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Ghost Feathers

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A title banner for the story Ghost Feathers. On the left side is a hand outlined in purple, holding a bright blue and lavender feather. In the middle is the title in lavender,

When Lan Wangji talks to Jiang Wanyin for the first time during the war, both of them bear similar injuries that they are trying to hide. 

Jiang Wanyin walks with the same tightly wound gait that Lan Wangji remembers, though his eyes carry a hardness that speaks to the sudden loss of his parents, his home, and his clan. The stubble on his face is a new addition, as is the snake-like whip wrapped around his wrist and finger, which sparks in time with the twitches of his folded wings. His overall bearing has changed as well. Although he has always resembled his fearsome mother, his shoulders now bear the same weight of clan leadership that his father wore like a comfortable coat. On Jiang Wanyin, it is ill-fitting. 

“Jiang-gongzi,” Lan Wangji greets with a stiff bow. “I am glad to see you well.” 

“Many thanks, Lan-er-gongzi,” Jiang Wanyin says. “I am glad to see you well too.”  He cannot quite hide his self-consciousness as, out of habit, his wings open in sync with the bow he gives in return. 

Lan Wangji’s eyes widen. Captured prisoners and indentured servants usually have some of their primary feathers cut away, leaving their wings shortened and unable to achieve flight, but they are always allowed the dignity of retaining the feathers that mark their family colors. Jiang Wanyin’s feathers have been cut back all the way to the skin—as if the Wens wanted to completely erase the Jiang clan by destroying any trace of their famous vibrant blue plumage. It is a hallmark of the Wen clan’s cruelty, and one that Lan Wangji knows well. 

A shiver runs down the length of Lan Wangji’s spine. Wen Xu had clipped his wings in the same way when he’d surrendered at the Cloud Recesses, and though Lan Wangji has already gone through his molt, his feathers have been slow to grow back, and most have not returned to their full length. He still cannot use them to fly; his sense of balance is too skewed. It is maddening. 

Jiang Wanyin’s wings rattle as he lifts himself up out of his bow. Despite his more recent injury, his healing has progressed more quickly than Lan Wangji’s. It has only been a month since the Wens attacked Lotus Pier, but all of Jiang Wanyin’s pinfeathers have grown back in, and the blood vessels attached to them have already retracted. In a powerful symbol of mourning, he has left them spiky and ungroomed, still covered by hard white sheaths so that they stick out in every direction. 

Lan Wangji has already heard Jiang Wanyin’s account of what happened: the Wens had attacked Lotus Pier, using some flimsy accusation of offense as justification, and proceeded to massacre most of the clan without mercy. Jiang Yanli, Jiang Wanyin, and Wei Wuxian had fled upon Jiang-zongzhu and Yu-furen’s orders. The three of them had hidden for a while in Yiling, sheltered by parties unknown, while Jiang Wanyin had recovered from horrific injuries inflicted by Wen Chao and his ilk. 

Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian had sent Jiang Yanli to shelter in Lanling. Shortly afterward, Wei Wuxian had gone out for a covert errand, and then failed to meet Jiang Wanyin at the rendezvous point. Jiang Wanyin had waited for him for six days before making his way over to Qinghe to join up with the rest of the alliance. 

Wei Wuxian has been missing for over a month now. His absence looms over them both like a giant shadow, thickening the air with tension. Jiang Wanyin is the first to break the silence. “Lan-er-gongzi, what brings you to Qinghe? I heard that you had retaken the Cloud Recesses even with an injury to your wings. I thought that you would be there recovering.” 

Lan Wangji narrows his eyes at the remonstration in Jiang Wanyin’s voice. Perhaps he is surprised that Lan Wangji has not stayed to defend his home from the Wen soldiers still camped out around Gusu. After what happened to Yunmeng, Lan Wangji cannot fault him for feeling that way. It grates nonetheless. 

“Shufu has recovered enough to lead the fight as needed,” Lan Wangji answers. “I have come to investigate some alarming rumors.” 

Jiang Wanyin’s wings twitch, and a muscle clenches in his jaw. “Rumors?”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji studies Jiang Wanyin’s face. “Recently, soldiers have been surrendering in droves. They tell tales of a ghost that haunts the steps of the army, of a winged black specter that strikes their camps at night.”

Jiang Wanyin’s mouth twists. “What else have you heard?” 

Lan Wangji offers a little bait. “Some Wens mention an unusual sound before the attacks.”

Jiang Wanyin nods, the lines around his eyes tightening. “Yes. A dizi.” 

