WIth Yue Fengjian securely pinned at dagger-point, the man holding him took his sword hand by the wrist and slammed it against the wall. The impact created a burst of light and a puff of stone dust—the attacker was using qi to disarm him. Yue Fengjian’s sword fell to the paving stones with a clang. His angry eyes searched the shadows and lit on Lian Zhidiao.
Lian Zhidiao shook his head. Don’t look at me! I don’t know who these two are!
The person closest to him—a man, by his frame—slid half-crouched across the walkway and picked up Yue Fengjian’s sword. Withdrawing, he turned to Lian Zhidiao. His voice was soft and airy. “Are you alright?”
Lian Zhidiao scrambled to his feet and reached for his own sword, but the man’s attention sharpening on him made him stop mid-motion. “I’m fine, but let him go.”
“We weren’t expecting any help to arrive at all,” the dagger-man said, ignoring Lian Zhidiao’s words completely.
“That’s right,” the first one replied, keeping his eyes pinned on Yue Fengjian. “The Lin sect might come, certainly, but Yue sect as well?” He folded his arms over his chest, shaking his head slightly. “Something stinks.”
“Shall I kill him?” The man holding Yue Fengjian pressed the dagger’s edge against Yue Fengjian’s throat, forcing his chin up.
“No!” Lian Zhidiao finally raised his voice. “What is wrong with you? We’re surrounded on all sides by undead and you choose to attack us?”
“Oh?” The soft-voiced man finally turned to look at him, and then a spindle tip sputtered into weak light, hanging in the air at his side. “‘Us’?”
After prolonged darkness, the weak light seemed almost too bright, but it revealed the two men’s blue robes, with waves and wind picked out in indigo thread on their sleeves and the edges of their clothes. The soft-spoken man wore his hair long, with no topknot, tied together at the bottom. The man who held Yue Fengjian wore his hair half-up, and carried no spindle at his waist.
“We’ve come to help the town,” Lian Zhidiao said. “You said you wanted help, so let him go and we’ll help.”
“You’re saying that he does not have you on a leash?” The dagger wielder’s attention didn’t leave Yue Fengjian, although agitation showed in the push of his forearm against Yue Fengjian’s body. “You don’t have to put on a brave face now. We have him outnumbered.”
Lian Zhidiao spun fire from his spindle, brightening the space. “I convinced him to help the town.” Twice in one night, the myth of the protagonist’s halo had been dispelled. He looked at Yue Fengjian. “If anything, he’s here because of me.”
The attacker shifted his grip on his dagger and his eyes flicked away from Yue Fengjian for just a moment, seeking the face of the soft-spoken man. “Just make a decision, then,” he growled.
“Hmm? I suppose if he’s this little one’s friend, then there’s not a specific need to threaten him.” The second one’s soft voice made it sound as if it was just a simple misunderstanding.
Little one? Lian Zhidiao was shorter than both of these men but… little one?
Suddenly there was the cry of a baby from deeper inside the courtyard. The soft-spoken man let out a sharp sigh. “Let him go,” he said, and shoved Yue Fengjian’s sword into Lian Zhidiao’s hands. He walked past the screen wall, further into the compound, taking his light with him.
The dagger wielder clicked his tongue and eased back off of Yue Fengjian’s throat. With a dirty look that even shadows could not hide, he stalked into the interior courtyard.
Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian cautiously stepped toward each other, each turning to face the threat that had passed into the courtyard. Yue Fengjian gave Lian Zhidiao a hard look as they stepped closer. His voice, though it was just a whisper, had a wicked edge. “Change your mind about which side you’re on?”
“Which side I’m on?”
“It’s convenient for a single Wa magician to find allies in a besieged town.”
“Allies?” Lian Zhidiao looked toward the openings into the compound, beyond the curtain wall. “You think I wanted to get roughed up in an alley, just to meet those guys?”
“Well? Did you?”
Lian Zhidiao’s voice rose slightly above the whispers they’d been passing back and forth. “Could you have heard the cry of a baby and not jumped down to help? I couldn’t.”
