Chapter 11: Lian Zhidiao Plays A Digging Mini-Game

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.  

Previous Chapter < Chapter 10: Scalding Blight
Next Chapter > Chapter 12: The City of Fragrant Wood

Chapter 10: Scalding Blight

Lian Zhidiao swallowed down a sickening feeling of unease. A blood pit. There really was such a thing. It was so big he had to turn his head to see all of it, and there must be thousands of liters in it. Pieces of broken tiles were stuck into the mud edge up, a ring of stone scales around the glassy red pool. The layers of earth they stood on—natural enough for a river—were stained dark. The longer he looked, the more he thought he could see something oozing out of the sand. Blood, at first, in long streaks, like squeezing out a waterlogged sponge. Then deviate qi itself, dark and cold, and with a wrongness in the light. But that too seemed to disappear even as he stared at it. Was it all a trick of the torch? Or were his eyes deceiving him?  

“How—” Lian Zhidiao’s voice cracked. “How does it work?” 

“The surface of the water is the gate,” came a light voice from behind them. Zhou Xianzhi and Zhou Xiangu were climbing in through the broken shutter, their swords in hand. Zhou Xianzhi spun fire from the tip of his spindle, brightening the space even more. 

Yue Shipei’s brow creased upon seeing the two Zhou cultivators, but Yue Fengjian already had a hand on his shoulder, as if to remind him of himself. 

“Despite how it looks, it’s not actually filled with blood.” Zhou Xianzhi’s clear, bell-like voice seemed to relieve the air of some of its heaviness. “It’s water that’s been polluted with demonic energy. Valuable for study, but poisonous to drink. Given its proximity, the well water is probably also bad. It may even have been the source of the whole village’s corruption.” He stepped toward the pit, leaning slightly over the edge and regarding it with a detached curiosity, as if the hordes of undead and deviates outside hadn’t had their lives ended or overturned by its appearance. “If the mirror surface is obscured, it can’t be used by a demon to travel.” He arched a slender brow at Yue Fengjian, his full lips curved in a smile. “Isn’t that so?” 

“It is,” Yue Fengjian replied. 

Zhou Xiangu hovered menacingly behind his elder brother, glaring daggers at the Yue cultivators. Zhou Xianzhi continued, seemingly unaware of the dark looks his brother was aiming at everyone else in the room. “If this artless magician is not mistaken, the usual treatment would be to break the mirror-gate and begin cleansing the earth around it using a jade beast. But such treatment could take months.” 

Lian Zhidiao frowned, something tickling at the edge of his mind. “What’s the treatment without a jade beast?” 

“There is no treatment,” Yue Shipei said, his eyes fixed on Zhou Xianzhi. “Before the White Emperor created jade beasts, settlements tainted by crawling earth were abandoned. If there isn’t a jade beast here, then that should be the action we take.” 

Zhou Xianzhi graced Yue Shipei with a beautiful smile. “Naturally, the cultivator from Yue is right. If there is nothing to be done, then humans can’t risk the increased vulnerability to demon attack.” 

“Curious,” Hu Baitian said suddenly.


“It’s so warm in here.” Hu Baitian lifted his chin from where he’d been holding it thoughtfully in his hand, looking across the pit at Yue Shipei, then at Zhou Xianzhi. “Demons are usually cold-natured.” 

His words hung in the air.

Lian Zhidiao swallowed hard. He didn’t remember specifics of the fight, only that he’d written it as a cool fight with a lot of property damage to show how cool his protagonist was. The killing intent we felt earlier means something definitely was here. His eyes lifted and found Hu Baitian looking at him. “When we flew over the area earlier… we felt something in here.” Lian Zhidiao didn’t miss the way Hu Baitian’s gaze sharpened on him. He considered his words carefully.  “If the demon only expected Lin cultivators—wood magicians—then, wouldn’t it make sense to have a demon that was strong against wooden magic?”

Zhou Xianzhi inclined his head with a small smile. “Our learned magician from the Wa sect has remarkable intuition.” 

Ah, no, I’m just thinking in terms of how I would use elemental weakness in a video game. 

Zhou Xiangu’s quiet face split in a confident grin. “A fire demon would certainly be hard for Lin cultivators to deal with. Especially one as strong as this one appea—” His voice cut off suddenly. 

The mirror warped, and the light from their spindle-flames gilded the shape of something rising up out of the water. Everyone shuffled to the side of the pit closest to the smashed-in shutter; all of them had their swords out and ready to face whatever was coming through. 

True to Zhou Xianzhi’s pronouncement, the ‘blood’ from the pit poured off the demon, steaming. The red sluiced away, leaving behind a broad-shouldered man that was drained of color, grey, with shaggy black hair. He had two large horns on the side of his head, and two smaller ones beside these. Broad shoulders with the sleeves torn off his robes, he oozed raw power in a way that few humans could match. His bare, clawed feet had barely cleared the water’s surface when he began to move. It happened too fast to think, much less stop him. 

The demon shot forward, a living bullet, and struck Yue Shipei in the chest with his hand with a flash of light. Yue Shipei’s body flew through the front doors of the market, leaving them flapping on their hinges, and came to a rolling stop in the street. Two screams—one from Yue Yaosa, the other from Liao Kuaiyu—echoed in the empty market space. 

Stunned, Lian Zhidiao turned to look at the demon. Clouds of vapor were still rising from his body, but his face could at last be seen. His eyes were small and cruel, and his mouth was too wide, with too many sharp teeth. He leered at the cultivators in front of him, but it had none of the feeling of being looked at by a starving wolf. The demon simply could not hide the self-satisfied expression of murderous glee as he stalked into the streets to finish off Yue Shipei. 

Yue Fengjian strode after him, his blade drawn, and the other cultivators, though clearly fearful, began to look at each other for guidance on what to do after such a devastating start to the encounter. 

Lian Zhidiao could do nothing but look at the blood pit and imagine how horrible it would be if another with that kind of strength appeared on the battlefield. He caught Zhou Xianzhi’s sleeve, pulling on it. 

Though Zhou Xianzhi was usually the picture of composure, even he looked a little rattled. “Yes, little one?” 

“The blood pit.” Lian Zhidiao gave it another nervous look. “We have to stop anything else from getting through.” 

“And how would you suggest we do that?” Zhou Xianzhi looked at his brother. “You’re the Wa magician.” 

“We have to disrupt the mirror to close the gate, right? If we hid the water surface, that would do it?”

“Yes,” Zhou Xianzhi replied slowly. “But as a specialist in water magic, I could only add water to the pool, which would make our problem worse.” 

“There’s no dirt around here. They must have carted it all off…” Lian Zhidiao gasped as an idea struck him. “Can you make ice?” 

“Ice?” Zhou Xianzhi gave him another pained look. “It would still be a mirror…” 

Lian Zhidiao gestured at the pit. “No, around the pool, in the earth itself. If the pool is cut off from the crawling earth, it doesn’t matter about the mirror.” 

Realization dawned on Zhou Xianzhi’s beautiful face. “Because the gate only exists if there’s crawling earth for demons to pass through.” Zhou Xianzhi blossomed in a smile and put a hand on Lian Zhidiao’s shoulder. “Little one, you’re smarter than I gave you credit for.” 

What a backhanded compliment! 

Zhou Xianzhi began to move around the pit, his spindle pointed down. The light from the lanterns wasn’t much, but it would be enough for him to work by. Outside there was a crash and a yell. Leaving Zhou Xianzhi to his work, Lian Zhidiao shoved his body through the smashed shutter and hoped this wouldn’t put him directly in the line of fire. 

Liao Kuaiyu stood near the well, surrounded by what could only be the protection array. It appeared as a dome of faint white light, bounded at the base by talismans on a silk ribbon. Every few feet, an iron hook was jammed into the spaces between paving stones to hold the ribbon down. The undead appeared to be possessed of a singular mind, their eyes shining green. They pressed against the energy barrier, but inside, Liao Kuaiyu paid them no mind. His attention was on something at his feet, something Lian Zhidiao couldn’t see because of the corpses.  

Lian Zhidiao drew the low sword and made a short dash to the protection array. At the boundary’s edge, the undead simply let him cut them down without turning their attention to him. Ten of them simply sagged to the ground after he parted their heads from their shoulders. 

Liao Kuaiyu looked up at him through the barrier. His voice sounded hollow, as if he was in a cavernous space. “You’re stuck out there, so try not to die, okay?” 

Lian Zhidiao craned his neck and saw Yue Shipei’s body on the ground. Kneeling next to him was Hu Baitian, with a look of intense concentration on his face. His hands were pressed against Yue Shipei’s ribs. 

That’s right. He was wounded in this fight, but it wasn’t fatal. 

There was a wheezing groan behind him. Another corpse had slunk up to the barrier, eyes burning emerald. It lunged toward him. Before he could even think about how to react, the training and muscle memory he’d gotten from the jade slip kicked in. He slashed across its throat with the low sword, and the head flew a few meters away. Breathing out slowly, he eased up out of the ready stance he’d unconsciously assumed. 

Down the street, he could see the rest of the undead, their eyes ghoulishly alight, gazing heavenward. The demon hovered in the air well above the street, seemingly untouched. His eyes blazed with green fire, echoing the undead below. Is he commanding the undead to focus their attack? Certainly, he’d written that demons could command undead, but he’d never thought much about how it worked. It just seemed like an ability that demons would have. 

A short yell echoed between the buildings. He saw Yue Yaosa leap from one tiled roof into the air, twice again as high as the roofs themselves, and bring her huge saber down, trying to cleave the demon down the middle. But the demon slipped out of the way, like a leaf in the wind. She fell well short, and cratered the paved surface in the street.

Lian Zhidiao let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy. He turned back to the protection array. 

Hu Baitian’s hands were on the front and side of Yue Shipei’s chest, and had a soft white glow around them. Next to them, Liao Kuaiyu stood with his hand pressed against his mouth and his brow deeply furrowed. 

Yue Shipei turned his head and opened his eyes, looking up at Liao Kuaiyu’s serious face. He licked his lips. “It’ll hurt if I laugh, so don’t make me laugh.”

“No tickling,” Liao Kuaiyu said, his voice thin. “Got it.” 

“Be still,” Hu Baitian ordered him. 

“I’m not going anywhere,” Yue Shipei rasped. His gaze moved down to Hu Baitian. “Is it bad? It feels bad.”

“You won’t be fighting any more today if I can help it,” Hu Baitian snapped. 

“You need to go help, or I won’t have a choice.” He glanced back at Liao Kuaiyu. “Both of you.”

“She made me promise to stay with you.” Liao Kuaiyu’s voice shook.  

“Then we’re all in a lot of trouble.” Hu Baitian growled. “Go help her instead of standing here doing nothing.” 

Lian Zhidiao raised his voice. “Liao Kuaiyu, I can keep him safe.”

Liao Kuaiyu lifted his head, seeming to really see for the first time that Lian Zhidiao was there. He looked at the undead bodies around the protection barrier, and his spine straightened visibly. He rubbed his cheeks with his fists and then gave a sharp nod.  The protection barrier shimmered, melting around him as he passed through it and reforming once he was on the outside. Without sparing a look for Lian Zhidiao, he ran toward the fighting. 

Down the street, the Lin magicians, their spindles held aloft, choked the night sky with leaves as they spun wooden magic one after another. The demon’s body rocked back with every hit. Vines entangled his arms and legs. A vine shot up from the ground, snaring him and pulling down. For a moment it looked like he might be forced to the ground. But then smoke began to rise from the vines around his arms and legs, before they burst into flame and crumbled to ash. Worst of all, a braying laugh poured out of the demon’s mouth at their futile efforts. 

Using wooden magic against a demon with fire element doesn’t make sense. Deep in Lin territory, it made sense that a foe that burned their most powerful magic to nothing would give the demons the upper hand. With their most powerful ranged magic ineffective, they’d be forced into hand-to-hand fighting. Some would end up like Yue Shipei, many would end up worse.

