Hollowed out, lacking flesh to bind his skin to his bones, Wei Wuxian drags himself through the crowded streets, hat pulled low and wearing torn, dirtied rags similar to the ones he had worn as a homeless child. Each step pulls at his wounds, stretching the stitches buried in the skin of his abdomen taut whenever he moves his legs forward, but it’s nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing next to the void now residing in his weakened body. The very marrow has been sucked out of his bones and the knowledge that it will never grow again hurts worse than the loss had. But he'll have to adapt to even this hurt, this pain.
Relief flushes through him once his gaze falls on a physician not too far from him, standing at a stand to sell her medicine. He rushes over to her, hurried steps unsteady and wavering on the uneven ground beneath. In his haste, he misses the arrival of a few Wen guards by a few seconds and those seconds alone cost him more leeway to escape than he would have prefered. He takes the bottle of medicine he has come to this market for and throws money her way.
Wei Wuxian quickly dives into the crowd and threads his way through the market, cursing at the weak state of himself. Once again chased down by dogs, once again without a home, once again on his own, but, no, that’s not true. He- he still has his shijie, his precious shijie, and Jiang Cheng, his brother, he is waiting for him to return. Wei Wuxian is not alone, he is needed, they need him and that’s reason enough to hurry back to them. He has to protect them after failing so miserably before.
No matter how many corners he turns, he cannot shake the Wen dogs off his tail, they follow him, always too close and not far enough for him to be able to calm down and soon they have cut him off of any escape path, blocking his right, his left, every direction he could take, but they have yet to catch him.
There's a tavern, well visited and large enough to house multiple rooms, he’ll have to hide away in one and find some backdoor to get out again. With no other option left, Wei Wuxian runs over to the building, biting back the groan of pain at the stinging, hot pain that flushes up in his stomach. He throws himself against the entrance and pushes against the doors with his shoulder, relying on the weight of his body to open it, now that his arms tremble even at the slightest movement.
The doors slide open and he stumbles forward, barely keeping himself from falling to the ground after losing his equilibrium with the sudden give of the doors. His hand moves to his wound, pressing against the bandage clinging to his clammy skin, he presses tightly against it, feeling for the gash cutting his abdomen from the line of his last rib to his hip bone. When he feels no moisture, no extreme warmth off his wound, he gives a sigh of relief and raises his head, leaning back against the wall to his right.
In the next second, the air rushes out of his lungs and his body falls against the wall, hands clenched into fists as they shake, useless now that he has lost his only defence. But at least he still has his pride, his honor. None of which Wen Chao has any right to, but claims to own in abundance.
The despicable face of Wen Chao smiles at him in triumph. He stands up from his seat at the table and slanders over to him, keeping only so much distance that they are not within arm’s reach. His henchmen surround Wei Wuxian and pack him by his arms, driving their knees into his back and punching him in his stomach to make him double over and kneel on the ground. He looks around the foyer and finds it emptied out, abandoned by all but Wen soldiers. They are nothing but wild dogs burying their teeth in his flesh to please their master with their meager offering.
Before he can catch his breath, Wen Zhuliu moves to attack him and presses his hand flat against his chest, to melt a core that no longer lives within him, but in his brother. The confusion on his face only makes him snicker at the sheer irony of this situation, trying to kill a man who’s already dead.
Wei Wuxian spits out blood and tilts his head up, sneering at Wen Chao with all his disgust, all his contempt. He is the worst of his kind, his arrogance runs so deep that he has lost any ounce of humanity. A sadist through and through, who delights in humiliating others, but what angers Wei Wuxian the most is his inadequacy. A weak cultivator, an incompetent swordsman and an even less talented strategist. Claiming all the accomplishments of others has rendered him weak and useless beyond words, the only thing keeping him alive is his birthright as the second son to a powerful Lord and what a weak claim that is. Nothing but a man spoiled rotten and knowing that he’ll meet his end in the hands of such a failure, Wei Wuxian can only curse his luck. He would prefer to die at the hands of someone else, someone worthy, perhaps more worthy than he deserves after all.
“Well, will you look who’s here!” Wen Chao exclaims, voice boisterous and grating against his ears. He clasps his hands together and laughs, throwing his head back. “Finally on your knees, just where you belong, Wei Wuxian,” he hisses his name out, it seems to be nothing but a curse on his tongue. “I will enjoy hearing you beg for your life.”
