“They are all lined up,” a member of the clan said, his voice even as he announced the news. Clan leader Ziyuan stood proudly on the pier, her face barely giving away her emotions as she watched the last of the preparations. The war between clans was the harshest that had ever been fought in these lands and Yunmeng Jiang emerged victorious but not without losses of its own. Among those losses were many fine cultivators she had trained herself - however harshly and heartlessly on the surface. In her eyes they needed to be strong to survive the conflicts between clans, the wars, the unexpected raids and sneak attacks. Weakness had no place under her tutelage because weakness meant death.
“Let’s go then,” she spoke finally, the words meant for her son and the young man she had never quite grown to like but begrudgingly accepted after seeing his prowess firsthand in several fights. Wei Wuxian might have been a thorn in her side by his mere existence but no one could deny that he knew his way around a sword, had the mind of a fine tactician and caught on to the enemy’s plans faster than anyone else. If it hadn’t been for him sniffing out the Jin clan’s secret underground tunnels and traps within, dozens of Yunmeng cultivators and even more of their allies would have fallen to an early grave that day.
Still, whenever she looked at him, Ziyuan couldn’t help but wish he was never born at all.
The three of them made their way to the field where the captured enemy cultivators were all lined up. They were a mess of differently colored uniforms, some more common than others, but all of them filthy and bloodied from the bottle that occurred about a week ago. They had obviously not gotten any new garments to wear in the meantime and would likely only receive that grace once they were assigned somewhere to be made use of.
“There’s a lot of them this time,” Wei Wuxian noted. Indeed, the crowd of captured men and women seemed larger than the usual batch but it was to be expected – they were all defeated and rounded up at the last enemy stronghold where the main force had gathered. The decisive battle, as it would go down in history.
“Of course,” was Jiang Cheng’s aloof reply. His right arm was still wrapped up in thick bandages underneath the purple robes and smelled faintly of medical herbs. Wei Ying remembered vividly how one of the enemy cultivators nearly jacked that arm off – if Jiang Cheng hadn’t accidentally slipped on someone’s spilled blood, he would have been short of an arm immediately. As it was though, the tiny slip gave his adopted brother the opportunity to launch one of his nets. This invention of his was a high-quality tool that, experimental as it might have been, proved extremely effective in taking down human targets. The white-clad enemy hadn’t seen that coming and dropped his sword a mere moment before hitting the ground. Unfortunately he still injured Jiang Cheng severerely before that happened.
A week later the wound was clear and on its way to healing. It would leave a mark of course, but the doctors said that the muscles would heal well enough for Jiang Cheng to be able to practice swordsmanship in the future as well… not without pain though. So whereas he came out of that battle physically more or less fine, his pride and prospects suffered, as well as his standing in his strict mother’s eyes. To put it simply, Jiang Cheng wasn’t in a good mood and no amount of joking on Wei Ying’s part helped to brighten his mood in the past few days.
As the clan leader, heir and head disciple arrived, the lower ranking clan members all bowed in respect. The captured cultivators fell deadly silent when faced with the infamous Purple Spider who had wiped out smaller clans of her own throughout this war and the last as well. However while in the previous war her side lost, this time around she emerged as the leader of one of the victorious clans and her eyes lit up with the promise of harsh retribution. None of her enemies could honestly harbor any hope of getting out of Yunmeng with their bodies and minds intact, or alive for that matter. Yu Ziyuan held her grudges for life.
She looked at them one by one, knowing very well how their shivers had nothing to do with the temperature out there and everything with her fearsome reputation.
“Jiang Cheng,” she addressed her son after a bit of a pause. “See if you want any of them.”
Wei Ying watched as his brother walked towards the worn out cultivators. He had never expected the other to do this, not when they had agreed a long time ago on how stupid it was to turn an enemy into a slave. Who would want to do that to himself? While it was true that even in the last war several captured enemies, many of them from Yunmeng, were forced to serve their new masters, it was a practice Wei Ying couldn’t wrap his head around. Would you seriously want someone who had been trying to cut you in half around? Would you want to look into eyes harboring resentment and endless grudges for as long as that slave of yours lived? He sure wouldn’t.
