The Xiongji Mountains dominated the western half of human-controlled lands. Their southernmost reaches were awash in the Choking Wood, the primeval forest which neither human nor demon could master. Moving north, the mountains thickened into rugged high steppes, with still higher mountains to the west, forming the most impenetrable section of the barrier between human and demon lands. In the northern part of the mountains, they split into two major ranges.
The Sanma River followed the western range north while the Cangta River followed the main mountain range northeast, and they flowed together at the foot of Xuefeng Mountain. Surrounded on all sides by the very heart of the mountains, the founder of the Yue sect had stumbled upon a spring that flowed with crystal clear water, even in winter. The academy for the sect he founded would be called the Quanyuan: the Springhead.
Yue Fengjian’s arm was warm around Lian Zhidiao’s waist. Lian Zhidiao had grown used to that comforting weight as they flew up the mountainside, trusting Yue Fengjian’s strength to hold him on the sword as securely as his own use of qi. He shouted over the wind. “Are we almost there?”
“To the gate, yes.” Yue Fengjian said, leaning close enough to Lian Zhidiao’s ear that he didn’t have to raise his voice.
A shiver raced down Lian Zhidiao’s spine, but he pushed it away, focusing on the land below them. A large, red-roofed gate stood at the edge of a meadow, guarding a courtyard paved with black granite. Yue Fengjian let him off at the stone landing just in front of the gate. Two carved stone bears taller than Lian Zhidiao flanked broad, level steps that sparkled in the dappled sunlight near the treeline.
Ah, the long set of stairs up to the martial arts academy. I included these in the story because everyone else did, but… Lian Zhidiao looked up with dismay at the stairway vanishing into the dim light of the forest. Maybe it would have been better to just make it like any other martial arts school that can be reached by public transit.
“Do I want to ask how many steps there are?”
“3,688,” Yue Fengjian replied, stepping off his sword. Wallbreaker sheathed itself in his hand.
The steep stairs almost seemed to go straight up, dipping in and out between the trees. “I have to climb these?”
Yue Fengjian looked up at the mountain with no small amount of pride. “Everyone does.” Yue Fengjian’s eyes dropped down to the spindleweight, and then darted back up to Lian Zhidiao’s face. “At least, the first time they visit the Quanyuan.”
“It seems calculated to be more difficult on someone who lives close to the sea,” Lian Zhidiao grumbled, tying his bag around his shoulders and taking the first step. Each one was taller than he expected, more like an actual mountain climb than any set of stairs he’d ever encountered.
Yue Fengjian began to climb with him.
Lian Zhidiao glanced at Yue Fengjian. “Aren’t you going back home?”
“Yes. I will be assisting with the rebuilding effort. The outer disciples can render aid once we have a plan.”
“I see,” Lian Zhidiao said, running a few steps up in a burst of speed before looking back down at Yue Fengjian. The higher angle hid some of the strength of his features, making him seem more beautiful than handsome.
He looks so elegant. It’s no wonder he stole the heart of every Beauty.
Yue Fengjian also stopped, meeting Lian Zhidiao’s gaze. He arched an eyebrow but kept steadily walking up, drawing level with Lian Zhidiao in only a few strides. His body heat warmed the thin mountain air, and he was close enough now that Lian Zhidiao could feel it.
Lian Zhidiao abruptly turned on his heel and began climbing up the stairs again. His heart was beating faster than he expected. The effect of exercising at high altitude, he supposed. He kept his eyes on the stairs in front of him. “Were you the kind of student who would race other students up the steps?”
“No,” Yue Fengjian said, keeping in step with him. “Are you challenging me to a race?”
“No,” Lian Zhidiao answered back. “I feel certain you would win, and it’s not fun going into a game you have no chance of winning.”
“If there’s even a little chance to win, that makes it more fun.”
“When we were little, Liao Kuaiyu used to race up the steps.”
“But not with you?”
“No.” After a moment, Yue Fengjian spoke again. “He would challenge Yue Yaosa, and run circles around her up and down the stairs if she wouldn’t agree to the race.”
“And if she accepted?”
“The older she got, the more she won.” Yue Fengjian sounded pleased.
