Chapter 1: Chapter One
The whole thing had started as Jin Ling's idea, the seed of which was planted three years ago on the day that Chief Cultivator Hanguang-jun and Sect Leader Nie Huaisang had been asked to come to Carp Tower to dispose of some of the artifacts still in Jin Guangyao's secret room.
Jin Ling had only been inside it once before, after his Uncle Jiang had brought in a group of historians and cultivators from other sects to help catalog it. Jin Ling had still been reeling under the effect of too many terrible revelations, knowing what had happened without really understanding any of it. He had asked what one of the strange iron tools was for and got immediately frog-marched out by Uncle Jiang and hadn't seen the room since. But today he had been allowed to come back.
Nie Huaisang was sitting on the floor, staring at a small box of ornaments and tassels that must have been taken from Nie Mingjue's body. It made Jin Ling's skin creep to see it. But Hanguang-jun had only come to collect two battered black bags of papers.
It was tense. Uncle Jiang had spoken one sentence to Hanguang-jun the entire time, about the papers. He said, "I could have destroyed them."
Hanguang-jun had ignored him completely, but then Jin Ling didn't think Hanguang-jun had spoken a single word since arriving in Carp Tower.
Hoping for a distraction, Jin Ling opened a box and found two objects wrapped in paper. He unwrapped the first to see it was a hair comb. If it was a memento, it was odd to find it here in this room of magic and pain and grisly trophies. "Uncle Jiang, what do you think Jin Guangyao wanted this for? Who could it belong to?"
Uncle Jiang stepped over to look, his glower dissolving into bewilderment. "That's... That belonged to Wen Qing."
"The Ghost General's sister?" Jin Ling grimaced. Some kind of souvenir of the woman's execution? He unwrapped the next and found a second comb. It was made from lighter-colored wood, carved with a startlingly familiar lotus design.
Still sounding stunned, Uncle Jiang said, "It's not your mother's, I have hers." Jin Ling flinched at the idea that something of his mother's might be in here. It made the whole thing real somehow, made him realize in a visceral way that so many of these objects were tied to people who had suffered, that those people would have families, friends.
Nie Huaisang and Hanguang-jun had both stepped closer. Uncle Jiang glanced up at them, his face settling back into its accustomed grim lines. "It must be Wei Wuxian's. It was from a matching set."
He took these from the Burial Mounds, Jing Ling thought. The idea made him queasy though he wasn't sure why. He could understand taking the papers, the Yiling Patriarch's writings. They knew now that that had been an important part of the plan, or at least Jin Guangshan's plan: to steal Wei Wuxian's work and use it to become as powerful as Wen Ruohan. "But why would Jin Guangyao take these?"
He looked up to meet Nie Huaisang's suddenly implacable gaze. Nie Huaisang said, "Because he lost his chance to take their heads." He pushed away from the table, snatched up the box with Nie Mingjue's possessions and stalked out of the room.
Jin Ling swallowed in a suddenly dry throat. He looked up at Hanguang-jun and saw an expression of such cold rage cross his face that he had to lock his throat against a gasp. Uncle Jiang was already turning away. Hanguang-jun held out his hand.
Flustered, Jin Ling re-wrapped both combs and handed them over. Hanguang-jun tucked them into the bag and followed Nie Huaisang.
It had been a day of uncomfortable realizations, which was about how things had been going for Jin Ling in the three years since.
For the first two years his Uncle Jiang had helped Jin Ling, as he put it, "clean house" and try to root out the corruption that was woven all through the Jin sect.
"It's like moldy fruit," Uncle Jiang told him. "If you cut off the mold, you can still eat the fruit."
"That's the most depressing and disgusting thing I ever heard," Jin Ling had replied, and Uncle Jiang told him to shut up.
But a year ago Uncle Jiang had "washed his hands of the whole business," which Jin Ling was able to translate as "I think I've gotten you to a point where you can handle this yourself. You need to stand on your own feet now."
This, like Uncle Jiang's other instruction to "stop fighting with your own disciples and being an idiot" was more easily said than done.
One of the many problems Jin Ling hadn't anticipated was that he and his older disciples had spent so much time on sect business and training that they had little time for night hunting. And when he tried to start regular night hunts again, he found that training in Carp Tower wasn't a good substitute for the real thing.
This was brought home especially when he took a small group of disciples his own age on a joint night hunt with other sects on the Lanling border. As dawn started to break, Jin Ling knew that while nobody had died and they had managed to kill a few creatures, they had made an absolutely shit job of the whole thing and that his leadership was largely to blame. He realized now he had hunted alone too much when he was younger, when Jin Guangyao had encouraged him to stop going out with the Jiang disciples, had filled his head with his own importance. He didn't know how to work in a group anymore, if he had ever learned in the first place.
Depressed and angry at himself, Jin Ling was outside the inn where he and his disciples had rooms, trying to clean Measuring Snake guts off his boots in the dim morning light. When Lan Jingyi had come along to use the water trough too, Jin Ling just hoped he didn't want to compare their performances. If he did, Jin Ling was going to lie his ass off.
Instead, Jingyi said, "Senior Wei is here, are you going to talk to him?"