And then of course there were those with a more cruel streak than him – men and women who enjoyed having power over those who wronged them, or simply stood on the other side of this bloody conflict. They were the ones whose treatment of their chosen new “servants” could involve anything from beating them all the way to the most unspeakable kinds of torture and humiliation. No wonder many of them chose suicide in the absence of the strength to retaliate.
Wei Wuxian himself had fought a particularly troublesome Jin sect member who would speak ceaselessly about having him hanging from a chain all day and being burnt with sizzling hot metal. Jiang Cheng and him together defeated this man so thoroughly not even ashes remained, however the memories of eyes glinting with malice wouldn’t just disappear the same way.
Wei Ying immediately snapped out of his thoughts to look at his brother’s shaking back. Jiang Cheng looked like he was seconds away from committing murder, which was admittedly not good. We Wuxian took off with every intention of preventing an unnecessary bloodbath when a deceptively fragile-looking hand shot out to block his way. The force of collision actually made him take a few steps back to steady himself while Madam Yu stood just as straight and firm as if nothing had happened.
Her voice left no room for argument and Wei Ying reluctantly obeyed. Those times where Jiang Fengmian would stand up for him and convince his wife to let “A-Xian” have his way were long gone along with the man himself.
Faced with the disapproval of Ziyuan, Wei Ying had no choice but to silently observe. The man Jiang Cheng seemed ready to burn alive with his gaze only was in a sorry shape. His face was covered in bruises in several stages of discoloration, his lip was torn, an eye puffed and his clothes – once some lighter shade, probably – were now a mosaic of mud, dried blood and whatever vegetation he had been dragged through. It took a few seconds to recognize him but when it finally clicked, Wei Ying couldn’t help but wish someone had beaten this man up a little more to make him completely unrecognizable.
This was the enemy that nearly cut off Jiang Cheng’s arm. Knowing how the clan heir had not gotten over that fight at all, it was more than a little likely that he would kill the cultivator on the spot.
The man in question remained entirely silent. Yu Ziyuan on the other hand decided to join the otherwise one-sided conversation.
“The famous Lan Xichen himself,” she said in a way that one could easily mistake for polite recognition of power while it was in reality little more than poison coated in sugar. “I see you get to enjoy Yungmeng hospitality again at long last, this time on our terms however.”
The air seemed to freeze. Many of those clan members present were aware that a large victory banquet was held by the tirumphant clans for a week in Yunmeng after its defeat in the former war. Back then Yu Ziyuan was forced to sit still like a harmless decoration in her very own pavilion while the important members of the enemy sects drank and ate to their hearts' content.
Since then, Yungmeng regained its freedom. In fact it was the first clan to firmly put its foot down about the “supervisors” assigned by the victorious coalition, and the example was followed by several others. Like that, all the defeated sects were free a mere year after the final battle, however many of them in ruins and with limited trading opportunities because the victorious ones retaliated by annulling all former agreements with them, even going so far as unofficially boycotting whatever products came from those areas. Yunmeg’s motto was “attempt the impossible” though, and they were nothing if not resourceful, finding a hundred ways and more to reach out to others who were willing to forge ties.
Even so, the humiliation of those days hadn’t faded much for someone as proud as Yu Ziyuan and she didn’t seem likely to forgive one of the prominent sect members who also sat at the victory banquet that day.
A look at her son’s barely contained rage told her enough of who to trust with rightful retribution.
“Jiang Cheng, as heir to Yunmeng, I give you have the right to choose first. Which of them do you want?”
Mother and son could not have denied their bond in that moment. As Jiang Cheng pointed his finger at Lan Xichen and said “that one”, the fire burning in his eyes was the exact same as Ziyuan’s. Wei Ying didn’t need to see it to know what that looked like – even with their backs to him, he could tell just how murderous the two felt.
It wasn’t good.
Death and cruelty on the battlefield was one thing. Wei Ying himself had killed more enemies than he could count, even allies who proved to be spies and traitors. Such actions were necessary to keep his loved ones, his clan, his friends and allies safe. However the war was over and torturing a fallen enemy unable to defend himself no longer felt necessary, least of all right.
In all honesty, Lan Xichen barely seemed to be able to stand on his own when Jiang Cheng raised his right hand – only to flinch and abort that motion quickly, replacing it with his left. However the reminder of the wound in front of the very person who caused it only angered the young man further and he used that aforementioned left hand to grip the hair of Xichen harshly.
