No other living people had been in the Demon Subduing Cave for decades, so Wei Wuxian wasn’t on guard for enemies when he returned to his makeshift home. He strung up the fresh fish on a pole by the fire pit and dropped the loquats into a crate woven of branches. He sat down on a rock, then froze when he heard a sound he hadn’t heard for months - another person breathing.
The man stepped out of the shadows, a sheathed sword in his hand. He wore black robes and black leather bracers, and two dark strands of hair framed his face. “Young Master Wei,” Xue Yang said, smirking, but before he could continue, Wei Wuxian leapt to his feet, yanked his flute from his belt and swung it at Xue Yang’s face. Xue Yang brought up his sheathed sword just in time to keep the instrument from smashing into his teeth. “What the-“ He stared in astonishment. “Is that a flute?” He drew his sword and crossed it with his sheath to catch the flute and block the blow.
Wei Wuxian lifted his foot and planted it solidly against Xue Yang’s chest, kicking him back against the wall. His face was grim, and his mouth was in a tight line. Xue Yang swung his sword, but it went wide, and Wei Wuxian struck with the flute, which clipped Xue Yang on the chin.
“I’m not here to kill you,” he said, lifting up his sword and sheath defensively.
“Of course not. Wen Rouhan sent you out here to apologize,” Wei Wuxian said, a small smile twisting his face. He struck again with the flute and Xue Yang blocked it.
“I don’t work for him!” Xue Yang protested. His next strike forced Wei Wuxian to lean back to avoid the hit. “I’m not working for anyone.”
Wei Wuxian parried Xue Yang’s next attack and hit him on the wrist, forcing his fingers to open. His sword clattered to the stone floor. Wei Wuxian pushed in, pinning Xue Yang against the wall with the flute pressed against his throat. “Nobody believes that ‘lone hooligan’ nonsense,” Wei Wuxian growled. His heart pounded. If he let Xue Yang go, it was over. Wen Chao would find him, and the Stygian Tiger Amulet wasn’t ready. He wouldn’t be able to fight the Wen Clan. He put his weight against the flute.
“I swear, I’m not working for anyone! Not now,” Xue Yang said hoarsely, struggling to get loose enough to take in a full breath. “I can’t go back to the Nightless City. Wen Ruohan wants the last Yin Iron piece.”
“Which you have,” Wei Wuxian said flatly.
“Not on me,” Xue Yang said, and despite his lack of air, he managed a lascivious grin. “But you’re welcome to search me again.” He shifted his leg to press it along Wei Wuxian’s inner thigh. Wei Wuxian knew this for what it was - a desperate ploy to make him uncomfortable enough to let his guard down. Wei Wuxian had never had a problem with getting that kind of attention from men so this shouldn’t have thrown him off.
It had been weeks since he’d seen another living human. He wasn’t a Lan. He wasn’t made to retreat from the world. He needed people, and more than that, he needed to be touched. He was used to throwing his arm around Jiang Cheng, resting his head on Yanli’s hands, bumping shoulders with Nie Huaisang and grabbing Lan Zhan on the wrist, arm, shoulder, anywhere he was allowed to touch.
Now he had a warm body pressed against him, and he couldn’t help but react instinctively. He leaned into the touch, then was horrified when he realized what he’d done. He shifted quickly, hoping Xue Yang hadn’t noticed.
Xue Yang’s eyes widened, as did his grin. Oh, he’d noticed. Before Wei Wuxian could rally his thoughts, Xue Yang grabbed the back of his neck and pulled their mouths together in a warm, brutal kiss. He tasted of blood and smelled like the incense burned at high-end winehouses.
There was a little voice in the back of his head warning Wei Wuxian that this was a very bad idea, but he’d had a lifetime of ignoring that voice (which usually sounded like Jiang Cheng) telling him to stop and be sensible for once and think how this reflects on the clan, so he veered away from the sensible thing and kissed Xue Yang back. He slid the flute down until it pinned Xue Yang against the wall by the chest.
“Young Master Wei,” Xue Yang said softly. He ran his thumb along Wei Wuxian’s jawline and down his neck. “Aren’t you worried about your reputation?”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “What do I care about that?” He pressed his body against Xue Yang, holding him fast against the stone wall, and kissed him again. Both of them were breathing hard, now, and Wei Wuxian was aching with need.
Xue Yang pressed the sheath of his sword against Wei Wuxian’s chest and shoved. At the same time, he hooked his foot around Wei Wuxian’s ankle, so Wei Wuxian landed on the stone floor flat on his back. He lost his grip on his flute and it skittered away from him. Xue Yang leapt forward, a huge grin on his face. He snatched up his sword, straddled Wei Wuxian, and pressed the blade to his throat. Wei Wuxian let his head fall back against the stone. Imaginary Jiang Cheng had been right. That was nearly as bad as when the real one was right.
Xue Yang leaned forward and said in a low voice, “I just want you to know I could kill you right now.” What? Wei Wuxian stared at him in confusion. Xue Yang lifted the blade from his throat and sheathed it. “But I think you’re more fun alive.” He set the sword aside and kissed Wei Wuxian again.
Wei Wuxian recovered from the surprise quickly, and kissed Xue Yang back. Wei Wuxian, what are you doing? Imaginary Jiang Cheng demanded, but Wei Wuxian blocked out the thought. He ran his hands along Xue Yang’s sides and pressed his hips upward. Xue Yang gasped against his lips and Wei Wuxian decided he wanted more of that.
He wrapped his arm around Xue Yang’s waist and rolled both of them over so that now Wei Wuxian was pinning Xue Yang down with his body. With some fumbling between kisses, they managed to strip off their trousers. Wei Wuxian sketched a quick incantation gesture that he’d learned from Nie Huaisang and looked up to see Xue Yang watching him, breathing heavily, his lips slightly parted. His face was calm, but his fingers dug at the stone floor.
“I won’t hurt you,” Wei Wuxian said gently.
