It starts as a stinging in his eyes and nose, and then, it begins to choke him: thick smoke rising from the Cloud Recesses, clouding Lan Wangji's vision as he flies toward the back hill with his heart in his throat. Beneath him, the sacred sanctuaries that have sheltered his clan for generations collapse with a roar. Ash billows upward, bathing his cheeks with heat, and he grits his teeth, bringing one arm up to cover his mouth as he coughs into his sleeve.
He lands high on a rock overlooking the back hill. The sliver of triumph he felt at his narrow escape from Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu dies as he takes in the scattered blue and white facing off against a veritable army of red and black. Lan Wangji summons his namesake qin, rushes toward his clan members, and lands just in time to stop Wen Xu's sword from impaling Shufu where he stands.
Furiously, Lan Wangji strikes the strings of Wangji-qin, hurling the Chord Assassination at Wen Xu and then at the smoke bombs hidden in the ground. The resulting explosion barely gives him enough time to grab Shufu and herd him toward the Cold Pond Cave. The inner disciples hasten to follow, while the outer disciples cover their retreat, bright swords clanging against the heavy Wen blades surrounding them.
Inside the Cold Pond Cave, the qiankun pouch containing the Yin Iron shard presses against Lan Wangji's heart, cold and heavy, as he listens to the dying cries of the loyal disciples left behind. He exchanges a glance with Shufu, whose chin is painted with blood, whose eyes are stained with grief and regret. Lan Yi once sat behind the same sacred qin, entrusting Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian with her piece of the Yin Iron. Their mission had been to collect the remaining Yin Iron pieces and to suppress them in the cave, and Lan Wangji had foolishly thought that they'd succeed.
He takes out the qiankun pouch, clenching it tight in his fingers just as a terrified Su She betrays the Lan clan, first by revealing that Xiongzhang fled with the sacred texts, then by telling Wen Xu how to get into the cave using an inner disciple's forehead ribbon. Lan Wangji's fury sparks, but he cannot find it in himself to let Su She die by Wen Xu's hand. Besides, he realizes with stark clarity, now his mission has changed. Now, he must follow his conscience, just as Lan Yi implored.
"Wangji!" Shufu cries in protest, but Lan Wangji does not let himself turn back. He takes a moment to leave his own qin next to Lan Yi’s—Wen Xu will only break it—then lifts his arms and flies out of the cave. With a flick of spiritual energy, he knocks Wen Xu's sword away from Su She's neck. Straight-backed and proud, he orders Wen Xu to retreat from the Cloud Recesses and let the remaining clan members go.
Su She meets his eyes with mingled shame and gratitude, but Lan Wangji barely has time for him. "I will go to Qishan," he tells Wen Xu, and Wen Xu's face lights up with an unholy glee. He inquires about the Yin Iron, but Lan Wangji refuses to give that up so easily; instead, he lets the shard fall from his robes when Wen Xu's men break his right leg.
Wen Xu laughs in delight, bending down to collect his prize. His hot, rank breath blows across Lan Wangji's face, and Lan Wangji grits his teeth, schooling his face into something cold and untouchable as Wen Xu pats his cheek like he's a child.
"I knew you'd give in," he says, and he turns sharply, gesturing at his men. "Let's go. We have what we came here for."
The two soldiers flanking Lan Wangji drag him forward on his broken leg, past a cowering Su She and through the burning grounds, which are littered with the bodies of fallen Gusu Lan clan members. Lan Wangji clenches his jaw and commits each face to memory; it is the only thing he can do for them now. Shufu will ensure that they have a proper burial.
Past the entrance gates where Lan Wangji first met Wei Wuxian; down the many, many steps that wind through the mountain. Lan Wangji's leg throbs despite the spiritual energy he is pouring into it, and he wonders if Wen Xu intends to make the damage permanent. He gets his answer at the bottom of the mountain, which is crowded with horses and a small retinue of servants.
"Give me your sword, Lan Wangji," Wen Xu says, signaling for the two soldiers to release Lan Wangji from their bruising grip.
Lan Wangji's hand clenches around Bichen. He'd been surprised Wen Xu had let him keep it, but he hadn't dared to draw it, outnumbered as he was.
Wen Xu smiles and steps closer to Lan Wangji, patting his cheek again. "I had heard you were stubborn," he says, and he lifts his hand. Lan Wangji tenses, bracing for a slap, but Wen Xu does something far worse; he reaches around the back of Lan Wangji's head and tugs at the ends of his forehead ribbon.
Lan Wangji hisses and flinches away reflexively. Wen Xu laughs, tightening his fingers in Lan Wangji's hair.
"Give me your sword," Wen Xu repeats, "or I will make you walk through Caiyi Town with a bare forehead, with your forehead ribbon gagging your mouth."
