Chapter 12: The City of Fragrant Wood

Lian Zhidiao wriggled out from underneath the cow and clambered up out of the deepest part of the hole. His robes were covered in dirt—not as bad as mud from a rice field, but not the impression he wanted to give when meeting a major force of cultivators for the first time. These weren’t his best robes, either. He brushed a little of the soil off his chest, but the edges of his sleeves were a mess. 

“Here,” Yue Yaosa said, offering her hand again. 

Lian Zhidiao gave her hand a dubious look, and then grabbed hold. At least this time he was prepared, and her strength wasn’t quite such a surprise. 

It’s one thing writing someone being strong; it’s another thing to have that strength used on you! 

Most of the Lin cultivators used swords as their mode of transport, but he also saw several sabers and spears, and even two quarterstaffs. He followed them with his eyes as they flew toward the town gates to the south and dropped out of sight. 

If those staves are spiritual weapons as well, perhaps they can do something like grow and change in size. The thought made him feel strangely giddy, like a child about to see a magic trick. 

He dusted himself off again as Lin cultivators landed around them and began to see to the undead, lining them up with neat and orderly efficiency, placing sheets over their faces. Then his eyes landed on the stern figure of Lin Zhengchun approaching, and any feeling of giddiness was scattered like leaves in a cold wind. 

In front of him—no, leading him—was an older woman, her long emerald robes finely woven with intricate patterns, tassels hanging from the bottoms of her sleeves. She carried a sword, and wore a medicine pouch at her waist. Part of her hair was up in a topknot, but the rest nearly reached the small of her back. As she drew closer, Lian Zhidiao caught the scent of incense blown in front of her by a soft breeze. Her expression was filled with concern, but not at all cold. She gave the impression of a matron at an orphanage, deeply invested in the care and betterment of her charges. 

Yue Fengjian made a salute, bowing his head low first to the woman and then to Lin Zhengchun. 

The woman returned it crisply, without any wasted actions in her movements. “I am Hui Songbai, of the Youlu Lin sect,” she said. 

“Yue Hanqi, courtesy name Fengjian, of the Xinxue Yue sect,” Yue Fengjian replied. 

Hui Songbai looked around at the piles of undead bodies being sorted and the deviates being removed for treatment. “Lin Zhengchun has been telling me of your assistance in this matter.” 

Yue Fengjian nodded his head. 

“He also told me that there was a demon involved.” She turned her head slightly, gesturing with her eyes to Lin Zhengchun behind her. “And that your skill was what brought it down.” 

“Yes,” Yue Fengjian said with an incline of his head. “I am fortunate to be supported by talented members of my sect. Because of this, we were able to defeat the demon easily.” 

“I see.” She looked down into the pit next to the well, at the barely-moving jade beast yet to be prised from the dirt. “I must say, this sect is fortunate to have had someone with your expertise in these situations.” She turned her attention back to Yue Fengjian, a kind smile on her face. “We are tremendously grateful for the Yue sect’s assistance in investigating and quelling this threat.” 

“The Yue sect only wishes it could have done more,” Yue Fengjian replied, straightening himself up to his full height. 

Hui Songbai’s eyes landed on Lian Zhidiao, and the almost fond regard she had been giving Yue Fengjian vanished in an instant. “This member of the Wa sect, is he yours as well?” 

Lian Zhidiao’s hackles rose. Am I his! As if I was his pet!

“He has been very helpful,” Yue Fengjian said. “I became aware that he was mentored by a certain Guizai, and had skills which could prove useful. Thus, we used every advantage available to prevent further loss of life.” 

Hui Songbai’s expression chilled even further. “Indeed, this kind of situation might be the only one in which such violent competency can be put to good use.” 

Lian Zhidiao felt every part of him being scrutinized and then thrown aside without merit. He knew without a doubt now who Hui Songbai had been in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World. A strong shifu, known as the Blood-Lacquered Pine, who was famous for explosive strikes that painted the area with gore, as a calligrapher with a heavy brush. She had rejected marriage to devote her life to teaching students with hands-on methods in the Choking Wood. Later in the book, she became one of Yue Fengjian’s steadfast allies. This meeting was their first. 

Yue Fengjian paused just for the length of a breath, and then continued. “Without the Wa technique of earth-seeing, the blood pit might have gone undiscovered until demonic reinforcements arrived. Because of his skill, we were able to prepare an ambush.” 

Under her unflinching gaze, Lian Zhidiao bowed low and brought his hands together in a salute. For Yue Fengjian’s sake, I need to not make trouble. 

