Lan Zhan wasn’t in the middle of the chaos. Rather, he was about ten yards up from it, on the rooftop, sending occasional targeted blasts from his qin and regretting the situation more every moment.
It was a report of just a few fierce corpses, which should have been a perfectly reasonable training mission for eight junior disciples as skilled as Sizhui’s class. Unfortunately, the report had arrived too late for them to reach the small farming community before all but a few runners were felled as well. Now the juniors were only just holding their own against nearly twenty corpses, most much bigger than themselves, and Lan Zhan was working hard to not take over the field entirely.
It wasn’t purely a matter of him wishing for the juniors to still get the experience, either. They fought as a unit, used to each other through hours and hours of practice, even up to blindfolded drills on the balance beam course where they learned to sense their fellows’ movements without even thinking about it. Lan Zhan had not had that much practice fighting in their midst: it was likely they would either be too aware of his presence and slip up or otherwise miscalculate and end up injuring themselves or him.
“ Ruolun !”
“That was the last talisman! We have to just cut them down now!”
Which didn’t make it any easier to stand to the side and watch the whole battlefield. They were doing well, though: he felt a sting of pride every time Zihua watched Bowen’s back, every time Sizhui and Jingyi moved like two halves of the same person and the others parted around them like water.
“I think we’re winning!” Jingyi shouted. And they were, until a second wave came.
Decisively, Lan Zhan flew down from the rooftop and landed in the archway at the side of the courtyard where the fight was taking place. Zhongdao had just seen the first of the new wave of corpses, and was shouting a warning to the others. Lan Zhan took the coil of string from his sleeve and sent its two ends deep into the posts of the archway. “Get down!” he shouted. The juniors did not hesitate and dropped instantly into the dirt. As soon as they were down Lan Zhan shot his arm forwards and yanked it back, setting the string vibrating with a wave of white energy that swept through the courtyard and struck every corpse that had already entered there.
Most of them dissolved to dust, while a few fell with solid thumps. The dust was a problem, with the children on the ground as they were, and Lan Zhan stepped into the courtyard and summoned a gust of wind to blow it away.
“Hanguang-jun,” Jingyi gasped, and the juniors all got to their feet with varying degrees of poise to face the ten or so corpses who were left.
Lan Zhan sensed movement behind him at the same time as he saw one of the fallen corpses lurch forward blade-first at Bowen, who had dropped awkwardly and was still struggling to his feet. He sent Bichen out to intercept that blade, and swung his scabbard up behind him to catch the blow aimed at himself.
Which left no defense for the third corpse.
One of the juniors screamed his title as the new corpse slashed down at his neck. Lan Zhan caught the blow with his arm instead, grunting with the effort of holding it back, and kicked back at the other corpse to free his scabbard. Then Zhongyuan was there to cut it down.
Bichen, summoned back, pierced through the third corpse on the way, and Lan Zhan dropped the scabbard to hold his sword one-handed.
“Hey, over here! Fight us !” Jingyi shouted at the remaining foes, and Lan Zhan shot him a useless glare. “We’ve got them, Hanguang-jun!”
They did. The final corpses fell within moments, and then Lan Zhan was swarmed again--this time with disciples rather than corpses.
“Hanguang-jun!” “Are you alright?” “Shall I carry your scabbard for you?” “Oh, that’s...that’s a lot of blood.”
Lan Zhan handed Bichen to Jingyi, who fumbled it briefly before sheathing it and watching Lan Zhan with eyes so wide the white was visible all around them. Some of the children looked a little pale, first at the blood flowing down their teacher’s arm, then at the jumble of fallen corpses. Lan Zhan was going to reassure them, but Sizhui spoke first.
“That didn’t go too badly. Let’s gather the bodies to prepare to bury them, as soon as we’ve rested. I’ll make sure Hanguang-jun is okay.” He accepted Bichen from Jingyi, and smiled at his fellow disciples. “That was much more than we expected: I think we did a good job.”
“Thanks, Sizhui,” Bowen said on a sigh, and the others echoed him.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Zhongyuan asked hesitantly. He was the palest of them all, and Lan Zhan gave him the most reassuring look he could.
