It is said that if a phoenix is seen in a land, it is a sign that the ruler is just and fair. No phoenix has ever been sighted in Wen skies.
It’s not the first blow that gets him, or even the second. It’s the third.
Lan Zhan barely remembers the last time he fought someone one-to-one. They come in droves for him these days, the reputation of Hanguang-jun spread too far and too wide for even Wen Ruohan to quell.
It's meant to be an ambush, with Lan Zhan and several other disciples from the Four Great Sects thinning out the guards of a small Wen holding; instead, they are the ones caught unawares in the dark of the night.
Even the moon has hidden itself behind a film of cloud, so there is almost no glare when he draws Bichen, and only the sound of bodies thumping in the dark tell him when he's hit his mark. He places his compatriots from their shouts, subtracts them from the picture inside his head when those shouts gurgle away.
Lan Zhan is one of the best fighters in the land, but when it comes down to it, he is just one man. And not only that, but he is only a man. What he is fighting now are not men. Perhaps they were, once, but people don't lever themselves back up silently after a leg has been sliced off, dragging themselves forward towards Lan Zhan with just the force of their arms.
A small force of four is plenty to clear out a dozen guards, but not when the guards carry on fighting even after they've been incapacitated beyond what should be physically possible. Lan Zhan finds himself retreating as he feels claw-like fingers grip at his feet; he springs backwards and upwards onto the roof.
The clouds choose that moment to disperse, leaving Lan Zhan in his white robes a veritable beacon. There's a sharp crack beneath him as a hand punches up through the roof slates and latches on around his ankle, dragging him down, down.
He feels the stab of pain in his leg a moment before he feels a matching stab of pain in his shoulder, and then his head, and everything goes black.
Lan Zhan comes to from the force of something slapping him across the face. A sharp burst of white pain spreads from his temple across the side of his face, and he coughs, releasing the pent-up blood.
"There, see, told you he was alive."
He doesn't recognise the voice. Lan Zhan breathes in, centres himself, breathes out. There's something stopping him from sitting up, but even being awake enough to direct his spiritual energy lets him chase away the throbbing in his head, at least.
Sensations come back to him all at once then. His arms are tied up behind his back and his left shoulder is in agony from being pulled back. His leg, as well as a deep slice through the muscle of the calf, is almost definitely broken. He can feel the jagged edge of the cracked bone catching on the flesh. It needs splinting and setting before he can even attempt to use spiritual energy to heal that.
"Is this any way to treat a guest?"
Lan Zhan is hauled upright by the elbows; his shoulder screams and he clenches his jaw before any sound can escape him.
Rough hands brush down Lan Zhan's robes, more a series of slaps than anything else, before a figure steps into view, dimly lit in the torch lanterns that have arrived since Lan Zhan was knocked unconscious.
Lan Zhan looks steadily ahead. From the man's clothes and his guan, he's not just a Wen Sect member but also a Wen clan family member. Lan Zhan has met Wen Xu, from afar, and he knows what Wen Ruohan looks like from portraits that have circulated among the resisting sects, so this must be the second son, Wen Chao.
He has heard little about the man's military prowess, but plenty about his character – or lack thereof.
"A Lan! And, forgive my assumptions, but you must be the famed Lan Wangji!" says Wen Chao, with a smile that hints that he, too, is able to surmise who Lan Zhan is from his robes and his guan.
Lan Zhan does not confirm nor deny it; he would be a poor scout if he did.
"Of course, it makes sense that only the great Hanguang-jun would be the one to survive a puppet attack. What did you think of them? I personally find them poor conversationalists, but they are an economical way for loyal soldiers to continue serving in death."
Lan Zhan can't help but look at him sharply then. Manipulating dead bodies like that is… sacrilegious. Even after he killed Wen soldiers himself, he would perform the appropriate funeral rites for them. To deny their own soldiers that and instead turn them into these...
"Oh, you don't like the look of that, do you?" Wen Chao laughed, flecks of spittle spraying from his mouth. "Don't worry, you can tell that to my father's face. I'm sure he'd love to discuss it with you."
As Lan Wangji is dragged forward, he can see the coloured robes of the men who came with him, their bodies stacked into a pile along with all the ones that they had dismembered. He wonders if they, too, would be turned into Wen Ruohan's puppets.
He is tossed unceremoniously into the back of a cart, pain spiking again in his shoulder and his leg as he lands on his side. And then the ground lurches and the roughness of the woodgrain scratches against his cheek. Every little pebble and stone and rut in the ground catches through the axle of the cart and rattles its presence through Lan Zhan's every bone.
His captors – Wen soldiers or Wen Chao's aides, Lan Zhan can only assume – don't seem interested in speaking to him so he closes his eyes, visualising the meridians in the eye of his mind, and trying to meditate as best as he can. He suspects he'll need his strength when they get to wherever they're going.
They take him to the top of a tower. The stairs wind upwards until they are level with roofs of other buildings in the narrow slits of windows that they pass. His spiritual energy is sealed, no doubt because otherwise he would be able to overpower the guards with him, broken leg or no, so he limps, the guards dragging him fast enough that his broken leg is a continuous stab of pain. There's blood running down it again as the constant movement pulls at the wound, a sluggish trickle that he can feel seeping down his calf, catching in the sparse hairs on his leg and sticking the fabric of his trousers to his leg.
His entire left side is on fire by the time he makes it to the top, and every jin of concentration that he possesses is distilled into keeping his face impassive, like the rock worn smooth under the onslaught of a waterfall. He holds himself upright and breathes through his nose; he can employ meditation techniques to compartmentalise the pain even if he can't use it to control his qi right now.
The door on the left opens into a cell, currently occupied by one other person. Lan Zhan is afforded a moment of surprise that there is a cell here, up so high, before he is shoved forward and shackled into chains. One of the guards kicks his broken leg once more, for good measure, and it buckles him, his knee smacking into the floor before he can brace himself.
They laugh, and leave.
Lan Zhan waits until the door is locked and he hears footsteps receding down the stairs before allowing himself to topple over, slowly. There's no position that's truly comfortable, but he can at least lever his weight onto his right side and use his hands to pull his leg straight. The trousers are unsalvageable, already stained with mud from the initial attack, and then blood from the initial injury. They’re now a matted, stained mess. He carefully peels the fabric away from his skin, grimacing where the dried blood pulls at his skin and leg hair.
He can see his calf muscle twitching with the strain, a cramp likely to come on if he doesn't carefully stretch it out now. He rips the trouser leg off under the knee, tossing the fabric away from himself, and tearing a strip off one of his underrobes to act as a tourniquet. He's seen the healers do it before but now he wishes he'd paid more attention. He has always, perhaps foolishly, been able to rely on his spiritual energy to heal himself.
"You need to tie it further up."
The voice startles Lan Zhan and he flinches, all his stone face from before worn away. It sounds like the owner doesn't use his voice often, raspy but clearly amused. Lan Zhan raises his face to see the other prisoner looking at him dispassionately.
"If you tie it there, you'll just stop the muscle from being able to heal," the prisoner explains.
Lan Zhan inclines his head, and accordingly moves his strip of fabric up until the stranger nods. "Thank you."
There isn't much else to do once he's given himself basic first aid. All he can hope is that he will regain his spiritual energy over the next couple of hours and speed up his recovery.
Instead, he takes the time to study the stranger opposite. Whoever he is, Wen Ruohan clearly deems him an even bigger threat than Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan has a set of wrist manacles that chain onto the wall, but the stranger has both wrist and leg manacles which are shackled to each other as well as around the neck. Lan Zhan could likely walk around the whole edge of this semi-circular room, but this other prisoner is kept to the wall bisecting the middle of the tower.
Lan Zhan only realises that he's staring when he scans the young man – for it is indeed a young man – from toe to head and locks eyes with him. He immediately looks out of the window; such untoward behaviour is unbecoming, even in such circumstances.
"Look all you like," says the young man. He still sounds amused and not offended, at least. "Anyone who gets put in this cell is going to be put to death anyway, so you might as well."
Lan Zhan frowns. He had assumed that he would be traded in order for more concessions or in exchange for the surrender of the Lan sect, or something similar. He's worth a lot more as a ransom than as a corpse, even if he knows that by all Lan precepts, his clan should leave him to die rather than be hamstrung by Wen Ruohan's demands.
"I do not mind dying," he says eventually, for lack of anything better to say. He does not wish to die, of course, and he can serve the efforts of the Four Clans far better alive than he can dead, but he has looked death in the eyes on a regular basis since he was old enough to wield a sword.
"Oh?" the young man tilts his head, as if Lan Zhan has said something interesting for the first time. "Most of the others that get brought in here fight it to the end."
Lan Zhan also intends to fight it to the end. "Fighting to live is not the same thing as a fear of death."
The young man hums, a low buzzing noise that triggers an unpleasant sensation in the back of Lan Zhan's teeth, and goes back to looking out of the window.
"How long have you been here?" asks Lan Zhan. "If you do not mind me asking." He's turning over their short exchange in his head – there's an implication here that many other people have been here in his position before.
He shrugs. "Years. I lose track of how many."
"And you have evaded the death sentence that everyone else who is put in here is given."
The young man turns his gaze from the window slowly, and then snaps his attention to Lan Zhan. "Oh, you're very good."
Lan Zhan does not think that he has done anything other than put together the pieces of the puzzle in front of him.
"Yes, this is my cell. Wen Rouhan built it especially for me. You're a temporary guest here. If he's allowing you to know that I exist, it means that he intends to kill you and take that to your grave."
"Who are you?" Lan Zhan has been trying to think through the lists of the missing or the dead to try and figure who is important enough for Wen Ruohan to keep his existence a secret. It's difficult; there have been many dead or presumed dead over the years, and it gets more difficult to remember the further back in his memory Lan Zhan tries to reach.
"Isn't it rude to ask that without introducing yourself?" asks the young man, his smile a little too wide.
"Lan Zhan, courtesy name Wangji. I am the second son of the Lan clan."
"Oh, the esteemed Hanguang-jun. I've heard of you. And let me tell you, you must be significant if even I've heard of you. You can imagine that I don't get much news up here. I'm Wei Ying. I don't have a courtesy name, I'm afraid."
Wei Ying. Lan Zhan doesn't recognise that name at all, and from the way Wei Ying is looking at him, he knows it.
"It is a pleasure to meet you." Lan Zhan falls back on the formalities when he doesn't know what to do, but he's not expecting it to make Wei Ying laugh.
"They told me you were good at fighting, but they never told me that you were funny, Hanguang-jun. Is there anything pleasurable about this at all?"
Lan Zhan contemplates it for a moment. "The cell is more spacious and well-ventilated that I expected," he says finally, which only makes Wei Ying laugh some more.
He doesn't manage to find out more about Wei Ying after that. He suspects that Wei Ying has a variation upon this conversation with each new prisoner who comes up here, and is thoroughly sick of a fruitless conversation that will go nowhere each time. He meditates instead, hoping that the motion of channelling his qi and calming his inner turmoil will have an effect even if he can still only feel the slightest trickle of spiritual energy in his meridians.
The next two days are quiet. Lan Zhan looks out of the tower window and surveys the view below. It's partially so that he can look out at something other than the confines of their cell, but partially also for him to scope out the city. The Four Sects receive occasional information, but they have never managed to have a dedicated spy or scout within the Nightless City before.
Lan Zhan memorises as much as he can, just in case.
"What can you see?" asks Wei Ying, startling Lan Zhan out of his careful observation, counting the number of roads until this building or that building.
It takes a conscious effort to adjust his mindset to try and describe it as a view, instead of a logistical map that Lan Zhan is drawing inside of his head. "We're on the East side of Nightless City," he tells Wei Ying. "It's sparsely populated, just the last stragglers. Administration buildings stand silent, and will until tomorrow; places frequented out of necessity, not pleasure. Beyond, an artificial spread of green disturbed by a small lake and protruding rock features, contained within strict walls. Grass like that dares not grow in Qishan."
Wei Ying is silent behind him, and when Lan Zhan turns, Wei Ying is watching him with bright, sparrow eyes. "You make it sound beautiful, like poetry."
"The view is as it is. It is not a lesser view by virtue of having the Wen Sect within it."
A small hum from Wei Ying. "I wish I could see it myself."
Lan Zhan realises then – Wei Ying's chains are too short for him to even stand at the window and look out. The most he can see is the stretch of sky.
"I've never been around the administrative side, but I've been through the gardens. On the ground, that is."
"To Wen Ruohan."
Wei Ying nods. "He has a set of public chambers and a set of private chambers that mirror them underground. In the public ones, he conducts audiences as any Sect Leader would. The private ones are for his experiments in cultivation."
Lan Zhan does not ask how he knows this; he does not have to. But he does ask: "Why are you telling me this?"
"Why shouldn't I? If they didn't want us to talk, they shouldn't have put us in the same room. Look at me, Lan Zhan. What more have I to lose if he finds out I'm giving away his precious secrets to a Four Sects member?"
Lan Zhan inclines his head. Any deeper information on the layout of the Nightless City that Wei Ying can provide is valuable, but he doesn't quite know how to ask for it. "The information is gratefully received."
There's a little twitch to Wei Ying's mouth which makes it purse up. "It's only useful if you manage to do anything with it."
Lan Zhan memorises as much of the layout as he can, and asks questions of what he cannot see. Wei Ying seems to understand that he has a purpose for staring out of the window, and waits for a while before asking him each time, what can you see, Lan Zhan?
Sometimes the answer is the same, but sometimes Lan Zhan has new tidbits for him: a particularly ostentatiously dressed official; a group apparently running late; some merchants lost on their way towards the trade gate.
The guards come up three times a day for them: twice for food and once with a bucket of water for washing and to change the toilet slops. They even bring a change of clothes, which Lan Zhan is perhaps unreasonably grateful for, even if he doesn't say so. His clothes feel restrictive and soaked with sweat and dirt and even the coarse, simple robes they're provided at least feel clean.
The guards stay to watch them wash, which raises Lan Zhan's hackles even as he does scrub himself down with a cloth as best as he can. He would like to wash his headband, can feel the thin layer of dirt and sweat gathering around his forehead, but it doesn't seem appropriate to take it off with them around.
"It's in case you try to drown yourself," says Wei Ying afterwards, and Lan Zhan has to wonder if it was he who tried it or another previous prisoner.
"Does it matter the method if Wen Ruohan wants me to die anyway?" He asks instead.
Wei Ying smiles thinly at him. "It's about control, surely you understand that, Lan Zhan."
(Wei Ying has taken to calling him Lan Zhan. "What courtesies are left between us when you've seen me shit twice a day?" He has a point. And it means that Lan Zhan doesn't feel too familiar himself using Wei Ying.)
"Wen Ruohan probably isn't back yet. Or you'd have been taken to see him," adds Wei Ying.
He's right – they both know immediately when Wen Ruohan has arrived from the sounding of horns preceding his arrival and the faint stamp of horses trotting into the compound audible faintly from below and it's like there's a spark of energy that was not there when he was absent. The guards attending them are more alert, more on edge. The very air takes on a crackle of electricity.
