By the time Wei Wuxian’s newfound power closed tight around the attacking Wen soldiers, like a noose around Wen Chao’s neck, he was nearly out of his mind with rage.
He’d been cautious, up until now. He hadn’t wanted to play all his cards, hadn’t wanted to give up the advantage of surprise, hadn’t wanted to give in any further to the resentful energy than he already had. He’d hidden in the shadows, played the part of the ghost just as he had threatened, attacking Supervisory Offices and leaving no one alive to tell the tale – except if it was to increase the terror that his soon-to-be victims suffered before the end came for them, the way it had for Wang Lingjiao.
But watching Wen Chao lead his forces against a Jiang sect camp – seeing him capture Jiang Chang not again not again – seeing Wen Chao crow over his death and Wen Zhuliu knock a bleeding Lan Wangji to his knees, Jiang Cheng at his side, both of them brave even with death right before them –
It was no longer the time for caution. For subtlety, for restraint, for holding back.
Crows flocked through the air like an omen of death before him, the vicious energy infecting the air and ground and even the flames the Wen sect had used to batter down the Jiang sect’s defenses turned from red to ghostly green. The murdered Wen retainers had enough resentment in their corpses for him to use them to batter the damned Wens’ swords away from where they’d been holding them at the throats of Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji.
Safe, he thought.
Good, he thought.
Not enough, he thought. Not yet.
He watched in pleasure as the former Wang Lingjiao stalked Wen Chao, justice served in morbid irony –
And then Wen Zhuliu came and saved him.
Wei Wuxian entered the battlefield himself, the Burial Mounds with him in every step he took. The misery of that ancient battlefield had congealed over centuries, turning the air heavy with it like smoke, and it played through his fingers like the hair of one’s beloved.
“Do you really think you can save his life from me?” he asked Wen Zhuliu, who spewed out some bravado in return. Ever the faithful servant, the loyal dog, rabid and vicious in the defense of his master no matter what the cost – a cost that was always borne by innocent others.
Wen Zhuliu spat out something about debt, and Wei Wuxian went mad with it.
Debt? he thought. You know nothing about debt, debt owed and paid! Paid with by your own blood, your own pain, your own future – gone forever!
He recklessly pulled in resentful energy, the vile black plumes streaming out of the qiqiao of the ghosts – their mouths, nose, eyes – and collecting in his hand like a basin, giving him power unlike any he’d ever dared use before, and even he didn’t know why he needed so much power before he did what he did.
Before he choked Wen Zhuliu with his own resentments, before he twisted his hand backwards and forwards until it resembled a ribbon rather than flesh, before he tore the golden core right out of him.
It wasn’t anything like the clean destruction wrought by Wen Zhuliu’s famed technique.
No, Wei Wuxian dipped bloody fingers into Wen Zhuliu’s belly and ripped it out of him in a single move, swift as the wind, the hole in him filled immediately by resentful energy to stem the bleeding. To keep him alive so as to better destroy him later.
Wen Zhuliu collapsed behind him in horrified realization.
Wei Wuxian smiled.
He couldn’t describe what he was feeling as joy, but there was some pleasure to be had nonetheless.
Wen Zhuliu! You turned my Uncle Jiang into a useless person and killed him, you tormented my shidi into despair, you left me in the darkness with no way out – you get what you deserve!
Wei Wuxian looked at the golden core pinched between his fingers. Such a small and delicate thing; even a little pressure would be enough to shatter it, and Wen Zhuliu’s hope would be forever gone.
Just like Jiang Cheng’s had been.
Just like Wei Wuxian –
He suddenly thought of something.
The thought came to him just as he was summoning the resentful energy he needed to destroy the damned thing into a million pieces and it was mad – impossible – absurd – insane –
But then, wasn’t that true of everything he did?
The resentful energy swirled around him, rushing into his hand like a river into the bay, and he closed his fist around the golden core.
There was a shattering noise.
It wasn’t until later that he had time to reconsider.
Later, after he had ripped Wen Chao into a million pieces, not leaving him even an intact corpse, after he had argued with Lan Wangji, who wanted to take him back to Gusu to be denounced, after Jiang Cheng had intervened and led him away to join in with the rest of the Jiang camp…
He’d had to comfort Jiang Cheng, after. Jiang Cheng had thrown himself at him, hugging him tight and already starting to scold him for being gone so long like it was the only way he knew to express his relief at seeing him again, and maybe it would have been okay, would’ve made Wei Wuxian’s heart melt the way it used to – his silly shidi who loved him so much and was so very bad at expressing it – but he had held Jiang Cheng in his arms, their bellies pressed together, and perhaps it was the resentful energy still coursing through his body but he thought he could feel the steady, shining warmth of the golden core inside of him.
His golden core.
He hadn’t been much in the mood to deal with Jiang Cheng’s scolding after that. Luckily, Jiang Cheng hadn’t questioned his excuse of needing to rest – after all, he had just devastated an entire Wen attack force by himself, although actually drawing in resentful energy like that revitalized him rather than wore him out – and Wei Wuxian was quickly shown to a room.
“Jiejie’s in the area,” Jiang Cheng said as he was leaving. “She’ll want to see you, of course; we’ve both been worried sick. I’ll also gather up my lieutenants so that we can have a conversation about how best to utilize your new –” He hesitated a moment, but it was only a moment. “Your new cultivation in battle. Those damned Wen-dogs won’t know what hit them.”
“I look forward to seeing shijie,” Wei Wuxian said, and that, at least, was not a lie.
“I left Suibian with her,” Jiang Cheng added, and smiled, as if he was offering Wei Wuxian a wonderful present and not the mockery of the life he had had to cast away forever and couldn’t even tell anyone about. “It won’t be long now!”
“No,” Wei Wuxian murmured, closing the door behind Jiang Cheng. “It won’t.”
Shijie arriving with Suibian – she’d expect him to take it, of course. She’d expect him to smile and reclaim his sword and be himself again, just the way she remembered him, and it was shijie, he couldn’t let her down. He couldn’t, not any more than he could let Jiang Cheng down, Jiang Cheng who was alive and strong and thriving on a golden core that used to be his –
Wei Wuxian held out his hand and opened his fist.
The golden core that he had taken from Wen Zhuliu gently glowed, the center of it slowly rotating in the delicate shell, spiritual energy streaming out from it like waves of light.
He hadn’t destroyed it after all.
He’d only pretended to, a little sleight-of-hand: he’d ordered one of the fierce corpses at his command to break a window at the moment he’d closed his fist, and between the darkness of the night and the streams of resentment that had surrounded him, no one would be able to tell for certain. It would be easy to believe that he’d done it, that he’d properly avenged Uncle Jiang and Jiang Cheng and even Madame Yu and all the other Jiang shidi and retainers and guards and staff that died when Wen Zhuliu destroyed their protective array, and with Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji as the only living witnesses…
They wouldn’t even suspect him.
Lan Wangji was too honorable to even conceive of the possibility, while Jiang Cheng trusted him.
And so here Wei Wuxian was: alone in a room, the expectations and needs of the Jiang sect crashing down on his shoulders, and the only golden core here with him is the one in his palm.
What he was thinking…
It was an abomination.
But then, wasn’t demonic cultivation treated as an abomination, too?
Everyone said that it was. Lan Qiren, that honorable old fogey, had said that it was abhorrent to all cultivators, that it would be reviled by the cultivation world – still, there was precedent for it, the ancient demonic cultivators of days long past, the ones everyone claimed provided the evidence for their oft-repeated claims that demonic cultivation damaged the heart and mind, the body and temperament.
There was no precedent for the crazy idea whirling through his mind right now.
Everyone said that if your golden core was gone, that was it. There was no way out for you any longer; you were doomed to live the rest of your life as nothing more than a common person.
Look at Jiang Cheng now.
They were wrong about demonic cultivation.
Maybe they were wrong about this, too.
Still, he hesitated. Demonic cultivation had been – he hadn’t come up with it because he’d wanted to. He’d had no choice. When the resentful energy of the Burial Mounds had cracked open beneath him, rising up like a red tide to consume him, crawling into the space in his dantian where his golden core had once been, he had known his choices were to allow it to consume him and die without anyone ever finding his grave, or else accept it, accept it, welcome it and use it.
This was a choice.
But – was it really? Demonic cultivation…it was abhorrent, repulsive, abominable. If he had a golden core again, even if not his own, then he wouldn’t need to rely on it. He could, of course, and would: it was far too good a weapon against the Wen sect and their armies to give up now.
But he wouldn’t have to.
Besides, Jiang Cheng, Jiang Yanli…they needed him. They needed him to be a person and not some ghoul crawled out of a pit of hell the way he sometimes felt he was now, all red eyes and death-pale face.
Without a golden core, what he was now – a ghost of who he had once been – was all he could ever be.
But if he used what he remembered of Wen Qing’s transplantation techniques…
Wei Wuxian looked down at the golden core sparkling in his hand. Such a beautiful thing, to come from such a vile man.
It would be just, wouldn’t it? Wen Zhuliu had destroyed so many lives. It was only fitting that he himself be used to rebuild one.
It would be fine.
Wei Wuxian would make sure of it.
Wei Wuxian remembered the exact moment when it all started to go wrong.
It was so good at first: he’d woken up the morning after feeling better than he had in months, carefree and almost weightless without the burden of all that resentment pressing down on him. Everything had been bright to his gaze, shining. He’d gone out when Jiang Cheng called him, and Jiang Yanli was there, smiling at him: she drew him into his arms and called him A-Xian and Jiang Cheng was there, pressing Suibian into his hand and allowing himself to be pulled into their embrace and for a little while it was like the whole world was suddenly all right again.
Even when they’d talked about demonic cultivation, it was fine – he could still do it, now that he’d figured out the trick for it. He was able to stand at Jiang Cheng’s side as the fearsome Yiling Patriarch, winner of battles, but when the time came and he had to, he could pull out his sword or a bow and show them all that he was still Wei Wuxian, the genius of Yunmeng Jiang, as righteous as any of them.
It took a while to get Suibian to react with his new core. It had refused to respond to him at first, treating him as an outsider, and it wasn’t until he dripped blood onto the blade that it reluctantly recognized that he was still Wei Wuxian and let him wield it the way he used to.
The new core had a weaker foundation than his original core – take that, Wen Zhuliu – although it was somewhat more stable and well-developed, probably due to the other man being older; he’d had at least a decade more to cultivate. That meant Wei Wuxian couldn’t do everything he used to, but that was fine. No one would question him being a bit more conservative than his former flamboyant style.
He had a sword, and he could wield it like a Jiang.
That meant he could still pretend to be normal.
Well, normal some of the time, anyway. The rest of the time, he was on the battlefield, summoning resentful energy to his side with Chenqing at his lips: a swirl of black smoke, the cawing of crows. The dead rising to supplement their living troops, rendering the Wen advantage of numbers null – and eventually, getting the advantage.
