The pungent coppery scent of blood was almost unnoticeable beneath the miasma of anguish and hate that hung heavy in the air. I grimaced as I carefully opened the door of the run-down house, and both the scent and the slime-slick spiritual corruption doubled in potency. The scrape of my sandals on worn wood echoed in my ears as I thrust the copper-ringed head of my staff forward, the faint glow cast by the metal parting the cloud of corruption as I stepped into the silent hearth room.
Casting a wary glance around the room, I murmured a quiet prayer and channeled a flow of qi through my spine, causing the growing burning sensation wrought by the corruption in the air to fade. In the faint glow cast by my staff, I saw the body of a man, his chest and belly rent open, lying in a pool of blood and viscera at the centre of the hall. Closer now, I could catch the scent of poison, of wine staining his blood and flesh even as the first stages of decomposition took hold. I grimaced as I stepped over him, approaching the half open door at the end of the hall from which the miasma of corruption came.
Between the reports that had drawn me here and the scene before me, the shape of what had happened was becoming clear. I reached the door to the bedroom, and with grim eyes, I beheld the horror within. The body of a woman lay crumpled on the ground, loose hair matted with dried blood strewn across her face, giving way to bruised and broken flesh beneath. Particles of deathly qi, thick as smoke but invisible to mortal eyes, rose from the corpse to join the blackening cloud of roiling energies that hung in the air, emanating misery and anger.
I paled not at the sight of the corruption’s source but at the sound of sniffling and short, fearful breaths emerging from under the bed. With a wary eye on the corruption, I lowered the head of my staff and slowly crouched, peering beneath the rough wooden frame. A boy of no more than five or six winters clad in bloodstained clothes with skin marred by ugly purple-yellow bruising lay curled up on the far side, wide eyes wet with panicked tears as he looked out at the light of my staff.
I held back the curse that threatened to escape my lips as the roiling darkness in the room pulsed and throbbed, faces twisted by rage and anguish forming in the blackness.
“Run,” the boy croaked, shivering as the temperature plummeted.
“No need for that,” I said, keeping my rough voice as calm and soothing as possible, even as my body tensed, ready to react at a moment’s notice. “Come to me, little one, and we’ll get to safety.”
“I can’t,” he replied, violently shaking his head. “She… Mom doesn’t want me to leave. I tried…”
The thing in the room with us was not his mother, merely an echo left behind by her passing, but I knew better than to try and explain that to a child. “She is just angry and confused,” I said, trying to keep the urgency from my voice. “I will help her to rest. Do you see my staff, little one?”
“It-it’s like the ones I saw at Grandpa’s funeral,” the boy sniffled.
“You see,” I said, putting on a smile even as I shaped qi into my free hand. “I will help your mother calm down and rest, but you must come out first. How long have you been there, boy? I’m sure that your mother would not want you to starve.”
“N-no, but… she’s so angry,” the boy whispered.
“I will protect you,” I promised solemnly, eyeing the cloud. “Now, on a three count, come to me.”
The boy finally nodded, shuffling toward the foot of the bed as I began to count down. As I reached zero, he darted out, fearful and frantic. At that same time, the corruption seething in the center of the room let out a discordant, two-tone wail, rattling the window panes of the house. Dripping blackness shaped in a twisted, shrieking visage shot forwards, ink black talons as long as swords reaching and grasping for flesh to tear.
I swept up the boy with my free hand and released the qi that had been held in my cupped palm, shielding his frail body even as I brought the head of my staff around, the sculpted white iris flower in the center of the ring flaring with brilliant intensity The phantom howled as its claws skittered fruitlessly across the shell of white and gold qi emanating from the tip of the staff. I grit my teeth as I felt the corruption wash across my bald scalp, insidious whispers crawling across the surface of my mind.
With an effort of will, I shut out the foreign pain and rage and shook my staff, the hanging rings chiming in unison with a single, pure tone. A pulse of purifying qi forced the miasma away as I rose to my feet. Turning on my heel, I ran, clutching the crying boy to my chest as I beelined for the door. The phantom screamed, shrieked, and raged, the whole house shaking from its efforts, but I did not glance back, trusting in my barrier to hold.
Bursting out of the house, I smashed my staff against the sutra I had nailed to the door frame before entering. The painted characters on the parchment burned gold as they activated. All around the perimeter, I felt the barriers slam into place, sealing the spiritual corruption within.
