Lian Zhidiao awoke when the morning light was dew-laden and blue. He had fallen asleep with his arms wrapped around Shanzhen, the spiritual weapon he’d risked everything to get. With the scabbard as his pillow, he wouldn’t be surprised to find the imprint of a cloud on his cheek. He couldn’t help but chuckle inwardly.
Somehow I became the image of a hardened swordsman who falls asleep holding his sword, ready to fight at the slightest sound.
The sand in his eyes put the lie to that thought almost as soon as it was formed: he had been so exhausted, almost nothing could have roused him. The fire had burned down to warm-white coals; the ash stirred in the morning breeze. He had no food, no water.
Once I’m a little farther away from the Yuan sect, it’ll probably be okay to find a room while traveling. Less likely to be turned over by an innkeeper.
But first, now that he had escaped the Yuan sect’s clutches, he had to make sure he stayed both free and breathing. And that meant understanding—and using—the Swords of the Myriad Dead.
He could use only five swords, with varied techniques; clearly Guizai (or the original Lian Zhidiao) had thought it wise to take a generalistic ‘toolbox’ approach. Combat abilities were a common component of spiritual weapons, being the backbone of most, if not all of them. But as Lian Zhidiao was now recalling, there were a few spiritual weapons whose abilities were not about overpowering your opponent. In fact, he had one in his arsenal that might be able to answer whether he should continue on to the Wa sect or go back to find Yue Fengjian. He fed Shanzhen a thread of qi and began.
The sword’s name was Liuxingdilian, Lotus Dripping With Stars; Lian Zhidiao could see it clearly in his mind’s eye. An elegant jian with a large white jade cabochon carved like a lotus, and a pearl-ornamented tassel. The feelings of this spiritual weapon’s former wielder were stuck in the jade of this sword; Lian Zhidiao settled them on top of his own mind, like wearing a mask.
Lian Zhidiao felt a presence, like someone stepping close to him.
The sword’s wielder was a scholar from the Yuan sect, an oracle—no, an astrologer. There was a sense of irritation, like at any moment someone would grumble, ‘This had better be a good use of my time.’
The Speakers were new. Their art involved placing carved jade weights on the tongues of corpses, directing the qi from roaring earth to blow through the body. Words sighed out of the cadaver, like notes out of a flute when the wind whistled through it. The Astrologer loathed the practice; this was not the way to seek answers. If there were answers to be gotten, the stars alone would provide.
There was an image of water on a lotus leaf. In his hand, the lightning needle became the lotus leaf; not a black sword, but white. Not a heavenly judge, but a vessel that collected the signs.
Lian Zhidiao turned his sword so that his palm was up; he couldn’t explain why, but it felt appropriate. There was a sensation in his hand that he was holding the leaf like a bowl, watching the droplets skate around. The lotus leaf appeared in light over his sword hand, a glamour, a suggestion. The dawning sky overhead darkened; he was illuminated only by starlight. The scholar knew; Lian Zhidiao knew as well. They were not simply droplets, but earthly mirrors, moving in a regular, predictable pattern, like the stars in the night sky.
The drops circled; the heavens wheeled overhead.
Lian Zhidiao felt the question more than phrased it, because it was the first thing that rose in his mind, the first thing that he wanted to know about: Yue Fengjian.
The droplets stopped in place, tense, trembling like bells that had been struck. Then they came together in one shining pool in the center of the leaf, perfect and round.
And then the illusion started to fade. The mansions in the heavens receded into the blackness of the firmament. The presence stepped away. The blushing sky of dawn returned, supplanting the illusion of a starlit night. The last traces of Liuxingdilian’s image over Shanzhen disappeared with a sparkle of light, and the Astrologer was gone. He had asked and received his answer.
But Lian Zhidiao had no idea what it actually meant.
Perhaps the Astrologer would know better how to interpret this, whether weal or woe. He had the resolute sense that the Astrologer would not intercede with the heavens on his behalf again for some time. But even if Lian Zhidiao had not received a direct answer to the loud, unformed din of worries for Yue Fengjian, the wholeness of the water at the center of the leaf lightened Lian Zhidiao’s heart a little.
Three of the other four swords were best used in combat: Scattering Petals Snow Armor, Wings For A Hunting Tiger, and Stealing The Earth’s Breath. The last, Veil Of The Benevolent Mother, was a sword that could be called upon as a last resort, when defeat was inevitable and the only way to survive was to escape.
He hoped he’d never have to use it.
He considered himself and Shanzhen. Their connection was not at all like using Swords of the Myriad Dead. There was no presence to stand with him, only the sword as an extension of himself. When he spun it in his hand, his body remembered the feeling of a sword’s weight. The purple jade was a conduit, a transformative medium burgeoning with vitality. He felt as if he could strike out with Shanzhen, and there would be retribution in every one of its blows.
To test it, he swung his sword, and a faint crackle of blue-white electricity sizzled on the edge of the blade. At the same time, he felt a heavy pull on the thread of qi between them, and understood at once the special gift that Shanzhen possessed.
