Lian Zhidiao rushed out into the courtyard after him. “A what?”
“A blood pit,” Zhou Xianzhi repeated, stepping out to meet Yue Fengjian. “At the water table in crawling earth, the water turns to blood. Demons can travel between blood pits as long as there is crawling earth between them.” His delicate face was serious, but his tone sounded surprisingly nonchalant. “To think one could be so far from the mountains.”
Yue Fengjian unsheathed his sword and threw it at the ground where it hovered, waiting for him to step aboard. “I’ll send someone with your swords, if you’ll fight with us.”
“Fight with you?” Zhou Xiangu shifted from side to side, his fists white-knuckled. Lian Zhidiao could practically see him thinking it through. Their swords were in reach, if only they could work together. But the Yue sect and the Zhou sect mixed as well as fire and water. Certainly, for the Zhou, a debt of any kind to the Yue was a distasteful prospect. He looked at his brother.
“We need everyone,” Yue Fengjian sounded insistent.
A blood pit sounds bad. I remember that demons suddenly appeared in human lands because I wrote it that way, but I hadn’t thought of how they might travel through human lands. Lian Zhidiao caught up to Yue Fengjian and added his voice. “Please.”
Zhou Xianzhi looked from Lian Zhidiao to Zhou Xiangu and back, then nodded.
“Quiet,” Zhou Xianzhi hushed him with one word, and then looked back at Yue Fengjian. “We’ll help if you get our swords back.”
“I have just the man for the job.” Yue Fengjian put his arm around Lian Zhidiao’s waist, pulling him up onto the sword. “Wait in the courtyard with a flame. Be ready.”
The twins receded behind them as they shot off into the sky. Below them the streets were filled with figures, and there was no way to tell from the air which were undead and which were deviates. But it made sense that the deviates would have turned into undead faster where the deviate qi had been concentrated in crawling earth.
“Take us over near the central square,” Lian Zhidiao yelled over the wind. Immediately, the sword dipped away so fast, Lian Zhidiao thought they were falling out of the sky, but instead they swung wide, giving a broad view of the central square under the risen moon. It was about as he expected, paved with stones around the well, with a large magisterial building that overlooked it. The Zhou brothers’ swords would be there, probably. Across the courtyard was the market, just as his spiritual sense had revealed. As he searched the clusters of undead gathered in the streets, he felt something pressing against his chest, something hard and sharp. His heart sped up, until he felt it couldn’t beat any faster, and the full-body malaise rose up from his stomach again. Taken together, it could only be a singular killing intent, much more powerful than the one he’d felt down by the river.
Yue Fengjian’s arm tightened around Lian Zhidiao. His sword reared back and climbed high and steep into the night sky, trying to escape that feeling of peril pinned against their breastbones. The point of pressure in their chests faded and Yue Fengjian leveled off, letting go of Lian Zhidiao’s waist.
Lian Zhidiao’s voice was thinned by the wind rushing past them. Although he’d been irritated at first by Yue Fengjian holding him down, the feeling of his arm around his waist had been reassuring to an inexperienced flyer, bruises notwithstanding. His heart rate still hadn’t returned to normal. Reasonable, considering the killing intent they’d escaped. “That was…”
“Yes,” Yue Fengjian said, his voice short. “It’s at least one demon. Fairly strong.” He paused for a second, and then the tip of his sword dipped, gliding down toward the south gate of Sancha Town.
The party of Lin cultivators was milling about near the gate itself, but the Yue party was further away. A single whoop went up from the southern wall of the town as they drifted down—a flame on a spindle danced wildly. Behind him, Lian Zhidiao heard Yue Fengjian click his tongue.
They hovered over the ground for a moment, barely long enough for Lian Zhidiao to register that it was safe to hop off. He was still standing up straight when Yue Fengjian’s voice cut through the air. “Liao Kuaiyu!” Full throated, Yue Fengjian’s voice came from his chest and made a slight boom. It sounded at first like Liao Kuaiyu would be getting a blistering condemnation, but then it took on a pleading, exasperated tone. “I’ve told you not to do that!”
At least Liao Kuaiyu had the decency to look chastised for clowning around in a serious situation.