As I stood outside listening to the phantom’s silent howls and doing what I could to soothe the crying child I held, I sighed. Just another wonderful night in the city of Tonghou.
“You look like shit, Bolin,” my companion commented, looking me up and down as she leaned against the wall outside of her offices.
I took her vulgarity in stride for I, Wu Bolin, felt like shit as well. Between making sure that the boy was settled in at the temple and performing the rituals needed to settle the phantom, it had been yet another sleepless night. “Mou Rushi, are you in a position to be casting stones?” I asked.
Even more than myself, the woman in front of me had an air of haggard exhaustion. Dark circles lay under her eyes, and a thousand little signs of fatigue marked her body language. “Maybe not,” she grunted. “The disturbance?”
“Domestic violence turned to murder,” I answered quietly, leaning heavily on my staff. “The man turned his fists on their son after, and it awoke a vengeful phantom from her passing.”
Mou Rushi grimaced. “Well, at least it’s all tied up then. Nothing for my boys to do.”
I gave her a steady look, knowing the callous comment for what it was. “Your request for more men was rejected then?”
“Insufficient manpower, my ass,” she spat. “My equipment budget is getting cut this year too.”
I nodded. Mou Rushi may have been a guard captain, but there was no prestige to that position in this district. I had seen the better part of a century worth of captains pass here, and it was always a punishment detail. Rushi, bless her, at least tried to do her job well despite that. It was a sight better than her predecessor.
“Thank you for all of your hard work,” I said instead of a platitude that would go unappreciated.
She waved her hand in frustrated dismissal. “You as well, Bolin. Spirits know this place would have gotten sucked into the hells decades ago without you.”
“That is not how anything works,” I replied with faint amusement. “But thank you all the same. I think I will be giving these weary bones a rest however if there is nothing else.” I began to turn away, but she spoke up then.
“Bolin,” she began roughly. “You remember those murders on the south end from last month?”
I stopped, looking back with furrowed brows. “I do. An apothecary selling tainted goods, was it not?” Ugly business with bad medicines driving people into violent fugues.
“So it seemed. I’m not so sure anymore. There’ve been more incidents,” she said. “Not as bad as before, but the gang fighting has been getting worse. More lethal. Couple of my boys got some broken bones when bringing in a street tough the other day.”
My eyebrows shot up. While it wasn’t impossible for mortals to be able to harm first realm cultivators, particularly new ones, it was unusual for one to do so by themself, especially when outnumbered. “What happened to this man?”
She glanced away. “Dead. He didn’t have the toughness to match his strength.”
Unfortunate. “... and you do not have the men to investigate,” I sighed.
“People trust you, Bolin,” she said stiffly. “More ‘n they trust my lot at least.”
I sighed again. “I will do what I can.”
“Thank you very much,” I said, dipping my head to the woman at the vendor’s stand as I accepted my purchase, a small wicker container which did little to hide the aroma of the dumplings inside.
“You are always welcome, Master Wu,” the woman replied cheerfully. Though her face was lined and her hair gray, she maintained a cheerful energy. “You do so much work for us. It’s a shame you won’t allow me to treat you more often!”
“There is no need for that,” I said with a smile. In truth, there was no need for me to purchase as much as I did given my cultivation. A little bread and water would cover my body’s need for a month or more. “Allow this old man to support everyone’s endeavors instead, Madam Wen.”
“As you say, Master Wu,” the aged woman agreed, knowing the argument was futile. “Still, you are always welcome in my home.” A worrying glint entered the madam’s eyes. “My daughter has shown some talent with her letters, you know. Perhaps you might see if she is suitable for helping with the charms at this year’s Falling Leaves Festival?”
“I would be happy to introduce her to one of my junior brothers and see,” I deflected deftly. “However, I really must be going. Things have been very busy as of late.”
Madam Wen’s smile faded. “Terrible business, that Lu Mei and her husband. I told her mother that that boy was trouble.” She shook her head in sorrow. “Once a thug, always a thug. Bless you, Master Wu, for putting things to rest.”
“It is only my duty,” I said, dipping my head one more time as I departed. I bit into the first of my dumplings as I strolled through the market, regarding the street with an assessing eye. It was amazing how much things could change while still staying the same, I mused. Though I had lived to see every building on this street torn down at least once, the character of this place remained much the same. Indeed, thirty years ago, I could recall deflecting Madame Wen’s own mother with a very similar excuse. Perhaps in another thirty, the young lady in question would be soliciting me for her own daughter’s sake.
