Jin Ling stood watch with Sizhui late into the night, taking turns sitting on the porch of the main hall or pacing the outer and inner courts. The night was quiet except for the breeze through the pine trees and a few insect chirps. The darkness was heavy again, as if the banishment of whatever had been in the well had left room for other things to creep in. The moon was cloud-shrouded, little of its light filtering through the branches. They had brought some of the lamps out of the main hall and hung them along the porches in both courts, the flickering light playing on the old Lan cloud symbol carvings on the eaves, an illusion of what the court must have looked like years ago, before its abandonment.
As wary as he was of what might try to approach the gate in the dark, Jin Ling was also bored and wished he had thought to borrow Jingyi's Xiangqi set, because they could have played that quietly enough not to wake anyone. As a sect leader and before that an angry loner, he wasn't used to standing watches. But he and Sizhui and Jingyi (and technically Jin Chan, though no one had asked for his opinion) had agreed to take all the watches, as this place might be too much for the younger juniors.
Jingyi was standing watch with Jin Chan next, and Jin Ling might have worried about Jin Chan's tendency to bully, except he didn't think Jin Chan was dumb enough to do it anywhere within range of the Yiling Patriarch or Hanguang-jun. Also, trying to bully Lan Jingyi seemed like a good way to end up tied to a tree in the forest with the words "I'm an idiot" inked on your forehead.
Jin Ling was taking another turn through the outer court, bored to the point where he was considering collecting pebbles to try to make a primitive Xiangqi set, when he heard the rush of leaves on the path outside the gate. He went still. The hill the outpost was situated on was covered with pines; there were no fallen leaves.
He glanced back at Sizhui, who was already on his feet and padding silently across the court. Together they approached the gate and Sizhui moved to look through the spy slot while Jin Ling hung back to cover him. Sizhui peered out for a moment, then jerked his head back, startled. He motioned for Jin Ling, who stepped quickly to his side to look.
At first he didn't see anything, though the rush of invisible leaves was still audible, as if something was sweeping them back and forth across the pebbled clearing. Then down the trail, a piece of the darkness moved. It was as large as a man sitting on a horse. Jin Ling caught a glimpse of multiple limbs, but thought, Not too bad, we can handle-- Then the darkness expanded abruptly as the creature stood up. Oh, that's big. And probably demonic.
He looked at Sizhui who mouthed the words, "Go get Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei."
Jin Ling nodded and ran soundlessly back to the hall, through it and along the inner court porch. He reached the door of the room that Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian were sleeping in and thought suddenly, Oh, shit. I should have stayed at the gate and told Sizhui to get them.
He had watched the juniors carry one set of bedding into this room and there had been the aggressive after dinner flirting over the maps and the duet and none of the Lans had even blinked and it wasn't like Jin Ling cared but there were just situations in which you really really didn't want to see your older relative and the Chief Cultivator.
Those thoughts flew through his head even as he shot up the steps and scratched hastily on the sliding door. He whispered as loud as he dared, "Wei Wuxian! Hanguang-jun! Something's at the gate!" If it was a matter of life and death, of course he would go inside to wake them, but he might want to ritually blind himself afterward and he wasn't looking forward to that.
Then Wei Wuxian vaulted out the window like a giant black bat. Jin Ling flung himself back down the steps and managed to strangle his startled yelp. Wei Wuxian landed silently on the paving and whispered, "Where's Wen Ning?"
The door slid open and Hanguang-jun stepped out. He was fully dressed too, except he had taken his hair piece out. He looked absurdly young with his hair down.
"I don't know," Jin Ling managed, keeping his voice low. "We haven't seen--"
"Here," said a voice almost in his ear. Wen Ning was behind him and Jin Ling had almost stepped on his foot. Before he could apologize, Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning were in motion, racing down the porch. Hanguang-jun leapt into the air to land on the roof of the main hall. Jin Ling realized belatedly he should be moving too and ran back toward the outer court.
When he reached the gate again, Wen Ning was looking through the spy slot and Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-jun were having an intense whispered conversation that involved a lot of emphatic pointing on Wei Wuxian's part. Sizhui had woken Jin Chan and Jingyi and Lan Fuling, who hurried out of their room, drawing their swords. Jin Ling grabbed Jin Chan and told him quietly, "Wake the other juniors, tell them to be ready."
"Ready for what?" Jin Chan whispered.