Xue Yang laughed. Sometime during the fight or the kissing, he’d bitten his lip, and he gave Wei Wuxian a bloody grin. “What fun is that?” He cupped Wei Wuxian’s face in his hands and drew him in for a rough kiss. “Do it,” he ordered.
They sprawled on the floor on top of their robes; sweaty, sticky, and sore. After a few minutes, Wei Wuxian turned his head, his cheek pressed against the ground. “Do you want to stay for dinner?”
Xue Yang was staring at the ceiling. He smiled. “All right.”
After that, they had to find their trousers and shake the dirt from their robes. Xue Yang retrieved his sword and Wei Wuxian found his flute. Wei Wuxian stuck the fish on skewers and roasted them over a fire.
“Why don’t you have a sword?” Xue Yang asked.
Wei Wuxian licked fruit juice off his fingers. “I’m starting a new fashion.” Xue Yang snorted in disbelief, but he didn’t pursue it. “Why are you here?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“There’s a lot of people that want my piece of the Yin Iron,” Xue Yang said. “Figured I’d lay low for a bit.”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian said. “Why are you here?”
Xue Yang picked out a fish bone. “That,” he said. He nodded at the other side of the room. It was a cage, woven of branches and covered with talismans made from old scraps of fabric. Wisps of black smoke could be seen through the cracks in the cage.
Wei Wuxian put his hand on his flute and tensed. “If you touch the talismans, the backlash will kill you,” he said in a low voice.
Xue Yang shook his head. “I don’t want to take it. I wanted to know what it was. I thought there were only four pieces of the Yin Iron.”
“You found it with your Yin Iron?” Wei Wuxian said, his heart sinking. He would have to move it, but it wasn’t ready yet. And where would he go? Deeper into the mountains? “Then Wen Chao can find me.”
Xue Yang shook his head. “Wen Ruohan took it back. He has his three pieces in the Nightless City. He’s preparing for something big.”
Wei Wuxian felt a chill run down his back. He looked at the cage again. “I’m not ready,” he murmured.
Xue Yang shrugged. “Stay out here, then. You’re not important enough for him to hunt you down.”
Wei Wuxian looked at him in disbelief. “I have friends and family in danger.”
Xue Yang waved a hand dismissively and took a bite of a loquat.
Of course he wouldn’t understand. “I need you to teach me everything you know about the Yin Iron,” Wei Wuxian said.
Xue Yang laughed. “Why would I do that?”
“Because you’re bored and you like to show off,” Wei Wuxian said.
Xue Yang smiled. “All right,” he said. “I’m not telling you where mine is, though.”
“It’s in the Yiling Supervisory Office,” Wei Wixian said smugly.
Xue Yang choked on a piece of fish. Wei Wuxian unhelpfully pounded him on the back until he could speak again. Xue Yang shook his head. “If Wen Chao had it, it would be in the Nightless City already.”
“But he doesn’t know it’s there, does he?” Wei Wuxian smiled, delighted that his guess had been correct. “You’ve hidden it there, wrapped up in protections.” He leaned in a little. “You don’t dare carry it on you, but you have to keep it nearby, which means it must be in Yiling. It’s crawling with Wen soldiers, so you wouldn’t stick around unless you had to, but for some reason you can’t take it and leave. You could get past nearly any guard they could post, but there’s one person you don’t dare take on.” His smile faded. “Core-Melting Hand.”
Before Wei Wuxian could stop him, Xue Yang took hold of Wei Wuxian’s robes and pulled him in for a kiss. Oh, thought Wei Wuxian, startled, even as he kissed back. We’re still doing this? What were they doing? “You’re very clever,” Xue Yang smirked. “I bet your teachers hated you.”
“I was a model student,” Wei Wuxian said, lifting his chin.
“I guess I’ll find out,” Xue Yang said. He nodded at Wei Wuxian’s fish. “Not when you’re eating. Some people find the details of what happened to the Chang Clan a bit disturbing.”
“I was there,” Wei Wuxian reminded him.
“You were there after,” Xue Yang said. He grinned, and Wei Wuxian wondered uneasily what he’d gotten himself into.
Xue Yang stayed the night and shared Wei Wuxian’s bed. Wei Wuxian fell asleep with his flute by his hand and woke up with Xue Yang’s head on his shoulder. “I’m going to go fishing,” he told the top of Xue Yang’s head.
“Mmp,” Xue Yang murmured.
Wei Wuxian attempted to gently move his shoulder without disturbing his if-not-sworn-then-at-least-a-little-cursed enemy sleeping beside him. But when Wei Wuxian pulled away, Xue Yang’s eyes popped open. He rolled off the bed, snatched up his sword, drew the blade and landed on his feet in a crouch with the tip pointed at Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian folded his arms across his chest, flute in his hand. “Good morning,” he said, smiling. “Is this how you always wake up?”
Xue Yang blinked and took in the scene, then stood up and sheathed his sword. “Saves time,” he said, with a shrug.
“Would you rather go fishing or pick fruit?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“If you’re eating, you’re helping,” Wei Wuxian said. “Nothing grows here but fruit and the only meat here is fish. So. Pick one.”
“I don’t know how to fish,” Xue Yang admitted. He glanced down at his sword as if he was considering stabbing them.
“Fruit, then,” Wei Wuxian said. “Come on, I’ll show you where the trees are.”
After breakfast, Wei Wuxian braced himself to hear about the horrors of the Chang Clan massacre, but whether out of pity or out of practicality, Xue Yang started at the beginning.
“I didn’t want any of them to escape, so the first thing I had to do was seal the gates,” Xue Yang said. They sat on low rocks in the courtyard, where there was enough dirt that he could sketch diagrams with a stick. “The physical gates were easy. The wards were harder. Once I got inside-”
“How’d you get inside?” Wei Wuxian interrupted. “Wouldn’t they be watching for outsiders?”
