They’re all standing in neat, scared rows, gazing up at Wen Chao’s ostentatious marble throne, when a strange shift goes through Lan Wangji. Jiang Cheng would not have noticed but for the fact that he is standing right next to him and Wei Wuxian keeps sending glances over to the Lan.
What Wei Wuxian’s obsession with the man is, he will never know. Prodigy though the man might be, he is as interesting a conversation partner as a pile of pissed-off rocks. Plus, they really have enough of their own problems without wondering about strangers.
In any case, Lan Wangji shifts between one blink and the next, exhaling audibly and flinching minutely, as if he’d stressed a wound he’d been avoiding. Shocking, perhaps not, but odd for a person like the Second Jade to show any weakness. Wen Chao is a shark, watching them from above, and every gap in strength is blood in the water.
Next to Jiang Cheng, Wei Wuxian starts blinking rapidly, like he is just now adjusting to the light. When he stops, his stance is different, less exaggeratedly casual. It’s odd. Something odd is happening.
Jiang Cheng hates when odd things happen and he is not made aware of them in advance. Especially if they include his near-suicidal shixiong and the second young master said shixiong seems so determined to take a sword for.
Furtively he glances around. “What’s going on?” he hisses in Wei Wuxian’s general direction. Wei Wuxian glances back but seems not to hear. Instead he leans so he can better see Lan Wangji on Jiang Cheng’s other side. “Lan Zhan?” he asks quietly, concerned.
Ignored. What had Jiang Cheng expected. He elbows Wei Wuxian in retaliation.
“Wei Wuxian!” That is Wen Chao, tasting blood. “Disrupting, when you should be reflecting on the great words of Wen Mao?” He tuts disapprovingly. “Someone did not learn their lesson last time. Perhaps another night in the dungeons would let the lesson sink in?” His voice is mock-disappointed, which detracts nothing from the way he is rubbing his grimy little rat-hands in anticipation.
Jiang Cheng wants to cut that self-satisfied grin off his face and also go back in time and punch both himself and Wei Wuxian in the face. His shixiong had just gotten back and the hollowed look in his eyes had spoken of horrors beyond his carefree words.
Wen Chao is in the motion of waving his guards to apprehend Wei Wuxian once again when Lan Wangji finally deigns to respond. Shuddering to life, he turns to Wei Wuxian, a slight frown marring his stupidly immaculate face.
“Wei Ying?” He sounds a bit lost. “Ah, Lan Zhan! Are you alright?” Wei Wuxian answers brightly, fully uncaring of the guards in their direction. Jiang Cheng hates them both. He hates, especially, how any thoughts of his own wellbeing fly right out of Wei Wuxian’s head the second the Second Jade of Lan looks at him. The grinding of his teeth is audible.
“... Well.” Lan Wangji answers.
The first guard tries to wrench Wei Wuxian’s arm behind his back, dragging him out of the row without regard for comfort. Wei Wuxian yelps and does very little to stop him. More guards are upon them now, holding swords in the air, deterring the gathered hostages from intervening. Jiang Cheng’s hand is clenched so tightly his knuckles turn white.
Wen Chao is swaggering down the stairs, grinning at the commotion. Wen Zhuliu shadows him, a loyal dog. There is nothing Jiang Cheng can do without endangering their disciples and Lotus Pier. Helplessness stings in his throat.
“Hey, hands off the-” Wei Wuxian complaint is cut off with a yelp of pain as one of the guards backhands him. His head snaps back, blood smearing on his chin. “Rude,” he pouts.
They are inches from Jiang Cheng. He can do nothing. Nothing.
“Don’t resist now,” Wen Chao calls down, “you’ll make them angry.”
Lan Wangji snaps a man’s neck as easy as breaking a pair of chopsticks apart. “Wei Ying,” he calls out before anyone can recover. “What is in that dungeon?”
“Huh, nothing, what are you-”
Lan Wangji breaks another man’s neck. Nie Huaisang faints with an audible gasp. Jiang Cheng flinches back. This time, Lan Wangji takes the sword out of his hand in the same move. There is more commotion, now that the Wen realize a Lan has gone rogue. They do not know how to approach the rebel though, nervously circling him.
“Wei Ying.” Warning. Calm.
“It’s a dog. How is this relevant?”
A third man falls victim to the Lan’s blade. In the background, Wen Chao yells for Wen Zhuliu to take care of this uprising. He sounds very panicked.
“Wei Ying should not be hurt.”
In spite of the blade now held up to Wei Wuxian’s neck by a terrified Wen guard, both Jiang Cheng’s shixiong and his possibly insane obsession seem very calm. Too calm. Jiang Cheng could swear there is a grin on Wei Wuxian’s face and he swears to wipe that off with his fists, once they have resolved this near-certain death.
“This is a terrible idea. So impulsive, Lan Zhan!”
“Wei Ying,” that tone, almost playful, makes Jiang Cheng’s fingers itch for Sandu. “My leg hurts as well.” It’s coaxing. Lan Wangji is- Jiang Cheng had no idea that ice statue even knew how to do that. “Let us leave.”
