mmmmm hello, this definitely got away from me in terms of length, so it's split into two parts! It's written for day 2 of XiYao week - because yes I'm over a month late but I'm still being inspired by the prompts, and I wanted to take my time on this one.
So please enjoy! All the sadness has payoff in the end, I promise~~~ Fic and chapter titles shamelessly taken from Falling Away With You by Muse ;D
I'll follow thee and make a heaven of hell,
To die upon the hand I love so well.
In the first year, nothing happens- Jin Ling fights for his place as Sect Leader despite his age, Nie Huaisang slowly but steadily takes on more responsibilities without clutching at anyone's heels for help, and Lan Xichen plays the soft, lilting notes of a song that was never meant to be so sad.
In the second year, nothing happens- Lan Qiren stops running every decision by him, the goings ons of the Cloud Recesses fade into a muted haze outside of his seclusion, and Wangji tells him softly, just once, that the hurt never fades.
In the third year, nothing happens- but only because no one is looking. Very few are allowed into the forbidden room under the Library Pavilion and even fewer would think to track the positions of books on the shelves. But Lan Xichen knows how to adapt, to learn and grow, and music thrums through him as he pieces together something bright and new.
In the fourth year, nothing happens.
When Lan Xichen leaves the Cloud Recesses, he doesn't leave a note.
The journey to Yunping passes quietly, like an unpleasant dream in reverse. Yunmeng looks the same as always - sparkling lakes lush with lotuses and alight with life - flourishing under Jiang Wanyin's firm hand, and the small city of Yunping itself bears no mark of the tragedy it hosted behind closed doors. There's none of the badly hidden concerned smiles he's grown so accustomed to in the Cloud Recesses, just the open curiosity that comes from those who aren't used to seeing distinguished cultivators walking amongst them.
The last time important cultivators passed through, there was a massacre that shook the cultivational world to its core-
Lan Xichen takes a deep, shuddering breath as he continues towards the Guanyin Temple, though only the barest hint of a falter shows in his step. He has business here; brief as he expects it to be, there's no use delaying it by dwelling on the past. He's only been here the once but his memory guides him on the most direct route without fail. The front looks similar to his memories, though Lan Xichen will admit that he doesn't remember the outside as clearly as the rest.
He steels himself and steps inside, a small smile fixed on his face as he walks through the temple with politely hidden purpose. He spares a brief few words with one of the monks he passes before he reaches the innermost part.
It's different. The basic structural layout is the same but everything else is in slightly different places; the rows of candles are arranged more closely while the storage for sitting mats is nowhere to be seen. He should have expected this, after all the clean up that had to go into restoring it into a usable temple, but instead he gets lost in thought as he runs a hand along a pillar that Jin Guangyao had slumped against while he begged for any small mercies Lan Xichen had left for him. It feels like another lifetime with how long he's stagnated in seclusion, and yet the heartbreak of betrayal and overpowering smell of blood is still so fresh in his memories he has to brace himself against the same pillar.
No matter his own messy thoughts on the passage of time and regret, Lan Xichen still has something to get from here. He continues on, looking past every patched crack in the foundation and slightly mismatched spot of paint that try to hide the temple's history, and kneels in front of the statue of Guanyin herself. The ritual of prayer helps him center himself as he asks her to deliver Jin Guangyao safely from death's grasp and then, selfishly, for forgiveness for his misdeeds. By the time he stands, no one is paying him any mind. The courtyard is no less bustling by the time he makes it back outside but he's no stranger to hiding in plain sight. Lan Xichen leans down, making like he's adjusting his shoe, and gathers a handful of the dirt into a qiankun pouch.
Earth forever tinged with the memories of death.
He checks this off his mental list as he pulls the bag shut and carefully tucks it within his robes. The dirt may not be the exact same as on that fateful day, but Lan Xichen is unable to forget any detail of Jin Guangyao's final moments- and that is enough to keep the energy of his death within the temple. He makes an offering as he leaves - he somehow doubts that Jin Ling has continued to support the temple - and heads out of town.
There's something to be said for accomplishing another important step in a plan. In many ways, the whole process has been a puzzle - albeit one that he didn't know he was solving at first - and finding the missing pieces brings a rush that he'd lost somewhere along the way.
