Lian Zhidiao swallowed down a sickening feeling of unease. A blood pit. There really was such a thing. It was so big he had to turn his head to see all of it, and there must be thousands of liters in it. Pieces of broken tiles were stuck into the mud edge up, a ring of stone scales around the glassy red pool. The layers of earth they stood on—natural enough for a river—were stained dark. The longer he looked, the more he thought he could see something oozing out of the sand. Blood, at first, in long streaks, like squeezing out a waterlogged sponge. Then deviate qi itself, dark and cold, and with a wrongness in the light. But that too seemed to disappear even as he stared at it. Was it all a trick of the torch? Or were his eyes deceiving him?
“How—” Lian Zhidiao’s voice cracked. “How does it work?”
“The surface of the water is the gate,” came a light voice from behind them. Zhou Xianzhi and Zhou Xiangu were climbing in through the broken shutter, their swords in hand. Zhou Xianzhi spun fire from the tip of his spindle, brightening the space even more.
Yue Shipei’s brow creased upon seeing the two Zhou cultivators, but Yue Fengjian already had a hand on his shoulder, as if to remind him of himself.
“Despite how it looks, it’s not actually filled with blood.” Zhou Xianzhi’s clear, bell-like voice seemed to relieve the air of some of its heaviness. “It’s water that’s been polluted with demonic energy. Valuable for study, but poisonous to drink. Given its proximity, the well water is probably also bad. It may even have been the source of the whole village’s corruption.” He stepped toward the pit, leaning slightly over the edge and regarding it with a detached curiosity, as if the hordes of undead and deviates outside hadn’t had their lives ended or overturned by its appearance. “If the mirror surface is obscured, it can’t be used by a demon to travel.” He arched a slender brow at Yue Fengjian, his full lips curved in a smile. “Isn’t that so?”
“It is,” Yue Fengjian replied.
Zhou Xiangu hovered menacingly behind his elder brother, glaring daggers at the Yue cultivators. Zhou Xianzhi continued, seemingly unaware of the dark looks his brother was aiming at everyone else in the room. “If this artless magician is not mistaken, the usual treatment would be to break the mirror-gate and begin cleansing the earth around it using a jade beast. But such treatment could take months.”
Lian Zhidiao frowned, something tickling at the edge of his mind. “What’s the treatment without a jade beast?”
“There is no treatment,” Yue Shipei said, his eyes fixed on Zhou Xianzhi. “Before the White Emperor created jade beasts, settlements tainted by crawling earth were abandoned. If there isn’t a jade beast here, then that should be the action we take.”
Zhou Xianzhi graced Yue Shipei with a beautiful smile. “Naturally, the cultivator from Yue is right. If there is nothing to be done, then humans can’t risk the increased vulnerability to demon attack.”
“Curious,” Hu Baitian said suddenly.
“It’s so warm in here.” Hu Baitian lifted his chin from where he’d been holding it thoughtfully in his hand, looking across the pit at Yue Shipei, then at Zhou Xianzhi. “Demons are usually cold-natured.”
His words hung in the air.
Lian Zhidiao swallowed hard. He didn’t remember specifics of the fight, only that he’d written it as a cool fight with a lot of property damage to show how cool his protagonist was. The killing intent we felt earlier means something definitely was here. His eyes lifted and found Hu Baitian looking at him. “When we flew over the area earlier… we felt something in here.” Lian Zhidiao didn’t miss the way Hu Baitian’s gaze sharpened on him. He considered his words carefully. “If the demon only expected Lin cultivators—wood magicians—then, wouldn’t it make sense to have a demon that was strong against wooden magic?”
Zhou Xianzhi inclined his head with a small smile. “Our learned magician from the Wa sect has remarkable intuition.”
Ah, no, I’m just thinking in terms of how I would use elemental weakness in a video game.
Zhou Xiangu’s quiet face split in a confident grin. “A fire demon would certainly be hard for Lin cultivators to deal with. Especially one as strong as this one appea—” His voice cut off suddenly.
