The little village that sprang up around the inn was not much more than one extended family, but it wasn’t far from the next little village. Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian followed the Black Highway north; the land buckled into softly rolling hills below them. The broad, even road snaked to and fro through gentle valleys carpeted with rice fields. Villages sprang up along the way with barely a day’s ride between them. With the harvest collected, all that was left in the fields was straw which would be put to the torch as soon as it was dry enough to light. Manure crops were being planted to hold the winter sunlight for safekeeping in a green larder, waiting for spring.
During their stays in smaller inns, they shared rooms (which did, indeed, only have one bed), and Yue Fengjian undertook the task of teaching Lian Zhidiao the art of demon tracking.
In principle, Lian Zhidiao understood how this fantastic form of cultivation worked, but he had always envisioned it with kind of a gamer mindset. One cultivated and leveled up by breaking bottlenecks, getting stronger with time. Like a character in a game, he would acquire new skills immediately when reaching a new level, and understand intuitively how to use them. It had certainly contributed to this viewpoint, that the original owner of his body had left all his techniques in a jade slip for him to learn instantly. Receiving Shanzhen (which made his spiritual techniques available) also added to this perception of ‘leveling up’.
The actual process of learning a technique, however, was vastly different than he’d imagined.
Yue Fengjian’s attitude toward Lian Zhidiao changed completely once the mantle of ‘student’ was bestowed upon him. Up to a point, Yue Fengjian was a patient teacher. But he continually described the technique of tracking as needing to ‘feel’ for something in the area, and Lian Zhidiao, try though he might, wasn’t very good at feeling things he couldn’t see. Frustrated by the conflict between their teaching and learning styles, Yue Fengjian let the matter rest.
Four days after stopping at that riverside inn, the gentle valleys were overwhelmed by flat farmland.
At the foot of the last rolling hills, Yipan Town was a larger trading center that straddled the Caifeng River. The Black Highway ran through it, via a hump-shaped bridge that rose high over the river. Once on the northern bank, the road turned east, running roughly parallel to the river, but drifting to the north. Yipan Town was a center for the collection and production of items made of precious jet, and their first step deep into Wa territory. Most towns south were a mixture of Lin and Wa sect members, interspersed with the occasional Zhou sect member. Yipan was the first town along the Black Highway fully controlled by the Wa sect.
Though the sun was still high in the sky, Lian Zhidiao motioned for them to land in the city below them. Almost immediately upon landing, several villagers turned to watch them walk past. It might have been that they didn’t often see Yue sect members. Despite their shared border, there was a mountain range between the two sects. But it also might have been Yue Fengjian himself: broad-shouldered, tall, handsome, obviously full of male vigor, he turned heads no matter where he was. It was hard to tell which was the bigger draw.
After asking around for a map, Lian Zhidiao was directed to a mapmaker. Yue Fengjian let him lead the way, looking at the hustle and bustle around them. The streets here were dominated by Wa sect members in black robes with silk blackwork embroidered on the sleeves. Every sect member they saw was dressed to the nines, their multiple layers set apart so they could be easily seen by others, telling stories in the figures sewn over their shoulders and hems. One sect member wore inner clothes embroidered with pale yellow osmanthus, and a moon on her shoulder, barely visible through sheer black robes embroidered with black rabbits that had coral and pearl eyes. About half of the magicians wore a spindle belt dyed black instead of red, as Lian Zhidiao wore his. Many of the sect members wore jet in addition to their jade spindles, either in jewels suspended from their ears, or as beads garlanded around their necks. Some even wore the jewels threaded through their hair, making them sparkle mysteriously each time the subtle gems caught the light.
