Lightning grew from the qilin’s horn: a twig, and then a branch, and then a tree, blinding light and deafening thunder. It seared the sky in a jagged line. The metal bolt passed through it and exploded in the intense heat, showering the qilin with sparks. Wallbreaker careened away; the force of the turn bent their knees. Yue Fengjian pushed them under the treeline again, out of the qilin’s sight.
“What in the Emperor’s name was that?!” Yue Fengjian yelled, his eyes still wide. “That— That sound?”
“It—” Lian Zhidiao swallowed. He’d forgotten about the gunshot sound his metal bolt made when he fired it. “It was the lightning?”
“No!” Yue Fengjian swerved to avoid a tree and then clicked his tongue. “Never mind! Did you hit it?”
“No, the lightning destroyed the bolt!”
They shot out of the trees again, this time above Grandmother Song’s village. Lian Zhidiao was about to say that they shouldn’t move in a straight line when Yue Fengjian dove down into the valley, riding low over the terraces.
“Can you try to hit it again?”
“Do you want me to kill it?” There was so much bound up in that question: should they attack instead of running away? Should Lian Zhidiao be the one to attack? Should he attempt to deal a lethal blow? Lian Zhidiao shook Yue Fengjian’s shoulders, urging him to answer. “Yue Fengjian!”
Yue Fengjian glared fire at him. “Maybe?” They followed a narrow road that split a terrace in two. Above and behind them, the qilin gave its cry, like broken bells rattling, and Yue Fengjian’s scowl deepened in an instant. “Yes, yes you should!”
In the middle of the fight, he’s okay with me being the one cursed. Lian Zhidiao searched Yue Fengjian’s tight, focused face as they flew towards another stand of trees. He was being truthful in talking to his father, even when he knew I was listening. Lian Zhidiao let out a breath, quelling the trembling fear in his stomach. There wasn’t any time to be afraid. “Then take us up!”
Lian Zhidiao pointed over their heads. “Up, up, above him!”
Yue Fengjian surged upward again. The qilin galloped into view from the top of the mountain, the light on his hide glittering. Lian Zhidiao spun metal again, sending a bolt whistling through the air. It took off some of the qilin’s beautiful tail hairs, but the qilin himself emerged unscathed. More qi, another bolt of metal. This one grazed his flank. He stumbled, and then charged toward them with renewed and unnatural vigor. Simple spells weren’t going to work.
Swords of the Myriad Dead was useless to him right now; he had no spiritual weapon to use in the technique, and he had to be able to physically hit a target with his sword anyway. So stronger, more complex spells might be their only hope. Thinking through the spells he knew, it seemed like lightning wouldn’t help. Bogflame is too slow. Entangling vines, however… that might work.
The qilin cried, shaking his head back and forth. Strands of lightning started to gather in the center of his horn.
“He’s coming again,” Lian Zhidiao warned. “I am going to try cast something that can bring him down. Can you weave us through some trees?”
“Got it,” Yue Fengjian yelled over the wind.
Wallbreaker pitched back and forth, and then they plunged into the underbrush as a column of white-hot light split the sky to their right. Yue Fengjian didn’t stay in the trees long, shooting up above the canopy. The sound of bells rang after them; the qilin gained on them.
Yue Fengjian focused intently on weaving through underneath the branches, so close to the ground they stirred up water-logged dead leaves.
“Stay close to him,” Lian Zhidiao yelled, as they approached a small orchard of peach trees. “Slow down!”
Reluctantly, Yue Fengjian slowed down, turning them around to stay under the protective cover of the peach trees. Lian Zhidiao spun wood, not a strand of qi, but a rope, thick and robust. The jade ring hovered in the air in front of his face, following his head wherever he looked.
The qilin landed on top of a peach tree like a lightning strike, and then jumped down, carving the earth up with its hooves. Lian Zhidiao visualized the magic sprouting from his jade ring and then let the spell fly.
