Official Design For Lian Zhidiao

I have recently commissioned an “official design” for Lian Zhidiao’s robes and overall look from my good friend and artist Kit (twitter user @kittt_n). This is what I call his ‘page one’ look, so this design is actually original!Lian Zhidiao, and what he looks like when Chen Jiajian transmigrates into his body.

Thank you very much to Kit for allowing me to post this art! Her commissions are open, so please check her out!

Chapter 29: Pass Like Thunder

Lightning grew from the qilin’s horn: a twig, and then a branch, and then a tree, blinding light and deafening thunder. It seared the sky in a jagged line. The metal bolt passed through it and exploded in the intense heat, showering the qilin with sparks. Wallbreaker careened away; the force of the turn bent their knees. Yue Fengjian pushed them under the treeline again, out of the qilin’s sight. 

“What in the Emperor’s name was that?!” Yue Fengjian yelled, his eyes still wide. “That— That sound?” 

“It—” Lian Zhidiao swallowed. He’d forgotten about the gunshot sound his metal bolt made when he fired it. “It was the lightning?” 

“No!” Yue Fengjian swerved to avoid a tree and then clicked his tongue. “Never mind! Did you hit it?” 

“No, the lightning destroyed the bolt!” 

They shot out of the trees again, this time above Grandmother Song’s village. Lian Zhidiao was about to say that they shouldn’t move in a straight line when Yue Fengjian dove down into the valley, riding low over the terraces. 

“Can you try to hit it again?” 

“Do you want me to kill it?” There was so much bound up in that question: should they attack instead of running away? Should Lian Zhidiao be the one to attack? Should he attempt to deal a lethal blow? Lian Zhidiao shook Yue Fengjian’s shoulders, urging him to answer. “Yue Fengjian!” 

Yue Fengjian glared fire at him. “Maybe?” They followed a narrow road that split a terrace in two. Above and behind them, the qilin gave its cry, like broken bells rattling, and Yue Fengjian’s scowl deepened in an instant. “Yes, yes you should!” 

In the middle of the fight, he’s okay with me being the one cursed. Lian Zhidiao searched Yue Fengjian’s tight, focused face as they flew towards another stand of trees. He was being truthful in talking to his father, even when he knew I was listening. Lian Zhidiao let out a breath, quelling the trembling fear in his stomach. There wasn’t any time to be afraid. “Then take us up!” 


Lian Zhidiao pointed over their heads. “Up, up, above him!” 

Yue Fengjian surged upward again. The qilin galloped into view from the top of the mountain, the light on his hide glittering. Lian Zhidiao spun metal again, sending a bolt whistling through the air. It took off some of the qilin’s beautiful tail hairs, but the qilin himself emerged unscathed. More qi, another bolt of metal. This one grazed his flank. He stumbled, and then charged toward them with renewed and unnatural vigor. Simple spells weren’t going to work. 

Swords of the Myriad Dead was useless to him right now; he had no spiritual weapon to use in the technique, and he had to be able to physically hit a target with his sword anyway. So stronger, more complex spells might be their only hope. Thinking through the spells he knew, it seemed like lightning wouldn’t help. Bogflame is too slow. Entangling vines, however… that might work. 

The qilin cried, shaking his head back and forth. Strands of lightning started to gather in the center of his horn. 

“He’s coming again,” Lian Zhidiao warned. “I am going to try cast something that can bring him down. Can you weave us through some trees?” 

“Got it,” Yue Fengjian yelled over the wind. 

Wallbreaker pitched back and forth, and then they plunged into the underbrush as a column of white-hot light split the sky to their right. Yue Fengjian didn’t stay in the trees long, shooting up above the canopy. The sound of bells rang after them; the qilin gained on them. 

Yue Fengjian focused intently on weaving through underneath the branches, so close to the ground they stirred up water-logged dead leaves.  

“Stay close to him,” Lian Zhidiao yelled, as they approached a small orchard of peach trees. “Slow down!” 

Reluctantly, Yue Fengjian slowed down, turning them around to stay under the protective cover of the peach trees. Lian Zhidiao spun wood, not a strand of qi, but a rope, thick and robust. The jade ring hovered in the air in front of his face, following his head wherever he looked. 

The qilin landed on top of a peach tree like a lightning strike, and then jumped down, carving the earth up with its hooves. Lian Zhidiao visualized the magic sprouting from his jade ring and then let the spell fly. 

At first, it looked like a mass of churning green and yellow, roiling and spinning violently as it hurtled through the air. Then, as it neared the qilin, it exploded into a mass of vines. They surrounded the qilin, thick and knotted, crawling over his body and digging into the earth. The qilin screamed, and Lian Zhidiao fired again, four short bursts of wooden magic, each one finding its mark and pulling down the qilin’s dangerous hooves, flattening it to the ground, and completely growing over its horn. It screamed again, wrenching its head from side to side, but the vines held. 

“Yue Fengjian!” 

They swept back around, and Yue Fengjian landed near the beast as it struggled under the weight of the vines, which continued to grow and dig into the sodden soil. Small leaves began to sprout along the bark, brilliantly green against the qilin’s ashen hide. 

Wallbreaker sheathed itself in Yue Fengjian’s hand. “It’s deviated,” Yue Fengjian breathed in horror. “A qilin…” 

“That shouldn’t be possible.” Water dripped from Lian Zhidiao’s hair as the rain fell softly on the peach orchard. “A celestial beast has a golden core.” 

Yue Fengjian’s hand tightened around the scabbard of his sword. “Anything can deviate, especially something with a golden core.” 

“But… how? What could drive a qilin into qi deviation?” 

“It doesn’t matter,” Yue Fengjian said, stepping forward with Wallbreaker. “We can discuss it later with the others.” 

The qilin began to struggle again, its breath coming out of its nostrils in big white puffs, like a steam engine. It squealed, like the sound of a sword scraping over a shield. 

“Yue Fengjian, wait!” 

“What?” Yue Fengjian shot daggers at Lian Zhidiao. “What would I be waiting for? Are those vines going to hold forever?” 

“No, but—” 

“Then let me do what I came to do. Someone’s got to stop this thing.” 

“But the curse!” 

“It doesn’t scare me.” 

“If you don’t understand why it went into qi deviation, you may be doing more evil than you realize.” 

“Then what do you suggest?” Yue Fengjian unsheathed Wallbreaker, taking another step toward the helpless qilin. “Talk fast.” 

“Let—” Lian Zhidiao thought quickly. The qilin was just like any other creature with a golden core. Could a celestial beast’s cultivation base destabilize? Would the golden core be destroyed or polluted? More to the point, if the qilin’s golden core was polluted with deviate qi, but hadn’t yet been destroyed, Lian Zhidiao might be able to accept the pollution into his own deviate core. “Let me try to cleanse him.” 

Confusion creased Yue Fengjian’s brow. “What? Does the Wa sect know cleansing techniques?”

Lian Zhidiao gathered a fistful of his robes, looking at Yue Fengjian’s feet. “Like a jade beast.” 

“They’re nothing alike.” 

“You don’t know that.”

Yue Fengjian’s face twisted. His fingers flexed around Wallbreaker’s grip and he lifted the sword to point at the qilin. “I came here to kill it, do you think I’m going to just let it go?” 

“Do you kill those who qi deviate?” Lian Zhidiao clenched his fists, backing up toward the qilin.  

“Yes!” Yue Fengjian yelled, exasperated.

Lian Zhidiao’s hands dropped to his sides, his expression dark. 

Yue Fengjian seemed to realize what he’d said. His brow unknitted for a moment, and then he grit his teeth. “Lian Zhidiao, move.” 

Lian Zhidiao clenched his fists and turned to face the qilin. Yue Fengjian wouldn’t strike him down from behind. 

It didn’t keep the fury in Yue Fengjian’s voice from hitting him in the back like an arrow. “Lian Zhidiao..!”

He just doesn’t understand. I can’t explain how I know. I have to show him. Lian Zhidiao didn’t respond, and instead knelt by the qilin. The qilin struggled again as he got closer, his eyes glowing like coals. Lian Zhidiao reached out and let the qilin smell him. He barely had time to snatch his hand back before the qilin’s gleaming white teeth tried to take a chunk out of his hand. 

Yue Fengjian’s voice carried over to him. “You can’t save it.” 

Lian Zhidiao breathed in deeply and then let all of his breath leave his body before draining his meridians into his golden core. He closed the path to his golden core and opened the way to the other core. The deviate qi in his other core foamed up, but didn’t spill out into his meridians. 

The vines creaked as the qilin began to struggle again. He had to work fast. 

Lian Zhidiao slid his hand over the thin, soft scales under the qilin’s chin and closed his eyes. The inside of the qilin was a riot of correct and deviate qi. A jade beast’s meridians were clear and easy to see; even the Great Jade Beasts, with their meridians in endless recursion, were concrete and visible. But the qilin’s meridians were an indistinct cloud of pathways glutted with both correct and deviate qi. He wasn’t able to pinpoint any one meridian with any certainty. 

If he were a normal human healer working on a human deviate, he would have to be careful not to accidentally suck in any deviate qi, poisoning his own golden core. But with his golden core locked away, there was no threat to someone who had only deviate qi inside him. Lian Zhidiao pressed his lips to the qilin’s nose and began to breathe in the deviate qi, letting it fill the other core in his guts. The qilin went still, its head resting heavily in his palms. Inside, the correct qi blazed more brilliantly. Lian Zhidiao breathed in again, and again, and every breath was like living and dying at once. Though he was ‘breathing’ in the deviate qi, it was poison. After the fourth breath, he had the distinct sensation of something in his chest breaking apart and then sticking together wetly. 

Lian Zhidiao grimaced. No, I can’t do any more. Any more and I’ll…

He sucked every last bit of deviate qi in his meridians down to his other core and then changed the path back, letting correct qi flood through him again. Weak, he sagged against the qilin’s shoulder, gasping for air. His mouth was being pierced by a thousand needles, the same way it had when he’d taken in deviate qi from jade beasts. 

“Lian Zhidiao…” Yue Fengjian’s hushed voice came from right behind him. 

With a listless expression, he turned his face up to Yue Fengjian. Lian Zhidiao met his eyes steadily, daring him to deny what he’d just seen. Pain clawed at his mouth again; he turned his head and spit black fluid off to the side. The grass it touched withered and collapsed, creating a patch of decay that spread and spread, reaching even underneath their feet. From one mouthful of black fluid, Lian Zhidiao killed everything in a circle that reached ten meters wide before it stopped growing.

Yue Fengjian minced around the growing circle of dying grass, Wallbreaker’s live blade still gripped in his hand. “What have you done?” 

Lian Zhidiao lifted his head and looked at the qilin. Some of his natural colors were coming back, especially on his head. The skin around his eyes was a brilliant scarlet, lined in gold, his mane and beard like floating mist. His horn was like carved pearl, glittering and luminous under all the vines. The demonic light was gone from his eyes, replaced with a calm, lucid look. But the qilin wasn’t entirely healed; the scales on its front half were washed out, their beautiful copper-blue edging faded to gray. 

“It’s not finished, but I think he will trust us now,” Lian Zhidiao muttered, rubbing at his mouth with the back of his wrist. “Use this. There’s still more inside him.” From his robes he produced the clear jade lotus bud, still wrapped in red silk. 

Yue Fengjian took one look at it and shook his head. “Absolutely not,” he snapped. He still held his sword in his hand; the rippling light from the qilin’s hide made the steel sparkle. 

“It’s okay,” Lian Zhidiao said, with the weight of resignation in his voice. “I can do it.” 

“You can—” 

Lian Zhidiao crawled weakly among the vines until he was behind the qilin’s front legs. He placed the stem end of the lotus bud against the qilin’s ribcage and fed it a small thread of qi. In front of his eyes, the clear jade lotus bud opened fully into a blossom. As if ink were being slowly dropped into water, deviate qi began to collect in the jade tool. Lian Zhidiao let out a short sigh, leaning against the qilin. His eyes found Yue Fengjian again. 


“Why what?” Lian Zhidiao blinked tiredly at him. The deviate qi in his other core wasn’t settling down as easily as it had before. Feeling it rage inside him was exhausting. 

“Why would you do this?” 

“Why not?” Lian Zhidiao paused for a moment before answering slowly. “It’s what I came here to do.” Lian Zhidiao watched the deviate qi slowly occlude the perfect clarity in the lotus tool. It’s not what I wanted to do, especially since this was supposed to be my get-out-of-deviation-free card. This is just a trade, a bargain with chance for more time to get to the end of the story. But if it saves my protagonist, well, that’s the job of cannon fodder, isn’t it? “You shouldn’t bear a heavenly curse.” 

“You’re doing this for me?” Yue Fengjian’s expression blackened. His free hand clenched in a fist. “What makes you think I would have been the one to bear the curse?” 

“You’re the strongest,” Lian Zhidiao said with a faint smile. “You’re expected to bear everything.” 

“The strongest should bear everything.” 

Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “A curse would have made it impossible for you to help everyone else. The strong should remain strong.” Lian Zhidiao noted that the color had almost completely returned to the qilin’s hindquarters, burnishing them a warm bronze. It was almost completely cleansed of deviate qi. He nodded slowly, looking tired but satisfied. “This is a good solution.” 

Then, all at once, the jade lotus closed, its work done, and the qilin’s natural color blazed forth, undimmed. It turned its head to chew on some of the plants that were holding it down, attempting to break free. 

“Help me break the vines,” Lian Zhidiao murmured, pulling weakly at some of the overgrown wood, but Yue Fengjian just scowled at him. 

“You’re not doing anything more.” He grabbed hold of Lian Zhidiao’s collar and dragged him away from the qilin. 

Walking back to the restrained qilin, Yue Fengjian filled Wallbreaker with qi. He lifted his sword and swept his fingers down the blade. A seal formed in front of him, written in light. Then Yue Fengjian lifted it high and brought the edge down on the mass of vines. They exploded into powder, flinging splinters in all directions.  

Ah, Lian Zhidiao thought, shielding himself with his sleeve. Wallbreaker’s special ability. It was capable of shattering stone, if there was enough qi poured into it. Doing so would probably damage the blade and require a trip to the Hidden Realm, but in theory there was no barrier he could not bring down with that sword. This was why he was fated to be the emperor: nothing could stand in his way. 

Yue Fengjian returned his sword to the scabbard and moved back. The qilin got to his feet, treading lightly on the dead grass with his silver-white hooves. Without the vines, his full splendor could be seen: he danced with light, refracting it into rainbows that appeared and disappeared as he moved, as if he were a prism hanging in sunlight. The qilin inclined his shaggy head to Yue Fengjian and then walked over to Lian Zhidiao. He made a noise that shimmered in the air, like soft, tinkling chimes. 

Lian Zhidiao smiled gently, petting the qilin’s head. “Feeling better?” 

