Lian Zhidiao wriggled out from underneath the cow and clambered up out of the deepest part of the hole. His robes were covered in dirt—not as bad as mud from a rice field, but not the impression he wanted to give when meeting a major force of cultivators for the first time. These weren’t his best robes, either. He brushed a little of the soil off his chest, but the edges of his sleeves were a mess.
“Here,” Yue Yaosa said, offering her hand again.
Lian Zhidiao gave her hand a dubious look, and then grabbed hold. At least this time he was prepared, and her strength wasn’t quite such a surprise.
It’s one thing writing someone being strong; it’s another thing to have that strength used on you!
Most of the Lin cultivators used swords as their mode of transport, but he also saw several sabers and spears, and even two quarterstaffs. He followed them with his eyes as they flew toward the town gates to the south and dropped out of sight.
If those staves are spiritual weapons as well, perhaps they can do something like grow and change in size. The thought made him feel strangely giddy, like a child about to see a magic trick.
He dusted himself off again as Lin cultivators landed around them and began to see to the undead, lining them up with neat and orderly efficiency, placing sheets over their faces. Then his eyes landed on the stern figure of Lin Zhengchun approaching, and any feeling of giddiness was scattered like leaves in a cold wind.
In front of him—no, leading him—was an older woman, her long emerald robes finely woven with intricate patterns, tassels hanging from the bottoms of her sleeves. She carried a sword, and wore a medicine pouch at her waist. Part of her hair was up in a topknot, but the rest nearly reached the small of her back. As she drew closer, Lian Zhidiao caught the scent of incense blown in front of her by a soft breeze. Her expression was filled with concern, but not at all cold. She gave the impression of a matron at an orphanage, deeply invested in the care and betterment of her charges.
Yue Fengjian made a salute, bowing his head low first to the woman and then to Lin Zhengchun.
The woman returned it crisply, without any wasted actions in her movements. “I am Hui Songbai, of the Youlu Lin sect,” she said.
“Yue Hanqi, courtesy name Fengjian, of the Xinxue Yue sect,” Yue Fengjian replied.
Hui Songbai looked around at the piles of undead bodies being sorted and the deviates being removed for treatment. “Lin Zhengchun has been telling me of your assistance in this matter.”
Yue Fengjian nodded his head.
“He also told me that there was a demon involved.” She turned her head slightly, gesturing with her eyes to Lin Zhengchun behind her. “And that your skill was what brought it down.”
“Yes,” Yue Fengjian said with an incline of his head. “I am fortunate to be supported by talented members of my sect. Because of this, we were able to defeat the demon easily.”
“I see.” She looked down into the pit next to the well, at the barely-moving jade beast yet to be prised from the dirt. “I must say, this sect is fortunate to have had someone with your expertise in these situations.” She turned her attention back to Yue Fengjian, a kind smile on her face. “We are tremendously grateful for the Yue sect’s assistance in investigating and quelling this threat.”
“The Yue sect only wishes it could have done more,” Yue Fengjian replied, straightening himself up to his full height.
Hui Songbai’s eyes landed on Lian Zhidiao, and the almost fond regard she had been giving Yue Fengjian vanished in an instant. “This member of the Wa sect, is he yours as well?”
Lian Zhidiao’s hackles rose. Am I his! As if I was his pet!
“He has been very helpful,” Yue Fengjian said. “I became aware that he was mentored by a certain Guizai, and had skills which could prove useful. Thus, we used every advantage available to prevent further loss of life.”
Hui Songbai’s expression chilled even further. “Indeed, this kind of situation might be the only one in which such violent competency can be put to good use.”
Lian Zhidiao felt every part of him being scrutinized and then thrown aside without merit. He knew without a doubt now who Hui Songbai had been in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World. A strong shifu, known as the Blood-Lacquered Pine, who was famous for explosive strikes that painted the area with gore, as a calligrapher with a heavy brush. She had rejected marriage to devote her life to teaching students with hands-on methods in the Choking Wood. Later in the book, she became one of Yue Fengjian’s steadfast allies. This meeting was their first.
Yue Fengjian paused just for the length of a breath, and then continued. “Without the Wa technique of earth-seeing, the blood pit might have gone undiscovered until demonic reinforcements arrived. Because of his skill, we were able to prepare an ambush.”