(Suibian didn’t like the resentful energy. Suibian didn’t like it at all. Well, tough.)
It was going fine.
Right up until Wen Zhuliu’s core cracked.
“Useless, fucking rubbish – bullshit,” he cursed under his breath, gritting his teeth and working through the feeling, a sensation not unlike being stabbed in the belly, as if he were the one being cracked in half.
It had happened right at the end of a battle, when he’d been playing all the corpses he’d raised back down to rest – he didn’t like to keep them around too long – but at least that meant he was more or less alone on the battlefield. No witnesses to see him staggering around clutching his belly like he’d eaten rotten meat.
He checked inside, hoping against hope that it wasn’t what he thought it was – but no.
It was definitely cracked. A hairline fracture, just down the middle.
Worse, he knew that that meant that he had to get rid of the damn thing as soon as possible – the last thing he wanted was to have the core still inside him when it finally shattered in full.
Shattered was the wrong word. Usually, the breaking of a cultivator’s golden core while it was still inside of them – without using a technique like Wen Zhuliu’s core-melting hand – was generally described as detonating.
Of course, no one had managed to detonate a core in generations, either their own cores or others’. The techniques to cause it to happen had all been burned by mutual agreement, and no one alive particularly cared to revive them – even the offensive ones damaged the person casting half as much as the victim, and who would be willing to do that? Even if it wasn’t necessarily a suicide move, the idea of giving up half the cultivation you’d worked so hard on all your life was unpalatable to most people.
Wei Wuxian didn’t think it was likely that someone had used one of those techniques on him, and obviously he hadn’t done anything like that.
But without one of those techniques – a core shouldn’t break. Jiang Cheng was doing ten times as much as Wei Wuxian was, and his golden core was fine.
Maybe it was the resentful energy? It ran through his dantian as well – battering its way through, really -and he didn’t have much choice but to use it quite a lot.
But no, that didn’t seem right. There were some other people that’d picked up some aspects of demonic cultivation, though nowhere near what he could do, and it wasn’t cracking their cores, weak or strong. It wasn’t even making a dent.
It was just him.
“Useless piece of crap,” Wei Wuxian cursed. “Should’ve known better than to try to rely on a –”
The words faded from his mouth before he could finish saying them.
He’d relied on Wen Qing, too.
You have to be awake, she’d told him at the time. The transfer will go more smoothly if you focus on how much you want it to happen. Your core is part of you: just as much as you want to help Jiang Cheng, so will it.
A willing gift of a core was very different from a golden core stolen from the unwilling dead.
He bit his lip and retreated to a nearby forest, digging the core out with a gasp and summoning resentful energy – there was grave not far away that did the trick – to destroy it for good, the way he should have the first time around.
“Good riddance,” he said, tossing aside the remaining shards. With his body eaten by corpses, the shards of his golden core, scattered pointlessly in some random forest, were the only cenotaph Wen Zhuliu would ever get. And that was good and right, because he wasn’t even good for this.
And then he turned his feet, planning on going back to camp, and abruptly realized he had a problem.
He’d been using Suibian, after all, something that he could only do with a golden core – with spiritual energy, rather than resentful energy. And now, of course, everyone expected him to have both, to use both, to be both the Yiling Patriarch and Wei Wuxian, Yunmeng Jiang’s head disciple. He couldn’t just up and say he couldn’t do that anymore, could he?
Maybe if he’d kept to his original hastily-concocted plan to simply pretend that he had simply developed a habit of forgetting Suibian, or being too arrogant to honor those around him by carrying it – that plan would have won him enemies, yes, from all those offended, but after months of being away inventing a new cultivation method, especially one as fearsome as this, it might have been seen as an eccentricity.
But he hadn’t done that.
He’d thought he was so smart, that he’d solved it – fixed the problem of his own missing core as easily as he’d fixed Jiang Cheng’s. He’d let his arrogance get away with him, let it slip out of his control –
No. No, it wasn’t out of control yet.
He could still fix this.
Wei Wuxian licked his lips. Suibian hung at his belt like dead steel, not reacting to him at all – he had no spiritual energy for it to react to – but he’d figured out how to convince his sword once before, hadn’t he? A little bit of blood wasn’t much, especially not during wartime – no one would even think to question it if they saw, and he wasn’t planning on letting them see.
He could make everything all right again.
All he needed –
Was another golden core.
Wei Wuxian turned his head to the nearby battlefield, which had not yet had a chance to be cleaned – it was still full of corpses, the dead…and the still dying. A golden core wouldn’t die until the body did, after all, and it could even be considered a mercy to end the light of those whose fates were already written.
(It could also be considered a desecration, a final indignity – but they were only Wen-dogs, villains that had chosen to raise their swords against the rest of the cultivation world in the name of a tyrant.)
There was an entire battlefield of golden cores, flickering inside near-dead bodies, about to gut out.
There was still time to collect.
The cores were burning out faster than ever.
It wasn’t fair. He wasn’t doing anything! Or rather, he was, he was doing everything, he was trying everything: he’d tried to cut down on the demonic cultivation, but that hadn’t had any impact. He’d tried to reduce the things he used the core for, just basic things: wielding Suibian, flying, that sort of thing. He tried not cultivating at all, which wasn’t exactly an easy experiment in the middle of a war.
Nothing seemed to help.
The cores burned, and burned, and then they broke.
Useless! Every single one of them, each damned Wen-dog! After all the effort he’d put into harvesting their cores, ripping them out of a still-living corpse lying on the ground (pleading for mercy, asking for help, begging for water, calling for their mother - )
They just wouldn’t last. None of them.
And they were so loud.
Wen Zhuliu’s core had lasted the longest, been the quietest, so quiet that he barely noticed it at all – maybe it’d been guilt, maybe he’d known when Wei Wuxian had ripped it out of him that he owed him.
The others, though…
I miss my wife, one whispered in his ear, melancholy, as Wei Wuxian struggled to fall asleep in his tent at night. She was warm and nice; I hate sleeping by myself –
But I’m afraid of water! Another exclaimed, and Wei Wuxian very nearly flinched before he stepped on a boat – him, the head disciple of the Yunmeng Jiang! He’d been out-swimming fish since he was ten!
Fucking bitch, another one murmured, how dare she speak to me like that? and Wei Wuxian sneered as he shoved his way through the crowd of disciples.
I deserve better than this trash. Don’ t you know who I am?
Fuck you! Get out of my way!
I don’ t want to be here. I want to go away from here.
Does he ever do anything but nag? said the whisper in his head. Fuck, he’s so annoying. I wish he would just –
Jiang Cheng stopped, affronted. “I’m sorry, what?”
Wei Wuxian had a headache. “Nothing. Just go on, finish what you were saying.”
“No, no, by all means, if you have something better to do, don’t let me stop you,” Jiang Cheng’s sarcasm was freezing cold. “I wouldn’t want to get in the way of the Yiling Patriarch’s important business, now would I?”
Great. Now Wei Wuxian was going to have to put up with even more nagging, and from such an irritating self-absorbed fucking Jiang –
What was he thinking?
He clutched at his head.
“- Wuxian? What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “Just – got knocked on the head a bit, earlier. Someone got a lucky shot in with a rock. Damned Wen-dogs.”
Jiang Cheng’s anger had already faded into concern – he was soft like that, too soft, if he’d only stand up for himself a bit more it wouldn’t be such a drag –
Wei Wuxian made some excuses and left, Jiang Cheng telling him that he needed to get more sleep, that he looked terrible, eyebags like a panda and bugged-out eyes like some tarsir imported from the south, that he’d be telling his sister next and she’d force some soup down his throat –
It was just how Jiang Cheng showed that he cared, the way it always was. It used to make Wei Wuxian feel warm to hear it, used to make him laugh inside at his adorable shidi, so awkward and rough-edged and yet so very loving.
He didn’t feel warm now.
Wei Wuxian hurried back to his room, locked the door. The core in his belly was still burning bright – he could probably get at least another week or two out of it, maybe more, maybe a month – but he pulled it out anyway, ignoring the pain that hit him straight in the midsection every time he did it, pain he’d gotten used to. He crushed the thing into dust before he could think twice about what he was doing.
He didn’t want that core.
He didn’t want those thoughts in his head, in his ears, echoing memories and feelings and – he didn’t want any of that. Not in his head. Not in his belly.
Hopefully he’d destroyed it in time. Sometimes the lingering traces of the previous owners stuck around even after he’d switched cores, the whispers merging with each other until it sounded almost like his own voice parroting those terrible things to him. Made him feel like he was too many people at once, like some sort of stitched-up rag doll made out of a dozen other dolls –
“Shijie!” Wei Wuxian exclaimed, forcing a smile onto his lips and turning to greet Jiang Yanli. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere safe?”
“I’m just passing through,” she assured him, eyes curving. Gentle and wonderful and loving, his shijie. He couldn’t let her down. “A-Xian, are you all right?”
He could not let her down.
“Of course I am,” he laughed, pulling her in for a quick hug and releasing her again just as quick, before she had any opportunity to notice how empty of spiritual energy he was. “You don’t need to worry about me. Is this about the demonic cultivation again? I told you I have it under control…”
“A-Cheng said you weren’t acting like yourself,” Jiang Yanli said. Her eyes were a little shadowed, a little worried. This war had done it to all of them. “He said you’ve been acting – erratic.”
“Aren’t I always?”
“More than usual,” she qualified. “He said you’ve been taking all sorts of risks, being reckless, not paying attention, not listening –”
The whispers hissed in his ears about how dare Jiang Cheng run crying to his sister the second Wei Wuxian wasn’t doing exactly like he said, how dare he add to her burdens, how dare, how dare –
“He’s just exaggerating,” Wei Wuxian said.
“He also said…” She trailed off, frowning a little, then seemed to firm her resolve. “He said you were being cruel.”
“Cruel? Me?” Wei Wuxian shook his head. “It’s just the reality of the battlefield, shijie. You should see what Jiang Cheng does out there –”
“I know what he does. I don’t like that, either. But that’s just it, A-Xian – don’t you see that he’s worried about you? If even he’s starting to say you’re going too far…”
“I’m not,” Wei Wuixan insisted. “I’m doing what’s necessary and no more. I promise, shijie. I promise you, I know what I’m doing. Don’t you trust me?”
Jiang Yanli’s smile was the best thing he’d ever seen in his life.
“Of course I do,” she said. “My little A-Xian.”
“Then trust me now,” he said, catching her hands. “It’s all under control.”
He couldn’t let her down.
By the time the war was over, Wei Wuxian was a mess.