But after a second or two, Hui Songbai’s attention turned to the Zhou twins. “Lin Zhengchun has told me you were responsible for dealing with the threat of the blood pit.” 

“In a purely physical way, yes,” Zhou Xianzhi said. “But this ignorant magician can hardly take credit for the idea. That goes to—” 

“Please.” Hui Songbai lifted her hand, stopping him. “We have no shortage of responsibility for everyone to share.” She turned and looked around the edge of the hole, where the others were gathered, and her eyes lit on Hu Baitian kneeling next to Yue Shipei. “You suffered your own casualty as well.”

Zhou Xiangu gripped the scabbard of his sword tightly and frowned, presumably for the same reason that Yue Yaosa did: the lumping together of the two Zhou cultivators with the party of Yue cultivators. 

Zhou Xianzhi lowered his eyes, bowing his head slightly. “If you’ll forgive this magician’s rudeness, we cannot claim to have suffered any casualties at all. Had my brother and I not been so careless, we would have not gotten swept up in the qi deviations that were occurring.” 

“I would be interested to hear your account of the events here,” Hui Songbai said. “But more than that, our Master has told me to extend his invitation to you to join him in Fenfang City to thank you personally for your aid in this matter.”

The Master? Does she mean the sect leader? 

“We also have many skilled healers, so that you need not lean so heavily on your friend from the Yuan sect.” 

Hu Baitian’s face was a mixture of emotions, flashing between ‘at last someone values my work’ and ‘does she think I can’t do it?’ But he settled on feeling valued and bowed his head in acknowledgment. 

“We would welcome the chance to rest and recuperate,” Yue Fengjian said. Yue Yaosa nodded with him. 

“The great Lin sect, our dependable peacekeepers.” Zhou Xianzhi stepped closer to Lian Zhidiao and put his arm around his shoulders, framing him with his other hand. 

Lian Zhidiao turned to look at him, pressing his stare on Zhou Xianzhi’s pretty face. Aren’t you being too familiar?!

Zhou Xianzhi gave him a knowing look, and continued speaking. “My mind is slippery and full of holes. This inarticulate magician can barely maintain the Whisk of the Purple Orchid, but.” He paused only briefly, perhaps to let others hear and understand his…office? 

It sounds like some sort of Court rank… or maybe a civil servant?

Zhou Xianzhi continued, “I cannot see how this town could have been saved without all of us here. Naturally your great Master has already recognized this reality and made arrangements.” Zhou Xianzhi released Lian Zhidiao and bowed to Hui Songbai. “We in the Tuhuan Zhou sect are deeply honored by your careful forethought.” 

Ah. Lian Zhidiao immediately made the same kind of bow as Zhou Xianzhi. That sly fox. Of course someone like him could read that she was planning to exclude me from coming. His shoulders were warm where Zhou Xianzhi had touched him. I suppose I have to be thankful to him for putting his thumb on the scales. At least now I don’t have to worry about how to invite myself along. 

Hui Songbai was quiet for half a breath too long. “Very well. All of you are welcome to join us in celebration.” Lian Zhidiao picked his head up a little bit to look at her, only to find her staring at him. “I will inform our Master of the good news.” 

But from the look on her face, it was clear that the term ‘good news’ was relative. 



Yue Shipei was taken to Fenfang City immediately for further treatment, accompanied by Hu Baitian. The Zhou twins, eager to have their contributions recognized, also went ahead. The rest of the group slept a night in Shuangwan Village, where Lin Jingjing treated them to a dinner in her home. Despite the reassurance of Hu Baitian going along with him, Yue Yaosa was anxious to see her older brother in good health. Taking their horses over land would take more than seven days, so traveling by sword was deemed the most expedient in this case. The Yue cultivators’ tack and saddles would be packed in trunks and delivered by porter; using porters seemed a good way to transport the heavy case containing the broken jade cat as well. It was a relief that he wouldn’t have to carry it during flight, but when he entrusted it to Lin Jingjing, for some reason, he was loath to let it go. 

They left the next morning, just after dawn. Lin Jingjing promised that she would send their things to Fenfang City. Lin Jinjing and Yang Meihua waved them off from the crossroads in the center of town. Once again, Lian Zhidiao was a passenger on Yue Fengjian’s sword. They led the way flying out, with the others behind them. As Shuangwan Village shrank below them, Lian Zhidiao saw Yang Meihua cleave to Lin Jingjing, and rest her head on her shoulder. From this height, they appeared to be just one person. 