Jin Ling had seen Wei Wuxian down the street, in the shadows of an alley, standing with a group of junior Lan disciples, with Wen Ning and Lan Sizhui. It looked like they had had a successful night, the little Lans all talking eagerly. Wei Wuxian was laughing, leaning on Wen Ning, and twirling Chenqing. Jin Ling had struggled with simultaneous attacks of envy and extreme self-consciousness. He had sent Fairy up to his room with Jin Chan, and gone around the side of the inn to wash up and find a place to hide.
He hadn't talked to Wei Wuxian since the Guanyin temple. At first it had been the whirlwind of suddenly inheriting the Jin sect and needing Uncle Jiang's help constantly, and the creeping horribleness of learning more about what his paternal grandfather and Jin Guangyao had done. Every letter he had tried to write had started "Dear Wei Wuxian, I am sorry I stabbed you" and then never gotten any further. He wished he had ignored his Uncle Jiang and run after Wei Wuxian and the others as they had left the temple. It felt like a moment that he had let slip by, and now his silence had become the answer to an unasked question, whether he had wanted it to or not. But none of that was Lan Jingyi's business. Jin Ling just said, "I'll see him at the conference tomorrow." It would be formal, everyone would be in groups, talking. It would be much easier, he told himself.
Lan Jingyi snorted. "He won't be there."
"What, are they night hunting during the conference?" I wish I could night hunt during the conference, Jin Ling thought with another surge of envy. He'd heard about the Lan night hunts from Ouyang Zizchen, who still trained with the groups that went out from Cloud Recesses. He had said We call it Advanced Night Hunting with the Yiling Patriarch. Guest Lecturer is the Ghost General. It's a tough course but the practical has a one hundred percent survival rate, at least so far.
Jingyi eyed him suspiciously, like he thought Jin Ling was pretending not to know something that was obvious to everyone. "Senior Wei isn't staying at Cloud Recesses."
Jin Ling frowned. "What? I thought he lived there."
Jingyi relaxed a little, now that it was evident that Jin Ling was really ignorant about all this, whatever this was. "Sure, in the cold months, when no one's travelling. He doesn't stay much the rest of the year, just comes into Caiyi to see Hanguang-jun or meet us for night hunting. And then Hanguang-jun goes off to meet him a lot, usually when there's something really awful to tackle that they don't want us involved with."
Jin Ling pulled his boots back on, trying to digest this information. "Why? Too many rules at Cloud Recesses?"
Jingyi looked at him like he was an idiot. "Master Lan Qiren isn't happy about him being there."
Jin Ling stared at him incredulously. "So he won't let him stay?" That seemed...really unfair.
Jingyi rolled his eyes at Jin Ling's obtuseness. "No, but Senior Wei doesn't want to cause trouble for Hanguang-jun. And a lot of cultivators travel to Cloud Recesses, and there are meetings, and that always gets..." Jingyi shrugged, obviously genuinely upset. He finished, "Weird and uncomfortable. And disrespectful. Some of them want to make sure he doesn't have anything to do with the junior disciples from their sects. Others... It's like they want things from him, like talismans and spirit flags and how to make them, but that they hate that they need him, and they don't want anyone to know they associate with him so..." He shrugged again. "You'd have to be there and see it to really understand."
Jin Ling didn't want to see it. "Are they out of their minds? He has talismans that can make their parts dry up and fall off. He took a curse off my leg and took it into his own body." He hadn't known that until the sect historian had found a letter from Su She to Jin Guangyao about it, in the awful secret room. "And Hanguang-jun doesn't defend him? I thought they were..." He scratched his nose uncomfortably. "Friends."
Jingyi eyed him suspiciously again, as if judging the implication of every intonation in the word. Finally he said, "Well, they are, but that wouldn't make the situation better with Lan Qiren would it? If Lan Qiren supported him, it wouldn't be weird, the visitors would just have to be polite around him."
Jin Ling remembered Jin Guangyao saying if Uncle Jiang had just supported his brother, the massacre of the Wens and the battle at Nightless City would never have happened. "So where does he live, then?"
"Nowhere, really. He just travels." Jingyi kicked the trough absently. "It'll be better when Zewu-jun gets out of seclusion, but until then, this is how it is." Jingyi looked around, and Jin Ling realized the Lan party had already vanished, as completely as if they had used teleportation talismans. After what Jingyi had just told him, he wondered if they had left because a Yao night hunting party had appeared at the end of the street. Jingyi said, "Oops, got to go."
Watching him walk away, Jin Ling found he now had a whole new set of things to be depressed about.
When Jin Ling had the time he would dig further into the Jin archives, though sometimes it was hard without succumbing to the urge to punch a wall. The recent history of the sect had so many horrible things he could do nothing about. One evening, upset and ready to fly off into the mountains to become a rogue cultivator, he had finally taken his chief advisor's advice to pick something he might actually be able to fix, and make a plan to fix it. That something turned out to be Tingshan, overrun with ghosts and yao and demons and everything imaginable after Jin Guangshan had slaughtered every member of the He sect, from the eldest grandmother down to the youngest baby, so Xue Yang could use them to make fierce corpses.
