The demon’s head sailed through the air and landed with a wet thud on the paving stones. The light in the eyes of the few remaining undead shuddered and faded away: now their masterless malice could be snuffed out by a low-ranked disciple.
Yue Fengjian blew qi through his sword, scattering the demon’s black blood. Lian Zhidiao looked over his shoulder: the protection array was still in place. Hu Baitian either had not yet registered that the demon had been defeated, or he was too focused on his healing to care.
“Yue Fengjian!” This time it was Yue Yaosa that called to him from a distance. She and Liao Kuaiyu dropped into the middle of the street next to him.
Liao Kuaiyu checked him over—eyes, limbs, hands, feet—like a new mother counting the fingers and toes on her child. “Not hurt?”
“No,” Yue Fengjian replied. He settled a hand on Liao Kuaiyu’s shoulder. “That was a big fireball.”
“It did what it was supposed to do, didn’t it? Drive him to you,” Liao Kuaiyu said in an artificially light tone, but his shoulders sagged. Using that much of the qi in his golden core would leave anyone tired.
“It worked,” Yue Fengjian replied, giving his shoulder an affirming squeeze. Next he looked to Yue Yaosa. “Are you alright?”
“None the worse for wear,” she replied, but her face looked a little pinched. “You got the kill this time. That’s twice in a row.”
“Better work faster next time,” Yue Fengjian said wryly. Yue Yaosa lifted her fist like she might punch him, but lowered it when he nodded to the array up the street. “Hu Baitian is still seeing to Shipei.”
Yue Yaosa gave Yue Fengjian a quick bow, and blew past Lian Zhidiao in a full run, Liao Kuaiyu hot on her heels. They pressed their faces up against the barrier like looking through a window. Liao Kuaiyu smacked it a few times, trying to get Hu Baitian to let them in. It sounded like hitting the bottom of an empty pitcher.
Something about the sound defused all the tension in Lian Zhidiao’s body. He drifted up the street toward the market doors, letting out a deep breath. He’d survived the night. Ahead of him, he could make out the Lin magicians, including Lin Zhengchun and Lin Jingjing, still hard at work. Relieved of the immediate terror of a demon in their midst, they were picking off the stragglers and shepherding the deviates toward the southern gate for cleansing. The lion’s share of the fighting was done, and the rest would all be over soon.
But his feeling of relief was arrested by the sight of Yue Fengjian standing next to the demon’s body. As Lian Zhidiao watched, Yue Fengjian knelt next to the body and punched his hand into its lower abdomen, close to where the dantian would be on a human. He wrestled with the slip and slide of the demon’s guts before pulling out something round that fit in his palm: at this distance, Lian Zhidiao couldn’t make out what it was. A trinket of some kind? Or something else? He dropped whatever it was on the ground and crushed it underfoot. Then, to Lian Zhidiao’s surprise, the body of the demon began to collapse in on itself, and he knew at once what had been done.
Of course. He destroyed the demon core.
A demon core was a physical object in a demon’s body that held all of that demon’s reserved demonic energy. In most webnovels, a demon’s power could be taken by anyone that found it, demon and human alike, if one consumed the demon core. But Supreme Warlord of the Beast World had been written with a more rigid system: rather than an item that boosted the victor’s power, consuming a core was only beneficial if it was part of the same energy management system. Cultivators and celestial beasts used correct qi, and demons and monsters used deviate qi. Like called to like; consuming deviate qi from the core of a demon would poison those that followed the correct way. The same was true for demons: correct qi was poisonous to them. But without great leaps in strength from defeating demonic enemies, the world had just moved too slowly for most readers. In the rest of his novels, Chen Jiajian had scrapped this system in favor of having villains and heroes manage their spiritual energy in more conventional ways: humans and demons both using the same qi as feedstock for their climb to power. Being able to gain a level from killing a fellow human being made for bloodier, more interesting reading, or so the comments claimed.
Destroying the demon core meant that no demons could consume it and grow stronger. Yue Fengjian stood over the corpse until it was all rendered to ash. It wasn’t a moment of respect for a dead enemy. It was making sure the deed was done.
Yue Fengjian finally walked past Lian Zhidiao to join Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu as they harangued Hu Baitian to drop the barrier. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes were drawn to him as he walked past.
Did anyone else see him do that?
“So that’s the power of a first-rate Yue magician.” Zhou Xiangu scoffed, interrupting Lian Zhidiao’s thoughts. “Well, if you throw that much fire at anything, even water would turn to steam.”
