The burial mounds were filled with a terrible darkness, dark clouds endlessly collecting over bone walls and dark crags. They looked like death, come to steal away hope and cast it black as shadow.
Wen Ning had always thought they felt like home.
The parlor of his skin was corpse-healthy, and he could not smile but he felt a gentle happiness. The tea pot in his hands was searingly hot, but he felt none of its pain.
He hoped the Young Master would like this tea, with its modest leaves and gentle steep. He had prepared it so carefully, under his sister’s instruction and watchful gaze. The tea had been placed like so, the water heated to just before a boil.
He had poured the water with timid fingers and counted off the seconds like they were more important than life itself.
And perhaps, in some ways, they were.
His friend had looked so tired recently. Warm skin had gone pale from lack of sun, and endless days of invention had kept Wei Wuxian cloistered into a cave alone. Wen Ning loved that relentless spirit and all the caring in those clever hands, admired the drive to create and protect.
But Wei Wuxian had been smiling less, of late, and Wen Ning just wanted him to smile.
He cradled the teapot into the deep caves, eyes trailing curiously over the papers collecting on the walls. There were more than yesterday, half drawn talismans scattered across countless scrolls and fixed against craggily stone.
The talismans were made of blood but not active, harmless as the paper they were inked on.
Even in the fog of creative energy, the Young Master was so careful to do them no harm. Inside this cave may dwell countless monsters and demonic inventions, but the Wen remnants could walk outside with no fear and as much happiness as they could grow in barren fields.
Wen Ning treasured his friend even more for this.
“Young Master,” he called, voice gentle and quiet in the echoing halls of this cave.
A grunt and a distracted noise pulled him deeper, until he walked dead limbs into the true heart of Wei Wuxian’s chaos.
Here was the lair of an inventor.
Creative energy bled into the air like fury and the hunger before a famine, rolling from Wei Wuxian’s frenetic brush strokes. Scrolls lined the floor to match the ones lining the walls, and half-finished amulets laid over every surface. Quiet scratches of ink echoed over stone walls, a low stream of noise to echo through the cave.
Wen Ning had never felt more at home.
The smile across his face grew wide and gentle, and he placed the teapot by his friend’s side, waited for those driven eyes to pull off the scroll before him.
“Young Master,” he called again, quiet and filled with a respect well earned.
A slow blink answered him, and then another, until awareness bled into red eyes and made them black again.
“Wen Ning,” came the response, methodical like the words were weighed and tested in thought. Wei Wuxian still looked half-consumed, attention slowly pulling together in the air.
Then, brighter and dancing into wakefulness, “Wen Ning! Ah, how long have you been standing there?”
“Only a moment,” he said, and meant a lifetime. This ingenious man had saved his life and the souls of all these of the Wen remnants.
He would stay by his side for as long as he could.
If he could smile, it would be a terribly bright thing now. In this dank cave that stunk of death and death alone, he felt at peace. “What are you working on, young master?”
He poured the tea out into a clear cup as he spoke, let its aroma curl into the air like smoke before a flame. But this was a soothing fire, made from modest tea and grown with so much care.
He hoped Wei Wuxian would like this tea.
The man took the cup with a pale hand, taking a sip through eager words. “A personal teleportation talisman but powered by resentful energy.”
The strain across his eyes eased a touch, brushed away by hot tea. Wen Ning felt a small kernel of happiness burst through his dead skin.
It had helped, even if only a little.
It had been worth the effort.
“I want you to be able to get away, if you need to.” The words were determined, dark though spoken in that dancing tone.
Always did Wei Wuxian smile through pain. Wen Ning wished his friend would stop and rest that weary mind, that lonely soul.
This family of fifty tried to forge the Burial Grounds into a home, and with broken tools and bloody ground they had mostly succeeded.
But he knew the longing that dwelled in his friend, in the memory of another life and another family. The man had once had a brother and a sister, had once had friends and a reputation for brilliance.
Now he was a pariah.
Wen Ning felt guilt boil in his dead veins. This was his fault too, and yet the Wen remnants stayed beneath this brilliant man’s protection.
“You do not need to, you know. I…” He stopped, felt words sting his tongue and make him quietly hopeless. What did he have to give but his devotion?
