Without any idea of where to start (and the Hidden Realm lacking helpful signs or exhibits about how to select a spiritual weapon), for a moment or two, Lian Zhidiao just looked around, at a loss as to where to begin. But eventually, everything had to come back to the swords, as conspicuous as they were. He had to start somewhere, so he started with a sword in his hand.
The unsoftened edges of the tang in his hand felt too small. Flakes of corrosion stuck to his palm when he pulled his hand back. He tipped his hand over, brushing the flakes off his skin. They fell, glittering green, and then disappeared with a small twinkle of light. He pinched some of the corrosion off the metal, as if he was peeling lichen off a tree trunk. It shimmered and then reappeared on the tang of the sword.
So it seems like the Hidden Realm is conserving the swords. After all, if every curious cultivator who came in took a few flakes of a sword with them, eventually some of the swords would cease to exist at all. He couldn’t help but notice how similar the swords appeared. Every one of them was an ancient bronze sword or crude iron blade. He could not see any dao, and certainly no staffs or two-handed jian.
Each one looks just like every other. There’s no way to tell them apart just by looking.
Lian Zhidiao stood up, looking around at the swords, hundreds of them half-buried in the sand. So the Hidden Realm makes all of them look like swords, regardless of what their form out in the real world will be. He walked further into the Hidden Realm, peering beyond the tall columns of sandstone. The canyon split the mountains open, twisting and turning as he walked, the gray rocks tall on either side of him no matter how far he went.
Or maybe it’s that my spiritual weapon will be a jian, no matter which one of these I pick.
Lian Zhidiao frowned. Come to think of it, does it matter which one I pick? Does the Hidden Realm already know which sword is mine?
The story of Supreme Warlord of the Beast World began well after Yue Fengjian became a cultivator and was on his way to getting a full harem. So Lian Zhidiao had never written about the Hidden Realm or getting a spiritual weapon. But even if he had not been thorough in his worldbuilding, it seemed unlikely that rules for the Hidden Realm acted as mere suggestions. They were, after all, so immutable they had been carved in stone.
There were clues to other rules of the Hidden Realm as well. Spiritual weapons were tied to their wielder’s spirit or core—maybe both, based on what Yuan Suwei had said about reforming a golden core after losing it to qi deviation. The identity of the cultivator and the nature of the spiritual weapon were closely linked.
So if I just pick up any old sword and try to walk out with it, it should either transform into my personal spiritual weapon, or if it’s not actually my spiritual weapon, the Hidden Realm shouldn’t allow me to take the wrong one.
With this experiment in mind, he reached out to take one of the swords and pull it out of the sand.
It slid free with a dull, gritty metallic sound that sounded more like picking up a lead pipe in a zombie video game than selecting an elegant weapon for spiritual and martial techniques. He turned it in his hand, looking down the blade.
Slowly, in front of his eyes, corrosion faded. Lines of light began to scribe out the shape of a hilt, a pommel, the double-honed point at the end, a piece of jade set into the guard—and then, in the blink of an eye, the sword flew out of his hand and embedded itself back in the sand.
That one’s probably a ‘no’, then. He’d been hoping that it would be over quickly, but maybe hoping for the very first try to be a winner had been too much to hope for.
Letting out a sigh, Lian Zhidiao looked around at the swords littering the canyon. Do I really have to try all of them? Was this what Yue Fengjian meant by ‘don’t take too long’?
He gripped another sword and pulled it out of the sand.
“That which is not beautiful must be useful.” The words entered his mind unbidden as light danced around the sword. Lian Zhidiao had the distinct feeling that the sword itself was doing something. He hesitated to call it the sword’s ‘spirit’, because it was more like a collection of words and emotions that tickled his mind as he held it, like a ghost of a fragrance that drifted through the air.
This sword, too, slipped out of his hand, like a maiden delicately refusing a confession, placing itself back in the sand. Lian Zhidiao stared at the sword and then at his hand.