Or perhaps more accurately, it was something that he'd lost that night in Yunping, and he just made the first solid step towards getting it back.
The location of the coffin containing Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao's bodies would be all but impossible to discover without the appropriate connections. The entire affair of sealing it away had been handled in secrecy, both to prevent any interruptions during the process and to stop anyone from attempting to tamper with it later. Chifeng-zun's anger had no bounds; his temper had been feared enough while he was alive, and becoming a fierce corpse had only made him into a monster to be spoken of in fearful, hushed whispers- though always with the underlying blame placed on Jin Guangyao for twisting him into said monster.
He had been deemed too unwell to take part in the ceremony; concerns for his health and energy after the ordeal in Yunping had been tossed around, but Lan Xichen could read the words that no one wanted to say: we don't trust you.
Lan Xichen had never feared his elder sworn brother's temper; he had too much trust in him for that. But he'd been wrong in the past, so wrong that his ignorance had led to Nie Mingjue's untimely death. Regret washes over him as he thinks of Cleansing Music and the short passage of altered notes that sealed his fate. He feels it claw at him, the sharp hooks of guilt that drag him into a spiral of hazy thoughts and lost time, but Lan Xichen is tired of sitting still while the world moves forward without him.
It's time to start moving. He puts away Liebing and his carefully written music; he knows the notes by heart now, and he needs to save his energy for dealing with his contact in the small town of Qinyang, tucked between Yunmeng and Qinghe.
Cultivators don't dig impossibly deep graves into mountains on their own. Human hands bore the brunt of the hard work, hauling dirt and rock out, taking risks for a problem from a world they could never be part of. Jin Guangyao would have had every one of them killed to keep the location secret, but thankfully for Lan Xichen, he didn't organize his own burial.
He moves north from Qinyang and meets with the man who sourced the mahogany used for the nails, who directs him west and then south again to an all but abandoned village that produced the raw stone for the tablets of warning. It's one of the many towns that were caught in the crossfire of the Sunshot Campaign and forgotten afterward, and the closer he moves to the Qishan border, the more desolate and hopeless the settlements become. Lan Xichen changes out of the pristine white of GusuLan into something nondescript, tying his forehead ribbon around his wrist with a silent apology to his sect.
His name and station will do more harm than good where he's headed, and for the time being, he becomes someone else.
Baobizhen sits at the base of the mountain range that gave the QishanWen Sect the natural defenses that made them all but impossible to invade. The city has never quite recovered from the war; its distance from any other prominent sects left it to be ignored once Wen Ruohan fell, and the impoverished area breeds the exact men who would disregard the risks of digging a secret grave into a mountain, and the lack of understanding of how valuable their knowledge would be to the right people.
There's no inn here, just an approximation of a winehouse that doubles as a trading post, which is where Lan Xichen finds who he's looking for: a gruff looking man missing most of his left leg. He purchases a jug of wine and approaches him; when there's no immediate argument, he sits down and offers the man some.
"Who are you?" he asks with all the suspicion of a man who knows that nothing nice comes without some sort of cost.
"I'm Meng Huan," he answers, the almost not fake name he planned sounding like a promise that only he knows, and pours a cup of wine for each of them. "I'd like to chat."
He eyes Lan Xichen for a long while before finally accepting the offered drink. "Well, go on then. I don't have anything to say to you."
Lan Xichen nods, taking his own drink and staring into the cup as though he's considering his words. He learned from Jin Guangyao how to fake drinking years ago, a trick that he'd picked up to avoid being poisoned while under cover in Qishan, and it feels oddly appropriate to be making use of it here and now. "I'm looking for a guide through the mountains," he explains, voice light and easy, but there's an underlying edge to it, a hint at a hidden meaning for anyone clever enough to listen carefully. "I heard you'd know a certain path best."
His companion finishes his drink as an uneasy look settles on his face. "I'm well past taking strolls up the mountains," he barks harshly, and Lan Xichen refills his cup.
"There's more to navigation than physical capabilities," he says, and there's a beat of silence between them, where Lan Xichen is afraid he doesn't understand or that it's somehow all been a setup, until he pointedly meets Lan Xichen's gaze.
