Chapter 20: Hidden Cunning

Content Warning For Chapter 20: Assault, Torture, Emetophobia


At some point during their hurried flight through the twisting thickets and groves of trees, Lian Zhidiao took a knock to the head from a branch and lost consciousness. It wasn’t like the demon was being particularly careful with the person he’d called a ‘troublemaker’. 

When Lian Zhidiao came to, he awoke slowly, his head feeling heavy on his neck, like he couldn’t raise it no matter what. He lay in a heap like a carelessly dropped toy, the side of his face pressed against the dirt. The air stank of rotting leaves and rust. His head throbbed. There was a sticky, stiffening feeling in his hair.

Something landed near him, disturbing the leaf litter around him. A few moments passed, and then there was a sharp pain in his head as a small rock grazed his temple. He wanted to lift a hand to his head, but couldn’t move his arms. Slowly, he stirred, opening his eyes. 

It was still dark—or he’d been out for an entire day—and the moon was high in the sky, encircled by a pale moonbow. If he had to guess, he’d say it was well after two in the morning. Given that he’d been with Lin Xianglan just after sunset, that was a long stretch of time that he couldn’t account for. 

“You’re awake.” That grating, whining demon’s voice again. 

Lian Zhidiao rolled his eyes around to where he thought the voice was coming from—even this seemed to take a heroic effort. 

The demon was sitting on a felled tree, one leg resting on his other knee, looking nonchalant. His fine silk clothing was gone, replaced with short dark-colored robes. Though the only light was moonlight, Lian Zhidiao could see he had the same ashen grey skin as the other demon. His eyes were black, with two searing red pupils that glowed faintly, and pointed ears stuck out from behind a curtain of long black hair.. The bark of the tree under his hand was covered in a silvery layer of frost. 

“You humans are fragile,” the demon mused, tossing a few pebbles in his hand before sending one rocketing at Lian Zhidiao’s head. It landed just short of his face, flinging leaf litter into his eyes. “Your frail body has made me wait, when time is short…” 

Lian Zhidiao coughed and tried to rub his eyes, but his arms still wouldn’t move. He realized at last that they were bound behind him with strong—no, impossible to break—rope. Rubbing the dust off his face with his shoulder helped, but his eyes still hurt. He looked back up at the demon, who was now looking quite pleased with himself. “What are you talking about?” 

A chuckle rattled in the demon’s throat. “Your lack of honesty is why you humans struggle so,” the demon said. 

Lian Zhidiao pushed his face into the dirt, gaining some leverage to wriggle his body around. His legs were also bound at the ankles with the same binding ropes, but not as tightly as his hands. He was slowly able to wiggle his knees back and forth and push himself forward, inching like a worm towards being able to sit up. But as soon as it looked like he might do it, the demon got up from his seat on the tree. With one foot, he pushed Lian Zhidiao over, forcing dirt and leaves into his mouth and undoing all the work he’d done. 

“Stay on the ground,” the demon growled. 

Lian Zhidiao spit leaves out of his mouth and glared up the demon. “If you want to talk to me, you need to treat me with some kind of respect.” 

“Oh?” The demon crouched near him, his foul breath in a cloud in front of him. 

“It would go a long way towards letting us have a real conversation.” 

“Interesting…” The demon thought on this for a moment and then picked Lian Zhidiao up by the hair, his icy talons scraping his scalp.

“OW!”  

Lian Zhidiao’s yelp of pain went ignored. The demon dragged him through the leaves and propped him up against the fallen tree. Without his face in the dirt, he could get a better sense of where he was. The moon wasn’t as far along as he’d thought, so maybe it was closer to midnight than two in the morning. At least the sky was clear; it would have been impossible to know how much time had passed on a cloudy night.

This seemed to be a natural clearing, maybe formed by the felling of the very tree he was leaning against. Not too far from them, he found the reason for the stench of blood: a blood pit. Given the pile of animal corpses a little further off in the trees, it seemed to have been made with actual blood. Lian Zhidiao couldn’t smell them from here, so it seemed that they weren’t very old, or at least not old enough to have rotted much. Less than a day, certainly. 

Only a few kilometers away, a limestone mountain rose up out of the forest, black against the starlight. Lian Zhidiao thought he could see a few lights moving around in the trees on its side, but when he blinked, they were gone. Probably wishful thinking on my part.

The demon prowled the edge of the clearing, looking at Lian Zhidiao like a hungry beast in a cage. Lian Zhidiao spat more dirt out of his mouth.  No one would likely notice anything was wrong until morning, when someone would check his bed and find it cold. So he probably shouldn’t expect any search parties, at least not until then. But the demon hadn’t killed him yet, presumably for his own reasons. Lian Zhidiao had to figure out what those reasons were and try to figure out a way to live through this.

