Content Warning For Chapter 50: Gore, Decapitation
Lian Zhidiao’s eyes widened. Where did he go?
The sound of the river flowing filled his ears. He turned in place, his boot scraping up some of the river pebbles. But there was nothing behind him, not a whiff of perfume or incense or blood, no sound of breathing or gnashing of teeth.
Maybe stopping to face him was a bad idea… although I don’t really like the idea of fighting in flight either.
He shook his head, turning in place again and looking around him. He had to think. What advantages did he have? What advantages did the demon have?
He frowned, trying to figure out what he knew. The demon didn’t have a sword; the impression that he was a cultivator flying like any other cultivator would have been part of the illusion.
But he had that dagger, the one made with black steel. He’ll have to move quickly and get inside my guard to use it or risk being run through. Being armed with only a dagger also means ambush is his best chance of catching me.
Lian Zhidiao turned again, backing up toward the river. But no sword means he can fly on his own, or maybe he has some other device he’s using to fly. Perhaps he used a jade tool, or whatever demons used instead of jade tools.
Flight and ambush means…
He felt the killing intent wink into existence above him, boring into his skull, down his spine. It skewered him, an awful, bladed spit, from nose to tip. He raised Shanzhen even as he lifted his head. Their eyes met above their blades, the faint glow of demon-red already visible in twilight. The black, nameless dagger met Shanzhen, white with lightning.
A wave of pressure exploded from them where they met, blowing the two of them apart. The demon’s snarling howl echoed off the river.
Lian Zhidiao stared wide-eyed, at the furrow carved between them, at his enemy, fully stripped of the illusion of being human. The demon’s loose white hair tangled around his horns as he spit fury in a language Lian Zhidiao did not know.
“You went to so much effort to follow me from Shengmen City. You should curse my blood so that I can understand you,” he admonished. “Your name, demon.”
The demon’s red eyes narrowed, the only part of color in his entire body. “Do you want this mighty one’s name to be the last thing to echo in your round ears?”
“I will give my name as well, so that it can be the last thing to cut into yours.”
The demon growled. “This mighty one is called Zhang Hundun, though knowing it will not give you the upper hand.”
“I am Lian Zhidiao. You may call me gongzi, if you wish.”
Anger took hold of Zhang Hundun, and he snarled, “Such impudence! You’ve not earned any deference from me. This mighty one cannot see it!”
Lian Zhidiao’s connection with Shanzhen was strong, but he fed it more of his qi, joining them together more completely. “Come at me directly, then, and I will show you.”
Zhang Hundun launched himself at Lian Zhidiao.
Though the Wa sect was obsessed with beauty, when it came to swordplay, their techniques resembled those of the Yue sect much more than those of their allies, the Zhou. Where the Zhou sword moved fluidly to exploit holes that the enemy left on his own, the Wa sect created openings with quick, misleading movements, or outright sabotage. It was about using whatever weaknesses the enemy had against him, then dominating him with a sudden blow of cruelty.
As a magician, he had the option of spinning qi into elemental magic. As someone who did not sight along his spindle like an arrow, who could understand the jade spindle-weight as the sights of a gun, he was singularly deadly.
The swordplay which Lian Zhidiao had known for months in a purely academic sense, which had seemed lifeless and tired without a spiritual weapon, now awakened in his arms and legs. The constant, grinding point of killing intent against his chest made clear that he could not afford to hesitate even for a moment. If he did, he would die.
The dagger was aimed at his heart; Shanzhen rang as it struck the blade and dragged down the metal. They were face-to-face, Zhang Hundun trying to push his dagger home, and Lian Zhidiao holding him at bay.
With a shout, Lian Zhidiao pushed the demon off of him and made space with a swing of Shanzhen; lightning crawled down the blade. He spun metal through the silk belt; it would not take much. He held the string of qi taut; his spindle-weight hovered at his side, out of the way of his sword.
Zhang Hundun came at him again, riving the air with the dagger.
Lian Zhidiao parried him once, twice, clang, clang.
Undaunted, Zhang Hundun launched himself forward.
Lian Zhidiao parried again, turning in place. He planted his foot, raised his sword and then let his metal spell fly.
The crack of a gunshot echoed across the river. It didn’t hit Zhang Hundun, but it didn’t matter. Flinching, the demon raised his dagger. Lian Zhidiao stepped into the opening in Zhang Hundun’s defenses and brought Shanzhen up, turning the thread of qi between him and his sword into a rope, into a bridge, into a highway. He was looking into the demon’s eyes when Shanzhen bit into his side and a column of lightning blinded them both.
A clap of thunder split the cloudless night sky. The acrid smell of ozone filled the air; Lian Zhidiao had no choice but to breathe it in. Blinded by the afterimage, his ears ringing, he didn’t let go of Shanzhen. He could feel weight on the end of it. And then he felt it slowly slide off.
He produced a flame from his spindle-weight, blinking against the dark-bright shape of light still buzzing in his vision.
