The five of them raced south through the steep-sided valleys to Xuefeng City. Although he’d been able to enjoy the flight up to Xiyu Mountain, now Lian Zhidiao couldn’t stop his eyes from being pulled to the west. In the distance, he could see gray clouds lying thick over mountaintops, smothering the snowy peaks. As he watched, a single ominous glow swelled within them, and then faded away. Dread twisted his guts.
Early afternoon sunshine picked out the demon-repelling arrays carved into the walls of the city, layered over each other like knotwork carved into a screen. As they approached, Lian Zhidiao unconsciously pressed down on Yue Fengjian’s sword with his feet as if it would slow their descent. But Yue Fengjian didn’t slow down, and in fact, he seemed to approach the landing courtyard at an almost reckless speed. As they dropped below the roofline, Lian Zhidiao could already see Uncle Song waiting below them. Wallbreaker was barely back in its sheath before Yue Fengjian bowed to him.
“Young Master, your father is waiting for you.”
“Thank you, Uncle Song. Please tell him I will be with him shortly.” Yue Fengjian took Lian Zhidiao’s arm, as if to lead him away.
“This humble servant is deeply sorry, but your father wishes to see you immediately.”
Yue Fengjian froze in place for an instant; Lian Zhidiao felt the tension in his body shoot up. He understood the high-stakes mental calculation which had to be performed in a single moment when dealing with a demanding father. Yue Fengjian glanced at Lian Zhidiao—their eyes met briefly—and then he replied. “Of course.”
“Very good, Young Master. This way.”
They moved through the castle again, past the mineshaft-like atria and the large hewn beams. But instead of turning to go towards Yue Fengjian’s quarters, they kept walking, and the narrow corridors opened up slightly.
“Uncle Song, were you able to procure that thing I asked?”
Uncle Song stopped to reply with a nod. “Yes, Young Master.”
“See that he gets it,” Yue Fengjian said. “We will need everyone at their most capable.”
“As you wish, Young Master.” And then Uncle Song continued walking.
The carved screens in this part of the castle were no longer scenes of heroes or myth; they became demon-warding arrays themselves. Even this deep inside the walls, they are concerned with protection. Lian Zhidiao thought they were a beautiful means to an end, until it sank in that there were multiple layers of wards, which meant that some attacks might be expected to occur inside the castle, within the first and second layers of warding.
So, they expect that the wards on the city walls or the castle itself might fail or be insufficient to stop a demon. Lian Zhidiao looked up at Yue Fengjian’s broad shoulders, feeling a twinge of regret for not knowing what his youth had been like. Had he been present to see whatever had prompted the change in decor from pure ornament to an emphasis on function? What had it been like to grow up in a fortress with such a tense atmosphere?
Uncle Song stopped before a set of open doors that led into a small audience hall and bowed to Yue Fengjian. Yue Fengjian put his hand against Lian Zhidiao’s chest to stop him from advancing any further. “Wait here,” he muttered under his breath, and then walked into the audience hall alone. Lian Zhidiao lingered at the doorway, looking across it at Uncle Song, who averted his eyes.
Inside a broad-shouldered man was standing at a window looking out onto a tiny manicured garden, the heavy embroidery on his red robes catching the lantern-light. His stature and physical confidence radiated spiritual power. He held himself like the master of all he surveyed, able to bend anything to his will.
Yue Fengjian entered the room and gave the deepest bow Lian Zhidiao had yet seen him give. “Father.”
Yue Kuangxiang turned as his son entered, clearly ready for a contentious discussion; Lian Zhidiao leaned back from the door. “You went to Xiyu Mountain.” He said it like an accusation.
“Is your uncle well?”
Not ‘my brother’ but ‘your uncle’. No wonder Lin Piaozhu thought of Yue Kuangxiang as unfilial. He seemed to want nothing to do with his elder brother.
Yue Fengjian’s reply was even and measured. “He is. He shows no signs of entering qi deviation.”
“Good.” Yue Kuangxiang’s bearing seemed to settle, as if he had been leaning forward in a state of apprehension. “It would be unfortunate if he were to begin to deviate without you to check on him.”
“I also heard that you had an animal in your room last night.” This he stated matter-of-factly.
Yue Fengjian was silent. Lian Zhidiao frowned. He hadn’t seen any pets at all and he had been there the whole—
He means me! Lian Zhidiao shot a look like daggers at Uncle Song, who paid him no mind, and then returned to spying on the room, bristling. Calling me an animal!
“Answer me. Did you have an animal in your room?”