"Good question, just go." Jin Ling drew his sword and moved up beside Jingyi. "Is there a plan?" he whispered.
"Not really," Jingyi whispered back.
Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning stepped to either side of the gate and Jin Ling realized they meant to go out. Wen Ning had a large chain wrapped around one arm that Jin Ling hadn't seen him use before. Sizhui stepped back to tell Jin Ling and Jingyi, "We stay inside the wards for now."
Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning glanced at each other, clearly a "here we go" look. Then together they shoved the gate open and burst out, as Hanguang-jun leapt for the peaked roof at the top of the wall.
Just as something huge and sickly pale loomed up, towering over the outpost.
Jin Ling shifted sideways instinctively to cover the open gate and Jingyi's flank. Hanguang-jun materialized his guqin and the chord attack hit the creature dead center. Jin Ling had been in range of the mild version of that chord attack before, the "back off assholes" version. This was the full power of the "die now" version and the giant creature rocked back with an ear-shattering roar.
Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning moved below the pallid shape, both shadows against the darkness. Light sparked as Wei Wuxian threw an array of talismans and Wen Ning's chain whipped against the creature's lower body. It wrenched away with another roar of baffled fury and Hanguang-jun cast a second chord attack.
It staggered again and shook itself, the sound like a mass of falling leaves and cracking branches. As the moon dropped its shroud of clouds and shone down on the clearing, Jin Ling saw Wei Wuxian right in front of the creature, barefoot on the dusty ground, lifting Chenqing to his lips.
Jin Ling felt the dizi's first notes tug at his chest, freeze the air in his lungs, then it passed through him. He saw the other disciples shudder with the sensation. Then dark drifts of smoke lifted into the air from all over the court. The drifts rose up into a swirling ball like an angry swarm of hornets. Then the whole mass shot toward the creature.
It flailed heavy arms, then made a fast agile turn and flung itself back through the forest, the dark cloud of spirits streaming after it.
Wei Wuxian lowered the dizi, and Wen Ning moved to stand beside him. "Chase?" Wen Ning asked, his gaze focused intensely on the shape crashing away through the trees.
"No. Tomorrow. It'll be weaker by daylight." Wei Wuxian turned back toward the gate, tucking Chenqing back into his belt.
Wen Ning gave him a sharp nod, then his whole body relaxed, suddenly becoming again the kind and easy-going man who had sat at the dining table with them telling stories to the juniors. Jin Ling had seen that transformation before, but it was always a shock.
The night was quiet again except for the wind, the sense of heaviness in the darkness gone. Jin Ling let his breath out and sheathed his sword. He flexed his hand, which ached from holding the hilt so tightly. Beside him, Jin Chan whispered, "That was awesome."
"We're so glad you enjoyed it," Sizhui said dryly.
"Wait till you see the matinee tomorrow," Jingyi added.
"No, I know, but it was awesome," Jin Chan persisted.
Jin Ling supposed he should tell him to shut up, but it wasn't like he was wrong. He said, "That was another resentment demon?"
"Yes, except that one had room to expand." Wei Wuxian stepped through the gate, wiping at his face. His hand came away stained dark; there was blood running from his nose. "Probably showed up because it felt it when the well demon died."
Wen Ning said, "Are you all right, Senior Wei?"
"I'm fine." But Wei Wuxian swayed, and suddenly Hanguang-jun was there to catch his arm and steady him.
Hanguang-jun walked Wei Wuxian back into the court and Wen Ning swung the gates shut. Jin Ling started to go help him set the bar, but he lifted it into place one-handed, then moved to take up a guard position.
As they passed the junior disciples, Wei Wuxian said, sounding a little woozy, "What are you kids doing up, it's past Lan bedtime." Hanguang-jun reinforced the order with a jerk of his head and the three juniors scattered back to their rooms. Apparently forgetting that they weren't Lans, Jin Lihua and Jin Tian hurried after them.
With Sizhui and Jingyi, Jin Ling watched Hanguang-jun walk Wei Wuxian slowly across the court. He asked, "Is it always so hard on him?"
Sizhui's mouth twisted. "No, I think it was that infestation in the well."
"Two powerful demons in one day," Jingyi agreed softly. "That doesn't happen very often. Fortunately."
At the stairs to the porch, Wei Wuxian's whole body went limp. Hanguang-jun swept him up before he fell and carried him through into the inner court.
