The Cloud Recesses was golden with the late afternoon sun, which streamed through the open windows and onto the table where Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen were having tea. Jin Guangyao had arrived later than usual; Lan Xichen sent one of the disciples to ready the guest room he usually stayed in, since he was unlikely to go back to Lanling tonight.
He poured Jin Guangyao a cup of tea, and watched as he held it in his hands, his gaze unfocused, not drinking.
"You look concerned," Lan Xichen said, and Jin Guangyao blinked and looked up at him. "Is there something you'd like to discuss?"
The barest flicker of a smile touched Jin Guangyao's lips, and he shook his head. "It's nothing," he said, finally taking a sip. "Nothing I would burden Er-ge with, anyway."
"You know quite well you could never burden me," Lan Xichen said. "What's troubling you?"
Jin Guangyao's expression faltered, and he took a few moments to compose himself before he spoke. "It's my father," he said. Lan Xichen's mood darkened. Jin Guangyao didn't often speak of his father, but Lan Xichen was aware that Jin Guangshan's goals were not always in line with the rest of the cultivation world, and that he often put Jin Guangyao to use in working toward those goals.
"What has he done?" Lan Xichen asked gently.
"There's a... device. A new tool, to help with night-hunting. He wants me to test it."
That alone didn’t seem unreasonable. "What kind of device?"
"I really can't tell you anything specific about it. I shouldn't have said anything at all, only... I fear it may unleash something too powerful for me to contain on my own."
Lan Xichen frowned. "He’s not demanding you handle it alone?"
Jin Guangyao laughed bitterly. "He claims it’s so secret he can’t risk anyone else in the sect learning of it.”
If it were actually a tool for night-hunting, it wouldn't be so secret. There were certainly rumors of Jin Guangshan’s other experiments, and Jin Guangyao had obliquely confirmed their truth in the past, though obviously he couldn't directly share what underhanded things his father was doing.
"But you're the only son he has left in the palace. Surely—"
"I'm not," Jin Guangyao interrupted, uncharacteristically. "He's brought another bastard from the countryside: Mo Xuanyu." His lips flattened into an unhappy line. "He's teaching him to cultivate."
Jin Guangshan had never brought any of his illegitimate children to Lanling to study before now. It was possible he simply missed having his sons around, but combined with this latest request….
"You see it too," Jin Guangyao said, seeing Lan Xichen's expression. "With Mo Xuanyu in the palace, he can replace me any time he wants. He's reminding me that I'm expendable."
"You are not expendable," Lan Xichen said sharply.
"Why else would he give me this task?" Jin Guangyao said, his voice shaking just slightly. "He wants me to fail, or die, or to tell him that it's too difficult, so he'll have a reason to promote others over me."
"Then I will help you, and we will prove him wrong."
Jin Guangyao looked up at him, his eyes glistening with unshed tears. "Would you? If you were there, I wouldn't be so concerned."
"Of course I will," Lan Xichen said, putting a hand over Jin Guangyao's. "I would not leave you alone in this."
"I understand you don't wish to reveal your family's secrets, but it would help a great deal if I had some idea what to expect with this device," Lan Xichen said as Jin Guangyao led them out to a small village on the outskirts of Jin Sect's territory.
Jin Guangyao's steps hitched slightly, and the smile he turned on Lan Xichen looked a little pained. "I suppose you'll see the effects soon enough, anyway. It is intended to concentrate and amplify resentment within a confined area." As Lan Xichen's lips parted to ask what possible use he could have for such a device, Jin Guangyao quickly continued. "I know, you have questions. I've said too much already, but I can't bring you into this blind, and I'm grateful for your help—"
"A-Yao," Lan Xichen said, placing a hand on Jin Guangyao's elbow, giving up on the idea of asking anything further. After all, he would see the effects shortly. "You are my sworn brother. I would help you even if your life weren't in danger. We will take care of this problem like we have so many before it," he said, with more confidence than he felt. Yes, his own cultivation level was quite high, but there were things even he couldn't handle alone, and it was clear that any additional aid would not be coming.
Still, a device to increase an area's resentment was hardly useful in the normal course of things. It wouldn't be useful in a night-hunt, or for dealing with angry spirits. It was the sort of thing he might have expected from Wei Wuxian, back in the Sunshot Campaign....
Ah. Jin Guangshan had coveted the power Wei Wuxian had wielded for years. Of course he would try to follow in his footsteps. And if he was using resentment to fuel his cultivation, why not attempt to maximize the amount of resentment you could generate from any one corpse? If Jin Guangshan wanted to pursue demonic cultivation, this was certainly an efficient means of doing so.
Lan Xichen felt a simmering anger start to well up inside himself. Had Sect Leader Jin learned nothing from Wei Wuxian's death, nothing from the catastrophe at Nightless City? Was power so important to hold onto that it justified going down this path in peacetime?
He forced his mind to calm; the last thing he needed was to bring resentment of his own into this situation.
