There was no further discussion of their situation after dinner, and despite the day’s events, that night Lian Zhidiao slept in the corner of Yue Fengjian’s room. He coiled up the woven silk belt and slept with it next to him on the small bed, not for any sentimental reason, but because it felt comforting to have it close at hand when the master of the house used the word ‘animal’ for him.
The next morning, he dressed as normal, tying the silk belt over his normal belt. The weight reassured him. , and feeling reassured by the weight. He brought the low sword with him, and—just in case—the clear jade lotus. If an ‘emergency’ happened, it would be bad if he didn’t have it with him.
Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu met them at the landing courtyard, and they took off just after it was light enough to see. The clouds in front of them thickened, the mountains underneath them grew more indistinct. They were forced further down in the valleys to avoid thick trees appearing out of the mists without warning. Terraces hemmed the steep slopes, flush with greenery that seemed to glow even without bright sunlight. By midday, most of the mist burned off, but clouds still covered the land with a pall of gray. A village appeared in the crook of a valley, with scorched walls and half-collapsed red tile roofs in the center. They flew down, alighting in the center of town.
A middle-aged man saw them land and rushed over. “Young master!” Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu landed behind them not a moment later.
“Uncle, what’s happened here?”
“The other young masters have been here since last night,” the middle-aged man said, his shoulders hunched up.
That must be Yue Shipei and Hu Baitian.
Yue Yaosa lifted her face to look at the overcast sky above them. “The qilin attacked this village?”
The middle aged man nodded timidly. “About a week ago.”
Lian Zhidiao drifted away from Yue Fengjian, walking toward the fire-blackened walls of the buildings in the center of the village, red tile shards around the perimeter. Yue Fengjian’s conversation with the old man faded away.
The building in the worst condition had almost totally collapsed. What remained of the supporting pillars were posts with their tops splintered, looking more like the hairy heads of old men than sturdy trees that had once held up a roof. In some places the force of a lightning bolt had caused plastering to fall away from earthen walls; a pile of books had been turned to ash, still visible as rolled-up slips of black bamboo.
It’s only the beginning of summer, but without construction equipment, this will take the rest of the year to clear away, maybe longer. Perhaps reconstruction could start next year, but would a remote village like this really be reconstructed at all? Or would it suffer the same fate as the villages that lost their jade beast? Some of the buildings were still being used, villagers sheltering under parts of the roof that had yet to tumble down. Twisted, burned parts of the rafters were being collected as charcoal by children. The children looked at him with open wonder, the adults with suspicion.
Who knows if they’ve ever seen a member of the Wa sect before. But then again, given Yue Kuangxiang’s attitude toward the Wa sect… they probably won’t trust me.
“Lian Zhidiao!” Liao Kuaiyu’s voice cut through his thoughts. “We’re going to talk about what to do next, so come over here!”
Lian Zhidiao turned to see that Hu Baitian and Yue Shipei had joined them, and they were standing in a group, talking. Hu Baitian was giving Yue Shipei an irritable look as Lian Zhidiao walked up.
“…the dead, but the injured are another matter,” Yue Shipei finished saying, gesturing with an open hand. “He is only one person.”
“I don’t have a problem continuing to heal those that need it,” Hu Baitian grumbled.
Yue Shipei arched an eyebrow. “And if the qilin comes back?”
“It’s obvious that you can’t do both,” Yue Yaosa said. “It’s either help the villagers or hunt the qilin.”
“If it’s really a qilin, I’m fine healing people,” Hu Baitian said, waving his hand in front of his face. “I don’t want any practice at inviting retribution from Heaven.”
Yue Shipei shook his head, folding his arms over his chest. “No one else wants to risk it either.”
“Don’t worry about that right now,” Yue Fengjian interjected.
“You can say not to worry about it, but we’re gonna worry about it, “Liao Kuaiyu muttered, shaking his head.
“If you’re that worried about bad luck then you can stay here.” Yue Fengjian leveled a judging look on Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu.