“They were,” Xue Yang smirked. “I’m not giving away all my tricks. I got inside, okay?”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian said. “Then you put up your own wards inside them?”
“Not a bad trick, but no,” Xue Yang said. “I fed the wards power from the Yin Iron until enough of my power was in the wards that I could claim ownership. Then I sealed them completely so no one could go in or out. What?” Wei Wuxian had opened his mouth to ask a question, then shut it.
Wei Wuxian frowned and sketched abstract shapes in the dirt with a stick. “Do you ever hear screams when you use the Yin Iron?”
“If I’m using it right,” Xue Yang grinned.
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “Inside your head.”
Xue Yang looked at him curiously. “No.”
Wei Wuxian shrugged. “Just heard that could happen.”
“Heard where?” Xue Yang asked.
“Don’t remember,” Wei Wuxian said brightly. “Maybe read something in the library at Cloud Recesses.”
“And they’re experts,” Xue Yang said sarcastically. “Had a piece of the Yin Iron and decided they’d rather let Wen Xu burn it all than taint their pretty hands with actual power.”
Wei Wuxian didn’t respond. He’d had thoughts along those lines more than once, but he wasn’t going to speak against Lan Zhan and his family to Xue Yang. “Let’s just move on,” he said.
Xue Yang shrugged. He unwrapped a piece of candy. “I left their inner protections up. They didn’t stop me, but it made it last longer. Funny to see who left their protections to help their family and who huddled in fear, listening to their ‘loved ones’ die in slow agony. Not always who you’d think. One man shoved his wife at me, begging me to take her, not him.” He popped the candy in his mouth. “I made her into a ghost puppet and she ate his entrails. It took him hours to die. Wait, where are you going?”
Wei Wuxian was on his feet. He didn’t know where he was going until he found himself at the head of the trail going down the mountain. He rested a hand against the tree, fingertips digging into the bark, and squeezed his eyes closed. He still remembered what it had looked like when they’d found the remains of the Chang Clan. “That’s not me,” Wei Wuxian said, when he heard footsteps behind him. “I don’t torture people.”
There was silence for a moment, except for the sound of the wind and of Xue Yang sucking on his candy. And then Xue Yang said, “I heard Wen Chao strung up Jiang Fengmian and Madam Yu like party lanterns.” Wei Wuxian’s jaw tightened. “I heard Wen Zhuliu destroyed their golden cores and they died on their knees, begging.” Wisps of black smoke curled around Wei Wuxian’s fingers. He could hear screams in the back of his mind, faint but growing louder. “I heard they killed so many people the lotuses turned red. I heard they dropped the juniors and babies in the lake-“ Wei Wuxian swung around and punched him. Xue Yang stumbled back, laughing. He touched his jaw gingerly.
Wei Wuxian stared at him, thinking that he probably should apologize even as he knew he wouldn’t. The screams had grown louder. He put his hands up to cover his ears and closed his eyes again. Shut up! he told them. He felt the power rising with the voices. I control you. You don’t control me. He could hear a melody under the screams and he fumbled for his flute. The notes quieted the screams and he drew the power back into himself. He had it under control.
“Are you ready yet?” Xue Yang asked. Wei Wuxian nodded, and stuck his flute back into his belt. Xue Yang guided him back up to the courtyard and they sat down again. This time, when Xue Yang described his victims, Wei Wuxian pictured Wen Chao, Wen Zhuliu, Wang Lingjiao, and their soldiers.
He didn’t feel revulsion anymore. He felt a grim satisfaction.
Wei Wuxian slept badly that night, dreaming of walking corpses and people begging for death. He struggled to wake up, trapped in the dream by wards he couldn’t break. He tried to scream, but no sound would come out. He struck out wildly. Abruptly, the dream disappeared and he tumbled out of bed onto the cold stone floor. He sat up, now fully awake, and saw that Xue Yang had stretched out on his side of the bed, knocking him out of it. “It’s my bed!” he said indignantly.
“Tryin’ to sleep,” Xue Yang muttered, and rolled over.
“It’s my bed!” Wei Wuxian had woven the bedframe out of branches he’d gathered around the cave. It was sturdy, it was light, and it was easy to lift one side and dump Xue Yang on the floor.
Xue Yang woke up when he hit the ground and jumped to his feet. “Hey!”
“My bed,” Wei Wuxian said, and laid back down.
“Don’t kick me, then,” Xue Yang grumbled. He dropped back onto the bed and rolled over.
Wei Wuxian didn’t want to go back to sleep. He didn’t even want to close his eyes. He was aware of the irony of taking comfort from the man who’d caused his nightmares, but did it even matter at this point? They were already sharing a bed.
Wei Wuxian rolled onto his side. He slid his arm around Xue Yang and into the folds of the other man’s robes. Xue Yang rolled onto his back and looked up at Wei Wuxian, who had braced himself up on one arm. Wei Wuxian thought the other man looked puzzled, but in the dim moonlight, he couldn’t quite tell. “You really want to go back to sleep right now?” Wei Wuxian asked.
A slow smile crossed Xue Yang’s face. “Not yet,” he said, and arched up to kiss him.
Wei Wuxian continued hearing Disembowelment Bedtime Tales and studying the summoning talismans Xue Yang drew for him, but he also started seeking out that melody he’d been hearing. The Stygian Tiger Amulet wasn’t ready to be removed from its forge, but he could still draw on its power. He sat cross-legged outside the cage and touched the power, listening for the melody under the screams. He played it until his lips were chapped and his fingers sore, and then he kept playing. Playing was what kept it under control.
Xue Yang stayed. Wei Wuxian had half-expected him to run off to Wen Chao with information on Wei Wuxian, despite Xue Yang’s protests to the contrary, but it never happened. The two of them started trading talismans and tricks. Xue Yang had major gaps in his education, since he’d never formally been a disciple of any clan, but he’d studied with teachers when he could find them, and picked up some nasty tricks in brothels and back alleys. In exchange for that knowledge, Wei Wuxian taught him protection talismans and how to make spirit pouches. Xue Yang was fascinated by the last one. He knew how to weave heavy protections on stationary objects, but not how to create ones that could move.