To his surprise, the qilin pushed its head against his chest, submitting to his hands combing through the cotton-candy mass of its hair. Then it tossed its head and leapt to the top of the ruined peach tree again, and flew into the air, the peal of joyful bells echoing in the valley. 

They listened to the bells until they had completely faded away. The rain began to fall more heavily, pitter-pattering on the leaves of the peach trees. Lian Zhidiao re-wrapped the jade tool in red silk and tucked it back in his robes. “So what now?” 

“We go back and tell everyone what happened,” Yue Fengjian said, walking over to offer him a hand up. 

“I’m sure it’ll be a relief,” Lian Zhidiao said, taking Yue Fengjian’s hand and pulling himself up. But no sooner was he standing than his legs gave out again. 

Yue Fengjian caught him, supporting him in his strong arms. 

“Too weak to stand?” 

Lian Zhidiao just wanted to melt away and disappear. But his legs just couldn’t bear his weight right now. Embarrassed, he nodded. “If we wait for a while, I will probably be okay to stand—”

Shimei has said that Liao Kuaiyu has similar weakness when he uses too much magic,” Yue Fengjian scolded him. He eased Lian Zhidiao to the ground before unsheathing Wallbreaker and dropping it for flight. “To think you are also this reckless…” 

Then he knelt and picked Lian Zhidiao up. 

No! Not a princess carry! 

Lian Zhidiao scrabbled for purchase, clutching at his shoulders. “Yue Fengjian, I don’t—” 

“Don’t complain,” Yue Fengjian countered, with a dangerous look in his eye. “If you didn’t want to be embarrassed like this, then you shouldn’t have overextended yourself.” 

Lian Zhidiao blushed fiercely, but held on tightly to Yue Fengjian as they flew. 

Previous Chapter <  Chapter 28: Move Like The Wind
Next Chapter > Chapter 30: This Is Purely Medical Nudity

Chapter 16: Lian Zhidiao Has Two Hands

Lian Zhidiao took to peeling the lychee without question. “What do you mean?” 

Zhou Xianzhi fluttered his fan a little bit. “It seems that the groom didn’t want to marry her. When his father ordered him to, instead of listening to his family, he ran away.” 

Lian Zhidiao’s fingers stopped peeling the lychee. He had the feeling of almost remembering something, but the alcohol sent it floating away again. “Doesn’t sound like he was a good person, then.” 

“No,” Zhou Xianzhi agreed. “A villain indeed. Of course it reflected poorly on his father, as it should.” 

“Mm.” Lian Zhidiao finished peeling the lychee that Zhou Xianzhi had given him and tucked it in his mouth. “I wonder what happened to him.” 

“Who can say,” Zhou Xianzhi answered with a coy smile. “But I suppose, if he’s made the right choice, it won’t matter to him that he’s burned all the bridges with his family.” 

“He’ll regret it,” Lian Zhidiao mumbled, still sucking the flesh off the lychee seed. 

“Perhaps,” Zhou Xianzhi replied. 

Lian Zhidiao pulled the lychee seed from his mouth, licking the last of the juice from his fingertips. His eyelids were starting to droop again, and even peeling and eating the lychee wasn’t keeping warm, drowsy feelings from creeping in. 

To his mild dismay, he saw Yue Fengjian reaching for the wine ladle and filling the cup in front of Lian Zhidiao. Another toast. But Lian Zhidiao dutifully took the wine ladle and filled Yue Fengjian’s cup, putting a little extra in it. 

The sooner I can get these toasts to stop, the sooner I can start sobering up. 

Yue Fengjian waited until Lian Zhidiao had finished before lifting his cup. “To your trade,” he said to Zhou Xianzhi. “May a dozen brides ask for your treasures and more.” 

Lian Zhidiao drank with the other two and put down his cup, his brow furrowed. Coming from the protagonist of a harem novel, that kind of statement seems very… prescient, Yue Fengjian. His frown deepened and he hazarded a look up at the big man to his right. His arms slid on the table a little bit. He was at risk of putting his head down when Yue Fengjian reached out and took a lychee, pinching some of the skin off, and dropped it into Lian Zhidiao’s hand. 

Lian Zhidiao blinked, but it did perk him up a little bit. Like a child (or a drunk man) given a simple task, he sat up again and began to peel it. 

“I’m relieved to know of your trade,” Yue Fengjian said, watching Lian Zhidiao pick at the lychee. “I went to train with some Lin disciples this morning.” 

“I bet they were keen to see you,” Lian Zhidiao mumbled, focused on the lychee. 

“…Mm,” Yue Fengjian allowed after a brief moment where he seemed unable to say anything. “They had some interesting stories to tell.” 

“I love a good story,” Zhou Xianzhi purred, his hair wafting in the gust from his fan. “Tell us one.” 

Yue Fengjian’s voice took on the air of a teacher relating a parable while instructing his students, direct and instructive. “It seems that the disciples knew of a woman in the Lin sect who had been recently widowed due to unfortunate circumstances. Her husband was the possessor of a certain technique that was known only to a few people. He was the only one who had not gone into seclusion.” Lian Zhidiao pursed his lips to hide a smile at how well Yue Fengjian fit into the authoritative role.

“Was the widow a cultivator as well?” Zhou Xianzhi reached out and took a piece of melon and put it on a small plate. “It seems she is headed for a sad end if she is not.” 

“I was told that she is a cultivator, but has low aptitude,” Yue Fengjian replied. 

“How unfortunate for the old master.” 

“Love is blind,” Liao Kuaiyu offered.

“Mm,” Lian Zhidiao agreed, pulling off bits of the lychee skin in small pieces. 

“It seems that this widow possessed considerable vigor. Their marriage was the kind where an old man marries a young woman. Even if his cultivation was good enough to possess a manual of techniques, it doesn’t mean that the demands of a young wife can be easily met.” Yue Fengjian’s face was completely blank, the facts of the matter related as plainly as could be. 

“Oh my,” Zhou Xianzhi said. “Was that how he died?” 

“It seems so,” Yue Fengjian said, looking serious.

Lian Zhidiao actually stopped peeling the lychee to stare at Yue Fengjian. Is he saying that she was so demanding in bed, she killed him? That is what he’s saying, right? 

Yue Fengjian gave Lian Zhidiao a long, steady look, his eyelids slow to break their gaze. He didn’t look away until long after he’d started talking again. “This ardent young wife was left without a husband, who had outlived all his family. Then she found herself possessed of his not-insignificant fortune, as well as the manuals he had left behind. After the mourning period had ended, a pair of technique hunters found her, it seems, and tried to get her to loosen her grip on them.” 

“Fools, of course,” Zhou Xianzhi said airily. “A woman with money has no need of more money. A husband is more important.” 

“It is as you say,” Yue Fengjian said. “She was too wealthy to consider obtaining a dowry or selling the manuals, and had her pick of suitors. It became known that she devised a test for her suitors: if they could match her in her vigor, she would marry them.” 

Lian Zhidiao realized that everyone around the table had hushed themselves to listen to Yue Fengjian’s story. 

“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Yue Yaosa chimed in from across the table. She had a slightly lascivious smile on her face. 

“A-Zhen,” Yue Shipei scolded her. 

Maybe she’s heard Yue Fengjian tell this story before? Or maybe she just likes dirty stories.  

“Well, with a condition like that, men from everywhere wanted to have the chance to try to satisfy her,” Yue Fengjian said. “But with their offers of money refused, the two technique hunters made a deal with her. They would take only one of the dead man’s manuals, if either one of them could satisfy her desires.” Yue Fengjian’s eyes were back on Lian Zhidiao, pressing on him. “She was free to choose which of the two men to take to bed.” 

He keeps looking at me. Lian Zhidiao shifted uneasily and finally finished peeling the lychee. This one disappeared into his mouth as well. Lian Zhidiao looked over at Zhou Xianzhi, who had a tipsy smile on his lips. Zhou Xiangu seemed deeper in his cups, and was staring sullenly at the table, listening. 

“Which one did she choose?” Hu Baitian broke in. 

“The disciples could not tell me that,” Yue Fengjian said. “Only that she did eventually choose one.” 

Lian Zhidiao spit out the seed, making a small pile of lychee seeds and skins. The sweet floral aroma clung to his mouth; he licked the juice from his lips. But no sooner had he done this than Yue Fengjian plopped another lychee into his hands, with a hole started for peeling. 

“The evening arrived, and the technique hunter made love to her all night long, and when the morning came, she was satisfied. She was true to her word and gave one of the manuals to the man, and he took his leave. She never saw him again.” 

“What a lewd woman,” Hu Baitian said, his voice thick with disgust. 

“Don’t be so quick to judge, Hu Baitian,” Yue Shipei teased him. “You haven’t had a wife, so you don’t know what it’s like.” Liao Kuaiyu let out a guffaw, and even Yue Yaosa couldn’t keep a giggle from coming out. Hu Baitian colored visibly, but accepted the ribbing good naturedly. 

“My xiandi is right, of course,” Yue Fengjian said in a solemn tone. “There is a little more to this story.” 

“Oh?” Zhou Xianzhi leaned forward, his eyes shining. “Go on.” 

“It seems,” Yue Fengjian said, “That this woman’s servants noticed a man in the garden overnight. Knowing she was expecting ‘company’, they simply believed this man to be her lover. But one of them saw a curious thing.” 

“What did they see?” 

“One of them heard their mistress cry out with pleasure, and not long after that, another man came out from their mistress’ quarters, and the man who had been waiting went back inside in his place.” 

An audible gasp came from Yue Yaosa, and surprise showed on the rest of their faces as well. 

“Well, once the servant saw this, her lips began to flap, and her entire household knew about it by morning.” 

“They tricked her?” Lian Zhidiao scowled. “How awful.” 

“It’s one thing for her to make such a reckless agreement,” Liao Kuaiyu said, his arms folded over his chest. “But if they misused her trust like that, then they’re villains as well.” 

Yue Yaosa held her chin in her hand, her mouth slightly open. “But how did she not notice a different man?” 

“The late hour or low lighting,” Yue Shipei guessed. 

“The disciples were able to tell me that the reason the widow did not notice was that the two men looked very similar.” Yue Fengjian pinned Lian Zhidiao with his eyes, leaning a little closer. “Twins, perhaps.” 

“How mysterious,” Zhou Xianzhi said, agreeing with everyone. Zhou Xiangu remained silent. 

Lian Zhidiao sat up straight again and gave Yue Fengjian a smile. “A good story to remind you of the realities of the world. You told it well.” 

Yue Fengjian inclined his head, his ponytail falling partially over his shoulder. 

“Unscrupulous men like that do exist, and the widow’s unfortunate circumstances are cautionary tales to the rest of us.”  Zhou Xianzhi chimed in with a happy sigh. “A very good story indeed.” 

At these last few words, Zhou Zianzhi moved and Lian Zhidiao felt something touch him. He turned to look, and Zhou Xianzhi’s blue sleeve was resting on top of his left knee. It stayed only for an instant, and then Zhou Xianzhi shifted again, making himself comfortable. 

Zhou Xianzhi caught his eye and flashed him a small smile. A certain amount of protective urge was rising up in Lian Zhidiao. He’d seen girls at parties make bad mistakes while drunk. Zhou Xianzhi’s slightly drunken look was charming on his feminine face, giving off the feeling that he needed to be careful about how much more he indulged, lest something bad happen to him. 

Lian Zhidiao decided that he was finished drinking for the evening around the same time he got the skin off the lychee he’d been working on. It was halfway to his mouth, pinched between finger and thumb, when Zhou Xianzhi leaned over next to him. The closeness made him pause, lychee in mid-air, as he leaned over to hear what Zhou Xianzhi had to say.

“Little one,” he said, his voice husky. “Don’t you think it’s time we take our leave?” 

Lian Zhidiao blinked. 

Zhou Xianzhi stopped and pulled Lian Zhidiao’s hair aside gently, letting his mouth get much closer. His voice dropped down into a whisper, but even this wasn’t an overbearing drunk whisper that anyone could hear. It was completely private, just for the two of them. 

“I want to have fun with you again.” Zhou Xianzhi paused; his breath stirred the hairs on the sensitive skin of Lian Zhidiao’s neck. “Like we did in the inn on the river.” Zhou Xianzhi’s voice changed; Lian Zhidiao could hear the smile in it, even if he couldn’t see it. “If you wish, you may take the lead.” And after this Zhou Xianzhi drew back, settling back into his place at the table. His fan began to wave again and he seemed at his ease. 

Lian Zhidiao stared at him. 

A proposition? He blinked again, the realization like dunking his drunk brain in a bucket of ice water. No, not just a proposition. There was something before! He—they—had been together before! 

Lian Zhidiao took Zhou Xianzhi’s expression in, his eyes slowly widening. That look of a lazy cat who had its fill of milk and still somehow wanted cream, luxuriating in the liberties afforded to him. And then, slowly, his eyes drifted just beyond Zhou Xianzhi to rest on Zhou Xiangu. 

Zhou Xiangu’s silent kind of drunkenness was being dispelled by a soulful look, which he fixed on Lian Zhidiao. It was the kind of longing look a drunk man gave a former lover as he attempted to make the sincerity of his passion clear from across the room. 

The bottom of Lian Zhidiao’s stomach dropped. 

No…no. Him too?! 

Lian Zhidiao’s mouth went completely dry as he stared at him, but the rest of him was beet red. Not just with alcohol—although like anyone, he got red-faced when drinking—but with embarrassment and shame. 

It wasn’t even me, but…both of them? Really, Lian Zhidiao? Both of them?  

Lian Zhidiao looked back at Zhou Xianzhi to see that his face had become a picture of serenity. His smile had no affect to it or lewd intent. At this moment, he seemed to be content merely to watch Lian Zhidiao work through the offer he’d made, with no idea of the suddenness of Lian Zhidiao’s revelations. 

All of this happened in a matter of seconds, and Lian Zhidiao had very little time to absorb any of it before the next thing happened. 

A strong hand took his right wrist, pulling at it. Lian Zhidiao turned his head just in time to see Yue Fengjian’s mouth moving toward his fingers. His lips parted, grazing the side of Lian Zhidiao’s fingers, his breath hot on Lian Zhidiao’s hand. Then with his teeth, he plucked the lychee from between them and looked up into Lian Zhidiao’s face, spearing him with that lion’s gaze. 

“Aah!” Lian Zhidiao snatched his hand back as if he’d been burned, pulling away from Yue Fengjian. The sudden movement nearly landed him in Zhou Xianzhi’s lap. 

Zhou Xianzhi’s arms opened, but a tentative smile was building on his face. “Little one?” 

“Aah!!” Lian Zhidiao cried again, stumbling as he got to his feet. There was no staying here between two beasts that wanted to tear him in half. He couldn’t wait around. He heard his name called from inside the pavilion—it might be Yue Fengjian, or worse, Zhou Xianzhi—and he started to run. He had to just get away for a second, just let things cool off, and then come back when he wasn’t drunk and the Zhou twins were gone, and maybe everyone was asleep and no one would ask him why he’d been so upset. 