The voices rang incessantly in his ears, loud to the point of deafening, and he didn’t recognize himself in the mirror any longer. Suibian came only slowly to his hand, confused at having to reestablish who he was every time; he couldn’t do the tricks he used to, before, and he was starting to think people could tell. He was starting to think everyone around him was staring at him, murder in their eyes, and he wanted to wring their throats, wanted to shove them into the water until they drowned, wanted to rip them apart for daring to have calm placid lives when his was in such tatters.
He helped Jiang Cheng rebuild. He offered to help train the new disciples, but Jiang Cheng refused, claiming that Wei Wuxian needed to rest more – that he ought to go relax, walk around the pier.
Remind himself that there was life outside of war.
Jiang Cheng always did have strange ideas, Wei Wuxian thought, but he wasn’t especially interested in training people in techniques he could barely remember, his head stuffed full of other ones – Wen techniques, stolen from the dead – and so he didn’t insist.
He went drinking, instead. Maybe it helped, maybe it didn’t, he couldn’t tell, but it made him feel like it did. Made him feel a bit like himself again, when so much of the time he felt like he wasn’t.
(Why had he only used Wen cores? It had been important for some reason, he remembered, that he only target them, but maybe that was the problem. After all, the Wen sect - they were rotten, all of them. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe he should look elsewhere…)
Wen Qing found him at the Lotus Pier, and he went with her without a question. The voices of the dead were still ringing in his ear, resentment thick in their voices, and it wasn’t not the sort of resentment he could get rid of with demonic cultivation – he’d tried.
Maybe if he helped her, she could help him.
It wasn’t until they were there, in the dark with the children and the elderly falling under the whip that he starts feeling upset – not until he saw Wen Ning’s body that he felt enraged –
The anger felt good. Clean.
Like he was doing the right thing.
When had he turned so cold? So bloody-minded, so transactional? Wei Wuxian had always thought he’d stand up and do the right thing when he encountered injustice, be the hero he’d dreamed about being as a child. That was what he was like, once: reckless and impulsive, yes, but in pursuit of righteousness, not – not whatever it was he’d become.
He didn’t like what he’d become.
When Wen Qing found out what he’d been doing, when they finally got to Yiling, she liked it even less.
“It’s an abomination,” she spat at him. “A willing donation is entirely different from – from – you’re like some scavenger bird, some vulture, only even vultures wouldn’t dirty themselves like this. You need to stop, Wei-gongzi. Stop cold. Never do it again.”
“I can’t stop,” he told her. “It’s too late.”
“You don’t have a choice,” she said firmly.
He laughed at her. Even he could tell that his voice wasn’t what you’d expect to hear from a sane man.
It sounded like one of his crows, crying out their grievances into the sky. Hoarse and haunted.
“You don’t,” she insisted. “The war is over. What happens when you run out of golden cores to use?”
“I’ll figure something out,” Wei Wuxian said. “Don’t I always?”
“It’s driving you mad,” she insisted. “It’s not the demonic cultivation, though that certainly isn’t helping; it’s the cores – you’ve turned yourself into some sort of chimera, some stitched-up being made up of torn-up pieces –”
Wei Wuxian laughed again. That sounded right, he thought. That was him. Chimera. Abomination.
See what you’ ve made of me, Jiang Cheng? See what you’ ve done, shijie?
See what I’ ve done to myself, and all of it for you?
In the end, Jiang Cheng turned his face away from him, agreeing to banish him for the sake of politics even as he swore that they would remain friendly in secret. Jiang Yanli didn’t say anything, safe as she was in Lanling at her soon-to-be-husband’s side, and Wei Wuxian wasn’t invited to their wedding.
Even Wen Qing stopped complaining so much when he managed to bring Wen Ning back to himself, restoring his consciousness even if he couldn’t restore his life.
That was an abomination, too, but that one benefited her.
Wei Wuxian was losing his mind.
The crows circled endlessly above the Burial Mounds, filling the air with their despairing cries. The Stygian Tiger Seal stayed nestled in the suppression array he had created for it, beating like a bloody heart, thick with resentment that Wei Wuxian thought sometimes he could smell – the stink of it, the taint of it, sticking on his skin as if he could never get it off. The ghost fires burned green atop the mountain, will-o-wisps and ball lightning dancing in the sky like omens of doom. Suibian did not come to his hand even as he shed his hearts’ blood on the blade.
Wei Wuxian was losing his mind.
No one cared.
Why would they? They just wanted the works from his hands, his power, the things he could do for them, and they demanded it all. They demanded his demonic cultivation, and they demanded his regular cultivation, and the only way he could protect the former was by demonstrating the latter.
And for the latter, he needed to have a golden core.
He went out hunting.
He found some criminal – he made sure it was a criminal, always, because he’d remembered why it was always the Wens to begin with, remembered just enough of his righteousness to remember that. He found them, and he hunted them, and he was taking what he needed, harvesting, collecting, desecrating, and he was just about to put it into his belly when he heard it.
A sudden sharp thrum, the sound of a guqin.
The sound was cleansing, purifying, and the sheer power of it forced its way into his body during this moment when his guard was down, the whole of him undefended. It struck him, staggered him –
Wei Wuxian looked up and met Lan Wangji’s horrified eyes.
He suffered an abrupt moment of clarity.
It might have been the very first one since that moment, long ago, when he had first put Wen Zhuliu’s core inside of himself, infecting himself all unknowing with Wen Zhuliu’s indifference and cruelty and apathy. Perhaps longer than that, since the moment he had lain on his back in the Burial Mounds, the resentful energy swarming around him, thickening into poisonous red sludge and forcing its way into his mouth, demanding and begging, asking him he wanted vengeance and at what cost –
Maybe since the moment he had seen the Jiang sect’s dead, his friends and family, thrown into piles like so much trash.
He didn’t know whether it was the music that did it, Lan music designed to clear the mind of dark thoughts, or if it was simply seeing his reflection in Lan Wangji’s eyes: Lan Wangji, who had never suffered fools, who had always been upright and righteous, the model student and the perfect gentleman, who had lulled Wei Wuxian to sleep when they had been trapped together in the cave –
What must he think of me now, Wei Wuxian thought, and for some reason that did the trick when nothing else had done it.
What must he think of me now.
What must he –
Wei Wuxian had seen himself in Lan Wangji’s clear eyes before. He had been young and arrogant: lively, mischievous, troublesome, but good-natured with it. He’d been rebellious and eccentric, but he’d meant well, and even Lan Wangji, with all his huffs of disdain and red-faced frustration, didn’t deny that.
Even during the war, when he had slaughtered all those Wen sect soldiers right in front of Lan Wangji’s eyes, Lan Wangji had not looked at him as he did now. With grief, with sorrow, with concern, with horror –
What must he think of me now.
What am I, now?
What am I doing?
He looked down at his hands, the shining core trembling in his palm – the criminal behind him, a vile beast of a man, was drowning in his own blood, a fate he’d brought upon his own head through his crimes, but Wei Wuxian hadn’t hunted him down because of those crimes. He hadn’t been motivated by righteousness or even vengeance; he’d hunted him because he wanted a piece of him to use, with no more consideration than a hunter would give the animal he brought down for dinner.
When had he started hunting the living like prey, going from a cultivator sworn to defeat evil to an evil just like those that had once been his own prey in night-hunts? When had he turned into this vicious ghost, this ghoul, this feeder on human flesh?
Where had the man he had once been gone?
Where had the man who’d sworn to uphold righteousness, the one Lan Wangji had known, gone? What had happened to him?
What has he done to himself?
How could he have fallen so far? How could he have betrayed all the principles he had once thought defined him?
And for what?
The voices, so loud and suffocating, were drowned out by Lan Wangji’s music, and Wei Wuxian could finally hear his own thoughts – and now he was the one who was horrified. Sickened.
He couldn’t do this.
He couldn’t do this.
“What am I doing?” he whispered aloud, unable to meet Lan Wangji’s eyes: his own eyes dropped down instead to his hands, the core in his fist shattering into a million pieces the way he should have done with Wen Zhuliu’s from the first moment he’d held it. “What have I done? What –”
Wen Ning followed him, which for some reason Wei Wuxian hadn’t expected.
He didn’t notice it at first, too terrified to use any cultivation whatsoever for fear that it would start the voices up again. Oh, he’d used it at first to get away, calling down a storm of epic proportions on Lan Wangji’s head to keep him from following – he’d summoned birds, corpses, ghosts, yao, and what felt like a good solid chunk of the resentful energy in the Burial Mounds in his panic, very nearly damaging himself in the process – but as soon as he was away, he shut that all down and locked it away tight.
A few crows still flapped after him lazily, his summons apparently too deeply impressed into their little brains to resist, and if it wasn’t for his constant awareness of them, waiting for them to lose interest and leave, he might have missed the rustling in the bushes.
“Who is it?” he demanded, feeling cold run up his spine. If it was Lan Wangji –
It was Wen Ning.
He crawled out of the bushes, looking apologetic as always. There was a twig in his hair, and what might be bird scum on his shoulder.
“Wei-gongzi,” he rasped, his voice still gravelly as it had been since he had risen from the dead.
Wei Wuxian blinked at him. “Wen – Ning?” he asked, wondering if he’d moved into visual hallucinations for a moment before deciding it was far more likely that he’d hallucinate Jiang Yanli than Wen Ning. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be back at Yiling, protecting your family?”
It had been the one thing that had haunted him, every step he took. He’d promised them that he’d protect them, he’d accompanied them from the work camp and taken a stand against the rest of the world for them, made them enemies of the cultivation world with him, and now here he was, turning his back on them. Walking away from them, leaving them to their fate.
Just like he walked away from Jiang Cheng.
(He couldn’t blame this on Wen Zhuliu’s core. For all the man’s multitude of faults, he was loyal – too loyal. This? This was all Wei Wuxian.)
Wen Ning shook his head.
“Lan-er-gongzi promised to protect them,” he said simply. “He gave his word.”
Because it was that simple, Wei Wuxian supposed. You could trust Lan Wangji – if he said he would do something, he would do it; he would be righteous and forthright, valorous and true, everything Wei Wuxian wished he was. He would save them.
He’d even saved Wei Wuxian. That guqin note had brought him clarity at exactly the moment he had most needed it – even now, he felt the burning desire to go find another golden core, the lack of spiritual energy making him sick with anxiety, fearful; the voices had returned, whispering conflicting messages, brimming with resentment and a dozen different personalities.
Surely the next one would work better, surely he could come up with a way to improve the process, surely he could keep it under control -
Wei Wuxian had been wandering around blindly in the dark, unable to find his way out of the mire, unable to even see he was drowning in it, until Lan Wangji had shown him in a single burst of light that his narrow bridge had overturned and he had fallen in with the bones beneath.
That he’d become little better than the monsters he used to vow to hunt.