“Teach me that binding trick,” Xue Yang said, of the spell Wei Wuxian had used to snag him at the Chang Clan massacre.
Wei Wuxian scratched more talisman characters into the dirt. He stared at them, feeling like there was a connection he wasn’t making. “Tell me who let you out at Unclean Realm.”
“Nobody,” Xue Yang said. He stuffed a candy into his mouth. “I broke out. Their wards were old and easy to crack.”
“No,” Wei Wuxian said. “You can figure out the binding trick by yourself.”
Xue Yang groaned and dropped down on a rock next to Wei Wuxian. “I’ve tried. I can’t get it to curve like you did.”
“Ah, yes, I’m very smart,” Wei Wuxian said. He jabbed at the talisman with the stick.
“What’s wrong with it?” Xue Yang asked, examining the ground. “It’s just a spirit-repelling talisman, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but it reminds me of something. From a book, I think.” Wei Wuxian closed his eyes and tried to bring up the page in his memory. It had been at Cloud Recesses. He had a scent memory of the incense that always burned there. They’d been studying talismans and how they were created. Wei Wuxian had tried to reverse a Sight Aversion Talisman to make Lan Zhan stare at him. Unfortunately, Sight Aversion only affected those that looked at it, and Lan Zhan had resolutely refused to look in his direction the entire lesson. Lan Xichen had glanced over to see what he was doing and Wei Wuxian’d had to quickly destroy the talisman before he could get in trouble. His throat grew tight at the memory. Lan Zhan. Please be safe. “A reversal,” Wei Wuxian said quickly, before his thoughts could show on his face. “If I take a spirit-repelling talisman,” he traced the lines in the dirt, “and add these marks here,” he added the lines, “it’ll become a spirit lure.”
Xue Yang grinned. “I heard that Wang Lingjiao has become terrified of ghosts.”
Wei Wuxian smiled grimly. “A ghost is coming for her.”
“She’s been buying talismans from every vendor in Yiling,” Xue Yang added.
“How particular is she about the cultivators she buys from?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“Not very,” Xue Yang said, with a sly smile.
Wei Wuxian drew a circle around the talisman and tapped it in the center. “I need to get some talisman paper,” he said.
“I could get you some,” Xue Yang said.
Wei Wuxian gave him a suspicious look.
“I’m going down the mountain,” Xue Yang said. “I’m out of sweets and if I eat any more fish, I’m going to grow gills.” He shrugged. “I don’t care if someone spots me. I’ll be in and out before anyone notices I’m there.”
“You’re coming back, then,” Wei Wuxian said, surprised at the relief he felt. I really have been lonely.
“Yeah,” Xue Yang grinned and rested his hand casually on Wei Wuxian’s knee. “I’m not bored of you yet.” He kissed Wei Wuxian lightly.
“What happens when you get bored of me?” Wei Wuxian asked.
Xue Yang smirked. “Guess you won’t see me anymore.”
“What if I get bored of you first?” Wei Wuxian teased, and he’d meant it lightly, but anger swept across Xue Yang’s face like a storm. It disappeared as fast as it’d arrived and Xue Yang’s smirk returned.
“That doesn’t happen,” he said. “Anything you need besides paper?”
How many of your lovers have you murdered? Wei Wuxian wondered, shaken, and reminded himself, You knew what he was when you took him into your bed. “Ah, wine,” he said aloud. It didn’t matter. When the Stygian Tiger Amulet was ready, they’d go their separate ways. “Brush, and ink. Robes, if you can get them.” He looked down at himself. These robes had been ragged when he’d been dropped on the Burial Mound and three months of living rough had not improved them. “I’ll give you money.”
“Okay,” Xue Yang said. “I’ll go in the morning.”
Wei Wuxian scuffed out the talisman in the dirt. “I need to test this,” he said. He tore a rectangle off his battered robes, bit his finger, and sketched the talisman on the fabric in blood. “You should probably stay back,” he told Xue Yang, so of course the man grabbed his sword and followed.
Wei Wuxian took a stick and pinned the fabric to the ground. He walked a ways back and turned to face the talisman. Xue Yang stood beside him, one hand on the hilt of his sword. Wei Wuxian closed his eyes and mentally reached for the Stygian Tiger Amulet. The screams had grown fainter and the melody louder. He listened to the song once through, then opened his eyes and began to play.
Black smoke swirled and shaped itself into three comets with long, smoky trails. Wei Wuxian pulled them down and aimed them for the talisman. He could feel the moment the talisman hooked them. All three comets dove towards the scrap of cloth on the ground, drawn by some inner call.
Xue Yang laughed.
The comets hit the talisman and flowed through it, then back up and into the talisman again. Wei Wuxian felt confusion, and something more - hunger. Oh, no! He heard Xue Yang draw his sword.
The comets spiraled upward, feeling for life. Beyond the flute, Wei Wuxian heard only silence, and realized all the crows had (sensibly) fled. Wei Wuxian closed his eyes and listened to the melody, but the screams inside the Amulet had grown louder. His brows furrowed as he tried to focus and capture the melody.
“Wei Ying!” Xue Yang yelled, and Wei Wuxian opened his eyes to see him swinging his sword at the three comets of black smoke that were trying to close in on him. He couldn’t do any damage to them, but they didn’t seem to like his sword, so he was holding them off for the moment. Not for long, though.
Wei Wuxian took a deep breath and picked up the melody again, dragging all the spiritual energy he could from the Amulet and into his music. His hands trembled, but the comets lifted, spiraled up together and flew in separate directions, only to disintegrate in the air.
He lowered his flute and bowed his head, closing his eyes to fight the screams. He pressed his hand against the throbbing pain in his chest and focused on staying upright.