Did I just get rejected by a sword? It was so polite, he almost had to laugh.
He tried another one. This one, like the first, began to form itself in light. Then, like the first, it ripped from his grasp and, like the first, stuck upright in the sand. The next one was much the same: he touched it, it started to reveal itself, and then decided it would rather not.
Another one began to gather itself in his hand, curving into the long, broad blade of a dao, and then flew from his grasp clear across the canyon, burrowing into the sand until almost none of the tang was visible. That sword gave Lian Zhidiao the feeling of a feral dog who had gotten too close and then fled the danger of human touch, cowering in a corner and snarling.
They were all different. Some of the swords had distinct emotions. Others were silent but definitely not his sword.
If the swords had emotions and some kind of spirit, then maybe thinking about this in terms of rules wasn’t the right way to go about it. Maybe this process was supposed to be more like a communion, forming a pact with the Hidden Realm and the sword itself.
He had to stop trying to figure it out like a quick-time mechanic in a video game, and trust the Hidden Realm.
Lian Zhidiao straightened his back and crossed his legs in a comfortable position. His breathing slowed; he quickly pushed away thoughts of Yuan Suwei waiting outside the Hidden Realm with guards. Slower to leave him were thoughts of Yue Fengjian pacing in the courtyard and looking up at the Sacred Gate. But eventually, these drifted away as well. The sand made a soft platform for him to meditate, and his thoughts naturally turned inward, to the shining light in his belly. His focus loosened; the seed of light in his dantian suffused all his senses. He swam in it, breathed it in.
When he started to feel like the edges of himself were softening, something else crept into his consciousness and touched him.
Lian Zhidiao opened his eyes. The sky was still that boundless white, the floor still covered in soft sand, the rusted swords all shaped like jian and as common as grass.
But now, Lian Zhidiao walked through the canyon in the Hidden Realm, searching for that feeling that had played around the edges of his mind.
He found two swords in the sand in one of the little nooks of the canyon, so close their blades were nearly touching. As easily as he might recognize a face and call out to someone he knew, Lian Zhidiao reached out and pulled free the one on the left.
In his hand, light began to form around the jian. It was long and thin, forged so that the metal formed a patchwork of faint colors, starlight refracted through the edge of mist. The grip was black rayskin, and the guard was silver, made of clouds. A cabochon of purple jade settled into the cloud-figured silver, carved to fit seamlessly into it; a matching purple tassel danced at the end of the pommel. The scabbard formed last, black-lacquered, with silver ornaments that were made to look like clouds.
Yearning, devotion, duty, love, desperation; they blew through him like a gale as the sword became fully real, its weight settling in his hand. A tear rolled down Lian Zhidiao’s cheek at the intensity within the sword itself, and then the emotions receded, like a river going back between its banks after a flood. He pulled the sword free of the scabbard; it came out easily, eager at his touch. In the heaven-patterned steel, the name flowed in platinum.
Shanzhen. Lightning Needle.
Lian Zhidiao let out a sigh of relief as he pushed the sword back into the scabbard. His feet found the way back to the exit on their own, or perhaps the way was made shorter with the gentle guidance of the Hidden Realm. Holding Shanzhen tightly, he paused briefly between the gray stones to look back at the canyon’s stillness, each sword frozen in time, waiting for someone to bring it out into the world again. Then he ducked his head and crept back out through the stones.
He smelled the rain at the same time he heard it, stepping out of the Hidden Realm back into the real world. The tall sandstones sheltered him from the steady drizzle that was soaking the courtyard—this seemed to have blown in awfully quickly. By his estimation, he hadn’t been in the Hidden Realm more than two or three hours.
A gray-robed disciple emerged from the gallery with an umbrella, and escorted Lian Zhidiao back to the gallery under it.
Lian Zhidiao looked around for Yue Fengjian, excited to show his new sword. But he was nowhere to be seen.