“I will not leave your side, young master,” he said, and meant it with all of his bound soul and dead flesh.
The smile that cracked across Wei Wuxian’s face was shattered and broken, but he could do nothing to fix it.
A laugh cracked the stale air in two and made the blood pools shake. “All the more reason to make them then. I’ll finish this, and you’ll take it.”
“Ah, no complaints!” He raised a long hand against Wen Ning’s words, gaunt fingers glimmering beneath torchlight. They hadn’t always been so slim, so pale. They had once been tanned and strong, calloused by sword work and laughing gestures.
Wen Ning would see them happy again.
“You will take it, or I swear I’ll sew it into your clothes!” The tone was threatening, the words more so, but he just blinked long and slow.
He could not remember seeing Wei Wuxian wielding a needle and thread before, could not imagine his chaotic energy lent to that patience.
But the man was ever skilled; Wen Ning could surely be wrong.
“Young master, do you know how to sew?”
There was a beat of silence, echoing out over the dark span of the cave and across the bones of old corpses. Wei Wuxian opened his mouth, once, twice, bemusement collecting on pale cheeks.
That was really all the answer Wen Ning needed, and he suppressed a quiet laugh.
The Young Master was truly unstoppable and kind, he thought, and set the teapot on a small scrap of clear table.
He took the talisman anyway, tucked it close to his heart. Wei Wuxian had asked him to, and so he would.
Blood stained dead hands crimson, rage replacing his marrow and turning him into fear and fury. His flesh was hate and his bones were guilt and he was angry.
The sun shone overhead, burning into pale skin but doing no damage. Wei Wuxian was behind him, was sad, was betrayed. Wen Ning had to protect him, had to destroy and rage.
Beneath this sun, he was nothing but resentment made into a shield for his master.
They dared raise their bows, they dared threaten Wei Wuxian’s life, this precious and brilliant life. He would kill them all, would slaughter anything that moved, anything that bore fury, anything that shifted and—
And he blinked into wakefulness with his hand through Jin Zixuan’s chest.
Dead eyes did not need to see, and they required no rest, but he blinked again. Blood collected across the stretch of his arms and dripped its way onto the ground, soaked into cracked earth beneath him like water running through sand.
There was so much blood staining him crimson as the dawn, but all he could see was the Wei Wuxian’s face as it paled to horror, to loss.
All he could see was despair, and all Wen Ning knew was hopelessness.
God, he had always been so timid, always too slow. Now in death he had moved too fast, and this was all his fault.
He had driven his hand through the chest of one of Wei Wuxian’s precious people. He was scum, of the highest order, and did not deserve the kindness the Young Master gave him with each smile and cheerful conversation.
His dearest friend’s loneliness was all his fault too, and he couldn’t bear this strain a moment longer.
He could not let the man die, he couldn’t. Dead hands were shaking, rage pulsing through his veins like his blood once had, like the blood that dripped down his arm and soaked into his robes.
If only Wen Qing was here, with all her talent at healing and strength of action, this could be fixed. His sister had always known how to act and what to do, blessed with a decisive mind and a commander’s aura. He wished for her so dearly, as blood collected at the edge of his nails.
He needed his sister, he thought with every ounce of his relentless soul, with every piece of his resentful energy tucked into his skin.
And the talisman pressed against his chest answered.
There was rock beneath his back, and he was bare. This was the first thought that trickled into his mind, like snow falling down across flower petals.
The rock was cold, and he could feel it prickle against his skin for he wore no robes. He blinked heavy eyes, blinked until he could see the ceiling above. It was dark and craggily, not the sculpted luxury he was used to but the bare bones of a cave.
There was rock beneath his back, and he had awoken in a hovel. It was cold, and shivers cascaded up his spine to make him tremble.
Where had he—
Wei Wuxian’s horrified eyes. Betrayal. A hand, bursting through his chest and leaving him numb.
Jiang Yanli, he thought, with his whole heart and all of his golden painted soul. His wife, his love, he had almost left her. The rock beneath his back was chilly as frost but he went icy at the thought.