An arm went around his shoulders, steadying him. “Come on. Come inside,” a man’s voice said, and draped Wei Wuxian’s arm around his shoulder. Wei Wuxian leaned on him and the man put his arm around his waist.
“Lan Zhan,” he whispered. The man’s body stiffened and his grip on Wei Wuxian’s waist tightened. Wei Wuxian looked over at him. “Xue Yang,” he corrected himself. “Thank you.” Xue Yang smiled.
Back inside the cave, Wei Wuxian’s head began to clear. Xue Yang lowered him down next to the fire pit and sat down beside him.
He was using his own spiritual energy, Wei Wuxian realized. He pressed a hand to his chest. He had to remember to pull energy only from the Stygian Tiger Amulet or he risked qi deviation. Out loud, he said, “The lure promised the fierce ghosts a meal, and when they didn’t get one, they went hunting.” He lowered his hand from his chest. No need to draw attention to it. “I can’t test it properly without a living subject, but it works. What do you say, fish for dinner?”
Xue Yang went down the mountain in the morning, and Wei Wuxian sat down in front of the cage to meditate. The Stygian Tiger Amulet was still inside, buried under strings of talismans. He hadn’t drawn all of the resentful energy out of it, but he hadn’t expected to. His talismans had calmed it, shaped it, and bound it. It was nearly time.
He came out of his meditation in the late afternoon, and Xue Yang had not returned. Wei Wuxian went fishing and collected fruit and cooked his dinner. The sun set and Xue Yang had not come back.
Wei Wuxian looked around the cave. There was little here that he needed to take with him. He didn’t need to keep the bed, or the cooking tools. If he had to leave tonight, he only needed his flute, the little money pouch with his odds and ends, and the Stygian Tiger Amulet. If Wen Clan disciples came up the mountain, he could move quickly. He decided to wait until morning, and if Xue Yang hadn’t returned by then, he’d leave the Demon Subduing Cave.
He couldn’t risk sleeping, though. He practiced juggling loquats for a bit, then noticed a nice clear section of wall. He picked up some charcoal from the fire and went to draw on it.
He tried, at first, to draw Jiang Fengman, but trying to hold the image of the man in his head hurt so badly he couldn’t make more than a few strokes. He turned his wrist and changed his subject. He wished he had paints to capture the color of Yanli’s lips or her favorite gown, but he gave her long lashes and a flower comb pinned to the side of her hair. Instead of signing the image, he scribbled a lotus flower underneath her. It was a poor imitation of the real thing, but he missed her smile very badly. He drew his thumb across the line of her robe to smooth it and imagined her speaking to him. A’Xian, she would say. Don’t worry, A’Xian.
Wei Wuxian swallowed, and started another portrait. Square chin and high cheekbones and a scowl in his eyes. Wei Wuxian! he could hear. Wei Wuxian smiled fondly and made the eyebrows more scowly. “You had better take care of Shijie while I’m gone,” he told the portrait, and sketched a lightning bolt at the bottom of the picture, for Zidian.
He pulled up his legs and rested his chin on his knees to look at them. There was more space to the right. He picked up a fresh piece of charcoal and started to draw. He got the eyes right, and the chin, and his hair was simple enough, but Wei Wuxian could not get the headband to look right. He drew it and wiped the wall clean with his sleeve at least five times before he finally got a version he deemed “good enough”. Lan Zhan looked at him sternly. Wei Ying.
Wei Wuxian grinned. “I miss you, too.” He sketched a bunny under Lan Zhan’s portrait.
He didn’t think he could improve the pictures after that, so he took his flute and sat by the fire to play. Not the melody of the Stygian Tiger Amulet this time, but some of the music from home. As he played, it occurred to him that he could have been wrong. What if Xue Yang hadn’t betrayed him or run off, but had been captured or killed. And what if he has? Do I chase him and destroy my best chance at justice for a man who wouldn’t glance my way if I were the one in trouble? Wei Wuxian closed his eyes and focused on the notes.
A few minutes later, he heard footsteps in the cave and his eyes shot open. Xue Yang was back. He carried a full bundle on his shoulder and a strange sword. He unslung the bundle and set it down by the wall. “Where were you?” Wei Wuxian asked, jumping to his feet. “What happened?”
Xue Yang grinned broadly. “I had to wait until nightfall. I got something for you.”
“Wine?” Wei Wuxian asked hopefully, eyeing the bundle.
“No - well, yes, that too,” Xue Yang said. “Come on. I’ll show you.” He dashed outside. Wei Wuxian followed, keeping a firm grip on his flute. A man was in the courtyard, bound hand and foot, and gagged. His helmet had fallen off as he’d struggled to break his bonds. He was a Wen soldier, in black and red robes. Xue Yang waved a hand at the man as if presenting a gift.
Wei Wuxian felt there was something he wasn’t getting. “What do I do with him?”
“Practice on him,” Xue Yang said. “Like you wanted.”
“Practice?” Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows went up. “You brought me someone to practice killing them?” The man’s eyes widened and he began to wiggle frantically in his bonds. Xue Yang placed his foot on the man’s head and firmly held it against the ground.
“You’re welcome,” Xue Yang said brightly. He dug a piece of candy out of his pouch, unwrapped it, and stuck it in his cheek.
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “There’s no honor in that.”
Xue Yang rolled his eyes. “What does honor have to do with it? You’re going to kill him anyway.” He bent down and yanked the gag out of the man’s mouth. “How many people did you kill at Lotus Pier?” he asked.
“I… I was just following his orders,” the man stammered.
“Not my question,” Xue Yang said, bracing his elbow against his knee as he looked the man in the face. “How many?”
“S-seven. No, six. Only six!” the man said desperately.
Xue Yang looked up at Wei Wuxian. “Too many to keep track,” he explained. He looked down again. “How many were children?”
“She had a bow!” the man protested. “She tried to shoot me! It was self-defense!”