Who wouldn’t be upset at finding out that their body had been the plaything of two very questionable scoundrels!

Yue Fengjian’s face flashed in front of his eyes and he let out a groan. 

Those two were enough, but him too? With the stunning clarity that can only come from having two very stern shocks to the system very close together, Lian Zhidiao saw the what—or in this case, who—the stakes were in the game of weiqi he’d sensed around him. 

The gardens weren’t well-lit at night, but there were a few paths that had braziers, their comforting fires banked for the evening. Fireflies were still moving in and out between the leaves, their green glows winking in and out of sight. The moon was high and still very full, silvering the leaves and making the white flowers in the garden glow like lanterns. Moonlight reflected off the surface of a pond, luminous highlights that danced over the undersides of lotus leaves and the flat black stones that edged the water. 

Somehow, surrounded by darkness and silence, the ice-water effect of shock drained away. Lian Zhidiao looked up at the moon, and noticed immediately that the moon didn’t look like the moon from back home. The maria weren’t the same shape, and this one was pockmarked with craters. In a world like this, there might actually be a jade rabbit on the moon. Lian Zhidiao put his hand to his head and continued to trudge through the garden. 

There would be nothing to do but apologize when he got back. He’d been shocked so much, but he’d have to apologize to them both for having such an outsized reaction. Really, this was another reason he didn’t like social drinking. He wasn’t the kind of person who ever benefited from the networking that happened at these parties. Something like this always happened instead. 

Well, maybe not quite this bad. 

His feet had carried him along a path he’d found earlier in the day, to the silk houses. Big baskets sat empty next to the doors. Curious (and needing anything to distract him from the disaster that had just befallen him), he walked around the silk house, and then peered inside. 

Racks of silkworms were set up over large flat baskets. They weren’t wire baskets, but bamboo split into very thin strips and woven into a loose cage. There was a constant, low-level hiss of crunching and chewing, like static on a TV at a very low volume. The closer he got, the more he could pick out the sound of individual worms munching away on leaves. 

Something rubbed against his leg. 

His nerves fried, Lian Zhidiao skittered back out of the silk house, only to see by moonlight that the thing that had rubbed against him was nothing but a cat. A silk-house cat was kept only to kill the rats that ate silkworms. It was lean, tabby-and-white, and threw itself against his leg again, rubbing its whole body along its calf with its tail straight up. 

He put his hand to his heart. “Oh, it’s just… You scared me.” Lian Zhidiao did feel a little silly talking out loud to a cat, but it seemed unlikely that anything that might happen as a result of someone hearing him talk to a cat could top what had already occurred. 

Instead, he sat down on the small step of the silk house and patted the stone next to him. The cat hopped up on the porch next to him and began rubbing white-and-tabby fur all over his side.

“Whoa, hey,” he said. The cat put one paw up on his thigh, petting itself against him. 

I guess cats will be cats no matter what world they’re in.

Another cat came out from the silk house to investigate: this one was orange and also demanded affection in no uncertain terms. After all, Lian Zhidiao did have two hands. 

Once this cat arrived, though, Tabby-And-White didn’t seem interested in sticking around, loping off into the darkness. Orange demanded all his attention, purring loudly. When it was satisfied, it flopped next to him on its side, stretching out and showing its belly. 

And because Lian Zhidiao had two hands, he put both of them on the cat to rub its side and belly. He tapped his fingers on the cat like a keyboard, and the cat accepted this indignity without complaint. 

Lian Zhidiao grinned. And then out of the corner of his eye he saw lines of white text scrolling by. 

Pact detected.

Error: Time/Date needs to be reset.
Error: User profile not found.
Error: Personal Companion Unit (v0.3) has been decoupled.
Error: Main Terminal offline.
Error: Auxiliary Terminal not responding.
Restoring to last successful configuration.


Emergency Terminal key generated.
Emergency Terminal online.
User profile generated.
Restart successful.

System (™) Version 1.1 Running. . .

System Ready.

Previous Chapter < Chapter 15: Yellow Wine and Lychee
Next Chapter > Chapter 17: WHAT

Chapter 14: Hiding Is A Strategy

Lian Zhidiao couldn’t believe his ears. Unfilial? Yue Fengjian?

“But a famous teacher trains a fine student,” Lin Buhuan countered. “Don’t be so quick to discount the effect of Old Qiaolu’s teachings.” 

“Old Qiaolu taught Yue Fengjian’s father as well. And his uncle. He liked Yue Kuangxiang well enough to take the courtesy name Zhengfu and stay by his side after those events. Maybe Yue Fengjian learnt such behavior at the knee of both teacher and father.” 

Those events? What events?  Lian Zhidiao wracked his brain trying to remember what they were talking about, but came up with nothing. When he’d written Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, he hadn’t written any kind of backstory for the Yue sect other than that it struggled against demons from neighboring demonic lands. There had been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with tortured protagonists on the web forums, so he’d written to take advantage of that. Yue Fengjian had both parents alive, as well as a nondescript childhood marked only by earnest training. The only remarkable results had been increased strength, and a desire to prove himself to his stern father. Common and relatable tropes that readers ate up.

“Don’t make baseless accusations,” Lin Buhuan said, warning in his voice. “He’s a serious young man who is skilled in warfare. He deserves to be judged on his actions.” 

“As you say,” Lin Piaozhu replied. 

“You didn’t meet with me just speak poorly of one of our guests, did you?” 

“No,” Lin Piaozhu stepped to one side. Lian Zhidiao could see parts of his shadow fall on the boulder next to him. When he spoke again, he sounded much closer. “I received a report from Hui Songbai this morning on the situation at Sancha.” 

“Good!” Lin Buhuan’s voice sounded markedly more upbeat at this news. 

Lin Piaozhu, on the other hand, sounded more dejected. “They are still searching house by house, but barring the discovery of any more corpses, it appears that around 200 people lost their lives.” 

This pronouncement was met with silence, and then with a heavy sigh. “Anything else?” 

“There was a blood pit built under the market. One of the engineers has found that the footings are no longer stable and will have to be rebuilt. There was also significant damage to the roadway and other buildings during a fight with a demon.” 

“So one got through, eh?” 


“Fighting a demon at night isn’t a task I’d want to undertake.” 

“It’s my understanding that Lin Zhengchun wanted to wait for reinforcements to arrive, but Yue Fengjian insisted on a night hunt.” 

“Mm.” Lin Buhuan’s voice had the grim timbre of a general who has seen too many men lost. “Reckless.” 

“I agree.” 

“Still.” Lian Zhidiao could hear Lin Buhuan tapping one hand inside the other while he thought out his words. “He did pull it off without any cultivators dying.” 

“There was the one injury.” 

“What do you expect against a demon? How many did it command?” 

“Our forces said at least thirty or forty undead responded to its call of agony.” 

Lin Buhuan’s voice now sounded more like a merchant crowing about the best trade he’d made all year. “A small price to pay, then. That’s the value of experience.” His tone of voice sounded as if the matter was settled, as far as he was concerned.

Lin Piaozhu’s voice was a little more mincing.“Back to the matter of rebuilding.” 

“Right, right.” Lian Zhidiao could practically hear Lin Buhuan dragging his feet.

“The stone will need to be replaced, but we have quarries that can produce it, as well as the timber to rebuild.” 

“So what’s the issue?” 

“Transporting it over land isn’t possible. We’ll have to float most of it down the Laughing River. And the tax issues with the Wa sect—” 

“You and money again.” 

“We can’t all live with only flowery promises of immortality sustaining us. Someone has to make sure the accounts are in order. Laborers must be compensated, farmers paid for their rice.”

“I don’t like hearing about the details.” 

“They’re required to keep the sect moving. I know you don’t like talking to dajie—”

“No, I don’t,” Lin Buhuan snapped. 

“—but then you have to listen to me.” 

Lin Buhuan let out a small sigh and then grunted. “Fine. What are you proposing?” 

“Sancha Town is on the Green Highway. It would be reasonable to say that we moved materials for the rebuilding on the Highway, instead of the river.” 

“Avoid paying the Wa sect for using their river by just saying that we didn’t use the river at all?” 



“But why?” Lin Piaozhu’s voice was filled with frustration. 

“You can’t have forgotten the Emperor’s accords?” 

“The White Emperor has been dead for over 200 years,” Lin Piaozhu pleaded. 

“Do we stop following traditions just because time has passed?” When Lin Piaozhu didn’t have an answer ready, Lin Buhuan walked towards the other side of the boulder garden, coming perilously close to the other side of Lian Zhidiao’s hiding place. “Our sect’s position as mediator between the Xinxue Yue and Quanlu Yuan sects and the Xideng Wa and Tuhuan Zhou sects only exists because of the Emperor.” 

“Only because of his death.” 

“The Emperor wanted unity, and his accords were designed to that end.” Lin Buhuan turned around—Lian Zhidiao could see the hem of his emerald green robes—and walked back toward the center of the boulder garden. “We benefit from the accords. You do very well being able to trade between the two sides and taking your own cut of the bargains.” 

“It’s that position that gives us the power to ignore the accords.” 

“Ignore them!” Lin Buhuan sounded offended at the very suggestion.

“Who would they trade with if not through us! Without going through our markets, the Wa sect could not sell their rice to the Yue or Yuan sects. Nor could the Zhou buy the gold they like so much from the Yue sect!” Lin Piaozhu’s voice had grown strident over the course of the conversation, and he seemed near his limit. “I am not saying never again pay the Wa sect the taxes awarded to them by the White Emperor, but this is rebuilding our own town in our own lands! What do we owe the Wa sect at all for this?” 

“Don’t forget that Wa magician.”

Lian Zhidiao’s heart stopped. 

Lin Piaozhu’s voice had been rising as their discussion got more intense, but now returned to a normal level. “What about him? One magician won’t pay back all the ingots of silver we’ve already given them.”

“Do you think that the Wa sect won’t know about this destruction? Do you think he won’t tell them what he’s seen? They’ll be looking to see if we’re rebuilding, and if their taxes aren’t paid, there will be tough questions asked of me.” Lin Buhuan’s robes rustled slightly; his shadow showed that he’d folded his arms over his chest. “To say nothing of the fee they might ask for his assistance.” 

“The fee…” Lin Piaozhu’s voice was dejected, as if thinking of the cost. 

What is the going rate on earth-seeing anyway? Maybe I should be charging more for my services? 

“You could not buy back the goodwill you’d squander the moment the Wa found out about the accords being broken.” 

“Even if they are broken, what can the Wa sect do about it?” Lin Piaozhu was back to sounding more like a rebellious teenager than a grown man. “We can simply eject them from the ports.” 

“Do you really want to break those accords completely?” 

“They are preventing us from moving forward.” Lin Piaozhu walked closer to his brother, his voice so low that Lian Zhidiao had to strain his ears to hear him. “His Majesty’s accords have lasted over two hundred years after his tragic death. That is the strength of his wisdom. But times are changing.” 

Lin Buhuan was silent for a long time, and then Lian Zhidiao heard one of them begin to pace, with grit under his shoes. Lin Piaozhu didn’t add anything to his argument, no matter how long the silence lasted. It had the feeling of an ultimatum coming into play that had long been kept off the table.  At last, Lin Buhuan grumbled, “I’ll think about it. Don’t make any decisions on your own.” 

The next sounds he heard were footsteps walking away and fading into the background noise of the garden. Had both of them gone? He thought he’d only heard one set leave. One second, ten seconds, thirty seconds, a minute. At last, after what felt like an eternity, he heard another set of footsteps stride out of the boulder garden and disappear along the paths. 

Still, he stayed in place for another few minutes, to make sure one of them wouldn’t remember something and come back. Only when he was sure he was really alone did he venture out.

It was true that the White Emperor had been a figure in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, but he’d only defined himself by his absence. Lian Zhidiao hadn’t written him as a character at all, just a void to be filled by Yue Fengjian stepping in to lead the humans in a war against demons. It was another example of how the natural world filled in the plot holes he left behind. 

As he mulled over what he’d heard, it was easy to meander through the gardens, following them to their ends. Lian Zhidiao found the kitchen gardens, with their fragrant chive flowers. He found the silk house, and the servants’ quarters, and the plum trees in their early summer leaves. He noted little of it; his mind was spinning.

But he’d barely had time to grapple with the other things the Lin brothers had discussed when he found himself back at the pavilion. 

“Oi!” Liao Kuaiyu waved at him while hanging on to one of the posts. 

Lian Zhidiao pressed down the questions in his mind and quickened his steps to meet him. 

“Where’d you go?” 

Lian Zhidiao couldn’t really say that he’d escaped so he wouldn’t be caught staring at someone in the bath. “I had some thinking to do.” 

“Oh.” Liao Kuaiyu looked over his shoulder, as if to gesture to the rest of the group. “There was a messenger sent to invite everyone to the Pavilion of Heaven’s Blush for entertainment with the Lin family.”

Lian Zhidiao’s eyes flicked to the pavilion as well: he could see the shapes of people moving around inside as they got dressed and made themselves ready. “I see.” 

“You’re coming too, aren’t you?” 

Lian Zhidiao blinked. “Of course. It would be rude to decline.” 

“Well, Shipei-shige isn’t going. The doctor said he shouldn’t move much.” Liao Kuaiyu folded his hands up behind his head. “The hairdresser is almost done with Yaosa-shimei.” He gave Lian Zhidiao a quick appraisal. “Perhaps she has time for you?” 

Lian Zhidiao reached up to touch his hair, realizing suddenly how it must look without being combed out. Embarrassed, he shook his head. “I can take care of it on my own.” 

Yue Yaosa was perched on the edge of a bed wearing a qixiong ruqun outfit in different shades of deep pink and red, as if she were draped in camellia petals. The skirt was tied modestly over her bust, with an accenting cord of white that was progressively more dip-dyed at the ends to a deep green. The hairdresser was tying up Yue Yaosa’s sun-reddened hair into a bun, nestling leaf-shaped hair ornaments and fresh flowers in among the hills and valleys. It wasn’t the most elaborate hairstyle Lian Zhidiao had ever seen—she wasn’t an empress on a TV drama—but it showed off her long, lean neck. 

Belatedly, Lian Zhidiao realized he had stopped in his tracks and was staring at her. 

Yue Yaosa stared back. “Is there something strange?” 

Lian Zhidiao flinched, as if she had flicked a melon seed at him. He looked away—the floor, the rafters, anywhere else—and instead found himself confronted with Yue Fengjian. He was also dressed in nicer clothes; his robes were a more lustrous, deep red, with a pattern of banana leaves and bamboo. A long panel hung from his waist, embroidered with a stylized bear. His hair was glossy and lightly oiled, but fuller, giving him that lion’s mane effect again. A more ornate gold xiaoguan perched on top of his ponytail, like native gold discovered in the heart of a mountain. The clean scent of soap was nearly lost under the overwhelming spicy-sweet incense that perfumed his robes. His broad shoulders were held back, square; his presence was a physical force in the room. He looked every inch a leader, a commanding general, a king. Though he was young, there was no doubt that he could be Emperor. 

