely a whisper of power. Quite suddenly the faint flicker of presence beside Nie Mingjue faded.

I'll try. If I fail, I trust you two to pull me out.

Before Nie Mingjue could ask his meaning or stop him, Jin Guangyao was gone. Damn the man, no, don't damn him. That's part of how he ended up haunting them. But why did he choose now to be impetuous and possibly self-destructive?

Deciding there was no point to worrying over what was already done, Nie Mingjue continued searching the study for anything useful. Nothing incriminating, of course. Jin Guangyao wouldn't keep incriminating evidence where it could be found easily. But their shared dreams showed he'd a hidey hole beneath his bed, one containing items gathered from the Burial Mounds after the Yiling Patriarch had died. That couldn't be allowed to stay where it was.

Fetching out a pouch, Nie Mingjue checked inside. "Not good," he muttered. It was empty, though Jin Guangyao had been certain it should still have the last broken off piece of a certain devastating tool. What the hell had happened?

Searching the rest of the room, the only thing Nie Mingjue found that might be important was a delicate little carving with the character Qin on it. That was right, Jin Guangyao had been quietly courting the daughter of the Qin family. The one who he'd saved during the Sunshot campaign. He took the jewel, though he wasn't at all sure what he was going to do about it.

In the meantime, he had to get the message box out of Koi Tower and get it open so he could find out just what'd happened to the Tingshanhe Sect. Preferably before Xue Yang got his sick and sticky little hands on them.

#

Being attached to a human's shadow provided just enough solidity to keep Jin Guangyao from forgetting his purpose. The question was, would he retain self-awareness when the time came to return to his brothers? He'd leapt into Master Su Lang's shadow on impulse and only hoped he hadn't made a disastrous mistake. He certainly wouldn't be this impetuous in life.

Of course, being dead, having nothing to lose except an existence he wasn't sure he'd any business possessing, he supposed taking risks wasn't as bad as it might be. Especially if he could get necessary information from it.

Clinging to Master Su Lang's shadow, he let her carry him through the halls of Moling Su Sect. As he'd hoped, she headed straight for Su She's office. He was a bit surprised to find it empty. He'd half-expected his friend, former friend, to be waiting there.

"Where are you, brother?" Su Lang muttered, going through the man's papers as if hoping to find a clue. It was convenient to Jin Guangyao and he let a little of his existence rise from her shadow so he could see, sort of see, around her.

That was almost a mistake. The further he got from her shadow, the less focused he became. He ducked back to recover, then carefully peeked out again. So blurry. Almost as bad as when his eye had lost focus, an hour or so after he'd hit his head on that stair. The memory was blindingly painful.

"More of that cutie's candy, I see. Brother really is getting a sweet-tooth."

The comment drew Jin Guangyao's attention, distracted him from the headache. Yes, candy. He recognized it. He'd had something just like in a jar on his desk. He'd something of a sweet-tooth himself and liked to keep it available. It'd been a mistake. That was how Xue Yang had gotten his pointed little fang into him in the first place.

And these candies looked very like his own. The same little balls of sugar, dyed different colors to identify their flavor. What was it the disciple had said? More of that cutie's candy? Did that confirm Xue Yang had gotten to Su She? He'd suspected it. Now he was even more sure.

Realizing he was getting distracted, Jin Guangyao forced himself to turn his attention on the desk. Ah. Yes. He knew that handwriting. Hadn't he taught its owner every character? Taught them and had been dismayed to realize Xue Yang's calligraphy was more copying lines than learning to place the strokes correctly. The man had learned the meaning of the words but had never cared to write correctly, just as long as he could write comprehensibly.

'Nightless,' the words said. 'Bring him."

If nothing else, it confirmed Jin Guangyao's fears. Su She was working with Xue Yang. And that, in turn, meant his mortal remains - such as they were - were probably either in Xue Yang's hands or on their way to them. It was time to get back to his sworn brothers. They didn't have much time.

#

Lan Xichen paced. Watched the sun's movement. Paced more. Paced even more. Amazing how long two hours could be when one was waiting for someone. When one was worried about that someone. When was that impetuous idiot going to get himself back where he belonged?

That was close.

Startled, Lan Xichen turned. Tried to spot his ghostly companion, but it was too bright near the little waterfall. He'd chosen the place because it was the sort of environment Gusulan disciples liked, not considering the fact that he'd have trouble seeing Jin Guangyao if he returned and was too confused to communicate.

"What happened?"

I can maintain awareness inside another person's shadow. But I lose focus as soon as I try to leave it. I wouldn't have made it back if I weren't attached to the two of you.

It'd been a foolish attempt. One that could have gotten San-di lost permanently. Lan Xichen chose not to say so. He wasn't sure how Jin Guangyao would take it and he was in a shaky enough state as it was. "Did you find anything?"

I believe Su She's headed to Nightless City with my corpse. Xue Yang was performing his experiments on Wen Ning there.

"Then we'd best try to catch up."

Before Lan Xichen could mount his sword and set off to the ruins of the Wen clan's capitol, Jin Guangyao murmured, Wait. Da-ge's opened my message box. The Tingshanhe have been taken to Tianshan Fortress.

Tianshan Fortress was in the wasteland on the western edge of Lanling Jin's territory. It'd been abandoned over a century ago but that didn't make it easily stormed. One man couldn't possibly break inside to save those people. Two might, especially when they were two-thirds of the Three Zuns.

Except, "If we go after them, what happens to you?"

Brother, I'm dead. At worst, Xue Yang turns my remains to a ferocious corpse and sends me to do his dirty work. I'd rather that didn't happen but it can't hurt me. This part of me, that is.
With a sigh, Lan Xichen agreed. "Tell Da-ge I'll meet him in the foothills just outside the wasteland. We can try sneaking into Tianshan Fortress and rescuing the Tingshanhe quickly."

He says he'll be waiting. You both should be quick. I don't think the Tingshanhe have much time. Especially if Xue Yang is expecting them.

Not doubting that for an instant, Lan Xichen mounted his sword and headed west, his ghostly companion floating beside him as he flew.

#

The cave stank of blood and death. Its owner had been dead and gone three years already, but his lair remained disgustingly unpleasant. Of course, being right at the center of the Burial Mounds didn't help the atmosphere. There were too many undead wandering this place, trailing stink and constantly regenerating gobbets of decayed flesh as they went.

Su She gazed at his work. This really wasn't the right thing to do, he was sure. Master Guangyao would be furious with him for considering it. But there weren't many choices that ended with his beloved friend returned to the world. Nor was there any way to ask the man how he felt. Su She had played Inquiry until his fingers bled but gotten no response.

The other choice, taking Jin Guangyao's still breathing, still living, still comatose body to Xue Yang, didn't bear thinking of. Su She had almost agreed. Had almost gone to Nightless City like Xue Yang had demanded. In the end, though, he knew the very last thing Master Guangyao would want would be to be brought to any sort of life by that horrible little brat.

This choice wasn't a great deal better and it might possibly fail even so. Still, it was the only thing Su She could think of and the only thing he could do. He looked at the naked body painted in sigils at the center of his array. Made sure every line of the array was right. Made sure he was sitting in exactly the right position.

"Forgive me, Master Guangyao," he whispered, setting his spirit into the array. "I can't find another way to save you."

Then all he knew was pain.

Chapter Text

Xue Yang tested his creations in Tianshan Fortress, in the barren lands to the west of the kingdom. He'd copied Wei Wuxian's Stygian Tiger Seal and used the local dead, and the bodies Jin Guangyao supplied, to test the thing out. It was powerful, dangerously so, but as far as Jin Guangyao could tell, it wasn't even half as strong as the original. Just as well, too.

If I'd had any courage at all I'd have told you about this, he told Lan Xichen, intentionally focusing the words towards his Second Brother. Da-ge was a great deal less furious with him, thanks to having his qi constantly rebalanced, but he still would have blamed him for the whole mess.

He'd never felt like he had any choices. Maybe he'd been wrong, but all he'd ever seen was the tangled path created by his need to achieve and his father's desires. Would Da-ge have listened if he'd told the full truth a great deal earlier? He doubted it. Years of dealing with that stubborn inability to admit being wrong, or even slightly mistaken, told him that much.

Or was it his own inability to bend? His own unwillingness to believe he'd be supported? Could he have gained Da-ge's trust again if he'd dared tell the truth before? He'd been so sure he'd be rebuffed. And this was a fine time to have regrets, when it was far too late to do anything about them. Da-ge might be sorry for killing his San-di, but there wasn't much to be done about it now.

It was getting towards late afternoon by the time Er-ge reached their meeting point. If Jin Guangyao didn't have his dual connection points with the both of them, he was fairly sure Da-ge would have gone straight inside the ruins of Tianshan, unwilling to waste so much as a minute while a whole family was endangered.

Someone wailed in the distance and Jin Guangyao wasn't surprised when both his sworn brothers set off running. Bound to them as he was, he didn't have to try to stay close. To keep them safe, though, he pushed himself forward, watching for the Jin clansman guarding the place.

Try not to kill them. You don't want to give my father an excuse for attacking you.

Da-ge sneered but held back some of his much vaunted strength. Instead of cutting them down, he knocked them out and sent them flying. Lan Xichen's strikes were quieter, more elegant, but they had much the same effect. The clan guards fell and did not get up.

More screaming would have made the pair move faster but Jin Guangyao spotted the danger first. Undead. Be careful. These were the criminals Xue Yang had been given to test his imitation seal on; pickpockets, murderers and the like. Most had broken necks. Some had lost their hands. Others their heads. He'd seen them before, checking on Xue Yang's work, but never up close.

Alive, he'd be terrified. As a ghost, he found himself critically analyzing their behavior. Slow. Slower than most ferocious undead. They simply didn't have enough resentful energy to jump-start their aggression. It made them easy targets for the two cultivators cutting their way through the horde.

Brothers, I'm going to try controlling one. He gave his companions a chance to disagree and was relieved when neither did. He knew his idea was dangerous, but he wanted to do more than float along and let them do all the work.

"Be careful," was all Da-ge said. Er-ge agreed, cutting down another undead as it got too close.

Jin Guangyao didn't bother saying he usually was careful. Instead he dove into one of the undead's shadow and from there into its flesh. A living person's spirit would interfere, denying him entry into their physical being. A dead thing like this had no hun soul to fight him with. He drove deeper in, attached his Self to the tattered remnants of the undead's po soul and found himself looking blearily out of its eyes. "Gaahh itt...." he gasped, backing away and putting his/its hands up to keep Lan Xichen from cutting him down.

"Keep moving. We can't waste time congratulating you," Nie Mingjue snapped.

They rushed into the central courtyard of the fortress, to the battle arena Xue Yang used to test his undeads' strength against each other. There was a small group of old men and women, a few dozen children at the center, surrounded by Xue Yang's pets, screaming and crying as the things tore at the few adults strong enough to fight.

Nie Mingjue slammed into the nearest undead. Lan Xichen cut another down. And Jin Guangyao stumbled into the crowd, breaking undead arms and legs. Up on the landing above the arena, Xue Yang shouted, "The hell? You. What are you doing? You're supposed to be killing those people. Get back to work."

Jin Guangyao ignored the man. Ignored the odd flow of energy coming from Xue Yang's imitation Stygian Tiger Seal. It had no power over him. The real one might - it was created to control all sorts of undead - but this one just wasn't strong enough.

"Nie Mingjue! Lan Xichen! How dare you interfere with my business!" The voice wasn't Xue Yang's, but Jin Guangshan's.

Startled, Jin Guangyao turned his puppet's head and stared. This was a surprise. Father had never gone near Xue Yang's work before. He'd wanted to keep his hands clean; using his bloodstained son as a go-between. Of course, with Jin Guangyao missing he must have had no choice. Xue Yang demanded an audience for his ugly work. He liked disgusting those he did business with.

Jin Guangyao noticed an undead about to grab a small child. Slammed his puppet into the other and somehow shouted, "SCRAM." His puppet's teeth were rotten, the tongue a flap of skin barely attached. The word was barely comprehensible but it was enough. The youngster set off running.

Flinging his puppet towards the landing, he smashed the table between Xue Yang and his father. Tea and tongues went everywhere. Tongues again? Xue Yang's tastes were horrifying. Jin Guangyao would have been ill in his own body; this one didn't have enough of a stomach left to be sick with. "Die!" he growled, grabbing for Xue Yang.

The brat's eyes widened and he threw himself backwards, "It's out of my control!" he shouted at Jin Guangshan. "Run!"

The pair scrambled away and Jin Guangyao felt a flash of satisfaction, seeing his father so terrified. He started after them, only to feel a tugging sensation dragging him backwards. His link to his brothers? But he'd been much further away back at Moling Su. Why now?

Another tug, this one pulling him straight out of the body he'd possessed. He turned his attention on his companions, thinking it was them doing the pulling. Then everything twisted around him as he was dragged through the darkness, hearing screams and cries in the shadows. Voices wailed as he rushed past, some almost familiar. Zixuan? Brother? I'm SORRY!

Then he landed with a crash, body slamming into cold stone, the stench of blood thick in the air.

#

Jin Guangyao's 'disappearance' almost pulled Nie Mingjue off balance. If San-di's ghost hadn't been quietly teaching him to control the rage and vengeful fury that'd been heading him towards a qi deviation, he probably would have gone mad.

Instead it was Lan Xichen, soft-hearted and worried for their small younger brother, who cried out. Lan Xichen who set to ending the fight as fast as he possibly could. Lan Xichen who ran after Xue Yang and Jin Guangshan, no doubt sure San-di's situation was the little monster's fault.

Nie Mingjue paused to free the prisoners and find the ones strong enough and calm enough to act. "Take your family. Get them out of here and find a safe place to hide. We can't guarantee your safety. Not yet."

The old man, the previous sect leader before he'd retired, bowed. "We will. But... Master Nie... what is going on here?"

"I don't know yet. I promise, I'll do my best to find out. Now, hurry and go!"

Once that was settled, Nie Mingjue followed after his Second Brother. Their quarry had run back into the depths of the fortress and he hoped Lan Xichen was being careful. It'd be so easy to race straight into a trap in his state of mind.

Not that Nie Mingjue blamed him. He was worried for their little brother, too. It was partly guilt, partly knowing his faults had helped make matters worse. It wasn't the Nie way to forgive and forget wrongs, of course, but maybe they needed to at least learn to judge wrongs less harshly. Once Jin Guangyao had fallen in his eyes, he'd never been willing to see why things had gone the way they had.

He shoved the thought away as he found Lan Xichen staring helplessly at a blank wall. "They got away. I don't know how." Second Brother pushed against the wall as if expecting it to fall open. "They disappeared right here. I've been trying to find a secret door, but there's nothing."

Slamming his shoulder into the wall, all Nie Mingjue got was a slight bruise. He stood still, closing his eyes to try and reach their San-di. Where was that little nuisance, anyway? He closed his eyes, trying to reach Jin Guangyao's thoughts. They were connected, right? This should work... right?

...b...r..al...mo...nd...

The faintest sound came to him. Came to Lan Xichen as well, based on the way he stiffened and gasped. Nie Mingjue couldn't quite make out every word but he thought he could hear San-di shouting from a great distance, most of what he said lost to a constant wind.

"Burial Mounds." Lan Xichen said suddenly. "I think he's telling us to go to the Burial Mounds."

That was where the Yiling Patriarch had made his final stand. Where the last of the Wen had fallen. What in the hell would Jin Guangyao's ghost be doing there? He hadn't even been at the final siege, having been left back at Koi Tower to defend it.

"It doesn't make sense," Lan Xichen muttered. "But it's all we have. I'm going, brother. With or without you."

Their brotherhood was still on shaky ground and Nie Mingjue knew it. Nor could he blame Second Brother for being upset and hurt and terrified for San-di. Even knowing where things probably would have led if Jin Guangyao had survived, the fact of the matter was, it was Nie Mingjue who'd raised his hand to his sworn brother and been prepared to murder him for the sin of obeying his father's will.

"We'll go together." Truth to tell, he was worried about the little sneak himself.

First, though, they had to find their way out of this place.

#

Lan Xichen regretted running after Xue Yang and Jin Guangshan so recklessly. Not because of the danger, but because he hadn't paid proper attention to how he'd gotten where he was. Somewhere among the three-thousand or so rules on Gusulan's wall was, 'Think before you act'. Well, he'd failed that one quite spectacularly.

It'd been his concern for Jin Guangyao's spirit. His mixed feelings of intense sorrow and deep anger at both his brothers. Nie Mingjue for his rage that'd driven Jin Guangyao away, made him believe he had nowhere to turn. Jin Guangyao for his inability to trust, for his willingness to take devastatingly cruel paths if it achieved his final goal. There were places and times for rage and cruelty, but aiming it one's sworn brother? That was almost more than he could bear.

Somehow they'd come to some form of reconciliation. He hoped they would, anyway. In the meantime, all he could do was try to work his own way past the hurt and guilt. And to be honest with himself, a great deal of his pain was guilt. He'd wanted their brotherhood to work so badly he'd blinded himself to its faults. Blinded himself to the way those two were tearing each other apart.

Realizing he was lost, Lan Xichen stopped in his tracks and tried to listen. Ah, there. A breeze. "That way?" he asked his grim companion. Nie Mingjue hadn't said a word this whole time. Whether it was rage over what Jin Guangshan had meant to do to the Tingshanhe, anger at their San-di for what he'd planned to do, or guilt over what he, himself, had done didn't matter. He was clearly not in the mood to talk.

Gruffly, Nie Mingjue agreed and Lan Xichen took the turn, though he didn't remember this path at all. Then they were in a large room full of coffins. Not a proper mausoleum, nor cemetery, either. From the looks of the place, it'd been the fortress's main hall once. At least that meant they could find their way out at last.

There was a strange sickening odor in the air and Lan Xichen glanced into the nearest coffin and choked. "Xue Yang?"

It certainly looked like the little madman. Naked, eyes closed, floating in a peculiar smelling liquid the color of watery blood, the slender teen's body seemed oddly incomplete. Oh, that was it. It was just the upper torso and his head.

Nie Mingjue looked in another coffin. "Here too. Even less of him. Half a face and no brain."

What in hell had Xue Yang been up to? Lan Xichen didn't know enough about magic to work it out. Jin Guangyao might have been able to guess, his voracious reading habits might have given him the necessary clue. But Jin Guangyao wasn't there.

Coffin after coffin held other Xue Yangs. None were in perfect condition, though. It was as if their creator hadn't finished them yet. Something told Lan Xichen that Xue Yang's plans shouldn't be allowed to continue. "Destroy them."

"What of brother?"

Lan Xichen hesitated. Came to the best decision he could. "You go after him. I'll finish things here." Nie Mingjue could fly a great deal faster than Lan Xichen. Time might be essential.

"You trust me not to injure him?"

Realizing how hurt Nie Mingjue must be feeling, Lan Xichen touched his arm. Managed a weak little smile. "Brother, I believe you both want things to be better between you. And I'm afraid I made things worse." At Nie Mingjue's confused expression, Lan Xichen explained, "I've always run interference for both of you. Tried to make you see things his way, tried to make him see things yours. It's time the two of you worked that out for yourself."

"A little late, given I killed him, but I take your point. Do what you have to do here and I'll go find our San-di."

With that, Nie Mingjue hurried out the great doors leading back to the courtyard and Lan Xichen set to work.

#

How dare they? How dare those so-called Righteous Cultivators interfere? Wasn't Nie Mingjue supposed to be dead by now? Hadn't he persuaded Jin Guangyao that the best way to deal with that oversized triumph of muscle over brain was to remove him from existence? Why hadn't the little bastard assassinated him like he'd suggested, instead of letting himself get killed instead?

"Where are my women?"

Jin Guangshan's demand reminded him that he'd dragged the slut along for a reason and it wasn't to find him someone to swive. He'd been wanting his hands on the man for a different purpose entirely for some time now. The little bastard was useful, but not nearly as useful as having complete control over Lanling Jin's sect leader.

"This way," he promised the slut. Really, Jin Guangshan was such an easy mark. Offer him wine, offer him women, offer him a place to consume both, and he was happy. It made Xue Yang wonder why the man wanted to rule the cultivational world at all. He was rich enough to get everything he wanted without bothering with the attention total power required.

Perhaps his reason was like Xue Yang's? If Jin Guangshan was Chief Cultivationist like he wanted, he'd be in a position to demand what he required from the other sects. He'd never have to worry about the other sects judging him or denying him or disrespecting him. Everything he wanted, from whomever he wanted it, would be his.

Well, that wasn't going to happen without some effort. It was too bad, him having to abandon Tianshan Fortress, but he'd set up a lair for himself elsewhere. He didn't trust Jin Guangyao. No, not at all. Even if the man had killed his sworn brother like Xue Yang had suggested, he'd still wind up turning on Xue Yang if he ever got the chance. Just like Xue Yang had fully intended to turn on him. Not that it mattered, now the little bastard was dead.

Leading Jin Guangshan through the halls of his lair, reached by a hidden transportation array, Xue Yang settled him in one of the spare bed chambers. This place had been part of some old temple complex before the Wen got to it. Distant from the larger sects, it was perfectly placed to keep Xue Yang's doings safely hidden.

"Wait just a moment, Master Jin. Here. Have some more wine. I'll fetch the girls in a moment." Xue Yang poured the drink and added another dose of hallucinogen. Once Jin Guangshan was properly under his control, it'd be easy enough to use him. All he'd have to do was keep him happy until the time came to send him back to Koi Tower.

Back, where he could use his power and influence to give Xue Yang everything he wanted.

Chapter Text

It took a while to get moving. Jin Guangyao was dimly, distantly, aware of his brothers, but he couldn't hear them properly nor see where they were. Of course, he seemed to have possessed someone's body again, so perhaps that was why? He lay on the cold stone, staring at stalactites limned by torchlight, trying to understand exactly what happened.

This was the Demon Slaughtering cave in the Burial Mounds. It'd been Wei Wuxian's hideout and where he'd done the vast majority of his research. Jin Guangyao knew the place entirely too well. His father had insisted he search it personally for every last item Wei Wuxian might have left behind.

It'd been a stinking mess, slathered with the Yiling Patriarch's remains. It didn't smell much better now. If anything it stank worse, though perhaps that was just because he'd been unable to smell or taste anything before? He wasn't fully connected to this body but it was enough to tell him he was cold, naked and aching from toes to the top of his skull.

Sensing his brothers call for him, he struggled to shout his location. There. That got through. At least he thought it had. Now, could he manage to sit up and take proper stock of his situation? He forced himself, gasping and crying through the pain. He hadn't felt this bad since that time Wen Ruohan had taken it into his head he was a spy. Which, of course, he was. He'd barely managed to worm his way out of that one.

It took what seemed like hours to get upright, but he managed. Now he was sitting, he could see his surroundings better. Yes, definitely the Demon Slaughtering cave. It'd been emptied of every last thing the Yiling Patriarch had left, of course, but now it had two new objects. Three if you counted the bloody array painted on the stone floor.

He knew that array from somewhere, but his memory was shaken by the headache and he didn't want to force it. He'd think about it later. Besides, there was that body lying next to him. Dark black robes with dark grey trim, near perfect opposite to the Lan clan's white. He stared blankly for a full minute before he recognized the man's pallid face. Su She.

Examining himself came next and it took him even longer before he truly understood whose body he was in. It was one he knew and knew intimately. How not, when it was his own? There were differences, an incomplete feeling telling him he didn't belong here. Which, when one thought about it, he didn't. This body ought to be dead and wasn't. Not quite.

His vision was half-blurred, one eye not working quite right. His heart beat - slowly, sluggishly - but it beat. He breathed, though he'd a feeling he didn't have to do so quite so often. And, of course, he could scent and taste his surroundings. Not that this was the sort of place where he wanted to do either.

"Oh," he whispered. "Now I remember." He lay on a body offering array, the sort used to summon a soul back to the living world. But how could that be? Even if Su She had used this old, forbidden, technique, surely he would have transmigrated to Su She's body. Not back to his own, mostly-dead, one.

A closer examination of the array answered that question. Su She had altered the incantations somehow. The original spell would have summoned a spirit to take over the caster's body. Would have bound that spirit to act according to the caster's will. This array still used the caster's spirit as a power source, but transferred the wandering soul - himself - into a waiting body. In a way it was Su She's final masterpiece. Few other cultivationists could have managed it.

He spotted a scroll case in Su She's hand. Opened it while trying to ignore the aching pain every movement caused. It was getting better. He hoped it was getting better. As long as he didn't push himself too hard, he should be fine, right?

The scroll was a letter to him, Su She's last message. An explanation. And a gift unasked for.

 

My dear Master Guangyao,

Call this my apology to you for the way I abused our friendship. You have never been anything but supportive of me. Never been so right as when you encouraged me and my clan to seek our own path, instead of simply mirroring those we hated. When I realized you were dying at your own sworn brother's hand, I wanted revenge. I could not bear to leave matters as they were, despite your orders.

I cursed your sworn brothers. Drove them to madness. Punished them for the harm they did you. At least I tried to. I felt the curse shatter. Felt some power pushing it away. It's just as well. If my plan here works you wouldn't thank me for ruining them. I never really understood your relationship with those two. Just envied it.

You may not realize it, but your injuries weren't enough to kill you. I'm not expert enough in medicine or demonic cultivation to know exactly what did happen to you, but I do know you're not truly dead. You don't wake, but you're still breathing. Maybe someone like Wen Qing could have helped you, but she's gone and unless I accept that brat Xue Yang's help, I have only one choice.

All I can do is try and restore you with my own life-force. I'm not entirely sure of the changes I've made to this array, but rest assured, if you're reading this and it worked, there is no curse requiring you to act. Your future is your own again, to do with what you will. My only desire is that you live and live well.

Again, I am sorry for having failed to do the things you asked me to. Worse, for having done the very thing you wanted prevented. All I can do is offer myself in your place and hope my life is enough to regain yours.

With deepest love and profound respect, Sect Master Su She of Moling Su.

 

The explanation came as a shock, not least because Jin Guangyao realized why Su She had been so loyal, why he'd seemed to betray his friend and why he'd handed his own life over to save that friend. It'd been love, pure and simple and not at all comprehensible. What had he done to earn this? His good eye blurred; apparently he was alive enough to cry.

"JIN GUANGYAO!"

The shout came from the short passage leading outside and Jin Guangyao blinked, staring blearily towards the source as he came running in. As always, Nie Mingjue managed to look like he was storming a castle no matter where he was or what condition. Right now his armor was bloodied, covered in black gunk that was probably undead remains. And his expression... so terrifyingly furious and surely after Jin Guangyao's blood... again.

With a sigh, Jin Guangyao forced himself to his feet, swaying unsteadily, and gazed at his sworn brother. "Hello, Da-ge," he managed to say without slurring the words. "Come to finish what you started?"

To his utter astonishment, Nie Mingjue grabbed him up in an embrace so tight he feared his ribs would snap.

#

The man in Nie Mingjue's arms was too damned thin. Too damned light. He hadn't been eating properly, had he? Those fancy robes he always wore had hidden his condition. Had hidden the bruises and scrapes from all the beatings. Had masked his fragility by making him appear a different sort of weak.

Just as he'd masked his true feelings by exposing them, Nie Mingjue realized. By revealing his emotions in a way that made them seem false and hollow, he'd fooled Nie Mingjue into believing he was just acting, that he felt nothing. Now, the real tears fell.

"Hurts... Please... God, make it stop hurting."

Realizing some of those tears were due to Jin Guangyao's injuries, Nie Mingjue lowered him to the floor. Leaned him against the wall. Examined his face. The bruises were familiar, the ones Nie Mingjue had caused, kicking him down the stairs. An injury on the forehead, mostly healed but unpleasant looking even so. Another injury hidden beneath a bloodied bandage. Hair and body surprisingly clean and neat, as if someone had taken care to wash him recently, before carefully painting talismanic symbols all over him. Oh, yes, and scars, so many scars, all over his back and shoulders.

Those Nie Mingjue recognized. Not because he'd seen them himself, but because he remembered their shared dreams. Wen Ruohan, having lost Sect Master Qin Cangye's daughter, had suspected Meng Yao of treachery. Thinking fast and with his typical expedience, Meng Yao had begged to be punished for his mistake. The torture had left him abed for weeks but had persuaded Wen Ruohan of his servant's loyalty.

Shaking himself out of the 'memory', Nie Mingjue cautiously asked, "Where does it hurt?" Even as he spoke, he knew it for a foolish question.

Unexpectedly humorous despite his condition, Jin Guangyao grumbled, "Easier to ask what doesn't. Think my left big toe's all right."

Nie Mingjue snorted. "I want to examine you. Can you handle it?"

"Almost sure I threw up everything before I died...."

"I hope so. This place already stinks worse than Xue Yang's laboratory. No need to make things worse." Nie Mingjue tilted Jin Guangyao's face up. "Look at me."

No surprise one of Jin Guangyao's eyes was jet black, the pupil blown wide. That'd be from the head injury. There were also tears, but Nie Mingjue didn't comment on them, just wiped them away with a silk cloth pulled from his sleeve. "Bite down on this," he added, giving Jin Guangyao the cloth. "I'm going to check the fracture."

Beneath the bandage the injury was as bad as he feared. The bone was cracked. Not quite as soft as a broken eggshell, but unpleasant to feel. Jin Guangyao mewled painfully, spat out the cloth. "If there was anything to do about it, I would have done it already."

"True. I wanted to check if it was healing. It is." Nie Mingjue pulled a flask from his belt pouch and had Jin Guangyao sip from it. "Can you tell me how you got here? I mean, you're obviously not dead."

The man's frown was quickly followed by a wince. "Am though. Sort of. Remember Shan Lotang?"

That'd been towards the beginning of the Sunshot campaign, but it was impossible to forget. "His skull was smashed in by one of Wen Ruohan's mace wielders."

"I left your camp before he died. How long?"

"He's still alive. Comatose, but his father won't let go of him." It was a terrible situation for everyone but no one could quite bear to argue with Shan Tianzhou on the subject. Even though all Shan Lotang could do was lay there staring blankly at the ceiling while his father cared for him, the man would not let go.

The news that Shan Lotang was still alive made Jin Guangyao flinch. "Think my body's in similar state. Su She meant well, pulling me back. But not properly attached. Sort of alive. Sort of dead."

Gods. Was that supposed to be salvation or a curse? Jin Guangyao didn't sound angry, though, just sad and regretful. The glance he turned on the body slumped in the middle of the floor suggested he thought it the former. Or at least it'd been intended as such. "What do you want to do about it?"

"Not sure. Did Shan Lotang's injuries heal?"

"Yes. I think that's why his father's so sure he'll come back." Who knew, maybe the man would. They didn't know enough about that sort of injury to be sure. "What does that have to do with it?"

"If it heals, it won't hurt. As much. Don't want to hurt this way all the time. Medicine helps. Time will too. Hopefully."

Nie Mingjue was about to agree when Jin Guangyao suddenly lifted his head, whimpering at the pain even as he looked towards the entrance to the Demon Slaughtering cave. For a moment Nie Mingjue thought it was Lan Xichen, having completed his task back at the fortress and hurried to join them.

It wasn't. In his anxious desire to make sure Jin Guangyao was safe and mostly sound, Nie Mingjue had forgotten one vital fact about the Burial Mounds. It was the region's biggest reservoir of resentful energy, with thousands upon thousands of corpses strewn throughout its stinking grounds. Corpses that mindlessly sought to destroy whatever lived, simply because it was alive. Wei Wuxian had made his home here because he could ward the dead from his sanctuary and the Wen dogs he'd protected.

But Wei Wuxian was dead and there was no one left to keep the ferocious dead from coming after them now.

#

Bro..ther...ne..hel...h...rry....

Jin Guangyao's 'voice' was almost as distant as before. Almost as inaudible. But Lan Xichen didn't need it to be clear to hear the distress. Something was wrong. He increased his sword's speed, hair and robes flying behind him in the wind. He'd finished his task back at the fortress and set off to join his sworn brothers. Now he had to hurry, before whatever was wrong did them harm.

Reaching the Burial Mounds, he wondered how the others had gotten inside. The whole thing was surrounded by a wall, a sealing array intended to keep the ferocious undead and Wei Wuxian's spirit from ever escaping the place. Lan Xichen was no expert on such things, but he didn't need to be to see how the array over the Mounds, surface gleaming with talismanic markings.

Ordinarily, no one could enter without help from the cultivators assigned to guard the entrance. Supposed to be guarding the entrance, that was. There was no sign of anyone at the big gate just south of the Mounds. All Lan Xichen could find was a hole towards the top, ripped straight through the dome. No need to guess who'd made it that big; Nie Mingjue was an impatient ox when it came to getting where he wanted to be.

Slipping through the hole, Lan Xichen followed his link with San-di. A few moments later he hovered over a crowd of undead, most of whom seemed to be throwing themselves into a pool of blackish liquid. A few had become distracted from this apparently important task to stumble into the passage leading into Wei Wuxian's cave. Not many, but enough to trap whomever was inside.

Quickly, Lan Xichen set sound qi blasting through the crowd of ferocious dead. "Brothers! I've cleared a path!" Hopefully Nie Mingjue wasn't injured and unable to run. He hovered over the scene, just out of reach of the ferocious dead and tried not to think about another bloody, moonlit, landscape. Tried not to think about his baby brother turning on his family, on his clan, to protect a madman driven by resentful energy and pain.

Coming. Jin Guangyao's 'voice' was clearer, even though his image didn't appear beside Lan Xichen. He'd worry about that later. Right then they needed to focus on getting out of this mess.

Movement towards the center of the blood pool drew Lan Xichen's attention. Something floated there, a small human figure. A child? No, that was impossible. There'd only been one child among the Wens, and he'd been hidden away. Lan Xichen's brother had found him, stumbling through the place looking for his lost love. Now the boy was Lan Zhan's adopted son and the only thing holding his rescuer to life. This thing was a doll, surely, just a toy A-Yuan had left behind.

"Brother!" Nie Mingjue called out, warning him that he'd drifted a bit too close to the ferocious dead. Even focused on throwing themselves into that pool, their instinct to attack the living remained. He shifted higher just in time and lost sight of the figure entirely.

With the path cleared, Nie Mingjue came out and soared above the crowd of undead, a body slung over his shoulder and a smaller figure clinging tight to Da-ge's waist, wrapped in Da-ge's outer robe. Jin Guangyao? Jin Guangyao his own self, not a ghost? Lan Xichen couldn't waste time asking. He joined his brothers and followed them into the sky.

They could talk later, once they were safe, back at the Unclean Realm.

#

Jin Guangyao rested in Nie Mingjue's arms, half-glad, half-sorry, to have real senses again. Being a ghost hadn't been too terrible, but he'd missed having a body. Missed having taste buds. Was a bit sorry to have a sense of smell; the stink of the Burial Mounds still clung. He was definitely sorry to have regained a sense of pain. It wasn't quite as bad as it'd been before he'd died, but it was still horribly unpleasant.

Fortunately, he knew tricks to distance himself from it. A good thing, too, because the medicine Nie Mingjue had given him wasn't enough. Things had healed a bit from the last time he remembered, too, so there was that. He wasn't sure his body would fully recover, but he'd take being mostly comfortable over a constant stabbing pain in his skull.

It was dark by the time they reached the Unclean Realm, making it easy for Nie Mingjue to sneak them all into his rooms and settle Jin Guangyao into bed. "We'll need to decide what to do, but let's see if we can get you in better shape first," Da-ge told him, almost sounding fond. "And don't worry about Su She's body. I'll make sure he's returned to his sect as soon as possible."

A little shaken by the kindness, after years of being Nie Mingjue's favorite target, he fought to hold himself together. he couldn't afford to fall apart yet. "Not much to be done for me."

"I'm going to fetch my clan's healer," Lan Xichen said firmly, stroking hair from Jin Guangyao's face. "She may not be able to cure you, but she might have some way to help with the pain."

Quite honestly, that was the hardest part of this whole thing and Jin Guangyao was glad to accept the offer. He lay still, as still as possible, and waited quietly. Thank the Gods Nie Mingjue knew when not to talk. Some people just couldn't exist without filling the air with their noise.

It was just a bit past dawn when Second Brother came back with a woman he introduced as Lan Zhenren. She was a handsome woman - what Lan wasn't good looking? - with kindly eyes and a businesslike manner Jin Guangyao appreciated. She was also in shock by the time she finished examining him.

"Your pardon, Sect Master Lan, but could we talk privately?"

"What you have to say, you can say in front of all three of us," Lan Xichen promised. "We know his condition is abnormal."

Abnormal was putting it mildly and Lan Zhenren didn't hesitate to say so. "Frankly, if I didn't know better, I'd think he was a ferocious corpse."

"Told you," Jin Guangyao managed to whisper.

"You're too alive to be a corpse," Nie Mingjue countered.

"Too dead not to be."

Their argument made Lan Zhenren sit down and take his wrist again. No doubt she was attempting to find his qi. Good luck with that, given his body's state. "Can you tell me how this happened?"

Both his sworn brothers hesitated, leaving him to make up his mind for them. "I had an accident and hit my head quite hard. I believe the skull fracture essentially killed me. I was a ghost for a brief time, until someone summoned me back to my body."

That set her blinking and she channeled her qi differently. At last she murmured, "Yes. Now I see. I'm not an expert in this field, of course, so I didn't think to search for a detached hun soul. That's why I'd have thought you a ferocious corpse. All I could feel was your po soul."

"Is there anything we can do about this?" Second Brother asked.

"Again, I'm a healer not a spiritualist. You might find help at Baixue temple." She smiled wryly. "Though, really, the best expert in such matters is now scattered across the soul-scape and not likely to be at all helpful."

That would be Wei Wuxian, who likely wouldn't have wanted to help a Jin with anything, given what Jin Zixun had done to Wen Ning and how his attack on Wei Wuxian had sparked the man's downfall. Given, as well, the part Jin Guangshan had played in what'd happened afterwards. Not that it mattered, unless there was some way the Yiling Patriarch could be restored to life.

"Is there anything you can do for his pain at least?" To his surprise, it was Da-ge who asked. It pleased but unnerved him to find Nie Mingjue practically babying him. He kept anticipating anger and threats.

"Two things. First, that skull fracture's putting too much pressure on his brain. I'll need to do something about that if you want his body to survive for a while. Second, I can give him some pain-relief drugs. You'll want to be careful not to rely on them, Master Jin, but they should help. And, though I'm sure you don't think so right now, your body has enough life energy to heal. It'll take some time, but it should recover physically."

Not said, because it was obvious, was that psychic recovery would take a great deal more effort. Given it was even possible.

Chapter Text

Waiting for Master Lan Zhenren to do her work was difficult. Yet Nie Mingjue was pathetically grateful the healer was willing to try. She could so easily have decided it was a waste of time. That it was against Cloud Recesses' rules. That she shouldn't be trying to save the life of a dead man, no matter if he'd been possessed by his own ghost.

He paced, angry and guilty at once. They all needed to let go of their past if they were to move on from here, but how could he, when it was his fault his small San-di was so badly injured? His fault the man had pretty much died?

More to divert himself from getting angrier than anything else, he asked Lan Xichen, "What was it had you distracted back at the Mounds?"

"Nothing much. I thought I saw some child's toy in the blood pool."

"There weren't any children at the Burial Mounds," Nie Mingjue protested and Er-di frowned. "What?"

"I've never mentioned it before, but... I'm almost certain A-Yuan, that child he just adopted, is a Wen."

No need to ask why Lan Xichen hadn't mentioned this earlier. The more he thought about it, the more Nie Mingjue realized just what a rage-filled monster he'd been becoming. It wouldn't have been long, even with help from that song of Er-di's, before he'd be lost to the same qi deviation that'd killed each and every one of his ancestors.

"Even if that's true, it doesn't mean the boy was there." Nie Mingjue's protest faded as he spoke. He'd seen the boy once; small, frail, a strange mix of brave and terrified. Something haunted little A-Yuan. Something no four year old ought to see.

Confirming Nie Mingjue's fear, Er-di murmured, "I helped clean him up when Lan Zhan brought him home. He was covered in the same kind of muck you find at the Burial Mounds. Someone must have hidden him, just before the attack."

All right. That just made it worse. Nie Mingjue didn't have much in the way of memories from the attack. He'd been half-berserk, fighting all those undead of Wei Wuxian's, trying to reach the last remnants of the Wen. He'd barely gotten partway up the hill before Wei Wuxian had destroyed the Stygian Tiger Seal and been ripped apart in the process. By the time he'd reached the battle-site, everything was over and all the bodies had been tossed into what later became the blood pool.

"You're sure it was a child's toy then, and not a body?"

"I'm not sure of anything at this point. I barely saw it, what with all the ferocious corpses jumping in there. And that's another question. What made them do that?"

Ni Mingjue was a purely physical cultivator. "No idea. We could ask San-di, later. He may not practice it, but he's closest we have to a reliable expert on demonic cultivation." The man had studied all of Wei Wuxian's notes after all.

It's nice to be trusted.

Jin Guangyao's thought was accompanied by a faint vision of the man standing off to the side. He smiled ruefully. Apologies. I should have let you know I was here first. Things were getting too painful in there. She's sewing up the injury.

Refusing to be annoyed, all Nie Mingjue asked was, "And that hurts more than having the shards pulled out of your brain?"

Apparently so. Jin Guangyao flinched suddenly and added, A great deal more, in fact.

To take their San-di's mind off surgery, Nie Mingjue asked, "You heard what Er-di saw in the blood pool?"

I did. But I've no idea what it might be. No one mentioned any children among the victims.

The word 'victim' hurt, but Nie Mingjue forced himself to accept it. "What about those ferocious corpses? Why would they be destroying themselves in the blood pool?"

I'm not absolutely sure, but it might have something to do with the Stygian Tiger Seal. At their unnerved expressions San-di added, We only found half of the thing after the siege. Sect Master Jiang has never said what happened in there, but I believe Wei Wuxian tried to destroy it and was torn to pieces in the backlash.

"How does that matter?"

Possibly the pieces of the remaining half were so fragmented we didn't recognize them and threw them into the blood pool along with what was left of the Yiling Patriarch? In which case, the undead may be drawn to the pool by its remmnants.

That made an ugly sort of sense. It also reminded Nie Mingjue of something important. "I didn't find the half you said you had in your rooms. Any thought on where it went?"

With a slight frown, followed by a flinch and a rueful glance towards the bedroom, Jin Guangyao offered, Have you searched Su She? He's the only one who'd know where it was.

Nie Mingjue considered that. Went and checked the body. For a moment he was afraid there'd be nothing, but an odd lump in Su She's undertunic turned out to be what was left of Wei Wuxian's greatest and most terrible invention. He held it, glaring furiously at the black metal. "This damned thing's caused more trouble than Wen Ruohan, and that was saying something."

Not really. The Sunshot war lasted over two years and killed over five thousand people.

"Some of whom were Wen dogs."

A good number of those Wen dogs were like the ones Wei Wuxian protected. Non-combatants. Support personnel. Frightened peasants trying to survive a lord who'd use them to test his cultivation just because he could. As Nie Mingjue unwillingly conceded the point, Jin Guangyao continued, At least all the cultivationists Wei Wuxian killed went to kill him.

Another point Nie Mingjue had to grudgingly admit was fair. They'd known he had that damned seal of his. Known he was hysterical from the death of his beloved sister. Known he'd had no paths left to take but destruction.  Known and gone in anyway, as if they were somehow immune to a force of nature simply because their cause was just. Which, based on Jin Guangyao's memories, it might not have been.

"The question remains, what did I see in the pool?" Er-di asked.

We should probably investigate. Later. Preferably after we've dealt with Xue Yang.

Now there was a truth if ever Nie Mingjue heard one. Because for all Wei Wuxian's dangerous ways, the Yiling Patriarch had never tried to hurt people simply because he could. Whereas Xue Yang seemed to take unholy satisfaction in the harm he caused even the innocent.

No. Given a choice Nie Mingjue would take that trouble-making young fool Wei Wuxian over his would-be successor any day. It was too bad he didn't have that choice anymore.

Because if anyone could have stopped Xue Yang in his tracks, it was Wei Wuxian.

#

He moved slowly. Painfully. Even now, three years later, his back and shoulders often ached in the night. The ache in his heart was worse, though. The only thing holding him to this place, to the family he was half-coming to loathe, was the child. His child. Wei Ying's child, in an odd sort of way.

"You'd be proud of him," he whispered to his beloved, watching the little boy toss and turn restlessly in his bed. "So proud." No one was there to hear him. Sometimes he thought he felt Wei Ying's presence. Thought he heard sad laughter somewhere in the shadows.

It shouldn't be possible. The sects had built an array around the Burial Mound. Had locked Wei Ying's spirit in, along with all the undead who'd helped destroy him. He wasn't strong enough, yet, to break through, but he didn't believe, refused to believe, anyone could contain that free spirit.

So he played Inquiry. Over and over and over and over again. Night after night. Sometimes souls answered, but never the soul he wanted most to speak to. Never the soul he yearned for most. He was out there. He had to be out there. But he would not answer.

Lan Zhan refused to give up, though. Everyone else turned on Wei Ying. Everyone else believed him a monster. Lan Zhan knew better. He would not, could not, stop calling. Would not, could not, rest. Not until HE was able to.

Not until HE knew just how badly he was wanted. How badly he was needed. And how deeply he was loved.

#

Pieces.

So. Many. Pieces.

Scattered everywhere.

Hatred.

Sorrow.

No one wants you. No one needs you. Your family is gone. You killed them. Your friends are gone. You killed them. The world is your enemy. It killed you.

He spins and floats. Falls and rises. Calls and screams inside his head. He could come back, but to what? Could seek life again. But for who? Himself? He'd never lived for himself before. Why would he start now? How could he start now?

All there is, is resentful energy. The thing that'd destroyed him. The thing he'd tried to master and failed. Completely. Utterly. Spectacularly. With so much blood and bone and skin and meat scattered all over the place.

Worse, he didn't finish what he'd started. Half the damn thing destroyed. Only half. Was the rest enough to misuse? Abuse?

Didn't matter to him anymore. All he was, was a wailing in the dark, the loudest voice among thousands and thousands.

Oh, but what was that? A new sound. Sweet. So sweet. Calling. Calling him? Nobody could be calling him.

It was! It was calling him! So warm. So kind.

A dim memory flickers. A voice, saying his name. Asking him to come with him. Yearning. Desperately yearning. And... loving? Love? Someone loved him? How was that even possible?

Threads of a song touches his thoughts. Gathers him together. Draws him back. Possible? Not possible? Didn't matter. It was happening. He was....

ALIVE?

A child, barely more than four years old, clambered out of clear water. Stood shaking at its side. Stared wide-eyed through the darkness. Lumbering figures approached him, at least until he raised his face and met their eyes. Then they turned and ran. They knew their master when they saw him.

Blankly, not sure who he was, nor how he got there, only aware of the power fluctuating around him, the dark energy that he somehow knew how to summon and command, he began to walk.

He was hungry. So terribly hungry. Surely some kind soul would feed him if he asked?

#

It took hours before Lan Xichen's clan's healer came out of the room where she'd been operating on Jin Guangyao. "That was the first and I hope the last time I ever have to operate on someone without knocking them out first." Seeing her Sect Master's expression, she added, "Given that, he was probably the most cooperative patient I've had in years."

"But will he be all right?"

Smiling at Nie Mingjue's sharp demand, Lan Zhenren said, "No. Not unless you can figure out a way to reattach his hun soul properly, instead of having it hanging on from the outside and possessing his body."

"That's not what I meant."

"As far as his current state goes... I believe his body will survive the damage. Much like that poor Shan Lotang, in fact. I've relieved the pressure. Removed bone shards. Cleaned up the injury. Given time, the fracture will heal." Her eyes held Lan Xichen's gaze. "Unless you do something about his hun soul, however, he will be partially crippled, unable to summon enough qi to wield a sword. He may manage something lighter."

That wasn't good, especially for someone in Jin Guangyao's position, but it was a great deal better than him being a ghost forced to follow his sworn brothers around. Lan Xichen inclined his head. "Understood. I thank you for your service, Shimei."

"My duty includes relieving pain, Sect Master Lan. I'm happy to have fulfilled it." She held the door open for them. "There's no reason you can't speak to him. He's in a great deal less pain than he was and he said he'd appreciate the company."

