Yue Danquan’s calm, hypnotic voice, which had guided him through the actual process of removing a memory, gave a gentle prompt. “Sit up.”
Lian Zhidiao sat up, holding a hand to his head. His cheeks felt hot; when he rubbed them, they came away wet with tears. Yue Danquan was next to him with a concerned expression, a jade slip in his hand. “How do you feel?”
“…Woozy,” Lian Zhidiao mumbled.
“That’s to be expected,” Yue Danquan said. He reached out and placed a hand over Lian Zhidiao’s dantian. There was that sense of conditional connectedness again, and Yue Danquan nodded, as if his suspicions had been confirmed. “Your ‘core’ seems fairly calm. Despite the crying, it seems that removing that memory hasn’t inflamed your passions.” His wise eyes pressed into Lian Zhidiao, impressing upon him that though he had not said ‘other’, his words were about the ‘other core’ and the deviate qi contained within it.
Lian Zhidiao nodded, taking his meaning. Performing this kind of healing in the little house was more comfortable than up in Yue Danquan’s meditation grotto, but he still didn’t want to spread around the knowledge that he was a ticking time bomb while they knew so little.
“Don’t try to remember what you’ve lost,” Yue Danquan said, leaning back and folding his hands on his lap. “The feeling that you have lost something will fade with time as the mental wound heals over.”
Mental wound. He tried to think back to the time Qianjiao had abducted him, and although he could remember what Qianjiao had said, near the end it became fuzzy and indistinct. Then, nothing at all. No feeling of being overwhelmed, of vomiting poison, of knowing he was going to die. There had been pain and agony there, but now there was nothing.
Relief washed over him, in the same way it would if he received good news from a doctor about his prognosis following a serious illness. I suppose it’s like cutting something poisonous out of the body.
Lian Zhidiao rubbed at the tear stains on his face. A necessary part of the memory removal—or sequestration—process was reliving the memory. Yue Danquan had advised him to think of the jade slip as something soft, into which the memory could be pressed before it was cut out.
Yue Danquan offered him a small jade slip. It wasn’t bigger than a USB stick.
“Is this it?”
“It is.” Yue Danquan’s expression was grave. “The memory itself won’t survive long without extra qi to maintain it. Maybe a year or so. If you feel you need to remember it before then, you should use it.”
“I won’t,” Lian Zhidiao said, his confidence returning to him. “May I leave it with you?”
Yue Danquan nodded, setting the jade slip aside. Yue Fengjian, who had been hovering just inside the small kitchen at the front of the little house, stepped into the room. “You have good timing,” Yue Danquan said smoothly, refusing to acknowledge that Yue Fengjian had been eavesdropping just out of sight. “We’ve just finished.”
“A success,” Yue Danquan said, standing up. “Inasmuch as one can have success with this sort of thing.”
Lian Zhidiao got to his feet and had to put out a hand to steady himself. Yue Fengjian stepped forward, but Lian Zhidiao waved him off.
Yue Fengjian’s lips twisted, but he quickly turned his attention to his uncle. “Do you know anything else about his core?”
Yue Danquan gave a long pause before speaking cautiously. “Our sect is not given to intensive study of historical records. Even before my little brother began to lead instruction, there was resistance to study in the other Elders.” He withdrew his fan from his sleeve and pressed it to his chin thoughtfully as his wise eyes looked over Lian Zhidiao. “Your ‘condition’ is something that ought to be noted down. The Yuan sect would write of it in their Register of Omens alongside the names of swords from the Hidden Realm. The Zhou sect would love to study you; it’s possible that in their Library of Heaven And Earth they have some obscure account of something similar happening before. But it is perhaps your misfortune that you have fallen in with a sect that does not value highly the study of books.”
Yue Fengjian cleared his throat.
Yue Danquan glanced back at him, and the air grew heavy between the former sect leader and the son of his younger brother sent to spy on him. Lian Zhidiao had no idea what Yue Kuangxiang had instructed Yue Fengjian to look for, or if Yue Fengjian should report his uncle for speaking poorly of the sect leader (despite being his elder brother). The whole situation seemed very complicated to him, and so he kept silent.
“Is there anything more we can do about it here?” Yue Fengjian said at last, and the uncomfortable feeling in the small room lifted slightly as the small slight passed without further comment.
“No,” Yue Danquan said, without hesitating. “At least, not now. I know far too little to make any guesses about how or why it is the way it is.” He stroked his beard, a thoughtful look on his face. “But as long as precautions are taken, he doesn’t seem to pose a danger to anyone around him, so…” Yue Danquan shrugged one shoulder.
Yue Fengjian frowned, but didn’t respond to Yue Danquan’s ambivalent answer. Instead his eyes sought Lian Zhidiao’s. “The precautions are the same as one usually takes with those in danger of qi deviation?”
“Yes,” Yue Danquan said, turning to look at Lian Zhidiao with Yue Fengjian. He folded his hands behind his back, appraising the situation with a practiced eye. “Limit his excitement, increase his meditation time. Perhaps he could even enter isolation for a short while to help with recovery. If you’re concerned about him, there are places nearby that aren’t too dangerous.”