Lian Zhidiao’s mouth was on the verge of falling open. 

Yue Fengjian caught Lian Zhidiao’s eyes and arched an eyebrow. 

Remembering where he was, Lian Zhidiao clenched his jaw and slipped past him. 

Brushing and putting his own hair up would have taken more time than he’d like, but it was something to do with his hands while he was waiting for the hairdresser to finish with Yue Yaosa and come to him. He keenly felt how he wasn’t as ornately dressed as the Yue cultivators, but then again, he hadn’t exactly been traveling with the purpose of visiting sect leaders. 

I don’t really know what purpose he was traveling with, honestly. 

Lian Zhidiao’s eyes fell on the top of the red silk bag that contained the two jade slips, just barely poking out of his rucksack.

Come to think of it, I never did use the other jade slip or see what was stored in it. 

The hairdresser slipped into his screened partition, and Lian Zhidiao shoved the red silk down in the bag so it couldn’t be seen.

I’ll come back to that later. Maybe tonight, when everyone else has gone to sleep. 

Once the hairdresser had finished, they assembled in the common area. Yue Fengjian led them through the compound, with Yue Yaosa as his second rank, followed by Liao Kuaiyu and then Hu Baitian. Lian Zhidiao brought up the rear, which made it easy for the Zhou twins to slip in behind Lian Zhidiao when they joined the procession.

The Pavilion of Heaven’s Blush was the largest hall in the Lin family compound; it towered over the other buildings, surely only used on official occasions when respected teachers or sect leaders were visiting. 

Perhaps an Emperor walked through this door once, Lian Zhidiao thought, as he walked under it. An electric feeling crawled over his skin. 

The ceiling was smooth, painted to resemble the sky at dawn, with the whole bounty of the forest presented as ephemeral clouds. Flowers, trees, animals—all of them were painted just on the cusp of reality, at the instant a formless cloud becomes a recognizable shape. The wood around them was carved with scrolling vines and leaves as well. Censers filled the air with the most expensive agarwood incense to be had. Individual tables had been made ready for each of them, and everything was in its place. 

At the head of the room, there were two men dressed in green. Their robes were made of heavy emerald silk. One stood slightly in front of the other; this must be Lin Buhuan. He wore his hair half-up, with a few tortoiseshell ornaments through his topknot. He had a beard, and a strong, square jaw. The same presence hovered around him as Yue Fengjian, but Lin Buhuan seemed more relaxed in the role of leader, with the confidence of an older man. 

Next to him stood the man who must be his brother, Lin Piaozhu. Liao Kuaiyu really had been right, you couldn’t mistake one for the other at all. Where Lin Buhuan was robust, Lin Piaozhu was willowy. He didn’t wear a beard, and his sleek hair was swept back from his widow’s peak. Where Lin Buhuan gave off the feeling of a strong man, Lin Piaozhu had the air of a courtier. 

Yue Fengjian bowed at the waist, giving them a formal salute, and everyone behind him mirrored his actions. The Lin brothers at the head returned it, and they moved through the pleasantries of introductions. 

Lian Zhidiao wasn’t even the last to introduce himself—that dubious honor fell to Zhou Xiangu—but he kept his gaze lowered until he made his bow. The eyes of both Lin brothers fell on him. Lin Buhuan’s regard was reserved, but Lin Piaozhu’s glare pressed on him like the end of a fan in his ribs. Lian Zhidiao swallowed and hoped that their eyes wouldn’t linger on him. 

The introductions passed and the meal began, each dish selected for its richness and fullness of flavor. It wasn’t the homestyle meal that Lian Zhidiao would prefer, with everyone around a table, but it wasn’t bad. There was nothing too spicy, and even garlic was scarcely present. But the vegetables were good, the meat tender, and the fruit sweet and juicy.  All of it passed by in a short amount of time, and then the tables were cleared away and Lin Buhuan made a motion to indicate that he wanted their attention. 

“For a celebration, there should be music and dancing.” He lifted his chin, and he need have given no more signal than that before the doors opened and musicians filed in, setting themselves up in a corner. Three young women in pale green and white entered, with the rear brought up by a fourth woman dressed in soft lavender and green. The four of them took their places in the center of the room. 

The music was cheerful but not boisterous. The melody wasn’t one Lian Zhidiao knew, but it seemed like the ones he knew. The dancing girls were dressed in flowing clothes with soft, light scarves. They moved around each other in a circle, and in this way, each of them was able to be seen by the guests, her supple movements and charms appreciated. Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Fengjian both sat up a little straighter in their presence: even Yue Yaosa seemed to want to be seen favorably by them. 

The woman in lavender passed by Lian Zhidiao and her eyes were like stars at midnight, her lips like the sweetest cherries, her cheeks like the blush of dawn. She floated past him like a fairy, or else a goddess, stealing his breath away with the barest hint of a smile. In the greatest Hall of the Sect Leader’s home, she could be none other than Lin Xianglan, Lin Buhuan’s niece and the Beauty of the Youlu Lin sect. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 13: There Is A Bath Scene
Next Chapter > Chapter 15: Yellow Wine and Lychee

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 9: The Gate In The Earth

Lian Zhidiao rushed out into the courtyard after him. “A what?” 

“A blood pit,” Zhou Xianzhi repeated, stepping out to meet Yue Fengjian. “At the water table in crawling earth, the water turns to blood. Demons can travel between blood pits as long as there is crawling earth between them.” His delicate face was serious, but his tone sounded surprisingly nonchalant. “To think one could be so far from the mountains.” 

Yue Fengjian unsheathed his sword and threw it at the ground where it hovered, waiting for him to step aboard. “I’ll send someone with your swords, if you’ll fight with us.” 

“Fight with you?” Zhou Xiangu shifted from side to side, his fists white-knuckled. Lian Zhidiao could practically see him thinking it through. Their swords were in reach, if only they could work together. But the Yue sect and the Zhou sect mixed as well as fire and water. Certainly, for the Zhou, a debt of any kind to the Yue was a distasteful prospect. He looked at his brother. 

“We need everyone,” Yue Fengjian sounded insistent. 

A blood pit sounds bad. I remember that demons suddenly appeared in human lands because I wrote it that way, but I hadn’t thought of how they might travel through human lands. Lian Zhidiao caught up to Yue Fengjian and added his voice. “Please.” 

Zhou Xianzhi looked from Lian Zhidiao to Zhou Xiangu and back, then nodded. 


“Quiet,” Zhou Xianzhi hushed him with one word, and then looked back at Yue Fengjian. “We’ll help if you get our swords back.” 

“I have just the man for the job.” Yue Fengjian put his arm around Lian Zhidiao’s waist, pulling him up onto the sword. “Wait in the courtyard with a flame. Be ready.” 

The twins receded behind them as they shot off into the sky. Below them the streets were filled with figures, and there was no way to tell from the air which were undead and which were deviates. But it made sense that the deviates would have turned into undead faster where the deviate qi had been concentrated in crawling earth. 

“Take us over near the central square,” Lian Zhidiao yelled over the wind. Immediately, the sword dipped away so fast, Lian Zhidiao thought they were falling out of the sky, but instead they swung wide, giving a broad view of the central square under the risen moon. It was about as he expected, paved with stones around the well, with a large magisterial building that overlooked it. The Zhou brothers’ swords would be there, probably. Across the courtyard was the market, just as his spiritual sense had revealed. As he searched the clusters of undead gathered in the streets, he felt something pressing against his chest, something hard and sharp. His heart sped up, until he felt it couldn’t beat any faster, and the full-body malaise rose up from his stomach again. Taken together, it could only be a singular killing intent, much more powerful than the one he’d felt down by the river. 

Yue Fengjian’s arm tightened around Lian Zhidiao. His sword reared back and climbed high and steep into the night sky, trying to escape that feeling of peril pinned against their breastbones. The point of pressure in their chests faded and Yue Fengjian leveled off, letting go of Lian Zhidiao’s waist. 

Lian Zhidiao’s voice was thinned by the wind rushing past them. Although he’d been irritated at first by Yue Fengjian holding him down, the feeling of his arm around his waist had been reassuring to an inexperienced flyer, bruises notwithstanding. His heart rate still hadn’t returned to normal. Reasonable, considering the killing intent they’d escaped. “That was…” 

“Yes,” Yue Fengjian said, his voice short. “It’s at least one demon. Fairly strong.” He paused for a second, and then the tip of his sword dipped, gliding down toward the south gate of Sancha Town. 

The party of Lin cultivators was milling about near the gate itself, but the Yue party was further away. A single whoop went up from the southern wall of the town as they drifted down—a flame on a spindle danced wildly. Behind him, Lian Zhidiao heard Yue Fengjian click his tongue. 

They hovered over the ground for a moment, barely long enough for Lian Zhidiao to register that it was safe to hop off. He was still standing up straight when Yue Fengjian’s voice cut through the air. “Liao Kuaiyu!” Full throated, Yue Fengjian’s voice came from his chest and made a slight boom. It sounded at first like Liao Kuaiyu would be getting a blistering condemnation, but then it took on a pleading, exasperated tone. “I’ve told you not to do that!” 

At least Liao Kuaiyu had the decency to look chastised for clowning around in a serious situation. 

“Where did you go?” Yue Yaosa came forward with Liao Kuaiyu, worry in her voice. 

“Have you spoken to the Lin cultivators?” Yue Fengjian sheathed his sword and looked around at all their faces, then walked past them, toward the Lin party, talking as he went. 

“Only to tell them about the graveyard, why?” She frowned and caught Yue Fengjian by the shoulder, but he didn’t stop walking. “We thought you were right behind us. Did something happen?” 

“Our situation has changed.” 

Hu Baitian walked out in front of them, his eyes darting between Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao, the firelight dancing off his robes. “What do you mean? Did you find a deviate for me to question?” 

“We found two cultivators who were trapped in a siheyuan just inside the walls. They were disarmed when they arrived and their swords bonded. Liao Kuaiyu.” He came to a halt and the shorter magician straightened up under his eyes. “You and Yaosa go to the magistrate’s building on the main square. They believe their swords were kept there, but you’ll have to search for them.” Yue Fengjian gave Liao Kuaiyu a sidelong look. “I trust locks won’t be an issue?” 

“Not at all,” Liao Kuaiyu said, with the restrained glee of a pyromaniac given permission to set one fire. 

“Don’t burn the place down,” Yue Fengjian added, almost as an afterthought. “There’s a house close to the eastern wall, and they’re waiting in the courtyard. Once their swords are retrieved, bring them to join us as quickly as possible. Do you still have your containment array?” 


“Prepare it for protection instead.”  

Upon hearing that last order, all the Yue sect members stopped in their tracks. 

Yue Fengjian kept walking, but then turned on his heel to look at the five of them. Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Yaosa both wore blatant surprise on their faces. Hu Baitian’s expression only seemed to darken. Only Yue Shipei let out a sigh of acceptance at the dangerous work to come. Silent understanding connected all of them: this was something bigger than they’d been prepared to see here.

Yue Fengjian began walking again, and the rest of his party hurried to keep up with him. The Lin sect members formed a group behind Lin Zhengchun, with two of their members providing spindle-flame light. The leaders of the two groups 

“Yue Fengjian,” Lin Zhengchun said, offering him a smart salute. 

Yue Fengjian returned it. “What did your investigation reveal, Senior Lin?” 

“The outside of the town is mostly deviates; the interior, where the town market is, has a higher concentration of undead. Whatever is raising them is there. The deviates themselves seem to be only recently affected” Lin Zhengchun folded his hands behind his back, adopting the pose of a man who has dealt with this problem before. “We will not have any issues with low-ranked undead; many deviates will be able to be cleansed, and this town can be returned to normal.” 

Yue Fengjian absorbed this for a moment. “I must add another complication to our situation. There is a blood pit in the center of the town.” 

“A blood pit.” Lin Zhengchun bristled visibly and turned to look at his subordinates behind him, who began to whisper among themselves. “Not a greater class of undead? You are sure?” 

“Yes,” Yue Fengjian replied. “It was discovered through earth-seeing.” 

Lin Zhengchun’s eyes flashed to Lian Zhidiao. “I see. It’s convenient to have a Wa magician around, wouldn’t you agree?” 

“Fighting a demon is nasty work, and any advantage we can get, we should use. To that end, we discovered two cultivators were trapped without the use of their swords, but once they’ve been retrieved, they should be able to help us.” 

Lin Zhengchun frowned. “I was not aware that there were any Lin cultivators here.” 

“They are from Tuhuan Zhou.” 

For the first time, Lin Zhengchun’s carefully marshalled expression slipped; he showed surprise on his face, however brief. “Using the talents of two long-distrusted enemies…the resourcefulness of Yue is unmatched.” 

Only the movement of Yue Fengjian’s ponytail gave the tilt of his head away. “Any advantage we can get, Senior Lin.” 

Lin Zhengchun brought his fists together and gave Yue Fengjian a salute. “We will begin dealing with the townsfolk and the undead, and leave the demon to you.” 

Yue Fengjian returned the salute again. “Save as many people as you can.” He paused and then added, “Including yourselves, if it is necessary.” 

A muscle tensed in Lin Zhengchun’s jaw, but he only gave a sharp nod and turned to give orders to his cultivators. 

Liao Kuaiyu stepped up to Yue Fengjian’s right, watching the Lin cultivators begin to put their plans into action. “Why didn’t you say those cultivators were Tuhuan Zhou?” His voice sounded wooden.

“Does it change anything?” Yue Fengjian replied before he looked down at Liao Kuaiyu. 

The flame above Liao Kuaiyu’s spindle flickered for a moment. “No, it doesn’t,” he said, finally. 

“Good,” Yue Fengjian replied, his tone ringing with finality.

Lian Zhidiao watched as Liao Kuaiyu walked away, joining Yue Yaosa and speaking to her in a low voice that he couldn’t make out. It wasn’t his business. He should keep his nose out of it, because if you go looking for trouble, you’ll find it. But it continued to tug at the back of his mind, even as he looked back in Yue Fengjian’s direction. He found that Yue Fengjian had been looking at Liao Kuaiyu’s retreating back as well. 

Yue Fengjian’s eyes met his, just for a moment, in the steady light of Lian Zhidiao’s spindle-spun fire. But he broke eye contact almost instantly, turning to Yue Shipei. “The blood pit is indoors, or covered. They probably know that some cultivators are here, but they probably won’t be expecting Yue cultivators. They may be sloppy.” 

“The Lin will have their hands full dealing with deviates and undead,” Yue Shipei mused out loud. 