Once Lan Zhenren had gone on, Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue entered their San-di's room to find him reading a book. One that must have been the healer's, given its title; 'Compendium of Medical Materials'. It was a familiar and heartwarming sight. Lan Xichen couldn't count the number of time he'd found his San-di quietly reading some esoteric text or another.

"Planning on learning to be a healer, next?"

"One should always attempt to expand one's mind, Da-ge. Besides, it keeps me distracted and right now my mind is a bag of frightened weasels trying escape. You know the sort of things I start thinking and doing when that happens."

Lan Xichen was startled enough to laugh. He was right, though. A panicked Jin Guangyao was a danger to himself and everyone around him. "What can we do to help, A-Yao?"

"I'm not sure," Jin Guangyao admitted. "What do you plan to do about my father and Xue Yang?"

Nie Mingjue answered. "I've sent men to search for them. Sent men to make sure the Tingshanhe clan are safely hidden away. Contacted your mother...."

"Step-mother."

"Step-mother and warned her to guard the tower."

Thoughtfully, Jin Guangyao asked, "Did you tell her not to trust my father?" He stopped. Paused. "Not to trust him inside the compound at all."

"I did. She didn't argue. If anything, I think she was pleased to have an excuse to keep Jin Guangshan out of his own home."

Lan Xichen asked, "What do you suggest we do about him?"

"At the moment damage control comes first." Jin Guangyao hesitated. "If my father is dead or, worse, under Xue Yang's influence, someone will need to lead Jin Sect until Jin Ling is old enough."

"We'll support you." As both Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao stared at their eldest brother, Nie Mingjue added, "I'll be keeping an eye on what you're doing, but I no longer believe you do the things you do simply to crawl your way to the absolute top of the cultivational world."

Relief flooded Lan Xichen. That wasn't quite a statement of pure trust, but it showed how much Nie Mingjue's opinion had shifted. More importantly, just those words alone seemed to hit Jin Guangyao right where he lived. Being trusted, having his opinion matter, those things had always been important to him. Lan Xichen knew Nie Mingjue's constant disbelief in their San-di had been wearing him down.

"Can I ask why you think I'd be suitable? We all know why I'm not."

"You know Jin politics inside out. You know how to get the most out of people. And, now I've seen your memories, I know you don't actually want to be Sect Leader."

Again they both stared at Nie Mingjue. "He doesn't?" "I don't?"

"No. Being Sect Leader is a thankless job and there's always one more thing that needs doing." Nie Mingjue grinned at the man sitting in the bed blinking at him. "You don't mind the hard work, but you need to be appreciated, which is why you make such an excellent second-in-command. Tell me I'm wrong."

Jin Guangyao continued blinking at Da-ge. Then, setting his hand to his chest and laying back, he gasped dramatically, "Ah. Thou hast slain me."

If it weren't for the fact that he knew Nie Mingjue appreciated such dark humor, Lan Xichen would have worried. Instead, Da-ge said wryly, "Not yet I haven't. With luck, we'll even figure out a way to stick you properly back into that messed up body of yours again, so I won't have slain you after all. In the meantime, if you're done malingering, we should get to work."

Chapter Text

When Master Lan Zhenren told Jin Guangyao to rest and not try anything strenuous, he was sure she didn't mean riding Nie Mingjue's saber across the countryside. He tried not to peer around too obviously, interested in the way things looked, so far from the ground.

"Don't shift around like that. You're not a little kid on your first sword ride."

"Apologies, Da-ge. I'm not used to being able to just sightsee." His soft sword required extra effort to fly on, yet another source of amusement from those who didn't think much of Jin Guangyao's cultivation. They'd be even less impressed with it now he'd become a kind of walking dead.

"Is that thing behaving itself?"

Nie Mingjue's question made Jin Guangyao set his free hand to the qiankun pouch at his waist, where he was carrying the Stygian Tiger Seal.

"It is. I don't think it can do anything on its own." There was a faint flow of energy from it. Nothing dangerous. Not yet at least. Not dangerous but familiar. He had a feeling, a terrible feeling, he knew what Su She had tried to do with it. He'd meant well, poor sad soul that he was.

Unaware of Jin Guangyao's worries, Nie Mingjue told him, "Thank the Gods for small favors. Best keep it on you from here on. We can't afford to have that thing running loose and unprotected."

Yet another truth that didn't need discussing, so Jin Guangyao just agreed and leaned companionably against Nie Mingjue's shoulder, once again watching the landscape speed past.

They arrived at Koi Tower by mid-afternoon to find guards watching every entrance. For a moment Jin Guangyao wondered if his father had returned and had taken over, but as soon as he approached the great stairs, the guard at their foot saluted. "Greetings, Young Master Jin. Madam Jin asks that you go to her as soon as you arrive."

"Thank you, Jin Jiu. I'll go right away."

The guard blinked. Then allowed himself a slight, wry, smile. "You might consider going sooner. She's not in a patient mood."

"Is she ever?"

"This guard has yet to notice it if she has, Young Master Jin."

Madam Jin was entertaining her grandson, Jin Ling, when they entered her outer chambers. Well, entertaining for Madam Jin's definition of entertaining. Jin Ling looked a bit bored with the game, mostly because Madam Jin's play style involved her taking over whatever toy it was and doing it all herself. Which, when one thought about it, was how she did everything.

"And what exactly happened to you, young man?"

Jin Guangyao bowed. "Apologies, mother. I had an accident a few days ago." They neither of them liked his calling her mother, but manners required it.

She beckoned a servant to take Jin Ling away, much to the three-year-old's obvious relief. His nursery might lonely, but at least no one bossed him around there. "An. Accident." She gestured at Nie Mingjue. "Don't put hot-spice in my congee and pretend it's ginger, boy. I know perfectly well Sect Master Nie here kicked you down the stairs the other day. And that Moling Su fellow you drink with dragged you off, no doubt to find help. Don't you trust our own healers, boy?"

Truth to tell, he didn't. Jin Hailan was lazy and given to focusing on those he considered important. Jin Guangshan's bastard son did not qualify. "Gusulan's Master Lan Zhenren is an expert in head injuries, ma'am. It seemed better for all if I didn't waste time."

Instead of arguing the point she shifted her attack. "And what is this about keeping Jin Guangshan out of Koi Tower? Not that my slut husband has shown so much as a hair on his head around here recently."

They'd decided to tell her most everything. Jin Guangyao would need her support if he was to lead the sect and the best way to get that was with the truth. She'd no delusions about what would happen to Jin Ling if one of his uncles were to take over. Child rulers seldom survived regents with any chance at inheriting.

Omitting the fact that he was dead, or near to, Jin Guangyao told his step-mother every last thing he knew about his father's plans with Xue Yang and the Stygian Tiger Seal, then how the brat had run off with Jin Guangshan and hadn't been seen since.

"In truth, I have no idea what Xue Yang intends to do. I do know father's desires for power were leading him straight down the path Wen Ruohan took. Unless we want a repeat of the Sunshot Campaign, with Koi Tower its target, we can't let him return to lead the sect."

"No doubt you consider yourself an adequate replacement."

Here was the difficult part, especially given his old ambitions. "I won't pretend I didn't desire that end once. But I'd rather act on Jin Ling's behalf until he's old enough to take the reins himself."

She gazed levelly at him, disbelief at war with thoughtful consideration. "Why should I believe you?"

He touched the bandages around his head. "Because, my injury has crippled my cultivation, possibly permanently. Moreover, even if I were in perfect health, my uncles and cousins would resist Jin Guangshan's bastard son taking his place as sect master. They may be more cooperative with me as regent. Given, of course, you support me."

Lan Xichen added, "It may help that he's part of our sworn brotherhood and has our support as well."

"Nie Mingjue just kicked him down the stairs and partially crippled him."

It wasn't necessary to look at Da-ge to know he was flushing. Still, with full honesty, the man said, "I did and I regret it. Much of the reason I was angry at him had to do with what your husband was doing."

Madam Jin's gaze sharpened. "Will you listen when I ask you to act on my behalf?"

"Given what you ask for is within reason. I draw the line at building any more gold baths, for one thing."

That elicited an actual snort of disgust. Apparently he wasn't the only one who considered those damned things an abomination. "Given the state of our finances, boy, I wouldn't necessarily object if you were to sell the gold instead." At his sudden grin, she added, "Though I wouldn't suggest it until you've gotten every one of those deadly little claws of yours in place. Some of the family are more attached to appearances than comfort."

There was a truth. "Then do I have your support?"

"As long as I see no sign of you trying to take over completely? Yes."

Relief flooded him. He didn't like his father's wife much and she didn't like him at all, but if they could cooperate, he might, just might, be able to keep Lanling Jin out of trouble until Jin Ling grew up. "One last thing, then?"

"Well?"

"While my injury won't keep me from my duties as Regent, it does make me a less than desirable marriage material. It isn't fair to Qin Su to saddle her with a husband who may never be able to fulfil his duty towards her." He rubbed the little gem his fiancée had given him, knowing he was going to hurt her. Knowing he had no choice. "I hesitate to simply break off my engagement with Young Mistress Qin Su without warning, but she deserves better than I can give her."

Madam Jin considered the point. "And what would you have me do?"

"Invite her and her mother to visit you. I can use the opportunity to discuss the situation with them and let Miss Qin decide what she wants to do." He hoped she'd understand. He'd come to care a great deal for her during their all too brief courtship. He hated the idea of causing her pain, especially after everything they'd been to each other.

And why did that thought give him a momentary twinge. She would have told him if their brief dalliance had led to something unexpected, though not entirely unwelcome.

#

Xue Yang glared at the clear waters of what had been the blood pool. "Who stole my Yiling Patriarch?" he demanded.

"Don't know. Got any more candy?"

He tossed a rotten black sphere at the man sitting on a nearby stump. Useless bastard, at least until he'd finished becoming a living corpse. He'd be a perfect little puppet, then. All Xue Yang would need to do was train Jin Guangshan properly and his sect would belong to Xue Yang.

Drat Su She anyhow. He was supposed to bring the little bastard to the Nightless City. Supposed to hand over the Stygian Tiger Seal. Instead he'd come here and done - something - with a vaguely familiar array. When he found Su She he'd teach the man a good lesson for not doing what he was supposed to.

There was that letter on the floor, one Xue Yang couldn't read. He'd learned basic writing, basic reading, but Su She had used the sort of calligraphy he used for talismans, not the one Xue Yang had painstakingly memorized. The only thing he could read was Su She's name at the bottom. Bastard. Just making trouble. Why didn't he do what he was supposed to do?

One thing was obvious. The Wei Wuxian homunculus Xue Yang had started growing in the blood pool had finally completed. The liquid wouldn't be so clear otherwise. He'd managed to build several copies of himself that way, so he knew what success looked like. Well, mostly success. He couldn't be sure those copies would be any use until he died and the transfer process kicked in. They were backup plans, just in case he failed.

But, of course, he wasn't going to fail. He'd get the things he wanted; revenge, all the family he could control, everyone doing exactly what they were supposed to do instead of breaking the rules and going off their own way. Instead of lying and making promises they never kept.

"Come on, A-Shan baby," he crooned to his current pet. "This place is boring. Besides, I have work to do."

"Can I have more girls when we get there?"

"Of course. There'll be plenty."

"What about that surprise you promised?"

Given how Su She obviously betrayed him here, Xue Yang didn't hold much hope for that particular promise. Still, he could always fetch the little bastard himself. "Oh, don't worry. I'll make sure you get something really really special. And really anxious to please you." And hopefully Jin Guangshan's dick wouldn't rot off before he had a chance to play.

Or maybe it would at the best possible moment. One could always hope.

#

There were few tasks less pleasant than those requiring one to visit the Nightless City. Jin Jiu remembered the place entirely too well. Remembered the blood. Remembered the Wen's dungeons. Remembered being rescued, along with Qin Su and her maid.

It'd been Jin Guangyao - Meng Yao, then - who'd gotten them free at incredible risk to himself. Using a prison break as cover, Jin Guangyao had slipped the three of them out of the Nightless City and gotten them to safety. Jin Jiu would be eternally grateful to his Master's son for that rescue and not just for the sake of his own life. Qin Su's survival was and would always be the most important thing to him.

He shook off the memory. Focused on his current task. Jin Guangyao had sent him to clear Xue Yang's old laboratory, setting him in charge of the men who'd been guarding the Nightless City up until now. Anything that looked like Xue Yang's work was to be brought back to Jingling mountain for examination.

A shout of dismay drew Jin Jiu's attention. One of his men came running out of one of the broken down buildings at the edge of town. "Captain! Captain! You won't believe it!"

"I don't believe you've forgotten your training this badly," Jin Jiu pointed out. "What is it?"

"I'm not sure. But it looks like the Ghost General!"

There'd been rumors. Few and far between and carefully discouraged by Jin Guangyao. Rumors that said that while Wen Qing had been killed as soon as she'd turned herself in, Wen Ning had been carted off somewhere. Rumors, too, that their sect master wanted his own pet necromancer. That that was why Xue Yang had been allowed to live despite his crimes.

From what Jin Jiu knew of his sect master, those rumors might be true. For all his womanizing and drinking, Jin Guangshan didn't lack ambition. And with the Wen gone, it was possible he was considering stepping into the clan's place. Keeping the Ghost General as a pet might well be part of that.

"Master Jin Guangyao said he wanted everything out of place here," Jin Jiu told his men. "It won't be easy, especially if Wen Ning is still mindless the way he was when we fought him last. But I think we should present Regent Jin's compliments and invite the Ghost General to pay us a visit."

Preferably thoroughly and completely covered in chains and talismans.

#

Mo Xuanyu hid. It was the only thing he could do. His cousin was looking for him. Looking to steal what little he had again. Looking to beat the little cut-sleeve who'd disgraced the family. All he'd done was dress up. Try to look pretty. Try to protect his beautiful beautiful big brother.

Why hadn't he listened when A-Yao told him to keep quiet? Why hadn't he kept his feelings hidden? A-Yao was so good at it. All those cuts and bruises. Why did father beat him? He always did what he was told. Always smiled. Always... yes, that was it. Always smiling. Mo Xuanyu would learn to always smile. Then they'd let him come back, right?

Not just now, though. He had to stay out of his cousin's way. Out of his aunt's way. Mo Villa wasn't safe for someone like him. He....

"Where is that brat?"

"Hiding again."

"Damnit. Just as well. He's a lousy cultivator. My son is clearly more talented. Send him to greet Young Master Jin. Serve him tea. And don't let the brat show his face."

Young Master Jin? Mo Xuanyu held his breath. There was only one Young Master Jin now. His other brother was gone, poor man, killed by that horrible Wen Ning. His cousin was dead too and wouldn't be visiting anyway, anymore than cute little baby A-Ling. Had HE come for him? Or was this just some cruel joke fate was playing? Maybe Auntie was right and her son was talented.

Dejected. Sure he'd never be allowed to see his beautiful brother again, Mo Xuanyu slipped off. Maybe Little Apple would be nice to him for once and let him ride without being fed first?

He was halfway to the stables, looking over his shoulder to make sure no one was following him, when he rammed straight into something big and solid. He fell on his butt and stared up, and up, and up. Beautiful brother's big angry brother. Oh, no. Not him. He was always yelling. Always hitting. Mo Xuanyu went pale and tried to sidle backwards. Only to find beautiful brother's almost as beautiful brother behind him. "Please. Please let me go. I'm sorry. I'll be good."

Angry brother bent over and picked him up. Set him on his feet. "Come with us."

"But...."

"You can't go back to Lanling Jin, so you get to choose. Gusulan or Qinghe Nie."

Wait. What? They were taking him away? Going to steal him from home? Oh, please, yes. "EITHER! Please...," He paused. "Wait. Rules. I'm against the rules and I'm too small. You don't want me."

Other beautiful brother blinked. "As long as you try not to act impulsively at Gusulan, how you feel isn't important."

"And my brother's not much bigger than you, so size doesn't matter either." Angry brother paused. Added, "But I think, maybe, we should consider finding another sect you could fit in with better. For now, though, come with us. Looks to me like they've been troubling you. No need to stay and take it."

He didn't hesitate. "What about...." Oh, wait, he shouldn't call ge-ge Beautiful Brother, should he? It'd just cause more trouble. "What about A-Yao? Why can't I go home with him? Is he mad at me?"

"Not mad, no. But given why you were kicked out, it'd cause trouble for both of you if the first thing he did as Regent is bring you back...."

A voice yelled from the main building. "Little bastard! Are you bothering those Sect Masters? You get your skinny perverted butt back to your shed this minute!"

With a sigh, angry brother grabbed Mo Xuanyu's hand and dragged him off. Behind them, other beautiful brother spoke to the one who'd yelled, his voice kind and gentle as he said, "Master Jin Guangyao asked us to take him in, sir. He's not bothering us."

Then Mo Xuanyu found himself hoisted onto the blade of a huge saber, angry brother holding him gently as he flew off and away.

Away, thank all the Gods, from the hell that'd been Mo Villa.

Chapter Text

It took a few days before Jin Guangyao was fully established as Jin Ling's regent. The news that Jin Guangshan was missing, presumed either dead or incapacitated, needed time to make its way through the skulls of all his stubborn kinsmen. Uncles and cousins accustomed to feeding off the clan teat and doing exceedingly little to earn what they took resisted the idea that things might change. They especially resisted the idea that Jin Guangyao should be the one doing the changing.

If most of the clan weren't absolutely terrified of Madam Jin it wouldn't have worked. One sharp look, one cold and cutting analysis of a victim's personality, and she had them running for cover and glad to hand the work to the little bastard. Annoyingly, their attitude towards him didn't change, but they did what they were bade. Which, for the most part, was for them to spend less money and make themselves at least a little useful around the tower.

With his position settled, Jin Guangyao finally had time to deal with his personal business. As he'd requested, Madam Jin invited his fiancée and her mother to visit. It was the best way to talk to the two of them alone, without grumpy old Qin Cangye to interrupt and make trouble.

For some reason both Qin Su and Madam Qin had pensive expressions when Madam Jin ushered Jin Guangyao into the sitting room. Neither seemed to want to look at him nor at each other. Had Qin Su changed her mind? It'd be sad but a relief if so. She'd wanted to be married so badly and now he couldn't justify tying her down in a union with a half-dead being like himself. Not when he didn't know if they'd ever find a way to fix what'd been broken in him.

They all stared at each other. "Please A-Su, it seems you have something to say." "No, Master Jin, you should speak." "Mother, you go first."

They smiled ruefully at their foolishness. Such a silly situation. Then, simultaneously again, they blurted out, "We shouldn't marry." "Qin Su is your sister." "I'm pregnant."

Silence fell between them and Jin Guangyao thought his heart would have skipped a beat if his spirit were properly attached. Instead his vision, already poor due to his injured eye, blurred. He was losing connection, spirit trying to flee the unbearable. One of those confessions or the other he could have borne. Both? "You... what... how...?"

His thoughts were fading as Madam Qin whispered, "I couldn't have told you as long as he was here. Didn't want him to ever know. He forced me. Threatened my husband."

Vision fading further, he tried to pull himself together. Tried to think. Couldn't. Wailing, his spirit broke away to seek the only support it knew it could count on. BROTHERS! HELP ME!

#

Nie Mingjue was right in the middle of discussing his brother's failure to practice when San-di's cry almost startled him into a fighting stance. Realizing the source, he paused. Thought, One moment, brother. Told Huaisang, "If little tiny Mo Xuanyu can keep up with practice times, you can too."

Nie Huaisang blinked. Seemed to stare at something in a bewildered way. Finally shook himself and snapped, "I don't want to be a fighter."

"Please, brother. For the sake of my sanity, for the sake of my comfort, please learn to at least protect yourself." Nie Mingjue was trying to soften his ways with his brother and while it was working, there were still times when Huaisang just wanted to be stubborn. "And right now I have to take care of something. If nothing else, help A-Yu with his stance."

That settled, mostly, Nie Mingjue found a quiet corner of the practice field. He could hear Jin Guangyao babbling nonsensically to Second Brother, though it wasn't possible to hear Lan Xichen's responses. "All right. No one can hear me talk to myself. Now, what's this about you wanting to go back in time and cut your dick off?"

Stupid. So stupid. My father's son. I swore I'd never be like him. Jin Guangyao's image formed in Nie Mingjue's side vision, gold robes glimmering in the light, his hands covering his face as he wept. I want to die.

This wasn't the time for their usual banter. It was obvious something was truly wrong. "Talk to us. What is it."

Madam Qin. Qin Su. They're here.

Jin Guangyao was going to break off the engagement, so this came as no surprise. But figuring out what exactly was happening was like making Wei Wuxian sit still. An exercise in frustration. "And?"

Qin Su is pregnant.

"The baby's yours?" A silly question. Jin Guangyao wouldn't be going on about being like his father if the baby wasn't his. "Well, congratulations. It seems you'll have to marry her after all."

I can't.

"What? But, you can't possibly be thinking of leaving your fiancée to handle the burden? That would be like your father." Nie Mingjue tried not to be judgmental, though San-di's reaction wasn't making it easy.

I know. But that's not the worst part. I'd marry her in a heartbeat if that were all. Jin Guangyao's image rocked back and forth and Nie Mingjue hoped Er-di was providing some sort of comfort because he was terrible at it, himself. Then San-di said, She's my sister. Father threatened to kill Qin Cangye and forced Madam Qin to bed him.

Nie Mingjue went silent, fighting shock. Fighting the urge to shout. Barely a week or so ago, he'd have been busy blaming Jin Guangyao for his foolish rush to bed his fiancée. Knowing it'd been as much Qin Su's desire as San-di's, sensing how sick and miserable his small brother felt, all he could growl was, "It isn't your dick that should have been cut off, then. It's your damned slut of a father's." Hearing no disagreement, he asked, "Do you want us to come there?"

I... no... what could you do? We're going to have to solve this. I just... I couldn't handle it... alone. I needed....

He'd needed his brothers' support. Needed and had it. "Brother, I won't tell you what to do here. There's no way to resolve this without scandal. But I will not blame you for whatever you decide. Just... make sure it's a decision both you and Qin Su can live with."

A slight, exhausted, chuckle. That much I knew you'd say. What both of you would say. The ghostly figure raised his face from his hands and smiled. Thank you for listening, brothers. I think I'd better get back to my doom, before I scare everyone into thinking I'm really dead this time.

Jin Guangyao dying might solve some problems, but it wouldn't save Qin Su's reputation. "Better live. It'll just make a mess for everyone if you die now."

#

He was curled up in a ball on the floor when he came back to himself, at the center of the sort of screaming fight he'd thought he'd left behind at the Happy Flower House. Someone held his hand, sobbing, while two older women's voices snarled back and forth. Maybe he should leave again?

But, no. Madam Jin and Madam Qin's fight wasn't helping anything. Worse, they risked drawing attention to a situation that could easily turn Lanling Jin Sect to a laughingstock. He was less and less concerned with appearances these days, but that was no excuse.

He coughed. Felt Qin Su tighten her grip. Heard her whisper, "A-Yao?" Felt her brush his hair from his face. Ah, good, she wasn't angry with him. "A-Yao, I'm sorry."

"It isn't your fault." He opened his eyes. Saw he was lying beside her, a pillow beneath his head. Well, at least they hadn't smothered him. "It's mine. Just like my father. I should have known better. Should have refused until we were properly married."

"How would that make things better?"

He blinked. Oh, of course it wouldn't. It would just put off the scandal and the risk. And there was no guarantee Madam Qin would have found the courage to warn them in time. "Help me sit up." As she did so, he took refuge in sarcasm. "If you ladies would like to share our disgrace with the entire cultivation world I could call a conference."

That got their attention. Both women turned on him. Both women opened their mouths to scold. But Qin Su, suddenly brave, said, "You waited until now to say a word, mother. How can you dare blame him, blame us, for your silence?"

Madam Qin quieted, tears streaming down her face. No surprise Madam Jin remained furiously angry, ready to lash out at anyone who got in her way. "You'd share this with the world?"

"Why not? By now everyone in earshot knows." As Madam Jin went white, he added, "I did order the house servants to leave this floor, fortunately. With luck the only ones who've heard are your personal slaves. I'm sure you can keep them from babbling about this to the world."

She sagged a little and Jin Guangyao returned to the more important topic. "We have decisions to make. This isn't the time for recriminations."

They glared at him. "Why couldn't you have kept that thing of yours where it belongs?" Madam Jin demanded.

"I admit my fault. Do you wish me to step down? Qin Su and I could run away." At this point Jin Guangyao was just about ready to do that and be damned to any reputation or position. "I could find a job somewhere to support my pregnant sister, who lost her husband to an accident." It'd almost be true, too.

That had the desired effect. Madam Jin flicked her sleeve to show what she thought of the idea. "Don't talk nonsense. Your clan needs you here. You're the only one I trust to make sure Jin Ling survives."

A little startled at the admission, Jin Guangyao managed a smile. "I'm touched."

"Don't be touched. Tell us what we should do. And don't even joke that we should reveal this mess to the world."

"Far from it, Mother. Though I'm not sure we can hide it forever." They'd need another, more interesting, scandal to distract the old aunties of the cultivational world from the news that Jin Guangyao had fathered a child on his own half-sister. He wasn't sure he could think of a scandal big enough, though.

"There's nothing we can do," Madam Qin wailed. "Not now!"

"There's always something we can do, ma'am. It's a matter of deciding what's least objectionable." Head aching, he rubbed his temples. Felt Qin Su's hands on his shoulders. His muscles didn't tense from stress now, but he still appreciated the gesture. He looked up at her, desperately glad she wasn't panicking like her mother or Madam Jin. They needed to stay calm if they were to get through this.

"Well then, you're the one with all the ideas. What do you propose?"

Too many of Jin Guangyao's ideas involved wanting to kill people. He was trying to break that habit, for his own and his brothers' sakes. Besides, the one who'd caused all this was Jin Guangshan and right then he wasn't available for castration. Not that I won't be tempted when we do find the old slut.

Focusing, he began ticking options off. "There are ways to end a pregnancy." That made Qin Su stiffen, her fingers clawing a bit painfully into his shoulder. Even now she wanted the child? How heartbreaking. "I grew up in a brothel. I know them and they are not safe. I'd rather not risk it."

Qin Su's fingers softened. Squeezed apologetically. "I want to have our baby." She paused. Whispered, "I want to be married to you. I don't want to be your sister."

"One of those isn't possible." He sighed and returned to the fray, because the two older women were still waiting for him to come up with a brilliant scheme. He was still waiting to come up with a brilliant scheme. "Another would be for Qin Su to leave, have the baby elsewhere, and give him to some other family. Or she could go to Gusulan and raise the baby there. My sworn brother would make sure she was safe."

"So you'd be like your father and abandon your child and their mother?" Madam Jin demanded.

A little surprised, Jin Guangyao asked, "Would you have let Jin Guangshan bring my mother and Mo Xuanyu's home?"

"Of course." They all stared at her in shock. "It would have given him less excuse to go running around the countryside spreading his seed. Word is your mother was well-educated, a proper lady despite her profession. And Miss Mo was gently raised. Despite my husband's foolish opinions otherwise, they would have understood how to behave as concubines."

A little moved and trying not to show it, Jin Guangyao inclined his head. "Thank you, Mother." He took a deep breath, more out of habit than need. "Then the last option is the one that could make the most trouble for us, but might still be the most desirable. We pretend Madam Qin never told us. I marry Qin Su. She has our baby." He looked up at Qin Su. Smiled wistfully. "And we never share a bed again."

They all blinked at him and Madam Qin asked, "Earlier, you said you wanted to end the engagement?"

"That was before I knew Qin Su was pregnant. I wouldn't have suggested it otherwise." He set his hand on Qin Su's. Squeezed and added regretfully, "You know I was injured a few weeks ago. I'm partially crippled, with little hope of full recovery. I didn't want to burden Qin Su with an incomplete husband. It doesn't matter now."

She hugged him, not quite as enthusiastically as she used to, but that was just as well. They'd have to get used to limiting their affection. But the fact she still cared about him, despite Madam Qin's revelations, was something he'd cherish.

He doubted they could keep this secret forever. But for her sake and for the sake of the little one she carried, he was more than willing to try.

#

"Your bastard's getting married."

Jin Guangshan scoffed. "Who'd marry the little snot?" He played with his toy, not noticing how she was falling apart.

Noting to himself that he'd best replace the wench soon, Xue Yang leaned back in his chair and sipped his tea. Almost out of tongues, too. That'd have to be rectified. "Qin Su, I think her name is? Funny thing, there's rumors of a big fight just before it was announced. You wouldn't happen to know why?"

"Don't know. Don't care." Jin Guangshan shrugged off the question. Then paused and grinned. "Qin Su, huh? He's got taste. Girl's as pretty as her mother was, back in the day. Was thinking bout seeing if she was as good in bed."

No surprise at all that the slut had had Madam Qin. It was the way he worked. And a problem for Xue Yang because until the medicines and spells took full effect, Jin Guangshan's addiction to sex would always take first place with him. "Why'd you never just marry a bunch of concubines?"

The sect master grimaced. "And stay home around that harridan wife of mine? I don't think so." He kissed his pet soundly, not caring that she was missing a tongue. "Bet she's the one insisted that boy marry. All those rumors bout him back at the brothel. Not to mention those sworn brothers of his."

Xue Yang was fairly sure nothing had happened between those three. Well, maybe Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen, but the little bastard was terrified of his Da-ge. Terrified and resentful. Not a good combination. One he'd thought he could use.

It'd be interesting to find out how the little bastard had survived his injuries. Maybe later, once Xue Yang sent his pet Sect Master back home to do his master's work, he could find out. For now though, "How'd you like to go on a trip?"

"Will there be women?"

"Yes. Yes. Plenty of women." Not as many as Xue Yang had wanted, but Jin Guangyao had been squeamish about providing corpses as it was. He'd preferred using criminals already condemned to death and there weren't many women in that lot. "It'll take a bit to get there, now I'm out of transportation talismans, so we'll head out as soon as you're finished here."

Because it was high time he got to work at Nightless City. So much to do and so little time.

Chapter Text

Jin Guangyao didn't get butterflies in the stomach anymore. His body might move according to his needs, might allow him to taste and smell and hear like a normal human being, but it was mostly asleep and unaware. Just as well. He would have been in a state of constant panic otherwise; what with having to marry his own sister because he'd gotten her pregnant.

Less fearsome but still disconcerting was his awareness of the ghosts haunting Koi Tower, especially given who some of those ghosts were. He still felt guilty over Jin Zixuan's death; his brother wasn't supposed to have died going after the Yiling Patriarch. After all, Wei Wuxian might not have liked his brother-in-law but he loved his sister and wouldn't deliberately harm her. Their father had been confident his son could handle a few undead.

Finding Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli's spirits watching over Jin Ling wasn't at all surprising. They didn't seem to be fully there, just the small bits of spirit that tended to cling to the life of those they loved most. They hovered over the boy when he cried, yearning to soothe him, their memories focused entirely on those last moments of happiness.

The Tower's other spirits were too faded to make out most of the time. The one on the high tower who kept leaping to her death for unknown reasons. The one in the kitchen who'd drank himself to death. And, in the not-at-all-absolutely-not-a-throne-room, a rather short, oddly familiar, man dressed in ancient style, wearing the sect master's seal and a feathered crown, walking back and forth wringing his hands and looking rather like he was ready to panic himself. One of Jin Guangyao's ancestors, no doubt, though he'd no idea which. None of Lanling Jin's histories admitted to any sect master any shorter than six feet tall.

"I feel your pain," Jin Guangyao muttered, half-inclined to pace the exact same way. The stress of his situation wasn't as bad as it'd be if he were completely alone, but there was only so much he was willing to put on his sworn brothers. Or his fiancée, for that matter.

Da-ge had been right. He didn't really like leading the sect. It might look like one stood at the pinnacle of success, but truthfully, a sect leader took it on the chin when things went wrong. A sect master regent whose bastard origins made everyone suspect him of mischief got it even worse.

"Regent Jin?"

Realizing he actually had started pacing along with his ancestor, Jin Guangyao stopped himself and tried not to show how embarrassed he was. He turned to the speaker, the captain of the guards he'd assigned to clear out Xue Yang's lair in Nightless City. "Yes, Jin Jiu?"

"This humble cousin apologizes for interrupting you."

"Don't bother with the formalities, cousin."

Jin Jiu was one of the lowest ranked kinsman in the family. As such, he was one of the more intelligent ones. He was also the snarkiest, a thing Jin Guangyao was beginning to appreciate. "This cousin hardly dares. Regent is clearly busy thinking important thoughts."

Not one of the others would risk being accused of insubordination. Jin Jiu had been slowly but surely testing his limits, until he obviously had a good idea of how far he could take things and when. When it was just the two of them, like right then, Jin Guangyao felt safe enough to say, "Such as running away to become a monk?"

"Regent would look terrible without hair. And is too fond of roast duck to become a vegetarian."

"Curses. Foiled again." Jin Guangyao sat down so he could at least look like he was playing his part. "The fact you're here tells me you have news? You've cleared Xue Yang's laboratory?"

"I and my squad did." Jin Jiu set aside the pretense of formality. "We've also brought the Ghost General back."

That made Jin Guangyao start. "He was there?" Perhaps it wasn't a complete surprise after all. Xue Yang must have been experimenting with the poor boy. "What state of mind?"

"Not a good one. He's completely mindless. Someone, Xue Yang probably, stuck some nails in his head to control him. I was able to get him to the punishment cell on Jingling Shan." Jin Jiu rubbed his backside ruefully, adding, "Then I made the mistake of taking the control nails out. He nearly ended my family line for me."

Oh dear. That wasn't good. "What did you do with him afterwards?"

"Left him chained up in the cell. He was getting quieter, so maybe he'll recover his brains after a bit?"

Jin Guangyao knew the Ghost General had started his undead existence in the same state as any other ferocious corpse. It'd taken months of hard work on Wei Wuxian's part to restore his friend to self-awareness. "We'll wait and see. It'd be good if he did recover. I might have a use for him."

"Understood. Regent has plenty of brainless subordinates, after all." Jin Jiu grinned, then pulled out a leather bound book. "Oh, and I found this while I was searching the little monster's things."

The book had come from Lanling Jin's extensive and seldom used library. Back when he'd first recruited Xue Yang for his father, Jin Guangyao had let the man explore the library with the caveat that nothing could be removed. He'd expected Xue Yang to steal something, even had the young man's things checked frequently. But apparently his men had missed this.

He thumbed through it, wondering why Xue Yang would be interested in a translation of a work on western alchemy. Then one of the illustrations made him stop and focus. "Oh. Oh dear. So that's what he was doing with those coffins."

"Sir?"

"The coffins my sworn brothers found. What happened to them and their contents?"

"Destroyed."

Just as well. Jin Guangyao read through the instruction. A recipe for creating perfect physical copies of a living being. The array was complicated and required blood and alchemical materials. It also required time and a great many dead bodies. But, given it worked, the alchemist could build an army of mindless slaves. Or, possibly, a kind of immortality, given the alchemist could transfer their personality and knowledge to the copy?

If so, Jin Guangyao was heartily glad his sworn brothers had stopped that experiment before it succeeded. At least he hoped they had.

Because the thought of an army of Xue Yangs giggling maniacally at him, demanding candy and attention was one he simply didn't want to consider.

#

Lan Xichen took charge of the search for Xue Yang. The brat was slippery and certain to be on the watch for anything the Jin did. As for having Nie sect do any of the hunting, well that just wasn't a good idea. With one notable exception the Nie tended to stand out; and there was no way Nie Mingjue would allow his baby brother anywhere near someone known for inappropriate use of medical concoctions.

The one positive was that Wei Wuxian's would-be successor had never been allowed to keep what remained of the Stygian Tiger Seal. Xue Yang had had access to it, but his copies weren't enough to raise more than a score or so of ferocious corpses. Moreover, the corpses he raised weren't nearly as strong or fast as the ones Wei Wuxian had called up. As long as the target knew to watch out, Xue Yang's tools were useless.

As for Xue Yang's mind-altering drug; it turned out Baixue Temple had a healer with alchemical training. He, himself, didn't recognize the formula but he knew a wandering alchemist who did. Even better, that alchemist supplied an antidote. One they made sure every one of Xue Yang's potential targets had on hand. So when what was left of the Chang family was attacked, someone was there to stop them and to keep Xue Yang from poisoning them. The slippery bastard got away, unfortunately, but failed his mission.

Another thing Lan Xichen investigated was the Burial Mounds; a worrisome question indeed. Every month a group of monks from Zhao Hua temple would set up an array at the Mounds and attempt to contact Wei Wuxian's spirit. Not to set him to rest, but to see if he'd regained awareness. In the three years since the Yiling Patriarch's death there'd been no response. Lan Xichen accompanied the group this time, wanting to ask the leader what those ferocious dead had been doing in the blood pool.

"Odd," Brother Wu Wang fiddled with his beads, staring at the pool of water outside the Demon Slaughtering Cave. "That's never looked so clear before. There aren't even any bodies in there."

He was right to find it strange. "We were here a few weeks ago. It was as thick and black as it always is." Lan Xichen peered into the water but didn't quite dare touch it. "And I wanted to mention, all the ferocious dead in the area were throwing themselves into there."

"Here? Why were you here? No one's supposed to be here. How'd you get past the array?"

Lan Xichen sighed. He couldn't go into details yet somehow had to explain what he'd seen properly. "It was torn open by the time we got here. As for why? My sworn brother was kidnapped and brought here. We had to rescue him. Now, do you know the answer to my question or not?"

If Lan Xichen had been anyone but Gusulan's Sect Master he'd have had to deal with Brother Wu's tendency to assume wrong-doing in everyone who wasn't him. Fortunately, Brother Wu's assistant, Brother Lo, was more reasonable. "They were throwing themselves in the last time we were here. And the time before that and the time before that. For about two and a half years, in fact."

"They threw the Yiling Patriarch's remains in that pool," Brother Wu added. "Likely the dead are just trying to join what's left of him. Not that there's much. Three years and not a peep."

Lan Xichen eyed the pool. Watched the monks repair the damaged seal intended to keep Wei Wuxian's wandering spirit trapped. Remembered the strange figure he'd seen in the bloody mess, the last time he was here.

And wondered.

#

Jiang Cheng was furious. With the world, with that idiot brother of his, and with himself. He'd been so happy once. Had parents who mostly loved him. Had a sister who adored him and his brother. Had a mostly carefree life as the heir to one of the five major sects. If the Wen weren't monsters, if his brother hadn't set them off, he'd still have that happy life. If, if, if, so many things.

The worst of it was watching the idiot die and being helpless to do anything. He'd been right there, trying to get at his brother, trying to actually save his brother, but the damned fool had refused to stop. He could still hear Wei Ying's voice, howling, "I RUIN EVERYTHING! NOW IT'S MY TURN!" as he crushed half of that damned seal.

It hadn't been the ferocious dead of the Burial Mounds that'd destroyed Wei Ying. It'd been the seal itself. The shattered pieces had glowed an impossible black. A glow that'd intensified and filled the Demon Slaughtering Cave with an energy that'd swirled around the idiot, cutting at him, slicing deep, stopping him from destroying the other half. Lingchi times ten, no, a hundred, a thousand. Wei Ying had been shredded to pieces in seconds. Jiang Cheng still remembered the aching sadness in his brother's eyes as he'd disintegrated.

Ever since then Jiang Cheng had done his best to make sure no other poor fool went the way his idiot brother had. Any necromancer stupid enough to come within range of him got the full treatment. Wei Ying had walked that ugly path carefully, mostly uninterested in using his power for cruelty's sake. Oh, there'd been what he'd done to the Wens, but Jiang Cheng couldn't fault him for that. He'd have done it himself if he'd had the power.

He was careful, of course. There were a few rare necromancers who simply wanted the ones they'd lost back. Who couldn't let go of their dead. Those he discouraged, telling them exactly what had happened to their precious Yiling Patriarch at the end of his life. The ones who sought the power for the sake of power, for the love of fear and cruelty? Those he killed quickly and without remorse.

He stalked around his latest capture. A priest from Yiling City, supposedly a servant of Meng Huan Xiang, an outlandish god of delusions and fever from some western tribe. This one irritated him most of all because he reminded Jiang Cheng of the real cause of his anger. "Do you think I'll let you go?"

"I know my fate does not end here." His captive's pockmarked features showed no sign of fear. He seemed young, terribly young, but he had an air to him suggesting immense age.

"You're obviously close to Immortal stage, if not far past it," Jiang Cheng snapped. "Why dabble in something like Demonic Cultivation? You don't even need it, anymore than he did."

A gentle smile. A slight tilt of the head. Silver-grey eyes rose. Met Jiang Cheng's. "Are you so sure he didn't need it?"

"He was the finest swordsman this clan ever produced!" Jiang Cheng didn't know why or how the discussion had turned to his brother. Nor why he was letting it continue. "Our best cultivationist."

"Was. When, I wonder, did that change?"

The question made Jiang Cheng stare. "It didn't... it...." A memory. Fighting - play-fighting - his brother to make it look as if they'd finally broken ties. The only safety for Yunmeng, given Wei Ying's insistence on protecting those damned Wen. But that'd just been make-believe, a carefully choreographed battle, complete with guts borrowed from the local butcher to make it look good.

And yet his brother hadn't seemed his usual self during that fight. "Did something happen to him in the Burial Mounds?" he wondered, more to himself than his captive.

"That's his secret, not mine," the priest answered gently. "You'll have to ask him later. No guarantee he'll answer, given he didn't tell you before."

Wei Ying couldn't answer. He was dead, his life-force scattered along with bits and pieces of himself. Jiang Cheng glared sharply at the priest. "You think I have any chance of asking him?"

"What I think doesn't matter. What I see, on the other hand?" The cracked lipped smile broadened.

"And what do you see?"

The man closed his eyes. Said slowly, "I see fire. I see fear. I see broken hearts. I see one who would forget called back into the fray. I see a human turned monster, seeking to devour all and make it his. I see love and sacrifice and pain." He opened his eyes. Chuckled at Jiang Cheng's dark expression. "Which is to say, yes, you'll have your chance to ask. It's up to you what you'll do with it."

Anger surged and Jiang Cheng drew his whip. Brought it down on the man, only to have it fizzle out. "What?"

"You asked me why Demonic Cultivation earlier. I ask you, what makes you think what I do is anything of the sort?" Something stirred in the shadows surrounding them. Fragile shapes, wisps of smoke, twisting on a non-existent breeze. They drew close, gathered in, and suddenly Jiang Cheng felt himself pressed gently back by cold cold Gods so cold hands. The priest rose. "My God is the God of the Western Land. A King of the Underworld. It is from him I come and to him I return."

The man's voice faded, his body shrank, as if he were walking away without moving a step. "And from him I will come again. When I'm needed."

Before Jiang Cheng could so much as shout, the priest was gone.

#

The world wavered. Became a little brighter. A little clearer. He still couldn't think straight but he was thinking again and that was something to be treasured. He forced his eyelids closed. Opened them and closed and opened them again. Blinking required thought. Required actual intention. And he was beginning to have both.

He watched the sun drift rapidly across the floor and up the wall. No, it wasn't the light moving fast, it was his mind moving slow. Darkness took his sense of time away, so he focused on himself. Chains. Long, heavy chains, sealed to his wrists, bolts driven through to make sure they wouldn't come out. If he were alive he'd be in agony. Dead, they were simply a heavy sensation.

There wasn't much light in this cell, but he could see even so. Cold stone walls, surprisingly neat. Not the place memory said he'd been before. That'd been inside the Nightless City, one of the slaughter chambers Wen Ruohan used to keep his prisoners when he wasn't playing with them. His captor had been playing with him too, he dimly remembered that. Remembered and want to kick the young man into the nearest abyss.

Had his captor moved him? He'd had long periods of unconsciousness. Long periods where his undead strength might have been abused. What had he done in those times. And what'd happened to his captor? Had he just moved his prisoner to a better place or had something actually stopped him.

Morning came slower, the light moving more and more at its proper speed. He lifted his head, staring blankly as the sky beyond the window brightened, and wondered if he'd be allowed to see it again. Wondered who had him and what they were going to do.

It wasn't long before a small man dressed in Lanling Jin robes entered the chamber and stopped just out of reach. "I understand you're showing signs of waking." There was something odd about the man, a sense of familiarity he couldn't quite identify.

He lifted his head, not willing to waste time with pretense. This wasn't his captor, but the one who'd accompanied him, one time. Meng Yao. That was the name. He dimly recalled cleaning this man's injuries, back when he'd been alive. The details weren't coming to him, though. Besides, it was obvious the man meant to use him, in the same way his captor had, no doubt.

The man drew closer and stopped just out of reach. "Can you speak yet, Wen Qionglin?"

It was rare for anyone to use his courtesy name these days. Surprised by the man's civility, he managed a word. "Little."

"Don't force yourself. It'll come back. We only just took the nails out. My Guard Captain would like to thank you for not kicking him when he was down. He has hopes of using that particular body part one day."

Almost, he laughed. But this wasn't time for laughter. "Why here? Where? Where Xue...." His voice seized up. He was out of practice.

"Where's Xue Yang? A good question. One we're attempting to discover." Meng Yao smiled. "Right now I need to discuss your future."

"Won't."

"Don't say 'won't' until you know what I want, Young Master Wen." Meng Yao softened his tone as he added, "I realize you won't believe me immediately, but I would like to free you. The only reason you're still chained now is because you'd become somewhat violent."

"Why?"

"No doubt the combination of being angry at what happened to your family, being imprisoned by their killers and being used as an experimental.... Oh, you mean why do I want to free you?"

"Yes."

"Sorry. I should have realized. It's still a bit hard for me to think clearly."

Meng Yao's words made no sense but there was no point in saying so. "Why free?"

"Because, I have a thing I want kept safe from everyone. Including myself." The man took a small flat box from his sleeve. Opened it. "This."

It was the Stygian Tiger Seal, or half of it. Young Master Wei's device, the one he'd begun to fear. The one he'd been contemplating destroying. Wen Ning had felt him do it, too, despite the distance between them. Wei Wuxian hadn't finished the job, though. Obviously the Jin... this man... had captured the damned thing.

"Why me?"

"Because there's only one person you serve and it's the man who created the seal. The man who knows how to destroy it. The only person you'd give it to, once it's in your hands. And the only person I'd trust with it."

"Jin?"

"You mean why is a Jin giving you the seal when it could useful to us?" Meng Yao smirked. "Simple. I'm giving it to you because there are those who'd use it as a weapon, given they work out how to duplicate it. Frankly, the thought of them getting hold of it is terrifying."

"Why care?"

"Because at the moment I'm Jin sect's Regent, until Jin Zixuan's son Jin Ling is old enough to take over. I've objections to seeing all my work destroyed by some overly ambitious kinsman. And because I don't want to be tempted."

The word regent and the name Jin Ling reminded Wen Ning of what he'd done. Reminded him of the death he'd caused. The pain he'd caused. Reminded how that one death had forced him and his sister to give themselves up. How, in turn, Jin Guangshan had still sent his men to destroy everyone hiding on the burial mounds.

The thought made him weep, or would have if he could have cried. "My fault."

"Mmm. I think you were confused. It doesn't excuse you, but you mistook my brother Jin Zixuan for our cousin Jin Zixun. Given the self-absorbed idiot essentially caused your death, I can't blame you for being angry with him." Meng Yao held out the seal. "Take this. Hide yourself. From the world. From me. From Xue Yang... especially from Xue Yang."

Wen Ning gazed at the man, considering his decision before accepting the seal, wrapping stiff fingers around a surface even he registered as icy cold. As their fingers touched, he understood why something had seemed odd about Meng Yao from the moment he'd walked into the room.

Like Wen Ning, he was neither completely alive nor properly dead. At Wen Ning's reaction, Meng Yao's smile turned wistful. "Someone was fool enough to use the Stygian Tiger Seal to try and save my life. I stand between, not alive, not dead. And only one man might have the power to repair the damage to my soul."

"Young Master Wei."

"Mn. Yes. If anyone could fix this, he could." The smile broadened suddenly, "Wait for him, Young Master Wen. Wait. Some instinct in me says we've not seen the last of our master."