It hadn’t taken long to get used to the idea of flying on a sword: it was like riding a bicycle. It seemed impossible at the start, but soon enough his body remembered the feeling of wind and balance, and settled into it as if he had been born on a jian

They set out in the morning, the sun on their backs. Below them, they followed the river—did it have a name? Lian Zhidiao couldn’t remember—and before long, he saw the Green Highway swoop down from the north, white and broad enough for several carts to pass side-by-side. It drew close to the river. Situated between three hills, Sancha Town appeared below them, an orderly square of stone roads and houses. None of the undeath or misery or open tombs could be seen from up here. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes stayed on the town as they flew over it, but Yue Fengjian did not slow down or swing lower to take a closer look. 

I suppose he sees this kind of thing all the time: demons, undead, whole villages hollowed out. Now that the Lin cultivators are working on it, his involvement is over. 

He turned his head halfway to the side, as if to ask Yue Fengjian about the villages in Yue sect lands. But of course the wind was too strong for anything but a shout to be heard. Yelling back and forth thousands of feet up in the air probably wasn’t the best way to have a conversation. 

Sancha Town dropped behind them and receded into the distance. The Green Highway continued to the west and the river split into smaller rivers, reaching into deeper parts of the forest below them. The greatest part of the stream curved up to the north and disappeared into the misty haze at the edge of the horizon. All along the road and the river, he could only make out small villages and towns as grey and white clearings in the expanse of forests and fields. As the sun hung fat and orange in the evening sky, they sighted Fenfang City. 

Fenfang City was nothing less than a metropolis to rival any city in this world. At the end of the Green Highway in the center of the city, wide silver roofs pierced the canopy. Bright red wooden pillars upheld judicial buildings for the magistrates, libraries for the scholars, spaces for the treasury and civil servants. However, if one looked only at these great halls, one would miss the rest of the city, hidden under the cover of forest. Braziers were being lit for the night, revealing both the well-organized network of streets and lanes, as well as the mansions which were nestled in the groves. Lanterns floated under the branches like fireflies; the city had a bustling nightlife, doing brisk business at inns, opera houses, and brothels. 

Yue Fengjian dropped back and let Yue Yaosa lead their flying formation; she had been the one to find out just where it was that Yue Shipei had been taken.  In the dusk, she led them to the outskirts of the city, where low limestone hills poked up above the green blanket that covered the land. They landed in the courtyard of a huge mansion, floating down in the faintly spicy air between trees of incense wood. A pair of familiar faces was there to greet them. 

Zhou Xiangu looked much better than he had in the siheyuan in Sancha Town. Clean, with his hair lightly oiled and his robes perfumed with agarwood, he looked more comfortable—and yet, there was an air of self-importance that had been missing before. Clearly, being surrounded by beauty and fragrance suited him better than the decay and horror in Sancha Town. 

Zhou Xianzhi had been merely beautiful when dirty and trampled upon in Sancha Town. With just one day in the renewing walls of a sect capital, he could be likened to an island fairy. His long hair was sleek, as if a brush had been pulled through it a thousand times. Like a court lady, he smelled of the nectar of flowers, and he had traded his sword for a scented fan that rested on his delicate fingertips. He bowed to the party, offering a beatific smile. 

“You’ve arrived,” Zhou Xiangu said, also bowing. 

Yue Fengjian returned the bow. “The Master is not here?” 

“He’s busy with sect affairs and won’t be able to meet us for a few days,” Zhou Xiangu replied. “Even though he was the one who invited us.” 

“Now, now, he did leave instructions for us to be treated very well. And it gives our respected friends of the Yue sect a chance to rest after their journey without taking pains to keep up with the Master’s stamina.” Zhou Xianzhi said, opening his fan. His dark eyes moved to Yue Yaosa. “You are Yue Shipei’s sister? You must be worried for your brother.” 

Yue Yaosa had a drawn, anxious look on her face. “I am,” she said. 

Zhou Xianzhi opened his arms and gestured to a gallery behind them. “I will show you the way.” 

The two of them walked ahead, leaving Yue Fengjian, Liao Kuaiyu, Lian Zhidiao, and Zhou Xiangu walking in another group behind them. They passed through gardens that seemed to melt into the wood, plantings of flowers and grass mounded on either side of a carefully raked path that led away from the house. 

“The Master set aside a wing of the compound for us,” Zhou Xiangu said. “The servants here are quite dutiful, and will answer your call no matter what the hour.” 

In front of them, Zhou Xianzhi and Yue Yaosa had reached a large pavilion with heavy wooden doors standing barely ajar. Hu Baitian appeared at the threshold and opened the doors a little wider. Yue Yaosa hurried inside, while Zhou Xianzhi hung back. 

