Although all the GusuLan cultivators attending the Jin-Jiang wedding could fly by sword, for formal events like this, they rode on horseback to uphold tradition, so even without Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian had no problem fitting in with everyone else.
All prominent sects were built in areas of beautiful scenery with good fengshui. LanlingJin, being the richest sect, had Koi Tower that was in the central part of Lanling City. They passed two new watchtowers that Jin Guangyao had set up in recent years before they reached the main road used to visit Koi Tower. This was a carriage path, and opened only for important events such as the wedding of the LanlingJin Sect’s young master. According to LanlingJin Sect rules, anyone using this road was supposed to walk or ride slowly so as to admire the surrounding walls covered in murals telling stories of the Jin Clan’s most distinguished cultivators.
In his time as a YunmengJiang disciple, Wei Wuxian had visited Koi Tower a handful of times, usually when Madam Yu dragged the family to visit Madam Jin and Jin Zixuan. When they were a little older, he’d come a handful of times during the Sunshot Campaign usually for quick reprieves before going back out to the warfronts since Koi Tower had always been well defended as one of their headquarters. After the campaign, he’d come another handful of times for sect alliance events like banquets and night hunts. Each time, upon approaching the road, LanlingJin disciples would come to meet them and recite for them all the great deeds of the Jin cultivators all the way up. When he was young, the stories had been fun to hear. Once he’d gotten older and seen the way Jin Guangshan wanted to wait to choose a winning side during the Sunshot Campaign, and the way Jin Zixuan treated Jiang Yanli, he’d lost all interest in the walls.
But today, the two that met them at the base of the road were Jin Guangyao and Jiang Yanli.
“Maiden Jiang, Xiao Di, you didn’t have to come meet us,” Lan Xichen said, inclining his head to Jiang Yanli, and then drawing his horse close to Jin Guangyao’s steed.
“Of course I had to come greet Er-Ge,” Jin Guangyao said, smiling. “Please come,” he said. “We have prepared rooms for you all.”
“How is the child?” Lan Xichen asked.
Jin Guangyao smiled. “A-Song is still a bit weak, but we’ve been keeping him indoors so we hope he will be well soon,” he said. “Enough about me, though, this week is to celebrate the wedding.”
“Shijie!” Wei Wuxian called, nudging his horse toward her.
Jiang Yanli, beautiful and smiling, had also ridden out of Koi Tower to meet them. “A-Xian,” she said. Although she greeted everyone else politely, she rode her horse up to Wei Wuxian. “I’m glad you could come.”
“Of course there’s no way I would miss Shijie’s wedding!” Wei Wuxian said. All of his worries, the tension between him and Lan Wangji, the problem with the Purification Stone, swept away the moment he saw his shijie. “The Jin clan better have made it the best wedding of the century!”
Jiang Yanli smiled. “They have been very good to me,” she said and then looked with more concern at him. “What about you, A-Xian? Has Second Master Lan been treating you well?”
“He’s busy for a few days so I’m not sure he’ll be able to come.” Wei Wuxian shrugged off the question. “But when did you arrive? Is Jiang Cheng here yet? Where are all the other Yunmeng disciples?”
Jiang Yanli allowed him to steer the conversation, telling him how things were at Lotus Pier, how the disciples were doing, how busy Jiang Cheng and she had been both with running the sect and preparing for the wedding. The YunmengJiang party had arrived to Koi Tower two weeks ago to assist with wedding preparations. From Jiang Yanli’s descriptions of all her tasks and the important people she had been meeting and greeting, she was already beginning to settle in as the new Young Madam Jin.
As they made their way up Koi Tower, the path led to a long set of stairs that opened into a wide, brick-paved square, bustling with people. At the far end of the square, a magnificent palace, hung with red lanterns, overlooked the ocean of white peonies. Each peony had been tied with a red ribbon so that the effect was a sea of white and red. Every building and wall in the tower had been hung with red and gold gauze and banners, all with the peony decorating them. Truly a beautiful sight, and yet, Wei Wuxian still thought there should be more. The flowers should be red, and there should be fanfare—music, fireworks maybe.
He said as much to Jiang Yanli who laughed.
“They’ve already gone to so much trouble,” she said. “I don’t need so much.”
“You deserve it, though,” Wei Wuxian argued. “If I was in charge, I’d make this such a great banquet that everyone admires and praises it even after a hundred years. No one would be able to compare to it.”
Jiang Yanli smiled. “That’s very sweet, A-Xian,” she said. “But a wedding like that suits you more than me—I’m only sorry we couldn’t do it for you.”
Wei Wuxian waved her apology aside. “I’m not so important,” he said. “This is Shijie’s wedding—it needs to be perfect!” If only he hadn’t ended up in so much trouble that the most he could do now was participate, he could have designed the best wedding for her.
“A-Xian, I am happy. This is more than enough,” Jiang Yanli said. “Besides, it hasn’t begun yet.” She smiled. “Honestly, I’m a little worried how tired we’ll be after it all.”
She explained to Wei Wuxian the LanlingJin Sect’s wedding customs as they headed through the main square. The entire wedding would, in fact, be a five day celebration. They were on the first day now when all the guests would arrive throughout the day. Wei Wuxian felt a bit of pride that the only sect his shijie had come out to greet was GusuLan. On the second day, there would be a great ceremonial hunt in a back mountain close to Lanling City where the groom was expected to capture an animal to honor his new bride. Unlike the typical night hunt, this was a normal hunt—whatever the participants brought in were cooked and served for the wedding banquet the next day. Since others were allowed to participate, it made the hunt a competition where the groom had to perform well and bring in the biggest catch. On the third day, the actual wedding ceremony would be held, and then the banquet began and lasted for the next two days.
As they were heading toward the guest quarters, Wei Wuxian heard the sound of barking and immediately broke into a cold sweat. “D-D-Dogs?” he yelped, only to hear the sound getting closer. Before he was aware of it, he’d crouched to hide behind Jiang Yanli’s skirt.
“Shijie, shijie, shijie, shijie!” He yelled at the top of his lungs as he saw the horrible creature running toward them. It might have been only a small dog, barely coming up to Wei Wuxian’s knees with black fur, but logic knew no reason in the face of fear.
“Quick! Take the dog away,” Jiang Yanli said.