Reading through the accounts of it was like poking a raw wound, but Jin Ling couldn't stop. The region had never recovered, with the market towns failing due to travelers and traders being afraid to take the roads, and small villages huddled in fear of what walked the forests. It had been a prosperous, well-populated place, long before the Jin sect had existed. Restoring the roads and inhabited areas to anything close to reasonable safety was obviously a longterm project, the work of years, not something a few scattered night hunts could make a dent in.
The Lans had even had an outpost in Tingshan, for their cultivators to use when traveling through it for night hunts. The last record of the outpost was when the He sect had originally settled in the area, and it was listed as falling out of use. I wonder what kind of shape it's in, Jin Ling thought. As a sect structure it should be warded against decay and incursions. A place like that, where roving night hunting parties could rest comfortably and maybe even get help from other cultivators, would make it so much easier to clean up the region. And that was when he got the brilliant idea.
Jin Ling explained his thinking to his Chief Advisor, Meng Jiangnu, and she said, "That is a fine idea."
Jin Ling knew she wasn't just saying that to appease her Sect Leader. She had been sent to Carp Tower by his Uncle Jiang, not long after Jin Ling had inherited the sect. She was one of the only surviving cultivators of his maternal grandparents' generation from Lotus Pier, and had been caught outside the compound in the early stages of the attack and left for dead. A boatman's family from the town had found her and hidden her, but it had taken her years to recover and she had never re-attained her previous level of cultivation.
He had still been dumb and angry when she first arrived, and all the implications of the secret room had finally been sinking in. He had decided Uncle Jiang had sent her to spy on him. "The Yiling Patriarch is back, aren't you terrified?" he had asked her, just to be mean.
She had snorted and said, "I rescued the Yiling Patriarch from being stuck in a mud flat when he was six years old. I thought your maternal grandmother would murder both of us on the spot. Now that was terrifying." She waved her hands. "I saw my life flash before my eyes! I'd faced demons who weren't as terrible as that!"
"Why? I mean, why was Grandmother angry about that?" As a kid, Jin Ling had been stuck in his share of mud flats at Lotus Pier. From what he remembered, they had all been occasions for great hilarity at his expense.
"That's a really good question," she had said.
Soon he grew to wish Uncle Jiang had sent Meng Jiangnu to him when he was younger, but he knew if he had, she would just have become one of Jin Guangyao's many victims. And honestly, any younger and he probably would have been too dumb to listen to her. She had told him a lot more stories about her early days at Lotus Pier. They all ended with "and now you know why your Uncle Jiang is like that," or "your mother should have been considered an immortal hero just for surviving her girlhood," or "your Uncle Wei was hit in the head so many times the poor man's brain probably still rattles."
Those stories had made Jin Ling remember that one of the first questions Wei Wuxian had asked him was if his Uncle Jiang ever hit him.
But now, with Meng Jiangnu's stamp of approval on his plan, it made him all the more determined to carry it out.
Only a few days later, Ouyang Zizhen, traveling with a few junior disciples, stopped at Carp Tower to stay overnight on his way to another joint Lan night hunt. They had dinner in one of the more casual rooms, with less overbearing gold and a good view of the valley and windows that caught the evening breeze. After they finished eating and the disciples were talking among themselves, Jin Ling had wrestled his jealousy into submission, sworn Zizhen to secrecy, and told him about the plan.
As he explained, Zizhen nodded enthusiastically. "That's a great idea!"
"I know!" It was an incredible idea. "But I want it to be a surprise." He had thought a lot about this part. "So I could arrange a night hunt, and invite him, and just go there--"
Ouyang Zizhen screwed his face up doubtfully and said, "If I was him, I wouldn't like surprises."
"And if I was him and anyone who was from my family said, 'hey, come out into this remote area with me and my disciples, I have a surprise for you,' I'd think you were going to murder me."
"Hey!" Jin Ling tried to sound irritated and not as genuinely wounded as he actually was.
"I'm just saying what everyone will think." After dropping that devastating pronouncement, Ouyang Zizhen tapped his chin and considered. "You should write to Hanguang-jun first and tell him. You'll have to anyway, to settle things about the ownership of the compound. And then you can invite him and Senior Wei to come and see it together, make it a joint hunt, and no will think you're trying to murder anybody." Then he ruined it by adding, "And it will be easier for you than speaking to Hanguang-jun in person, since you're afraid of him."
"I'm not afraid of him!" Jin Ling sputtered. "I'm respectful!"
"Sure. So why are you afraid to write to him?"
"It's difficult. He hates my Uncle Jiang, you know."
"He doesn't hate him. As far as he's concerned, your Uncle Jiang doesn't exist." Ouyang Zizhen held out a hand, as if indicating a measuring scale. "That's on a whole other level above hate. It's way worse."
Jing Ling shook his head. "Is this your way of trying to be helpful?"
"Okay, okay." Ouyang Zizhen poured them both more wine. "Do you still feel guilty for stabbing Senior Wei? Because you should."
Jin Ling gasped with indignation, some of which was real and not a cover for his actual guilt. "I don't-- I'm not--" He grimaced. It was true, but it wasn't what he wanted to hear. He muttered, "I need better friends."
Zizhen grinned. "I can tell Lan Jingyi you need to talk to him."