Lan Zhan only has to wait half a day before the guards come for him. His leg feels a lot better after the first day when his spiritual energy finally returned to him and he was able to channel it into his leg, focussing on repairing the muscle and cracked bone, but he still feels the strain of the many flights of stairs, and then the walk across the courtyard into the hall that Wei Ruohan resides over.
He knows what his duty is, which is to keep his mouth shut no matter what he is asked and to show no reaction no matter what they do to him. He doesn't even try too hard to listen to what questions Wen Ruohan is asking him – where are the Four Clans forces based, which strongholds are they planning to attack next – or when Wen Ruohan implies that he already knows all these things, that his army of undead has been able to overwhelm the combined forces of the Four Clans and that he's already well on his way to killing every last one of them who won't surrender to him.
Lan Zhan stares at the step below the man's boots, and thinks about how the hem of his robes are muddy, and how his guan looks expensive but tasteless, and how disappointed he must be that he appears to have one educated and accomplished son and one Wen Chao.
He doesn't look up when Wen Ruohan threatens to kill him, or when he accurately pinpoints the last place that Lan Zhan's brother was meant to be going. He doesn't flinch when Wei Ruohan lashes out with one leg and kicks him squarely in the shoulder or when he orders Lan Zhan's leg to be broken again. He remains the stone under a waterfall all the way up until he's locked back in the cell with Wei Ying, who looks studiously at the wall and not at all in Lan Zhan's direction until the key is locked and the deadbolt slammed into place.
It's only when Wei Ying says carefully, "Lan Zhan?" that he lets out a hiss, trying to exhale the pain as he pulls his leg out from under him again. Even cultivators can't heal repeated injuries this quickly.
"It's just my leg," says Lan Zhan, preparing to meditate. His spiritual energy has been sealed off again, and all his limbs feel heavier than usual.
"Did you tell him what he wanted to know?" We Ying looks at him from where he's tucked into a small ball. He's learned by now that it's Wei Ying’s preferred position – the one that makes the heavy chains weighing him down clink the least.
"No. I don't intend to."
Wei Ying is quiet for a moment. "He might kill you sooner if he realises that you won't give him anything. If you drip-fed him pieces of information, you would extend your usefulness to him as long as he thinks you might have more to give him."
"My thoughts on death have not changed."
Wei Ying tilts his head so that his cheek is resting on his knee. "I didn't think they would have. I don't know what I'd do if I were given the choice." He sounds wistful, but Lan Zhan hardly thinks it an appropriate time to ask why Wei Ying is here at all.
The next morning, they come for Wei Ying. He seems resigned to it, standing when the guards arrive and waiting for them to unshackle him from the wall. They keep the manacles around his wrists and feet, leaving his gait short, and one of them drags him forward by the chain around his neck, pulling enough that Lan Zhan can see the delicate skin around his neck rubbed sore with the friction. He doesn't look at Lan Zhan as he shuffles past, like his mind is already somewhere else not here.
He has been here for years, he said. Lan Zhan suppresses a shudder.
When they bring Wei Ying back to the cell, they have to carry him, one arm slung over the back of each guard, his feet dragging along the ground. They dump him unceremoniously onto the stone floor, his elbow hitting it with a loud crack that makes Lan Zhan wince inside, before fastening the heavy shackles back into the chains.
When the door closes on them, Wei Ying barely lifts his head from where he’s slumped on the floor, just enough to look at Lan Zhan through the matted hair falling over his face. “Hey. Come here.” His voice is hoarse, like the back of his throat is shredded.
Lan Zhan slowly levers himself into a standing position using the wall, and then hobbles around the curved wall towards Wei Ying’s half of the cell. Wei Ying pats the floor in front of him, and he lowers himself back down with relief. It might have been less painful to drag himself over using his arms only, and not risk putting his weight on his leg, but Lan Zhan is not at that point of desperation yet.
With slow movements, Wei Ying carefully brushes most of his hair out of his face. Lan Zhan tries not to look, but the glimpse he gets is enough – Wei Ying’s face is red and swollen, his eyes puffy and bloodshot and still wet. Lan Zhan doesn’t know how long he’s been crying for it to look this bad.
Wei Ying drags his palm over his face, wiping his eyes roughly, and then reaches out, presses his hand under the slash in Lan Zhan’s trousers where his leg had originally been sliced through.
He flinches when Wei Ying’s hand touches his wound – and then consciously releases the tension in his muscles. Wei Ying is not like Wen Chao, he wouldn’t be prodding at Lan Zhan’s wound for fun. There is a sting when Wei Ying’s damp hand touches his open wound – and then it disappears.
Lan Zhan frowns. He understands that things like this happen – that bodies get used to pain and adjust their threshold accordingly, but that leg has been both sliced open and broken recently.
“Better?” rasps Wei Ying. His hand is still touching Lan Zhan’s leg, heedless of the crusted blood under his hand.
“Yes,” says Lan Zhan, wonderingly. He touches his leg when Wei Ying takes his hand away. He scrapes away flecks of dried blood, knowing what he can feel but not quite believing it until he can see it with his own eyes. The gash is healed over, new skin faint and pink. He looks at Wei Ying. “I – thank you.”
Lan Zhan is struck with the realisation that Wei Ying is not human. Whatever it was that Wei Ying just did was immense power of some sort. Lan Zhan knows of few beings that can do that at all.
Lan Zhan does, until his knee is next to Wei Ying’s face.
“You need to help me up,” says Wei Ying. “I can’t really feel my – well. If I can sit, I should be fine.”
What can’t you feel? Lan Zhan wants to ask, but he bites his tongue, instead holding his arms out for Wei Ying to hold on to, brace his weight against. Wei Ying is distressingly light for a man almost of Lan Zhan’s size, and it takes him visible effort to sit upright.
His breathing gets ragged in those few mere moments and his hands cling to Lan Zhan’s arms so tightly that he can feel his fingertips press against his bones. Lan Zhan has to lift him all the way upright until he can lean his back against the wall.
He wants to ask Wei Ying where he hurts. He’s not bleeding, so it must be something else – bruises, or his meridians, or something to do with cultivation. But the tears are streaming down his face, washing away the already dried salt tracks to create new ones.
The unsteady breath in Wei Ying’s chest seems to rattle around his lungs before exhaling as a pained wheeze when he’s sitting upright, but still he twitches his hands at Lan Zhan until he extends his leg again.
Lan Zhan is close enough to see that the red of Wei Ying’s eyes is not just from being bloodshot; it’s that his eyes actually have a tinge of red to them, darker than blood. Wei Ying bows his head over Lan Zhan’s leg. “Sorry if I hurt you,” he murmurs, as he cups Lan Zhan’s calf in his hands. He bends his head forward so that the tears trickle past his cheek and then drip onto Lan Zhan’s leg.
Stop, Lan Zhan wants to say. There is no need for this. But the alleviation of the pain that has been a constant press in his mind for days now lifts so suddenly that he nearly cries himself with relief. “Wei Ying,” he says, pleads. “You don’t have to.”
He refrains from adding You should heal yourself. Surely if it were possible, Wei Ying would.
Wei Ying’s tears are flowing fast and frequent now, a near steady drip-drip onto Lan Zhan’s leg as he blinks, his eyelashes over-saturated and clumped together as tears cling to them. Lan Zhan’s flesh wound is healed, but he can still feel the broken bone, and now he can feel it grinding back into place, the shards no longer tearing apart the flesh surrounding it, the spasms in his muscles easing.
Wei Ying says, quietly, “Let me, Lan Zhan. Someone might as well get some good use out of it.”
Lan Zhan lets him.
Lan Zhan is an intelligent man. He can put together the clues – a young man of unknown origin and unknown worth, kept in a prison cell for years; the attitude of the guards; Wei Ying’s words about how Lan Zhan would surely be killed now that he has seen Wei Ying; the red eyes; and now, the way his body is healing at a rate no amount of spiritual power could afford him.
He looks at Wei Ying, letting his gaze linger when there’s no danger of Wei Ying seeing him look. He looks human enough.
When Wei Ying is done, Lan Zhan's leg throbs, not in pain but more like from exertion. Healing is a kind of exertion, too, he supposes.
"Thank you," he says, sincerely, and bows to Wei Ying from his awkward position.
"You're the first one who's been here for long enough to benefit from sharing a cell with me," says Wei Ying sombrely, reaching out to pull Lan Zhan out of his bow, his fingertips a ghost's touch on his arm.
Lan Zhan tries to help him settle back into a more comfortable position; an endeavour much like twisting to the points of a compass except that he can only tell by when Wei Ying's breath eases slightly. They end up with Lan Zhan sitting against Wei Ying's wall, with Wei Ying listing slightly into his shoulder.
The guards don't come for them at the same time. Lan Zhan is usually hauled off for questioning in the morning, and then Wei Ying later in the afternoon.
"That suits me fine, I don't have to get up early," says Wei Ying, one day. It's about half a week after this starts; five days of Lan Zhan having his leg repeatedly broken and his spiritual energy blocked off. He's taken care to hide that Wei Ying is healing it each time, but that doesn't stop it from hurting when it happens anew. "And I think about Wen Ruohan's guards every time, how they must hate having to do all of those stairs an extra twice a day to accommodate the two of us."
Lan Zhan wonders how Wei Ying can joke when he can barely even open his eyes because of how swollen they are, or move his limbs from injuries that are hidden from Lan Zhan.
"My eyes might be puffy but I can still see the way you look at me, Lan Zhan. You think you have a straight face but it's very judgy actually. Judgy judgy."
"I am not judging you."
"I have to keep my humour, Lan Zhan. I don't have anything else."
So perhaps Lan Zhan was, in fact, passing a judgement of some sort on Wei Ying, and now he feels guilty about it not just because he got caught but because Wei Ying's words make sense. Lan Zhan is tired and in pain and wondering what will happen to him next, and he has been here for only a handful of days; he can't even fathom what he would be like after years.
"What would you suggest for me?" He says eventually, a peace offering.
"I didn't have a sense of humour to start with; it must be hopeless for me."
That makes Wei Ying laugh, which makes his back shake, and then he dissolves into breathless gasps as even laughing is too painful. "Oh I think you'll do just fine, Hanguang-jun."
Wei Ying is fascinating. Lan Zhan doesn't know if he would have interacted like this if they had met outside of this tower, in the battlefield perhaps or in one of the cities before they had been taken over by Wen forces, but it would be impossibly rude to not interact when it's just the two of them, in this cell. He has stories to tell about Wen Ruohan, tales where Lan Zhan can never quite tell if they're fact or fiction.
"He made a fierce corpse of his own brother," says Wei Ying. "That's what the puppets are, really. Just fierce corpses that are fully under his control instead of mindless, restless dead. He'd tell people that it was a way of honouring his family. People believed him, I think. At least at first. He was very charismatic. Is very charismatic."
"His brother died almost ten years ago," says Lan Zhan. They'd heard about the death, of course – there had been some allegations that he had been killed by the Four Sects – but he hadn't heard this about him being a fierce corpse.
"Yes, it was one of the early ones, so the process wasn't completely understood yet. They weren't like the ones you've seen, like docile puppets ready to do the bidding of their master. They were more like natural fierce corpses that you could sometimes convince to turn on a target."
"You make it sound like you were there."
"I do, don't I?" Wei Ying smiles at him with a faraway look in his eyes, and Lan Zhan knows now that he was there.
Ten years. Ten years of this. He doesn’t know how Wei Ying has survived.
“What does Wen Ruohan want with you?” asks Lan Zhan. He hasn’t asked, so far, because it seems unbearably rude to comment on anything that makes Wei Ying have to sleep curled up, hunched over on his shins because his back hurts too much to put weight on it.
Wei Ying’s eyes snap to his, that faraway look gone in a flash. Lan Zhan regrets it immediately, because wherever Wei Ying was before this must be less painful than where he is now. “Do you believe in omens?”
Lan Zhan inclines his head. “It depends on the omen,” he says, thinking it through carefully.
“They say that if a phoenix is spotted flying over a land, it is a sign that the ruler is just and fair.”
“A phoenix has never been seen flying over Wen lands.” It’s the first time that Lan Zhan has heard Wei Ying mention what he is, even in passing.
“Just because you’ve never seen one.” He stops there. Wei Ying laughs, and Lan Zhan has heard him laugh enough to know that this isn’t a real laugh this time. Funny, the assortment of things he knows about Wei Ying.
“He makes you fly?”
“Among other things.” Wei Ying smiles wryly. “It’s a good omen. He can tell himself that what he’s doing is heaven blessed if there’s a good omen.”
“He’s insane,” says Lan Zhan flatly.
Wei Ying is quiet for a long moment. “Unfortunately, I don’t think so. It would be easier if he were insane. He’s smart, shrewd, and power hungry. He’s aiming to cultivate to immortality, you know. That’s why he risks the wrath of the dead and the undead. He’s never going to have to face their reckoning if he never enters the underworld himself.”
Lan Zhan shudders. Immortality is a pinnacle of achievement for all cultivators, of course; it is something that they are ultimately all striving for. But most cultivators are realistic about their ability to do so.
“How did he find you?”
“He fed me.” Wei Ying shrugs. “Don’t look at me like that, Lan Zhan. I was young and I was starving.”
“I’m not judging you,” says Lan Zhan again.
“No, you’re pitying me, which is worse.”
“Is it? Is it so terrible to feel sad because someone you know suffered?”
Wei Ying moves; Lan Zhan hears it before he sees it, the chain of links clink clink clinking down the line as Wei Ying rearranges himself so that his shoulder props him up against the wall. “Ah, I suppose not when you say it like that. You’re so sincere, Lan Zhan, it almost makes my skin crawl. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone like you before.”
"I'm going to attempt an escape," says Lan Zhan, late one afternoon. It has been on his mind since he got here, really, but now it has been two full weeks of questioning from Wen Ruohan, and he suspects that his patience is waning. Lan Zhan has still said nothing, no matter how many bones they break. They will kill him soon, if they are not planning on bartering him away.
"I know," says Wei Ying.
Lan Zhan suspects that he may not have been subtle about it. "If you don't mind me asking, has anyone else who has been up here attempted an escape?"
With a shake of his head, Wei Ying laughs. "No one else has been here long enough."
Lan Zhan has been pretending to have a broken leg for all this time, as well as other injuries. He has been deliberately not cleaning his wounds too much, which disgusts him on a cleanliness level, but means that it's harder to see where his bruises have faded or his scars have healed under Wei Ying's phoenix tears.
He's also had his spiritual energy sealed each day, but his golden core is strong enough that he burns through the seal quicker than most and his qi is free to flow for a while before it is sealed again the next morning.
It means that Lan Zhan has to time things carefully. That's what has delayed this escape attempt more than he would have hoped. He thinks – he's reasonably sure, although of course he hasn't actually tried it so as to not give away his plans – that he has enough strength along with his spiritual energy to pull apart one of the links in this chain. There is one that is a little weaker than the others, that has moved a little when he tried it before. He looks out of the window, and tracks the movement of the guard patrol.
“What can you see?” asks Wei Ying. He sounds wistful about it, as always.
Lan Zhan looks out, and across. “Scattered clouds like wisps on the wind. People, like ants, scurrying from building to building. The road, a muddy ribbon after last night's rain, unravelling over the rocks until it reaches scraggy grass.”