“Where did you go?” Yue Yaosa came forward with Liao Kuaiyu, worry in her voice.
“Have you spoken to the Lin cultivators?” Yue Fengjian sheathed his sword and looked around at all their faces, then walked past them, toward the Lin party, talking as he went.
“Only to tell them about the graveyard, why?” She frowned and caught Yue Fengjian by the shoulder, but he didn’t stop walking. “We thought you were right behind us. Did something happen?”
“Our situation has changed.”
Hu Baitian walked out in front of them, his eyes darting between Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao, the firelight dancing off his robes. “What do you mean? Did you find a deviate for me to question?”
“We found two cultivators who were trapped in a siheyuan just inside the walls. They were disarmed when they arrived and their swords bonded. Liao Kuaiyu.” He came to a halt and the shorter magician straightened up under his eyes. “You and Yaosa go to the magistrate’s building on the main square. They believe their swords were kept there, but you’ll have to search for them.” Yue Fengjian gave Liao Kuaiyu a sidelong look. “I trust locks won’t be an issue?”
“Not at all,” Liao Kuaiyu said, with the restrained glee of a pyromaniac given permission to set one fire.
“Don’t burn the place down,” Yue Fengjian added, almost as an afterthought. “There’s a house close to the eastern wall, and they’re waiting in the courtyard. Once their swords are retrieved, bring them to join us as quickly as possible. Do you still have your containment array?”
“Prepare it for protection instead.”
Upon hearing that last order, all the Yue sect members stopped in their tracks.
Yue Fengjian kept walking, but then turned on his heel to look at the five of them. Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Yaosa both wore blatant surprise on their faces. Hu Baitian’s expression only seemed to darken. Only Yue Shipei let out a sigh of acceptance at the dangerous work to come. Silent understanding connected all of them: this was something bigger than they’d been prepared to see here.
Yue Fengjian began walking again, and the rest of his party hurried to keep up with him. The Lin sect members formed a group behind Lin Zhengchun, with two of their members providing spindle-flame light. The leaders of the two groups
“Yue Fengjian,” Lin Zhengchun said, offering him a smart salute.
Yue Fengjian returned it. “What did your investigation reveal, Senior Lin?”
“The outside of the town is mostly deviates; the interior, where the town market is, has a higher concentration of undead. Whatever is raising them is there. The deviates themselves seem to be only recently affected” Lin Zhengchun folded his hands behind his back, adopting the pose of a man who has dealt with this problem before. “We will not have any issues with low-ranked undead; many deviates will be able to be cleansed, and this town can be returned to normal.”
Yue Fengjian absorbed this for a moment. “I must add another complication to our situation. There is a blood pit in the center of the town.”
“A blood pit.” Lin Zhengchun bristled visibly and turned to look at his subordinates behind him, who began to whisper among themselves. “Not a greater class of undead? You are sure?”
“Yes,” Yue Fengjian replied. “It was discovered through earth-seeing.”
Lin Zhengchun’s eyes flashed to Lian Zhidiao. “I see. It’s convenient to have a Wa magician around, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Fighting a demon is nasty work, and any advantage we can get, we should use. To that end, we discovered two cultivators were trapped without the use of their swords, but once they’ve been retrieved, they should be able to help us.”
Lin Zhengchun frowned. “I was not aware that there were any Lin cultivators here.”
“They are from Tuhuan Zhou.”
For the first time, Lin Zhengchun’s carefully marshalled expression slipped; he showed surprise on his face, however brief. “Using the talents of two long-distrusted enemies…the resourcefulness of Yue is unmatched.”
Only the movement of Yue Fengjian’s ponytail gave the tilt of his head away. “Any advantage we can get, Senior Lin.”
Lin Zhengchun brought his fists together and gave Yue Fengjian a salute. “We will begin dealing with the townsfolk and the undead, and leave the demon to you.”
Yue Fengjian returned the salute again. “Save as many people as you can.” He paused and then added, “Including yourselves, if it is necessary.”
A muscle tensed in Lin Zhengchun’s jaw, but he only gave a sharp nod and turned to give orders to his cultivators.