Under her unflinching gaze, Lian Zhidiao bowed low and brought his hands together in a salute. For Yue Fengjian’s sake, I need to not make trouble.
But after a second or two, Hui Songbai’s attention turned to the Zhou twins. “Lin Zhengchun has told me you were responsible for dealing with the threat of the blood pit.”
“In a purely physical way, yes,” Zhou Xianzhi said. “But this ignorant magician can hardly take credit for the idea. That goes to—”
“Please.” Hui Songbai lifted her hand, stopping him. “We have no shortage of responsibility for everyone to share.” She turned and looked around the edge of the hole, where the others were gathered, and her eyes lit on Hu Baitian kneeling next to Yue Shipei. “You suffered your own casualty as well.”
Zhou Xiangu gripped the scabbard of his sword tightly and frowned, presumably for the same reason that Yue Yaosa did: the lumping together of the two Zhou cultivators with the party of Yue cultivators.
Zhou Xianzhi lowered his eyes, bowing his head slightly. “If you’ll forgive this magician’s rudeness, we cannot claim to have suffered any casualties at all. Had my brother and I not been so careless, we would have not gotten swept up in the qi deviations that were occurring.”
“I would be interested to hear your account of the events here,” Hui Songbai said. “But more than that, our Master has told me to extend his invitation to you to join him in Fenfang City to thank you personally for your aid in this matter.”
The Master? Does she mean the sect leader?
“We also have many skilled healers, so that you need not lean so heavily on your friend from the Yuan sect.”
Hu Baitian’s face was a mixture of emotions, flashing between ‘at last someone values my work’ and ‘does she think I can’t do it?’ But he settled on feeling valued and bowed his head in acknowledgment.
“We would welcome the chance to rest and recuperate,” Yue Fengjian said. Yue Yaosa nodded with him.
“The great Lin sect, our dependable peacekeepers.” Zhou Xianzhi stepped closer to Lian Zhidiao and put his arm around his shoulders, framing him with his other hand.
Lian Zhidiao turned to look at him, pressing his stare on Zhou Xianzhi’s pretty face. Aren’t you being too familiar?!
Zhou Xianzhi gave him a knowing look, and continued speaking. “My mind is slippery and full of holes. This inarticulate magician can barely maintain the Whisk of the Purple Orchid, but.” He paused only briefly, perhaps to let others hear and understand his…office?
It sounds like some sort of Court rank… or maybe a civil servant?
Zhou Xianzhi continued, “I cannot see how this town could have been saved without all of us here. Naturally your great Master has already recognized this reality and made arrangements.” Zhou Xianzhi released Lian Zhidiao and bowed to Hui Songbai. “We in the Tuhuan Zhou sect are deeply honored by your careful forethought.”
Ah. Lian Zhidiao immediately made the same kind of bow as Zhou Xianzhi. That sly fox. Of course someone like him could read that she was planning to exclude me from coming. His shoulders were warm where Zhou Xianzhi had touched him. I suppose I have to be thankful to him for putting his thumb on the scales. At least now I don’t have to worry about how to invite myself along.
Hui Songbai was quiet for half a breath too long. “Very well. All of you are welcome to join us in celebration.” Lian Zhidiao picked his head up a little bit to look at her, only to find her staring at him. “I will inform our Master of the good news.”
But from the look on her face, it was clear that the term ‘good news’ was relative.
Yue Shipei was taken to Fenfang City immediately for further treatment, accompanied by Hu Baitian. The Zhou twins, eager to have their contributions recognized, also went ahead. The rest of the group slept a night in Shuangwan Village, where Lin Jingjing treated them to a dinner in her home. Despite the reassurance of Hu Baitian going along with him, Yue Yaosa was anxious to see her older brother in good health. Taking their horses over land would take more than seven days, so traveling by sword was deemed the most expedient in this case. The Yue cultivators’ tack and saddles would be packed in trunks and delivered by porter; using porters seemed a good way to transport the heavy case containing the broken jade cat as well. It was a relief that he wouldn’t have to carry it during flight, but when he entrusted it to Lin Jingjing, for some reason, he was loath to let it go.
