There was silence in the square as the Shrouded Mountain Sect disciples left. Yun Ren watched them go with mixed feelings. Part of him wanted to chase after the bastards and stab them all, but that would obviously be a bad idea. He could barely fight one of the guys with the support of a super artifact and a spirit fox. Charging into the rest of them? Stupid.
After all his resolve, he hadn’t needed to do anything.
Kind of anti-climactic, really. He glanced around at the broken up square, and the unconscious and bleeding people. He winced, turning away from them and to Nezan.
He was still staring blankly in the direction Jin had left in.
Yun Ren left him to his gaping and immediately searched for his brother. Tigu looked pretty fine, but Gou Ren had slumped against the wall and was grimacing. His arms had bleeding red lines all over them.
Xianghua gave one last look at Jin’s back before immediately ripping off the sleeve of her nice silk robe and turning it into a bandage. Yun Ren was about to walk over when something broke the silence.
“Yin!” he heard a shout as Tigu raised her arms to the air and caught a white blur. “Miantiao!” The rabbit slammed into her with a snake coiled around her midsection and Tigu staggered from the force. She snuggled the rabbit to her chest, rubbing her cheek against the little creature, before she gasped.
The rabbit had a satchel.
A satchel Meimei had given all of them, full of medicine. Tigu immediately shot over to Tie Delun, the “handsome man” groggily waking up after being blasted by lightning. He immediately took Tigu to the chest. “Loud Boy! Come here! We’ve got more medicine for you!”
The spell broke. Murmuring filled the crowd. Fearful, hushed murmuring.
“By the blood of Da Ji.” Nezan whispered, startling Yun Ren when the voice came from his shoulder. “What the hells?”
‘Qi is subtle. Unable to sense. Infusion Earth-Wood? No, just Wood? Earth from somewhere else? Unknown. Unable to determine. New experience. Interest. Approval.’ The sword was back to its grey colouration, looking for all the world like a normal blade.
“I see that now darling. I would have come out to say hello if I could have felt that before. He's the one who taught you how to use Qi?”
“Yeah.” He whispered. He made eye contact with his brother and jerked his head over to Tigu. Gou Ren nodded and pushed himself off the wall.
“I did tell you he was strong, but like… that's the first time I’ve seen him like… ya know?”
“Well. Something interesting to tell myself when you come back and visit me later.”
Yun Ren peered closely at the fox. “Tell yourself later?”
“Hm? Ah, of course.” The fox’s body faded slightly, revealing the glimmering gem Nezan had given him. “A technique we can do. I would not recommend it, as it does weaken the main body, but one can split off small parts of their core and allow it to take form. I’ll be integrated back when you visit later. I gave you the perfect gift: myself! You may praise me now, nephew.”
Yun Ren sighed and ignored the bastard as he made his way over to Tigu.
The girl was fussing over Tie Delun and Loud Boy, pressing them both against the wall and circling around both of them like... Well, like a protective cat. Gou Ren walked up wincing. And he was immediately pushed down too. Tigu rubbed her cheek against his before switching to Xianghua.
Ri Zu and Yin were both just staring at her with amusement.
“That's her…Master? Father?” Guo Daxian asked. The man was staring at one of Miemei’s medicine balls like it had all the secrets of the universe within it.
“Bit of both, honestly.” Yun Ren said.
Daxian nodded, before his frown deepened. “Where are our Elders though? Things were hardly quiet—”
The world pulsed. Something broke. Everyone flinched.
There was a sudden hum as the Earthly Arena of the Dueling Peaks rose half-way into the air… before slowly dropping back down with a groan and settling.
“I thought its floating mechanism was broken ages ago?” Yun Ren ventured.
“It was.” Daxian swallowed thickly. “How do we stay on Master Rou’s good side?” He asked immediately.
“Well, ya helped out Tigu, so you’re prolly there already. Jin’s the kind of guy who pays his debts, yeah?”
Daxian let out a tentative breath.
It wasn’t long until Jin came back. He was half carrying Xiulan and Yun Ren winced. She had burns all over her body and some cuts that looked like the one Sun Ken had given her, or at least the brief glance Yun Ren had seen. Her skin was flushed red and she was shaking and sweating like she had a fever.