He followed Jin Guangyao to a clearing in the forest just outside the village, where his blood ran cold as Jin Guangyao uncovered something from a pile of dead leaves and branches. It was the body of a man, a little older than the two of them, his legs and arms bound. Not a cultivator, if his clothes were any indication, and it looked like he'd been dead less than a day.
Jin Guangyao glanced up, and on seeing Lan Xichen's expression, he rose, wringing his hands. "He was a criminal," he said. "Executed today. Father had me—"
Lan Xichen held up a hand and swallowed down the protests that came to him. He remembered the boy he'd met just after the Cloud Recesses had burned, who had wanted nothing more than his father's acceptance. Of course he would do what he needed to keep it, now that his father had at last acknowledged him.
"I understand," he said. "We will make sure he's put to rest once this is over."
He helped Jin Guangyao carry the body out into the center of the clearing and turned it on its stomach. Jin Guangyao then pressed something onto its back: a small disc with a dial and a bright ruby gem inlaid into it. He glanced up and around, then set the dial to a value Lan Xichen couldn’t quite see, and then pressed the gem. Sharp tines extended from the edges of the device and dug down into the corpse's flesh. A burst of energy flared outward from the body, and Lan Xichen started at the unexpected sensation.
"It's a barrier," Jin Guangyao explained. "To keep the resentment from contaminating a wider area than we are prepared to handle. The dial controls the size of the barrier. I set it to the size of the clearing, so we have room to move around and still get a proper measurement. "
Soon after the barrier went up, Lan Xichen felt a change in the air around them as resentment slowly began to build. Jin Guangyao pulled another tool from his sleeve, but this one Lan Xichen recognized: it was one of Wei Wuxian's creations. The Resentment Gauge measured the concentration of resentment in the area, on a dial divided into eight segments. The Lan Sect also had several; it was useful with less experienced disciples for deciding whether additional support was needed during a night-hunt. Other than the Yin Tiger Seal, Wei Wuxian had never been shy about sharing his creations with others.
The needle on the Resentment Gauge dial crept upward and Lan Xichen's neck began to prickle with the increase of residual resentment. Once it reached the first notch on the dial, the point at which corpses were likely to move of their own accord, without anyone commanding them, the body before them began to twitch. It rose, its movements jerky and uncoordinated, without any particular aim in mind. Lan Xichen stood next to Jin Guangyao, watching it walk in slow, hesitating circles.
"We will need to wait for some time before we cleanse the area," Jin Guangyao said. "I need to report back on how well the device works, and if we subdue it too quickly, I won't be able to determine how high a concentration it will achieve."
Lan Xichen nodded unhappily. It went against every instinct to let this much resentment build up around him without doing anything about it, but for Jin Guangyao's sake, he would. "I will hold off as long as I feel it is safe."
The needle moved slowly to the second notch, and the corpse began veering toward them with intent, though still shambling enough that it was no threat. They flew to the opposite side of the clearing and let it continue walking for a little while as the resentment continued to build. At the third notch, its speed had grown enough that the two of them spent much of their time moving across the clearing, dodging.
By the time it reached the fourth notch, the needle was beginning to slow, but the corpse was fiercer than ever. It had picked up an aura of swirling black, and its attacks were fast enough that Lan Xichen had to use Shuoyue's scabbard to block its attacks in addition to dodging. After a near miss, he glanced behind him at Jin Guangyao. "A-Yao...." he started, and Jin Guangyao held up a hand.
"Just a little longer," he said, the Resentment Gauge still in one hand. "It's still rising."
"If we wait too much longer, it's going to be a much more difficult fight."
"Between the two of us, we can handle it, can't we, Er-ge?" He smiled, and Lan Xichen bit back a smile of his own before returning his attention to the fierce corpse.
"A little longer, then," he said, blocking another attack. After that, his focus was fully taken up by drawing the corpse's attention, blocking and dodging but not attacking. He still wanted to defeat it by cleansing the resentment in the area rather than slaying it; after all, the man had certainly never asked to be raised as a fierce corpse, and it would make Lan Xichen feel better about the whole situation if he could at least leave his body intact. It grew more and more difficult as time went on, but Lan Xichen felt as though his opponent wasn't getting dramatically more powerful. He couldn't spare the attention to look at the Resentment Gauge, but he felt as though it must be nearly still.
"That's long enough," Jin Guangyao said. "Hold him steady for a moment."
Lan Xichen did so, rapidly blocking with both sword and scabbard to keep him in place, and Jin Guangyao approached the corpse from the back, reaching out to grab the device just as Lan Xichen realized what else was going to happen as soon as he did so.
"No—the barrier!" he shouted, but it was too late. The barrier shrunk down into the device; the air felt lighter, but Lan Xichen knew that was just because the resentment in it was no longer contained. The corpse in front of him stumbled, and from a distance there was an unearthly cry as other undead in the area were drawn to the new pocket of resentment that had suddenly made itself known.
Jin Guangyao's eyes grew wide, and he hastily tucked both devices back in his robe before drawing Hensheng.