“Then why are you here?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“Lan-er-gongzi said that…I thought...it might be easier…”
Because Wen Ning was a monster, too – a fierce corpse, a conscious fierce corpse, and that was what Wei Wuxian made him. Because he couldn’t bring himself to accept that he’d been too late, that he’d failed, that poor sweet shy Wen Ning was gone forever, so he’d instead filled him with resentful energy and made him into a beast that even, to this day, would sometimes lose control to his newfound rage.
The Gusu Lan sect could be convinced to take in a bunch of civilians who’d refused to fight in the war, even if their surname was Wen – they’d take one look at them, all of them too old or too young or too principled, in Wen Qing’s case, and they’d agree.
Not so for the Ghost General.
“And – the Tiger Seal?”
“Hidden,” Wen Ning said. “Jiejie and I took care of it. No one will be able to find it.”
Good, Wei Wuxian thought. It wasn’t the same as destroying it outright, but it was – something, at least. No one would be able to take it and use it to destroy, as the Tiger Seal could only be used to destroy; his name wouldn’t be associated with yet another atrocity.
Wen Ning coughed, and Wei Wuxian looked at him.
“I want to go with you,” Wen Ning said.
“You don’t even know where I’m going!”
“Wei-gongzi,” Wen Ning said softly, a little hesitantly. “Where are you going?”
Wei Wuxian faltered. He had no idea.
He didn’t have anywhere to go – if he had, he wouldn’t have brought the Wen sect to the barren Burial Mounds in the first place.
He couldn’t go to the Jiang sect, they’d already banished him – Jiang Cheng had been unwilling, and he might agree to take Wei Wuxian back, but the political damage that would do to him…no, Wei Wuxian couldn’t do that.
Jiang Yanli would take him in if she could, but she was at Lanling, at Jinlin Tower, and, well, no.
And anyway, none of those places would work. Not when they were each one full of cultivators with shining golden cores that he could pluck out like a berry off the vine, singing their siren song to him, promising him the end of all his troubles if only he gave in to temptation.
(I can fix it this time, I can make it okay, I’m smart enough, if I just do this, no one need ever know -)
“I’m going somewhere where there aren’t any cultivators,” Wei Wuxian said, turning to continue walking.
He was thinking something like an abandoned mountaintop, following his mother’s teacher’s footsteps or something, if such a thing even existed, but behind him Wen Ning inhaled abruptly, a gasp of surprise. “You’re going to the common world?”
Wei Wuxian stopped.
The common world?
What a strange thought.
It wasn’t that Wei Wuxian wasn’t aware that outside of the areas the cultivation sects had claimed for themselves there was a world without them – a world of nothing but regular people, no cultivators at all; a world with an Emperor and his armies and his subjects, farmers and merchants and courtiers, and not a single golden core among them.
The cultivation sects were located in the lands where there were dragon veins, natural places where the feng shui meant that spiritual qi was rich and plentiful; such places were beneficial to cultivation of all sorts, whether the cultivation of the sword and saber by humans or the resentful demonic cultivation that brought corpses back to life and created monsters. The common world didn’t have those things, yielding up both monsters and powers alike – the people of the common world were like the common people of the cultivation world, living short common lives and walking on the ground instead of flying in the air, except they would only rarely encounter the strange, would only occasionally have to deal with a ghost or a yao; their swords and sabers were made of lifeless steel, and their victims were most often each other.
No one would expect him to go there.
No cultivator ever went there, not unless the Emperor that they all (technically) owed allegiance to – and in reality mostly ignored – specifically sent a request asking for assistance with some unusual issue. No cultivator ever wanted to go there.
After all, if Wei Wuxian went there, his ability to cultivate spiritual energy would be stunted, slowed, even retarded, and even his ability to use spiritual energy would be restricted: he wouldn’t be able to fly on his sword – at most, he could probably do some impressive jumps – and talismans and arrays alike would be much less effective, requiring three times the work for one fifth the result.
But…what did that matter?
Wei Wuxian already didn’t have the ability to cultivate spiritual energy any longer, not as long as he lacked a golden core, and he still didn’t know if it was the golden core theft or the demonic cultivation that so bedeviled his brain, affecting his mind and his temperament; it would be better to stop wholesale.
If he really wanted to stop what he was doing, truly wanted to stop, then it shouldn’t matter to him one bit that the qi was thin and difficult to draw upon. That he’d be little better than a common person, the way he would have been if he hadn’t figured out demonic cultivation in the first place.
And also, when someone came looking – and Wei Wuxian didn’t delude himself, someone would come looking, especially if Wen Ning really had hidden away the Tiger Seal somewhere it wouldn’t be found - it’d probably be a whole lot harder to find him hidden amongst all those common people in their multitudes than all alone on some random mountaintop.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m going to the common world.”
He looked at Wen Ning, wringing his hands and looking upset, and corrected himself.
“We are going to the common world.”
The first obstacle they encountered was, as always, the need for money – and the best of them at actually making money turned out to be neither Wei Wuxian nor Wen Ning but the three crows that still dogged their steps.
After all, Wei Wuxian had been an arrogant young master, and once night-hunting was off the table he was good for nothing but hunting pheasants and buying things, and for all that he had been less spoiled and more shy, Wen Ning had been brought up just the same. He’d suggested selling his labor, given his extraordinary strength as a fierce corpse – he’d demonstrated how he could lift an entire tree – but when he accidentally tore the tree apart when putting it down, Wei Wuxian had decided that the money they’d make wasn’t worth the amount they’d probably have to pay in damages.
Neither of them much liked the idea of hiring themselves out as thugs, and they’d long ago bartered or sold any precious items they had to pay for expenses back in Yiling. Wei Wuxian had a few talismans remaining, but they were all demonic cultivation – selling those would be as good as painting a giant sign indicating which way they’d gone, and anyway he couldn’t in good conscience sell those to people who didn’t know how to use them properly. The same would be true of anything else he made, like that compass drawn by resentful energy that he’d been tinkering with.
They were still discussing ideas when some noble commoner, passing by in a carriage and clearly bored out of his mind, stuck his head out and said, “Hey, you! Make them do a trick!”
Wei Wuxian hadn’t understood what the man was talking about right up until one of the crows landed on Wen Ning’s head and cawed resentfully before tumbling off sideways onto his shoulder in an acrobatic whirl of black feathers.
The nobleman had burst out laughing and tossed them a coin, then went on his way.
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian said, biting it to check the quality. “New plan: we’re bird trainers now.”
Wen Ning didn’t quite manage to conceal the grimace of mildly horrified disbelief on his face.
“No one will be looking for demonic cultivator entertainers,” Wei Wuxian pointed out, and Wen Ning nodded, conceding the point.
The crows turned out to be a hit in the next village they passed by, even if the only thing Wei Wuxian could actually get them to do with his demonic cultivation was jump up and start circling ominously – Wen Ning could get them to chase after him, which wasn’t necessarily better but made everyone laugh – and they got a small handful of coins that made Wei Wuxian prouder than the handfuls of gold he’d idly thrown out on a single shopping trip when he was with the Jiang sect.
He used them to buy himself a good meal, and for Wen Ning, who didn’t eat, he got a long-armed, high-necked coat to hide the raised veins on his arms and neck.
“Next time we’re in a larger town, we can get you some women’s face powder,” Wei Wuxian said as they strolled out of the village. “Something that can lighten your skin-tone to something slightly less obviously deceased.”
“In a larger town, they won’t care,” Wen Ning said, and Wei Wuxian thought he was just being gloomy right up until they got to a city and he realized that Wen Ning was right: no one looked twice at them.
Well, other than the birds. The birds were a big hit.
“Possibly we should consider actually teaching them tricks,” Wei Wuxian said.
Wen Ning’s response was notable in its silence.
“What?” Wei Wuxian asked, smiling. “You don’t think I can do it?”
“I think they’re doing well enough already, Wei-gongzi,” Wen Ning said, looking anxious as always. “But if you’d like to try…”
Wei Wuxian eyed the crows’ sharp beaks that appeared almost curved into grins and decided his health wasn’t good enough to justify risking such a threat to life and limb. After all, he couldn’t heal at the rate he used to, either originally or with…
He stopped that line of thought at once.
(They were leaving, and there wouldn’t be any temptation to deal with in the common world; he wouldn’t allow himself to be a monster any longer.
And if there wasn’t temptation, there wasn’t any point in thinking about it any longer.)
They kept travelling, going further and further away from the cultivation sects. The signs of it, fairly subtle at first, started piling up: the doorways that lacked protective talismans began to outnumber the ones that had them, the village gateways began to be planned for convenience rather than reducing yin energy, the graves became more numerous and more unattended.
The spiritual energy got weaker.
It occurred to Wei Wuxian at some point to start to worry about Wen Ning. It was one thing entirely for him to decide for himself that he would have nothing more to do with cultivation, regular or demonic or otherwise – he was stopping, full and entire, on doctor’s orders, and if Wen Qing’s shouting probably shouldn’t be interpreted that way that didn’t stop him from willfully choosing to do so. Or, well, stopping with the exception of the bit with the birds, but that was necessary to their new livelihood.
It was another thing entirely for him to take a fierce corpse that functioned entirely on resentful energy to a place that lacked virtually any energy.
“I’m fine,” Wen Ning said, when asked. “I don’t feel any different.”
“You’ll tell me, though, right?”
Wen Ning nodded.
Wei Wuxian sighed. “Well, I suppose there’s a chance it might be fine – after all, less spiritual energy doesn’t mean none at all, and after all he common world sometimes has problems requiring cultivator attention, just less often than the cultivator world.”
Wen Ning nodded again. “I’ll be fine. You don’t need to worry.”
Wei Wuxian privately decided to keep a close watch anyway – Wen Ning was exactly the sort of person to hide deterioration because he thought it might worry him. He would probably lose a limb and stuff it back into his sleeve before actually indicating that something was wrong.
Still, despite his worries, Wen Ning remained very much himself, every step of the way, and so there wasn’t much else to say or do about it – and it was getting to be too late to decide to backtrack and go with the plan of finding an abandoned mountaintop.
What would they do with the birds if they did that?
…possibly not the right thing to be focused on, but Wei Wuxian hadn’t ever really cared much about the right thing to begin with, or else he wouldn’t have ended up in his current situation.
Not that he was complaining too much. The common world was actually pretty interesting – people were as innovative here as there, except without ghosts and corpses to worry about as much they mostly focused on other things, coming up with inventions of all sorts that would eventually make their creeping way back over to the cultivation world: more efficient tea stoves, better carriages, new types of cuisine, medicine for common people…
In contrast, the common world didn’t need the workings of the cultivation world – but it didn’t stop people from trying.
“This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” Wei Wuxian laughed, stopping at a purported fortune-teller stall in one small city’s marketplace to examine the ‘protective talismans’ they were hawking. “It’s just a bunch of random lines! You could paste it all over your home as a gag, I suppose…”
The seller glared at him as other customers started frowning.
