Everyday Lian Zhidiao heard that repairs were proceeding in the mountains, but only some of the junior disciples were allowed out at a time to help with the work necessary to rebuild the pillaged settlements. The rest worked fields and orchards when they could, under the tutelage of a few Masters that had come out of seclusion. The first few days, Lian Zhidiao lingered around the front gate, hoping that Yue Fengjian would come back. But two days passed, and then six days. He did not come flying over the walls. The gate remained closed.
It was not like Lian Zhidiao had nothing to do. He learned that although Liao Kuaiyu had given off the impression of a laid-back guy with tons of flash and firepower, his personality was more like that of a dependable elder brother. The novitiates, the students who had yet to form a golden core, were fewer in number than Lian Zhidiao expected for a sect with such well-known demon-hunting capabilities. Among their ranks were many orphans and impoverished children who had been given a home at the sect because of their spiritual potential. Every member of the Yue sect started here, with no valor to their name, and had to work hard to advance to the next levels.
But even to the unproven novitiates, Liao Kuaiyu was firm and kind. He encouraged all the outer disciples to follow his lead. Although Yue Fengjian, Yue Shipei and Yue Yaosa were all inner disciples, their relationship to the outer disciples was one of authority and semi-distant responsibility. Only Liao Kuaiyu worried after them as he would brothers or sisters.
Living with Liao Kuaiyu fell into a predictable sort of rhythm. Lian Zhidiao was largely left to his own devices, though he couldn’t shake a feeling of being watched—no, inspected. He expected to be called to speak with a Master at any time, but the days slipped by and he was never summoned. Perhaps due to the constant feeling of having his behavior scrutinized for misdeeds, he felt a sense of belonging to the Wa sect, even though he had not met any of his sect brothers or sisters. As the first Wa sect member many of the Yue sect juniors had spent any time with, he used his time wisely to dismantle some of their preconceived notions. He could not help but want the Wa sect to be viewed favorably by the Yue. After all, Yue Fengjian was going to be Emperor some day, as well as lead the Yue sect. When that happened, these juniors would have to comport themselves with dignity.
In the end, Lian Zhidiao found himself connecting with them in an unlikely way for a Wa magician: fire. The juniors who had already formed golden cores were deciding whether or not to become magicians, to learn the ways that qi could be bent into the shape of the five elements. Unlike fire, earth was a very passive element. Most of the Wa sect’s techniques and spells were based around correctly using the earth around them. But there were a few spells that had immediate, observable effects. One of them was bogflame.
Lian Zhidiao demonstrated bogflame for the juniors at night. He had Liao Kuaiyu make a small fireball as an example of the Yue sect’s approach to fire. Liao Kuaiyu did so, and then tossed the fireball away, reminding Lian Zhidiao of a certain plumber from another world. Then Lian Zhidiao fed qi out through his spindle and let his mind call up a mud puddle hissing with gas. His breath made the same sound through his teeth as he pushed the qi through the jade spindleweight. Above the jade, a pale, sickly fireball emerged.
“That’s not as good as Senior Liao’s!” someone whispered before being quickly hushed.
“The appeal of the spell bogflame,” Lian Zhidiao murmured, “is precisely that it looks nothing like anything you have seen.” He moved the bogflame around, its weak light barely scattering the darkness. Like moths, the eyes of the juniors were drawn to the strange fire, even after Lian Zhidiao threw it up into the air. It drifted through the night; a wan, watery moon drenched in an oil slick, many-colored. Only when it landed on the earth and vanished was the spell broken. All at once, they seemed to realize how spellbound they had been. Then, they began clamoring for him to teach them, only leaving him be when he said that they would learn the spell if they spent time with the Wa sect.