“Why?” Wei Wuxian recognized Jin Zixuan’s voice. “I thought you said your brothers like dogs so I thought I’d show her to them. She’s only a puppy.”
“A-Cheng likes dogs. A-Xian has always been scared of dogs,” Jiang Yanli said. Even at a time like this, she was gentle and patient. “Please take her away.”
“All right,” Zixuan said. “Come on, Little Black!”
Wei Wuxian huddled behind Jiang Yanli’s dress, shivering until he heard a sharp whistle, and the skittering of the dog claws on the tiling, its loud pants and excited whines, started moving in the opposite direction.
“It’s okay, A-Xian,” she said. “He’s taking her away.”
“What the hell? The great Yiling Patriarch still scared of dogs?”
Wei Wuxian looked up from behind Jiang Yanli’s skirt to see Jiang Cheng raising an eyebrow, looking down at him. “Jiang Cheng!” he said, holding out a hand.
Jiang Cheng grinned as he pulled him back up from his crouch.
“Don’t worry, A-Xian, I’ll tell Zixuan to keep them away while you’re here,” Jiang Yanli said, smiling at him.
“Thank you, Shijie,” Wei Wuxian said.
“You are a shame to the Jiang clan,” Jiang Cheng said, snorting. “Still scared of dogs at your age?”
Wei Wuxian sniffed. “At least I have a better naming sense than him and you,” he said. “Little Black?”
“I agree about Little Black. Most uncreative name of all time,” Jiang Cheng said. “But what’s wrong with my names?”
“Didn’t you name your dogs things like Princess and Jasmine and Love?” Wei Wuxian said. “They’re not expensive courtesans.”
“They’re good dog names!” Jiang Cheng argued.
“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli said patiently, “Jiang Cheng and Zixuan can name their pets anything they want.”
“Even though they’re bad names,” Wei Wuxian finished and grinned at her. “Just don’t let either of them name your future kids,” he said.
Jiang Yanli smiled. “I have you for that, A-Xian.”
“A-Jie! You trust him with names but not me?” Jiang Cheng said.
Jiang Yanli smiled and changed the subject. “I’ll show you your room,” she said to Wei Wuxian as they continued to walk. “Jiang Cheng is really very excited to see you.”
“Like hell I am,” Jiang Cheng said.
She led them to a spacious, ornate guest room. By the decor and the size of the room, it was definitely the residence of a guest-of-honor with its own sitting table and intricately carved wooden stools. It had a large single bed and an incense burner that wafted a flowery smell that made Wei Wuxian wrinkle his nose. Most likely, someone from the Jin sect knew Lan Wangji used incense burners and had placed one in their room. Wei Wuxian had gotten used to Lan Wangji’s subtle sandalwood scent and preferred it to stronger smells like this one. He wondered if this room had been arranged because he was Jiang Yanli’s shidi, or because it was to be occupied by the esteemed Hanguang-Jun.
Since all the guests would be arriving at different times that day, dinner was being brought to the guest rooms as they arrived. At least Wei Wuxian knew Jiang Yanli was being treated well, because no sooner had the three siblings entered the room than two servants were already carting in several trays of food and jars of alcohol.
Moving aside the incense burner, Jiang Yanli helped the servants set the table and scooped rice for all three of them, urging them to begin eating.
Jiang Cheng, meanwhile, opened up two jars of alcohol, handing one over to Wei Wuxian. “I hate to admit it, but the alcohol here is pretty good,” he said.
“I know you didn’t want to speak about it earlier, but tell us how you’ve been, A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli said after Wei Wuxian had shoved a few mouthfuls of rice automatically into his mouth. She smiled at him, gentle, and it reminded him of all the times she’d comforted him after he’d been chased by dogs or scolded by Madam Yu. “Are you having a difficult time at the Cloud Recesses?” She reached out to touch his hand.
Wei Wuxian suddenly felt like he was a kid again, being piggybacked by her after falling out of a tree. His throat closed up. “Everything’s fine.” His voice cracked at the end, and he took a deep breath, trying to smile convincingly.
“That’s a lie if I ever heard one,” Jiang Cheng said. “You fucking hate the rules there. If you’re not complaining, there’s something wrong.”
“What kind of logic is that?” Wei Wuxian protested. “I still had a good time back when we were studying even with the rules,” he argued.
“Is Lan Wangji not being a gentleman?” Jiang Cheng demanded, frowning. “If he did anything to you—”
“It’s not that.” Wei Wuxian sighed and picked at some of the food, putting some spicy meat inside his bowl. “He hasn’t done anything to me. He’s a perfect gentleman.” Even though he was finally with his family, the people closest to him, who he’d grown up with, his brother and sister, he couldn’t tell them the truth—not if he wanted Jiang Cheng to keep the golden core inside of him. “I’m just a little annoyed that he promised to come to the wedding but left for business a few days ago.”
“That bastard! Did you yell at him?” Jiang Cheng asked.
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Can you imagine someone yelling at Lan Wangji?” he asked.
Jiang Cheng frowned, pulling the jar of liquor to him and pouring out three bowls. “Well even if it’s only a marriage of convenience, he should still have come,” he said, pushing one of the bowls to each of them. “If he shows up, I’ll break his fucking legs!”
“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli said and then turned to Wei Wuxian. “A-Xian,” she said slowly. “If an arranged marriage is not what you want, you don’t have to stay.”
“What do you mean?” Jiang Cheng demanded. “Do you know how hard I worked for that? He has to stay!”
“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli began.
“Maybe you should have arranged the marriage with someone who actually wanted to marry me,” Wei Wuxian said dryly, taking one of the bowls of liquor from Jiang Cheng, feeling more relaxed just being with his family and being able to complain, at least in part, about things. “Why the hell did you choose Lan Wangji?”
Jiang Cheng snorted. “You think I didn’t try? I told them they could marry you to the lowliest maid if they wanted—”
“Hey!” Wei Wuxian said, offended.
“Who the hell cares as long as you’re considered a part of the GusuLan household,” Jiang Cheng said. “That bastard Lan Wangji wouldn’t agree, saying some bullshit about how you should marry the one you want.”