There was no doubt in Wen Ning's mind that his fellow undead - sort of undead - was right.

Chapter Text

"He really is far too young."

Dark eyes met Song Lan's. Pleading. Hopeful.

"And I'm not sure he's entirely sane."

The gaze didn't shift. No, it got softer. Gentler. Kinder.

"He'd be better off with a family."

Without words, the gaze said they could be the child's family.

Song Lan could never deny his friend. Xiao Xingchen was a soft touch. Anyone who looked like they needed help got it. Anyone in danger was saved. And any child who had no one to protect them was protected. That was how they'd gotten A-Qing, after all.

Not that he could really complain about A-Qing. The girl had grown up on the streets, pretending to be blind because of her pale pale eyes. Some foreign blood in there? Or just a birth defect of some sort? If so, it was just the eyes. She was smart as a whip and the fastest learner Song Lan had ever seen.

This little boy, though. Song Lan sighed at the sight of him. He looked about six years old but there was a curious unlived-in look to his expression. He could talk a little, but mostly he just tugged at strangers' clothes, begging for food, or shrieked and hid from dogs. Poor kid was terrified of dogs.

Well, he didn't seem a bad sort. Song Lan was generally a good judge of character and while this boy might be a bit mischievous, there was a niceness to him that didn't belong alone on the streets. "Oh, very well. As long as he can keep up with us, we'll take him along."

It'd be a strange start to their plans on building a new sort of sect, but Song Lan didn't mind. A sect that valued people for their skills and not who their families were was, in itself, an oddity in the current cultivational world. Why let the peculiarity of taking two young misfits as disciples stop them?

#

The news that Xue Yang was trying to duplicate himself was something Lan Xichen could have done without. He sat with Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue, watching Jin Ling run back and forth helping his uncle Mo Xuanyu practice archery on the Unclean Realm's training ground. It was Qinghe Nie's turn to host the conference and they were taking advantage of a quiet moment to catch up with each other.

"We're keeping him moving, at least. He's got Jin Guangshan, so he can't stay in one place long without drawing attention." Nie Mingjue told them. "Your father seems to be half-mad, but the one thing he can't do without is a half-dozen girls every night."

Jin Guangyao winced. "That sounds about right. You've put spies in the brothels wherever he's supposed to be, I trust?" He sipped his tea and leaned out to remind Jin Ling, "Never go on an archery field until the all clear. Even when it's just one archer and you know he's shot all his arrows."

Little Jin Ling saluted. Stumbled across the uneven grass and did a few somersaults just to prove he'd meant to do that. A Jin all the way to the bones, the four year old hated to admit mistakes.

"Spies in the brothels. Spies on every alchemist and suspected demonic cultivator. Though the last is difficult. Jiang Cheng keeps grabbing them up and killing them or scaring them out of necromancy. Not that I blame him. Some of the ones he's found so far are almost as bad as Xue Yang."

Necromancers tended to be. Wei Wuxian had been an exception in so many ways and even he'd slowly and inexorably slid into a spiral of destruction. Lan Xichen believed his brother when Lan Zhan said the man wasn't trying to hurt anyone, that the man was desperate and struggling, but there was only so much one could do to help someone who refused to be helped.

"How did your visit to the Burial Mounds go? Were you successful in restoring the seal?" Jin Guangyao asked. "What about the attempt to contact Wei Wuxian's spirit?"

"We restored the seal without any problems." Lan Xichen smiled ruefully. "But Brother Wu still hasn't had any luck communicating with whatever is left of Wei Wuxian." Neither, for that matter, had Lan Zhan. He'd never tattle on his brother unless there was good reason, but he was absolutely certain Lan Zhan played Inquiry every night, hoping to reach his beloved and lost friend.

Nie Mingjue sniffed. "I've met Brother Wu. I wouldn't talk to him if I were dead and he were the only one in the world able to communicate with me. That man's got the worst case of righteousness I've ever seen; and I look in a mirror daily."

Laughing, Jin Guangyao murmured, "Da-ge, you are Right. Not Righteously Right."

About to join in the laughter, Lan Xichen had another thought. "Oh, I almost forgot. The blood pool's gone."

"Gone?"

"Replaced, or transformed. It's turned to pure water. Well, not pure, but all it is now is water."

A strange look crossed Jin Guangyao's face. "Just water?"

"Yes. And the undead have stopped jumping in it. They're ignoring it now."

Something about Jin Guangyao's manner suggested he was disturbed. "That book Xue Yang stole from our library. It described what happened when a duplicate finished distilling. The liquid turns clear, like water."

They all three looked at each other worriedly and Nie Mingjue said what they all three were thinking. "We need to find out what was in that pool and where it went."

#

Jin Guangyao didn't like the Burial Mounds at all. The resentful energy filling the place kept trying to attach itself to him. Bits and pieces of the dead were scattered everywhere. Oh, and it stank worse than the sewer in the west tower that kept backing up, thanks to Uncle Jin Zhou's habit of throwing all his garbage into it.

As far as he could tell, their visit was a wasted trip. Whatever the blood pool had been, it wasn't anymore. Nor could he be sure it'd been used as a giant cauldron of Yiling Patriarch soup. No, wait, the comparison was wrong. One boiled meat to break it down, not reconstitute it.

Nor did the spirits wandering the Burial Mounds help. Most were no more self-aware than the ones in Koi Tower. Those with vague memories of who they'd been while alive were too focused on how they'd died to pay attention to what'd happened afterwards. Even the old Wens who still wandered the remains of their ramshackle village had little to offer.

Finding nothing that hadn't been there before, they decided to visit Yiling City and ask around. The only ones with a key to the Burial Mounds' seal were Sect Masters, but that didn't stop the curious from poking around outside the guardian wall, looking for trouble.

They were just leaving the Mounds when Jin Guangyao noticed a vaguely familiar figure watching him from the shadows. Flames flickered along her robes, casting her hard features in sharp relief. "Wait."

"Is something wrong?"

"Someone wants to talk to me." Ignoring Da-Ge's harrumph, Jin Guangyao went to her. Said softly, "Wen Qing."

Meng Yao.

"Do you blame me?" She'd every right to. He'd done little to try and stop his father's plans.

It wasn't your intent. You weren't even here. Her eyes blazed with the flames that'd killed her. But you owe me.

He did, too. She'd saved his life, back in the ugly days of the war. Saved it several times over, because she'd worked out he was a spy and never revealed it. "What would you have me do?"

My brother. Save him.

He smiled wryly. "I'm not sure I've done him any favors, but he's free." At her startled reaction, he added, "I set him to guard something important. I've no idea where he is now, but you needn't worry about him."

She bowed her head. Good enough.

Even alive Wen Qing could be terse and difficult. No surprise she was just as bad dead. He was about to take his leave when a thought occurred to him. "Ah... a question. Is Wei Wuxian gone from this world?"

She considered him a long moment. He's still mending. Let him be.

That was the best he was going to get from her. Already she was fading. Yet he was sure he'd gotten a kind of answer. If Wei Wuxian's spirit had moved on, she wouldn't have hesitated to say so. And the word 'mending' was significant. Suggestive.

If the feeling that'd been haunting him for some time now was true and Wei Wuxian had been restored, they'd have watch out for him. Because the last thing they needed was for Xue Yang to find him. Given he hadn't already.

#

Yiling City was an attractive little place. Good feng shui, well-kept and prosperous. This despite - or perhaps because - it was so close to the Burial Mounds. Even with the guardian wall keeping most of the undead safely trapped, the area was a useful hunting ground. This meant cultivators, and cultivators meant good business for the talisman makers, pharmacies and local eateries.

"Maybe they didn't mind having that brat Wei Wuxian hanging around here because he brought in business?" Nie Mingjue muttered, after their fifth stare-down with a group of up-and-coming cultivationists looking to make a name for themselves.

"My brother thought that the case," Lan Xichen agreed. A flash of sorrow crossed his face as it always did when he mentioned Lan Wangji. "He came here once, after I agreed Wei Wuxian could come to Gusulan if he wanted."

A slight scoff escaped San-di's lips. When they both looked at him, he explained, "Wei Wuxian wouldn't have abandoned those Wen he protected. Even I could see that."

"That's right. You spied on him, didn't you."

"As much as I could and only when he and Wen Ning came down for supplies." Jin Guangyao smiled wryly. "That was how I knew the village wasn't a threat. You don't build a home in the middle of a graveyard and try to grow potatoes and turnips there if you're trying to restore your clan. If those Wen had been plotting against us, they'd have been stealing food and weapons, not trying to be self-sufficient."

Yet another reminder that the Wen survivors Jin Zixun had enslaved and murdered were more victim than enemy. Yet another reminder that the remaining Great Sects' righteousness had faltered in their dealings with a mostly helpless band of peasants. No one knew for certain who'd cursed Jin Zixun to death, but Nie Mingjue couldn't help feeling he'd deserved it.

A few weeks ago the idea that they'd treated the Wen unjustly would've set Nie Mingjue's qi raging. Now he was finding a balance he'd never had before, mostly because he didn't want to make his San-di do all the work.

Nie Mingjue's dour thoughts were interrupted by barking and a shriek of raw terror. He turned to see a small brown-clad child race through the streets, a scruffy black puppy racing after him. He shook his head, amused by the youngster's overreaction. A beast that small could barely manage a nip or so.

By chance they were headed the same way, so a minute later they came upon an endearing scene. The youngster had clawed his way up onto a tall man in black's shoulders, clinging tight, while a second man, this one in white, encouraged the dog to go. A young blind girl in neat green robes stood nearby, her white eyes gazing blankly into space, her expression long suffering.

He recognized both men immediately. "Song Lan. Xiao Xingchen. Greetings." He bowed politely as they approached. "Do you need assistance?"

The pair smiled at the sight of him and would have bowed in turn if they weren't too busy with their respective problems. Song Lan had the child on his shoulders and was trying to persuade him to come down. Xiao Xingchen was gently discouraging the dog from getting any closer.

"Thank you, Sect Master Nie. If you could convince the dog to go away, that'd be appreciated."

Both Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue chased the mutt, only to have it hide under Jin Guangyao's robes. Laughing, San-di pulled the little beast out. "You look like you could use a good meal," he told it. "And proper care. I know just the person who'd give you both." He tucked the puppy in his sleeve with a broad smile.

Satisfied that was dealt with, Nie Mingjue turned to the two Taoist priests to finish their greetings. "I trust you're well?"

"Quite well," Song Lan was the one who did most of the talking for the pair. "It's good to see the Three Zuns. Especially as it gives us an opportunity to thank you for your timely warning. If not for you, it's possible Baixue temple and everyone in it would have been in grave danger. We blocked Xue Yang's undead just in time."

Nie Mingjue sniffed. "As if we'd let that little brat get his claws into any of you. Not on my watch." He turned his attention on the boy Song Lan was detaching from his collar. "This is one of your sect's disciples?"

"He may be one day, but little Gaogui here isn't quite ready for the necessary discipline." Song Lan patted the boy on the head once he was on the ground. He was cute, not much older than six or seven, with an oddly unlived-in expression.

"An appropriate name," Jin Guangyao murmured. He was right, too. Gaogui meant to make mischief.

With a chuckle, Song Lan agreed. "He doesn't talk much so A-Qing chose a name for him. We found him on the street, stealing food and decided to bring him along." From his humorous glance at Xiao Xingchen, it wasn't hard to guess which of them had wanted to care for the boy.

Big grey-tinted eyes stared up at Nie Mingjue innocently and he smiled back. From the looks of the kid, he wasn't entirely whole. Well, he was in good hands at least. Nothing to worry about at all. "And the young lady?"

"Greet you, Master Nie. This humble one is A-Qing. A beggar given a second chance by these kind gentlemen." The girl tapped her stick as she came forward and searched out the boy's hand, holding it gently. "This one is not yet a disciple, but hopes to be."

They discussed Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen's plans to start a new sect and build a home for it. "We're considering Yi City," Xiao Xingchen found the voice to say. "Given we can find a way to deal with its horrible feng shui."

As Nie Mingjue reflected that that might be a lifetime's work, Lan Xichen said, "If you require assistance, Gusulan has had some experience in feng shui repair. Our mountain was not nearly so perfect for our sect when we first established ourselves there."

"That would be appreciated."

The puppy in Jin Guangyao's sleeve barked, which made the youngster hiding behind Song Lan try to climb up again. Amused, San-di murmured, "We should discuss this more another time. Might I invite you to visit Lanling Jin sometime to do so?"

"A kind offer. We shall consider it. May your travels be safe until we meet again" Song Lan bowed and the two priests took their small companions away.

As the four disappeared into the thinning crowd, Nie Mingjue reflected that the pair were braver than he when it came to choosing disciples. Not many would accept a pair of wandering street-kids as followers. Not when there were usually more than enough talented youths available.

But it wasn't his business and they had more than enough troubles of their own to deal with.

Chapter Text

Gone.

It was all gone.

Every scrap of paper.

Every herb.

Every nail.

Every tool.

Every corpse.

The last infuriated him most. Who the hell did it? Who dared take Xue Yang's pets? He'd so much time and effort into creating the things. And now he'd have to start all over. Worse, he'd have to figure out a way to create a new Stygian Tiger Seal to do it with. His last one had crumbled already, unable to withstand the rigors of use.

And now he didn't even have a small piece of the original. Making a seal from scratch required hard work and time. Time he could have been using to establish himself properly. Time he could be using to take Nightless city for his own and become its Lord. Now he'd have to retreat and work out how to recover everything he'd lost. It'd take years.

Even worse, the thief had stolen his, HIS, Wen Ning. All right, granted he hadn't yet claimed Wen Ning's loyalty. Granted he couldn't even get the Corpse General to acknowledge his existence. He still belonged to Xue Yang and Xue Yang never gave up what was his.

Still, even Xue Yang had to acknowledge he'd lost this battle. It was his own fault. He'd trusted Jin Guangshan's men to keep watch on his laboratory. They'd deserted their posts, left everything to the elements. It was no wonder someone had gotten in. No wonder he'd lost everything.

Or, oh, wait! Could it be? He dashed around, searching for some proof of his theory, ignoring Jin Guangshan sitting on the floor playing with himself. He found nothing. Not even a footprint.

 Of course there'd be no sign. Not if HE had something to do with this. HE must have come looking for Wen Ning. HE must have gathered the corpses. Must have taken everything. It'd be easy for HIM. HE'D just have to give the commands and the dead would do HIS bidding.

Xue Yang smiled. The world had just become a bit brighter. All he had to do was find HIM. Show HIM what Xue Yang could do. Show HIM how much Xue Yang had learned. And HE would gladly accept him as his partner, would share the glory of the dead. Because HE would see the truth, that Xue Yang was just like HIM.

The only question was, where to find the Yiling Patriarch in this wide wide world?

#

A-Qing didn't know if she wanted to toss Gaogui into the river or congratulate him. She'd never seen Xiao Xingchen turn so many colors before. "This is what you get when you let a little kid cook," she told her two masters. "I told you he put too much spice in the pot."

Xiao Xingchen was too busy coughing and wheezing to talk. Song Lan, who'd some experience with Yunmeng cooking, looked a bit less overwhelmed, but he was half-blinded from the tears. "It's impressive. I didn't think I bought him enough to do this."

"I bought him some... *cough* too," Xiao Xingchen gasped. "I told him one pouch was enough."

Now A-Qing understood. A little embarrassed because she'd let the brat slip one past her, she admitted, "I bought him a pouch, too. Which means there's at least three in that pot." There was something about the kid's big grey eyes that made it hard to refuse him. "The question is, how is he managing to eat without choking and dying?"

They all three looked at the kid, who was sucking down his third bowl of spicy noodle stew, completely undisturbed by the heat of the stuff. Was this his way of making sure it all went to him? Or was it just that he liked spice that much? "Well, if nothing else, even he can't stay hungry after all that." Gaogui had the most amazing talent for gorging himself.

Gaogui lifted unapologetic eyes to grin at her, as if to say 'try me'. He seldom talked, didn't act like he understood much of anything but eating and playing. But he dearly loved to tease. He'd known as soon as he'd seen her that her blindness was a ruse, a guise she'd taken up as a tool to separate naïve passersby from their money. He never revealed the truth, but he loved dancing in front of her and trying to make her giggle. Too bad for him she'd years of practice staring straight ahead as if all she saw was blackness.

At least he never threw stuff at her, or tried to walk her into a ditch or any of the dozen or so different things a brat might do to make trouble for a blind girl. He just loved to have fun and she supposed there were worse things than mischievously slipping far too much hot spice into one's companions' meal. Especially since he kept it to one dish and left the others alone.

Besides, he was a rapidly growing boy. He probably needed as much food as he could get.

#

Nie Huaisang wasn't sure if he was happy his brother was focusing on Mo Xuanyu's training over his own. It meant Gege didn't keep after him to practice his own saber work. It also meant the only way he got big brother's attention was by helping A-Yu train.

Tell the truth, though, it was sort of fun having a little brother around to teach and look up to him. And with Mo Xuanyu being small and needing his training adjusted to take his size into account, Nie Huaisang could justly point out that it wasn't fair of Gege to not take his baby brother's slight figure into account, too.

Even better, Mo Xuanyu liked painting as much as Nie Huaisang. And Gege was willing to let them both practice as long as they also worked to improve their skills. In a lot of ways, it was like going back to the old days, when Huaisang had been doted on and never ever yelled at.

Funny thing, ever since that time something happened to San-ge, Gege had been trying to yell a lot less. At first he'd stop and glare at nothing like he'd been scolded. But later he just didn't yell nearly as much as he used to. It made Nie Huaisang feel a great deal better. There'd been times when he'd wanted to take the first heavy object that came to hand and brain his big brother with it. It hadn't been a good feeling at all.

San-ge was another thing Gege had changed his attitude about. Two weeks ago he'd been furious at San-ge for giving him a new fan, promising to burn Huaisang's toys to ash. It'd been nonsense, him acting as if San-ge were trying to bribe Huaisang. It wasn't as if Huaisang had anything Jin Guangyao actually needed.

And now Gege wasn't complaining at all when San-ge gifted him with a fan using a new style of silk. One quite different from the sort Huaisang was used to painting. All Gege had done when Huaisang had looked at him with trepidation was roll his eyes and mutter something about making sure he practiced carrying something bigger than a paintbrush.

Gege's new attitude meant Huaisang could have fun again. Nie Huaisang liked San-ge. Not the way Mo Xuanyu liked San-ge, but he enjoyed the man's company. When San-ge wasn't having to play nice with his cousins and uncles and aunts and that awful step-mother of his, he was amusing, clever and excellent at analyzing people's behavior. Nie Huaisang rather appreciated that, in part because he wasn't nearly so good at such things and he wanted to learn.

"Are you daydreaming again?"

"Actually, I was wondering what we should bring to San-ge's wedding. Do you know what Young Mistress Qin likes?"

Nie Mingjue eyed him, clearly seeing straight through his attempt to lie his way out of scolding. "We will bring what is customary for a wedding. Though I understand Young Mistress Qin has recently received a puppy. So if you wanted to get a rug for the mutt, to be given privately, that'd probably be fine. Now, have you finished teaching A-Yu the fifth saber sequence?"

"I have. He's practicing it right now."

A wry smile. "Then why don't you provide him with a proper example of how a young cultivationist should behave and practice the tenth sequence like I taught you."

Knowing he wasn't going to get out of it this time, Nie Huaisang sagged a little, only to perk up when his brother added, "And if the two of you can do your sequences properly by the end of the session, I'll take you into town to shop for that rug."

Yes, Nie Huaisang was liking this new and improved version of his Gege.

#

The Jin Clan were among the most irritating and arrogant snots Madam Jin had ever had the misfortune to deal with. Truth to tell, if she'd dared defy her father back when he decided she should marry that slut Jin Guangshan, she would have. Hell, she and her sworn sister could have run off together. They'd have resolved the problem of children somehow.

Of course, being Jin Sect's Matron and mother - now grandmother - of its heir did have its perks. Scaring the hell out of annoying would-be sect leaders was one of them. She glared at Jin Guangli, a distant kinsman, and watched his self-confidence go from full expansion to nothing in seconds.

"I just think Jin Ling might be happier with more children around. I've plenty of youngsters in my household."

While Jin Guangli was right about that, most of those youngsters were obstreperous sorts who liked to wander the mountains around Koi Tower looking for trouble. Jin Ling was far too young for their sort of fun.

Besides, the only one of Jin Guangli's children who showed signs of a brain was Jin Jiu, and he was a mouthy brat who loved to poke fun of everyone near him. Perhaps that was why Guangyao had made him his personal assistant? Like called to like, after all, and Guangyao could be a sarcastic little bastard when he wanted to be. He used to hide it better but becoming regent let him say what he chose, when he chose to.

"Jin Ling is far too young to go out. Perhaps, when he's older and begins proper schooling, I shall reconsider that decision."

Crestfallen but knowing better than to argue, Jin Guangli took his leave. Only when he was gone did Madam Jin lean back in her chair and rub her eyes. She was suddenly desperately glad not to be the sect's leader. Not to have to fight all its members into doing what they ought to do. Young Guangyao handled his rôle with characteristic grace. Quiet sarcasm aside, the boy had a talent for persuasion that had to have come from his mother.

It made her wish she'd insisted on her husband bringing his lovers home as concubines. She'd broached the subject once, but for all his terror of her, Jin Guangshan knew what he wanted and didn't want. And he didn't want to be home any more than he had to be, drat the self-absorbed slut.

Raising young Guangyao as Zixuan's half-brother would have given the youngster the foundation he needed. And given he wasn't taught to be too ambitious, he might have become Zixuan's right-hand man, instead of finding support outside the clan. Not that those two youngsters from Lan and Nie were bad influences. Better than most, in fact, even if Nie Mingjue was a bull ox looking for someone to gore.

Wishes were pointless, however. And some of their troubles might not be avoidable even if Guangyao had been raised by in the clan. They certainly couldn't have done anything about the slut or his ambitions. Not to mention stopping Wen Ruohan.

That last thought made her pause. Smile wryly. If Guangyao had been raised with the clan she might actually have become fond of him. He was thoughtful, attentive and sharply intelligent. Likeable in ways prickly Zixuan hadn't managed. She would have been deeply worried for him if he'd still ended up going to the Wens as a spy.

No, all things considered, being too close to the boy was probably not a good idea. Still, she had to admit, he was a better leader than she'd expected. And all she could do was hope he could balance atop that teetering pole long enough to get Jin Ling to adulthood. Preferably without getting himself killed in the process.

Chapter Text

The Jin did nothing by halves. They most assuredly did not marry off their Regent without a huge celebration. It wasn't that they respected or cared about Jin Guangyao, of course. They just wanted a reason to show off their wealth, eat the finest food and drink the finest wine; far too much of the finest wine.

The night before the wedding, Jin Guangyao's cousins and uncles were trying to drink him under the table. They would have succeeded, too, if he'd been whole. He could taste the wine, could appreciate its scent, but his spirit was controlling his body from the outside. The alcohol could only affect his flesh, not his will.

Watching his kinsmen slowly crumple around him, he couldn't help smirking into his cup. They'd spent the entire time trying to pretend they actually appreciated him, that his bastardy was of no import. All while nudging each other with their elbows and whispering insults they didn't dare offer to his face.

If he didn't have his sworn brothers' support he'd be carefully making note of each attempt to cleverly upstage him. Would be plotting to undermine and tangle them in a knot of their own misjudgments, just like he used to do when he'd been spying on the Wen. Now he didn't need to, because he didn't have anyone he needed to impress anymore.

That wasn't to say he wasn't memorizing who held what position towards him. Those who simply regarded him as a bastard with delusions of importance? They weren't a problem. Those who thought they could use him to pull them up? Might be. Those who watched for his weak points so they could try and replace him? Absolutely were.

"Heard you and Madam Qin had a fight," one of his uncles, Jin Guangli, slurred. He was the grandson of one of Jin Guangshan's predecessors. Close enough to share the sect leader's generational name. Not close enough or young enough to hope to lead the sect if the main branch fell. That didn't prevent him from causing trouble. "Something about a baby."

Jin Guangyao eyed the man. "My father-in-law has long since agreed to our marriage. Babies are, of course, a natural consequence." Not said, implied, even if he and Qin Su had gotten ahead of themselves, it hardly mattered because they were about to be married.

"Yeah, but you got yourself all messed up and can't...."

"I am not so 'messed up' that I cannot protect my nephew until he's grown, Uncle. Besides, as my name proves, I can't inherit." Jin Guangshan had accepted him into the family but given him a generational name that removed him from the line of succession. He'd be Jin Ziyao, otherwise.

Back when his father had grudgingly accepted him, grudgingly named him, he'd understood exactly why he'd been passed over. Understood and been more than a little hurt. It hadn't been as if there weren't plenty of other, better, candidates to inherit. Now, having spent the last few weeks actually doing the job of Sect Master, he was heartily glad of the fact.

"Why don't you have another drink?" He poured more wine into the man's cup.

Uncle Guangli drank, even as he muttered, "Bastard's bastard, no skin off my nose."

Jin Guangli's son, Jin Jiu, leaned closer. Whispered in Jin Guangyao's ear. "I was three and a half months 'premature'." By which he obviously meant his parents had anticipated their marriage a little on the early side as well. Jin Guangyao smirked at the young guard and poured him another cup too.

After all, one took one's allies where one could find them, and low cultivation aside, Jin Jiu was a very useful assistant indeed.

#

The day of the wedding was perfect. So perfect Nie Mingjue couldn't help accusing his sworn brother of having bribed the local weather gods for the privilege. To his surprise, Jin Guangyao coughed in an embarrassed way.

"Not the weather gods, no. But Moling Su Sect has some talented talisman creators. And I want to encourage their research."

Lan Xichen didn't quite sniff at the mention of his so-called rival sect. He did, however, say dourly. "Anything to keep them from pretending to be Gusulan."

"They only pretend because they need standing among the sects. They're so new," Nie Huaisang protested. "I've been corresponding with them about painting seals and using some of what Wei Bro left us."

That'd been Huaisang's idea and Nie Mingjue had - reluctantly - agreed. Not everything Wei Wuxian did required one to use resentful energy directly. Some, like the spirit repelling and spirit attracting flags, didn't use the stuff at all, just affected it. And Jin Guangyao had shared directions on building a resentful energy compass his clan had found among Wei Wuxian's notes.

Not wanting to talk business during such an occasion, Nie Mingjue turned to watch young Mo Xuanyu chasing his nephew Jin Ling through the courtyard. "Your brother's doing fairly well at Qinghe Nie. But he'll never be great at martial skills except archery and that's not our focus."

"Has he shown signs of what he is good at?" A regretful expression crossed Jin Guangyao's pale features. "I don't think I can ever bring him back here. Not as long as he's attracted to me."

The thought made Nie Mingjue wince. He didn't have any problem at all with the boy liking other boys. Mo Xuanyu being Jin Guangyao's half-brother, however, was a problem. The family had enough problems as it was. "He's good at spirit balancing techniques and I think he might have a touch of spiritualist talent. Baixue might be a good fit if he could be convinced to settle on one thing."

Jin Guangyao looked thoughtful and was about to answer when a commotion at the foot of the great stairs drew their attention. Nie Mingjue turned, setting himself between his sworn brother and whatever it was. A dark-robed and hooded figure climbed the steps, face and body entirely concealed.

Guards were trying to stand in the stranger's way but he shoved and shoved, knocking them down. The maneuver was familiar, a Jin Sect technique that turned an opponent's weight and movement against them. A disgruntled clansman trying to intrude on the Regent's wedding? Nie Mingjue set his hand on his sword and felt Jin Guangyao's mental touch steady him. Not that it was needed. He was getting better at staying balanced on his own.

Er-di stepped beside him. "Is that your father?" he asked San-di quietly.

"It does look a bit like. It's certainly his style." Jin Guangyao's tone was light but they both knew how tense he had to be.

There being nothing he could say to help with that, Nie Mingjue scanned the steps, looking for the man who surely had something to do with Jin Guangshan's return. No way Xue Yang just let the sect leader wander back on his own. "I'll stop him."

"No." Jin Guangyao slipped between the two of them, red robes glittering in the sunlight. "He's my father."

The robed man came to a halt at the top landing as the other guests gathered close, staring and murmuring. Speech slurred and thick, Jin Guangshan said almost mockingly, "Son is unfilial. He has forgotten to invite his father to his wedding."

Nie Mingjue knew the Jin Guangyao of a few weeks ago would have given way to this man. Would have tried to pander to Jin Guangshan's pride and arrogance. Instead he tilted his head upwards, smiled. "Father is naturally invited. Naturally welcome. But Father has been missing for days now and we could not invite what we could not find."

"Father is returned and prepared to witness his only remaining son's marriage."

Something about the intonation was wrong. Nie Mingjue knew better than to say so. He was an outsider and had no business interfering. He glanced around. Spotted Madam Jin peering over the crowd. Gestured with his head and raised a brow inquiringly. With some families he'd expect the wife to stand up for the husband. In this one? Even the bastard son of a whore was preferable to the slut husband whose ambitions had been heading the clan towards disaster.

"Husband." The lady walked straight forward, ignoring the lesser beings who scurried out of her way. "This wife wonders where you've been and why you are so late."

"Beloved wife! It's been too long!" To everyone's shock and surprise, Jin Guangshan rushed to Madam Jin and enveloped her in a warm embrace. Wasn't the man terrified of her? Whenever he was forced to accompany his wife, he always cringed sideways, as if she were a pillar of flame ready to sear him to the bone.

Madam Jin gazed down at the man nuzzling her. Turned to look up the steps at Jiang Wanyin. "Boy. You have your mother's ring. I'll thank you to make use of it."

They all knew what Jiang Wanyin's ring, Zidian, could do. The whip it created was formed of pure spiritual energy. Used against a someone possesses, it could exorcise the spirit and send them back to where they'd come from. It wasn't hard to guess the implication. Madam Jin believed her husband was under another spirit's influence.

Jin Guangshan raised his head. Looked panicked as Jiang Wanyin obediently summoned a bright strand of purple lightning. He released Madam Jin. Stared around wildly. Ran for the next closest person to hide behind. The guard dodged away, just as Zidian lashed out and missed.

Several more dodges and misses followed and by what Nie Mingjue hoped was pure mischance, Jin Guangshan leapt for his son. This time the whip snapped around them both and Jin Guangshan shrieked, his voice changing, becoming younger as he collapsed into Jin Guangyao's arms. "I'll remember that, Sandu Senshou!"

Then he fell, pulling Jin Guangyao to the ground. If Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen hadn't acted quickly, their San-di would have taken yet another tumble down Koi Tower's stairs. This time with his father.

#

Zidian dissipated and Jiang Wanyin said, almost apologetically, "Ah. I didn't mean to hit you as well, Regent."

The only sound was Jin Guangshan's childish wails. Lan Xichen panicked, tightening his grip around his sworn brother and lifting his face. "A-Yao?"

Speaking carefully, as if from a distance, Jin Guangyao whispered, "Did anyone see the horse that ran over me?"

"It wasn't a horse. It was Sect Master Jiang, dealing with your father and apparently not paying close attention to where he throws that whip of his." Nie Mingjue's tone wasn't truly angry, but it was judgmental.

"I did say I was sorry."

"Strictly speaking," Jin Guangyao pointed out as Lan Xichen helped him up, "You did not. But I accept your apology nonetheless. It was obvious a spirit had invaded my father. Something had to be done."

No one could doubt the claim. Jin Guangshan lay on the steps, muttering fitfully and incomprehensibly. There was no sign of a person behind his eyes. Just instinctive movement, like a fierce corpse that hadn't realized it was undead. Lan Xichen touched his wrist to check his qi flow and was stunned to find it turgid and unresponsive. "He needs a spiritual healer, A-Yao."

"He likely needs all sorts of healing," Jin Guangyao answered. He looked at Madam Jin. "Mother? He's your husband. What would you have me do."

"Roll him down the stairs?" she offered dryly. At Jin Guangyao's dour expression she shrugged. "I'll have some servants put him in one of the back courts. Guarded, of course, since we have no idea what state he's in."

Jin Guangyao bowed and she added, "We'll finish the ceremony while he's being cared for. There's no reason to delay."

Ordinarily, Lan Xichen would think it reasonable to wait and see what was wrong with the Sect Master. Right now, given all the things Jin Guangshan had done, it seemed far less important. He and Da-ge helped San-di stand and brushed him off, making sure his cap was on straight and his clothing less dusty.

"That was too close," Nie Mingjue muttered as they checked Jin Guangyao over.

"Mm. Yes. Not just due to my nearly taking a third header down those damned steps." At their concerned expressions, San-di glanced briefly up at Jiang Wanyin, who'd turned to speak with one of Jin Guangyao's cousins. From his dour look, he wasn't pleased. Of course, he seldom was.

It hit Lan Xichen that that whip of Jiang Wanyin's might well pose a risk to someone in San-di's condition. That it hadn't was their good fortune. "You weren't hurt?"

"No. Shaken. Achy. But it'd take more than a whip to throw me off." By which Lan Xichen guessed Jin Guangyao's grip on his body, or rather his hun soul's grip, was stronger than Jiang Wanyin's weapon. San-di straightened. Settled himself properly. "We can discuss this later. I'd like to get this wedding over with."

#

Jin Guangyao had attended one or two weddings before. None had been quite so elaborate as his own. He wondered how much he was paying for the extensive decorations. How much he was paying for the food. How much he was paying for the wine.

A soon-to-be-wedded husband ought to be thinking about his bride and what came after the ceremony. Ought to be anticipating, with nervous and pleasant jitters, the moment when he came face to face with the young lady he'd be spending the rest of his life with.

Thinking about that, however, only reminded him of the way his father had managed to ruin everything in his life. Thank the Gods, each and every one, for his sworn brothers. Jin Guangyao wasn't at all sure how he could deal with this situation if he were on his own. Not well, he suspected. Not well at all.

Thank the Gods, too, that Qin Su knew and would understand why they weren't consummating their marriage. Would he have gone ahead with everything if he'd been the only one - aside from Madam Qin - who knew the truth? He feared he probably would have, anxiously struggling to maintain a façade of respectability.

Qin Su's hand was cold in his and he knew she was equally terrified. Half-siblings marrying like this was as much a sin as the one they'd already committed. No, worse, because at least then they hadn't known at the time. All he could do was hope they could keep this secret until their child was old enough to bear the shame. Keep it secret and sin no more.

The last was easy right now, when Qin Su was just barely managing to hide her pregnancy. It'd be harder later, when they had to maintain celibacy. They'd have to find a way to make it work, to make it clear they'd never touched each other again after their child's birth.

They walked beneath the hanging daggers. Past the twin dragon puppets, hissing and dancing back and forth. Over the fire. They knelt and bowed to the heavens and earth; Jin Guangyao praying they'd be forgiven. They knelt to the parents; perfectly glad to have Jin Guangshan absent. They knelt to each other and all Jin Guangyao could do was hope he'd made the right choice. They shared the wine and promised to be faithful, a promise Jin Guangyao was determined to keep despite everything going wrong in their lives. Despite his peculiar circumstances. Despite his father.

And at last, when the time came for him to go to her, he found Qin Su sitting with her puppy in her arms, giggling and crying at the same time. "I'm sorry. I made you do this."

He set Blackie aside gently. Took her hands and looked in her eyes. Paused to set Blackie aside again. "I chose to do this. Nothing that's happened is your fault."

"Except one." She put her hand on her slightly bulging stomach.

"I refuse to call that child a fault. Only what we did to bring him or her about. And that was our sin, not this little one's." He sighed. "We can't be what we should be to each other. Maybe someday we'll find an answer to this that doesn't leave us shattered. But I promise you and I promise this child, I will protect you with what life I have."

And if he hoped, one day, to find his sister a husband she could love and trust, who could accept the circumstances surrounding her, that was only so he could see her truly happy.

A happiness he knew he could never give her.

Chapter Text

Xue Yang was tired of all these people refusing to do what they were supposed to. He'd even given up a valuable puppet, expecting to use it as a mouthpiece until he could consolidate power. Except that purple bastard broke his connection, forced his spirit back to his own body.

He'd intended to walk his puppet into Koi Tower, pretend to fall ill and leave it safely ensconced as Master of Lanling Jin. That obsequious worm of a bastard would have obediently followed the orders he'd left in what remained of Jin Guangshan's brain and he would have been sitting prettily on the Jin throne, working his way towards bringing the other sects in line with his own personal vision.

Thinking about it, it was lucky he hadn't stayed attached any longer. As it turned out, the further one's spirit got from one's own physical body, the harder it was to return. If he'd stayed with his puppet all the way into Koi Tower, he'd have had a fine time getting back to his real self. Sect Master Jiang Wanyin's whip broke him free just before he'd gotten too far away. He could easily have forgotten who he was and been lost.

Ordinarily he'd work out a new path to his goal. But that was when he'd had more to work with. It'd taken him months to worm his way into the Wen's good graces during the war, spying on the Sunshot campaign from inside the Jin camp. He'd singlehandedly broken several clans, just by being in the right place at the right time. Admittedly, he'd failed to catch onto the little bastard, but Meng Yao had been damned good at hiding himself.

That was why, once the Sunshot campaign was over, he set to looking for ways to get Jin Guangyao's attention. Not that it was hard. All he'd had to do was figure out what the little bastard's father wanted and he was set. Even better, Jin Guangshan had wanted HIS power and Xue Yang was more than pleased to follow in his hero's blood-splattered footsteps. All he'd had to do was what came naturally; bloody-minded and unforgettable murder combined with 'inappropriate' uses for the remains.

Thinking about it, rushing to use his new skills on an old enemy, one he'd sworn to make pay for the loss of his finger and the slight of not giving him his well-earned sweets, had been an error. He hadn't expected that damned Taoist priest to be so smart. Hadn't expected him to catch on to his methods and accuse him.

Well, that just gave him another target to deal with later. This time, though, he'd be more careful. He'd make sure he was properly supported. Make sure he had an exit plan and at least a dozen alternatives. Not to mention his half-dozen or so alternative selves he was currently building from scratch. And, of course, he had to work out how to create his own Stygian Tiger Seal.

Once he had, once he had the tools and the puppets and the backing, oh how they'd run.

#

Nie Mingjue watched his sworn brother practice flinging fine threads around as weapons. San-di couldn't use a sword in his current state, but his threads were light and easily manipulated. They were also damned dangerous. "Your father's really mad? Not pretending?"

"I think he was mad to begin with. He's far past it now." Jin Guangyao crooked a finger and tossed a loop of silk around the large and succulent plum Nie Mingjue had tossed. A slight twitch and the fruit fell apart in mid-air, dropping onto the plate between Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen. If nothing else, he'd overcome the difficulty his bad eye caused him.

"Nice work, San-di," Lan Xichen murmured appreciatively. "What do the healers say?"

"That he seems to be both dead and alive."

That description was familiar and Nie Mingjue eyed his sworn brother thoughtfully. "Like you?"

"No. They think he's missing his po soul. It's my hun soul that went wandering and reattached itself. Toss me another fruit, would you, Da-ge?"

What had that little monster done to the man? "Like a living corpse," Nie Mingjue muttered, tossing an orange into the air to be sliced. "If it were anyone else, I'd call it horrifying."

"What's worse is father wants to do the things he did before. Given the fuss he makes, I've had to hire a whole brothel's worth of whores for him. After we made sure he was clean, that is." The look on Jin Guangyao's face showed his opinion. "Madam Jin's idea, not mine. It keeps him occupied in the back court and it's easier to pay older whores who need the work to keep him out of trouble. The last thing we need is for him to wander the countryside looking for bedmates."

It wasn't a pleasant situation at all. "No one would blame you if you put him down." Feeling a little devilish, Nie Mingjue quirked a grin at Second Brother before tossing the largest melon in the batch into the air.

San-di moved fast, slicing the thing up and dodging backwards to avoid the inevitable crash. "They would too and you know it. The bastard son doesn't get leeway when it comes to sin."

"I suppose not." Lan Xichen snatched a piece of melon from disaster. "On another subject, how is Qin Su?"

"Well enough, if inclined to be easily upset. One can hardly blame her, given the circumstances. I'm rather glad I gave her Blackie. He keeps her distracted." His lips twitched with quiet amusement. "Me as well, especially when he decides to play in the middle of the night."

That was right. Jin Guangyao's condition meant he didn't actually sleep, anymore than a true undead would. Night must get terribly boring for him, given he didn't care for the company of his drunken kinsmen. When Nie Mingjue said so, though, San-di chuckled. "I have use for the time. You may not believe it, but there are actually books in our library I've never had a chance to read."

"You're right. I don't believe it. Your family is known for having more money than is good for any one sect. Not for its erudition."

Laughter from both brothers. "It's the excess money that feeds our collection. It's true, with a few notable exceptions, my father's ancestors didn't care for the learnéd arts. But possessing the finest library in the country is as much a way to show off as those damned gold bathtubs of ours." Jin Guangyao used his thread to steal a large piece of mango off Nie Mingjue's plate.

"Hey! There's plenty. No call to steal mine."

The man's smile was unexpectedly sweet. "More fun, though." He snitched another chunk from Lan Xichen's plate, just to be fair, then went back to practicing. "I've learned so many interesting things about cultivation and spiritualism and medicine."

"Going to become a sage?"

"It's a thought." At Lan Xichen's interested look, Jin Guangyao added, "But, no. I'd be overwhelmed by everyone wanting something from me. No doubt that's why Baoshan Sanren hides away and only teaches those willing to come to her."

He was probably right. "Are you focusing on anything in particular?"

"Of course. Between the library and Wei Wuxian's notes...."

Nie Mingjue straightened. "Him?" He knew a great deal of what'd happened with the Yiling Patriarch had been instigated by Jin Guangshan. That didn't make Wei Wuxian's studies any less dangerous.

"Yes. Him." Several oranges fell apart into perfect wedges. "I'm hoping to understand my condition."

Ah, yes. That was true. Jin Guangyao handled his state so well it was impossible to tell he wasn't properly attached to his body. He wouldn't be able to toss those threads of his so effectively, otherwise. He wasn't in pain or truly disturbed by the situation, but he clearly wanted to come to some resolution. "Find anything?"

"Nothing I can use. If Wei Wuxian returned, I'd have a chance. It needs someone able to control spirits. There aren't many of those around and I wouldn't trust most necromancers with my soul."

"No use hoping for Wei Wuxian. If he hasn't come back by now...," Lan Xichen trailed off, seeing Jin Guangyao's expression. "No?"

Jin Guangyao tapped his forehead. "My state puts me close enough to being dead that I can feel his presence out there. He isn't whole, might not be for some while, but the right set of circumstances could bring him back."

That didn't seem like a good thing at all. "What can we do to stop him?"

An odd look crossed Er-di's face. One mixing uncertainty and a kind of bleak sadness. "Should we?"

What possible reason would Xichen have for wanting Wei Wuxian alive again? "The man was mad. Dangerous."

San-di interrupted Nie Mingjue's diatribe, probably because he'd heard it all before. "He was dangerous, yes, but much of the danger came from what the cultivation world did to him. We used him, even praised him, for his part in destroying the Wen. We feared him, hurt his friends, forced him to hide in the Burial Mounds. When he tried to live normally, we accused him of crimes he didn't commit and forced him to defend himself. Then attacked him and killed the only family he had left."

All of this had been plain from the memories they'd shared with their San-di. "That isn't going to make him any less dangerous. If he's out there, we shouldn't let him wander around getting angrier at us again."

"I think it best if we leave him be. As wounded as he probably is, he'd surely fight twice as hard for freedom than before." A wry smile crossed Jin Guangyao's face. "Besides, as long as the Yiling Patriarch is hiding from himself and the world, a certain murderous brat won't find his fallen hero and try to mold him to his vision."

Lan Xichen looked worried and small blame to him. "Would he? Could he? Xue Yang is powerful, but he doesn't have your family's support anymore. Surely he can't do anything too destructive."

"That little brat is too clever by half. If there's anything I regret most from all this, it's my becoming involved with him at all. I should never have let him have access to our library. He got far too many ideas here and I've no idea yet which are mere fable and which were real. But I'm absolutely certain anything he learned that actually works will be put to as bad a use as he can think of."

"All the more reason to find him." Nie Mingjue just hoped they would. Preferably soon.

#

Lan Xichen watched his baby brother teach his young son A-Yuan to play the guqin, regret cutting him like one of San-di's threads. Lan Zhan's thoughts used to be clear and obvious to him. Every slight shift in expression, every movement, every glance; all had shown him what his little brother liked, disliked, wanted and hated. Now there was nothing.

How had it come to this? Lan Xichen should have agreed to let Lan Zhan go after Wei Wuxian, that day when the young necromancer had burst into the party at Koi Tower and demanded to know where Jin Zixun had taken those Wen. Should have paid better attention to the whole situation, because he would have realized how bad things were getting with Jin Guangshan.

It was possible Wen Ning would still have been killed. Possible he'd still have been turned to a ferocious corpse. But Lan Zhan being there might have mitigated matters. Lan Zhan being allowed to come to Wei Wuxian's defense the way Lan Xichen knew he wanted to might have led the man to trust him. So many mistakes, so many miscommunications, all compounding each other on their way to disaster.

And now all that was left was a partially broken man, holding himself together for the sake of the child he'd saved. The son he'd adopted. There were those, Lan Qiren included, who'd doubted the wisdom of giving this outsider child the Lan name. Lan Xichen had seen the truth, the real danger. Reject the boy and the would-be father would reject them. Lan Zhan had been at the very edge of breaking away entirely from his family, his clan and his duty.

Behind Lan Xichen, their uncle coughed, reminding him of why they'd come. The time of Lan Zhan's seclusion was coming to an end and he was expected to resume his duties with the sect. There were things Uncle Qiren wanted Lan Xichen to say. Things he wanted Lan Xichen to demand. Things he wanted Lan Zhan to do in order to prove his loyalty to the rules and regulations of Gusulan. Things Lan Xichen suspected wouldn't go over well at all.

Stepping forward, Lan Xichen was pleased to receive a proper bow from his nephew. A-Yuan might not be Lan by blood, but he learned his lessons well and without complaint. He did as he was told, followed the rules as well as one could expect an eight year old, and treated everyone with gentle respect. He was a credit to his family and Lan Xichen would fight anyone who dared say otherwise.

"A-Yuan, practice your calligraphy."

Quietly, curious but knowing better than to stay, A-Yuan went to his room. From the doorway, one could see him settle down at his desk, kneeling and writing quietly. At the same time, Lan Zhan bowed. "Sect Master Lan Xichen. Master Lan Qiren."

The formality of his address made them both flinch. Perfectly polite. Too perfect. Lan Zhan had every right to call them by their relationship. The fact that - almost four years after he'd turned on the clan elders - Lan Zhan still chose to distance himself from his blood kin was actively painful.

Changing Lan Zhan's heart would take time. For now, Lan Xichen was just glad his brother was willing to talk. There'd been a brief time when the only one he'd speak to was little A-Yuan. "There's something I must ask you."

"En?"

"Are you playing Inquiry in the Jingshi?"

Gold eyes met his. Ignored Uncle Qiren entirely. No, not entirely. A brief flash of something that might almost be hate flared in those eyes before their truth was hidden. "En." Lan Zhan fell silent, clearly waiting for the order he surely expected.

"For him?"

"En."

Deep breath. Don't let your feelings overwhelm you. You knew the truth without being told. Lan Xichen ignored the way Uncle Qiren gazed at him, demanding he say what he wanted Lan Xichen to say. "You know as well as I that spirits haunt the places that mean most to them. Even if he were drawn to Cloud Recesses... hush, Uncle... he never entered your Jingshi."

A soft sigh escaped Lan Zhan's lips. "Seclusion. No choice."

That was true. Lan Xichen shifted subject. "Your seclusion is over as of today. I have work for you." As surprise almost found its way onto Lan Zhan's face and Uncle Qiren turned startled eyes on him, Lan Xichen said, "At our last Sect Conference, Regent Jin Guangyao presented an idea to the rest of us. Wei Wuxian's legacy is not, entirely, negative. He left behind tools. Seals. Special skills that can be used by anyone, not just those with spiritual ability."

