“The door was closed, and as I put my hand on the handle, I felt afraid of what we might find. It creaked as I slowly pulled it open…and found nothing but blackness on the other side.” A few dozen of the youngest of the Lan juniors were watching Wei Wuxian with rapt expressions. One of the littlest ones had their tiny mouth hanging open as they listened.
“Master Wei, you felt afraid?” one of them said incredulously.
“Of course I did,” Wei Wuxian told her, keeping his expression serious. “Who wouldn’t, going into a dark cellar in an abandoned house?” The junior nodded very fast in agreement. “Of course, Hanguang Jun insisted on going inside first. And when I stepped in after him, I heard a crunch.”
There was a collective gasp. “What was it?” one of them asked in a whisper.
“A mouse skull.”
Several pairs of little eyes squinted incredulously at him. “A…mouse skull?”
He nodded gravely. “The floor was covered with them. The unearthly cries keeping the villagers awake at night was their killer. The monster we were looking for was a restless cat! Each day, the mice had taunted it from the crack under the cellar door, but it had never been able to catch a single one. Now it could finally get through the cellar door and take its revenge. So we left it alone, and in a few weeks it was at peace and the villagers could sleep again.”
The littlest junior closed his mouth and frowned furiously. “But you said you were going to tell us a ghost story!”
“That was a ghost story!” If Wei Wuxian hadn’t been sitting down, he would have put his hands on his hips. “It’s not every day you meet an undead cat, you know. It was scary enough to keep a whole village up at night, and it made me quake in my boots, I’ll tell you that.”
“But you killed 3000 people, reanimated their corpses to kill even more people, and raised the Ghost General from the dead!” the junior exclaimed. “I know you can tell a better ghost story than that.”
Wei Wuxian was silent. His heart sank into his stomach, and then it kept going. Children were—certainly something. He chuckled weakly. “Well. I didn’t want to tell you a story that would keep you up past your bedtime. I hear you Lans are very strict about that.”
He was suddenly surrounded by two dozen juniors clamoring for a scary story, so scary they wouldn’t be able to sleep! Rain was still pattering on the roof above their heads, as it had been all afternoon. It was with great relief that he heard the door slide open and saw Lan Wangji look inside.
“Lan Zhan,” he said gratefully. “It must be nearly time for these little ones to go to bed, right?”
Lan Wangji shook his head. Not even close to nine in the evening. Wei Wuxian gaped at him. The betrayal!
“Hanguang Jun,” a junior exclaimed, and suddenly they were all asking him to tell Wei Wuxian that he had to tell them a ghost story, a real one this time. Wei Wuxian caught Lan Wangji’s eye and gave him his best “help me” expression. Surely he was familiar with it with it by now.
“Don’t you think the story about the ghost cat is scary enough?” he asked Lan Wangji pointedly when he didn’t immediately come to his rescue.
Lan Wangji looked at the pleading faces of the juniors. He looked at Wei Wuxian. “No.”
“Scary story!” the juniors exclaimed, turning as one back to Wei Wuxian.
One of them leaned in close and tugged on Wei Wuxian’s sleeve. “Tell us the one about when you found the Ghost General dead in the rain,” the junior said solemnly. She couldn’t have been older than six.
“But if you’ve already heard it, why do you—” Wei Wuxian closed his eyes in despair. “Fine, fine. I will tell you the one about the Ghost General.” He raised his eyes to Lan Wangji, hoping for one last glimmer of mercy in those eyes. Surely Lan Wangji recognized that this wasn’t a story for children. But Lan Wangji simply nodded. He withdrew and closed the door.
Wei Wuxian sighed. How was he supposed to make this palatable for children? Were all Lans so bloodthirsty at such a young age? “This is the time I found the Ghost General face down in the mud in a pile of corpses…”
He had carefully not told the juniors that the Ghost General was currently in Cloud Recesses. Wen Ning had arrived at the gates the day before, just as the dawn was turning the sky to gold. He had brought news of a cloud of resentful energy that was fast approaching. He had first noticed it in Yunmeng. Though the energy was weak, its amorphous nature had concerned him; the energy did not seem to be coming from a particular being, and it refused to take a physical form. He had set out to Gusu to ask for advice. He had soon discovered that the energy was being drawn to Cloud Recesses, and it was building in strength with each passing day.
Lan Qiren brought Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian, and Wen Ning to the top of a mountain just outside the walls of Cloud Recesses. From its heights, they could see what felt like all of Gusu spread out before them. The resentful energy looked like nothing more than a distant wisp of cloud on the eggshell-blue horizon, but Wei Wuxian could feel it at the edge of his senses—dull static, like the beginnings of an electric storm.
“We will see if it fades when it reaches the mountains,” Lan Qiren said grimly. “If it does not, we must handle it before it can affect the inhabitants of Gusu.”
“I would like to stay and help if I can, Grand Master,” Wen Ning said. He was wearing a new set of robes in the Yunmeng style and a fresh straw hat. Corpses generally did not look healthy, but he looked better than the last time Wei Wuxian had seen him. Traveling had treated him well.