“How far down is it?”
“Too far,” says Lan Zhan softly. “But I still have to try.”
Wei Ying smiles sadly at him. “If that I could fly you down.”
It is a certain kind of cruelty, Lan Zhan thinks, that Wei Ying has been kept up here, so close to the sky and yet unable to reach it. It is perhaps more cruel than leaving him locked in a dungeon somewhere.
Jumping out of this tower is – unthinkable. Even for a cultivator, this is too high. But as he said already, he has to try. He will try and run down the side of the wall at first, using the stone against his soles to try and control his speed. If he is unsuccessful... well, Lan Zhan has resigned himself to a painful death already. This would still be better than being forced to be here, waiting for Wen Ruohan to try and torture information out of him; if he is dead, Lan Zhan can guarantee that no information will leak.
“Now?” asks Wei Ying.
Lan Zhan nods. This is the best time of day – the sunset casts long shadows, helping to hide him from anyone who might look up at the wrong time, and he has just observed the guard rotation happen below. The men who come to fetch Wei Ying will not discover him gone until morning.
“Come here.” Wei Ying is crying. Lan Zhan goes, though he is bad at comforting, but Wei Ying pulls at his hands, moves them until they are a shallow scoop held together, and Wei Ying leans his face over it. Lan Zhan presses his fingers together as tightly as he can, as fat droplets of tears drop into his hands, unwilling to let even a single one of these precious tears get away from him.
He doesn’t know what use they would be of now, but he doesn’t interrupt, not until Wei Ying’s back is wracking from the sobs, and a shallow puddle has formed in his hands. Wei Ying pulls up when he sees it, and then puts his face over Lan Zhan’s hands; Lan Zhan doesn’t see, exactly, what Wei Ying is doing, but then he inhales, and it’s like he’s breathing the warmth out of the very air.
The tears in his hands crystallise into gems. Tiny, milky blue, teardrop shaped gems.
“Save them,” says Wei Ying. “For when you land. You should be able to crush them against your skin, and they will be liquid again.”
Somehow, Lan Zhan knows that he is holding a small fortune within his two hands. He also knows without being told that Wei Ying has bestowed on him a secret only worth sharing with a select few.
“Thank you,” says Lan Zhan in awe. He tilts them into one hand – gently at first, but seems as though they are real gems, hard and sparkling and clinking as they knock against one another.
“My hope is that you won’t need them.” They both know that won’t happen.
Lan Zhan tears off the bottom of his trousers, past where they’ve already been sliced through already, and carefully wraps the tears into a soft bundle, tucks it safely into the folds next to his chest so that they won’t move.
“Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan. I will see you again. This is not the time for farewells. “I will come back for you.”
“I know,” says Wei Ying, but he doesn’t look like he means it.
Lan Zhan jumps out of the window.
He uses his qi flow to direct himself around the wall of the tower, spreads his arms and uses them to adjust his angle, but it’s too far for a jump, he’s falling too fast when he hits the ground, as he knew he would be.
He slams into the ground and feels the force of it shatter his ankles, the split of pain coming all the way up his knee, all in the moment before he can even tip himself forward to roll, disperse the force along his back and shoulders, come up flying, tuck himself into a roll again, the packed dirt punching the air out of his lungs as he flies heels over head to lie on the ground.
His vision is white at the edges, a delinquent sunlight when real sunlight is fading fast, and it wavers when he tries to sit up. His legs feel like cracked vases, the spiderweb of lines spreading up from his heels all the way up. He can’t even feel his fingers as he grapples in his robe for the bundle there, so safely secured that it’s eluding him now.
He finds it finally, shaking loose the teardrop gems until they clink into his palm. He presses one between his fingers and nothing happens.
Lan Zhan momentarily has a vision of him lying here, both of his legs crippled, waiting for Wen Ruohan’s men to find.
But then he finds it – the right place where the pressure clicks, and it collapses in on itself, the hard gem disintegrating into a fat droplet of liquid that Lan Zhan lets roll down his fingers onto his legs.
He breathes through his nose, as each tear washes away a little more of the pain. His legs are tender when he’s done, an echo of the pain remembered as if his body is in disbelief that it’s no longer there.
There is one teardrop left. He wraps it carefully in the tattered, dirty, bloody cloth, and tucked it back against his chest, and takes one last look up the tower. There is no way for him to let Wei Ying know that he managed it, that he is still alive, not when Wei Ying can’t reach the window from where he is held.
He needs to get his sword, and get out of here. There are several places that Wen Ruohan could be keeping Bichen, but Lan Zhan suspects that it will either be in a hidden treasury, or his trophy room. It's only thanks to Wei Ying's information that he can mentally keep track of where all the rooms are. He also suspects that the last few times Wei Ying has been dragged from their cell, he's been paying more attention to his surroundings to provide Lan Zhan with even more information, and he regrets that he hadn't found a way to express the depth of his gratitude before he left.
Lan Zhan wishes, not for the first time, that his clan robes were not so terribly white. They are a hindrance to scouting and they are a hindrance to hiding in the shadows in the way he's doing now. This would be easier if it were some sort of regular guard patrol that he's trying to avoid, but it's just Wen sect members going about their daily business, puttering around and keeping Lan Zhan's heart thumping loudly in his ear every time he pulls himself into a doorway, pressing his robes flat against himself.
The treasury is not guarded. It doesn't need to be, when it's a secret room beneath the reception hall that no one is supposed to know about. Lan Zhan had asked how Wei Ying knew of the hidden room; it turns out that Wen Ruohan is remarkably candid about his secrets around a person he knows doesn't have the ability to talk to anyone else. What Wei Ying did not tell him was how much the reception room looks like a throne room.
It throws Lan Zhan off for a moment, the sheer oppulence of it. The Lan sect have always leaned on the cultivation principles of modesty and necessity, and then the war had forced modesty to become scarcity, and the sight of this much gold and silks in one room, doing nothing but merely hanging from the ceilings to billow about in a flattering manner, takes his breath away. The momentary swell of indignance almost becomes his downfall when the seat – no, the throne, for Lan Zhan will call it what it is – rises and slides to one side to reveal empty floor beneath it.
The only thing that saves him is that whoever is within must then climb the stairs and get their head above the level of the floor before they can see him, and by then Lan Zhan is hidden behind a pillar.
It's a young man – definitely not Wen Ruohan, not either of his sons – dressed in dark robes and a shrewd look. Lan Zhan sees through a film of fabric that his eyes dart around in the dimness before he scurries away. He, too, is not meant to be here. He wonders what treasures he took off with.
Lan Zhan waits until he's gone, and then runs for the open doorway before it closes on him, tumbling down the stairs just before the throne slides back into place. There is no window down here – of course, it's below ground – and Lan Zhan has no candles or talismans on him to create light so he stands, cautious, at the bottom of the stairs lest there are any traps.
There's only the tiniest of glows from the torch ensconced in the side of the wall, presumably just snuffed out from the previous intruder, but he doesn't need anything more. This close to Bichen, Lan Zhan merely exerts his spiritual energy and he can tell where his sword is and guide it back to him.
This tactic is perhaps more rushed than ones Lan Zhan would execute normally, and he flinches when Bichen hits something on its way out, a loud clank that knocks something over, which bumps into something else, and he can track the trail of destructions by the sounds of things falling over and smashing until finally something tips into the wall and breaks the chain.
Bichen thumps solidly into his hand, where it belongs.
Lan Zhan swallows. Perhaps he ought to check. Some of those treasures were surely things stolen from other people, maybe even some of them from the Lan… But he takes one step forward, and a piece of china cracks beneath his feet, and he hastily retreats. It's not like he can do anything about it now, they're already broken. And he has no qiankun bag to put things in.
He leaves it, for now. Perhaps, when inevitably he comes face to face with Wen Ruohan again, he will pretend that he did it deliberately.
He goes to crouch near the top of the staircase instead, listening for if anyone else heard the commotion, and then pulls the lever that he saw on his way down in the side of the wall when he hears nothing. It is his turn to look furtively side to side and then flee.
The leg bothers him for months. It shouldn't, by any means. Lan Zhan is a powerful cultivator and his spiritual energy is strong. Especially with the accelerated healing that Wei Ying's tears had bought him. The healers tell him that there's nothing wrong with his leg, apart from the muscle being a little more atrophied than his other leg due to a couple of weeks of no use, which is easy enough for him to rebuild.
And yet, some nights, there is a phantom pain where it feels like he can feel the snapped bone stabbing into his muscle all over again.
That, too, is normal, the healers tell him. It's a trauma that his body remembers and reminds him of, to tell him not to do it again.
It's annoying, especially when his leg starts throbbing in the middle of a flight, or his knee locks up for a heartbeat during a fight, but it's a good reminder to himself, he decides eventually. It reminds him that he promised to go back for Wei Ying.
The opportunity doesn't present itself easily. Lan Zhan is but one piece on the chessboard when it comes to the Four Clans and their plans to keep wearing away at Wen Ruohan's troops and resources, and Wei Ying is in the heart of Wen Ruohan's stronghold. But everyone can tell that the plans are deteriorating. These are strategies built on fighting real people, not armies of undead where every fatality of their own is immediately turned against them.
"We must wait it out, like the soil after a forest fire," says his uncle. Although the soil might survive and flourish afterwards, the grass and the trees and the animals must die first. He does not want to let them.
But he cannot speak against his uncle, and Lan Zhan bites the inside of his cheek.
It is unexpectedly Nie Mingjue who comes to his aid. Lan Zhan respects Chifeng-zun for his martial ability and the way his sect and clan members clearly respect him, but the Nie sect in general holds different philosophies to the Lan.
"Our duty in standing against Wen Ruohan cannot only be about the preservation of the cultivation sects," says Nie Mingjue. "If we make ourselves difficult targets, he is not the sort of man to stop firing, he will merely switch to easier targets."
It is a tactful rebuke, for Nie Mingjue. Perhaps his tongue has been tempered by the amount of time he has spent with Lan Zhan's brother recently.
Lan Xichen hastens to mediate. Better him than Lan Zhan, who holds himself to the side. Stone wall, run smooth. Waterfall, waterfall, waterfall. He repeats it to himself.
"A tactical retreat is the logical approach at this point," says Lan Xichen, and then continues before Nie Mingjue can interject. "Which makes it the expected outcome from Wen Ruohan. Perhaps we should strive to surprise him and take him off guard."
It takes the rest of that meeting, and then separate meetings between Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen; Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren (and, unfortunately, Lan Zhan); Nie Mingjue and Jin Zixuan; Lan Xichen and Jiang Wanyin; and Jiang Wanyin and Jin Zixuan, and then a follow-up meeting between them all, before a resolution is made. The alliance of the Four Sects is most certainly a demonstration of diplomacy and compromises.
Lan Zhan is both glad that he does not have to manoeuvre through these political waters, and impatient that the decision-making is left to others. When it is decided that they will pretend to retreat and then gather their forces the other side of Wen Ruohan's forces and press in on his stronghold in one coordinated attack, Lan Zhan nods, and suggests that he takes a small group and clears the way from the South, and goes to polish his qin strings and sharpen his sword.
"Will you tell me what happened?" asks his brother, just once, when they are alone. He knows Lan Zhan too well to think that his story – that he had been held for questioning, that another prisoner helped him to escape – is the whole truth. Everyone else had been far more interested in the details he had to add to their sketched maps of Qishan.
"The other prisoner, Wei Ying," says Lan Zhan. He hesitates, because Wei Ying's secrets are not his to give away. He trusts his brother, but his brother is part of a fraught alliance with three other Sects and the value of information would outweigh any personal feelings that Lan Zhan had. "I could not bring him with me even though I could not have escaped without his help. I said I would go back for him."
Lan Xichen makes a noise of sympathy. His brother's hand on his shoulder is comforting, even if Lan Zhan knows that Lan Xichen also does not have the full picture. "I understand. If the opportunity arises, you should go find him."
Lan Zhan nods.
"It's only right that you repay the debt."
The Four Sects decide to press their advantage – eventually. They get further than they have ever before with the information that Lan Zhan has given them.
Qishan is well fortified by nature itself. The land here is rocky and mountainous, and there are areas where the mountains stretch high enough that it is dangerous for the average cultivator to attempt flying over them. That limits the paths into Qishan, which in turn limits the directions that they can come from in order to surprise Wen Ruohan.
The path ahead of Lan Zhan is swarming with the resentful dead, pressing in so closely together that they trip over each other, step on each other's feet, accompanied by the eerie sound of a flute in the air. Lan Zhan has studied all of the musical cultivation that has remained from the remnants of the Lan's Cloud Recesses library, but he has never heard any spiritual songs like this. The undead presumably feel no pain and so when one tumbles to the ground it is merely trodden over by its fellows as they march on, ever closer. Lan Zhan mounts Bichen and rises over their heads; Jiang Wanyin sees and follows his example, pulling out Zidian as Lan Zhan pulls Wangji from his back.
It's not a viable plan for the others, who need their swords to fight, but Lan Zhan skims past the blockade with ease, using Wangji to attack. It means that he's the first to break through the wave of undead and find Wen Ruohan. Seeing him is a shock; never before have the Four Sects dared to face him head on like this before, and doing still feels unnatural.
He's on horseback, coolly surveying the carnage before him and sending orders out barked through chains of generals who pass them along. He directs all his orders for the undead to someone by his side, and it's not until Lan Zhan gets closer that he realises that the huddled mass in the shadow of Wen Ruohan's horse is Wei Ying.
Wei Ying. That must mean that Wen Ruohan has no need to keep his existence a secret anymore.
If he's allowing you to know that I exist, it means that he intends to kill you and take that to your grave.
The intentions are clear. But more than that: even now, Wei Ying is shackled, the end of his chain held in Wen Ruohan's hand himself. Each stride of the horse is half a dozen stumbled steps on his part, a break in his flute playing when the collar chokes his throat.
As much as it pains Lan Zhan to think about, there must be something that Wen Ruohan is holding over Wei Ying to control him like this. He may not have spent long with him, but Lan Zhan knows that this kind of destruction is not something that Wei Ying would do willingly. And he has seen Wei Ying bear up under torture; the threat of being hurt doesn't matter to him. There must be something else.
Lan Zhan thinks fast. The first part is the easiest, he thinks. He strums Wangji in dissonant chords, using his spiritual power to amplify the sound. He feels the strange spiritual energy recede as Wei Ying looks up, around, to see what is disrupting his music.
The effect is immediate; Lan Zhan sees fierce corpses falter, stumbling and their limbs slowing.
Lan Zhan locks eyes with Wei Ying for just long enough that Wei Ying recognises him. He's close enough to see the way the flute falls off his mouth as his eyes widen, the way he starts to mouth 'Lan Zhan', only getting one syllable through it before Wen Ruohan yanks on his chain and he chokes, stumbling and falling against the horse.
Lan Zhan descends on Bichen; jumps down from higher than he would normally. He uses less qi than he would normally to control the fall, and lands faster and harder as a result. But that only means that he's ready to spring forward the moment he lands, Wangji flipping over to land in his hand, poised to charge forward at Wen Ruohan.