“Has no one thought to ask why the demons have decided to strike here?” Hu Baitian cut in. “This town is far from even the most northern reaches of the Choking Wood.” 

“Hu Baitian is right,” Yue Shipei acknowledged. “It’s not like them to move this decisively this far inside the boundaries of human lands.” 

Yue Fengjian folded his arms over his chest, his eyes on the ground at his feet. After a few moments of silence, he shook his head. “We’ll have to work it out later. For now, it’s best to get started.” 

LIao Kuaiyu and Yue Yaosa rejoined them just as Yue Fengjian made this decision, and Yue Yaosa dropped her saber, floating it over the ground. “After we’ve given the fish back their swords, then what?” 

“They’re to help destroy the blood pit. One of them is a magician, so that should move things along.” Yue Fengjian glanced at Lian Zhidiao. “He can help as well.”

“And the demon?” Yue Yaosa steadied her sword as Liao Kuaiyu climbed onto the blade. 

Yue Fengjian’s lips twitched and his eyebrow arched. “I think you know who will be dealing with that.” 

Yue Yaosa shook her head slightly, a broad grin on her face. “We will be dealing with it. You and I. You’re not going to take all the glory this time, Yue Fengjian!” Then they took off with a gust of air, disappearing over the high walls of the town. 

Yue Fengjian turned to Hu Baitian. “We will be depending on your expertise with the deviates.” 

“I did not prepare for an entire town full of deviates. I will run out of talismans,” Hu Baitian grumbled. “But as long as nothing else goes wrong immediately, it shouldn’t be a problem.” 

“Then come with us.” Yue Fengjian unsheathed his sword again, dropping it into a hover. “We wait for the other two to join us with their swords, and then we’ll make a protective array.” He looked around at their faces. “If the demon is waiting, then Yaosa-shimei and I will deal with it. Do not let anything stop you from destroying that blood pit.” 

They took to the air, watching from above as the party of Lin cultivators opened the southern gate. They carried their own talismans, and moved swiftly to restrain the deviates that reacted to the gate being open. From up here, Lian Zhidiao could see how the cultivators worked in pairs, watching each others’ backs and setting up multiple zones of redundancy. With their small numbers, it was necessary, but it showed off the combat skills of the Lin cultivators to their utmost. 

A moment later, Yue Fengjian directed them to the town center, following Yue Shipei and Hu Baitian. The oppressive killing intent was absent, giving them time to survey the area. The moon was beginning to fall from its zenith, but it still shone brightly enough to see the undead milling around in the streets below them. There were more than dozens, men and women who had previously just been normal townsfolk, all dead. 

“It’s terrible,” Lian Zhidiao said under his breath. “This whole town may be lost.” He hadn’t thought that he’d said it loud enough for Yue Fengjian to hear, but he grunted in agreement from behind. 

Below them, a small boom rattled the timbers of the magistrate’s building, and in the space of a few breaths, Yue Yaosa zipped past on her saber, with Liao Kuaiyu carrying two swords in his arms. 

The streets below them began to stir; the Lin cultivators were making progress up the broad street that connected the gate to town center, and the undead began to turn towards the correct qi in the area. Lian Zhidiao expected at any moment that they might go down to help the Lin cultivators, but the Yue cultivators didn’t move. They watched and waited for their turn to join in. Undead drifted away from where they had been clustered around the market building, toward the south. Behind them, they heard a distant, high yell: Liao Kuaiyu returning from the siheyuan. 

Yue Fengjian looked at Yue Shipei.

Yue Shipei nodded.

With the practiced ease of a pair that had acted together for years, Yue Shipei and Hu Baitian alighted in the middle of the market square. The undead around them shuffled in place, turning to face them. Before any of them had even made a move to attack, the few deviates that still stood in the square were knocked back by paper talismans. Hu Baitian brandished them like throwing needles, flinging them with devastating accuracy until the deviates were all lying in crumpled heaps around them. The still-living had been removed from the field of battle, and everything else could be safely dispatched.  

Yue Shipei’s sword was out even as Hu Baitian threw his slips of paper. His fingers slid along the blade, imbuing it with power. He took one step and his blade cleaved the head of a zombie right off. To Lian Zhidiao’s eyes, he seemed to slide around the zombies’ outstretched hands without concern and take his time lining up sword strokes. His technique danced from enemy to enemy, without flourishes or overly-fancy posturing. Every stroke was a killing blow. It was swordplay learned from a very young age to be powerful and executed with finality.

Lian Zhidiao looked at the chaos from the approaching Lin cultivators fighting their way up the street. Comparatively speaking, the area that Yue Shipei and Hu Baitian had cleared wasn’t under as much pressure. They are an unorthodox forward team that preserved the lives of the deviates while making it safe for us to land. Accomplishing two objectives in one action; as expected of the Yue sect.  

The four of them were practically undisturbed when Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao landed in the cleared area. They broke open one of the shutters to the market and forced their way inside. 

Inside it was pitch black, and Lian Zhidiao instinctively spun fire to light the space. The air inside was warm—hot, even—and stank of rotting fruit and overturned fermenting crocks. Beyond the reach of his spindle-torch, there was no sign of anything, least of all undead or deviates. The open space that should have been crowded full of stalls for farmers or merchants to sell their wares was strewn with shards of pottery, broken baskets, and splintered pieces of wood. 

Cold sweat beaded on the back of his neck, Lian Zhidiao stepped forward, pressing his torchlight deeper into the shadows. Like a lowly bug, he kept to the wall, reassured by its presence. The rest of the party followed soundlessly behind him, the way humans always follow someone bearing light into darkness. There was a lantern hanging from a hook, and Lian Zhidiao stopped to light it. 

“Anyone can do that,” Hu Baitian muttered behind him. 

Lian Zhidiao’s hands shook as he lowered the lantern back into place on the hook. “Help me light the lanterns then,” he said, his voice unsteady. 

Hu Baitian spun his own flame out of his spindle, and walked ahead of them along the wall, finding another lantern to light. By the time they’d lit the third lantern, the center of the market was dimly exposed. 

The center of the market had been swallowed up by a yawning pit, six meters across. Wooden pillars that should have been holding up the roof had been snapped off. Each lantern lit after that only brought more of it into view: the steep walls of the pit that dug three meters down into sandy grey soil, the layers of rich silt from thousands of years of flooding before the river changed its course. The broken pillars, pushed to the sides of the pit, which might have made it possible for someone inside to climb out. And then, at the very bottom, a surface of water, black as a mirror, and smooth as glass. 

Hu Baitian stepped forward, to the edge of the pit.

“Careful,” Lian Zhidiao said. “That floor there is loose.” 

Hu Baitian shot him a withering look, but stepped back, searching the space for some wood to light to make a proper torch. Hefting a snapped pole in his hand, he wadded up a scrap of fabric around the end and lit it from his spindle. Holding it out over the pit, it could cast shaky orange light down further than their spindle-light could go. Hu Baitian moved it back and forth, close to the bottom. 

The light revealed the water surface was not black, but blood red. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 8: Two Of Them
Next Chapter > Chapter 10: Scalding Blight

Chapter 8: Two Of Them

WIth Yue Fengjian securely pinned at dagger-point, the man holding him took his sword hand by the wrist and slammed it against the wall. The impact created a burst of light and a puff of stone dust—the attacker was using qi to disarm him. Yue Fengjian’s sword fell to the paving stones with a clang. His angry eyes searched the shadows and lit on Lian Zhidiao. 

Lian Zhidiao shook his head. Don’t look at me! I don’t know who these two are! 

The person closest to him—a man, by his frame—slid half-crouched across the walkway and picked up Yue Fengjian’s sword. Withdrawing, he turned to Lian Zhidiao. His voice was soft and airy. “Are you alright?”

Lian Zhidiao scrambled to his feet and reached for his own sword, but the man’s attention sharpening on him made him stop mid-motion. “I’m fine, but let him go.” 

“We weren’t expecting any help to arrive at all,” the dagger-man said, ignoring Lian Zhidiao’s words completely. 

“That’s right,” the first one replied, keeping his eyes pinned on Yue Fengjian. “The Lin sect might come, certainly, but Yue sect as well?” He folded his arms over his chest, shaking his head slightly. “Something stinks.” 

“Shall I kill him?” The man holding Yue Fengjian pressed the dagger’s edge against Yue Fengjian’s throat, forcing his chin up. 

“No!” Lian Zhidiao finally raised his voice. “What is wrong with you? We’re surrounded on all sides by undead and you choose to attack us?” 

“Oh?” The soft-voiced man finally turned to look at him, and then a spindle tip sputtered into weak light, hanging in the air at his side. “‘Us’?” 

After prolonged darkness, the weak light seemed almost too bright, but it revealed the two men’s blue robes, with waves and wind picked out in indigo thread on their sleeves and the edges of their clothes. The soft-spoken man wore his hair long, with no topknot, tied together at the bottom. The man who held Yue Fengjian wore his hair half-up, and carried no spindle at his waist. 

“We’ve come to help the town,” Lian Zhidiao said. “You said you wanted help, so let him go and we’ll help.” 

“You’re saying that he does not have you on a leash?” The dagger wielder’s attention didn’t leave Yue Fengjian, although agitation showed in the push of his forearm against Yue Fengjian’s body. “You don’t have to put on a brave face now. We have him outnumbered.” 

Lian Zhidiao spun fire from his spindle, brightening the space. “I convinced him to help the town.” Twice in one night, the myth of the protagonist’s halo had been dispelled. He looked at Yue Fengjian. “If anything, he’s here because of me.” 

The attacker shifted his grip on his dagger and his eyes flicked away from Yue Fengjian for just a moment, seeking the face of the soft-spoken man. “Just make a decision, then,” he growled. 

“Hmm? I suppose if he’s this little one’s friend, then there’s not a specific need to threaten him.” The second one’s soft voice made it sound as if it was just a simple misunderstanding.

Little one? Lian Zhidiao was shorter than both of these men but… little one? 

Suddenly there was the cry of a baby from deeper inside the courtyard. The soft-spoken man let out a sharp sigh. “Let him go,” he said, and shoved Yue Fengjian’s sword into Lian Zhidiao’s hands. He walked past the screen wall, further into the compound, taking his light with him.

The dagger wielder clicked his tongue and eased back off of Yue Fengjian’s throat. With a dirty look that even shadows could not hide, he stalked into the interior courtyard. 

Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian cautiously stepped toward each other, each turning to face the threat that had passed into the courtyard. Yue Fengjian gave Lian Zhidiao a hard look as they stepped closer. His voice, though it was just a whisper, had a wicked edge. “Change your mind about which side you’re on?”

“Which side I’m on?” 

“It’s convenient for a single Wa magician to find allies in a besieged town.” 

“Allies?” Lian Zhidiao looked toward the openings into the compound, beyond the curtain wall. “You think I wanted to get roughed up in an alley, just to meet those guys?” 

“Well? Did you?” 

Lian Zhidiao’s voice rose slightly above the whispers they’d been passing back and forth. “Could you have heard the cry of a baby and not jumped down to help? I couldn’t.” 

That seemed to stop Yue Fengjian’s skeptical line of questioning in its tracks, but he was clearly not happy about it, a frown carved into his handsome face. 

Lian Zhidiao offered him his sword. As Yue Fengjian took it, the light from Lian Zhidiao’s spindle-fire revealed its name engraved in the blade and filled with gold: Wallbreaker

Yue Fengjian took his sword back and fed it back into the sheath. The two of them walked into the courtyard side by side, their eyes in the shadows, looking for an ambush.

The courtyard in front of them was like any other, an open space with some small garden features along the wall, but several crates and boxes were strewn about the space, as if someone had been in the middle of moving house, but had simply stopped. In the center of the courtyard, the two men in blue robes stayed close together. They were clearly brothers, and twins at that. In the light of two spindles, it was easy to see how similar they looked. Were it not for their different hairstyles, they could be mirror images. 

“There, there,” the soft-voiced man cooed. In his arms he held a baby, bundled up. With one finger, he fed the infant a simple thread of qi. It would keep the baby in good health for a while, but even such a direct intervention could not quiet the hunger of a starving infant. 

Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian drew closer, gazing on the fussy baby and the man who tried to hush its cries in spite of the hordes of undead roaming the streets around them. The baby suckled at his finger, making small sounds to comfort itself. Lian Zhidiao’s heart softened a little at the sight. 

“There are more of this family in some of the rooms,” the dagger-man said. “Don’t know if they’ll all make it.” 

Silence sank over the courtyard; personal drama between sects receded, and the human tragedy happening around them returned to the forefront of their minds. Lian Zhidiao began to get uncomfortable with the silence and opened his mouth to speak when he was cut short instead. 

“I am Yue Fengjian, of the Xinxue Yue sect.” 

A heartbeat passed before the dagger wielder lifted his chin. “Oh? The Yue sect can afford to part with such a precious treasure?” The dagger-man gave Yue Fengjian a salute and inclined his head. “Zhou Xiangu of the Tuhuan Zhou sect.” 

“Zhou Xianzhi,” the soft-voiced man said, bowing his head over the infant. 

“Lian Zhidiao, of the Xideng Wa sect.”

“We know who you are,” Zhou Xianzhi replied.

Yue Fengjian glanced at Lian Zhidiao, and Lian Zhidiao could only offer a blank look in reply. They may know the old Lian Zhidiao, but they do not know me. And I definitely don’t know them. I should be cautious around them, and try not to give too much away. 

“Please forgive our offense,” Zhou Xianzhi said. “Given the history of Yue and Wa, your master, and our dire circumstances, we assumed the worst.” The part about a master was said with a nod toward Lian Zhidiao.

The history of Yue and Wa? My master? As he recalled, there was no open war between the sects of this world, but the animosity between sects did feel right, if not familiar. That still didn’t explain the ‘master’ part of it. 

Yue Fengjian showed only a stony expression. “Lian Zhidiao asked for our help, and seeing the need, we could not withhold our expertise.” 

“We?” Zhou Xiangu’s ears perked up. “So you’re not alone.” 

“It’s not a large force. I have six total, including him, and the Lin sect has seven.” 

“You must have arrived here very quickly by sword to respond to this crisis,” Zhou Xianzhi said. Lian Zhidiao had the impression that despite the soft voice, those words were dipped in venom.  

Yue Fengjian didn’t rise to the bait. “We happened to be in the area.” 

“What is a group of Yue cultivators doing so far from home?” 

Yue Fengjian folded his arms across his chest. 

He’s not going to tell them, is he? Lian Zhidiao’s eyes switched between the two of them in red and blue, and then stepped forward, speaking to Zhou Xianzhi. “What happened to your swords?” 

“Hmph.” Zhou Xiangu squared his shoulders, as if preparing for a fight. “They were taken from us when we entered the town.” 

“Taken from you?” Yue Fengjian frowned. “Cultivators would not demand that you give up your sword.” 