That seemed to stop Yue Fengjian’s skeptical line of questioning in its tracks, but he was clearly not happy about it, a frown carved into his handsome face.
Lian Zhidiao offered him his sword. As Yue Fengjian took it, the light from Lian Zhidiao’s spindle-fire revealed its name engraved in the blade and filled with gold: Wallbreaker.
Yue Fengjian took his sword back and fed it back into the sheath. The two of them walked into the courtyard side by side, their eyes in the shadows, looking for an ambush.
The courtyard in front of them was like any other, an open space with some small garden features along the wall, but several crates and boxes were strewn about the space, as if someone had been in the middle of moving house, but had simply stopped. In the center of the courtyard, the two men in blue robes stayed close together. They were clearly brothers, and twins at that. In the light of two spindles, it was easy to see how similar they looked. Were it not for their different hairstyles, they could be mirror images.
“There, there,” the soft-voiced man cooed. In his arms he held a baby, bundled up. With one finger, he fed the infant a simple thread of qi. It would keep the baby in good health for a while, but even such a direct intervention could not quiet the hunger of a starving infant.
Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian drew closer, gazing on the fussy baby and the man who tried to hush its cries in spite of the hordes of undead roaming the streets around them. The baby suckled at his finger, making small sounds to comfort itself. Lian Zhidiao’s heart softened a little at the sight.
“There are more of this family in some of the rooms,” the dagger-man said. “Don’t know if they’ll all make it.”
Silence sank over the courtyard; personal drama between sects receded, and the human tragedy happening around them returned to the forefront of their minds. Lian Zhidiao began to get uncomfortable with the silence and opened his mouth to speak when he was cut short instead.
“I am Yue Fengjian, of the Xinxue Yue sect.”
A heartbeat passed before the dagger wielder lifted his chin. “Oh? The Yue sect can afford to part with such a precious treasure?” The dagger-man gave Yue Fengjian a salute and inclined his head. “Zhou Xiangu of the Tuhuan Zhou sect.”
“Zhou Xianzhi,” the soft-voiced man said, bowing his head over the infant.
“Lian Zhidiao, of the Xideng Wa sect.”
“We know who you are,” Zhou Xianzhi replied.
Yue Fengjian glanced at Lian Zhidiao, and Lian Zhidiao could only offer a blank look in reply. They may know the old Lian Zhidiao, but they do not know me. And I definitely don’t know them. I should be cautious around them, and try not to give too much away.
“Please forgive our offense,” Zhou Xianzhi said. “Given the history of Yue and Wa, your master, and our dire circumstances, we assumed the worst.” The part about a master was said with a nod toward Lian Zhidiao.
The history of Yue and Wa? My master? As he recalled, there was no open war between the sects of this world, but the animosity between sects did feel right, if not familiar. That still didn’t explain the ‘master’ part of it.
Yue Fengjian showed only a stony expression. “Lian Zhidiao asked for our help, and seeing the need, we could not withhold our expertise.”
“We?” Zhou Xiangu’s ears perked up. “So you’re not alone.”
“It’s not a large force. I have six total, including him, and the Lin sect has seven.”
“You must have arrived here very quickly by sword to respond to this crisis,” Zhou Xianzhi said. Lian Zhidiao had the impression that despite the soft voice, those words were dipped in venom.
Yue Fengjian didn’t rise to the bait. “We happened to be in the area.”
“What is a group of Yue cultivators doing so far from home?”
Yue Fengjian folded his arms across his chest.
He’s not going to tell them, is he? Lian Zhidiao’s eyes switched between the two of them in red and blue, and then stepped forward, speaking to Zhou Xianzhi. “What happened to your swords?”
“Hmph.” Zhou Xiangu squared his shoulders, as if preparing for a fight. “They were taken from us when we entered the town.”
“Taken from you?” Yue Fengjian frowned. “Cultivators would not demand that you give up your sword.”
“The head of this village was not a cultivator. Doubtless he’s now undead, or deviate, just like so many others. Most villages allow cultivators to ignore laws of sword-binding, but this one would not.”
“I take it they’ve had trouble with bandits?”
