Lian Zhidiao inspected the scroll; the words were put down exactly the way the clerk had read them out. The faces of the other disciples in gray were turned toward him, following him with fearful eyes, looking for his reaction.
The warmth in his heart from the Hidden Realm began to fade. As if I could have a reaction other than shock…
Uncertain, Lian Zhidiao spoke up. “Senior Yuan…if I could speak to you for a moment?”
Yuan Suwei hesitated for a moment, his cold and otherworldly beauty making his thoughts inscrutable. Then, he nodded, stepping down from his dais, and escorting Lian Zhidiao down the gallery, toward the staircase to the top of the canyon. The rain fell softly, unceasingly, on the stones of the Sacred Gate. Two disciples fell into step next to Yuan Suwei, accompanying him as they walked.
“Whatever you need to say, you may say it.” Yuan Suwei gestured to the two disciples on either side of him. “These two are trustworthy.”
The two disciples had their hands around their swords, and the looks on their faces said that they would run him through as soon as look at him. Trustworthy for you, maybe! But he couldn’t afford to waste his energy on them. “What did you mean about the other oracles sending their messengers?” Lian Zhidiao asked slowly.
“The appearance of a sword that has killed an emperor is undoubtedly an omen.” Yuan Suwei lifted his chin. “It will demand action from those who seek the throne for themselves.”
“Is there such a person? The White Emperor has been dead for so long…”
Yuan Suwei studied him, his eyes probing Lian Zhidiao’s sincere expression. “He was wise. His laws, which he enforced with a firm hand, became the basis of peace between the sects.” Yuan Suwei folded his hands behind his back. “The Lin sect, with their love of tradition, is slow to change. Their role as mediators has preserved this durable peace. It is itself a deterrent; no one wants a war to disturb their comfortable lives. But it has been fraying for too long, even despite the Lin sect’s best efforts.”
The Lin sect, but not the Yuan?
Yuan Suwei’s lips thinned. “The appearance of a sword to kill an emperor will convince many that there is an emperor to be killed.”
Lian Zhidiao’s gaze fell steadily as Yuan Suwei spoke, every word like a rock tied to his ankles before he was dropped into the sea. He’s right, of course. There will be an emperor; Yue Fengjian’s rise at this point in the novel would be hard for any sect to ignore. But the novel he’d written and the life he now lived had diverged some time ago. If someone else aspiring to claim the emperor’s throne after so long took power just when Yue Fengjian was beginning to rise to prominence…
Protectiveness surged through Lian Zhidiao, but it was tainted with the knowledge of Shanzhen’s history. He had believed that getting his spiritual weapon would make him at last able to contribute more directly to Yue Fengjian’s rise, to his defense. And yet, without a Protagonist’s Halo, Yue Fengjian would be vulnerable to any strikes that came from someone close to him.
I might be best equipped to kill an usurper. But I would also be close to Yue Fengjian, just like Jiang Huolu was close to Shanyin…
He couldn’t see how something like that could be possible, and yet Lian Zhidiao’s voice was choked with the awful potential he now held against his chest. “Am I destined to kill the emperor?”
“That would take a lengthy inquiry on the part of the oracles, and that is not a luxury you have. Certainly the Yuan sect will not entertain your request.” Yuan Suwei tilted his head to the side, regarding Lian Zhidiao with a kind of owlish interest. “You honestly did not expect this.”
“No, I…” Lian Zhidiao let out a resigned sigh. “I had no ill intent. I only wanted a sword that I could use.”
“Truly a case where wishing to profit brought only loss,” Yuan Suwei replied. “You won’t have much time to make an escape.”
Lian Zhidiao’s head snapped up. “What?”
A muscle tensed in Yuan Suwei’s temple. His eyes were hard and distant. “An exchange. Your information for… a moment of inattention on my part.” An undisguised threat simmered in his voice. “I caution you. If I find your information to be unreliable, I will personally accompany the group of Speakers that hunts you down.”
“You’re letting me go?”
Yuan Suwei drew himself up, looking down on Lian Zhidiao even more. “I’ve administered your spiritual weapon to you. What the Yuan sect chooses to do with you if they catch you here is none of my affair.”
This seems like a trap, but can I really afford not to take the chance? Lian Zhidiao’s eyes flicked to the disciples on either side of Yuan Suwei, but they were as inscrutable as their master. “It seems like it might put you through a lot of trouble,” he mused in a leading tone of voice.
Yuan Suwei snorted softly, turning away, but not before Lian Zhidiao caught a hint of a smile on his face. “Get out of Shengmen City, Lian Zhidiao. Don’t come back.”
Giving him frosty looks, the disciples turned and flanked Yuan Suwei as he walked back to his dais.
Can I leave? Do I leave? A small smile of realization pinched his lips. Can I fly out of here?