Not a single sound left the torn lips even though the hold was anything but gentle. Wei Ying found himself internally wincing and feeling a phantom pain of hair being torn out of his scalp. It wasn't a result of an overactive imagination - he had been through the exact same treatment before.
All eyes shifted to the left where a young man in a similarly bad shape took a step forwards. He was immediately beaten back into line by one of the Jiang clan members.
Had Wei Ying seen that face under more… peaceful circumstances, he could have said with certainly that the two enemy cultivators looked alike, almost like twins. With all sorts of injuries, dirt and whatnot on them it was actually not that easy to tell. What he could definitely tell though, was that this man had less regard for his own life than that of his brother if he dared to step out of line in the presence of so many enemy cultivators and with his own spiritual power locked away as well.
Damn it, stop making me feel like I’m standing on the wrong side, Wei Ying cursed internally.
“Jiang Cheng, take your property with you,” Yu Ziyuan ordered coolly. Her words got yet another rise out of the recently beaten young man who moved forwards. However he barely got to make a single step when Zidian knocked him back mercilessly.
Wei Ying really wished that if he couldn’t stop Jiang Cheng and Yu Ziyuan from goiing through this madness, then at least he would be allowed to leave and stay far, far away from all this.
“As for the rest, take them back to their cells. I’ll decide their fates tomorrow.”
The Yunmeng sect’s members, Jiang or otherwise, bowed to their leader and hurried to escort the other captive cultivators back. The one who was lying on the ground… well, he got kicked in the side twice before it became clear he wouldn’t stand up on his own. The way a Jiang clan member “helped” him up wasn’t much different from the previous treatment either and this, added to the sight of Jiang Cheng dragging his “prize” along him, made Wei Ying feel a certain type of cold unknown to him before.
Was this… was this the same clan where he was raised? The same people he shared his meals with, joked with and fought side-by-side? Just what on earth had the war done to turn them from smiling, easygoing people with a humor to tackle life with into vicious beasts looking to kick even those who were down – literally at times?
It was right in front of his eyes, yet he couldn’t understand, couldn’t accept how things could change that much without him noticing, without him having any sort of influence over them.
That night he opened a bottle of liquor he had been storing from before the war. It was a special brand of extra strong rice-based alcohol from the Nie clan that made weaker folks pass out on the spot. Wei Ying wasn’t a lightweight though, so two cups of the thing only made him smell like a fine brewery rather than giving him any reprieve from his thoughts.
It took longer than it should have to accept that no, drinking was not going to solve his problems, not going to answer his questions and most of all not going to help anyone (except perhaps the finances of the family who brewed the alcohol in the first place).
Avoiding the better lit streets, Wei Ying moved through rooftops, gardens and small ponds until he arrived at the destination he had in mind.
The Yunmeng sect kept their prisoners underground, in a location far away from the residence of the sect leader’s family, having learned from several prison outbreaks in the distant past where the unexpected attacks resulted in terrible bloodshed. This made keeping an eye on them somewhat more difficult, but the tradition remained nevertheless and Yi Ziyuan had never changed it either, content with having the “filth” at a proper distance.
The underground system was essentially a collection of smaller tunnels linked to a large one. Anyone who paid attention while walking through the main tunnel would notice the large wooden things above every single entrance to the shorter tunnels – the wooden dams that had an identical pair right after the last cells. Whoever had originally built the underground prison made sure that they were all linked to a large lake and that the smaller tunnels could be flooded one by one if someone wanted to do such a thing.
Wen Ying had never heard of an incident like that where someone actually used it but its very existence was speaking loud and clear about how even among the easygoing Yunmeng folks there were some who took themselves more than just a little seriously.
The guard on the left seemed surprised to see him. No wonder – he was a young man who had just started cultivating recently. His talents might have been ahead of his age but his experiences were still limited by his years. Therefore, unlike the man on the right, he couldn’t possibly know that Wei Wuxian was a relatively common sight in that prison.
He greeted them both and managed to get through after a few minutes of easy chatter as a friend. After all, who would have really stop the head disciple of the sect? Their chief inventor, the only one rivaling Yu Ziyuan’s abilities in leadership and strategy?
