Lian Zhidiao swallowed hard.
Hey, hold on a minute… This body has technically died once already. The original Lian Zhidiao’s spirit might still be lingering in this world. If someone can speak to the dead, it would be quite easy for someone to find out that I’m not actually the real Lian Zhidiao. “Talking to the dead,” he repeated woodenly.
“It’s possible the Quanlu magician is a Speaker.”
Panic speared him through the heart. I don’t remember any of this!
It was true that the Quanlu Yuan, the sect that specialized in metal magic, had been very involved with law and order, but he’d never written anything like this. Was this another example of the world growing naturally from a seed he’d planted?
Lian Zhidiao took a calming breath. “The Speakers… How do they talk to the dead?”
“If we knew that, then anyone could become a Speaker,” Yang Meihua quipped. “It’s not like they let just anybody see it.”
“But how do you know they can really talk to the dead?”
“The crimes that have been solved speak for themselves. Especially those with subterfuge or assassins involved.” Lin Jingjing spoke with the authority of one who had seen these Speakers catch a criminal.
“The Speakers come in and find a patch of roaring earth, and then the next thing you know, a weapon is found in someone’s home, or their brother confesses when confronted with the evidence.”
Lin Jingjing nodded at Yang Meihua’s words. “They may be members of the Yuan sect, but their fairness and dedication to members of all sects is beyond reproach. The Xideng Wa and Tuhuan Zhou sects will send a messenger to them if their skills might be needed, even with relations between them as they are.” Her dark eyes pierced Lian Zhidiao. “Even you couldn’t find fault with their methods.”
Even I, a Wa magician, could benefit—or not—from their investigations. So it seems they are something like police, or at least private investigators. Lian Zhidiao pursed his lips slightly. It’s probably a good bet that their expertise isn’t limited to solving murders.
Suddenly there was a sound of running feet out in the courtyard in front of the hall. Lin Jingjing looked up just as there was a small knock and then a crack appeared in the door, showing the pleading face of their young servant. Yang Meihua rose to her feet and stepped outside the Inner Hall, leaving Lian Zhidiao and Lin Jingjing alone. In a few moments, Yang Meihua returned, and with her was a strapping man with thick eyebrows, dressed in green robes.
Lin Jingjing’s eyes widened and she rose, bringing her hands together and bowing courteously. “Shixiong.”
He made the same gesture, and seemed about to speak until his eyes lit on Lian Zhidiao as the latter got to his feet. Suspicion played over his features and he lifted his chin. “Shimei, I did not know you had company.”
Lian Zhidiao bowed, his hands together in a salute. “I am Lian Zhidiao, of the Xideng Wa sect.”
The bigger man’s eyes scraped over him, catching on his plain black robes, his waist, and the jade spindle which hung from it. He gave Lian Zhidiao the smallest bow that he could manage and still be called courteous. “Lin Zhengchun, of the Youlu Lin sect.”
The pleasantries made, he turned back to Lin Jingjing, walking across the room. “Forgive me for not taking more time, but the situation is quite urgent.” From a fold of his robes, he produced a wad of green silk, handing it to Lin Jingjing.
Lian Zhidiao watched intently as Lin Jingjing unwrapped the silk bundle. In the center of the cloth lay an egg of cloudy green jade. Lin Jingjing looked up at her martial elder brother and then lifted the jade egg to her temple and closed her eyes.
Lian Zhidiao watched Lin Jingjing like a hawk, but she gave no indication as to what was happening other than a crease in her brow. Lian Zhidiao glanced at Lin Zhengchun, only to find that he was being watched intently. Once caught, Lin Zhengchun lowered his eyes to the ground and then looked back at Lin Jingjing as her eyelids fluttered. She cleared her throat.
“That’s quite a lot.” She folded the silk back over the egg. “How soon do you need me to be ready?”
“Tomorrow. We’ll leave at first light.” Lin Zhengchun received the egg back from her.
Lin Jingjing looked at Lian Zhidiao, and then looked back at Lin Zhengchun, her mouth tight. “You may as well let him see it,” she said, letting out a small breath. “If things are that dire.”
“A Wa magician?” Lin Zhengchun kept a steady voice, though his eyes flicked to Lian Zhidiao.
“He’s here, closer than a group from the capital. He could help.” Lin Jingjing paused. “For that matter, there are members of the Xinxue Yue sect in the village as well.”