“Is this even cinnabar? Never mind, I don’t think this is even ink.” Wei Wuxian wondered, poking at one. A big man standing next to him sniggered, then got elbowed by his companion, a slightly shorter man with a sharp face and a mustache. “I’d make a guess about what it actually is, but I’m not a medical professional –”
The big man was now openly laughing, even if he tried to muffle it in his sleeve.
“Go away!” the seller snapped at him.
“What? I’m just admiring the art,” Wei Wuxian said, grinning, and ducked when the seller threatened him with a fist. “It is art, right? Since it doesn’t do anything –”
“Watch your words! A bloody fate will befall you if you continue to act so arrogantly!”
“A bloody fate, huh?” Wei Wuxian said, rolling his eyes. “I think it’s more likely to come your way than mine, my friend. Sellers of fake goods never end up with a good end –”
Wen Ning dragged Wei Wuxian away before the seller actually tried to serve him up with the bloody fate he’d threatened.
“Wei-gongzi, Wei-gongzi, you can’t get into fights like that,” he murmured, his voice low. If it had been his sister speaking, it would have been a proper scolding, but in Wen Ning it was mostly just concern. “We are no longer young masters; we must be careful. We don’t have backing.”
“And you think that seller does?” Wei Wuxian snorted, turning his heels back to the hostel they were staying at – the innkeeper’s wife had fallen in love with the birds and convince her husband to let them stay at a room at half-price. “I don’t think so.”
Except maybe he was wrong, because the next morning at some unfortunate early hour there was a pounding at the door.
“Open up!” someone bellowed. “The magistrate summons you!”
“Don’t tell me that that stupid pretend fortune-teller actually dared sue me for slander,” Wei Wuxian said disbelievingly to the local judge, who was dressed in a more casual version of his official dress; he hadn’t actually had them brought before the court, but rather only to his receiving room. “Surely he knows that truth is an absolute defense?”
“Truth is an absolute defense to many things,” the judge said, looking mostly stern but maybe a little amused as well. He had a beard he was clearly very fond of, given the way he stroked it. “But no, Master Yee has not initiated a lawsuit against you. He has been murdered.”
Wei Wuxian choked. “Murdered? That harmless old fraud?” he asked, shaking his head. “What for, stupidity?”
One of the judge’s assistants sniggered, and Wei Wuxian squinted at him for a second, thinking it oddly familiar, before realizing it was the big man and his companion from the day before, now attired in more official clothing.
“Motive has yet to be determined,” the judge said wryly. “In fact, I was hoping it was a matter with which you might assist me.”
“I’m happy to help, of course,” Wei Wuxian said, though he was a little puzzled. “Not sure how much I can do, though; my companion and I came to town just the day before yesterday, so you’d know the lay of the land better than me. Still, I can go around asking some questions –”
The big man was hiding his laughter in his sleeve again, and even the judge was having some difficulty keeping the stern expression what with the way his lips kept twitching.
“Your offer is appreciated,” the judge said. “It is, however, unnecessary. I was more thinking that you could answer some questions for me.”
“Oh? What sort of – wait. Am I a suspect?” Wei Wuxian had to admit to a somewhat inappropriate moment of glee. “I’m the suspect in a lawsuit!”
“Murder investigation,” the judge corrected.
Wei Wuxian waved his hand dismissively. “Are you going to question me? Is there going to be torture? I’ve been suspected of plenty of things before, but never officially.”
“I suspect that this interview will not be going anywhere productive,” the judge remarked. “Thank you for your time.”
“No, now you’ve gotten me curious! Are there any other suspects –?”
“Ma Joong, stop laughing and escort our guest out,” the judge said.
“I haven’t even told you what I was doing yesterday!”
“We have already determined that at the time of the murder, you were performing at a local inn, within the sight of several dozen witnesses; your alibi is solid. I had only wanted to confirm whether you were previously acquainted with Master Yee, which it appears you were not.”
“Barely even remember having met him,” Wei Wuxian admitted. “At least tell me how he died!”
The judge did not tell him.
Obviously, Wei Wuxian wasn’t going to let that stop him.
“Wei-gongzi,” Wen Ning said. “I – I think this is a bad idea.”
“It’s a public service,” Wei Wuxian insisted. “The local magistrate wants to know how he died, right? I’m just going to have a tiny little chat with the corpse to find out, that’s all. We wouldn’t want to live in a town with a murderer on the loose, would we?”
Wen Ning’s face was not especially expressive after his death. Still, Wei Wuxian suspected he might detect a little bit of long-suffering tolerance in there.
That tolerance got rather more strained when they encountered a small problem with Wei Wuxian’s plan to revive the corpse and use Empathy to find out what he needed.
“Wei-gongzi!” Wen Ning hissed, his eyes white around the pupils with panic. “The judge is coming!”
“I know that,” Wei Wuxian hissed back. “Who even works this late?! No, don’t answer that – here, help me hide the corpse!”
The fake talisman seller had apparently had one too many resentments, returning as a hungry ghost rather than the low-leveled mindless corpse Wei Wuxian had been trying to summon.
He was currently attempting to gnaw Wei Wuxian’s arm off.
Wei Wuxian had already given up on trying to perform Empathy, which would have been disastrous on such an unwilling participant, and had instead been playing various calming lullabies, but there was so very little spiritual energy available that his song wouldn’t quite catch, like a spark landing on wet kindling.
And now the judge was apparently on his way.
What a time to run into a workaholic!
“Hide it?” Wen Ning said doubtfully. “Where?”
“Uh – the closet! Put him in the closet!”
Wen Ning shoved the corpse into the closet and closed the door. The corpse started thumping on the door, growling angrily.
Wei Wuxian waved at Wen Ning to go – he obligingly jumped out the window – and focused on playing Chenqing. It felt a little like he was trying to put out a fire by scooping up water with his hands, only the only available water was the morning dew, but he was also pretty sure that the judge wouldn’t take too kindly to finding out that the amusing travelling entertainer was actually a demonic cultivator.
Finally, finally, he managed to pull in just enough resentful energy, the song subtly changing from merely a pleasant tune to something with intent, from music to musical cultivation, and at last the thumping on the closet door stopped.
The judge opened the door and stared at him.
Wei Wuxian waved half-heartedly.
“I don’t suppose,” he said, “that you’d accept that I was really just curious?”
“You might have mentioned that you actually possessed relevant expertise,” the judge said severely, but he still passed over a cup of tea instead of having Wei Wuxian thrown in jail.
“You didn’t give me much opportunity to mention it,” Wei Wuxian said, accepting the cup. “And anyway, a few years working closely with corpses on a battlefield doesn’t really make me an expert, just – well-versed, at best.”
“Why’d you shove the corpse into the closet when you finished your examination?” the assistant with the mustache wanted to know.
“I panicked,” Wei Wuxian said, and it wasn’t even that much of a lie. “I hadn’t exactly been given permission to examine the body, had I?”
It was a good thing he had, in fact, examined the body before using demonic cultivation on it – otherwise he might have had to admit what he’d done, which he didn’t think would go over very well.
“Despite the method by which you went about it, your deductions are very helpful,” the judge said. “I had not comprehended from my examination of the injury that the knife that killed him was short and dull, and I concur with your conclusion that it suggests the attack was likely not planned in advance.”
“And that he knew his attacker,” Wei Wuxian opined. “No marks of struggle, no bruises, and his fingernails are immaculately clean – he allowed his killer to get very close to him without putting up any defense.”
He tapped his lips, thoughtfully. “Actually, it’s rather notable, the fingernails. A street seller like him, however popular, would invariably get dirt and grime under his nails; he must have washed his hands right before he died. Who would he put that much effort in for? Someone he wants to impress. Traditionally, this would probably be a lover, a superior, a fancy customer…”
“Your deductive capability is not at all bad!” the judge said. “You mentioned the traditional categories - is that drawn from Governor Yoo’s Instructions to Magistrates? A classic on detection and jurisprudence.”
“No, actually, it’s from Zhao Yishan’s treatise on diplomacy and situational analysis –”
“An excellent work!”
The old sergeant at the door coughed.
The judge looked momentarily abashed, and cleared his throat. “As it happens, we are currently lacking in someone capable of performing an autopsy,” he said. “If you would like to lend your skills to our investigation, I would not object, Master…?”
Wei Wuxian abruptly realized he’d never introduced himself. “You can call me Wei Wuxian,” he said, only barely squashing the more familiar greeting that identified him as part of Yunmeng Jiang. “From Yiling.”
“My surname is Dee,” the judge said. “These are my assistants, Ma Joong and Chiao Tai.”
“Ma Zhong, Jiao Dai,” Wei Wuxian repeated, nodding; it occurred to him that it might be Zhao instead, but he opted not to ask for a clarification that wasn’t offered. “Judge Dee - a pleasure to meet you all. I’m happy to work with you. What’s the background here?”
It turned out that the dead talisman seller had been the subject of an unsuccessful lawsuit by a wealthy young merchant surnamed Xia, who had claimed his older brother who had gone missing during a sales trip must have died due to his reliance on one of Master Yee’s talismans, and who they had immediately suspected as having sought extrajudicial vengeance.
But when Wei Wuxian accompanied Judge Dee for a visit in which the man acted in an extremely shifty manner, they were able to determine, through some close questioning and an extremely opportune cup of tea left behind, that the older Xia brother had not in fact died, as his brother had originally believed. Instead, he had gone into hiding after eloping with the talisman seller’s intended bride, and for a while they had to consider whether the perpetrator had been either the headstrong wife or the credulous elder Xia who believed Master Yee possessed the ability to curse him for what he had done.
In the end, Judge Dee abruptly made a connection between the talisman seller’s use of house-paint and the lawyer who had prosecuted Merchant Xia’s case, leading to the discovery that the lawyer had actually been the talisman seller’s secret business associate and that they had gotten into a fight with the victim over the distribution over the profits.
Wen Ning, who had been lurking in the shadows the entire time, had the honor of tackling him when he abruptly tried to run.
“I don’t suppose,” Judge Dee remarked when it was all over, “that you would be inclined to give up your travels in favor of assisting me with my investigations.”
“I don’t see why not,” Wei Wuxian said, still exhilarated. “It’s certainly more interesting than training birds!”
He hadn’t managed to teach the crows a single trick in this entire time.
Behind him, Wen Ning coughed. “I don’t suppose it comes with a salary…?”
“So, first things first,” Wei Wuxian said, pulling Wen Ning aside. “We have to make sure they don’t find out about the demonic cultivation.”
Wen Ning nodded, then frowned. “Would they even know what it was, Wei-gongzi?”