Wei Wuxian gives a short laugh, cold and loud, and grins at Wen Chao. “Don’t delude yourself into thinking that I will ever beg you for mercy. Beat me, torture me, do your worst, but don’t even think for a second that you’ve won. I’ll return as a resentful ghost, more vicious and powerful than before, and I will hunt you down, I will punish you for your misdeeds. You will be the one bowing down to me, you will be the one to plead for mercy. Mark my words, Wen dog!”
Wen Chao scowls at him, his hateful face morphs into an even more awful grimace. “It won’t take long to beat that defiance off your face.” He narrows his eyes and turns to Wen Zhuliu. “Beat him up and make sure there’s no strength left in him. Then drag him to the cliff at the burial mounds, we’ll see how he’ll manage to turn himself into a ghost, after both his body and soul have been torn to shreds.”
The wind whips around him, cutting into his skin, his flesh, until the coldness has seeped into his bones. No matter how hard he tries to suppress it, to keep it from showing, his body shivers, a leaf caught in the merciless current of a brewing storm. The soil beneath him is moist with his sweat, his blood and the rain that has long stopped falling from the sky. He wishes for it to return, he longs for the soft caress of each drop against his face. He wants to listen to the melody of the mild drizzling and weaving and forget where he is, who he is, everything. He wants to sink into the ground, to be swallowed and returned to his origin, to become what he had been from the very beginning, earth, water and stone. At least, he won’t be able to feel anything then.
A kick to his side shakes him out of his thoughts and returns him to reality, it is as sudden and hurtful as a whiplash and whatever calm he has talked himself into vanishes. He draws his knees to himself and winds his arms around his legs. A doomed attempt to protect a wound that has already been pulled open and now blood seeps from between the strained stitches.
Wei Wuxian rips his eyes open, when he feels fingers dig at his open gash, and finds his sight engulfed by Wen Chao and little else. He shuts his eyes close again and wills that monstrous face away, but even that little mercy is denied to him.
Wen Chao grabs him by his hair and pulls him off the ground, his scalp burns as it carries the weight of his upper body, it burns so much that another scream is pulled out of him. He had thought the last of his pain had already been witnessed, how wrong he had been to think that this was all over! How utterly wrong and naive! With his eyes shut, he doesn’t see Wen Chao’s face come closer, he notices it when it’s already much too late and that dog drags his tongue across his face, tasting the salt of his tears against his skin. Wei Wuxian turns away from him, at least he tries to and ends up hissing at the resounding pain.
With another one of his shrill, hideous laughter, Wen Chao releases him, hands letting go so suddenly that the following fall shocks his body to stillness before his mind can catch up and when it does, he opens his eyes and sees Wen Chao looming over his crippled body. Satisfaction rolls off of him in waves and the victory, the triumph surging through his blood, it shows itself in the cold gleam of his eyes, the vicious sneer of his lips.
Oh, how much he wants to wipe out every trace of it, it’s a thought caught in a circle, a shout deep inside, burying itself into his flesh, it screams: kill him, murder him, slaughter him! And he will, he knows he will, as a living man, as a vengeful ghost, whatever form he takes, he will have his revenge, as slow and torturous as the past few days have been for him.
“Do you see where the earth ends and the sky begins? Do you see the edge of this cliff?” Wen Chao asks, crossing his hands behind his back as he gazes out into the distance. “You will meet your end here. You will crawl to the very brink of this cliff and fall to your death. And when you lie on the cold, hard ground of the burial mounds, the corpses, the souls of thousands of resentful beings will break you until there's nothing left of you. You told me you’ll hunt me down, but the burial mounds are merciless, cruel, it will devour you whole and leave nothing behind. You are simply too weak to conquer it. After all, don’t you know that worthless pieces of trash like you are born into this world to be used and thrown away? So do yourself a favour and follow your destiny.”
“Oh, I will,” Wei Wuxian hisses back, spitting the congealed blood in his mouth at Wen Chao, who glares at him and drives his boot into his stomach in retribution, punching the air out of his lungs, before he turns around sharply, sleeves flaring up in the wind, a flurry of red and the monster has finally vanished from before his eyes.