“Is my honored father referring to a disciple of the Wa sect?”
Yue Kuangxiang’s voice rose. “We have been over this business about animals before. Are you willfully disobeying me?”
“I could think of no other place to keep him.” Yue Fengjian waited a heartbeat before continuing. “Surely my honored father can agree that he should not be left to his own devices in a cell, nor given free reign in the Quanyuan to spy on the elders or younger disciples, nor allowed to disappear into the city unguarded.”
Lian Zhidiao chanced taking a more daring peek around the corner of the door. All of Yue Kuangxiang’s dark hair was pulled up in a topknot, secured with a golden band and pin. He had a handsome, almost rugged face, with a small widow’s peak, and a closely trimmed beard and mustache. He took a few steps away and then turned to face his son. “I am dismayed that you brought such a thing into the city at all.”
“He has a useful skill. I have seen it at work myself.”
“Ridiculous,” Yue Kuangxiang snapped. “Whatever it is, we don’t need it. Get rid of him.”
“He can cleanse jade beasts.”
Yue Kuangxiang went still, the crease in his brow disappearing as his eyes widened. “He can what?”
Lian Zhidiao winced. That was maybe not the right thing for Yue Fengjian to say.
“By what right? By what law?” Yue Kuangxiang frowned, and his voice had a hard edge to it. “The White Emperor specifically forbade tampering with his creations and this dog ignores his will?”
“Father.” Yue Fengjian tried to get control of the conversation again, but he’d already made his mistake.
“Throw him out.”
“At least let me use him when fighting the qilin.” He was still collected, but with this, a hint of pleading entered his voice.
Yue Kuangxiang let out an exasperated sigh. “You think that arguing like this is going to change my mind?”
“My honored father may change his mind as he pleases, of course.” Yue Fengjian danced gracefully out of the trap that Yue Kuangxiang had laid for him. “If the Wa sect disciple is worthless, then he will die fighting the qilin, sparing the life of one of our more capable members. The merit in using him thus is apparent even to this humble son.”
Lian Zhidiao had been mentally preparing himself to serve out his sentence as cannon fodder for some time. But actually hearing Yue Fengjian suggest it out loud still made Lian Zhidiao’s heart stop for a moment. Even he has thought that I might be most useful as someone to die in his place. Given how contentious Yue Kuangxiang was, it might not be actually true, but the possibility still made an uncomfortable feeling squirm in his stomach.
“So you accept it outright, that a qilin could attack our villages?”
“Who could understand the offense a celestial beast might take? It could be anything.”
“Mm,” Yue Kuangxiang said, turning away. “What is your plan, then?”
Lian Zhidiao leaned forward a little more, trying to hear better, when Uncle Song, on the other side of the set of doors, shot him a poisonous look, as if to say, I can’t stop you from eavesdropping, but try to be discreet about it!
“Liao Kuaiyu said that there are still Elders putting down a demon at the southern border, but that nearly everyone else is in seclusion.”
“Yes,” Yue Kuangxiang grunted.
“It is far too dangerous for the younger disciples to encounter a qilin if it has been raiding villages. With the Elders in seclusion or otherwise occupied, it falls to the inner disciples to manage our response to this threat.”
Yue Kuangxiang lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. “You think you’re good enough to handle a qilin?”
Yue Fengjian hesitated for a moment.
Lian Zhidiao held his breath. There wasn’t any way to win when these were the choices presented to him. If he said he was good enough, he might be berated for arrogance. If he said he was not good enough, then he reflected poorly on his father.
“It is not whether I am good enough or not good enough,” Yue Fengjian replied slowly. “But someone must do something.”
“And if you should have to kill it? What then?” Yue Kuangxiang folded his hands behind his back. “What about the heavenly curse?”
So this was the heavenly curse that Yue Fengjian had spoken of. Celestial beasts had played no part in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World. The ‘beasts’ of that title referred entirely to the jade beasts made by the White Emperor. So Lian Zhidiao had no idea what kind of curse a dying qilin might inflict upon its killer, but it sounded serious. The curse might simply be death, or it might be something worse. Regardless, it sounded like bad news.
“I am not afraid, Father.”
After the space of two breaths, Yue Kuangxiang gave a rough, but satisfied hmph.
“I’ll gather my men and determine the truth of the situation immediately, then put together a force to stop the qilin.”
“Good.” Yue Kuangxiang turned again to face his son, his head tilted back and his jaw tight. Next to each other, it couldn’t be missed that Yue Fengjian was slightly taller than his father. “I expect this will prove no great trial for you.”