Lying on the river rocks was Zhang Hundun, his face frozen in a grimace.
Without hesitating, Lian Zhidiao stumbled over and grabbed that white hair in his fist. With two blows from Shanzhen, the heavy weight of Zhang Hundun’s head was dangling from his fingers.
He threw it away from him with a grunt and sank to his knees.
It’s over. He’s dead, it’s over.
His eyes fell upon the dagger in Zhang Hundun’s hand.
No, there’s one more thing that has to be done, isn’t there?
He ripped open the front of Zhang Hundun’s robes with it, like cutting open a parcel. Somewhere near the dantian…
The black blade was wickedly sharp. Zhang Hundun’s flesh seemed to fall apart almost before the edge touched him. Lian Zhidiao pulled his sleeve back and pushed his hand inside the wound he’d made. The demon’s innards were tight and bitterly cold, in a way that seemed to suck the heat from his skin. He could feel nothing but blood and slime and the tense, marble-like smoothness of muscle, and was about to give up looking when his fingers grazed something round. Carefully, carefully, Lian Zhidiao closed his hand around it and brought it out. Within a few moments, Zhang Hundun’s midsection caved in. His skin turned gray, like a log burned to coals, and his body began to collapse into piles of ash.
Lian Zhidiao opened his fingers.
Cupped in his palm was a sphere, perfectly black, but not like the color of his robes, or his hair. This blackness consumed the light of his torch and returned a dulled reflection only when the flame was very close and very bright.
A demon core.
A quick glance over at where he’d thrown Zhang Hundun’s head showed that it, too, was crumbling into powder. So it wasn’t Yue Fengjian crushing the demon core that destroyed the body. Taking possession of the core itself destroys the body. Lian Zhidiao took in a deep breath. Good to know, but now what do I do with it?
The core was full of demonic energy, the refined form of deviate qi. If deviate qi alone could turn the earth tainted, then demonic energy might well turn the earth crawling in one fell swoop. In Sancha Town, the earth had already been tainted, so adding whatever was in a demon core, even a strong one, was unlikely to make things worse. But here…
Lian Zhidiao took a moment to use earth-seeing, pressing his mind into the ground. To his dismay, everything here seemed relatively normal, with correct and deviate qi in balance. Lingering in his mind was the image of the ground he’d poisoned with just a mouthful of deviate qi from the qilin. Without a jade beast, who knew how long that would take to fade away? The stuff in a demon core had to be at least that concentrated, if not more so. But demons became more powerful by consuming the cores of other demons. So leaving it here for something else to find was out of the question.
Lian Zhidiao looked up at the night sky, the unfamiliar waning moon, the stars in their different patterns. In the high steppes, it was too dangerous for humans to fly at night. They’d even landed well before sunset if it meant they wouldn’t make it to another caravanserai before night fell.
Yue Fengjian definitely wouldn’t attempt to fly at night; he knew the dangers too well. Demons, however, were at their strongest and most mobile at night. A lightning strike on a clear evening would probably draw the attention of anything in the vicinity looking to exploit a weak target.
He couldn’t stay here and be prey for the demons, he could neither destroy the demon core nor leave it here, and Yue Fengjian definitely wouldn’t be coming to his rescue before dawn.
A small bubble of water from his spindle-weight cleaned his hands, the dagger, and the demon core. Contact with water hardened the outside of the demon core into a glassy surface that now properly reflected light, like a marble of pure black jet.
Lian Zhidiao took the storage ring out of his robes and opened it, then slipped the dagger and the demon core inside and tucked the ring away again. He dropped Shanzhen for flight. With a kick to scatter the last of Zhang Hundun, he slipped off in low flight over the black water. He stole away from the scene of his fight, hiding the faint sounds of his escape in the noise of the river.
Without light to guide him, he went fast, but not far. The river crept down over the countryside, hemmed in by trees and heavy brush. Then, on the south bank, the bank was wrapped in soft grasses. Lian Zhidiao dropped into the grasses like he would fall into a thick feather bed. It was a chilly night, but he didn’t dare build a fire; it would draw too much attention. He tucked himself under the leaves and fell into an uneasy sleep, jerking awake at the soft hooting of owls, or the occasional splash of a fish. By the time dawn began to limn the horizon, he was sleeping soundly.
Hours later, warmed by the rays of the sun, Lian Zhidiao slowly opened his eyes, squinting up at the bright sky. Slowly, it all sank in—all that had happened the day before. He watched birds twitter and flap about overhead, feeling tired and slightly numb.
I should keep going. But exhaustion weighed down his arms and legs, and he didn’t get up to continue flying.
A magpie flew low across the river and over his head, coming to rest on the tall silver stump of a tree that had been split in a storm. Resplendent in black and white, the magpie lingered where it landed, on the edge of a strangely-shaped hollow, and then leaned down to scrape its beak on the wood.
Lian Zhidiao rolled to his side, looking at the magpie, and then at the tree.
I feel like I have seen a tree like that before.
The magpie turned its dark head toward him and gave a sharp call, like a burst of fire from a laser rifle in a video game.