“Jiang Wanyin,” says Lan Wangji. His voice sticks in his throat. “Wei Ying—”

Jiang Wanyin tenses, wings drawing tight to his body. “I do not know if it is him, but—” He lets out a short breath. “He learned how to play the dizi shortly after he came to Lotus Pier.”

“Will you search for him?” Lan Wangji asks. 

Jiang Wanyin turns, eyes flashing with a fierce glare. “Of course.”

“Then I will join you,” Lan Wangji says, “if you will permit it.”

Jiang Wanyin hesitates. His eyes flicker toward Lan Wangji’s wings, to the half-formed flight feathers resting against his back. Lan Wangji cannot help but bristle at the doubt that creeps into Jiang Wanyin’s gaze, and in response, he lifts his chin and straightens his shoulders, standing at his full height. “Wei Ying was my friend, and he deserves my attention.” 

Jiang Wanyin huffs. “Fine, fine. I’ll allow it, but first, let’s see if Chifeng-zun lets us go at all.”

Nie Mingjue refuses their request immediately. “Your wings,” he says as if that settles the matter. When they protest—loudly, in Jiang Wanyin’s case, and silently, in Lan Wangji’s—he inhales sharply and sets his hands on his desk, his dark brown and gray wings flaring out behind him in a majestic display of strength.  

“Jiang Wanyin, I will be blunt. You and your sister are all that remain of Yunmeng Jiang. You must bear that responsibility now and keep yourself alive; you cannot avenge your clan if you do not take the time to recover. Wangji, you are the Lan clan’s greatest fighter outside of your brother, and Xichen will kill me if I let you travel the countryside while injured. Furthermore, you are unarmed, as both your swords are still locked up in Qishan.”

“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang pipes up from the corner. His face is half-hidden behind his fan, but his eyes are sharp as they sweep over Lan Wangji and Jiang Wanyin. 

Nie Mingjue turns and frowns at his little brother. “Yes, Huaisang?”

Nie Huaisang’s fan flutters along with his fluffy brown wings. “I—I don’t think it’d be a bad idea to let them go.”

“Why not?” Nie Mingjue asks, raising his eyebrows.

“Well…” Nie Huaisang twirls his fan, looking more thoughtful than he ever did as a guest disciple in the Cloud Recesses. “They can gather intelligence for us and see what the situation is like on the ground. Plus, people are already so fired up about what happened to the Cloud Recesses and Lotus Pier—” 

He clears his throat, letting out an embarrassed laugh when Lan Wangji and Jiang Wanyin turn simultaneous glares upon him. “Sorry, sorry, Wangji-xiong, Jiang-xiong! I’m just saying, won’t people be more likely to spill information to you two in particular? Two unarmed, wounded refugees? They’ll feel sorry for you, and this may help us rally support against the Wens. And anyway, we need someone to find out more about this ghost captured Wens keep talking about. We still don’t know if the ghost is our ally or how they’re destroying the Wen camps so…efficiently.”

Nie Mingjue rubs his temples as if he’s trying to ward off a headache, his wings twitching as he thinks for a long moment. Finally, he grumbles, “Huaisang, you make a good point, but I still don’t see why we can’t send someone else.”

Jiang Wanyin steps forward, pinfeathers rattling with the motion. “Chifeng-zun,” he says, clearing his throat, “the ghost might be Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian is my responsibility. I have an obligation to bring him home and—” He cuts off, swallowing hard, his hands clenching into fists at his sides. “And—do whatever is necessary depending on his condition.”

Nie Mingjue heaves a sigh. “Fine. That explains why you should be going, but it doesn’t explain why Wangji should accompany you.”

Lan Wangji’s throat grows tight. “Chifeng-zun,” he says, bowing. “I have not yet recovered enough to fly or fight at my full capacity, but I can still suppress a single ghost without the use of my wings. Please allow me to conduct this search.”

Nie Mingjue grimaces, brow creasing. “All right,” he says, meeting their gazes. “Fine. Send regular updates. And come back here in three months to report, whatever you find.”

Lan Wangji thanks him, bowing in unison with Jiang Wanyin. 

Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang see them off the following morning. “Be careful,” Nie Mingjue says gruffly as Nie Huaisang hands them heavy bags packed with hot food. Jiang Wanyin still has not groomed; his wings look ghastly in the pale light of the sunrise, even more so when contrasted with his glossy purple robes and the whip sparking on his hand. The Gusu Lan rule about not grieving excessively sits on the tip of Lan Wangji’s tongue, but he holds it back in favor of observing Jiang Wanyin. 