Out of the corner of his eye, Lian Zhidiao saw Yue Fengjian’s head turn slightly whenever a Wa sect member walked past. But whenever he sensed that Lian Zhidiao was watching him, he immediately acted like he hadn’t just been looking. Unexpectedly, Lian Zhidiao found himself eating vinegar every time he saw a Wa sect member approaching. Even more surprisingly, Yue Fengjian slowly started to show signs of a good mood, the corners of his mouth rising in an almost constant smile as they walked. When they reached the mapmaker, Lian Zhidiao was secretly relieved just to get Yue Fengjian out of the street.
The mapmaker worked out of his home, a siheyuan off the main streets. Upon arriving, they were offered tea while the mapmaker had his apprentice bring out the maps he had to offer for sale. After some back and forth between Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian over which to invest in, and some haggling over prices, they selected a map of all the human lands and a map of the eastern shores: the eastern Lin sect, the Wa sect, and the Zhou sect.
On a whim, Lian Zhidiao decided to ask a risky question. “Uncle, do you know where Guizai might be found?”
“Hmm?” The mapmaker looked a little surprised. “Why would you need to know that?” His eyes shifted to Yue Fengjian. “Going to try to lose your swords?”
“No, no,” Lian Zhidiao said. “He’s my Master, and I was thinking I would make a trip back to see him. I know the way from Jiuluwei City by landmarks, but when it comes to reading a map, I’m liable to get lost if the way isn’t pointed out for me.”
“Ah,” the mapmaker said, and he took out a small stylus, making a gentle divot in the map. “Here, north of Ranzhao Village.”
“Thank you, Uncle,” Lian Zhidiao said, smiling. “Even if I fly as high as I can, I can’t see as much land as your map shows, and certainly not with this level of painstaking detail.”
The mapmaker couldn’t hide a pleased chuckle at having his work praised so effusively. Yue Fengjian paid him for the maps and tucked them away in his storage ring. They were barely out on the street again before Lian Zhidiao heard a scoff from Yue Fengjian.
“That was quite a performance.”
“What part of that was a performance?”
“The sugary part at the end.” Yue Fengjian looked sidelong at him. “If you’re going to fawn over him, you could make it less obvious.”
“It’s good manners,” Lian Zhidiao sniffed.
“You don’t have to flatter someone you’re paying. He knows the value of his maps, given what he charges.”
“A local mapmaker will know the area better than a distant one,” Lian Zhidiao replied, one corner of his mouth lifting. Not every mapmaker will be able to claim they sold to the Emperor. His prices will likely go even higher after you’ve taken the throne. “He’ll be happy to have had your custom later.”
Yue Fengjian was giving him a quizzical look when he suddenly stopped still in his tracks and turned to look over his shoulder. They weren’t yet back to the main streets, but the sound of Yue Fengjian stopping made Lian Zhidiao halt as well. Yue Fengjian tilted his head, almost like he was listening, or considering someone’s words, and then his eyes flicked to Lian Zhidiao.
He reached out and took Lian Zhidiao’s wrist, dragging him down the street in the opposite direction.
“Where are we going?”
They emerged onto a narrow street, which Yue Fengjian looked up and down. It was still early in the day, and there were plenty of people walking about. “Here,” he said in a clipped tone, releasing Lian Zhidiao’s wrist. “Follow me.”
Bewildered, Lian Zhidiao followed him as he flew up and out of the town, just to the northeast, and alighted on the ridge of a field boundary.
“We’ve been having trouble with teaching you,” Yue Fengjian said, before Lian Zhidiao had even sheathed Shanzhen. “Because if there’s no demon around, there’s nothing to track.”
Lian Zhidiao turned and looked back at Yipan Town. “Is there a demon in there?”
“Depends,” Yue Fengjian said. “But I’m going to show you how to find it. Sit down.”
They sat down cross-legged along the dry, browning grasses, with Yue Fengjian sitting entirely too close. He pulled back his sleeve a little, offering his wrist to Lian Zhidiao.
“Watch how I use the technique. Keep some distance,” he added hastily, as if he’d just remembered that Lian Zhidiao’s other core contained enough deviate qi to poison him. “Just watch what I do.”