Aren’t too dangerous? What kind of trials must be undergone in seclusion? Maybe he shouldn’t attempt anything as serious as dodging 88 lightning bolts in a row. And near the border with demon lands, there were bound to be more serious threats than one would normally face during seclusion. What if something found him while he was meditating and ambushed him?
“Thank you for your concern and hospitality, Uncle,” Yue Fengjian replied. “I’m sure he has much to think about.”
“I can tell that Hanqi is eager to leave, but I’ll make him wait just a moment longer.” Yue Danquan stepped over to a small chest of drawers in one corner of the room. He pulled out one of the smallest drawers and took from it an object wrapped in red silk. Drawing close to Lian Zhidiao, he pressed it into Lian Zhidiao’s hands. “For an emergency,” he said in a voice so low that only Lian Zhidiao could hear him. Then, with a knowing glance at Yue Fengjian, he drew his fan out of his sleeve and poked his head in the kitchen for a moment. “A-Zhen, let’s go find something to make pickles out of.”
Yue Yaosa’s voice was slightly shrill. “What? Did you go through the other ones already?”
“I have,” Yue Danquan replied. There was a sound of a bowl lifting up off a crock and then Yue Shipei laughed.
“Don’t give him that look, A-Zhen. You know he loves them.”
“I didn’t think he’d go through them so quickly.”
Yue Shipei’s voice was heavy with fondness. “He loves Mom’s pickles.”
“Only slightly more than A-Zhen’s.” Yue Danquan added. Then he, Yue Shipei, and Yue Yaosa filed out his front door into the garden.
Lian Zhidiao watched him glide out into the small courtyard in front of his little house, and then looked down at the thing in his hands.
Yue Fengjian looked over Lian Zhidiao’s shoulder. “What did he give you?”
Lian Zhidiao pulled aside the red silk, revealing a piece of green jade almost as long as his hand carved into the shape of an unopened lotus bud, and clear as water.
Yue Fengjian was so quiet that Lian Zhidiao turned and looked up at him, only to find a ghastly frown on his face. “What’s that look for?”
“What did he say to you?”
“He said ‘for an emergency’.” Lian Zhidiao looked back down at the beautiful stone tool, so clean he could see the weave of the silk through it. “I think… he means for me to use it in case of something terrible.”
“Like entering qi deviation?” Yue Fengjian looked after his uncle’s retreating back, and then looked back down at Lian Zhidiao. “Makes sense.”
Lian Zhidiao looked up at Yue Fengjian, distinctly aware of how they were now the only two people in the little house. His voice was weak. “If it’s meant to take in deviate qi from my other core, then I will need someone else to provide qi to use it. I can’t open them both at the same time. One will pollute the other.”
“Wouldn’t it be fine if your other core was polluted?” Yue Fengjian snarked back.
“I don’t know,” Lian Zhidiao replied, with an edge in his voice. “I don’t know anything about this or why it’s happened to me or what good I can turn it to, if any.”
Yue Fengjian was silent for a moment before letting out a small breath. “Someone close to qi deviation doesn’t talk about the good of others.”
He was right. Qi deviation was characterized by a destructive focus turned inward; those near deviation had no thoughts for others, only for themselves. But Lian Zhidiao didn’t see why Yue Fengjian would make a comment like that. “And?”
Yue Fengjian squared his shoulders and nodded at the carved lotus bud. “So if you need someone to use that to keep your golden core from being polluted, then I can do it.”
Connecting his qi to the lotus, which might, even for an instant, be open to Lian Zhidiao’s other core filled with deviate qi… No, that’s not how this works! You’re the hero and I’m the cannon fodder! Don’t offer yourself up for me!
Lian Zhidiao frowned and started to turn away. “That… isn’t necessary.”
“Listen to me,” Yue Fengjian said, moving with him so that he couldn’t escape. “You have a talent that no one else has. I don’t know if it’s because of this other core or the deviate qi or whatever—”
“It’s not because of the deviate qi,” Lian Zhidiao protested. “I was able to do this before I met you at Shuangwan Village.” He couldn’t determine if that was entirely true, but it had been empty when he got it. Lian Zhidiao had to admit that he hadn’t really taken a thorough examination of his own meridians before Qianjiao had tried to kill him, so it was possible that some deviate qi had been present in this body before he acquired it. But given the difficulty of purging even a small amount of deviate qi, it seemed unlikely that the original Lian Zhidiao was full of it and had done him the favor of getting rid of all of it before dying.
“Well, whatever it is, it’s useful.” A smile slowly spread across his face. “To think that the Yue sect would so desperately need the assistance of those who ignored the White Emperor’s laws about the jade beasts. We have had no way to stem the loss of jade beasts, nothing to help us recover them. But now, that’s changed.”
At those words, Lian Zhidiao’s heart was thrown into chaos. Thus far he had been able to live as Lian Zhidiao without betraying the original Lian Zhidiao’s filial piety. Even if Lian Zhidiao had been estranged from his family for a reason he couldn’t recall, that still didn’t give license to just move in with another sect and give them the Wa sect’s techniques. “Yue Fengjian—”
“I know that soon you’ll be back on your way to your sect, or whatever it was you were doing before we ran into you. I’m not asking you to reveal anything or teach us,” he said, silencing further protests with a raised hand. “But even one or two jade beasts cleansed would be an immense help to us.”