Yue Fengjian dipped his head, his ponytail sliding over his shoulder. “As always, I am honored by your confidence in me.”
“I expect a report back from you in the next two days,” Yue Kuangxiang said, turning away. “And don’t think I’ve forgotten about the animal,” he added, as Yue Fengjian began to leave the room. “We will discuss that again.”
Yue Fengjian swept out into the corridor without waiting for Lian Zhidiao to fall into step beside him. Lian Zhidiao shot a look at Uncle Song, and then turned on his heel to follow Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian stalked the halls at a brisk pace, so that Lian Zhidiao had to nearly trot to keep up with him. But once level with him, he didn’t know what to say. Neither did Yue Fengjian stop hurrying to let him catch up. He seemed to be rushing ahead almost without thinking. They passed through a set of double doors, into a smaller hall, and nearly collided with Yue Shipei and Hu Baitian.
“Oh,” Yue Shipei said, looking slightly surprised. “Uncle didn’t take his time today?”
Yue Fengjian shook his head, seeming eager to move away from the time he’d spent with his father. From the look on his face, it seemed that nothing more needed to be said. He looked at Hu Baitian. “You already finished filling him in?”
“You didn’t miss much,” Hu Baitian replied. “The man from the outlying village is being taken care of at a doctor’s house not far from here.”
Yue Fengjian’s strained expression relaxed. Hu Baitian had been busy while they’d been otherwise occupied. “Did you speak with him personally?”
Hu Baitian nodded.
“It’s definitely not a demon,” Hu Baitian revealed. “He was very specific about the lightning and the attacker being like a horse. If it’s not a qilin, then it’s one of the Yao that hasn’t ever been encountered before.”
“So even though we don’t know why, a qilin still makes the most sense,” Yue Fengjian said, his expression grim.
“Yes.” Hu Baitian seemed to notice Lian Zhidiao hovering in Yue Fengjian’s shadow for the first time, and his expression soured. “You brought him to see your father?”
“I just waited outside,” Lian Zhidiao said in a quiet voice.
Contempt curled Hu Baitian’s lip even as he looked back to Yue Fengjian. “In any case, the qilin does seem to be a threat to the outlying villages. It tends to focus on one village until it has been abandoned. Some villagers have returned to their homes, but others don’t want to go back until it’s safe.”
“Can’t say I blame them,” Yue Yaosa said, rising from her position seated opposite Liao Kuaiyu at a table. “They can’t even rebuild if the qilin keeps setting their homes on fire.”
“So what do we do?” Yue Shipei crossed his arms over his chest.
Yue Fengjian pursed his lips. “We need to go in and find out where it is, if it can be reasoned with, and what it wants.”
“I’m sure we could find plenty of whatever it wants,” Liao Kuaiyu said with an air of nonchalance. “I mean, you’re the sect leader’s son, so people would listen to you and give you whatever you needed.”
“This assumes we’re going to find out anything from it,” Hu Baitian chimed in. “It might not want anything at all other than for humans to leave its territory.”
“What about the curse?” Lian Zhidiao said. His words fit perfectly into a hollow silence that opened up in the middle of the group.
“The heavenly curse that befalls someone who kills a qilin,” Yue Fengjian said in a stony voice.
“What—” Yue Yaosa shook her head. “What does that mean?”
“It doesn’t come up often because qilin are celestial beings who are naturally good,” Yue Shipei muttered, while looking at his sister. “But killing a qilin is a wicked act. In the past, those who have done such a thing have been cursed by Heaven.”
“I didn’t know about that,” Yue Yaosa replied, and then she looked at Lian Zhidiao. “Why do you?”
“Because I asked him,” Yue Fengjian said. “The Wa sect has many arts we’re not aware of. I asked him if he had anything to deal with a curse.”
Hu Baitian snorted. “Even if he did, you don’t know what kind of price you’d pay. Nothing in the Wa sect comes for free.”
Lian Zhidiao frowned, but he couldn’t exactly refute it. Every part of the Wa sect that came into contact with other sects seemed calculated to leave the Wa sect better off.
“So…what kind of curse is it?” Liao Kuaiyu asked.
“I only know of one time it happened here, several hundred years ago. The killer’s family were trampled to death in their beds, and the killer himself disappeared, although it was said he became a vindictive corpse that burned with a fire that could not be put out.” Yue Shipei glanced at Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian. “It’s only a story, though.”
Only a story! Lian Zhidiao shivered.
Yue Fengjian waved his hand to clear the heavy air. “In any case, we need to figure out what to do with about the qilin.”