Lian Zhidiao and the second group joined him a few moments later, but even from outside, they could hear Yue Yaosa’s wail of relief. 

Inside, Yue Shipei was in a low bed, reclining on pillows. He was dressed in a sick man’s clothes—simple cloth without any embroidery or signs of wealth, and bandages could be seen wrapping around his bare chest. 

“He’s cracked a few ribs, but he’ll live,” Hu Baitian said as he left Yue Shipei’s bedside and walked back toward the door. “Well, he would have lived anyway, since I was right there to heal him, but…” He folded his arms over his chest, his tone grudgingly respectful. “Their healers are good. One of them was my father’s pupil, so they can be trusted to know what they’re doing.” 

Lian Zhidiao nodded, wondering if he had ever divulged a detail like that in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World. But it made sense. The Yuan sect were the healing specialists in this world, and every cultivator with an interest in staying alive through battles would seek their teachings. 

Something uncomfortable sprouted in Lian Zhidiao’s chest as he looked at Hu Baitian. Becoming a doctor just like his father, huh? 

“A-Zhen,” Yue Shipei said, petting the back of Yue Yaosa’s head. “You heard what Hu Baitian said. I’ll be fine.” He looked past his sister to the rest of them, and his face brightened a little. “You must have flown fast to get here so quickly. We didn’t arrive until well past nightfall.” 

“You expect them to fly fast with an injured man?” Liao Kuaiyu grinned. 

“I haven’t been injured like this before, so I had no idea what it was like.” 

“We’ll wait here until you’re able to travel without fear of re-injuring yourself.” Yue Fengjian said, his expression softening.  “Even if we have to move you into an inn because you’ve exhausted our hosts’ hospitality.” 

Yue Shipei looked down at the bed. “At least it’s plenty of time to read. They’ve brought me any books I’ve asked for.” 

Like siblings and old friends, the Yue cultivators fell into an easy discussion. One that Lian Zhidiao was content to watch as an outsider until he felt a touch at his sleeve. 

Zhou Xianzhi motioned him out into the open night air, where Zhou Xiangu waited, looking vaguely impatient. 

Lian Zhidiao looked back and forth between them. “What’s this about?” 

“You really are alright with them?” Zhou Xiangu nodded his head to the still noisy group inside.

“With six people here, it might get quite crowded.” Zhou Xianzhi’s voice was lowered so that it wouldn’t carry far, meant only for the three of them. “We have a whole pavilion to ourselves.”  Zhou Xianzhi’s lashes lowered as his eyes ran down Lian Zhidiao’s body. “You can join us, if you so desire.” 

Lian Zhidiao gave Zhou Xianzhi a small smile and a small bow, trying to extract himself from this situation while doing the least offense. “This foolish magician is honored by your concern, but I will stay in this pavilion.” 

Zhou Xianzhi’s face didn’t change, remaining beautiful and serene. He bowed deeply and turned to go, but then spoke over his shoulder. “If you should find yourself in need of shelter, little one, don’t hesitate to come to us.” 

A shiver ran down Lian Zhidiao’s spine. It could be that they honestly want me to be comfortable, especially if they knew the original Lian Zhidiao, but on the other hand, what’s with this mood?!

Previous Chapter < Chapter 11: Lian Zhidiao Plays A Digging Mini-Game
Next Chapter > Chapter 13: There Is A Bath Scene

Chapter 11: Lian Zhidiao Plays A Digging Mini-Game

The demon’s head sailed through the air and landed with a wet thud on the paving stones. The light in the eyes of the few remaining undead shuddered and faded away: now their masterless malice could be snuffed out by a low-ranked disciple.  

Yue Fengjian blew qi through his sword, scattering the demon’s black blood. Lian Zhidiao looked over his shoulder: the protection array was still in place. Hu Baitian either had not yet registered that the demon had been defeated, or he was too focused on his healing to care. 

“Yue Fengjian!” This time it was Yue Yaosa that called to him from a distance. She and Liao Kuaiyu dropped into the middle of the street next to him.  

Liao Kuaiyu checked him over—eyes, limbs, hands, feet—like a new mother counting the fingers and toes on her child. “Not hurt?” 

“No,” Yue Fengjian replied. He settled a hand on Liao Kuaiyu’s shoulder. “That was a big fireball.” 

“It did what it was supposed to do, didn’t it? Drive him to you,” Liao Kuaiyu said in an artificially light tone, but his shoulders sagged. Using that much of the qi in his golden core would leave anyone tired.