"Meng Huan, you sound like you're asking for something you shouldn't be concerned with," he answers, taking a long drink of his wine. It's a warning, an opening, and an exit, and how Lan Xichen responds will reveal what it is to him.
His smile tightens. "I am."
The words hang heavy in the air with an edge to them - even Lan Xichen isn't sure if it's a threat or prayer - and he waits. There are others he could track down if this is a dead end, if this man can't or won't help him, and he's already running through his backup plans when-
"A jug of wine won't get you through those mountains," he says, and Lan Xichen's smile settles into something pleased and easy-going.
"I'd never presume your services were so cheap."
Lan Xichen, Zewu-jun of the Twin Jades of Gusu has every rule of the GusuLan Sect memorized, every word of every instruction for how to live a proper life drilled into him since he was young, but Meng Huan knows that he has to get his hands dirty for certain information. The mountains hide a secret that few know and even fewer will share, and he barters for that knowledge with someone else's life.
Months before he came to Baobizhen, Lan Xichen met a cultivator in a winehouse on the outskirts of Qinghe, nursing a drink and a bitter attitude towards Sect Leader Nie. He offered the man another drink and a friendly ear as a sympathetic soul in a sea of ignorance. Nie Huaisang spurned his talents for a "better" personal guard, and he was laughed out for somehow managing to fail even the useless Don't Know It All. But Lan Xichen can tell that it was precisely because this man was too clever that he was driven away, and Nie Huaisang should have been more careful about who he offends.
He didn't know much of current affairs, he'd explained with a whine, since he'd been too ashamed to show his face anywhere near the Unclean Realm. But he served Nie Huaisang when he oversaw the sealing of the coffin under tons of dirt, personally helped make sure that the tablets of warning were carved properly so that his brother could finally rest in peace, and, once his spurned former assistant was drunk enough, Lan Xichen learned that the QingheNie Sect set up a series of secret alarm talismans throughout the mountain and within the dirt.
The mountain range stretches for li, jagged peaks cutting Qishan off, and Lan Xichen follows his guide south. They travel in silence; he understands that the less he knows about Lan Xichen, the better, and he's happy to keep it that way.
After spending so much of his life being able to travel by sword, it's slow going to be back on foot. It reminds of the Sunshot Campaign, especially with his proximity to Qishan, and he thinks of the utter helpless terror he felt watching the Cloud Recesses burn before escaping and hiding away with Meng Yao. He was so soft spoken and nervous but determined to help him despite the unfathomable risk. Lan Xichen recognizes a section of the path they're on; there once was a copse of trees here that he used as cover while he decoded a letter- its author still a mystery to him but so helpful and precise that he'd already begun to suspect that it was from someone he was familiar with.
The trail is the same until it veers sharply into Qishan territory, burnt husks of towns that have been all but reclaimed by the earth around them that tell a different story of the aftermath of the war than the celebrations across the rest of the cultivational world. Is this what Wei Wuxian saw? The death, the loss, the destruction of innocent civilians that the rest of them turned a blind eye to? Lan Xichen tried once, but he was but one voice overpowered by those with more experience, more power, more standing than a young leader of a sect that had only begun to rebuild. He never had a chance appealing to the peerless heights of the LanlingJin Sect in their golden towers.
Wangji followed Wei Wuxian into hell and back out while he followed Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao, but he should have known, somehow, that his heart would lead him astray eventually as well.
He comes prepared - talismans to stop the warnings from sounding and to disguise his spiritual energy enough to not be identified - Nie Huaisang is crafty but he's still years behind Lan Xichen in terms of cultivation level, and he's going to take full advantage of that. The first few talismans disintegrate and are replaced with his own before any alarm can go off; Lan Xichen risked his life avoiding far more complicated traps during Sunshot while Nie Huaisang hid in Qinghe.
The sun sets and rises anew, sparkling through the early morning dew as he presses forward. Lan Xichen takes point as the path twists up, and he admits that if he wasn't already looking for something amiss, he wouldn't suspect a thing. But he has a guide giving him directions and the practiced know-how to avoid every trick along the way.