“You may,” Lan Qiren told him. “Wangji, you and I can brief the disciples. Wei Wuxian.” Wei Wuxian looked at him in surprise. Lan Qiren was squinting at the horizon. “When it arrives, it is best if you leave it to us. We do not need to agitate it further.”
It hurt, a little, to hear that. In another time, he would have argued, but it was a fair point; Chenqing was best at riling up resentful spirits. The Yiling Patriarch was not known for using her to put resentful energy to rest. “Grand Master,” he said respectfully.
The four of them looked at the horizon. Even in the time they had stood there, the cloud had come closer. There was nothing to do but wait.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had discussed the coming storm at length.
Which was to say, they had sat in the Jingshi, Lan Wangji’s desk between them, and spoken to each other in the silences.
“Lan Qiren is right,” Wei Wuxian said, tracing a circle of moisture that had been left on the surface of the desk by a teacup. Probably his. Definitely not Lan Wangji’s. “It is best if I let the Lan disciples handle it. If the resentful energy is being drawn here because of me, it will just be harder to convince it to release if I get involved.”
Lan Wangji did not say anything. He disagreed, like Wei Wuxian did, but neither of them could find a legitimate flaw in the Grand Master’s reasoning. The truth was, Wei Wuxian was a magnet for resentful energy—that was how demonic cultivation worked. He had to draw it to him to be able to use it. And more resentful energy was not what they needed right now.
Wei Wuxian ran his finger around the water ring in the other direction. “If it was sent here to take revenge on me, that’s even more reason I should stay out of it.”
True, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. If he really was its target, he wanted to help eliminate it. Cloud Recesses should not suffer because of his mistakes.
“After all, if the intention is to frame me again, they can’t do that when I’m sitting quietly somewhere, hmm?”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji said. It hardly mattered whether Wei Wuxian was sitting somewhere quietly or not if that was the situation. If anyone tried to frame Wei Wuxian again, Lan Wangji would address the matter personally. With great finality.
Wei Wuxian sat back with a sigh. In another lifetime, he would have lured the resentful energy away to a lonely mountaintop and let it do its best to tear him apart before he tore it apart first. But he couldn’t do that to Lan Wangji again. Lan Wangji had sworn he would always be at Wei Wuxian’s side, and Wei Wuxian would not prevent him from keeping that promise.
“I just wish I could help,” he said wistfully.
“You do,” Lan Wangji said. Wei Wuxian looked up. Lan Wangji’s eyes were unbearably soft. “You have always helped, whenever someone needed it. You have kept your oath.”
Wei Wuxian dropped his eyes to his hands. “Ah, well. I just wish I could help this time.”
Lan Wangji reached across the desk and covered his hand with his own. “If Grand Master is wrong,” itself a phrase that the Lan Wangji of two decades ago would never have dreamed of uttering, “We will ask for your help. Until then, trust us.”
He curled his fingers around Lan Wangji’s. “I do, Lan Zhan. Sitting on the sidelines just takes some getting used to, is all.”
Sitting on the sidelines took a great deal of getting used to.
Wei Wuxian told the Lan juniors stories about ghosts until they were rubbing their eyes with little fists, listening to the rain lashing the walls all the while. The wind was now strong enough to shake the doors when it buffeted the sides of the building. The air was heavy with resentful energy, though muted, as if he were hearing a song from behind closed doors—the wards, doing their best to keep it at bay. He doubted anyone in Cloud Recesses could feel it at all. But the strength of the storm left little to the imagination. Whatever it was, it was upon them.
He looked at the children. Many of them were wilting in earnest, sagging against each other like little flowers in the evening. These juniors were so small. None of them were old enough to have golden cores yet, though a few of them had managed to cultivate a little spark that flickered in and out as they breathed. They had been told that their lessons had been cancelled because Cloud Recesses was expecting a bad storm. They had accepted story time with Master Wei without question. The older Lan juniors should have been the ones watching them, Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi and the rest—but they were outside in the rain, lending every ounce of spiritual energy they could spare to subdue the storm.
“Perhaps that’s enough ghost stories for now,” he said softly. They were too sleepy to protest as they blinked up at him from a puddle of white and blue Lan robes. “This is the story of how there came to be a hidden lotus pond far up on a mountain.”
At least four sticks of incense must have burned since Lan Wangji had last checked on him before there was another knock at the door. Worry had become a leaden thing in his stomach. He looked as eagerly towards the door as the children, who were suddenly wide awake. His heart was in his throat. The resentful energy was as strong as ever—but was it the worst of it subdued? Or had someone come to tell him that Hanguang Jun had been swept away by the storm, that the wind and rain had smashed his guqin to pieces and then—?
Lan Wangji slid open the door, his face unreadable. “Wei Ying.” Wen Ning stood beside him.
Every Lan junior sat bolt upright.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” he said, relief too obvious in his voice by far. “And Wen Ning. Have you had a good evening?”
“Is that really the Ghost General, Hanguang Jun?” one of the juniors asked in what they probably thought was a whisper.