“It worked,” Yue Fengjian replied, giving his shoulder an affirming squeeze. Next he looked to Yue Yaosa. “Are you alright?” 

“None the worse for wear,” she replied, but her face looked a little pinched. “You got the kill this time. That’s twice in a row.” 

“Better work faster next time,” Yue Fengjian said wryly. Yue Yaosa lifted her fist like she might punch him, but lowered it when he nodded to the array up the street. “Hu Baitian is still seeing to Shipei.” 

Yue Yaosa gave Yue Fengjian a quick bow, and blew past Lian Zhidiao in a full run, Liao Kuaiyu hot on her heels. They pressed their faces up against the barrier like looking through a window. Liao Kuaiyu smacked it a few times, trying to get Hu Baitian to let them in. It sounded like hitting the bottom of an empty pitcher. 

Something about the sound defused all the tension in Lian Zhidiao’s body. He drifted up the street toward the market doors, letting out a deep breath. He’d survived the night. Ahead of him, he could make out the Lin magicians, including Lin Zhengchun and Lin Jingjing, still hard at work. Relieved of the immediate terror of a demon in their midst, they were picking off the stragglers and shepherding the deviates toward the southern gate for cleansing. The lion’s share of the fighting was done, and the rest would all be over soon.  

But his feeling of relief was arrested by the sight of Yue Fengjian standing next to the demon’s body. As Lian Zhidiao watched, Yue Fengjian knelt next to the body and punched his hand into its lower abdomen, close to where the dantian would be on a human. He wrestled with the slip and slide of the demon’s guts before pulling out something round that fit in his palm: at this distance, Lian Zhidiao couldn’t make out what it was. A trinket of some kind? Or something else? He dropped whatever it was on the ground and crushed it underfoot. Then, to Lian Zhidiao’s surprise, the body of the demon began to collapse in on itself, and he knew at once what had been done. 

Of course. He destroyed the demon core. 

A demon core was a physical object in a demon’s body that held all of that demon’s reserved demonic energy. In most webnovels, a demon’s power could be taken by anyone that found it, demon and human alike, if one consumed the demon core. But Supreme Warlord of the Beast World had been written with a more rigid system: rather than an item that boosted the victor’s power, consuming a core was only beneficial if it was part of the same energy management system. Cultivators and celestial beasts used correct qi, and demons and monsters used deviate qi. Like called to like; consuming deviate qi from the core of a demon would poison those that followed the correct way. The same was true for demons: correct qi was poisonous to them. But without great leaps in strength from defeating demonic enemies, the world had just moved too slowly for most readers. In the rest of his novels, Chen Jiajian had scrapped this system in favor of having villains and heroes manage their spiritual energy in more conventional ways: humans and demons both using the same qi as feedstock for their climb to power. Being able to gain a level from killing a fellow human being made for bloodier, more interesting reading, or so the comments claimed. 

Destroying the demon core meant that no demons could consume it and grow stronger. Yue Fengjian stood over the corpse until it was all rendered to ash. It wasn’t a moment of respect for a dead enemy. It was making sure the deed was done.

Yue Fengjian finally walked past Lian Zhidiao to join Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu as they harangued Hu Baitian to drop the barrier.  Lian Zhidiao’s eyes were drawn to him as he walked past. 

Did anyone else see him do that? 

“So that’s the power of a first-rate Yue magician.” Zhou Xiangu scoffed, interrupting Lian Zhidiao’s thoughts. “Well, if you throw that much fire at anything, even water would turn to steam.” 

“Jealous?” Zhou Xianzhi’s voice came from just inside the threshold; he’d been hanging back, where Lian Zhidiao couldn’t see him. 

“No,” Zhou Xiangu shot back. 

“Good,” Zhou Xianzhi replied. “It doesn’t do to be jealous of those with inborn talent. Knowledge, in this case, isn’t everything.” He paused. “Isn’t that right, little one?” 

Ah, they caught me eavesdropping. 

“I’m sure Liao Kuaiyu has worked hard to be able to spin magic like that,” he answered cautiously. 

“Oh.” Zhou Xianzhi stepped out into the street, his blue robes melting into the darkness. The setting moon was making way for the approaching dawn. The weak light from the market lanterns barely showed where he was. When Lian Zhidiao heard his voice again, it was much nearer and had a lower, intimate tone. “You’ve changed since we last talked.” Soft fingers brushed his hair back from his face. Lian Zhidiao jerked backwards, only to hear a small giggle from Zhou Xianzhi. 