Liao Kuaiyu stepped up to Yue Fengjian’s right, watching the Lin cultivators begin to put their plans into action. “Why didn’t you say those cultivators were Tuhuan Zhou?” His voice sounded wooden.
“Does it change anything?” Yue Fengjian replied before he looked down at Liao Kuaiyu.
The flame above Liao Kuaiyu’s spindle flickered for a moment. “No, it doesn’t,” he said, finally.
“Good,” Yue Fengjian replied, his tone ringing with finality.
Lian Zhidiao watched as Liao Kuaiyu walked away, joining Yue Yaosa and speaking to her in a low voice that he couldn’t make out. It wasn’t his business. He should keep his nose out of it, because if you go looking for trouble, you’ll find it. But it continued to tug at the back of his mind, even as he looked back in Yue Fengjian’s direction. He found that Yue Fengjian had been looking at Liao Kuaiyu’s retreating back as well.
Yue Fengjian’s eyes met his, just for a moment, in the steady light of Lian Zhidiao’s spindle-spun fire. But he broke eye contact almost instantly, turning to Yue Shipei. “The blood pit is indoors, or covered. They probably know that some cultivators are here, but they probably won’t be expecting Yue cultivators. They may be sloppy.”
“The Lin will have their hands full dealing with deviates and undead,” Yue Shipei mused out loud.
“Has no one thought to ask why the demons have decided to strike here?” Hu Baitian cut in. “This town is far from even the most northern reaches of the Choking Wood.”
“Hu Baitian is right,” Yue Shipei acknowledged. “It’s not like them to move this decisively this far inside the boundaries of human lands.”
Yue Fengjian folded his arms over his chest, his eyes on the ground at his feet. After a few moments of silence, he shook his head. “We’ll have to work it out later. For now, it’s best to get started.”
LIao Kuaiyu and Yue Yaosa rejoined them just as Yue Fengjian made this decision, and Yue Yaosa dropped her saber, floating it over the ground. “After we’ve given the fish back their swords, then what?”
“They’re to help destroy the blood pit. One of them is a magician, so that should move things along.” Yue Fengjian glanced at Lian Zhidiao. “He can help as well.”
“And the demon?” Yue Yaosa steadied her sword as Liao Kuaiyu climbed onto the blade.
Yue Fengjian’s lips twitched and his eyebrow arched. “I think you know who will be dealing with that.”
Yue Yaosa shook her head slightly, a broad grin on her face. “We will be dealing with it. You and I. You’re not going to take all the glory this time, Yue Fengjian!” Then they took off with a gust of air, disappearing over the high walls of the town.
Yue Fengjian turned to Hu Baitian. “We will be depending on your expertise with the deviates.”
“I did not prepare for an entire town full of deviates. I will run out of talismans,” Hu Baitian grumbled. “But as long as nothing else goes wrong immediately, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Then come with us.” Yue Fengjian unsheathed his sword again, dropping it into a hover. “We wait for the other two to join us with their swords, and then we’ll make a protective array.” He looked around at their faces. “If the demon is waiting, then Yaosa-shimei and I will deal with it. Do not let anything stop you from destroying that blood pit.”
They took to the air, watching from above as the party of Lin cultivators opened the southern gate. They carried their own talismans, and moved swiftly to restrain the deviates that reacted to the gate being open. From up here, Lian Zhidiao could see how the cultivators worked in pairs, watching each others’ backs and setting up multiple zones of redundancy. With their small numbers, it was necessary, but it showed off the combat skills of the Lin cultivators to their utmost.
A moment later, Yue Fengjian directed them to the town center, following Yue Shipei and Hu Baitian. The oppressive killing intent was absent, giving them time to survey the area. The moon was beginning to fall from its zenith, but it still shone brightly enough to see the undead milling around in the streets below them. There were more than dozens, men and women who had previously just been normal townsfolk, all dead.
“It’s terrible,” Lian Zhidiao said under his breath. “This whole town may be lost.” He hadn’t thought that he’d said it loud enough for Yue Fengjian to hear, but he grunted in agreement from behind.
Below them, a small boom rattled the timbers of the magistrate’s building, and in the space of a few breaths, Yue Yaosa zipped past on her saber, with Liao Kuaiyu carrying two swords in his arms.
