At first they blame the rains. It’s been an unusually wet and warm winter. Fields that would normally be frost-white at this time of the season are half a bu underwater. Some of the wetland towns are inaccessible by foot. The merchants are running low on caulk and oil paper. And no one has really lived in the outskirts of Yunping for years now, not since the earthquake swallowed the old ruined temple and its surroundings. At the time nobody thinks to tell Yunmeng Jiang Sect. What can even an immortal cultivator do about the whims of earth and water?
Koi Tower sinks two bu in one night. Courtyards become caverns. The last ten steps of the fabled stairs no longer sit level with the golden road. Every carved tile is cracked as though tree roots were breaking them from beneath, though when the craftsmen dig them up the earth below is firm and packed as the day it was laid. All the lanterns that light the climb to the Jinlintai are extinguished that morning, the stairs slick with lamp-oil. Sect Leader Jin Chunxue has every night-guard questioned for hours, but they all tell the same story: a quiet night, a calm breeze, and then the sudden stomach-jerking drop of the floor being yanked away beneath one’s feet. The lanterns extinguishing all at once. The guards going blind all in the same instant, and upon rubbing their eyes, their hands coming away powdered with gold.
The Unclean Realm sinks only a bu in the same time but the damage is worse. The ancient outer walls fracture under the sudden instability. Sect Leader Nie Wenxin spends all night directing structural efforts to keep the building from collapsing, but the treasure room filled with precious artefacts from Sect Leader Nie Huaisang’s rule is badly damaged, as is a small section of the eastern wing. Nie Sect does not thank heaven that none of the stone castles were damaged, because a Nie does not beg for uncertain mercy. Nonetheless they burn incense and perform a cleansing ritual in the Sect Leader’s rooms, where the windows are plastered with shimmering gossamer too thick to see through. At the first chant of Namo Guan Shi Yin Pusa all of it melts like dew.
And yet if not for the discussion conference being hosted by Lanling Jin the very next day, the confluence of calamity would go unremarked upon. Several hasty exchanges later, all sects agree to attend the delayed conference, with many apologies from Sect Leader Jin about the state of Koi Tower.
Wandering cultivators and smaller sects fill in the gaps in the ledger: the sinkholes in Yunping, the collapse of a dock at Xiaoguan, the Nightless City’s skeletal remains crumbling beam by beam into a chasm that glows at dawn and dusk. Only Gusu Lan’s lands remain as pristine as their mountaintop sanctuary. If not for Gusu Lan’s reputation it would raise some eyebrows.
As it turns out, even every immortal cultivator in the Middle Kingdom put together can do very little about destructive geological phenomena, especially when they seem to have been restricted to a single particularly expensive night. For weeks afterwards everyone walks as though the earth might crumble beneath their feet. Some cultivators take to flying whenever they can; the baixing move to the waterways. The temples overflow with offerings, but some say it is not the gods who need appeasing.
Seven days later Mount Baishu collapses into shimmering golden dust.
The first time Lan Xichen hears about everything is almost a month later, in a Silk Road inn where he’s helped settle a haunting. Even decades after the Sunshot Campaign there’s a cultivational vacuum across most of Qishan, so it’s a good place for a wandering cultivator. He keeps busy. It’s far from Gusu. The air is different. Here the noble lineage of Lan An is nothing but a strange uniform and an abstract ascetic tradition. It’s hollow, and hot, and for almost a month Lan Xichen has been waking up sweat-soaked from increasingly fragmented dreams.
“Nothing but dust.” The innkeeper waves her arms. “There were cultivators from all those big clans climbing all over the rubble but they didn’t find anything. You didn’t hear all about it?”
“My apologies. I’ve been travelling, and haven’t kept pace with the news.” He gives her a smile to hide how his heart is being squeezed. Hopefully the guards will have ensured the integrity of the protective spells, if those souls have not already passed from this world.