Beside Lan Xichen, Uncle Qiren grumbled. "Tainted." Even now he wanted to argue against the plan? After everyone had already agreed? Typical. Exhausting.

"No," Lan Xichen disagreed. "The man didn't seek his ruinous path out of malice or ambition. He did so out of desperation and rage. Both of which might have been mitigated if we'd reached out to him sooner."

A flicker of hope shone in Lan Zhan's eyes. "Plan?"

"Regent Jin will be presenting what he's learned from Wei Wuxian's notes, along with an analysis of how those tools can be used safely. I would like you to attend with me. The meeting will be held at Lotus Pier."

Now Lan Zhan seemed puzzled. "Lotus Pier? Not Koi Tower?"

Smiling, Lan Xichen explained, "Sect Master Jiang is not entirely happy with the idea. We were able to persuade him by having the lecture and demonstration in Yunmeng Jiang's territory, so he can better control the situation."

That Lotus Pier was also where Wei Wuxian had grown up, where the things he'd loved and cherished had been, wasn't said. Lan Zhan knew it. If there was any place he might summon Wei Wuxian's spirit with Inquiry, it was there. "Any other orders?"

"No. You worked with Wei Wuxian during the Sunshot Campaign. You'd know if any of the methods my sworn brother presents poses extra risk. Please make sure to point anything troublesome out."

"En. As you wish, brother."

Lan Xichen bowed and turned away, aware his uncle was hesitating. Aware his uncle trailed behind him radiating dissatisfaction. "You should have ordered him not to play Inquiry for that... evil... monster."

"We've discussed this several times already, Uncle Qiren. Whatever he might have been, monster, misled or simply driven by circumstance, Wei Wuxian died trying to atone for the deaths he caused. He died trying to destroy the thing that'd helped him kill so many people. And there is nothing in any rule I know of that says we should continuously punish a guilty soul who has already died for his sins."

Lan Qiren's lips tightened around his answer. Until at last he found words. "And what if Lan Zhan manages to bring that... person... back from death?"

"I doubt Inquiry alone has that power, uncle. Besides, given the Burial Mounds are sealed and the brothers of Zhao Hua Temple are keeping them that way, what are the chances of Wei Wuxian finding his way back to any sort of life?"

And if Lan Xichen really thought the seal was still doing the job he'd be trying to find some way to end that practice. Wei Wuxian was dead. There was no reason to keep punishing him for the things his punishers had helped push him into.

After all, Gusulan practices did not condone the use of torture.

#

There would never be a time when presenting one's ideas in public would be easy. At least now, with his spirit only partly attached to his body, Jin Guangyao didn't have to worry about the queasy stomach he always got. All he had to do was smile politely and speak clearly.

"As we've seen, the Yiling Patriarch's research left us with some excellent tools. The ability to corral and guide our undead enemies into one place for easier disposal will simplify night hunts. The ability to repel them will make it possible for us to protect our charges. And, of course, the resentful energy compass will be of great use finding beings such as the tortoise of slaughter or the waterborne abyss."

One of the clansmen, Lao Sen of Lingyu Lao sect, sniffed. "And, no doubt, pay you and Jin clan homage for sharing this largesse?"

"It would be Moling Su sect that designs the flags and talismans, Master Lao. Lanling Jin has other sources of wealth and power." The traders and merchants who traveled the desert to the west. The mines at the center of their territory, still rich with gold, silver and jade. And, of course, the skilled hunters of the mountain sept, battling demon beasts and monsters in their territory's mountains. "Though we wouldn't say 'no' to a few appreciative comments tossed our way."

Laughter. Followed by Master Jiang Wanyin's dour, "Are you sure you want to use anything that stupid brat created?"

"Your brother...."

A sneer. "He left the clan, remember? All for a band of worthless Wen."

Jin Guangyao forced himself not to sigh. He could tell Master Jiang Wanyin truly grieved for his brother. Grieved for and was still furious with him. Unable to find some closure, the man was incredibly prickly where Wei Wuxian was concerned. "Your former brother, then."

"Hmph."

"I have spent a great deal of time studying what Wei Wuxian left. A great deal of time trying to understand his methods."

Someone muttered in the back, "Bet his wife likes that."

"My wife supports me, Master Quan." Forcing himself not to be distracted, Jin Guangyao continued, "I make no claim to understanding every last detail of Wei Wuxian's work. I have no intention of making use of resentful energy." because doing so would risk destroying his vulnerable hun soul. "But we don't need to in order to use these items."

They argued. The sects always did. And Jin Guangyao could see who argued just because they liked to make trouble. Could see those who wanted to make a name for themselves by talking back to the Jin's spokesperson. Could see who actually attacked him because they didn't like or trust him.

At last he said calmly, "Sect Masters, it's up to each of you to decide if you want to make use of these tools. Lanling Jin plans on doing so and I understand both Gusulan and Qinghe Nie will be considering it carefully...."

That got a sharp burst of laughter from Lao Sen. "Of course they are. Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue are your sworn brothers, after all." Something in his tone suggested a more scandalous relationship.

"If my San-di's suggestion displeased me, do you think I'd hesitate to mention it to him?" Da-ge snapped in turn. "Does anyone in this room doubt I'd refuse such tools if I thought they used any true demonic cultivation?"

"Best see they don't," Lao Sen answered, still grinning maliciously. "Unless you want Master Jiang hunting you down so he can shake the Yiling Patriarch out of you."

That backfired on the Lingyu Lao sect master. Something crackled and purple light gleamed against Jiang Wanyin's hands. "Are you questioning my right to search for that pest brother of mine? My right to deal with murderers as they deserve?"

"The death of the Yiling Patriarch has resulted in dozens of would-be replacements," Lan Xichen noted, before the argument got started. "The majority of which wish to outdo him for murderous mischief. Wei Wuxian's faults were many, but he never murdered families to build his own army."

Jin Guangyao's senses were more attuned to spiritual energy in his current state. He sensed a hardening, an icy chill that could easily be turned to a weapon if allowed. Lan Wangji? He didn't look the man's way directly, but noted his sworn brother touching the younger man's hand lightly, as if in warning.

Remembering why Lan Wangji had been secluded for so long, guessing how strongly the man must feel about the attacks on Wei Wuxian, Jin Guangyao coughed. "The Yiling Patriarch's purposes aren't a topic for this meeting. We ought to stay focused."

It took a little longer, but between himself and his sworn brothers, Jin Guangyao managed to finish the meeting without losing anyone to a fit of temper or an impromptu duel.

Which, given the history of these conferences, was something of a minor miracle.

Chapter Text

"Have you found him yet?"

"I'm sorry, Song Lan. He ran off as soon as we got here. I've checked everywhere."

"Hopefully he hasn't fallen into the river."

"He swims like a fish, though. I doubt he could possibly drown himself."

"Well then, I hope he didn't go stealing loquats. I saw how he looked at them."

Lan Wangji ignored the conversation. It had nothing to do with him. Instead he scanned the streets, looking for a quiet place. A private place. His uncle would be furious if he knew what Lan Wangji intended. His brother, not so much. But he had to try. Would keep trying, again and again and again and again, if need be. Wei Ying was out there somewhere. Lost. Scared. Lonely. Lan Wangji's greatest fear; his beloved scattered in the darkness, never knowing, never believing, how much he was loved.

The rules would deny him this. Would deny him every comfort. Would have him be aloof and chill and untouchable. His uncle would have him be those things. He should not hate Lan Qiren. Shouldn't hate all of Gusulan. It was his home, his duty, his family. But he couldn't not hate either. He'd been close to breaking, close to taking little A-Yuan and just. Just. Just walking away.

Thank the Gods Lan Xichen had seen that. Thank the Gods he actually sympathized. Something had changed for Lan Wangji's big brother. A change that'd broadened his viewpoint, made him more open to alternative paths. It had to do with Ge-ge's sworn brothers. Something to do with the accident that'd half-crippled San-ge. But none of the three had ever explained and Lan Wangji was too busy rebuilding his heart to be curious.

He was beginning to be, especially since Ge-ge had quietly encouraged him to go out after the meeting, to find a place to attempt Inquiry. Lan Xichen didn't hate Wei Ying the way some did, but he'd never really approved of him, either. So why was he suddenly willing to assist Lan Wangji in his effort to somehow bring Wei Ying back?

It was worrisome, how certain he was Wei Ying wanted to come back. How certain he was Wei Ying was trying to come back. And, for that matter, how certain he was Wei Ying could come back. Oh, many believed the last - why else would they seal the Burial Mounds the way they had - but he'd been taught that death was usually more permanent than that.

Setting those nervous thoughts aside, Lan Wangji found a small public garden and took out his guqin, sitting in the grass beneath a large old cherry tree. It was past time for blooming, but its branches swayed prettily in the moonlight. Which was interesting, because there was no wind. Or at least, the only wind appeared to be hiding in the tree top.

Deciding to ignore the wind, he settled down to play Inquiry. Even before his seclusion, Lan Wangji knew the song by heart. He'd been expert at it for years and each note sounded clear and fine in the night air.

Every so often a spirit would answer. They rarely did back at the jingshi, but here, in an area where people traveled and people lived and people died? The chances were much higher. The chances of getting the right spirit, getting the one wanted and most desired, weren't as great. Inquiry just opened the line of communication. It didn't reach into the shadow realm of the earthbound dead to catch hold of a specific one.

As always, there was no response from the one he wanted most. But Lan Wangji had the oddest feeling he was having a positive effect. He'd been getting that feeling for a while now. A sense that something knew he was calling but wasn't strong enough - yet - to answer. At last he tired, unable to sustain the spiritual energy necessary to hold the way open.

"GAOGUI WHERE ARe... oh... sorry mister. I didn't mean to interrupt. Was that you playing earlier? It was real pretty."

The girl standing at the edge of the garden was slim and short, with wide impossibly white eyes. She held a bamboo staff in one hand, using it to guide her as she tapped her way around.

Ear tips slightly warmed by the praise, Lan Wangji waved it off quickly. "Acceptable."

"You mean the song? You're really good. Better than good."

He didn't know how to react to compliments so all he said was, "Looking for someone?"

"Yeah. A little boy. He's sort of my little brother and he loves to run off and look for trouble." She shook her head, cocking her ear to listen around. Then sighed. "Not here, I guess. If you run across Gaogui, could you tell him to come to the inn. We'll be off again in the morning and we all need our sleep."

Lan Wangji inclined his head. Agreed. Waited until she was gone to say softly, "You should go to the inn."

A small boy dropped from the tree above him, landing easily and lightly a few feet away, a shadow just a bit taller than A-Yuan, enshrouded in shadows. "Thanks Mister. A-Qing's bossy."

"But correct."

"But that's no fun."

Fun might be prohibited back home, but this child wasn't a disciple and this wasn't Gusulan. All Lan Wangji said was, "True." He paused. Tried to think of a better answer. Asked instead, "Is it fun to make others worry?"

That silenced the boy and he scuffed a toe in the ground. "It is. But not nice. Sorry. You're right. Better go." He turned, about to leave, when a thought occurred to him. "Here. You'll like these and I got too many."

A little bag flew through the air and Lan Wangji caught it automatically. The sweet scent of loquats rose in the air and he lifted startled eyes to watch the child run off. Cloud cover shifted and for a brief, shining, moment Lan Wangji could have sworn he saw another, taller, figure running away through the moonlight.

Then he was gone.

 #

There were lots and lots and lots of uncles and aunts and cousins. Too many. Jin Ling didn't like any of them much. Even when they were nice, like now, it was cause they wanted something.

Only Unka Yao and Auntie Su was nice cause they liked him. He liked them too, but they didn't have a lot a time for a little like him. Only gamma did and that wasn't always good. Gamma loved him maybe a bit too much. Always petting him and holding him and not letting him play.

Not that he wanted to play with his cousins. They were mostly too big. Always too mean. Jin Chao 'specially liked to pick on him. Make fun of him cause he'd got no daddy nor mommy. Unka Yao said not to listen to 'em but it wasn't easy, cause they never stopped teasing.

Right then though they all had to be nice to Jin Ling. That was cause it was Jin Ling's birthday and everyone had to be nice to a birthday boy. Four years was big, too. Big enough maybe he could get gamma to let him go outside on his own? Gamma was always bossing him around when they walked and he wanted to walk alone.

The tables were all covered in toys and pretty things and tasty food. Nothing special, just 'spensive and mostly nothing he really liked. Some of it was cause it was for someone older, but most were for really little kids, which Jin Ling most definitely was not.

Unka Yao noticed him getting bored. "It's almost over, A-Ling. And when it is, we'll go outside to see what Auntie Su and I got for you."

Out? They had to go outside for his gift? A horse? Maybe it was a horse. Or a dragon. Oh, that'd be so good if Unka Yao brought home a dragon for him. When Jin Ling said so, Unka Yao covered his lips with his knuckles.

Behind Unka Yao, Auntie Su giggled. She was getting fat, really fat, lately. Cousin Chao said that was cause she was making a rival for Jin Ling. Jin Ling didn't know what that meant but could tell Cousin Chao didn't think it was good. But Auntie Su was good to him and Jin Ling refused to believe whatever was making her fat would be a problem for him.

At last the guests were done giving gifts and had wandered off, ignoring him. Jin Ling tugged at Unka Yao's sleeve. "Outside?"

"Yes, of course. Outside." Unka Yao called his funny friend over, the one who made faces when no one else was looking and told jokes when no one else was there to hear. "Could you take Jin Ling for me, please? It's a bit of a walk and I don't want him to get tired." He took his cane and stood careful, waiting.

"This stallion will gladly carry his young Prince wherever he needs to go." Captain Jin knelt and let Jin Ling clamber onto his back. "Hold tight, youngster. No bouncing around."

Unka Yao was right bout it being far. They went all the way down the stairs to the bottom, Unka Yao clinging tight to the rail all the way. Then they went to the stables. Was it a dragon after all? Or maybe an loliphant?

They went through the stables all the way to the back. Jin Ling had never been this far. What was here? It smelled funny. Like milk and fur and other things. He craned his neck, trying to look around and Captain Jin said, "This stallion can't turn upside down but you can, young Prince. Shall this one help you?"

Jin Ling giggled. Let Captain Jin flip him over. Hung from the man's thumbs for a moment before doing a somersault and landing on the ground between him and Unka Yao. "My present here?"

"Yes. Right over here, A-Ling." Unka Yao leaned on his cane beside a little fenced in area. Something made a funny noise and Unka Yao whistled.

A dozen little puppies came running out of a door and gathered at the fence, barking. Oh, they were cute. So cute. And so small! "My present?" This was better'n a dragon or an loliphant! He couldn't sleep with a dragon or an loliphant. "These?"

"I think your grandmother would be displeased if you were to take all of them, Jin Ling. She's agreed to one, however. So choose which one you like best and I'll have the kennel keeper bring it up with everything you'll need to take care of it."

Jin Ling was allowed to choose? Him? Well it was only fair. He was big now. Four years old and quite big enough to make up his own mind. Conscious that this was an important decision and one that'd matter for years to come, he peered through the fence, watching them come to Unka Yao and accept pettings and treats.

They were all so cute and it was so hard, so very very VERY hard to choose. But there. That one. The light brownish-gold one with the cute little brown mark on its forehead, and the funny way of dancing around and oh, those precious gigantic ears. He pointed. "That one."

"You're sure?"

"Uh huh. I want that little brown with the Jin mark."

"Jin mark?" Unka Yao looked confused for a moment, then smiled. "I see. Yes, you're right. He does look like he has his own Jin mark. What a lovely choice. Isn't he a lovely choice, Jin Jiu?"

"This Captain would hardly disagree, Regent. Prince's eye is good. That one has an excellent conformation."

Satisfied, Jin Ling nodded firmly. "Mine."

With a smile, Unka Yao called the kennel keeper over. "That's the one he wants, the brown and gold. Make sure Young Master Jin has everything he'll need to take care of...." Unka Jin paused. "What do you want to name him, A-Ling?"

Jin Ling considered that. He wasn't sure he knew how to name a spirit dog. Shouldn't it be something fierce? But his new puppy was so cute and sweet and how could anyone call him something fierce? He thought and thought and thought. And then, with a triumphant smile, he said, "Fairy. I'll call him Fairy."

#

Jin Ling's birthday meant Mo Xuanyu was allowed to come home long enough to celebrate. Meant he could see his cute little nephew, his beautiful brother and his gentle sister. Meant he could play with Jin Ling's new puppy and Sister Su's Blackie. He had to put up with the other annoying family members, but at least he wasn't being threatened or beaten because he wasn't a good person.

He still felt so fond of his beautiful brother. Yet it was a fondness that wasn't quite so urgent anymore. Separation had helped. Having other people care about him helped. He didn't feel like beautiful brother was his only hope for happiness any longer. He shouldn't, anyway. Beautiful brother had a wife and a baby on the way. He didn't need a sticky little brother clinging to him.

It helped that his best friend, A-Sang, had been allowed to attend the party with him. A-Sang had helped teach him so much about talismans and arrays and using his spiritual skills. A-Sang had even helped him form the beginning of his golden core. He was terribly grateful to have someone there he could talk to when beautiful brother was busy. Which, of course, he usually was.

They climbed Koi Tower's many steps to the very top so they could look out on the countryside. Koi Tower stood among mountains, overlooking a mountain stream and a beautiful waterfall. One couldn't see the mines from here, but who'd want to. Mines were ugly.

Standing there, gazing out, A-Sang frowned, watching something Mo Xuanyu couldn't see. He did that every so often, gazing at nothing with a peculiar expression. Then he'd shake it off and pretend he'd been contemplating his next fan painting.

Knowing asking would get no answers, Mo Xuanyu leaned on the rail of the tower and peered down. Something moved off in the courtyard of one of the back buildings, a small figure from this position. A man chasing a half dozen prettily dressed young women, he thought. It was hard to tell from this position.

"Is that your father?" A-Sang asked suddenly.

Oh. Of course. "It probably is." Rumor had it his father had gone quite mad after his escape from Xue Yang. He'd always been focused on bedding every woman he could, of course, but now that was all he could think about. Beautiful brother and Grumpy Step-mother had told him not to worry about it when he'd asked if he ought to pay his father a visit.

A-Sang turned to look the other way, no more impressed by Jin Guangshan's antics than anyone else. "Do you think they'll ask you to stay, now you're back?" He hurriedly added, "I've been enjoying training with you. But this is your home, right?"

Home? It occurred to Mo Xuanyu that it was anything but home. He loved his beautiful brother and gentle sister and was fond of his cute little nephew, but they were the only ones in the family he felt comfortable with. But, truthfully, he wasn't sure what good he was doing back at Nie Sect either. He could wield a saber but he couldn't draw the resentful energy into it the way the other Nie did. Even A-Sang was better at that than he, and A-Sang didn't like training that way.

"I like staying with you," he told his friend. "And I don't want to come here. But... I'm not sure I can ever be a proper Nie disciple."

"You're not the only one." A-Sang gazed at nothingness again and bit at his lip momentarily. Then, "I wanted to tell you, I'm planning on talking brother into letting me go to Moling Su, soon."

A-Sang was an excellent artist and would be a great talisman maker. "That's a wonderful plan."

"You could come with me if you want."

"Actually, I was thinking that I could visit Gusulan for a bit, now I have the beginnings of my core. I'd like to try a few different types of cultivation before I decide what's best." There were so many styles out there, after all.

A-Sang chuckled. "Somehow, A-Yu, I'm not at all surprised you say that."

#

Flying back from Koi Tower meant stopping frequently to let Mo Xuanyu rest. His core wasn't strong enough for strenuous activity yet, all the more reason he needed to find the right type of cultivation for himself. Too bad they couldn't have him train with the Jin. Surely that'd be the most likely method for him.

They stopped somewhere near the Garden of the Damsel of Annual Blossoms. Legend had it a young woman's spirit haunted the place. If one recited poetry for her and she liked it, she might favor one with a blossom whose fragrance wouldn't fade for three years. If she disliked it, she'd punish the poet by throwing flowers in his face.

Nie Huaisang felt a sharp surge of sadness, remembering Wei Wuxian's antics in this place. He'd been here himself, watching the fun, as his friend teased the poor spirit with horrendously bad poetry, just so he could see her face.

As Ge-ge made Mo Xuanyu sit down and recover his spiritual energy, Nie Huaisang stepped into the garden. "I'm no poet, ma'am. And I'm afraid you may remember me laughing at my friend tease you. I hope you know he never meant any harm."

He didn't know why he said such things. Surely the damsel wouldn't be listening to him. It wasn't even the right time of day. He sat on a stone bench and scented the flowers surrounding him. He'd have to come back sometime and paint them. Would she appreciate that?

A flicker of light drew his attention. A shape that wasn't a shape. This wasn't the first time he'd experienced such visions. This time it was clearer. A girl, young, attractive, but mildly disgusted at the mention of Wei Wuxian. "He's gone now, you know. He destroyed himself, trying to stop what he created."

That caused the damsel to pause. To drop a single withered rose in Nie Huaisang's lap. A voice whispered. Not gone. Not back. Tell him I forgive him. And to leave me alone, when he comes back.

Did Nie Huaisang really hear that voice? Or was he going mad? He remembered the image he'd seen of a young woman, one with a distinct resemblance to Jin Zixuan, leaping to her death. She'd been dressed in a centuries old style, her expression fraught with panic and pain.

And then there'd been those odd times when he could have sworn he'd seen San-ge when San-ge wasn't there. The strangest thing about those incidents was the fact that Ge-ge seemed aware of that vision too. He'd even seen Ge-ge talking softly to that image one time.

What was happening to him? He didn't dare ask his brother. Ge-ge might think he'd gone out of his mind. No, he'd have to explore this new vision. Test it. And hopefully work out how to deal with it.

If nothing else, it gave him yet another reason to train with Moling Su. Not only would he be able to use his artistic skills to cultivate, but he might learn to create talismans to block his odd new sight, so he wouldn't have to worry about reacting to people who absolutely, positively, were not there.

At least he hoped they weren't. Mostly.

Chapter Text

Jin Guangyao paced, leaning on the cane that'd become more and more necessary. He exercised, but there was only so much he could do to keep his body in shape. Try too hard and he was liable to injure himself. Don't do it enough and he'd stiffen up like the dead man he ought to be. Cold as it was outside, his joints kept locking up anyway.

Thinking about his own state let him ignore the cries coming from the next room. Let him focus on something other than the fact that his child. His. Child. was about to be born. They'd be such beautiful words if not for the secret he and Qin Su had been keeping all this time. All he could do was pray the baby would be healthy.

He was alone except for Captain Jin Jiu, the only member of the family aside from Jin Ling and Madam Jin whom he trusted. Under most circumstances, they'd be trading quips, testing each other's humor and wits. Right then they were both concerned for the woman screaming her throat raw in the next room.

Suddenly another pair of lungs added their noise to the mix. Or, rather, replaced it. Qin Su was done screaming now, though Jin Guangyao could hear her sobs as she recovered herself. The baby's howls weren't nearly so loud as she'd been, but they were enough to set him worrying.

He must have shown his concern to Jin Jiu. "The time to be afraid is when they don't scream the house down."

"You've had children?" But that wasn't right, or probably wasn't. Jin Jiu wasn't married.

"None of my own, sir. My mother. I sometimes think she's trying to populate the clan all by herself."

Jin Ling had quite enough cousins as it was thanks to his many 'uncles'. But Jin Guangyao didn't say so, just sighed in relief when the baby's noise settled down. He turned to watch the door, knowing his stomach would have been flipping around nervously if he were in a normal state. As it was, his spirit kept wanting to leave his body so he could go in and take a peek. Not a good idea at all, and not just because it'd be rude.

At last the door opened and Qin Su's midwife came out, carrying a tiny bundle. An oddly pale fist waved in the air and relief surged sharply. The baby was alive at least. Alive and lively. Except there was something in the woman's expression - cautious and concerned - that told him not all was well here.

He limped forward. Handed Jin Jiu his cane. "Let me see."

"It's a boy," the woman said. "You... he... he isn't...."

Steeling himself, Jin Guangyao pulled the blanket back from tiny perfect features. Perfect, that was, except for their pallor. Except for the pale hair and the oddly tinted eyes. Light colored, not quite red, not quite purple, not any color his astonished father could identify.

Rapidly, Jin Guangyao made up his mind. This was his son and no matter what some might say of his strange looks, he would be cherished and cared for, no matter how short his life might be. "Jin Long," he said softly. "Rising moon. My little rising moon. My perfect little steamed dumpling." They'd already agreed his courtesy name would be Rusong, but he was nowhere near old enough for that. He cuddled the baby, adding worriedly, "Qin Su?"

Relief had flooded the woman's face when he'd accepted his pale son without demur. "She's well. She'd like to see you."

Limping, careful not to jostle little A-Long, Jin Guangyao went in to tell his wife, his sister, just how beautiful their baby was.

#

"It's a shocking sight," Master He Gao of Tingshanhe Sect told Nie Mingjue at little Jin Long's hundred day celebration. "I realize these things happen sometimes, but one can't help wondering...."

They'd expected this. It didn't make it any easier for Nie Mingjue to deal with. He was much better at maintaining emotional balance these days, but having to listen to people gossip about his sworn brother's tiny baby son was enough to make him consider faking a tantrum just to get away from it.

Admittedly, Master He was right that little Jin Long was an odd looking child. Albinism was the sort of disease that bothered some people. It wasn't catching, didn't cause much trouble for its victim and generally just looked odd. Yet there were those who thought it an omen of some sort. Whether of spiritual power or mental deficiency wasn't clear.

"I've heard it's a sign of fox blood. Where could that have come from, I wonder?" That was Master Lao, continuing his effort to imply there was something wrong with the Lanling Jin Sect's Regent. "Were there ever any such rumors about the Qin?"

"I don't believe so, Master Lao." Jin Guangyao approached from behind the sect master, speaking gently, as if discussing the weather. He carried his small son tucked face forward under one arm like a pale sack of turnips. It'd be a worrisome sight if it weren't for the fact that Jin Long was obviously thrilled to be able to see everyone. "If there is any such ancestry in the family, it's more likely to come from me." He smiled a little viciously, adding, "I've heard some call me the little weasel, after all."

Nie Mingjue borrowed Jin Long from his father. "I've heard someone use that name, myself," he agreed, gazing levelly at Master Lao. "Though I like to think of you as more of a mongoose, San-Di. After all, you did take down that snake, Wen Ruohan."

Smoothly, as if entirely unperturbed by the implications of his child's so-called disability, Jin Guangyao added, "As far as my son's appearance goes, I doubt it will matter to our sect much. I'm Jin Ling's Regent and Jin Long is not in line for the succession."

Giggling at something only he could see, Jin Long threw his little head back, slamming it into Nie Mingjue's chin. "Oof.  Solid little brat, aren't you. Got a head as hard as your Ba-Ba's."

"Once again you have pinned me to the wall, Da-ge. I should have warned you he likes to do that." Jin Guangyao took his baby back. "I believe your mother is expecting me to return you, dumpling. You've had plenty of excitement this day."

Nie Mingjue watched his sworn brother limp away, emotions confused but mostly happy. They still weren't safe; not as long as Xue Yang was sneaking around out there, but at least they had moments like these to give them reason to keep trying.

#

"Where is my granbabby!"

The shout came from the hallway and startled all the ladies. Lan Xichen, who'd been presenting his compliments to little A-Long's mother, turned to see a half dressed figure stumble out into garden.

"Oh Gods," Madam Jin grumbled. "Who let him out."

Jin Guangshan was looking worse and worse every time Lan Xichen saw him. Whatever it was Xue Yang had done to him, it'd turned him from a generally intelligent, capable, cultivator to a whoring monster. Admittedly, the whoring slut had always been there, but up until now the Sect Master had done an excellent job of hiding his true nature. Now every dark impulse, every mindless lust he possessed was in control.

Qin Su took A-Long from Jin Guangyao and moved towards the other side of the garden. She didn't need to speak to make her request clear. Protect their son from the old man who'd pretty well ruined both their lives for them. Her mother stepped closer, blocking Jin Guangshan's view.

With a sigh, Jin Guangyao moved to intercept his father. Lan Xichen, naturally, followed to provide support as his sworn brother said, "Father, you got to see A-Long just this morning. There's no need to make a fuss. And you're inappropriately dressed anyway."

That last was all too true. It was obvious what Jin Guangshan had been doing prior to his impulsive decision to come wandering out looking for his family. All he wore was his outer robe and a belt, neither of which were enough to conceal the man's lack of any underclothes. Lan Xichen would have been shocked if he didn't know how far past ruined the man's mind was.

Jin Guangshan stared over his son's head, trying to spot his grandson. His eyes lit up in a way Lan Xichen didn't like at all and quite suddenly he pushed Jin Guangyao sideways. Smaller, lighter and partly crippled due to his condition, Jin Guangyao stumbled into Lan Xichen as his father rushed towards Madam Qin. "Beauty! My beauty! Have you come for me again!"

Spinning round, tossing the gold cord he wore around his waist, Jin Guangyao lassoed his father and pulled him back, dropping him to the ground. Not that Jin Guangshan noticed. He just kept trying to move forward, one hand reaching out for Madam Qin, the other for his privates.

Madam Jin leaned down and dragged her husband upright. "I have him, Regent Jin. I'll take care of him. You see to your wife and mother-in-law." Before anyone could react, Madam Jin frog-marched her protesting husband back the way he'd come.

As Jin Guangyao obediently went to Madam Qin to make sure she was all right, Lan Xichen checked the garden to see who might have heard the former Sect Master's cries. Hopefully anyone who had heard would assume the man was simply going on as he usually did, with the added 'benefit' of being half-mad from whatever Xue Yang had done to him.

Noticing Master Lao approaching, Lan Xichen wandered towards the man. "That was disconcerting," he said, heading the man off before he could approach Jin Guangyao. "Sad proof that Jin Sect's master has gone quite mad."

"Indeed." Master Lao turned a quick look in the direction Madam Jin and her husband had gone. "I'm surprised he managed to find his way here."

Now that was a good question. One Lan Xichen found curious as well. "The excitement of the day, no doubt," he offered.

"And what was that he was saying to Madam Qin of all people? The mother of his son's wife? Scandalous!"

Lan Xichen agreed inwardly but had no intention of saying what he thought. "It'd be wrong to assume he had any such desire, I think. He's always been solicitous of every woman he comes across."

Scoffing, Lao Sen retorted, "But not foolish enough to go after a fellow Sect Lord's wife. Or was he. Did he say 'again' earlier?"

Even if this weren't something Lan Xichen wanted kept quiet, he would have refused to engage further. "That's mere gossip, Master Lao, and quite beneath us."

With a chuckle, Master Lao turned away to find someone more amenable to his muttered complaints. "That's true," he said as he left Lan Xichen's presence. "All you Lan Sect people have sticks stuck straight up your assholes." With that, he was gone, though not far. Already it looked like he was happily gossiping away.

Lan Xichen wasn't sure why, but something about the man's behavior worried him. He just didn't know why.

#

Her damned husband had gone too far this time. Wandering out of his rooms in the middle a celebration was bad enough. Doing so partly clothed and still partly erect was even worse. And to top all that off with making eyes at the woman he'd already harmed?

She dragged Jin Guangshan back to his room. Glared at the men supposedly in charge of keeping him there. She knew perfectly well what'd happened. The whores couldn't hold her husband if he got rambunctious, but the guards could have if they'd wanted. It was only because they'd thought it funny to embarrass the Regent that they'd failed to do so.

Really, it was high time something was done. Hell, it'd been high time something was done years ago. Madam Jin considered her husband, lying on the bed playing with himself and humming cheerfully. Made up her mind.

Murder was going too far. But so was letting this idiot keep making their lives miserable. She thought about Qin Su, sweet, biddable, Qin Su. About the amazingly happy little one she'd produced. What was it Jin Guangyao called him? Ah, that was right. Dumpling. Such an appropriate name for the pale little creature. Neither deserved this old slut's attentions.

"Guangshan. Do you remember when we married? What I told you?"

He blinked at her. Frowned in a puzzled way. He'd lost his fear of her over the last few months, probably because he'd come to believe she wouldn't do anything to him. After all, she was the one who'd brought him his women. "Hmmm?"

"Think about it. What did I say?" When he still stared at her, unable to remember, she sighed. "I told you, as long as you behaved like a proper sect master at the appropriate times, as long as you did your job, everything would be fine."

A faint line of worry formed on his brow. It was quickly joined by another as she smiled at him. "Do you remember what I said would happen if you weren't discreet?"

"Now... wife...."

"Don't 'now wife' me, Jin Guangshan.  What did I say?"

"That you... you'd...." Jin Guangshan covered himself. Backed away. "Don't. Don't touch me."

She smiled fiercely. "Your choice, then. This is the last time. Positively the last chance you have in a whole long history of chances. You're insane. You're not stupid. You want to keep that thing attached? You want to keep the ladies I'm allowing you?"

"Yes.... yes... please."

"Then you will stay in the nice pretty prison we've built for you. You will never leave here again." She drew one of her throwing knives, the delicate blade gleaming in the lamplight. "Otherwise you'll be fit for nothing better than guarding the Emperor's harem. Because that thing you're so pleased with will be of no use to you whatsoever except as a conversation piece."

He shuddered.

"Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, wife." His voice was quite small, almost childlike. "I'll be good."

"I sincerely doubt that. But as long as you stay here, you can be as naughty as you like." With that, she stalked out of the building, stopping only long enough to look hard on the men who were supposed to keep Jin Guangshan put.

"Ma'am?" one asked, voice quavering.

"You heard what I told my husband?" They all knew better than to pretend they hadn't. At their agreement, she sniffed. "Then you make sure you do the job you've been given and keep him from leaving ever again. Or I promise you, your privates will be joining his. And I won't bother with anesthetic when I do it."

Satisfied by their expressions that they'd listen, this time, Madam Jin stalked back to the party. After all, everyone else had gotten to hold the steamed dumpling today but her.

And she needed a happily smiling face to make her feel better.

Chapter Text

"You're sure you're all right with this?" Jin Guangyao looked at his younger half-brother in a worried sort of way. Mo Xuanyu had gone from sect to sect over the last few months, never quite settling down. From Jin Guangyao's perspective, it sometimes seemed like his brother was trying prove the only sect he actually belonged in was Jin. And that remained an impossibility.

"I talked to the abbot and he doesn't mind my liking men at all. He likes men that way too!"

There'd been rumors to that effect for years, rumors Abbot Shen had never so much as tried to quell. "You understand you're there to learn? Not find a lover."

"I do," young Xuanyu's expression was earnest. "You're the only one I've ever loved!"

Jin Guangyao winced, wishing his brother wasn't quite so determined to get himself in trouble. His being a cut-sleeve made his life hard enough. His being cut-sleeve and wanting his own half-brother made things a great deal worse. "I hope, one day, you find someone you can love more than you love me, A-Yu."

A little smile crossed young Xuanyu's lips. "It's all right, brother. I don't feel that way as much anymore. I just can't find anyone I like better. I'm not hoping you'll change your mind, I promise. I'm just a baby who can't let go."

It was sad, because Jin Guangyao knew only too well what it was like to want and want and want and never have. But this was a thing he couldn't possibly give the boy. Blood kinship aside, Jin Guangyao simply didn't feel that sort of love for the youngster.

"I understand. I think." Putting the thought aside because there was nothing to be done about it, he asked, "Let's see. You've learned basic weapons foundation at Qinghe Nie. Musical skills at Gusulan. Talisman work from Moling Su. Alchemy from Yao. What do you hope to learn from Baixue?" Jin Guangyao guided his horse around a hole in the road and made a note to mention the highway's condition to whomever was in charge of that section.

"Master Shen is studying the spiritualist side of the Yiling Patriarch's work. I was hoping to learn from him."

There were those who might worry over A-Yu's interest, but Jin Guangyao knew how readily the boy consolidated information. He was particularly good with arrays and talismans, both of which tied in beautifully with some of the work Wei Wuxian had left behind. And by now the cultivation world was warming to the idea of using the parts of the Yiling Patriarch's legacy that didn't work through resentful energy. Already Moling Su was making a name for itself, reproducing spirit attracting flags.

Noticing they were approaching Baixue Temple, Jin Guangyao scanned the buildings. Remote, nestled in the base of Xue Mountain, it was a pale gem against the dark green forest. A safe place for his half-brother, too far from the cultivation world for people to notice Mo Xuanyu's naïve innocence and take advantage of it.

And hopefully this time he'd stay put and do some growing.

#

"Even if you make that damned fan your primary weapon you're going to have to carry your saber."

Huaisang laughed, "Everyone knows I won't draw it." He dodged beneath Nie Mingjue's strike, cut back with the sharpened edge of his bamboo fan. A blade formed of pure qi left a fine line along his brother's armor. "HAH!"

"Good. Better. I almost think I might trust you're safe over at Moling Su." Nie Mingjue backed up. Checked the damage. His baby brother wasn't strong enough to cut through metal with that qi attack of his, but it was a good thing he'd been wearing armor. He'd be needing stitches otherwise.

Huaisang blinked at him. "Brother? Moling Su? You mean you've decided? You agree?"

"You have to keep practicing your saber drills."

"I promise!" It was a weak assurance, of course. Young Huaisang would likely spend as little time on his drills as he could get away with. But even if he turned to spiritual cultivation and using his fan to focus his qi, he'd need the physical foundation the exercises provided.

Still, it was more and more obvious that Nie Mingjue's baby brother simply wasn't suited to the traditional Nie fighting techniques. Nie Mingjue had hoped Huaisang would develop a saber form that could be taught to the lighter built members of the sect, but that obviously wasn't going to happen.

It'd been San-di's pointing out just how close Huaisang was to his very own qi deviation that'd made Nie Mingjue rethink things. He still felt his brother needed to be stronger, needed to be a better cultivationist. But now he realized he was best off letting Huaisang find a form of cultivation that suited him, not try to force him to fit a style he might never have the strength for.

Sending him to Moling Su to study had been Lan Xichen's idea. Now that Gusulan's would-be rivals had turned their focus on what they were truly skilled at - namely, talismans - Er-di was more than willing to support the sect's new leader. Wu Ling didn't have the grudges Su She had had, making it easier for the two sects to compare notes and work together.

Nie Mingjue walked back to the main building with his brother, a little startled to realize how much taller Huaisang had gotten. "You've been doing some growing. Do you need a new set of robes?"

"Eh? No. It isn't that." An embarrassed expression crossed Huaisang's face. Seeing his brother wasn't going to let him leave the matter there, he explained, "I slouch... slouched... more. I think I was trying to stay out of your sight. You aren't yelling at me so much now, so I don't anymore."

The admission stung a bit. No, more than a bit. But it was also understandable. "I'm sorry." He'd been getting worse and worse ever since the war. If San-di hadn't pointed out just how messed up his qi was becoming, thanks to his clinging to the old Nie traditions, he might well have done something terrible.

No, actually he had done something terrible. They were all just lucky Jin Guangyao had managed to - sort of - survive what he'd done. Luckier still that their San-di's current state had given Nie Mingjue the chance to rebalance himself. The chance to rebalance and to learn to maintain his balance without his small sworn brother's help.

"Don't be. I knew you had a reason to be angry. I just... didn't like dealing with it. Didn't like how angry it made me." Huaisang sighed. "I want to please you, brother. I'm just not a proper Nie."

Now that wasn't true at all. "Brother, you are a Nie. You will never not be a Nie." For one thing, Huaisang would have run away years ago if he didn't have the spine to insist on his own way of doing things. For another, "You may be finding a completely new path for us, but that's not a bad thing. A sect that sits on its past glories, like the Jin and the Wen, is doomed to extinction."

Huaisang giggled. "Don't tell San-ge that."

"San-di has long and elaborate diatribes on the subject of his clan's failings, Huaisang. Ask what he's done about those gold bathtubs sometime and you'll get an earful." Then there was the wine, the silk robes, Koi tower's upkeep and the total failure of the higher ranked family members to contribute anything to the clan's growth. What was it A-Yao said? Oh, yes. "If it weren't for the second and third rank septs, the butterflies calling themselves cultivation leaders would be falling off their golden pedestal into the nearest swamp. The sooner the better, too."

A relieved little smile crossed Huaisang's face. "It isn't that bad. It isn't good, but it isn't that bad." He stopped at the steps leading up to the main building. Looked at the great gold sign with Qinghe Nie's bullhead engraved at its center. Looked wistful. "I will miss home. But, thank you, brother, for letting me go."

"Just be sure to come back. Preferably with something other than your weight in fans and dirty books."

"None?" Huaisang whined.

"I didn't say that." Mostly because Nie Mingjue knew his brother and knew some things were inevitable. And a small price to pay if Huaisang came back further along his chosen path than he'd been before.

#

"So you're off again?"

"En."

Lan Xichen examined his little brother thoughtfully. Lan Zhan looked so much healthier, so much more grounded, than he had before. Ever since he'd returned from Jin Guangyao's presentation at Lotus Pier his outlook had changed. Improved.

Uncle Qiren was convinced Lan Zhan had attempted to contact Wei Wuxian and finally accepted he could not. Lan Xichen was fairly sure the opposite had been true. He'd seen his brother's face when he'd come back from playing Inquiry in Lotus Pier's garden. The serene expression of one who had hope. Not one who'd given it up.

If Lan Zhan had contacted Wei Wuxian's spirit, he didn't admit it. He returned to Gusulan, went back to teaching, worked to raise little A-Yuan, and travelled whenever he had a chance. 'Being Where Chaos Is' became his new epithet, because he always seemed to come to someone's rescue during those trips.

"Now that A-Yuan has been accepted into training," Lan Xichen told his brother. "Your lesson schedule could be increased, if you wish."

"Prefer not to."

As Lan Xichen expected. "You bring honor to Gusulan, whatever you do," he murmured, though they both knew that wasn't why Lan Zhan did what he did. "Uncle wanted me to tell you that."

The flash of anger and hate that used to flare in Lan Zhan's eyes on mentioning Uncle Qiren was gone. Now it was replaced by an odd flicker of mischief. If Uncle Qiren had a clue what his favorite nephew was really up to, he'd probably have had an apoplectic fit. There might come a time when their respected Elder would have to be told the truth, but unless and until Lan Zhan's efforts came to something, there was no need.

"Appreciated." Lan Zhan paused. Eyed Lan Xichen thoughtfully.

Wondering what his brother was thinking, Lan Xichen asked, "Is there more?"

"There are rumors."

Ordinarily, Gusulan rules required its disciples to eschew gossip. The fact that Lan Zhan was ignoring them suggested these rumors were something he felt his brother should know about. "Yes?"

"Rumors that Jin Guangyao isn't really a Jin."

Those rumors had been slithering around behind the scenes for quite some time. "Given who, or what, his mother was, that's hardly surprising. Do you know where it's coming from now?"

"One of his uncles. Jin Guangli. Been asking at brothel."

Jin Guangli was a distant cousin, close enough to be allowed a generational name. Not close enough to give his son one. Even if he rid the clan of Jin Guangyao he'd have no hope of inheriting anything. But some people could be convinced of anything.

"Is he doing anything else?"

"Overheard him discussing a way to test kinship with Yao Leung."

A way to test kinship? That shouldn't be a problem. Lan Xichen was fairly sure San-di was his father's son. He might look more like his mother, but there were little marks in his features that were pure Jin. His eyes, for one thing, that light brown shade that resembled dark amber. Still, it wouldn't hurt to warn him, just in case.

"Thank you, brother. I'll mention the possibility the next time I see him."

"Wouldn't want him hurt. Matters to you." Lan Zhan rose to his feet. Bowed. "Best be off. Tell Uncle, will be doing my best to care for what's broken."

As Lan Xichen watched his brother leave, he reflected that Lan Zhan's attitude had a faint hint of another trouble-seeking cultivator. The one whose name Uncle Qiren would like to never hear again. If so, Lan Xichen found himself hard-put to be sorry.

Because it was high time Lan Zhan peeked out of his self-imposed prison of silence to do something in the world. Even if that something was helping the Yiling Patriarch's soul restore itself.

#

It was easy for Wen Ning to stay out of sight and - mostly - out of trouble. He'd long since discovered a talent for traveling through the earth, avoiding notice. It had to do with that thing he carried. The half-piece of the Stygian Tiger Seal, embedded now inside him for safekeeping.

Perhaps it'd been a mistake, hiding the seal inside his flesh? But it really was the safest place. Carry it around his neck or in a pouch and he risked it being lost. He dared not let it be lost. Even halved, it was still a power to reckon with. One that was changing him from a regular fierce corpse to something different.

He had dreams, every so often. He shouldn't. He was undead and undead didn't sleep, much less dream. Yet lying in the darkness below the earth, he dreamed. A sword and its wielder, facing down enemy after enemy. A Wen sword. A Wen robe. And, every so often, a Wen reflection in a bronze mirror. Not Wen Ning, he wasn't so tall, wasn't so strong. But he knew the face and the name. Wen Mao.

Qishan Wen had long hidden the fate of their founder. Not out of embarrassment but to maintain power. Wen Ning's sister knew it, though. Knew Wen Mao had fallen to the Turtle of Slaughter, its last victim until its return centuries later. Wen Mao, no longer young, fearing the thing would rise again despite years of silence, had finally followed it into the depths. And never returned from them.

Wen Ning knew Young Master Wei Ying had created the Stygian Tiger Seal from a sword he'd found inside the Turtle of Slaughter's shell. The sword he'd used to kill the monster. The sword filled with not only the resentment of Wen Mao over his death, but the resentment of all Wen Mao's enemies and the Turtle of Slaughter's victims.

And now half of what remained was lodged in Wen Ning's undead body. He wasn't sure it could be destroyed, now. Perhaps if he destroyed himself? Well, that was something he'd do if it looked like he was becoming a true monster. Right that moment, though, he felt oddly at peace with himself.

Something flickered at the edge of his expanding senses. A familiar awareness, one he hadn't felt properly in years and years. Automatically, even though he hadn't been called, he moved towards that presence. Found it running wildly around above him.

If there'd been a sense of panic from the young master, Wen Ning would have leapt from the ground to his defense. There wasn't. The faint, fractured, existence seemed happily excited. His voice, familiar yet not, sounded above Wen Ning. "Can't catch me!"

"Oh, I'll catch you, all right you rotten little brat." That was a girl's voice. Laughter suffused its tone, showing she was just playing and only a little annoyed. Which, given the young master's personality, was no surprise.

Curious, Wen Ning shifted through the dirt and found a shadowy place to hide. There were bushes surrounding the little glen, giving him plenty of cover. Messy, but with no one there to see, it didn't really matter. He scanned the sunlit scene and found himself yearning to smile.

Young Master Wei was a great deal smaller and a great deal younger than he ought to be but it was him. He looked just about ten or eleven, the same height as the girl chasing him. They were practicing a style similar to Baixue Temple's and spotting a young man in that sect's black robes, Wen Ning guessed he was their teacher. He was watching them with an indulgent and amused expression, horsehair whip swinging gently in the breeze.

The scent of food cooking startled Wen Ning. He'd never noticed a sense of smell before. Another change because of the seal? Not a bad one, at least. Pleasant, just like the congee bubbling away. He peered towards the cook and spotted a man in white robes sitting beside the cookfire, stirring the pot while he watched the children practice.

Though Wen Ning couldn't guess at why his master had turned to a child, nor who his companions were, he was relieved to know Wei Wuxian was alive, healthy and clearly happy. Wen Ning wouldn't approach him then. It was obvious the child his master had become was in no fit state to do anything about the seal. Wen Ning would just have to hold onto it until young master Wei recovered his memories. Given he did.

In the meantime, Wen Ning would stay nearby, hidden in the ground to keep close and careful guard over his master. It wasn't as if he'd anything better to do, after all.

Chapter Text

"It's tragic, what happened to your family. I always knew that little bastard was a waste of skin."

Xue Yang smiled at his new benefactor, sipping the tea he'd been provided and mourning the lack of tongues. Ah well, for the moment, just to stay hidden, he'd have to play righteous cultivator. Not an easy rôle, but one he'd played before.

Really, he'd have liked to just establish himself and grab some disciples to control. But those three bastards were onto his tricks. He'd had too many failures in the last three years to take that risk. No. Like the Turtle of Slaughter had hidden itself away for centuries before rousing, he'd have to spend a few quiet years in hiding. And where better to hide than with a small time sect master with delusions of importance?