He… touched my hair? Lian Zhidiao reflexively tucked it behind his ear. What kind of talk did Lian Zhidiao have with him before? Unable to come up with an appropriate answer, he grunted in agreement. I could try to press him for information, but he might already have information about Lian Zhidiao that could hurt me. And I’m tired. 

“I need to check the blood pit,” he stammered, changing the subject. 

“Of course,” Zhou Xianzhi replied in a melodic voice. “If the pit isn’t isolated, let me know.” 

Lian Zhidiao thought he could feel Zhou Xianzhi’s eyes between his shoulder blades as he walked away. Zhou Xiangu unfolded his arms and straightened up as Lian Zhidiao walked past.

In the market, the air was slightly more chilled than before. The blood pit didn’t look any different, but verifying that the gate was closed seemed to be something that earth-seeing was suited for. In order to do that, earth was needed, of course. It wasn’t long until Lian Zhidiao found a loose stone at the edge. A little bit of work with a piece of broken wood, and it came up. 

Lian Zhidiao looked up to make sure that he wasn’t being watched. But the Zhou twins had stopped hanging around in the doorway, and walked out in the street. Promising himself that he wouldn’t lose himself in the earth, Lian Zhidiao knelt and pressed his hands against the exposed ground. 

The stench of rotting food and stores faded away as Lian Zhidiao pushed his awareness down into the ground. He immediately discovered three things. 

The first was that the earth here was still crawling earth. He’d hoped that defeating the demon might do something to purify the land—that’s the way it worked in video games, after all—but no. The earth was just as polluted as it had been a few hours ago. 

The second was that seeing into crawling earth not only was more difficult, but impossible to do without feeling the deviate qi attempting to enter his body. It pushed at him like a writhing mass of worms, thousands of hungry little snouts trying to dig into him and eat their way through. A constant use of qi would be enough to keep the deviate qi from touching him, but it was easiest to do right in front of him. Turning his attention in different directions allowed some of the deviate qi to push at the imperfections in his defenses. Tentatively, he looked below where Yue Fengjian had smashed the demon core into the ground. It wasn’t any more or less crawling earth there: the demonic energy from the smashed core had become completely incorporated into its tainted surroundings. 

The third was that the visual resolution of his earth-seeing was much better the closer he was to targets. He could easily see a cage of ice extending down around the blood pit, grown like a lattice with the holes closed up later. With a high water table, there’d been plenty of ice to work with. The ground was frozen for about a foot in every direction from the surface of the pit, making it a bowl of ice. To test its soundness, he looked for deviate qi squirming its way in through any holes. But even in the middle of the sickening pulse, he couldn’t see any of it moving beyond the frozen earth.

It should be enough to keep demons out until we can fill in the pit. Probably. 

He also couldn’t help but notice that the thing buried near the well was now crystal clear to him.  

It was a cow. 

They buried a statue? Or…could it be a jade beast? Neither one made a lot of sense. But the only way to find out was to dig it up.

On coming back to himself, a wave of weakness overcame Lian Zhidiao. A little more deviate qi had slid into him without him noticing, like not noticing the hem of your pants getting soaked in a puddle in a public restroom. He could try to expel it, but the idea of having his mouth raked with the pain of acid or needles wasn’t something he looked forward to. He didn’t want to be seen with his mouth drooling black and be taken for a deviate.  

Lian Zhidiao looked inward and found that the deviate qi from the cleansing the cow in Shuangwan Village had found a low point in the other core. His golden core was fine, but the other core had a feeling of rancid filth when he looked at it, like an oil seep. 

But having deviate qi in his other core hadn’t affected his ability to spin spells, or his ability to fight. And at least for the time being, it didn’t seem to hurt him either, as long as the deviate qi wasn’t allowed to destabilize his golden core. 

With so many other cultivators around and the situation still so tense, carrying it seemed the best choice. Lian Zhidiao manipulated his meridians, holding back correct qi to open the path to the other core. He pressed the back of his hand to his mouth, smothering the nausea at the feeling of something cold and crawling inside him, burrowing down to his dantian. The deviate qi fell into the other core and all but vanished, but the sickening effects remained. 

It wasn’t much deviate qi. It was barely any at all in the grand scheme of things. 

But no matter what I did, a little got in. No wonder the Wa sect has a higher rate of qi deviation. Every time they use earth-seeing on stained or crawling earth, they poison themselves.

“Are you alright?” Yue Yaosa’s voice echoed through the empty market. She quick-stepped to his side and knelt next to him, looking him over. 