Wei Wuxian uncrossed his legs with a wince and pushed himself to his feet. He threaded his way between the juniors, which was easier said than done when they were all on their best behavior for Hanguang Jun and also craning their necks to get a good look at the Ghost General with wide eyes. Wei Wuxian stepped outside and slid the door closed behind him.
Lan Wangji pulled a silencing talisman out of his sleeve and flicked it at the door. Wei Wuxian glanced at the silhouettes of the juniors huddled on the other side of the paper. He looked back at Lan Wangji. His eyes were pinched at the corners. It was not a look that Wei Wuxian liked to see.
“Ah,” he said, the relief and dread swirling in his stomach giving way to calm. “No luck, then?”
Lan Wangji’s hair was still damp and curling at the edges, but he must have dried himself with a talisman because his robes were dry. Wei Wuxian did not know exactly what he had been doing, but he suspected he had been overseeing the juniors and some of his fellow seniors in their efforts. Wen Ning looked a little worse for wear. Water was dripping off his straw hat into a small puddle. A jade token hung prominently from his neck; otherwise, the wards would have torn him apart. He had tracked muddy footprints across the floor. They really must have been in a hurry for Lan Wangji to not do anything about it.
“No luck so far, Master Wei,” Wen Ning said. He looked miserable, like he thought it was his personal failure that he had not been able to defeat a storm’s worth of resentful energy on his own.
Wei Wuxian put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey now. We’ll sort this out, okay?” Wen Ning dropped his eyes to his feet and nodded.
“We have agreed it is best if you try.”
Wei Wuxian looked at Lan Wangji. “We?”
Wei Wuxian laughed a little. “Really? Well, I should be on my way, then.” He slid the door open and poked his head inside. “Baby Lans,” he said in a sing-song voice. “The Ghost General has come to visit on some very important business. Would you like to greet him?”
“Is that really the Ghost General?!” the littlest one exclaimed in what was certainly not a yell.
Wei Wuxian slid the door open the rest of the way, revealing the object of their curiosity. Suddenly, Wen Ning was faced with a small army of little Lans bowing to him and chorusing a greeting. Wei Wuxian put his hands on his hips and laughed. Then the questions started. “Little Lans, that’s enough,” he chided gently when one of them went so far as to tug on a nervous Wen Ning’s robes. “The Ghost General and I have some important work to do. He can answer your questions another time. Wish us luck?”
“Good luck, Ghost General!” they chorused.
“No luck for me?” Wei Wuxian murmured to Lan Wangji. He briefly pressed their shoulders together. “I told you the little ones never like me.”
“They like you,” Lan Wangji replied. Wei Wuxian saw the depth of his love in his eyes when he said it, and then the flicker of grief that followed.
Grief. Wei Wuxian had not allowed himself to think of what it meant that Lan Qiren was asking for his help. In every battle and night-hunt that he and Lan Zhan had gone on together since he had returned, they were partners. They played off of each others’ strengths like a dance. But this might be a battle where if one of them failed, the other might once again be left to cultivate alone.
Wei Wuxian was not good at goodbyes. He couldn’t remember the last time they had kissed—had it been that morning in the early morning light, before he was fully awake? Or after breakfast, when Lan Wangji had smoothed out a fold in the ribbon in his hair? He couldn’t remember, and he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to kiss Lan Zhan one last time. He didn’t want there to be a last time.
Wei Wuxian pulled away so their shoulders were no longer touching. He tapped the side of his nose. “Now, what shall we do with all these Lan juniors…? Lan Zhan, is it their bedtime yet?”
Lan Wangji turned his head to look at the juniors with the barest rustle of hair on silk. “Almost.”
There were gasps of protest. “We can’t go to bed until we hear from the Ghost General!”
“Now, now,” Wei Wuxian said, crossing his arms. “What if this business takes all night? He can answer your questions in the morning.”
“When you’re done, will you come back to tell us how it went, Ghost General?” a junior asked.
Wen Ning nodded, then glanced worriedly at Lan Wangji, like he thought maybe he had done something wrong. But Lan Wangji was watching the whole exchange with soft eyes.
Any further arguments were interrupted by the sound of fast steps on the floorboards. A junior who must have been around fifteen hurried down the hall towards them, her guqin strapped across her back. “Apologies for the delay, Hanguang Jun!” she exclaimed, clasping her hands in front of her and bowing deeply. She must have been called away from the storm as well; her headband was still damp. Lan Wangji inclined his head.
“Ah, your new storyteller has arrived,” Wei Wuxian said. “They’re a tough audience, Young Mistress,” he told her with a wink.
“We are very well-behaved, promise!” a little Lan protested. “Were we troublesome, Master Wei?”
“Not at all,” he told them. “Hanguang Jun should be proud to have so many curious and brave juniors in his sect.” Several pairs of eyes dropped to the ground and several little faces turned red at the praise.
Lan Wangji did not say anything, but Wei Wuxian could feel the weight of his gaze. He had delayed long enough. They were needed elsewhere. The Lan junior who had come to look after the children certainly had orders to get them to safety if the worst should happen, and she would protect them to the best of her ability.