At first, it looked like a mass of churning green and yellow, roiling and spinning violently as it hurtled through the air. Then, as it neared the qilin, it exploded into a mass of vines. They surrounded the qilin, thick and knotted, crawling over his body and digging into the earth. The qilin screamed, and Lian Zhidiao fired again, four short bursts of wooden magic, each one finding its mark and pulling down the qilin’s dangerous hooves, flattening it to the ground, and completely growing over its horn. It screamed again, wrenching its head from side to side, but the vines held.
They swept back around, and Yue Fengjian landed near the beast as it struggled under the weight of the vines, which continued to grow and dig into the sodden soil. Small leaves began to sprout along the bark, brilliantly green against the qilin’s ashen hide.
Wallbreaker sheathed itself in Yue Fengjian’s hand. “It’s deviated,” Yue Fengjian breathed in horror. “A qilin…”
“That shouldn’t be possible.” Water dripped from Lian Zhidiao’s hair as the rain fell softly on the peach orchard. “A celestial beast has a golden core.”
Yue Fengjian’s hand tightened around the scabbard of his sword. “Anything can deviate, especially something with a golden core.”
“But… how? What could drive a qilin into qi deviation?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Yue Fengjian said, stepping forward with Wallbreaker. “We can discuss it later with the others.”
The qilin began to struggle again, its breath coming out of its nostrils in big white puffs, like a steam engine. It squealed, like the sound of a sword scraping over a shield.
“Yue Fengjian, wait!”
“What?” Yue Fengjian shot daggers at Lian Zhidiao. “What would I be waiting for? Are those vines going to hold forever?”
“Then let me do what I came to do. Someone’s got to stop this thing.”
“But the curse!”
“It doesn’t scare me.”
“If you don’t understand why it went into qi deviation, you may be doing more evil than you realize.”
“Then what do you suggest?” Yue Fengjian unsheathed Wallbreaker, taking another step toward the helpless qilin. “Talk fast.”
“Let—” Lian Zhidiao thought quickly. The qilin was just like any other creature with a golden core. Could a celestial beast’s cultivation base destabilize? Would the golden core be destroyed or polluted? More to the point, if the qilin’s golden core was polluted with deviate qi, but hadn’t yet been destroyed, Lian Zhidiao might be able to accept the pollution into his own deviate core. “Let me try to cleanse him.”
Confusion creased Yue Fengjian’s brow. “What? Does the Wa sect know cleansing techniques?”
Lian Zhidiao gathered a fistful of his robes, looking at Yue Fengjian’s feet. “Like a jade beast.”
“They’re nothing alike.”
“You don’t know that.”
Yue Fengjian’s face twisted. His fingers flexed around Wallbreaker’s grip and he lifted the sword to point at the qilin. “I came here to kill it, do you think I’m going to just let it go?”
“Do you kill those who qi deviate?” Lian Zhidiao clenched his fists, backing up toward the qilin.
“Yes!” Yue Fengjian yelled, exasperated.
Lian Zhidiao’s hands dropped to his sides, his expression dark.
Yue Fengjian seemed to realize what he’d said. His brow unknitted for a moment, and then he grit his teeth. “Lian Zhidiao, move.”
Lian Zhidiao clenched his fists and turned to face the qilin. Yue Fengjian wouldn’t strike him down from behind.
It didn’t keep the fury in Yue Fengjian’s voice from hitting him in the back like an arrow. “Lian Zhidiao..!”
He just doesn’t understand. I can’t explain how I know. I have to show him. Lian Zhidiao didn’t respond, and instead knelt by the qilin. The qilin struggled again as he got closer, his eyes glowing like coals. Lian Zhidiao reached out and let the qilin smell him. He barely had time to snatch his hand back before the qilin’s gleaming white teeth tried to take a chunk out of his hand.
Yue Fengjian’s voice carried over to him. “You can’t save it.”
Lian Zhidiao breathed in deeply and then let all of his breath leave his body before draining his meridians into his golden core. He closed the path to his golden core and opened the way to the other core. The deviate qi in his other core foamed up, but didn’t spill out into his meridians.
The vines creaked as the qilin began to struggle again. He had to work fast.
