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Ashes and Moonlight

Chapter Text

The kingdom of RuLong tried its hardest.

A kingdom for the people by the people they called it. Its roots were found in a brutal civil war that tore the royal family from its throne. Unlike other places, it was not a new royal family that replaced them, a council of sorts instead forming to make important decisions.

It was a nice idea.

Wei Wuxian approved. He told his companion so.

The bodyless head he held against the moonlit sky had nothing to say.

Unfortunately, people were always people, and not even gods could strip the greed from their bones, meaning that it took no less than a decade for vows prompted by bloodshed to be forgotten, for children to grow up with new voices and opinions. For power to become more important than what was good for the people.

What emerged was not called a ‘royal family’. No, the Kingdom of RuLong would not have forgiven that, would not have been able to stand on blood-soaked foundation. It was a kingdom, but not a monarchy, supposedly. The council retained much power, the Head Councilor only the first amongst equals. However, as the council members aged, as new members needed to be called to duty, who could they possibly choose? Surely not a farmer days away from the capital, surely not a village head from an isolated village. Surely not someone less educated in the matters of state than them, disregarding that when they themselves first were needed to rule, they had only the experiences they gained from their common, ordinary jobs. Merchants, traders, farmers, craftsmen all of them.

Of course, they chose their own descendants to take their place.

When the Head Councilor passed, who was to replace him. Why, he did such a good job, that no one else but his own son could possibly live up to him.

By the people, for the people.

Sure, thought Wei Wuxian, lips curling. Obviously.

In that manner, several generations passed. What separated the Kingdom of RuLong from others was despite this farce still pronounced. Everyone was vocal in their opinion that they were not as other Kingdoms, for after all, they were not told what crops to plant, what land belonged to whom, what gods to pray to. Laws were negotiated between villages and towns on their own. Taxes were paid but they went not into the bags of their non-existent royal family, but into supporting, holding, educating an army that protects the people from robbers and invaders. Only matters that could not be dealt with between settlements were brought before the council.

However, in this state, who was to say who was right, who was wrong? In one city it may be allowed to take goods about to go bad from a vendor at the end of the day, in another, not as affluent city, even those might have to be paid for. This conflict was not between individuals, but between cities. Once or twice those cases might be negotiated. Perhaps even over years, decades. But what if multiple such matters appeared. Continued to appear, as they were bound to. This vendor here might be annoyed at the rude people from there, might refuse to sell to them. The visitors may be affronted, refuse to come again, spread the tale of this place’s uncultured manners. It was inevitable that resentment would build up between different places, from the lowest street urchin to the highest office. Eventually, a punch would be thrown. Eventually, weapons would be carried, hostile eyes watching every stranger.

Eventually, one city took violence to the other.

The Head Councilor called for peace, send the army, and pacified both places by instilling the rules he determined to be right, inciting resentment from both sides for unfair treatment, for interfering as an outsider. The independence fostered by generations could not abide by that high-handed justice.

And so, eventually, the Kingdom of RuLong tore itself apart in a civil war far bloodier than the one it emerged from, everyone against everyone, everyone for themselves.

What a surprise, thought Wei Wuxian drily, sitting at the bottom of a ravine surrounded by piles of corpses.

Their various states of decay hung a foul stench in the air that could be smelled for miles and passersby did not dare approach. It got so bad that the nearby road of a different kingdom could no longer be traversed without sickness, forcing those who needed the road to pray for help.

If there were problems with undead and corpses, who would they pray to other than the Corpse-Raising Yiling Laozu?

Hence Wei Wuxian found himself on a beautiful night for drinking in a field of dead, gathering body parts to put them back together, to lay the rotting body in line with others until he had all of them detangled and lined up for burial.

The smell no longer bothered him. It could even be said he didn’t notice it anymore, had not noticed it for a long time, for the smell of death clung to clothes, had seeped into his skin a long time ago. It might even be said that the only place Wei Wuxian could ever truly belong to, was a place like this.

Dark energy was potent and poisonous, coloring the shine of the moon reddish with the resentment and unfulfilled desires of the dead.

While other people would wail at the misery, retch from sight and smell, lose part of themselves to the brutality these corpses tell of, Wei Wuxian put the head to the neck it belonged to, and went to pile he found both head and torso in to look for the missing foot.