Spinning qi into magic drains the golden core. Liao Kuaiyu would have probably gotten tired more easily if he was doing a lot of training. “Did that cause bad feelings between them?”
“They became a team because of it.” Yue Fengjian skipped a few steps up past Lian Zhidiao. He stopped on a stone landing and looked down on him.
Lian Zhidiao stopped a few steps below him. From this angle, his elegance receded, and only his strength was visible. Like an emperor looking down from his palace. I guess if I manage to live through this story, I’ll only see him from this angle after he takes the throne. “I thought you weren’t the kind to race up stairs?”
Yue Fengjian hesitated for a heartbeat before answering. “I’m not.” Then he unsheathed Wallbreaker and dropped it in readiness for flight. “Liao Kuaiyu still lives at the Quanyuan. He can help you get settled in.”
Lian Zhidiao nodded. Watching Yue Fengjian step onto his sword, it dawned on him that this would be the first time since he’d walked into the inn in Shuangwan Village that he would be separated from Yue Fengjian for more than a night. In fact, since cleansing Sancha Town, they had not been separated at all. I’m supposed to stay close to him, either to fulfill my role as cannon fodder, or to hide in his shadow and hope I survive. It would be fine to stay at the Quanyuan, probably. Even though some events were different from the story of Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, nothing too unexpected had happened yet.
With his signature scowl in place, Yue Fengjian looked him over, as if he was going to ask if the stairs would be too taxing for him, and then thought better of it. A gentle breeze picked up, tossing the leaves above and scattering sunlight over them. Lian Zhidiao held his breath, watching the gold in Yue Fengjian’s hair glitter, and the shine of light playing in his ponytail.
A protagonist really is beloved by the world itself.
Lian Zhidiao opened his mouth and then closed it as Yue Fengjian flitted through the gate. He couldn’t shake a wistful feeling that lingered even as Yue Fengjian shrank from view in the bright blue sky.
I wonder when I’ll see him again…
The breeze died down, and Lian Zhidiao turned and looked up at the stairs. With a small sigh, he started to climb. The walk was pretty enough, laddering up the hillside with switchbacks that occasionally showed glimpses of the picturesque vistas beyond the trees. Almost an hour later, gasping for air, he emerged from the trees into a large clearing. An imposing rock wall cut across it, with demon-repelling arrays cut into it. In the center of the clearing was another red gate, with heavy-looking timber doors that were firmly shut. A bronze plaque on the wall proclaimed that this was the Xinxue Yue sect.
Lian Zhidiao shaded his eyes to see Liao Kuaiyu giving him a lazy wave from a lounging position atop the roof.
“Mmm? Shixiong didn’t come with you?”
Lian Zhidiao shook his head.
“Oh…” Disappointment was plain on Liao Kuaiyu’s face. He got to his feet and then looked down inside the walls of the school to motion someone over., before he jumping down outside with Lian Zhidiao. He lowered his voice so it wouldn’t carry. “You’re not the only one she acts like that with,” he said. “Don’t take it personally.”
“Lady Gao, of course.” Liao Kuaiyu gave him a sympathetic smile. “There’s benefits to being a Sect Leader’s son, but there are also… drawbacks.” He patted Lian Zhidiao’s shoulder comfortingly. “Vassal families are all the same as far as she’s concerned. Don’t listen to her criticism.”
A small frown appeared on Lian Zhidiao’s face. It was true that Lady Gao had made her feelings on his presence clear—after all, he’d been pushed out to the Quanyuan rather than stay under her roof. But she hadn’t been rude to him. The very bare minimum of civil, but not rude. Whatever terrible things she’d said to Liao Kuaiyu, she certainly hadn’t said to Lian Zhidiao. He watched Liao Kuaiyu knock on the gate and listen for the lock to be lifted.
“Open up! It’s cold out here!”
At least I am from another sect and might never have to see her again. Liao Kuaiyu has likely had to endure her multiple times. Lian Zhidiao pursed his lips and stepped forward next to him at the gate.
The voice of a boy rose in the air. “Senior Liao, who is it?”
