The small servant girl looked as if she had never seen so many people in her life as Lian Zhidiao brought the group of Yue magicians into the courtyard of Lin Jingjing’s house. Surprise was thick on Lin Zhengchun’s face as well, but he bowed to the newcomers. Introductions were made on both sides before Lin Zhengchun produced the jade egg.
Yue Fengjian used it first, followed by Yue Shipei. Then the rest of them used it in succession. Yue Yaosa’s face became a scowl as she finished viewing the contents. Hu Baitian looked briefly at Lian Zhidiao after he finished; did he look a little bit cowed? Even Liao Kuaiyu’s flippant air turned serious. Like Lian Zhidiao, all of them were shaken by what the egg contained.
“How many people are in Sancha Town?” Yue Fengjian handed the egg back to Lin Zhengchun.
“The most recent records indicate there could be 400 households.”
Lian Zhidiao did a quick bit of mental math. Assuming every household has a mother, father, and three children, that could be as many as 2000 people. That’s without even taking into account travelers or merchants. His brow knitted together and he looked around at the others.
They all seemed to be arriving at the same conclusion, their expressions grave. That’s too many for just the eight of us to handle.
Yue Fengjian lifted his head, his mouth drawn into a thin line and his tone clipped. “Approaching by sword would be best. Stick to the rooftops where possible, limit encounters. If there’s cause, we can determine it and work out the next course of action.”
Lin Zhengchun tucked the egg back into his robes with a nod. “I have sent word to the capital for reinforcements, but I do have six cultivators, and Lin Jingjing. Two teams can move better than one large group. We can leave at first light.”
“Night attack would be better,” Yue Shipei interjected.
Lin Zhengchun frowned. “They’ll be more active at night.”
Yue Fengjian spoke up. “There’s a better chance that whatever is responsible is more active at night as well. We’ll get a better picture of the problem.” Yue Fengjian’s height and his serious face made it seem like he couldn’t be argued with. Lin Zhengchun was not a small man himself, but Yue Fengjian’s frame made him seem like a wall: imposing, and impossible to cross.
Lin Zhengchun pursed his lips together and then let out a short breath. “As expected from the Xinxue Yue sect.” He gave a short nod. “I have preparations to make. We’ll leave at dusk.”
Lian Zhidiao watched him leave the hall with a hidden feeling of triumph. Just like in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, the Lin sect is met with difficulties and the protagonist is in a position to help them. This should lead to a situation where he can ask for their help in fighting demons, and advance the plot!
“What are you looking so creepy about?” Hu Baitian shot Lian Zhidiao a critical look.
A feeling of cold electricity spread across the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck. Ah. Lian Zhidiao looked around, but found that no one else had caught whatever expression—creepy or not—he’d had on his face. Only Hu Baitian had been looking at him. Lian Zhidiao lifted his chin. “Nothing, nothing.”
Yue Fengjian’s eyes flicked between them and then rested on Lian Zhidiao. “We’ll travel by sword at dusk.”
By sword? Lian Zhidiao’s heart sank. The sword of the original Lian Zhidiao was stuck fast in its sheath. Certainly there would be no time to have it seen to by a blacksmith, or whoever took care of swords around here.
“My sword—” Lian Zhidiao began, but Hu Baitian’s sharp eyes landed on him, and Lian Zhidiao’s words trailed off. Something about that look made him feel as if he had to be very careful with what he said. “—I fell in a river, and it won’t come unstuck,” he finished lamely. “Is there a different one I could use temporarily until I can have it seen to?”
Lin Jingjing’s face moved through confusion and then into pity. “Of course. There are some low swords with the guards. You can use that until you get back.”
Low swords? Is that a sword without spiritual power? Grateful, Lian Zhidiao gave her a bow, but as he lifted his head, he felt three sets of eyes resting on him in a way that demanded answers—not that he had any to give.
However, Yue Yaosa seemed positively delighted, declaring loudly, “A sword isn’t always necessary, is it?”
“Certainly not,” Liao Kuaiyu agreed, with a victorious note in his voice. “Besides, he’s a magician.” He gave Lian Zhidiao a knowing look. “A sword isn’t really what you like to use, is it?”