Jin Ling came out into the cool damp morning, rubbing his face. The dawn light filtered through the trees and birds were singing. He didn't remember hearing any birds yesterday. That had to be a good sign.
He had gotten some sleep after his last turn at watch, which was good considering what might happen today. But getting rid of a massive resentment demon would be a step forward to helping Tingshan, and he felt pretty good about that.
Sizhui sat on the porch in front of Hanguang-jun's room so he walked over to join him. Warily, Jin Ling indicated the closed door with a jerk of his head. "Are they still..."
Sizhui said, "Hanguang-jun is up making congee. Senior Wei is still asleep."
"Oh." So the thing about Hanguang-jun cooking their dinner might not have been a joke. Jin Ling sat down next to Sizhui, the old wood creaking a little under his weight, and stifled a yawn. "Are you standing guard?"
"No. Well, Hanguang-jun said I didn't have to, but while I'm out here..." Sizhui shrugged.
Jin Ling had meant that for a joke. He said, "What, does it make him feel better?"
"It makes me feel better," Sizhui said wryly.
Jin Ling brushed some dirt off his boots. Trying to sound casual, so it didn't seem like he was interrogating Sizhui about things about Wei Wuxian that he should actually already know, he said, "Do that many people really still want to kill him?"
"It's not so much that," Sizhui said slowly. "It's more that they want to use him. He understands Demonic Cultivation better than anyone, and he comes up with new talismans all the time."
Jin Ling nodded, frowning, remembering what Jingyi had told him. "But he travels alone a lot, right? What happens then?"
"We worry." Sizhui's expression was grim. "There are places only he can go, where the ghosts would tear any other cultivator apart before they had a chance to lift their spiritual weapon. He says there's still a piece of the Burial Mounds in him and they recognize it."
Jin Ling shifted uneasily. "Jingyi told me that he travels almost all the time. That's one of the reasons... Tingshan really needs help." He made a vague gesture at the court in front of them. "You know." He realized he didn't know if Sizhui knew or not. He hadn't exactly made the announcement about the gift of the outpost that he had planned. But maybe Hanguang-jun had told his ward. "I mean, you know, right?"
Sizhui looked at him and smiled so brilliantly it made Jin Ling look away, his cheeks heating. "I know. Hanguang-jun didn't tell me, but I figured it out yesterday from something Jin Tian said." Jin Ling huffed in exasperation. His disciples had big mouths, always good to know. Sizhui added, "It's perfect, Jin Ling. Thank you."
Jin Ling looked down, pretending to be interested in the pebbles under his boots. He didn't want to get emotional right now. Suddenly desperate to change the subject, he asked, "Doesn't Wen Ning travel with Wei Wuxian?"
"Sometimes it's too dangerous for him, too." Sizhui said. "Uncle Wen and I traveled together for a while, and then he traveled alone, like that trip he talked about yesterday. He came back about a year ago to go on the night hunts with us. He said he saw a lot of the world, but it was lonely without us."
Jingyi wandered over to drop down next to Jin Ling, and heard the last part of the conversation. He added, "We should find Senior Wen a wife."
Glad for the change of subject, Jin Ling rolled his eyes. "Right, uh huh, we find a nice maiden--"
"She would have to be a cultivator," Jingyi insisted.
"Okay, a nice cultivator maiden, and then we murder her and turn her into a ghost puppet--"
Jingyi elbowed him. "It's a lot more complicated than that, okay? You don't know what you're talking about."
The door behind them slid open and Wei Wuxian stepped out. He was dressed, his hair pulled back again, but frizzy from the damp morning air. Smiling, he said, "These loud children! You could wake the dead."
Jin Ling thought, wow, that joke had a couple of layers to it. Before yesterday, he would probably have just sat here in uncomfortable silence. Now he said, "We're not children. If you'd stayed dead a little longer we'd be the same age."
Jingyi sputtered indignantly but Wei Wuxian laughed in delight. Jin Ling felt like he had passed some kind of test. Wei Wuxian said, "You'll always be children to me." He patted Sizhui's head. "I grew this one in a radish patch."
Sizhui grinned up at him. "I thought you gave birth to me."
Wei Wuxian stretched and yawned extravagantly, looking up at the cloud-strewn sky. "It can be both, the world is a complicated place."
This is such a weird family, Jin Ling thought, but at least they don't plot to kill each other.
They set out to track the creature after breakfast.