In the hands of a neophyte, Shanzhen was little more than an electrified saber; a meat cleaver with a sting. In the hands of a Master who was not limited by his golden core, who could call the very earth’s qi his own, it might be far more dangerous.
The sheer competence required made a shiver of anticipation run down his spine, as if someone were combing through his hair. Was this what using a spiritual weapon felt like? No wonder everyone in fantasy dramas was always so willing to cross swords with literally anyone. It made him feel almost giddy.
He spun some water on top of the coals to make sure they were truly extinguished, and then dropped Shanzhen for flight, breaking through the canopy just as the sunrise burst over the horizon.
Mist still lay in the valleys, but within an hour of flight it burned off, revealing the land spread out before him. The Red-White Highway snaked through the bucolic landscape of small towns and villages, some fields shorn of their grain or beans, others deepening into gold. Here and there he could see one or two trees beginning to change their colors, the deep green of summer ebbing away and hinting at yellow, orange, and red underneath.
Later in the day, his stomach growling, he at last found a roadside inn where no one batted an eye when he walked in. He still had the two taels of silver, and the innkeeper here was fat enough that he made change without any complaint. The food was a mix of the Lin sect’s rich, salty meats, and the Yuan sect’s subtly-flavored fresh vegetables. As far as Lian Zhidiao could tell, it was a serviceable interpretation, but as they say, hunger is the best spice. Perhaps as a nod to his black robes, a small dish of sour pickled peppers was placed at his table, for which he was grateful.
After he wolfed down his meal, and before the luxurious thought of being under a roof and in a bed seduced him into staying, he quickly took his leave. Within a few hours, the signposts along the highway began to turn into guard outpost buildings with patchy tile roofs. Still standing because they had been repurposed and repaired by industrious people, they spoke of a time before the present, when everything in the realm moved according to the wishes of one man.
In the distance, he saw the Green Highway come up from the south, slithering through the greenery like a snake, and then, so quickly he barely realized he was upon it, the forest shrank back from the footings of a great gatehouse.
It was enormous, a small mountain, at least 30 meters tall. The size of it made Lian Zhidiao realize how accustomed he’d grown to the kind of pre-Industrial landscape he’d been living in the last several months. As a building, this gatehouse was not even taller than a run-of-the-mill apartment building, seven or eight storeys. But when the largest buildings he’d seen for months were the enclosures for the Great Jade Beasts and the Yue family castle, the gatehouse suddenly seemed very large indeed.
Still present were a few of the gates, although the center gate and the one at the end stood open. Lian Zhidiao could still read the name of the gate, set in stone tile over the center: Gate of Virtuous Humility. But a couple hundred years of neglect had taken their toll. Large swathes of the city were picked clean. The wooden buildings had been disassembled or perhaps burned, and the roof tiles carefully carted away. Other buildings were piles of rubble crushed by collapsed roofs.
There were a few small wooden buildings outside the city gate, and wheel ruts trailing into the city, into the market square closest to the gate. The Highways still facilitated trade, and all of them led back here, to the Imperial City.
Flying over the market square, however, he could see that the signs of traffic didn’t go deeper into the city. Why would they? As long as merchants could trade with each other at the market square, there was no need. So the further north he went, the more and more dilapidated the Imperial City became, until he reached the heart of it.
The Palace of Radiant Peace. The Pavilion of Earthly Benevolence. The Pavilion of Five-Colored Beauty. The Garden of Eternal Delight. Lian Zhidiao floated through the abandoned Imperial Palace grounds like a ghost. The entire palace was in ruins; most of the steles and signs were missing or faded. In their place were mere hints of scholarly opulence. Agarwood trees, bent and twisted, still filled one garden with their spicy aroma. A large orchard of peach and pear trees must have produced a blizzard of blossoms in their prime, but several had been felled by storms. They lay across the smashed remnants of pathways and lanterns and interesting rocks brought from far away. There was a pleasure canal that had silted up; only the stone finials of a half-buried bridge revealed it had been there at all.
He had almost expected Shanzhen to react in some way, as it had when he first found it in the Hidden Realm. This was where Shanyin was at home, while he had lived. Presumably his close friend Jiang Huolu had been here as well, walking through these broken gates, taking tea in that now-wrecked pavilion. All that time living here, and it had left only the faintest trace in Shanzhen’s jade, which the Hidden Realm had mostly scrubbed away.
Shanzhen, bound to a new master, was silent.
Lian Zhidiao left the Imperial City behind, flying northeast. Not a few minutes later, the earth opened up underneath him into a great gorge. The last of the high steppes were shattered into isolated peaks; the rocky cliffs tumbled down into the valley below. At the bottom of the gorge was a river, deep and black. Countless caves and grottos were hidden under outcrops or in the shadows of boulders. Lian Zhidiao sailed down into the shade between the rocks, watching their colors shift as he moved down the gorge. Gold-flecked quartz was scattered high and low, glittering in the afternoon light, but it had been cast aside, mixed in with occasional chunks of rainbow-colored stone.