“The head of this village was not a cultivator. Doubtless he’s now undead, or deviate, just like so many others. Most villages allow cultivators to ignore laws of sword-binding, but this one would not.” 

“I take it they’ve had trouble with bandits?”

“Precisely.” Zhou Xianzhi said. He walked to a small basket, lined with straw, and put the infant down in it. “The demons’ attempt at forcing qi deviation didn’t harm us, but by the time we recovered, the town was largely as you see it.” 

“And this house? It’s so near to the wall. Why not just leave?” 

“We tried to retrieve our swords, but there were too many, so we had no choice but to take shelter here.” Zhou Xiangu walked to one of the rooms off the courtyard, beckoning Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao to follow. When they were close, he opened the door a crack, revealing several huddled forms dozing in blankets on the floor and in beds. “This family compound was already deviate, and we’ve done what we can to cleanse them.” 

“It’s the least we can do, having sheltered in their home,” Zhou Xianzhi murmured, walking up behind them. “But we haven’t ventured out in three days, and there’s no more food.” 

“We felt the killing intent awaken out in the streets,” Zhou Xiangu said. 

“There is a Quanlu Yuan magician in my party,” Yue Fengjian said, his eyes moving over the exhausted bodies of the family, barely breathing. “He may be able to help them.” 

“A Yuan magician?” Zhou Xiangu let out a rough laugh, turning to look at his brother. “It’s less surprising than a disciple of Guizai, but still. Fortunate for us, isn’t it?” 

At those words, Yue Fengjian lifted his head. “Guizai? That Guizai?” 

“How many Guizai do you think there are?” Zhou Xiangu said, an indulging smile on his face. “Of course it’s that Guizai.” 

Then Yue Fengjian turned toward Lian Zhidiao, his eyebrow lifting. 

When thinking about the techniques he knew courtesy of the jade slip, only two stood out as special higher level techniques taught only to disciples of the Wa sect: the Swords of the Myriad Dead, and earth-seeing. Between the two, for their current situation, he had to assume that the earth-seeing was more important. But this was frustrating to Lian Zhidiao, who could see that Guizai’s reputation among other sects as ‘that Guizai’ would rest on a technique named something cool like Swords of the Myriad Dead. 

“Is it that shocking that I know earth-seeing?” Lian Zhidiao muttered, finding it hard to shake his disappointment. His first time using a special sect technique in front of the protagonist and it was something boring like earth-seeing? 

Yue Fengjian stepped closer, forcing Lian Zhidiao to shuffle backwards if he wanted to maintain their distance. “Will it be useful?” 

Now Lian Zhidiao had to make a choice between two allegiances. The first was to the Wa sect, to which he owed allegiance by virtue of having the body he did. He had little idea of his own history in the story, but just knowing the genre provided some clues as to how he should act. Sect techniques were closely guarded secrets, rarely used and even more rarely discussed, for fear of their workings being understood, and thus available to anyone. This would negate the whole purpose of a sect teaching techniques only to their disciples. It would ruin the special technique economy. 

Lian Zhidiao glanced at two men in blue. The Zhou twins from the Tuhuan Zhou sect might be just the kind of technique hunters that were so often feared and loathed by opposing sects. He couldn’t quite recall what the Tuhuan Zhou technique hunters did in the story, but he did remember that they were often working at cross-purposes to Yue sect. It was to be expected with fire and water; they never mixed well. 

Which brought him back to his other allegiance: to Yue Fengjian, the protagonist. Reading and even writing a story about him was something distant from him. Now, he was in the middle of the action, with no sign that Yue Fengjian had any Protagonist’s Halo. Lian Zhidiao’s actions now could determine the success of turning points in the story. If he wanted the story to go forward—and he lived here now, so he’d better want the story to go forward—then he had to give heavy consideration to how he could make Yue Fengjian’s wishes a reality. 

He looked up into Yue Fengjian’s intense face. So far, he hadn’t guessed wrong on what drove Yue Fengjian, thanks to knowing him as his creator. But the world was full of details unknown to him. Perhaps the end point remained the same, but things between now and then weren’t set in stone. Maybe the role he himself played would also change. 

His choices between ostensible sect loyalty and the duty of a creator pulled at each half of his heart. 

Lian Zhidiao let out a small sigh. “Maybe. But it does have limitations.” He drew on the knowledge the slip had given him. “Stained earth is difficult to see through, so I may not be able to find out any information you want.” 

“It’s better to know than not know,” Zhou Xiangu said. 

“The more we know, the better,” Zhou Xianzhi said in a soft voice. 

Yue Fengjian lifted his chin a little, his eyes like black fire. “Do it.” 

Lian Zhidiao pursed his lips together and shuffled backwards again, away from the doorway. “Fine, but I need a little privacy.” 

It might have been his imagination, but disappointment crossed the faces of the Zhou twins almost at the same time. But they both bowed to him and turned their attention to inspecting the deviates’ condition.

The rooms along the western wall were unoccupied. He found a kitchen, a clay floor around its cold hearth. Flipping his sleeves and robes back, he sat down. This was a cultivation technique, not magic, so he let the light on his spindle die out. It floated down onto his lap.  Closing his eyes, he went over the technique in his mind. 

Earth-seeing was not unlike ground-penetrating radar: by sending qi into the earth, he could ‘see’ it as it swirled through the ground and mingled with the earth’s qi. He’d also be able to sense things that were ‘incorrect’, or different from the earth’s natural qi flows. This included things like the foundations of walls, but also changes like stained earth, crawling earth, caves, or water. It seemed simple enough. 

Fixing his attention on the clay floor, he relaxed and then took a deep breath and placed his palms on the clay. He pulled his consciousness away from the world above and sank himself down below. 

The knowledge that everything under Sancha Town was stained earth came to him immediately. What else could describe the way he felt pressed upon, the ripples of cold and unpleasantly numb electric tingling that washed over him? Sending out his first breath of qi, he felt as if the stain threatened to overtake him as well, like water trying to go up his nose in a pool. He sent out several more bursts of correct qi, trying to watch where they led. He traced the foundations of walls, moving deeper and deeper into the town. 

There was something big, with deep foundations, and just beyond it, emptiness. He couldn’t have possibly reached the edge of the town; he hadn’t discovered anything that might be the heavy footings of a town wall. After a few moments, he decided that it must be a temple or government building. Maybe this was the official’s building where the swords of the Zhou twins were being held. 

Then the other side of that big building had to be the central square. There was a well, with water. Something was buried next to it several feet down, perhaps a stone tablet or stele, forgotten by time. There was also a market or warehouse, with large heavy posts to support a broad roof. He sent out another breath of qi, toward the market, and as he watched, it seemed to disappear. 


He sent out another breath, watching more closely. This time, he felt sure that the deviate qi in the stained earth seemed to reach out and grab the correct qi from his breath, surrounding it in darkness and putting out its light. One last big breath. It moved through the stained earth like a wave through congee, thick and indistinct, and then completely consumed. But Lian Zhidiao had seen what he needed to see. 

A hand on his shoulder shook him and he pulled himself back together. The earth-seeing had sharpened his sense of sight, so that even in the darkness, he could make out Yue Fengjian’s face. He waved him off, putting a hand to his head and swallowing down an uneasy feeling of disgust. 

“You found something.” 

Lian Zhidiao nodded. “In the center of the town, under the… something. Big building across the central square.” Cold sweat collected on his upper lip and he wiped it away. “A hole, surrounded by crawling earth.” 

“Did it have water in it?” 

Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “I don’t rememb—hey!” Indignation suddenly set in as he realized that Yue Fengjian was in the room with him. “I asked for privacy!” 

Yue Fengjian waved his concerns away like a bad smell. “I don’t care about your sect’s technique. I need to know if there was water in that hole.” 


“Just answer the question. You’re wasting time.” 

“I…” Lian Zhidiao tried to think back to the well, and how deep the water had been in it. “I think there might be.” 

Yue Fengjian cursed softly and rushed out of the kitchen, leaving Lian Zhidiao to scramble to his feet after him. “What is the matter?” He stood in the doorway of the kitchen, calling after Yue Fengjian as he stalked toward the eastern side of the courtyard. “Why does it matter if there’s water in it!” 

“A blood pit, Lian Zhidiao,” Yue Fengjian called over his shoulder, his ponytail swinging around him. “It’s how the demons got this deep into human lands in the first place!”

Previous Chapter < Chapter 7: Sancha Town
Next Chapter > Chapter 9: The Gate In The Earth

Chapter 7: Sancha Town

Lian Zhidiao shifted his weight. There was a small squelch, and he felt like he wanted to just leave his skin where it was and go back to the quiet room in Lin Jingjing’s siheyuan. “I just stepped in something.” He couldn’t keep his voice from being filled with disgust and terror. 

Yue Fengjian’s voice was deadly quiet. “Bring the light closer.” 

Swallowing hard, Lian Zhidiao lowered the flame so that light was shed on the ground where he stood. 

The ground was soft, and wet with a dark stain. Is that… blood? 

Yue Fengjian pulled a long needle from somewhere, and punched the sharp tip into the ground, and then straightened up. “Hold still.” Yue Fengjian passed the tip of the needle through the flame, watching it intensely. He turned the needle, moved it from the peak of the flame to the small arch of blue at the base, and nothing happened. 

Yue Fengjian let out a small sigh of relief. 

“W-What was that?” Lian Zhidiao looked at the steaming needle, and then at Yue Fengjian. “What did you just do?” 

“I was testing for a demon’s corruption. If this were crawling earth, it would change color. As it is…” Yue Fengjian took out a cloth and wiped the needle clean. “…it’s not good, but it’s not as bad as it could be.” 

“But the tomb!” Lian Zhidiao moved the flame out again, over the entrance to the tomb, and it was as terrible and dark as before. “Why is it open? What if something comes out?” 

Shadows danced in the hollows of Yue Fengjian’s face, giving him a ghoulish look as he peered closer at Lian Zhidiao. He studied him for what any reasonable person would feel, under the circumstances, was far too long. There could be zombies or demons or ghosts or any kind of thing wandering free, but you seem to be taking your time here! 

Yue Fengjian’s eyebrow lifted slightly. “You’re unexpectedly delicate, for a Wa magician.” 

Lian Zhidiao met his stare with incredulity, but no sooner had he made his mind up to say something than Yue Fengjian began to walk away. “Where are you going? What about this tomb?” 

His voice drifted back through the darkness. “We should check the others.” 

Sure enough, some meters away, there was another turtle-backed tomb, and like the first, it had spongy soft ground in front of it, and no door, although in this case, the door had not just been removed, it was completely smashed. 



“We have at least one demon, probably.” 

“You sound sure of yourself.” 

“Humans wouldn’t smash open tombs, but undead might, if they were commanded to. A demon is the most likely cause, trying to make life difficult for whoever comes to clean up the mess.” 

“If they’re open, why isn’t there anything coming out?” Lian Zhidiao shivered. With all the tombs open, this place should be thick with undead. And yet, they were the only ones in this part of the graveyard. 

“Luck, so far,” Yue Fengjian replied. He had a hard set to his jaw that grew more intractable the longer they searched. The next tomb was desecrated as well, and the one after that. Lian Zhidiao slowly got used to seeing the tombs with their doors torn off, opening a black, yawning emptiness leading underneath the tortoise-shelled mounds. But images of the lanes full of shambling zombies haunted him, and he stayed within arm’s reach of Yue Fengjian. 

At last they reached the end of their walk through the graveyard, and the last lane of tombs, closest to the water’s edge. The sounds of water lapping at the river’s shore set his nerves on edge, seeming too loud, and too quiet all at once. As they approached, Yue Fengjian suddenly stopped, turning to look into Lian Zhidiao’s face. 

“You’re breathing too hard.” 

“I don’t spend a lot of time in graveyards, at night, when someone or something has smashed all the tombs open,” Lian Zhidiao said, but it sounded thin and tight, and ended with a squeak. He immediately clapped his hand over his mouth. 

Yue Fengjian just regarded him with a plain expression, and then he let out a breath and continued walking toward the last line of tombs. 

He shot Yue Fengjian’s broad back an angry look. Am I supposed to just stop breathing altogether? 

Then, in front of him, there was a sudden movement and a flash of metal in the light of his torch. Yue Fengjian’s sword was out of its scabbard, glowing faintly—or perhaps the blade, pure and beautiful, could itself gleam brighter than the light which danced upon it.  Regardless of the reason it seemed to give light, Yue Fengjian spun the blade over his palm and then seized the grip with a flourish. 

He’s using a two-handed sword with one hand?

“Is… something there?” Lian Zhidiao asked, but even as he heard his own voice, he knew it was nothing but a whisper. There was no way Yue Fengjian had heard him ask. 

A soft splash at the side of the river drew his attention. As he walked closer to Yue Fengjian, he suddenly felt pressure on his chest, like a hand put out to stop him. Pushing through it made his insides feel as if he was being squeezed from all directions. In the center of this was a point of pain, like the tip of a sword. A sickening swell of fear in his guts threatened to overwhelm him.

“You can feel it, right?” Yue Fengjian’s voice was low. “The killing intent.” 

Killing intent. Something wants to kill us? Both of us. The spindle-torch lifted as high as he could, Lian Zhidiao drew his sword. It had none of the light in Yue Fengjian’s sword, but it was better than nothing. Holding his lit spindle up as high as he could, he gripped the sword and started to move along the lane. Yue Fengjian began cautiously walking as well, staying abreast of him. 

The water splashed again. Lian Zhidiao swallowed and took another step. 

Behind him, a footstep crunched on leaves and grass. 

Lian Zhidiao shuffled forward into the lane, wanting to press his back against the only other human there. As he moved, he felt something like branches catching in his hair. 

He froze. A shriek was strangled in his tightened throat. He turned to see who—or what—had grabbed at him. 

It was human, or had been once upon a time. A round face with a bulbous, swollen forehead, and a mouth full of watery weeds. Black hair hung off its head in clumps and its skin was grey and dull, with a subtle blue-green cast. It wore a high-waisted skirt—it had been a girl once upon a time. As he moved, it turned its head to look at him. 

No, it looks just like that one horror movie about the girl in the well! 

Recoiling, he backed up into Yue Fengjian, sticking against him, as far away from the drowned thing as he could get. “Y-Yue Fengjian….”

“What are you doing?” Yue Fengjian snapped as Lian Zhidiao pressed their backs together. “There are three—” 

Lian Zhidiao looked over his shoulder, over Yue Fengjian’s shoulder, and the shambling, wet forms of three more of these dead things could be seen in the light from his torch.

“There’s four!” 

“Then use your sword!” 

The blade felt heavy in his hand. This didn’t feel like the techniques he’d learned from the jade slip, which depended on the use of a spiritual blade. A heavier, less finely wrought steel felt wrong. 

The drowned thing took one step forward and then leapt at him, long black fingernails clawing at his throat. 