The Lan junior slipped into the room. With a last backward glance, Wei Wuxian followed Lan Wangji and Wen Ning out into the storm.
They found Lan Qiren in the midst of it, his robes soaked and his hair strewn about his face. He glanced at Wei Wuxian. “You’re here,” was all he said. He sounded almost relieved.
Ah, Wei Wuxian thought. So it really is that bad.
They had chosen the central courtyard in Cloud Recesses for their attempt at controlling the resentful energy. Junior and senior disciples alike sat and stood in the covered porches of the buildings surrounding the square. The branches of the trees in the courtyard whipped against each other under the force of the storm. Gusts of wind intermittently drove the rain into the disciples’ faces. He could see many of them strumming their guqins, but any sound they made was torn apart by the wind. The only cohesive melody he could hear came from Lan Xichen’s xiao. Lan Xichen opened his eyes briefly at their approach. He nodded at them before he returned his attention to his flute. The song was not one that Wei Wuxian recognized; it was certainly not Rest. It was a long, circular melody that did not seem to end. A holding pattern.
Lan Qiren gazed into the courtyard where the rain beat at the white gravel. The branches of the ancient magnolia tree swayed in the gusts of wind. “We have tried and failed to suppress it.”
As soon as Wei Wuxian had seen Lan Wangji and Wen Ning, he had known: the entire strength of all their disciples had not been enough to coax the energy to release or force it to subside. The next step would be to destroy it, but if there had been any hope of that, Lan Qiren would not have asked him to come.
“I see,” Wei Wuxian said. “Wen Ning, I think it is best if you wait here. You might not be able to resist when you hear Chenqing, but if you can, stay and protect the disciples while they play. Is is possible that the energy will take a physical form. In that case, it is important that they are not distracted.” If I am unable to stop it, went unsaid. He did not add that the energy manifesting physically might actually be one of the better outcomes; at least that could be destroyed through conventional cultivation.
Wen Ning bowed, water still dripping off his straw hat. “Yes, Master Wei.”
“The resentful energy will be drawn to me,” he informed Lan Qiren. “I will also need to be outside the wards. Is there a mountaintop where Lan Zhan could take me?”
Lan Qiren shot him a look, eyes lightning fast—outrage, perhaps, at the suggestion that he should put his nephew in danger. But Lan Wangji’s steady presence at his side made it clear that where Wei Wuxian went, he went also. Lan Qiren’s gaze flickered to Lan Wangji, then back to the courtyard and the storm.
“No need. It is best to do it here.” Lan Qiren cleared his throat and tucked a hand behind his back. “This courtyard is the center of the array underneath Cloud Resources.”
Wei Wuxian blinked. Well, that was interesting information. Given that Lan Qiren wouldn’t meet his eyes, that sounded like a Lan Sect secret.
But any questions would have to wait. Wei Wuxian looked at Lan Wangji. He inclined his head. Wei Wuxian turned back to Lan Qiren. “Then I am ready.”
“Very well.” Lan Qiren turned to Lan Xichen. “Drop the wards from the courtyard.”
Lan Xichen nodded without removing his lips from his flute. A disciple who had been standing against the wall stepped forward and took up the melody on her own xiao. Lan Xichen finished the phrase and tucked Liebing into his sash.
Lan Wangji walked away from them to the neighboring side of the courtyard. He knelt in a gap in the row of disciples on the covered porch. He pulled his guqin from his back and lay it in front of him. He settled his fingers on the strings.
Lan Xichen waited until Lan Wangji met his eyes before he drew two fingers together and pressed them to his chest. His qi glowed blue as it collected under his fingertips. He closed his eyes, concentrating, and tossed his qi skyward.
The wards glowed, briefly visible as a blue shimmer on the underside of the clouds. As Wei Wuxian watched, the shimmer sank towards them. It settled over the roofs of the buildings and curved down, protecting the buildings and the disciples seated on their porches. It dipped in the center and sank beneath the gravel of the courtyard.
Wei Wuxian did not remember drawing Chenqing, but she was in his hands. He stepped through the wards and into the storm.
The storm howled around him. It tore at his robes and his hair. Above him, the clouds were darkening rapidly. He closed his eyes against the lashing rain. He did not need to see to know that the air above him crackled with resentful energy.
Wei Wuxian raised Chenqing to his lips. He tested the storm with a long and even note. The sound was carried along by the wind, neither overwhelmed by it nor rising above it. If the storm noticed, it did not respond. The resentful energy was oddly scattered. It had no clear purpose other than anger.
He shifted his stance and planted his heels in the gravel. Chenqing’s next note pierced through the howling of the wind. It rose above the wind and rain, high enough to reach the clouds where the energy had twisted itself into a knot. This time, it noticed. The energy untwisted itself and expanded, blocking out all else. It spiraled down towards him. He felt the hands of the long dead grabbing at his robes. The storm screamed in his ears. Yes, he replied. Yes, I know what it is like to feel this anger. I see you.