Lian Zhidiao slid his hand over the thin, soft scales under the qilin’s chin and closed his eyes. The inside of the qilin was a riot of correct and deviate qi. A jade beast’s meridians were clear and easy to see; even the Great Jade Beasts, with their meridians in endless recursion, were concrete and visible. But the qilin’s meridians were an indistinct cloud of pathways glutted with both correct and deviate qi. He wasn’t able to pinpoint any one meridian with any certainty.
If he were a normal human healer working on a human deviate, he would have to be careful not to accidentally suck in any deviate qi, poisoning his own golden core. But with his golden core locked away, there was no threat to someone who had only deviate qi inside him. Lian Zhidiao pressed his lips to the qilin’s nose and began to breathe in the deviate qi, letting it fill the other core in his guts. The qilin went still, its head resting heavily in his palms. Inside, the correct qi blazed more brilliantly. Lian Zhidiao breathed in again, and again, and every breath was like living and dying at once. Though he was ‘breathing’ in the deviate qi, it was poison. After the fourth breath, he had the distinct sensation of something in his chest breaking apart and then sticking together wetly.
Lian Zhidiao grimaced. No, I can’t do any more. Any more and I’ll…
He sucked every last bit of deviate qi in his meridians down to his other core and then changed the path back, letting correct qi flood through him again. Weak, he sagged against the qilin’s shoulder, gasping for air. His mouth was being pierced by a thousand needles, the same way it had when he’d taken in deviate qi from jade beasts.
“Lian Zhidiao…” Yue Fengjian’s hushed voice came from right behind him.
With a listless expression, he turned his face up to Yue Fengjian. Lian Zhidiao met his eyes steadily, daring him to deny what he’d just seen. Pain clawed at his mouth again; he turned his head and spit black fluid off to the side. The grass it touched withered and collapsed, creating a patch of decay that spread and spread, reaching even underneath their feet. From one mouthful of black fluid, Lian Zhidiao killed everything in a circle that reached ten meters wide before it stopped growing.
Yue Fengjian minced around the growing circle of dying grass, Wallbreaker’s live blade still gripped in his hand. “What have you done?”
Lian Zhidiao lifted his head and looked at the qilin. Some of his natural colors were coming back, especially on his head. The skin around his eyes was a brilliant scarlet, lined in gold, his mane and beard like floating mist. His horn was like carved pearl, glittering and luminous under all the vines. The demonic light was gone from his eyes, replaced with a calm, lucid look. But the qilin wasn’t entirely healed; the scales on its front half were washed out, their beautiful copper-blue edging faded to gray.
“It’s not finished, but I think he will trust us now,” Lian Zhidiao muttered, rubbing at his mouth with the back of his wrist. “Use this. There’s still more inside him.” From his robes he produced the clear jade lotus bud, still wrapped in red silk.
Yue Fengjian took one look at it and shook his head. “Absolutely not,” he snapped. He still held his sword in his hand; the rippling light from the qilin’s hide made the steel sparkle.
“It’s okay,” Lian Zhidiao said, with the weight of resignation in his voice. “I can do it.”
Lian Zhidiao crawled weakly among the vines until he was behind the qilin’s front legs. He placed the stem end of the lotus bud against the qilin’s ribcage and fed it a small thread of qi. In front of his eyes, the clear jade lotus bud opened fully into a blossom. As if ink were being slowly dropped into water, deviate qi began to collect in the jade tool. Lian Zhidiao let out a short sigh, leaning against the qilin. His eyes found Yue Fengjian again.
“Why what?” Lian Zhidiao blinked tiredly at him. The deviate qi in his other core wasn’t settling down as easily as it had before. Feeling it rage inside him was exhausting.
“Why would you do this?”
“Why not?” Lian Zhidiao paused for a moment before answering slowly. “It’s what I came here to do.” Lian Zhidiao watched the deviate qi slowly occlude the perfect clarity in the lotus tool. It’s not what I wanted to do, especially since this was supposed to be my get-out-of-deviation-free card. This is just a trade, a bargain with chance for more time to get to the end of the story. But if it saves my protagonist, well, that’s the job of cannon fodder, isn’t it? “You shouldn’t bear a heavenly curse.”
