A writhing knot of spectral flesh exploded violently, dissolving into the cool night air with little more than a chorus of wails. It was but one of many shredded by silver-edged shadows that flitted through the night, barely visible to the eye.
This was, Sima Jiao mused irritably, incredibly tedious. The new basin crawled with malevolent life, and due to the multitude of shadows in the tumble of broken trees, buildings, and earth, he was all too aware of each and every one of the possessed corpses, wailing spirits, and knots of diseased flesh flowering and sprouting from wood rotted into a liquid slurry.
Disgusting and unpleasant, a lesser man might have retched. Not Elder Jiao, of course, though his was a title that both amused and irritated him. Right now, he leaned more toward irritation. A moment of will focused a fraction of awareness to the top of broken building, and his body coalesced from the darkness, loud eye-searing yellow bleeding out of the shadows as he grew something solid to anchor his spirit once more.
He was rather proud of this robe with its glittering psychedelic purple embroidery patterns - and not just because he was certain it had made the old goat at the meeting flinch. Not physically, but he had a sense for that kind of thing.
“This is beneath me,” the grey skinned man said with an air of long-suffering. “Really. Being sent to do disciple work. This is insulting.”
“The Core Disciples are all deployed, dear. You know that.”
He didn’t bother with anything so plebeian as turning his head toward the soft, musical voice of Xin. There wasn’t much point; pretending at physical limitations was rather pointless when they were alone. He could see her slowly coalescing a body from moonbeams and starlight regardless of which way his physical eyes faced.
“Besides, you were not doing anything important, my lazy husband.” His wife formed her avatar seated on a weathered beam that stuck from the ground like an exposed bone, wearing a simple gown of shimmering liquid night glittering with stars.
He took a moment to admire her pale, bare feet, idly kicking beneath the hem even as hundreds more of the plagued abominations were torn apart by blade and shadow in a widening ring. It did not stop him from letting out an aggrieved sigh at her words. Beautiful as Xin might be, she could be so cruel and lacking in understanding at times.
“I was, in fact, quite busy,” he responded with great dignity, crossing his arms over his still chest. “I will have you know that I was nearing a breakthrough on a very important-”
“You were playing with that old chariot again,” she interjected, an amused note in her voice as her pale blue lips quirked upwards and her bright red eyes crinkled in amusement. “I do not see why. It is not as if you even need such things,” she added lightly. Her qi coiled and mixed with his, the equivalent of a teasing caress. “You’ve forgotten your hands again, dear.”
Sima Jiao glanced down at the empty end of his sleeve and grimaced, a quick flick of his qi resolving the issue. Even if it was unnecessary, it was a poor idea to forget such things too often.
“I would not expect a woman to understand a man’s needs in such things,” he said aloud, idly directing the placement of the formation anchors on newly cleared land. “That I do not need it is not the point. It is a classic made by Grandmaster-”
“Yes, yes,” she interrupted again with a dismissive wave, drawing a dour look and a weighty shift in qi from her companion. Xin did so enjoy needling him when they were alone; he would have to get her back for that later. “Should we not focus on the task at hand? You can get back to your tinkering more quickly that way.”
“Something so trivial is hardly worth focusing on,” he dismissed. It could have been far worse, he supposed, but that it had happened at all was grating. “That musclebrained lump certainly has much to answer for,” he grumbled. “We were told the eradication of the Thunder Crow tribe was complete, and yet, here we are, dealing with a vengeful apprentice.”
“I am sure Sir Zhou’s subordinates are receiving very firm reprimands,” Xin mused. “Still, it is not entirely their fault. We both know that this is… unusual, yes?” In the space between eye blinks, Xin was beside him, entangling her fingers with his as she leaned her head against his shoulder.
There did remain some advantages to physicality, Jiao mused.
“Yes, I suppose so,” he replied, the majority of his attention still spread through the basin as he continued the extermination. It was a little irritating that the barbarian child had been slain by an arrow; death imprints pulled from a bow were less clear than those from a blade. “Gnawing Ones.” Despite the relatively lack of clarity, the imprints had been clear enough to see pale, long-faced figures loping in the dark. A great deal of flesh and spirit had been offered in return for the tools of vengeance.
“Not the first we’ve heard such things,” Xin noted aloud, unnecessarily, but it did help to vocalize things at times. That was the entire point of such puppet play after all.
“Of course we have,” Jiao replied with a touch of arrogance as the formation stones activated, and the spirits of the land shrieked as qi began to drain from them like water from a holed barrel. Plants withered and died, and rot became dust. Someone else, Ying perhaps, would have to restore the growth. “Our histories contain all that there is,” he continued without missing a beat, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “It is still troubling to find yet another foe where once there were only the hysterical accounts of those delving far too deeply under the earth. Perhaps this is the threat that will see the Empire stop squabbling like children.”
“Unlikely,” Xin said with an amused laugh. “What would humans be if they did not squabble and fight over every little thing?”
“The men of the Empire are cut from a finer cloth,” Sima Jiao proclaimed with theatrical pride. He knew his wife could sense his true feelings on the matter though, regardless of whatever foolishness flowed from his lips. He had retired for many, very good reasons.
“Of course, dear,” she replied, rising on her toes to press a cold kiss to his similarly unheated cheek. More amusing puppet play to go along with the far more intimate twining of their spirits. “Did you notice? The one who uncovered this was that little girl from the test.”
“Was it now?” he drawled, amused. “And I thought it was the half-fox.”
“It was both, I suppose,” Xin agreed. “Still, I think she is doing well.”
“Do we truly need to have this conversation again?” Jiao asked with a long suffering sigh, finally deigning to turn his head and look at his wife directly. “The last thing our peaceful retirement needs is the involvement of your disciple projects.”
She pursed her lips. “It would not be an issue if someone would get me with child,” she replied dangerously. “My sisters talk. Perhaps I should consider their advice.”
“Unnecessary. Completely so,” the Elder reassured the irate spirit, genuine concern tingling through the core of his being. “Perhaps in a few decades,” he added placatingly as the wails of damned spirits rose around them. “We should allow things to settle first after all, one way or another.”
“Perhaps,” Xin mused, seemingly willing to drop the subject, much to his relief. “In any case, I will allow you to finish your work, dear. I will be out with several of the other ladies of the mountain tonight since you have such an important project in the workshop.”
His relief may have come too soon, Sima Jiao thought, as the woman at his side dissolved into starlight. He would have to be a bit wary for the next few nights. Well, he supposed retirement would be boring if it were entirely without conflict. At least he could be reasonably certain of finishing the inscriptions on the rims of his chariot before Xin returned with ideas. He swore that the ice spirit on the peak was a bad influence on her, along with that wretched ape of Hua Su’s. Interacting with the ice creature’s spawn made Xin want one of her own.
For now, with the greater concerns already reported to the Sect Head, he needed to finish up with this nonsense.