Wen Ruohan roars at him, and draws his own sword, slicing with such speed that Lan Zhan can feel the hot edge of qi billowing out from his sword. He meets it head on. Wen Ruohan looks – surprised.
Lan Zhan does not know why. He is known for being the best cultivator of his generation; perhaps Wen Ruohan did not truly believe his strength would match up to his.
He steps back after he parries, darts around his sword and extends again, this time slicing through the fabric of Wen Ruohan's sleeve. So close.
A swordsman on horseback always has an advantage over one on ground. That is indeed the point of having them. But it's different when Lan Zhan can simultaneously attack with two weapons; Bichen in close and Wangji from afar. And it is different again when the horseman is hampered, his free hand not actually free by virtue of clutching the chain of a most valuable asset he cannot afford to let go of.
The nimbleness of the horse is rendered pointless when it's weighed down by a second person on one side.
Wei Ying is being yanked around like a rag doll, choking and falling against the horse, the flute music completely impossible now.
Lan Zhan has to pull back – he can't risk the horse kicking out and injuring Wei Ying. But Wen Ruohan realises his predicament at the same time, and takes the opportunity to activate a teleportation talisman. He jumps off the horse and pulls Wei Ying to his side, and they both disappear.
Lan Zhan lunges forward just in time for his hands to close around thin air.
All of the undead lurch, as if they were marionettes which just had their strings cut.
"Wei Ying!" Lan Zhan shouts, looking around. Perhaps they haven't gone too far, perhaps he can still reach him. He's jerked back to his senses as he senses the movement of qi near him and steps back just in time to avoid a clawed hand swiping across where he was. He leaps off Bichen, bringing it to his hand in but a moment, parrying the next swipe; the heavy thud of his sword against arm startles him for a moment, before he realises that his attacker is wearing a heavy glove over his hand, metal sharpened claws at the tip of it.
The gaze he's met with is wide-eyed and frenzied, the attacks strong and clever. He recognises him, the young man from that day when Lan Zhan stole into Wen Ruohan’s hidden treasure room.
Lan Zhan is a skilled swordsman, particularly one-on-one, but he still has difficulty blocking his mysterious assailant. His formations, his attacks are unorthodox. A little side-swipe here, a dodge there. This is not the fighting style of any of the major sects, and so Lan Zhan is on the lookout for tricks and dirty fighting. He disengages, leaps back to land atop of the horse that Wen Ruohan left behind.
"Leaving so soon?" The young man smiles at him, so wide that it splits his face like a cracked egg and Lan Zhan gets the impression that he is genuinely amused. He hates dealing with people like this. There's no reasoning with them.
The young man thrusts his arm out; Lan Zhan can’t see what he’s holding in his hand, but he can feel the malicious intent behind it at once. The undead, still groaning and trying to find a target, any target, snap to attention.
"Xue Chengmei." Lan Zhan finally puts it together from the intelligence gathered by the Four Sects.
Xue Chengmei bows floridly, as if delighted to be recognised. Lan Zhan looks around, and leaps back again. There isn't much cover around here – which is his own fault for exposing himself in such an area – but he jumps on Bichen for long enough to take him halfway up the gorge to a ledge big enough for him to stand on, to alternate between attacking with spiritual energy and cutting the limbs off the undead, and playing Rest in the hopes that the traditional methods will lay the corpses to rest.
He's being distracted by Xue Chengmei, he knows. He needs to find Wen Ruohan again, and not just because Wei Ying is near him. It goes against his instincts to leave the battlefield behind and leave the corpses for someone else to deal with. It feels like shirking his responsibility.
Nie Huaisang would have a clever retort for him, he thinks. They're not friends as such, but as younger brothers of two Sect Leaders who are firm friends, they've had their share of time together. Huaisang would tell him that there's more than one way to win a war, that he has a tendency to focus on the trees rather than the woods.
Xue Chengmei taunts him, pinpointing immediately the focus of his worries: "Running away? Don't blame me when more Four Sects forces die and I take them into my army, Hanguang-jun."
It doesn't work on him. Perhaps in another place, and another time, it would have. But not now, when he has come so close to finding Wei Ying again. As he lands, the last teardrop, the one he hadn't used up, swings against his hip in a crudely fashioned pendant that serves as a visible reminder.
Lan Zhan takes his sword higher, high enough that his breath becomes visible in front of his face and the air thin enough that he has to re-regulate his breathing. Most cultivators can’t fly up this high. The ground looks like a map now; pockets of Four Sects fighting against the fierce corpses.
Before Lan Zhan can spot Wei Ying, he can see a more immediate problem. Fire. Fires, actually, for there is more than one. It must be some kind of activated talisman, or there must be oil traps set across his expanse of land, because the fires are springing up fast and high, whole walls of trees setting alight at once.
There are talismans to counter and control fire, but from his vantage point this high, Lan Zhan can see that the fires aren't set at random. They are designed to control the movements of the Four Sects, hem them in to specific areas where there are no doubt more traps and puppets to take care of them. Careless; it was arrogant to think that Wen Ruohan would not have prepared so thoroughly for an attack. The man has spent almost all of Lan Zhan's lifetime trying to get all five major sects under his control, after all.
No one else is flying this high, which means that no one else is seeing this pattern, instead of just dealing with the head-high fires rapidly spreading. Lan Zhan can feel the heat from here, so it's got to be unbearable from the ground.
And then – he sees him. Wen Ruohan. And by extension, next to him, Wei Ying.
Wen Ruohan no longer has his horse, and he can't fly and keep control of Wei Ying at the same time, so he's halfway up a slope to give him the vantage point instead. It merely makes him all the more visible to Lan Zhan. He flies in from the side, trying to keep out of his range of vision. No matter how strong and numerous the puppets are, they're irrelevant to him so long as he stays above their heads. Wei Ying sees him before Wen Ruohan does, his eyes widening as he turns his attention back to his task before Wen Ruohan notices.
He's still playing the flute, and Lan Zhan takes a moment to arrange his fingers on Wangji before picking out his chords. He can blend them in, so that they're not so immediately noticeable, the same key as Wei Ying's eerie flute. He pushes the force of his qi behind it and by the time Wen Ruohan realises that there is a second musician around, the chord strikes him above the shoulder.
He staggers, dragging Wei Ying with him who stumbles – deliberately, Lan Zhan is sure – to fall on top of him. That's the opening that Lan Zhan needs to leap off Bichen and fling the hilt into his hand for long enough to slash downwards. A lesser man might have hit the chain that Wen Ruohan is holding, or the bone of his forearm. With Lan Zhan's precision, he slices Wen Ruohan's hand off at the wrist cleanly, Bichen swinging all the way through the other side. The momentum takes Bichen back out of his hand, rolling into the air for Lan Zhan to step straight back on to, hauling his arm around Wei Ying's waist and hoisting him up with him.
It's been a long time since Lan Zhan carried another person on his sword, and Wei Ying can't have ridden one before, but he weighs so little, still. Lan Zhan leaves Wen Ruohan screaming behind him.
"Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying breathes. His voice is hoarse – perhaps from the bruising of the collar around his throat or the strain of playing the flute for hours on end, Lan Zhan can't tell. But it's good to hear his voice either way.
"Wei Ying. You're – alive."
"I'm too valuable to kill, you know this already." Wei Ying's fingers spasm involuntarily and he clenches them quickly into fists; Lan Zhan knows the look of hand cramp from playing for too long. "The collar, can you get it off?"
Lan Zhan looks at it. It's the same one Wei Ying had on around his neck when Lan Zhan met him in the tower; thick, heavy, and inscribed with an array that runs all the way around. He can't make out the details of it, but he assumes it must contain some secret to controlling Wei Ying. There is a latch at the back, but it's a lock built into the collar itself, not a padlock that could easily be sliced off. Lan Zhan is good with the sword, but even he cannot go to such precise lengths.
"Not right now," he says. "Not without injuring you."
"Then I need to be closer to the fires. And you're going to have to carry me, I won't be able to fly myself."
Generally, Lan Zhan likes to know why he is being asked to do something. He likes to fit the reason and the context around his actions. But this scarcely seems the time. He flies Wei Ying closer to one of the fires, staying upwind of it so that they don't have to block their faces from the smoke, like the cultivators fighting on the ground do.
"I'm going to – well. I might act a bit odd for a while, Lan Zhan. But you have to trust that I'm trying to help."
Wei Ying rubs his hands together and holds them out, like a cold person huddling around a fire for warmth, except Lan Zhan is sure that he can feel the heat rise even more, flowing towards them. Or, more specifically, towards Wei Ying's outstretched palms. For a moment, nothing happens, and then the flames flicker. And then they roar.
Lan Zhan wobbles on Bichen sent backwards from the sheer heat of the fire before steadying them both; the flames rise from head height to twice the height of a person, a sudden fierce roar that pierces the sky. Lan Zhan is glad that Wei Ying warned him in advance, because this very much does not look like it is helping. He grimly holds on as Wei Ying leans out from Bichen.
The men on the ground don't think it's helping either as they scream and scramble back. Puppets left behind are swallowed up by the flame, their saggy skin turned crispy in heartbeats.
The fire stays like that for a moment, for a second moment. For a third.
And then – it peters out. Wei Ying had made the fire consume all the fuel it had, Lan Zhan realises. He'd contained it somehow so that it didn't spread from the trees that they were already in. The fire burned through the trees so quickly that it splutters out and husks of tree trunks start to crumble before Lan Zhan's eyes.
He knew that Wei Ying must be powerful, especially after seeing the incredible healing properties of his tears, but it's like his breath has been stolen by the smoke with this display.
"Another," croaks Wei Ying. He's listing, leaning on Lan Zhan who keeps him held securely on Bichen. He moves, swiftly, to the next fire.
They get through a number of them in the same way. Sometimes, the nearby combatants notice and figure out what they're doing; more than once, they think the opposite, and Lan Zhan has had to dodge an arrow sent his way before someone realises that it's him.
The battleground is chaos. Bodies lie strewn across, a mix of fierce corpse puppets and the recently dead, all tangled up.
It takes Lan Zhan more time than it should have to realise that a good number of puppets are still walking, still fighting, even though Wei Ying is no longer controlling them. He shifts, so that he can still hold on to Wei Ying with one arm, and bring Wangji out with the other. It's a facsimile of his usual power – plucking chords with only one hand, the fire smoke clogging up the clarity of his sound as he struggles to control Bichen and Wangji with his spiritual energy and keep him and Wei Ying balanced on the sword. But Wei Ying nods when he plays Rest, and so he continues.
The puppets drop away, more reluctant than he is accustomed to, but drop away eventually they do, leaving confused clusters of Four Sect members milling about and the little pockets of Wen soldiers who are still alive panicked and shouting.
The more the battlefield calms down, the more obvious it is what's happening.
"The next fire," says Wei Ying, before the most recent one has even burned itself out. But Wei Ying knows it's going to, and so Lan Zhan moves to the next one.
He spots the sword glare before he sees the sword; Lan Zhan throws them both backwards to avoid it. Lan Zhan has done this before, knows the feeling of losing his footing only to fly Bichen to meet him from underneath, but Wei Ying screams as he lurches backwards. He clutches at Lan Zhan as he scrabbles his feet back onto the narrow length of Bichen, frantic exhales of breath hot against Lan Zhan's neck.
"Wei Ying. I'm here. You're safe."
"Oh, Heavens," Wei Ying gasps. He's pressed so closely against Lan Zhan's chest that Lan Zhan can feel the faint drumming of his heart against Lan Zhan's chest. "Thank you. That terrified me, but – thank you. And, watch out."
The owner of said sword has caught up to them – a younger version of Wen Ruohan. The elder son, perhaps. "You're holding something belonging to my father, Hanguang-jun. I would ask you to return it."
His politeness is like a cold dash of water on Lan Zhan's face. He had expected threats and warnings, orders and demands. It staggers him that this young man, perhaps only a few years older than his own brother, can be so civilised in such a circumstance. It makes him unsettled. No, angry.
"No." His own reply sounds downright rude in return.
Perhaps if this exchange were happening in a conference hall, over a squabble of two cows, this would all feel different. But for Wen Xu to pretend that politeness in such a circumstance is at all necessary is beyond the kind of political finagling that Lan Zhan can put up with.
"Be careful, he's good," murmurs Wei Ying in Lan Zhan's ear.
Lan Zhan carefully lowers his sword towards the ground until he can jump off, landing them so that Wei Ying is tucked behind him. Bichen's hilt thunks satisfyingly into the palm of his hand. Wen Xu draws up, and bows at him, as if this is some exhibition duel.
"You should also be careful," he says to Wei Ying. If Wen Xu is really good, he cannot afford to split his concentration between his sword and Wei Ying.
And he is, very good.
Wen Xu has probably had the best teachers in the land. He, too, grew up on the front lines as Lan Zhan has. But the difference is that Wen Xu has not spent that time fighting for his life, for his Sect, for a survival larger than his own. He looks delighted, actually, at their exchange, as Lan Zhan's mouth can only press into a thin white line. This is a game for him, a challenge of fighting someone good that he has not had the chance to fight. No wonder, with a brother like Wen Chao. But this has never been a game for Lan Zhan, and it takes Wen Xu longer than it should to realise that.
Long enough for Lan Zhan to slice through his sleeves, and then slash at his ankles, to bait him into stepping closer to the burning tree that is the start of the wall of fire. Wen Xu doesn't realise until Wei Ying raises his hands and screams at him with years of pent up rage and exhaustion and the tree practically explodes as the fire consumes it entirely, the flames flaring out to touch and then claw at Wen Xu's robes. They engulf him completely.
Lan Zhan throws himself out of reach of the licks of flame, and looks for Wei Ying. It had been easier when they did this from the air, a safe distance from the actual fire, but now the smoke blinds him and roils into his throat, charcoal powder and ash coating his throat.
When he sees him, Wei Ying is glowering at the fire as if it were a living thing that he is commanding to do his bidding. He's standing too close; the sparks flicker at the hems of his robes and it's only luck that none of them have caught as of yet. Lan Zhan moves into his side view – he doesn't want to startle Wei Ying given whatever power he's using to influence the fire but also he needs to get Wei Ying away from that flame now.
"Wei Ying!" He shouts, muffled through the fabric of his sleeve. It doesn't help; he coughs anyway.
Wei Ying's jaw is clenched shut so tightly that Lan Zhan can see the tendons in his neck, and when he pries it open, it's to emit a long, drawn out shriek that makes the hairs along Lan Zhan's arm prickle with unease. It's inhuman.
Wei Ying turns to look at him, and his eyes don't just reflect red now; they dance orange and yellow too, along with the flame.
"Wei Ying!" Lan Zhan shouts again, and reaches out his hand. Hot. Too hot. Wei Ying's skin feels like it's burning up. "We have to move! The fire's getting too close!"
Wei Ying inhales slowly, a different wheezing sound this time as the fire in his eyes subside. "Can't control," he manages. "Go."
"Let it go," says Lan Zhan. "I'll fly us out."
"It won't – stop growing." Wei Ying blinks, and for a moment they are his again – except then the panic and the fear and the flames swallow them.
"I'll carry you out. Let go of it as soon as we're far away enough. There's no one else left here, just bodies of the dead."