“There’s several valleys to cover, and villages to investigate,” Hu Baitian said. “We can go in one group to each one, or split up.”
“We’ll split up, then,” Yue Fengjian said. “It should be stopped as soon as possible.”
“Three parties?” Yue Yaosa looked around the room at them. “Two each?’
“That should be fine,” Yue Shipei said. “Shouldn’t be hard to find a qilin raining lightning down on any hapless villagers.” Hu Baitian fixed him with a scowl, shaking his head.
“What do we do if we find the qilin?” Liao Kuaiyu looked uncharacteristically nervous.
“Don’t engage,” Yue Fengjian ordered. “Unless it approaches you in an obviously friendly manner, try to avoid contact. We can come back and get the rest of the inner disciples to help.”
Yue Fengjian turned to see Uncle Song waiting at the door with a small box. He gave a small nod and then turned back to the group. “We can meet up tomorrow and head out then.”
“Actually,” Hu Baitian said. “I think Yue Shipei and I can head out this evening. We can make the closest village by sunset.”
Yue Shipei looked at Hu Baitian with surprise but then confirmed Hu Baitian’s statement with a nod of his head, the way someone might if they’d just caught on to the message behind a meaningful look.
“What am I going to tell Mom?”
“She’ll understand, A-Zhen.”
Yue Yaosa gave a little bit of a pout.“You’re not the one who has to make excuses.”
Yue Shipei frowned. “Just tell her how Dad was doing and she’ll forget I’m even gone.”
Yue Fengjian’s eyebrows lifted as he looked at the two of them and Liao Kuaiyu. “Anyone else?”
“We’ll leave in the morning,” Yue Yaosa said with an air of finality.
“Good,” Yue Fengjian said. “I have something to take care of, so I’ll see you in the morning. Yue Shipei, Hu Baitian. Be cautious.”
Hu Baitian gave Yue Fengjian a sharp nod, but was quick to pull at Yue Shipei’s arm, tugging him away before he could do the same.
Yue Yaosa rolled her eyes.
Then Yue Fengjian excused himself, walking over to take the box from Uncle Song. At Lian Zhidiao’s questioning look, he only gestured with the box as a way to indicate that Lian Zhidiao should follow him.
They went all the way back to Yue Fengjian’s room, where Yue Fengjian pressed the box into Lian Zhidiao’s hands. “Here.”
“Open it,” Yue Fengjian said, stepping over to a chest of drawers.
With a slight frown, Lian Zhidiao lifted the top off the box. Inside, he found a length of red silk rope, tightly coiled. Only when he pulled it out and let it fall out of the coil did he realize that it was woven of smaller lengths of cord.
“For this,” Yue Fengjian said, walking back over to him. He opened his hand to reveal a large jade ring decorated with colored cords: the spindle-weight that Qianjiao had cut from him that night in the Lin sect’s family garden.
Lian Zhidiao’s mouth fell open. “I thought it had been lost.”
“We only found you quickly because of it,” Yue Fengjian said. “Liao Kuaiyu said, ‘No magician would ever leave such an important thing behind.’ So we knew that you had to have been taken by force.”
With this I can be useful to Yue Fengjian again. I can help with the qilin!
The low sword he’d carried with him wasn’t threatening to anyone but brigands; certainly a qilin would not look at this crude steel and feel as if its life were in danger. But having his spindle-weight back meant he wasn’t just taking up space on Yue Fengjian’s sword any more.
Doubtless Yue Fengjian had realized this too. Practical and tactically-minded, he’d taken this step to ensure that Lian Zhidiao would be useful again. Yue Fengjian’s words to his father earlier echoed in his ears. If he is worthless, he will die and save a Yue sect member.
Yue Fengjian had to know he would hear that, and yet, he’d brazenly said it anyway.
Creasing his lip between his teeth, Lian Zhidiao wrapped the cord around his waist and tied it off. To test it, he lifted his hand, spinning a thread of qi through the silk. To his relief and delight, the jade ring responded instantly, hovering in the air next to him with the cords fanned out around it. Even after he stopped the flow of qi, there was still a warm sensation in his chest when he looked up at Yue Fengjian. Being in combat with a qilin just increased his likelihood of being forced to confront his destiny as cannon fodder. Maybe with his spindle-weight, he stood a chance of surviving.
Lian Zhidiao held the ring in both hands and smiled up at Yue Fengjian’s expectant face. “Thank you.”
Yue Fengjian blinked a few times and then slowly smiled back. “It was no problem at all.”
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