Once they were assembled outside the gates, Wei Wuxian played Chenqing and the black wisps of spirits shot out of the surrounding trees to circle above his head. He lowered the dizi and said, "Jin Ling! Where's your map?"
More prepared today, Jin Ling gestured to Jin Lihua and Jin Tian who stepped forward to unroll the map. Wei Wuxian tapped the dizi on a spot not far away. "It's gone to ground here. We need to split up before we reach it, and come in from two directions." He sounded completely certain, and Jin Ling realized the spirits must be tracking the demon for him.
Hanguang-jun turned to the disciples. "Make certain you are following either me, Wei Wuxian, or Wen Ning. Do not get between us and the quarry."
Jin Ling looked at his disciples and for once they were all paying attention, focused and serious. He felt good about this. The hunt would be success, or hopefully, if someone messed up, it wouldn't be a Jin.
Not long later, Jin Ling forgot about how well his disciples performed and just hoped they fucking survived.
It was clear the encounter last night had taken the demon by surprise; it must be used to ruling this part of the forest and toying with whatever humans came its way. It had not expected to encounter resistance at all, let alone such an aggressive attack. And now it was prepared.
It obviously knew it couldn't afford to let them surround it. It moved with blinding speed through the forest, frustrating their efforts to trap it between them. It knew who it had to kill too, fleeing Hanguang-jun's guqin but concentrating its attack on Wei Wuxian, not giving him any chance to use Chenqing.
Jin Ling remembered it later as just a series of images. Gasping, running, he and the disciples attacking with their swords when they could. Hanguang-jun flying through the air and then knocked sideways by a flailing limb. Wen Ning throwing a chain to wrap around the demon's leg, being dragged by it until he hit a rock. Wei Wuxian dodging between the trees, barely avoiding the crushing blows raining down, wood shattering around him. Lan Sizhui tackling Jin Ling out of the way of a blow that would have left them both a pile of splintered bones. Hanguang-jun flinging Jin Chan and Lan Fuling out of the creature's path. Wei Wuxian playing a short blast on Chenqing, just enough to send a swarm of dark spirits at the demon's face to force it to drop Jin Tian while Lan Feiyun and Lan Zhi struck at its legs with their swords.
The terrifying thing was that Jin Ling suspected Wei Wuxian was right: this thing was weaker in the daylight. As Jin Ling dragged Jingyi out from under a broken tree trunk, Jingyi gasped, "We're tiring it out!"
"Sure, right," Jin Ling said, and staggered back to the battle.
Jin Ling thought they finally had the demon as the creature crested a forested hill and charged toward his group. Then it slid to a halt, flattening saplings, and shook itself. A dozen man-sized creatures, ghouls made of human bones and splintered wood and animal parts, leapt off its back and rushed at them. The demon turned and lunged away, headed toward the west.
The ghouls pounced and Wen Ning caught the first, lifted it over his head and cracked it across his knee like kindling. Jin Ling didn't see Hanguang-jun or Wei Wuxian or Sizhui or Jingyi anywhere. It's trying to delay us, split us up, Jin Ling thought, and yelled, "Wen Ning, go, go! We'll handle these!"
Wen Ning nodded sharply and leapt into the air and away.
This fighting was more what the disciples were accustomed to and the junior Lans and Jins shifted to fight back to back. Soon Jin Ling was crushing the last ghoul's head with his boot. He stepped back, doing a quick headcount of disciples, and demanding randomly, "Which way?"
Jin Lihua cocked her head, then an instant later Jin Ling heard it too: screaming.
Lan Feiyun pointed. "That way! There was a village on the map!"
"Fuck!" Jin Ling yelled and pelted for the trees and the downward slope.
The trees were too thick for long flying leaps, unless you were Wen Ning and able to smash through any branch that got in your way. The growing smell of woodsmoke and manure told Jin Ling they were close. Within moments they emerged into a clearing where a small thatched house and vegetable garden lay enclosed in a frail wooden fence. It was the first house in the village, a wide path leading away from it toward the wood and stone houses huddled up on either side of narrow stream channel. The trees around it were full of villagers running, shouting warnings to each other.
The demon stood at the edge of the clearing. As Jin Ling and the others ran out of the forest, it let out an enraged roar. Wen Ning had trapped two of its legs in his chain, Sizhui and Jingyi hacked at another leg with their swords. Wei Wuxian stood near the opening to the little house's yard, playing Chenqing to control the swarm of spirits darting and writhing around the demon's head. Jin Ling didn't see Hanguang-jun, no, there he was, suspended in the air facing the creature, poised to attack with Bichen, barely twenty paces from the demon's head.