“Jealous?” Zhou Xianzhi’s voice came from just inside the threshold; he’d been hanging back, where Lian Zhidiao couldn’t see him.
“No,” Zhou Xiangu shot back.
“Good,” Zhou Xianzhi replied. “It doesn’t do to be jealous of those with inborn talent. Knowledge, in this case, isn’t everything.” He paused. “Isn’t that right, little one?”
Ah, they caught me eavesdropping.
“I’m sure Liao Kuaiyu has worked hard to be able to spin magic like that,” he answered cautiously.
“Oh.” Zhou Xianzhi stepped out into the street, his blue robes melting into the darkness. The setting moon was making way for the approaching dawn. The weak light from the market lanterns barely showed where he was. When Lian Zhidiao heard his voice again, it was much nearer and had a lower, intimate tone. “You’ve changed since we last talked.” Soft fingers brushed his hair back from his face. Lian Zhidiao jerked backwards, only to hear a small giggle from Zhou Xianzhi.
He… touched my hair? Lian Zhidiao reflexively tucked it behind his ear. What kind of talk did Lian Zhidiao have with him before? Unable to come up with an appropriate answer, he grunted in agreement. I could try to press him for information, but he might already have information about Lian Zhidiao that could hurt me. And I’m tired.
“I need to check the blood pit,” he stammered, changing the subject.
“Of course,” Zhou Xianzhi replied in a melodic voice. “If the pit isn’t isolated, let me know.”
Lian Zhidiao thought he could feel Zhou Xianzhi’s eyes between his shoulder blades as he walked away. Zhou Xiangu unfolded his arms and straightened up as Lian Zhidiao walked past.
In the market, the air was slightly more chilled than before. The blood pit didn’t look any different, but verifying that the gate was closed seemed to be something that earth-seeing was suited for. In order to do that, earth was needed, of course. It wasn’t long until Lian Zhidiao found a loose stone at the edge. A little bit of work with a piece of broken wood, and it came up.
Lian Zhidiao looked up to make sure that he wasn’t being watched. But the Zhou twins had stopped hanging around in the doorway, and walked out in the street. Promising himself that he wouldn’t lose himself in the earth, Lian Zhidiao knelt and pressed his hands against the exposed ground.
The stench of rotting food and stores faded away as Lian Zhidiao pushed his awareness down into the ground. He immediately discovered three things.
The first was that the earth here was still crawling earth. He’d hoped that defeating the demon might do something to purify the land—that’s the way it worked in video games, after all—but no. The earth was just as polluted as it had been a few hours ago.
The second was that seeing into crawling earth not only was more difficult, but impossible to do without feeling the deviate qi attempting to enter his body. It pushed at him like a writhing mass of worms, thousands of hungry little snouts trying to dig into him and eat their way through. A constant use of qi would be enough to keep the deviate qi from touching him, but it was easiest to do right in front of him. Turning his attention in different directions allowed some of the deviate qi to push at the imperfections in his defenses. Tentatively, he looked below where Yue Fengjian had smashed the demon core into the ground. It wasn’t any more or less crawling earth there: the demonic energy from the smashed core had become completely incorporated into its tainted surroundings.
The third was that the visual resolution of his earth-seeing was much better the closer he was to targets. He could easily see a cage of ice extending down around the blood pit, grown like a lattice with the holes closed up later. With a high water table, there’d been plenty of ice to work with. The ground was frozen for about a foot in every direction from the surface of the pit, making it a bowl of ice. To test its soundness, he looked for deviate qi squirming its way in through any holes. But even in the middle of the sickening pulse, he couldn’t see any of it moving beyond the frozen earth.
It should be enough to keep demons out until we can fill in the pit. Probably.
He also couldn’t help but notice that the thing buried near the well was now crystal clear to him.
It was a cow.
They buried a statue? Or…could it be a jade beast? Neither one made a lot of sense. But the only way to find out was to dig it up.
On coming back to himself, a wave of weakness overcame Lian Zhidiao. A little more deviate qi had slid into him without him noticing, like not noticing the hem of your pants getting soaked in a puddle in a public restroom. He could try to expel it, but the idea of having his mouth raked with the pain of acid or needles wasn’t something he looked forward to. He didn’t want to be seen with his mouth drooling black and be taken for a deviate.