Xue Yang looked up at Wei Wuxian and lifted his eyebrows. Wei Wuixan gave him a grim look and held out his hand, two fingers outstretched. Xue Yang grinned. He produced a piece of talisman paper and slid it between Wei Wuxian’s fingers.
Wei Wuxian bit his finger and drew the lure talisman onto the paper with his blood. He knelt and pasted it onto the man’s back, then stepped back. “Unbind him, and give him his sword back,” Wei Wuxian said. Xue Yang set the man’s sword on the ground and, with a flick of his fingers, the cord binding the man disappeared. The soldier twisted and looked back, trying to look at the talisman. He rolled on his back, trying to scrape it off, but the talisman stuck. Xue Yang walked over to stand by Wei Wuxian. He had his sword sheathed, but one hand on the hilt. The Wen Clan soldier gave up on reaching the talisman and picked up his sword instead.
Wei Wuxian lifted his flute to his lips and closed his eyes. With the first note he reached out to the Stygian Tiger Amulet and the Amulet’s melody joined his. It wasn’t driving him now. It was like a duet with a trusted partner. When he faltered, the Amulet gave him the tune. When he drew the power higher, the Amulet followed his lead. Black smoke flowed from the flute and sank towards the ground.
The Wen Clan soldier gave Xue Yang a sly look, drew his sword, and rushed at Wei Wuxian. Xue Yang stepped forward and kicked the man in the chest, throwing the soldier back several feet. “If I were you,” Xue Yang said, with a delighted grin, “I’d run the other way.”
The smoke gathered and rose, winding its way towards the soldier with a speed unnatural for smoke. The man’s eyes widened. He looked at Wei Wuxian and the smoke pouring out of his flute. He looked at Xue Yang, who looked back at him like a cat watching a cornered mouse. And finally, sensibly, he turned and ran.
Wei Wuxian’s eyes snapped open. His chest ached with pain, and grief, and fury, and shame, so he poured that into the flute and played it into the shape forming in the smoke.
The soldier’s foot caught on a half-buried leg bone and he fell. He braced himself up on his elbows and scurried back. The smoke swept over him like a blanket, then slid off him and into the ground around him. Wei Wuxian drew out a single note, power gathering in anticipation, like a boat teetering on the edge of a rushing waterfall. He looked at the man who had helped destroy his life, his home, and his family. The Wen Clan soldier looked back at him, frozen in fear and uncertainty. Wei Wuxian gave the boat a push.
The power swept in with a merciless joy. Hands burst from the ground, smudged with filth and trailing black smoke. They had long, shiny black claws, which they sank into the meat of the man’s calf like an animal trap. He screamed and tried to pull away, but the nails dug in and each tug of his leg tore the flesh further. The soldier swung his blade at the hands. Black smoke swirled upward with the movement, but the sword passed easily through the hands and bit into his own leg.
Guilt, grief, and shame fled before the power rushing through Wei Wuxian. The Amulet’s melody shifted and Wei Wuxian changed his to follow. Two black smoke comets formed in the air high above the soldier. They spun around each other and spiraled slowly down. The man screamed, and hacked at his leg. The blow landed just above where the claws held him, and in a quiet, back corner of his mind, Wei Wuxian realized the man was trying to cut off his own leg to escape.
The black smoke comets shaped themselves into human forms without faces, trailing smoke instead of legs. The man screamed again and swung his sword uselessly through the creatures above him. The creatures extended claws and gently dragged them through the man’s clothing, leaving it in tatters. Then they did it to his skin. Bone gleamed in the moonlight for just a moment before the blood rushed into the wounds. The man howled in agony. He’s suffering, Wei Wuxian thought, and then, Good.
The howls turned to pleading, then faded to sobbing, and finally, he became silent. Wei Wuxian shifted the melody again. The ghosts rose. It’s time for you to go.
They strained at his power. We’ve had a nice meal, but we could surely have another? He felt them reaching for Xue Yang.
Go. Now. That’s an order. He pushed back against their yearning and hunger, and all of them released their grips on the corpse, rose in the air, and dispersed, going back to where they’d come from.
Wei Wuxian ended the song and lowered the flute. The smells of blood and death were strong in the night air. Beside him, Xue Yang said, “Keep going,” and drew his sword.
Keep going? The man was dead. How was he supposed to- oh. Wei Wuxian lifted the flute to his lips and found the melody. Black veins spread over what was left of the man’s skin and his eyes turned dark. He staggered to his feet and stumbled toward the two living men, sword in hand.
Xue Yang met him halfway. He easily parried several weak blows and then took off the man’s head with a single swing of the blade. He sighed as the head and body dropped to the ground in front of him. “You need to leave them with more muscle if you want them to fight,” he said.
Wei Wuxian nodded. He lowered his flute. As the power faded, the pain returned. He took a deep breath and tried to recenter himself.
Xue Yang cleaned and sheathed his blade, and jogged back to Wei Wuxian. He put his arm around Wei Wuxian’s waist. “Wasn’t that fun?” he grinned.
“It was….,” Wei Wuxian frowned, seeking the word. “Satisfying.”
Xue Yang smirked. “I bet Hanguang Jun wouldn’t approve of this.”
Wei Wuxian could picture Lan Zhan’s look of disapproval. “No, he wouldn’t,” he said shortly. He pulled away from Xue Yang and stalked into the cave. Inside, he braced himself against the wall and squeezed his eyes shut, feeling the remains of the spiritual energy crackling over his skin.
A body pressed against him and Xue Yang’s mouth closed over his. “Let’s celebrate,” he whispered. He slid his hand into Wei Wuxian’s robes. All the power crackling over Wei Wuxian’s skin rushed to his groin and he gasped for air, aching with a sudden desperate need. He pushed Xue Yang to the ground and the other man landed hard, back smacking against the stone floor hard enough to knock the air out of him. Xue Yang gasped a laugh, and when Wei Wuxian straddled him a moment later, he grabbed the front of Wei Wuxian’s robes and tore them open.