The pile was rather big, so while he was at it, he took the next corpse, laid it next to his foot-less story-teller, went back, pulled another corpse over until he found the foot and the pile was no longer a pile.

Because it was boring work, he was humming all the while, sometimes cheery, sometimes somber. The tune formed without rhyme or reason, just following what felt right.

“There you go,” he told the man who-now-had-all-his-parts. The head blinked at him, mouth creaking open –

“Yes, yes, you’re welcome.” Wei Wuxian interrupted before the body could truly animate, closing its eyes with two fingers.

Wei Wuxian surveyed his work. A good four dozen bodies laid side by side, row by row. It was so many, they filled the ground, leaving nearly no place to step on.

No way was there enough place to sort out the other three piles-which-were-each-almost-as-tall-as-two-houses without dealing with these first.

Wei Wuxian pulled ChenQing from his sash, set it to his lips and started playing. A jumbled song filled the night, spell-binding and beautiful despite its chaotic nature. One minute it was cheerful, the next it was somber, or enraging, passionate, slow. It was difficult to tell how much time passed before it drifted off into a sad, quiet lullaby which died shortly after.

The un-buried corpses were no longer. Un-buried, that was. Wei Wuxian had used their resentful energy to shift the earth underneath the corpses, to draw it into the air until a several meters deep hollow was ready to serve as the corpses’ final resting place. Over the span of his song, he let the earth drift down again, gifting a deep, eternal rest.

At the bottom of a ravine. Strangers next to strangers. Without names. With several other piles of dead bodies still needing to be dealt with.

But whatever. Wei Wuxian couldn’t do everything.

The night was still young, he still had work to do. He started on lining up the next corpses. But before he could, he was interrupted by a voice.

“That was beautiful music.” The voice was soft but not weak, tired but not broken. “It was very kind of my lord to play the last rites for these people. I thank thee.”

Wei Wuxian turned around. “Daozhang! You’re awake, that’s great. And here I was wondering if I’d need to make a grave for you too!”

The priest wore clothes that once upon a time were probably white but were now dirty with mud and body fluids of decomposing corpses. The robe’s front was torn as though from a slash by a knife or sword, a tale the red rim of the cut would agree with, but when Wei Wuxian had wanted to line this body up, he’d not seen a wound, which had embarrassingly been the point that clued him in that this body was actually still alive. Shame on him, almost mistaking the living for the dead when he called himself an expert on the latter.

The priest saluted respectfully. “Gratitude to my lord for his consideration.”

“No need, no need.” Wei Wuxian flapped a hand. “Truth be told, Daozhang made my day. Usually when I’m doing this where the dead are common people, the only ones still alive by the time I’m prayed to are unborn babies shielded by their mother’s flesh in life and their spirit after death.” Wei Wuxian’s cheery mood faltered a little, recalling that even of those it was less than half that he managed to keep alive. “So, finding an adult was actually a nice change of pace.”

When Wei Wuxian encountered strangers, they usually tended to run away from him after a couple moments of conversation, much to his vexation. He used to be so good at socializing. This would be the point where most people would try to politely excuse themselves and then break into a run as soon as they were out of sight.

This Daozhang not so. Though given what he was picked out of and where he woke up, if he wanted to run, he would not have needed to speak up. He smiled politely. “I’m glad to be of service. It is the least I could do, to repay my lord’s generosity.” He looked sadly at the corpses.

“Is there anyone you know here?” Wei Wuxian asked, suddenly awkward. “Hope I haven’t already buried someone you’d have wanted to take home or something.”

“No, no need. I was merely passing through when I was caught up in a riot.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, taken aback. “Uh, that’s unfortunate.”

The priest smiled brightly. “It’s nothing, merely bad luck. Not unusual for me.”

Ouch.

Other people would now express sympathy, advise doing some karma cleansing, and or try to extract themselves from this conversation lest they risk becoming infected by the bad luck.

Wei Wuxian said, “that sucks, but at least you’re alive. That’s more than these poor fellows can say.”

Together they gazed at bodies that were dumped down the cliff by the cart loads to land in such neat piles. A murder of crows perched in distant trees, eyeing the meal that they had been interrupted from when someone came to bury it.

(Wei Wuxian was not going to hunt those birds down to make them spit up missing eyes or brain tissue, thank you very much.)

“Yes, quite,” agreed the priest, because really, what else could be said.

Silence descended.