Lian Zhidiao looked inward and found that the deviate qi from the cleansing the cow in Shuangwan Village had found a low point in the other core. His golden core was fine, but the other core had a feeling of rancid filth when he looked at it, like an oil seep.
But having deviate qi in his other core hadn’t affected his ability to spin spells, or his ability to fight. And at least for the time being, it didn’t seem to hurt him either, as long as the deviate qi wasn’t allowed to destabilize his golden core.
With so many other cultivators around and the situation still so tense, carrying it seemed the best choice. Lian Zhidiao manipulated his meridians, holding back correct qi to open the path to the other core. He pressed the back of his hand to his mouth, smothering the nausea at the feeling of something cold and crawling inside him, burrowing down to his dantian. The deviate qi fell into the other core and all but vanished, but the sickening effects remained.
It wasn’t much deviate qi. It was barely any at all in the grand scheme of things.
But no matter what I did, a little got in. No wonder the Wa sect has a higher rate of qi deviation. Every time they use earth-seeing on stained or crawling earth, they poison themselves.
“Are you alright?” Yue Yaosa’s voice echoed through the empty market. She quick-stepped to his side and knelt next to him, looking him over.
“Fine,” Lian Zhidiao croaked, shaking his head. “Don’t worry about me.”
“Hu Baitian has almost finished his treatment. I’ll let him know you need—”
Hu Baitian’s scowl when asked to treat him rose up in his mind like a spectre. “No! No,” he said waving her off. “It’s nothing serious.”
“Did the smell overcome you?” Yue Yaosa looked sympathetic. “It is quite strong.”
The discomfort of his insides squirming against themselves was fading away. Lian Zhidiao seized on the excuse. “Yes,” he answered quickly. “I’m not used to the smell of rot.”
Yue Yaosa extended one strong arm to help him up. “You Wa cultivators all set such store by your perfumes and incense. It doesn’t do you any good when you have to fight.”
Lian Zhidiao took her hand and felt like his shoulder was being pulled out of its socket. He was on his feet again, but at what cost? “It would be the mark of a better world if there was less fighting to do.”
Yue Yaosa stared at him.
“Did I say something strange?”
“A little,” she answered, a quizzical look on her face. “What would the world be like without fighting?”
“That’s what Yue Fengjian wants, isn’t it?”
Yue Yaosa’s brow wrinkled. “What?”
Oh no, has Yue Fengjian not divulged his plans to them yet? These events should already be within the framework of the novel itself, so the main party should already know, shouldn’t they? Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “Forget I said anything. More importantly, we need to find some tools and dig up the square next to the well.”
“After the night we’ve had?” Yue Yaosa gave him an incredulous look. “Any reason?”
“There’s something in the earth next to the well,” Lian Zhidiao said slowly. “It could be a jade beast.”
“A jade beast, huh?” She gave him a short nod. “I’ll see what we can find.”
With the help of the Lin cultivators, a storehouse was opened and picks found, but after that, there was still work for the Lin sect to do. The sun was rising as they pulled back the stones like scaling a fish, and began to dig down. Yue Fengjian took to manual labor easily. Zhou Xiangu was volunteered for digging by his brother. He and Yue Fengjian developed a rhythm, their picks rising and falling. Hu Baitian and Liao Kuaiyu pulled baskets of earth out, mounding them up on the side of the hole, which was about two meters long and almost three meters wide.
“Can’t you make this go any faster?” Hu Baitian’s white robes were stained with gray sand, and a few flecks of mud had gotten onto his face as well.
“Not until I know what’s in the hole,” Lian Zhidiao replied.
“We’re just as likely to chip it with our picks,” Zhou Xiangu snarled, his eyes like blades at anyone who dared to talk to him.
“Just a little bit further,” Lian Zhidiao said. Then he heard the telltale sound of metal hitting stone.
“Got something here,” Zhou Xiangu said in an irritated tone, tapping it with his shovel.
Lian Zhidiao scooched to the edge of the hole and dropped in to take a look. They weren’t quite down to the water table yet, but the earth here was slightly damp. With both hands he cleared the mud away.
“Getting pretty used to seeing you covered in muck,” Liao Kuaiyu offered from the top of the hole.
“Hazards of the job,” Lian Zhidiao grunted, pushing the earth aside. There was a softly curving piece of stone still obscured by a layer of mud, but the weak light at the bottom of the hole couldn’t quite reveal what kind of stone it was. He stood up. “Is there some water?”