The mirror warped, and the light from their spindle-flames gilded the shape of something rising up out of the water. Everyone shuffled to the side of the pit closest to the smashed-in shutter; all of them had their swords out and ready to face whatever was coming through.
True to Zhou Xianzhi’s pronouncement, the ‘blood’ from the pit poured off the demon, steaming. The red sluiced away, leaving behind a broad-shouldered man that was drained of color, grey, with shaggy black hair. He had two large horns on the side of his head, and two smaller ones beside these. Broad shoulders with the sleeves torn off his robes, he oozed raw power in a way that few humans could match. His bare, clawed feet had barely cleared the water’s surface when he began to move. It happened too fast to think, much less stop him.
The demon shot forward, a living bullet, and struck Yue Shipei in the chest with his hand with a flash of light. Yue Shipei’s body flew through the front doors of the market, leaving them flapping on their hinges, and came to a rolling stop in the street. Two screams—one from Yue Yaosa, the other from Liao Kuaiyu—echoed in the empty market space.
Stunned, Lian Zhidiao turned to look at the demon. Clouds of vapor were still rising from his body, but his face could at last be seen. His eyes were small and cruel, and his mouth was too wide, with too many sharp teeth. He leered at the cultivators in front of him, but it had none of the feeling of being looked at by a starving wolf. The demon simply could not hide the self-satisfied expression of murderous glee as he stalked into the streets to finish off Yue Shipei.
Yue Fengjian strode after him, his blade drawn, and the other cultivators, though clearly fearful, began to look at each other for guidance on what to do after such a devastating start to the encounter.
Lian Zhidiao could do nothing but look at the blood pit and imagine how horrible it would be if another with that kind of strength appeared on the battlefield. He caught Zhou Xianzhi’s sleeve, pulling on it.
Though Zhou Xianzhi was usually the picture of composure, even he looked a little rattled. “Yes, little one?”
“The blood pit.” Lian Zhidiao gave it another nervous look. “We have to stop anything else from getting through.”
“And how would you suggest we do that?” Zhou Xianzhi looked at his brother. “You’re the Wa magician.”
“We have to disrupt the mirror to close the gate, right? If we hid the water surface, that would do it?”
“Yes,” Zhou Xianzhi replied slowly. “But as a specialist in water magic, I could only add water to the pool, which would make our problem worse.”
“There’s no dirt around here. They must have carted it all off…” Lian Zhidiao gasped as an idea struck him. “Can you make ice?”
“Ice?” Zhou Xianzhi gave him another pained look. “It would still be a mirror…”
Lian Zhidiao gestured at the pit. “No, around the pool, in the earth itself. If the pool is cut off from the crawling earth, it doesn’t matter about the mirror.”
Realization dawned on Zhou Xianzhi’s beautiful face. “Because the gate only exists if there’s crawling earth for demons to pass through.” Zhou Xianzhi blossomed in a smile and put a hand on Lian Zhidiao’s shoulder. “Little one, you’re smarter than I gave you credit for.”
What a backhanded compliment!
Zhou Xianzhi began to move around the pit, his spindle pointed down. The light from the lanterns wasn’t much, but it would be enough for him to work by. Outside there was a crash and a yell. Leaving Zhou Xianzhi to his work, Lian Zhidiao shoved his body through the smashed shutter and hoped this wouldn’t put him directly in the line of fire.
Liao Kuaiyu stood near the well, surrounded by what could only be the protection array. It appeared as a dome of faint white light, bounded at the base by talismans on a silk ribbon. Every few feet, an iron hook was jammed into the spaces between paving stones to hold the ribbon down. The undead appeared to be possessed of a singular mind, their eyes shining green. They pressed against the energy barrier, but inside, Liao Kuaiyu paid them no mind. His attention was on something at his feet, something Lian Zhidiao couldn’t see because of the corpses.
Lian Zhidiao drew the low sword and made a short dash to the protection array. At the boundary’s edge, the undead simply let him cut them down without turning their attention to him. Ten of them simply sagged to the ground after he parted their heads from their shoulders.
Liao Kuaiyu looked up at him through the barrier. His voice sounded hollow, as if he was in a cavernous space. “You’re stuck out there, so try not to die, okay?”