There was a commotion at the end of the gallery closest to the gatehouse. There was a flurry of gray and brilliant white, voices raised in indignation. Then, the unmistakable sound of swords being pulled from their scabbards, that faint and deadly ring that sounded like a bell in the courtyard.
Lian Zhidiao’s head snapped to Yuan Suwei.
Yuan Suwei was standing at his dais, his eyes pinned to the flash of steel at the gatehouse, indignant at this intrusion into his domain.
He has to look away.
Lian Zhidiao unsheathed Shanzhen.
He can’t look; this is the moment of inattention.
A shout rose over the din. “Is that him?”
Lian Zhidiao spun a thread of qi into Shanzhen.
Shanzhen, we have to leave!
He dropped the sword. Amazingly, he felt the thread between himself and Shanzhen together become filled with tension in a pleasant way, like stretching out muscles that had been cramped up in a small space for too long. The sword hovered above the white stone, waiting.
A woman’s voice barked a command; it echoed in the gallery. “Take him! Seize him!”
Lian Zhidiao leapt onto Shanzhen, wobbling in midair—the blade was narrower than Yue Fengjian’s shuangshou jian. But the sword responded to his will immediately, catapulting him into the rainy sky with such speed that Lian Zhidiao nearly blacked out.
Doesn’t matter where, just have to fly!
The rain stung his cheeks as Shanzhen responded like an eager yearling. New air was continually braided in with the thread of qi, only to be fed out behind him a moment later. Shanzhen was funneling in countless streams of air, then pulling itself past each one. Rooftops disappeared behind him at a dizzying rate; he had already crossed half the city in his panicked flight. Somewhere in that raucous blur of thatch and wood and clay tile, Yue Fengjian probably didn’t even know he’d emerged. Lian Zhidiao could come back later and rejoin him, but not today.
Lian Zhidiao looked over his shoulder; there was no one behind him, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t being pursued. He crouched on the blade, slowing until he could get his bearings. The sky was overcast, but he remembered from their approach that the river on the north side of the city had been flowing south and east.
I need to cross the river, head north. Leaning back on the sword even a little produced a profound curve in the arc of his flight. In the space of a few minutes, he had mastered the simple flex of his ankles that was sufficient to steer.
Shengmen City was soon behind him. He followed the rain-swollen Sanma River, at first staying high up to see the lay of the land. But then he checked over his shoulder, and saw, just barely, the outline of someone on a sword, a speck of white set against the grey horizon. He was being followed after all. From this distance, it wasn’t clear how many there were, or if it was just one person, but if that speck wasn’t red, Lian Zhidiao wasn’t going to slow down.
Lian Zhidiao swooped down into the river valley. With the river as his path, he flew fast and low to the ground, hugging the curves of the river itself. It would be easy to track him from higher up, so he might have a better shot of losing them in the trees, whoever they were.
A rope bridge over the river indicated the presence of a footpath or road, and Lian Zhidiao wheeled north to take it, flying under the patchy forest canopy. He slowed suddenly and started weaving his way through the eastern forest, counting on the shadows to hide him. The rain slowed to a drizzle under the leaves, but somehow the drops hit him more heavily.
I’m already soaked to the skin. Even if I lose them, I should try to find some way to get dry soon. Lian Zhidiao looked up at the sky; he would have no idea if this little maneuver worked until he emerged from the forest again. It seems a little early for Speakers to be involved in chasing me down, unless Yuan Suwei was lying. It was possible, but Yuan Suwei didn’t seem like the type of person to lie. A hard man with little give about him, he wasn’t someone to blunt his words. Rather than lie, he seemed like the kind of man who simply stated the facts, and expected everyone else to adjust.
That still left others who would want him caught or dead. Hu Baitian was a candidate, and he would know that Lian Zhidiao was in town because Yue Shipei would have told him. If he already had a man in the oracles waiting to deliver any news, then he could have found out quickly. Maybe it was Yuan Shijun’s men, but Lian Zhidiao didn’t know why Yuan Shijun would be after him. His time in the Hidden Realm had only been the space of a day, but as Lian Zhidiao was well aware, a lot could happen in one day.
The trees around him teemed with abundant life that barely stopped to hold its breath as he passed. He wound his way through the woods, nimbly avoiding larger tree limbs and using Shanzhen’s scabbard to push smaller branches aside. When he felt as if he’d been weaving through the trees for hours, he stopped to listen for the river. Failing to hear it, he had no choice but to poke his head above the canopy to try to get his bearings.
At altitude, Lian Zhidiao could see how the Sanma River turned further south, bringing water to quench the plains. The White Highway had crossed the Sanma at one point and joined the Red Highway, stretching to the east.
Those highways were built for the Great Jade Beasts; they converge at the Imperial City. So if I follow them, I will eventually find the Black Highway and be able to go toward the Wa sect. If I’m forced away from the Highway, traveling roughly north should eventually have me run into the mountains, and the Wa sect’s lands should be due east from there.