The thought was only mildly unsettling. I had long grown used to the gulf of time which my cultivation had opened. Nor did I blame mothers and grandmothers for seeking out favorable conditions for their children. However, I preferred the company of my brothers when I was young, and with age and endings, such desires had passed wholly from my mind. I savored the sweet bean paste in my dumpling and allowed myself a moment of remembrance for those who had gone to their rightful rest. Though my own path was to tread on this mortal realm for a while longer yet, I would be happy when it came time to join them.
Now was not the time for such ponderings though. I turned my mind from thoughts of the past and the future and focused on the now as I strolled through the busy street. I had to admit, Mou Rushi was right. For me, gathering information was very easy indeed. People of the district were all too eager to gossip with only a small prompting on my part. I felt no shame in taking advantage. Since I had risen to the rank of Master at my humble shrine, I had worked hard to ensure that we provided for our supplicants. The Temple of the Restful End was one of the more well attended shrines in the district.
This meant that it was not only Madam Wen who was willing to speak candidly with me. The picture the people painted was not a happy one. More fighting in the streets, more disappearances, and more sinister happenings. My grip on my staff tightened, and for a moment, I felt a flicker of resentment toward those lords of this city who chose to neglect this district so. I was only one man, and my brothers were few.
I let the feeling go with a breath. Resentment did no good. A virtuous man did good with the resources that were within his reach. I paused at the corner of the street, and with a smile, I passed the basket with my remaining dumplings to a particularly hungry looking young man. That done, I took my first turn into less traveled streets.
The contrast between the district’s main street and the rest was significant, especially with the sun dipping below the horizon. In the full light of day, the market was a lively place, the wear and poverty hidden beneath the whirling activity of a busy day. In the regions beyond, with the shadows of night creeping across the streets, it was much more obvious. I passed between buildings held up by patchwork repairs and saw the almost imperceptible way that they would lean or sag with the weight of years and poor maintenance.
In the market, those who scraped by well enough to maintain an air of normalcy gathered, but out here, I saw far too many hollow cheeks and hollow eyes. I felt the gazes which lingered enviously on the quality cloth of my white cassock. I did not think less of them for it. The temple’s meager efforts at charity had trouble penetrating into the poorest places. We fed and provided succor for those we could, but in the end, it was a limited thing. The south end of the district was nigh abandoned by the proper authorities, and so other hierarchies arose.
Even here, under the eyes of slouching young men who wore marks of tattoos like badges of office, my personage was unmolested. I knew these people, just as I knew Madam Wen. I had overseen their births, driven away spirits of sickness, and seen their grief as loved ones were laid to rest.
However, there were limits to that respect, it seemed. As I approached an old and decaying storefront, once home to a family of tailors, long scattered and gone, I found myself confronted by three wary young men. I duly pretended not to notice the four others lurking about in alleys and broken crevices.
“Strange place to be taking a stroll, Master Wu,” spoke one in a gruff voice. The speaker was a bulky young man with a tattoo covering his right shoulder and a puckered scar marring his right cheek, a badge from a knife fight long passed.
“One’s duties can lead to strange places, Ma Fan,” I said cordially. As I thought, standing so close to these poor young men, I could feel the poisoned medicinal energies coursing through their veins. “How are your mother and sister faring?”
He glowered at me, even as the others shifted uncomfortably in the face of my query. “They’re fine,” the boy, Ma Fan, replied. “You just passing through then? I hadn’t heard of any bodies turning up.”
“I am afraid not,” I said, giving a meaningful look to the building behind them. Between the locations of the fights and the stories of those who had seen certain dark deeds, this was the source of trouble, and if not, it was certainly a place brewing dark spirits in its belly. “It is my duty to inspect the sites of violence and cleanse the malevolence from the air, and it hangs thick indeed here.” What I would do for access to the sort of arts which stories said greater cultivators held, allowing them to extend their senses across the width of a city or more.
The boy’s scowl deepened. “Well, it’s not needed here, Master Wu. Nothing for you to worry over. Don’t you have a grandfather or two to wave your stick over?”
I regarded Ma Fan silently. It was time to dispense with pleasantries. “Young man, I know not what you have been told, but you are being poisoned. If you continue to walk this path, soon you will lie in a grave. Where will your family be then, I wonder?”
His face reddened with anger. “And there you go again, you smug bastard. Like you know what trouble is when you’re sittin’ rich and fat at your shrine. Get out of here, priest. This place is none of your business.”