Lian Zhidiao craned his neck and saw Yue Shipei’s body on the ground. Kneeling next to him was Hu Baitian, with a look of intense concentration on his face. His hands were pressed against Yue Shipei’s ribs.
That’s right. He was wounded in this fight, but it wasn’t fatal.
There was a wheezing groan behind him. Another corpse had slunk up to the barrier, eyes burning emerald. It lunged toward him. Before he could even think about how to react, the training and muscle memory he’d gotten from the jade slip kicked in. He slashed across its throat with the low sword, and the head flew a few meters away. Breathing out slowly, he eased up out of the ready stance he’d unconsciously assumed.
Down the street, he could see the rest of the undead, their eyes ghoulishly alight, gazing heavenward. The demon hovered in the air well above the street, seemingly untouched. His eyes blazed with green fire, echoing the undead below. Is he commanding the undead to focus their attack? Certainly, he’d written that demons could command undead, but he’d never thought much about how it worked. It just seemed like an ability that demons would have.
A short yell echoed between the buildings. He saw Yue Yaosa leap from one tiled roof into the air, twice again as high as the roofs themselves, and bring her huge saber down, trying to cleave the demon down the middle. But the demon slipped out of the way, like a leaf in the wind. She fell well short, and cratered the paved surface in the street.
Lian Zhidiao let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy. He turned back to the protection array.
Hu Baitian’s hands were on the front and side of Yue Shipei’s chest, and had a soft white glow around them. Next to them, Liao Kuaiyu stood with his hand pressed against his mouth and his brow deeply furrowed.
Yue Shipei turned his head and opened his eyes, looking up at Liao Kuaiyu’s serious face. He licked his lips. “It’ll hurt if I laugh, so don’t make me laugh.”
“No tickling,” Liao Kuaiyu said, his voice thin. “Got it.”
“Be still,” Hu Baitian ordered him.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Yue Shipei rasped. His gaze moved down to Hu Baitian. “Is it bad? It feels bad.”
“You won’t be fighting any more today if I can help it,” Hu Baitian snapped.
“You need to go help, or I won’t have a choice.” He glanced back at Liao Kuaiyu. “Both of you.”
“She made me promise to stay with you.” Liao Kuaiyu’s voice shook.
“Then we’re all in a lot of trouble.” Hu Baitian growled. “Go help her instead of standing here doing nothing.”
Lian Zhidiao raised his voice. “Liao Kuaiyu, I can keep him safe.”
Liao Kuaiyu lifted his head, seeming to really see for the first time that Lian Zhidiao was there. He looked at the undead bodies around the protection barrier, and his spine straightened visibly. He rubbed his cheeks with his fists and then gave a sharp nod. The protection barrier shimmered, melting around him as he passed through it and reforming once he was on the outside. Without sparing a look for Lian Zhidiao, he ran toward the fighting.
Down the street, the Lin magicians, their spindles held aloft, choked the night sky with leaves as they spun wooden magic one after another. The demon’s body rocked back with every hit. Vines entangled his arms and legs. A vine shot up from the ground, snaring him and pulling down. For a moment it looked like he might be forced to the ground. But then smoke began to rise from the vines around his arms and legs, before they burst into flame and crumbled to ash. Worst of all, a braying laugh poured out of the demon’s mouth at their futile efforts.
Using wooden magic against a demon with fire element doesn’t make sense. Deep in Lin territory, it made sense that a foe that burned their most powerful magic to nothing would give the demons the upper hand. With their most powerful ranged magic ineffective, they’d be forced into hand-to-hand fighting. Some would end up like Yue Shipei, many would end up worse.
Liao Kuaiyu ran ahead, hollering for Yue Yaosa to take him up.
“Don’t think you’re getting in here,” Hu Baitian said over his shoulder, cutting into his thoughts. “I’m a little too busy to change the array.”
“It’s fine,” Lian Zhidiao replied. “Out here is where I am needed.”