“You’re doing this for me?” Yue Fengjian’s expression blackened. His free hand clenched in a fist. “What makes you think I would have been the one to bear the curse?”
“You’re the strongest,” Lian Zhidiao said with a faint smile. “You’re expected to bear everything.”
“The strongest should bear everything.”
Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “A curse would have made it impossible for you to help everyone else. The strong should remain strong.” Lian Zhidiao noted that the color had almost completely returned to the qilin’s hindquarters, burnishing them a warm bronze. It was almost completely cleansed of deviate qi. He nodded slowly, looking tired but satisfied. “This is a good solution.”
Then, all at once, the jade lotus closed, its work done, and the qilin’s natural color blazed forth, undimmed. It turned its head to chew on some of the plants that were holding it down, attempting to break free.
“Help me break the vines,” Lian Zhidiao murmured, pulling weakly at some of the overgrown wood, but Yue Fengjian just scowled at him.
“You’re not doing anything more.” He grabbed hold of Lian Zhidiao’s collar and dragged him away from the qilin.
Walking back to the restrained qilin, Yue Fengjian filled Wallbreaker with qi. He lifted his sword and swept his fingers down the blade. A seal formed in front of him, written in light. Then Yue Fengjian lifted it high and brought the edge down on the mass of vines. They exploded into powder, flinging splinters in all directions.
Ah, Lian Zhidiao thought, shielding himself with his sleeve. Wallbreaker’s special ability. It was capable of shattering stone, if there was enough qi poured into it. Doing so would probably damage the blade and require a trip to the Hidden Realm, but in theory there was no barrier he could not bring down with that sword. This was why he was fated to be the emperor: nothing could stand in his way.
Yue Fengjian returned his sword to the scabbard and moved back. The qilin got to his feet, treading lightly on the dead grass with his silver-white hooves. Without the vines, his full splendor could be seen: he danced with light, refracting it into rainbows that appeared and disappeared as he moved, as if he were a prism hanging in sunlight. The qilin inclined his shaggy head to Yue Fengjian and then walked over to Lian Zhidiao. He made a noise that shimmered in the air, like soft, tinkling chimes.
Lian Zhidiao smiled gently, petting the qilin’s head. “Feeling better?”
To his surprise, the qilin pushed its head against his chest, submitting to his hands combing through the cotton-candy mass of its hair. Then it tossed its head and leapt to the top of the ruined peach tree again, and flew into the air, the peal of joyful bells echoing in the valley.
They listened to the bells until they had completely faded away. The rain began to fall more heavily, pitter-pattering on the leaves of the peach trees. Lian Zhidiao re-wrapped the jade tool in red silk and tucked it back in his robes. “So what now?”
“We go back and tell everyone what happened,” Yue Fengjian said, walking over to offer him a hand up.
“I’m sure it’ll be a relief,” Lian Zhidiao said, taking Yue Fengjian’s hand and pulling himself up. But no sooner was he standing than his legs gave out again.
Yue Fengjian caught him, supporting him in his strong arms.
“Too weak to stand?”
Lian Zhidiao just wanted to melt away and disappear. But his legs just couldn’t bear his weight right now. Embarrassed, he nodded. “If we wait for a while, I will probably be okay to stand—”
“Shimei has said that Liao Kuaiyu has similar weakness when he uses too much magic,” Yue Fengjian scolded him. He eased Lian Zhidiao to the ground before unsheathing Wallbreaker and dropping it for flight. “To think you are also this reckless…”
Then he knelt and picked Lian Zhidiao up.
No! Not a princess carry!
Lian Zhidiao scrabbled for purchase, clutching at his shoulders. “Yue Fengjian, I don’t—”
“Don’t complain,” Yue Fengjian countered, with a dangerous look in his eye. “If you didn’t want to be embarrassed like this, then you shouldn’t have overextended yourself.”
Lian Zhidiao blushed fiercely, but held on tightly to Yue Fengjian as they flew.