A girl’s voice chimed in. “Song Zhu, get out of the way and let them come in!”
The heavy gate creaked open wide enough for them to pass, and Liao Kuaiyu flashed Lian Zhidiao a grin. “Welcome to the Xinxue Yue sect, Lian Zhidiao.”
Two boys and a girl took in Lian Zhidiao’s appearance as he stepped over the threshold, and all fell silent. In his black robes, it was obvious which sect he was from, and his somber mien only made him look more severe. The boys looked at Liao Kuaiyu, their apprehension plain on their faces. The girl’s eyes were as wide as saucers.
Liao Kuaiyu folded his arms over his chest and looked at the junior disciples. “This is Senior Lian. He’ll be staying with us for a bit.”
The younger boy appraised Lian Zhidiao with a skeptical eye. “Is he here to learn magic?”
“Watch your tone,” Liao Kuaiyu warned him. “Senior Lian is here as Young Lord Yue Fengjian’s guest.”
The girl’s mouth fell open. The older boy elbowed the younger one in the side, giving him a dirty look, and then took control of the group, giving Lian Zhidiao a salute. “This student’s name is Song Yang.”
The younger boy recovered quickly and followed suit. “This student’s name is Song Zhu.”
“This student’s name is Wu Que,” the girl piped up.
Liao Kuaiyu nodded approvingly and cast his eyes over the three of them. “Did you prepare his bed?”
“Yes, Senior Liao.” Song Zhu had a ready answer and a determined glint in his eye, which he turned on Lian Zhidiao. “Did you really see Senior Yue kill the qilin?” Song Zhu asked.
Lian Zhidiao blinked and then glanced at Liao Kuaiyu. Liao Kuaiyu’s smile began to fade, and then Lian Zhidiao turned his attention back to the juniors. “If a public declaration hasn’t been made yet, I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say.”
“Aw!” Song Zhu had clearly been hoping to drink the cleanest water right from the source.
“Perhaps later I can tell you more about it, but Sect Leader Yue should be allowed to speak on such matters first, shouldn’t he?
“Alright, alright,” Liao Kuaiyu said, shooing the juniors away before they could pry further into Lian Zhidiao’s reasoning. “You can talk to him more tomorrow.” The juniors began to move away, still talking excitedly, when Liao Kuaiyu hushed them into silence. They bobbed away through the courtyard like birds.
Liao Kuaiyu looked at his belongings. “Is this all you brought with you?”
Liao Kuaiyu gave a satisfied nod and started to lead the way down one of the paths. “Hope you don’t mind sleeping in my room with me.”
“Were there no other rooms available?”
“Hey!” Liao Kuaiyu frowned.
“It’s okay. If I’m being honest,” Liao Kuaiyu lowered his voice conspiratorially, “it was part of the conditions for keeping you up here.”
“But even given your talents, once they knew you’d be sleeping near a magician twice as strong as you are, well,” he gestured with his hand as if the conclusion was plain to see.
“I’m thankful for your intervention.”
“The sarcasm is appreciated,” Liao Kuaiyu replied.
“No, I really am,” Lian Zhidiao insisted, his expression softening with sincerity. “If that made it possible for me to stay at the Quanyuan, then I’m grateful to you.”
Liao Kuaiyu stopped in his tracks and stared at Lian Zhidiao for the space of two heartbeats. Then, with a sympathetic face, he shook his head and urged him to keep walking.
“Don’t worry about it.” Liao Kuaiyu said.
The grounds of the Quanyuan were quiet and austere. Walkways paved with black granite wove in and out of the gnarled pines and granite outcrops, with small snow piles here and there. Most of the buildings were small and scattered around the peak to better facilitate isolation and a distraction-free environment. The outer disciples lived together in dormitories, but the inner disciples—the seniors—were afforded small cottages.