Liao Kuaiyu ran ahead, hollering for Yue Yaosa to take him up. 

“Don’t think you’re getting in here,” Hu Baitian said over his shoulder, cutting into his thoughts. “I’m a little too busy to change the array.” 

“It’s fine,” Lian Zhidiao replied. “Out here is where I am needed.” 

In the streets in front of him, the streets were strewn with corpses. Zhou Xiangu was skillfully stopping the undead threatening the market, his blue robes glinting like peacock feathers in the eye-fire of the undead. Every strike of his blade was swollen with qi, showing off graceful swordplay that seemed both effortless and inevitable, like the tide rolling in. 

This is a boss encounter, so it’s okay if we’re all applying pressure at once, right? He looked down at his spindle and then took it in his hand, twirling the wooden dowel that went through the center. On a hunch he yanked the stick out of the wooden disc at the bottom; it came apart easily. The jade spindle-weight was now just a heavy jade ring hanging freely from his belt. 

Cautiously, he spun qi through his hand, holding the thread at the ready. The jade ring floated up in front of him, knotted cords radiating out from the edge. Without the wooden dowel-and-disc in the way, he could see through the center of the jade ring. He was no longer aiming along the wooden stick like an arrow, but looking at his target directly, through the sights of a gun. 

Just like the crosshairs in a first-person shooter game. 

Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Yaosa were in the air, circling high above the demon. Silhouetted by the moon, the demon looked up at them. Seizing his chance, Lian Zhidiao spun metal magic, twisting the qi in his fingers as tight as he could. With the demon’s body in his sights, he let the thread of qi snap. 

The metal magic flew not like an arrow, but a bullet. The crack of the shot echoed off the buildings, louder than the vines the Lin cultivators spun, louder than the shouts of Yue Yaosa and Yue Fengjian calling back and forth. The demon staggered. He looked around wildly, but couldn’t seem to find whoever had fired that spell. 

“What in the Emperor’s name was that?” Behind him, Hu Baitian sounded equal parts incredulous and fearful. 

Lian Zhidiao didn’t have time to answer. In the sky above the demon, a huge fireball burst into existence, big as a house and bright as a flare. Above it, Liao Kuaiyu, a small figure crouched on Yue Yaosa’s saber. Below it, the demon, confused and nowhere to turn. 

Elemental resistances aside, there was no way a fireball that big was something the demon wanted to get hit by. He ran first toward the ground, as ‘away from the fireball’ was the most pressing condition for movement. But at the ground, he was forced to roll to the side to avoid being pinned between the street and the inferno. At ground level, he wasn’t an easy target for spells, but he had entered the most dangerous part of the arena. 

Yue Fengjian advanced, shuangshou jian in one hand. With a yell, he struck. The demon raised an arm to ward off the first blow. The blade carved a deep furrow around it. A snarl of pain was the only indication the demon gave that he was hurt. Around the two of them, magicians closed in, watching the face-off with their spindles ready. 

The rest of the undead were mostly taken care of, so everyone here might be enough to take down the demon, if everyone combined their power. Given how Yue Fengjian had been taken advantage of by the drowned near the river, and then again by the Zhou brothers, Lian Zhidiao worried that this demon might be a bit powerful for him to take on by himself. After all, this same demon did nearly cave in Yue Shipei’s chest. 

In watching the two of them move—the demon with unarmed strikes and Yue Fengjian with his sword—Lian Zhidiao’s apprehension soon proved misplaced. Wallbreaker was shining even before the blow landed, painting the darkness around them with light. The techniques used were not just powerful moves on their own, they were saturated with qi. Any wielder would have won praise for their strength when using them. In the hands of a truly strong man like Yue Fengjian, they became an unstoppable force. 

The demon looked to the sky for an avenue of escape. A fireball—Liao Kuaiyu—spooked him back down to rooftop level, and then Yue Fengjian was next to him. His two-handed sword hammered the demon back down to earth, smashing a ragged hollow in the street. Yue Fengjian dropped down after him. Every movement the demon made, Yue Fengjian anticipated. He pinned the demon to earth with violence, cutting him to the bone with one arc of his sword. The next blow took his hand. No matter where the demon moved, the sword’s edge was waiting for him.  Finally, he made his last mistake, and Yue Fengjian ran him through. 

The demon sagged to his knees. Yue Fengjian planted his foot on the demon’s stomach and pulled his sword free. Then he pressed the wet edge of Wallbreaker against his throat. 

“Your name, demon.” 

The demon wheezed for breath. “T-Tangyi.”

Wallbreaker glinted red. Yue Fengjian cut his head clean off. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 9: The Gate In The Earth
Next Chapter > Chapter 11: Lian Zhidiao Plays A Digging Mini-Game

Chapter 5: Yue Fengjian, Lion of Yue

Lian Zhidiao swallowed hard.

Hey, hold on a minute… This body has technically died once already. The original Lian Zhidiao’s spirit might still be lingering in this world. If someone can speak to the dead, it would be quite easy for someone to find out that I’m not actually the real Lian Zhidiao. “Talking to the dead,” he repeated woodenly.

“It’s possible the Quanlu magician is a Speaker.” 

Panic speared him through the heart. I don’t remember any of this! 

It was true that the Quanlu Yuan, the sect that specialized in metal magic, had been very involved with law and order, but he’d never written anything like this. Was this another example of the world growing naturally from a seed he’d planted?

Lian Zhidiao took a calming breath. “The Speakers… How do they talk to the dead?” 

“If we knew that, then anyone could become a Speaker,” Yang Meihua quipped. “It’s not like they let just anybody see it.” 

“But how do you know they can really talk to the dead?” 

“The crimes that have been solved speak for themselves. Especially those with subterfuge or assassins involved.” Lin Jingjing spoke with the authority of one who had seen these Speakers catch a criminal.

“The Speakers come in and find a patch of roaring earth, and then the next thing you know, a weapon is found in someone’s home, or their brother confesses when confronted with the evidence.” 

Lin Jingjing nodded at Yang Meihua’s words. “They may be members of the Yuan sect, but their fairness and dedication to members of all sects is beyond reproach. The Xideng Wa and Tuhuan Zhou sects will send a messenger to them if their skills might be needed, even with relations between them as they are.” Her dark eyes pierced Lian Zhidiao. “Even you couldn’t find fault with their methods.” 

Even I, a Wa magician, could benefit—or not—from their investigations. So it seems they are something like police, or at least private investigators. Lian Zhidiao pursed his lips slightly. It’s probably a good bet that their expertise isn’t limited to solving murders. 

Suddenly there was a sound of running feet out in the courtyard in front of the hall. Lin Jingjing looked up just as there was a small knock and then a crack appeared in the door, showing the pleading face of their young servant. Yang Meihua rose to her feet and stepped outside the Inner Hall, leaving Lian Zhidiao and Lin Jingjing alone. In a few moments, Yang Meihua returned, and with her was a strapping man with thick eyebrows, dressed in green robes.

Lin Jingjing’s eyes widened and she rose, bringing her hands together and bowing courteously.  “Shixiong.” 

He made the same gesture, and seemed about to speak until his eyes lit on Lian Zhidiao as the latter got to his feet. Suspicion played over his features and he lifted his chin. “Shimei, I did not know you had company.” 

Lian Zhidiao bowed, his hands together in a salute. “I am Lian Zhidiao, of the Xideng Wa sect.” 

The bigger man’s eyes scraped over him, catching on his plain black robes, his waist, and the jade spindle which hung from it. He gave Lian Zhidiao the smallest bow that he could manage and still be called courteous. “Lin Zhengchun, of the Youlu Lin sect.” 

The pleasantries made, he turned back to Lin Jingjing, walking across the room. “Forgive me for not taking more time, but the situation is quite urgent.” From a fold of his robes, he produced a wad of green silk, handing it to Lin Jingjing. 

Lian Zhidiao watched intently as Lin Jingjing unwrapped the silk bundle. In the center of the cloth lay an egg of cloudy green jade. Lin Jingjing looked up at her martial elder brother and then lifted the jade egg to her temple and closed her eyes. 

Lian Zhidiao watched Lin Jingjing like a hawk, but she gave no indication as to what was happening other than a crease in her brow. Lian Zhidiao glanced at Lin Zhengchun, only to find that he was being watched intently. Once caught, Lin Zhengchun lowered his eyes to the ground and then looked back at Lin Jingjing as her eyelids fluttered. She cleared her throat. 

“That’s quite a lot.” She folded the silk back over the egg. “How soon do you need me to be ready?” 

“Tomorrow. We’ll leave at first light.” Lin Zhengchun received the egg back from her. 

Lin Jingjing looked at Lian Zhidiao, and then looked back at Lin Zhengchun, her mouth tight. “You may as well let him see it,” she said, letting out a small breath. “If things are that dire.” 

“A Wa magician?” Lin Zhengchun kept a steady voice, though his eyes flicked to Lian Zhidiao.

“He’s here, closer than a group from the capital. He could help.” Lin Jingjing paused. “For that matter, there are members of the Xinxue Yue sect in the village as well.” 

Lian Zhidiao’s voice was timid. “What’s going on?” 

“You’d better look for yourself.” Lin Zhengchun offered the jade egg to Lian Zhidiao. 

Jade. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes dropped to the jade egg. A jade tool like the spindle, and the jade slip. He took the egg and then pressed the cool stone against his temple. 

A moving image—no, an entire sensory experience—sprang up in his mind. Immediately, he understood why Lin Jingjing had closed her eyes: the overlay of one world on top of the other was disorienting. The ‘video’ played in his mind, but he could smell something rotten and sharp, like a lightning strike over a landfill. The field of view swung around him: there was a town, or what was left of one, with baskets abandoned in the streets. Flies blew around the fruit peddlers’ carts, and duck carcasses hung up near the butcher’s stall, swollen and green. 

The person carrying the egg couldn’t control their breathing at all; they huffed in Lian Zhidiao’s ears, wheezing, on the verge of crying out. The field of vision swung again, and for an instant, Lian Zhidiao could see clearly down a dark alley. There were people propped up against the wall, their skin white and grey, legs stretched out. Standing in the middle of the walkway nearby were other people, stock still. The image stilled for a moment, and then slowly, slowly, one of the standing people began to turn. 

Lian Zhidiao couldn’t see clearly at first, but the person making the recording bit back a scream, and then every part of it was cast in sharp relief: the skin made soft by decomposition, sliding off the face like a mask, exposing the tense, gray-green muscle and rancid fat underneath. Worst of all was the smell: sickly sweet and thick enough to coat the inside of his mouth. The video changed, shaking wildly between heaven and earth, and all he could hear was the sound of someone whimpering as he ran away in a mad panic. 

Lian Zhidiao pressed his fingertips against his mouth as he lowered the egg, placing it almost absent-mindedly into Lin Zhengchun’s silk-draped hand. 

“It’s quite bad,” Lin Jingjing said in a quiet voice. 

“It is,” Lian Zhidiao mumbled. All of it had seemed so real: the smell, the sounds. His heart rate was up, and he hadn’t even been there in person. “Is this far from here?” 

“Sancha Town. Further up the river.” Lin Zhengchun tucked the jade egg back into his robes. “We received this yesterday from a young disciple who had gone home to see to a family illness. When he ran away, he ran this way instead of towards the capital. I’ve sent someone by sword to the capital, since the route overland runs through Sancha.” 

Lian Zhidiao couldn’t shake the suspicion that was creeping into his mind. He only vaguely remembered the outline of Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, but there had been some kind of trouble in the lands of the Lin sect in the beginning. Solving it was how the protagonist was able to establish favor among Lin cultivators and magicians. Knowing that the protagonist was one of the Xinxue Yue sect members in the inn across the village square, he could now say with certainty that he’d been dropped in near the beginning of his novel. 