“Probably not,” Wei Wuxian conceded. “But that’s the problem: this far into the common world, cultivators are basically myths. You still see people selling talismans or cultivation textbooks, but the vast majority are frauds and conmen, like that talisman seller. If I told Judge Dee that I could raise the dead, he’d laugh at me, fire me, and then possibly sentence me to prison. Possibly a madhouse.”
Wen Ning blinked rapidly.
“It’s not going to be a problem,” Wei Wuxian assured him. “That’s all very unlikely, anyway. I’m going to be helping out with investigations. You don’t need to cultivate to do that, so I’ll just stop doing it.”
“But…Wei-gongzi…Wei-gongzi, you cultivate all the time.”
“I do not!”
Wen Ning hunched his shoulders up by his ears.
For one fluent in Wen Ning, this was an obvious chastisement.
“I don’t!” Wei Wuxian insisted. “I only use it sometimes – rarely, even! I use it to control the crows, of course, but that’s our livelihood now. And yes, I did just try to use Empathy on the corpse just now, and sometimes, just sometimes, I’ll try to scare up a fierce corpse to try to make our lives easier...“
Hmm. Now that he thought about it, that didn’t seem that rare.
“All right, all right, I use it pretty often,” Wei Wuxian admitted. “But that was when we had money and food to worry about. Now that we’re officers of the court, we don’t need to worry about that sort of thing.”
“Listen, it’ll be fine. I have it all under control.”
“Yes, Wei-gongzi,” Wen Ning said. His voice was gentle, and he didn’t say That was what you said last time outright the way Jiang Cheng would have, but Wei Wuxian still flinched.
“It’s different this time,” he said, more to himself than to Wen Ning. “I’m not – there aren’t any cultivators here that I could – this time I really will have it all under control.”
“Okay, Wei-gongzi,” Wen Ning said. “I trust you.”
You shouldn’t, Wei Wuxian thought for a moment, a pang in his heart. Wen Ning, you deserve better than to be stuck here with me, just because I messed up. You deserve –
“Come out to drink with us!” Ma Joong’s booming voice came from behind them, a heavy hand clamping down on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, and Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but grin with the infectious cheer in the other man’s voice. “There’s a brothel down by the docks –”
Wen Ning’s eyes went so wide that there was white all around them.
“But there’s also a very nice restaurant not far from where we are now,” Chiao Tai interjected, smiling faintly. He patted Wen Ning on the shoulder, mimicking Ma Joong’s action, and then his eyebrows shot up. “You’re cold as death, friend!”
“You have a face for it, too,” Ma Joong commented. “All pale and bloodless…if you weren’t walking around, I’d think you were a corpse.”
“It’s a condition he has,” Wei Wuxian interjected. “Don’t tease him. He also has a very restricted diet as a result of the condition, so he can’t drink with you. But I, on the other hand, would be more than happy to accompany you.”
There was a great deal of sympathy for Wen Ning, and a great deal of alcohol for Wei Wuxian. The two assistants turned out to be great fun: they’d spent some time as highwaymen, brothers of the green woods, and they were each other’s sworn brothers besides. Chiao Tai had furthermore once been a soldier, a lieutenant or something like that in an army, and he’d been delighted to hear that Wei Wuxian had a similar experience.
It was late in the evening, on their way home, when Ma Joong mentioned a recent case that had vexed the judge immensely – an extremely complicated set of facts that he had been able to uncover, but unfortunately the facts led to two separate possible perpetrators, both of whom affirmed their innocence and sought to lay blame at the other’s feet.
Naturally, since neither could definitively be proven guilty, the only result was to allow both of them to go free, a matter that, according to Chiao Tai, caused Judge Dee no small amount of distress.
“Alas,” he said, “the only evidence that would get us a result has been buried forever! It is not as though we can ask the corpse what he saw, after all.”
“No,” Wei Wuxian said, and laughed a little too loudly. “That would be silly.”
He waved goodbye and turned to enter the hostel where he and Wen Ning were staying.
Wen Ning, following behind him, coughed a little for attention. One of the birds that had been waiting for them in their room idly flapped over to land on his shoulder, lending him a slightly ominous air.
Wei Wuxian looked at him sidelong.
“Would –” Wen Ning hesitated. “Would Wei-gongzi like me to locate the cemetery…?”
His voice was as shy and stuttering as ever, not the slightest hint of sarcasm, like he was really just making a suggestion in all innocence, which he probably was. It was positively adorable how earnest he was.
(Jiang Cheng would probably have asked Wei Wuxian if he was planning on continuing the stupid pretense when everyone already knew it was bullshit. Jiang Yanli would have smiled knowingly and called him by name, telling him to stop wasting time with pretense and nonsense.
Lan Wangji would have – well, he wouldn’t have said anything, really. Probably just tried to cut his head off with Bichen, or maybe thrown him over his shoulder and carted him back to Gusu unwillingly.
Which, to be fair, didn’t sound like the worst thing in the world right about now…)
“Oh, all right,” Wei Wuixan said, rolling his eyes and nudging at Wen Ning’s arm until the latter broke out into a smile. “You don’t have to be so smug about it! But yes, as it happens, fine, maybe just a little bit of Empathy, just enough to solve this one tiny little case…”
“- and I therefore suspect that the provincial governor has no notion of what to do with me,” Judge Dee concluded.
Wei Wuxian laughed and passed him a jar of wine. They were dining in Judge Dee’s quarters behind the courthouse, as they had started to do quite often these past six months – they got along well, which was somewhat less of a surprise once Wei Wuxian realized that behind the official magistrate costume there was a man in his thirties, barely a decade older than him, and one untouched by the tragedies of war.
“I don’t think he’s supposed to do anything with you, except be pleased that you’re doing your job,” he opined. “And so efficiently, too, even if you are continuously getting rich or powerful people into trouble that they’d very much like to escape.”
“Something you would have a rich wealth of experience in, I’m sure,” Judge Dee said, leaning back in his chair. “You are something of a mystery, you know.”
“Only ‘something’? I’m falling down on the job. All entertainers need an aura of mystery.”
“You’re a terrible entertainer, my friend,” Judge Dee informed him. “Moreover, your birds like Chiao Tai better than they’ve ever liked you. No - on the contrary, it is evident that you were once a young master with both riches and power, raised with the expectation that you would serve in a senior position of considerable influence, both internal and external. Do not deny it: you have read all the major works on diplomacy, you speak of war from the vantage of leadership, and even your follower refers to you by ‘gongzi’.”
“I tell him not to,” Wei Wuxian grumbled. “Don’t let Wen Ning mislead you; he’s actually even more well-born than I am – my father was a servant. He’s just shy.”
“Rather strange, though.”
“Is this about the time I had him pretend to be a corpse?” Wei Wuxian asked. “Because I told you, we came up with a method to fool that doctor.”
The method, of course, being the fact that Wen Ning was actually a corpse.
“Also, the conspirators in the graveyard would have reacted the exact same way if someone else had poked their head out of a grave like that,” he added, unable to resist a smile at the memory.
Poor Wen Ning. Wei Wuxian had asked him to hide in the grave to spy on the suspects, which he had, but he’d come out prematurely, not realizing that the conspirators he had heard leaving had returned to collect something they’d forgotten, and – lacking any acting skills whatsoever – had reacted to being spotted by stuttering out that he must have made a mistake and would just “go back inside now”.
The conspirators’ reaction when their doctor, who arrived late, confirmed that the man inside the grave was actually dead had been hilarious.
“Actually, I had in mind his physical strength,” Judge Dee said dryly. “Ma Joong is an extraordinarily strong man by any measure, but even he cannot lift an entire carriage over his head in the manner your Wen Ning can.”
Wei Wuxian decided not to comment.
“Of course,” Judge Dee mused, “if we are on the subject of strange things, we cannot fail to mention that compass that you keep tinkering around with – the one is so useful in finding dead bodies.”
“Not the right dead bodies,” Wei Wuxian reminded him. “What was it we dug up? A half-eaten dog, a pauper’s grave for a body of the wrong gender entirely, that giant lizard skeleton, and that three-thousand-year-old tomb that got all the antiquarians in the capital so excited.”
The Compass of Evil, as Wei Wuxian had dubbed it, tracked resentful energy, which in the common world was more or less limited to bodies and places where great evil had been committed. The latter was unhelpful, since, because evil came in all sorts, the Compass could only confirm a crime scene rather than identify it, and the former…
Well, he’d tried.
It would be useful if he ever sent it back to the cultivation world, he supposed.
“And in the end, that artisan ended up having been drowned,” he added, piqued. “All that effort, and he wasn’t even in the stupid forest at all!”
“We still found him in the end,” Judge Dee said. “I was always more intrigued by how you got the confession from the doctor that killed that woman during the Autumn Festival…or any of the other confessions in that case, for that matter. They all seemed extremely nervous.”
Wei Wuxian had summoned the wife’s ghost back and sent her to haunt her husband, who he’d been convinced had done the deed. Turned out it actually wasn’t him.
Actually, he’d been the only one who hadn’t tried to off her. Her secret lover had put poison in her tea, the jealous sister had arranged for her to be bludgeoned, and, of course, there was the itinerant doctor that had also poisoned her, only he’d picked a far more fast-acting poison.
(Wei Wuxian had figured that since she was back already for the husband, there was no harm in sending her to visit them all just in case. She herself hadn’t had any idea how she’d died, and had been extremely irritated with all of them once she found out – putting her back to rest had been annoying.)
“Professional secret?” he suggested.
Judge Dee’s expression indicated he was not especially impressed with Wei Wuxian’s answer, but also that he was just barely polite enough not to say so out loud.
“In conclusion,” the judge said, shaking his head, “despite your poor efforts at obfuscation, it remains evident that you were once someone notable. It would breach etiquette to ask what drove you to take up life as a travelling bird trainer, but in view of our friendship to date, I will dare to ask regardless.”
Spiritual energy at his fingertips that wasn’t his own, voices whispering in his ear – strangers’ personalities affecting his temperament – fallen soldiers calling for their mothers as he ripped their cores out of their still-living bodies – a morbid harvester of flesh, little more than a ghoul himself –
“I let myself down, I guess,” Wei Wuxian said, rolling the jar of wine between his hands. “I thought I would stand up for righteousness no matter what – I even turned my back on my family in the name of doing the right thing – but in the end, I didn’t. I gave into the temptation to do the selfish thing, instead of the right thing.”
“That does not seem very much like you.”
Wei Wuxian shrugged.
“What were the circumstances?”
Wei Wuxian hesitated. A secret kept by two people would only be kept if one were dead, but – he was in the common world now. Judge Dee, logical and skeptical, faintly doubtful of the entire concept of cultivation and only willing to believe it because he hadn’t yet ruled it out, would never meet Jiang Cheng in his life.
It wouldn’t hurt to explain.