“Lian Zhidiao.” Yuan Suwei leaned forward from his seat above the clerks. His fairy-like good looks had an otherworldly sharpness as he considered his quarry, caught in his claws. “Thirty-two hours in the Hidden Realm. A prodigy, indeed.”
Thirty-two hours? I was in there for a whole day!? “Where’s Yue Fengjian?”
Yuan Suwei waved his hand dismissively. “Since you presented yourself directly to me, there was no need—”
“We should talk, Yuan Suwei.” The idea of Yue Fengjian waiting for him for so long tore at him; he went back to the inn without him and without any idea of when he would come out, leaving him vulnerable to when Yuan Suwei would again be presiding as Judge. It wasn’t like there were friendly people here who could give Yue Fengjian a tip, either. He had to play hardball or he was just going to end up where he’d been before.
Yuan Suwei’s mouth tightened. The lack of appropriate deference shown had to be grating on his nerves, especially given Lian Zhidiao’s obsequiousness before.
“Show proper respect to Senior Yuan,” one of the gray-robed disciples threatened.
Lian Zhidiao inclined his head. “My Lord Arbiter needs something I have, I think. Unless he has found another disciple of Guizai to provide it for him?”
Given Guizai’s reputation, that should tell him that I know what he needs to know.
Yuan Suwei’s nostrils flared as he controlled his temper. He was clearly unused to being challenged in public, and yet the fruit being dangled in front of him was ripe and sweet. He stood up, smoothing out his robes. With an impatient look at Lian Zhidiao, he then glanced at a clerk. “Go ahead. Take the name of his sword so it can be recorded in the rolls.”
The clerk gave Lian Zhidiao an uneasy look but motioned him forward. “Unsheathe your sword, but not all the way. I just need the name.”
Lian Zhidiao popped the jian free of the scabbard, showing the name written in platinum. “Shanzhen.”
“Shanzhen,” the clerk repeated nervously, looking at the sword to make sure he wrote the characters down correctly. He handed the slip of paper to a disciple, who hurried from the gallery. “The oracles will bring the scroll forward shortly and I’ll put your name down.”
Lian Zhidiao gave the clerk his very best customer-service smile and resheathed his sword. Looking back up at Yuan Suwei, he was surprised to find a curious look on the Judge’s face, at once affronted and disbelieving.
Yuan Suwei stepped down from his dais, walking to meet Lian Zhidiao in person. He held out his hand.
Lian Zhidiao gave him a sour look.
“I want to see the truth of it with my own eyes,” Yuan Suwei said cryptically. “Will you show it to me?” The morbid curiosity in his voice was insistent.
Despite that sinking feeling that things were beginning to go wrong again, Lian Zhidiao unsheathed the sword a little to show him the name. Yuan Suwei let out a shaky breath and then nodded, as if he had been identifying a body at the morgue.
Yuan Suwei turned and took an umbrella from a gray-robed disciple. “Walk with me, Lian Zhidiao. Tell me what you have.”
They strolled out into the soft rain under the oilpaper umbrella. The scent of sandalwood and cinnamon was overpowering; they were too close together for Lian Zhidiao’s liking, but the pitter-patter of rain would disguise their voices as long as they weren’t loud.
Nonetheless, he’s brazen to have this discussion right in front of everyone. Unless he has nothing to fear from the people he has with him right now. Another point in favor of Yuan Suwei surrounding himself with trusted associates, and therefore another strike against Yuan Zhuyan.
“You are smarter than I gave you credit for,” Yuan Suwei murmured. “If you’ve figured out what I need from you.”
“Making a simple request would have been fine,” Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help grumbling at him. “Instead of dragging me off to a cell for what should be just an oddity.”
“You are still not the real Lian Zhidiao, and that sword proves it.” There was something raw in that declaration, but Yuan Suwei didn’t stop to let Lian Zhidiao get a word in edgewise. “But more to the point, earth-seeing is not cheap, and neither is discretion. Both are paramount.” Yuan Suwei searched Lian Zhidiao’s face for signs he understood.