As he remembered it, there was a protagonist of the Xinxue Yue sect, fighting against demons that threatened his home, and he sought help from the rest of humanity. He had necessarily needed the unflagging loyalty of the sects, and, as he’d written it, this loyalty had been acquired through seducing the most beautiful or powerful women in the sect. The first one had been easy enough to write, but by the time he’d worked through the other sects, just sleeping with a Beauty wasn’t enough. So weddings came to be more frequent, and honestly, as the unmarried writer, he had been more than a little embittered by having to write repeated wedding scenes. 

Still, the protagonist needed help from all the sects to fight demons. If nothing else, a world without demons was easier and safer to be in than a world with demons. 

Lian Zhidiao got to his feet. “It would take a few days for help to come from the capital.” He looked between Lin Jingjing and Lin Zhengchun. “We should ask the Yue sect members for their help.”

Lin Zhengchun’s jaw moved, as if he was chewing on the inside of his cheek. “I agree,” Lin Zhengchun said at last. He leveled a steady gaze on Lian Zhidiao. “We could use them, if you can get them to come.”

There was a weight on the last part of his words that made Lian Zhidiao look at Lin Zhengchun more directly. It wasn’t quite a challenge or an insult, but a guarded expectation in his voice that set Lian Zhidiao’s mind to work in suspicious ways. 

But he made a salute to both of them and left the hall. Certainly, more than anyone there, he might be able to guess what to say to the Yue magicians to get them to agree to come with them. 

The rain had cleared away, and the afternoon remained cool and overcast. The lively sounds of the Mountain magicians floated out into the air. Being in a crossroads town, the inn was nice enough to have a small courtyard, though Lian Zhidiao had to walk around the outside wall with the stables to get to it. He waved away the serving boy that came to take his things, and drifted unnoticed into the courtyard, toward the voices. 

Seated around a table near a wall were the party of Yue magicians and cultivators he’d met that day, along with the red and white riders. All together, that made five people who might be useful in fighting… well, undead, possessed, whatever was wrong at Sancha Town. 

In the light of lamps on the table, he could make them all out clearly: the slim jokester that had cracked wise while he was covered in mud, as well as the woman whose strength looked enough to rival two men. There was also the broad-shouldered man who had been drawn in by the jokester’s laughter. Then, the latest additions to the party. It was the first time Lian Zhidiao been able to closely examine the last two. 

The white-clothed rider was not wearing just any gleaming white. The ambient light and the light of the small flames around them bounced off of his clothes, which seemed to be woven in part with shiny threads. Whether it was a product of their make or an enchantment, the white rider seemed touched by the shine of gold or silver, except for the single black stripe trimming each sleeve. His hair was only half-up, and his face had sharp features. He leaned forward, engaged in whatever topic was being discussed. He might be of the Yuan sect, but he clearly already had some rapport established with the other Yue magicians. 

This left the solitary red rider, the lion who rode in with the white rider from the east, along the same path Lian Zhidiao himself had taken. He looked to be almost the body double of the other well-built man, but where the well-built man had handsome, if plain features, the red rider left him far behind. He was blessed with a noble, masculine face and phoenix eyes, framed by a few locks of hair that weren’t pulled back into his thick ponytail. As Lian Zhidiao hovered in the entrance to the inn, those eyes glanced up and pierced his. 

There was no moment of recognition between them, just a brief, sharp regard wherein Lian Zhidiao felt as if his worth was being weighed. Every atom of him felt seen, measured, although he had no way of knowing whether he’d passed muster. 

Then the moment was gone. The Yuan magician leaned over and whispered something in the lion’s ear. Those eyes like awls looked away, and a shiver ran down Lian Zhidiao’s spine. 

Is this what was referred to as killing intent? No wonder you can feel it across the room.

Slowly he became aware that the conversation at the table had died down, and all five members of the group of Yue magicians were looking at him. Their expressions varied in warmth, but all of them seemed expectant. His heart rose up into his throat as he walked toward them. Lian Zhidiao had made every one of them what they were, and seeing them in the flesh—real—suddenly put his spirit in a tumult.  He bowed and brought his hands together in a salute. The three he’d met before looked slightly amused; the red rider and the white rider were more reserved. 

The slim man inclined his head, with a smile around his lips. “Done playing in the mud for today?” 

You had to bring that up!

“For today,” Lian Zhidiao answered. “There are more pressing matters. Someone from the Lin sect has just arrived and spoken with the village head. It seems there is…” The horror from the egg flashed in front of his eyes, and he blinked it away. “…A situation, which with your help might be easily resolved.” 

“Some of your work get out of hand?” The Yuan magician spoke up: his voice was firm, but his face betrayed his distrust. 

The lion remained silent, with a fierce expression, but one of his eyebrows lifted slightly as the man next to him spoke. 

Lian Zhidiao opened his mouth to protest, but a chuckle from the slim man cut him off. “It’s not like that. He’s not a threat, but he’s definitely not all right in the head. Caught him kissing a jade beast this morning, covered head-to-toe in mud.” 

The awful spectacle from the morning dogged him even to this point, the moment when he was to meet the protagonist. But remembering scenes of the insolence of young upstarts from nearly every wuxia novel ever, Lian Zhidiao gave them a deep bow, mindful of the imposition he was making. A man should not come to ask a favor and not give his name. “I am Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao, of the Xideng Wa sect.” 

The broad-shouldered man gave the slim man an indulging look, but stood up and bowed to Lian Zhidiao. “I am Yue Zhezhong, courtesy name Shipei, of the Xinxue Yue sect.” 

Glad to see that someone still has some manners! 

As Yue Shipei stood up, the only woman stood up as well. She was also broad-shouldered, especially for a woman, and was only a hand’s width shorter than Yue Shipei. She bowed to Lian Zhidiao. “I am Yue Yaosa, of the Xinxue Yue sect.” 

His two companions having determined that at least on a first meeting, some decorum must be observed, the slim man got up and gave Lian Zhidiao a short bow and salute. “Liao Zhaoyou, courtesy name Kuaiyu, of the Xinxue Yue sect.” 

As Liao Kuaiyu stood, the lion stood up as well, and last, the Quan magician. The lion brought his hands together and gave Lian Zhidiao a bow, his ponytail half-sliding over his shoulder. His voice was deep, and his manner brusque, even though he spoke as politely as any of the others. “I am Yue Hanqi, courtesy name Fengjian, of the Xinxue Yue sect.” 

He IS the protagonist! Outwardly, Lian Zhidiao gave no sign of his emotions, but inside, he was pumping his fist and congratulating himself on correctly remembering something in this otherwise forgettable book.  

The Yuan magician was last, but where Lian Zhidiao thought he’d detected lazy contempt before, he found that the White magician was suddenly keen, his eyes razor-sharp. “Hu Nianzu, courtesy name Baitian. Of the Quanlu Yuan sect.” 

Yue Fengjian sat back down first and everyone else followed suit. He gestured to a place at the table opposite him, but Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s quite urgent.” 

“Spit it out, then.” Hu Baitian’s eyes bored into him. “If it’s so urgent.” 

“There is a situation with Sancha Town down the river. A Lin sect disciple found the town deserted, except for… some things.” Lian Zhidiao looked around at the group, but his eyes pressed on Yue Fengjian. “Not people. At least, not anymore.” 

“You speak confidently of things that others only whisper,” Yue Yaosa said, her lips twitching. “Do you have some experience hunting the undead? Or demons?” 

“I do not,” Lian Zhidiao confessed. Just a long history of watching movies about killing zombies or demons. “But the prowess of the Yue sect is unsurpassed, and getting more help from the capital will take time.” He straightened his shoulders. “I will be helping as well.” 

“If you didn’t raise them to begin with,” Hu Baitian muttered. “The Wa sect is capable of sweeping up large numbers of corpses—say, from a nearby graveyard—and setting them to all sorts of nasty work. And you’re asking us to risk our lives to clean up your mess?” 

Yue Shipei nodded slowly in agreement. 

Yue Fengjian’s eyes narrowed, making his stern face look all the more harsh.

The words ‘cannon fodder’ unfurled in Lian Zhidiao’s mind, as if on a large banner flapping in the breeze outside a discount or damaged goods store. Here he was, in front of the main adventuring party whom he himself had created, yet they would not even give him the time of day. It wounded him, but he might have expected that, being a cannon fodder character from a sect that was directly opposed to the Yuan and Yue sects. 

Without a sword to force them to take him seriously, Lian Zhidiao’s only option was to try to appeal to reason, or their better natures. 

“It’s not my mess, I only arrived in Shuangwan Village yesterday. Lin Jingjing, the village head, has been asked to help with investigating whatever is happening at Sancha Town. She has shown me courtesy, and I’ll repay that debt.”

Hu Baitian stared at him for a little longer and then snorted softly and sat back. But then, to Lian Zhidiao’s surprise, Yue Fengjian’s eyebrow twitched. 

Lian Zhidiao looked at Yue Fengjian, meeting that dark, winnowing stare. I know you. You’re desperate to have someone, anyone, listen to the plight of the Yue sect, which has been fighting demons in its lands for decades, if not centuries, and all completely on their own. You want the other sects to step up and help in the fight. You’re not expecting a Wa magician in shabby robes to be any help to you at all, but I know exactly what you need to hear that will convince you.

Lian Zhidiao folded his slim arms over his chest, gesturing with one hand. “The Yue sect knows what happens when you leave demonic energy to its own devices. Failing to work together in the face of such strength only ensures our defeat. Allowing Sancha Town to stay as it is means that whatever demonic energy is there will grow in power, unchallenged. ” 

Maybe he hadn’t recalled it perfectly, but that was a line directly from Yue Fengjian’s appeal to the Lin sect as he tried to sway them into helping the Yue sect. Lian Zhidiao tucked his hand under his arm, waiting. In the periphery of his vision, he saw Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Shipei turn their heads to look at Yue Fengjian. 

“You may be a Wa magician, but you seem to have some understanding of the world.” Yue Fengjian stood up, glancing at Hu Baitian next to him before turning back to Lian Zhidiao. “We’ll meet Senior Lin and see if we can help with this matter at Sancha Town.”

Previous Chapter < Chapter 4: Lian Zhidiao, Half-Drowned Housecat 
Next Chapter > Chapter 6: It’s Difficult To Stand With Both Feet On A Sword, Isn’t It?

Chapter 4: Lian Zhidiao, Half-Drowned Housecat

Even the cool mud sliding down his back couldn’t relieve the hot embarrassment rising in Lian Zhidiao’s cheeks. The laughter slowly died back into quiet snickering. 

I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t even hear them coming. 

With a heavy sigh, Lian Zhidiao sat up in the mud. He slung some of the black muck off his hands and heard a whole new round of sputtering laughter rise up behind him. Steeling himself for another wave of laughter, he got to his feet and turned around. 

Three horses stood in the road, their tack trimmed with red tassels. The riders weren’t all men, but one woman and two men, one slim, one muscular. The slim man had high cheekbones and his hair completely smoothed back, his eyes sharp. The muscular man wore his hair half-up; it cascaded over his broad shoulders, softening what might otherwise be a stern visage. All of them were dressed in robes the color of red earth, even down to red leather trim on their boots. The broad-shouldered man was biting his lower lip and trying not to smile. It was clear that the slim man’s infectious grin had sucked the other man into his laughter. 

“Are you two finished?” The woman wore her hair pinned back in a severe fashion, with no ornaments at all. She was nearly as broad-shouldered as the bigger of the two men. When Lian Zhidiao saw her pretty face and striking eyes, he knew instantly who he was looking at. She was Yue Yaosa, the Beauty of the mountains, destined to become one of the Supreme Warlord’s wives. 

Lian Zhidiao took advantage of Yue Yaosa’s words and turned a cold look on the other two members of the group. Drawing himself up as tall as he could, and ignoring the way the warming mud on his skin was beginning to stink, he tried for as lofty a tone as possible. “I did not expect such behavior from the Xinxue Yue sect.” 

“Nor we from the Xideng Wa sect,” the slimmer man cracked. “Is it so lonely in your swamps that you are given to kissing cows?” 