As for the cells, they had been cleared of other prisoners so now the latest shipment of captured cultivators were the only ones down there. They were awfully silent, with only a few of them whispering in hushed tones or groaning weakly in pain. Anyone could tell that their injuries were not tended to, which could only indicate two things; they were either deliberately pushed towards death’s doors to be more cooperative (as many had been before during the war), or (the more likely one in this case) they would be discarded very soon so any medicine could have been wasted on them.
Wei Ying walked silently, with steps light as a ghost’s but even so some cultivators noticed him and drew sharp breaths or pulled back all the way to the walls of their cells. He couldn’t exactly blame them… the name Wei Wuxian had gone from being known only in Yungmeng to being feared all over the Jin-led coalition. In their current state the captives were entirely at the mercy of the Jiang clan and as a member, Wei Wuxian could have done just about anything to these people if he wanted to… and if Ziyuan allowed it as well.
Needless to say, he didn’t stop to ask for permission from her on the way, but neither had he a lot of other times that ended up saving dozens of lives one way or another. She would have to accept this occasion as a “necessary evil” as well, the irritating but useful boy Fengmian took home doing things in his own, somewhat strange way.
With the confidence of someone who knew the tunnels like the back of his hands, Wei Ying walked through them in search of a face familiar to that of Xichen's. If that cultivator was indeed the brother of the clan leader, that meant he must have been Lan Wangji – another youth like Wei Ying whose name was unknown before the war but quickly grew into a curse for his enemies. Catching the two was equal to holding the two shiniest gems of Gusu in their palms – and an incredible waste of great fighters, as things were going at the moment. Once the clans finally settled down, someone with the power of Xichen or Wangji could have helped the non-cultivating people so much with performing exorcises and going on night hunts to rid the area of all sorts of monsters!
And here the Jiang clan was, about to throw one away like a wilted flower and allowing Jiang Cheng to vent his anger on the other without any reservations. Why couldn’t they think ahead?
The Lan clan was nearly exterminated, so sending those two back and building friendlier relations seemed to be out of the question even for someone as unorthodox as Wei Wuxian, but did they really have to put those two through this?
And there were a lot of other cultivators as well, many of whom likely would have been of use for the majority of the land’s population who currently had to live in fear of ghosts, ghouls and the like again because most of the clans capable of putting up a fight with them had been busy cutting each other down. Why couldn’t anyone else see this?
With even more determination than before, Wei Ying walked forwards, keep searching until he finally found a lone figure sitting in a cell, the only one in that particular tunnel that wasn’t empty. Now that he knew this was a member of the Lan sect, it was a bit astonishing to think the robes were once a pristine white. He could barely pick out a single splotch of the original color underneath the dirt and dried blood. Staying in those garments seemed like a torture of its own, to be honest.
As he came to a stop in front of the cell, Wangji’s head – if he really was the brother of Xichen – lifted to look at him. This young man’s face had a wide selection bruises in all sizes and shapes, but somehow managed to retain an air of… resistance? There was something about it Wei Ying couldn’t put a finger on.
All he could truly tell was that animosity shone from those eyes clearly, even with the flickering and untrustworthy light of the torches along the corridor it was easy to see.
When there was absolutely no reaction on the other’s part, Wei Ying leaned leisurely against the wall behind him.
“What’s your name?”
“I have a good guess, but I’d still like you to confirm it.”
Silence. Wei Ying let out a long sigh, allowing his impatience to show. The Lans had always been difficult to deal with. From all the cultivating clans, they were the ones with the most straightforward approach to battle – meaning to succeed or to die. Being captured like this happened to them extremely rarely because they usually fought until their last breath. It was only natural that their principles – something Wei Ying heard controlled their lives from birth all the way to their graves – didn’t allow them to cooperate with their captors. Not that someone from Yungmeng would have necessarily turned into a traitor under such circumstances but… there wasn’t necessarily harm in answering a very simple question or not glaring daggers at one of the people who had the most power over your life at the moment.
“You holding on to your principles even now is admirable, I’ll give you that,” Wei Ying said, “but if you really care for your brother, you might want to be more cooperative.”
A shot in the dark. Wei Ying wasn’t sure what he would be able to do for Xichen. On a regular day Jiang Cheng was a good guy but as he dragged his spoils of war away with his good hand, Wei Ying started to fear that by morning they would be short of a Lan cultivator and have another corpse instead. Worst case scenario, he would find a way to bury Xichen somewhat properly but… well, he liked to think positively and hope that there would be an opportunity to smooth things over somehow.