“Really? Him?” Wei Wuxian was surprised. He’d always thought that Lan Wangji just wanted him to stop demonic cultivation out of principle. At most, he thought that Lan Wangji might care about Wei Wuxian’s well-being the same indifferent way he cared about all the random people he helped just because he was a good man. He’d never considered that Lan Wangji might care about his personal happiness.
Jiang Cheng shrugged. “Yeah, he wouldn’t let his older brother sign any kind of agreement until Lan Xichen suggested you marry him ,” he said. “I was seriously surprised when he agreed.”
“Lan Wangji wanted to marry me?” Wei Wuxian asked, even more surprised. He leaned forward in his seat. “Are we talking about the same Lan Wangji? The one who can’t stand me? The one I literally fight with every time we see each other?”
Jiang Cheng snorted and put a few pieces of meat into his own bowl. “Don’t read too much into it. It took him awhile to agree to that too for the same reason,” he said, gesturing with his chopsticks. “But it was either get you married or abandon you at the Yiling Burial Mounds, and who the hell knows what Jin Zixun might have tried to do even if his cousin is marrying A-Jie. Even that ice king isn’t so heartless.”
Wei Wuxian didn’t know why he felt a little disappointed hearing that. Of course he’d known from the beginning that it had taken a long time to convince Lan Wangji to agree to this marriage. He’d agreed because he was just the type of good person who helped other people because someone had to, and in this case, the person happened to Wei Wuxian. If Wei Wuxian had been any other random person, Lan Wangji would have done the same.
At the same time, he felt a little better, a little more forgiving, that Lan Wangji had argued for his happiness in front of Jiang Cheng no less. It was kind of sweet and unexpectedly romantic of him that Lan Wangji wanted Wei Wuxian to marry someone he loved.
“Anyway, he was the one who agreed to it so he better hold to his word,” Jiang Cheng said. “If that bastard Lan Wangji doesn’t come and show A-Jie some face, I’ll make Lan Xichen arrange another marriage!”
“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli chided again. “I don’t think that’s what A-Xian is upset about.”
“What do you mean? Of course I am,” Wei Wuxian said, reaching out to help himself to some of the dishes. Whoever had served them had taken into account the Yunmeng palate and served almost everything spicy and red. “He can treat me however he wants, but he better give Shijie face.”
“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli said, reaching for his hand and stilling him from getting more food. It forced him to look at her. “I know what it’s like to love and be loved,” she said. “If an arranged marriage is making you miserable—”
“Ugh, A-Jie, getting married is making you a sap,” Jiang Cheng said. “Most people who get married aren’t in love.” All three of them knew he was talking about Jiang FengMian and Yu ZiYuan. His parents hadn’t been in love, but they had run their sect perfectly fine to the end. “You don’t even need to get along to make it work.”
“That’s my point,” Jiang Yanli said. “If A-Xian does want to marry for love, then let’s not force it.”
Jiang Cheng had worked hard to make this marriage alliance with GusuLan. And this was now Jiang Yanli’s wedding that she was finally having after all the issues she’d had with Jin Zixuan. In comparison, Wei Wuxian’s problems with Lan Wangji were minor.
“It’s fine, really,” Wei Wuxian said and smiled. “I feel better just being able to say it out loud. You wouldn’t believe how quiet things in GusuLan are,” he said. “Anyway, without him here, we can enjoy ourselves! Let’s celebrate Shijie’s wedding tonight!” He held up his bowl of liquor. “To Shijie’s happy marriage!” he toasted. “May Jin Zixuan be torn to pieces if he isn’t the perfect husband!”
“Ganbei!” Jiang Cheng agreed, knocking their bowls together, before all three of them drank.
Jiang Yanli coughed after drinking. She dabbed at her mouth and smiled.
“Let’s drink through the night!” Wei Wuxian cheered.
It felt good to be with family again.
When Wei Wuxian woke the next morning, he ached all over because he’d fallen asleep on his chair with his head pillowed on an empty jar. Jiang Yanli was already gone, and only Jiang Cheng was left snoring where he had slept sprawled out horizontally on the bed.
“Jiang Cheng, wake up,” Wei Wuxian muttered, kicking his brother in the leg until he was punched in the thigh for his troubles.
“Shut the fuck up,” Jiang Cheng groaned.
“It’s the big hunt,” Wei Wuxian said. “Get up if you want to show up that stupid peacock,” he said, wincing as he straightened his own robes and tugged on his boots.
“Let’s just shoot him ,” Jiang Cheng said.
“You can if you want to deal with Shijie after,” Wei Wuxian said.
Jiang Cheng groaned but finally sat up, cradling his head. “What time is it?” he asked.
“Gong just rang for 9,” Wei Wuxian said. “You better get back to your disciples. Sect Leader Jiang will have to be presentable when the hunt begins.”
“Fuck you,” Jiang Cheng said but pulled on his boots and staggered out the door.
A servant knocked on the door soon after, bringing breakfast, and Wei Wuxian let her in. She had brought two sets of everything—bowls, chopsticks, congee. Wei Wuxian didn’t feel like explaining that Lan Wangji wasn’t here again so he just gestured for her to leave everything. After he’d drank three cups of tea and eaten, he felt more human and in a much better mood.
Today was the start of the wedding festivities, and Wei Wuxian had always loved the excitement of celebrations. Furthermore, it was the day of the hunt, which meant he would get to show off all his skills—not having a golden core didn’t mean his physical prowess had diminished. He’d beaten Jin Zixuan at archery and night-hunting once at Phoenix Mountain, and he fully planned on doing so again. Jiang Yanli wouldn’t mind if he did, and apart from her, there was no one else he cared about pleasing.
Once he’d freshened up, he checked the bow and arrows that Jiang Cheng had brought from Lotus Pier for him. It had been awhile since he did any shooting, but the bow string was taut and well-kept when he tested it. As the former head disciple of YunmengJiang Sect and now an honorary member of GusuLan Sect, he wouldn’t lose face for either of them—at least not when it came to a hunt.