Is this sect that looked-down-upon?!

Lian Zhidiao squared his shoulders. “No, this is my first time. Maybe you can give me some pointers?” 

The slim man bristled and then it was Lian Zhidiao’s turn to hide a smile. It was at this moment that Lian Zhidiao heard a splash behind him and whirled to face it. 

The jade beast lifted its front hoof out of the mud with a sucking sound. The mountain cultivators forgotten for the moment, Lian Zhidiao held out his hand, trying to encourage the cow to follow him. The jade beast let out a sonorous lowing, and then walked forward. With squelching noises, it ambled ponderously to the side of the rice paddy. 

“Hey, are you controlling that thing?” The broad-shouldered man’s voice was touched with awe. 

“No,” Lian Zhidiao said over his shoulder, watching the jade cow. “I think it’s going wherever it likes. 

But soon enough, green hooves mounted the side of the rice paddy’s berm and the cow stumbled up onto higher ground, still with an obvious line of encrusted filth where it had been standing in the field for an unknown number of seasons. 

“What I was going to say, before you continued poking fun,” Lian Zhidiao said, “Is that I was just helping this jade beast.” 

The cow flicked its ears amiably and mooed again. 

Gathering clouds darkened the sky and the slim man pursed his lips slightly. “Can’t say I’ve seen a trick like that before,” he said, still a glint of mischief in his eyes. “Tell me about it later.” 

Lian Zhidiao nodded to the village. “Are you going ahead?” 

“We are.” Yue Yaosa looked at him, and he felt the distinct pressure of her eyes all over the mud-soaked parts of his body.

“If you could be so kind, can you let Lin Jingjing know I am returning.” Lian Zhidiao lifted one sodden black sleeve, caked in wet black silt. “And that I will need a bath.” 

Thunder rolled overhead, distant but coming closer. The slim man looked up at the sky and then smirked. “You’ll have one before you get back, I think.” He kicked his horse, and they started to trot away. The broad-shouldered man nodded to him without saying anything more, urging his horse after him. 

Yue Yaosa smiled as her horse went past and Lian Zhidiao’s heart skipped a beat. He watched them until the cloud of dust they kicked up hid them from view. With leaden feet, he walked over to where he’d wedged the book inside the umbrella and picked it up, careful to keep the book under the oil paper. As if on cue, the rain started to fall. 

There wasn’t any hurry to get out of the downpour—as had been pointed out, it could only get him cleaner—so Lian Zhidiao took his time. The cow walked along next to him, and Lian Zhidiao rubbed the mud away from the green stone with one hand. But as long as they walked, the cow seemed content to stay by his side, even across the bridge into the village itself. 

The servant girl hovered in the gate of Lin Jingjing’s house, and Lian Zhidiao entrusted the book to her, with instructions to put it in his room. She mumbled something about the bath being ready in there as well, and scurried off. But when he stepped up into the compound, the cow lifted its foreleg and put a hoof on the step behind him. 

Lian Zhidiao paused and then turned in place, looking at the cow. Its jade eyes, carved without irises or pupils, stared into him. 

He stepped backwards, deeper into the walls of the siheyuan. The cow stepped up again, both front hooves on the threshold of the gate, and began to lean its shoulder into the side of the gate that was still closed. 

“No!” Lian Zhidiao rushed forward and the cow bleated once, easing its weight off the door. 

The cow definitely wanted to follow him into the house. 

Rain dripped off the tiled roof of the gate as he pushed on the solid stone animal, trying to get it to walk backwards, out into the road. It balked, stubbornly clinging to the step in front of the gate. Lian Zhidiao put his hand against the side of its head and pushed, hard. The jade beast suddenly reversed, and Lian Zhidiao went sprawling on the slick stones in front of the house. 

For a moment he simply lay there, letting the rain fall on his face. Indeed, anytime one was on one’s back in the rain, it was a good time to contemplate what you were doing with your life. Having the second such soggy opportunity today might be viewed as an invitation to meditate upon his future. But he rolled to the side and lurched to his feet, his long sleeves slapping against his thighs. 

The cow plodded forward, leaning its head into him, and Lian Zhidiao finally let out a long sigh. “Is it thankfulness? Are you thankful to have been revived?”

The cow didn’t answer, but turned its head to encourage him to rub its jaw and ears. He did so absently, sweeping grit off the surface of the stone nose and forehead. At the eastern village gate, the sound of a pair of horses reached his ears, and he turned to watch them ride in. 

The riders wore wide capes of silvergrass, but they were not tied so tightly as to hide the color of their robes underneath: the first rider wore red, and the second, white, revealed in flashes by the gusts as they rode. 

Compared to the red-robed riders from a few hours ago, he didn’t look strikingly different from far off, but as the distance between them closed, Lian Zhidiao was struck by the size of the horse and, comparatively, its rider. If he were to put his hands together side by side and use this as a way to measure, the red rider’s horse must be 16 hands high at the shoulder. And the giant horse was sized to fit the rider, a big man made even larger by the bulk of the grass cape.

The white rider’s horse was three hands-widths shorter, with a stockier bone structure. The white rider was smaller overall, having not been fed on whatever magic beans the giant ate. They cantered down the lane, their tack jingling and tassels flying. 

Hey, this is a town, you know…

They didn’t even slow down as they approached, flinging mud from the horses’ hooves. Lian Zhidiao backed up against the jade beast to avoid being trampled; the muck that splashed the hem of his robe could hardly be avoided. 

Hey, hey, you didn’t even slow down! Have a care for other people! 

The pair reined in their horses near the other large building on the central square: two boys came out to take their horses into the stable, and the two men melted into the darkness under the eaves. They divested themselves of their grass capes and hats, hanging them up outside to dry. The white rider wore his hair half-up, with a silvery hair ornament that glinted even through the curtain of rain that hung between them.  

They look right off the set of a wuxia drama. Well, since I wrote it that way, I suppose that’s exactly what it should look like. 

The red rider’s thick black hair was pulled back in a high ponytail with a golden xiaoguan, only a few stray locks framing his face. Against a painter’s palette of mud and wood, his red robes stood out in the shade as much as the white rider’s stainless ones. Tall and muscular, with a broad chest, he radiated strength and masculinity. 

The door to the house opened, and the red rider paused at the threshold, glancing around, while the white rider went in ahead of him. He looked directly at Lian Zhidiao, his regard like a lance. Lian Zhidiao glanced down at himself to see what the red rider saw: a man with a somber face, slender to the point of being too thin, dressed in filth-flecked black robes, standing in the rain, soaked to the skin. 

It was like a lion looking at a half-drowned housecat. 

After a moment, the red rider went inside. 

The jade cow nudged his elbow with her muzzle. His mind clouded with questions, Lian Zhidiao rubbed the stone cow’s neck before stepping up into Lin Jingjing’s gate. This time the cow didn’t follow him, and he was able to shut the heavy wooden door with a heavy, comforting thud. He saw the servant girl running off just as he was walking towards the door to his room. Just inside the door was a wide wooden tub and a few steaming buckets of water. Put on a low stool next to it were a few orange soaps and some cloths to dry himself with. 

At least this part is familiar enough. 

His clothes would have to be laundered, there was no way around it. He put the pile of muddy clothing outside his door, resolving to go take care of it when he was finished. He took his hair down, finding that it reached his lower back. Soaking it and his body took all of one bucket, but it was easy enough to get everything wet. Then, he had to wash it all, and that kind of repetitive lathering set the wheels of his mind turning. 

Well, it’s something like, they’re the main party, right? I don’t remember a black magician in the main party. They were all Yue sect cultivators, probably. 

He scrubbed at his whole body, trying to get his back the best he could. I can’t even remember who Lian Zhidiao is, though, so he can’t have been very important. But I do feel certain he wasn’t in the main party. So I really am just cannon fodder. 

His hair took some effort to clean and keep untangled, but after a while he worked it out. 

But then the rider wearing white… must be from the sect with its capital city on the high plains, the Quanlu Yuan, I think? If he can ride with them, they shouldn’t have any problems with members of other sects. Especially since the point of the book was for the protagonist to unite the sects. The white rider is probably an early Plains adherent. 

The water was still hot when he started to rinse himself off. Which one is the protagonist, though?  One of the two brawnier ones probably.

He bailed water over himself, standing up to let it run off his skin, and trying his best to remember what this protagonist was like. Was he quiet? Loud? Moody? Come to think of it, people complained about how hard it was to understand him. 

Lian Zhidiao looked down at his body, at the bruises and wounds that still covered his arms and torso. There’s still the mystery of what happened to this body before I got here. Some of them were beginning to change to a less-concerning green color, but there was still a lot of purple-black bruising. 

Yang Meihua’s round shadow passed by the screens at the front of his room, shaking him from his reverie. He crouched in the tub. She paused at his door, and then slipped away, the continuing rain masking her footsteps. He quickly finished bathing and dressed himself in the spare set of robes at the bottom of his bag. These weren’t trimmed with green: just a solid, staid black. Even though he was a somber-looking man, he didn’t want to give himself entirely to the old Lian Zhidiao’s way of wearing his hair. It was too studious, with no flair for the dramatic. He put his hair half up in a topknot, letting some of it hang down in loops to cover his ears. 

No reason to look like such a sour old man. Why even be here if I can’t have fun with it, right? 

His hosts were sipping tea in the inner hall when he joined them. He clasped his fists and bowed to them. They stood to welcome him. 

Lin Jingjing gave him a nod. “Good afternoon.” 

“Good afternoon,” he replied. “May I join you?” 

“We already have a cup prepared.” Yang Meihua gestured to a fine brown porcelain cup on the table. 

“Thank you,” Lian Zhidiao said, sitting down. 

Lin Jingjing put her cup down on the table. “Yang Meihua tells me that you have succeeded in nursing our jade beast back to health.” 

“I believe that I have.” 

“I did not believe her at first. It seems improbable.” 

“But then I showed her the cow outside.” Yang Meihua had a small but smug smile on her face. Lian Zhidiao got the sense that she was not used to being the one in the right and was milking it for all it was worth. 

“It’s something like a miracle,” Lin Jingjing allowed. She folded her hands in her lap. “However, we know that the Xideng Wa sect is not given to acts of charity.” 

A chill moved over Lian Zhidiao’s skin. “If you wouldn’t mind, can you elaborate on that point?” 

Lin Jingjing blinked at him in surprise, and after trading glances with Yang Meihua, the latter nodded and Lin Jingjing pursed her lips. “The Xideng Wa sect currently extracts a sum from Shuangwan village for the goods that pass through the docks. The village was once prosperous, since the jade beast encouraged the growth of rice and other produce, but since it became derelict, the village’s money has slowly been drained.” Her eyes remained firmly on her lap. “I shudder to think of what this repair will take from our coffers.”

Is that all? Lian Zhidiao hummed in understanding. With the black robes, of course they think I’m here on the Xideng Wa sect’s business. The next time a tax collector comes through, they’ll be expected to empty their pockets. Guess I have to take a bit of a chance.

“Madame Lin, as I said before, I am in a bit of a bind, having lost my memory. If you would do me the favor of answering my questions and taking care of my accommodations while I’m here, I could accept that as payment in kind.”  

When he saw the look of shocked relief on Lin Jingjing’s face, he knew he’d made the right decision. 

“Even though we’re such a backwater?” Yang Meihua cut in. “We’re not even aware of the latest gossip from the capital.” 

“Anything would be helpful.” 

“Then we’ll do our best,” Lin Jingjing said, having regained her composure. She smoothed her skirts over her knees and appeared to prepare herself for a hard line of questioning.

Lian Zhidiao took a sip of his tea. “There was a group of riders in red that came into the village today. They are from the mountains.” 

“From the Xinxue Yue sect, yes.” 

Xinxue… The Heart’s Blood. A frown flitted across Lian Zhidiao’s features. “But we are nowhere near the mountains, correct?” 