The wind circled around him as if it wanted to pull him into the clouds. The first tentative tongues of resentful energy spiraled along his arms and around his chest. He felt electric. He had not felt like this since Nightless City. It was more energy than he could ever want, but still he took and took and took. The notes from Chenqing grew shrill and fierce. He would hold it all—every ounce of anger, resentment, hatred. It pooled inside him alongside his own.
But he was not nineteen anymore. He was not the person he had been then. The memory of that anger and resentment still lived inside him, but now he could look at it, hold it in the palm of his hand.
His notes softened. The storm withdrew slightly, confused. I have felt your anger, he told the storm. I have felt your pain. But that is not all there is.
The storm screamed at him. Icy rain slapped across his cheeks. The resentful energy swarmed around him before it whipped away, drawn to him and repulsed at once. Liar! it screamed. Thief!
The energy he had taken thrummed beneath his skin. It could not decide whether it wanted what he promised or whether it preferred the unharnessed energy of the storm. He modulated his melody into something more complex. He wove a rope that spiraled up towards the clouds. Listen, he said, because how often did someone speak its language? But it did not have patience for his intricate message. A gust of wind nearly barreled him over. He stumbled back a step.
He wove grief into his melody, longing. The storm still raged about him, but a thread of it paused, bent closer. Is it anger you feel? he asked. Or is it grief so raw, you have mistaken it for anger?
The storm reared back, enraged, but a wisp of energy was slow to withdraw. He followed it. His melody grew quieter. I have felt grief, he told it. I have performed Empathy on the dead and felt the grief of others. Grief for what they have lost. Grief for what they will never have. I have caused more grief than I can hold. He considered the tattered form of the spirit for only a moment before he took a risk. He brought in a few notes so bittersweet, they made tears spring to his eyes. Grief is just love that has no place to rest.
The spirit moved towards him. It was amorphous, too long gone to have a form, but it was no longer merely a fragment of the storm. He stepped backwards, towards where he knew Lan Wangji waited.
Fingers strummed across a guqin. The spirit paused. Wei Wuxian kept walking backwards, step by step. The spirit followed him again, and then he spun away. The next time Lan Wangji strummed his fingers across the strings, the chord washed directly over the lost spirit. It moved slowly across the courtyard as if drawn to the music by an invisible string.
Thank you, he thought, and turned his attention back to the storm.
The storm was unaffected by the loss of one spirit, but now he could see where parts of it were less stable than others. I cannot lie to you, he told the mass of restless spirits. I did not lie when I said I understood. But now I have learned that I was always loved, even when I felt most alone.
Howling spirits grabbed at his hair, trying to tear it from his scalp.
You, too, were loved once.
The wind screamed at him. He danced out of the way of an angry spirit that tore itself free from the storm and dove at him out of rage. Before it could attempt to strike again, a second guqin caught it in a net of fast, bright chords. The notes came faster from Chenqing, like the pelting rain. I can hold both regret and love in myself at once. Are you not powerful enough to do the same?
Another spirit disentangled itself from the morass of energy. The voice of Lan Xichen’s flute floated under the current of the storm and teased at the spirit’s attention. It turned towards the sound, hesitant.
The voice of a third guqin joined in tentatively. Another spirit that had been lagging behind its fellows turned away.
He had not trained the way the Lan disciples had, with their library of carefully constructed songs, and Chenqing was not used to having accompaniment. Chenqing was the rising, sharp voice; the guqins and xiaos, the textures in the background. He played a note that was too dissonant with another. The tension snapped, enraging a spirit that had nearly been calmed. But before he could react, another disciple caught it with a few expertly strummed notes.
Trust us, Lan Wangji had told him. The Lan disciples had trained together in this sort of cultivation all their lives. Wei Wuxian responded to the storm; the disciples had no trouble responding to him. So he played as he always did, on instinct alone. When a spirit was particularly stubborn, a second xiao or guqin would join in to amplify the voice of the first. They were cautious and patient, so there were never more than a few instruments speaking at a time.
He turned his attention away from the individual spirits; it was the mass of resentful energy overhead that concerned him. Fewer and fewer spirits were drifting away from it. The knot was tightening. Even the resentful energy that still coiled around his chest strained upwards, drawn towards the stronger force. Perhaps a few spirits remained, but he could not spend forever teasing them out. He couldn't even be sure that they could be saved. Many of these spirits were too far gone to ever remember they had once been anything other than a roiling mass of resentment.
The storm was no longer scattered. He had taken away all pieces of it that had doubted. Now, it bent its attention on him with one mind.
Perhaps it would respond to bargaining. What do you want? he asked with a few quick notes. Ghost to ghost. What do you seek on this mountaintop?
Revenge, the wind screamed. The rain sobbed from the clouds. Chenqing shrilled in response. And once again, the energy streamed into him. Give us revenge.
Around him, the voices of guqin and xiao were falling silent. No spirits remained that could be easily convinced to depart. Those that could be suppressed had been. And still, the energy spiraled around him, the static building into a palpable thing. He tasted iron on his tongue.
The deep voice of Wangji spoke again. He thought, at first, that it was speaking to a spirit, but it was not a melody he recognized. Inquiry? Two notes.