“Certainly,” Zhou Xianzhi said. He spun a small globe of water from his spindle and then dropped it in the hole on the muddy surface Lian Zhidiao had uncovered. Sweeping water over it to clean it, it was clear in a matter of moments that the stone was jade green.
“It’s a jade beast.” Zhou Xiangu let his shovel rest in the earth, leaning on it. Some of his ire at being forced to dig seemed to have cooled. “Why did they bury a jade beast?”
“The deviates that are able to recover should be interviewed,” Hu Baitian said.”If anyone important survived, they may know what led to this, or when it happened.”
Yue Shipei winced his way to the side of the hole and looked down at them. “It doesn’t look like it’s alive.” He addressed Lian Zhidiao. “Is that something you can fix?”
“You mean by kissing it?” Liao Kuaiyu had an impish curl to his lips.
“It’s not a kiss!” Lian Zhidiao had had about enough.
Liao Kuaiyu snickered, and Yue Shipei laughed once before holding his hand to his side and groaning.
“What is it then?” Yue Fengjian rubbed his sleeve over his forehead, wiping away sweat.
“It’s… a technique.” He didn’t really know what to call it, but he couldn’t really explain that he’d come up with it based on a book and a weak understanding of qi and CPR. Lian Zhidiao started to dig away at the sides of the cow with his hands. His broken nails hadn’t had the chance to heal after he’d awakened in this body, so he was likely just making things worse for himself later, but healing a jade beast was worth it, wasn’t it?
Yet as they dug the cow out, he couldn’t shake the feeling that this hadn’t been in the original story. Digging up the jade beast was a brand new event happening within the timeline of the novel. Lian Zhidiao was all too aware that such actions, even beneficial ones, could have unforeseen consequences down the road.
The sun had risen above the horizon, peeking above one of the three hills that gave Sancha its name when Lian Zhidiao got the beast’s head free of the sandy soil packed around it. Yue Shipei was right: the cow was completely frozen, as the one in Shuangwan Village had been. The cure ought to be the same, right?
With a small noise of regret for the filth he was about to crawl into, he wedged himself down in the dirt. With his sleeve, he rubbed the cow’s nose and mouth clean. Just as he was about to lean forward, he realized he had a bit of an audience: everyone, from Yue Fengjian to the Zhou twins, was watching him very closely. Yue Yaosa was the first to recognize that he was hesitating at being watched.
“Come on,” she said, herding the others away. “Especially you two.” She reserved particular suspicion for the Zhou twins, who dragged their feet as much as they could. It wasn’t that Lian Zhidiao was all that concerned with anyone seeing the technique itself. But it was embarrassing to even look like he was kissing a cow.
Lian Zhidiao looked inside the cow and gave it a small breath to see what was happening. The jade beast’s time in the stained earth had concentrated so much deviate qi in it that some was beginning to condense into dark scale lining its meridians.
Lian Zhidiao did the same as he had done before, but this time, surrounded by crawling earth, he had to draw entirely on the qi in his golden core. A breath to loosen the dark scale of deviate qi, a breath to light the fires, a breath to stoke them to a white-hot storm of energy. He drew the deviate qi and demonic energy through the cow up to his mouth and spat it out to one side, his mouth like fire and poison all at once. To his horror, the black fluid that bubbled out of his lips wriggled as it fell into the dirt and then rooted into the ground and disappeared from sight.
The jade cow lifted its head out of his hands. Lian Zhidiao wiped his mouth again, rubbing the black stain away. The cow mooed at him and butted her head against him.
“You’re happy too, huh?” Lian Zhidiao let out a shaky breath and rubbed her head. Then there was the sound of footsteps at the top of the hole.
“See?” Liao Kuaiyu folded his arms over his chest.
Yue Fengjian’s eyes darted from Lian Zhidiao to the cow and back again. “You fixed it?”
“Mm,” Lian Zhidiao replied. I don’t need to say more than that; the work speaks for itself.
Dumbfounded, Yue Fengjian stared at him. “How?”
Yue Yaosa couldn’t hold back a laugh. “Well done, Lian Zhidiao! It’s not everyone that can leave shige speechless.”
Yue Fengjian shot her a frown, and seemed about to correct her when Hu Baitian pointed at the sky.
In a few moments, the blue sky overhead was filled with cultivators in green robes, their emerald sleeves fluttering: reinforcements from the Lin sect had arrived at last.