One of the others, Li Yun if I remembered right, shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, glancing at his leader. “Fan, if Master Wu says the place needs to be cleansed, maybe…”
“Nothing like that’s happened here,” Ma Fan said sharply, silencing his compatriot with a look. “This guy’s just in with the guard. People have seen him chattin’ up that new captain.”
I contemplated the young men in front of me. It seemed that they were genuinely unaware of some of the matters which I had tracked to this place. It was worrying. Such duplicity implied more organization than I was comfortable with. “Ma Fan, I do not lie to you. I will not deny that I am helping to investigate this poison being peddled. This place you guard is filled with malevolence nonetheless.”
“You’re just afraid of people being able to stand up to you,” the scarred young man said darkly. “If I’ve been poisoned, I’ll take more of it. I’ve never felt better. Maybe those fucks will pay us some mind if we can stand up to their goons.”
My serene expression faltered, and I closed my eyes. “Child, do not wish for such terrible things,” I said, more harshly than I intended. Old memories flashed through my mind. A narrow and fragile blade flashing once before a score of men fell, cut down like wheat for the crime of desertion. A star in the sky pulsing with eerie light before a mighty beast that had torn apart my entire unit fell, its skull reduced to fragments and bloody mist by a single arrow. “Whatever power you have gained, it is not enough. Do not seek the attention of the Heavens. It will not end well for any of us.”
I could see that my words were futile however. Here, so far from spirit beasts and with only the weakest of cultivators ever present, it was so easy to believe that a little bit of power could change things. It was so easy to lie to themselves that the heavens lay just out of reach, rather than beyond the highest mountain peaks. “Get out of here, priest,” Ma Fan repeated gruffly. “Last chance.”
“I am sorry,” I said tiredly. I took a single step forward, and Ma Fan swung his fist. It was a well thrown punch, unrefined but well practiced all the same. I could see why he had risen to a leadership role among whatever gang he served. With the toxic medicinal energy coursing through his veins and seeping into his muscles. I had no doubt that any mortal man would see it as a blur and fall with a fractured skull in the next instant. I could see even a fresh, first realm guardsman failing to react and block in time.
But the world was unfair. Although I was a mere second realm cultivator, that small gulf was enough for that unfairness to be expressed. Leaning fractionally to the side, his fist whistled past my ear, and the butt of my staff lashed out, hooking his ankle and tearing his feet out from under him. He tumbled to the ground with a shout.
At the same time, my free hand lashed out, a palm strike landing dead center in another young man’s chest. I held back, but still, the only thing which saved that man from broken bones as he crashed through a stack of moldering crates was a soft pulse of qi from my Kindly Reaper art, cushioning the blow and transforming the force into energy-sapping qi.
A knife struck from behind, and I spun, catching it between my fingers and snapping the blade with a twist of my wrist. Again, my staff lashed out, the rings crying out as the butt caught the attacker below the ribs and forced the air from his lungs. In short order, three more came, trying to flank and to box me in, but it did not matter. With the moment I had bought myself, I slammed my staff into the ground, and its head tolled like a grim bell. Grey qi rippled out, and three men stumbled and fell, too exhausted to even lift their limbs.
I turned one final time to catch Ma Fan, who had powered through my Sleeping Toll technique to lunge at my open back. Three times, my fist lashed out, wreathed in draining energy, and only on the third did he fall. I sighed as I stepped over him and past the last of their number. Poor Li Yun had faltered and now looked upon the scene with wide eyes, babbling apologies. I looked at the six boys, barely more than children really, who I had put down. There was no triumph, only a twinge of sorrow.
“I am sorry,” I repeated quietly as I pushed open the door to the abandoned storefront.
My sandals kicked up little puffs of dust as I picked my way through the abandoned shop. Long stripped of anything of value, all that remained were rotting floorboards and the skittering of insects and vermin scurrying away from the pale light cast by the head of my staff. Despite the silence and emptiness, in the spiritual realm, the air roiled with malevolence, rising from beneath my feet like the smoke from a bonfire.
So many misunderstood the concept. When a spirit passed on from the material world, it left behind not just the empty flesh but an echo like a cicada’s abandoned shell. In most cases, this echo was harmless, a lingering resonance that would fade in a matter of hours. Malevolence arose when the echoes failed to fade.