"What is he waiting for," Jin Ling muttered.
Lan Zhi pointed urgently. "It's caught someone, see?"
"Oh no," Jin Lihua gasped.
In the blunt hand at the end of one of its upper limbs, the demon held a small struggling shape, a young boy. The demon shook its head, throwing off the attacking spirits, refusing to drop its prey. Jin Ling swore, thinking frantically. We need a weapon, a big weapon, no, we could distract it, throw ourselves--
A woman, her face tear-streaked and desperate, ran out of the house to Wei Wuxian, holding out a bow and a handful of arrows. He dropped Chenqing and took them from her.
Jin Ling grimaced in dismay. That was an ordinary hunting bow, not a war bow, there was no way--
Wei Wuxian put six arrows to the bow, dropped to his knees to get the right angle, and fired. All six flew under Hanguang-jun's position and struck the creature right in its wrist joint, in a neat tight cluster. Its hand flew open and it dropped its struggling prey. Lan Sizhui flung himself forward and caught the boy before he hit the ground, cushioning his fall. And Hanguang-jun drove Bichen through the creature's head.
Jin Chan yelled, "Holy shit!"
Wen Ning swung his chain, trying to guide the demon's collapse, but it fell and smashed a wooden fence on the far side of the clearing. Jingyi tossed Wen Ning his sword, and Wen Ning leapt atop the demon and started methodically stabbing its skull.
Jin Ling wanted to sit down on the grass and ride the wave of relief. Instead he pointed and croaked out, "Go, help him, make sure it's dead."
The Jins ran to obey while the Lans headed toward Hanguang-jun. Wei Wuxian and the woman had reached Sizhui, who had gently lowered the boy to the ground. The boy isn't crying, Jin Ling thought, starting to run toward them.
He reached the little group kneeling around the boy at the same time as Hanguang-jun. The woman was rocking back and forth in horror, her fists pressed against her mouth.
The boy lay on his back, his shirt pulled open. A black stain spread across the boy's chest, dark and glittering and deadly, growing out from where the demon's fingers had pressed into his flesh. "A curse. It cursed him," Jin Ling said, his heart sinking. A dying demon's curse.
Wei Wuxian was stripping off his leather wrist guards and shaking his sleeves back. "Everybody back up."
Lan Sizhui stared at him but reluctantly eased back. Lan Feiyun ran around the group to urge the weeping woman away. Jin Ling realized what he was looking at and his jaw dropped. He turned to Hanguang-jun and said, "No. Tell him no, don't let him do it."
Hanguang-jun ignored him, his gaze never leaving Wei Wuxian. He took a breath as if he was about to speak, then his jaw tightened and he said nothing.
Jin Ling shook his head, sick. It's too much, he's done too much today already, it could kill him. "Uncle Wei, no! Put the curse on me! I can take it!"
Wei Wuxian huffed a laugh. "That's not the way this works, Jin Ling," he said, and put his hands on the boy's chest.
The moment stretched, breathless and silent, then the dark growing rot fled from the boy's skin and raced up Wei Wuxian hands and arms. He gasped in a breath, then convulsed and fell backward.
Lan Feiyan lunged in and pulled the boy out of the way as the others clustered around Wei Wuxian. He convulsed again, twisting and digging his hands into the grass, fighting something invisible.
Watching, horrified, Jin Ling was distantly aware of the village woman pulling the rescued boy into her lap, soothing him as he started to cry. Lan Sizhui was at Jin Ling's side, saying, "It's all right. It's the demon, still trying to fight him. He can win. He's done it before."
Wen Ning ran toward them and stopped, his expression entirely human and knotted with concern. The Jin disciples followed behind him and Jin Ling held up a hand to tell them to stay back. They stopped in their tracks, eyes wide.
Then Lan Fuling said, "Hanguang-jun, the villagers are coming."
Jin Ling looked back, saw a crowd moving toward them from out of the trees, about twenty or thirty people.
Wei Wuxian suddenly shoved himself up, struggling to stand. Hanguang-jun gripped his shoulders and forced him back down. His voice calm, he said, "Wei Ying, stop."
"We need to go," Wei Wuxian growled, fighting him. His expression was completely wild.