“There was - something I chose to sacrifice,” Wei Wuxian said, not sure how to explain the details to a non-cultivator. Their ears seemed to shut down in boredom sometime around the initial discussion of qi gathering. “It was for someone I loved like a brother – we grew up together, did everything together. He’d lost something, something he needed…he was always so competitive. It would have broken him not to have it, whereas for me…I could handle being without it. So I gave it to him.”
“And he accepted this thing from you?”
“I…actually didn’t tell him I was giving it to him. I thought that it would only have hurt him more to know.” Wei Wuxian shook his head. “At least, that’s what I thought back then. After all these murders, all these people lying to each other, all the mistaken identities and confusion, all of them causing each other so much pain, I’ve started to wonder if that was a mistake. The lie made a distance between us, no matter how hard he tried to stand by my side…”
Judge Dee nodded. “What happened next?”
“I knew he’d ask questions. It would be – very hard to hide that I’d lost it, but not impossible; I knew I’d be able to cover it up at first, but eventually, if we won the war, everyone would want me to start…to be like I was before. Which I couldn’t be, anymore.”
“And then you saw another path?”
“Exactly. A chance for me to get back what I’d lost, to make it almost as if the sacrifice had never happened. And the only one who would have to suffer for it was a vicious murderer, who had the blood of my family on his hands…it seemed perfect.” Wei Wuxian grimaced. “I turned myself into a monster, and all the while I convinced myself that it was justified. It wasn’t. It was just easier.”
Judge Dee looked thoughtful.
“At any rate, someone I know helped me realize what I was doing, and I left, never to return,” Wei Wuxian concluded. “In that moment of clarity, I saw how out of control everything had gotten and realized that I couldn’t allow myself to be around temptation like that any longer.”
Judge Dee hummed. “And you are certain that you will not face that same problem here?”
“I’m sure,” Wei Wuxian said, then smiled. “Don’t worry; I’m not guilty of any crime in your jurisdiction.”
“That’s not as comforting as you think it is, you rascal,” Judge Dee remarked. “But I have faith in your word. If you tell me that you have never shed unjust blood, I will accept it.”
“Never,” Wei Wuxian said. “I swear.”
Judge Dee nodded. He was stroking his beard again, the way he did when he was puzzling something out.
“Instructions to Magistrates dictates that detectives must never cling to a single theory, but re-examine his assumptions repeatedly,” he said. “When encountering a fact that does not fit, he must not adapt the fact to the theory, but the theory to the fact. But he also warns against excessive re-evaluation; life is too irregular for that. The existence of a single aberrant fact, standing alone, does not necessarily invalidate the previous theorem.”
“You are a good man, Wei Wuxian,” Judge Dee said. “That you once succumbed to temptation and strayed from the path of righteousness does not necessarily mean that you would do so again, or that you are required to reevaluate your self-assessment as a good man. Consider trusting yourself more.”
“Are you seriously still dealing with the weird monk?” Wei Wuxian complained cheerfully as he dropped off the evidence he had been sent to the next county over to obtain: it was exactly as he and Judge Dee had predicted, and they would be able to wrap up the case of the three brides without any more fuss. “Ten days I’ve been gone, and I come back and there’s still no progress? Think of your efficiency, magistrate – not to mention the population of the county.”
Judge Dee rolled his eyes at Wei Wuxian, already used to his insolence – he wouldn’t have accepted it from Ma Joong or Chiao Tai, in view of his social position, but he’d quickly realized that Wei Wuxian was incorrigible and that it was either accept him as he was or not use him at all. “There have been no new disappearances since our esteemed guest realized that we were investigating him.”
“Indeed,” Judge Dee said. He looked rather irritated with the whole thing, which Wei Wuxian couldn’t blame him for.
It had seemed fairly straightforward to start out with, strange disappearances that seemed to follow an itinerant monk supposedly capable of miracles and his newly founded religious order as they moved from town to town. Judge Dee had first heard about the situation from several other magistrates in nearby counties: they had ascribed the deaths to wild beasts, wild dogs or tigers or possibly even weretigers, despite the lack of such creatures in the vicinity, and no one had noticed that the disappearances seemed to come and go along with the travelling retinue of this particular monk until Judge Dee, compiling stories in his head, had put it together. And yet, before the magistrate to whom he had revealed the sequence could act, the religious order had moved once more, this time entering Judge Dee’s own district, making it his problem.
He’d thought – and Wei Wuxian had agreed, shortly before he’d headed out on his previous assignment – that now that they were in charge, it would be easy enough to solve the problem once and for all.
“We have yet to find any evidence connecting him with the disappearances,” Judge Dee added. “And unlike prior instances, where the bodies were located a few days later, none have been uncovered – which, naturally, is even more suspicious. We have searched the farm he is renting several times without success. Unfortunately, he has managed to ensnare the vice-governor of the region, and we would meet with considerable difficulty if we took any more aggressive actions without any leads...which we currently lack.”
“Well, I still haven’t seen this mysterious monk,” Wei Wuxian said with a shrug. “How about letting me and Wen Ning have a look?”
“You only just returned –”
“We have plenty of energy,” Wei Wuxian assured him. “We’ll go wash up, change clothing, maybe have a bite to eat, and we can all head over to pay a call on him after dinner.”
It was a mark of Judge Dee’s frustration with this case that he did not object.
As usual, Wen Ning hung to the back of the group, taking advantage of his meek and self-effacing presence to wait for his chance to slip away and investigate while Judge Dee and Wei Wuxian drew attention with the direct approach, going straight up to the brightly festooned farmhouse and demanding to be let in.
A disciple of the order appeared at the door at once, smiling so sweetly that it was only in the manner in which they greeted their “dear magistrate” that had come to visit them “yet again” that their irritation leaked through.
Judge Dee thickened his face and ignored the hints, saying only that he wished to speak with the master of the house – that most honored guest in his district, the itinerant monk himself, the (self-styled) Grandmaster Liu Tiangu.
The disciple murmured something about needing to confirm that his master was not busy communing with the heavens and retreated back inside the house, leaving them in the entryway without so much as the offer of a cup of tea or a place to sit.
Wei Wuxian, for his part, poked at the walls of the farmhouse, now covered in tapestry upon tapestry, each gaudier than the next, in a style not merely extravagant but absurd. The room was so well-insulated that Wei Wuxian was almost worried that they’d suffocate.
“An interesting style,” he remarked to Judge Dee, who rolled his eyes in agreement. “There’s an extraordinarily wealthy family in Lanling that seems to own half the earth and sky, gilding every single surface with gold, and even they’re not this over-the-top.”
Ma Joong snickered appreciatively.
“In fact, come to think of it, I’ve only ever seen something like this once before,” Wei Wuxian continued, tugging idly at one of the overlapping tapestries – they were squeezed in so tightly that it was impossible to see the design on any of them, as if this place wasn’t a farmhouse but the warehouse of a fabric shop. “It was in the Nightless City in Qishan – they called the place the Fire Palace, but it was a prison, really. It was where they tortured prisoners – the tyrant in question enjoyed the screams of his victims, but not to the point of injuring his ears, so they insulated the walls to deaden the noise…”
The words stopped in his throat as the tapestry he’d been tugging on finally gave up the ghost and unfurled itself and the one beside it from the wall.
The design on the two tapestries was identical, simple and straightforward: three circles in the center, encircled by twelve teardrop shaped emanations interspersed with twelve dots all extending outwards like the rays of the sun. The top tapestry had a red emblem on a white background; the bottom one was black, with the sun sewed on it in dark gold – the former was for internal use, clean and neat, while the latter was a signifier of war, of domination and suppression.
The black flags had once been hung on the gates of the Lotus Pier, a foul desecration of its white walls, and had signified the scorching sun centered in the sky.
The unmistakable insignia of the Wen sect.
Wei Wuxian’s fingers clenched into a fist, a sudden premonition rising up in his heart, but before he could say anything – warn Judge Dee, something – the door opened and the mysterious monk stepped out, surrounded by a number of his disciples. He was a big man with narrow-set features, making him appear squinty and a little disreputable, but his expression was mild and generous.
“Grandmaster Liu,” Judge Dee said in a tone that could be translated as something approaching respect. “I regret to find myself intruding upon your devotions once again, but we had some additional questions –”
Wen Ning burst in through the door, his expression wild and nearly frenzied, shouting, “Wei-gongzi, in the back, they have –”
His gaze met the purported Grandmaster’s, and his eyes went wide. He faltered and stuttered out, “Wen Tiangu…?”
“Not Wen, it’s Liu,” Chiao Tai said in an undertone, trying to correct him, but Wei Wuxian’s hand had already dropped to his belt, fumbling for Chenqing.
“Wen Qionglin…?” Liu Tiangu asked, sounding bemused. “But I heard you’d been –”
His beady little eyes flickered across the room, dismissing Judge Dee and his two assistants, which he new, and settling on Wei Wuxian. There was a moment of confusion, and then – recognition.
“Yiling Patriarch!” he roared, and then turned tail and fled.
Wei Wuxian gave chase, of course.
“Wei-gongzi, be careful! He’s a beast tamer!” Wen Ning shouted, chasing after them both at speeds that suggested he was forgoing any pretense of being a living person. “There are demonic beasts in the back garden!”
Well, that explains all the disappearances and chewed-up corpses, Wei Wuxian thought, and hoped sincerely that Liu Tiangu was a wild beasts sort of person and not a dog person. He did not want to have to deal with a demonic dog.
It turned out, unfortunately, that Liu Tiangu was a quantity-over-quality sort of person.
There were a lot of demonic beasts.
Birds and dogs and tigers and horses and snakes, each one grotesque and foaming at the mouth, red eyes narrowed and overly-large teeth bared, seething with resentful energy, and Liu Tiangu was running through them all, tearing open their gates and unleashing every last one of them.
“Stop!” Wei Wuxian shouted, but it was no use. “Wen Ning, stop him – no, stop the beasts! They can’t be allowed to reach the city!”
Liu Tiangu laughed at him. “You can’t stop them!” he shrieked, his eyes red in a familiar way. The cultivation of demonic beasts had existed long before Wei Wuxian had invented his own way of demonic cultivation, based on resentful energy instead of through manipulation of vicious beasts; there was a reason everyone knew enough to curse what he’d invented. “They are my contracted beasts, blood-bound to obey me and no other!” He turned to the beasts. “Slaughter everyone in the town! Leave no one alive!”
Demonic cultivation affects the temperament, Wei Wuxian thought, grimacing. He could see, looking at Liu Tiangu, why Lan Wangji had been so worried – the man had panicked, and in his panic had apparently decided that killing off all the witnesses was the only way out.
“Bar the doors,” he heard Judge Dee shouting. He’d drawn his sword, a beautiful weapon named Rain Dragon that Wei Wuxian would have to ask to see after the battle, assuming they all survived, and was chopping at creatures left and right. Ma Joong and Chiao Tai had drawn as well. “Keep as many as you can from escaping the farm! Once they’re trapped in here, it’ll be easier to kill them!”