Then he set out to find his horse. Since he had officially married into GusuLan and the purpose of the marriage was to solidify his status, he was expected to ride out with his new sect, but given GusuLan Sect’s usual morning habits, they were already in formation by the time Wei Wuxian rode up to join them. Since he’d been busy night-hunting with Lan Wangji or else locked up in the library, and all his spare time spent with the Wen clan, he hadn’t gotten to know many of the other GusuLan disciples apart from Lan Xichen. He also stood out like a sore thumb with his lack of a forehead ribbon and black robes—he’d been given a set of white GusuLan robes for the wedding, but he didn’t intend to wear them on the hunt when he’d no doubt return with them dirty.
Lan Xichen didn’t appear to mind his appearance, and motioned him up to the front.
“Wangji has not arrived yet?” Lan Xichen asked when Wei Wuxian drew his horse up alongside him. Wei Wuxian was aware of the eyes on them and the whispers that had swept through the crowds.
He shook his head. “He told me he was going to be away for business.”
Lan Xichen looked at him a bit strangely. “He didn’t tell you where he was going?”
“Should he have?” Wei Wuxian asked. “We’re not in that kind of a marriage, Zewu-Jun.”
Lan Xichen frowned. “What—”
But whatever he was about to say was cut off by the announcement from the platform that had been erected in the main square. Jin Guangshan and Madam Jin were sitting in the seats of honor beneath the shaded platform, and beside them were Jiang Yanli, Jin Guangyao, and Qin Su, his wife who was holding their baby son.
Jin Guangshan was the one who spoke. “Welcome all to the wedding hunt of my son, Jin Zixuan,” he said. At his words, the Jin Sect cultivators parted, and Jin Zixuan rode out on horseback, wheeling his horse in a small circle to show off his equestrian skill. He drew the horse up to the platform, smiling at Jiang Yanli who inclined her head to him.
Jin Guangshan and Madam Jin both wore proud smiles on their faces, which was maybe the first time Wei Wuxian had seen them agree about anything. While, as with most major events, their platform had been set with delicate sets of liquor and snacks, all the servants who stood to the side were male. Apparently, Madam Jin was taking no chances with Jin Guangshan’s wandering eye at such an important occasion. It didn’t stop Jin Guangshan from looking at some of the prettier female cultivators present, though.
“As per LanlingJin tradition, the groom will bring back a kill to honor his bride,” Jin Guangshan said, inclining his head to Jiang Yanli. Madam Jin reached to take her hand, smiling at her. Qin Su, on her other side, also reached out to touch her shoulder with her free hand.
“All who desire to participate may join him on Golden Cloud Mountain today,” Jin Guangshan continued. “Whoever brings back the fattest hunt will be rewarded a hundred jin of gold, and a seat of honor at the wedding feast. The mountain has been cleared of all creatures apart from game animals. Only animals hunted with bow and arrow will be honored in this hunt.” He finished laying out the conditions of the contest. That rule would eliminate the use of cultivation with hunting, or it would not be much of an event since even a non-cultivator could slap down a talisman and trap an animal. “You have until sunset to bring back hunt for the banquet tomorrow,” Jin Guangshan finished.
With that, he gestured and Jin Guangyao stepped forward to take over the announcements.
Like all major events, all the sects assembled would be announced one at a time. But whether because of his humiliation at Phoenix Mountain last time or for practicality’s sake, there would be no archery contest at the beginning to determine who left for the mountain first. Instead, the smaller sects would all be announced first, and then the major ones, and last of all, the LanlingJin Sect led by Jin Zixuan. The purpose was to give Jin Zixuan a chance to show off his skill—since all other competitors were given a chance to enter the mountain first, he would have the most difficult time capturing good prey, which would require him to be a good hunter. Vice versa, even if he didn’t return with the largest prey, he would still be able to save some face since others were allowed to hunt before him.
“You’re participating in the hunt?”
Wei Wuxian turned to see Jin Zixun sneering at him for a little distance away where he was waiting with the Jin Sect cultivators, as Jin Guangyao announced sect after sect.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Wei Wuxian said. “It’s my shijie’s wedding, of course I’m bringing her the biggest prey.” Apparently, Jin Zixun was still sour about their encounter in Yueyang City, or maybe it was his grudge from Phoenix Mountain.
Jin Zixun sneered. “That flute won’t do you much good here,” he said. “You heard my uncle. There are no corpses up on that mountain—nothing but animals.”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “And you think I would lose with that?” he said. “Want me to hunt blindfolded again?” He pretended to think about it. “But I wouldn’t want to humiliate LanlingJin on such an occasion.”
“Cousin, not today.” Jin Zixuan said, having returned to the LanlingJin Sect formation.
Though Jin Zixuan didn’t exactly look pleased that Wei Wuxian was here, he was apparently determined not to make a scene at his own wedding hunt.
“He’s not even wearing his sword!” Jin Zixun said. “He’s not taking this hunt seriously at all!” Wearing a sword was considered basic etiquette in formal events like this, but Wei Wuxian couldn’t wear his—not if he didn’t want to be challenged to a duel by someone like Jin Zixun.
“I wouldn’t dirty my sword with the blood of animals,” Wei Wuxian said dismissively. “But if you need yours, by all means.”
Jin Zixun looked like he might actually try to challenge Wei Wuxian on the spot even without a sword if not for Lan Xichen on one side and Jin Zixuan on the other.
“Like I warned you last time, you’re bringing the wrong type of people into this family,” he bit out to Jin Zixuan instead.
“Cousin, I would ask you not to insult my wife,” Jin Zixuan said, narrowing his eyes and riding in front of Wei Wuxian to come between them. “If you have a problem with Wei Wuxian, you can take it up with him alone.”
Wei Wuxian itched to take out Chenqing, but just then, the horn sounded for the first of the major sects to depart.
“We’ll settle this on the hunt!” Jin Zixun flicked his sleeves and rode a little further away into the Jin formation.
“I’m sorry about losing face for GusuLan,” Wei Wuxian ignored Jin Zixuan to say to Lan Xichen.
Lan Xichen smiled. “I know he can be a little difficult to get along with,” he said. “Even Jin Guangyao has trouble with him. Don’t worry and enjoy the hunt.”
Wei Wuxian felt he really was lucky to have Lan Xichen as an in-law even though it came with being married to Lan Wangji. Lan Xichen was the ideal type of sect leader unlike Jiang Cheng and his temperament, or Jin Guangshan and his philandering. Even Nie Mingjue, as strong as he was, had a terrifying temper. Someone like Lan Xichen or even Jin Guangyao was much better suited for managing a sect. Unfortunately for Jin Guangyao, it would be Jin Zixuan who took over the LanlingJin Sect who, though he showed none of his father’s women-chasing personality, was arrogant to the point of irritation.