"No! He's worse than you." Jin Ling struggled with himself for a moment and then admitted, "I don't want to write to the Chief Cultivator because I want to be the one to give this to Wei Wuxian. Not Hanguang-jun." Jin Ling was going to pay for all the repairs and the supplies to the outpost, so the Lans wouldn't be contributing anything except to relinquish their claim on the buildings. And considering how much time Wei Wuxian evidently spent teaching Lan disciples, they would still have the use of the place anyway.
"Then tell Hanguang-jun that. Say 'I would like to give my Uncle Wei this gift.'" Ouyang Zizhen shrugged. "Easy."
Jin Ling supposed it was easy, for somebody who said aloud every thought that passed through their brain. But...it wasn't bad advice.
That night he wrote the letter, and gave it to Zizhen to take the Hanguang-jun.
Two weeks later, he was meeting Wei Wuxian and the Lans at the border to Tingshan.
"So, this is awkward," Jin Chan said, watching the Lan party fly in on their swords.
It was mid-morning, the sky bright and clear and a cool breeze moving through the trees. They were in a clearing near the edge of a low bluff, with a good view of a wide valley with the bright sparkle of a river running through it. Jin Ling's stomach was jumpy with nerves. He said, "Shut up. Just, nobody say anything." He could see the Lans now, all white and blue robes, and one distinctive figure in black. Wei Wuxian, riding Bichen with Hanguang-jun. Lan Jingyi. Three Lan juniors he didn't know, all younger than him, and two were girls. Huh, that was Lan Sizhui flying his sword with another figure in black robes riding with him...
"That's just going to make it more awkward, if we just don't ever talk--" Jin Chan began. Then he gasped. "Oh, shit, that's... They brought the Ghost General."
Great, Jin Ling thought, but then reminded himself that he had told Hanguang-jun that the usual Lan night hunting party was welcome, and that he did owe Wen Ning his life. It was just that this was going to be awkward enough. "Of course they did, because they think we're going to murder Wei Wuxian." His disciples turned to look at him, wide-eyed and startled. Okay, that was upsetting. "Which we are not! Fuck... This sect doesn't do that anymore, okay?"
Everybody looked relieved, then the Lan party was dropping toward the grassy bluff and Jin Ling needed to get his shit together.
Once everyone was on the ground, Jin Ling formally greeted Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian, then began to introduce his disciples. And that was when he remembered that Jin Chan had been one of Mo Xuanyu's bullies and he had almost attacked a disguised Wei Wuxian at Carp Tower. Wei Wuxian won't remember him, he told himself. It was more than three years ago and Ouyang Zizhen said he has a bad memory for faces.
"Oh, Jin Ling, Jin Ling." Wei Wuxian smiled as Jin Chan made his bow. "It's one thing if I catch them on my own, but as their Sect Leader you really shouldn't hand them over to your uncle as gifts."
Jin Chan went pale, and all the Lan disciples eyed him suspiciously. Wen Ning, who had been looking around at the view of the valley, turned back and cocked his head, his gaze suddenly fixed with interest on Jin Chan. It wasn't the scariest thing Jin Ling had ever seen, but it wasn't low on the list, either. Jin Ling kicked Jin Chan in the foot and Jin Chan stammered a belated apology.
Hanguang-jun, completely without expression, said, "Wei Wuxian was joking."
Wei Wuxian smiled at Hanguang-jun. "Was I?"
"Yes," Hanguang-jun said firmly.
"Hah, hah, right," Jin Ling said, desperate. "We should go, if we're going to get there by this afternoon."
Hanguang-jun inclined his head in acknowledgement.
As the two groups parted again and Jin Ling led his disciples back to pick up their packs, Jin Chan said, "So we're not going to murder him but did you consider that he might murder all of us?"
"Jin Chan..." Jin Ling thought of something his chief advisor had once said: sometimes you have to bare your teeth and show them who you really are. Wei Wuxian's comment had been a joke, but it had also been a reminder. He had never been given any reason to trust Jin disciples and that had been a pretty clear way to say don't fuck with me. And Jin Chan did deserve it. Jin Ling finished, "...I'm sure he'll spare Jin Lihua. She's the youngest."
Jin Tian made a noise of protest. Deadpan, Jin Lihua elbowed Jin Chan and said, "You can write a goodbye note and I'll take it to your mother."
Cutting off the resulting "that's not funny" argument, Jin Ling said, "Get on your swords, we need to get moving."
It took a few hours flight by sword, then the forest was so thick that they had to land and walk on the road before it disappeared from view. Jin Ling's map took them to the spot where the old path broke off that led up a gradual slope in the forest, but it was too overgrown to see much of, and Wei Wuxian used a talisman to find their way.
They followed the glow of the talisman until about midday, though it was hard to see the sun in the dense forest. The shadows seemed darker than they should be and the air was dense and damp. An occasional rustle in the brush as something moved away made Jin Ling's hackles rise. The sense of resentful energy and things stirring just out of sight made the group watchful, and kept any conversation to a minimum, which frankly Jin Ling was grateful for.
His hand was sweating on his sword from pure nerves as an old stone wall became visible through the trees. He had started to worry that the place would be too rundown to make a good first impression, but it looked fine from here. And in all the preparation for this, he had somehow missed the fact that this was a thing that people were going to have emotions about, and that one of those people was him. You should have just asked Hanguang-jun to tell him, he thought, you coward.