The last of Lian Zhidiao’s possessions arrived not a week after he did: the wooden box with the broken jade cat. It seemed to have survived the overland journey fairly well, but then again, it had already been broken. His situation couldn’t have gotten worse even if it had broken more. He had hoped that Yue Fengjian would bring it up to the Quanyuan himself, but it was delivered by an anonymous porter along with a supply of ink sticks, incense, and specially-made paper from the Lin sect.
After fifteen days passed with no word from Yue Fengjian, Liao Kuaiyu went into seclusion for several weeks. It was to be expected, given how much qi he had used when casting high-power spells like the inferno at Sancha Town. But this left Lian Zhidiao looking for something to do. In the end, he began to cultivate as well. As cannon fodder, the idea of chasing immortality by filling his golden core seemed silly at first. But as a sign that he was cultivating correctly, the sluggish turmoil in his other core slowly died down after two weeks of quiet reflection.
While Liao Kuaiyu was in seclusion, Lian Zhidiao had the run of their little house, so he brought the wooden box out onto the stone outcrop and opened it in the sunlight. The little cat and its head were still wedged among the brocade cushions that lined the box. He pulled it out and set the two pieces down in front of him. The cat’s legs were half-outstretched, as though it had reached out to claw something. Its tail was tucked up tight between its legs. On the head, its ears were flattened back against the skull, the mouth slightly open with teeth bared. It looked like it had been broken in the middle of a violent fight for survival.
Assembling the little cat in front of him as it would have looked before it was broken, he noticed something he hadn’t before. There was a distinct chip taken out of one side of its neck. Lian Zhidiao rubbed his thumb over the parts that were missing.This must be how it was broken. Something hit it. Jade was durable, but it wasn’t impossible to break. With a spiritual weapon, it might even be easy to break a jade beast, blowing it apart from the inside with a maelstrom of qi.
As was the case with bruises, all the purple and green marks on his body had faded away without Lian Zhidiao realizing the last time he’d seen them. The cuts on his arms—all of them on the outside, from an attacker who had been bearing down upon him—were newly-red, barely closed.
He smoothed his fingers over the jade cat’s half-closed eyes.
Were you broken at the same time the old Lian Zhidiao was injured? Did you break so that he could live? Poor thing. Your sacrifice was in vain.
Looking inside the box under the bright mountain sunshine, he saw that there was a slip of printed brown paper glued to the inside. Turning the box on its side, something shiny caught the light: a name, written in gold ink.
His Imperial Majesty, Shanyin, Favored of Heaven, may he live ten thousand years, presented this Jade Beast to Jiang Wuliu, for his faithful support following the War of Five Ways.
Jiang Wuliu? Lian Zhidiao frowned. The Jiang family had been listed in the System’s summary of the Wa sect, but he was very sure it had been listed as ‘extinct’. It was hard to imagine any meaning for ‘extinct’ other than the obvious one: the Jiang family had been exterminated, root and branch. But why? And how did Lian Zhidiao come to have the jade cat if it had belonged to the Jiang family?
Wishing that the cat could tell him everything that it knew, Lian Zhidiao picked up the cat’s head and put it to his mouth. He blew qi into the cat’s nose, his attention directed inside it. But the qi was gone as soon as it left his lips. It was as if he had been breathing out into the air.
I guess there’s no coming back from something like this, even if it wasn’t really alive to begin with.
He carefully put the jade cat back in the box and stowed it away under his bed.
In the blink of an eye, two months passed. The pleasant warmth of the cusp of spring became the sweltering heat of late summer. Even the Quanyuan wasn’t immune. The heat wasn’t as heavy as in the valleys, but the sunshine at altitude was keen, its glare cutting through the pines. More than once the juniors begged seniors with knowledge of water spinning to relieve them all from the heat. (All their efforts were rebuffed, and they were chastised for plotting to use their golden core so thoughtlessly.) The frigid water from the spring was used to chill melons and cucumbers. Lian Zhidiao began to look forward to eating a chilled snack to make it through the late afternoon.
It was at the end of the second month that finally, someone came to fetch them.