“What’s your name?” 

“What?” 

“You can’t expect to talk to a human without exchanging names,” Lian Zhidiao said, though he didn’t sound as confident as he wished he did. “Since you are the one who wants to know something, you should introduce yourself first.” 

The demon hesitated for a moment before squaring his shoulders. “Qianjiao.” 

Good. “I’m Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao.” His voice was clear and firm. 

Qianjiao tilted his head. “You’re a strange human.” 

“Why is that?” 

“Humans that see this form”—he gestured to his ash-grey skin and red eyes—”usually begin to scream and beg for their lives.” 

Lian Zhidiao could understand that. Qianjiao, just like Tangyi, had an upright and strong body. In the black-and-white landscape under moonlight, he might be easy to miss if it weren’t for those searing red eyes that glowed in the dark. When Lian Zhidiao had written it, the glowing had just been a cool visual to show that demons were brimming with power. But the actual feeling of being under those eyes was like being pinned to the tree with smoking-hot irons. Even though he didn’t meet Qianjiao’s gaze, those awful red motes that seemed to hover in the darkness burned in front of his eyes. “Your appearance isn’t shocking to me,” Lian Zhidiao said, more boldly than he felt. 

“If you’re not afraid of me…” Qianjiao chuckled, sounding both raspy and shrill-sharp at the same time. “Perhaps the Wa sect’s teachings have changed?” 

The Wa sect? “What do you mean?” 

From his sleeve Qianjiao pulled out a knife, slightly curved and still in the sheath. “Your little cabal in the swamps has always had the most sympathetic ear for our kind. Unlucky for you that you made the mistake you did in Sancha Town.” 

Lian Zhidiao swallowed, his eyes staying on the knife. No, no, focus! From a demon’s point of view, what would be a mistake? What would be something to hold a human responsible for? With some effort he tore his eyes away from the dagger and looked back at Qianjiao’s face. “Are you talking about killing Tangyi?” 

“Killing Tangyi!” Qianjiao barked a laugh. “Why would I care about that waste of skin? Low blood like that shouldn’t even aspire to being spilled in a cesspit.”

Lian Zhidiao’s eyebrows rose. “Don’t you even have a care for a fellow demon?” 

“Tangyi was useful, but I did not care about him. Do you care for the leaves that wrap zongzi?” Qianjiao’s voice dripped with sarcasm. 

“Yet you cannot make zongzi without the leaves,” Lian Zhidiao countered. 

“Something being necessary does not make it important,” Qianjiao shot back. “There are many humans who are willing to listen to those with old blood. They are helpful, even necessary, but almost none of them are important.” 

“Which ones are important then?” Lian Zhidiao leaned forward.

Qianjiao smirked, showing a white fang at the corner of his mouth, and began to amble back across the clearing. “You ask a lot of questions, even for one of the Wa.” 

“You have questions of your own, don’t you?” Lian Zhidiao made a show of struggling in his restraints. “Why go to the trouble of tying me up? It would have been easier to kill me rather than kidnap me.”

“Not questions, exactly, but…I wouldn’t mind having a little fun with you,” Qianjiao rasped. He unsheathed his knife, setting the small sheath on the tree trunk. Lian Zhidiao expected to see the blade glint in the moonlight, but very little light was reflected off the metal, as if it was covered in a layer of soot. Qianjiao flipped the dagger in his hand a few times, and then sat on the tree, his legs stretched out in front of him. “So you’re right, in a way.” 

Lian Zhidiao swallowed, fighting down the urge to turn his head to look up at Qianjiao. The knife lingered in his peripheral vision. With its curved tip, Qianjiao gently pulled Lian Zhidiao’s hair aside, exposing his neck. 

“Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao. Your shifu is Guizai.” He spat out Guizai’s name, like it left a bad taste in his mouth. 

“You don’t know that for sure.” 

“That kind of answer tells me immediately that it is true.” Qianjiao’s clawed fingers loosened the collar of Lian Zhidiao’s robes.

Lian Zhidiao stiffened. “So what if he is?” 

“I always expect to have my plans meddled with. Your lives depend on it, after all.” Qianjiao’s voice was much smoother when he wasn’t speaking over a distance, almost as if his voice was made for whispers and intrigue more than speaking at a normal volume. “The Lin sect alone would have had a great deal of trouble with Tangyi. The Yue sect arriving to help was unfortunate, but I did not expect they would find the Jade Beast.” 