“Don’t come closer! I- I’ll slit his throat, I’ll do it!” The guard yells. For his troubles, he gets Wei Wuxian breaking his sword-arm and throwing him bodily into Wen Zhuliu’s outstretched core-melting hand. The guy screams as if skinned alive.
“Can you kill Wen Ruohan, Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji asks, still in that soft tone, because apparently the man has lost his mind. He sounds like he’s asking about the weather, or to be poured tea. Can you pour the tea, Wei Ying, please? Can you kill the Chief Cultivator?
As far as Jiang Cheng was aware, Wei Wuxian hadn’t killed anyone, ever, so far. Not living people, at least. The Second Jade might be the kind of cold, ruthless man who learned to snap a man’s spine from the cradle, a killer hidden behind his sect’s uptight rules, but Lotus Pier taught other things. Cultivating, fighting monsters. Normal things.
Wei Wuxian shrugs, then dodges Wen Zhuliu again. A hair's breadth separates him from his hand, from a life without golden core. Jiang Cheng twitches back into his skin, hand going for his sword automatically. Only, there is no sword. Sandu had been taken just as Suibian and Bichen. Wei Wuxian is fighting Wen Zhuliu with his bare hands.
He’s not even losing, and it almost burns. Jiang Cheng would be useless in this fight, if he could even get close enough.
“I have no flu- spiritual tools,” Wei Wuxian complains. It sounds half-hearted, like they are not all seconds away from dying.
“You can whistle.”
At this point, Jiang Cheng is fully convinced that Lan Wangji is having some kind of breakdown. It’s possible that Wei Wuxian is just playing along. As stated, his brother is a complete moron when it comes to one person in particular.
Lan Wangji breaks another neck. Wei Wuxian waves a talisman Jiang Cheng has never seen into the air and it trips Wen Zhuliu up, traps him on the ground. Easily, like a child.
“Aya, you’re impossible,” Wei Wuxian says. He isn’t even looking anymore. Like he hasn’t taken out the most fearsome cultivator Jiang Cheng had ever met, without a sword. Halfway down the stairs, Wen Chao starts screaming.
“I would have been fine in the dungeons, y’know, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian sounds ridiculously fond. The breath is pushed out from Wen Zhuliu’s lungs in a hiss as the pressure increases.
“I would have!”
“This isn’t the plan at all.”
Silence. Lan Wangji stabs his stolen sword right into a guard’s chest, then whirls around to slit another’s throat where he was sneaking up behind Wei Wuxian. Elegant, like snow, like the untouchable immortal he is so often compared to. Jiang Cheng hates him so much.
Who is Lan Wangji to conspire with Jiang Cheng’s brother?
His hand is a fist already and he knocks it into a nearby Wen’s face so hard the man skids back. If they are all going to die anyway, Jiangs go down fighting.
“When you are done,” Lan Wangji murmurs at Wei Wuxian in low voices, “I will reward you.”
Wei Wuxian shivers. Then, his face goes bright red. “Lan Zhan!” He almost gets beheaded in distraction, but a talisman rips the Wen guard apart instead. “You horrible man, you can’t just say things, how will I focus-”
Jiang Cheng is going to kill Lan Wangji. He is going to kill them both, if the Wen don’t get there first. And even if the Wen turn them all into bloody smears within the next few seconds, Jiang Cheng will find them in the next realm and he will kill them then.
That they can joke around, when they are all seconds away from dying horribly over Lan Wangji’s recklessness-
A whistling sound. Then another.
Surrounded by soldiers, Wei Wuxian is humming out a melody, quick and up-beat. Dodging swords. Wen Chao has joined the fray now, whacking with bloodlust after his head. The humming doesn’t stop.
And then the dead start to move.
It's slow at first - A Wen soldier tripping, stiff hand around his ankle. Half-warm corpses, heads bent at unnatural angles, twitching on the ground.
It only takes seconds for them to find their footing, swaying in time to Wei Wuxian's tune. With a wordless shout, the Wen charge forward and are met with their own silent fallen comrades. A horrific clash of swords and flesh.
Wen Chao screams.
"Demon! Demon!" he screeches. There is white visible all around his iris, so wide are his eyes. Under the talisman, Wen Zhuliu struggles weakly, and one of the corpse soldiers drives a sword straight through his skull.
Darkness billows out of Wei Wuxian. Demonic cultivation. He raises a single hand, fingers twitching as if he is conducting some invisible puppet play.
A low sound catches Jiang Cheng's attention. Lan Wangji isn't even fighting anymore. All he does now is look, straight at Wei Wuxian, expression indiscernible.
If Jiang Cheng had to take a bet, he'd describe the look as heated.
Somehow this must have been exactly what Lan Wangji had expected when he'd pushed Wei Wuxian into the fight. This demonic cultivation, how had Lan Wangji known his brother practised it?
"Wei Wuxian, you dare leave the righteous path?" Wen Chao screams, shrill, terrified. Buying time. The corpses are moving the fight towards the sides, making way between him and Wei Wuxian. Whenever they strike down a foe, their number grows.