“Fine,” Lian Zhidiao croaked, shaking his head. “Don’t worry about me.” 

“Hu Baitian has almost finished his treatment. I’ll let him know you need—”

Hu Baitian’s scowl when asked to treat him rose up in his mind like a spectre. “No! No,” he said waving her off. “It’s nothing serious.”

“Did the smell overcome you?” Yue Yaosa looked sympathetic. “It is quite strong.” 

The discomfort of his insides squirming against themselves was fading away. Lian Zhidiao seized on the excuse. “Yes,” he answered quickly. “I’m not used to the smell of rot.” 

Yue Yaosa extended one strong arm to help him up. “You Wa cultivators all set such store by your perfumes and incense. It doesn’t do you any good when you have to fight.” 

Lian Zhidiao took her hand and felt like his shoulder was being pulled out of its socket. He was on his feet again, but at what cost? “It would be the mark of a better world if there was less fighting to do.” 

Yue Yaosa stared at him. 

“Did I say something strange?” 

“A little,” she answered, a quizzical look on her face. “What would the world be like without fighting?” 

“That’s what Yue Fengjian wants, isn’t it?”  

Yue Yaosa’s brow wrinkled. “What?” 

Oh no, has Yue Fengjian not divulged his plans to them yet? These events should already be within the framework of the novel itself, so the main party should already know, shouldn’t they? Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “Forget I said anything. More importantly, we need to find some tools and dig up the square next to the well.” 

“After the night we’ve had?” Yue Yaosa gave him an incredulous look. “Any reason?” 

“There’s something in the earth next to the well,” Lian Zhidiao said slowly. “It could be a jade beast.” 

“A jade beast, huh?” She gave him a short nod. “I’ll see what we can find.” 

With the help of the Lin cultivators, a storehouse was opened and picks found, but after that, there was still work for the Lin sect to do. The sun was rising as they pulled back the stones like scaling a fish, and began to dig down. Yue Fengjian took to manual labor easily. Zhou Xiangu was volunteered for digging by his brother. He and Yue Fengjian developed a rhythm, their picks rising and falling. Hu Baitian and Liao Kuaiyu pulled baskets of earth out, mounding them up on the side of the hole, which was about two meters long and almost three meters wide. 

“Can’t you make this go any faster?” Hu Baitian’s white robes were stained with gray sand, and a few flecks of mud had gotten onto his face as well. 

“Not until I know what’s in the hole,” Lian Zhidiao replied.

“We’re just as likely to chip it with our picks,” Zhou Xiangu snarled, his eyes like blades at anyone who dared to talk to him. 

“Just a little bit further,” Lian Zhidiao said. Then he heard the telltale sound of metal hitting stone. 

“Got something here,” Zhou Xiangu said in an irritated tone, tapping it with his shovel. 

Lian Zhidiao scooched to the edge of the hole and dropped in to take a look. They weren’t quite down to the water table yet, but the earth here was slightly damp. With both hands he cleared the mud away. 

“Getting pretty used to seeing you covered in muck,” Liao Kuaiyu offered from the top of the hole. 

“Hazards of the job,” Lian Zhidiao grunted, pushing the earth aside. There was a softly curving piece of stone still obscured by a layer of mud, but the weak light at the bottom of the hole couldn’t quite reveal what kind of stone it was. He stood up. “Is there some water?” 

“Certainly,” Zhou Xianzhi said. He spun a small globe of water from his spindle and then dropped it in the hole on the muddy surface Lian Zhidiao had uncovered. Sweeping water over it to clean it, it was clear in a matter of moments that the stone was jade green. 

“It’s a jade beast.” Zhou Xiangu let his shovel rest in the earth, leaning on it. Some of his ire at being forced to dig seemed to have cooled. “Why did they bury a jade beast?” 

“The deviates that are able to recover should be interviewed,” Hu Baitian said.”If anyone important survived, they may know what led to this, or when it happened.”  

Yue Shipei winced his way to the side of the hole and looked down at them. “It doesn’t look like it’s alive.” He addressed Lian Zhidiao. “Is that something you can fix?” 

“You mean by kissing it?” Liao Kuaiyu had an impish curl to his lips.

 “It’s not a kiss!” Lian Zhidiao had had about enough.

Liao Kuaiyu snickered, and Yue Shipei laughed once before holding his hand to his side and groaning. 

“What is it then?” Yue Fengjian rubbed his sleeve over his forehead, wiping away sweat. 