In any case, the mention of Xichen seemed to get a reaction out of the young man – likely Wangji then, or someone who genuinely cared for the clan leader – but not in the way Wei Ying expected it to. Rather than opening up to a possible solution for their situation, the other cultivator only seemed to be more hostile, as if a threat had been made.
Was he stupid?
No, that wasn’t the look of someone stupid, Wei Ying decided. Guarded and suspicious, yes, but also reasonably intelligent behind those defenses. It felt an awful lot like that one time when Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying found a porcupine and decided to pick it up. The results were, naturally, disastrous. However much to their surprise, later on A-Li seemed to have the exact same animal in her lap, happily eating something from a leaf.
If an animal full of needles could be tamed, was that approach going to work with the younger Lan brother?
Wei Ying forcefully chased the mental image of throwing leaves at him out of his mind because really, this wasn’t the time for stupid thoughts. Speaking of time…
“The clan leader is likely going to get rid of you by this time tomorrow. If you ever change your mind about working with me, it’s right now as I’m standing here. You won’t get another chance.”
All right, so maybe that urgency came across more like a threat than a well-meant advice, but if it took threatening Wangji into cooperation, then Wei Ying was going to do it.
When it seemed like no answer was going to come at all, the young man all but pretending to be normal, Wei Ying finally turned around to leave, cursing all the stubborn Gusu Lan members back and forth for being stubborn idiots unable to bend even when they really shou-
“-is he alive?”
Wei Ying wasn’t sure what sort of face he made when he turned around. Hearing that voice at last, a voice going unused for the past days and sounding forced, almost like someone who had to speak right after waking – the voice he had almost given up on hearing after this fruitless one-sided conversation.
“My brother,” Wangji clarified, looking for all the world like talking to Wei Ying was some kind of torture, “is he still alive?”
He could have said yes. In fact is was on the top of his tongue – a placating answer about the very high likelihood of Xichen still being alive and breathing somewhere that Jiang Cheng left him after a few (hopefully short) beating sessions. But really, would this man believe him? Would Wei Ying have taken an answer like that in a similar situation about his own brother?
The answer was a firm no. One look at Lan Wangji’s face was enough to know that there was no place for white lies, no matter how proficient Wei Ying was in them.
He turned back, body facing the bars and the person behind them. He even lowered himself to the sitting figure’s level by squatting – the chances of Wangji being able to hurt him in their current situation were negligible and Wei Ying had always put a stupid amount of trust in people anyway, why not this time?
“Look, I’ll be frank with you – I don’t know if he’s alive.”
If he hadn’t leaned so close, he would have missed the only sign of those words’ effect – Lan Wangji’s lips pressing against each other firmer, as if he was trying to hold something back. Otherwise he kept a remarkable poker face – a good thing in wartime no doubt, but an annoyance to Wei Ying who would have appreciated a chance at reading this guy’s emotions a little better. This whole conversation was like pulling teeth.
“But I can check to see if he is.”
He couldn’t exactly say “make sure he lives” for several reasons, but at least he could promise to take a look and report back. That much was within his limits.
“How do I know you will tell me the truth?”
That was a good question right there. Jiang Cheng was better off not knowing about this deal – he would only throw a fit, Wei Ying was sure. What he could do was sneak close enough to catch sight of life – a rising and falling chest, for instance, or Xichen being awake and actively doing something.
A thought crossed his mind but he discarded it as unlikely to work. The variables were just too many.
“You don’t,” he replied simply, “so you can blindly trust me – or keep refusing and die tomorrow without anyone telling you if your brother lived. Your choice.”
Again, he wished he could have been a bit less harsh but the situation just simply didn’t allow it. Their options were limited, but most of all their time – that was in an awfully short supply and winning this guy’s trust in the slow and steady way one would gain that of an animal was just not going to cut it. Wangji either took a risk or died in vain without knowing, it was really that simple. But god, Wei Ying wished he would choose to trust.
Just one word, and it looked like someone had tortured it out of Wangji, but it was there, the smallest amount of trust – or at least something similar to it – that Wei Ying had been waiting for. He nearly let a relived smile slip before controlling himself. Considering how difficult Wangji was being (although most people probably would have been as well in his situation), it seemed smarter not to show much emotion around him, lest he misunderstood it.