"Huh," Wei Wuxian grins, voice echoing over the din of battle. Jiang Cheng can only see his back, moving slowly towards the shaking young master Wen but the amusement in his voice was evident. "Isn't your father doing this, too?"
Jiang Cheng imagines his shixiong's grin going impossibly wider, like a cat about to strike a songbird down.
"Of course, he isn't very good at it."
With a scream, Wen Chao charges. Jiang Cheng flinches forward, years of instinct screaming to protect his shixiong — whatever else he might turn out to be. But he is too far, he has no sword. Wei Wuxian is standing alone amidst the dead and the last desperate living. His pose is relaxed, languid, waiting.
Completely at ease, Lan Wangji is watching.
Mere meters from Wei Wuxian, a sharp whistle brings Wen Chao to fall. His sword clatters to the floor. The man twists, trying to regain his footing to no avail. Then, the dead are upon him.
"Who are you? What are you? " Wen Chao shrieks, held down by strong, unliving hands. Wen Zhuliu's brain still oozes on the stone, his legs already twitching as Wei Wuxiam's control takes hold of him. Behind them, the last horrid screams are silenced.
"Me?" Wei Wuxian mocks. His eyes, when Jiang Cheng glimpses them, are glowing red embers. A promise of destruction. "You'll find out."
After that, there's only screams as yellow dead teeth dig into Wen Chao's waxy flesh.
There is a beat of silence, interrupted only by Wen Chao's wailing.
Then, Wei Wuxian turns. The darkness evaporates in an instant, as if a mere trick of the light. The embers in his eyes dim out.
Before Jiang Cheng stands, once again, only his shixiong. The boy he calls brother in his head.
And around Wei Wuxian, the massacre he wrought. A battalion of Wen corpses still sway around him, awaiting command lungs filled with resentment.
Jiang Cheng does not know what face he is making, but it must be reflected a hundred times by the disciples and clan heirs behind him. Horror. Terror.
Wei Wuxian gives an awkward chuckle. It bounces around the bloodied stone path, echoes into something odd. He raises one hand to scratch the back of his neck and Jang Cheng can hear shuffling behind him as disciples flinch away in fear.
"Wei Wuxian!" He yells, anger replacing fear. "What the hell? Cultivating resentment! Provoking war! How dare you?"
"Ah, Jiang Cheng, there's a good explanation I promise-"
There better well be. "I'll beat you to death for this, you- mph!" Jiang Cheng's lips seal together of their own accord. He tries to pry them, only for them to almost rip. The Lan silencing spell. Rage makes black spots dance in Jiang Cheng's vision.
Lan Wangji has reached Wei Wuxian. He lays a gentle hand on his shoulder to get his attention.
"Lan Zhan, don't just silence people," Wei Wuxian complains, turning to him with a smile. "It's rude, you know?"
Behind them, Wen Chao's wails turn into gurgles, then quiet. The wet slap of flesh onto stone.
Lan Wangji acts as if nothing was said. He raises one immaculate hand to Wei Wuxian's face, tilting up his chin with feather light touch. His face moves so close to Wei Wuxian's Jiang Cheng almost expects them to kiss. Their gazes lock, ignoring the world. Ignoring Jiang Cheng. How shameless. Lan Wangji, he dares- !
"Wei Ying did well," Lan Wangji murmurs.
The worst thing about it is the flush rising on Wei Wuxian's cheeks.
"Lan Zhan, ah- You-"
"Let us go."
"But- but the others-"
"May follow, if they wish to be safe."
With that, Lan Wangji shamelessly interlaces his hand with Wei Wuxian's and tugs him away, past Wen Chao's leaking corpse. Wei Wuxian tries to protest several times but low words from Lan Wangji, not loud enough to understand, make him acquiesce. Half-way up the marble stairs, Lan Wangji stops to bring his and Wei Wuxian's intertwined hands to his lips and whisper more unintelligible words. That, of all things, makes Jiang Cheng rip out of his shock.
It seemed Lan Wangji had already seduced his brother into the demonic arts. Somehow, Wei Wuxian was letting himself be wielded as a weapon against the Second Jade of Lan's Wen enemies. Lan Wangji had as good as announced his intent to throw Wei Wuxian head-first at the Chief Cultivator Wen Ruohan in his ambitions.
Lan Wangji is the only person Jiang Cheng had ever known his brother to be so foolish for. Risking punishment, pain, just for the slightest reaction.
There is no way Jiang Cheng can let his big brother leave with this man.
"Follow!" he barks at his cowering disciples. Not waiting, he stomps past the lakes of blood and assorted bits of people. An impatient noise makes the disciples follow.
For lack of options, the other clan heirs start moving as well, led by the miraculously recovered Nie Huaisang. Even the Jin fall into line for now. Not that they have much of a choice.
Behind them, the corpses trudge onward.
They march for Sun Palace, a ragtag band of shell-shocked clan disciples and heirs, a swarm of dead men, all on their way to kill the most powerful man in the world. All of them swordless, led by a necromancer — whom he will be having words with later — and a Lan with a broken leg.
Jiang Cheng has a terrible feeling about this. It can only end badly. But that’s how it’s supposed to be, isn’t it?
Attempt the impossible.