He had sworn to never see her cry from sadness again, to wipe away only tears of joy. He had sworn to protect her gentle smile and relentless kindness.
He had sworn to do so much, and yet a hand had driven through his chest.
The rocks were so cool, and his hands were trembling with terrible memories and fresh wounds. His brother had almost gotten him killed, almost let him die on the hands of Wei Wuxian, pariah and patriarch.
The wound that would have left on his wife’s soul was too terrible to name.
He felt the rock beneath his skin and could lie still no longer, not with all of this. He had to stand, had to move.
Jiang Yanli had to know her brother did not cause this, and he could not go another moment without seeing his wife. He sat up, felt the creak of sore muscle and mending flesh, the slow motions of new tendons creeping into nerves.
He looked down at his chest and felt the memory of a hand, pressing through bone and flesh and—
He forced the thought down with all his pride, all his love. For now, that thought would lie untouched, those memories would be buried.
That hand was nothing but a nightmare. He could not start a war that would hurt Jiang Yanli, not even if he had seen his blood splatter across the ground.
It had splattered across Wei Wuxian too, and never had the man looked so hurt.Jin Zixuan had never thought he would prefer a smug smile on that damned face, but here and now he wanted nothing more than to forget when blood looked like, decorating pale skin ashen.
He looked down again, proving his will stronger than fragile memories. The stretch of his stomach was red and raw but unbroken. He had been run through, but all he saw across his chest was newly healed skin and the puckers of a scar. A master healer had been at work here, patching his body into health.
Where, exactly, was he?
A clatter of footsteps answered him, a woman in threadbare robes walking into the barren space of the cave.
“You are awake, good.” Her eyes trailed over his bare chest, clinical and judging. “And sitting up, with wounds. Are men always so foolish?”
It was a woman with fierce eyes and a sword at her waist, face rough with the struggles of life but no less beautiful. She had an air of command that Jin Zixuan could not ignore, not with the familiar motions of her hands.
This was Wen Qing, healer of the Qishan Wen Sect, and he knew her face from a thousand battlefields and their aftermaths.
These stone walls could mark only one place.
He was on the Burial Mounds. His moved before he could think, struggling to move his feet to the ground. Here he would be relentless as always. “Where is Wei Ying?”
The stone was cold against his palms, where they trembled on the ground. Why was he still trembling? He could not afford to be weak now, not with freshly healed skin scabbing over his chest.
His wife waited for him, and oh how he must be strong.
Wen Qing snorted, the sound rough and inelegant for a woman of her stature. She raised lean hands and let golden qi shine between her fingers, kneeling at his side without a thought for dignity or dirt.
He wished she would stand proud, become the honorable enemy he had once known.
But the Wen Clan didn’t have honor left to them, now, did they? In the gilded halls of Koi Tower, that had felt so very right.
Here, standing before a woman in cheap robes that had saved his life, it felt different.
She poked and prodded at his chest for a moment longer before letting out a grim smile. Then she helped him up, and he felt no cold stone over his back.
His chest itched all the more, and he pushed down the sensation.For Jiang Yanli.
“I sent him away. He was too busy weeping at your bedside to let me work,” she said, the words a strange mix of harsh and fond, bouncing off the cave walls to startle him.
The healer must be joking; he could hardly imagine the proud face of Wei Wuxian turned to tears over his fate.
But that was so unimportant, at this terrible moment.
He was at the burial mounds, and that meant he had been saved. But had Wei Wuxian? Did his clan know the truth of that terrible ambush?
Was there war on his step-brother’s doorstep?
He didn’t know but could not sit and find out. His gilded skin demanded he stand, demanded he fix the mess his brothers had caused.
“I must leave,” he struggled forward, legs shaky as a newborn lamb. His pride twinged at the weakness, furious at the delay.
Jiang Yanli was waiting for him, with their child.
“Men,” Wen Qing said, scorn clear in the dry notes of her tone. She threw a rough robe at him, waited a beat for him to pull it on, and hoisted him up to support him across a strong shoulder.
Somehow, he had forgotten her skill with a blade was as deadly as his, had forgotten the strength of her arms. She had been a commander once and earned the respect of Wen Ruohan.
He had forgotten, and what a fool was he.