His benefactor, Lao Sen, sect master of Lingyu Lao, had been easy to attach himself to. All he'd had to do was support the man in an argument with some Jin small-fry and he'd been invited to dinner. And dinner meant an opportunity to drop a few grains of his newest drug into the man's food. Follow the drug up with the appropriate hypnotic commands and the first foothold was established.

It helped that Lao Sen loathed Jin Guangyao's background. Apparently he'd never forgiven Jin Guangyao for being the one to kill Wen Ruohan. He claimed - falsely, Xue Yang suspected - that he'd been within minutes of the throne room at the time. The fact that his cultivation was nowhere near as good as Wen Ruohan's never came up. Hell, the little bastard had had to use a sneak attack to manage it himself.

All of which only mattered as a useful opening to worm his way into Lao Sen's trust. Drugging Lao Sen to make him amenable to suggestion came next. Then mental controls that would let the man accept Xue Yang's story despite conflicting evidence. For now, Xue Yang was He Su, a son of Tingshanhe sect master, He Gao. For now, He Su was the only survivor of his clan, secretly murdered by Jin Guangyao.

"We should step forward. Reveal the truth to the cultivation world."

Adjusting his controls, Xue Yang told the sect leader, "Without evidence, without proof, how can we do anything? My family are gone and no one even remembers it. They even pretend Tingshanhe and my father are safe and sound in their home."

This was the tricky part. Most hypnotic persuasion worked best by bending the truth. But Tingshanhe were alive and well. It was He Su who'd died that day back at Tianshan Fortress. Lingyu Lao had to be convinced of the exact opposite and yet not realize the paradox when he was faced with the truth.

Luckily, Xue Yang's time with the alchemists of the Si-Hua clan had given him plenty of ways to make sure his victim never noticed he'd been tricked until it was far, far, far too late.

#

For the most part, Jin Jiu liked his Master. Regent Jin Guangyao was humorous, pragmatic and easy to get along with. Some of that likely came from his years at that brothel. Employees of such places had to know how to keep the customers happy. Had to know how to smile even when they'd much rather kick an obstreperous client down the stairs.

No, best not think about kicking people down stairs. Jin Jiu knew Regent Jin had something of a phobia on the subject. He tended to stay as close to the railing as possible and clutched both it and his cane tight whenever he had to go up or down.

The trouble was, Jin Jiu was having some trouble not being irritated with his Master. He shouldn't. It wasn't as if the man went out of his way to be hurtful, after all. But Jin Jiu had always been fond of Maiden Qin Su and he hated seeing her ignored. He especially hated seeing her ignored by the one man who should never ignore her, her own husband.

Admittedly, Jin Guangyao had an excuse. Whatever injury he'd taken from that last fall down the stairs really had done some permanent damage. But that didn't explain why the man did everything in his power to ensure he and his wife were never alone in the same room. It was as if he wanted everyone to know he wasn't engaging in his conjugal rights.

Even if Jin Guangyao couldn't perform as a man should, he surely could at least be there for Qin Su privately. They were husband and wife, for the Gods' sake. He could spend time with her alone, without others intruding on their relationship. Even now, long after A-Long was born, he made sure to never be alone with her.

It wasn't distaste for their child, either. Jin Guangyao doted on his pale-haired son, always finding time for little A-Long whenever the boy toddled his way into his office. He'd carry the child on his shoulders or tucked under one arm like a giggly sack of potatoes. The child returned his father's love with sudden wild kisses, messy and sticky though they were, and plenty of hugs.

Jin Jiu rather liked little A-Long himself, though he could do with having to chase a few less crickets, lizards and field-mice out of Jin Guangyao's office. The boy loved wildlife and wanted to share. The wildlife, and those he shared it with, seldom agreed. Madam Jin had taken to having him searched any time he came to visit his cousin, and rightly so. He never seemed to learn to leave his friends behind.

Every so often Jin Guangyao would send Jin Jiu to invite Qin Su and A-Long to eat together, or go riding together, or even visit the market together; sure sign that they were on good enough terms. So why, why, why, would the man refuse to be alone with her?

"You seem troubled," Jin Guangyao murmured, catching the grasshopper A-Long had brought for him and scooping it into the cup he kept for the purpose. Gods forbid he should ever smash one of his son's friends, after all. "Is there something you need to say?"

For the most part, Jin Guangyao was the sort of Master who actually welcomed criticism from his aide. This, though, surely wasn't something the man would accept. Not when it involved his private life. "Regent is kind, but it's likely just indigestion. The cousins had a late night."

"The cousins always have a late night." Jin Guangyao turned to look directly at Jin Jiu. "You've never turned a hair before now. What is it?"

It was unusual for the Regent to be so direct. Unusual for him to be so demanding. Even when he'd every reason to be commanding and imperious, he tended towards quiet and tactful orders. Startled, Jin Jiu admitted, "I worry for Qin Su."

Jin Guangyao considered him silently. Then, with sharp insight, he said, "You have feelings towards her." It was not a question. At Jin Jiu's expression, a little smile tugged at his lips. "And are concerned that I ignore her."

"Regent doesn't ignore his wife. He... just...." How in the hell was Jin Jiu supposed to explain?

"Regent does not spend time alone with her. Regent is aware." A soft, tired, sigh. "I cannot. I must not. I have reason and none of it is her fault. Not mine either, though I'm sure I'll be blamed for it, for the decisions I've made, once the truth is known."

The admission was so soft Jin Jiu wasn't sure he was supposed to hear it. Except Jin Guangyao didn't let his inner thoughts escape his lips. More likely he was concerned that someone else might hear. "Is there anything this Aide might do to help?"

"Be there for her when the time comes, that's all I ask." Ruefully, Jin Guangyao added, "I cannot be a proper husband to her, but I do love her. I will not abandon her or our son, no matter what the circumstances surrounding us. I can only hope to find her and A-Long a safe path out of this mess my father made for us."

Not said, but implied, was Jin Guangyao's expectation that he wouldn't be so fortunate.

#

"That bastard Regent thinks he can force those damned towers on us." Lao Sen paced angrily, glaring at the latest proposal from Jin Sect. How dare he? How dare that little bastard think he had any right to guide the cultivation world?"

He Su shrugged. "He's a Jin. He's no better than that slut father of his."

That made Master Lao pause. "He's not a slut, at least. I've had people looking for his weak points and he doesn't sleep around. Some say he doesn't sleep at all, which is pure nonsense."

"He doesn't sleep around with women," He Su offered. "What about those 'sworn brothers' of his?" He smiled, one oddly sharp tooth sticking out from the rest.

If those sworn brothers weren't Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen, Lao Sen might have agreed. "Don't talk nonsense, boy. Even if he were immoral enough to engage in cut-sleeve ways, those two wouldn't. Not when he's married and has a son."

"Something's wrong with that kid. He's obviously damaged. And the little bastard acts like he's perfectly normal."

Lao Sen couldn't help agreeing on that count. Jin Rusong would be a cute, even startlingly attractive, youngster if it weren't for his horribly strange coloring. There'd never been an albino in either the Qin or Jin families before. So why was the boy so odd? Something in his heritage?

He Su continued, "It's probably Jin Guangyao's side. Something from his mother, maybe. And he's so short, compared to the rest of his family."

They'd discussed the possibility that Jin Guangyao wasn't really Jin Guangshan's son. Oh, supposedly he resembled the clan's founder, Jin Jianhong. The one portrait the family had of their founder confirmed the resemblance, but there was no way to tell how tall he'd been. Besides, the man was supposed to be a giant, known for his brilliant tactics and his battle prowess.

"Jin Guangshan accepted him. Even gave him a suitable courtesy name. Suitable for a bastard who can't inherit anything, at least." Lao Sen thought about it. "But maybe he had something on the slut? Some hold on him that we don't know about."

"Remember that kinship test I suggested to Yao Leung and Tang Shi? If they come up with something good, we can test him out. It isn't like he's going to get everyone to agree about those towers any time soon. He's still negotiating with the larger clans."

Lao Sen sneered. "We already know Lan and Nie will agree. Qin's sure to, as well." Still, there wasn't much point in panicking yet. Yao Leung of Yao Sect and Tang Shi of Moling Su were the best in their respective fields of alchemy and talismans. Between the two of them a kinship test ought to be possible. And then they'd see.

Once again He Su smiled, clearly just as pleased at the idea as Lao Sen, that sharp little tooth sticking out cutely from between his lips. Almost like a fang.

#

"So you see how useful this will be?"

Mo Xuanyu smiled at his teacher. Tang Shi might not be terribly attractive, but he was kind and he was attentive. He made sure his students were keeping up. Not that this was at all hard. Setting up talismans to help identify an animal's breeding history was detailed work, but not difficult to understand. That was why he'd agreed to go back to Moling Su for a while to help the old man out. Being able to do things with Best Friend A-Sang just made it better.

"I do. I helped Jin Li breed spirit dogs when I was at Koi Tower. She taught me how to chart generations." It could be bad if one bred closely related animals together. All sorts of birth defects could result. "She told me how one of her prize bitches accidentally got bred by a sibling and wound up with three dead pups and one all white weakling."

"Exactly. Now, obviously, you can't account for everything, but if you can trace a breeding pair's parentage back a few generations you can be fairly sure they're not too close."

The talisman paper they'd prepared had delicate lines connecting small arrays. Drops of amber liquid, prepared by Yao Leung, had been dripped into those arrays, each from a separate bottle. The liquid was refined from the blood of different animals, each carefully labeled so there'd be no mistake.

Setting the last brushstrokes to the arrays, Mo Xuanyu stepped back and watched the drops spread out of their circles, following the lines between. "Awww, that's not right," he grumbled, as three of the lines suddenly connected drops that couldn't possibly be associated. They belonged to a goose, a cat and his mule Little Apple. "I must have done something wrong."

"No, I think it's the drops themselves. Either Yao Leung's assistant accidentally mixed the blood or she didn't get them properly refined. See, the ones for the horses are exactly on target... oh, wait. What?"

Tang Shi could hardly be blamed for being startled. The one drop didn't send out a connecting line at all. Instead it swirled around in its circle, then flung itself straight off the page and rolled away across the floor. Mo Xuanyu tried to follow, but the thing disappeared into a crack and was gone before he got to it.

"Well, it seems we haven't quite gotten the trick of it. What was that one?"

Mo Xuanyu checked the bottle. "Oh, that came from young Gaogui. You know, that boy Master Song and Master Xiao adopted. He was visiting Baixue when I collected those samples you asked for."

"That lunatic? Why would you choose him?"

Mo Xuanyu came to the younger boy's defense quickly. "He's not a lunatic. He's just silly." He knew what it was like, being thought mad when one was just a bit fluttery in the head. Besides, he liked Gaogui. The funny disciple was kind and friendly and nonjudgmental. "And young. He can't be much more than fifteen, you know."

"That still doesn't explain why you brought me a sample of his blood."

Tell the truth, Mo Xuanyu wasn't sure. "He doesn't know who his family is. I was hoping, maybe, we could figure it out."

Tang Shi considered that. Laughed. "Not yet, I think. We'll probably need samples from other sources for that to be possible and I'm nowhere near ready to test human bloodlines. For now, why don't you set up another sheet so we can test more than one generation."

Happily, Mo Xuanyu went to do exactly that. He hoped to learn more about the Yiling Patriarch's studies when he went back to Baixue. For now, however, this research suited him perfectly. After all, Mo Xuanyu wanted nothing more than to be useful and to find his own place in the world. It'd make Yao-ge happy, he was sure, knowing little A-Yu had finally settled down.

And making his beautiful brother happy remained his first and most important priority.

Chapter Text

"I don't suppose you could try paying attention?" A-Qing glared at her no longer quite so little brother, annoyed and amused at the way he grinned.

"Could. Do I want to?"

She sighed. "Do you want to form a Golden Core or not?"

"Dunno. Think I can?"

Truth to tell, A-Qing wasn't at all sure. Oh, Gaogui was physically skilled and he meditated a great deal better than one would expect. He also tended to be easily distracted and his qi acted weird sometimes. Never enough to put him in deviation, but there were times when something seemed off.

Still, he was learning amazingly fast for a... how old was he, anyway? They'd thought he couldn't be much more than four when they'd found him, but ever since Master Xiao and Master Song had taken him in, he'd shot up fast. Really, it was nothing short of amazing.

She eyed him, a little startled to realize he was towering over her now. She was small for her age, of course. Lack of good food as a child had ensured she'd never grow much. But surely Gaogui shouldn't be this big. Why hadn't she noticed before? For that matter, why hadn't their masters?

Realizing he was staring at her with wide, innocent, eyes, she added, "I believe you can if you try. And you shouldn't wait too much longer. It's harder to form a foundation, the older you get."

The boy thought about it. "Dunno if I want to."

"Don't you think it looks bad for our masters if their disciple doesn't learn properly?"

Now that had the effect A-Qing hoped for. Gaogui didn't worry about what people thought about him but he didn't like it when those who he cared about were looked down on. He settled into place. Calmed down and began meditating properly.

And that was another odd thing about the boy. He never needed to be taught how to do a thing more than once. Hell, he sometimes understood how to do it almost before he'd been told. It was like he had an instinct for cultivation that put him above most youngsters.

Watching Gaogui meditate, A-Qing tried to puzzle out why she thought he was so odd. He was an active soul and seldom gave her time to think much. They were all too often too busy chasing around distracting undead for their masters or helping deal with demon beasts. And when they weren't working, he was playing, a constantly moving squirrel of a child.

Thoughtfully, she started counting backwards. When had they found the boy? Time had rushed by so fast she'd barely noticed the changes. There'd been that demon dog just last winter. A dozen or so ghosts that'd been so scared of something they'd happily cooperated with Master Song's efforts to set them to rest. Funny, ghosts just didn't hang around when they were around. She wondered why.

Realizing she was getting distracted again, she forced herself to concentrate. There'd been various meetings. A yearly visit to Baixue Temple and Master Song's sect master. How many of those visits? About four? Was that really all? But, wait. It had to be. Regent Jin's son had been born just half a year after they'd found Gaogui and A-Long was just a bit under four now.

That wasn't possible. Couldn't be right. Yet it was. She looked up at Gaogui, tall enough to be around fifteen to sixteen years old. Maybe they'd made a mistake, thinking he was just four? He'd be eight now, if that were true. But even if he had been older, closer to his apparent age now, how in the world could he be this tall already? Good food surely couldn't have helped so much, could it?

Cautiously, because she didn't want to distract him, she focused her own qi, trying to analyze the energies around him. Odd how there always seemed to be a faint thread of something different in his spirit. A strand of shadowy stuff that reminded her of the negative energies that surrounded ghosts.

And what was that? Another source of shadow somewhere close. Below the ground? It was quiet. A calm shadowy force, with no sense of resentment or aggression. It just lay there, waiting.

She'd have been frightened, but something about that shadow seemed oddly gentle. Protective. Something about it made her feel safe, as if its source meant nothing but the best for her and her family.

Whatever it was, she'd a feeling it had a great deal to do with Gaogui. She'd mention it to Master Song, sometime. He'd know what to do about it.

#

There were puzzles everywhere. Xiao Xingchen, more than a little bit of an innocent about the world, would freely admit to being ignorant about humans. He'd been born in Baoshan Sanren's sanctum, the son of two of her disciples. Until the day he'd decided to follow his sister out into the world, all he'd ever known had been the way of the Dao the Immortal Baoshan Sanren had taught.

Traveling with Song Lan had been a different sort of enlightenment from what he'd learned back with his master. He'd learned that people had multiple facets, that kindness wasn't a given. That people were, by nature, opportunistic and often selfish.

Yet at the same time, he liked them. Well, not every person he ever met. He didn't care much for Jin Guangshan,. Truly disliked that would-be necromancer, Xue Yang. And wasn't at all sure what to make of Jin Guangyao.

Now there was an odd person indeed. Definitely opportunistic. Definitely shaky when it came to morality. And at the same time, tangled up inside by emotions Xiao Xingchen didn't understand at all. A desire to do right and outright fear of being looked down on. Lucky for everyone he had chosen a better path, even if it was only to please his sworn brothers.

Another puzzle was the youngster he and Song Lan had taken in. From the first he'd sensed there was something odd and special about the child. Something broken, too. Something desperately in need of love and support. Both of which he'd gotten from his new family. The boy thrived with them, growing fast and tall, in ways that made Song Lan watch him with the oddest expression.

Was there something wrong about the boy? Xiao Xingchen couldn't tell. Growing up sequestered as he had, there were so many things he'd needed explained when he'd come down from the mountains. Gaogui seemed healthy enough. He even talked more than he used to, his bubbling conversational style endearingly confusing. He loved to tease in a gentle way that made Xiao Xingchen think of Sanren-jie.

Two figures rushed past, the one flinging himself up into the trees, the other dodging sideways, using her bamboo staff to send a wave of qi cutting through the air. Their quarry yelped, body shifting to something smaller and longer than it'd been before. That was the trouble with taotie. They weren't shapeshifters in the classic sense, but they were unstable, their appearance confusing to those who saw them.

That meant it often took months, even years, for a village to realize a taotie was in the area. Opportunistic feeders, the creatures would raid hen houses, gorge itself on garbage and every fish in the pond, steal clothes from the rack, dance on the rooftops during dark moons and howl at full ones. All while seeming to be a different beast to every person who saw it.

Demon beasts often grew more powerful as they grew older, but this one was obviously still quite young. It was fast, but not as fast as Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen's disciples. It was clever, but again, not nearly as smart. And it was disadvantaged by being pure white, no matter what shape it appeared to be.

It wasn't deadly dangerous, though. Taotie were constantly hungry but they were also lazy. They preferred easy meals that they could steal over having to hunt. If they weren't such troublemakers they could have been ignored as no worse than a rat. Since it was such an annoyance, however, it had to be persuaded to return to the mountains where it belonged.

Something made Song Lan look off towards the side. Frown. "A-Qing was right about something following us. I keep sensing it at the edge of my perception. But every time I look, it's gone."

Xiao Xingchen had occasionally gotten that feeling as well. Yet at the same time, whatever he'd felt hadn't seemed like a threat. Still, "Shall I go see if I can find it?"

"I'd do it myself, but Gaogui needs someone to keep an eye on him." Not said was that Xiao Xingchen tended to be a little soft on the boy. Song Lan was right, of course. Xiao Xingchen sensed the flaws in Gaogui's heart and feared pressing too hard. He didn't want to risk shattering what was barely healed.

Agreeing with his partner, Xiao Xingchen let his senses spread enough to find the faint echo of shadowy substance. Rather than frighten it away, he headed a different direction, then took flight, rising high above the landscape. With luck, whatever it was they'd noticed wouldn't notice him in turn.

He set himself above the spot. Scanned the trees. Nothing apparent at first. Then, just hidden among the leaves, a shape like a hand. Pale against the dark green, it looked more like a branch at first. Then it shifted, moving slowly around as if its owner were trying to get a view of Gaogui and A-Qing's efforts.

Silently dropping behind the owner of that hand, Xiao Xingchen set his sword tip against the back of the stranger's neck. "I won't hurt you if you mind your manners," he promised. "But don't you think it's high time you came out?"

#

Really embarrassing. He should have been a great deal more careful. He'd gotten so fascinated, watching Young Master Wei and Maiden Qing at work. They made a good team, tagging back and forth to scare the taotie from one place to the next. All while closing off escape routes so the only way the creature could go was back up into the hills.

Holding as still as possible, Wen Ning considered simply sinking back underground and hiding. But if Xiao Xingchen had discovered his presence that meant he'd been noticed already. He couldn't keep an eye on his young master and stay properly hidden, it seemed.

"Respect, Master Xiao Xingchen, but I don't think you can permanently damage me." Wen Ning moved slowly and carefully even so. The Stygian Tiger Seal he carried had changed his flesh to the point that any damage he did to himself healed almost instantly. It hurt a little, which shouldn't be possible for an undead, but pain reminded him that he existed, so he didn't mind. Much.

As Wen Ning turned to face the white-garbed Daozhang he cupped his hands respectfully, which caused Xiao Xingchen to stare blankly at him. "You... you're undead." To his credit, he didn't immediately attack, though he did not lower his sword, either.

"This one must unfortunately admit it." Wen Ning bowed slightly, knowing better than to startle the priest into action. "He apologizes if his presence offends."

Xiao Xingchen blinked at him. Examined him thoughtfully and Wen Ning felt distinctly uncomfortable. He must surely seem a mess. Leaves and dirt covering him, his hair a tangled mass, his chains rusting in places because he hadn't had time to oil them. He shifted nervously, suddenly shy and at a loss for words.

"Ferocious undead who can think and speak for themselves are rare," Xiao Xingchen murmured. "I'm told only one ever existed. I was also told he was burned, along with his sister."

Wen Ning couldn't help flinching at that. They'd been smart enough not to let him watch Wen Qing's death while he was still aware. Yet he couldn't help imagining what it must have been like for her, burning alive. If he could have wept, he would have. As it was, a tiny groan of pain escaped his lips.

"And the fact that you react so says what I've been told was not, entirely, true. Greet you, Ghost General." Xiao Xingchen eyed him, sword still at ready. "But why is it you're here?"

Despite having nearly no facial expressions. Despite his speech being slow and unemphatic. Despite so many things that ought to have made it easy to dissemble, Wen Ning knew he couldn't. "This undead only wishes to protect."

The statement made Xiao Xingchen frown. "Protect," he repeated. "You were watching our disciples. Why would you.... A-Qing? You think she's somehow your sister, returned?"

Now that wasn't a thing Wen Ning had considered at all. He couldn't help scoffing, though the sound was faint and low in the back of his throat. "Maiden Qing is bright and clever and my sister would be proud to share her name. But no. She is not Qing-jie."

Another moment's consideration. "Then it's Gaogui you're watching." At Wen Ning's slight twitch, he nodded to himself, "The boy is strange. My partner thinks there's something more to him than a mere human child. Thinks he had something to do with the Burial Mounds."

Wen Ning had overheard the two priests discuss the young master. He wasn't at all surprised that they thought him peculiar, supernaturally so. He'd been surprised when they didn't turn on their charge. Most cultivationists would have found the young master's strangely quick growth and odd talent for turning undead uncanny and potentially dangerous.

The truth was the only thing that would satisfy this man. And, really, it was only fair. They were caring for the Yiling Patriarch after all. Better they know and protect him willingly, rather than find out later, when the boy called Gaogui grew up and healed enough to be Wei Wuxian again.

"He was... he is... my master."

To his credit, Xiao Xingchen neither flinched nor became angry. "Wei Wuxian. The Yiling Patriarch. But how?"

"Respect, Master Xiao, but this undead was an alchemist and a healer before his death. He doesn't understand necromancy or demonic cultivation enough to answer that question."

It took a few moments for Xiao Xingchen to come to a conclusion. "Wei Wuxian was... is... my sister's son. I have no wish to harm him. But I can't speak for my partner. It wouldn't be right."

"This undead agrees. If Master Song Lan is unwilling, he asks only to be allowed to take his young master to safety."

"I don't believe he'll be unwilling." Xiao Xingchen tilted his head, listening to the sound of the others chasing the taotie. "For now, I think you should stay in hiding while I speak with Song Lan. I promise, we won't harm Gaogui, whatever we decide."

Having concluded that these two priests were among the rare few who truly lived the Righteous path, Wen Ning bowed. "This undead obeys." Then, without another word, he sank back into the ground and hid.

#

Learning who followed them and why came as a complete surprise. That his beloved partner was prepared to defend both the undead Ghost General and his master was not. Xiao Xingchen was soft-hearted. Some might say soft-headed, but Song Lan wasn't one of them. Xiao Xingchen would give a person a chance, even multiple chances, but he drew the line at outright cruelty. That was why he'd been just as strongly against letting Xue Yang get away with his crimes as Song Lan.

"Tell me, Wen Qionglin, rumor and word-of-mouth has it that you murdered Jin Zixuan in cold blood. That it was under Wei Wuxian's orders. That Wei Wuxian was a vicious, evil, man who deserved the agonizing death he received. So you tell me what your side of the story is."

An undead should not look so soft and gentle. Wen Qionglin's pale skin and black veins were startling and unnerving, but his face was that of a boy trying to be a man. Hell, he'd died before he'd managed to get his full growth, giving him an oddly unfinished look.

Quietly, Wen Qionglin murmured, "This undead would find it difficult to do anything not in cold blood."

The joke startled a chuckle from Song Lan. He forced himself to remain serious. "Why did you kill Jin Zixuan?"

A thoughtful tilt to the head, the closest to an expression the undead could manage. "This undead was berserk at the time but... he believes he mistook him for Jin Zixun."

Jin Zixun was the one who'd instigated the attack on Wei Wuxian that day. Believing the Yiling Patriarch to be behind a deadly curse on him, he'd gone to attack the man on his way to visit his nephew. "Why would that matter?"

"Jin Zixun caused my death." Wen Qionglin noted Song Lan's expression and added quickly, "Not directly. But it was Jin Zixun who sent me and my kinsmen to be slaughtered for his entertainment."

"Entertainment? I'm not sure how being forced to work the Jin mines would be entertainment." Wasn't that what Jin Zixun had done? Captured the Wen remnants and put them to work as slaves?

"He made us fight his friends to the death in his arena."

The flat tone held little emotion. The black on black eyes held even less. Yet Song Lan knew, without being sure how, that this one thing still had the power to infuriate. "This undead watched his thirteen year old cousin's limbs be cut from his body. His old grandfather be smashed to the ground and broken. And had no power to do more than die himself."

Vague memories of Wei Wuxian's accusations returned to Song Lan. Yes, he had laid that accusation on Jin Zixun. And that was the point he'd taken the survivors off to the Burial Mounds, wasn't it? "Was that why Wei Wuxian cursed Jin Zixun?"

"HE DID NOT CURSE HIM!" The cry was loud, but accompanied by no movement whatsoever. Softer, a little tired, Wen Qionglin added, "Curses don't survive their maker. If it'd been Young Master Wei who'd cursed Jin Zixun, why did that man die three months after my master was torn apart by his own power?"

That was true. Word was Jin Zixun had died slowly, painfully, in complete and abject terror, begging for release. Begging to be saved. No one ever found out who'd killed him.

Turning his attention back to the matter at hand, Song Lan asked, "And what sort of man was Wei Wuxian?"

That made Wen Qionglin pause. Turn slightly to point off towards the inn where Xiao Xingchen was buying the children supper. "You see him as he is now. He was not that different, then." Another pause, then, "He was sad. Lonely. Everyone turned on him but us. But he tried to keep his spirits up."

More to himself than Wen Qionglin, Song Lan murmured, "He ought to have given up demonic cultivation, then." Something in Wen Qionglin's manner suggested a yearning to speak. Song Lan added, "Why wouldn't he?"

For a moment it looked as if the undead would keep whatever he wanted to say to himself. Then, "Young master Wei would not want anyone to know. But now it doesn't matter. Only, I beg you, don't tell his brother. He wouldn't want Master Jiang to know."

"Unless it would ease pain, I see no reason to do so. Go on."

The caveat made Wen Qionglin frown, an expression that must have required effort to achieve. Then, "Young Master Wei had lost his golden core. Demonic cultivation was the only weapon he had. If he gave it up, he'd be at the mercy of the world. And you know what would happen if that were so."

Song Lan did. The cultivational world was like that. Hard on the weak. Especially hard on someone who'd been strong and was suddenly defenseless. "The Core Melting Hand?"

"Yes. In a way." Wen Qionglin fell silent.

In a way? The caveat puzzled Song Lan but he could tell Wen Qionglin had no intention of elaborating. And really, Song Lan's main question had been answered. He thought about it. No, really, he'd come to most of his decision already because he might not know much about Wei Wuxian but he knew Gaogui. More importantly, Wei Wuxian might have lost his core, but Gaogui was gaining one. He wouldn't be limited to demonic cultivation anymore.

"I can't justify letting you walk with us. It'd draw too much attention and put your young master at risk. But you've been following from below ground, haven't you?"

"This undead has. It's oddly easy."

Song Lan didn't pretend to know what sort of powers Wei Wuxian had bestowed on his friend. He didn't need to. "If you need anything I'll be glad to help. But for now, it may be for the best if you continue as you have been."

Another sense of an emotion without visible sign. "This undead wants nothing but to be of use."

"Then I'll let you know if you're needed. I won't object to you protecting Gaogui." Song Lan gestured at the chains attached to Wen Qionglin's wrists and ankles. "Would you like us to do something about that?"

"They're embedded in bone, Master Song. I might heal if they're removed but I'm not certain of it. They cause me no real pain, however, and often prove useful when I fight."

Song Lan wasn't at all sure he liked how unconcerned Wen Qionglin was with his own body's state. But he didn't know how to express the feeling without embarrassing the undead. "Then for now I'll take my leave. Please, let me know if you do require something."

Again Wen Qionglin demurred and Song Lan bowed, leaving the tall figure behind to slowly sink into the dirt once more. Having the undead around might make some cultivators look askance, but Song Lan found himself rather liking him and appreciating his dedication.

Besides, letting the Ghost General follow them around like a loyal hound was nothing compared to the fact that they were, in essence, raising the Yiling Patriarch himself. Song Lan smiled wryly as he returned to the inn, looking forward to whatever nonsense Wei Wuxian, or Gaogui, rather, had come up with next.

If nothing else, it'd keep things exciting.

Chapter Text

"Goodness, dumpling, do you think you could get any stickier?"

Little A-Long grinned brightly at his father, the expression sending a wave of intense love through him. At not quite six years old he was still small, a little plump, and just as sweet on the inside as he was currently on the outside. "Ma'am Jin gave me tanghulu!" he crowed, waving a full stick around in Jin Guangyao's face. "Have some too, Baba?"

Snatching the treat from his son before it hit his hat and knocked it off, Jin Guangyao chuckled. "I bet she knew you were heading my way, didn't she?"

"Uhhuh. Told her."

Over the years, Jin Guangyao's relations with his step-mother had become - well, not close - but friendlier. Their mutual opinion of his father helped. So did his willingness to let her rule Koi Tower as she wished. She was a sensible woman, a great deal more sensible than most of the higher ranked members of the family. Her ideas regarding proper maintenance were very much in line with his own. Spend less money, behave more rationally, and drink a hell of a lot less wine.

She also gladly sent his son to him covered in stickiness out of 'revenge' for all the odd beasts A-Long would bring when he came to visit Jin Ling. The older boy didn't mind, but Madam Jin did, or claimed to. Jin Guangyao noticed she'd yet to forbid A-Long from visiting. Possibly because the boy was the only one in Jin Ling's generation who got along with him.

Not that Jin Guangyao blamed his nephew. He'd lost his mother and father to a horror. He was spoiled by his grandmother and bullied by his older cousins. Politics started early among the Jin and they were old enough to understand that Jin Ling might be their leader one day. The more power they felt they had over him now, the better they felt.

Nibbling on the treat, though it was honestly too sweet for him, Jin Guangyao signed for Jin Jiu to fetch a towel. At least A-Long wasn't picked on. Everyone knew Jin Guangyao had deliberately taken himself out of the running for leadership. Even though A-Long's courtesy name shared the same generational character as A-Ling's, he had no expectations of inheriting.

Once the boy was properly cleaned, Jin Guangyao sent him off with his nanny to visit his mother. The boy loved to wander all over the place and it was a sure bet he'd run off without telling her where he'd gone. Not that there were many places he could get into trouble alone. He wasn't allowed to leave the residential floor and every guard on every door knew that.

Jin Guangyao went back to work, peacefully tallying up the cost of the Liang gold mine versus the value of its output. Was it time to shut the place down? Or could they keep it running until the miners could find work elsewhere in their territory? A delicate balance, because the clan needed the gold, but needed to keep its people safe, not to mention properly employed and fed.

A scream startled him from his task, forcing him to his feet. When he stumbled, bad knee giving way, Jin Jiu caught his elbow and handed him his cane. "What was that?"

"I can go see."

"We'll both go see." If it was trouble then he'd best be moving before it reached him.

They left his office and followed the wailing into the common chamber at the center of the residential floor. Ya-Er, the old woman who took care of A-Long was collapsed on the tile, wailing, a huge bruise forming on her forehead. "What is it? Where's A-Long?"

"He took him. He took my baby! Grabbed him and ran off! THAT WAY THAT WAY THAT WAY!" The old woman gestured wildly towards the door leading towards the garden.

"Master, let me...."

Before Jin Jiu could finish the sentence, Jin Guangyao was already half-way to the exit and putting on more speed. He usually didn't push his body too hard, knowing how dangerous it was in his condition. He didn't feel pain the way most people did and he risked damaging himself. He didn't care. His baby was in danger. Shaken to the core, he fought his spirit's urge to break free, screaming mentally for his sworn brothers' help.

Koi Tower was actually several different towers all connected by bridges and steep stairs. Balconies descended to other balconies, connected by steps and covered in gardens. Jin Guangyao's residence was towards the bottom of the tower so he didn't have to climb so many steps. But that made it easier for an intruder to escape, because there were more directions to go.

"BABA!"

The shout was muffled quickly but not fast enough. Jin Guangyao spotted the kidnapper racing down a set of stairs towards the north gardens. Heedless of the risk, for once not caring if he fell down the steps, he followed, ignoring the sharp pangs in his knee and the way his ankles tried to bend in the wrong directions. This being half-dead and having to operate one's body like a puppet was damned inconvenient for a chase.

Still, sheer determination and the fact that he didn't run out of breath meant Jin Guangyao could keep running indefinitely. Oh, his body would collapse sooner or later, but for the moment he had a chance of catching up.

The intruder was dressed in black, his face concealed by a scarf, his head by a broad-rimmed straw hat. He had A-Long tucked under one arm, his other hand reaching into a pocket to pull out a familiar talisman. A-Yu had sent a small pack of transportation talismans just the other day.

Realizing he was about to lose his son if he didn't act fast, Jin Guangyao leapt forward with all his strength, catching hold of the abductor's clothes. Something caught hold of his ankle as they sprawled, just as the talisman activated and the world around them twisted.

They landed on a rocky slope, all of them tumbling and sliding until they hit a flat area. Half-stunned, they all lay in a tangled heap for several moments before the abductor rolled to his feet and out of reach, his scarf pulled away in the tumble to reveal Lao Sen of Lingyu Sect.

"This works too," he growled. "I just kill the three of you and be done with it."

A-Long was sobbing, pale hands stretched out towards Jin Guangyao. "BABA!"

"Give me my son." Somehow, Jin Guangyao clambered to his feet. Yes, he'd pushed himself too far. His knee gave way, nearly dumping him onto the ground again. "Now."

"You actually want this abomination?" Lao Sen dangled A-Long in the air, causing the child to struggle wildly. Which wouldn't be so bad if they weren't right near another slope.

"Don't. You. Dare. Call. My. Son. An. Abomination."

Behind Jin Guangyao, Jin Jiu added, "If he's hurt I promise you I'll kill you, Master Lao. You can't fight both of us."

That'd been what Jin Guangyao had felt grabbing hold of him. Jin Jiu, thinking just as fast as Jin Guangyao and not wanting to be left behind. Even better, the talisman hadn't been strong enough to carry three grown men and a child the intended distance. It was obvious they'd landed nowhere near Lao Sen's target.

Lao Sen glared. "I don't need to fight both of you. Your pervert Master doesn't have the strength for a fight."

"Pervert?" Jin Guangyao blinked. "And why take my son? I realize you've doubts about my proposals, but why are you taking it out on A-Long?" He rubbed at his injured knee, biding his time. Rescue was coming. He could feel it racing towards them like a wild bull charging a rival. He just had to keep the man distracted long enough.

A sneer and another shake, one that set A-Long wailing in a terrifying way. "Did you know we have a way to test bloodlines now? Your own brother helped develop it."

A-Yu had mentioned something related to animal husbandry, but his letter had been its typical mix of overexcitement and vagueness. "So?"

"We couldn't get any of your blood, of course. Or your wife's. But little boys like this one fall into scrapes all the time. We had a spy get hold of some bandages. That slut father of yours was even easier."

"Again I ask, so? And why does my bloodline matter to you, Master Lao? You're not a Jin and my mother certainly wasn't a Lao."

"True on both counts. We were hoping to prove you weren't Jin Guangshan's son. Instead we proved something worse. Something that will shock the cultivational world and bring down your pretty towers before they're even built."

Ah. So that was it. The test had confirmed the one thing Jin Guangyao would have liked to not be true. He sighed. "I already know what you found, Master Lao. It's a family embarrassment, but I can honestly say we didn't know before A-Long was conceived."

The man flung his head back and laughed derisively. "It won't matter. How do you think everyone will react, knowing you married your own sister? That you fathered a child, an abomination, on her?"

Behind Jin Guangyao, Jin Jiu hissed in surprise. Master Lao grinned at him. "It's true. I took the boy so you wouldn't hide him once we accused this perverted bastard in public. Your master's guilty of incest and this brat is the result!"

Softly, Jin Jiu whispered, "This is...."

"What I was talking about, that one time, yes." Jin Guangyao sighed. "I knew. I knew before I married Qin Su. But I married her because she was already pregnant with our little dumpling. And I couldn't find another, better, way to deal with the problem that wouldn't be just as bad or worse."

"Will Master Nie agree, I wonder? You and he used to have terrible arguments about morality. What will he say about this?"

"A good question," Nie Mingjue said, swinging past on his saber to catch A-Long in his arms. "But maybe you should be asking me, instead of my brother here."

Jin Guangyao looked up at his Da-ge with a rush of relief and gratitude. He'd sensed his Da-ge coming and knew Nie Mingjue had a better chance of rescuing little A-Long. All he could do was keep Lao Sen distracted as much as possible. He struggled to find words. "Thank the Gods you're here," he finally whispered.

As Lao Sen stared, Da-ge landed. Gave A-Long to Jin Guangyao, who clutched him tightly. "And my answer is, he didn't know the truth until it was too late and everything he's done since was to protect his wife and his son's reputations. That you, you rotten child-stealing bastard, think it's anyone's fault but Jin Guangshan's, is only proof that you're the one without honor. Not him."

Lao shrieked furiously and raced at Nie Mingjue, longsword drawn and glittering in the late afternoon sunlight. It glittered even more brightly as it flipped through the air, clenched in Lao's detached hand, and landed in the rocks below. As Lao Sen dropped to his knees, clutching his bloody wrist, Nie Mingjue said calmly, "I didn't take your head, but I will if you tell anyone what you know. Guardsman, would you see to his injury? I didn't spare his life so he could bleed out on the ground here. You can fly back afterwards, right?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. You bring him back to the tower. We have questions and I believe he has answers." Da-ge turned to look at Jin Guangyao and A-Long. "Come on. Let's get you and the dumpling home before mama realizes something's wrong."

Weak with relief, Jin Guangyao was glad to agree.

#

Lan Xichen arrived at Koi Tower just a short while after Nie Mingjue. Thank the Gods Da-ge had been giving sword flight training to his disciples and had been close enough to where Lao Sen had taken little A-Long. Otherwise the baby might have been hurt.

"Not baby."

Startled, Lan Xichen looked down at his honorary nephew. "What?"

"A-Long's not a baby." The boy climbed up in Lan Xichen's lap, covering his white robes with something slightly pink and sticky. Tang hulu icing, it smelled like. Confidingly laying his head against Lan Xichen's shoulder, A-Long added, "Big boy. BRAVE big boy." He thumped his chest in a familiar way. Nie Mingjue, playfully showing off.

"Very brave indeed," Lan Xichen assured the boy. "And very sticky." He gave the child a hug and gently set him down. "Can you go ask your Nana to help wash you, then go to mama because I think she needs you right now?"

"Alright Unka See Chen." Another messy hug followed and the baby... the boy... toddled off to his nurse. Qin Su was in no fit state right then to do much. She was crying against Jin Guangyao's shoulder, Blackie licking her hand disconsolately. They all looked desolate, small blame to them, all things considered.

Turning his attention onto the other room, where Captain Jin Jiu was just finishing binding Lao Sen's injury properly, Lan Xichen caught his Da-ge's eye. It looked like they could talk to the abductor now.

They left Jin Guangyao with Qin Su and little A-Long, Captain Jin Jiu coming out to stand over his master with a protective gaze for all three.

Inside the other room, Lao Sen was clearly in shock. He'd lost too much blood to be up to much more than swearing and even that had weakened. "Go away."

"I don't think so, Master Lao. You just attacked our youngest brother's son for no good reason."

"I have a perfectly good reason. That bastard's trying to turn Jin Sect into the next Wen."

Nie Mingjue's silence was almost more frightening than his shouts. He picked up a chair. Set it down beside Lao Sen's bed. Sat. "I think you know how little I like the Wen, given what they did to my father?"

Sneers and jeers were Lao Sen's answer. "You carry on with that bastard and...."

"Master Lao, it'd be impossible for either of us to carry on with Jin Guangyao. He's crippled and in no fit state for that sort of thing with anyone. Not us. Not his wife."

"His sister, you mean."

Lan Xichen sighed. "It would have been better for all of us if you'd left well enough alone."

"Well enough alone. After what that bastard did to Tingshanhe? After him bringing that Xue Yang brat into the Jin Sect? After him working to recreate the Yiling Patriarch's work?"

"It was Jin Guangshan who attacked Tingshanhe, out of retaliation for He Su killing one of his cousins in a drunken brawl. It was an overreaction, of course, but not Jin Guangyao's doing."

"He Su told me how his family was dragged away with him. How Xue Yang's tools tore them to pieces."

Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen blinked. Stared at Lao Sen. Stared at each other. "He Su?"

"Yes! He's been staying with us ever since his family was killed! And you can't tell me Tingshanhe wasn't destroyed. There's none of them left anywhere in this country."

That was nonsense. Not even remotely true. "Master Lao, He Gao of Tingshanhe is quite well. You saw him at the last conference just two weeks ago."

Confusion filled Lao Sen's features. "That... that's a lie."

"I'm a Lan of Gusulan, Master Lao. Lying is forbidden me."

The man clutched at his head with his remaining hand. Moaned. Shuddered. Stared suddenly at Lan Xichen. At Nie Mingjue. "Can't be true. Can't be."

"What did He Su look like, Master Lao?" Nie Mingjue asked. "How tall? Was he sturdy? Thin?"

"Slim. Young, in his mid-twenties."

"Any distinguishing feature?"

Somehow, it didn't surprise Lan Xichen at all when Master Lao said, "Oh, of course. One of his canines is longer than the other. Like a fang."

#

They took Master Lao to Qinghe Nie for safekeeping. The dungeon there had a silencing effect and Master Lao's knowledge of Jin Long's unfortunate heritage couldn't be permitted to be released just yet. If damage control was possible, they had to attempt it.

Once he had Master Lao settled, Nie Mingjue went to find Tingshanhe's sect leader, He Gao. "Master He, you remember that terrible day when my sworn brothers and I rescued you from Xue Yang?"

"Brothers? I only remember seeing Master Lan Xichen. Was Jin Guangyao there too?"

"In spirit, at the very least." Nie Mingjue tried not to grin at his jest, knowing Master He wouldn't understand. "I'd injured him around that time, I'm afraid. He was in no condition for a fight. But it was he who warned me that you and your family were in danger. That his father was overstepping his bounds."

"I hate to speak ill of the dead, but the man was out of his mind. He was actually going to let his pet necromancer use my family to test his undead on. It's the Gods' mercy he's no longer Sect Master."

Ever since that day when he'd made an embarrassment of himself at Jin Long's hundred day celebration, Jin Guangshan had been locked away in his remote courtyard. Rumor had it he was busily drinking and swiving the whores Madam Jin had brought in to keep him peacefully occupied. His health had been deteriorating, according to his son, but he was stubbornly unwilling to stop fucking everything that could be fucked.

"You will get no argument at all from me on that count," Nie Mingjue agreed. "But I'm not here for that. I understood your son, He Su, was Xue Yang's first victim that day. I was too busy chasing the little bastard to find out, but did he somehow manage to survive?"

A pained look. "Master Nie, he lost his limbs. His tongue was pulled out. He was bleeding to death and I'm almost certain he'd been infected by Xue Yang's necromancy. I... had no choice...."

That was what Nie Mingjue had thought. "Master Lao of Lingyu Lao recently committed a terrible attack on Jin Guangyao's son, A-Long."

"Why the hell would he do that? What did he do?"

"Master Lao abducted him. When we questioned him, he told us he'd been working with someone calling himself He Su. And I'm right in remembering your son as being muscular and quite tall. And his teeth were all straight, correct?"

"Yes. Of course. What is this about?"

"Someone pretended to be your son and drove Master Lao to act against Jin Guangyao."

"Why? Why would Master Lao have any reason to abduct that boy? He's disgusting to look at but there's nothing wrong with him otherwise!"

Ignoring the insult to Jin Long because this wasn't the time, Nie Mingjue suggested, "As far as I know, Master Lao was hoping to persuade Regent Jin to end his Watchtower Project?"
                He Gao slammed his fist into the little table beside his chair. "Shameful! That project could save lives. Hell, if we'd had a watchtower in the first place we could have called for help from the nearest sect. Why would Master Lao want us to ignore such an important idea!"

"Master Lao thinks Regent Jin wants Jin Clan to become the next Wen."

"NONSENSE!" Another fist slam, this one breaking the table and setting the nearest servant scurrying for another. She did so with such calm Nie Mingjue guessed this was a common occurrence.

"Would you be willing to tell Master Lao about your son's death? Perhaps, if he knows how he's been tricked, he will be willing to cooperate."

He Gao was nothing if not firm in his convictions. He didn't like Jin Guangshan, but Jin Guangyao had made reparations to his family without argument. Too, he actually agreed with many of Jin Guangyao's innovations. "I'll make time for this. Bring me to him and I'll make sure he understands the truth."

#

It took Jin Guangyao over a week before he was willing to leave Koi Tower and his family. Not because he feared the rumors of his illicit relationship with Qin Su, but because he was afraid to leave them. That and his little dumpling, usually unafraid of anything except the dark, was having terrible nightmares. Jin Guangyao wanted him calmer before he so much as left his baby's sight.

Qin Su needed reassurance too. Reassurance Jin Guangyao would have been lying to offer. Master Lao knew their secret and it was certain Xue Yang did too. That it wasn't roiling its way through the cultivational world already was likely part of the little brat's plan. He'd want to watch Jin Guangyao struggle and twist on the hook before reeling him in. The only thing to do was take the pain and bite down on the line so he could snap it. Preferably before matters got worse.

"We knew this day might come," he told his sister, touching the tips of her fingers lightly while Captain Jin watched from the side. "We have to be strong for A-Long's sake."

She wept. Sobbed. But beneath her grief lay intense relief. Keeping this secret had been difficult for her. She'd endured for A-Long's sake. Now the tension of hiding a terrible truth was about to be over. "For your sake, too, A-Yao."

It warmed his damaged soul to know she worried for him as well. He wouldn't have blamed her for focusing all her love and concern on their son, knowing she couldn't love her husband the way she wanted to. He'd do everything in his power to make sure most of the blame fell where it belonged. On his father and on him.

At last, satisfied A-Long and Qin Su were safe with Madam Jin and Jin Ling, Jin Guangyao had Jin Jiu fly him to Qinghe Nie. A hasty conference had been brought together, including all the larger sects and clans, none of whom were happy about the situation.

"Regent Jin, we stand with you in this. No one should attack a child simply because they disagree with the father."

"Regent Jin, if you want that bastard Lao Sen given the death of a thousand cuts, I'll be glad to help."

"Regent Jin, Buddha says mercy is a blessing on the giver as well as the recipient."

"Regent Jin, if your son needs assistance after this, please don't hesitate to ask."

The support and offers of assistance were heartwarming. Jin Guangyao doubted they'd last much longer, not after today. Still, he thanked everyone he spoke to and quietly entered the dungeon with his Da-ge, so he could speak privately to Lao Sen before the conference.

The Lingyu Lao Sect Leader looked exhausted and embittered. "So. Come to gloat? Come to mock me for being a credulous fool?"

Jin Guangyao sat on the stool his Da-ge provided. "No. Come to beg."

"Beg? You?"