His memory is already crawling back nine years, to ninety-nine years after Guanyin Temple: breath held through all of the Ghost Month, making offerings until the altars creaked under the weight of flowers and food, praying in ways he hadn’t since mourning his parents. Kneeling night and day and calling his sworn brothers’ names until his throat was raw. Back to the hollowness of the hundredth year, where he’d nearly sunk entirely into the emptiness. He’d spent weeks trying to find the courage to visit the coffin; knowing that if he did he would know, forever, and have hope crushed by truth. He’d played Inquiry until his fingers bled. He’d gone on night-hunts with a new, awful purpose, but the only ghouls who wore his sworn brothers’ faces were the ones in his dreams. In the end he hadn’t visited the coffin, had avoided the patrol reports. He’d just poured too much wine for the offerings, drunk most of it, and ended up breaking about two hundred and sixteen clan rules by accident.
“Have there been any strange incidents since then?” he says, turning his teacup over and over in case he breaks it in his grip.
“Not since then, but it’s such ill fortune to have so many earthquakes in a short period of time, isn’t it?”
The Nightless City. Koi Tower. Yunping. Lan Xichen’s heart is reduced to dust, like the teacup in his hands. His mouth moves to make apologies almost as hollow as his heart. Every year since the hundredth has been spent searching. This cannot be a coincidence. He sets out the next day.
Lan Xichen doesn’t remember attending the sealing ceremony, over a hundred years past. The memories of that year, those years, are faded grey. Still, since then he’s seen Mount Baishu from a distance – never up close; he’s never been brave enough – and it’s never looked quite so. Flat.
A small group of cultivators is on patrol. When he drops from his sword into their midst they nearly knock each other over in their haste to bow, with a scattered chorus of, “Zewu-jun!”
“Please, there’s no need. This one has been unobservant. This one came as quickly as he could.” The words feel like they’re coming too fast. The boiling mess in his chest threatens to spill over and scald his tongue.
“Zewu-jun scared the soul out of me,” laughs a familiar voice, tamping his thoughts from a boil to a simmer.
“If anyone could overcome such difficulties, surely it would be the Yiling Patriarch,” he says, turning easily. And where Wei Wuxian goes, Hanguang-jun follows. He can see resignation in the minute lift of his brother’s eyebrows and the set of his mouth, which he ignores in favour of acknowledging the spoken, “Elder brother.”
Wangji was his most frequent visitor in seclusion, and the one reason he eventually left it. Wangji also doesn’t want him to be here. Despite everything Wangji knows of the Lan heart, for how much he is a lived example of Lan An’s devotion, Wangji has always urged him to stay clear of this place as though half of Lan Xichen was not still sealed by seventy-two black nails. He loves Wangji, but when it comes to this Lan Xichen’s going to leverage the insurmountable advantage of birth order until his brother relents or at least feels bad.
“What happened here?” Lan Xichen pauses. “Was anyone injured? Are the protective arrays still intact?”
“No, no one injured. But I can’t say the same for the spells. I’m very brilliant but even my arrays can’t stay standing after a mountain collapses on them,” Wei Wuxian says, clicking his tongue. Lan Xichen doesn’t dare to hope.
“That’s troublesome. Has there been any difficulty?”
“There’s nothing to worry about! The resentful energy is no trouble, it hasn’t been a problem since-” Wei Wuxian suddenly seems to realise what he’s saying. “-Xichen-dage, don’t worry, everything’s under control! You can trust the Yiling Patriarch to know what to do about resentful energy!” Wangji’s brow furrows fractionally, though his eyes remain stoically fixed on Lan Xichen.
“I trust Wei Wuxian’s expertise, of course, just as I trust the esteemed Hanguang-jun to have the situation well apprised,” Lan Xichen says calmly. Wangji’s lower lip twitches. From anyone else it’d be as good as a flinch.
“No problems to report,” Wangji says, flat as Mount Baishu.
Lan Xichen’s eyes flick from him, to the ridiculous face Wei Wuxian is making, back to Wangji. Lan Xichen is a cracked vessel. Time has fractured him and emptied him out. When he speaks next his voice is as dry as the dust layering the bottom of an abandoned pot, only debris left in a place where water cannot remain.
“That would be incredibly reassuring to hear, if that is the entirety of Wangji’s assessment,” Lan Xichen says. You waited thirteen years and then your Wei Ying was returned to you. He stands by your side right now. Look at me, brother. I heard that calamity had struck, and I am here alone.
“Mn. Begging brother’s pardon, it is.” Let them go. Forgive yourself. Let this be their final resting place.
