It was not, Wei Wuxian maintained firmly in face of Lan Zhan’s raised brows, that he didn’t notice important things. He’d always noticed Lan Zhan’s actions, for example, even when he had misinterpreted some, had once thought lack of trust was slowly killing his most precious friendship. So it wasn’t that he hadn’t noticed that his Golden Core was regenerating.
It just hadn’t felt like he remembered it.
He’d been very young when his Core formed, but he did remember it. It had felt like a fountain rising up, taking the river that always surged through him, the constant, fast-running current down every meridian of his body, and sending it all through a single, narrow point. The sudden force of his own qi moving had felt like it might lift him off the ground.
Come to think of it, no one had been able to catch him until Shijie had called laughingly for him to come down off the roof before he missed all of dinner.
This felt completely different.
For one thing, it had been a long time since he’d felt that river running through him. Wen Qing’s surgery, brilliant as it was, had still shocked his whole system. She’d warned him it would, even if he lived through the removal, that his qi would be disrupted. Like a stomped in puddle, he’d said, and she’d rolled her eyes, a rare victory for humor in those few days. No one, she’d told him with some emphasis, could really say how long his qi would be disrupted before it returned to any sort of regularity. She’d decreed that he should rest as much as possible until he felt the flow smooth again and could perhaps gauge what it would be like, in the future.
Wei Wuxian was very sure that the Burial Mounds had not been the kind of rest she was thinking of.
He remembered very clearly what that had felt like, too, though he tried not to. Remembered the suffocating heaviness of the atmosphere, how difficult it had been, at first, to tell air from ground from the spiritual pressure of rage all around him. If he’d been thrown down there with his qi still flowing and open, he suspected the pressure might have stopped his heart before even he’d have been able to turn inward and harden the edges of his life force. But if he hadn’t been what he was, hadn’t still had at least a thin, stuttering flow to work with… well, then he’d never have been able to do what he did.
He remembered feeling the pressure of rage, like immaterial claws all around him, lashing at him unseen. He remembered, even in the middle of shock and fear, being fascinated by the massive, surging force of it, remembered fragmented thoughts spinning through his mind, wondering exactly what spells the Burial Mounds had been bounded with, to concentrate the fury of its ghosts this way.
To concentrate it like a Golden Core focused a cultivator’s qi.
He remembered the shock of the thought, the flash like lightning illumination in the dark, when he saw the yin metal sword hovering untouched at the center of that roiling fury and yet ringing with it like a struck gong. He remembered the split second of decision, like the instant after throwing himself over a cliff, in free-fall with no way back.
When he’d answered the spirits yes, when he’d closed his hand around the sword and let himself feel his own fury, it had felt like toothed blades digging into his flesh. It hurt. But it also held him—held him up and held him fast. And in that moment of steadiness, he had reached out with the qi still welling sluggishly through him like blood from a wound, and slipped the hold a little, guided those teeth, those claws of rage, down his flesh, down his bones, and through the metal in his grasp.
The bursting surge of power that ripped through him had felt so like and so unlike the flow of his life through his Golden Core that he’d screamed with it, screamed his throat raw, whole body shaking with the edged, tearing alienness of it even as he’d shifted into an achingly familiar neutral stance to let it rush through.
It hadn’t been the same. The paths and patterns that malice and resentment took weren’t like the paths that qi naturally flowed into. His own qi had still, always, been separate from that power, been the near-helplessly light hand he’d used to redirect the spirits’ rage, his own rage. He’d moved through his sword forms for two days and nights without sleeping, trying to channel the fury and reduce the clawing drag of it, before falling unconscious. He’d woken from fractured dreams of swords rising and sweeping upward in a shining arc, with the notes he’d once heard Lan Xichen play ringing through his head. Music had helped, had made his control surer. The weight of millennia of meaning, behind the script of talismans, helped, had teased at the spirits still sensible enough to notice with mazes and tasks, each one giving him that one more gasping breath of time to find his balance, find his place and being in the world again.
He’d found a place, in the end, found a balance. He’d just never been wholly sure it was his own.
Because none of that had changed the tattered, thin flow of his life energies. The river he’d ridden after the extraction of his Golden Core had been separate from his blood, if not entirely (safely) separate from his heart. The time he’d spent with the Wen survivors in, ironically enough, the Burial Mounds, had been the closest he’d felt again to the oneness with the world that he still remembered the feeling of.
And yes, maybe he’d succeeded, mostly by pure stubbornness, in pacifying his own rage, after his death. Yes, maybe he’d finally pulled himself out of that particular river. Maybe doing so had made other spirits’ fury far easier to control, when he was so rudely yanked back into life, or maybe it really was a healing of his own energies that made it all easier. But he still hadn’t felt anything like that brilliant, wild fountaining up of his qi that he remembered perfectly clearly from doing this the first time!
The eloquent arch to Lan Zhan’s brows finally faded. “What does it feel like?” he asked, instead.