Lian Zhidiao’s voice was timid. “What’s going on?”
“You’d better look for yourself.” Lin Zhengchun offered the jade egg to Lian Zhidiao.
Jade. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes dropped to the jade egg. A jade tool like the spindle, and the jade slip. He took the egg and then pressed the cool stone against his temple.
A moving image—no, an entire sensory experience—sprang up in his mind. Immediately, he understood why Lin Jingjing had closed her eyes: the overlay of one world on top of the other was disorienting. The ‘video’ played in his mind, but he could smell something rotten and sharp, like a lightning strike over a landfill. The field of view swung around him: there was a town, or what was left of one, with baskets abandoned in the streets. Flies blew around the fruit peddlers’ carts, and duck carcasses hung up near the butcher’s stall, swollen and green.
The person carrying the egg couldn’t control their breathing at all; they huffed in Lian Zhidiao’s ears, wheezing, on the verge of crying out. The field of vision swung again, and for an instant, Lian Zhidiao could see clearly down a dark alley. There were people propped up against the wall, their skin white and grey, legs stretched out. Standing in the middle of the walkway nearby were other people, stock still. The image stilled for a moment, and then slowly, slowly, one of the standing people began to turn.
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t see clearly at first, but the person making the recording bit back a scream, and then every part of it was cast in sharp relief: the skin made soft by decomposition, sliding off the face like a mask, exposing the tense, gray-green muscle and rancid fat underneath. Worst of all was the smell: sickly sweet and thick enough to coat the inside of his mouth. The video changed, shaking wildly between heaven and earth, and all he could hear was the sound of someone whimpering as he ran away in a mad panic.
Lian Zhidiao pressed his fingertips against his mouth as he lowered the egg, placing it almost absent-mindedly into Lin Zhengchun’s silk-draped hand.
“It’s quite bad,” Lin Jingjing said in a quiet voice.
“It is,” Lian Zhidiao mumbled. All of it had seemed so real: the smell, the sounds. His heart rate was up, and he hadn’t even been there in person. “Is this far from here?”
“Sancha Town. Further up the river.” Lin Zhengchun tucked the jade egg back into his robes. “We received this yesterday from a young disciple who had gone home to see to a family illness. When he ran away, he ran this way instead of towards the capital. I’ve sent someone by sword to the capital, since the route overland runs through Sancha.”
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t shake the suspicion that was creeping into his mind. He only vaguely remembered the outline of Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, but there had been some kind of trouble in the lands of the Lin sect in the beginning. Solving it was how the protagonist was able to establish favor among Lin cultivators and magicians. Knowing that the protagonist was one of the Xinxue Yue sect members in the inn across the village square, he could now say with certainty that he’d been dropped in near the beginning of his novel.
As he remembered it, there was a protagonist of the Xinxue Yue sect, fighting against demons that threatened his home, and he sought help from the rest of humanity. He had necessarily needed the unflagging loyalty of the sects, and, as he’d written it, this loyalty had been acquired through seducing the most beautiful or powerful women in the sect. The first one had been easy enough to write, but by the time he’d worked through the other sects, just sleeping with a Beauty wasn’t enough. So weddings came to be more frequent, and honestly, as the unmarried writer, he had been more than a little embittered by having to write repeated wedding scenes.
Still, the protagonist needed help from all the sects to fight demons. If nothing else, a world without demons was easier and safer to be in than a world with demons.
Lian Zhidiao got to his feet. “It would take a few days for help to come from the capital.” He looked between Lin Jingjing and Lin Zhengchun. “We should ask the Yue sect members for their help.”
Lin Zhengchun’s jaw moved, as if he was chewing on the inside of his cheek. “I agree,” Lin Zhengchun said at last. He leveled a steady gaze on Lian Zhidiao. “We could use them, if you can get them to come.”
There was a weight on the last part of his words that made Lian Zhidiao look at Lin Zhengchun more directly. It wasn’t quite a challenge or an insult, but a guarded expectation in his voice that set Lian Zhidiao’s mind to work in suspicious ways.
But he made a salute to both of them and left the hall. Certainly, more than anyone there, he might be able to guess what to say to the Yue magicians to get them to agree to come with them.