Lan Wangji's breath stutters. Humiliation and pain, he had expected; but he had not anticipated that Wen Xu would be so creative in his cruelty. Reluctantly, he hands Bichen to Wen Xu, though he does not do him the honor of presenting the sword with both hands.
"Such spirit," Wen Xu says with a smirk. He holds Bichen up, stroking its hilt. Lan Wangji clenches his fists at his side, willing himself not to snatch the sword back, as Wen Xu examines the sheath with an approving hum. "What a pretty trophy—just like you."
A chill runs down Lan Wangji's spine, but he does not have time to dwell on the implications of Wen Xu's remark. Soldiers are wrenching his arms behind his back, looping spiritual rope over his wrists, shoulders, and chest—harnessing him like a yaoguai on a night hunt and suppressing his core. The taste of copper fills his mouth. He swallows the blood down, nausea roiling his stomach, and nearly falls on his face as the soldiers pull him backward to stand among the horses. The animals snort at the sudden intruder but otherwise ignore him.
At least Xiongzhang escaped, Lan Wangji tells himself, flexing his fingers uselessly behind his back. At least Shufu and the other clan members are safe. He inhales sharply. His spiritual energy flutters uselessly inside him, unable to be accessed or directed. Without it, the pain in his leg has increased tenfold, and it takes every single bit of self-restraint not to let that show on his face. Still, sweat beads on his hairline and at the nape of his neck. Bound as he is, he can do nothing but let it trickle down and hope that no one notices.
A familiar flash of silver and white catches his eye. Wen Xu is mounting the horse next to him, fastening Bichen to the saddle. He smiles when he sees Lan Wangji looking, then bends down and reaches behind Lan Wangji's back. It is a leash, Lan Wangji realizes with horror, as Wen Xu jerks him closer; a leash made of extra rope from the harness. Wen Xu winds the leash around his own wrist, then whistles sharply and calls out to the men behind him. "Move out!"
Wen Xu looks down at Lan Wangji and smirks. "Run," he says, and then he kicks his horse into a trot.
Bichen weaves in and out of Lan Wangji's vision as he stumbles forward, breath coming short in his chest as he struggles to keep pace. The dust and dirt kicked up by the horses engulf him in a haze, painting his robes, boots, and forehead ribbon a dull gray. Agony lances through his leg with each harsh step, and he barely has the presence of mind to keep his chin up as he is dragged through Caiyi Town, where Wen soldiers have forced the townspeople out onto the streets so that they can watch the procession.
"Qishan Wen will be your new rulers," Wen Xu declares. "Comply with our orders, and you will not be harmed. This traitor"—he jerks Lan Wangji's leash—"will be taken to Nightless City for punishment. If any of you see Zewu-jun, report him at once to the Qishan Wen soldiers and officials that we have installed here. Do you understand?"
The townspeople nod, terror written in every line of their bodies, and avert their eyes from Lan Wangji as he passes by.
Wen Xu is not content to only make a display in the main streets; he winds through every narrow alley until he reaches Old Zhang's calligraphy supplies shop at the edge of town. Old Zhang is standing at the doorway, flanked by two burly Wen soldiers. "W-Wen-gongzi," he says, shaking from head to toe as he lowers himself into a bow. "Th-this humble servant, Old Zhang, was told that you were in need of my services."
Wen Xu jumps down from his horse, pulling Lan Wangji forward. "I need to make a large banner, but I don't need your calligraphy, just your supplies. Lan-er-gongzi"—mockery drips off his tongue at the formality—"will be writing for me."
Old Zhang darts a glance at Lan Wangji, eyes halting briefly on the forehead ribbon, on the silver cloud emblem marking Lan Wangji’s status as clan heir. He doesn’t need the confirmation; as Gusu Lan's most prolific disciple, Lan Wangji has been Old Zhang's frequent customer for years now. Lan-er-gongzi, Old Zhang would always greet him with a gentle smile, how many texts have you copied since I last saw you? Will it be your usual order today?
Now, Old Zhang drops his gaze to Wen Xu’s feet, wrinkled face bloodless with fear as he shuffles toward the door. "C-certainly, that can be done. Please, come inside."
Old Zhang leads them to a large desk in the center of the room, then hurries to set up a brush, inkstone, and ink tray along with a large, flat canvas that can be mounted at the ends. "Is this sufficient, Wen-gongzi?" he asks in a timid voice.
Wen Xu waves a hand and nods. "Yes, yes. Wait outside."
Old Zhang bows deeply and scurries out the door.
Wen Xu snaps his fingers and tugs lightly at the harness, freeing Lan Wangji's right arm. Lan Wangji grips the edge of the table to steady himself, sucking in a breath when Wen Xu leans in close. "You'll write every word I tell you in that famed perfect calligraphy of yours, or I'll have my men slit that old man's throat," he says, damp breath fanning against Lan Wangji's ear. "Do you understand?"