The library of the Quanyuan had both bamboo and paper books as well as scrolls written by a variety of scribes. Most of them were catalogs of demons and histories of their interactions with the Yue sect. Every one of them ended with the death of at least one demon. Initially, Lian Zhidiao had taken to reading whichever one caught his eye when he looked at the shelves. But in the last two weeks he thought he might begin looking for the demon that Qianjiao mentioned: Shen Qingyu.
He was doing just that when Yue Shipei and Liao Kuaiyu walked into the library, talking animatedly. Yue Shipei’s smile faded slightly when he saw Lian Zhidiao.
“Yue Shipei!” Lian Zhidiao stood up and offered him a salute. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes looked past the two of them, as if wanting to see someone else who would be arriving, but there was no one else.
Yue Shipei returned it with only a hint of the smile he’d had before. “I see Liao Kuaiyu was correct in his assumptions. You were in the library.”
“I told you he’s been studying up.” Liao Kuaiyu grinned and stepped over to Lian Zhidiao’s side and urging him closer. “We’ll have to train him in proper demon-hunting.”
“A demon-hunter without a weapon is useless,” Yue Shipei replied.
“He’s got magic,” Liao Kuaiyu countered, his cheeks puffed out.
“Even you bring your sword when you know demons will be about,” Yue Shipei replied. “But to that end, we need to put that jade tool in Danxiong’s care. It should have been done before now, but the rebuilding…” He shook his head, clearing away the excuses that were clinging to his words like cobwebs on a broom. “There just hasn’t been time.”
“Have you been busy?”
“This is the first moment I’ve had to myself since the two of you left,” Yue Shipei groused.
Liao Kuaiyu grinned. “Back to his usual habits, huh?” With a motion of his hand, he beckoned both Lian Zhidiao and Yue Shipei to follow him.
Lian Zhidiao looked back and forth between them. “What do you mean?”
“Shixiong is the kind of person who is the first to get to work, and last to stop.” Liao Kuaiyu said. “It’s usually not bad, but if there’s real work that needs to get done, like with rebuilding villages—”
“He overworks everyone, and himself most of all.”
“Hu Baitian likes it, though.”
Yue Shipei’s expression softened almost imperceptibly. “He can be convinced to sit down and have a meal, at least.”
“What? Yue Fengjian is not eating?” Lian Zhidiao couldn’t keep a note of alarm out of his voice.
“He eats plenty when he works,” Liao Kuaiyu interjected. “But it’s all glutinous rice and sausage—something he can have out in the forest or fields without taking time for a proper meal.”
Yue Shipei nodded, confirming Liao Kuaiyu’s words with obvious consternation.
Lian Zhidiao imagined what would happen if he’d subsisted entirely on glutinous rice and sausage for two months while doing almost nothing up at the Quanyuan. He’d have attained a rounder shape, for sure.
“Were you able to spend much time in seclusion?” Yue Shipei looked over at Liao Kuaiyu.
“Some. I’m not any further along than I was before we began traveling.”
“Meimei said that her sword has been too light lately, and that you should hurry up.”
“She should also spend some time in seclusion, instead of just depending on me to do all the fighting,” Liao Kuaiyu retorted, but he had a look on his face that said he was secretly pleased.
Yue Shipei seemed eager to return to work (despite his complaint that he had gotten no rest in days) and urged them to hurry. Lian Zhidiao fetched the jade lotus bud, still totally black, and met the other two in front of the main gate.
Without Yue Yaosa to fly with, Liao Kuaiyu had to use his own spiritual weapon for flight: an elegant, slender jian with gilded dragon fittings, cloud-figured red jade set into the guard, and a brilliant red tassel. It was the kind of sword expected in the hand of a high-ranking nobleman or a prince. But as Liao Kuaiyu unsheathed it for flight, the name, etched in the blade, caught Lian Zhidiao’s eye: Pig-killing knife.