Wei Ying rotates his hand just enough to return Lan Zhan's grasp, his hand a searching brand against Lan Zhan's wrist. He takes it for assent and pulls Wei Ying up as he takes them up, and away.
He sees it first, the moment that Wei Ying lets go of whatever control he was maintaining. The way he goes limp in Lan Zhan's arms like a taut string suddenly snapped, and he has to grab Wei Ying around the waist to keep him on the sword. A moment later he senses it: in the earth, in the air. Not in the way that he can control qi, but something like it. The spiritual energy of nature as it feels a seismic shift.
And he feels it last, the sudden flare of heat behind him. He looks back for long enough to see the lines of fire that Wen Ruohan planted disintegrate and flare outwards, consuming everything in its path until it's one enormous forest fire. There isn't that much greenery to start with in Qishan, but the smell of burning flesh trying to turn Lan Zhan's stomach tells him what it's feeding on instead.
A cultivator knows not to tamper with natural forces. There are talismans to help either start fire or extinguish fire, but rarely anything in the space in between. Wei Ying's unconscious body in his arms is proof enough that it expends too much energy.
When they get far away enough, Lan Zhan turns his palm over curiously. Wei Ying's hand print – over his palm with the fingers curling over the side of his wrist – is still red on his skin. It's a real burn.
It takes almost half a day for Wei Ying to wake – long enough that Lan Zhan's insides have churned themselves to foam; short enough that he isn't expecting it when Wei Ying groans and rolls his head away from the afternoon sun.
Lan Zhan hurries over to drop the side of the tent down so that the direct sunbeams don't fall on his face. "Wei Ying. It is me. Lan – Zhan." He hesitates for a moment, not used to saying his birth name in front of other people. The tent is empty though, so there is no one but Wei Ying to notice this oddity.
It takes a few blinks before Wei Ying peels his eyes open enough to squint at him. "Lan Zhan?"
It's no surprise that his voice is hoarse and faint, and Lan Zhan helps him lean up far enough to sip on some warm water.
Wei Ying's hand flies up to land on his neck, his eyes going when he pats around and finds it bare. He tucks his chin into his chest to try and see, as if he can't believe his own senses.
"It's gone," says Lan Zhan. "We had the tools to unlock it at camp." When he told the Sect Leaders who he'd brought back with him, there had been uncertainty about whether to unlock the collar, the fires all fresh in their minds. But Lan Zhan had stood, and judged them all with his silence, and eventually the discussion had petered out. It was Jin Guangyao, Sect Leader Jin's half-brother, who had eventually procured the ability to undo the array and the lock.
"Thank you. I barely remember not wearing it." Wei Ying looks stunned. He looks down at his hands, and rubs his fingertips together and Lan Zhan can feel the murmur of something not-quite-qi crackle in the air. "I didn't realise how heavy it was. Or how much of my ability it dampened. What happened?"
"The fire got out of hand. I believe you tried to reign it in and expended too much energy and fainted." Lan Zhan does not have confirmation that this is what Wei Ying did, but it's what he chooses to believe. There are stories running through the camp already, of the destruction wrought by the fire, told by people who were not there first hand; Lan Zhan refuses to hear what alternate scenarios they have come up with.
"Where are we?" Wei Ying seems to notice their surroundings for the first time.
"At the Four Sects camp. A little outside of Qishan."
"We're not in Qishan?" Wei Ying's voice rises sharply.
"No, we –"
"Take me back." Wei Ying's eyes are wide as he scrabbles to sit upright, throwing the blanket off himself.
"You're hurt," says Lan Zhan, catching the cup as Wei Ying's elbow catches it on the table top and knocks it over.
"I'm always hurt," snaps Wei Ying. Lan Zhan pulls up short. He has never heard Wei Ying speak to him like this before. "This was a rescue plan years in the making, Lan Zhan. I have to go back. If I don't, he'll hurt them."
Lan Zhan slides an arm around Wei Ying's back, helping him upright. "I will help. I can fly you there on Bichen. Let me tell my brother–"
"No! You can't tell anyone. I shouldn't even let you come with me. But, well." Wei Ying gestures at his general current state of being, which is half collapsed against Lan Zhan's side. At least he is not being unrealistic about that.
Lan Zhan takes him out around the back. Wei Ying is not, technically, a prisoner, but he knows full well that the Four Sects would not want him to be whisked out from under their noses. Wei Ying’s weight is barely noticeable as Lan Zhan supports him and he wishes that Wei Ying would wait long enough for a meal, a bath, some medicine for his burns. But he'd also said that this was a rescue plan years in the making, and Wei Ying is no longer there, which means that it's other people he's going back for, other people he left behind.
Lan Zhan is newly reminded that he, too, left someone behind.
“What happened to your hand?” asks Wei Ying. He touches the edge of the bandage.
It hurts, which Lan Zhan has been informed is a good thing. They would be more worried about the state of his hand if he could no longer feel the pain.
“Just a mild burn,” he says, hoping to reassure Wei Ying. It does not have the desired effect.
“A mild – oh, Lan Zhan. Was that my fault?” Wei Ying’s eyebrows pinch together.
“Incidentally.” Lan Zhan has been brought up not to lie, to the point where even now, he cannot bear to. (It is why, perhaps, he is so efficient at withstanding torture. He must, because he cannot simply lie his way out of it.)
“Incidentally,” murmurs Wei Ying. He huddles into himself; difficult to do when they’re already stood so closely together, but Lan Zhan adjusts his arm so that Wei Ying remains securely against him. “What I did killed people. It must have.”
“Perhaps,” concedes Lan Zhan eventually. “But you destroyed Wen Ruohan’s trap for the Four Sects, and the number of fierce corpses you burned was far greater. And that is something that the Four Sects will be grateful for.”
Wei Ying laughs, sudden enough that Lan Zhan straightens up in surprise. He turns to look at Lan Zhan, eyes bright. “You misunderstand me. There’s no need to comfort me. If I had to do it again, I would.”
He locks eyes with Lan Zhan, searching for something within them. Lan Zhan does not know what, but he maintains the eye contact for as long as he can before he needs to check on the direction they’re travelling in.
“I’m not asking for forgiveness or absolution, Lan Zhan. I just acknowledge the things I do.”
Lan Zhan has never met anyone like Wei Ying before, and truth be told he doesn’t entirely know how to respond. Perhaps it is because Wei Ying is not human, or perhaps it is because he wasn’t given a cultivator’s education; it could be any number of things. But most of all, it seems honest.
"You don't have to hold on that tightly," says Wei Ying, his voice a warm breath on Lan Zhan's ear. "Even if you drop me, I should be fine."
Lan Zhan had not realised that he was holding on quite so tightly. He loosens his grip. "Apologies."
They're of a height to be skimming over the tops of trees, what few trees there are in this barren landscape of Qishan. That's high enough to be a fatal fall, and low enough that it only takes two heartbeats for it to happen.
"You would be fine?" Lan Zhan does not mean to sound like he doubts Wei Ying, but… well, he doubts Wei Ying.
He feels rather than sees Wei Ying smile next to him. Or perhaps he can hear it in his voice. He can't quite tell.
"I may not be a cultivator like you, but I could transform fast enough to at least cushion the blow, yes."
"Thank you," says Lan Zhan after a long pause. "For trusting me with your secret."
"A-yo," says Wei Ying, and Lan Zhan feels the light touch of fingers across the side of his face as Wei Ying helps tuck the loose lock of hair flapping in the wind around Lan Zhan's face behind his ear. "It's not really a secret. Wen Ruohan has been keeping it a secret, yes, but it's just who I am."
"People would hunt you if they knew you even existed." Lan Zhan thinks about the crystallised teardrops likely worth a fortune for anyone who can make a phoenix cry, thinks about the apothecary pedlars proclaiming to have phoenix feathers, ground phoenix beak, phoenix claws for good luck, for virility, for strength, thinks about the raging fire that he saw reflected in the depths of Wei Ying's eyes. Wei Ying is not naïve to all these things, he doesn't think. He takes his eyes away from their path to look at Wei Ying, who is looking back at him.
"They sure would." Wei Ying grins, sharp and vicious and delighted. He taps his lip with one finger, performative. "Inventing demonic cultivation, on the other hand. That's probably a secret."
Lan Zhan has an iron-clad control over his sword flying. That is the only reason he doesn't accidentally drop them down a few handspans. "You invented it?"
"It was largely an accident," says Wei Ying, as if subverting and recreating an entire philosophical concept is no mean feat. Lan Zhan feels himself making some sort of choked exhalation. It must make some sort of noise, although it is beyond him as to exactly what, because Wei Ying laughs at him. The sound is pulled into the wind far too quickly for Lan Zhan's liking.
"How?" asks Lan Zhan.
"I don't mind. I remember being a child, and learning some of the basics of cultivation from my parents, but it's not like I got any semblance of a real education after Wen Ruohan took me in. But you pick up things just from being around cultivators, right? So I was teaching myself from observation and manipulating resentful energy before it ever occurred to me that there would be a difference between internal qi and external qi."
"And Wen Ruohan –"
"Encouraged it once he realised. He's dabbled in it himself, too. It seems to affect him more easily than it does me though, and he likes to keep his head clear for his strategizing."
"It affects him more easily?"
"Yes, it's like... hmm, it's like he absorbs it into himself so that the resentful energy becomes a part of him. And resentful energy is plentiful when you spend your time subjugating everything within sight."
Unbelievable. Lan Zhan thinks about the Lan Elders attempting to give him and his brother the most complete education they could put together from the remains of the Lan library, the way they lamented when an original text had been lost and they were forced to make do with their own memory of the teaching or admit that there was a gap in the knowledge. It would have been unthinkable for Lan Zhan to come up with his own thoughts to fill that gap, and yet that's exactly what Wei Ying did.
"I have tried to stop him, you know," says Wei Ying. Perhaps he is mistaking Lan Zhan's look of shock as disapproval. "But with something like resentful energy, it's better to explore more and try to understand its limitations and effects, than to use it blindly and then reap the consequences afterwards. And he has others who were interested in learning and experimenting with it, and, well. I trust me to experiment with it since I know that I have no ill intentions towards enemies of the Wen. But others are not like that."
"Xue Chengmei," says Lan Zhan with a nod. He remembers thinking that his control over the bodies was not like that of Wei Ying's, like it was a crude copy.
"Have you met him?"
"After Wen Ruohan pulled you from the field the first time. He is very skilled," says Lan Zhan.
"He's the fucking worst." Wei Ying grimaces. Lan Zhan would not have put it like that, but that doesn't make it untrue. "I have never – Xue Yang likes to create his own resentful energy. He was never content with the amount that was already there."
"He wasn't able to control all the fierce corpses after you were taken away."
"Good. No one should be able to control all of those. I'm surprised even I managed to do it."
Lan Zhan bites his tongue; he does not mention that Wei Ying almost very much did not manage to do it. That would not affect this conversation at all.
When Lan Zhan gets closer to Qishan, Wei Ying directs him in a direction he doesn't recognise at all. It's away from the main compound, in the opposite direction of the tower that Wei Ying was kept in. They land after Wei Ying clutches at Lan Zhan's arm on two separate occasions to indicate guards – Lan Zhan doesn't see anyone either time in the dim light of the late afternoon, which must mean that Wei Ying's eyes are better than his. They shift in between the shadows from building to building until they reach what Wei Ying is looking for.
It seems like it's the healer's wing. Wei Ying taps on the door quietly, a series of knocks that implies a code. There's no response. Lan Zhan keeps an eye out on the passage behind them as Wei Ying tries again. This time, they can hear light footsteps the other side, and Wei Ying wilts in relief.
It doesn't last for long.
Years of constantly being alert means that Lan Zhan spots the minute stiffening in Wei Ying's muscles the moment it happens, which makes Lan Zhan strike his arm out, the heel of his hand hitting Wei Ying's shoulder hard enough to thrust him to one side of the doorway even as he throws himself against the other. Between them, a sword stabs through where Wei Ying had been standing.
"You!" snarls Wei Ying, even as his other shoulder slams alarmingly loud against the wood of the doorway.
Xue Yang grins back at them, parrying as Lan Zhan brings Bichen up to meet his sword. "I knew you'd come back for them."
Lan Zhan steps into the hallway as Xue Yang presses forward. "I didn't think you'd bring someone with you though. Hello, Hanguang-jun." He says it as easily as if they were making a greeting at a discussion conference.
"Wei Ying," says Lan Zhan.
“No, Xue Yang actually.” Xue Yang smiles at him with too much teeth.
He can take Xue Yang, Lan Zhan thinks – distract him away from Wei Ying so that Wei Ying is free to find whoever he's looking for. He doesn't even need to say it; the moment that Lan Zhan draws Xue Yang out from the doorway, Wei Ying darts past them and through the door.
Xue Yang frowns for a moment, long enough to flick his eyes towards Wei Ying, but Lan Zhan bears down on him with Bichen. "Can you afford not to concentrate on the fight in front of you, Xue Chengmei?"
Lan Zhan is not one for taunts, or using words to put his opponent off. He prefers to expend his energy on his swordwork and his footwork. It annoys Xue Yang, he thinks, that he doesn't respond when Xue Yang starts insulting him. The manic gleam in his eyes grows. His swordwork is wild and unrestrained, like he has never had an Elder rap his knee or his wrist if it was in the wrong position. He leaves himself open, gaps across his torso and down his flanks that Lan Zhan aims at, that he only covers because he has quick reflexes. There's a method to the madness, Lan Zhan thinks, and he's on his way to figuring it out when Xue Yang throws a handful of powder at his face.
Lan Zhan hurls himself backwards – through the doorway towards where Wei Ying is. He holds his breath and closes his eyes, instantly covering his face with one sleeve. He hears Xue Yang follow up his attack and counters based on where he hears the sliding of cloth, the step of feet. He feels the resistance when Bichen hits something – too solid to be cloth, too soft to be bone. Flesh, hopefully.
There's a grunt, as Lan Zhan wafts away the last of the powder and takes a cautionary look. There's blood on the tip of Bichen, but Xue Yang shows no signs of stopping. To his side, Lan Zhan can see enough movement to tell that Wei Ying is there, with other people. They're not dead, that's good.
Something whistles out of the air from that direction, too small and quick for Lan Zhan to see, but he can feel the pinprick of qi that accompanies it. A needle – no, several needles. One of which finds its mark in the side of Xue Yang's knee.
"You stupid meddling –" He snarls, stumbling as his knee goes limp. Lan Zhan lunges forward, and brings Bichen down, using the force of his qi to slice clean straight through Xue Yang's arm. His sword clatters to the ground, his disembodied fingers still curled around its hilt.
He looks... surprised. He stands for a moment, staring at Lan Zhan in astonishment as blood splatters, dribbles and spurts out of his arm. He's still staring when Lan Zhan runs him through. The manic gleam in his eyes turns dull.
"Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying hurries over. "Are you alright? I saw he used the blinding powder."
"I am unharmed," says Lan Zhan, bending down to use the side of Xue Yang's robes to wipe down Bichen as the body slumps over sideways. "Thank you," he adds to whoever it was who helped him out.