“You can’t blame him for being worried. He’s always been smarter about this than you or dage,” Yue Yaosa said.
“I’d like to suggest that maybe we spread out a little bit and find it first,” Lian Zhidiao said, raising his voice. “We still don’t know where it is, or where it’s going to attack next.”
“And once we find it? What about the curse?” Yue Yaosa glanced at Lian Zhidiao.
“You don’t have to fight it immediately,” Lian Zhidiao said. “Once we know where it is, you can call for the inner disciples and we can decide what to do after that.”
“So just curse everyone instead of one person.” Hu Baitian sneered. “As expected.” And then he turned and began walking toward one of the buildings that hadn’t been burned to the ground, the ribbon around his topknot swaying back and forth.
“Maybe the curse is less potent if everyone shares it,” Lian Zhidiao called after him. But he didn’t stop.
Yue Fengjian tried to get the conversation back on track. “How many other villages were attacked?”
“We spoke to them overnight. They say there’s three others, but one of them has been completely abandoned.” Yue Shipei looked over his shoulder at Hu Baitian and then turned back to everyone else. “This has only been going on for a couple of weeks.”
“And we shouldn’t assume it’s just waiting near a village, especially a destroyed one,” Yue Fengjian said. “But it’s a good place to start.”
“We’ll try the one south west of here,” Yue Yaosa said, taking her sword in-hand and dropping it into a flight position.
“We’ll take the village to the far west. If you get caught out at sunset, don’t risk flying,” Yue Fengjian warned. “We’ll meet back here tomorrow if that happens.”
“Same to you,” Yue Shipei chimed in, with a glance at Lian Zhidiao. “Don’t let him fly after dark.”
Yue Fengjian scowled as Yue Shipei turned and walked away, following Hu Baitian back indoors. Lian Zhidiao shook his head; Hu Baitian seemed to be in an even more foul mood than usual.
“Don’t linger,” Yue Fengjian said in a stern voice, already on his sword. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
Lian Zhidiao stepped up onto Wallbreaker in front of Yue Fengjian. He was right; they couldn’t dawdle.
They took off, heading for stormier skies to the west. With every ridge they crested, the skies darkened and the clouds boiled overhead. Bolts of lightning branched from heaven to earth. The smell of ozone stung their noses. Yue Fengjian stuck close to the trees, ready to dip below their crowns at a moment’s notice. Finally, under the constant roll of thunder, they spotted what was left of a village below a terraced slow, tucked into the lee side of a mountain.
Yue Fengjian slowed his sword, cruising through the village just above the ground. Lian Zhidiao looked at thewreckage of building after building. Humble wooden homes of villagers and the earthen walls of courtyard houses and public buildings lay in pieces. Demon-repelling arrays painted on the earthen walls were broken, or made useless by spidery shadows of lightning that obliterated the sign. Roofs were charred, punched in by lightning, and damaged by winds. Small vegetable gardens had been churned into mud as if by a roving pack of boars. Nothing was left untouched.
“They won’t come back, will they?” Lian Zhidiao murmured. “How could they recover from this?”
“They won’t,” Yue Fengjian said shortly. “We’re not here to help this village recover. It’s already lost.”
Just like the villages that have lost their jade beasts. Villages this far from the main city won’t—can’t—be rebuilt. There’s no way to protect them.
Lian Zhidiao was looking over the destruction when something moving in his peripheral vision caught his eye. He reached behind him and tugged at Yue Fengjian’s sleeve.
“There’s an old woman.” He pointed her out. She was gathering firewood from some of the timbers.
Yue Fengjian landed some distance away from her, raising his voice. “Grandmother?”
With a cry of surprise the old woman jumped, dropping the firewood she had in her arms.
“Oh!” Lian Zhidiao hurried forward to gather it up. “Sorry, we didn’t mean to startle you.”
She looked at both of them, and registered her surprise at seeing Yue Fengjian’s red robes. “Gongzi,” she said, inclining her head.