They reached the dusty pebbled stretch of ground that lay in front of the outpost. A gray wall stretched up to a peaked roof, with a heavy wooden double gate standing open. It revealed a stone-paved courtyard, shaded by the surrounding trees, in good repair except for windblown dirt and weeds. What Jin Ling could see matched the sketch in the Jin records: an outer courtyard with the main hall at the back, individual rooms built against the side and front walls, all lined with broad shaded porches. There should be a similar inner courtyard on the other side of the hall, and a back court beyond that where the kitchens and storage and other work rooms were. The dark wood was badly weathered, but the sliding doors on the hall and other rooms were firmly shut and the windows covered with wooden shutters or woven mats. Hopefully the interiors, likely protected by wards and charms, weren't too worse for wear.
Jin Ling was so stupidly nervous at this point that he was grateful when Wen Ning whispered, "Oh, this is nice."
With the ice broken, Jin Ling cleared his throat. "Right, so, we should go inside--"
Wei Wuxian said, "It's violently haunted."
"Mm," Hanguang-jin agreed.
"Is it?" Jin Ling turned to them, aghast. "You're kidding, right? It's supposed to be warded!"
Wei Wuxian pointed with Chenqing. "Look along the roofline above the hall, see the movement? The distortion in the air."
All the Lan disciples nodded. Jin Ling didn't see anything.
Lan Sizhui said, "Senior Wei, do you think the He sect tried to take refuge here? Or was it something else?"
"Hard to tell." Wei Wuxian paced forward with a sudden predatory swing to his walk that made Jin Chan drop back behind Jin Lihua. He paused at the gate, lifting a hand but not quite touching the wood. "The wards were ripped away at some point. There was definitely a battle here."
He stepped through into the court. This time Jin LIng felt it, a weird shift in energy coming from the interior of the outpost. An old wagon wheel propped against a porch railing fell over, the sound way too loud for wood on stone. In the dead air, a woven mat fluttered in one of the windows, as though something had hastily climbed out of the room. A gate to the inner court banged. Wei Wuxian said aloud, "Yes, you'd better run."
Hanguang-jun followed him in, motioning for the others to come in behind him. Jin Ling trailed after with his disciples, marking the practiced way the Lans fanned out behind Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian.
"Spider demon!" Lan Jingyi pointed to the right, the rafters above the end of the porch.
"Dammit," Jin Ling muttered, mortified. I should have come here first. This is a disaster.
Wen Ning dropped his pack and moved purposefully toward the porch. "I'll get it."
Wei Wuxian started forward again, across the court, up the steps to the main hall, the skirts of his black robes brushing against the weathered wood. He stopped at the top and, almost too fast for Jin Ling to track, whipped a talisman out of his robe and cast it at the doors.
They slid open with a shuddering bang, revealing a wide open hall, the dark wood floor dusty and cobwebs clinging to the high rafters. There were low tables pushed back against one wall, battered sword stands, a pile of moth-eaten fluff that might once have been seating cushions and the rotted remnants of floor mats. Old metal lamps still hung from the ceiling.
Wei Wuxian pulled Chenqing from his belt and Jin Ling heard his disciples shift nervously. As he lifted the dizi and began to play, the air turned ice cold. All over the hall, dark clouds stirred. They lifted up from the floor, swirling in the air.
Brushing spider demon off his hands, Wen Ning returned to stand beside Lan Jingyi, watching with interest.
Wei Wuxian lowered Chenqing and said, "Some of the He did come here, but the Jin caught them. They left the bodies outside the north wall. Some were dumped down the well, too. Eight. No, nine." He nodded to himself. "I'm going to settle them for now but we'll need to test the soil for re-burials. Could get tricky, there's a demonic influence somewhere nearby." He lifted the dizi again and stepped into the hall.
As he crossed it, the dark shadows fled before him. Some rushed out through the closed rear doors, others writhed in the air like they were dancing to the dizi's eerie notes.
What is happening, Jin Ling thought. Greatly daring, he said, "Hanguang-jun, does he...is this place, is it okay?"
"Yes," Hanguang-jun said, watching Wei Wuxian. He turned to Jin Ling. His face did a weird thing where his mouth went slightly soft and his eyes turned warm, and he added, "You did well."
Jin Ling just stood there, too overcome to respond, shocked speechless by the fact that Hanguang-jun had just smiled at him. He had always mocked Sizhui for insisting that Hanguang-jun was capable of it.
A delighted Wen Ning bowed formally to Jin Ling. "Thank you, Sect Leader Jin. I'll go and get our things." He ran back toward the gate. "We should sleep here tonight!"
"Uh, we could go back to-- Or find an inn in the nearest town if Hanguang-jun feels the place is too--" Jin Ling began. He had planned to take his disciples back to Carp Tower this evening, but he hadn't expected the Lans to want to stay longer than that and he also hadn't expected the place to be fucking packed with spider demons and fierce ghosts. Which in hindsight was really optimistic on his part. But now he felt it would be rude to leave the others to deal with this alone.
From the back part of the hall, Wei Wuxian bellowed, "Jin Ling, come here, I want to show you this!"
"Huh? Oh, I'm coming!"