Lian Zhidiao also took a second look at Yue Shipei’s sword; also a jian, it was well-appointed, Silver blossoms and acanthus leaves curled around the jade-inlaid pommel and guard, and the name of the sword was etched in platinum in the steel blade: Peach Wind Storm. As much a piece of art as a weapon, it was at home in the hands of a son of the local ruling family.
Yue Shipei cast a glance at Lian Zhidiao and then gestured to his sword. “I will carry you down the mountain.”
Lian Zhidiao had half expected that Yue Shipei would offer a hand to help him up, the same way Yue Fengjian did. But after a moment, when no hand was offered, he took the initiative and hopped up onto the blade, fixing his feet to it with qi. Yue Shipei’s arm didn’t settle around his waist as Yue Fengjian’s arm had. There was less of a feeling of security as they flew; Lian Zhidiao felt like this was probably closer to what flying on his own sword would feel like, when he finally got one. Somehow, the thought wasn’t something he looked forward to all that much.
Liao Kuaiyu zipped ahead of them, floating down the mountain with ease, despite not using his own sword for much of his travel. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes followed him as he swooped down toward the city and then banked hard right, flying low over the fields. For anyone else, pig-killing knife might have been easy to view as a kind of educated man’s joke: anyone could see that such a beautiful sword would not be used for anything so common. But the comment Liao Kuaiyu had made about vassal families weeks ago pushed to the front of his mind. Liao Kuaiyu had received a sword fit for a prince, but it had a name like such a common thing.
Yue Shipei and Lian Zhidiao circled the city once before coming in close and landing at the large circular building at the center of the city. Just as it had been in Fenfang, the building that housed the Great Jade Beast Danxiong was circular and high-roofed. Yue Shipei dismounted at the same time that Lian Zhidiao hopped off, and led the way around the side of the building to an entrance that wasn’t meant for the general public.
They entered the large arena from a private door, and Lian Zhidiao’s very heartbeat hushed at the sight of Danxiong. A hulking bear entirely of red jade, shot through with white veins that seemed to highlight his beautifully carved fur, Danxiong’s size rivaled Qinghu’s. His back was high, shaped like the mountains around Xuefeng City. His claws were long, sickle-shaped and sickle-sized.
“Over here,” Yue Shipei said.
Lian Zhidiao had to close his mouth a little, and kept up with Yue Shipei as they walked to meet one of Danxiong’s attendants. Danxiong himself lumbered over, watching over the exchange between them. The jade tool was accepted (with a sober look at Lian Zhidiao, who bowed deeply and thanked them for looking after it.) The attendant placed it in a small crypt in the floor of Danxiong’s palace, to receive the constant roaring earth effect that the Great Jade Beasts generated. Over time, it would wash the deviate qi away from the tool, leaving it clear and ready to cleanse deviation again.
With one final bow to the attendant and Danxiong, Lian Zhidiao turned to leave, but not before hearing the clack-scratch of claws on the stone floor. Turning, he was nearly knocked flat by Danxiong’s muzzle, and caught himself on the great bear’s nose.
Without meaning to, he looked into Danxiong’s meridians. Fractal patterns, rivers into rivers of qi going in as deep as he wanted to look, but shaped differently, moving differently. They were of-a-kind with Qinghu, but not the same. Danxiong moaned, sounding more like a baby bear than an adult, and pressed his nose against Lian Zhidiao for a moment.
“What are you doing?” Yue Shipei’s voice was deadly quiet.
Lian Zhidiao returned his attention to the outside world and rubbed Danxiong’s muzzle soothingly. “He’s the one that’s doing it, not me.”
Yue Shipei watched for a moment longer, observing that Danxiong panted and moaned again, like a cub calling for his mother. Then Yue Shipei reached out and pulled on Lian Zhidiao’s sleeve, drawing him away. “Come. We still have things to do.”
Danxiong sat down and continued to watch even as the door closed between them.
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