Yang Meihua and Lin Jingjing traded glances before Lin Jingjing nodded. “Their presence here is… remarkable. I was quite surprised when they left word that you would be returning.” 


“Why!” Yang Meihua stifled a giggle behind her hand. “Treating unknown cultivators as if they were errand boys!” 

“Ah.” It hadn’t occurred to him that other cultivators might not pass along a message for a colleague. He’d thought of it as a professional courtesy, but perhaps this wasn’t the case? “Another Yue cultivator arrived in town just before I came inside. There was one other man with him, dressed in white.” 

“White?” Lin Jingjing’s voice sounded suddenly thin. “…Just one?” 


The soft patter of rain out in the courtyard continued without end. “Members of the Quanlu Yuan sect rarely travel alone.” 

“Yes, but there was a group of them that passed through here less than a week ago.” Yang Meihua’s thoughtful voice chimed in. “They were searching for roaring earth.” 

Lin Jingjing’s eyes flicked to Lian Zhidiao’s face, and then she looked back at Yang Meihua. “Do you know if they found any?” 

Yang Meihua shook her head. “They never came back.” 

“It’s not an indication one way or the other.” Lin Jingjing’s jaw tensed. “But I imagine if a body had been found, we might have heard about it.” 

“A body…?” 

“What else could they need roaring earth for?” Lin Jingjing’s face was grave. “How else can you talk to the dead?”

Previous Chapter < Chapter 3: Lian Zhidiao Has Not Unlocked Fast Travel
Next Chapter > Chapter 5: Yue Fengjian, Lion of Yue

Chapter 3: Lian Zhidiao Has Not Unlocked Fast Travel

The hoofbeats weren’t a full gallop, but even so, another horse so soon after the first?

Lian Zhidiao ran across the road, barely ducking behind the scholar trees in time to hide himself from the rider. The rider was wearing green—impossible to tell which of the two previous riders it was, if they were indeed the same. The horse approached the scholartrees and then thundered past across the bridge. The sound faded away into the eastern forest. 

Could it be he didn’t notice the smoking bush? No, more like it wasn’t important enough for him to stop and investigate. 

But two riders in such a short period of time suggested two things: that there was a village not far from here, and that there was a lot of information that needed to travel quickly. Maybe a battle was approaching. 

In any case, he needed to get moving somewhere, or he’d be sleeping rough tonight. He slung the bedroll with its concealed sword over his back, the knapsack over his shoulder. The jade beast’s case was heavy, forcing him to switch arms frequently. It made a good stool to sit on when he needed to rest; even broken, it wasn’t completely useless. 

Although I probably wouldn’t need to rest so much if I wasn’t lugging this thing around.

Despite his apprehension, no more horses passed him in either direction, and he saw a broad stone bridge emerge from the trees just as the sun dipped below the horizon. On the other side, the gates of the village were still open. The reeds danced with fireflies and the sounds of frogs and night insects swelled to fill the dusk. Lian Zhidiao made it inside the gates just as the guards were about to close them. 

“Are there lodgings in this village?” 

One of the guards indicated a large courtyard house just up the road, in the village proper. Lian Zhidiao trudged through town and then rapped on the courtyard gate with his knuckles twice before a small servant girl unlatched the gate. 


“I was told I might find lodgings here for the night.” 

The girl looked him over with obvious suspicion, but when her eyes landed on the spindle at his waist, her entire expression melted into obeisance. Her eyes flashed left and right, before she bowed and pulled the gate open. “Yes, please come in.” 

The gate shut behind him with a heavy sound. The servant girl led him into a pavilion in the courtyard and motioned that he should wait here. He took the time to look around. 

Only every other lamp was lit, but by this meager light he could see that the garden was given to growing beautiful orchids, each one framed with plantings like a setting for a treasured jewel. In the soft light they seemed to fade away into their surroundings, except for their bright blooms bobbing like fireflies among the grass.

“I see you have an eye for gardens.” 

Lian Zhidiao turned around to find a woman standing in front of the hall. She wore her hair up and back in a simple hairstyle. Her robes were a soft green, and around her waist, she wore a woven belt. On the end of the woven belt was a jade spindle with its own mass of knotted silk cords, just like his own. Those who practiced cultivation alone had no use for a jade spindle, so that meant…

She’s a magician as well. 

Lian Zhidiao realized he had stared for too long without greeting her and made a salute with both his hands, offering a bow. 

She gave him a small nod, acknowledging his greeting. “I’m surprised to see a member of the Xideng Wa sect here at this time,” she said, her expression unreadable. 

Is the usual deference going to be okay here? That is… I don’t remember the politics of this world. Were the green and black sects on good terms with each other? Lian Zhidiao felt like a million drops of sweat were running down his back. It couldn’t hurt to be a little more….

Dajie, please forgive this young man’s rudeness. I am Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao, and I have been travelling for some time. I humbly ask that I answer your questions in the morning.” 

Her eyes raked over him, as if she was picking at each part of his clothing and finding it wanting before flapping it back at him with a scoff. Perhaps she found him distasteful? Or took issue with his sect? Maybe it was the late hour that made her disagreeable. Whatever the reason, she eventually pushed it aside. Her lips tightened and she assented with a nod. “Very well.” 

The small servant girl appeared from one of the halls further inside the house, leading him back into a side room with a heavy bed. She wasn’t disrespectful, but she was silent. His brother and sister hadn’t started families of their own—the medical degrees came first—so he wasn’t used to children, much less those that floated around like ghosts. 

Lian Zhidiao placed his knapsack and bedroll down by the bed and then shoved them underneath. It seemed unlikely that anyone would go through his things while he was sleeping, but this might at least make them think twice. He gave the bed a test sit and then fell over without bothering to take off anything more than his shoes. The cushions on the bed weren’t thick, but given that his other choice was being dead, he wasn’t about to complain. In truth, he didn’t even have time to think about anything more; he was out as soon as his head touched the pillow. 

Lian Zhidiao woke when the sun was already well above the horizon. A few shadows slipped past his room, and he lurched up from the bed to poke his head out of the room. It was the same servant girl as last night, and this time she had another girl with her, perhaps a year or two younger. Lian Zhidiao tried a smile, the kind that he had found so charming in his own reflection.

“Can you bring some breakfast for me?” 

The younger girl hid her face behind the older girl, who nodded. Without waiting for him to dismiss her, the pair ran away down the gallery and disappeared into a side room. He cleaned himself up the best he could without water, making sure the bruising around his neck and his arms was covered by his clothing. After that, he walked along the gallery, looking at the plantings until the girls came to fetch him. 

Lian Zhidiao was offered a seat on a low bed in the Hall, and a small table to eat from. The breakfast wasn’t grand, but it did a lot more to improve his mood and outlook than the single meal of dried fruit had the day before. He was just feeling relaxed when there was movement beyond the screens, and the woman from the night before swept into the Hall. But she wasn’t alone; a youngish woman with a plump face followed her. 

“I trust you’ve had some time to rest and recuperate, Lian Zhidiao.” In the light of the late morning, he could see that she had rather sharp features. She wasn’t a young woman, but neither was she old; she seemed still and ageless. She bowed to him, her hands together in front of her. “I am Lin Jingjing, of the Youlu Lin sect.” She gestured to the woman next to her. “This is Yang Meihua.” 

Yang Meihua was shorter and she wore modest clothing that couldn’t hide her full curves. She offered him a welcoming smile. 

Wait, are they… related? They didn’t look that similar.

Lian Zhidiao rose and clasped his hands together, bowing to the two of them. Lin Jingjing bowed back, and Yang Meihua bowed slightly lower.

“Thank you for your hospitality towards this young man. I won’t forget your kindness.” 

Lin Jingjing looked sidelong at Yang Meihua before replying. Yang Meihua gave a short nod and excused herself from the room. Alone, Lin Jingjing seemed that much colder. “We are honored by your consideration. Will you be leaving this morning?” 

She’s direct, or trying to get rid of me. But the question brought him up short. So far, he’d treated his current status as something like sitting around in costume on the set of a TV drama. But there wasn’t a crew or set around him. He was here on his own, and now he had to decide what he wanted to do with himself. 

“If the gracious sisters will permit, I should like to stay here another night, but, I fear this isn’t even the most terrible imposition I will make upon you.” 

Lin Jingjing’s chin lifted, ice in her eyes. “What would that be?” 

Lian Zhidiao tried to make himself look as pitiable and sincere as possible. “I suffered an injury while traveling, and have no memory of this place. Have I been here before?” 

Lin Jingjing’s eyes widened slightly. It was at this moment that Yang Meihua came back in the room, carrying a tray table with a pot and three cups. Her voice was cheery and kind. “Thank you for waiting.” 

Lin Jingjing smoothed her skirt and the three of them sat down together around the low bed. She accepted a cup of tea from Meihua with a soft nod. Then she looked at Lian Zhidiao, her lips parted, half-considered words on the cusp of being spoken. At last, she said, “As far as I know, no one has seen you here in Shuangwan Village before. I am the head of the village, so the presence of a member of the Xideng sect would have been reported to me.” 

For a moment, Lian Zhidiao considered her words. Xideng members were reported to the village head, but were still allowed into the village. Perhaps this was why the guard directed him to her residence, and not the local inn. Not at war, but definitely not friendly. To appear to be acting on the orders of his sect might require him to divulge orders he didn’t have. To appear to be unconcerned with his sect’s business might lead them to mistake him for a rogue or cultivator-in-exile. 

“Then I am even more in debt for your kindness under such circumstances,” he said. 

Yang Meihua and Lin Jingjing traded glances, and then Lin Jingjing’s eyes dropped to the spindle at his waist, lingering long enough that Lian Zhidiao began to think he had dropped some breakfast down the front of his robes. 

Yang Meihua said, “You are a skilled magician, so the loss of some of your memories must be distressing for you.”

Oh, dajie, you have no idea!  

The corner of Lian Zhidiao’s lips twitched. “You’re correct, of course. I was knocked unconscious, somehow, and have no way of knowing how long I lay there, nor what I lost.” 

Yang Meihua smiled at him again and his heart softened. 

Lin Jingjing seemed to be unconvinced, though. “The closest Wa enclave is more than a week’s journey overland, although less if you are traveling by sword.” 

So the swords fly too? A real pity that the one I have seems to be stuck. 

“You’re right, it’s inconvenient to travel by foot,” Lian Zhidiao agreed. 

“Especially when your kinsmen on the river could ferry you anywhere you’d like.” Lin Jingjing’s gaze was dark and sharp. 

Of course! The Wa sect controlled the rivers and swamps. He wanted to slap his forehead with his palm. The sects weren’t just based in the particular kinds of land, they had some dominion over them as well. 

Lian Zhidiao took a sip of his tea, giving him precious time to think. “I see. But I am not interested in returning to a Wa enclave, if possible.” But the dead Lian Zhidiao had provided for him in this moment. “I am traveling to gain insight. Along the way, I have been putting my talents to use to help those with deviate or dormant jade beasts.”

Yang Meihua’s face lit up, and she turned to Lin Jingjing, who silenced her with a motion of her hand before she could speak. 

But it was too late; Lian Zhidiao had seen the tipping point which would give him control of the conversation. “Do you know of any jade beasts nearby that need to be seen to?” 

“I do!” Yang Meihua couldn’t keep her lips buttoned any longer. “There’s a cow on the other side of the river.” 

Lin Jingjing sighed. “Shuangwan Village was gifted a jade beast centuries ago, as a reward for keeping the river crossing safe, but at some point it wandered off, probably down into the river itself.” 

“That’s not true.” Yang Meihua sounded indignant. “That big jade statue has to be the jade beast.” 

“It’s not real jade, it’s just been painted.” Lin Jingjing’s voice was softer toward Meihua, more patient. 

“Well, it seems like he could figure it out one way or the other.” 

Lin Jingjing looked at Lian Zhidiao, apology written all over her face. “I’m terribly sorry for this.” She seemed to be apologizing for Yang Meihua’s enthusiasm as much as the story she told.