The QingheNie Sect was the first of the major sects to be sent out to hunt. Nie Mingjue immediately led his cultivators toward the road. Nie Huaisang, riding beside his older brother, was dressed to the nines, but he looked harassed when they rode past and Wei Wuxian overheard Nie Mingjue telling him he’d better hunt something good or else. The next to depart was the YunmengJiang Sect led by Jiang Cheng who saluted Jiang Yanli before riding off as well. With GusuLan next, Wei Wuxian rode out beside Lan Xichen, ignoring the whispers of all their audience though he heard, more than once, questions about where the Second Jade of Lan was. They had barely set out on the road toward the mountain when he heard the hoofbeats of the LanlingJin horses behind them.
Jin Zixun immediately jogged his horse forward, breaking into a gallop to pull ahead of the GusuLan Sect formation. He and a group of cultivators raced past, bent on getting to the mountain before GusuLan did. A few of the younger GusuLan cultivators couldn’t resist the competition and also urged their horses forward. But Jin Zixuan and most of the other LanlingJin Sect kept their horses in formation behind the GusuLan horses.
The grounds selected for the hunt was Golden Cloud Mountain, which was a forested mountain close by Lanling City. In the daylight, the fog covering the mountain was lit a brilliant gold, giving the place its name. At the base of the mountain, there were already a group of horses waiting and as the last of the cultivators rode up, they also dismounted. From here on, either flying by sword or walking by foot would make hunting easier.
As they entered the hunting grounds, people broke off into groups or went off alone. Wei Wuxian left the GusuLan group as soon as he could, setting off alone. He knew that the GusuLan cultivators must feel more comfortable with him gone. Instead he began making his way up the mountain, pausing every so often to look for tracks. Wei Wuxian used to do quite a bit of hunting and trapping when he had lived in YunmengJiang—mostly catching wild pheasants since they were plentiful in the forests around Yunmeng and he liked how they tasted best, but he’d caught enough other animals as well. It took him some looking before he finally found a stream of fresh water.
Here, he knew he would definitely be able to catch something good if he waited. The LanlingJin region was populated by primarily deer and wild boar, worthy animals for a wedding hunt and feast. He followed the stream until he found some tracks and droppings he recognized and then settled to wait. Deer were cautious animals and easily startled, and they wouldn’t come drink water even at their thirstiest until they felt it was safe. After he caught a deer, which had more tender meat, he’d go find a boar.
Wei Wuxian had good luck. Though he was so cold, his fingers and toes were starting to go numb in the chilly air, only an hour had passed when he heard a stir. When he looked, he could see a plump buck had walked out to the stream. At this time of autumn, most animals were fat and readying themselves for winter as this buck also looked. Wei Wuxian grinned and quickly slid an arrow out of his quiver, drawing it back on the bow in one smooth motion and letting it loose.
The deer, taken completely by surprise, stumbled where the arrow protruded from its heart, and slowly buckled to its knees. Wei Wuxian grinned as he came out, skipping over protruding rocks to get to the other side of the stream.
“One down,” he said cheerfully. He was thinking about how he’d get the buck back down the mountain without using demonic cultivation or having any corpses around to help him carry it, when he felt the hairs on the back of his neck raise.
He recognized the sensation.
Here in the forest, surrounded by cool fog and under the shade of so many trees, it was dim even in the daylight. More importantly, the forest had none of the arrays set up at the Cloud Recesses or Koi Tower. On top of that, most cultivators today had foregone bringing any talismans or other magical protection since they couldn’t use them for the hunt anyway.
As such, a familiar ghost hovered in front of Wei Wuxian.
“Lady Yang? So you didn’t disappear,” Wei Wuxian said, looking at her and relaxing. In the daylight, so wispy she was nearly invisible, she didn’t look nearly as startling any of the other times he had seen her—only sad. “What are you doing here following me?” he asked.
Although she had been strong enough to get through the barriers at the Cloud Recesses, after Xue Yang had cut through her with a spiritual sword, apparently she had been weakened enough that she could no longer break through barriers. Still, she had followed Wei Wuxian all the way to Koi Tower, waiting outside until he was in a place without the spiritual barriers.
She turned suddenly to the left, and Wei Wuxian automatically looked where she did. He was warned just in time when an arrow went whistling by him.
Someone was shooting at him.
Wei Wuxian hadn’t expected this—he knew he was hated, but he’d already married into the GusuLan Sect and was now under their protection. On top of that, he was still the Yiling Patriarch. Although the hunt would certainly be a good time to disguise his death as an accident, he also hadn’t thought that anyone would have enough balls to try to kill him.
Much less that that person would be Jin Zixuan who was standing on the other side of the stream, still holding the bow that had released the arrow.
“Jin Zixuan!” Wei Wuxian shouted, pulling Chenqing from his belt. “You fucking coward! You hate me? Well—”
“Watch out!” As he spoke, Jin Zixuan had already notched another arrow to his bow and let it fly. Again, it went whistling past Wei Wuxian.
He wasn’t shooting at Wei Wuxian.
This time, he heard the growl behind him. He turned just as a huge grey thing came thundering toward him. Wei Wuxian reacted without thinking. He leapt up onto the nearest tree, dodging the creature as it came pounding past him, so heavy the tree trunk shook as it past. Up on the tree, he turned, trying to take stock of what kind of creature this was, and therefore, how to kill it. When he got a clear look at it, though, he wished he hadn’t.
“D-D-D-Dog!” Wei Wuxian immediately lost all motivation to hunt and hugged the tree, shivering all over. This was not only a dog, but the largest dog he had ever seen in his life—larger than any dog had the right to be, and so horrifying that Wei Wuxian had never even had a nightmare to compare to this. With thick black fur, glowing red eyes, and puffs of steam coming out of a mouth that was full of teeth each as long as Wei Wuxian’s handspan, it stood growling at jin Zixuan who didn’t even reach its shoulders.
“What do you mean a dog?” Jin Zixuan snapped, his arrow notched, though any idiot could see an arrow was not going to do anything against a creature like this. “No dog is that big! At least, it would be a wolf!”