“Nothing can be uncovered?” I would see them, one last time.
“Progressing slowly. The rain is too heavy.” Let it be.
He holds Wangji’s gaze for a while longer, then nods. Wei Wuxian has watched the whole thing with a curious expression on his face, then he tosses his hair.
“It’s some time since we’ve seen Xichen-dage, so won’t he stay and chat? Ah! Lan Zhan! What’s that face meant to be? Come on, husband, it’s been over a hundred years and you’re still too scary.” He kneads Wangji’s cheek like Hanguang-jun is just another unruly disciple.
“It’s no trouble to accept my brother-in-law’s invitation,” Lan Xichen says, with all the pleasant pointedness he can muster. Wangji doesn’t even have the good grace to look embarrassed.
Despite his best efforts to pry – about this, about Qinghe and Lanling, about Yunping; it’s the first time in years that Lan Xichen regrets not attending a discussion conference – Wangji remains characteristically tight-lipped, but his relief is unmistakable when Lan Xichen agrees to spend the night at the same inn as them, away from the rubble of the mountain. At one stage Lan Xichen catches Wei Wuxian eyeing him. Wei Wuxian only winks and mouths something unintelligible. Before Lan Xichen can press him further he’s already bounding away with a shout of Lan Zhan, look, wild ducks, steal some for me.
So instead of going to sleep that night, Lan Xichen sits in bed and watches the moon. Even though there are no clocks in the inn his Lan instincts know when nine o’clock rolls past. His eyes are threatening to close by the time Wei Wuxian clambers in through his window, rumpled and sheepish. Lan Xichen politely averts his eyes from the purple blotches spotting his neck.
At first it was only Wangji and Lan Qiren who came to visit him in seclusion, the latter firmly ‘requesting’ the Sect Leader’s opinion on this or that, concern masked by duty. After that Wei Wuxian began to come too, bringing texts and song fragments and interesting rumours. It had been Wei Wuxian and Wangji’s combined efforts that had pried him out of the Hanshi for his first night-hunt in years. Since then Lan Xichen has ceded that he likes Wei Wuxian, despite what he did to Wangji. The role he played at Guanyin Temple’s events is too knotty for Lan Xichen to untie from his own guilt, so in that regard there’s nothing to forgive. And besides – there’s something unmoored about Wei Wuxian, a piece that no matter its polish will never quite fit its slot in cultivator society. Clever, perceptive, indomitable.
“Yiling Patriarch,” Lan Xichen says.
“Zewu-jun, if we’re being formal,” Wei Wuxian sighs, as though it physically pains him to do so.
“That’s not necessary,” Lan Xichen agrees dryly. “Wei Wuxian, what was Wangji hiding?”
“Don’t be too hard on him. He knows he should tell you, but he also feels he should keep you safe, you understand?” Lan Xichen does. He nods around the lump in his throat. Wei Wuxian smiles.
“Well, I thought this was too important to keep you in suspense. Ah, I can see it now; when I tell him about this he’s going to raise a single eyebrow one thousandth of a chi in searing disapproval. Don’t worry! I’ll just prostrate myself and weep until he accepts my apology and ravishes me,” Wei Wuxian says.
Lan Xichen envies the flavour of Wei Wuxian’s courage.
Meanwhile Wei Wuxian blithely continues, “You remember right after you left the Cloud Recesses, that big earthquake and all the floods?” He does. It was an especially restless year for ghosts. The tremors had continued for months and months and apparently shaken every restless spirit in the country out of their graves.
“The coffin’s been empty for that long?” It makes him sick just to say it. He hasn’t visited the mountain in decades, too afraid of what he’d find. He should have seen it earlier. He should have pressed harder. He should have tried.
“No, not quite. We came to investigate-” His eyes flick to Lan Xichen with a hint of guilt. “-both corpses were still inside, but only Chifeng-zun’s soul was still sealed. We didn’t play Inquiry, but this one knows the difference between a fierce corpse and a fierce corpse’s remnants.”
The floor is ebbing away beneath Lan Xichen’s feet. Wei Wuxian continues, eyes still trained on him, “We’ve checked regularly since then. But since the mountain collapsed, the coffin’s been empty.”
“Empty?” Lan Xichen says.