As the other juniors got to work, Sizhui led his father to the nearest stoop to sit. Lan Zhan did, trusting his son to guide him as he focused on his arm. When they sat down, Sizhui propped both his and his father’s swords against the wall before reaching out to check Lan Zhan’s injured arm. “How bad is it?”
“Not very,” Lan Zhan said truthfully. Sizhui looked concerned, but he wasn’t pale and frightened like the others. He had helped mop his father’s blood off the Jingshi’s floorboards too many times to be phased by something like this. “There are tendons severed as well as blood vessels, but I can hold them together while they heal.”
“I will help.” Sizhui took his blood-slicked hand, lined two fingers up to touch the wrist, and started feeding a trickle of spiritual energy into the wound.
“Thank you,” Lan Zhan said, softly. Perhaps Sizhui had inherited a gift for healing from his first family: the wound already hurt less. “How are you?”
Sizhui gave the question due consideration. Lan Zhan indulged himself and looked at his son while he waited. He was still smaller than his peers, delicate and fine-boned, but strong and steady. His cheeks were starting to slim down as he grew, but his eyes and mouth were still soft. His small hands were callused from sword and qin, and there was a little scar above his eye from a bad fall. Wei Ying might not have recognized him, but maybe the rest of his family would have. After all, there was still something of Wen Qionglin in his eyes, a flash of Wen Qing in the way he raised his chin when preparing to argue: there were probably signs of all the others as well. And the way he was thinking about his words was Lan Zhan, the gentle strength with which he held his hand was Xichen, the way he didn’t wait for permission was Jingyi.
“I don’t think I’ll ever really enjoy fighting something like this,” he said finally. “But it’s something worth doing. If there were more cultivators like Father who were willing and able to help these kinds of people, maybe things wouldn’t have ended so badly.” He smiled his sweet unguarded smile. “I think we can do it. The others think the same, I know it. We’ll make Gusu Lan proud.”
This boy was a member of his clan, and that eased some old hurt in him that Lan Zhan hadn’t even known was there. It was worth it: it is well: it will be better still . Lan Zhan wiped the blood from his uninjured hand on his sleeve and reached out to brush Sizhui’s cheek, a touch as light as a butterfly’s wing but without anything like hesitation. “You make me proud,” he said, and meant it more than he had ever meant any words in his life.
Sizhui beamed, his smile the happiest and humblest ‘I know’ imaginable. “And I am proud of Father, too.”
Timeline: tbh trying to understand the timeline of the show is...it’s a tire fire. So I don’t feel like trying to nail down such things too much. The kids are about thirteen as the story ends, about three years from the start of the show. :)
Corpses: the worldbuilding around corpses in the show is...well. I’m sure most of it is down to weird censorship requirements of the government regarding depictions of dead bodies (don’t they make it so fallen characters in WoW were portrayed as little tombstones??). So most inconsistencies I’m willing to dismiss under the banner of “Choose-Your-Own Canon”, but I also like to imagine some things are a matter of academic debate in-universe. (Why do some fierce corpses collapse to corpse dust and some merely fall intact? No one knows, but Jingyi is under orders to always document the ratio of fell-to-dust vs otherwise and bring it back to LQR who is working on a paper on the topic)
Corpses II: ...for that matter, if you start thinking about working as a cultivator you go down a whole wild rabbit hole of worldbuilding. If you can’t play Inquiry you gotta be like a police sketch artist. Bury the body respectfully so it doesn’t cause trouble later, take their likeness to the closest village so they can know the person died. Either that or you have to be hauling bodies around. How do you bury them? Do you have shovels in your sleeves? Are there gravedigging spells? These are the real questions.
A note about mementoes: It has no place in the story, but I want y’all to know that after things are revealed about Sizhui’s heritage Lan Zhan pulls out all those little treasures from the Burial Mounds and gives them to both Sizhui and Wen Ning together. The knife belonged to Fourth Uncle: Wen Ning insists Sizhui keep it. The hairstick was Wen Qing’s and there is no debate that it belongs to Wen Ning now.
Also: while Xichen is in seclusion, Lan Zhan leaves all the notebooks in the Hanshi. He reads every one, and Lan Xia and Lan Li always make sure he has fresh-cut flowers with his meals from the day he goes in to the day he comes out..