Despite his words, he was pale.
The dog growled, the fur on its back rising as it glared down at Jin Zixuan.
“No wolf is that big either! Why did you make it angry?” Wei Wuxian forgot all about everything apart from the monster dog staring Jin Zixuan down, baring its teeth and growling.
“Was I supposed to let it eat you?” Jin Zixuan shouted. Slowly, he unnotched his arrow and reached for the sword at his waist. The dog growled again, letting out puffs of white in the cold air, but Jin Zixuan moved so slowly that it didn’t attack. “If you’re not going to help, get out of here!”
“Y-Y-You’re not going to fight it, are you?” Wei Wuxian said, clutching the tree. He felt like his limbs had locked in place, and he wasn’t even sure he could make an attempt at running right now. Even from up on the tree, Wei Wuxian could smell the stench of the monster. “I didn’t even know dogs could get so big.” He was almost crying from fear. “Jiang Cheng, where the fuck are you?”
“Why are you shouting for Jiang Cheng?” Jin Zixuan said. Beads of sweat were running down his forehead as he stared at the creature.
“He—he promised to keep dogs away from me!” Wei Wuxian said. “Shijie!” he cried.
“Why the hell would you want Maiden Jiang here?” Jin Zixuan shouted at him.
Which was when the monster dog had enough of their shouting and rushed forward. Jin Zixuan met it sword-first. A normal animal would have been cleaved half by a spiritual sword, no matter how large, and particularly one wielded by a cultivator of Jin Zixuan’s calibre. But if the size hadn’t been an indicator, the way the sword bounced off its hide proved it.
There were only one other beast Wei Wuxian could compare to this dog in size—the Xuanwu Tortoise of Slaughter that he and Lan Wangji had killed so many years ago. This dog must be another legendary beast.
Wei Wuxian remembered, all of a sudden, a story that Jiang Cheng had told him when they were kids. He was pretty sure it was in revenge to some prank or other that Wei Wuxian had pulled on him, but Jiang Cheng had told him about the evil Tiangou, a giant dog beast that once ate the moon, causing the skies to be dark for days until a group of cultivators had teamed up to beat it until it spit it back out. He’d threatened to call the Tiangou down to swallow Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian had been so scared that he’d hidden under the bed for a whole afternoon until Jiang FengMian found him and gave Jiang Cheng a strict lecture.
“Tiangou!” Wei Wuxian said. “It’s a Tiangou! What is a legendary beast doing here?” He almost cried. “I thought you said there were only normal animals up here!”
“There are only normal animals up here,” Jin Zixuan snapped, reading himself as the Tiangou lowered its head and prepared for another attack. “I just came hunting two weeks ago, and there was nothing like this!”
“Do something! Make it go away!” Wei Wuxian begged.
“Will you shut up?” Jin Zixuan snapped.
The Tiangou attacked again, this time knocking Jin Zixuan onto his back. He managed to keep the Tiangou away by using his sword, pressing the flat of its blade up as the dog beast bore down. But even Lan Wangji hadn’t been able to kill the Xuanwu by himself—there was no way Jin Zixuan could win pinned to the ground like this. Seeing this, Wei Wuxian had no choice. Between his fear of dogs and how his shijie would feel if he let her stupid husband die, the second won out.
Wei Wuxian blew several loud tones with his flute, only to remember there were no corpses on this mountain either. “Of all times to clear a mountain!” he cursed, though he knew it was probably his own fault. LanlingJin remembered what had happened at Phoenix Mountain. Since all the participants to this hunt were cultivators and would have no need to fear supernatural creatures, the only reason they’d cleared the mountain was to make sure Jin Zixuan wasn’t shown up by Wei Wuxian again.
He had no choice but to pull out his own bow and arrow. The massive spiritual beast, at a cultivation level like this, would be incredibly difficult to kill. To make things worse, Wei Wuxian had had Lan Wangji that time—Jin Zixuan was nowhere near close to Lan Wangji’s cultivation level or strength.
Wei Wuxian leapt off the tree and shot several arrows, only for them to bounce off the beast’s thick hide. The only good thing was that it successfully distracted the Tiangou from Jin Zixuan, and it backed off of him, giving Jin Zixuan an opportunity to scramble away. But it also drew the Tiangou’s attention toward Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian’s soul almost flew out from his mouth when the beast turned its head in his direction and looked at him. Its red eyes narrowed at Wei Wuxian and it let out a bark that sounded more like a thunderous roar.
“Oh my god, oh my god I’m going to die,” Wei Wuxian wailed and took off running.
He heard the Tiangou’s loud pants behind him, the thump of its heavy paws on the ground. It sounded like it was getting closer. He was really going to die for real. He was going to die and he hadn’t even seen Shijie married yet.
And then, Wei Wuxian suddenly felt himself lifted up in the air and away from the beast.
Heart thundering so wildly in his chest that he felt faint, for a moment, Wei Wuxian thought it was Lan Wangji—the only person so far in his life who had carried him on his sword. But when he looked at his companion, it was only Jin Zixuan, sweating as his sword bobbed up and down in the air even as he tried to take them higher.
“Faster!” Wei Wuxian yelled at him. “Go faster!”
When he glanced behind them, he could see the Tiangou gaining on them, its red eyes staring up at them and mouth open, showing rows of sharp teeth.
“Shut up!” Jin Zixuan shouted back. “I don’t see you helping! Where’s your sword?”
“I didn’t think I’d need it!” Wei Wuxian yelled. “Hurry!”
“I’m trying!” Jin Zixuan snapped. But he was no Lan Wangji, and in the end, all he could manage was to get them up into the branches of a tree, high enough that the Tiangou wouldn’t be able to reach them even if it jumped. Of course, if it was really able to fly as the legends said, that wouldn’t help them.
Up in the tree, Wei Wuxian prayed to every deity he could remember by name and willed his breathing and shaking to calm down. He wished Lan Wangji were there. When they’d killed the Xuanwu, it had been so easy to work with him, easy to come up with a plan when Lan Wangji was so cool-headed even when badly injured. Now that Wei Wuxian was alone and facing a dog of all things, he wished Lan Wangji were here to help him think more clearly.