Jin Ling spent the rest of the afternoon with Wei Wuxian, learning more about ghosts and yao and hauntings and wards than he ever had from years of lessons in Carp Tower and Lotus Pier. They went from room to room, crossing past the well in the inner courtyard, where Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi were using Inquiry under the supervision of Hanguang-jun. Wen Ning dealt with the occasional lurking spider demon as he watched over the disciples charged with cleaning out the rooms they would sleep in tonight.
When Wei Wuxian finished settling the ghosts around the main hall and most of the inner courtyard rooms, they walked along the porches on that side, warding the walls and windows. Jin Lihua and Jin Tian were in the well courtyard now, listening to Hanguang-jun explaining something about Inquiry while Lan Sizhui demonstrated. Jin Ling caught Lan Jingyi's eye, and Jingyi gave him a thumb's up.
Wei Wuxian drew the talismans in his own blood, setting them directly on the frames where they burned into the wood and vanished. Obviously aware of how closely Jin Ling was watching, he said, "You've seen this before, right?"
"Not like this," Jin Ling admitted. "I'm not sure I understand what the form is doing."
"It helps to know what you're looking for. Here." He bit his thumb and sketched a talisman on Jing Ling's forehead, then turned him to face the courtyard.
And Jin Ling saw it: a writhing map of painful death, of unfinished lives, of resentful wronged spirits burned into the earth and the wood and the stone. Living spirits, too, glowing out of the disciples. Hanguang-jun was too bright to look at. Wen Ning had a glow too, but his was off-color, not quite centered in his body, and hazed around with ward talismans. The breath caught in Jin Ling's throat. "Do you see this all the time?"
"I used to. Now I see it when I look for it. Wen Ning sees it." Wei Wuxian raised his voice. "Wen Ning! How many ghosts in the well?"
Wen Ning, dragging a larger dead spider demon across the court, said, "Eight, Senior Wei!"
"I wasn't counting the yao!"
"Oh, sure you weren't." Wei Wuxian sighed and leaned against the porch column. "Wen Ning and I, we make our own fun."
Jin Ling wanted to squeeze his eyes shut but it wasn't the vision that was making his chest tight. "Can you make it stop?"
Wei Wuxian made a gesture, like plucking something off Jin Ling's head, and the shadows and glowing spirits disappeared. Jin Ling took a sharp breath and blinked hard, his eyes suddenly stinging. Wei Wuxian watched him sharply. "Too much?"
"No, but...those are the Tinghsan He? What's left of them?" Jin Ling's throat felt thick. His family had killed those people, their children and elders and unarmed servants and dependents, to experiment on. "I just... I feel responsible."
"For the He?" Wei Wuxian stared at him incredulously. "You were a baby, Jin Ling, what were you going to do, crawl out of your swaddling clothes and fight Xue Yang and Jin Guangshan?"
"I wish," Jin Ling muttered.
"You care because you've got a good heart." Wei Wuxian hugged Jin Ling around the shoulders and announced to the group around the well, "I have the best nephew! Look at this boy."
Jin Ling did not burst into tears, but it was so close he had to excuse himself to go help Jin Chan and the others sweep out the hall until he could control his expression.
The Lans had brought a lot of supplies in their little Qiankun bags, including wrapped packages of food, cooking pots, bowls, cups, and utensils. The Jin disciples had brought travel rations just in case, but the Lans had pickled vegetables, rice, tofu and other snacks and ingredients, including the mouth-burning spices that were popular in Yunmeng. The juniors scrubbed the weather-roughened tables clean and pushed them together in the center of the hall. The kitchen still needed to be warded and cleaned, but in the hall there was an old bowl-shaped braiser that they had used to heat water for tea. Jin Ling admitted to some trepidation, watching Jingyi tie back his sleeves and prepare to cook their meal on it. "Are you serious?" he asked.
Exasperated, Jingyi said, "Do you want to do it? Then be quiet."
Then Hanguang-jun appeared in the doorway leading from the inner court. Everyone instantly stopped and gave him their attention, a talent which Jin Ling envied. Hanguang-jun said, "We are about to do something that may take some time. It is important that none of you leave this room, no matter what you may hear, until one of us comes to get you."
As he started to slide the doors shut, Jin Ling said hurriedly, "Hanguang-jun, is it the demonic influence? Did you find it?"
For an instant he didn't think Hanguang-jun would answer, then he said, "Yes. Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning are going down the well after it."
Jin Ling felt his brows lift. "The well?"
The disciples, even the Lans, looked worried. Then Wei Wuxian popped into the doorway and leaned around Hanguang-jun to say, "It's not dangerous! It's just muddy down there, so Wen Ning and I have to be naked."
The clang as Jin Lihua dropped a soup pot made Jin Ling flinch. Hanguang-jun sighed, and slid the doors shut.
First it was quiet, and when Jin Ling pressed his ear to the closed door all he could hear was indistinct voices, Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-jun, and occasionally Wen Ning. He would have been embarrassed at eaves-dropping in front of the disciples, if Lan Sizhui hadn't been pressed against the other half of the door doing the exact same thing.
Then a loud hollow bang made him jump back. He exchanged a startled look with Sizhui, then remembered as Jin Sect Leader he was sort of technically in charge in here and should try to act like it. He turned to the disciples. Lan Zhi and Lan Fuling were chopping vegetables for Jingyi and the Jins were sitting nervously by the table. Everyone looked worried. He said, "I'm sure it's fine."