Lian Zhidiao made absolutely sure that the path to the other core was closed before taking Yue Fengjian’s forearm and concentrating on looking inside. A mighty sun blazed inside him, more brilliant than Lian Zhidiao’s own core, and without a core of shadow besides. He might have been able to better appreciate Yue Fengjian’s power if he wasn’t also looking at the bare skin revealed under his sleeve.
The longer Lian Zhidiao looked, the more he was able to perceive certain things: an increase in qi collected around Yue Fengjian’s eyes and hands, and a soft exhale from his mouth. Like a scene from a spy movie, Yue Fengjian breathed out, and a small thread of light was visible, if only for a moment.
Yue Fengjian lifted his hand and ran his fingers under the light, as if he might pluck the string of an instrument. Lian Zhidiao watched as he lifted his fingers ever so slightly, letting it pull against the pads of his fingers. Then he lowered his hand.
“Did you see it?”
Lian Zhidiao licked his lips; his mouth had gone dry. “Yes.”
“Then give me your hand.”
Yue Fengjian shifted in a flash, collecting Lian Zhidiao between his legs and sitting them back-to-front. He looked over Lian Zhidiao’s shoulder at their hands, and put his forearm back into Lian Zhidiao’s hand while holding the other hand ready. Lian Zhidiao was completely still as Yue Fengjian moved him into position. It was like they were a music teacher and his student, having his body moved to put him in the right position to play—but it was all right between Yue Fengjian’s legs!
“Look inside again,” he directed, but his voice was low and close to Lian Zhidiao’s ear. It was less a request and more an entreaty.
Why does he have to sound like that when we are like this?! Their closeness reminded Lian Zhidiao of the way they flew together. It was familiar, if not exactly comfortable, to be this near to him. Pushing down the emotions that churned in his heart, he focused on the technique. Again he saw Yue Fengjian’s qi gathered around his fingers and his eyes. This time, when he breathed out, he saw the thread of light a little more clearly.
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao said.
“You see how they disappear if you stop breathing?” Yue Fengjian murmured. “The land here is balanced, so you can see it with little effort. In areas with stained earth, it is easier to see correct qi, more difficult to see deviate qi.”
“And crawling earth?”
“Very easy to see correct qi.” Yue Fengjian hesitated before adding, “In crawling earth, one does not usually need to track demons.”
“Demons find you, I imagine,” Lian Zhidiao said.
Lian Zhidiao turned his head halfway. “Does this mean you can’t track a correct qi user in roaring earth?”
“It’s nearly impossible.”
“The trace disappears. Like red writing under red light,” Lian Zhidiao murmured. These traces, these threads of light, were visible only a little because they were of correct qi in a balanced environment. “Then, the demon…?”
Behind him, Yue Fengjian drew in a deep pull of qi from the surrounding area, and breathed out his mouth at the same time. A small thread of purple light floated in front of his eyes.
Yue Fengjian took Lian Zhidiao’s free hand and matched their fingers together. “Concentrate,” he ordered.
Lian Zhidiao took a deep breath, and Yue Fengjian lifted their paired fingers up against the purple thread of light. Amazingly, he could feel it running over his fingers, like a vine whip, rough and knobbly. Yue Fengjian was careful never to let the thread go taut, and carefully guided Lian Zhidiao’s hand again.
“This is a Yao,” Yue Fengjian said. “Maybe a half-Yao.”
He let the purple thread move off their fingers. “Be careful not to pluck them or pull them like you would draw a bowstring,” he warned. “There are some who can tell they are being tracked.”
The purple light lingered much longer than their own traces, but it, too, disappeared.
“And demons? What do their traces look like?”
Yue Fengjian’s expression darkened. “A black rope that will shred your hand if you’re careless. Demons using their energy to fly will leave one behind them. Not the only way to track them, but the easiest.”