Malevolence did not arise from evil intent. It arose from suffering, from obsession, from attachment. The kindest, most benevolent man in the world could leave malevolence behind in his wake if his kindness wrought a lingering desire to protect. In the end, it would result in just as hateful a phantom as the vengeful rage of a murder victim. Unmoored from reason and mortality, lingering thoughts and emotions inevitably curdled into something foul. However, it was true that violence and pain produced the most potent and quick to form malevolence.
Here, immersed in the energies I felt boiling up from below, I could feel that the malevolence was not the lingering echoes of mundane emotion grown twisted by time. Reaching the rear of the shop, I brushed the moldering remains of a rug aside with my staff, revealing a much more recently built trapdoor. The wood was fresh and unrotted, and the iron latch was unmarked by rust. Indeed, I could see the markings of formation characters scratched meticulously into the wood, the ancient tongue of dragons and false gods put to mundane use.
Even such a simple array was painfully out of place in a place such as this. I gathered my qi and gave the trapdoor a light rap with the butt of my staff, eyeing the flow of qi through the array. I smiled wryly, reaching into the folds of my cassock and withdrew a tiny slip of paper. Channelling a whisper of qi into the paper, I watched as it crinkled and folded in my hand, taking the shape of a little paper bird. The messenger paper fluttered out of my hand and darted out through a hole in the roof to seek out Mou Rushi. It would lead her back here before turning inert.
Turning my eyes back to the trapdoor, I considered my options. I have, on occasion, been accused of being wise. A wise man would withdraw and wait until Mou Rushi and her guard had arrived to storm this place. I regarded the pain and misery written into the patterns of malevolence rising from the floorboards with a grim eye. Yes, that was the course of action a wise man would take.
A thunderous boom shook the abandoned shop, rattling rotted foundations and scattering dust as I brought the butt of my staff down on the trapdoor. Wood and metal alike shattered, revealing a dark tunnel and an iron ladder. It was unfortunate that I was not really a wise man.
Without hesitation, I leapt down into the darkness.
My cassock billowed out as I landed in a crouch, bending my legs to absorb the impact of the fall. Revealed in the pale light of my staff, I saw a smooth dirt tunnel held up by frames of wood extending ahead of me. The scent of blood and rot reached my nose only a moment later. I stood and adjusted my breathing as I strode forward. Pale light gleamed in the folds of my cassock, and my breath traced invisible patterns in the air as I readied the power of my arts, and cool and tranquil qi surged through my channels, the comforting scent of grave loam filling my nose.
Swiftly, I reached the hall’s end, a thick and heavy door fitted snugly into its frame. I thrust my empty palm forward and ignored the sizzling brackish fluid that sprayed out as it was torn from its hinges. The fluid spattered across my robes, and the sizzling hiss stopped as my qi swiftly drained the acid’s motive energy, leaving it as inert as water. I heard a reedy voice give an enraged cry over the sound of splintering wood and breaking glass.
What I found as I stepped inside met the worst of my expectations. The room beyond was very large, filled with tables covered in alchemical and medicinal tools. Beyond them in the shadows at the rear of the room were cages. Each cage held a corpse, stripped and bereft of dignity, their rotting flesh showing signs of torment and mutilation. Worse were the ones which held the living, curled up on themselves and looking barely better than dead.
The corpses and barely living were not the only occupants of the cages. Miasmic clouds of hatred and pain roiled in the confines of the cages, clawing talons and howling, distorted faces pressing against the gaps in the bars only to shy as the arrays carved into the metal drove them back in showers of golden sparks before they hurled themselves back at the barriers again.
“Fool!” the voice I had heard screeching when I broke the door screamed again. Pulling my eyes away from the cages, I beheld its owner, an old man in once fine robes, now marked by scorches and unidentifiable stains. He was a withered stick of a thing with only a few flyaway strands of white hair clinging to his bald scalp. His limbs were skeletal, and bone poked through the worn and near translucent skin of his hands. He stamped his foot angrily, and the dirt rippled under his foot, rattling the workbenches and alchemical tools. “Do you think I can work faster if you break my things, you idiot child!”
I stared at the shrieking man, meeting his rheumy eyes and seeing the rotting, blackened stubs of teeth poking through his gums. I felt disgust roil in my stomach as I saw the rot in his spirit, just as I saw the madness in his eyes.
“Hoh, my apologies, Honored Master,” I said in a strained but bright voice, striding past the broken doorway. It was difficult to keep the disgust from my voice and expression. “You will have to excuse this clumsy messenger!”