Lan Zhan, he thought, and realized suddenly that he was cold. His fingers were nearly numb. His fingertips prickled with heat as he moved them along the length of his flute. It was harder for his lips to guide his breath than it had been before. How long had he stood at the center of this storm?
Wei Ying. It is time.
He turned his attention back to the storm. The air was heavy with static. It was craving a lightening strike, and he was the only lightening rod around.
You want revenge? he asked. In another life, he would have been teasing. But he only felt a bone-deep weariness at the futility of it all.
Then have it. He released all of the collected resentful energy back into the sky with a single undulating tone that built and built until it could not build anymore.
As soon as the last fragmented spirit left him, the wards slammed into place above him. Even though it was not necessary, he drew the note to a close before he took a breath. Chenqing dropped from his numb fingers. There was a sound like a clap of thunder, but below the level of human hearing—resentful energy slamming against resentful energy. It reverberated in his bones. He blinked at the rain that dripped down his face when he opened his eyes. Above him, the clouds roiled, black shot through with bursts of light. Energy snapped and hissed. But it did not seek the ground; the flashes of lightening began and ended in the clouds above them.
He tried to lick his lips, but he could barely feel his face. He wanted to speak to Lan Zhan—but Lan Zhan was far away, all the way across the courtyard. He could hear a guqin coaxing away a few final spirits that had escaped, summoned by the promise of forgiveness. Lan Zhan was busy. That was alright. But in a moment, he would. In a moment, he would walk across the courtyard and then—
He felt a hand on his back. The ground was much closer than he remembered. Black flashed across his vision. Had he closed his eyes?
Lan Qiren’s face floated above him. He looked concerned. That couldn’t be right. “Wei Ying!”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes slipped closed. The notes of Wangji became muffled as Lan Zhan put his hands over the strings to silence them. All was safe. Finally, he could rest.
Wei Wuxian woke to the sight of three small faces crammed into his vision. Each one had a tiny white ribbon tied around their forehead.
“Master Wei!” one of them gasped.
“Don’t move,” another said earnestly, eyebrows drawn together. “I will get you some water.”
He blinked. Had he fallen asleep while telling them stories about the Ghost General? Lan Zhan will kill me, he thought. He tried to sit up. Every single muscle screamed in protest.
Ah. The storm.
He closed his eyes and gave up on moving. “Master Wei, Master Wei! I told you not to move!” a small voice was saying.
Yes, Young Mistress Lan, he thought with some amusement.
“I will get Hanguang Jun,” another small voice said. There was the patter of tiny feet moving quickly away.
Thank you, Young Master Lan, he wanted to say, but it seemed speech was beyond him.
He opened his eyes again. He recognized the ceiling of the infirmary now that he knew to look for it. He had been in here enough times, though Lan Zhan usually swept him away to the Jingshi as soon as he was bandaged up. He could see a window from his bed. The morning cloud cover had burned off, and the sky was a bright blue.
Lan Wangji appeared a few minutes later, ushered in by a Lan disciple who barely reached his knees. Wei Wuxian smiled at him. There were dark streaks under Lan Wangji’s eyes, but his face was clear as he looked at Wei Wuxian. He sat on the edge of the mattress. He brushed Wei Wuxian’s hair away from his face and kissed him gently.
Wei Wuxian closed his eyes and sighed a little. When Lan Wangji pulled back, they were both smiling.
“Water, Hanguang Jun,” a voice said. A small pair of hands handed him a cup.
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji said. He held the cup to Wei Wuxian’s lips so he could drink.
“Lan Zhan,” he said after he swallowed. He winced at how scratchy his voice sounded. “How long have I been asleep?”
“One night.” Lan Wangji carded a hand through Wei Wuxian’s unbound hair. “You do not appear to be injured. Exhaustion only.”
He closed his eyes and hummed in pleasure at the sensation. “It was very tiring.”
Lan Wangji stroked his hair until another small junior appeared with some food. Lan Wangji took the tray from him and set it on the edge of the bed. Wei Wuxian watched the little junior bow and hurry out of the door again. “The disciples at the infirmary seem to have shrunk. Where are the others?”
“Also exhausted.” Lan Wangji ladled some broth into a bowl. “Also resting.”
“You work them hard.”
Wei Wuxian watched him with sharp eyes. “Is Hanguang Jun exhausted?”
“Hanguang Jun already rested.”
Wei Wuxian quirked an eyebrow. “Perhaps Hanguang Jun should rest a little more with me.”
Lan Wangji gave him a look. “Shameless.”
Wei Wuxian grinned. Lan Wangji tucked a second pillow beneath Wei Wuxian’s head. Once he was sitting up a little bit, Lan Wangji pressed the bowl into his hands. Normally he would have complained that it was too bitter, but now he was glad for the Lan Sect's medicinal foods as he sipped the warm soup. His throat would not have appreciated any spice right now.
Wei Wuxian asked after Lan Sizhui and the others. They had been at the courtyard all afternoon, Lan Wangji said, but the seniors had been strict about making sure everyone took shifts. The juniors’ spiritual energy was low but not drained.