Thus far, his impression of Jiang Wanyin has been neutral, and sometimes a little unfavorable. At the Cloud Recesses, Jiang Wanyin’s bright blue and gold wings were constantly flitting about, jerking and twitching and sometimes outright hitting Wei Wuxian in fond annoyance. Wei Wuxian always gave back as good as he got, his wings the same bright blue but with a hint of pale yellow and orange. His antics would often spread to the other guest disciples, who would proceed to follow his example and roughhouse until they all had unkempt feathers. 

Lan Wangji would sometimes step in to discipline them, but often he would not. Instead, he would stand at the end of the walkway and watch, wondering what it would be like to receive such easy affection. His own wings are a model of Lan lineage: huge and white, with just a hint of black from his secondary feathers; they resemble those of a red-crowned crane and span the entire width of a room when extended. One of the first rules he learned was how to restrain himself—in emotion, in movement, in expression—lest he accidentally knock someone over. 

The Nie guards at the camp exit greet them with hushed surprise, eyes widening nervously at the sight of their clipped wings. Jiang Wanyin bristles, his pinfeathers making an unsettling noise, but Lan Wangji lifts his chin high, ignoring their gawking and whispering with cold resolve. High above, an airborne Nie soldier circles lazily over the camp, huge gray wings briefly blotting out the sun. Jiang Wanyin glances up with obvious envy, and Lan Wangji cannot help but empathize. 

“Jiang Wanyin,” he says in an effort at distraction, “where should we search first?”

“A town that’s only a short flight—I mean, a short walk from here,” Jiang Wanyin answers. “Last night, an estate that was garrisoning Wen troops was attacked, and the survivor said he heard a dizi.”

“The survivor?” 

Zidian crackles as if woken by the thought, but Jiang Wanyin seems not to notice. “Yes. Chifeng-zun appointed me to interrogate the captured Wen soldiers. Most of them are the sole survivors of the ghost’s raids.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji frowns, troubled. War begets violence, but he still finds himself disturbed by the thought of torturing a prisoner, not to mention whatever havoc the ghost might wreak upon their souls and their minds. 

Jiang Wanyin glances at him, eyes narrowing. “Perhaps ‘interrogate’ is too strong a word. The prisoners are always eager to talk. The hard part is finding something useful in their raving.”

This answer does not bring Lan Wangji relief. “What do they say?”

“Nothing that makes much sense. The sound of a dizi, insomnia and nightmares for days, growing paranoia…all culminating in a terrifying attack, the memory of which makes them cower in fear. There are a few common things we managed to glean from the gibberish. Evil spirits dressed in bright, bloody red. The moon and stars blotted out. Soldiers buried days ago reappearing inside the walls. A black-winged demon…” Jiang Wanyin shrugs, wings clacking like the end of a brush drawn across the panels of a wooden scroll. “You get the picture.” 

Unease curls around Lan Wangji’s heart, squeezing it tight like a vise. Whatever they are chasing is clearly malevolent, driven by some kind of strong grudge, and relatively intelligent. Wei Wuxian was bright, fearless, and powerful in life; who knows what he might have become, trapped on this earth as a soul who cannot rest? And if the ghost, or whatever it is, is not Wei Wuxian—well, then, where is he? 

They walk the rest of the way in silence, trying to ignore the shadows of flying sentries as they pass the occasional patrol on the ground. The soldiers hail mostly from the Nie clan, the occasional white Lan or gold Jin plumage glowing bright among the dour gray and brown. Once, a vibrant blue-and-gold-winged figure flies toward them in excitement, clad in the dark purple of a Jiang disciple; but the hope on the boy’s young face dies the moment the disciple spots Jiang Wanyin’s spiky white wings, and without a word, he swoops back up to rejoin his patrol. Jiang Wanyin lets him go without the slightest protest. 

It is dusk when they finally reach the town. It is quiet, too quiet—not a single shop or stall is open. Most windows are boarded. Burn marks and scratches from broken arrowheads mar the outside of most buildings, and the few townspeople on the street scurry away before they can approach, the slightest flapping of their clipped wings the only sign that they were there at all. Jiang Wanyin seems to know the way regardless, leading Lan Wangji to a high, imposing wall and tall gate with chipped paint sitting at the southern edge of town. One of the gate’s doors is leaning awkwardly, revealing an abandoned courtyard.

“This is it,” Jiang Wanyin says. He looks regretfully at the top of the wall, then awkwardly scrambles up the off-kilter door, wedging himself through the gap on top and landing with a thump on the other side.

Lan Wangji takes a step back and spreads his wings, unsure if he has healed enough to manage a short burst of flight. But before he even starts to ascend, a loud scraping noise rings in his ears, and the damaged door falls to the ground with a crash. Jiang Wanyin emerges from behind it, holding the bar that had been holding it shut—and apparently holding it up. “Come on,” he says, “we’re losing the light.” 