"You would not be the first, you will - unfortunately - probably not be the last Xue Yang uses in his campaign against the cultivationist world." Jin Guangyao managed a wry smile. "I was one he used. So was my father. So were dozens of others. We hunt him for a reason. Perhaps someday we will even succeed in capturing him."

"Beg. You."

"Yes. Beg. I." Other cultivationists, those raised to the clans and sects, would regard it as humiliating. But Jin Guangyao had lived a life of humiliation long enough to know there were far worse things than begging a mostly decent man for leniency. "Master Lao, you - and probably some others - know a secret I would have happily kept to my grave. One that will only bring undeserved pain and heartache."

A sneer. "You want me to keep my silence about your relationship with your own sister. You think you don't deserve pain and heartache? I know some of the things you did in the Sunshot campaign, 'Regent' Jin. You're lauded for it now, but what about the ones who fell to pave your path to success?"

This was the old argument between Jin Guangyao and his Da-ge. He stiffened, hands tight against his knees and struggled not to let his old anxieties take the lead. Behind him, Nie Mingjue set a hand on his shoulder. Spoke calmly. "Master Lao, the information he gave us saved lives. More lives than he took."

"You, yourself, were ready to kill him for the lives he took!"

"I was. And I was wrong and unfair. He did what he did under Jin Guangshan's orders. And if he had not, who's to say how many Wen Ruohan would have killed?"

Before the discussion could descend further into heartache, Jin Guangyao interrupted. "Master Lao, it isn't my pain and heartache I would evade. My wife... sister... my son. They've done nothing to deserve the ugliness that will come of the world knowing the truth."

Helplessly, Master Lao said, "I can't stop it. As you say, I'm not the only one who knows. If the man who tricked me into believing he was He Su really was Xue Yang, he'll certainly find a way to use the knowledge."

"Yes. I know. I expect it." Jin Guangyao murmured. "And I doubt he'll give us much chance to prevent it. Really, there's no way to avoid the knowledge getting out."

"Then why do you come to me? What do you want?"

"I erred, letting you realize I knew before I married Qin Su." In Jin Guangyao's defense, he'd been too worried about his son to think about the consequence. "I can't hide this scandal. Not anymore. Not without making it worse. You'll have to tell the conference why you took A-Long, but I beg you, don't tell them we both already knew."

The Lingyu Lao Sect Master was obviously puzzled. "Why does it matter?"

"Because I can accept the blame. Can and will. But it isn't fair to Qin Su. She did nothing worse than accept me in her bed before it was time. How many others have done the same, knowing they'll be married soon?" Jin Guangyao's voice cracked. "And who could possibly have predicted such an outcome?"

For a moment Jin Guangyao was sure Lao Sen would wave off his plea. That the man's hatred for him and for what Lao Sen thought he stood for would overcome his compassion. Then, "Jin Guangshan has caused more trouble with that thing of his than it's ever been worth. I'm surprised Madam Jin hasn't castrated him by now." The older man smiled ruefully. "Very well. I let Xue Yang persuade me you were up to far worse with those watchtowers. Let him persuade me I'd be protecting the cultivational world from a new Wen Ruohan. I won't tell anyone how much you knew; either of you. Keeping everyone from realizing the whole truth is up to you."

Lao holding his tongue wouldn't save them, Jin Guangyao knew, but at least it would limit the damage. At least he hoped it would.

Chapter Text

Lan Xichen acted as conference leader this time around. Though Jin Guangyao was his sworn brother and beloved friend, Lan Xichen's reputation, and his clan's, meant everyone trusted him to run the meeting fairly.

Master Lao stood at the center of the room, chained and surrounded by his fellow Sect Masters. Their expressions varied from outrage to disfavor to the occasional look of sympathy. "Master Lao, you admit to having abducted Regent Jin's son, Jin Rusong. Do you have a reason for having done so?"

Lao Sen took a deep breath. "I thought I did at the time." As the others murmured, the Lingyu Sect Master continued, "I was fooled into believing He Gao's oldest son, He Su, had asked my family for sanctuary. The man turned out to be an imposter and I have reason to believe he was Xue Yang."

Now the murmur grew louder, forcing Lan Xichen to raise his voice a little. "Masters, please. Allow Master Lao to finish."

Once the room quieted, Lao Sen managed a wry smile. "He Gao has informed me that his son died at the hands of Xue Yang's undead, under the command of Jin Guangshan. I let the fake He Su fool me into accepting his story and let him persuade me that Jin Guangyao would continue his father's plans in an attempt to take over the cultivational world."

"That doesn't explain why you abducted young Rusong," someone shouted irritably.

Lao Sen paused. Hesitated. "Perhaps if would be for the best if I didn't explain this to everyone...."

Before anyone else could voice their opinion of that suggestion, Jin Guangyao said shakily, "I know what you're going to say. You said it before, when we captured you. I admit, I'd like to bury it where no one would ever hear of it again. But that can't be, so best have it out in the open."

Bowing respectfully, Lao Sen continued, "The fake He Su suggested you might not have any right to your position, Regent. That your mother's employment meant there was no way to be sure you're really Jin Guangshan's son. We hired an alchemist from the Yao Sect and a talisman expert from Moling Su to assist us in determining your ancestry. To do that, though, we needed blood from Jin Guangshan and either you or your son's. Young Rusong's was easier to acquire."

Lan Xichen kept his expression quiet. They couldn't let anyone know how long they'd known the truth that was coming. At the same time he yearned to just silence the man right then and there. If that would end the matter, he'd have been sorely tempted. "And so you abducted him?"

"No. We were able to acquire a bit of his blood from one of the house servants - are you sure you want me to say this, Regent Jin?"

A sharp, tired, sigh. "Xue Yang knows what you know. There's no point in trying to pretend."

"Very well. The test revealed an ugly truth. Jin Rusong has but one grandfather. Jin Guangshan."

Now the room practically exploded, one voice roaring over the others, "LIAR!" That was Qin Cangye, struggling against his own men in his effort to launch himself at Lao Sen. "HOW DARE YOU SLANDER MY WIFE?"

Something in his tone suggested he was struggling against doubt as well. Lan Xichen had wondered if he'd suspected Qin Su wasn't his daughter all along. He certainly couldn't have guessed at the father, or he wouldn't have agreed to the marriage. Whatever else, Madam Qin wasn't there to confirm it. She'd died of a sudden illness several months earlier.

Voice shaking, whole body trembling, Jin Guangyao whispered, "Can you be certain? Is there any way your test could be wrong?"

"Regent, Yao Leung and Tang Shi developed this test using a combination of alchemy and talisman arrays. They've been at it for years now and the current version is amazingly accurate. I won't say it's impossible it's wrong, but it isn't terribly likely." Lao Sen looked truly sincere when he added, "I wasn't sorry when we found out, but now, knowing what this is going to do to you and your family, knowing it was all discovered because Xue Yang manipulated me? I regret it entirely."

Jin Guangyao made a small defeated noise. The same defeated moan he'd made the day Madam Qin had told him and her daughter the truth. Lan Xichen remembered the sound, echoing through their link with all the force of Jin Guangyao's despair.

Voice sympathetic and apologetic, Lao Sen continued, "It's terrible news, Regent Jin, and knowing how I was manipulated into discovering it doesn't help. But it's true. Your father is Qin Su's father as well. It's the only possible explanation for what we found."

From somewhere at the far back of the crowd, a young voice wailed. "Brother. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't know."

Jin Guangyao raised his head. Looked in that direction. Managed the weakest of weak smiles. Called out, "A-Yu, we'll talk later, but it isn't your fault."

A low growl drew Lan Xichen's attention to Nie Mingjue. He looked utterly grim, hands working as if he yearned to throttle someone. At that moment, Lan Xichen was tempted to help. "That damned slut of a father of yours has done it again, hasn't he?"

"It seems so," Jin Guangyao whispered. "It's a talent of his, ruining lives. My poor wife and son don't deserve any of this. Is this why A-Long is so pale?"

"Quite likely it is, Regent Jin." That was Master Shen of Baixue, which explained how Mo Xuanyu was there. The boy must have come with his Sect Master to lend his brother support. "Incest can result in birth defects."

"I've always blamed my mother's bloodline," Jin Guangyao whispered. "I suppose I can count it as a small favor that it was limited to his coloring." He straightened. Clearly forced himself to stay calm. Looked straight at Baixue Temple's Master. "Master Shen, this is terrible news for me and my family. In truth, I've no idea what to do here. You are oldest and wisest of all of us. Can you help me?"

Master Shen considered him. "Is there any chance your wife... your sister... might fall pregnant?"

A shaky smile. "None." An embarrassed expression crossed his face. "I must admit we were guilty of acting on our desires before our marriage...."

That set Qin Cangye off again, forcing Lan Xichen to strike his table sharply. "Master Qin, please."

"But...."

"They won't be the first young couple to do so, Master Qin. They surely won't be the last. And they had no idea at the time." Lan Xichen returned his attention Jin Guangyao. "Regent Jin, please, continue."

"As I said, Rusong was conceived before we were married. Before the accident that crippled me. I have been unable to exercise my conjugal duties since then."

The announcement sent a sigh of relief through the crowd. If Jin Guangyao's injuries hadn't been obvious from before Rusong's birth there might have been some doubt. But he went nowhere without that cane of his and everyone knew it.

Master Shen inclined his head. "In that case, the right thing to do would be to divorce your sister. Obviously, you should make sure she's properly cared for afterwards." He smiled sympathetically. "I can't and won't blame the two of you for your plight. The one to blame is your father, and he is already being punished, damaged as he is."

A murmur of agreement and Lan Xichen asked, "Masters, there is still the question of what to do about Master Lao."

"I would like to request lenience," Jin Guangyao said shakily. "It was Xue Yang instigated his actions and we all know what a troublemaker he is."

Nie Mingjue spoke up for the Sect Master as well. "I've already removed his hand for him. I'm willing to consider that punishment enough if everyone else is willing."

In the end, shocked by the news of Jin Guangyao's shameful situation and his father's even more scandalous behavior, the others agreed.

#

They set up a dozen or so privacy talismans before they even considered talking. And even then, not one of them knew what to say. Second Brother sat beside San-di, checking his spiritual flow, making sure he hadn't injured himself in all the excitement. At the same time Nie Mingjue watched Jin Guangyao stare blankly at the wall ahead of him.

There weren't any tears, but as far as Nie Mingjue could tell, San-di seldom truly wept since his hun soul had reattached itself to that frail body. Controlling it from the outside in apparently made real tears difficult. He'd be howling with sorrow, otherwise.

"I was a bit worried someone would call you out," Nie Mingjue said finally. "But your acting remains first-rate."

"I wasn't acting as such." Jin Guangyao picked at his belt cord fretfully. "Everything I said, I meant."

"I meant your successfully keeping anyone from realizing you'd known before you married Qin Su."

A tired scoff was Jin Guangyao's only answer. He pulled one of his threads from his belt cord and began tangling it into a knot. He was shaking, body moving back and forth. Ah. So this was the closest he could get to crying.

Realizing he sounded like he was picking on his San-di, Nie Mingjue knelt so he could look in Jin Guangyao's eyes. "A-Yao, if I thought you were doing the wrong thing, marrying her, I'd have said so."

"Thank the Gods I had the perfect excuse for not entering her bed again." San-di traced the slight scar from the fall that'd killed, almost killed, him. "A better reason than fearing to father another child like A-Long. I'd be proud to father another child like A-Long."

"Can't blame you. The dumpling's too damned cute." Taking the thread Jin Guangyao had turned into a complete rat's nest away from those fidgeting fingers, Nie Mingjue held his San-di's hands gently. "Listen. We all knew this might happen. Not this specific thing, I realize, but someone else might have known the truth. Qin Su's mother's dead, so at least we don't have to worry about her being shamed."

Lan Xichen looked up from his ministrations. "Your meridians are mostly clear. You damaged your knee and hip, chasing after Master Lao, but that should heal if you're careful." He lifted Jin Guangyao's face so their eyes could meet. "And Master Shen's advice is exactly what you'd intended to do someday, anyway."

A weak little laugh. "I even know who Qin Su could marry, if she's willing." At their raised brows, Jin Guangyao jerked a thumb towards the door, where his Captain waited outside, keeping visitors at bay. "Jin Jiu's been in love with her since they were little. He would have happily married her if he'd had the rank. And now, as my Captain, he's got that. Given I'm not forced to give up the Regency."

Before Nie Mingjue could respond, the door slammed open and a wild eyed hellion rushed at Jin Guangyao, nearly knocking him over when he wrapped his arms around him. "Brother! Beautiful... I mean big brother! I'm sorry. I'm sorryI'msorrysorryI'msorry!"

"Apologies, Regent. This one tried to stop him but...."

"Easier to stop a hurricane," Jin Guangyao agreed with his Guard Captain. "Come in, both of you. And close the door."

Once they were all safely inside the privacy array, Jin Guangyao stroked his half-brother's hair. "A-Yu, did I or did I not say I thought the research you were doing was excellent?"

"I didn't think they'd use it on you! I didn't think!"

A light tap on Mo Xuanyu's head followed and Nie Mingjue pointed out, "Huaisang mentioned what you were studying to me. It never seemed like an issue. Why would it? Who could possibly have expected this situation?"

Mo Xuanyu bawled a little more. Then, "But what will you do now? How can you bear to divorce Qin Su? You love her!"

"That's why I have to, brother. To give her the freedom to marry someone who can give her a good life and be a proper husband to her. I haven't been able to, thank the Gods, but it still isn't fair to her."

Jin Jiu coughed. "Young Master Mo? It might be good to have any prospective husband take that test of yours. Just to be sure Sect Master Jin's proclivities didn't extend further."

Damn, the man was smart. And right. "That's an excellent idea. And, honestly, useful for other families as well." Nie Mingjue set his hand on A-Yu's shoulder. Squeezed it maybe a bit too hard because the boy winced. "Sorry. You didn't do anything wrong. Sometimes things just work out badly. And see, that test can help make sure we don't repeat the first mistake."

Because no one, Qin Su, Jin Guangyao, A-Long or Jin Jiu, deserved to be put through that kind of misery.

#

Explaining things to a small child was never easy. Explaining something as ridiculously complicated as their situation seemed impossible. Jin Guangyao would have given practically everything he had to avoid it, especially when his little dumpling stared at him wide-eyed and uncomprehending, tears in his light eyes, little lips trembling with fear and sorrow.

"But Mamas and Babas should be together!"

"Should be when they can be," Jin Guangyao agreed, cuddling his son close. "It isn't always possible. It isn't possible for your mama and I."

"But why?"

They'd gone through various iterations of this for a good half-hour. A-Long was a bright child but he had the Jin way of ignoring what they didn't want to accept. A-Long most definitely didn't want to accept his parents divorcing. "I've told you several times in several ways, dumpling. There aren't any other ways to say it." He spoke sternly, because he couldn't let his son run him ragged with twisted child-logic.

Those lips pouted and the boy set to crying in earnest. Unable to help, or make anything better, Jin Guangyao just held him, patting his silky white hair and wishing he could cry properly himself.

At last the tears and sniffling faded. "Does this mean you won't be my Baba anymore? Or Mama won't be Mama?"

He laughed weakly. "Dumpling, I will always be your Baba. Mama will always be your Mama. Not being husband and wife will never change that."

"But will she have to leave? Will I have to leave?"

He stroked his son's hair. "No. You and your mama can stay right here."

"But what about you?" Clever boy, he knew his parents couldn't occupy the same home any longer.

"I'll move to rooms closer to my office. You know I don't sleep much." Sleep at all. He didn't sleep at all. "So I'll be fine and you can still come see me."

The pout faded a little, though the hurt feelings were still clear. "You come see me, too?"

"Of course. It's Baba's job to chase the monsters out of your room, after all." Jin Guangyao grinned, hoping his expression didn't show the underlying heartache. "Until you're big enough to chase them yourself, that is."

A-Long leaned against him confidingly. "The cousins were being mean," he said abruptly. "This is why?"

The cousins would be mean for all sorts of reasons, but Jin Guangyao had no doubt they'd latched onto the scandal like small leeches. After all, their parents were already arguing amongst themselves on the subject of Jin Guangyao's Regency. "Probably."

"A-Ling's the only one will talk to me."

"They didn't talk much with you before, did they?" When his son agreed wistfully, Jin Guangyao told him, "Then it doesn't really change anything. Nothing's your fault, understand?"

"Okay, Baba."

Relieved, Jin Guangyao picked his son up and carried him back to his mama. It wasn't going to be easy for either of them, especially if Madam Jin couldn't exert her influence on the clan Elders to keep Jin Guangyao as Regent. But despite not being born Jin, she had as much or more than her fair share of the family self-confidence. Somehow, Jin Guangyao had a feeling she'd keep him where he was by sheer force of personality.

Because the last thing she wanted was for someone with a potential claim to leadership in charge of the current heir.

#

Qin Su had known Jin Jiu liked her from the first. But he'd never said a word before now. Her father would never agree to marriage. He was poor, had no prospects and depended entirely on Jin Sect for his livelihood.

Then Jin Guangyao had come around. Or, rather, Meng Yao. Jin Jiu had been one of the guards protecting Qin Su on the way from her home to a safer place away from the Sunshot Campaign. They'd all been captured and surely would have died if Meng Yao hadn't found a way to release them.

At the time she'd taken a liking to the handsome young man who'd risked his life to get her and Jin Jiu safe. Meng Yao had even noticed Jin Jiu was dressed as Qin Su's maid and never said a word. Not, at least, until she'd teased him that she'd never been alone with a man before and asked if he was going to take responsibility for her.

'I doubt your father would agree, Miss Qin, but I'll gladly offer if my own father ever allows me to.' That charming smile of his had captured her attention, especially when it was followed by a slyly humorous, 'Though by that standard, shouldn't you consider your... ah... lovely maid, first?' That was because she'd insisted Jin Jiu disguise himself as her maid before they'd been captured. No one had - yet - discovered the truth.

She didn't see Meng Yao for some time after that but she'd been overjoyed to learn he was actually Jin Guangshan's son and now a hero for having killed Wen Ruohan. Neither mattered to her but they'd matter to her father and they'd need every advantage they could to persuade Qin Cangye to agree to her marrying a bastard like Jin Guangyao.

If only she hadn't liked Jin Guangyao as much as she had. If only she hadn't been desperate to get away from her overbearing and constantly disapproving mother. If only, if only, if! only! And now here she was, married to a dear man who was also her brother. A man so badly injured that even if they weren't siblings they couldn't have shared a bed. A man who loved her and could never be anything to her.

She loved him back. It'd been desperately hard and completely necessary to learn to love him like a brother. Better than a brother, in fact because she didn't care much for her siblings back home. The point being that she couldn't love him the way part of her still wanted to.

Now everyone knew the truth she'd have to remarry. At first she hadn't been at all sure how she felt about Guangyao's suggestion of Jin Jiu. Oh, she knew he liked her. She'd come to like him as a person. He was funny and smart and now he was Jin Guangyao's personal aide, he could provide for any children they might have.

She watched him watching her, his familiar quirky little smile half-hiding nervousness. "You needn't make up your mind immediately, you know. Wouldn't blame you if you decided you'd had enough of every Jin but the one in your lap, really."

That made her giggle. "I don't know. A-Long can be a trial too, you know." She kissed her son atop his pale head to make sure he knew she was teasing. "What with all the bugs and beasts he brings in."

"Mama, you said you liked the beetle I gave you."

"I also said I like your bugs better outside, A-Long." She tilted his head so she could look into his light eyes. "Now I'd like your opinion. Do you like Uncle Jin Jiu?"

A-Long considered the man. Giggled when Jin Jiu pretended to be cowed and frightened of his gaze. "Yes. I like him. He's funny."

"Uncle Jin would like to be your step-papa. Would you mind that?"

Another long, long, considering look. Then, "All right."

Relieved, Qin Su looked at Jin Jiu. "I knew this day was coming. Not you specifically, of course, but knew I'd have to divorce and remarry. As long as you're willing to have a woman like me and as long as you're good to my boy here, I'll accept."

What she wanted, after all, remained a thing impossible. And she'd a feeling Jin Jiu would give her a good life.

Chapter Text

"HEY! Leave A-Long alone!" Jin Ling leapt to his cousin's defense angrily, watching cousin Jin Chao trying to get something out of the small boy's hands. His little cousin dodged this way and that, cradling whatever he had carefully, trying desperately to prevent their cousin from snatching his toy.

At a guess, Jin Chao wouldn't be happy if he did get hold of whatever A-Long was protecting. At best it was a mouse. At worst, it was a poisonous spider. A-Long was like that, oddly entranced by any sort of wildlife and somehow almost entirely immune to their dangers. Almost. He did get farted on by Old Dumpster the last time they'd visited Uncle Nie.

Something pale poked its head out from between A-Long's fingers. Snarled. It sort of looked like a squirrel but did squirrels usually come that color? Of course, people didn't usually come A-Long's coloring, so maybe they were well-matched? Either way, Jin Chao didn't get to bother A-Long. Especially not on Jin Ling's birthday.

Shoving Jin Chao, Jin Ling chased his cousins out of the playroom, protesting all the way. If anyone other than Jin Ling had dared lay hands on them, he would have brought the whole set of uncles down in a fit of wrath. Jin Ling, heir to the sect and accompanied by a full-grown and protective spirit dog, on the other hand? Was more than Jin Chao and his little gang dared argue with.

Once the cousins were gone, Jin Ling turned to A-Long. "You all right? What is that, anyway?"

A-Long smiled, that huge smile he saved only for his father, his mother, his step-father and Jin Ling. "All right, A-Ling!" He brought the animal he'd been hiding in his sleeve out, revealing a peculiar little thing indeed. The head seemed canine, the body almost like a mongoose, its tail huge and fluffy, like a squirrel's. But none of those animals had hand-like forepaws, nor hooves for hindfeet. "Don't know what is, but cute!"

Every animal in the world was cute to A-Long, even the ones most people thought horrifying. This one, however, really was oddly adorable. It wriggled trustingly in A-Long's hands, attracting Fairy's attention. As Jin Ling's pet sniffed at the creature it ran up A-Long's shoulder and hid among his pale hair, chittering. A perfect hiding place, Jin Ling thought, grinning. "Down Fairy. Leave it alone. Have you shown your Baba? You think he'll let you keep it?"

A slight frown. "Doesn't usually. Maybe this time?"

Jin Ling thought about it. This one was small, not particularly noisy and while it might look strange, it wasn't nearly as scary as some of what A-Long brought home. "Let's go ask."

"Ask what?" Uncle Yao stood behind them, looking mildly amused and slightly smug at having caught them in the act. "What did you bring home this time, child?"

For a moment Jin Ling thought his cousin would try to hide his new pet. But A-Long was almost as honest as a Lan sometimes. He held the animal out. "She's all alone, Baba. And hungry. And awful little. I was scared someone'd eat her."

Uncle Yao stared at the creature. Blinked. Stared a long moment more. Seeing his shock, and unsure why, Jin Ling leapt to his cousin's defense. "It seems nice. It even smells pretty good." It did, too. Sort of like incense. "Please, Uncle Yao? I'm gonna be going to Uncle Cheng's soon and A-Long will be all alone."

For a moment Uncle Yao looked like he wanted nothing better than to send the little beast straight outside. Then it leapt onto his arm, crawled up to his shoulder and rubbed on his cheek like a kitten. It even made cat like mewls, like it was begging him too.

"If you think I don't know what you are, little one, think again." Uncle Yao took the little beast off his shoulder. Gazed directly into its eyes. Then finally sighed. "Don't expect to eat us out of house and home, little glutton. But you may stay. As long as you behave." He handed A-Long's pet back.

A-Long, Jin Ling and their new friend jumped around excitedly for almost a full minute before Uncle Yao added. "Much as I hate to interrupt this warm and somehow disturbing moment, I came to find you for a reason, Jin Ling. It's time to open your presents."

That got him and A-Long moving off to the main hall, where the family was gathered waiting for him. So did package after package of brightly wrapped presents, the usual useless gifts. Jin Ling's family liked fancy stuff, but they never took his tastes into account. What was he supposed to do with fancy robes and overly sugared treats? Now if someone ever realized he liked soup dumplings or zongzi? Then he'd be impressed.

He wasn't surprised to find a package of the latter from Uncle Yao. He knew his nephew's tastes because he shared them. Though Uncle Yao favored a peculiar Yunmeng version that came with a large helping of hot peppers, which was a bit more than Jin Ling could handle.

The last gift came from Grandmother Jin. Now she knew his tastes but seldom indulged them, regarding them as entirely too vulgar for the heir to the Lanling Jin Sect. She wouldn't even let him have melon seeds. So he fully expected the long box she had her servants bring out to hold something foolish, like a scroll painting or some such nonsense.

It didn't. Gold lacquer glittered against pale silk, An elegant hilt, clad in gold leaf, a cord of gold silk. He knew it, a dim dim memory of warm arms holding him, a man's voice laughing as he stretched out his hands for this beautiful thing. He couldn't remember what they'd said, but he didn't need to. His fingers trembled as he took the weapon from its case. Suihua. His father's sword.

"You're old enough to begin training," Grandmother Jin said firmly, though something made her eyes glitter oddly. Crying? No, that couldn't be. Grandmother Jin never cried. "I expect you to take proper care of it."

"I will." Suddenly, unable to resist the impulse though Grandmother Jin hated being touched, he flung his arms around her. "THANKYOUGRAMMA!"

Helplessly, she patted his head. "That'll do. That'll do."

It wouldn't of course. There could be nothing in the world as wonderful as this gift. His father's sword. HIS sword. He'd care for it, polish it, and someday, fight evil as his father had. As bravely and with all his heart. He could almost feel his father's hand on his shoulder. Almost hear his mother's soft voice whispering love.

And he'd do everything in his power to make them proud of him.

#

Baba was being silly again with Jifu Jiu. The two were trading quips about the spicy zongzi Baba liked. Something about needing a whole pond to cool the mouth with. Silly Jifu Jiu. Everyone knew rice was best for that.

And why did people turn such strange colors when they snitched Baba's zongzi anyway. A-Long had been eating them since he was a baby and though they were maybe a bit hot, they weren't that bad. Even Mama winced when she tasted the bright red dumplings.

Concluding that he'd never really understand people, A-Long sat quietly at the table with his three parents, slipping a bite or so of his food to the little white fluffball in his lap. He was so glad Cousin A-Ling had persuaded Baba to let Yiyuan Yi stay. It'd be so lonely in the tower, otherwise, even with Mama and Baba and Jifu Jiu.

More food slipped down to the floor where Blackie napped. Mama's dog was getting too old and tired to climb up into A-Long's lap anymore, so A-Long just dropped a piece now and then in front of his mouth.

"What have I said about feeding Blackie from the table, A-Long?" Mama tried to look stern but A-Long knew she was smiling inside. She did it too, especially these days, when Blackie didn't do much more than sleep and bully Fairy into being his bed.

"Not to make a mess."

"If anything proves you're a Jin, A-Long, it's your ability to pick apart the rules to find what pleases you."

"Regent is past expert at such skills," Jifu Jiu murmured, laughing. "A-Su, here. Have a bit more soup."

Mama sniffed. "You two are encouraging him. And thank you, Jiu-er."

"We are not. Well, perhaps a little." Baba leaned over. Handed Blackie a small piece of meat from his roast duck. "But it's hard not to, when he looks at you that way."

A-Long had no idea what his Baba meant and decided it was just him being silly again. He grinned brightly. "Thank you for my birthday dinner."

"I'm just sorry Jin Ling couldn't come. It must be lonely for you, right now."

It was, a little. But A-Ling's Uncle Cheng deserved time with A-Ling too. And it wasn't anyone's fault the other cousins were too old to play with an eight year old. "S'okay, Baba. I got friends." There was a new one he'd met in the nearby lake, a cute and grumpy snake who liked A-Long to sing to him. A-Long knew better than to mention Jiushe, though. Baba had more than enough Things To Say about A-Long's love of animals.

Jifu Jiu ladled some sweet dumplings into A-Long's bowl. They were the ones Baba liked to compare A-Long to, pale, a little plump, and full of sweet filling. Yet more of Baba's silliness, really, but Baba enjoyed it so why complain? "Your gifts are on the table, once you're done eating. Well, most of them."

Most of them? What could they have gotten him that couldn't be put on the table? Not a pet, surely. He had plenty of friends already. No need to buy him anyone. Couldn't be a weapon, either. He was only eight. Not nearly big enough for a sword - as if he even wanted one - or a bow.

Curious and excited, A-Long finished off his dumplings and let his family lead him to the gift table. The cousins and uncles had sent envelopes with money. Nothing important, especially since A-Long had what he wanted and needed from his Mama, Baba and Father. But then, they never sent him anything but money. Even at eight years old, he could tell it was just because he was Baba's son and they wanted to stay on Baba's good side.

Mama's gift were new boots. Which was good because A-Long's old ones were getting worn down. "Thank you, Mama. I really needed these. I just don't know why my boots are always wearing out so fast." That was what he'd heard Nursie grumble. For some reason it made Mama laugh, which really was what he'd wanted. She always laughed when he talked liked that.

"Could it possibly be all the time you spend climbing around the mountains?" Jifu Jiu asked. "Speaking of which." He handed A-Long a long box just a bit shorter than A-Long himself.

A-Long worried that it was a sword, like cousin A-Ling just got. He really didn't like to fight, after all, and all the cousins thought he should be learning. At least that was what they said, though he thought they were making fun of him when they did. Shaking off the thought, he opened the box to find a polished ebony staff, heavy but not too heavy, thick but not too thick. Much much better than the old stick A-Long had been using up until now. "Oh, Jifu Jiu! This is nice! It's just the right height, too! Thank you!"

"And this is for you to wear when you go hiking." Baba handed him a smaller package, one that rustled like cloth. Oh, oh that was perfect. Hemp pants, short hemp robe. Tough material that'd be so much better than the clothes he usually wore in the mountains. And more than one set, so if he got one dirty - IF! - he'd have a spare.

Throwing his arms around his Baba, then his Mama, then Jifu Jiu, A-Long happily announced, "Best gifts ever!" Then he remembered it was too cold and snowy to go out exploring and wilted. "But I can't use them yet."

"Well, no, that's true. But that's why we got you this last gift." Baba patted his head. Called out, "You can come out now."

An older boy stepped into the room. He wore Lan robes, his messy dark hair bound up in a cloud-embroidered headband. He cupped his hands, grinning brightly, "Greet you young master A-Long. This one is Lan Jingyi. I've been asked to teach you music during the winter. If you'd like to learn, of course?"

Music was the one thing Jin tutors didn't teach, much to A-Long's dismay. He liked to sing and would have loved to play an instrument. But Baba was the only one who knew anything about that sort of thing and he didn't have time to teach it. A-Long smiled brightly, cupping his hands in return, trying to remember every last proper manner he had. "A-Long greets you, teacher. Would gladly learn what is offered!"

Because if anything would fill the next three months with fun, it'd be music. Especially if it was this Jingyi-ge who taught it.

#

Mo Xuanyu was beginning to think the Yiling Patriarch wasn't the villain he'd been made out to be. As one of the few permitted to study Wei Wuxian's notes, he'd initially assumed Wei Wuxian had planned to use every necromantic and demonic cultivation skill possible. Most people would have, seeing the descriptions; use of other lives as a source of power; resentful energy manipulation; ways to attract demons, undead and monsters; blood sacrifice.

Yet for every foul and dark deed Wei Wuxian had studied, he'd also studied how to combat them. He'd described ways even a non-cultivationist could thwart a spirit thief. Described ways to dissipate resentful energy. Described ways to repel what could be attracted. Described ways willing blood sacrifice could save those the one sacrificing wanted to protect.

Moreover, the notes were littered with funny little drawings. Rabbits. A little boy half buried in the dirt. More rabbits. The Ghost General carrying a cart on his shoulder like it was a bale of hay. Even more rabbits. Wei Wuxian apparently liked rabbits very much.

Based on the number of drawings, he'd also liked a certain young Master from Gusulan. Lan Wangji's features appeared even more frequently than the rabbits. Almost expressionless, yet Mo Xuanyu felt as if he knew what mood Han Guangjun was in, in each picture; contemplative, amused, annoyed, aggravated, sad, content. It was almost as if Wei Wuxian had made a study of the man.

Had the Yiling Patriarch loved Lan Wangji? Mo Xuanyu's romantic little heart, beginning to fall in love properly itself, was sure of it. Had Lan Wangji been in love with Wei Wuxian? He was sure of it. Rumors and gossip were forbidden in Gusulan, but happened nonetheless. Lan Wangji had been severely punished for attempting to protect and save Wei Wuxian from the consequences of his mistakes. One didn't willingly take thirty-three strokes with a bamboo rod for just anyone.

One section of the Yiling Patriarch's notes didn't actually belong there. Aside from the, 'really bad idea don't do this' note on the outside of the rolled up bamboo scroll, it wasn't even in Wei Wuxian's somewhat sloppy handwriting. And what it contained was the sort of thing only someone in extremes would willingly do.

After all, how many people would be so desperate, so lost, as to summon a demon or evil spirit to take their place on Earth, destroying their own soul in the process?

#

It'd be a lie to pretend Nie Huaisang felt ready for responsibility. He didn't. But he couldn't justify spending more time at Moling Su when his brother was handling the pressures of leading Nie Sect all by himself. After years of study and practice and learning to combine his clan's cultivation with his natural skills, he felt it past time to come home.

"And how much of that luggage is pornography?" At Nie Huaisang's mock frown, Ge-ge grinned. "Or is it all fans?"

Pretending to be offended, Nie Huaisang scoffed impolitely. "Over half of it's array pattern books. There's talismans as well."

"And fans?"

Sighing, admitting the truth, Nie Huaisang patted the large wooden chest at the bottom of the stack. "Fans. But no porn." He'd been too busy for porn, anyway, what with learning Moling Su's techniques, analyzing how to use Wei-ge's legacy and practicing turning his fans into weapons so he didn't have to use his saber. The less resentful energy he used to that purpose, the better.

Thinking about that reminded Nie Huaisang to examine his brother's qi. Taking advantage of a chance to hug Ge-ge, he focused his attention carefully. He didn't want Ge-ge realizing what he was doing, knowing his brother would probably take offense at the attempt.

The slight flow of energy answered the question that'd been haunting him for a long while now. Ever since Jin Guangyao's accident, in fact. Over the years he'd learned to pay attention to his spiritual sense. Learned that his odd vision was showing him the shattered bits of old hauntings.

It'd been terrifying at first, but he'd learned to focus past it. The talent probably came from his mother's side of the family. She'd been from Yi City, a member of the small clan whose spiritual gifts let them help the dead find their rest. And, for the most part, that was all his vision was, an awareness of the shadowed place where spirits went when they failed to move on.

And, now, using that sense along with his newly trained skills, he knew there was something going on with his brother that he wasn't at all sure he liked. A link that shouldn't be there, a line of existence stretched out far. A line of existence that put him in mind of San-ge.

"What the hell are you doing?"

The question startled Nie Huaisang. It wasn't angry, but it was startled and it was accompanied by Ge-ge hurriedly pulling free. Nie Huaisang stammered, "Nothing, Ge-ge. Just... just making sure you're healthy."

A sigh. "I am entirely healthy, A-Sang. You don't need to worry about my physical or mental state." Ge-ge chuckled suddenly, "If anything, I've been a great deal better than I used to be."

The old Nie Huaisang would have let things end there. Wouldn't have dared argue. He wasn't the old Nie Huaisang anymore. "Prove it. Let me check you over. It's part of what I've been learning to do. Don't make me worry about you trying to hide something."

Before Ge-ge could open his mouth to object further, Nie Huaisang snatched at that thread of existence, tugging it towards him.

::Hey! I was busy.... A-Sang? It's you?:: San-ge's image flickered into view, his gold robes muted by some other room's light.

"I'm sorry, A-Yao. He did it before I could stop him." Ge-ge glared at Nie Huaisang. "Honestly, where are your  manners?"

Nie Huaisang was too busy staring at San-ge to pay his brother mind. "What... how... what's going on here? Why is your spirit...?"

::It's a long story and one I'll leave to your brother to explain, A-Sang. I have to go back before my uncles decide I'm dead and try burying me.:: From San-ge's tone, that wasn't entirely a joke. He faded from view and while Nie Huaisang was sure he could drag the man's spirit back, he could tell from Ge-ge's expression that he'd best not.

"What's going on here?"

The look in Ge-ge's eyes said the last thing he wanted to do was explain. It also said he knew better than to evade the issue. "Come with me. We'll talk privately." Ge-ge paused, adding, "And don't ever do that again unless it's an emergency. Because it's my fault your San-ge's that way and I won't have you making things worse."

Chapter Text

There was no doubt Ge-ge would be furious if he found out what Nie Huaisang was doing. No doubt he'd turn his little brother over his knee and swat him the way he used to.

There was also no doubt in Nie Huaisang's mind that he had confront Yao-ge. What lay between the man and his sworn brothers might be horribly dangerous. It'd started back when Yao-ge had had his accident. No, tell it like it truly was. Not just an accident but Ge-ge's uncertain temper getting the better of him. Yao-ge's fall down those steps had injured him badly. The incident had given Ge-ge a much needed moment of insight, but it'd resulted in something terribly strange. A link had formed between Yao-ge and his sworn brothers.

It hadn't been until Nie Huaisang had learned to control his odd spiritual gift that he began to understand what that link was. A binding formed by desire, created in Yao-ge's dying, or almost dying. It'd saved Yao-ge's life, but Nie Huaisang feared it could cost his brother's.

Ge-ge and Er-ge accepted the link. Nie Huaisang, on the other hand, was not nearly so ready to do so. Not when he feared what might happen if Yao-ge abused their connection. He liked Yao-ge, but he wasn't blind to the man's faults. Yao-ge's morality was shaky, his honor a thing he easily set aside for expedience. He seemed to love his sworn brothers, but Nie Huaisang feared he'd sacrifice them to protect himself if he thought it necessary.

So it was necessary, absolutely necessary, to make sure of Yao-ge. To make him understand that expedience would not be tolerated. Thus an invitation to dine at the finest restaurant in Yiling. He'd even purchased a private room, all so he could handle the confrontation without witnesses.

Well, that and he'd put every protective talisman he could up, hiding them behind elegant scrolls and along every crack. He could activate them with a wave of his fan, held negligently as always as he smiled sweetly at Jin Sect's Regent. "You didn't need to send your guard away," he said, even though he was actually glad Yao-ge had. Jin Jiu seemed nice enough, but Nie Huaisang doubted he'd put up with threats to his master.

"It's obvious you only expected one, and my bringing A-Long with me is already pushing the limits of hospitality."

The pale haired boy smiled brightly at Nie Huaisang. Apparently his cousin Jin Ling was away with his uncle Jiang Cheng and the youngster was bored at home. Yao-ge had promised him a trip to Yiling's famed market afterward. "A-Long will be quiet and behave," he promised. "So will Yiyuan Yi."

Yiyuan Yi? Oh, that must be the little stuffed toy A-Long carried in his sleeve. It looked like no animal Nie Huaisang had ever seen before, a pale, fluffy thing with claws and hooves, just a bit larger than a lapdog. "I'm sure he will."

"Respect Young Master Nie. Yiyuan Yi is a she." A-Long started to sit, only to stop at Yao-ge's cough. "Oh. A-Long is sorry. He forgets his manners. Please." The boy gestured for Nie Huaisang to sit first.

Nie Huaisang had to admit Yao-ge's son was a charming youngster. Polite and gentlemanly. No doubt due to Yao-ge's influence. "No need, no need. Please. Let us all sit. The first course is ready."

The first course was glutinous rice congee with eggs, bamboo and mushrooms. The stock was a rich pork broth, with a hint of sesame oil. The next a roast duck in a cinnamon and nutmeg sauce. The next was fish in ginger and garlic. And last but not least, beautifully prepared stewed pork belly.

Yao-ge ate delicately and elegantly, occasionally pausing to assist his son with a difficult piece or remind A-Long of his manners. The youngster ate more than the father, despite being smaller. Yet Yao-ge ate a respectable amount, only stopping when A-Long yawned and climbed into his lap, completely forgetting his manners.

"Oh dear. Dumpling, you really shouldn't...." The boy wrapped his arms around Yao-ge's neck and curled up. "My apologies, Sang-di. He's terribly sticky sometimes, especially if he feels like something's wrong."

"I hope I haven't made him think that...." The slight rise of Yao-ge's eyebrow made Nie Huaisang stop. Narrow his eyes in turn. "You brought him on purpose."

"I brought him to shop. But I won't pretend I won't use his presence to remind you that I have something to protect." Yao-ge gestured with his free hand. "I can't cultivate normally, thanks to my condition. But my condition makes me particularly sensitive to certain things. Such as protective talismans and resentful energy."

"What resentful energy?"

"Yours." Yao-ge eyed Nie Huaisang. "You're a Nie. It's part of your training to manipulate yang resentful energy as a weapon. You may not use it the same way your brother does, but you do still use it. It's instinctive, I think."

Nie Huaisang's lips tightened on his anger. Getting mad at Yao-ge wouldn't help. And A-Long's presence did help restrain his desire to grab the man by the collar, lift him in the air and shake him. "Don't patronize me."

"I'm not, Sang-di. Really, I fully expected you to come after me, after that incident last week. You've been training in arts that make it easy for you to tell something's off between myself and my sworn brothers. You lost your father and fear losing your brother. I don't blame you." He took a piece of pork from his plate and ate it carefully. "I should note, by the way, that aside from being delicious, yang rich foods are actually quite good for me. They strengthen my hun soul so it remains connected to my body."

Nie Huaisang blinked. He'd actually intended the meal as a test. "I...."

Gently, Yao-ge murmured. "I've no intention of harming either of my sworn brothers. I've come to rely on them, to need them. I realize it worries you. It worries me. But right now there's little I can do about it. Little anyone can do about it. All I can do is promise to do my best not to cause any more harm than I have already."

Yao-ge's smile was odd, not the eternal gentle expression he usually had. Faint, weak and maybe a little tired. Maybe even a bit broken. Nie Huaisang sighed. "I won't pretend I wasn't going to... make promises... myself. But Ge-ge would be angry with me if I took things too far." He paused. Added because he couldn't not, "But I am keeping an eye on you. Just remember that."

Amused, Yao-ge murmured, "Sang-di, I would expect nothing less." His smile broadened as he added, "In fact, I outright demand it."

#

The Chang family's mansion lay empty.

Only little while earlier, it'd been a thriving little household, fully recovered from the murderous attentions of Xue Yang. Its master Chang Ping had invited Xiao Xingchen and his companions to visit, wanting to gift the two cultivators with a place where they could build their dream sect.

The visit had been interrupted just after Master Chang had handed over the deed to a bit of land near Yi City. Gaogui had gone missing and Xiao Xingchen knew his nephew's ways only too well by now. He was a great deal better than he used to be, but every so often the old mischief resurrected itself.

"Why does he do this?" A-Qing complained.

Likely it was the boy's spirit trying desperately to cling to oblivion. Every so often Xiao Xingchen thought he saw a flicker of the broken adult in Gaogui's eyes. Wei Wuxian's desire to not exist meant he did everything in his power to pretend he was still the small child he hadn't been for years.

This time he'd gone sneaking off into the peach orchards belonging to the Chang's neighbor, bouncing along like the Monkey King on a mission. One involving the theft of as many peaches as he could manage, if Xiao Xingchen knew the boy. Not wanting their charge to create too much havoc in not-at-all-heaven, Xiao Xingchen, Song Lan and A-Qing all went after him.

As usual, the boy kept them moving. He didn't destroy the orchard's crops - mostly because there wasn't much ripe fruit yet - but he ran around the trees and hid so well that A-Qing was within inches of throttling him. She certainly got a few excellent strikes in with her bamboo cane. The girl had learned her lessons well, to Xiao Xingchen's great satisfaction.

It took almost an hour to calm Gaogui down enough to get him to come apologize to the orchard's owner. Song Lan, as official keeper of the family purse, paid for the half-dozen peaches the boy had downed and Xiao Xingchen gently dragged their charge off by the ear.

The boy got a stomach ache halfway back to the Chang mansion, which lost them another hour. Xiao Xingchen was just rehearsing his abject apology to their benefactor when they returned to find no one home.

"What happened?" A-Qing stared around, expression a little scared. She'd long since stopped pretending to be blind when it was just the family. The fact that they were alone now, though, was rightfully unnerving.

Quite suddenly, Gaogui twisted free of Xiao Xingchen's grip. He didn't run off, though. Just sniffed the air and backed away from the entrance. "Bad!" he said suddenly. "Very bad."

The boy's fear was obvious, even if its cause was not. "What's bad?"

"Not real. Not real. Can't be real." Gaogui backed up another step. Set his hand to his waist as if to grasp the flute Wei Wuxian once carried. "Can't. Can't fight. Gotta run. We gotta run."

Xiao Xingchen looked at his partner. "Lan-er?"

"I feel it too. Something not right in the air. Resentful energy of some sort." Even as he spoke, something moved in the shadows towards the far end of the courtyard. It lumbered forward, a torn and twisted thing. More shadows moved and A-Qing gasped as Song Lan drew his sword. "Ferocious undead."

Xiao Xingchen sensed the next attack before he saw it. More undead coming out from among the trees. Where had they come from and how had they managed to slip past his and Song Lan's awareness? For that matter, why were they approaching at all. Gaogui's presence generally made all but the more rabid of undead want to leave.

Seeing no choice, Xiao Xingchen ordered, "Gaogui, we're going to try and make an opening. As soon as you see it, run." They were outnumbered and he'd never seen so many undead in one place before. Wei Wuxian could have handled them. Gaogui could not.

"Can't leave you."

It was good of the boy to be concerned, but he was their weak point. As long as they had to protect him, they couldn't act freely. And under the circumstances, acting freely was vital. Xiao Xingchen was about to insist when Gaogui wailed, a long undulating cry that echoed strangely around them.

The ground shuddered beneath their feet. A crack formed in the pavement. Widened. Widened some more. Widened until a pair of undead arms thrust out of the dirt and dragged their owner into the light. A slim figure, two long chains hanging from its wrists, wild dark hair covered in dirt, eyes black on black as they turned to gaze balefully. Wen Qionglin, come to protect his master and his master's family.

The Ghost General's chains swept across the courtyard. Slammed into the closest undead. Their bearer flung himself into action, cracking bones and ripping off arms. He sent the other monsters flying, tore them up, shattered their skulls. They still moved, still struggled, but within moments they were too damaged to fight.

"RUN!" the chained undead shouted.

Xiao Xingchen, recognizing the chance and accepting it, grabbed Gaogui's wrist and set off for the exit. Just as a sound echoed from the rooftops. One he knew and was profoundly grateful to hear. A guqin, playing loud and clear.

Lan Wangji of Gusulan, living up to his reputation of being where chaos was, had arrived.

#

He recognized Wen Ning immediately and found a brief moment to wonder just how the Ghost General could possibly be walking. Hadn't Jin Guangshan claimed the fierce corpse had been burned? Lan Wangji wasn't at all sure what was possible for a being like Wen Ning, but surely reforming out of his own ashes was a bit much.

Focusing on the other undead, Lan Wangji sent wave after wave of sound qi flowing through the courtyard. Bits and pieces of the undead dropped to the ground. But in a horribly familiar way even the broken pieces kept moving, struggling to go after their targets. "The Stygian Tiger Seal?" Lan Wangji muttered. Half of it had been destroyed, destroying its creator in the process. The other half had been missing ever since. Had it been found? Did it still work, broken as it was?

Wen Ning lifted his head, turned a stiff neck to look up at Lan Wangji. He'd no expression on his filth covered features but Lan Wangji thought he seemed concerned. Then the undead looked at the enemy and roared, a wave of familiar energy slamming through the monsters and causing them to jerk to a halt. To Lan Wangji's shock, the creatures turned to attack each other, destroying the horde filling the Chang family's mansion.

Within minutes the only undead left standing was Wen Ning himself. They stared at each other, Wen Ning with almost heartbreaking sadness, Lan Wangji with horribly complicated emotions. If Wen Ning hadn't killed Jin Zixuan, the cultivational world might not have turned on his master. Yet at the same time, Lan Wangji knew the young man wasn't entirely at fault, that circumstances had been against them.