Only now does he allow his arms and legs to fall limp to the ground, slowly submerging his fingers in the damp, cold soil. And so he simply lies on the hard earth and stares up at the sky and sees birds soar through the air with nothing but freedom as their company. Now he will never become one of them. He is too heavy, there is too much weight on his emptied bones now. In that moment, he finds himself once again reminded that he will never fly again, he will never leave this forsaken place, he will never see Jiang Cheng grow into the clan leader he was always meant to become, he will never see his shijie marry a man finally worthy of her kindness, her love and strength. But with him gone, who will protect them? Who will keep them from harm’s way? If only he could hear his shijie call out for him again, one single worried A-Xian more from her lips and one last berating Wei Wuxian from his dear brother. What he wouldn’t give to see them just once more...
But death has already claimed him, he died the moment Wen Chao dragged him to this wretched place and tore the clothes from his frail skin. He’s already a corpse, rotting in too many places to ever heal again. He will die and he will return, not as a brother, not as a friend, not as a cultivator, he will come back as an avenger, he will become the most vengeful, the most resentful spirit to ever grace this world and he will destroy all that is Wen Chao.
He has ceased to exist.
Wei Wuxian is no longer.
More than two weeks have passed ever since the news of Yunmeng’s fall have reached the ruins of the Cloud Recesses and the remaining members of the Lan Clan and more than one week has passed since Lan Wangji has left his home behind, set off by the arrival of no other than Jiang Cheng. It had been the first time he had seen the man without his brother at his side, without... Wei Wuxian.
“Is Wei Wuxian here?” Jiang Cheng had asked him, pushing him to the side to peer into the ruins of his home. “Did he seek refuge with you?” The accusation swang heavy in his voice, such anger, such distress and no effort at all to conceal it. Lan Wangji would have given his everything just to be able to say yes, he would have given his everything for it to be the truth, instead he had said: “He is not with me.”
Jiang Cheng had not believed him and had stormed deeper into the Cloud Recesses, turning over every stone in his desperate search and Lan Wangji had watched him from afar, quitely. With each second, he had felt something compressed, something coiled in him unfurl and grow. It hasn’t stopped growing once, not even when Jiang Cheng had left, not even after the lingering fury of his presence had passed away, not even now that he has left himself.
Lan Wangji had only been able to follow after him, forsaking everything else and giving himself over to this search, but Jiang Cheng had barely tolerated his presence, his every word had angered him, the very sight of Lan Wangji had seemed to tip him into an unreasonable rage. So much that Lan Wangji had wondered about the cause of his contempt, what has he done to arouse his ire? Aren’t they both men with a common goal, a common friend? He didn’t find it in him to understand this man that calls Wei Wuxian his brother and after a while, he stopped wanting to either. Wei Wuxian was, he is his first priority and, thus, he and Jiang Cheng had gone separate ways.
For three days now, Lan Wangji wanders through the world on his own, following trail after trail, and now he has chosen to return to the place they had first began their search at. He’s back in Yiling, the place Wei Wuxian had last been seen at.
And even after all these days have passed, a few Wen soldiers are still milling through the streets, disturbing the market with their boisterous, loud voices. The people native to this village can only shirk away from them, afraid of the harassment the soldiers must have subjected on them ever since their arrival, but their fear only feeds into their festivity. They are still drunk off of their victory over the Jiang Clan and it shows in each one of their actions.
Lan Wangji knows to keep his distance from them, in their frivolous state, they have become careless, imprudent to the point that by simply avoiding the main roads, he can go through this village unnoticed, unseen and unheard. All the better for him.
Just as he reaches the outskirts of the town, his gate heavy and delayed with disappointment, with some growing sense of sorrow, another group of Wen clansmen walks by. He keeps still as he watches them from a narrow and dark alleyway, his back pressed against the wall of some building. Their voices continue to grow stronger, louder and soon he can make out each one of their cheap, vile words.
One sentence in particular sticks out from the rest and it comes to him with such vicious ferocity that it robs him of the air to breathe. It is said with such carelessness, such indifference, it turns the blood in his veins cold.
“Our Master did right to throw that arrogant Wei Wuxian off the cliff, we will see how much backtalk he’ll manage to give once the burial mounds break what little is left of him,” one of them exclaims, with the look of righteous anger on his face, and earns nothing but laughter and chants of agreement from his fellow men.
Another one, the one to laugh the loudest, the one to speak the most, he adds in a voice saturated with his satisfaction, his glee: “He is dead for good now.”