Hanguang-jun wrestled to keep him on the ground as the Lan disciples scattered out of the way. "Nothing will happen, Wei Ying," Hanguang-jun said, his voice still calm and even.
Jin Ling had seen veterans of the Sunshot Campaign, cultivators who had been held in the prisons under the Nightless City. Wei Wuxian was out of his head and had reasons to fear being helpless and surrounded by a crowd.
Jin Ling turned to face the villagers and strode forward, putting confidence in his step. The nearest in the group fell back a little and the others stopped. He held up his hand and said in his best Sect Leader Who Has Everything Under Control Here No Really voice, "We're cultivators from the Jin and Lan sects and we're here to help with the ghosts and demons in this area." The villagers should recognize them as Jin, with their golden robes and vermillion marks, and they might recognize the white and blue designs of the Lan. He hoped they didn't recognize anyone else. "The boy was cursed but he will recover. Is there more of his family here? His family should go to him."
Two elderly women and a young man pushed out of the crowd and ran to help the woman with the boy. The others continued to stand there, moving uneasily, regarding Jin Ling and the whole scene with expressions he couldn't quite decipher.
It was obviously not a rich village. They wore simple robes, the colors slightly faded, and no one looked prosperous. They must not see cultivators very often, especially Jin, more known in this area for killing a significant portion of the population. Jin Ling supposed that even in Tingshan, this was a lot to take in, and it wasn't everyday you ended up with a demon carcass lying at the edge of your village. Then an older man in the back said, "The Jin haven't been here since they slaughtered the He."
"Well, I was a baby when that happened," Jin Ling said flatly, too exhausted and emotionally rung out to be more diplomatic. "And everyone who was responsible for it is dead."
The crowd went still, now staring at him in watchful silence.
Jin Ling felt compelled to add, "I didn't kill them, the people responsible. That was someone else. It's over now, is what I'm trying to say."
A few of them exchanged thoughtful expressions. Some looked past him at the Jin disciples, still standing a little distance away. Jin Tian was crying while Jin Lihua patted his shoulder helplessly. Jin Chan wavered on his feet, like he might fall over at any moment. Jin Ling felt his words had at least caused a shift in opinion, though he couldn't tell in what way. Then a grandmother pointed past him. "Is he going to be all right?"
"Uh." Jin Ling turned and found his throat tight again. Wei Wuxian had gone limp, but he looked like he was dying, pale and semi-conscious, like someone far gone in a terrible fever. Hanguang-jun knelt next to him, his expression closed and intense, the hand on Wei Wuxian's temple sparking with spiritual energy. The rest of the Lan group gathered in a concerned huddle, and Wen Ning had a comforting arm around Sizhui. "That's my uncle. The demon tried to curse the boy and he had to...deal with it."
The grandmother nodded. "I saw. Do you want to take your uncle into my house? It's more comfortable than the ground. I'll make tea."
"I think--" Jin Ling scrubbed at his eyes. The kindness was the absolute last straw. Don't cry, he told himself. Jin Tian was crying enough for everybody. "Yes, that would be good, Grandmother. Thank you."
Wei Wuxian drifted back to consciousness. He was on his side, his face mashed down into rough cotton. His immediate memory was empty, nothing but fighting, running, branches catching at him, fearing for the others fighting beside him. He stirred, tried to push himself up and realized he was partially undressed, his wrist guards, outer robe, and boots gone. The thought captured shot through his brain and electrified his body.
He flailed up and lunged off the bed, smacked into someone who caught him and pinned him back down. Fortunately that someone was familiar.
"Lan Zhan," he said, shuddering, letting the overwhelming urge to flee or fight run out of him.
"Wei Ying." Lan Zhan let go of his shoulders and sat on the bed beside him, carefully brushed aside the disheveled mass of Wei Wuxian's hair. "All is well. It's evening, the same day."
Breathing hard, he still didn't remember where they were or what they were supposed to be doing. He said, "What happened?"
"The demon, the curse."
"That doesn't narrow it down." But the panic was leaking out of his body, into the quiet of their surroundings, chickens clucking somewhere outside the wooden screen of the window and the smell of frying meat in the air. They were in a room in a modest house, not anywhere he recognized. The pounding of his heart slowed.
"Tingshan, with Jin Ling and the others," Lan Zhan prompted.
"Oh, that demon." Memories assembled and fell into place. He lifted his hands, his sleeves falling back to reveal ordinary skin, scratched and bruised from the fight, dirt ground under his nails. The curse was gone, expelled, as dead as the creature who had cast it. He let himself settle onto the lumpy bed. "The boy? The village?"