“Well…” He’d at least done some kind of—what did they refer to it as? Spinning? Weaving?—practice with the jade spindle. He had the information on sword technique from the jade slip, and the developed muscles for muscle memory. But he’d always been the kind of person to play a long-range class anyway, preferring to keep the action at arm’s length. The lack of a sword didn’t bother him except for this loss of utility in being unable to travel quickly. “Spinning is more natural to me.”
“Spoken like a true magician,” Liao Kuaiyu said approvingly. He and Yue Yaosa flanked Lian Zhidiao on either side, and they walked with him out into the courtyard.
I get the feeling that this isn’t something related to me. Probably.
“But, for riding—”
“We share a sword,” Liao Kuaiyu said, nodding to Yue Yaosa. “Her spiritual weapon is a saber, so there’s more than enough room.”
“I prefer to use something else in battle,” Yue Yaosa was quick to add. Indeed, she looked like the kind of person who enjoyed hitting things with open palm strikes. Or her fists.
Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “Then, who has room for me?”
Hu Baitian stalked past him without speaking to him, Yue Shipei a few steps behind him.
Yue Fengjian was close behind, but he stopped next to Lian Zhidiao. “I can carry you, but do not get separated from me.” His dark eyes held a meaningful look, and it came across loud and clear.
Getting separated in a town full of zombies would be bad news even if I could fly out on my own. But losing my only ticket out of there? I’d be in a lot of trouble.
Lian Zhidiao gave Yue Fengjian a hesitant nod. Yue Fengjian’s eyes raked over him once—that sharp appraisal again—and then he too walked through the courtyard, toward the gate.
The hours passed slowly. In his room, Lian Zhidiao found it impossible to relax, even after he’d obtained a low jian from the guards and made sure his spindle’s jade belt was secured around his waist. More than once he lifted his hand and caught the tremor of his own fingers in his peripheral vision.
Just have to stay close to the protagonist. It’s just one night. It’ll be over in the morning.
The edge of the sun sank lower than the trees, turning the air golden. Lian Zhidiao stood up from his bed and stepped out into the gallery. As he pulled his door shut, a movement caught his eye.
Further down the gallery, just next to the Hall, Lin Jingjing and Yang Meihua stood close together. Yang Meihua was clasping one of Lin Jingjing’s hands tightly in both of hers. The movement had been Lin Jingjing brushing a tendril of Yang Meihua’s hair back from her face.
Lian Zhidiao averted his eyes, examined the courtyard planting nearest him, and then walked to the gate itself without looking back.
No sooner had the gate shut behind him than he heard a shout from above him and lifted his eyes to see six figures flying through the air, green robes flapping in the wind. Lian Zhidiao’s mouth opened in amazement as they sailed down into the crossroads at the center of town. They alighted from their swords, the dying light revealing one by one the unmistakable shine of a spiritual weapon under each of their feet. Without exception, each sword tucked itself into the rider’s hand, as if it was a part of their body.
By the time he thought to look away (and close his mouth), the Yue magicians had already come out of the inn. This time, the tasseled pommels and the finely-wrought gold and silver on the scabbard caught his eyes. Yue Fengjian and Yue Shipei both carried jian, but Yue Fengjian’s was bigger and longer, a shuangshou jian with a heavy piece of jade set in the pommel. Yue Yaosa had a much larger curved sword on her back, a bagua dadao with a long, fluted wooden grip that ended in a ring with a large jade bead threaded on it. Liao Kuaiyu carried no weapon, but hanging from his waist was a jade spindle-weight, like the one at Lian Zhidiao’s waist. But Liao Kuaiyu’s silk cords had five knots in red, four knots in green, and two knots each in white, blue, and black.
That’s right. Each knot in a cord indicates a level of mastery, as judged by the sect’s highest magicians. I think there were no more than five levels, but mastering up to five could take an entire lifetime. Lian Zhidiao’s respect for Liao Kuaiyu grew; it wasn’t everyone that could almost fully master two types of magic and still be very serviceable in the rest.