“Nothing. Not even the trace of resentful energy you’d feel from a corpse. Empty as the dharma.” His hands burst like fireworks to illustrate.
“Are you saying someone has burgled my sworn brothers’ resting place?” Lan Xichen says. “Then why destroy the entire mountain? How would they have done that? Why is it empty? Did someone perform the sacrificial ritual? Have they rejoined the wheel?” There are ten thousand other questions plastering the inside of his skull. He cannot face any of the answers.
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “I have a theory, but it needs more evidence. We’re going back to the Cloud Recesses to do some research. This, and the sinking – it’s strange, right?”
“You know as well as I do. This many occurrences in such close proximity isn’t just strange, it’s suspicious,” Lan Xichen says.
“It’s been a while since I solved a proper mystery.” Wei Wuxian grins. “We’ll leave tomorrow morning. Come with us?”
He does. He casts one last look at the former mountain over one shoulder as they fly. When he turns back it’s just in time to catch the look on Wangji’s face; resigned, wistful, fond. Lan Xichen feels his heart grow lighter by a fraction. Wangji smiles; and Lan Xichen smiles warmly back.
The breezes of Gusu are a shock to the senses after Qishan’s dry heat. The place is cool, and crisp, and foreign to Lan Xichen, who has been immersed between the heat and noise of the cities and the tranquil emptiness of the roads for so long. A guqin rings out sharp and clear over the valley. It is the only sound to suggest that people inhabit this place.
It is a Lan ritual that the ascent must be made on foot. No matter the shape of the outside world, these are the Cloud Recesses. The road to immortality numbers ten thousand steps. The stairs are a mortal reminder of that process, of the weight of one’s body, the fault in one’s flesh.
“Go on ahead,” he says to Wangji and Wei Wuxian, who have turned to look at him.
“I want to meditate on the climb. I’ll be there shortly.” He turns up the reassuring glow of his smile until Wangji relents and nods. Wei Wuxian’s jokes and laughter ring off the cliff faces as they walk, side by side, into the mists. Lan Xichen stays there long after their silhouettes have vanished.
It’s been long enough that the disciples roaming the compound regard him with curiosity rather than awe. Now he is Hanguang-jun’s brother, who left to wander the world like Lan An. It’s far nobler than the real reason he left, which was that the Cloud Recesses increasingly felt like wading through a dream, and every part of the Hanshi seemed to scream at him with a voice distorted by the blood in its lungs. How to scrub a place of a memory when it was built by a memory? Even before he left, the Cloud Recesses had become a foreign country; its rites are etched on his bones but his flesh belongs to a different man.
He gave up the Hanshi long ago, but as Zewu-jun he’s still entitled to some comforts. By the next evening the three of them are crowded into his private guest room. Books and scrolls cover every stray surface despite both Lans’ attempts to control the chaos.
“And there was a note,” Wei Wuxian is saying. Lan Xichen’s ears prick up.
“Not a note in writing,” Wei Wuxian says, scanning a letter. “A gold guqin string, in a sealed but unmarked canister. Sect Leader Jin found it in his office on the night of the sinking, but no one knew who had delivered it. Sect Leader Nie found his in a side room-”
“It was probably a former office,” Lan Xichen says.
“Probably, he doesn’t specify. It was a few days later but I assume they were both delivered on the night of the sinking. Why only those two, though?”
“No one to warn in Yunping,” Wangji says.
“No cultivators, rather,” Lan Xichen murmurs.
“Someone wants the cultivation world to know. Maybe it’s a conspiracy! Dissidents in Lanling and Qinghe acting together! But then why collapse Mount Baishu? Unless they specifically wanted a link drawn between those places. And who would steal the bodies?”
“A Supreme,” Wangji says.
“Lan Zhan! That was my dramatic leadup!” Wei Wuxian says.
“Mn. Sorry. Could not handle the suspense.”
“Ah, I can’t not forgive you. You’re too cute.” Wei Wuxian plants a kiss on his husband’s cheek.
“A Supreme?” Lan Xichen says, politely but firmly.