The fabric chaffed at his skin, inexpensive and coarse. He could feel the grain and knew it to be of poor make. In all the years of his life, he had not felt such a rough fabric used as clothing.
Had… had Wei Wuxian lived like this?
Under her strength, they stumbled out of the cave, following twists and turns through bloody walls. Bones lined their path, white as the scrolls that had fallen beside them. Both were stained with ink, marked by the frantic curl of a brush.
There had been chaos, here, and madness.
Jin Zixuan felt his jaw clench and hoped dearly that madness had not taken his brother in law’s mind.
Fresh air greeted them like the touch of wind on a summer’s day, hot and relentless. After the stone-chill invading his skin, he welcomed this like nothing else, let the sun touch him and warm him into something like normalcy.
He felt shaky and weak, but whole.
The light was harsh and bright, burning his eyes like it was out to scar him. But he could barely see that, eyes catching on the grim surroundings. The burial grounds were intimidatingly stark, bones lining the rise of endless walls and everything stained dark with old blood.
But he could see none of that. His eyes were drawn to quiet smiles and low voices, to sun shining on rough robes and work-worn faces.
Among tall cliff faces and blackened stone was the quiet murmuring of people, and this was all he could see. There was nothing but the stretch of low huts, the shambling wreck of a village. The Wen Remnants, forging a life under the Yiling Patriarch’s protection.
He had thought them fierce and deadly, enemies being sheltered away out of misplaced pity. But all he could see was poverty, and it sent regret lancing into his bones.
Had Wei Wuxian lived in this? Had a noble man truly been brought so low? Jin Zixuan felt a terrible pity creep into his skin, infectious and breaking over his pride.
The man he had once known to strike him in the face over Jiang Yanli would not have stood for this, he thought, in a moment of haunting memories.
That man had worn silk robes and walked with the pride of a young master.
The man that stood a hundred feet away was someone else entirely, and Jin Zixuan didn’t recognize the thin stretch of his arms. He was surrounded by the delighted giggles of children, laughing a sharp laugh into the air.
Wei Wuxian looked pale, a haunting pallor creeping over his face. The sun caught on the black stain of his robes and was dragged in and devoured. The color was so different from elegant gold and delicate purple that Jin Zixuan wanted to protect him.
His hands were shaking, noticeable even from this distance.
But he held the children steady, and laughed a happy laugh, and made them smile like the sun had come down from the sky to dance with them.
They were all in threadbare robes, but their grins were so very bright.
Light shone on bloodstained ground, but this is not what he saw. He saw bare huts and patched clothes, long faces and thin limbs.
He saw people.
He was wrong again, Jin Zixuan realized, for the hundredth and thousandth time. Wei Wuxian, with those trembling hands and playful smile, would never be able to stand aside in the face of inequality and mistreatment. He must have seen the remnants of the Wen Clan and been unable to step away.
The man had always been so relentless.
For so long, Jin Zixuan had hated him for it, with all the righteousness in his gilded skin. How dare this upstart judge him, strike him? How dare the man look down on him for his pride?
Now, he saw it with a brother’s eyes and felt worry creep into his bones as a terrible poison.
If his wife saw this man, how deeply would her heart break? What had he let happen, through his inaction?
He didn’t know, but standing in this hot sun with rough robes wrapped around him, he couldn’t stop the thoughts.
And he didn’t want to.
A voice pipped up to his side, gentle and quiet with age. “Ah, the young master is awake! Would you care for some food?”
It was an old man speaking to him, with a craggily face but kind eyes. There was a long scar decorating his cheek that spoke of a life beyond a farming field.
But dirt was collected under his nails and his smile was kind. He was old enough to have seen the battlefields Jin Zixuan had walked into with pride and walked off drenched in blood.
He was old enough to have hate, and here he was offering Jin Zixuan some of the meager food off his plate.
“Yes, thank you,” he said, and meant it with all of his heart. A weakness was trembling up his gilded spine, and he felt the weight of the sun so heavily.
Had his pride so blinded him to this? Did anyone know of what truly lived here?
These were not Wen-dogs, these were not enemy combatants. These were people, in all their miserable and honest glory.
How had he not seen?