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.
“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