The rain had cleared away, and the afternoon remained cool and overcast. The lively sounds of the Mountain magicians floated out into the air. Being in a crossroads town, the inn was nice enough to have a small courtyard, though Lian Zhidiao had to walk around the outside wall with the stables to get to it. He waved away the serving boy that came to take his things, and drifted unnoticed into the courtyard, toward the voices.
Seated around a table near a wall were the party of Yue magicians and cultivators he’d met that day, along with the red and white riders. All together, that made five people who might be useful in fighting… well, undead, possessed, whatever was wrong at Sancha Town.
In the light of lamps on the table, he could make them all out clearly: the slim jokester that had cracked wise while he was covered in mud, as well as the woman whose strength looked enough to rival two men. There was also the broad-shouldered man who had been drawn in by the jokester’s laughter. Then, the latest additions to the party. It was the first time Lian Zhidiao been able to closely examine the last two.
The white-clothed rider was not wearing just any gleaming white. The ambient light and the light of the small flames around them bounced off of his clothes, which seemed to be woven in part with shiny threads. Whether it was a product of their make or an enchantment, the white rider seemed touched by the shine of gold or silver, except for the single black stripe trimming each sleeve. His hair was only half-up, and his face had sharp features. He leaned forward, engaged in whatever topic was being discussed. He might be of the Yuan sect, but he clearly already had some rapport established with the other Yue magicians.
This left the solitary red rider, the lion who rode in with the white rider from the east, along the same path Lian Zhidiao himself had taken. He looked to be almost the body double of the other well-built man, but where the well-built man had handsome, if plain features, the red rider left him far behind. He was blessed with a noble, masculine face and phoenix eyes, framed by a few locks of hair that weren’t pulled back into his thick ponytail. As Lian Zhidiao hovered in the entrance to the inn, those eyes glanced up and pierced his.
There was no moment of recognition between them, just a brief, sharp regard wherein Lian Zhidiao felt as if his worth was being weighed. Every atom of him felt seen, measured, although he had no way of knowing whether he’d passed muster.
Then the moment was gone. The Yuan magician leaned over and whispered something in the lion’s ear. Those eyes like awls looked away, and a shiver ran down Lian Zhidiao’s spine.
Is this what was referred to as killing intent? No wonder you can feel it across the room.
Slowly he became aware that the conversation at the table had died down, and all five members of the group of Yue magicians were looking at him. Their expressions varied in warmth, but all of them seemed expectant. His heart rose up into his throat as he walked toward them. Lian Zhidiao had made every one of them what they were, and seeing them in the flesh—real—suddenly put his spirit in a tumult. He bowed and brought his hands together in a salute. The three he’d met before looked slightly amused; the red rider and the white rider were more reserved.
The slim man inclined his head, with a smile around his lips. “Done playing in the mud for today?”
You had to bring that up!
“For today,” Lian Zhidiao answered. “There are more pressing matters. Someone from the Lin sect has just arrived and spoken with the village head. It seems there is…” The horror from the egg flashed in front of his eyes, and he blinked it away. “…A situation, which with your help might be easily resolved.”
“Some of your work get out of hand?” The Yuan magician spoke up: his voice was firm, but his face betrayed his distrust.
The lion remained silent, with a fierce expression, but one of his eyebrows lifted slightly as the man next to him spoke.
Lian Zhidiao opened his mouth to protest, but a chuckle from the slim man cut him off. “It’s not like that. He’s not a threat, but he’s definitely not all right in the head. Caught him kissing a jade beast this morning, covered head-to-toe in mud.”
The awful spectacle from the morning dogged him even to this point, the moment when he was to meet the protagonist. But remembering scenes of the insolence of young upstarts from nearly every wuxia novel ever, Lian Zhidiao gave them a deep bow, mindful of the imposition he was making. A man should not come to ask a favor and not give his name. “I am Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao, of the Xideng Wa sect.”
The broad-shouldered man gave the slim man an indulging look, but stood up and bowed to Lian Zhidiao. “I am Yue Zhezhong, courtesy name Shipei, of the Xinxue Yue sect.”
Glad to see that someone still has some manners!
As Yue Shipei stood up, the only woman stood up as well. She was also broad-shouldered, especially for a woman, and was only a hand’s width shorter than Yue Shipei. She bowed to Lian Zhidiao. “I am Yue Yaosa, of the Xinxue Yue sect.”