Slowly, carefully, Wen Ning cupped his hands. "Young Master Lan. This undead thanks you for your help."

"En."

Apparently understanding far more than most would from that one word, the undead added, "This one would appreciate the honored master not mention his presence. There is something he must protect, until its owner is returned to himself enough to deal with it."

It wasn't at all hard to guess what that thing was. Now he was close to the Ghost General, Lan Zhan could sense the Seal's presence. No doubt Wen Ning had controlled those undead within range of his voice with its power. At a guess whomever had controlled this attack on the Chang family would desperately desire what Wen Ning guarded with his undead existence.

"En." A gesture towards the crack from which Wen Ning had come was enough to tell the undead what he should do. A last bow and the Ghost General leapt into the darkness, the ground shaking a little until he'd gone too deep to be noticed. Yes, Wen Ning absolutely understood Lan Wangji.

After all, they both cared about the same man and would do everything in their power to keep him safe.

#

Capturing the Chang family had been easy. Dragging them back to his hideout, even easier. The undead Xue Yang had taken control of were terrifying to these weaklings. Cultivationists? Hah. This lot didn't know the meaning of the word. It was too bad there weren't any children. He could have trained them, drew them over to his way of thinking. Made them his little brothers or sisters and taught them how to live.

But then he'd killed off most of the younger generation the last time he'd gone after the Chang. In retrospect, he ought to have waited until he'd had more power. Moving too soon had forced the little bastard to make choices over who to serve and who to protect. No surprise he'd chosen that oversized musclebound gorilla and the pretty boy musician.

What worried him, though, aside from pretty boy Hanguang-Jun showing up to interfere, was the fact that something broke his grip on his undead. He'd created a new imitation Stygian Tiger Seal, all full of resentful energy distilled from his victims' broken swords. There shouldn't have been anything powerful enough to overcome it.

Yet something had and done it so thoroughly that his pet undead had obeyed the interloper and turned on the others. He'd been too busy trying to chase down his old 'friends' Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan to go back and find out what. Worse, he'd lost sight of those two and their pets. Well enough, there were other ways to deal with them.

Besides, he had the Changs. They'd have to be enough for the moment. There was plenty of work to be done even without those two bastards. He'd have to hide his tracks, now he'd made his presence known again. Would have to finish building his puppets. He still hadn't found the half of the Stygian Tiger Seal the little bastard had taken. Still hadn't found the Ghost General. And, most importantly, hadn't found the Yiling Patriarch.

He had to be out there somewhere. The body Xue Yang had built for him, using his remains and so many others', had disappeared entirely. The man himself was in hiding. Lying in wait and showing a great deal more patience than Xue Yang could. It wasn't surprising. After all, Wei Wuxian was the true master of the art. That was why Xue Yang yearned to meet him. To show his respect. To learn at his feet. And, inevitably, to steal all he was and bind him to Xue Yang's will.

Because, of course, how else to show one's reverence to a great and evil power but to consume it and make it one's own?

Chapter Text

He ran. Ran as fast as he could towards his room. Outside, young men and women shouted, screamed, bled, died. And, worse, joined the attackers as part of enemy's undead army. This was wrong. This wasn't the way undead behaved. Mo Xuanyu had made a careful study of such things, memorizing every last detail of Wei Wuxian's research. Not so he could repeat the Yiling Patriarch's mistakes but so he could combat them.

But there wasn't anything to combat this mess. He recognized the effect from the descriptions. He'd been too young to fight at the Burial Mounds but he'd listened to the stories from those who had. Only one thing had that much power. The Stygian Tiger Seal.

Had he not been certain by now that Wei Wuxian wasn't the monster everyone thought him, Mo Xuanyu would have feared this was the Yiling Patriarch's work. It couldn't possibly be! Some instinct, born of years of studying Wei Wuxian's notes, told him that much. The necromancer might attack those who attacked him, attack those who attacked his friends, but he'd never had anything to do with Baixue Temple. In fact, Baixue had stayed entirely out of Wei Wuxian's business, back in the day.

No. Whomever was attacking wasn't Wei Wuxian. Mo Xuanyu was about to stake his life on that. Because even if it wasn't the Yiling Patriarch behind the attack, it most certainly was the Stygian Tiger Seal. And that was the sort of thing no one but Wei Wuxian could deal with.

Mo Xuanyu didn't want to die. Didn't want to destroy his soul. But his friends, his family, his beloved Master Shen, were all in desperate danger here. He couldn't stand idly by and do nothing. But there was nothing he could do. If he was right and the Stygian Tiger Seal was behind this attack, the only one able to do anything was Wei Wuxian.

He knelt on the floor of his room, blood streaming from the single cut on his arm. Hurriedly, but precisely, he set up the array. All he'd have to do was complete it and work the summoning. He took a deep breath, unsure if he had the courage to finish what he'd begun. Heard someone wail in terror. Raised his knife.

Only to have it snatched away.

#

He didn't want to do this. If he could have run and hid from everything he would have. If it'd been just him he might have just let things go and accepted a second death. It wouldn't be any worse than his first one, after all. But there were other lives and he couldn't let them fall because he was afraid.

If only Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan were there. His masters could have helped get everyone to safety. But they'd gone to investigate something and felt he and A-Qing would be safer back with Song Lan's old master at Baixue. He wasn't sorry, now, that he'd been left behind, but he was sorry he was going to have to wake properly at long last. At least Qing-Jie was safe with Master Shen. She didn't need to see what her little brother was becoming.

Sensing power, sensing an array that should not, should never, be used, he ran towards the source. It was calling him anyway, drawing him close. Whomever it was, was summoning him? Using that array? It was intended to pull in the very worst resentful spirit possible, bind them to the caster's body and demand that spirit do their will in return for their own existence.

The kid had the wrong spirit. He was nothing like the stories. Nothing like the monster they thought he was. Besides, he didn't need a new body. He had this one and it was perfectly fine. He'd even managed to form a core, even while hiding his mind from everyone, including himself.

He rushed into the room. Grabbed the knife from young Xuanyu. Glared at the boy. "Don't."

"You don't understand."

"I do. Don't do it. You don't need to do it."

Mo Xuanyu leapt to his feet, smudging the array as he grabbed for the knife. "Gaogui, don't try to stop me."

"It. Won't. Help. He. Won't. Take. Your. Body." He wiped his foot across the array, smudging it further. "Follow me." Not letting the boy argue, he grabbed Mo Xuanyu's arm and dragged him into the hall. One of the undead had just slammed one of the older disciples against the wall, breaking her neck.

Quickly, before whomever was wielding the fake Stygian Tiger Seal could add the fresh corpse to their army, he whistled. Called out, "Get up and fight back."

The disciple obeyed, grabbing her killer and ripping his head off. If the undead had been created by the original seal the creature would have recovered and returned to the fight. This seal's link was broken immediately. Without hesitation, he whistled again, taking over the destroyed undead. Grabbed the fallen head, he handed it back. "Both of you. Bring me any undead you destroy."

As the two undead stumbled off obediently, he turned to look at young Mo and saw comprehension dawn in those innocent young eyes. "You... you're...."

"I told you you didn't need to summon me." Wei Wuxian stretched. Sensed his new servants approaching with more bodies. Chose one and handed Mo Xuanyu off to her. "Escort him to the temple, please? A-Yu, I'll take care of this. And, please, please, please, don't tell anyone."

Once he'd helped as many as he could, he'd leave. No one wanted the Yiling Patriarch walking around again. Not even the Yiling Patriarch.

#

The first thing Lan Sizhui had learned as a cultivationist was never to panic. One's duty put one in the way of all sorts of terrors. All sorts of dangers. Panic only increased the risk, made one act without thinking. And 'Think before you act' was engraved deep on Gusulan's wall of rules.

Seeing the others in his little squad getting nervous, he called for attention. "Sect Master Shen is guarding the temple but there are Baixue disciples too far to get to safety. How many spirit repelling flags do we have?"

Lan Jingyi, who responded best to firm guidance, pulled a stack of the things from his bag. "I've got four."

Others announced they had about the same number. Good. "Then we get to the courtyard and set up a safe spot there." At the younger disciples' expressions he added, "I only need four. If you don't feel you can do it, stay. There's no shame in recognizing your limits."

That had the opposite effect to what he'd intended. He should have known the youngsters would regard it as a challenge and stand forth ready to work. Well, the more they had, the better chance they had of setting up a sanctuary quickly. "Right. Each of you hold one flag in front of you and we'll move in a group to the courtyard." That'd put them closer to the trapped disciples and give them a chance to reach safety.

It took several minutes to reach their destination. Staying in a group wasn't hard. Staying in a group while keeping the flags close enough to each other to prevent the undead from getting past was harder. It required everyone to move at the same speed and avoid falling behind or crowding each other.

Still, they made it and quickly set up the flags around the edges of the courtyard. Sizhui set those with the strongest voices calling out to whomever might hear them, "COME TO THE COURTYARD, IT'S PROTECTED!"

A few disciples showed up. Then a few more. Then, with startling speed, a good dozen or so. Some were cut and scratched, having barely evaded their attackers. Others were so badly mauled they barely managed to stumble into safety. Jingyi, relieved at having something to do, grabbed a few assistants and set to binding wounds.

Sizhui kept an eye on the edges of the perimeter and was startled to see a dozen undead coming down one hall. That alone wasn't odd, they could have been following potential victims. But why were they attacking other undead, fighting amongst themselves like squabbling children?

Even stranger, every time an undead fell, they rose again to join the other side. Until there was only one group, dragging themselves outside. A familiar figure walked behind them, speaking in an oddly familiar tone. "I want each and every one of you to go lie down and think about what you've done."

It was Gaogui, the odd, slightly mad, boy who Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan had adopted. The one who'd been left with A-Qing at Baixue while the two cultivationists went to Yi City. "Senior Gaogui!" Sizhui called. "Don't. Come back and leave them alone! You'll get hurt."

The other boy ignored him, waving his hands in that familiar way. "No stragglers," he said with asperity. "Don't think you can slip off and play."

As Gaogui playfully followed behind the undead, safe only because the creatures seemed more interested in leaving than anything else, it occurred to Sizhui who the boy mimicked. Great-uncle Lan Qiren at his most irritable and least patient.

The question was, exactly when and how did Gaogui know enough about the man to imitate him so perfectly?

#

Ordinarily Lan Wangji arrived just in time for the excitement. This time, called late to the party by the young Gusulan disciples who'd forgotten they carried emergency flares, he arrived just as the last of the undead were lying down in the cemetery, ready to be reburied and set to rest. It was a familiar scene, one that gave him a sharp surge of hope.

His sect's disciples crowded around him. Well, most did. Only Lan Sizhui remained quietly waiting for his attention. Lan Wangji allowed himself the tiniest of smiles and saw relief flood his son's eyes. The boy saluted. "Master Lan."

"Disciple Sizhui." Lan Wangji looked around the courtyard, pleased. Someone had set up spirit repelling flags around the perimeter, making it a safe place for the living to hide. Lan Wangji, knowing his son's skills and recognizing the spirit energy filling the flags, knew those someones were Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi. "You did well."

As Sizhui flushed at the compliment, his best friend let his emotions, and his words, loose. "Gods! What happened here? This is a disaster! We saved as many as we could. Master Shen held them off from the temple, there are more disciples there, but we didn't see them coming and they took out over half the disciples before we realized what was happening!"

That was young Jingyi. The boy was a stickler for the rules but tended to forget them in dangerous or exciting situations. No doubt he was already making note of his errors so he could accept his punishment when he got home. "Help the injured. Look for any undead. Don't overextend yourselves."

As the disciples hurried to obey, Lan Wangji glanced at Sizhui. "Report."

"The undead arrived just after everyone had gone to sleep. They chose a time best suited to a sneak attack, as if they were under intelligent command. Normal defenses didn't stop them, only the spirit repelling flags we carried. Master Shen went to guard the temple with his fellow masters and we came out to make a safe place for the disciples who couldn't get that far. And then... the fight turned around."

"Turned around? Retreated?"

"No. It was like another controller was fighting the first one. They stole the undead out from under the other's power. I don't know where they went from here, though."

"To the cemetery, where they belong." Lan Wangji scanned the buildings. "Xiao Xingchen, Song Lan here?"

"No. They went to Yi City to investigate an incident there."

"A-Qing? Gaogui?" No real need to ask for the latter, but it'd look strange if he didn't.

"A-Qing is with Sect Master Shen. As for Gaogui...." A slight wry smile crossed Sizhui's face. "He was pretending to be Master Qiren just now, bossing the undead around like they were poorly trained disciples. Had Jingyi furious with him for it, but you know Jingyi."

Lan Wangji knew Gaogui, too. Knew just how much fun he'd once had, making Uncle Qiren turn every color of the rainbow. "Where now?"

"I... he...." The boy faltered. "I'm not sure. I only saw him briefly, passing our sanctuary. I tried to make him join us, but he wasn't listening."

Lan Wangji was sure he wasn't. He never had, in all the years and years Lan Wangji'd known him. "Will look for him. Finish cleaning up here. Account for the dead."

"I will, sir."

"And, again, good job, son." Lan Wangji set a hand on Sizhui's shoulder, causing the boy to flush bright red. "Go now."

Once his son was gone, Lan Wangji headed out to the cemetery. If Gaogui, if Wei Ying, had finally woken to himself, he'd surely be there, setting his dead to rest the way he always did.

And if he wasn't, well Lan Wangji was patient and Wei Ying wasn't the sort to stay quiet for long. All he'd have to do was look for the loudest, most troublesome, most obnoxious noise around and there he'd be.

Chapter Text

Jin Guangyao wasn't at all sure he approved of his fellow uncle's teaching methods. The boy was only fourteen. Well-trained and an excellent archer, Jin Ling could hold his own against ordinary opponents. The monsters and undead of Dafang weren't ordinary by any stretch of the imagination. There was something about that place, an energy that didn't belong in the human world.

Still, he had to admit Jin Ling had a great deal to prove. To himself and to his cousins. It'd been the boy's own pressure on Jiang Wanyin that'd led to the Sect leader taking him off to train and giving him hundreds of spirit catching nets to assist him. An unfair advantage against the others, of course, but they'd been gifted tools from their loving fathers, where Jin Ling's only inheritance was a sword almost too big for him to carry.

Being not quite properly alive, Jin Guangyao had to be careful around those nets. His poorly connected hun soul could be disrupted by their energies. Still, he wanted to keep an eye on his nephew. Besides, he hadn't made it this long as a not quite fully alive, not really dead, being without learning how to control his nature.

He wasn't doing too badly at controlling the undead around him, either. He'd never be as good at it as Wei Wuxian, but they sensed the strength of his will and the weaker ones tended to do what he wanted. It meant he could encourage them to cooperate with Jin Ling's training. As for the stronger ones that refused to obey? Well those he could take care of with his strings.

"I suppose you don't have a mother to teach you!"

The voice from the darkness was familiar, shockingly so. Even more shockingly, it sent a wave of overwhelming desire through Jin Guangyao. If he'd been truly undead, fully and completely so, he'd be down on his knees awaiting his master's beck and call. He forced himself not to rush to Wei Wuxian's aid as Jin Ling's voice echoed through the night. "What? What did you say?"

The sound of a sword clearing its sheath followed, then the sound of someone falling to the ground. Jin Guangyao slipped closer, peering through the moonlit shadows to spy on a familiar figure. Gaogui, but not Gaogui. Wei Wuxian, a bit shorter than he used to be, but still himself in everything that mattered.

As for Jin Ling, he was sprawled on the ground threatening his uncle's wrath on the man who'd attacked him with a ghostly seal. No doubt in Jin Guangyao's mind which uncle the boy meant. Jin Ling knew which uncle was liable to break anyone who got in his way and it wasn't the one who shared his clan.

Sounding puzzled, Wei Wuxian asked yet another ill-chosen question. "Uncle? Why not your father? Who's your uncle, then?"

No surprise that Jiang Wanyin showed up right that moment, furious at a total stranger's insults to his orphaned nephew. Things only got worse when he realized that stranger was using demonic cultivation. If the argument weren't interrupted by the discovery that the spirit binding nets had been destroyed and by the arrival of the nets' destroyer, Lan Wangji, the newly restored Wei Wuxian might have fared badly.

As the group went off and Wei Wuxian sat on the ground with a heavy and despondent *thunk*, Jin Guangyao slipped tried to slip past, hoping the Yiling Patriarch was too off-balance to notice his presence. It was a vain hope. Wei Wuxian raised his face and stared in his direction, the moonlight showing why it was Jiang Wanyin hadn't recognized his brother. Wei Wuxian was awake and aware of his true self, yes, but the body he wore wasn't exactly the same as it'd been before.

Jin Guangyao wasn't too worried about being recognized. Instead of his fancy sect robes, he wore a short robe and trousers like he'd once worn back when he was just a whore's bastard son. All he had to do was stay back in the shadows and hope Wei Wuxian couldn't see his face. He stayed where he was, not wanting to risk the Yiling Patriarch exerting his will on him.

"Well, you're a mess."

"This one must agree." Jin Guangyao watched the man thoughtfully. Added, "This one could say the same about you."

A sharp sigh. "I'm an idiot."

Another truth. One Jin Guangyao chose not to acknowledge. Instead, he asked, "What will the Master do?"

"I'm not your master... or, wait... I suppose I am. Sort of." Wei Wuxian looked around. Noticed a bag fallen to the ground and picked it up, clearly wanting to be distracted. He poked through its contents and drew out a gloom-burning talisman. It burned immediately, proving there was a spirit somewhere near. And from the way the flame bent, it wasn't Jin Guangyao.

Focusing his attention, Jin Guangyao found the other spirit and recognized it as an old man, one who kept whispering that he hurt. It took Wei Wuxian but a moment to work out why. He turned to Jin Guangyao, asking, "Are you native to this place? Do you recognize him?"

"No. This one was passing through and sensed your presence, Master." Let the Patriarch believe he'd been drawn by the man's cultivation. In a way it was true. "This one has heard of the troubles that bring those young ones here, though." People kept falling into trances. A groom suddenly gaining money to be married. The bride, immediately after the marriage. The father of the bride, soon after his beloved daughter was afflicted.

"Mmm." Wei Wuxian fell silent. He'd obviously been told something of the situation already, so Jin Guangyao didn't have to. "This gentleman isn't the sort of spirit that's supposed to go wandering."

He wasn't? Jin Guangyao would have to bow to the master on that count. All he could do was see and hear the old man. He couldn't guess at the being's nature. "Really?"

"He was properly buried. Should have been properly propitiated. That sort don't go wandering unless someone messes around with their grave." Wei Wuxian scanned the darkness. "I don't suppose you've a thought on where those children went? The ones on the Night Hunt?"

The answer was obvious. Jin Guangyao had watched the group heading for the trail leading to the Goddess Cave. He said as much, adding, "This one isn't sure it's a proper temple. But this one understands a natural rock formation resembling a woman has become a center of worship there."

To his complete surprise, the statement made Wei Wuxian stiffen. "Of course. That's it!"

"What?" Jin Guangyao tried not to panic because Wei Wuxian's excitement held a dire note. "What's wrong?"

"The old man's not the start of the mess. It's the one wanting money. I bet he prayed for it. And once he got it, She took him."

Jin Guangyao only dimly understood the Yiling Patriarch's meaning. "You mean the Goddess claimed their souls?"

"That's right. Except she's not a Goddess. Just a thing, a focal point for people's desires. Something roused her into existence." Wei Wuxian's lips tightened. "And that means those children are heading straight for the worst trouble they can find."

Before Jin Guangyao could say a single word, Wei Wuxian had run off, leapt on the back of a familiar donkey - Mo Xuanyu's Little Apple - and was galloping up the trail.

#

Wen Ning could have approached Young Master Wei any time in the last decade. Could have and knew better. He'd sensed Wei Wuxian's desire for peace, could sense his desperate desire to Not Be Wei Wuxian. Respecting his master's wishes was paramount, so while he traveled beneath the ground, following Gaogui and his companions, Wen Ning remained out of sight.

Aside from the time at the Chang household, when Gaogui had instinctively called for help against those strange undead, Wen Ning had successfully stayed hidden from his master. He'd been a bit surprised when Lan Wangji had acknowledged his existence and accepted it; surprised and grateful. He didn't mind dying. He was already dead, after all. But he'd like to make reparations for the part he'd played in his master's downfall first.

Even when Gaogui accepted his identity as Wei Wuxian, Wen Ning chose to remain out of sight. He wasn't sure what his master was going to do or where he'd go. Until he knew, he felt it best to wait and watch. Sooner or later Wei Wuxian's talent for falling straight into the worst sort of trouble was sure to raise its chaotic head.

When Baixue Temple was attacked, Wen Ning was caught up in a fight on the outskirts of the temple grounds. There'd been so many undead to fight that he'd been unable to come to his master's aid. Not that he needed to in the end. Wei Wuxian's power, long dormant, roused itself so thoroughly when it was needed that Wen Ning simply didn't have time to get to Young Master Wei's side before everything was over.

And when the fight was over, it was obvious Young Master Wei didn't want to be recognized. He'd run off, stealing Young Master Mo's donkey, and disappearing into the hills so quickly that Wen Ning had no choice but to follow above ground and try not to be seen. He didn't know his master's intentions yet and didn't want to present himself if Wei Wuxian meant to hide beneath Gaogui's daft personality again.

Following Young Master Wei to Dafan mountain was easy. Avoiding the spirit binding nets some overly enthusiastic night hunter had left everywhere, not quite so much. He found himself trapped and while he was strong enough to rip the net to shreds, he remembered how expensive the things were. It might be kinder to wait, confident in his ability to escape once the net's owner arrived to claim their prey.

Instead, help came from an unexpected source. Sound qi cut through the strands and dropped him to the ground. Face to face with his rescuer, he cupped his hands and bowed politely. "Young Master Lan," he murmured. "This undead thanks you."

"Unhurt?"

"This undead is difficult to damage, Young Master Lan." Truth to tell, he was almost impossible to damage. Carrying half of the Stygian Tiger Seal for as long has he had had changed his flesh. Made him strong. Stronger. Quite incredibly strong, really. It gave him other powers, too, but he'd yet to fully explore them, not having reason to experiment.

"Good. Wei Wuxian?"

Somehow, Wen Ning wasn't surprised Lan Wangji was following the Yiling Patriarch. He'd guessed the truth about the Second Jade of Gusulan's feelings towards his master. Guessed and pitied him, because Wei Wuxian was oblivious to the care of others. "This undead senses him that way."

"Come."

They walked through the darkness only to find Wei Wuxian faced off with Jiang Wanyin. The sect leader hadn't recognized his brother - Gaogui didn't quite look like Wei Wuxian anymore - but he recognized a demonic cultivator. Knowing what Jang Wanyin did to such people, Wen Ning started forward. Except Lan Wangji stopped him. "Stay. Let me."

Truth to tell, Wen Ning showing up to help wouldn't do anyone any good. He stepped back to let Lan Wangji handle the matter. Watching the argument, he reflected that Wei Wuxian was doing an excellent job of pretending to be the half-mad Gaogui. Of course, he'd years of practice at that.

At last, argument resolved, the young Lanling Jin disciple, some Yunmeng Jin, some Gusulan and some others whose sects weren't as obvious, wandered off to continue their night hunt. To Wen Ning's amusement, they all went approximately the same direction, as if recognizing there was safety in numbers. Which, when one thought about it, there were.

Once everyone was gone, Wei Wuxian spoke and at first Wen Ning was afraid it was to him. But, no. It was a slight and familiar figure hiding in the shadows. The pair spoke briefly, Wei Wuxian apparently unaware of who the partially undead person was and Regent Jin Guangyao choosing not to reveal himself. Then, quite suddenly, Young Master Wei set off running, mounting an old and crotchety mule and kicking it into motion despite its obvious desires to stay where it was.

Not wanting to leave his master to his own devices, Wen Ning followed along.

#

On reflection, picking a fight with a false Goddess wasn't the best idea Jin Ling had ever had. He realized it soon after that mad brat Gaogui showed up, shouting warnings that made no sense. Or, rather, made no sense until the Goddess statue broke free of her moorings and set to attacking whomever she could grab.

The statue barely looked like a Goddess at all. A rough shape, sort of female, the only part that resembled a person was the one arm. A slim, youthful, arm, the hand hidden by a black glove. Even as he fired at the thing, trying valiantly to break it to pieces with his arrows, he wondered who would put a real glove on a statue?

Something sounded in the woods. A horrific noise. A flute? Who was playing a flute out there? He peered through the branches and thought he recognized Gaogui, a poorly made bamboo flute to his lips. What foolishness was that madman up to?

The noise continued. Drew the Goddess statue's attention. Oh, was he really thinking he could handle a thing like this? Damned idiot was going to get himself killed. Jin Ling leapt into the trees. Leapt across to the next one and the next, following behind the thing, wanting to get a better position.

He got too close. A hand grabbed him by the ankle. Flung him to the ground. Stunned, terrified and knowing he was about to die, he stared at his killer as it raised a foot to slam it into his chest. He wouldn't scream. He wouldn't scream. He was his father's son and he would NOT scream.

The music shrilled a relentless call to arms and something crashed out of the woods and knocked the statue off its feet. It rolled upright as its attacker set himself between it and Jin Ling. Shadow and moonlight played over pale skin and torn black clothing. Heavy iron chains clanked. Lofted themselves into the air like Uncle Yao's threads. Spun around the statue and dragged it down.

The statue was huge and heavy but its attacker, for all he was half its height, was incredibly strong. Of course, legend said he could shatter swords and break stone columns, so Jin Ling supposed he shouldn't be surprised. He scrambled to his feet. Tried to aim another arrow, only to feel something wrap around his wrist and drag him into the forest.

"Uncle Yao?" he gasped, staring at the plainly dressed man who'd used one of his cords to pull him out of harm's way. "What are you doing here?"

"Trying to keep my nephew from going the way his father did. Well, almost, since this time it was Wen Ning saved you."

"That... that bastard.... That murdering...."

"Yes. All that. And right now your salvation. Remember that when next you meet." Uncle Yao dragged him back further. Checked him over. "Who taught you to keep trying the same thing over and over again once you've found it doesn't work the first few times?"

No one had. "Nephew apologizes. Nephew knows he's wrong."

"Good. Wait for the moment. That thing is big and strong but I think Wen Ning can take it down. Let him." Uncle Yao peered through the darkness. Returned his attention to Jin Ling. "Boy, I'm not supposed to be here. If your Uncle Cheng finds out, he's going to shout at me. I'd rather he didn't."

Uncle Yao seldom showed it, but Jin Ling knew he hated being yelled at. Not wanting to see his uncle scold his other uncle, Jin Ling bowed. "I won't say anything."

"Thank you, boy. I knew I could count on you." Another glance at the fight ended with a satisfied nod. "It's safe now. Remember what I said about respecting those who save you, even if they owe you a blood debt."

Then Uncle Yao was gone, leaving Jin Ling to join the other disciples in trying to capture Wen Ning. Not that they had a hope of doing so. The Ghost General was gone just as suddenly as he'd appeared, leaving Jin Ling to wonder just what'd just happened.

Not to mention to wonder just what Master Lan Wangji was doing grabbing hold of Gaogui like that.

#

Who the hell did that idiot think he was fooling? Oh, Jiang Cheng hadn't recognized him earlier. It'd been years since he'd last seen his stupid brother and the face Wei Ying wore now wasn't precisely the same. He'd had familiar mannerisms, but Jiang Cheng had been too busy worrying about Jin Ling to jump to any conclusions.

But now? Now he knew the wretched scummy little graverobber. Worse, the idiot had managed to resurrect Wen Ning; this despite the fact that the Ghost General was supposed to be turned to ashes. Jiang Cheng would be having words, unkind and spiteful words, with Jin Guangyao on the subject. Later.

"So you think you can hide in that poor madman's body?" he demanded.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Wei Ying said boldly. "Disciples! Master Lan! That man is bullying me!"

Wei Ying didn't know what kind of bullying he was going to get, once Jiang Cheng got him to himself. He stroked Zidian's surface, drawing purple lightning forth. No one was going to help Wei Ying. Certainly not Han Guangjun. Not when there was that thing's remains to deal with.

"Ah! Did it move?" Wei Ying's gasp didn't fool Jiang Cheng into looking. The gasp from one of the other disciples did draw his attention. "Oh. Oh, how scary! It's a hand! A real hand! No, a whole arm!"

It was indeed. Before Jiang Cheng could react, Lan Wangji gave a quick order to one of his disciples. "Control talismans. Qiankun bag."

Jiang Cheng didn't really care about the arm. It wasn't important at all. Taking Wei Ying and beating the living hell out of him? Now that was important. He watched the boyish figure, knowing his ways. Knowing just when he'd try to make a break for it.

Zidian snapped out. Wrapped itself around Gaogui's ankle and ought to have dragged Wei Ying straight out of the boy. Instead Wei Ying flung one of his patented whine-fits. The one that always got big sister Yanli's sympathy. "OWOWOWOWOWWIIEEE! MURDER HELP HE'S TRYING TO KILL ME! HELP ME!"

With surprising patience, Lan Wangji pulled Wei Ying to his feet and free of Zidian's grasp. Immediately grabbing onto the most sympathetic seeming member of the group, Wei Ying hid behind his rescuer, only to have his wrist grabbed again, as if the man would never let him go.

Growling, infuriated with both men, Jiang Cheng demanded, "Do you think you're going to get away that easily?"

"Please, Master Jiang, I'm just a poor disciple abandoned by his masters." Wei Ying paused. Thought about it. Corrected himself. "Looking for his masters. They left him at Baixue Temple. Surely you know what happened there."

Jiang Cheng didn't know and didn't care what'd happened at Baixue Temple. "Get out from behind Hanguang Jun and face me right this instant."

"Master Jiang, you're acting like you have designs on me!" Wei Ying wailed. "Everyone knows my masters are together, but you're not my type!"

Knowing his brother like he did, Jiang Cheng had no doubt what would happen if he pushed that point. "And who is?"

"Someone like... like... like Lan Wangji!"

That settled it. The exact sort of answer Wei Ying would give. The sort of answer that would be sure to make Lan Wangji back off and give Wei Ying a chance to escape. Instead, to both Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying's surprise, Han Guangjun simply looked sternly at Wei Ying. "Mark your words."

"Wha?"

Lan Wangji turned his attention back to Jiang Cheng. "I'm taking him to Gusulan." His set expression warned that any attempt to change his mind would not end well.

Thinking about it, knowing how little Wei Ying liked Gusulan and how little Gusulan liked him, Jiang Cheng made up his mind. Sooner or later the troubles his idiot brother brought on himself would come back to him. Sooner or later Jiang Cheng would have his chance at the damned fool. Until then, let Lan Wangji have the joy of him.

Jiang Cheng had waited thirteen years to break his brother's legs for scaring him like that. He could wait a few weeks more.

Chapter Text

::Er-ge, you're going to want to be at Gusulan before your brother gets home.::

A-Yao's 'voice' sounded amused and concerned at the same time. Making sure no one was around to hear him, Lan Xichen murmured back, "Dare I ask?"

::I'm bound not to answer. But suffice it to say your brother's found something he's been waiting a long time for.::

It wasn't hard to guess what that thing was. Lan Xichen knew from what A-Yao had said and not said that Wei Wuxian was somewhere out there. Knew too that - for some reason - A-Yao wasn't able to explain more than he already had on the subject.

::You might also want to have that warded chamber set up. Your juniors are coming home with a different problem entirely. I'll explain when I get there.::

Lan Xichen couldn't guess why A-Yao would be coming, but he didn't bother asking. Talking this way risked someone thinking A-Yao was truly dead. They could wait until A-Yao arrived to discuss it.

When Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi arrived, carrying a pouch full of a dangerously mobile severed arm, Lan Xichen sent them to write a report while he set his best cultivators on the job of keeping the thing properly contained. That report left him desperately curious and not a little worried.

The fact that the boys had gone looking for young Gaogui after he'd run off from Baixue Temple wasn't a surprise. The boys were considerate and thoughtful and there was no doubt they wanted to make up for their failure to make sure the daft youngster was safe earlier.

It was the fact that young Gaogui had behaved so oddly, both at the temple and later at Dafan mountain that warned Lan Xichen what was up. He'd seldom seen Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen's junior disciple. For some reason the boy disliked Gusulan and never let them bring him with them when they visited. Young Gaogui tended to stay out of sight no matter where he went, so all Lan Xichen had ever had was an impression of nervous energy and laughter.

Which, when one thought about it, was characteristic of Wei Wuxian in his early days. Lan Xichen hadn't known the Yiling Patriarch at all well, so he wouldn't have made the connection without help. But now it was obvious where Wei Wuxian had been hiding all these years.

To be sure he was right, Lan Xichen made sure to be waiting for his brother when he arrived, dragging a weeping, wailing and wriggling Gaogui, riding a familiar and clearly disgusted donkey. Lil Apple was Mo Xuanyu's pet. Apparently Gaogui had stolen him when he'd run off from Baixue Temple.

As soon as he saw his brother's face Lan Xichen knew he was right. That expression, so flat and unreadable to most, was clear and brilliant to Lan Xichen. It was also a reason to celebrate. At last, at long, long, last, his brother had found the thing he wanted and needed most.

Lan Xichen knew better than to acknowledge who it was Lan Zhan was bringing home. Uncle Lan Qiren wasn't there to see any of this, thank the Gods, but that was no excuse for giving anyone ideas. They couldn't afford to let anyone know Wei Wuxian had returned. What if Xue Yang got wind of it?

Once Lan Zhan had sent the juniors to drag Gaogui, still wailing that he didn't want to go, off to the jingshi, Lan Xichen took his brother aside. "Don't let anyone realize who he is."

"Naturally."

A wail rose somewhere in the distance and Lan Xichen managed not to chuckle. "Some things don't change."

"No." A slight smug twist to Lan Zhan's lips was the only concession he made to his elation. "The bag?"

"Safely locked away. Do you know whose arm it is?"

"No. Attached to Dafan Goddess Statue."

Attached? How did one attach an undead human arm to stone? "Uncle wants to try and suppress it tomorrow. He could use your help."

"En."

They parted and Lan Xichen turned his attention to the presence he felt hiding in the bushes. "Meet me at my pavilion." A-Yao had every right to enter the Cloud Recesses. He didn't have to hide. That he was meant he didn't want to be noticed.

A faint rustle in the leaves was Lan Xichen's only answer. That and his sense of A-Yao's presence moving slowly off through the trees and upwards. Even with a cane and barely half his cultivation he was a sneaky fellow. Lan Xichen headed towards his pavilion, pausing only long enough to fetch tea. A-Yao would probably need it.

So would he, for that matter.

#

"Did you know Gaogui was Wei Wuxian?"

"I did." Jin Guangyao poured himself some more tea and drained his cup fast. Being around the Yiling Patriarch had increased his strength and speed, but it'd still been a strain keeping up.

Lan Xichen smiled. "You never mentioned it." His tone said he wasn't angry. Just curious.

"Apologies, Er-ge. I would have told you if I could. My current state means the Yiling Patriarch's desire for privacy enforced my silence. It's only because your brother has him focused on escape that I'm able to discuss it at all."

The memory of Wei Wuxian being dragged, kicking, screaming and carrying on, into the Jingshi made them both chuckle. Focused on escape was putting it mildly. Gusulan was in for some interesting times while the Yiling Patriarch was their unwilling guest.

"Have you been able to tell Da-ge?"

"Mm. Yes. I'm pretty sure he isn't going to put me over his knee for keeping secrets from you two." Jin Guangyao smiled wryly. Back in the day, Da-ge would have been furious at his failure to talk. Now both brothers understood his dilemma.

"We'd wondered if you knew where he was. You always get so tense whenever we discuss him." Er-ge sipped his own tea. Sighed. "So, tell me what happened to bring this about."

"You've heard about the attack on Baixue?"

"Of course. Young Sizhui sent me a report immediately before he went looking for Gaogui.... And now I'm realizing I should have guessed Gaogui was Wei Wuxian just from his report."

"Maybe. We none of us were expecting him to just show up."

"What will you do now? Why did you follow him here, instead of leaving him with Lan Zhan?"

"He dragged me along." At Er-ge's startled expression, Jin Guangyao hastened to add, "Not deliberately. But he called for help with the Dafan Mountain Goddess and Wen Ning and I were the only ones near enough to obey. Wen Qionglin is hiding somewhere at the bottom of the mountain, by the way, not having permission to enter."

A frown. "Didn't he release you?"

"I don't think it occurred to him that he'd need to. He can't actually release Wen Qionglin, due to their natural connection. But he didn't know he'd caught me as well." Jin Guangyao shrugged it off. "I could have asked him, but I think it might be for the better if I stay nearby for now. Did you notice anything interesting about that hand the boys brought home?"

"No. I didn't have time to look."

"Look at it more closely when you have a chance. It's wearing a glove and I'm pretty sure the pinky is just padding."

Now Er-ge looked truly worried and with good reason. "Xue Yang? But, how?"

"Those copies he made of himself, were they all missing that finger?" At Er-ge's horrified agreement, Jin Guangyao continued, "That rotten little brat does nothing without a purpose and his purpose usually involves making himself stronger and more able to cause trouble."

"By which you mean he put that hand there for a reason."

"Can you imagine him having any sort of ally who'd do it for him? Can you imagine him trusting someone to cut him up so he can stick his body parts in odd places?"

Er-ge winced. "But what would he plan?"

"His greatest desire is to gain the respect of the Yiling Patriarch, or rather his vision of the Yiling Patriarch. But I don't think he's using his copied body parts to resurrect Wei Wuxian. He could, however, be trying to increase his power some other way. I just don't know how yet."

Truth to tell, it was almost impossible to guess at what Xue Yang's plans really were. He'd created a new imitation Stygian Tiger Seal, obviously. But by the feel of both Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning, it'd take a great deal of power and a huge sacrifice to achieve that goal. Not that Jin Guangyao doubted the brat would be willing to try.

"What do you think we should do?"

"First let's see if your uncle and brother can suppress that arm. You might want to mention Xue Yang to him in private, just so he knows to be on guard."

"En. I was planning on doing so. He's been keeping an eye out, of course, but Wei Wuxian's being back is going to draw that one's attention." Lan Xichen tilted his head curiously. "What will you do?"

"For now, stay with my 'master'. Being drawn to him as I am, I'm best suited to the job." It'd be inconvenient but by this stage Jin Jiu could cover for him back at Koi Tower. They had communication talismans after all.

Admittedly, if there was any emergency that needed him to get back home he'd have to break down and ask Wei Wuxian for his freedom. Right that moment, however, he wanted to avoid the Yiling Patriarch realizing the odd half-alive, half-undead, person he'd met at Dafan was actually Jin Guangyao.

Especially given he didn't know how Wei Wuxian felt towards him after everything that'd happened.

#

"Mostly I need your signature on the supply orders for the towers. Everything else is going the way it usually does."

A chuckle. "By which you mean the Uncles are complaining that they don't get enough respect. The cousins are complaining that they don't get enough wine and the juniors are complaining that they want to go out and join the Night Hunts."

Jin Jiu smiled. "Regent's powers of prediction remain unequaled."

"Regent isn't predicting a damned thing. That's what they always do." Jin Guangyao signed his name with a flourish and used his chop as soon as the ink was dry. "What of my father. Any change?"

Usually Jin Guangyao didn't worry about his father. Jin Jiu frowned slightly, "Is there a reason for concern?"

"Mm. I'm hoping not. But it looks like Xue Yang's getting ideas again and I don't want him involving my family. Not even my father."

Jin Jiu inclined his head. "I checked in on him just yesterday. He was unchanged from the last time you visited."

"No sign of waking up, then?"

"No, sir." Sect Master Jin Guangshan had suffered a stroke in the middle of his favorite activity just a week or so earlier. He'd lasted a great deal longer than he probably deserved, given his mental state and his insistence on trying to do every girl in his harem every night. Now, though, he just lay there, flaccid in every sense of the word, and likely close to death. Practically no one would grieve when he was gone.

Well, maybe Jin Guangyao would be sorry. A flicker of pain crossed the Regent's face. "Master, you don't need to be sad. He never earned your respect."

"It's not that, Cousin. I...." Jin Guangyao faltered. Sighed. "You know why he never brought my mother home the way he promised her? Why he never came to fetch me?"

Jin Jiu did. Jin Guangshan had shouted it to the high heavens one time when he was annoyed at Jin Guangyao for not allowing him more women and more wine. "He thought your mother would try to take over his life."

"He used her and abandoned her. She loved and trusted him and I hate him for never being the man she thought he was." A slight, tremulous, smile crossed Jin Guangyao's face. "I don't grieve for him. When he dies I'll happily bury him with full honors and move on. But I grieve for the father that never existed. The father she thought he was. Even now I want that father so badly."

Jin Jiu's own father wasn't much of a person but he was still better than Jin Guangshan. He knew he didn't have to say so, though. They both knew that only too well.

To raise his master's spirits and because Jin Guangyao ought to know anyway, Jin Jiu returned to his report. "There is one thing I should mention. Uncle Jin Zhou overfilled his sewer line again."

A sigh. "Does this Regent need to remind you what I told him the last time?"

"That if he did it again he'd be cleaning it himself. This Captain is aware. Except...."

"Except?"

"Except this Captain's stepson, who is also Regent's son, let his pet pay Uncle Jin Zhou's sewer a visit."

That made Jin Guangyao pause. Stare. Wince. "Oh. Oh dear. She ate the whole thing?"

"Every bite. Uncle Jin Zhou's sewer and our cesspit have never been so clean. Her breath, on the other hand, would stop Nie Sect's Old Dumpster in his tracks."

Laughing despite himself, Jin Guangyao said, "I would like to see that, from a safe distance. Also, how big is she after all that?" The last he said with some trepidation. With good reason. A-Long's pet taotie tended to grow when she ate. She was already as big as Jin Ling's Fairy before the sewer incident.

"She is now the size of a decent sized goat. A-Long... I mean Rusong... promises she won't get much bigger, no matter how much she eats. I'm not sure I trust him on that count. Your son is given to excessive optimism." No need to explain why the name change. A-Long wanted to be big and big boys went by their big boy names.

Another laugh. "No doubt to make up for his father's complete lack in that department." Jin Guangyao sighed. "Tell Rusong I said I will hold him to that and that if Yiyuan Yi gets too big for indoors she'll have to go back to the mountains."

Jin Jiu already had told Rusong that much, but it was something that bore repeating. "This Captain obeys." He gathered the papers together. Remembered in time he'd made a promise. "Oh, he gave me this to give you. A protective charm, he says." He handed Jin Guangyao a little pouch covered in poorly embroidered designs. Qin Su had been teaching the boy to sew and he wasn't quite there yet.

Hanging the pouch around his neck, Jin Guangyao smiled. "Tell him thank you for me. Oh, and give him and my sister my love. I'll be home as soon as I possibly can."

Jin Jiu hoped so, because every day Jin Guangyao was away from Koi Tower was another day for the Jin clan to find new and inventive ways to be difficult.

#

Ordinarily A-Qing didn't fly. She'd abandoned the pretense that she was blind, at least for the most part, but she didn't like drawing attention to herself. Flying cultivators were common enough. Cultivators who used bamboo staffs instead of swords were not. Cultivators with eyes most people thought she had no irises were almost unheard of.

If she didn't have to get to Yi City as quickly as she could, A-Qing would have hired a horse and ridden. Or hired a carriage, though the thought of the cost made her queasy. But she had to find Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen. Had to tell them what'd happened to Gaogui.

She remembered her last sight of him, climbing onto Mo Xuanyu's Lil Apple and preparing to ride off. He'd started to say, "Don't worry about me, Shijie...," only to break off at that word. For some reason it stuck in his throat and he sobbed. "Sorry. Sorry. So sorry. But I can't stay anymore. You wouldn't want me to stay. I'll just bring trouble on you."

He'd made Lil Apple run then, tempting the damned stubborn beast with the fruit he'd been named for. A-Qing hadn't been able to catch up, losing him somewhere in the forest. She'd shouted for him. Screamed for him. And failed entirely to find him.

Finding Yi City was easy. Getting into Yi City a great deal harder. The place hidden in a heavy fog, a dark and foreboding mist covering everything for a mile around. She knew about it already. Knew the place had incredibly bad feng-shui. Knew too that part of the reason had to do with its association with some ancient cult related to an old and mostly forgotten God.

"It's fine," she muttered to herself, glaring down at the distant bank of fog. The bands of light and shade shimmering through the mist made it look like a huge tiger, crouched down in the valley and waiting for its prey. She couldn't land in there. She might crash into a building or a person. Instead she landed a mile or so away and took up her old guise as a blind beggar. That undead attack on Baixue Temple had her worried. Master Shen thought someone was controlling it. Had even mentioned a name when he thought she wasn't listening. Xue Yang.

Even though she'd never dealt with the mad necromancer herself, A-Qing knew enough. Xue Yang was Xiao Xingchen's enemy. Xiao Xingchen's and everyone Xiao Xingchen loved, rather. Xue Yang had a longstanding tradition of destroying whole families for one small slight. That'd been why he'd gone after the Chang family. And in the end, he'd succeeded.

The thought made her guts twist. If those undead attacking Baixue had been under Xue Yang's control, he surely was still out there. Surely meant to get at her masters. If so, they had to be warned. She needed to tell them about Gaogui, too. Just, finding them in that horrible mist was a daunting thought.

Still, she walked forward, tapping her staff lightly against the road, head tilted to listen for the slightest noise. A faint ripple of a river running alongside the roadway. A wind, blowing a scent like funeral incense her way. A step somewhere ahead of her, trying to be sneaky and failing. She stopped, turning her head to listen for the stranger's approach.

"Hello blind girl." The voice came from out of the mist. Was followed by a small, dark, figure in traveling robes. "I don't see wanderers here in Yi City very often."

"Yi City? Is that where I am? That's the place with all the fog, right?" She swung her free hand around, feeling the damp air. "Oh, it really is wet out here."

"Can't see your fingers in front of your face," the stranger agreed cheerfully. "Though I suppose it doesn't matter to you, does it?"

Regretfully, she told him, "Yes and no. I don't need to see to find my way, but that means no one can see me to put money in my bag." She held up the little begging pouch she used for such occasions.

"And what is that?" The man moved forward but she slipped away as soon as she heard him step closer, relying on her stick to make sure no one was behind her. "Don't be afraid, little blind. I just want to get closer to look."

"That's all right. I'd rather you didn't." She smiled, though he probably couldn't see it. "You learn not to let strangers near you, when you're blind and alone."

He thought about that. "Well, how about I tell you my name, then we won't be strangers." He sounded like an adult cajoling a little girl. Of course A-Qing tended to be mistaken for someone a great deal younger, thanks to her short, slight build. "And it looks to me like you could use a guide here."

"Well, all right." A-Qing pretended to be persuaded. Asked in a childish way, "So what is your name?"

"Cheng Mei."

The name meant nothing to A-Qing. She relaxed a little, keeping a light touch on her staff. Let him get closer so he could see her better. So she could see him in turn. His smile was bright and toothy, an innocent smile on an innocent face.

She let him examine her. Let him pretend to poke her and make faces at her. Didn't let her expression change a bit when she saw him more closely.

At last, bored with his attempts to tease, said, "Are you done looking? I need to find a place to sleep tonight. I don't have time to waste." Even as she said it she knew she'd erred, giving him an opening. She quickly added, "I don't need you to show me the around. I can't afford a guide. I wouldn't need to beg otherwise." She tapped her way forward, pretending not to notice him right in front of her. "Thank you for offering, though."

The young man laughed joyously and she used the noise as an excuse to stop before she ran into him. "Oh, but I want to help. I don't need money for that. Please, at least let me lead you to some nice place to sleep."

"I can't afford an inn."

"If you aren't afraid of ghosts, I know the perfect place. There's a coffin house just up the road this way."

It was damned obvious this man wasn't going to leave her alone. Not ready for a fight right that moment and wanting to know what he was up to before she made her own move, she grudgingly agreed.

After all, if Xue Yang really thought she couldn't see that stupid little fang of his, that was his own damned fault for being too damned trusting.