The other hand was carrying a sword. A stained red blade. His frown was heavy and it didn’t look natural on him at all.
Jin looked better smiling.
The square snapped to attention at his return.
“Tigu. Get everybody to a place to rest, okay? I’ve got one last thing to do tonight.”
Tigu nodded, Yin on her shoulder. Jin looked at her and offered her a small smile. Tigu’s grin turned bright. Jin turned his eyes to the square.
“What a mess.” he said with a sigh. He glanced at the red sword and grimaced.
The air was tense in the Shrouded Mountain Sect’s manor.
Yingwen sat in the lotus position and tried to meditate. The rest of his fellow disciples were not as calm. They were walking around nervously. Fenxian had woken up, though in a foul mood. The normally loud man had been suppressed swiftly and brutally; his jaw had been broken and he had been defeated in a single blow.
None spoke as they waited. None spoke after the summer breeze had turned sharp for an instant, like it was flaying them to their souls.
They felt the mountain turn its gaze towards them once more. The man entered, a chicken on his shoulder. It was a bit worse for wear and singed looking, but it was still a magnificent animal.
“Expert Rou.” Yingwen greeted the man as he walked in with Young Master Zang Li’s sword. Yingwen thought it was named Phoenix Feather. There was a sharp intake of breath from those around him and several curses. Zang Li, for all his faults, had at least been free with his coin purse and with lesser cultivation aides. He just did not inspire much loyalty.
And now he was gone.
Expert Rou was carrying the sword by the blade, negligently. Like it was something disgusting. It was disrespectful for such a fine sword—but there was something off about it.
The blade had been blackened. Tainted. Its once pure lines were pulsing with ugly, corrupted Qi.
“Wha—” Fenxian slurred through his healing jaw. “Tha hells?”
“Is this not normal for the Shrouded Mountain Sect?” Expert Rou asked, handing over the blade.
Black, acidic blood that smelled of rot covered it. The taint of something demonic and corrupt… but not fox-like.
“No, Expert Rou. No, it is not.” Yingwen stated. His brother disciples were staring in concern.
“Who was with him last? He was alone when I found him.” Rou’s voice was calm.
“He ordered us all away,” Brother Maohai said. “He was poisoned quite badly, but he demanded that we all retreat and that she was his alone.”
“…come with me.” Rou stated. All followed him from the manor. Even the ones who really should have stayed back at the manor resting. Brother Huang still looked like he would fall over from a slight breeze.
He took them to a field outside the town.
A field that had husks of withered plants pushed aside by new growth. That had patches of blood on the ground.
Yingwen examined the blood thoroughly. His fellows marched around the field as well, collecting some of the remains. A piece of tainted flesh with silver veins running through it. Pure Qi battling with corrupted and demonic Qi. The remnants of fire… as well as drops of bloody oil.
This… this was unbelievable. The first thought was that this was planted evidence. But he had felt this powerful Expert’s Qi, it could no more be tainted than his own.
Yingwen simply imagined the Expert had been trying to allow them to save face. That Zang Li was an imposter would let them overlook his involvement, but... had he been telling the truth the entire time? Was there some deeper force at play here? Was the man he claimed imposter truly some manner of insidious creature?
No member of the Shrouded Mountain Sect should have tainted blood like this. They were examined for fox illusions after they were deployed to high risk areas—
And the Young Master had not been. He had been in the fort for most of his time up north and had refused or been barred from the expedition to attempt to find Summer’s Sky. He had not been looked at in great depth. Merely cursory looks. To be able to hide beneath the purifying Qi of lightning the Zang Clan of the mountain was known for…
There was something foul afoot here. Something that had Fenxian looking at Yingwen with as much concern as he had ever seen in the large man’s eyes.
“Sir, are there any more remains?” He asked carefully as he stood. “If we could retrieve his corpse we would be better able to confirm this.”
Expert Rou grimaced “Maybe.” He admitted as his eyes grew distant. “Over that way, somewhere. South quite far and not in the Azure Hills. I think in Yellow Rock Plateau.”