They left the next morning, just after dawn. Lin Jingjing promised that she would send their things to Fenfang City. Lin Jinjing and Yang Meihua waved them off from the crossroads in the center of town. Once again, Lian Zhidiao was a passenger on Yue Fengjian’s sword. They led the way flying out, with the others behind them. As Shuangwan Village shrank below them, Lian Zhidiao saw Yang Meihua cleave to Lin Jingjing, and rest her head on her shoulder. From this height, they appeared to be just one person.
It hadn’t taken long to get used to the idea of flying on a sword: it was like riding a bicycle. It seemed impossible at the start, but soon enough his body remembered the feeling of wind and balance, and settled into it as if he had been born on a jian.
They set out in the morning, the sun on their backs. Below them, they followed the river—did it have a name? Lian Zhidiao couldn’t remember—and before long, he saw the Green Highway swoop down from the north, white and broad enough for several carts to pass side-by-side. It drew close to the river. Situated between three hills, Sancha Town appeared below them, an orderly square of stone roads and houses. None of the undeath or misery or open tombs could be seen from up here. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes stayed on the town as they flew over it, but Yue Fengjian did not slow down or swing lower to take a closer look.
I suppose he sees this kind of thing all the time: demons, undead, whole villages hollowed out. Now that the Lin cultivators are working on it, his involvement is over.
He turned his head halfway to the side, as if to ask Yue Fengjian about the villages in Yue sect lands. But of course the wind was too strong for anything but a shout to be heard. Yelling back and forth thousands of feet up in the air probably wasn’t the best way to have a conversation.
Sancha Town dropped behind them and receded into the distance. The Green Highway continued to the west and the river split into smaller rivers, reaching into deeper parts of the forest below them. The greatest part of the stream curved up to the north and disappeared into the misty haze at the edge of the horizon. All along the road and the river, he could only make out small villages and towns as grey and white clearings in the expanse of forests and fields. As the sun hung fat and orange in the evening sky, they sighted Fenfang City.
Fenfang City was nothing less than a metropolis to rival any city in this world. At the end of the Green Highway in the center of the city, wide silver roofs pierced the canopy. Bright red wooden pillars upheld judicial buildings for the magistrates, libraries for the scholars, spaces for the treasury and civil servants. However, if one looked only at these great halls, one would miss the rest of the city, hidden under the cover of forest. Braziers were being lit for the night, revealing both the well-organized network of streets and lanes, as well as the mansions which were nestled in the groves. Lanterns floated under the branches like fireflies; the city had a bustling nightlife, doing brisk business at inns, opera houses, and brothels.
Yue Fengjian dropped back and let Yue Yaosa lead their flying formation; she had been the one to find out just where it was that Yue Shipei had been taken. In the dusk, she led them to the outskirts of the city, where low limestone hills poked up above the green blanket that covered the land. They landed in the courtyard of a huge mansion, floating down in the faintly spicy air between trees of incense wood. A pair of familiar faces was there to greet them.
Zhou Xiangu looked much better than he had in the siheyuan in Sancha Town. Clean, with his hair lightly oiled and his robes perfumed with agarwood, he looked more comfortable—and yet, there was an air of self-importance that had been missing before. Clearly, being surrounded by beauty and fragrance suited him better than the decay and horror in Sancha Town.
Zhou Xianzhi had been merely beautiful when dirty and trampled upon in Sancha Town. With just one day in the renewing walls of a sect capital, he could be likened to an island fairy. His long hair was sleek, as if a brush had been pulled through it a thousand times. Like a court lady, he smelled of the nectar of flowers, and he had traded his sword for a scented fan that rested on his delicate fingertips. He bowed to the party, offering a beatific smile.
“You’ve arrived,” Zhou Xiangu said, also bowing.
Yue Fengjian returned the bow. “The Master is not here?”
“He’s busy with sect affairs and won’t be able to meet us for a few days,” Zhou Xiangu replied. “Even though he was the one who invited us.”
“Now, now, he did leave instructions for us to be treated very well. And it gives our respected friends of the Yue sect a chance to rest after their journey without taking pains to keep up with the Master’s stamina.” Zhou Xianzhi said, opening his fan. His dark eyes moved to Yue Yaosa. “You are Yue Shipei’s sister? You must be worried for your brother.”