Over the next hour, there were more loud bangs, increasingly loud growling, and a deep echoing voice that spoke in a strange language. Mixed in with all this were occasional notes from Chenqing or Hanguang-jun's guqin. Jin Ling couldn't stand still, and ended up pacing back and forth across the room, though Sizhui never left the door. If Jin Ling's stupid idea got Wei Wuxian killed, got any of the three of them killed or all three of them killed...
Finally Jin Ling went over to where Jingyi was kneeling next to the braiser, stirring the soup pot. "Jingyi, tell me the truth, how bad is this?"
"It's pretty bad. It looks like the concentration of all the unburied resentful spirits in the confined space generated a demon and it took control of them. But I don't think we're all going to die or anything." Jingyi held up a spoon of broth. "Taste this and tell me what you think."
Finally, after a long silence, the door slid open and Wen Ning appeared. He was fully dressed, though a little muddy around the hems of his robe. It was pretty obvious he had never undressed, which didn't surprise Jin Ling. Wen Ning said, "All done! We're going down to the creek to clean up. There was some... But it's fine now."
Lan Sizhui hurried out after him and Jin Ling stepped out onto the porch.
It was like the sun was brighter in the courtyard. The faint smell of rot was gone, too, leaving nothing but the pine scent of the forest and rain-washed wood and dust. As if something heavy had hung in the air, and now it was gone.
When the meal was ready, Wei Wuxian strolled in with Hanguang-jun and said, "Oh, Jingyi is cooking? This will be exciting."
Jingyi shook a spoon at him. "Hey, I've improved a lot since the millet incident and you know it."
"Well, tomorrow your Hanguang-jun can make dinner."
Jin Ling thought it was a joke, but Hanguang-jun just made a noise of agreement and took a seat at one end of the table. Wei Wuxian dropped into a sprawl next to him.
Jingyi and Lan Fuling carried bowls to the table and Jin Tian went to help them without being told, which Jin Ling felt was a major step forward in his training.
As the others started to take seats, Lan Sizhui pulled out a bag, emptied lotus seeds into a bowl, and passed it to Wen Ning, who looked pleased. "Thank you, Sizhui."
So he can eat, just maybe only certain things, Jin Ling thought. Obviously wondering the same thing, Jin Lihua said, "Senior Wen, aren't you dead?"
Jin Chan looked up, startled, but there were no Lan gasps at the rudeness. Probably a lot of people asked this same question. Wen Ning answered, "I am partly dead, Jin-guniang. It's complicated."
When the food was in place and the last of the disciples were settled, Hanguang-jun said, "No talking while eating," which was apparently the signal to start.
They really are serious about the silence thing, Jin Ling thought. Jin Chan turned to Jing Ling and opened his mouth. Jin Ling glared. Jin Chan closed his mouth with an audible click of teeth. Then Jin Ling glanced up and caught Wei Wuxian's eye.
Wei Wuxian looked like he was trying not to laugh. On impulse, Jin Ling mouthed silently, "Even on a night hunt in the middle of nowhere?"
"Yes," Wei Wuxian mouthed back, and rolled his eyes.
In actually being alive time, he's not that much older than me, Jin Ling thought. That's so strange. It was strange to be sitting here in this place, at this table with someone who had been so reviled all during his childhood, who was despicable or terrifying or both depending on who was telling the story. In all that time, he had never imagined a future where the Yiling Patriarch was just weird Uncle Wei.
After the meal, Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian spread out the maps and started sketching out a plan for a lengthy schedule of night hunts throughout the region. Jin Ling had thought of that as something that would be done later, after the outpost was restored, but apparently they meant to start as soon as possible. He listened intently, the strategic planning being the part of night hunting that he felt he sucked most at.
"We should work back from the path, down to the road and the nearest village." Wei Wuxian propped his elbow on the table, lounging in a comfortable sprawl in his black robes.
"And the outlying farms, if there are any left," Hanguang-jun said. He still sat upright and correct, his back completely straight but somehow not seeming rigid. There was such a contrast between them, no one would think they were friends, let alone all the things the rumors said about them. Every cultivation conference, the one came around again about how the Yiling Patriarch had ensorcelled Hanguang-jun with secret talismans, which considering Hanguang-jun's insanely high level of cultivation was frankly just embarrassing.
Wei Wuxian tapped the map. "But if we wanted to speed things up in the immediate area, this valley would make a great spot to herd a bunch of yao and demons into, then we could all hit them at once."
Hanguang-jun eyed him. "And how would we herd them."
"That's why we have me," Wei Wuxian said, like it was obvious.
Jin Ling couldn't tell if Hanguang-jun was mad or not but that was nothing unusual. Hanguang-jun said, "Did you forget the rule about not making yourself the bait?"
Wei Wuxian lifted his brows, his expression like a highly amused version of "how dare you." He said, "So stern, Hanguang-jun. Are you challenging me in front of the disciples?"
From down the table, Jingyi protested, "But Hanguang-jun, that would work."
Hanguang-jun leveled a look at him. "And you know this from practical experience?"