The black blade touched Lian Zhidiao’s skin. Immediately a wave of cold revulsion crashed over him: as a spiritual weapon was filled with correct qi, this blade was soaked with deviate qi. It felt like a concentrated form of the numbing uneasiness he felt while ‘seeing’ through stained earth, and it was enough to make his gorge rise.

“Don’t like that?” Qianjiao’s confident tone sounded much more dangerous in a low voice. 

“No,” Lian Zhidiao choked out, trying to flatten himself against the tree as much as he could. But the blade pressed under Lian Zhidiao’s chin, edge out, with the blunt back skimming over his skin. It bounced against his Adam’s apple as he swallowed. 

“It was very troublesome to me,” Qianjiao murmured. “To have Guizai’s student with earth-seeing appearing out of nowhere to help the Yue sect.” Qianjiao turned the blade, pressing the flat of it against Lian Zhidiao’s neck, the edge pointed down.

Lian Zhidiao kicked his feet, pushing himself further back against the tree—closer to Qianjiao, but further from the knife. His heart thundered in his ears. 

“Because of you, months of work were wasted.” Qianjiao crushed the back of the knife into Lian Zhidiao’s throat. 

For a few moments, Lian Zhidiao couldn’t breathe. He fixed his gaze on a tree across the clearing as his body heaved, his lungs trying to suck in air once, twice. Qianjiao angled the blade, pressing on the far side of his neck. Spots appeared in his vision; to get air, he had to turn his head. To avoid being stabbed, he could only turn his head one way, toward Qianjiao. 

Lian Zhidiao turned his head, and was rewarded immediately with air. He gasped, sucking in a deep breath. Above him, he could see that hateful red leer looking down on him, and the faint outline of Qianjiao’s smile of pleasure at seeing his prisoner forced to look up at him. 

Tears welled up in Lian Zhidiao’s eyes. What a loathsome feeling, to look up at someone who is holding you, and be powerless to act! 

“Such angry eyes,” Qianjiao purred. Then with a vicious strength, he stabbed the tree right in front of Lian Zhidiao’s face, missing him by the width of an incense stick. 

Lian Zhidiao was still crying out in fear and surprise when Qianjiao picked him up by the hair again and dragged him up onto the tree trunk. Lian Zhidiao lay awkwardly on the tree trunk, his arms crushed underneath him.  

Qianjiao wrenched the knife free of the tree and slipped it back into its sheath with a small click. “But even though Sancha Town is a total loss, I can still find some rice among the chaff. For instance, there are benefits to knowing exactly where Yue Fengjian isn’t. I can sell that for a handsome price.” 

Where he isn’t? Lian Zhidiao blinked away the tears that were still clouding his vision. “You mean the Yue sect.” 

“Of course,” Qianjiao said. “Yue Fengjian is their most powerful fighter. Why they’ve sent him away from Xuefeng City is a mystery, but one doesn’t question a peach that falls into one’s lap.” 

“He’ll kill you,” Lian Zhidiao bit out. “Yue Fengjian will hunt you down and kill you.”

“I’m sure he’d love to,” Qianjiao said with a chuckle. “But I will be long gone before he finds out what is in store for Xuefeng City. And you will be dead.” 

Lian Zhidiao swallowed down the uneasy feeling that kept welling up inside him. His voice was weak. “Then why are you telling me this?” 

Qianjiao slung his leg over the tree trunk and sat down on Lian Zhidiao’s thighs. “It has to do with you. I certainly never thought that Guizai’s student would ever fall to such temptation. So I was surprised to discover this.” Qianjiao reached up and planted his hand just below Lian Zhidiao’s silk belt, making him flinch in reaction to the cold. 

“What?” 

“Don’t play dumb. You have a secret in here.” 

Of course. “The empty core,” Lian Zhidiao said, letting his head fall back down against the tree in defeat.

“Not empty,” Qianjiao corrected him. 

“No.” Lian Zhidiao watched in horror as Qianjiao curved his hand over that soft spot under Lian Zhidiao’s belly button, pressing his fingers against him like some kind of mad scientist feeling his insides. 

“A rare ability among humans,” Qianjiao said. “I know of one or two demons who have similar conditions, like that filth Shen Qingyu. But a human… that is rare.” 

“So what does that have to do with why you’re telling me this?” 

“Because I decided against killing you in a boring way,” Qianjiao said airily. “I was going to cut off your breast and pierce your heart. But finding something like this…” His cold fingers dug into Lian Zhidiao’s flesh, just above his dantian. “I’m not going to pass up something fun.” 

Tears welled up in Lian Zhidiao’s eyes again and he blinked them back. “Something fun,” he repeated. 

“There’s nothing quite like being the first to do something, is there?” Qianjiao had a look on his face like relief, basking in the anticipation of his idea. “I’m going to see just how much of this you can hold.” 