It was quite awkward, if not for the usual reasons.

For his part, Wei Wuxian didn’t really care for awkwardness and in his youth tended to roll over it as though it did not exist. During his adult years, people didn’t usually stay in his company for long enough for things to become awkward, so the fact that it became awkward distracted him so much that he forgot it was awkward.

For his part, Xie Lian was so used to awkwardness that he didn’t acknowledge it anymore and absently considered what was polite in this situation. Not even he had experience with a situation like this, where he woke up amongst corpses about to be buried, and for once wasn’t about to be buried with them, so he was quite stumped.

A loud grumble cut through the silence.

Wei Wuxian blinked in surprise, then burst out laughing. Xie Lian blushed to the tip of his roots and pretended he didn’t with all the shamelessness of centuries.

“I’m hungry too.” Wei Wuxian giggled, fishing in the sleeves of his robes for the bag so thoughtfully packed for him. He held out a bundle of rice balls. “Would Daozhang like to join me?”

“Ah, I couldn’t –“ Xie Lian tried to politely refuse, but Wei Wuxian was having none of it, back in his element of steamrolling over all objections. He joined the priest at the rock Wei Wuxian had pillowed him against before and sat before it, leaning his back against it. Ever well-mannered and ever-gracious Xie Lian was pressed into sitting next to him before long.

The night was dark, the moon’s light was red, who could blame him for not noticing the off-color of the rice balls? Fire exploded on his tongue the moment it made contact, setting his senses alive. Seasoning so powerful, it had on occasion burned through the pot it was made it, would be enough to let an ordinary person ascend thrice over.

Xie Lian had to pause chewing for a moment, but after he swallowed all he did was suck in air like one would after a slightly too hot soup. “Yiling Laozu Wei Wuxian must like his spices,” he said once finished to the last grain, because he was not wasteful. “I thank you for sharing.”

“You're welcome. It’s Yiling cuisine, Daozhang…”

“Xie Lian,” the priest said, saluting. “Apologies for not introducing myself earlier, I hope you can forgive my rudeness.”

Wei Wuxian was still grinning. “It’s Yiling cuisine, Daozhang Xie Lian. If you liked it, come by any time, I’ll treat you. It’s the least I can do for spending me some company on this dreary night.” He shot a long-suffering look at the dead. Truth was, while Wei Wuxian might fit in best with the dead, he did not particularly like it. They were so boring. He’d go so far as to bully the spirits of the dead he was burying into telling him stories while he worked as compensation. And the dead never ended. Once he was done here, he could probably not walk a mile without stumbling over another corpse.

Dying never ended, thus Wei Wuxian’s work never ended. Frankly, it was so much he’d long since stopped seeking out battlefields for their interesting dead and only listened to prayers if the compensation was worth it.

The dead were the dead. And maybe the dead were Wei Wuxian’s and Wei Wuxian was of the dead, but they were sooooo boring.

They would also still be dead later. No need to hurry. Wei Wuxian advocated letting the dead settle their issues themselves before even considering getting involved. If they insisted they needed some nice offerings and the most prominent resting place before finding peace or whatever, then they could wait for them. If they couldn’t wait for them, then it couldn’t have been that important. That was Wei Wuxian’s policy.

“Then, if it isn’t too impertinent of me,” spoke the priest, sad gaze drifting over the dead. “In repayment for Yiling Laozu’s generosity, may this humble one aid in putting these dead to rest?”

“Yes, please do,” said Wei Wuxian emphatically.

Xie Lian blinked.

Wei Wuxian hopped to his feet, stretching arms and legs to get back into the feel of physical work after a break. “I know the dead never end, but this is the third mass grave this week. You wouldn’t think that mass graves can look the same, would you, since the dead are always different and so are the places and stuff, but I’ve seen so many, they all look the same to me now!” Wei Wuxian complained. “I like the dead. I like hanging out with the dead. I like studying the dead. But enough is enough, if there’s too many, there’s too many.”

Xie Lian opened his mouth to offer sympathy–

“And to make it worse, I’m even doing it alone. Even Wen Ning is busy somewhere else! Honestly, it must be a year of misfortune that the god of the dead is all booked out!”

“…”

Xie Lian hid his face behind his hands. “My condolences.” After taking the moment to gather his composure, he dusted himself off, stretched his arms and legs as Wei Wuxian did, and together they pulled the dead off other dead.