This isn’t even in the story! He wailed silently in his mind. There aren’t any Wa magicians in the main group! You don’t even meet the Wa beauty until more than halfway through the book! This is supposed to be when you’re planning how to defeat demon hordes and determine that you’ll even need the help of opposing sects!
But confronted with the stern, sincere face of his protagonist asking him to help, Lian Zhidiao’s resistance crumbled. He inclined his head to Yue Fengjian. “It would be okay if I helped some, probably.”
He couldn’t quite hide his distaste for the falsehood. It’s an outright lie, because I don’t know what is or isn’t okay. But I don’t know what else to say!
Yue Fengjian had just given him a broad smile when outside, they heard Yue Yaosa yell.
“Is dage inside?” Liao Kuaiyu’s voice was fraught with urgency.
Yue Fengjian stepped to the front of the little house at the same time as Yue Shipei turned to look for them. Lian Zhidiao followed close behind, tucking the carved jade in his robes.
“Dage!” Liao Kuaiyu ran to meet him, a short jian in his hand. His hair was in disarray from the flight, sticking up in all directions. “Your father sent me. He wants you to return immediately.”
“What’s the matter?” Yue Fengjian’s eyes flashed to Yue Yaosa and Yue Shipei, who had come to join them. “What’s happened?”
“A messenger came from a village to the west, near the border. He got here half-dead and said that there’s been lightning and storms there for days. Many dead. They’d thought it was a demon, but it’s a qilin!”
“A qilin?” Yue Danquan joined the small group, his face lined with worry. “Why would a qilin attack a village?”
“Or several villages?” Liao Kuaiyu retorted, before seeming to remember who he was talking to. He hurriedly made a salute to Yue Danquan before turning back to Yue Fengjian. “The messenger said that his hadn’t been the first. There was another one, one valley over, which had been attacked every day for two weeks before the qilin moved to his village and started doing the same thing.”
“What kind of attacks?” Yue Danquan stroked his beard.
“He couldn’t tell much of it, but lightning—big lightning—and setting houses on fire, trampling people that tried to run.” Liao Kuaiyu looked from Yue Fengjian to Yue Shipei to Yue Yaosa. “Wh-What are we gonna do?”
Yue Shipei couldn’t quite keep incredulity out of his voice. “You’re sure he said it’s a qilin?”
“It would be hard to confuse one for something else, even for a villager,” Yue Yaosa said, her arms crossed over her chest. “A one-horned beast with the ability to call lightning is kinda hard to get wrong.”
“So what do we do?” Liao Kuaiyu looked more and more antsy, shifting his weight on the balls of his feet. “Maybe Master Yue has a plan for dealing with it, but many of the Elders are in seclusion, and I know two of the ones who are not are still dealing with a minor demon to the southwest… What do we do?” he repeated.
“First, calm down,” Yue Yaosa said. “This isn’t something we can’t handle.”
Liao Kuaiyu’s hands tightened around his jian and he nodded, these few words from her seeming to be enough to keep him from getting even more tightly wound.
“There must be some reason for a celestial beast to attack us,” Yue Danquan mused, directing his eyes heavenward. “Celestial beasts have always lived in peace with us.”
Celestial beasts, creatures of mythic stature, like dragons, qilin, fenghuang, penghou, and others. Neither the ghosts of the dead nor spirits of the land, all of them possessed golden cores. And unlike humans, all of them had the ability to cultivate to immortality just by virtue of their supernatural origins. Some of these celestial beasts were friendly with humans, others kept their distance or even hid from them, but their goodness and virtue was without question.
What grave offense could spur a qilin, one of the most divine creatures, to act in such a vicious way?
“There’s something missing in this story,” Yue Shipei said, shaking his head. “Kuaiyu is right. We should get back as soon as possible.”
Liao Kuaiyu was already stepping onto his sword.
“Father, I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Yue Yaosa led with her foot toward the house, bringing in the basket of vegetables they’d already picked.
“Me too,” Yue Shipei added, following her lead.
“Bring more of your mother’s pickles next time,” Yue Danquan replied, snapping open his fan. “Two jars, perhaps.”
At any other time, Yue Yaosa might have given him an exasperated look. But instead, she gave him a sharp nod and ran to retrieve her sword.
“We will go too,” Yue Fengjian said, turning to get his shuangjian from inside the house. “I’ll tell Father that you haven’t entered qi deviation yet.”
“I’m sure he will be elated,” Yue Danquan replied wryly.
Yue Fengjian gave him a hard look as he came back outside. Yue Danquan fanned himself as Lian Zhidiao made a salute to him before climbing onto Yue Fengjian’s sword in front of him. As they rose up into the air, Yue Fengjian’s voice slid into his ear, warm and close.
“Does the Wa sect have any skills for dealing with a heavenly curse?”
Lian Zhidiao shook his head, a knot of dread growing in his stomach.
Yue Fengjian’s rough sigh was lost in the wind as they gained speed.