“How much of—!!” Qianjiao’s palm against his dantian injected a pulse of deviate qi directly into his empty core. Lian Zhidiao bowed up as if he was retching, as if he’d been stabbed, a full-body writhing that would have toppled him from the tree trunk if Qianjiao’s weight hadn’t been holding him in place. The deviate qi already in the empty core swirled and came alive, and then all of it settled down, slowly collecting in the bottom of it, and looking like not very much at all. 

“Fascinating,” Qianjiao muttered. “If I had more time, I’d love to do it slowly.” 

“No,” Lian Zhidiao whimpered.

“When they find you, at best you’ll be a vindictive corpse. Your friends will have to kill you. Wanting to know who is responsible, Yue Fengjian will ask for the assistance of one of your vile Speakers. They will put all the pieces of you they can find in one place, close to that Great Jade Beast, and draw your memories out to watch them like they would watch a play. They’ll pay particular attention to this part, just before you die.” Qianjiao reached up and cupped Lian Zhidiao’s face in his hand, his icy thumb smoothing over his cheek. “So let me say, hello young master Yue Fengjian.” A cruel smile spread across his face, showing off his white teeth as he looked deeply into Lian Zhidiao’s eyes. “Better hurry home.” 

It wasn’t said to Lian Zhidiao at all. It was a message that Yue Fengjian would hear long after he was dead. “No,” Lian Zhidiao mumbled, unable to look away from those vile red eyes. I’m just a cannon fodder character…but is this really the only purpose I can serve? “No!” He saw Qianjiao’s grin whet, sharpening on his fear and panic. In a last desperate act, he emptied his meridians of qi and closed the way to his golden core. 

Qianjiao poured deviate qi into him. It surged in and swept around his body, a fetid tide of corruption that raked his guts with numbing, twisting pain. Lian Zhidiao screamed, but it quickly became a gurgle in his throat, cut off as black liquid began to stream from his mouth. Since he’d clamped the way to his golden core shut, every breath he took was tainted by the deviate qi rushing through his meridians. His skin began to turn ashen gray. Another gout of black liquid bubbled out of his lips as he tried to purge some of it from his body, but it was like bailing out a lake with a ladle. There simply wasn’t any way to expel it all as fast as Qianjiao was filling him. 

Then there was an explosion above them, a dazzling sun that bloomed in the night sky and outshone the moon. Qianjiao’s weight vanished from his body, along with the endless river of corruption. The deviate qi in him drained down to his dantian, filling the ‘vessel without contents’. It raged inside the empty core, a wild tempest that subsided within moments of Qianjiao leaving. On the edge of consciousness, Lian Zhidiao retched again, spitting up more black liquid, and closed the way to the empty core to allow his correct qi to circulate. Exhausted, he lay on the tree trunk, panting for air. 

Someone rushed up to him, pushed his head back. Lian Zhidiao couldn’t see who it was, couldn’t focus his eyes. 

“Lian Zhidiao!”

Yue Fengjian. He could give no sign that he heard him, no response to his name. The only thing he could manage was breathing. 

“Yaosa!” Yue Fengjian yelled. 

To Lian Zhidiao, it sounded muffled, as if his ears were stuffed with wool. He was boneless as Yue Fengjian hefted him in his arms. Lian Zhidiao let his head rest against Yue Fengjian’s chest, warm and steady. Then everything caught up with him all at once and he sank into unconsciousness. 


Previous Chapter < Chapter 19: Being A Wingman For The Main Character Is Hard!
Next Chapter > Chapter 21: An Omen

One thought on “Chapter 20: Hidden Cunning”

  1. I hope you don’t mind all these comments! This chapter was truly grueling, in a fantastic way. I remember reaching it on my first read and thinking “ah, there’s the terrible suffering every danmei protagonist has to go through” or at least the beginning of it? Either way it is not a complaint! I love it, but oh god, poor Lian Zhidiao. When Qianjiao began speaking /through/ him, so certain that lzd’s friends were going to be seeing his dying moments in vivid detail…that HURT! I was so relieved when they arrived for him. I love the way those who use the deviant qi/Demons turn completely monochrome aside from red?? I can imagine it so vividly as something unsettling, a being drained of color in a chromatic world!
    Lastly and terribly, I have to admit to laughing during this paragraph: ““No.” Lian Zhidiao watched in horror as Qianjiao curved his hand over that soft spot under Lian Zhidiao’s belly button, pressing his fingers against him like some kind of mad scientist feeling his insides.” ONLY BECAUSE it reminded me I need to make an appointment with a gyno for my yearly check up. Qianjiao would be a terrible gynecologist.

    Liked by 1 person

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