Lan Wangji's hand moves to Bichen, fingers winding themselves around its hilt, so tightly that the edges of the indentations cut into his skin. Only the need to see the truth for himself, to see Wei Wuxian and make certain of their claims, only that need alone keeps him from unsheathing his sword. With gritted teeth and balled fists, he forces himself to allow them to pass by unharmed. As much as the call for blood that sounds from the blade of his sword pulls at his very soul, he must remain strong willed enough not to follow that call. The urgency of finding Wei Wuxian outweighs whatever vengeance he could have.
With one hand still wound around Bichen, he steps out of the dark alleyway and raises his head heavenward, eyes falling on the mountain that frames this village, the only border to the burial mounds that resides at its feet. With a heavy heart and a wary mind, he takes his first step towards the place of Wei Wuxian’s proclaimed death. His wariness is so strong, in fact, that he cannot bring himself to unsheathe his sword and fly to his destination just yet and his heart is so heavy that he cannot bear to lose the last of his faith. Let him walk and cling to his lingering hope, let him walk through this world with the belief that Wei Wuxian is still with him for a little while longer.
As soon as he reaches the top of the mountain, a wide meadow greets him, with grass so high that it reaches up to his shin and it's of such a bright, vivid green that it makes a stark contrast to the grey, the charcoal black of the rocks lining the meadow. With careful, tentative steps, Lan Wangji crosses the meadow, gaze fixed on the edge of this cliff and the closer he gets to that very border, the stronger the wind grows, a fierce current driving him away, back to where he came from. But Lan Wangji does not let it deter him, he persists, pushing back against whatever force that is trying to keep him from reaching that edge and gazing into the abyss of the burial mounds for himself, from seeing the truth of Wei Wuxian’s death and ridding himself of the last of his doubt.
He had felt the resentful energy before setting foot on the meadow, he had felt it at the bottom of this mountain, when he had still been miles away. But now, it is in the air, clogging up his nose and making a strong sense of vertigo rise low in his stomach. He has never before felt something so potent, so sinister. It reeks of destruction, of blood and despair, so much that it’s almost a touch, hands beckoning him closer and closer to the source of their power, but his skin is numb to each one of their strokes. It reeks so much that it’s almost an incessant prayer, whispered into his ear, pleading with him, begging him to give himself into it, but each one of its soft, gentle pleas falls on deaf ears.
Lan Wangji pushes forward, only to fall back, back to his hopeful denial, back to his naive ignorance. A flash of white, such a pale, pallid and frail white. A flash of too much skin, of sick, malnourished skin and he can only wish to erase all that his eyes have seen. Unwittingly, unable to bear another second of this torment, he turns his gaze away, feeling the air rush in and out of him, each in- and exhale out of his control, taking more air out of him than he receives. It cannot be , he thinks, this must be some sort of illusion, a desperate ploy by the many resentful spirits that must roam this cursed mountain to get under my skin, but when he dares to take another look, he sees the truth for himself, so much of it that he has reached the point of no return, a point where denial becomes impossible.
The body of Wei Wuxian lies listless on the ground, so close to the border that one of his arms hangs off the cliff, limp and with one drop of blood after another dripping down into the abyss beneath. His outer robe hangs loosely off his body, betraying too much of his vulnerable skin and revealing too many cuts, too many bruises, too many wounds. He cannot help but ask himself, what has happened to you? Where do these bite marks come from? The countless imprints of hands all over your skin, who left them there? What does it all mean?
When the answer inevitably comes to him, Lan Wangji lowers himself to his knees, bringing his fist to his mouth and biting into his flesh, until he can taste copper on his tongue. He presses his other hand against his chest, feeling something constrict in him, cutting him off his air as nausea rises to the surface. “No, no, no,” he whispers so quietly that the wind carries each word away from his lips to somewhere far, far away.
With great difficulty, he forces himself to calm down and when he has pulled himself together enough to think clearly again, Lan Wangji carefully drags Wei Wuxian’s body away from that dangerous edge, softly cradling his head in his lap, hand moving to the deepest wound on his abdomen that is still seeping blood through the tense stitches that hold flesh to flesh together. Who bothered to close his wound? He brings his finger close to it, feeling around the edges of the injury, noticing that, despite the obvious irritation, it is by far more healed than any of the other injuries. Just how long has he been lying here?
He lowers his ear to Wei Wuxian’s mouth and listens for a certain sound, a single sign that the body beneath him is still breathing and once he finally hears a soft, faint inhale, he gives a sigh of relief, a relief so strong that he feels his body fall into itself, as the fearful tension leaves him at once and takes the strength of his muscles with it.