Lian Zhidiao’s thoughts drifted back to Zhang Hundun. So spotting him working in Shengmen City would have been difficult if he wasn’t using demonic energy, unless I’d used earth-seeing. If he hadn’t pursued me, he could have continued working in Shengmen City undetected. Who knew how many demons were still there who didn’t give chase? The realization sent a shiver down his spine at odds with the warmth of Yue Fengjian at his back.
Lian Zhidiao shook his head as he pulled his hand away from Yue Fengjian’s forearm. If anything, the proximity of their bodies was making him a little hot. Yue Fengjian’s arms were draped around him, his legs on either side of Lian Zhidiao’s, paired up like a set of spoons. He seemed quite content to be so close, enjoying a farm boy’s kind of privacy nestled in the tall, dry grass of a canal bank.
“We should go,” Lian Zhidiao said, rocking forward and standing up. He dusted off his bottom and turned to look at Yue Fengjian, still on the ground. “We can still cover a long distance before nightfall.”
Yue Fengjian’s scowl snapped into place on his face almost instantly. If Lian Zhidiao didn’t know better, he would have said he was pouting. But he grunted in agreement and got to his feet.
They flew as fast as they dared, following the Black Highway. Just after sunset, they crossed a long bridge over another river, this one with heavy river traffic. A few lanterns were still lit on the boats lining up and down the banks; they bobbed slowly as a fisherman punted by.
There were several ramshackle buildings that were piled almost on top of each other at the river crossing. Some of them had to be older than the Black Highway itself, their facades faded to a lustrous silver that glowed in the intense pink and orange sunset. The inn was in the process of barring the door when they saw Lian Zhidiao approach, and hurried him and Yue Fengjian inside.
Having arrived so late, there wasn’t much in the way of a meal, but the innkeeper promised that in the morning, his wife would make them a breakfast like they’d never had before. With these words to fill their bellies, they retired to their room. It was modestly appointed, with two beds, a sitting area, and the finest feather mattresses to cradle them to sleep.
The morning brought a heavy rain, and the promised palatial breakfast was even brought up to them in their room. Lian Zhidiao thought this was a little unusual, but it was appropriate for their rank and provided them a modicum of privacy. This was just fine with him, as he had an idea.
“Take out the maps,” he said, once the dishes had been taken away.
“What else do you use maps for?”
“Moving troops?” Yue Fengjian took out his storage ring, bemused. “Are you planning a battle in your own sect’s territory?”
“I’ve been thinking about the demon. Wondering how many there are in human lands, how many could rise up if they were ordered to.” His lips thinned. “The presence of a Yao in that town isn’t encouraging.”
“Your own Master is half-Yao,” Yue Fengjian responded, withdrawing the maps from the ring.
Lian Zhidiao took the maps and unrolled them on their table. “Be that as it may, nothing prepares you for enemies on all sides like having enemies on all sides.” He looked over the map, his eyes darting until he found Yipan Town, then Ranzhao to the north of the Black Highway, and Guizai’s grotto further north than that.
Yue Fengjian sat back, watching Lian Zhidiao pore over the maps for several minutes before speaking. “You’re scared.”
Lian Zhidiao’s fingers paused as they followed the line of a river on the map: Caifeng, the Tailor’s River. Then he let out an inconclusive hum that was intended to neither confirm nor deny Yue Fengjian’s assertion.
“Demons are selfish creatures,” Yue Fengjian said. “Working together goes against their nature.”
“Even a wild animal understands fear,” Lian Zhidiao countered. “If a demon can be afraid of another demon, can’t it be made to obey? Out of fear?”
Gentle thunder rolled over the land outside.
“Why are you suggesting this?”
“When I killed that demon—Zhang Hundun—he said, ‘we can continue our work’. He may have pursued me alone, but he wasn’t acting alone.” Lian Zhidiao looked back down at the map, despair creeping over him. “They are in Shengmen City, in the villages… they could be everywhere.”
The measures Yuan Suwei had taken to root out demons in Shengmen City were starting to look less and less like paranoia.