Jingyi shut his mouth and looked alarmed. Lan Zhi slid a bowl over with a last bun in it. He seized it with his chopsticks and shoved the whole thing in his mouth, his cheeks bulging.
Jin Ling snorted. "What, are you twelve?"
But one side of Hanguang-jun's mouth actually quirked in a tiny smile. He said, "The rule against talking while eating does not protect you under these circumstances."
After that, when it was clear the planning session had segued into teasing Jingyi, the other Lans started to talk among themselves. Wen Ning told a story from his travels that had the Jin disciples' mouths hanging open, though the Lans acted as if it was an old favorite. Then Lan Jingyi pulled out Xiangqi pieces and a folded fabric board and took turns playing with Lan Feiyan and Jin Tian.
The night ended with Hanguang-jun and the Yiling Patriarch playing a duet on the guqin and Chenqing.
Soon it was time to sort out the sleeping arrangements. The Lans had also brought rolls of blankets and sleeping pads that they were willing to share, and they decided that the Jins would sleep in the first cleared and warded room next to the main hall in the inner court, the Lan juniors in the next, and Jingyi and Sizhui in the one after. The older disciples would take turns at watch from the front porch of the main hall, which had the best view of the gate and the outer court. Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian would share a room on the other side of the inner court. "Where are you going to sleep, Senior Wen?" Sizhui asked. "There's another cleared room on this side."
"Oh, I'll be around," Wen Ning said, and wandered off.
Jin Chan crossed the court to where Jin Ling was standing with Hanguang-jun and aimed a question equidistant between them, saying formally, "This disciple asks if Jin Lihua may stay with Lan Zhi and Lan Feiyan for the night? There are no privacy screens, and we always, um, separate the maidens so nothing can be considered inappropriate."
Hanguang-Jun regarded him for a moment, then said, "Separation is not always effective. But Jin Lihua may stay with Lan Zhi and Lan Feiyan if she prefers."
Jin Chan bowed, confused, and Jin Ling clapped a hand over his face.
Wei Wuxian stage-whispered from inside the room. "They're so young!"
Jin Ling decided that was a good time for him to get out of there, and retreated with Jin Chan. He stopped by the Lan juniors room, a little worried that Jin Lihua might be bullied. But when he got there the girls had already packed Lan Fuling off to Jingyi and Sizhui's room and there was a lot of giggling going on so he figured the situation was under control.
When they spread their blankets on the clean wood floor and stretched out together, Wei Wuxian said, "That was a long day. Demonic wells are the worst." The room was dusty but currently ghost-free and Wen Ning had gotten rid of all the spider demon larvae. Wei Wuxian had slept in many worse places and the bedding was fine Lan silks and linens. The climate here in Tingshan was milder too, more like a temperate Lotus Pier than the heights of Cloud Recesses.
Lan Zhan found his hand and laced their fingers together. "It was good of you to teach Jin Ling."
"I told you he's a good kid." Not that Lan Zhan was arguing with him, but the whole stabbing incident had weighed heavily on Wei Wuxian's relationship with his only nephew for quite a while. Changing the subject, he said, "So who's going to be in charge of this place once we clean up the demon infestation? Jingyi might be a good choice, he's got the experience now."
Lan Zhan was silent for a moment, then said, "Jin Ling didn't tell you?"
He sounded baffled, which was not a way that Lan Zhan usually sounded. "No. Why, who is it?"
In a tone of amused annoyance, Lan Zhan said, "Children."
Wei Wuxian nudged him impatiently. "Who is it?"
Lan Zhan sighed. "I am sworn to secrecy."
Oh, that was intriguing. Wei Wuxian pressed against Lan Zhan's shoulder. "A secret? I'll have to get it out of you somehow. You can try to stop me. Try very very hard."
There was a smile in Lan Zhan's voice. "I will try later, when we are not surrounded by demons and junior disciples."
"Ah, rule 4001, no sex on night hunts. No, seriously, tell me."
"It is not my secret to tell." After a moment, Lan Zhan added dryly, "It's meant to be a surprise."
Oh, that was the last thing he wanted now. "I hate surprises!"
"I know, but my opinion was not taken into account."
Wei Wuxian couldn't let it go. He wanted to know who he was clearing demons for. If it was some senior Jin asshole, he was going to be angry. But if it was, Lan Zhan would never have agreed to it, surely. "It's got to be Sizhui, then. But I thought you wanted him to train as the Lan sect leader heir?"
Lan Zhan hummed under his breath.
Wei Wuxian sighed, exasperated. "Whoever it is, they're going to need help to run this place, especially if Sizhui -- or whoever -- is going to be doing training here."
Lan Zhan said, "I thought...whoever might consider asking Luo Qingyang. You remember in her last letter she said she and her husband were thinking of relocating their family."
"That's a thought." Wei Wuxian poked him again. "Did you tell Sizhui that yet?"
Lan Zhan added, "And it might be possible to convince Song Lan to come."
"It's definitely Sizhui then." It had to be. Song Lan would never come here for a Jin disciple.
Lan Zhan pulled Wei Wuxian's hand up to his chest, over his heart beat. "Go to sleep, Wei Ying."
"Nobody tells me anything," he grumbled, but sleep came quickly anyway.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
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."