He once held himself to different standards, he thinks, when he was still a young sect leader trying to salvage what was left of his people and his home and he only had so much that he could rely on. Now he knows the world less and himself more, and it's with a clear mind that he's able to sense the alarms before they find him. His hired accomplices don't know enough about cultivation to know how uncommonly skilled he is, but even if they did, they were chosen because they wouldn't ask questions.
The tablets of warning stand tall on the mountain path, though Lan Xichen has come to realize that they're more of a formality than a serious warning; anyone who makes it this far without tripping the alarms or being caught in the traps knows what they're up against. No one should be here, save for whoever set the traps, perhaps. But Lan Xichen is leading a group of men so desperate for any scrap of payment they can get in this forgotten, desolate place between sects that they're willing to follow him despite any gut instincts telling them otherwise, and he's made sure that he's more than capable of handling what he needs to.
Excavating the tomb takes days, even with workers digging in shifts through the night. It's been a long time since Lan Xichen went this long without sleep - not since the last time he and Jin Guangyao were planning a Discussion Conference and night hunting on top of that - but he can't risk not catching any further traps or alarms hidden within the dirt. He just has to stay diligent, and to that end he stays awake for days, doing whatever he can to keep his mind occupied.
He starts with cultivational exercises before he moves onto meditation, and he tries not to think about what he's going to do when he's done here. Jin Guangyao cannot simply waltz back into the cultivational world - though if anyone could spin the words necessary to make it so, it would be him - and Lan Xichen has the deep, sinking thought that the best way to keep this secret safe is to make sure no one else walks out of here alive.
He's not that kind of person; he's not someone who kills just to fuel his own selfish agenda. But he's had to make similar decisions before, during the Sunshot Campaign, because there's no way to win a war without risking some lives. Trusting letters from a stranger, before he knew it was Meng Yao sending them while undercover, was a risk with potentially devastating consequences, and he took it, went with all the instinct he'd had to gain while on the run and in hiding, and-
And he'd turned to the same person who'd saved him before, and then again and again, over and over until every truth he thought he'd known was laid before him and torn to pieces, until he could bear it no longer and he ended up where always did- with Jin Guangyao.
Lan Xichen is ripped from his thoughts by the sounds of collapsing earth and muffled screams; he's lost another worker to the delicate excavation process. They knew the risks; he made sure to put it very clearly before they signed on. But he can't help but feel guilty about the relief he feels with each loss. It's one less voice to worry about silencing when this is over.
Lan Xichen sits and thinks and stays awake, and for what must be the first time, he wants to ask Jin Guangyao why.
Nie Mingjue's anger cannot be quelled, not for at least 100 years, and it was only Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian's joint playing that calmed him briefly. Lan Xichen is one man, but one who has planned for this, and he faces the chasm in the solid rock in front of him without fear. He has talismans drawn in blood and the Song of Clarity, modified not to poison the mind but instead to more potently placate his old friend.
In some ways, Lan Xichen knows that he should feel guilty for giving Jin Guangyao another chance and not Nie Mingjue, but there's still unfinished business between them, an aching gash in his heart that refuses to mend, and he's not sure that anyone could stop Nie Mingjue's anger enough to return his sentience.
He says a brief apology - to himself, to his ancestors, to his sect, to every drop of blood spilled for his desires - and leaps into the dark.
The killing intent weighs heavy in the air despite the last layers of protection, pressing in from every side until it's even more oppressive than the close walls of the pit he's thrown himself into. The coffin looms in front of him, its dark wood dull in the dim light from Lan Xichen's talisman. Each one of the seventy-two mahogany nails stares back at him.
It's time for the real work to begin. Everything so far has just been practice in some way, so much less risky than the actual culmination of what he's been building towards, and Lan Xichen is grateful for all the preparation he did. There's a ritual to removing the nails: each one nicks his arm before it goes into a bowl that's been carved with symbols of warding and fired with the bones of those who died at Nie Mingjue or Jin Guangyao's hands, until the inside of the bowl is dyed red with his blood and his arms ache. Lan Xichen presses onward; this pain is far from the worst he's endured.
The rough hewn lid of the coffin almost looks too simple to be housing the final remains of two important figures. He knows that looks can be deceiving, and he shoves it off.