The strange hollow called his attention, dark in the silver, weathered wood; he traced it with his eye. Slowly, the hair on the back of his neck began to stand on end.
Lian Zhidiao stumbled to his feet. The magpie called a warning of short, angry screeches, to which Lian Zhidiao bowed his head. Agitated, the magpie flew away, but Lian Zhidiao could not escape the pull the tree had on him. Even though the hollow looked inviting, as if the magpie would have hidden trinkets inside, he knelt in front of it.
Something was buried here, wasn’t there?
He pulled the grass between the roots up by the fistful, clearing away the worms and beetles.
It WAS here, wasn’t it?
But though he pawed through the damp earth, getting mud under his fingernails, there was nothing there. A blood-soaked token buried here had long ago been sniffed out and dug up. Deflated, he sat on his knees for a moment before he remembered.
No, there was one more, the most important one. He turned and looked at the river. One more for A-Feng.
He hopped on Shanzhen, flying slowly over the river. He inspected the overgrowth on either side, looking into the shadows for things he recognized. The encroachment of nature over the bridge was so complete that he would have missed it entirely if the stones scattered on the shore had not been so regularly shaped. Under a carpet of deep green leaves, he could just make out the dressed stone of bridge abutments.
The high arch bridge collapsed. And just beyond the bridge… Lian Zhidiao craned his neck as he floated past the vine-encrusted stone.
A muddy shore, and beyond it, a flat bank, thick with sweet field grasses.
The thrill of discovery raced down his spine. Just like in the memory.
He looked at the river, remembering how cold the water was, how swift the current. From his previous experience with rivers, Lian Zhidiao knew that he would not want to get dunked in this one and spend the rest of the day shivering.
Stripping naked to keep his clothes dry was the sensible choice.
His eyes fell on the ruined bridge. No road, no traffic, and no signs of anyone living on the river either, so he wasn’t likely to inadvertently flash anyone.
Lian Zhidiao carefully set Shanzhen down in the grass, far away from the water. His warm, dry boots were used to keep it up off the grass, away from any dew that might still be lingering. He untied the woven silk belt with his spindle weight, and put that next to Shanzhen. Then he uncinched his sash and peeled away his outer robes until he was just in his inner clothes.
He loosened his upper garment and slipped it off his thin shoulders. As he folded it to put on top of his robes, an autumn wind snaked around him, making gooseflesh rise on his skin. He chafed his arms with a doubtful look at the black river.
Why couldn’t I have found this place in the heat of summer? The cold might have been refreshing then!
He delayed a little longer, dreading the icy plunge.
And it was at this moment that another cultivator zipped down the river, a blur of red as fast as a falcon.
While I am in THIS state of undress, no less!
Lian Zhidiao had just registered that it was a human, in red, when the cultivator wheeled around, and Lian Zhidiao recognized that strong physique, that huge sword, that high ponytail rippling in the wind. Lian Zhidiao fumbled for his inner robe, hastily wrapping it back around his body. Equal measures of surprised, relieved, and embarrassed, Lian Zhidiao still couldn’t keep a brilliant smile from lighting up his face as Yue Fengjian landed on the grassy bank, just a few meters away from him.
Wallbreaker sheathed itself in Yue Fengjian’s hand; he was breathing heavily, as if he had been sprinting since daylight broke. He had his usual stern expression, but his keen eyes raked Lian Zhidiao, even as he closed the distance between them.
“Yue Fengjian—” Lian Zhidiao’s words died in his throat as Yue Fengjian swept him into his arms, holding him close. His hand rested protectively over Lian Zhidiao’s head; the sound of his thundering heart filled Lian Zhidiao’s ears.
Lian Zhidiao was frozen in shock. His inner clothes weren’t even closed all the way, he was a mess from the fight and about to freeze himself to the bone in a river, and he’d intended to get to an inn and make himself presentable, and then maybe he could think about returning all the debts of hospitality that he owed Yue Fengjian for all these months—
Yue Fengjian pulled back slightly, and tipped Lian Zhidiao’s head back. Then, with no one watching, he lowered his head and kissed Lian Zhidiao.
All of the yearning that Lian Zhidiao had so prudently held back in Shengmen City burst free, sweeping him away. Yue Fengjian was still out of breath, pulling Lian Zhidiao closer, into a hungrier, deeper kiss. Lian Zhidiao wound his arms around Yue Fengjian’s neck, knowing that this was worse than a terrible idea. But then Yue Fengjian’s lips crept away from his mouth, burning a trail of fire along his jaw. Lian Zhidiao stiffened, tense as a bowstring at the warmth of Yue Fengjian’s kisses at his earlobe, the heavy panting in his hair. He could not hear Yue Fengjian getting so carried away and not get carried away himself. The quivering passion in his belly demanded he give in, and he did, leaning forward.
Breathless, Yue Fengjian gave in as well. His knees buckled, and he pulled Lian Zhidiao down on top of him in the sweet grass.