That was a thousand Li distant—Yingwen once more kept his face carefully blank. Possibly there could be a corpse. Possibly. Yet even without it…the evidence was beginning to look damning to Yingwen’s eyes.
Zang Li had either been corrupted… or was truly an imposter.
“Expert Rou. This has escalated far beyond expectations. We would leave to pursue this, with your blessing.”
Not all of you are going.” he said bluntly.
“Of course.” Yingwen replied. I shall select several of our men, and I shall remain under your care, if it pleases you. Or you may select any of the others.”
The Expert stared at him with cold eyes, before sighing at the urgency in Yingwen’s voice. He turned to look up at the sky.
“I still don’t like this. You attack my family and go and waltz off into the sunset? You hurt people. Destroyed one’s cultivation.”
“We shall leave all the medicine and resources we brought with us behind. Compared to the pills of the Azure Hills, they are far more potent. Any damage is likely to be healed. But the crippling…” Yingwen took a breath. “I will submit to your judgment. The cultivation of one in the Profound Realm could be said to be at least ten times the value of one in the Initiate Realm. I would only beg that you spare my brother disciples your wrath.”
The man sighed. His fingers twitched, like he wanted to run them through his hair, but refrained.
“Fine. get your men ready. But this ends here. No retaliation. No offense to being challenged.” His eyes turned back to Yingwen and the rest of the Shrouded Mountain Disciples, who were still combing the grounds. He considered them, at length, his presence an ever present sensation that made Yingwen sick to his stomach. Rou reached into his pack. “I recently had a meeting with my Senior Brother. He said that if I needed aid, all I would need to do is ask. I told him that I would be alright and that he didn’t need to worry about me. And he left me this.”
A small piece of parchment unfurled. A small piece of parchment with a symbol on it. A symbol every son and daughter of the Empire knew.
A proud mountain, jutting above the clouds, with the symbol for sword etched into its face.
Yingwen nearly fell on his ass.
The greatest of martyrs and heroes. The Masters of the Raging Cloudy Sword Formation. A sect who stood at the pinnacle, whose name resounded throughout the world.
The Cloudy Sword Sect.
“I would really rather avoid having to get him involved, wouldn’t you?” Rou’s voice was calm and matter of fact.
Yingwen struggled for a moment before swallowing down the ball of spit in his throat. He slammed his hands together in the gesture of respect with unseemly haste.
“Lord Rou, your temperance and manly virtue humbles this Zhou Yingwen. He thanks you for your benevolence and restraint.”
If Rou was this strong, then his Senior Brother would be like that of a Cloudy Sword Sect Elder.
It would be like the Verdant Blade Sect challenging the Shrouded Mountain Sect.
Dishonourable defeat was the only outcome. If Master Rou were any more a vengeful man, the entirety of the Shrouded Mountain could burn—or worse, be labeled as a Demonic Sect by the Imperial Authorities.
An Imperial Decree that the Shrouded Mountain Sect were Demonic Cultivators would be like having the entire world declaring war on them.
But there was no time to consider what ifs.
“By your leave, Master Rou. We shall have the truth of this matter post haste. I swear it upon all of my ancestors—and though you may not value the name, the name of the Shrouded Mountain Sect.”
The man’s gaze was instructable.
“Three stay. The most wounded.”
“As you say.” Yingwen whirled around. “Make preparations for departure—Now. Brother Huang, prepare the carriage. I am declaring: The Fangs Come for the Mountain, Yet the Heavens are Silent.”
Every man straightened like a bolt of lightning had stuck his body at the urgent code.
“By necessity I remain behind. Your actions may yet determine the outcome of this. Fenxian is in charge. Silence and haste. Resupply at Tall Rock, and stop for nothing until we have the body.”
“Yes, Brother Yingwen!” They exploded into motion, Yingwen in the lead.
“How deep is the shit we’re in?” Fenxian asked quietly.
“Deep enough to cover the peak of our Mountain.”
Fenxian stared at Yingwen and rubbed his jaw. “Fuck.” he declared.
Yingwen disliked cursing. It was the vocabulary of one without wits. He looked Fenxian in the eye.
“Fuck.” he agreed.