The same eerie emptiness that pervades the town center seeps through the compound like a noxious poison, haunting the echoes of their footsteps as they wind around the corridors and push open half-destroyed doors. Nothing and no one comes out to greet them, but Lan Wangji spots the occasional smear of dried blood or scrap of torn clothing, the latter of which usually bears the Wen clan sun symbol in some form. 

Jiang Wanyin suddenly halts with a loud curse.

“What is it?” Lan Wangji asks warily.

Jiang Wanyin bends down, grimacing at the pull of his wings, and plucks something from the ground. “Look.” 

It’s a black feather, as dark as a chip of obsidian. Jiang Wanyin holds it close to his face, squinting in the evening shadows. “I need more light.”

Lan Wangji quickly traces a light talisman in the air. Jiang Wanyin turns the feather over, examining it from different angles. It is indeed a dark hue, but it has a purple sheen, and there is a faint golden stripe on the underside of its shaft.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji breathes.

Jiang Wanyin nods, his expression grim. “It’s just one feather, but—” He huffs, tucking the feather into a qiankun pouch. “It’s something, at least.”

Night falls quickly. The inn seems to be abandoned, so they make camp outside of town, shuffling around each other awkwardly as they lay out the bedrolls and make a fire. It is not unusual for cultivators to sleep like this, but on night hunts they are used to perching or making temporary nests in a defensive position.

Lan Wangji sets up a protective ward around their campsite, fanning the fire to life with his wings. He catches a brief envious look from Jiang Wanyin, but he pretends not to notice, choosing to lean against the nearest tree and spread his wings out instead. With a sigh, he slides his fingers along the feathers he can reach, smoothly lining the barbs up from base to tip. The phantom sensation of full-grown feathers tugs at his consciousness, making him expect a greater weight than there is, and he closes his eyes, trying to will it away with an intense session of meditation. 

Just as he's sunk into a relatively calm state, a loud hiss cuts through his focus. 

“Fuck, fuck, damn it, fuck,” Jiang Wanyin mutters under his breath, scrambling upward with a huff.

Lan Wangji sighs and opens his eyes. “What is the matter?” 

Jiang Wanyin blows out a breath, reaching one hand up to touch his wings before dropping it abruptly to his side. “Nothing.”

Lan Wangji frowns at him. “If your wings are bothering you—”

“They’re fine.” Jiang Wanyin won’t look at him. His sheathed pinfeathers cast strange, thin shadows on the ground. “Sorry I woke you. I know you like to keep to your schedule. I’ll try to meditate or something.” He crosses his legs and tries to sit up, wincing again when his wings spasm. 

The words slip off Lan Wangji’s tongue. He is too tired to hold them back. “Jiang Wanyin, you will feel better if you groom.” 

Jiang Wanyin shoots to his feet, anger flashing bright in his eyes. "I appreciate your concern, Lan-er-gongzi, but it is unwarranted. My wings simply require—time." 

"’Do not grieve in excess’,” Lan Wangji quotes, hoping it will get his point across. 

Jiang Wanyin's eyebrows rise all the way to his hairline. "Lan Wangji,” he snaps, “please do not try to impose your clan rules upon me. We are not in the Cloud Recesses, and I am not a Lan disciple.”

Frustration roils in Lan Wangji’s gut. “Jiang Wanyin,” he says, anger threading his tone as he rises to his feet, “your appearance is unbecoming of an acting clan leader. One of your juniors spotted us on the way here, and when he saw you, he flew away in disappointment—”

“Lan Wangji, how dare you,” Jiang Wanyin snarls, balling his hands into fists. His wings unfold in a flash, skeletal and macabre in the flickering light. On his finger, Zidian sparks bright with fury. “My parents are dead, my clan is gone, and what Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu did to me—” He swallows hard, nostrils flaring, and spits out, “I don’t even know why I’m defending myself. You wouldn’t understand.”

Lan Wangji clenches his jaw so hard that he almost cracks a tooth. “Do not insult me, Jiang Wanyin. Wen Xu clipped my wings just as Wen Chao clipped yours. But we will not find them if you go around like a man driven mad by his grief. Members of your clan still remain, and they need you now more than ever. And Wei Ying—” Lan Wangji stumbles over the name. “Wei Ying needs our help— your help—whatever state he is in.”

The fire crackles hot between them, throwing their faces into sharp relief as they glare at each other in silence. Finally, Jiang Wanyin lets out a harsh breath and sinks back down, folding his legs under himself as he stares into the flames. “Wei Wuxian used to help me groom my wings, and I’d groom his in return. A-Jie would sometimes help the both of us when we were younger, but usually it was just him and me.” He takes a deep breath and mutters, almost inaudibly, “I can’t do it on my own.”