“Shut up! Why are you calling for Lan Wangji now?” Jin Zixuan hissed, which was when Wei Wuxian realized he’d been begging out loud.
“He’s better to work with than you,” Wei Wuxian snapped but clamped his mouth shut.
Crouched on the branch beside him, Jin Zixuan looked down where the Tiangou was still charging forward further into the surrounding woods, apparently too excited by the chase to notice that its prey had hidden. But though the Tiangou didn’t notice where they’d gone, after a few minutes, it circled back, and began to sniff around, trying to catch their scent.
Wei Wuxian finally willed himself out of his blank panic. “What the hell is a Tiangou doing here?” he whispered furiously. “I thought you said this hunt was a normal hunt! No creatures!” he hissed as quietly as he could in case the Tiangou heard.
“It is a normal hunt,” Jin Zixuan whispered back. “I don’t know where it came from.”
It took every ounce of willpower to stand in place, notching his bow again and looking for a weakness. “Do you have any talismans?” he asked.
Jin Zixuan rummaged through his qiankun sleeve, but it held nothing but a bunch of extra arrows. “We couldn’t use them on the hunt so I didn’t bring any,” he muttered. “What about you?”
“Same,” Wei Wuxian said, cursing his own arrogance. When he was night-hunting with Lan Wangji, he always laid out everything they might need—talismans, elixirs, medicine, herbs—for Wei Wuxian to pick and choose from so he never had to worry about it. On this trip, without Lan Wangji there and expecting only an easy ordinary hunt, he hadn’t come prepared. The only thing Wei Wuxian had in his pockets were the two halves of his Yin Tiger Seal, and even in a situation like this, that seal was too powerful to risk using.
“Then we have no choice but to figure out another way,” Wei Wuxian said.
“We can wait for reinforcements,” Jin Zixuan said.
Wei Wuxian wished. “We can’t. We’re too close to Lanling City. If we don’t kill that beast before it gets off this mountain, who knows how many civilians it might kill.”
Jin Zixuan gritted his teeth. “Fine. What do we do then?”
“Find its weakness. Think of a plan,” Wei Wuxian said and glared at him. “What does my shijie even see in you?”
“Wei Wuxian! I—”
“Shut up! Hearing your whiney voice is making it hard for me to think,” Wei Wuxian snapped, shivering at just the thought of having to go down to face that enormous dog. “Why couldn’t you have been Lan Wangji?”
“Are you seriously so in love with him that you can’t stop thinking about him?” Jin Zixuan said. “God, and A-Li wasn’t sure if you liked him.”
“I’m not in love with him!” Wei Wuxian said. “Has fear made you a complete lunatic? And don’t call my shijie ‘A-Li’!”
“She’s my wife—”
“Not yet, she isn’t! Not ever if we don’t survive this stupid dog,” Wei Wuxian said. “Ugh, please shut up!”
Jin Zixuan looked like he wanted to argue more, but at least he knew how to prioritize. He clamped his mouth shut though not without another glare at Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian turned away, trying to do his best to concentrate on his memory of the Tiangou. Like the Xuanwu, no matter how powerful, it still had a weakness. That time with the monster tortoise, Wei Wuxian had dove and gone into its disgusting shell to find its weakness from within. This time, the Tiangou wasn’t as big as the XuanWu, but more vicious. Its fur was impenetrable, but going anywhere near its mouth was asking for death.
“That time Lan Wangji and I killed the Xuanwu, it was vulnerable on the inside, but Lan Zhan still had to strangle it for six hours,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Six hours?” Jin Zixuan’s voice went up at the end.
“I don’t expect you to be able to do it,” Wei Wuxian said. “But this time, we’re armed. We have bows and arrows, and your sword.”
“I already tried the sword,” Jin Zixuan said.
“You were just hacking it over its hide,” Wei Wuxian said. “Look at the direction of its fur—all the hair is flattened back right now, but when it gets agitated, its hair rises up. If you cut against the direction of the fur, you should be able to hit flesh.”
Jin Zixuan looked down at the Tiangou that was starting to sniff close to their tree. “You might be right,” he said.
“I’ll…” Wei Wuxian regretted every word that came out of his mouth next. “I’ll be bait. I’ll shoot to distract it, and then you kill it.”
“I can’t let Maiden Jiang’s brother be bait,” Jin Zixuan said.
“Ugh, stop pretending like you actually care about me,” Wei Wuxian snapped.
“You may not believe me, but I really lo—lo—I really like Maiden Jiang.” Jin Zixuan turned red, stuttering. “Do you think she’d ever marry me if you ended up dead on my watch?”
“It’s do it or let that Tiangou kill everyone in Lanling City,” Wei Wuxian said. “Your choice.”
Jin Zixuan exhaled, but finally nodded. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“ I won’t let anything happen to me,” Wei Wuxian said. “I’m still the Yiling Patriarch.”
“With what corpses?” Jin Zixuan said, a shadow of his old attitude that time Wei Wuxian had punched his stupid face in the Cloud Recesses.
“I’m going,” Wei Wuxian said and leapt down from the tree.
The next few minutes were spent screaming at the top of his lungs, and it wasn’t only because he was trying to lure in the Tiangou. Wei Wuxian’s fear of dogs knew no size—it could be the smallest puppy that couldn’t even bark yet and he’d still be reduced to shivering behind his shijie—but this was by far the scariest dog he’d ever encountered. His fear was entirely justified when he heard the bone-chilling howl so loud that even his yelling couldn’t drown it out.
And now that the Tiangou had its full attention on Wei Wuxian, the barks only got louder as did the thump of heavy claws behind him, traveling at a far faster speed than a human could ever hope to outrun.
It took every ounce of Wei Wuxian’s courage to stand in place, turn, and notch an arrow to his bow. The first one glanced off the Tiangou’s forehead. The second one nearly hit its eye only for it to leap up suddenly so it bounced off the fur of his chest, and then it was too close for Wei Wuxian not to run.
“Kill it, kill it, kill it!” Wei Wuxian screamed, running, and then the beast was on him.
He felt a giant paw stamp down on his back and he fell hard to the ground. He was going to die. After surviving his golden core being cut out, being thrown down into the burial mounds, the Sunshot Campaign, everything—he was going to die because of a dog .