Spellbound by the scenic vista, Lian Zhidiao followed the river through the countryside.
Rivers and waterways were the province of the Wa sect. As he got closer to the ancestral stronghold, it made sense that he should start seeing more and more people dressed in black, or be offered more deference. He was kind of looking forward to having a little more courtesy paid him instead of weathering the constant dirty looks in silence. Or trying to ignore the feeling that Yue Fengjian’s odd choice of companions was being tolerated simply because he was the Yue family’s ‘crown prince’.
So he eagerly zipped down the river’s course, sure that whatever villages were on this stretch of river, they would at least be deferential.
But there was not a barge to be seen, not even a skiff with a poleman. The river ran wild through hill and dale, splashing down over rocks and stretching out under the trees. Lian Zhidiao stuck with it, waiting for it to level out. Surely then, there would be signs of life.
And then, behind him, he started to feel something like a sharp point drawn down his back.
He was being hunted.
Compared to the oppressive power of the demon at Sancha Town, this wasn’t nearly as strong. But then again, an entire team of demon-hunting cultivators had been necessary to take down Tangyi. And Lian Zhidiao was all alone.
He leaned forward on the sword a little bit, speeding up.
The point pressed into his back, like a dagger.
Is it the same one who was tailing me before? Lian Zhidiao sorted through his options. If the attacker believed their killing intent had not yet been discovered, they might wait for nightfall to strike. Lian Zhidiao might then have a disadvantage, but at least he would not be attempting to fight over a river.
Is it stronger at night? He cursed under his breath. Did it pick up my trail from the time I stopped at the inn?
A rock-lined beach emerged from the trees on the north bank of the river. Unwilling to pass up the chance to choose his battlefield, Lian Zhidiao flitted over to the bank and landed, pulling Shanzhen into his hand, ready.
The killing intent fluttered.
Lian Zhidiao fed more qi into Shanzhen; the surface of the blade began to emit a very faint, but still audible, hum.
“Come on,” Lian Zhidiao called out, his voice echoing over the water. “You’ve been following me for some distance.”
A single figure, clothed in shimmering silver-white, emerged from the treetops near the river and slowly flew towards him, alighting at the edge of the river.
Yuan sect. Lian Zhidiao narrowed his eyes; the robes were the same as the ones the oracle at the Sacred Gate wore. I guess I’ve run out of time.
“I got ahead of myself,” the Yuan sect member said, with a voice that was both honey and broken glass. His hair was half-up, and his eyes drooped slightly, giving him a slightly sad look. “You don’t know how agitated I’ve been since that sword came back into the world. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
Lian Zhidiao winced. That voice…doesn’t sound like it came from a human. “It’s not in my nature to forgive demons,” he said.
“Your kind have been so willing to work with the Yao,” the Yuan cultivator replied, ending with a bit of a simper. “Don’t you think you could be more agreeable?”
“If you’ve been watching, then you know the kind of company I prefer,” Lian Zhidiao said. “Decide for yourself if I will be agreeable.”
The Yuan cultivator made a face. “You’ve made a real mess of things, you know.”
The hair on the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck stood on end. “So I’ve been told.”
“There’s been so much work done in Shengmen City. Yuan Suwei is the last holdout. Difficult to crack, but easy to isolate.” A creepy smile spread over the cultivator’s face. “The rest of them, though. All puppets, dancing on sticks, so desperate to find the Emperor’s Jewel that they’d do anything, anything.”
The Emperor’s Jewel.
“That has nothing to do with me.”
“You fool. You simple idiot.” The Yuan cultivator’s voice changed, hard-edged and soaked with venom. Twilight was beginning to gather around them as the sun set. So empowered, the illusion of the Yuan oracle started to disappear, revealing a demon untouched by the golden light or blue shadow, with long horns sprouting out of white hair, his skin as black as pitch. “They were very near simply declaring that they’d found it, daring the others to come and look, come and see for themselves just who is Favored of Heaven.” The demon spat the words as he withdrew a straight dagger from his robes, pulling the leather sheath off and flinging it aside. “But then, the sword that killed the Emperor just magically appears again, and all of them are in a panic, fearing for their lives!”
The blade of the dagger was dull, black, as if it had been burned. The deviate qi in him stirred at the faint recognition of that blade, so similar to one that had been in his past, but Lian Zhidiao ignored it.
“It doesn’t matter if they never know the truth,” the demon hissed. “Your head and that sword will make them realize they have nothing to fear, and we can continue our work unencumbered.”
“What work?” Lian Zhidiao gripped Shanzhen a little tighter. “What are you doing in the Yuan sect?”
“Ah-ah,” the demon chided him. “Answers are for winners.” Then he moved sideways, wrongways, and disappeared right in front of Lian Zhidiao’s eyes.