“Bear with me here,” Wei Wuxian says, pulling out another scroll. “The legend of Mount Tonglu states that it opens only once every hundred years. Like gu poison, thousands enter, and they fight until only one survives. Whatever emerges will be an extremely powerful ghost of the Supreme-level class of power, worthy of bearing the title Ghost King, which can cause disasters across the land. There are only two, sometimes three recorded instances of a Supreme emergence. Their only weakness is the ashes of their body, which if destroyed would destroy the Supreme as well.” Wei Wuxian slams an ink-stained hand onto the table. “This would explain the nature of the resentful energy I felt at Mount Baishu! It was everywhere except in the coffin. Lan Xichen, are you alright?”
“I’m sorry, this is a lot to take in.” Lan Xichen presses a hand to his forehead. Wangji refills his cup with Gusu Lan’s best herbal tea, which is meant to clear his meridians. “Are you sure about this – Supreme?” No matter what the tea’s doing for his meridians it does nothing for his thoughts, which fill his skull with a single howling clarity.
Somewhere on the earth, Jin Guangyao has returned. Lan Xichen lets out a breath he has been holding for a hundred and eight years.
Wei Wuxian answers, “The coffin cracked in the year of the great earthquake, which is supposed to happen when Mount Tonglu opens. And then, think of all the places that were affected. Koi Tower is still sinking as far as we’ve heard – Jin Chunxue is going mad with it, they’re talking about moving the capital – then that dock at Xiaoguan, and from the sounds of it the Guanyin temple was the first place to sink–“
Something trembles loose from the dusty recesses of Lan Xichen’s memory, from the year of the great quake. Every time he remembers that night it’s felt like a dream. Temples, he reflects ruefully, have not been auspicious places for him.
“Let me look at a map,” he says. Wei Wuxian tosses one over and they unroll it onto the table. One glance at the lower half of the map confirms Lan Xichen’s suspicion.
“See,” Wei Wuxian is saying, tracing the lines, “there’s nothing to link these sites if you look at their feng shui or, uh, political value?” Wangji nods, and Wei Wuxian barrels on, “-even the soils are different – but if we’re willing to consider a personal reason, some things start to add up.”
“Before Koi Tower, Meng Yao spent all that time in Qinghe,” Lan Xichen whispers. “And the Nightless City.” He lifts his head and meets Wei Wuxian’s eyes, which are full of understanding. It’s only then that Lan Xichen realises that he’s spoken the name. He hates how it feels foreign on his tongue.
“If he has his own ashes, then he’s removed his main vulnerability,” Wei Wuxian says. “Though it doesn’t explain why he also took Chifeng-zun’s.”
“Brother,” Wangji says, after Lan Xichen has stayed silent for perhaps too long.
“I can’t let Koi Tower sink until it becomes like Yunping,” Lan Xichen says. “The same fate might befall Qinghe.”
“There is no news from Qinghe,” Wangji says, both plea and resignation.
“Then this has to be stopped, doesn’t it?” Lan Xichen says, smiling at them.
“How do you propose to stop it?” Wei Wuxian props his chin on the back of one hand. “Surely you’re not planning on walking into the lair of a much-maligned creature of resentful energy and not letting it take no for an answer, Master Lan?” His smile isn’t quite a smile.
“Master Wei is as perceptive as always,” Lan Xichen says, overflowing with enough warm sincerity to make the others look faintly uncomfortable. “I’m glad my intent is clear. I’ll set off for Yunping as soon as I can. Alone.”
“No,” Wangji says, but Lan Xichen is one of two people left in the Cloud Recesses who can’t be cowed by Hanguang-jun.
“Wait, wait,” Wei Wuxian says hurriedly.
“He won’t harm me,” Lan Xichen says, and it’s not until it leaves his lips that he knows: he made up his mind long ago, before he even knew about Supremes. He knew that the moment the coffin cracked he would follow; across the wheel, with demonic cultivation, by whatever means he could find. This was what he searched for in all his years of wandering, and now he has a destination, and if they take his sword he will walk, and if they break his legs he will crawl.
“Brother,” Wangji says flatly, “This isn’t prudent.”
“I love to confront my apparent sins and failures in old, abandoned, inhospitable places as much as the next person,” Wei Wuxian says, “but Lan Zhan might also have a point?” A hundred years, Lan Xichen supposes, was more than enough time for Wei Wuxian to rub off on him.