His arm moved on its own, blocking the strikes with his blade. Some of the thing’s fingertips fell off, rolling away, but all he did was deflect the attack. Behind him, he heard Yue Fengjian’s boots slide back in the grass, and then the sound of a blade. The only thing that kept him from turning to check on Yue Fengjian’s fight was the drowned thing’s large, milky eyes; they held him prisoner, too awful to meet, and yet too terrifying to look away. The longer he looked, the more repulsive he found its corruption to be. With a cry, he pressed the attack, trying to do nothing more than make it stop looking at him. One stroke across its throat took off the head, which landed with a wet thud. The body slowly slumped to the ground, with black ooze dripping out of its neck. 


Lian Zhidiao turned to find that one of the drowned had been similarly decapitated, but the other had Yue Fengjian on his knees, by the hair. Menaced by Yue Fengjian’s sword against its throat, it couldn’t move to kill, but neither could Yue Fengjian, held immobile by its hands. Lian Zhidiao could read the bitter struggle between fear and determination in Yue Fengjian’s body: without intervention, the first one to weaken would die. Then he saw another form stirring on the ground some distance away, a drowned thing getting to its feet that could easily kill Yue Fengjian without being threatened.

Hey, isn’t there supposed to be protagonist protection? Plot armor? Something?? 

But there wasn’t a Protagonist’s Halo, or an aura of light, or anything that indicated Yue Fengjian was protected by fate. The only one who could do anything about this situation was himself. 

Lian Zhidiao moved swiftly. In one slice of the low sword, he took off the thing’s head. Its fist relaxed, and Yue Fengjian stood up and in the same motion, finished the other with a stab through the chest. It slumped to the side in the grass and lay still. 

Yue Fengjian turned away, putting his hand to his own throat. He felt of his neck and then examined his hand for blood. Finding none, he seemed to let out a sigh of relief.  

“Are you okay?” 

Yue Fengjian pulled his sword out of the drowned thing, and cleaned it on the grass. His breath came fast; he rubbed at the places on his skin where the drowned thing had touched him. His hand shook. He lifted his chin, fixing Lian Zhidiao with an angry glare and gravel in his voice. “Next time, don’t hesitate.” 

“I…” Wait, I can’t say I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this. A Wa magician would surely have run into these kind of drowned things before. “I was startled.” But… it really was shocking. “I didn’t realize there was one already on the bank.” Lian Zhidiao looked further down the lane of tombs that ran closest to the river. The thought of coming face to face with more of those things made his guts turn over. He took a step back in spite of himself. 

“We won’t find out more by continuing this way,” Yue Fengjian said. His voice was stoic again already. He dropped his sword until it hovered, and he stepped onto it. “We should meet the others.” 

During the short flight, Yue Fengjian didn’t touch Lian Zhidiao at all. Lian Zhidiao understood better how to move his qi to stick to the sword, so he didn’t need a hand to keep his footing. Yue Fengjian’s presence behind him was as steady as a wall, and just as cold. 

After alighting on the walls of the town, Yue Fengjian drifted away from him, walking further down the wall. 

He’s mad at me for not acting more quickly. It probably scared him—it really scared me! Although guilt swelled in his chest, Lian Zhidiao swallowed down the uncomfortable feeling that he wasn’t good enough. Somehow, even with knowing everything I do from the jade slip, that didn’t make performing under stress any easier. But I didn’t do too badly for my first encounter with undead. He looked toward Yue Fengjian’s imposing figure. No one died, right? 

They waited to see others take to the air. The full moon emerged from the east, like a seashell exposed by the tide. Weak light spread over the town, revealing the walls of each compound, the orderly districts and streets. Likewise, it exposed the disarray in those streets: the carts left in the middle of the roadway, the undead melting in and out of the shadows under the eaves of houses, and the bodies, dead or deviate, that lay still on the paving stones. Over everything hung a pall of silence. 

Within a few moments, the rest of the party rejoined them.

“Find anything?” Yue Shipei asked. 

Yue Fengjian’s voice had no trace of terror in it. “Some drowned near the river.” 

Hu Baitian took this information in and then nodded. “All the tombs have been opened,” Hu Baitian said. “But none of the bodies have been disturbed.” 

Doesn’t that mean you went into the tombs to check? Lian Zhidiao shivered. 

“They’re just letting nature take its course?” 

“It would not take much more exposure to stained earth for some of them to begin rising, even with the precautions which protect against such things.” He shook his head slightly. “Tomorrow this place may be too dangerous for us to handle without help.” 

“It may already be too dangerous,” Liao Kuaiyu said, stepping back from the edge of the wall where he’d been looking down into Sancha Town. “There may have been more deviates than undead at the start, but now?” He shook his head. “In the dark, the deviates will only get in the way.” 

“Then don’t engage if there are deviates. Take out the undead you can. Use fire, but avoid destructive spells, Liao Kuaiyu.” Yue Shipei raised his voice to make sure that the intent in his voice was clear. “Leave them bodies to bury.” 

“Understood,” Liao Kuaiyu said all-too cheerfully, lifting one jade bangle. “I brought a containment array if there’s something big.” 

“Let’s head to the south gate. We will know more about the state of the town after we meet with Lin Zhengchun and discuss his findings. Hu Baitian?” 

Hu Baitian lifted his chin, fixing his eyes on Yue Fengjian at first, and then everyone else around him. “Look for a recently deviated adult. Children won’t help.” 

The recently deviate? Ah, normal people with an extreme excess of deviate qi. The deviates could be anything from humans to spiritual animals—anything with an imbalance of deviate qi. 

There were as many ways to enter qi deviation as there were people. They could range from catatonic to foaming-at-the-mouth berserkers. Without exception, though, those who entered qi deviation showed signs in three stages. The first was improper behavior. The second, a loss of color in the skin and body, making them appear like a black-and-white photograph. The third stage, which directly preceded death, showed the black staining of the meridians on the skin, maps of the demonic energy tearing them apart inside their bodies. 

A cultivator could resist the effects of deviate qi to some extent, but those without well-developed spiritual roots—the general populace—all too often died as the amount of deviate qi increased.Those who died while deviate invariably became vindictive undead. The only remedy was quick attention from a healer well-versed in managing the balance of deviate and correct qi. 

Lian Zhidiao’s eyes dropped to the five-knotted white cord on Hu Baitian’s spindle before he spoke.  “Why not children?” 

“Because,” Hu Baitian said, with the attitude of someone explaining something to an idiot, “An adult is more likely to be able to tell us who arrived just before this began.” 

A frown creased Lian Zhidiao’s forehead. “And you think the demon would be among them?” 

Yue Shipei folded his arms. “It’s a safe bet.” 

“Why? What does knowing who the demon is or was do to help us? They could be long gone from here.” 

“Lian Zhidiao.” Yue Yaosa cleared her throat. “You seem like you honestly want to know, but trust Yue Fengjian on this.” 

Uneasiness turned in the pit of his stomach. I don’t remember any specific demons. I don’t even remember if they had names. Yue Fengjian’s face was inscrutable in the shadows cast by moonlight. The main character I wrote has secrets I don’t know?

Chastised, Lian Zhidiao bowed his head to Yue Fengjian. “Of course. I meant no offense.” 

After a heartbeat, Yue Fengjian grunted and then turned his attention back to the group. “Meet at the south gate.” 

They scattered out into the air, flying away on swords toward the southern wall of the town. Yue Fengjian dropped his sword and gave Lian Zhidiao an impatient look. 

Lian Zhidiao took a step toward Yue Fengjian and his sword, but suddenly froze in place. Down in the streets below them, a weak noise spluttered once, and then again, rising up to his ears: the cry of a baby. 

“A baby?” Lian Zhidiao stepped to the edge and looked down into the street. “You heard that, didn’t you?” 

“I will leave you here if—” 

The cry came again, loud and hiccuping, and then it stopped suddenly, as if choked off. Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao exchanged looks, and then both looked down into the street.

“It can’t be alive, right?” With his eyes, Lian Zhidiao implored Yue Fengjian as he joined him at the edge of the wall. “It’s been days… or weeks.” 

Yue Fengjian grimaced. A deviate infant—or worse, a vindictive undead infant—wasn’t something anyone wanted to see. And yet Lian Zhidiao could see the tension in Yue Fengjian’s shoulders as he searched the streets below for any signs of life. “Which direction did you hear it from the first time?” 

Their meeting with the Lin cultivators would have to wait for just a few moments, for this chance at saving someone. “This way,” Lian Zhidiao said, pointing toward the northern part of the town. 

Yue Fengjian looked at the undead and deviate in the streets below them. The deviates were propped up against the sides of buildings or curled up in fetal positions in the shadows of carts. The undead stood stock-still in the streets, like sentinels, as if they were waiting for some sign to attack. There were so many of them down there, but it was completely quiet. 

“It can’t be far. We’ll go on foot, so we can check the deviates as well. Keep your flame as high as you can without setting fire to the houses.” 

They jumped down from the wall into the street, each of them with their swords at the ready. The stench nearly knocked Lian Zhidiao to his knees; the town walls were serving as barriers to most breezes, concentrating the smell of decay and rotting food in the town. It was just as it had been in the egg’s video, if not worse. 

And then, as if they had yelled out ‘come and attack us!’, several of the shambling bodies in the streets turned to face them. Yue Fengjian walked toward them, his sword out, gleaming like rippling water. 

Holding his sleeve to his nose, Lian Zhidiao drew his sword. I might be new at this, and I might not have a spiritual weapon, but surely I can do something?

A wave of sound came from the corpses, an awful symphony of moans and creaks. The first few fell to Yue Fengjian’s sword with just one strike each, their heads rolling off into the gutter. Yue Fengjian was indeed using the two-handed jian as a one-handed weapon. His mastery was such that though he cleaved through one’s neck, the one next to it hardly had its hair ruffled. 

Then, the nature of the encounter changed. Resentful energy rose up in the undead, stirred by the movement of correct qi in their surroundings. The alleys around them began to empty into the avenues, dozens of undead pouring out into the street to take out their revenge on those who still lived in spite of all that they had gone through. Though he was an expert swordsman, even Yue Fengjian could not see out of the back of his head. Two creeping undead silently drew closer to him. 

“Yue Fengjian!” Fire? No, metal! Lian Zhidiao sighted along the spindle to aim and spun metal out of the jade weight. The heavy iron bolts dug into the skulls of two undead behind Yue Fengjian and knocked them off their feet. 

Turning, Yue Fengjian only had time to confirm they were down before several more lurched toward him. Dead muscles bulged and twisted, and their moans—always the same whether they moved slow or fast—were cut short by the edge of Yue Fengjian’s blade. 

In no time at all, the streets were clear of undead for a distance of about 40 meters. Bodies lay heaped in a circle around Yue Fengjian where he had cut them down. Only the two corpses Lian Zhidiao had shot had made it inside his defenses. All that remained were the deviates, so clogged with deviate qi that they simply stared into space, standing or sitting as motionless as statues. 

Yue Fengjian slung some of the black undead muck off the edge of his sword, and then scattered the rest with a puff of qi, restoring his sword’s gleaming appearance. He turned to Lian Zhidiao. “Did you find it?” 

Right, the baby! 

Yue Fengjian joined him in inspecting deviate women with their arms crossed over their chests, only to find no baby held in them, their glassy eyes never moving from an unseen point in the distance. Though they were still alive, they showed no reaction to being searched or questioned. Lian Zhidiao shuddered; in some ways he thought those that had already risen as undead were better off. This shadow of a life seemed worse than no life at all. 

They even checked the few men that were deviate but not undead, their watery pulse and feeble breathing the only sign they were still alive. But none of the deviates in the street were holding bundles or carrying them on their backs. 

Then where did the baby cry come from?

As if to answer, the cry sounded again, thin, from behind the walls of a modest siheyuan. 

They tried the gate; the door opened easily, not even bolted. 

“There may be more in here,” Yue Fengjian murmured in a low voice. “Be ready.” 

Lian Zhidiao nodded, tightening his grip on his low sword. They stepped over the threshold and Lian Zhidiao quietly shut the gate behind them, latching it soundlessly with the skill of a youngest child who had to dodge not only parents but elder siblings when creeping around his own house at night.

Suddenly he was whirled around by a hand at his chest. He stumbled backward, landing on his butt in the paved walkway, letting the light of his spindle go out in his surprise. He heard a grunt, and the sound of two people struggling, and looked up in time to see a person in dark-colored robes standing between him and Yue Fengjian. 

There was another dark-robed person, too, and he was holding Yue Fengjian against the screen wall with the edge of a blade flashing at his throat. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 6: It’s Difficult To Stand With Both Feet On A Sword Isn’t It?
Next Chapter > Chapter 8: Two Of Them

Chapter 6: It’s Difficult To Stand With Both Feet On A Sword, Isn’t It?

The small servant girl looked as if she had never seen so many people in her life as Lian Zhidiao brought the group of Yue magicians into the courtyard of Lin Jingjing’s house. Surprise was thick on Lin Zhengchun’s face as well, but he bowed to the newcomers. Introductions were made on both sides before Lin Zhengchun produced the jade egg. 

Yue Fengjian used it first, followed by Yue Shipei. Then the rest of them used it in succession. Yue Yaosa’s face became a scowl as she finished viewing the contents. Hu Baitian looked briefly at Lian Zhidiao after he finished; did he look a little bit cowed? Even Liao Kuaiyu’s flippant air turned serious. Like Lian Zhidiao, all of them were shaken by what the egg contained.

“How many people are in Sancha Town?” Yue Fengjian handed the egg back to Lin Zhengchun. 

“The most recent records indicate there could be 400 households.”

Lian Zhidiao did a quick bit of mental math. Assuming every household has a mother, father, and three children, that could be as many as 2000 people. That’s without even taking into account travelers or merchants. His brow knitted together and he looked around at the others. 

They all seemed to be arriving at the same conclusion, their expressions grave. That’s too many for just the eight of us to handle. 

Yue Fengjian lifted his head, his mouth drawn into a thin line and his tone clipped. “Approaching by sword would be best. Stick to the rooftops where possible, limit encounters. If there’s cause, we can determine it and work out the next course of action.” 

Lin Zhengchun tucked the egg back into his robes with a nod. “I have sent word to the capital for reinforcements, but I do have six cultivators, and Lin Jingjing. Two teams can move better than one large group. We can leave at first light.” 

“Night attack would be better,” Yue Shipei interjected.

Lin Zhengchun frowned. “They’ll be more active at night.” 

Yue Fengjian spoke up. “There’s a better chance that whatever is responsible is more active at night as well. We’ll get a better picture of the problem.” Yue Fengjian’s height and his serious face made it seem like he couldn’t be argued with. Lin Zhengchun was not a small man himself, but Yue Fengjian’s frame made him seem like a wall: imposing, and impossible to cross. 

Lin Zhengchun pursed his lips together and then let out a short breath. “As expected from the Xinxue Yue sect.” He gave a short nod. “I have preparations to make. We’ll leave at dusk.” 