The resentful energy had fought itself out as Wei Wuxian had intended. Some of it had remained in the end, but a few senior disciples had been able to disperse it. (Lan Wangji did not say whether they been forced to destroy it, and Wei Wuxian did not ask.) The storm had dissipated overnight, Lan Wangji told him; without the resentful energy holding it together, the clouds had drifted apart.
And then, seemingly out of the blue: “Grand Master will be here in a few minutes.”
Wei Wuxian nearly choked. He swallowed the last mouthful of soup and looked at him wide-eyed in panic. “You’re going to let him come in here when I’m in this state?” He shoved the bowl into Lan Wangji’s hands and struggled to sit up properly. “Can’t the scolding wait until after I’m better? I saved Cloud Recesses, didn’t I?” He froze and looked at Lan Wangji. “Didn’t I? Was anyone hurt? Were any of the trees or buildings damaged?”
Lan Wangji shook his head. He put a hand under Wei Wuxian’s arm and helped him sit up. “No more than in a normal storm. Nothing that can’t be repaired.”
There were footsteps on the porch outside. “Grand Master!” a small Lan junior voice exclaimed. “You can’t enter! Master Wei is not ready for visitors yet.”
“Oh?” Lan Qiren rumbled.
Wei Wuxian laughed softly. “That Lan junior is braver than I will ever be. Standing up to Grand Master!”
Lan Wangji’s hands were already smoothing out his hair. He swiftly tied it up with a ribbon he pulled from his sleeve. “Wei Ying is braver.”
Wei Wuxian looked at him fondly. “I suppose I’ve stood up to him too, haven’t I? But back then—”
Lan Wangji’s eyes did not leave his. “You stood up to a storm alone.”
He looked away. “Ah, well. That’s not bravery; that’s just doing what needed to be done.”
Lan Qiren stepped into the room. Apparently he had convinced the Lan junior that he was an important enough visitor that an exception should be made. “Wei Wuxian,” he said stiffly. “Wangji.”
Wei Wuxian clasped his hands in front of him and bowed. “Grand Master.”
Lan Qiren tucked a hand behind his back. “I hope you are well.”
“Very well,” Wei Wuxian said, smiling.
Lan Qiren nodded. “Perhaps Wangji has told you why I am here.”
Wei Wuxian glanced at Lan Wangji. His expression was unreadable. “No, though I think I can guess.” He looked back at Lan Qiren, who was looking at him with sharp eyes. “The storm dissipated without anyone figuring out why it came here, right?” Lan Qiren nodded. “Well, I can’t be sure of how it was done, but it’s certainly likely that it was sent to Cloud Recesses because of me. However, I think we can rest easy that this wasn’t the work of some mastermind.”
“Oh?” Lan Qiren raised an eyebrow slightly. “I am less interested in who was responsible than their motivations. Please explain.”
Wei Wuxian turned to Lan Wangji. “Has Wen Ning already left?”
“This morning, as soon as the storm broke.”
“This morning? Then he can’t have gone far.” He turned back to Lan Qiren. “Wen Ning said that the storm followed him from Yunmeng. If he was traveling there, he very likely passed through Yiling. I would not be surprised if one of my…enthusiastic fans saw him.” Wei Wuxian waved a hand dismissively. “Most of them don’t know what they’re talking about, but some of them did take the time to actually learn demonic cultivation. I think you will find that a Stygian lure was embroidered into the new robes that he got while he was there.”
Lan Qiren blinked. “Wen Ning was the target?”
“I don’t think so.” Wei Wuxian clasped his hands together in his lap. “The energy only collected very gradually. I suspect the lure was weak, either because the person who created it was not very knowledgeable or because that they wanted it to be. Maybe I’m wrong and he was their target; who doesn’t hold a grudge against the Ghost General if they hold one against the Yiling Patriarch?” Wei Wuxian shook his head. “But it was not a very effective way to take revenge if that’s the case. If the lure did draw any fierce corpses, he would have been able to handle them without thinking it was anything unusual. It is a long way from Yunmeng to here on foot. How many graves would Wen Ning have had to pass by, collecting resentful energy as he went, to create a storm of that magnitude?”
“And their goal?”
“I can only assume that whoever did this knew that Wen Ning would seek me out. Maybe they wanted to bring disaster down on Cloud Recesses for harboring me; maybe I was their target. Maybe they were hoping you’d throw me out when it seemed like I couldn’t control the resentful energy that was drawn to me.” He shrugged. “I assume the strength of the storm was an unintended consequence. If this person were confident in their abilities, they would have challenged me directly. If they knew what my abilities really were, or if they had spent a long time cultivating on this path, they would have chosen something more effective.”
Lan Qiren looked troubled. Wei Wuxian turned to Lan Wangji, who had taken this explanation without surprise. “If they leave soon, Lan Sizhui and the others can catch up with Wen Ning in time to join him on a night-hunt. They might want to bring him a new set of robes.” Wei Wuxian looked at Lan Qiren. “I think it is best if very little is said about this. I don’t mind if everyone thinks that I drew resentful energy here. Perhaps if we can take a look at the robes, we can identify the person who did this; perhaps not. But it’s best if no one knows the details.”