Chapter Text

Gusulan's disciples were doing their best to not react to their unusual guest. Not that Wei Ying made it easy. He kept trying to slip off. Kept trying to steal a pass. Kept trying to make as much of a fuss as possible to encourage Lan Wangji to give up on him. It wasn't going to work.

"Holding him here indefinitely isn't going to work, either," Elder Brother suggested as they headed for the warding chamber. As usual, he didn't need Lan Wangji to speak to know his thoughts.

"En." Lan Wangji admitted the truth ruefully. The only reason anyone got any sleep last night was because he'd paralyzed his beloved. Well, anyone except Lan Wangji got sleep. He'd managed to fool Wei Ying, but who could sleep with the man they loved lying atop them? It'd been all he could do to keep from wrapping his arms around Wei Ying and ravishing him.

That, though, was not a path he dared take. Wei Ying still thought Lan Wangji hated him. Still thought everyone hated him. Still hated himself. It was going to take time, time and care, to persuade Wei Ying that he was wanted. That he belonged. That he was loved.

Of course, Lan Wangji's personality didn't help at all. He'd never been good at talking and was even worse these days. How he envied Wei Ying's ability to just burble on and on about nothing and anything and everything. How he yearned to just tell Wei Ying why he wanted him to stay.

But, no. Wooing Wei Wuxian was like taming rabbits. You couldn't chase after him and grab him and rub your face in his fur. He'd just run all the faster. All Lan Wangji could do was gently and carefully draw closer and let his beloved choose which way to go.

Realizing Elder Brother was waiting for more, he added, "Will try traveling with him. Once this is dealt with." This being that arm they'd found. He didn't like the look of the thing. It was just bursting with resentful energy. Worse, something about it reminded him of the Stygian Tiger Seal. He just couldn't figure out what.

"Taking him with you seems a good idea." Elder Brother paused thoughtfully. Looked around to make sure no one else was near. "Be extra careful when you go. There's a good chance the source of the attack on Baixue will be looking for Gaogui."

The source of that attack was likely Xue Yang. There weren't many other necromancers out there strong enough to raise that many undead at once. "Understood." He fell silent as they approached the warding chamber. Uncle Lan Qiren was there waiting and he was the last person Lan Wangji wanted to overhear their discussion.

Uncle was looking grim anyway and Lan Wangji wasn't at all surprised when he asked, "Do you have a reason for bringing Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen's apprentice here?"

Though he was tempted to say that gossip was not allowed in the Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji satisfied himself with, "Lost track of his masters. Going to help him find them later."

"You should have put him in the guest quarters."

Elder Brother came to Lan Wangji's defense. "Young Gaogui is distraught and has never cared for Gusulan, Uncle. It would have been unkind to expect him to behave properly on his own." He smiled sweetly. "Let us concern ourselves with the matter at hand. Do you wish me to assist you in the matter of that arm?"

With a slight harrumph, Uncle Lan Qiren refused the offer. "It's just one undead arm. It can't possibly hold enough resentful energy to cause Lan Zhan and I trouble."

For some reason, Elder Brother seemed doubtful. "I'm concerned. Something about that thing puts me in mind of that necromancer we keep having trouble with."

Uncle scoffed. "Xue Yang? Even if he is still around, he'd have to be in Gusulan to affect the thing. And that's impossible."

After a moment, Elder Brother agreed, though he didn't look at all confident. "He has a way of doing the impossible that rivals Yumeng Jiang Sect. I'll stay close, just in case."

With that, Uncle and Lan Wangji entered the Warding Chamber.

#

Wei Wuxian slammed through the entrance to the warding chamber, panicked and terrified and determined. This... this was the same energy he'd fought back at Baixue. The same sort of energy, at least. The attack on the temple had been directed. Controlled. This was neither.

It was still overwhelmingly powerful and familiar in another way. The Stygian Tiger Seal? Yes and no. Something similar. Something mimicking the seal's nature. He should never have made that thing. He'd known the moment he'd finished it that it was going to be the death of him. It was just too chancy to control.

This wasn't his work, though. Whomever had created it hadn't had the same materials. This one had power but no range. It also had an ability the seal had never possessed. It couldn't control the living but it could harm them through raw hatred. Only those within a few feet were affected. Unfortunately, those within a few feet included Lan Wangji, Lan Xichen and Uncle Lan Qiren.

Uncle lay sprawled on the ground, his instrument cracked and broken against the wall. Lan Xichen was trying to get him out of the room, but - stubborn to the end - the old master fought leaving his post. He struggled to rise. Struggled to overpower the thing flopping wildly around in the middle of the floor. Meanwhile Lan Wangji, blood trickling from tightened lips, kept playing his guqin with an air of apparent serenity.

Wei Wuxian pulled out his make-shift flute. Played a horrific note that caused Lan Wangji to almost, almost, flinch. Instead he shifted the notes of his song, turned it to a duet. Did he know who Wei Wuxian really was? No. That was impossible. If he knew, the last thing he'd do was allow the Yiling Patriarch to join his song.

They played together, Wei Wuxian's imperfect notes bolstered by his connection to the world of shadows. Even with a golden core, even with this strange new body, his ability to command what lay beyond death remained. He'd have to think about that, about everything, later. But right now he had a job to do.

The arm on the floor of the warding chamber flopped. Flipped. Did a remarkable impression of a dying fish. It almost made Wei Wuxian giggle but Lan Wangji murmured, "Focus," and restored his sense of balance with that one word. He was right, of course. This wasn't the time for hysterics.

At last, at long last, they repressed and subdued the energies inside the arm. Quite suddenly, young Lan Sizhui was there, doing his duty like a good junior cultivator should. He wrapped talismans around the arm. Wrapped the arm in a protected cloth. Then stuffed the arm into a heavily warded qiankun bag.

"Good. Leave it here. Help take Uncle to infirmary."

"Respect, Master Lan. This student obeys." The boy bowed, then knelt between Uncle and Lan Xichen, lifting them both onto their feet with startling ease. Thin and slight though he appeared, Lan Sizhui had the fabled Lan arm strength.

"....no... don't... don't... play.... don't.... taint... music...."

"Shh, Uncle. Don't worry about it," Lan Xichen murmured, though he looked rather fraught himself. "Good boy, Sizhui. You carry him. I can walk."

If things weren't so serious, Wei Wuxian would have burst into laughter as soon as Uncle was out of earshot. A powerful undead arm had nearly killed the old man and all he could think about was the fact that someone was performing a badly played duet with his treasured student.

Lan Wangji stood up. Nearly fell over. Instinct carried Wei Wuxian the few steps between them so he could help the man stand. He hesitated at the blank look in Lan Wangji's eyes. Really, why was he this way? He could have just asked for help.

"No need." Lan Wangji straightened. Took a deep breath. "We will leave."

At Wei Wuxian's blank stare, the man added, "Incomplete corpse." He indicated the bag. "Need the rest to suppress."

Ah, of course. Only, wait. "We?"

"Find your masters while we look."

His masters. Oh yes. He'd been so busy thinking about how to escape he hadn't considered Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen. Or A-Qing for that matter, though she was safe enough back at Baixue. But his masters would worry. They didn't know who or what he really was, after all. They'd raised him, protected him. They'd even helped him grow a new golden core. He owed them the truth, little though he wanted to face them with it.

"We'll need supplies. And can we leave Lil' Apple? He's too old for this."

Was the ever so slight flicker of motion around Lan Wangji's lips a smile? Couldn't be. That man didn't know how. Didn't have a sense of humor at all. "En," Lan Wangji said. "Not yours, anyway. Will let Mo Xuanyu know he's here."

Oh, yes. That was true. He'd been in such a rush to get away he hadn't even considered whose mount he'd stolen. He'd just chosen the one least likely to be needed, not wanting to make more trouble than he had to. "Yes. Yes, we should." He gathered himself together. Looked at Lan Wangji and grinned.

"So, when do we start? And where do we go first?"

#

Having assured himself that his Er-ge was safe, Jin Guangyao went to find Wen Qionglin and let him know the situation. "I don't have to follow along if I ask him to free me," he admitted as he finished, "But given the circumstances, it might be a good idea if I remained."

"En. This undead has no objection. But he would prefer not to intrude on Young Master Wei."

An understandable desire. Wei Wuxian might have woken to himself but it was obvious by his behavior that he wished otherwise. Jin Guangyao could understand the desire. There'd been times in the past when he'd wished he'd never attempted to take his place at his father's side. When he'd wished he'd just stayed with Nie Mingjue.

"Then we won't. Not unless we have to."

They followed behind Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji together. Neither of them were talkative and for the most part they traveled in companionable silence. Only at night, while they waited for Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji to begin traveling again, did they spend any time talking.

Some of their discussions were simply amused reactions to the ones they followed. It was obvious Wei Wuxian wanted to keep his identity secret. Equally obvious Lan Wangji was playing along, silent but complicit partner in Wei Wuxian's nonsense.

"How much money does he have in that bag of his?" Jin Guangyao muttered, as they watched Wei Wuxian do his best imitation of a mad child looking for toys and arguing with a talisman seller. Lan Wangji was already pulling out the coins needed to buy the things.

"This one has no hope of guessing."

Jin Guangyao smiled ruefully as he examined an attractive little water gourd carved with an ox resembling Qinghe Nie's Old Dumpster. Just the thing for Rusong. As he paid, he told his companion, "A rhetorical question, Young Master Qionglin. The one thing I long since gave up was trying to predict what Lan Wangji will and will not do."

The journey continued further into Qinghe Nie territory, affording Jin Guangyao plenteous opportunities to let his Da-ge know the state of his lands. Good for the most part, because Nie Mingjue had become an excellent administrator, especially with his little brother there to help him. A few places where bandits were causing trouble, a possible nest of spider-heads getting ready to hatch. Nothing huge or troublesome but nothing he and his companion had time to deal with.

Indeed, their only quiet time was at night, when Lan Wangji would drag Wei Wuxian into a single room and lock him in place with one of Gusulan's sealing skills. It was likely sheer torture for both of them; Wei Wuxian hated to stay still and Lan Wangji must be having quite a time keeping his hands to himself with the man he loved most beside him.

Not really wanting to discuss the situation between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, Jin Guangyao found other things to talk about. When he'd been alive, Wen Qionglin had been an alchemist and assisted his sister in medical research. Their notes had provided him with several months worth of fascinating reading.

"I read your treatise on the effects of ginseng on tang niao bing. Were you able to verify your results?"

Every so often Wen Qionglin's sense of humor showed itself. "Respect, Regent. This undead regrets being unable to do so, thank to being dead."

"That would make study difficult. And you don't owe me any special respect. Right now I'm just a wanderer."

Wen Qionglin tilted his head thoughtfully. Dropped the formality. "I think I could study well enough now, but it'd be hard to test my theories. Alchemy requires spiritual power and I'd need test subjects to assist me. Everyone would run away."

A truth, Jin Guangyao admitted and wondered what the cultivational world would think if they knew the full truth of his own condition. Not good, he suspected. "I can't make promises when we don't know what's coming, but I'm willing to try and help you with that."

If Wen Qionglin could look startled he probably would. "Why?"

"Reparations. A debt. You and your sister saved my life all those years ago and I never did anything to save yours when I had the chance." Truth to tell, he wasn't sure he could have. Wen Qing had gone to Wei Wuxian for help, likely fearing Jin Guangyao would be too weak to stand up to his kinfolk and their desires. She might have been right, but he was sorry he'd never had the opportunity to try.

Wen Qionglin made a peculiar sound, a groan torn from the depths of his undead lungs. "You don't owe me. I owe you. Owe your family. Everything that happened is my fault. If I hadn't killed Jin Zixuan...."

Jin Guangyao smiled ruefully. "Young Master Wen, if you hadn't killed my brother, my father would have found some other way to bring your master down. He wanted power. He wanted your master's power without your master's ethics."

Firmly, a man who knew his faults, Wen Qionglin answered, "But it was my hand that did the damage. My hand through your brother's chest." From his tone he would have sobbed if he had the power.

Truth to tell, Jin Guangyao had been furious with Wen Qionglin and Wei Wuxian at the time. It wasn't until he'd read the reports and questioned Jin Zixun and his guards that he fully understood why things had gone the way they had. It should have been you, cousin. Not my poor heroic peacock brother.

Reassuringly, Jin Guangyao told his companion, "Yes. And you and your clan paid dearly for that. What you do to pay for it later is up to you. But, if I may, making use of your knowledge and skills to save lives would surely be one way to help pay that debt."

Hesitantly, bowing his head in that old, shy, way of his, Wen Qionglin murmured. "I will consider what you offer. When this is over."

Which was only fair, because neither of them had any idea where this nonsense was leading them. Except, of course, straight into trouble.

#

Given Nie Huaisang's newly trained talent, he soon found himself set the job of keeping the saber burial grounds properly balanced. Oddly enough, it was a job he mostly enjoyed. As long as they were properly sated by having a job to do, Nie sabers tended to be decent enough spirits to hang around.

They didn't have human forms to impose on Nie Huaisang's vision, but they had the Nie personalities. Rough, a bit imposing, honorable and loyal. Direct and quite literally to the point, they didn't play games and didn't like any path that wasn't straight to the center.

Nie Huaisang would freely admit to not having that directness, nor that dislike of games. But he'd come to realize he was far more Nie than he'd realized, caring for the family sabers. He sensed their desire to be useful, knew they needed what he supplied. The longer he worked with them, the more he felt a connection with them and thus with his bloodline.

Which was why sensing trouble in the grounds almost sent him into a frenzy. One that sent him rushing from Qinghe Nie to Xinglu Ridge. Someone was fiddling around where they didn't belong and he was damned if he'd let them ruin all his hard work.

Nie Huaisang's predecessor had warned him that every so often rogue necromancers and treasure hunters would poke around in Xinglu Ridge, trying to resolve the mystery. He'd set up watchers, guardians whose sole job it was to scare people away but there were some who would never leave a thing alone until they were dead of it.

And, make no mistake, those who poked around in Xinglu Ridge seldom made it back out. Those who did simply added to its legend because they never did figure out that the whole thing was an array designed to maintain a loop of yin and yang resentful energy. All to keep the sabers of his ancestors satiated.

He fully expected this incursion to be the same as the others. He'd wait. See who was doing what to whom and work out what needed to be done to rebalance things once the whole thing was over. Except he didn't expect to find an oddly familiar voice talking excitedly inside the sword tomb.

It couldn't be who it sounded like. But when he heard Lan Wangji's voice answering, heard Jin Ling's name being called, he started forward, intending to interrupt. Except a huge and deeply upset spirit dog leaped out at him, catching hold of his robes and tearing them half off in its excited desire to drag him into this nonsense.

"Fairy. Let him go." San-ge sounded deeply amused as he approached them. He tossed the dog a treat and Nie Huaisang realized this was Jin Ling's pet. The animal released him to leap around and on San-ge until he was given more treats.

Nie Huaisang wanted to demand answers. Wanted to know why San-ge was there, and dressed so casually at that. Instead he offered, "You know, that just encourages him."

"I'd rather he leaped on me out of love than a desire to tear my throat out, Sang-di. I'm still using it." San-ge glanced into the sword tomb and winced. "Best come with me. You can explain things to our friends later. Best to let them deal with Jin Ling first. Honestly, how does that boy fall into so much trouble?"

Deeply puzzled, but willing to leave so he wouldn't be asked questions he really wasn't supposed to answer, Nie Huaisang followed San-ge back into the woods. Only when they were out of earshot did he ask, "I couldn't possibly have heard who I thought I heard?"

"That depends. Who did you think you heard?"

Nie Huaisang knew he'd sound mad if he answered. And with most people he would have deeply minded being thought mad. Sang-ge was one of the few who might actually believe him, given his peculiar condition. "I caught a glimpse of him just now and it looks a bit like Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen's disciple, Gaogui. But listening to him talk, I'd swear it was Wei Ying-ge."

A sudden bright smile suffused San-ge's face. "Why not both?"

"He... he's Wei Ying-ge? And Gaogui? Both? But... how?"

"Remember what your brother and I told you about Xue Yang doing some rather complicated things?" At Nie Huaisang's agreement, San-ge murmured, "This is part of it."

Nie Huaisang thought about it. "But... doesn't that mean he could be dangerous? Does Xue Yang have control over him?"

Laughing, San-ge asked, "Do you think a poorly trained necromancer with a taste for tongues and no self-discipline whatsoever could possibly control Wei Wuxian? When his brother, his father, his mother and half the cultivational world couldn't get him to behave?"

When one considered it like that, Nie Huaisang had to admit San-ge was right.

Chapter Text

Finding and rescuing Jin Ling from the Nie Saber Tomb, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian realize they're being watched. With Jin Ling in no fit state for a chase, Wei Wuxian takes him to the nearby town for safety, while Lan Wangji goes out in search of their observer.

Neither notice another stalker following behind, seeking Wei Wuxian and determined to catch him.

 

"You never learn, do you?"

"You haven't made any progress either!"

It was like stepping back into the past. The face wasn't quite the same. The mouth, on the other hand, hadn't changed a bit. Did this idiot brother even realize how impossible it was for him to hide himself? Jiang Cheng glared at Wei Ying, seeing the old stupidity, the old unwillingness to admit mistakes or even try to behave. Fine. He wanted to play it that way? Fine. Let him.

"Fairy. Up!"

Jin Ling's spirit dog obeyed Jiang Cheng without hesitation, rising from the corner to stand at Jiang Cheng's side. The idiot's reaction was immediate and both satisfying and heart-breaking. Absolute terror, of a sort Jiang Cheng hadn't seen in years and years. And a scream for help.

It was that scream that made Jiang Cheng call Fairy off. What was he thinking, setting a dog on his brother when he knew that'd only send the man into hysterics. Back in the day it'd be their sister he'd scream for. The sister whose life ended twice because of him. Once when her husband died at that damned ferocious corpse's hand, then for real when she tried to protect their brother from an idiot's arrow.

"Who did you just call?" Jiang Cheng wasn't sure if he was shocked or offended that Wei Ying hadn't called their sister after all. Ah, that'd been what he'd been thinking. Force the idiot to call the name he always called, to remind the idiot whose life he was responsible for. Except it hadn't been Yanli-Jie's name he called but Lan Wangji's, or rather Lan Zhan's. And who said he had a right to use that name at all?

"I... I'm not sure." Wei Ying slid down in the corner of the room, eyes still on Fairy, whole body still shaking with the terror. Stupid of Jiang Cheng to expect anything different from this.

"You dare come back. Dare look at me with that face. Dare call Hanguang Jun's name like he was your lover?"

"Watch your tongue!"

Did the idiot even hear himself? Wasn't it he, himself, who'd implied he desired the Second Jade of Lan? "The man who can't keep his mouth shut for anything, whose every word helped bring us all down, demands I watch my tongue?"

That got the idiot's attention. Made the idiot slide further into the corner and look like he was about to cry. "I know my faults!"

"Do you? Do you really? I'll drag you back to Lotus Pier and you can tell our parents then. Kneel you down in front of their tomb and bang your head against the stones until you're black and blue. Break your legs so you can't crawl off and avoid your responsibility the way you always do!"

Even as he spoke he knew he was pushing too hard. The look on Wei Ying's face was familiar. The broken expression he'd had before, that moment when he'd attempted to destroy that damned toy of his and been destroyed in turn. It sent a pang through Jiang Cheng and he was about to break off, to reach out. Only to be interrupted by Jin Ling and a wild story about that damned Wen Ning wandering around.

"I'll deal with you later," he growled at his brother. "After I've dragged that damned corpse out of whatever hole he's hiding in and broken every bone he has! Then you can both prostrate yourself before our parents and tell them how sorry you are!"

#

The one thing Jin Guangyao hated was being yelled at. Even now, full grown adult and Jin Sect Regent though he was, he wanted to crawl under the nearest bed and hide there. His hun soul being only partly attached to his body didn't help. Having someone stand over him, yelling in his face and threatening to break his legs was almost enough to send his spirit fleeing for safety with his brothers.

If it weren't for the fact that he really didn't want Jiang Wanyin going after Wen Qionglin he wouldn't have let the sect leader see him at all. Now he was in for it, because not only did Jiang Wanyin guess he'd been aware the Ghost General was still around but he was sure Jin Guangyao was protecting the undead. Which, in truth, he was.

"You're the one brought that damned Xue Yang into Jin Sect in the first place. How much of this is all your fault?"

"Please, Master Jiang. This is the middle of the street."

"I don't care! Let the world hear. I want to know what the hell you're thinking, letting that damned Ghost General get away. He had those chains on him, back at Dafan. You Jin had him locked up, didn't you? You said you'd fried him to a crisp. That slut father of yours even showed off his and Wen Qing's ashes."

Well, they'd been Wen Qing's ashes and he could only hope she'd killed herself before they burned her. That still rankled, to be honest. Of all the things Jin Sect ought to have tried to claim for themselves, the most brilliant physician in the cultivational world would have been the top of Jin Guangyao's list.

He'd even suggested it, when his father had gone off to attack the Burial Mounds, fully intending to claim Wei Wuxian's power. Never mind necromancy. A healer like Wen Qing was more than worth the price they'd have had to pay. Take in her family. Protect them instead of that brat Xue Yang. And she would have cooperated for their sake.

But no, that wasn't his father's way. He'd wanted what he'd wanted and not a single word from his bastard would change his mind.

"Are you going to answer me or not?"

Realizing he'd let his attention wander again, Jin Guangyao focused. "Not here, I'm not. I agree, I owe you an explanation. I do not owe you a public airing of my clan's failings."

"Then how about you tell me where Wen Ning is? As long as I have him in hand, I'll let you off. It's obvious it was your father's idea, anyway. Just like everything else was."

Jin Guangyao gazed up at Jiang Wanyin and slowly allowed his eternal smile to fade. Eyes calm, expression stern, he said, "No."

"You.... How dare...."

"I dare, because at the moment we have a greater problem than the ones you know about. One that has to be addressed." He waited just long enough to be sure he wasn't going to be interrupted. "I can and will explain that problem. I will not explain it in public." It'd cause a panic, for one thing. Set everyone running around wildly, accusing each other of being under Xue Yang's control.

Zidian crackled and Jiang Wanyin took a step towards Jin Guangyao. "I am not playing games."

"Neither am I," Jin Guangyao told him and was about to add more when he spotted something rushing up the street behind Jiang Wanyin that sent a shock through him even his hun soul could feel.

A white beast, its form chosen to resemble a goat with claws and hooves, racing towards them, as fast as its four limbs could move, a slim figure in traveling clothes clinging tight to her back.

"YOU LEAVE MY BABA ALONE!" Jin Rusong shouted, as his taotie bowled Jiang Wanyin over and sent him sprawling into the dust.

#

Jin Rusong knew he was in trouble. This was nowhere near Koi tower and he wasn't supposed to leave Jingling Shan. He wouldn't have, either, if Yiyuan Yi hadn't sensed the threats Sect Master Jiang was making to Baba and gone to the rescue like she'd been ordered.

That was why he'd sent Baba that pouch, after all. It had a bit of Yiyuan Yi's fur in it, along with protective talismans. And Yiyuan Yi could follow her fur wherever it happened to be. Admittedly, Jin Rusong hadn't meant to be along for the ride, but Sect Master Jiang's threats on his Baba had been timed just as he was teaching her to jump the nearby gorge. It'd been a choice between getting stuck on the mountain overnight or staying with his friend.

Sitting on Yiyuan Yi's back, Jin Rusong glared at Sect Master Jiang as he rolled to his feet. He was wrong. He knew he was wrong. Baba was going to be so mad at him and Baba was never mad. But Sect Master Jiang shouldn't be threatening to hurt his Baba. Not with that thing. It'd hurt Baba. Hurt him bad.

"Little boys belong with their mothers," Sect Master Jiang snapped, glaring at him. He raised his hand, that ring of his sparking bright. "Get out of the way."

"NO!"

Before Jin Rusong could say another word, Baba was there between them, standing as tall as he could, his hand ready to draw his sword. Baba almost never used his sword, but he was ready to use it then.

Voice calm as calm could be, hun and po souls cold and burning with the sort of rage Jin Rusong had never seen in him, Baba said, "Master Jiang. I insist. Put your ring away. Leave my son out of this...."

"He put himself in it!"

"He is eight. He doesn't know better. You're an adult. A Sect Master. And this is a public street. Do you propose we behave like a gang of rowdy children?"

Jin Rusong couldn't help it. He leaned around Baba and stuck his tongue out. Even as he did so, he knew he could have made a mistake and made things worse. Except the gesture suddenly set Sect Master Jiang back. Was he laughing? It sort of looked like laughter. "Oh, hell. This is ridiculous."

Though he didn't know what was ridiculous about protecting someone you love, Jin Rusong pulled his eyes sideways with his fingers. And now Sect Master Jiang really was laughing. "Fine. We'll talk privately, Master Jin."

Baba relaxed and his voice, that had been scary hard and cold, softened. "Respect, Master Jiang, I will be glad to do so. But may I first have words with this foolish and disobedient child of mine?"

"Be my guest. Though from the looks of him, he's about as stubborn as my brother... was. And I never have managed to get a single drop of sense into that man's head."

Baba chuckled. Grasped Yiyuan Yi firmly by one horn and dragged her off. With anyone else, she'd have gone stubborn, but she knew better with Baba. She let him lead her away without argument, until they were off in the woods outside town.

"Before you start explaining how you had to come and you didn't have a choice and really wasn't it a good thing you did, I want to know, just how did you find me and how did you manage to get here just in time to... rescue... me?"

Knowing better than to argue with Baba in this mood and already well aware he'd been bad, Jin Rusong pointed at the pouch hanging around Baba's neck. "It's got some of Yiyuan Yi's fur."

It took Baba a moment to take that in. "With anyone else, I'd ask just how that mattered. With a taotie, whose abilities I have no proper understanding of, I suppose there's a kind of sense." He eyed Yiyuan Yi. "She followed her fur?"

"Yes, Baba."

"And knew I was in trouble because of the talismans in the pouch?"

"Yes, Baba."

"Talismans you got from your uncle A-Yu?"

"Yes, Baba."

"I swear, I'm going to spank each and every one of you."

"I apologize, Baba. I know I was wrong."

Sounding a little surprised, Baba lifted Jin Rusong's face so he could meet his eyes. "No attempts to explain how you couldn't help it?"

"I could have had Yiyuan Yi drop me off at Koi Tower before coming to help you. I really didn't mean to go with her if you had trouble. But... once I knew you were... I didn't want to stay away."

With a sigh, Baba sat on a nearby log and pulled Jin Rusong into his lap. "Child, your taotie might be able to fight on my behalf. I'm absolutely certain she can. But if I came across something really, truly, dangerous, I'd be in worse danger if you were with me."

Now that didn't make sense at all. "Why?"

"Because, Dumpling, you are my most precious son. And I will throw myself into a fire to protect you."

Now that wasn't good at all. The very thought terrified Jin Rusong and he started crying despite himself. Baba cursed, muttering, "That was a stupid way to put it. Listen, child. I love you. I want to protect you. I won't let anyone hurt you and that means doing my best to stay alive because me dying would hurt you too."

Relief flooded Jin Rusong. "I'm sorry, Baba."

"Can you go safely home for me? I give Yiyuan Yi permission to come help me if I actually need it, but I don't want you coming out again, all right?"

"What should I do for punishment, Baba?"

"Didn't Lan Jingyi tell you about how he has to copy rules when he's bad?"

"Uhhuh. But Jin Sect doesn't have a wall of rules."

Baba chuckled. "No. So you can go copy your cousin Jin Ling's homework instead." He set Jin Rusong on Yiyuan Yi's back. "Now. Go home and tell mama you're safe and what I said. And no trying to make yourself look good."

"No, Baba. I won't." That was the one thing Baba hated him doing. He said it was a Jin trait he'd like to see removed. Maybe he was right?

Setting off towards home, Jin Rusong decided he'd better be a good boy and stay on the roads this time. Baba wanted him to go home quickly but he'd also want him to go home safely and Yiyuan Yi's way of 'jumping' could be risky. Baba wouldn't like it if he fell off between the worlds. No, it'd take him longer to go the Real World way, which wasn't good, but it'd be safer.

That decided, he paused at the crossroads, visualizing the map. That way should do it. There was even a town on the way where he could stop and rest if need be. What was its name again? He focused the image in his head. Oh, yes. That was right.

Yi City. Perfectly placed between here and there.

#

Having found the one spying on them in the saber tomb, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian question Nie Huaisang on the place. Though reluctant to share his family's secrets, the sect master's younger brother finally gives in and explains. And, with greater reluctance, but growing curiosity, he agrees to assist the pair in investigating the place.

The next day, accompanied by Nie Sect disciples, they begin the slow and careful process of searching the latest batch of corpses for something related to the arm in Lan Wangji's qiankun bag. Hours later, they find what they've been looking for.

And someone else finds them.

 

"I don't suppose any of you have an explanation for this?"

Three pairs of eyes looked up from the bodies lined up on the floor. Huaisang; distressed. Lan Wangji; dispassionate. Gao Gui... no, Wei Wuxian; distracted. Nie Mingjue gazed from the trio to the mess, then back up to the trio again. Waited.

It was Huaisang who answered, sounding a great deal braver than he probably felt. "Ge-ge. We have a problem. Someone's been abusing our saber burial grounds."

"I suppose you could be more obvious if you tried," Nie Mingjue ruffled his brother's hair and turned a sharp look on Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian. "You. Gaogui, isn't it? You have a tongue in your mouth and it sounded to me like you know how to use it. Explain this."

Huge grey eyes blinked innocently at him. "We're looking for a body."

"You seem to have found more than enough. Though I should note we're using these and you should probably go looking for your own."

"Ge-ge," Huaisang interrupted. "Those legs aren't ours." He pointed at a pair of slim, youthful limbs that they'd just removed from an old woman's corpse.

"Hmph. So someone thought she'd be happier in the afterlife if she could dance?" The question set Wei Wuxian snickering but Nie Mingjue ignored the young necromancer's behavior to nudge one of the legs with his foot. No surprise, it twitched and tried to twist out of the way. The other even attempted a kick, but lacked force because it lacked a body to kick from.

Setting his foot on the one leg's ankle to keep it from moving, Nie Mingjue continued, "All right. I can see someone snuck a body in here that doesn't belong. Is this all you found?"

"En," Lan Wangji indicated the walls. "New section only."

By which Nie Mingjue guessed that meant the only place where a ferocious corpse's body parts could be hidden in here was the newer section. The rest hadn't been touched for years. "And only the legs?"

"En."

Another short and sweet answer, courtesy of Lan Wangji. Really, he and Wei Wuxian were a matched set. The one couldn't talk for anything and the other couldn't stop. "You. Gaogui, right? You were saying you think you have an idea when I came in. What?"

"Oh, that?"

"That. Talk, boy, or I'll be having some words with your masters about your behavior." That got Wei Wuxian's attention. He'd obviously valued Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen's good opinion.

"I was noticing, that coffin there. I think there's something wrong with it. It doesn't have as much resentful energy as the others." Wei Wuxian pointed, while simultaneously biting his lip as if waiting for Nie Mingjue to ask how he could tell. Rather than force the silly fool to come up with a fool story, Nie Mingjue ignored the question and turned to look.

The coffin Wei Wuxian indicated was the one where Nie Mingjue and Huaisang's father's saber had been lain to rest. What was left of it, at least. It'd been in a state, too, as Nie Mingjue recalled. Just seething with impotent resentful energy and loss.

A sinking feeling swept over him. One combined with raw fury as he opened the coffin and saw it was empty, the marks in the dust showing where six broken shards had once lain. Huaisang was beside him a moment later, grabbing his arm with a startlingly powerful grip. So Di-di had been practicing after all.

"What happened to father's saber?"

The rage in Huaisang's voice was pure Nie. It was the sort of rage that could lead to a qi deviation if one weren't careful, though, and Nie Mingjue set a hand on his brother's shoulder. They'd have to talk about that, later.

Right then wasn't the time. "What do you think is going on here?" Again he aimed the question at Wei Wuxian, even though it must seem odd for him to trust the ideas of a youngster barely on the road to cultivation.

Fortunately, Wei Wuxian was too caught up in the mystery to notice Nie Mingjue's acknowledging him as the one who knew things. "I think, maybe, whomever put these legs in here has been trying to make a really powerful ferocious corpse. One as strong as Wen Ning, maybe? So they've imbued someone's body with the pieces from your father's saber and put the pieces in places where they can absorb different types of qi."

Nie Mingjue frowned. "Different types of qi?" Nie Sect teachings focused on physical yang qi. He knew there were supposedly other types, but he didn't know how they worked, nor how one used them.

"Found arm on Dafan," Lan Wangji volunteered. "Absorbed faith."

With a murmur of comprehension, Huaisang said, "And resentful yang qi here."

"Resentful ying qi, too," Wei Wuxian pointed out, gesturing at the wall where the corpses they used to satiate the saber spirits had been placed. "Otherwise the whole thing would have imbalanced a long while ago."

Quite suddenly, Huaisang moaned. "I should have noticed."

"You only just took over the job, Di-di. If the culprit did this before you came in, or used your first ceremony to set things up, you might not have noticed." Nie Mingjue was angrier at himself. He should have sensed something was wrong a great deal earlier, when someone took the pieces of their father's saber.

"Even so...."

"Even so, I'm not asking you for perfection. Just your best effort." Which, when Nie Mingjue thought about it, his brother had been giving. He returned his attention to Lan Wangji. "You're hunting out these body parts?"

"En."

"I'll leave you to that task. I trust you to know your limits." Nie Mingjue didn't bother emphasizing the word 'you'. It was obvious Wei Wuxian didn't have the remotest comprehension of the concept. "You have Nie Sect's assistance. I'm certain you'll have Jin's as well, once Regent Jin learns of this."

Behind Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian pulled a face. Apparently he hadn't gotten over Lanling Jin's part in his fall. Nor, Nie Mingjue supposed, could he be blamed. It was mostly Jin Guangshan's fault, but that didn't make it any easier for Wei Wuxian to trust.

Unfortunately, this problem took precedence. This was obviously Xue Yang's work and from the looks of it, it wouldn't be at all good if the demented little necromancer succeeded in whatever he was attempting. All their efforts to take him down so far had failed but it was high time they stopped him.

Fortunately, they had their own demented little necromancer now, and Nie Mingjue was absolutely certain Wei Wuxian wasn't going to stand for having his would-be replacement's behavior.

He just hoped he got to watch when the two finally faced off. It'd be quite a show.

Chapter Text

When Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi showed up at Baixue Temple with Lil Apple, Mo Xuanyu almost panicked. Had something happened to Wei Wuxian? No, wait. He needed to remember to think of him as Gaogui, even if he wasn't anymore.

"Is Gaogui all right? Lil Apple didn't throw him or something?" His donkey was old, crotchety and uncooperative unless you fed him enough apples. And Gaogui might not be a good rider. He wasn't much at sword flight yet, that much Mo Xuanyu knew because they'd commiserated over their mutual failing frequently.

With a kindly smile, Lan Sizhui told him, "He's fine. He and Master Lan Wangji are working together."

Oh, that was such a relief. And Gaogui was with Hanguang Jun? What wonderful news. He was sure Lan Wangji was taking excellent care of his old friend. His imagination leaped around with images he knew he shouldn't be contemplating. "I'm glad. But he could have kept Lil Apple. I don't need him to travel."

"He thought Lil Apple could do with a rest. And he is your donkey, not Gaogui's, so...."

Mo Xuanyu skritched his old friend behind the ears, causing the animal to search his pockets for food. "I'm sorry. I don't have anything right now. I'll get you something."

Lil Apple snorted disgustedly. Turned away, to Lan Jingyi's great amusement, and trotted towards the stables without a backwards look. "Spoiled."

"I admit it," Mo Xuanyu told the younger boy. "But he's so old now."

Once Lil Apple was properly settled, Mo Xuanyu led the boys into the dining hall. The food at Baixue was similar to Gusulan's. Light meals, mostly vegetarian. The cook made an excellent congee, too. "You didn't have to come all the way out here to bring Lil Apple back."

"We did, though," Lan Jingyi disagreed. "He was making so much noise at Gusulan that Master Lan Qiren insisted."

Cheeks flushed with embarrassment, Mo Xuanyu ducked his head. "I'm sorry."

"It really isn't your fault. He might not have been comfortable, so high in the mountains." Lan Sizhui was offering a polite excuse. "And we were going to continue on our rounds, anyway."

Mo Xuanyu sighed wistfully. So much was happening out in the world so suddenly. His best friend was busy with his work and he felt as if the adventurous world was passing him by. He shouldn't, of course. He'd chosen a gentler path of cultivation and shouldn't expect to go out on night hunts.

Quite suddenly, Lan Jingyi said, "You don't get out much, do you?"

"En. I don't." Quickly, because he didn't want to make it sound like he was trying to stick his nose in where it didn't belong, he added, "It's all right. Please, don't think I'm asking to come along." Except, in a way, he wished he could.

A smile curved Lan Sizhui's lips. "Actually, Master Shen mentioned you were feeling bored and lonely, the last time we were here. We would have asked you to come with us already, if it weren't for the fact that we didn't have time to waste, trying to find Gaogui."

Hope flickered. "You were going to ask?" He paused. Hoped he didn't look as distraught as he felt. "Oh, but you know I'm a cut-sleeve, right?"

"I don't think anyone in the cultivational world has failed to hear that," Lan Jingyi told him, grinning. "But you've never been accused of forcing your attentions on anyone."

"What about my age? Am I too old to travel with juniors? Or my swordsmanship, which I don't have much of at all?"

"I don't think you're too old. And your talisman work could be useful. Both Lan Jingyi and I can handle any fighting we run into."

Mo Xuanyu thought about it. He'd still have to ask Master Shen to be sure it was all right, but he was sure the man would gladly agree because he often said Mo Xuanyu should get out and learn more about the world. Besides, it sounded like this was his idea, anyway. "Where will you be going, then?"

"We got a letter from Ouyang Zizhen saying there's been some strange things going on in Tianjin. Something about someone leaving dead cats at his door. So we'll start there and see what we can do to help."

Dead cats? How cruel! Who could be doing such a thing? Mo Xuanyu cupped his hands to his new comrades. "I will be more than happy to come along."

#

A drunk Lan Wangji was horribly boring. One cup and he fell unconscious? How dull.

On the other hand, it gave Wei Wuxian a chance to do something he'd been wanting to try for quite some time now. He hadn't dared, not wanting Lan Wangji to realize who he was. Except Lan Wangji knew and had known from the incident at Dafan mountain. He'd think on that more carefully, but that'd mean facing old pains Wei Wuxian would rather not face.

Leaving his unconscious companion to sleep, Wei Wuxian went out to find Wen Ning. A task made easier by the fact that his old friend was waiting calmly for him in the forest outside the inn. One soft whistle and there he was, his presence solid and familiar.

"Come here."

Silently, Wen Ning obeyed, letting Wei Wuxian examine him. Those chains. Gods, if Wen Ning were alive, he'd be in agony. The Jin had done this to him, hadn't they? They were behind the small holes in Wen Ning's skull, too, surely. The things were gone - rusted away, perhaps? - but they had to have been nails used to control Wen Ning over the years.

Aside from that, Wen Ning seemed in excellent condition. He must have escaped his handlers at some point. Escaped and had just enough sense to stay hidden. Oh, and hadn't he shown up before, back at Chang mansion? Wei Wuxian had still been Gaogui then and his memory of his life then wasn't always clear. But he was sure he'd summoned his friend to help them that time.

"What have you been up to, all these years?"

"Hiding, young master."

It'd been so long since he'd heard Wen Ning's voice. He'd forgotten how gentle it'd been. Even dead, Wen Ning couldn't help being soft. Oh, he was powerful. Set him against undead, set him to protect the weak, and he was the fiercest of fierce corpses. But those same hands that could rip a monster in half could cradle a small child.

The thought of small children sent a sharp pang through Wei Wuxian. A-Yuan. Poor little A-Yuan. He vaguely remembered hiding the boy. But he'd no idea what happened to him after. If he died, Wei Wuxian could only hope it'd been a quiet death.

He didn't want to think about it. He. Didn't. Want. To. Think. About. It. He focused his attention on his friend. "I'm going to get those damned chains off you." Before Wen Ning could react, he was on his feet and heading inside to fetch Bichen.

#

The Lan did not drink for good reason. It did things to them. Melted away inhibitions. Made their feelings all the harder to repress, while simultaneously impossible to express. Lan Wangji was aware of his body and heart's desires. Equally unable to keep from acting on them.

Old angers roused at the sight of Wei Wuxian being so soft and gentle to Wen Ning. Intellectually, Lan Wangji knew the Ghost General was not the one to blame for Wei Wuxian's behavior. Not the one to blame for Wei Wuxian's obliviousness. Knew too that the Ghost General was not, had never been, Wei Wuxian's lover.

But jealousy was a beast that knew no sense. Faced with the Ghost General being cared for by the man he loved most in the world, all he could do was try and push Wen Ning away.

If Wen Ning chose to fight the matter would have ended quickly and not in Lan Wangji's favor. Drunk as he was, he couldn't have fought properly. Worse, Wei Wuxian would certainly have interfered, not wanting to see his friend hurt. And that hurt in its turn.

In the end, he let Wei Wuxian chase Wen Ning off. Let Wei Wuxian drag him back to bed. Managed, somehow, to control the urge to do what he wanted most. He had to be careful, to move cautiously towards his desire if he were to keep from frightening his love away. But did Wei Wuxian have to quite so unaware?

When morning came, he ignored what'd happened the night before. It wasn't lying, after all, to let Wei Wuxian believe he didn't remember. Besides, they still had to investigate that arm and now two legs. And that meant following the trail to Chang Mansion.

It hadn't been all that long ago since what remained of the Chang family disappeared. By rights, their distant kin ought to have taken over the place. Either that or a new cultivational family should have come in to take on the job of protecting that region.

So Lan Wangji was surprised to learn the mansion still stood empty, with a new legend to explain why no one had come. The place was haunted. People claimed to see empty-eyed versions of its inhabitants wandering its halls at night. Sometimes the screams were audible for miles around. And, of course, no one in the area dared investigate because hauntings were cultivational matters and that'd been the Chang family's job.

They arrived at the mansion in the late evening, when hauntings were most likely. Ghosts could and did show up by day, but the yang energies of the sun tended to weaken them too much to be noticed.

"I was here the day the Chang disappeared," Wei Wuxian said as they entered the main courtyard. "If I hadn't taken it into my head to run off and play, Masters Song and Xiao might have been able to save them."

"Not and protect you and A-Qing." Lan Wangji had told Wei Wuxian what'd happened after the small group had escaped. "Wouldn't have managed myself, without Wen Qionglin." He'd admit that much, even if jealousy still twisted through him at the thought of the Ghost General.

"Even so."

"Not your fault." Why was he like that? Always taking responsibility for everything bad that happened. It was no wonder Wei Wuxian was always blamed, when he gladly accepted guilt. "Worry about now." He paused, listening, and gestured towards the back courtyard. "Trouble. Fighting."

They hurried through the wreckage that'd once been Chang mansion. Found their way to the back of the house, the pavement still ruined from where Wen Ning had burst out to come to Wei Wuxian's rescue all those months before. Except not all the damage was Wen Ning's fault. A fresh hole had been dug from the center of the courtyard, where a coffin stuck out at an oddly jaunty angle.

A misplaced coffin wasn't the problem. The men fighting over it were. Especially when several dozen undead of varying types were sticking their rotten corpses into the mess.

Lan Wangji scanned the fight, trying to decide who, if any, should be sided with. One wore the robes of Baixue sect and carried a familiar weapon, Xiao Xingchen's Shuanghua. Yet the man in question didn't seem the right height to be either of Xiao Xingchen or his partner, Song Lan. The man moved too fast to get a good look at, though, flinging talismans between strikes.

Another man was vaguely familiar. A would-be necromancer who liked to steal from the dead. He was the one guiding the most rotten of the corpses, staying back and using them as shields whenever the man with Shuanghua got too close.

The third man focused entirely on the person in the Baixue sect robes. A shadowy figure, he too seemed to command the dead, though his tools seemed more shadow than substance. He blocked the first man's talismans with fine silver blades, pinning the things to the walls more often than not.

Wei Wuxian fell back into the shadows, his soft whistle echoing through the courtyard. At the same time Lan Wangji, unsure of the first and third man, headed for the skinny old necromancer. He, at least, was an obvious target.

He just hoped they figured out who was who before the wrong person got hurt.

#

Xue Yang had been horribly busy for the last few weeks. He'd just managed to set up a lovely family, even captured some brothers and a nice new sister. Admittedly, they were proving difficult, but he was sure he'd get past their defenses sooner or later. But. Not. With. All. These. Damned. Interruptions.

The first he'd realized something was wrong was when he'd felt his connection with his tool on Dafan Mountain stretch. The power it'd been transmitting to him disappeared and while he could feel its presence, it was no longer entirely under his control.

The trouble with using flesh copied from a living being was it started getting ideas. Started thinking it had a reality in the world it didn't actually possess. When that flesh was copied from one's own Self, and one wasn't given to cooperating with anyone, the problems just got worse.

It'd taken him too long to reach Dafan. By the time he did, his tool was gone, locked away and shielded from his mind. When it did get free, all it managed was to cause a bit of trouble and - worse - reveal the location of two more of his tools. It wouldn't have been so bad if the thing had pointed to Chang mansion first. He could have lain a trap and recaptured it. Instead, it'd pointed them straight for Xinglu Ridge.

With luck, the thieves who'd taken his arm, and now his legs, would just move on. With luck, they'd never notice that the saber belonging to Nie Mingjue's father had been... borrowed. With luck, they wouldn't figure out what he was doing with the thing. And with luck, they'd walk right into the trap he'd set in Chang mansion. He had a bad feeling luck wasn't on his side.

To balance things out, he brought a few allies in to help. He had dozens of connections with the more ethically challenged necromancers in the cultivational world these days. Calling on favors, he'd brought several back to Yi City to help keep his pretty little town running. And yet another to help him prepare for whomever it was who'd stolen his tools.

He waited for the thieves, patiently teaching his ally how to connect directly with the resentful energy needed to keep corpses moving. He even loaned the idiot a modified version of the Stygian Tiger Seal, this one just barely strong enough to handle the rotten mess the idiot prized so highly.

And just as he'd thought his quarry were coming, a newcomer arrived, his shadowy companions grasping hold of their undead and overwhelming them. It took Xue Yang several startled minutes to realize the shadows were the hun souls of the dead, reclaiming what was theirs and setting them to rest.

"No one takes what's mine," he growled, drawing one of the swords he'd borrowed from one of his newest pets. At the same time he flung talismans at the undead, blocking their hun souls. "No. One."

"This humble one would accept the claim, if he agreed what the would-be master has taken belongs to him." A sword of shadow blocked his. Daggers of some strange and shifty metal blocked his talismans, forcing him to throw more.

And then, to his shock, some other necromancer took the field. A whistle from the dark accompanied an all too familiar warrior in white's sudden appearance. The one gathered the undead into his grasp, far too powerful for the seal he'd given his ally. The other used sound qi to force the remaining undead to a stand still.

Xue Yang stretched out his thoughts. Grabbed at the undead and tried to force them into action. Who? Who could possibly have blocked his power? Not one of the other necromancers could match him. None.

Oh, but there was one. One out there who he'd been waiting patiently for all these years. "WEI WUXIAN!" he crowed. "MASTER OF THE BURIAL GROUNDS! YILING PATRIARCH! COME OUT WHERE YOUR SERVANT CAN SEE YOU!"

The shadow spoke, soft and gentle. "You speak of service but seek command. Why would he come to you, child of ruin?" More of his shadows claimed their flesh and settled the po souls within. Until all Xue Yang had left were the few dozen undead he'd embedded with pieces of his best copy of the Stygian Tiger Seal. They, and they alone, remained his to command.

The soft whistle came again, rousing the corpses surrounding them, turning them on their former masters. It was a mocking sound, one that told Xue Yang he'd yet to impress his hero. Very well. He'd go for now. He still had other tools and the one Lan Wangji meant to steal wasn't that important. Not when he still had the most vital part. Let Hanguang Jun put that body together if they wished. He'd turn it against them all, sooner or later.

Grabbing his cohort, he set off a transportation talisman and disappeared.