It's only because he knows to brace himself that the negative energy radiating from inside the coffin doesn't fling him back against the unstable earth. Lan Xichen almost chokes on it as it fills every bit of his senses as it floods out, trying to escape this crushing tomb. The guqin strings Lan Wangi had used to restrain the coffin glimmer and strain against Nie Mingjue's fierce corpse attempting to break free.
Demonic cultivation harms the mind and soul; this is a fact that he's witnessed more than enough times. But Lan Xichen knows that nothing comes without a price and this is one he's realized that he's more than willing to pay. He's too selfish to do what Mo Xuanyu did; he wants his own life to continue too much to make that sacrifice, and so he found other methods. He cuts a clear line across his palm and the bright red that pools there is both currency and a tool to finish off the talisman he prepared.
There's something pulled taught within in him as he snaps the guqin strings, as the coffin crashes open, as he brings Liebing to his lips and begins to play. The notes hang in the air, muffled by the walls of dirt, but Lan Xichen's playing is strong and clear, even as he stands face to face with Nie Mingjue and forces down his final doubts and hesitations. He can't stop now, not when he's come so close and done so much already, and the modified melody carries his apologies, for every time he didn't listen, every time he chose the wrong man to trust, and that now he's still choosing Jin Guangyao over the safety of clear-cut morality, because Lan Xichen's heart wouldn't let him choose anything else.
Fierce corpses - save for Wen Ning - can't think for themselves, only act on their anger, and Lan Xichen knows that only bad things come from attempting to control that. The Song of Clarity blends with his additions to calm Nie Mingjue enough that he won't tear anyone apart on a whim, and he keeps going until he's playing something he learned from listening to the original source- the notes Wei Wuxian uses to give fierce corpses orders. It pulls on something unfamiliar in him; he's never used any other cultivational methods and it feels so strange because he knows there's still power behind it, he can see and feel it working, but it doesn't draw any sort of strength from his golden core. But Nie Mingjue obeys his orders without hesitation or complaint, stepping aside so that Lan Xichen can get into the coffin, before he leaves to find whatever workers weren't wise enough to leave already.
The last time he saw Jin Guangyao, he was being dragged into this very same coffin after he'd saved Lan Xichen's life at the lost moment, shoved him aside so that Nie Mingjue would only grab him, leaving Lan Xichen to figure out how to survive without his two closest friends. Looking at Jin Guangyao's still form now stops him dead for a moment; it's somehow more real to see someone that was so lively and expressive and meticulously put together at all times laid out in a mess of bloody clothes, rotted flesh around broken limbs, and-
That's why he's here: to fix things.
Lan Xichen pulls out the final pieces he'll need: a single carefully written talisman - the last strokes waiting to be completed when he uses it - and Lan Yi's guqin, one of the few ancient relics he'd managed to salvage when the Cloud Recesses had burned. It's meaningful in more ways than he's entirely comfortable with, memories of watching Jin Guangyao wrap guqin strings around Wei Wuxian and Jin Ling's throats coming to his mind unbidden. But he's already made his apologies to his ancestors and his sect; any further regrets or farewells to the life he'd lead are unnecessary at this point.
"In this life, I've lied countless times, killed countless times. Like you said, I killed my father, my brother, my wife, my son, my teacher, my friend—of all the evil in the world, what haven't I done?!"
One more life for each of those he'd admitted to at that time. He goes over the notes he'll need soon, even though he knows this song better than any other step of this process, because it keeps him centered until Nie Mingjue returns with the men that he needs. They look at him in shock; even without cultivational abilities, the scene around them must look horrifying. One of them opens his mouth - to argue? To question him? - and Lan Xichen has Nie Mingjue snap his neck before he can find out which it is. The others go down just as easily, and Lan Xichen takes a deep breath before he brings Liebing to his lips again.
Lan Xichen started writing a song for Jin Guangyao once, something meant to soothe his stresses when they were together and lift his spirits for when they were apart, but he didn't finish it in time for that. Instead it became something sadder, a memorial for the man he thought he knew and the one he didn't at all. But Lan Xichen knows how powerful music can be; the right notes played in the right way can do more damage than any sword. And in turn his song became the basis for his return, each note and tone picked carefully in a blend of GusuLan tradition and the Yiling Patriarch's fragmented notes.
"But I've never even thought of harming you!"