Wei Wuxian is alive, he’s alive and still breathing, but for how much longer? Quickly, Lan Wangji puts two of his fingers in between Wei Wuxian’s brows, feeling for the state of his spiritual energy, it is the fastest way to breathe more life into him and guarantee that he will survive long enough to get him somewhere safe and sound. However, as soon as he pushes deeper, all that he is met with is an all encompassing void, there is no flame to kindle back to life, there is nothing at all. The core melting Hand of Wen Zhuliu… So it was Wen Chao after all, but who else could feel such strong animosity towards Wei Wuxian to be capable of doing something so abhorrent, something so vile to him?
Without any reason to explain his next action, Lan Wangji brushes the few, stray strands of Wei Wuxian’s black hair from his face. His hand freezes and he withdraws it altogether, deeming it a waste of time. He carefully puts his arms beneath Wei Wuxian’s body, making sure not to aggregate any of his more dire injuries, and slowly heaves him up. Calling for Bishen to unsheathe itself, he steps onto its blade and sets out into the sky, heading back to the only place he can hide Wei Wuxian long enough to allow him to heal without the risk of further harm.
All the while, he can’t help but wonder why he is overcome with such profound grief. Why does his heart feel so heavy in his chest? Why do his lungs feel filled with lead? What is this pain? He has already been witness to so much suffering in this war and before, so much blood has been spilt already, so much has been lost forever, why does Wei Wuxian’s pain echo so strongly in him?
This echo resounds so loudly in him, it might as well be his own.
Lan Wangji returns in the dead of the night, many hours past the time to rest, and the darkness shrouds him as he steals past the headquarters into the remote house that has only known one inhabitant before, the house only his mother had lived in. No one dares to enter, no one bothers to visit, it has been willfully forgotten in the minds of the Lan members. Even though it is one of the only few buildings the Wen had not burned down, his mother’s reputation still remains as a shield that wards off any stranger, only Lan Wangji and his brother can trespass, but no one but him will be allowed to see Wei Wuxian defenceless, wounded and weak.
Crossing the garden to his mother’s former quarters, the weight in his arms becomes heavier with every step, but he carries on without faltering once, bound by a sense of duty that he was not born with, but one he has chosen to fulfil instead. It comes from somewhere within and it is a call he no longer can ignore. He will look to it that nothing will hinder, that nothing will sabotage Wei Wuxian’s recovery. In this quiet, remote place, he will offer Wei Wuxian peace, safety, for as long as he wants it, for as long as he needs it.
Using the hilt of Bichen, he opens the door and steps inside. The years gone by have left their mark, dust settles wherever his eyes move to and the air is stale and catches in his throat, almost choking him the further he goes inside, but he pushes past this stifling sensation and hurries to the bed, carefully laying Wei Wuxian down.
He had only afforded them one single break during their journey, one that he had used to take care of the worst of Wei Wuxian’s injuries. Only when Lan Wangji had noticed the acute direness of his health, had he veiled Wei Wuxian’s face and called upon a physician whom he had paid handsomely enough to buy his silence.
Now, he will be the one to clean and bandage the rest of his wounds, he will wait by his side and wait for him to wake up.
Lan Wangji slowly lowers himself to the ground, right at Wei Wuxian’s bedside, eyes fixed on nothing but his face, on the furrowed brows, the clenched jaw, the tight line of his lips. Wei Wuxian’s face shines with his sweat and there’s still that sick parlor to his skin, making him appear more dead than alive. Lan Wangji raises his hand and massages the tense line between his brows, brushing over them as well, before his fingers fall to the juncture of his neck and shoulder. The touch lasts barely a second before he quickly withdraws his hand, not wanting to disturb him any longer. He will simply sit by his side and wait for him to wake. He will be quiet, he will be steadfast, he will be patient. No matter how long it takes, no matter what happens, he will not leave.
No one will ever hurt you again, he thinks as the images of that listless body on the cliff play across his eyes, he closes them and tilts his head up, feeling his throat constrict, now that he is once again faced with the possibility of Wei Wuxian’s death. He swallows down the sudden tightness and returns his gaze to Wei Wuxian’s face. Lan Wangji lowers his forehead to Wei Wuxian’s cold, unmoving hand. I will never let you go, I will protect you, Wei Ying.