Having someone actively listening did wonders for Wei Wuxian’s mood, and he started chatting about everything and nothing as they worked, lining up corpse next to corpse, collecting loose limbs, attaching them to their bodies like puzzle pieces.

Xie Lian was an excellent listener, offering a comment here and there, and not running away even when the topic of inevitably took a curve towards that which was considered heretic, amoral, disturbing. In truth, while he could not say that he understood the passion for twisted magic that Wei Wuxian carried, it wasn’t as though he couldn’t see where the fascination came from.

Wei Wuxian’s monologued discussion on The Effect of Good Toothcare on A Fierce Corpse was very much out of the left field, and Xie Lian could not claim to have ever wondered if a fierce corpse’s bite was more or less dangerous, their resentment more or less potent/penetrating/sharper/whatever if the person it used to be had good teeth. Or not loved but still good teeth. Or loved but still bad teeth. As a god, it was not a concern he himself had to worry about, but for the common people and even to mortal cultivators such knowledge could be quite valuable for treatments and exterminations.

Still, it was somewhat hard to follow a mind that jumped from highly specific (not-very-ethical) corpse experimentations to shopping lists for dinner to some Aunt’s worries about her nephew’s prospects.

When the final body was lined up, Xie Lian spoke up curiously. “Pardon me for asking, but I could not help but noticing. The song played, each time it is a different one?” He referred to the song Wei Wuxian played to lift the earth, sink the bodies, settle the earth on top, and calm their resentment. He’d pondered the question when the second level of dead was lowered on top of the first, already buried level, thinking that the music sounded somewhat different than the song played for the first level.

“Sure is.” Wei Wuxian flicked the flute between his fingers, spinning it playfully. “The dead may all be dead, but each dead is different from the other. Other grievances and regrets and stuff. So, the music that would put them to rest is different too. Like how everyone has different taste.” He smirked confidently. “Not to say that I couldn’t put them down with just one, you know, note. But there’s no need to be so rude when I’m not in a hurry.”

Xie Lian had the feeling that by the end he was far more proficient in demonic cultivation than he had ever set out to be just by listening. His teachers must be rolling in their graves he thought as he listened to the sometimes diabolical, sometimes heavenly tunes pouring out of the black dizi.

Truly, for a god cursed a demon or demon thought a god known for his amoral and diabolic arts, it was almost a surprise how he had mastered the dizi. Enough to humble musical gods, which, if Xie Lian knew anything about politics, was a reason why even a lone, ignorant wanderer like him knew that Heaven as a whole despised the patriarch of Yiling.

After all, who wanted to admit they were surpassed in their chosen deifying profession by someone who literally raised the dead with it.

In the end, he could only repeat the compliment that made him rudely forget to name himself at the beginning. “That was beautiful.”

Wei Wuxian grinned, skin as pale as moonlight, tinted grey like a corpse’s; easily delighted, nothing at all like his unholy reputation. “Thanks, I had good teachers and lots of practice.” Even if he was not perfectly mannered, easily accepting the praise. Wei Wuxian bowed, clasping his hands in salute. “This lowly cultivator thanks Daozhang for his help and hopes that he will take up the invitation and try Yiling’s cuisine in Yiling one day. You are welcome in my territory.”

“Yiling Laozu is generous in both deed and words.” Xie Lian saluted in respect and farewell. “His reputation does him wrong and it is an injustice that fear speaks more loudly than good deeds.”

“Not so undeserved,” refuted Wei Wuxian. “Have a safe journey, Daozhang Xie Lian.”

“And so to you,” Xie Lian said.

Putting his straw hat on his head, the priest started on his way, following the ravine to an exit point, no belongings on his person other than the dirty and torn robes on his body.

Wei Wuxian returned ChenQing to his sash, gathered energy in the tips of his fingers to write against the ragged stone cliff. Mere moments later, he emerged in his own home, ready to flop onto his bed just like that even though he knew he had to at least take a bath or risk getting told off. Pulling a face, he reached for some fortification in the form of delicious alcoholic brewage, pouring it down his throat with relish, and froze.

“Waaaaait.” He had reputedly the memory of a koi, not unjustified, but there were some things that stuck. “That Daozhang’s name…Xie Lian…wasn’t that…” The jar slipped from his fingers. “Oops. Ooooops?”