“Precisely.” Zhou Xianzhi said. He walked to a small basket, lined with straw, and put the infant down in it. “The demons’ attempt at forcing qi deviation didn’t harm us, but by the time we recovered, the town was largely as you see it.”
“And this house? It’s so near to the wall. Why not just leave?”
“We tried to retrieve our swords, but there were too many, so we had no choice but to take shelter here.” Zhou Xiangu walked to one of the rooms off the courtyard, beckoning Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao to follow. When they were close, he opened the door a crack, revealing several huddled forms dozing in blankets on the floor and in beds. “This family compound was already deviate, and we’ve done what we can to cleanse them.”
“It’s the least we can do, having sheltered in their home,” Zhou Xianzhi murmured, walking up behind them. “But we haven’t ventured out in three days, and there’s no more food.”
“We felt the killing intent awaken out in the streets,” Zhou Xiangu said.
“There is a Quanlu Yuan magician in my party,” Yue Fengjian said, his eyes moving over the exhausted bodies of the family, barely breathing. “He may be able to help them.”
“A Yuan magician?” Zhou Xiangu let out a rough laugh, turning to look at his brother. “It’s less surprising than a disciple of Guizai, but still. Fortunate for us, isn’t it?”
At those words, Yue Fengjian lifted his head. “Guizai? That Guizai?”
“How many Guizai do you think there are?” Zhou Xiangu said, an indulging smile on his face. “Of course it’s that Guizai.”
Then Yue Fengjian turned toward Lian Zhidiao, his eyebrow lifting.
When thinking about the techniques he knew courtesy of the jade slip, only two stood out as special higher level techniques taught only to disciples of the Wa sect: the Swords of the Myriad Dead, and earth-seeing. Between the two, for their current situation, he had to assume that the earth-seeing was more important. But this was frustrating to Lian Zhidiao, who could see that Guizai’s reputation among other sects as ‘that Guizai’ would rest on a technique named something cool like Swords of the Myriad Dead.
“Is it that shocking that I know earth-seeing?” Lian Zhidiao muttered, finding it hard to shake his disappointment. His first time using a special sect technique in front of the protagonist and it was something boring like earth-seeing?
Yue Fengjian stepped closer, forcing Lian Zhidiao to shuffle backwards if he wanted to maintain their distance. “Will it be useful?”
Now Lian Zhidiao had to make a choice between two allegiances. The first was to the Wa sect, to which he owed allegiance by virtue of having the body he did. He had little idea of his own history in the story, but just knowing the genre provided some clues as to how he should act. Sect techniques were closely guarded secrets, rarely used and even more rarely discussed, for fear of their workings being understood, and thus available to anyone. This would negate the whole purpose of a sect teaching techniques only to their disciples. It would ruin the special technique economy.
Lian Zhidiao glanced at two men in blue. The Zhou twins from the Tuhuan Zhou sect might be just the kind of technique hunters that were so often feared and loathed by opposing sects. He couldn’t quite recall what the Tuhuan Zhou technique hunters did in the story, but he did remember that they were often working at cross-purposes to Yue sect. It was to be expected with fire and water; they never mixed well.
Which brought him back to his other allegiance: to Yue Fengjian, the protagonist. Reading and even writing a story about him was something distant from him. Now, he was in the middle of the action, with no sign that Yue Fengjian had any Protagonist’s Halo. Lian Zhidiao’s actions now could determine the success of turning points in the story. If he wanted the story to go forward—and he lived here now, so he’d better want the story to go forward—then he had to give heavy consideration to how he could make Yue Fengjian’s wishes a reality.
He looked up into Yue Fengjian’s intense face. So far, he hadn’t guessed wrong on what drove Yue Fengjian, thanks to knowing him as his creator. But the world was full of details unknown to him. Perhaps the end point remained the same, but things between now and then weren’t set in stone. Maybe the role he himself played would also change.
His choices between ostensible sect loyalty and the duty of a creator pulled at each half of his heart.
Lian Zhidiao let out a small sigh. “Maybe. But it does have limitations.” He drew on the knowledge the slip had given him. “Stained earth is difficult to see through, so I may not be able to find out any information you want.”