Lian Zhidiao narrowed his eyes slightly. “Your household is still very dependent on the Yuan sect, despite your attempts at being impartial. But what really gives you pause is that you do not want to make an obvious move against your brother, even though you have harbored deep suspicions for some time.” Lian Zhidiao set his jaw. “But accusing others of demonic activity rather than confronting the rot within your own will only leave you in a bad position later.”
“There is no rot in the Yuan sect,” Yuan Suwei ground out through his teeth.
“So my lord Arbiter says, yet there are visits made by doctors to the sect leader in the middle of the night, and jade tools filled with deviate qi cluttering the altars of Baima with the permission of Yuan Shijun.”
There was a commotion in the gallery; one of the disciples was back, carrying a scroll, but along with him had come a man robed in silver-white, his face drawn with worry. Yuan Suwei let out a short breath. “Our time is up.” They drifted back toward the gallery, their footsteps making soft splashes on the white stone. After a few moments, Yuan Suwei spoke. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
Lian Zhidiao sought and held Yuan Suwei’s gaze. “There are two areas of tainted earth under the sect leader’s palace. Your brother has a pond in the center of his palace, does he not?”
Yuan Suwei’s throat bobbed as he swallowed. “Yes.”
“Drain it.” Lian Zhidiao glanced sidelong at Yuan Suwei. “I would wager there is something interesting in the mud.”
They stepped back under the eaves of the gallery, and Yuan Suwei handed the umbrella off to one of the disciples. He resumed his position behind the clerks, but remained standing, looking down at the scroll below them.
The oracle was agitated, almost frantic. “My lord Arbiter—”
“Are you the only one who saw the name of the scroll?” Yuan Suwei asked, leveling his piercing gaze at the oracle who had come back with the disciple.
The oracle seemed cowed. “No. The other oracles saw it as well.”
Yuan Suwei gave a tight nod. “I suppose that is to be expected, given the sword. You are dismissed.”
“I said, you are dismissed.”
The oracle gave the scroll a look of longing, but spared no further attention for Lian Zhidiao, even as he left. His hurried footsteps disappeared from the gallery, leaving Yuan Suwei with a look like he’d bitten into a spoiled persimmon.
He’s clearing the room. He doesn’t want anyone here who doesn’t have allegiance to him. The thought made cold sweat break out on the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck. He crossed his arms, enfolding Shanzhen in them, letting it rest on his shoulder.
Once the oracle was gone, Yuan Suwei nodded at the clerk. “You may unroll it.”
Every sword had such a scroll, with the names of previous wielders, dates, and any notable events the sword was involved in. Oracles from the Yuan sect tracked such appearances with zeal, and certain swords could be said to be omens of things to come. The scroll for Shanzhen was slim, backed with black silk, with the name of the sword on a tag dangling off the end. Yuan Suwei folded his arms over his chest, studying Lian Zhidiao as the clerk unfurled the scroll and began to read aloud.
“The sword Shanzhen, a jian with the ability to call lightning forth at a strike. First seen nearly a thousand years ago, it does not appear commonly. Its most recent owner…” The clerk visibly paled. He glanced at Lian Zhidiao and then turned to look at Yuan Suwei over his shoulder. “My lord Arbiter.”
Yuan Suwei replied in a clipped tone, “You may read it. I imagine the other oracles have already sent their messengers, so it does no good to be coy about it here.”
“Y-Yes, my lord Arbiter.” The clerk cleared his throat, but his voice was unsteady as he read the last entry on the scroll. “Its most recent owner, Jiang Huolu, who cut down the White Emperor Shanyin while he was in seclusion. Returned along with the sword of Shanyin shortly after his disappearance.”
Lian Zhidiao looked down at Shanzhen, laying across his heart.
This sword killed the White Emperor.