He considered skulking back toward Shengmen City, but Yuan Suwei’s words about a future emperor haunted him. A wistful feeling came over him as he looked back toward the west; he could no longer see Shengmen City, even in the distance.
He will have to visit the Wa sect. I can wait for him there.
That made his heart clench even harder.
Will he try to find me again? Or will he just do what he knows has to be done?
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t decide which was more likely. Yue Fengjian was surely devoted to his sect, and would do anything to see it survive. But there had been a time or two when his eyes had drifted toward Lian Zhidiao, looking at him with a blazing heat that made barriers between them melt away.
Even if he wanted to, (and Lian Zhidiao’s stomach did a somersault at the thought), then it’s still not a good idea to get entangled romantically with him. It would make it difficult for him to secure the support he needs from other sects. But Lian Zhidiao’s traitorous body wasn’t interested in why something was a bad idea. Drenched from head to toe, the warm tingle that swept over his skin made him shiver.
Wary of villages and roadside inns along the White Highway, he decided to fly as far as he could toward the Imperial City. He looked up at the overcast sky, finding it difficult to tell what time of day it was. I guess I’ll just fly as far as I can.
The rain slowly stopped, but Lian Zhidiao’s clothes were still damp even when advancing darkness forced him to land for the night. When he stepped off the sword, it was easy to use the thread of qi to whip it back into the scabbard at hand; it hadn’t been the swords sheathing themselves, but the wielder expertly moving the sword.
Lian Zhidiao used the last of the light to find a small clearing. He spun qi into stone and mud, making a bed of earth, and then wrestled chunks of a fallen log onto it. Another thread of qi through the spindle-weight, and he had a fire that would hopefully keep some of the chill away.
And with that done, he had no time left to consider food or water before night was upon him and he was alone in the wilderness. He was tired; the fatigue of the 32 hours that had passed in the world while he’d been in the Hidden Realm hit him all at once, on top of the exhaustion involved in fleeing for his life. He huddled closer to the fire.
This must be how Lian Zhidiao lived much of the time. Having left his sect for unspecified reasons, the world would be unfriendly toward a noble cultivator without an expense account. Trading his services and skills for money or food and lodging had to be the only way for an outcast to survive.
Somehow he figured out how to do something with jade beasts, and preferred using that to eke out a living rather than go on living with his sect. He had some suspicions about why—a vague recollection of some story Zhou Xianzhi had told while he was drunk and only half-paying attention. It had gotten swamped by the discovery of the System and the emergency terminal, so the details were fuzzy.
How quickly will Yue Fengjian leave for the Wa sect? Was his business with the Yuan sect concluded, marriage decided? Going back to the Wa sect before him might ease his way. Lian Zhidiao drew his knees up close to his chest and pillowed his head on his arms. If that was the case, then a few nights in the forest wouldn’t be so bad.
At least now he had a sword to defend himself.
Lian Zhidiao’s eyes fell on Shanzhen, close at hand. He would be able to use the Swords of the Myriad Dead now. Doubtless part of the fear of the technique came from the name.
The Swords of the Myriad Dead existed because of the cache of unreturned spiritual weapons in the possession of the Wa sect, and more specifically, his Master Guizai. Having now experienced the Hidden Realm for himself, Lian Zhidiao could think a little more clearly about how the technique worked. With some sinking guilt, he realized that when he’d talked to Liao Kuaiyu and said that he was not a necromancer, that was probably not entirely true.
In an abstract sense, the Swords of the Myriad Dead was a necromantic technique.
Lian Zhidiao picked up Shanzhen and popped it out of the scabbard, looking at the firelight dancing over the cloud-carved purple jade. The jade was the key to how spiritual weapons moved qi, channeled it, transformed it. And the jade in every spiritual weapon was a little sticky. Even if the blade could not be wielded in the traditional sense, the jade in the weapon was itself a jade tool, and anyone could interact with that. A cache of a thousand spiritual weapons was closer to a cache of jade tools, each with its own spell that could be learned.
Shanzhen itself had the ability to call lightning when it struck, which was fearsome enough on its own. A wielder who could use the abilities of a thousand such spiritual weapons could conquer the world.
But they hadn’t. And the reason was clear when he thought about the techniques he knew and how he knew them: he could only clearly recall the abilities of five swords other than his own.
Lian Zhidiao’s Master, Guizai, had to know many more, but given that Lian Zhidiao, a fifth-rank magician, had only achieved an understanding of five? There was no way that anyone could know a thousand of them. Better that the Wa sect’s enemies be unclear about how many abilities an individual user could know. Better that the technique remain shrouded in mystery.
He resheathed Shanzhen and held it in his lap as he stared into the fire, finally feeling the warmth begin to sink into him. That he had escaped the Yuan sect’s clutches with both his sword and his life intact was nothing short of a miracle.
But alone in the wilderness, relief at his escape was slow to come.