His two companions having determined that at least on a first meeting, some decorum must be observed, the slim man got up and gave Lian Zhidiao a short bow and salute. “Liao Zhaoyou, courtesy name Kuaiyu, of the Xinxue Yue sect.”
As Liao Kuaiyu stood, the lion stood up as well, and last, the Quan magician. The lion brought his hands together and gave Lian Zhidiao a bow, his ponytail half-sliding over his shoulder. His voice was deep, and his manner brusque, even though he spoke as politely as any of the others. “I am Yue Hanqi, courtesy name Fengjian, of the Xinxue Yue sect.”
He IS the protagonist! Outwardly, Lian Zhidiao gave no sign of his emotions, but inside, he was pumping his fist and congratulating himself on correctly remembering something in this otherwise forgettable book.
The Yuan magician was last, but where Lian Zhidiao thought he’d detected lazy contempt before, he found that the White magician was suddenly keen, his eyes razor-sharp. “Hu Nianzu, courtesy name Baitian. Of the Quanlu Yuan sect.”
Yue Fengjian sat back down first and everyone else followed suit. He gestured to a place at the table opposite him, but Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s quite urgent.”
“Spit it out, then.” Hu Baitian’s eyes bored into him. “If it’s so urgent.”
“There is a situation with Sancha Town down the river. A Lin sect disciple found the town deserted, except for… some things.” Lian Zhidiao looked around at the group, but his eyes pressed on Yue Fengjian. “Not people. At least, not anymore.”
“You speak confidently of things that others only whisper,” Yue Yaosa said, her lips twitching. “Do you have some experience hunting the undead? Or demons?”
“I do not,” Lian Zhidiao confessed. Just a long history of watching movies about killing zombies or demons. “But the prowess of the Yue sect is unsurpassed, and getting more help from the capital will take time.” He straightened his shoulders. “I will be helping as well.”
“If you didn’t raise them to begin with,” Hu Baitian muttered. “The Wa sect is capable of sweeping up large numbers of corpses—say, from a nearby graveyard—and setting them to all sorts of nasty work. And you’re asking us to risk our lives to clean up your mess?”
Yue Shipei nodded slowly in agreement.
Yue Fengjian’s eyes narrowed, making his stern face look all the more harsh.
The words ‘cannon fodder’ unfurled in Lian Zhidiao’s mind, as if on a large banner flapping in the breeze outside a discount or damaged goods store. Here he was, in front of the main adventuring party whom he himself had created, yet they would not even give him the time of day. It wounded him, but he might have expected that, being a cannon fodder character from a sect that was directly opposed to the Yuan and Yue sects.
Without a sword to force them to take him seriously, Lian Zhidiao’s only option was to try to appeal to reason, or their better natures.
“It’s not my mess, I only arrived in Shuangwan Village yesterday. Lin Jingjing, the village head, has been asked to help with investigating whatever is happening at Sancha Town. She has shown me courtesy, and I’ll repay that debt.”
Hu Baitian stared at him for a little longer and then snorted softly and sat back. But then, to Lian Zhidiao’s surprise, Yue Fengjian’s eyebrow twitched.
Lian Zhidiao looked at Yue Fengjian, meeting that dark, winnowing stare. I know you. You’re desperate to have someone, anyone, listen to the plight of the Yue sect, which has been fighting demons in its lands for decades, if not centuries, and all completely on their own. You want the other sects to step up and help in the fight. You’re not expecting a Wa magician in shabby robes to be any help to you at all, but I know exactly what you need to hear that will convince you.
Lian Zhidiao folded his slim arms over his chest, gesturing with one hand. “The Yue sect knows what happens when you leave demonic energy to its own devices. Failing to work together in the face of such strength only ensures our defeat. Allowing Sancha Town to stay as it is means that whatever demonic energy is there will grow in power, unchallenged. ”
Maybe he hadn’t recalled it perfectly, but that was a line directly from Yue Fengjian’s appeal to the Lin sect as he tried to sway them into helping the Yue sect. Lian Zhidiao tucked his hand under his arm, waiting. In the periphery of his vision, he saw Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Shipei turn their heads to look at Yue Fengjian.
“You may be a Wa magician, but you seem to have some understanding of the world.” Yue Fengjian stood up, glancing at Hu Baitian next to him before turning back to Lian Zhidiao. “We’ll meet Senior Lin and see if we can help with this matter at Sancha Town.”
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