Lian Zhidiao offered a smile. “It’s no trouble. But you didn’t think to inspect it yourself?” 

Lin Jingjing’s chin dipped slightly. “What could I do if I did find out it was a jade beast? Nothing.” 

So the observations and skills my dead friend was collecting were not widely known. Lian Zhidiao’s eyebrows knit together. Why is that? They seem pretty useful. There must be something I’m missing. 

“Perhaps if I take a look around, I can figure it out.” 

An uncertain smile slowly spread over Lin Jingjing’s face, completely outshone by the broad grin on Yang Meihua. 

Shuangwan Village was aptly named: it spanned two sinuous bends in a slow-moving river, with two big wooden bridges linking the riverbanks. Because of the way the river folded back in on itself, the road went from one side of the river to the other, and then back to the first side again, upstream of the first bridge. It connected north with east and west, all in one town. It was a perfect place for crossroads; no wonder there had been so many messengers. 

He took the rolled up books on jade beast maintenance, and, at Yang Meihua’s suggestion, an oil paper umbrella. It was that time of year when rain was unpredictable and a storm could blow up within minutes. But it was scarcely necessary. The walk was short and pleasant, with a nice breeze and sunlight that wasn’t so intense it left him sweating. Money changed hands between merchants and villagers on the street, and those who relied on the movement of people through the town were doing brisk business hawking trinkets, charcoal, paper—all manner of things. 

On the furthest western part of the town, he found the jade statue, standing in a flooded field. After taking off his boots and tucking his robes up, he stepped down into the cool mud and picked his way through the rice seedlings until he was right up next to it.  It looked more like a water buffalo, with horns that swept down from the top of the head and curled gracefully to the side, and it had a solid brass ring through its nose. Its back was covered with fine dust that was easily rubbed away with his hand. He bent to look at its throat. Where the stone was thinnest, he could see light come through from the other side. 

Definitely not a painted cow. But also not what I’d think of as a jade beast. It’s supposed to move around. 

He waded back over to the bank and sat down on the side of the berm to look through the book. Try as he might, though, he could not find any notes on how to actually clean and treat a jade beast. He hadn’t actually written in the Supreme Warlord of the Beast World about how to take care of them either: just that their absence from the world made it easier for demons to come into human lands. Because jade beasts cleansed the land of concentrations of bad energy, fewer jade beasts meant humans couldn’t recover from demon attacks against them. 

Really, there should be lots of people around who take care of jade beasts. Lian Zhidiao lifted his head from the book and looked at the cow’s unseeing eyes. But for some reason, it seems unpopular. Leaving the book nestled inside the umbrella, he trudged back through the mud with sucking sounds following his feet. If I think of the cow as being ‘dead’, since it’s not moving around or acting like a jade beast, then I should resuscitate it. Qi is just breath, after all. So breathing into it should be just like CPR. 

Taking some of the field’s water in his hands, he lifted it and rubbed it over the cow’s nose and mouth. Cleaned, the stone was a beautiful green color, but it took several washes for it to be something he’d want to put his mouth on. 

With his hands on either side of its head, he tried to look inside it, but no more than a few inches were clear to him. But if he blew qi into it, he might be able to see the qi as it moved through the jade, the same way he saw a ‘thread’ of qi enter a jade spindle weight. He pressed his lips to the cow’s nose and blew. 

From his lips, light spread forward through the cow, traveling along the jade beast’s meridians, pouring down into its core. The light slowly began to fade and Lian Zhidiao blew again, as if on an ember. The cow’s inside flooded with qi again, and this time, he could see blockages in the beast’s meridians, like scale in the pipes. Compared to the rich golden light of his qi, these clots were dark, with a cold, dull sheen that seemed to bend and shudder as qi passed near them. 

These must be the occlusions that are keeping qi from circulating normally. 

Lian Zhidiao breathed out and then drew in a deep breath, pulling qi from the fertile mud underneath his bare feet, and from the seedlings, and from his dantian. The world outside him faded, darkening as he turned his attention to the interior of the cow. He blew the qi up the cow’s nose. 

Inside, the force of his breath blasted through the jade beast, shattering the occlusions. He blew again until the inside of the cow was ablaze with qi. The dark occlusions stuck together, gathering into a tighter and tighter ball of dark-dripping pitch, like hot tar. Lian Zhidiao was unwilling to leave it inside, given all the energy he’d put into taking it out. Instead he drew it up the cow’s mouth and nose, sucking it towards himself. 

He’d intended to pull away at the last moment, so that the demon tar could be spat out by the cow, but he wasn’t practiced at manipulating qi in such fine ways. It brushed against his mouth, and pain raked his face, like a thousand needles dipped in acid dragged across his lips. 

With a yelp, he jerked back from the cow. The mud was slippery, and the sudden movement made him lose his footing. He landed on his back in the field with a loud splat, sending mud flying. It oozed into his hair, over his clothes, and flecked his face. 

To his horror, he could clearly hear laughter behind him. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 2: A Cannon Fodder’s Guide to Magic and Identity Theft
Next Chapter > Chapter 4: Lian Zhidiao, Half-Drowned Housecat

Chapter 2: A Cannon Fodder’s Guide to Magic and Identity Theft

‘To whoever finds this: My name is Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao, of the Xideng Wa sect. In order to leave notice for my family, I have written this last letter before going on to the far shore.’

Something tickled the back of Chen Jiajian’s mind. There was something familiar about that name, Xideng Wa sect. Something familiar about Lian Zhidiao, too. He read on. 

‘I was cast out of my sect. Two winters have passed since then, and I have had to find other means of support. I traveled with my jade beast, cleansing stained and crawling earth as well as helping maintain immovable jade beasts that fell into disrepair. However, I made a mistake and somehow my jade beast fractured. I have meditated quietly over this for some time, and have decided that I cannot go on any longer.’ 

Chen Jiajian’s heart sank, even as protests rose in his mind. What do you mean you can’t go on any longer? I mean, if you hadn’t died, I’d be in a real bad spot, but that’s not the point! The point is: don’t give up! It’s not as bad as you think!

Is what he’d have liked to say, but it was only a letter from someone that was already gone. 

‘Please do not mourn. I apologize deeply to you, the finder of these artifacts, for the imposition I will make upon you, but I ask that you return my personal effects to my family. They are expecting them to be returned, and for certain reasons, I cannot return them myself. Although my contributions to this world have been small, there may be some lingering gratitude that you can call upon to accomplish this goal I have set before you. As payment I can offer only the silver taels at the bottom of this bag. I hope that this and your honesty will be enough to see them safely recovered.‘

Sorry Lian Zhidiao, but I’m not sending your material goods anywhere. I’ll need them to live in this world. 

Which brought him to the question: what kind of world was he in, exactly? He had his suspicions, but…

Chen Jiajian looked back at the letter, reading it through again. He was still mulling over the name of the sect, when a sudden realization hit him. He looked again at the slashes to his arms and pressed his fingers against the bruising on his neck. 

If you weren’t murdered, then who did all this damage? Won’t they be looking out for a chance to finish the job? How could you leave out important things like who your assailants were? I am the one who has to look over his shoulder because you couldn’t write down any useful warnings! 

Given the damage, the lack of information about the injuries in the letter was highly suspicious. If he had been watching a drama with this kind of twist, he would expect to find out that it was not suicide, but murder. 

With a sound of disgust, he folded the letter up and set it aside to begin going through the rest of his belongings. The spindle with the jade disc he left out to the side, feeling like that was important. The rest of it he took out and inspected one piece at a time. 

A set of black robes and undergarments that looked significantly older and shabbier than the ones he currently wore, along with a few pieces of jewelry. There were a few books of bamboo slips, rolled up and carefully laced shut. Unfastening them and reading the first few slips, he discovered that this was something like a manual for the care of jade beasts. Each slip tersely listed a date and location, along with some small feature noted in very neat calligraphy. 

‘Jade beasts may be used to concentrate magic, but this is not as effective as concentrating qi. 

Jade beasts with an excess of yin may be cleansed with several weeks in the sun.

An excess of yang is rare, but may be cleansed by storing the beast in a river or rice field until cured.’ Small notes were made in silk scraps and glued to the end, noting the successes and failures of various methods. Chen Jiajian unfolded the book a little further. 

‘Jade beasts contain the intent of the Emperor, and tend naturally toward harmony. All energy, including demonic energy, that moves through a jade beast emerges in a small exhale of purified qi. However, too much demonic energy will occlude the beast, rendering it unable to perform this function until the blockage caused by demonic energy is removed.’ 

Chen Jiajian leaned back against a tree. All of this seemed very familiar when he began to read, and now he was sure: this world was one of his own creation, some time very early in his career as a writer. His fourth? Or was it his fifth novel? It hadn’t sold well, earning rude comments from readers: 

This is stupid! The jade beasts have nothing to do with the plot! Is this P*kemon??

Jade beasts seem like they’d be powerful enough to solve any problem, so why not just put them wherever they can absorb demonic energy? The author really has no idea what he’s doing.

Is this supposed to be a harem novel? Shouldn’t we like at least one of the women, then?

Why did I bother reading this? The main character is so one-dimensional, and he telegraphs his attack moves well in advance. The only ones dumber than the villains getting defeated by them are the people paying for this drivel.

Indeed, Chen Jiajian remembered some of the cutting remarks better than his own work. Shortly after this novel–Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, he recalled it now–was published, he’d become like a cheap public restaurant, producing anything anyone wanted. New ideas like jade beasts fell by the wayside, forgotten experiments as he moved toward profitability. Slowly his memory of this world had faded away, supplanted by more traditionally gripping martial plots. 

Yes, he remembered. That was the problem with this world. The overarching story been about cooperation, and no one wanted to read about that in this sort of genre. He’d tried to catch every kind of fetish with the Beauties in his story, and in doing so, had only split his readers between which girl they liked best. The girl he’d intended for the Hero’s true wife had actually ended up the least popular girl, since she was introduced last. Instead of committing to his choice as a writer, he’d wavered, and this had also made reviewers pan the webnovel. Utterly discouraged, he hadn’t had the heart to publish the last chapter, ‘The Red Emperor’s Wedding’, and it had remained unfinished. It wasn’t until the next novel was done that he began to receive praise from readers. 

Of all the worlds of mine to be put into, the cat-emperor chose this one. I couldn’t even be the hero, or anyone significant in the plot. Instead, I’m… Chen Jiajian let his head rest against the tree. I don’t even remember who Lian Zhidiao was in the book. I’ve been transmigrated into the body of cannon fodder. 

The sounds of a galloping horse slowly drew near, coming from the east. Chen Jiajian slunk behind the trees, keeping himself hidden until the rider passed him. He looked around the western tree at the green-robed rider disappearing into the woods. 

Green… Chen Jiajian frowned as he tried to think back to his notes about this world.  Each sect specialized in a kind of elemental magic alongside cultivation, which used qi as the feedstock for spells both simple and complex. It was only available to cultivators of a certain high level, which, given the kind of novel it had been, were rare in name only.. All magicians were therefore cultivators, but not all cultivators were magicians. 

Early in his career, before he’d found his own style, he made it easy to remember different cultivation sects by putting them in different-colored clothes. Green magicians lived in forests, red magicians lived in the mountains, and the blue magicians lived on the coast, or out on islands. Black magicians lived in swamps and on waterways. The white magicians had ended up in the plains, deserts, and high steppes, simply because there wasn’t anywhere else to put them. Like any sect, a student could walk up and ask to be taken under the master’s tutelage, but most students kept to the sects associated with their families. 

Black robes with green trim indicated he was a member of the sect with high knowledge of black magic, and some knowledge of wooden, or green magic. Black magicians worked with earth, poison and decay, and the sect was particularly prone to instances of qi deviation. There was a high percentage of black magicians that went to study with other sects and learn their secrets, like exchange students. Chen Jiajian crisped the green trim on his sleeves between his fingers. So this Lian Zhidiao had been not just a cultivator, but a black magician, with some expertise in wooden magic. 