Yue Fengjian bowed to her. “Grandmother, are you the only one here?”
“Yes,” she said, as another crack of thunder echoed down the valley. “Everyone else has gone or died.”
Yue Fengjian’s mouth tightened. “What about your family? Is there someone you can go to?”
“We can’t let you stay here,” Lian Zhidiao agreed, continuing to gather wood. “It’s not safe.”
“It’s fine for me,” she said, straightening her clothes and smoothing back her gray hair. “Even if it’s not safe, this is my home.”
Lian Zhidiao’s hand slowed in collecting firewood.
“Oh,” she said, looking up at the sky. “Fengxing will be back soon.”
“Fengxing… the qilin?”
“It lives here?”
“He stays nearby, to the west,” she said. “Even before he went mad, we would see him every once in a while. I even saw him myself once, just before I got married. He’s very beautiful. So many colors.”
“He hasn’t harmed you?”
“Not yet,” she said, rubbing her knobby fingers over each other. “I’m not sure he knows I am here. But it will be fine if he does.” She turned and began to walk toward a wooden house.
Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao traded glances, and then walked after her.
The house had a hole in the thatched roof and a dark stain on the pine floor where the rain came in, but the old woman just avoided it.
“Put the wood there,” she said, gesturing to a pile next to the hearth. Lian Zhidiao knelt and stacked it as neatly as he could while the old woman sat down with the heavy sigh of the aged. “Everyone called me Grandmother Song,” she said, looking expectantly at the two of them.
Yue Fengjian bowed to her dutifully. “I am Yue Hanqi, courtesy name Fengjian.”
Grandmother Song didn’t look impressed.
Finished stacking the firewood, Lian Zhidiao stood up and bowed as well. “I am Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao.”
“Lian,” she said, finally seeming to see him. She openly looked him over, in his black-and-green robes, lingering on his jade spindle-weight. “Not a name from here.”
“I—” Lian Zhidiao looked up at Yue Fengjian. “Yue-gongzi has asked for my help.”
Grandmother Song also looked at Yue Fengjian. “I won’t tell the young master how to conduct his business, but he should be careful.”
“Thank you, Grandmother, but he will be fine.”
Lian Zhidiao looked down at his hands. Was it always going to be this way, feeling as if no one in the Yue sect wanted him around?
“Ah,” Grandmother Song said, lifting her head and looking up at the hole in her roof. A misting rain started to drip in steadily, turning the floor black.
“Yue Fengjian, we should get the others.”
Yue Fengjian nodded. Now that they knew where the qilin was, they could develop a plan and bring the inner disciples to help.
“We’ll be back soon,” he said to Grandmother Song.
“Mm,” she said, standing up. “Be careful.”
Once they were outside, Lian Zhidiao looked up at the sky. A chill breeze started to blow through the village. “Is this kind of weather normal?”
“It can be,” Yue Fengjian said, dropping Wallbreaker for flight. “But given what we’re dealing with, we should assume it’s not.”
They took to the air again, this time climbing to the crest of the mountain ridge. But instead of heading east, Yue Fengjian steered them west, through a stand of trees to see the other side of the mountain. They hung in the air, their damp robes starting to cling to them.
“What are we waiting for?”
Thunder shook the heavens, and a bolt split the dark clouds in half. In the silence that followed, Yue Fengjian’s voice sounded soft. “We still haven’t seen the qilin yet.”
“Isn’t it enough to trust Grandmother Song?”
“Where exactly does he live? When does he move and what does he do when he does? Why did he ‘go mad’?” Yue Fengjian turned his head, looking out over the valley. “We don’t know the answers to any of those things, and I don’t think she can tell us.” He paused, having finished his sweep of the area with the keen eyes of a seasoned fighter. “But waiting for these answers to be revealed isn’t a good option either. We’ll go back.”