In the streets in front of him, the streets were strewn with corpses. Zhou Xiangu was skillfully stopping the undead threatening the market, his blue robes glinting like peacock feathers in the eye-fire of the undead. Every strike of his blade was swollen with qi, showing off graceful swordplay that seemed both effortless and inevitable, like the tide rolling in.
This is a boss encounter, so it’s okay if we’re all applying pressure at once, right? He looked down at his spindle and then took it in his hand, twirling the wooden dowel that went through the center. On a hunch he yanked the stick out of the wooden disc at the bottom; it came apart easily. The jade spindle-weight was now just a heavy jade ring hanging freely from his belt.
Cautiously, he spun qi through his hand, holding the thread at the ready. The jade ring floated up in front of him, knotted cords radiating out from the edge. Without the wooden dowel-and-disc in the way, he could see through the center of the jade ring. He was no longer aiming along the wooden stick like an arrow, but looking at his target directly, through the sights of a gun.
Just like the crosshairs in a first-person shooter game.
Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Yaosa were in the air, circling high above the demon. Silhouetted by the moon, the demon looked up at them. Seizing his chance, Lian Zhidiao spun metal magic, twisting the qi in his fingers as tight as he could. With the demon’s body in his sights, he let the thread of qi snap.
The metal magic flew not like an arrow, but a bullet. The crack of the shot echoed off the buildings, louder than the vines the Lin cultivators spun, louder than the shouts of Yue Yaosa and Yue Fengjian calling back and forth. The demon staggered. He looked around wildly, but couldn’t seem to find whoever had fired that spell.
“What in the Emperor’s name was that?” Behind him, Hu Baitian sounded equal parts incredulous and fearful.
Lian Zhidiao didn’t have time to answer. In the sky above the demon, a huge fireball burst into existence, big as a house and bright as a flare. Above it, Liao Kuaiyu, a small figure crouched on Yue Yaosa’s saber. Below it, the demon, confused and nowhere to turn.
Elemental resistances aside, there was no way a fireball that big was something the demon wanted to get hit by. He ran first toward the ground, as ‘away from the fireball’ was the most pressing condition for movement. But at the ground, he was forced to roll to the side to avoid being pinned between the street and the inferno. At ground level, he wasn’t an easy target for spells, but he had entered the most dangerous part of the arena.
Yue Fengjian advanced, shuangshou jian in one hand. With a yell, he struck. The demon raised an arm to ward off the first blow. The blade carved a deep furrow around it. A snarl of pain was the only indication the demon gave that he was hurt. Around the two of them, magicians closed in, watching the face-off with their spindles ready.
The rest of the undead were mostly taken care of, so everyone here might be enough to take down the demon, if everyone combined their power. Given how Yue Fengjian had been taken advantage of by the drowned near the river, and then again by the Zhou brothers, Lian Zhidiao worried that this demon might be a bit powerful for him to take on by himself. After all, this same demon did nearly cave in Yue Shipei’s chest.
In watching the two of them move—the demon with unarmed strikes and Yue Fengjian with his sword—Lian Zhidiao’s apprehension soon proved misplaced. Wallbreaker was shining even before the blow landed, painting the darkness around them with light. The techniques used were not just powerful moves on their own, they were saturated with qi. Any wielder would have won praise for their strength when using them. In the hands of a truly strong man like Yue Fengjian, they became an unstoppable force.
The demon looked to the sky for an avenue of escape. A fireball—Liao Kuaiyu—spooked him back down to rooftop level, and then Yue Fengjian was next to him. His two-handed sword hammered the demon back down to earth, smashing a ragged hollow in the street. Yue Fengjian dropped down after him. Every movement the demon made, Yue Fengjian anticipated. He pinned the demon to earth with violence, cutting him to the bone with one arc of his sword. The next blow took his hand. No matter where the demon moved, the sword’s edge was waiting for him. Finally, he made his last mistake, and Yue Fengjian ran him through.
The demon sagged to his knees. Yue Fengjian planted his foot on the demon’s stomach and pulled his sword free. Then he pressed the wet edge of Wallbreaker against his throat.
“Your name, demon.”
The demon wheezed for breath. “T-Tangyi.”
Wallbreaker glinted red. Yue Fengjian cut his head clean off.
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