A young woman who followed Wei Ying out nods at him, and retrieves her needles. She has a thin line, raw and red across her throat, and her voice is strained when she speaks; she was being held hostage, he would assume. "The thanks is ours."
"Lan Zhan, this is Wen Qing. She's a healer. She helped me a lot when I was – after Wen Ruohan found me."
Lan Zhan bows deeply to her.
"Her branch of the family are all healers and Wen in name only. None of them are involved with what Wen Ruohan's doing," Wei Ying says quickly.
Lan Zhan nods. Wei Ying would know, he assumes. "How many?"
That's – more than Lan Zhan was expecting. It was difficult enough getting the two of them in unnoticed; getting twenty people out will be far harder, not to mention that he doesn't know if Xue Yang was working with anyone.
"We'll need to move now. Wen Ruohan likes to have Xue Yang by his side, so his absence will be noticed quickly," says Wei Ying.
A young man comes up behind Wen Qing. "Wei-ge. Shall I get rid of the body? Just in case?"
"That's a good idea. Lan Zhan, this is Wen Ning. He's Wen Qing's younger brother," says Wei Ying absently as he picks up Xue Yang's feet at the same time as Wen Ning hoists his shoulders. As Xue Yang’s remaining arm lolls to the ground, something falls from his hand, the hard thunk noise when it hits the ground an implication of its hefty weight.
“Don’t touch that,” says Wei Ying immediately.
He’d been about to bend down to pick it up, but Lan Zhan halts his steps. It’s a small, misshapen hunk of metal, from what he can tell. The device that Xue Yang had been using to control the puppets earlier, he can only surmise.
“Is it dangerous in proximity?”
Wei Ying hums as he juggles the balance of Xue Yang’s ankles. “To a cultivator of your skill? In such a short time? Unlikely. Prolonged exposure will though.”
Lan Zhan nods, and turns to find a cloth, a rag, to cover it up with.
Wen Ning and Wei Ying work well as a team, even though Wei Ying is obviously huffing by the time they get the body across the room. No one else comments on it, so Lan Zhan doesn't either. Instead, he pries the sword out of the grip of Xue Yang's hand, and brings the hand to them as well. No point leaving part of him behind.
There's a large furnace across the side of the healer's room; a selection of small pots on the shelf near a selection of dried herbs indicates what it's usually for, but the two young men unceremoniously stuff Xue Yang's body into the fire, Wen Ning stepping backwards as then Wei Ying inhales, and suddenly the fire roars to life with shoulder-high flames that scorches Lan Zhan's face even from half a room away. The skin across the body crackles away quickly, and Lan Zhan tosses the arm in alongside it.
"There. Imagine if someone raised him as a fierce corpse. That would be the worst," says Wei Ying. The red glow in his eyes seems more prominent than usual, and he sits down a little too fast, breathing heavily.
Lan Zhan takes a look around properly for the first time. The healer's wing is a set of rooms that lead in and out of each other. The main one – where Lan Zhan fought – is splattered with blood, already seeping rich-black into the wood. He can see a fine dusting of white powder too, that Wei Ying carefully skirts around.
The room with the furnace is the workroom; there are clay jars in disarray, smashed here and there. On the opposite side, several sliding doors open to reveal the infirmary for the patients – and the rest of the people that Wei Ying came back for. They're all dressed simply with innocuous looking cloth parcels tied around them.
They're old, most of them. Aside from one, a child who peeks out at the scene with wide eyes.
"You said you had a plan," says Lan Zhan.
Wei Ying nods, his hands braced on his knees. "I was going to be a distraction. Bait, if you will. Wen Qing and Wen Ning will take everyone out while the rest of the Wens are focussed on capturing me."
Lan Zhan waits. "That's it?"
Wei Ying looks at him with one raised eyebrow. "I make a very good lure, I will have you know."
"My apologies, I didn't mean to offend," says Lan Zhan. "But you are just one person."
Wei Ying's eyes glance towards the Wens, and flicker away again. Delicately, Wen Qing steps away from them, shepherds her brother and the rest of her family around the mess in the middle of the room and towards the door. "Wen Ruohan knew I would do what he wanted because he held Wen Qing and her family here. If I don't have to worry about whether I would come back to find one of them gone, I have no need to hold back any of my strength."
"You are not at full strength," Lan Zhan says, quietly. "You fainted only earlier today."
Wei Ying smiles at him sadly. "Lan Zhan, I have never known what it is like to be at full strength."
Lan Zhan is silent for a moment. "Years, you said," he says finally.
"We were always ready for a moment, any single moment, when Wen Ruohan lowered his guard for long enough for me to slip free."
Lan Zhan wants, desperately, to go with Wei Ying. "Would you like me to escort the Wens out?"
Wei Ying grabs his hand and holds it. It’s sweaty and a bit too warm. Lan Zhan clutches back instinctively. "Would you? Wen Qing is good with needles, but not really in a weapon sense, and Wen Ning is strong, but he's not a fighter."
"They're all healers," says Lan Zhan, nodding. He remembers.
"Precisely. And they have nowhere to go. I didn't even know if I should take them to the Four Sects camps, they might be imprisoned just for being Wen. But they won't if you're with them."
Lan Zhan nods. "And you?"
Wei Ying squeezes once, lets go of his hand, and rolls his shoulders. "With Xue Yang gone, I'm the only one who can really control the fierce corpses."
Wei Ying exchanges a quiet conversation with Wen Qing and then scoops up the metal thing that Xue Yang dropped, wrapping it using the rag that Lan Zhan had covered in. He slides it into his robes, and leaves with only a single look behind. Lan Zhan clenches his hand, which still remembers the warmth and grip of Wei Ying's, and tucks it behind his back. It feels like he should have Wei Ying's handprint emblazoned across both his hands now.
"Be careful, there's blinding powder," Wen Qing is telling her family as he finally makes his way to the group. It must be a known invention around here then; they all glance at the ground and cover their faces with their sleeves, even the child. She glances up at him, and nods – gratitude enough for a stranger who has no reason to trust him. "I can lead the way. Will you bring up the rear?"
If Wen Qing is impatient with the way that the group spreads out and straggles, the way some of the aunties shuffle slowly and don't move along with the shadows, she doesn't show it. And if she can do it, Lan Zhan can bite the inside of his cheek instead of urging them to move a little more in time. These are not people trained in stealth. It has been a long time since he encountered civilians, he realises.
It is largely an unremarkable journey for how tense he is throughout it. There are a couple of guards who almost happen upon their group, and Lan Zhan leaps forward to silence them before they can sound the alarm. Each time, the elderly woman carrying the child presses his face into her shoulder so that he doesn't have to witness it, but all the adults watch with impassive faces. His respect for them grows.
No, the journey only gets complicated once they get outside of Qishan, on the horses that Wen Ning steals for them, and they run into the Four Sect forces headed up by the Sect leaders.
"Wangji!" Lan Xichen's voice rings out across the expanse, and he puts on a burst of speed to reach him ahead of the others. "You are safe."
Lan Xichen draws up, sensing something in his tone that pulls him back from whatever thread of thought he had been weaving. "You went missing. And so did Master Wei. And we have heard reports of more fires coming out of Qishan."
Ah, Lan Zhan knows where this thread leads. "You assumed he had kidnapped me and brought me back to Qishan."
His brother inclines his head, as the other three Sect leaders join them.
"The fires are not for the Four Sects," Lan Zhan says, sounding more curt than he would prefer. "Wei Ying went back to rescue more people. I went with him, since he was too weak to make the journey by himself."
"He is not with you now," points out Nie Mingjue.
"No. He is using himself as a distraction so that we were able to get away."
Wen Qing's voice cuts through the low murmur of confusion. Lan Zhan can see people squinting at her for interrupting, some unknown woman inserting herself into the conversation. "Hanguang-jun. You said he was too weak to make the journey by himself?"
"Yes. We flew there on my sword, Bichen."
She grabs him; her fingers dig in to the meat of his shoulder and she doesn't even acknowledge when Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue start forward at her. "Then how do you expect him to get himself back out?"
"I –" Lan Zhan stares at her, wide-eyed. It sounds so very obvious when she says it like that. But he had been duped by Wei Ying's competency on the way in, the way he hadn't shown any weakness at all after that, the way he'd just inhaled deeply, caught his breath, and carried right on. He had executed his plan the way he'd planned it. Lan Zhan had never asked Wei Ying how the plan ended. "I'm going back for him."
"Wangji!" Lan Xichen protests.
"Brother. I don't have time to explain. Forgive me. But there is no need to attack. Wen Ruohan has no sway over Wei Ying anymore. The puppets will no longer come for us." Lan Zhan feels the last of his patience fray away, his speech growing ever more concise as if each word saved is a moment sooner he will be able to get away.
"And these people –"
"– are civilians. Please, take care of them. Many are elderly, and there is a child. Also, Wen Qing is a healer. She saved me." They are always in need of healers; hopefully, that will sway it. If not... if not, he only hopes that they can save any drastic action for at least when he is back with Wei Ying and can explain in more detail.
He has rarely flown this much in one day before, especially over a landscape that has changed so much within the last day. The ground is still smoking, flickers of ash and smoke rising up to catch in his throat when he breathes in. He feels grimy before he has even reached Qishan, and when he wipes at his face, his fingers come away grey. There’s even a thin blanket of cloud, dimming the light and colour and life out of the scene.
Once he gets close enough to the Nightless City, Wei Ying is easy enough to spot. Lan Zhan has never seen him like this before – enormous streaks of colour across the sky, like a bold brush of ink. Green at the head, a long arch of white neck that fades into a black chest. Flashes of yellow when he rears his claws, framed by long tail feathers that trail behind him and seem to almost leave colour imprints in the air behind him. He moves like an air current, dipping in and out of the sky with fire under his wings as the flames bow to his control. His voice carries, a high cry that is simultaneously chilling and sad.
Lan Zhan has to take a moment to relearn how to breathe.
When he does, it is only to be brought back to the harsh reality of the scene. Harder to see from this distance are the rains of arrows fired towards Wei Ying, visible only as Lan Zhan gets closer. Wei Ying weaves in and out of them, but there are, inevitably, too many. Lan Zhan spares but a moment to be grateful that Wei Ying did not get so far in his understanding of demonic cultivation that the puppets rapidly piling under him and being used by their fellow fierce corpses as a climbing ground were not able to tap into their cultivation abilities from before death and fly on swords. He doubts it would be possible – but Wei Ying continues to surprise him.
Wen Ruohan is presumably somewhere around there too. Near the back, perhaps.
Lan Zhan pulls Wangji from across his back. This is the worst kind of atmosphere for his qin: enough heat to warp the wood and strings and smoke to dampen the sound. But he's a powerful cultivator, and he makes do. He has to. He strums, cutting through a line of arrows before they reach him. Wei Ying falters in mid-air; tucks his wings and rolls sideways and then continues dodging the arrows. Quick thinking: it positions him so that he can see Lan Zhan and the Wen forces at the same time.
With the two of them spread out, the task is easier. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see the Wen bringing in large weapons – slingshots that will fire rubble at them, too heavy for musical cultivation to deal with so easily. The Wen have to run out of arrows at some point, have to get overwhelmed by the encroaching line of fire sometime, have to back off. Lan Zhan can only hope that he and Wei Ying outlast them. He adjusts his angle, so that he can block a whole curtain of arrows in one blow.
Working with Wei Ying is easier than Lan Zhan thought it would be, given that Wei Ying can't speak to him at the moment. He only has to catch one of Wei Ying's gleaming eyes and tilt his head in one direction and it seems Wei Ying will understand where Lan Zhan wants to go. He wants to encroach in towards the Nightless City, force the archers' trajectory to get more steep and get closer to finding Wen Ruohan.
Lan Zhan hears the word just before Wei Ying screams out a warning; he feels the flash of pain in his back, sudden like he's been stabbed. Oh, he has been stabbed. That's – yes. That is indeed stupid.
Twisting out of the way, his back aflame, Lan Zhan sees Wen Chao behind him, hand now empty of a dagger. He'd been concentrating on the father so much that he had forgotten the second son even existed. The dagger is in a bad position, he can tell; his breathing is quickly becoming laboured, each inhale bringing with it a drag of pain, and he can feel his robes getting heavier as they soak through and saturate with blood. There must be a lot of blood for his robes to be getting noticeably heavier.
Lan Zhan sees Wei Ying charge down, wings tucked behind him as he drops through the air like an arrow himself, even though it makes no sense to make the two of them the same target for the archers. He doesn't slow at all upon impact with Wen Chao, striking him beak first into the stomach, and then Wen Chao is no longer there, knocked off his sword.
He has slow reaction times, thinks Lan Zhan. He finds himself passively observing as Wen Chao hits the ground before he even manages to summon his sword to him; it drops to the ground, a useless strip of metal without an owner to command it. The surrounding fire licks at him tantalisingly, the same fate that awaits Lan Zhan if he falls off his sword. He can't pull the dagger out, he knows; not only can he not reach that angle of his back, but that would only exacerbate the bleeding. On the other hand, he's also starting to lose the feeling in his toes, the grip of which is keeping him in the air, and unconsciousness is starting to feel like an inevitability.
He needs to find somewhere safe to land before that happens. He knows this. But the arrows are still coming, and the edge of his vision is starting to become blurry, and the arrows still coming, and his fingers slide a hair's width out of place on Wangji and the chord comes out flat, and the arrows are still coming – oh, the arrows are still coming because he didn't manage to block them this time and he's too close to dodge them all.
And then a sheet of colour – red, green, gold, black, blue – covers his vision. Wei Ying, he realises too slowly. It's Wei Ying, swinging his wing up and over Lan Zhan to protect him, except that means that he's close enough to hear the sickening puncture of arrows through flesh.
"Wei Ying!" He hears an answering scream of pain near his ear and turns to look into Wei Ying's eyes, wide and glassy and set in a head that Lan Zhan hasn’t seen on him before, but it's still so him.
"We have to – you –" Lan Zhan rarely finds himself at a loss for words but they trip over each other now. The sentences wrestle each other in his mouth to try and tell Wei Ying he didn't need to do that, to thank him, to ask if he's all right, to tell him they have to land. Ultimately, none of the sentences make it out of his mouth alive, because he slides off the end of Bichen; he didn't even realise he was tipping over until it happened.
Wei Ying catches him – with his injured wing too – and breaks his fall, the two of them careening towards the ground as Wei Ying steers them towards a bare patch of land. They hit with enough impact that it jars Lan Zhan's back even though he lands on his side, and he feels the dagger rip through something else, something probably important in his body, and Wei Ying's wing crunches awkwardly.
Lan Zhan thinks wildly that he must have just made things worse for Wei Ying. The foolishness of it all, thinking that he was coming back to save Wei Ying and turning out to be the one needing saving himself.
Except Wei Ying rolls over and suddenly he's – small. Human form, even though his arm dangles at an odd angle at his side. "Lan Zhan," he gasps, and he doesn't sound angry at Lan Zhan at all. Why? He ought to. "Lan Zhan, you came."
"Watch out!" gasps Lan Zhan. The archers are notching and adjusting their aim; the next wave of arrows is coming. He can't even sit upright anymore, let alone use his sword. He lost his grip on Wangji too, it must be on the ground somewhere near here, probably broken. Wei Ying's arm is of no use and even if it were, he can't see Wei Ying's flute anywhere. This is it.