So, if he was a cultivator—and a magician—before, was that something he could still do? Would this body remember how to use magic? 

Chen Jiajian stared at the books in front of him for a few moments before frowning hard.

It doesn’t seem fair to get transmigrated into a world I made and end up just a peasant. There must be something I’m missing. 

Then his eyes landed on the red bag, and he remembered the slips of carved jade. 

If a member of a sect wanted to protect his secret techniques, of course he’d try to dispose of them when he died…

With eager hands, Chen Jiajian opened the pouch again, pulling out the bamboo slips and setting them out to dry properly. The two jade slips he held in his hands, turning them over and inspecting them more closely. 

One had no carvings. The other was engraved with lotus flowers and dragonflies. 

Well, with a name like Lian, I should try the lotus one first. 

Chen Jiajian picked up the carved slip and held it, wishing for its secrets to be revealed. But nothing happened. Then he shook it a little bit, like a magic wand, and still, nothing happened. Then, at last, he tapped it against the side of his head. 

Information sluiced into him like water into a terraced field, filling his mind as fast as he could take it in. The jade slip fell out of his hand onto the soft moss underneath the tree. His mouth went dry and his eyes rolled in his head as he tried to keep track of all the things that he suddenly knew. The secret sword techniques protected by the Black sect: the Swords of the Myriad Dead. In cultivation, patterns of breathing to isolate and expel deviant qi, and spiritual sense techniques like earth-seeing. In magic spun out of qi, spells like bogflame, choking vines, and lightning—it all overwhelmed him. They were just there, as if he had always known them. 

Perhaps most enlightening, the moment the cool stone had touched his temple, Chen Jiajian became aware of an inward sense, a way of looking into himself that he had not had before. He was aware of his meridians, the pathways for qi that wrapped up his entire body. He knew his dantian, the place low in his body where his golden core would be. Then, like turning to face the sun, he became aware of his golden core itself, deep and full and brimming with power. More curiously, he could sense something ‘else’, something ‘other’ than his own golden core: a vessel without contents, which he could only imagine was the original golden core of the body he now inhabited. 

He had both a golden core and an empty core inside him. 

Was this… worldbuilding that I did? Chen Jiajian couldn’t remember. Ah, but then again, it’s not like I’d ever thought there would be transmigration, so it’s natural that the system might not have rules for that. Wait wait wait! Isn’t there supposed to be a System? Or Status? Or something? It’s like a video game, right? 

But no matter how Chen Jiajian squinted at things in his peripheral vision, or thought about a system as hard as he could, or visualized menus popping open in front of him, nothing happened. 

It seems that there is no System in this world. He closed his eyes again and looked inward, finding his golden core as well as the ‘vessel without contents’. It also seems like the world can compensate for unforeseen circumstances such as this. But it isn’t something I’d imagined to be in the world–so the world is filling itself out in ways that I don’t know or anticipate. 

Suddenly Chen Jiajian began to regret the early days when he hadn’t put much emphasis on making a sensible world that followed well-known and defined rules. Much of his story—well, his life—might now be out of his control. Was this temporary? Permanent until a mission was achieved? What could the mission of a cannon fodder character be? Without a system, it was anyone’s guess. 

Given that I don’t know what point in the story I’ve arrived at, or if I have any plot armor, I should proceed with caution. 

He carefully rolled the books back up and put them away, and turned his attention to the ornate wooden case. It was not locked, and the lid sprung open easily. 

Inside was a green jade cat statue. It seemed to have been carved in an unnatural pose, on its back, like an animal in submission. A messy break completely severed the head from the body. Chen Jiajian ran his finger along the jagged edge; small crystals like green sugar collected on his fingertip. So this is a jade beast… 

This jade beast had been the key to Lian Zhidiao’s livelihood when it was still intact. Broken, it touched Chen Jiajian’s heart in the same way that the loss of any beautiful thing might touch someone. What a waste

Is it worth it to cart this thing to the next village? Chen Jiajian looked at the case dubiously, but in the end, it might be better to keep it close for now. Leaving a “dead” man’s things unattended could lead to disastrous consequences. In fact…

It’s best if I adopt this man’s life until I can figure out what’s going on. And so Chen Jiajian cast off his name and became Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao. To survive, he needed to discard what was left of his life in his own world, at least for now. His name was the last thing he had that was given to him by his parents. It drifted away from him, as useless here as his original body, lying in a puddle of blood on the concrete. 

A little more rummaging around in the knapsack found a paper packet of dried fruit, and he ate a few of these thoughtfully while trying to decide his next course of action. There should be a village not far from where he was, as long as he hadn’t wandered far afield to die. Most villages were separated by a day or two’s ride, at most. 

What’s more, the people in those villages might already know him or know of him. Being able to remember who the character was would be the most helpful, but leaving that aside, the best thing he could do was at least blend in so well that no one questioned him. 

His eyes fell on the jade ring with its ebony wood spindle. Even though he now knew how to use it, putting it into practice was something that he should try at least once before needing to apply it in a tense situation. He tied the belt around himself, over the cloth belt he already wore. 

He lifted the weight by its silken cord and let it hang from his hand, thinking on what the jade slip had pressed into his mind. 

‘The belt must be made of silk, for a single long fiber transmits qi better than many short fibers. The qi is collected in the hand; the magician is a distaff, and he spins the qi through the silk. It is the transmissive and refractive power of jade that allows qi to be changed into one of the elements.’ 

Lian Zhidiao gathered up a handful of qi and began to spin the spindle in his hand, with thoughts of fire. The jade weight on the spindle bristled as each of the silken cords floated briefly in the air, and then the spindle itself ceased to weigh anything at all. 

‘Changing qi to elemental magic is non-conservative; the golden core is diminished with each spell spun. Repeated use of magic will leave one out of breath and weakened at a rate higher than cultivation alone. It would be possible to destabilize one’s cultivation base and lose one’s golden core entirely through the overuse of such magic, although no one has ever done so. The utility of magic is in providing more tools at the skilled cultivator’s disposal, to allow problems to be solved for the good of the people.’

The tip of the ebony wood spindle floated up, and Lian Zhidiao pointed it at an unsuspecting bush across the road from where he was hidden. With a clipped thought, he released that strand of qi. The spindle spun once more, and then a fireball the size of Lian Zhidiao’s head rocketed out of the wooden tip. With an explosion of flame and smoke, it set the entire bush ablaze. Its job done, the spindle slowly sank in the air until its weight was once again pulling on Lian Zhidiao’s fingers. 

It’s slower than paper talismans, but can be adjusted as conditions change. Lian Zhidiao looked at the burning bush across the road, and his lips twitched at the roaring fire he’d made. It’s also infinite, as long as you have enough qi. 

He raised the spindle’s weight on his fingers again, this time spinning blue magic. Again the spindle floated up in front of him. He guided the magic in the right direction with the help of the ebony stick. The spindle whirled, cords radiant, and then a sphere of water the size of the bush squeezed out of the tip of the ebony wood. It rolled in the air like a runaway parade inflatable, and landed awkwardly on the fire, more-or-less extinguishing it. 

Maybe that could use a little more work. 

Lian Zhidiao let the spindle come to rest again. It seemed like green and black magic would produce similar effects, like shooting vines or raising a hill of earth, but what would white magic do?  He hadn’t actually written anyone using white attack magic in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World

He twisted the silken cord. Qi flowed from his forearm into the silk, and again the spindle rose into the air, hovering in front of him. It began to spin, the knotted cords whirling out from the edge. Light collected at the tip of the spindle. Focusing on the burned bush, he let the threads of qi in his fingers snap. 

There was a distinct whistle, and then the heavy sound of something hitting the bush. The spindle fell to his side, hitting him in the thigh as he ran to the other side of the beaten path. Searching through the blackened, wet mess, he found what must be the result of white magic: a black iron bolt, buried in the woody trunk. As he handled it, it crumbled away in his fingers, turning to ash. But the proof was in the deep gash in the trunk of the bush.

Not just archery, but armor-piercing! What fearsome power! 

Lian Zhidiao straightened up, dusting his hands off. That was elemental magic handled. All I have to figure out now is how well I can handle cultivation and–

The sound of a horse cantering along the path made him stop mid-thought. It was coming towards him from the trees to the west.

Next Chapter > Chapter 3: Lian Zhidiao Has Not Unlocked Fast Travel
Previous Chapter < Chapter 1: Chen Jiajian Throws His Life Away

Chapter 1: Chen Jiajian Throws His Life Away

Chen Jiajian was the youngest of three children. His eldest brother was a doctor, and his older sister was also a doctor. So of course his parents looked at him like a gambler might look at the third rolling wheel on a slot machine when the first two show the same bunch of cherries. Chen Jiajian enjoyed reading and learning, so he did his best to meet their expectations, even getting into a low-to-middle-ranked medical school. He attended diligently for a few weeks, and then a few months, and then a year. 

A year and a day into his work, Chen Jiajian woke up and just…laid in bed. The sun rose, and the time for his first meeting with the rest of his cohort passed by. Instead of going to his lectures, he sat in his apartment and stared into space. He never went back to class, letting weeks and then the entire quarter slide into the past. Then with the lack of self-consciousness that only a baby of the family can lay claim to, he announced to his parents that he was dropping out. 

Well, no one was content with that except Chen Jiajian. He withdrew from public life, such as it was, and then mostly from his family life. He spent all his time alone, on the computer, and within a few weeks had begun to spend his spare time writing fiction. He showed no interest in bettering himself. After one year had passed, he was given up to be a family disappointment. 

From then on, Chen Jiajian made his living like many in the growing tech sector: he did ‘online work’, which was all he ever told his parents to avoid hearing the word ‘disappointment’ said to his face (not that it stopped them when they were in a mood to tell him what they thought about the choices he’d made). Eventually, when his future was brought up at all, it was in the hope that he would marry well so that they would at least have some grandchildren to show for it. 

Fat chance of that, he thought to himself. 

This attitude was one born of pure pragmatism. In his line of ‘online work’, he had a vanishing chance of meeting potential marriage partners. Why? 

Well, for one, girls don’t read harem novels! 

Chen Jiajian’s ‘online work’ was writing webnovels. Within two years, he had over 50 webnovels of varying lengths under his belt: the words fought to get out of his hands. Many of them were successful—not successful enough for drama or manhua adaptations, but they each provided a trickle of gold into his coffers. Altogether, he made a comfortable sum peddling fantastic stories of strong, masculine men dazzling legendary beauties with their wit and swordsmanship. Sprinkling in just enough sexual tension to keep his readers hooked, he deftly wove tales of romance across time and class, despite having never felt such deep love for any girl himself. When it came to girls, he was content to trust chance rather than show initiative. 

The increasing availability of high-speed internet meant he could work from anywhere, so he was quite happy to move far from home and live in a small apartment by himself. He had even found his apartment near an e-sports stable. Lots of similarly-minded young men around meant his odd hours and strange habits were never questioned. Like everyone else around him, he kept to himself and lived in relative peace and quiet. 

Until he died, that is. 

Chen Jiajian was walking home from the market along a busy road. He wasn’t a particularly agile man, so he kept his distance from the traffic and was attentive to road conditions. Better safe than sorry. 

That is how he saw from a long way off, in the middle of the traffic lanes, a small kitten, fur quivering with each truck and car that passed over it. 

Chen Jiajian’s heart sank. He’d always been partial to cats, and seeing one dead in the road prompted him to whisper a wish for better things in its next life. 

Then, after a car passed by, just as he drew even with it, he saw the kitten move. It dashed toward the middle of the street, but not far enough to get clear of the traffic. A large truck hurtled toward it, the broad tire lined up directly with its small, soft body. 

Chen was in the street before he realized what he was doing. The little furball was in his hands and then it wasn’t, thrown clear of the truck just before pain exploded along the entire length of his body. He heard the truck skid to a stop in the distance, just before his own body stopped rolling brokenly over the pavement. But after a moment, the truck started up again and sped away. 