Wei Wuxian flopped back across the mats of their sitting room with a sigh. “It just feels… normal. Not concentrated. It’s like… coughing to clear your chest, and then you can breathe all the way down.” He lifted a hand, focusing into his index and middle finger, as if to inscribe a talisman, and paid close attention to the sensation. “It’s… more like a spring than a river,” he said slowly. “Not a rush, just… a welling up.”
Lan Zhan gave him a distinctly judgmental look before rising to cross to their book shelves and pick out a scroll, which he unwound to a single diagram and placed delicately on the floor beside Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian leaned up on an elbow to see an anatomical figure of the meridians leading into, yes all right, the Bubbling Well-point at the palm, and rolled his eyes mightily. “That is my point, Lan Zhan. That’s what anyone could become aware of and use, even without much cultivation!”
“Your Golden Core is not as strong as it once was,” Lan Zhan agreed, settling back onto his cushion. “But do you think that will not change?”
Wei Wuxian opened his mouth and then paused, closing it again. “Hmm.” It was true, after all, that this was unknown territory, bar a few frustratingly vague mentions in pretty unreliable chronicles. Which meant that there was no one else to say what might or might not be possible. He smiled slowly at the thought, at the flash of bright, reckless delight he also hadn’t felt in a while, and looked up to find Lan Zhan looking back at him with quiet satisfaction.
“Let’s find out.”
When he was young, Lan Zhan had spent some time privately wondering whether Wei Ying even knew the meaning of discipline. Perhaps, he had theorized to himself, Wei Ying’s natural brilliance had obviated any need for it. He had even worried a bit, because he had seen other disciples of natural talent reach the limit of their abilities and halt there, not knowing how to strive further.
When he had thought back, after his heart had encountered a similar halt, he had wondered if there was anything he might ever have done, to draw Wei Ying into safer waters, to coax that brilliant talent away from the fatal edge he’d insisted on exploring. At the time, he had not been able to see any action he could have taken or not taken, and had concluded, with bittersweet helplessness, that perhaps Wei Ying would not have been Wei Ying if he had shied away from any edge.
Knowing what he knew now, Lan Zhan was close to awe at the revealed depth and dedication of Wei Ying’s discipline. To take a crippling injury and certain death, and forge from them a new life and triumph, even one laced with pain—if there were justice in the world, Wei Ying would be recorded among the greatest of cultivators.
He watched Wei Ying now, as he worked with Suibian, flowing through the sword forms he drilled in every day. Every day, he ran out of strength to support the sword, meditated until he had regathered himself and could draw it again, and return to his drill. And yet, there was no frustration in his movements, no impatience. The growing depth of Wei Ying’s Golden Core proceeded as if inevitable, day by day, as if sunrise slowly illuminated something already present.
Wei Ying brought his form to a close and immediately leaped up onto Suibian’s blade, hovering like a hawk over the courtyard. Wei Ying’s focus stole his breath to see, utterly unyielding and yet without force, unless it was the force of the very seasons turning.
He wondered if Wei Ying had always been like this, or if this was something he’d found during the months he’d disappeared into the Burial Mounds.
Wei Ying had never explicitly admitted where he’d been, back then, but some things had been clear from the very start. He’d been somewhere unrelentingly dangerous. Every movement, once he’d returned, had been made with a terrifyingly constant awareness of every other thing around him, living or dead, moving or still. He had never stumbled, never flinched save from the force of malice itself, never been surprised by any human approach. And he had never permitted any approach but one he had determined was no threat, controlling the space between himself and others with absolute, ruthless perfection. Lan Zhan had worried over those signs, at the time, but what could he do while Wei Ying strove to pretend there was no change? He’d set himself to match Wei Ying’s awareness, at least of Wei Ying himself, and taken what comfort he could in how flawlessly they started to move together, on the battlefield.
He’d also known Wei Ying had been somewhere with an abundance of malicious spirits and the energies of resentment. He’d worn those energies like a cloak over his shoulders, when he returned, and the readiness of his own rage to surge, as wild and unbounded as any resentful ghost’s, had frightened Lan Zhan. Mostly for Wei Ying, but sometimes of him, as well.
When Wei Ying had taken away the Wen refugees, Lan Zhan had concluded he really had spent all of those missing months in the Burial Mounds, just as the rumors Wei Ying shrugged off had claimed. He’d spent most of a week utterly failing to mediate, disbelief and glee and terror chasing each other around his heart. No wonder, he’d thought then, Wei Ying had changed so.
And yet, had Wei Ying ever truly changed? No one without immense capability could have matched Lan Zhan so effortlessly, let alone survived what Wei Ying had. No one whose heart was not given to compassion and justice could have been so unfailingly roused to rage by cruelty. No one without a deep and abiding awareness of the world could so fearlessly and fully give himself to the regeneration of his energies that Wei Ying was bringing forth now.
A yelp from above warned of what happened at least once every day, now, just before Wei Ying tumbled down into a dusty sprawl in the middle of the courtyard. His smile was sunny, though, as he propped himself up on his elbows to grin at Lan Zhan.
Yes. He thought perhaps Wei Ying had always been like this.