The streets below them began to stir; the Lin cultivators were making progress up the broad street that connected the gate to town center, and the undead began to turn towards the correct qi in the area. Lian Zhidiao expected at any moment that they might go down to help the Lin cultivators, but the Yue cultivators didn’t move. They watched and waited for their turn to join in. Undead drifted away from where they had been clustered around the market building, toward the south. Behind them, they heard a distant, high yell: Liao Kuaiyu returning from the siheyuan.
Yue Fengjian looked at Yue Shipei.
Yue Shipei nodded.
With the practiced ease of a pair that had acted together for years, Yue Shipei and Hu Baitian alighted in the middle of the market square. The undead around them shuffled in place, turning to face them. Before any of them had even made a move to attack, the few deviates that still stood in the square were knocked back by paper talismans. Hu Baitian brandished them like throwing needles, flinging them with devastating accuracy until the deviates were all lying in crumpled heaps around them. The still-living had been removed from the field of battle, and everything else could be safely dispatched.
Yue Shipei’s sword was out even as Hu Baitian threw his slips of paper. His fingers slid along the blade, imbuing it with power. He took one step and his blade cleaved the head of a zombie right off. To Lian Zhidiao’s eyes, he seemed to slide around the zombies’ outstretched hands without concern and take his time lining up sword strokes. His technique danced from enemy to enemy, without flourishes or overly-fancy posturing. Every stroke was a killing blow. It was swordplay learned from a very young age to be powerful and executed with finality.
Lian Zhidiao looked at the chaos from the approaching Lin cultivators fighting their way up the street. Comparatively speaking, the area that Yue Shipei and Hu Baitian had cleared wasn’t under as much pressure. They are an unorthodox forward team that preserved the lives of the deviates while making it safe for us to land. Accomplishing two objectives in one action; as expected of the Yue sect.
The four of them were practically undisturbed when Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao landed in the cleared area. They broke open one of the shutters to the market and forced their way inside.
Inside it was pitch black, and Lian Zhidiao instinctively spun fire to light the space. The air inside was warm—hot, even—and stank of rotting fruit and overturned fermenting crocks. Beyond the reach of his spindle-torch, there was no sign of anything, least of all undead or deviates. The open space that should have been crowded full of stalls for farmers or merchants to sell their wares was strewn with shards of pottery, broken baskets, and splintered pieces of wood.
Cold sweat beaded on the back of his neck, Lian Zhidiao stepped forward, pressing his torchlight deeper into the shadows. Like a lowly bug, he kept to the wall, reassured by its presence. The rest of the party followed soundlessly behind him, the way humans always follow someone bearing light into darkness. There was a lantern hanging from a hook, and Lian Zhidiao stopped to light it.
“Anyone can do that,” Hu Baitian muttered behind him.
Lian Zhidiao’s hands shook as he lowered the lantern back into place on the hook. “Help me light the lanterns then,” he said, his voice unsteady.
Hu Baitian spun his own flame out of his spindle, and walked ahead of them along the wall, finding another lantern to light. By the time they’d lit the third lantern, the center of the market was dimly exposed.
The center of the market had been swallowed up by a yawning pit, six meters across. Wooden pillars that should have been holding up the roof had been snapped off. Each lantern lit after that only brought more of it into view: the steep walls of the pit that dug three meters down into sandy grey soil, the layers of rich silt from thousands of years of flooding before the river changed its course. The broken pillars, pushed to the sides of the pit, which might have made it possible for someone inside to climb out. And then, at the very bottom, a surface of water, black as a mirror, and smooth as glass.
Hu Baitian stepped forward, to the edge of the pit.
“Careful,” Lian Zhidiao said. “That floor there is loose.”
Hu Baitian shot him a withering look, but stepped back, searching the space for some wood to light to make a proper torch. Hefting a snapped pole in his hand, he wadded up a scrap of fabric around the end and lit it from his spindle. Holding it out over the pit, it could cast shaky orange light down further than their spindle-light could go. Hu Baitian moved it back and forth, close to the bottom.
The light revealed the water surface was not black, but blood red.