Lan Wangji grits his teeth and nods, willing his fingers not to shake.
Wen Xu tsks and grabs Lan Wangji's chin, forcing him to meet Wen Xu's eyes. "Say it.”
"I understand," Lan Wangji grits out.
Wen Xu smiles and brushes dirt off Lan Wangji's cheekbone with his thumb. Lan Wangji twitches away, his skin crawling, and Wen Xu clicks his tongue, grabbing Lan Wangji's throat and squeezing hard and fast. "Still so defiant," he says, shaking his head as Lan Wangji gasps for air. His mouth turns down like he’s disappointed, but his voice is filled with a dark delight. "I'll teach you your manners properly at home. Now pick up that brush and write. We don't have all day."
Lan Wangji swallows; his throat feels like it's full of porcelain shards. The world is swimming around him, but he manages to focus enough to pick up the brush and dip its end in ink. Leaning his weight against the table to relieve his leg, he barely comprehends the words Wen Xu dictates, struggling to make each stroke perfect and orderly as usual.
He must do a good enough job, because Wen Xu does not kill Old Zhang. Instead, he calls the man back in to mount the banner, and it is only when Old Zhang is holding up the finished product that Lan Wangji realizes what he has done.
"Wen Xu of the great and powerful Qishan Wen clan," Wen Xu reads with relish, "captured Lan-er-gongzi, Lan Wangji, of the traitorous Gusu Lan clan and is taking him back to Nightless City for punishment. Lan Wangji has agreed to serve the Qishan Wen clan in whatever capacity is asked of him."
Lan Wangji lurches forward, furious, but Wen Xu easily pulls him back, crushing his wrist in a bruising grip. "Now, now, be good, Lan-er-gongzi. You don't want Old Zhang to pay for your rudeness, do you?”
"No," Lan Wangji whispers; his voice will not come. Old Zhang shakes so hard he nearly drops the banner. "Leave him alone,” he adds.
"Then behave," Wen Xu says. He takes the banner from Old Zhang, tosses some silver onto the counter, then pulls Lan Wangji out of the shop. Just outside the door, Wen Xu's horse stands proudly, Bichen still hanging against its side; next to it stands a smaller horse with a plain, unadorned saddle. Wen Xu's men lift Lan Wangji onto the smaller horse, then secure him in the saddle by tying his wrists to the front. The newly configured rope harness presses harshly against his back and chest, coils around his shoulders all the way down his arms to his wrists; but Lan Wangji is drowning in such a strong wave of misery that he barely notices.
He's hazily wondering how long he's going to remain conscious when all of a sudden the pain—stops. Lan Wangji blinks in surprise, his mind clearing, and looks down to find a row of sharp needles adorning his bare calf and thigh.
"That's better, isn't it?" says Wen Xu, letting Lan Wangji's skirts fall back into place. He raises his eyebrows. “Don’t look so surprised. I can’t have you passing out and falling off the horse en route. Unlike my idiot brother, I won’t make it so easy for you to slip from my grasp.”
Lan Wangji has nothing to say to that. He's secretly, shamefully glad that he wasn't present enough to remember Wen Xu lifting his hems and touching his bare skin. Tentatively, he tries to wiggle the toes on his right foot, only to realize with horror that he can't feel them at all. In fact, he can't feel any part of his right leg.
"The needles anesthetize and immobilize your leg," Wen Xu explains. "They're a gift from my cousin Wen Qing. You remember her—my father sent her and her brother to your useless Gusu Lan lectures. Not that it did much good." He laughs, mounting his own horse. "All that work and expense, and yet you and that Jiang servant still managed to lead her and Chao'er on a chase across the country. What was that servant's name again? Wei something?"
Lan Wangji presses his lips together, fingers tightening around the front of the saddle. He won't let Wen Xu defile Wei Ying's name, no matter what Wen Xu does to him. Wen Xu's eyes narrow, taking on a glint that fills Lan Wangji with dread.
"You traveled with that Wei boy for a while, didn't you? Lan Wangji, tell me—were you friends? Or something more?"
Lan Wangji holds himself very still, his heart thumping loudly in his ears. As long as he remains the untouchable Twin Jade everyone calls him—as long as Wen Xu doesn't catch on to his feelings for Wei Ying—then Wei Ying will remain safe. But his refusal to answer must be telling enough, because Wen Xu smirks and reaches over, tugging the ends of the forehead ribbon again like he knows exactly what it means.
Wen Xu pulls Lan Wangji's horse so that it's flush with his own, and together, the two of them lead the way out of Caiyi Town as the banner proclaiming Lan Wangji's servitude flaps loudly behind them.
Trussed up like a bride kidnapped on her wedding night, like a pretty trophy, Lan Wangji helplessly rides alongside his captor, dreading the fate that awaits him once he arrives in Nightless City.