They talk – no, they argue – long past curfew. Rather, Lan Xichen and Wangji argue. After almost two whole minutes of watching them disagree using every bit of civility they can muster, Wei Wuxian babbles an improbably flimsy excuse and flees, shooting apologetic glances over his shoulder at Wangji. The twin jades of Lan have an argument that has only ever existed in glances and the gaps between words, an argument almost as old as Wangji’s love for the Yiling Patriarch, an argument rooted in their mother and father’s separate sins. Their words run as thick as their shared blood.
Until Wangji says, with a petulance totally unbefitting Hanguang-jun, “If brother is convalescing from thirty-three lashes of the discipline whip, he won’t be able to go.”
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, shocked, and then fondly resigned at how much Wei Wuxian has rubbed off on both of them, and then he’s laughing, they both are, because it’s ridiculous, they are ridiculous. Once they’ve calmed down, it is a long time before either of them speaks.
“But since brother is still perfectly uninjured,” Wangji finally says, “I cannot stop you.”
“I will be careful,” Lan Xichen says. Wangji gives him a long look.
“I’m the only person who won’t be in danger, if he truly has become a Supreme. And,” he injects some iron into his tone, “I want to see him.”
“You should not feel responsible for any of this,” Wangji says.
“Is regret forbidden in the Cloud Recesses?” He gives Wangji a smile.
“It is,” Wangji says stoically. Lan Xichen is laughing again. He feels lighter than he has in an aeon.
“Oh? I hadn’t heard. I don’t recall seeing it on the wall.”
“It was added while you were away.” Wangji glances at him. “Brother was away for a long time.”
“I knew the sect would be in good hands,” Lan Xichen says. Wangji looks out at the garden.
“I want to apologise for my selfishness and ignorance,” he says.
“Wangji is noble and perceptive beyond compare,” Lan Xichen says.
Wangji shakes his head. “Brother cared for me while I mourned Wei Ying. But after Guanyin temple, I did not even know brother was in seclusion until I heard it as tavern gossip.” He draws a breath. “I – brother had always been the first jade of Gusu. It – had never occurred to me that even such peerless jade could break.”
In that moment he loves his brother so much that his heart hurts. His own eyes have never been as clear as Hanguang-jun’s, but Wangji is his younger brother. He failed one younger brother. He’s glad to know he did not fail the other.
“I didn’t mean to leave you alone,” Wangji says haltingly. “I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t blame you,” Lan Xichen says gently. “I blamed myself, but never you. Please don’t fault yourself for any of this, Wangji. My decisions were my own. I chose to act, and also not to act, and many people were hurt as a result.” Wangji’s hands clench into the knees of his robe and he bows his head.
“Guilt is also forbidden in the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Xichen intones, with his best elder brother-voice.
“Guilt is the first rule of the Cloud Recesses,” Wangji counters, voice thick. Lan Xichen has to admit he has a point. He refills Wangji’s tea, folds Wangji’s hands around it until he drinks.
“You will not let me come with you?” Wangji finally says. He sounds so, so afraid, though no one but Lan Xichen and Wei Wuxian would know what to listen for.
“If everything is as you’ve said, it would be extremely dangerous to anyone who accompanied me. Your happiness with Wei Wuxian is well-earned. Don’t endanger that on my behalf,” Lan Xichen says gently. “If I do not send word after a month, then do what you think is best. I trust you.” At long last, Wangji nods. What, in the end, can either of them say? They are both born to the karma of the line of Lan An.
They sit there long into the night. In place of words, only cicada song. Everything that needed to be said has been said.
Lan Xichen leaves at dawn three days later. The guards stare curiously, but ask no questions. Wangji and Wei Wuxian are there to see him off.
“For you,” Wangji says, handing over a stack of talismans. “From Wei Ying.” Wei Wuxian beams.
“And from you too, Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian says, tugging on his husband’s sleeve. He turns to Lan Xichen. “If you’re going to ask him to come back to Gusu, send word ahead. I’m not sure how the barrier will deal with a Supreme.”
“I’ll do my utmost,” Lan Xichen says very seriously.
“Brother must be careful.” Wangji gazes at him.
“I will, Wangji,” Lan Xichen says. They bow to one another.