Or for them to kill you, Wei Wuxian thought. Judge Dee was a brave man, but these were demonic beasts that even cultivators would struggle to defeat.
Wen Ning leapt up to the walls of the farmhouse, beating down what he could – he was stronger than any demonic beast, but there was only one of him to many of them – and Wei Wuxian…
Wei Wuxian stood there with Chenqing in his hand, and he looked at Liu Tiangu, the man’s entire body shot through with resentful energy from all the contracts he had formed with the multitude of demonic beasts in his hellish menagerie, and he thought.
There wasn’t much resentful energy in the common world. If he played with all his might, he might be able to scavenge up a few corpses, if he was lucky, but that would take time, energy, effort – and in the end, it might still fail. Innocent people might still suffer and die in the time it took for him to get control of the situation.
There was another way.
As with all types of cultivation, Liu Tiangu’s power centered in his golden core. If it was removed – if Wei Wuxian took it – he could stop the beasts in a single move, taking on their contracts and becoming their master. He could be certain that the innocent people of the city would not be hurt, that his friends, Dee and Ma and Chiao, would not be hurt.
And it wasn’t as though it wasn’t warranted: Liu Tiangu was clearly evil, feeding innocents to his beasts and masquerading as a religious leader to hide it, and his crimes were so severe that if Judge Dee had somehow gotten his hands on him, he would have ordered his execution in a hideous fashion, merciless.
Sure, it would damage him, the voices likely to rise up again in his mind, but what did that matter? It was only damage to him; he could do it, he was strong enough, he could make that a sacrifice to the greater good – just like he’d done for Jiang Cheng.
It made sense. It wouldn’t be the easy route at all, not really – he was having his hand forced by circumstances. It was just something he had no choice but to do…
No, I won’ t. I won’ t! I don’ t want to!
Wei Wuxian lifted Chenqing to his lips and played, reaching for the corpses he knew were buried within earshot, pulling in all the resentful energy he could find. Judge Dee’s sword flashed beside him, the man running up to save him from a hissing snake, which he beheaded, and Wei Wuxian used that death, too, summoning corpses to crawl out of their graves to stagger into the farm and help with the fight. Luckily there was a graveyard not far away, it seemed – or possibly a mass grave.
They’d have to check it out later, clean that up.
“Would it help to kill the Grandmaster?” Judge Dee asked him, and Wei Wuxian nodded. “Hoong!”
A crossbow bolt came out of nowhere, striking the still-laughing Liu Tiangu in the back of the neck.
He choked, staggered – another bolt followed, then another. When four had pierced his body, he fell.
The demonic beasts went crazy, but robbed of their master directing them, Wei Wuxian was able to turn them back, encouraging them to focus on Liu Tiangu’s dying body instead of leaving the farmhouse in search of other prey.
“Get all the humans out,” Judge Dee ordered. “Ma Joong, pick Wei Wuxian up and carry him – we don’t want to disturb his playing. I want the doors locked from the outside. We’ll set fire to the whole farm!”
That was actually an excellent plan, for all that Judge Dee probably didn’t know the first thing about demonic beasts – fire was full of yang energy, which would help dissolve the resentful energy animating the beasts – and Wei Wuxian obligingly allowed Ma Joong to pick him up and cart him outside, Wen Ning still jumping around, veins raised and eyes white as he fought recklessly against the most dangerous of the creatures. He only broke off and followed at the last possible moment, helping to shove the door closed when all three of the others were straining to even move it.
Chiao Tai brought torches, and he, Ma Joong, and the old man Judge Dee called Hoong – this must be Hoong Liang, the old sergeant Judge Dee had often spoken of, recently returned from his long journey – all set fire to the place, Wei Wuxian playing to keep the beasts from escaping all the while.
When it was all done, Judge Dee cleared his throat.
“Would anyone,” he said, giving Wei Wuixan and Wen Ning a pointed look, “like to explain?”
A little less than a month after they brought down Liu Tiangu, Wei Wuxian received a visitor.
He’d already received quite a few – it appeared that the common world was absolutely fascinated by the idea of a real live cultivator, and not nearly as discriminating as the cultivation world when it came to the details that none of them actually understood anyway – and as a result had asked Chiao Tai to intercept people trying to bother him, requesting that he only allow in the ones who seemed like they were actually going to be of interest. This request apparently resulted in a day and a half’s worth of mischief and several unsuccessful requests for bribes, but in the end, Chiao Tai begrudgingly agreed to tell Wei Wuxian about the man who had come to see him.
“He’s tall, unbearably handsome, and dressed all in white,” Chiao Tai said. “He said his name was –”
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian exclaimed, running over.
“– Lan Wangji,” Chiao Tai concluded behind him, sounding aggravated. “Wen Ning, tell me, is it always like this?”
Wen Ning smiled and shrugged. “Maybe a little bit.”
Chiao Tai and Ma Joong were clearly terrible influences on him.
Wei Wuxian ignored them both in favor of his guest. “Lan Zhan, what are you doing here?” he asked, smiling. “You’re so far from home.”
Lan Wangji looked the same as he always did: stone-faced, upright, righteous.
“I came here for you,” he said. “I came to bring you home.”
Once, Wei Wuxian would have bristled, assuming an attack, or at minimum some insult on his ability to make it on his own. He liked to think he’d gotten a bit better at reading people.
“To Gusu?” he asked, and Lan Wangji shook his head. “Then where?”
“Yiling,” Lan Wangji said. “I have ensured that it will be safe.”
Wei Wuxian wasn’t sure how Lan Wangji had managed something like that, but if Lan Wangji said he’d done it, he probably had. After all, the Jiang sect didn’t have a monopoly on attempting the impossible.
“Sect Leader Jiang assisted,” Lan Wangji added, almost as if reading Wei Wuxian’s mind. “He did not wish for me to tell you.”
And Lan Wangji had right up and ignored him, hadn’t he? Because he’d known Wei Wuxian would want to know.
Wei Wuxian felt warm inside.
“What about – what you saw?” he asked, curious. After the battle with Liu Tiangu, he’d settled it within himself: Judge Dee was right, he had been over-hasty in judging himself based on what he had done. He had gone astray, but he had learned from it – learned that some things were evil in and of themselves, unconscionable even if done with the best of intentions, and choosing those things was a path always doomed to end in tragedy.
It still felt, sometimes, like he was being selfish. That he’d prioritized his own well-being instead of sacrificing himself, as he felt he should do…it was something he was forcing himself to accept.
He thought it would be better for everyone, in the long run.
Lan Wangji hesitated, unsure, and Wei Wuxian took pity on him. “I’m not going to do that anymore,” he said. “No matter what. It’s not good for me, it’s not good for anyone; it’s not worth the cost. But I am going to continue to use demonic cultivation.”
Lan Wangji nodded, accepting it. He must have figured it all out the second he’d seen what Wei Wuxian was trying to do – after all, someone who had their own golden core had no need to steal others’.
“I believe there are ways to mitigate the effects,” he said, his back straight and gaze earnest. “If you would permit me to try.”
A compromise, Wei Wuxian thought, and smiled.
Judge Dee, when informed that Wei Wuxian would be leaving, heaved a heavy sigh. “And what am I to do without your Empathy?” he asked, teasing. “I have only just grown accustomed to it, and now you take it away?”
“Tragic,” Wei Wuxian said. “I don’t know how you’ll cope without me.”
“What will you be doing upon your return?” the judge asked.
Wei Wuxian glanced at Lan Wangji, then shrugged. “Not a clue. I think I may be the figurehead of a farming community in Yiling, but I wasn’t actually all that helpful when it came to planting radishes.”
“There are potatoes now as well,” Lan Wangji said, and Wei Wuxian felt an entirely ridiculous burst of vindication.
“That seems a waste,” Judge Dee remarked, reaching over to the corner of his desk to pick up a piece of paper. “What about this, instead?”
Wei Wuxian took the paper, surprised, and looked it over. And then he was even more surprised.
“You want me to be a magistrate?” he yelped. “Of – of Yiling?! Yiling doesn’t even have a magistrate!”
“In large part because it is part of the cultivation world, not ours,” Judge Dee agreed. “But as I wrote to the Metropolitan court of justice, that it lacks one at the moment does not mean that one cannot be established, particularly if the individual appointed to the position had sufficient personal authority to plausibly maintain independence from the cultivation sects.”
“I – but –”
“Wei Ying was very well regarded during the war,” Lan Wangji said, and glanced sidelong at Wei Wuxian. “Imperial backing would help quell the concerns regarding the continued used of demonic cultivation.”
People will still talk, but not in public, Wei Wuxian interpreted, and he had to agree that that would likely be the case. The cultivation sects were still part of the Emperor’s domain, however distant and indifferent he generally was.
“Moreover, if the power backing you is the Emperor, it means it is not one of the cultivation sects,” Judge Dee said. “I spoke with Wen Ning on the subject at some length – this arrangement ought to allow you to reestablish a relationship with your former sect without your actions and reputation impacting them.”
Wei Wuxian’s heart suddenly burned hot. That meant he could be openly friends with Jiang Cheng again.
Perhaps even start to clear up some of his reasons for – everything.
“Thank you,” he said. “This is – great news.”
“Don’t thank me so quickly,” Judge Dee said. “You’ll be responsible for all the duties of a magistrate, including the investigation of any crimes. It will not make you popular…though I understand that it would be very difficult for you to become less popular.”
That was probably true.
“You should be sure to obtain appropriate assistance as quickly as possible,” Judge Dee continued. “I would not be able to perform my duties half as well if it was not for the able and efficient services of Sergeant Hoong, Ma Joong, or Chiao Tai.”
Wei Wuxian nodded, and nudged Lan Wangji in the side. “How about it, Lan Zhan?” he asked, joking. “You want to give up being the Second Jade of Gusu Lan in favor of solving murder mysteries with me and Wen Ning for the rest of your days?”
Lan Wangji looked steadily at him. “Yes,” he said. “I would.”
Wei Wuxian felt his cheeks grow warm.
Judge Dee coughed. “Perhaps you would like to pack,” he said. “Or perhaps go show your friend around town.”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian said, beaming. “I rather think that I would.”
They went outside together.
A familiar set of shadows passed along the ground before them.
“Oh, Lan Zhan, that reminds me,” Wei Wuxian said, tracking the shadows with his eyes. “I should probably introduce you to the other members of our new team.”
Lan Wangji tilted his head to the side in silent question, then started when a very large crow settled down right on his head, the other two opting to land on Wei Wuxian’s shoulders instead.
His expression was – eloquent.
Wei Wuxian started to laugh.
Now, he thought, things could finally turn out all right.