It was rough and brutal and left them both bruised and battered. Wei Wuxian was driven by a need to exorcise the power that thrummed within him and the thoughts that spun through his head. Xue Yang was more than willing to accommodate that need.
Afterwards, Wei Wuxian fell asleep where he lay, too exhausted to stumble to the bed.
He woke up to the smell of meat roasting over the fire. He pulled on his clothes and joined Xue Yang at the fire pit. Xue Yang offered him a skewer and Wei Wuxian ate it slowly, savoring the flavor of the first thing he’d eaten in three months that wasn’t fish or fruit. Nearby sat a set of black and red robes, a sheaf of talisman paper, ink, a brush, and two bottles of liquor. “Ah!” Wei Wuxian said, and snatched up the liquor. “Thank you!” He braced the skewer between his knees so he could wrestle the cork from the jug and pour some into his mouth. He groaned in pleasure. Xue Yang laughed. “It’s been months,” Wei Wuxian said. He offered the jug to Xue Yang, who took a long drink. “I tried to make my own by letting some fruit ferment, but it tasted like ash and bone.” He accepted the jug back from Xue Yang, took another long drink, and put the cork in the jug. He gave the jug a wistful look and set it aside. “I’d better make it last.” He returned to eating his meat.
“I’ll go back to town tonight and get another soldier,” Xue Yang said. He finished the last bite on his skewer.
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “I don’t want to pick them off one by one.”
Xue Yang shrugged. “Can be fun when they’re paranoid.”
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “It’s not just Wen Chao’s men. I want all of them to be afraid. I want them to know that attacking the Jiang Clan has a price. I want them to see the devastation-“ He stopped, but Xue Yang picked up on where the thought was going.
“Like when you saw what I’d done to the Chang Clan?” Xue Yang grinned widely. He dipped his head in a small bow. “I’m honored that you’ve learned from my example.”
Wei Wuxian shook his head again. “No, it’s different. It’s-“ he frowned. It was different. He wasn’t going to kill innocents, for one. Was that the only reason? Wasn’t that enough? “Why did you kill them?” he asked.
Xue Yang held up his left hand with the odd, single-fingered glove. “When I was a child, Chang Cian beat me and crushed my little finger with a cart.”
Wei Wuxian waited, but Xue Yang was done. “That’s it?”
“‘That’s it?’” Xue Yang stared at him in disbelief. “He destroyed my finger!”
“That’s awful,” Wei Wuxian agreed. “But… the entire clan? What did the rest of them do?”
“Isn’t that enough?” Xue Yang shook his head. “You grew up with the gentry. You wouldn’t know what it was like for me.”
Wei Wuxian yanked up his trouser leg indignantly. “Look, do you see that?” Xue Yang leaned over to look. There was a faint, but distinct scar of a dog bite. “After my parents died, I had no one. I was starving. I was going through a shopkeeper’s garbage and he set his dog on me.”
“Where was this?” Xue Yang asked.
“Yunmeng,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Which shop?” Xue Yang asked. “What does the shopkeeper look like?” He rustled through his bundle and found a bag of candied walnuts.
“Why?” Wei Wuxian asked suspiciously.
Xue Yang shrugged. “I’ll kill him for you.”
“What? No!” Wei Wuxian said. “I don’t want to kill him. It’s in the past.”
“Mm-hm,” Xue Yang said. He offered Wei Wuxian some walnuts. “And after that you got adopted into a rich clan with a safe home, plenty of food, and the best cultivation training there is to offer.”
“Well,” Wei Wuxian said, “yes.” He accepted some walnuts with a nod of thanks.
“I starved and was beaten until I got big enough to hit back. I had to sleep on the streets and fight for every scrap of training I could get,” Xue Yang said.
“I got lucky, and you didn’t,” Wei Wuxian said. “I’m sorry.”
Xue Yang rolled his eyes, and then grinned. “I could kill all the shopkeepers in Yunmeng.”
“No!” Wei Wuxian said in horror. “Don’t. Please.”
“Just the shopkeepers with dogs?” Xue Yang teased.
“None of them,” Wei Wuxian said, heart pounding. “If I want anyone dead, I’ll do it.”
Xue Yang nodded at the logic of this. “All right. Tell me if you change your mind.”
After eating, Wei Wuxian took the ink and paper and found a flat surface to work as a desk. He carefully drew a stack of lure talismans, making sure that each line and stroke were properly aligned. When he’d finished and the ink had dried, he made a packet and sealed them inside, then addressed them to Wang Lingjiao. He’d pay a boy to deliver them to the gate. If she’d really been buying up talismans around town, she might not notice - or care - that there was no vendor’s mark on the package.
He set those aside and went out to the stream to wash up. He would be very glad when he could have hot baths again. He returned to the cave and dressed in his new robes, discarding the torn rags he’d been wearing in a pile. He combed his hair and retied it with a red band. It felt both right, and wrong, as if he were wearing the skin of his old self and it didn’t quite fit.
Xue Yang leaned against the wall with his arms crossed with a smirk on his face. “You look good,” he said.
“Thanks,” Wei Wuxian said, running his hand over his ponytail.
“Going somewhere?” Xue Yang asked. His tone was teasing, but his eyes were wary.
Wei Wuxian looked down at himself and ran the palms of his hands over his robes. He looked up again and met Xue Yang’s eyes. “Yes,” he said. The other man’s smile faded. “It’s time,” Wei Wuxian said.
Xue Yang nodded. He swaggered over to Wei Wuxian and smoothed the front of Wei Wuxian’s robes with the palms of his hands. Then he rested his hands on Wei Wuxian’s waist and brought their lips together. Wei Wuxian kissed him and felt a pang of sadness. Xue Yang had been welcome company at a time when he needed it.
“Where are you going when you’re done?” Xue Yang asked.
“Lanling,” Wei Wuxian said. “My sister’s there.”