Lan Qiren frowned. “Lan disciples are discreet.”
Wei Wuxian smiled. “Of course. But the news might still make its way to Wen Ning. He would be devastated if he thought that Cloud Recesses or anyone in it had been in danger because of him.”
Lan Qiren tucked hands in the sleeves of his robes, looking irritated. “We will examine the robes closely when they are brought to us. Now, for the other matter.”
Wei Wuxian blinked. “Other matter?”
“I think it is time you are added to the wards on Cloud Recesses,” Lan Qiren said gruffly.
Wei Wuxian gaped at him. When Lan Wangji had brought him back to Cloud Recesses, he had been given a jade token to permit him to move freely through the wards just like the other honored guests of the Lan Sect. After getting himself locked out of Cloud Recesses twice, he had tied it securely to his belt so that he wouldn’t forget to wear it. Otherwise, it would have collected dust on Lan Wangji’s desk or under a pile of books, never to be seen again.
Lan disciples did not need tokens. At first, he had thought it was because a spell was woven into their forehead ribbons or robes. It turned out this had been the case in the past, but it had been decided that was not secure enough because anyone might steal one. From the haunted look in Lan Wangji’s eyes when he had explained this to him, Wei Wuxian guessed the change had occurred after the burning of Cloud Recesses. Now, the spiritual energy of Lan disciples was joined with the wards directly.
Wei Wuxian closed his mouth with some difficulty. “Are you sure?”
“You are clearly a member of the Lan Sect,” Lan Qiren said brusquely, unfolding his hands from his robes. “Now. Give me your wrist.”
Wei Wuxian obediently held out his hand, wrist up. Lan Qiren took it in his hand. He closed his eyes and held two fingers of his free hand above the meridian on Wei Wuxian’s wrist.
Wei Wuxian forgot he had a golden core most of the time. It was a small, sputtering thing, barely stronger than the sparks he saw in some of the Lan juniors. But it never went dark. He felt Lan Qiren draw up a thin thread of spiritual energy. Then Lan Qiren released his wrist, made a hand array, and wove the thread into the glowing array that appeared in front of him.
And then Wei Wuxian could feel the wards.
They stretched over the whole mountaintop. He had known that already, but feeling exactly how vast they were was something else entirely. He knew exactly where he was in relation to them. He could feel something humming under his feet, something slumbering. So there really is an array under Cloud Recesses, he thought, delighted. It was the largest array he had ever encountered. Of course Lan Qiren had insisted that they fight the storm from the courtyard; if Wei Wuxian had been unable to control the storm, the disciples could have completed the array, sealing him and the storm at its heart. No wonder no one spoke of it. They didn’t need to.
Lan Qiren folded his hands in his sleeves again. “You may hand over your jade token when you are well enough to return to your quarters. Your friend can have it. We can’t add him to the wards or they would let in every fierce corpse that came to pay us a visit.” He turned on his heel and left.
Wei Wuxian looked at his wrist in awe, then at Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji’s face was glowing. “Lan Zhan,” he said. “You could have warned me.”
Lan Wangji smiled. “He is very grateful.”
“He could have just said that.” He looked at his wrist again. “That was really all it took? Such a simple method. Though that array looked very complicated…. I wonder…”
Lan Wangji put a hand over his wrist. “Wei Ying.” Wei Wuxian looked up. “You are well rested?”
He blinked. “I’m still a little sleepy. And I don’t want to play Chenqing for another few days if I can help it. But I’ll be fine.”
“You are well enough to return to the Jingshi?” Lan Wangji’s eyes darkened. “I think perhaps I do need to rest more. With you.”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Shameless, Hanguang Jun! Here I am, savior of Cloud Recesses, with my poor fingers all sore from playing my flute, and all you can think about is—”
“I will carry you.” Lan Wangji stood, nearly upsetting the tray in the process, and threw back the covers.
“Lan Zhan!” he yelped. “You don’t need to do that.”
Lan Wangji placed one of Wei Wuxian’s over his shoulders. He looked at Wei Wuxian sidelong with glittering eyes. “I thought you were very tired. And sore.”
Wei Wuxian buried his face in Lan Wangji’s shoulder and laughed helplessly. Lan Wangji wrapped his other arm around his waist and heaved him up into his arms. Wei Wuxian wrapped his legs around his waist and held on tight. “Lan Zhan,” he said when he gasped for breath. “You are even more shameless than me.”
The three small Lan juniors from earlier trailed after them as Lan Wangji carried him out of the infirmary and into the sun. “Do you need anything, Master Wei?” one of them asked uncertainly.
He grinned at them over Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “Not anymore. The next time we tell stories, I want to hear all about how you nursed Master Wei back to health from certain death.”
The three of them turned varying shades of pink. They bowed to him. “Thank you, Master Wei!” one of them called.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” he said, closing his eyes and resting his chin on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. "It is so good to be home."