He tried moving each of his arms and legs, with no luck. Pain shot through him at the mere thought, and then even more terrifyingly, all of the pain seemed less, and then less still, until he couldn’t feel anything at all. In front of his eyes, he could see blood spreading across the pavement. Then to his great surprise, the kitten he’d saved bounded up to the side of the road, joined by a distinguished-looking yellow cat with a very small mianguan on its head. Threads of jade beads in five colors—black, white, green, red, and purple—hung off the edge of the coronet, motionless. A stray thought drifted through Chen Jiajian’s mind, like a mote of dust in sunlight. 

It must be very hard for a cat not to paw at strings of jade beads

As Chen Jiajian’s vision failed, the distinguished cat sat up on its hind legs and bowed to him. It then gestured to the small kitten next to it. “Human man, tonight you have saved the life of my only son. I am indebted to you and would have directed my court to serve your whims for the rest of your life, if only it would not be so short. In recognition of your sacrifice, I will grant you one of my nine lives to give you a cat’s chance at utmost happiness.” 

Chen Jiajian’s dimming mind stumbled over the words. Wait, what do you mean, grant me a life? 

Then everything went dark. 



Chen Jiajian woke with the shock of being plunged into ice-cold water. His chest spasmed, and the air in his lungs bubbled out between his lips. The need for oxygen burned in his chest, and he kicked his legs, chasing the bubbles to the surface. 

But no sooner had he sucked in a breath than he felt something pulling him back down underneath the surface of the river. He ducked his head, looking to see what it was that caught him, but saw only a cloud of black fabric and a small flash of red on the river bottom. When he tried to swim forward, his arms were leaden and even seemed to push him back. But at last, he was able to get to the side of the river, into a small pool just outside the river’s strongest flow. He crawled into the mud on his hands and knees, and then collapsed on the pebbled riverbank, too tired to go further. 

He came back to consciousness slowly. First, the sound of a river’s flow, and the distant roar of falling water pressed into his ears. Then the pain of dozens of rocks digging into his back, but even this wasn’t enough to get him moving. 

I was lying on a road before. This isn’t so different.

Then it dawned on him that it was quite a bit different from the numbness after the truck hit him: he could not only feel every rock, but soreness in his body, the way his hair had dried in clumps, stiff mud on his face, and the river still lapping at his heels. Experimentally, he tried to give a small kick. 

There was a small splash behind him, and a few drops of cold water landed on the backs of his legs. Relief spread through him. 

That’s already doing better than before. Guess I should try getting up. 

His arms were weak, but he was able to roll over and look up at the sky. It was a little cloudy, neither warm nor cold, and the branches of trees moved lazily in a small breeze. He heard the songs of birds and the frequent chirping of frogs and insects, but he couldn’t hear any airplanes or cars. No sound of industry at all. 

Figures I would end up in the middle of nowhere.

Chen Jiajian raised his hand to rub his face, and a long sleeve trailed over his chest. His hands were soft and thin, with long, almost spidery fingers, but his nails were packed with dirt and split in several places, bloodied in others. 

What kind of hands are these? It doesn’t leave much hope for the face!

He smoothed his hands over his face, feeling the shape of his cheeks, nose, and brow. Not deformed at all, thankfully. His fingers slid along his jaw, tested the character of his chin. Maybe that cat-emperor knew what he was doing!

At last Chen Jiajian had the strength to sit up, but as he did so, it seemed like all the muscles in his chest and stomach were sore. Worse than sore, it was like he’d been set upon by ten men and beaten black and blue.

He got to his knees, and found himself fettered by water-logged black robes that tangled around his legs. Pulling them up carefully like a lady with heavy skirts, he got to his feet. With a wince, he noted that he was not wearing shoes. He hobbled up the shoreline until he was walking on a carpet of soft moss. Following the rolling hill towards the cliff further up the river didn’t bring him within view of any buildings. He could see a little further in each direction, but there were still no signs of civilization. 

Did I get reincarnated into the middle of nowhere?

The mud on his face and arms began to crust over, and rather than continue to walk around aimlessly while looking like a salamander that had crawled out of some dirty, slimy hole, Chen Jiajian decided that the best course of action was to clean himself. 

A bit of searching at the side of the river found a slightly more secluded part of the pool, bound on several sides by rocks. Feeling a little more protected, he stood on a rock that was just below the water’s surface and started to figure out how to take all this stuff off. He was dressed in some kind of robe with trousers and a long sleeveless jacket, cinched in with a broad fabric belt at the waist. The whole ensemble was black or dark gray, trimmed in rich green-blue, reminding him of the iridescent black feathers of a rooster. His hair was up in a tight topknot, the whole of it wound around a pin on the top of his head. Even after a dip in the river, it still seemed like it was holding up pretty well. 

The next thing he discovered was that the pain he’d felt earlier was not due to the process of reincarnation. Pulling back the long sleeves, he found long, deep scratches crossing the skin of both forearms. Or perhaps they were knife wounds? The bottom of his stomach fluttered uneasily. The rest of his body was covered in bruises. They ran all over his chest and stomach in the shapes of blows from both fists and long weapons. It completely ruined his appreciation of this new body that was an upgrade in every other way.

Chen Jiajian slipped out of his clothing, dipping it in the pool and shaking it around to try to clean it up. He laid out all the clothes to dry on the rocks and then got to the task of washing his body. 

Cupping water in his hands, he held it as still as possible to see what kind of face he had and his heart sank a little bit. Well, it wasn’t bad, but this certainly wasn’t his face. The stranger that stared back at him from the water-mirror appeared to be in his mid-twenties, with a somber, distinguished look, especially for a man so young. He had a beauty mark near the corner of his left eye. Not bad but not great, either. Experimentally, he tried to smile. 

The man in the reflection gave him a winning smile that almost stopped his heart. The uplifting, winsome face of a man who dies a noble death protecting the hero! 

But I definitely don’t want to die. Dying would mean that I would go back…To what? A corpse? Certain death? A shiver shook his shoulders. 

Now clean, he decided to poke around in the river a little more and see if he could find that red thing he saw when he was struggling in the water. 

Ought to be a lot easier without robes getting in the way, right?

He waded out until he thought he was at the right spot and then dunked his head underwater. Sure enough, a flash of red waited at the bottom. Taking a deep breath, he dove and felt around the sandy river bottom until his fingers caught on something smooth and soft. At the surface, he found it was a red silk bag. He pried open the drawstring and looked inside. Several sticks of bamboo and two sticks of green stone, along with a little dirt. Nothing too valuable, but he couldn’t afford to let any potential clues slip away. 

The warm rocks baked his clothing dry in less than an hour, just as a thick layer of clouds began to roll over the landscape. It took him the better part of twenty minutes to figure out how to put it all back on. Once he’d done that, he took the sack of slips and decided to walk upstream, simply because it was the easier way to go. 

Near the top of the hill, the land to his right climbed even higher and towered above the river as it cut deeply into the stone landscape. The sound he’d thought was one waterfall was actually a set of three, which began further up the river, the largest and steepest of which was the one closest to him. There was a sturdy wooden bridge over the narrow chasm that opened up beyond the waterfall, lashed together with rope and large wooden pegs.

If there’s a bridge, there must be a road. 

Not more than thirty meters from two scholartrees with broad branches that gave heavy shade, he spotted the road. It was little more than a horse trail. Certainly not something big enough to move cars or even any large wagons over. It must be a back road which saw little use. 

Back to being reincarnated in the middle of nowhere. 

Closer by, there was a small statue in a natural stone alcove; Chen Jiajian paid his respects and couldn’t help but notice a cleared set of paths and footholds next to it, winding up to the top of the promontory.  

Well, I can take a hint. 

It was easy enough to get to the top of the cliff. At the very top was a pair of black boots with slightly upturned toes, just in his reach. The socks were gone, but the boots themselves fit him like they were made for him. An electric feeling ran down his spine as the custom fit all but confirmed that this body was not only not his, but its previous owner had not left it for long. Chen Jiajian stood up and walked around in them, enjoying the warmth and security of good boots. 

From this vantage point, he could easily see for several kilometers in any direction. The ‘road’ was clearer from up here, and it disappeared into the forest heading southwest. Looking northeast, from whence it came, the road was instantly engulfed by overgrowth, and its bearing couldn’t be determined at all. In the north and western distance, rising high over the landscape, he could see shadows lain down at the horizon, mountains that were far, far away. A ribbon of silver water wound through the land to the east; the lively river next to him likely joined it as the land leveled out far away to the south and southeast. 

At various points in the distance, he could see blue-white clouds of smoke rising from the forest, evidence that he wasn’t alone in this world after all. And lastly, at the base of the two scholartrees at the bottom of this rocky cliff, he spied a pile of things hidden in the shadow between the tree trunks. He started to climb down from his perch, only to freeze as he heard the sound of a horse moving at a gallop from the northeast. 

The horse and rider burst out of the day-gloom of the forest. Chen Jiajian watched from his hiding place behind a rock. The rider was a man, dressed in green robes that seemed similar to his, and he wore his hair in a long ponytail. Without stopping, horse and rider thundered across the bridge, keeping the same breakneck pace for as long as Chen Jiajian could hear them. 

A messenger, probably

He sat back on his heels and counted up what he knew. Based on the lack of tall buildings and roads, the presence of horse messengers with robes like the ones he was wearing, and the overwhelming lack of airplane, train, and other noise, he was definitely in a pre-modern world, which meant no cellphones, no computers, and no internet. 

But the only thing I know how to do is have a frivolous internet existence! Do people in this kind of world even need harem novels?

It was a grim proposition. With a gloomy countenance, he picked his way back down the cliffside and went to inspect the pile of things at the two scholartrees. As he approached, he noticed that the pile of things was placed so as not to be seen easily from the road, but easily seen from the shrine. Probably to keep them safe from the most opportunistic bandits. 

The things were someone’s belongings, and given how the boots had been carefully set aside at the top of the cliff, it seemed likely that they were related to the person whose body and boots he now wore. 

There was a bedroll, a knapsack of some kind and an ornately carved wooden case with an iron handle that locked it shut while it was being carried. Giving it a trial lift, Chen Jiajian groaned: it had to be over ten kilos. No wonder the body was in good condition, lugging something like this around. Setting it aside, he was about to open the top of the knapsack when he saw the hilt of a sword sticking out of the bedroll. 

He reached into the bedroll, grabbed the handle, and pulled the whole thing out. It was a medium-sized jian, with a pommel of highly polished silver and an ebony wood handle. The scabbard was black with details picked out in silver; a tassel with a black jade bead and a silver ornament dangled from the pommel, and the distinct smell of incense cedar wafted to his nose. There was no sign of rust or other mistreatment. But try as he might, he could not get the sword to slip free of the scabbard; it was stuck fast. Chen Jiajian frowned, reprimanding the sword’s departed owner. 

You should know how to take care of your sword better. 

That the problem might not be one of maintenance didn’t occur to him; he had no experience with swords. Deciding to leave the stuck sword for a professional (or at least someone who wasn’t him), he turned his attention to the knapsack. After he pulled the flap back and opened it properly, he found that the first thing on top was a thick jade weight in the shape of a ring, engraved on the top and bottom. A slender stick of ebony rested underneath: put together, it made an ebony spindle with a jade weight to help it spin, all on top of a woven cord belt.

The outside edge of the weight had five short cords of varying lengths and colors hanging from it like fringe around the rim of a lampshade. The cords were silk, and had knots as follows: black with five knots, green with three, and white, blue, and red, all with one knot. 

Directly underneath this item was a folded letter on thin paper. Chen Jiajian unfolded it and revealed sharp calligraphy from a practiced hand.

To whoever finds this: My name is Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao, of the Xideng Wa sect. In order to leave notice for my family, I have written this last letter before going on to the far shore. 

Next Chapter > Chapter 2: A Cannon Fodder’s Guide to Magic and Identity Theft