It was a ridiculous excuse, something even a child would not be deceived by, but the rotting thing I beheld was not even that. I knew not what name this shell had once gone by, but it was clear from what remained of his spirit that he had been a man of talent, a cultivator of the third realm. However, even such men faced mortality in the end. Most had the good sense to accept it and pass with dignity to their rightful end and the peace therein.
The walking corpse squinted its half blind eyes at me and harrumphed, turning back to the work table it stood at, running fingers through the handful of long white strands that still clung to its chin. Eagerly, I took another step, closing the distance between us a little more. “I have told you fools that I cannot rush my art. Another batch of the byproduct will be ready tomorrow.”
I took another step, keeping my voice bright and animated. The man he had been would have been beyond me, but this shell with its rotting spirit and addled mind was not - or so I hoped.
“What of your true project, Master?” I asked hastily. Those who allowed themselves to rot like this swiftly lost everything but the focus of whatever obsession drove their foolish choice. I simply needed to keep the thing talking until I had crossed the room.
It cackled happily at the question even as skeletal hands resumed their work preparing reagents. “Soon, soon, the spirits will congeal proper cores, and the elixir will be mine. Concentrated desperation and the human will to survive - my breakthrough will be as easy as breathing! Fools go about hunting rare and dangerous reagents when such abundance surrounds us.”
I ground my teeth as the thing rambled on and the distance closed. I was close to the corpse now. “Oh?” I asked, my facade breaking. “Are you not worried that you will anger our lord’s master? Are the people of the Empire not precious? It is our charge to protect them.”
The corpse paused. “Fool. While mortals are valuable in their way, it is only because they allow the growth of more valuable things. They are the soil from which the Empire grows, but who will miss a few grains of dirt? Those who rule know this. Begone if you are going to ask such childish questions.”
I breathed out and cleared my mind of anger and disgust. Stepping around the last obstacle between myself and the corpse, I lunged. To the credit of the man it had been, the moment I unleashed my hostility, it began to turn, raising its spindly arms in defense. But it was still a corpse.
I had gathered my qi while we spoke, preparing to strike with all of my strength from the first blow. The rings dangling from the head of staff rang with notes of purity, and the sound of a great temple bell tolled and the chamber shook as I lashed out. With the force of my Grave Bell Calling technique behind it, the metal ring struck against a bony forearm. I felt the ripple as a once powerful spirit tried to assert itself, a crushing power that would have been no more affected by my attack than a dragon being bitten by an ant.
Instead, the corpse’s qi parted like cobwebs before my staff, and the metal ring struck bone with a crack. The corpse flew backwards, crashing through the work table with an enraged scream. It twisted in midair, landing in a bestial crouch. The arm I had struck dangled uselessly, burnt black like a stick of tinder.
“Idiot! Fool! What are-” the corpse screamed, repeating the same nonsense like the broken thing that it was. I met the thing’s eyes, and its scream trailed off into a rattling hiss. For an instant, I saw lucidity in those eyes and felt alarm. There was no further screeching.
I raised my staff, seeing little more than a blur, but that proved a mistake. Almost too late, I felt the qi in the ceiling rippling and dove aside as a column of stone as wide as a man was tall crashed down with a boom, pulverising the earthen floor where I had just stood. I had only a moment to glimpse the corpse clinging spider-like to the ceiling before the floor erupted into spears beneath my feet, forcing me to leap. Then the leering corpse was before me, baring its blackened teeth as it drove its good fist into my stomach just below the ribs.
Stars exploded in my vision, and I tasted blood as I flew backward. It took all of my concentration to focus my energies and drain the momentum from my movement before I could be impaled on the razor-edged shards of stone that erupted from the wall behind me. I landed in a crouch and rolled to the side, uncaring of the table I crashed into and the stinging liquids that rained down on me if it meant avoiding the sucking mud that a patch of floor had become. I stood and spun my staff, deflecting darts of stone only to bite back a cry as a column of stone smashed into my back and sent me tumbling forward. I spat blood onto the floor as I rolled to my feet, eyeing the spindly figure now glaring imperiously at me through a maze of moving stone and dirt.
What a fool I was. Had I not chided poor Ma Fan just a short time ago for seeking to reach the heavens? This was the power that even a the broken, senile corpse of a true cultivator could bring to bear. Yet if I could just survive long enough… Gritting my teeth and focusing, I could see the corpse’s energy draining away like the water from a badly holed barrel.