Lan Wangji does not know how to respond. In the Lan clan, grooming another person’s wings is as intimate as touching their forehead ribbon. It is an act reserved for spouses, children, and parents. Exceptions can be made in the case of serious injury, and Jiang Wanyin’s state might qualify—but still, he hesitates. 

“It’s not like I have to touch yours,” Jiang Wanyin mutters, darting a glance up at Lan Wangji’s face. “But if you’re insisting that I clean up, it’d be nice if you could offer some help.”

Lan Wangji lets out a slow breath, steeling his resolve. “Fine.”

Jiang Wanyin tenses, drawing his wings close as Lan Wangji approaches. “You need to relax,” Lan Wangji says, heat creeping up his ears as he folds himself onto his knees behind Jiang Wanyin’s back. “I need to reach your feathers.” 

Jiang Wanyin huffs and closes his eyes, slowly extending his left wing. “Do it.”  

Lan Wangji takes a deep breath, skin prickling as he reaches out and gently grips one of the spiky white pinfeathers. He rolls it between his thumb and forefinger until its white sheath cracks and sloughs off to reveal a slightly flattened feather. He strokes along the shaft, coaxing out the shimmering blue barbs until they’ve all lined up properly. They’re much flashier than any of the plumage found in the Lan lineage, but he can still appreciate their beauty. 

Jiang Wanyin sucks in a soft breath as Lan Wangji moves to the next pinfeather. Another white tube cracks and falls away, freeing the barbs trapped within. Lan Wangj smooths them out, lining them up with their counterparts from the first feather carefully by running his thumb along the tips. “Is this all right?”

“Yeah,” Jiang Wanyin says in a strained voice. “It’s fine. Keep going.”

“All right.” Lan Wangji lifts his other hand and begins to preen two feathers at once. The sheaths make soft noises as they hit the ground, scattering on the earth like snowflakes from the sky. Before long, the pointy white appendages have transformed into one shining azure wing, which looks glossy black in the darkness. 

Jiang Wanyin wobbles a little, adjusting his balance as Lan Wangji moves to his other side. “Ready?” Lan Wangji asks. 

“Yeah.” Jiang Wanyin closes his eyes. “Go ahead.”

Lan Wangji works his way down the wing with practiced motions, ears burning hotter and hotter with every hushed hitch of Jiang Wanyin’s breath. The world around them is eerily quiet. No night birds are singing, and even the crickets have stopped chirping. Only the crackle of the fire and the crunching of pinfeather sheaths disturbs the silence. 

Just when he’s reached the second-to-last pinfeather, Jiang Wanyin’s wings suddenly flare outward, knocking Lan Wangji backward as a smoky column of sparks spirals into the dark sky. 

Jiang Wanyin curses, shattering the stillness of the night. He turns to Lan Wangji, the golden underside of his wings gleaming luminously in the emerging moonlight. “Sorry! My wings moved on their own. It’s been a while since I felt…” He heaves a breath and looks up at the sky, eyes shining with relief. Years have fallen away from his face, making him look even younger than he did when he arrived at the Cloud Recesses as a guest disciple. “Lan Wangji,” he says, dipping his head in gratitude, “thank you.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji nods at him, a flush crawling up his cheeks. He turns away, hiding his face, and pretends to smooth out his bedroll. “I am glad that this has helped. You must take care of yourself for the sake of your clan.” 

Jiang Wanyin huffs. “Yeah, I know.” 

Lan Wangji lets out a slow breath, the tension slowly leaching out of his body. He lays down on his stomach, folding his wings behind his back as he rests one cheek against the knuckles of his hand. “Thank you for trusting me. Let us rest.”

Time passes, and they develop a routine: long days on the road, the occasional stopover in a town or village, and then, at night, grooming. Lan Wangji grooms his own feathers first, and then Jiang Wanyin’s. Even though Jiang Wanyin’s feathers grow back at a faster rate than Lan Wangji’s, he never asks Lan Wangji to stop. Nor does he offer to groom Lan Wangji’s wings in return.

It is both a relief and a disappointment. Lan Wangji is not yet ready to give that privilege away, but he had always thought that his first grooming experience would be reciprocal, not one-sided. Nevertheless, mutual trust and respect grows between them over the course of the journey, and Lan Wangji even develops a begrudging affection for the prickly soon-to-be clan leader and his twitchy, expressive wings—though he will never admit it if asked.