“It’s… a technique.” He didn’t really know what to call it, but he couldn’t really explain that he’d come up with it based on a book and a weak understanding of qi and CPR. Lian Zhidiao started to dig away at the sides of the cow with his hands. His broken nails hadn’t had the chance to heal after he’d awakened in this body, so he was likely just making things worse for himself later, but healing a jade beast was worth it, wasn’t it? 

Yet as they dug the cow out, he couldn’t shake the feeling that this hadn’t been in the original story. Digging up the jade beast was a brand new event happening within the timeline of the novel. Lian Zhidiao was all too aware that such actions, even beneficial ones, could have unforeseen consequences down the road. 

The sun had risen above the horizon, peeking above one of the three hills that gave Sancha its name when Lian Zhidiao got the beast’s head free of the sandy soil packed around it. Yue Shipei was right: the cow was completely frozen, as the one in Shuangwan Village had been. The cure ought to be the same, right? 

With a small noise of regret for the filth he was about to crawl into, he wedged himself down in the dirt. With his sleeve, he rubbed the cow’s nose and mouth clean. Just as he was about to lean forward, he realized he had a bit of an audience: everyone, from Yue Fengjian to the Zhou twins, was watching him very closely. Yue Yaosa was the first to recognize that he was hesitating at being watched. 

“Come on,” she said, herding the others away. “Especially you two.” She reserved particular suspicion for the Zhou twins, who dragged their feet as much as they could. It wasn’t that Lian Zhidiao was all that concerned with anyone seeing the technique itself. But it was embarrassing to even look like he was kissing a cow. 

Lian Zhidiao looked inside the cow and gave it a small breath to see what was happening. The jade beast’s time in the stained earth had concentrated so much deviate qi in it that some was beginning to condense into dark scale lining its meridians. 

Lian Zhidiao did the same as he had done before, but this time, surrounded by crawling earth, he had to draw entirely on the qi in his golden core. A breath to loosen the dark scale of deviate qi, a breath to light the fires, a breath to stoke them to a white-hot storm of energy. He drew the deviate qi and demonic energy through the cow up to his mouth and spat it out to one side, his mouth like fire and poison all at once. To his horror, the black fluid that bubbled out of his lips wriggled as it fell into the dirt and then rooted into the ground and disappeared from sight.

The jade cow lifted its head out of his hands.  Lian Zhidiao wiped his mouth again, rubbing the black stain away.  The cow mooed at him and butted her head against him. 

“You’re happy too, huh?” Lian Zhidiao let out a shaky breath and rubbed her head. Then there was the sound of footsteps at the top of the hole. 

“See?” Liao Kuaiyu folded his arms over his chest. 

Yue Fengjian’s eyes darted from Lian Zhidiao to the cow and back again. “You fixed it?” 

“Mm,” Lian Zhidiao replied. I don’t need to say more than that; the work speaks for itself.  

Dumbfounded, Yue Fengjian stared at him. “How?” 

Yue Yaosa couldn’t hold back a laugh. “Well done, Lian Zhidiao! It’s not everyone that can leave shige speechless.” 

Yue Fengjian shot her a frown, and seemed about to correct her when Hu Baitian pointed at the sky. 


In a few moments, the blue sky overhead was filled with cultivators in green robes, their emerald sleeves fluttering: reinforcements from the Lin sect had arrived at last.  

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

Chapter 10: Scalding Blight

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

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

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

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

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

“It is,” Yue Fengjian replied. 

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

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

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

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

“Curious,” Hu Baitian said suddenly.


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

His words hung in the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a backhanded compliment! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be still,” Hu Baitian ordered him. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your name, demon.” 

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

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

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

Chapter 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

Chapter 5: Yue Fengjian, Lion of Yue

Lian Zhidiao swallowed hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You had to bring that up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glad to see that someone still has some manners! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yue Shipei nodded slowly in agreement. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4: Lian Zhidiao, Half-Drowned Housecat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this sect that looked-down-upon?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cow flicked its ears amiably and mooed again. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cow definitely wanted to follow him into the house. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, this is a town, you know…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a moment, the red rider went inside. 

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

At least this part is familiar enough. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I believe that I have.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything would be helpful.” 

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

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

“From the Xinxue Yue sect, yes.” 

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“A body…?” 

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

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

Chapter 3: Lian Zhidiao Has Not Unlocked Fast Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are there lodgings in this village?” 

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


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

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

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

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

“I see you have an eye for gardens.” 

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

She’s a magician as well. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you bring some breakfast for me?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, dajie, you have no idea!  

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

Yang Meihua smiled at him again and his heart softened. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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