Yue Yaosa had a drawn, anxious look on her face. “I am,” she said.
Zhou Xianzhi opened his arms and gestured to a gallery behind them. “I will show you the way.”
The two of them walked ahead, leaving Yue Fengjian, Liao Kuaiyu, Lian Zhidiao, and Zhou Xiangu walking in another group behind them. They passed through gardens that seemed to melt into the wood, plantings of flowers and grass mounded on either side of a carefully raked path that led away from the house.
“The Master set aside a wing of the compound for us,” Zhou Xiangu said. “The servants here are quite dutiful, and will answer your call no matter what the hour.”
In front of them, Zhou Xianzhi and Yue Yaosa had reached a large pavilion with heavy wooden doors standing barely ajar. Hu Baitian appeared at the threshold and opened the doors a little wider. Yue Yaosa hurried inside, while Zhou Xianzhi hung back.
Lian Zhidiao and the second group joined him a few moments later, but even from outside, they could hear Yue Yaosa’s wail of relief.
Inside, Yue Shipei was in a low bed, reclining on pillows. He was dressed in a sick man’s clothes—simple cloth without any embroidery or signs of wealth, and bandages could be seen wrapping around his bare chest.
“He’s cracked a few ribs, but he’ll live,” Hu Baitian said as he left Yue Shipei’s bedside and walked back toward the door. “Well, he would have lived anyway, since I was right there to heal him, but…” He folded his arms over his chest, his tone grudgingly respectful. “Their healers are good. One of them was my father’s pupil, so they can be trusted to know what they’re doing.”
Lian Zhidiao nodded, wondering if he had ever divulged a detail like that in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World. But it made sense. The Yuan sect were the healing specialists in this world, and every cultivator with an interest in staying alive through battles would seek their teachings.
Something uncomfortable sprouted in Lian Zhidiao’s chest as he looked at Hu Baitian. Becoming a doctor just like his father, huh?
“A-Zhen,” Yue Shipei said, petting the back of Yue Yaosa’s head. “You heard what Hu Baitian said. I’ll be fine.” He looked past his sister to the rest of them, and his face brightened a little. “You must have flown fast to get here so quickly. We didn’t arrive until well past nightfall.”
“You expect them to fly fast with an injured man?” Liao Kuaiyu grinned.
“I haven’t been injured like this before, so I had no idea what it was like.”
“We’ll wait here until you’re able to travel without fear of re-injuring yourself.” Yue Fengjian said, his expression softening. “Even if we have to move you into an inn because you’ve exhausted our hosts’ hospitality.”
Yue Shipei looked down at the bed. “At least it’s plenty of time to read. They’ve brought me any books I’ve asked for.”
Like siblings and old friends, the Yue cultivators fell into an easy discussion. One that Lian Zhidiao was content to watch as an outsider until he felt a touch at his sleeve.
Zhou Xianzhi motioned him out into the open night air, where Zhou Xiangu waited, looking vaguely impatient.
Lian Zhidiao looked back and forth between them. “What’s this about?”
“You really are alright with them?” Zhou Xiangu nodded his head to the still noisy group inside.
“With six people here, it might get quite crowded.” Zhou Xianzhi’s voice was lowered so that it wouldn’t carry far, meant only for the three of them. “We have a whole pavilion to ourselves.” Zhou Xianzhi’s lashes lowered as his eyes ran down Lian Zhidiao’s body. “You can join us, if you so desire.”
Lian Zhidiao gave Zhou Xianzhi a small smile and a small bow, trying to extract himself from this situation while doing the least offense. “This foolish magician is honored by your concern, but I will stay in this pavilion.”
Zhou Xianzhi’s face didn’t change, remaining beautiful and serene. He bowed deeply and turned to go, but then spoke over his shoulder. “If you should find yourself in need of shelter, little one, don’t hesitate to come to us.”
A shiver ran down Lian Zhidiao’s spine. It could be that they honestly want me to be comfortable, especially if they knew the original Lian Zhidiao, but on the other hand, what’s with this mood?!
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