"Focus on dispelling the aura of resentment," Lan Xichen said. "We'll keep attracting more enemies until it's gone."
Jin Guangyao nodded quickly, and drew a cleansing sigil in the air, sending it at the fierce corpse, which stumbled to one knee. Before it could haul itself back up, Lan Xichen sheathed Shuoyue and drew Liebing, and began to play Rest. Jin Guangyao drew an incantation on the ground while humming along with Lan Xichen's xiao, and by the time the other spirits arrived, they had corralled the corpse into the array and sealed it.
By that point, six others had arrived, and Lan Xichen could hear more on the way. The area was still heavy with resentment, and he was forced to pause in his playing to help keep the corpses away from Jin Guangyao. Between the two of them, they managed to trap the corpses in the array. It had to be carefully managed; the seal could only suppress so much resentment, so the fierce corpses had to be calmed before they could be safely sealed. Additionally, knowing that other corpses would continue to come if they couldn't stop it, they had to pause in their efforts to subdue the corpses to focus on the area itself.
A final batch of five fierce corpses arrived as they were fighting the last of the previous six, but by that point the resentment wasn't thick enough to make them so dangerous, and once they had been sealed, the air no longer held any traces of resentment.
Finally, they had some time to catch their breath. Jin Guangyao held his right arm gingerly; blood seeped through a gash in his sleeve.
"You're hurt," Lan Xichen said, reaching for his injured arm.
Jin Guangyao made no move to pull away. "It just needs a bandage. I'll treat it once we return to the Cloud Recesses. We need to deal with these creatures," he said, gesturing toward the sealed corpses.
Lan Xichen pulled the edges of the tear away from the wound, to look more closely, and shook his head. "It's deep. We have time to bandage it now." He took a bandage out of his pouch of night-hunting supplies and Jin Guangyao carefully pulled his sleeve up to expose the wound.
"A-Yao," Lan Xichen said as he tied the bandage around the wound. "What does your father plan to do with this? The risks can't possibly outweigh the benefits."
Jin Guangyao shook his head, his expression pained. "That's not something I can answer," he said. "This isn't the final device, of course. We'll separate out the barrier so this doesn't happen again."
"That isn't my primary concern. This power is— "
"I know," Jin Guangyao said, pulling back and holding up a hand to stop him. "I know it is. Please trust me when I tell you that it's under control."
A chill ran down Lan Xichen's spine at that. Wasn't that exactly what Wei Wuxian had told Lan Wangji? Wei Wuxian had had things under control, too, until he hadn't.
And yet, looking at Jin Guangyao's pleading face, he understood better than ever what his brother had been thinking.
"You'll tell me if it isn't, won't you?" Lan Xichen finally conceded. "I will help if I can."
"I will," Jin Guangyao said, relieved, and bowed. "Thank you, Zewu-jun."
Lan Xichen pulled him up out of the bow. "There's no need for that. Come, we still have work to do, and it's already late."
After returning to Lanling the next morning, Jin Guangyao approached his father.
"Father," he said with a low bow. "I have the results of the test."
"Oh?" Jin Guangshan's tone was neutral, but Jin Guangyao was sure he detected an undercurrent of irritation. "Out with it, then, how effective is it?"
"The device works well; the resentment within the barrier built up to the fifth notch in the Resentment Gauge. However... we will need to separate the functionality of the barrier from the resentment amplification. When I removed the device in order to stop it, the barrier also fell. It attracted more fierce corpses as soon as it went down."
"You took care of them?"
"Yes, father. And cleansed the area to remove traces of my activities."
Jin Guangshan nodded slowly. "I heard you stayed in Gusu last night."
Jin Guangyao froze for a split second before smiling. "I did. It was late when I finished, and I was closer to Gusu than Lanling. Zewu-jun was kind enough to let me stay in the Cloud Recesses. It is still useful to us to have close ties with the Lan Sect, is it not?"
Jin Guangshan made a small "hmm" and tapped on the edge of his chair with his fingertips. "It is for now, yes. But it would be inconvenient if Sect Leader Lan should begin to suspect anything. Start thinking of ways you might dispose of him if it becomes necessary."
"Yes, Father," he said with a deep bow, only long practice keeping his expression in place, and then he left his father's presence.
Jin Guangyao had tolerated the order to kill Nie Mingjue because it fit with his own plans. He had never found a key to win Nie Mingjue's affection back once it had been lost, and so he was too great a threat to leave alive.
But Lan Xichen? Lan Xichen had always been on his side, had defended him against those who spoke against him. Jin Guangyao didn't have many people he considered friends, but Lan Xichen was one of them.
A year earlier, freshly accepted by his father and willing to do almost anything to keep his approval, he might have considered it, but now? With Mo Xuanyu brought to the palace to keep him in his place and his father sending him off on errands that had a good chance of killing him?
No, he wouldn't kill Lan Xichen, not if he could help it. Certainly not on his father's orders. But there was one person he could kill to get him out of this mess, and that person would have the added benefit of elevating him to Sect Leader.