The last was Hu Baitian, and he carried a jian with a white tassel hanging from the pommel, which was inlaid with a single carved mutton-fat jade. He also had a spindle, and the knots on his cords were five white, three black, two red, and one each in green and blue. Hu Baitian turned and met his eyes with cold regard, and then looked away.
Five knots in the white cord means he’s a master of metal magic, and likely of healing as well. The conversation about the Speakers echoed in the back of his mind, and the hair on the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck rose.
Behind him, the gate opened again, and Lin Jingjing stepped out, her spindle at her waist and jian in hand. Close up, Lian Zhidiao could see that she had three knots in green, two in blue, and one each in black, white, and red.
Lin Zhengchun took a folded piece of paper out of his robes and spread it open. Yue Fengjian stepped forward to look at it. Lin Zhengchun didn’t seem much concerned that no one else was crowding around.
“The town on the southern bank, along the Green Highway. Here,” he said, pointing at a spot outside the town, close to the river, “Is where the graveyard is. If the dead haven’t been disturbed, we can assume that all of the ones in the town are recently dead. Your team should assess the graveyard first. We will search the perimeter, and then we’ll work our way into the town.” He folded the map back up and tucked it in his robes. “Also be careful to avoid those who have been overcome by deviate qi.” His eyes turned to Hu Baitian. “We will need your assistance in correcting them, if they can be corrected.”
Hu Baitian accepted this task with a sharp nod.
I almost expected him to complain. So he’s actually kind of a trustworthy guy, despite being in such a bad mood all the time.
“We should be there before moonrise, but be on your guard.”
And with that, Lin Zhengchun unsheathed his sword. He slung it forward, jumping on the flat of the blade, and took flight faster than a startled sparrow. The rest of the Green cultivators—Lin Jingjing too—all took off after him, rising into the sky with their sleeves flapping.
Then their party unsheathed their swords. Yue Shipei was the first to go up, and then Hu Baitian. Yue Yaosa dropped her saber, and it stopped, hovering over the ground. She stepped lightly on the hilt, and Liao Kuaiyu leapt onto the large blade in front of her. Then they, too, zipped off into the sky.
It really is just like in the books and movies. Swords can fly and carry people. There’s nothing to fear about using them.
Behind him, he heard the scrape of a boot. He turned to find Yue Fengjian already hovering in mid-air. “Hurry up,” he said.
“I haven’t ridden as a passenger before,” Lian Zhidiao replied. I haven’t done this personally at all, so it’s not a lie, really.
The response he got was an offered hand.
The sword was steady. Even as Lian Zhidiao climbed onto the flat of the blade, it didn’t rock or swing. How was it done in the books? Focus qi to the bottoms of his feet so he stuck to the blade?
But then they sprang up into the sky, and his back was thrown against Yue Fengjian’s broad chest. He felt Yue Fengjian’s arm around his waist. It was too tight against his bruised ribs, and he couldn’t help but wince in pain. Presumably this is to keep me from falling, but slowing down might be a good idea too! But Yue Fengjian’s pace didn’t let up; if anything, he seemed to be rushing to catch up to the rest of their party.
The air slicing past them stung his eyes. Lian Zhidiao took in a deep breath, and looking inward, sent qi to the soles of his feet. To his surprise, the stable feeling that he could not fall off made it much easier to stand up straight on the sword. A few moments later, Yue Fengjian’s hand dropped away.
Well, that’s something, isn’t it? At least he doesn’t think I’m going to fall off. Lian Zhidiao could now take the time to look over the landscape in a much more in-depth way. The river below them caught the light of the sunset and made it easy to trace through the forest below them. It flowed in the bottom of a broad valley, swinging back and forth lazily across the valley floor. Small hills were more numerous further away from the river.
Huh. He shaded his eyes, squinting into the setting sun. In the distance, the forest stretched on and on, uninterrupted, until it became one with the deep purple of the evening horizon. The demon lands were all mostly in the west, or that’s what he thought he remembered. But this didn’t look like demon territory at all.