Liao Kuaiyu’s cottage was on the south side of the mountain, tucked in a wind-blasted space above a stone outcrop. Despite being surrounded by wilderness, the area looked well-manicured. The pines were flush with tender needles, but clustered tightly around the cottage to protect it from the elements. Hardly anything grew in the crevices of the rocks on the outcrop. The cottage itself was built from stones, the cracks between them sealed up with wool and mud to make it cozy. Looking around, Lian Zhidiao felt sure that whoever had built Yue Danquan’s reclusive hut had given design input on this one. Although small, it had two rooms. The bedroom with (thankfully) two beds, and the front hall, with the half-outdoor kitchen to the side. Liao Kuaiyu clearly lived here alone: papers covered in half-sketched designs and notes were strewn over the floor, seemingly picked up and set aside in distraction.
What a mess. He really fits the wizard archetype to a tee.
Liao Kuaiyu gestured to one bed. “Might be a little hard, but it should be okay for now.”
Lian Zhidiao put his bundle down on the bed and looked around. It was cramped, a bit like a monk’s cell, but given the Yue sect’s emphasis on service and hard work, an ascetic lifestyle was probably normal for disciples.
Liao Kuaiyu walked back into the main room, his feet scuffing the floor. “We’re in mourning for the disciples we lost two days ago, so I’m afraid you probably won’t be able to meet any of the masters for a while.”
“I doubt they’d want to meet me anyway,” Lian Zhidiao mused.
“Don’t be too sure. They’re very interested in what happened with the qilin,” Liao Kuaiyu said. “And speaking of that…” His voice lifted up leadingly, inviting Lian Zhidiao to speak.
Lian Zhidiao let out a sigh. “What do you know?”
“Only what I was able to get out of Yaosa, which is what she was able to get out of Yue Shipei.”
“And that is?”
Liao Kuaiyu unfolded his fingers in two counts. “The qilin wasn’t killed, and it won’t trouble the western mountains any more.” He rubbed his neck self-consciously. “It sounds like the kinda thing that an older brother tells a kid when they don’t want them to know their dog has died.”
“Too nice a thing to happen?”
“Mm,” Liao Kuaiyu grunted. “That’s it.”
“I see.” Lian Zhidiao let out his breath in a huff. “Well, it’s true, in essence,” he said. “It had entered qi deviation.” Liao Kuaiyu looked up with shock at those words. “We had a jade tool given to us by Yue Danquan. We were able to heal it instead of kill it.”
“Heal it?” Liao Kuaiyu frowned. “Had you spent enough time with the Yuan sect to learn their healing arts?”
“No, I only did the bare minimum of study in metal,” Lian Zhidiao said. “But, fortunately, it turns out that a qilin is not too different from a jade beast.”
“Oh.” Liao Kuaiyu walked to a deep bucket standing against the wall and used a dipper to fill a pot with water. “And you know how to cleanse those.”
“Mm,” Lian Zhidiao said. “Yue Fengjian forced it to the ground and gave me an opening to try. We worked together.”
Liao Kuaiyu chuckled, shaking his head. “It really was lucky for us to run into you in that Lin sect village. If Hu Baitian had found his elder brother’s whereabouts the first week we were out, we might never have met you.”
As a writer who had never made any attempts to fill in the reasons behind why Supreme Warlord of the Beast World began the way it did, this was new information to Lian Zhidiao. “Was that what you all were doing in Lin sect lands?”
“Mm,” Liao Kuaiyu said. “Yue Fengjian had agreed to take him on as a student in demon-hunting a couple years back, so he could take some useful experience back to the Yuan sect.” He took the pot outside and put it atop a small oven, sheltered from the wind by a wall. Shoving the kindling into the firebox, he kept talking. “Hu Baitian kept in regular contact with his elder brother until his letters just stopped coming. But he’d heard something in a letter from his brother about demons, so he asked us all to help look.”
Liao Kuaiyu walked back into the hut and opened a cabinet, taking down a wooden box of tea and two porcelain cups. “Ah, but you already know how dutiful he is, since you knew him while he was at the Wa sect.” Then Liao Kuaiyu froze in his movements, as if he’d spoken of something that was not to be discussed aloud. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I talk too much.”
What? What happened at the Wa sect?
“It’s fine,” Lian Zhidiao finally managed. “That’s all in the past.”
Liao Kuaiyu slowly put tea leaves into the cups. Then, with an uncomfortable chuckle, he put the box away and changed the subject.
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