And if this is going to be it... He reaches for Wei Ying.
Wei Ying whips his head around to see the arrows coming and rolls to stand up. He doesn't even notice Lan Zhan reaching for him. He puts two fingers in his mouth and whistles, a long piercing sound that grates in Lan Zhan's ear and before Lan Zhan can even understand what's happening, there's a solid wall between him and the archers and the thud of arrows hitting something that's not him.
Puppets, he realises. The puppets responded to Wei Ying's call.
And now the puppets charge, not quickly but steadfastly, towards the archers, more of them rising as Wei Ying inhales and releases another whistle. He hadn't needed the flute at all.
Wei Ying hadn't been using demonic cultivation to fight Wen Ruohan, even though with the number of dead bodies around, it must have surely been the easiest way. Wei Ying only resorted to demonic cultivation when he had to, in order to save Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan sees, in Wei Ying’s other hand which dangles from the end of an awkwardly angled arm, the rag holding the mysterious object he had taken off Xue Yang’s body. And he can feel the resentful energy radiating from it, so thick that he almost suffocates in its presence, almost loses his grip on consciousness right there and then.
And then Wei Ying does – something. Lan Zhan doesn’t know what, but the resentful energy pulses, shrinks until he can barely feel it anymore, and then explodes out with such force that Lan Zhan finds himself flattened to the ground. His back is screaming in pain but also there’s the crushing weight of a thousand dead spirits in his head howling for revenge, for justice, for redemption.
And then it’s gone.
He blinks, and Wei Ying is hovering over him.
"Don't die on me, Lan Zhan." This time, it's Wei Ying who reaches out to clasp Lan Zhan's hand. "Oh, Heavens. You’ve bled out so much. That can’t be good. You didn't happen to bring Wen Qing with you, did you? No, no, of course not."
"They're safe," says Lan Zhan faintly, which is the question that Wei Ying must surely want answered. He should get up. He should – do something. But the muscles in his back aren't cooperating anymore.
Wei Ying slaps himself in the side of the face and Lan Zhan makes a pained noise in protest. "Why can't I cry on demand? What good is this power otherwise?"
Of course. Of course. Lan Zhan gropes for the pendant at his hip using the hand that Wei Ying is still holding. His fingers are numb now, sending tingles up the length of his arm through to his neck; that's not a good sign. "Wei Ying," he gasps, unsure how to explain 'I still have one of your healing tears; I kept it to remind me of you' in his current state, but Wei Ying seems to understand that he's looking for something. He lets go for long enough for Lan Zhan to bat at it, and then pulls it off his belt for him.
"This?" Wei Ying holds it up and then appears to realise what it is. His eyes grow wide. "Is this mine? Lan Zhan, you –"
"It's yours," Lan Zhan confirms, and Wei Ying tries to pull at it with shaky fingers, making an impatient noise when his own fingers on his shattered arm prove weak. It takes one of each of their hands for Wei Ying to unwrap it from the protective case that Lan Zhan had suspended the tear in.
"Hold still. It's – there's a lot of blood already."
Lan Zhan understands. The blood will only flow more freely once he pulls the dagger out. Wei Ying counts to three; pulls the dagger out on 'two' and then Lan Zhan hears the faint tinkle of the tear being crushed.
For a moment, he feels nothing. It didn’t work, he thinks wildly, or it wasn’t enough.
And then all at once, the side of his hand isn't numb anymore. He gasps, and his side doesn’t feel like fire; he flexes his fingers and slowly eases himself upright. The wound pulls, delicate skin like webbing that he can feel will tear if he moves too fast, but he no longer feels like he's going to faint at any moment anymore. He is, once again, reminded of how powerful Wei Ying is. "Thank you," he breathes.
Wei Ying lets out a surprised laugh, bordering on hysterical. "Lan Zhan, don't thank me! I didn't do anything! You –" he breathes, each breath a deeper inhale and exhale, until the manic edge is dulled. "You came back."
"Yes," says Lan Zhan simply. "You never told me about the end of the plan. After you distract Wen Ruohan so that Wen Qing and the others could escape. The bit about how you also escape."
Wei Ying makes a deflated noise, like someone has just punched him in the gut. "I didn't expect to get that far."
"Evidently," says Lan Zhan. "I filled in the missing parts for you. Thank you, for shielding me. How is your arm?"
"Merely broken," says Wei Ying, smiling for some reason. "It hurts, but it's not life threatening. A few arrow sized puncture wounds might as well be needles when I'm this size, and I've certainly suffered enough of Wen Qing's acupuncture."
Lan Zhan gets up, slowly, and retrieves his sword and his qin. Bichen is grubby, covered in mud and soft innard parts of bodies that ought to really stay inside bodies, and wiping it on his own stained robes does little to help. Wangji has a crack in the side of it from when he dropped it and is miserably, completely out of tune when he experimentally runs one hand over it. He sighs.
He tries to get Wangji onto his back, but the arm on the side he's been stabbed won't stretch that far, and Wei Ying immediately offers up his one good arm to help.
"We have one complete functioning pair of arms between us," huffs Wei Ying. There is a moment's hesitation, and then he carefully sweeps Lan Zhan's hair to one side so that it won't get caught between his back and his qin.
Lan Zhan stills. He can't remember the last time someone touched his hair. His hair drops back into place, and he turns to see Wei Ying looking nervous. "Ah, Lan Zhan–" he starts.
"Thank you," Lan Zhan says firmly. He is not in the habit of interrupting people, but this one felt important. Wei Ying smiles tentatively at him.
They make to leave.
"Oh," says Wei Ying. "I should probably finish up here first."
Lan Zhan can only blame his recent near fatal blood loss and disorientation for forgetting the situation that they're in.
He turns, and blinks, and sees the gory scene of Wen Ruohan's archers being torn apart by puppets, a small hill of dead bodies that other dead bodies grimly march up in order to reach Wen Ruohan, who is slashing at them frantically with his sword.
Each time he tries to mount his sword and fly away, another one of them claws at his hems, clutches for his sword not caring whether their fingers get sliced off. Just as Lan Zhan and Wei Ying had forgotten about him, he no longer cares about them.
"Can you lay them to rest afterwards?" asks Lan Zhan. He can't tell what allegiances all of the puppets came from, but if there is no resolution, this entire swath of land will become heavy with resentful energy, churning and feeding upon itself until no living thing can come near it without fear of being corrupted, a second Burial Mounds.
Wei Ying nods. "Some will need more convincing than others."
Lan Zhan musters the remnants of his spiritual energy, and shoots Bichen out from its sheath, straight and true and through the heart of Wen Ruohan. On a normal day, Lan Zhan could likely pinpoint that thin gap between the third and fourth rib to slide his blade cleanly in and out. Today, he does not have that kind of accuracy, and they hear the grate of metal against bone as Bichen breaks through Wen Ruohan's ribs to find its mark.
He falls as Lan Zhan pulls Bichen back, and the puppets swarm over his body before it even crumples to the ground.
Wei Ying calls them off as casually as one might a dog: another whistle, this time long and low, until the puppets start to slow, and then arrange themselves in neat lines on the ground, sinking into inertia again.
Lan Zhan surveys the ruined landscape. Patches of fire still splutter, putting out puffs of dark smoke. The ground is muddy and uneven from the churning of hundreds of feet, powdery from the ashes of burned bodies, and punctuated with arrows that stick upright.
To the south east is the Four Sects camp. Perhaps with people not even that far away, depending on whether the Sect Leaders took their retinue back to the camp. And to the north west, within a stone's throw, is the Nightless City.
On any other day, Lan Zhan would rather take the longer journey in order to reach the safety of his camp, but today he is bone tired and filthy, injured and still reeling from the idea that perhaps the world can be safe outside of his camp now.
"In the Nightless City," he starts. And stops himself. No, that would be selfish of him. Wei Ying most likely wants to be as far away from here as possible.
"Do you think we could–" starts Wei Ying at the same time, and then stops too. "Sorry, Lan Zhan, what is it?"
"No, please. I didn't mean to interrupt."
"I was just thinking. Now that Wen Ruohan and his sons are gone, I don't think we have anything to fear. We could go inside the Nightless City to Wen Qing's healer's wing and get something for my arm and for your back."
"Please," says Lan Zhan in relief.
If there are people who remain in the nearby Nightless City – and there must be, servants and tradesmen and other non-cultivators – they have the wisdom to stay indoors as Lan Zhan and Wei Ying wearily trudge their way up.
They are both injured and walk slowly, but that is just an excuse for them to walk shoulder to shoulder, leaning on each other, Wei Ying's unbroken right hand curled around Lan Zhan's uninjured left arm. They amble like that all the way to the healer's wing, pressing too close through small doorways and staircases, until they skirt around the blood and poison mess in the healer's courtyard and then into Wen Qing's rooms where they reluctantly peel themselves apart.
Lan Zhan is at that point of exhaustion where he wants to sleep, eat and be clean all at once, and does not have the energy to even decide which one to take care of first.
"I could take a bath," Wei Ying says wistfully. "A whole one, all by myself. With actual hot water."
Lan Zhan's heart, stomach, throat all clench as he realises that baths are a luxury that Wei Ying has not had. "Let's do that."
It once again takes the combination of the two of them to accomplish anything, from hauling the buckets from the well pump to hanging them over the fire – still merrily burning away after being fed Xue Chengmei's body – to filling the tub and even to undressing. They fill the tub once for Wei Ying and then line up the buckets again over the fire for Lan Zhan.
Wei Ying eases his broken arm out of the sleeve that Lan Zhan is holding out at an angle for him and giggles as he returns the favour when Lan Zhan cannot stretch his arm out enough to get his robes off either. "Look at us. Useless! How will anyone believe we saved the entire cultivation world?"
Lan Zhan looks. Wei Ying is skinny to the point where Lan Zhan can see the faint outlines of his ribs, the pointiness of his elbows. His skin is pale, not naturally but the kind that comes from not enough time outside. There is a clear delineation as to where his robes were, where his skin turns smeared with grey ash and mud.
But also: he is smiling, the red tinge in his eyes a sparkle. He flexes his toes excitedly as he kicks off his boots, not waiting for Lan Zhan to help him pull them off. He lets his dirty clothes puddle onto the ground and then kicks them towards the fire, as if he intends to never see them again.
Lan Zhan averts his eyes as Wei Ying slides his undergarments down his hips: this is not the time for that. And he is hopeful that there will be time for it later. He looks back as Wei Ying gasps, and closes his eyes in bliss when he sinks into the hot water, and then slides all the way down to immerse his head.
When he emerges, Lan Zhan is still looking and so he sees immediately when Wei Ying opens his eyes and looks for him and locks eyes with him when he finds him. "Hello, Lan Zhan."
"Hello, Wei Ying," says Lan Zhan, amused at whatever they're playing at now.
"How nice to see you here."
"A veritable surprise," agrees Lan Zhan.
"I'm sorry for not offering you the first bath. You got stabbed and everything." Wei Ying rests his face against the edge of the bathtub, the bamboo squashing his cheek up into a line.
"I do not mind. Would you like me to help wash you?"
Wei Ying has carefully balanced his broken arm on one knee. "Would you? I don't want to bother you. Sitting in this water for long enough should steam me all clean anyway."
Biting the inside of his cheek, Lan Zhan resists the urge to tell him that's not how it works. Instead, he goes to find a cloth, and wipes down the areas that Wei Ying can't reach, like his back and his other arm and the back of his neck, discarding the cloth and scratching up Wei Ying's scalp to wash his hair.
Wei Ying sighs. "Oh, this is delightful. I haven't been able to wash my hair in almost a month, I think. When Wen Qing stole me some time after Wen Ruohan was done with me."
Even the mention of his name sours the taste in Lan Zhan's mouth. "I can wash your hair for you every day, if you would like," he says before he can think to watch his words.
Wei Ying turns around for long enough to peer at him. He's good enough not to laugh at Lan Zhan, but there's a gentle amusement in his eyes. "If you would like."
"If you would like," repeats Lan Zhan stubbornly. He can feel the heat rising in his face and into his ears – a side-effect of sitting next to the hot water, he tells himself.
Wei Ying settles back again, sloshing the water as he leans his back against the edge of the tub, and says mildly, "Very well then."
Helping to clean Wei Ying is almost meditative; he makes repetitive circles across his skin until Wei Ying has been there for long enough that his skin has pinked from the heat. They refill the tub for Lan Zhan, swilling the filthy water down the gutter at the edge of the room and then it is Lan Zhan's turn, Wei Ying perched nearby on a low stool, airing himself dry with the warmth of the fire.
"Oh," says Lan Zhan, with a moment of surprise.
"Oh?" asks Wei Ying, holding up a cloth already prepared to help Lan Zhan clean his wound.
"I had forgotten. It has been... a while since I have also had a hot bath." In wanting Wei Ying to have a decent bathing experience first, he had forgotten about himself. In his scouting, the days spent in makeshift camps, he has mostly washed himself down with cold or lukewarm water. It's not the same – he has been able to clean himself properly at least, but the sensation of warmth surrounding him is almost overwhelming.
"Let me know if it hurts," says Wei Ying, daubing around his wound.
"It's much better now."
"I should hope so! I thought you might pass out from blood loss," says Wei Ying. Lan Zhan had thought so too.
The feeling of Wei Ying's hand across his back, over his shoulder, pressing one knuckle in a little harder as he tries to scrub a particularly stubborn patch of dried blood... Lan Zhan thinks that he is coping with it remarkably well, until Wei Ying moves his hand and the tips of his fingers drag just enough across the nape of his neck, and Lan Zhan shudders visibly.
Wei Ying stills.
"I'm sorry," says Lan Zhan immediately. It was an involuntary movement on his part.
"No, no," Wei Ying is hasty to jump in. "That's my fault. I didn't mean to... tease."
There's a moment of silence, only the heavy damp steam hanging between them.
"I did not mind," says Lan Zhan quietly.
Wei Ying carefully lays his fingers, curled, against the side of Lan Zhan's neck, and Lan Zhan leans into them. "Ah, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying sighs. "I thought – perhaps. Well. But then it wasn't the right time. And then there was never a right time. And now, now we're safe but I'm injured and so tired I can barely move."
"We have time," says Lan Zhan, turning to face him, moving so that Wei Ying's fingers are tucked under his chin.
Wei Ying is smiling at him, like the tiniest spark of a flame that will set everything alight. "I suppose we do."
When they're done bathing, they walk around the healer's wing bare. It's a strange feeling. Lan Zhan has never been undressed for longer than he has ever needed to be, constantly in a condition of ready to fight. It's strange to feel the water dry naturally on his skin; strange to feel the rivulets from his hair trail a ticklish road down his spine and then roll into the crease between his buttcheeks; strange to turn and see Wei Ying watching him appreciatively. Stranger still to be able to openly admire Wei Ying in return, all angular elbows and long legs and languid smile.
They root around Wen Qing's supplies and find spare robes that they ignore for now, and make themselves a fortifying herbal tea and a splint for Wei Ying and a balm for Lan Zhan's back.