“Hang on!” he heard Jin Zixuan shout.
He heard the thunk of arrows but saw them fall to the ground beside him. He could feel the Tiangou’s breath, the stench of rotting meat oozing in the air around him. Wei Wuxian shut his eyes, grabbing for anything he could reach, but the Tiangou had knocked the rest of his bow and arrows away, and he could feel nothing but the papery fallen leaves and moist dirt beneath his fingers. Then his fingers touched smooth, familiar wood—Chenqing had been knocked loose from his belt.
Wei Wuxian didn’t care that there weren’t any corpses left on this mountain—he raised the flute to his lips and blew.
The sound that came out was a hideous, inhuman screech, a tone so piercing that the Tiangou let out a howl so loud that Wei Wuxian’s ears ached. He couldn’t even remember a song to play—what came out of the flute was a series of disjointed notes, dissonant and awful, as he begged for anything to come and help. But where he expected the sharp teeth to come down on him at any time, it never did.
Amidst the din, he heard the dull thunk of a knife cutting meat, and then a ear-splitting yowl. The sound stopped with another sudden thunk. Then he felt a warm spray of liquid cover his entire head and back.
The paw on his back went limp.
Wei Wuxian scrambled out from beneath the Tiangou, crawling on the forest floor until he knocked headfirst into a tree, trembling uncontrollably.
When he finally dared look behind him, the scene wasn’t anything in the realm of what he expected. Jin Zixuan was there, hacking the Tiangou’s head off with his sword. The Tiangou, or what was left of it, was covered in corpses—but they weren’t the corpses of humans.
Covering the Tiangou were boars half-rotted with their ribs showing through, squirrels so long dead they were barely bones and matted fur, pheasants and other birds missing feathers with carcasses half eaten, even that fat buck that Wei Wuxian had shot earlier with the arrow still in its heart. The animal corpses had bitten onto the Tiangou, every limb, every piece of fur they could reach, keeping it immobile as Jin Zixuan’s spiritual sword cut through the beast.
When the Tiangou’s head finally completely left its body, the animal corpses surrounding the Tiangou finally backed away and then dropped again, dead and immobile.
Jin Zixuan stood, covered in blood up to his elbows, and panting.
“What the fuck?” Jin Zixuan was the first to speak.
The huge corpse of the headless Tiangou lay immobile on its side, fur matted with blood now, and surrounded by the flesh and bones of other dead animals.
“You controlled them,” Jin Zixuan said, staring at Wei Wuxian. “Animal corpses—how did you raise them? When did you learn this?”
“I didn’t—” Wei Wuxian said, staring at the glassy eyes of the dead Tiangou. “I’ve never—”
“Since when could you control animals? If you can even control animals, then—” Jin Zixuan broke off.
If Wei Wuxian’s powers had even extended to animals, this was a whole new branch of demonic cultivation. While human walking corpses were exorcisable if the cultivators could figure out what the source of their resentment was, animals should not be controllable in theory. Animals didn’t have souls —they only had spiritual energy like all living things did, but usually returned dust to dust when they died. On rare occasion, if influenced by outside spiritual energies or resentful energies, animals could turn into yao or monsters like the Xuanwu or Tiangou. But no one had ever heard of someone actively raising animal corpses before much less controlling them.
Wei Wuxian had barely escaped enmity by the cultivation world when he married Lan Wangji. When the clans found out about his new ability, if GusuLan didn’t throw him out first, it might be that even marrying Lan Wangji wouldn’t be enough to save him.
“I won’t tell anyone,” Jin Zixuan said.
“What?” Wei Wuxian stared at him. He and Jin Zixuan had never gotten along. From the beginning, Jin Zixuan had been such a stupid, arrogant male princess that Wei Wuxian couldn’t stand the sight of him, made even worse when he dared to insult Jiang Yanli. He knew that Jin Zixuan, likewise, only tolerated him because he had finally realized how amazing Jiang Yanli really was, even though he was still entirely unworthy. He didn’t expect Jin Zixuan to cover for him.
“Like I said earlier, you’re Maiden Jiang’s brother,” he said, eyes shifting away from Wei Wuxian. “I won’t do anything to harm her family.” He looked down at the Tiangou. “I’ll say we killed it together.”
Wei Wuxian tried to wipe his face, but his hands and clothes were also so covered in blood, it barely made a difference. He frowned as he looked down at the dog.
“Wait. Hand me your sword,” he said.
Jin Zixuan hesitated but handed his sword over.
Wei Wuxian bent and cut into the beast’s abdomen. He parted the thick fur and reached inside until he’d pried open its stomach. A host of disgusting half-digested bits of meat came pouring out. But along with all of that was a stone about the size of a peach pit.
“A beast core?” Jin Zixuan said, looking at it. It was the same type of core that Wei Wuxian had originally crafted the Yin Tiger Seal out of. Every legendary beast had one if it had grown to this size, whether it was good or evil.
Like humans, legendary beasts could also cultivate cores, but it took hundreds of years for these types of cores to develop. Most animals simply didn’t live long enough or grow big enough to be able to grow a beast core, which was why they were highly unusual. Beast cores, while they also ensured immortality for the beast, were also highly sought after, because they could be made into all sorts of magical tools and elixirs. Most of the sect treasures, like Wei Wuxian's own Yin Tiger Seal, were made from beast cores, and so seeing a live legendary beast was even more rare.
They had never heard of a Tiangou in this area—if it had been here for long, Golden Cloud Mountain would have long since been overrun by hoards of cultivators competing to catch it first. Which must mean someone had somehow captured the Tiangou alive and unleashed it at this crucial time, or that something else was at play here.
Wei Wuxian’s hypothesis turned out to be correct. Before their eyes, the Tiangou began to shrivel, expelling clouds of steam, as soon as Wei Wuxian removed that beast core. It shrank from an enormous beast whose crouched height was taller than a grown man, down to a regular sized dog—one they recognized.
“Little Black?” Jin Zixuan said, staring down at his own dog. His eyes filled with tears as he dropped to his knees beside her small corpse. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
Wei Wuxian stared down at the dead puppy. “Someone fed that dog this beast core to turn it into a Tiangou,” he said, looking at the stone in his hand. “Someone is trying to kill you.”