The ghost’s trail is hard to track, erratically twisting and turning in every direction, but it always leaves behind three things at every location it visits: a single fallen feather, a bloodstained talisman, and a lone Wen soldier who’s already gone mad. It does not take much to get the soldier to talk. All Jiang Wanyin has to do is let Zidian crackle on his hand while Lan Wangji raises himself to his full height and glares, and the soldier will wail about a terrifying ghost with tattered wings who controls an army of half-rotted corpses with his dizi. 

“He wore a red ribbon in his hair, the color of fresh blood,” one soldier says in a trembling voice, his fiery yellow and red feathers dull in the dim light, “and when he lifted his flute, the whole world shattered into pieces—”

“He’s got a cloak he’s made out of talismans,” reports another, red and blue feathers sticking up every which way, “he wears it like a second skin—”

“He is neither yao, nor mo, nor gui, nor guai,” whispers one, refusing to meet their gaze as his wings tremble against his back, “he is just a shadow in the night—no, no, no! No! No!” He claps his hands over his ears, curling up into a ball. “Don’t ask me any longer! Please!”

Two months into their journey, Lan Wangji and Jiang Wanyin find a fortified outpost atop a cliff. It contains the first intact Wen force they have encountered. They climb atop a nearby hill and crouch behind a large rock to observe, holding their breaths as crickets drone steadily in the warm, humid air. 

The outpost’s high square walls butt up against a dense forest on one side and a cliff overlooking a valley on the other, allowing airborne soldiers to glide down toward any intruder spotted in the lowlands. Several low-roofed barracks and storage buildings sit within the inside perimeter, and a larger stone building sits precariously close to the cliff edge. Glowing lanterns hang from its roof, visible even from a distance. Lan Wangji frowns, his heart twinging with unease. Are the Wens trying to recreate the ever-bright sky of Nightless City? Or do the torches reflect a fear of the ghost he and Jiang Wanyin have been hunting? 

Twilight comes in long shadows, and the deep darkness of a moonless night follows. Torches sputter throughout the camp, illuminating various corners. Although it is difficult to make out individual soldiers, the shadows thrown up by the flames indicate that the force is active and heavily armed. Lan Wangji can make out the occasional shadow of an arrow nocked against a bow, a hand resting on a sword hilt, and large wings, folding open and closed in steady movements. A few flying patrols circle directly over the camp, staying low as if afraid to venture away too far from the perimeter.

“Maybe we should take a closer look,” Jiang Wanyin mutters, wings beating rapidly like a rabbit’s heartbeat.  

“No,” Lan Wangji says. 

Jiang Wanyin sighs and leans against a tree. “‘Do not act impulsively,’” he recites with a snort. “Right?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji replies with a nod, amusement curling in his heart.  Several weeks on the road have accustomed them to each other’s idiosyncrasies, and Lan Wangji has come to realize Jiang Wanyin actually can restrain himself, provided he is allowed to vent a little. Jiang Wanyin, in turn, no longer takes offense to Lan Wangji’s terse responses. But perhaps the greatest surprise has been that Jiang Wanyin has actually started to quote Gusu Lan rules at Lan Wangji—not to mock him, but to show him he’s been understood. 

A faint breeze picks up, extinguishing all the torches at once. The crickets fall silent. Then, in the distance, a thin, high-pitched wailing starts, and a wall of smoke from the forest drifts over the outpost’s walls. At the same time, a bright green light flashes in the woods, throwing the shadows of trees into sharp relief. 

Lan Wangji inhales sharply and begins to stumble down the hill, acutely aware of Bichen’s absence as he struggles to get a better view. At his side, Jiang Wanyin swears quietly to himself, likely feeling the absence of Sandu with just as much intensity. 

A scream sounds in the night, followed by a ringing crash. A dark mass has plummeted from the sky, striking one of the flying Wen sentries and forcing him to the ground like a hammer striking a sparrow. Lan Wangji squints as another flash of green illuminates the trees, revealing another shadowy form circling high overhead. Another flying Wen sentry spins and fires an arrow upward, just in time for a shadowy form to slam into him. They crash through the roof of a barracks, falling to the ground in a tangled heap amidst the broken tiles scattered around the courtyard.

Panicked screams echo in the darkness, snuffed out by the rolling smoke just as quickly as the flames on the soldiers’ torches. Wen soldiers swarm out the outpost doors like ants emerging from a disturbed hill, haphazardly firing arrows into the smoke or upwards at their airborne assailants, who respond not with weapons but with even more blunt-force collisions.  One soldier flutters up and away from the walls in a desperate attempt at escape, but a dark blur swoops down upon him like a meteor, dragging him down into the forest in a discordant symphony of snapping branches. 