"Wen Qing taught me," says Wei Ying, his hands lingering on Lan Zhan's skin for longer than strictly necessary, rubbing the smells of camphor and menthol, spicy and tingly at once, into his back. "Not formally, but I watched her do it enough times."
"We should send a message. They'll worry otherwise. My brother, too," says Lan Zhan, with only enough wherewithal to know that he doesn't have the energy to figure out how right now. He cuts off as he yawns so widely that his jaw cracks.
"I could send them a fierce corpse," says Wei Ying with a laugh.
Lan Zhan smiles at the painting in his imagination of a shambling puppet holding a letter up to the Four Sects. "Later," he says. "After we've had time to rest, at least."
They roll into the same bed without question, even though there are four beds in the healer's wing, Lan Zhan on his left side and Wei Ying on his right, close enough that Lan Zhan can feel the warmth of Wei Ying's breath against his cheek. Close enough that Lan Zhan can see the deep redness of Wei Ying's eyes and the contrast of the pure black of his eyelashes. Lan Zhan closes his eyes, and then opens them again for one last look. Closes them again. No, this one will be the last look. Perhaps.
"What are you doing?" Wei Ying's voice is edged with mirth.
"Looking," murmurs Lan Zhan sleepily. "Just looking."
Wei Ying shuffles closer, now close enough that their legs tangle together, and his forehead is warm against Lan Zhan's cheek, and his good hand is grazing Lan Zhan's chest, and his splinted hand is resting against Lan Zhan's hip. "Better?"
And it is. He knows Wei Ying is there now, without having to look.
"Mn." He smooths his hand across the side of Wei Ying's hip, and drifts off to sleep.
Lan Zhan wakes to a warmth that he hasn't felt in years. Perhaps ever. There's a sensation in his bones and muscles that make him feel like he's drifting. Relaxation, perhaps? It is novel to realise that he previously had no understanding of what relaxation felt like.
There's a heat against his back that he can tell comes from a fireplace, and a heat at certain points against his limbs where he's pressed against another body, and a heat below his lower dantian which he has not felt for a while. Interesting.
He must have moved, because Wei Ying makes a small noise and suddenly pulls back, catching Lan Zhan on the side of the knee with his ankle. Lan Zhan opens his eyes to see Wei Ying huddled over, protecting his vital organs and hands, as if he's expecting someone to hurt him.
"Wei Ying, it's me. Lan Zhan," he says as softly as he can. "We're safe. You're safe."
Wei Ying releases a breath all at once, and ducks his head up just enough to see Lan Zhan, who tries not to loom over him in the dark. Wei Ying checks his wrists and his neck – no manacles – and laughs shakily. He stretches his legs out, all the way out until his ankles click. "I – sorry, Lan Zhan. I think it'll be a while before I stop having such reactions."
Lan Zhan reaches out a hand, making sure it's illuminated within Wei Ying's view by the dying embers of the fire, and brushes some of the hair out of his face. They didn't make sure their hair was fully dry before lying down, so it's thick and tangled and still slightly damp. Lan Zhan knows without looking that his is the same. "I have some of my own. How's your arm?"
"Oh, tender but much better," says Wei Ying, flexing his fingers and wiggling them and then tucking his hand into Lan Zhan's so he can see all the better. "I heal even faster than a cultivator, I think. Your back?"
"Much better," agrees Lan Zhan. The skin there is still tight, but he has been training how to circulate his qi around his body for healing purposes since he was a child.
"Good. What time is it? I didn't mean to wake you."
"I think I woke you," Lan Zhan admits. "And you sensed the motion in your sleep and moved according to the danger."
It's the middle of the night, dawn a while off yet, but Lan Zhan feels refreshed already. They fell asleep in the early evening, and it seems like his body fit as much regeneration into his sleep as possible.
Wei Ying yawns, and rolls back into Lan Zhan's side. And oh, he'd forgotten that they hadn't bothered with clothes. His mind had been so hazy by the end, all energy sapped away by the events of yesterday that it hadn't seemed important.
Now, he makes a soft noise as Wei Ying's hand presses over his chest.
"Such a contradiction," murmurs Wei Ying, soft enough that Lan Zhan has to strain to make out the words. He doesn't know if he's meant to be able to hear. "Your chest is so hard, and yet… such softness."
Wei Ying's fingertips flit up and down the skin there, and Lan Zhan exhales shakily. "Wei Ying."
"Lan Zhan." It's too dark for Lan Zhan to see completely, but he can see Wei Ying tilt his head up and look at him with those burning eyes. "I think – perhaps, it's the right time. Finally."
"Finally," repeats Lan Zhan, voice suddenly hoarse. There's the tiniest of distances between their faces and yet it feels like a chasm. Lan Zhan wants to move first, but he also wants Wei Ying to close it if he wants it. Wei Ying is the one who has been a prisoner for all this time, who has never had any control over his own actions. No matter how small, Lan Zhan will not be the one who takes that from him.
"Touch me, Lan Zhan," whispers Wei Ying.
Lan Zhan presses himself through the space between them, hands and limbs all going in his haste. He cradles Wei Ying's face between his hands and presses his lips to Wei Ying's, rolling them over so Wei Ying grunts when his back hits the mattress. Lan Zhan makes to pull back, but Wei Ying throws his arms around Lan Zhan's neck, keeping him there.
He can feel Wei Ying's lips under his own, hot and welcoming, the slide of his tongue a new sensation that sends a roil of heat through his gut. Wei Ying's fingers are fisted into his hair, and their legs are all tangled together.
He breathes the smell of Wei Ying in alongside the scent of soap and faded camphor, and tries, tries so hard to not hold him so tightly that little fingerprint bruises will not blossom across his jaw.
Wei Ying makes a hungry noise and presses back into him. He bites Wei Ying's lip, just a little, and Wei Ying runs his tongue across it delightedly and tells him to do it again. He nips until Wei Ying's lips are red. Lan Zhan couldn't say how long they spend like that, intertwined together, touching everywhere they can.
He's hard, and pressing against Wei Ying's stomach, the pressure against the underside of his cock just enough to keep a low thrum of pleasure coursing through him. Wei Ying has one leg through over his hip, his own cock pressed against the outside of Lan Zhan's hip, leisurely rocking against him.
Another day, Lan Zhan will want to get his mouth on Wei Ying's cock, his hands on Wei Ying's thighs, will want to see Wei Ying take his cock inside him and fist Wei Ying's cock with a frenzy, but for now it's like he is a parched man and every touch of Wei Ying merely upon his skin is rehydrating him, and Wei Ying is the same.
They kiss until they're out of breath, and then break, Wei Ying giggling softly as Lan Zhan segues into nosing the sensitive skin the side of Wei Ying's jaw, which turns into kisses down Wei Ying's throat, and then Wei Ying is demanding kisses on his lips again. Lan Zhan can do that. Lan Zhan can do kisses across his cheek bones and his browbone and on his eyes and on the very tip of his nose too.
It means he can watch Wei Ying smile at the same time.
"Ah, Lan Zhan, you keep looking at me like if you stare hard enough you'll find a surprise," says Wei Ying. It's a familiar tease.
"I am constantly surprised the more I look at Wei Ying's beauty," says Lan Zhan, and tries not to drown in his own smugness as Wei Ying squeaks and tries to bury his face in Lan Zhan's cheek.
"Unbelievable!" Wei Ying says eventually.
"Not at all," says Lan Zhan, and pries him away so he can kiss him again. Wei Ying melts into it with a sigh.
"This is so much, Lan Zhan. More than I ever thought I would have."
Lan Zhan knows the feeling. He's been fighting against Wen Ruohan his entire life. He's never had the luxury to think about his own pleasures and desires.
"We have time," he says reassuringly. He pulls Wei Ying in close again, this time letting him roll over onto his side so that his back is flush against Lan Zhan's chest. It must mean his arm is healed enough for him to lean on. Wei Ying gropes in the darkness for Lan Zhan's free hand and pulls it around himself, and Lan Zhan splays his hand across the expanse of Wei Ying's stomach.
Wei Ying shivers.
This is a good position too, Lan Zhan decides. In this configuration, he can mouth at Wei Ying's neck and back, pressing a kiss to each of the knobs of Wei Ying's spine, and he can hold Wei Ying at the same time, and he can press his cock into the warmth between Wei Ying's butt and thighs, and he can move his hand lower, slowly following the smattering of coarse hair downwards, all at the same time.
"Touch me," Wei Ying urges, lacing his fingers over the top of Lan Zhan's hand and guiding him down.
Wei Ying's cock is both soft and hard in his hand, similar to his own but dissimilar, a new thing to learn about Wei Ying. He's already hard, and when Lan Zhan touches the tip, already leaking.
Lan Zhan is a fast learner. He can feel Wei Ying leaning back against him, squirming whenever Lan Zhan slides his hand over a particularly sensitive spot, can hear his breathing grow erratic in the dark, can hear the way his breath hitches when Lan Zhan rubs his finger over the underside of the head of his cock.
His heart is pounding against Wei Ying's back, and he can feel Wei Ying's own heartbeat match the speed of his. He feels the release of tension when Wei Ying comes, silent and sudden, until he feels the wetness across his fingers, and the way that Wei Ying goes limp with a soft groan.
After a moment, Wei Ying's hand reaches back for him in the dark, landing on the side of his thigh. "Erm. Thank you?"
Lan Zhan is not sure what the etiquette is for this kind of situation, but for some reason, Wei Ying's thanks doesn't sit right with him, as if it wasn't something that Lan Zhan did entirely for his own pleasure and because he wanted to.
"Thank you," he replies with instead, and Wei Ying chuckles sheepishly when he realises what a silly thing that was to say.
"Ah, Lan Zhan. Don't blame me for being uncertain about what to say in this sort of situation. I've never been in one, you know."
"Me either," says Lan Zhan. He has never been taught the correct Lan reaction for this kind of situation and so is at a loss himself. He's trying out a bold new strategy: doing whatever he wants to.
Wei Ying rolls over so that he can see Lan Zhan's face. "Truly? But you're so – you're Hanguang-jun."
"Never," he says quietly. Wei Ying shivers.
When Wei Ying reaches for him, Lan Zhan murmurs, "No need."
Wei Ying settles for brushing one finger the length of Lan Zhan's cock instead, feeling for himself the wetness at the tip, and Lan Zhan bites his lip. How can it feel so different when it is someone else's hand?
"Next time then," says Wei Ying, sounding both disappointed and anticipatory. Lan Zhan very much hopes there will be a next time. And a time after that.
There are things to be done, Lan Zhan knows that. There are Wen Ruohan's loyalists to flush out, and fierce corpses to lay to rest, and lands to reclaim, and treaties to be made. There are prayers to the gods and respects to the dead to be offered.
But they stay there, languid and sticky and wrapped around each other with no obligations for just a short moment, until the sky's dark ink dilutes for dawn.
The Lan rise at dawn. His brother must be considering coming for him by now. Lan Zhan's gaze turns ruefully towards the window. There are complications, too, he knows, about Wei Ying and what he is and the demands of the Four Sects. All the better that they are both well rested before that; Lan Zhan is prepared to fight if needs must.
"We should let the rest of the Sects know what happened, huh," sighs Wei Ying, seeing his gaze wander to the window. Lan Zhan lets it return to Wei Ying's face immediately.
"At least that Wen Ruohan is dead and we are safe."
"What about the demonic cultivation?" Wei Ying's voice is gentle. Lan Zhan hates that he is clearly making this easier for Lan Zhan to – what, turn him in? Deem him strayed from the righteous path?
Lan Zhan considers it carefully. How Wei Ying had avoided using it until he had needed to – to save Lan Zhan. "Do you practice it?"
Wei Ying shrugs. "Not unless I have to."
“What happened to the item that Xue Chengmei was using?”
“The Yin Tiger Seal.” Wei Ying sighs. “I destroyed it. It was made from an artefact that had harboured years of resentful energy, and whoever controlled it could channel and harness a greater range and amount of resentful energy that you would be able to on your own.
“I did also create it in the first place,” he adds, a mullish set to his jaw.
“Can it be repaired? Or recreated?”
Wei Ying shakes his head. “Not unless there was another such artefact that could be reshaped. It was purely coincidence that Wen Ruohan discovered this one in the first place. And – aside from me, Xue Yang and Wen Ruohan and his sons, no one else knew it existed. Wen Ruohan deliberately kept it that way so that no one else would try to obtain it to gain control over that much resentful energy.”
Throughout this last night, Lan Zhan has not felt the lingering of resentful energy around Wei Ying. He's uncertain as to whether it's because he has ways of dispelling it, or if he's not human and so it doesn't affect him in the same way, but he couldn't sense any sign of corruption.
"I don’t believe that the Four Sects needs to know all the details of your time spent as a Wen prisoner," he says primly. “Information is useful, but only if it serves a purpose.”
Wei Ying spends a long time searching his face. Lan Zhan tries to keep his face neutral, letting Wei Ying take as long as he needs.
“Wei Ying!” He frowns as he sees the single fat tear escape the corner of Wei Ying’s eye and roll sideways across his face onto the sleeping mat. Once the first has made its way, more follow, faster than Wei Ying can blink them away. “Wei Ying, what is it?”
Wei Ying pushes himself upright, and scrabbles at his face. “Wait, wait, let me save the tears. We can heal you.” His voice comes out thick.
Lan Zhan presses his hands against Wei Ying’s, stilling his hands. “Wei Ying, please tell me. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Wei Ying looks up at him through wet eyelashes, and oh, he’s smiling. “Nothing’s wrong. I didn’t know you could cry tears of happiness.”
Wei Ying tries, again, to catch the fat droplets into his hands, but Lan Zhan doesn’t let go of his hands.
“Wei Ying, it’s all right,” says Lan Zhan. “Wen Ruohan is dead. We’re done fighting. There’s no urgency for me to be healed. I can heal the natural way.”
Confusion blooms on Wei Ying’s face. Why wouldn’t Lan Zhan want to be completely healed, after all?
“You should be able to just cry your tears, and have your emotions without thinking about how valuable your tears are.”
Wei Ying’s face crumples. More tears flow; he presses his face into the blanket to wipe them away, and Lan Zhan watches each precious tear merely soak away into the fabric never to be seen again. These, too, are happy tears, Lan Zhan thinks.
Dawn is a blush of pinks by the time they leave the Nightless City.
From afar, these two men who walk out arm in arm look entirely non-descript, dressed in simple undyed robes and an unhurried air to their step. It’s not until they pass the city walls that one of them steps out of step.
Between one blink and the next, the young man is gone, and in its place a ripple of colour that takes the eye a moment to realise what it is looking at. There is the sense of stripes of colour, and feathers, and the gleaming reflection off a red beak. It’s not until it unfurls its wings that an observer might realise: that is a fenghuang. A phoenix.
The man with it certainly doesn’t look surprised. He reaches out, merely to tweak one stray feather back into place, and then stroke his hand along the length of the wing.
He reaches up and twines his arms around the phoenix’s neck, swinging himself up onto its back. It takes flight with one, two, three powerful strokes of its wings, and then they are both in the air.
For the first time in over twenty years, a phoenix is sighted flying over the land.