“I will not be ended by the likes of you! Die.” The thing’s voice was no longer reedy and deranged but high and cold. Immediately, I moved, running as the room came alive, walls, floor and ceiling alike seeking my life. The creature’s powers were still strong, but its body was frail. I sought my way toward the corpse, using the creature’s lab against it. He seemed reluctant to destroy his tools, and so I wove between tables and workbenches, rolling under or vaulting over as necessary.
When the creature next lunged at me, I was ready. Accepting a blow to the chest that made my ribs creak and blood well in my throat, I smashed the butt of my staff into corpse’s knee, and grinned as the pure toll of a temple bell was followed by the shattering crack of a broken joint and the wet tear of ripping flesh as the force tore the fragile limb off. The corpse howled in rage and pushed itself away with its remaining leg.
A stone blade cut a gash across my back in retaliation, but the constructs were already beginning to slow. Mud sucked weakly at my feet, and my staff shattered a rising spear. The tide of battle had shifted. Despite my growing fatigue, the corpse was tiring faster than I. I pushed forward, forcing myself to ignore the pain of my wounds as I advanced, slowly maneuvering the darting corpse into a corner where I could strike the final blow.
I met the creature’s eyes and raised my staff. It let out a desperate hiss and raised its one good hand clawlike, tendrils of rock whipping around its feet.
And then a burning line cut across my vision, and the corpse’s head snapped back, its expression twisted in surprise. Its eyes crossed to look at the massive, barbed black steel crossbow bolt sprouting from the space between them, and then it collapsed.
I looked back over my shoulder to see Mou Rushi stepping through the ruined doorway, her expression set in a scowl. In her hands was a heavy crossbow, more a miniature ballista really, with a new bolt already nocked.
I couldn’t help it. I let out an exhausted laugh. “Your sense of timing is impeccable as always, Mou Rushi.”
“Your sense of caution is as busted as always, Wu Bolin,” she replied dryly. Her crossbow remained fixed on the corpse. “I asked you to investigate, not to crash into the situation yourself.” I could hear the echo of footfalls in the hall behind her.
“A virtuous man goes above and beyond,” I said primly. More grimly, I added, “There are still people alive in the cages.”
The guard captain glanced at the cages and swore an epithet under her breath. “Looks like we both have a long night ahead of us then.”
“Indeed,” I said quietly, turning my eyes back to masses of malevolence within the cages. Stories often forgot to say that slaying the evil was almost always the easy part.
It was nearly morning by the time I returned to the guard station with Mou Rushi and her men to give a more detailed report. However, when we reached her office, it was not unoccupied.
“Commander Liu.” Beside me, Mou Rushi immediately bowed to the man seated in her chair. He appeared young like a fresh officer recruit with his black hair tied in a neat topknot and his polished armor, but I could feel the power in his spirit and see the experience in his eyes. Standing beside him was another man in a magistrate’s robe. The second man looked much older, but his spirit held the same potency.
“Captain,” the man in the chair said lightly. “I am glad you have returned safely. I trust that your raid was successful?”
“Yes, sir,” she said, not raising her head.
“Good. You have done well,” he said with an easy smile. “Please ensure that all the confiscated materials and evidence are gathered and organized in an hour.”
“... Sir?” she asked carefully. “Will you be handling the matter?”
“My good friend, Magistrate Hei, will oversee the investigation,” the man said, rising from his seat. “I mean no offense, but the magnitude of this issue here places it beyond your means, Captain.”
“I will ensure that the matter is concluded,” the magistrate said.
Suspicion stirred in my heart as I regarded the two. As if sensing that, the guard commander turned his eyes to me, and I hastily bowed my head. His smile did not reach his eyes. “Ah… Master Wu, was it?”
“It honors me that one so esteemed knows my name,” I murmured.
“Yes,” he agreed, stepping around the desk. He rested a hand on my shoulder. “While I thank you for your help, it would be better in the future if you did not interfere in the duties of the guard. We all have our roles to play. It would be unfortunate if a virtuous man brought himself into trouble by stepping beyond his duty. Do not involve yourself further.” For a moment, my aching and wounded body trembled at the spiritual weight pressed upon it.
“... Of course, Lord Liu,” I said, but he was already stepping past me.
The heavens are high indeed, I thought bitterly. In the end, despite everything, this had only been another day in Tonghou.