Jiang Wanyin steps forward. He’s wound up like a bow that’s been strung too tightly, nearly vibrating with tension, but he halts when Lan Wangji grips his shoulder hard. “What is it?” he snarls. Zidian crackles to life on his finger, and the smell of ozone wafts over them both. “Shouldn’t we go in?” 

“We need to assess the situation, but we should stay out of the fight,” Lan Wangji says, his heart thudding in his ears. He lets out a harsh breath. Neither of them has regained enough strength to fly for long, but they cannot stay here like sitting ducks. 

Jiang Wanyin’s nostrils flare as he stares at the pandemonium below. “Fine. We’ll head to the roof of the main building, take a look, then go into the forest. Let’s meet back up here if we get separated somehow.”  He lifts his gaze, meeting Lan Wangji’s eyes. “Be careful.”

“Mn, you too.” 

Jiang Wanyin spreads his wings and gives them a test flap, then takes a deep breath and leaps downward as if diving into a river, cutting a path directly through the swirling smoke. Lan Wangji follows as closely as he can. He can’t match Jiang Wanyin’s speed, but he can glide with more control and less effort. He focuses on the outlines of the hanging lanterns, still lit among the wreckage, and aims for a space just above one of them. 

Just as he is about to reach his destination, the lanterns go out. Lan Wangji cups his wings to brake hard, hissing at the sudden strain as he skids against the roof, knocking several tiles off in a loud clatter. From the other end of the roof, a facedown Jiang Wanyin groans and pushes himself up onto his elbows, his wings still beating in his attempt to soften his landing. He seems otherwise unharmed. 

The sounds of screams and clashing steel are muted now; they no longer seem to be emanating from the courtyard. Instead, the battle seems to be raging in the building underneath their feet. 

Lan Wangji gestures to Jiang Wanyin and carefully begins prying up roof tiles. Jiang Wanyin follows his lead, crouching down to press his face against one of the gaps. Lan Wangji kneels next to him and does the same, staring at the figures locked in combat below. The Wen soldiers are screaming, slashing and shooting at a wave of unarmed assailants who surge forward without hesitation, undeterred by any wound. 

The screeching notes of a dizi carry over the cacophony. Lan Wangji rushes to the edge of the roof, following the sound, but his vision cannot pierce the haze that surrounds the compound. 

“Lan Wangji,” Jiang Wanyin hisses.

Lan Wangji’s eyes dart toward him. Jiang Wanyin raises his eyebrows and jerks his head once before spreading his half-healed wings and taking a running leap off the roof, sailing over the far wall toward the forest. Lan Wangji inhales sharply and chases after him, but his wings make him unsteady and he veers off course, barely clearing the wall before crashing amongst a copse of trees. 

The cliff is somewhere off to his right, but he can’t tell where Jiang Wanyin landed. With bated breath, he starts to creep forward, trying to follow the dizi’s frenzied melody. Purple light streaks through the sky a moment later. Lan Wangji runs toward it and nearly collides with Jiang Wanyin, who’s standing in a small clearing and holding Zidian over his head like a beacon. 

Jiang Wanyin nods at Lan Wangji, turning toward the sound of the dizi with a determined expression. All of a sudden, he falters. “Shit.” 

A multitude of red eyes appears between the trees, glowing with menace. Lan Wangji whirls around, eyes searching the darkness for a way out, but he finds none. With a harsh sigh, he takes a step backwards, his white wings brushing up against Jiang Wanyin’s golden-blue as he curses the absence of his sword and guqin. The two of them can barely defend themselves, and they aren’t strong enough to fly. They will lose this fight before it even begins. 

“Go for the cliff,” Jiang Wanyin mutters out of the corner of his mouth. “I’ll delay them, then follow you. We can still glide away.” Zidian sparks to life, casting a harsh violet glow upon the ring of fierce corpses surrounding them. The corpses’ frayed robes bear the flames and sun motifs of the Qishan Wen clan. 

“Jiang Wanyin, do not be reckless,” Lan Wangji retorts. “Your clan needs you. Wei Ying needs you.”

“I know, I know,” Jiang Wanyin hisses. “‘Do not fail to carry out your fucking promise.” He snorts. “‘Do not fight without fucking permission.’ But we don’t have any other way out.”

“We will fight together,” Lan Wangji declares. He takes a deep breath, trying to gather his spiritual energy so that he can defend himself—but suddenly, out of nowhere, an arrow comes flying past him, its high-pitched whistling ringing in his ears. He drops to the ground, shielding his head with his hands as a thundering roar from the distance drowns out the dizi’s shrieking. As one, the dead soldiers hiss and shamble away to fight this new foe. 