Rain began to fall in earnest, and Yue Fengjian reluctantly eased back from the ridge, threading his way back down through the underbrush at a slow pace until they could fly across the valley. Yue Fengjian was quiet, as if the old woman had at last provided conclusive proof that the qilin was real, and that it was acting to hurt humans for an unknown reason. Thus, as the one who would fight the qilin, he had to consider the likely effects of the heavenly curse. Lian Zhidiao shivered, feeling as if it was colder than it actually was.
“Are you cold?”
Yue Fengjian had seemed preoccupied, so Lian Zhidiao didn’t expect to hear his voice. He grunted a non-committal reply. “Once we get away from here, the rain will stop and we’ll dry off quickly.”
He could almost hear Yue Fengjian frown, and turned his head to look up at him and assure him that even though he was cold, it wasn’t a big problem.
And over his shoulder, something shone in the sky. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes widened, but he didn’t even have time to speak before Yue Fengjian’s arm wrapped around his waist. They dropped out of the sky like a stone, down into the bushes. Above them, the tops of the trees exploded with fire and light. Wallbreaker darted away from the fall of branches and burning leaves, carrying them out of immediate danger. There was a sound—a roar—like a battering ram dragged across an enormous bronze bell, screeching and low and resounding.
They burst out of the cover of foliage and another roar shook the air around them. They turned to look behind them.
Floating in the air above the valley was a four-legged animal. It shone, as if the surface of its skin was rippling water under the summer sun. Its mane, beard, and long tail floated around it, seemingly unaffected by gusts of wind. Its front half was covered in large scales, its back in a dappled hide. Whiskers sprouted from its noble countenance, but the eyes that should have been good and serene were lit with crazed fire. A florid ring of bone—an intricate whole that appeared to be split in two—crowned its head. There was no color anywhere: it was pale and terrible, like something that had grown in darkness and suddenly been thrust into the sunlight.
It moved its head and then brayed again, and began to gallop toward them.
Lian Zhidiao’s instinct was to go down, in among the trees, but Yue Fengjian sent them zooming towards it, his hand tightly around Lian Zhidiao’s waist.
They spun through the air in an unpredictable way. Lian Zhidiao felt the hair on the back of his neck prickling as they got closer. The qilin loomed larger and larger in their vision. He could see the eyes lit by fire, its hooves silver and sharp, like razor blades. The smell of lightning grew stronger and stronger. His hair began to rise up into the air.
Yue Fengjian, you’re going to get us killed!
At the last moment, Yue Fengjian broke away, rocketing up in the air and arcing hard over the ridge, back towards Grandmother Song’s village.
“What are you doing!”
“We can’t outrun lightning!” Yue Fengjian yelled. “Our only hope is to dodge it!”
Our only hope is to dodge?
“Put me down!”
The wind tore at Lian Zhidiao’s eyes. “I’m no good to you this way!” Below them, the qilin raised its shining head to regard them and then began to dash upwards, pawing at the air.
“I’m not putting you down, it’s too late!”
Lian Zhidiao turned on the blade, looking up into Yue Fengjian’s face. The wind whipped their wet robes against them; every flip of their sleeves was a lashing.
The qilin bellowed.
There’s got to be something I can do!
Then the wind dashed his jade spindle-weight against his thigh with crushing force and it came to him in a flash. Just like Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu, they could fight in midair, a mage and a pilot.
Lian Zhidiao spun qi through his silk belt and looked through the jade spindle-weight at the qilin. The material tensed and jerked as Yue Fengjian pulled back suddenly, curving their flight over the head of the qilin and behind it, like a rollercoaster going through a loop.
Even though he was yelling, the wind all but swept Yue Fengjian’s voice away. “What are you doing?”
The qilin’s horn began to glow.
The jade spindle-weight swung wide and then hovered next to him. Lian Zhidiao spun metal, collected it in his hand, and pulled the string of qi tighter and tighter, taut to the point of snapping.
Electricity crackled through the air, wreathing the qilin’s horn in blue-white light.
They passed over the qilin, and Lian Zhidiao saw it in the center of the jade ring. With a crack like a bullet, he let the thread of qi break.