He could see the tension in Lan Zhan's body relax. "The boy recovered. We're in the village. The demon collapsed on the ox enclosure." As Wei Wuxian frowned, Lan Zhan assured him, "The ox lives. Jin Ling ordered his disciples to fix the fence."
Wei Wuxian snorted. "And they made a mess of it." Living in a gold palace didn't prepare you for some things.
"Correct. I suspect the village will take it apart and repair it again after we leave."
More details were coming back to him. "Jin Ling called me Uncle Wei," he said, startled.
Lan Zhan's smile warmed further. "He did."
An elderly woman carried a pitcher of water into the room and set it next to the bowl on the table. "Better?" she asked.
"Yes, Grandmother," Lan Zhan answered. "Thank you again for your help."
She nodded, eyeing Wei Wuxian. Then she said, "We know who you are."
Uh oh. He looked at Lan Zhan, whose brow furrowed slightly. "Oh, Grandmother," Wei Wuxian said, pulling himself together to concoct a good story, pushing himself up into a sitting position, mustering his charm to look as endearing and harmless as possible. "Grandmother, you're mistaken. I get confused for him all the time. It's an unfortunate resemblance--"
She said patiently, "I haven't told you who I know you are yet."
Which explained why Lan Zhan kept squeezing his wrist. Before Wei Wuxian could regroup, she added, "And don't say I can't recognize the Ghost General, who offered to feed the goats for me." She nodded to Lan Zhan. "And there's him, the One Who Goes Where Chaos is."
Wei Wuxian was too wary to make the obvious hello, I'm Chaos joke. Lan Zhan inclined his head and said, "Then, Grandmother, you know there's nothing to fear."
"I know. My older sister lived in Yiling." She fixed her determined gaze on Wei Wuxian again. "You kept the ghosts out of the houses of the poor, who had to live at the feet of the Burial Mounds. The people left offerings to you."
Lan Zhan shifted to look at him, frowning. "Offerings?"
"Mostly potatoes," Wei Wuxian admitted. "A loquat when they wanted something big."
Lan Zhan controlled a smile, keeping his expression serious.
The grandmother clarified, "I am saying, we watched the Jin kill the He, and whoever tried to help them. We knew they had done nothing to deserve it. So we were never eager to believe anything the Jin said, about you or anyone else. Also, you saved the life of my nephew's only son. You're welcome here." She nodded to them and walked out of the room, leaving Wei Wuxian to bite his lip and stare hard at the wall, while Lan Zhan squeezed his hand.
Finally he was able to laugh a little and face Lan Zhan again. "Well, that was a change."
Lan Zhan smiled, said softly, "I think more change is coming."
It was dusk and the village lamps were lit when Jin Ling saw Hanguang-jun come out of the grandmother's house. He hurried down the wooden walkway that ran alongside the creek to meet him.
They had spent the afternoon here, at first letting the disciples recover with rest and food. Even though everyone insisted that Wei Wuxian would be fine, Jin Ling had needed a distraction, so had occupied the Jin disciples and himself with trying to fix some of the damage to the village's ox pen. They had also scouted around the outskirts with Wen Ning and the Lans, marking places where the villagers had encountered ghosts or other disturbing influences.
"He's awake and well," Hanguang-jun said, as soon as Jin Ling reached him.
Jin Ling said, "Oh, good." Then found himself just standing there uncertainly. He wasn't sure what he wanted to say. Maybe he should just walk away, or maybe it was too late to walk away and he was stuck here until Hanguang-jun walked away.
Before he could make a decision, Hanguang-jun said, "This is the first time you've watched your uncle work; I understand it can be disturbing. It may not seem so at times, but he does know his limits."
Jin Ling bit his lip, very aware that during the whole curse thing he had reacted like a child instead of a sect leader. "I'm sorry, I should have...trusted you both."
"Trust must be earned." Hanguang-jun looked down toward the end of the village where Wen Ning and the others were sitting on the benches under the awning of the only food stall. "We both have rules we agree to abide by, though as you may have noticed your uncle enjoys testing those boundaries. We do not give each other orders. And while he agrees to avoid unnecessary risks, I agree not to interfere with his decisions about his cultivation method."
"Why doesn't he live in Cloud Recesses?" The words came out before Jin Ling knew they were going to, and he knew immediately he had overstepped.