Lan Wangji hurries to shield Jiang Wanyin’s back with one of his wings as Jiang Wanyin sprints out of the clearing and blasts a lone straggling corpse to ashes with Zidian. Within moments, they spot a huge group of Wen soldiers clustered around the large stone building atop the cliff. The soldiers are slowly advancing upon a dark-robed, human-shaped figure standing at the cliff’s edge with a dizi raised to its lips. Sickly green light gives the entire tableau a nightmarish quality. 

Lan Wangji dares not let himself hope as he scrutinizes the figure, whose wings are half-spread as if it’s trying to cool off on a hot summer day. Its wings look wrong, and it takes Lan Wangji a moment to realize why: spliced in with feathers are dozens of paper talismans, some still blazing red as they crumble into dust. Two arrow shafts stick out of the figure’s left wing, and another pair protrudes from its right shoulder and abdomen. 

A Wen captain steps forward and raises his sword. Dozens of bows creak in unison. Then, all at once, arrows begin to rain down upon the figure, striking the talismans off its wings. The figure staggers backward, swaying. Its hands drop to its sides. Its fingers clench tight around the dizi. Then, in a deafening silence, it plummets off the edge of the cliff. 

Jiang Wanyin darts out and runs toward the figure, frantically beating his wings to try to lift himself off the ground. Zidian shoots out from his hand, wrapping around the falling form and dumping the figure in his arms. He lets out a startled yelp when Lan Wangji wraps his white wings around them both, creating a small, protective shelter of feathers and bone. Pain shoots through Lan Wangji’s shoulders at the unfamiliar weight, his wings aching with the strain, but he holds fast as they all hit the ground with a hard thump. 

Footsteps and shouts echo in the distance. Lan Wangji throws up a ward to hide them from view as Jiang Wanyin reels in Zidian and scrambles up onto his knees. His breath shudders out of him as he hurriedly creates a light talisman, holding it up to the figure’s face with shaking fingers. 

In the dim light, Wei Wuxian’s gaunt face resembles that of a corpse. He lies motionless, wings splayed out behind him. Giant patches of feathers are missing like he’d gone through a particularly abnormal molt. His robes are threadbare with completely shredded hems. A dizi rests in his right hand, made out of black wood that seethes with resentful energy.

“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Wanyin chokes out, eyes glittering with unshed tears.  

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji whispers, pressing two fingers against Wei Wuxian’s thin wrist to search for a pulse. Cold fear wraps around his throat, but at last he finds it, a thready, barely detectable rhythm, too slow for his liking. “He needs spiritual energy,” he tells Jiang Wanyin. “I do not have much to give.”

Jiang Wanyin breathes hard, setting the light talisman down and taking Wei Wuxian’s other wrist. “Neither do I.”

Together, the two of them transfer the last remnants of their spiritual energy to Wei Wuxian, watching his face closely for any signs of improvement. After what feels like an eternity, Wei Wuxian finally stirs back to life, color creeping up his pale face as his eyes slowly flutter open. “Jiang Cheng?” he mumbles, and he squints hard. “...Lan Zhan?”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji gasps, relief coursing through his veins. “Wei Ying, you’re all right.”

“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Wanyin says, his voice thick. “I thought—I thought you were a ghost or—I thought the worst. But you’re alive. You’re alive!”

“...Yes, I’m alive,” says Wei Wuxian, though he sounds unsure. “And you…” He reaches out and presses his hand against Jiang Wanyin’s chest, a birdlike curiosity in his eyes. “You’re all right?”

“I’m all right,” Jiang Wanyin says. “I’m fine. My wings are healing, and everything else is too.”

Wei Wuxian smiles, face softening. “Good,” he whispers, eyes moving to Lan Wangji. “Lan Zhan, how are you?”

“I am well,” Lan Wangji murmurs, his voice hoarse.  

Wei Wuxian tries to laugh, but quickly devolves into a coughing fit. “Ah, sorry—s-s-sorry—” He sucks in a shaking breath, swallowing a few times. His breath is labored. “I’m f-fine.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, taking his hand, “save your energy. We will speak later.”

“And don’t move,” Jiang Wanyin warns as Wei Wuxian tries to sit up. “Wei Wuxian! What did I say?”

“Aiyah, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian whines, coughing again. “I’m fine—”

“Shut up and lie back down,” Jiang Wanyin snaps. 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, “let us help."

Wei Wuxian sighs and nods, eyes fluttering shut as he surrenders himself to their care. Over his head, Lan Wangji exchanges a glance with Jiang Wanyin. A resolution passes between them. They are in the middle of Wen territory, a hair’s breadth away from an army camp, and soon they will need to fight their way out. But for now, they have this: Wei Wuxian, alive between them, and their own lives, too. For now, it is enough.