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. He flings his arms around Lan Xichen, startling a confused noise out of both Lans. Wei Wuxian unslings one arm to beckon Wangji over, and when he hesitantly complies, he drags them together and squeezes them so hard that even Lan Xichen thinks he might bruise.
“Lan Zhan, is hugging forbidden in the Cloud Recesses?” Wei Wuxian drawls.
“No,” Lan Xichen answers for his brother, whose ears are beet red. “No, it’s not.”
They cling on with the certainty of a farewell until Lan Xichen pulls gently away. Wei Wuxian and Wangji continue to hold each other. They remain that way long after Lan Xichen has ascended, until they are nothing more than specks on the stairs.
He counts the distance to Yunping by the watchtowers which still pepper the landscape. Many sect leaders had tried to have them decommissioned in some misguided attempt to rewrite history. Upon emerging from seclusion Lan Xichen had fought for them where he could, with varying success. He couldn’t do much about the sect leaders who gradually starved their watchtowers to hollow shells, claiming a lack of resources, but enough towers had remained for him to feel like he’d accomplished something. The sight of them now gives him a new determination.
As he gets closer the roads get emptier. Soon there are no roads at all. It becomes almost impossible to fly through the thick mists, but walking is equally impossible. Lan Xichen doesn’t remember Yunping being so swampy and lush. It feels like a place that has never been touched, rather than a thriving town that was only abandoned a few decades prior. The reasons for its abandonment pit the ground left and right, fissures deeper than a man. He’s forced to skim the ground by sword. It’s much slower than he cares for. Even his cultivator’s senses feel dull in this place, as though the mist is swallowing everything, cocooning him in a strange greyness. It’s not unfamiliar.
Perhaps the dulling of his senses is why it takes him almost half a shichen to realise that Yunping shouldn’t be this large. He descends cautiously into a riot of lush vegetation. The air is thick enough to make it hard to breathe, heavy with the odour of rotting plants and still water. When he steps off Shuoyue his boots sink half a chi into the wet earth.
He takes another step. The air rings out with a single struck note.
Lan Xichen goes for his sword but something is wrong: the air has turned thick as honey, his movements as slow as a crawl. Even when his hand falls away his sword hangs in mid-air, vibrating as though it had taken a direct hit. From end to end his vision goes gold.
All of his limbs are weak. Lan Xichen drops to his knees; the mist crashes in.
This is the year of the great quake, where the whole earth trembles like a lover awaiting touch. Heaven and earth are realigning. Ghosts walk freely. Lan Xichen follows the westward journey in the footsteps of Xuanzang.
This is the town whose name is that of its festival, on the night of said festival. Ten thousand lanterns, written with protective charms, warm the streets to dusk-brightness even through the deep night. The children know not to walk alone after sunset; the adults’ pockets are stuffed with hell money. A small group patrols with firecrackers and bells in hand. Some wandering monks chant from the town walls. Their voices carry over the empty roofs.
This is the great temple, filled almost to bursting by every inhabitant of the town. Lan Xichen quietly lends spiritual energy to the temple’s ancient barrier, set up and forgotten by some long-ago wandering cultivator, while the villagers lay food at a banquet table. There are four empty seats, draped with cloth and adornments. One in white cloth, with a mask and horsetail whisk; one in red, with gambler’s dice and small silver flowers; one in black, with four teacups and scattered fish-scales. The last chair is unadorned but for a talisman. Priests pour wine and pray for mercy. It is the Feast of the Ghost Kings.
This is the head priest, kneeling before the altar thick with sacred smoke. His heavy headdress is laden with precious jewels but charred and ash-stained. His attendants fan the charcoal and herbs until the heady scent soaks every corner of the hall. Another priest hands him the talisman from the fourth chair. He raises it in offering.
The characters shiver. Ink writhes like snakes. The edges of the talisman blur with light from nowhere. The priest’s hands blister as though caught in an invisible flame.
Gold dusts the altar, and the priest’s hands, and the priest’s robes, in a shimmering endless fall. Until the priest is drenched in it, struggling beneath the weight of it; and then it is gone. All the fires in the hall abruptly go out. Not a single person makes a sound. In that moment there is an unbearable heaviness to breathing.
The priest raises his shaking head, and speaks four words:
Golden Strings Descend Softly.