Hanguang-jun eyed him, the flicker of the nearest lamp masking any possible clue to his reaction. "Because it would require him to accept constraints on his behavior that are obviously unnecessary. There are things I will not ask of him." If he had added and that's the only answer you're getting it couldn't have been more plain.
Jin Ling stepped back and bowed formally, an apology for overstepping. "Thank you, Hanguang-jun."
Hanguang-jun bowed back, and continued down the walkway.
It was only a little later when Jin Ling returned to find Wei Wuxian on the walkway overlooking the stream. He looked better than he had this morning, with the dirt and leaves brushed from his outer robe and the red ribbon back in his hair. In the lamplit dusk, he also looked very much the Yiling Patriarch, if you ignored the fact that he was leaning over the railing to make clucking noises at the family of sleeping ducks on the grassy bank below. Jin Ling asked, "Should you be up?"
His uncle shrugged, still engrossed in the ducks. "I'm fine. It wasn't that bad."
"It looked horrible." Jin Ling leaned on the rail next to him. The cool evening breeze moved through the trees in a chorus of wind chimes that complemented the chuckle of the stream. "I saw Hanguang-jun earlier but I don't know where he is now."
Wei Wuxian laughed. "He's trying to make the villagers accept payment for the food they gave us."
Scandalized, Jin Ling jolted away from the rail. "Oh, I should pay for that!"
But Wei Wuxian caught his sleeve and pulled him back. "I need to talk to you."
Jin Ling let himself be drawn back. He thought it would be about the plans for more night hunts, but Wei Wuxian glanced at him, his dark gaze suddenly serious. "You know who Sizhui is."
Jin Ling nodded. "He forgot I was a Jin, and called Wen Ning 'uncle' in front of me. And you heard him, and you made the joke about the radish patch to let me know it was okay that I knew." And he thought, people think you joke about giving birth to Hanguang-jun's ward because you're Hanguang-jun's lover, but it's because he was your ward first. "He's a Wen from the Burial Mounds." And my paternal grandfather had his whole family slaughtered, just like he did the He. "I won't tell anybody. If there's anybody who still cares."
"There are some who still care." Wei Wuxian looked down at the stream again. "It's better you should know, before you put Sizhui in charge of the outpost. I didn't want you to find out later and think we'd tricked you."
"Sizhui? Huh?" Jin Ling was startled. "I thought you-- Oh shit, I didn't tell you!"
Wei Wuxian turned to him, obviously puzzled. "Tell me what?"
Jin Ling made a vague gesture at all of Tingshan. "You. I mean, this is for you. I'm giving you the outpost."
Wei Wuxian stared blankly at him. "It's a Lan outpost, even if it's in Jin territory..."
"It was, but Hanguang-jun gave up the Lan claim on it so I could give it to you."
Wei Wuxian seemed honestly floored. "How did I not know this? Why didn't you tell me?"
"I was going to before I left, and then I ended up not leaving." Jin Ling shrugged helplessly. "I don't know."
"Jin Ling." Wei Wuxian leaned back against the rail and seemed so overcome Jin Ling was a little worried he might faint again. "Why?"
"Somebody has to help Tingshan. That's obviously you." Jin Ling found himself overcome too, and wished he had brought a copy of the sensible and coherent letter he had written to Hanguang-jun, so he could just hand it to Wei Wuxian instead of trying to say it. "And the Jin... We took everything away from you. Jin Guangyao but also grandfather and..." Right, now he was crying and his uncle was crying and this was the emotional scene he had wanted to avoid. "I just wanted to fix one thing! Just make one thing right!"
Then Wei Wuxian pulled him in and he was sobbing on his Uncle's shoulder.
Behind him somewhere, Jingyi whispered, "It's okay, they're just crying."
Hanguang-jun's voice said, "Jingyi, get out of there."
"It needs a name," Jin Ling said into the shoulder of Wei Wuxian's now tear-stained robe, trying to stop sobbing. "And you can't call it Demon Slaughtering Cave."
"Demon Slaughtering Cave, the Annex," his Uncle said.
"Demon Vanquishing Hill."
"That's...Okay, that's actually not bad," Jin Ling admitted, surprised.
"Okay, okay, enough," his Uncle said, stepping back and pressing his sleeve against his eyes. "Let's go..." He hesitated and when he said the word it had a different weight to it. "Home."