Lian Zhidiao watched him leave the hall with a hidden feeling of triumph. Just like in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, the Lin sect is met with difficulties and the protagonist is in a position to help them. This should lead to a situation where he can ask for their help in fighting demons, and advance the plot! 

“What are you looking so creepy about?” Hu Baitian shot Lian Zhidiao a critical look. 

A feeling of cold electricity spread across the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck. Ah. Lian Zhidiao looked around, but found that no one else had caught whatever expression—creepy or not—he’d had on his face. Only Hu Baitian had been looking at him. Lian Zhidiao lifted his chin. “Nothing, nothing.” 

Yue Fengjian’s eyes flicked between them and then rested on Lian Zhidiao. “We’ll travel by sword at dusk.” 

By sword? Lian Zhidiao’s heart sank. The sword of the original Lian Zhidiao was stuck fast in its sheath. Certainly there would be no time to have it seen to by a blacksmith, or whoever took care of swords around here. 

“My sword—” Lian Zhidiao began, but Hu Baitian’s sharp eyes landed on him, and Lian Zhidiao’s words trailed off. Something about that look made him feel as if he had to be very careful with what he said. “—I fell in a river, and it won’t come unstuck,” he finished lamely. “Is there a different one I could use temporarily until I can have it seen to?” 

Lin Jingjing’s face moved through confusion and then into pity. “Of course. There are some low swords with the guards. You can use that until you get back.” 

Low swords? Is that a sword without spiritual power? Grateful, Lian Zhidiao gave her a bow, but as he lifted his head, he felt three sets of eyes resting on him in a way that demanded answers—not that he had any to give. 

However, Yue Yaosa seemed positively delighted, declaring loudly, “A sword isn’t always necessary, is it?” 

“Certainly not,” Liao Kuaiyu agreed, with a victorious note in his voice. “Besides, he’s a magician.” He gave Lian Zhidiao a knowing look. “A sword isn’t really what you like to use, is it?” 

“Well…” He’d at least done some kind of—what did they refer to it as? Spinning? Weaving?—practice with the jade spindle. He had the information on sword technique from the jade slip, and the developed muscles for muscle memory. But he’d always been the kind of person to play a long-range class anyway, preferring to keep the action at arm’s length. The lack of a sword didn’t bother him except for this loss of utility in being unable to travel quickly. “Spinning is more natural to me.” 

“Spoken like a true magician,” Liao Kuaiyu said approvingly. He and Yue Yaosa flanked Lian Zhidiao on either side, and they walked with him out into the courtyard. 

I get the feeling that this isn’t something related to me. Probably. 

“But, for riding—” 

“We share a sword,” Liao Kuaiyu said, nodding to Yue Yaosa. “Her spiritual weapon is a saber, so there’s more than enough room.” 

“I prefer to use something else in battle,” Yue Yaosa was quick to add. Indeed, she looked like the kind of person who enjoyed hitting things with open palm strikes. Or her fists. 

Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “Then, who has room for me?” 

Hu Baitian stalked past him without speaking to him, Yue Shipei a few steps behind him.  

Yue Fengjian was close behind, but he stopped next to Lian Zhidiao. “I can carry you, but do not get separated from me.” His dark eyes held a meaningful look, and it came across loud and clear.

Getting separated in a town full of zombies would be bad news even if I could fly out on my own. But losing my only ticket out of there? I’d be in a lot of trouble.

Lian Zhidiao gave Yue Fengjian a hesitant nod. Yue Fengjian’s eyes raked over him once—that sharp appraisal again—and then he too walked through the courtyard, toward the gate. 

The hours passed slowly. In his room, Lian Zhidiao found it impossible to relax, even after he’d obtained a low jian from the guards and made sure his spindle’s jade belt was secured around his waist. More than once he lifted his hand and caught the tremor of his own fingers in his peripheral vision. 

Just have to stay close to the protagonist. It’s just one night. It’ll be over in the morning.  

The edge of the sun sank lower than the trees, turning the air golden. Lian Zhidiao stood up from his bed and stepped out into the gallery. As he pulled his door shut, a movement caught his eye. 

Further down the gallery, just next to the Hall, Lin Jingjing and Yang Meihua stood close together. Yang Meihua was clasping one of Lin Jingjing’s hands tightly in both of hers. The movement had been Lin Jingjing brushing a tendril of Yang Meihua’s hair back from her face. 


Lian Zhidiao averted his eyes, examined the courtyard planting nearest him, and then walked to the gate itself without looking back. 

No sooner had the gate shut behind him than he heard a shout from above him and lifted his eyes to see six figures flying through the air, green robes flapping in the wind. Lian Zhidiao’s mouth opened in amazement as they sailed down into the crossroads at the center of town. They alighted from their swords, the dying light revealing one by one the unmistakable shine of a spiritual weapon under each of their feet. Without exception, each sword tucked itself into the rider’s hand, as if it was a part of their body. 

By the time he thought to look away (and close his mouth), the Yue magicians had already come out of the inn. This time, the tasseled pommels and the finely-wrought gold and silver on the scabbard caught his eyes. Yue Fengjian and Yue Shipei both carried jian, but Yue Fengjian’s was bigger and longer, a shuangshou jian with a heavy piece of jade set in the pommel. Yue Yaosa had a much larger curved sword on her back, a bagua dadao with a long, fluted wooden grip that ended in a ring with a large jade bead threaded on it. Liao Kuaiyu carried no weapon, but hanging from his waist was a jade spindle-weight, like the one at Lian Zhidiao’s waist. But Liao Kuaiyu’s silk cords had five knots in red, four knots in green, and two knots each in white, blue, and black. 

That’s right. Each knot in a cord indicates a level of mastery, as judged by the sect’s highest magicians. I think there were no more than five levels, but mastering up to five could take an entire lifetime. Lian Zhidiao’s respect for Liao Kuaiyu grew; it wasn’t everyone that could almost fully master two types of magic and still be very serviceable in the rest. 

The last was Hu Baitian, and he carried a jian with a white tassel hanging from the pommel, which was inlaid with a single carved mutton-fat jade. He also had a spindle, and the knots on his cords were five white, three black, two red, and one each in green and blue. Hu Baitian turned and met his eyes with cold regard, and then looked away. 

Five knots in the white cord means he’s a master of metal magic, and likely of healing as well. The conversation about the Speakers echoed in the back of his mind, and the hair on the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck rose. 

Behind him, the gate opened again, and Lin Jingjing stepped out, her spindle at her waist and jian in hand. Close up, Lian Zhidiao could see that she had three knots in green, two in blue, and one each in black, white, and red. 

Lin Zhengchun took a folded piece of paper out of his robes and spread it open. Yue Fengjian stepped forward to look at it. Lin Zhengchun didn’t seem much concerned that no one else was crowding around. 

“The town on the southern bank, along the Green Highway. Here,” he said, pointing at a spot outside the town, close to the river, “Is where the graveyard is. If the dead haven’t been disturbed, we can assume that all of the ones in the town are recently dead. Your team should assess the graveyard first. We will search the perimeter, and then we’ll work our way into the town.” He folded the map back up and tucked it in his robes. “Also be careful to avoid those who have been overcome by deviate qi.” His eyes turned to Hu Baitian. “We will need your assistance in correcting them, if they can be corrected.” 

Hu Baitian accepted this task with a sharp nod.  

I almost expected him to complain. So he’s actually kind of a trustworthy guy, despite being in such a bad mood all the time. 

“We should be there before moonrise, but be on your guard.” 

And with that, Lin Zhengchun unsheathed his sword. He slung it forward, jumping on the flat of the blade, and took flight faster than a startled sparrow. The rest of the Green cultivators—Lin Jingjing too—all took off after him, rising into the sky with their sleeves flapping. 

Then their party unsheathed their swords. Yue Shipei was the first to go up, and then Hu Baitian. Yue Yaosa dropped her saber, and it stopped, hovering over the ground. She stepped lightly on the hilt, and Liao Kuaiyu leapt onto the large blade in front of her. Then they, too, zipped off into the sky. 

It really is just like in the books and movies. Swords can fly and carry people. There’s nothing to fear about using them.

Behind him, he heard the scrape of a boot. He turned to find Yue Fengjian already hovering in mid-air. “Hurry up,” he said. 

“I haven’t ridden as a passenger before,” Lian Zhidiao replied. I haven’t done this personally at all, so it’s not a lie, really. 

The response he got was an offered hand. 

The sword was steady. Even as Lian Zhidiao climbed onto the flat of the blade, it didn’t rock or swing. How was it done in the books? Focus qi to the bottoms of his feet so he stuck to the blade? 

But then they sprang up into the sky, and his back was thrown against Yue Fengjian’s broad chest. He felt Yue Fengjian’s arm around his waist. It was too tight against his bruised ribs, and he couldn’t help but wince in pain. Presumably this is to keep me from falling, but slowing down might be a good idea too! But Yue Fengjian’s pace didn’t let up; if anything, he seemed to be rushing to catch up to the rest of their party. 

The air slicing past them stung his eyes. Lian Zhidiao took in a deep breath, and looking inward, sent qi to the soles of his feet. To his surprise, the stable feeling that he could not fall off made it much easier to stand up straight on the sword. A few moments later, Yue Fengjian’s hand dropped away. 

Well, that’s something, isn’t it? At least he doesn’t think I’m going to fall off. Lian Zhidiao could now take the time to look over the landscape in a much more in-depth way. The river below them caught the light of the sunset and made it easy to trace through the forest below them. It flowed in the bottom of a broad valley, swinging back and forth lazily across the valley floor. Small hills were more numerous further away from the river. 

Huh. He shaded his eyes, squinting into the setting sun. In the distance, the forest stretched on and on, uninterrupted, until it became one with the deep purple of the evening horizon. The demon lands were all mostly in the west, or that’s what he thought he remembered. But this didn’t look like demon territory at all. 

The words ‘stained earth’ rose in his mind. He’d created the term to describe earth that had a deficiency of the earth’s correct qi, the kind cultivators used. Like qi in humans, the earth also had ‘breath’, which circulated under the surface. But unlike humans, who could purge themselves of deviant qi, the earth contained both correct qi and deviant qi. Deviant qi was associated with decay, with sundering, with things that pulled apart. It was widespread: everything had to die and rot away, so ‘deviant’ qi existed naturally, intermingled with correct qi. Energy moved back and forth between the two, growing, living, dying, decaying. It was part of nature. 

But as humans cultivated and refined correct qi within their bodies to reach for the heavens, there were those creatures that refined and ‘cultivated’ deviant qi, converting it to demonic energy. Stained earth formed where deviant qi pooled, but only demonic energy could create a patch of ‘crawling earth’, where the very fabric of the world softly writhed and twisted in agony. To cultivators, interested in immortality and the purification of correct qi, a concentration of sundering, rotting energy was anathema. 

Lian Zhidiao knew in an academic way about stained and crawling earth: the jade slip had given him some idea of what to expect just by way of granting him access to the technique of earth-seeing. But like everything else—magic, jade beasts, flying swords—seeing it in front of his eyes would be very different. 

They joined with the rest of the group; the Green cultivators were flying ahead of them in a V-shaped formation, but the Yue group moved around the skies in a more fluid fashion. Every so often, Yue Yaosa and her passenger Liao Kuaiyu dipped down below the treetops, and then surged up toward them a few moments later. Hu Baitian had not so much as looked back at Yue Fengjian. Yue Shipei stayed close by, within ten meters. 

The light faded. In the darkness between sunset and moonrise, the two teams approached Sancha Town. Yue Shipei dipped below the treeline first, followed by Yue Yaosa. Yue Fengjian guided them down next; Lian Zhidiao jumped off the sword to avoid being dumped on the ground. As he’d expected, Yue Fengjian had already whipped his sword back into his hand, feeding the tip of the blade back into the scabbard. 

The last was Hu Baitian, who delayed dismounting for a full fifteen seconds, but joined them on the ground anyway. Then, in the darkness came a light. 

Liao Kuaiyu held up his spindle, an almost-invisible thread of his qi feeding down the wooden stem, through the ring-shaped jade weight. At the end of it, just above the surface, a small flame burned, giving the effect of a character in a horror game who was finding their way through a dangerous area with just the help of a lighter.

“Be careful,” Yue Fengjian said. “But be swift.” 

Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu darted off into the gloom, towards the west and the city. Lian Zhidiao followed the bob of the flame as they went further and further into the darkness. 

Hu Baitian lifted his spindle, produced a flame through the jade weight, and then, without consulting Yue Shipei, dragged him off through the graveyard in a different direction, toward the south and the Green Highway. 

That left the eastern, riverside portion of the graveyard for him and Yue Fengjian to explore. 

He lifted his spindle and began to spin his qi to produce a flame, feeding the smallest amount he could. A cheerful flame burned like a long-wicked candle, brighter than the others, but though he tried to get it smaller, he simply could not manage it without it going out completely. This repeated twice before Yue Fengjian sighed. 

“Don’t worry about guttering it if you can’t do it,” he said bluntly. He began to walk away, toward the river. 

If I can’t do it? I may be cannon fodder, but this is something cool, you know? And you can’t do it, so maybe it’s better for you not to say anything. 

Swallowing down his annoyance, Lian Zhidiao decided that a brighter flame was better than no flame at all. Like the previous times he’d used it to spin qi into elemental magic, the spindle hung in the air, attached to him by the silk cord, and needing no guidance from his hands.

Lian Zhidiao left it burning and walked after Yue Fengjian.

He wasn’t hard to catch up to, as he’d stopped in front of a turtle-backed mound less than ten meters away. 

“Hmm? What is this?” Lian Zhidiao walked past him to get a closer look. Even before he raised his torch, he could sense the yawning void at the front of the tomb, the space darker than dark that opened up under the mound. Lian Zhidiao lifted his torch a little higher, and it became clear: the door was missing. 

“Hey…that’s…” Lian Zhidiao took a step back, nearly backing up into Yue Fengjian. 

Yue Fengjian was not looking at the tomb at all; his eyes were directed downwards. What’s he looking at? 

With a growing sense of unease, Lian Zhidiao stepped away from Yue Fengjian, and his foot sank halfway into something wet. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 5: Yue Fengjian, Lion of Yue
Next Chapter > Chapter 7: Sancha Town

Akon and Launch

Hello Akon visitors! You’ve probably gotten here from a flyer made by my friend Kira.  (Thank you for stopping by their table!)

My plan before beginning to publish this serial novel was to build up a backlog of 10 chapters, edit them as a whole, and then begin publishing them. Each chapter is around 3000 words and a chapter will be published once a week. Editing the finished chapters is ongoing, so I’m going to say roughly that I’ll post the first chapter some time in this upcoming week (the first week of July 2019), regardless of whether editing on other chapters is finished.

Thanks for stopping by, please don’t forget to check back to start reading!