The words ‘stained earth’ rose in his mind. He’d created the term to describe earth that had a deficiency of the earth’s correct qi, the kind cultivators used. Like qi in humans, the earth also had ‘breath’, which circulated under the surface. But unlike humans, who could purge themselves of deviant qi, the earth contained both correct qi and deviant qi. Deviant qi was associated with decay, with sundering, with things that pulled apart. It was widespread: everything had to die and rot away, so ‘deviant’ qi existed naturally, intermingled with correct qi. Energy moved back and forth between the two, growing, living, dying, decaying. It was part of nature.
But as humans cultivated and refined correct qi within their bodies to reach for the heavens, there were those creatures that refined and ‘cultivated’ deviant qi, converting it to demonic energy. Stained earth formed where deviant qi pooled, but only demonic energy could create a patch of ‘crawling earth’, where the very fabric of the world softly writhed and twisted in agony. To cultivators, interested in immortality and the purification of correct qi, a concentration of sundering, rotting energy was anathema.
Lian Zhidiao knew in an academic way about stained and crawling earth: the jade slip had given him some idea of what to expect just by way of granting him access to the technique of earth-seeing. But like everything else—magic, jade beasts, flying swords—seeing it in front of his eyes would be very different.
They joined with the rest of the group; the Green cultivators were flying ahead of them in a V-shaped formation, but the Yue group moved around the skies in a more fluid fashion. Every so often, Yue Yaosa and her passenger Liao Kuaiyu dipped down below the treetops, and then surged up toward them a few moments later. Hu Baitian had not so much as looked back at Yue Fengjian. Yue Shipei stayed close by, within ten meters.
The light faded. In the darkness between sunset and moonrise, the two teams approached Sancha Town. Yue Shipei dipped below the treeline first, followed by Yue Yaosa. Yue Fengjian guided them down next; Lian Zhidiao jumped off the sword to avoid being dumped on the ground. As he’d expected, Yue Fengjian had already whipped his sword back into his hand, feeding the tip of the blade back into the scabbard.
The last was Hu Baitian, who delayed dismounting for a full fifteen seconds, but joined them on the ground anyway. Then, in the darkness came a light.
Liao Kuaiyu held up his spindle, an almost-invisible thread of his qi feeding down the wooden stem, through the ring-shaped jade weight. At the end of it, just above the surface, a small flame burned, giving the effect of a character in a horror game who was finding their way through a dangerous area with just the help of a lighter.
“Be careful,” Yue Fengjian said. “But be swift.”
Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu darted off into the gloom, towards the west and the city. Lian Zhidiao followed the bob of the flame as they went further and further into the darkness.
Hu Baitian lifted his spindle, produced a flame through the jade weight, and then, without consulting Yue Shipei, dragged him off through the graveyard in a different direction, toward the south and the Green Highway.
That left the eastern, riverside portion of the graveyard for him and Yue Fengjian to explore.
He lifted his spindle and began to spin his qi to produce a flame, feeding the smallest amount he could. A cheerful flame burned like a long-wicked candle, brighter than the others, but though he tried to get it smaller, he simply could not manage it without it going out completely. This repeated twice before Yue Fengjian sighed.
“Don’t worry about guttering it if you can’t do it,” he said bluntly. He began to walk away, toward the river.
If I can’t do it? I may be cannon fodder, but this is something cool, you know? And you can’t do it, so maybe it’s better for you not to say anything.
Swallowing down his annoyance, Lian Zhidiao decided that a brighter flame was better than no flame at all. Like the previous times he’d used it to spin qi into elemental magic, the spindle hung in the air, attached to him by the silk cord, and needing no guidance from his hands.
Lian Zhidiao left it burning and walked after Yue Fengjian.
He wasn’t hard to catch up to, as he’d stopped in front of a turtle-backed mound less than ten meters away.
“Hmm? What is this?” Lian Zhidiao walked past him to get a closer look. Even before he raised his torch, he could sense the yawning void at the front of the tomb, the space darker than dark that opened up under the mound. Lian Zhidiao lifted his torch a little higher, and it became clear: the door was missing.
“Hey…that’s…” Lian Zhidiao took a step back, nearly backing up into Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian was not looking at the tomb at all; his eyes were directed downwards. What’s he looking at?
With a growing sense of unease, Lian Zhidiao stepped away from Yue Fengjian, and his foot sank halfway into something wet.