Xue Yang nodded. “I’ll find you there.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened. “No,” he said.
Xue Yang smiled. “Don’t worry. I know how to get in and out of Lanling without being seen.”
That was… something to worry about later. “No, I mean…,” he swallowed. “I don’t want to see you there.”
Xue Yang took a step back and folded his arms across his chest. “Just Lanling?” he asked. “Or anywhere?”
“Anywhere,” Wei Wuxian said, trying to make the word gentle. He didn’t think he’d succeeded.
Xue Yang smiled. “You’re not like them, you know. You’re like me.”
“I’m not,” Wei Wuxian said quietly.
“You don’t share their bloodlines,” Xue Yang said. “You don’t wear their colors.” He stepped forward and reached for Wei Wuxian’s waist. Wei Wuxian stepped back, out of reach of his hands. Xue Yang smiled cheerily at Wei Wuxian. “All right.” He rested his sword on his shoulder and walked the long way around the room, passing by the portraits Wei Wuxian had drawn in charcoal. Xue Yang drew two fingers across the eyes of Jiang Cheng, Jiang Yanli, and Lan Wangji, smearing the charcoal into a long line across their eyes. Wei Wuxian was suddenly - and, he was sure, intentionally - reminded that Xue Yang had blinded Song Lan during the massacre at White Snow Temple.
“Don’t you dare hurt them,” Wei Wuxian said softly.
Xue Yang grinned and held his arms wide, sword gripped in one hand. “Stop me,” he said, and drew his blade. He leapt high, black robes flowing with the movement, and brought down his sword on Wei Wuxian, who blocked it with his flute. He struck again, and Wei Wuxian parried and spun. He struck Xue Yang on the back, between his shoulders, sending him tumbling forward. Wei Wuxian lifted the flute to his lips. Xue Yang drew himself to his feet and laughed. “Do you think I’d teach you anything I couldn’t defend against?” He sketched a black talisman in the air and stepped into it, letting the energy flow over him.
Wei Wuxian smiled darkly. “Let me show you what you taught me.” He heard faint screams as he began playing. The melody had grown louder, almost enough to drown out the screams. He found the notes and let them guide the power, then focused his power on Xue Yang.
Black smoke swirled around the other man, and he sketched a quick talisman in the air to ward it off. “I told you, you can’t touch me!”
We can. The voice was a whisper below the melody. Wei Wuxian tilted his head to listen better. He is ours. Let us out. Wei Wuxian looked up to see Xue Yang coming at him with his sword again. Let us out, the whisper said. Wei Wuxian changed the melody and opened the door.
The black smoke swirled around Xue Yang, constricting around him, flowing in through his nose, his mouth, his ears. “No!” he said, suddenly alarmed. “You can’t do that.” The whisper laughed softly where only Wei Wuxian could hear it. Xue Yang’s head jerked back. A drop of blood fell from his nose and splashed on the stone floor. He gasped for air and more black smoke poured down his throat. He clamped his mouth shut. He wiped a finger in the blood under his nose and sketched a talisman on the back of his hand. The whispers grew. There were more of them, many more, but Wei Wuxian couldn’t make out what they were saying. They weren’t speaking to him anymore. All he needed to do was play.
“I. Don’t. Care,” Xue Yang said, his eyes unfocused as he stared at something - someone - that wasn’t there. “You’re dead. You can’t touch me. I killed you. I won.” The whispers grew louder, and began to chant in time with the melody. “I WON!” Xue Yang yelled, then screamed in pain. His sword clattered to the ground as he threw his arms over his head. “Stop it,” he whispered desperately. “Stop it, I’m not sorry. STOP!” Panting, his fingers scrabbled at the ground. “I’m not sorry,” he whispered. “I’m not sorry, I’m not sorry, I’m not sorry,” then yelled, “I will never be sorry!” His hand felt around for the hilt of his sword.
Wei Wuxian played on.
“I’m not sorry,” Xue Yang said, as he slowly lifted his sword. “Stop. Stop!” He pressed his free hand down on the blade of his sword, slicing it open. Blood slid down the steel. Suddenly, Wei Wuxian realized what was happening. “Stop!” Xue Yang cried hoarsely, as his hand lifted his own blade to his throat. His eyes found Wei Wuxian, and he croaked out, barely above a whisper. “Please.”
Let us finish, the whispers said, No one else hears us.
Xue Yang had bloody tears running down his cheeks. Blood fell from his mouth, and blood wet his sword. His arm shook with the strain of holding the sword back, but it was a losing battle. The blade pressed against his throat.
You’re done, Wei Wuxian told the whispers, and lowered the flute. He could hear their fury even as they faded with the melody.
The smoke disappeared. Xue Yang’s sword clattered to the floor. He knelt, staring down at the blood flowing into the cracks between the stones. His head snapped up and he looked up at Wei Wuxian with such fury that the other took an involuntary step back. “I will kill them all,” he said furiously. “I will chop them into tiny bits, wrap them in a package, tie it with a blue headband, and deliver it to you!” He flung his bloody hand towards the portrait of Lan Zhan, splattering it with red dots.
Wei Wuxian lifted his flute.
“No!” Xue Yang cried out, falling back.
Wei Wuxian lowered the flute. “You won’t touch them,” he said, with a small, pleasant smile. “You won’t touch any of them. When you leave, remember what is waiting for you.” He tapped his flute. “They want you. They’re waiting for you.”
Xue Yang snatched up his sword and sheathed it. “We’ll meet again,” he growled, then pivoted around and strode out of Demon Subduing Cave.
Wei Wuxian waited. When he’d calmed his heart, he turned to the cage. He triggered the energy in the door, and every talisman tied around the Stygian Tiger Amulet turned to ash. Wei Wuxian stepped into the cage and lifted the Amulet from its nest. “Well,” he said to it. “Let’s get started.” He slid it into the pouch he’d prepared for it and stepped out of the cage.
It was time.