“It’s better to know than not know,” Zhou Xiangu said.
“The more we know, the better,” Zhou Xianzhi said in a soft voice.
Yue Fengjian lifted his chin a little, his eyes like black fire. “Do it.”
Lian Zhidiao pursed his lips together and shuffled backwards again, away from the doorway. “Fine, but I need a little privacy.”
It might have been his imagination, but disappointment crossed the faces of the Zhou twins almost at the same time. But they both bowed to him and turned their attention to inspecting the deviates’ condition.
The rooms along the western wall were unoccupied. He found a kitchen, a clay floor around its cold hearth. Flipping his sleeves and robes back, he sat down. This was a cultivation technique, not magic, so he let the light on his spindle die out. It floated down onto his lap. Closing his eyes, he went over the technique in his mind.
Earth-seeing was not unlike ground-penetrating radar: by sending qi into the earth, he could ‘see’ it as it swirled through the ground and mingled with the earth’s qi. He’d also be able to sense things that were ‘incorrect’, or different from the earth’s natural qi flows. This included things like the foundations of walls, but also changes like stained earth, crawling earth, caves, or water. It seemed simple enough.
Fixing his attention on the clay floor, he relaxed and then took a deep breath and placed his palms on the clay. He pulled his consciousness away from the world above and sank himself down below.
The knowledge that everything under Sancha Town was stained earth came to him immediately. What else could describe the way he felt pressed upon, the ripples of cold and unpleasantly numb electric tingling that washed over him? Sending out his first breath of qi, he felt as if the stain threatened to overtake him as well, like water trying to go up his nose in a pool. He sent out several more bursts of correct qi, trying to watch where they led. He traced the foundations of walls, moving deeper and deeper into the town.
There was something big, with deep foundations, and just beyond it, emptiness. He couldn’t have possibly reached the edge of the town; he hadn’t discovered anything that might be the heavy footings of a town wall. After a few moments, he decided that it must be a temple or government building. Maybe this was the official’s building where the swords of the Zhou twins were being held.
Then the other side of that big building had to be the central square. There was a well, with water. Something was buried next to it several feet down, perhaps a stone tablet or stele, forgotten by time. There was also a market or warehouse, with large heavy posts to support a broad roof. He sent out another breath of qi, toward the market, and as he watched, it seemed to disappear.
He sent out another breath, watching more closely. This time, he felt sure that the deviate qi in the stained earth seemed to reach out and grab the correct qi from his breath, surrounding it in darkness and putting out its light. One last big breath. It moved through the stained earth like a wave through congee, thick and indistinct, and then completely consumed. But Lian Zhidiao had seen what he needed to see.
A hand on his shoulder shook him and he pulled himself back together. The earth-seeing had sharpened his sense of sight, so that even in the darkness, he could make out Yue Fengjian’s face. He waved him off, putting a hand to his head and swallowing down an uneasy feeling of disgust.
“You found something.”
Lian Zhidiao nodded. “In the center of the town, under the… something. Big building across the central square.” Cold sweat collected on his upper lip and he wiped it away. “A hole, surrounded by crawling earth.”
“Did it have water in it?”
Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “I don’t rememb—hey!” Indignation suddenly set in as he realized that Yue Fengjian was in the room with him. “I asked for privacy!”
Yue Fengjian waved his concerns away like a bad smell. “I don’t care about your sect’s technique. I need to know if there was water in that hole.”
“Just answer the question. You’re wasting time.”
“I…” Lian Zhidiao tried to think back to the well, and how deep the water had been in it. “I think there might be.”
Yue Fengjian cursed softly and rushed out of the kitchen, leaving Lian Zhidiao to scramble to his feet after him. “What is the matter?” He stood in the doorway of the kitchen, calling after Yue Fengjian as he stalked toward the eastern side of the courtyard. “Why does it matter if there’s water in it!”
“A blood pit, Lian Zhidiao,” Yue Fengjian called over his shoulder, his ponytail swinging around him. “It’s how the demons got this deep into human lands in the first place!”